O Festival Diary—Day V: The Wake World Is O17’s Glamorous Swan Song

Maeve Höglund in The Wake World at the O Festival. (Photo by Dominic M. Mercier)

Between September 14th and 25th, Opera Philadelphia will boldly go where few, if any, companies have gone before—a festival that brings seven events covering the broad spectrum of opera, and in some cases pushing it into the future. There are traditional works (Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte at the Academy), new voices (We Shall Not Be Moved, which adds hip hop and spoken-word to the mix), big stars (reigning Met diva Sondra Radvanovsky in concert), and unusual venues (including the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Barnes). I’ll do my best to cover as many of these events as I can. You can also find more information about the O Festival on their website.

A tragic realization hit me as I waited for the start of David Hertzberg’s dense, maddening, but also sometimes breathtakingly lovely opera, The Wake World: I am neither as fabulous nor as intelligent as I like to think I am. Read more »

O Festival Diary—Day IV, Part II: War Stories

War Stories at the O Festival. (Photo by Dominic M. Mercier)

Between September 14th and 25th, Opera Philadelphia will boldly go where few, if any, companies have gone before—a festival that brings seven events covering the broad spectrum of opera, and in some cases pushing it into the future. There are traditional works (Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte at the Academy), new voices (We Shall Not Be Moved, which adds hip hop and spoken-word to the mix), big stars (reigning Met diva Sondra Radvanovsky in concert), and unusual venues (including the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Barnes). I’ll do my best to cover as many of these events as I can. You can also find more information about the O Festival on their website.

At the core of War Stories, a provocative pairing of two works (one Baroque, one contemporary), is a haunting new opera by Lembit Beecher, which receives its world premiere here in O17.  The title is ironic—I Have No More Stories to Tell You is, in fact, full of disquieting story fragments, drawn from lived experience as well as terrified reliving. Set in the present, war dominates the lives of three character, most of all Sorrell, a female soldier now back at home and suffering from PTSD. At night, she lies in bed—though her husband tries to help her, she is largely beyond comfort.  Read more »

O Festival Diary—Day IV, Part I: Sondra Radvanovsky in Recital


Between September 14th and 25th, Opera Philadelphia will boldly go where few, if any, companies have gone before—a festival that brings seven events covering the broad spectrum of opera, and in some cases pushing it into the future. There are traditional works (Mozart’s
Die Zauberflöte at the Academy), new voices (We Shall Not Be Moved, which adds hip hop and spoken-word to the mix), big stars (reigning Met diva Sondra Radvanovsky in concert), and unusual venues (including the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Barnes). I’ll do my best to cover as many of these events as I can. You can also find more information about the O Festival on their website.

A recital is not an opera, but let’s not get too sniffy. O17 is wisely embracing a wide range of musical experiences, and even the Met does the occasional recital. More important, stars are and have always been a major component of opera, and recitals can be an avenue to bring in high-wattage glamour that might not otherwise be available.

Glamour is something Sondra Radvanovsky certainly provided. In two gowns—one midnight blue-and-black, the other green, each with dramatic jewelry to match—she looked every inch the gorgeous diva, but her friendly, even self-effacing manner (she apologized for relying on a music stand, but she’s in the midst of Norma rehearsals at the Met) instantly won over the audience. Anthony Manoli was her supportive pianist. Read more »

THEATER REVIEW: Simpatico at McCarter Uneasily Straddles the American Dream

Mierka Girten, Michael Shannon, and John Judd in Simpatico at McCarter Theatre Center. (Photo by Richard Termine)

Two things you’ll know from the first minutes of Simpatico—you are very much in a land that can only belong to Sam Shepard; and the McCarter/Red Orchid production’s director, Dado, knows how to put this darkly funny, tonally complex world on the stage.

