Pop, hot and haute culture around Seattle

SEATTLE’S TOSCA SIZZLES

ToscaSeattle Opera just opened 2015 with fireworks of their own: Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca opened its run at McCaw Hall, until January 24, so add another jewel to the company’s tiara.

This production is one of their best. The cast includes Greer Grimsley (coming down from Valhalla as Wotan from numerous company performances in Wagner’s Ring Cycle) in an unspeakably powerful and wicked performance as Scarpia; the Lithuanian soprano Ausrine Stundyte as Floria Tosca; (earlier seen here as a heart-breaking Cio-Cio San in Madama Butterfly) and tenor Stefano Secco as Cavaradossi. Their performances, meshed with conductor Julian Kovatchev’s masterful work with the orchestra, elevates this show into one of the best I’ve ever seen.

I have to confess right now  that Tosca was the first opera I ever saw. I studied the libretto in advance and I read the program notes carefully and fully and was not disappointed: it was everything I expected to be be and became (and remains) my favorite. Interestingly, though, this was about 40 some years ago, so I don’t recall who was in the cast.

Tosca’s tale is timeless, which is one reason it’s still around, even though Puccini throws in so much backstory and color that it’s one of the few operas which cannot be “updated”. But the characters are complex and real, and the second act, in which Scarpio forces Tosca to reveal Angelotti’s hiding place by hearing Cavaradossi being tortured in the next room, is one of the most riveting in any opera. It all ends with an ending which Shakespeare would have used.

Tosca herself is drawn as one of the most complex women in opera: Proud and prone to jealousy, she’s torn between love and hate, but is no shrinking violet like many opera heroines. Floria Tosca is a strong woman, tough enough to have succeeded on her own, and not afraid to do whatever is necessary to fight for survival.

The top-notch cast delivers world-class results, especially Grimsley. In addition to being a great Wotan, he’s now one of the opera world’s great Scarpios, too.

Quite frugally, Seattle Opera re-uses its production design, saving money and benefitting more than just one opera company. The costumes are by Andrew Marlay, borrowed from the New York City Opera. The set has been in the Seattle Opera’s possession since the 1960’s and are hand- painted in an awe-inspiring trompe l’oeil style by Ercole Sormani, of one of Europe’s great dynasties of scenic painting.

What this all means is this: the 2010’s is the decade that Seattle moves into its place on the national stage; it’s currently the United State’s fastest growing city, we have a nationally-known symphony, more community theaters winning Tonys and Pulitzer prizes than God has guppies, and now a legendary pro football team, the Seattle Seahawks. The Seattle Opera has done its part to help Seattle get here, and with productions like Tosca, it will continue that.

Stephen Sondheim. James Lapine. Walt Disney. Rob Marshall. Meryl Streep. Emily Blunt. And Johnny Depp, Tracey Ullman, Chris Pine and Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel and Jack and the Beanstalk.

Sounds like a combination for a sure-fire blockbuster, and Into the Woods almost makes it, in more ways than one (according to the IMDB, Woods has grossed $92M as of January 5). Woods is not your Disney fairy-tale so I’m quite pleased that the company took a risk and produced it. It might tip over into the magic $100M (it probably will, counting overseas receipts) so Disney’s risk is paying off but the film itself is less than a blockbuster.

It’s not the fault of director Rob Marshall. He juggles the disparate story lines masterfully, preventing them from collapsing into sheer chaos. I especially liked his dark, gloomy production design, a cross between Tim Burton and Clint Eastwood.

But this is a musical with no jaw-dropping, explosive production numbers like ‘Cell Block Tango’ from his “Chicago.” It’s darker, more intimate and introspective.

Summarized, a baker and his wife learn they are under a curse of infertility by a forest witch. She gives them a chance to reverse the spell within three days. They undertake the quest, which brings them into conflict with Cinderella, Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood and Jack and the Beanstalk, who are also in and about the woods doing their own things. But there are no bright, sparkling moments of Disney-like magic. Deadly danger lurks everywhere.

Stephen Sondheim’s intent is that reality trumps fairy tales every time, and if we want a fairy-tale ending then we need to be careful what we wish for, especially when it comes to spouses and children.

He also brings a nuanced vision to the story. The man who wrote musicals about Sweeney Todd, the serial killer, and Assassins also adds complexity to these characters. Cinderella flees the ball because she’s afraid the Prince won’t want her if he discovers her true identity. She’s almost right, because she’s married to a prince (Chris Pine) who was raised to be charming (played by Chris Pine’s blue eyes) but nothing else (by his own admission). But, even though Sondheim was at his peak when he wrote this musical, and he always gets respect for his intelligence and integrity, the story feels overburdened and overly ambitious. There’s too much going on, especially in the last act and the story feels a bit too long (running time is 125 minutes).

