Thursday, April 21, 2022

FUNNY GIRL back on Broadway

For Sarah Bernhardt, the great actress of the turn of the century, playwright Victorien Sardou wrote the melodrama La Tosca in 1887.  From then on Bernhardt owned this role until Giacomo Puccini turned Sardou's work into one of the seminal operas of the Verismo period, and Maria Callas came along to usurp the role, albeit in its musical form. As time erased the collective memory of audiences who actually saw Bernhardt on stage, and as video of the second act of the opera surfaced, La Callas became the soprano against who all subsequent performers must measure themselves against. Is it the same with Barbra Streisand and her portrayal of comedienne Fanny Brice in the musical Funny Girl?

The musical is back on Broadway at the August Wilson Theatre, starring Beanie Feldstein as Ziegfeld's funny girl. Sarah Bernhardt not only created some of the great stage roles of the 19th and early 20th century, but she was also a film pioneer, and a number of her performances were filmed. Of course, when we watch these early films the first thing we notice is how artificial stage acting of the turn of the century feels to modern audiences. Since Bernhardt's time acting has passed through Stanislavsky and the Method, and Maria Callas on stage, although operatic acting of her time maintained more than an ounce of the histrionics of the past century, feels very modern when compared to Bernhardt's technique. And the camera does not lie. Most people today know Ms. Streisand's girl not through her 1964 breakthrough role in the original Broadway production of Funny Girl, but through the 1968 William Wyler film that earned Ms. Streisand her first Academy Award as Best Actress -- "Hello Gorgeous!" 

So, this is what Ms. Feldstein is up against: the collective memory of a great performance forever preserved in celluloid. In 2016 The Library of Congress selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry. It's an uphill battle that requires all the help she can get. And many come to the rescue with varying degrees of success. First, there's Harvey Fierstein, whose name alone (and his reworking of the original book) helps box office receipts. Ms. Feldstein is also aided by Ramin Karimloo, as her lover Nick Arnstein. He has the charms and good looks that Sydney Chaplin (the original Nick) and Omar Shariff (The film's Nick) both had. Add to this a pleasant singing voice, and you have a memorable performance. The idea of putting Jane Lynch in the role of Mama Brice might have looked great on paper, but unfortunately she is horribly miscast, possessing little of the proper "Yiddishkeit" needed to bring this character to life. Help or no help, when it comes to Ms. Feldstein, I can't help but think that a star is born with this role. She is a trooper: loads of charm, huge energy, good comic timing, and a beautiful, smooth soprano that makes those Jules Stein/Bob Merrill songs come to life. (and no, you won't find the song "My Man" in this revival, oddly enough.) For a musical that tries to please an audience weened on the film this was a brave directorial decision by Michael Mayer, who otherwise has overproduced most aspects of this musical. A true standout are the beautiful costumes by Susan Hilferty: truly inspired creations that bring to life the period in which this musical takes place.

Is it a good revival? Should you go to see it?  I say yes, go see Ms. Feldstein, it's always exciting to see a star in the making. But be aware that the show tries way too hard to please you. The orchestra at times is a tad sloppy, and it is really loud. I don't remember such a loud, miked show. Performers address the audience directly, throw money in the direction of the first few rows near the stage for no reason at all, and confetti falls upon the orchestra section. Great theater tricks to get the Big Black Giant on your side. Most of the time it works, when the strings don't show. This time they do. But what bothered me most were the lights around the proscenium of the stage. They light up time and time again to give those songs that extra oomph they really don't need. Some of the time in rhythm to the music. Tacky! Already the creative team of this production feels that every song in the score deserves a loud, crescendo fortissimo style. It brings them out of their seats during the curtain-calls, but then again what show these days does not end with a standing ovation? Broadway audiences pay a lot for those seats, and they want to be entertained or talked into the illusion that they are being entertained. If a show doesn't get a standing ovation, it's in trouble.

Sunday, April 10, 2022



When the 2021-2022 MET season was announced, this revival of Patrice Chéreau's production of Richard Strauss's Elektra immediately became the one to see. And yet, last night there were two empty seats right next to me in the center of the Orchestra section, row K. Was it the persistent April showers that dominated Saturdays weather that caused some people to stay home, or did they have advanced word that Nina Stemme, in the title role, was suffering from seasonal allergies? This was announced to the audience last night, together with the news that she would go on and sing. The announcement was greeted by thunderous applause. I've been noticing this year that pre-curtain announcements have become the norm at the Metropolitan Opera. While the appearance of a MET staff member's appearance before a performance usually brings jitters to an audience, this season is being used more as a friendly reminder to keep those masks covering one's mouth and nose. 

As expected, the pollen that's floating around everywhere did have an effect on Ms. Stemme. She is onstage from beginning to end, and most of the time trying to rise above one of Strauss's wildest, most savage music played by an ensemble of over one hundred musicians. It is one of the composer's largest orchestrations. It mostly affected her lower notes, although during her opening monologue some of the notes leading to the high notes suffered as well. It might not have been one of Ms. Stemme's greatest performances, but it was great that she attempted it and was able to achieve such high standards. I always marvel at how professional singers can sing over a cold or an allergy and still manage to sing such a poignant performance as Ms. Stemme was able to do last night.

Lise Davidsen as Elektra's sister Chrysothemis continues her New York love fest tour with these performances. What a season it has been for her! Also how well calculated it has been, starting slowly with the role of Eva in Die Meistersinger, then increasing the odds with Ariadne aux Naxos. Her Chrysothemis is the culmination of an incredible season of singing. I have been critical of her that she overpowers all the other singers with her enormous voice. Last night was different. She seems to have been holding back (perhaps because she knew that her co-star was not in good voice), and this was good for the entire production. What a contrast in voices we have in these two women. Ms. Stemme's lush but powerful soprano against Ms. Davidsen's loud, strident, bottom heavy voice (she started her career as a mezzo!). This is what we come to see in opera: two amazing singers approaching those notes from different camps and offering a delicious contrast that also speaks volumes about the characters they are playing.


Mr. Chéreau's production updates the action to the present, and thus makes a firm statement of the universality of this story. His staging, however, comes close to robbing the work of the purpose of some of the music. For example, Klytemnestra's entrance is some of the most evocative music Strauss ever wrote. It is a wild depiction of an old lady whose guilt over the murder of her husband, Agamemnon, is plaguing her. I always pictured this character, weighed down by amulets, stomping in to this music. Perhaps this approach is way too stereotypical for today's audience. Perhaps it is too much like a silent movie villain entering to the tune of brutal, dissonant chords. Here she just walks in. It can be argued that now Strauss's music, meant to accompany a more melodramatic entrance, now sounds over the top. In the pit, Donald Runnicles offered an intelligent reading of this work in tune with this production. The orchestra sounded incredible under his baton.

If you want to see two of the great singers of our time together on the same stage, then do not miss this revival of Elektra.