Ups and downs and broken casts

It’s been a lot of Ups and Downs lately.

And the Downs aren’t all Trump. There’s also Scott Pruitt and Mike Mulvaney and Michael Cohen and Rudy Giuliani and John Bolton and Mitch McConnell and “Fox & Friends” and Devin Nunes and the Scooter Libby pardon and the entire Tea Party and “Diaper Dave” Vitter’s wife Wendy on the verge of a lifetime appointment to the federal bench.

And then there’s Mike Pence, lurking in the shadows.

Against this hurricane of bad, what can stand?

I search for good things in my micro-life:

I sent my new draft of WHEN I GOT OUT to my publisher … finally. A huge task, temporarily paused.

Cosby got convicted.

There is progress towards peace in the Koreas.

It’s a good year for my roses.

The NBA playoffs have been excellent. All hail King James.

I’ve been spending a lot of time with my grandson. Including his first (professional) haircut.

I have to focus on the things like these, positive things, to keep moving forward. I realize that I owe this blog some comment on the three shows I saw in New York a few weeks ago, shows that linger in my mind.

I enjoyed all three, but in each, I felt there were critical casting problems that hurt the productions overall impact.


THE BAND’S VISIT at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre

“Once, not very long ago, a group of musicians came to Israel from Egypt. You probably didn’t hear about it. It wasn’t very important.”

I’ve been seeing musicals my whole life—since THE MUSIC MAN in 1959--but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a musical quite like THE BAND’S VISIT. Though it’s filled with music, it has the attitude and impact of a straight play. The show’s premise is simple: a mix-up sends a police band of Egyptian musicians to a remote Israeli town. When the locals take them in for the night, lives converge.

I loved this show. It’s going to win quite a few Tony Awards next month, and it will have a long, long life, if not on Broadway, in community, regional, and college theatres all over the world, forever. (The physical requirements of the show—14 actors plus musicians, no huge technical demands—will make it, for a full musical, comparatively easy to stage, once the musicians are found. Getting it right might be a different matter.)

I loved this show—with one big reservation. The two main roles are Dina, the owner of the one café in the isolated Israeli town, and Tewfig, the leader of the band of Egyptian musicians. I saw the spectacular Katrina Lenk as Dina, but by the time I saw the show, the original Tewfig, the wonderful Tony Shaloub, was gone, replaced by Dariush Kashani. Mr. Kashani was fine, but I can only imagine how much better the show would have been with Shalhoub. (Check out a few clips below, and you can see the electricity between Lenk and Shaloub. Kashani played the part was more like her uncle, not a potential lover.)

I don’t know if Katrina Lenk will be a permanent Broadway star, but I suspect that she will. In any case, she is a star in this show, for sure and certain. How sexy and insinuating was her performance? The Tiny Goddess compared her to Marlene Dietrich. She’ll win the Tony and more. Check out her masterful reinterpretation of “If I Were A Rich Man” from FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, complete with fiddle. This is a woman of Major Talents.

Major kudos go to composer-lyricist David Yazbek and book writer Itmar Moses; they will have a nice income from this show for a good, long time. I’ve admired director David Cromer’s work for a while, and his hand is steady and true in this show. There’s not a false note, the entire night.

I talked to a guy who saw the show with Tony Shalhoub; he said that his scenes with Katrina Lenk were sensational. I bet. Meanwhile, the show is worth seeing anyway. Just for the amazing Ms. Lenk. Hers is a performance which will settle comfortably into Broadway legend.



