Football, Footlights, and Footnotes

I am exhausted.

The weekend of the Harvard/Yale football game presents some tough choices for those seeking entertainment beyond the 20 yard line. Mind you, every weekend in New Haven is filled with opportunity for those hungry for art and culture.  But since this weekend sees a temporary increase of population, and with that, an increase of choices, we are provided with the very happy problem of having too many things from which to choose.

 

Evanna Chiew

Mezzo-Soprano

Artist Diploma Degree Recital

My weekend kicked off on Friday afternoon, when Mezzo-Soprano, Evanna Chiew performed her Artist Diploma Degree Recital at Sprague Hall.  This was not the first time I heard Ms. Chiew in performance, since I attended the Yale Opera Department’s preview of upcoming productions the previous weekend.  Ms. Chiew played the Fox in a scene from Janecek’s The Cunning Little Vixen, opposite Jin-Xiang Yu, who played the Vixen. (For more on this performance, please read my article on the Yale Opera Department)

Ms. Chiew was accompanied by Yevgeny Yontov, and was joined by David Schifrin on Clarinet for a section of Spohr lieder, and a sizable chamber group, conducted by Sarah Paquet, joined Ms. Chiew for the gorgeous Quatre poems Hindou, by Maurice Delage.

Ms. Chiew is poised, smart, and when she got past the Ravel section that opened her recital, she allowed us insight into her passion as well.  Particularly lovely was the final group of Neruda Songs, by Peter Lieberson.  She possesses a gorgeous, smooth, velvety mid and low range, but it is her high notes that sends chills to your spine.  I am looking forward to more performances featuring this lovely mezzo throughout this opera season.

The audience was filled with several students from the Yale Opera Department, which was lovely to see. However, the gentleman sitting next to me did not bother to silence his cell phone, and when it rang TWICE, both times he answered the call.  Now, I realize these are free concerts, but there is simply no excuse for such a breech of etiquette and lack of respect;  not only for the artist, but for the other patrons who are there to hear some first rate music and support the student who’s final grade is partly dependent upon the success of the recital.

The recitals at Yale are free.  In fact, many of the performance opportunities are free, or inexpensive.  I will endeavor to provide a comprehensive list of live performances, so stay tuned, get to Sprague and support these burgeoning artists.

 

Merrily We Roll Along  (Yale Dramat)

It was during rehearsals for the Australian production of Evita when I first heard of this show.  Hal Prince, who directed us in Evita, talked about this show, since it was his next project.  My fellow cast members and I were wild with anticipation at the release of a cast album, as any theatre folk are for a Sondheim/Prince musical.  But since we were in a Prince show, we all ran off and purchased the album the moment it hit the stores, and even felt a personal attachment to it, since we got a little inside info from the director himself.  Well, that was over 30 years ago, and this is the first production I have ever seen of this somewhat notorious musical.

Prior to attending the show, I re-watched the Merrily section of the HBO special, Six by Sondheim, just to get some historical perspective from Sondheim himself, and quickly re-read original cast member, Abigail Pogrebin’s article, Showstopper (which was released as a Kindle Single) in which Ms. Pogrebin lovingly remembers the angst ridden rehearsal period, its opening, and crushing closure. Of course, this musical is known for being the last time Stephen Sondheim and Hal Prince collaborated on a show, for a very long time.  (There was a brief collaborative reunion with Bounce, back in 2002, which played the Goodman Theatre in Chicago) There is speculation that their personal friendship may also have been affected.  In any case, twenty years does seem to be a very long time between shows for these two theatrical giants, whose previous collaborations gave us, Company, Follies, Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd, Anyone Can Whistle, Funny thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Pacific Overtures, and Side by Side by Sondheim.

This was a crisp, beautifully designed show, directed by Ethan Heard, who is a graduate from Yale College, and also the Yale School of Drama. Having seen Mr. Heard’s recent production of Bells are Ringing in the Berkshires this past summer, I was already a fan of his work, and saw some similarities since both the shows spend time in the 1950s and both have one scene devoted to a sophisticated, New York party, where someone feels like an outsider.

This show goes back in time, so our characters “youthen” (to steal a word from Merlin’s character in Camelot.)  Since the show moves backwards, we meet our three main characters, Mary, Franklin, and Charley, when they are middle aged, cynical, and have far too much water under the bridge to be completely forgiving of each other’s transgressions.  Bitterness, betrayal, and infidelity unfold early in the piece, but then we move backwards.  The last scene takes place when our main characters meet for the first time, on a New York rooftop, trying to catch a glimpse of Sputnik as it orbits the earth.  The show ends with the trio looking upwards, and outwards, singing an anthem of how it is their time to make important things happen.

In the opening scene, we meet Mary, a writer, who has arrived at a party at Franklin’s home, and she is quite visibly drunk. Recriminations begin early, as Mary, who is now a successful writer,  admonishes Franklin  (with whom she has always been secretly in love) for, among other things, not showing up at his son’s graduation.  She reminds him of the composer he had hoped to become, and shows her intense disappointment that he has only cranked out a few tunes, and  now produces films that, while commercially successful, are not artistically relevant.  Mary mentions their friend Charley, who was at one time Franklin’s lyricist.  He bristles when she brings up Charley’s Pulitzer Prize.  Mary then walks out of the party, and presumably out of his life.  To make matters worse for Franklin, his wife Gussie knows he has been having an affair with the star of his latest film.  We soon realize that Gussie lured Franklin away from his first wife; the well liked, affable Beth; the mother of his estranged son.

