Jessie Mueller/The Seth Concert Series through July 13
It’s not the same, but what is these days? And in some ways, it’s even better than what it’s replacing.
“It” is The Seth Concert Series, a spinoff from the Broadway@NOCCA series that has become a beloved part of NOLA’s theater scene. With live performances temporarily on hold, producer Mark Cortale and host/music director Seth Rudetsky had the wise idea to move their cabaret-cum-interview programs into cyberspace. With its simple, two-person format, this singular entertainment has made the transition well-nigh seamlessly.
While I missed the first two (Kelli O’Hara, and Jeremy Jordan, who appeared at NOCCA last March), I’m happy I caught the third installment which featured Jessie Mueller, a Tony winner for Best Actress for Beautiful: The Carole King Musical. In these quarantining times, the show was a delight and so refreshing after 3+ months of hardly any theater, certainly nothing like this.
As is his wont, Rudetsky started the discussion with Mueller’s childhood. She wanted to be an animator as a kid and didn’t do any performing till high school. Once there, rather than the lead, she “wanted to be the comic sidekick.”
In her senior year, she kinda got both as Princess Winifred in the comedic Once Upon a Mattress, a musical retelling of The Princess and the Pea. After hearing her absolutely delightful rendition of its powerhouse song Shy, I’d love to see her star in it.
Though Mueller had no connection to Broadway and just “wanted to be in the Chicago theater scene”, fate had different plans for her. In 2011, she found herself starring opposite Harry Connick, Jr. in a revival of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever and, as Rudetsky put it, “everyone was obsessed with [her]”, an out-of-town newcomer who had landed on top in New York.
Mueller gave us the background on the show’s audition process, including a demonstration of how she repurposed the lovely Rodgers & Hammerstein tune It Might as Well Be Spring into a jazzy version since she didn’t have any other song at the tryout that could show off that side of her talent. She also noted that Broadway is similar to Chicago only a lot more money is involved and told a great story about the time Connick got lost in a musical number and she saved it while wryly noting that “Harry has his own version” of the tale.
After a couple of other shows, Mueller landed the lead in Beautiful and said “she couldn’t just mimic King as she’s such an open vessel who gives away her heart.” Her performance of I Feel the Earth Move demonstrated this as it honored King without being a slavish imitation of her. Mueller also advised, “If anyone’s taking piano lessons, stick with it. It’s a great skill to have.”
The concert continued with songs from Sara Bareilles’ Waitress, Mueller’s next leading role for which she received a Tony nomination. Performing the show’s 11 o’clock number, She Used to Be Mine, Mueller gave it 110% as though it were opening night on Broadway.
More recently, Mueller starred in the revival of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel as Julie Jordan (garnering another Tony nod). Not only was her interpretation of If I Loved You gorgeous, but she provided a very interesting textual analysis of the song as well as technical aspects of how she approached singing it.
Throughout the evening, Mueller, appearing from her living room in a polka dot top and with her hair in a bun, came off as wise and articulate, charming yet wholly down-to-earth. Commenting on the past few months she said she’s been “reading lotsa books” and “cooking up a storm”; I suspect there was a touch of sarcasm when she noted, “Every day is different.”
Rudetsky, hosting and playing piano live from his home, was his usual hyper, enthusiastic, trivia-obsessed and gossipy self which was actually comforting in a world so in flux these days.
Together, these two pros created a wonderfully intimate 90 minutes, an easy camaraderie passing virtually between them. Mueller’s pure tone came through remarkably well and if it wasn’t quite the same as hearing her live at NOCCA, it was the next best thing. Plus, this way, she was almost kinda literally in your living room or bedroom or the palm of your hand (if you were watching on your cell phone). And live.
Technically, there’s nothing fancy about The Seth Concert Series with host and guest sharing the screen, each having one steady camera angle on them. Only when Mueller soloed on guitar for Waitress’ A Soft Place to Land did the configuration change to a one-shot of her.
Coordination between Rudetsky and Mueller was extremely well-done (“It’s almost real!” Mueller jokingly commented about listening to the piano through her ear bud.) and if the sound sometimes went in and out and off a little bit, the occasional stern and unapproving look this elicited on Rudetsky’s face was priceless.
With no applause, except typed in by the many fans in the chat that scrolled alongside the images, it’s “like singing in the shower” Mueller dryly observed. On a much more serious note, however, she said referring to the events of the last month, “We can’t be in this world just for ourselves any more. ‘Me, me, me’ just doesn’t work.”
The concert concluded with Les Miz’ On My Own which, although Mueller had never sung it in public before, she knocked out of the ballpark with Rudetsky occasionally helping her with the lyrics in the most lovingly gentle way. This was followed by an unplanned Part of Your World from The Little Mermaid, fulfilling Mueller’s dream “to be a Disney character,” and the entrancing My White Knight from The Music Man which Mueller starred in last year at the Kennedy Center. I didn’t want it to end.
