Friday, June 29, 2018

Finding room for wonder and details in the universe: "Silent Sky" introduces a new theater group

After I first encountered Walt Whitman's poem "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer" in my teens, I thought it supported my defensive posture about science. My initial enchantment with stars and dinosaurs several years before was fading against the challenge of actual high-school science classes, getting simple experiments to come out right and all that.

So I took the poet's departure from an astronomy lecture to contemplate the heavens unaided as superior to studying them; it wasn't the only time in adolescence I grabbed onto something in order to justify an immature perspective. I felt confirmed especially by the line "How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick."
The women of "Silent Sky" celebrate astronomical advances.

The poem is quoted at a crucial place in "Silent Sky," the stunning inaugural production of Summit Performance Indianapolis, which I saw in preview Thursday night at Phoenix Theatre's Basile Theatre. Lauren Gunderson's play articulates one woman's struggle to make an impact in the all-male science world around the turn of the last century.

More than that, the triumph of pioneering astronomer Henrietta Leavitt was to have reconciled the exhausting research of collecting data about stars with the sense of wonder that had sparked her interest as a girl. As seen through the prism of this play, the Whitman line I once thought inclined me toward the humanities really means that being tired and sick in pursuing knowledge may be a necessary cost of putting your awe on a sound footing.

As presented in "Silent Sky," Henrietta's vision is not only internally compatible, but also somehow ennobling. One side of it feeds the other. Carrie Schlatter's portrayal of Henrietta radiates the strength of each side of the vision. Just as the universe as we know it expanded as the result of her efforts, so does the character grow into a larger apprehension of her place in life — even as she encounters both resistance and repeated personal sorrows.

The vision is rooted in the character of a brilliant woman willing to sacrifice restrictive values she's inherited from her conventional Wisconsin family, devoted to domesticity and the church, and to contend with patriarchy. The play, with its ornate but witty, pungent language, traces Henrietta's pursuit of her dreams and the admiration she wins both from her family and her colleagues at Harvard. As illness takes its toll late in life, the resonance of her discoveries reaches worldwide, but "Silent Sky" stays close to her personal pains and pleasures.

Lori Wolter Hudson directs the show with emphasis on Henrietta's variations of distance and brightness with respect to her surroundings and those dear to her. You might see that as a projection of the character's restlessness, independence, and resolve, so consistently evident in Schlatter's performance. It's also an oblique parallel to Henrietta Leavitt's discoveries about the distance of stars from Earth based on more than their comparative brightness. She showed how the pulsating appearance of stars called Cepheids provides a regular measure of how far away they are from other stars and from our planet. These calculations led to certainty that many stars whose light reaches Earth are located light-years beyond the Milky Way, the home galaxy once regarded as the whole universe.
Henrietta Leavitt stands at the center of the universe she helped expand.

The vividness and energy invested in the other roles kept the play from relying too heavily on the central figure, as if she were the sun around which other planets revolve. This gives the production a firm balance between the magnetism of Henrietta and the pull of people close to her and their tendency to follow their own agendas. Her close yet feisty relationship with her sister, Margaret, was set out dynamically as a lifelong bond tested by the siblings' contrasting temperaments; Devan Mathias represented Margaret as someone constrained by a sense of duty, largely at ease with her place in life and able to negotiate what was expected of young women, while keeping her artistic dreams alive. In one thrilling scene, her music provides Henrietta with a breakthrough insight.

As Henrietta's fellow toilers in the unseen professor Pickering's "harem" of female "computers," Molly Garner handles superbly the transformation from the severe, hypercritical Annie Cannon to an active suffragist, a woman blossoming under the initially resisted influence of Henrietta; and Gigi Jennewein sparkled as Williamina Fleming, the proud but hospitable recipient of Pickering's trust after a stint as his housekeeper, salt-of-the-earth Scottish to the core.

As the professor's narrowly valued and rather prim assistant Peter Shaw, Adam Tran negotiated the amusing late-Victorian delicacy required of proper relationships between the sexes, yet with a plausible manner of bursting through some of the character's well-learned politesse (apologies to "Sympathy for the Devil") to express a life-altering passion, which turns out to be doomed by time and circumstance.
Shaw  looks at a gift book Henrietta has just opened.

The set encompassed places where big dreams can be both nurtured and starved, nudged and thwarted. But the overall appearance of Abigail Copeland's scenic design was tilted toward the open-ended feeling the drama gives the audience, with vistas on aspects of reality that rarely impose themselves on our everyday outlook, even today. Laura E. Glover's lighting design carries out suggestions of a real world beyond the everyday one; there's glory in the concepts she realizes in this show, avoiding artificiality and underlining how the advancement of knowledge takes place in quotidian human contexts.

So strongly realized in all departments, "Silent Sky" is an antidote to both the anti-science mentality now so much out in the open and the continuing suppression of women's potential to do more than prop up male achievement. With its emphasis on theater by and about women, but for everybody, Summit Performance Indianapolis has laid out a path in its first production that promises a well-grounded way forward.

[Photos by Emily Schwank]

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

A borrowing from Gilbert & Sullivan to comment on Americans' vexed feelings about civility

Herbie Hancock brings his decades-long legacy to Hilbert Circle Theatre

At the beginning of Herbie Hancock's career, technology had only a small role to play in the creation
Herbie Hancock has a lot of music to contemplate.
of new jazz. The plugged-in part of the music was largely restricted to setting the desired studio conditions, with wizards like Rudy Van Gelder influencing the sound of jazz as the wider public encountered it on recordings.

Hancock's representation in the old Blue Note catalogue is still a part of his long legacy worth cherishing. But  the pianist quickly turned his fascination with electronics into a myriad of ways to communicate musically. Some of the flowering of this involvement was evident, both positively and otherwise, throughout a two-hour concert Tuesday night at Hilbert Circle Theatre.

Presented by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra (which did not appear), Hancock was accompanied by Lionel Loueke, guitar; James Genus, electric bass, and Trevor Lawrence Jr., drums.
Hancock divided most of his attention between his Fazioli piano and Kronos keyboard synthesizer.

As inviting as Hancock appeared to be in his initial remarks from the stage, what he dubbed "the overture" proved difficult of access, at least to this listener. The piece went in several directions that seemed only faintly compatible. Some sort of galactic scatteration of sound started things off —  out-of-tempo splashes and burblings that eventually coalesced into long-delayed forward motion.

An episode for Loueke, including self-harmonizing via Vocoder vocals, paid chirpy respects to his West African heritage. That's part of his unique appeal as a guitarist, including a nice variety of percussive and plucked notes alluding to acoustic folk instruments of his homeland. There would emerge in the course of the long set another sound, sort of like the Theremin but without as much swooping, that still was unattractively gloopy and  redundant with the electronic sonorities that Hancock often favors. The leader's  briefly employed strap-on keyboard could just as well have been left on the table.

Toward the end of the overture, "Chameleon," a Hancock hit from the 1960s, was brought into play. It seemed to fit mainly to show that the leader intended to incorporate at least a few parts of his legacy. The quartet worked well together: The drummer was adaptable to the various Hancock styles that melded in the course of the concert, though his funk drumming adhered to the groove less crisply than Harvey Mason's or Mike Clark's. I favor Genus as an acoustic bass player to the degree I know his work; on the more liquid-sounding electric bass, he had a tendency, especially in a long solo near the end, to clutter his lines to the point of incoherence.

The Hancock style at the piano is deserving of its historic stature. From his early 20s on, he showed a way forward out of bebop piano. True, many jazz pianists even today find their own ways to build upon Bud Powell, but from the first Hancock had an individual manner of rounding out his phrases, generally eschewing the unaccented tendrils and offbeat wisps that were so much a part of bop phrasing. He usually defines cadences and phrase endings in a more emphatic way than the bop norm, and uses thick chords to point toward temporary stopping points.

