Brigadoon's Music Wakes Up Audiences; Thaïs Scorches

Kelli O'Hara and Patrick Wilson, photo @ Sara Krulwich

When New York City Center announced that the chief Encores! presentation of their season would be Lerner and Loewe's Brigadoon, tickets sold out so quickly that you would have thought the musical only came around once in a hundred years. Oh wait ...

Anyway tonight's performance was one of glorious highs and depressing lows. Let's start with the positive here: this was a lavish, fully-staged performance. They spent good money on this. It didn't have the feel of a semi-staged concert at all -- there were colorful costumes, enough props and some background projections to evoke the world of the Scottish highlands. This is a production that could transfer to Broadway with minimal adjustments. A few more sets (a ramp served as an all-purpose entrance and exit tool) and less amateurish projections and we'll have a great show.  Of course if it moved to Broadway it probably wouldn't have had the full orchestra of 30 players led by Rob Berman. The orchestra really played Loewe's score with love and they got the loudest applause of the evening.

Other highs: it is so good to hear Frederick Loewe's score really sung -- the MGM musical with Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse became an almost all-dance extravaganza, remade to fit Kelly's dancing skills and vocal limitations. But with the beautiful, soaring soprano of Kelli O'Hara as Fiona and other musical theater veterans in the lead roles, the music became the star, as it should be. "From This Day On" was absolutely glorious. O'Hara wasn't the only beautiful voice onstage. There was Stephanie J. Block who was very funny as Meg, the "earthy" girl to O'Hara's more romantic heroine. Block made the anti-love song "The Love of My Life" a show-stopper. Before tonight I had never heard of Ross Leiketes (Charlie). I certainly do now. Ny god, what a VOICE! "Come to Me, Bend to Me" became one of those melodies you just never wanted to end.

Fairchild and Esty, photo @ Sara Krulwich
Also excellent: Ex-NYCB principal Robbie Fairchild also stepped out of his wholesome nice-guy persona as the Jud-Fryish Harry Beaton. He scowled and sulked convincingly but his most expressive moment was the Sword Dance that ends Act One. Fairchild was able to make this number (which seems heavily derivative of the original Agnes de Mille choreography) a dance of rage and rejection. He's still finding his sea legs as an actor but this is a very promising start to his full-time theater career.

The mediocre: the Tommy (Patrick Wilson) and Jeff (Aasif Mandvi). I wonder what it would have been like had the originally announced Steven Pasquale not dropped out of the production. Wilson and Mandvi weren't bad but they were very bland and basic and just sort of there. Granted their characters aren't all that inherently interesting but they faded into the background. Wilson's lighter, grainy baritone couldn't match O'Hara's soprano and Mandvi was overpowered by Block. I have seen Patrick Wilson in other things and loved them (Oklahoma in 2002, the HBO miniseries of Angels in America where he plays an incredible Joe) so I think this role just wasn't a good fit for him? Sara Esty (Jean) was a good dancer but acting-wise was also vacant. It was good to have veteran actors like Dakin Matthews (who played Joe in Waitress) in smaller roles.

Asaf Mandvi, Patrick Wilson, Dakin Matthews and Kelli O'Hara photo @ Joan Marcus

And now the bad: this whole project was directed and choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon. And there's just no getting around the fact that I dislike his choreography. In the program there is a line that says "Original dances created by Agnes de Mille" but what I saw was a bunch of Wheeldon clichés -- the men with the women lifted at shoulder length and twirled over and over again, the usual sliding of women between the men's legs to be semi-dragged on the floor, the women somehow ending upside down with legs in the air. The one piece that seemed truly inspired by de Mille was the Sword Dance and that was by far the most thrilling dance set piece of the night. But the other choreography often looked like the same filler he used in An American in Paris.

One really tasteless number: the funeral dance of Harry. Patricia Delgado (Maggie) is a wonderful dancer -- I saw her when she was with Miami City Ballet. But she was in a brown rag dress that was looked half Martha Graham, half Mark Morris, and instead of a heartfelt dance of grief for the troubled Harry Wheeldon made her wriggle all over his body and of course her legs had to spread eagle in the air. This faux-modern dance concoction really took the viewer out of the Scottish village romance mindset. It stopped the show in all the wrong ways.

This show has a lot of built-in dancing and Wheeldon of course beefed up the dancing even more. But when the choreography is so uninspired I often just zoned out waiting for the next beautiful song to come up. Thankfully those beautiful songs did appear over and over again all evening. Lerner and Loewe's score deserves to be heard way more than once in a hundred years. I could listen to it every day. The story is quaint but charming, and really loops us into an earlier time, when such an unabashedly romantic score graced the Great White Way.

And also: now I know where Andrew Lloyd Webber got the opening melody to "Music of the Night."

Listen to "Come to Me Bend to Me." There's more than a passing, "accidental" resemblance.

