All the way from Broadway
As the first American Broadway shows ever to hit Cairo made it to the Opera House, Rania Khallaf
whistled and clapped with the rest of an appreciative Egyptian audience
Click to view caption|
"Freddy My Love" from Grease ; "Beauty School Drop Out" from the same musical; Farouk and Amin in West Side Story ; Masterson levitated by Grease dancers; Farouk's "I Feel Pretty"
The Broadway show has come to Egypt, and, as if to celebrate, the three nights of performances of excerpts from West Side Story and Grease, two important works of Broadway theatre, were fully booked. Last Saturday, the 4th of July and US Independence Day, was the first night of the performances, and all lovers of American culture had been keen to book their tickets weeks before.
At the Opera's entrance there was a traffic jam half an hour before the start of the show. "We need to find out what kind of show this is," said one security man as I slowly drove my car in the long queue. The show itself started ten minutes late, and Armenia Kamel, director of the Opera House Ballet Company, was there to introduce it to the audience and praise the production, a result of cooperation between the Opera House and the US embassy in Cairo.
"The show comes one month after the visit of Barack Obama to Egypt to seek a new beginning with the Muslim world based on mutual interest and respect. I can think of no better way to demonstrate that mutual interest than through the cultural collaboration we are about to experience tonight," said Margaret Scobey, US ambassador to Egypt.
Going to see this production would have been a new experience for most in the audience, since a show like this does not exist in Egyptian theatre, even if faint resemblances can be found in Ali El-Haggar's plays, such as his latest work, Yamama Beida (A White Dove), which was presented in Alexandria and Cairo two years ago.
Sponsored by the US embassy, the production was the result of a three-week period of training given by choreographer and stage director Michael Parks Masterson and the American Voices Foundation (AVF), represented by its executive director, John Ferguson, in cooperation with the Cairo Opera House.
In a press conference held one week before the show was due to open, Ferguson, who is the founder of the AVF and also the only pianist accompanying the production, explained that Broadway shows of this sort are the most popular kind of musical theatre in the United States, since they combine singing, dancing and acting.
Broadway shows as a genre really started in the 1950s, he said, noting that the mission of American Voices, founded in 1993, was "to provide quality American cultural programming to the newly open societies of Central and Eastern Europe and to the former Soviet Union."
"With our performances and workshops, the scope of our activities has unexpectedly grown to cover 95 countries," he said. "This is the first time we have performed in Egypt, but we previously performed in Lebanon, where the performance was a great success." Masterson, who arrived in Egypt three months ago to select dancers and singers for the production, said that he was confident about the productions and the performers in them.
"I am very happy being here in the Opera House, working with such talented people," he said, adding that "I really appreciate the effort exerted by Reda El-Wakil [chief of the Artisitc House] for his strong support of the programme since its inception last fall. I think we are doing pretty well, and the cast will surprise the audience with their excellent performances."
Masterson has produced many Broadway shows, including Phantom of the Opera, as well as having taught dance, music and theatre in youth and adult programmes. "It has been a tough task to train opera singers to act and dance, but I am really having a good time with these extraordinary vocalists and dancers. I am equally amazed at their flexibility and ability to learn," Masterson said.
In staging the production, Nevine Allouba, artistic director of the show, said that the Opera House had decided to open the door to singers not affiliated to Cairo Opera House companies, and the performers had therefore been drawn from organisations as diverse as the Cairo Opera Ballet Company, the American University Choral Society, the Academy of Arts Conservatoire, Cairo Opera House's Talents Improvement Centre, and the Educational Centre affiliated to the Bibliotheca Alexandrina.
"The idea is to train young representatives of these centres in Broadway techniques of singing, dancing and acting, as the philosophy of such musical plays is that they should be performed by young people. New faces will be offered an excellent opportunity to be presented to Egyptian audiences," she added. "Key singers such as Dalia Farouk and Elhami Amin are familiar with Broadway techniques, but they needed additional training in dancing and acting."
And so the show began with excerpts from West Side Story and Grease. The first piece is a modern adaptation of Shakespeare's tragedy Romeo and Juliet. Set in New York in the 1950s, it tells the story of two warring gangs from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Amid all this, a love story between Tony and Maria takes place, ending in a dramatic and heart-breaking dénouement.
Dalia Farouk, a soprano and winner of several international singing competitions held in Egypt, France and Italy, played Maria. Farouk had obtained her Masters degree in vocal performance at the University of Californian in 2000. Her presence and performance on stage as a solo singer and performer were extraordinary and vibrant. It is a pity that the same could not really be said for Elhami Amin, the baritone who played Tony. Amin was not really up to standard, and, rather overweight, his movements on stage were slow and his presence lacked urgency.
The excerpts performed from West Side Story included eight scenes from the musical, possibly the best of which was the song "America", performed by Anita, Rosalia and the girls. The scene featured girlish talk about the love between Maria and Tony, and the girls' colourful dresses and fluent movements were amazingly cheerful. Equally good was the performance of the famous song "I feel pretty", sung and acted by Maria and her friends. Maria sits at a chest of drawers in her dressmaker's room, trying on cosmetics, putting on one hat after another and one dress after another, all the while singing "I feel pretty, I feel dizzy, I feel sunny." She is in love, and the girls around her see her immersed in her feelings and empathise with Maria in one way or another.
The audience, too, reacted warmly, clapping and whistling at this, the first performance of its kind to take place at the Cairo Opera House.
However, the audience was even more excited by the excerpts from the second musical on the bill, Grease. Also set in the 1950s, this is the story of a group of happy, rebellious high- school students starting a new academic year. It features the students' adventures, maverick attitudes, and even cooperation. The performance at the Opera House featured eight songs drawn from Grease, the most beautiful of which was probably "Freddy, my love", set at Marty's pyjama party, where the girls convene to drink wine and smoke, as well as talk about boys. In the song, Marty, played by Amina Khayrat, talks about her long-distance relationship with a member of the US Marines.
"Both shows reflect strong themes common to American culture that are worth remembering today," Scobey said, such as "opportunity for immigrants, adaptation to modernity, and the striving of each new generation to fulfil its dreams."
While the music was very effective in West Side Story, perhaps it was the dancing and the choreography that was most impressive in Grease. Yet, besides its choreography and the smooth movement of the groups of dancers on stage, the amazing thing about the show was how well it transferred its spirit of joy to the audience, so much so that the teenager inside me awakened and started almost to dance. Some members of the audience actually did so, and I noticed that some were moving in time with the music.
And so we moved on to the final scene of the performance, also a masterpiece and one showing how well Masterson had managed to train his group of dancers. In this scene, Masterson himself appeared, dressed as a teen among the young people of the cast.