Sunday, February 24, 2008

A Theater Day

On Saturday, Joshua and I and our landlady attended two theater productions.

At the end of last week, our landlady, who loves theater, had mentioned to us that she thought we needed to devote one of our weekend days to theater. Josh and I decided that it might be fun, and we agreed with her. We chose to make Saturday, not Sunday, our theater-going day.

Consequently, on Saturday afternoon we went to Bloomington to see a Bloomington Civic Theater production of “The Fantasticks”.

Josh and I had never seen a performance of “The Fantasticks” before, and we were not quite sure what to make of this show. The show did not come across in the Bloomington production—our landlady said that the production was too bold, even brassy, for the material—and I am not sure that I would ever find this show to be appealing. The show struck me as thin and wispy, straining to be whimsical, but perhaps this was the fault of the production and not the material. Nonetheless, I am totally puzzled that this show managed to rack up a forty-year run in New York. I saw and heard nothing in the show to warrant such a lengthy run.

The Bloomington Civic Theater generally produces musicals to a very high standard—we all saw a lavish “Funny Girl” there last year, with full orchestra, that was at a professional level—but I do not think that this “Fantasticks” production will go down in the company’s annals as one of its finer efforts.

We caught “The Fantasticks” at the end of its month-long run, so the actors were as settled into their parts as they were going to be. I thought they were floundering. The Saturday matinee performance was sold out.

After “The Fantasticks”, we drove downtown and ate dinner at a Chinese restaurant. On these rare theater excursions with our landlady, we always seem to choose Chinese food.

After dinner, we went to Theater In The Round to attend a performance of “Henry V”.

I normally try to avoid American productions of Shakespeare, because American actors cannot recite Shakespeare’s texts. Iambic pentameter is simply beyond the capability of American actors—they always sound as if they have learned their lines phonetically.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed the Theater In The Round production enormously. In fact, it was one of the most enjoyable Shakespeare productions I have ever attended.

Simply put, the production worked. It was a spare, even spartan production, cleanly staged. It was paced swiftly and lucidly, so that anyone unfamiliar with the play could follow the action easily. The text was cut—about forty-five minutes of the text had been lopped off, to bring the production in at two-and-a-half hours, with one intermission—and I had no problem with that.

The actors were OK, and I thought the young actor playing Henry V did an excellent job. He was a trifle bland and a trifle tentative, but he created a convincing Henry V. The real Henry V was a young man at the time of Agincourt, still feeling his way into his role, still learning how to be a leader among men, and casting a young actor as Henry V emphasized this aspect of the King without reducing the power of the role or the play.

I am very pleased that our landlady encouraged us to attend this “Henry V” because otherwise we would have missed it. All three of us liked this production. It was as fine a Shakespeare production as I have seen in the United States, and better than anything the Guthrie Theater has done with Shakespeare in my adult lifetime (for Shakespeare, the Guthrie brings in “big name” directors who get bogged down in “concept” productions that never work).

Today we did not do anything. After church, Josh and I had my parents over for lunch and dinner. (On our way home from church, Josh and I stopped and picked up my parents’ dog so that he could join us, too.) We gave them a lunch of tuna-and-noodles and a tomato-cucumber salad. We gave them a dinner of roast chicken and stuffing, mashed potatoes, peas, glazed carrots and fresh cranberries. For dessert, we had apple crisp.

All afternoon, we talked and listened to music and played scrabble. We talked to my brothers a couple of times on the telephone. We took the dog outside a couple of times for a good long romp. It was a nice, quiet afternoon.

First thing Tuesday morning, I have to travel to Dallas on business. I will not return until Friday evening.

Josh will stay with my parents while I am gone. That way he will not have to stay by himself in a lonely apartment.

My parents will take good care of him.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Fun In New York

New York was fun.

We got in late Thursday night, too late to have a normal dinner at a normal time, so we had a light supper of omelets, and went to bed not long after.

We stayed in Friday during the day, except for a couple of walks. All of us took a walk Friday morning after breakfast—even my nephew took a walk with us, although his Dad carried him most of that time—and my brothers and Josh and I took a second walk Friday afternoon while my nephew was taking his nap. Otherwise, we spent all day Friday playing with my nephew.

