27

 

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Written by Ricky Ian Gordon and Royce Vavrek

Directed by James Robinson

Briskly paced and delivered with brio, MasterVoices new production takes a refreshingly playful – though by no means sugarcoated – look at some of the key figures of 20 Century culture. Clocking in at 90 minutes with no intermission, the opera derives its title from the Paris home where American expats Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas lived and worked for 40 years. It’s a fitting appellation, both because the domicile housed the first great collection of modern art, and because many public and private dramas were played out within its walls.  History, both elevated and barbaric, came to came to call at 27 Rue De Fleurus.

The show begins during the heyday of the budding Modernist movement. Against a backdrop of empty picture frames, Gertrude (Stephanie Blythe), entertains Picasso, Matisse, Man Ray and other art world luminaries. All the artists are eager to have their work anointed by Stein, but co-hostess Alice (Heidi Stober), does a bit of eye rolling. Geniuses, after all, don’t always make the most considerate guests. Nonetheless, she’s happy to see Gertrude collecting works of art that will one day become iconic while working on her own poetry as well. With the advent of World War, the soirees cease for a time as coal and food become scarce. In the prosperous 1920s, the Salon once again becomes the center of an artistic renaissance. Hemingway and Fitzgerald, accompanied by their wives, drop by to drink (and drink, and drink) and discuss new forms of literature. Sadly, Europe again is dragged into war, and Paris falls prey to German occupation. Under the Third Reich, being Jewish, American or openly gay can get a person killed. Gertrude and Alice are all three, yet they make it through the 1940’s unscathed. That’s because Gertrude has befriended high-ranking intellectuals in the collaborationist Vichy government and works as translator of for its rightwing leader, Marshal Philippe Pétain. It’s a puzzling choice for Stein, especially considering that she could have gone back to the States, or slipped away to neutral Switzerland. Whatever the moral cost, Stein survives with her legacy intact: Unlike many other cultural troves, 27 Rue De Fleurus escapes being looted by the Nazis. Throughout it all, Alice remains fiercely devoted. Even death cannot sunder the bond between them.

Whether Gertrude’s collaboration with fascist panjandrums was motivated by passion or pragmatism is a subject still hotly debated by Stein scholars. But composer Ricky Ian Gordon and librettist Royce Vavrek aren’t here to pronounce judgment. Their goal is, like Picasso, to paint a warts-and-all portrait of their complex subject. They rise to the challenging admirably, with Gordon’s richly harmonic sound palette encapsulating the bright and dark aspect of Stein’s personality. Likewise Vavrek’s lilting lyrics, many of them reminiscent of Stein’s own poetry, evoke a variety of moods ranging from the heady energy of artistic revolution to wistful reflections on the ravages of time. Blythe’s warm, powerful mezzo-soprano centers the ensemble while lyric soprano Stober, like her character, exhibits affecting purity both individually and in counterpoint with her partner. Under Ted Sperling’s energetic baton, the leads are given ample support by the Orchestra of St. Luke’s and a 150- member chorus. Bass-baritone Daniel Brevik, baritone Tobias Greenhalgh and tenor Theo Lebow gamely morph into a rich array of characters. James Robinson directs with humor and heart, while painterly touches are provided by scenic designer Allen Moyer, costume designer by James Schuette, and lighting design by James F. Ingalls.

27 was performed on October 20th and 21st as 21, 2016 as part of MasterVoices 75th Anniversary Celebration New York City Center, 131 W. 55th Street, New York, New York. Website: http://www.mastervoices.org

 

 

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HEISENBERG

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Written by Simon Stephens

Directed by Mark Brokaw

 

Relationships, especially in their early stages, have something in common with theoretical physics. Results defy predictions, and the perspective of the observer influences the outcome of the experiment. At least, that’s what Simon Stephens seems to have had in mind when he named his quirky new two-hander after the father of the Uncertainty Principle. For all that, HEISENBERG doesn’t delve as deeply as it should into the subatomic particles of the human psyche. But its endearing protagonists and seasoned cast still provide enough to satisfy audience who seek lighter fare.

At a crowded London train station, American divorcee Georgie Burns (Mary-Louise Parker) walks up behind septuagenarian Alex Priest (Denis Arndt) plants a kiss on his neck. She claims to have mistaken him for someone else. Like many things Georgie will say through their relationship, this may or may not be true. Either way, the ice has been broken and a kind of courtship follows. Sounding more like the Many Worlds Interpretation than any of Heisenberg’s theories, bubbly Georgie does tells numerous different versions of her life story. Alex, courteous but reticent, reveals little more than the fact that he’s single and makes his living as a butcher. That’s enough information for Georgie to go on, she shows up a few days later at his shop. At first Alex feels rattled by the unexpected visit, but Georgie’s charm and onslaught of chipper chatter wears down his resistance. Putting aside his concerns about their age difference, he agrees to take her out to dinner. The date goes well and sex follows. It’s only after the lovemaking that Georgie comes out with a disturbing request. She’s in trouble, or so she says, and needs financial help. Alex begins to wonder begins if all her little fibs are indicative of a more serious tendency towards dishonesty. Perhaps he’s nothing more to Georgie than an easy mark, her attraction to him a cynical sham. Alex, rusty after years of solitude, is torn between two daunting options. If he gives the relationship another chance, he risks getting hurt. If he lets her go, he’ll probably spend his twilight years alone. After a bit of soul-searching, he musters the wherewithal to do the right thing.

