Sunday, May 15, 2011

War Horse: a herd of humanized puppets takes Broadway by storm

Reviewed by Dwight Casimere May 3, 2011

Photos courtesy National Theatre of Britain

and Handspring Puppet Company

  1. Joey, the “real” star of War Horse with puppeteer Jude Sandy
  2. Basil Jones (l) and Adrian Kohler, co-founders of Handspring Puppet Company, pose with their creation/Photo Bebeto Matthews
  3. Joey and Tophorn on the Illumination Lawn at Lincoln Center, outside the Beaumont Theatre/Photos Krissie Fullerton
  4. Scene from War Horse at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theatre/Photo-Paul Kolnik

New York-Among the 2011 Tony Award nominations is the musical drama War Horse, which has five, including for Best Play. The National Theatre of Britain import, just opened a month ago, is already a runaway hit on Broadway. Playing to sold-out houses and now scheduled to run indefinitely run at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre in Lincoln Center, the producers have announced a 20 city U.S. tour that will begin in Los Angeles June 13.

War Horse draws the audience into the story, even before they enter the theatre. Outside, a display of larger than life fabricated horses greets patrons on the Illuminaton Lawn outside the theatre entrance as they descend the staircase to experience a mesmerizing mix of music, drama and masterfully manipulated life-sized puppets, masterminded by the Handspring Puppet Company of Cape Town, South Africa.

Created through the genius of Handspring co-founders Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler, the gigantic horse puppets are imbued with what the creators call “emotional engineering,” which gives the puppets personality and depth of character. Each of the horse-puppets is handmade and distinctive. Manipulated by a team of acrobatic puppeteers, who move inside them, they appear to be surprisingly real. In War Horse, the astonishingly life-like horse Joey, trots onto the stage and instantly captures our hearts.

Joey snorts, knickers, clops, whinnies and bucks just like a real horse. Within moments of arriving onstage he begins emitting the physical telltales that are a horses’ means of expressing emotion.

The cast of 35 and the exceptional work of the puppeteers make short shrift of the plays three hour running time. Horse movements by Toby Sedgwick are so seamless that the audience forgets the technical wizardry and becomes absorbed in the show. Each horse is brought to life and assumes a ‘character’. The mechanics of it all are quickly forgotten. It is a feat of alchemy.

The story behind War Horse is a simple one; it is the tale of a boy and the love of his horse. Albert (Seth Numrich), whose beloved horse is sold into conscription in World War I and who joins the war in order to find him. The play is adapted for the stage by Nick Stafford from a children’s book by Michael Morpurgo. It is adapted for the stage by Nick Stafford and directed by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris.

This is not Ibsen. It is a basic boy-loves-animal, Candide-like journey into the heart of darkness that was World War I. What makes it work are some heartfelt performances from a terrific team of actors, such as Matt Doyle as Albert’s jealous cousin Albert and Alyssa Brenahan as Billy’s quietly suffering mother. The plot lines of War Horse are almost elementary in the execution, but what makes the production truly shine is the astonishing work of the puppet masters.

War Horse is a simple tale well told. It is visually stunning and packs an emotional wallop. Its like a thundering herd taking Broadway by storm. Go see it!

PASSIONE: Director John Turturro's Valentine to Naples

MOVIES: “PASSIONE:: John Turturro’s Valentine to Naples

Beta Cinema Presents “PASSIONE” A musical adventure by John Turturro

A Skydancers and Squeezed Heart Production

An Italy-US co-production

With the contribution of the Campania Region and of the European Union Under the patronage of the Naples Municipality

Reviewed by Dwight Casimere May 5, 2011


1-3. Scenes from “Passione”

4. Director John Turturro

5-7. Film critic Nina Rothe and her mother, Grazia de Santis, who hails from Naples, react to the film outside the screening room at the Film Forum, Houston Street, New York City, where the film premieres June 22. (Photos by Dwight Casimere)

NEW YORK-Passione is not a film with any particular structure. It is not a drama or a music video. It is neither documentary nor film narrative. It has no script or singular voice, other than those of the people who inhabit its space during an enchanting moment in time that happens to last a hundred minutes or so, but that seems to pass in the twinkling of an eye.

The scientists say that our most complex dreams occur within a matter of seconds. Passione has that dream-like quality. It suspends time and condenses an entire city, its culture and the stories of its people into a brilliant emotional travelogue conceived and directed by acclaimed actor and director John Turturro.

