31 October 2010

Rally, It Was

The Fairest of the Mall: Colbert & Stewart

It’s not only my profession that explains why I’ve attended more poli­ti­cal rallies from the outside than from the inside: as a journalist, I’ve covered plenty, but I’ve seldom agreed enough with anybody to par­ti­ci­pate. A good fit doesn’t often come along.

Today, with one of America’s major parties seeming (to these eyes) al­most entirely detached from reality, and the other dragged down by itself, it falls to those who aren’t politicans to plead the case for the rest of us. Jon Stewart’s Rally to Restore Sanity struck me not merely as a sly dig at Glenn Beck but also as a much-needed tonic to the modern ma­laise. My brother, as avid a fan as exists of Stewart’s The Daily Show and its pendant, Stephen Colbert’s The Colbert Report, announced his intention to fly in from San Francisco to attend the Rally; I decided to join him.

The experience proved not entirely what I expected — as I’ll explain in a moment. And yet there is something seductive and heartening about look­ing up and down the Mall and the streets of this nation’s capital, and seeing thousands upon thousands of people who pretty much agree with you. I’m glad I went.

Getting there proved to be the bulk of the problem, and I want also to use this space to castigate the Peter Pan/Greyhound Bus Lines, whose employees somehow booked so many round trips for Saturday between New York and Washington, without once thinking, “Gee, maybe we’d better add a few buses.” When I arrived (early, but not extravagantly so) for my 7 AM bus, the waiting line extended in a writhing, snakelike procession through every available space in the departure area at Port Authority. It was impossible to see everyone, so I can’t offer an exact count, but we were easily 800 to 1000 people, and quite possibly more.

After two and a half hours of waiting, I was piled onto a bus that was scheduled to go only as far as Silver Spring, MD, but that had been pressed into the extra service of a trip to Washington. Thus the trip — already late — would last a full hour longer than that for which I’d signed up.*

By the time we got to Silver Spring, it was 2 PM; the Rally was scheduled to end at 3. A dozen of us heeded the suggestion of Michael, a first-year graduate student at Columbia’s school for public and international affairs, who hoped to bypass the street traffic around the Mall and thus to arrive in time to witness anything of the Rally. So we got off the bus and hotfooted it to the nearest Metro station.

This and all following photos by Linc Madison©

There, of course, we had to wait for the Metro, while the Rally con­tin­ued apace. (A couple of the kids — all of whom were college or graduate stu­dents — had brought iDevices that permitted them to follow the pro­ceed­ings.) By the time we got to Judiciary Square, it was 2:51, several members of our group already had bailed out, and now I bailed, too. The Metro platform was so mobbed with Rallyers “beating the crowd by leaving early” that I could barely squeeze out of the car. At least I’d be close to the National Gallery, where my brother and I had agreed to meet after the Rally.

This is a long way of explaining how it came to pass that I arrived with­in view of the stage just in time to hear Jon Stewart wish us goodbye.

So much for my Rally. Thanks, Greyhound.

I talked a bit with the kids from the bus and with a few others whom I met during the afternoon. Was their interest in the Rally primarily pol­i­tics, primarily entertainment, or both, or neither? The vast majority answered “Both,” but interestingly, women were more likely than men to answer “Politics.” Since the Rally was effectively a reaction to Beck and the Tea Party, I wasn’t surprised, yet it seems clear that the (male-driven) Tea movement’s Mama Grizzly posturing isn’t playing well among younger women voters.

Two young women from my bus, Caroline and Stephanie, were students at Trinity College. Though Caroline had told her mother she was coming to the Rally, Stephanie told her parents she had the flu and was staying in bed all weekend. This lent a gently rebellious air to our trip.

In character, we were overwhelmingly liberal, and signs and T-shirts proclaimed our faith in facts and reason. Thus certain of the loopier Tea Party and/or Republican types (Beck, O’Donnell, Angle, Palin) came in for special scorn, with various of their public statements ridiculed, often humorously. This of course makes us only more “elitist” in the eyes of others, but few of us seemed to mind.

A guy who looked quite a bit like Beck was assigned oversight of the garbage bins near the Gallery. He generously informed us which was for recycling, which for regular trash, and he insisted that, no, Glenn Beck looked like him.

Some of the signs I saw merely repeated the suggestions made by the Stewart/Colbert team on the Rally’s website: “I may disagree with you, but I’m pretty sure you’re not Hitler” is one. Many signs urged us to calm down; adhesive badges exhorted us to “Vote for Sanity.”

But the Rally was an opportunity for the audience to show off its own gifts for comedy. Original messages abounded, such as the sign that said “Duck Season” on one side, “Rabbit Season” on the other. The legal­i­za­tion of marijuana is a very, very popular notion among this crowd, as are gay marriage; the end of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”; science; secularism; employment; and civility. War is not popular, but the fellow whose sign equated Obama, Bush, and Bin Laden seemed to have missed the point of our gathering.

Restoring Furore: The sign I should have carried,
discovered in a record shop on Saturday evening.

We were overwhelmingly young, too, but one grownup couple, Bill and Rita, had flown in from Arlington, TX. In a national climate of shrill par­ti­san­ship and extreme views, “We wanted to help make a state­ment,” Bill told me. When they arrived, around 8 AM, they found the Mall already crowded with Rallyers. “These kids must have camped out here,” he marvelled. By the time the Rally started, there were kids “hanging from trees and standing on top of the porta-potties.”

Bill and Rita found the show entertaining. “We never heard of the Crows,” he said of one band (of whom I’d never heard, either), “but they were good. And Mavis Staples. And Cat Stevens was here!”**

Indeed, I saw a lot of headscarves among the crowd, and I was im­pressed that, even at a time when candidates for high office strive to make Islam an object of fear, so many American Muslims would prefer to remain resolutely reasonable — and they’re gravitating toward those who embrace them as neighbors.

The Rally appeared to have been good for Washington’s economy. In the gift shop of the National Gallery, dozens of Rallyers roamed and purchased (and they went upstairs to look at the art, too); at dinnertime, Linc and I had trouble finding a restaurant that wasn’t overflowing with customers. Once we found a table, we were surrounded by folks from the Rally, including two women from Arizona who gleefully shared their favorite slogan of the day: “Palin & Beck in 2012: How did the Mayans know?”

