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Review: The Bridges of Madison County

March 19th, 2014 Comments off

Broadway Blog editor Matthew Wexler soars across the Midwestern plains of Iowa, courtesy of The Bridges of Madison County.

Kelli O'Hara and Steven Pasquale in "The Bridges of Madison County" (photo: Joan Marcus) via The Broadway Blog.

Kelli O’Hara and Steven Pasquale in “The Bridges of Madison County” (photo: Joan Marcus) via The Broadway Blog.

The flat plains of Winterset, Iowa are the backdrop for The Bridges of Madison County, a sweeping yet subtle new musical new playing at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre on Broadway. Adapted for the stage by Jason Robert Brown (music and lyrics) and Marsha Norman (book) from the best-selling novel by Robert James Waller, it is a tale of love lost, love found, and love released.

Robert (played by Steven Pasquale), a photographer for National Geographic, finds himself lost trying to find a specific covered bridge for the magazine’s photo shoot and stumbles across Francesca (played by Kelli O’Hara)—a disenchanted housewife whose family has traveled to the Indiana State Fair. While it may not be love at first sight, it arrives shortly thereafter and the two find themselves enraptured in a four-day love affair that changes their lives forever.

Kelli O'Hara and Steven Pasquale in "The Bridges of Madison County" (via The Broadway Blog).

Kelli O’Hara and Steven Pasquale in “The Bridges of Madison County” (via The Broadway Blog).

While not heavy on external plot or conflict, Marsha Norman’s lean book drives the story forward while Jason Robert Brown delivers an emotionally resonant score with sweeping melodies, flecks of Francesca’s Italian roots, and subtle musical references of the era. But it is director Bartlett Sher, (South Pacific, The Light in the Piazza, and this season’s Two Boys at the Met) who gently cradles the material and creates a seamlessly shifting world that transcends time and locale.

In the spirit of Our Town and the Lars von Trier film Dogville, the ensemble is all hands on deck, shifting furniture, fences, doorways, tables, and even the kitchen sink… literally. Their watchful eyes observe Francesca and Robert’s love affair unfold. There is undoubtedly judgment in those stares, but that is left to the audience’s imagination.

At the epicenter of the action, O’Hara and Pasquale conjure up a believable attraction, but what each of them is attracted to is unclear. Beyond the physical lust, it’s hard to say what draws these two together. As Francesca, O’Hara emits a melancholy sadness as well as a self-knowing dark humor. While her vocal quality feels foggy at times set against Jason Robert Brown’s pop-melodic score, her journey tugs at anyone who has questioned their own happiness. Steven Pasquale, making his Broadway musical debut as Robert, delivers a performance of subtle humility yet aching desire. His bari-tenor voice fits snuggly in the pocket of Brown’s music as he richly delivers the 11 o’clock number, “It All Fades Away.”

Hunter Foster as Francesca’s husband, Bud, is dealt a short hand both in terms of storytelling and music, but he makes the most of it and finds humanity and humor in the man who can’t seem to retain Francesca’s love. And in a beautifully staged sequence, Whitney Bashor (Broadway debut) as Robert’s ex-wife Marian, channels Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez in flashback scene that, while not necessarily plot-driving, is a splash of watercolor on an evolving canvas.

Jason Robert Brown continues to establish himself as one of the great Broadway composers and orchestrators of the 21st century. The Bridges of Madison County is a testament to his evolution as an artist. Keep an eye out for the film version of his off Broadway hit, The Last Five Years, and his next Broadway show, Honeymoon in Vegas, arriving on Broadway this fall.

The Bridges of Madison County
Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre
236 West 45th Street
Open-ended run

Paul Appleby Takes on Chat Rooms, Murder and Sex in the Met’s “Two Boys”

October 17th, 2013 Comments off

Broadway Blog editor Matthew Wexler chats with Paul Appleby, star of the Metropolitan Opera’s upcoming Two Boys.

"Two Boys" at the English National Opera.(photo: Richard Hubert Smith)

“Two Boys” at the English National Opera. (photo: Richard Hubert Smith)

Teenage sex.
Online intrigue.
Murder.

No—this isn’t the latest reality-based TV movie. It’s the Metropolitan Opera’s premiere of Two Boys. The 128-year-old cultural institution has commissioned this thrilling new work by composer Nico Muhly, whose recent projects include original music for the current Broadway production of The Glass Menagerie and for the upcoming film Kill Your Darlings. Bringing a bit of Broadway caché to the team is librettist Craig Lucas (The Dying Gual, Prelude to a Kiss, and the screenplay Longtime Companion) and director Bartlett Sher (Golden Boy, South Pacific, The Light in the Piazza).

Set in an industrial English city at the dawn of Internet chat rooms circa 2001, a teenager is accused of murdering a 13-year-old boy he meets online. As the investigation continues, a complicated web of narrative and characters reveals the spine-chilling consequences of living in a digital age. Based on a true story, much of the libretto is lifted from actual transcripts from the case and layered with haunting video projections by 59 Productions and a chorus of Met opera singers who have traded their corsets for laptops.

Paul Appleby (photo: Ken Howard)

Paul Appleby (photo: Ken Howard)

At the epicenter of this bizarre tale is the accused Brian, played by tenor Paul Appleby. On the fast track to becoming one of the opera world’s next great tenors (at age 30, Appleby is a recent graduate of the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program and a recipient of a 2012 Leonore Annenberg Fellowship in the Performing and Visual Arts), Appleby has his hands full with a vocally and emotionally demanding role that is stretching the boundaries of contemporary opera.

