Dreamgirls at the Dramat

When I wrote about the Yale and Harvard Glee Clubs in concert at the start of Yale/Harvard weekend, I mentioned that the Yale Glee Club was intending to perform a piece by a Yale student but decided against it because the composer was not in attendance.  I speculated that the composer might be immersing himself in highly intellectual endeavors, and I was wrong.  He was conducting the Dramat show, DREAMGIRLS.  And from the look of things, he was having a blast.

I have to admit, I am not a big fan of DREAMGIRLS.  I loved Motown back in the sixties and into the eighties, and I never really felt the music in the show reached the level that it might have, but then, the music doesn’t really come up to the level of a musical, either.

The show tells the story of  three talented black women from Chicago, who break into show business as one of the many female trios that thrived in the early 1960s.  Effie, who has the strongest voice in the group, must change places with a supporting singer, Deena, because while Effie has the better voice, Deena has more star power.  Resentment, complicated love affairs, and show business shenanigans make life complicated for each of the women, but all is forgiven by the end, as they all embark on their own personal adventures.

The song that everyone waits for is,  I’m Telling You I’m not Going.  Just like people wait for Memory in the equally uninspired CATS.   The rest of the music is not in any way memorable. The song was written as a “showstopper” and Jennifer Holliday was credited with stopping the original Broadway cast of DREAMGIRLS, and won a Tony in 1982 for her portrayal of Effie.  Jennifer Hudson did NOT win American Idol but DID win the Academy Award for playing Effie in the movie version in 2006.

Aissa Guindo, who played Effie was terrific as Effie.  I have heard many people sing THE song over the years, and in most cases I find the singers going way too far with it. Jennifer Holliday has sung the song in a very self-indulgent, “I’m going to expose every vein in my body” kind of way, that I find completely impossible to sit through.  Thankfully, Ms. Guindo is a far more sensitive performer who seems to know, even in her youth, that too much is not always the best way to go. She sang the song, and the entire show with impressive professionalism for a student of her age and experience.  Although there were times when she and other singers veered from the pitch in an effort to put in more melismas than were necessary.

Christoper Augustin, as Curtis, who is not a Yale student, but does work in the theatre community in New Haven did a fine job, and had some real stage presence.  He let us down a bit with his voice, and the pitch problem I mentioned seemed to be particularly evident in his singing. Anita Norman was hilarious as Lorrell, and the very lovely Elayna Garner was the graceful Deena, who found stardom as the singer in the middle.

Choreography by Sanchel Brown had a LOT to do with hand movements, and at one point, inexplicably had someone float across the stage on roller skates, holding a fan. That only got worse, when they crossed back to the other side a moment later.

The audience was enthralled with the show, and the ovation went on for quite some time. The cast and crew made The Women’s Recovery Group their spotlight charity.

The Yale Dramat has a long tradition of drinking from the Cole Porter chalice, prior to their opening night performance. The chalice was a gift to Porter from his father while he was a Yale undergraduate. The actors must pledge,

“To cleave wholly unto the Dramat and to uphold its tradition of fine theatre.”

 

 

Oh! The humanity!

 

 

 

 

 

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Pulling out all the Stops

When I was in high school, I dated an organist.

My friend Linda and I spent a couple of years while we were in high school, signing up for every possible voice competition we could find. We were both studying with the same voice teacher, and our teacher would help us find just the right pieces to do for which competition.  We would go into each competition feeling confident that we would win, and amazingly, we would. I won first, and Linda won second.  We discussed this in our adulthood, and I mentioned that I always felt badly about that, and she said she did not mind.  I hope that is true.  We raked in some serious cash, but we also had fun.

Well, while Linda and I were working the vocal circuit, my boyfriend Lance was doing the same thing as an organist. Thing is, there weren’t  too many organ competitions for  high school aged organists, so Lance competed with college students and young professionals. I would turn his pages for him.  I have since turned pages for the occasional organist who needs my help. I thank Lance for exposing me to the organ and to the composers who wrote for the instrument.

