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A CurtainUp Berkshire Feature
We are Women: A Bernstein Cabaret
By Elyse Sommer
Jamie Bernstein, composer/conductor Leonard Bernstein's daughter, has used her lifetime of living with and loving music to forge a career as a narrator, writer and broadcast. Her previous concert, Bernstein on Broadway, also created with Michael Barrett, has been presented with several symphonic organizations. It was a colorful tour of her fatherís best-loved musicals, with the accompanying narration dishing up personal anecdotes and family stories to take the audience inside the scores of one of Americaís greatest popular composers.
The use of that Cabaret in the title, would might well lead audiences of the 4-performance presentation at the Colonial Theater to expect a similar program of Bernstein music plus background patter from Ms. Bernstein. But this is not a cabaret but Bernstein and Barrett's own script created to tie together 20 songs for a 3-piece band and four singers. Instead of following the cabaret genre's style of chatter interspersed with music, the concept is to create a small musical with the narration a book or libretto of sorts.
The problem with this concept, is not that the story inspired by the fact that many Bernstein songs were about women, is terrible. The trouble is that the songs selected to illustrate and round out the narration seem intended to please the classic music loving Tanglewood Berkshirites, but also those who know and love Leonard Bernstein mostly for his Broadway show tunes. Unfortunately the result falls short even for those who like me love all things Bernstein.
Bernstein's art songs, his one-act opera Trouble in Tahiti somehow aren't a comfortable fit with the tunes that represent Candide, West Side Story, Wonderful Town and On the Town. Since Trouble in Tahiti dominates the selections, songs like "Maria" and "I Can Cook Too" feel tossed in as crowd pleasers.
With Ms. Bernstein's narration consisting of brief snippets from the fictionalized "new" book than more personal commentary, it also comes across as oddly stiff for someone this experienced as a narrator. The four singers — sopranos Elizabeth Shammash and Lauren Worsham, contrabass John Feeney, and tenor Jeffrey Picon — all have fine voices, with Worsham bringing her experience with musical theater to the production. But what's also odd about their roles, is that in order to create the feeling of a small book musical rather than a straight concert, We Are Women calls for several props (table, couch, etc.) to be carried on and off stage, and guess who's moving these props? While I admire the singers for gamely taking on this chore, it seems inappropriate. With the Colonial awash in volunteer ushers, it seems to me that it would not have been difficult to find a couple of interns from the Berkshire Theater Group to unobtrusively do the "shlepping" as is the case with their production of Edith.
A word about Trouble in Tahiti. This is a wonderful little opera with a good story and a fine jazz-inflected score, I still remember the sadly deceased Berkshire Opera Company's 2004 production of it as part of a trio of one-act operas. The simply but smartly staged Bernstein piece was the highlight of that evening. My complaint about that evening applies to this one as well.
I felt that evening would have worked better as an all Bernstein evening, filling out the short Tahiti with concert excerpts from Candide which is as much opera as musical theater. In the same vein, I think instead of this mash-up of art songs, opera and Broadway show tunes with mother-daughter story as the connecting thread , this would have been a more satisfying evening with just presenting Bernstein's "little opry" with a second act of concert excerpts from Candide or a medley of all his show tunes.
We Are Women: A Bernstein Cabaret's 4 performance schedule: August 9, 10 and 11th at 8pm, August12th at 2pm.
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