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Snow Falling on Cedars at Portland Center Stage Review

January 17, 2010 2 comments
Snow Falling on Cedars Portland Center Stage

Snow Falling on Cedars at Portland Center Stage

I honestly didn’t have huge expectations for Kevin McKeon’s adaptation of David Guterson Snow Falling on Cedars. So many popular books and movies have been poorly adapted for the stage recently and
Scott Hick’s 1999 film adaptation
of Guterson’s best selling book simply left me cold. Imagine my shock when I was blown away by one of the best productions I’ve seen on a stage in Portland. McKeon’s adaptation is simply amazing and coupled with Chris Coleman’s pitch perfect direction and uniformly excellent acting, Snow Falling on Cedars at Portland Center Stage is nothing short of a triumph.

Set in the late 40’s and early 50’s, Snow Falling on Cedars follows the trail of Kabuo, a Japanese American fisherman accused of murdering a fellow fisherman in a small northwestern island town. The play flashes back and forth between the trial and the years leading up to it, covering the interweaving stories of the characters. Smack dab in the center of Snow Falling on Cedars is a look at the Japanese internment camps in America, enacted after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Although Snow Falling on Cedars covers an important point (and arguably one of our lowest points) in American history, the play is more about the relationships and connections between the people involved than the history itself. Olivia Oguma and Vince Nappo play Hatsue and Ishmael, two childhood playmates who flirt with something more. Their relationship comes to a head with the bombing of Pearl Harbor. There’s a devastatingly beautiful moment when Hatsue turns to Ishmael and says, “Look at me, look at my face, I have the face of the enemy!” It’s within a moment like this between characters that brings everything together and adjoins the greater narrative, the historial context and makes this play work so well.

A lot of credit goes to Kevin McKeon for his masterful adaptation of Guterson’s book. McKeon covers considerable ground in his stage play and really has a sense of how to capture and present the soul and essence of the book. McKeon often gives us just enough of a glimpse at something as he weaves back and forth throughout the lives of the key characters. This results in some truly magical moments, and while fleeting, they give us a tremendous amount of insight and connection with the story. One of my favorite moments of the play involves the coupling of Hatsue and Kabuo, a short scene played perfectly, almost magically; I’ll surely be thinking back to it a long time from now.

Director Chris Coleman, who has been playing around with inventive and minimalistic staging this year, really hits his groove working with McKeon’s adaptation. The staging transitions from scene to scene, emotional note to emotional note flawlessly. At one point we flash between the front lines in the South Pacific to a quiet and tender scene between two of the characters on the field of an internment camp and back again. Coleman’s actors never seem lost in the shuffle and he gives them a tremendous amount of faith and trust to carry off some of the most important elements of the play. In one scene two police officers, played by Scott Coopwood and Casey McFeron, pull a body caught in a fishing net out of the water and onto a boat. This entire scene is done using pantomime, and it executed so well you’d swear they had a real body on stage. I couldn’t help but think back to Coleman’s work on Ragtime and the show-stopping scene where Gavin Gregory (who plays Coalhouse Walker) sits down to play at an invisible piano.

It’s this kind of deep trust in the artform and the capacity of his actors that makes Chris Coleman a truly great director, and under his direction, the actors rise to the occasion. Olivia Oguma gives an award worthy performance as Hatsue, carrying her character through a huge life arch from pre-teen to a married woman with kids. Vince Nappo takes his character Ishmael on a similar journey and caps the show with an emotional moment that is simply amazing. Bruce Locke gives the role of Kabuo a rich texturing despite the fact that his character is extremely reserved.

Across the board the performances in Snow Falling on Cedars are excellent even though many of the cast members double and triple up, playing a variety of roles throughout the show. My one and only gripe about the production is its opening. The characters come on and speak in narrative to set things up. It works but not nearly as well as when we see the characters interact with dialogue. Admittedly, this is a minor issue and in many ways is like complaining about the frame on a true masterpiece, which is what this is.

Kevin McKeon’s adaptation of Snow Falling on Cedars is so good and Chris Coleman’s Portland Center Stage production is so well performed it has the potential to become a truly classic piece of theater. McKeon works magic with Snow Falling on Cedars, crafting a truly contemporary theatrical experience using classic theatrical tools, and in the hands of Chris Coleman the result is simply amazing. Snow Falling on Cedars has the potential to be the kind of show that moves on from its Portland debut to New York and then beyond. It’s a truly great piece of theater and is absolutely not to be missed.

Snow Falling on Cedars plays at Portland Center Stage 1/12-2/17. Tickets Start at $35.

For more information:

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Xanadu The Musical in Portland Review

January 13, 2010 1 comment
Xanadu The Musical in Portland

Xanadu The Musical in Portland

It’s hard to write a review of Xanadu The Musical with a straight face. Part of me is thinking, “Really, you’re going to pick apart a musical based on one of the cheesier films from the 80’s?” and in truth there will be some people who click off their brain and just enjoy the brief 90 minute staging of this kitschy musical no matter what faults it has, and that’s fine. The problem with Xanadu The Musical is that it actually far, far worse than the movie it’s based on.