This personal style has continued quite strong up to the present. His harmonic imagination is still fertile. Putting together chords in sequence — he also favors short single-line phrase sequences — is often a fresh adventure for Hancock. He has his personal cliches, of course, but his keyboard vocabulary is so rich he can make rhapsodic and angular playing work cheek by jowl unlike anyone else. And as his recordings with Miles Davis demonstrate, no pianist "comps" better. He inspires his colleagues to swing harder just as much as any drummer. In this concert, I felt he was particularly strong in both solo and accompaniment functions during another trip down memory lane — the concert finale, "Cantaloupe Island."

Monday, June 25, 2018

Tempesta di Mare at Early Music Festival: Three Berlin sisters helped move the German city's musical culture forward

From J.S. Bach to Mozart: Ensemble from Tempesta di Mare
Music from the collection of three remarkable Jewish sisters who were well assimilated two centuries ago in upper-class Berlin formed the program that Tempesta di Mare brought to the Indianapolis Early Music Festival Sunday afternoon.

The link between J.S. Bach and Felix Mendelssohn in the seamless web of German musical culture had much to do with the advocacy and nurture of Sara, Fanny, and Bella Itzig, as members of the Philadelphia baroque orchestra demonstrated for an audience at Indiana History Center.

The program's bookends helped frame the concert as an exercise in late 18th-century/early 19th-century household music-making, but pitched at a high professional level. As Tempesta di Mare re-created that cultural milieu, the most eminent Bach made for an obvious start to the concert; the Itzig sisters were devotees.

In this arrangement of Trio Sonata No. 5 in F major, six visiting Tempesta di Mare members participated, displaying firm balance and lilting coordination throughout the three movements (the more lightly textured slow movement brought forward recorder and viola). Musicians were Gwyn Roberts, recorder (transverse flute for most of the program); Emlyn Ngai, violin; Daniela Giulia Pierson, viola; Lisa Terry, cello; Adam Pearl, harpsichord, and Richard Stone, lute.

The concert's most obscure composer, Johann Gottlieb Janitsch (a favorite of Sara's), was represented by Sonata da camera in E-flat, an arresting piece launched with a dramatic recitative and wrapped up with a dance-like finale marked "tempo di polacca," betraying its Polish inspiration with its three-beat measure featuring emphasis on the second. The rococo style predominated; the contrapuntal heritage was clearly in retreat as the 18th century unfolded in its second half. This style applies as well to W.F. Bach's Trio Sonata in B-flat, featuring lots of exchanges of melodic material, all crisply negotiated and threaded with ornamentation, with the bass line fairly routine.

The opportunity to compare two Bach sons' styles was withdrawn because of a program change. The most interesting of the master's composing offspring, C.P.E. Bach, was unfortunately not represented as planned. His Rondo in D minor, Wq. 61/4, is typically quirky but well put together, and covers a wide expressive range in its four-and-a-half minutes; at least that's how it sounds in the recorded piano version I have by Mikhail Pletnev.

The program-closer was peppy and light-hearted. A medley of sprightly tunes from Mozart's exotically flavored comedy "The Abduction from the Seraglio" concluded the concert; the Singspiel was written when the composer had lodgings at Fanny's house in 1781-82. The selection, played here by violin, viola, cello and flute, clearly is designed to provide fun for reasonably adept amateurs — "classic salon fare," as the program note says. After an abbreviated overture, there's the lover Belmonte's hopeful opening aria, followed by the ebullient drinking-song duet "Vivat Bacchus, Bacchus lebe," which is capped by the servant Osmin's hasty anticipation of personal victory, "O wie will ich triumphieren."

A capsule view of the opera itself was thus less the object of this arrangement than a celebration of bonding around readily accessible good music. This quality seemed representative of the program as a whole, raised to a professional level by the festival's guests from Philadelphia.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

52nd season opens as Indianapolis Early Music Festival releases its inner folkie with Ayreheart

Mark Cudek, artistic director of the Indianapolis Early Music Festival since 2007, has long prided
Ayreheart: Willard Morris (from left), Ronn McFarlane, and Mattias Rucht.
himself on assembling seasons of great diversity that help erase narrow notions of early music.

So, in addition to "high art" and high Baroque repertoire, he welcomes expertise in music with more ancient roots but with the kind of range to which the crossover label can be applied without embarrassment. Thus, it was a natural Cudek touch to open the festival's new season Friday with Ayreheart in a program titled "Ayres of Albion: Songs, Dances, and Ballads of England, Scotland, and Wales." Before popular, folk, and classical became labels applied to different genres, there was a musical mainstream that embraced everything but the sacred.

Ayreheart is a trio put together by Ronn McFarlane, a lutenist and Cudek colleague in the Baltimore Consort, which played a Shakespeare-themed concert in the 2016 festival. Other Ayreheart members performing Friday at the Indiana History Center were Matthias Rucht, percussion, and Willard Morris, colascione (a lute-like instrument of Italian origin). The latter instrument was lightly amplified to project its bass line, as were McFarlane's lutes.

Balance and sufficient projection into the center's 290-seat Basile Theater were thus achieved without compromising the string instruments' natural plucked sound. (There was a hint of the revered Jaco Pastorius in Morris' solo late in the program.) Rucht played a variety of percussion, sensitive to the various musical contexts, focusing on hand drums.

For all the essential contributions of the other two musicians, Ayreheart is mainly a showcase for McFarlane, who supplemented the annotation in the program book with engaging oral program notes from the stage. He displayed a graceful command of his instrument, which he played in both 19-string and, late in the program, 24-string versions. His articulation was both briskly ornamental and meltingly lyrical, as needed. "Passemeze," a 16th-century piece by Adrian LeRoy, for instance, featured some artful retreading of the same short path, with the busier, more compact runs giving ample evidence of McFarlane's virtuosity.

The program had another star with whom the lutenist could share the limelight. Vocalist Sarah Pillow, who has parlayed her jazz background outward into various styles ("an eclectic singer,' her website says), was on hand as guest to offer picturesque interpretations of several songs. Her planned participation diminished in the concert's second half, as she was not in good health, according to festival officials. Yet she delivered admirably, from John Dowland's "Come Again" through the program's rousing conclusion, a nonsense ballad from medieval England called "Nottamun Town."

An original encore, "Sings in Her Sleep," demonstrated that her voice could sustain a singer-songwriter intimacy, though the genre almost demands a microphone. But from belting ("John Barleycorn," which ended the first half) to the hard-to-define early-art-song territory (Dowland's "Fortune, My Foe"), she showed herself to be an adaptable artist. Emotional urgency was sometimes linked credibly to a soft-spoken manner, as in the medieval Welsh lament "Ddoi di dai." A gruesome Scottish ballad, "Twa Corbies," brought forth a nasal timbre suitable to its account of a couple of ravens discoursing on their plan to devour a slain knight bit by bit.

Amid the raucous vocals, "John Barleycorn" featured an instrumental chorus that bore similarities to gypsy jazz, and there were further signs that idiomatic flexibility is part of Ayreheart's stock in trade. The range and tastefulness of Rucht's percussion contributions seemed unerring, part of whatever would bring these short pieces across most effectively to an audience, which was obviously appreciative Friday night. A further chance to savor McFarlane's playing will be available in this festival on July 1, when he will appear in a lute duo with Paul O'Dette.

