theatre reviews
Volume 19/Issue 8/2001

Georgeby George Patterson

Ariadne auf Naxos Beguiles

Following fast on the heels of Der Rosenkavalier, their first successful collaboration, the Viennese composer Richard Strauss and his librettist, the Austrian dramatist and poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal, wrote Ariadne auf Naxos as a long one act opera to accompany an adaptation of Moliere's La Bourgeois Gentilhomme. The result was way too long and necessitated drastic cuts which resulted in its present form: a rather long prologue which sets up the opera proper. Set in the private theatre of the "wealthiest man in Vienna," the prologue takes place backstage where the composer of the opera about to be presented and the commedia dell'arte troupe that is also to entertain the host's guests, are told by the Major-domo that they must roll their two disparate performances into one, since the host does not want to bore his guests - thus one of the opera's major themes concerns the essence of the craft of creating opera itself!

Of course, the disaster foreseen by the composer, the dance master, the Prima Donna, the coquettish Zerbinetta and all involved does not materialize; instead, the opera, set on a deserted Greek island, in which the pining Ariadne, so heart sick she wishes only for death as the commedia troupe tries ineptly to cheer her up, even as Zerbinetta scoffs that all she needs is a new love, builds to its inevitable conclusion when Bacchus suddenly arrives on a silver ship (with sails of silk) and carries the newly revived Ariadne off to eternal bliss.

Sung in English (except for Jeanne-Michele Charbonnet's Ariadne and Mark Nicolson's Bacchus who stuck to the original German), the New Orleans Opera Association amassed an excellent young cast of acting, dancing singers who, under the sympathetic baton of maestro Klauspeter Seibel, sang Strauss's achingly melodic score beautifully, their soaring voices supported ably by the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra.

Despite the language embroglio, Ms. Charbonnet was a commanding Prima Donna and a very lyrical Ariadne - her lovesickness was palpable (and humorous) and she sang Strauss's soaring melodies with prodigious technical panache.

Soprano Gwendolyn Jones, playing the pants role of the Composer who is seen only in the prologue, was also excellent. Others only seen in the prologue who helped to set the tone of hilarity were Jan Opalach's Music Teacher, Ray Poland's Wig Maker, David Mayfield's Dancing Master and the non-singing, speaking role of James Lawson's Major-domo.

In the opera itself, Anita Johnson's saucy Zerbinetta almost stole the show. She reeled off her difficult aria effortlessly, singing its high F while lying prone on the raked stage. She and her troupe, Robert Sapolsky as Harlekin, Michael Shell as Scaramuccio, David Langan as Truffaldino and Dean Anthony as Brighella, were well rehearsed by director David Morelock - they were as goofy and rubber-limbed as any graduates from Ringling Bros. - add their incomparable musicianship and you've got class A theatre.

Also lending color and a certain Mozartian flavor were the three nymphs who watch over Ariadne in her suffering: Jane Redding's Naiade, Terry Patrick Harris's Dryade and Dauri Kennedy's Echo.

Gilding this luscious lily were two gorgeous sets designed by Wolfram Skalicki (except for those two pesky baroque side boxes that are both backstage in the prologue and on stage for the opera) coupled with Thomas C. Hase's spectacular lighting design which combined perfectly with Bacchus's flamboyant entrance and the rich Strauss music to make the end result pure theatrical magic that was absolutely beguiling.

The final offering of the season will be Puccini's Madama Butterfly that will feature the Metropolitan Opera singing sensation Liping Zhang in the title role Thurs., Apr. 19 and Sat., Apr. 21 at 7:30pm with an added matinee Sun., Apr. 22 at 2:30pm.

An Updated Cinderella Enchants

Written as a 90 minute TV network special starring Julie Andrews in 1957, then revived for Lesley Ann Warren in 1965, Cinderella was given a newly updated book by Robert L. Freedman for yet another TV revival in 1997, this time with a multi-racial cast featuring Brandy as Cinderella, Whitney Houston as her Fairy Godmother and Paolo Montalban as the Prince. Songs were interpolated from other Rodgers & Hammerstein Musical Library properties, most notably "The Sweetest Sounds" from No Strings, both words and music by Rodgers. This version, adapted for the stage by Tom Briggs, played the Saenger Theatre recently for a one-week engagement that entertained, well, royally.

