Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Long Red Road-Directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman at Goodman Theatre Chicago

by Phyllis Dreazen

Brett C. Leonard’s world premiere production of The Long Red Road at Goodman Theatre through March 21 is anchored to a car crash nine years before the action begins. That crash killed one of Sam’s (Tom Hardy) children, maimed his wife and caused him to run away to an Indian Reservation to drown himself in drink.

When we first see Sandra, Sam’s long abandoned wife (Katy Sullivan in her Goodman onstage debut), she is getting ready for bed, taking off her prosthetic legs. For most of the rest of the time we see her, she is in a wheelchair, her bare stumps aggressively thrusting toward us. I could not take my eyes away. How did the Costume Designer (Janice Pytel) achieve that searing effect? Did the wheelchair have some magic compartment? Were the legs bound backward as in the Toulouse Lautrec film?

No: Katy Sullivan was born with stumps, which has not stopped her from making a career in TV as well as on the stage. Was the role written with her in mind? No again. That she got the part merely confirms the curious happenstance of how art and life sometimes interweave themselves.

“Katy was working for us as an intern,” a Goodman spokesman revealed, following the opening night performance. “She wanted to audition for the role. She did so and she got it!”

Philip Seymour Hoffman (Capone, Doubt), in his Chicago directing debut, uses Eugene Lee’s in-the-round set in Act One as a double exposure photo negative, juxtaposing two trios of unrelentingly bleak lives: Sam, his lover and enabler Annie (Greta Honold in her Goodman debut) and the reservation’s Indian bartender (Marcos Akiaten (in his Goodman debut) inhabit the same spaces as Sandra, Sam’s brother Bob (Chris McGarry) and his 13-year old daughter Tasha (Fiona Robert). Poverty and bleak despair are the same on the reservation or in the Kansas house; only Edward Pierce’s lighting illumines one or the other reality as they slowly, infinitesimally, inch toward each other.

Act One ends with Annie phoning Sam’s family to come get him. She hopes that together they will be able to save Sam. But Sam is clear; he doesn’t want to be saved. Unlike an O’Neill drunk who binges, Sam drinks himself awake, drinks himself to sleep and drinks every waking moment in between.

Act Two is as harshly bright as Act One is dark. Until Annie’s call no one even knew Sam was alive. The brothers’ confrontation is a tour de force duet. Always living in his younger brother’s shadow, when Sam disappeared, Bob moved into his house, his marital bed and fathered his goddaughter. It is unclear how intimate the relationships are. What is clear is that Tasha achingly missed her real daddy all the days and nights of her young life. When they finally meet and hug and Sam is gentle, loving and gallant, it is as if the drawings she is always making might become the design of the life she hopes for. Unfortunately, it all ends in ashes.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Humans no match for 101 Dalmatians in Broadway In Chicago show

by Dwight Casimere

Cruella DeVil is the true "Queen of mean"(when you put the two words together, it spells ‘Devil’!) and the most deliciously evil anti-heroine, as played by the beauteous Sara Gettelfinger, but even she is no match for the cute kennel of Dalmatians and the troupe of child actors that inhabit the cast of 30. They received uproarious ovations at the Broadway In Chicago premiere of 101 Dalmatians at the Cadillac Palace Theatre in performances now through February 28.

There are some rather clever inventions, such as the elevation of the human characters on stilts. The perspective sets up an effective spatial relationship of dominance over the human actors who play dogs and the dogs themselves. Then there are the stunning, brightly colored costumes and sets by .I met composer and co-lyricist Chicagoan Dennis DeYoung, a founding member of the rock band STYX by chance during the intermission. He was in the midst of receiving hugs and kisses from those seated around him. Listening to the bubbly score with Orchestrations by Danny Troob and Dance Music by Mark Hummel and the lighter than air delivery by the orchestra, conducted by Don York one could see why.

I must admit I started dozing during all the plot setup tedium of Act One. Cruella did manage to get off one good line. After describing in salacious detail how she plans to dispense with the tribe of stray Dalmatians and turn them into the equivalent of spotted Christmas stockings, she turns on a stilted stiletto while saying, "Now, that we've dispensed with the pleasantries!"

Things start moving along swimmingly toward the end of Act One and certainly in Act Two.

The kids really steal the show with scintillating song and dance, especially in the showstopper,” Be a Little Bit Braver.” They’re so absolutely captivating that you almost wish you were young enough to be one of them. The human Puppies also kicked off Act Two with a brilliant dance number, "Break Out."

