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January 31, 2013

Stephanie Powers fills in for ailing Valerie Harper as Tallulah in 'Looped'

Valerie Harper has departed the national tour of "Looped," the play about late-career Tallulah Bankhead that will be presented at Baltimore's Hippodrome March 5-17. Stephanie Powers is stepping into the role.

Harper, who was nominated for a 2010 Tony Award for her performance in "Looped" on Broadway, was hospitalized during rehearsals for the tour.

The actress, famed as the character Rhoda on "The Mary Tyler More Show" and its spinoff, has returned to Los Angeles, "where she will receive continuing treatment and medical care," according a statement from producers. The tour opens in Fort Lauderdale Feb. 26.

Harper said that the "play has been such a gift and it was my hope and intention to play this role again in the upcoming tour. But given my doctor’s recent recommendations, I must now put all my energy into getting well and renewing my strength."

Powers, whose extensive stage and screen credits include the hit TV show "Hart to Hart," makes a particularly apt choice as a replacement. "Looped" is set in a sound studio, where Bankhead has a great deal of difficulty recording ("looping") a line of dialogue for the film "Die, Die, My Darling." That 1965 co-starred Powers.


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:49 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Drama Queens, Hippodrome

January 30, 2013

Baltimore Symphony musicians chime in with new Ravens song

At the rate they're going, the Baltimore Symphony may change this week's program to Hindemith's Concert Music for Ravens, Brass and Strings"; Mozart's Concerto No. 27 for Ravens and Orchestra; and Mussorgsky's "Ravens at an Exhibition."

Meanwhile, BSO bassist Jonathan Jensen has written a new ditty, "Hail to the Ravens," set to a vaguely familiar tune. The opening lines:

Ravens fans all over Baltimore,

Have just a single goal:

To win the Superbowl.

We'll watch them proudly,

We'll cheer them loudly,

And our loyal orchestra will cheer loudest of all!

The song has now been immortalized via YouTube, filmed by BSO contrabassoonist David Coombs. (Can the San Francisco Symphony's response be far behind?)

Get your rah-rahs out and chime in with Jensen and his buddies from the orchestra (Madeline Adkins, Ellen Pendleton Troyer, Ken Goldstein, Angela Lee, Peter Minkler, Kristin Ostling, Owen Cummings, Michael Lisicky); vocal soloist Mark McGrath and backup singers Wendy Baird, Dyana Neal and Jim Knost.

Posted by Tim Smith at 3:11 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes

Midweek Madness has no choice but to join the Ravens madness

Sorry, Midweek Madness fans, if you thought you could escape the all-Ravens-all-the-time atmosphere these days by clicking your way here.

How could I possibly ignore this fever (try as I might)? Not with reminders like this one, put together by Douglas Buchanan, a bass in the Baltimore Choral Arts Society and choirmaster of Old St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.

He managed to combine Ravens mania with Anglican choral traditions to produce what has to be the most offbeat entry yet in the ever-rising clamor of local pride. So here, recorded in lovely Old St. Paul's, is Buchanan's "Ravenlican Chant," a devout work in three sections: Preambule, Rules of Overtime and Ravens' Fight Song.

If this doesn't clinch the Super Bowl, I don't know what will:

Posted by Tim Smith at 8:21 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens, Midweek Madness

January 29, 2013

Annapolis Symphony responds to San Francisco Symphony's Ravens taunt

And you thought classical musicians were so sensitive, tolerant and mild-mannered. Not when it comes to the Super Bowl, apparently. Orchestras are being swept up in a frenzy of fan fever.

The San Francisco Symphony was just asking for trouble when it posted a photo on its Facebook page of percussionist Trey Wyatt percussionist about to inflict major damage on a defenseless Raven symbol with some mighty big cymbals.


So the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra responded quickly with ...

a photo showing its own threatening muscle. Music director José-Luis Novo (far right) and ASO musicians Natanel Draiblate, James Rester, Fatma Daglar and Don Spinelligot into the act,

In addition, the Marylanders have a song to go with the picture.

It's sung to the tune of "Carolina in the Morning" (Carolina doesn't have anything to do with the Super Bowl, but, hey, all's fair in love and football):

"Nothing would be finer than to crush the 49ers in New Orleans!"

All of this follows a somewhat less threatening Ravens-boosting message from Baltimore Symphony Orchestra music director Marin Alsop, who recently unveiled her suggestion for a winning play.

Posted by Tim Smith at 1:09 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

Kennedy Center expansion project for education gets $50 million lead gift

It's not quite the gigantic, $650 million project envisioned a decade ago by Kennedy Center president Michael Kaiser, but the $100 million southward expansion announced Tuesday marks a major step for the institution.

With a lead gift of $50 million from the center's chairman, Baltimore-born David M. Rubenstein, the building venture, being designed by Steven Holl Architects, will see pavilions for classrooms, multipurpose facilities and rehearsal spaces rise on the property just south of the Kennedy Center, toward the Roosevelt Bridge. It's the biggest expansion since the center opened in 1971.

In a nice retro touch, the project will include ...

space for outdoor performances on a facility floating on the Potomac -- not far from where the National Symphony Orchestra used to give summertime concerts on a barge (that spot was known as the Watergate, a name adopted and subsequently made awfully famous by a housing/office complex north of the Kennedy Center).

The expansion will provide a boost to the center's education work. "The Kennedy Center has the largest arts education program in the country without having any dedicated facilities to serve these growing programs," Kaiser said.

Other features of the project include an outdoor video wall for simulcasting performances, and public gardens.

Rubenstein said that Holl's "wonderful concept will create a strong visual presence that bolsters the center’s prominence as the national cultural center, while maintaining its unique presence among Washington’s iconic landmarks."

The initial plans include exteriors for the pavilions that will incorporate translucent Okalux, glass, and the same Carrara marble used on the Kennedy Center.

A fundraising campaign will be launched to raise the remaining $50 million for the project, along with an additional "$25 million for major programming initiatives in the years ahead." The total costs will be covered by private funding.

Rubenstein, an extraordinary philanthropist who has contributed to National Archives, the Washington Monument, and the Smithsonian Institution, as well as the Kennedy Center, said that he hoped his $50 million gift would "encourage others to donate to this project."

"As the federal budget tightens, I hope more Americans will consider including nonprofit federal entities in their own philanthropy as well," Rubenstein said.


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:39 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Clef Notes

January 28, 2013

Marin Alsop jumps into Super Bowl spirit with Ravens game plan

You didn't think anyone could resist Ravens fever did you?

Here's Baltimore Symphony Orchestra music director Marin Alsop with her gutsy suggestion for a winning Super Bowl play (BSO PHOTO). Looks like a surprise pass to the double basses will do the trick:



Posted by Tim Smith at 3:05 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes

Pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin gives compelling recital at Shriver Hall

From the very first chord, there was no doubt that Marc-Andre Hamelin's recital Sunday evening for the Shriver Hall Concert Series was going to be compelling.

That chord, which launched a transcription by Tivadar Szanto of Bach's G minor Fantasia and Fugue for organ, was articulated not just with terrific force, but a delectable richness of tone as well.

Hamelin, justly famed for his technical prowess, seemed to be saying: Who needs a pipe organ to make this music shake the place?

He offered myriad dynamics; he articulated the trickiest of passages without the slightest trace of effort; he delivered expressive impact with every phrase.

