A bright new tenor ahead of the Times; Eve Harringtons have their day
Marc Blitzstein’s “Regina” was certainly worth a trip up to Bard College, where it was presented on July 29, as part of the SummerScape Festival, in its jaw-dropping Frank Gehry-designed theater, a smashed tin can amidst all that lush greenery.
This operatic version of Lillian Hellman’s greatest play, “The Little Foxes,” was originally presented on Broadway in 1949, directed by Robert Lewis and costumed by the great Aline Bernstein (who had done the 1939 original production with Tallulah Bankhead). It lasted a mere six weeks, but remains Blitzstein’s most performed work.
The score is a real American pastiche––part-opera, musical comedy, gospel and ragtime, all over the place, and something of a forerunner to the so-called “modern” music being written for so many new musicals today. Conducting the American Symphony Orchestra, Leon Botstein elicited every value from a score somewhat melody-challenged, save a musical passage which Leonard Bernstein, Blitzstein’s good buddy, lifted for “Maria” in “West Side Story,” as blatant a steal as anything Lloyd Webber ever perpetrated on Puccini.
Director Peter Schneider, making his operatic debut, hails from the Walt Disney animation department, and, like Julie Taymor, with whom he worked on “The Lion King,” proved just what the medium needs, keeping things moving and lively in, yes, “cinematic” fashion. Artist Judy Pfaff’s set was an effective mélange of Freudian abstractions like stylized chandeliers and a stairway to nowhere that––at once lavish and stark––served the work beautifully.
Of the male singers––including a surprisingly indifferent James Maddalena as evil Oscar Hubbard––Jason Collins, who went completely unmentioned in The New York Times’ review, clearly was the standout, bringing clarion tenor voice and deliciously bratty acting skills to the role of Leo, the scapegrace of the Hubbard family. Constantly blowing bubblegum balloons, this young native of South Carolina really got what it was all about and made his odious character somehow deeply charming.
Kelly Kaduce sang the shreds out of pathetically tippling Birdie, but disconcertingly appeared and sounded much too young, no older than her innocent niece, Alexandra (Lauren Skuce), and the famously vicious slap she received from her husband, Oscar, was too obviously faked.
Regina Giddens is a great role, the American Lady Macbeth, and Lauren Flanigan, a great actress who is, histrionically, unsurpassed on the operatic stage, filled it. For City Opera, she was a superb Lady Macbeth and, in Richard Strauss’ “Intermezzo,” turned that one-note domestic farce into a screwball delight––while effortlessly singing and doing rollerblade dips during the ice skating sequence. She had a Callas intensity as Queen Elizabeth in Opera Orchestra’s “Maria Stuarda,” putting the fear of God into Ruth Anne Swenson’s Maria, and as Regina, she ferociously shrieked and seductively connived away, making for a riveting dramatic experience.
Regina is a role that has eluded a lot of fine actresses –– Stockard Channing almost pulled it off in the 1997 Lincoln Center revival of “The Little Foxes,” while, in the famous William Wyler 1941 movie, Bette Davis gave one of her most overrated, emptily malicious performances, all rice- powdered stylization and hauteur over substance. (How I wish true Southerner Tallulah Bankhead had done it, or Miriam Hopkins, who was also considered, or Margaret Sullavan, who was not.)
When Flanigan brought down the curtain on a feral high note, as she sang to her invalid husband (Stephen West), “I hope you die soon, I’ll be waiting for you to die,” we all needed to stagger out to enjoy the Hudson’s Valley’s clean, revivifying night air.
Blitzstein’s own life outdid even “Regina,” for stark tragedy. In the days before AIDS, when the only usual way gay men died before their time was at the hands of rough trade, the composer fell sad victim to this plight. While wintering in Martinique in 1964, he picked up three Portuguese sailors in a bar. In a nearby alley, they savagely beat and robbed him of his money and his clothes. The police discovered him, in agony, and brought him to a hospital. Although his injuries did not seem serious, he was bleeding from internal contusions and died the next evening, on January 22, 1964.