Friday, June 22, 2018

Cincinnati Opera's 'Coronation of Poppea': First-century Rome meets 21st-century America, mediated by Monteverdi

Deep personal intrigue at a society's highest levels may not permit drawing as many parallels from one era to another as temptation offers. Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, as Tolstoy said, and when power and wealth are involved and sustained by flattery, the intimate rancidness radiates in a peculiar way. So it was in the reign of the Emperor Nero, whose increasingly cruel and willful rule (54-68) was immortalized by the historian Tacitus.

Nero and Poppea prepare to canoodle.
Drawing parallels to today must be resisted, especially when the vehicle is such an operatic landmark as "L'Incoronazione di Poppea," by Claudio Monteverdi. When norms are overthrown and government by iron whim takes over, it may be best to let each historical tub rest on its own bottom. So on to opera-reviewing!

Monteverdi came a little late to the turn-of-the-17th-century creation of opera, then had a remarkable "late spring" as a composer in his 70s.  One of the last results was this opera, marketed under its English title "The Coronation of Poppea" by Cincinnati Opera, though as always with this company, the 1642 work is performed in the original language.

The colorful Italian libretto by Giovanni Francesco Busenello, drawn from Tacitus' narrative, served the esthetic mission of early opera to give the words primacy. Cori Ellison's English supertitles for this production are witty, elaborate, and striking in their character-revealing clarity. With such people, even their chicanery is a blunt-force instrument.

As seen on opening night June 21, "The Coronation of Poppea" was gloriously performed and conceived with hints of period authenticity leavened by modernist simplicity in Amanda McGee's costumes. Thomas C. Hase's lighting and Adam Charlap Hyman's sets evoke the severely "baked"-looking, eerie architectural facades of Giorgio de Chirico. Large but human-scale units were moved apart and together, their prim rounded Romanesque arches serving as exit and entrance points. A staircase becomes central when the title event takes place. It also is plain and severe, its balustrades echoing the steps' right-angle regularity.

The restlessness, vanity, and ambition of Nero and his mistress Poppea, along with secondary
Ottavia brings Ottone into her plan of revenge.
machinations of the embittered Empress Ottavia and the jilted warrior Ottone, were reflected imaginatively in Zack Winokur's stage direction. There was no stinting of physical roughness to match the verbal roughness typical of these Monteverdi/Busenello Romans. Expert vocalizing in rapt clinches or flat-out from the floor held no apparent terrors for these singers.

An outstanding countertenor, Anthony Roth Costanzo, sang Nero. His range of dynamics and tone color was astonishing, and you could easily believe this Nero was a hidden aesthete — a figure whose passion for the arts turned toxic as the toxicity of absolute power overcame him. There was something of a spectacle about Constanzo's performance, and it was wholly fitting. Getting his own way is a need Nero applies an artistic flair to. If the Stoic philosopher Seneca stands in his way, as he does valiantly in the first act, all Seneca's previous service means nothing. It's "What have you done for me lately?"

Seneca tries to get Nero to obey reason, not passion. It will not end well.
Alex Rosen gave ample dignity and resolve to the role of Seneca. His bass voice displayed a flexibility that served the portrayal well. The real Seneca was much less of a good guy, and the opera reflects that checkered reputation early on with the amusing colloquy of a couple of soldiers on watch dishing on him.

Seneca's philosophizing was of the superficial variety, and he made sure he trimmed it to the prevailing winds; he seems to have been a kind of ancient Roman Jordan Peterson. In the opera, he is mostly heroic. His "antidote to chaos" fails, however; his boss is having none of it — he will dump Ottavia and marry Poppea. Seneca's  suicide at the end of the first act was movingly staged, accompanied by a pleading trio well-sung by Andrew Owens, Christian Purcell, and Daniel Moody (all of whom also took other small roles).

As Poppea, Sarah Shafer gave every reason to believe a sensualist might throw over just about everything for her sake. Her singing was brilliant, laden with emotional purpose and directed toward the peak of female achievement in Poppea's society. Still, she avoided making the character seem too calculating and hard-edged.

Shafer's excellence was nicely poised against the contrasting soprano voice of Sarah Mesko, as Ottavia, who had a kind of wounded diva grandeur that made her sympathetic even when she was roundly denouncing all men. (Guilty as charged! at least this man was tempted to confess.) Ottavia's farewell to Rome in the final act is one of the score's high points; the aria signals that a sturdy patriotism is wrapped up in the discarded empress' shattered self-esteem, and that came through in Mesko's performance.

The cast's other countertenor, Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen, likewise made for a fine contrast in that voice category to Costanzo. Though caught up in intrigue, his character Ottone helps establish a moral context for the action. Cohen conveyed both a lover's stricken desire to make things right by any means necessary and enough of a conscience that even Nero is impressed. He and his wannabe girlfriend, Drusilla, given buoyancy and self-sacrificing ardor by Melissa Harvey, are imperially rewarded by a not unwelcome exile together.

With two important contributions — one more dramatic, one chiefly vocal — Rebecca Ringle Kamarei made an outstanding impression as Arnalta, the well-filled contralto role of Poppea's confidante. Her resistance to Poppea's headstrong romantic tantrums was stoutly set forth in the first act; in the second, her performance of a tender lullaby to the high-maintenance young woman floated under expert control.

Gary Thor Wedow conducted the performance adoitly, with the exemplary, idiom-true Cincinnati early-music ensemble, the Catacoustic Consort, in the pit. I particularly fancied the seductive chitarrone accompaniments and, at the other end of the expressive scale, the crucial contributions of the percussion.

By 1642, Monteverdi had honed his expert command of the madrigal in several enduring volumes. He tweaked that genre's expressive complexity toward the ends of monody in "Poppea," and this production reinforces the realism of his art by dispensing with the peripheral allegory and mythology of some versions. Love conquers all, not as the mischievous, fleet-winged and bare-bottomed Amor, but as the abstract, all-powerful magnet and chaos-generator felt as much everywhere today as in first-century imperial Rome.

[Photos by Philip Groshong]

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Variegated, inspiring and intense, 'Indecent' opens the final part of Phoenix Theatre's season

After the splash of "God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater" linked Phoenix Theatre history from the old era to a new one last month and had Vonnegutites genuflecting toward North Illinois Street, the first post-transition production to come to the new facility's main stage focuses on the interaction between theater and the world itself. It has unique historical material to apply to the Shakespearean touchstone, made banal by repetition, of "All the world's a stage," flipping it to something like "all stages are the world" and the reversed corollary, "and all the players merely men and women."

Two women kissing got Sholem Asch's play off the New York stage.
"Indecent" is a Tony Award-winning play by Paula Vogel, a stylistically free-flowing ensemble drama with the feel of a historical documentary. It traces the fortunes of "God of Vengeance," a 1906 Yiddish play written in Warsaw during the time of pogroms and with European Jews subject to modernist forces of disintegration as well as centripetal pressure to resist both embedded and overt anti-Semitism.

Vogel examines the losing battle of Sholem Asch's play, which included the first onstage kiss between two women, to survive translation into English and stay clear of legal trouble. In 1923, the cast and producer were arrested for obscenity, tried and convicted. Changes to the text behind the author's back had not removed it from controversy, part of which was fueled by the New York Jewish establishment's objections to its linking of Judaism to a brothel setting.

Harbinger of trouble: A literary-salon reader finds the play indecent.
With that court case as the fulcrum, "Indecent" then shows the aftermath: The elusive American dream had so clouded the vision of liberation among Jewish immigrants that some returned to the Old World, eventually to face more conclusive restraints on their freedom. Asch's disillusionment was total, though he survived McCarthyism by trimming his sails somewhat; his services to Yiddish literature remained strong, despite his firm suppression of any "God of Vengeance" revival.

