Spring Diaries: A Very British Rinaldo; A very grand Grand Hotel; My Fair Lady

Cast of My Fair Lady
"Spring" officially started on March 20. The next day the Northeast coast was hit with a Nor'easter that lasted for a good 24 hours and dumped a foot of snow in NYC. I had a snow day so obviously the thing to do was to trek to Lincoln Center and see Bart Sher's revival of My Fair Lady. The auditorium was about 2/3 empty and it's very early in previews. The fact that the singers had yet to settle fully into the roles was betrayed by Lauren Ambrose (the Eliza of the new production) and Jordan Donica (Freddy) going up in lines for a large chunk of the Ascot scene.

But the early previews show a very promising production -- Harry Hadden-Paton's Higgins didn't have the almost sadistic sarcasm of Rex Harrison's famous portrayal but that was all to the good. This Higgins was more likable -- an eccentric rather than a bully. He says the same lines ("so deliciously low, so horribly dirty," "a squashed cabbage leaf"), but without the glee that Harrison injected into his voice. Ambrose's soprano voice was surprisingly strong and soared in "I Could Have Danced All Night" in a way that I wouldn't have expected from someone who's never sung in a Broadway production before, and she totally has the spunk and sass needed for Eliza. Diana Rigg was properly imperious as Mrs. Higgins, and Jordan Donica has a lovely tenor voice. I wasn't too fond of Norbert Leo Butz's Doolittle -- maybe I'm just wedded to Stanley Holloway's remarkable portrayal but Butz IMO didn't have the charm and humor for Doolittle. And he couldn't dance, which made "Get Me to the Church" somewhat anti-climactic.

I don't want to say too much more about the production because it's very early in previews -- director Bart Sher was actually asking people during intermission and after the show for feedback. That is promising -- it shows Sher actually wants to use previews to gage audience response and improve the final product. He grabbed me at the end of the show and asked me about how I interpreted the ending. But this has all the foundations of a real musical theater treat: the sets and costumes are lovely, and the actors already seem to connect to the roles in an organic way. The show needs to pick up the pacing a little bit but that will come as actors become more familiar with lines and tighten up their timing. Sher devised a "new" ending to the musical that is somewhere between G.B. Shaw's ultra-cynical ending for Pygmalion and Lerner and Loewe's rather conventionally romantic ending for My Fair Lady. I think it works beautifully. I'm definitely going back when this show is "frozen."

Irina Dvorovenko and James Snyder in Grand Hotel photo @ Sara Krulwich
Two days later I was at City Center for an Encores! presentation of Grand Hotel. Grand Hotel is not a great musical -- the score by Robert Wright and George Forrest veers from faux-operetta to Kander-and-Ebb-like musical noir without having much of a definite voice, the characters are never fully fleshed out, but it is a lot of fun. Large snippets of the OBC can be found on Youtube -- here is the showstopper "We'll Raise a Glass" with the delightful Michael Jeter at the 1989 Tony Awards. You can see why this show was an unexpected success. (As a sidenote, the OBC was quite star-crossed: both David Carroll and Michael Jeter ended up dying of AIDS).

"We'll Raise a Glass", photo @ Sarah Krulwich
The Encores! cast and creative did justice to the somewhat thin material. Director Josh Rhodes spent money on this -- there wasn't that barebones feel that the Encores! performances sometimes have. They had a double-decked set with a big central staircase and even replicated the hanging chandeliers of the original production. The choreography of course was heavily derivative of Tune's but that's all to the good. I like how they didn't go for the big names in any stunt casting but instead cast quality people who were all very right for their parts. Brandon Uranowitz (as the dying Otto) does not quite have Michael Jeter's pocket-sized noodly charm but he also danced up a storm in "We'll Raise a Glass" and that number predictably brought down the house. Actually the dancing was the evening's main enjoyment.  Other than "We'll Raise a Glass" the tango dancers Junior Cervila and Guadalupe Garcia were sultry and sexy and bookended the show well.

James Snyder (Baron) has a gorgeous tenor voice and plenty of charm. One of the musical's running themes is that the wastrel playboy Baron who steals to pay off his debts can't help being noble at the end of the day. Snyder's likability made the Baron's unexpectedly good heart believable. Irina Dvorovenko as the fading ballerina Elizaveta was delightful -- her thick, throaty Russian accent exuded a "don't f__k with me" vibe and her singing voice was surprisingly strong. Dvorovenko's sudden dismissal from ABT was disappointing and it's great to see she's found her groove with fairly steady acting gigs. Heléne Yorke was delightful as Flaemchen, the knocked-up Hollywood wannabe/typist in the role that made Jane Krakowski a star. John Dossett (Preysing) code-switched between the urbane businessman and the creepy philanderer. The musical takes a rather sudden tragic turn that neither the music nor book can quite handle -- there just isn't enough depth there. This is not Cabaret or Follies. I'm not sure Grand Hotel can endure a sustained run on Broadway. But Grand Hotel was a great way to spend the evening.

The cast of Rinaldo with Harry Bicket cond.
This Sunday I was at Carnegie Hall for a concert version of Handel's Rinaldo. I'll be the very first to admit that I'm not knowledgable enough about baroque opera to really say much other than I really liked the opera, and to make some observations about the singing. It has some of Handel's greatest hits ("Lascia ch'io pianga," "Cara sposa," "Augelletti, che cantante"). The best moment of the opera might be the aria "Dunque e lacci" -- a "dialogue" between Armida and the harpischord. Handel himself played the harpischord in the original production.

With that being said I dimly remember seeing this at NYCO a long time ago and don't think the opera lends itself particularly well to the concert format. This is an opera that lives heavily in the supernatural -- there's magical sorceress transformations, dragon-drawn chariots, and thrilling battles between the Saracens and Christain crusaders (don't ask). The sight of singers glued to their scorebooks gives this opera a slightly distant, formal feel that I don't think was Handel's intention. I think this was meant to be one of those baroque fantasias.

The cast was mixed (so much as these inexperienced ears could hear). Iestyn Davies has a pretty countertenor voice but I have an issue with countertenors taking on roles written for castrati -- their voices are simply too small and delicate to have the kind of impact that people described from castrati. This was made clear in "Or la tromba," Rinaldo's triumphant final aria that is accompanied by four blaring onstage trumpets. Davies was absolutely drowned out by the trumpets.

I also thought that Jane Archibald sounded shrieky as Armida, Joélle Harvey has a pretty, silvery voice as Almirena and handled the opera's biggest hit "Lascia ch'io pianga" well but was a bit basic and dull in her overall presentation. Luca Pisaroni looks gorgeous but his voice just doesn't have the flexibility to handle Handel (pun intended). The finest voices IMO were Sasha Cooke as Goffredo and Jakub Józef Orlinski as Eustazio. Cooke doesn't quite have the lower register but her voice is rich and sonorous. Orlinski's countertenor has sort of kooky, disconnected quality that sounds haunting. It's certainly distinct. Harry Bicket and his band The English Concert were favorites with the audience and got the loudest applause. As I said, the audience absolutely loved this performance. I just wish I had more insight to offer.


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