The Lambs Meet the Nighthawks at Iguana

Bandleader, Vince Giordano, stops by The Lambs’ table to chat with Jo Marie Triolo (left) and Patti Dey.

[CLICK ANY PHOTO TO ENLARGE]

For members of America’s oldest theatrical club, THE LAMBS (https://the-lambs.org/), the evening would be a highlight of the summer season as members gathered at Manhattan’s chic IGUANA supper club for a night of fine dining, pleasantly accompanied by the big band music of the 1920’s &’30’s as splendidly performed by legendary band leader, Vince Giordano, and his sensational orchestra, The NIGHTHAWKS.

(L-R) Dow Bentley, Rita Hammer & Bob Tevis.

The Honey Taps

Well-known about town, the band has been blowing the roof off of assorted Big Apple venues for many years, but on Monday and Tuesday night’s they perform from 8-11 p.m. for those lucky enough to have reservations at Iguana. Better still, on the third Tuesday of each month, the group is joined by the HONEY TAPS dancers who spice up the evening with several sets of fun-filled and colorful tap dancing that really bring the Jazz Age and the Roaring Twenties to life. The Lambs had the good fortune to be there on just such an evening.

Bob Tevis (left) with Ron and Camille Savitz

(L-R) Guests Mary Ellen McGurty & Sally Bentley enjoy the show with Jo Marie Triolo

With excellent Mexican cuisine and fine dancing, one could hardly go wrong, but it would be the band’s exceptional performance of the many rarely heard vintage jazz selections that would rule the night. A fine musician who has led his band for nearly four decades, Giordano is also a celebrated musical scholar and historian. His vast collection of recordings and sheet music includes over 60,000 period band arrangements reflecting the musical age the Nighthawks bring to life with each performance. No wonder his incredibly talented orchestra was chosen to provide the Grammy award-winning soundtrack for HBO’s classic series, BOARDWALK EMPIRE.

Lambs take to the dance floor.

The Nighthawks’ youngest fan enjoys the music.

The Lambs not only enjoyed the music, fine food and tasty frozen Margaritas from the bar, but many enjoyed getting out on the dance floor to “cut a rug” accompanied by the magnificent sounds of the first-class orchestra.

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TRIXIE MEETS THE TEXANS AT THE LAMBS

(L-R) Joyce “Trixie” Randolph, Bob Pizzitola, David Dow Bentley & Dow Pizzitola

Mingling with the friendly Pub staff.

[Click any photo to enlarge]

It was yet another recent weekly night of “Low Jinks” fun for America’s oldest theatrical club, The Lambs, established in 1874. (https://the-lambs.org/) It had been ten years earlier when your humble correspondent had first invited his best friend and 1960’s University of Texas college buddy, Bob

Ready for fine dining

Pizzitola, to be his guest for that same traditional weekly night of LAMBS frivolity, when members gather for dinner while enjoying spontaneous song performances from their fellow Lambs. On that occasion Bob, a Houston area financial consultant, was delighted to meet Lambs Club favorite, actress

“Big” welcome from Collie, Davida Rothberg

Joyce Randolph, who is perhaps best remembered for her iconic role as Trixie on the ever-popular TV program, “The Honeymooners.”

Lambs’ SCRIPT editor chats with Dow

Joyce graciously consented to be photographed with Bob back in those days when film still had to be developed. Sadly, the resulting picture was so blurred that no one in the photo was recognizable.

Night’s end farewell from Lamb, Vivienne Gilbert and husband Charlie

Bob’s disappointment lingered for a decade until a New York business trip brought him, and his handsome son and business partner, Dow Pizzitola, back from Texas several weeks ago. At that time, on a pleasant summer evening, The People’s Critic was proud to once again be host for a return visit to The Lambs, this time joined as well by his namesake, Dow. As luck would have it, Lambs Club regular, Miss Randolph, was again on hand and cheerfully willing to try again with the elusive photo. The result brought smiles all around.

