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Sneakers, Soul & Shakespeare in the Park

Much Ado About Nothing

From the pulsating subwoofer beats, picket signs, and Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” sung by the all-black cast’s lead Danielle Brooks (Beatrice) as she entered onstage, the audience knew the evening’s Shakespeare in the Park performance would be politically charged and now. “Now” being America’s 2020 (the campaign banner for Stacey Abrams is boldly displayed) set in the Georgia town of Messina in MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING as neighboring soldiers return from war. Don Pedro, the Prince, and his uniformed entourage arrives in a black sedan with a fanfare of sub bass rhythms, his soldiers marching with picket signs. Contemporary live music numbers and infectious celebratory dancing are the highlights of this 2019 Public Theater staging of MUCH ADO. One wished they can jump onstage to join in on “stir the pot.” The sets and colorful costumes are lovingly detailed, from the brick manor's roof turret down to the baby roots of the astroturf grass at the edge of the stage.


Love and deception are mirrored in the two couples of MUCH ADO: Beatrice and Benedick; and Claudio and Hero. Danielle Brooks as Beatrice powers the show with her fierce comedic force. Grantham Coleham as Benedick is the skinny bantam rooster to her voluptuous hen with a sharp tongue, both verbally sparring with the wit of Shakespeare’s prose. Both claim to never marry, and friends plot to reverse that. The tragic couple, Claudio (Jeremie Harris) and Hero (Margaret Odette), are victims of false accusations of infidelity. (“Nothing” in the play’s title is a homophone for “Noting” or slang for gossip and slander.) Their performances are overshadowed by the comedy of Brooks and Coleham, but their tragedy plays up the gender, race, and caste divisions that our society still upholds.


What hurts to a modern audience is the unfairness of the slander and how patriarchal world would believe it and judge a woman. A Prince’s judgment carries more weight than a father’s familial experience. One could extend the unfairness to racial bigotry. Director Kenny Leon (Tony Award winner for A Raisin in the Sun) questions these values of divisive privileges. In a Public Theater interview, Leon states, “I’m reminded that we are fighting for values in America more than anything. MUCH ADO is really about protecting those values of love, family, respect—all those values we say we believe in.” He says further, “I didn’t cast it all black because I wanted an all-black production. I cast it because it came to me in terms of the play about community.”


Family values at the core of this performance is a message that attracted local audiences of color that were willing to picnic in line for an hour or more to wait for free tickets. After a week of rain, the run of the show ends this weekend on June 23. I had wanted an extension of this wonderful version of MUCH ADO, or at least a way of recording this all-black cast performance for YouTube. According to some media sources, this may come to light: PBS’s Great Performances will film this Shakespeare in the Park 2019 production of MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING.


Delacorte Theater, Central Park, New York City

Shakespeare in the Park

Play run: May 21 – June 23, 2019




German & Russian Classics On Stage With the MET & Philadelphia Orchestras

Beatrice Rana with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Photo by Caitlin Ochs
A superb season of orchestral music at Carnegie Hall is soon coming to its end but on the evenings of two consecutive Fridays, June 7th and 14th, New Yorkers were fortunate to hear an excellent concert—devoted to music by Russian composers —given by the fine musicians of the Philadelphia Orchestra and an outstanding one, featuring works of late German Romanticism, given by the terrific MET Orchestra, both under the sterling direction of Yannick Nézet-Séguin.
The first program, which was preceded by an informative talk given by the musicologist Dr. Elizabeth Bergman, opened with a magnificent account—the Carnegie Hall premiere—of the recently rediscovered and reconstructed extraordinary early orchestral work by Igor Stravinsky, Funeral Song from 1908, written in memory of his teacher, the brilliant composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. This music deserves to enter the standard repertory, alongside such comparable pieces asScherzo fantastiqueandFireworks.
The celebrated virtuoso, Beatrice Rana, then took the stage—wearing a fabulous, bright yellow gown—for an impressive rendition of Sergei Prokofiev’s eccentric Piano Concerto No. 3. The soloist beautifully succeeded in conveying the highly mercurial qualities of the first two movements before executing a thrilling finale. An enthusiastic response from the audience elicited a wonderful encore: Frédéric Chopin’s Étude in A-flat major, Op. 25, No. 1.
The second half of the evening comprised another rediscovered and reconstructed work, Sergei Rachmaninoff’s underrated Symphony No. 1. The beginning movement was appropriately dramatic while the ensuing scherzo was more eccentric. The Larghetto was the most lyrical section, although not without its violent passages. The powerful finale was ultimately affirmative. Again, the musicians garnered an exceedingly appreciative reception.
The first half of the second concert was devoted to a breathtaking performance of Gustav Mahler’s incredible Rückert Lieder, sung by the dazzling mezzo-soprano, Elīna Garanča, who looked simply gorgeous in a stunning, mostly white gown. The artist graciously accepted the audience’s ardent applause.
The second half of the evening consisted of a masterly realization of the marvelous Symphony No. 7 of Anton Bruckner. In the opening movement, the musicians sustained an aura of Wagnerian majesty, which was reinforced by the ensuing Adagio that, for all of its funereal programme, nonetheless achieved a sublime lyricism. The propulsive Scherzo was stirring, effectively contrasting with the mellower Trio section, while the work concluded with an exultant Finale. Again, the players received a tremendous ovation.
I look forward to the return of all these admirable artists in the fall, in what promises to be another memorable season at Carnegie Hall.