I’ll have to resort to other means to witness the wit and wisdom of Stewart and Colbert, whom I do admire tremendously. I daresay we could do worse than vote for the ticket that so many Rallyers endorsed: “Stewart & Colbert in 2012.”

But after the Rally, as Linc and I strolled the sidewalks of the Capital, I thought not about politics but about our childhood, when the mon­u­ments were dream-castles and the Smithsonian a playground to us. We were never closer as brothers than when we were running to the next exhibit, and never more in agreement than when we were shiv­er­ing in the Washington winter, marveling at some dinosaur or da Vinci or the Star-Spangled Banner. Here we were, decades later, doing much the same.

And I couldn’t help but agree with one of Stewart’s favored slogans: “Things are pretty okay.”

*NOTE: According to my “reserved ticket,” Greyhound was obliged to seat me at the hour indicated. They didn’t do so, of course, and only when I arrived at the gate, hours later, did any employee of the bus line inquire whether I or anyone else had reserved tickets. (Nobody ever asked at all about the “Priority Tickets,” which claim to offer even greater assurance of timely seating.) My advice: save your money, and take Amtrak when you can.)

** Since Cat Stevens — known today as Yusuf Islam — once declared his willingness to assassinate Salman Rushdie, I can only hope that his presence at the Rally means that he’s evolved a bit. Because like the other Rallyers, I support evolution, too.

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30 October 2010

Time-Travelling Chaplin?

Can you hear me now?
Photo from FOX News

Recently, a number of news outlets were disappointed to report that a woman seen in a film clip from 1928 is probably not talking on a 21st-century cellular telephone, and therefore is probably not a time-traveller. Even some leading scientists were at first misled by the film, since experts believe that only a civilization far more advanced than our own will ever be capable of getting reliable Verizon service.

Despite learning that the woman in the clip is probably using a hearing aid, not a cell phone, hard-hitting modern journalists remain undaunted, and the search for proof of time-travellers continues apace. Now I can announce that I have categorical proof that Charles Chaplin himself was a time-traveller.

As the photograph below clearly proves, the Little Tramp travelled to the year 2010, heard people discussing his name, and thus learned that we were idiots enough to think for one minute that beings capable of time-travel would have any use for technology as primitive as a cell phone.

This explains why Chaplin is laughing at us.

Moreover, I have recently found categorical proof that Chaplin made no secret of his time-travelling exploits. Upon returning to 20th-century Hollywood, the great comedian shared the stories with his friends, often regaling fellow film stars with tales of 21st-century folly.

Here, we see Harpo Marx and three of his children
enjoying the story in 1954.

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28 October 2010

Hirson’s ‘La Bête’

Lumley, Rylance, and Pierce:
Top-notch actors in a play that flaunts its pretentions.
(Photographs from the London production. For Broadway, Lumley has been given a more flattering wig, so that her Princess doesn’t look like Mad Margaret.)

Since the thorny question of commercial viability has vexed my writing career on more than one occasion of late, I might have benefited from a more intellectually honest debate than the one David Hirson gives us in La Bête, a revival of which is now playing at Broadway’s Music Box Theater after a successful run in London. Since Hirson has written a comic satire in rhyming verse, in the style and the period of Molière, he can hardly be expected to side with mindless crowd-pleasers such as Valere (the title role, played here by Mark Rylance). And Hirson’s role model may set him a bad example, at least superficially: Molière makes Oronte, the aspiring poet in The Misanthrope (a role I once played), no less ridiculous or more admirable than Valere. But Hirson starts the play with the scales tipped in favor of Elomire (David Hyde Pierce), and you’re never less than fully aware that:

1) the same playwright has created both characters;

2) both characters speak precisely the same language, making it impossible to judge between them except when their author intrudes; and

3) Hirson does nothing but intrude; the whole play is an extended manipulation. (Or else it’s mere showing-off: Hey, look at me! I can write a fake Molière play!)

We never get anything like the promised debate. Why see the thing, then? Many people haven’t. When La Bête first appeared on Broadway, it was hailed primarily for its performances, and it vanished from the city’s collective consciousness. Likely it will do so again, but for now we have the pleasure of watching and listening to three immensely appealing actors, in a lively production by Matthew Warchus.

Haven’t Ouimette Somewhere? Bejart and Elomire

As the awful Valere, Rylance has the most evident challenge: he walks onstage shortly after the beginning of the play, and for the next 30 or 40 minutes, he doesn’t stop talking. It’s a virtuoso performance, exquisitely paced and structured, and you follow his every word (though you may not hang on it). Yet Pierce (along with Stephen Ouimette, as the actor Bejart) has the even more formidable assignment of listening, already a challenge for most actors when they’re listening only to a couple of lines, rather than a rambling monologue. Pierce plays the scene so beautifully that it’s impossible to tell he hears Rylance do this eight times a week; it’s all fresh to him, and his reactions even earn him several laughs of his own, without upstaging his colleague.

Elomire is playwright, star, and manager of an itinerant theatrical troupe; after long years of touring, he’s obtained the sponsorship of the Princess, who has given him not only funding but also the elegant house (designed, like the costumes, by Mark Thompson) where he now resides. This comfy arrangement is jeopardized when the Princess asks Elomire to collaborate with Valere, whom Elomire despises on principle. Whether he must (or can) compromise that principle is the drama’s conflict.

In the original production, the benefactor was a Prince, but happily for me, the character has been transformed into Joanna Lumley, making her Broadway debut, as well as one of the most spectacular entrances I’ve ever seen in the theater. Lumley gives us caprice but also intelligence; unlike the Bourgeois Gentleman, she has as much taste as she has money, so that when she advises Elomire to team with Valere, you do feel her sincerity and her critical acumen.

But in neither Hirson’s verse nor Warchus’ staging is Valere’s work (seen in a short play-within-a-play) as terrible as Elomire says it is. For every inept rhyme (which Elomire points out for us) there are other perfectly good ones that sound just like Elomire’s own. We never get to see what Elomire’s plays look like, though other characters do reluctantly confess that the work is too high-minded and intellectually dense. (So ... you mean he’s not a stand-in for Molière?)

