Los Angeles Theater and Music Review: A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM (Mendelssohn music and Shakespeare scenes with the LA Phil)

by Tony Frankel on November 3, 2017

in Music,Theater-Los Angeles

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COME FOR MENDELSSOHN,
STAY FOR MÄLKKI

There are three things to consider regarding LA Phil’s huge production of Felix Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which has music interlaced with scenes from one of Shakespeare’s most produced plays: the orchestra; the production; and the venue. Since this is, after all, the LA Phil, I’m happy to report that the score, written as incidental music for a full-length Midsummer in 1842 long after the famous Overture was penned, is pure enchantment, and you have three more chances to hear it through Sunday, November 5. The production, a very truncated but quite understandable version of the 1595 play, has good direction but uneven acting and design elements. And while the amplification is getting better at Disney Hall, this venue was used incorrectly and is simply too vast for this staging.

Under the thrilling, innovative, and compelling leadership of Principal Guest Conductor Susanna Mälkki, the players weren’t just sharp, they were spectacular. I’ve never heard such distinction in the rapid trills of those spidery strings. Even timpanist Eduardo Meneses found new sounds by using wooden sticks for special effect. The magical Mälkki manipulated Mendelssohn’s Midsummer into a mix of majesty, mystery and mood, making the “Wedding March”—one of the most familiar themes in history—so fresh and bold as to trick us into thinking we’ve never heard it before. Also astounding were the 31 women of the Los Angeles Master Chorale; seated flanking the stage, their singularly lit music books appropriately mimicked tiny faeries (and having English supertitles always helps). Sitting in front of the brass, soprano Amanda Forsythe and mezzo-soprano Emily Fons were glorious, each with a bewitching vibrato. Cheek by jowl, the instruments and vocalists sold the 110-minute, intermissionless show.

Director Nancy Meckler created some funny physical shtick that played well into the house, especially a stunt that had Demetrius (the statuesque Burt Grinstead) and Lysander (the very tall Nic Few) in slo-mo, but since the actors were well above the instrumentalists but behind the orchestra, many of Meckler’s fun bits and facial expressions were too far away from us to connect with the players (one of the reasons some patrons left the woods around the one-hour mark, as others checked watches). As Helena, Alexandra Ruth Wright was able to project her strong shenanigans past the first few rows, but this space was clearly a daunting challenge for the actors, some of whom weren’t as comical as they could have been (the course of true theater never did run smooth). Oddly earthbound was the scene of the players preparing for, and the performance of Pyramus and Thisbe, even with some well-earned laughs; also weird is that Flute (a bright and breezy Will Block) is forced to dress up as Thisbe, a woman, when two of the actors in the Mechanicals were played by women, Cloie Wyatt Taylor and Quinn Francis.

Emma Kingsbury’s production design was curious: The cheap-looking movable cubes and large throw pillows were helped by Pablo Santiago’s lights, turning everything into dappled greens and greys (his moon, a large blue neon hoop hanging over the proceedings, was inspired). But Kingsbury’s costumes, an incoherent gallimaufry of sunny styles, were a clash of an East European thrift store with Forever 21 and the emcee from Cabaret; I loved the lovely light bulb-encrusted umbrella for an even lovelier Paige Lindsey White as Titania.

Ultimately, there’s the music, which portrays all manner of fairies, humans, and lovers crossing paths as scheming pixies manipulate four exiled lovers. With Queen Mälkki reigning, Mendelssohn really was a dream.

photo courtesy of LA Phil

MENDELSSOHN A Midsummer Night’s Dream
(with scenes from Shakespeare’s play)
Los Angeles Philharmonic
Susanna Mälkki, conductor

ends on November 5, 2017
for tickets, call 323.850.2000 or visit LA Phil

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

A.G. Block November 7, 2017 at 12:05 pm

Thanks for the review.

A question regarding, ” … also weird is that Flute (a bright and breezy Will Block) is forced to dress up as Thisbe, a woman, when two of the actors in the Mechanicals were played by women, Cloie Wyatt Taylor and Quinn Francis.”

Not sure why you think this casting was “weird.” The character of Flute is always played by a male actor. For the play-within-a-play, Flute is supposed to be a man dressed up as a woman. In Shakespeare’s day, all parts were played by men, but Flute was meant to be a man in any case. The humor doesn’t work otherwise. Even today, in mixed-gender casts, the role of Flute is never played by a woman unless as part of an all-female cast — in which case, the humor is flipped with Bottom appearing as a woman dressed as a man. It would have been too convoluted to have Cloie or Quinn play Flute as a woman playing a man dressed up as a woman.

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Tony Frankel November 7, 2017 at 12:08 pm

The weird part was not a male Flute dressing as a woman, A.G. — that’s always funny. But if the Mechanicals have two women in their troupe, as was the case at Disney Hall, it suddenly doesn’t make sense that this troupe even needs a man to play a woman. There are two women standing right there! So to me it was a casting issue of the two women, both of whom, I recognize, also played faeries.

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