Invited to make a film about Neapolitan music, he became intrigued by the music he’d grown up with as an Italian-American. When he revisited the place from whence the music came and met the artists who created it, he learned that the songs were so much more than pretty lyrics and beautifully crafted notes on a page. The songs represented a way of life. They were a statement of being.

The singers were also more than mere talent. They were the preservers of a lifestyle and tradition that transcended their art form. As a result, what was intended as a documentary, transformed into a fantastic journey that defies imagination or category. Passione delves into the very depths of the soul of a place and a people. It is a voyage much like Jules Vern’s fantastic voyage to the bottom of the sea.

We meet Naples’ top singing stars, in a succession of 23 songs. They are not cast so much as performers as they are as representatives of the people of Naples.

We encounter them on a street corner or emerging suddenly from a hidden passageway or among merchants and vendors at a street market, or in a rooftop garret locked in a passionate embrace with a lover.

In short, they are the voices that emerge from the day-to-day life of this picturesque and ancient city. In their voices, we hear the echoes of cultures and civilizations that have since faded into memory. They are the conscience of the city’s many invaders; the Greeks,Turks, Arabs, French, Spanish, Normans and Americans who inhabited its twisted streets and stormed its waterfront battlements over the past eight centuries.

Their sins, triumphs and romances are echoed in the voices of Naples. We hear their anguish, feel their pain and share in their thirst for life. “The Song of the Washerwoman”(Canto Delle Lavandaie Del Vomero, performed by Fiorenza Calogero, Lorena Tamaggio and Daniela Fiorentino) echos from the aqueducts with their longing for a life of glamour and luxury that might have been. The horror of World War II is relived in the battle of the voices between Al Dexter’s twanging, Hillbilly vocalese and the “Canto Popolare” of Peppe Barra.

If there is any one of the artists who gives the film its singular “voice” it is James Senese, a master saxophonist who performs his original composition “Passione” on the solo saxophone. The song sounds uncannily like the 1976 hit “Europa” by the soulful saxophonist Gato Barbieri, who wrote the song “Last Tango” as title song for the soundtrack to the great 1972 Marlon Brando film “Last Tango in Paris,” for which Brando was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor. Senese is a human amalgram. The tortured product of an African-American G. I. father, James Smith, from the Bronx, whom he’d never met, and a Neapolitan mother, Ana Senese, he has felt the sting of racism his entire life. Rather than respond with bitterness, he pours his feelings into his music.

Born during the twilight days of the great war, his spirit still burns with the anguish of his dual racial identity, yet his heart belongs to Napoli. His music is a fusion of Neapolitan spirit and American soul. A devotee of John Coltrane, his playing brims with unbridled passion.

We meet Naple’s most celebrated singer and actress Angela Luce, not as the legendary artists that she is, but in the guise of a street-walker. Sastri has walked across the world’s most diverse stages, from street theatre to the most famed concert halls. More than 100 of her performances are kept in the Historical Archives of Neapolitan Songs. She has acted alongside Italy’s legends, such as Marcello Mastroianni and taken direction from Italian cinematic greats Visconti and Zeffirelli. Her voice, tone and physical bearing express the deepest longings of her people.

The most charismatic voice is that of Raiz, a solo singer whose music embodies the melodies and rhythms of Mediterranean, Asian and Neapolitan cultures. His music is a blend of trip-hop, dub and world music that is very personal and biting. His music is also a metaphor for modern Naples as a meeting place for all that is foreign and all that is so peculiar to Naples. As he expresses in an on-camera interview, “to be from Naples is to be from nowhere and to belong everywhere.”

Turturro appears sporadically in the film, but not as the traditional narrator or on-camera presenter. He becomes part of the action, dancing in the streets and singing with the locals, swept up in the feeling of the moment in the song “Caravan Petrol.”

“Passione” is a film that speaks directly from the heart and soul of a people and the place which they love. It lives up to its name!