Next up, on July 5 and 6, will be Tony and Drama Desk nominee Melissa Errico followed by the amazing six-time Tony winner Audra McDonald on July 12 and 13. See the website thesethconcertseries.com for details.
Bravos to Seth Rudetsky, Mark Cortale and all their magnificent performers for making this marvelous series happen in these tumultuous times.
New in New York
I’ve heard from friends that New York City, once the epicenter of the US’s COVID-19 pandemic, has in large part returned to what passes for normal these days. If things continue in this positive direction, that will enable the Big Apple to move into Phase 4 on July 20 which will allow museums to reopen.
If that’s the case and you happen to be in NYC and would like a little magic, and who wouldn’t these days, then check out the Houdini Museum (213 W. 35 St., Ste. 401). Its exhibit space, on the fourth floor of a commercial building, may be fairly small but still allows for an impressively large collection of memorabilia regarding the most renowned magician who ever lived including
photos, publicity posters, magic props, secret tools & large restraints he used for escape tricks, handcuffs of all sorts, items used to expose phony spiritualists, and even a giant robot from a movie of his. Many of the Museum’s items have never previously been on public display.
The Museum also offers magic classes, lectures & performances and at any time there’re likely to be some magicians around to show you some tricks and/or sell them to you from the Museum’s shop.
All this is overseen by the engaging Rajon Lynch (aka RJ the Magician), the Museum’s young director who grew up in the same Wisconsin town as Houdini. He’s trying as well to expand the field’s demographics; in a New York Times profile last November, he was quoted as saying “We’re trying to get more kids of color in, as well as women and girls. I think it helps that I’m African-American and I don’t necessarily look like a conventional magician.”
Admission to the Houdini Museum is free (although there’s a $10 suggested donation) and while it had been open 7 days a week, currently it’s Thursday-Sunday by appointment (212-244-3633; www.houdinimuseumny.com). A little googling will take you to some videos featuring Lynch including an amusing TEDx Talk he did three years ago when he was still in college.
If you magically want to go to NYC without leaving your home, check out the Metropolitan Opera’s fantastic Nightly Opera Streams (www.metopera.org) which offers a free series of encore Live in HD presentations as well as earlier Live From the Met broadcasts, all with subtitles.
Since it began in March, it has presented over 100 operas, including a few repeats, most very good, a few meh, and some absolutely astounding. I’ve seen just about all of them and have gotten used to having Leontyne Price, Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo, Anna Netrebko, Renée Fleming, and the very cute Juan Diego Flórez, among many others, in my bedroom.
This week, you can enjoy Dmitri Shostakovich’s The Nose (July 1-2; each opera is available for 23 hours beginning at 5:30 pm CDT), an absurdist tale of a man who finds his nose missing one day. Paulo Szot stars and sings this complex score with a robust voice; he’s especially touching in his aria of self-pity. The great South African animation artist William Kentridge directed and designed the production which, if overly busy with a little too much action on stage, is nonetheless wildly imaginative.
Inspired by a Walter Scott novel, Rossini’s La Donna del Lago (July 5-6) with its crazy plot of warring Scottish factions may not entirely make sense, but that’s hardly the point when there’s glorious music and singing to be had.
The first act may be fabulous, but the second is even better as exposition gives way to a steady stream of musical magic, and drab battle costumes are replaced by sumptuously regal court outfits.
The sublime Joyce DiDonato makes the most difficult arias seem effortless, approaching her role of Elena, beloved by two men yet in love with another, with sensitivity, delicacy, and strength.
As the King who loves Elena (but he’s in disguise so she doesn’t know he’s her father’s enemy!), Flórez’s awesome tenor voice thrills with ringing high notes as he conveys an understated nobility. In duet, DiDonato and Flórez create peerless vocal beauty.
Other upcoming operas (the schedule is usually announced about a week in advance) include vintage broadcasts of Wagner’s Die Walküre from 1989 featuring a trio of operatic goddesses, Hildegard Behrens, Jessye Norman & Christa Ludwig (June 30-July1) and Donizetti’s joyfully comic Don Pasquale starring the legendary Beverly Sills and Alfredo Kraus from 1979 (July 4-5).
More recent HD transmissions will showcase two of the operatic repertoire’s most popular works, Bizet’s Carmen from 2014 starring Anita Hartig, Anita Rachvelishvili, Aleksandrs Antonenko & Ildar Abdrazakov (July 2-3) and Mozart’s Don Giovanni from 2011 whose fine cast includes Marina Rebeka, Barbara Frittoli, Mojca Erdmann, Ramón Vargas, Mariusz Kwiecien, Luca Pisaroni, and Štefan Kocán (July 3-4). Enjoy your front-row seat!