Short takes: Broadway to Reed

From Portlanders on Broadway to Reed Arts Week to the Marvelous Stan Lee and power for Native artists, news and notes for a new week

Here, there, and everywhere:

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BROOKS ASHMANSKAS, the busy Broadway actor who grew up in Beaverton, has a new show in previews, and the New York Times has taken note. The four-hander musical comedy The Prom, which opens Thursday in the Longacre Theater, is a sendup of theatrical egotism, in which “an out-of-work Broadway troupe,” in The Times’s words, “descends on an all-American town to support a teenage girl who wants to pin a corsage on her girlfriend.” Ashmanskas stars as Barry Glickman, “who reminds everyone in earshot of his Drama Desk Award.”

Brooks Ashmanskas

Ashmanskas started out doing shows with the late James Erickson, the legendary razzle-dazzle director at Beaverton High School, and moved on to musicals at the old Portland Civic Theatre and elsewhere before heading for New York, where he landed as a replacement in a Broadway revival of How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying in 1995, and just kept going, in shows ranging from Little Me to The Producers to Gypsy, Present Laughter, Something Rotten!, Candide, Sunday in the Park with George, and more. Along the way he’s been nominated for a Tony and (like his character in The Prom) a Drama Desk Award, both for his featured role in Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me.

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Devilish Doings

Director, dancers, choreographer and conductor offer perspectives on this weekend’s University of Oregon staging of Stravinsky’s ‘The Soldier’s Story’

by GARY FERRINGTON

A young enlistee trades his fiddle to the devil in return for unlimited riches, a princess — and ultimately loss and grief. The Russian folk tale The Runaway Soldier and the Devil, which Igor Stravinsky and Swiss writer C.F Ramuz adapted and premiered during the brutality of World War I, is a metaphor for its time as a struggle between good and evil. The Soldier’s Story (L’histoire du soldatwas first performed in Switzerland 100 years ago on September 28, 1918 at the Theatre Lausanne. This weekend, a century later, a cadre of students and faculty at the University of Oregon’s School of Music and Dance, will stage a theatrical revival of the Faustian tale that retains the original’s scale while providing contemporary approaches.

The Soldier’s Story has been staged in many different ways over the years, including jazz, ballet, orchestral, and even Inuit versions. But when PAC Artistic Director Bronson York approached Associate Professor of Dance Shannon Mockli about a possible production of Stravinsky’s chamber musical theater piece, he wanted to make it much like it was originally conceived: a simple and transportable hour-long theatrical work that moved from village to village, and not necessarily performed on a stage or in a theater. “So with that in mind I really brought it back to the essentials,” York says. “It has no backdrops or even really a set, with one exception in the second act.”

Minimal set design with trio of dancers in the role of soldier, devil and princess. Photo: Luke Smith

The ensemble includes a story narrator, musicians, three actors, and three dancer-characters —a soldier, a devil and a princess who, Mockli says, are “not relegated to acting these parts. Rather, they all participate in each of the dance sections, sometimes representing their characters and sometimes more poetically expressing an image or idea [or] the emotion … of a scene.”

Mockli notes that “a trio in dance always expresses a kind of dynamic tension in its asymmetry.” The dancers interweave with one another and change partnerships throughout, each affecting the shifting experiences of the others and creating dynamic tension in the narrative. Ultimately, the trio of characters are implicated by each other’s changing actions and choices, as they are “woven in a kind of eternal web,” Mockli says. “The choreography lives in this sort of liminal space of being purely poetic or impressionistic.”

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Choral Arts Ensemble & Cappella Romana: many ways of being many 

Portland choirs sing music programmed and created by diverse and unified voices

By MATTHEW ANDREWS

Portland’s choral scene is so abundant it has its own calendar. With such an bounty of choirs, it’s no surprise that they represent many different ways of singing together. Two concerts in October—Choral Arts Ensemble’s season opener on October 13 at Rose City Park United Methodist Church, Cappella Romana’s Heaven and Earth on October 14 at St. Stephen Catholic Church—showcased two quite distinct approaches to creating choral music.