You could same the same for the rest of the program, which celebrated the full range of the piano (made you feel a little sorry for those pianists who have gravely decided to focus squarely on the sacred Mozart-Beethoven-Schubert canon).

Hamelin's evident delight in every one of the 88 keys could not have been more obvious than in ... 

his own composition, Variations on a Theme of Paganini, a wild and witty piece that had many in the audience laughing at each surprise along the way. In addition to droll quotations from the likes of Beethoven and Liszt, there are clever references to -- even some deconstruction of -- Rachmaninoff's Paganini Rhapsody.

Rachmaninoff also figured prominently on the recital. Hamelin tore into the Second Sonata with a blend of startling bravura and white-hot lyricism, creating an action-packed tone poem. Two Preludes (Nos. 5 and 12) from Op. 32 were exquisitely sculpted.

Hamelin's subtle side also found a potent outlet in Busoni's rarely heard Sonatina No. 2, a work with hallucinatory harmony, a sense of moonlit mystery. The pianist maintained remarkable tension here, and made the elusive music speak eloquently.

Hamelin moved without a break into another harmonically misty world, delivering Debussy's "Images" (Book 1) and "L'Isle Joyeuse" with a coruscant tone and finely nuanced phrasing.

The overflow house (seats were added onstage) clearly wanted more after the last thunderous rush of the Rachmaninoff sonata brought the program to a close. Hamelin obliged with a disarming about-face as an encore -- the famous movement of Mozart's C major Sonata (K. 545) that every piano student tackles before long.

This music is light years away, in style and keyboard range, from the recital's sound world, but Hamelin made it just as fulfilling. His tonally delicate, rhythmically elastic handling of the first theme's recapitulation was but one magical touch, one more reminder of this pianist's distinctive artistry.


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:23 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

January 25, 2013

'Hairspray' holds up well in concert version from Baltimore Symphony

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra has developed a knack for effective theatrical presentations. A riveting semi-staging of Leonard Bernstein’s “Mass” a few seasons ago is a case in point. An exuberant concert version of the hit musical “Hairspray” this weekend is another.

Never mind that a good deal of dialogue from the Broadway musical, based on the 1988 John Waters movie, is gone. Or that just a few props pop up — happily, one of them is a mechanical rat to dart across the stage during the opening “Good Morning, Baltimore” number.

Propelled by clever imitations of ’60s rock and soul by Marc Shaiman (he and Scott Witman wrote the spot-on lyrics), the “Hairspray” score is not an ideal candidate for symphonic orchestration. The BSO’s strings barely register in many of the numbers, given all the competition from winds and percussion.

But it’s cool to hear the music fleshed out and played so dynamically by the orchestra, led with his usual flair and precision by principal pops conductor Jack Everly.

Whatever material has been abridged or squeezed to create the concert version, plenty remains to evoke the spice of the original 2002 show, thanks to ...

a first-rate, exuberant cast (brightly costumed by Clare Henkel), and the incomparable presence of Waters himself as narrator.

He’s worth the price of admission. Waters does not just fill in plot details, but also offers insights into what inspired him to create the cinematic “Hairspray,” a tale of teen angst, dance fever and stubborn segregation in early 1960s Baltimore.

His comments include fascinating background into some of the characters (a discussion of Little Inez, one of the young black dancers in the story, is especially revealing).

Waters seems to relish the opportunity to work with the BSO. “Maybe I’ll come back and hum ‘Bolero’ while old people like me make out in the audience,” he told an enthusiastic crowd at the Music Center at Strathmore Thursday night.

This venture, a co-production with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, has been fluidly directed by David Levy and choreographed by Jennifer Ladner. (The only drawback at Strathmore was alternately spotty and blaring amplification.)

Two veterans of the Broadway run of “Hairspray” bring plenty of sizzle to the proceedings.

Marissa Perry reprises the role of Tracy Turnblad, the calorie-hoarder determined to dance on the local TV sensation, “The Corny Collins Show” — and, oh yeah, integrate the program, too. Perry is sweet, funny and nimble, and she sings up a storm. She has a great mate in Paul Vogt, who gives a delicious performance as Edna, Tracy’s mammoth mother.

Vogt, who was one of the successors to Harvey Fierstein in this drag assignment on Broadway, reveals nary a hint of self-consciousness. It’s a beautifully lived-in portrayal. The actor doesn’t get all of Edna’s lines in this version, but he successfully fills in the blanks with subtle touches. He’s also an effective singer, capable of stylish phrasing, along with some in-your-face, basso profundo notes.

Micky Dolenz, the veteran performer still famed as a member of The Monkees, glides smoothly into the role of Edna’s jokester husband, Wilbur. The actor may sound more like a cross between Crazy Guggenheim and Jimmy Durante than a guy from Highlandtown (there are no Baltimore accents, alas, in this cast), but he’s a winner. Dolenz and Vogt make their big number, “Timeless,” the old-fashioned showstopper it should be.

Beth Leveal exudes the requisite slime, to vivid effect, as Velma von Tussle. NaTasha Yvette Williams does an endearing turn as Motormouth Maybelle, and her lush voice soars stirringly in “I Know Where I’ve Been.”

As Motormouth’s son Seaweed (I wish Waters would talk about how he derived some of these names), the vibrant Marcus Terell does some soaring, too, hitting at least one note that could probably shatter glass.

The talented cast also features a colorful Nick Adams as heartthrob Link Larkin; and the bright-voiced Natalie Renee, Nikki Stephenson and Melissa Van Pelt as The Dynamites. Students from the Baltimore School of the Arts ably fill out this infectious celebration of a great American musical.

"Hairspray" will be performed Friday through Sunday at Meyerhoff Hall.


Posted by Tim Smith at 4:23 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes

Re-imagined version of 'Disney's Beauty and the Beast' at the Hippodrome

Judging by the continued obsession contemporary society has with physical appearance, kids and adults alike could use a reminder about the skin-deep, eye-of-the-beholder nature of beauty — and about just how beastly some humans can behave toward those considered inferior.

Those messages are being energetically underlined these days at the Hippodrome, where a pleasant production of the popular musical “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast” has taken up temporary residence.

This is a different show than the one that ran on Broadway for 13 years and previously visited Baltimore. For this fourth national tour, the original creative team has taken a fresh look at everything. There’s been some downsizing here, some trimming there, and a lot of re-imagined visuals.

Folks who remember the initial version are bound to notice, especially ...

when it comes to the castle, where the prince-turned-beast in this “tale as old as time” awaits his opportunity at transformation-through-love. That enchanted residence, filled with servants who have been turned into furniture and whatnot, is more loosely evoked than conjured.

This streamlined NETworks Presentations staging, said to cost about a quarter of the $12 million poured into the one that Disney Theatrical Productions unveiled on Broadway in 1994, also uses a non-Equity cast. That’s a significant hunk of change saved right there.

The net result, however, does not suggest some bargain-basement bus-and-truck venture. There is plenty of color and old-fashioned charm in Stan Meyer’s new, airy scenic design and Ann Hould-Ward’s revised costumes, more than enough to keep children engaged, I should think.

Young ones may still end up squirming through some of the talkier stuff (adults may find their attention wandering, too, during the two-and-a-half-hour work), but this polished production delivers on entertainment and charm.