Pérez, photo @ Chris Lee
A day later I make one of my increasingly rare trips to the Met. The opera: Massenet's Thaïs which isn't performed often despite having a drop-dead gorgeous score, a compelling storyline, and meaty roles for both soprano and baritone. When I arrived on the rainy night I saw a slip inserted into my program -- Gerald Finley was out, Bradley Garvin was in as Athanaël. Turns out Garvin has been singing comprimario roles at the Met since 1993, and has racked up 183 performances. His current assignment at the Met is the Commissioner in Madama Butterfly. But in life, when you get an opportunity to shine, some people seize that spotlight and that's what Garvin did tonight. He's a tall, handsome singer with a big, robust bass-baritone voice and if he had any nerves he didn't show it. He even added subtle details to his portrayal that one might expect of someone experienced in the role -- for instance, in Act 3, as he dropped Thaïs off at the convent there was a subtle shift in body language as you realized that the monk now wanted the reformed courtesan in a biblical way. His desperation as he begged for Thaïs in the final duet was palpable. At the end of the evening Ailyn Pérez pushed Garvin forward for another solo bow. Bravo. He killed it.

Bradley Garvin
The whole evening was actually way more inspired than I had expected. Ailyn Pérez in the title role has a pleasing, warm timbre and is sexy in a Rubenesque way. She isn't the Thaïs of my dreams but she was thoroughly competent and professional. One problem: her upper register is inconsistent -- the high C at the end of the first act was harsh and wiry. The high D in the famous Mirror Aria was sustained but the note was just sort of yelled. It didn't bloom. In the final duet she made those difficult ascents to high D but again, you got the feeling that she had reached the absolute ceiling of her voice and those notes were squeezed out rather than truly sung. The role requires a kind of gleaming upper register to make its full impact and Pérez doesn't have that. But I'm nitpicking. This is a more than creditable performance.

Borras and Pérez, photo @ Chris Lee
Jean François Borras sang the role of Nicias, Thaïs's libertine lover. Borras is that rare specimen on the Met stage: an idiomatic French lyric tenor. The role isn't big but it's always great to hear his stylish, unforced voice sing non-phonetic French. Now will the Met puh-lease bring him back for a FULL RUN of Werthers? David Pittsinger as Palémon was wobbly and hoarse.

But seriously? GIVE THIS OPERA A CHANCE. There's way more to it than the famous Meditation. I don't know why this opera hasn't been revived since the initial production with Renée Fleming but my god, it's a beautiful opera and the production by John Cox is delightlful in a kitschy sort of way. The orchestration is stunning -- it runs the gamut from the flighty, fanciful flourishes of Thaïs's life to some vaguely Middle-Eastern music to almost Wagnerian grandeur. Emmanuel Villaume's conducting emphasized the Wagnerian grandeur more than the delicacy of the score. This opera deserves to be heard. And this Met cast isn't perfect but they do justice to Massenet.

I mean isn't this gorgeous?


  1. At least Sir Andrew steals from the best. Seriously, it's so blatant, I wonder how he thinks he can get away with it.

    Interestingly, Puccini was also plagiarized by none other than Al Jolsen, who lifted parts of "E lucevan le stelle" for his song "Avalon." Puccini's publishers sued the composers (which included Jolson, who had a composer co-credit on the song) in 1921 and won an award of $25000 and all future royalties from the song.

    1. Well that's the thing about ALW. He's a thief but at least he has good taste as to what he steals.

    2. "Now will the Met puh-lease bring him back for a FULL RUN of Werthers?"
      Indeed. And how about Romeo, Faust, Nadir, Des Grieux too!!!
      Art McManus

  2. Wonderful review, per usual, Ivy! Well, as much as I love Patrick Wilson, Steven Pasquale simply cannot be fully replaced by anyone. 2-1/2 years ago, I had the privilege to see his Billy Bigelow, here in Chicago. It left me believing that's he's easily the foremost musical theater male actor of our time. Though his phrasing may be too modern for some, he never hit a false note, literally or figuratively. Not only is he a remarkably natural, intuitive actor, but this admittedly untrained singer gave simply the finest rendition of the Soliloquy that I've ever heard. Over my near 60 years, I've heard countless operatic baritones sing it; until I saw Pasquale, I considered Sir Thomas Allen definitive. But, even taking in consideration microphones, Pasquale surpassed them all. Mics can cover a lot, but they can't fake breath control, and Pasquale's is astonishing, even managing a crescendo at the end of the very last phrase. At the time of Lyric's run, there were rumors that it would come to Broadway. Next year's revival, though, won't be Lyric's landmark production (directed by Rob Ashford). It would wrong of me not to add that Laura Osnes was equally fine as Julie, as was Matthew Hydzik as Mr. Snow.
    Here's Pasquale's Soliloquy:

    1. I had heard Pasquale's Billy Bigelow over the radio. He and Osnes were both remarkable. One thing about Pasquale is that he really exudes a genuine menace.
      He is currently starring in the Broadway play Junk which is why he dropped out of Brigadoon :( Oh well.


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