ON THE RECORD: Michael John LaChiusa's Bernarda Alba and Karen Akers' "Like it Was"

News   ON THE RECORD: Michael John LaChiusa's Bernarda Alba and Karen Akers' "Like it Was"
This week's column discusses Michael John LaChiusa's Bernarda Alba and the Karen Akers collection, "Like It Was."

BERNARDA ALBA [Ghostlight 7915584412]
Michael John LaChiusa has done it again. Bernarda Alba is fascinating, riveting, vibrant and exciting. Federico Garcia Lorca's 1936 drama about five black-draped girls in their mother's house of unnatural mourning is revealed through flashes of grit, anger and pain. LaChiusa's vibrant music illuminates the shadows and the emotions, fulfilling the first rule of adaptation: The music must add something to enhance the underlying work.

LaChiusa has done it again in another, less helpful manner. In the theatre Bernarda Alba resolutely failed to reach me (and apparently a large portion of the audience). I sat there thinking that the score was fascinating and exceptionally well written, and that the production was extremely interesting. But the fact that I was sitting there thinking is the heart of the problem; you should be so engrossed in the proceedings that you don't have time to think until after the curtain is down. This has been my precise experience at other LaChiusa musicals, See What I Wanna See being the most recent example.

"Dance Ten: Looks Three" is the name of a song doubtlessly familiar to readers of this column. "Art Ten: Heart Six" might be a phrase descriptive of much of the work of LaChiusa, although heart might not be the most accurate description of the problem. The man keeps turning out intriguing and impressive scores of great variety, with CDs you want to listen to again and again. I, at least, want to listen to them again and again; he has found a way to alienate a segment of the musical theatre audience, and that is their right. For me, just about all of the shows of LaChiusa make rewarding listening, on CD; but time and again, I have been puzzled at LaChiusa musicals, going back to The Petrified Prince. Not puzzled as in confused, but puzzled as to why each show – with adventurous and arguably excellent music and lyrics – fails to get through to me.

This is not to say that it should be simple; there are some who believe that if you can thoroughly absorb a score in one hearing, then it is probably full of songs that you've more or less heard before. (There was a bit of discussion on this subject back in 1984 when Sunday in the Park with George won the Pulitzer but lost the Tony to La Cage aux Folles. Which was the better score? Which was the more accessible score? Which made for more pleasant listening in the theatre? Which have you listened to more?) I don't expect many theatregoers understood the precise nuances of Gershwin or Bernstein or Sondheim when they first heard Porgy and Bess or Candide or Sweeney Todd. Those scores, though, each had an immediate impact.

There is a certain moment in a musical, somewhere between the seven- and fifteen-minute mark, at which point the audience is either with you or – well, it becomes an uphill battle. LaChiusa, despite the high quality of his work, often seems to lose this battle. It might well have something to do with his collaborators. This is not a question of staging, mind you. A good director has an editorial function, and that might be where LaChiusa is continually let down; I suppose that a few sessions with Jerry Robbins or Michael Bennett might make all the difference. LaChiusa writes music, lyrics and libretto, and does a fine job with each. In the case of Bernarda Alba, though, it seems like the stark theatricality of the opening – effective as it was – lost too much of the audience. The more I listen to Bernarda Alba, the stronger it seems; if only it could have had this effect live, at the Newhouse. And what is most distressing is that this is pretty much the same review I wrote a couple of months ago of the CD of See What I Wanna See. LaChiusa is one of our most adventurous musical theatre writers, and certainly the most prolific at present. The man deserves a mainstream hit, already. Which is not to say he should write down to the audience. Only, maybe he can find a way to meet them halfway?

KAREN AKERS: Like It Was [DRG 91498]
"I'm a touch older," Karen Akers notes on her CD liner, "and can't help looking back once in a while, especially when there are songs like these to be sung." That's a pretty apt description of "Like It Was," DRG's eighth collection from Akers. The singer does begin to show her age, perhaps; but what we might call the added reediness only serves to enhance the well-selected songs. Akers, who has consistently demonstrated talent and intellect in her singing since first appearing hereabouts in the original production of Nine, makes it all sound pretty wonderful.

The maturity is very much in evidence in the title song of the collection, from Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along; Akers seems to be looking back at "the way that it was" from a much greater distance than we are accustomed to, but the added years serve to make the song even more poignant. Since Sondheim songs seem to come along in pairs, Akers also gives us a very fine "Loving You" (interspersed with Hammerstein & Kern's "Why Was I Born?"). Hoagy Carmichael's "I Get Along without You Very Well" is one of two relatively obscure songs that have been included; the other is "Comes Love" (Lew Brown-Charles Tobias-Sam Stept), a rambunctious treat introduced by Judy Canova in the 1939 musical Yokel Boy. And when was the last time you heard a song from the ramshackle Yokel Boy?

"Like It Was" makes an entertaining CD, with Akers once again proving her skill. Which makes it surprising to find an extra (and distracting) word here and a poorly-chosen (and distracting) new word there, both of which impede the flow of the music. Most uncharacteristically, there is a single track with multiple missed notes; this one might profitably have been deleted altogether. Without the latter troublesome track, I probably wouldn't bother to mention the first two. Even so, Akers' voice and performance style are such that I'm glad to give her the benefit of the doubt.

"Our approach to some of the songs might take you by surprise, but by the time the songs are over, I hope you'll want to hear them again." Ms. Akers is correct on both counts. Don Rebic and his three-man combo – Dave Schiavone on reeds, Eric Wills on drums and Chip Jackson on bass – give a lively reading of Rebic's charts; some of the bass writing, especially, is unusual (like the opening Akers/Jackson duet on "You've Got Possibilities"). Even so, we do want to hear the songs again, and this CD as well. And extra special thanks for that swinging "Comes Love" and the Carmichael.

-- Steven Suskin, author of "Second Act Trouble" [Applause Books], "A Must See! Brilliant Broadway Artwork," "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached by e-mail at Ssuskin@aol.com.

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