On Friday night, we went to see “August: Osage County”. All of us attended the play except my older brother, who has no interest at all in theater. He happily stayed home with my nephew that night.

We sort of enjoyed the play, not because it was any good, which it most certainly was not, but because it was sort of entertaining. “August: Osage County” is, fundamentally, nothing more than a Carol Burnett comedy skit about a dysfunctional family—but a comedy skit that goes terribly awry, turning incredibly nasty if not absolutely vicious a few minutes into the first act. There was an undeniable fascination in watching members of a seedy and sordid family go after each other tooth and nail, tearing at old wounds and opening new ones. However, the play itself is a formulaic commercial vehicle, created not by a genuine dramatist but by a purveyor of pre-packaged synthetic materials.

The author, Tracy Letts, has obviously spent a lifetime parked in front of his television set. Every single dramatic device, every single character, every single situation, every single line, derived purely from the swamp of present-day television. Indeed, Friday night’s audience instinctively recognized this, reacting to the play as if it were watching the tube at home. The audience chattered during the play, and laughed at inappropriate times and at inappropriate lines, and even interjected jeers and cheers when characters in the play were in discomfort or received a comeuppance.

A patina of seriousness hangs over “August: Osage County” because, lathered into this unpleasant and distasteful vat of television writing, playwright Letts has liberally inserted vast chunks of the family dramas of Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, William Inge, Edward Albee, Neil Simon, Paul Zindel and Sam Shepard. It is all startlingly derivative, dismaying in its lack of originality.

Ironically, these deficiencies happen to be the play’s saving grace. Because it is so derivative and so unoriginal, and because it is so heavily-beholden to television, the play is easily laughed off. If the play were more powerful and more true, and the characters more believable, it would be disturbing. As it is, it is just a contemporary commercial vehicle, very much of its time, an entertainment that theatergoers may happily forget as soon as they exit the theater door.

“August: Osage County” has been a modest commercial success during its limited Broadway run. Since it opened in November, it has played to between 50 and 70 per cent capacity, depending upon the week. It is scheduled to close in April.

On Saturday afternoon, we had four tickets for Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut” at the Metropolitan Opera. Josh and I wanted to go, and so did my mother. However, we had trouble getting anyone else to use the fourth ticket. My father decided he would rather stay home and play with his grandson. My sister-in-law decided that she did not want to go—she was still soured, she said, by “August: Osage County” from the previous evening.

Josh and I and my mother were preparing to head out by ourselves, intending to give our fourth ticket to an opera-goer looking for a ticket outside the opera house, when my middle brother decided at the last minute that he would accompany us. I’m glad he did. He enjoyed the performance very much.

I like “Manon Lescaut”—I have always liked “Manon Lescaut”—and I enjoyed the performance, although it was hardly one for the ages.

The Met’s production of “Manon Lescaut” is from 1980. It is a realistic production, clunky and not handsome in the least. I had not seen it before, although my mother had seen the production many years ago. For this revival, the Met should have retired its own “Manon Lescaut” production and borrowed Bologna’s production.

Singing Manon was Karita Mattila. This was the fifth time I had heard Mattila. I first heard her in 2003, singing “Salome” at the Paris Opera. In 2005, I heard her sing Amelia in “Un Ballo In Maschera” at Covent Garden. Exactly a year ago, I heard her sing “Jenufa” at the Met. Last April, I heard her give a recital in Saint Paul.

Mattila does not have an Italianate voice, and Puccini’s music does not come naturally to her. She does not know how to shape the phrases convincingly, and she does not know how to take advantage of the emotional swells written into the vocal line. It was a game try for a singer with a white voice, but Manon is definitely not Mattila’s role.

Mattila creates a striking and compelling stage figure, but as an actress she simply goes through the motions. She is strictly a by-the-numbers stage actress. There was no depth to her Salome, Amelia or Jenufa, and there was no depth to her Manon, either, despite the fact that she was trying very, very hard. In fact, I thought that Mattila was trying TOO hard, to the point of discomfort. Her Manon did not convince me for one moment, and much of what she did onstage was simply irritating.

