Monday, December 3, 2007

Blurred Vision

It's rare that I dedicate this column to anyone but, if the accursed AIDS epidemic had not claimed another one of my friends' lives then today, May 5th, would have been Mark Topkin's 41st birthday. A former theatre critic for B.A.R., Mark was the man who originally sparked my interest in opera. We met while playing pinochle at the Brooklyn College Student Union, became regular theatregoing companions and stood on line for endless hours in Lincoln Center while waiting to purchase standing room tickets to the Metropolitan Opera.

Ours was a rare meeting of the minds and many of our best moments together were shared during the late 1960s as we began to explore the operatic and dance repertoires. During those years Mark and I commiserated over our problems with our parents, discovered our gay sexuality and developed such an acute sensitivity to each other's tastes and thought patterns that we could sit in the balcony of a Broadway theatre and nudge each other in the ribs as we noticed how bad the lighting was in a far corner of the stage. For two decades we were spiritual if not familial brothers. As gay relationships go, we became far more than friends, though we were never lovers. The two of us offered each other tremendous emotional support, attended many performances together and bolstered each other's morale whenever the pressures of our personal and professional lives became too intense to handle by ourselves.

The passion we shared most intensely was our love of the Broadway musical theatre and, because Mark died on March 4th, it is to his memory that I dedicate these reviews of two musicals I recently attended. When I say "musicals," I do not mean such mindless, ear-shattering visual spectacles as Cats, Starlight Express or highly-overrated box office hits like Big River, The Mystery of Edwin Drood and The Phantom of the Opera. Instead, I refer to the kind of Broadway show that is now being labeled as a classic of the American musical theatre repertoire: a style of popular entertainment which boasts a highly singable score written to be performed by people who can actually sing it.

Most of the shows from the golden era of the American musical -- a period which lies between 1943 (Oklahoma!) and 1966 (Mame) -- premiered at a time when the craftsmanship which went into such theatrical ventures (with the exception of Stephen Sondheim's later efforts) was at its peak. Although recently, many of these musicals have infiltrated the operatic repertoire, the results have not always proven ideal. Here's why.


Kismet's original success may well have been due to the fact that, when the show first opened at New York's Ziegfield Theatre on December 3, 1953, a newspaper strike prevented people from reading any reviews. In recent years, Robert Wright & George Forrest's reworking of Alexander Borodin's score to Prince Igor has been a box office success for opera companies in Toronto, New York, Dayton, Detroit and Baltimore.

I still think the show sucks. Even though old standards like "Baubles, Bangles and Beads," "Stranger in Paradise," "And This Is My Beloved," and "Not Since Ninevah" continue to fall nicely on the ears, other numbers like "Fate," "Gesticulate," "Rhadlakum" and "The Olive Tree" become more embarrassing with each year's shifting of the sands of time.

All the elements of Opera Pacific's recent production (James Noone's handsome sets, Michael Stennett's lavish costumes, Theodore Pappas' direction and choreography) could not hide the fact that Kismet is a tired and extremely sexist show whose book has not aged well. If Opera Pacific's Kismet did not sell as well as anticipated, I'm not the least bit surprised. I doubt that the audience in Orange County has a particularly strong nostalgic attachment to this musical. What's more, the amplification used on this production provided a level of sound which was frighteningly inferior to that heard during Opera Pacific's Aida (when the singers were not miked).

Avery Saltzman's Wazir was a bit too tacky for my tastes and, despite appealing performances from Beverly Lambert as Marsinah, Brent Barrett as her Caliph and David Chaney as the poet, Hajj, the nuevo techies in Southern California obviously weren't buying this package. Inspired, no doubt, by the beefcake supporting her musical numbers, an extremely top-heavy Kim Criswell gingerly teetered across the stage in spiked heels while making repeat attempts to fall out of her gawdy costumes as she tried in vain to make Kismet an entertaining evening in the theatre.

The moral of the story? A huge sound system and a pair of big tits are no longer guaranteed to carry a Broadway show.


By contrast, the New York City Opera's production of Meredith Willson's The Music Man (1957) benefitted from a much stronger cast, score, physical production and level of audience appeal. David Jenkins' handsomely evocative sets made this show one of NYCO's prettiest productions; Andrew Marlay's costumes brought a nice touch of period Americana to the stage of the New York State Theatre.

While Arthur Masella's stage direction proved to be most effective in the show's more romantic moments, NYCO's production of The Music Man suffered at its very core from the lack of a strong personality in the role of Professor Harold Hill. Although Bob Gunton worked extremely hard to con River City's populace, he did not have the drive, focus or dramatic strength to keep the audience's attention riveted to him while he was onstage and make people miss him when he was not.

Soprano Leigh Munro offered a deliciously tart characterization of Marian the Librarian and Brooks Almy scored strongly as her mother, Mrs. Paroo. Veteran NYCO performers Richard McKee, Muriel Costa-Greenspon and James Billings did nicely as Mayor and Mrs. Shinn and Harold Hill's old sidekick, Marcellus Washburn.

However, it was young David Burdick, as the lisping Winthrop Paroo, who genuinely tugged at my heart strings. Burdick captured the pathos of Winthrop's adolescent confusion over the death of his father in a way that brought tears to my eyes. It wasn't just because of my friend Mark's death that I started to cry; I suspect it was in response to the general loss of innocence we've suffered since The Music Man first entered our lives.

Songs like "My White Knight," "Sincere," "Lida Rose," "Good Night My Someone" and "Till There Was You" were written by Meredith Willson with the kind of pure romanticism which I fear has left the musical theatre. Production numbers like "Rock Island," "Iowa Stubborn," "Ya Got Trouble," "Seventy-Six Trombones," and "The Wells Fargo Wagon," were so immaculately crafted that, when compared to the paltry material found in most of today's pseudo-musicals, I almost want to weep for the state of the Broadway musical.

Perhaps I've become what Harold Hill and Marcellus Washburn refer to as "a sadder but wiser girl." All I know is that I enjoyed City Opera's production of The Music Man for intensely personal reasons and managed to have myself a good cry in the process of doing so.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on May 5, 1988.

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