Category: Reviews

Christy Altomare and company of Anastasia. Photo Courtesy of Joan Marcus.

 

When the long-anticipated Broadway adaptation of the cartoon classic Anastasia (1997) debuted under the bright lights of the Broadhurst Theatre, the audience was tightly packed and diverse: thick Eastern European accents were offset by the squeals of American women in their teens and early 20s, eagerly anticipating their favorite story brought to life. Indeed, all of the audience members were likely intimately familiar with some form of the story behind Anastasia— whether the “true” history of the ill-fated Tsarevna Anastasia Nikolaevna, allegedly murdered by the Cheka (Bolshevik secret police) in 1918, or the whimsical tale of 20th Century Fox’s “Anastasia Romanov(a),” with its talking bat and mad villain Rasputin hunting the Romanov family to near-extinction, with its train crashes and hexes and wild run to the streets of Paris— but few could predict what would happen when the lights grew dim and these two stories intersected in a new translation of the classic tale.

With the introduction of Anastasia to the stage, Rasputin gave way to the Russian Revolution of 1917 (specifically the February Revolution and the fall of Winter Palace) and the rising Russian Communist movement; the new adaptation brought new “villains” to the story. But as Anastasia grew closer to real life, so did its conflict. Instead of employing the black and white morality shown in the movie, the Broadway play Anastasia thoroughly developed its villains and their drives. This idea of gray-moral conflict was embodied by the well-rounded character development of the main antagonist Gleb (Ramin Karimloo), who faced a moral dilemma threatening his identity even as Anastasia came to recognize her own.

Despite these major changes to the plot, the majority of the characters and music that made Anastasia the movie a success remained in the play. In fact, not only were iconic songs like “Learn to Do It,” “Journey to the Past,” and “Once Upon a December” beautifully rearticulated, but also the original songs like “My Petersburg” performed by Dmitry (Derek Klena) and “Stay, I Pray You,” which featured nearly the entire cast, were instrumental in exposing the raw nerve endings of a country torn apart by revolution and giving new depth to the characters.

“Stay, I Pray You” was a particularly timely addition for today’s audiences, given its thematic focus on the struggles of leaving a war-torn country to seek refuge away from one’s home. Dmitry and Anya (Anastasia) may have been full of hope, but they, along with the refugees they accompanied, still called:

Stay, I pray you.

Let me have a moment,

Let me say goodbye;

Harsh and sweet

And bitter to leave it all,

I’ll bless my homeland

Till I die.

The eyes of the cast at this point twinkled with tears in the bright stage lights. The audience was not immune from the sudden onset of emotions.

Anastasia is inherently self-aware: a nostalgic story centered around nostalgia; a story about respecting the past while growing to make new decisions respecting its past and growing into new decisions. And for the audience members not satisfied by this balance of whimsy and historical realism, a near-topless Derek Klena and a bejeweled Tsarina, stunning graphics that expanded the small stage into a platform crossing international boundaries and spectacular Russian choreography filling the stage in thrusting limbs and fluttering skirts— these seemed to have been enough of a distraction from defamiliarizing plot elements.

In the course of the night, very few technical or performative issues arose. The opening of the first scene, featuring a young Anastasia and her Grandmother the Grand Duchess as the Grand Duchess says goodbye before departing to Paris, was a bit choppy, seeming to be a near-direct quotation of the movie lacking the vivid character of the rest of the play, and Ramin Karimloo (Gleb) sounded slightly nervous at the play’s start; that is, Karimloo’s first two vocal performances were a bit more breathless than breathtaking. However, these minor issues were quickly eclipsed by the interactions between the young Anastasia and her family, the collapse of the Grand Duchess at the news of their deaths (a tear-jerking performance), and Karimloo’s heart-stopping second reprise of “A Simple Thing,” in which his voice persisted where many other actors would have failed.

