Archive for October, 2009

Review – Opera Macabre – English National Opera

October 10, 2009

Last night my friend Irene arrived from the states and we took her straight off to ENO for the sold out last night “Opera Macabre,” a show that looked like a lot of fun but was hideously marred by the sort of music (singing, really) that makes me want to stick knitting needles in my ears. What is up with modern composers and their desire to not bother with any kind of melody? Why is Squeak squeek SQUAWK foomp even worth singing, much less again and again? Now, mind you, seeing people fairly well having sex on stage, a man in drag being whipped by his mistress then forced to service her, and listening to Mr Death brag about being well hung may have been a different approach to opera, but it did not compensate for the horrible music. The cool set, the giant body of a woman who frequently had projections on her white skin (ie of all of the bones in her body), rotated, and had parts come off (the nipples), DID nearly hit the “cool enough” mark, but it would have all been so much better if we’d been wearing earphones we could have tuned to the kind of music we actually enjoyed. Spectacle it was and fairly watchable, but …. I leapt for the exit at intermission (gratefully leading my four companions) and headed to the pub next door for a consoling glass of wine and the comforting arms of “Disco Inferno.” Then we chatted (Obama, Nobel prize, why?) until it was time to head back to Tooting.

Really, modern opera. Next time I’m listening to the score before I buy tickets.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, October 9th. It is now over.)

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Review – Mayerling (2009) – Royal Ballet

October 8, 2009

Kenneth Macmillan’s works don’t really hit me right. Thus it took the offer of £20 stalls seats (from the Sun, thanks guys!) to convince me to go see Mayerling at the Royal Opera House. Sure, it was the opening night of the Royal Ballet’s season (yay!) and I have kind of got a thing for your capital R Romantic works (even though this is Victorian, I still felt it shared a lot of the feeling of Doom and Passion that Wuthering Heights did), but fin de siecle Vienna isn’t quite the same thing. But then… £20 seats, Ed Watson as the Prince, and Mara Galeazzi as his death-wish girlfriend? With bonus Sarah Lamb and Steven MacRae? It did seem like there was a good chance of excitement after all.

I will start off with the positives. First, this is a great male dramatic role. Well, actually, no it’s not. Watson was on stage nearly constantly, but he was almost always looking somewhat tortured, though he did alternate that with “mean” and “lustful.” Sadly, the expression of “character” served to frequently mar the dancing – too much dragging his feet around, a sad lack of lovely leaps. His ability to partner and flip women in the air was astounding, but in the nuptial night scene with his hated bride (played by Iohna Loots), I found myself tiring of the constant twists in the air and flips over his shoulder, etc, etc. I consider the skillful creation of these moves to be a hallmark of MacMillans choreography, but so many of them packed together and in such a negative context created no pleasure in my eyes, merely a desire for the scene to be over and something else to happen.

The next positive is the fab start to act 2, a scene “set in a seedy club.” I loved the plumed hat-wearing can-can type girls, with their lacy pantaloons and trampish ways; it made for a lively change from the wretched end of the previous act (and it’s always kind of fun to see ballerinas putting on the tart). However, the dance of the prince’s mistress, Mitzi Caspar, was dull (if nicely executed by Laura Morera). I did enjoy the dance done by the male corps and the prince; it was a good chance for the Royal Ballet men to strut their stuff (and I feel that too often big “corps” dances are all women or couples; just men is a treat).

The act ended on a fun note with the bedroom scene between Mary Vetsera and the Prince. Vetsera was a great Bonnie to the prince’s syphillitic Clyde; her passion for his skull and handgun showed that, as far as being nuts went, she matched him pecan for pecan. His weird, frantic, lustful dancing was managed far easier with her than with poor, virginal Princess Stephanie; they very much seemed in tune with each other’s dementia.

