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The (opera) Houses of Capulet & Montague

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Romeo et Juliette, by Charles Gounod
Opera Company of Philadelphia
February 11, 13m, 16, 18, 20m, 2011
Academy of Music
Review of Feb. 13m, Airs on WRTI, 90.1 Fm. Feb. 16

Turning the rival families of Romeo et Juliette into fashion houses should work a lot better than it does in the Gounod opera at the Academy of Music., the Opera Company of Philadelphia’s collaboration with director Manfried Schweigkofler of Bolzano, Italy, needs clarity. And consistency if the conceit is going to stick.

If the production confuses, the musical values are very strong, Maestro Jacques Lacombe steering orchestra and chorus and Stephen Costello and Ailyn Perez as the star- crossed lovers, make this production finer than worthwhile. Some secondary roles are nicely sung –from the larger role of Taylor Stayton’s alert Tybalt to the smaller of Elena Belfiore’s energetic Stephano. Several of these are debuts, newcomers lost in the shuffle and blocking of designer Nora Veneri’s set, a design way too traditional for those accustomed to cable TV’s “Runway” feuds or fans of “The Devil Wears Prada.”

This Romeo et Juliette feels like switching channels from teen fashion to a 19th century opera the way Veneri sets the stage — for which I also blame this company’s production house, which made the set.

The design rotates a giant white stairway to imply Juliette’s bedroom, balcony, the Friar’s cell, the lovers’ tomb. It’s ugly. A hip apartment for these youth might have been suggested with or without projections. Since fashion is the concept it’s odd the stairs are never worked as runways for the designer-models parading the Houses of Capulet and Montague.

This update views Juliette as a celebrity model who wants out, Gertrude is her confidant. Paris (Siddhartha Misra) is a magazine mogul– but you’d hardly know who the poor fellow is the way he’s blocked.

Worse is the silliness that passes for wit. EG: the fight scenes: Death by hammer for Tybalt (Taylor Stayton) who wields street signs.

After the infamous sleeping potion, this production has supernumeraries race through the Academy of Music hawking newspapers with “Juliette’s suicide!”

“Newspapers! I’d prefer CNN,” the man next to me said.
I thought about “Entertainment Tonight.”

Costello and Perez (who in real life are wed, and two more of the Academy of Vocal Arts’ triumphs, convey great longing. Costello forced some high notes at the Sunday matinee but the beauty of his tenor is in the tone and nuance. Perez spun a firmly radiant soprano; all of their duets persuaded, the final love scene was heart-rending despite the ill-conceived tomb. It was steeply raked toward the stage rear: unkind to sight and projection.

The Opera Company has a well-honed chorus. Its commentaries were finely delivered. A deft touch was robing them to conceal the evening attire, varied with finesse hair to heels by costumer Richard St. Clair. Supernumeraries have not looked so good in seasons here. If only the set had not been so level – so horizontally dull – to the eye.

The students from three design schools at Drexel, Moore College, and the Philadelphia University contributed good work and modeled their fashions. Next production, the company might consider PAFA or another art school for help with the set.

Strong singing actors and musicians deserve an update that’s really up to date.

I’d like to see what Chas Rader- Scheiber could do with this concept.

This commentary was expanded from the two minute review for Temple Radio, WRTI. org.

Photo Credits: Kelly and Massa Photography


Written by Lesley Valdes

February 16, 2011 at 6:53 pm

Yussef El Guindi’s “Language Rooms”

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Sevan Greene and Nasser Faris (Photo: Jim Roese)


Language Rooms (Yussef El Guindi)
The Wilma (world premiere)
March 9 – April 4, 2010