Here Comes the Sun King: Pierce & Rylance

We also don’t connect the conflict to much else. Molière, if you remember, makes The Misanthrope a drama of Alceste’s love for Célimène, of whose suitors Oronte is but one. Each suitor is awful, and bad poetry is what distinguishes Oronte from the rest; it’s his registered trademark of awfulness. When Alceste opposes Oronte’s work, he lampoons courtly pretension but he also opposes Oronte’s courtship of Célimène: the aesthetic debate (and the satire) is connected to the romantic rivalry.

Apparently, David Hirson never read that play, since it wasn’t his idea to make the Princess a woman, and any romantic conflict we see now is pasted onto the staging. (Warchus has to squeeze in between lines a moment of erotic tension between Pierce and Lumley.) We never think for a minute that Elomire will accept Valere; we may hope that the Princess will change her mind, yet we’re not terribly surprised when she doesn’t.

I do admire Hirson’s ability to write such a quantity of poetry with so few false notes.* I only wish he’d applied that talent to a more thoughtful construct; his work could stand proudly alongside Richard Wilbur’s Molière translations, if only it were about something. Hirson certainly has the verbal skill and intellectual agility to create a worthier opponent for Elomire, and thus to offer us a livelier debate and a more compelling conflict.

On a similar note, just as I admire Matthew Warchus for injecting so much life into La Bête, so I’d rather he do the same with a better play — and I’d be thrilled to see Rylance, Pierce, and Lumley in The Misanthrope, or almost any other Molière play. Alas, though Molière was the greatest commercial success of his day in France, by now he is as un-commercial as Elomire, and we see his work too seldom in America.**

All hail!

* NOTE: Only two nights before, I’d sat through a cabaret, listening to songs that boasted such rhymes as “yesterdays / sequestered days.”

**It is on that sad account that I did not pursue my acting career beyond college.

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26 October 2010

Joseph Stein

The Broadway musical Rags, in 1986, was one of the formative experiences of my life, quite possibly the belated moment when I ceased to be a boy, for everything thereafter has made me feel as if I’m grownup already, and only growing more so. The show was a notorious flop, of course, and yet I’m absolutely convinced that the experience would have been equally meaningful — and bittersweet — even had Rags run for months or a year.

Blame for the show’s initial failure is usually placed on the book, by Joseph Stein, the Broadway veteran who also wrote Fiddler on the Roof, Zorba, and many others. Joe conceived of Rags as a television miniseries, and neither he nor anyone else ever quite managed to give the show the right focus as a two-act musical comedy. Joe tried, though, quite heroically. Perhaps nobody was in a better position to appreciate his efforts than the production assistant, himself an aspiring writer, who typed up the script changes every day.

Writing — even for the stage — is a solitary occupation, and as it became clear that Rags was in trouble, Joe was very nearly banished to his hotel room in Boston. He emerged to watch run-throughs, but otherwise, he was writing. I was assigned to see Joe every morning to collect new pages; he’d explain to me where the new scenes were supposed to go; then I’d take it away, type it up, and distribute it to the company.

This went on every day, and Joe was unhappy about it. Chomping on a cigarillo, he had a weary, even sorrowful aspect, which lightened only briefly and momentarily. If I laughed at a new joke in the script, he’d grunt first, as if I’d awakened him. Then he’d smile, then chuckle, as if to say, “That is kind of funny, isn’t it?”

But then it was back to melancholy. Simply stated, he had created too many subplots and too many characters, and he didn’t know what to do with them all. His collaborators — composer Charles Strouse and lyricist Stephen Schwartz — kept chipping in their ideas, and by the time we got to Boston, they were effectively directing the show, too. We were already playing to paying audiences, and the pressure mounted on Joe to fix the script now.

What about this? What about that? We tried such-and-such during the workshop; what if we put it back in? These were the themes of every conversation: cast members, too (and, indeed, everybody involved in the show in any capacity whatever), went over the same ground over lunch and at home in the evenings, hoping to hit upon the solution. Yet nothing seemed to work.

Soon, the producers called in Jay Presson Allen as a show doctor. Feeling like a double agent, I started going to her hotel room, too, to pick up her script changes. A fellow Texan and Kurt Weill fan, she was fun, but even I could see that her changes weren’t changing anything: she gave different weight to certain scenes, but she didn’t cut the running time, and she didn’t find the focus.

Joe knew she was in town, but they seldom came in contact with each other. To me, he seemed sadder than ever, almost like the father of a chronically ill child: I can’t cure her myself, I’ve placed her in the doctors’ hands — and God’s.

This can't have been easy for Joe, but he never complained when I could hear him do it, and though I saw some wounded pride, it was far less than the prize-winning author of Fiddler was entitled to wield. I never saw a hint of self-defensiveness from him at any point in the process. He was willing to do whatever was necessary to save the show; the demands of his ego were secondary.

Then one day, just as quietly as she’d arrived, Jay Presson Allen vanished. Returning to New York, the producers hired Gene Saks, a longtime friend of Joe’s, to direct the show, and Joe’s mood improved immensely. Tough choices were made, and the ensemble became a mere chorus. But the script was Joe’s.

Rags meant something to him, and to every member of the company. The writers and producers, the actors and crew: everybody associated with the show saw it as a tribute to their own immigrant ancestors. It must have meant something extra to Joe, who dreamed it all up, and who pretended (in my presence, at least) not to have noticed its debts to his most successful brainchild, Fiddler.

Our hopes for the show were disappointed, though I remain confident that the basic material is too strong not to prevail, some day; I’m told that some more recent productions have been quite good.

For me, as I say, the show was a continuing series of life lessons. What I learned from Joe was that sometimes you have to cope with terrible disappointments: a little sadly, perhaps, you keep plugging away, as Joe did. Though Rags was his last new musical for Broadway, he kept writing steadily until his death the other day, at the age of 98.

Once he handed me a scene from the end of the play, when Saul the sweatshop revolutionary bids farewell to Rebecca’s young son, David. Saul gives the boy a pen and pencil set. It’s a significant gesture, because Saul is in fact the person who taught David to read and write, in Act I: now he’s giving David the means to pursue that education on his own, and for the rest of his life.

“It’s a bar mitzvah present, isn’t it?” I said. “I mean, it’s the classic, traditional thing to give to a bar mitzvah boy.”

Joe hesitated, and to this day I’m not sure if he sincerely agreed, or if he was merely humoring me. But his eyes began to twinkle, and he said at last, “Sure.”