June '19 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week 

A Film Trilogy by Ingmar Bergman 


The films composing Ingmar Bergman’s so-called “faith” trilogy—1961’s Through a Glass Darkly and 1963’s Winter Light and The Silence, all masterly explorations of placing God and religion in a mainly secular modern world—are as relevant and riveting as ever. Extraordinary performances—Harriett Andersson in Darkly, Gunnar Björnstrand in Light, and Ingrid Thulin and Gunnel Lindblom in Silence—are of a piece with Bergman’s probingly truthful artistry.




Criterion’s hi-def transfers magnificently bring out the shades of grey in Sven Nykvist’s luminous black and white camerawork; extras include Ingmar Bergman Makes a Movie, a full-length documentary on the set of Winter Light; interviews with Andersson, Björnstrand and Nykvist; and Bergman’s own introductions to the films.


The Entity 

(Scream Factory)

The committed and generous performance by Barbara Hershey is the best thing about Sidney J Furie’s partly spooky, mainly risible 1982 psychological horror entry about a woman physically assaulted and nearly killed by a mysteriously malevolent spirit.




Supposedly based on a true story, the movie does attempt to give science and medicine their due but soon becomes a relentless accumulation of haunted-house tropes that end up overwhelming Hershey’s otherwise believable and winning presence. There’s a first-rate hi-def transfer, new interviews with Hershey, actor David Labiosa, composer Charles Bernstein and editor Frank J. Urioste, and a vintage making-of.


The Haunting of Sharon Tate 


Rarely are movies so egregiously pointless as writer-director Daniel Farrands’s proudly arrogant retelling of the Charles Manson murders from the point of view of—get this—the actual victims, particularly actress Sharon Tate, who was eight months pregnant with husband Roman Polanski’s baby when she was brutally murdered along with several others by Manson family members in August 1969.





Farrands uses the sordid episode to reenact the killings themselves—twice! First we see the mutilated corpses then, for good measure, the actual killings: as dreamt by Tate herself in a head-scratchingly exploitive moment. The hi-def transfer is excellent, at least; extras are Ferrands’ commentary and a making-of featurette.


Leprechaun Returns 


In this highly unwanted follow-up to a series of forgettable horror entries from 15-25 years ago, writer-director Steven Kostanski has decided that clever but ludicrous new ways to kill innocent idiots, like having someone cut literally in half horizontally or running over a mailman’s head while it’s stuck in a mailbox, are the sole reason needed to make a movie.





Indifferently acted and shot, this plays like a bad, drug-induced, hazy dream, but actually—and yawningly—sets up yet another Leprechaun entry, of course. It looks decent on Blu-ray; extras include on-set footage and a Kostanski interview.


Minute Bodies—The Intimate World of F. Percy Smith 


The microscopic photography of early 20th century British naturalist F. Percy Smith showed off the glories of the unseen world, and his primitive but innovative films remain gorgeous and riveting. Director Stuart A. Staples obviously feels the same way: his hypnotic hour-long feature comprises Smith’s remarkable original footage accompanied by strangely appropriate music by Staples’ band Tindersticks.




The film looks tremendous on Blu; extras are four Smith shorts: The Birth of a Flower (1910), Nature’s Double Lifers—Ferns and Fronds (1932), He Would A-Wooing Go and Lupins (both 1936).


Mutual Appreciation 


Along with his earlier Funny Ha Ha, this prime example of mumblecore is Andrew Bujalski’s dated (2005), extremely slight comedy about a group of bumbling young adults’ impossible-to-care-about problems.




Bujalski has since graduated to far better fare like last year’s Support the Girls, so this plays like an historical artifact more than a real movie, but as always, your mileage may vary. There’s a sparkling transfer of the shuddery black-and-white movie; extras include a new Bujalski interview; Peoples House, Bujalski’s 2007 short; “Vampira” video intro; and observations from parents of the cast and crew.