The word "decent" has roots in an ancient Greek verb meaning "to seem good." "Indecent," a favorite label of censors and prosecutors, describes whatever does not seem good to those doing the labeling. Long ago it was a kind of litmus test of impropriety. Society can dismiss the likelihood that you are good if you don't seem good. Hamlet famously "knows not seems," as he tells his mother, and look where it gets him. "Indecent" as a title has multiple resonance in Vogel's play. For most of us, in and out of theater, knowing what seems good to others about us is crucial to social success and a reputation for decency.

Asch at first argues to have his play seem good to his fellow Polish Jews. One early advocate, Lemml, minyan (the number of men Jewish law requires for a communal religious service): "Ten men standing in a circle calling each other anti-Semitic."
New World frolic: A girl-group gig in the Catskills.
remains loyal as the scene shifts to New York. But resistance at the initial readings in a Warsaw literary salon is a harbinger of what will happen on the wider stage. The young author witheringly offers this secularized definition of a

Like most of us, Asch believes he is good; both his intentions and his art support this. But "God of Vengeance" becomes a burden posing continual threats to his conviction that traditional religion and narrow moral codes erect obstacles to human potential.

The way Vogel structures the play is carried out in the Phoenix production with an arresting yet flowing gracefulness under Martha Jacobs' direction. The cast is an adaptable, shape-shifting troupe divided into three generations — an Elder Man and Woman (Mark Goetzinger and Jolene Moffatt), a Middle Man and Woman (Bill Simmons and Abby Lee), and a Male and Female ingenue (John Goodson and Courtney Spivak). There is charm, ferocity, humor, and pathos in their portrayals.
Lemml (left) and Sholem Asch formed an unshakable bond over "God of Vengeance."

Only the passionate and doomed Lemml  (Nick Jenkins) remains the same to hold the narrative thread firm. Yet his idealistic resolve is insufficient to remove from his life the question that afflicts Jewish history, particularly in the first part of the 20th century: What must members of an oppressed minority do to seem good to one another as well as to the strangers among whom they must live and hope to flourish? And what sacrifice of integrity may be involved if they succeed?

With music and arrangements by Lisa Gutkin and Aaron Halva, performed to accompaniment tracks, the cast smoothly negotiates the abrupt shifts of mood and character. Their movement is enhanced from time to time by Esther Widlanski's choreography. Changes of setting are signaled by projections. The most common phrase in the projections is "a blink in time," emphasizing the transience of on- and offstage life alike. The screened words also guide the audience as to which language the characters are using: Yiddish, German, or English.

Old-fashioned suitcases are lugged into position as props and furniture, reinforcing the troupe's
Isolated and threatened, the "God of Vengeance" troupe huddles.
feeling of never being at home, whether performances are well-received or not. The chrysalis of "God of Vengeance," from which it hopes to burst forth butterflylike to a welcoming world, is the Rain Scene, celebrating the love between two women in terms that echo the Song of Songs. Its triumph, writ large in the performances of Lee and Spivak,  is hedged round by the circumstances in which challenging theater takes place.

The world, it turns out, is rarely welcoming. The stages on which adventurous art is mounted are fragmented and absorbed by intrusive agendas. Along the way, however, philistinism ironically refines and ennobles the artistry, as this production demonstrates. Still, all the stages are the world, which mocks what happens in plays by stubbornly not having an ending. "Indecent" is a label that's hard to erase and all too easy to apply to one blink in time after another. "Indecent" the play affirms that resistance and perseverance are worthwhile.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

Friday, June 15, 2018

'La Traviata' opens renovated Music Hall for Cincinnati Opera season

Alfredo (Ji-Min Park) woos Violetta (Norah Amsellem) the courtesan he's admired from afar.
Never before have I enjoyed the opportunity of seeing two different productions of a core-repertoire opera within 15 days. Endless comparisons could be made, but in covering Cincinnati Opera's opening-night (June 14) performance of Giuseppe Verdi's "La Traviata," I've decided that's my proper focus. So I will bring in Opera Theatre of Saint Louis' English-language version, which I attended May 30, at just a single point.

The Cincinnati production is owned by Chicago Lyric Opera. It has an expansive, old-fashioned look, well suited to mark the reopening of Music Hall, once again the company's home after two years away. The opening scene at Violetta Valery's house speaks to the glamour associated with the heroine at the height of her cachet in mid-19th-century Paris. The stage picture of the courtesan's lavish lifestyle, despite the tragic turn the opera takes, is an echo of the generosity that Cincinnati Opera needed to call forth to accomplish a renovation costing $143 million.

The party guests are a well-turned-out crowd in a setting that meets the eye attractively in Desmond Heeley's costume and set design. But the first thing to link the opera with the hall's renovation is the sound in the prelude of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, as conducted by Renato Balsadonna, making his Cincinnati Opera debut.

The orchestra sound blossoms now at all dynamic levels, favoring the softer end of the spectrum during the prelude. As the performance unfolded, the transparency of the accompaniment was remarkable, and Balsadonna was particularly effective drawing forth such subtleties as the thin texture behind Violetta's spoken reading of a letter from Giorgio Germont in the last act, as well as the foreboding lower-string figures that follow as the doomed heroine sings her farewell to the world.

Dramatically, the performance found the core of the action from the outset. The superficiality of upper-class life, given an extra fillip when one of the entering party guests casually flips his cape upon a servant's head, was picturesquely portrayed under Linda Brovsky's stage direction. She gave an individuality to them all, though that impression may have been more apparent than real, as one necessarily focuses on Violetta and the quickly generated passion between her and a young admirer, Alfredo Germont. Apart from a rushed acknowledgment that the approaching daybreak required their departure, the guests were also vocally lively and precisely coordinated.

The Parisian upper crust parties, with the fashionable Violetta at the center.
As Alfredo, Ji-Min Park indicated the young man's head-over-heels infatuation gesturally and vocally. He justified the rapt attention the libretto calls for  the gathering to give Alfredo with a robustly delivered drinking song, "Libiamo." He radiated self-confidence that hardly made the character's initial shyness believable. When they were alone, the rapport with Norah Amsellem's Violetta was intense.

The coloratura emphasis of the soprano's role in the first act did not display Amsellem at her best:
The rapid singing was overlaid with vibrato, which seemed to put a drag on her agility, though coordination with the orchestra stayed intact. Fiercely articulated high notes were sometimes yelled. But I was struck by an indication of what she would bring to the role later by the way she sang "Ah, fors'è lui," a slow aria in the midst of the vocal fireworks. She brought a genuinely reflective manner to it, uncanny insofar as it could have been Violetta's wordless inmost thoughts about the possibility of true love coming her way, against her better instincts (expressed in the subsequent coloratura outburst, "Sempre libera").

The dramatic gifts of both principals really shone in the first scene of Act 2.  Set in the country house to which Alfredo and Violetta have happily settled, she having abandoned her dissolute life, the action tugs the main characters every which way, sparked by the heavy interference of Alfredo's father. I liked the self-satisfaction that Park embodied as Alfredo celebrates his newfound happiness, a relaxation interrupted by the information that Violetta has secretly impoverished herself providing for the couple. Alfredo's mood turns on a dime, as he resolves to assume responsibility for the lovers' debts; Park's performance of Alfredo's exit aria blazed with brilliance.

The music takes on a somber cast with the entrance of Giorgio, played with the right hint of warmth by Youngjoo An, despite the senior Germont's initial severity.  He combined provincial propriety with a humane quality that becomes more characteristic of him later on. You felt that An's Germont could indeed embrace Violetta as a daughter, as she requests him to do after agreeing to make the sacrifice he asks. Balsadonna's patient pacing of the lengthy Germont-Violetta scene was superb, as was the tense colloquy between father and son that followed.