Appleby began studying voice while still in high school to improve his performing technique for musical theater, but once he started studying, his passion grew toward the classical repertoire. While Broadway is peppered with teenagers and young adults, the world of opera takes longer for voices to reach their full potential. “In opera, it simply takes a longer time for a younger voice to mature to the parameters that opera requires—to master the techniques to sing with an orchestra unamplified,” says Appleby. “I’m incredibly fortunate, I’ve had great opportunities to study with the highest level of teachers and musicians.”

Working as a freelance opera singer with a management representation in both the U.S. and Europe, Appleby is auditioning (and booking) projects slated as far out as 2015 and beyond. “This is why it takes so long to establish a career. Opera demands so many resources—a great orchestra and a great conductor, director and performers at the top of their fields.”

The Met’s production of Two Boys is a professional benchmark not only for Appleby, but also for composer Nico Muhly. “It’s [the Met’s] mission to present master works. There’s so much tradition in the 19th century repertoire. So this is somewhat out of the norm, particularly from such a young composer,” says Appleby, “but it’s a testament to Niko’s accomplishment as a composer. I applaud the Met for embracing and supporting [the production] the way they have.”

Paul Appleby (photo: Dario Acosta)

Paul Appleby (photo: Dario Acosta)

A certain suspension of disbelief may be required as Appleby embodies the complex mind and actions of 16-year-old Brian, but he winkingly acknowledges that it’s the Met and not HDTV—part of a long-standing tradition that places older actors in younger roles. And he has a first-rate creative team to support that vision. “Conductor David Robinson is absolutely genius, bringing out every ounce of drama and insight. And Bartlett is pushing us into specific and vivid characterizations,” says Appleby.

Appleby is confident that audience members, regardless of their previous exposure to opera, will find the piece engaging. “It’s written in the classical tradition of Phillip Glass and John Adams, but dramaturgically—the pace of the libretto—is unlike a lot of tradition. Though the musical content may be a classical, the dramatic pace and Bartlett’s staging leans more in a contemporary direction,” he says.

He’s also quick to point out that Muhly’s score is tonal and melodic. In addition to classical works, the composer has written for Björk, the Brooklyn-based rock band Grizzly Bear as well as frequent collaborations with colleagues at Bedroom Community, an artist-run label headed by Icelandic musician Valgeir Sigurðsson.

While Appleby has his hands full with Two Boys (no pun intended), the rest of his 2013-14 is packed with engagements, including reprising the role of Ferrando in Mozart’s Così fan tutte with the Canadian Opera Company (company debut). He also makes his company debut with the Washington National Opera, singing Tamino in Mozart’s The Magic Flute, along with numerous concert appearnces including Lincoln Center, and the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts.

For now, though, Appleby, will be channeling the psyche of a disturbed 16-year-old on one of the world’s greatest stages. No small feat. But it is the Met, after all.

Two Boys
Performances begin October 21.

Win A Pair of Tickets to Lincoln Center’s “Golden Boy”

October 23rd, 2012 Comments off

"Golden Boy". Image via lct.org.

This Halloween is going to be all treat and no trick when I give away a pair of tickets to the upcoming Lincoln Center revival of Clifford Odets’ Golden Boy. Directed by Bartlett Sher (South Pacific, Awake and Sing) and starring a huge nineteen person cast, this story of a violin prodigy turned boxer corrupted by fame and fortune promises to be one of the juicy, dramatic tickets of the winter.

So how do you enter to win? Click on the “contact us” button at the top of the blog page and tell me one Broadway performance you thought was a true knockout and why it floored you. I’ll choose one ticket winner at random but also post some of my favorite replies on October 31.

The fine print:  please put “Golden Boy Tickets” in the subject line and provide a working contact email so we can reach you. Entries must be received by the end of day on October 29. Your email will be private and we will not use it for any reason other than to contact the winner.

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TO SEE OR NOT TO SEE: 2012 Fall Preview, The Plays

September 12th, 2012 Comments off

Steppenwolf's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?". Photo by Michael Brosilow.

If the fall season’s crop of musicals is a sparse and eccentrically planted lot, the roster of plays is lush with big ideas, big stars and must-see events (if a few too many “didn’t we just see that” revivals). So let’s dig into the harvest feast…

"Grace". Image via O+M Co.

An Enemy of the People (September 27): Henrik Ibsen’s sturdy study of personal pressure and politics kicks things off just in time for election season. Class acts Boyd Gaines and Richard Thomas play brothers, a mayor and a doctor, on opposite sides of an environmental disaster in the making. (Yeah, this was written when?)

Grace (October 4): As I’ve said before…Paul Rudd. I lerve him. Toss in the always magnetic Michael Shannon (Revolutionary Road) and my interest is more than peaked for this surreal comedy-drama about a couple’s plans for religious-themed motels and their less than faithful neighbor.

Running on Empty (October 9): Comedian and professional ranter Lewis Black brings his stand-up to Broadway for a week of performances.

Cyrano de Bergerac (October 11): The French war horse (no, not that one) gets trotted out for another display of witty banter, actorly showmanship and much-needed rhinoplasty. Tony-winner Douglas Hodge (La Cage aux Folles) takes on the title role in a Roundabout Theatre revival.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (October 13): The revelatory Steppenwolf production starring playwright (and seriously accomplished actor) Tracy Letts and the incomparable Amy Morton finally makes it to Broadway. Check my review from when I saw it at Arena Stage last year and tell me you aren’t a wee bit excited to see the Albee classic again.

Read more…