A Patch of Blue 

(Warner Archive)

Although far too sentimental in its study of a blind white woman—living with her abusive mother (who caused her blindness!) and drunken grandfather—and the perfect black man she falls for, Guy Green’s 1965 romance remains a touchstone for ‘60s movies in its depiction of a loving interracial relationship.




Elizabeth Hartman and Sidney Poitier’s exceptional portrayals triumph over Jerry Goldsmith’s sappy score and Green’s syrupy underlining to keep racists at bay—apparently the kissing scenes were excised in theaters in the South—but only Shelley Winters’ blustery overacting was what earned an Oscar. The B&W film looks great on Blu; extras include a vintage featurette, A Cinderella Named Elizabeth, especially poignant since Hartman killed herself in 1987 at age 44.


Young People's Concerts with the New York Philharmonic, Vol. 1 


While leading the New York Philharmonic, conductor Leonard Bernstein—musical polymath and brilliant teacher, easily able to discuss music to audiences aged 7 to 70—hosted concerts for children in which the orchestra plays works familiar and unfamiliar and he describes what makes the music relevant and entertaining.




This four-disc set collects 14 episodes from the series that CBS aired (in prime time!) from 1958 and 1972, as music by Mahler and Stravinsky is heard alongside jazz and folk, with Bernstein’s illuminating commentary leading the way. The ancient televised episodes look fine though unspectacular on Blu; extras are three Young Performers excerpts.






DVD of the Week 

The Brink 


The devil Steve Bannon is chronicled in Alison Klayman’s straightforward documentary that shows how his brand of right-wing populism is not organic, genuine or reality-based; instead, it’s the latest charlatan’s guise donned to keep himself relevant and rich.




He’s succeeded beyond his wildest dreams but the world is unfortunately being remade in the image of those who follow him, from tRump and Breitbart to clueless sycophants who don’t realize (or care) that they’re voting against their own interests. This evenhanded portrait is simultaneously sobering, depressing and horribly addictive. Extras are additional interviews and scenes.


CD of the Week

George Benjamin—Lessons in Love and Violence 


George Benjamin’s follow-up to his breakthrough opera, Written on Skin—whose spiky music and intense dramatics were satisfyingly coupled with committed collaborators and interpreters—is a static drama based on Christopher Marlowe’s play Edward II. 




Benjamin is merely marking musical time here, and the lack of visuals (the Blu-ray of a performance was released several months ago) doesn’t help with the lack of any dramatic urgency. At least there are reliable singers Barbara Hannigan and Stephane Dagout to help elevate the work vocally whenever it sags.

The Mesmerizing Le Corsaire Comes Alive On Stage

Christine Shevchenko in Le Corsaire. Photo: Rosalie O’Connor.
The brilliance of the ongoing season at American Ballet Theatre was enhanced on the evening of Thursday, June 13th, with a dazzling performance of Le Corsaire, one of the most entertaining productions in the company’s repertory and a genuine crowd-pleaser.
The work has a complicated history. The scenario is very loosely adapted from The Corsair, a celebrated poem by Lord Byron. With new choreography by the legendary Marius Petipa for St. Petersburg’s Maryinsky Ballet—replacing that of the original Paris Opera production—the current version is a revision by Konstantin Sergeyev, effectively staged by Anna-Marie Holmes. The enjoyable score—excellently conducted here by Ormsby Wilkins—is apparently mainly by Adolphe Adam, extensively revised and with additions by Cesare Pugni, with further accretions composed by Léo Delibes, Riccardo Drigo and Prince Oldenbourg, and reorchestrated by Kevin Gale. The appealing sets and costumes were designed by Irina Tibilova, with lighting by Mary Jo Dondlinger.
The event was especially thrilling for its superb cast, featuring the extraordinary guest artist Brooklyn Mack in the title role of Conrad, the pirate, beautifully partnered by the wonderful Ukrainian ballerina Christine Shevchenko as Medora, a young Greek woman. Gabe Stone Shayer further cemented his great distinction in this company playing Birbanto, Conrad’s ultimately disloyal friend, while the marvelous Joo Won Ahn confidently replaced an injured Daniil Simkin in the scene-stealing role of Ali, the slave.
Excellent support was given by Aran Bell as Lankendem, owner of the bazaar at Adrianople, and Cassandra Trenary as Gulnare, Medora’s friend. Also entrancing were Zhong-Jing Fang as the lead Pirate Woman and Wanyue Qiao, Brittany Degrofft, and Katherine Williams as the mesmerizing trio of Odalisques, while Roman Zhurbin amused in the comic role of Seyd, pasha of the Isle of Cos. Finally, the fabulouscorps de ballet,which has moved from strength to strength this season, again enchanted.
The excitement at American Ballet Theatre continues next week with the revival of Manon by the celebrated 20th-century choreographer, Kenneth MacMillan.

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