Adapted from the 1980 film with Olivia Newton-John, Gene Kelly and Michael Beck, Xanadu is a fantastical story of a Greek demi-god sent to Earth to be a muse for a struggling artist. In the process she breaks some cardinal rules, including falling in love and getting involved with the creative process itself. Peppered throughout the story are some classic songs from the film including “Magic“, “Suddenly“, “I’m Alive” and the theme song “Xanadu“. None of these songs are pure classics in their own right, but they do really capture some of the delicious elements that make the 80’s so fun to wax nostalgic over.

Musically this gives Xanadu a fairly solid base. Like Mama Mia, there’s enough of a musical foundation for a fun night of musical theater. Unfortunately the music is so subverted in favor of cheap gags and poor staging that it’s hard to genuinely enjoy it.

Elizabeth Stanley, who performs the lead role, has a fantastic voice, similar in tone to Oliva Newton-John, with a depth and breadth that truly fills the auditorium. But she so hams it up while singing that it’s really difficult to enjoy her genuine talent. When she isn’t singing, Elizabeth Stanley’s performance is really subpar. For part of the show she sports an absolutely horrid Australian accent. The accent is yet another aspect of the show played as a gag, but it’s so poorly executed it’s painful.

Stanley’s co-star Max Von Esson, who plays Sonny Malone, has such a small stage presence that he’s absolutely eclipsed by Stanley. Von Esson reminds me of the kind of performer you see on a cruise ship or at Disneyland. He awkwardly hams it up and then completely under delivers when it comes time to really sing. Von Esson even comes up short in terms of skating – in the grand finale he doesn’t even skate. With all the talent out there (including the cast-offs from all the seasons of American Idol), it’s hard to believe they couldn’t find a better performer to play Sonny.

Of all the other cast members the only other real highlight of the show is Larry Marshall, who has the unenviable task of performing a role originated by the great Gene Kelly. Marshall is one of the only genuinely talented and well rounded performers on stage. He seems to be the only one to be able to balance both the humor and the narrative of the musical and both sings and acts wonderfully.

One of the biggest problems with Xanadu The Musical is that it seems to have a fairly strong disdain for the time period which the film and story are set in. Throughout the show the 80’s are often referred to as ‘culturally devoid’ and references to most of the 80’s things are more pejorative than positive. The musical also seems to have a disdain for the very artform of the musical itself. It constantly pokes fun and commentates on the very institution of art that it is. This creates an undertone to the piece which is far from celebratory. Rather than trying to be so self referential, Xanadu had an amazing opportunity to celebrate the absolute over-the-top aspects of the time period and musical theater art form; instead, it seems more interested in bashing it.

The staging for Xanadu The Musical is an absolute mess. Rather than embracing the crazy and wonderful styles of the 80’s the stage looks more like a cheap, dull ampithere with columns and risers that accommodate on-stage seating. Having audience members sit on the stage has become fashionable after plays like The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee and Spring Awakening. In both those productions the placement of these audience members served a purpose. Here it’s just another element tacked on to make the show more ‘hip’.  These audience members are out of place in this period piece and are only really there to help make the stark staging feel less empty.

My absolute biggest gripe with Xanadu The Musical is how nearly every moment of the show is played for laughs. The show is littered with so many cheap jokes and gags that it leaves very little room for anything else. This completely subverts the characters and the narrative so it becomes extremely difficult to care about anyone or anything in the show. I think it’s possible to play Xanadu over the top and still have some genuine moments between characters.

Ultimately Xanadu is one huge opportunity lost. The original movie had an element of huge spectacle which gets completely lost in the adaptation to stage. Xanadu could have been a flamboyant and unrestrained celebration of an era that wasn’t ever aware how ‘far out’ it really was. But, I don’t think the creative team behind Xanadu genuinely loves the material or the era they’re presenting, I think they saw a good opportunity to mount a Broadway production that would attract a 30something audience who would place very little demands on the play and would appreciate its short running time.

Xanadu plays at the Keller Auditorium January 12-17th. For more info:

(ed note: Portland Opera informs us that Max Von Esson sprained his ancle prior to the performance I saw and so did not skate as much due to it.)

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The Santaland Diaries with Wade McCollum Review

December 7, 2009 No comments
Wade McCollum in Portland Center Stage's The Santaland Diaries

Wade McCollum in Portland Center Stage's The Santaland Diaries

Wade McCollum is one of the select few performers in Portland that makes whatever performance he’s in one worth seeing. One of the most entertaining and likable people on stage in Portland, McCollum consistently delivers exciting and engaging performances well worth the price of admission. With Portland Center Stage‘s production of David Sedaris’ The Santaland Diaries we get just over an hour of pure McCollum.