I’ll interrupt the narrative to bring up my third positive, which was the great costumes. From the Victorian Hapsburg court to the gartered dance hall demoiselles, I found myself again and again distracted by having so much to look at on stage – a feature that would probably discourage other companies from mounting this show. However, I’d suspect the real reason they won’t mount it is the same reason I left after act two; it just isn’t really that good. I couldn’t get emotionally committed to the characters and the choreography wasn’t interesting enough to make me want to put up with the grim reality of what a 10:30 end time would mean to my ability to function at work the next day. And if that’s how I feel, how would it go over in Omaha? I really want to see more new story ballets, but this modern one (1978) just leaves me dry. Why the Royal Ballet has done this over a hundred times is a complete mystery to me. At least now I know that even from the fourth row, there’s no point in my bothering to see Mayerling.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday October 7th, 2009. It continues through November 10th and will doubtlessly be revived over and over again, which will give me more excuses to patronize Sadlers Wells. As near as I can tell I’m the only person who didn’t like this ballet but, you know, there always has to be one of us.)

Review – Annie Get Your Gun (with Jane Horrocks) – The Young Vic

October 7, 2009

Given that the Union Theatre’s Annie Get Your Gun was one of my favorite performances ever, and that Jane Horrocks is up there in the stratosphere of True Genius, I have to admit my expectations for the Young Vic’s production of Annie Get Your Gun were quite high. And as, after my long wait (probably got tickets three months in advance), as I sat down under the delicious wagon wheel chandeliers and behind a bank of four (count ’em, four!) piano players, I thought to myself this is going to be great.

Well, as I think about it two nights later, there were some great things about this show. Jane has a fantastic physical presence for Annie Oakley, not only managing small and scrawny, but also developing into glamorous and sexy as her character’s self-confidence develops. (I would have never imagined Ms Horrocks with flowing blonde locks and a white fringed and spangled cowgirl outfit, but she looked fantastic). And Frank, Julian Ovenden, was perfect, manly with that 1940’s stage vibrato that clearly _should_ have made all of the women fall all over him. Julian was much less of a “fathead” in his performance – he was both genuinely affectionate and genuinely concerned about his own career – and listening to him sing was a real treat, so kudos to him for his charismatic performance. John Marquez as Charlie and Liza Sadovy as Dolly were also a pile of fun and had that “big star” feel to them so appropriate for this era of musical – and this era of showbiz.

Buuuut …. it’s so horrible to say, and I never thought I’d be tying this, but Ms. Horrocks just wasn’t hitting it with her own singing. It wasn’t so much a matter of false notes, but just a lack of conviction and enthusiasm about what she was singing, a lack of oomph and pizazz. (Plus, I just gotta say, it isn’t “doing what comes nat’rally” no matter what Berlin wrote, he meant “natcherly,” just like the little girl was singing it.) She was also frequently overcomic to the point of woodenness (leading me to wonder if perhaps she was also affected by the misguided soul responsible for the poor choreograpy – whoever did “I’ve Got the Sun in the Morning” ought to be tied to a bronco and chased out of town). All of this meant her performance wasn’t selling to me in my 8th row seats. I mean, I should have utterly hung on her duets with Frank, but she wasn’t keeping up her end of the deal. Bah bah and bah!

So stupendously rotten that it deserves its own paragraph is the stage itself (catcalls to Ultz). It was some kind of horrible hybrid of a Cinescope movie house and a shitty 70s rec room – long, short, and shallow, with brown melamine walls and crappy white dropped ceilings of the very sort I go to the theater to get away from. This put serious limitations on the dance scenes, which, squeezed into this boxcar of a set, uniformly failed to gel. There were two peeps of what could have been – a bit where the top of the stage opened to show a little hotel room, making me think the entire upper deck of the set might open, or the back might open up, a hope that was crushed in the second act – and the great “Annie’s New Trick” bit, where the whole cast stood in front of the stage while a projection made bullet holes appear on the wall behind them. I thought that very convincingly captured the magic of theater, that we could “see” her flying by in an airplane and writing her lover’s name on the wall … but that magic was in might short supply for the rest of the evening.