Then the threesome was off to preview an upcoming Lambs big band event featuring Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks at the Iguana Supper Club

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SUTTON FOSTER Highlights Caramoor Summer Festival

It was my first visit to the elegant estate of CARAMOOR. This legacy of the original owners, Walter & Lucie Rosen, became what is now the Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts near Katonah, New York. Just an hour and a half from The Big Apple, the estate and its beautiful home now serve as a live music venue offering symphonic, opera, chamber, American roots, and jazz performances, in addition to various educational programs. So it was that I came to sample the Caramoor Summer Music Festival, on a soft, warm evening that many of the estate staff told me was the loveliest night of the season.

SUTTON FOSTER
Photo: Courtesy of http://www.suttonfoster.com

The featured artist for the performance I attended was multi-talented Broadway star, Sutton Foster. Renowned for her Tony Award-winning triumphs in Anything Goes and Thoroughly Modern Millie, she also originated roles in the premiere productions of Little Women, Young Frankenstein, The Drowsy Chaperone, and Shrek The Musical. Already well-known to audiences at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center, her Caramoor program titled, An Evening with Sutton Foster, was a generous serving of Broadway musical hits, along with many memorable tunes from The Great American Songbook.

Under the soft, and ever-changing pastel lighting of Caramoor’s Venetian Theatre, the star set the tone for the evening, opening with a joyous rendition of Rogers & Hammerstein’s “A Cockeyed Optimist” that quickly displayed both the crisp clarity of her voice, and her considerable gifts as a vocal storyteller. Those gifts would be evident throughout the performance. There was a pure, clean delivery of Sondheim’s “Everybody Says Don’t,” from Anyone Can Whistle, and her rendition of “N.Y.C.” from Annie could have etched fine crystal. Always there was an intimate connection with the appreciative audience, paired with a splendid and theatrical sense of movement on the stage accented by the smooth gestures of the attractive singer’s slender arms. Clearly, this actress was a pro very much at ease on the stage. Promising the crowd a night of “new songs, old favorites and a few surprises,” she quickly launched into a warm and embracing, “The Nearness of You,” that seemed gently whimsical.

There was a jazzy transition for the amusing song, “Air Conditioner,” describing a gal with just one requirement of her summer lovers. The audience howled with delight. Next, with story-telling mastery in every syllable, she would glide through, “I Get a Kick Out of You,” from her Broadway triumph in Anything Goes. There was coy fun from Sondheim’s, “Don’t Look at Me,” and then a gentle, blissful and dreamlike love story during Cole Porter’s, “C’est Magnifique.” Miss Sutton’s onstage trio complemented every number without ever overwhelming the gifted vocalist. The perky, “Up on the Roof,” was nicely sprinkled with delicate accents on guitar (Kevin Kuhn), bass (Leo Huppert), and piano (Music Director, Michael Rafter). There was a glowing, “If I Were a Bell,” and her joyous “Singin’ in the Rain,” could easily rival that of Debbie Reynolds. And there was still more comic relief when Sutton sang about believing, “The Lies of Handsome Men.” She would demonstrate cheerful skill on ukulele for “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” and then shift gears amazingly for a sassy and lashing, “Down with Men.”

In keeping with her promise of “a few surprises,” Miss Sutton brought onstage her “best friend,” singer, Megan McGinnis. The two met when they originated the roles of Jo and Beth (respectively) for the 2005 Broadway musical, Little Women. On this occasion the pair blended their voices beautifully for several numbers, culminating in the skillful counterpoints of a magnificent acapella duet of Simon & Garfunkel’s classic, “Old Friends.” The audience roared its approval. I would like to do the same.

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GATLIN BROTHERS Concert to Benefit Hurricane Harvey Victims

Larry Gatlin & The Gatlin Brothers Band
Courtesy Photo

It has been more than a decade since my first enthusiastic comments about Houston’s multi-talented actor/singer/director, Steven Fenley, and the treasured Texas Repertory Theatre for which he would play such an important part. He would ultimately serve as Texas Rep’s Artistic Director for many years, before the Houston Chronicle announced the demise of the much-loved company in August of 2016. But there is doubly-good news for Houston now as Fenley not only launches his new non-profit theatrical company, Red Bird Productions, but does so with a special event to benefit the many victims of Hurricane Harvey.

Red Bird Productions is proud to announce its inaugural event, a recovery benefit concert for those hit hardest by hurricane Harvey. The show will be presented on Sunday, October 8th at 4:00pm, and will feature Grammy Award-winning musical artists, Larry Gatlin & the Gatlin Brothers Band.

