ON THE RECORD: Intriguing New Tamar of the River and Surprises in an Unheard-Of West Side Story

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: Intriguing New Tamar of the River and Surprises in an Unheard-Of West Side Story
 
This week's column discusses Marisa Michelson's Tamar of the River, along with a notable newly-discovered full recording of West Side Story.
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Tamar of the River [Yellow Sound]
In a short span last fall came a flurry of non-engaging Broadway shows — Romeo and Juliet, Big Fish, A Night With Janis Joplin, and A Time to Kill — along with two high-quality revivals, The Glass Menagerie and The Winslow Boy. In the same few weeks, adventurous theatregoers were rewarded with the Off-Broadway premiere of the best musical in years, Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron's adaptation of Alison Bechdel's Fun Home. At the same time, Honeymoon in Vegas was trying out over in New Jersey and there was a concert version of Kurt Weill's One Touch of Venus.

In the midst of all that activity, few theatregoers — and few critics — had time to discover Marisa Michelson's Tamar of the River. This one fit in the realm of unique musicals: not perfect, and not exactly comprehensible, but fascinating and in many ways remarkable. Tamar, which played a four-week engagement starting in mid-September at the Baruch Performing Arts Center on lower Lexington Avenue, was a production of the Prospect Theatre Company. I didn't get to see it until the final week, by which point it was rather too late to run a review.

Tamar had several major assets, starting with the music by Michelson; continuing with a production that was intriguingly designed (by Brett J. Banakis) and staged (by Daniel Goldsmith, with choreography by Chase Brock); and led by a notably good performance by Margo Seibert in the title role. Seibert was already, at that point, signed and announced as the leading lady in the forthcoming Rocky. As it turned out, Tamar gave her far more to work with than Stallone's Adrian.

Michelson's music is hard to describe; otherworldly, perhaps? Promotional materials tell us the score is influenced by Middle Eastern, Jewish and Asian music, as well as what they call "pre-Western chanting." It is the chanting that makes Michelson's work so striking; in many places, she uses her 12-person chorus as if they were musical instruments, complementing her five-piece band. (The orchestrations come from the composer/conductor and her pianist, Matt Aument.) These voices are used in the manner of strings or horns, mostly; Michelson occasionally has them sing in tones that waver above and below pitch, making things sound off-kilter. This sort of thing, elsewhere, has been known to drive my ears away; in this case, it drew me into the score — a recording of which has, most fortunately, just been released by Yellow Sound. The trouble with Tamar — which did not interfere with the worth of the experience, but made it at times difficult going — was not the manner of the writing but the underlying purpose. Tamar takes place in a no-man's land in nebulously Biblical times, in something like the Middle East. There are two tribes — East and West — divided by a river of blood, as they say. A girl from the East crosses over to the West, hell-bent on forging peace between the two. She helps civilize the savage men, and — if I recall accurately — marries the son of the barbaric ruler and then sleeps with the barbarian himself. (Hey, it's based on the biblical story of Tamar and Judah.) All of this with plenty of sand and fires on the hillside, plus a river dissecting the audience (said river composed of the cast wearing desert-suitable robes and cloaks, chanting away).

Are we in a long-ago, mythical world? Are we in Genesis? Or — with all these drought-weary, hatred-riven tribesmen — are we with Palestinians and Israelis, or Sunnis and Shiites, or some other modern-day variation? Can't we all just get along, anyway? This is a universal theme, an allegorical plea for peace in a landscape of violence; and it is that theme which more or less smothers Tamar the musical. The piece, it turns out, was commissioned by a group promoting Israeli/Palestinian harmony, and lyricist/librettist Joshua H. Cohen lays it on so diligently that in the theatre we periodically lost sight of what is an adventurous score featuring the work of an exciting new composer.

Michelson's music comes across equally well on the CD. Yes, it is different, and unlike what musical theatre audiences are accustomed to — but that only adds to the excitement. Tamar does not quite compare to other musicals; I suppose you could place it somewhere between Joshua Schmidt's Adding Machine and Dave Malloy's Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812. Malloy, as it happens, seems to have a musical and personal link to Michelson: he provided the liner note for the CD. He calls it "a renegade piece of musical theatre, drawing on traditions vast and cosmic: Jewish liturgical music, Islamic azans, European opera, jazz harmonies, African-American gospel, Japanese Noh singing, Balkan timbres, Pendereckian tone clusters and Meredith Monkian extended vocal techniques all kneaded together into something that simultaneously sounds like it came from 7,000 years ago and some distant and improbably quantum future."

Malloy lost me at those Pendereckian tone clusters, I'm afraid; our old friend Maury Yeston praises Michelson somewhat more clearly, saying she "strikingly demonstrates the difference between the merely 'novel' and the genuinely new, crossing musical boundaries and finding a synchronicity between timbres and musical worlds that creates a genuine sense of wonder."