The cast, though, is first-rate, and they’re allowed their own singing voices. Meryl Streep is the unforgettable glue holding the stories together, delivering another top-notch performance. Johnny Depp, as the Big Bad Wolf, makes the most of his short scene. James Corden and Emily Blunt, the Baker and the Baker’s Wife, get the most screen time. Their chemistry is real, and they deliver the best rapid-fire patter songs in the show. Anna Kendrick even makes the wishy-washy Cinderella believable. Of special note are juvenile actors Daniel Huttlestone as Jack and Lilla Crawford as Little Red Riding Hood, who hold their own against considerable adult talent.

The movie–the story–trips but the stumbles are minor and all the talent involved keep the story from falling on its face. It’s not your parent’s Disney, but the story, of human resilience and connection in a dark forest of a world, is very much with us in 2014. Not bad for a musical from 1987.

TWO OPERA SEASONS OF NOTE

I recently received two emails from two friends, Martin and Rod. The more recent one I’ll put at the top, because it’s hotter news. The last sentence tells why:

“Here’s the schedule for the upcoming Royal Opera HD transmissions.  There may be one more in July, I think: Guillaume Tell.  All at 11:00 am at the Guild 45th.  This schedule is not on-line anywhere that I can find.
1/18/15  L’Elisir D’Amore
2/22/15  Andrea Chenier
3/29/15  Der Fliegende Hollander
5/3/15  Mahagonny
6/28/15  La Boheme”

That makes this big news. The Royal Opera transmissions aren’t nearly as widely advertised as the Met’s, and yet (as far as I know, not having seen any) their production values are every bit the equal to the Met’s. So mark those dates on your calendar and sync them with your smartphone and every other reminding device you can think of. I’m sure they’re not to be missed. Handsome Half and I will definitely be attending at least one, maybe more if we can’t pick just one (which seems likely).

The next is no less exciting.

Seattle Opera Announces 2015/16 Season:

Nabucco, An American Dream, The Pearl Fishers, Mary Stuart, The Marriage of Figaro and The Flying Dutchman

The following is exerpted from their news release, and what makes this news even more exciting (besides the productions themselves) is that this is the first season under the leadership of new Executive Director Aiden Lang. The schedule includes one world premier and two operas never before produced.

“We are excited to offer a season that is so varied, both in terms of repertoire and presentation style,” Aiden Lang said. “In addition to a world premiere, we have in Nabucco and Mary Stuart two great, highly dramatic works that have never before been seen in Seattle. And it is especially pleasing to maintain our Wagnerian credentials with a compelling, new-to-Seattle production of The Flying Dutchman. I know our audiences are in for a thrilling ride.

“The 2015/16 season includes two company premieres: Nabucco (Verdi) and Mary Stuart (Donizetti); a world premiere: An American Dream (composed by Jack Perla with libretto by Jessica Murphy Moo) conceived from the company’s community storytelling initiative, the Belonging(s) Project; and new-to-the-company productions of The Marriage of Figaro (Mozart), The Pearl Fishers (Bizet) and The Flying Dutchman (Wagner). ”

“Running concurrently with Nabucco in August is the world premiere of An American Dream—an opera based on real stories from the Pacific Northwest. The heartbreak of World War II binds strangers together after a Japanese American family is forcibly removed from where they live on an island in Puget Sound, and the new residents slowly piece together the history of their home. Morgan Smith (Seattle Opera Young Artists Program graduate) returns to create the role of Jim, an American soldier married to Eva, a German Jew who has fled the Nazis and moved to the Pacific Northwest. Making their Seattle Opera debuts are D’Ana Lombard as Eva and, as the Japanese American family, Nina Yoshida Nelsen (Hiroko Kimura), Adam Lau (Makoto Kimura), and Hae Ji Chang (Setsuko Kimura). Conductor Judith Yan makes her Seattle Opera debut. Peter Kazaras, longtime Seattle Opera director, singer and former head of the company’s Young Artists Program, returns to direct following The Consul.

“An American Dream is inspired by stories from Seattle Opera’s Belonging(s) Project (seattleopera.org/belongings),­ a community storytelling initiative where participants were asked to consider: ‘If you had to leave your home today and couldn’t return, what would you want to take with you? Why is that object, that memory, or that connection to your past so important?’”

I am so on board for that show–and the season.

