Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Can You Hear Me Now?

On November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall came down. During the 30-year period from 1970 to 2000, the wall between opera and musical theatre was simultaneously being demolished. In trying to describe why so few operas were being written by composers of rock 'n' roll, Ben Krywosz, OPERA America's first project director for the "Opera into the Eighties and Beyond" program, once noted that:
"Curiously enough, the operatic establishment does not speak the language that most people in America do. As a result, there's something which is not quite connecting to people on a core level. And that something has a lot to do with having a different cultural point of view."
Ambitious musical theatre composers were starting to experiment with classical sounds and compose music designed for more operatic voices. Simultaneously, operatic composers were learning how to use computers to help generate musical scores and finding ways to enhance the music they had written for classical voices with subtle amplification.


While most notable for its massive scenery, the original production of Sweeney Todd required a cast of 27 actors and a 26-piece orchestra. In addition to its spectacular production values, the original London production of Les Misérables required a cast of approximately 35 performers.

Rising production costs have forced many contemporary composers to avoid creating new works that, because of their demands for numerous performers and instrumentalists, may be too expensive to ever produce a return on their original investment. With revivals of both Sweeney Todd and Les Misérables currently playing in town, it's fascinating to witness how each show holds up with 21st century audiences.

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The marketing debacle following the 1985 introduction of New Coke led many consumers to cry "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." Much the same could be said of Cameron Mackintosh's 25th anniversary touring production of Les Misérables, which apparently left the original production's directorial team (Trevor Nunn and John Caird) feeling "horribly betrayed."

Based on the sprawling novel by Victor Hugo, the original production (which I saw in London and at the Kennedy Center Opera House) was a knockout that had the kind of dramatic power which swept audiences off their feet. But with a first act that contains such an incredible amount of narrative exposition, it's important to keep matters moving -- often at any cost.

The Barricade (Photo by: Dean Van Der Meer)

With new (and not necessarily better) orchestrations by Chris Jahnke, this 25th anniversary production was directed by Laurence Connor and James Powell who, quite frankly, should be slapped upside the head for what they have done to an iconic work of musical theatre. At the very least, there is absolutely no reason for Betsy Morgan to perform  Fantine's plaintive solo, "I Dreamed A Dream," with the aggressive fury of "Rose's Turn."

Peter Lockyer portrayed a gaunt, determined Jean Valjean trying to escape Andrew Varela's villainous JavertTimothy Gulan (Thénardier) and Shawna M. Hamic (Madame Thénardier) took full advantage of their characters' lust, greed, and other bawdy attributes.

Timothy Gulan and Shawna M. Hamic as the Thénardiers.
Photo by: Deen Van Der Meer

As the young lovers, Lauren Wiley (Cosette) and Max Quinlan (Marius) went from innocence and naivete to a greater depth of emotional understanding. They received sturdy support from Briana Carlson-Goodman (Eponine), Jason Forbach (Enjolras) and Marcus D'Angelo (Gavroche).

While much of the evening seemed as if was being performed with a bad case of roid rage, I cannot, in all good conscience, blame the cast.  The fault, dear readers, lies not with the actors but with Mick Potter's singularly oppressive sound design.

I'm certainly not the only person to have complained about the outrageous levels of amplification in the Orpheum Theatre in past seasons. But a recent article by Cara Buckley in The New York Times entitled Working Or Playing Indoors, New Yorkers Face An Unabated Roar raised some noteworthy points:
  • Experts in hearing loss prevention warn that people should not be exposed to sound levels of 100 decibels for more than 15 minutes without wearing some form of hearing protection.
  • Cumulative damage from chronic exposure to noise can go undetected for years (loss of hearing usually affects high-frequency sounds first).
  • As the federal agency responsible for monitoring workplace noise, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has very specific standards which businesses must meet. Unfortunately, OSHA usually only launches an investigation when complaints are made (most employees are reluctant to do this for fear it might affect their job security).
  • Although a study conducted by The New York Times at local restaurants, bars, stores, and health clubs easily recorded sound levels above 90 decibels, many of the business owners had no idea they were in violation of OSHA's sound guidelines.
While municipal agencies usually handle complaints about noise from neighbors, most theatregoers feel powerless against the onslaught of sound aimed at their eardrums during many touring musical productions.  The San Francisco Opera's recent production of Nixon in China did a splendid job of showing how amplification can be used to enhance (rather than distort) a performance in the 3,146-seat War Memorial Opera House. Critics may point out the sound problems with shows booked into the 2,203-seat Orpheum Theatre, but until SHN's President (Carole Shorenstein Hays) and CEO (Greg Holland) decide to take a proactive stance toward monitoring sound levels, many of their ticket buyers will continue to suffer unnecessarily.