In another post, I mentioned that I had not heard the Newberry Organ in Woolsey Hall. I also promised that I would rectify that oversight, and I was able to do that this evening.  I was advised by Yale students of organ, that I should sit in the balcony to get the full effect of the Newberry, which is considered one of the best symphonic organs in the world.  It was a good tip. Before you, in all its ornate gold and black, is the massive Newberry Organ, and when it is played, you have an impressive sound coming from right in front of you.

Tonight, Martin Baker, an English organist of considerable talent and reputation, made my balcony seat vibrate, and caused my skin to hatch goose bumps. When I was in high school, I might have thought that reaction was based on volume and newness of sound.  But at my age, I know it is also about artistry, and impeccable technique.

The program for Mr. Baker’s concert, included a four page section on the organ itself written in organ-speak, and I have a feeling that at least 40% of the audience were fluent in that.

Mr. Baker gave us a wonderful program of Buxtehude, Widor, and Bach, and included an improvisation based upon Bizet’s L’Arlesienne Suite and the beloved English hymn, Jerusalem.

 

 

 

 

Live Streaming and Bulldogs

This weekend is the Harvard/Yale Football game. Every other year, New Haven hosts, and this is a Yale year, so the festivities have already begun. One of the things that kicks off the game weekend, is a joint concert with the Glee Clubs of Harvard and Yale.

In my college years, I lived in Cambridge, MA, and did many shows at Harvard. My “college” experiences were at Harvard.  I was in a Conservatory setting, and that does not provide a very fun college atmosphere.  So Harvard was my place to have fun. I did Gilbert and Sullivan shows, in which I had entirely too much fun. I also did a summer gig in Nantucket with members of the Harvard Krokodiloes, and collected memories that made my college years some of the most fun in my life.

This year, I decided to check out the Live Stream options instead of going to Woolsey Hall.   More and more Yale concerts are being streamed live, and it is a great option if you simply can’t get out. I know there are singers from the Opera Department whose parents cannot make it to every performance that their college student is in, and this is a great way for people out of town to see what their kids are up to.

The all male Harvard Glee Club took the stage for the first half of the concert. And the co-ed home team took up the second half of the show.  As usual, alums in the audience are invited onstage for the songs that have always been a part of the university’s repertoire, and they are always fun to see.

Forgive me, as I make a gross generalization.

One of the things I truly loved about my Harvard experiences, was the sheer fun of the people. A sense of humor was appreciated, and there was much laughter. Yea, sure they were a bunch of really smart people, but they were also people who knew how to laugh, and not take themselves too seriously.  I do not find that very much at Yale. I realize, of course, that I am not a student or even anywhere NEAR a student’s age, but I have been involved with choirs on the Yale campus, and everything is quite serious. I was in a choir last year where any kind of laughter was frowned upon. I showed up to rehearsal feeling like I was giving a book report in the third grade. There was little enjoyment beyond the music itself.

The Yale Rep, which consistently delivers wonderful theatre, NEVER does a comedy. They did ONE two seasons ago, but it was a black comedy and someone was murdered in it. Are we to assume they simply don’t think comedy is worth doing? Have they never heard of the great death bed quote of Edmund Keen’s? Keen was a highly respected Shakespearean actor who collapsed onstage. They took him to his dressing room, and while he lay dying on his dressing room couch he said, “Dying is easy, comedy is hard.”

Good actors need to know how to do comedy. It is just that simple.  And while I realize that the Rep only uses a few actors from the drama program, and the rest of the actors are from New York, it would STILL be nice to see a good comedy once in a while. EVERYTHING is so bloody serious.

This Glee Club concert is a great example of the difference that at least I feel when comparing these two excellent universities.

