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November 30, 2012

'Bus Stop' at Center Stage a revival worth pulling over for

The snowbound folks in Grace’s Diner travel quite a distance, emotionally and physically, while cooped up for a long night in 1955 somewhere outside Kansas City. Things won’t necessarily be smooth for all of them once the roads are finally cleared.

What transpires in that nondescript roadside eatery provides potent fuel for “Bus Stop,” the classic dramedy by William Inge that has received a welcome and satisfying revival from Center Stage.

Inge had a knack for generating extraordinary theater out of ordinary people, places, passions and, especially, illusions. In this case, he brings together well-known types — cowboy, sheriff, waitress, alcoholic and the like — and gives them fresh and unexpected turns, all the while avoiding easy sentimentality or blatant melodrama.

On the surface, “Bus Stop” ...

does not have much of a plot, but this slice of American life is deftly carved to reveal a lot of layers, little insights into what makes us crave affection and how we can so easily mess up the process of finding it.

March isn’t the only thing that comes in like a lion as the play starts. First off the bus is the anxious, self-proclaimed chanteuse Cherie. She’s hoping to escape from another passenger, Bo, the young Montana rancher who has taken a shine to her and, it appears, has kidnapped her — though with the intention of matrimony.

There’s something deliciously incongruous about Cherie, looking way too showbizy for a bus trip, let alone a blizzard, and barely concealing her Ozark roots. Her presence transforms and unbalances the whole diner.

Her story is so sweet, her predicament so curious, that Inge could have centered the play solely on her and still had plenty of material. That’s what happened with the movie version of “Bus Stop” (Inge collaborated on the screenplay). The emphasis was understandable, since the film was a vehicle for Marilyn Monroe, but that meant trimming characters and incident.

The original version requires an actress who can hold the spotlight, but still leave plenty of room for the others, and that’s what Center Stage offers in the shapely form of Susannah Hoffman.

The actress is a thoroughly endearing Cherie. She makes you believe in this half-flighty, half-purposeful woman, who has been around the block several times, but never could find her way.

Hoffman ensures that the character’s fragility and doubt register as keenly as the naive faith in her abilities as an entertainer. And what an entertainer. In one of the play’s funniest scenes — an impromptu floor show organized by the young waitress Elma to help pass the time — Cherie gets her chance to go all out.

Changed into a slinky, very-Marilyn gown (Clint Ramos designed the costumes), Hoffman seizes this moment, performing her number in a thin, slightly off-pitch voice and with all sorts of awkward, over-sized gestures. It’s the most wonderfully bad act since Mary Richards tackled “One More for My Baby” in Lou Grant’s office on an episode of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”

You can’t help but laugh, but you can’t help but feel affection, too. Hoffman generates a similar reaction delivering Cherie’s disarming response to the refined speech of fellow passenger Dr. Lyman: “I don’t understand anything you say, but I just love the way you say it.”

And keep an eye on Hoffman’s final moments onstage, when she turns to Grace and Elma to declare, “I’m going to Montana.” The expression on her face is worth a thousand play scripts.

There are many other small and telling details in the production, smoothly directed by David Schweizer (only his idea for the opening sequence, which involves live music, fails to convince, trying a little too hard to set the mood).

The rest of the cast has much to offer, and will likely get even tighter as the run continues. Maybe Jack Fellows, as Bo, will get subtler, too. Judging by opening night, he’s inclined to overdo the Jethro Bodine side of the terribly immature rancher, here dressed in pristine cowboy duds (Inge envisioned a gruffer appearance).

And, as awkward as Bo may be about the ways of love and what-not, he needn’t move quite as stiffly as Fellows. Still, the lanky actor leaves his mark, especially in the scenes after the inevitable humbling experience that Bo must endure.

As Virgil, Bo’s older, slightly wiser, guitar-pickin’ buddy, Larry Tobias does excellent work, fleshing out the character nicely and handling the musical requirements of the role with a tender touch. (The original score for this production by Lindsay Jones had input from Tobias.)

Pilar Witherspoon is authentic as Grace, a lonely woman who needs to serve more than coffee once in a while, and who always likes to see a good fight.

Kayla Ferguson makes a charming Elma, effectively revealing the high schooler’s mix of brains, dreams and innocence, her desire to be noticed and taken seriously. And Ferguson’s comic instincts sparkle during the let’s-put-on-a-show scene, reciting Shakespeare in a great, giddy whirl.

Elma’s would-be Romeo, Dr. Lyman, is played by Patrick Husted. Some lines could use finessing, but he reveals considerable flair along the way and opens a sympathetic window into the drunken, much-married dirty old man who holds a smidgen of nobility tucked inside his rumpled self.

Filling out the cast ably are Malachy Cleary, as the hardy bus driver, and Michael D. Nichols as the no-nonsense sheriff (he could use a more believable beard).

James Noone’s scenic design warmly evokes the diner, where so many things, big and small, petty and serious, are on the menu one blustery night in March.

"Bus Stop" runs through Dec. 23.


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:51 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Center Stage, Drama Queens

November 29, 2012

Mellon Foundation gives Baltimore Symphony $950,000 for BSO Academy

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's outreach project for amateur musicians, the BSO Academy, launched with $900,000 from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to underwrite the first three years, will be funded for three more by another $900,000 from the foundation.

The bulk of the funding will go to enhancing activities at the BSO Academy, a week-long venture held each June after the end of the BSO's regular season, and adding educational activities at other times of the year.

"The Academy has proven to be very successful," said BSO president and CEO Paul Meecham. "There are plans to expand it to two weeks eventually. We view [the BSO Academy project] as part of our core mission. It started from asking ourselves how we can use the orchestra in different ways, other than just doing more concerts."

The Mellon Foundation has added an extra $50,000 this time, earmarked for scholarships aimed at "making the program more inclusive of individuals from all backgrounds," according to a statement released by the BSO Thursday.

The Academy, which was launched in 2010 with 47 amateur musicians and grew to 104 last June, offers extensive opportunities for participants to freshen their skills in private lessons, master classes, rehearsals and a public concert performed side-by-side with BSO players and conducted by BSO music director Marin Alsop.

Basic tuition is $1,850 for the orchestral portion of the program. Participants can add chamber music sessions with BSO players for another $500. New for the fourth annual Academy, which will be held June 15 to 22, is ...

a $500 option to participate in a chamber orchestra.

Also new in 2013 will be fellowship opportunities for arts administrators interested in learning the process of creating an academy for amateur musicians.

Registrations for the 2013 BSO Academy are due by Jan. 17.

In addition to the June activities, the BSO plans to offer two day-long Instrument Clinics this season, Feb. 9 and April 20, "for adult musicians of all levels and experiences." The clinics will be devoted to improving technical and artistic skills.

Yet another outreach program is in the works: Chamber Music Weekends, when amateur players and BSO members will work on chamber repertoire. The first such weekend is slated for this summer, dates to be announced.

The popular Rusty Musicians programs held each year by the BSO -- one condensed night of rehearsal and performance -- has been put under the now more expansive umbrella of the BSO Academy.


Posted by Tim Smith at 1:02 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes

'Million Dollar Quartet' rocks and rolls into the Hippodrome

Folks of a certain age — you know, the kind whose only exposure to public television occurs during fundraising programs featuring aging rock-’n’-rollers — are the obvious target audience for “Million Dollar Quartet,” the jukebox musical now at the Hippodrome.

But this high-energy homage to four giants who emerged in the 1950s is eager to grab anyone else along the way.

Even those rare souls who never fell under the spell of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash or Carl Perkins, and who are usually resistant to the three-chord stasis and banal lyrics of so much early rock may find their pulse quickening slightly and their feet inching toward tap mode.

OK, so I’m talking about me, as ’50s-averse as they come. And I can vouch for how this show can win you over, not with anything as fancy as an honest-to-goodness plot or cliche-free dialogue, but simply with ...

an exuberant commemoration of a legendary night in pop music history.

On Dec. 4, 1956, Presley, Lewis, Cash and Perkins — aptly dubbed the “Million Dollar Quartet” — ended up in a jam session at the Sun Records studio in Memphis. That’s the place where they all got started, thanks to the record company’s founder, Sam Phillips, visionary pioneer of rock and rockabilly.

The intermission-less “Million Dollar Quartet,” with a book by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux, provides a lightly fictionalized and compressed account of this back story about Phillips and his “boys.”

The kernel of drama involves issues of contracts and loyalty. But the main focus is on re-enacting — with considerable poetic license — the extraordinary collision of personalities and talents in that Memphis studio.

“Million Dollar Quartet” opened on Broadway in 2010 and enjoyed a modest run. Smoothly directed by Eric Schaeffer, head of the top-notch Signature Theatre in Arlington, it’s a textbook example of the genre — thin story woven through lots of familiar songs, with the obligatory postlude where the audience is encouraged to jump up and clap or dance through a few more tunes.

The national touring production, which is playing Baltimore before Washington, looks handsome in its nicely detailed set by Derek McLane. It sounds terrific.

The four lead actors do their own singing and playing, which gives the music a potent immediacy (bassist Corey Kaiser and drummer Billy Shaffer fill out the ensemble vibrantly). The performers also jump wholeheartedly into the impersonations, especially Cody Slaughter, who bears an almost spooky resemblance to the young Presley, from the sparkling smile to the agile hip action. Vocally, he is darn close, too.

Slaughter doesn’t really get past the imitation, though, to create a thoroughly persuasive character. You’re always aware that he is doing Elvis. David Elkins is likewise self-conscious as Cash, but when he “walks the line” or bemoans getting “deeper in debt,” it sounds like the real deal, and that’s what counts.