I defend my interpretation. At that moment in the play, David becomes a man. And so did I, in a sense. On that show, embraced by the sacred tribe of Teresa Stratas and Madeline Gilford and Bob Straus, and by a loopy, brilliant family of actors, facing a brand-new world — I grew up, too.

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24 October 2010

Hearing and Re-Hearing: Bolcom, Beethoven, Bernstein

“Swimming Aria”: Joyce Castle at the Morgan Library.
October 20, 2010

It’s not every day that a friend celebrates her 40th season in opera, nor every day that she sings the world premiere of a song cycle written especially for her. So yesterday, I went a second time to hear Joyce Castle perform The Hawthorn Tree, seven poems set to music by William Bolcom, at the Brooklyn Museum. Joyce had performed the cycle on Friday evening, as well, and by yesterday afternoon her interpretation was all the more assured. A second hearing afforded me the chance to pay closer attention to Bolcom’s composition, too, with its varied means and pleasing ends; and on both Wednesday evening and Saturday afternoon, I thoroughly enjoyed the second part of the concert program, Beethoven’s Septet in E-flat Major, Opus 20, played by members of the Orchestra of St. Luke’s.

Contemporary music is so far afield from the classics that formed the basis of my early musical education, that a second hearing (or more!) is almost always necessary for me to begin to understand the structure of a piece. Unless the composition is willfully inaccessible (as Bolcom’s work never is), I can usually understand the character and the colors on first hearing, and I can feel the impact — but I don’t feel I’ve begun to know what I’ve heard. Even the Beethoven Septet, a youthful work that shows the influence of a prior generation of composers and that is, for that reason, all the more comprehensible, rewards a second hearing. Thus I’m eager to hear again the third major work I heard in recent days, Leonard Bernstein’s A Quiet Place, at New York City Opera.

Naturally, Joyce Castle knew Leonard Bernstein and has sung much of his work, including the world premieres of Arias and Barcarolles and Songfest.

First to the Bolcom. Recognizing that each poem he set was written by a different woman on very different subjects, and reveling in the versatility of his interpreter, Bolcom deploys a number of styles and evokes many moods. I could hear the influence of Darius Milhaud, with whom Bolcom studied, in several songs, and I marveled at the way he picks up little melodies so briefly before moving on to another — though any other composer might have built an entire cycle on a single one of these.

Louise Bogan’s “The Dream” builds on a churning piano background, while Joyce speaks most of the text, breaking into song only in the last stanza. Sarah Arvio’s “Chagrin” is entirely conversational (and not unlike Joyce’s own conversation) as the text starts and stops and follows its tangents, in a musical style that recalls Bolcom’s rightly celebrated cabaret songs. Christina Rossetti’s “Echo” and Willa Cather’s “The Hawthorn Tree” are especially lyrical, the Cather eliciting an almost stately tenderness from Bolcom’s pen. You can hear the Midwestern skies in the openness of the music, with birdlike notes from the flute. Stevie Smith’s “Love me!” is as anguished as Anne Carson’s “Swimming Aria” is (ultimately) serene, and Joyce really did seem to be gliding gently into some great water, exhorting us, too, to “Swim!” and drawing that word out until it ended in a sustained hum.

Joyce in Britten’s The Turn of the Screw,
directed by Sam Helfrich, Boston, 2010

The cycle is going to be catnip for other mezzos who want to showcase their range, but Joyce got there first, of course, and she was in fantastic form. Her lower register especially impressed me on Saturday — gutsy, they are, and as clean and pure as the high notes that claimed my attention on Wednesday. Her diction is simply perfect; as Bolcom warned us on opening night, we really didn’t need to refer to the printed texts in the program, because every word came across, not only intelligibly but with its correct value and mood. Through it all, she sang naturally and without any evident effort, very much a part of the instrumental ensemble even as she was its centerpiece.

Watching many of the same instrumentalists (along with a few others) in the septet, I was delighted again by Beethoven’s work. He’s out to make friends here, with only some of the passion and none of the pain that I hear in so much of his later work. He stirs up a continuous stream of rippling and eddying melodies, with burbling winds (including a distinctive contribution from the French horn) and glistening strings. The St. Luke’s players toss and catch these lines and loft them easily: it’s a game among colleagues, and as ever, I love watching the musicians collaborate and cue each other. Krista Bennion Feeney’s violin and Romie de Guise-Langlois’ clarinet were most impressive (but that may be because they were seated where I could watch them best).

A Quiet Place, world premiere, Houston, 1983

Bernstein’s A Quiet Place has never been performed in New York, and very seldom anywhere else. An extension of his one-act opera, Trouble in Tahiti, it’s a strange, fascinating work, and it’s receiving its local premiere from New York City Opera, and I attended the final dress rehearsal on Friday afternoon. I’ll bust if I don’t hear it again.

Apart from “What a movie!” — an aria that’s frequently sung in recital — I haven’t heard much of Trouble in Tahiti since PBS presented it in my boyhood. Barely conscious of opera, and only slightly familiar with a few of the songs from West Side Story, I can’t have absorbed much of what is effectively a Cheever short story set to music, albeit with greater humor and a delicious jazz vocal trio that stands apart from Sam and Dinah, a suburban husband and wife struggling to hold onto their love.

The Trio, Trouble in Tahiti, 1952

A Quiet Place, written a generation later to a libretto by Stephen Wadworth, picks up at Dinah’s funeral, and Sam wonders what went wrong. Trouble thus becomes a series of flashbacks, in Act II. Meanwhile, Sam and Dinah’s son, Junior, is gay and mentally ill; his ex-lover, François, has married Dede, Junior’s sister. Cue Dr. Freud: Wadsworth’s libretto is heavy heavy heavy on tortured psychology, and of all the characters old and new, only Dinah is even remotely sympathetic. (Several others are downright unpleasant.)

Bernstein responds with jagged, hard-edged music that somehow chimes with the melodic Trouble score even as it steers an entirely different course. Under conductor Jayce Ogren, every note is played with the curious transparency I find in almost all Bernstein’s music: it’s as if I am looking through a plate-glass window at a broad landscape I can see but can’t reach.

Christopher Alden’s staging sometimes lays this on a bit thick, but he does so where Bernstein and Wadsworth do, and in like fashion; his greatest contribution to the production is absolutely brilliant, casting Junior, Dede, and François as the jazz vocalists.

