The Ambassador: In brief
Gabriel Kahane is a singer-songwriter unusually well versed in historic antecedents yet fully in step with the moment. His new stage piece at BAM, directed by Tony winner John Tiffany, evokes visions of past, present and future Los Angeles.
The Ambassador: Theater review by Helen Shaw
Gabriel Kahane's song cycle The Ambassador is named for one of the most beautiful pieces in the show, a farewell to L.A.'s now-demolished Ambassador Hotel. But it could just as easily refer to singer-songwriter Kahane himself, who uses 13 songs to bring news of Los Angeles back to New York. The work operates gently and not always well; director John Tiffany illustrates each song in rather literal fashion, while the eclectic chamber orchestra (strings and electric guitar) gamely engages in awkward choreographic conceits. Yet for those who loved Kahane's music in February House, or who need a serious infusion of American Wistful, there are sweet pleasures here.
Kahane's staged concept album ties each of its songs to a specific building (a hymn to Union Station, an ode to Rudolf Schindler's Lovell House), and its theatrical manifestation, designed by Christine Jones, maps Los Angeles onto the BAM Harvey floor. Runners of lights make tiny highways, and towers of books and records become skyscrapers or the Hollywood Hills; a striking model of the Lovell House even has tiny figures from Pulp Fiction and Die Hard within it, visible in live-feed close-up. Tiffany has Kahane use various bits of olden-timey technology: Kahane taps a slide-projector's remote with his foot, and there are VHS tapes and reel-to-reels and records galore. Deployed in such a way (and with the accelerant of Kahane's black suit and bare feet), the mise-en-scène can turn a bit cute. Jones has made a gorgeous installation, but as used, it all gets very Etsy.
The songs themselves don't escape tweeness either—though again, the staging may be to blame. Kahane starts the show by placing a paper doll of himself on a model of the Westin Bonaventure Hotel; it is very hard to recover from that. And Kahane's stage presence can’t support the tonal pivot from a tribute to Blade Runner to an elegy for Latasha Harlins, a 15-year-old girl shot to death in the weeks after the Rodney King verdict. The best moments are the least self-conscious: The title song works tremendously well, perhaps because Kahane sings it simply from the lip of the playing space; and when he turns his attention to the band, as when he eggs on Ted Poor's thrilling drum aria, Kahane is able to shake off the show's aesthetic and just jam. Those who love the album will enjoy this three-dimensional version. (The applause was uproarious.) But those who itch with embarrassment every time a cellist is asked to play while lying down should give The Ambassador a diplomatic miss.—Theater review by Helen Shaw
THE BOTTOM LINE: A song cycle about Los Angeles shifts between the keys of lovely and precious.