Despite the high production values, I’ve been hard-pressed to generate much excitement in the Opera’s recent seasons. Many of their operas had been around several times recently and they all seemed…stale; safe. While I appreciated Speight Jenkins’ need for caution, especially during a serious recession, I still wanted him to do something a little bolder. Some, such as their production of Flying Dutchman with Jane Eaglen, bordered on cringeworthy (although this seems like a good year for that opera).

Now, in the hands of a fresh, new director, we’ve got a lot fresher and bolder. The audience has been skewing more and more young (and dressier) in the recent past, and now we’re getting a season to match that.

Upon taking the baton of the Seattle Symphony, Maestro Ludovic Morlot blew the dust off Benaroya Hall; now Aiden Lang is ready for similar housekeeping at McCaw Hall.

I can hardly wait.

LBJ-playsSeattle’s  Repertory Theatre has invested a lot in Robert Schenkkan; they commissioned and produced his first Pulitzer-Prize winning play, The Kentucky Cycle. Now, they’ve most recently commissioned his latest works, a two-part play on the Presidency of Lyndon Baines Johnson. First produced by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, both plays are now on this season’s agenda at the Rep; All the Way is now running through January 4. Its sequel, The Great Society, runs December 5, also until January.

This first one focuses on LBJ from the Kennedy assassination until his election as President in 1964. The Great Society is LBJ’s term until he left office in 1968, after declining to run for re-election. We saw All the Way, and look forward to seeing the second half in December.

We had the luck to sit beside one of the Rep’s Board of Trustees, and he was quite excited about these plays. Both plays are selling well, he said, and the Rep’s heavy investment in this show seems to be paying off. With a cast of 17 playing more than five dozen characters, it’s also the most ambitious show they’ve put on in quite a while.

All the Way is a complex play, with a lot of actors coming and going, covering a lot of ground but Schenkkan knows how to keep all the characters identified and well-delineated even if they come and go fast. Of course, both Handsome Half and I knew who all the players are: this isn’t history we saw; it was our memories. (It’s only history if it happened before you remember it ;}). Shenkkan mined Robert Caro’s biographies of LBJ as his source material. He had a lot to work from, and he chose well.

It takes a strong center of gravity to hold a cast of this size together, and here the play has a winner: Jack Willis, as LBJ himself. Brian Cranston won a Tony Award for his performance in the Broadway production. We never saw that, but Willis is certainly up to the task himself. Johnson was the consummate wheeler-dealer, doing everything he could to get what he wanted, including threatening and bullying. The central story here is him getting the Civil Rights Act passed and still managing to be elected President. What he had to do to accomplish that surpasses even what Lincoln had to do for the 13th Amendment (this story echoes the recent film Lincoln in many ways). Trouble is that LBJ couldn’t always turn off his bullying, often turning on his wife, Lady Bird Johnson.

As a side note here, I never realized the breadth of LBJ’s ego until I realized that he gave his immediate family his initials–Lynda Bird Johnson, Luci Baines Johnson and, of course, Claudia Alta Taylor Johnson became Lady Bird Johnson. I mean, I knew their names already, but the why never sunk in until I saw this play.

The relevance of this 50-year-old story cannot be understated. A key plot point is the seating of Black delegates from Mississippi; they can’t vote in their home state and they’re the wrong race, but LBJ pushes–hard–to get them represented. He succeeds and Southern Democrats pull out of the party, setting up the political coalitions still in play today.

Three young men, two white and one black, are murdered in Neshoba County, Mississippi. LBJ calls in the Federal government to investigate, prompting Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. (effectively played by Kennajuan Bentley) to remark, “All the colored people get killed trying to vote, and it only takes two white boys to die for you to call in the FBI?” Almost sounds like a quote from last week’s newspaper.

And, like Spielberg’s Lincoln, the most significant take-away is the difficulty a President has in getting legislation passed. No matter how altruistic or “right” it might be, the process has always been bogged down by pettiness, bickering, egos and politics.

This production has been brought to Seattle as an associated production with Oregon Shakespeare Festival, making the plays more cost-effective to mount, and the production values are first-rate. OSF’s Artistic Director Bill Rauch is the director and he keeps the story moving and the dialog flowing and snappy. In the wrong hands, the story would stampede all across the stage. Rauch keeps everything like a cattle drive. Scene Designer Christopher Acebo, Costume Designer Deborah M. Dryden, Lighting Designer David Weiner, Video designer (a timeline keeps appearing on a rear screen, a countdown to election day) Shawn Sagrady, composer/Sound designer Paul James Pendergast…all deserve recognition for their skills, and all from OSF.

