Los Angeles Music Review: A TRIP TO THE MOON & THE PLANETS (Teddy Abrams and the LA Phil)

by Tony Frankel on March 3, 2018

in Music,Theater-Los Angeles

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Close on the heels of LA Phil’s behemoth production of Bernstein’s Mass comes another large-scale work with mind-boggling logistics. Co-commissioned with the London Symphony, A Trip to the Moon is Andrew Norman’s fanciful musical about a fin de siècle voyage to the Moon, whose inhabitants have trouble communicating with the Edwardian/Victorian astronomers that stop by for a short visit. Inspired by Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, Jacques Offenbach’s obscure 1875 opera-comique Le voyage dans la lune (which was inspired by the book), and Georges Méliès’s 1902 silent film (inspired by the book and the opera), the music intrigues but the libretto fizzles out halfway through the 50-minute piece as there are simply too many craters in the skimpy plot of this Moon.

Norman’s orchestrations are astronomically fun with sliding strings see-sawing, accelerating, and trembling like happy science-fiction machinery. His otherworldly industrial rhythms are tremendously complex and stimulating, with spectral glides that vary the resonance of notes to convey this imaginary realm in the sky. And when the orchestra wasn’t overpowered by the miked performers, I believe I noted some nods to the adventurous electric sound of 1980s’ sci-fi films, like Vangelis’s often minimalist atmospheres in Blade Runner that wash over the senses and create exciting expansiveness.

Norman refers to his work as a Children’s Opera (it was originally commissioned as such by Simon Rattle), but that doesn’t make it either an opera or necessarily for children — I would call Yuval Sharon’s direction of the work a family-friendly phantasmagoria.

But isn’t an opera defined as a totally or mostly sung-through work? Among the huge cast and two choruses, there are only three singers soloing: the lead astronomer Georges Méliès, a Moon Being named Eoa, and the unnamed Queen of the Moon People — and the latter two sing in gibberish minimalist vowel sounds over and over again. (Strangely, Georges’ musical lines are similar to the Queen and Eoa; if they’re worlds apart, why isn’t the music scored as such in counterpoint?) The five accompanying Earthlings (all with the same names as the silent film) only speak dialogue, which thankfully is supertitled (the Moon People’s vowel sounds – or “Moonish” — are not projected).

That said, I found the dialogue uproarious, as Norman has a field day with alliterations — phrases like “creepy creatures” and “craggy crater” tend to tantalize when trippingly tumbling off the tongue.

There’s plenty of amusement in Sharon’s staging, which uses two green screens behind large Moon rocks on either side of the stage (set by Takeshi Kata); with cameras planted between the orchestra and the upstage action, Jason H. Thompson and Kaitlyn Pietras’s clever video design allows actors to hover without the aid of Flying by Foy. The show begins with the original daddy of all sci-fi movies projected onto a large screen center stage (through which we can intentionally see the actors — a great effect); the music matches the footage perfectly. Once the astronomers are shot in a projectile to the moon, that’s where the live show takes off. Flanking the playing area in the Hall’s East & West Terrace sections are, seated, the LA Master Chorale and, in the section below, the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus.

It’s all very cool until the magic starts to wear off when we have no idea what’s going on. Once Peter Tantsits’ Georges and Lauren Snouffer’s Eoa learn to communicate fairly well, and Eve Gigliotti’s Queen accepts the visitors as harmless, now we’re dealing with some kind of Claymation-like Rock Monster, a missing stick, and an abducted child. All the while, Ann Closs-Farley’s costumes are stunning, with steampunk for the humans, and retro sci-fi film B-movie kitsch for the Moonies, right down to silver lamé-like material and spectacular headdresses that light up. Diana Wyenn’s choreography can be summed up as unremarkable cute shaking.

It fascinates me that MacArthur Fellow Yuval Sharon gloms onto projects with incoherent storytelling. His projects are ingeniously designed, but there’s often little to nothing to engage our hearts (of six outings, his Young Caesar at Disney Hall had the best story). Norman’s music is rich in charm and amusement, but as for his libretto, I think rather than storytelling he was more preoccupied with an allegory about working out differences (and Norman shaved 20 minutes off his work for this U.S. premiere!). He also seemed to be more concerned with who could appear in the piece as there were plenty of community performers among the hundreds on stage. But by God, doesn’t metaphor, casting, and technical wizardry – style over substance — define American theater in the 21st century?

And without the comic visuals and a children’s chorus delightfully roaming up and down the aisles whispering as mini-Moonies with their white tuned percussion tubes, I don’t understand how this score is for children. A child doesn’t have to watch a version of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf to have a palpable sense of the story. I find it hard to believe that any child will be involved in A Trip to the Moon just listening to this score – how would they be invested in the outcome of this tale?

Unfortunately, a good chunk of the audience bolted after A Trip to the Moon. They missed conductor Teddy Abrams’ powerful rendition of The Planets. Dressed in a light-blue collared shirt, which was drenched after the first half, the vigorous leader returned in a suit with a massive rendering of the oft-performed chestnut. While it wasn’t as nuanced and magical as previous LA Phil outings with Dudamel, the 30-year-old Bay Area-native — Music Director of the Louisville Orchestra — utilized the broadest, most swooping arm gestures I have ever seen. With terrifically confident tempos, Teddy, along with the tight troupe and totally triumphant timpani of the LA Phil, toiled and tore into this treasured, tuneful, seven-movement masterpiece of melody, handily hurling Holst to the heavens.

photo of Teddy Abrams conducting the Louisville Symphony by O’Neill Arnold

Los Angeles Philharmonic
Teddy Abrams, Conductor
Andrew NORMAN: A Trip to the Moon
HOLST: The Planets
Walt Disney Concert Hall
ends on March 3, 2018
for tickets, call 323.850.2000 or visit LA Phil

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