The success of a Puccini performance always rests with the orchestra and conductor, and Saturday’s performance would not have worked, even if a great Puccini singer like Renata Scotto in her prime had inhabited the name part, and this was because the orchestral score was so poorly handled.

For some reason, the Metropolitan Opera orchestra can no longer play Puccini. The orchestra simply cannot summon the right sound for Puccini. Puccini requires, above all, an orchestral sound of great opulence and radiance, even glamour. A luxurious orchestral fabric, streaked with melancholy, must be on hand, with transparent strings, ravishing and dark-colored winds, and golden-toned brass, weaving Puccini’s orchestral lines into sounds and moods that create nothing so much as unending rapture.

Antonio Pappano must have the aural image for Puccini in his brain, because Pappano can elicit the Puccini sound from practically any orchestra he conducts. Pappano’s Puccini in London is a miracle, the most miraculous I have ever heard. Daniele Gatti also can summon the Puccini sound at will.

However, no other conductor today is able to create the right sound for Puccini, not even the three leading Italian conductors of our day. Claudio Abbado finds Puccini’s music to be treacle, and he never performs it. Riccardo Muti DOES perform Puccini, albeit infrequently, but Muti is a rigid Puccini conductor, looking mainly for moments of power and brilliance in the scores, at the expense of tenderness and expression. The end result: Muti’s Puccini is brittle. Riccardo Chailly’s Puccini is a “work in progress”, mostly convincing, but Chailly is not an innate Puccini conductor like Pappano.

The sound James Levine summoned from the Met orchestra was a Richard Strauss sound. It was too plushly-upholstered for Puccini, heavy and thick when it should have been translucent, glowing and luminous. The strings lacked lightness and transparency and color, the winds lacked character and piquancy and bewitching timbres, and the brass . . .well, the brass sound would have been apt for a performance of Ein Heldenleben, perhaps.

Levine’s conducting was also inflexible, as it always is in Puccini. Puccini requires a firm pulse that can be stretched and contracted endlessly without ever losing the basic thread. Levine cannot do this, and he has never been able to do this. Levine’s Puccini is inelastic and aimless, always either too slow or too fast, and incapable of maintaining and carrying the grand emotional arcs of Puccini’s music. There is no ecstasy in Levine’s Puccini, no melancholy, no tension, no momentum, and no emotional payoff. Levine should remove Puccini from his repertory. Levine’s Puccini is no better today than it was in the early 1980’s, when EMI abruptly cancelled a prospective Levine Puccini series once the first unhappy results were captured on tape.

After the “Manon Lescaut” matinee, my brother took my mother home, while Josh and I remained in the area around Lincoln Center, since we had tickets for Saturday night’s performance of New York City Ballet. We killed time between the opera performance and the ballet performance by walking around the Lincoln Center area and getting coffee and a sandwich.

The New York City Ballet program we attended was devoted to three George Balanchine ballets. Specifically, the company presented three Balanchine ballets all choreographed to the music of Tchaikovsky.

My mother and my sister-in-law did not want to attend this performance because, over Memorial Day Weekend last year, they had attended a New York City Ballet performance featuring two of the same three works Josh and I saw Saturday night: “Mozartiana” and “Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2”.

Back on May 29, 2007, I had written at some length about my mother’s and my sister-in-law’s visit to New York City Ballet over Memorial Day Weekend. As I wrote that day, my mother and my sister-in-law had attended the Sunday matinee performance of May 27. At the time, I knew they had enjoyed the performance very much, but I was unaware that Robert Gottlieb, America’s best active writer on dance (I believe Arlene Croce considers herself to be retired, mostly), was soon to describe that very same performance in The New York Observer as “a nearly perfect afternoon at City Ballet, certainly the best all-round program I’ve seen in years”.

Saturday night’s program was “Serenade”, “Mozartiana” and “Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2”. It may or may not have been one of the best New York City Ballet performances in years, but it was definitely a great night in the theater.

