Wednesday, November 19, 2014

To A.R. With Love - Love Letters - Play Review

Love Letters - Brooks Atkinson Theatre - Broadway - New York City, NY - **** (out of 5 stars)
Written by A.R. Gurney, Directed by Gregory Mosher 


Who knew a theatrical show with only two actors sitting on stage, reading from binders, could be so beautifully moving and emotionally stirring? Never having seen A.R. Gurney's Love Letters, I did not realize the love letters being read were part of an overall series between two (fictional) people, from childhood, all the way thru decades of letter writing. We first encounter this child-like attempt at formal letters between a well poised boy, Andrew Makepeace Ladd III, and a rich girl, Melissa Gardner, and we hear the countless letters sent back and forth between the two as they navigate childhood, teenagedom, young love, jealousy, heartbreak, and more. The slow build of emotions and character development is wonderfully revealed through each subsequent letters, and sometimes in pauses in the lack of letters. This theatrical classic manages to tell a well-told tale of two people navigating the world as they try to make a connection, and while the plot would feel common and somewhat clichéd in a more classic telling, Gurney manages to make the story of these two people feel fresh and new.

As often with this show that requires little actor preparation, the current Broadway revival already has an impressive cast list scheduled to play Andy and Melissa including Diana Rigg, Stacy Keach, Anjelica Huston and Martin Sheen (with Mia Farrow, Brian Dennehy and Carol Burnett already having been in this production). Currently, TV icons Candace Bergen and Alan Alda have taken up the seats on stage to play Melissa and Andy.

Alan Alda seems naturally perfect for the role of the well intentioned, well behaved, slightly reserved Andy and Alda's calmness has a soothing quality. In the more flaky, fascinating, misguided Melissa, Candace Bergen, while knowingly a strong and terrific actress, still surprised me in her terrific, heartbreaking, and funny performance as Melissa. With glares and the roll of the eyes, in voice inflections and perfect pauses, Bergen's Melissa is a fascinating and reeling performance all while simply reading from the script while sitting in a chair. Bergen and Alda's rapport with each other is so genuine and at ease, I'd be fascinated to see how other actors pull these performances off, which I guess is one of the enduring fascinations with this surprisingly moving and heartfelt play.

Candace Bergen and Alan Alda are scheduled to appear until Dec. 18th 2014. Diana Rigg and Stacy Keach will appear Dec. 19th to Jan 9th 2015 and will be followed by Anjelica Huston and Martin Sheen.

Photo by Carol Rosegg
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Thursday, November 13, 2014

Let's Get Physical - Manon and Opus - Stage Reviews

Manon - National Ballet of Canada at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts - Toronto, ON - **** (out of 5 stars)
Choreographed by Kenneth MacMillan, Music by Jules Massenet
Runs until Nov. 16th, 2014

Opus - Circa at Canadian Stage at the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts - Toronto, ON - **** (out of 5 stars)
Created and Performed by Yaron Lifschitz with Circa and the Debussy String Quartet
Runs until Nov. 16th, 2014. Continues on Tour.


With a ballet based on Abbé Prévost's Manon Lescaut, about a young woman who essentially is sold into prostitution by her older brother, and despite finding love with a young gentleman, does not find a happy ending, there is an overlying darkness inherent to the story which makes some of the more soaring and glorious music sometimes seemingly at odds with the tragic tale and the sensitive choreography. There's a brutalness in the frank movements and story of Manon's trajectory from orphan to sold prostitute, from living a high life under a rich suitor, to being sent off to destitution and prison after her boyfriend Des Grieux is found out. At times, the piece feels oddly unemotional despite the operatic levels of drama, while other moments, humour from side characters and the absurdity of the situations provide a welcome relief, and a calm before a final heartbreaking act when Manon is raped and left in shambles in a beautifully choreographed finale as Manon is so abused, her love ends up tossing her like a used rag as he tries to pull her back up to life.

The ballet itself is a gorgeous and lush novel come to life, with beautiful sets by Peter Farmer, and soaring (if sometimes slightly jarring) music by Jules Massenet, but the choreography is nicely effective in the three different acts with a mix of wonderfully delightful ensemble numbers with some shining moments for smaller characters, while Manon, her love Des Grieux, and her brother Lescaut, are given some wonderful solos and duets amongst the mix. Manon and Des Grieux's heart wrenching finale is a sad and somber reminder of how far Manon has fallen from her earlier life (in the earlier acts).

