Falsettos

Princeton Summer Theater begins its 2019 season with an ambitious production of the Tony award-winning musical Falsettos, book by James Lapine and William Finn, who also wrote the music and lyrics. Directed by PST artistic director Daniel Krane, the production opened June 20 and runs Thursdays through Sunday until June 30. The show’s nonstop music is provided by a “tiny little band,” of four musicians led by Amber Lin.

Falsettos is a story about all kinds of love—gay, straight, marital, parental, between friends. Its nonstop songs work hard to capture the evanescence of feeling, perhaps best in a moving song near the end: “Who would I be if I had not loved you? How would I know what love is?”

In the story, Marvin (played by Michael Rosas) leaves his wife Trina (Bridget McNiff) for the carefree young man, Whizzer (Dylan Blau Edelstein). Trina, left with their 10-year-old son Jason (Hannah Chomiczewski) is bitter about this, and baffled by Marvin’s insistence that what he wants is “A Tight-Knit Family” involving them all.

Marvin suggests Trina straighten herself out by seeing his psychiatrist, Mendel (Justin Ramos), who immediately falls for her. Complications ensue, and Trina’s state of mind is perfectly—hilariously—reflected in her star turn, “I’m Breaking Down.”

This first act of Falsettos, which is set in 1979, is based on a one-act play, March of the Falsettos that premiered in 1981. The second act is based on another one-act, Falsettoland, set in 1981, which premiered in 1990. The two were merged to create Falsettos in 1992. A lot changed for gay men in that intervening decade. The authors had to acknowledge AIDS (actually barely a blip in 1981), highlighted by Dr. Charlotte’s (Chamari White-Mink) prophetic song, “Something Bad is Happening.” And, in act two, the play takes a sharp turn.

The growing realization of the seriousness of Whizzer’s illness is a painful backdrop to disagreements between Trina and Marvin about Jason’s impending bar mitzvah, to be catered by Cordelia (Michelle Navis) who specializes in Jewish nouvelle cuisine. The comedy is still there, but it’s bittersweet. One of the show’s most beautifully rendered numbers is the quartet, “Unlikely Lovers,” sung around Whizzer’s hospital bed.

The cast (and crew) for PST’s college summer stock productions are primarily Princeton students and recent graduates. For the principal roles, as played by Rosas, McNiff, Edelstein, and Ramos, this constraint was inconsequential, but a bit of a handicap in casting the role of Jason. The set was well designed (Jeffrey Van Velsor) to be adaptable and interesting.

Princeton Summer Theater productions are staged in Hamilton Murray Theater on the university campus, easily reached from New York by car or train. Take New Jersey Transit to the Princeton Junction station, then the shuttle train into Princeton. The shuttle ends a short walk from the theater, which is walking distance from numerous restaurants. For tickets, call the box office at 732-997-0205 or visit the ticket office online.

The Three Musketeers

The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey kicks off its 2019 season with a rollicking dramatic comedy adapted from the Alexander Dumas classic by popular playwright Ken Ludwig, which opened June 15 and runs through July 7.

As director, renowned fight choreographer Rick Sordelet makes good use of his experience in the swashbuckling swordplay the stage barely contains. Sitting in the front row, I was sure a rapier-wielding musketeer would end up in my lap!  

In 1625 France, the handsome young d’Artagnan (played by Cooper Jennings) and his sister Sabine (Courtney McGowan) leave their home in Gascony for Paris in search of adventure. He wants to join the famous school of musketeers, charged with defending King Louis XIII (Michael Stewart Allen) and Queen Anne (Fiona Robberson). Sabine is bound for a convent school, but disguised as d’Artagnan’s servant, gleefully finds herself embroiled in his exploits.

In Paris, d’Artagnan stumbles into the three most admired musketeers, each in turn—Athos (John Keabler), Porthos (Paul Molnar), and Aramis (Alexander Sovronsky)–offending each of them. The result is a schedule of three duels for that very night. Before d’Artagnan can be skewered, they are set upon by the minions of the scheming Cardinal Richelieu (Bruce Cromer) and his guardsman Rochefort (Jeffrey M. Bender). The now four allies fight the Cardinal’s men bravely. Impressed with d’Artagnan’s fighting skills, he’s won three important friends. An assignation d’Artagnan has made with the queen’s lady-in-waiting Constance (Billie Wyatt) also turns out rather well.

