Sunday, January 15, 2006

Goldring Arts Journalism trip to NYC

In case your wondering why the theater posts, my graduate school class recently went on a ten day trip to NYC, something we called an immersion and The New York Sun called an Immersion! (sorry inside joke). In case you want to be in on the laughs, check out Gary Shapiro's article:

While we were in NYC, we attended numerous critical workshops, visited the New York Times, New York Review of Books, Vanity Fair, Spin and had numerous lunches with critics from Entertainment Weekly, The New Yorker and the Christian Science Moniter, among others. We also watched three Broadway shows (Light on the Piazza, Spamalot and Sweeney Todd), one ABC ballet rehearsal (Swan Lake) and a Met Opera (Wozzeck). We visited the Village Vangaurd, the New Museum, Jazz at Lincoln Center and a slew of other places.

So, you can expect a few more retrospectives on that trip; Just as soon as I can find a second to reflect. Here are two reviews to tide you over. -JP

Boo to Light on the Piazza

I cannot belive this show won six Tony Awards -- yikes! Here's my review:

Sexual identity in 1950s America diverges greatly from that found in the country today. Art portraying the bygone baby boomer era – as does the musical adaptation of Elizabeth Spencer's novel Light on the Piazza -- raises the question of relevance in our modern age. Piazza’s story line is outdated; accordingly this production at the Lincoln Center Theater fails to contribute substance to recent conversation about life or love.

The plot emphasizes extinct state-side values by transporting a pair of American women to Italy. The two leading ladies, domineering mother Margaret (Victoria Clark) and mentally impaired child Clara Johnson (Katie Clarke), emblematize Southern stereotypes with their floral McCall catalogue dresses and subservient attitudes: the climax occurs when Margaret tells her husband “no” for the first time.

Instead of making a statement about the impending women’s liberation movement, director Barlett Sher compromises the subplot with his traditional interpretation of the text. In any case, the ultimate goal of the story is to marry off a daughter, (not exactly something to which a contemporary career gal can relate).

A second flaw in the script concerns the central focus of portraying human interaction. To understand the relationship between people requires the disclosure of their motives. However, the writing fixates on advancing the story where it should focus on the idiosyncrasies that make its characters whole, especially where the women are concerned. The conventions used to establish a framework for their behavior are trite and ill-used. Phone conversations between Margaret and her husband along with sparing soliloquies, fail to give dimension to their roles.

The principle women also fall short of creating any stirring interest in their characters through musicality or acting. Content to settle into the story’s inconsistencies, they are unable to fully convey the emotional impetus for their character’s actions.

The saving graces include the attractive sets paired with the commendable color and lighting design that bares Florence’s face. The brilliance of these successes pushes Light on the Piazza into a dated story about the love of Italy instead of the intended story of love in Italy.

(Light on the Piazza is still running at the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center)

Sweeney Todd and Wozzeck: An unlikely pair

My review of a NYC-based opera and a musical that illuminates dark concepts with bright minds:

Darkness descends upon New York City as vengeful murderers stalk their prey in two theatrical adaptations. Eugene O’Neill Theatre hosts Steven Sondheim’s sinister story of the murderous barber Sweeney Todd, whose namesake character seeks revenge against a corrupt judge. Mere miles apart at Lincoln Center, the Metropolitan Opera executes their production of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. The opera’s title character also seeks revenge; this time against an adulterous partner and a reprobate society.

Sweeney Todd’s minions, confined to a one-room madhouse, pluck strings, sound horns and declare his story with accomplished voices. This rarity in musicals, to find instrumentalists among the cast, helps to overcome complications in the one-set design. The cast also finds themselves in a constant state of flux; rearranging furniture, pouring buckets of blood and climbing atop of wooden constructions to keep up the show’s momentum. By way of these unusual stage conventions, the mental institution certainly suits Sweeney Todd. The brilliance of the central theme is only surpassed by the execution of an outstanding cast, including Michael Cerveris as Sweeney Todd and Patti LuPone as his neighbor Mrs. Lovett, a human meat-pie distributor.

Wozzeck (Alan Held) exhibits an increasing insanity, suggesting he too would benefit from a visit to the physch ward. In lieu of the loony bin theme, set designer Robert Israel portrays Wozzeck’s growing madness and impending doom by enveloping the stage in almost constant darkness. This places the actors on the cusp of visibility, a difficult feat performed effectively by lighting designer James F. Ingalls. Towering, monotone structures surround the singers and provide a backdrop for the oft appearing silhouettes of Wozzeck and company. Another technique used to capitalize on the morbid motifs in this opera involves the pigment red. As Wozzeck kills his lover and later himself, a blood-colored canvas glows in the background.

Red proves popular in both shows. The Sweeney Todd crew also uses liquid red by pouring blood from pail to pail and wearing it on lab coats. The most important constant in both shows, however, is that instead of killing each show with an enigmatic concept, the killers’ stories come to life with the excellent use of extreme and engaging tactics.

(Sweeney Todd is still running at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre/Wozzeck's run at the Met ended on January 6)