The wrong man

In today’s Wall Street Journal drama column I review a very interesting Florida show, the Westcoast Black Theater Troupe’s revival of Charles Smith’s Knock Me a Kiss. Here’s an excerpt.

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It is an untruth universally acknowledged that America has no class system. In fact, we have lots of class systems, none of which is more complex—or less openly discussed—than that of the black community. Such untold tales make for exciting theater, but I haven’t seen a play that dared to put America’s black upper class onstage since Lydia R. Diamond’s “Stick Fly” came to Broadway in 2011. So it was a real pleasure for me to make the belated acquaintance of “Knock Me a Kiss,” a history play currently being performed by Florida’s Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe in which Charles Smith uses the failed marriage of Yolande Du Bois as the occasion for a satirical yet sympathetic study of life among the well-to-do blacks of Harlem in the Jazz Age.

knock_me_a_kiss4Since W.E.B. Du Bois, Yolande’s father and one of the play’s central characters, is no longer as widely known as he deserves to be, it’s worth saying a few preliminary words about him. Born in 1868, the author of “The Souls of Black Folk” was a sociologist turned civil-rights activist who believed that the salvation of his race would be secured by the rise of a classically educated elite that he dubbed the “Talented Tenth.” Naturally, Du Bois counted himself among the upper crust, so he was horrified when his daughter fell for Jimmie Lunceford, who would soon become a world-famous bandleader but in 1928 was still an obscure musician whose family came from nowhere in particular. Accordingly, Du Bois muscled in on their romance, insisting that she instead marry Countee Cullen, the Harlem Renaissance poet. That’s a full-bore plot right there—and what makes it even more interesting is that Cullen, though neither Du Bois nor Yolande seems to have known it prior to the marriage, was almost certainly gay….

First performed in Chicago in 2000, “Knock Me a Kiss” has since made the regional rounds, and even had a brief off-Broadway run five years ago, with André De Shields playing Du Bois. I didn’t catch that well-reviewed production, but I can’t imagine that it was more impressive than this one, directed by Chuck Smith (no relation to the playwright), who previously staged the Chicago and New York premieres of “Knock Me a Kiss.” The six-person cast is tightly knit, with Emerald Rose Sullivan giving a fiery, smartly paced performance as Yolande….

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Read the whole thing here.

Jimmie Lunceford and His Orchestra perform “Knock Me a Kiss” in 1942. The vocal is by Willie Smith:

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Make it new (or don’t bother)

In today’s Wall Street Journal I look at the parallel phenomena of the “commodity musical” and film versions of classic novels. Is it possible to adapt familiar source material in a faithful way that is also fresh? Here’s an excerpt.

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Broadway’s latest arrival is “Honeymoon in Vegas,” a new musical that is, like so many other musicals of the past half-decade, a stage version of a popular and well-remembered screen comedy. In the manner of most such shows, it tracks the plot and dialogue of the movie closely, enough so that if you’ve seen the movie, the musical will hold no great surprises for you. That’s why I call these shows “commodity musicals”: They treat their source material not as an occasion for creativity but as a blue-chip investment, an exploitable commodity that is being “repurposed” to make more money.

2.166738It’s nothing new, of course, that “Honeymoon in Vegas” is based on a pre-existing piece of source material. As all musical-comedy buffs know, most musicals have always been adaptations. Take a look at “American Musicals,” the Library of America’s recently published two-volume set containing the scripts of 16 golden-age Broadway musicals written between 1927 and 1969, and you’ll find that four of the shows therein were based on plays and six on novels or short stories….

The difference between commodity musicals and their predecessors is that they imitate the films on which they’re based in a way that is unimaginative at best, slavish at worst (and “Honeymoon in Vegas,” which incorporates a couple of newish plot twists, is one of the very best of the lot). This is because they are specifically, sometimes even cynically designed to appeal to casual theatergoers who love the movies on which they’re based so much that they don’t want to be surprised. That’s the fatal flaw of the genre: It’s a sure-fire recipe for creative strangulation….

