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Broadway Musical Review—“Flying Over Sunset”

Flying Over Sunset
Music by Tom Kitt; lyrics by Michael Korie
Book by James Lapine
Directed by James Lapine; choreography by Michelle Dorrance
Closes January 16, 2022
Vivian Beaumont Theatre, 150 West 65th Street, NYC
Tony Yazbeck, Harry Hadden-Paton and Carmen Cusack in Flying Over Sunset

That Flying Over Sunset, the new musical by James Lapine, Tom Kitt and Michael Korie, is closing ahead of schedule (it was supposed to run through February 6 but it’s now shuttering this Sunday, January 16) is a sad commentary on the current state of theater. Not only because of COVID, even if that has a lot to do with it; but because of the uncommercial nature of the show itself. At the New Year’s Eve performance I attended, it was the smallest crowd I’ve seen at the Vivian Beaumont Theater since John Guare’s equally uncommercial Four Baboons Adoring the Sun 30 years ago. 
Some theatergoers are obviously not returning yet, especially during the holidays with omicron running rampant, and the musical itself—about LSD trips taken by Cary Grant, Clare Boothe Luce and Aldous Huxley in the 1950s, with no big stars—is not as obviously appealing to audiences as Hamilton, Company, The Lion King, etc. But that’s too bad: Lincoln Center Theater can afford to subsidize ambitious shows by big hits like South Pacific or The King and I, but when audiences don’t come, it might make the powers that be skittish about bankrolling another experiment that might not pan out commercially.
Still, for all its flaws, Flying Over Sunset is the kind of intelligent, original show we need more of, with characters and a storyline that can’t be summed up in a single sentence. Aldous Huxley, Clare Boothe Luce and Cary Grant encompass a world in which the arts, media, politics and popular entertainment intersected far removed from today’s social-media cacophony. The show itself, as Lapine’s musicals with Stephen Sondheim did, avoids standard musical clichés, like Sunday in the Park with George and Into the Woods. They also followed a similar trajectory, their first acts a sort of conventional storytelling (George Seurat painting La Grande Jatte and fairytale characters acting out familiar stories) and the second acts exploding that (Seurat's great-grandson is introduced and Brothers Grimm narratives become grim realities. 
Sunset, too—as always with Lapine—is ingeniously mapped out. The first act introduces Clare Boothe Luce, U.S. ambassador/author/conservative married to Life magazine mogul Henry Luce; British writer/philosopher Aldous Huxley; and movie matinee idol Cary Grant, who announces his retirement from films. The three celebrities are each in a creative or personal funk and the LSD they take—Boothe Luce and Huxley through their good (and gay) friend Gerald, Grant through his wife’s analyst—provides an opening into another, perhaps fuller consciousness. 
After the trio meets and agrees to a shared trip, overseen by Gerald, the second act of Flying Over Sunset cleverly dramatizes their varied responses, but to increasingly diminished returns thanks to Kitt and Lorie’s songs, which don’t reach the ambitiously high bar of Lapine’s scenario. Although never tuneless, they are too often similar and saccharine; a happy exception is the lovely title sung.
On the plus side, Lapine has perfected his blocking (think of the characters moving into their correct places in the Seurat canvas in Sunday in the Park with George) with the sweeping movements of the cast, especially in the curtain-raiser, “The Music Plays On,” where Beowulf Buritt’s sleek but simple set design, Bradley King’s cannily evocative lighting, Toni-Leslie James’ spot-on costumes and Michelle Dorrance’s fresh and inventive choreography coalesce to create a truly mesmerizing opening.
Throughout the show, Dorrance’s choreography comprises thrilling but not bombastic movements that marry the musical’s “reality” and “acid trip” states, displaying a happy facility for never letting the show flag. The obvious instance is during Grant’s first LSD intake at the doctor’s office; he’s visited by his preteen self, Archie Leach, and proceeds to have a real rip-roaring tap-dance duet. Joel Yazbeck (Grant) and young Atticus Ware (Archie) tear it up, Yazbeck especially, and even though it’s show-offy, there’s so much exuberance in Dorrance’s moves and Yazbeck and Ware’s delight in performing it that the dance itself should go down in Broadway annals as a masterpiece of tap.
Yazbeck, Carmen Cusack (Boothe Luce) and Harry Hadden-Paton (Huxley) are all superb as the leads, singing and acting persuasively, but only Cusack gets the chance to really break loose vocally in the sentimental “final trip” moment when Clare meets both her deceased mother and daughter, culminating with Cusack meltingly singing “How?” Robert Sella holds his own as Gerald, but Lapine at times doesn’t know what to do with him: there’s an embarrassing “human centipede” moment when Gerald falls face first into Grant’s butt cheeks (don’t ask).
But if Flying Over Sunset doesn’t always live up to its dazzling moments, there’s much to admire, even enjoy, in a show that doesn’t want to be merely pleasant Broadway fodder.

