Friday, July 03, 2020

Hamilton on Disney+

Is this the right time to show Hamilton on the new streaming service, Disney+? Months ago, maybe even weeks ago it would have been the perfect addition to a Fourth of July weekend. But after the George Floyd murder and the countless demonstrations that the country has endured, is a musical about a founding father whose views on slavery were, at best, troublesome the politically correct entertainment that Disney was hoping for?

On the one hand, it is glorious that the show was captured live on the stage of the Richard Rodgers Theatre before the original cast disbanded. Generations to come will have a chance to debate this hip-hop recreation of Alexander Hamilton's life as they watch a pristine 4K capture, showing up close the performances of the show's composer lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda, but of the many actors who started out as virtual unknown and became stars during the initial run of the play: Leslie Odom, Jr. as Aaron Burr, Anthony Ramos as John Laurens, Daveed Diggs as the Marquis de Lafayette, and Phillipa Soo who plays Eliza Schuyler.

After a statue of George Washington was pulled down in Portland, Oregon by angry protesters, having the first president of the United States dramatized and fictionalized in the musical will not please everybody. Of course, the role is played by Christopher Jackson, an actor who considers himself African-American. Although I'm sure he is proud of his work, and his association with Miranda (they go way back to Miranda's first show In the Heights), I wonder what his feelings are about playing a slave owner in this new normal society?

The racial terrain of the United States is more troubled than ever. Trump will be at the Mount Rushmore monument for a Fourth of July fireworks show this weekend. Will the monument be the cause of controversy as the president of the United States stands under the visage of those former presidents whose statues have come down recently?

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

New Woody Allen movie at San Sebastian Film Fest

Rifkin's Festival is Woody Allen's new film, and it will premiere at the San Sebastian Film Festival. Since Spain has been able to flatten the COVID-19 curve and lower it, the festival is set to go in September. According to Yahoo News, the film was "shot last summer in and around the northern seaside resort itself, the story centers on an American couple who come to its international film festival and are swept up by the fantasy of cinema and the charm and beauty of Spain." The movie stars Austrian actor Christoph Waltz, and American Gina Gershon.

Woody Allen was greeted with protests last year when he was shooting the film. As Yahoo News reports "The screening will be a significant moment for Allen who's seen his career stalled as a result of the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment, which revived decades-old allegations he sexually abused his adopted seven-year-old daughter in the early 1990s."

He has denied all claims which were first leveled by his then-partner Mia Farrow. Mr. Allen was cleared of the charges following a series of
investigations.

Yahoo News goes on to report that "the sexual harassment firestorm has fueled a growing backlash against him and last year his most recent romantic comedy A Rainy Day in New York ended up being released in various European and Latin American countries rather than in the US."

Saturday, June 20, 2020

Ian Holm: Dead at 88

Sir Ian Holm, one of the great British actors of stage and screen, died yesterday at the age of 88. That memorable, even disgusting picture above is from one of Sir Ian's greatest successes: Ridley Scott's magnificent sci-fi shocker Alien, in which he plays the mischievous, scheming android Ash, who ends up in pieces towards the end of the film. But he also had the ability to play less showy roles and still leave a memorable mark on the screen. I'm thinking about his incredible performance as Sam Mussabini, the track coach who trains Ben Cross, in 1981's Chariots of Fire. It was a subtle, beautiful performance that won him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting actor.

In 1985 he graced the screen with what is perhaps his most complex character in Mike Newell's neo-noir Dance With a Stranger. Sir Ian nearly stole the picture as a humiliated gentleman caller, emasculated by Miranda Richardson's Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in England.

Sir Ian's recent performances included Bilbo Baggins in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films, as well as David Cronenberg's Naked Lunch, and Martha Fiennes's Chromophobia, in which he had a comic sex scene with Penélope Cruz.

