Stage & Concert Reviews

THE AUDIENCE (2015)

Peter Morgan’s play (screenplay for THE QUEEN) directed by Stephen Daldry is based on the weekly meetings or audiences that Queen Elizabeth II had with nine of her Prime Ministers among whom were Winston Churchill, Anthony Eden, Harold Wilson, James Callaghan, Margaret Thatcher, John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, and David Cameron (there have been 12 Prime Ministers at the writing of this play, but not all are covered here). Since these meetings were confidential and no record of them exists, it was up to the playwright to work with the personality traits he knew each of the Prime Ministers possessed in relation to that of the Queen. Advice regarding the political and historical landscape of what was happening at the time was given by Professor Vernon Bogdanor (Emeritus Professor of Government at Oxford University) who was the former tutor of David Cameron who was Prime Minister from 2010 until 2016. However all of what is said is basically based on theory and conjecture, since no one really has any idea of what went on in those meetings, excepting those involved. It does make for a fascinating piece of theatre, with the Queen making it very clear that no matter what the Prime Minister decides she will back him unequivocally, even if her conscience tells her otherwise. Helen Mirren does an exceptional job in portraying the Queen from the age of 26 to 89 and it is not presented chronologically, with appropriate costume, wig and make-up changes happening so fast as to create quite a stir on stage. More than once her two dressers and her wig stylist come on stage as part of the cast to dress her in the knick of time, just as they would dress the Queen. Since the various time periods are not presented in order, it makes the portrayal all the more remarkable, since she is in essence playing many very different facets of the same person going from ages 65 to 26 to 49. The Prime Ministers are portrayed by Edward Fox (Churchill), David Peart (James Callaghan), Nathaniel Parker (Gordon Brown), Richard McCabe (Harold Wilson), Michael Elwyn (Anthony Eden), Haydn Gwynne (Margaret Thatcher), Paul Ritter (John Major), Tony Blair (Rufus Wright), David Cameron (also Rufus Wright) and Nell Williams as young Elizabeth. Since this is a filmed version of the play from the National Theatre of England, it is played at times rather broadly because it was meant to be seen on stage and in person. Actors must project and cannot rely on camera close-ups (even though you have them here) for they are very much playing to a live stage audience and must reach the last row of the balcony, even though they have body mikes. This play was designed as an entertainment and I strongly doubt that much of the action as presented here corresponds to what actually may have happened, so at times I felt it was a bit contrived, but that’s not to say it wasn’t entertaining and a joy to watch. Upon winning the TONY award for Best Actress in a Play, Helen Mirren won the trifecta of acting awards, with an ACADEMY AWARD as Best Actress for THE QUEEN (where she originally played Queen Elizabeth II) and four EMMY AWARDS all for Best Actress (PRIME SUSPECT: SCENT OF DARKNESS, THE PASSION OF AYN RAND, ELIZABETH I & PRIME SUSPECT: THE FINAL ACT) in their respective categories, along with a series of other prestigious awards too numerous to mention. **** 4 STARS      

 

ELEKTRA (2016)

Richard Strauss’ opera with a libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal is based on Sophocles’s ELECTRA is the basis for this rather sordid, brilliant Greek tragedy. Beautifully directed by Patrice Chereau and brilliantly conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen with a beautiful lead performance by Nina Stemme as Elektra, Adrienne Pieczonka as her mother Chrysothemis, Burkhard Ulrich as Aegisth, Waltraud Meier as Klytamnestra and Eric Owens as Orest all prove her equal in both the vocals and acting categories. This is a story not for the squeamish since it’s classic Greek tragedy but is eye opening and beautiful in its execution. I didn’t love it but enjoyed it for what the creative team of opera professionals were trying to do in bringing this story to life. **** 4 STARS

 

ROBERTO DEVEREUX (2016)

