Archive | March, 2012

Our Review of HGO’s ‘The Bricklayer’

16 Mar

By JOHN DeMERS

Some years back, in one of the better self-assessments on record, Houston Grand Opera decided there really were problems with performing only works by “dead European white guys.” All kinds of problems, from the “barriers to entry” of where you perform and how much the tickets cost to what this says about millions of other lives that aren’t dead or European or white. Houston Grand Opera decided to act as though it belongs to Houston, which recently was cited as the most ethnically diverse city in America.

In addition to debuting the first-ever mariachi opera a while back, HGO moved ahead from that self-assessment to commission works that, both together and separately, reflect the many languages and skin colors of its population. To say that The Bricklayer is Iran’s “turn” is simplistic but true, since anything touching on Iran these days must reflect daily newspaper coverage of its theocratic regime, its nuclear agenda and, yes, even the youth uprisings that have attracted global attention and at least nodding support.

With music by American composer Gregory Spears and a libretto by Farnoosh Moshiri (based on her short story), The Bricklayer tells a tale that’s probably all-too-familiar among Iranian-American families. An older generation comes to Houston to live with a younger generation, which naturally enough has a still-younger generation that’s even more American. The reason: the aging parents’ son has recently been executed by firing squad as he stood against a brick wall, presumably for taking part in some act of protest. Three generations of this family have different layers and levels of suffering, and this brief (37-minute) chamber opera serves up little more than a vignette of their efforts to carry on.

Spears’ music makes only limited efforts to incorporate traditional Persian sounds into the score, at least as they connect with non-Persian ears. Occasionally, the plaintive sound of the ney makes it through, but mostly you hear familiar instruments like piano, harp and violin. What won’t be familiar to many opera-goers is the atonal, modernist quality of this music, which sidesteps ongoing melodies at any cost and sometimes seems to treat vocal line and its accompaniment as unrelated beings. Presumably they are related, at least to Spears’ way of thinking, but they don’t seem to recognize each other much.

With direction by Tara Faircloth, the story seen onstage seems merely a piece of something larger. It suggests, it evokes – but it doesn’t ever resolve. It tells you what it’s about in some often-lovely lyrics about tulips growing from the blood of young martyrs (healing from tragic loss, hope for the future, the human quest for freedom), but it doesn’t have much to say once it raises these issues.

The performances are fine, especially Christina Boosahda as Houston resident Bita, Eve Gigliotti and Jon Kolbert as her suffering parents, and Bray Wilkins as the mysterious and presumably imaginary Bricklayer who promises that someday there will be no more brick walls for children to be shot down against. But somewhere near the end of this opera’s oh-so-limited running time, we should have heard why the new generation (named Shahrzad, after ancient Persian storyteller Scheherazade) can, should and must live to preserve her family’s story of suffering and rebirth. And we might have heard that same little girl, on record early as hating to speak to her grandfather in Farsi instead of English, say something meaningful like “Grandpa, speak to me in Farsi. I don’t know why, but I love the sound of the words.”

Operas need to be more than family snapshots. So much about The Bricklayer seems to be happening before and especially after the flash.

After its HGO debut last night at the Wortham Center, the opera will be performed tonight at the Arab American Cultural & Community Center, Sunday at the Nowruz Festival at Discovery Green and Tuesday at Baker Ripley Community Center.

Our Review of ‘Red’ at the Alley

9 Mar

By JOHN DeMERS

As written by John Logan and directed by Jackson Gay, Red is an intense, painful and masterfully entertaining look at what in this world passes for artistic genius. By spending 90-plus minutes in the New York studio with abstract expressionist Mark Rothko as he struggles to complete the first great commission of his career, we understand a little better the costs associated (often so dramatically, in life after life) with that gift.

Red is a two-person drama that’s been a huge hit on Broadway (at the beginning, starring film veteran Alfred Molina) and the winner of most playwriting awards that exist. It is, in every sense of the term, “talky” – since relatively little happens during the show, and most of that is mixing paint, changing out pictures, stretching canvas over wooden frames, priming surfaces, the day-to-day drudgery that makes art possible. But oh what monumental talk it is.

Capsuling the two years between the first day on the job of a young assistant (who of course wants to be an artist himself) and the day he gets “fired,” Logan’s play nails this single relationship with a laser: the bursts of humor intended and otherwise, the slow warming-up to familiarity with each other’s life stories, the evolution of protege into a “human being” (one of Rothko’s favorite phrases) with his own unique vision. For all but the final scene, the artist does the bulk of this talking, to the point the script could almost be the sort of monologue actors choose for auditions. Boastful, angry, filled with conceits, delusions and occasional self-mockery (“Yes, all artists should starve. Except me.”), profoundly envious (“Pollock, Pollock, Pollock!”), Logan’s version of Rothko rings absolutely true, whether we know a thing about the artist or his work, or not.