I love Balanchine. For me, ballet IS Balanchine. I can hardly watch the work of any other choreographer without observing how inferior the choreography is to Balanchine. Sometimes, I actually wonder if I even like ballet—it often strikes me that I like Balanchine in particular very much, but that I like ballet in general very little.

I could watch “Serenade” every night, I sometimes think. It is one of Balanchine’s most fascinating works. It is full of event, of mystery, of emotion, of drama, of wonder. It is one of a handful of the greatest ballets ever created.

Josh loved “Serenade” from the moment the curtain rose on the breathtaking sight of seventeen ballerinas arranged in a unique diagonal formation, arms extended at the same unique angle, seemingly shading their eyes against the light. “Serenade” must have the single greatest opening tableaux in the entire ballet repertory.

Until “Serenade”, the only Balanchine work Josh had seen was “The Four Temperaments”. Exactly a year ago, we had attended a performance of New York City Ballet over Presidents’ Day Weekend 2007. As I wrote back on February 26, 2007, Josh did not like “The Four Temperaments”. At the time, I also wrote that I thought that Josh would learn to love Balanchine over time.

I think that time arrived Saturday night, when Josh saw “Serenade”. Josh gasped when the curtain rose, and I don’t think he breathed, even once, until the curtain came down. Josh said that “Serenade” was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.

“Serenade” was Balanchine’s first ballet in America; “Mozartiana”, from almost fifty years later, was one of his last, and his very last major work.

Saturday night was the third time I had seen “Mozartiana”. I have never grown to love “Mozartiana” as I love “Serenade”. For me, “Mozartiana” lacks the emotional resonance and the sheer dance interest of “Serenade”. It strikes me as reticent, almost tentative, and not a major statement from the master (Balanchine was recovering from a serious illness when he created “Mozartiana”; he was to die less than two years later). Of course, I never saw Suzanne Farrell dance “Mozartiana”, and it is possible that the ballet cannot work without Farrell’s unique magical gifts. (Dance writers have noted that “Mozartiana” was Balanchine’s most deeply affecting gift to Farrell.) It is also possible that I merely need to keep seeing “Mozartiana” until I grow to love it.

“Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2” is one of the grandest, most complex and most majestic of all Balanchine creations. Commentators have often asserted that the ballet was Balanchine’s personal tribute to the glory and grandeur of Imperial Russia.

Whether or not that assertion is true, “Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2” is a work of extraordinary richness and depth, with enough choreographic interest for a hundred stagings of “Swan Lake”. “Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2” is a work so great that, like the Hammerklavier Sonata, it may be well-nigh unperformanable. Just as the Beethoven work requires unimaginable intellectual depth coupled with the most demanding keyboard power and control, surely beyond the talents of mere mortals, so does “Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2” challenge the limits of mere human beings. It is possible that dancers will never be able to do the work justice.

However, “Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2” always creates an overwhelming impact in the theater, no matter how poorly it is danced, because it is such a great ballet, expertly constructed, melding moment-by-moment genius with a genius for the entirety of the whole. On Saturday night, I was in awe of the ballet all over again, just as I had been the first time I experienced it.

Josh and I found it interesting to compare, once again, the two primary theaters—as opposed to concert halls—at Lincoln Center. It is interesting, perhaps jarring, that one building is so good and one building is so bad.

Wallace Harrison’s Metropolitan Opera House is one of the great architectural horrors of the world, a vulgar, showy display of New York nouveau riche tendencies at their worst.

Although it opened in 1966, the Metropolitan Opera is a pure 1950’s building—owing to the long planning and construction schedules, all opera houses are instantly dated by ten years on the day they open—and it reeks of the fantasies of a schoolgirl. The Metropolitan Opera House would be perfect as the setting for a Ross Hunter production of a Lana Turner movie: the building is straight out of “Imitation Of Life”, and actually appears to have been decorated by the set designer for that ridiculous late-1950’s cornball weeper. Is there a more fake-ostentatious 20th-Century building anywhere?

I have always found the interiors of the Metropolitan Opera House to be especially appalling, if not offensive. Over-the-top red-and-gilded interiors have no place in a public building in a nation with a representative form of government.

