The smell of blood and bronze

In today’s Wall Street Journal drama column I report from Wisconsin on American Players Theatre’s productions of An Iliad, The Island, and The Merry Wives of Windsor. Here’s an excerpt.

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America has no finer classical actor than Jim DeVita, a 21-year veteran of Wisconsin’s American Players Theatre. In recent seasons he’s starred there in “Antony and Cleopatra,” “The Critic,” “Long Day’s Journey into Night,” “Macbeth” and “The Seagull,” and the disciplined intensity of his performances in those widely varied roles has never failed to impress. This year, though, Mr. DeVita is outdoing himself in “An Iliad,” the 2012 Lisa Peterson-Denis O’Hare monodrama that uses Robert Fagles’ translation of Homer’s epic poem as the starting point for a colloquial recounting of the Trojan War myth. It’s a dream part for a first-class actor, and to say that Mr. DeVita fills the bill is to understate the case by several orders of magnitude.

557dd6044c031.imageWorking hand in hand with John Langs, the director, Mr. DeVita has made over the unnamed “poet” of “An Iliad” into an eccentric, hard-drinking teacher whose mission is to use Homer’s poem to teach his students how war has the malign power to seduce men…

The manic, near-demented ferocity of Mr. DeVita’s acting—think Robin Williams as a classics professor—is so all-consuming as to suggest that you’re not witnessing a theatrical event but taking part in a real-life experience….

“An Iliad” is being performed in APT’s 201-seat Touchstone Theatre, a thrust-stage house of unrivaled intimacy that is no less well suited to Derrick Sanders’ revival of “The Island,” the famous 1973 play in which Athol Fugard, writing in partnership with the actors John Kani and Winston Ntshona, puts you inside a chokingly tiny cell on Robben Island, the site of one of South Africa’s most notorious apartheid-era prisons for political dissidents…

Yes, the play is nominally “about” apartheid, but its real subject is the transformative power of art and friendship, and LaShawn Banks and Chiké Johnson, who play the prisoners, are so far inside their parts that the word “realism” fails altogether to suggest the truth of their performances…

Should you feel the understandable need for a chaser after seeing “An Iliad” or “The Island,” I recommend that you climb the hill to the company’s 1,147-seat outdoor amphitheatre to see Tim Ocel’s version of “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” a warmly genial staging in which every line is enunciated with clarity and common sense….

Brian Mani, who proved his uproarious mettle as a stage comedian in APT’s productions of George Bernard Shaw’s “Widowers’ Houses” and Somerset Maugham’s “The Circle,” here gives us a W.C. Fields-like Falstaff who oozes utter fraudulence from every pore…

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To read my reviews of An Iliad and The Island, go here.

To read my review of The Merry Wives of Windsor, go here.

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Broadway’s missing link

nilssonIn today’s Wall Street Journal “Sightings” column I reflect on a near-unknown pop record that could have changed the course of the Broadway musical had it been commercially released. Here’s an excerpt.

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What went wrong with the Broadway musical? It used to be one of the main sources of creative vitality in American music, but now it’s a stylistic backwater. Why? I can tell you in two sentences. Fifty years ago this week, the number-one single on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart was the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” And what were the hottest musicals on Broadway? “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Hello, Dolly!”

Pop music and the Broadway musical were already veering off in opposite directions when the Stones and the Beatles first laid siege to the top of the charts in 1964. A year later, the chasm that separated them appeared to have become unbridgeable. A handful of shows later in the ‘60s, including “Hair” and “Promises, Promises,” sought to narrow that fast-growing gap, but they promised more in the way of musical substance than they delivered. Not until Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton,” which opens on Broadway next Thursday, would there be a hit musical with a first-rate score that was (as I said in my review of the off-Broadway production) “plugged straight into the wall socket of contemporary music.” For the most part, the Broadway songwriters of the ‘60s and ‘70s deliberately ignored rock, R&B and the other musical idioms to which the baby boomers were listening, and by the time they finally got around to changing their minds, it was too late to bring younger listeners on board.

primroseDid it have to be that way? Probably, but not necessarily—and the man who might have nudged Broadway in a different direction was Stephen Sondheim.

To be sure, Mr. Sondheim is on the face of it a thoroughly unlikely suspect. He admitted in 1988 that he’s “not interested in rock or pop because I wasn’t brought up with it,” later claiming that “attempting to blend contemporary pop music with theater music…doesn’t work very well.” Maybe he’s right. But in 1969, Harry Nilsson, one of the most imaginative popular singer-songwriters of his day, cut a remarkable record of a Sondheim ballad called “Marry Me a Little” that hinted at what might have been….

Arranged by George Tipton, Nilsson’s longtime collaborator, it’s an exquisitely crafted, gorgeously sung piece of late-‘60s pop whose multi-tracked vocals and richly layered yet clean-textured orchestral accompaniment are strikingly reminiscent of the Beatles’ “Abbey Road,” which had come out earlier that year….

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Read the whole thing here.