Altogether, Anastasia overshot all expectations of success and managed a seemingly impossible feat with its reconciliation of history with fantasy. Its near-perfect opening performances can only improve as the actors and actresses continue to bring the streets of Leningrad (ne Saint Petersburg) to our very own West 44th Street, between 7th and 8th Aves.

Image via IDBD

Gloria Estefan was a trailblazer. She was one of the most successful female artists of all time, the most successful Latin-American crossover artist, and her voice is a force to be reckoned with. So when I took my seat at the Marquis Theater to watch her story come to life onstage, I had high expectations. But alas, I was disappointed.

The show On Your Feet: The Story of Emilio and Gloria Estefan has all the promise in the world. With songs like “Congo,” “On Your Feet,” and “The Rhythm is Gonna Get You,” the writers had a lot to work from. I practically congo-ed into the theater, eager to dance and clap along to Gloria’s famous beats and ready for Broadway’s liveliest show yet. But instead, I found myself falling asleep.

Broadway has had a history of success with these kinds of musicals. Jersey Boys, which was based on Franki Valli and the Four Seasons, is a smash hit. Mamma Mia!, written around ABBA’s famous songs, has been solidified as a classic. But for On Your Feet, it felt like Broadway gave up.

The opening number of On Your Feet is slow, boring, and actually quite confusing. For the first ten minutes of the show, scenery and time shifts at a mile a minute, and we are left extremely disoriented. First, a young Gloria awkwardly dances with strangers on the street while her mother jokes about the laundry, then solemnly sings to her father who is serving in the Korean War, and then all of sudden she’s all grown up and taking care of her MS-stricken father. Emilio enters the scene incredibly quickly, and before we know it Gloria is singing with his band and they fall in love without even a hint of a glitch. The entire first act happens quicker than you can imagine (and yet still manages to drag on with only the slowest of Gloria’s songs!) The act’s ending number, “Conga,” Gloria’s biggest hit, gave me hope that the second act would be livelier.

But of course, it wasn’t. The start of Act Two continued on in the same way, skipping so many years and milestones. All of a sudden Gloria is the biggest female artist in America, but we are given no details about how she got there or what her life is like. Only ten minutes into Act Two she is hit by a truck and the remainder of the show follows her road to recovery, once again choosing the slowest songs in her repertoire. In the final number, a coda after the story ends, the cast belts out “On Your Feet” and showcases some epic dance moves, but it was only the second number that had me smiling.

Of course, the show did have its highlights. Ana Villafane, who plays Gloria, is fantastic, and her pipes sound eerily similar to Gloria’s. The dialogue is well-written, well-acted, and actually quite funny. Gloria’s abuela, played by Alma Cuervo, is the show’s most entertaining and sentimental character, and overall the show’s arc is gripping. Where On Your Feet fails, however, is in its music choices and rough transitions. Perhaps if it had followed Jersey Boys’ example and blended much more fun with the serious, it might have been more exciting to watch. My Grade: B-

 

The Must-Watch List: If you are looking for a show to see, I’d definitely recommend getting tickets to Andrew Lloyd Weber’s School of Rock. The show will blow your mind with its insane music and witty dialogue, and you’ll be floored by the completely live musical performance by the show’s star children. If you loved the movie, you’ll love the musical even more. My Grade: A

 

Photo Courtesy of Joan Marcus

After a previously sold-out run off-Broadway, Lynn Nottage’s breathtaking play, Sweat, opened recently at the Studio 54 theater. The show, based in Reading, PA, focuses on deindustrialization and its lasting ramifications. In our current political climate, Sweat’s arrival could not be more timely. The show forces its audience to fully delve into the lives of blue-collar workers in America. In a country becoming increasingly divided, as evidenced through the 2016 Presidential Elections, Sweat explores and explains with breathtaking eloquence and clarity the malaise that has spread through many segments of the nation.

