Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Normal Heart

To say I enjoyed "The Normal Heart" by Larry Kramer is true but difficult.  Does anyone enjoy confronting painful truth?  When we go to the theatre should it only be a happy, enjoyable experience?  What I felt tonight at this performance was not happy.  It was not enjoyable.  It felt important, truthful, painful, and very current, and I am profoundly gratetful to have seen these actors tell me a story that moved me, made me remember, and made me think.

I was not expecting to have an emotional experience.  Possibly I was anticipating it to be a period piece - something of it's time but no longer relevant today.  I could not have been more wrong.  This play broke my heart and wrenched my soul.  The play begins by showing a small group of people going to a Doctor dealing with various severe illnesses, and as this "plague" increases so does the horror, passion, and outrage of those affected by it.  I was painfully reminded of friends I have known in my 25 years living in New York City who succumbed to the disease, recalling time spent in hospitals holding hands, and having to say goodbye much too soon to young men who were my own age.  The story surrounds the semi-autobiographical character of Ned Weeks, based on playwrite Kramer, and his call to arms at the onset of the AIDS epidemic.  The confusion surrounding the swift deaths of several people he knows leads him to become active in finding answers, and bolstered by unofficial yet definite medical information provided to him by Dr. Emma Brookner he takes on City Hall and the government demanding they recognize what is going on.  This leads to the formation of what we know today as The Gay Men's Health Crisis organization and the militant activist group ACT UP.  Along the way Ned finds love for the first time, only for them to discover that his lover, Felix, is infected and will pass away during the course of the play.  Kramer simply doesn't hold back in his hard core depiction of the disease and the governments lack of repsonse, nor should he; the subject matter demands this type of treatment.  Ned becomes passionately outspoken on the issue, unrelentingly so, spirited on and seconded only by Dr. Brookner. 

These characters, respectively played by Joe Mantello and, in a remarkable Broadway debut Ellen Barkin, push the government, and at many times we the audience almost to the breaking point in beautifully calibrated rises of outrage and fury.  I have seen this play in several other stagings, and so much about this production feels fresh and newly explored.  The first is Joe Mantello, who takes what could be an obnoxious and overwrought character and fleshes him out tenderly.  His Ned is full of insecurities yet becomes unafraid to shout the ugly truth when his sense of fairness is threatened.  To his credit he has the audience on his side from the beginning, and even when confronted with being removed from the organization he gave everything to create, it is the group of less controversial, less passionate men who remain in control that we demonize.  The play itself is very compact in it's writing, which is good because we are given a slew of information throughout, one shocking point after another.  The theatrical highlights, if they need be chosen in an evening that is full of them, came for me in Act 2.  One of Ned's co-founders recounts a harrowing tale of taking his ailing lover on an airplane, the details of which I simply cannot bring myself to repeat.  I found myself uncontrolably in tears as he spoke of indignity and inhuman behavior to the point that I had my face buried in my hands.  I was upset further knowing that this agonizing story could have been retold by countless others who faced illness during the time when no one knew what to do and so few even cared.  Immediately following came the scene with Dr. Brookner.  Paralyzed from polio at an early age, she confronts from her wheelchair a government agent in charge of funding, facing rejection of funds for her medical research while other less deserving organizations receive it.  In what might be the dramatic performance of the season Ellen Barkin blazes with anger and determination as she runs down a laundry list of lies, homophobia, and lack of humanity and common decency, attempting to bring rational thinking to a system that cares very little for the plight of suffering, ill homosexual men.  She builds this monologue to a fever pitch and sustains it for minutes, ultimately receiving an ovation from the audience more common to opera divas or big musical numbers, literally stopping the show cold.

As we walked out of the performance there was a man handing out flyers saying "This is a message from Larry Kramer."  I would like to share a few of the things that this flyer said:

1)  Please know that AIDS is a worldwide plague.
2)  Please know that no country in the world, including this one, especially this one, has ever called it a plague, or acknowledged is as a plague, or dealt with it as a plague.
3)  Please know that here in America case numbers continue to rise in every category.  In much of the rest of the world-Russia, India, Southeast Asia, Africa-the numbers of the infected and the drying are so grotesquely high they are rarely acknowledged.

And the most important to me:

Please know that the world has suffered at the very least some 75 million infections and 35 MILLION DEATHS.  When the action of this play that you have just seen begins, there were 41.

My note:  The Black Plague of Europe in the late 1300's was estimated to kill between 75 and 100 million people and it took the population 150 years to recover.

I want to dedicate this post to Bill, Keil, and Richard, my good friends who did not live long enough to have this experience with me, but who live in my heart and always will be with me.  God bless you.


