A memorable 'Remember Me' at the Annenberg Center

December 6, 2010

'Remember Me,' and you will, at Annenberg

By Merilyn Jackson

For The Inquirer

December 4, 2010

After two years of touring, choreographer David Parsons' Remember Me finally landed in Philadelphia Thursday night at Annenberg Center. A brilliant hit, it slams at the highbrow expectations of New York critics who've labeled it superficial and more soap than rock opera. Some say it's a pop-opera; the Village Voice's Deborah Jowitt called it a dansical.

None of this matters to audiences, which erupt in applause at the end of each act and bolt from their seats to cheer before the finale's last notes fade. This is the kind of show that would have elicited flowers flung on the stage in another era.

What puzzles me is that Twyla Tharp gets nary a raised eyebrow for her Broadway excursions with Billy Joel and Sinatra, while Parsons has his feet held to the fire for collaborating with the East Village Opera Company (EVOC) to create an uber-sexy, easy-to-follow narrative as entertaining as any opera from a century ago - a gorgeously performed work for our time.

This is a more streamlined version of the piece premiered in New York and seen on PBS last year, the DVD of which was flying off the sales table in the lobby. There are more thrilling surprises in Parsons' choreography, and the roles of Tyley Ross, lead male vocalist and cofounder of EVOC, and lead female vocalist AnnMarie Milazzo are a bit scaled back but still sung powerfully.

Some critics even puzzle over why Schubert's "Ave Maria" and a well-known folk tune are included with the 11 operatic arias that drive the work. With a camped-up love triangle involving two brothers - Marcus (Miguel Quinones) and Luca (Eric Bourne) - and Marie (Abby Silva Gavezzoli), plus opera's twanged-out greatest hits and the above-mentioned tune, "Maria, Mari" and "Ave Maria" (get it now?), and choreography that careers between ballet, hip-hop, modern, folk, and club, this thing has legs!

So does Silva Gavezzoli. When have there ever been such expressive, sensual, whip-snap legs lashing the air on any stage before? She maintains her reckless pace with abandon, breathtakingly vaulting into the arms of the brothers or whichever of the other men in the nine-member company can catch her. Like Shakespeare's Juliet, she seems as much in love with her own beauteous youth and the admiration it draws as she is with Luca, whose sinuous dancing would make any girl fall for him.

There is not enough ink for me to say and describe all I want to, but two of my favorite scenes are when Marcus carries Maria off in a rape scene danced sorrowfully to "Ave Maria." After, Maria dances imploringly to a dejected Luca while behind her the cast lines up, arms enchained. As Ross sings "Nessun dorma," they soulfully lace arms in intricate waves that were previously videotaped and projected in black and white behind, above and in sync with the live performance. Needless to say, Remember Me ends as tragically as any opera. Or does it?