The return of Candide and the emergence of The God Botherers. Plus: Tierney Sutton brings jazz to The Oak Room
One of the pleasures of City Opera's productions has always been their melding of musical theater performers and opera singers. For Broadway folks like us, the presence of people like John Cullum as Dr. Pangloss and Judy Kaye as the Old Lady is a great inducement to see this show, and then we come away with the good fortune of having seen and heard William Ferguson as Candide. A charming actor with a beautiful operatic voice and perfect articulation, Ferguson is a real find. (Note: He and some of the other leads are alternating with other performers in their roles.)
This Candide is often lumbering, but Clark Dunham's colorful set design helps matters, and the performers generally make the most of the material. In particular, Kaye is perfect in "I Am Easily Assimilated" and Ferguson shines when he sings "Candide's Lament." If Georgia Jarman as Cunegonde doesn't get everything out of "Glitter and be Gay," John Cullum has the presence of a theatrical king, and his playful turns as Dr. Pangloss, Voltaire, etc. are great fun.
Contemporary plays about well-meaning Westerners trying to help the poor in the Third World are usually about as successful as a flu shot and often just as painful. A pleasant surprise, therefore, is Richard Bean's deeply humanistic The God Botherers at 59E59. It's a small play with a big agenda, the kind of theater that one is grateful to discover during the course of a season.
Crackling with terse, funny dialogue that's anchored with deep feeling, The God Botherers works in part because it doesn't go where so many of these plays do (the clash of cultures between East and West, etc.) but, rather, focuses on several other compelling issues. For instance, respect for the possibility of God is handled here in a most moving way -- especially since He seems entirely absent in this (you'll excuse the expression) God-forsaken Third World hell-hole, or there are so many competing deities that the very thought of one God seems ridiculous.
The play's handful of characters all seem entirely real and, adding to the verisimilitude, completely out of their depth in a world gone mad. Most moving of all is Keith; a lifer in the war against poverty, he is an Englishman who can't go home. Jaded yet still possessing an ennobling mixture of practicality, honor, and idealism, Keith is brought to life in an extraordinary, internalized performance by Michael Warner. There's nothing flashy here but this is, in fact, one of the greatest pieces of acting that you will see this year. Warner's portrayal is complemented by a purposefully flashy, externalized performance by Heidi Armbruster as Laura, the smart and beautiful if hyper American girl from White Plains who has come to change the world. Kola Ogundiran and Tinashe Kajese play important supporting roles to perfection. The God Botherers is finally about how people-- all people -- find necessarily imperfect solutions for survival.
David Travis has directed the play with precision, using Marcus Doshi's dramatic lighting, Jenny Mannis' emblematic costumes, and Adrian W. Jones' wonderfully ramshackle set to great effect.
All That Jazz
When Tierney Sutton brought her jazz act to the Algonquin Hotel's Oak Room last year, we were astonished that she stared at one spot on the wall above our heads for the entire length of the show. We had never seen anything quite like it. We arrived at the Oak Room for her return engagement with fingers crossed that she had learned a thing or two about singing in a cabaret room. Well, maybe crossing one's fingers works -- or maybe it's just that Sutton has benefited from a year of touring in front of live audiences.
Tierney Sutton is a tall drink of white wine. You might almost say that her head is in the clouds. Certainly, her voice is heavenly: Her vocal control is nothing short of amazing and there is a sweetness of tone, as well. All of this was true before, but this time she deigned to look at the customers, and there was warmth and recognition in her eyes. She was singing to us and for us, which makes a huge difference in the intimate confines of a club like the Oak Room. Sutton was definitely connecting with the audience.
When it comes to connecting with a lyric, though, that's another story. Sutton's act is all about how she sounds, not what she's saying. Mind you, she sounds fantastic, and we're pleased to say that she performs a rich array of standards (her song list is different for every show). But make no mistake, this is jazz in a very pure form. The singer has a spectacular jazz band behind her, so it's up to you: If you're a music-driven person, you may well be smitten with Sutton. If you're a lyric-driven person, however, she may not be your glass of Chardonnay.