In today's obituary Peter Bradshaw wrote in The Guardian that "there was always a cool, rational, weighted intelligence in Ian Holm. On screen, he was never exactly a heart-on-sleeve performer; he did not need or even appear to want the audience’s sympathies. Holm could be a mandarin and almost priestly presence, but always with a pressure cooker of emotion inside. He brought a commanding strength and a stillness to his work, a less-is-more economy that gave him what few theatrical knights have had since Olivier: equal success on stage and screen. He was a character actor with star quality."

Thursday, June 18, 2020

No Wagner at the Green Hill

The year 2020 will be remembered not only because the COVID-19 pandemic has forced the  Bayreuth Festival to close its doors for the first time since World War II, but, as of this writing, this is the first time that a Wagner has not been at the helm of the yearly Richard Wagner celebration. In early April, the management of the festival announced that Katharina Wagner, great-granddaughter of the composer, was suffering from a "long-term illness" which has forced her to leave her position as artistic director of the festival.

Since 2008, Ms. Wagner has been at the helm of the festival her great-grandfather founded – initially with her half-sister Eva Wagner-Pasquier as co-director, and since 2015 she has bared that responsibility alone.

Over the years, It has also become very noticeable that Ms. Wagner has gained a considerable amount of weight -- never a good thing. The pressures of the job, no doubt, as well as the natural aging process have surely been responsible for this. It could be, perhaps, that her illness, whatever that is, has something to do with it. Reports from Bayreuth assure the public that Ms. Wagner's illness is not related to the Coronavirus outbreak.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

The Castorf Ring is on YouTube

Perhaps no production of The Ring of the Nibelung at Bayreuth has caused so much controversy in the last two decades as Frank Castorf's staging of Richard Wagner's tetralogy. Before he came to the Green Hill to stage Wagner's epic work, Castorf was well-known in Germany for his avant-garde productions at Berlin's second largest state-owned theater, the Volksbühne am Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz. Katharina Wagner knew exactly what she was getting when she hired him. His production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg at the Volksbühne, for example, used only one opera singer (the rest were vocally untrained actors) and the opera narrative was often interrupted by readings of texts by Ernst Toller, a Jewish writer who managed to escape Nazi Germany, and who later committed suicide by hanging himself in a New York City hotel room in 1939. As a result of this production, Castorf's contract at Bayreuth included a clause forbidding him to tamper with Wagner's original words or music.


But that did not stop Mr. Castorf to change just about everything else in the four part music drama. Das Rheingold took place in the USA along Route 66 at a cheap motel. Die Walküre's drama was moved to the oil fields of Azerbaijan, while Siegfried took place under a fictitious Mount Rushmore that replaced the American presidents with famous communist leaders, and Götterdämmerung featured Berlin's Alexanderplatz with its famous World Clock filled, not with tourists, but hungry crocodiles.



What did it all mean? I saw the production in 2017 on my second trip to Bayreuth. By this time the knowledgeable Bayreuth audience knew what to expect. Gone were the boos of opening night that erupted most violently during the premiere of Siegfried. Audiences were not ready for the title character to kill Fafner with a very loud machine gun, and they were not ready to see a nest of reptiles invade Berlin trying desperately to eat the Forest Bird (who is not even supposed to be in the third act!). In 2017 the boos were gone, and so was Castorf who did not take a vow during any of the four evening that I attended.

What Castorf did was to take Wagner's music and adapted it to his own strange story. He even added a mute character throughout the four nights who resembled Squiggy, the funny character played by David Lander in the ABC sitcom Laverne and Shirley.


Just to prove that I'm not making any of this up, you can see the whole bloody thing for yourself. The production has appeared on YouTube, and if you are interested in Wagner (which is why you are here!), and especially if modern opera stagings are your cup of tea, take a look at the embedded Youtube links I have provided.


I suggest you go to it right away. These videos tend to disappear overnight rather fast because, perhaps, they should have never been uploaded in the first place. But such is the nature of the Internet.  Enjoy this production, if such a thing is possible. Oh, and by the way, if you close your eyes you will hear some marvelous singing in all the operas. And maybe this is the best way to "enjoy" Castorf's Ring.

Does anybody know if there are plans to release this Ring on DVD/BluRay?