Robert Britton Lyons, who originated the role of Perkins, is as impressive with his acting as with his singing and guitar work, so comfortable and spontaneous that he lifts the whole show a notch. The part of Lewis, used here to deliver jolts of humor, irreverence and manic enthusiasm, suits Martin Kaye neatly. He’s quick, funny and plays a mean piano.

Vince Nappo is disarming as Phillips, revealing telling layers behind the character even when he is stuck doing narration duty. Kelly Lamont, as Presley’s girlfriend Dyanne, reveals a generally sturdy singing voice when she gets her turn, but she tends to let her bosom do most of the acting.

"Million Dollar Quartet" runs through Sunday at the Hippodrome.

Posted by Tim Smith at 5:40 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens

November 28, 2012

For Midweek Madness, a swingin' salute to Ethel Ennis on her 80th

One of the finest jazz singers of our time, Baltimore's own Ethel Ennis, celebrates her 80th birthday today, Nov. 28, which just happens to be -- sorry, Ms. Ennis -- Midweek Madness day here on this world-famous, heavily-envied blog.

How could I possibly combine these two events, you ask, with halted breath? Easy, thanks to Scopitone, the curio from the '60s that foreshadowed the music video explosion a few decades later.

So, to celebrate this wonderful milestone for a great artist, and also just to have some fun, here is Ethel Ennis singing fabulously amid some not so fabulous, but hilarious, scenic design and, especially, choreography. I've got a feeling you won't be able to take you eyes off of this:

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:06 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes, Midweek Madness

November 26, 2012

For Giving Tuesday, inspirational video from Wuppertaler Kurrende boy's choir

If you haven't heard, a fast-spreading grassroots movement has led to the launching of Giving Tuesday, a welcome followup to Black Friday, Cyber Monday and other buy-buy-buy events. As Auntie Mame might say, the message of this one is give, give, give -- to charities.

Nonprofits in the arts community are understandably getting involved, and I certainly hope you will consider supporting your favorite orchestras, opera companies, theaters and the like. But, since it would be unfair for me to single out any such groups, I thought I would suggest something neutral for Giving Tuesday.

I found this great video of the Wuppertaler Kurrende, a boy's choir in Germany, in a performance last week on Universal Children's Day in support of the International Children's Fund.

This should put you in the mood for giving, no matter which organization you choose to help:

Posted by Tim Smith at 3:29 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens

Cyber Monday deals from Center Stage, Baltimore Shakespeare Factory, more

Performing arts organizations in various places are getting into the act on Cyber Monday.

Locally, that includes Center Stage, which is offering a Cyber Monday enticement that has "bargain" stamped all over it -- two Flex Passes for the price of one.

OK, so you have to buy two of these two-for-one passes, but that still means a significant savings, since you end up with ...

four for $60, usable for weekday performances ($70 for weekends).

Each pass is good for one seat to any play on the "Classic Series" at Center Stage. The flex part means you can choose the play and the performance, when the mood strikes, even right up until just before curtain time.

But, wait. That's not all. If you act now -- well, if you act on Cyber Monday -- you can choose another deal, prime location seats at half-price for the latest Center Stage production, William Inge's enduring "Bus Stop," which runs through Dec. 23.

Baltimore Shakespeare Factory also has several deals tied to Cyber Monday, including discounts on tickets; a "Girls Night Out Package"; a "Shakespeare Nerd Gift Package"; and savings on acting classes for kids.

Late addition: Signature Theatre, the Tony-winning company in Arlington, is offering a Cyber Monday deal of limited number of half-off tickets to the rest of its season, which includes productions of "Dreamgirls," "Shakespeare's R&J," "Criumes of the Heart" and "Company." Holiday cabarets and other programs are included, too.


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:16 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Center Stage, Drama Queens

Annapolis Symphony joins in Cyber Monday fun with ticket deal

Why should retailers have all the fun on Cyber Monday?

I heard earlier from some theater companies offering deals during this giant online frenzy. Now comes word from the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra, which is doing the same.

The orchestra's Cyber Monday-only enticement is three concerts for $50, a 60 percent savings.

You can choose from ...

Friday or Saturday night performances of three attractive programs conducted by music director Jose-Luis Novo at the Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts: 

Schumann's Symphony No. 2, Lutoslawski's Little Suite, and a work by the orchestra's exceptional composer-in-residence Gabriela Lena Frank (March 1 and 2 )

Stravinksy's "Petrushka" and Poulenc's "Les Biches" Suite; and gypsy-flavored works by Sarasate and Ravel featuring violinist Markus Placci (April 5 and 6)

Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 24 with soloist Cornelia Herrmann and Rachmaninoff 's Symphony No. 2 (May 10 and 11)

Such a deal.


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:25 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

November 21, 2012

For Midweek Madness, a cup that runneth over, way over

It's Midweek Madness day, as well as the day before Thanksgiving, which has me thinking of all those bountiful feasts soon to be devoured. And that leads me to a song just perfect for the occasion -- "My Cup Runneth Over With Love."

I have found a fabulous interpretation from 1967 that also runneth over with ...

earnestness and wholesomeness, not to mention incredibly precise enunciation and great breath control.

Whatever you do, don't touch that dial until you see what happens after the singing. Talk about a crowning achievement:

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:35 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes, Midweek Madness

November 20, 2012

Peabody Opera Theatre shows off promising talent in 'Don Giovanni'

The emergence of Lyric Opera Baltimore last year was probably the biggest news in the city's cultural scene, but the simultaneous development of a collaboration between the Peabody Institute and the Modell/Lyric Performing Arts Center ranked right up there.

The deal meant that, for the first time, Peabody Opera Theatre could present some of its work in a full-sized venue, providing a valuable learning experience for voice students, not to mention the conservatory's orchestra.

The inaugural venture came out of what, for Baltimore, constitutes left field -- Stravinsky's "The Rake's Progress."

This year's choice would be considered right down the middle in most places, but Mozart's "Don Giovanni" was last staged at the Lyric in 1999, so it seemed almost novel to see it there over the weekend. (The old Baltimore Opera Company was remarkably Mozart-averse.)

Sunday afternoon's performance was, on balance, a good showing for Peabody, musically and theatrically.

Roger Brunyate, the recently retired, longtime head of the opera program, jumped back into the thick of things to direct, and his professional touch and thoughtfulness could be detected throughout.

His concept notably included a wound for Don Giovanni that, Amfortas-like, never healed. (Brunyate credited a recent Salzburg production with giving him the idea to have the antihero wounded in his opening scene duel with the Commendatore.)

The device intriguingly suggested that Don Giovanni knew his time was running out, long before a certain statue turned up in his doorway.

If a couple of questionable details also popped up in this staging -- Donna Elvira stabbing a portrait of Don Giovanni with giant hairpins was more Carol Burnett than Lorenzo DaPonte, for example, and having her join a nunnery early on seemed a wee bit odd -- Brunyate ensured that the action flowed easily and effectively.

Aiding that flow was ...

Luke Hegel-Cantarella's economical set -- a series of askew frames, suggesting Don Giovanni's own off-kilter moral compass -- nicely lit by Douglas Nelson.

Jeffrey Grayson Gates tackled the title role with plenty of suave and cocky moves. His voice did not exactly fill the theater, but the evenness and warmth of the tone came through admirably.

Although he sang the Serenade colorlessly, he charged through the Champagne Aria with elan and produced a good deal of vocal spark in his final scenes.

Jeffrey Martin's Leporello was a nimble and amusing fellow (the shtick with food during Don Giovanni's dinner got fresh laughs), and he sang quite vibrantly.

As Donna Elvira, Alexandra Razskazoff sounded the readiest for prime time. The soprano's tone had an effective brightness, security and power, while her phrasing revealed a good deal of personality.

At her best, Huanhuan Ma also impressed as Donna Anna. Though her voice tended to tighten at the top, the fire in her delivery paid dividends. This was especially so in "Non mi dir," here treated as a mini-mad scene, one of Brunyate's most inspired tweaks (I only wish that some stage business with lilies hadn't reminded me of Ethel Mertz's big number in Lucy Ricardo's immortal operetta "The Pleasant Peasant").

Halim Shon made a valiant effort as Don Ottavio. The voice could use further development and support (the tenor sounded quite tired by the time he reached "Il mio tesoro"). Still, there was promising sensitivity in the phrase-shaping.

Janna Critz needed more tonal variety as Zerlina, but she served the music effectively. As the Commendatore, Alex Rosen compensated for a lack of heft with expressive dignity. Seonghyeon Park, as Masetto, was not fully up to vocal task and his rhythm could be imprecise, but he communicated the character's temperamental nature efficiently. The chorus sounded firm.

The real star of the production was the Peabody Symphony Orchestra, which played confidently and stylishly all afternoon. A little more punch would have been welcome here and there from conductor Leonardo Vordoni, but his calm authority and considerable musicality gave the performance a solid foundation.


Posted by Tim Smith at 1:54 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera, Peabody Institute

Arena Stage revives Lerner and Loewe's 'My Fair Lady'

Arena Stage has established an admirable track record for putting classic musicals back into the spotlight, as reconfirmed in recent seasons with imaginative takes on “Oklahoma” and “The Music Man.”

Now comes “My Fair Lady.” This production isn’t an unqualified success — a curious bit of miscasting and some cramped, uninteresting choreography take a toll — but it provides a welcome reminder of the masterpiece status of this 1956 Lerner and Loewe hit, which is as rich in plot as in music.

Part of the work’s success is clearly attributable to the source material, G.B. Shaw’s brilliant “Pygmalion.” But what counts the most is how the creators built on that material, how the well-crafted songs add so many telling layers to the story.

