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Theatre Review: “Bandstand”

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This musical got robbed of the Tony noms it deserves. I think it’s certainly the best musical of the season, and Richard Oberacker and Robert Taylor’s score definitely one of my favorites. Director-choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler did get a nom for his choreography – it would have been truly egregious if he’d been overlooked for that – but I think he deserves one for direction as well. Just a shonda all the way around.

Bandstand takes a hoary showbiz trope – underdog artists make good – and makes it so fresh it hurts. Every plot point turns expectations on their heads, and nothing comes easy for our heroes. Or is that anti-heroes?

The story follows fictional Cleveland native, WW II veteran and swing pianist / songwriter Donny Novitski (Corey Cott) as he tries to make the big time in post-war 1945 through a national radio contest. He and his small combo of fellow veterans struggle with the psychological wounds of war, which we would recognize today as post-traumatic stress. What could have so easily been nostalgic hooey is deeply humane, always engaging and even moving.

With Bandstand, Blankenbuehler joins the ranks of the truly great director-choreographers, a very small group. Every step, hell, even every breath in the show expresses something, nothing is wasted, though the movement tapestry he weaves is very rich indeed. This is far and away his best work, topping even his propulsive choreography for Hamilton.

He also, as I indicated above, demonstrates what an actors’ director he is. He helps performers like Cott and Laura Osnes (who plays the female lead, young Gold Star widow Julia) really show the full extent of their chops. Both of these talented young triple threats tend to get cast as stereotypical ingenues, but here they give riveting performances as full, conflicted human beings – they also should have been nominated, gosh darn it all. Egregious, so egregious! And highly, highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Theatre Review: “Oslo”

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It is long, it is talky, yet it is never boring. As we begin Oslo we hear Norwegian sociologist Terje Rød-Larsen (Jefferson Mays) discussing his theories about the art of negotiation. He feels that secret, face-to-face discussions behind closed doors, with a thoughtful progression from easy issues to thornier ones, works much better than public negotiations, where parties risk losing face if they budge an inch on anything. He terms his approach gradualism in contrast to the “totalism” of public negotiations, emphasizing that once a “gradualist” approach gets underway, things quickly snowball and it is anything but gradual.

As it happened, in 1993 Rød-Larsen had the opportunity to try his theories out on the most intractable discord of the 20th Century, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. His wife Mona Juul (Jennifer Ehle) was a diplomat in the Norwegian foreign ministry, and they as a couple had developed relationships with people of note on both sides, and had spent time on the ground throughout the area, including the massively overcrowded and impoverished Gaza Strip.

In short, Oslo is the story of the unexpected way the 1993 Oslo Accords between the PLO and Israel came to be. Rød-Larsen and Juul created a “back channel” for negotiation that broke decades of literally deadly diplomatic deadlock between the combatants. Mays is quietly brilliant as the quietly brilliant Rød-Larsen. Ehle plays it cooler still, so those moments when Juul puts her foot down have all the more impact.

As for the negotiators, oy the machismo. I don’t think I’d be going out on too much of a limb to say that the deep-rooted ills inherent in patriarchy are the real problem here. They are, however, intelligently portrayed, especially by Anthony Azizi (as the relatively measured Palestinian intellectual Ahmed Qurie), Dariush Kashani (as Palestinian communist firebrand with an unexpected wry streak Hassan Asfour) and the hilarious Michael Aronov as Israeli official Uri Savir, a tacky hedonist, the straight equivalent of Jonny McGovern’s character “Zarzuffa”:

Bartlett Sher’s direction is every bit as smooth and invisible as the Norwegian facilitators. Unexpectedly engaging, surprisingly entertaining, and highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Theatre Review: “The View UpStairs”

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On the basis of this show, Max Vernon is definitely a musical theatre songwriting talent to keep an eye on. The score is far and away the strongest part of The View UpStairs; it sounds like a mix of Jonathan Larson, Boy George’s Taboo and Marc Bolan at his glammiest, and that’s a pretty spicy musical gumbo. The show takes us to the UpStairs Lounge, a vibrant early 1970s gay dive bar in the French Quarter of New Orleans, which was the site of a terrible anti-gay attack – to learn more about it go see the show.

