One Man, Two Guvnors

Now playing at the Music Box on Broadway.

A comic actor breaking character, or corpsing, by dissolving into laughter generally isn't considered particularly professional. That's one of the reasons that Jimmy Fallon's SNL career, while successful, often isn't afforded much respect: he was notorious for giggling through half his skits. But a flat condemnation of corpsing doesn't work either because, in moderation at least, audiences tend to enjoy moments when the actors themselves start to laugh. Some of my favorite segments of The Daily Show, for example, have been when Jon Stewart is talking with one of the correspondents, and the satire is so absurd that both are clearly on the verge of cracking, and first one does and then the other, and then they pull it together only to break again. Laughter is infectious, and watching that infection spread can be hilarious.

But those moments still constitute a break of sorts—or we're taught to think that way—so I was surprised at first when James Corden, the Tony-winning lead of One Man, Two Guvnors, started breaking into unabashed, out-of-character fits of laughter. It was funny and endearing, but so different from what I had expected that I was a bit taken aback. Eventually, I realized that the performance was even stranger than I'd first thought, for some moments that look like corpsing eventually reveal themselves to be part of the performance; they don't represent a loss of control but rather complete control—which startled me even more.

One Man, Two Guvnors is an adaptation of the eighteenth-century Italian Servant of Two Masters, a famous work of commedia dell'arte, so perhaps this kind of toying with the fourth wall (to use a more contemporary turn of phrase) is an element of that genre. (I confess my knowledge of classic Italian theater is pretty shallow.) Regardless, it contributes to the oddly disorienting nature of One Man, which, in its fervent embrace of commedia dell'arte, manages to be both gleefully frivolous and unmistakably academic. It's a lot of fun and very, very funny, but I never could quite settle on what to make of eccentric duality.

Double Feature

The New York City Ballet on Sunday, May 27.

I think it must be almost impossible to see silent movies—really see them—as they must have been seen back in the nineteen teens and twenties. To my own jaded eyes, the air of camp hangs over almost every film, in the hyperstylized acting or the ridiculously melodramatic scenarios or the hopelessly stilted intertitles. That's not fair, and I'm sure it keeps me from truly appreciating any number of great works, but it is what it is. The conventions of cinema have changed so much since the silent era that it's hard to go back.

People try, though. Martin Scorsese's movie Hugo is nothing if not an earnest love letter to the work of visionary silent-film director Georges Méliès, and Hugo is surprisingly effective at bridging the gap between modern sensibilities and Méliès's luminously imaginative aesthetic. Choreographer Susan Stroman isn't as ambitious as Scorsese, but I wonder if she had a similar motivation in creating Double Feature, two short ballets inspired by silent films. It definitely is an interesting idea, as ballet, too, relies on exaggerated acting and simple, elemental story lines. But while Scorsese works to banish the kitsch that has gathered around silent films, Stroman giddily embraces it—in a way that feels a bit condescending, to both the movies and her own audience. To be sure, Double Feature is cute and funny, with a few especially great scenes, but it's also rather shallow and flighty. There are worse things, of course, but I can't help wondering if this merely good ballet had had the potential, with higher aim, to be great.

Chanticleer

At the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Thursday, May 3.

The Met's Engelhard Court, part of the newly expanded American Wing, is a roughly cube-shaped room, several stories high, all marble and glass and stone. It is an incredibly live space, so reverberant that sound takes five or six seconds to decay into silence. In other words, it's actually not ideal for a concert. The space swallows up finer points of articulation and enunciation, turning everything into a beautifully resonant but undeniably muddy wash of sound.

The singers in Chanticleer compensated as best they could like the pros they are. They must have been crisping every consonant to make the lyrics remotely legible and hitting some of the faster passages staccato to keep the line from running into one long gliss. That worked on some pieces more than others, but it was all still beautiful. And to be honest, an overly reverberant space can be a fun novelty. Hearing the music crescendo to fortissimo, cut abruptly, and then linger there, like perfume, for an impossibly long time can be downright magical, which is something I associate with Chanticleer anyway.

