Sunday, 8 October 2017

FUN HOME at Chicago's Victory Gardens Theater

     If HAMILTON offers an upbeat view of American history, a celebration of ego, drive and talent that is typical of the American musical, FUN HOME, though a musical, is more in the tradition of classical American domestic drama, a probing view at the tensions and unhappiness that can roil under the myth of the American family. What this musical shares with many, if not most musicals, is a celebration of queerness.
     There's a brilliant moment in FUN HOME, botched a bit in Gary Griffin's production at Victory Gardens, when the ten year old Alison is watching a television show like The Partridge Family, one of those 70s sitcoms about a happy American family that also performs together. Bruce, Alison's deeply unhappy father turns off the set and tells Alison to read a book. Suddenly we're transported into Alison's imagination where her own family becomes one of those happy, sappy, singing and dancing families.  Of course, her family is anything but a Partridge-type clan. Alison is a lesbian in embryo, her father a closeted homosexual, her mother deeply frustrated woman. When college-age Alison comes home with her girlfriend, her mother tells her, "Don't come back," not as a rejection but because she wants her daughter to be able to escape this oppressive household. There are things Alison cannot escape, even at 43 years old as she looks back on her family, particularly her guilt at her father's suicide, which came shortly after she came out to her parents. Did her coming out lead to his death? It's a puzzle that can never be solved because Bruce is himself a puzzle. The musical dramatizes the process of her coming to terms with her father and, in the process, coming to terms with herself.
     FUN HOME is not a typical musical, but it's a brilliant one. Jeanine Tesori's score, very much in the Sondheim mode, is full of clever lyrics, very much in character, and lovely melodies. Some of the songs are gems, particularly "Ring of Keys" in which ten year old Alison realizes her attraction to very butch lesbian delivering packages to a coffee shop, and her mother's cry of anguish, "Days and Days." Tesori and book writer Lisa Kron pack a lot into an intense 100 minutes. FUN HOME is, with HAMILTON, a towering 21st century musical, not likely to be topped soon.
     The Victory Gardens Theater production is worthy of the show. I was particularly impressed with Rob Lindley's Bruce, the unhappy, obsessive, sometimes nasty father. Bruce is an oddity in a musical, a completely three-dimensional character. Lindley played the nastiness more overtly than Michael Cerveris in New York, but it was good to see all the contradictions in the character. Everyone else was convincing and committed. Not all the singing was on a par with the New York production, but director Gary Griffin got rich performances out of everyone.
     I had been talking to a producer the day before about the problem of getting young audiences to the theater. It was particularly joyful to see Victory Gardens packed with young people last night. They were attentive to every line and lyric, were totally with the show from beginning to end.

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

HAMILTON in Chicago

     Since I saw HAMILTON at the Public Theatre a few years ago, the show has become a phenomenon. The first best-selling cast album in decades. Ridiculously inflated ticket prices. For almost a year now, the show has a second company playing an unlimited sellout run in Chicago. I wondered whether, in the face of all the hype, the show would look as good to me as it did at the Public. The answer is a resounding yes. HAMILTON is one of the great works of the American musical theatre. The music and lyrics are brilliant and Thomas Kail's production with Andy Blankenbuehler's almost constant choreography perfectly complement the score. Special mention also goes to Howell Binkley's lighting design. HAMILTON is a perfect example of what Wagner called Gesamptkunstwerk--a unified work of theater in which all the elements perfectly coalesce.
     Overall, I found the Chicago company to be on a par with the original New York cast. I thought Miguel Cervantes brought more to the title role than Lin Manuel Miranda did. He has a better singing voice and is a better actor. Miranda gave you Miranda playing Hamilton; Cervantes gives you Hamilton. If only his Burr, Gregory Treco, was as good. I don't know if Treco was having an off-night, but he was a dull Burr, nowhere near as powerful as the charismatic Leslie Odom was in New York. Everyone else was on a par with the original cast.
     With HAMILTON playing in the old Shubert, now the CIBC Theatre, and FUN HOME at Victory Gardens, Chicagoans can see the two best musicals of this century.

