by Barry Drogin
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April 15, 1980
How many of us would go see a new movie with Robert DeNiro, Meryl Streep, Dustin Hoffman and a host of other familiar names (and faces) in the lead roles? Many, I am sure, if only for the reason that we know we can expect good performances. In many ways, the Brooklyn Academy of Music Theatre Company is trying to accomplish the same thing: create and sustain an audience by presenting the same good actors and actresses in what will hopefully be a lifetime of fine performances.
To their advantage is the special excitement the audience receives from "owning" a permanent company of artists and watching them develop in roles and styles that are complete opposites. I cannot deny the thrill of seeing Shakespeare's Camillo show up as an Irish policeman in the American comedy, "Johnny On A Spot," and having my entire perception of theatre change as a result. It is like being part of an enormous "in joke," the joke being the illusion of theatre. Of course, the illusion has been broken, but having to help tell the story and rebuild the illusion is just as much fun. If this were not so, we would also not enjoy movies that feature familiar faces.
Shakespeare's "The Winter's Tale" was very much a showpiece for the company. The play itself is like "Othello," "The Tempest" and "Twelfth Night" rolled into one. Though an occasional line was rushed through, the company did a fine job of proving that Shakespeare is not only accessible but enjoyable, too. It was a risk for BAM to start its repertory life with Shakespeare, but I think it will pay off.
To show it has a sense of humor, BAM's second production (still running) is "Johnny On A Spot," by one of the authors of "The Front Page." Director Edward Cornell deserves a big hand for somehow keeping the chaotic scenes from falling into confusion. And that Gary Bayer, along with the rest of the cast, can keep the energy up through three delightfully maddening acts is simply amazing. The play is exhiliratingly exhausting.
BAM's problem will be in keeping up the momentum. In "the Winter's Tale," actor Joe Morton tosses a flower to a pretty audience member --- in a way, symbolizing the special feeling that currently exists between grateful actors and a grateful audience. As long as this feeling remains, the repertory company will survive.
September 15, 1981
"March of the Falsettos"
There is something like a miracle going on on 42nd Street. It is the Playwrights Horizons production of "March of the Falsettos," the second "Marvin musical" (more on that later) written and composed by William Finn.
In a summer's worth of movie and theatre going, I have been continually possessed by time inconsistencies. A minute is no longer a minute. "Raiders of the Lost Ark," for example, whizzes by so breathlessly that when the ark gets opened at the end I am sure that only a half hour has passed and Indiana Jones will go running off to Siberia or some such. At the other extreme, "March of the Falsettos" is so full of invention and dramatic intensity that you'd think it would take twice its short 65-minute duration.
The show is not about castrati or mouseketeers, but about Marvin, first introduced in "In Trousers" (also originating from Playwrights Horizons), who has left his wife and kid for a homosexual lover. Whereas "In Trousers" dealt with Marvin from an adolescent teacher crush through to this event, "March of the Falsettos" picks up after the divorce; Marvin is living with his lover, and everyone is seeing psychiatrist Mendel, who eventually runs off with Marvin's ex-wife.
With no spoken dialogue to speak of (sorry), "March of the Falsettos" is a contemporary one-act opera (the marvelously voiced cast of four renews my belief in the existence of fine singing actors). The stage is kept bare except for movable props that suggest a dining room, psychiatrist's office, etc., so that scene changes and combinations can flash by in an instant. At one moment Mendel is trying to propose to Marvin's ex-wife (he's better than a horse or zebra, he assures her), at the next moment Marvin is trying to play chess with his stupid lover ("Move a pawn," he insists as the lover tries to move his queen on the first move).
The lyrics are bright, refreshing, well-constructed, and often hilarious; the music is not afraid of choral harmonies, odd meters or polyphony, yet is enormously attractive and undeniably Broadway- based. If you fall in love with the score, by all means buy the record to "In Trousers," which is just as good.
The show, which has been selling out all summer, has extended its run into September.
February 8, 1983
"The Moderns Are Here Again!"
A year or so back, on of the respected contemporary music reviewers at The Village Voice wrote a rave-to-end-all-raves about a soprano/composer from Europe whose flamboyant vocal techniques and styles were declared a must-hear for anyone who cared about good music. Her name was Diamanda Galas, and her appearance at the second Meet the Moderns concert guaranteed a good-sized audience of followers, curiosity seekers, and concert regulars who anticipated an exciting evening. Surprise of surprises, the night's big event was not Ms. Galas's performance but the world premiere of Randolph Coleman's The Crowns of Nineveh, which may very well overshadow the entire concert season as the musical event of the year.
Mr. Coleman's piece is hard to describe because it is extremely powerful and affecting, both emotionally draining and uplifting, producing a transcendent concert experience that occurs very rarely (BAM chances upon one per year: last year it was the Ithaca College Chorus [an un-conducted choreographed performance of Schoenberg's a cappella "Friede Auf Erden"]; the year before, the entire Music + Film concert). Mr. Coleman knew exactly how to use his 26-piece chamber orchestra, and his use of tuned gongs and a huge bass clarinet were far from gratuitous --- you could not imagine it any other way. One strange aspect of the piece was that musicians were told to discard their used parts onto the stage at various moments, cluttering the floor and disorienting the audience in an oddly effective way. With its unabashed use of primitive pulsing and environmental sustains, Mr. Coleman seems to have staked out his own unique claim in a musical territory discovered by Ligeti and Penderecki.
The first section of Arthur Paxton's "Blood Lines" was an enjoyable game that tried to answer the musical question, "What is a French horn doing in a woodwind quintet?" At the end, the horn player leaves the quintet to join three muted brass players in the back of the stage. The second section was less successful because its thesis that the clarinet, rather than the oboe, does not belong with the brass is a sonic mistake obvious to anyone who has ever heard a band.
Two Japanese works on the program were failed efforts, the first a disjointed display of fancy instrumental techniques, the other an unstructured mood piece with a vague musical language.
This leaves the night's curiosity, Diamanda Galas, whose music was devoid of any real content beyond a gut level sense of structure and an overblown theatricality that showed off her torturous screeches and blabbering like an alienating freak show. Given someone else's music, Ms. Galas might be a powerful interpreter, but on her own she flounders like the musical "performance artists" who, like their musically illiterate followers, are unconcerned with the history of music because they simply do not understand it.
The evening's planned "encore," a small salute to Eubie Blake to celebrate his 100th birthday, acted as a good-humored send-up of Ms. Galas's dramatic histrionics --- a touch of comedy can always puncture a weak over-serious balloon. Happy birthday, Eubie!
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