Now, Annie Get Your Gun is a brilliant bit of writing and musicianship, and this was not so vile that I left at intermission, but there is no doubt in my mind that better versions of this show will be made, and this one, with its near community college production values and below par singing (by the star) is utterly worth missing. Two stars out of five.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Monday, October 5th. The production continues until January 2nd, 2010. For a more pointedly scathing review, see The West End Whingers; frankly, I just couldn’t be bothered to write that much about this show, but they were pretty damned accurate.)

Review – Enron (by Lucy Prebble) – Royal Court

October 6, 2009

In the darkest gloom of 9/11, in those days when it seemed like everything was collapsing – the stock market, the job market, the American infrastructure, my ability to pay my rent – in the short, short days of a Seattle winter when it seemed the world was coming to an end, day after day I remember going to work following not Survivor (for reality TV was a new thing) but rather NPR’s nightly reporting on the implosion of Enron, the company that seemed single-handedly responsible for the ruin of the American energy market, for the blackouts in California and the sudden huge surge of costs for tiny cities in Northwestern Washington.

I’d watched my industry, the dot coms, go belly up in a huge Tulip Madness balloon – but what was this Enron mess? Day after day the personalities played out over the radio like a strange soap opera told in three minute increments, a story that finally ended in jail and death … and, if I’m not mistaken, a sentence that actually allowed someone to alternate “being out of jail time” with his also guilty wife so their kids could have at least one parent raising them … yet somehow didn’t result in anyone being shot by stockholders or the thoroughly betrayed and ruined employees of this corporation. It seemed to almost be at the level of a Greek tragedy, a corporate scandal that was more than just a few lined pockets and a quick flight to Brazil, rather a Trojan Women-style tale of a civilization utterly destroyed.

For me, the concept of Enron seemed completely sensible. We had the larger than life figures (Mama Rose!), the great brought low – why not give it a score and toss in dance numbers? The whole thing was so ludicrous it deserved to be turned into something we could all laugh at. This thought in mind, I managed to (barely) get a seat some two months before it opened at The Royal Court (even that early there was hardly anything but obstructed view for a matinee) and was quite eagerly looking forward to seeing the play despite still suffering from a most persistent lung infection.

As it turns out, Enron is very much a theater piece driven by personalities and plot, with just a few surreal moments thrown in. The key drama is the relationship between arrogant industry climber Jeremy Skilling (Samuel West, rising nicely from newb to player to pathetic has been with delusions of grandeur), brilliant lady executive Claudia Row (Amanda Drew, perfectly capturing the Texas blonde in all her complexities), and Skilling and desperate math genius Andy Fastow (Tom Goodman-Hill, believably pathetic). Somehow their own desires to do well in their careers make them both look normal (and easy to relate to) while also believably blinding them to any ethics considerations about their behavior. Their various moments of desperation are all sharp and full of drama – although the arc of each of their stories peaks at different times.

The intervening explanations of how Enron was truly built on a house of cards (or empty boxes) and just how energy deregulation served almost immediately to bring down the power grid in California are interleavened in such a way as to be very much digestible, both easy to understand and important to the story. Of course, it helps that a lightsaber fight is used to illustrate the California debacle, serving also to emphasize they way the real life traders actually treated the whole thing as a game, despite being directly responsible for the deaths of many people.

Two and three quarters of an hour later, dancing mice, tame velociraptors, and Siamese twin bankers were feeling almost normal, proving that creating a fantasy world that seems a representation of reality isn’t really that difficult. Enron convinced heaps of people that it was a going concern that actually made money by selling nothing and telling people they were making a profit; it’s not really all that much different from many of the financial scandals going on today. In fact, with its core of hubris, it’s a tale that transcends its historicity just as easily as John Gabriel Borkman did. Plus: lightsabers! In short: it was a good night out and I recommend it.