At this late date, there is probably no point in mentioning that “Beauty and the Beast,” spawned from the animated Disney movie of that name, is not exactly a masterpiece of invention.

The work could use more character depth, more cleverness in dialogue, more tension and uplift. It’s all about putting surface sparkle on well-worn devices, when it needs to be, in the words of the title song, more “bittersweet and strange.”

Still, the book by Linda Woolverton efficiently retells the familiar tale of the young woman who gradually warms to the monstrous-looking guy in the castle; some humor along the way helps spice that story (dusty puns not so much).

The score features an ear-friendly score with music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Baltimore-born Howard Ashman (his death in 1991 from AIDS at the age of 40 robbed the entertainment world of a considerable talent) and Tim Rice.

The best of the songs don’t just serve the plot, but come with clever turns of phrase and melody — the witty waltz “Human Again,” sung by the castle servants in Act 2, is the crowning example. And the title song manages a neat trick of being old-fashioned and contemporary at once.

Director Rob Roth mostly keeps the pacing bright in this new staging, although some big ensemble numbers could be twice as effective at half the length, and he gets a well-honed response from the performers.

Hilary Maiberger is an amiable presence as Belle, the “beauty” in the plot who prefers books and dreams of adventure to her simple life. The actress tends to blend into the scenery early on, but she unleashes personality as the dramatic side of the story gets kicking. And, except when pushing her voice in the upper register, Maiberger sings with a sweet, steady soprano.

Darick Pead does a dynamic turn as the Beast, especially in the scenes when the hirsute, inelegantly fanged creature tries out his wooing technique on Belle (Pead gets good mileage from merely attempting to say “Please”). The actor has the vocal chops for the role, too.

As Gaston, the thick hunter who assumes Belle will swoon over his marriage proposal, Joe Hager offers biceps for days and a serviceable voice. The rubbery and tireless Jimmy Larkin cavorts gamely as Gaston’s sidekick, LeFou, though the physical shtick does grow a wee bit tiresome.

The cast also features Peabody Conservatory alum William A. Martin, who did some fine work in local opera productions over the years. He’s quite engaging as Belle’s father, Maurice, an eccentric who ends up the Beast’s prisoner.

Hassan Nazari-Robati seems to be channeling a little too much early Steve Martin, but his performance as the valet/candelabra Lumiere gives the show a welcome kick. James May likewise relishes his opportunity to shine as the butler/clock Cogsworth.

Erin Edelle has the requisite warmth as the cook/teapot Mrs. Potts and she sings “Beauty and the Beast” with welcome understatement. Jessica Lorion (Babette) and, especially, Shani Hadjian (Madame de la Grand Bouche) also make vibrant contributions.


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:32 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Drama Queens, Hippodrome

January 24, 2013

Oestreich stepping down as New York Times classical music editor

Big news in the classical music field -- James R. Oestreich is stepping down as New York Times classical music editor at the end of the month. He is taking a buyout from the paper of record, which he has served for 24 years. He still plans to contribute to the paper after his departure.

For quite a few of us in the ever-threatened business, Jim has been a great influence and inspiration. Count me among his ardent admirers.

I am biased, of course, especially since ...

he twice asked me to write pieces for the Times, something I never thought I would do in my lifetime, and since we shared a lot of tastes in composers and conductors.

I also got a kick out of the fact that Jim, notorious for taking his sweet time answering a phone call or email, used to get back to me promptly when I contacted him (usually about Music Critics Association of North America business -- we did some projects together in the past). That gave me some pretty valuable street cred for a while.

And how can I ever thank him enough for teaching me the comfort and joy of a gin and tonic?

Being at the Times, where he did occasional reviews as well as editing, made him a magnet for a lot of negative stuff. It's a very tough, sure-to-displease-someone job.

Someone was always miffed at an article, or lack of one. Someone always assumed he was manipulating this or that, accused him of favoring or disfavoring one writer or another.

But none of that nonsense has ever dented Jim, one of the most authentic souls I've met in the classical music world. He's not just knowledgeable, but passionate, about music and truly moved by it. (That should be a given, but I guarantee you that there are folks in this business who have never shed a tear of felt a shudder hearing music; they are much too busy calculating something.)

Jim has kept the classical music pages of the Times lively and informative (not sure if he had a hand in moving those pages a little closer to the front of the Sunday Arts and Leisure section in recent months, but, heck, I'll credit him with that welcome development, too).

He has contributed his own distinctive voice to the paper's music coverage as a reviewer. And he has helped a lot of young critics over the years.

Others can write a lot more meaningfully about the man and the imprint he has left -- thanks to a Tweet by Steve Smith, I was led to this excellent post on the Seated Ovation blog -- but I just wanted to add my voice and (at the moment, figuratively) raise my glass of G&T to salute Jim and his many contributions to classical music.

Posted by Tim Smith at 12:04 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Classical, Clef Notes

January 23, 2013

Midweek Madness takes a look back at the avenging Linda Thorson

For this entry in my award-coveting Midweek Madness series, I could not resist a look back at an actress currently lighting up Baltimore's cultural life.

The wonderful Linda Thorson stars in Everyman Theatre's production of Tracy Letts' "August: Osage County," the first presentation in the company's spiffy new home.

The Canadian-born Thorson plays the pill-popping matriarch of a severely complicated family in Oklahoma, where crisis after crisis comes “sweepin' down the plain.”

I think it's cool to salute a past chapter in Thorson's life, her appearance on the popular TV show "The Avengers." She replaced Diana Rigg as Patrick Macnee's collaborator in this bright spy-fi series in 1968.

To mark Thorson's debut on the show, a promo was released -- and what a promo it is.

If you've seen, or plan to see, the Everyman production, you will enjoy this blast from the past all the more. If you don't, you should still find this little video a fun example of '60s style (which reminds me, when is "Mad Men" coming back?):


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:25 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Drama Queens, Everyman Theatre

January 19, 2013

Everyman Theatre opens its new house with 'August: Osage County'

Families that flay together can’t stay together for long.

That’s just one of the life’s painful little lessons conveyed to searing effect in “August: Osage County,” the 2008 Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning play by Tracy Letts receiving its Baltimore premiere under the happiest of circumstances -- the inauguration of the much-anticipated Everyman Theatre on West Fayette Street.

The vibrant production provides a fitting display for the handsome new facility, where the Empire, Palace and Town theaters once operated. (On opening night, a hum, apparently from the lighting grid overhead, proved a minor distraction.)

The most substantial asset of the venue is a proper stage, capable of handling the three-level set required by “August,” a set that would have been impossible at the company’s previous, low-ceilinged venue.

Resident scenic designer Daniel Ettinger has taken full advantage of the opportunity, deftly evoking the aging home 60 miles from Tulsa, where the three-hour-plus saga of the Weston Family can unfold seamlessly. And what a saga.

Letts conjures up a nightmare of family troubles -- suicide, infidelity, alcoholism, drug addiction, dirty middle-aged men, smoldering grudges. As one of the members observes: "Thank God we can't tell the future. We'd never get out of bed."

The Westons put the “diss” and the “shun” in dysfunction, but, in a weird way, they put the "fun" in it, too. You end up laughing through some pretty rough clawing and carping, thanks to the playwright’s brilliant flair for dark comedy.

But you walk away with some awfully sobering, conflicted thoughts. With each twist of a phrase or turn in a conversation, Letts keeps the audience constantly off-balance, so that, in the end, we have as little to hold onto as the characters do.