Gaetano Donizetti’s bel canto opera is brought to brilliant life in a production staged by Sir David McVicar and co-produced with the Metropolitan Opera and Theatre des Champs-Elysees. Beautifully conducting the Met’s orchestra is Donizetti specialist Maurizio Benini with magnificent performances by tenor Mathew Polenzani in the title role, Sondra Radvanovsky as Queen Elizabeth I, Elina Garanca as Sara and Mariusz Kwiecien as the Duke of Nottingham. Based on a true story of love and misguided betrayal and being an avid fan of British royal history was all the more reason for me to find this story’s plot and execution all the more compelling with a rapturous score, a lavish set by Sir David McVicar and stunning costumes by Moritz Junge. Ms. Radvanovsky is magnificent and it should be pointed out that not since Beverly Sills has a singer sung all three Donizetti’s Tudor queen operas in a single season on a New York stage (ANNA BOLENA and MARIA STUARDA). If you have a chance to either see this production live at the Met or in the HD movie theatre presentation I would encourage you to do so especially if you are a fan of bel canto operas.  ***** 5 STARS        

 

MADAMA BUTTERFLY (2016)

Anthony Minghella’s rather lush production of Giacomo Puccini’s MADAMA BUTTERFLY was revived from 2006 for this current season at the Metropolitan Opera. A truly tragic tale of love and betrayal, I found the first act quite compelling with an amazing score that is both lyrical and beautiful in its execution. I found the plot rather dragged on in the second act with a sense of doom that loomed over the proceedings coming to the inevitable tragic conclusion in the third act. Exquisitely sung by Kristine Opolais in the title role (the character’s name is Cio-Cio-San), Roberto Alagna as Pinkerton, Maria Zifchak as Suzuki and Dwayne Croft as Sharpless with the Met’s orchestra flawlessly conducted by Karel Mark Chichon.
This is one of Puccini’s most beloved opera’s and the Metropolitan’s production will surely not disappoint any of his aficionados. **** 4 STARS   

 

LESCAUT (2016)

Giacomo Puccini’s master work directed by Richard Eyre at New York’s Metropolitan Opera and starring  soprano Kristine Opolais and tenor Roberto Alagna is a story of desperate passion that has been set for this production in German occupied Paris of 1941 instead of the more traditional 1800s. Ms. Opolais who is as much known for her superb voice as her extraordinary beauty, has her work cut out for her. Looking demure in the first act, then outright seductive in the second act, haggard and torn in the third and dying in the fourth and final act, she aquits herself quite beautifully in a role that encompasses the full spectrum of emotions and passions of this young woman. Roberto Alagna as des Grieux is the young student who falls in love with Manon and whose passion proves to be her demise. Beautifully sung by Mr. Alagna who I understand had to learn the role relatively quickly when Jonas Kaufman, originally set to appear was unable to make his commitment due to extenuating circumstances. He had a few months to learn the part but a role of this nature especially one he’d never performed before was quite a feat and he fully rose to the occasion. Manon’s brother Lescaut played by Massimo Cavalletti and Brindley Sherratt as Geronte are excellent as is the Met orchestra conducted by their Resident Conductor Fabio Luisi. **** 4 STARS         

 

​​LES PECHEURS DE PERLES (THE PEARL FISHERS) (2016)

Georges Bizet’s opera hadn’t been performed on the Met’s stage in a 100 years, namely 1916 with Enrico Caruso and Guiseppe De Luca, so it was with much anticipation that this new production was welcomed to the Metropolitan’s stage. Starring Diana Damrau as Leila, the beautiful Hindu priestess pursued by rival pearl divers competing for her hand. Her suitors are the tenor Matthew Polenzani as Nadir and Mariusz Kwiecien as Zurga in a production directed by Penny Woolcock and conducted by Gianandrea Noseda. All sang beautifully in a production that will be talked about for years to come. Due to Georges Bizet untimely death at 37 he is really only remembered for CARMEN, perhaps everyone’s favorite Opera (if you are not in the camp of LA BOHEME) and this piece.  Beautifully staged with a lush and romantic score, it has an opening sequence of pearl fishers diving in the ocean, an effect achieved with dancers on wire harnesses simulating diving and extraordinary lighting to produce a magical effect. A lovely story and score which is rarely performed in this country, it is wonder and joy to view this masterpiece back on stage and hopefully will now become a part of the Metropolitan’s rather large repertory, so it will be seen again in years to come. **** 4 STARS

 

TURANDOT (2016)

Giacomo Puccini’s opera has found a perfect fit with director Franco Zeffirelli’s lush production conducted by Paolo Carignani. Nina Stemme essayed the title role of Turandot, the mysterious princess of ancient China whose riddles trick and condemn every suitor who seeks her hand. Setting off to win her hand, a brave and courageous prince named Calaf, played by Marco Berti, is determined to win her love. His big show stopper in the second act is “Nessun dorma” which is frankly one of the most beautiful songs ever composed in not only the world of opera but of all time.