Dinah and Sam, Trouble in Tahiti, 1952

It’s bad form to review a dress rehearsal, but I don’t think anyone at City Opera will mind my pointing out that the cast is wonderful. I particularly enjoyed Patricia Risley and Christopher Feigum as Dinah and Young Sam; both singers are making their City Opera debuts.

Whether A Quiet Place is an unjustly neglected masterpiece, I’m not certain, but it’s compelling beyond compare, the final theater work by one of America’s greatest talents, and it deserves a thorough hearing. I do intend to go back.

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22 October 2010

Bolcom’s ‘The Hawthorn Tree’

All New York seems to be arrayed in celebration of Joyce Castle this week: the trees are dressed in her colors, russet and gold and green. She’s here for the world premiere of The Hawthorn Tree, a song cycle written especially for her by the wonderful William Bolcom. There will be four performances this week, all with a chamber ensemble of members of the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, and I’ll attend two: opening night, Wednesday, 20 October, at the Morgan Library; and tomorrow afternoon, at the Brooklyn Museum.

So I expect I’ll have a good deal more to say about The Hawthorn Tree, as days go by, and in any case it seems premature to say too much while the performances are still ongoing: this seems a wonderful occasion to consider a new composition and a performance as a process, and a series of experiences, rather than as a discrete hour. It’s also an occasion to celebrate Joyce’s 40th-anniversary season — which is why Maestro Bolcom wrote the cycle.

Reason to celebrate!
Joyce as Herodias, Seattle, 2001

“I made my debut when I was 12,” Joyce joked the other day, but I think she looks pretty much as if she made the debut at 2 or 3, or minus 3: it’s hard to make any sense of those 40 years. Except when I start to reckon up the great roles of her career (including the many performances that I’ve been lucky enough to see — latecomer though I am, arriving on the scene a mere quarter-century ago). Just the list of Joyce’s premieres would fill a career for most people: only a few of these are the New York premieres of Weisgall’s Esther and Einem’s The Visit of the Old Lady; the American premieres of Ruders’ The Handmaid’s Tale; and the world premieres of Bernstein’s Arias and Barcarolles, Argento’s The Dream of Valentino, and Torke’s Strawberry Fields.

Not forgetting The Hawthorn Tree. On Wednesday, Joyce strode onstage in a chocolate-colored gown that reminded me of the Winged Victory of Samothrace (whom Joyce incarnated in another cycle, Statuesque, written for her not long ago by Jake Heggie). It’s a beautiful dress, perfectly appropriate for a diva in recital, but as soon as Joyce began to sing, she announced that this was no ordinary performance.

In Jake Heggie’s Three Decembers, Central City, 2010
(That’s the wonderful Emily Pulley in the background.)

Bolcom has set seven poems by women to music that is ingratiating and satisfying, natural and expressive. He’s never been afraid of giving pleasure in song, which isn’t the same thing as saying that his work is fun (though it frequently is), and he’s an astute judge of a smart mezzo with a feel for character — he’s married to one, Joan Morris. He’s crafted for Joyce a real showcase, and while I’m reluctant to put words in her mouth (any further), several of the lyrics really seemed to speak to Joyce’s life. In the first song, taken from Elinor Wylie’s “Let No Charitable Hope,” she announces:
In masks outrageous and austere
The years go by in single file;
But none has merited my fear,
And none has quite escaped my smile.
And listening, I thought, “That sounds like the Joyce I know” — even though the song concludes on a sustained piano high note that sounds more wistful than the zesty smiles I see from her in life.

For these performances, Joyce has relied on musicians from the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, rather than playing her own instrumental accompaniment.
(Joyce as Lady Jane in Patience, Glimmerglass, 2004.)

What Joyce proceeded to do throughout the evening was not merely to engage her audience and communicate with us, but to characterize us. This is an exceptional accomplishment, and I’d better explain it. Each of Bolcom’s songs is a monologue, and in singing, Joyce entered into a character and created a miniature drama. However, this meant that we weren’t passively listening but transformed into an other, the character who took part in a dialogue with Joyce. Though we didn’t answer with words or music, we might have: we were participants, and I had the clear sense that each scene had a before and an after, when my “character” would have made a response.

In my career as an audience, I’ve attended many, many recitals and concerts, but I’ve never gotten quite this feeling, something beyond engagement, beyond even complicity.

I’ll have more to say about The Hawthorn Tree in days to come, but this news needed announcing now: Joyce is doing something extraordinary in New York this week, in brilliantly crafted music that she offers to us completely. She sounds wonderful, she looks divine, and she’s an indisputably great artist. No wonder the trees are celebrating her.

Why would anyone want to escape her smile, anyway?

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15 October 2010

Collegiate Chorale’s Brahms-O-Rama

A Rhapsody in Blythe
All performance photos by Erin Baiano

A really huge chorus always strikes me as anachronistic. In the Good Old Days, every community (to say nothing of colleges and churches) boasted a chorus, and a big city such as New York could boast several. That’s no longer the case — blame the decline of music education in schools, the rise of competing entertainments, changes in taste and, not insignificantly, soaring expenses. So it’s a rare treat to hear New York’s Collegiate Chorale, an ensemble so vast, it’s indispensable, giving the city’s music lovers a chance to hear great works as the composers intended — or only dreamed about.

At a gala celebrating the Chorale’s 69th season, music director James Bagwell conducted two 19th-century masterworks that benefit from massive forces such as these, Brahms’ Alto Rhapsody and A German Requiem (October 13). Yet such was Bagwell’s sensitivity and the Chorale’s impeccable polish that both works, for all their majesty, were never ponderous. The effect was like some wonderful hybrid of an 18-wheeler and a Maserati, a combination of power and swift grace.

James Bagwell

These virtues happen to apply equally (at least) to the soloist in the Rhapsody, mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe, who is possessed of one of the most powerful voices I’ve ever heard. In the congenial acoustics of Carnegie Hall, she sailed effortlessly over the Chorale and the American Symphony Orchestra — always giving the impression that she could blow the roof off the joint any time she chose. Hers is an instrument of great beauty, as well as strength: plush in all its registers, with surprising agility.

I first heard her as Isabella in Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri, where she displayed her gifts for coloratura — and for comedy. Indeed, she’s such a vivid stage presence that, outside of a concert such as this one, it’s hard to focus exclusively on her singing. Even in the Rhapsody, she seemed at times to assume a character: the Storyteller, who recited Goethe’s lyric as if to the faithful gathered at her priestly altar.