(This review is for the matinee performance that took place on Saturday, October 3, 2009. Enron the Musical continues at the Royal Court through November 7th, 2009, but is about as sold out as it gets. It transfers to the Noel Coward theater January 16 – booking is now open, fyi. A better review is here)

Review – Scottish Ballet’s 40th Anniversary Mixed Rep (Balanchine, Forsythe, Pastor) – Sadlers’ Wells

October 3, 2009

Last night J and I went to see what I consider the start of the fall dance season in London, Scottish Ballet’s visit to Sadlers Wells. Initially I’d written it off because Scottish Ballet is not on my list of “preferred companies” (ROH, Birmingham Royal Ballet and Northern Ballet being the “local” three) and because, let’s be clear, I can live the rest of my life without seeing anything from Balanchine’s Jewels suite again. I saw it at City Ballet, I saw it at Pacific Northwest Ballet, and it just doesn’t do it for me. It’s empty style, sort of showy but still hollow, like a wedding cake with fancy icing but dry cake underneath it. I’d much prefer the more emotional Serenade and Agon, or the fabulously over the top Stars and Stripes, or the just perfect La Valse (God, have I seen enough Balanchine?) to Jewels. HATE HATE HATE. And how about just having some goddamned new ballet anyway? ENOUGH WITH THE BALANCHINE!

Only, well, I looked at the program (as it got closer to the date – nudged by Twitter, I think), and I saw that it did have quite a bit more – it had a piece by my favorite choreographer, William Forsythe, and a piece by a choreographer that I’d never heard of before (Krzysztof Pastor). And then Ballet Bag posted a link to a Rubies pas de deux on Twitter … and I thought, well, you know, that program Scottish Ballet is doing, it actually really has a lot going for it. I should go see them and see what they’re made of – my recollection is that the Balanchine Trust is kind of picky about who it lets do their dances, so chances are that technically they’re pretty good. And it’s the Friday after my first payday at my new job … time to celebrate, and what better way than a night at the ballet! (I realize “lifting pint glasses” would probably be how most people would do it but I know what I like, and it’s enjoying other people’s artistry with all of the attention I can bring to bear.)

When the curtain rose on “Rubies,” my first view of Scottish Ballet was of a very young and very fresh looking company (“fresh” as in “not burnt out from doing 7 shows in 6 days”). I realized they’d performed the night before, but the dancers just seemed remarkably full of energy. Soon Ja Lee, in the solo female role, was positively saucy, smiling and selling the dance for all she was worth. Her movement was sprightly and elastic and (key to Balanchine) effortless, and in the bit where the four men manipulate her legs, she kept smiling and I caught only even a hit of a tremble in her arms. This must, I think, to some extent speak to the strong work of the male dancers, and indeed, all I saw of the Scottish Ballet’s male corps throughout the night, as in this bit they must co-partner with a unification of movement and focus, staying on point as she stays en pointe and yet keeping an awareness of each other. Because my eyes were not focused on them trying to do their jobs, only looking at them occasionally to admire what they were doing, I must say that they were doing great work at creating seamless movement that only assisted in showing off the extravagane of this part of the work – a woman partnered by four men!

I was also utterly fascinated by the male half of the duo, Tama Barry, who was simply the most masculine danseur I have ever seen. With his broad chest and strong thighs, he looked to be a rugby player who could easily have tossed Claire Robertson three times her height into the air. I wondered if such a physique works against a dancer. Would he have the nimbleness of Ed Watson? How was he at propelling his own body through the air? I kept my eyes on him (not unwillingly) for the rest of the night (easily enough as he was in every piece). My conclusion was that he was a great partner – in fact, I felt he really changed the tone of Rubies, making it seem less …. well, it’s perhaps incorrect to call Mr. B either misogynistic or anti-male, but Tama made it seem more gender balanced, with a look and a strength that drew attention to him on stage even when he was partnering. As I watched him through the night, I thought he didn’t leap like I thought he might have been able to, but in some ways I felt that might have reflected more of a choice to not make a spectacle of himself (even though I’ve seen few male dancers throw away an opportunity to show off if it presented itself, still sometimes presenting an even medium in one’s execution of a move is more appropriate for creating the right look for a dance). He seemed fairly fleet-footed, but I wasn’t entirely convinced he was able to get the height and move as fast as I’d expect of the best of male leads. Still, I’d very much like to watch him again, in a role in which he was supposed to go bravura, and see what he’s really made of. He’s certainly got the charisma.