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Not Diverse Enough

I'm not a very avid or faithful TV watcher. I never saw Friends, but I hear today that its creator, Marta Kauffman is apologizing for her show because it was not diverse enough. This is what she said at the virtual ATX TV Festival:

"I wish I knew then what I know today." Sorry, I just wish I knew then what I know now. I would've made very different decisions. I mean we've always encouraged people of diversity in our company, but I didn't do enough and now all I can think about is what can I do?"

Can't do much about her old show, I'm afraid. She created a show that was part of her reality at that time, for the then reality of the country. Diversity, for better or worse, might not have been a driving force towards the success of the series given her target audience. Like I stated earlier, I never saw the show, but the cast picture above surely tells me that it was a show created by and for a certain young, white audience. So, I'm not really sure why Ms. Kauffman is apologizing now, other than to be topical, and to show that she really cares about the current cause.

Given the new normal, in the near future we might just hear "mea culpas" from Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David.  Although, somehow, I just can't see Larry apologizing.

And surely don't expect an apology from David Chase, creator of The Sopranos... you don't want to get whacked do you? I'm currently discovering this HBO series (like I stated before I am not an avid or faithful friend of TV) and in one of the episodes of the second season two armed African-American criminals steal a car, and force a mafioso and his family (and their pet dog) out of the vehicle. The wiseguy reacts by exploding with the line "Fucking N*****s!"

Would that line have made it past the writer's room these days?

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Gone with the Wind is pulled out of HBO Max

Gone With the Wind, the 1939 multiple Oscar-winning film that many critics view as one of the greatest ever made in the history of American cinema, has been pulled from HBO Max, the new streaming service owned by WarnerMedia.  The film is based on the sole novel by Southern writer Margaret Mitchell whose sprawling Pulitzer Prize winner shows an idealization of the antebellum South, implying an approval of slavery, and presents the Civil War as the result of Northern aggression. Further, in the second part of the film (the movie clocks in at 238 minutes) the years of Reconstruction show how these ex-confederates still yearn for the past, while at the same time going to any extent to recreate their lost world, even if it means taking advantage of the newly-freed African-Americans.

So as not to be accused of blind censorship, HBO Max has decided that the film will be suppressed temporarily -- perhaps until things cool down on the streets of America and the world -- and promises that the film will come back with, to quote an HBO spokesperson, "a discussion of its historical context." What does this mean? Does it mean that if you want to stream the film you have to sit through a preamble round table of experts (that you will be unable to fast forward!) who will explore how the movie is a prime example of America's 1930's racist past? Perhaps something similar to what was done when Warner Brothers released their Looney Tunes cartoon collection on DVD/BluRay with a short introduction by Whoopi Goldberg reminding us that these cartoons are a product of a racist time in our country.

Is it fair to censor a film whose screenplay was worked on by novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald, screenwriter Ben Hecht and Sidney Howard, who ultimately received the screen credit (and a posthumous Best Adaptation Oscar) for his work? Whatever the film's faults it is a work of art which should never be censored, as many different examples of artistic expression were suppressed and burned during Germany's National Socialism days.

And let's not forget that before there was GWTW, there was The Birth of a Nation, the incendiary 1915 silent movie from film pioneer D.W. Griffith. Based on a novel by Thomas Dixon, whose title was The Clansman: A Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan, the film has been controversial from its first showing. On the one hand, it is famous for legitimizing the new art of motion pictures, and giving cinema its grammar, and on the other hand for showing the Klan as the savior of the new South. Any discussion of GWTW must begin with Birth. Louis B. Mayer, the head of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (who distributed GWTW) paid D.W. Griffith $25,000 for the exclusive rights to show Birth of a Nation in New England. Mayer made millions. When making GWTW, producer David O Selznick made sure that the more incendiary aspects of the novel would not be adapted to the screen. Gone was the "N" word, and there was no mention of the Klan anywhere. In the great scene when Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard) is wounded and Frank Kennedy (Carroll Nye) loses his life it's as a result of a raid on a black shanty-town whose members had attacked Scarlet O'Hara (Vivien Leigh) a few days before. I am sure that the raiders wore the white hoods and sheets during that mission, but producer Selznick made sure that they had disrobed before returning to their women folk.