Unlike me, Josh simply laughs at everything at the Metropolitan Opera. He finds the whole building to be hysterical more than offensive. The raising of the light fixtures as the lights go down, for instance, gives Josh a terminal case of the giggles.

Happily, the acoustics of the auditorium of the Metropolitan Opera are exceptional, the house’s one saving grace.

The acoustics are the worst feature of Philip Johnson’s New York State Theater, although this shortcoming cannot be attributed to Johnson himself. Erected as a dance theater, the New York State Theater had its original acoustics designed, intentionally, to muffle the sounds of footsteps on stage.

Otherwise, the auditorium itself is one of the 20th Century’s great theaters. It is handsome, even elegant, and yet simple and restrained, with clean lines and minimal decoration. Every time I visit the New York State Theater, I am impressed anew at Johnson’s work. It is a timeless theater auditorium.

The auditorium of the New York State Theater is modeled, in part, after the 1955 auditorium of the Hamburg State Opera, the first major new opera house to be built in Germany after the war and another timeless theater auditorium.

The New York State Theater shares with the Hamburg Opera the clean lines and clean angles that are themselves the distinguishing decorative features. Like Hamburg, the New York State Theater also eliminates theater aisles on the main floor—in both houses, audience members flood in from all sides, not down one or two central aisles originating at the rears of the auditoriums. In both theaters, it is amazing how quickly the auditoriums fill and empty.

We did nothing at all on Sunday. We stayed in all day, and ate lots of food, and played with my nephew.

He understands virtually everything everyone says now. Nothing puzzles him any more.

He also has become a virtual little chatterbox, talking to us nonstop as we play with him.

Now, when he is done playing with his toys, he puts them away himself. Of course, this is no big thing, because it simply involves putting his toys back in the toy box in the living room. Nevertheless, he has been taught to do this since Christmas.

He also enjoys storybooks now, much more than just a few months ago, especially storybooks with bright pictures of animals. He can easily sit through an entire children’s story now, which was not necessarily true as recently as Christmas. Like all children, he has his own particular favorites, which he likes to enjoy over and over and over.

He’s a very good eater. He gets a full breakfast every day now—cereal and fruit are no longer enough for him. He gets scrambled eggs and potatoes and toast for breakfast now, in addition to his cereal and fruit. He’s perfectly capable of feeding himself now, although he often uses his hands instead of a spoon or a fork.

He also watches now to make sure that others are not receiving foods he is not given, too. Other than tomatoes, which he does not like, he expects to be served the same foods everyone else eats. If he sees other foods on the table, he will always ask why he has not been given some, too. Generally, his mother will tell him that he will not like the other foods, and invariably she is proven right. When he asks, she will give him a small sample of such food, like cauliflower, and he will try it and make a face and spit it out. He is very funny.

This weekend my mother made all sorts of things he especially likes. She made her homemade chicken noodle soup, which is one of his favorites. She also made her homemade tomato cream soup, which he loves. She baked a pork loin, and she made creamed chicken and dumplings, two of his favorite meat dishes. She made tapioca, his favorite pudding. She also baked a seven-layer chocolate cake on Sunday afternoon. My nephew had gone berserk over this cake when my mother made one for Josh’s birthday last November, so she made one again on Sunday.

On Monday morning, we all went out to take a long walk, and we had lunch out. On Monday afternoon, we stayed in, and had an early dinner before we had to head for the airport.

As always, the weekend ended too soon.

Easter comes early this year, happily, so it will not be long before we get to see everyone again. We are looking forward to that. This year will be the first year my nephew is old enough to enjoy an Easter egg hunt. That should be lots of fun.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008


Tomorrow afternoon, after work, we will all go away for the long holiday weekend.

We will be visiting my older brother and his family. My brother from Denver will be joining us, too.

We are sneaking an extra day so that we will have four full days to visit: late Thursday night; all day Friday, Saturday and Sunday; and most of Monday.

It should be fun.

My nephew will be asleep when we arrive tomorrow night, but he knows that we are coming, and he is very excited. We’ll see him Friday morning, first thing, when he wakes up at 7:30 a.m. My middle brother and Josh and I will be up very early Friday morning, waiting for him.

We’re already getting excited.