The next piece was my Forsythe, new to Scottish Ballet but in fact from 1996, so already several years old when I first saw “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated.” I’ve seen some pieces by him in the last two years that were very new, and “Workwithinwork” felt very much like a transitional piece; still on toe shoes, dancers suddenly stopping and standing around on stage doing nothing, the legs lifting high with incredible strength and swiftness, the extravagantly rotating arms. The movements seemed to painfully underline the historicity of the Balanchine; these weren’t done by sad waifs who wanted to look pretty for Mr. B: they showed the burning spirit within that I think must be the thing that keeps ballerinas going, a desire to be brilliant and please themselves, burnished in a punishingly competitive environment.

Newer, though, was the loss of focus on interaction, the ensuing isolation of the dancers on stage (occasionally broken by a pas de deux or a rare group interaction); this fragmentation was also reflected by the music, which had neither beginning nor end but just seemed to be a lot of squeaky violin playing (Berio’s Duetti for two violins, not something I’ll be buying any time soon). Then suddenly there was a duet between a small blonde (Kara McLaughlin?) and a man with dark hair, with music that actually sounded like it had fallen out of some world of structured music … and it was really beautiful. Afterwards I’m afraid I lost the plot a bit and got caught up in trivial details like how tall the female corps really was (they looked about 5 foot on average) and just how transparent the men’s pantyhose-style leggings were (dance belts ahoy!). I blame my exhausting work week in general, as I’d enjoy seeing this piece again, but it really just didn’t have the power of his mid-80s works for me. Ah, well, the movement was gorgeous.

The evening ended with Krzysztof Pastor’s “In Light and Shadow,” rather interesting to see so soon after the Brandstrup/Rojo project two weeks ago. My thought was: “Bach! The composer against which choreographers throw themselves again and again, hoping to at last equal his brilliance – with little success.” This piece also used a big chunk of the Brandenberg concerto, the aria, which was now very familiar to me, and I enjoyed Pastor’s light handling of it more than the tweedling and lack of commitment I saw in Brandstrup. However, the whole piece seemed light – brilliant color in the costuming (really, our favorite bit of the whole work – lovely androgynous things, men in skirts, the grace of the transparent suits the first couple wore, strapped-on corsetty tops and shorts, great!), but the movement not memorable or very interesting. It wasn’t bad, mind you, it was just forgettable, other than a brief bit when the lighting went to just 3 feet high on stage and only the women’s legs could be seen beneath their lifted skirts. Still, it’s always nice to end an evening listening to Bach’s Third Orchestral Suite, and on the whole I’d say that I’d be very happy to watch Scottish Ballet again.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, October 2nd, 2009. The last performance at Sadlers’ Wells was on Saturday the 3rd, and I am sorry if you missed it but they do appear to be on tour so you may have an opportunity to see them again.)

October 2009 theater calendar

October 2, 2009

With the cool weather comes the return of long nights spent indoors, and as you know I like to spend them in a theater. Here’s my schedule for October, though it seems that every day I’m hearing about another must-see show – today led to the purchase of tickets for Shunt’s new show, Money.

2 Oct Fri: Scottish Ballet, Sadlers Wells (Mixed rep)
3 Oct Sat: Enron, Royal Court
5 Oct Mon: Annie Get Your Gun, Young Vic
7 Oct Wed: Mayerling, Royal Ballet
9 Oct Fri: Grand Macabre, ENO
12 Oct Mon: Comedians, Lyric Hammersmith
13 Oct Tues: In the Spirit of Diaghilev, Sadlers’ Wells
15 Oct Thu: Clockwork Quartet’s Chocolate Steampunk Evening, The Horse Hospital
21 Oct Wed: Terror 2009
Theatre of Horror and Grand Guignol
(a quartet of spooky plays) at the Southwark Playhouse
22 Oct Thu: Silence of the Lambs the Musical, Baron’s Court Theatre
23 Oct Fri: Money, Shunt
30 Oct Fri: They Only Come at Night and Michael Clark Company (two different shows), Barbican