Chamber Music Northwest review: Brahms re-invigorated

Ambitious theater and music performance reveals an inspired composer, but an uninspired story


Editor’s note: Chamber Music Northwest’s new production,  “An Unlikely Muse: Brahms and Mühlfeld,” received its premiere at this summer’s festival before going on tour. ArtsWatch sent two writers to cover it, one from a musical perspective, the other a theatrical one. They came away with different impressions.

Even at the height of his fame, Johannes Brahms was an unusually private person. He rarely made public statements aside from his music, and towards the end of his life he burned piles of letters his family and closest friends had sent him over the years, even asking for his own letters back. (This was long before copiers, let alone e-mail.) In contrast, his rival, composer and dramatist Richard Wagner, left a torrent of text about his life and ideas, including some the world could have happily done without. Still, Brahms’s life had its portentous if not operatic moments.

The Dover Quartet joined actor Jack Gilpin, clarinetist David Shifrin and pianist Yevgeny Yontov at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Kimmie Fadem.

The Dover Quartet joined clarinetist David Shifrin and pianist Yevgeny Yontov at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Kimmie Fadem.

One moment music lovers can be especially grateful for was his meeting with the clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld in 1891, shortly after the composer had decided to retire. He was so taken with Mühlfeld’s artistry that he began calling him Miss Clarinet (Fräulein Klarinette), possibly in wistful memory of times spent squiring various attractive young female singers around Viennese society. That artistry got Brahms composing again, not only writing four meaty chamber works featuring clarinet, but also no fewer than 20 piano solo works, many that would become audience favorites.

No car chases or vampires in sight, but this story of creative renewal is pretty dramatic as classical composers’ lives go, and it was probably irresistible to David Shifrin, who is not only Chamber Music Northwest’s artistic director but also an internationally renowned clarinetist. CMNW teamed with playwright Harry Clark, actor Jack Gilpin, and director Troy Hollar to create a cross between a concert and a play, a one-man show with live music. As a composer who’s been in awe of Brahms for 40 years, I found it fascinating, although I naturally focused much more on its music than its modest drama.


Clackamas Repertory Theatre strikes up one of America’s most popular bands with greater Portland’s latest revival of Meredith Willson’s beloved musical The Music Man.

For more than half a century the songs and characters that make up this delicate slice of midwestern pie have delighted us with a good celebration and a light poke of fun at Americana. For every jar of prize-winning pickles is a mayonnaise-and-banana sandwich; for every good turn from a neighbor is a keep-it-and-do-it-yourselfer. From its initial Broadway run in 1957 and sweeps at that season’s Tonys, to the charming 1962 film adaptation, to Matthew Broderick’s television revival a few years back, and the countless covers of the hits, The Music Man captures the spirit of small towns that dot our landscape.

Seventy-six trombones in the big parade: a whole town proudly marches. Photo: Clackamas Repertory Theatre

Seventy-six trombones in the big parade: a whole town proudly marches. Photo: Clackamas Repertory Theatre

There’s less cynicism and fable-making than in Oklahoma!, but the same pride in simplicity remains. It’s a good call for Clackamas Rep to put this on for its patrons: Oregon City is a bit like River City, Iowa, with its historic main street and feet on the edge of the Willamette. The seats on the night I attended were filled by families: grandparents, parents, and many children. The excitement in the air was the result of the rare occasion when an audience knows that a company is putting on a story for them that shines nostalgically on the roots of our yesteryear.

Playing the role of Harold Hill is a delicate juggling act. Robert Preston set a high bar with a sexy masculinity that somehow worked: even though Preston was supposed to be a handsome rake, the naked lines on his face made him look like he’d seen a few encounters with a switchblade. He was convincing as a con: we believed his Harold Hill and his chemistry with librarian Marian Paroo. To revive the role just as Preston did would be a strange imitation game, and most likely turn audiences away in laughter. Dave Sweeney takes some, but far from all, of his cues from Preston’s Hill: a devilish smile here and there, the absolute absence of affect when emotions run high, and the grifter’s power of hypnotism when explaining his “think system.”