For CAE, it was their varied assortment of choral works, chosen collaboratively from their vast repertoire as a celebration of the ensemble’s long history of singing together; most of the selections, from Bach and Brahms to Ēriks Ešenvalds and Randall Thompson, were comfortably familiar, in a Western classical sort of way.

Cappella Romana performed ‘Heaven & Earth’ at Portland’s St. Mary’s Cathedral.

For Cappella Romana, on the other hand, the collaborative element was a matter of composers and singers working together within a unique and unified spiritual musical tradition—Orthodox Christianity and Byzantine Chant, traditions which are neither overly familiar (at least to Westerners) nor especially comfortable. Both approaches are valid, of course, but more importantly both demonstrate a crucial sense of unity-in-diversity, spiritual-musical solidarity, e pluribus unum, many voices coming together as one voice, seeking spiritual solace and satisfaction.

Choral Arts Ensemble: Fifty Years of Singing Together

In the opening performance of the the first concert of their fiftieth season, I was immediately struck by Choral Arts Ensemble’s brilliant tuning of even the simplest chords. This would emerge as their forte, a vertical sense of intonation, melodies and chords integrated in a way totally distinct from, say, Franco-Flemish Renaissance polyphony. It’s easy to hear a connection between the group’s democratic vibe and their approach to style, tuning, repertoire, and tradition. It probably wouldn’t be going too far to call it a distinctly Protestant attitude.

Choral Arts Ensemble of Portland opened its 50th anniversary season with a concert at Rose City Park United Methodist Church.

That big, resonant, vertical sound carried all through the concert, from the opening work—Schubert’s Gloria, its reverberant opening cadences turning on finely-tuned leading-tones—down through the full sound of English composer Colin Mawby’s 1995 Ave Verum. On Joshua Shank’s 2007 Sleeping out Full Moon, on a text by poet and WWI veteran Rupert Brooke, colorful Whitacrey harmony illuminated the lines “to all glory, to all gladness, to the infinite height.”

The chords got all melty and romantic on Josef Rheinberger’s 1855 Abendlied (Evening Song), and although their handful of Brahms Liebeslieder Waltzer (Love Song Waltzes) were perhaps not as lucid in this full choir setting as the quartet version we heard from The Ensemble a few seasons back, they were instead all lush and brimming with sehnsucht. In Ēriks Ešenvalds’s Only in Sleep, on a text by the Pulitzer-winning American poet Sara Teasdale, choir and soloists sang major thirds to make your eyes water. Offsetting Ešenvalds and Teasdale’s melancholy, the choir brought out a bright, poppy, Swingle Singers sound for Jake Runestad’s jolly John Muir song, Come to the Woods.

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Visions of art and science

A collaboration between a painter and neuroscientist at Ford Gallery

By MALLORY PRATT

How do we understand what we see? Inquiring minds have been considering this question for millennia, ever since early Homo lineages started making marks on cave walls. With the rise of empirical science in the past two hundred years, art and science became separate disciplines, a trend Leonardo di Vinci definitely would not have understood.

Into A Study represents a decisive step toward reuniting these disciplines by asking the question “How does viewing art help us understand how we see?” This collaboration between Paul Rutz, a painter, and Amanda Hampton Wray, a neuroscientist, aims at nothing less than integrating scientific and artistic inquiry as seamlessly as possible. As with all joint ventures, the success of the project rests on a foundation built from long association, mutual respect and rigorous, thoughtful compromise.

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‘La Traviata’: fallen woman rises again

Sterling singing and strong direction distinguish Portland Opera's latest production of Verdi's tragic perennial

by BRUCE BROWNE

It is 1840s Paris and the population is booming. Just outside the gaslight’s glow, the new urban lady of the evening offers her talents. She is a courtesan and her life will become a fascination in the literary, visual and performing arts.

“La Traviata” translates as “The Fallen Woman,” hardly royalty or swashbuckler. Giuseppe Verdi put her center stage, and opera goers continue to enjoy her life of glorious highs and tragic lows.

