Review of “We are Women: A Bernstein Cabaret,” at the Colonial Theatre
By Gail Burns and Larry Murray
Larry Murray: There was as much to like about the Bernstein Cabaret as there was to regret. First, it really wasn’t a cabaret in the traditional sense, with highly personal and stylized singing by theatre people; instead it had all the annoying high art style of a concert with pop overtones. The music was an oddly chosen medley of Leonard Bernstein’s life work, what I called Bernstein’s greatest hits and unknown masterpieces.Gail Burns: For Bernstein geeks or musical theatre nerds like us the song selection was eclectic and often exciting, but I felt that the widely known numbers – all from “West Side Story” – were a little too shop-worn and some of the more obscure numbers should have stayed that way.
This evening was conceived by Leonard Bernstein’s oldest child, Jamie Bernstein and Michael Barrett, head of the Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts, who acts here as pianist and musical director. Jamie Bernstein narrated the proceedings in an oddly stilted way. The evening was entitled “We Are Women: A Bernstein Cabaret” but as a woman I was disappointed in the very patriarchal and traditional way in which she presented women in the narrative. The songs alone would have painted a much softer and more realistic picture.
Larry: It seemed there was a lot of trouble in Tahiti. Somehow the innovative,complex work of the creator of “West Side Story” (based on “Romeo and Juiet”) and “Candide” (based on Voltaire) came out as a bland, homogenized celebration of suburbia and its attendant mediocrity. Most of the theatrical devices were repetitive. One more scene with a woman throwing ersatz flour around in the kitchen and I might have lost it. Bernstein was a complex, controversial and worldly person, and I doubt that would be how he would celebrate women on stage. He had better dramatic sense.
Gail: Almost all of the first half consisted of huge chunks of “Trouble in Tahiti” Bernstein’s seldom-performed 1951 opus billed as “an opera in seven scenes.” (His 1983 opera, “A Quiet Place,” incorporates “Trouble in Tahiti” as an extended flashback.) The mezzo-soprano, Elizabeth Shammash has recorded the leading role of Dinah so she was featured heavily, and she is very good. I happen to be very familiar with the piece and so was delighted to hear so much of it, but a woman next to me turned to me at intermission and asked eagerly if I thought Sam and Dinah would split up or get back together in the second half of the evening. I had to tell her, sadly, that this wasn’t actually a performance of “Trouble in Tahiti” and that she would not find out. Only one song from that work was featured in the second half, and it was taken quite out of context.
I would have really enjoyed seeing a production of “Trouble in Tahiti.” Luckily the Hubbard Hall Opera Theatre Conservatory students are performing it in its entirety on August 17 & 18 at 8 pm, along with Sullivan and Burand’s “Cox and Box.” (Details)
Larry: Did you ever see singers who lugged furniture pieces on stage before they sang? They tried to set the scene, but wasn’t that just goofy…and dangerous?
Gail: It was. And I am pretty sure it is against the rules of some Union or other, but The Colonial is not a Union house. If the actors did have to move the furniture, couldn’t they have moved it during Jamie Bernstein’s narration instead of doing so afterwards while we all watched and waited? And at one point they brought out a cardboard box full of props…a cardboard box! Of course that’s what you keep them in backstage, but a classier conveyance should have been used to bring them on.
Larry: Who do you think this musical evening will appeal to? Who should likely stay away?
Gail: As I said, people who already know a lot about Bernstein and his music will find it a treat to hear many of his seldom-performed works. I was delighted to be introduced to La Bonne Cuisine: Four Recipes for Voice and Piano, (1948), and to hear a number from his 1950 musical version of “Peter Pan” and so much of Trouble in Tahiti. But if you go expecting Leonard Bernstein’s greatest hits you will be sorely disappointed. There is only one song each from “Wonderful Town,” “Candide”, and “On the Town,” and nothing from “Mass,” or his obscure 1976 Broadway musical “1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.” Also, there is a heavy emphasis on his atonal and conversational work, which isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.
Larry: This program continues August 10-12 on Friday and Saturday at 8:00 and Sunday at 2:00 at the Colonial Theatre on South Street in Pittsfield. It runs about One hour twenty minutes including one intermission. www.berkshiretheatregroup.org Box Office – (413) 997-4444.