The play requires a ...

large, tightly cohesive cast and, for the most part, that’s what Everyman delivers in a staging fluently directed by the company’s founding artistic director Vincent Lancisi.

At the center of action is Violet, the pill-popping, cancer-ridden matriarch of the household who has an unsettling habit of “truth-telling.” Linda Thorson, a veteran of the theater and TV (notably “The Avengers”) making her Everyman debut, seizes the role forcefully.

Her portrayal, especially in the last two acts, has a compelling, almost diabolic dynamism. And when the character is at her most vulnerable, Thorson affectingly opens a window into the tortured and torturing woman’s soul.

When Violet’s husband Beverly (the reliable Carl Schurr) disappears, the couple’s three daughters return home, each bearing emotional baggage from the past and a whole mess of fresh tension involving the present and the men in their lives.

Deborah Hazlett, as the oldest and most cynical daughter, Barbara, gives a superb performance, alive with nuance and alert to the smallest shifts in the play’s tone. Maia Desanti also does an admirable job as the chatty, naive youngest daughter, Karen.

The third sibling, Ivy, who has perhaps the toughest road ahead by the time the curtain falls, is played ably, if a little stiffly, by Beth Hylton. 

Among the others who find themselves caught in this house of shards, there are standout contributions from Nancy Robinette and Wil Love as Mattie Fae and Charlie Aiken, tense sister and brother-in-law to Violet. Both offer multilayered interpretations that provide some of the most memorable dramatic and comic sparks alike (Love saying grace at the dining room table is priceless).

Clinton Brandhagen offers a sturdy performance as awkward Little Charles Aiken, who has been stepping into dangerous territory with Ivy.

Heather Lynn Peacock is convincing as Jean, the untethered teenage daughter of Barbara and Bill, played less convincingly by Rob Leo Roy. Bruce Randolph Nelson, as Karen's supposedly ideal mate, and Veronica Del Cerro, as the stoic young Native American who works at the house, could also use a little more finesse.

Occasional unevenness aside, there are easily enough strengths, which should only increase as the run continues. The production provides an impressive baptism for Everyman's welcoming new home, and effectively serves a wonderfully sprawling, yet subtly symmetrical, play that has much to say about the ever-fragile state of the human condition.

"August: Osage County" runs through Feb. 17.

PHOTO (Deborah Hazlett and Linda Thorson) BY STAN BAROUH

Posted by Tim Smith at 4:48 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens, Everyman Theatre

January 18, 2013

Katori Hall's play about MLK gets effective production from Center Stage

No matter how many times it is replayed, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech in Memphis, April 3, 1968, retains uncommon, chilling power. “Longevity has its place,” he said. “But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will.”

In more ways than one, that sentiment haunts “The Mountaintop,” Katori Hall’s provocative, fanciful play about King’s final hours in Room 306 at the Lorraine Motel.

Since its modest Broadway run in 2011, the play has picked up steam. Several productions are slated around the country this season, including a satisfying one currently on the boards at Center Stage with a terrific cast.

It is easy to quibble with Hall’s concept, especially the turn in the plot that the press has been asked not to discuss, for the benefit of unsuspecting audiences.

Even before that point, however, ....

you may find yourself questioning the playwright’s effort to capture the human side of King, right down to the use of a toilet (offstage) and references to smelly feet.

The language (including the ‘N’ word), the smoking and, after a decidedly saucy maid name Camae answers his room service call, the flirting — they all take a layer off the varnish on the martyred civil rights leader. Of course, we all know that King was, like the rest of us, imperfect, but some of Hall’s methods to drive that point home can seem forced.

Speaking of forced, there are anachronistic, even deconstructionist turns along the way, including an effort to make King sound like an advocate for gay rights. I'm not sure that fits smoothly with the history of those days, when a remarkable figure early in the civil rights movement, Bayard Rustin, was marginalized for being gay.

Sometimes, though, Hall’s use of hindsight pays off nicely. The mere mention of the name Jesse, as in Jackson, gets interesting laughs. And, in the play’s closing moments, a look at the view King did not live to see from his last mountaintop has undeniable force.

In the end, Hall’s most remarkable achievement may be the way she reveals the unvarnished King to be such an extremely engaging man.

He’s capable of humor and caprice (OK, the pillow fight scene may be a step too far). He’s incisive and sensitive. Asked by the maid to name one thing blacks and white have in common, he responds: “We scared, Camae. We all scared. Scared of each other. Scared of ourselves.”

He is aware of his limitations, and even more painfully aware of his the potential he wants to fulfill.

The Center Stage production gains considerably from Shawn Hamilton’s portrayal of King. He’s an arresting presence from the first moments — pacing the room, checking the phone for bugging, trying out a few lines from a new next speech, flinching at the sound of thunderclaps.

The actor does not lay on a thick impersonation, but lets his ability to conjure the Reverend sneak up on you. When Hamilton finally lets loose with oratory, the sound and cadence of his delivery have an uncanny ring.

Myxolydia Tyler jumps into the role of Camae with hips blazing and deep-fried Southern accent drippin’. The sexy banter and sexier moves recall Flip Wilson’s Geraldine character a little too often, but Tyler ultimately wins you over.

Camae’s irreverently funny side is a key element in the play, and Tyler makes it register. But as the maid reveals her back story — “I’m betta at cleanin’ up other folks’ messes than my own,” Camae admits — the actress is just as keenly attentive to tone and nuance.

Kwame Kwei-Armah directs the staging with a steady hand, attentive to mood and momentum. Neil Patel’s spot-on set is evocatively lit by Scott Zielinski.

“The Mountaintop” is not the last word on King, but it makes a thoughtful, daring attempt to wrestle with his personality, his death, his legacy.

The only difference between the saint and the sinner, Oscar Wilde observed, is that every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future. Hall’s ability to illuminate both sides of that coin makes for intriguing theater.

The production runs through Feb. 24.

Posted by Tim Smith at 4:07 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Center Stage, Drama Queens

Baltimore Symphony's Rachmaninoff program features brilliant pianist Garrick Ohlsson

Longtime Garrick Ohlsson fans knew that the physically and artistically towering pianist would deliver memorable music-making with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra this week. But what Ohlsson achieved in Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 Thursday night at Meyerhoff Hall still surprised — and thrilled.

Long before the hit 1996 movie “Shine” got a wider audience interested in it, this concerto was firmly established in the repertoire as one of last and greatest outpourings of Romanticism, not to mention one heck of a test for even the cockiest pianist’s technical prowess.

The ultimate challenge here is to unleash the often bittersweet lyricism of the score in such a convincing and involving way that listeners find themselves swept away, no matter how many times they’ve heard the piece — or how resistant they may normally be to heart-on-sleeve emotions in music.

Consider me freshly swept. What Ohlsson did ...

was simply mesmerizing right form the start, articulating the circular principal theme with a beautifully controlled tone.

When Rachmaninoff subsequently called for power in that first movement, Ohlsson unleashed torrents of it — thunderous chords and slicing octaves that somehow never turned into a clanging assault. And when the principal theme returned for its final airing, the pianist shaded it in an even more introspective fashion, producing a haunting effect.