Okay, some of the adult performers rated laughing man applause. Cruella's two henchmen, Jasper and Jinx (Michael Thomas Holmes and Robert Anthony Jones) danced and sung their way into everyone's hearts with "Having the Crime of Our Lives," a charming Marx Brothers inspired turn in. But the night really belonged to the kids and those oh-so-sweet 101 Dalmatians.

Cruella finally gets hers’, right in the rumble seat of her classic Rolls after much inspired Keystone Kops hi-jinx, directed byJerry Zaks.

Broadway In Chicago's 101 Dalmatians continues through February 28. Take the kids; it’ll heighten the enjoyment. If you don't have any, rent them for the night!

Sunday, February 7, 2010

MET Live In HD presents Verdi's Simon Boccanegra with Placido Domingo in landmark performance

by Dwight Casimere

Photos by Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera

The most cogent thing I can say about the Metropolitan Opera’s recent Live In HD production of Guiseppe Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra starring opera legend Placido Domingo, now celebrating his 40 year Met career is that now would be a good time to secure tickets for the Encore Presentation Wednesday, February 24 at 6:30pm at selected theatres, including Seven Bridges Cinemark in Woodridge.

This is the only opportunity to see what I consider to be a landmark performance by one of the opera world’s greatest and most enduring performers. Conducted by James Levine and with superlative, probing camera work by Award winning Live Camera Director Barbara Willie Sweete, this is by far the most compelling production of the Live In HD season.

Domingo, the last of the famed Three Tenors to still ‘work the boards’ of the operatic stage, is a veritable force of nature. Returning to his ‘roots’ as a baritone, he gives a searing performance that is both vocally and dramatically superlative. In the Prologue, he seemed a bit tentative at the outset, apparently working to sing above a recent cold, but by the end of the twenty-minute act, he had taken full command of his voice and the role of the former pirate, Simon Boccanegra, candidate for leader of the Republic of Genoa.

The opera is filled with beautiful music and terrific singing and acting. The cast is truly All Star and as perfectly matched vocally as you could ever imagine. Tenor Marcello Giordani is Gabriele Adorno, the role that Domingo made famous. “I’m even wearing the same costume,” he proudly told Met Live In HD Backstage Interviewer and Met diva Renee Fleming. Soprano Adrianne Pieczonka is Amelia Grimaldi, the object of his affection and the source of his jealous rage against Boccanegra.

The opera also features Met legend James Morris, best known for his portrayal of Wotan in Wagner’s The Ring. Just one year shy of Domingo’s noteworthy 40-year career at the Met, this production is a rare opportunity to see these two operatic lions performing together.

There is exceptional singing throughout, particularly the duets and ensembles. As written by Verdi, the music is captivating. As sung by the cast of this production, it is sublime.

With Sets that seemed ripped from the corridors of the Sistine Chapel and costumes straight out of the Medici’s closets, conceived by Set and Costume Designer Michael Scott, the opera is as visually stunning as it is dramatically and musically absorbing.

Born in Madrid, Domingo spent most of his early life in Mexico where he studied and sang the Spanish operatic form, Zarzuela, as a baritone. When he went to the Mexican National Opera to audition, he was asked to sight-read arias written for a tenor. His forceful, ringing voice quickly caught the attention of all who heard him and the rest, as they say, is history.

In what has been called his 'final career move', Plácido Domingo announced in January 2007 that in 2009 he would take on one of Verdi's most demanding baritone roles, singing the title role in Simon Boccanegra. The debut performance was at Berlin State Opera, followed by other 29 performances at major opera houses around the world, including the MET.

The Metropolitan Opera paid tribute to Domingo's 40th anniversary with the company with an on-stage gala dinner at the Met's 125th anniversary last March, commemorating his debut in Adriana Lecouvreur as Maurizio opposite Renata Tebaldi in September 1968.

The Encore Presentation of Met Live in HD’s Simon Boccanegra is not to be missed. For tickets and information, visit www.metopera.org.

Broadway In Chicago's August: Osage County comes home

by Dwight Casimere

“Here we go ‘round the prickly pear!” That declaration as family patriarch Beverly Weston raises his glass of Jim Beam whisky on high should be an indication of what’s to come in Broadway In Chicago’s homecoming production of Tracy Lett’s Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning play August: Osage County in a two-week engagement at the Cadillac Palace Theatre through February 14.

