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Gods at play

August 8th, 2013

Semele opens Opera Popolare season
by Lily Olason

Opera is in full swing on Garden Street. Courtesy of the Garden Street United Methodist Church and Opera Popolare, Georg Fridiric Handel’s masterpiece Semele rings beautifully in the most exquisite of performance spaces. It oohs and it ahhs, it soars and it flips and turns and utilizes every nook and cranny of the place perfectly. A true taste of the classics has found Bellingham, and with it an undeniable local flavor.

Though such a tale may easily be found in any compilation of classical myths, we’re operating under the assumption one doesn’t conveniently stock a copy in their pocket. Semele begins with a wedding, one that’s slated to marry its reluctant title character (Serena Viens/Caitlin Hill) to an equally reluctant fellow named Athamus (Chris Mitchell). Lucky for Semele, though, and Athamus, too: Jupiter (Carlo Furlan), the bride’s true love, arrives in the nick of time and carries her away in the form of an eagle, which predictably enrages his wife of many millennia, Juno (Celie Thomas). By posing as her sister and planting the seeds of doubt in her love-struck brain, Juno implores Semele to ask Jupiter to reveal himself in his true Olympian form, far too much for any mortal to handle.

Serena Viens performs Semele on Friday at Opera Popolare.  Photo credit - Christopher Key

Serena Viens performs Semele on Friday at Opera Popolare. Photo credit – Christopher Key

Serena Viens and Caitlin Hill share the title role, alternating with the portrayal of Iris. Each boasts an incredible set of chops, outstanding, really, in acrobatic feats that surprise and delight. Semele soars high, high, high, beautifully, in the style that is so perfectly operatic and so very indicative of artistic inclination and hard work. Iris does too, secretary to an angry goddess and comic relief nonetheless. Neither fails to thrill, in either role, and are simply a joy to hear.

Caitlin Hill performs Semele on Thursday and Saturday at Opera Popolare.  Photo credit - Christopher Key

Caitlin Hill performs Semele on Thursday and Saturday at Opera Popolare. Photo credit – Christopher Key

Carlo Furlan sings swarthy and less-than-faithful Jupiter perfectly, complementing Hill’s and Vien’s performances wonderfully and adding an extra layer of depth to the performance. His white and purple suit suits the godly role to a T, and his tenor fills to the back of the hall.

Likewise, Cadmus (Matthew Dunn), Ino (Lesley Rigg), Somnus (John Poppke) Athamus (Chris Mitchell), and an exceptional chorus make this opera what it is. They sing from everywhere, the wings, the balcony, the back doors, all with passion and all with talent. They give the background and little snippets of dialog and the large-scale emotion that packs the end of the piece.

The orchestra, of course, provides flawless support. Incredible talent occupies the space to the audience’s right, including wonderful work on violin by Laura Barnes and Jeanette Wickell, equally great Jane Perkins on viola, and ominously well-blended cello by Adrienne Syvertson. Calyx Hoag and Kathlyn Kinney display some exceptional woodwind prowess, while Katie O’Rourke’s lovely harpsichord work was Brilliantly baroque.

Semele is a performance one, no matter their background in opera, Handel, or Roman mythology, shouldn’t let pass by. It’s presented in the abridged format (running just under an hour and a half, as opposed to three), so even the most novice, or knowledgeable, of opera lovers may enjoy all this incredible performance has to offer.

Semele runs through Saturday, August 10, at the Garden Street Methodist Church, 1326 North Garden Street in Bellingham. Tickets are $12 at the door, at the Community Food Co-ops and at the Opera Popolare site where you can find curtain times.

Artistic Director Rob Viens always asks the audience how many have been to Opera Popolare before and how many have been to any opera before. The results make the mission statement ring true: bringing opera to the people and people to the opera.

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On your Mark!

July 31st, 2013

Beloved musical returns to Firehouse
by Christopher Key

When Joseph Lenz’s “musical tall tale” Mark Twain in Fairhaven finally found its natural home last year, the intent was to present it as a recurring tourist attraction. It’s now in its second year at the Firehouse Performing Arts Center, but it’s not just for tourists. Even locals who have seen previous productions dating back to 2002 will find it fresh with a different director and cast. And, of course, the wonderful music never gets old. The Historic Fairhaven Association and Chuck Robinson of Village Books are to be congratulated for their commitment to making it happen.