Both of these esteemed gentlemen praise the composer, in which I concur. Michelson appears to have an array of musical tools at her command, along with unbounded inventiveness. In much of Tamar of the River, I felt she was smothered by the storytelling and the layers of earnestness. Here, she (and her collaborators) were trying to save the world; I can only look forward to what she will accomplish when her imagination is unfettered. If Tamar of the River was problematic on stage, the CD makes a very good case for Michelson and her score. Not easy listening, but rewarding.

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* West Side Story [Naxos]
In my recent review of the San Francisco Symphony's full recording of Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim's West Side Story, I said that I had never come across a recording of the score that approached the excitement of the 1957 original Broadway cast album. A reader from the West Coast quickly responded, saying that he understood that I can't possibly be familiar with all West Sides but suggesting that I track down a copy of the 2002 recording with Kenneth Schermerhorn leading the Nashville Symphony.

And so I did, and gladly pass along the word that it easily outdoes the San Francisco recording, the 2009 Broadway revival, the 1993 Leicester Haymarket revival and the 1985 Bernstein studio cast recording. The playing is vibrant and theatrical; the performances are at once excited, energetic and natural; and you have a Tony and Maria who sound like they are thrillingly and heedlessly in love with each other, despite everything. Imagine that! (The only pair who I've ever believed in, onstage, were Victoria Mallory and Kurt Peterson in the 1968 production at the New York State Theatre, produced — incongruously enough — by Richard Rodgers.)

Here we have Mike Eldred and Betsi Morrison, their fine singing mixed in with laughter, wonder, and nervous energy. Eldred succeeds where other Tonys falter; he has the sweet voice necessary to carry those glorious songs but sounds like he really is, at heart, a Jet. "Something's Coming" captures Tony's youth, "Maria" captures the wonder and "Tonight" captures the starstruck romance. Morrison does just as well; her Maria is too young and too naive for the world of Sharks and Jets, full-voiced but giggling nervously. These two make quite a Romeo/Juliet pair, walking along through a daydream; we can almost see all those sparks shooting into space.

I made a point in my San Francisco review that the chorus stood out, in a bad way, with "Gee, Officer Krupke" sounding like they'd studied the thing in acting class. What a difference, here. The music is played like a vaudeville pit band — which is precisely what Bernstein and orchestrators Sid Ramin and Irv Kostal wanted — and the Jets sound like '50s street kids fooling around with a shade of false bravado. They also give us vibrant renditions of "The Jet Song" and "Cool." The only problem with this recording, for me, is in the Anita department. Dear old Chita, the original and genuine Anita, was a spitfire packed with dynamite; this Anita, Marianne Cooke, sounds like she's in training for next spring's Metropolitan Opera Auditions of the Air.

The orchestra — 54 pieces, from Nashville — is grand, with conductor Schermerhorn providing extreme excitement in the extra-musical sections (at the Gym, "Cool," the Quintet, the Rumble, the second act Ballet). Schermerhorn was yet another one of those Bernstein protégés; there seem to have been a lot of them, weren't there? He turned up for conducting lessons at Tanglewood in 1955 — in his liner note, he mentions how Lenny played "Cool" for him while the show was being written — and so impressed the composer that he was stunned to find himself on the short list to conduct the original West Side despite his lack of theatrical experience. He didn't get the job, naturally enough.

(This ties in with what we know about West Side conductor Max Goberman. As recounted in "The Sound of Broadway Music," Kostal overheard this discussion during the tryout in Washington. Bernstein: "Where did we get this terrible conductor? He not only hates me, he hates my music." Robbins: "We thought you liked him. He was our conductor of On the Town." Bernstein: "I couldn't stand him even then.")

Schermerhorn went on to serve as assistant conductor to Bernstein at the New York Philharmonic, music director of American Ballet Theatre and eventually conductor of the Nashville Symphony. He clearly knows his Bernstein, and it shows in the playing. If the performance sounds alive and vibrant — with crowd ad-libs here and there — it is because this turns out to be an actual cast album (although this goes unmentioned in the liner notes). Schermerhorn, the Nashville Symphony and Naxos approached the Bernstein Estate, which indicated that they didn't want a non-theatrical recording — presumably as an after-reaction to Bernstein's crossover studio album. Thus, the Symphony joined with the Tennessee Repertory Theatre for a full production of the show, which began a two-week run Sept. 4, 2001. Looking at the personnel, I can't say I've heard of any of these folk; someone named David Grapes directed, Brian Tidwell was musical director (though not conductor) and the cast seems to have been filled with Tennessee locals. Everyone does a fine job, led by Eldred, Morrison and Schermerhorn.

So here you have it: another not-quite-new recording of West Side Story, and a vibrant one.

(Steven Suskin is author of "Show Tunes," "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble," the "Broadway Yearbook" series and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He also writes the Aisle View blog at The Huffington Post. He can be reached at ssuskin@aol.com.)

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