Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Café Variations Presented by ArtsEmerson

Café Variations
Presented by ArtsEmerson
A co-production with Emerson Stage and SITI Company

The Cutler Majestic Theatre

219 Tremont Street, Boston, MA
April 13-April 22
Music and Lyrics by George and Ira Gershwin
Directed by Anne Bogart
Review by Amy R. Tighe
Have you ever wondered what music looks like?  You’ve seen movies with and without scores, and probably listened to concerts.   And you know how music makes you feel.  Triumphant when you hear Chariots of Fire, or beleaguered after any blues song BB ever sang.

But what does a note look like?  Or a chord? Or a well-played and precise bar performed by masters of joy?  Go see Café Variations.  You’ll see.  It’s like walking into a sheet of music that suddenly becomes alive and every note is a miniature Cupid personally inviting you to love again.  Or at least to have coffee while trying.
The pre-performance notices say the show is about the simple act of reaching out to another human in the environment of the café.  I thought of my years as a waitress at my local down and dirty coffee dive, long before the plugged-in, tuned-out generation haunting the Starbuck Factories today, and I was intrigued.  But the café presented here is from the 40’s, with a nightclub feeling during a fast-paced date night.  It starts with a waiter in classic Viennese café attire , who falls in love at first sight and still has to wait tables amongst the throngs of clients clamoring for coffee, cakes, romance and meaning. 

The performance is a collection of musical numbers, written by Ira and George Gershwin, several monologues and sparse, tight dialogue by Charles Mee and precise choreography by Barney O’Hanlon.  The ensemble cast is a mixture of troupes:   the professional SITI troupe from NYC, and newly graduating Emerson students.  Anne Bogart masterminded, nurtured and directed the collaboration between the students and professionals to create a superb and entertaining investigation into and celebration of love.
There isn’t really a plot. It’s more like watching a complicated romp at the café, where keeping score of the various couplings and re-couplings captivates you.  A group of customers  arrive in a cluster of pretty dresses topping vibrant petticoats, outlandish gloves, simple hats and shiny suits. They sit at tables, kiss, slap, or marry and move on.  Moments later, another line of customers arrive, the music changes, they sit, kiss, slap, or marry and move on.  The ensemble becomes a refrain, each performer a bright note and together they create a familiar melody you can’t wait to hear again and maybe you even want to hum along.  Constant motion, chronic mishaps, connection, introspection and accusations between loves all while the head waiter moves tables every few minutes to redesign the stage.   There is a gang war between men and women, moderate occasional cross dressing and a hilarious and explosive break up between two lovers who firmly hold you in the tender clutches of their coffee date.  Then the next refrain arrives, coupling and re-coupling, you see Desire’s tempo, and you step in, ready to accompany it now.

A live orchestra performs flawlessly behind a fountain that keeps changing colors.  For such simple staging, the effects are complex.  Moods shift as effortlessly as the next solo arriving on this jazz train. The music enfolds the actors into its story, and enlists the audience into finding their own. 

This collaboration between a world renowned established and professional troupe and Emerson’s own students just starting out their careers ends the second season of ArtsEmerson.  It’s a stunning example of how ArtsEmerson is bringing innovative, international and essential work within the reach of our local Boston world.  Live.  No You Tube and no instant replays.  Whether the performance takes place at the thoughtfully and attentively restored Paramount, or at the familiar, beloved, velvet worn Cutler Majestic, ArtsEmerson programming always offers  us a place at the table in the café of life where we can sit, sip and muse. Your table is waiting.

Memberships and tickets for next year are available now.

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