Judith Owens-Lancaster directs this season’s production and brings a wealth of musical theatre experience to the role, including a previous incarnation of the show in 2009. She is ably assisted by Angela Mills Watson, whose acting and directing chops need no introduction.

The title character is played by the inimitable Leon Charbonneau, who repeats the role from the 2009 production. He’s as comfortable in the role as Mark Twain was telling stories to worldwide audiences. He memorably captures the world-weariness of an aging author forced onto the lecture circuit by financial woes.

Photo credit - Christopher Key

Photo credit – Christopher Key

Bonnie Hollingsworth, who really should be seen more often on local stages, is pitch-perfect as hard-bitten saloonkeeper Boomer Wilson. As the character’s name implies, she is driven to drag Fairhaven out of an economic slump if it kills her and everyone else in town. If they all die onstage trying to impress Mr. Twain, so be it.

Daisy Cowgill, former showgirl and associate of Dirty Dan Harris, is played by Vanessa Mills. She is absolutely dazzling, especially in the show-stopping “It Ain’t Necessarily So.”

Photo credit - Christopher Key

Photo credit – Christopher Key

Lady of the evening Rosa Knox is given a salacious ride by Dana Crediford, who insists the best thing about the role is getting to wear her underwear on the outside. Her interpretation of the classic “Big Spender” would melt the statue of Dirty Dan at Fairhaven Village Green.

Photo credit - Christopher Key

Photo credit – Christopher Key

One cast member held over from last year is the delightfully goony Paul Henderson II, who gives Gilbert and Sullivan a serious run for their demented lyrics. There’s a very good reason why he is the busiest actor in Bellingham.

Photo credit - Christopher Key

Photo credit – Christopher Key

Karissa Elliott and Nick Schackel play the kids with captivating innocence. She’s Boomer’s daughter Mill, the genius songwriter looking for a way out of the rain and mud. He’s the cub reporter who wants nothing more than to be able to write like Twain.

Last and far from least is another cast/crew member repeating a role. That would be Music Director extraordinaire John French, whose German accent has noticeably improved in his second year as Elf Strasse. His onstage keyboard playing is what holds the whole performance together.

Costumer Susan Duncan obviously did a fabulous job last year. She was invited back and manages to exceed her own standards in a production that is heavily dependent on costuming. Genevieve Dunn is no stranger to local stages and her choreography is evocative of both the music and the era.

Ryan Goeltzenleuchter is one of those tech geniuses who are in constant demand. His lighting design demonstrates why. Since Marc Cutler built the set for last year’s performance and since the same set makes an encore, he gets credit even if he didn’t do much this year. Just kidding, Marc.

Mark Twain in Fairhaven
plays August 1 – 18, Thursdays through Sundays, at the Firehouse. Curtain time is 7:30 p.m. except for Sunday matinees at 2:00 p.m. Tickets are $12, $8 for students and seniors. Purchase at Brown Paper Tickets, Village Books or at the door.

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Finale couldn’t be grander

July 21st, 2013

Festival makes spectacular exit
by Christopher Key

It started with superstar cellist Joshua Roman and ended with three of the best sopranos in the world. It’s no wonder the Bellingham Festival of Music sold out all its concerts at the Western Washington University Performing Arts Center and Bellingham Cruise Terminal. They darn near sold out the Mount Baker Theatre tonight and that is the sweet sound of success.

A small subset of the festival orchestra consisting of just strings and woodwinds opened the concert with Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No. 87 in A major. It was a perfect grouping for this delightful symphony that lulled the audience into a rather mellow mood. It didn’t last long.

One of the few gripes I have with the festival is that we usually hear the festival chorus only once a season. That’s really unfair because they’re an amazing group that could give those folks from Salt Lake a run for their recording contracts. The standards are very high for this chorus and the results show it. Chorus director Vance George deserves enormous credit.

