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From Klezmer to Classics

What's your pleasure, the sizzle or the steak? The Coconut Grove Playhouse offers both in its latest production, a musical revue called The Soul of George Gershwin: The Musical Journey of an American Klezmer. It's a studious, educational show that also happens to offer some outstanding vocal and instrumental artistry.

Most musical biographies offer a pastiche of tunes and little else. This one by Joseph Vass offers historical and cultural context as it traces Gershwin's musical career back to his Jewish roots. Gershwin, who grew up in a Jewish neighborhood in Manhattan at the turn of the 20th Century, was not religious, but he was steeped in rich Jewish traditions -- cantoral music, the music of the Jewish holidays, and especially klezmer, the folksy, heavily rhythmic popular music of the Yiddish immigrant community. Klezmer music features the clarinet and violin in long, loopy, emotional riffs, which Gershwin adapted into his own idiom. The show tends toward the pedantic, lecturing at times, but there's plenty of intriguing factoids: how Gershwin got his start as a 16-year-old song "plugger," playing the piano in the streets to promote his publisher's song titles; how Gershwin's first opera, based on the classic Jewish tale "The Dybbuk," never got off the ground; and how Jewish and black music -- blues and soul -- are entwined.

The production leads us through this journey using the persona of Gershwin himself, played by Minnesota-based actor Michael Paul Levin. With his snappy patter and suits to match, Levin really does evoke the fast-talking, cigar-chomping, ebullient Gershwin, adding a welcome dose of warmth and humor as he describes the composer's early days in immigrant New York and his rapid rise to American musical master. Gershwin's stormy personal story is sidestepped in favor of sticking to his musical development.

Vass makes his theme clear by neatly pairing some traditional tunes, sung with great feeling by cantoral singer Maggie Burton, with Gershwin's own. The comparisons and contrasts make for some interesting musical explorations. Unless one is an avid musicologist, however, that's really not enough to power an entire evening's entertainment, as the point is made and made again and yet again. That's where the sizzle comes in. Vass doubles as pianist and musical director, leading a tight, smokin' five-man ensemble featuring Russian-born Yuri Merzhevsky, who delivers such virtuosity on the violin that he's worth the price of admission by himself. These musicians are clearly into what they are playing and display a real feel for all the music in Soul, from religious songs right on through to Porgy and Bess.

Vass wisely allows for some terrific jam sessions amid the instrumental sequences. Along with the powerful Burton, the show's singers include Bruce A. Henry, whose warm, rich voice soars and swings in such standards as "Embraceable You," and Prudence Johnson, a sultry blond chanteuse whose renditions of Gershwin's tunes are mesmerizing. She's got the Veronica Lake look and a smoky, nuanced delivery that will make you homesick for the 20th Century. (Burton and Henry played only the first week of the run, replaced by Robert Marinoff and T. Michael Rambo respectively.)

The project was developed at the New Classic Theatre in Minneapolis, and judging by the cast bios, it appears the original production has been shipped in for the Miami run largely intact. Original director Peter Moore's staging here is extremely sparse, too much so -- a healthy dose of theatrical invention would certainly have added some life to a show that lacks much physicality. The set looks slapdash, with a generic cityscape silhouette for a backdrop and a few platforms, looking rather forlorn sitting in the playhouse's vast space. The cause isn't helped by some schizophrenic costuming: Gershwin and the male singers look sharp while the women must soldier on in some truly ugly thrift-store flotsam. On the whole, though, this breezy, 90-minute revue delivers the important stuff -- fine voices, expert musicianship, and the most sublime music your ears could ever wish for.

Meanwhile, a musical event of an entirely different sort had a brief but memorable two-night run on South Beach at the Colony Theatre as the Florida Grand Opera Young Artist company presented La Tragedie de Carmen, a deconstructed, stripped-down rendition of Bizet's masterwork. The production is based on Peter Brook's groundbreaking 1989 adaptation and staging in Paris. After rehearsing for two years, Brook and his co-adapter, Jean Claude Carriere, presented an intense, nontraditional project, cutting away all the extras, combining several smaller roles while holding on to the emotional and narrative essence of the source material. Brook kept Bizet's dazzling music but adhered less to Carmen's opera libretto and more to its own source material, the novel by Prosper Mérimée. The result is a wildly emotional dance of death that often seems to jump out of Greek tragedy rather than grand opera.

This Carmen was daringly staged by Robin Guarino, who has been making quite a name for herself in operatic circles, from the Met in New York to the Seattle Opera. She worked with an outstanding scenic designer in Narelle Sissons, whose set was a trash-strewn warehouse, backed by huge sheets of translucent plastic. The Colony's backstage was used, with bare brick walls and the lighting instruments and cabling all out in the open. Above the stage hung a huge series of chicken wire cages, with white feathers caught in the mesh. It appeared that many a chicken had met an unhappy death --- and that this murky space was a slaughterhouse. On one side, an oil drum provided fire and light; on another, a vast, shallow, metal gondola was filled with water for bathing.

Between this fire and water, two elements Brook often employs, the performers worked through their nasty dance of desire and revenge. Audrey Babcock (who alternated with Elaine Fox) played Carmen as a tough cookie indeed. When her rival, Micaela (Jill Pfeifer, alternating with Sarah Wolfson), confronted her, Carmen attacked her, ripping Micaela's blouse to shreds. Offered cash by a lusting army officer, this Carmen dropped to her knees in a flash for oral sex. Escamillo (Bill McMurray) sang the famed toreador song while stripping down to his jockey whites and nipple ring. Still singing, he stepped into the gondola for a long, languorous shower while Carmen leaned in, watching intently. The production featured plenty of drinking, smoking, and roughhousing with fights that were brutal and bloody, much more realistic than the usual opera.

The orchestra was led with assurance by conductor Stewart Robinson. Babcock sang with power and presence. Luis Carlos Contreras offered an engaging emotional range but hit a few flat notes in the course of the evening. McMurray made for a taunting, ironic Escamillo. The entire cast invested a good deal more thought and attention to the emotional beats of the story line than might be expected from opera singers and managed to keep their musical focus while singing within a physically demanding staging.

All of this yanked Carmen out of the pleasant narcosis surrounding most opera productions. This was raw theater that happened to be sung. It was hard to tell who the primary creator here was -- Brook or Guarino. One may well ponder whether opera should be considered drama or music, but any way you look at it, La Tragedie de Carmen was a bold, assured directorial vision. Regular playgoers who tire of standard theatrical projects might want to give the Florida Grand Opera a try.

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Ronald Mangravite

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