Our trio was played beautifully by Sarah Chapin as Mary, Daniel Rudin as Franklin, and Simon Schaitkin as Charley. Franklin’s first wife, Beth was played by Nina Goodheart.  Beth gets the best song in the show, Not a Day Goes By, which Ms. Goodheart sang quite well.  I can’t help but wish she had reigned in a bit of the emotion however,  until she got further into the piece.  She let it all out so early that by the time she got to the end, she really had no place to go.  That said, the conductor might have chosen a less frenetic tempo for the piece as well.

Ginna Doyle as Gussie was the hit of the night, as I saw it. She has tremendous presence, and although her singing voice needs to even out a bit more, she should expect many more roles to come her way, and I look forward to seeing her grow.

The show was presented by the Yale Dramat, which is not affiliated with the Drama school or the Rep. It is, however,  an organization that has been around for over 100 years, and like many Yale organizations, is steeped in tradition and history. Cole Porter and Thornton Wilder premiered their first original works through this organization.  Dramat members drink from a chalice, which was a gift to Cole Porter from his father at the debut of one of his collegiate offerings while at Yale.  The actors from this show are, for the most part, majoring in non-arts related fields, but their love for the theatre is certainly driving their extra-curricular choices.

 

Footnote:

I referenced an article by Abigail Pogrebin, which I read through my Amazon Kindle membership.  The article, called Showstopper, is about her experience as an original cast member of Merrily we Roll Along, and she writes of the 2002 reunion concert, in which she also participated.  I strongly recommend this piece as it beautifully describes the highs and legendary lows of this piece of theatre. Interestingly, Ms. Pogrebin is also a Yale graduate, and she performed in Dramat performances as well. Enjoy.

 

Kroks and Whiffs

I spent many hours of my youth listening to (and singing with) members of the Harvard Krokodiloes.   Many of the arrangements are imbedded in a particularly sweet place in my memory.  So, I could not wait to see and hear the current Kroks and Whiffs duke it out in Battell Chapel just a few hours after the Harvard victory on the football field.

It is always a treat listening to the Whiffenpoofs. I have enjoyed hearing the 2015/2016 Whiffs sing on a recent Monday night at Morey’s, (mind you, on the Monday preceding the game the Whiffs were a no show due to a cold and flu outbreak among the group) and since the Kroks and I go back, I can hear young men sing acapella till those lost lambs finally come home.

The concert at Batell Chapel came just hours after the Harvard victory on the football field, and I rather got the impression that both the Whiffs and the Kroks were anxious to get a party started, rather than to duke it out musically at Batell.

The Kroks began the program with three selections.  Sadly, none of which were my favorites, but oh well.  The Whiffs finished their program with, you guessed it, “We are Poor Little Lambs” and I must admit, I love it when old alums join in on that number. But then the Whiffs were gone from the stage, seemingly also on their way to a more pressing social commitment.

Then the women of Whim ‘n Rhythm took over the show, and they were terrific. They did not seem to need to be somewhere else, so they took their time, and seemed truly happy to be performing.

I will be writing a bit more about women acapella groups in future articles. So stay tuned

 

Trouble in Tahiti by Leonard Bernstein/Yale Cabaret

I had not walked down the well-worn steps of the Yale Cabaret for over 40 years. But these old knees will happily grind their way down those steps many more times in the coming months, if the offerings are as satisfying as their recent, sold-out production of Trouble in Tahiti.

This opera, which was written in the 1950s, talks of idyllic life in the suburbs.  Sam and Dinah and their son, (whom you never see) have it all; the house, the car, the modern conveniences.  And while the libretto does not specify where Sam and Dinah live, the Greek style chorus sings a litany of well known, upper middle class suburbs so you can take your pick.  (Scarsdale, Shaker Heights, Ozone Park, Wellesley Hills) The chorus, which is sung by an overly made up, disturbingly happy trio, (played by Kate Marvin, Kate Berman, and Adam Frank) sing the word, “Suburbia”  in exactly the same intervals as Bernstein’s song, New York, New York, from On the Town. (Why I never noticed that before, I cannot tell you, but the discovery was a sweet one.)

Rae Powell designed a cartoonish production, complete with oversized props that were drawn on cardboard.  While the chorus was resplendent in deliberately over the top make-up, including eyebrows reaching into their foreheads, Sam and Dinah were subdued, and dressed in more muted tones, which allowed us to see their inner sadness and disappointment at not finding the happiness post World War II suburbanites were promised.

Kelly Hill as Dinah, and Luke Scott as Sam were perfectly cast. Kelly Hill was hilarious during the tour de force aria, Trouble in Tahiti, which is the name of a movie that she has just seen. Luke Scott sang the part of Sam splendidly, and was a fine actor as well.  He sang with the face of a man who lost something, but doesn’t know what it is, and hasn’t a clue where to find it. We saw the second show of the evening, on the last night of the run, and their performances were fresh and alive. There were times when your heart was breaking for Dinah and Sam, and the distance between them.

This is a small opera, and this was the perfect venue for a piece of this size.  It is a Cabaret (old chum) and when the show is over, the cast just wanders into the audience. I love that!  I am happy to say that I had a great chat with Luke Scott, and he confirmed my notion that the cast loved performing this piece.

Yale Cabaret’s next show is the Play, Boris Yeltsen, which begins on December 3rd.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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