On the Beat

On the Beat

A fine display of young talent at the George London finals; Sondheim's problem show Merrily We Roll Along gets a huge lift at Encores!

On the Beat Nelson lg 512
Zachary Nelson, wowing the London audience with "Nemico della patria"
© Shawn Ehlers 2012

ATTENDING A WEEK-LONG major singing competition is apt to leave you feeling both exhilarated and baffled — exhilarated because there are so many fine young voices out there, and baffled because so many of the competitors don't seem to show much interest in generating any real magic. Too often, as I sat in on the semi-finals of the forty-first annual GEORGE LONDON FOUNDATION AWARDS COMPETITION, I scribbled on my yellow legal pad, "Nice voice — so where's the music?" Fortunately, when the big winners were announced at the end of the London Competition's final round at the Morgan Library on February 17, it was clear that the jury had made many excellent choices. Winning the George London Awards ($10,000 each) were bass-baritone BRANDON CEDEL, with a beautifully executed "Vi ravviso," from La Sonnambula; SUZANNE HENDRIX, an impressive contralto who offered Erda's "Weiche, Wotan!" from Das Rheingold; ZACHARY NELSON, a baritone with an enormous sound, who gave a viscerally potent account of "Nemico della patria," from Andrea Chénier; CORINNE WINTERS, who sang the very tricky "Robert, toi que j'aime," from Robert le Diable, with wonderful stylistic command, rhythmic elasticity and impeccable musicianship; MARGARET MEZZACAPPA, the dramatic mezzo who has been winning big in so many recent competitions, with La Gioconda's "Voce di Donna"; and CHLOÉ MOORE, who sang Rusalka's song to the moon. (Moore was the only one of the top winners I had any reservations about; her reading was something of a blank, conveying no real dramatic urgency.) In the end, the finest singing at the competition was done by Winters. I have always admired her distinctive sound, but she now seems to have risen to a new level of dramatic engagement.

$1,000 Encouragement Awards were given to thirteen other singers. The standouts in this group were baritone WILL LIVERMAN, who provided some of the greatest excitement of the competition with "Sibilar gli angui d'Aletto," from Rinaldo; tenor MICHELE ANGELINI, who met the dazzling challenges of Orphée et Eurydice's "L'espoir renait dans mon âme"; tenor NOAH BAETGE, who gave possibly the most fully realized performance of the competition with Hoffmann's "Kleinzach"; soprano DEANNA BREIWICK, with the presentation of the rose (it's a pleasure to hear a voice with so much body in the role of Sophie); soprano SYDNEY MANCASOLA, who displayed impressive breath control and theatrical savvy in "Caro nome"; and NICHOLAS PALLESEN, a baritone with a nice strong core to his voice, who sang "Di Provenza" as if he was just talking to us. Of the remaining singers in the finals, I think it would have been a good idea for someone to remind baritone JONATHAN MCCULLOUGH that he was in a major competition; he sings well, but there just wasn't much of anything going on in his performance of Don Pasquale's "Bella siccome un angelo." I'm eager to hear more of the talented tenor ZACH BORICHEVSKY. In the semifinals, he gave deeply musical, stirring accounts of both "Salut! demeure" and "Dein ist mein ganzes Herz"; unfortunately, he just wasn't quite fully present in the finals. 

I'VE ALWAYS BEEN A LITTLE RESISTANT to the ongoing attempts to rehabilitate STEPHEN SONDHEIM's Merrily We Roll Along, which was a sixteen-performance failure when it first appeared on Broadway, in 1981. I suspected that it fell into the category of JERRY HERMAN's Mack & Mabel — that so many people were hell-bent on finding the solution to a classic "problem" musical that they missed the most important point: the book's difficulties really aren't soluble. (I usually leave this kind of "rethinking" effort wishing that all that time and money had been spent on getting something new off the ground.) But the latest version of Merrily We Roll Along, presented at New York City Center's Encores! Series in February, made a strong case for this troubled show. It's the story of three friends — a composer, Franklin Shepard; a playwright, Charley Kringas; and a boozy novelist, Mary Flynn — who achieve varying degrees of success and ultimately go their separate ways. The kicker is that the story is played out from a reverse angle: we start with the three characters, all in various stages of disillusionment after their close friendship has unraveled, and work backward, watching how it all happened. 

The biggest problem with the show remains the underwritten character of Frank Shepard; we never quite see the personal magnetism that makes people desperate to remain in his orbit. At Encores!, COLIN DONNELL's performance, though perfectly polished, didn't make a particularly compelling case for Frank. But Donnell's teammates, CELIA KEENAN-BOLGER as Mary and LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA as Charley, were both ideally cast. Keenan-Bolger put a marvelous spin on all her lines, and Miranda made a stunning moment out of his "mad scene," "Franklin Shepard, Inc.," in which all his conflict over Frank's pursuit of commercial success comes pouring out in the middle of a TV broadcast. ELIZABETH STANLEY, as the ruthless Broadway actress Gussie, raised the emotional temperature every time she came onstage. As Frank's former wife Beth, BETSY WOLFE was in fine voice, but she seemed oddly removed in her performance of the show's best-known song, "Not a Day Goes By," and what should have been a devastating moment was something of a letdown. Casting of the smaller parts was uneven, with PEARL SUN badly overplaying her hand as a television interviewer with a push-button smile. 

But director JAMES LAPINE and DAN KNECHTGES, in charge of the musical staging, mined an enormous amount from the major scenes with the three friends. I had never been aware of the level of perversity in Mary and Charley's inability to accept the fact that Frank's ambitions ultimately differ from their own. As I watched the show, I kept thinking of a recent comment made by a friend of mine, a high-level Broadway professional. "After all these years," he said, "I realize that in the theater, talent isn't the number-one thing. It's the ability to show up and do the work. And so many people, for whatever reason, just can't." I found the Encores! treatment of Merrily We Roll Along to be a beautifully observed reminder of the obstacles that so many of our gifted friends put in their own way. spacer 

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