Over 50 years ago Larry, Steve, and Rudy Gatlin started singing together in their hometown of Abilene, Texas, and from those humble beginnings they went on to make musical history that has often landed them at the top of the country music charts. The group’s four-decade career has taken The Gatlin Brothers from dusty Texas Stages to White House performances, from Broadway to the Grammy Awards, and always there has been one unifying element…music.

Now these legendary performers come to Houston’s Great Northwest to share their uniquely harmonic vocal style during a concert to benefit the Hurricane Harvey recovery efforts. Appearing in concert at Klein Cain High School’s brand new theater, The Gatlin Brothers will bring to the stage their patriotic and family-friendly brand of country and inspirational music with a special celebration of not only one of country music’s most beloved and harmonic families, but also of the character and spirit of one of Texas’ and America’s greatest cities.

Seating is reserved and tickets range from $45 to $85. Reserve tickets at http://www.redbirdproductions.org or call the box office at 281-583-7575.

The columns of David Dow Bentley III have appeared on Broadway websites, in newspapers from the East Coast to the Gulf Coast, and may be viewed online at the website: www.ThePeoplesCritic.com

E-mail may be directed to ThePeoplesCritic@earthlink.net

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Theatrical Whirlwind for ATCA San Francisco

SAN FRANCISCO BAY
as viewed from the Hilton Union Square
PHOTO: ThePeoplesCritic.com

[Click any photo to enlarge]

#ATCASF17         For members of the American Theatre Critics Association, (AMERICANTHEATRECRITICS.ORG) their recent national conference was a late-spring week overflowing with the delights of the San Francisco theatre scene. The annual convocation moves around the country from city to city.

Robert Sokol

This year’s choice of the City by the Bay was a major hit with all attendees, and won universal praise for the group’s Operations Manager, Robert Sokol, who had able assistance with the countless conference details from ATCA Executive Committee Chairman, Bill Hirschman, and members, Susan Cohn and Brad Hathaway. The San Francisco Hilton at Union Square served as the splendid headquarters, while members branched out to countless area theatrical venues and performances, which on the first day alone included, Grandeur (Magic Theatre), How to be a White Man (FaultLine Theatre), Kano and Abe (PlayGround), Shortlived VI: Round 1 (PianoFight), Sordid Lives and Warplay (both at New Conservatory Theatre Center), Sex and the City Live! (Oasis Theatre), and Kurt Vonnegut’s Mother Night (Custom Made Theatre). There was also a World Premiere of Christopher Chen’s new play, You Mean To Do Me Harm at the Sandbox Theatre of the San Francisco Playhouse (SFPLAYHOUSE.ORG). Crisply directed in theater-in the-round style by Bill English, and staged in the spacious, high-ceilinged cubicle space of the Sandbox, this intriguing drama for four players (James Asher, Lauren English, Don Castro & Charisse Loriaux), begins innocently enough as two young couples chat while sharing a bottle of wine. But the plot twists and relationships build in intensity from scene to scene, as one off-hand remark generates a succession of misunderstandings that make for compelling theatre from these four fine actors. Subtle lighting from designer, Wolfgang Lancelot Wachalovsky, provides fine scene transitions, and can even magically turn beds of woodchips into lush green lawns. It’s a thought-provoking production. There was similar intrigue from the San Francisco Playhouse production of Jen Silverman’s new play, The Roommate. Coyly directed by Becca Wolff, a prevailing air of mystery develops when Sharon (Susi Damilano), a middle-aged woman in Iowa, advertises a room for rent in her suburban home. Butch and free-thinking Robyn (Julia Brothers) answers the ad and moves in. She’s a gentle, gay, pot-smoking vegan who brings her own pots and pans and presents plenty of challenges to this simple Iowa homeowner during this attention-grabbing, seriocomic one-acter.