January '22 Digital Week II

Miklós Jancsó's Electra, My Love

In-Theater/Streaming Releases of the Week
Miklós Jancsó X 6 
Hungarian director Miklós Jancsó, who died in 2014 at age 92, was a true original, and his six films that
The Red and the White
make up this January series at the Metrograph in Manhattan (and online, at, through January 31)—The Roundup (1966), The Red and the White (1967), The Confrontation (1969), Winter Wind (1969), Red Psalm (1971), and Electra, My Love (1974)—provide a case study in intelligent, uncompromising filmmaking,  a real instance of “they don’t make them like this any more.” Jancsó uses elaborate camera choreography to dynamic psychological and dramatic effect throughout these visually and aurally remarkable films, which tackle events from Hungarian history, both remote and recent, with an uncanny sense of movement that most other directors couldn’t hope to approach. 
The exception, Electra, My Love, is a highly stylized interpretation of the ancient myth that transposes the locale from Greece to a Hungarian field that’s a master class in cutting within the camera shot—the entire film comprises 12 distinct shots. (All of Jancsó’s films have far fewer shots than any director would dare nowadays.) What’s amazing about Jancsó’s long career is that his last half-dozen films were as carefree and playful as these half-dozen were exacting and serious—but they all should, ideally, be seen on the largest screen one can find, especially in these superlative new restorations by the National Film Institute Hungary—Film Archive.
Diary of the Grizzly Man 
(Shout Studios)
The story of legendary bear enthusiast Timothy Treadwell—whose life (and that of his girlfriend) ended horrifically in the wilds of Alaska in 2003—was told sympathetically in Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man, and this three-part series dives even deeper into Treadwell’s own daring (many would say reckless) study of bears while living among them in Katmai National Park.
A voluminous amount of Treadwell’s own video and audio tapes as well as notebooks create a compelling if uneasy portrait of someone who was doing what he loved to do, even though it also led him directly to his untimely death at age 46.
4K/UHD Release of the Week 
(Warner Bros)
Frank Herbert’s colossal sci-fi epic novel hasn’t been well-served in the movies: David Lynch’s 1984 adaptation was fatally flawed by then-newcomer Kyle McLachlan’s vapid presence in the lead role of youthful savior Paul Artreides; in Denis Villenueve’s new stab at adapting the book, Timothee Chalamet fares better but is still a cipher. Otherwise, Villeneuve’s visual sense is more conventional than Lynch’s, but with more improved technology at his disposal, it looks like a staggeringly imaginative visual achievement.
Unfortunately, much of the drama fizzles out early on, and the movie staggers to its non-conclusion that paves the way for (or threatens, depending on your appreciation) more sequels. The 4K transfer looks simply beautiful; the accompanying Blu-ray disc includes an hour of extras, mainly on-set featurettes and cast, crew and director interviews.
Blu-ray Releases of the Week
Sylvia Kristel—1970s Collection 
(Cult Epics)
Best known for her appearances in the softcore Emmanuelle films that made her an international sensation in the mid-’70s, Dutch actress Sylvia Kristel was usually cast as the willing young woman, even into the ’80s in such vehicles as Private Lessons and Lady Chatterley’s Lover. She never seemed able to show off her talent as well as her attractiveness, although the four movies in this boxed set give glimpses of her acting ability along with her body. Only 1974’s Julia, in which Kristel plays a nymphet who is seduced by her boyfriend’s father, relies almost exclusively on her erotic charms. 
The other films are a grab bag for Kristel fans. Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Playing with Fire (1975) stars the appealing French actress Anicée Alvina alongside Jean-Louis Trintignant and Phillipe Noiret, with Kristel in a brief appearance. She has a bit more to do in the WWII Dutch resistance drama Pastorale 1943 (1978) and the Knut Hamsun adaptation Mysteries (1978), the latter moodily shot by cinematographer Robby Muller and starring Rudger Hauer, whose character falls for Kristel’s elegant wife. All four films have fine hi-def transfers; extras include archival interviews with Kristel (who died in 2012), new and archival interviews of cast and crew, and audio commentaries on all four films.
Only the Animals 
(Cohen Media)
In Frederik Moll’s cynically unpleasant crime drama, the death of a woman named Evelyn leads to glimpses of the lives of five people she’s—for the most part peripherally—connected to, from young Marion, whom Evelyn has a brief affair with, to farmer Michel, who thinks he’s been flirting with Marion online, to Michel’s wife Alice, who’s carrying on an affair with another man, Joseph, who finds Evelyn’s body.
Moll adroitly moves among these people, but the utter contrivance of their relationships—I don’t know how much is in the underlying novel—makes the film risible from the get-to, despite its self-seriousness and extremely capable acting, especially by Nadia Tereszkiewicz (Marion) and Laure Calamy (Alice). The film looks excellent on Blu.
DVD Release of the Week 
Joy Womack—The White Swan 
(Film Movement)
In their study of a passionate young American ballet dancer, the first non-Russian to graduate from the Bolshoi Theatre’s training program, directors Dina Burlis and Sergey Gavrilov get up close and personal with an artist following her own path despite the skepticism of others that she’ll be able to dance “like a Russian.”
Womack’s story never unfolds as she hopes or expects—her marriage to a Russian dancer, partly one of convenience, ends, as does her association with the Bolshoi—but Burlis and Gavrilov’s intimate documentary takes its leave of Womack in the midst of a burgeoning career. Extras include additional interviews with Womack and other dancers as well as a behind the scenes featurette.
CD Release of the Week
Lennox Berkeley—The One-Act Operas 
After releasing a vintage recording of his three-act opera Nelson just last summer, the enterprising Lyrita label now sets its sights on the trio of marvelous one-act operas British composer Lennox Berkeley (1903-89) wrote in the ’50s and ’60s: the light comedy A Dinner Engagement (1954), the ravishing Biblical drama Ruth (1956) and the darkly comic Castaway (1967), the latter of which is heard during its premiere run at Benjamin Britten’s Aldeburgh Festival.
As good as Castaway is, the other one-acts are even better, especially as heard in BBC broadcasts from 1966 (Engagement) and 1968 (Ruth). A Dinner Engagement’s brilliant ensemble writing is Berkeley at his wittiest, while the gorgeous arias of Ruth—especially those sung by Alfreda Hodgson in the title role and the great Peter Pears—display Berkeley’s facility for memorably melodic writing. 