The Santaland Diaries follows one fatefully holiday season when Sedaris decided to work as “Crumpet” an elf in Macy’s New York Santaland. The play takes place during Sedaris’ leaner starving artist period, long before he became a household name for his dry, witty and offen askewed humor. McCollum does an excellent job of capturing Sedaris’ wit and humor while making his performance feel very real and immediate. During the first part of the monologue McCollum reaches out to the audience to directly connect what he’s saying with people in the crowd. He acts more like a guy telling a wild tale at a party than someone on a stage.

As the piece continues more and more characters enter the story and McCollum literally embodies each with pitch perfect vocal and facial technique. McCollum does more than impersonate people he channels them and this makes this one man show feel like it’s populated by an entire cast of characters. One of the risks of McCollum’s Jim Carrey like talent is that he’d get so lost in all the characters he’d lose the sincere undertone of the piece. McCollum seems keenly aware of this and adeptly plays a wide range of emotional notes throughout the piece, ultimately leading a crescendo of emotion that feels as genuine and sincere as if it had really happened to McCollum himself.

Sedaris’ piece itself is far from perfect. There are definite highs and lows to it. The closer the piece gets to Christmas Eve the more rushed and muddled it becomes. But it does finally hit its mark as it covers the flood of last minute Christmas shoppers all clamoring for their chance to hang with Santa. If you aren’t a fan of One Life To Live (which I am not) there are a good number of jokes and references which will go right over your head.

The real reason to see The Santaland Diaries isn’t really for David Sedaris’ humor or even because it’s a nice holiday tale, it’s Wade McCollum. McCollum is so eminently entertaining, any time he steps on stage with this kind of electric energy it’s absolutely worth seeing and The Santaland Diaries is no exception.

The Santaland Diaries runs through January 2nd at Portland Center Stage. Tickets $44-$49. Due to demand the show won’t have any rush tickets.

For More info on The Santaland Diaries with Wade McCollum:

Imago Theater No Exit Review

October 22, 2009 No comments

“…being roasted on the spit, sulpher and brimstone. What a laugh! As if they needed it! Hell is other people.” Jean-Paul Sartre

You wouldn’t think that an existentialist play with three people who emotionally torture each other for an hour and a half would be so enjoyable, but Imago Theater‘s production of No Exit manages to find the playfulness and absurdity buried beneath the surface of Jean-Paul Sartre‘s famous play. Staged on a floating, tilting square, Imago’s No Exit is a dynamic and constantly moving production.

Imago's No Exit Tilting Stage

Imago's No Exit Tilting Stage

Imago’s No Exit stage pitches and moves under the weight and movement of the actors. This tilting and movement becomes more angular and dramatic as more actors are added to the mix. Using such a strong device to present the play, Imago ran the risk of having No Exit be a one trick pony. Through the first part of the play the novelty of the tilting stage does generate strong excitement, which tapers off as the play settles in. This transition point is handled extremely well and the staging transforms from a novelty into an essential character in the show. I loved how the moving stage changes the audience’s physical perspective on the show; at times, actors seem to float in the air in front of us, and at others they seem to be falling away into the darkness.

Director and set designer Jerry Mouawad seems to be constantly playing with the arrangement of the actors on stage, using that constantly shifting dynamic to enhance the tension and create drama. Mouawad does a fantastic job of coordinating the actors’ positioning, lighting and Sartre’s text into a piece that far exceeds anything that could be done on a conventional stage. Mouawad also seems to realize how important it is not to rely simply on the technical device of the teetering stage for the success of the show, so he injects a nice undercurrent of humor to balance things out.

Much of the humor in Imago’s production of No Exit is generated by Bryce Flint-Somerville who plays the role of the Valet. Bryce’s performance of the Valet is a blend of Dr. Daamen Caligari from the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Jim Carrey. It’s a delicious mix of near-comic insanity which starts the play off on a fantastic note and carries it through the first half.

Tim True and JoAnna Johnson in No Exit

Tim True and JoAnna Johnson in No Exit

Bryce’s intensity and humor is well balanced by Tim True who plays Garcin, a pacifist writer who is at constant odds with the world and his sense of self. Tim True plays Garcin in near opposite to Bryce as he constantly draws his energy and intensity inwards rather than playing everything out in exageration. True is excellent throughout the production even though he seemed to stumble with his lines a few times throughout the evening. I’ll give True the benefit of the doubt here as I saw the production on opening night. I’m sure as he settles into the run these stumbles will vanish and he’ll be left with a simply exceptional performance.

Adding a much different kind of intensity is JoAnn Johnson, who plays Inez, an aging, lusting lesbian postal worker who has a flair for the dramatic. “I’m a bitch” exclaims Inez, and Johnson seems to enjoy every last morsel of playing that. At times it felt like Johnson was channeling Gloria Swanson, using her physicality to communicate in dramatic fashion as much as her words. Towards the end of the show Johnson injects something into a very serious moment that is so unexpected and disarming I had a hard time containing my laughter.