The chorus may not have gotten much time to strut their stuff, but they didn’t waste a moment of what they had. They gave Giuseppe Verdi’s Te Deum everything they had and perhaps a bit more. When they hit the first fortissimo “Te Deum,” every hair on my body stood on end and they show no signs of relaxing several hours later. Yes, they can rattle the rafters, but the sign of a great chorus is when they sound just as good pianissimo. They do.

Tonight’s finale was entitled “The Three Sopranos,” referring to Katie Van Kooten, Heidi Grant Murphy and Frederica von Stade. After intermission, they each performed a solo. Lynden’s favorite daughter Van Kooten led off with “Song to the Moon” from Antonin Dvořák’s opera Rusalka. Van Kooten’s voice is powerful throughout her range, but always under exquisite control and wonderfully rich even at the top end.

img_guestKooten

von Stade’s affectionate nickname is “Flicka” and she has been charming the opera world for three decades. Her lovely mezzo graced “La spectre de la rose” from the Hector Berlioz song cycle Les nuits d’eté. The mood of the song is dreamy and so is von Stade’s voice.

img_guestvonStade

Bellingham’s Heidi Grant Murphy finished the set with a Margaret Bonds arrangement of “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” Grant Murphy’s soprano is light and airy, but with this number, she demonstrated that she has the chops to go gospel.

img_guestMurphy

These three superb voices couldn’t be more different and still be called soprano. All three joined in for Richard Strauss’ Suite from Der Rosenkavalier. Their voices may be very different, but they blended beautifully in these excerpts from the opera. In addition to my hair standing on end, I also have goose bumps. The roaring ovation at the end, I hope, was as much for Maestro Michael Palmer and the brilliant orchestra as for the sopranos. These are some of the finest musicians in the country and they deserved a couple of standing ovations they didn’t get earlier.

Since the Bellingham Festival of Music is selling out most of its concerts, it would behoove those who appreciate performance at this level to consider season tickets and getting them early. The best way to do that is to keep an eye on the festival website.

Bravo!

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Modern Art

July 18th, 2013

Three-man show dazzles at MBT
by Lily Olason

The French have a phrase for it. Les gouts ne ce discutes pas. Loosely translated, it means “there is no accounting for taste.”

Originally presented in French by Yasmina Reza and premiered in the Parisian theater circuit, Tony-winner Art enjoys a thoroughly warm welcome at the Mount Baker Theater and 2013’s Summer Rep. Masterfully portrayed by trio Rich Brown, Sean Cook, and Jake Millgard under the direction of David Lee-Painter, this comedic trek into what it means to change, grow apart, and buy expensively modern white canvases stuns as the final addition to this summer’s showcase of plays.

Centered around the fracturing fifteen-year friendship of art aficionados Serge (Brown), Marc (Cook), and stationery supply professional, Yvan (Millgard), tensions erupt over the 200,000 euro purchase of what Serge maintains is genius: white diagonal lines over white canvas. The ensuing drama, shouting, and consistent repositioning of said painting (to get a better look at it) truly define what it means to lose touch with what once held us together.

Rich Brown, Jake Millgard and Sean Cook star in Art at Summer Rep. - Photo credit - Conner Peirson

Rich Brown, Jake Millgard and Sean Cook star in Art at Summer Rep. – Photo credit – Conner Peirson

Art is fascinating to watch in that the set is minimal, the play possesses only one ninety-minute act, and boasts a cast of only three. In the vein of Steel Magnolias, a small community of cast members that take regular monologues pump up the emotion of the highly verbal production, especially in this particular venue. All three ricochet dialog off each other like they really are having off-stage arguments about European art of three actors commit to making this production as superb as the other works in the series.

Disillusioned that his stationery career is going nowhere, his mother and detested stepmother have gone off the deep end over wedding invitations, and his friends are about to call it quits over a white painting, Millgard shines as determined peace-keeper, Yvan. Slightly closer to earth than art experts Serge and Marc, the comedic relief by this character is absolutely perfect in pretty much every situation this play throws out. Both Cook and Brown serve wonderfully well as headstrong and determined men of high culture, going head to head countless times over the infamous work of art, with that unshakable feeling that their arguments really aren’t about art.

