Monday, March 2, 2009

Kaspar Hauser


Written by Elizabeth Swados and Erin Courtney, Music Composed and Show Directed by Swados; At the Flea Theater. (CLOSED)

Critics don't have particularly strong feelings one way or the other for Elizabeth Swados' opera about the life of Kaspar Hauser. Those that enjoy the show and Swados' "Beethoven-meets-Queen" composing style are respectful; those that don't are simply not particularly taken with it. Ditto the herky-jerky movement style that Swados has directed the company to adopt. Everyone praises the enthusiasm and aplomb with which the Bats attack the show.

CurtainUp B+
(Elyse Sommer) Swados and Courtney are not the first to use the Kaspar Hauser story as a creative wellspring, but what they've created is both original and exciting. Swados, whose orientation is strictly musical and Courtney, who is accustomed to writing dialogue rather than lyrics, prove to be a fine match. The music of their almost completely sung-through collaboration is operatic but with a propulsive rock sensibility or as Swados herself describes it, "somewhere between Beethoven and Queen." The lyrics, as one might expect given that they're penned by a playwright, are unrhymed but succeed in moving the story forward. Call it an opera, a popera or a Weill-Brechtian fantasia, Kaspar Hauser is sung and performed with enormous verve by nineteen members of the best resident artist company in town, the Flea Theater's Bats. They bring the at times feverish swirl of Kaspar's tragic story to vivid life. Their committed performances compensate for the show's failure to deliver the sort of memorably melodic arias that might lead to a longer, more commercial run.

The New Yorker B+
(Unsigned) A joyfully grotesque outing... With its bright period garb and ghoul-faced ensemble, the show could easily inhabit a larger stage; condensed to the modest parameters of the Flea, it glows all the more brightly.

Variety B+
(Marilyn Stasio) Elizabeth Swados has always gone her own way, and her new music-theater piece, "Kaspar Hauser: A Foundling's Opera," is stamped with some of her familiar idiosyncrasies: the childlike perspective; the atonal operatics; the surreal dramatic landscape; the thematic obsession with abused and abandoned children. It's a sensibility that fits right in at the Flea Theater, which maintains a resident ensemble of nimble young actor-singers, the Bats, happy to show off in anything remotely experimental -- like the composer-scribe-director's reworking of the Wild Child legend.

NYTheatre B+
(Russell M. Kaplan) Whatever you may choose to call it, what's certain is the play packs quite a visceral punch. Swados proves adept at directing her own material, and uses the Flea's shallow playing space to its fullest potential. She has also created—along with movement director Mimi Quillin—a slew of impressively complex ensemble scenes depicting a gossip-hungry German society, which The Bats (the Flea's resident acting ensemble) attack with ferocious glee. By now, the energy and dedication of the famously quirky young Bats should be surprising to no one. What does surprise is their powerful singing, as they display vocal chops you simply don't expect to find downtown. The musical climaxes, with 19 voices blaring at you at point blank range, are enough to make your hair whoosh back.

That Sounds Cool B
(Aaron Riccio) While it's a little odd to see an opera and marvel more at the physical direction and acting than the singing, it's hard to complain about two hours of solid entertainment.

JustShowsToGoYou B
(Patrick Lee) The show’s book, a collaboration between Swados and Erin Courtney, shapes the story of the cruelly mistreated lad as both a tale about the fickleness of celebrity and as a metaphor for the plight of the artist, wholly succeeding at neither. Nonetheless, the 90 minute one-act never lags, and bears Swados’ unmistakable artistic stamp... Although the emotional impact of the show’s finale is curiously muted, and the show’s heightened, stylized presentation is not for all tastes even among musical theatre fans, the show is absorbing and accomplished, also boasting a captivating lead performance by Preston Martin.

TheaterMania C+
(David Finkle) The latest is the prolific Elizabeth Swados, who has composed and co-written Kaspar Hauser, now at the Flea Theater. While this new work has its moments, the familiar satirical targets at which it takes aim, as well as the manner in which it's been constructed and directed, will likely keep it from long-term entry into musical-theater annals...Finally, as she continues writing musicals, it has also become apparent that Swados' trouble isn't a deliberate avoidance of facile melody, but a difficulty in realizing melody. Although most of Kaspar Hauser is unrhymed recitative, there are times when a full-blown melody is precisely what's needed to drive a dramatic stake into the proceedings. If anyone leaves humming these songs, it's likely due to sheer repetition.

Time Out NY C-
(Helen Shaw) Despite the wearying sameness of the material (here comes another wall of sound!), there’s magic in Normandy Sherwood’s Fauvist costumes, set designer John McDermott’s reorientation of the Flea’s stage and the resident company’s exuberant efforts. Swados displays more flexibility as a director than she does as a composer. Hey, there’s no shame in changing key

Backstage C-
(Ronni Reich) Kaspar Hauser follows an animalistic child found on the streets of Germany, chiefly through composer-director Elizabeth Swados' relentlessly upbeat oompahs and choruses that furiously repeat the title character's name, as in Sweeney Todd or Peter Grimes...The ensemble's jerky, rigid-limbed movements vibrantly suggest the ugly, vulturelike crowd that intrudes upon Kaspar's life. But the effect is so exaggerated and used so frequently as to give the impression that the performance takes place under strobe lights. Manic but impressive energy is shared by all, and there are some priceless facial expressions.

NYTimes C-
(Claudia La Rocco) There are pleasing moments in this rush, particularly in the work of the movement director Mimi Quillin, who manages to drive an awful lot of bodies artfully to and fro in a tiny space. But the lyrics and music do not achieve a similar dynamism. By keeping the dial turned past high throughout the show, where the lines between good and evil are far too neatly drawn, Ms. Swados misses opportunities to develop any of her themes or arrive at any intriguing insights into human nature. The Kaspar Hauser story is strange enough without being shoved into frenetic fairy tale mode. It is, in truth, far stranger than this musical.

CU B+ 11; TNY B+ 11; NYTH B+ 11; Variety B+ 11; TSC B 10; JS2GY B 10; TM C+ 8; BS C-6; NYT C- 6;TONY C- 6; TOTAL = 90/10 = 9 (B-)


Anonymous said...

there's a times review too...

Anonymous said...

Hey Anonymous: "Times" should be capitalized. It's NYTimes, March 3, Arts Section.

Anonymous said...

I mean March 4.