Maureen Porter in Imago's No Exit

Maureen Porter in Imago's No Exit

Maureen Porter rounds out this excellent cast playing a fantastically alive Estelle, a woman who lived to be desired and persued by men. Porter is captivating and when she performs her key monologue you simply can’t take your eyes off her. Unfortunately Porter’s performance is handicapped by an absolutely horrid blond wig that she wears through out the show. It’s Halloween bad and it greatly distracts and detracts from the performance. It may seem petty, but it sticks out so accutely and is really my only gripe with an otherwise fantastic production.

In other hands Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit might be a tough piece to get through. Loose in its narrative structure, extremely morose and tightly confined in a single space, a performance of No Exit runs the risk of making you feel utterly trapped and miserable. There is no schadenfreude in watching three people emotionally torture each other, but Jerry Mouawad and the Imago Theater company have found something immensely entertaining and even absurdly enjoyable within this play. Through its innovative staging and deliciously performed characters, Imago has created a fantastic piece of theater that is extremely enjoyable and absolutely worth seeing.

Imago Theater’s No Exit runs October 15th – November 15th [Thursday @ 7:00 ($28); Friday @ 7:30 ($33); Sat @ 2:00 ($33) & 7:30 ($39); Sunday @ 2:00 ($28) Youth/Senior tickets are $3 less.] The theater is located at 17 SE 8th Ave (just south of Burnside).

For more information on Imago Theater’s No Exit:

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Portland Center Stage Ragtime Review

October 12, 2009 1 comment
Gavin Gregory in Portland Center Stage's Ragtime

Gavin Gregory in Portland Center Stage's Ragtime

Portland Center Stage didn’t take the easy road in selecting Ragtime for their 2009-2010 season. Ragtime is a huge production, with a large cast, quickly changing scenes and children who play two key singing roles. Given the complexity and scale of the show, it’s a little surprising that a regional theater company would try to tackle such a large production, especially in a recession when production funds don’t flow as freely.

Director Chris Coleman seems aware of the issues of scale in his production of Ragtime and places his trust in his performers and their ability to come together to fill in the spaces where set pieces and backdrops would traditionally be. At first I didn’t like the stark staging of Portland Center Stage’s Ragtime. G.W. Mercier’s design consists of a bare patterned wood floor, a few chairs and four massive swinging doors that open and close throughout the production. That’s it. As the production rolled on I found that I did really warm to the set, due in large part to the phenomenal lighting design and pitch-perfect staging of the actors. By the middle of the first act I found myself completely lost in the world of Ragtime.

In addition to the phenomenal lighting, a lot of credit goes to the performers, who absolutely commit to seeing and interacting with objects that aren’t there on stage. There’s one moment when actor Gavin Gregory (who plays Coalhouse Walker) sits down to play at an invisible piano that is truly magical. There’s no doubt that he’s playing piano, it’s just not there. As the production progresses there are a number of pretty sophisticated transitions which happen seamlessly – no small feat when you have twenty four people on stage.

One of the reasons Ragtime has such a large cast is that it is much more a portrait of a period in American history than a conventional narrative. At its core is a story of a Ragtime piano player and the struggles surrounding the woman he loves, but the show uses this main throughline to tell dozens of little stories. Terrence McNally does a fantastic job pulling E.L. Doctorow’s novel together for the stage. All the right pieces are there to present a mural of a pivotal time of change in history. Unfortunately the lyrics aren’t as strong as the adaptation.

There are some strong moments musically in Ragtime, especially when the ensemble come together and their interweaving narrative threads unite into a single chorus and there are at least two solo numbers which are strong enough to bring down the house (one performed by Gavin Gregory and the other by Susannah Mars). But none of the songs get stuck in your head and I can’t see myself humming anything from Ragtime anytime soon.

In terms of the performance, there’s a lot to like about Portland Center Stage’s Ragtime. Most notably is Gavin Gregory who is the absolute stand out of this cast. Gregory brings such an amazing emotional presence to stage and is so vocally talented that it’s impossible not to be captivated. I’d recommend running out to see this production of Ragtime for Gregory’s performance alone. He’s that good. Ragtime is an ensemble piece and while Gregory is the standout there are a number of other extremely strong performances including Susannah Mars who is excellent, Danny Rothman who does a tremendous job with a role that could have easily fallen into the background, and Alex Thede, a sixth grader who is an absolute inspiration to any young aspiring actor or actress.

The only performance I didn’t care for was Leif Norby who is horribly miscast as Tateh, an immigrant from Latvia who comes to America to find a better life. Norby, decked out in a horridly fake beard, does a caricature of an immigrant that is cartoonish and amateurish. His character goes through a transformation in the show that is played so rough by Norby that it’s completely lost, and the following duet between Leif Norby and Susannah Mars is the real low point of the show. The only saving grace of Tateh’s storyline is Anna Jane Bishop who plays Tateh’s daughter. While she doesn’t have a lot of lines, Bishop’s stage presence is extremely strong, especially for a ten year old.

