In Medea Res
Medea in Jerusalem kills, Maureen McGovern holds court at Le Jazz Au Bar, and Laura Benanti and Gavin Creel do their stuff at Joe's Pub.
It's fair to say that modern audiences tend to see Medea's revenge against her husband -- the killing of her two children -- as barbaric in an ancient way, even more horrible than the plucking out of one's own eyes. (Oh, those crazy Greeks!) What playwright Roger Kirby's economical (90-minute) version makes vividly clear is that such horrors still occur. Kirby uses news reports about terrors in the streets of present-day Jerusalem in place of the traditional Greek chorus. By play's end, when Medea sends her son out with a backpack full of explosives, the relevance of the tragedy has become chillingly apparent.
Director Steven Little should have found more ways to foster movement on stage; the production is sometimes physically static even when the language is anything but. To some extent, the vivid performances of the actors help to mask this flaw. Rebecca Wisocky, as a Muslim Medea married to an Israeli Jason, is riveting; she entirely fills the requirements of what is certainly one of the theater's greatest female roles. As her manipulative husband, Sean Haberle gives a cunningly sinister performance, while Ariel Shafir and Jennifer McCabe are particularly effective in major supporting roles.
There have been plenty of plays dealing with the intractable problems of the Middle East. Medea in Jerusalem gives us an insight beyond politics, delving deep into the human heart of darkness.
A Hot Summer Night's Dream
The club is called Le Jazz Au Bar, but don't let the word "jazz" limit your expectations. With the appearance of Maureen McGovern through August 22, the room has started to become a bigger umbrella covering a wider range of musical styles. The same might be said of McGovern herself; she is such an extraordinary talent that she excels in virtually every idiom from jazz to standards, from pop to the blues. In years past, a McGovern show was all about her instrument; more recently, she has become a consummate entertainer with an extremely appealing performance persona and an ability to make the lyrics count as much as the notes.
Her new show, Sultry Songs on a Hot Summer's Night, provides about two dozen reasons why you should make it your business to see her before she returns to Broadway in Little Women later this season. Those two dozen reasons are the songs that she sings in a generous program in which she displays dazzling musicality. Lushly accompanied on the piano by musical director Jeffrey D. Harris and buoyed by Jay Leonhart's sweet work on bass, McGovern puts on quite a performance.
She begins by turning William Finn's lovely "Sailing" into a swelling anthem for the sailboat set, then gracefully bringing it ashore as the indirect love song that it is. She makes a bow to Ella Fitzgerald, singing a song about her ("Oh, Ella Be Good") as well as one that Ella co-wrote: "A Tisket, A Tasket" (E. Fitzgerald/C Webb). Her measured rendition of "My One and Only Love" (R. Mellin/G. Wood) brings out the lyrics for a fresh read and serves as a perfect companion piece to Dean Martin's recording of the tune. And who knew that McGovern was so funny? Her take on "Lime Jell-O Marshmallow Cottage Cheese Surprise" (William Bolcolm) is as peculiarly tasty as the song itself. Finally, her performance of "Blues in the Night" (Harold Arlen) is an incredible display of vocal virtuosity that, at the same time, serves the words beautifully. It's a boffo finale.
Two beautiful-to-look-at musical theater performers, Laura Benanti and Gavin Creel, recently appeared at Joe's Pub to perform their own songs. The theater community really came out to support them; among the folks we spotted in the audience were John Dossett, Michele Pawk, Julia Murney, and the big bopper himself, Stephen Sondheim.
Benanti came on first. Variations on lyric-driven pop tunes dominated her selections, with one bitter comedy number setting itself off from the others. Her voice was lovely but the songs never rose above mediocre, and her personality on stage was off-putting; neurotic in the extreme, Benanti constantly commented on whether or not the audience loved her or hated her. She rarely had anything useful or entertaining to say when she spoke; in this regard, she was her own worst enemy. (Director Jamie McGonnigal should have suggested to her that, if you haven't got anything to say, it's best not to say anything.)
In contrast, Creel was enormously appealing in performance. His manner is easy, open, and generous, and his songs mostly match his personality in terms of their attitude; they tend toward a pop/rock sound with a touch of country. Creel's lyrics, written to catchy melodies (many of them by Robbie Roth), are rather undistinguished, but the singer has a strong, elastic voice and he moves well on stage. The songs might not be so special, but Gavin Creel clearly is.