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Sailor Boys: On the Town Still Swings

Somewhere inside every jaded New Yorker, there’s an awestruck, aw-shucks sailor, still besotted by the city and crying for some shore leave. So indulge your inner rube and take in the new revival of On the Town, an evergreen entertainment whose brash charms have not faded with time.

We all know the scenario: Three sailors get a day pass from naval tedium to try their luck ashore in America’s
greatest city. But the seadogs’ resolve to sample the sights quickly melts as they encounter a succession of lusty landlubbers. Hijinks ensue. (Check out what happens at the
Museum of Natural History!) Gabey, the group’s idealist,
avidly pursues Ms. Right, but Chip and Ozzie, eyeing the clock, embrace Ms. Right Now. From this paper-thin premise, the original collaborators spun loopy magic.

And director John Rando’s new production delivers the goods: This On the Town has the gushing effervescence of just-uncorked Champagne. Leonard Bernstein’s music still swings, the jokes still crackle with knowing irony, and Joshua Bergasse’s update of Jerome Robbins’s roistering choreography renders the swag of America on the make. The whole shebang throbs with the hormonal intensity of a country getting back to the good things after too long at war. It’s a confection, but a delightful one. They don’t make musicals like this anymore, and you’ll leave wishing that they did.

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DRINK IN PEACE

Why should creepy, stalking clowns have all the fun? Green-Wood hosts a party of its own, sans the balloons and red-nosed wierdos, let’s hope. At tonight’s Twilight Tour and Catacomb Cocktails gathering, the brave and intrepid are invited to explore Brooklyn’s 478-acre burial grounds just as the sun sets. A guided walk highlights the cemetery’s truly stunning landscapes—rolling hills and valleys like nowhere else in New York City. Pause to visit the graves of some of its most famous “residents,” which include Leonard Bernstein, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Horace Greeley. Afterward, wind down with drinks and refreshments as you wander the torch-lit catacombs. Built in the 19th century for those who couldn’t afford their own mausoleums, the tunnels house 30 vaults branching off from the gothic-style chapel. While they are brightly illuminated by skylight during the day, tonight’s cocktail hour provides a rare opportunity to experience their eerie beauty after dark.

Sat., Aug. 2, 8:30 p.m., 2014

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IN LOVING MEMORY

If the idea of kicking off your summer in a cemetery seems morbid, then you probably haven’t been to Green-Wood. With stately gothic architecture and rolling meadows, Brooklyn’s largest burial grounds all but invite a leisurely stroll in the sun, parasol optional. The annual Memorial Day Concert provides an ideal opportunity to explore. This year features the ISO Symphonic Band performing works by Leonard Bernstein, Fred Ebb, Louis Moreau Gottschalk, and other “permanent residents” of Green-Wood. Historian Jeff Richman also leads a special edition trolley tour, should you want to get to know the locals. Be sure to bring along a picnic blanket: Food and drinks are available during the show. We’ll toast to this most literal celebration of Memorial Day.

Mon., May 26, 2:30 p.m., 2014

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Following the Ninth Is a Majestic Sonic Travelogue

When Longfellow proclaimed “music is the universal language of mankind,” he may have been referring to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

Or at least that’s what Kerry Candaele’s majestic sonic travelogue Following the Ninth sets out to prove, charting the inextricable relationship between music and the human experience. Her results are as moving as the piece of music that inspired them. You don’t have to be a musicologist to know it; whether the thunderous percussion from the fourth movement played in a car commercial or “Ode to Joy” sung during Christmas mass, it remains pervasive. The universality of this aural wonder is on full display here, and its effects inspire genuine awe.

Chinese revolutionaries set up covert speakers in Tiananmen Square to drown out the dictators with it; a grieving German woman tearfully recounts Leonard Bernstein’s celebratory conducting of the piece after the crumbling of the Berlin Wall; dissidents under Pinochet claimed it as a lullaby, serenading political prisoners in Chile; each December, Japan inaugurates the new year through huge choral arrangements and performances, using it as an “objective of well-being.” Each anecdote builds upon the next to create that rarest of films: a documentary as ineffable and transformative in its reach as it sets out to be.

It’s humbling to think that when he composed this, his final symphony, Beethoven was nearly deaf and unable to hear the beauty of what he’d created. The countless millions who haven’t suffered the same fate are greatly enriched as a result.

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Alarm Will Sound

In “1969,” Alarm Will Sound artistic director Alan Pierson offers up that yin-yang year as the event horizon for all pop modernism. The composition is a promising, multimedia nostalgia-gasm featuring music of the Beatles, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Luciano Berio, Leonard Bernstein, and Peter Schickele. If you’ve ever had a hankering to hear “Revolution 9,” chunks of “Hymnen,” and “Much Too Soon” (from Oh! Calcutta) in the course of an evening, here’s your big chance.