War Horse

Now playing at Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theater on Broadway.

Few theatrical experiences are as awkward as a tearjerker that fails to jerk tears from you. In the case of War Horse, a play that attempts to dramatize all the suffering of the First World War through the suffering of a single horse, I'm prepared to concede that my own discomfort around horses (they might be beautiful from a distance, but they're intimidating and off-puttingly alien up close) couldn't possibly give me much of an affinity for this material. But I still think the problem transcends my own prejudices because, ironically, the problem is not the horse. All of the animals in War Horse are represented onstage by life-size puppets so gracefully naturalistic and expressive that you needn't be one of those inexplicable horse-lovers to find them affecting.

No, the problem isn't the three-dimensional animals but the one-dimensional humans, particularly the horse-besotted hero who doesn't seem to care a whit about the death and anguish of any of the people he meets, not compared to the loss of his goddamn horse. His astonishing lack of empathy poisons everything. It makes me recoil from the play's human lead and instinctively resist the animal lead, so when that final lachrymose climax rolls around, I'm more annoyed than touched.

If it weren't for the puppetry, War Horse would be an utter failure. Instead, the puppetry of the production is so haunting and powerful that it redeems the play to a great extent. I don't know quite what to make of that, but there it is: the spectacle of the production is so artful that it makes a flat, treacly, ill-conceived play worth seeing.

Music for Three Sovereigns

Blue Heron at the Cloisters on Sunday, March 25.

When we picture ancient Greek statues, we see alabaster marble, solemn and immaculate, but writings from the time and—perhaps more to the point— archaeological investigations using ultraviolet light indicate that those statues were actually painted in bold, even garish colors that, to modern eyes, look far more kitschy than noble. As interesting as the historical re-creations are, it's hard not to miss the mythologized statues we know better.

I admit I thought of those statues when I first read about Blue Heron, a Boston-based ensemble committed to performing fifteenth- and sixteenth-century choral music with the guidance of historical documents on how they were performed when first composed: not a capella but rather with a few brass instruments thrown into the mix. Did I really want to hear Josquin's pure vocal sonorities tarnished by an early trombone? Perish the thought.

But my instinctive flinch was premature (not to mention ignorant, but let's move on from that). Of course the instruments are still performing fifteenth- and sixteenth-century music, not the anachronistic slides and dissonant bleats I was hearing in my head, and they complemented the choir's voices beautifully. Set in the re-created Fuentidueña Chapel, Blue Heron's concert was not the unbearably academic, awkward program I had secretly, foolishly feared but rather a lovely musical revelation, taking what I adore about the familiar repertory and giving it new resonance.

L’Elisir d’Amore

The Metropolitan Opera on Saturday, March 24.

L'Elisir d'Amore is exactly the sort of silly fluff that makes opera's roots as mass entertainment abundantly clear: if there were ever an opera that resembled some dumb contemporary rom com, this is it. The whole story turns on the staggering stupidity and naïveté of the main characters, whose repeated attempts to inspire love by feigning indifference are so over-the-top and petty that middle schoolers would find them childish.

And yet Donizetti's music is so beautiful and charming—and sung here with such joy and vivacity—that I could never be so dismissive when I'm actually experiencing it. If L'Elisir is a dumb rom com, it's the dumb rom com that I actually kind of love in spite of myself. Greater than the sum of its parts, L'Elisir is a work of alchemy.

Chicago

Now playing at the Ambassador Theatre on Broadway.

The central conceit of the musical Chicago—the vaudeville setup, in which every character is both acting out the story and performing for a literal audience*—is so strong, so sly and sharp, that it's all but impossible to screw up. So it's no surprise that the Broadway revival of Fred Ebb and John Kander's irrepressible classic is indeed unrepressed. The long-running production is like a well-oiled machine; having been around for more than fifteen years, it no longer attracts top-tier stars, but even the more modest parts keep things moving along. I mean, really, if you can't make "All That Jazz," "Cell Block Tango," and "Razzle Dazzle" fun, you have no business on a Broadway stage.