Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Little Shop of Horrors

     I went to the Off-Broadway revival of Little Shop of Horrors with an open mind. This quirky 1982 musical about a plant that demands human blood has a cult following and is even loved by critics, at least most of them, but I have never seen the appeal. The current production at the Westside Theatre/Upstairs didn't change my mind, even though the show, under the direction of Michael Mayer, is top notch in every way. 

     The silliness of the story doesn't feed me for two hours.  I use the term "feed me" because as devoted fans know and love, this is an oft-repeated line of the murderous plant, Audrey II.  She is brought to life by puppet designer Nicholas Mahon with Kingley Leggs's rich bass voice.  The musical, with book and lyrics by Howard Ashman and music by Alan Menken, is based on Roger Corman's 1960 film.  It spoofs old time horror movies and sappy ballads.

     While the show is tedious to me, this production's components couldn't be better.  It's always a joy to see Christian Borle, especially when he can fully exercise his comic chops the way he does here.  He pops on and off stage in a variety of roles, including the leather jacket-wearing, motorcycle-riding, girlfriend-abusing dentist, Orin, and a Life magazine editor's wife in a pink suit and high heels.  He seems to be having a blast and it was fun to see who he was going to come out as next.  He certainly must have good dressers backstage transforming him from character to character so quickly.

     Not surprisingly, Jonathan Groff gives a strong performance as Seymour, the downtrodden clerk in a Skid Row flower show who becomes famous for the unusual plant he nurtures to enormous size, fed by the humans who get in his way.  Tammy Blanchard handles the role of Audrey, Seymour's fellow clerk and the object of his longing, with just the right amount of campiness and sensitivity, especially when she sings the show's funniest song, "Somewhere That's Green."  I was equally charmed by the chorus of Skid Row Urchins played by Ari Groover, Joy Woods and Salome Smith (pictured left to right with Groff) who do a great takeoff of 1950s girl groups with some nice Motown moves thrown in.  A nod to choreographer Ellenore Scott and to costume designer Tom Broecker for those shimmering red dresses they wear for one number.

     Scenic designer Julian Crouch offers a Skid Row that looks more like a set for "Sesame Street," which I liked.  Little Shop works better with this kind of simplicity that a small Off-Broadway stage provides rather than a full-scale Broadway production like the one in 2003.  

     Being able to give this much praise to a musical I don't even like is a tribute to all the folks reviving it.  True fans will be in heaven. 

Saturday, October 19, 2019

Play portrays post-war relationship between hero priest and jailed Nazi

     Kingfishers Catch Fire is a story about such extreme evil and amazing redemption that if it weren’t based on facts it might be hard to believe.  Robin Glendinning’s play, which had its world premiere this fall at Off-Broadway’s Irish Repertory Theatre, portrays the soul-saving relationship that developed between two World War II adversaries in the years following the fighting. 

     Readers of J.P. Gallagher's 1967 book Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican will know these two historical figures.  Msgr. Hugh O’Flaherty was an Irish priest who saved more than 6,500 Jews and escaped Allied POWs in Rome by sheltering them and arranging for their escape, using his role as Notary of the Holy Office and the cover of Vatican neutrality.  Lt. Col. Herbert Kappler was the infamous head of the Gestapo in Nazi-occupied Rome.  The book was the basis of a 1983 TV movie, “The Scarlet and the Black,” starring Gregory Peck as O’Flaherty, Christopher Plummer as Kappler and Sir. John Gielgud as the Pope.

     The play’s director, Kent Paul, was unfamiliar with the book and movie but knew he wanted to direct the play after the Irish Rep’s producing director Ciaran O’Reilly gave him the script for consideration.

     "I was immediately attracted by the language of the play,” he said during a telephone interview from his home on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.  “I was intrigued by this preposterous friendship.  I knew nothing about these two people before I read the play.  It's been a voyage of discovery."

     While the book and movie portray the harrowing action of the war years, the play picks up in 1948 when O’Flaherty, saying he has been ordered by Jesus Christ, reluctantly makes monthly visits to Kappler, who is serving a life sentence for crimes against humanity in a prison on the western coast of Italy.

     In a running time under two hours, O’Flaherty, played by Sean Gormley, and Kappler, portrayed by Haskell King in a particularly strong performance, discuss questions of personal responsibility for actions taken during war, morality and the existence of God.  The play ends with Kappler begging O’Flaherty to bless him and the priest rising hesitantly to do so.  In actuality, O’Flaherty baptized Kappler into Roman Catholicism in 1959. 

     "The conversations are entirely imagined," Paul said, adding that it's a tribute to Glendinning "that the quality of the language makes you feel this is what these two men would have said to each other.”

     The 81-year-old Irish playwright, who lives in the small town of Comber in County Down, Northern Ireland, was unavailable for comment.  The play’s title comes from a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem of the same name.  It was developed following a 2016 staged reading that was part of the Irish Rep Reading series.

     I haven’t read Gallagher’s book but I have owned a copy of the movie drawn from it for more than two decades.  It’s an exciting, action-packed drama with three of Hollywood’s greatest actors.  In contrast, the play is about ideas and existential questions rather than action.  When I asked Paul about the challenges of directing, he said he had to "make action"  and worked “quite meticulously” on ensuring every word is heard.