Thu., March 10, 9 p.m., 2011

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SING OUT, COMMISSIONER!

In a city that basically owes its map, for better or for worse, to one man, it would seem inevitable that Robert Moses would inspire countless stage productions. And yet, for reasons unknown, the “master builder” who had unfettered access to power, rarely comes across the New York stage. (Les Freres Corbusier did take him on in 2005 in a gag-filled satire of urban planning.) But tonight, Obie-winning actor, writer, and composer Rinde Eckert stars as the surly decimator of neighborhoods himself in Gary S. Fagin’s original composition, Robert Moses Astride New York. The evening with the Knickerbocker Chamber Orchestra also includes an MLK Day concert of songs by Bob Dylan, Leonard Bernstein, and James Taylor, performed by the Brooklyn Youth Chorus.

Sat., Jan. 15, 7 p.m., 2011

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SHARKS VS. JETS

“I like it here in America,” sings a character in this Arthur Laurents/ Leonard Bernstein/Stephen Sondheim musical. And America likes you, too—that’s the hope of 91-year-old Laurents who directs this Broadway revival. This version emphasizes the show’s multiculturalism, with many of the Sharks’s songs translated into Spanish.

Wednesdays, Saturdays, 2 p.m.; Wednesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m.; Tuesdays, 7 p.m., 2009

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Welcome to Irving Berlin’s White Christmas

Thinking about musicals, as we grit our collective teeth and start to face the nasty realities of the Bush Depression, seems a paradoxical activity. Isn’t the musical a big-money form, costly to produce and, in recent decades, expensive to see? Well, not necessarily. Theater production overall may shrink during bad economic times, but the proportion taken up by musicals remains roughly the same. The musical is American in essence, partly because its lavish fantasies of wealth are inherently democratic, offering the less-well-off a vicarious trip through the dreamworld of the rich, complete with rich people’s problems in lieu of their own; concurrently, it offers the upper class a chance to commiserate with the problems of the poor and victimized. In boom times, it offers the idea that anyone can strike it rich here in the land of opportunity; when the downturn hits, it offers the consolation that we’re all stuck in the muck together.

An immigrant toddler who began his working life as a child peddling newspapers on the Lower East Side streets, Irving Berlin became enormously wealthy through his songwriting, and ultimately married a daughter of the millionaire class. He was the best of Broadway’s great songwriters at embodying the full spectrum of American fiscal experience, possibly because he had known its extremes better than any of his colleagues. Berlin’s father, who died when Irving was five, was a synagogue cantor. His cultural distance from his triumphantly secularized, Americanized son itself sounds like material for a musical—or, if he had lived, the climactic confrontation from a song-filled melodrama like The Jazz Singer. Many cantors’ sons became Broadway composers; only Izzy Baline, having become Irving Berlin, wrote the two songs with which Americans identify Christianity’s two major holidays: “Easter Parade” has faded somewhat from public memory—though the movie named for it has spawned a stage version, which may yet arrive here—but “White Christmas” is still inescapable.

Written originally for the 1942 movie Holiday Inn, “White Christmas,” too, gave its title to a later movie that has spawned a stage version, which is currently failing to warm up the cold and unforgiving space of Broadway’s Marquis Theatre. The movie, White Christmas (1954), starred Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye. The new stage version’s creators, incomprehensibly, have cast their roles with two personable and gifted performers, Stephen Bogardus and Jeffry Denman, who are as unlike Crosby and Kaye as possible. Bogardus, an actor of serious mien with a pleasant, light-lyric baritone, plays every scene as if yearning for some tense drama that’s been chopped from the text; Denman, a demon dancer, zips through his lines as if desperate to get his feet in motion. You can’t blame them: Any charm that lay in the original screenplay has been carefully bleached out, leaving an incoherent story so dully told that its only arresting moment occurs when you spot the name “David Ives” among the writer credits, making you wonder if the author of All in the Timing has been kidnapped by space aliens.

But there’s lots more to wonder at in this White Christmas, though not of the pleasurable winter-wonderland variety. Why does each of choreographer Randy Skinner’s tap numbers look just like all the others? (He gives Denman one decent chance to cut loose in “I Love a Piano.”) Who, in a musical theater full of delightful performers, cast the drab second-rankers who play the supporting roles? Why do the characters dress for Fifth Avenue, or a Hawaiian vacation, when they’re rehearsing in a barn in Vermont? Why does each new set look more like a discount-store Christmas card? In the last and worst one, Skinner’s dancers do a tap number in the new-fallen snow, a kind of apotheosis of the show’s systematic wrongheadedness.