Summer Rep’s take on Art does justice to its illustrious history. First performed in 1994, the work was translated and brought to London two years later. By 1998, it found itself on Broadway for a total of 600 runs and a Tony for Best Play, with a first cast of Alan Alda, Victor Garber, and Alfred Molina. Focused around the concept of a white canvas (open to the audience members’ own interpretations) this work really does chronicle what it means to grow, to become what one really is, and to accept it. Art is an excellent choice to serve as the last installment to this year’s Summer Rep, and makes for a fantastic eveniing at the theater.

Art plays in repertory with Almost, Maine, and Steel Magnolias at MBT’s intimate Walton Theatre. See the MBT website for precise dates and times. Tickets can be purchased by calling the box office at (360) 734-6080 or online at the above site.

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Ole!

July 17th, 2013

Romero’s return ravishing
by Christopher Key

Guitarist Pepe Romero has been a guest artist at the Bellingham Festival of Music so many times, he probably gets mail here. There’s good reason why he gets invited back repeatedly. The festival audience loves him and he obviously loves them right back.

When most orchestras put music by Georges Bizet on the program, you can usually count on something from Carmen. The festival group is not most orchestras and we were treated to the French composer’s Symphony in C major. It’s a thoroughly delightful piece and the most astonishing thing about it was that Bizet wrote it when he was just 17. Move over, Mozart. There is youthful exuberance and wit just in the first movement and the finale is, in technical terms, a rip-snorter. The strings survived some truly furious passages in fine style. The orchestra deserved a standing ovation and didn’t get one, which leads me to wonder if the festival audiences are getting a bit jaded after all these years of excellence.

Celedonio Romero, patriarch of the Royal Family of the Guitar, would have been 100 years old this year. His Concierto de Málaga was written to honor the hometown of the Romero clan and dedicated to son Pepe. It was an obvious choice for tonight’s concert and is quintessentially Spanish. You can’t really compare Romero to other guitar virtuosos because he is in a class by himself. When I say his playing is breathtaking, there is nothing hyperbolic about it. I know because I forgot to breathe during some of the more intense passages. He can evoke more different voices from the instrument than anyone I’ve ever heard. That includes Segovia, Parkening and Isbin. The orchestra members gave Romero a resounding “Olé” at the end and there was no question about a standing ovation.

Romero

One of my favorite parts of the festival is the special visual effects demonstrated at intermission. Sunset over Bellingham Bay deserved a standing O and got it.

Romero returned to lead off the second half with another of Papa’s compositions. El Cortijo de Don Sancho (The Estate of Don Sancho) is a charming take on Don Quixote’s comrade-in-arms in the war on windmills. Cervantes’ classic novel was a favorite of Celedonio’s wife Angelita and the composition premiered at the festival in 1996. The six sections celebrate “Don” Sancho Panza in all his foolish glory. Quixote may be mocking his sidekick with the title, but the music captures pathos, nobility and the intrinsic dignity of the character. The orchestra tried out a new role as they provided rhythmic clapping to parts of the music. They’ve got rhythm. Another standing ovation ensued and the audience wouldn’t let Romero go until he had performed an encore.

Igor Stravinsky’s career began with ballets, such as The Firebird, Petrushka and The Rite of Spring. Ballets Russes impresario Serge Diaghilev wanted to tempt the composer to return to his roots and asked him to arrange some eighteenth-century music for the modern orchestra. The result was the orchestral suite Pulcinella. Pulcinella is the commedia dell’arte character known to the British as Punch (Punch and Judy) and to the Russians as Petrushka. Stravinsky chose music attributed to Giovanni Battista Pergolesi. As Ed Rutschman explains in his outstanding program notes, Stravinsky didn’t just rearrange the music, he recomposed it. The orchestration is wildly innovative, which is expected from Stravinsky. His experimentation ranged from a repetitive phrase from the second violin to some theatrics from the trombone. It’s exactly the kind of challenging piece the festival orchestra revels in. This time they got the standing O.

