Audiences love a star turn. Few, however, witness the mind-bending moment of exhilaration in which a performer genuinely stretches himself and breaks new ground. Because the glory of a genuine star turn usually occurs under strained circumstances, there's no guarantee when it will happen, where it will happen or how it will happen. You just have to be on hand when that extra flow of adrenaline shoots through a performer's body and the planets are in alignment.
Unfortunately, what may once have been a star turn is often transformed into a mechanical trick and, in shows which have settled into a long run, the star turn deteriorates into a show-biz ritual as an actor's performance falls back on acute mannerisms and a tendency to paint the moment by numbers. When that happens, the spontaneity of the moment is lost and gets replaced with cold-blooded efficiency as the event gets recreated ad nauseam. Such has often been the sorry case with performances by superstars like Ethel Merman, Placido Domingo, Zero Mostel, Carol Channing, Luciano Pavarotti and Barbra Streisand.
If two recent star turns took me completely by surprise, it was because I was caught off guard. My expectations (along with those of most people in the audience) lay elsewhere and, as a result, I was pleasantly shocked. How I wish such surprises would happen more often! Here's why:
THE NOSE KNOWS
The advance word of mouth on Durante (the new musical which was recently on view at the Golden Gate Theater) was abysmal. People were quick to dismiss it as a stillborn show with little more than hype to recommend it. And, to be honest, the way Durante starts out made this viewer cringe in anticipation of the evening going steadily downhill.
Then something magical happened. Thanks to Ernest O. Flatt's honest direction, Toni Kaye's rapid-fire choreography and Lonny Price's amazing performance in the title role, the show won me over. That doesn't happen too often and it's all the more surprising when one considers that Durante is lean on musical material, has a weak book and lacks great visuals.
In many ways Durante resembles an bizarrely anemic version of George M. in which the protagonist (whose gigantic nose makes him seem uglier than sin) possesses such a big heart and outrageous talent that the audience, like his public, can't help loving him. While Durante can't hold a candle to other "show biz" musicals like Gypsy, Funny Girl, George M. and Applause, it does a sterling job of capturing the energy and drive which propelled one of America's most unlikely performers to stardom. What the show does have is an amazing sense of propulsion which, after the first 20 minutes, kicks into gear and never lets up. Act I builds to a climax of astonishing choreographic heat. Act II rarely loses the pace.
Even though this was a pre-Broadway tryout, Lonny Price's portrayal of the great Schnozzola had the unmistakable aura of a Tony award-winning performance. Mr. Price (who did an astounding job of re-creating Durante's vocal, linguistic and physical eccentricities) delivered as intense a performance as the young Barbra Streisand did 25 years ago in Funny Girl. Throughout the evening he received strong support from Joel Blum's tap-dancing portrayal of Lou Clayton and Even Pappas' ingenuous characterization of the "dumb hoofer" pal, Eddie Jackson.
What made Price's star turn so exciting to audiences in San Francisco? There was never any doubt that the actor, the company and the show were still trying to find their rhythm and prove themselves to the public. The unexpectedly warm response from the audience was so gratifying to the performers that one could palpably sense the excitement felt by Price and his cohorts during the curtain calls for Durante. That's the kind of electricity which can only be felt in a live theatrical performance.
NUN BUT THE BRAVE
A similar thrill coursed through the vast reaches of the Metropolitan Opera House when Diana Soviero stepped in to replace an ailing Teresa Stratas as Suor Angelica in a performance of Puccini's Il Trittico. The dynamics of this particular event were quite different from the pre-Broadway tryout of Durante. The Met's audience was eager to experience one of Stratas's rare and highly-acclaimed performances. And, because Suor Angelica has only a nun's habit with which to make a visual impression on the audience, the strength of any soprano's performance in the title role of Puccini's one-act tearjerker must rely on her ability to act with the voice.
That particular gift been Diana Soviero's calling card for much of her career and, on the evening of October 19, she came through in spades. It was Soviero's show all the way in a performance marked by more dramatic intensity on an acutely personal level than one is likely to find in most performances at the Met. Or, for that matter, anywhere else.
With an absolute minimum of gesticulation, Soviero drew the audience into her private world, inviting them to share in Angelica's emotional anguish until, caught up in the hallucinatory after-effects of taking poison, the soprano began to emit girlish, almost infantile, groans of orgasmic ecstasy in the poignant moments before Angelica's death.
Soviero's performance was one of those great moments of operatic catharsis on the stage of the Met. During the thunderous curtain calls, the soprano stepped over the footlights to touch fingertips with James Levine, who had conducted with an astounding sensitivity to Puccini's score. The dramatic impact of the performance and the soprano's final contact with the Maestro was intensely felt by the audience (a remarkably intimate moment to witness considering the vast reaches of the Met's 4,000-seat auditorium).
Others in the cast included Betsy Norden as Sister Genovieffa, Gweneth Bean as the Mistress of Novices, Wendy Hillhouse as the Abbess and Florence Quivar as the Princess.
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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on November 16, 1989.