The plot proceeds mostly along the story’s familiar lines, except that Ludwig has given a larger role to the women. His creation Sabine is her brother’s equal in fencing and in enthusiasm for combat. In several scenes, the women are active fighters, including Sabine, the evil Milady (Anastasia Le Gendre), and the serving wench at an inn who uses a short sword and a serving tray as shield.

With all of Ludwig’s trademark humor and love of stage chaos, there’s not a dull moment, and the 20-member cast delivers the action convincingly, with a heady mix of heroism, treachery, narrow escapes, music, and laughter. Especially fun was the somewhat dim Louis XIII. He may not be the brightest, but, boy, does he love being king! Jennings is physically perfect for the unworldly d’Artagnan. He’s a young actor, yet plays the role with perfect assurance. The “inseparable three” (Keabler, Molnar, and Sovronsky) establish distinct and interesting personalities. Special mention should be made of McGowan, who stepped in on short notice when the original actor playing Sabine broke her foot in previews. She had only a few days to prepare and performed flawlessly.

The adaptation, originally commissioned by the Bristol Old Vic in England was a tremendous hit when it premiered in 2006, a result of its judicious updating alongside its timeless evocation of loyalty and honor. “All for one and one for all!” Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey productions are hosted at Drew University in Madison, N.J. (easily reachable from NYC by train). For tickets, call the box office at 973-408-5600 or visit the Box Office online. Note that STNJ offers special ticket pricing of $30 for theatergoers under age 30!

Photo by Jerry Dalia

Doing Democracy

Pulitzer-Prize winning historian Rick Atkinson chose the title of his new book—The British Are Coming—not because those words ever crossed Paul Revere’s lips (Atkinson says he was much more likely to have said “The regulars are coming!” since pretty much everyone in the Colonies was British).

Instead, he chose it because at the outset of hostilities between Britain and its rebellious American colonies, the British were indeed coming, across more than 3000 miles of ocean, and in force, with their huge navy determined to defeat the colonists through seapower.

Recently, he gave a lively presentation about his new book at Washington Crossing State Park—an appropriate venue, because it’s where General Washington crossed the Delaware River with his men in preparation for the battles of Trenton and Princeton. These were the first major battles won by the colonists in the Revolutionary War. And those victories gave the colonists new hope, at a time when hope had been “all but extinguished” by their losses.

Atkinson devoted some time to reflecting on the Founding Fathers. They weren’t flawless, he said, and in recent years some of their flaws—owning slaves, especially—have been emphasized more than their accomplishments. Writing in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal,” they were certainly making more a statement of aspiration than of fact. Many groups (not only slaves, but Native Americans, women, indigents, and others) were not treated equally under the laws of 1775.

Nevertheless, he emphasized, no other country in the world was doing what the Founding Fathers were doing at that time, as they worked to free themselves from Britain and toward achieving a “more perfect union” among vastly different colonies. And so, for nearly two hundred and fifty years, our nation’s creation story has remained vivid and compelling to people across continents.

We learn several things by examining those early days, he says: the nation was born bickering; we thought certain truths were self-evident; good leadership was vital; and whatever trials we face today as a country, we’ve been through worse. In November 1776, General Nathanael Greene lost Manhattan’s Fort Washington to the British. After this terrible setback, when he said to his wife “be of good courage,” he was speaking to us, Atkinson said.

When he started researching this book, the author had access to a new trove of archival material, including letters and memoranda written by George III himself. He has a knack for unearthing the telling incident that illuminates a bigger story and using a modest amount of statistics in a compelling way. One new (to me) set of statistics he gave showed the difficulties the British soldiers faced. Of the hundreds of ships sent from England to bring provisions to its troops, huge numbers were lost. The animals aboard died. The flour and supplies were spoiled. As one example, of 550 Lincolnshire sheep sent, only 40 survived the long voyage.

The insight that most startled him as he worked on this 564-page volume was the strength of the myths the British held about America and the war. Certainly not King George, nor any of his ministers, ever set foot in this country, where conditions were very different than at home. Our population was growing at four times England’s rate; two-thirds of white colonial men owned land, while in England only one man in five did; and two-thirds were literate and could vote, compared to one Englishman in six. And, because Americans lived in a frontier society, they were heavily armed.