There are still some tickets left for the final Three Sopranos concert at the Mount Baker Theatre on Sunday. The festival has sold out every concert except that one this season and I think it would be utterly cool if Bellingham could give the festival a wall-to-wall sellout. You can help by calling the MBT box office at (360) 734-6080 or by ordering tickets online.

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Magnolias bloom at MBT

July 16th, 2013

Summer Rep continues seventh year run
by Lily Olason

If any one play can welcome us back into the loving arms of denim ensembles and the Reagan administration better than any other, Steel Magnolias is it. A centerpiece of 2013’s Summer Rep at the Mount Baker Theater, this knockout performance of friendship, heartbreak, and the trials of life in a Louisiana town enchants all in attendance.

Hairdresser and small business owner Truvy (Kathleen Sasnett) and new hire with a past, Annelle (Emily Nash), spend their days styling the poofiest of hairdos for regular patrons M’Lynn, Ousier, and Clairee (Teri Grimes, Sheila Goodwin, and Terry Sacks). When M’Lynn brings daughter Shelby (Crystal O’Brien) for her wedding updo, her ensuing diabetic shock alarms all and thus defines the iron, or steel, bond between friends as close as family.

Crystal O'Brien and Kathleen Sasnett star as Shelby and Truvy in  the Summer Rep production of Steel Magnolias.  Photo credit - Conner Peirson

Crystal O’Brien and Kathleen Sasnett star as Shelby and Truvy in the Summer Rep production of Steel Magnolias. Photo credit – Conner Peirson

Director Amy Attaway works wonders with this famous play-turned-film, casting excellently and bringing the incredible comedic drama to Whatcom County. Every scene is delivered wonderfully and every actress brings the work to life, delightfully convincing in their professional cosmetic histories and dramatic off-stage standoffs with cannon-shooting husbands and hairless dogs. Kudos are due, in this regard, as those curling irons really are plugged in, hair is truly set in rollers, and the sinks are well connected to plumbing.

This performance, for so many reasons, is simply a joy to watch. The vibe is realistic, from wardrobe to meticulously well-constructed set. Similarly, the absence of an elevated stage draws in the audience as if they themselves sit waiting for an appointment with Truvy, and makes the production that much more of an experience.

Absolutely all performers in this cast of six were impeccable. From Goodwin’s fabulously, fearlessly irritated Ousier to O’Brien’s sweet newlywed and fashionista, Shelby, the work and dedication that went into this show is made quite apparent at the very first lines. Nash’s portrayal of outspoken, born-again Christian with a passion for arts and crafts is nothing short of excellent, as is Grimes’ loving mom whose kids flew the nest. Sasnett exceptionally channels a social, entrepreneurial, and caring hairdresser, as Sacks’ Clairee delights in witty jabs and off-the-cuff sidebars.

Emily Nash and Terry Sacks star as Annelle and Clairee in Steel Magnolias.   Photo credit - Conner Peirson

Emily Nash an Terry Sacks star as Annelle and Clairee in Steel Magnolias.
Photo credit – Conner Peirson

Steel Magnolias is truly a shaping force in American drama. Taking place over the span of about two years, this production confronts, as most influential works do, a lot of what it means to be human: exploring the intricacies of relationships and of commitment and family, it delves headfirst into some of the less savory aspects of life. Summer Rep has done an incredible job, as usual, with this work, and attending would be an outstanding way to spend an evening. (First time watchers might want to consider bringing some tissue. You know, just in case.)

Steel Magnolias performs in repertory with Art and Almost, Maine, at MBT’s Walton Theatre July 17 through August 10. See the Mount Baker Theatre website for precise dates and times. Tickets are $25.00 for adults, $12.50 for students and may be purchased by calling (360) 734-6080 or online at the above site.

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A winter’s tale

July 16th, 2013

Almost, Maine, opens Summer Rep
by Lily Olason

Almost, Maine, a sharp and impeccably inspired collection of character sketches, inaugurates the Mount Baker Theater’s seventh season of Summer Repertory Theater. Delightfully hosted at the Baker’s in-the-round Walton Theater, this performance remains quite remarkably personal and pays homage to the social and harmonious origins of the stage. The cast does too, for that matter, flowing seamlessly between several personalities and convincing those in attendance they did nothing of the sort.