Arena artistic director Molly Smith clearly appreciates those qualities. There’s an honesty and affection in her approach here. And, just as ...

she shook up “Oklahoma” with multiracial casting, she has applied a similar touch here, in this case to reflect the many nationalities in the London of 1912, the setting of “My Fair Lady.”

The direction lacks steam in places (the opening Covent Garden scene, in particular, could use more color and drive), and Smith has not found a way to keep the show’s talkiest spots from weighing down Act 2. Still, the net result is quite entertaining.

As Eliza Doolittle, the flower-selling guttersnipe given a chance to change her station in life by substituting proper English for her low-class Cockney, Manna Nichols is more convincing after the transformation. She looks sensational, when, after the fierce tutelage of Professor Henry Higgins, she makes a truly regal entrance in the Embassy Ball scene.

The actress is also an effective singer, capable of soaring sweetly in “I Could Have Danced All Night” and putting a good deal of bite into “Show Me.”

Benedict Campbell nearly walks away with the production as Higgins. He’s a terrific actor, wonderfully colorful in voice, fluid and natural in movement, and he makes the character’s mix of pride, arrogance and insecurity register in keen detail. He and Nichols handle their big emotional scenes in Act 2 deftly, so that the anger and hurt on both sides comes across.

Unlike Rex Harrison, who left a sizable mark as the original Higgins on Broadway and the subsequent film version of the musical, Campbell can actually sing. That’s no small matter, especially when it comes to the showy “Hymn to Him.”

Thomas Adrian Simpson has a good romp as Col. Pickering; he’s especially winning in the panic over Eliza’s disappearance after the ball.

The other prime supporting role of Eliza’s deliciously amoral father, Alfred P. Doolittle, is inadequately filled by James Saito. His acting is awkward, and neither his speaking nor singing voice reveals any distinction. A major let-down.

The rest of the ensemble shines. Nicholas Rodriguez, the irresistible Curly in Arena’s “Oklahoma,” reveals abundant personality as Eliza’s determined suitor, Freddy, and spins “On the Street Where You Live” with fresh charm.

The reliable Sherri L. Edelen vibrantly fleshes out the character of Higgins’ housekeeper Mrs. Pearce. Swooping into scenes with the flair of Hedda Hopper and the backbone of Lady Bracknell, Catherine Flye is a consistent delight as the professor’s mother. The chorus moves nimbly through its paces.

Donald Eastman’s set provides sufficient atmosphere. Judith Bowden’s costumes include some fabulous hats that would have turned heads at the William-and-Kate wedding. And Paul Sportelli leads a small orchestra in a polished, dynamic account of the inspired score.

"My Fair Lady" runs through Jan. 6

PHOTOS BY SUZANNE BLUE STAR BOY (Manna Nichols and Benedict Campbell as Eliza and Higgins; Catherine Flye as Mrs. Higgins)

Posted by Tim Smith at 11:13 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens

November 16, 2012

BSO offers dynamic program of Dvorak and Brahms

There are three great reasons to hear the remaining performances of this week's Baltimore Symphony Orchestra program -- Friday night at Meyerhoff Hall or Saturday night at Strathmore.

First, you will hear a vibrant account of Dvorak's Symphony No.8. Second, you will hear an extremely impressive delivery of Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 2.

Lastly, you will not have to sit anywhere near the rude, crude senior citizens who filled Row Y (orchestra left) behind me Thursday night at the Meyerhoff.

If there is any justice in the world, they will be confined henceforth to a maximum security twilight home, where they can only annoy each other. I've seen six-year-olds behave better at concerts than this lot, who chatted, argued, rustled, and hacked their way blithely through the evening (I wonder if the severely guttural gentleman in this mini-mob of mature miscreants finally found a spittoon).

OK, I feel better now. I just had to get that off my chest. Now, I can talk about the music.

A Brahms-Dvorak pairing works well on many levels, starting with the fact that ...

the two composers were pals. Putting these particular pieces together underlines their kindred, lyrical souls -- Dvorak's Eighth Symphony is invariably described as sunny; Brahms' B-flat Concerto is infused with its share of warming light as well.

BSO music director Marin Alsop revealed her affinity for the Dvorak score in 2008 concerts with the orchestra. This reprise found the conductor even more attuned to the romantic urgings of the music, allowing the tenderest phrases to breathe and giving dance-like passages an extra kick.

For its part, the orchestra demonstrated admirable technical snap and produced a rich, well-balanced tone. The finale, in particular, proved gripping as conductor and players meshed tightly.

The orchestra also excelled in its collaborative role during the Brahms concerto, supporting an exceptional Russian pianist in his BSO debut -- Denis Kozhukhin, who took top prize at the 2010 Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels (Alsop was the conductor for the finals that year).

It's not surprising to hear young keyboard talents -- Kozhukhin is 26 -- tackle big, brawny scores like this one with aplomb. Sheer virtuosity is almost dead common these days. The rarer gifts are tonal variety and interpretive imagination.

Koxhukhin breezed through the challenges of the piece with uncanny calm and clarity, not to mention muscle for the most dramatic spots. But, all the while, he made sure that his tone never turned brittle, and he enlivened his phrasing telling, expressive coloring from the get-go. The ethereal shading he produced in the middle of the scherzo was but one example.

Alsop stayed with the soloist all the way and drew passionate playing from the BSO. Gabrielle Finck's sumptuous horn solo in the first movement and Dariusz Skoraczewski's radiant cello solo in the third were major assets in this highly satisfying performance.

The modest-sized audience made enough of a fuss after the concerto to get an encore from Kozhykhin, who obliged with an elegantly sculpted account of the Bach-Siloti B-minor Prelude. By this point, I had moved far away from Row Y (orchestra left), so the encore sounded even sweeter.

PHOTO Marco Borggreve
Posted by Tim Smith at 9:46 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes, Marin Alsop

November 15, 2012

Guest blogger/trumpeter reports on BSO's Rusty Musicians event

My thanks to Bruce Burgess for providing this colorful report from Tuesday's Rusty Musicians event, the Baltimore Symphony's popular outreach program where amateur players get to rub music stands with BSO pros in sessions conducted by Marin Alsop. -- TIM

The Best Seat in the House

By Bruce Burgess

The downbeat came swiftly. Marin's baton cut through the air instantly slicing my confidence into tiny pieces. The second movement of Tchaikovsky's Sixth is in 5/4, but I didn't see five beats being counted, just indistinct but vibrant musical expression emanating from the podium.

I had many measures of rest ahead, but what was the count? Panic set in. I leaned toward my "pro" for reassurance. Before he could respond, BSO music director Marin Alsop mercifully lowered her baton for a restart as she offered guidance to the string section.

This is Rusty Musicians, an outreach program of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra conceived by Marin Alsop in 2010 as a way "to attract new audiences through participatory opportunities for engagement as well as to enhance the BSO's position as an educational and social community resource."

The "rusties," as successful applicants call themselves, are non-professional adult instrumentalists and vocalists whose career paths ...

have taken them in directions other than that of a professional musician.

For one brief and fleeting evening, participants become members of the BSO, perform alongside regular members of the world-class orchestra under the direction of Maestra Alsop, and refer to the experience as "breathtaking," "spectacular" and "life-changing."

2012 also marks the first time in which Rusty singers have been invited to participate in the experience, performing alongside the professional Heritage Signature Chorale with the BSO.

This year's performance, really a "reading" followed by a run-through for an audience consisting primarily of family and friends, included two movements of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6, and selections for orchestra and members of the Rusty Singers and the Heritage Signature Chorale from four different Verdi operas.

We rusties received our parts weeks ago via email from BSO Education Associate Hana Morford, our main contact with the orchestra. We practiced alone, transposed, and practiced again hoping not to disappoint ourselves or fellow musicians.

On Tuesday night, the dreams of the amateur players were fulfilled. More than 100 amateur instrumentalists and 38 singers took turns playing and singing with BSO regulars. The musicians came from 11 different states, and ranged in age from 24 to 81 with an average age of 50. Most, if not all, have experience performing with community orchestras or symphonic bands.

As a sophomore rustie, I admit to being both excited and glib about my return to the Meyerhoff. The second emotion was quickly checked within the first opening bars of music. Before that, however, I moved easily about the stage striking up conversations with other excited musicians before we found our seats.

As if directed by an unseen cue, the permanent members of the BSO came on stage and heartily shook hands with familiar faces and introduced themselves to unfamiliar ones.

What drives veteran rusty musicians like Jeff Spector, a timpanist, to hop a plane in Colorado Springs, book a hotel room on Cathedral Street, play two 40-minute sessions with the BSO, and check out of his room at 4:00 a.m. for a fast dash back to Colorado?

Or what motivates first time rusty oboe player Randall Reiss to load up a school van with half a dozen students in Hopewell, Virginia, and drive eight hours round-trip for the privilege of playing in the big leagues for less than an hour?

Is it the opportunity to play music with the world’s best musicians, to fulfill a life-long ambition never realized, to check-off an item on a bucket list? The answers are yes, yes and yes. These and other explanations are freely given by teary-eyed rusties who complete and who are exhilarated by the experience.

Seated on stage, I found myself sandwiched between Rene Hernandez and Andy Balio, both principals in the trumpet section. Each, as well as every other pro, appeared genuinely happy to be there. Each offered inside tips on the fine points of orchestral playing.

"Hold the quarter notes to their full value, it makes the eighth notes seem appropriately shorter," advised Rene during the heroic third movement of the Tchaikovsky. "Push your tuning slide in on the lower notes, they’re typically flat. Pull the slide out for notes in the higher register, they’re usually sharp."

In response to a passage well performed, Andy raised his leg, the insider's silent during-performance salute to a neighbor musician for a job well done.

