Sunday, August 16, 2015

2015 Summer Festivals—Shaw Festival, Caramoor, Bard Summerscape

Shaw Festival
Performances through November 1, 2015
Niagara on the Lake, Ontario, Canada

Caramoor Summer Music Festival
Performances through August 2, 2015
Katonah, NY

Bard Summerscape
Performances through August 16, 2015
Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY

Canada's Shaw Festival continues to be the premier summer theater destination, not only for its lovely lakeside location (whose cool breezes and usually moderate temperatures are the opposite of New York's sultry weather) but for its mostly superior productions of plays by Shaw and his contemporaries and—straying from the festival's original mandate—classic musicals and new plays by writers influenced by Bernard Shaw. 

Julie Martell (center) in Sweet Charity (photo: Emily Cooper)
This summer's musical, Sweet Charity, has two long shadows: it's based on Federico Fellini's classic 1956 film, The Nights of Cabiria, starring his beloved wife Giulietta Masina; and the original Broadway production, by Bob Fosse, starred his beloved wife Gwen Verdon. So that's four legends of film and theater towering over any production of this musical, which has a beguilingly tuneful score by Cy Coleman and an amusingly sassy book by Neil Simon.

Happily, multifaceted singer-dancer-actress Julie Martell brings her own mix of lovable naivete and hard-as-nails New York toughness to the lead role of Charity, and a large and merry cast surrounds her. Ken MacDonald's nicely evocative '60s New York sets, Cameron Davis's astute projections, Bonnie Beecher's lively lighting and Charlotte Dean's dead-on costumes complement the boisterous choreography of Parker Esse and solid direction by Morris Panych, which combine to make this Charity sweet indeed.

Harveen Sandhu (center) and Patrick McManus (right) in Pygmalion (photo: Emily Cooper)
The same cannot be said for a new production of Pygmalion, one of Bernard Shaw's supreme masterpieces that's best known as the basis of the beloved musical My Fair Lady. Shaw's biting satire of class warfare has been pointlessly updated to the present day by director Peter Hinton (who did similar damage to Oscar Wilde's Lady Windemere's Fan a couple of summers back), in the hopes that everyone "gets" that Shaw's 100-year-old play is still relevant today.

Well, of course it is, and we don't need Hinton's sledgehammer introductions of pontificating TV talking heads and other video footage, an extraneous fashion show—yes, you read that right— and lousy contemporary songs to alert us to that fact. (When Vaughan Williams' elegaic Tallis Fantasia is heard during a scene, the effect in this confused context is of sheer irrationality.) 

And, contrary to his published director's note, Hinton has "modernized" more than just dialogue about financial matters in order to push stodgy old Shaw into the 21st century. Whereas in the original, Eliza Doolittle famously used the expletive "bloody" to shock Shaw's upper-crust phonies, now she uses a more infamous F-word. It's good for an easy laugh—and feigned shock from an audience desensitized to hearing it by now—but little more. 

In such a farrago, the actors don't stand a chance: even experienced Shaw Fest vets like Patrick McManus and Mary Haney as Henry Higgins and his mother are defeated by their director; poor McManus even has to fight off a collapsing chair in a painfully unfunny bit of slapstick. For her part, Harveen Sandhu is everything you would want in an Eliza: maybe she'll get to play her again in a more felicitous production of Pygmalion.  

Dialogues des Carmélites: Jennifer Cheek, conductor Will Crutchfield, Alisa Jordheim (photo: Gabe Palacio)
From Canada to two musical oases north of the city, each staging opera this summer. Caramoor, an estate in Katonah, 45 minutes north of Manhattan, hosts a music festival each summer that includes classical, jazz and folk, along with two operas in the "Bel Canto at Caramoor" series. However, this summer—in addition to Donzietti's bel canto La Favorite—a mid-20th century masterpiece was performed: Francis Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmélites.

It was a wise choice for the outdoor Venetian Theater: Poulenc's extraordinarily moving drama about a group of martyred nuns during the French Revolution was given a forceful reading by conductor Will Crutchfield and his skilled orchestral forces, choir and singers, led by the formidable Jennifer Cheek's young nun Blanche and Alisa Jordheim's breakout performance as the novice nun Constance.

Directed adroitly if minimally on the cramped stage by Victoria Crutchfield (the conductor's talented daughter), this Carmelites was involving musical drama of the highest order.

A scene from The Wreckers (photo: Cory Weaver)
Would that I could say the same about Ethel Smyth's middling The Wreckers, this summer's operatic offering at the annual must-attend Bard Summerscape, on Bard College's campus two hours north of New York. Smyth was a contemporary of Mexican composer Carlos Chavez, the subject of this summer's Bard Music Festival, which is why her 1908 opera—never before staged in America—was chosen, but a sketchy libretto and long, arid stretches of uninspired music drag it down.

Smyth's melodies are remindful of Wagner, Strauss and particularly Bizet and Carmen, but without reaching the emotional or dramatic heights of those masters. And director Thaddeus Strassberger forced the poor performers to navigate what looked like a precarious setup of crates that could at any moment send them tumbling into the orchestra pit. As it is, only soprano Sky Ingram made any vocal or dramatic impression in a cast that might have been more capable in more sympathetic circumstances. 

Leon Botstein ably conducted the American Symphony Orchestra, but the end result was indifference toward an operatic oddity with little to recommend it. Perhaps Chavez's only opera, The Visitors, should have been staged instead.

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