“PASSIONE” has its U.S. Theatrical Premiere, Wednesday, June 22 at the Film Forum, Houston Street, New York City and will roll out over the summer in selected cities. Check local listings for theatres and dates. In Chicago, check the Gene Siskel Film Center’s website for possible showtimes in July at

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

New York Philharmonic: Alan Gilbert conducts Bartok's Violin Concerto No. 2 with Lisa Batiashvili

Entertainment: New York Philharmonic, Bartok Violin Concerto No. 2-Lisa Batiashvili soloist

Reviewed by Dwight Casimere May 6, 2011

Reviewed by Dwight Casimere May 6, 2011


1. Maestro Alan Gilbert/Courtesy New York Philharmonic

2. Lisa Batiashvili, and her 1709 Engleman Stradivarius/Courtesy Deutsche Grammophon-Sony Classical Records

New York—When Bela Bartok wrote his monumental Violin Concerto No. 2, during the years 1937-38, FDR was starting his second term in the White House. The Royal Wedding buzz on everyone’s lips concerned the Duke of Windsor, who threw away the crown to marry a commoner, Wallace Simpson. Wimbledon was broadcast on TV for the first time, to all of about 3 television sets that existed at the time and the U.S. looked with bemused detachment at Hitler’s advance into neighboring Austria as China decided they’d like to go out for sushi lunch by invading Japan.

Bartok wrote his Violin Concerto No. 2 as a special commission for his friend, virtuoso violinist Zoltan Szekely. To call it difficult and complex is an understatement. Young Georgian soloist Lisa Batiashvili played it as if it had been written expressly for her and dispatched its most difficult passages with ease. Besides being technically proficient, she invested the music with a lyricism and passion that revealed a deeper understanding of the composer’s intentions.

New York Philharmonic Music Director Alan Gilbert has a special affinity for Bartok and a particular love of the performance capabilities of Batiashvili. She is a beloved guest soloist with the Philharmonic. This was evident in the way in which Maestro Gilbert approached the piece from the podium, giving the soloist plenty of time and breathing room to launch her long, fluid lines by couching them in an unhurried, but well-constructed, musical framework.

Batiashvili preserved the folk-like melodies and tempos in Bartok’s many thematic variations. In spite of the work’s inherent pitfalls, she seemed quite at home with it. She was incredibly natural and unpretentious throughout. The warm, expressive tone from her Engleman Stradivarius drew the listener in, making the vast space of Avery Fisher Hall seem suddenly intimate.

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, “Eroica” is one of the New York Philharmonic’s signature pieces. Rather than trotting it out as a “War Horse,” Maestro Gilbert conducted it with a freshness and vitality that made the music come alive. He approached the score in the present tense, making new discoveries of tonality and thematic material., bringing out the “inner voices” of the work by allowing them to effervesce to the surface.

Beethoven’s writing is possessed with true genius. Even the simplest, single note passages are fraught with meaning. Gilbert knows this fact well, allowing the silent spaces to speak as thunderously as suspense-filled themes. He fashioned the final bars into a stunning crescendo. It elicited an ovation that was as much an acknowledgment of the orchestra’s great performance as it was of the shared experience of triumph after reaching a great height as the result of a heroic effort. How apropos!

Monday, May 9, 2011

Met Live in HD: Giuseppe Verdi's Il Trovatore, a mesmerizing tale of intrigue, sorcery and death

Met Live in HD: Il Trovatore, Verdi’s tour de’ force of intrigue, murder

Reviewed by Dwight Casimere, April 30, 2011

Encore Presentation: May 18, 2011, 6:30pm local times

Photos by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

New York—“This opera has it all! Murder, intrigue, curses, romance, witchcraft!” The enthusiastic words were those of Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky, who plays the evil Royalist troop commander, Count di Luna in the Metropolitan Opera’s current production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Il Trovatore. In a breathless interview with backstage host, Met diva Renee Fleming, at the conclusion of an action-packed Act 1, in which there is a sword fight, a kidnapping and allusions to a witch burned at the stake, Hvorostovsky gave a snapshot of the afternoon’s performance, with its all-star cast of Sondra Radvanovsky as the embattled love interest Leonora, Marcelo Alvarez as her lover, the revolutionary masquerading-as- troubadour Manrico, Dolora Zajick as the vengeful gypsy sorceress Azucena and Stefan Kocan as di Luna’s young captain and henchman Ferrando.

Genoa-born conductor Marco Armiliato, a Verdi devotee, led a flawless orchestral accompaniment.