     Action isn’t needed to make this play compelling, especially in the show’s most chilling scene.  King’s anguished Kappler recalls his overseeing of what is now known as the Ardeatine Caves Massacre in which German forces executed 335 people in the caves near Rome in retaliation for the deaths of 33 German soldiers at the hands of the Italian resistance.  King powerfully recounts the slaughter slowly and in great detail, conveying Kappler as a man deeply haunted by the horror of what he had done.  

     To make all the details real, Paul and the actors did much research into who the people were, “read a great deal about the war” and even tried to visualize what O’Flaherty would have seen as he drove from Rome to the prison.  For that, they found a photo of a Fiat from the time to imagine a line the priest says about the long journey, ”I'm a big man in a small car."   

     Set designer Edward Morris created a bleak cell, with dingy stone walls containing nothing but a single bed, a table, straight chair and a toilet.  I found Matthew McCarthy’s lighting distractingly bright, though, for a desolate prison.  The atmosphere would have been enhanced by dim lights.

    Still, the tight space of a prison cell is perfect for putting the focus on the sharp interchanges.  A line of Kappler’s stood out for me as he tries to squirm out of his culpability: "For a crime to be committed there has to be both action and intention,”  he says, explaining that he took action because he was ordered to but he had no intention.  It’s an interesting parallel to O’Flaherty’s claim that he was disgusted by the idea of visiting Kappler but did so because he had been ordered by Christ.

     I was also struck by a line of O’Flaherty’s.  Although a man of God, he is aware that questions of morality don’t always have easy answers.  “Colonel,” he says, “I know that good and bad exist but in this world they are often so mixed up we can't tell the difference.  It's a world of grays.  I think it's the Devil's work to persuade us that it's easy to decide in matters like these."

     Paul passed on the opportunity to comment, saying O’Flaherty’s words speaks for themselves.   "It's so beautifully put.  I agree.  I couldn't possibly say anything better."

     Then he added, ”In a certain sense the play is about to know all is to forgive all.  I think of Monsignor encouraging Kappler to continue his search for God.  He makes it clear he doesn't forgive Kappler for what he did but he can't live in the past.  He has to move on."

     He said it was rewarding "to see a play of language and ideas come to such vivid life.”

     The show has sold-out many nights and has been extended for a week, closing now on Oct. 27.  Paul said the producers are exploring possibilities for future productions.  This should be possible based on the simplicity of the needs — only two actors and one minimalist set.  

     I hope the play’s timeliness, with the rise of anti-semitism in Europe and America, will help it to be brought to life again soon.  This story of devastating hate followed by extraordinary grace needs to be told often.

   "The play speaks for itself so eloquently,” Paul said.  “I dread and hate the anti-semitism that has been developing in Europe.  The play is about, if we want to live, we have to embrace each other.  I think the play reveals to us the necessity of telling our stories because only in telling our stories do we accept ourselves.

     "It's one of the finest things I've done.”

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Elizabeth Patterson & Gloriæ Dei Cantores Receive an American Prize for their Performances of American Music

Congratulations to Director Emeritus, Elizabeth Patterson and Gloriæ Dei Cantores, who have been awarded the 2019 American Prize Ernst Bacon Memorial Award, recognizing Maestra Patterson’s conducting and leadership, as well as the ensemble’s performances and promotion of American Music. The award-winning American Psalmody collection premiered twenty-three first and only recordings of works by 20th Century American composers including Adler, Neswick, and Rorem. The American Prize is the nation’s most comprehensive series of contests in the classical arts.

“Ms. Patterson is a true choral alchemist, and never fails to draw truly golden sound and beautifully nuanced singing from her hard-working musicians. Sacred illumination is their mission, and they achieve it with spiritual sincerity and power.”

—American Record Guide

In addition to championing new American composers at home, Maestra Patterson led Gloriæ Dei Cantores on numerous international tours, using music as a bridge between Americans and other countries and nationalities. From New York to San Francisco, London to Venice, Prague to Moscow and Siberia, Gloriæ Dei Cantores and Ms. Patterson brought not only American music to foreign countries, but also the music native to the countries in which they were performing. Elizabeth Patterson has overseen the development of a repertoire incorporating over 2,400 works including world premieres and commissions by American composers Samuel Adler, Dominick Argento, Gerald Near, and Mark O'Connor. Maestra Patterson’s dedication to international understanding and cultural integrity have won her critical acclaim in concert halls throughout Albania, Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, Croatia, Czech Republic, England, France, Finland, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Russia, Scotland, Slovakia, Switzerland and Wales.

Critical Acclaim for Gloriæ Dei Cantores
“Superb!”    BBC
“They sing with absolute fluency and authority”    GRAMOPHONE
"Seamless ensemble, seductive phrasing"   LOS ANGELES TIMES
 “A world-class concert choir”    WASHINGTON POST
“Beautiful, affecting music”    CHICAGO TRIBUNE
“Expert renditions of Gregorian chant”    NEW YORK TIMES
“Perfectly captures the exultation in every note”    FANFARE