Hollywood typically runs into similar problems whenever it tries to turn classic works of prose fiction into movies. It’s hugely difficult to film any novel in a way that’s worthy of its source, and the better the book, the tougher the job….

dionne-cher-cluelessNot surprisingly, most directors opt to play it safe and go the commodity route, with results that are either inhibitingly close to the source material or watered down to the point of innocuousness. On the rare occasions when a filmed classic takes creative wing, it’s usually one in which the material has been treated with liberating freedom, as in the cases of “Apocalypse Now” and “Clueless,” Amy Heckerling’s 1995 valley-girl rewrite of Jane Austen’s “Emma.” But it is possible to adapt high-quality fiction for the screen in a way that is at once faithful and imaginative. John Huston did it with “The Maltese Falcon” in 1941, and Max Ophüls did it even more successfully seven years later when he and screenwriter Howard Koch turned “Letter from an Unknown Woman” into a darkly romantic evocation of fin-de-siécle Vienna that is every bit as artistically successful as the Stefan Zweig novella on which it is based….

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Read the whole thing here.

The theatrical trailer for Max Ophüls’ film version of Letter from an Unknown Woman, starring Joan Fontaine and Louis Jourdan:

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Almanac: Cyril Connolly on God

INK BOTTLE“There cannot be a personal God without a pessimistic religion. As soon as there is a personal God he is a disappointing God.”

Cyril Connolly, The Unquiet Grave

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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.

Cabaret (musical, PG-13/R, virtually all performances sold out last week, closes Mar. 29, reviewed here)
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder (musical, PG-13, most performances sold out last week, reviewed here)
Matilda (musical, G, some performances sold out last week, reviewed here)
Les Misérables (musical, G, too long and complicated for young children, reviewed here)
On the Town (musical, G, contains double entendres that will not be intelligible to children, reviewed here)

The Fantasticks (musical, G, suitable for children capable of enjoying a love story, reviewed here)

MatchmakerRoederIN SARASOTA, FLA.:
The Matchmaker (romantic farce, G, closes Apr. 11, reviewed here)

The Elephant Man (drama, PG-13, contains partial nudity, all performances sold out last week, closes Feb. 21, reviewed here)

Saint Joan (drama, PG-13, remounting of off-Broadway production, closes Feb. 8, original production reviewed here)

One Slight Hitch (comedy, PG-13, reviewed here)

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Snapshot: Bob Hope sings “Thanks for the Memory”

TV CAMERABob Hope and Shirley Ross introduce the song “Thanks for the Memory,” by Ralph Rainger and Leo Robin, in The Big Broadcast of 1938. W.C. Fields is briefly seen in the introductory sequence:

(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: Thoreau on do-gooders

INK BOTTLE“If I knew for a certainty that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I would run for my life.”

Henry David Thoreau, Walden

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“Carved out of living flesh”

critic-Ratatouille-300x300I reviewed several hundred concerts and opera performances in Kansas City and New York during the first half of my career as a professional writer. After I became the drama critic of The Wall Street Journal, though, I started going to so many plays that it was hard for me to find the time to see anything else. By then I knew from experience that no matter how hard you try, you simply can’t see all the things you want to see, and that if you see too many, you won’t properly appreciate any of them. If you doubt it, try spending a whole day in an art museum. No matter how richly stocked it is with masterpieces, a time will come—usually sooner than you expect—when you’re no longer seeing any of them. All you’re doing is looking at them, which isn’t the same thing.

Something had to give, so I stopped going to classical concerts save at increasingly distant intervals. The last one I attended was in 2012, during my stay at the MacDowell Colony. It was a wonderful experience, but it didn’t tempt me to change my ways, least of all to hear yet another Rachmaninoff Three. The truth is that I no longer feel the need to hear public performances of the standard repertoire, no matter how good they may be. Once you reach a certain age, you’re likely to decide, as I have, that life’s too short to waste any more of it splitting interpretative hairs. If I want to hear, say, the Chopin Barcarolle, I put on this recording, which is almost certainly superior to any performance I’m ever likely to hear at Carnegie Hall, or anywhere else in the known universe. Yes, it’s within the realm of possibility that somebody may someday play the piece even better, but…so what? I have better things to do than hold my breath waiting for the second coming of Dinu Lipatti.