Norby aside, the production of Ragtime in its entirely is really something to experience. Director Chris Coleman has demonstrated with Ragtime how a regional theater can tackle a very ambitious production intelligently, thoughtfully and skillfully. There are a lot of choices out there for Portland Center Stage to select from and I’m very pleased to see them aim high and tackle something that other theater companies might dismiss as ‘too big’ or ‘too complex’ for a regional theater.

Ragtime is a very satisfying evening of theater, and when you add Gavin Gregory and his performance to that mix it makes it an evening of theater not to be missed.

For more information on Portland Center Stage’s production of Ragtime:

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Josh Kornbluth's Ben Franklin: Unplugged – Reviewed

October 7, 2009 No comments
Josh Kornbluth - Ben Franklin: Unplugged

Josh Kornbluth - Ben Franklin: Unplugged

History is an interesting animal, in some ways it is like a dinosaur. We can look at the bones of the once mighty dinosaurs and pontificate: How did it live? What did it look like? What might its life been like? With more contemporary history we often have the luxury of texts, letters, documents or diaries to refer back to. But there will always gaps between the bones to fill in and moments that were never recorded or are lost. The telling of these stories often speak volumes about the person telling the story, who can’t help but bring their bias and perspectives to the telling. Perhaps this is why it makes sense for an autobiographical monologist to explore the world of biography in the telling the story of “the first American”, Benjamin Franklin.

For Josh Kornbluth, the story of Ben Franklin, his relationship with his son and his complicated position in history is an ideal canvas to express and explore Kornbluth’s own life and relationships both to his father and history. These themes run thorough out much of Kornbluth’s autobiographical work and so it’s no surprise that they are present here. What is a surprise is how Kornbluth ultimately sets aside his own narrative in service of the greater story of Benjamin Franklin. It’s a pretty huge step for someone who has spent the majority of his career in the autobiographical space and it shows that Kornbluth has an immense maturity as an artist and an enormous amount of trust in his material.

Josh Kornbluth’s Benjamin Franklin: Unplugged begins with Kornbluth reenacting the day he discovered he bore a striking resemblance to Benjamin Franklin and then follows an adventure into Kornbluth learning more about the historical figure. That adventure is extraordinarily entertaining and Kornbluth feels a lot like a slightly nerdy Jewish Robert Langdon in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code (with out all the car chases and murder mystery).

Through out the piece we learn a tremendous amount about Benjamin Franklin as Kornbluth literally wrestles with the fact and fiction surrounding one of the most recognizable figures in American history. For fans of American history this show is a literalsmorgasbord, an immense feast of knowledge and insight that will leave even the most ardent history buff spinning. But the piece doesn’t work because it’ll thrill history buffs, it works because it’ll thrill those who aren’t particularly enamored with history. Kornbluth manges to make the world of one of our founding fathers come alive and contextualizes it in a way that makes it exciting and entertaining. He literally dusts off the history books and shows the humanity contained within. Merging that narrative with his own he creates an evening that is extraordinarily entertaining.

In the case of Benjamin Franklin: Unplugged, entertaining doesn’t always mean funny. Many contemporary monologists use humor extensively as their conduit to entertaining the audience. Here the occasional quip feels extemporaneous as Josh moves beyond humoring us to truly fascinating us. By conjuring up a cast of very real characters, both from history and from Josh’s own life, Kornbluth takes us on an incredible adventure and he does this as a single performer on a lightly dressed stage.

For me it’s exciting to see the art of monologue grow in this way. I grew up on tales from Spalding Grey who sat behind a simple desk with a glass of water and his notes. That’s the image I’ve always had of monologue. Josh Kornbluth explores the possibilities of this art form with a set, props and staging. In the second act of the piece he emerges dressed in costume as Benjamin Franklin and the impact of that is considerable.

Benjamin Franklin: Unplugged is utterly entertaining, it brings Benjamin Franklin to life in a way no ‘reenactment’ could. By making the story of such an iconographic historical figure personal Josh Kornbluth inspires the audience to connect to history in their own way, to look beyond the commemorative poster of historical figures the into the real people behind them.

Josh Kornbluth’s Benjamin Franklin: Unplugged runs at Portland Center Stage Oct 1- November 22nd.

For more information on Josh Kornbluth’s Benjamin Franklin: Unplugged:

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Interview with Josh Kornbluth – Ben Franklin Unplugged

October 2, 2009 1 comment
Josh Korbluth in Portland

Josh Korbluth in Portland

In 2002 I picked up a copy of the film Haiku Tunnel. It was described to me as “Office Space” if Woody Allen had directed it rather than Mike Judge (a pretty spot on description). It was hilarious.  Since then I’ve followed the career of Josh Kornbluth (the star of the film), as he’s established himself as one of the nation’s most sought after monologists.