Often commented upon is the variety of vocal and dramatic gifts needed in the title role. I can't resist Ernest Newman's description of the initial change in the heroine: "In the second act we are suddenly confronted with a new Violetta, all tenderness and goodness and self-sacrifice, without so much as a coloratura trill or roulade left in her." Good thing, too, with this Violetta: Amsellem was moving into territory where she seemed fully at home. Her noble request to Germont to convey best wishes to his daughter, who will only be able to enter into an advantageous marriage if the courtesan agrees to abandon Alfredo, could have brought a lump to the most stoical throat.  In Act 2's second scene, in which the effervescence of upper-crust social life is ominously revisited, her Violetta was a veritable tangle of anguished second thoughts right up through her shocking humiliation at Alfredo's hands.

By the third act, when her consumption is bringing the no-longer-fashionable courtesan to the brink of death, Amsellem's performance was transcendent. The aforementioned "farewell" aria, ending with "all is over now" barely breathed out as she lay on the floor, elicited the show's most prolonged ovation. A Violetta in Act 3 must literally sing as if her life depended on it. This is what we got from Amsellem, who conveyed a woman on a believable transition from earthly suffering to the blissful life beyond. As arresting as OTSL's ending was, with Violetta already in the next world as she sings her last lines, this "Traviata" kept the heroine achingly in the real world until the very end, when she suffers a fatal collapse while rushing toward the permanently remorseful Alfredo.

Cincinnati Opera's "La Traviata" is a lavish and also deep-delving portrait of a legendary woman and her milieu. English translations of the title struggle to do her justice, yet to some extent all of them strike home. A prim Victorian version of the title is "The Strayed Reveller." When Violetta uses the word "traviata" twice near the end, one translation renders her self-description as "an erring soul." Another just frankly has her call herself "a fallen woman."  The broadly assertive humanity that animates this production prompts me to prefer "an erring soul" — as we all are, more or less.

[Photos by Philip J. Groshong]

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Getting in deep with Bach's violin-keyboard sonatas: Vinikour and Pine join forces in two-CD set

In J.S. Bach, there is always at least as much as meets the eye (or ear). Everything can be heard, and often its relationship to its surroundings is immediately evident as well. But – it's time to embrace the cliché— there's always more than meets those two relevant sense organs, too.

It's all on display in "J.S. Bach: The Sonatas for Violin & Harpsichord" (Cedille Records), which came out last month in double-CD performances by Rachel Barton Pine, violin, and Jory Vinikour, harpsichord. (The duo was among the guest artists two years ago at the Indianapolis Early Music Festival, so my local readers are aware what they are capable of.)

My standard of comparison couldn't be more different from the new version, which adheres to 18th-century performance practice and the sound that presumably would have been familiar to the composer. The comparison is a 42-year-old double LP with Jaime Laredo, violin, and Glenn Gould, piano. What follows is not a point-by-point comparison to the detriment of either version of the six sonatas, but reflects my response to the different perspectives each duo offers.

Long ago, my admiration for the Laredo-Gould versions was undercut by the feeling that their rapport managed to be solid despite what seemed to be their occupying two different artistic planes: Laredo's modern violin rich in vibrato (though carefully applied), with lots of sustained phrasing; Gould's piano characteristically "sec," nimbly articulated, patrician even in its occasional eccentricity. They seemed to be thinking about the music differently, yet always paying attention to how they might find common ground and make it work.

An old favorite: The Bach sonatas of Gould and Laredo.
No such qualms have any force in the Vinikour-Pine interpretations. Not only is the rapport there, but I also don't sense any stylistic daylight between them. Even in the interest of full-spectrum playing, they never deviate from unanimity of style. My main quibble is that the sound of the harpsichord makes some of the dialogue hard to pick out.

In the Sonata in A major, repeated phrases at the unison or at different pitches in sequence are hard to hear distinctly, whether the harpsichord is anticipating or following up on the violin. When the violin has held notes against a rapid keyboard pattern, then you can easily discern how the harpsichord is answering something the violin has just played, or repeating a figure or phrase it has introduced moments earlier.

The Cedille release's recording balance seems to be keenly judged. I may be expressing a stubborn preference for the piano, because I also like Gould's application of dynamic contrast, which is never overblown, but illuminating. But ornamented lines come across especially well from Vinikour's harpsichord. Some slow movements seem just about perfect in revealing the duo's poise; the Largo of the G major sonata is exquisite.

The trio-sonata distribution of "voices" comes across especially well in the Allegro of the Sonata in C minor, which starts out like a two-part invention, with the violin's entrance adding the essential third voice. At length, however, you become more aware of the forward motion of both instruments, very much united in effect, than you are of just what is being moved. This is not an interpretive flaw, I hasten to emphasize, but something Bach must have gloried in. Some of the distinction between the two instruments was probably meant to be clearer to the performers than the audience.

Indeed, I gained a new appreciation of Laredo-Gould while also preferring Vinikour-Pine in many respects. Along the way, it was brought home to me how both the main keyboard instrument and the main string instrument in classical music became increasingly incompatible as they developed. For all the great violin-piano sonatas produced from Beethoven on, any successful result has had to overcome the inherent polarity of the instruments.

"The contrast between the violin and the piano," noted Elliott Carter in an LP essay about his 1974 Duo for Violin & Piano, "is fundamentally a gestural one — between stroking and striking." And in that work, the late American composer made the most of the dissimilarity. Substitute the harpsichord for the piano, thus replicating Bach's view of the sonata partnership, and you have two stroked instruments. In spite of surface contrasts of the two, the harpsichord's terraced timbres and the violin, with its firm but unbiting 18th-century sound quality celebrated, are most compatible. That's especially true when there is as great a meeting of minds and skills as Vinikour and Pine display here.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Machismo at the outbreak of America's worst war: Eclipse produces the jarring jarhead musical 'Dogfight,' a love story

A mean exercise suggesting the degree to which testosterone poisoning influences male bonding (and
Culture wars foreshadowed: folkie Rose gets acquainted with Eddie.
degrades women) grips the first act of "Dogfight," the period musical now being presented by Eclipse, the alumni outgrowth of Summer Stock Stage, at the IndyFringe Theatre.

The setting is San Francisco in 1963, when President John F. Kennedy is sending marines over to Vietnam as "advisors." Peter Duchan's book, with songs by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, throws at the audience  six rough-and-ready jarheads (a fighting word they're proud to reserve for themselves) preparing for a last night out stateside with pickup dates.

The show's title has a double meaning, to explain which would put me into spoiler territory. It's important that the audience only become aware what's really going on just before Rose, a naive but politically sensitive waitress sweet-talked into a date by Eddie Birdlace, catches on. This couple, sweetly and searingly played by Leela Rothenberg and Patrick Dinnsen, as seen Sunday afternoon, set themselves apart with difficulty from the coarse game the marines have cooked up.

Emily Ristine Holloway directs "Dogfight" with an initial emphasis on the foul-mouthed warriors'
The jarheads demonstrate their readiness for what's to come.
wild vigor,  leavened by a sympathy for the young marines' plight that the creators foreshadow in the show's prelude. Through his heart-driven lingering with Rose, Birdlace misses out on a tattoo covenant he's entered into with buddies Boland (Joey Mervis) and Bernstein (John Collins) that will depict them as the three B's (bees). This comes to have symbolic import as the suddenly flaring war, represented by a chaotic skirmish stunningly depicted in the second act, sifts out survivor from sacrificed.

Brimming with "Semper Fi!" spirit, the half-dozen macho marines are filled out in this production by Terrence Lambert, Isiah Moore and Matthew Conwell. Early in the show, they rock deep into the audience's collective sensorium with "Some Kinda Time" and "Come to a Party," accompanied by a briskly effective band led by Nathan Perry. The choreography they inhabit so completely is the work of Lily Wessel, with Cherri Jaffee.