Between productions, ATCA  members enjoyed informative workshops and panel discussions that featured such notables from the theatre world as the aforementioned Mr. English, Artistic Director of San Francisco Playhouse, and Amy Mueller, Artistic Director of Playwrights Foundation (playwrightsfoundation.org). Also featured were Bay area critics, Robert Hurwitt & Lily Janiak, as well as local playwrights, Stuart Bousel, Christopher Chen, Lauren M. Gunderson, Aaron Loeb, and Michael Gene Sullivan. Another series of popular presentations focused on how critics can expand their audience by mixing, “Theatre + Travel.” A “Theatre Design” workshop was of special interest with a panel of experts that included, Nina Ball (Scenic Design), Abra Berman (Costume Design), Cliff Caruthers (Sound Design), Sean Kana (Music Direction), York Kennedy (Lighting Design), Kimberly Richards (Choreography), Jacqueline Scott (Properties Design), and Wolfgang Lancelot Wachalovsky (Projection Design).

 

Grand Lobby of the Fox Theatre, Redwood City, CA
PHOTO by Sara Ann

With all of that, the focus continued to be on area performances as various members attended A Night with Janis Joplin (American Conservatory Theater), Brownsville Song (ShotgunPlayers.Org – Berkeley), and Monsoon Wedding (BerkeleyRep.Org). There were adventurous out-of-town pilgrimages that took the members to see the Palo Alto Players (paplayers.org) in a performance of The Graduate, and to the magnificent Fox Theatre in Redwood City, where the Broadway By the Bay Players (broadwaybythebay.org) presented a joyous rendition of the rollicking Stoller & Leiber musical, Smokey Joe’s Café.

Perhaps the group’s most satisfying journey was the trip out to the California Shakespeare Theatre in Orinda (calshakes.org) where they enjoyed theatre under the stars in the amphitheater for a merry production of Shakespeare’s As You Like It. Prior to the show the guests were treated to an informative panel titled, “Re-Viewing Shakespeare: The Second 400 Years.” Moderated by the company’s resident dramaturg, Dr. Philippa Kelly, the panel featured artistic directors of Bard-centric companies including William J. Brown III (Arabian Shakespeare Festival- arabianshakes.org), L. Peter Callender (African-American Shakespeare Company – african-americanshakes.org), Lesley Shisgall Currier (Marin Shakespeare Company – marinshakespeare.org), Rebecca Ennals (San Francisco Shakespeare Festival – sfshakes.org), and Eric Ting, the artistic director there at the California Shakespeare Theater. If those informative discussions were not enough to delight the assembled critics, there was a lovely hillside picnic supper provided in the Upper Grove above the amphitheater. It was a night to remember, even before the talented cast took to the stage for a fine performance of As You Like It, directed by Desdemona Chiang.

An added and very delightful surprise for this critics’ caravan was a fascinating day trip to tour the facilities of the renowned TheaterWorks company in Redwood, CA. (theatreworks.org). The organization was founded in 1970 by its creative Artistic Director, Robert Kelly, as a theatre workshop for college students and teens. Guests were generously treated to both breakfast and lunch. In between, the visitors were courteously toured around the amazingly vast home of this prestigious American theatre group that has produced such successes as the Tony Award-winning musical, Memphis. The company may very well be on its way to yet another triumph. Following introductory remarks from Mr. Kelly there was a preview presentation from the forthcoming musical, THE FOUR IMMIGRANTS An American Musical Manga, with Book, Music, & Lyrics by Min Kahng, and directed by Leslie Martinson. Set at the turn of the last century, the work is billed as, “…the adventures of four endearing Japanese immigrants in a world of possibility and prejudice.”

Cast of THE FOUR IMMIGRANTS
Photo by ThePeoplesCritic.com

With considerable esprit de corps, a youthful and vocally talented group of eight (4 guys and 4 gals) provided this energetic sampling of the lusty, joyful and appealing musical score, which seemed to be endearing as well. Both the opening number, “Meet the Four Immigrants,” and the closing reprise of “We’re the Four Immigrants,” had a captivating  quality that easily called to mind the infectious sounds of the earlier musical, Ragtime. If this is a hint of what lies ahead in full production, there is much to look forward to.