The supporting cast (likewise from down south) is huge also and many play multiple parts. It’s a tribute to Schenkkan and Rauch’s skills that the characters are so identifiable, and to all the actors that the cast is so memorable. Performances of note (besides Willis and Bentley) are Terri McMahon’s Lady Bird Johnson, as a confused Southern belle as plastic as a Barbie doll but who can still arise to whatever is demanded of her. Peter Frechette’s Hubert Humphrey is a complex mixture of vacillating wuss and shrewd negotiator. I never realized, either, the contempt JBL had for HHH, but still the integrity to keep his word to the Senator and make him his running mate. Richard Elmore’s J. Edgar Hoover hits the right slimy note, and brings one of the comic highlights of the show when the infamous closet case tries to describe to LBJ how gay men recognize each other.

All the Way is a history lesson; a civics lesson; a biography as riveting as anything those English Tudors ever came up with; and great theater. All the Way delivers on all cylinders and I can’t wait until December 7 to see how it ends.

Of course, we know how it ends. But in the great hands of all the talent at the Rep, it’ll still be gripping and suspenseful. Buy tickets now, since these two shows will most definitely sell out fast.

Logo for Don Giovanni

Don Giovanni, now at Seattle Opera

Must be autumn; one season closes (ACT) and another one begins. The one beginning is Seattle Opera, which presents Mozart’s Don Giovanni, and, if this production is any indication, it’s the start of a worthwhile tribute to Speight Jenkins’ legacy.

Jenkins has already retired and this is the first production under the directorship of Aiden Lang–sort of. Lang certainly oversaw the quotidian details of this show, but the entire production had already been assembled by the time Lang took over. He won’t have a chance to really strut his stuff, so to speak, until the 2015-16 season. Still, the production values were quite high and showed the same levels of imagination and high quality which became Jenkins’ trademark. That marks a good start. And it runs from October 18 until November 1.

In order to really evaluate an opera, one really should see the show twice, ideally with each cast. This was not possible so Handsome Half and I had to content ourselves with one viewing. But that one performance was impressive. A major standout was Robert Dahlstrom’s abstract set. It consisted of three tiers of post-modern-ish blocks which opened and closed as the story dictated. The stage itself was pretty bare of props (perhaps a concession to lean economic times) but that is in no way a criticism. In fact, we were impressed by the economy of the stage, and the fluidity of the set design itself proved to be so versatile for such a complex plot. And Seattle Opera has certainly mastered its state-of-the-art computerized lighting system. All parts meshed seamlessly as is seen in the finale, when Don Giovanni descends into Hell, surrounded by fire and smoke. A riveting scene, and one which will rank as one of the unforgettable scenes of this season.

My only issue was in the way this opera was updated. The intention was to modernize the main characters, while keeping  the rest of the cast in more period clothes. They even went so far as to give Don Giovanni a motorcycle at the beginning of the opera, upon which he roared off-stage. A bit jarring, yes, but I got it. But that was the only time such a device was used. I’m not totally opposed to updating stories to keep their relevance (although I often miss the stunning costumes of period pieces) as long as it’s done well. For that reason, they should have used the motorcycle more than once. That might have brought laughter from the audience, but Mozart inserted a lot of humor into his score anyway. The entire piece is actually more of a comedy-drama.

The performances are also uniformly outstanding. While we both enjoy opera, Handsome Half and I have not yet hatched the ears for the fine discernment of singing voices, so all the singers in this production sounded great.

As with all great composers, Mozart loaded this opera with great vocal showpieces, and none of the performers fumbled. They all delivered jaw-dropping performances and earned all the ovations the audience gave them. On the night we saw it, the cast featured: Nicolas Cavallier as Don Giovanni; Erik Anstine as his long-suffering servant, Leporello; Elizabeth Caballero as the spurned Donna Elvira; Erin Wall as Donna Anna with Jordan Bisch as her father, The Commendatore. Audience favorite Lawrence Brownlee sang her fiance, Don Ottavio; and Cecelia Hall and Evan Boyer (in his Seattle Opera debut) sang the parts of the young lovers, Zerlina and Masetto.

Conductor Gary Thor Wedow conducted the orchestra, and did so quite masterfully as, at one place, three bands played simultaneously. It’s raucous and wild but, thanks to Wedow, never chaotic. Seattle-based Wade Madsen choreographed the dance numbers.

What struck me most about this opera is the strength of the women characters. They’re driven by revenge, of course, but most are strong willed and very independent. When the ineffectual Don Ottavio, in the final scene, wants to marry Donna Anna, her response is…maybe. Only Zerlina seems helpless, but she’s younger, less confident and from a lower class and, hence, has less options. But none of them are destroyed, something not even Tosca, Carmen nor Lucia de Lammermoor can claim.