January '22 Digital Week I

Blu-ray Releases of the Week 
The Many Saints of Newark 
(Warner Bros)
Lambasted by reviewers and ignored by theater audiences—although it was by all accounts a streaming success on HBO Max—Alan Taylor’s Sopranos prequel chronicles the origins of Tony Soprano in a convoluted plot that tries too hard to be social commentary (it’s set partly during the 1967 riots in Newark) as well as a straightforward story of how Tony Soprano became Tony Soprano.
It’s certainly arresting to look at—and excessively violent, of course—and well-acted by Alessandro Nivola, Ray Liotta, Vera Farmiga and Michela De Rossi, although Michael Gandolfini, who plays young Tony, is a bit stiff in the role his father made famous. There’s a first-rate hi-def transfer; extras comprise two featurettes and deleted scenes.
The Vampire Lovers 
(Shout/Scream Factory)
Based on the oft-adapted novel Camilla by J. Sheridan Le Fanu, this 1971 flick is in many ways the quintessential Hammer Horror film, with no less than Peter Cushing starring alongside Ingrid Pitt, who plays a lesbian vampire who seduces willing young women (played by Madeline Smith, Kate O’Mara and Pippa Steel).
Director Roy Ward Baker conjures an eerie atmosphere in this  fine, even distinguished “undead” entry. The film looks great on Blu-ray, while extras include three audio commentaries; audio essay on Carmilla read by Smith; Smith introduction and interview; interviews with film historians Kim Newman and Jonathan Rigby; featurette Feminine Fantastique–Resurrecting ‘The Vampire Lovers’; Pitt reads Carmilla; deleted opening segment; and featurette “New Blood: Hammer Enters The ’70s.”
These early 20th century operas were big hits after their premieres, but only one has remained in the repertory in the 100-plus years since. Italian Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Zaza has pretty much disappeared, but as this beautifully sung 2020 Vienna production shows, it has enough romance, drama and memorable melodies to score; Svetlana Askenova is wonderful in the title role.
Czech composer Antonin Dvorak’s greatest stage work, Rusalka, is adored for its lustrous music, especially “Song of the Moon,” sung luminously by soprano Asmik Grigorian, who, along with a superb supporting cast and orchestra, nearly makes one forget the silly staging by director Christof Loy. Both operas have superior hi-def video and audio.
DVD Release of the Week
Dvořák’s Prophecy—A New Narrative for American Classical Music 
This fascinating series of films by music scholar Joseph Horowitz uses Czech composer Antonin Dvořák (see above review of his opera Rusalka) as a jumping-off point for an exploration of several avenues of American music, beginning with Dvořák’s own wondrous Ninth Symphony, which was built on themes from various American musical strains.
The other films delve into music as varied as iconoclast Charles Ives, film composer Bernard Herrmann, and mainstream master Aaron Copland. Alternating his own analysis with commentary from other eminent music figures like writer Alex Ross and Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra conductor JoAnn Falletta, Horowitz’ series is often illuminating and always entertaining.
CD Release of the Week 
Lord Berners—A Wedding Bouquet 
British composer Lord Berners (1883-1950), who wrote music that was the last word in stylishness and wit, created several dazzling ballet scores—like The Triumph of Neptune, a sophisticated work that was released on Naxos last summer—but A Wedding Bouquet may be his most audacious, especially as heard in this thrilling 1996 recording by the RTE Sinfonietta and Chamber Choir under conductor Kenneth Alwyn.
Set to a typically dense text by Gertrude Stein and originally choreographed by Frederick Ashton in 1936, Bouquet is Berners at his considerable best. As a bonus, another fresh, tuneful Berners ballet, Luna Park, makes this an enticing, must-have disc, whether or not you’re already on the composer’s charming wavelength.