Over the years, through Josh’s email list, I’d hear about his many shows in Berkley, California and wonder what it would take to get him to perform in Portland?  When Portland Center Stage announced that Josh was bringing his show Ben Franklin: Unplugged to Portland for a seven week run, I couldn’t contain my excitement.

Josh Kornbluth’s monologues are a unique mix of history, biographiy and observations. His disarming style sucks you into his world and leads you along on a fantastic trip.

Josh Korbluth’s Ben Franklin: Unplugged runs at Portland Center Stage September 29 to November 22, 2009. It’s a rare opportunity to see one of the nation’s best monologists in one of his most acclaimed works.

Watch On Portland’s Interview with Josh Kornbluth:

Josh Kornbluth on Ben Franklin Unplugged from On Portland on Vimeo.

For more information on Josh Kornbluth:

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Portland Opera La Boheme Live Blog

September 25, 2009 1 comment
La Boheme Live Blog

La Boheme Live Blog

Prologue:

Live Blogging is insanity. It’s the antithesis of well thought out and well reasoned criticism. When I regularly review a piece of art, theater or opera I let things sit, I chew on thoughts and impressions and then I synthesize it all down into a cohesive flow which tells a story in its own right. So this live blog isn’t meant to take the place of a true formal review it’s a completely different animal, a wild animal…

So why do it? Because it’s extremely challenging and exciting and gives you the reader a much different view to the whole experience. You get my unfiltered, unedited, off the cuff reactions to the things I see and hear. Often those things are brutally honest, and immanently immediate. Our live blog from last seasons’s production of Rigoletto was a ton of fun, and very well received. So I’ve decided to give it another go, this time with opera’s most frequently produced and beloved La Boheme. I will be updating this post after every act and then at the end of the show with our thoughts. I’ll also be twittering from the show @OnPortland. (and even broadcasting on UStream). Also because this is live, please excuse any typos, odd grammar and other omissions, I’ll do the very best we can, but time is not on our side.

Prelude:

With over 100 people in the company for La Boheme, the Portland Opera’s production is a huge undertaking. Add 25+ tech people, a dizzying array of props and then spread that over four acts and you’ve got one massive show.

As part of the Blogger’s Night at The Opera we were given a behind the scenes tour.

Here’s a pictorial look behind the scenes of  Portland Opera’s La Boheme:

Watch our behind the scenes tour from with production manager Laura Haskell Portland Opera’s La Boheme:

ACT I:

La Boheme Act I Mimi (Kelly Kaduce) and Rodolfo (Arturo Chacon-Cruz)

La Boheme Act I Mimi (Kelly Kaduce) and Rodolfo (Arturo Chacon-Cruz)

This is my first time seeing La Boheme (even though it’s one of the most popularly produced operas out there), but I can’t but help have a sense of deja vu. Knowing that Rent is based on this opera I had the parallel characters/timeline in my head. Wouldn’t it be cool to see Anthony Rapp or Adam Pascall doing the opera version? Even though they’re both fantastic singers I don’t know if they could handle the amazing lyrical load that Michael Todd Simpson (Marcello) and Arturo Chacón-Cruz (Rodolfo) both do.

The opening scene is pretty light and fun, it really gets going when Rodolfo (Arturo Chacón-Cruz) meets Mimi (Kelly Kaduce). Chacon-Cruz is the strongest singer of the bunch but the magic really happens when they sing “O soave fanciulla” (watch a video clip from the live production of this song). Together they are captivating, even when they trail off stage at the end of the act. Wherever they are going, we want to follow them.

The sets for Portland Opera’s La Boheme are fantastic. Since La Boheme is such a popular opera, Portland Opera had its pick of several sets and I think they made an excellent choice (The sets originate from the San Diego Opera and the costumes from San Francisco Opera). I really like how the set frames the space, it gives a sense of a city outside of the loft that Marcello and Rodolfo share without overpowering them. Also unlike Rigoletto I think the lighting is spot on here. Sets the scene and then keeps it. When Mimi and Rodolfo are doing their back and forth with their candles, the lighting matches it perfectly.

I’m also struck by the sheer number of props in this opera, they fill the stage and really help make it feel alive. It’s an interesting duality of a very operatic stage with sharp angles and dramatic spaces but one that has a subtle life to it. Act I’s staging is also pretty monochromatic but it’s done without feeling murky.

Musically the orchestra is extremely solid, they seem to really enjoy taking off with full gusto and La Boheme gives them ample opportunity to do just that. You can hear that when the music builds, the orchestra is happy to step in the spotlight and be the star.

Act I moves into Act II with out an intermission. It’s a huge stage transformation between acts and it’s executed well, without too long a wait in the dark and certainly a lot less time waiting than with Rigoletto.