Accomplished New York actor Scott Wentworth, who actually played Romeo at the Alley way back in 1981, makes the lead role his own, pouring in some of the tragedy he knows from doing so much Shakespeare. As this Rothko is acutely aware (some would say: too aware) of his place on the continuum of great artists, writing and acting styles rooted in the classics are right for the moment. From the instant we notice the aging Rothko sitting silently before his canvases with a drink and a cigarette as we file into the theater, we know we’re encountering an actor living in his character’s skin. For long periods of time watching Red, in fact, we forget that Wentworth isn’t Mark Rothko. Only the never-quite-forgotten fact that Rothko killed himself in 1970 keeps us rooted in the real.

Young actor Jay Sullivan is perfect as assistant Ken, he of the parents who were murdered on a snowy-white day when he was 7, he who gets things off on the totally wrong foot by answering Rothko’s inquiry about his favorite artist… “Jackson Pollock,” he who gets to grow under the gaze of Rothko as father figure – even as Rothko insists that’s precisely what he’s not. “I’m your employer,” the great man rants more than once. Every Shakespearean in the house knows what “protesting too much” sounds like.

Gay’s direction is swift and spare, accurately reflected by Takeshi Kata’s set design showing a single high-ceilinged room in which large-format art can be done, studied, redone, reconsidered, fussed over – and never quite sent forth into a world of audiences Rothko describes with clinical, often hilarious depredation. If you’re the least bit interested in 20th century art, or any kind of art, or any kind of artist, there’s much to learn from and enjoy by watching the Alley’s production of Red.

Photos by Jann Whaley: Scott Wentworth and Jay Sullivan

Our Review of ‘Love Never Dies’ on Film

8 Mar

By JOHN DeMERS

I wish I could tell you to go see Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Love Never Dies on Broadway, but it never made it there. I wish I could tell you to go see the musical in London, but it closed. Really, I wish I could tell you the sequel to Phantom of the Opera is on its way to the Hobby Center, but as of now it’s not. Truth is, I’d begun to despair of ever seeing Love Never Dies – until last night.

The London production opening in 2010 was received by critics on that side of the pond (and this being Andrew Lloyd Webber and his Phantom, on this side as well), as a bunch of great songs in search of a story. A reworking or two helped mightily along the way, I’m told. And I’m persuaded that’s the case, since the show’s original narrative problems come through even on the CD filled with some of this composer’s grandest music.  Last week and again last night, a filmed version of a reworked production from Melbourne, Australia, was shown in movie theaters across America; and based on what I saw, there’s no reason on earth this show shouldn’t find the admiration it deserves.

Of course, talking about the things that happen to a musical on its way to fame and fortune are pretty much “inside baseball.” A thousand little things are tweaked – I mean, really little things – but they end up making a huge difference. In the case of Love Never Dies, the problems all related to plot and character, never to music. Yet plot and character are, for all the hit songs a composer can pour in, what make audiences fall in love.

In Love, ten years have passed since the terrible events of the original Phantom, ending with the destruction of that opera house in Paris and the death (or disappearance) of the man  behind it all. Opera star Christine has married Raoul, and the couple has a 10-year-old son named Gustave. Raoul also has a major drinking and gambling problem, which keeps the family perennially in debt. But…

On the far side of the Atlantic, at a beach destination called Coney Island, a mysterious figure known only as Mr. Y has developed an early 1900s version of the theme park, an entertainment spectacle filled with music, thrill rides, freak shows and dancing. Did I mention music? And it’s this Mr. Y who lures Christine, Raoul and Gustave across the ocean for one performance, promising the typically huge American-style payday. Is Mr. Y an opportunity to pay off all those debts and start over fresh as a family? Or is his the remembered voice of Christine’s past, her very real present and, just maybe, her future?

Interesting stuff, really. And in the Melbourne production directed by Simon Phillips with remarkable sets and costumes by Gabriela Tylesova, highly entertaining and seductive stuff as well. I’m glad Phillips and the composer decided to work together on making this film (which, happily, will be available as a DVD).

Love Never Dies is a wonderland of a musical score, arguably Andrew Lloyd Webber’s best, and that’s saying a lot. There are two classic blockbuster songs: the Phantom’s “Till I Hear You Sing” (filling in for “Music of the Night,” which admirably is not cribbed from once) and Christine’s title aria (basically Puccini on a plate). There are several other fine lyrical moments, some of which see Christine singing with her young son, which doesn’t happen in musicals much. And there are several other fun, lively production numbers evoking American popular music of the early 20th century, clearly a fascination of any British composer who, like this one, bothers to listen.

I can’t tell you where or how Love Never Dies will turn up next. But I can promise you that as sung in Melbourne by Ben Lewis as the Phantom and Anna O’Byrne as Christine, this music deserves to be part of our shared songbook.  Yes, the original Phantom will keep on keeping on – a movie trailer last night breathlessly called it “the longest-running Broadway musical… EVER!” But Love Never Dies finally adds meaningfully to the story, deepens our understanding of the characters and profoundly touches our hearts. Starting with Andrew Lloyd Webber himself, all involved deserve plenty of credit for that.