Seems a shame to suppress a film which tried really hard in its day to show compassion for the African American experience. Seems also a shame that modern audiences will not be able to enjoy the performance of Hattie McDaniel, the first African-American actress to win the Academy Award.

While writing this piece, a friend sent me the following information from deadline.com:

"While HBO Max pulled Gone with the Wind –temporarily — from its streaming offering on Tuesday, Amazon has reaped the rewards of the controversy that ensued. The 1939 classic shot to the top of Amazon’s movies and TV bestseller list overnight and on Wednesday occupied the number 1 slot, the number 8 slot and the number 9 slot. It did so in different iterations: DVD, Blu-ray and the 70th Anniversary Edition.
With the exception of what seem to be single copies being offered — and immediately snapped up — on the site, Victor Fleming’s Civil War-era film has sold out in every format. One Blu-ray copy was being offered for $334.01."

I fear the knee-jerk reactions that we have seen played out around the country since the awful death of George Floyd. The same impulsive force that has caused HBO Max to ban the film. I fear that the pendulum swinging so violently to the left will have a direct impact on the possibility of a change of government in the upcoming presidential election in November. How does the old saying go...?

"The road to hell is paved with good intentions."

Thursday, June 04, 2020

No MET Opening Night

The Metropolitan Opera has decided to cancel the September 21 Opening Night Gala of the new production of Giuseppe Verdi's Aida. Even though I had bought tickets to this performance a while back, I was not very hopeful that the performance was ever going to happen, and if it did, how safe would it have been to attend? How can an audience socially distance seating in rows next to one another? Would the dress for the evening have been black tie, mask and rubber gloves? And what about the singing coming from the stage out to the audience? Aida is arguably opera's grandest spectacle (no matter how the new production was planning to tone down that aspect of the work). The very idea of a sizable chorus and soloists launching pellets of saliva across the stage, pass the orchestra pit and into the auditorium would have certainly made the number of pandemic victims spike once more. We have all heard the news reports detailing how a chorus's rehearsal sent many of its members to the hospital, all infected with the COVID-19 virus, at the outset of the plague.

Traditionally, the Metropolitan Opera Chorus returns for rehearsals for the new season in August. Things being what they are currently, and in addition to the massive protests going on in the country, where social distance seems to be all but a forgotten footnote to the national rage, makes it clear that the traditional festive Opening Night, the official New York City beginning of the new art season, just wasn't going to happen.

So, the opera will remain dark and solitary for a few more months. In his letter to subscribers, Peter Gelb wrote about a possible opening December 31st, the traditional day for the New Year's Eve Gala. Let's see what happens.

Monday, June 01, 2020

The Protests Paradox

The picture above tells it all. A cop using violence on a man on his knees who seems to be praying, while the cop's partner, next to him, just looks on. Sound familiar? Protests, ignited by the killing of an African American citizen as a result of police violence, are being met by more police violence. Not all protestors are angels, especially when nighttime comes and the protests morph into dangerous exercises in arson, looting and all-around lawlessness destroying many times mom-and-pop shops that are the heartbeat of a community. Yes, not all protestors are angels, but neither are all cops.  Peaceful protests should be met by peaceful patrolling. Last night, even some police officers joined the protestors. They were not breaking ranks, these gentlemen came to the realization that the corps to which they belong needs to be re-examined, and they wanted to show the world that, despite their uniforms, their hearts are listening to the ones protesting on the other side of the line.

However, if groups of anarchists and dangerous knuckleheads, who just want to take advantage of the situation, loot for their own gain, or commit other acts of lawlessness, then the police must...MUST be strong with them.  Strong, yes, but they must be fair with them as well. Take these hoodlums under arrest and save the streets from the anarchy that we have seen in the past week. 