The British leaders had an even more dangerous blind spot. They didn’t realize the extent to which Americans, isolated from their mother country by an entire ocean, had simply become accustomed to governing themselves.

A point Atkinson made several times, including in the context of the political upheavals we face today, is that “Democracy is never done. It is always something we must be doing.”

If Rick Atkinson is coming to your area, don’t miss him!

Painting by William Tylee Ranney:  “George Washington rallying his troops at the Battle of Princeton”; from https://www.goodfreephotos.com, public domain.

Rocketman

Think back—how many popular music star biopics have you seen that follow this arc: sincere artist’s unexpected (if inevitable) rise from obscurity to massive success, addiction to alcohol/drugs, shaky career trajectory, painful rehabilitation, ultimate triumph? Don’t any ascending stars watch these movies? Maybe it’s a comment on the how young people perceive their invulnerability. Or on filmmakers’ affinity for formula.

Rocketman, which covers Elton John’s early career, has those elements. Blessedly, it is not that movie (trailer). Writer Lee Hall and director Dexter Fletcher have accomplished something much more interesting and creative.

In the opening scene, Elton John (played brilliantly by Taron Egerton) strides down an empty hallway in full sparkly devil bodysuit, cape, cap, and horns and plunks himself in a chair at an AA meeting. “I know how this goes,” he says and enumerates his many addictions. The group leader’s probing returns him to his childhood where he picks out tunes on the piano by ear. Back in the support group, in costume, he wrenches off the horns.

He’s taken back to other earlier events, and each time he return to the group, another piece of his outrageous costume is gone. Clearly, he’s stripping off the trappings of his onstage persona to get to the man underneath. So much more effective—and emotionally resonant—than the overhead shots of poor Ray Charles writhing on his rehab bed. (I love a great metaphor!)

When John is finally able to embrace the sweet child he was, well . . . Whatever process the real-life John went through, it worked. He’s been sober for 28 years.

This movie doesn’t set out to be chronologically precise biopic and is not limited by that form. It’s a musical, with toe-tapping dance numbers and bracing energy. The filmmakers weave in Elton John’s songs with their remarkable lyrics where they fit in the development of the character. The friendship between John and his forever lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) is an emotional core of this story. Other relationships may implode or fade, but Taupin, whom John met thanks to a complete fluke, has been with him for fifty years.

The film does not deny audiences the considerable pleasures of the Johns/Taupin music, which Egerton delivers with enthusiasm. Plus there were probably blood-soaked feathers on the floor as people fought for the job of costume director, which ultimately went to Julian Day.

Do yourself a solid, see it!

Rotten Tomatoes Critics Rating: 91%; audiences: 88%.

Weekend Movie Picks

The Biggest Little Farm

This charming documentary records John and Molly Chester’s epic attempt to create a sustainable farm an hour outside Los Angeles (trailer).

They say early on that they found a sponsor who believed in their vision of a farm that, with a multitude of animals and kinds of crops, captures the power of biodiversity. That sponsor had deep pockets, because, while what they’re doing is a beautiful thing, it looks expensive.

The first challenge of Many was bringing back the soil from its status as moonscape. You follow them over seven years of trials and successes, and now their egg business (ravaged by coyotes killing the chickens) and fruit business (ravaged by hungry birds) are thriving. The farm gives tours, because it’s a beautiful place to see. And a gift shop.

Although the Chesters’ approach has a lot of intellectual and emotional appeal, he’s realistic enough to recognize that Mother Nature isn’t charmed by good intentions. Staying on top of it isn’t easy or inevitable. Still, you’ll leave the theater happier.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 91%; audiences: 97%.

The White Crow

The plot of this movie is well known, how brilliant Soviet ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev defected to the West at the Le Bourget airport in Paris (trailer) at the end of a visit by the Kirov ballet, then became the greatest ballet star of his generation. This wonderful movie, written by playwright David Hare and directed by by Ralph Fiennes (who also plays Nureyev’s teacher, ballet master Alexander Ivanovich Pushkin), tells his early story in black and white flashbacks.