Tony Shalhoub and Katrina Lenk – on THE BAND’S VISIT

Behind the scenes of the commercial shoot for THE BAND’S VISIT

“Answer Me,” the show’s "hit" song

Broadway Life – visits Katrina Lenk

Katrina Lenk sings “Omar Sharif,” a beautiful song from the show – out of context here in a TV studio, but you’ll get the sense of her performance

An insightful panel discussion with THE BAND’S VISIT creators – David Yazbek (music and lyrics), David Cromer (director), and Itamar Moses (book), and Katrina Lenk (star)

THE BAND’S VISIT – the band plays outside in front of the Ethel Barrymore Theatre after a performance – dig the killer conga player

THE BAND’S VISIT – a full hour performance and discussion at Google

THE BAND’S VISIT – The Leonard Lopate Show – lots of info

The brilliant Katrina Lenk puts her spin on “If I Were A Rich Man” from FIDDLER ON THE ROOF – a super-talent at work


MY FAIR LADY at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre in Lincoln Center

I was very happy to be back in the Vivian Beaumont Theatre for the first time in many, many years. In younger days, I saw many great things on this famous thrust stage: Diana Sands in ST. JOAN. Anthony Quayle in GALILEO. Irene Worth, Raul Julia, and Meryl Streep in THE CHERRY ORCHARD. The Richard Foreman-directed THREEPENNY OPERA.

And I was looking forward to seeing a big Bartlett Sher-directed production of a Golden Age of Broadway classic. His last two revivals of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s SOUTH PACIFIC and THE KING AND I (both with Kelli O’Hara) were very well-received, so I figured that he’d be a good bet to do a good MY FAIR LADY.

As a caveat, I should say that I saw the show early in the previews and they could have fixed all the problems that I saw. But assuming they haven’t changed anything from what I saw, this FAIR LADY is good enough and definitely worth seeing while failing to get everything out of the show that is there.

In the overall quality of book, music, and lyrics, and general excellent and entertainment value, MY FAIR LADY is my choice for the greatest musical of the Golden Age of Broadway. I never saw the original production which opened in 1956 and ran for six years. My parents didn’t even drag me to the show later in the run when Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews gave way to performers like Edward Mulhare and Sally Ann Howes.

But the original Broadway cast album of MY FAIR LADY is one of the first records I remember listening to. (I’m talking about the original mono LP, not the later stereo version, which was from the London production.) I wore that LP out. And I know the George Cukor-directed movie, which is a little slow-going but ultimately satisfying, even though Rex Harrison was too old by 1966 and Audrey Hepburn, hard as she works, is miscast.

You can’t blame Jack Warner for not knowing that Julie Andrews was going to be a major star and insuring his investment with a proven movie draw. But I wish that Julie Andrews had been in the film; that would have been so much better.

Just this one piece from an Ed Sullivan show proves my point:

JULIE ANDREWS sings WOULDN’T IT BE LOVERLY – from the Original Production – as magical as Mary Poppins

The TG and I saw Trevor Nunn’s National Theater production in 1996 when it passed through LA and played at the Ahmanson, one of my least favorite theatres. I remember the production as nothing special; a good, road-show recreation.

So I had high hopes for the production at Lincoln Center. It’s a show of highlights: almost every number is great. The batting average is incredibly high. The score contains perhaps my favorite song in the entire Broadway canon: “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.” Along with “Soliloquy” from CAROUSEL and “Rose’s Turn” from GYPSY, it’s the ultimate plot-turning/character-defining internal monologue song. And it has the added benefit of being anchored in truth, beautifully rendering what a man feels for a longtime mate.