On opening night, Manon was played by Sonia Rodriguez, who, at 14 years as a Principal Dancer (and 24 years with the company), shows no signs of wearing down unless it was purposefully for that finale dance act. Rodriguez danced like an angel and flitted nicely between innocence and heartbreak whenever the piece called for, and her eventual breakdown as Manon in Act 3 is simply stunning.


Guillaume Côté is as always, a portrait of perfection as the handsome, genuine love interest Les Grieux. Watching Côté's control and steadiness in his body movements is always breathtaking, and especially against Rodriguez's battered Manon, is a captivating counterpoint in dramatic movement that only enhances both dancers' performances.

It was wonderful and fun to see Rex Harrington back as the old Gentlemen who first "buys" Manon (especially after surviving The Amazing Race Canada), while Tanya Howard and Jenna Savella get hilarious little moments as Courtesans, both in the spotlight and on the side. There are some wonderful choreography for the male and female ensembles but from the corps, Francesco Gabriele Frolo got plucked to play a leading role in Lescaut, Manon's brother. While there seemed to be some first night jitters (especially, while he was slated to play Lescaut, he was not originally scheduled for opening night), Frolo, who I have admired in the Corps in previous shows, establishes himself as a dazzling lead with a very bright future. In fact, there is such a strong corps that other members Jack Bertinshaw and Harrison James will also perform in leading roles on rotating performances and it's such an exciting moment for the company and makes me want to see the show again to see the future of the company make their mark in this satisfying ballet production.


Opus could be categorized as a dance piece with acrobatics, or a circus set to classical music, but whatever you call it, you can call it a pretty amazing theatrical display of human physicality.

From the Brisbane company Circa, Opus reminded me of those modern ballet shorts that are part of a mixed program, except with circus and acrobatic elements as its base movements. While the world famous Cirque du Soleil has perfected the art of dressing up circus acts in a surreal setting, and Sept Dois de la Main (7 Fingers) has taken the circus act back to an urban, raw roots, Circa's Opus brings a clarity and fragility to the circus performance, stripping away most of the excess and focusing mostly on the human body and its physical nature, limits and prowess. All set to classical music, which with its initial black and white wardrobe, gives it a classy touch before breaking down societal inferences.


With the Circa troupe using minimal props (a hoop, a trapeze, a rope and a chair is pretty much it), their human acrobatic acts from a cast of 14 mostly utilizes themselves as they throw, balance, step on, jump on, hold, (and various other verbs!) each other in some of the most simplistic yet stunning movements and tricks I have ever seen. With a minimal stage set and precise lighting, we often see the shaking in the body, and thus the difficulty of some of these "simple" acts of body manipulation that seems to ramp up through the 80 min show. What is created is a beautifully choreographed and stunning show of the awesome power of our human bodies. Well, at least of THEIR human bodies as one of the overall sentiments I kept overhearing leaving the theatre was "I need to go to the gym". Astounding physicality in an artful setting with some mesmerizing images created live on stage, all moved in harmony with Shostakovich's Opus.

The music is wonderfully performed by the Debussy Quartet but when the acrobatic performers tried to interact with the on stage Quartet, it seemed to detract from the overall power of the piece. While the musicians worked well as moving set pieces at times, I found the show tended to work best when the Quartet was not part of the focus. Perhaps more or less interaction with the movement performers might have helped, but as it is currently, the few moments where the musicians and movement performers combined did not add as much as I think they were hoping for. In a way, it almost kept taking away from what could have been an emotional build up that only seemed to start when the show solely focuses on the acrobatic ensemble.

Still, it is a minor quibble that does not detract from the amazing feats of acrobatic movements from a terrific, and chiseled cast, and now makes me curious to see Circa's other shows. A welcome addition to the circus-as-theatrical world.

Photo of Manon by Aleksandar Antonijevic
Photo of Manon Act 3 by Aaron Vincent Elkaim
Photos of Opus by Justin Nicholas
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