Johannes Brahms

The trouble with the Rhapsody for this listener is that it ends just as it seems to get started, and here as in the German Requiem, I was reminded that, for all my affection and admiration for both works, I find neither satisfying. The Rhapsody understays its welcome, and the Requiem gives me no catharsis.

Brahms presumes that we the living have already endured our pathos (bereavement), so he takes us directly to the mathos. For an emotionally involving requiem, I turn to Mozart and Verdi, but Brahms offers consolations aplenty: rich harmonies, evocations of Bach, stirring dramatic passages (especially in and around the baritone solos). And when performed by a chorus as populous as the Collegiate Chorale, the German Requiem provides a supplemental comfort — as if derived from Immanuel Kant. If so many people agree, how can I deny their wisdom?

Bass-baritone Eric Owens

Eric Owens (who, like Blythe, is singing Wagner at the Met this month) gave a vibrant reading of the baritone solos, though the quality of his voice is less juicy than I’m accustomed to hearing in this music, and it didn’t quite match his commanding interpretation. Erin Morley sang the soprano solos with unforced purity, shimmering top notes and a creamy lower range.

Bagwell did a superlative job. The art of the chorus master and that of the conductor are related but not identical, and generally it makes sense to me that two people divide the work (much as a restaurant hires a separate chef to make pastries). Bagwell, whom I heard for the first time tonight (he assumed leadership of the Chorale since I’ve been away) achieved something close to a balance between his tasks, however, his symphonic interpretation wholly accomplished, with utter clarity and drive. The real marvel remains the Chorale, however.

Soprano Erin Morley

Their precision, dynamic control, and flexibility are just about peerless in my experience, and beyond that, it’s thrilling to be in the room with them and to hear so many voices in chorus. Nowadays that privilege is, as I say, too rare, and even prodigal New Yorkers (like me) ought to seize the opportunity to hear them.

Next up for the Chorale is a pleasure of another kind altogether: Kurt Weill’s Knickerbocker Holiday, on January 25 and 26, at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall.

Soprano Morley, with Bagwell

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08 October 2010

Busch’s ‘The Divine Sister’

Holy Diva! Charles Busch

Actor, playwright, and (above all) diva, Charles Busch is, in keeping with the old adage, someone who says things funny. It is his mouth especially that seems to inhabit its own comedic universe; dwelling on a New York stage for an hour or two, it puts on its own show. To call what Busch’s mouth does “grimacing” does pretty much encompass all its moods: pursed in mockery, agape in horror, trembling with desire. That mouth, with its perfect teeth and vivid lipstick, comments constantly — and independently of Busch himself — on the surrounding action. I’m not sure what word could express just how graceful those grimaces are, and how funny.

The cast: Rutberg, Fraser, Busch, Walker, Van Dyck, Halston

So you will have to see for yourself, and luckily, you can now, since his latest play, The Divine Sister, has begun an unlimited run at New York’s SoHo Playhouse. A mash-up of every nun movie you ever heard of, with a couple of extended riffs on His Girl Friday, Suddenly Last Summer, and The DaVinci Code thrown in for good measure, The Divine Sister is, as Busch explained in a post-curtain speech last night, an attempt to get back to the fun of his earlier theatrical adventures downtown (including Psycho Beach Party, the last play I saw him do, before it turned into the movie of the same name). I’m pleased to report that, for this audience member, he has succeeded handsomely. Or perhaps beautifully.

Jennifer Van Dyck (Mrs. Levinson) with Busch

Busch likes to say that his spoofs are designed to appeal to a broad audience, and not merely to those who worship old movies. I trust that lots of people could enjoy his plays, but you’ll have to ask them; alas, I’m one who knows his way around old Hollywood. Even when Busch is channeling Rosalind Russell (as he is for the greater part of The Divine Sister), I see Susan Hayward whenever I look at him. He is exceptionally lovely in drag, with not a trace of the grotesquerie that marks so much drag work. His stage persona is a loving, detailed tribute to great stars who probably cannot be evoked by mere mortals, men or women. Something bigger, grander, and more artificial is required to do justice to these lost luminaries.

Weird Sisters: Rutberg, Busch, Fraser, Halston.

The Divine Sister scores a few political points about narrow-minded religious people in general and certain policies of the Roman Catholic Church, but its real impulse is sheer fun. When a postulant named Agnes (cue your memories of Agnes of God) has visions or receives stigmata, you can be sure there’s a non-celestial explanation, and you’re likely to laugh — unless of course you are narrow-minded or a conservative Catholic. In which case you probably haven’t read this far.

Second to Nun: Halston teams again with Busch.

The cast includes Julie Halston, who has appeared in more of Busch’s plays than I can count, as the earthy Sister Acacius who has been the tough-talking sidekick since the Mother Superior (Busch himself) was a wisecracking girl reporter. But over the course of the play’s fleet 90 minutes, Acacius suffers the bulk of the play’s indignities; she’s reduced us to hysterics, and she takes us along with her. Alison Fraser plays the mysterious Sister Walburga like Eartha Kitt impersonating a Gestapo officer, her every line a lingering Teutonic purr; and Amy Rutberg trills merrily — until she stops — as the pure fool, Agnes. Jonathan Walker plays the straight man (in both senses) with enthusiasm, but his roles simply aren’t as much fun as the others. How could they be?

Catechism in the Wry: Busch (Mother Superior) & Van Dyck (Timothy)

Special mention must be made of Jennifer Van Dyck, who portrays with equal élan the grande dame, Mrs. Levinson, and a little boy named Timothy. I knew Jennifer at Brown, where she impressed me from her first day on campus. I have never seen anyone to rival her in a cold audition: at 17, she could pick up a script, find the jokes, and put them over flawlessly. Her gifts have not diminished over time, and her own mobile moue has at last found its soulmate in Busch’s.