ACT II:

La Boheme ACT II Spectacular

La Boheme ACT II Spectacular

Act II of La Boheme begins with a bang! There are over a hundred people to start the act. It’s overwhelming. Fantastic at first but ultimately as the act goes on it’s just too many people. I would have liked to have seen about half the people on stage as so many are lost in the crowd. Literally there are people six or seven layers deep here. With 20+ kids, many of them are lost in the shuffle. I’m sure there are several frustrated parents who will have to look real hard to spot their little performers.

The numbers are overkill and they musically don’t come together. With a chorus that size I’d expect fireworks and we get sparks but not what I’d hope for if you’re going to have a stage that packed.

Alyson Cambridge (Musetta) is so wonderfully over the top in everything she does that she steals this act. It doesn’t hurt that she’s in a lavish yellow dress. She owns every ounce of Musetta and her lavish attempts to make Marcello jealous. Musically the second act zips right along. Conductor Antonello Allemandi seems to enjoy letting his performers be the focus and supports them excellently. I particularly enjoyed the finale of this act with the marching band and parade, it’s a celebration and it’s done very well.

A side note, I’ve been asked several times by people tonight if I am an ‘Opera Person’ to which I’ve replied “I’m here aren’t I?” I think that someone can go to an opera and not define themselves as an opera person per se. There still seems to be a part of the culture who sees opera as a very specific thing, something you’re either a part of or not. This is a mistake. I’d love to see people who don’t attend opera be welcomed with open arms (and I think the Portland Opera itself is making great strides towards this with their blogger nights, pre show talks, Q&A’s and community events), after all opera doesn’t belong to anyone, it belongs to everyone even people who aren’t “Opera People”.

ACT III

Snow! The third act begins with a fantastic snowfall on a much darker and bleaker set. It’s jaring since we were just in the fun and colors of Act II. I feel like something’s been missed, there’s no real transition from revalry to dispair and we are left to wonder exactly has transipired between Rodolfo and Mimi. In many ways I felt like I needed an Act IIa to bridge the two acts narratively. I know people get testy when you pull apart great operas, and so I think it’s important to point out that even great composers can miss a beat here and there, and with La Boheme I wish there was something there to bridge the two.

Having said that, Act III belongs to Mimi (Kelly Kaduce) who does a fantastic job both with her solos and duets. Kanduce does something sublime as she sings from the shadows in response to Rodolfo’s declarations of wishing to end the relationship, it’s a physicality and quality of voice that really makes the scene. KellyKaduce shines the brightest here when her character is in decline walking the perfect balance between showing Mimi’s illness and the passion she still has for Rodolfo.

The duet with Rodolfo to close the act is simply divine. One of the highlights of the show so far, so much emotion, so beautiful and when they say they’ll stay together till the spring you truly don’t want the winter to end.

My only real gripe with this act (aside from WAY too many people on stage on Act II) is Michael Todd Simpson. His performance as Marcello Baritone isn’t bad but musically it’s just not great. In the quartet towards the end of Act III he gets lost in the shuffle. I like his voice and he has a nice stage presence, but I feel like he could open up just a little more. There seems to be more inside that isn’t coming out and I’d love to see it.

Still have visions of Rent in my head as I watch La Boheme and I appreciate even more that adaptation. Johnathan Larson seemed to see the spaces in between Puccini’s opera and filled them. Still I am thoroughly enjoying La Boheme in its own right, as its own thing.

ACT IV:

Mimi (Kelly Kaduce) and Rodolfo (Arturo Chacon-Cruz) Act III

Mimi (Kelly Kaduce) and Rodolfo (Arturo Chacon-Cruz) Act III

The act starts on a pretty jovial note (almost surprisingly given the tone of Act III), mirroring the first act, but it quickly turns as Mimi comes in dying from consumption. There’s a moment in the fourth act that is absolute proof that there are no small roles in great opera Gustav Andreassen delivers a phenomenal aria as Colline Bass that’s so compelling you can take your eyes off him. Forget about subtitles Gustav transcends the language and is absolutely perfect. One of the best moments of the night.

Another high point of this act is the return of Musetta (Alyson Cambridge) which Alyson plays much more reserved and down to earth than in Act II. Alyson is superb as she effortlessly displays both her emotional and vocal range, She and Gustav really seem to steal the show from Rodolfo (Arturo Chacón-Cruz) and Mimi (Kelly Kaduce). That is of course until the end.

Kelly Kaduce fades down her performance in this act with much of it coming from the bed. She is so quiet in the middle of the act that she occasionally gets lost in the strings. But the orchestra seemed so excited about the final refrain they can’t contain themselves. Musically the final refrain is amazing (worth seeing the whole show for). Watching Conductor Antonello Allemandi deliver that final refrain is extremely entertaining. Throughout much of the opera he’s been controlled, humble and subtle but like a cannon he literally explodes at the end.