Verdi fast-tracked Alexander Dumas’s La Dame aux Camélias, taking the 1848 novel/1852 stage play to an operatic premiere in March of 1853. It was not well received. Fortunately for Verdi, however, his hugely successful Il Trovatore (which premiered two months earlier) provided a cushion. Verdi was able to regroup, recast the anti-heroine Violetta and the now-beloved opera was off and running by 1855.

Dumas’ novel, with the fictional “lady of the camellias” Marguerite, was based on his own love affair with Marie Duplessis (alias), a respected courtesan in the Paris society of the early 1840s. The legitimizing – the humanizing – of this courtesan has spawned dozens of “Camille” movies (e.g. Theda Bera, 1917, and Greta Garbo, 1936) and ballets. Julia Roberts launched her career as a “Pretty Woman” of New York. Dumas wrote a good story and both it and its protagonist have survived and thrived.

Aurelia Florian as Violetta in Portland Opera’s production of Verdi’s ‘La Traviata.’ Photo: Cory Weaver

Verdi’s (and librettist Piave’s) operatic version of the drama is expertly sculpted. The emotional highs and lows, the hypocrisy, the social/political landscape, the tension and ecstasy of young love… it’s all there – along with Verdi’s marvelous music, of course – and last Sunday afternoon, Portland Opera Association staged and performed all aspects of the epic work to full effect. Scenery and costumes were scintillating; orchestra and chorus were joined at the hip, and the solo roles, fervently and beautifully sung. Every solo singer was in fabulous voice; it was as balanced a total cast as I have ever heard in a Portland Opera performance.

Romanian soprano Aurelia Florian, in the role of Violetta, sings with a flexible, vibrant voice, capable of a variety of nuances in dynamics and color. After a few fluttery vocal moments in the first Act, she settled into the persona of Violetta. She was captivating in the entire aria “È Strano” (It is strange) and the succeeding “dialog” with Alfredo, her potential lover, by taking on a Scarlett O’Hara-like naiveté. Such a lovable coquette.

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DramaWatch: Let the big dog play

Suzan-Lori Parks' "Topdog/Underdog," to be staged at the Chapel Theatre, has been called the best American play of the past 25 years; plus Hand2Mouth on suicide watch, and a handful of plays running out of time.

“People like they historical shit in a certain way. They like it to unfold they way they folded it up. Neatly like a book. Not raggedy and bloody and screaming.”

Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks isn’t big on folding things up neatly. And despite what people may usually like, she serves up they historical shit in a way that earns plaudits and Pulitzers, particularly in the play that contains the above quote, Topdog/Underdog.

When the play opened on Broadway in 2002, the year following its off-Broadway premiere at the Public Theatre, The New York Times critic Ben Brantley wrote that it ”vibrates with the clamor of big ideas, audaciously and exuberantly expressed” and compared it to Ralph Ellison’s celebrated novel Invisible Man as an examination of “the existential traps of being African-American and male in the United States, the masks that wear the men as well as vice versa.”

LaTevin Alexander and Curtis Maxey Jr. star in “Topdog/Underdog” at the Chapel Theatre in Milwaukie. Photo: Salim Sanchez

Soon, it had earned a nomination for the best-play Tony Award (it lost to Edward Albee’s The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?) and won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama, making Parks the first black woman so honored. Not too much later, Portland had a production — at Artists Rep in 2003, directed by Antonio Sonera.

Parks’ work hardly has become a regular treat on our local stages. With the exception of some of the short pieces in her mammoth experiment 365 Days/365 Plays and, a couple of years ago, her In the Blood at Portland Actors Conservatory, to my knowledge none of her other plays have been produced here. That drought ends this weekend with the opening of Topdog/Underdog at Milwaukie’s Chapel Theatre, in a Street Scenes production directed by Bobby Bermea and Jamie M. Rea. LaTevin Alexander and Curtis Maxey Jr. star. Bermea, in particular, has been on a hot streak of late, with brilliant performances in Fences at Portland Playhouse this past spring and in Artists Rep’s fall opener Skeleton Crew, fine directing work on Fires in the Mirror for Profile, plus some insightful journalism for (ahem!) Oregon ArtsWatch.

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