Damn! Damn! Damn! Damn!
I've grown accustomed to her face. 
She almost makes the day begin.
I've grown accustomed to the tune that
She whistles night and noon.
Her smiles, her frowns,
Her ups, her downs
Are second nature to me now;
Like breathing out and breathing in.
I was serenely independent and content before we met;
Surely I could always be that way again-
And yet 
I've grown accustomed to her look; 
Accustomed to her voice; 
Accustomed to her face. 
"Marry Freddy." What an infantile idea. What a heartless, 
wicked, brainless thing to do. But she'll regret, she'll 
regret it. It's doomed before they even take the vow!
I can see her now, Mrs. Freddy Eynsford-Hill 
In a wretched little flat above a store.
I can see her now, not a penny in the till,
And a bill collector beating at the door.
She'll try to teach the things I taught her,
And end up selling flowers instead.
Begging for her bread and water,
While her husband has his breakfast in bed. 
In a year, or so, when she's prematurely grey, 
And the blossom in her cheek has turned to chalk. 
She'll come home, and lo, he'll have upped and run away 
With a social-climbing heiress from New York. 
Poor Eliza. How simply frightful!
How humiliating! How delightful!
How poignant it'll be on that inevitable night 
When she hammers on my door in tears and rags.
Miserable and lonely, repentant and contrite.
Will I take her in or hurl her to the walls?
Give her kindness or the treatment she deserves?
Will I take her back or throw the baggage out?
But I'm a most forgiving man; 
The sort who never could, ever would, 
Take a position and staunchly never budge. 
A most forgiving man. 
But, I shall never take her back, 
If she were even crawling on her knees. 
Let her promise to atone; 
Let her shiver, let her moan; 
I'll slam the door and let the hell-cat freeze!
"Marry Freddy"-h a! 
But I'm so used to hear her say 
"Good morning" ev'ry day. 
Her joys, her woes, 
Her highs, her lows, 
Are second nature to me now; 
Like breathing out and breathing in. 
I'm very grateful she's a woman 
And so easy to forget; 
Rather like a habit 
One can always break- 
And yet, 
I've grown accustomed to the trace 
Of something in the air; 
Accustomed to her face.

The “and yet” is as perfect a lyric, fused with the music and the character, as there is. In a score filled with brilliant lyrics, this may be the peak. If not, it’s the four “loverly”s at the end of “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly.” They say it took Alan Jay Lerner two weeks of hard work to realize that all he needed to do was repeat the perfect word, four times. Sometimes the simplest solution is best.

This ultra-lush production is tipped in favor of the Eliza Doolittle of Lauren Ambrose. It’s about her triumph, both as the character and as a 40-year-old actress attempting and succeeding in this iconic role. When she comes downstage for her last chorus of “I Could Have Danced All Night” and hits the high note, square-on, it’s a moment of exultation and celebration for Eliza and Lauren, all at once. Ms. Ambrose is a wonderful actress, and her strength is in her drama, not her singing. (She’s no Julie Andrews; her voice is adequate, but I don’t think we’ll ever see her doing any recital tours after this.)

My problem in this production was the Henry Higgins of Harry Hadden-Paton. I was never the biggest Rex Harrison fan, but I realize that he is just about perfect as Henry Higgins. For MY FAIR LADY to work, Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle should be, by the end of play, equals, and there should be some sexual chemistry between them. The Barlett Sher production fulfilled the first of these requirements. The play ends with her almost acending to heaven; no thrown slippers for her.

But I felt little sexual chemistry between the leads. There should be this dance of social unequals drawn together because they are human equals. Higgins is a great character; he should be played as a larger-than-life rogue and big baby, humanized by love. I felt no great attraction between Eliza and Higgins being played out on the stage. It’s there in the lines and songs. I didn’t see the actors connecting onstage they way they could have. As I said, we saw this still in previews. Maybe Harry Hadden-Paton has caught fire and grown in the role. He didn’t make much of an impression on me in “Downtown Abbey” or “The Crown.”

I liked this production and was glad I saw it, but I came away somewhat disappointed. I wanted magic and got professionalism. Great big set.


In rehearsal with MY FAIR LADY

One minute of clips from the show

Nice little doc on the original MY FAIR LADY


TURANDOT at the Metropolitan Opera

TURNADOT is far from my favorite opera, but it has some outstanding music, and I had never seen one of Franco Zeffirelli’s famous over-the-top Met productions live, so I bought tickets. I would rather have seen the new LUISA MILLER.

Going to the Met is a special thing. The audience is international, but everyone shares a common reverence at attending a performance at one of the world’s High Temples of Opera. (The only rivals are La Scala and Bayeuth.)

The Zeffirelli production was certainly an eyeful. The stage was filled with scenery and costumes and lights and movement and hundreds of choristers. What it wasn’t filled with was any real drama.