Rounding out the cast is the magnificent Anita Hartig as Liu, the slave girl and her master, Timur (also Calaf’s father) played by Alexander Tsymbalyuk. The cast sang beautifully in one of the larger productions staged at the Metropolitan and a huge money maker for the company. The sets were magnificent and the Met’s 80 piece orchestra magnificent. The only problem I felt was that Nina Stemme was perhaps a bit too old to be playing a 23 year princess now that she appears to be pushing fifty years of age. On the Met’s large stage it perhaps doesn’t matter, but I saw the production in a high definition transmission to motion picture theatres which tends to destroy the illusion that you can get away with on stage. But apart from that it was a magnificent production and why patrons are so passionate about grand opera. **** 4 STARS

 

IF/THEN (2014)

This Broadway musical with a score by Tom Kitt and book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, the duo that brought us the brilliant musical NEXT TO NORMAL, and directed by Michael Grieff, is an interesting though not wholly satisfying musical in it’s approach to story telling. It tells the story of Elizabeth, a forty year old woman returning to Manhattan after the last fifteen years in Phoenix and a failed marriage. However, it treads a very different and unusual path, choosing to tell her story in dual mode, with two alternate storylines based on a decision she makes early on in the show (it’s all linked to her decision in answering a phone call). At times a bit confusing with scenes alternating between one of her lives or the other (and there were times when I felt there was actually a third arc happening in Elizabeth’s life). This show originally seemed to exist as a vehicle in bringing the wonderful Idina Menzel back to Broadway, after her Tony Award winning turn as Elphaba in WICKED and the question is would the show have a life without her.  Well, I just saw Ms. Menzel’s understudy, Janine DiVita, who was excellent in tackling a role that just about everyone wanted to see Ms. Menzel playing and proving that yes, it can stand on it’s own somewhat dubious merits. LaChanze, the Tony Award winning star of THE COLOR PURPLE, plays the role of Kate, a kindergarten teacher and Elizabeth's best friend and who is absolutely wonderful, almost stealing the show single handedly from Ms. Menzel. But this show exists as a star vehicle for the character of Elizabeth and does deliver as long as the actress essaying the role can transcend some of the trickier plot points which can be a bit confusing at times. I should also point out that both Anthony Rapp as Lucas, (and one of the original stars of RENT) and James Snyder as Josh Barton were both wonderful in their roles.
 

Though I liked the show, I didn’t love it, and was disappointed that Idina was ill the day of performance, since this was a main reason I went, which is never a great criteria for seeing a show. But seeing the line outside the theatre from people seeking to return their tickets, the management gave us all the option of seeing the show again, when Ms. Menzel was appearing. My having flown in from out of town precluded me from doing this at this time however.
Reviewed at the Pantages Theatre, Los Angeles, Ca. 12-19-15. *** 3 STARS

 

THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY (2014)

This is the opening of the National Tour of the Broadway production, with a book by Marsha Norman (Pulitzer Prize winner for ‘night Mother) and music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown (3 time Tony Award winner including this score) based on a novel by Robert James Waller. I had such low expectations for this show, that I had actually complained to Center Theatre Group of the low quality of productions being offered this season. Well, boy was I wrong. This is musical theatre of the highest caliber with a cast that I’ve come to understand are quite better than those originating the roles in New York. This is such a beautiful production with an exquisite book along with a great score and performers that are giving performances of a lifetime. A story of such universal resonance that shows both the joys and tragedies of everyday life and the meaning of true love. The staging was beautifully rendered by Bartlett Sher, Tony Award winner for Lincoln Center Theatre’s revival of South Pacific, that I felt truly privileged to be able to partake in this groundbreaking piece of American theatre.     
A special mention should go to the musical’s two lead performers, Elizabeth Stanley playing Francesca in exquisite style with the voice of an angel, and Andrew Samonsky who is so good he takes your breath away, with a singing voice that can only be described as being sent from God. If you have an opportunity to see this show on it’s national tour please do so, for you will surely not regret it. And bear in mind that certain changes were made from the Clint Eastwood film that starred Mr. Eastwood and Meryl Streep, though it is essentially the same story, it will still move you beyond belief.  Reviewed at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles, Ca. on 12-20-15. ***** 5 STARS 