The opera debuted on October 29, 1787, but it doesn’t feel 227 years old; it seems just as fresh and timely as Mad Men, or the Seattle Times’ recent stories of the serial molester prowling Seattle. But  don’t take my word for it. See it for yourself.

Vanya_Cover

 

 

Seattle’s ACT Theatre closes its mainstage season with Christopher Durang’s latest and greatest; latest because it was written in 2012 and greatest because Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike won the 2013 Tony for best play. The play is also the most-produced modern play show of this season; American Theatre Magazine reports 27 productions. This one at ACT officially opens October 23 and runs through November 16, so there’s no need to travel far for this biting, lovely gem.

The title is a reference to the Russian playwright Anton Chekhov. Vanya, of course, is from Uncle Vanya as is Sonia. Masha references both Three Sisters and The Seagull. And Spike is…sort of a world unto himself, a “wild card” as Durang himself describes him. The plot is a blend of all of his plays and is equally as seemingly simple as any Chekhov play: two siblings, unmarried, still live at the family home after the deaths of the parents they’ve been caring for. Neither are sure of what they want to do with their lives, except they both feel that they’ve never done much of anything. Then a second sister arrives on the scene, a successful actress who’s been supporting all of them. She arrives, boy toy in tow (he’s the Spike of the title), and upsets their world when she announces her intention to sell the house right from underneath her two siblings.

Chaos ensues, but of the comedic type that Durang is noted for. Adding to the sibling mayhem are the housekeeper Cassandra, given to outbursts of wild-eyed prophesies (greeted with the same level of skepticism which greeted her famous namesake); and the dewy-eyed Nina, who puts the battle of the sexes on a see-saw. But, one reason for the play’s success is that Durang makes sure that you’re never sure where the play is going.

Director Kurt Beattie, besides directing this cast with confidence and snap, also gets great results from his crew. Standouts include Carey Wong’s set design, which actually captures the feel of misty mornings spent birdwatching over coffee; and Catherine Hunt creates great costumes, running the gamut from comfy bathrobes to great party dresses and costumes. Oh, and great underwear, too.

The cast is almost equally good: R. Hamilton Wright and Pamela Reed give solid, believable performances. Reed, especially, packs energy into her role, reminding us of what a great Martha she was in the recent Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Cynthia Jones, whose resume includes Motormouth Mabel in Hairspray in Concert and Mrs. Muller in Doubt, essentially steals the show as the alternately wild and pragmatic Cassandra. Syndey Andrews is Nina, the innocent girl next door, who keeps the innocence grounded while keeping her character believable. The young up-and-coming William Poole provides laughs and beefcake as Masha’s boytoy who just can’t keep his shirt on.

To me, though, the real stand out  among these giants is Marianne Owen; it’s always a delight to see her, but her performance here is amazing, the best of her career (that I’ve seen.) As Sonia, the adopted daughter, she’s bitter, lonely and frustrated, but never descends into whininess. She slips on a costume for a costume party, and channels Maggie Smith, which begins her own transformation into a warm human being. The transition is amazing and Owen makes it seem effortless. Her performance, alone, is worth seeing. Fortunately, everyone else delivers worthwhile work on their own; this is first-rate ensemble acting.

Durang’s play itself seems to have struck a chord–or a nerve. Chekhov’s plays deal with the emptiness of society reflecting the emptiness of the lives of its citizens. On one level, this play covers the same ground, updated and mashed together; references and elements of his plays are everwhere. But while Chekhov’s plays end in despair and bleakness, Durang’s doesn’t. Rather, he seems to say that, despite all the changes we face, the one constant must be human connection; with that, our lives aren’t hopeless.

Towards the end of the play, Vanya delivers a long, poignant but sharp monologue about all that he misses about growing up: “I miss…and I miss…and I miss….” The list goes on, a vent triggered by an indiscreet text sent at the wrong time. The speech (Wright’s shining moment in a great performance) was met with cheers and applause at the end. A great speech, but also one of the weak spots in the story. Vanya recalls many things but some of them (Howdy Doody and Kukla Fran and Ollie) he would have been too young to remember if he were now at his stated age of 57. I’m older than that and I’m too young to have seen either show live on TV. Unless Durang made that point to bring a sense of timelessness to the piece.

But that was the only weakness in the show and is certainly open to debate. My take-away was summed up by an overheard (sarcastic) remark by a patron as we were leaving: “And I miss the good old days when ACT had bad plays of 3 1/2 hours of political diatribe.” Yes, some things from the past deserve to be missed. This is something from the present which should not.