The early story is important, because Nureyev’s poverty-stricken childhood in a Tatar Muslim family, with an absent father, may help explain the enormous chip on his shoulder. Let’s just say he’s not Mr. Congeniality. He knows he can succeed only if he excels, and his default assumption (a correct one, it appears) is that the Soviet system of training, work assignments, and so forth do not share his goal. The 23-year-old Nureyev’s ultimate defection in 1961, not without its dangers, is not prompted by politics, but by the desire for freedom to practice his art.

Ukrainian ballet dancer Oleg Ivenko looks and moves with Nureyev’s assurance and projects his charisma. He barely struggles to be likeable; he’s a man on a mission, weighed down by the oppressive handlers sent with the company to Paris. The critics are lukewarm, but audiences sense the film’s appeal, “full of small pleasures,” says Moira MacDonald in the Seattle Times—and big ones too, when Ivenko dances.Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 67%; audiences 85%.

Dover, Delaware: Travel Tips

With only three counties and less than a million residents—including one 2020 presidential candidate—Delaware is tucked into the Atlantic coast, at the confluence of New Jersey, Maryland, and southeastern Pennsylvania. Interstate 95 cuts across the top of it, giving travelers between Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston access to the state’s largest city, Wilmington, but missing the capital, Dover, by nearly 50 miles.

Maybe that semi-isolation is what has allowed Dover to stay modest in size and allow its central area to suggest you’re stepping back into colonial history, an impression magnified by the brick sidewalks, the green squares, and the federalist architecture—all red brick and white paint. A plaque marks the location of the tavern where, in 1787, Delaware’s delegates were the first to sign the new U.S. Constitution, inspiring Delaware’s nickname, “the first state.”

Last week we spent two days there and, yes, we found plenty to do and see in the historic downtown area. We started with the Biggs Museum of American Art, which has a small collection expertly displayed in period rooms that include art, furniture, and appurtenances, plus some bold wallpaper! The current Legislative Hall, where you can visit both chambers, and the Old State House, which even Delaware outgrew, are worth a visit and offer tours. We did Legislative Hall on our own, but had a docent for the old statehouse and for the governor’s house, Woodburn, where you can arrange a private tour. Portraits of the state’s first ladies fill its reception hall.

We visited a French bakery (only once), located near the Johnson Victrola Museum with its fine display of the machines that brought music into the homes of millions. Lots of representations of Nipper, too, listening to “his master’s voice.” Excellent early example of branding.

Finally, we drove out to Dover Air Force base to visit the Air Mobility Command Museum, which has exhibits indoors in a converted hangar and, outside, a mind-boggling airplane parking lot. Latch onto a guide, who can take you up into some of the planes. Most amazing was walking inside the cavernous C5 cargo plane, which is big enough to hold six full-size buses or a couple of giant tanks. The Museum is preparing a special D-Day exhibit which we were sorry to miss.

All that, and we didn’t get to the beaches or the area’s several wildlife refuges!

Photo credits: View of the Legislative Hall by Marc Tomik is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 ; Johnson Victrola Museum, Vicki Weisfeld.

Big Screen Music: A Tuba to Cuba

Two supremely entertaining documentaries in theaters now on the power of music and dedication of musicians. Yesterday, Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace, which we had to wait almost a half-century to see on screen.

A Tuba to Cuba

Unbelievably, two movies in the space of two weeks have featured a tuba (see review of A Woman at War), but coincidence has struck gold. A Tuba to Cuba tells the story of a two-week Cuban adventure by members of New Orleans’s Preservation Hall Jazz Band who in 2015 traveled there for a series of concerts, get-acquainted sessions, and impromptu events. The documentary was directed by T.G. Herrington and Danny Clinch (trailer).

The band members of all ages find much musical commonality with their Cuban brethren, which they trace back to African influence, and they delight in their discoveries and in each other. Each member of the current band on the trip has a chance to shine as both performer and person.

Leader of the goodwill expedition is Ben Jaffe, whose parents, Allan and Sandra Jaffe,  moved to New Orleans in the early 1960s, loved the music, and feared it was being lost. His father played the tuba, and started the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, for which the entire nation owes him profound gratitude.

The scenes around Havana, as well as several other towns, show the expected 1960s American cars and colorful houses, and a gorgeous concert hall in their final stop. But above and beyond the physical surroundings, the people—especially some jazz-loving young Cuban musicians—are terrific. The trip inspired the later PHJB album So It Is.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 100%; audiences 82%.