Harry Nilsson’s 1969 recording of “Marry Me a Little”:

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Replay: a 1968 TV interview with Jimi Hendrix

TV CAMERAThe Jimi Hendrix Experience is interviewed on the CBC. The other members of the group are Noel Redding on bass and Mitch Mitchell on drums. The interview was conducted by Terry David Mulligan in Vancouver on September 7, 1968:

(This is the latest in a series of arts-related videos that appear in this space each Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.)

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Two for the road

The_Cliff_House,_Ogunquit,_MEMrs. T and I are hitting the road this afternoon for a desperately needed vacation on the coast of Maine. I can’t even begin to tell you how much the two of us need to get away from it all, and that’s exactly what we intend to do.

I’ve already uploaded the routine postings that appear in this space every day, and I’ve also filed all of my Commentary and Wall Street Journal copy that will come due during our absence. I’ll be checking my e-mail from time to time, but not regularly, and if you should happen to see me on Facebook or Twitter, I urge you to give me plenty of hell for not pulling the plug all the way out of the wall.

I’ll be back in the saddle starting next Wednesday, when Mrs. T and I drive into New York to see the last press preview of the Broadway transfer of Hamilton. Until then, I leave you with the following heartfelt sentiment, courtesy of an old friend:

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So you want to see a show?

Here’s my list of recommended Broadway, off-Broadway, and out-of-town shows, updated weekly. In all cases, I gave these shows favorable reviews (if sometimes qualifiedly so) in The Wall Street Journal when they opened. For more information, click on the title.

An American in Paris (musical, G, too complex for small children, nearly all performances sold out last week, reviewed here)
Fun Home (serious musical, PG-13, all performances sold out last week, reviewed here)
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder (musical, PG-13, nearly all performances sold out last week, reviewed here)
Hand to God (black comedy, X, absolutely not for children or prudish adults, reviewed here)
The King and I (musical, G, perfect for children with well-developed attention spans, some performances sold out last week, reviewed here)
Matilda (musical, G, all performances sold out last week, reviewed here)
Les Misérables (musical, G, too long and complicated for young children, some performances sold out last week, reviewed here)
On the Town (musical, G, contains double entendres that will not be intelligible to children, reviewed here)

Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps (comedy, G, ideal for bright children, remounting of Broadway production, original production reviewed here)
The Fantasticks (musical, G, suitable for children capable of enjoying a love story, reviewed here)
The Flick (serious comedy, PG-13, too long for young people with limited attention spans, reviewed here)
The Weir (drama, PG-13, remounting of original off-Broadway production, extended through Sept. 6, original production reviewed here)

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Shakespeare, PG-13, closes Aug. 28, reviewed here)
11667489_10153106946228893_6080208298093203823_nThe Winter’s Tale (Shakespeare, PG-13, closes Aug. 29, reviewed here)

Sweet Charity (musical, PG-13, closes Oct. 31, reviewed here)
The Twelve-Pound Look (one-act comedy, G, not suitable for children, closes Sept. 12, reviewed here)
You Never Can Tell (Shaw, PG-13, closes Oct. 25, reviewed here)

A Streetcar Named Desire (drama, PG-13, closes Sept. 5, reviewed here)

Shows for Days (comedy, PG-13, sexual situations, closes Aug. 23, reviewed here)

Lost in Yonkers (drama, PG-13, remounting of off-Broadway production, closes Aug. 1, original production reviewed here)

Doubt (drama, PG-13, closes Aug. 2, reviewed here)

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Snapshot: Nureyev and Fonteyn on The Hollywood Palace

TV CAMERADame Margot Fonteyn and Rudolph Nureyev dance the “Black Swan” pas de deux from Swan Lake, choreographed by Marius Petipa and set to the music of Tchaikovsky. This performance, introduced by Fred Astaire, was originally telecast on The Hollywood Palace on October 2, 1965:

(This is the latest in a series of arts-related videos that appear in this space each Monday and Wednesday.)

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Almanac: Robert Penn Warren on euphemisms

INK BOTTLE“I don’t care much about pretty words any more. You live with words a long time. Then all at once you are old, and there are the things and the words don’t matter any more.”

Robert Penn Warren, All the King’s Men

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Homes away from home

flw-bioTwenty years ago Our Girl in Chicago took me on a tour of Frank Lloyd Wright’s self-designed home in Oak Park, Illinois. It was the beginning of what was soon to become a full-blown obsession. Since then I’ve toured fourteen of the thirty-seven Wright houses that are currently open to the public, spent the night in six of them (two more than once), and viewed the exteriors of dozens of other Wright-designed buildings of various kinds.

That’s why I brought along my copy of William Allin Storrer’s The Architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright: A Complete Catalogue when I went to Wisconsin last week. It contains, among other things, the street address of every Wright building in the world, and since I was flying into Milwaukee in the morning and driving from there to Spring Green, Wright’s home, I knew I’d have plenty of time to look at some houses along the way.