 

TWO GEMS FROM SAN DIEGO

Handsome Half and I have been spending time in San Diego. It’s been on personal business, but we’ve still found time for cultural events. Gladly, two of those events included some theater. Cygnet Theater, in Old Town, was running a Sam Shepard festival, allowing us to see his Fool for Love. And San Diego Musical Theatre, in North Park (close to where we are staying) was in mid-run of a production of Next to Normal.
Both shows were sensational.
We’ll take them in chronological order.

FOOL FOR LOVE
Sam Shepard, according to the program notes, ranks as one of America’s top playwrights. That assessment is hard to dispute after seeing Fool for Love.
This claustrophobic one-act is set in a seedy motel room in Outer Backwater, USA. Cowboy Eddie (Francis Gercke) has just tracked down his errant girlfriend, May (Carla Harting), who is definitely not happy to see him. Yet, as much as she hates to see him, she can’t seem to live without him. And Eddie has a history of disappearing for months before reappearing. Theirs is a volatile, full-throttle relationship, with much deeper bonds than even they imagine. Complicating this mess is the impending arrival of May’s date, Martin (Manny Fernandez), and the mysterious presence of an Old Man, (Antonio TJ Johnson) who has his own take on their history together.
Shepard’s plays deal with the complexity of reality vs memory, and this one takes that concept and lays it wide open, to the extent that all we’re left with is the reality of the illusion of what we think is real.

Heady stuff that, but Shepard makes this point accessible to all, and this production is so well done those its power reverberates. Not only are the actors first-rate but so are the production values: Jessica Johns’ Costumes and the effective set by Artistic Director Sean Murray. But, most effective is the sound design by Matt Lescault-Wood, with doors banging shut like jail cells and trucks exploding in rattling proximity; and Conor Mulligan’s lighting.

Shepard’s world here is extreme: claustrophobic and frightening in its complex mystery. He paints us as primal animals, desperately trying to survive. He’s the predator, taking us by the throat, and we can’t walk away, just like his characters.

NEXT TO NORMAL NO NORMAL PLAY
Next to Normal was playing at their San Diego Musical Theatre, a short walk from where we were staying, so we went. This show, composed by Tom Kitt with Book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, is a rare phenomenon, one of the few plays to win both a Best Musical Tony and the Pulitzer Prize.

Here, again, my attitude was, “OK, so prove to me you earned them.” This is not an unreasonable attitude if one bears in mind that Pulitzers for the arts don’t necessarily to go the best; the phrase is for “significant contribution” to the form.

In this case, though, Normal earned the prize because it’s also a great play. Its subject is bipolar disorder and Yorkey actually made it funny—at times, but the humor was often tempered with heartbreak, or an edge. For example, Diana (Bets Malone) finally visits a doctor. He prescribes pills, then more pills. As he recites a litany of when and how to take all these, and the rest of the small cast breaks into a chorus, singing about all the possible side effects of all the drugs. When it’s all done, Diana looks at her doctor and says, “My favorite color is Xanax.”

This is a small-scale cast of six people, who all work like troupers, singing dancing and acting, and doing a great job of it. While Malone needs to carry the show (and she succeeds) even one misstep in a cast this size would have the same effect as a broken note on a French horn. No broken notes anywhere. The actors took their moments when needed, and played the ensemble when they needed to, and the whole production unfolded smoothly: Robert J. Townsend’s long-suffering husband Dan; Natalie (Lindsay Joan), the angst-riddled teen-aged daughter; Eric Michael Parker as Natalie’s awkward suitor; Geno Carr, in mutiple hats (the second-toughest role, played equally smoothly); and Eddie Egan as Gabe, the son who’s the key to the entire explosive story.
SPOILER ALERT!!!
And explosive it is, drawing gasps from the audience. Normal is, in its essence, the oldest form of theater: art as catharsis. Gabe, the teen-aged son that Diana talks to, actually died at 10 months. Diana, caught in that indescribable pain, couldn’t let go and allowed her memories of her son to grow up. Dan, for all his love, wasn’t protecting her from the truth as much as he was protecting himself. All Natalie can do, born and raised after Gabe’s death, is thrash her way through this poisonous spiderweb of an existence.

All the meds, psychotherapy, even the electroshock therapy, don’t work until Diana can accept the unacceptable fact and send her son away. Dan has to live with his complicity, and Natalie takes a brave step and trusts her new-found suitor. Irreparable damage has been done, but now healing can begin for all of them.