 

THE CHRISTIANS (2015)

Lucas Hnath’s play which was directed by Les Waters was intriguing because I rarely see plays that overtly deal with Christianity at Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles and dare to tackle some rather controversial topics in the Church today. The play opens with a rousing choir singing a beautiful hymn, causing one to forget that one is actually in the Mark Taper Forum and not some Evangelical Church somewhere. Once the service starts and the rector, Pastor Paul starts on the topic of God’s infinite forgiveness and how we as Christians often times judge one another with a set of values that are all too human and faulty at heart. Using an example of a young Muslim man who ran into a burning building to save his little sister, only to be consumed by the flames himself once he had saved her. Since it appears to be a given in Evangelical circles that anyone who does not except Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior and dies without this belief will go to Hell, Pastor Paul opines that this is not true, since none of us can truly judge another, especially when they were simply not schooled in Christian beliefs or even if they were. Life is a mystery but man is essentially good and God is an ever loving presence that does not judge or condemn in the same manner that we as humans do. He comes to suggest that Hell does not really exist, since the original term, Gehenna, meaning garbage dump in ancient times, was were criminal’s bodies were thrown after execution and has simply been misinterpreted by man throughout the centuries. For every person to show exception to what he says with Biblical verses to support their claims, Pastor Paul can counter with additional Biblical verses to disprove their belief system. This sermon proves to create a schism within the Church community and gradually erodes the very center of this Church’s membership and its core beliefs. I thought this was a thought provoking, well written and marvelous play that will provide much food for thought for everyone from Fundamentalist Christians to the most Progressive type of Christians out there. After all, Jesus Christ was a rebel for his time and was killed by the established religious leaders of his time. Very much like today’s fundamentalist religious leaders who only see in terms of black and white, while condemning anyone with a belief system at all different from their own, essentially proving themselves to be little more than modern day Pharisees.  Reviewed at the Mark Taper Forum, Los Angeles, Ca. 12-20-15. **** 4 STARS

 

THE MAGIC FLUTE (2006)

Julie Taymor’s production of an opera by Mozart is a truly spectacular and beautiful production, augmented by beautiful sets, costumes, and puppetry which is Ms. Taymor’s specialty, having previously directed THE LION KING on Broadway. Mozart’s music is the hallmark of this opera which is often times used as an introduction for children to the world of opera. This is a fantasy tale of the quest for true love told with an utterly charming whimsy of character by all involved. This production marked the first initial live broadcast by the Metropolitan Opera into movie theatres throughout the world and is one of the reasons the program is still going strong after ten years. Beautifully sung by Matthew Polenzani as Tamino, the Prince on a quest, Ying Huang as Pamina, the Princess in distress, Rene Pape as Sarastro, the mysterious high priest, Nathan Gunn as Papageno the unwillingly heroic bird catcher and Erika Miklosa as the Queen of the Night.    This production is like a dream to watch and is readily available on DVD in addition to being screened in theatres by Fathom Events this Holiday season. You should make every effort to watch and experience this opera, even if you claim not to like the art form, for Mozart and Julie Taymor will not disappoint. ***** 5 STARS

 

LULU (2015)

I had the opportunity of viewing the live Metropolitan Opera’s production of LULU starring Marlis Petersen in her final performance in the title role on Nov. 21, 2015. This opera was written by the German composer Alban Berg, who died while composing the third act, with a libretto by Frank Wedekind. Efforts to finish the score based on Berg’s notes were hindered by his widow and only completed after her death by the Austrian composer Friedrich Cerha in 1977. First presented as an incomplete work by Zurich Opera in 1937, this present version was premiered at the Theatre National de L’Opera, Paris in 1979. The Met first premiered this opera in it’s original fragmented state in 1977 and now presents it in the three act version. Berg’s score employs the twelve tone technique pioneered by his teacher Arnold Schoenberg, which is not only very difficult to learn and perform but rather difficult to listen to especially when you are talking about an opera that has you in the opera house for four and a half hours with two thirty minute intermissions. LULU is the drama of a young woman who sexually and emotionally dominates a large range of willing partners/victims both male and female, which was notoriously daring for it’s time, reflecting the  German avant-garde movement of the twenties and thirties. Lulu herself is a victim of society who seems to embody all the frightening and disturbing elements of the human condition, combining a primal animal instinct with the modern amorality of the 1930s.   