For those who have not seen the show, it focuses on the lives of friends working together at a local steel mill. Slowly, as jealousy flares and the workers realize their jobs–and the cultural status that came with them–are dwindling, they each begin to turn on each other. In trying so hard to save themselves and clinging to the work ideals many of their past family members have learned to expect, they are forced to find new work as the impacts of globalization and deindustrialization affect their town.

The show’s strong text is paired with skilled actors and a mundane yet detailed set. The play is primarily set in the local bar, where audience members watch the lives of these workers unfurl as if they were flies on the wall. In each interaction, one can see the close friendships of the characters. In particular, the show focuses on the close bond between two friends: Tracey (played by Johanna Day) and Cynthia (played by Michelle Wilson). In initial scenes, the two characters laugh and drink, jovially sharing stories about their students and their factory jobs, just like normal close friends do. However, after Cynthia is promoted to a role off the factory floor, jealousy flares as Tracey copes with not getting the promotion she truly wanted. As this jealously increases, tensions rise with conversations about race (as Tracey becomes convinced Cynthia was promoted solely for being Black) and the responsibilities of friendships.

To learn more about the show and how it came to be, we sat down with its playwright Lynn Nottage who–in addition to playwriting–is a Professor at Columbia’s School of the Arts. Nottage, originally from Brooklyn, studied at Brown University for her undergraduate degree and later studied and taught at the Yale School of Drama. She has won two Pultizer Prizes and received both the Guggenheim Fellowship and MacArthur Grant.

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Photo courtesy of Joan Marcus

There’s something fun brewing down on 52nd street. Opening April 17th, “Groundhog Day” is creating a comical storm on Broadway in the August Wilson theater. Based off the the 1993 movie, the show has been adopted into a two act musical with music and lyrics by Tim Minchin (known for his working in writing the music for Matilda).

Andy Karl as Phil Connors. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Andy Karl as Phil Connors. Photo by Joan Marcus.

For those who have not seen the show, Groundhog Day centers around a shallow, arrogant weatherman named Phil Connor, played by Andy Karl. Connor, known for his weather reports, is once again sent to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania to cover the annual Groundhog Day event. Frustrated and disillusioned with being sent to a small town to report on a holiday that directly contradicts his own profession, Connor makes his disdain for being sent to report on the holiday abundantly clear. He irritably storms around the town, ignoring those around him and dismissing his cameraman and assistant producer Rita as they record

that the groundhog saw its shadow, meaning there’ll be six more weeks of winter. Later that day, he finally gets excited again — about leaving back for “anywhere but [Punxsutawney].” However, both weather and the local police overshadow his plans as the storm he predicted would not hit the town ends up dousing the small town with a heavy helping of snow and closing down all the roads and highways. Despite his best attempts to leave the town (portrayed with a miniature van circling around the stage), he is forced to spend one more night in little old Punxsutawney.

The cast of Groundhog Day. Photo by Joan Marcus.

The cast of Groundhog Day. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Upon waking up, however, Connor is confused as everyone in the town seems to be talking about Groundhog Day, even when it should be the next day. As he quickly realizes, he’s stuck in a loop — every morning he wakes up in the same bed and breakfast on Groundhog Day.

Throughout the show, Karl perfectly portrays Connor. As the days keep on repeating (marked with characters repeating lines and scenes happening again and again), even the audience can feel his frustration. Even when Connor goes to quite drastic measures to end the cycle, he fails. Eventually, Connor learns to use his “curse” for a greater good — he starts trying to improve the lives of others and is forced to finally think about those around him. Like he says in the show, no one realizes “how deep my shallowness goes.” But as his character develops, we see a new side of him as he learns to focus on being a better person and lifting up those around him — even if they won’t remember it the next day.