Sunday, February 10, 2008


Joshua and I had a nice weekend.

Saturday was our big day, as we attended a basketball game Saturday afternoon and a recital Saturday night.

Josh and I took my Dad to the Minnesota/Iowa game Saturday afternoon, and it was good to see the Gophers win one at home after three consecutive home losses, all of which we attended. We were starting to think that we were jinxing the Golden Gophers with our presence in Williams Arena.

Saturday night, Josh and I took my Mom and Dad to Saint Paul to hear a recital by Joshua Bell and Jeremy Denk.

The recital was sort of disappointing. I have never been very impressed with Joshua Bell, and this is probably because he is a throwback to the early-20th-Century style of violin playing: his style of play is very romantic and, to my taste, a bit schmaltzy. He also “emotes” to an extreme degree, making all sorts of facial gestures and facial contortions to demonstrate to audience members that he is “feeling” the music. I find these facial gestures and contortions off-putting, if not irritating, especially since the emotions he is telegraphing to the audience are not necessarily duplicated in his playing, which often is simply not very interesting.

The program was an odd one. The recital began with Tartini’s “Devil’s Trill” Sonata. Violinists must love to play this piece, but it is not a very gratifying piece of music for audiences.

Prokofiev’s Violin Sonata No. 1 ended the first half of the recital, and it was in this work that Bell’s overtly-romantic approach most negated the composer. There was too little bite in the playing, too little sarcasm, too little point, too little fire, too little resignation, to make the work come alive. In fact, in Bell’s hands the sonata did not even sound like Prokofiev—it sounded like a strange melding of Cesar Franck and Serge Rachmaninoff.

The second half of the recital began with Dvorak’s Four Romantic Pieces For Violin And Piano, and this was probably the most successful item on the program, because it was best suited to Bell’s style of playing. These are charming pieces, but not necessarily great pieces, and I thought that Bell was OK—but he would have been even more successful had he demonstrated some “toughness” in his playing to go along with the all-purpose “dreaminess” he has patented and which he is so fond of displaying at every opportunity.

The concert ended with Saint-Saens Sonata No. 1 For Violin And Piano. This is a brilliant piece, and Bell played it very, very well. However, there was no Gallic flavor to the performance, and for this shortcoming much of the blame must be shared with the pianist, Jeremy Denk, whose part is equally important in this work. Denk’s playing in the Saint-Saens was Germanic, lacking grace, lightness, elegance and flair, and it sounded out of place.

Denk is an odd pianist. He is really not much of a virtuoso, at least not in the sense of a Kissin or a Pletnev, and he is really not much of a “serious” pianist, either, although that is how he cultivates his public image. Neither fish nor fowl, he has, understandably, had trouble building a career, especially outside the United States, and he will probably end up teaching at a university.

A little more than three months ago, we had all attended a recital by Jonathan Biss, another American pianist who lacks the highest degree of virtuosity and who also is not destined to become a “serious” pianist.

Since the emergence of Stephen Kovacevich and Murray Perahia in the early 1970’s, no American pianist of note has appeared on the international scene. Why is America not producing pianists of the highest quality? Joshua attempted to answer this question on his blog on October 28. I have no thoughts on the matter.

My father does have thoughts on the matter. Simply put, he says that American music instructors, for whatever reason, are able to identify students with talent but are unable to identify which talented students possess great reserves of intellect and personality, the two qualities without which no pianist can sustain a major long-term career.

Today, my parents’ dog demonstrated great reserves of intellect and personality. All afternoon and evening, he had four adult human beings waiting on him hand and foot, constantly playing with him and giving him lots of attention and affection—and a nonstop assortment of treats. He played us all like the great virtuoso he is. We were mere tools in his paws.

He’s good!

Alas, next weekend, the dog will be without us, because we are going to New York to spend the long weekend with my older brother and his family. The dog will be staying with a friend from church during our absence, and we will miss him very much while we are gone. However, he will be very well cared for by a very generous and gracious lady who loves him very much. Since she lives alone, she values his companionship a few times a year—and he is a very, very good companion.

