Archive | January, 2013

Our Review of TUTS’ ‘Camelot’

25 Jan



Each night that Robert Petkoff steps onto the Hobby Center stage to portray King Arthur in Camelot, he has some intimidating royal shoes to fill. After all, Richard Burton handled the role on Broadway early in his career and returned to it late in life, and honey-voiced Richard Harris looked sufficiently wounded to handle the close-ups in the big-budget movie version. Both men were exemplary British actors, and Harris sang compellingly enough to later enjoy his own Top 40 hit slipping and sliding through the notes of “MacArthur Park.”

In the new Theatre Under The Stars production, Petkoff shows himself unintimidated by (though apparently aware of) his predecessors. One of the tricks of staging a classic like Camelot, it seems, is being a little different from what came before but – under pain of death – never too different. Petkoff’s acting is convincing and likable (a big deal when you have to balance idealism with a personality that’s as likely to call for “Merlin!” as some scared, immature men might call out for “Mama!”) By the time Petkoff’s Arthur has created Camelot as an unprecedented kingdom of law and civility, and especially by the time he has loved and lost his queen to his favorite knight, he makes sure we care deeply about what happens to this guy.

Long before Broadway had “songbook” or “jukebox” musicals, Lerner and Loewe pretty much gave us one in Camelot. It’s just that they wrote all the songs. We already can hum most of them, from the title ditty that’s so well used at the start and again, so movingly, at the end to the lovely, often-overlooked “How to Handle a Woman.”  “C’est Moi,” a love poem by Lancelot to himself, reminds us just how smart and acerbic Alan Jay Lerner’s lyrics could be and how little new was needed to create Gaston in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Still, as though in penance for having too much fun at his expense, the creators give Lance “If Ever I Would Leave You,” which original knight Robert Goulet was probably still singing on his deathbed.

There are magnificent moments throughout this Camelot, directed and choreographed by Richard Stafford with a set and some costumes from the Utah Festival Opera and Musical Theatre, and many of the best happen when Arthur and his Guenevere are onstage together. From their endearing accidental meeting in the forest (yes, Arthur is hiding from his future bride while Guenevere is running away from her future husband!) through their almost-mutual creation of the kingdom to their almost-shared suffering as it all comes crashing down, Petkoff and Margaret Robinson are wonderful together. Her singing of the “Julie Andrews songs” like “The Simple Joys of Maidenhood,” “The Lusty Month of May” and especially “I Loved You Once in Silence,” is terrific as well.

As Lancelot, Sean MacLaughlin brings less physical heft to the role than some others but makes up for it with his rich, rounded baritone singing, while in Act II Adam Shonkwiler is Lance’s virtual evil twin as Arthur’s bastard son Mordred, who hates and sets out to destroy the lofty notions Camelot is built upon. Though all of the show features dashes of wry humor, two important roles run on the stuff: Merlin as played by local veteran Charles Krohn and old King Pellinore portrayed by Broadway’s Tony Sheldon. All in all, the humor is perfectly balanced with romance and tragedy in this production, and the whole thing moves along briskly. After all, you really never want “one brief shining moment” to feel like it goes on forever.

TUTS Photo by Bruce Bennett

Our Review of HGO’s New ‘Showboat’

19 Jan

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At first blush, Showboat seems one of those artifacts of the Old South that neither deserves nor is likely to be heard again – a Song of the South without benefit of cuddly animated animals. Yet as happens so often in opera and/or musical theater, great music and a loving heart lift it above dozens of similar works to give us a gift that glimpses the eternal.

Last night, at the opening of Houston Grand Opera’s dazzling new co-production, anybody with a brain and especially with a heart could step through the visions of “darkies” on the Mississippi to sense the same metaphors that always inspired Mark Twain – not to mention the work’s single grandest song, “Ol’ Man River.” The production turns a deft hand to all the best and worst impulses from our shared history, to inspire rather than offend. As the company that, in the late 20th century, gave perfect pitch to both Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess and Joplin’s Treemonisha, HGO is the only opera company I want singin’ and dancin’ on the levee.

So rather than quibble, let’s simply state: Showboat was not written as an opera. Unlike either of those two other works, it was in no way a lofty aspiration to show the world (meaning Europe) that America could produce “grand opera.” It was written as a Broadway musical – even worse, a Broadway musical in an age that tossed out frothy stage shows (and also movies) that no one should ever stage or have to watch again. Yet with music by Jerome Kern and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II – before he found Richard Rodgers and changed the world – the entertainment product called Showboat was, and still is, as good as the genre can get.

What’s intriguing here, even after film versions in the 1930s and the 1950s, is what a full-on opera production brings to this tale. First and foremost, it brings a much larger orchestra than any Broadway show is likely to have, which in turn gives us shimmering rollercoasters of glorious sound. As conducted by HGO artistic and music director Patrick Summers, the orchestra never sounded better with Verdi, Mozart or Wagner than it does with Kern. On many numbers, filled with hip-swaying, jazz-tinged, almost-New Orleans rhythms, Summers looks like he’s having the time of his life.