The Harvard Glee Club took the stage with quirky, fun things. Their Bohemian Rhapsody, which was performed by a small group within the Glee Club, performed the song with choreography, and great dedication to the tongue and cheek aspect of the song. Sadly, they were frequently out of tune, and some of the solo voices in this number were not very good. They did a series of Harvard fight songs, and wrestled with a guy wearing a bulldog costume. They were fun, lighthearted, but musically uneven.

In the second half, The Yale Glee Club performed a lovely concert expertly sung, deadly serious music, performed with deadpan faces, and all the weight and importance that the selections required. Their “fight song” group was performed with a hefty amount of dryness, but it did manage to come to life when they got to the verse about getting drunk. And then it went right back to a serious description of a song they were GOING to do, had the student composer shown up for the concert.  I am guessing he was in his dorm reading Kierkegaard while listening to Mahler’s Songs on the Death of Children. It did pick up when the alums joined the stage for the songs that talk about killing Harvard on the field.  Boolah Boolah!

The finale consisted of both groups and the alums singing together an old song about one’s Alma Mater. Very sweet, indeed.

The Live Stream was terrific!  Sound was good, and the picture was smooth and clear. Even though my computer is not in the best shape,  it had no problem getting the concert to me. It is an excellent alternative to being there.  Obviously, you get more out of it live, but I strongly suggest giving it a try when you are interested in seeing something, but just can’t get out to enjoy it in person. Just pop onto the official Yale page that details the concert, and it will tell you if the live stream is happening or not. The picture comes through fifteen minutes before the concert begins.

 

 

 

Long Wharf

When I was in high school, I ushered at the Long Wharf Theatre.

Between matinees at the Schubert and the occasional trips to New York I was falling desperately in love with theatre, so when I began ushering on weekday nights at the Long Wharf, I could not believe how lucky I was to enjoy a steady diet of good, live theatre.  Later on, I rounded the menu out with trips to the Yale Rep.

The Long Wharf began in 1965, with Arvin Brown as its first Artistic Director.  He would remain in that position for thirty years.  At the time I was ushering, the theatre worked like a proper repertory company.  You would see the same actors, with the occasional guest star for the whole season. Martha Schlamme, Joyce Ebert (who was married to Arvin Brown) and Charles Chiofi were some of the names that come to mind.

During my high school years,  I saw Tartuffe, Tiny Alice, Spoon River Anthology,  Playboy of the Western World, The Rivals, Glass Menagerie. and many more.   And I saw each one three or four times.  I only just realized how nice it was of my dad to drive home to Branford from New Haven, where he worked, and back to New Haven, to take me to the Long Wharf, and then back again at curtain fall.  (Of course, Long Wharf never HAD a curtain, but still)  It was a wonderful education for a young aspiring actress, and when Mildred Dunnock, who I saw play Amanda in Glass Menagerie four times, leaned over to me at the curtain call to stay back, because she wanted to talk to me, I was struck dumb.

“You want to be an actress, don’t you?”

What followed, was a half an hour Q and A, and it was just the two of us. She was marvelous.

Acting 101

FIREFLIES AT THE LONG WHARF

Written by Matthew Barber Directed by Gordon Edlestein

 

FIREFLIES, which had its world premiere at the Long Wharf in October,  takes place in an organized and tidy kitchen in Texas, owned by an organized and tidy retired school teacher named Eleanor, played by Jane Alexander. Eleanor is visited regularly by her nosy, noisy, neighbor, Grace, played deliciously by Judith Ivey.

When Abel, played by Denis Arndt, parks his trailer nearby, there is plenty for Grace to talk about, and plenty for Eleanor to think about.  Abel is a drifter, who hopes pick up some jobs as a handyman.  The order of Eleanor’s world is about to change.

Alexander Dodge’s set of Eleanor’s kitchen is realistic and full of details that help to tell Eleanor’s story and also shows her reluctance to change. In the first act, we see a copy of the Andrew Wyeth painting, Christina’s World which hangs over the backdoor. When we return for Act II, the roof of the kitchen has been removed (as well as the painting) and we see a beautifully lit set, under an early evening sky.  Her kitchen has not changed, but her perception of her world, has.