Originally premiered and produced at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company in 2007, the play went on to open at the Imperial Theatre on Broadway in December of the same year to wide critical acclaim, earning seven Tony nominations and winning five. The play also achieved a record-setting 640 performances on the Great White Way in June 2009.

There is much bloodletting and truth telling in Lett’s world of the Weston family home in rural Oklahoma, imagined brilliantly in a dollhouse cut-away of a set by Scenic Designer Todd Rosenthal. Lighting (Ann G. Wrightson) and Sound (Richard Woodbury, with a little help from Eric Clapton) all successfully evoke the claustrophobia of a stifling, hot summer in Oklahoma. Fight choreographer Chuck Coyl brings the audience into the vortex of the family’s frequent and explosive confrontations.

The play stars Academy Award-winner Estelle Parsons (Best Supporting Actress, Bonnie and Clyde, 1967) in the role of Violet Weston, the family matriarch from Hell. (Here’s a trivia question: Who was the first woman to report news on network television. I bet you said Barbara Walters. BUZZ! The correct answer is Estelle Parsons, who was part of the original lineup of NBC’s Today Show.)

Her husband, Beverly Weston is played by Broadway veteran Jon DeVries (Major Barbara, the Inspector General, Devour The Snow). It quickly becomes apparent that Bev Weston is singing his Swan Song with accompanying orchestrations courtesy of Mr. Jim Beam. We are not surprised to learn that he has gone missing after going out fishing on a nearby lake.

Before his abrupt departure, Weston/DeVries, delivers a searing monologue. In a drunken, rambling soliloquy, delivered to a bemused American Indian housekeeper he is thinking of hiring to care for his ailing wife (played with understated salt of the earth sincerity by relative newcomer DeLanna Studi). Bev sums up his wife’s personality saying, “my wife’s a cold-blooded woman, and I don’t mean so in a metaphorical sense.” He then proceeds to rattle off a laundry list of prescription depressants she has become addicted to in the course of her chemotherapy. “I forgot to tell you the punch line,” he says ruefully, pausing for dramatic effect. “It’s MOUTH cancer.” Weston is as consumed in uncontrollable laughter as the would-be housekeeper is gripped by stunned silence.

We learn that Bev Weston was at one time, a prize-winning poet. He hasn’t written a word in over forty years, his literary voice drowned out by the storms of his turbulent marriage. He instead resigned himself to an unsatisfying career as a college professor and solitary drunk.

When his eldest daughter Barbara Fordham, played by Obie, Theatre World Award-winner and Drama Desk nominee Shannon Cochran, returns home from Colorado with her philandering college professor husband Bill (Steppenwolf ensemble veteran Jeff Still), the two are in the throes of impending divorce. “You had to decide you wanted to pork Pipi Longstocking!” she derides him. Their constant fighting drives their teenaged daughter Jean (a whimsical Emily Kinney) into a pot-induced fog in order to escape the pain.

The two try to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes but Violet is having none of it. She claws away at their thin veneer of civility with the ferocity of a she-lion. “We’re having truth here tonight!” she declares triumphantly, waving her little bag of pills above her head like a lightsabre.

The family is gathered at the funeral table in honor of her late husband, who (no surprise) may have committed suicide on the lake. The gathering is more like a séance than a wake, with Violet summoning up, instead of the spirit of the dead, the buried regrets and recriminations of the past.

There is one absolutely devastating scene in which the entire family breaks out in a collection of simultaneous arguments. At one point, they rise to a fever pitch of cacophony, sounding like a frantic fugue. Its all played out over the strains of a wild Eric Clapton guitar riff raging in the background. Brilliant!

There are a few moments of lucid reflection. At one point, Barbara Fordham reflects in the moments after burying her father, “It’s a good thing we can’t see the future. It would make you not ever want to get out of bed.” At another moment, when she and her philandering husband face off about his affair which tore them asunder, he says, almost lovingly, “It’s a terrible thing. This Gordian Knot between us. The phrase refers to an intractable situation, which is resolved by a decisive stroke. It derives from the legend of Alexander The Great, who tore apart a complex knot with his sword. Myth has it that it was a tactile riddle woven by the gods to determine the ruler of the land of Gordium in the Persian Empire.

Violet is an equal opportunity basher. Women get their comeuppance as liberally as men. “I didn’t say women got more unattractive as they get older. I said old women are UGLY!”