Directed by Gabriel Barre and starring Eartha Kitt as the Fairy Godmother - a real Broadway diva of the first water - with Jamie-Lynn Sigler, the mafia princess of The Sopranos, as Cinderella, and Paolo Montalban repeating his TV role as the Prince, the show also boasted other non-traditional casting choices: The evil Step Mom is played to perfection, in drag, by Everett Quinton, an alumnus of Charles Ludlam's Ridiculous Theatrical Company. His two daughters -Cinderella's nasty stepsisters - are hilariously portrayed by NaTasha Yvette Williams and Alexandra Kolb. These three definitely give the show its comic edge and they might even steal the show, were it not for the four White Mice, Charles, a cat and A Dove, all manipulated by puppeteers dressed in blue and seen in full view, ala The Lion King, who brighten this production with their utter cuteness and sheer theatrical magic. The Prince's mom and dad, Leslie Becker's Queen Constantina and Ken Prymus's King Maximillian, also add to the comic pyrotechnics.

Miss Kitt, who began her show biz career in 1952 as a New Face, brought the audience to its feet during the curtain call by doing several aerobic moves and touching the floor with her palms. Who knows, maybe she really does possess magic! (Don't you believe it: a friend of mine told me he had worked out with her earlier on that day at the N.O. Athletic Club. The dame keeps herself in shape through sheer hard work.)

Even though this is a touring production of a show that has yet to play New York, let alone Broadway (it does do 16 performances at Radio City Music Hall in May) and it is, by definition, somewhat lean in the scenic department as well as having a very small chorus, its classic R & H score including Cinderella's lament "In My Own Little Corner," Miss Kitt's "Impossible," the lilting "Ten Minutes Ago" and the classic R & H love song, "Do I Love You Because You're Beautiful?" fills a hall like the Saenger effortlessly and its eyewash scenery (by James Youmans) and day-glo costumes (by Pamela Scofield), pop out of the dark blue semi-circular proscenium arch with their giddy Mardi Gras shades of orange, green, gold & purple, a gloriously golden carriage, a full moon, and, for the finale, tons of glitter - eyewash galore! Plus, I was home by 10:15pm!

H.M.S. Pinafore Docked in Metairie

The comic operettas of W.S. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan are known for their pungent commentaries on the prejudices and affectations of Victorian England's upper classes, and none is so biting as the highly successful H.M.S. Pinafore, the duo's first smash hit way back in 1878, which recently docked for a two week run at the Jefferson Performing Arts Society's East Jefferson High School Auditorium location under the inventive direction of Kris Shaw with musical direction by JPAS Symphony Orchestra conductor Dennis Assaf, who is also the organization's Executive/Artistic Director.

mannino Although time and distance have dulled the bite of the show's class-conscious satire, Mr. Shaw had an excellent cast of local singers with which to work and work they did, the show was most entertaining - it thoroughly deserved its label as a comic opera (as opposed to musical comedy or even operetta).

Setting the comic tone and almost stealing the show was the delightful and youthful Angela Mannino as Josephine, the daughter of the Pinafore's Captain Corcoran (stalwart baritone William McCrary), who is in love with Ralph Rackshaw (tubby tenor Eric DeForest), a common seaman, but whose hand has been promised to the First Lord of the Admiralty, the Rt. Honorable Sir Joseph Porter (a very campy Alan Payne). Ms. Mannino impressed last summer in Ricky Graham's raucous Beehive with a strong belting voice. Here her upper register was showcased and what one heard was delightful and thoroughly pleasing; to say nothing of this young lady's comic acting ability -she's the real thing.

Others in the cast who turned in solid performances were Jennifer Steen as Little Buttercup, a woman who sells tobacco and confections to the seamen and whose deus ex machina announcement that she had changed the status of Ralph and the Captain at their births sews up the silly plot and sets up a triple wedding; Paul Bello, the unlikely villain Dick Deadeye, Fara Duhe as Cousin Hebe, who ultimately mates with Sir Joseph, since she's the only one aboard who is also upper class. Thomas Irwin as the Boatswain and Julius Dietze as Bob Becket both added their baritone voices to the mellifluous mix.

Although Stephen Thurber's sets and lighting continued to reflect budget constraints, Liv Wildz's costumes were colorful and, for the most part correct, except for all those sisters and cousins and aunts.

