Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

NY Wrap-Up: Diva Moments

January 02, 2007

Raúl Esparza and cast in Company
Photo: Sandy Underwood 2006
Of course New York is always full of divas and this winter has been marked with star turns by many of them in productions that may or may not have survived otherwise. I’ve already commented on Anna Netrebko at the Metropolitan Opera and Christine Ebersole in Grey Gardens, but this recent trip had a number of other interesting individual standouts as well. The first is Raùl Esparza in the current John Doyle-directed revival of Company. Doyle has recycled the same conceit that drove last year’s magnificent revival of Sweeny Todd where the ensemble acts as both cast and orchestra simultaneously. Here the effect is not as great. Where the sometimes meager and off-kilter sound of the players heightened the creepy factor in Todd, in Company it often sounds under-rehearsed at points where it should be cool and cosmopolitan. But Esparza is the real centerpiece here in what is typically an ensemble piece. His Bobby has only two real numbers although he is on-stage the whole time, but he can more than deliver “Being Alive” and “Marry Me a Little.” He keeps this revival in tact by neither being too much of a dunderhead or a playboy but still maintaining a touch of urbane sophistication. The piece still seems out of date, but with Esparza it is easier than usual to overlook the seeming anachronisms.

On New Year’s Eve, I got to see the return of Bebe Neuwirth to the regular cast of Chicago in the role she didn’t make famous, Roxie. I love Neuwirth. Her Weill interpretations in Here Lies Jenny were spectacular as was her dancing. She is a natural in this kind of material and her return, even in the chirpier role of Roxie, was superior. Her timing is flawless. The problem is that the now 10-year-old production is showing its age. The cast seemed sloppy and uncoordinated throughout and they seemed overwhelmed by the clearly more adroit and commanding Neuwirth. Of course the atrocious Huey Lewis, whose contract apparently doesn’t run out until mid-January, didn’t help matters. He is neither suave nor charming and he cannot sing to save his life. He couldn’t in the 80s and I am here to report that nothing has changed. Neuwirth is now singing opposite another Broadway veteran Brenda Braxton in the role of Velma. Braxton is good, but at times seemed stiff and it appeared that not all the kinks had been worked out yet in the numbers she and Neuwirth share. Still, it was a chance to see a great performer in a production she helped make famous even if it was in a different way.

Audra McDonald
Photo: Hiroyuki Ito/NYT 2006
Later that same evening, I celebrated the New Year uptown at Lincoln Center with Audra McDonald and the New York Philharmonic. The program consisted mostly of songs written for films and most of those from movie musicals of the 40s and 50s. My love for Ms. McDonald is no secret (I’m seeing her again on Friday on her mini-tour with Barbara Cook in Orange County), and this evening she was in great form. I think she comes off better in a more intimate setting, especially with ballads and quieter numbers, but nonetheless, she sounded great.

It was a great trip to end a pretty good year music and theater-wise. It’s sad though that the two operas at the Metropolitan were weaker than virtually anything we saw on Broadway. An unusual occurrence, mind you, but in some ways the very weaknesses and strengths of these different productions suggests one thing – Mr. Gelb is making some very wise decisions. For now, its back to my sunny wonderful home and more from way out west.

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