Finally, while theatre is definitely serious business for the hard-working journalists of ATCA, that did not preclude enjoying some of the lighthearted fun abundant in San Francisco. Perhaps the best example of that was found by members who enjoyed the absolute hilarity and campy fun of Steve Silver’s Beach Blanket Babylon, which claims to be “…the longest running musical revue in American history.” With one uproariously lavish musical number after another (and the colorfully outlandish costumes and HATS to match), the show is great fun from start to finish with delicious satire abundant. Don’t miss it when you’re in town. (beachblanketbabylon.com)

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A Breathtaking WEST SIDE STORY Dances Into the Owen Theatre

Cara Cavenaugh Woodward as Maria and Jordie Viscarri as Tony, in the Owen Theatre’s WEST SIDE STORY

All Photos by DigiSmiles Photography

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Something quite remarkable is happening at the Owen Theatre in Conroe, Texas. For those within the sound of my journalistic voice, I would recommend obtaining tickets to the Players Theatre Company’s splendid production of WEST SIDE STORY before the word-of-mouth results in an inevitable sellout for the entire run. It was already a full house on the recent night of my attendance, and I can readily understand why. With its exquisite music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and solid book by Arthur Laurents, this classic American musical of course needs little introduction. But in this case it has become a polished gem in the skilled hands of director, Mary Yost, and choreographer, Melody Johnson. The pair was triumphant with The Players’ 2015 production of Bye Bye Birdie, and what they have achieved here, with this talented local cast and crew of nearly four dozen, is nothing short of miraculous.

The familiar, and ultimately tragic plot, surrounds the clashes between two 1950’s neighborhood teenage gangs in Manhattan, the Puerto Rican Sharks, and their white rivals, The Jets. The simple and very functional set design of Roger Ormiston suggests a ghetto neighborhood with no shortage of graffiti, and quickly converts to depict a street, backyard, gymnasium, bridal shop, bedroom or drugstore. The sometimes shadowy, sometimes electrifying lighting designs of Mr. Ormiston enhance each scene. Two theatrical elements stand out in making this a must-see production. First, the dancing of this energetic young cast is simply amazing. One can only wonder how many hours of rehearsal were required to achieve the brilliantly designed and synchronized numbers that have a professional polish one might not expect from a community theatre. That is apparent from the very first scene with the well-staged and acrobatic street fighting of the Sharks, led by Bernardo (Sean Ari DeLeon), and the Jets, led by Riff (Austin Colburn). Mr. Colburn leads “The Jet Song,” with a commanding high energy nicely echoed by the ensemble.

The second element that takes this production to levels of truly memorable excellence is the outstanding vocal talent of co-stars, Jordie Viscarri as Tony, and the very beautiful Cara Cavenaugh Woodward as Maria. Tony and Maria are the story’s star-crossed lovers, based on an idea of the show’s original choreographer, Jerome Robbins, and inspired by Shakespeare’s tale of Romeo and Juliet. We first hear Mr. Viscarri’s fine voice as he beautifully performs Tony’s song full of youthful and eager anticipation, “Something’s Coming.” The fine staging has that scene quickly dissolve into the whirling choreography of the colorful, “Dance in the Gym,” highlighted by lovely costumes for the ladies designed by director, Yost. The intricately woven patterns of the Mambo dancing are amazing to behold. It gently evolves into a sweet first-encounter ballet between Tony and Maria that is playfully elegant. But racial hatreds begin causing trouble when Maria’s brother, Bernardo, lashes out at Jet member, Tony, for dancing with his sister. When smooth-voiced Mr. Viscarri sings a warm and mellow, “Maria,” it is clear how he was selected for this leading role. The fire escape love duet that follows for Tony and Maria is clearly tipping its hat to Romeo and Juliet, and we find ourselves falling in love with this couple. Meanwhile, in one musical number after another, vocal director, Robert Lewis, has also drawn vocal excellence from his large ensemble cast, making this show a joy to the ear as well as the eye. That excellence is readily apparent as Bernardo’s girlfriend, Anita (Caylin Keliehor) and her friend, Rosalia (Kathleen Baker) lead the Shark Girls in the sensual rhythms and lively antics of the amusing song, “America.” The guys soon have their turn as Riff leads them in the slick and complex dance moves of, “Cool.”

There are more delights from this huge cast that include a guest performance of the song, “Somewhere,” by Christina Haynes, and supporting roles for Gabriel De la Fuente as Chino, Marc Wilson as drugstore owner, Doc, David Herman as the suspicious Lt. Schrank, Steve Murphree as the bumbling Officer Krupke, and Jason Ohn as Glad Hand. But before Act One is over the audience is transported heavenward by Tony and Maria’s imagined wedding scene during the beautiful, “One Hand, One Heart.” If that is not enough bliss, the couple follows with the exquisite counterpoints of a superb, “Tonight,” before a dramatically staged gang rumble hints of the troubles that lay ahead in Act Two. For those details you will need to buy a ticket, and I suggest you do it soon. They are going fast!