Carl Andress, Busch’s frequent collaborator, directs with just the right energy: the piece zips along, but we get plenty of time for the jokes, the takes, and the pauses. Clearly, he knows this kind of material at least as well as Busch does, and you never get the feeling that either man has missed an opportunity to get a laugh. Fabio Toblini designed the costumes with flashes of wit (Walburga’s gloves are a nice touch) and great ingenuity: several actors are double-cast, and their costume changes defy belief. B.T. Whitehill’s set design has a great “Let’s put on a play in my uncle’s garage” flavor, and Lewis Flinn contributed original music, which of course includes a guitar song for the Mother Superior. That’s as much suggestion as we get of The Singing Nun and The Sound of Music; if The Divine Sister is ever turned into a movie (and I hope it will be), a few more such musical numbers would be welcome. Charles Busch already laughs like a brook as it trips and falls.

Soeur Sourire? Amy Rutberg with Busch

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06 October 2010

Children of the Commandments

To my intense relief, William’s bar mitzvah ceremony
did not in any way resemble
that in the Coen Brothers’ film A Serious Man.
Pictured: Aaron Wolff as young Danny Gopnik

Today I am a man who has attended a bar mitzvah ceremony. It’s a bit late for me to be doing this for the first time, but when I was a boy, my Jewish friends didn’t invite me to their b’nai mitzvah. Whether because they didn’t think I’d be interested or because they didn’t really like me much (always a distinct possibility), I can’t say; surely no one could predict that I would become “an honorary Jew,” as my surrogate mother, Madeline Gilford, put it. Perhaps I required her blessing before I qualified to do so, but it was only as an adult that I entered a synagogue for a bat mitzvah, a few years ago.

That ceremony celebrated a friend who, as an adult, was called to read the Torah. In that case, I was so moved by the personal significance of the ceremony that some of its broader implications eluded me. After all, when a woman makes a conscious and committed choice to delve more deeply into the faith of her ancestors, it’s kind of a big deal. We’re in the 21st century, and no one is forcing her to uphold traditions from millennia long past; she already identified culturally as Jewish. But the ancient faith is modern and real to her, and unlike many a 13-year-old, she decided for herself to embrace it more fully.

Watching a more conventional celebration this weekend, including Sabbath services and a truly brilliant party the next day, for a boy the usual age, I was able to focus a little better on what this rite of passage may mean to other people — certainly on what it means to me.

Few things on earth seemed more unjust, when I was a boy, than that a handful of my classmates should be able to call themselves grownup simply because they’d passed their thirteenth birthday. Childhood seemed a form of slavery in those days; that another child should be emancipated was intolerable. Compounding the injustice was the celebration surrounding the rite, because it seemed (pretty accurately, I think) nearly comparable to a wedding feast. There was no equivalent in the Methodist faith in which I was brought up, and I resented the party, the gifts, and above all, the recognition my friends received. I can admit that now.

As I grew older, I came to understand better what it meant to become a bar mitzvah. It is a taking on of responsibility (which has never been my favorite pastime, and so maybe my friends did deserve a little extra credit for doing something I would not), but my vestigial Christian worldview misperceived this as a burden — a cross to bear. Watching and listening this weekend (enlightened by a Reform service that was almost too accessible), I understood the responsibilities of Jewish adulthood as something entirely different.

In music, especially, the rite proclaims its optimism and joy. As the celebrant chants, his lines are ascendant, rising to heaven, finishing in a higher place (literally) than where they started. I was reminded of a professor at Brown, who observed somewhat smugly that Judaism is the rare faith in which the emphasis is on what happens while we’re still alive. Of course, no Jew would argue that it’s easy to be a Jew, but the rewards of the faith are found within the faith, tied up with the hardships, yes, but also making clear why the suffering isn’t the main idea. And so we hit that higher note, brighter than those that came before.

Then on Sunday, the dancing began. We hoisted William* on a chair and danced the hora around him. This in itself is pretty great, like hitting a winning home run and being paraded on your teammates’ shoulders, and William appeared to enjoy the experience thoroughly. But then I stepped back to look at who was dancing: William’s brother, sister, cousins, aunts, uncles, parents, and grandparents: the living proof of the strength of the tradition of this faith. Small wonder that their friends, like me, joined in.

This wasn’t the first time that I’d shared such a milestone with this family. The wedding of William’s parents was one of the most joyous nights of my life (an historic blizzard notwithstanding), and his brother’s bris brought me to tears — not because of the cut but because of the continuity — when I heard his parents’ Hebrew names among the ancient prayers. I’m proud and grateful to have been included in these occasions, and while I may never fully take on the adult responsibilities of this or any faith, I thank all of my friends for making me a better (honorary) Jew.

*NOTE: It’s true: through sheer, unintended accident, the young man is my namesake. He sings opera, too.

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04 October 2010

Gotham Chamber Opera: ‘El Gato con Botas’

With this Cat, I thee wed:
Sierra (Princess); Brancato (Cat Puppeteer); Verm (Miller); Costa-Jackson (Cat Vocalist)

Catalan composer Xavier Montsalvatge’s opera El Gato con Botas (Puss in Boots) is popular enough in Spain that friends there have expressed surprise any time I admitted that I’d never heard the piece. “¿Como es posible? El Gato con Botas is not famous around the world?” Thanks to the always-adventurous Neal Goren and his Gotham Chamber Opera company here in New York, I’ve heard El Gato at last (October 1), and I’m hard-pressed to think of reasons it oughtn’t be standard rep in America, too.

Written at the height of Francisco Franco’s regime, Montsalvatge’s score is designed to charm, not to offend; it runs a friendly hour to tell a beloved tale (one of my boyhood favorites) with ingratiating melody and abundant opportunity for crowd-pleasing, family-friendly theatrical effects. Performed by another of the attractive young casts that are Gotham’s trademark, augmented by Mark Down’s puppets and stage directed by Moisés Kaufman, El Gato plays at the New Victory Theater on 42nd Street through October 10.

Happily Ever After

Since its renovation several years ago, this theater has been home to a number of family-friendly, theatrically imaginative entertainments in limited run, but few boast the broad literary appeal and musical sophistication of El Gato. A longer run — or a return engagement — would be easily justified.

Montsalvatge alternates vivid dramatic scenes with impressionistic orchestral interludes, and he does an admirable job of keeping this work short and sweet. I could willingly have listened to mezzo-soprano Ginger Costa-Jackson’s Cat in an El Gato of Wagnerian dimensions: three acts and five hours would barely suffice to contain my pleasure. She lavished a lush, supple instrument on us, with just enough meowing to raise an extra smile; with wide, expressive eyes, she expertly conveyed the Cat’s wily character. She hardly needed the puppet that joined her onstage.