Jane Alexander and Judity Ivey are two of our most enduring and admired stage actors, and seeing them in the intimacy of the Long Wharf is a treat. Judity Ivey is so charmingly funny, that she gets laughs just when her face pops up in the window of the backdoor. Jane Alexander is so good, she doesn’t need lines to tell us who Eleanor is. Every time she moves or listens to Abel or responds to Grace, we know a little more about her life and her experiences.

Denis Arndt gives a fine performance, although, I found myself wishing he would speak up a bit more to match the volume of the other actors. Christopher Michael McFarland plays the local police officer who once had Eleanor as a teacher.  Mr. McFarland, who has appeared in New Haven at Yale Rep many times, is delightful as the officer who tries to determine if Abel robbed Eleanor, or not.

I was nervous about how the actors would take their bow.  I was delighted to see that Gordon Edelstein had the good sense to have all three of the main actors come out together and bow together.  There were no single bows, which sometimes makes for awkwardness when the applause decibel levels go up for one and down for another.  Seeing these actors in the small, intimate setting of the Long Wharf is an acting lesson that every aspiring performer should be able to experience. It is even a good thing for old, retired actors to get a good solid kick in the pants from some really fine work. At least it was for THIS old actor.

 

 

 

Nicht Diese Töne

Woolsey Hall, Beethoven, and Flashlights

Built in 1901 to commemorate Yale’s bicentennial, Woolsey Hall, still today, is considered the main auditorium on the Yale campus and its primary performance venue.  It is used throughout the school year by both The Yale Symphony and The Yale Philharmonic, and it is used for official occasions including installations of new Yale Presidents.  Woolsey was, in fact, named for Theodore Dwight Woolsey who served as President in the mid 19th century.

Yale grad and former American President William Howard Taft has the distinction of being the largest President in the history of the US.  A frequent patron of Woolsey Hall, he was provided his own extra wide seat, which still stands (sits?) in the balcony.

Woolsey Hall is also the main venue for the New Haven Symphony,  and last night the orchestra played to a packed house in a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth with a set of marvelous soloists and the Yale Glee Club. However, the time it took for the audience to settle seemed to take longer than the show itself.

Finding your seat at Woolsey Hall is a challenge. Ushers were there;  wearing badges, and holding programs, and looking like they were ready to help people. But they were doing so under the handicap of being completely clueless as to how the hall is set up.

On the second level, one usher stood there checking people’s tickets and saying , “You are in a row on this level,  but I don’t know which side. Anyway, did you want a program?”

When my friend Barbara and I went inside, we were struck by how many seat numbers are no longer readable. Many people set their phones to “flashlight” in hopes of finding anything that looked like a number. Once we realized that our seats were on the other side of the row and we needed to go through the OTHER doors to get there, we felt obliged to help all others who simply could neither find their seats nor find someone to help them find their seats. Bear in mind that this auditorium seats 2,650!

I realize that part of the charm of Woolsey is its wooden seats which are slightly more comfortable than the bleachers at the Yale Bowl (except, probably, for Taft’s chair)  Sadly, the seats do little to help the muddled sound that sometimes occurs because of excessive echo problems. And even though the staircase aisles in the balcony are without banisters, the look offers an old world charm.  Of course, it also renders octogenarians and older folk apoplectic in their fear of falling, but still, you know, charming. And although, one would hope that once people have finished the obligatory standing ovation (that is a New Haven thing. They stand for everything, but I digress) , management might have the courtesy to put on the house lights so people don’t miss a step and take out a hip while exiting.  The hall remained dark for several minutes as we all groped through the dark hanging on to each other before they switched them on.

As a person who has sung in the hall, I can tell you that the backstage area does not offer much in the way of comfort, but you tend to show up all dressed and ready to perform, which is good, because the ONE mirror in the backstage area is often rather crowded.