Sunday, May 31, 2020

The Fire this Time

Can 2020 get any worse? On a personal woe level, it started with the breakdown of my iMac and the loss of data, and it continued, in cinematic level, to a world-wide zombie Apocalypse which still has a grip on us. Not only does it not want to let go, but it has plans to come back when the warm weather dissipates and the leaves start falling. And now we have a situation that we have seen before, but this time, to continue putting it in cinematic terms, it's looking a lot like Conquest of the Planet of the Apes.  You remember!  It's the fourth film of the original series. The one where the apes have evolved and forced into servitude to humans until they can't take it anymore and rebel against their masters. It's brash social satire where the violence of the conclusion of the film is looking a helluva lot like the scenes of violence and destruction that we are experiencing in Minneapolis/St. Paul, and which has trickled down to the major cities of the country. It has been a week of protests, where the peaceful protestors have been swallowed by a bigger subset that has been successful in inciting violence.

Lawlessness begets lawlessness. The kind of violence that we have seen in the streets has a contagious feeling. Fires have been set, and copycat of these disturbances erupted throughout different evenings in different metropolitan areas. The looting of shops in Los Angeles has no place in these protests. The sight of a corner Sol Moscot store being looted by hoodie-wearing teens is both objectionable and disgusting. But the kind of lawlessness we are watching is the direct result of the lawlessness that exists in many of the police departments in our country. Officers, the wild west is over! If your idea of policing comes from a scene in a Warner Brothers gangster film, then you are in the wrong profession.

To be sure, it puts any police department in a precarious situation. The present protestors have no direct or indirect knowledge or tradition of the kind of social protest that the Reverend Martin Luther King preached. It's all textbook stuff from a time before they were conceived. This crowd gets up to a police officer's face and yells a barrage of expletives. They resist when a cop pushes them back with a baton. They spit at cop's faces. And the cops are supposed to take it. When the going gets rough, the only recourse a police department has is to shoot rubber bullets into the ground. Officer's hands are tied. Why? Well, if they bring out the big guns like the water canons that do a fast job of dispersing crowds, if they bring out those scary attack dogs and cavalry horses that have the ability to injure protestors, that police department will not only be accused of police brutality, but it will bring back those days in the 1960's when Southern white supremacist cops used these methods to disperse the architects of the Civil Rights Movement.

And in the middle of all of this, Elon Musk's dream if putting astronauts into space with his SpaceX company became a reality yesterday afternoon when the Crew Dragon rocket launched from Cape Canaveral on its way to dock with the International Space Station. Shades of the Apollo program which reached the heights during the decade of the 1960s while Medar Evers, Dr. King, Malcolm X, and Robert Kennedy were assassinated. President Donald Trump flew to Florida to witness the launching live. Given the murder of George Floyd, SpaceX's achievement seems to me to be a hollow victory.

Last night Don Lemon on CNN challenged the rich well-known and powerful, the likes of Ellen, Oprah and Drake to descend from their ivory tower of privilege, and get down to the crowds and  oppose the chaos and anarchy that the protests have turned into. Why not? When Dr, King was assassinated, the then Mayor of New York City, John Lindsay, walked through the streets of Harlem, as he had often done before, in order to quell any type of rioting. It worked. While neighborhoods In Washington DC, Chicago, Kansas City and Newark went up in flames, New York City remained free of the looting and arson that fell on those other cities.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

The 2020-2021 Metropolitan Opera Season announced


The 2020-2021 Metropolitan Opera season sounds very exciting. It will open with a new production of Aida. This is a risky move by General Manager Peter Gelb and the company since the current production of this work is one of the grandest, and as a result one of the most popular productions in the house repertory. Lately, however, the production has been mostly populated with singers who are either up-and-coming, or who have been up and down the Nile one too many times. The MET will rectify that with a stellar September 21 Opening Night cast that features Anna Netrebko in the title role, Piotr Beczała as Radames (he will try out this role in the Festival Castell Peralada, Catalonia Spain in August of this year a month before the MET opening), and Anita Rachcelishvili as Amneris. Opening night will also serve as the official debut of conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin who will become the MET's new music director.