The plot moves along like a thoroughbred out of the Kentucky Derby gate, making the opera’s nearly four hour running time seem as if it passed in the twinkling of an eye. The searing dramatics and emotion-laden singing, particularly that of Marcelo Alvarez and Dolora Zajick, is mesmerizing. Revealing camera close-ups orchestrated by Live in HD Camera Director Barbara Willis Sweete, adds to the heightened sense of drama. Set in the midst of the Spanish Civil War of the early 1800s, it presents a sweeping panorama of the social, political, psychological and supernatural forces that pervaded the opera’s moment in time. The larger-than-life presentation on the Live in HD movie screen only intensified the immenseness of the opera’s sweeping narrative.

I won’t ruin the thrill of seeing this opera in full performance by delineating the plot details. I instead encourage you to obtain a seat at the upcoming Encore Presentation Wednesday, May 18th, 6:30pm, local time at hundreds of theatres around the country. To find a screen closest to you, visit or

Encore Presentation Weds May 11, Met Live in HD, Capriccio stars Renee Fleming

Encore: Met Live in HD Presents Strauss’s Capriccio May 11 with

Super-soprano Renee Fleming

Reviewed by Dwight Casimere, April 23, 2011

Photos by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

New York—The role of the vivacious Countess Madeleine in Richard Strauss’s Capriccio seems almost tailor-made for Metropolitan opera superstar soprano Renee Fleming. Dressed in a sultry, form-fitting gown designed by Robert Perdziola, who also designed the production’s dazzling interior d├ęcor, both her performance and the overall presentation sparkled.

This was la Fleming’s first full performance of the opera at the Met. She last did the final scene for the opening-night gala of the Met’s 2008-2009 season. In the April 23rd Live in HD presentation transmitted live from the Metropolitan Opera in Lincoln Center, her fluid, elegant movements and commanding voice heightened the underlying theme of whether the words or the music were the most important part of musical drama. The quandary occupies the central theme of Strauss’s opera, which he aptly termed “a conversation piece for music.”

Sir Andrew Davis, Music Director of Chicago’s Lyric Opera, did a sterling job as guest conductor. His sense of timing and balance captured the chamber music feeling of the dominant scenes, while artful segueing to Strauss’s more showy full orchestrations without missing a beat. This was Strauss’s final opera and Davis imbued his performance of it with the all the reverence it deserved.

Capriccio is a showcase for singers and the Met cast for this production was exemplary. Tenor Joseph Kaiser lent both vocal power and tongue-n-cheek humor to the role of the composer Flamand, who sang with glowing ardor of the primacy of music, while simultaneously wooing the Countess. By contrast, Canadian/German baritone Russell Braun presented a more reserved performance as the poet Olivier, who complained that the composer Flamand’s music drowned out the subtle meaning of his words. Morten Frank Larsen, in his Met debut, was engaging as the Count. English bass Peter Rose as the director La Roche, seemed to act as Strauss’s ‘voice’ in the opera, making the case that both words and music are essential elements in the creation of opera.

Sarah Connolly as Clairon and Bernard Fitch as the prompter, Monsieur Taupe, provided a comedic lift to the opera with their robust singing and excellent sense of timing.

Capriccio is truly an ensemble piece, but it is Fleming, as the widowed Countess, who shines throughout. In a pre-performance backstage interview, Fleming spoke of her love of Strauss and his operas and the central theme, which examined the true nature of art and opera. Written by Strauss during the height of the turmoil of the Third Reich in his native Germany, Fleming mused, “Who knows what was going through his mind at the time, with everything just falling apart around him. But he was able to rise above it to write this thoroughly engaging exploration of art and music.”

This was Strauss’s final opera and perhaps, his best. It certainly exemplifies everything that he stood for in music and is the ultimate and lasting declaration of his love of the art of opera. Both the Met’s production and Fleming’s artistry lovingly present his vision. The Encore Presentation, Wednesday, May 11 at 6:30pm local time in theatres around the country is a terrific opportunity to see this marvelous production. For tickets and information, visit or

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Jazz at Lincoln Center: Marcus Roberts channels the unheralded genius of Bud Powell and Earl "Fatha" Hines

JAZZ AT LINCOLN CENTER: Marcus Roberts channels unheralded jazz legends

Rose Hall-April 29, 2011

Photo credits:

1. Dwight Casimere backstage with Marcus Roberts (c) and JALC volunteer Cerise Miller (r)

2. The Marcus Roberts Nonet in Concert in Rose Hall, Jazz at Lincoln Center, April 29, 2011-photo by Frank Stewart/Jazz at Lincoln Center

New York—Jazz piano virtuoso Marcus Roberts has the unique capability of emulating the musical stylings of those who preceded him, while maintaining his own unique musical personality. This fact was made evident with thundering clarity at his recent Jazz at Lincoln Center concert, The Music of Bud Powell & Earl Hines featuring the blind piano wizard and a celestial nine-member brass orchestra.

