Saturday, September 29, 2007

Daniel Beaty Does Broadway

Daniel Beaty's brilliant performance of "Emergence-SEE!" was the surprise hit of last year's Colorado Festival of World Theatre. Beaty combined evocative, provocative writing with a performance that had to be seen to be believed, as he brought to life 43 different characters.

Which is a long way of saying that, if Beaty's new cabaret show, "The Broadway Songs I Love," is only a qualified success, it's not due to any lack of talent. The show that opened on Friday night at the Woodland Park Cultural Center – and will be performed again today at 8 p.m. – simply shows that Beaty isn't yet a seasoned cabaret performer. He can sing these songs, but the impression was that he doesn't yet inhabit them stylistically, tonally, or emotionally.

The hour-long show featured Beaty performing Broadway songs ranging from "Old Man River" – a suspect choice for opening number, because it immediately signals the audience that Beaty is no Paul Robeson* – to "This is the Moment" from "Jeckyll and Hyde."

What was surprising, and a little disappointing, was how little variety Beaty brought to his tone – surprising because the plethora of voices was one of the the high points of "Emergence-SEE!" Instead Beaty gave us a more-or-less continuous operatic baritone, with little attention paid to the details of the text, and with too many lapses in diction. (For instance, as Beaty sang it, the final line of "This is the Moment" was "this is the greatest moment of the mall.") Yet when he did alter his tone, as in "Mr. Cellophane" from "Chicago," he seemed completely comfortable, and the full house, seated cabaret-style, ate it up. Perhaps Beaty simply needs to feel the songs more strongly in their dramatic context.

The high points were two bits from "Emergence-SEE!", featuring the children Peter and Clarissa. As Clarissa, Beaty accomplished what Zoe Caldwell said was the most wonderful thing an actor could do: Turning an audience, in an instant, from laughter to tears. (Caldwell talked about this at Tuesday night's public conversation with Chip Shaw.)

In Beaty's defense, the center's dry-as-dust acoustics are extremely difficult for a performer. When you get nothing back from the hall, it's natural to start forcing things.

Pianist Dan Brink accompanied with his customary excellence.

For more information, visit the CFWT website.

* Beaty even used Robeson's version of Hammerstein's lyrics.

Friday, September 28, 2007

"Wow" Fatigue

During a walk-through Thursday of Artisans and Kings: Selected Treasures from the Louvre at the Denver Art Museum, I finally had to force myself to stop saying "wow." It started to sound so stupid.

Artistically, this exhibit may not be quite up to the level of the Phillips Collection exhibit of a few years back – though the best work here, such as Bernini's Pope Urban VIII, Titian's Woman with Mirror, and Velsquez's The Infanta Margarita, rivals anything ever seen in Denver. It's the craft work that fills it with unanticipated "wow" moments. A king can't commission an artist to produce a masterpiece – but he can commission something that takes a dozen master craftsmen years to produce. Again and again I found myself in a state of slack-jawed amazement, gazing at utilitarian objects of unimaginable opulence: a vase, a platter lid, an andiron. The Bauhaus would have been mortified.

As usual at the DAM, the show is expertly curated, taking you deep into the world of France's final three pre-revolutionary kings. "It's an experience you'd never have at the Louvre," said Melora McDermott-Lewis, the DAM's director of education. In bringing together pieces from five of the Louvre's eight collections, they worked with Louvre curators who'd never worked with each other before.

The show opens October 6 and runs through January 6, 2008. (The Louvre only allows the drawings to be on display for three out of every 39 months. Visit the Denver Art Museum site for more information.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

CFWT: First Weekend

An interesting first weekend at the Colorado Festival of World Theatre ...

"Truth in Translation" was mildly disappointing, mainly because it turned out to be such a much less ambitious conception than what it was billed as; the Sondheim tribute, "Beautiful Girls" was thoroughly amazing - yes, Broadway superstars really are great.

How's it going over with the public? Certainly the opening-night crowd at "Beautiful Girls" was the largest I've seen at a festival production - though it wasn't sold out, which it richly deserved to be. (If you're reading this on Sunday afternoon, you can still see the show at 6:30 at the Pikes Peak Center, and I can almost guarantee that you won't be sorry.) "Truth in Translation" was probably #2 in crowd size, but again, not a full house.

Nor does it look as though the upcoming master classes will have the attendance they deserve. Joseph Hardy's master class on directing has been canceled because not enough people signed up, which is both a shame and shameful. Hardy, a veteran Broadway director with a Tony award to his credit, deserves better.

The procedural part of the problem is that the CFWT doesn't have a sufficient marketing budget: The master classes should have been pitched to theaters and theater departments months ago, and nearly filled with students - or canceled - then. The structural part of the problem is that it takes time to create a theater culture in a non-theater town. The name "Zoe Caldwell" will fill a house in New York City; it won't here, at least not yet. That will change, because the quality is there - if the festival can survive in its present form for another year or two.