The only artist who comes off without reproach is the dead one whose name has been nailed to the title, for this is, officially, Irving Berlin’s White Christmas. That’s a mercy. People are more suicide-prone at this time of year, and the thought of, say, Elton John’s White Christmas, added to our economic woes, might have been too much for holiday theatergoers to bear. The show fiddles extensively but not too egregiously with Berlin’s catalog; Larry Blank’s orchestrations are brassy without being strident. When Kerry O’Malley pours her creamy tone into a ballad, it’s even possible to forget her lipstick-red wig. She and Bogardus, Denman, and Meredith Patterson are among the artists who might have made White Christmas mean something to a society genuinely in need of the solace that musicals can give.

Musical solace was supplied, too briefly and only in limited doses, by the Encores! concert staging of Leonard Bernstein’s On the Town, commemorating the composer’s centennial year. Berlin is to Bernstein as the self-taught immigrant is to his college-grad son. The latter always faces the struggle of loving both the old raucous immigrant tradition and the elite one dinned into him at school; Bernstein’s whole career was a struggle to merge the two. Equally full of horn-honking vaudeville and newly jivey classical ballet, On the Town (1944) is a carefree urban cartoon of our cultural dilemma, too discordantly complex to ever stop being fresh. John Rando’s concert staging, a little undercast and a little hampered by space limitations, still caught the freshness. Leslie Kritzer (Hildy) and Andrea Martin (Madame Dilly) drew some big laughs, but had to work awfully hard for them.

Nobody currently onstage in New York works harder than Shonn Wiley and Karen Murphy, the entire cast of My Vaudeville Man!, at the York, an ineptly written musical based on source material that could have produced something much better. Wiley’s feet, the show’s two strongest assets, must ache like hell after a performance; the demands it puts on him are devastating. My heart ached for him and Murphy throughout.

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Dark Invader

The idea of a ballet based on S. Ansky’s famous Yiddish play The Dybbuk didn’t possess Jerome Robbins the way the demonic wandering soul of the title possesses his promised bride, but it was something of a monkey on his back. He first thought of the project in 1945, when he’d just made his name as a choreographer. In 1954, he proposed Dybbuk to Lincoln Kirstein for the New York City Ballet and was turned down. Four years later, in charge of his own company, Ballets: U.S.A., he was nudging Leonard Bernstein to write a score. Finally, in 1974, NYCB premiered Dybbuk, with Helgi Tomasson and Patricia McBride as the protagonists.

Robbins was never happy with the ballet. He had pruned away most of the narrative devices he’d experimented with during rehearsals, along with many props. After the premiere, he took scenes out, then put them back. Finally, in 1980, he reduced Dybbuk to A Suite of Dances, excising the principal characters and all semblance of plot. When Kirstein wanted him to revive the original Dybbuk in 1986, he refused, saying Bernstein’s music had turned out to be too dramatic for what he’d had in mind. The fact that Robbins was working in George Balanchine’s company, where the prevailing aesthetic was to let music and dancing alone tell whatever stories a spectator might care to imagine, certainly affected him, and Kirstein’s turn down 20 years earlier still rankled (the NYCB’s founder, imagining a fully produced dance drama, had suggested that such a ballet might be more suitable for a company rooted in folk tradition, like Israel’s Inbal).

I wrote in the Voice in 1974 that the ballet was like fascinating and eerie footage from a never-competed film, with key scenes missing (Robbins, confronting me in the New York State Theater, a week or so later, said gloomily, “You were right about Dybbuk“). Watching the San Francisco Ballet’s revival last year and the NYCB’s this season, I still feel the tug between the plot of the play and how much of it Robbins was willing to show. You either know the story (it’s printed in the program) and fill in the blanks, or you let Bernstein’s tremendous score and what you do see onstage trigger another story or simply enmesh you in mystical, sinister atmosphere.

NYCB has restored one scene, “The Pledge,” not in the San Francisco version. Two young men (Tyler Angle and Adam Hendrickson) dance companionably together, watched over by a third (rabbinical?) figure. A woman ceremoniously joins each of the young men; the pairs form “London Bridge” arches; Benjamin Millepied steps through one, Jenifer Ringer through the other, and they acknowledge each other. This tableau, reminiscent of one in the Stravinsky-Nijinska Les Noces, is shorthand for the friends’ vow: If one has a son and the other a daughter, the two will wed. We never see, however, that the girl’s father breaks his word and betroths her to a wealthier suitor—only guess something is wrong when the boy, seeking the girl, approaches her friends, and they cover their faces.