My own personal musical career, or lack of one, is similar to that of other rusties. In my case, a well-meaning uncle who helped pay for college over 50 years ago said he'd help pay for a degree in engineering but not in music, convinced the latter would result in me "playing in a dive."

... My obtaining a degree in architecture satisfied him that I would likely avoid the imagined dire outcome. It also set in motion a career course that led me away from aspiring to be an orchestral musician.

My first Rusty Musicians was in 2011. Arriving at the Meyerhoff on performance evening, I was overcome with emotion due to a strong former relationship to Baltimore city. I was born 3 blocks away in Maryland General Hospital.

My maternal grandfather had a career as a freight agent for the B&O at Mt. Royal Station across the street from the Meyerhoff. My aunt and "that" uncle attended Mount Vernon Methodist Church just blocks away many years before.

My parents, both Baltimoreans, had an infant son who died of malformed lungs before I arrived on the scene; "Get him to blow a horn" they were advised by the doctor who suggested this as a remedy for recovery.

In high school, I had a catastrophic bicycle accident with facial injuries that caused my trumpet teacher to predict "that boy will never play again." The load was heavy. Yet, here I was, about to join the BSO, and subsequently, to participate in the 2012 BSO Academy, the eight-day summer orchestra camp for rustie graduates. I had arrived in spite of it all.

Marin restarted Tchaikovsky's second movement. Rene calmed my nerves. I eased into the lyrical five-beat gait and relied on Marin's direction. The repetitive, loping two-bar phrases restored my confidence as did Rene who whispered, "lean into the first beat, it'll help."

I relaxed. I looked around and absorbed the sounds of the six bassoons, seven horns, seven trombones and seven double basses that surrounded the trumpet section. I was in the moment, fulfilling a dream and, not incidentally, enjoying the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra from the best seat in the house, playing beautiful music on-stage in Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.

Bruce Burgess is principal trumpet in the Northern Neck Orchestra based in Kilmarnock, Virginia. His permanent residence is in Middlebury, Vermont and he is the son of Robert H. Burgess, bay historian, author and long-time contributor to the Sun Papers.


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:56 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes, Marin Alsop

November 14, 2012

Women front and center at Fells Point area theaters

Fells Point community theater companies have women squarely in the spotlight these days.

At the Vagabond Players, the focus is on a mother’s struggles with mental illness. At Fells Point Corner Theatre, the close scrutiny involves a group of women recalling their lives — and their clothes. Both ventures yield rewards.

“Next to Normal,” the pathbreaking Broadway musical by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey that earned a Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize a couple years ago, presents formidable challenges. The topic, for a start. Even with dollops of light and dark humor, this is still an unflinching examination of an unhinged mind.

If you can find a cast capable of bringing out the drama strongly, you have to make sure the actors can also sing up a storm, since this mostly-sung show is built on something like three dozen rock (more or less) songs.

The Vagabond production, smoothly directed by Eric J. Potter and efficiently designed by Maurice G. “Moe” Conn, features ...

a particularly persuasive performance by Shannon Wollman in the central role of Diana.

She does not force or exaggerate anything. She makes Diana seem quite the Everywoman, as ordinary and non-threatening as the person next to you in line at the grocery story. When flashes from the illness leap out, they are all the more startling.

Woolman is a confident, unassuming singer, with enough power for the rawest moments and even more affecting when pulling inward.

Darren McDonnell makes a theatrically telling Dan, Diana’s long-suffering husband, and he can he shape the music eloquently. Unfortunately, he has trouble controlling his tone when he pumps up the volume; the sound is pretty jarring.

As Diana’s daughter Nathalie, Julia Capizzi encounters vocal strain in the big moments as well, but she nails the character’s heart- and fear-concealing cynicism.

In the role of Gabe, the son Diana can’t shake from her mind, Chris Jehnert shows considerable promise. Although his voice loses steadiness when pushed, his singing otherwise reveals an effective naturalness that matches his nicely layered portrayal.

Tom Burns does dynamic work as a couple of Diana’s doctors. Jim Baxter, as the nerdy stoner Henry (“the MacGyver of pot”), brings a sure, subtle singing voice to the proceedings. His acting, though, could use a boost.

Musical director Douglas Lawler gives the Vagabonds’ production a firm foundation.

The women in “Love, Loss and What I Wore,” the comic play by the late Nora Ephron and her sister Delia Ephron at Fells Point Corner Theatre, may be mentally healthier than Diana, but they are hardly devoid of issues. Their mantra could be: If it’s not one thing, it’s your mother.

Based on incidents from the authors’ lives and those of their friends, the 2009 play is basically five women talking about women’s issues, sort of a theatricalized expansion of “The View.”

They cover any number of topics — breasts, butts, shoes, purses, closets, wedding gowns, Madonna. There are particularly animated discussions of clothes their mothers wouldn’t let them wear or, worse, expected them to wear. A lot of humor punctuates the dialogue — a diatribe about purses is priceless.

But things turn serious and often quite touching on a dime, as when a cancer survivor talks of having her reconstructed breast tattooed, or when two lesbians describe their wedding and how their families reacted.

Although the work wouldn’t be the worse for trimming, it generally holds together.

The cast in this production, directed fluidly by Steve Goldklang, serves the material well. The actresses, all sporting black outfits (there will never really be a new black), mesh easily. Anne Shoemaker and Kate McKenna make especially vibrant and deftly nuanced contributions, but Beverly Shannon and Andrea Bush are not far behind.

And if Helenmary Ball doesn’t always have her lines down pat, she captures the been-there-worn-that zen of Gingy, the oldest and wisest of the bunch.

"Next to Normal" runs through Nov. 25. "Love, Loss and What I Wore" runs through Dec. 9

PHOTOS: 'Next to Normal' (Darren McDonnel and Shannon Wollman) by Tom Lauer; 'Love, Loss...' (l to r: Kate McKenna, Beverly Shannon, Andrea Bush, Anne Shoemaker, Helenmary Ball) by Ken Staneck


Posted by Tim Smith at 5:15 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Drama Queens

For Midweek Madness, Daltrey, Townshend, The Who, a worthy charity, and Streisand video

Excuse the shameless name-dropping, but I had lunch this week with Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend.

OK, a whole bunch of other members of the National Press Club and their guests did, too. But, hey, I was at the head table, so there.

The main reason why the surviving original members of The Who stopped by the club the day before their Washington concert was to discuss a charity they are heavily and admirably involved in -- Teen Cancer America. (You can watch the whole thing, thanks to C-Span.) 

The project is based on a successful program Daltrey and Townshend support in the UK, Teen Cancer Trust, which helps provide dedicated spaces for teen cancer patients in hospitals. This allows teens to be grouped together in their own area, complete with common kitchens.

As Daltrey, sporting a terrific Victorian-influenced outfit, explained at the luncheon, teens "don't want teddy bears, and they don't want to be with adults." Being a teen is difficult enough; being a teen with a major illness adds extra layers of stress.

Daltrey said that a soon-to-be-released study in the UK will report ...

a 10-15 percent improvement in survival rates for teens hospitalized with cancer since the teen-friendly facilities were introduced there. That sounds "f***ing amazing," to borrow a phrase from Townshend, who was quite the entertainer when he got his turn at the microphone.

So far, hospitals associated with UCLA and Duke University have embraced the project. Others are likely to follow (how about it, Johns Hopkins?), especially as Daltrey and Townshend continue helping to raise awareness and money. As Daltrey said, "All you rich rock stars out there: Get off your butts."

During the extensive Q&A, after the focus shifted from the cancer project, I especially loved how Townshend answered a question about his early musical influences, giving a whole lot of credit to Ella Fitzgerald. "No one can come closer to her," he said. Amen.

And it was pretty cool to hear him also mention that he had been listening to the late eminent Hungarian composer Gyorgy Ligeti on the plane to the States. (Never mind that the name is properly pronounced with the accent on the first syllable. I wouldn't dream of ruining Townshend's little joke about enjoying a piece by Ligeti "as I ate my spaghetti.")

OK, now that I have covered all of that, it's time for your Midweek Madness treat. The experience of hobnobbing with The Who made me think there must be a way to work some sort of Who-ness into the picture. I remembered a droll music video Daltrey made with Barbra Streisand and Mikhail Baryshnikov way back in the heyday of music videos. Perfect choice, I thought. So here goes:



Posted by Tim Smith at 10:46 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens, Midweek Madness

November 12, 2012

For Veteran's Day: John Kander's 'Letter from Sullivan Ballou'

Over the weekend, I heard soprano Angela Meade sing John Kander's affecting setting of the "Letter from Sullivan Ballou," penned in 1861 by a soldier to his wife just before the Battle of Bull Run, where he was killed.

I wanted to share the experience of this remarkable work today, Veteran's Day, a reminder of the sacrifice so many gave made over the years in service to their country. Here is a performance sung by Renne Fleming:

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:13 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens

Soprano Angela Meade gives impressive recital for Washington National Opera

Like the political world, the operatic one always craves fresh talent and gets pretty excited over any prospect that seems capable of achieving success. One of the names that has most frequently popped up in next-big-star-in-the-making discussions over the past few years is soprano Angela Meade. No wonder.

The singer has the one key element that cannot be faked by any amount of aggressive publicity -- a voice. A real, honest-to-goodness, fully formed vocal instrument that has you sitting up to take notice from the first note.

As Meade demonstrated locally in 2011 in a stellar performances of the Verdi Requiem with the Baltimore Symphony, and reconfirmed Saturday night at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater in an impressive recital for Washington National Opera, that voice is backed by keen musicality.

The soprano put those gifts to good use in the recital, which provided a teaser for her appearance with WNO this spring in her first fully staged production of Bellini's "Norma."