Tennessee Williams Fest

Besides Le Petit's annual full-length tribute to the late American playwright, Tennessee Williams, which was co-produced by the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival (this year it was Tiger Tail, the writer's reworking of a screenplay called Baby Doll, a reworking of a one act play called 27 Wagons Full of Cotton), the festival also presented a number of shorter theatre pieces like Roads Not Taken, readings from six scenes written for A Streetcar Named Desire that were cut from the final version of the text and Oscar and Adonis, the staging of the winner of last year's one act play contest that is annually produced by the University of New Orleans. Also, from year to year independent producers try to capitalize on the Williams flack with peripheral productions, this year, besides the Dog and Pony Company's CAC production of The Glass Menagerie (reviewed in the last issue and sanctioned by the Festival), a new group calling itself DRAMA, A Gay and Lesbian Arts Organization, presented the Southern premiere of an unproduced one act from the prolific Southern writer's trunk called The Traveling Companion.

Theatre historian Dan Isaac organized five unpublished scenes from working versions of Williams' 1947 masterpiece, A Streetcar Named Desire, preserved in the Tennessee Williams Collection at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center in Austin, TX which he presented under the umbrella title of Roads Not Taken, to illustrate how the playwright groped for the final form of the play and the ultimate names of his characters. Blanche and Stella were always that, but Stanley and Mitch were originally Ralph and Howdy, then Stanley and Eddie or, at one point, Mitch was called George! One final scene has the two couples ending on a happy note.

Mr. Isaac's verbosity in presenting this material belied Williams' own attempts at telescoping and cropping his work and making it meaningful, understandable and terse but he was ably abetted by Shelley Poncy, reading Blanche; Cassie Worley, Stella; Michael Arata, Stanley; and Danny Bowen, Mitch.

Matthew Wells' one act play winner, Oscar and Adonis, was given a full, rich production by UNO under the astute direction of Susan Muth.

Mr. Wells has imagined a hypothetical event that never occurred, a meeting among Oscar Wilde (after being released from Reading Gaol after his three trials for gross indecency, i.e. sodomy), his erstwhile lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, and Wilde's wife, Constance, in rented rooms in Italy.

Mr. Wells' play is full of Wildean aphorisms and Victorianesque dialogue every bit as glib as anything Mr. Wilde actually wrote - no small feat; but it is the clever utilization of Shakespeare's long poem Venus and Adonis, a classic idyll in the mythological-erotic vein telling of the doomed romance of two supremely beautiful but inexperienced lovers, that gives this play its resonance.

Director Muth also had the services of an excellent, seasoned student cast led by Jason Kirkpatrick as Oscar Wilde, with long blond haired and willowy Micah Pounds as his thoroughly corrupt lover (who sneaks out leaving Wilde 200 Pounds his father, the Marquess of Queensbury, has sent him) and Lisa Fritschle as his liberal but conflicted wife Constance, who is finding it impossible to be - constant, and wants to change their sons' name, and her own (which, of course, she actually did.)

Joshua Palmer did the Victorian setting, Julia E. Jacobsen saw to it that the three actors were clothed in proper Victorian attire while Paul Fuller lit the Children's Corner setting with an amber glow.

Led by Executive Director Charlie Farve Hayes and Artistic Director Charles Kerbs, the new Gay and Lesbian Arts Organization called Drama! was fortunate to acquire the theatre space at Cowpokes bar next to Robert's Supermarket at 2240 St. Claude (the theatre space has a separate entrance around the corner at 1030 Marigny St.), in which, for a two weekend run (which was held over for a third weekend), they presented, in rudimentary form, a staged reading of a one act play written and directed by Lyla Hay Owen called La Piece de Resistance that featured Joanna Bennett Palmer as a wealthy matron who eats herself into obesity to spite her husband read by Charles Kerbs. Danny McNamara was an impartial waiter. The play, suffering from Ms. Palmer's inability to keep her place in the script, was followed by a full staging of Williams' The Traveling Companion, another unpublished work, this one coming from the University of the South, which was written shortly before Williams' death in 1983.

Set in a motel room, the play, really a scene, is between an older writer named Vieux (Michael-Chase Creasy) and a young hustler named Beau (Blak D Balu) he's picked up in a San Francisco Gay bar and hired to be his traveling companion.