This reviewer was fortunate in that he was seated in a box seat positioned directly on stage, with the ability to view the orchestra and its leader up close and personal. The Rose Theatre is unique among jazz concert venues in that much of the seating is virtually “in the round”, giving the audience an intimate contact with the musicians and their music. Besides the superior sightlines, the acoustics are unparalled.

Bud Powell and Earl Hines are largely unknown to audiences today. But those who followed jazz in its heyday of the ‘20s through the swing era and its explosion into be bop hold their names in high reverence. Both were mercurial performers and prolific composers. In some ways, they may have contributed to their own obscurity because of their unselfish fostering of the careers of many young jazz artists who later eclipsed them.

With the passing of Powell at the tender age of 41 in 1966 at the zenith of his career, memory of his contributions to the bebop genre quickly faded.

Earl “Fatha” Hines fared somewhat better, performing well into his 80s, until his death in Oakland, California in 1983. I, in fact, reviewed his final performance at San Francisco’s Keystone Korner, a week before his passing.

At Marcus Robert’s opening night performance at the Rose Theatre, there were several well-known contemporary jazz artists in the audience, some of whom had played with either Powell or Hines, or both. This fact alone, attests to the importance of the evening and the lasting influence of these two great artists.

Roberts wasted no time with idle introductions, launching immediately into Hines’ rollicking “Riffin’ in Rag”. Tenor soloist Ricardo Pascal immediately raised the temperature to that of the surface of Mars with a searing solo that both cut to the heart of the melody and gave new meaning to the word improvisation. Fellow tenor man Stephen Riley, who recalled the early throaty, tonal utterances of the late Sonny Stitt, quickly followed him.

Ted Nash resurrected the spirit of Sidney Bechet on Clarinet and proved one of the inventive, bright spots of the ensemble. Rodney Jordan proved that the bass is far more than a side instrument, providing fluid lines that supported the tonal structure of the music, while lending it depth and ornamental grace.

Trumpet solos by the aptly named Alphonso Horne, recalled the early swing era roof-raising romps of Roy “Little Jazz” Eldridge, while Marcus Printup took the audience into the Latin-fusion realm of the late-great Dizzy Gillespie, whose name graces the adjacent jazz room, Dizzy’s Coca Cola.

As sparkling and propulsive as the music of “Fatha” Hines presented itself, it was the music of Bud Powell that provided the most enthralling moments of the evening and to which Roberts devoted much of his inaugural set.

Powell’s compositions and arrangements are almost hypnotic, with meandering melody lines that take unexpected, but captivating turns. The music is at once extremely complex, yet disarmingly simple. At times, it recalls the stomp and stride of Fats Waller and Jelly Roll Morton, who were his predecessors, at others, the quirky, offbeat inventions of his mentor, Thelonius Monk. (It was a barely 20-year-old Powell, a neophyte pianist with the Cootie Williams band, who introduced Monk’s signature tune “Round Midnight” into the musical anthology.) Powell’s music also alludes to the lyrical Impressionism of Ravel and Debussy and the stark modernism and chromatic daring of Stravinsky and Schoenberg. Roberts captured it all, with a dash of New Orleans spice thrown in, ably assisted by the thundering drumsticks of Jason Marsalis of the New Orleans musical dynasty. Robert’s interpretation of Powell’s arrangement of Charlie Parker’s harmonically challenging “Constellation” was just the springboard into a maze of musical genius that launched into a labyrinth not unlike Alice’s descent down the Rabbit Hole into the Land of Oz.

Marcus Roberts and his distinguished nonet brought out all of the mystery and magic of these two musical geniuses. In paying homage to their legacy, he created an absolutely wondrous concert experience and fulfilled the Mission Statement of Jazz at Lincoln Center to the letter.

May and June bring a series of explorations into essential ties between jazz and the American popular songbook. Singer and music scholar Michael Feinstein has curated a series of concerts that explore the common roots of 20th Century songwriting and performing art from Duke Ellington to George Gershwin and many in between. For dates, show times and information, visit Planning a summer trip to the Big Apple around a concert date at Jazz at Lincoln Center is as close to “a trip to the Moon on Gossamer wings” as you can get!