Another debut which promises to be interesting and, no doubt, controversial is the much anticipated house debut of director Ivo van Hove helming two productions: Mozart's Don Giovanni, a staging that the MET shares with the Paris Opéra, and Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking, based on the novel by Sister Helen Prejean, both conducted by Mr. Nézet-Séguin.


Perhaps the most challenging debut next season is that of Barrie Kosky. Mr. Kosky, who hails from Australia and calls himself a "Jewish gay kangaroo" is no stranger to European theaters where his productions have entertained and have added to the polemic of Regietheater. At Bayreuth, his entertaining and controversial production of Wagner's Die Meistersinger, which focuses on the antisemitic aspects of the work, drew boos from a segment of the audience at its opening night. I have seen this production twice, once in its debut year and again the following year. Boos were heard during my second visit to this interesting vision of the work. At the MET, Mr. Kosky will direct a rare Sergei Prokofiev work called The Fiery Angel. The staging, which comes from the Bavarian State Opera, features the chorus dressed as Jesus, complete with bloody crowns of thorns as well as a devil with a dildo. As critic Michael Cooper wrote in the NY Times "Zeffirelli's Boheme this isn't." Here is a preview of this staging.


The rest of the season features great revivals including Tristan und Isolde, Lulu and Rusalka. Especially great is the return of Richard Strauss's Die Frau Ohne Schatten in its 2001 Herbert Wernicke production and The great John Dexter production of Benjamin Britten's Billy Budd, still going strong since 1978.  Exciting artists taking on new roles in existing productions include Ms. Netrebko's first Abigaile in Giuseppe Verdi's Nabucco, Angela Meade in Vincenzo Bellini's Norma, as well as tenor Javier Camarena in Bellini's other great work, Il Pirata.

An interesting change to the calendar is that the MET will close its doors during the month of February, traditionally a period when audiences tend to stay home, and the company ends up losing money. The season will be extended up to June 5 cutting into the traditional American Ballet Theater season.

It promises to be a very exciting season, and perhaps this might be the right time when New York's conservative audiences finally accept Mr. Gelb's tireless crusade to bring the MET to the 21st century. The MET has been notoriously lagging behind in comparison to the great European houses when it comes to presenting works by visionary, avant-garde directors. Older audiences, as well as the MET's own Board of Directors and patrons, have been reticent to spend money on productions that may not be popular because of the new approach they take to beloved works, and those other works that have become very popular older productions. Luminaries of Regietheater not likely to be seen at the MET in the near future include iconoclastic Catalan director Calixto Bieito. His proposed La Forza del Destino was cancelled. Stefan Herheim's clever Die Meistersinger, which was first staged at the Vienna State Opera, was also cancelled.

Will the MET ever get rid of their popular cash cow Franco Zeffirelli Boheme? Not in the cards thus far, but you never know. I never thought their Aida would go. Now we look forward to a new staging. Let us see how the New York crowd reacts to this major leap forward.

Monday, February 10, 2020

PARASITE wins big -- really big!

Last night, at the 92nd Oscar ceremony, the film Parasite did something no other film had done in the history of the awards. Bong Joon-ho's magnificent thriller was the first to win the International Film category, as well as taking home the Best Film Oscar. Last year Alfonso Cuarón's film Roma, a Netflix production, was also nominated for both, but it failed to win both awards, ending up only with the International Film statuette. Mr. Bong also won in the Best Director category. In his thank-you speech, which he spoke in his native Korean, he thanked Martin Scorsese, who has been an inspiration to the young filmmaker. It was a wonderful example of a relatively new filmmaker thanking the established, older director. This is the first Oscar win for South Korea.