Arndt and Parker are well matched as a duet. His gentle baritone, inflected with a trace of Irish brogue, is an apt compliment to her nasal American coloratura. Their unflagging authenticity, seemingly spontaneous, is clearly the product of exhaustive exploration. Stephens endows his characters with intelligence and curiosity that elevate the show above more commonplace portrayals of May-December romance. His language is especially effective when illuminating the odd insights known only to people who spend a lot of time alone: lyrical corners of the world most people don’t take the time to notice. Plot-wise, though, the play’s dramatic stakes could stand to be raised considerably. Georgie and Alex seem more in like than in love, resulting in an evening of theater that is more pleasant than it is riveting. It would be intriguing to see Stephens apply his considerable skills to a more probing look at the challenges two people face when struggling to find a common language — especially in a world where, to quote the play’s namesake, “the reality we can put into words is never reality itself.”

HEISENBERG continues through December 10, 2016 at the Samuel J Friedman Theatre,
261 West 47th Street, New York,  NY. Tickets: http://www.telecharge.com /Broadway/ Heisenberg/ Overview

90210! THE MUSICAL!

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Written by Bob & Tobly MsSmith

Directed and choreographed by Donald Garverick

The latest in a cavalcade of TV and movie spoofs by kitsch mavens Bob and Tobly McSmith, this high voltage pasquinade delivers exactly what its title promises. Sporting a a tirelessly upbeat cast and a pop-inflected score by Assaf Gleizner, the show neatly compresses 10 seasons of the legendary teen soap opera into a brisk two acts. Everything about the series is fair game for ridicule, including the nepotism that made Tori Spelling a star and the crow’s feet and receding hairlines that appeared on members of the “teenage” cast. Of course, it’s all done with a generous dollop of affection and nostalgia for a time when network TV served up guilty pleasures with unabashed avidity. Obviously, some of the japes will go over the heads of audiences who didn’t grow up watching the original series But even the uninitiated will get the gist of the story and recognize its archetypes.

When their folks take jobs on the West Coast, twin siblings Brandon Walsh (Landon Zwick) and Brenda Walsh (Ana Marcu) relocate to posh appearance-driven Beverly Hills. The culture shock has them reeling at first. Raised in Minneapolis, these kids have never seen anything like boozehound Steve Sanders (Seth Blum), popularity queen Kelly Taylor (Alexis Kelley) or inwardly-sensitive bad boy Dylan McKay (Alan Trinca). Surrounded by all these “drama zombies”, Brenda and Brandon don’t have an easy time holding on to their Midwestern values. The twins’ nurturing parents, Jim and Cindy (played by Hensonesque puppets in the plays’ most sidesplitting beat), try to keep the kids on track with a bit of homespun advice. But their frequent bathrobe malfunctions only serve to make things even more awkward. Nonetheless, the Minnesotans gradually begin to feel accepted by the cool clique. They are even invited to hang out at the Peach Pit, a diner run by the avuncular Nat (Blum again). Brenda joins a movement dedicated to making sure Tori (Caleb Dehne) is allowed to graduate. Brandon finds a sense of purpose by working for the school newspaper, where he befriends studious editor Andrea Zuckerman (Blum yet again). Also on hand are freshmen dweeb David Silver (Thaddeus Kolwicz) and his sidekick Scott, whose fondness for playing with his father’s rifle foreshadows a tragedy to come. Soon enough, it’s Brandon and Brenda’s turn to welcome a new student. Emily Valentine (Marcu) proves to be as psychotic as she is fashionable, and when she sets her sites on Brandon, fireworks follow. The drama never ends at West Beverly High.

Director/choreographer Donald Garverick keeps the energy level high, and adds extra parodic flavor by incorporating 90’s dance trends into the show’s deliriously silly numbers. The performers, all of them gifted with Broadway-level chops, are clearly having fun letting their inner teenagers come out and play. They are all well cast in their roles, though for very different reasons. Marcu, for example, is a near dead ringer for the young Shannon Doherty, whereas the gravel-voiced Blum is (to put it mildly) cast against type as Andrea. They are aided by Carmen Mendoza’s spot-on costume design.

The show’s grade point average suffers only in one area: lyrics. Some of the rhymes are extremely clever, as when Nat raps that Drinking Zima will get you “more bombed that Hiroshima.” Unfortunately, though, the writers don’t maintain this level of wit throughout the show. The rhymes can get a bit sloppy, and there are missed opportunities to go further with the characters’ specific vocabularies. Clearly Bob and Tobly have what it takes to ace this subject. They just need to grab some NoDoz and hit the books.

90201! THE MUSICAL! continues through November 19, 206 at theater 80, 80 St. Marks Place, New York, New York. Tickets: https://web.ovationtix.com. Episodes of Beverly Hills 90210 are available for streaming on Hulu.com.