Mary Stuart

Now playing at the Broadhurst Theatre on Broadway.

I suspect philosopher-playwright Johann Schiller was less sympathetic to England’s first Queen Elizabeth than I am, but the genius of his play Mary Stuart—about the fatal rivalry between Elizabeth and Mary, Queen of Scots—is that one needn’t share Schiller’s sympathies, or lack thereof, to enjoy it. Schiller plays fair, for the most part, rendering both Elizabeth and Mary with dazzling complexity and a deliciously meaty sense of drama. The play climaxes in a confrontation between the two queens—a meeting that, in life, never happened, much as Mary wished for it. But that meeting is the sort of thing that should be true, the sort of thing that begs for art to improve upon life, which makes Schiller’s invention of it all the more precious.

Parents and Children

Maude Maggart at the Algonquin Hotel on Saturday, April 19.

Maude Maggart is a talented, highly proficient vocalist, but it’s her ability to convey sincerity, to feign sincerity, that makes her mesmerizing. To truly convey someone else’s song—or perhaps even one’s own—a singer must be able to act, to play the part, and Maggart is a bewitching interpreter, artfully changing her expression, her bearing, the very timbre of her voice to match the mood of each song she sings.

The effect is all the more charming for being acknowledged as a contrivance. After a fervently passionate rendition of Gershwin’s “The Man I Love,” for example, Maggart suddenly shifted her weight, adopted a cheeky grin, and disavowed the lyrics’ someday-my-prince-will-come mentality. That kind of reflection turns up over and over in her between-song patter, which might sound pedantic, but in fact, that thoughtfulness, the sense that she really thinks about the songs and how they relate to each other, invites her listeners to hear them afresh. She makes obscure songs sound familiar and old standards sound new and all of them sound breathtakingly beautiful.

Blithe Spirit

Now playing at the Shubert Theatre on Broadway.

Few theater experiences are so alienating as the feeling that you and the rest of the audience are at odds. If the difference is slight, you can get caught up in the crowd, enjoying the production—or not—more than you otherwise would. But if the difference is more significant—they’re laughing, and you’re cringing; they’re sighing, and you’re sneering—the opposite tends to occur. The chasm grows larger as you become more self-conscious and resentful of the disconnect.

Or maybe that’s just me and my socially maladjusted family. My parents were visiting, and Mom wanted to see the new star-studded revival of Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit, which she first encountered back in a high school drama production when she was the understudy to Edith the maid. (Hee!) We all enjoyed the play—Mom, Dad, Sean, and me—to varying degrees, but honestly, Coward’s humor is wry: a classic dry, British wit, yes? It’s the sort of humor that makes you (and by you, I mean Mom, Dad, Sean, and me) grin and snicker, not howl and slap your leg and drown out the next five lines with your guffaws, so why in the world was the rest of the audience acting like we’d all been heavily dosed with nitrous oxide?

Wondrous Free

Chanticleer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Wednesday, April 15.

I thought I knew exactly what would be on Chanticleer’s program of American choral music: a few shape-note hymns, some folk songs and spirituals, one or two works by big twentieth-century names such as Barber or Copland, and another couple of pieces the choir itself has commissioned over the years. I was right, to a degree—those were all on the program—but I foolishly underestimated the choir’s bent toward venturing past standard repertory.

In addition to the expected selections, Chanticleer sought out traditional seventeenth-century liturgical music written by immigrants to New Spain and also featured a striking work by Brent Michael Davids, an American Indian composer who draws heavily on indigenous musical traditions. Even the “folk songs and spirituals,” my careless catch-all, proved more varied in style than I had so casually anticipated. Taken together, the mix beautifully accomplished what must have been the goal: to celebrate just how wildly diverse America’s musical heritage truly is.

Passion and Resurrection Motets of the Renaissance

Pomerium at the Cloisters on Saturday, April 11.

Now that I no longer spend my Sundays working as a church organist, I make it a point to go to a seasonally appropriate concert each Easter weekend. Two years ago, it was Bach’s St. John Passion, and last year, it was a program of liturgically timely Renaissance motets, performed by Pomerium. This year, too, Sean and I trekked up to the Cloisters to hear the early music choir sing the works of Gesualdo and Monteverdi and Byrd and others.

Pomerium truly is an amazing ensemble: beautiful tone, beautiful blend, and an impeccable understanding of the fifteenth- and sixteenth-century works in which they specialize. Their clear, round voices perfectly articulate the polyphonic lines, and their sonorous unisons enfold you with their warmth.

The Orchid Show: Brazilian Modern

Special exhibition at the New York Botanical Garden through April 12.

When I first started elementary school, I was enrolled in a class for “gifted” students in which we studied a variety of topics one at a time, each in immersive depth: a week on octopuses, for example, or an entire month on A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I’m not entirely sure what the philosophy behind the program was, but I remember loving it. One of my favorite units was on artist Georgia O’Keeffe. At the age of six or seven, I could identify her paintings immediately and talk about the abstraction and the New Mexico landscape and the colors and what the skulls might symbolize and on and on and on, but being six or seven, I completely missed the … shall we say subtext of O’Keeffe’s florals, which were my favorite. Years later, when I was in college, I was deeply flustered to discover that most people read those extreme close-ups as, at least in part, a celebration of female genitalia and sexuality. Suddenly that was all I could see, too. For good or ill, the pretty, pretty flowers of my childhood had been irrevocably eroticized.

Wandering through the New York Botanical Garden’s orchid show, I felt embarrassed for my teenage self all over again because, honestly, how do you not see it? Orchids, in particular, with the outer petals and inner petals, frills and tendrils, bright blushing colors, damp from the tropical humidity, all opening themselves toward the sun—it’s like a botanical burlesque show.

Preservation Hall Jazz Band

At the Blue Note on Thursday, April 2.

For a few minutes, a specter hangs over the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. The hall from which it hails was founded in the 1960s specifically to preserve the tradition of New Orleans jazz, hence the name, but now, with the memory of Hurricane Katrina still bitingly fresh, New Orleans itself seems vulnerable, its unique culture that much more so. When the musicians first start to play, you feel a tense sort of melancholy, like when you visit someone on the brink of death, but then the music is so spirited and vivacious, so animated, that the specter vanishes and you realize that, however dark times might have been, however dark they might still be, New Orleans jazz is simply too lively to ever keel over.

Monsters vs. Aliens

In theaters.

My thinking on this movie is utterly predictable, but I can’t help it. The most noteworthy thing about the animated Monsters vs. Aliens is that it’s a major studio flick featuring a woman as the central protagonist with a character arc that is not about getting the guy. Quick! How many other big tent-pole movies can you think of that fit that simple description? It’s ridiculously unusual and thus disproportionately endearing. The rest of the movie is cute enough—I enjoyed it—but it’s Susan and her story who stand out.