In the mercurial second movement, Ohlsson again balanced huge bursts of velocity with poetic, nuanced phrasing. The finale, which features Rachmaninoff’s signature device of gradually developing tension until a passionately soaring theme can reach its boiling point, inspired Ohlsson to yet another height.

His combination of fearless technique, tonal variety and expressive underlining was matched to a great degree by the BSO, with conductor Marin Alsop at the helm. In the end, the performance added up to something perhaps best described as aural sex.

The all-Rachmaninoff program opened with less familiar fare, “The Isle of the Dead,” an orchestra work composed the same year (1909) as the concerto. Inspired by a once-popular painting of that name by Arnold Bocklin, the piece is one of many that

Rachmaninoff infused with references to the ancient Latin funereal chant, “Dies Irae.” This is sober, darkly beautiful music that deserves to be better known. Alsop shaped it sensitively and drew some eloquent playing that is likely to get even more so in Sunday’s repeat performance.

The concert also includes Respighi’s rarely encountered orchestrations of five of Rachmaninoff’s “Etudes-tableaux” for solo piano. Never mind that Rachmaninoff should have done his own orchestrating. Respighi was a master colorist, and these pieces are luxuriant and atmospheric.

Placing the Etudes right after “Isle of the Dead” was not ideal — the first of those Etudes has much the same pacing, orchestral palette and “Dies Irae” thread. Alsop did not always dig deep into the music, and the orchestra did not sound entirely settled, especially in the “Marche funebre.”

Still, there was plenty to savor, including gorgeous vibrancy from the strings and some visceral playing by the brass.

The piano concerto will be discussed and performed at an “Off the Cuff” program at 7 p.m. Saturday at the Meyerhoff. The complete program will be performed there at 3 p.m. Sunday.

Posted by Tim Smith at 12:57 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes

January 17, 2013

Single Carrot presents annual 'Murder Ink' reading

The sixth annual reading of the City Paper's "Murder Ink" column by Anna Ditkoff -- a chronicle of the year's murders in Baltimore -- will be presented by Single Carrot Theatre at 6 p.m. Saturday.

As the company is quick to point out, "There’s no pretending that reading about these desperate, often grisly crimes will bring back any of the victims, but it does bring a little perspective to what is clearly an epidemic."

A panel discussion with Ditkoff and others follows the reading, which will be held at Single Carrot's temporary home at the former Everyman Theatre location at 1714 N. Charles. Free admission.

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:49 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens, Single Carrot Theatre

January 16, 2013

A bit of stirring, if inarticulate, Beethoven for your Midweek Madness treat

The European Union has been in the news lately, especially with regard to the UK's continued participation, so I thought I would use this Midweek Madness installment to remind everyone of the joy of brotherhood.

The Union happens to have an anthem that derives from the much-loved finale to Beethoven's noble, stirring Ninth Symphony, with its message of, well, the joy of brotherhood.

How better, then, to underline the advantage of the UK remaining in the harmonious association of nations than a performance of that anthem by the eminent British baritone "Robert Bennington," even if he has a wee bit of trouble with the words:

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:56 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens, Midweek Madness

January 15, 2013

Fells Point Corner Theatre stages Tracy Letts' 'Superior Donuts'

Thanks to a little serendipity, the extraordinary American playwright Tracy Letts is getting a double dose of attention in Baltimore.

On the boards at the new Everyman Theatre is his magnum opus, “August: Osage County,” which won the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award for Best Play in 2008. That year also saw the premiere of his next stage work, “Superior Donuts,” which is getting a workout from Fells Point Corner Theatre.

With its Eugene O’Neill-worthy length and pileup of issues tearing at an Oklahoma family, “August” stands as one of the most inspired, arresting new plays in years. “Donuts,” a mix of comedy and drama set in a gritty Chicago neighborhood, is obviously not the superior work.

Still, there’s considerable craftsmanship here. Letts peoples his play with distinctive characters who reveal enough surprising traits and emotions to keep things interesting.

You could say this is a kinder, gentler sort of “American Buffalo.” There’s a run-down doughnut shop instead of the junk shop in the David Mamet classic, and a similarly hapless owner who comes to rely on a young neighborhood guy with his own problems. Dreams of a better life, and intrusions of reality and violence, figure in both pieces.

But Letts allows sunshine to penetrate the grimy blinds on the front door. At heart, his work is about ...

getting out of ruts, learning to trust, trying to believe.

Although it did not enjoy a hearty run on Broadway, the piece has understandably attracted the attention of regional and community theaters around the country. It’s a good fit for Fells Point Corner Theatre.

Richard Dean Stover’s direction is mostly steady (greater momentum would be especially welcome in Act 2), and the action plays out on a nicely atmospheric set designed by Jennifer Raddatz.

As Arthur Przybyszewski, a pushing-60 former draft dodger who halfheartedly carries on his parents’ doughnut business, Phil Gallagher effectively conveys the character’s social awkwardness, frustrations and cynicism (Arthur defines the essence of Polish character as “hopelessness — wakes are proof”).

The actor also manages to put a convincing spin on the play’s somewhat creaky device of break-the-fourth-wall addresses to the audience.

Christopher Jones does a winning job as Franco Wicks, the college dropout who has been writing — what else? — the next “great American novel” and, meanwhile, has decided he is just the person to turn Arthur’s shop around. He’s ready to turn the scruffy Arthur around as well, noting that the only ones “who look good in pony tails are girls and ponies.”

Of course, Franco has a problem, and, of course, that will eventually dominate the play. Jones handles the shift in emphasis and tone as persuasively as he does the initial mix of bravado and charm.

The interracial and intergenerational relationship between Arthur and the Franco gives “Superior Donuts” much of its emotional weight, and Letts largely avoids cliche in examining the way the two men gradually bond.

The playwright also adds some fresh touches to the others who pop in and out of the shop, even when they do so in sitcom-worthy fashion.

William Walker reveals nuance as Officer Bailey, the cop with a Trekkie fetish. Lynda McClary likewise does a smooth job as Officer Osteen, who is just lonely enough to see potential in Arthur.

There are colorful contributions from Natalia Chavez Leimkuhler as the savvy bag lady; Jeff Murray, as the Russian super-entrepreneur on the block; and Robert Scott Hitcho, as a loan shark.

Really good doughnuts are awfully hard to find these days, but a play about them can be filling enough.

The production runs through Feb. 10.

Posted by Tim Smith at 7:17 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens

Multimedia weekend includes Concert Artists/James Westwater collaboration

Big screens in concert halls were all the rage over the weekend.

While the Baltimore Symphony was offering its audiences a multimedia experience with the 1938 Eisenstein/Prokofiev classic "Alexander Nevsky," Concert Artists of Baltimore incorporated contemporary "photochoreography" into a program of lush 20th century music.

For the opening and closing works of the Concert Artists event Saturday night at the Gordon Center, the orchestra was flanked by a stage-length, three-panel panoramic screen where expertly composed photographs by James Westwater, a pioneer in bringing orchestral and photographic products together, were projected in tight sync with the music-making.

Barber's famous "Adagio for Strings" was matched with ...

shots from the world of the Anasazi-Puebloan peoples, creating a reflection on humanity, nature and fundamental spirituality. Lush rain forests, ever under threat, became the focus during Vaughan Williams' exquisite "The Lark Ascending" (no birds in sight).

The technical level of the visuals was admirable (a mussed lighting cue at the end of the Barber piece caused minor damage), and the atmospheric effect in the darkened hall held rewards.