First presented by the Portland Stage Company (the Maine one) in 2004 to high praise, and later running off Broadway, Almost, Maine has remained a staple in contemporary theater for nearly a decade, with this fantastic adaptation by director Mark Kuntz demonstrating why.

Opening on a couple bundled up for a winter’s evening, the stage is quite literally set for this metaphorical exploration into love and the human condition. When nice guy Steve (Sean Cook) gives girlfriend Ginette (Emily Nash) a trigonometric explanation about what it truly means to be close to someone in this world, the action is suspended and remains the only idea, a tether, to which the work symmetrically returns.

Photo credit - Christopher Key

Photo credit – Christopher Key

Similarly depicted, repairman East (Jake Millgard) finds out-of-town and physically heartbroken Glory (Crystal O’Brien), wrestling the cleverly identified, physical manifestations of guilt and the will to move on.

Best friends Dave (Millgard) and Rhonda (Jessica Young) comically attempt to move to that next level while somehow shedding five or six (incredibly insulated) layers.

Photo credit - Christopher Key

Photo credit – Christopher Key

Jimmy (Evan Kubena) self-medicates at the bar and meets his dreadfully happy ex-girlfriend, while a woman (O’Brien) gravitates to her past to pay an important visit.

Photo credit - Christopher Key

Photo credit – Christopher Key

Beautifully set to the backdrop of literal portrayal, Almost, Maine, follows loveable young people as they fight their way through the idiosyncrasies of real life, of love and heartbreak and the future in a small town (or, rather, unincorporated township).

Lendall (Kubena) trips his way through bags upon bags of “love”; people quite actually fall in love, are hit by various household objects, and get prophetic tattoos. And that’s just it: every little thing has nuance, meaning beyond the surface and the first glance.

Masterfully acted, this show has neither compromised on its nature nor its spirit: it ends just as it begins, with heart and care and dedication to the glorious art that is theatre.

So if you’re looking for an excellent night out and a way to support your vibrant artistic community, look no further than this lovely work at your local Mount Baker Theatre.

Almost, Maine, plays in repertory with Steel Magnolias and Art July 16 through August 11. See the Mount Baker Theatre website for precise dates and times and to order tickets online. You can also reserve tickets by calling the MBT box office at (360) 734-6080.

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Chambered!

July 15th, 2013

Festival musicians strut their stuff
by John French

It was all about Music of the Americas, including a famous Englishman who was actually German and a French guy!

I love the chamber music concerts Bellingham Festival of Music does every year. It’s at the atrium of the Bellingham Cruise Terminal so there are no bad seats, the view is spectacular, Haggen’s Market Street Catering does a great job with food, the musicians are generally more relaxed, and the music is tremendous.

Cruise

Sunday’s concert proved to be no exception. Our “Music of the Americas” began with South America in form of Heitor Villa-Lobos Preludio from Bachianas Brasileiras No. 4. This is my first hearing of this work, and although a very sturdy composition it had a bit of melancholy that did not seem to fit the general mood of this concert. However, it was expertly played as well as expertly arranged by festival cellist Steven Thomas.

Next up was the quintessential North American Samuel Barber with his Summer Music for Wind Quintet, Op. 31. Everything about this piece just works and to add a little flair to the occasion during the lighter dance-like moments, what should fill up the window of the atrium? A large two-masted schooner (which I believe was the Lady Washington up for her annual visit) and it just added that little extra wonderfulness to the afternoon of both sight and sound.

And then the unexpected. Oboist Keisuke Wakao appeared on stage to pay a musical tribute to his mentor of 35 years, retiring oboist Joesph Robinson. Wakao played Handel’s Largo from Xerxes (sometimes labeled Thanks be To Thee) in a wonderful tribute to Robinson. Let me just say that this is an extremely difficult piece to play if the instrument you play requires breathing to make it work (I play this a lot on the organ, but my breath is the “on” switch). Wakao made it appear seamless. Both he and Joe took a bow and it was a lovely tribute and a bonus for the audience.

