Songbook Summit, Charolais, Van Gogh’s Ear, and Prince of Broadway
By Barbara & Scott Siegel
In a new season that is, so far, more noteworthy for what is closing rather than for what is opening, we look to the mostly rare and unusual shows that have peppered the Summer landscape. While these shows have not dominated the season, so far, they have certainly enriched it.
59E59 Theaters led the way with a lot of the late Summer’s most entertaining fare. The gifted Anderson Twins (Peter & Will) offered four weeks of Great American Songbook heaven in the form of mostly instrumental song selections from the works of George Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, Harold Arlen, and Cole Porter. Specializing on sax and clarinet, and leading a lively, small band, the boys devoted one week to each of these four songwriting giants in a show they correctly titled Songbook Summit.
Pete and Will have learned how to put on tight, engaging, and enlightening shows. The patter is breezy and fun, the musical choices are a nice mix of the famous and the great, lesser known gems. The musicianship is exquisite. If the new regime at 59E59 Theaters is smart, they’ll grab the Anderson Twins to anchor their future Summers with shows much like these.
Also at 59E59 there is remarkable little one-person show that began in late Summer and is still playing thru Sept. 24. The show is called Charolais and it stars the wildly talented Noni Stapleton who also wrote this charming, funny, and wicked little play about a woman who is vying with a French cow (yes, an actual cow) for the affections of a burly Irish farmer. Smartly directed by Bairbre Ni Chaoimh, Ms. Stapleton plays all the parts, including the Piaf-like heifer, milking (you’ll excuse the expression) laughs from each carefully etched character.
Performed in fast-moving 65 minutes, the show is a remarkably honest exploration of love, lust, jealousy, and need. It is as funny as it is brutal. This is one of those special little shows that one hopes theater nominators from various committees will not overlook. But if they do, you shouldn’t.
Over at the Signature Theater on West 42 Street, a delicately beautiful musical (well, it’s not exactly a musical, but that description will have to do) called Van Gogh’s Ear held court for a number of memorable weeks. The music wasn’t original; it was opera, with arias chosen to match the story and the images. Beautifully sung, creating mood along with some emotional magic, the show was an effort at giving multi-media resonance to Van Gogh’s life and art.
The music mostly featured the works of Claude DeBussy and Gabriel Faure, with Carter Hudson playing/singing the role of Van Gogh and Chad Johnson essaying the pivotal role of his devoted brother, Theo. Also noteworthy was the unusually excellent and artful use of David Bengali’s projections, which often showed Van Gogh’s brushwork in close detail juxtaposed against a larger view of that portion of the painting. Fascinating! And that goes for the entire show, as well.
The much-anticipated Prince of Broadway opened at Manhattan Theater Club’s Samuel Friedman Theater at the end of the Summer to some surprisingly poor reviews. While the negative reviews all praised the performers and the material they brought to life on stage, they spent the majority of their time complaining about the show’s structure, which they felt didn’t explain enough (or anything) about what made Harold Prince the artist behind all of the great work he had created from the 1950s to the present.
We say to these negative reviews: you’re looking through the wrong end of the telescope. This is a revue of Harold Prince’s work. Look at the work! Sure, you can complain that you don’t like the structure but that’s the setting, not the jewel. Frankly, in the most fundamental musical theater way, Prince of Broadway is a pure, audience-pleasing show and should be appreciated for its gleaming showmanship. Given the chance, the audience will prove the critics wrong about this show. And glory to the performers who make it work so beautifully!
There were other shows that stood out over the Summer, among them A Parallelogram at Second Stage, and Suitcase Under the Bed at The Mint. But now we wait for what the Autumn will deliver, hoping that the season will provide more hits than misses.