The signature aria from that opera, "Casta Diva," featured in Saturday's program. Meade delivered it with admirable technical poise and poetic intensity. I would have welcomed a few of the pianissimo shadings the singer generously summoned in the rest of her program, but the elegance and eloquence of the interpretation proved quite satisfying.

The "Norma" aria and a sumptuously voiced encore, the beloved diva anthem "Io son l'umile ancella" from Cilea's "Adriana Lecouvreur," were the only ones that Meade sang without ...

reference to a score. Using music in a recital is no crime (if so, Beverly Sills and Montserrat Caballe are among the luminaries who would have been convicted), but it can't help but suggest that the notes and/or texts haven't been completely internalized.

Here and there during her recital, Meade's singing did sound a little generic or on-the-surface. That was a minor matter, though, in light of so much that was involved and involving. Speaking of minor matters, the singer almost came in wrong at the end of the first verse in Strauss' "Zueignung," but recovered quickly.

And speaking of Strauss, I loved the rich tone Meade summoned in "Cacile," her endless breath control in "Befreit," her inner radiance in "Morgen." Another highpoint was a rapturous account of Liszt's "Oh! Quand je dors." (Some less familiar Liszt items added greatly to the program.)

Once past a blurry measure or twos, pianist Bradley Moore's own expressive talents were evident throughout the recital.

The soprano easily has what it takes to be a dramatic Verdi soprano -- the Terrace Theater could barely contain the sound at full-throttle -- but she can also scale back the tone beautifully, even in the upper reaches, where many a singer comes to grief. This flexibility, along with endearing phrasing, served Meade especially well in "Depuis le jour" from Charpentier's "Louise."

In a perfect prelude to Veteran's Day, the soprano offered John Kander's effective setting of "Letter from Sullivan Ballou." The text was penned by Ballou to his wife in 1861 just before he was killed at the Battle of Bull Run. Meade delivered the piece with considerable poignancy and naturalness of expression.

Arias by Bellini's "Beatrice di Tenda: and Verdi's "Il corsaro" gave Meade additional opportunities to shine.

In time, I imagine the soprano's tone will reveal even more character and nuance, just as her interpretations will add more layers of insight. But she is already a remarkably satisfying vocal artist who has sent a welcome jolt through the opera-sphere. I look forward to hearing her develop.


Posted by Tim Smith at 7:43 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Clef Notes

November 9, 2012

BSO gives East Coast premiere of sensational symphony by Christopher Rouse

Baltimore-born Christopher Rouse writes some of the most consistently provocative and rewarding music of our time. A sensational case in point is his Symphony No. 3.

The piece is the product of a global commission from the Saint Louis Symphony, which gave the first performance in 2011; the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, which is delivering the East Coast premiere in its latest program; and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic and Singapore Symphony.

Rouse’s Third makes a substantial addition to the orchestral repertoire. It leaves you almost reeling — in a good way — from an assault on the senses.

The composer has always been capable of summoning massive orchestral firepower, and he does so here in fiercely aggressive fashion. But he ...

also achieves passages of darkly expressive beauty that get under the skin. Throughout, Rouse’s uncompromising harmonic language, which treats tonal and atonal elements with equal freedom, speaks firmly and directly.

Rouse, whose many credits include a Pulitzer Prize and Grammy Award, approaches symphonies from a fascinating angle. He characterizes his First as an homage to Anton Bruckner, his Second to the less well-known Karl Amadeus Hartmann.

For the Third, Rouse turned to yet another eminent composer to create a kind of mirror image — in a parallel universe — of Sergei Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 2. Rouse’s score has the same two-movement structure. The first movement opens with a similar brass scream and proceeds to build up startling energy; the second offers a series of variations on a moody theme.

Adding yet another layer to this creative process is the fact that Prokofiev based his Second Symphony on Beethoven’s last piano sonata. So Rouse’s Third Symphony, in a way, encompasses three centuries of musical thought, a pretty cool achievement.

There’s much more than the sincerest form of flattery at work here. Rouse uses the Prokofiev model as a launch pad, not a harness. The similarities between the two scores are fascinating, but it’s not necessary to know anything about that to enjoy the riveting ride.

Rouse was on hand Thursday night at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall to say a few words to the audience before the performance (“It’s ferocious,” he said of the first movement, “so watch out”), and to receive a pretty hearty ovation afterward. Also in the hall was Rouse’s Gilman School music teacher, John Merrill; the symphony is dedicated to him.

In BSO music director Marin Alsop, the composer has long had a fervent champion. As she told the crowd, she’s the only conductor who has ever led an all-Rouse orchestral program. That was at her Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music. Such a program would never sell here, of course — too much modernity is bad for the box office — but Alsop has scheduled a few more Rouse pieces later in the BSO’s season.

The conductor is never more in command than when dealing with a thorny contemporary score. She had Rouse’s Third Symphony firmly in hand on Thursday, seeing to details large and small, maintaining terrific tension, and summoning explosive results from the players.

The piercing notes from the trumpets at the start of the first movement were not all on target, but, after that, the clarity and discipline in the orchestra proved highly impressive as the music was whipped into a frenzy. It was exhilarating to hear these eight minutes of tremendous, relentless energy and volume.

Only a Tchaikovsky-like unison note that ends the movement is a disappointment; after all the bracingly dissonant churning, it seems too easy a solution.

No reservations about the much longer second movement, which begins with a plaintive theme for English horn (played sumptuously by Jane Marvine) and proceeds through five eventful variations.

The kinetic pulse and brilliant instrumental coloring of the first gives way in the second to the darkest, most gorgeous string harmonies this side of Vaughan Williams. A sort of menacing jazz, or jazzy menace, characterizes the third, restless motion the fourth. The fifth conjures an image of mountains looming unnervingly into view.

Alsop had the BSO delivering all of this in exceptional form. The string sections produced a deep tonal richness; woodwinds and brass registered vividly; the percussion had an electrifying presence.

Given the ghost of Beethoven running through the Rouse symphony and the Prokofiev work that inspired it, there was good reason — beyond helping ticket sales — to fill out the program with two popular works by Beethoven.

The Overture to “The Creatures of Prometheus” got the concert started effectively, with plenty of drive from Alsop and particularly lithe, warm-toned playing from the violins.

Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony received roughly the same sort of lean-and-mean performance Alsop and the BSO gave it four years ago. The high point, interpretively, came in the Andante. The conductor shaped it lovingly and created a great deal of atmosphere, thanks in no small measure to the wonderful pianissimos she coaxed from the ensemble.

The rest of the Fifth made its points neatly and admirably in this fine-tuned performance, but I did miss the extra degree of passion and expressive weight that the BSO produced for guest conductor Markus Stenz last month in Beethoven’s “Eroica.”

The full Beethoven-Rouse program will be repeated Sunday at Meyerhoff Hall. Alsop will also lead an "Off the Cuff' examination and performance of Beethoven's Fifth Friday at Strathmore, Saturday at Meyerhoff.

Posted by Tim Smith at 4:19 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes, Marin Alsop

November 8, 2012

The show goes back on at Everyman Theatre after water main break

The show will go back on at Everyman Theatre.

Wednesday's performance of the endearing comedy "Heroes" had to be canceled because of the dastardly water main break on Charles Street, but Thursday's will take place as scheduled.

And just to make up for the inconvenience of continued street closures in the neighborhood, the company is offering half-off tickets to six performances, Thursday through Sunday.

As for access to Everyman while Charles Street is shut down, the theater recommends using the Central Parking Lot on Lanvale Street.


Posted by Tim Smith at 1:10 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens, Everyman Theatre

November 7, 2012

Water main break forces Everyman Theatre cancellation

This just in from Everyman Theatre:

Due to the water main break on Charles Street, Wednesday's 7:30 PM performance of "Heroes" has been cancelled. The company will contact ticket holders about exchanges as soon as the box office can re-open.

Posted by Tim Smith at 4:51 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens, Everyman Theatre

Rep Stage revives another neglected gem by J.M. Barrie

J.M. Barrie may only be remembered for creating “Peter Pan,” but not if Rep Stage can do anything about it.

Two years ago, the company effectively dug up two rare one-acters by Barrie, “The New Word” and “The Old Lady Shows Her Medals,” both from the World War I era. This month, Rep Stage’s 20th anniversary season continues with another thoughtful revival, “Mary Rose,” written a year after that horrid war, when wounds and memories were still very fresh, tainting everyone and everything.

"You know how just a touch of frost may stop the growth of a plant and yet leave it blooming? It has sometimes seemed to me as if a cold finger had once touched my Mary Rose,” says her mother early in the play.

That chilling description of the title character must have hit audiences hard in 1920 when the play was premiered. So many people would have had images in their heads and hearts of the men who remained perpetually young, captured in the last photos taken of them before they headed to the fatal trenches of France.

Although the war is not front and center in “Mary Rose,” it’s always there. One of the first characters to appear is ...

an Australian veteran named Harry, whose return to a neglected English home in 1919 triggers the work’s flashbacks and flash-forwards.

Spanning several decades, “Mary Rose” covers familiar territory for Barrie — reluctantly departed childhood, the wonderland of the imagination, the essence of innocence.

Something strange happens to Mary Rose, at different stages of her life, while visiting the same tiny Scottish island. She disappears, only to reappear as inexplicably as she vanished. Time, it seems, stops for her during her absence, so her eventual return becomes even more mysterious.

Barrie occasionally gets bogged down with incident or dialogue (some of the latter is pretty creaky), but he generates a good deal of theatrical mileage from the ghost story at the heart of the drama. And he balances it with a bittersweet look at the people around Mary Rose who cannot escape the ever-ticking clock.