We concluded the first half of the program with two pieces (again arranged by Thomas) by Astor Piazzolla. As a general statement for me, when I see a 20th century American (North or South) composer write something titled Oblivion, I cringe in my seat. However the twelve-tone train wreck I was expecting never happened. What I heard was a delightfully lyrical and rhythmically interesting piece. That was followed by the same composer’s Libertango and tango it did!

If there could possibly be anybody more American than Barber, it could only be Aaron Copland. And he was well represented with his Appalachian Spring Suite. The first surprise was that Michael Palmer came onstage to conduct the work replacing the otherwise engaged Whitney Reader. Surprise number two was Kimberly Russ, the pianist for the Seattle Symphony. The suite was just what the doctor ordered for such a beautiful day, especially the section that uses the Shaker hymn tune Simple Gifts. The visual surprise was the appearance of an ocean- going tug in the window just as the music came to the section that John Williams so expertly borrowed for the shark boat scene in the movie Jaws. I had an instant flashback to summer of 1975.

Our afternoon concluded with a Frenchman. Well, it was Bastille Day, after all. Darius Milhaud’s entry was the charming three-movement suite known as Scaramouche, again arranged by Thomas for clarinet, piano and cello. I have played the two-piano version of this piece many times and it is just plain dang fun and our trio with the wonderful Ms. Russ back on the piano had a roaring good time. All and all I cannot think of a more delightful way to have spent a Sunday afternoon.

The rest of the Bellingham Festival of Music concerts are sold out with the exception of the Three Sopranos concert on Sunday, July 21. For tickets to see that grand finale, call the Mount Baker Theatre box office at 360-734-6083 or order online.

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It’s not easy being Queen

July 14th, 2013

Dynamic drama at Bard
by Christopher Key

Bard on the Beach has never been afraid to take us out of our comfort zone with challenging productions of Shakespeare’s works. This season, Bard is stepping a bit out of its own comfort zone by staging Elizabeth Rex. Admittedly, it’s not too far out since the play involves the Bard himself as one of the characters and the queen for whom the whole era was named.

The late Timothy Findley, one of Canada’s legendary men of letters, wrote the script, which premiered at that other Shakespeare festival in Stratford, Ontario. That debut earned Findley his second Governor-General’s Award and the play went on to an off-Broadway run and a CBC television version in 2004.

Queen Bess has sentenced her beloved Robert Devereaux, Earl of Essex, to death for treason. In response to the threat of rioting in the streets, she imposes a curfew. Shakespeare and his troupe have been summoned to distract the queen from her agonizing decision and must spend the night in the royal stables. The Lord Chamberlain’s Men are to perform Much Ado About Nothing, but there are ingenious references to many of the other Shakespearean works throughout the script.

Director Rachel Ditor, in her director’s notes, points out all the burning questions that Findley’s script asks. But the most important one, in my book, is what happens when our innate masculine and feminine sides are confronted by the exigencies of life. Will the queen’s masculine side, devoted to the security of England, overrule her feminine side, devoted to the love of Essex? Will a male actor, renowned for playing women, come to terms with his masculinity?

If you took a poll among all the people who have attended Bard over the years asking them who should play Queen Elizabeth, I have little doubt that Colleen Wheeler would be the unanimous choice. She delivers a towering performance that will only add to her legendary status among Canadian actors. She simply has the most amazing voice I have ever heard on stage. As Elizabeth, she roars with fury, wails with anguish and even whispers with blazing passion. She had to shave her glorious red head for the role and that, my friends, is commitment.

Photo credit - David Blue

Photo credit – David Blue

I will be the second to admit that I have been rather hard on Haig Sutherland in the past. No apologies. I call ‘em as I see ‘em. With that in mind, he is absolutely stunning as Edward “Ned” Lowenscroft, the male actor who plays women better than any woman could. Ned is dying of syphilis and has nothing to lose as he seriously gets in the queen’s face about the masculine/feminine conflict she faces as ruler/lover. Sutherland is both fierce and touching as he gives as good as he gets from Wheeler. That’s about the highest praise I can give an actor.