The scenes we do see are compelling. They’re set before a series of subtly decorated golden backdrops by Reuben Ter-Arutunian. Patricia Zipprodt’s black and white costumes contrast purity with darkness. The seven men who represent the fellow Talmudic students of the hero (Chanon in the play) wear black hats and long, filmy black coats over white unitards. Three men billed as “Angelic Messengers” are garbed in white unitards with black strips (later red ones) hanging from their arms. Chanon and his Leah wear white clothes when they dream of each other, and in the terrifying duet when his soul enters her body, they’re dressed in identical loose-fitting, filmy white gowns.

Bernstein’s insistent rhythms for the men’s dances are overlaid with melodies drawn from Jewish folk music, and Robbins has designed the steps to convey a powerful rigidity; the men form lines and chains, their arms squared off, their feet flexed, as if in some orderly, joyless folk dance.
In the scene, when Chanon invokes the Kabbalah, hoping to cast a spell that will make Leah his, they slither in like dark thoughts and fan their hands out around him. Robbins created brilliant little variations for four of the men (Sean Suozzi, Adrian Danchig-Waring, Antonio Carmena, and Jonathan Stafford); each of these suggests a lesson (or part of a spell) to which Chanon listens intently, echoing the last gesture. Clearly terrified of what he’s attempting, he persists, but perishes in the white heat of it.

We know that his spirit is about to enter Leah when suddenly, surrounded by admiring maidens, on what might be her wedding day, she throws aside a veil that’s ceremoniously brought, arches her body sideways in one of Chanon’s tormented jumps and presses her hands to her temples just as he did. The ensuing duet suggests, as far as possible, that he’s worming his way into her body, possessing her. Eventually they really seem to have merged; when they face away from each other in arabesque, their raised legs are locked together. After the community arrives for the exorcism, the pair tiptoe joined, as they thread through the ritual. The dybbuk is forced to retreat. But, in a stunning coup de théâtre, he reappears as if by magic among the cluster of black-clad men and claims his beloved in death.

Bernstein’s score suffuses Dybbuk with color and drama, and his music often meshes intimately with Robbins’s choreography. The maidens’ finger-snapping, for instance, is part of the score’s rhythmic pattern. When the man who performs the fourth variation in the “Invocation of the Kabbalah” knocks the back of his hand against the air several times, a tambourine emphasizes the gesture. The occasional intertwined voices of a baritone and bass baritone (Christopher Schaldenbrand and Philip Horst) potently evoke Chassidic ceremony.

Robbins obviously intended ritual to shape the ballet. His protagonists are the only expressive figures in a society that never reveals its feelings. It’s impossible not to identify with their obsessions and torments—marvelously conveyed by Millepied and Ringer—and wish to understand them more fully. Still, if you embrace the dark residue of plot and the sense of the occult that Robbins and Bernstein convey so uncannily well, this fragmentary tale of fatal love can hold you in its grip.

Dybbuk will be performed February 7 and 10, during NYCB’s spring season, and at Saratoga this summer.

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Score Isolates Snippets of Bernstein, But Their Sum Never Equals Lenny

Artistically speaking, Leonard Bernstein had so many personalities that he could only have been one person: the flamboyantly demonstrative conductor; the tormented, deeply introspective classical composer; the exhilaratingly brash spinner of popular show tunes; the caring, charismatic educator; the quiet family man who was also a manic parlor entertainer; the monster of ego who was also master of the generous gesture. Locating the root of Bernstein’s creativity is no easy task, and director Anne Bogart’s attempt to pin it down is about as successful as if she were trying to catch lightning in a jar; all that results are some interesting flickers and a frustrating sense of ultimate emptiness.

The third in Bogart’s series of meditations on creativity for a solo performer, again using texts compiled from the subject’s public utterances by dramaturg Jocelyn Clarke, Score is marginally more interesting than its immediate predecessor, Room, first, because physical and vocal presence played a more significant part in Bernstein’s creativity than it did in Virginia Woolf’s, and second, because Tom Nelis, who plays Bernstein, is an accomplished and technically flexible actor. Even so, the snippets of Bernstein text and posture that Bogart gives to Nelis, drawing heavily from Lenny’s “Unanswered Question” lectures at Harvard, do little to illuminate the mysteries of his artistry, and still less (with the exception of one rapturous delving into Mahler) to convey much about what made Bernstein himself an important figure. Replicating the maestro’s moves and vocal tricks as he gamely jumps (sometimes literally) from one snippet to the next, Nelis looks, alas, only like a replica; to watch a video of Bernstein giving a complete lecture would convey more of his creative essence than all of Bogart’s gimmicky shadowboxing.