The price of a better life is higher than we think. That’s one lesson of Language Rooms at The Wilma. Yussef El Guindi’s ferocious 15th comedy which tackles issues of immigration close to the bone. Here, Arab- American tensions in an unidentified government workplace, also becomes a stirring father-son drama. The focus of the world premiere early on is the bureaucrat who tries the soul as he undermines a young Arab-American played by Sehvan Greene. Peter Jay Fernandez is the snark with the perfect smile. Who can you trust? Fernandez is superb as Kevin the egregious employer who plays his Arab employees against each other. Ahmed’s best bud is played by J. Paul Nicholas. The boss spouts psycho- babble and religion. Takes out the ironing board to press the creases out of his shirt. He’s on the way up: no wrinkles for Kevin. Ahmed’s full of wrinkles and worries.
Ahmed’s one of only two Arab translators working offshore for a U.S. agency. The time is now, the work is spurious; loyalties are questioned. Paranoia in Ola Maslick’s dental- bright space. Ahmed’s in denial about the trouble he’s having fitting in. The self hate beneath the surface.
Language Rooms, keeps the audience laughing in the first act act but it lumbers. Things shift in the second act, which is still pretty funny – torture by milk for those lactose intolerant Muslims – but the drama intensifies. L.A. actor Nasser Faris as Ahmed’s father gives a terrific performance. After unconvincing work in the first act, Greene as Ahmed begins to shine, anger is a powerful tool. The laughs stop; there is pathos. The plot, which has been predictable, delivers a surprise; then Faris lingers over lines, spinning nostalgia.
El Guindi, who has been a citizen almost as many years as his 15 plays, aims for the view of the 2nd generation. (Though he himself was born in Egypt, educated at the University of Cairo, as well as in the Stages.) Language Rooms at The Wilma disturbs and it is funny. The play feels structurally uneven but brings a welcome voice to Philadelphia. Blanka Zizka directs.

Written by Lesley Valdes

March 12, 2010 at 5:10 pm

Becky Shaw at the Wilma

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Becky Shaw
by Gina Gionfriddo
Jan. 6-Jan. 31
The Wilma

Slippery characters trying (sometimes) to be better than they are will keep you laughing at the Wilma Theater as they make their way through a morass of money, class and family. <emBecky Shaw, by Pulitzer finalist Gina Gionfriddo, has parallels to Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, and his anti-heroine, Becky Sharp. It’s a comedy of manners, set in contemporary Manhattan and Beantown (one scene in Providence, RI.). Hell breaks loose when newlyweds Suzanna (Danielle Skaarstaad) and Andrew (Armando Riesco) introduce Andrew’s down- on- her- luck friend Becky Shaw (Brooke Bloom) to Suzanna’s oldest and best pal Max, a money manager.
The set- up is a disaster. Acerbic Max, is a ‘short timer,’ he doesn’t stay with anyone more than three months. He bolts after the first date which includes a robbery. Max’s history with Suzanna’s peculiar family should not be given away here.

Playwright Gionfriddo’s timing is fast and furious, so are the jokes and insights. She writes for Law & Order. The Wilma’s cast is terrific. Jeremy Bobb as Max gets the best lines, gesture to inflection he is every inch the unrepetent, defensive, Max. As Suzanna, Danielle Skraastad is dynamic. She would also make a good Becky Shaw. Her downside: the volume she ought to vary. Too much projection can become a bore. Janis Dardaris plays the diva mother. She could eat a dragon for breakfast and keep the sarcasm going. Armando Riesco plays Andrew, Mr. Nice. Bloom as Becky Shaw undercuts some of her victim/manipulator role. Her final scene is the blurriest of all. Anne Kauffman directs. Mimi Lien’s brilliant dioramas let us spy on bedrooms and living rooms: giving the skinny on evolving class. Love and work love and money, money and class How to get along without them? Becky Shaw at the Wilma makes you think what do we owe the ones we love?
What do we mean when we say we’re socially responsible? Not a minute that’s dreary.

Written by Lesley Valdes

January 7, 2010 at 4:43 am

Posted in 1, Champs, Heroines, Drama, marriage, Theater, TV

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