Sunday, February 09, 2020

West Side Story at the Broadway Theatre


In Ivo Van Hove's recreation of West Side Story it's not always easy, at first, to tell the Jets from the Sharks. Each gang is now racially mixed, all are heavily tattooed, and show off some kind of distinctive bling around their necks. As they stand at the apron of the stage at the start of the performance, and sway to the right and to the left, these gang members share the look with MS-13, the Bloods and the Crips rather than with the original teen hoodlums Arthur Laurents had in mind when he adapted Romeo and Juliet and placed it in New York's dangerous San Juan Hill neighborhood, the very place where today Lincoln Center stands, and where Robert Wise shot the 1961 film adaptation of this 1957 Broadway musical. Gone also is the Jerome Robbins choreography, in favor of an even more acrobatic style, thankfully still rooted on ballet, by Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker. You won't find any finger snapping here to signify they are hip cool cats. Far from it. These are dangerous individuals you do not want to meet on a dark New York street.

The Ivo Van Howe treatment is well-known by now: minimalism married to dazzling technology, often using HD video. On Broadway he has re-thought Arthur Miller's A View From the Bridge and The Crucible, as well as last year's dazzling rethinking of Paddy Chayefsky's screenplay  Network starring Bryan Cranston. This time, with a cast made up of mostly young unknowns, he has re-thought this classic musical in ways that often delight us, as well as confound us. The music is still Leonard Bernstein at his finest, minus the song "I Feel Pretty," cut, I presume because it slows down the action. (So does the aria "Un Bel Di" in Puccini's Madama Butterfly). I get the feeling that it's out because of its inherent kitschy feeling. The production also plays in one single act nearing two hours. This is a no-nonsense, tight production, as serious and as stark as a Greek tragedy. No laughing aloud. I'm surprised "Gee, Officer Krupke" remained intact, although it has lost some of its comedic values given the seriousness of Mr. Van Hove's approach. Luckily "America" still works as a marvelous example of great music and witty lyrics by the then young Stephen Sondheim, the only surviving member of the original creative team.


During the 1980's many of the classic shows of the 1950's and 1960's were revived, often with the same orchestrations as well as the same scenic conceptions. In fact, many of the original stars of those shows came back to reprise their past triumphs. Carol Channing in Hello Dolly, Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady, Zero Mostel in Fiddler on the Roof and Richard Burton in Camelot. Yul Brynner made a cottage industry out of The King and I, reviving it over and over again, even as he was dying of cancer. And, of course Jerome Robbins returned to Broadway to direct West Side Story in 1980, using the same scenic, lighting and costume designs employed in the original production. While the world of musical comedy remained stagnant, opera was being rethought in Europe. The 1976 version of Richard Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung at Bayreuth by Patrice Chereau led the way for experimentation in the lyric theater. The practice is very much the current trend. Depending where you stand it's either "Regietheater" (theater of the director) or "Eurotrash."

What is dazzling in this production is the use of HD cameras. The live feed is projected upstage, behind the playing area, on a huge screen that captures the characters up close. It is like watching a movie and a theater piece all at the same time. The camera is vital to the production. The two main sets, Doc's candy store and Anita's sweatshop,  dressed in hyper-realism by Jan Versweyveld (Mr. Van Hove's partner), are upstage with nooks and crannies out of the audience's view. However, the camera follows the action inside these hidden corners and broadcasts it to us revealing the amazing detail. Why these theatrical settings are pushed out of the way, and only allowed to be seen through the camera lens is one of the questions we must ask the creative team.

Ultimately, the real important question we must ask ourselves is if a musical like West Side Story is able to successfully navigate the world of "Regietheater" and still emerge unscathed. Save for a major incongruity: 1950's lingo sputtered by a crowd that looks and behaves more at ease in the hip-hop hood, the answer is a resounding yes. My feeling is that Broadway audiences will accept this modernization of a treasured warhorse as long as the performances are of such amazing caliber, especially Dharon Jones as Riff, and Isaac Powell (who is back after he injured himself during previews) as Tony. Over on the Shark's turf, the dancing mastery of New York City Ballet's Amar Ramasar (with whom I shared the stage years ago when we performed another piece by Bernstein, Chichester Psalms), as well as the talented Yesenia Ayala as Anita and Shereen Pimentel as Maria bring fresh approaches to these characters.

The production should have opened last Thursday, but due to Mr. Powell's injury the official opening is now February 20th. Now Mr. Powell is back and sounding wonderful, especially in his two main songs "Something's Coming" and the ever popular "Maria."