Wednesday, April 27, 2011

"La Cage aux Folles" with Harvey Fierstein

Before we had "Drag Race", before we had RuPaul, before Wigstock, Lips restaurant, Lucky Cheng's, "Too Wong Foo", and "The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" (the movie) there was Harvey Fierstein.  In 1978 he wrote a little play titled "International Stud", the first part of what was to become "Torch Song Trilogy".   He created the role of Arnold, an effeminate, Jewish female impersonator who struggles to find love and acceptance.  For this production he would win Tony Awards for Best Actor and Best Play in 1982.  He continuted to pioneer the humanization of the protrayal of gay men with his book to "La Cage aux Folles" in 1983, winning another Tony.  Both were acclaimed hits; "Torch Song" ran for over 1200 performances and "La Cage" for over 1700, and both deal with gay men who have chosen to live alternative lifestyles and are attempting to deal with people's bigotry.  Both shows deal with LOVE.  And for some reason Harvey is one of those actors who knows how to play love.  I have never met the man, but I have a feeling he must have a huge heart.  Witnessing his performance for the first time I saw someone capable of portraying every aspect the character Zaza/Albin;  the performer, the lover, the mother, the human being.  

I don't have to look far back to his portrayal of Edna Turnblad in "Hairspray" (I did not see him live in "Torch Song", only the movie)  to know he creates loving, sympathetic characters, but the extras we get in "La Cage" are the glamour he brings to the role, probably reminiscent of his personal experience with drag performing, albeit on a much seedier level back then, and the fact that he is playing opposite the dashing Christopher Sieber as Georges.  It's the first time ever that two gay men have played the roles together on Broadway, and it definitely shows in the chemistry between them.   When Albin refuses to go onstage thinking Georges might be cheating on him it is clear he only wants Georges to butter him up with promises, that he is waiting to be wooed and charmed, as we are sure he has been many times in the past.  And so it goes between them in scene after scene, the most comically effective being when Georges is trying to teach Albin how to be more masculine.  Albin is sitting with legs closed and bent to the side, and George tells him to spread his legs and sit like a man.  Albin finds this impossible to do, so Georges walks behind him and tweeks his nipples and BOING Albin's legs open.  It may be a silly choice but it's a choice two straight actors playing the roles would not make, probably would never conceive of, and it got one of the biggest laughs of the night! 

The chemistry they have is what makes this current cast so successful; we feel their love.  The humor of the script always lands no matter who is in the cast, but without the love then Albin's "betrayal" doesn't sting, and his big Act 1 closer "I Am What I Am" loses impact.  I won't sugar coat Harvey's singing - and in interviews he doesn't himself - at times it sounds like a bass-baritone frog croaking, but he did surprise me by using more voice than I thought he had.  A friend told me that the same was true when Harvey went into "Fiddler on the Roof" which I unfortunately did not see.  While it can't compare to the booming voice of George Hearn who originated the role, Harvey pulls out enough sung notes to make the anthem of the show the moment it needs to be.  And as can be the case with singing-actors who don't have pretty voices, something about his tone actually made the song more real and moving for me.   Both times I saw it I had tears in my eyes at the end of the number, and one friend I brought was also completely reduced to tears.  It's musical theatre drama played to the hilt.

Harvey nails every joke in the script with comic precision (as one would hope since he wrote it) and with a perfected ease.  His portrayal of the glamorous Zaza is larger than life, swathed in beads and sequins, topped with giant wigs;  think Mae West playing Dolly Levi, she's a big lady who isn't afraid to play funny and sexy.  Chris Sieber has a beautiful voice, sings his role very well, has the requisite charm for when Georges is onstage (including some very funny 'improv' bits with audience members), and is happy to play the 'straight man' enough for Harvey's comic antics to land.  He might be a few years too young for the part, but it's not inconceivable that two men of these ages would be together, and to his credit not for one moment did I forget that Georges is IN LOVE with Albin.  Even though Georges is technically the larger role, "La Cage" belongs to Zaza, and Harvey Fierstein is giving one of those performances people will talk about for years to come.

Sadly about a week after the year anniversary of it's opening on Broadway this revival of "La Cage" posted it's closing notice.  It will play it's final performance this Sunday, May 1 at 2pm.  I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys musical theatre.  If you can catch one of the last performances you're sure to have a great time.

