To come

Sometimes things happen that I don't want to write down here—either things that are personal but don't belong to me (i.e., family matters) or things that are personal in a particularly personal way. Not things that are "TMI personal," because I blab about those all the time, but things that I'm afraid will float away if I open my arms too wide and let in too much air.

For example: last Monday was the 10-year reunion concert of The Light in the Piazza at Lincoln Center, performed by the original cast. It's been 10 years since I sat in the Vivian Beaumont and heard those voices singing that score, and at the end I closed my eyes for a couple of seconds, during "Fable," and let myself believe I was back there again, still living in Chicago, still excited about my future in New York, still hopeful, still hoping. I walked alone through the plaza afterwards and all I could think about was how tightly I wanted to hold it all in. Not to go backwards, exactly, just to remember that feeling of anticipating my own future.

I've thought a lot lately about what that time meant to me, because I remember 2006 as a very sweet and sort of golden year. I had so much to look forward to! I had something tangible to work toward yet no idea of what I would actually find once I got there. Everything was possible. And I think most of the malaise and general discontent I've felt over the past couple of years isn't so much a midlife crisis as realizing that I've lost that sense of anticipation, of having something new to plan for and be excited about. I suspect that is in fact the dictionary definition of midlife crisis, but whatever. Just because it's a cliché doesn't make it untrue. I also realized that as with most things in life the only person who's going to save me from it is me.

And I decided that's fine. Everything is fine! I'm happy to live here again in a way that I haven't been in a really long time! Instead of buying myself a little red Corvette I bought a bike helmet. Instead of moving to London or Paris or Seattle I'm taking a cooking class and picking up my camera again. I'm resetting my expectations and reminding myself that everything I need right now is here, right outside my doorstep. What I look forward to doesn't have a date attached to it, or any kind of timeline or even an end goal, and it's not some perfect vision of some perfect future, it's just... future. I'll try to keep my arms open, but who knows. That can be so exhausting.

Meeting Patti Cohenour

You know how sometimes you send an email to someone you've never met before, just to tell them how much you enjoyed their performance in The Light in the Piazza, and how much you've loved their voice for the past two decades (only without knowing it, because the Big River CD liner notes don't exactly say who sings what)? And how they respond, very graciously, with an invitation to visit them backstage at the Vivian Beaumont the next time you're in town? And how of course you then have to plan another trip to The Light in the Piazza because how could you possibly say no to such a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity? Especially when you've fallen more deeply in love with this show each time you've seen it, and how can you not see it again when you know it's ending forever in just a few short weeks? And how you're totally a sucker for once-in-a-lifetime opportunities?

And how, after you're seated on your plane at O'Hare, the flight attendant gets on the horn to inform everyone that there's a mechanical problem with the plane and they're sending it back to the hangar but luckily there's an identical plane just two gates down so will you all kindly reboard that flight in your exact same seats? Which of course means a two-hour delay on a Friday afternoon when you've already missed lunch? And you know how crabby you get when you miss lunch? And how when you finally land and struggle through LaGuardia-to-New York City rush-hour traffic to your hotel you scarcely have time for dinner, much less the nap you so desperately need, because you're due at the Vivian Beaumont in less than two hours?

And how none of that matters anymore when you take your seat and the lights go down and the curtain rises (I'm kidding, there is no curtain) because you're transported to a different place through this story and these characters and these actors and this music? And how you wipe a couple of tears away throughout, during the same scenes, and during different scenes, and think what miracle is it that allowed a show like this—small, quiet, hopeful, joyous—to live and survive here at all when they're handing out best musical awards to Spamalot?

And how at the end, when the lights come up and the curtain falls (I'm kidding, there is no curtain), you feel a little sick to your stomach because now you have to somehow find your way downstairs and backstage alone to meet someone you've never met before while managing to not make a complete ass out of yourself in a weird fangirl-stalker kind of way, because you're probably too old to still be doing this sort of thing and shouldn't you find some different ways to spend your time?

And how, when you tap-tap-tap your Lincoln Center Footwear through the long empty hallways of the Vivian Beaumont lower level, knees shaking as you stare at the posters of all that's come before you here, you're tempted to turn around and run right back out the way you came, with no one the wiser, and flee into the dark night?

And then you know how you go on anyway, moving forward, and how when you reach Dressing Room #12 you stand outside the door for a long moment and knock softly and take a deep breath and hold it in? And how when the door opens, the woman you've just been watching on stage for the last two-and-a-half hours greets you with a big smile and holds out a hand and pulls you into a warm hug and says, "I'm so glad to meet you!"? And how she's grateful you're there and you're grateful just for who she is and for the marvelous gift of what she can do, for whatever chord it is that she strikes in you when she performs, and how she says, "Please, have a seat," and takes the time to talk with you for over half an hour, and tells you to stay even when new people arrive, and how she walks you out the stage door afterwards and invites you back the next afternoon? And how the next afternoon she's sitting with friends and you feel like a fool—or worse, a nuisance—knocking on the door again, but she invites you in with another smile and another hug and remembers your name without prompting and says "Stay!" and is just as kind and gracious and welcoming as the night before? And how on your walk back uptown afterwards, in the hot sun and the hot humidity, you have to stop and ask yourself, "Is anyone really, truly, honestly this nice?" Knowing that somehow they are?

