Kiss Me Lucia di la Mancha – A glorious musical weekend

What a fantastic 31 hours! Lucia di Lammermoor in Met HD starting at 10 am Saturday March 19 2011, continuing with the Gunn High School performance of Kiss Me, Kate Saturday evening, and ending at 5 pm Sunday when the curtain came down on Man of La Mancha performed by Symphony Silicon Valley as the final 2010-2011 Broadway in Concert series.

“Wait a minute,” you say. “I thought you were an OPERA nut. You already wrote your review of Lucia and the other two aren’t Opera at all; they’re just Musicals.” Point taken, but where do you draw the line?

Porgy and Bess poster from the web

And why draw a line at all? I write these reviews because I want to share my enjoyment of a musical experience. Besides, there are even works that have started life as musicals and have later been performed by opera companies: Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess and Bernstein’s Candide are a couple of examples.

Candide poster from the web

Enough arguing. This is my column, and I want to write about Man of La Mancha. End of discussion.

Man of La Mancha poster

Symphony Silicon Valley has put on a fascinating series this year called Broadway in Concert. A full symphony orchestra fills the back half of the stage; the front half is for actor-singers and minimal props – no scenery. Players dress in harmony with their parts, but there are virtually no costume changes except such things as putting on or taking off a helmet. They may carry scripts, but they are thoroughly familiar with their parts and only refer to them briefly. Within these limits they sing and act their parts. The resulting performance is almost as good visually as a fully-staged version. Audibly it is even better since it makes acoustic sense to have the soloists in front of the instruments.

Hello Dolly and My Fair Lady posters

Earlier this season I resisted writing about Hello Dolly and My Fair Lady. But Man of La Mancha affected my emotions in much the same way that a good performance of Butterfly, La Traviata, or La Bohème can do.

James Harms

The three soloists were all fantastic. James Harms was totally believable as the idealistic Don Quixote. Mad, he may have been, but his madness was so much more beautiful than the grim reality of his time. Tears were running down my cheeks when he sang the finale reprise:

To dream the impossible dream
To fight the unbeatable foe
To bear with unbearable sorrow
To run where the brave dare not go

To right the unrightable wrong
To love pure and chaste from afar
To try when your arms are too weary
To reach the unreachable star

These are not tears of sadness at his death. Don Quixote is not dead. He lives forever in our memories. He glimpses a hint of this as he draws his final breath – and I too glimpse it because for the moment I am he. Don’t ask me why. Don’t ask me how. The logic which was my career and governs all my reactions to reality has left me and I am the willing slave of my emotions.

Valerie Perri

Speaking of emotions, Valerie Perri’s Aldonza conveys hate and despair in their rawest forms in her early ballad “It’s All the Same”:

Oh, I have seen too many beds,
But I have known too little rest,
And I have loved too many men
With hatred burning in my breast.
I do not like you or your brother,
I do not like the life I live,
But I am me, I am Aldonza.
And what I give, I choose to give.
One pair of arms is like another
It’s all the same, it’s all the same!

And later on, her poignancy and frustration as Don Quixote refuses to understand her as she sings to him

Of all the cruel bastards
Who’ve badgered and battered me,
You are the cruelest of all!
Can’t you see what your gentle
Insanities do to me?
Rob me of anger and give me despair! Blows and abuse
I can take and give back again,
Tenderness I cannot bear!
So please torture me now
With your “Sweet Dulcineas” no more!
I am no one! I’m nothing!
I’m only Aldonza the whore!

It was a real treat to be sitting so close to the stage that I could see the sweet smile on the face of Sancho Panza (Jamie Torcellini) as he tried to explain that he followed Don Quixote because, “I like him; I really like him.”

Jamie Torcellini

The tears really started flowing at the end when Don Quixote crumples to the floor, dead and Sancho and Aldonza have a brief dialogue:

after which she leads the group in a final reprise of “To Dream the Impossible Dream”.

William Liberatore; photo by Don Anderson, Gunn Choir Gallery

Credit should also be given to William Liberatore, Conductor and Director Rick Lombardo for the overall success of the performance. In fact Liberatore serves as the perfect bridge to the other half of this review, since he was the Vocal Director for

Kiss Me, Kate logo courtesy concordplayers

A zany plot; tunes you can’t resist humming; ridiculous situations that make you laugh; a happy ending. Am I describing Rossini’s Barber of Seville, Donizetti’s Don Pasquale, Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio, or Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate? The answer, of course, is, “Yes”. Indeed, although only the first three are called Opera, they are certainly more closely related to Kiss Me, Kate than they are to Adams’ Dr. Atomic.

Jeremy Neff as Bill Calhoun (Lucentio); Sophia Christel as Lilli Vanessi (Kate); Tony Bianchini as Fred Graham (Petruchio); Shivani Rustagi as Lois Lane (Bianca)

Kiss Me, Kate is a play-within-a-play, so that each person pictured has three names: the high school student, the actor in the troupe of traveling players, and the character in Shakespeare’s play. To keep things simple I will wait until the end of my review to name the students and will refer here to the actor and/or the character. The essential gimmick of the performance, of course, is that the relationships between the actors bear great similarities to the relationships between the characters.

