Reprinted from yesterday's late editions.
When the original seems inevitable, you can be fairly certain you are onto something special. This is true with "Nightclub Cantata," a musical opening Arena Stage's season with a run in the Kreeger Theater through Nov. 20.
Originally introduced by New York's Lenox Arts Center, it was "conceived, composed and directed by Elizabeth Swados." whose scores have ranged from Cafe La Mama to Lincoln Center in the past several years. Her own description of he work fits: "the wish to survive by being aware and awake: by exploring and feeling as many of the things which are around as possible . . . survival by living . . . really living."
Swados draws on the words of Turkey's Nazzim Hikmet. Chile's Pablo Neruda, Israel's David Avida, England's Brian Patton and such Americans as Sylvia Plath, Frank O'Hara, Eve Merriam, Delmore Schwartz and Muriel Rukeyser.
Her music for piano, percussion and voices suggests as many styles as the poets who have intrigued her, ranging from the churchly chants suggested by "cantat" to country rock, reggae, rhumba and sounds heard from forest birds. With the nine performers barefooted (except for the two instrumentalists), in trousers and T-shirts, informality and total simplicity is Swados' key.
Essentially, though couched in a dazzling word display, the poetic thoughts area those of Norman Rockwell posters, clean, even simpleminded, and nicely summed up in Hikmet's finale:
"However and wherever we are
We must live as if one never dies."
The philosophies, them, are not new, but dressed up to seem that way and basically as American as apple pie. In other guise and to some they'd even seem corny.
With less disciplined, articulate performers I'm fearful how "Nightclub Cantata" would play. As it is, the company, which has just completed a Boston visit after its New York run, is remarkable for precision. In what amounts to a Nigara of words I don't think I missed a one, even in the speedy, almost patter-style fashion or their delivery. Having lately been subjected to some miserable stage diction, it was a joy last night to hear each word clipped clearly and with meaning. My only regret lay in some pronunctions: "guar-UN-tee" for guaranty and "Ian-GUIDGE" for language. BuT, what can one expect from New Yorkers?
Karen Evans as Plath's Applicant and Jossie DeGuzman's use of Swdos' words in "Are You With Me?" are especially stricking as is the company in Patton's "Albatross Ramble," most ingeniously staged. To have two ventriloquists with two dummies somehow how makes that turn twice as amusing.
Surprise and pacing also are vital. With the moods shifting from the sounds of birds and JoAnna Peled's heartbreak for Carson McCullers. "The Ballad of the Sad Cafe," it's rather a switch to have the men. Rocky Greenberg, Paul Kandel, David Schechter and Mark Zagaeski, come on as cartoon figures, the Pastrami Brothers, who do tumbling tricks that don't happen.
Were I do revisit this little musical. I think I easily could listen solely to the piano of Judith Fleisher and the percussion of David Sawyer. Here the subtle simplicity of the rhythms serves not merely as the songs' foundation but as solo instruments with vocal accompaniments.
Running slightly under 90 minutes, "Nightclub Cantata" makes for a different kind of opening to Arena's season. Slight as it is, I found the evening rather like a party with exotic hors d'ocuvres before the major courses ahead.