Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra through May 19
I had missed the first Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra (LPO) Holiday Spectacular featuring the 610 Stompers in 2015 and resolved to see last year’s edition which turned out to be fabulous. Could they top themselves this year? Indeed they did.
Whereas last year’s Spectacular had a “round the world” theme and included a diverse variety of local cultural groups, for 2017 the Stompers, following the lead of the LPO which will be performing at Carnegie Hall on February 27, vowed to return to New York to follow up their Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade triumph of a few years ago, thus explaining the title’s subheading From the Big Easy to the Big Apple.
This prompted the LPO and the Stompers to use an assortment of show tunes for the program. In their red jacket/white shirt/blue shorts outfits, and despite some prodigious guts overhanging certain Stompers’ waistlines, they displayed supreme confidence and impeccable style as they launched into such challenging numbers as Fiddler on the Roof’s Bottle Dance (wearing no kneepads!) and All That Jazz from Chicago. One wishes Jerome Robbins or Bob Fosse could have seen such breathtaking terpsichorean mastery.
The Stomper merriment began with the Theme from New York, New York in which candy cane walking sticks doubled as swords, continued through My Shot from Hamilton for which a rapping Ted Dunaway (aka Erratica) brought the audience to its feet, and when it got to Cats, proved that Stompers make fine felines.
Choreographers Karen Hebert and Kelly Fouchi did a great job of tailoring the theatrical dances to the talents of the Stompers particularly in the precise March of the Toy Soldiers that had Michael Lam (aka Cookie) standing out as a “soldier” determinedly trying to fit in.
But what made this program at the Orpheum Theater so special was its inclusiveness. The Double Steppers, an all-woman contemporary clogging team from Metairie many of whose members appeared AARP-eligible, joined the Stompers for an inspired tap dance version of One from A Chorus Line.
The Landry/Walker Concert Choir did an absolutely beautiful, contemporary-sounding rendition of O Holy Night using a lovely arrangement. The St. Michael Special School Bell Choir, comprised of teens and adults with special needs, made heavenly music. And two NOCCA students, Olivia Belle Gray, who sang Memory from Cats, and Nina Ballon, who led the grandfinale’s All I Want for Christmas is You, demonstrated how marvelous the youth talent is in this city.
Ironically, while the six young orphans who belted out Annie’s It’s a Hard Knock Life with the Stompers were adorable, this number did not match the gleefully surreal heights as when they dazzled us as svelte Fosse dancers or Rockette-ish toy soldiers. After all, Stompers can portray ragamuffin orphans without stretching the imagination too far even if one doubts that they have “empty bellies.”
Constantine Kitsopoulos lovingly conducted throughout, especially the more traditional Christmas numbers that alternated with the Stompers such as Silent Night, White Christmas and Leroy Anderson’s Sleigh Ride. Every section of the LPO played superbly as always. Director Betsy Hirling Dobson paced the show perfectly and effectively used the narrow stage space while dispatching Stompers throughout the theater for maximum audience thrills.
For some reason, the show’s title, Holiday Spectacular?, ended with a question mark. That might be the only inappropriate thing about this special holiday event as it unquestionably deserved a “!”
Coming up on Jan. 4 (Orpheum) and 5 (First Baptist Church, Covington) is globally-renowned violinist Ray Chen performing Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy for Violin and Orchestra; Carlos Miguel Prieto conducts Brahms’ First Symphony and Rachmaninov’s Paganini Variations, Jan. 12 and 13 (Orpheum); and Jurassic Park screens on Jan. 20 and 21 with live orchestral accompaniment (Orpheum).
The Tempest at Tulane’s Dixon Hall on Jan. 12 with school matinees Jan. 10-19
[The following is based on a performance I saw last July; the review didn’t run due to Ambush’s hiatus. Though the forthcoming remount will be at a different venue and a few cast members have changed, my understanding is that it will be basically the same production.]
I’m of two minds about the New Orleans Shakespeare Festival’s production of The Tempest.
On one hand, Director Clare Moncrief offers a highly intelligent rendering of the Bard’s autumnal “comedy,” a niggardly word to describe a work that is also a romance, an adventure, a supernatural tale, and a towering summation of a lifetime of brilliant plays.
In an edited version that comes in at a fleeting two hours, Moncrief has staged it well, nicely deploying her cast of 18 throughout the auditorium. And every line, spoken by each of these actors, conveys its proper meaning, no small achievement.
In fact, this may have been my fifth Tempest, but my first really, really good one (not counting a barely remembered college production) as I’ve endured disastrous versions of it with Raul Julia (NYC’s Shakespeare in the Park’81) and Mark Rylance (London’s Globe Theater’05). The former featured a helicopter, the latter, a cast of three men plus three leather-clad female dancers.
Finally, I understood and could fully appreciate how profound this play is.
In her Director’s Notes, Moncrief quotes the late Buzz Podewell’s instruction to “Just tell the story.” That she did and did very well, assuredly interweaving the strands of Shakespeare’s plot, in a fitting tribute to one of the Festival’s founders.
But if Moncrief took, successfully, a traditional approach, she missed an opportunity to explore a classic and dig beneath its surface, particularly when her cast seemed to be up to the challenge.
With its themes of colonization, usurpation, proper government, to name just a few, The Tempest begs, especially nowadays, for directorial interpretation (tho that does sometimes get you a helicopter or those leather-clad dancers).