It works out well for both of them.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

A Crossword Puzzle Of Musical Gestures

Yesterday Joshua and I drove all the way into downtown Minneapolis to work, taking my father to work as well.

In the very late afternoon, my mother drove downtown, too, and we all had an early dinner downtown. Afterward, we proceeded to the State Theater to attend a performance of Stephen Sondheim’s musical, “Sweeney Todd”.

The State Theater is one of the grand old buildings in Minneapolis, and Joshua had never visited it before.

The architect was J.E.O. Pridmore, a noted architect from Chicago, who designed many theaters in his home city. The State Theater opened in 1921, and its original construction cost $1 million, an enormous sum at the time. At the time of its opening, the State Theater was the most technologically advanced—and elaborate—theater in the United States.

The theater featured the first air-conditioning system in Minneapolis. Pumps, pipes and vents delivered cool air from an artesian well 840 feet underground, keeping the temperature in the theater auditorium a constant 72 degrees.

The auditorium still is decorated with its six original chandeliers, along with its original murals and statues. The proscenium spans the full width of the auditorium, curving to a height 100 feet above the stage floor. The auditorium seats 2150 patrons.

The State Theater is a magnificent venue today, but the building did not enjoy a happy history for much of its life.

Erected for stage shows and concerts, the State Theater was turned into a movie palace in 1925. It remained a movie theater through 1958. It long featured the largest movie screen west of the Mississippi River.

The theater closed in 1958, and the building remained ill-used until 1978, when a local church bought the building and used the crumbling auditorium for worship services.

The City Of Minneapolis acquired the building in early 1989 and spent $9 million restoring the theater to its original splendor. The theater reopened in late 1991, and today it is used primarily for touring Broadway productions.

The State Theater is a fun period building to explore, and Josh liked it very much.

“Sweeney Todd”, on the other hand, was not quite such a success.

The production we saw is the National Touring Company production of the 2005 Broadway staging, directed by John Doyle. This is the stripped-down production that uses only ten actors, all of whom are required to play musical instruments onstage.

In 2004, my middle brother and I almost attended a performance of this stripped-down “Sweeney Todd” in London, where this production originated before it transferred to New York. However, my brother and I elected to see Michael Frayn’s “Democracy” that night instead.

Last night I found this John Doyle production to be unsuccessful. Requiring actors to play musical instruments onstage was a gimmick, and nothing more. It detracted from the performances of the actors, and offered an unsatisfactory musical accompaniment to boot.

It also took the audience’s attention away from the story. While audience members were marveling that an actor could play a trumpet or a tuba, however badly, they were not paying attention to the heart of the show.

That the gimmick did not destroy the show does not signify that the gimmick was successful. I suppose it would be possible to stage “Sweeney Todd” on stilts and not destroy the show, or perform it in clown costumes and not destroy the show, or pretend that the onstage characters are blind and not destroy the show. However, is this the standard to be applied? That a gimmick does not destroy a show does not mean that the gimmick remains anything other than a gimmick.

The pared-down nature of the show was further hampered by setting the action in an asylum for the insane, a most tired and unilluminating device, as well as poor costuming—“this pudding has no theme”—and performances that simply were not strong enough to carry the weight of the material.

Head and shoulders above everyone else on stage was Judy Kaye, a natural stage actor and a strong singer. Simply put, she stole the show. However, she portrayed Mrs. Lovett as a Jewish mother, which was a gross miscalculation, and surely not what the role requires. She wrung lots of laughs from the material, and camped it up no end, but her portrayal of Mrs. Lovett involved a wholesale re-tooling of the role into a burlesque stunt. It was a bizarre portrayal, and fatally unbalanced the show.

Josh and I had never seen a live production of “Sweeney Todd” until last night. For the last month and more, Josh and I had been talking about going to see the movie version of “Sweeney Todd”, but we had not had time to make it to a screening. Now, having seen a stage version, we no longer want to see the film version.

My parents saw “Sweeney Todd” on Broadway during its original run. In fact, they thought the show so intriguing that they went to see it twice, on successive nights. They fully recognized the merits of the show on the first viewing, but they also contend, to this day, that the original production would have been very grim indeed had it not been for the presence of Angela Lansbury, who completely stole the show as Mrs. Lovett.