On a far happier note, I have rarely enjoyed myself more than at Ars Nova’s third annual Broadway Understudies concert on July 25, presented as part of their Broadway Spotlight series. It was another Seth Rudetsky production and he really showed off his piano chops, accompanying these standbys in a wide variety of songs they would sing more often if fortune shone on them, though perhaps not the stars they cover. It really was the best way to savor such iffy evenings in the theater like “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” and “The Light in the Piazza.”
From the former, Julie Barnes as Truly Scrumptious, with little dynamos Jaclyn Neidenthal and Antonio D’Amato, did Truly Scrumptious’ name song, on a bare stage, without costumes, in a way that had all the effervescent charm and intimacy the number lacks on the vast, hideously designed expanse of the Hilton Theatre. Neidenthal, in particular, was a sprightly winner, one of those terrifyingly gifted, seasoned mini-pros, rapping casually about her agent and her part in “School of Rock.” (“I was the girl in the principal’s office.” Isn’t there always one?) Later, the two kids gave an example of what bored standbys do backstage, when they perfectly mimed the dance moves of Erin Dilly as Truly and Raul Esparza as their daddy in a later number.
David Burnham understudies the role of Fabrizio Naccarelli in “Piazza.” Burnham said his big aria was actually composed a step higher than Matt Morrison sings it in the show, so, natch, Rudetsky sadistically had him do it that way and, although I am still not a fan of Adam Guettel’s dithering, melody-less, “let’s just go with whatever dribbles out on the keyboard” sound (not to mention those Italian 101 lyrics), Burnham’s thrilling mastery of the punishing, high-tessitura made you sit bolt upright in your seat. And he’s some looker, behsides.
Rosena M. Hill, a veteran of five Broadway shows (including “Marie Christine,” “Oklahoma” and the sorely lamented “Imaginary Friends”) waits around for Sara Ramirez of “Spamalot,” and told me, “I sit in the audience every night and watch the show. It’s just so much fun, both onstage and off. I can’t wait to go on in August and bring my own flavor to it. Of course, I’m not going to stray too very far from what Sara does. She is so awesome and did, after all, win the Tony. But the good thing is, they want us all to bring our own stamp to the roles, not be cookie cutter. And Mike Nichols is great to work with, very caring and really there.”
Those unseen kids from “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” Todd Buonopane, Kate Wetherhead, Willis White and Lisa Yuen had to be at the theater this night, but sent a hilarious film of themselves, whiling the time away, backstage. They were caught in various states––warming up, napping, being exasperatingly questioned by an usher as to their identity upon entering the theater for the umpteenth time and, of course, running lines along with the miked-into-dressing rooms live feed of the performance. (“She has no emotional investment in that line, like I do!”) Star Jesse Tyler Ferguson was seen ordering Bunopane to pick up his dry cleaning, and was rewarded with the film’s ending title which called him a bitch. (Clearly, he isn’t, as he and co-star Paolo Montalban showed up for the after party in Ars Nova’s adorable penthouse.)
Everybody spoke about various nightmare experiences of being shoved onto the stage with minimum rehearsals and maximum mishaps. Brad Anderson, of “All Shook Up,” blonde and nothing like star Chayanne (robbed of a Tony nomination), Jackson, spoke of the terror of facing an audience expecting to see Jackson, whose tall, dark and hunky form now dominates Time Square from a billboard. (Quel thighs!)
But nothing topped Rudetsky’s account of an Evita, who shall go nameless, who fell onstage and was unable to get up due to her hoopskirt. She lay there, rocking back and forth, until she finally righted herself and ad-libbed, “My uterine cancer is really painful today.”
Incidentally, that DJ Mr. Seth, on Sirius Radio’s dance music station, you know the one who says, “a-mah-zing” and is so fabulously, unapologetically out to the full acceptance of all those rednecks and small town prisoners out there in the heartland, is, indeed, Rudetsky, as he recently admitted to me. In his own words, “Busted!”
Contact David Noh at [email protected].