The full house laughed heartily both at the dialogue itself - it was such a caricature of Williams - as well as at the shock of recognition. The old Vieux sounds remarkably like the Princess Kosmonopolis in Sweet Bird of Youth upon entering the motel room the two will share for the night. After taking an inventory of the drugs he needs for survival, the young man becomes belligerent when he realizes he will have to share the double bed with this "pervert." He demands another room or at least another bed and ultimately settles for a cot which is delivered to him by the bellhop from hell played hilariously by Danny McNamara. The traveling companion, who at first wants to leave, decides ultimately to decide what he will do in the morning. End of play.

With only six household spot lights and a double bed, the guys from Drama! made drama that, despite its being derivative, was nonetheless enjoyable and ultimately rewarding.

At Le Petit, a theatre with over 400 seats and elaborate facilities, yet another later Williams was presented.

Tiger Tail is a retread that was also written late in the playwright's life; probably to generate yet another title for his ever expanding canon of rewrites and further rewrites of plays that had not been successful. 27 Wagons Full of Cotton started life, like many of his plays, as a short story in the early 30s. Its first production as a play was presented in 1955 here in New Orleans by Tulane University coupled with a one act opera called Lord Byron's Love Letter with a libretto by Williams set to music by Raffaello de Banfields [Note: A signed poster - Williams and Patricia Neway who starred in the opera - of this event is available at 504.525.4498]. A year later an adaptation of the play was filmed as Baby Doll.

Tiger Tail is a prolix version of 27 Wagons Full of Cotton, which remains the definitive form for this particular tale of Southern corruption and sexual deviancy among a triangle made up of a mentally retarded 19 year old virgin here named Baby Doll (she's Flora in 27 Wagons), her overweight, sweaty husband, Archie, who has burned down his rival's cotton gin, and the rival, Silva Vacarro, who revenges the destruction of his gin by raping Baby Doll/Flora. Other characters in this play not in the one act version who add to its running length without actually adding anything to the dramaturgy are Aunt Rose who lives with Archie and Baby Doll in an unfurnished haunted house (it's all Archie can afford) with her pet chicken that periodically pecks at the kitchen floor, upstaging all the humans, the sheriff and his deputies and a couple of neighbors.

Perry Martin's staging on Bill Walker's unnecessarily elaborate house set confined most of the action to the forestage and the porch's swing and was brutally realistic in the barbaric treatment Archie (an impossibly loud Dane Rhodes) and Silva (an oily smooth Jason Clement) showed toward the pitiful Baby Doll of Kara Hadigan, who was not convincing as a 19 year old mental retard.

Abby A. Lake as Aunt Rose Comfort McCorkle gave the production its only humor - every time the phone rang she screamed because she was afraid that the call was bringing bad news and sure enough every call was indeed bad news.

What this staging proved beyond a shadow of a doubt is that, yes, Williams was a compulsive writer, but also, no, not all rewriting is for the best. Sometimes it's better to leave well enough alone.

B'Way Diva Betty Buckley
in Benefit Concert for Le Petit Theatre

For one night only, Sun., June 17, 8pm, at Le Petit Theatre, 616 St. Peter St., the Broadway Diva Betty Buckley, known for her Tony Award winning performance originating the role of Grizabella in Cats and introducing the song "Memory" to America, will appear in a concert to help raise much needed funds for the venerable French Quarter theatre.

Besides Cats, Ms. Buckley also appeared on Broadway in Sunset Boulevard, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, 1776 and Song and Dance.

The concert, which will happen on the closing night of the theatre's final offering of the season, the musical The Mystery of Edwin Drood, will include her renditions of theatre songs and songs that tell a story - from Kurt Weill to Joni Mitchell, Gershwin to James Taylor, Sondheim to Amanda McBroom.

Tickets are $100 and include a post-performance dessert party and silent auction.

Ms. Buckley also starred for several seasons on TV's Eight is Enough and most recently appeared as a continuing guest star on HBO's Oz. She has also appeared on screen in Brian DePalma's Carrie with Sissy Spacek, Bruce Beresford's Tender Mercies with Robert Duvall, Roman Polanski's Frantic with Harrison Ford and Woody Allen's Another Woman.

For tickets and more information, call 504.522.2081.

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