This was exactly like that.

The Light in the Piazza

My third trip to the piazza last night. I sat in Sarah's Monday night seat, which is the coincidence of all coincidences:  center orchestra, front row. Yow. I adore the Vivian Beaumont—it feels smaller and more intimate than it actually is and the acoustics are fab, the seats are comfortable, the bathrooms are clean and many, and you know which of those qualities comes first in my book.

The reason for a third visit was to see Patti Cohenour in the role of Margaret Johnson. I didn't realize until a couple of weeks ago that she sings my very favorite song from Big River, which I've loved since college (um, almost two decades ago). She typically plays Signora Naccarelli, a very small role that doesn't give her enough to do, but she subs for Victoria Clark on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings because, well, I'm not sure why, but I can't begin to fathom the sheer amount of brain-partitioning that must go into pulling off a Wednesday matinee in one role and Wednesday evening in another. So brava and brava to that.

Clark won a well-deserved Tony last year for the role, which is that rare powerhouse lead for an actress over the age of 30: a not altogether sympathetic woman whose sole function in life has been to protect her daughter, because the one time that she failed to, when Clara was 10, the results were catastrophic and life-altering. Together mother and daughter, now 26, take a trip to Florence, where Clara falls in love with a gorgeous young Italian (as, let's be honest, who wouldn't?) who doesn't know the ladies are hiding a Very Big Secret (sorry, no spoilers here). And of course the lesson then is when and whether and how—and how far—to step back and let go.

It's a great testament to both Clark and Cohenour that they each succeeded, and that both affected me in completely different ways and in different scenes, which is unusual because I tend to form very strong biases based on who I see (or hear) first. (Juvenile, I know, but there it is.)

With Victoria Clark, it came in a scene where Margaret is talking on the phone to her husband, who is back home in Winston-Salem, and as she's speaking to him she slowly realizes he isn't listening to her, that he hasn't listened to her for years and perhaps never, and that something fundamental between them has been lost. And I remember, she's standing alone in the center of the stage holding the receiver tightly in one hand, and her face just kind of goes hollow as it dawns on her, and she stares out into the audience with a look of such sadness and resignation, I started to sob. Spontaneously, very quietly, and thoroughly embarrassed, but nevertheless. It was haunting. (And now I see it's the image they used for her great big billboard shot down in the parking garage. So apparently I'm not alone in this.)

With Patti Cohenour, it came a few scenes later, after she's found her daughter wandering through a seedy piazza at midnight, lost on the way to meet her new love. She leads Clara back to their hotel and carefully undresses her, helps her into bed, and sings her a lullabye, rocking her to sleep. She's angry, and she's scared, but she does what she has to do, what she has always done: she comforts her child. Shouldering the weight of it all alone, tucking it away somewhere deep inside. Again, a small, simple scene that totally hits home, right there in the general vicinity of your heartlight.

So what I would say: Clark's acting hit me harder, but I much preferred Cohenour in general, and my God, that voice. Of course it's all a matter of degrees: Clark's portrayal is fierce and brittle, a force of nature—almost a slap in the face, or a punch in the gut; Cohenour is softer, sweeter, more naturally maternal and easier to like (one poster on the BWW message board called Clark's interpretation "Southern nouveau riche" and Cohenour's "Southern monied gentility," which nails it pretty well). Clark's singing voice has that sharp metallic edge to it (more brass than violin, one might say), whereas Cohenour's is warmer, less strident, frankly prettier. I liked the show and the music more when I heard her singing it (loved it for the first time, actually). But ultimately both were compelling, both were a marvel, and—for me—both were a treasure. To see a mature, complicated female character on Broadway these days is rare enough; to see two actresses tackle such a role with flair and finesse, and for each to make it fully her own, is reason to celebrate.

Haven't seen it yet? See it: either here through July 2, or here on June 15th-ish. (In Chicago, I'm guessing it will be shown the following Sunday afternoon because, again, the nimrods at WTTW don't seem to understand what "LIVE from Lincoln Center" really means.)

Anyway. If nothing else, the Tony-winning costumes are killer (my costume prediction this year: The Drowsy Chaperone. Gorgeous.).