Sweeney shines in the musical’s rhythmic songs The Sadder but Wiser Girl and Marian the Librarian. At the beginning of the Marian number, when he holds up the bag of marbles and describes each one in detail, down to the biggest one with an American flag, and how they’d excel at breaking the library’s silence in the beginning of the Marian number, it seems that Sweeney, like Hill, knows and appreciates the old kid’s game and also the more mature game of going after a girl. Lucky for us, Sweeney plays Hill with the composure of a man older than Marian who knows his way around the block. There’s no swinging his arms back and forth, as if he’s always ready to march down Main Street in his red plumed hat.

Croon moon June: Dave Sweeny as Professor Harold Hill, Kelly Lanzillo as Marian Paroo. Photo: Clackamas Repertory Theatre

Croon moon June: Dave Sweeny as Professor Harold Hill, Kelly Lanzillo as Marian Paroo. Photo: Clackamas Repertory Theatre

Kelly Lanzillo captures the essence of Marian, the librarian, nicely: she’s got the thick skin with a soft wishing heart that the librarian cultivates in her own con game. Her delicate soprano’s coloratura in Goodnight My Someone and Till There Was You swept the theater and focused straight on her performance, as if we’d fixed our eyes at a certain point in the night sky. Lanzillo conveys the bottled-up tension of a pretty girl who ignores being looked at. There is a magnetism between Sweeney have a magnetism, but they stick to a midwestern etiquette of keeping it private. Their budding relationship relies more on like finding like and insider knowledge that they’ve found at long last mutual understanding than the hope of a good passionate kiss.

Marian’s bereaving kid brother Wynthrop is played by Carter Christianson, who does a swell job of being the awkward shy boy who needs some prompting and attention to come out of his shell. He has the nervous twitch at the arms when forced to lisp out his s’s. Christianson’s Gary, Indiana had the adorable spark of a whippersnapper who’s put his foot in the door of confidence and bubbles over in pride at the chance of fitting in. He sings it like it’s the first time he’s been given chewing gum and that moment of excitement will have a splendid domino fall to come.

The River City kids ensemble pack a powerful punch of energy in their dance steps and sometime acrobatics across stage. Alia Cohn’s Amaryllis does some impressive backflips and cartwheels which make us wonder if she shouldn’t try out for the Olympics at some point.


The most obvious sign that Clackamas Rep put a lot of exuberance an

‘Forum’: We love to laugh

Stephen Sondheim's 1960s romp "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" brightens the summer at Broadway Rose

A Night at the Opera, I mean A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, is taking the stage at Broadway Rose Theatre with togas, gadflies and a good romp into 1960s humor.

The ’60s needed some good laughs: Forum opened on Broadway amid the Cold War worries of 1962, anticipating a decade of land wars in Asia, protests and riots, assassinations. It’s no wonder people dialed back to a lighter, simpler, elementary humor. After a TV dinner and news program filled with commentary on potential nuclear war, a man in a three-piece suit slipping on a banana peel saved many people’s sanity. Stephen Sondheim’s Forum was such an antidote, and god knows, we could use some good laughs right now.

Raphael Likes, Collin Carver, and Joey Klei cutting up at the Forum. Photo: Liz Wade

Raphael Likes, Collin Carver, and Joey Klei cutting up at the Forum. Photo: Liz Wade

The hijinks in Forum are a blend of the Marx Brothers’ zany surreal layered comedies with Shakespeare’s mistaken identities and yearning lovers, all put in a Roman setting. There’s also a little Jeeves and Wooster – the smarter servant under the dimwitted master. Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart’s book for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum took the best from one of Will’s favorite playwrights, the Roman Plautus, who pioneered many of the devices. Shevelove, Gelbart and Sondheim called in Jerome Robbins, who had collaborated on West Side Story and Gypsy, to tighten up the edges and give Forum some of his play-doctoring muscle work. The results are some bright and well-defined characters who move in a neat syncopation through side-splitting chaos.