I do not consider myself an expert of this type of opera and found the production very difficult to sit through and absorb. In other words I did not enjoy this rather tortuous story with nary a discernible melody to be heard over the course of the production. I give credit to the performers namely Marlis Petersen, Susan Graham and Johan Reuter for being able to perform such a tortuous work, let alone learn it.   ** 2 Stars  for the production **** 4 stars to the performers  

 
THE SOUND OF MUSIC (Center Theatre Group, Ahmanson Theatre, Los Angeles, CA.) (2015)

Jack O’Brien’s reimagining of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s classic musical is a misbegotten affair on a number of levels starting with the miscasting of the show’s lead with an actress/singer whose inexperience brings the production to the level of community theatre and only two notches above the acting ability of Carrie Underwood who played Maria Rainer in NBC’s live television event in 2013. Ben Davis who plays Captain Georg Von Trapp appears to be channeling Christoph Waltz throughout the production, who actually would have been  an excellent choice to essay a role made famous by Theodore Bickel in the original stage production and Christopher Plummer in the classic film. Mr. Davis is an excellent actor and singer, having seen him previously in LA BOHEME, which netted him and the cast Tony Awards for Best Ensemble, an honor rarely given and 110 IN THE SHADE at the Pasadena Playhouse. He is quite a force himself as an actor and singer but seems to have been directed to play this role by someone else’s standards. Two of my favorite songs from the show are sung by the Baroness Schrader, Max Detweiler and the Captain, have been re-orchestrated here and are sung with little conviction or energy. The actress who plays the Baroness, Teri Hansen, appears  to be doing an impression of Susan Tyrell (FAT CITY) in her interpretation of the character or was directed to play it to this effect and is not as effective as it might have been.  The individual who is the real stand out in this production is Ashley Brown (Broadway’s original MARY POPPINS) playing the role of the Mother Abbess and though really too young for the role, is so good in this part, that she steals the show from everyone else and receives the loudest ovation at the curtain call. If it was up to me, I’d cast her in the role of Maria and though a bit older than  twenty year old Kerstin Anderson, would still be years younger than the forty something Mary Martin who played it excellently in the original Broadway production netting her a third Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical.   I love this show, having seen the original production of the National Tour with Florence Henderson when I was eight and having viewed it with many actresses playing the role of Maria, including an excellent Marie Osmond in a production that was far superior to the one on view at the Ahmanson, and getting ready for the National Tour which I feel is a play to take it to Broadway.  This production’s standout qualities are the production design which I thought was just beautiful and a group of very talented actors that for some reason I feel were misdirected by three time Tony Award winning director Jack O’Brien, who appears to have misfired his many extraordinary talents. Perhaps, Ms. Anderson needs to work herself into the role (she has a lovely voice and demeanor), since this is her first professional Equity show and get over what looks like a case of uncertainty and nerves. Normally I’d say this would work for a character dealing with a startling real life change of plans, but it comes off as simply amateurish and a bit out of her league for a production originating at Center Theatre Group and charging Broadway style prices (my matinee season ticket was $130.00).  


Whenever I see an inferior production of this most magnificent piece of musical theatre, it makes me realize how brilliantly directed the film was by Robert Wise and perfectly cast with Julie Andrews, Christopher Plummer, Eleanor Parker, Richard Hadyn (these four should have all won Oscars and swept the acting categories at the ‘65 Academy Awards), Peggy Wood and the most brilliant of child actors I’ve ever seen perform together in a group. I have to admit though that the time may be right for a show of this nature to reappear on the theatre scene right now, what with mass shootings happening every week in this country and the economy teeter tottering again on the verge of a financial collapse. The production is well produced with a large orchestra and truly beautiful sets and backdrops that can’t help but lift the spirits despite some set backs in its' execution.  ** 2 STARS for this production  ***** 5 STARS to the shows original creators  

 

APPROPRIATE (2015)

This marvelous play written by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins is currently on stage at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles through Nov. 1st and every effort should be made by serious theatre goers of going to see this production. A play about family dysfunction, secrets and how we survive, it is a microcosm of American society as a whole and how we come to justify and sometimes rewrite history in our own minds to make the errors of the past more palpable to digest.


