Friday, May 9, 2014

NYC Music Roundup—‘Here Lies Love’ @ the Public; Britten, Chenoweth @ Carnegie

Here Lies Love
Concept, music & lyrics by David Byrne; music by Fatboy Slim; directed by Alex Timbers
Choreographed by Annie-B Parson
Previews began April 14, 2014; opened May 1
Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, New York, NY

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
April 30, 2014
Kristin Chenoweth
May 3, 2014
Carnegie Hall, 57th Street & 7th Avenue, New York, NY

Here Lies Love (photo: Joan Marcus)
It’s easy to see why Here Lies Love, which has returned for an open-ended run, is a hit with audiences and reviewers: this show about Imelda Marcos, wife of Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos, has music by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim and was directed by Alex Timbers, a director of endless visual inventiveness who involves the audience in the show to such a degree that it becomes an “event” for those in attendance.

But Here Lies Love is also a colossally lightweight affair that relies so much on gimmickry that it collapses on itself, which could be a metaphor for the corruption of power that finished off the Marcos regime. The show’s paltry idea—that Imelda enjoyed going to clubs while traveling the world as the Philippine first lady so the songs and the staging provide a club atmosphere for the entire 90 minutes—is reflected in the music: Byrne’s and Slim’s songs are interchangeable, unmemorable and repetitive. Exceptions are the title song, a soaring ballad whose chorus sounds like the “oh oh oh” bridge of “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” and “The Fabulous One,” a rousing anthem for Marcos’ political opponent (and anti-Marcos martyr) Benigno Aquino, which has the spiky wit and rhythmic vigor of the Talking Heads’ heyday. But the rest are sheer noise, smothered as they are by Slim’s relentless club beats.

That leaves Timbers’ staging, which utilizes the LuEsther Hall space of the Public Theater to great effect. Various risers and platforms are endlessly movable so the action can be seen on all four sides of the audience (there are seats upstairs for those who don’t want to stand for 90 minutes or be herded like sheep from one side of the floor to the other). Flexible stagehands keep everything and everybody on the move—the clever choreography is by Annie-B Parson—ensuring audience members aren’t run over.

In his Broadway show Rocky, Timbers brings part of the audience onstage and moves part of the stage into the audience. Here, he melds audience, stage and performance together. But despite his cleverness, Here Lies Love is shrill, loud and paper-thin: in other words, a perfect club show.
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Carnegie Hall’s final Britten Centenary concert was a doozy: Britten’s War Requiem—one of the towering works of the last century—was performed by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus and three soloists under the baton of conductor Robert Spano. War Requiem is one of those works that, no matter how many times I’ve heard it on recordings, has never lost its ability to reduce me to a quivering, drained mass of jelly in the concert hall. And this was no exception.

Composed for the 1962 consecration of a new Coventry Cathedral in England after the 14th century original was destroyed by Nazi bombing, Britten’s pacifistic masterpiece sets the standard Latin Mass for the Dead alongside poems of Wilfred Owen, himself killed in the trenches of World War I. The piece’s masterly structure is so brilliantly designed as to be unique in Britten’s—or anyone else’s—canon, and believers and non-believers alike find themselves emotionally shattered at the conclusion of this unforgettable plea for peace.

Spano and his orchestra’s taut reading captured the music as it alternates between soaring expansiveness and anguished intimacy, and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus (placed in the balcony) and the orchestra’s own chorus sounded luminous throughout. Soprano Evelina Dobraceva and baritone Stephen Powell sang with immense power, while tenor Thomas Cooley—a last-minute replacement for an ill Anthony Dean Griffey—showed that he’s no stranger to Britten’s music, singing with authority, soulfulness and strength in a sterling performance of a work for the ages.

A few nights later, another vocal powerhouse in the form of soprano Kristin Chenoweth appeared at Carnegie: her Evolution of a Soprano was a delightful, stirring journey through the acclaimed award-winning actress-singer’s brilliant career, from her Christian upbringing in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma to her current musical theater eminence.

The diminutive Chenoweth had the audience in the palm of her hand from the start, telling hilarious stories in between numbers from Broadway shows she starred in and some she one day hopes to (a song from Mame), which she sang in a gleaming yet powerful voice that somehow emanates from her 4’11” frame.

Special guests were boy soprano Sam Poon, who sang a lovely duet with Chenoweth from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Requiem; a trio of backing vocalists, helping bring the house down with the Christian song “Upon This Rock” (before which Chenoweth sagely told those who aren’t Christian that they shouldn’t worry, it would be over in four minutes); singer-composer Andrew Lippa, serenaded by his heartfelt same-sex love song “One Day”; and opera superstar (and Chenoweth’s self-professed idol) Deborah Voigt, who joined in for an hilarious “Anything You Can Do” from Annie Get Your Gun.

But no one eclipsed the star, who ended on a subdued but entirely appropriate note: finally eschewing her microphone, she sang an emotional, unamplified “Bring Him Home” from Les Miserables that sent her audience home sated and ecstatic.

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