Spring Diaries: Beautiful Pies, Babes in Toyland, Here/Now, and There/Then

Sara Bareilles as Jenna in Waitress
My Broadway blitz continues: I saw a concert version of Victor Herbert's operetta Babes in Toyland, the new play Oslo, and Sara Bareilles sing her own score in Waitress. She's taking over the role of Jenna until June.

Babes in Toyland was a one-off concert in Carnegie Hall. The original operetta ran 4 hours long. Four hours about a bunch of toys in a cupboard. The conductor Ted Sperling abridged the dialogue (adding an often-awkward "Narrator" to transition between musical numbers) and focused on the music, which was lovely. The lullaby "Toyland" was especially beautiful as sung by Kelli O'Hara and Jay Armstrong Johnson. Lauren Worsham and Christopher Fitzgerald were charming and Fitzgerald was also a hoot. All had the kind of sweet voices that fit operettas like a glove.

J.T. Rogers' Oslo is a Very Serious Play about a Very Serious Topic (Middle East peace talks). I'm usually allergic to this sort of thing. Westerners who attempt to portray the complexities of the Middle East in a play usually come across as woefully ignorant and naive at best and condescending and prejudiced at worst. Thankfully Rogers' play avoids most of the pitfalls. It's based on some secret negotiations to preceded the famous Yassir Arafat/Itzak Rabin handshake at the White House in 1993 There are some moments that come across as pat and too cute by half (like the negotiators all bonding over their love of waffles) but those moments are few and far between. This drama doesn't offer easy answers to hard questions.

The tense land/peace/territory discussions in Oslo were set up by two Norwegian diplomats (played by Jefferson Mays and Jennifer Ehle). The heart of the story is the negotiations between an Israeli diplomat Uri Savir (the outgoing, larger-than-life Michael Aronov) and a PLO member Abu/Ahmed (Antony Azizi). Other famous historical figures come in and out of the play (Shimon Peres for instance) but it's the relationship Uri and Abu form that fills out most of the three hours. Of course at first there's mutual mistrust, and at the end of the play, there's still mistrust, but both men reach a place of respect for "across the ocean," as they put it.

There's a large cast and the play is very long and I don't want to give away major plot points but I'll just say the direction by Bartlett Sher is excellent and the cast is uniformly stellar. And the ending is painful when we consider what happened after that famous handshake. Today, the Middle Eastern region is if anything even more unstable and there's something quaint about watching people foolhardy enough to think peace in the region was/is possible.

The highlight of the weekend however was seeing Sara Bareilles sing the songs and lyrics she herself wrote in Waitress. She wasn't as good as I expected -- she was Head and Shoulder Pies better. For one, her singing voice was plaintive, expressive and she's the best interpreter of her own music. Her acting was the real surprise. Bareilles played Jenna not as a beaten down waitress, but as a spunky young lady with a bright smile and perky demeanor to the outside world. It was thus believable that Jenna would be so proactive about improving her life. She's a fighter. It was also more depressing to see her so meek and miserable with her husband Earl. She got huge applause for the big 11 o'clock number "She Used to Be Mine" but my favorite number of the musical was actually "What Baking Can Do." "What Baking Can Do" is a classic "I Want" song. Jenna up till the moment she sings WBCD is a beaten-down, discouraged, and pregnant woman trapped in an abusive marriage. But with this song, she finds her voice -- her voice soars as she dreams about a better life. Just the way Sara sings "Sugar. Butter. Covered Pieces" is enough to make me happy.

Sara with Lulu, photo @ Noam Galai
Will Swenson (Earl) was so convincing as the drunken no-good husband that he got boos during the curtain calls. But he and Bareilles had enough chemistry that you could believe that this was once a loving couple. Otherwise this small, intimate show has two holdovers from the original Broadway cast: the gruff diner manager Cal (Eric Anderson), and the curmudgeon-with-a-heart-of-gold Jim (Dakin Matthews). Christopher Fitzgerald (Ogie) was out but his understudy Jeremy Morse was great (he actually originated the role in A.R.T.). The audience of perhaps 80% women adored this show. I know if I can I will buy a return ticket to see Sara again.

Peck and Ramasra in Allegro Brillante, photo @ Paul Kolnik
The billboard advertisements are everywhere. 43 ballets by 22 choreographers in 4 weeks!!! And not a Balanchine or Robbins ballet in sight -- the Here/Now festival is devoted to contemporary choreographers. Heavy emphasis on the Big Three of the current ballet world: Alexei Ratmansky, Justin Peck, and Christopher Wheeldon.