A cast of actors that are a wonder to behold particularly Melora Hardin, best known to many of you from the TV show THE OFFICE. She’s been acting since she was a child and has been given a great role that allows her to play a character with many shades of grey. Fine support is provided by Robert Beitzel, David Bishins, Zarah Mahler, Grace Kaufman, Will Tranfo and Missy Yager.


The Taper is the perfect theatre for a show such as this, intimate but large enough to provide room for this rather grand set of an old Southern colonial home that is on the verge of ruin. Fine direction by Eric Ting makes this a production that people will be talking about for years to come. The first thing that came to my mind after viewing it was AUGUST OSAGE COUNTY, and though that is the superior play, this piece is certainly still able to stand on its’ own merits. A truly fine piece of theatre. **** 4 Stars

 

BENT  (2015)

Directed by Moisés Kaufman, this revival of Martin Sherman’s 1978 play about the Third Reich’s persecution of homosexuals has never been one of my favorites but is given an excellent revival at Los Angeles’ Mark Taper Forum, where it runs through Aug. 23, 2015. I always felt it deeply reflected the time that it was written in the late 1970’s and represented the gay community more of that time than the period of the mid to late 1930’s. However this production is beautifully staged with outstanding performances given by Patrick Heusinger (Max), Andy Mientus (Rudy) and Charlie Hofheimer (Horst). This play also appears to be more relevant today than when it was originally produced in large part because of what has happened with the recent Supreme Court decision on same sex marriage. No matter what your thoughts on the subject may be, this production provides much food for thought and discussion.  ****4 Stars 

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​Shania Twain Rock This Country Concert

I attended the Shania Twain Rock This Country Concert at the Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif. I was in the seventh row from the thrust portion of the stage and dead center so I was very close. I am a big fan of Ms. Twain’s and know just about all of her songs, but found the volumn was so loud that I often could not tell exactly what she was singing. She was very energetic but looked a bit tired on stage and her make-up was a bit too severe for one so beautiful. I suppose because she is performing in large arenas that the volumns’ level is meant to heighten the experience and the make-up is accentuated for the benefit of those sitting very far away. However I tend to think it detracts from the overall experience, since many are viewing the concert on the overhead monitors which provide close-up views and many audience members wore ear plugs.


The staging was quite spectacular, with the use of fire, CGI (computer graphic imagery) and pyrotechnics quite imaginative. She puts herself all out there and does not disappoint the audience. She comes off as a very caring person, stopping the concert to admire a small child in the front row and snapping a picture with the family as well. She likes contact with the audience as she tours the auditorium at one point on a platform so that folks that are quite a distance from the stage can have a close-up and personal view. One of the highlights of the evening was when she sits atop a saddle that is on the end of a retractable girder that takes her out over the audience while singing the song UP, her last major hit single.


I applaud her return to the spotlight, having been devastated by her husband (Robert “Mutt” Lange who was also her Manager and co-produced and co-wrote many of her songs) leaving her for her assistant and best friend. However her personal life seems to have settled down and she is happily remarried to her best friend’s former husband (yes that best friend). She calls it gloriously twisted, but apparently he was as much in the dark as she was when his wife left him for Shania’s husband and just as devastated.     


A special mention should be made of her band (especially the fiddle players) which she features prominently, both musically and vocally (she did not have back-up singers) though her opening act, Gavin DeGraw joined her onstage for one number.  Shania says this will be her last tour and made a real point of saying this tour would be very different from her Still The One/Las Vegas Concert that she performed over a period of two years. She did not disappoint as anyone who saw this concert can well attest. She apparently wants to concentrate on producing new recordings (a new record is due later this year) and enjoying her life.