Whatever you think of this approach towards classic musicals, this is a major revival by some of the most talented creative minds working today. Their aim is to bring a breath of fresh air to a wondrous piece of our creative past. By doing so, they revitalize the theater and bring a masterpiece to a new generation of audiences that will be as thrilled as those lucky enough to have been at the Winter Garden Theatre back in 1957. What is now running at the Broadway Theatre is a West Side Story for 2020 and beyond.

Sunday, January 05, 2020

Dracula meets Sherlock meets Who

Bram Stoker's novel has been given the BBC Mark Gatiss / Steven Moffat treatment. Their adaptation of Dracula owes less to the author's original epistolary classic and more to their inimitable jigsaw puzzle writing style that the pair have nurtured in their on-going update of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, also for the BBC.

The story is told in flashback by a dying Jonathan Harker (John Heffernan) who has escaped Dracula's castle, and has landed in a nunnery. He tells his story to a pair of nuns, one of whom seems to know quite a lot about the occult and who tends to treat Catholicism with more skepticism than her deep knowledge of vampires.

At first it all starts out fairly recognizable. Jonathan Harker awaits the count's carriage in the middle of a stunningly beautiful snowy forest. The faint glimpses of the coachman who picks him up, however, promises that things will not end well for this Victorian traveler. Castle Dracula certainly looks creepy enough, and is a clear homage to the scenic design of the Bela Lugosi 1931 Universal film. It all begins to slowly descend downhill with the first appearance of the count. The vampyre is played by Danish actor Claes Bang, and the first time we see him he is a wizened old man, but soon enough with a little bit of sustenance provided by Harker he turns into a young man faster than when Faust signed his contract with Mephistopheles -- but, that's another story.

The problem is that Claes Bang is all wrong for the part. His face is too fleshy, neither possessing the dread that Lugosi emoted, nor the skeletal fright of Max Schreck in Nosferatu. Gatiss and Moffat were going after a post-Christopher Lee look: a Louis Jourdan, Frank Langella type. Instead the writers throw out the possibility of peppering Mr. Bang's dark looks with a dash of old-fashioned creepiness, and instead make him into a bitchy queen. One scene in particular contains the worst, most out-of-place line in the history of any horror movie. After morphing from wolf to man, Dracula  feels the animal's black hair and turns to a group of nuns with the following quip: "I don't know about you girls, but I sure do love fur."

Meanwhile, imprisoned in a castle, a labyrinth right out of the short stories of Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges, Harker soon begins to deteriorate as Dracula makes his nightly visits. Soon enough Harker realizes that he must escape if he is ever going to see his beloved Mina back in London again. No sooner does he find out the secret of the castle's construction that he realizes that the place is also inhabited by several of Dracula's creations: caged prisoners, slowly being turned into vampires, and all of them (including a vampire baby) ready willing and able to bite a chunk out of Harker's jugular.

The best part of this adaptation involves a part of the story which is usually either omitted, or dashed away quickly in previous versions: the voyage of the ship Demeter to London. The entire second part of this series involves this sea voyage. The only problem with this decision is that the writers turn it into an Agatha Christie murder mystery -- a mixture of  Murder on the Orient Express meets And Then There Were None. And what's wrong about this approach? It's not a whodunit anymore, we know who's doing it! Still, despite the clumsy writing decision, this episode has the proper atmosphere, dread, and seriousness that the story deserves.

Good, right?  WRONG!

This episodes also features the most outrageous cliffhanger ever -- something right straight out of a Dr. Who episode.

At this point, I'll say no more. If you've read this far you're either not going to go anywhere near this show, or I have elevated your curiosity so much that you're running to your Netflix. Either way, it's an entertaining bit of fluff, but not the kind of adaptation that this classic deserves. Unfortunately, both Mr. Gatiss and Mr. Moffat, as fanboys, are way too close to the material to actually make a decent adaptation.

I can't wait to see what they do with Moby Dick if they decide to adapt it.