Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Best of All Possible Weekends

I have been remiss in my duties and for that, my most devoted reader, I apologize. In my last blog I promised a write-up of my then upcoming whirlwind weekend of theatre, and that weekend has come and gone with no write-up. But, a whirlwind weekend it was!

I'll start off with NYU Steinhardt's new production of the enigma known as Leonard Bernstein's Candide. It is known as "Leonard Bernstein's Candide" because his score for the musical (first billed as a "comic operetta") is the only element that has remained in the several productions that have felt the hands of Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker, Felicia Bernstein, John LaTouche, Richard Wilbur, Hugh Wheeler, Stephen Sondheim, Hal Prince, John Caird and Lonny Price. The only other name that seems to come with every production is that of the novella's original author, Voltaire, and even he disappears sometimes. We can add to that list of names William Wesbrooks, who directed the production I saw down on West 4th Street at the Frederick Loewe Theatre.

This production, as Lonny Price's recent concert production did, forsook the trappings of time and place with the addition of more modern-day elements in production and costuming (including a sling-shot in the opening scene). However, where Price's production mixed the old with the new in an odd no-man's-land, Wesbrooks made it clear that his production took place in the here and now. While this goes along with Voltaire's original intent of current social satire, one wonders how strong the similarities truly are if we need to be shown them (and it brings to mind Lillian Hellman's blatant use of the Spanish Inquisition to represent the House UnAmerican Activities Committee in her original 1956 production).

Still, the productionproved a rousing one with many stand-out performances. Starting with that glorious Overture marvelously conducted by Michael Ricciardone and played by an onstage orchestra of 32 pieces (oh, that NYU might loan some of its musicians to the Roundabout Theatre Company) the evening proved to be one of extremely high energy. Crystal Mosser's manic performance of the other most-famous piece of music in the show, "Glitter and Be Gay" received one of the longest ovations I've had the pleasure of participating in.

The problems of Candide often lie in the second act once the characters and complications have been established, yet more misfortune must befall our hero before the conclusion. This production, I'm sorry to say, was unable to escape these problems. Starting off with a somewhat misplaced "Paris Waltz" (here labeled as "The Governor's Waltz") the second act of this show ran into more confusion than is perhaps necessary for Candide (including a new scene set in Cuba, credited to a dead Hugh Wheeler).

However, as with most productions of Candide (including Hal Prince's opera house production, the war-horse that this new production is based on) it is the performances and the music that carry the show. Marvin Avila was beautifully stylized with a voice that bathed the audience in innocence as the title character. Ms. Mosser's Cunegonde was a refreshing change from the mostly doe-eyed ingenues I've seen play the role, giving her bi-polar nature a much richer form with heavy accent of the depressive side. (Though, given the modern setting of the show, one wonders why Dr. Pangloss didn't give her a Prozac and tell her to shut up.) And to Dr. Pangloss. Paul Sandberg gave a fine performance as both Dr. Voltaire (of the realism camp) and Dr. Pangloss (of the optimism camp--this production omitted, as many do, the third philosopher Martin of the pessimism camp). The finest performance of the evening, however, belonged to Katharine Heaton as Cunegonde's faithful servant, the one-buttocked Old Lady. Ms. Heaton has a rich mezzo voice and spot-on comic timing. One rarely finds the combination of a well-trained opera singer and a true comedienne, and we often settle for one or the other with this role.

All-in-all, a very enjoyable evening at the theatre, and I cried--as I do--during the finale, "Make Our Garden Grow." It should be noted that the children sitting with the family next to me also seemed to enjoy themselves immensely. Bravo, NYU.

On to the other evening of theatre (actually going in reverse order). Are there seriously those of you who read this blog who have yet to attend a Five Flights show? Get on their mailing list, because you are missing delightful and insightful new theatre.

The newest installment from this exciting company derived from the idea that it is impossible to utilize super-heroes in live theatre. The effects ("woosh," "crunch," and "blammo," for example) are too necessary and only work on the page or the screen. So, Will Lacker set out to create a super hero drama in which the "boom"s and the "blast"s happen off-stage, while the drama unfolds onstage.

The result was The Custodian, the story of a janitor who--tired of cleaning up after super heroes--takes matters into his own hands. Eryck Tait is the title character who offers a surprisingly honest arc from beginning to end, surprising only considering the zany antics going on around him. His roommate Remy (Nick Hepsoe) plays video games all day and night, girlfriend (ex-girlfriend?) Wanda (Carlyn Kautz) is shacking up with Remy's childhood buddy Fing (Adam Delia) and there's a hostage super hero sidekick (Steve Yates) in his living room.

Early on, the play seems to take place in Manhattan as we know it. The trials and tribulations of the characters are familiar to us. The only things that seem out of place are the earthquakes (we'll later find out that those are caused by The Incredible Hulk). However, Lacker quickly employs the use of The Professor (Kacy Rice), a British know-it-all who pops up to explain the more archaic details of the story, to push the play from quirky to out-right ridiculous. Ms. Rice also appeared as a TV news anchor and a radio DJ, offering glimpses of life outside the apartment. (In other news, Ms. Rice's 21st birthday happened to land on the night of the performance I attended. Happy Birthday, Kacy!)

The ridiculous nature of the play and the honesty with which it was presented was truly a new great feat hurdled by the Five Flights Theater Company. And, true to Lacker's intent, there was only one special effect in the show (it could either be described as a "splat" or a "sploosh," or perhaps a combination thereof).

The best of all possible weekends spent with the best of all possible shows.

1 comment:

Janine said...

hey i have a friend who goes to nyu was he in the show you saw?