Marcy (Elizabeth Hutson) knows when a party is not just a party.
Elizabeth Hutson penetratingly plays the hard-bitten Marcy,  who puts Rose wise to the marines' scheme in the title song. The bitter duet sets up impressively the final number of Act 1, Rose's doleful "Pretty Funny," with the band's violin and cello getting a welcome showcase. Elsewhere, despite the properly gauged face microphones, the instrumental accompaniment was sometimes too loud for the singers' words to come through, chiefly in "Dogfight" and the marines' ironic fantasy, "Hometown Hero's Ticker Tape Parade."

Though the performance level remained high, the show itself suffered a falling-off in inspiration after the crucial duet of Rose and Birdlace following "Ticker Tape Parade." "First Date/Last Night" seems to me "Dogfight"'s best song, and it was beautifully staged. It's one of those love songs that apply a skeptical or distancing twist to the powerful sentiments expressed.

It comes from a strong tradition, represented less starkly in older musical theater by "Almost Like Being in Love" ("Brigadoon"), "People Will Say We're in Love" ("Oklahoma!") and "If I Loved You" ("Carousel"). Stephen Sondheim twisted the ambivalence somewhat tighter in such songs as "Barcelona" and "Send In the Clowns," where the negative sides of love compete with the magnetic force of the attraction.

Melodically and verbally, "First Date/Last Night" has a Sondheimesque flair and tartness, and it comes at just the right time to give "Dogfight" its distinction. Maybe it's just the excellence of this song that made the remainder seem like filling out a love-vs.-war formula. Even so, it's a formula invested here with quite a bit of sentimental strength, as well as unflagging commitment.

[Photos by Michael Camp]

'Nice Work' (if he can get total capitulation from Kim Jong Un in Singapore)

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Concluding its classical season, ISO produces a splendid 'Magic Flute,' audaciously staged

Saturated as "The Magic Flute" is in Masonic symbols, the relative obscurity of their significance pales for the general populace beside the opera's eclectic brilliance, which has sustained it in all-ages appeal to the present day.

That truth was reflected in every aspect of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's staged production of the opera to conclude its two-week "Mozart's Last Year" festival. Seen Friday night in the production's Hilbert Circle Theatre premiere, the show brimmed with 21st-century imagination, helped immeasurably by the immortal 1791 score and its chockablock libretto.

Its chief creator and the opera's instigator, Emanuel Schickaneder was a producer of the sort we can see as modern: gifted with outreach values, able to be both high-toned and streetwise, as long as he could bring the Viennese public along. He concocted the text with a fellow Mason, and the composer's enthusiasm for the assignment as the most immortal Mason involved is evident at every point.

But what is most evident in the ISO's staging was the breadth of inspiration the show commands. Different levels of playing areas, with staircases connecting them, help reinforce the various levels of musical wealth — from formal to frivolous — with which Mozart larded his score.  Credit goes to the top of the production team: stage director Samuel Helfrich and lighting/set designer Oona Curley. Their work was supported by the restrained gallimaufry of Kat Jeffery's costume designs.

Music director Krzysztof Urbanski: maestro of the revels
I was a lot less certain I was going to be so charmed by this "Magic Flute" right after Krzysztof Urbanski got the overture under way, with the ensemble showing fine coordination despite being separated and distributed around the set. The distraction of Monostatos, who's sprawled in a white bathrobe on one of the couches, putting the moves on a resistant Pamina, offered some comic foreshadowing we could have done without. Less disruptive was the simultaneous, guarded exchange of glances (with minimal gesturing)  between Sarastro and the Queen of Night on the top level to the audience's left.

The "Magic Flute" overture comes firmly down on the earnest side of the opera. I assume Helfrich was trying to signal that the work belongs to a mixed genre not easily categorized, and thus some funny business is germane from the outset. Understood, yet the dilution of that magnificent overture was a high price to pay. As the action opened, however, Helfrich's handling of the singers achieved an early balance and sustained it almost unmarred through the final chorus two hours later.

Only three other times did he seem to me to make odd choices. I can't interpret the Three Ladies, servants of the formidable Queen of Night,* tossing the scary serpent of the first scene onto the wandering prince Tamino as he lies exhausted on one of the couches. As agents of the Queen that the prince will shortly oppose, have they been assigned to enlist his services by flinging a fake challenge at him, then "killing" the reptile, thus indicating he ought to return the favor by agreeing to rescue the Queen's daughter? Granted, the serpent is mainly an excuse to get the action rolling, and so it does here. But what was the point of the trickery?

Also questionable was having the lovers under their crucial second-act trials disappear from view, emerging after the first one, by fire, with comical fright wigs owing something to the design of Tom
Tom Hulce as a teased-wig Mozart
Hulce's hair as the title character of the film "Amadeus." The subsequent trial by water is negotiated without a concluding sight gag. Finally, why does Papageno, considering suicide after the apparent loss of his Papagena, come forward to solicit pleas from the audience not to go ahead with his plan? (And of course he got them.)

On the other hand, members of the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir were well deployed as supporters of Sarastro, costumed in dressy-casual style, some of the men pausing to draw reflectively on pipes, singing in sync on several levels. And I liked the coordinated, multilevel movements of the Three Spirits (sturdily sung by Elise Hurwitz, Anna Donnelly, and Jessica True), who function as a sort of suicide-prevention hot line for both Papageno and Pamina. The serious business of Tamino's assignment, and its plangent music, was underlined well by Julian Morris and Joseph McBrayer as the Priests and the Armored Men.

Spectacular ferocity: Katheryn Lewek
Continuing the Masonic focus on threes, Alissa Dessoye, Avery Boettcher, and Emily Warren were formidable — both ethereal and menacing — as the Queen of Night's loyal Ladies. But there would be little virtue in their vocal and physical poise were it not  for the commanding performance of Katheryn Lewek, an experienced Queen, in that role. Visibly pregnant but without displaying negative effects from the hopeful burden she's now carrying, Lewek gave a brilliant account of her role, divided between pathos and fury. Her second-act aria, "Der Hölle Rache köcht in meinem Herzen," drew the most rapturous applause of any number before the final curtain calls.

Lauren Snouffer's Pamina displayed the production's other major female voice. She was a lithe, fervent, determined representative of one of Mozart's most enchanting female characters (rivaling Susanna in "The Marriage of Figaro"). I'm not among those critics forever measuring opera performances against past joys, but whenever Pamina is sung this well, particularly in "Ach, ich fuhl's," I get chills recalling my first "Flute" four decades ago, with the young Kathleen Battle's Pamina in a Michigan Opera Theater production.

Tenor John Tessier, projecting so much better than he seemed to in last week's Mozart Requiem performance, displayed the steadfastness and lyrical allure that Tamino needs to have. He is an exemplar, after all, of the virtues Freemasonry was established to promote, and which are enshrined in "The Magic Flute." He thus contrasted well with Papageno, the prince's enlisted chum and reluctant companion, who was given a sprightly vigor and boy-next-door appeal by baritone Sean Michael Plumb. His rapport with Christine Taylor Price's effervescent Papagena was immediately apparent, and made the couple's eagerness to get busy producing little Papagenos and Papagenas amusing and believable.

With hyperbole many have since cited as justifiable, George Bernard Shaw once wrote that Sarastro's was the only music fit to issue from the mouth of God. Peixin Chen's stalwart basso gave the requisite dignity and godlike eminence to Sarastro, whose genuineness as a ruler inclined to forgive was emphasized in the final scene, as he reaches out to the defeated  Queen of Night.