Tracy Lett’s writing lays bare the raw emotions of a family in crisis and in pain. Watching August: Osage is akin to watching the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake. There is the occasional consolation of a victim emerging from the rubble. Healing tears drown out the wails of pain and despair. There is, in the end, the kind of uneasy bonding that only survivors of a great tragedy can share.

August: Osage County runs through February 14th, Valentine’s Day. It’s the perfect tonic for those who tire of the hearts and flowers treacle of the day. For tickets and show time information, visit www.broadwayinchicago.com.

Friday, February 5, 2010

CSO in transformative experience with Toronto visitor

by Dwight Casimere

It is rare to hear an established, world-class orchestra become transformed into an entirely different entity, but that’s exactly what happened during the recent subscription concerts of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra featuring Toronto Music Director Peter Oundjian as Guest Conductor. Oundjian is the 'Georg Solti' of Toronto; having led that esteemed body to international prowess through award-winning live recordings and acclaimed international appearances for six seasons. Educated at the Royal College of Music and having served as first violinist to the esteemed Tokyo String Quartet for 14 years, Oundjian brings a unique sensibility to the podium and it resonated throughout the evening's performance. Never have I heard the CSO more alive and its individual members more involved with the music. Each musician watched Ounjian's every move so as not to miss his direction to an elongated phrase or punctuated conclusion.

This attentiveness to detail was evident from the opening bars of Rimsky-Korsakov's Capriccio espagnol, Op.34. It was all sprightly castanets and tambourines, occasionally conjuring up visions of brightly costumed Flamenco dancers undulating around the flickering fire of a gypsy camp. It’s the kind of music you'd hear as the picadors paraded around the bullrings of Seville in all their festive pageantry. There was an exquisite harp solo from principal Sarah Bullen and a ravishing violin solo from Assistant Concertmaster David Taylor who was occupying the First Chair. His playing captured the essence of the Romani spirit!

Wolfgang Mozart's dramatic Piano Concerto No.20 in D Minor with international piano sensation Shai Wosner in his subscription concert debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra made the performance memorable. This is one to tell the grandkids about. Its easy to see why this was Mozart's favorite and why Beethoven loved it so much. It has all of the thundering power, drama and suspense associated with the 'Great One', in fact, Beethoven wrote cadenzas for it when he played it in a memorial performance a few years after Mozart's death. Wosner played Beethoven's cadenza's in the first movement and his own in the finale. Wosner, like Oundjian is a devotee of chamber music, soon to collaborate with the conductor's alma mater, the Tokyo Strings. At times, the rapport between pianist, conductor and orchestra achieved the intimacy of a chamber ensemble. Wosner's technique is dazzling, but it never overshadowed the artistry and musicality of the composition at hand. His cross-hand work allowed the notes in the upper register to ring like church bells and the notes in the bass line to roar with thundering clarity. His two handed octave runs were a marvel to behold. There was not a single break in the sustained trills or a dropped note in the lengthy phrases of the cadenzas. Wosner negotiated the fast triplets in the second movement like an Olympic sprinter. Watching his hands move rapidly across the keys of the Steinway was like watching Kobe in a full court press!

Ralph (pronounced RAFE) Vaughn Williams is the 20th Century English composer who is probably the most ignored of all of his contemporaries. Its a shame, because his music is among the most beautiful of the last century. A composition student under Ravel, the rustling buildup from shimmering strings and restless woodwinds is straight out of the elder composer's playbook. There's even a crescendo near the end of his Symphony No.5 in D Major, which concluded the program, that sounds eerily like the one in Ravel's Daphne et Chloe. With his background at the Royal College, its certain that this is a piece for which Maestro Oundjian has an affinity. It shows in his conducting. He enlivened its Hymn-like majesty and brought the piece to a stately ending that seemed more like a Benediction. It has been more than 23 years since this piece has been heard in Symphony Center. Such a pity! Fortunately, the audience heeded the conductor's cue to pause for a moment of silence before the applause to allow the final strains of this beautiful piece to sink in and drift into the cosmos. Russian great Yefim Bronfman brings his thundering piano skills to Symphony Center in Brahm's Piano Concerto No.1 with beloved San Francisco Symphony Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas in his annual turn as guest conductor, Feb.11-13. Bronfman also appears with musicians from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a program of Beethoven, Dalbavie and Brahms, Sunday, February 14. For information visit www.cso.org.