Tuesday, February 15, 2011

"Knickerbocker Holiday" - Fun For What It Is

Review by Judd Hollander
Photos by Erin Baiano

Thank heavens for groups like the Collegiate Chorale who present forgotten musicals and plays that otherwise would be relegated to the dustbin of history. Case in point, the Chrorale's recent concert staging of the tuneful Knickerbocker Holiday (music: Kurt Weill, book & lyrics: Maxwell Anderson), which premiered on Broadway in 1938. This is a show that will probably never be staged again as a full production, it being terribly politically incorrect and rather dated. However as it was presented at Alice Tully Hall on January 25 and 26, it allows the underlying political satire to come through full force, much of which is still quite timely these days. There's also the mostly very enjoyable score, given wonderful life by the Chorale in the chorus parts and winningly performed by the American Symphony Orchestra, conducted by James Bagwell.

The action starts in 1809 New York where a distraught Washington Irving (Bryce Pinkham) has had enough of writing salacious gossip columns and bits of news for the local paper, becoming determined to try his hand at penning a novel. Wanting to craft a political satire, he sets his tale in 1647 New Amsterdam, when Wall Street was indeed a wall; New York's population was about 600; Flushing was an unexplored wilderness and Indians (some friendly, some not) lived in Weehawken New Jersey. Irving, ever mindful of his readership, realizes he also has to tone down the satire somewhat as not to offend those he hopes will buy the book.

In 1647 the New Amsterdam town council is a completely corrupt, if none too bright body, anxiously awaiting the arrival of their new governor, Peter Stuyvesant (Victor Garber). Looking for someone to hang as proof of their law and order stance, the council settles on Brom Broeck (Ben Davis), a strong strapping fellow, who's in love with Tina Tienhoven (Kelli O'Hara), the daughter of council member Tienhoven (David Garrison). Brom and Tina would have been married long ago, only Brom has a problem of taking orders, of any kind, usually answering any such commands with his fists. This problem was also what prevented Brom from going to work for Tina's father. With his sidekick Tenpin (Christopher Fitzgerald), who has been killed numerous times over the years, Brom now makes his living as a knife sharpener. That is, until the council decides to string him up for criticizing them (it's again the law). However, at the last minute, the newly-arrived Stuyvesant decides to pardon Brom. Stuyvesant (beautifully written as a classic politician talking out of both sides of his mouth at once) soon lays down the law for the colony with a heavy hand and also quickly falls in love with Tina, whom he arranges to marry, only to find Brom opposing him in both his political and personal decisions.

Creators Weill and Anderson obviously had a great time in concocting the story, which takes jabs at both the political left and right, but was originally written as an attack on Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his New Deal policies (FDR reportedly loved the show by the way.) Some of the musical highlights include the song ("Hush Hush"), about bribery; "the one indispensable man," referring to the person who keeps payoff money flowing smoothly; and the rousing "How Can You Tell An American?" There's also the very enjoyable "There's Nowhere to Go But Up!," a reference to the Great Depression, which was going full swing when Knickerbocker Holiday originally premiered, but a song which can also quite easily reflect today's economic troubles. The dialogue is also quite biting at times, with the script noting that democracy means basically government by amateurs, along with the realization that all politicians are corrupt, it's just a question of how much. Great credits goes to Ted Sperling (who also serves as director) and Edward Barnes (one of the co-producers) in their adaptation of the original material for this presentation, and their keeping the essence of the work nicely sharpened and quite relevant.

The acting is quite good. In addition to Garber as the bombastic Stuyvesant, O'Hara is wonderfully appealing as Tina, with a powerful singing voice, very effectively bringing home the emotional appeal of the various ballads. Davis is nicely amiable as the romantic hero Brom and holds his own against O'Hara in their duets together. Garber also has a wonderful singing turn with the haunting "September Song" which went on to become a popular standard. Fitzgerald makes a good comic relief as Tenpin, with his continual "give me a break" expression. Garrison is fun as the dryly wry council member Tienhoven.

However, in the telling of the story, one can start to see some of the problems with the text. The continual use of the Irving character becomes more and more intrusive as the play goes on. Also, the accents of the cast are all over the place, the town counsel speaking in a mixture of Dutch and German, with O'Hara, Fitzgerald and Davis not really using any accents whatsoever. There's also a huge battle between Brom, Tenpin and a horde of Indians (staged offstage here) which looked a bit ridiculous the way the rest of the cast kept bobbing and weaving and watching something the audience couldn't see. There were also perhaps one too many ballads in the score; all quite lovely, but they started to sound the same after a while.

On the plus side, hearing the various tunes played by a full orchestra reminds one of what can be missed in this age of pre-recorded music. Under the able guidance of conductor Bagwell, the score feels both light and powerful, though it does sometimes drown out the performers, so one can't hear the lyrics. The Chorale does a wonderful job as the town of 600, shouting out comments at a public gathering and singing the different chorus parts throughout.

Sperling's direction works well here, keeping the story nicely paced, and if one is not totally enamored with the finished production, the satirical wit and biting commentary of the authors only serves to show that when it comes to politics and politicians, the more things change, the more they don't. All told, it was a pretty enjoyable experience, with a few reservations (including the Indians).

Knickerbocker Holiday
Music by Kurt Weill
Book and Lyrics by Maxwell Anderson
Concept Script Adaptation by Ted Sperling & Edward Barnes
Presented by the Collegiate Chorale
Music performed by The American Symphony Orchestra
James Bagwell: Conductor
Directed by Ted Sperling

Coordinating Producer: Edward Barnes
Lighting Designer: Frances Aronson
Sound Designer: Scott Lehrer
Stage Manager; John Finen

Featuring: Victor Garber (Peter Stuyvesant), Kelli O'Hara (Tina Tienhoven), Ben Davis (Brom Broeck), Christopher Fitzgerald (Tenpin), Bryce Pinkham (Washington Irving), Michael McCormick (Marshal Schermerhorn), Brad Oscar (Roosevelt), Steven Rosen (De Peyster), Brooks Ashmanskas (Van Cortlandt), Jeff Blumenkrantz (Van Rensselaer), Orville Mendoza (De Vries), Marie Mascari, Heather Hill and Teresa Buchholz (Three Girls)

Alice Tully Hall
Lincoln Center or the Performing Arts
January 25th and January 26, 2010
Running time: 2 Hours, 25 minutes

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