Edward Polochick led a sensitively shaped account of the Adagio; a few frayed edges aside, the strings responded smoothly.

Ably supported by conductor and ensemble, Concertmaster Jose Miguel Cueto delivered the subtle violin solo in the "Lark" with remarkably poise, tonal sweetness and tender phrasing, finishing off stage to create a kind of voice-calling-in-the-wilderness effect.

The non-visual portion of the concert included a warmhearted account of Copland's "Appalachian Spring" that ebbed and flowed tellingly under Polochick's careful, ever-expressive guidance. The woodwinds soloists did particularly shining work.

Baritone James Dobson, a longtime member of the Concert Artists chorus, brought a fine sense of style, if uneven vocal resources, to a selection of Copland's "Old American Songs." The lengthy program also had room for a colorful suite from Respighi's "Ancient Airs and Dances."


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:06 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

January 12, 2013

BSO presents 'Alexander Nevsky' with live soundtrack

Nothing like slaughter, slander and noxious nationalism to get the music season back into gear after the holidays.

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, which has a cinematic theme woven through its programming this season, is offering a potent multimedia presentation of the 1938 Sergei Eisenstein masterwork “Alexander Nevsky” this weekend. A Charlie Chaplin movie and the 1950s musical “West Side Story” are due later on, in each case with the orchestra providing a live soundtrack as the film is shown on a large screen hanging above the stage.

“Nevsky” makes a particularly strong candidate for this sort of approach, given that it boasts a stirring, brilliantly atmospheric score by Sergei Prokofiev. The composer’s concert suite from that score is frequently encountered; hearing the original version in context is a terrific experience.

The BSO offered a memorable “Nevsky” in this format a decade ago with then-music director Yuri Temirkanov on the podium. His successor, Marin Alsop, is on the podium this time. She ...

doesn’t summon the extra emotional depth from the score that Temirkanov could, but, as evidenced Friday night at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, she knows how to unleash a good deal of its expressive force.

Alsop is quite the pro at this sort of project. Her precision with cues ensured effortless syncing with the imagery. And what extraordinary imagery it is.

A thinly disguised salute to Stalin, the movie celebrates the 13th-century Russian hero who defeated an invasion by Germany’s Teutonic Knights. Given the growing threat of another German invasion at the time filming was done, Eisenstein’s depiction of the supremely confident Nevsky could not help but prove popular at home — until that little matter of the short-lived Stalin-Hitler pact.

(Seeing “Alexander Nevsky” takes on added impact today, when another Russian ruler seems intent on developing a personality cult and pumping up national pride.) If Nikolai Cherkasov, as Nevsky, is terribly stiff and preening, his performance has the stamp of authority. The actor, after all, was a Communist Party big shot who sat on the Supreme Soviet.

The propagandistic nature of the movie is never far from the surface, but Eisenstein knew how to turn blatant messages into art, sometimes chilling art. The depictions of German atrocities, right down to tossing babies into a fire, are masterfully filmed and remain tough to watch, especially considering that the world of 1938 wasn’t really so advanced over that of the 1200s (see Nanking, Rape of).

Just the thick Teutonic helmets alone, with their tiny eye-slits, have a spooky power, which the film director exploits cannily throughout. Same for the sight of the ruthless churchmen presiding over the German forces — Prokofiev creates a menacing twist on Gregorian chant to give them a musical motive.

The Battle on the Ice, Nevsky’s brilliant tactical move to defeat the heavily armored Germans, generates both a cinematic and musical tour de force.

This passage, which takes up nearly half of the film and seems to involves a zillion extras, is all the more visually intriguing considering that it was filmed in the summertime, with a concoction of asphalt, glass and sand to suggests ice and snow.

Prokofiev produced highly pictorial material to go with the battle, but, tellingly, there are several minutes when the music stops, leaving only sounds of combat to create an awful percussion.

It was satisfying to hear the BSO deliver the complete score so vividly Friday night. The brass and winds served up the ominous bad-guy music with great tonal weight, aided by the tight percussion section. The strings produced a rich palette of tone colors and achieved great poignancy in the mournful, post-battle scene.

That scene inspired Prokofiev’s most haunting music, with a mezzo-soprano intoning a song called “On the Field of the Dead.” Standing in a balcony above the orchestra, Irina Tchistjakova delivered that solo superbly, each line sculpted with an affecting warmth.

Prokofiev wrote a major role for chorus in the film score, a role handled with admirable poise, tonal richness and vibrant phrasing by the Baltimore Choral Arts Society. The effect of the chorus and orchestra at full throttle in the closing moments of the film proved particularly impressive.

One technical note. Seems to me that the screen at Meyerhoff could have been better positioned to allow people sitting near the front to see the movie more easily.

Also seems to me that, by now, some audio whiz somewhere should be able to enhance the sound of dialogue and combat on the original soundtrack. As it is now (and was in 2003 when the BSO presented "Nevsky"), there is a glaring, disorienting discrepancy between the visceral impact when the orchestra is firing away and the tiny, tinny audio level of film.  


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

January 9, 2013

For Midweek Madness, a refresher on how not to conduct an interview

Failures to communicate are everywhere. You've no doubt heard radio or TV interviews, for example, where the interviewer seems to be preoccupied with preparing the next question, or following a script, that he/she doesn't actually hear the interviewee's answer to the one just asked.

As a public service, I devote this Midweek Madness installment to ...

the classic, ahead-of-their-time humorists Bob and Ray, who demonstrate just how badly awry an interview can go. (You'll still learn something about Komodo dragons, though.)

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:07 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens, Midweek Madness

An entertaining "Mousetrap" from the Vagabond Players

By now, 60 long years after Agatha Christie’s “The Mousetrap” opened in London, the whodunit is more of a fixture than a stage show.

It apparently cannot ever be stopped on that side of The Pond, where it has surpassed the 25,000th performance mark and still holds firmly onto the record as the world’s longest-running play.

On our shores, the work never became such an institution, but it still continues to attract attention now and then, particularly from community theater groups.

One of them, the Vagabond Players, has a production running now that finds decent mileage still left in this juicy little murder mystery set in a country guest house where coincidence and cunning collide one snowy night.

Those who have never seen “The Mousetrap” — and have not peeked on the Web to learn the final plot twist — should have the best time. But even those in the know will likely find enough to enjoy.

The Vagabond staging is ...

directed with a mostly sure, fleet touch by Eric C. Stein. He also does a dynamic turn playing Giles, one of the innkeepers who get much more than they bargained for when they decide to open Monkswell Manor.

Giles’ other half, Molly (Ann Turiano), is not just new to the hotel trade, but still relatively new to marriage, meaning there just might be a secret or two she has yet to uncover about her husband — and one or two he might want to know about her.

Molly has good reason to worry that the first guests at Monkswell Manor may be unpleasant or odd. The blizzard blows quite an assortment of colorful characters into the lodge, all potential suspects once it becomes clear that something murderous has entered with them.

Part of what keeps “The Mousetrap” snappy is that mix of humanity, starting with the foppish, impossibly named Christopher Wren (Brian M. Kehoe), who says he’s an architect.

He’s just the tip of an iceberg that soon reveals the stuffy Mrs. Boyle; a retired military officer, the reserved Major Metcalf; a mannish woman named Miss Casewell; an unexpected foreigner, Mr. Paravacini; and the inevitable policeman, Det. Sgt. Trotter.