All of this is great news for me, since Sam’s my jam. I’ve loved his work since I discovered it as a student living in suburban Southern California, a vast wasteland he understands as no one else does. Most of Simpatico is set there—and to a native, at least, the litany of place names (Glendora, San Dimas, Azusa, Cucamonga) toll like a mournful bell. Here is where America has gone to die.  Read more »

O Festival Diary—Day III: We Shall Not Be Moved

Lauren Whitehead in We Shall Not Be Moved at the O Festival. (Photo by Dominic M. Mercier)

Between September 14th and 25th, Opera Philadelphia will boldly go where few, if any, companies have gone before—a festival that brings seven events covering the broad spectrum of opera, and in some cases pushing it into the future. There are traditional works (Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte at the Academy), new voices (We Shall Not Be Moved, which adds hip hop and spoken-word to the mix), big stars (reigning Met diva Sondra Radvanovsky in concert), and unusual venues (including the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Barnes). I’ll do my best to cover as many of these events as I can. You can also find more information about the O Festival on their website.

We Shall Not Be Moved is another world premiere—yet it will be chillingly resonant to Philadelphians old enough to remember the source material. I arrived here in 1990, five years after the MOVE bombings and fire that destroyed a neighborhood—but the incident still dominated conversation and the general political landscape. My office was just a couple of miles away, something I thought about often. Read more »

O Festival Diary—Day II: In O17’s Die Zauberflöte, the Magic is in the Technology

Rachel Sterrenberg and Jarrett Ott in Die Zauberflote at the O Festival. (Photo by Steven Pisano)

Between September 14th and 25th, Opera Philadelphia will boldly go where few, if any, companies have gone before, with O17—a festival that brings seven events covering the broad spectrum of opera, and in some cases pushing it into the future. There are traditional works (Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte at the Academy), new voices (We Shall Not Be Moved, which adds hip hop and spoken-word to the mix), big stars (reigning Met diva Sondra Radvanovsky in concert), and unusual venues (including the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Barnes). I’ll do my best to cover as many of these events as I can. You can also find more information about the O Festival on their website.

Another day, another challenge. Last night, I gave a quick and enthusiastic response to Elizabeth Cree, a world premiere work I’d never heard before. Tonight brought the comfort of familiarity, with Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte in Opera Philadelphia’s home theater, the Academy of Music. This time, at least I’m on terra cognita—in fact, I taught the opera last week as part of a musical theater course.

Still, there’s nothing simple about Zauberflöte, which despite its fairy-tale tone dwells in ambiguities and big, dark questions. The musical demands are formidable. But it’s a great choice for O17, as the mythical setting (usually a fantastic take on ancient Egypt) lends itself to imaginative rethinking. Read more »

O Festival Diary—Day I: Elizabeth Cree

Daniela Mack and Troy Cook in Elizabeth Cree at the O Festival. (Photo by Steve Pisano)

Between September 14th and 25th, Opera Philadelphia will boldly go where few, if any, companies have gone before—a festival that brings seven events covering the broad spectrum of opera, and in some cases pushing it into the future. There are traditional works (Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte at the Academy), new voices (We Shall Not Be Moved, which adds hip hop and spoken-word to the mix), big stars (reigning Met diva Sondra Radvanovsky in concert), and unusual venues (including the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Barnes). I’ll do my best to cover as many of these events as I can. You can also find more information about the O Festival on their website.

And so it begins—with an ominous tolling bell, and a death sentence. Well, it’s an opera, after all. But any sense that Elizabeth Cree will be predictable vanishes almost instantly. This world premiere by composer Kevin Puts and librettist Mark Campbell, based on a novel by Peter Ackroyd, moves across an astonishingly varied dramatic terrain. There’s a little Jack the Ripper, a dash of All About Eve, a touch of Lizzie Borden… and all of this framed by Victorian music hall merriment. Did I mention that there’s also discussion of the Golem of Hebrew legend? Oh, and Karl Marx shows up for a while. Read more »

THEATER REVIEW: In Lantern Theater’s Red Velvet, An Othello Too Real For His Audience

The Cast of Red Velvet at Lantern Theater. (Photo by Mark Garvin)

There is, indeed, red velvet—gold fringe, too. They take the form of a swag valance that frames the proscenium, implying a sense of theatrical tradition and grandeur. When the marvelous Forrest McClendon, playing 19th Century American actor Ira Aldridge, takes hold of the stage, that grandeur is thrillingly fulfilled. Elsewhere, Lolita Chakrabarti’s biographical play, an enjoyable but awkward mix of trenchant character study and trivial backstage farce, is hit-and-miss.

