Stage

Weales, Gerald

STAGE PHILADELPHIA ON PITCH OLIVER SACKS'S 'HAT' The 1987 American Music Theater Festival, which ran in Philadelphia from September 12 to October 11, presented its most ambitious season to...

...Let Freedom Sing!, a largely satirical look at our constitutional rights in this bicentennial year, had a few funny sketches, of which the best was a parody of Miss America in which the contestants were presidential candidates...
...STAGE PHILADELPHIA ON PITCH OLIVER SACKS'S 'HAT' The 1987 American Music Theater Festival, which ran in Philadelphia from September 12 to October 11, presented its most ambitious season to date...
...The hot ticket this year was the first professional production of Harry Partch's 1959 extravaganza, Revelation in the Courthouse Park...
...the music by Alan Menken, whose Little Shop of Horrors has been playing for years, was vigorous in a generic way no recognizable Duddy label...
...By the time the piece reaches the climactic tea party, in which, as the Sacks original says, "Hungrily, hummingly, Dr...
...It is Partch's conceit that there is a workable equivalent between the bacchantes of Dionysius and rockand-roll fans, and that a conjunction of the two will tell us something about ecstatic possession...
...The festival is a process, and a successful one, in which some works can stumble without tripping up the continuing creative impulse of the endeavor as a whole...
...P's disorientation is dramatized and at the same time, for those of us who know the movie, there is a double perception that reminds us that the allusion hangs on our own visual memory being intact...
...More rewarding, if less ambitious, was The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, a one-act opera based on a case study by Oliver Sacks, the neurologist with a gift for titles...
...As in past festivals the reconstructed Strike Up the Band in 1984, Duke Ellington's Queenie Pie in 1986 it was an attempt to resurrect a bit of the American musical past and, judging by the reception on the night I was there, it was an exciting event for much of the audience...
...Perhaps because the Partch vision is simplistic, he fails in his contemporary Pentheus, for Sonny's accepting Dion's jacket is neither clear nor clearly motivated, as Pentheus's going into drag is, and Sonny's destruction at the hands of the groupies is incomprehensible except as a balancing artifice...
...The opera substitutes Dark Victory for Sacks's unnamed movie and uses the diagnostic scene in which Davis learns that she is suffering from an irreversible condition...
...These weaknesses in the script were heightened by a production in which the clutter of the playing area seemed untidy rather than demonic...
...When Partch's teen-aged idolaters ran off in this production and came back as bacchantes in Grecian schmotkas, they writhed conventionally, conveying neither sexuality nor ecstasy...
...P, a musician and teacher, suffers from both external and internal agnosia...
...The dance opera from Zaire, Nodiho (The Blood Pact), tells a tale of forest demons, magical rescue, and societal reconciliations...
...Of the other four productions, The Apprenticeship of Buddy Kravitz was the one with Broadway longings...
...In six new productions, it demonstrated the multiplicity behind the label music theater and, by importing works from England and Zaire, it redefined the American of its title...
...P's strategy for circumventing his disability...
...for the most part, however, the show was simply right-thinking, liberal mode, and a little bland...
...The composer, Michael Nyman, following Sacks, uses a Schumann lied to indicate the kind of coherence now missing from Dr...
...for the rest, Nyman provides a constant underlay, an evocation of the musical structure on which Dr...
...The offerings have not all been rewarding, but the festival itself remains as provocative as it is eclectic...
...P starts on the cakes," the wordless song has 623 become more intense, somehow terrifying, even though the opera, like Sacks's study, celebrates Dr...
...The opera was played on a set that was almost like a picture frame surrounding the small orchestra, so that music would be at the center of the piece visually as well as aurally...
...P depends on his chaotic visual world...
...My response was restrained...
...Christopher Rawlence's libretto sticks very close to the Sacks essay, taking both incidents and particularly in the spoken sections words from the source...
...In the case study, Sacks explains that Dr...
...The marvelous instruments that Partch invented to accommodate his musical theory his forty-three note octave are a joy to hear and to see, but I found them most fascinating in the post-production demonstration presided over by Danlee Mitchell, Partch's disciple and heir...
...dance was used as an expression of group response, primarily joyful...
...The story was told not in dance but through broad gestures which suggested the vocabulary of silent movies...
...The opera is simply a series of diagnostic examinations in which The Examiner discovers that Dr...
...There were many nice small things in the production the simple gesture in which Dr...
...As I understand it, Partch conceived Revelation as a grand spectacle with his music at its heart, the chanting and singing voices of the performers joining the instruments to provide the force that would carry the destructive passion of the piece...
...P's life...
...although he can still perceive structure, he cannot register what he sees on the left side and he no longer has the visual memory to recognize simple objects...
...As this hurried account makes clear, a number of the works fell short of their best intentions, but failure in the American Music Theater Festival is not the same as failure in the commercial theater...
...He can describe a rose or a glove in terms of its components, its dimensions, its shapes, but he does not know what it is...
...There was the incidental fun of the gymnasts, the baton twirler, the jugglers, the marching band...
...Based on Mordecai Richler's novel, with a book by Richler and director Austin Pendleton, it failed to catch the feel of Montreal, the swirl of motivations driving Duddy, or the outrageous funniness of the original...
...P reaches for his wife's head instead of his hat but one of the cleverest inventions was the use of an old Hollywood film...
...My experience of the music was compromised both by Partch's dramatic conception and by the way in which it was realized in this production...
...Stauf, by Michael Sahl and Eric Salzman, the festival's artistic director, drowned some fine voices in a confused reworking of the Faust legend to a score so eclectic that it sounded like a demonstration of American styles from the operatic to country music...
...but the potential of both Partch's instruments and the Euripides original was never achieved in Revelation...
...GERALD WEALES...
...Still, he continues to function in society, using his ears as his eyes, and with his wife he has devised a musical code to help him a dressing song, bathing song, an eating song...
...Hat, which came to Philadelphia from the London Institute of Contemporary Art and went on to play two performances at the Guggenheim in New York, was for me, at least the high point of the festival, even though it had to struggle against the bad acoustics in the hall in which it was presented...
...A program note by Mitchell suggests that the piece is mainly concerned with the "undisciplined sensuality" of "mediocre societies," but Euripides, who understood that obsession comes in a great many shapes, was as concerned with Pentheus's rigidity as with Agave's intoxication...
...Rock possession was conveyed much more convincingly (if comically) in Bye Bye Birdie back in 1960, not so coincidentally the year in which Revelation was first performed at the University of Illinois...
...For that reason, he divides his piece into contemporary sequences, in which the rock star (Dion) is welcomed to an ordinary American town, and scenes from The Bacchae, which stick fairly close to the Euripides original...
...P, watching a Bette Davis movie on television with the sound turned off, not only failed to recognize the actress but had.no sense that an intense love scene was going on...

Vol. 114 • November 1987 • No. 19


 
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