Happy Theatre-going!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The New York Premiere of "Seance on a Wet Afternoon" by Stephen Schwartz

Tonight I had the great opportunity of seeing the New York premiere of "Seance on a Wet Afternoon", the opera written by Stephen Schwartz and produced by the New York City Opera.  I call it a "great opportunity" because 1) It was the New York premiere of a highly anticipated work by one of Broadway's most accomplished composers, 2)  My friend Axel scored us free tickets through Theater Mania Gold Club and we were seated in row B of the Orchestra!  If "Broadway" is one of my favorite words then you can imagine what "Free Broadway" means to me, and let's face it, in this economy I like to grab a bargain when it comes my way.  Of course logistically this was not Broadway being that we were seeing an opera at the New York State Koch theatre, but I think "Free Opera" is right up there with "Free Broadway" for me (and much rarer too!) given that I see almost as much opera as I do theatre.   

Prior to this evenings performance all I knew about "Seance" was that it was composed by Schwartz and had it's world premiere at California's Opera Santa Barbara in 2009.  I found out from my program that the source material is a novel and a 1964 movie starring Kim Stanley.  I was impressed from the outset by the "Hitchcockian" mood set by the prelude, and being unfamiliar with the story I found myself wondering what would happen next, and the first act built to a suspenseful climax.  Lauren Flanigan portayed Myra Foster, the medium seeking fame and fortune through devising a kidnapping plot, and is known for her penetrating studies of dramatic opera roles, and here she performed as though the role were written with her voice in mind.  It's rough to bring off a part that deals with the supernatural and not appear hokey or fake, and here Ms. Flanigan's immersion in the character was absolutely complete and often riveting.  Her voice was not perfect tonight, the one flaw being that she would occassionally go flat on phrase endings in the middle range, but everything else including some blazing high notes and excellent dramatic singing was fully in place.  As a mid-to-late career role she is in amazing form.  Another excellent and memorable performance was given by Melody Moore as the mother, Rita Clayton.  She really connected dramatically in the poigant and dramatic aria about her kidnapped child.  She has a fantastic soprano and looks stunning onstage too.  No doubt New York will be seeing more of her in the future.  The other principals were uniformly excellent, but a real stand-out performance for me was from Michael Kepler Meo, a boy soprano, as Arthur.  I struggle to enjoy this type of voice because usually they are under-powered or insipid (or both) but this boy can SING.  He has one of those fluttery vibratos which is very exciting and his voice had a full, rich quality that I don't normally associate with children. 

The score of "Seance" will no doubt be controversial among the members of the New York classical music world, many of whom tend to be snotty and arrogant.  I imagine Mr. Schwartz being written off as a Broadway composer or a scorer of saccharine movie soundtracks, but tonight was an accomplishment that I hope will not be disregarded (and the cheering crowd at the curtain call indicated this may be a popular, if not critical success).  What Schwartz has written is a somewhat complex but totally accessible work that is tuneful and atmostpheric that can be enjoyed by opera and theatre lovers alike.  His orchestrations are gorgeous and interesting, and he acheived something special in that even though this is his first opera the "sound" of it let's you know it is by Schwartz.  I don't want to give anyone the wrong idea about this serious work, but I am certain I heard brief strains of music reminiscent of "Godspell" and "Pippin" (maybe only a few bars), which is not to say he's ripping off his own tunes, I'm just pointing out that Schwartz has his own musical vocabulary that he works from, similar to what we refer to as the "Sondheim sound".

In the today's world of music writing a lyrical piece like "Seance" is rubbing against the grain of what a modern opera is often expected to be.  Using the twelve tone scale (Schoenberg), a mathematical approach which creates extreme dissonance, or a repetitive pattern (Glass) that conjures up a hypnotic quality have been the forms that for years defined the genre.  What one might call "pretty" music does not get taken very seriously.  Music scolars like the more dissonant stuff, yet audiences always seem to respond to the more lyrical pieces.  Such was the case with two productions I saw at The Metropolitan Opera - "The Ghosts of Versailles" and "An American Tragedy".  "Seance" will please those looking for lyricism. 

After seeing him take his writing to this level I hope Schwartz will turn back to my personal favorite of his works, "The Baker's Wife", and rework that lovely score with a problematic book and turn it into the Broadway success that it could be.

"Seance on a Wet Afternoon" is playing through May 1 at the New York City Opera.  Go see it! 

Happy Theatre-going!

Update 4/27/11 - As expected the reviews for "Seance" came in mixed to negative.  One reviewer kept comparing it to the movie "The Lovely Bones" (???) and called it kitschy, while The Times said it doesn't know whether it's an opera or a musical.  It's sad to me that these so-called music professionals are so jaded that they can't take a work like this for what it is and enjoy it as much as the thousands of people in the audience did.