At the final preview performance I caught, the production, directed by Michael Stebbins, felt sluggish, which limited the impact of scenes requiring tension and suspense. Still, the play’s subtle power came though.

Except for her tendency to vary the dynamics in her speech patterns a little too suddenly and a little too often, Christine Demuth did an appealing job as the ever-naive Mary Rose, especially in the scene on “the island that likes to be visited.”

As Mary’s parents, Maureen Kerrigan and Bill Largess proved affecting throughout. Eric M. Messner caught the charm and concern of Mary’s fiancee Simon. He seemed a bit stiff in his other assignment as Harry.

Tony Tsendeas enriched the role of Mr. Amy, longtime friend of Mary’s father. The book-ended scenes for the two characters give the play some welcome lightness, along with an extra layer of nostalgia, and Tsendeas and Largess delivered those scenes endearingly.

Rounding out the cast ably were Adam Downs ass the eccentric Scotsman Cameron, who knows something of the mysterious island; and Marilyn Bennett, as the housekeeper Mrs. Otery.

Other than the tired use of shadowy figures miming action a few times, Elizabeth Jenkins McFadden’s straightforward set delivered sufficient atmosphere. Ann Warren’s sound design added considerably to Barrie’s haunted tale.

"Mary Rose" runs through Nov. 18.



Posted by Tim Smith at 2:16 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens, Rep Stage

Minnesota Opera commisisons 'Manchurian Candidate' from Kevin Puts, Mark Campbell

Composer Kevin Puts, who teaches at the Peabody Conservatory, won a 2012 Pulitzer Prize for his first opera, "Silent Night," commissioned by Minnesota Opera.

That company has now commissioned a follow-up, "The Manchurian Candidate," which Puts will collaborate on with his "Silent Night' librettist, Mark Campbell.

The opera, slated for the 2014-2015 season, will be based on the 1959 thriller by Richard Condon that inspired John Frankenheimer's much-admired film in 1962 starring Laurence Harvey, Frank Sinatra and Angela Lansbury. (Jonathan Demme directed a 2004 remake.)

The plot concerns brainwashed Korean War vets and a communist plot to take over the U.S. government.

Minnesota Opera artistic director Dale Johnson noted that the "the term 'Manchurian candidate' has been bandied about as recently as on the [2012] presidential campaign trail," pointing to "an enduring fascination with conspiracy theories of massive proportions. Strong characters and tantalizing drama make for the best operas, and this story has those in spades."

The commission is the part of Minnesota Opera's New Works Initiative, which has raised nearly $7 million to promote contemporary works. In January, another of the initiative's projects will be premiered by the company: "Doubt," with music by Douglas J. Cuomo and libretto by John Patrick Shanley.

"Silent Night" gets its East Coast premiere in February from the Opera Company of Philadelphia.


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:59 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes, Peabody Institute

Why I'm in love with Barbara Cook

Don't tell my partner, but I'm wildly in love with Barbara Cook.

So much so, in fact, that I felt if it would be wiser to wait a little while before writing about the singer's concert Saturday at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. That way I wouldn't just gush all over the place. No such luck. Stand by for gushing.

Miss Cook, who just turned 85, was in marvelous, heartwarming form in this long overdue return to Baltimore. She may not have looked spry as she walked onstage, with the aid of a cane. And she sat for the whole concert, due to back problems.

But that was as far as the age thing went. And, really, the sitting only made the concert seem more intimate, as if we had all been invited to Miss Cook's Upper West Side apartment for a little music.

Of course the soprano's voice has changed over time, but there remains an unwavering gleam in the timbre. And, as I have been reminded each time I have heard her live, the essence beneath that tonal surface is the same, revealing a soul that continues to zero in effortlessly and compellingly on the contour of a melody, the truth of a lyric.

The program -- backed by the suave and subtle combo of Ted Rosenthal (piano), Lawrence Feldman (woodwinds), Baltimore native Jay Leonhart (bass), Warren Odze (percussion) -- was drawn largely from Miss Cook's latest album, "Lover Man."

That release makes a worthy addition to her discography, but ...

the interpretations she delivered on Saturday went considerably beyond the recorded tracks. She has been living with these songs for several months since making the album, and they seem to be revealing new things to her each time she performs them.

Intermingled with her saucy, lightly Georgia-accented commentary (she dropped the f-bomb at one point and took infectious delight in reading a list of absurd country song titles), Miss Cook went through the repertoire with evident glee.

The swinging tunes swung gently, among them "Makin' Whoopie," which seemed a little funnier and naughtier than ever, thanks to the color and rhythmic playfulness in the singer's phrasing.

The ballads, each one sculpted with the incisiveness of a Callas, included an exquisite "If I Love Again" and "The Nearness of You," not to mention an intriguing fusion of "House of the Rising Sun" and "Bye Bye Blackbird."

One of the highest of the highlights was "Lover Man," a song most associated with Billie Holiday (I associate it more with the other Barbra in my life, the one with the missing 'a,' but that's just me).

What Miss Cook did with the phrase "strange as it may seem" was stunning. She timed it so tellingly, making you wait for it a few extra beats. Then she infused those five words with palpable hope and fear, the bittersweet resignation of someone all too used to dreaming of a love ever out of reach.

Miss Cook wiped away a few tears in that song and a couple of others (when she teared up, I teared up) -- "Here's to Life," which she made remarkably personal and encompassing; and her un-amplified encore, "Imagine."

Her account of that John Lennon song, so natural and poetic, had a mesmerizing effect on the hall, one more indelible moment in a concert that reconfirmed the national treasure status of Barbara Cook -- and one more reason why I'm so unabashedly in love with, and in awe of, this disarming artist.


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:38 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens

Midweek Madness: A derailment at the opera

Last weekend, Lyric Opera Baltimore's season-opener was Puccini's "La Boheme." With that delicious music still in my head, I figured there just might be a way to work it into the next installment of Midweek Madness.

That's just what I have done, thanks to a clip from a night at the Zurich Opera House when an ever so light derailment occurred during the tenor aria "Che gelida manina."

Before I get to that, let me hasten to add that the Baltimore production did not make me think disaster; it was a perfectly respectable venture. There were a few slips at the performance I attended, but nothing close to the one you are about to hear.

Remember that many a tenor tackling "Boheme" asks to transpose the aria down to avoid the high C required, and that means the whole orchestra has to transpose with him. I have a funny feeling somebody forgot during this memorable performance in Zurich. Brace yourself:

Posted by Tim Smith at 5:37 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens, Midweek Madness

November 6, 2012

Elliott Carter's death at 103 a reminder of brilliant music Baltimore has been missing

If great artists are appreciated more after they're gone, perhaps brilliant composer Elliott Carter will soon get the wider recognition he deserves.

He died Monday in New York at the age of 103, leaving behind one of the most challenging -- and rewarding -- bodies of musical work of the past century.

In his home city, and a few other major arts capitals, Carter has long been honored for his keen intellect and ability to fashion scores of rich structural cohesion and absorbing inner detail. In places like Baltimore, not so much.

Carter's complexities scare too many audiences (and a lot of musicians, I imagine). It's so much easier on everybody -- especially box offices and public relations departments -- if he is kept off of programs.

At Peabody Conservatory, UMBC or a few other adventurous spots around this area, Carter does get occasional attention, I hasten to add. But at, say, the Baltimore Symphony? LOL.

I already got on my high horse about all of this a few years ago, so, instead of repeating myself, here's my 2009 post, complete with video clips, about the music we have been missing here.


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:48 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Clef Notes

November 5, 2012

Classical concert round-up: NSO's 'Missa Solemnis,' Poulenc Trio, Europa Galante

The last several days have been something of a blur, running from performance to performance (or portions thereof), leaving me little time to pontificate about them. I will try to make up for some of that now.

Let me concentrate here on the classical concerts I caught during this particular whirlwind, which started with the National Symphony Orchestra's presentation of Beethoven's epic "Missa Solemnis" Thursday night at the Kennedy Center.

This piece tends to divide listeners, even those who consider themselves major Beethoven fans. OK, so it is a bit unwieldy, long-winded and theatrical (Verdi isn't the only one who can be accused of writing an opera in the guise of a liturgical work). But count me among the believers.

I think even skeptical types might have been tempted to convert after experiencing the NSO's account with music director Christoph Eschenbach on the podium, and featuring the superb Choral Arts Society of Washington (Scott Tucker director) and vivid, well-matched soloists.

The soulful power of the "Missa Solemnis" could be felt at every turn, along with ....


the many features in the score that point the way to Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.

Eschenbach, who has something of the mystic about him, burrowed into the score with contagious devotion. He unleashed truly explosive power in the most dramatic passages, such as the opening rush of the Gloria, and the emphatically hammered outbursts of "Amen" in the Credo.

When the music turned inward, Eschenbach ensured poignant results. He lavished care on dynamics and phrasing at the start of the "Et incarnatus est" section of the Credo, for example, and drew an extraordinarily dark, inward sound for the "passus at sepultus est" line.

The Sanctus and Benedictus inspired particularly radiant results, with the chorus at its most sensitive, and beautifully molded singing from the solo quartet -- soprano Erin Wall, mezzo Iris Vermillion, tenor Richard Croft, bass Kwangchul Youn. Concertmaster Nurit Bar-Josef played the long solo in the Benedictus -- one of Beethoven's most astonishing and compelling touches -- with admirable purity of tone and gracefulness of phrase.

There were ragged edges here and there in the performance, to be sure, but nothing got in the way of the overall expressive force, the sense of involvement from conductor, orchestra and vocalists alike.

On Sunday afternoon, I caught some of the Poulenc Trio's stylish concert at Goucher College, presented by the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra.