Part of the problem is in the opera itself. The story (ancient curse, bloody revenge, solved and unsolved riddles) is not my favorite; silly, even for opera. But there is that Puccini music, in great spurts. Act I is mostly a moody set-up for the outstanding ending (“Signore, Ascolta” into “Non, Piangere, Liu”), one of the best Puccini act-enders. Act II toddles around with Ping, Pang, and Pong until “In Questa Reggia” and the Riddle Scene, the true highlight and heart of the opera, and Act III has “Nessun Dorma,” today’s most-famous-tenor-aria. It’s Puccini’s last opera—in fact, he left it unfinished—and I undertand that he was trying to push his envelope to sound more “modern.” The results aren’t nearly as successful as his greatest, more perfectedly rendered operas (LA BOHEME, TOSCA, and MADAME BUTTERFLY), but I like TURANDOT for the highlights and the flash – IF you have the singers who can handle the roles.

Unfortunately, at the performance the TG and I saw, the singers were sub-par. The Turandot of Austrian soprano Martina Serafin was shrill and unpleasant—even for Turandot, whose music is angular and aggressive. The Calaf of Argentinian tenor Marcelo Alvarez was weak and underpowered. In fact, Alverez had to cancel the rest of his Calafs for the season and all the Cavadossis he had planned. Evidently, he recently lost 60 pounds and with them went much of his voice. He couldn’t hit the big, money notes at the end of his “Nessun Dorma,” even turning away from the audience at the end because he knew that there would be no ovation when he finished. Indeed, he might have feared facing some catcalls and hisses.

Part of the problem for today’s singers is the ever-presence of the great singers of the past. We all know what the arias are supposed to sound like.

Here’s my list of recorded Turandots:

1. Puccini/TURANDOT (excerpts) – Turner/Martinelli/Albanese – cond. Barbirolli (live Covent Garden 1937)
2. Puccini/TURANDOT – Bjoerling/Nilsson/Tebaldi – cond. Leinsdorf 1960
3. Puccini/TURNADOT – Corelli/Nilsson/Moffo – cond. Stokowski (live Met 1961)
4. Puccini/TURANDOT – Corelli/Nilsson/Visnevskaya – cond. Gavazzeni (live La Scala 1964)
5. Puccini/TURANDOT – Corelli/Nilsson/Scotto – cond. Molinari-Pradelli 1965
6. Puccini/TURANDOT – Sutherland/Pavarotti/Caballe/Ghiaurov – cond. Mehta 1972
7. Puccini/TURANDOT – Caballe/Pavarotti/Mitchell/Tozzi – cond. Chailly (live San Francisco 1972)
8. Puccini/TURANDOT – Caballe/Carreras/Freni/Plishka – cond. Lombard (live Strabourg 1977)

(I don’t have this Zeffirelli production, which was conducted by James Levine, because I don’t have many opera DVDs and I’m not a big fan of his original star Placido Domingo. My favorites are the Nilsson/Corelli teamings, though most experts would recommend the Sutherland/Pavarotti. All are fun, with some of the best “dueling diva” singing in all of opera.)

I suppose it’s unfair to expect today’s singers to compete with Nilsson and Sutherland and Pavarotti and Corelli and Dame Eva Turner, but they have to be able to hit the damn notes.

Check out some of these clips from the Zeffirelli production: you won’t believe the opulence onstage. The costumes, the giant wing-to-wing, apron-to-backwall set

Ad for the Met’s HD broadcast

“IN QUESTA REGGIA” – with the original cast – Eva Marton and Placido Domingo

TURANDOT – the Finale – 1:12 of over-the-top opulence, right down to the shower of golden glitter

plus some others

“IN QUESTA REGGIA” – with Nina Stemme and Marco Berti – two choices

-- seven minutes of sizzle


Of the three, only THE BAND’S VISIT gave me the real thrill of Something Special happening onstage. I can only imagine how much better it would have been with Tony Shalhoub as Tewfiq.

In any case, it was wonderful to be in three great theatres—small (Ethel Barrymore), medium (Vivian Beaumont), and large (the Met).

Art is still the best escape, partially because it energizes you and encourages you to continue the battle.


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Christian Correa