Finale:

Overall I quite enjoyed Portland Opera’s production of La Boheme, It’s well staged, well performed and well conducted. There are some definite stand out performances including: Arturo Chacón-Cruz who is as good a Rodolfo as you can ask for; Kelly Kaduce whose take on Mimi I quite liked and who shined really bright both in her duets with Arturo and in the Act III; Gustav Andreassen and Alyson Cambridge who may have not had a lot of stage time but they both delivered monster performances (I don’t often recommend seeing a piece for the supporting performers but here it’s clearly warranted)

La Boheme has been called an excellent ‘starter’ opera and I can understand why, it’s fairly accessible, has a good mix of fun and tragedy and is musically quite enjoyable. Portland Opera’s production of this beloved opera is first rate and I’d highly recommend it for both “Opera People” and the rest of us who just might enjoy a good opera now and then.

Production Photos from Portland Opera’s Production of La Boheme

A special thanks to Julia Sheridan and Jim Fullan for making the Portland Opera Blogger nights possible. I think it’s a tremendous sign of just how committed the Portland Opera is to reaching out in the community and connecting with new opera viewers. I also encourage you to check out my fellow Opera Blogger’s and their thoughts on La Boheme: Marc Acito, Floyd Sklaver of Just Out, and Daryl Freedman (Portland Opera’s Studio Artist)

Portland Opera’s La Boheme runs at The Keller Auditorium September 27, Oct 1 & 3rd. Tickets are still available and they even have last minute rush for as low as $10!

For more information on Portland Opera’s La Boheme:

Categories: Opera, Theater Tags: ,

Portland Opera La Boheme

September 24, 2009 No comments

La Boheme Portland OperaLast season, On Portland took part in the first ever Portland Opera Live Blogging Event for their season closer Rigoletto. This event combined the excitement of live opera with almost real time commentary from bloggers.

Portland Opera has decided to reprise this event with their season opener La Boheme (which the musical Rent is based on)

On Friday, September 25th starting around 6:30 pm, On Portland will be live blogging the opera.  We’ll give you near real time look at the behind the scenes of the opera as well as comments on the production posted at each intermission.

If you’re an opera patron or want to join us at the opera on the 25th, On Portland will be at a special live blogging table in the lobby along with several other local Portland blogs. So be sure to come by and say hi as you watch us furiously type our immediate thoughts, feelings and reactions to La Boheme. Then check back here to see if our thoughts match yours.

If you aren’t able to attend the opera we invite you to visit our live blog of the event as it unfolds.  We never know what will end up in our live blog coverage but we can guarantee that you’ll be getting the very raw and unfiltered view of one of Portland’s most prominent performance companies.

Here are some interviews with some of the members of the La Boheme cast:

Soprano Kelly Kaduce on performing Mimi:

Arturo Chacon-Cruz on Rodolfo:

Soprano Alyson Cambridge on Musetta

Antonello Allemandi – Conductor

For more information:

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TBA:09 in Review – Back to Back Theater Small Metal Objects

September 10, 2009 No comments
photo: Ken Aaron, NeighborhoodNotes.com

photo: Ken Aaron, NeighborhoodNotes.com

Set in Pioneer Courthouse Square, Back to Back Theater’s “Small Metal Objects” is a fairly minimalistic piece – two guys stroll the square talking about life and their relationship. A third person comes along to interject a small amount of drama and the piece builds slightly, only to reach an anti-climax. There aren’t many highs and lows to the piece; it’s all fairly mundane. The fairly simple interaction is heightened as each actor is impeccably mic’d and the audience, equipped with high-end head phones, can hear every single word no matter where the actors are located in the square. It’s an odd experience watching a piece of theater where the actor’s audio sounds so close. In this piece this intimate audio experience is even more odd as it’s so clearly intertwined with a very public space in which the actors perform. In addition to the dialog, music is mixed over the headphones creating the real mood and the tension of the performance.

The real magic of Small Metal Objects is the slight of hand that Back to Back Theater does, duping the audience into thinking that they are the observers when in fact they are the show. Sitting in a confined and clearly marked space above the square, wearing big silver headphones, it’s the audience that are the “small metal objects”. We are the ones really on display and the actors who walk the square are nearly invisible to people who pass through the square. It’s a fairly brilliant inversion and quite effectively challenges the very notion of what performance and theater are. The downside of this is that the piece is pretty much a one trick pony. Once you realize the trick there’s little else to hang on to. There are some nuggets narratively in Small Metal Objects and the two main characters are compelling, but it has the potential to be even better. Back to Back could have delivered a one-two punch with a piece that both challenges the concept of performance and has stronger narrative elements. It’s an opportunity missed, but not enough to prevent me from recommending the show.

I applaud Back to Back Theater for so skillfully challenging the core concept of performance. Technically the show was impeccable, but with a stronger narrative it could have been even better.

For more information about Back to Back Theater’s Small Metal Objects:

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