NEXT DOOR TO BOGK HOUSEMilwaukee contains five buildings designed by Wright, most of them private residences. More often than not, his houses were commissioned by people who had a fair amount of money to spend, meaning that they were either built on large sites that are still surrounded by trees or in upscale neighborhoods that have stayed that way. The Bogk House, a two-story masonry residence built in 1916, is one of the latter, and it makes an impression that will be familiar to anyone who goes out of his way to look at Wright houses. It’s an unostentatious building that fits perfectly onto its small lot and is surrounded by far more imposing homes, but no sooner do you catch sight of the Bogk House than they all seem to disappear from view.

RICHARDS BLOCKSome of Wright’s older houses, however, are located in areas that have changed greatly since they were built. Such is the case with the two small Wright houses and four duplexes that share a single block in Milwaukee’s Burnham Park, which is on the other side of town from the Bogk House, not far from the airport. Built between 1915 and 1916, they were known as American System-Built Homes and were specifically designed to be affordable by working-class people. This was a goal in which Wright devoutly believed, though his painstaking methods made it impossible for him to turn his idealistic notion into a large-scale reality. (Joseph Eichler came a lot closer, but he was no more capable than Wright of overcoming the entrenched resistance of the homebuying public to midcentury modernism.)

A century later, Burnham Park is still a working-class neighborhood, but one that has long since fallen victim to urban decay. Most of the signs on the storefront businesses in the vicinity of West Burnham Street are in Spanish, and none of them suggests the immediate presence of any noticeable amount of wealth.

RICHARDS FROM SIDEThe most striking of the Burnham Park residences, known to scholars and specialists as the Arthur L. Richards Small House, is an 800-square-foot bungalow that has been meticulously restored by architectural conservationists. The exterior is in pristine condition and the landscaping is immaculate. To stand in front of this exquisitely designed house and look across the street is to feel as though you’ve somehow found your way to the borderline separating two worlds that have nothing whatsoever in common. It’s a piercingly sad sensation, a feeling that the universe is out of joint.

From Milwaukee I drove past Madison, stopping off to look at one of my half-dozen favorite Wright dwellings, the two-story Walter Rudin House. Built in 1959 for a pair of mathematicians, it’s one of eleven prefab houses that Wright designed in the Fifties for Marshall Erdman, a builder who shared his dream of bringing modern architecture to the masses. It didn’t work—the houses ended up being too expensive for their intended buyers—but the Rudin House got built, and is gorgeous to behold.

RUDIN HOUSEThe house sits in a heavily wooded lot on a block full of ranch houses of similar vintage, all of them carefully kept and several of which were visibly influenced by Wright’s ideas about what he called “the small house problem.” Yet it, too, stands out from its surroundings, though not in high relief. The surrounding trees make the Rudin House somewhat hard to see from the street, and also give the present occupants (one of whom was home when I stopped by) a bit of much-needed privacy from pests like me.

I pulled into Spring Green that night, and spent the next three days seeing shows at American Players Theatre. Midway through my stay, I received an unexpected invitation from Minerva Montooth, one of the permanent residents of Taliesin, Wright’s estate, to spend Sunday night in the guest bedroom of the main house. It seems she’d read “Spending the Night With Frank Lloyd Wright,” a piece I wrote for The Wall Street Journal in 2005, and thought that I might possibly appreciate the opportunity to stay at Taliesin. Needless to say, she was right.

LIVING ROOMI’ll be writing about my visit in the Journal next month, so I don’t want to say much about it now. Instead I’ll quote from what I wrote ten years ago:

To turn the key of a Wright house is to step into a parallel universe. The huge windows, the open, uncluttered floor plans, the straightforward use of such simple materials as wood, brick, concrete and rough-textured masonry: All create the illusion of a vast interior space in close harmony with its natural surroundings. Instead of walls, subtly varied ceiling heights denote the different living areas surrounding the massive fireplace that is the linchpin of every Wright house….

All this is true of Taliesin as well. But there’s one big difference: you are at all times aware that Wright himself lived in the house, and designed it to suit his own needs and preferences. Wherever your eye falls, you see his stamp and feel his presence. It isn’t an uncomfortable presence—he’s more like a friendly ghost—but it’s definitely there.

11717302_10153536357812193_3294336669293395676_oNow I’m back on the East Coast again, sitting in the living room of the century-old farmhouse apartment in rural Connecticut that I share with Mrs. T. It’s a pleasant space, one in which we’re more than content to live, but today I feel, as I always do after visiting a Frank Lloyd Wright house, that there isn’t much I wouldn’t give to spend the rest of my days in a building like the Rudin House. While I’m not one of those fanatics who has no interest in any other style, I’ve come to feel over the years that Wright’s approach to domestic architecture is completely in tune with my own sense of how to live.

In 2005 I quoted a remark that Wright made about the Bernard Schwartz House, the first of his homes in which I spent the night. He called it “a house designed for utility and fecund living….in which there is no predominating feature, but in which the entire is so coordinated as to achieve a thing of beauty.” I rather think I could put up with a leaky roof in return for such beauty.

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From Bridge Over Troubled Water, released in 1970 Simon & Garfunkel perform “So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright,” written by Simon:

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