There had been some tongue-clucking and even hissing from the audience as supertitles reinforced the Masonic vision of male superiority and its link to virtue. But those inclined to bring 21st-century cultural standards to "The Magic Flute" would do well to remember the opera's portrayal of unenlightened male power — in the oafish villain Monostatos, a kind of proleptic poster boy for today's #MeToo movement — as well as the somewhat lovable, but far from heroic, action and speech of Papageno. And if people were going to heckle, why did no cheers greet Pamina's line after the lovers are reunited and permitted to talk again: "I myself will lead you, as love guides me," followed by her twice-repeated directive to Tamino to play his magic flute? This is a strong woman, sisters.
An example of the artwork used to promote ISO's "Flute."

The orchestra's central but never distracting position brought the unity of "The Magic Flute" to the fore under Urbanski's sure guidance. In a couple of places, accompanied recitative and ensemble intricacy found the violins scrambling to keep pace accurately. Showcased by her forward position in the orchestra and frequent solos as well as by the opera title and its very theme, principal flutist Karen Moratz (her name an anagram of the composer's — how perfect is that!) fully deserved the solo bow the conductor invited her to take at the end.

*I follow the practice of a few commentators in not putting "the" between "of" and "Night." "Queen of the Night" implies that a particular night represents the quasi-villain's rule. It reminds me uncomfortably of the old TV show "Queen for a Day." "Queen of Night" properly indicates that half of each 24-hour cycle is in this magical monarch's control, as she uses the power of darkness to hold sway.

A concise historical ballad, bawdy but based on well-known facts, inspired by a song not included in 'Million Dollar Quartet'

Friday, June 8, 2018

A jam session for the ages: ATI brings back its 'Million Dollar Quartet'

The company of 'Million Dollar Quartet' belts out the finale.
I told this story over four years ago in a post detailing my overall aversion to rock music. But it may be more pertinent here because it's relevant to my first exposure to "Million Dollar Quartet" as presented by Actors Theatre of Indiana in an encore run. The rocking out will continue through June 17 in the Center for the Performing Arts' Studio Theater.

It's about "Blue Suede Shoes," the beloved rock 'n' roll song that launches the show, which is based on a one-time Memphis gathering of Sun Studios' early stars in December 1956.

The song was passed on to Elvis Presley and became part of his burgeoning stardom, overshadowing the man who wrote it, Carl Perkins. That stroke of fate is one of "Million Dollar Quartet"'s dramatic conflicts, as Perkins reminds his boss, Sam Phillips, of the slight.  He's defending himself and his rhythm section for their departure from the Sun label at a time when Johnny Cash has also found greener pastures, and Phillips is devastated.

At a family reunion in Virginia about that time, a second cousin of mine brought out some of his favorite 45s, including "Blue Suede Shoes." He insisted that Perkins was the performer, pointing out his name in parentheses on the label right under the title; Presley's name appeared under that. For some reason, I couldn't convince him that the mention of Perkins was positioned parenthetically to indicate the songwriter, not the singer. We bet a quarter on it, and agreed to abide by his father's judgment. My victory the next day was bittersweet because, as my cousin told me, his dad had said he should pay up because I was a guest. Southern hospitality came out on top.

I've spared myself research on the history of Sun Records and the jam session that brought together Presley, Perkins, Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis partly because I prefer to process the legend, and the show deserves to be judged as drama, not cabaret or musical revue. So I don't really know how much Perkins really resented Presley's success with "Blue Suede Shoes," but it makes for something ATI patrons can sink their teeth into besides the show's dazzling hit parade.

Similarly, how obstreperous the newcomer Lewis was at this meeting makes for good theatrical fodder, particularly the hostility the wild young pianist stirred in Perkins.  These conflicts drive the show, which also pitches its dramatic tent on the energy and ambitions of the impresario Phillips, who is played with peppery intensity by ATI co-founder Don Farrell.

Directed and choreographed by DJ Salisbury, ATI's "Million Dollar Quartet" has an adept, well-chosen cast returning to the stage for their zesty impersonations: Brandon Alstott is Johnny Cash; Sean Riley, Carl Perkins; Gavin Rohrer is Lewis; Adam Tran, Elvis. Betsy Norton appears as Elvis' girlfriend Dyanne, getting showcases that  cover the fervid-to-fiery spectrum, "Fever" and "I Hear You Knockin'."

The production's music is pitched at a present-day volume, and the front-and-center performances are calculated to pin your ears back as they recall the birth of rock 'n' roll out of rhythm-and-blues and rockabilly roots. After the story is out of the way, there's a set of glitzy encores spotlighting each of the stars: Presley's "Hound Dog," Cash's "Ghost Riders in the Sky," Perkins' "See You Later Alligator," and, finally, a stand-up-and-wiggle audience-participation version of Lewis' "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On."

For contrast, there were songs derived from the musicians' backgrounds and individual affinities: a nice a cappella version of "Peace in the Valley," an upbeat, similarly well-harmonized "Down by the Riverside," and Elvis' solo in "Memories Are Made of This."  A dismissive reference is made to Elvis' "Love Me Tender," which would have been natural for performance in context, since the break-out star had sung it on the "Ed Sullivan Show" in September 1956 and issued his hit record of it later that month. (That's one of the few facts I looked up online for this post.) I missed this signature setting of the old Civil War song "Aura Lea."

But again, "Million Dollar Quartet" is not a musical revue, and it makes sense  for creators Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux to have made song choices that suited the flow of their piece and the story they wanted to tell. Unfortunately, Thursday night's audience seemed inclined to take in the show as a hit parade, as there was considerable traffic into and out of the seats. Granted, the show lasts two hours without intermission, and the reason for the temporary departures can be safely inferred. But they certainly marred the illusion that a story, with comical elements threaded amid the pathos, was being set before us, not just a musical nostalgia trip.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

For art's sake: Some people write poems the way Donald Trump makes deals

This morning, as part of a feature on how the administration is approaching the summit meeting with North Korea next Tuesday, NPR played an audio clip of Donald Trump praising his "art of the deal."

With a Google search, I found this boast was also a tweet from way back in December 2014: "Deals are my art form. Other people paint beautifully or write poetry. I like making deals, preferably big deals. That's how I get my kicks."

That got me to thinking about how five great American poets could function as Trump conduits, in revisions of one famous poem each, if they were around to represent his manner, his style, and his values. The titles of the actual poems on which these Trumpified verses are based appear in parentheses after the poets' names. My shorter versions reflect the President's short attention span.

Hart Crane (Proem to “The Bridge”)

How many dawns, chill from his rippling rest,
Bob Mueller’s wings shall dip and pivot him
Shedding fake rings of tumult, building high
A witch hunt aiming for my Liberty.

Then, with fake-news charges, fool the eyes
As apparitional as media double cross
On pages of commentary filed away
Since that escalator dropped me into play.

O sleepless vigilance that undermines
The best president this nation ever had
And stalls our pledge to make America great
With baseless fears of Russian meddling. Sad!

E.A. Robinson (“Miniver Cheevy”)

Crooked Hillary, child of scorn
Grows mean as she assails the season
Of 2016 — just hear her mourn
     Lacking any reason.

Hillary thought I had no chance
And said she won the popular vote:
She counted illegal immigrants,
     It’s only fair to note.

Hillary sighed for what was not
And dreamed a Clinton dynasty,
But I won bigly, I was hot
     With most people. See?

Hillary lost the prize she sought
And still can’t stand to be without it;
Hillary’s thought and thought and thought
     And thought about it.

Crooked Hillary can’t relate
“What Happened”— her book clearly fails:
Hillary’s dreams are lost to fate
     With those e-mails.