Andy Karl and Barrett Doss in Groundhog Day. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Andy Karl and Barrett Doss in Groundhog Day. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Likewise, his associate producer and later love interest Rita Hanson (played by Barrett Doss) is equally as splendid. Not willing to give into just any love interest coming her way, Hanson plays a strong woman who knows what she wants and refuses to settle for less. Hanson tells Connor, “You’re the lucky one–you get to try new things everyday,” when he tells her that he is stuck in a loop. It makes the audience think about what they would do if they could do anything without the consequences of facing tomorrow and the aftermath of a bad decision. Yet, sometimes you want to move forward in life, no matter the regrets you have. Time is a theme that the audience can’t seem to escape while watching the show: it leaves us with lingering questions about our own choices and how we use our time. Focusing too much on success or the future can make us ignore enjoying and contributing to the present.

“Groundhog Day” is a special show. Within two and a half hours, the audience watches the characters grapple with insecurities, rejection, love, and more in a show that is brilliantly hilarious and equally thought-provoking. With its mix of upbeat songs and an incredible story, this is a show that everyone should run and see. As Rita Hanson sings in the middle of Act II, “If I had my time again, I would do it all the same,” and when it comes to whether I would go back to see this show again, I’d have to agree.

Tickets to Groundhog Day can be purchased from here. The show also maintains a daily lottery for those interested in winning discounted tickets.

Renée Fleming as the Marschallin in Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier. Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

Renée Fleming as the Marschallin in Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier. Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

“So beautiful,” whispered a captivated concertgoer behind me. Normally, any talking—or sound for that matter—is hurriedly and aggressively shushed by a “serious” audience member at the Met. Renée Fleming, however, seemed to provoke an admissible exception.

Fleming’s whirlwind return to the Met Opera’s season premiere of Der Rosenkavalier (music by Richard Strauss, libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal) electrified the opera community. Last week, Fleming scared many by announcing that she would soon be leaving the opera stage. Fleming has since nixed the retirement idea, but the effect of the buzz was obvious: fans came in large numbers just in case this would be the last time that they could do so. In attendance as well were some of Fleming’s collaborators, who have sung with her over the years–coming to support her previously-presumed last run at the Met.

Fleming, for her part, plays the Marschallin: a middle-aged member of the Viennese aristocracy who sighs in anguish over the cruelness of aging. Fleming knows—and loves—the role. In her first solo at the end of Act 1, Fleming smartly addressed the silver rose—a symbol of youth and forthcoming happiness—with an imploring, wistful tone quality. Shortly after, her sweet, yet innerly despairing voice seized the audience’s empathy.

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Renée Fleming as the Marschallin in Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier. Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

However, notwithstanding the positive aspects of Fleming’s work tonight, I do prefer her 2010 performance of the same role (Columbia faculty and students can find it through CLIO under the keyword “Met Opera on Demand”). In that performance, she lived the Marschallin: solemn tears slowly streamed down her face at the end of the “Mein schöner Schatz” duet in Act 1. Her phrasing and sepulchral tone made for an unforgettable moment.

Tonight’s conductor, Sebastian Weigle, again chose problematic tempos. The prelude, for example, was much too fast. Here, the music is declarative, demonstrative—overly confident and grandiose. Yet, Weigle seemed incredibly anxious, gesturing with extremely quick circular motions (so fast that his arms were just a blur to my eyes). By taking a quicker tempo, the music sounded too hectic and lost its appropriate gusto.

Weigle made a similarly poor decision in the last minutes of Act 3. Here, silvery chords in the high strings, winds, and percussion flutter downward. The descent should be reflective—it is the end of the opera!—and ethereal. However, it felt tossed-off, illy cared for–herky-jerky and uneven. I recognize that I was critical of Weigle’s lethargic tempo decisions for Fidelio, yet here he seems to have gone in the opposite direction. I do admit however, that future runs of the production might produce better results.

The Met orchestra impressed me —as it routinely does—with its stamina. In the middle of the third act, I heard a clarinetist–presumably either Inn-Hyuck Cho or Anton Rist–flawlessly execute a rapid lick that flickered between the clarion and altissimo registers. The passage was followed by a sustained, pianissimo high note. Both of these sections are incredibly difficult to play when with fresh energy. They’re almost a miracle after two and a half hours of continuous music.

