Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Other Side of Eden

Photos by Nate Jensen at
Click on images to enlarge

Eden Espinosa’s career is like the childhood fantasy of being on Broadway come true.  Plucked out of theme park shows and into the original company of Wicked, she could never have known as a standby and ensemble member during the rocky rehearsals and previews in San Francisco that in just a couple of years her name would become synonymous with the starring role of Elphaba on the West Coast (or that the writers would hone the sprawling, disjointed show into a generation defining spectacle!).  She left the Broadway production of Wicked to star as the title character in the Broadway premiere of Brooklyn.  That unjustly short-lived production served as the catalyst for her acclaimed return runs in Wicked; two in San Francisco, multiple re-engagements on Broadway, and finally originating the third U.S. company in L.A. at the Pantages Theatre.  Crown all this with her starring as Maureen in the final Broadway company of Rent (which is available on DVD) and it’s clear that her first five years in New York were the actualization of that childhood fantasy. 

Unlike other women of the theatre with her voice type Eden possesses a sound that is truly beautiful and completely even in all registers.  Her belting is like a laser beam that cuts through the biggest orchestrations, but she also has a rich and velvety chest register, and a surprisingly strong and lovely head voice.  In the old days she would have been classified as a Mezzo Soprano, but make no mistake, unless she’s pulling back for a musical effect there is nothing “mezzo” (half) about Eden 

All of these vocal qualities were in full force when she performed her show “Celebrating Life: Remembering Eva Cassidy” at New York’s newest and classiest cabaret Below 54.  Even though we have friends in common her final show there on September 17 was my introduction to Eden in live performance and it was remarkable for several reasons.  First I’d like to ask “How could I possibly not have known about Eva Cassidy my entire life”? Well it seems that many people didn’t, and it was only posthumously that her musical legacy gained popularity with the masses.  She was primarily a cover artist who recorded many genres of music – folk, jazz, pop, country, and blues – and had a purity of sound that was uncommon.  For further info I will suggest to you what Eden said to me after her show, “Go look her up on and discover her for yourself, it will change your life”.  I did look her up and it did change my life, but that’s for another review.  

Another remarkable thing was Eden's encyclopedic ability to represent each style of music with authenticity and musical meaning (something Cassidy has been heralded for) throughout the entire evening.  She was supported by a terrificly versatile band of four who I am certain any singer in the city would commit a felony to work with.  I’ve seen my share of Broadway women perform in concert or cabaret and witnessed many an attempt by said women to 'contemporize' their image with pop/rock music.  Sometimes it works, but frequently stylistic limitations don’t allow the artist complete fruition of musical ideas; basically they just belt it.  Eden’s performance was based soundly in musical ideas, and in such a chameleon-like way she altered her own vocal production to serve the music fully.  And even though she used all of Eva’s original arrangements Eden did not straight jacket herself into replicating the other singers mannerisms or style, but as a true artist would, she discovered the musical subtleties and meanings herself while staying true to the spirit of the woman she was paying tribute to.  The breadth of style she presented would confound another singer but there was success with every number throughout the 90 minute program. 

A funky and bluesy “Drowning in the Sea of Love” opened her 10 song set, and it immediately set the tone.  No Mr. Schoenfeld, we won’t be singing any show tunes tonight!  With all the instinct of a great musical actress, no, a great musician, she was right on the beat, every musical change given correct emphasis…basically Eden GOT DOWN!  Then she went right into a cigarette smoke and Manhattan cocktail tinged version of  "Wayfaring Stranger" and a juicy arrangement of the R&B "Time is a Healer" (with her all male band providing nice back up vocals too).  She told the audience she was suffering from allergies, perhaps to excuse any rough singing that might come up, but she needn’t have worried because there wasn’t a wrong note to be heard.  It was then on her fourth number “I Know You by Heart” where the magic really began.  It’s one of those ballads that can transfix you with the beauty of the lyrics and the melody and the meaning, and it brought out the most beautiful part of Eden’s voice, a burnished, tender sound infused with the bittersweet sentiment of the song.  It was during this song that a transindental moment occurred where she seemingly made time stand still as only the truly gifted are able to do.  In pin-drop silence we all breathed every word together, and everyone at my table surreptitiously brought hand to cheek to wipe away tears by the end of it.  It was exquisite.  Then off came her high heels and she planted herself comfortably kneeling on the floor to sing a gleaming “Fields of Gold” delivered in a sort of half-lit, soft sound that gently rode the arpeggios in the accompaniment; the epitome of “heart-felt”.  Her song set rounded out with The Beatles “Yesterday”, Fleetwood Mac's “Songbird” (my personal favorite),  and a sexy/sassy riff on the Peggy Lee standard “Fever”.   But then Eden pulled off something that impressed me greatly; she got her audience to participate vocally and rhythmically in the most comfortable way, devoid of the usual embarrassment that we often feel when clapping or singing along at a live show, as she delivered a swingy “Wade in the Water”.  When introducing the song she casually instructed the audience about how to participate and I am certain by the end of the number she made even the most uneasy audience member feel fully a part of that song through finger snapping and back up singing.  After her final selection, a Sunday Sermon-like “Oh, Had I A Golden Thread” which brought out her exciting big voice, she pulled off another feat I could not have foreseen – a pop/folk version of “Over The Rainbow” (a Cassidy classic that would ultimately begin her posthumous fame in England) that made me want to listen anew since it usually is a bleak comparison to Judy's original, but here as with the entire set it was full of musical surprise and variety.   

