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1999 on Stage

Death of a Salesman
[Photo by Eric Y. Exit]

By JOHN FLEMING, Times Performing Arts Critic

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 24, 1999

Rediscovering the creative genius that is Arthur Miller proves most satisfying - here and on Broadway.

The highlight of the performing arts in 1999 came from an American playwright whose most acclaimed work is 50 years old. Even though he has continued to be a productive writer, his viewpoint went out of fashion in the 1960s. Many a regular theatergoer would be hard-pressed to name any of his latest plays.

But then came this year fraught with millennial significance, and all of a sudden Arthur Miller was back in the forefront of American theater.

maskFirst, there was the 50th anniversary revival of Death of a Salesman on Broadway, with Brian Dennehy playing Miller's hail-fellow-well-met drummer on the verge of a breakdown, Willy Loman.

For me, Salesman on Broadway was the first half of a one-two punch that drove home the importance of Miller, whom, I must admit, I had tended to take for granted as the stuff of high school English class. The clincher was American Stage's production of another, less well-known Miller play from 1968, The Price.

American Stage and its artistic director, Kenneth Mitchell, deserved credit for prescient programming of Miller's psychodrama of brother-brother and father-son conflict (The Price was also revived on Broadway). Victoria Holloway's impeccable staging of this flawed play had rare power in the theater's intimate dimensions.

Another sign of Miller's renewed popularity was William Bolcom's opera adapted from A View from the Bridge, which had a successful premiere in Chicago.

The 84-year-old Miller is still writing and involved in productions of his work, and the theater world is eager to honor him while he's still around to make an acceptance speech or take a curtain bow. But there is more to his return to center stage in the '90s than mere ceremony.

First and foremost, Miller is a serious thinker of the kind sorely lacking in present-day popular theater. He is cut from the same block of granite as Ibsen and Brecht and Shaw. His brand of bedrock moral conviction, honed in a young adulthood radically impacted by the Depression, seems almost quaint in our gilded age of entertainment and celebrity (a topic on which Miller can speak with authority, having been a husband of Marilyn Monroe). But in a biblical kind of way, it is more necessary than ever.

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His themes are daring, even surreal, as in the treatment of time in both Death of a Salesman and The Price. Dennehy's Willy was a remarkable mix of blarney and fragility, a bull of a man coming apart at the seams. His concept of time flickered between fantasy and reality. In one moment, he would be raging at his wife, Linda, over a payment due on the family fridge; in the next, he would be hallucinating about his brother Ben who walked into the African jungle and four years later walked out a rich man.

The Price was almost entirely about the fleeting passage of time, despite its story about estranged brothers haunted by their dead father. When Victor and Walter Franz -- a cop and a surgeon played by David Vining and Kim Bennett, respectively -- meet to sell off their father's possessions, they erupt in an angry bout of truth-telling that goes on too long in the manner of many a family fight from the '60s. But the play is salvaged by Victor's wife, Esther (Elizabeth Dimon), who sounds the trademark Miller theme with her meditations on the unreality of time.

It's interesting how the women in Miller's plays came to the fore this year. At American Stage, Dimon's poignant portrayal of Esther shifted the spotlight away from the jousting of the brothers. In a similar way, Elizabeth Franz brought surprising strength to her role as Linda Loman, usually played as a passive enabler to her husband, in Salesman on Broadway.

Who would have ever dreamed that the work of Miller -- the most masculine of playwrights -- would accommodate such deft feminist reinterpretations?

Let's hope Miller time isn't limited to revivals of the classics. Now it would be great to see one of his recent plays such as The Ride Down Mt. Morgan or Broken Glass.

* * *

Here are other performances I enjoyed in 1999, listed in the order they occurred.

BEST HAPPENING: Frank Zappa put the Florida Orchestra on the map. The orchestra played six symphonic pieces by the rock 'n' roller who championed Varese in a sold-out concert with Bogus Pomp, a band devoted to Zappa's music. For someone who loves both rock and classical music, it was a moving, memorable experience.

BEST TOUR: It wasn't a very good year for Broadway on the road, except for Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk. For all its flash and dazzle, the most interesting thing about the show was how it told the complex history of black America through the medium of tap dance. The tapping in Noise/Funk had the nuance and range of jazz.

BEST MUSICAL: Gorilla Theatre can be a frustrating theater, with its misguided focus on plays by founders Aubrey Hampton and Susan Hussey, but its production of William Finn's Falsettos was a treat. Any show that can tie together baseball, bar mitzvahs, gay liberation and parenthood into a seamless package deserves to be ranked among the great American musicals.

BEST OPERA: The Kurt Weill (1900-1950) centenary season was kicked off by the U.S. premiere of Die Burgschaft (The Pledge) at Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, S.C. The score is more oratorio than opera, and the Spoleto staging bogged down in the second act, but Weill's music never wavered, with the bracing strain of jazz, austere classicism and Tin Pan Alley harmonies that was his trademark.

BEST SCHLOCK: Sarah Brightman's concert opened with chorus boys in monk's robes, holding up candles as they made their way onstage. There, surrounded by blood-red drapery, Brightman was supine on a platform. Later, when she did her Salome number, the chorus assumed poses of submission.

BEST STANDARD: One of the things a great orchestra brings to the standard repertoire is an institutional memory. The London Symphony Orchestra has played The Firebird under many notable Stravinsky interpreters, including the composer himself. At Daytona Beach's Florida International Festival, the LSO performance was one for the memory book. Conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier paced the concert suite from Stravinsky's ballet with shrewd patience, letting it build slowly and then suddenly erupt in the shattering brass and percussion of The Infernal Dance. When the savagery of that movement swiftly segued into the delicate Lullaby, it was as if the orchestra had turned on a dime.

BEST SOLO: Lily Tomlin reprised The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, her one-woman show from the 1980s. At 60, she is still a wonderfully limber chameleon of a performer, flickering in and out of character with a subtle shift of gaze, the adoption of an accent or a change in body language. The labyrinthine complexity of Jane Wagner's script had audience members making connections long after the curtain came down.

BEST PIANISSIMO: The Master Chorale made a perfect -- and perfectly soft -- entrance in the a cappella chorus in the last movement of the Florida Orchestra performance of Mahler's mighty Resurrection Symphony. The 125-voice chorus remained seated on the risers in order to avoid creating a distraction by standing up.

BEST ENCORE: After a rousing performance of Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 with the Florida Orchestra, Jon Kimura Parker came back onstage to kick out the jams with Billy Joel's boogie-woogie Scenes from an Italian Restaurant.

BEST FEAT/FEET: Scott Kluksdahl played Bach's six solo cello suites in a recital with an imaginative twist: A group of dancers performed, and the cellist played barefoot. But the dancers seemed superfluous in the end. Their choreography couldn't compare with the mental images summoned up by Kluksdahl's virtuosic marathon performance.

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