Robert Frost (“Fire and Ice”)

Fire and Fury

Some say my term will end in fury,
Some say in fire.
We’ll see; the answer’s kind of blurry.
I tell my base they should not worry.
Try to relax, sit back, admire:
I’m bigger than the ones that hate,
My power to pardon rises higher
And it’s so great:
Am I a liar?

Walt Whitman  (“Song of Myself”)

I celebrate myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to you as good belongs to me....
Maybe better, to tell you the truth.

I loafe at Mar-a-Lago and invite my soul.
I lean and covfefe at my ease…. observing the spears of Fox & Friends.

Houses and rooms are full of fake news… Cyberspace is crowded with fake news.
I breathe the fragrance myself, and know it and do not mind it too much, maybe a little.
The distillation would intoxicate me also, but I shall not let it.

My atmosphere is not a perfume….it has no taste of the distillation… it is odorless,
It is like the bubble Scott Pruitt lives in… I am in love with it.
I will go to the banks and my hotels and become undisguised and naked
Except for my dark suit with the flag lapel pin, white shirt and long red tie.
I am mad for it to be in contact with me.

Emily Dickinson (“Success is counted sweetest”)

Success is counted sweetest
By those who ne’er succeed.
To close a deal the victor
Requires sorest need.

Not one of all my family, friends,
Who benefit from Me
Can tell the definition
So clear of Victory,

As those defeated, crying,
To whose foreboding eyes
The constant strains of triumph
Are tweeted. No surprise!

Sunday, June 3, 2018

'Appalachian Spring' highlights a varied Dance Kaleidoscope program

The ebullience of young love in "Appalachian Spring"
Putting on one of his mentor's most celebrated works with the company he has directed for 27 seasons adds further distinction to David Hochoy's tenure at the artistic helm of Dance Kaleidoscope.

The arrival of Martha Graham's "Appalachian Spring" on the DK schedule has been justly heralded. The result, as seen Saturday night at Indiana Repertory Theatre, was fulfilling and refreshing. The provenance of this ballet here is solid: Hochoy spent the '80s as a Graham dancer and rehearsal director, and continues the association on the faculty of the Martha Graham School.

The great choreographer's fascination with Americana would fade later in her career. In 1944, when her collaboration with Aaron Copland came to fruition, she was still creatively focused on American folkways and finding a dance language to blend the attitudes and postures she found there with symbolism that dominated her later work.

DK has staged Graham's work, bringing in Graham's costume design as well as the spare, angular set of Isamu Noguchi.  Jean Rosenthal's lighting is consistently open-air and expansive. The setting is an abstraction of 19th-century American life near the frontier.

The courtship and marriage of a couple named the Bride and the Husbandman is nurtured by the guiding spirit of the Pioneering Woman. The challenge to the idyllic romance comes from the itinerant Revivalist, severe and focused on the world to come. His rigor is softened by the amusing devotion of his four Followers, women outfitted virginally and moving with naive, girlish energy in a world parallel to the couple's.

Graham distrusted the American fondness for religious cults, including the Shakers from whom Copland borrowed "'Tis a Gift to Be Simple," subjecting it to subtle variations. This guardedness bears artistic fruit, however, as the Revivalist (played by Stuart Coleman in the performance I saw)  has a demonic solo of warning that gives the ballet dramatic spine. As the Followers, Emily Dyson, Marie Kuhns, Aleksa Lukasiewicz, and Missy Thompson made a cohesive, charming ensemble — a collective picture of the less dangerous side of religious enthusiasm.

As the Bride, Caitlin Negron appears in her farewell DK role.
In his spellbinding solo, the Revivalist is both fiercely counseling the couple on human depravity and representing the fate of human happiness always to be under threat. Coleman's portrayal, with its clutching gestures and outflung arms suggesting both accusation and piety, galvanized the piece's emotional core.

Yet its more pacific and loving gestures were equally well-defined. As the Bride, Caitlin Negron, making her last appearance with the company this weekend, conveyed a pervasive feeling of joyful adventurousness. It was a performance imbued with personality. Her Bride is sturdy in her resolve to make a fine new life with the Husbandman; the courtship is definitely a reciprocal affair. Timothy June played her partner, the kind of American archetype easily credited with building the country. As history that portrait is oversimplified; in dance, it works believably, especially when brought off this well.

Mariel Greenlee displayed a steadying force as the Pioneering Woman, standing for the optimism and patience of agricultural settlement. Graham's choreography mutes her opposition to the Revivalist, but clearly a polarity is established, and the Pioneering Woman has the upper hand. The dignity and built-in pauses of the character's movement depict a figure who is both engaged with the couple (the Bride in particular) and somehow above the battle.

Staged by Hochoy and Miki Orihara, "Appalachian Spring" is a high-water mark in Dance Kaleidoscope history. It is sure to be fondly remembered for a long time. Its difficulties are less flamboyant than much of the troupe's repertoire, but they require a chasteness of execution and a nobility that this cast fully supplied. Every gesture and view of the whole struck home.

Emotional teeter-totter: "Losing My Mind"
The first half presents audiences with an invigorated spectrum of other artistic approaches. To start with, Coleman brought to life a lyrical solo from Hochoy's Graham era, "Ave Maria" (1988). The familiar Bach-Gounod piece made for an attractive miniature from the choreographer's developmental period.

A more recent solo, set to Stephen Sondheim's impassioned song "Losing My Mind," shifted our attention to near the end of Hochoy's second decade as artistic director. A showpiece for Mariel Greenlee, who's concluding her 13th season with the company, the performance evoked the powerful response I felt when I saw the premiere in 2010. To convey anguish with such elegance is something rare. The choreography suits Greenlee's essential gifts of full dramatic presence yoked to flawless technique.

Those attributes came into play in the program's hardest-to-interpret piece, Stephanie Martinez's "Taking Watch," a two-year-old work to abrasive electronic/percussive music. A central episode had Greenlee in strenuous partnership with two or three men. There's lots of skidding and leaps and catches that end with the caught dancer upside down. The choreography moves back and forth from the brink of awkwardness. This was true of the piece as a whole, which spotlighted DK's most veteran dancer, Jillian Godwin, at the start and, in a mischievous solo coda, at the finish.

"Taking Watch" opens with a curiously watchful Godwin facing a wall of dancers seated at the edge of the stage with their backs to us. Though unmoving, their postures aren't rigid,  but open and at a slight angle. It's as though they are being watchful as well. When they move into action, they are constantly engaged in what looks like a blend of intricate maneuvers and free-for-all.  There's a
Puzzling pizazz: The enigmatic opening of "Taking Watch"
wealth of unusual arm and hand movements, as if coded messages were being exchanged. The cryptic element is sustained, but not for the sake of bafflement. At length, the audience is probably picking up clues while being schooled in the exhilaration of taking watch.

No enigmas fall across "Sing Sing Sing," another piece by a DK guest, Andre Megerdichian. Laura E. Glover's lighting and Guy Clark's costumes provide spectacular visual counterpoint to the propulsive riffs, tunes, and rhythms of the Benny Goodman classic. The version used largely excises the soloing that helped give the furious conclusion of the 1938 Carnegie Hall performance a lift into another dimension. Nonetheless, the heightened excitement of this big-band arrangement gets a worthy complement in choreography that both mocks and exalts jitterbugging.

The variety of interaction among the baker's dozen of dancers is astonishing. There's barely any division of the ensemble, though individual flourishes abound. An exception: a wonderful crosswise movement across the stage by three successive groups of dancers as the interpolation of "Christopher Columbus" gets under way. A motif that's repeated for the delightful curtain call is a collective let-your-backbone-slip posture with arms partly extended, hands dangling from floppy wrists. That's exactly what's called for: In dance above all other arts, all-out intensity miraculously can lend itself to looking like pure fun.

[Photos by Crowe's Eye Photography]