Kitt and Yorkey understand this intimately and, aided and abetted by this superior production, bring us a story heartbreaking, sad, and, ultimately full of hope. Next to Normal most definitely deserves all its awards, and this high quality production does it justice.

Both shows are closed now but if you’re ever in San Diego, both Cygnet and SDMT (soon to move into a bigger space downtown) deserve time for a visit.

KinkyBootsKinky Boots just opened at Seattle’s Fifth Avenue Theatre on October 7 and runs until October 26. This show swept the Tony Awards in 2013 and so, as is usual in these cases, my attitude always is, “OK, prove to me you’ve earned it.”

And, in this case (as often happens, but not always) this show proved it, in a big way.

Now, I’ve never seen the original film this is based on, but, purely from a theatrical sense, this show works well. Despite the wide range of the story (from Northampton to London to Milan) and the backstories, Harvey Fierstein’s book keeps the storyline clear and on-target. Assisted by Jerry Mitchell’s crisp direction, the story moves along briskly and never lags. We also quickly identify the main characters and their personalities, so when any of them move into the storyline, we have no trouble wondering who they are.

To me, though, the real surprise was Cindy Lauper’s score. She does have a successful history as a pop singer/songwriter so that’s half the battle. But there’s still difference in the architecture of theater music. Fierstein himself taught her, and he obviously did a great job here, too: the songs move, bounce, and are never boring. They’re a revelation from a first-timer; Fierstein obviously knew what he was doing. (Another first-time notch for Lauper: her Tony for best music and lyrics was the first solo win for a woman).

Of course, Fierstein knew what he was doing in his book, too. Not only does he delineate the characters but he also found the emotional hook for the show and it resonates. The story is about a young man (Charlie, played by Steven Booth) who inherits a shoe factory from his father. He learns the factory is about to go out of business, a victim of cheap foreign labor. His salvation comes in the form of a larger-than-life drag queen, Lola/Simon (Kyle Taylor Parker). Neither quite understands the other until the night they discuss their relationship to their fathers. Both took paths which disappointed their fathers and suddenly they got it. That ‘bromance’ (as Fierstein describes it) brought them together, and it’s a universal one of understanding and that by finding your passion, you’ll find your place.

Because Fierstein developed characters, rather than stereotypes, many other chords were struck. Lauren (Lindsay Nicole Chambers) finds herself falling in love with Charley (who’s already engaged), and relates her consistent bad luck in “History of Wrong Guys”: hilarious, show-stopping, and moving, all at once. And, of course, the very talented cast makes all this believable and workable.

The entire production works, especially David Rockwell’s set; it’s a bare metal skeletion, with ladders and catwalks, but its few walls and fluid props and dressings carries us easily across the settings of the story. Kudos also go to costume designer Gregg Barnes. His costumes are functional, flashy and workable…but his kinky boots, red, thigh-high-heels steel the shoe (er, steal the show). He not only built shoes to last but they also look brand new, never been worn, night after night. Not an easy task. Kenneth Posner, lighting, John Shivers, sound designer, Josh Marquette and Randy Houston Mercer (makeup and hair designers, respectively) all deserve recognition for their contributions to this success.

Don’t be shy. Don’t be reticent. You don’t even need to wear kinky boots (but that never hurts). What you do need is to buy a ticket and show up for one of the flashiest, warmest, funniest shows around.

Handsome Half and I finally got caught up on our Pop Culture when we saw Frozen. This Disney blockbuster raked in more dollars than snowflakes in a Wyoming blizzard, to the musical tune of $400M. This leaves even The Lion King in the dust.

Why?

Well, first of all, the animation is stunning. Snowflakes blow into drifts which blow into bridges and snow sculptures. Water freezes and ice skitters across ponds and stacks up into ice crystals which grow into ladders, ceilings, light fixtures, palaces—and weapons.

In other words, computer animation has evolved into a state of breath-taking hyper-reality. In fact, this movie stands as a tour-de-force of what that medium can accomplish.

Fortunately, the story is just about as good as the animation. You have a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, The Snow Queen, as its base. You’ve got two strong female protagonists who are also sisters. And you’ve got strong, positive male characters too.

One of the major complaints of Brave (which I agree with) was that, while it had two strong females (mother and daughter), the males were all caricatured as testosterone-fueled baboons.

With Frozen, writer Jennifer Lee (among others) portrayed the female and male characters realistically, showing complexity, intelligence and courage flowing along both sides of the sexual divide. Disney’s latest, Maleficent, continues in this vein (do we see a trend?). If so, let’s hope this trend becomes the norm. Animated films are among the first places where children see role models. Both boys and girls need to see each other as partners.

