Archive | March, 2014

HGO’s ‘A Little Night Music’

14 Mar

night music (590x393)

By JOHN DeMERS

I love it when “grand opera” takes the night off. Indeed, whenever it does, it becomes possible to see how wonderful the art form actually is – or can be, if liberated from the layers of definitional straightjacket that tell it what it’s allowed and not allowed to do. The current Houston Grand Opera production of Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music is a shimmeringly beautiful example of what happens when opera opens its mind and our eyes.

So yes, A Little Night Music is a Broadway musical – as in, not an opera. And Sondheim is a Broadway composer and almost unbearably smart Broadway lyricist. The result is a show that only “sounds like opera” at the Wortham Center because opera singers are singing it. Yet, by the end of this dazzling, heartfelt and rather heartbreaking production, it has done what all the best operas try to do. We have met and cared about a set of characters, we have entered their joys and sorrows more profoundly than we do in most operas, and we have taken their lives (for a while) as our own. A Little Night Music is deeply moving theater, unforgettable visual art made of set, costume and light, and moment after moment of glorious vocal expression.

For starters, the show is nothing short of gorgeous to look at. Somehow HGO managed to snag superstar designer Isaac Mizrahi to handle the sets and costumes, and the whole package transports us back in time to shows like My Fair Lady and Gigi, which were fashion festivals along with everything else. Lighting designer Brian Nason gets in on the fun, giving the versatile, outdoor-indoor set  – a green forest I want for the next Midsummer Night’s Dream I see – a golden glow that evokes the same sunset many of the lyrics describe. Though the romantic loves chronicled here happen at many ages onstage, they are certainly seen from an older, wiser and more saddened perspective. From a sunset, as it were.

The story, based on a Swedish art film by Ingmar Bergman, seems complicated but happily ends up not. It serves up what Sondheim does best: the contrast and occasional conflict of our tireless, indeed undying romantic fantasies with the often-cruel realities of living our stories. Yet we believe, he says. And yet we embrace. By the time the lead character, a much-loved stage actress appropriately named Desiree, sings the musical’s mega-hit “Send in the Clowns” near the end, the song we’ve heard by itself a few hundred other times finally makes sense. And it, without question, reminds us of ourselves, breaking our hearts at the same time.

Operating (on purpose) without percussion, the HGO orchestra conducted by Eric Melear paints the show’s emotional landscape with the same golden glow the lighting uses on the stage. Soprano Elizabeth Futral is irresistible as Desiree – it’s easy to imagine any man who sees this actress onstage wishing to leave his wife and run away with her, at least for the weekend. HGO favorite Chad Shelton is terrific as Fredrik, the widowed-then-remarried man with an almost-grown son, who discovers that his memories of a younger Desiree pack more romantic punch in the present tense than he ever understood. Equal praise is due the others involved in this very oddly shaped triangle: Andrea Carroll as Fredrik’s too-young wife (in a marriage unconsummated after eleven months), Mark Diamond as the stuffy, obnoxious military man who is Desiree’s current lover, and Carolyn Sproule as that officer’s charming but decidedly long-suffering wife.

A Little Night Music increases its emotional reach through commentary from outside these entangled  characters: from Desiree’s wheelchair-bound mother remembering her own loves (wonderfully played and sung by Joyce Castle) and from Desiree’s young daughter (Grace Muir) – whose name Fredricka may or may not hint at her paternity. Alicia Gianni enlivens the strange role of Petra, a kind of lady-in-waiting, with a sublimely earthy, world-weary nobility, especially in her Act II number about the course of any marriage.  Lastly, the stage is filled with other beautifully costumed and lit beings, who climb trees and ladders, sing bits of choral music, move set pieces on or off, and most compellingly, serve up Sondheim’s commentary. No magical moments of love are allowed to stand without older, wiser, more cynical comments. Yet, in Sondheim’s world as in our own, the moments happen all the same.

Mildred’s Umbrella’s ‘Rome’

11 Mar

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BY JOHN DeMERS

Plays by John Harvey are never pretty, sweet or uplifting. Drawing on many theatrical forces of the late 20th century, the playwright based at the University of Houston seems to major in cruelty with unrelenting sexual tendencies, degradation and dark observations about the human animal. In general, you’d do well at a Harvey play to focus on the word “animal,” letting the word “human” fend for itself.

The man’s latest play, produced by the local company called Mildred’s Umbrella and directed by MU’s own Jennifer Decker, is titled Rome. Yet it seems it’s not actually set in Rome, since there’s much talk of going there – just as it seems that several of the characters, onstage and at least one offstage,  are actually brother and sister. This fact has not prevented several of them from having sex, apparently, never in the sense of falling in love or even making love, always in the sense of dominating, conquering, punishing and destroying. The lead female character even wears a floor-length, slinky black dress, bringing one pop-culture reference unavoidably to mind. It’s as though The Addams Family had been rewritten, sexually abused Morticia and all, by Sigmund Freud.

You can’t demand a lot of clarity or certainty, or indeed a lot of plot resolution, if you’re going to enjoy watching Rome. I must not demand such things, since I did enjoy its 90 minutes served up at Studio 101 without an intermission. There is much to admire in Harvey’s dark poetry: his creation of a world in which all reassurances and protections have broken down. Image after image floats through the air of nocturnal spaces outside this single drawing room, of creatures slinking carrying weapons (or body parts?), of riots over food, of the entire machinery known as civilization creaking and clanking to an exhausted halt. It’s hard to tell if Harvey’s vision is real and physical in time, or whether it’s metaphorical – exploring the darkest places that have always lurked within us. In Rome, he seems to be picking with gruesome curiosity at both.

Decker fields an ensemble of actors willing to be as fierce as Harvey’s language. All are excellent. Since every second of the play takes place in a single drawing room, we are continually reminded of all those English dramas in which keeping a stiff upper lip seems to be the main action – unless of course, it’s an Agatha Christie mystery, in which this propriety is shattered by some terrible murder. Some stretches of dialogue seem to be philosophical just to be philosophical, yet others hint at mean-spirited and hurtful doings buried deep in the past, as when Georgina remembers for her sister Fanny the night their father showed up to molest one of them, and then chose Fanny. Sympathy mixes disturbingly with jealousy in the telling.

Bobby Haworth and Patricia Duran are first among equals in the cast, their characters (and her sheer Morticia beauty) marking them as central to whatever passes for a traditional plot. The two are apparently married, though none too happily. Each is suspicious of the other’s every move, every motivation, past, present and future. Haworth and Duran are masterful at this sniping and suffering, yet they are almost equaled by H.R. Bradford and Christie Stark-Guidry as sexually charged brother and sister George and Georgina, their very names evoking some kind of matched pair. Jon Harvey and Amy Warren portray friends caught somehow in this same drawing room, each with sexual fireworks both together and separately.

Just as the play’s setting is ambiguous, just as the characters relationships are ambiguous, so is what we’re supposed to make of or take away from the denouement, involving the arrival of soldiers directed by an S&M “Captain” played with ice-in-veins by Courtney Lomelo. Unlike at the close of Hamlet, it’s hard to picture the arrival of these particular soldiers bringing anything resembling order to John Harvey’s chaos.

Photo by VJ Arizpe.