THE BLOG
01/30/2013 04:53 pm ET Updated Apr 01, 2013

First Nighter: Michael Mayer's Rigoletto , Barry Manilow's Manilow on Broadway Do Vegas, Prove the House Doesn't Always Win

Just like the Dennis Quaid-Michael Chiklis CBS television series Vegas, Michael Mayer's new Rigoletto at the Metropolitan Opera House is set in the storied gambling town during 1960 -- and for some of the same reasons. Corruption is one and vendetta another, both of which, no one will dispute, serve as persuasive links between the growing Nevada destination and the opera placed in 16th-century Mantua but only after Giuseppe Verdi and librettist Francesco Maria Piave pulled off some politically-oriented reshuffling of Victor Hugo's Le Roi s'amuse.

Of course, corruption and vendetta serve as persuasive links between 16th-century Italy and any age. So the question is how well does Mayer succeed with his transplanting. The answer will be offered further down in order to establish right off that what many would argue is the composer's most thrilling work -- the one that made him an indelible mark on the musical map -- is being sung surpassingly well.

Under Michele Mariotti's swoony conducting on opening night (but did he mute the orchestra unusually in early scenes?), the ensemble included Diana Damrau as Gilda and delivering a sublime "Caro nome," Zeljko Lucic as the title's wronged and wronging court jester (despite the occasional pitch glitch), the debuting Robert Pomakov as an Arab-prince Monterone, Stefan Kocan as a hitman Sparafucile, Oksana Volkova as Sparafucile's now hooker sister.

Equaling their forcible yet silken warbling, Piotr Beczala as the Duke benefits most from Mayer's vision. Arriving in costumer Susan Hilferty's white formal-wear -- to contrast with a chorus in mix-and-match plaid tuxedo jackets -- he's handed a mic. Immediately, he sings "Questa o quella," as if he's Frank Sinatra crooning "Gotta Be This or That." In the final act, when a pole-dancer has vacated her spot, he swings around the pole with great glee while chirping "La donna é mobile."

If it were only for the opportunity that pole presents, Mayer's Las Vegas notion would be worth the venue change. And his staging of the act's supernal quartet on Christine Jones's design for the act -- which features a car the dying Gilda will learn about -- is beautifully carried out.

Otherwise, the conceit has its positive and negatives. No denying that when the show curtain rises, the casino with its one craps table and upstage wall of eye-catching neon signs is impressive. The indication is that this is only the beginning of tricks Jones and lighting designer Kevin Adams have up their sleeves. Only it isn't -- a letdown, particularly when much of the act involving Rigoletto and Gilda is played before something resembling a wine rack for giants that's been dropped from the fly loft.

For his own Met debut, Mayer has brought along the creative team he used for the Tony-winning Spring Awakening and most of those for American Idiot, both of which enterprises were raucous aurally and visually. It's not surprising he gets the same laugh when the Duke accepts the mic as he got when the late 19th-century Spring Awakening students pulled out their mics. Choreographer Steven Hoggett reaps the same response when he surrounds the Duke with feather-fan-waving showgirls as Bob Fosse received for Chicago's fan-encircled Billy Flynn.

There is one decidedly amusing twist to the Vegas Rigoletto. It's what Michael Panayos and Paul Cremo do tweaking the translation. Suddenly, we read remarks like "your movie-star looks" and "She's knock-out" and a reference to a "dreamboat." Did anyone still say "dreamboat" in 1960? Does it matter? It's not always you hear audiences chuckling at the Met titles they're reading.

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And speaking of Las Vegas: Although he calls it Manilow on Broadway, hit-making Barry Manilow has brought a Vegas show to his hometown and more specifically, to the St. James. Needless to say, he's following in the steps of entertainers like, most recently, Hugh Jackman.

I hope nobody gets the wrong idea about anything mentioned further down, because I'm a longtime Barry Manilow fan -- and that means before he played piano behind Bette Midler at the Continental Baths and Manhattan's Downstairs at the Upstairs. When I first encountered him, he was the male half of a Downstairs team with Jeannie Lucas as the female half.

Therefore, I was already on his side circa 1970 when he hadn't written many (any?) of the inspired power ballads that began hitting the charts circa 1975 and continued barraging eardrums and wallets for the next couple decades. The only song I knew he'd written back then was "I Am Your Child," on which he'd often solo when in the middle of Midler's act, she requested it. As Manilovers know, he did include the haunting tune on his first album.

Now here he is out from behind the spinet he plunked in those days, reprising with a rousing rock band what seems like all those steel-strength ditties (what, no "Weekend in New England"?) for fans who discovered him after I did.

For his generosity, he deserves thanks. He deserves even more thanks after fighting off a case of bronchitis that forced him to cancel several performances and compounded his basic condition with, as he phrased it, "Jewish guilt" for setting in motion all sorts of date changes.

However -- and it's a big however -- he may have resumed singing too soon, for although he got through everything, his voice was hit-and-miss. At one point on opening night, he cracked about "croaking" a number. Moreover, for reasons he'll have to explain himself, he seems to be having the trouble moving his facial muscles. He bops through his royalty-heavy repertoire with an unchanging grin, thereby giving new meaning to "I Can't Smile Without You. By the way, "bops" may be the wrong verb, since -- while peppy Kye Brackett and Sharon Washington jived behind or alongside him -- he moved robotically throughout.

As a result, the package, loud and enhanced by many projections (no lack of footage showing him as he looked back then) wasn't the barrel of fun this pre-1975 aficionado hoped it would be. Not, I hasten to mention, that a single post-1975 fan cared in the least.

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