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December 21, 2003
The Nightingale

Reviewed December 21
Running time 1 hour

In 1997 composer David Maddox and writer/director Mary Hall Surface collaborated on a dance-theater adaptation of the tale of the Emperor of China and the nightingale. Together with choreographer Dana Tai Soon Burgess they created a piece specifically designed to fascinate children old enough to follow a relatively complex story but young enough to be entranced by colors, movement and rhythm. The project was the first of what has become a significant body of work including Sing Down the Moon: Appalachian Wonder Tales, Perseus Bayou and Mississippi Pinocchio as well as the soon to premiere The Odyssey of Telemaca, all of which have been produced by the Theater of the First Amendment at the Center for the Arts at George Mason University in Fairfax. The original collaboration, on the other hand, was a commission from the
Kennedy Center’s Imagination Celebration series and it is now touring the country under the auspices of the Imagination Celebration on Tour.

Storyline: True to the original tale by Hans Christian Andersen, this partly narrated, partly sung and mostly danced version tells of a Chinese Emperor enraptured by the song of a nightingale who decides to rely on a mechanical replication of the bird’s song. When the mechanical nightingale malfunctions the Emperor pines away for the pleasures of the song and approaches death. But the live nightingale returns to revive him.

This one hour piece of theater magic does exactly what it is supposed to do - entrance the youngsters in the audience. It lasts just as long as their attention span allows and not a moment more. The individual scenes and specific effects are as precisely planned as the overall production, with each element offering its magic for just the right amount of time for its audience. This is a tribute to Surface’s direction and the inventiveness of Burgess’ ability to tell stories through dance. David Maddox’s atmospheric score of exotic dance music, as performed on synthesizer, is heard through the speaker system in a recorded performance.

Only one of the six performers speaks or sings, the rest dance their parts. Lisa Woo sings and speaks as a servant who narrates the story of the nightingale whose song is the empire’s greatest treasure. That “song” is a dance, not a note actually emanates from Miyako Nitadori who plays the bird, but the kids in the audience understand her movements as a song. The cast act their parts as well as dancing them. Michael Crawford dances the part of the Emperor but watch him sitting on his throne as the nightingale “sings” her first song. While not moving from his seat, his face tells the entire story of astonishment and pleasure of the Emperor’s first encounter with the bird’s “song.”

Tom Donahue designed a simple but elegant set of floor to ceiling banners, a dragon portal and two simple hassocks, leaving the vast majority of the floor space open for dancing. A thrown rolls on for scenes in the palace and it rotates to show a painting of a forest for scenes of the hunt for the nightingale. Color is provided by the lighting, costumes and properties such as banners on spears. There is an air of Chinese elegance and simplicity to the design but it reveals varied looks frequently enough to contribute to the overall fascination quotient of the piece.

Written and directed by Mary Hall Surface. Conceived and choreographed by Dana Tai Soon Burgess. Music composed by David Maddox. Design: Tom Donahue (set) Jane Schloss Phelan (costumes) Dreama J. Greaves (properties) Lynn Joslin (lights). Cast: Suzanne Bryant, Michael Crawford, Mary Hong, Miyako Nitadori, Patrick Sandoval, Lisa Woo.

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February 8 – 9, 2002

Reviewed February 8
Running time 1 hour 40 minutes

Leonard Bernstein composed his Mass: A theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers at the request of President Kennedy’s widow to be the inaugural work at the Kennedy Center’s Opera House in 1971. Thirty years later, a solid performance at the Center for the Arts at George Mason University reveals many of its strengths and offers a fine performance by its central character but suffers from a strange scenic and sonic austerity complicated by a strained speaker.

Storyline: Built on the structure of the Catholic Mass, this exploration of personal faith in modern times has exquisite segments of orchestral and choral music, pre-recorded/electronically manipulated music, pop and semi-rock songs and occasional touches of operatic vocal passages.

GMU’s Department of Music assembled the University’s Chorus, Orchestra, Dance Company and the Annandale High School Treble Choir to take on this challenging assemblage of Bernstein’s highly personal and very emotional music. Then they obtained the services of Douglas Webster to sing the central part, that of the celebrant who takes a very personal journey from simple singer of simple songs to the leader of the congregation. Webster may well be the world’s premiere interpreter of this role today having performed it everywhere from Tanglewood, where he sang for the composer’s 70th birthday concert, to the Vatican, where he sang it for Pope John Paul II. He handles its heavy musical and dramatic demands with a sense of confidence, a personal charm, a dramatic intensity and the required range of musical abilities.

Bernstein, never known for self restraint, poured forth musical ideas at an extraordinary rate for this 100 minute piece and, while they aren’t all at the same level of quality, there is never more than about a minute to wait until the next one comes along. It is abundantly clear from conductor Stan Engebretson’s program notes that he and his team had explored the structure of the piece and had a firm handle on the relationship of each segment to the whole.

Much of this sense of the work comes through in watching and listening but it is hindered by the austerity of the staging and by the limitations of the sound system they used. The original production at the Kennedy Center used a visual design by Oliver Smith that gave a solidity to the "theatre piece" promise of the title. Here the scenic design of Clayton Austin seemed constrained. Perhaps the extraordinary cost of this massive project left too little money for the set. Then too, there is no credit at all given for a sound design. With much of the piece utilizing pre-recorded material (it was written at a time when classical composers were experimenting with "quadraphonic tape" as a new format for expression) and with the amplification of the singers, a well thought out and executed sound design would have been of tremendous help. But, then, I’ve heard Mass at the Kennedy Center, at the Mark Taper Forum and in its original cast recording and I’m still waiting to hear it fulfill its sonic promise.

Composed by Leonard Bernstein. Text from the Liturgy of the Roman Mass. Additional texts by Stephen Schwartz and Leonard Bernstein. Conducted by Stan Engebretson. Choreographed by Karen Studd and Boris Willis. Stage direction by Rick Davis. Scenic design by Clayton Austin. Lighting design by Daniel Hobson.