Ned introduces the queen to his traveling companion, a bear named Harry who was rescued from the baiting ring. Costume designer Mara Gottler has outdone herself with a remarkably realistic bear that is operated from the inside by a very sweaty Benjamin Elliott. Talk about paying your dues!

After having seen Lois Anderson tricked out as Mistress Overdone in Measure for Measure, she is nearly unrecognizable as the meek and myopic seamstress Kate “Tardy” Tardwell. No problem for this amazing actor.

Equally amazing is the versatile David Marr, who plays the Bard himself. Bill is rather full of himself, but somewhat daunted by performing for Her Majesty. Marr brings that conflict into full flower in another memorable performance.

David Mackay is wonderfully subservient as the queen’s official ass-kisser, Lord Robert Cecil, and Bernard Cuffling is utterly charming as Percy Gower, the quintessential fool.

Elizabeth Rex plays through September 11 on the Douglas Campbell Studio Stage. This may be the sleeper hit of the season, so reserve your tickets now by calling 604.739.0559 or online at the Bard website.

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Ohlsson in orbit

July 13th, 2013

Pianist wows festival crowd
by Christopher Key

It’s no wonder Garrick Ohlsson is such a masterful pianist. His physical stature terrifies the instrument into submission before he even touches the keyboard. He’s a long-time favorite here in Bellingham, having performed with the Whatcom Symphony Orchestra as well as the Bellingham Festival of Music.

Tonight’s festivities got underway with Johann Sebastian Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G major, BWV 1048. Maestro Michael Palmer is a genius at matching his gifted musicians to the requirements of the piece. For this one, he used a traditional group of trios: violins, violas and cellos along with a bass and harpsichord. The sound is quintessentially Bach. As Dr. Ed Rutschman mentions in his program notes, this concerto takes its structural cues from Vivaldi, whom Bach greatly admired. Knowing that going in, the influence seems obvious. If anything Bach ever wrote could be described as sprightly, this concerto fits the definition. The musicians, as always, were superb.

Palmer than added some more strings and the necessary woodwinds for Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante for Winds in E-flat major, K. 279B. Four festival favorites were featured: Joseph Robinson, oboe; Laura Ardan, clarinet; Robert Williams, bassoon; and Brice Andrus, horn. The four engaged in a lively musical conversation, trading licks back and forth like a jazz combo and merrily Mozarted their way to the first standing ovation of the evening.

The aforementioned Mr. Ohlsson took the stage following intermission and when he does that, the stage is seriously taken. His six-four frame powers an enormous set of hands that can span an octave-and-a-half. The truly astonishing thing about those massive hands is how graceful and sensitive they can be when he plays. His imposing presence also caused a bit of comic relief when someone slipped up and forgot to adjust his piano bench. The audience got a good giggle as Ohlsson frantically lowered the bench a foot or so in order to get his legs under the keyboard.

Photo credit - Paul Body

Photo credit – Paul Body

Ohlsson’s career was launched in 1970 when he won the prestigious Chopin Competition in Warsaw, the first American to do so. He has maintained a strong association with the Polish master and has recorded the complete piano works. What I find astounding is that he has more than 80 works in his repertoire, a mnemonic feat that exceeds his physical presence.

Tonight’s show-stopper was Johannes Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major. The concerto opens quietly enough with just the piano and solo horn. But soon, the full orchestra joins the fun and the laws of musical physics cease to exist. Ohlsson’s fingers blur into another dimension and the audience is transported to a galaxy far, far away. The concert grand, terrified into submission from the start, was visibly shaken by the experience. But Ohlsson gave it an affectionate pat at the end.

The audience leapt to its feet so fast that they nearly took the seats with them and wouldn’t let Ohlsson go until he had performed an encore. Naturally enough, he chose a Chopin piece, the Waltz in C-sharp minor. This work is so familiar, yet it became fresh again in the hands of a master.

The festival is sold out the rest of the way except for the final Three Sopranos concert featuring Heidi Grant Murphy, Katie Van Kooten and Frederica von Stade. For tickets to that event, call the Mount Baker Theatre box office at 360-734-6080 or order online at the MBT website.

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