Aldridge’s story is certainly theatrical, and it is to Chakrabarti’s credit that she wrote a play about him.  An African-American actor with special gifts for Shakespeare, he found greater favor in Europe than in his homeland, where opportunities were nil. Aldridge’s London engagement as Othello should have been the highpoint of his career, but as Red Velvet dramatizes, it was a heartbreaker. While audiences were entranced by the actor’s vivid naturalism, critics were dismissive, writing appallingly-coded reviews of his performance that barely masked their horror at seeing a black man on stage touching a white woman.

The best scene by far shows the cast reading those reviews. I assume Chakrabarti is mostly quoting the historical criticism, but whether it’s real or her invention, the effect is devastating. Watching the actors—especially Aldridge—as the words sink in is almost too much to bear.

If only Red Velvet stayed in this mode. But much of the first act involves watching Aldridge working out his Othello with a British cast, and here Chakrabarti’s writing mines stale tropes about actors (vanity, rivalries, grudges) that we’ve seen in everything from The Dresser to Noises Off. Is it the script or director Peter DeLaurier who imposes the arch, silly “look-at-me-I’m-acting” gestures on the Othello scenes? Probably a mix of both, but it’s unfortunate—Aldridge was appearing with the highly-acclaimed Edmund Kean company, who surely would have been better than this. If Red Velvet took them more seriously, it would substantially raise the stakes.

In general, the ensemble roles are mostly “types.” A good cast here does what they can—David Pica is especially droll and delightful, and Liz Filios is lovely as Aldridge’s first wife (she and a couple of others play multiple roles). But it’s an uphill battle, and wearing silly hats and wigs, the group often looks more like a Dickens’ scene in a Fortnum and Mason Christmas window.

But keep your eyes on McClendon, and everything comes into focus. He’s not just a good, even great actor—he’s a fascinating and continually surprising one. He manages to simultaneously suggest a historical character and a modern one, which underscores Red Velvet’s ultimate, crushing point—more than 150 years after Aldridge, our theater is still grappling—often unsuccessfully—with racial politics and casting.

Red Velvet plays through October 8. For more information, visit the Lantern Theater website.

THEATER REVIEW: Bucks County Playhouse’s Guys and Dolls is a Show to Love a Bushel and a Peck

Darius de Haas and Company in Guys and Dolls at Bucks County Playhouse. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Any opportunity to see Guys and Dolls—near the top of the top among American musicals—is a treat, and I especially looked forward to it at Bucks County Playhouse. It’s an ideally intimate venue, as well as one rich in history and atmosphere. The cast has many terrific performers (BCP does very well with casting in general). Most of all, the director is Hunter Foster, Artistic Associate here, who two summers ago led an exceptionally intriguing version of Stephen Sondheim’s Company.

Foster’s Guys and Dolls, always enjoyable, has many good things and at least one sensational one. Darius de Haas, a delightfully winning Nicely-Nicely, delivers his 11 o’clock number, the rafter-raising Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat, with effortless charm, musicality, and a gorgeous voice. It brings down the house, as well it should. Read more »

THEATER REVIEW: In Tiny Dynamite’s Perfect Blue, Butterflies Are Far From Free

Harry Smith (on screen) and Emma Gibson (on stage) in Perfect Blue by Tiny Dynamite. (Photo by Kate Raines)

Do you feel (as I do) that the fact we can talk to people anywhere on wireless telephones—or really, that there’s a thing called the Internet that works at all—is a miracle? If so, prepare to be gob-smacked by the ambition and achievement of G. S. Watson’s new play, Perfect Blue, where one actor appears on stage in Philadelphia, while another is patched in, on-screen and in real-time, from England.

Much of the play is a dialogue between the two. They are married scientists, working on different projects (Carys develops new strains of butterflies; Michael engineers apples and other fruits), who also have radically different world views. To keep the premise intact, their conversations require perfect synchronicity. I can only imagine how challenging to would be to rehearse such a thing—or the risks of live performance. Read more »

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