I still love Woolsey Hall.  I have loved it since my first concert there which was Janis Joplin (my second was Jimi Hendrix.)    But would it be too much to ask that there be some modernization done to improve the performance experience for both the patrons and the artists? Andrew Carnegie built Carnegie Hall ten years before Woolsey was built, but when I sang there with a Yale group in 2015, I found it to be extraordinarily comfortable and modern and classic all at the same time.  The risers we sang on were wide enough to accommodate chairs so the singers could sit when they were not singing.  I sang three concerts in Woolsey last year, and did so on risers that must be fifty years old, and offer absolutely NO space to move, so forget about sitting down.

The last paragraph of the Wikipedia article about Woolsey Hall says,

Though Yale Universities primary recital hall, it still lacks modern amenities including universal accessibility for people with disabilities, air conditioning, and industry standard lighting.”

I did see signs last night that they are renovating the old dining hall, which is a beautiful space and serves as a venue for Jazz at Yale. One can only hope that at some point, they take on the task of renovating the main hall as well. It is possible to retain the integrity of the original style, while improving the experience for all concerned.

Incidentally, the Newberry Memorial Organ, considered one of the finest Symphonic organs in the world, is the main focal point as you look at the stage.  It is huge.  I have never heard it played.  I am going to have to fix that this year.

 

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Woolsey Hall

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The Newberry Organ, Woolsey Hall

 

Who is the Teacher?

 “I had the impression that the young generation of pianists were more interested in reaching technical perfection than in involving themselves in the emotional and spiritual meaning of what each composer wanted to express in their works.  Somehow I started feeling responsible towards the future of music-making, instead of grumbling about this, I wanted to do something positive.”  Peter Frankl on why he began teaching at Yale at the age of 52.

Last evening, Peter Frankl gave his last concert as a Yale faculty member.  The Hungarian-born British pianist, who had a successful career as a soloist since his London debut in 1962,  accepted an invitation to teach at Yale in 1987.   What followed was a fulfilling and happy career as a teacher and mentor to countless piano students, and chamber music musicians.

Mr. Frankl began last night’s program with the 13 pieces of Schumann’s Kinderszenen (Scenes from a Childhood.) Mr. Frankl gave us a performance touched with a child-like sensitivity, and delicacy that was enormously appealing.

Baritone Randall Scarlata joined him on-stage, with more Schumann, in Dichterliebe.  Mr. Scarlata, sang with absolute conviction to the poems of Heinrich Heine, and delivered a brilliant performance that was supported in every way imaginable by Mr. Frankl’s stunning playing.

The second half of the evening began with the marvelous Frauenliebe und leben, sung by Yale School of Music teacher and mezzo-soprano Janna Baty. Ms. Baty delivered a lovely performance of this Schumann masterpiece, which tells the life of a young woman falling in love, marrying, having children, and then sings of how her husband has hurt her for the first time.

“Now you’ve hurt me for the first time, but this blow struck deep.  You sleep, you hard, cruel man, the sleep of death.”

Absolutely lovely.

Ms. Baty and Mr. Scarlata then joined forces with more Schumann, in a group of duets.

Half of the fun of the evening, was watching Mr. Frankl play in perfect synchronicity with the singers. His affection for the repertoire and his respect for the singer’s artistry was evident on his beautifully expressive face.

And then…they came.

Mr. Frankl’s students, each carrying a small bouquet of flowers, one by one, approached the stage, handed Mr. Frankl the flowers, and embraced him. He was clearly touched by this lovely tribute, and I find myself filling up as I write about it now.

I have taught. I have had great teachers.  I have wonderful memories of how my teachers helped and inspired me along the way, and I also have memories of when students inspired me, as well. Because when you teach, you also learn.

In the HBO special, SIX BY SONDHEIM, Stephen Sondheim shows a photo of his mentor and teacher, Oscar Hammerstein with an inscription by Hammerstein, saying,

“To Stevie, my friend and teacher.” 

Do you have a story about how a teacher has been an inspiration to you?