Ensembles of oboe, bassoon and piano are not exactly plentiful, since there is not a massive amount of repertoire for such a combination. But this particular group -- oboist Vladimir Lande, bassoonist Bryan Young, pianist Irina Kaplan -- knows how to make the most of this niche.

Beethoven's Op. 11 was delivered with great character; the songful phrasing by the winds in the Adagio was one of the highlights.

Andre Previn's Trio from the 1990s effectively blends jaunty and smoky jazz with richly harmonized lyricism. The first movement could be the soundtrack to a comic silent film, right down to spicy woodwind trills for the sight gags. A slow movement, haunted by a descending motive, and a virtuosic finale complete the vibrant score.

The Poulenc Trio delivered it all with technical poise and potent phrasing. Kaplan revealed particular flair for the jazziest flourishes.

Also on Sunday, Europa Galante, the brilliant early music ensemble from Italy founded and led by violinist Fabio Biondi, gave a performance for the Shriver Hall Concert Series.

It is amazing to think back to the first wave of period instrument groups a few decades ago, when things could be so musicologically strict -- and, often, technically erratic. Today, once-outlawed vibrato is allowed to sneak in for expressive underlining, and tempos are allowed to breathe.

Europa Galante demonstrated terrific flexibility on such matters, while maintaining excellent intonation and smoothness of blend, in works by Vivaldi, Couperin and Mascitti on the first half of the program. Early music-making doesn't get much better than this.

Biondi's glowing tone and lively phrasing proved a constant delight, and there was beautifully nuanced playing from his colleagues, especially Giangiacomo Pinardi on theorbo.

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:39 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Classical, Clef Notes, NSO, Shriver Hall

November 4, 2012

Lyric Opera Baltimore offers comfy 'Boheme' to open second season

Call it retro night at the opera.

A comfy, traditional production of Puccini’s evergreen and irresistible “La Boheme” opened Lyric Opera Baltimore’s second season Friday.

The modest-scale sets would have looked dated in the 1960s, but won applause from the sizable audience at the Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric.

And the stage direction was so literal and sensible that it seemed almost radical, given the common practice these days of updating, re-examining and re-interpreting well-worn operas.

If there was a museum quality to the visual side of things, the music got a fresh enough spin from the sturdy, spirited cast.

Anna Samuil gave a sympathetic performance as the tender-hearted, consumptive seamstress Mimi, who, like her fellow Parisian bohemians, struggles with issues of love and livelihood.

The soprano’s fast vibrato gave her tone intriguing coloring, and, at her best, her phrasing communicated vividly. There were beautiful touches in her Act 1 aria, but she breezed through its closing, recitative-like lines in a curiously impersonal manner.

Samuil made up for that, though, in Act 3, with gorgeous, long-breathed sculpting of the last lines of “Donde lieta usci.” This was exquisitely poetic singing.

As Mimi’s devoted, if conflicted, lover Rodolfo, tenor Georgy Vasiliev offered a nicely ringing tone. His phrasing tended toward ...

the generic, but there were telling bursts of personality in the last two acts.

Timothy Mix brought a big, colorful baritone and abundant expressive fire to the role of Marcello, the painter hung up over the flirtatious Musetta, portrayed here with great warmth by Colleen Daly. Her creamy, radiant tone paid dividends all evening.

Eric Greene proved to be a most engaging Schaunard, with his deep, hearty baritone and animated articulation. Christopher Job’s soft-edged sound prevented his Coat Aria from registering fully, but it was eloquently shaped.

Michael Ventura summoned sufficient vocal variety in the dual assignments of landlord Benoit and sugar daddy Alcindoro. The chorus produced a rich, cohesive sound.

Conductor Steven White brought his usual sensitivity to the proceedings — his broad tempo for the opera’s final moments proved especially compelling — but he had occasional trouble keeping stage and pit coordinated.

Things should be smoother for Sunday’s repeat performance, when the Baltimore Symphony is likely to sound more settled, too. There were a few startling accidents on Friday, but, even so, the orchestra proved to be a major asset, unleashing the romantic richness of Puccini’s ingenious score.

Director Bernard Uzan’s conventional approach is not without its fresh tweaks to the action, such as the sight of the bohemian brethren confronting their landlord with vampire repellents. And, throughout, Uzan draws natural acting from the singers; the Act 4 rough-housing by the guys not only looks genuinely spontaneous, but pretty funny, a rare thing in “Boheme” productions.

There are some missteps — Musetta starting her aria downstage center, concert-style; the chorus emitting a tacky “Ah” when Musetta and Marcello kiss. And, while the idea of creating a tableaux of closely gathered mourners besides Mimi’s bed is effective, their loud sobbing is not.

All things considered, this “Boheme” serves Puccini well and, above all, gives notice that Lyric Opera Baltimore has accomplished something extraordinary.

With a recession still clutching at the heels of arts organizations everywhere, this company has emerged credibly from the ashes of the old Baltimore Opera Company in record time. There’s no telling how far it could spread its wings if it could generate more support.

The final performance of “La Boheme” will be at 3 p.m. Sunday at the Modell/Lyric.


Posted by Tim Smith at 8:18 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

November 2, 2012

'War Horse' works its theatrical magic at the Kennedy Center

A flick of a tail, the slightest turn of a head, and the horse named Joey has the audience in the palm of his hand.

Never mind that you can see three guys manipulating the various body parts on this giant puppet, the star of the London and Broadway hit “War Horse” now at the Kennedy Center and destined for Baltimore’s Hippodrome next season.

Within seconds, you don’t really see Joey’s manipulators, only the life-like results. Would that you couldn’t see each turn and manipulative tug of the plot a mile off. But no point dwelling on that.

“War Horse,” adapted from Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 children’s novel adapted by Nick Stafford in association with Handspring Puppet Company, doesn’t aim for subtlety or layering. This big, old-fashioned, World War I saga delivers all of its messages about family, friends and fidelity in straightforward ways that young theater-goers will grasp quickly and, no doubt, heartily.

Even older folks who can’t help but notice how the melodramatic elements heat up as intensely as the battles scenes, or who start squirming from the pile-up of cliches and it’s-a-small-world coincidences, are apt to be won over, probably even misty-eyed, in the end. The show is, ...


in the best sense of the word (there used to be a best sense of the word), sentimental.

Starting in rural England and moving to the horrid battlefields of France during World War I, this boy-meets-horse, boy-loses-horse, boy-gets-horse story unfolds with a terrific cinematic sweep thanks to consistently striking stagecraft. (Rae Smith is the scenic and costume designer.)

It’s easy to understand all the fuss made over the puppetry. In addition to foal Joey and full-grown Joey, there’s the regal Topthorn, an army horse that Joey bonds with at the front. Some cool avian characters pop up vividly as well.

In each case, it is the naturalness of the figures that gets you. The equine ones communicate awareness and feelings in such an uncanny, disarming fashion that you may just find yourself thinking horses are people, too, my friend. A little anthropomorphism never hurt anybody.

Keeping Joey safe becomes the life mission for Albert Narracott (Andrew Veenstra), a boy in the Devon countryside who suddenly finds himself with a horse to tend and train. Albert’s father, who tends to drink too much, buys the animal more out of pride than interest. Conflict between father and son becomes a major driving force in the tale.

One of the most powerful scenes in the play finds the Devon folk being swept up in patriotic flourishes and the inevitable we’ll-all-be-home-for-Christmas notions, all juxtaposed against Albert’s heartache as he realizes his father had sold Joey to the military.

When the focus shifts to the battlefront, things move eventfully, if sometimes sluggishly. There is the aptly named Sergeant Thunder, who barks and snarks at the British recruits, but primarily provides comic relief.

Joey’s fate includes capture by the enemy, which, not surprisingly, includes a good German amid the bad Germans. A sweet French farm girl enters the picture, too, along the way, and is in terrible danger. At some point, just when you expect somebody to say, “Damn this bloody war,” somebody does.

And it is bloody. The cold randomness of battle is driven home with great theatrical flourish; a chilling image of troops advancing in a slow march, being picked off by gunfire as they go, brings to mind the indelible scene in the silent film classic “The Big Parade.”

Death comes so starkly and unfairly to some of the characters that it’s hard to remember this is a children’s story. But all of this, along with Albert’s quest to find his favorite companion, helps underscore how perceptions and values, not just loyalties, are sorely tested by war.

Speaking of underscoring, Adrian Sutton’s music, with its John Williams-esque emotional swelling, becomes a key ingredient in the production. In addition to that pre-recorded soundtrack, two performers — vocalist John Milosich and instrumentalist Nathan Koci — weave through the proceedings, performing folksy songs by John Tams.

This can be a little cloying at times, especially when the duo pops up after some dreadful bit of violence. And the lyrics are not always the freshest (“Round goes the wheel of fortune, don’t be afraid to ride”). But, mostly, the device serves neatly as a connective thread and as a reminder of the humans in the story who, when they pass from “this earth and its toiling,” and “only remembered for what we have done.”

The humans in “War Horse” don’t get as much chance to shine as the puppets, but the national touring cast (the production originated at the National Theatre of Great Britain and was directed by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris), does sturdy work.

Veenstra is a vigorous, appealing Albert. As Albert’s mother, Rose, Angela Reed manages to get a touching dimension out of the thinly drawn character. There are vibrant turns by Brian Keane as Sergeant Thunder and Alex Morf as Albert’s foxhole buddy Dave.

The star turns are by all the several handlers who find in those brilliantly designed puppets the stuff of rare theatrical magic.

"War Horse" runs through Nov. 11 at the Kennedy Center.