New York Pops Put on Christmas Spectacular

Kelli O'Hara sings with the New York Pops. Photo by Richard Termine

At Carnegie Hall, on the evening of Friday, December 17th, I had the extraordinary privilege to attend a fabulous Christmas concert entitled “Back Home for the Holidays,” splendidly performed by the terrific New York Pops orchestra under the accomplished direction of Steven Reineke and featuring the glorious Broadway soprano, Kelli O’Hara, here replacing the originally scheduled Laura Benanti. This was the ensemble’s first appearance on this stage in twenty-two months.

The program opened pleasurably with a Holiday Overtue, a medley of Christmas songs including “Deck the Halls” and “Good King Wenceslas.” O’Hara then took the stage—looking gorgeous in a sumptuous red gown (sent to her by Benanti) with a plunging neckline—to exquisitely perform the classic “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” into which, enchantingly, was interpolated a verse from the sublime “The Christmas Waltz” by Jules Styne with lyrics by Sammy Cahn. She amusingly commented about replacing Benanti that “It’s a such a big sacrifice for me to sing at Carnegie Hall”  before singing a memorable version of the magnificent “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane written for the beloved film Meet Me in St. Louis by Vincent Minnelli, where it was performed by Judy Garland. O’Hara sang the arrangement used by the legendary Barbara Cook with whom she had shared the stage in her (O’Hara’s) first Carnegie Hall appearance and in her previous concert at this venue which was Cook’s last public performance. She followed this with the superb “I Wonder as I Wander” by Appalachian composer John Jacob Niles.

The ensemble then played the delightful “Sleigh Ride” by Leroy Anderson and the famous, traditional English Christmas carol, “I Saw Three Ships,” in a beautiful arrangement by Matthew Jackfert, who was in attendance. A wonderful version of the familiar “Carol of the Bells” preceded the return of O’Hara to the stage in a lovely dark green gown in which she sang “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” She then performed “A Place Called Home” by Alan Menken and Lynn Ahrens and the charming “Man with the Bag” in a jazzy arrangement, closing the first half of the program.

The second part of the concert opened with the ensemble playing “Jingle Bell Rock,” made famous by Bobby Helms in 1957, the traditional Hanukah song ”Behold the Lights” in an arrangement featuring extensive passages highlighting the English horn, and a jazzy version of Irving Berlin’s “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm.” O’Hara reappeared in an attractive sparkly and silvery Oscar de la Renta gown to sing “Winter Wonderland” in a way reminiscent of Ella Fitzgerald’s classic studio recording followed by Mel Tormé’s “A Christmas Song” in another arrangement used by Cook. Broadway singer Brandon Michael Name, in his Carnegie Hall debut, then joined O’Hara for a duet of Berlin’s “Count Your Blessings” from White Christmas. He then sang alone Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas” which was followed by a brief instrumental medley including “Jingle Bells” and a short interlude featuring Santa Claus! O’Hara returned to the stage, wearing a whitish or maybe peach gown, to conclude the evening—in a vocal tour de force—with “O Holy Night” by Adolphe Adam, a composer most famous for the score for the ballet Giselle. O’Hara and Nase sang “Auld Lang Syne” by Robert Burns as a moving encore.

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