Before Here/Now was a week of "There/Then" -- all-Robbins and all-Balanchine programs. I attended three of the all-Balanchine triple bill: Allegro BrillanteFour Temperaments, and Symphony in C. Highlights: I saw Tiler Peck whiz through three performances of Allegro Brillante and she was faster and more powerful each time. She has absolute command of her technique -- those dizzying triple pirouettes, chaine turns, and rotations in arabesque, all done with impeccable timing and musicality. She makes it look too easy. Amar Ramasar looking more like a danseur noble when partnering Tiler in Allegro. Teresa Reichlen returning to Choleric in Four Temperaments and thank god -- her long, long legs and aggressive attack are just about perfect for this role, especially the last portion of the ballet where Choleric leads an army of kicking girls. In Symphony in C, newly promoted soloists Harrison Ball and Joseph Gordon both danced as if they had springs in their legs, and the young corps member Alston McGill had an endearing, coltish energy. The third movement in Symphony in C has been so poorly cast in recent seasons that to see dancers who can really dance this -- so exciting. Sara Mearns gave the most exciting, least mannered performances I've ever seen her give as Sanguinic in Four Temperaments and in the Adagio in Symphony in C.

Stanley, Mearns, Catazaro and Fairchild, photo @ Andrea Mohin
The only Here/Now choreographer that I think will have permanent staying power is Alexei Ratmansky, and the programs that highlighted his work just confirmed that belief. The first Here/Now bill I saw was an all-Ratmansky program: Russian Seasons and Namouna: A Grand Divertissement. Both these ballets have traveling power -- the Bolshoi and Dutch National Ballet have Russian Seasons in their repertoire, and Ratmansky has staged Namouna for Berlin.

It's easy to see why Russian Seasons and Namouna have traveling power -- both of these works are clever, musical, and have Ratmansky's trademark quirky sense of humor. Russian Seasons alternates between a very serious, even sinister marriage rite and men and women goofily chasing each other offstage. The star of the show was a dancer who jokingly admits that she's a "There and Then" kind of dancer -- Megan Fairchild as the Green Girl. Fairchild was the only dancer in Russian Seasons to get what I consider to be an important part of Ratmansky style: a self-deprecating, self-parodying wit and humor. It's a very fine balance between calling attention to the humor and mugging, and so every other dancer I saw in Russian Seasons veered on the side of seriousness. But Megan has that "hey, I'm dancing, but this is also funny" balancing act down pat. This levity was especially welcome given the dark turn the ballet makes at the very end. The rest of the cast was fine, and Amar Ramasar and Sara Mearns were than fine -- they positively smoldered as the Red Couple. But Megan was the dancer that made me see this ballet in a different light.

Namouna with Mearns, Angle, Hyltin and Bouder, photo @ Andrea Mohin
The Namouna cast, however, were experts at making the material self-consciously funny. Namouna is set to Édouard Lalo's exquisite, tuneful score. It was originally a story ballet. Ratmansky has taken out the concrete narrative but retained an outline of a plot: there's a sailor (Tyler Angle), who meets three different muses with three distinct personalities. Ashley Bouder's character is fiercely independent -- she and her corps flaunt convention and Angle's advances by smoking a cigarette and blowing smoke into the air while dancing. Sara Mearns is the seductress -- her outsized, voluptuous movements wowing a slew of males whom she tinkers with by letting them partner her briefly before disappearing again. And finally there's Sterling Hyltin, sweet and bubbly. Spoiler alert: Tyler picks Sterling. There's also some sort of knight/fighter (Daniel Ulbricht) with two female Amazons at his side -- Erica Pereira and Abi Stafford. They make occasional appearances throughout the ballet.

Sound confusing? It is. But it's also funny and charming. Ratmansky's work for the corps de ballet is head and shoulders above anything else I've seen him compose for the corps -- one minute the girls are 1920's flappers with Louise Brooks wigs, the next they are sea creatures who rise and fall gently like waves. And all the muses were amazing. Bouder's quick pas de chats as she smoked a cigarette was a great masterclass of multi-tasking. Mearns' curvy body and outgoing personality seemed made to dance the siren role. The pas de deux between Hyltin and Angle included some Soviet-style acrobatic lifts: upside down lifts, some lifts where Hyltin was dropped and then caught again in a reverse fishdive, you get the picture. On a lesser dancer it might have looked cheesy. On Hyltin it was adorable. This is a delightful ballet that I think I'll revisit in the future whenever I can.

Alexei Ratmansky might be part of Here/Now but I think his works have the quality to be part of Elsewhere/Tomorrow.


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