UnknownThat said, I really am a devout believer in the superiority of live music to the canned kind, and it also happens that Mrs. T loves going to classical concerts and regularly bemoans the fact that we don’t do it anymore. So when I heard that the Amphion String Quartet was performing on Sanibel Island last Thursday, I got on the phone and ordered two tickets. This was, to put it mildly, an uncharacteristic piece of behavior on my part, for not only did I know nothing about the Amphion Quartet, but I didn’t even know what the program was.

Having stuck my neck out, I got curious, poked around on Facebook, found a page for the group, and sent them a direct message asking what they’d be playing. A couple of hours later, I got a reply—Haydn’s “Bird” Quartet, Leoš Janáček’s “Intimate Letters” Quartet, and the Grieg G Minor Quartet—and whooped with joy. No matter how well or poorly they played it, this was my kind of program, and I was happily surprised at the unexpected prospect of hearing it at an island resort on the Gulf of Mexico.

On Thursday we went at the appointed hour to Sanibel’s “concert hall,” a nondescript multipurpose auditorium, presented our tickets, and found ourselves a pair of seats down front. Shortly thereafter, four musicians came on stage, instruments in hand, and started playing. My head automatically started to fill up with descriptive phrases, the residual reflex of half a lifetime of reviewing. Cut it out, I told myself. You’re not working tonight. Shut up and listen. So I did, and reveled anew in the experience, heightened by my prolonged hiatus from concertgoing, of listening to a group of immensely talented youngsters play three masterworks, none of them well known and two of which, the Grieg and Haydn quartets, were entirely new to me.

9780571225101Best of all was the Janáček, a slashingly intense and desperate piece that was prefaced by a few words from David Southorn, one of the two violinists, who read to the audience a letter that the octogenarian composer wrote in 1928 to Kamila Stösslová, the woman who inspired him to write it. Janáček had just heard the quartet, which is a musical portrayal of their relationship, for the very first time:

I listen. Did I write that? Those cries of joy, but what a strange thing, also cries of terror after a lullaby. Exaltation, a warm declaration of love, imploring; untamed longing. Resolution, relentlessly to fight with the world over you. Moaning, confiding, fearing. Crushing everything beneath me if it resisted. Standing in wonder before you at our first meeting. Amazement at your appearance; as if it had fallen to the bottom of a well and from that very moment I drank the water of that well. Confusion and high-pitched song of victory: “You’ve found a woman who was destined for you.” Just my speech and just your amazed silence. Oh, it’s a work as if carved out of living flesh. I think that I won’t write a more profound and a truer one.

Two months later, he was dead.

Having turned off my mental reviewing machine, I can tell you nothing specific about the performances, merely that Mrs. T and I found them to be fabulously good, enough so that I downloaded the Amphion Quartet’s newly released debut album, which contains the Grieg and Janáček quartets, as soon as we came home. And when we got to Siesta Key on Saturday, I checked out the Sarasota Orchestra’s website and saw that Stephen Hough, a pianist whom I admire extravagantly, would be playing the Beethoven G Major Concerto, a piece that I adore, this coming weekend.

“Do you think you might possibly like to go to another concert on Sunday afternoon?” I asked Mrs. T.

“You bet!” she said.

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The Amphion Quartet played the same works by Haydn, Janáček, and Grieg at New York’s Alice Tully Hall on Sunday. The New York Times review of that concert is here.

The Amphion Quartet performs Hugo Wolf’s Italian Serenade:

The Pacifica String Quartet plays the first movement of Janáček’s “Intimate Letters” Quartet on WNYC’s Soundcheck in 2009:

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Lookback: my first (and only) visit to a karaoke bar

LOOKBACKFrom 2005:

Unlikely as it may sound, seeing as how I’m a New York artblogger and all, I’d never been to a karaoke bar. The closest I’d come was seeing Lost in Translation. So not only was I being thrust into a new milieu, but my guides were a quartet of professional musicians who all happened to be karaoke buffs. The results were, to put it mildly, a hoot and a half, though it took me a little while to catch on. As I watched the lyrics to “Bette Davis Eyes” flash on the screen, I asked, “But…where’s the music?“…

Read the whole thing here.

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