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A&E: Seeing 'Tosca' from the terrace

March 24, 2008

I try to avoid leading this column with commentary on productions that have come and gone.

While I steadfastly believe it's valuable to keep such productions in the mix, I appreciate that many of you aren't as interested in what happened as you are in what's still happening.

Still, I think there's use in talking about some weekend-onlys and onenighters. If I share, for instance, that Indianapolis Opera's production of "Tosca" (March 14, 16) offered a compelling, entertaining, and often beautifully intense reading of Puccini's classic-that the musicianship in the pit was excellent, that William Joyner charmed as doomed leading man Cavardadossi (and knows his way around a death scene), and that Stella Zambalis's "Vissi d'arte" aria would have been enough to justify a night at the opera-then perhaps you will consider visiting the IO for one of its future performances.

(Okay, so Zambalis didn't clearly define Tosca's dramatic transitions-and the projection-based set pieces alternated between evocative and drab-still those were minor flaws in a rich musical evening).

Commenting here on short-stint shows also lets us consider issues raised that are relevant beyond a specific production.

Among those issues: Where to sit.

In this case, a ticket glitch moved me from my orchestra seat to the front of the second terrace. Having experienced other IO productions from the ground level, I was serendipitously jazzed to find pleasures even greater from on high.

Not only did Clowes itself gain majesty from such altitude, but distance helped the performances considerably. After all, opera is not an art form known for its close-ups. Plus it's no small thing to actually see the orchestra at work.

Alas, I'll be out of town for May's IO production of "Tales of Hoffman." But for next season-which includes "Il Trovatore," "Hansel and Gretel," and "The Pirates of Penzance"-I know where I'll be sitting.

When I mention that I took a day trip to Chicago to see the Court Theatre's production of Rodgers & Hammerstein's "Carousel," your first question is probably "Why did you drive hours to see such a familiar show?"

One reason is because I agree with Time magazine when it declared "Carousel" the Best Musical of the 20th century.

Another is because the Court is known for its innovative, artist-driven takes on established work. From the opening moments of the Court's "Carousel," it's clear that this production didn't arise from an obligation to work a classic musical into its season. It didn't arise because of demographics. And it didn't arise because of a polling of the audience.

It arose because the artists at the Court saw in "Carousel" a relevant play worth doing, today, in this particular theater space. And it arose from a creative vision about how this play could be done in a way that honored the original material while also making it feel as if it were written last week.

Those who know the show will immediately take note of the small (for this show) cast, the visible string quartet on one side of the stage and piano/bass/woodwinds on the other, and, most dramatic of all, the lack of amplification for the singers. No microphones anywhere.

And those who have been conditioned to see Rodgers & Hammerstein as sugar-coated will quickly be confronted by what a harsh world they created in this adaptation of the even grimmer French play "Liliom."

This is a world of back-breaking work, of no-way-out thinking, of spouse abuse and of compromised dreams. It's a world where the knives are sharp and the choices are limited. It's a world where even a trip to heaven may not be enough to change one's nature.

And as envisioned by director Charles Newell and musical director Doug Peck, it's a world that's heartbreakingly moving. But the tears don't arise because bad things happen to good people: They arise, en masse, because the harshness of the environment joins forces with human weakness to make resignation a way of life.

And they arise because even in this world, hope can be found. It's why, here, "You'll Never Walk Alone" sheds cliché to take on a deep, resonant meaning.

That's not to say that this is a flawless production. The opening "Carousel Waltz" (groundbreaking even in the original because it's an overture without music heard later in the show) is confusingly choreographed and out of sync with the style of the rest of the show. The opening movements of the second-act ballet suffer from the same problem-although it stunningly resolves in a series of achingly human moves.

Most disappointingly, the director and cast haven't figured out a palatable way to present heroine Julie Jordan's statement that "It is possible ... for someone to hit you, hit you hard, and it not hurt at all." As I recall (it was 1994 when I saw it-twice) the landmark Lincoln Center production solved this by using her disturbing statement as the moment where her husband, Billy, clearly realizes that his blows did, in fact, hurt. Julie may still be in denial, but, at that moment, Billy gets it. And that realization leads him down the road to redemption.

In the Court production, the line seems to be taken literally. And it keeps this production from being as cathartic and satisfying as it could be.

Still, the pleasures of the show are almost overwhelming-to name a few: the use of strings in "If I Loved You," the inventive spunk of Jessica Mueller's Carrie Pipperidge, the sound of clear, motivated, committed-to-character actors singing a stunning score, the core truths in the story of a group of damaged people stumbling toward community, and the surprising power of a young girl's revelation that she is not responsible for the sins of her father.

They add up to a flawed must-see. To paraphrase Hammerstein: If you are in Chicago, don't let this golden chance pass you by.
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