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Songstress Migenes and ‘Debussy: His Letters and His Music’ at the Odyssey

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Please believe me when I tell you that Julia Migenes is an amazingly talented performer.

She originated the role of Hodel in Fiddler on the Roof playing opposite the legendary Zero Mostel.  She sang in La Bohème. Mahagonny and other classics at the Metropolitan Opera, and starred in the film Carmen by Francesco Rosi, with Plácido Domingo the soundtrack of which won a Grammy.

Her one woman show currently at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, Debussy: His Letters and His Music, is directed by Peter Medak, who was nominated for a Best Director Academy for The Ruling Class (1972), based on the comic masterpiece by playwright Peter Barnes and staring Peter O’Toole in one of the greatest (albeit odd) film performances of all time. ◊

What I’m trying to say is that this show has a lot going for it.

Unfortunately wherever it’s gone, it wasn’t to the Odyssey.

The trouble with this production can be summed up as too many letters, not enough music.

Manuel Arellano is a superb accompanist for Migenes on the piano, but he’s given meager opportunities to do so.  During the show’s ninety minutes Migenes sings three selections, which prove inadequate as well as disappointing.

Perhaps she could have pulled it off if those three occasions had served as eyes of the storms counterpointing the turbulence of Debussy’s life.

And the life of the influential French composer Achille-Claude Debussy (1862-1918) had tons of tonal turbulence.

Recognized as a musical prodigy, Debussy would enter the Paris Conservatoire in 1872 at the age of ten.  Sensitive about his impoverished background, refusing to ever speak of his childhood, many found him full of anger and bitterness, and Maggie Teyte, who appeared in his only opera, Pelléas, observed, “No one seemed to like him.”

Passionate affairs that generally began bad and ended worse, punctuated his life, leading to threats of suicide on his part, suicide attempts by his lovers, and the callous indifference he displayed in discarding former lovers and wives leading many to end friendships with him.

He suffered over his compositions often working with the most nontraditional tonalities, producing among others Suite Bergamasque of which the alluring Clair de Lune is found in the third movement: Prélude À L’après Midi D’un Faune (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun), though only ten minutes in length is considered to be at the forefront of modern music, and Pelléas his only opera.

Debussy had been diagnosed with rectal cancer in 1909, and after a long battle, which involved one of the earliest colostomy, Debussy died in Paris on March 25, 1918.  He was 55.

Reading from Debussy’s letters, Migenes skirts almost all of these issues with a blitheness that drains the actual drama from Debussy’s life, the unfortunate result of which is in that in Migenes’ hands, he comes across not as one of the 20th century’s most influential composers but as an irritating whiner.

The final letter read is that of Debussy’s only child, Claude-Emma, who her family called “Chouchou.” She loved her father very much, and her sense of loss spills out in writing to her distant half-brother.  Migenes plays the grief of the bereaved daughter for all it’s worth, but it’s too late, and as she pours it out, those in the audience are just trying to remember where they parked.

Chouchou would not long survive her father, dying in 1919 after her doctor prescribed the wrong treatment during a diphtheria epidemic.  Another dramatic moment not shared with the audience.

Unfamiliar with his correspondence, I am unable to judge whether Debussy’s letters were on the pedestrian side, or if Migenes just made poor selections for her show.

In the final analysis, Migenes’ effort seems half-hearted and lacking an emotional core which she might have gotten away with if she had shared her voice with the audience, and double the pieces she performed.

♦    ♦    ♦

◊  O’Toole was also nominated by the Academy for the amazing work he did in The Ruling Class.  The Best Nominees that year for Best Actor included Paul Winfield in Sounder, and Michael Caine and Laurence Olivier for Sleuth.  O’Toole and the others lost out to Marlon Brando’s Vito Corleone in The Godfather.  O’Toole holds the record as for the actor with the most Oscar nominations (8) without a win.

♦  Recognizable to all rabid fan of Allegro Non Troppo, in one of the sequences in Bruno Bozzetto’s wicked parody of Disney’s Fantasia.


Debussy: His Letters and His Music
Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Feb. 10 through Feb. 25.

At The Odyssey Theatre
2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd.,
West LA, 90025

Reservations (310) 477-2055 or www.OdysseyTheatre.com

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An award-winning L.A. playwright and rabble-rouser of note who has hoisted glasses with Orson Welles, been arrested on three continents and once beat up Charlie Manson. His first play, Among the Vipers was a semi-finalist in the Julie Harris Playwriting Competition and was featured in the Carnegie-Mellon Showcase of New Plays. It was produced at the NPT Theater in Ashland, Oregon and Los Angeles’ celebrated Odyssey Ensemble Theatre. His following play, “The Little Boy Who Loved Monsters” was produced at The Hollywood Actors Theater, where he earned praise from the Los Angeles Times for his “…inordinately creative writing.” The play went on to numerous other productions including Berlin’s The Black Theatre under the direction of Rainer Fassbinder who wrote in his program notes of Kearney, “He is a skilled playwright, but more importantly he is a dangerous one.” Ernest Kearney has worked as literary manager or as dramaturge for among others The Hudson Theater Guild, Nova Diem and the Odyssey Ensemble Theatre, where he still serves on the play selection committee. He has been the recipient of two Dramalogue Awards and a finalist or semi-finalist three times in the Julie Harris Playwriting Competition. His work has been performed by Michael Dunn, Sandra Tsing Loh, Jack Colvin and Billy Bob Thornton, and to date, either as playwright or director, he has upwards of a hundred and thirty productions under his belt, including a few at the Bob Baker Marionette Theater as puppeteer. After a wild and misspent youth, which lasted well into middle age, Kearney has settled down and is focusing on his writing, as well as living happily ever after with his lovely wife Marlene. Ernest's stage reviews and social essays can be found at TheTVolution.com and workingauthor.com. Follow him on Facebook.

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