And then there are those “opera voices.” While not always a fan of the “Birgit Nilsson Sings Harry Nilsson” style of crossover album (and yes, I made that one up), I admit that many of Kern’s best numbers in Showboat take on new dimensions when baptized with opera.  The love duets “Make Believe” and “You Are Love” achieve a ringing intensity seldom heard, since love duets are one of the things opera does best. The torch-song anthems “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” and “Bill” keep their breathy splendor while reaching musically toward something a bit more highbrow. And yes, of course… “Ol’ Man River” allows very bass Morris Robinson as the typically first-name-only “Joe” to bring down the house whenever nobody else is singing something.

The cast assembled by HGO (mostly opera singers, except for one guy with Dr. Frank’N’Furter in The Rocky Horror Show among his credits) is first-rate. Soprano Melody Moore is terrific as Julie, the tragic mixed-blooded figure who disappears oddly in Act II but leaves a huge impression of sadness whenever she’s around, as is mezzo Sasha Cooke as the young woman named Magnolia. Early on, in fact, I found Cooke’s full, mature voice inappropriate to what seemed an ingénue, but as many years pass during the show’s narrative, you might say the character grows into the voice. Tenor Joseph Kaiser shines as bounder-with-a-heart-of-gold-and-ridiculous-name Gaylord Ravenal, and so does Lara Teeter in the lovably high-energy comic role of Cap’n Andy, Magnolia’s father and master of the Cotton Blossom.

Every aspect of this production is as lovely to look at as it is to hear: the sets by Peter J. Davison, the decades’ worth of historical costumes by Paul Tazewell, the luminous lighting (more along the Mississippi in Act I than in Chicago in Act II) by Mark McCullough and the deliciously folk-inspired choreography by Michele Lynch. For once with an HGO production, dancing is one of the highlights, borrowing moves from all sorts of African and African-American traditions. As director, Francesca Zambello does a marvelous job of keeping things moving – indeed capturing the intimacy over great chasms that blacks and whites often experienced in the Old South. She understands deeply the interplay of light and dark, the shifting emotions of love and loss, that mark our time here set against the river’s timelessness.

HGO Photo by Felix Sanchez

‘Show Boat’ Sails onto HGO Stage

13 Jan

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When Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s Show Boat premiered on Broadway in 1927, it ushered in an entirely new era for American musical theater. Prior to Show Boat’s realistic displays of racism in America and the fallout faced from loving the wrong man, theatergoers were treated to the fun frivolity of operetta and a parade of musical revues.

Based on Edna Ferber’s novel of the same name, Show Boat changed everything.

So, if you’re looking to see one of the touchpoints for the American musical, you’re in luck. Houston Grand Opera mounts a new production of the show, opening this Friday. And if you’re thinking, “What’s an opera company doing presenting a musical?” HGO Artistic Director and Music Director Patrick Summers offers a primer:

Show Boat is a unique hybrid work for the musical stage, that sits directly between what became the great era of American musical theater, and the grander European operettas that proceeded it,” says Summers, who is conducting the production. “Show Boat is best revealed today in an opera company with a great orchestra that is the same size that Kern would have encountered in his career, and great singers with radiant and beautiful voices which were the style of singer in that era, and a production that is on the scale of any grand opera.”

It’s an epic piece following the lives of those living and working on and for the Cotton Blossom, a riverboat that sails along the Mississippi. The action follows nearly 40 years, from the opening scenes in the Gilded Age of the lat 1880s to the pre-Depression in 1927. The musical that gave rise to the classic “Ol’ Man River” and “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” Show Boat tackles American themes in a distinctly American voice. Summers says audiences will have no trouble connecting with the show’s messages.

“It tells the story of a single mother who chose the wrong partner, but yet had a very passionate relationship for a time with that partner, and that is an ongoing story of human kind.”

He says, too, that it offers a window on a world that’s lost to us today. “Now we bridge rivers and they are just encumbrances for us to get to the other side, but in the era of the great show boat, rivers were the source of everything, and Show Boat tells that story in a remarkable way, and this is a work in which the music tells the story to a far greater extent than one encounters in most musicals.”

A co-production with Chicago Lyric Opera, San Francisco Opera and Washington National Opera, Show Boat is directed by Francesca Zambello, who made her American directing debut at HGO in 1984 with Fidelio, and is renowned for her work in both opera and theater. The cast features several singers making their debuts on the HGO stage, including Sasha Cooke, Joseph Kaiser, Lara Teeter, Melody Moore and Morris Robinson.

Its very hybrid nature should appeal both to opera lovers who enjoy the richness of opera singing, as well as those who may never have been to an opera but are familiar with Broadway musicals.

“Our production of Show Boat will display voices that naturally radiate and fill a large space with minimal assistance from amplification, quite unlike the experience of many musicals of the current age, which are amplified like rock concerts,” Summers says. “Show Boat is everything from the grandest of opera singer to musical theater ingénue warbling to vaudeville and of course dance music in the style of the wonderful 1930s musicals that Kern wrote for RKO’s films for Astaire and Rodgers.  So what you have in Show Boat is an extra wide range of musical and performance style, and an opera company can really deliver that.”

Photo: Houston Grand Opera