Eden broke a predetermined stereo type with this show; I could see a few of her fans who weren’t expecting such an evening making a mental adjustment as she announced right off the bat she would not be performing Broadway music - "No 'Defying Gravity' tonight folks", and she told an anecdote about a band member questioning if she was really a “Broadway” performer because of how much feeling she had for the different styles in the program.  I came away from this cabaret concert definitely enriched by Eden’s choice of material, and true to her word I have been a bit obsessed with Eva Cassidy ever since. 

In this day and age of electronic music when not only the instruments are synthesized but voices too, when people think that the beat of a song is all that matters and we don’t have many popular voices valued for interesting, skilled singing, it is a true ray of light and a breath of fresh air to have an artist such as Eden Espinosa perpetuate the sacred flame of true live performance and illuminate the greatness of the one and only Eva Cassidy.


Eden’s first solo album is due out in time for the holidays and interestingly enough it is a selection of modern Broadway tunes performed with a pop sensibility.  She is recording it on the heals of these shows so she is sure to be in top form, and the concept of treating each of them as a stand alone song that you might hear on the radio sounds intriguing.  I will try my best to get any advanced information on the song list, but we all might just have to wait and be surprised upon it's release.  Either way I think I’ve found my stocking stuffer gifts for this Christmas!

And if you'd like to know more about the incredible story of Eva Cassidy you can see The Eva Cassidy Story on ABC Nightline here:

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Blair Underwood and Nicole Ari Parker in A Streetcar Named Desire

In the 26 years I have lived in Manhattan Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire has been revived on Broadway roughly once each decade.  Even with top notch productions and star-studded casts they just can't seem to get it right.  Alec Baldwin and Jessica Lange did not generate any electricity onstage and came off as passionless in 1992.  John C. Reilly was horribly miscast opposite an indulgent Natasha Richardson in 2005.  Both of those productions tanked at the box office, leaving me to wonder if this play can't be produced due to overfamiliarity with its original, iconic performances.  However in 2009 the Aussies got it right in a searingly emotional production starring Cate Blanchett that played Washington, D.C. and BAM which completely blew me away.  The same cannot be said of the current revival which opened tonight.

Regarded as a pinnacle of the American theatre “Streetcar” is arguably Williams’ masterpiece.  The provocatively themed work served as an excellent vehicle to showcase the talents of young Marlon Brando (he was 23 when the play debuted) who epitomized American "Method acting" and helped bring it to the  forefront of theatre and cinema.  The "method" involved portraying real emotions based on sense memory and directly opposed the old style "presentational" technique which indicated feeling, and Williams' writing spectacularly captures this change in the way he depicts his main characters.  At first glance Blanche may appear the gentile, fluttery Southern belle, but through absolute verisimilitude of writing layers of humanity are uncovered and she becomes accepted and pitied by the audience despite her hysteria and character flaws.  And it is precisely the lack of this hysteria that sinks the current production. 

Nicole Ari Parker and director Emily Mann have apparently worked in tandem to strip Blanche of every bit of crazy and as a result the entire evening plays off-kilter.  Parker's Blanche is still too much the lady, not emotionally devastated enough that the home and life she once knew have been torn away through the indiscretions and deaths of her ancestors.  I felt that her portrayal almost had feminist undertones, that she could handle all that had happened to her and accept her subsequent promiscuity, and while I can admire an actress wanting to put her stamp on a role, she went very much in the wrong direction here.  Blanche DuBois simply cannot be played as a strong Southern woman who only breaks down in the end; this robs the story of tension and makes the climactic scene play as melodrama.  When Parker's Blanche understands what it is to drink too much Southern Comfort every night and entertain bus loads of boys from a military base all to mask her inability to cope with death and the demise of her lifestyle then she will have my interest.  Unfortunately that is not going to happen this time around at the Broadhurst theatre.

A further misstep of director Mann is that she does not trust the script and feels the need to interpolate extraneous business to enhance the show.  I found no reason for the (weak) depiction of a New Orleans funeral at the top of Act 2, and was perplexed by her need to incorporate dance movement, as though she felt the play would drag without a pick-me-up.

When the main character is so off it is difficult to properly evaluate the other actors, but I will commend Daphne Rubin-Vega for juxtaposing unbridled sexuality with strength of intelligence and giving us a Stella who I believed would leave Stanley tomorrow if his outbursts went any farther.  Wood Harris as Mitch also gets points in my book for some very unexpected line readings and a unique take on a typically bland role.  Blair Underwood, whose presence I am certain is the raison d'etre of this production, is a good if not very original Stanley.  I would have hoped that casting leads with different ethnicity would distance the actors from the long cast shadows of their predecessors, but apparently Brando's original reaches quite far.  From his first scene where he strips off his shirt and displays a ripped, muscular physique the hoots and catcalls from the audience tell exactly why much of the largely female audience came to see the play.  What Underwood does bring is a strong sexual magnetism and a powerfully dangerous masculinity that made me concerned for the women at each of his outbursts, and the final rape scene was as brutal as I could imagine it being. 

Fundamentally though this "Streetcar" is hard to accept simply because I don't know if there is a precedent for a family of African decent to have a mansion for hundreds of years in Laurel, Mississippi.  I appreciated the experiment, but I believe this play would become more interesting with truly interracial casting; Stella and Blanche cast as white, with Stanley and Mitch cast as black.  However as a marketing ploy the current production will hopefully bring new audiences to the theatre who might otherwise never get to experience Williams' classic story.

Visit or phone (212) 239-6200. The Broadhurst Theatre is located at 235 West 44th Street.

Production photos courtesy of the official web site