Lilli Vanessi at her haughtiest

“Now” on stage is the opening night of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew: the Musical and is also the one-year anniversary of the divorce of Prima Donna Lilli Vanessi (Katherine) and Frederick C. Graham (Petruchio), Director and Leading Man. Theirs had been a stormy love-hate relationship and sparks of both aspects are still smoldering and waiting to be reignited.

Katherine sings “I Hate Men”

Early on, the love spark flames, fanned by a bouquet of flowers which Fred tells Lilli are in memory of the “anniversary”, but that doesn’t prevent Kate from an expressive rendition of “I hate men! I can’t abide them even now and then!”

Petruchio arrives in town, singing “I’ve come to wive it wealthily in Padua,” and strikes a deal with Katherine’s father Baptista to take Katherine off his hands in exchange for a substantial dowry – without, of course, consulting her wishes.

Lilli and Fred turn stage battle between Kate and Petruchio into a real fight

Before coming back on stage as Kate in response to Baptista’s command, Lilli has discovered that the bouquet was not intended for her at all, but for Lois Lane (Kate’s sister Bianca). As Petruchio attempts to seal his engagement to Kate with a kiss, she responds as Lilli to Fred with the hate spark burning brightly. For a while he attempts to continue professionally as Petruchio, but he is definitely getting the worst of it. Finally he mutters, “If that’s the way you want it,” and lets Fred’s temper loose as he overpowers her at the end. Curtain for Act I

Thugs Tyler Simons and Blake Vesey “persuade” Lilli not to leave the show

Back stage things are in a turmoil. Lilli is so incensed she is walking out of the show NOW. She calls her secret admirer to come and get her. She’s through with show business and will marry him tonight if he wants. Fred is desperate when salvation arrives in the unlikely form of two thugs brandishing an IOU for $10,000 dollars purportedly signed by Frederick Graham. Rather than argue that the signature was a forgery (which it was), Fred tells them that all his money is bound up in the show. If the show continues to be a success he can easily pay them back as soon as next week. But the star is planning to walk out so the show will flop and he’ll be broke. The only way they can get their money is to “persuade” Lilli to stay with the show.

Bill and Lois dance

Act II is full of catchy tunes with clever words, but I’ll restrict myself to only two of them. First the back stage song that Lois (Bianca) sings to Bill (Lucentio):

If a custom-tailored vet
Asks me out for something wet,
When the vet begins to pet, I cry “Hooray!”
But I’m always true to you, darlin’, in my fashion,
Yes, I’m always true to you, darlin’, in my way.
I enjoy a tender pass
By the boss of Boston, Mass.,
Though his pass is middle-class and notta Backa Bay.
But I’m always true to you, darlin’, in my fashion,
Yes, I’m always true to you, darlin’, in my way.

plus lots more verses.

The two thugs sing about Shakespeare

As sometimes happens in grand opera, there is a “show-stopper” number which has nothing to do with the main story. In this case, the two thugs get lost trying to find their way out of the theatre. They find themselves in front of the curtain in spotlights with the orchestra vamping. Obviously they are expected to perform and they come up with the wonderful “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” with verses too numerous to quote, each more outrageous than the one before:

{Refrain}
Brush up your Shakespeare,
Start quoting him now.
Brush up your Shakespeare
And the women you will wow.

With the wife of the British embessida
Try a crack out of “Troilus and Cressida,”
If she says she won’t buy it or tike it
Make her tike it, what’s more, “As You Like It.”

If she says your behavior is heinous
Kick her right in the “Coriolanus.”
Brush up your Shakespeare
And they’ll all kowtow.

Needless to say, all difficulties get straightened out during Act II and the play ends happily with Kate kneeling submissively to Petruchio. He also kneels and buries his face in her hand. But look closely. Her A-OK aside signal with the other hand shows that Kate realizes how her apparently servile submission really gives her the upper hand. Unfortunately the picture was snapped a fraction of a second too soon so it missed the prodigious wink that went along with the A-OK.

Kate sends her secret message to Bianca

What a weekend!

The Opera Nut

Principal Cast for Man of la Mancha
James Harms Cervantes / Don Quixote
Valerie Perri Aldonza (Dulcinea)
Jamie Torcellini Sancho Panza
Photos (except as noted) courtesy Symphony Silicon Valley
Partial Cast for Kiss Me Kate
ACTOR CHARACTER STUDENT
Fred Graham Petruchio Tony Bianchini
Lilli Vanessi Katherine (Kate) Sophia Christel
Bill Calhoun Lucentio Jeremy Neff
Lois Lane Bianca Shivani Rustagi
1st Thug Blake Vesey
2nd Thug Tyler Simons
Photos (except as noted) by Don Anderson, Gunn Theatre
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