Robert Carsen, the producer of the Met’s new take on Der Rosenkavalier, replaces the dusty, Beauty-and-the-Beast-esque setting with a bawdy production set when the opera was written (1911). Topless prostitutes pursue and are pursued by lustful Viennese men; Octavian, the Marschallin’s young lover, grabs his partner’s behind (what a great way to say, “Welcome back, Renée!”); and Sophie, Octavian’s new love, carelessly dances across one of her father’s howitzer (oddly placed in the living room of their modern palace).

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The playfulness of Octavian–performed by Elīna Garanča–and the Marschallin–sung by Renée Fleming–on display in Act 1. Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

Admittedly, I was skeptical when I learned about Carsen’s decision to set the third act in a brothel. Typically, it is staged in an inn, a “house of ill repute.” However, the text—the same one used for the inn setting—actually translates well in the new environs: it is believable that Sophie’s dad Faninal calls Octavian, who is disguised as Mariandel, a slut and it makes sense that Octavian assumes a baser dialect as a working-class Viennese woman (some funny lines include “Whad’ya mean?” and “I ain’t gonna drink no wine.”)

The one aspect of the brothel that felt most uncomfortable, however, was the onstage jazz quartet. Prostitutes pantomimed and synchronized fake playing on the clarinet, saxophone, double bass, and accordion. Not only was their supposed music not like the orchestra’s actual performance, but also the quartet implied 1920s Europe more than the 1910s. The production had a 1920s feel to it elsewhere as well, Octavian’s flapper-like costume in Act 1 being another example.  

I found Carsen’s incorporation of the Zeitgeist—especially Freudian ideas—rather compelling. When Sophie sings about her upcoming marriage, dreamlike clones of Sophie and her groom-to-be waltz behind her. Sophie is bathed in a yellow spotlight—the light of the real world—while the dancers behind her are enveloped in purple—a hue of the inner, thought world. Carsen’s decision illustrates how an individual’s inner thoughts and desires are experienced as real, even while awake.

Elīna Garanča as Octavian and Erin Morley as Sophie in Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier swear their love for each other in front of an imposing howitzer. Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

Elīna Garanča as Octavian and Erin Morley as Sophie in Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier swear their love for each other in front of an imposing howitzer. Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

Although this was seemingly The Renée Fleming Show, there are, of course, more singers in Der Rosenkavalier. Elīna Garanča as Octavian embodied the wide range of conflicting emotions of her character. At the end of the last act, Octavian is caught between the Marschallin and Sophie, unsure of who he should turn to. Here, Garanča’s expressions and voice illustrated Octavian’s distress well.

Erin Morley as Sophie sounded quite warm in the upper register, especially when she built up toward it. Unfortunately, she was sometimes overpowered by the orchestra, especially during a fast, staccato passage in Act 2. Overall, I found that her diction was unintelligible at times, but balance could be to blame.

Günther Groissböck–a holdover from Fidelio–swaggered with pride, aggression, and self-absorption as the predatorial Baron Ochs. In Act 2, he engaged with Sophie in a vocal battle of sorts, his crescendoing vocal presence overpowering his soon-to-be wife (who he caustically likened to an “unbroken foal”). The Ochs is easily one of the easiest-to-hate characters in opera.

But the night was Fleming’s. At curtain call, the audience enthusiastically expressed joy for her return and relief for her operatic stay. It was her voice—combined with the prowess of the Met orchestra—that led my fellow concertgoer to exclaim, “So beautiful.” It is for these cherished musical moments that we go to the opera and for which you should let yourself come too.

Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier runs through May 13, with casting changes. The opera will be broadcast live May 13, at 12:30 PM, on WQXR 105.9 FM. Information and ticket listings (including student and same-day rush tickets) can be found online at metopera.org.