The book is a somewhat different story. Vernon also wrote the book, and as with most musical theatre books by songwriters, it’s the weakest link in the show. It’s not that Vernon lacks talent as a writer; some of his lyrics are very fine indeed. Plus the book gets the job done better than some, and has a few genuinely entertaining moments. Far too often, though, you can feel the story’s gears moving until we get into a song. The story is told through the eyes of a young gay guy from 2017 transported back to 1973, and – a handful of strong insights at the very end of the show aside – the device is more awkward than it is revealing.

Under Scott Ebersold’s canny and vigorous direction, the cast is uniformly fine and strongly committed to the show, which makes any problems much easier to take. The hearts of everybody involved are definitely in the right place. This is Vernon’s first Off-Broadway show, I truly can’t wait to see where he goes next. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Opera Review: “Candide”

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I’m biased here: I am a complete Leonard Bernstein nut. I’ve been very excited ever since I first heard about the New York City Opera revival of Candide. It’s not the unimpeachable masterpiece that Lenny’s West Side Story is – the book is famously problematic – but it is still enough of a joy that as long as you nail that sublime Bernstein score, it’ll be a grand night out. Nail it this company does, and the results are glorious.

Based on Voltaire’s 1759 novella of the same name, Candide follows the naïve titular character as he strives to maintain his optimism in the face of brutal experience. The sprightly, brilliant score is one of the best things Bernstein ever wrote, and starts with my personal choice for best musical overture of all time. This production was first staged for NYCO in 1982 by legendary director Harold Prince, featuring Voltaire as ringmaster of a circus. While the staging is showing some signs of age, Prince has refurbished many moments for an overall better flow.

Jay Armstrong Johnson imbues the title role with a charming guilelessness. Meghan Picerno plays Candide’s true love Cunégonde, filling her signature song “Glitter and Be Gay” with wit and surprise. Gregg Edelman attacks the campy business that Prince gives to Voltaire with real relish. Linda Lavin makes a full meal of the smaller plum role The Old Lady. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Opera Review: “Roméo et Juliette”

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Well, this is lovely! I’ve never been a big fan of these star-crossed lovers; I thought of them as “stupid damn teenagers” even when I was a stupid damn teenager myself. But add some music to the story and it instantly gains a lot of interest – all that yearning gives abundant opportunities for making beautiful music. I’ve long been a fan of Prokofiev’s ballet version for that very reason. And Charles Gounod, composer of this operatic version, misses few opportunities for making glorious musical hay out of these adolescent passions, not only in the pair’s big arias and duets (which positively glow), but also in sensuously sparkling waltzes for the party scenes.

Director Bartlett Sher’s sturdy production drew inspiration from two films, Federico Fellini’s Casanova and Patrice Chéreau’s La Reine Margot. It leans more heavily toward the gritty grimness of Chéreau, where I would definitely have preferred more of the color, eccentricity and perversity of Fellini, but I’d call that a matter of personal taste. Sher’s staging certainly serves the material quite well. Choreographer Chase Brock, making a very impressive Met debut, makes those waltzes whirl and pulsate with a terrifically sculptural sense of space.

In the time that I’ve been covering opera at the Met, I’ve come to be a great fan of conductor Gianandrea Noseda. He triumphs once again here with a notably light touch, giving Gounod’s glittering score much welcome space and air. We also get a light touch from this productions Romeo, Vittorio Grigolo, but one that is not mutually exclusive with soaring passionate flights in the role’s upper register.

But the real story in this production is its Juliette, Diana Damrau. It was announced before the evening started that Damrau was suffering with a cold, but would be performing nonetheless. If we hadn’t been told, I would have been delighted by her liquid coloratura dynamics, but under these circumstances sounding so marvelous is nothing short of awesome. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

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