Saturday, September 22, 2012

From Gershwin to Glass

Friday to Friday, I saw two musical performances, one 2 ½ hours, one 4 ¼ hours.  Those who know me know I believe most stories can be told within 90 minutes.  OK, The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby took longer, but that was special.  OK, Shakespeare usually does, but… well, I just think 90 minutes is perfect.

Nice Work If You Can Get It is a bubble bath, a frothy fuzzy drink, a guilty pleasure.  

Matthew Broderick (center) as Jimmy Winter with the cast of "Nice Work."

In the last several months the production at the Imperial has tightened up so that not a moment goes astray, while all the players are still having a blast, and so is the audience.  Really, who couldn’t enjoy 2 ½ hours of George and Ira Gershwin’s magical music and lyrics, Kathleen Marshall choreography, and the comedy and wonderful voices of Matthew Broderick, Kelli O’Hara, Michael McGrath, Jennifer Laura Thompson, Judy Kaye, Chris Sullivan, and Robyn Hurder.  All the marvelous dancers are so elegant and jazzy and flashy, plus they’re beautifully dressed by Martin Pakledinaz.  If you need to just get away from it all without leaving town, this is the show for you.  It’ll leave you dancing in the street and singing in the rain.


Once a year, I try to see/hear an opera.  Not because I like opera — because I don’t.  I yearn to understand what keeps this archaic form going year after year, century after century.  Kind of like church.  Sure, lots of the music is gorgeous, powerful, sweet, etc.  But those voices.  I don’t like the singing style, with a few exceptions.  But my biggest exception to opera is the never-ending repetition.  Some people use it well.  Most people don’t.  But even Mozart takes over three hours to tell a story that Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers could — and did — tell with song and dance and laughter in 80 minutes.

So I guess opera isn’t about storytelling.

And in that way, it’s fair to call Einstein on the Beach an opera.  It is billed as an opera, but I beg to differ.  I don’t know what it is, but opera it ain’t.  Yes, there’s lots of choral singing.  There’s lots of music.  And yes it’s very long!  What shall we call it?  A cultural event?  A theatrical program of music and dance, words and numbers — that is, as in numerals.  People speaking or singing numbers.  Gesticulating numbers.  "3."  "1."  "8."  Numbers. "Do re mi fa sol la ti…" yes, that too.  There is no plot — and no one ever pretended there was, so it’s not misleading.  This is about precision, articulation, counterpoint, and an incredible feat of memorization for every member of the company.  At one point in the second courtroom scene, the defendant (the role originated by Lucinda Childs in the Seventies, played sinuously last night by Kate Moran) lies on a “bed” and repeats a sentence 30-40 times.  An odd sentence that becomes mesmerizing.  

There are very talented musicians, dancers, actors, singers at the height of their powers on the stage of the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Opera House, but I must mention one who was as mesmerizing as the odd sentence — Antoine Silverman, made up to resemble Albert Einstein, playing a very fine violin.  Exhilarating.

Robert Wilson’s direction and design of this strange piece make it almost seem comprehensible.  It is impossible to walk away from his production without questions buzzing around you, in your head, in the streets, questions. Questions, not just about art, but about the society that generated Wilson, Glass, and Childs as well as Einstein on the Beach.  And questions are good. Lucinda Childs' choreography is stimulating, riveting, and repetitious in the good way.  Her dance company does her proud. 

I do not generally care for the music of Philip Glass, but it all works here.  Not every moment of the 4 ¼ hours (no intermission, but wander off for a while if you must).  But the company of players, the music, the odd words kept me in my seat for most of this performance, and kept my attention for the better part of 3 ½ hours.  Sometimes annoyed.  Sometimes amused.  And I admit to nodding off a few times in the first courtroom scene.  But mostly I was fascinated.  At the 3 ½ hour mark, a particularly silly scene pushed me right out of the performance.  There were no humans involved, you see.  Humans — speaking and moving rhythmically, if nonsensically — are interesting.  They were missing.  The scene that drove me away had a broad bar of light (called the “Bed”) lying horizontal on the dark stage.  Accompanied by harpsichord, the bar went from horizontal to vertical very slowly.  Fifteen minutes of that.  During which I decided, “Now you’re messing with me.”  So I got up and went to the Ladies Room. 

The Cast of Einstein on the Beach.  (c) 2012.  Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

But that’s OK.  I do think Einstein on the Beach was a seminal work, artistically revolutionary, and we can see how much it has influenced artists in all media in the 30-odd years since Robert Wilson, Philip Glass, and Lucinda Childs collaborated to create something life-changing.  And I must thank them for it. 

This is an immense production touring the globe, at BAM for just two more performances.  Meanwhile, I suspect I'll spend some time revisiting some of those four acts on YouTube.

~ Molly Matera, signing off, chastened, tired, confused, but happy.  And Happy Autumn Equinox to us all.

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