 

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From Houston Ballet: A MADAME BUTTERFLY of Tragedy and Grace

[All photos courtesy of Houston Ballet. Photographer: Amitava Sarkar]

Whenever I am privileged to report on an important ballet performance, I am reminded of a tender lyric in the legendary Broadway musical, A Chorus Line. It reminds us that “Everything is beautiful, ‘At the Ballet.’” In a free performance sponsored by the Wortham Foundation, last weekend’s exquisite Houston Ballet production of MADAME BUTTERFLY at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion was beautiful indeed. But behind that beauty lay the ultimate tragedy of composer Giacomo Puccini’s heart-wrenching tale for his famed opera of the same name. Here, in choreographer Stanton Welch’s stunning production, that rich Puccini score (arrangement by John Lanchbery) is magnificently performed by the Houston Ballet Orchestra, with Ermanno Florio conducting.

The tragic plot is set on a hilltop in 19th century Japan that overlooks the harbor below. Lt. Pinkerton (Linnar Looris) is a U.S. Naval officer stationed there. He is about to take as his bride 15-year old Cio-Cio San, a Japanese geisha known as Madame Butterfly (Melody Mennite). The wedding is being arranged by the local marriage broker, Goro (Oliver Halkowich). The dark set (scenic & costume designer, Peter Farmer) hints of the dark events that loom ahead, while elegantly depicting the traditional Japanese house where Pinkerton is to live with his new wife. Mr. Farmer’s beautiful period costume designs are elegant as well. While the minimal and colorless set design seemed a bit ominous at first, it took on the antique look of a rich bronze etching as the dancing proceeded to decorate each scene. On a soft spring evening in Texas, the sublime and sweeping Puccini score was a heavenly accent to the welcoming fan dance of the geishas in a rising mist. The bride-to-be arrives, and her delicate beauty is quickly surrounded by the gentle undulations of the ensemble dancing. There were acrobatic leaps during the dramatic marriage contract ceremony, and joyous dancing from the bride following the contract signing. The hypnotic grace of that joy is short-lived with the fierce arrival of Butterfly’s uncle, The Bonze (Brian Waldrep). He is in a rage having learned that Butterfly, in an attempt to please her new husband, has abandoned the faith of their ancestors and converted to Christianity. The scene is fraught with tension, but things calm down during Mr. Looris’ graceful performance of Pinkerton’s solo. Soon, the blissful bride and groom share their first shy embraces, beautifully accompanied by the orchestral rapture of the Houston Ballet Orchestra as they dance an erotic and wonderfully extended pas de deux on their sensual first night in the new home.

As Act Two opens, several years have passed during Pinkerton’s visit to America. There, ignoring the warnings of his friend, Sharpless, the U.S. Consul to Nagasaki (Jared Matthews), the unfaithful lieutenant has married his American fiancée, Kate (Katherine Precourt). Meanwhile, there is an air of excited anticipation as his unsuspecting Butterfly awaits his return to Japan. Charming dances that follow seem to match the golden glow of the Japanese lanterns that light the scene (Lighting Designer, Lisa J. Pinkham). Butterfly’s joy at his return floats her heavenward amid the glorious and whirling lifts executed by the dancers. Even the well-staged and misty arrival of Pinkerton’s ship in the harbor seems to float in a magical world of its own. Alas, troubling revelations abound as it is learned that Pinkerton has taken a new wife, while devoted Butterfly was back in Japan raising their young son. Compounding these sad circumstances, Pinkerton and Kate have come seeking adoption of the boy for themselves. It is all too much for Butterfly. The poignant final embrace of her son before surrendering him is a heartbreaking moment that pales in comparison to her tragic suicide moments later when she uses the same ceremonial sword with which her father had taken his own life years before. Thank goodness for the athletic and visual joys of the corps de ballet, and the musical delights of Puccini from this superb orchestra. Barring all of that, this tragic tale would have been too much to bear.

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