NYC: on Broadway

Friday night: The Drowsy Chaperone was a last-minute switch (from Faith Healer, yo), mostly because it looked mom-friendly, which proved truer than true. Man in Chair sits in chair and talks to the audience while he plays a recording from his favorite (fictional) 1920s musical. The characters appear in his living room and act out their slight-but-captivating farce while he watches and comments and occasionallyoh yesjoins in to sing and dance along. Definitely audience-friendly faresmart enough to please the snobs, but not too smart in that way that ends up pissing off the tourists. It was easy: easy to sit through, easy to listen to, easy to like. Sometimes too easy: obvious jokes about Elton John, candy wrappers, and cell phones are (I think) pandering and blatantly unfunny, although that never seems to stop people from laughing. The music was catchy and instantly forgettable, the cast was perfect, from Bob Martin as Man in Chair (who absolutely made the show) to Georgia Engel (Mrs. Ted Baxter!) to Sutton Foster as the de facto leading lady (good enough, but I'm missing all the fuss on hershe has one of those bright, loud, bland soprano voices I would never be able to pick out of a crowd) and Beth Leavel as the deliciously drowsy (read: drunk) chaperone, or what I refer to as The Christine Baranski Role. But more than anything, it was simply entertaining, one of those rare shows where the people sitting around you feel like part of a community, rather than random gangs of sloppy, ill-bred strangers. And the power of that should not be taken lightly.

Saturday night: The Light in the Piazza, again chosen for its mom appeal. Seemed to work well enough. Anyway: how I adore this show (which you can watch on PBS June 15 or, if you're in Chicago, sometime in December*), although something still bothers me about the musicit sounds as though it was written for three different shows, all of them pretty but none of which have anything in common. Victoria Clark was even better than I remember from last Octobershe breathes this characterbut Katie Clark not quite as affecting as Kelli O'Hara (which we'll forgive, since she's fresh out of college). Aaron Lazartall, gorgeous, gangly, smitten, overeagerwas my favorite this time, but I do desperately want to see it again with Patti Cohenour as Margaret. Um, luckily I'm going back in nine days for something else entirely, so I'll have another chance to stop by.

*Just kidding! I've no idea when it will be shown in Chicago, but I would almost guarantee it won't be June 15. WTTW's scheduling department likes to make sure everybody else in the country gets the chance to watch a program before we do.

New York in October: day 2

First we head straight back to Lincoln Center.

Random lady in crosswalk, to Cabdriver #5: Asshole!
Cabdriver #5 to random lady in crosswalk: You asshole!

Overheard on Amsterdam:
Child: What happened to all the women with long hair?
Father: I don't know, maybe they moved away.
Child (pointing at me): What about her?
Father: She must like it that way.

The Light in the Piazza: ineffable sadness, unspeakable joy. Completely baffling, indescribable, thoroughly lovely. Lovely. A mother and daughter on holiday in Italy, and all they learn about themselves, about each other. Humanity and graciousness and understanding above all, and letting go. The skip a heart takes when everything changes. My favorite?Chris Sarandon as a flirtatious, expansive, deeply Italian father. And the unexpected ending, a breath held. Tears. Standing ovation, richly deserved. The music is gorgeous, lush, soaring, unabashedly romantic, but ultimately doesn't quite hold -- the lyrics are frequently clunky and there's no thread, so to speak, no common strands to connect the songs, to build the experience -- and yet. A spell is cast. Somehow you fall, and are grateful. Rewarded. And at the end, ah, the sunlight.

From Cabdriver #6
Me: Park Avenue at 38th.
Cabdriver #6: 8th?
Me: 70 Park Avenue, at 38th.
Cabdriver #6: 8th?
Me: Thirty-eighth.
Cabdriver #6: Eighth?

Dinner. Lamb steak frites, with some grass sprouting on top there. That's right, lamb. Let's not be pretty about this.

From Cabdriver #7: Silence. Thank Christ.

Welcome to Broadway, baby. You should see the lights.

Doubt: the Return Visit. Still phenomenal, the best sort of example of the power of language, the exhilarating drama of two people talking to each other. A nun, the principal of a Catholic school in the early 1960s, suspects that the priest is "taking liberties" with young boys. No action but this, a battle of wills between them, each waiting for the other to flinch. And it's searing, unsettling, shattering. A punch to the gut. Funny, too, although no one onstage laughs, or even smiles, not really, not once. "Nuns fall, you know," Sister Aloysius says at one point. "It's the habit." This apropos of nothing, and the audience clings to it. A small moment of relief. But then from the mother of one boy, when she's told the priest is very likely abusing her son: Let him have him then. And these unimaginable words, from her, almost make sense. Almost seem right, the best of all possible options. And the Amazing Cherry Jones, everything about her drawn stiff and inward, wired tight, her voice a harsh, pinched bark. She is all discomfort and sharp angles: talking on the phone, she holds her elbow in a straight line away from her body, almost a military salute, parallel to the ground. You can't teach that, I don't think; it is something deep in the bones. Once I go, she finally warns him, I will not stop. You believe her, and it's chilling.

Cabdriver #8: ugh, enough already. On a Saturday eve in the autumn, deep in the heart of New York City, we travel by bike-cab.