The plot, which has its roots in an ugly, real-life crime reported from the English countryside in 1945, holds up well, if you don’t spend too much time analyzing it — and, as with so much mystery fiction, if you don’t mind a maze of improbable interconnections.

The Vagabonds throw themselves eagerly into the proceedings, bringing with them generally persuasive accents that help put the finishing touch on the cutely evocative set.

Turiano makes a charming, sensitive Molly, conveying the young woman’s nervous delight in the inn-keeping adventure and her subsequent realization that all’s not well. Turiano and Stein also generate some nice chemistry, as much with little romantic sparks as with growing anxiety.

Kehoe is quite a chirpy Wren, nervously flouncing about the place, flashing his loud tartan socks as he goes. If the actor gets a little too close to going over the top now and then, he certainly gives the production a welcome electric charge.

Mrs. Boyle seems to be the prototype for the perpetually unsatisfied guest on a great “Fawlty Towers” episode, the lady expecting a much more exciting room than a humble establishment could ever provide. Nona Porter has fun with the role, especially articulating the character’s annoying snobbery (“The lower classes have no idea of their responsibilities”).

April Rejman impresses as Miss Casewell, especially in the second act, when the truth melts the young woman’s rigid exterior. Adam Bloedorn proves to be another asset in a wiry, vibrant turn as Trotter.

As Paravacini, Richard McGraw could use more nuance (and an accent that doesn’t sound like he comes from a little known Swedish region of Italy). David Morey gets the job done neatly as Metcalf. If “The Mousetrap” creaks or drags a little, it can still deliver the kick expected of a vintage Christie mystery, which the Vagabond staging reconfirms.

The production runs through Feb. 3.


Posted by Tim Smith at 5:28 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens

January 7, 2013

Premiere of 'Diner,' the musical, delayed again

The musical version of Barry Levinson's "Diner," the much-admired 1982 movie about longtime buddies in Baltimore, is going to take longer to reach Broadway. The previously scheduled April 10 opening has been postponed until the fall, the New York Times reports.

Seems that "Diner," a collaboration between Levinson and Sheryl Crow, who has written the songs for the show, needs more time to be developed and, especially, to raise money for its $9.5 million budget.

The musical percolated in workshop form in New York last fall, a process adversely affected by ...

Hurricane Sandy, according to producer Scott Zeiger. When the process resumed after the storm, there was not a sufficient surge in investors.

In a statement released Monday, Zeiger said:

"We presented a four week fully-staged workshop of 'Diner' in New York last November at which we received positive feedback from investors and theater owners. We are excited about our progress and it has become very clear the direction in which we need to continue to take this new American musical. Early fall dates work better for all involved and an announcement of Broadway theater and dates will be forthcoming."

The show was originally scheduled for a pre-Broadway run in San Francisco starting last in October, but that tryout was scrapped in favor of the New York workshop, which was intended to allow a smooth transition into a spring opening.

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:42 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens

January 6, 2013

Hippodrome's 2013-14 season to include 'Book of Mormon,' 'War Horse'

The Broadway phenomenon known as “The Book of Mormon,” a musical from the creators of “South Park” that became a runaway hit two years ago and shows no signs of flagging, will reach Baltimore next season as part of the Hippodrome’s 10th anniversary.

Joining “Mormon,” which took the Tony Award for best musical in 2011, will be the Tony winner for best play that year, “War Horse,” a show celebrated for its inventive use of life-sized puppetry. One of last year’s big Tony accumulators, “Peter and the Starcatcher,” a play with music based on the novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, is also on the Hippodrome lineup.

“It’s a strong, subscriber-friendly season, appropriate for our 10th anniversary,” said Jeff Daniel, president of the Hippodrome at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center. “It’s going to be hard to beat. We’ve even got a great holiday show to balance it all.”

That would be ...

“Irving Berlin’s White Christmas,” the disarmingly retro musical, based on the 1950s movie. It fared modestly on Broadway in recent years, but turned out to have sturdy legs on the road. (It wraps up a holiday run at the Kennedy Center today.)

“Mormon,” which combines missionaries in Uganda with a slew of contemporary social and religious issues, is likely to become the toughest ticket in Baltimore. It will play for only two weeks, Feb. 25 to March 9, 2014.

“We endeavored to get a longer run of ‘Book of Mormon,’ but we couldn’t,” Daniel said. “Subscribers get first right to tickets, new subscribers next. There has already been an increase in subscribers this year, in anticipation of what’s coming. Single tickets for this show in other markets have been tight, so I’m sure that will be the case here, too.”

Subscription renewals begin Jan. 13; new subscriptions go on sale Feb. 10. Subscription packages include three shows that will be onstage for multiple-week engagements, plus a choice of three or four limited engagements.

In addition to “Mormon” and “Starcatcher” (May 6 to 18, 2014), there will be a multi-week presentation of “Sister Act,” the musical based on the popular 1992 movie of that name (June 3 to 15, 2014).

The one-week bookings begin with the season-opener, “We Will Rock You,” a jukebox musical with a futuristic plot and songs by Queen (Oct. 15 to 20).

The other one-weekers are “White Christmas” (Dec. 3 to 8); “War Horse” (Feb. 4 to 9, 2014); and “Ghost: The Musical,” based on the hit movie from 1990 (April 8 to 13, 2014).

Like the blockbuster musical “Wicked,” the critically acclaimed “Peter and the Starcatcher” provides a kind of prequel to a familiar and much loved children’s story — in this case, the J. M. Barrie classic “Peter and Wendy,” with a back story for Peter Pan and Captain Hook.

“I think audiences here are going to come out for a quality piece like ‘Peter and the Starcatcher.’ It’s a funny play with music, more of an art piece, really,” Daniel said.

“War Horse” is very much an art piece, too, and also comes with music. Based on the children’s novel by Michael Morpurgo that also inspired the 2011 Steven Spielberg film, it’s the emotional saga of a boy and his beloved horse, and how both end up amid the trenches of World War I. Extraordinarily realistic puppetry brings the horse and other animals to life onstage.

The rest of the Hippodrome season is decidedly lighter in tone — “To show we do not take ourselves too seriously,” Daniel said.

The Queen-fueled “We Will Rock You” has been running for more than a decade in London, despite eviscerating reviews from the British press when it opened. Productions in several other countries have proved equally successful.

“We thought we would take a shot at it,” Daniel said. “We like to offer something off the wall. I felt very comfortable with that choice. The music of Queen is great, and what got me is how they use it in the show.”

“Sister Act” and “Ghost” also opened in London before landing on Broadway and also generated mixed-to-dismissive reviews, but found supportive audiences.

“‘Sister Act’ is a popular title and has a very talented cast,” Daniel said. “As far as ‘Ghost’ is concerned, for some reason it has surveyed quite strongly when we ask our audiences what they would like us to bring here.”

In addition to the season’s seven main shows, three return engagements will be offered outside the subscription, each playing a limited run: “Jersey Boys” (Nov. 12 to 24); “Blue Man Group” (Jan. 10 to 12, 2014); and “West Side Story” (April 26 and 27, 2014).

If all goes well, there will be even more activity at the Hippodrome, this time not related to Broadway. Discussions are underway between the Hippodrome and the Pennsylvania Ballet, one of the country’s major professional dance companies.