Unlike The Lion King, which so close to Hamlet it seemed more like ‘ripped off from Hamlet’, ‘Frozen’ takes enough liberties with its source material to stand as an original take. Directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee manage to keep everything together, an impressive feat with an animated film in which all the parts are rarely together in one place.

Elsa (voice of Idina Menzel), the older, and Anna (Kristen Bell), the younger, are princesses, the only two offspring of royal parents. Elsa was born with a strange superpower; she can, if she wants, freeze anything with a touch, or with a bolt of some sort of freezing ray. One day, at play, she accidentally ‘freezes’ Anna’s brain. Fortunately, through troll magic, she is saved, but, since she’d coaxed her sister into using her power, she’s made to forget her sister’s magic. Elsa is made to wear gloves. The two are now estranged, and Anna can’t understand why.

But life has worse in store for the two girls; their parents die in a shipwreck. As they grow up alone and Anna becomes increasingly hurt and alone. Years pass until Elsa reaches majority and is crowned Queen of the land. Their relationship finally reaches a breaking point during Elsa’s coronation.

Everything works out well in the end, thanks to help from Kristoff (Jonathon Groff) and his faithful moose Sven, and a magical snowman, Olaf (hilariously voiced by Josh Gad). Love saves the day (in more ways than one), in an ending echoed later in Maleficent. The sisters reconcile, and Elsa learns the secret to controlling her power.

Here, the animation and acting come together, lending strong support to the story line also. The film is presented as a musical, with actual production numbers, so the bevy of strong singers (led by Menzel in top form) deliver the goods.

This movie deserves all the awards (including Best Animated Feature) and box office it has earned.

Buried beneath all that cold and snow is a wonderful, refreshing film—a treat and lesson for everyone. It’s what Disney does best, and here is done better than has been done in a long time.

The Seattle Symphony launched its new season this past weekend. This also marks Music Director’s Ludovic Morlot’s fourth season in that position, and the initial enthusiasm over his appointment has not waned. The electricity still flows from the audience and the orchestra still sounds as bright and crisp as a Seattle spring morning. Most importantly, though, is that the audience which is so electrified is now skewing younger and younger. Maestro is hitting all right notes, in more ways than one, and is packing Benaroya Hall.

Handsome Half and I missed his opening night gala but we did catch their first concert of the season, featuring (also) the first of their Antonin Dvorak tribute, his Symphony No. 7 in d minor, opus 70.

But first, they performed the Prelude to Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg, a piece as heavy and as complex as everything that Wagner’s done. But the orchestra was bright and negotiated the interplay smoothly. The French horns, especially, were spot-on. I always listen for them, because they are among the most difficult to play. Even the best players can begin passages with cracked or broken notes; that night I didn’t hear one.

The brightest notes of the evening was The Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto. Tchaikovsky did, of course, write more piano pieces, but his first is his most famous, and ranks among the best, and most famous, ever written.

To scale this musical mountain, Morlot brought in a 23-year-old whippersnapper named Daniil Trifonov. This prodigy has already played the world’s major concert halls and appeared with 19 leading orchestras. His career took off after he won First Prize in both the Tchaikovsky and Rubinstein competitions at age 20.

But young Trifonov proved himself up to the challenge. He attacked the opening chords with confidence, and didn’t stop there. The breath-taking delicacy of the middle movement was trod lightly. He leaned away from the keys as he pounced with accuracy, or hunched over them, intent on stroking out the lightest sounds. He was accurate, precise, and brought an emotional freshness to his interpretation, not an easy task for a piece as well-known as this.

Of course, he received a much-deserved ovation, and a second curtain call.

The second half was taken up with the Antonin Dvorak 7th. This piece is considered his masterpiece, and one of the greatest symphonies of the Romantic period. It owes a lot to Dvorak’s friend and mentor, Johannes Brahms, but still charts its own territory. Along with Tchaikovsky, Dvorak is also one of the greatest composers to bring folk tunes into the classical idiom (which means that George Gershwin owes much to both of them).

But, while exuberant overall, this piece began with a dark undertone, with deep theme from the low registers of the cellos. The symphony was up to its task here, again, too, and rode Dvorak’s many moods and tempos with ease.

Alas, I was unable to take notes; apparently the jacket I wore was the only one I owned in which did not leave a pen in its pocket. I did not notice any gaffes, and the orchestra sounded very much like a polished, world-class orchestra, and the musicianship was polished and professional. Next time, I will plan better.

Morlot has done Seattle proud, and his presence is the brightest one in Seattle’s art scene. Considering the caliber of the local arts scene, that’s saying quite a lot.

Tag Cloud