Ain’t no mountain high enough

Third Rail Rep's "Annapurna" dives into the depths of middle-age regret from the heights of the mountaintop

Sharr White’s two-person play Annapurna drops us into the center of a hellhole surrounded by the snow-peaked Rockies, the infinite crags and features of the mountains that cut the country in half with an immense buckle. The mountains are so high in some places that it snows in July at the crests. Sunburns happen all year ’round, and oxygen becomes rarer with the elevation.

Here, in this alpine isolation, director Isaac Lamb, actors Karen Trumbo and Bruce Burkhartsmeier, and Third Rail Rep take on the vistas of middle-age regrets. We’re in a trailer, the kind owned by a fugitive. Scenic designer Kay Blankenship has us in years-old soaked grime, grease, and perma-dust that has settled and become a petrified feature of the longhouse hovel. The trailer looks like the backseat of a teenager’s car cluttered with moldy food cartons, curdled milk bottles, dirty laundry, and trash. The only elements that seem missing from this realistic set are random hairs or nail clippings, but no one would want to look that closely. If this home is a picture of the owner, the owner is a hot mess.

Burkartsmeier and Trumbo: the height of depths. Photo: Owen Carey

Burkhartsmeier and Trumbo: the height of depths. Photo: Owen Carey

The king of this ragged castle is Ulysses, played by Burkhartsmeier, whom we meet for the first time in his natural state except for an apron made from an old towel tied around his waist. He’s a large man who’s settled onto the path of aging, but his crystal-clear eyes still beam from beneath their almond lids. He carries a hyper-blue backpack that slings a tube around the front of his face and is held into his nostrils. It’s oxygen. His dog is that dog of the neighborhood, the one who won’t quit barking day or night. It could be neuroticism, idiocy, or a mean streak, but all understanding aside, it’s damn annoying. Just when you suppose you’re not uncomfortable enough, Ulysses’ ex-wife comes through the door.


Superstar, taking on shadows

Andrew Lloyd Webber's 1970s concept musical was a show for its times. Michael Streeter's "Superstar" revival at Post5 is a show for our times, too.

Jesus of Nazareth, the historical man and radical upstart, probably had no plans to become famous, and given what we know, fame would’ve cramped his style. But a superstar he became, and for the first time in many years, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Jesus Christ Superstar is being produced on a professional Portland stage with Michael Streeter’s current version at Post5.

I spoke with Streeter on the phone, and he said he’d coveted his older brother’s vinyl copy of Jesus Christ Superstar when he was a kid. Nobody would produce the musical, so it was first a hit in 1970 as a concept album in the United States. Lloyd Webber noted that, by being limited to that format, he and Rice cut all the extras and fat from the normal progression of a stage musical. Eventually it became a staple onstage, too, running for more than 700 performances on Broadway beginning in 1971. The productions Streeter has seen over the years resembled a church Passion Play, and with his, he wanted to get to the heart of the matter, much as the original album did for the composers.

Ernie Lijoi as Jesus and Ithica Tell as Judas. Photo: Greg Parkinson

Ernie Lijoi as Jesus and Ithica Tell as Judas. Photo: Greg Parkinson

Jesus Christ Superstar is a musical giant and has rocking good tunes. The lyrics are clever, and the songs easy enough to sing along to: the seeds of what would become a powerhouse career for Weber and Rice are evident.


The Divine Comedy of ‘Nine’

Lakewood's brash and splashy neo-Fellini stage musical ups the ante in the iconic film classic '8½'

A midlife crisis is always a good spectacle, and as a friend noted, the Italians have been having them in style since Dante. Lakewood Theatre Company is getting in the spirit with its current Nine, a Tony Award-winning musical written in 1982 by Maury Yeston and Arthur Kopit. All good stories bare repeating: Nine is based on Frederico Fellini’s 8½ , a semi-autobiographical movie about failing to make a movie, and Nine was made into a film in 2009.

Lakewood keeps outdoing itself this year, and Nine keeps the pattern going. The stage is a labyrinth of scaffolding, faded Roman columns, three projection screens, and moving sets. It’s not the peaceful and grandiose spa where the film is set; it’s a little slice of Italy. The show has a cast of 21, most of them long-legged, curvy, and well-coifed creatures whose form we appreciate and call women. There are only three men, and they play the same character, Guido Contini, star director and writer of the screen.