“We are most interested in establishing a presence in Baltimore and would certainly like to have the community support our efforts,” said Michael Scolamiero, executive director of Pennsylvania Ballet. “I think what will probably happen is that we will present a family-friendly, full-length ballet in the spring of 2014 and use that as a test pilot, if you will.”

The company was founded in 1963 by George Balanchine protege Barbara Weisberger, who is also longtime artistic advisor of to the dance program at the Peabody Institute. There are other Baltimore connections. Pennsylvania Ballet’s training company has performed at the Baltimore School for the Arts; an alumnus of that school, Jermel Johnson, is one of the company’s principal dancers.

Partnering with the Pennsylvania Ballet is in keeping with Daniel’s goal of making the Hippodrome a performing arts center, not just a presenter of touring shows. The recent designation of the theater’s west side neighborhood as the Bromo Tower Arts and Entertainment District provides another incentive.

“The long-range plan is for the ballet to have a full subscription season here, with productions, master classes, and educational outreach,” Daniel said. “Fundraising and the educational component would likely be done through the Hippodrome Foundation.”

Daniel said that the Hippodrome has stabilized financially, after years of annual $1 million utility bills necessitated by a deal with the Maryland Stadium Authority, a deal re-negotiated in 2011. There are 9,000 subscribers now, down from the 14,000 that signed up when the handsomely renovated theater opened in 2004.

“We renew over 80 percent of our subscribers, and I’m very proud of that,” Daniel said. “That said, we are in the risk business, and I will be scouring the earth to find shows that will keep subscribers after ‘Book of Mormon.’ The more people who subscribe and stay with us, the more we can leverage that to bring more to Baltimore.”


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:07 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens, Hippodrome

January 4, 2013

On the Record: Beethoven revitalized by ORR/John Eliot Gardiner

In the grand scheme of themes, we have more than enough recordings of Beethoven symphonies. But there always seems to be room for one more.

I would gladly clear a spot on an overstuffed CD shelf for a version of Beethoven's Fifth and Seventh symphonies recently released on the Soli Deo Gloria label, recorded live at Carnegie Hall by New York's classical station radio WQXR.

This disc captures the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique and its conductor, John Eliot Gardiner, at a white-hot peak of expressive fervor. You can get freshly excited about these war horses all over again.

Gardiner and the ORR, a splendid ensemble of period instruments, recorded the nine symphonies nearly 20 years ago. This return to the Fifth and Seventh finds the musicians digging even more forcefully and incisively into the scores.

Detail after detail emerges with new clarity and purpose, from the most vehement fortissimos to the gentlest inner phrase.

Those of us who tightly clutch our Furtwangler and Bernstein recordings of Beethoven sometimes find the more literal approach of the authenticists and the leaner sound of period instrument orchestras wanting. But Gardiner has always been ...

set apart from his fellow historically-minded conductors by his willingness to get far beyond the basics of original tempo and texture, to instill a sense of discovery in his players. And the ORR routinely demonstrates an admirable level of technical polish (folks who still think period instrument groups can't play in tune have never heard the ORR).

One of my favorite concert experiences was a Beethoven 9 Gardiner and the ORR gave at Lincoln Center in the 1990s. I knew it would be quicker than my old faves; I smugly assumed it would feel less poetic and touching as well. Instead, I was riveted, rewarded, rejuvenated.

Sure, if you make me play the desert-island-recording game, I'd still choose some crackly old Furtwangler/Beethoven gem, but I'd keep Gardiner's interpretations tucked away in the memory banks, too.

I find the British conductor's latest account of the Fifth satisfying from the get-go, as when he takes a slight diminuendo on the D that concludes the fate-knocking motive, thus enabling the strings' next lines to emerge cleanly (too often, from modern orchestras, we get no such separation, so everything runs together -- the Baltimore Symphony's performance earlier this season with Marin Alsop was a case in point).

Many versions of the Fifth performed these days are fast. This one is, too, but with an extra degree of tautness and enough variations in speed to keep things interesting, often startling. Same goes for the Seventh. And in the slow(er) movements of both works, Gardiner never sounds hurried; he leaves lots of room for the beautifully expressive turns of phrase.

Throughout, his players deliver the goods, with terrific cohesiveness and abundant nuances of tone, clearly relishing the richness of ideas packed into each of these enduring, eventful symphonies.

Posted by Tim Smith at 8:25 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, On the Record

January 3, 2013

Center Stage offers pay-what-you-can performance for MLK Day

Center Stage welcomes the New Year with Katori Hall's "The Mountaintop," a play set in the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis on April 3, 1968. The main characters are Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and a maid who stops by his room.

The production, directed by Center Stage artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah, starts previews next week, opens Jan. 16 and runs through Feb. 24. The run coincides with MLK Day on Jan. 21, so the company is adding a performance that night to mark the occasion. Pricing will be different, too -- there's a pay-what-you-can policy for 100 tickets.

In addition to the performance of the play, there will be ...

a free presentation of “Living the Dream: From King to Obama,” a work featuring youth arts groups from Baltimore.

This extra program is designed to "explore and reflect on Dr. King’s dream and continuing his work of racial equality," quoting the press release. With President Obama's second inauguration taking place that day, the Center Stage event becomes all the more timely.

"Living the Dream" will be performed at 5 p.m., followed by a "light reception," which, in turn, will be followed by "The Mountaintop."

The 100 pay-what-you-can tickets to Jan. 21 performance of "The Mountaintop" go on sale at 9 a.m. Friday (Jan. 4) at the Center Stage box office and must be purchased in person. Remaining tickets will go on sale there at noon the next day. More details are available on the box office Web page.

Posted by Tim Smith at 1:52 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Center Stage, Drama Queens

January 2, 2013

As 'Downton Abbey' returns, a refresher on British social/gender etiquette

With "Downton Abbey" about to start Season 3 on these shores this weekend, taking us once more into the rarefied world of British society and grand meals around elegantly appointed tables, your ever-thoughtful Midweek Madness featurette would like to offer this quick refresher on the rules of social etiquette, especially those pertaining to the gentler sex.

As you know, the women in "Downton Abbey" sometimes forget their place, which can have devastating consequences for them. Seeing this on the telly might inspire women on this side of The Pond to pursue a similar, dangerous course.

The instructional video you are about to see reminds us all of the proper ways of society, so that we may be fully prepared if we ever get a coveted dinner invitation from true British gentry:

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:30 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens, Midweek Madness

January 1, 2013

A spiritual to mark the 150th anniversary of Emancipation Proclamation

On New Year's Day, 150 years ago, American history was forever changed when Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

As we all know too well, that document alone did not free any slaves, but it was a crucial step that made clear the ultimate goal of the Civil War.

If you have seen Steven Spielberg's riveting film "Lincoln," you've probably been freshly consumed, as I have, by thoughts about this chapter of our country's past.

I know it sounds superficial, but the experience of the movie has made me feel the weight of today's anniversary more, has brought into sharper focus the significance and boldness of the Emancipation Proclamation -- and the subsequent effort to build on that step by fighting to pass the 13th Amendment, which "Lincoln" depicts so vividly.

To take note of this New Year's milestone in history, the deep, soul-stirring voice of Marian Anderson seems appropriate, even essential. Here is her recording of the spiritual "My Lord, What a Morning":

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:27 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes, 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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