Andrew Varela as Javert (Photo by: Dean Van Der Meer)

I was also quite surprised to see how Matt Kinley's set design (purportedly inspired by Victor Hugo's paintings) and the projections used for the scenes in which Jean Valjean must drag the wounded Marius through the sewers of Paris seemed to darken, diminish, and ultimately cheapen the production. With the exception of some unnecessary strobe lighting during the Act II battle scene, Paule Constable's lighting had some extremely effective moments. Here's the trailer:

Curiously, watching this 25th anniversary production of Les Miserables only made me more eager to see the film adaptation starring Hugh Jackman, which is scheduled to hit theatres at Christmas. Here's the trailer for the film:

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For a thrilling experience in making the most of a theatrical classic, head to lower Jackson Street, where the folks at Ray of Light Theatre have staged Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street  with a six-piece band performing a reduced orchestration of Stephen Sondheim's score. Revel in the intimacy of a talented ensemble performing without any amplification in the 290-seat Eureka Theatre.

Set designer Maya Linke has carefully utilized every inch of the Eureka's stage, with director Ben Randle making some judicious adjustments that allow ROLT to scale the action down so that it can fit on a postage-stamp sized stage. In all truth, I found this a much more satisfying production of Sweeney Todd than John Doyle's gimmicky 2005 version (in which the principals played musical instruments onstage).

In past Ray of Light Theatre productions, I've been extremely impressed by this company's solid musical preparation. With Sweeney Todd,  Sondheim's mammoth score got every bit of the respect it so deeply deserves.

Sweeney Todd (Adam Scott Campbell) gives Judge Turpin
 (Ken Brill) the closest shave he's ever had (Photo by: Claire Rice)

In such an intimate setting it was especially gratifying to be up close to the stage to catch some wonderful work by Kevin Singer (Tobias), Michelle Jasso (the Beggar Woman), J. Conrad Frank as a preening Beadle Bamford. and Terrence McLaughlin as Signor Pirelli. Ken Brill was appropriately loathsome as the evil Judge Turpin.

Matthew Provencal as Anthony (Photo by: Claire Rice)

Ray of Light Theatre's casting instincts are especially strong, with Matthew Provencal displaying a strong and beautiful tenor voice as Anthony and Jessica Smith an imposing (if mightily confused) Johanna. The real test of any production of this musical, however, lies in the casting of the two leads. Adam Scott Campbell delivered an almost lyrical Sweeney -- who could be seen slipping into a state of psychosis -- while Shelley Crowley's portrayal of the amoral Mrs. Lovett was deliciously droll.

Adam Scott Campbell and Shelley Crowley in
Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
(Photo by: Claire Rice)

It's a curious choice between two mega-musicals whose world premieres were little more than a year apart. Three decades later, both shows are being performed in San Francisco in radically different stagings than their original productions.

Given a choice between the overproduced, overamplified staging of Les Misérables at the Orpheum or the chamber version of Sweeney Todd at the Eureka, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend the latter (which allows audiences to wallow in the ensemble's crisp diction and solid musicianship). There are indeed times when less equals more (click here to order tickets).

Sweeney Todd (Adam Scott Campbell)  and his business partner,
Mrs. Lovett (Shelley Crowley). Photo by: Claire Rice)

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