The role of Mrs. Lovett is the best role in the show, beautifully written and beautifully composed (for a singer with a limited range). My parents insist that Angela Lansbury was a miracle, finding all the laughs but never devolving into caricature, creating a Mrs. Lovett who was witty, charming and warm, selfish, cunning and frightening, all at the same time. Perhaps it is inevitable that Mrs. Lovett steals the show in any production of “Sweeney Todd”.

“Sweeney Todd” is probably Sondheim’s most enduring show. It features a strong and fascinating story, numerous characters that come fully to life, and a supremely well-shaped plot and book.

The musical score, however, is not Sondheim’s finest, despite the fact that it is his only through-composed score. “Sweeney Todd” lacks the musical richness and musical imagination of “Pacific Overtures”, Sondheim’s most original and wondrous score. Although every possible musical device is borrowed from the genre of opera—and “Sweeney Todd” is, above all, a work of operatic technique and operatic scope, epic in scale—“Sweeney Todd” lacks the musical richness and musical conviction and musical depth and musical character and sheer musical invention that define even the weakest efforts in the genre. “Sweeney Todd” is a masterpiece of operatic construction, but a masterpiece in which the quality of the musical invention itself is paltry if not paper-thin. It is a score curiously short on substance. The score has always struck me as Benjamin Britten diluted with water, an effect only heightened when shorn of its original orchestrations, as in the current production.

Many of the numbers are, melodically, entirely feeble. Pirelli’s song, Mrs. Lovett’s parlor songs and ditties, the comic numbers involving Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett: all these numbers perform their dramatic functions beautifully, but all lack musical distinction and musical interest. The concertante numbers are especially disappointing, primarily because Sondheim had demonstrated a distinct mastery of concertante writing in “A Little Night Music”. Moreover, the music has no depth of feeling, which ultimately relegates “Sweeny Todd” eternally to the world of entertainment, not art—and this is so even though the work is very, very artfully crafted.

Every time I hear the score to “Sweeney Todd”, I always regret that another, better composer did not compose the score. Sondheim, even at his very best, never surmounts the hurdle of second-rate, and most of the time he operates on a level substantially below that standard.

As a wordsmith, Sondheim is a genius. As a composer, he is a polymath, a composer of pastiche, capable of writing acid-tinged romanticism, faux-chic inanities dripping with faux-chic sophistication, Broadway showstoppers and eleven o’clock numbers, all whipped into an unpleasant and cynical brew, a crossword puzzle of musical gestures, composed without soul.

Ultimately, it all amounts to very little.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Another Long Downward Slide

Joshua and I got a lot of rest this weekend, which was good, because both of us have been trying to throw a mild bug that made us queasy most of last week, sapping our strength.

We went to bed at 8:00 p.m. Friday night, and slept for twelve hours. We stayed home all day Saturday, not leaving the apartment even once.

We slept in on Sunday morning, and skipped church. My parents came over to our apartment Sunday morning right after church and we gave them a quick sandwich, after which my Mom headed for home while Josh and I took my Dad to the Minnesota/Wisconsin game. The game had an early start, and we barely made tip-off.

We should have stayed home. The Badgers blew out the Golden Gophers from the opening minutes, and gave Tubby Smith what must be his worst loss as head coach of the Minnesota program. Minnesota gave Indiana and Michigan State all those teams could handle on the Gophers’ home floor, but Minnesota could do nothing against Wisconsin. The game was frustrating, and dispiriting. After a 12-3 start to the season, Minnesota has now lost four of its last five games. The Big Ten is tough, and Minnesota always seems to tire and to lose focus and to wither during the course of the conference season, always ending the conference season on a long downward slide. This year is holding true to form, and fans here were hoping that Tubby Smith would break that long-term pattern.

After the game, Josh and I took my Dad home, and we stayed at my parents’ house for the rest of the afternoon and evening. My mother gave us a good dinner, and we didn’t do very much other than relax and keep the dog amused. It was another restful day, and Josh and I needed it.

Both Josh and I have very busy weeks planned at work this coming week.

It is that time of year.