Matthew Hayward as Guido and Ecatarina Lynn as Carlo in "Nine." Triumph Photography

Matthew Hayward as Guido and Ecatarina Lynn as Carlo in “Nine.” Triumph Photography

Matthew Hayward is Guido, a stand-in for lead Marcello Mastroianni in the film, who in turn was the stand-in for Fellini, the star director and writer of Italian Neo-Realism. Hayward’s Contini is unearthly handsome, like Mastroianni, with the same rough edges of a man who’s seen too many women: the tousled bedhead, the striking 5 o’clock shadow that exudes testosterone and accents the angles of his finely boned chin. Hayward is well-suited, with a white starched shirt and thin tie, vestire bene for the iconic early ’60s. He’s a little slumped at times, and with 18 women on his heels, Jay-Z – who’s known for 99 problems, but not with females – would buy him a drink or two. Contini persuades his wife, Luisa (Chrissy Kelly-Pettit), to get away and take in the waters at an ancient spa. In the meantime, he’s creating a diversion to procrastinate on a script deadline and mental breakdown. Hayward delivers Contini as a scattered earnestness in his deceptions, a playboy with a believable Northern Italian accent. Hayward sings a robust and flawless The Grand Canal, a solo with a complex syncopated rhyme scheme and rhythm, that left the audience in shock.


The patriot act: ‘Coriolanus’

Using Thomas Sheridan's 1749 adaptation, Bag&Baggage creates an up-to-the-minute political tragedy that is "struck with sorrow," outdoors

As Coriolanus and her soldiers stormed up the steps of the Hillsboro Civic Center with swords at their sides, a group of pedestrians across the street yelled somewhat in jest: “Killers! They have swords!” From the pavement to the confusing current global political theater, Coriolanus, Shakespeare’s most chameleonic of plays, still finds a home. Bag&Baggage uses Thomas Sheridan’s 1749 revision of Coriolanus (Sheridan retitled it Coriolanus, or the Roman Matron) and an all-female cast to suck out the marrow of the drama in our high-stakes and stressful election year.

The stage for this production, which Bag&Baggage is calling the first recorded production of Sheridan’s version in American history, is outdoors, with an almost rooftop vantage on the backside of the civic center, facing the MAX tracks. A 21st century brushed-steel pediment is supported by sleek columns, a forum where pristine glass meets seamlessly with new concrete. Behind the windows are faint corporate printed posters of important civilians; here and there a plastic office machine or grey Formica desk pushes against the many panes doubling the repeated squares. Panels of red and black with sniper-looking holes make up the curtain. Gene Roddenberry would approve the design. The “stage” pans out with more cement and potted-flower arrangements that lead to a vast set of stairs. The action in Coriolanus takes place throughout this space, moving all around the audience. The cast is a moving chessboard, with geometric choreographed marches and moves. It’s as if we in the audience are the Roman “people” who sit and judge where the corruption lies, and with which official.

Lindsay Partain as Virgilia, Arianne Jacques as Valeria, and Maryanne Glazebrook as Volumnia. Casey Campbell Photography

Lindsay Partain as Virgilia, Arianne Jacques as Valeria, and Maryanne Glazebrook as Volumnia. Casey Campbell Photography

Cassie Greer, athletic and tan, carries this Coriolanus with the posture of a masculine corporate predator. Her black hair, tightly pulled back, creates a signature that says whatever lies on the inside is exactly where it will remain. Her Coriolanus has no human weakness on the surface. In the most important scenes of the play, her finished rhetoric reverberates like a cannon blast off the concrete set and echoes over the rooftops. There’s some Napoleon thrown into her approach to the character: an upstart nobility that is on the verge of being drowned by arrogance, but for a while is smart enough to keep it under wraps. She moves like the petit emperor, every minute a pose to justify her authority. The two whips of eyeliner she wears frame her eyes, not in a feminine way, but more like minimal warpaint and an ornament for seduction.


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