Posted by Tim Smith at 3:55 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens

November 1, 2012

Cuba's Schola Cantorum Coralina makes impressive U.S. debut in Annapolis

As advance bands of Hurricane Sandy were just beginning to pelt Annapolis Sunday afternoon, a small, hardy group of music lovers gathered in St. Anne's Church to hear a concert by an exceptional choir, Schola Cantorum Coralina. Maybe next time there will be a full house.

The ensemble, founded in 1993, has traveled to several countries, but one place has been absent until now from its itinerary -- the United States. That's not too surprising, given that Schola Cantorum Coralina makes its home in Cuba.

There's something encouraging about the group's arrival, 50 years after the Cuban Missile Crisis. Relations between our governments may not have softened all that much over the decades, but we are surely at a better place these days. And a visit from such spirited ambassadors has got to be good for all of us.

This choir's 17-trip is part of the Serenade International Choral Series organized by Classical Movements, a Virginia-based firm best known for handling travel arrangements for orchestras and other ensembles.

Led with infectious enthusiasm by founder Alina Orraca, who often got into the act herself, the 20 singers of Schola Cantorum Coralina demonstrated a ...

good deal of character, not just technique, in a wide-ranging, nearly all-a cappella program.

The classics on the first half of the concert yielded several highlights, including gorgeous pianissimi in Byrd's "Ave verum corpus" and beautifully shaded phrasing in Poulenc's "Salve Regina."

The bulk of the program was devoted to 20th (and 21st) century Cuban and other Latin composers. Many of the selections were from the pop side (and a little repetitive in style); these brought out some of the most energized music-making of the afternoon.

Sturdy pitch, clarity of articulation and smooth blend between sections were in evidence throughout. Individual voices, in the many solos, were sometimes a little less refined in tone, but irresistible in phrasing.

The many delights included a wild romps through Roberto Valera's "Ire a Santiago" and Oscar Escalada's "Tangueando"; and subtly sensual accounts of Gonzalo Roig's "Quiereme mucho" and Miguel Matamoros' "Triste, muy triste."

I didn't I'd ever listen to "Guantanamera," the Joseito Fernandez standard, without squirming a little. I guess I just never heard it performed as tenderly and unaffectedly as it was here.

The versatility and vibrancy of the ensemble had abundant room to shine in two virtuoso items by Guido Lopez Gavilan, "Que rico e" and " La Aporrumbeosis," which found the choristers producing a wild assortment of sound effects.

Here's just a tiny sample of Schola Cantorum Coralina:


Posted by Tim Smith at 2:16 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

Belated reviews Part 1: Baltimore Classical Guitar Society

Somehow, I have fallen farther behind than usual. I figure the best course now is to blame the Super Storm, since that might buy me some sympathy.

Besides, once that storm did hit, who was going to waste time reading my reviews of some musical events last weekend?

Well, just for the record, I do want to say a few words about two concerts I caught, starting Saturday night at Towson University, where the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet opened the Baltimore Classical Guitar Society's 25th anniversary season.

(I will subsequently report on the U.S. debut of Cuba's Schola Cantorum Coralina in Annapolis.)

After more than three decades, the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet remains a formidable ensemble, both in terms of technical bravura and ...

musical personality. John Dearman, William Kanengiser, Scott Tennant and newest member Matthew Greif demonstrated a tight rapport throughout a colorful program that covered classical and jazz repertoire with equal flair.

A highlight was a suite from Stravinsky's "Pulcinella." This baroque-meets-20th-century score makes a fine fit for guitars, and the quartet made the most of Kanengiser's arrangement, producing a richly vibrant tone and articulating with admirable expressive nuance.

There was brilliant interplay between the guitarists in selections from de Falla's "El amor brujo" and Bryan Johanson's propulsive, percussive and witty "On All Fours."

A group of Brazilian pieces emerged in vivid detail. And it was cool to hear the guitarists switch into a persuasive jazz mode for classics by Miles Davis and John Coltrane (Greif did the arrangements); they hit an especially cool groove in "So What" and explored the smoky, late-night world of "Blue in Green" with impressive subtlety.

The Baltimore Classical Guitar Society has more attractions planned for its silver anniversary, including concerts by Sergio and Odair Assad (Feb. 9) and Manuel Barrueco (April 27).

Here's a taste of the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet, playing a work by Antonio Carlos Jobim:


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:28 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

Everyman Theatre's 'Heroes' an endearing adventure

The three veterans in “Heroes,” Tom Stoppard’s adaptation of a wry comedy by Gerald Sibleyras, cling to their little terrace at the old soldiers’ home in France as fiercely as they once held their ground against the Germans during World War I.

This is their domain, where they can avoid the glance of the facility’s head nun, and, more importantly, where they can see the promise of a better world — just beyond the poplars on a distant ridge.

“Heroes,” perfectly cast and sensitively directed by Donald Hicken, makes an apt choice for Everyman Theatre’s final production at its longtime Charles Street venue before moving to new digs downtown. Themes of memory and adventure run through the piece.

James Fouchard’s simple set conveys ...

just enough atmosphere for the adventure to play out; sound designer Chas Marsh enhances it all with evocative musical flourishes.

The aging heroes are aware of their limitations — each one has one handicap or another — but they can’t shake the urge to break free of routine, to taste something new and fresh, to demonstrate to one and all that there is a spark left.

Sure, they’re fooling themselves about how far they might actually go, just as they continually fool themselves about how much they know about women, or how attractive they still are to them.

But even if there is just a tiny glimmer of a chance that they might actually enjoy any change in the weary routine of institutional life, they’ll seize and embellish it. You can’t help but root for them all the way.

Philippe, ever so slightly paranoid and prone to pass out at awkward moments, is played by Carl Schurr with great charm. When he wanders in from a funeral, having had a spell in a particularly unfortunate spot, it’s awfully funny and endearing at the same time.

As Henri, the one member of the trio used to exploring at least some of the terrain beyond the terrace, John Dow gives a beautifully nuanced performance. His eyes say a great deal, sparkling as he recounts his thank-heaven-for-little-girls discovery in a nearby village, darkening with wistfulness as he faces some tough facts.

Completing the group is Gustave, so sure of everything, as quick with sarcasm as with flights of fancy. Wil Love handles the role deftly, letting the character’s quirks and qualms emerge in sly fashion. A scene involving Gustave’s attempt to learn an insouciant wink and nod pays comic dividends.

The slightly nutty, heroic threesome is really a quartet, since the statue of a faithful dog on the terrace figures into their lives and schemes. Keep an eye on that canine.

"Heroes" runs through Dec. 2.


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:19 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens, Everyman Theatre

Center Stage presents 'Final Strange Tale of Edgar Allan Poe'

Center Stage opened its 50th anniversary season last month with “An Enemy of the People,” a heavy-handed, often dull play that an uneven cast could not quite enrich.

That has now been followed by “The Complete Fictional — Utterly True — Final Strange Tale of Edgar Allan Poe,” a heavy-handed, often dull play that a dynamic, well-matched cast cannot quite enrich.

It’s really a little too soon to worry about where Center Stage is headed, but artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah’s first two choices for the 2012-2013 lineup give one pause.

There was, of course, an obvious reason to consider “Enemy,” Arthur Miller’s Ibsen-inspired examination of politics and ethics, during an election season.

Likewise, it's understandable to focus on Poe, given the master of the macabre’s strong ties to Baltimore. But “The Final Strange Tale” seems ...

like a work in progress, still awaiting an editor’s dry-eyed surgery.

Premiered last year at the Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, R.I., the play was written by Stephen Thorne, a resident actor in that troupe. He takes as his starting point Poe’s final hours in October 1849.

How Poe ended up in Baltimore, much the worse for wear after a week that started in Philadelphia, has long been a subject of speculation. Thorne does not attempt so much to settle the matter as to peer into the poet’s state of mind at the end.

He gives us a confused, but defiant, Poe on his bed at Washington College Hospital, consumed by memories and hallucinations, determined to escape the embrace of death. There is plenty of theatrical potential here, and, at his best, the playwright imaginatively mixes history, fantasy and Poe’s own writings to create “a dream within a dream.”

Thorne can write lines that sing, startle and amuse. (Not since a quizzical Anne Francis delivered the line “Baltimore?” in the film version of “Funny Girl” has a script offered a character the chance to shine just by uttering our city’s name.)

But, too often, the vivid moments are followed by laborious bits of Freudian analysis. And several passages that have “final scene” written all over them turn out to introduce still more material. In the end, the play’s two-hour running time feels much longer.

The production from Trinity Rep, designed by Eugene Lee, gets effective mileage out of a wooden platform in a theater-in-the-round set-up. The center of that platform can be lowered deeply at will, perfect for conjuring up images of the grave.

Director Curt Columbus piles on some haunted house shtick, where just a touch would be more telling. But some of the spooky stuff does have a terrific visual payoff, especially in a scene that references Poe’s tale of mesmerism, “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar.”

Bruce Randolph Nelson is the death-facing Poe. When it comes to chewing scenery, this actor is quite the gourmand, and he indulges his appetite fully here. The play-to-the-balcony emphasizing can get wearying, but the fire in the performance often hits home.

The other performers take on multiple roles — doctors, Poe family members, etc. — and do so with admirable flair.

Charlie Thurston is a particularly dynamic presence as Young Edgar — scenes between the two Poes, arguing over inspiration and life choices, are the play’s most intriguing and incisive. Jimmy Kieffer’s portrayal of Charles Dickens, seemingly the most unlikely figure to pop into Poe’s head, is delectably colorful.

But, for all the sparks from the cast, “The Final Strange Tale” doesn’t really end up shedding much light on the subject matter. Not does it grab hold and refuse to let go, the way any story about Poe should.

The production runs through Nov. 25.


Posted by Tim Smith at 5:25 AM | | Comments (5)
Categories: Center Stage, Drama Queens
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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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