The Cat’s Meow: Ginger Costa-Jackson

Much the same can be said of bass Kevin Burdette’s drunken Ogre and Kyle Pfortmiller’s capricious, pint-size King. I’d heard Burdette at Glimmerglass and New York City Opera and knew him to be a theatrical dynamo, but Pfortmiller’s work is new to me; unlike Costa-Jackson and Burdette, he operated much of his character’s puppetry (mostly a costume suspended from his neck). Both men delivered just the right measure of monstrous/tyrannical fearsomeness, leavened with humor and suavely sung.

Only two characters weren’t portrayed by puppets, leaving all the work to individual singers. The Miller is one of the most passive male characters in fairy-tale literature, and baritone Craig Verm played him as something of a brutish fool, only reluctantly dissuaded from turning the Cat into an article of quality headwear, thereafter doing as he’s told. Nadine Sierra’s visually and vocally luscious Princess suggested that, once Happily Ever After is declared, the Miller will always need to bow down before her.

While Costa-Jackson carried off the vocal honors, all these young people sang splendidly, with clean lines and artful expression. I’ve come to expect this from conductor Goren, who brings out the best in young singers and who rehearses them until they’re so confident vocally that they can dare challenging stagecraft.

Maestro Goren

The gorgeous, beautifully proportioned New Victory proved a much more congenial venue than the company’s original home, the Harry de Jur Playhouse at the Henry Street Settlement on the Lower East Side, where the acoustics were as hard and unforgiving as the seats. (The orchestra pit there was tiny, too.)

Here as elsewhere, Goren has proved himself adept at an array of styles, while remaining true to the virtues of clarity and coordination. In repertory spanning centuries, I’ve never once heard him overpower a young singer with his orchestra, and in El Gato, using Albert Guinovart’s chamber orchestration, he evinced respect and affection for a work that is far more staid than many others that he champions. The musical results were never less than enchanting — quite rightly so.

Given the overall success of the production and the enthusiastic reception by the audience on October 1, it seems almost churlish to ask for more, or to point out my reservations. But I had a few, and those lie precisely with what seemed the most popular elements of the evening: the puppetry and the stage direction.

Merrily, merrily: Sierra and Pfortmiller
In the foreground, the puppet representing the “drowning” Miller

Director of the Tectonic Theater Project, Kaufman is best-known for socially progressive, theatrically innovative productions such as The Laramie Project and I Am My Own Wife; born in Venezuela, he was an excellent choice to direct this production, which uses both the Spanish libretto and an English-language translation. Puppetmaster Down hails from London’s Blind Summit Theatre, and he provided the bunraku Trouble in Anthony Minghella’s Madama Butterfly at the Met. (For that production as for this, Nick Barnes designed the puppets — quite ingeniously.) Seán Curran choreographed the witty, graceful dances for humans and puppets alike.

Despite the best efforts of Kaufman and Down to focus our attention, we often didn’t know where to look. Puss required three puppeteers: one crouching behind him but the other two standing — and emoting — on either side of him. Of course we watched their faces, as well as the puppet. Beside them stood another performer, Costa-Jackson, also enacting the character, though (confusingly?) costumed as a peasant woman while she sang a trouser role.

Wabbit Season: Hunting for focus.

Whenever our eyes followed Costa-Jackson’s lovely voice to her lovely face, then we were distracted from the puppet, and when we looked at the puppeteers, we saw less of the puppet itself and of Costa-Jackson, too. And so on. It was difficult to appreciate the efforts of all these fine performers when we were pretty much certain to miss out on something any time we looked at one and not at all the others.

My larger reservation concerns the tone of the staging and its relation to the music. Here, Kaufman favored entertainment at the expense of the story Montsalvatge was trying to tell: nowhere is the composer’s score as broadly comical as Kaufman’s staging. And when Goren has gone to all the trouble of bringing this music to New York, and playing it so beautifully, shouldn’t the staging complement it, rather than upstaging it? We applauded the first appearance of the Cat puppet — how could we not? But in the process, we couldn’t hear several bars of the overture. That’s a shame.

Cat puppeteers Jonothan Lyons; Aaron Schroeder & Stefano Brancato
join singers Verm & Costa-Jackson

Maybe kids today need more aggressive entertainment than Montsalvatge could foresee (or General Franco would permit), and this production clearly targets children, as well as adults. However, the disparity in tone between staging and music was sometimes too great for my comfort.

For example, just prior to the scene in which the “Marquis de Carrabas” is saved from drowning, Montsalvatge gives us an orchestral interlude that depicts the rippling waters of the river. Down and Curran provided some beautifully choreographed puppetry, as various fish glided by — but then they undercut the mood when Puss appeared, wearing a diving mask and snorkel. The staging team earned a big but cheap laugh by betraying the music.

A little while later, we saw how right this production could be. In the orchestral interlude that introduces the Ogre, we saw his six body parts (head, torso, four limbs) emerge separately on the darkened stage; they swirled and came together in a way that set up the character’s size, his strangeness, and his ability to transform himself through magic. The movements matched the spirit of the music perfectly, and this felicity continued throughout the scene, as Burdette joined in to complete the Ogre’s portrayal.

Like Gollum on steroids: The Ogre meets the Cat.
(That’s Kevin Burdette at far right.)

I can’t help wishing the entire production had been so successful. Again, the audience loved every minute of the evening, and for the most part, I did, too. From the get-go, audiences have flocked to Gotham productions not only for repertory rarities but also for show-business savvy; the company’s tickets are often the hottest in town — even as the balance between theater and music has been particularly delicate.

Striking the right balance is always tough, for any company, but I’m hoping that, in future productions (such as the upcoming Eliogabalo, by Cavalli), Goren and his colleagues will trust a little more in the music that they’ve worked so diligently to bring to light.

El Gato con Botas (Puss in Boots)
A Gotham Chamber Opera and Tectonic Theater Project production
In association with Blind Summit Theatre
At the New Victory Theater
209 West 42nd Street, New York, NY
Performances in Spanish Oct. 7 and 9 (7 PM)
terpreted performance Oct. 8 (7 PM)
Matinée performances Oct. 9 (2 PM), 10 (12 PM)
Closing performance Oct. 10 (5 PM)
Contact the New Victory Theatre for tickets.

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