Now it's off to learn more about Sir Peter Shaffer, the eminent playwright who speaks at Studio Bee on Wednesday night. (Shaffer's resume includes "Amadeus" and "Equus.") The other featured speakers are "Truth in Translation" artistic director Michael Lessac on Monday, Caldwell on Tuesday, and legendary Shakespearian Janet Suzman on Thursday. And of course, the festival continues next weekend with Daniel Beaty, Avner the Eccentric, and Via Romen.

For more information, visit the CFWT website.

[Edited Sept. 26 to remove a very unfortunate typo!]

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Don't Miss "Potemkin"

Friday's "Go!" will contain a preview of the Colorado Springs Philharmonic's upcoming Saturday performance of "Battleship Potemkin" with music by Dmitri Shostakovich. Last night I finally saw the film with the Shostakovich score, and can safely say that it will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Even on a laptop computer with a 14-inch screen, and not-very-good sound, the effect is shattering. I can't imagine the effect with live music.

Sergei Eisenstein's 1925 silent movie hasn't aged as well as Shostakovich's music. There's a honest-to-gosh mustache twisting villain, and many of Eisenstein's once-revolutionary cinematic techniques are now so old-hat that it's impossible for us to feel their originality. (It's like hearing Walter Gieseking's Debussy for the first time - since it's now the way nearly all pianists play Debussy, we don't realize how original it was in the 1930s.) But Eisenstein's framing of scenes is still amazingly beautiful - he has the design sense of a master painter, making you viscerally aware of what "motion picture" used to mean - and the chiaroscuro (the contrast of stark white and deep black in nearly every scene) gives the movie tremendous visual intensity. Eisenstein makes most other film directors look either unimaginative or just plain lazy.

As for Shostakovich, I continue to find him the most enigmatic of the great composers. Musically, I understand what he's doing at any given moment; but from the standpoint of emotional or intellectual motivation, I rarely understand why he's doing it. Which fortunately is a largely theoretical issue: As a listener, I can simply immerse myself in Shostakovich's incredibly vivid and weirdly beautiful world.

The music was not written specifically for the film, which leads to a few semi-inexplicable juxtapositions. But all in all it works well, and the overall impact promises to be irresistible.

The concert is 8 p.m. Saturday. Learn more here.

Monday, September 10, 2007

PPAC Awards

On balance, Sunday night's Pikes Peak Arts Council Awards were a success:
  • The crowd at the Fine Arts Center's SaGaJi theater was the biggest in the awards' seven-year history.
  • The proceedings moved along at a good clip.
  • Though there were some surprising awards, that's the norm rather than the exception for this event.
  • The nominee-provided musical and poetic interludes gave the evening texture, and made the awards more meaningful to outsiders.
  • If you were one of those fortunate enough to win a PPAC award, you got a gorgeous enameled bowl made by Pat Musick that's certain to become an heirloom.
  • And the champagne was decent.
Not bad for $20. But there's still a lot that could be done to make the evening a richer experience:
  • The awards were given in a brusque, almost production-line fashion. The slides projected on the screen behind the stage were very helpful, but there were no film or audio clips of the winning performances, nor even brief descriptions of what made them stand out.
  • In the case of (at least) the Lifetime Achievement Award winner - this year it was muralist Eric Bransby - a brief speech would be welcome.
  • And if PPAC president Eve Tilley is going to be the evening's emcee again, she needs to be better prepared, both in terms of how to enunciate for a microphone and in how to pronounce all the nominees' names.
An unintentionally strange aspect of the ceremony was its parsing of performing arts groups, so that only one member of a a collaborative effort received an award when in fact it was the entire effort that was being honored.

If organizations don't collaborate, it's not a problem. But increasingly, performing arts organizations do collaborate, and the PPAC judging committees - and I was on two of them - have to do a better job of recognizing these hybrid productions. So "The Unicorn, the Gorgon and the Manticore" won awards in two categories without two of the three involved performing arts organizations - the Colorado Vocal Arts Ensemble and Colorado's Classical Youth Ballet - even being mentioned. To the extent that I was responsible for that oversight, I apologize to everyone who was slighted. We'll do better next year.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

We Knew It Was Great ...

... but it's gratifying to see composer Stephen Scott get some well-deserved praise for his bowed piano music: Scott's 1996 CD, "Vikings of the Sunrise," has been named one of "Music's Best-Kept Secrets" in the September 2007 issue of Gramophone magazine.

Five Gramophone critics tackled the challenge of finding 50 classical CDs that were both exceptionally good and relatively neglected. "Scott has 10 players manipulate a Baldwin grand's innards like demented puppeteers, and they create lush, twangy, hypnotic sonorities like nothing you've ever imagined," writes critic Jed Distler.

In the world of bowed piano, Scott is god: He created the medium and its literature, and directs the ensemble that performs it. A bowed piano concert is one of the local music scene's uniquely fabulous experiences, as the musicians move around the piano creating mysterious sounds. (So far I've missed the demented puppeteer angle.) But as Gramophone's recognition highlights, the music sounds great even without the choreography.

The CD is New Albion NA084. Colorado College blurb here; online portion of the original article here.