'Tis the weekend for love on stage and screen, although I'm not sure whether the big movie release Fifty Shades of Grey qualifies since I haven't yet seen it or read the BDSM-infused book on which it is based.
Opera lovers throughout Southern California have the opportunity to quench their ardor via LA Opera's lavish production of The Ghosts of Versailles, now playing through March 1st at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. This complex but generally entertaining work by Oscar-winning composer John Corigliano (The Red Violin) and librettist William M. Hoffman made its New York debut way back in 1991 but is only now having its West Coast premiere.
Like virtually all operas, The Ghosts of Versailles has a love story at its heart. As Marie Antoinette (a great performance by out soprano Patricia Racette) longs to return to life from her dull purgatorial prison, playwright Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais — real-life author of the plays upon which the popular Figaro operas are based — pines for her. To woo the late queen of France, Beaumarchais composes a new opera featuring his caddish hero that, he promises Marie, will free her.
This opera within the opera provides additional romances as well as most of the grand buffa laughs to be found, especially once sultry Egyptian entertainer Samira makes her entrance. None other than Tony Award-winning diva Patti Lupone plays Samira in the LA production, and she succeeds in running off with Act One by virtue of her fairly brief but very funny appearance at its end.
As directed by Darko Tresnjak (a recent Tony winner himself for A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder) and splendidly designed by Alexander Dodge, The Ghosts of Versailles is a continuous feast for the senses. Linda Cho's costumes, Aaron Rhyne's projections and several acrobatic sequences staged by 2 Ring Circus also deserve mention in this regard. They help to camouflage, though not completely, the libretto's more convoluted moments as well as the excessive vocal challenges posed at times by Corigliano's music. There are many lovely, skilled singers among this production's large cast but the score threatened to do some of them in on opening night.
The more familiar one is with both the Figaro canon (LA Opera will next be presenting both The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro to complement Ghosts) as well as the French Revolution, the more one will appreciate Hoffman's and Corigliano's central plot and their additional plots within the plot. Be assured that love wins out as it should, especially around Valentine's Day.
Broadway composer Jason Robert Brown's The Last Five Years, on the other hand, offers a musical roller coaster ride of marital highs and lows. The excellent film version of Brown's 2002 work, adapted and directed by Richard LaGravenese (who wrote the acclaimed Liberace biopic Behind the Candelabra as well as 1990's classics The Fisher King and The Mirror Has Two Faces), is premiering in select theaters and on VOD this weekend courtesy of Radius/The Weinstein Company.
Anna Kendrick, most recently Cinderella in the Into the Woods movie, and Broadway Newsie Jeremy Jordan star as Cathy and Jamie, the show's idealistic but ultimately doomed couple. One couldn't ask for a better pairing between their physical attractiveness, dramatic chops and — most important for a musical — their spectacular singing ability.
In addition to the sophistication of Brown's songs, The Last Five Years uses a sophisticated dramatic device: Jamie sings the story of his and Cathy's relationship from their first meeting to their divorce, while Cathy sings from the end of their relationship to its start. They briefly meet in the middle, when he proposes to her. It is a risky approach, both on stage and on film, but LaGravenese & company pull it off beautifully. There is some brief but very good large-scale choreography by Michele Lynch (Camp, Joyful Noise), although I was disappointed by the frighteningly stereotypical gay dancers employed during the otherwise amusing "A Summer in Ohio" number. Shaky hand-held cameras are also irritatingly utilized by cinematographer Steven Meizler during some scenes.
While not the most optimistic of love stories, this is an impressive and heartbreakingly truthful dissection of the rise and fall (or is it the fall and rise?) of a relationship. I expect that it is at least more honest than Fifty Shades of Grey's bondage game.
The Ghosts of Versailles: B
The Last Five Years: A-
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.