A taste of Julia Child (preview and review)

Music and food have always gone together well, but seldom have they been presented as equals on a stage. Walking the Dog Theatre is serving up just such a combination with “Bon Appetit!”

An original theatrical, musical and culinary tribute to Julia Child, the show is produced in association with Diamond Opera Theater. It plays at the Basilica Industria in Hudson for eight performances through Sept. 24. Every performance culminates in free tastings of pastries and other sweets by local chefs.

“Bon Appetit!” of course, was the name of Child’s popular television show, but it’s also the title for a one-woman operatic scene by Hudson Valley composer Lee Hoiby. Jean Stapleton (Edith Bunker) had a successful off-Broadway run with the piece during the early 1990s. The libretto uses Child’s own words taken from an episode in which she makes a chocolate cake in front of a camera.

The new “Bon Appetit!” evening also includes Leonard Bernstein‘s early song cycle “La Bonne Cuisine,” a setting of four French recipes, and spoken excepts from Child’s autobiography “My Life in France.”

“We started thinking about this long before the whole Julia Child fever happened last year with the movie (‘Julie and Julia’),” says Benedict Bertau, Walking the Dog’s producing artistic director, who conceived and directed the production.

The first collaboration between Walking the Dog Theater and Diamond Opera Theatre was two years ago when they combined forces to present “Red Carnations Times Two.” It juxtaposed the one-act play by Glenn Hughes with the operatic adaptation by Robert Baksa, a Columbia County resident. Afterward, mezzo-soprano Mary Deyerle Hack approached Bertau, saying she wanted the companies to continue working together and, by the way, there was this 20-minute opera about cooking she was eager to perform.

“I was really exploring how to create a full evening that would work with the opera,” explains Berteau. “It didn’t really make sense to just do a cooking show.”

Berteau read up on Julia Child and became taken with her autobiography. After a conversation with Child’s co-author Alex Prud’homme, the rights were secured and Berteau began making a theatrical adaptation. In addition to Bernstein’s short songs, some additional French ambience will come from Cole Porter‘s “I Love Paris” and the chaconne “La Vie en Rose.”

The evening actually features three performers. In addition to Hack, who will perform the Hoiby scene, there’s actress Johnna Murray and another mezzo-soprano, Nina Fine, who will sing the French standards. Gili Melamed Lev will accompany at the piano.

“We’re not looking to emulate or impersonate Julia Child,” continues Berteau. “We’re tapping into her spirit, which is one of incredible generosity and a can-do attitude.”

SATURDAY, 9/18 REVIEW

The original musical theatre piece called “Bon Appetit!” ended with a few bites of chocolate cake for the audience.  How could you not leave happy?

Walking the Dog Theater and Diamond Opera Theater combined forces to produce the tribute to Julia Child.  Benedicta Bertau conceived and directed the enjoyable mix of words, music and food.

The evening began with a monologue based on the famous chef’s memoir, “My Life in France.” Actress Johnna Murray never attempted to mimic Child’s famous voice or demeanor but did convey the presence of a sturdy American woman in a flowered dress and pumps. As book excerpts, the script seemed intended more for reading than speaking. Still it was full of visceral and evocative depictions of Child’s arrival by ship, her first meal (fish and wine) in a French restaurant and her entry into cooking school.

Interspersed in the hour-long scene were a couple of chaconnes, plus Cole Porter’s “I Love Paris.”  It ended with Leonard Bernstein’s “La Bonne Cuisine” nicely sung by mezzo-soprano Nina Fine.  Each of its four songs are rapid-fire recitations of recipes.  Sitting at her kitchen table, Murray listened and jotted them down like they were dictation from a culinary muse.

After intermission, mezzo-soprano Mary Deyerle Hack sang Lee Hoiby’s one-woman opera “Bon Appetit” while preparing a chocolate cake.  Since it uses Child’s own extemporaneous words from two different episodes of her TV show, the chef’s candor and humor came through more clearly. Hack, who is the artistic director of the opera company, seemed to relish the role, which occasionally slips between spoken and sung passages.  Like Murray, she wisely avoided attempting the Meryl Streep feat of embodying Julia Child, but allowed the charm and character come through the words.

An electric mixer, a whisk and a flour sifter were some of the kitchen implements that Hack used as she cooked and sang. They added gentle percussive elements to Hoiby’s fluid and joyous piano accompaniment.  Gili Melamed-Lev was the fine onstage pianist.

The set was a minimal evocation of a kitchen with a variety of pots, pans and teacups suspended above like angels. Some incidental music in the first scene was by Satie.

For each night of the three-week run, a different local chef contributes some kind of chocolate concoction, which is served gratis in the spacious lobby.  Three more performances are scheduled for Wednesday through Friday of next week.

Originally appeared in the Times Union, Albany, NY.



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