A Sublime “Arcadia”

Dec 8, 2012 at Judy Bayley Theatre, UNLV Performing Arts Center

Here are the great things about Nevada Conservatory Theatre and UNLV Performing Arts Center productions:

  • They are presented on-campus at UNLV. Great location, great parking, great university-ambience, great box office, great prices.
  • Medium-sized house (Judy Bayley Theatre) feels like a metropolitan theatre yet still intimate; not a bad seat anywhere.
  • Renderings by the wardrobe, set design and lighting design teams are on display in the atrium for the audience to explore. Colorful drawings, fabric samples, and scale models of the stage and sets show how these show elements were conceived and built. It’s like a backstage tour! And you can touch them!
  • Variety. Straight plays to musicals, they have it all.
  • Casts feature a mix of theatre majors, community members and theatre professionals.

All that’s missing is…well, nothing.

True, they don’t have motorized moving stage parts or computerized hi-tech set antics, but that, thankfully, allows the focus to stay on the human element — the talent. The actors and the storyline, not technology, are the entertainment here.

All of these elements were in evidence in the production of “Arcadia”, a play by Tom Stoppard.

“Arcadia” by Nevada Conservatory Theatre at UNLV’s Judy Bayley Theatre. Pictured (L to R): Jordan Bondurant, Joshua Nadler, Melissa Ritz, Angela Janas, Darren Krattli, Gerrad Taylor. Photo credit: Devin Pierce Scheef.

The script was an intellectual exploration of physics and philosophy, both challenging and rewarding to follow. While dense with academic and theoretical concepts, it offered equal parts humor and word play.  The audience laughed from the first two minutes of dialogue and continued the positive reaction throughout the show.

The sets and costumes were feasts for the eyes. The set was an open, airy minimalistic design evocative of the period. The costumes were detailed and period-appropriate, right down to the shoes. The clothing was constructed in vibrant colors to support each actor’s character. Props were thoughtfully created, including the large book that was central to the storyline.

The actors breezily conversed in natural-sounding British accents; diction and projection were excellent to a person. The actors made extensive dialogue interesting to the ear by varying pitch, volume and speed appropriately. John Maltese’s vocal expression made even his long passages of technical information easier to grasp and digest.

Body language furthered the character development. Of note, Joshua Nadler’s stiff, affected, uppity movement style visually corroborated his character’s verbal insecure uptightness. Jordan Fenn’s wide-eyed fear clearly expressed his character, without needing words.

Some of the longer dialogue scenes, in which the actors stayed in one position, sitting in chairs around the table, seemed a little static.  Perhaps some movement might give those long minutes of discussion a bit more life.

The only moment when the audience grumbled was when a real cigarette was lit and smoked on stage. Apparently this was bothersome to some of the patrons.

Despite these tiny drawbacks, the acting was excellent, onstage interaction was smooth and entertainingly-presented, production value was high, and the script itself was educational. Certainly a top-notch theatrical production, and a very enjoyable experience. “Arcadia” was another feather in the NCT/UNLV PAC hat.

So, is the big, new, marble performing arts center down the road too expensive, seats too far from the stage, too many balconies, lacking intimacy, not offering all plays you want nor featuring the local talent you want to support? Head to UNLV for everything you’re looking for.

Audience: all ages

Rating: A

UNLV Opera Theatre “Divas”

UNLV Opera Theatre: Haydn's "La Canterina"

Dr. Arturo Rando-Grillot Recital Hall, UNLV 

Nov 18, 2011

Leather pants, face glitter, goth drag and Twitter gags – this is opera? Yes, and hilariously so.

UNLV Department of Music’s updated version of opera paired traditional music and librettos with modernized characters of pop and Las Vegas culture, making centuries-old stories relevant and poignant to today’s audiences.

Starting the program with a contemporary piece from Too Many Sopranos by Edwin Penhorwood, a bevy of elegant ladies in evening gowns graced the glowing wood stage and backdrop of floor-to-ceiling organ pipes.

UNLV Opera Theatre: Penhorwood's "Too Many Sopranos"
UNLV Opera Theatre: Penhorwood's "Too Many Surprises"

Lead singer Nathan Van Arsdale, appearing in drag and sporting a very long, very black wig that gave him a distinctive gothic vibe, wowed the audience with powerful vocal resonance and projection. Tongue-in-cheek delivery made this piece instantly likeable.  If texting had been allowed, messages like “OMG! WTF! opera rox!” would have prevailed.