As one example, each time the sorcerer Prospero (Danny Bowen) referred to Caliban (Burton Tedesco) as his slave, as though that was a good thing, it caused me to twinge; could there not have been more ambiguity here? Caliban’s enslavement elicits some pity for him, and the butler Stephano’s plying him with liquor evokes images of Europeans introducing Native Americans to alcohol with disastrous results. But Caliban did try to rape Miranda, Prospero’s young daughter, and his exhortations to “Burn [Caliban’s] books” conjure up Nazis and the alt-Right crowd; the two sides of this fantastical creature deserve a more trenchant analysis.
More importantly, while I applaud the transparency that Moncrief and Co. bring to the text, missing is a deeper exploration of all that the words mean as well as their sublime poetry. For example, as the romance of Miranda and Ferdinand, the young prince of Naples, blossoms, we should have a lump in our throat as their melting lines limn the discovery of the purest of loves. Here, it’s all too surface-y.
So do see this Tempest, especially if you’ve never seen it before, or even if you have. I just wish there had been more magic, Prospero’s or anyone else’s, in it.
Randy Rainbow at Café Istanbul
A Man and His Prostate at Le Petit Theatre
Two one-man shows recently visited New Orleans, one featuring a rising comic presence, the other a beloved star still trodding the boards in the twilight of his career. Both were highly enjoyable though not without some shortcomings.
Randy Rainbow (yes, that’s his real name) has garnered international acclaim and over a hundred million views with his popular series of political spoofs and song parodies. Trump’s election last year has provided him with an unending source of material.
His latest release, Desperate Cheeto to the tune of Luis Fonsi’s Grammy-nominated Despacito, nails 45 with such lines as “Desperate cheeto, getting worse with every single stupid tweet-o / Don’t know why your hands are so petite-o / You’re upsetting everyone you meet-o.”
Rainbow also scored with the presidential debate-themed Braggadocious! set to the tune of Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious! (“Heeeeee’s super callous, fragile, egocentric, braggadocious…”) and brilliantly used a medley of Broadway tunes to lambaste Drump’s “covfefe” tweet.
Making his New Orleans debut, Rainbow looked natty in a sparkly black tuxedo jacket and sang along with some of his videos including Ya Got Trump Trouble! (using The Music Man’s famed tune) as wonderfully apt now as it was during last year’s Republican convention and Fact-Checker, Fact-Checker, one of my favorites, which skewers Kellyanne Conway to the melody of Fiddler on the Roof ’s Matchmaker, Matchmaker. Not surprisingly with all the turmoil in DC, it’s already slightly out-of-date as Sean Spicer, who appears in it, is long gone as White House Press Secretary.
Taking questions from the audience for about 10 minutes during the hour-long program, Rainbow proved to be an engaging, down-to-earth presence. He said that he does everything for his videos by himself working from his apartment in Queens, NY (“No one wants to work with me,” he joked). Asked how he comes up with ideas for the satires, he replied, “I’m gay. I think in show tunes.”
If you think of classic TV actors, one of the few who made the leap from comedy to drama is Ed Asner, picking up multiple Emmys for both The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Lou Grant. He returned to the Big Easy with A Man and His Prostate written by Emmy and Golden Globe winner Ed. Weinberger, who’s best known for his work on The Mary Tyler Moore Show among many other television successes.
Weinberger based A Man and His Prostate on his actual experience of collapsing in a museum while he was in Florence during a cruise. He wound up in a hospital to discover he had an tremendously enlarged prostate. Fortunately, his Italian doctor was one of the finest in Europe and a biopsy showed no signs of cancer.
Weinberger leavens this tale with classic if, at times, somewhat predictable humor; finely detailed observations, like of the dramatic crucifix by his bed, garnered big laughs. If things got a little queasy when, post-operation, he tries to find an “escort” to cure his impotency, claiming “I’m doing this for my wife” as an excuse, overall it was a masterful example of comic storytelling.
At 88, Asner has lost none of his actorly abilities. He can infuse a line with innuendo and, conveys rage and sly humor with equal degrees of sharpness. Listening to him, he sounds like the Lou Grant of 40 years ago. Wearing his costume of a Hawaiian shirt and shorts (such sexy knees, lol), Asner entered the stage, though, using a cane, visibly frailer than the hard-charging Grant of yesteryear. Still, I’ll not soon forget Asner miming taking a piss and endowing himself grandly with a virtuosic technique actors a quarter of his age could learn from.
While one admires Asner for going out on the road with this, which also serves as both a public service announcement for prostate cancer awareness and a tribute to the many famous men who have died from this disease, one can’t ignore the fact that certain details, for example how long he’s been married to his wife (35 years with two college age daughters), might have made more sense coming from a slightly younger actor, closer to Weinberger’s age, 72.
But how can you not love a piece in which a character takes the eight bladder stones that doctors removed from his body and brings them to parties to show his friends, comparing them to Stonehenge?
As for the shortcomings of these shows, in both cases I wasn’t quite sure what to expect but was a tad disappointed that A Man and His Prostate was basically a reading with Asner mostly sitting in front of a stand that held his script, while a good deal of Rainbow’s show consisted of us watching his videos on a giant screen while he was backstage.
Still, it would be churlish to expect a man of Asner’s age to memorize an 80-minute script. Similarly, to expect a man best known for his videos to present you with something else would be like asking a shit to fly. And when shows are as entertaining as these were, such little things can be easily overlooked. Happy Holidays!