The second piece, Haydn’s La Canterina, was presented in the original Italian  and in traditional attire (floor-length, frilly dresses for the women, and short pants, white stockings and powdered wigs for the men).  The cast’s vocals were of professional quality – clear, strong, controlled, and soaring.  The pantomime and face-acting by each character told the story quite well, done with perfect drama and subtlety. Libretto translation was projected onto a movie screen that was on the side of the stage.

UNLV Opera Theatre: Haydn's "La Canterina"
UNLV Opera Theatre: Haydn's "La Canterina"

In this comic opera, the duplicitous nature of the characters and the knavery in the story were playfully acted by the cast, evoking much amusement from the audience.  The cast’s  performance made opera accessible and fun.

Jahmaul Bakare, Sheronda McKee, Cecilia Lopez and Kathleen McVicker were riveting to watch and hear. Ms. McKee carried on as a true professional when her skirt tore midway through a scene.  The porters provided comic relief through their bumbling, half-wit characters (one of which, Mr. Van Arsdale, was the previously-seen drag diva).  The quartet and arias were pure pleasures to witness. One felt privy to early performances of future opera greats.

Their voices were commanding, rich and sophisticated.  Piano was the only accompaniment. Pure human singing, unprocessed and unamplified, feels different to our ears; kinder and gentler than amplified musical events, yet more thrilling.

The cast members in the next three pieces, excerpts from Franz Lehar’s The Merry Widow, Victor Herbert’s The Enchantress, and Thomas Pasatieri’s Divas of a Certain Age, displayed various levels of experience and accomplishment.  “We’re the UNLV Divas” was spunky and spirited.  Despite the inconsistencies in the choreography execution and a lack of confidence evident in some ladies, all showed potential for development.  Divas of a Certain Age was well-staged, but the costuming was confusing; the characters were supposedly middle-aged, yet they were attired as college girls.

UNLV Opera Theatre: Mozart's "The Impresario".  Lady Gaga (Erin Kennelly) and her Little Monsters.
UNLV Opera Theatre: Mozart's "The Impresario". Lady Gaga (Erin Kennelly) and her Little Monsters.

The last piece of the evening was the most inventive and delightful.  Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s The Impresario (Der Schauspieldirektor), retained Mozart’s plot line, while substituting modern pop-divas and reality-TV personalities for the original characters.  In music director Linda Lister’s updated version, Steve Wynn (Mr. Van Arsdale) is looking to hire a singer for his newly-acquired Caesar’s properties. He is advised (or ill-advised) by Mike ‘The Situation’ Sorrentino (Brian Myer), and lobbied by Ari Gold (Jonathan Mancheni) to audition Madonna (Isabella Ivy) and Lady Gaga (Erin Kennelly).

UNLV Opera Theatre: Libretto translation projected on a side screen.
UNLV Opera Theatre: Libretto translation projected on a side screen. Text of Mike "The Situation" Sorrentino (Brian Myer) in Mozart's "The Impresario".

The competition between the two divas is fierce; Madonna snipes, “Oh, now Gaga sings opera? Can’t she come up with anything of her own?”; Gaga purrs, “I can sing Mozart in German while tweeting!”.  Dueling arias ensue between Maddie and Gaga, and progress into a rivalrous trio with Gold — an operatic cat fight – while The Situation flashes his six-pack and takes digital photos of the divas, which he shares with ever-amorous groupies.  Wynn quits Caesar’s to start a vegan farm and leaves The Situation in charge of the casino empire. Yoga poses from all participants fail to calm the group, until Gold pleads for harmony.

The vocal performances by all of the featured characters in this Mozart piece were astounding. Ms. Kennelly and Ms. Ivy’s soaring, robust singing was pure greatness. Mr. Mancheni and Mr. Van Arsdale had terrific stage presence. The staging was creative and effective in advancing the story.  Production details, such as Lady Gaga’s backup dancers wearing origami claws and hats, added interesting visual elements. The piece was engaging, invigorating and riotously funny.

UNLV Opera Theatre: Mozart's "The Impresario" Trio.  Lady Gaga, Ari Gold, Madonna.
UNLV Opera Theatre: Mozart's "The Impresario" Trio. Lady Gaga (Kennelly), Ari Gold (Jonathan Mancheni), Madonna (Isabella Ivy).

This evening of opera was inspiring, enjoyable, educational, and memorable. UNLV showed that not only  can it preserve and present the classics, but also update them in a meaningful and entertaining way for today’s audiences.

Event Rating: A

Audience: All Ages