Monday, 25 September 2017

THE REMBRANDT by Jessica Dickey at Steppenwolf

     The Rembrandt is a lovely meditation on mortality and art. Henry (Francis Guinan), a former prep school art history teacher is a museum guard. His dedication to his job and his love for the art keeps him from thinking constantly about his partner Simon, who is dying of cancer. On this Monday morning, Henry has to mentor Dodger (Ty Olwin), a new young guard whose primary vocation is creating graffiti on public buildings. He also has to watch over Madeline (Karen Rodriguez), a young woman assigned to copy Rembrandt's "Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer," for an art class. Madeline is grieving the recent death of her beloved grandmother and may be getting sick herself. Dodger, heavily tattooed and sporting a Mohawk haircut, has a peculiar idea of the duties of a museum guard. He goads Henry and Madeline into touching the painting. Dodger believes that people in museums are to disconnected from the art. Henry and Madeline know that Dodger's dares are crazy and destructive but the temptation is too great. Touching the painting moves the play into a different realm. Suddenly we are in Rembrandt's studio. Is this some magical transport or Henry's fantasy? Henry has become Rembrandt, Madeline his maid turned mistress, and Dodger his adoring, nagging son who worries constantly about his father's penury and his mortality. Rembrandt touches the plaster bust of Homer in his studio and the Greek poet appears (John Mahoney), to deliver a long monologue on poetry and mortality. Is it really Homer or is it Henry's terminally ill lover, a celebrated poet himself (also played by Mahoney). The final scene is a touching dialogue between Henry and Simon. Henry, now fired from the museum is terrified of losing his life partner. Simon is realistic about his death.
     On the whole, this is a beautifully written, rich play. I could have done without the scene in Rembrandt's studio. I'm always bothered by plays that reduce great artists to talented idiots (case in point Peter Shaffer's AMADEUS). The contemporary scenes in the museum and the final scene between Henry and Simon are both funny and deeply moving. It's nice to see a play or film that deals with a loving relationship of elderly gay men. Dickey is at her best in dealing with contemporary love and grief--less good at historical fiction (or historical hallucination?).
     The acting was uniformly good. Frances Guinan is superb as Henry, capturing his kindness and his fear. Note to Chicago theatergoers--for some reason, Guinan is only playing the role until October 22. He will be replaced for the last two weeks of the run). John Mahoney doesn't appear until the last third of the play. Homer's fifteen minute monologue could use a bit more energy but Mahoney is his usual charming self as the dying Simon. Ty Olwin captures both the brash, eccentric Dodger and Rembrandt's devoted but chiding son. Hallie Gordon has paced the actors effectively.
     Well worth seeing.

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Ivo van Hove's production of Arthur Miller's A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE at the Goodman

     I avoided this production in New York in part because I have trouble with Miller's play--well, particularly the last lines when Miller tries to justify, even praise, his loathsome central character. Miller's great weaknesses was his uncritical view of the respect due to white patriarchs, no matter how flawed or destructive. Now in the age of Trump and the campaign on the part of some men, with Trump's blessing, to restore white patriarchy, A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE seems frighteningly timely.
     Miller once wrote an essay entitled "Tragedy and the Common Man," expressing his desire to adapt Greek tragedy for ordinary American male protagonists. Eddie Carbone, the central character in A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE, is a Brooklyn longshoreman who lives with his childless, sexually unsatisfied wife Beatrice and the eighteen-year-old- niece he has raised. Clearly he is in love, or at least in lust, with his niece and, naively, perhaps, she feeds his desire. Neither Eddie nor his niece Catherine are good at recognizing and acknowledging their sexual impulses. Enter  two distant relatives of Beatrice's, Sicilian illegal immigrants Marco and Rodolfo, and things in the Carbone household reach a boiling point. Catherine turns her attention and desire onto blond, handsome Rodolfo, which turns Eddie into Othello. He decides that Rodolfo must be homosexual because he is blond, likes to sing and can make a dress. All this is a way to mask his desire for his niece and perhaps a latent desire for Rodolfo. At the climactic moment, he passionately kisses his niece and, when Rodolfo tries to beak that up, kisses Rodolfo, ostensibly to prove that he isn't fully masculine. When that doesn't work, he turns Rodolfo and Marco into the immigration authorities.
     Eddie is a man who is totally unable to acknowledge his true desires. He demands his authority as patriarch and full respect from everyone in his household. His wife is not to talk to him about the fact that they have not had sex for months. When Marco accuses him of turning them in, he demands a public apology. In a Christian framework, Eddie might deserve forgiveness if he ever confessed to wrongdoing but he will not do that--it would weaken his position as patriarch. Greek tragic protagonists alway had a moment of anagnorisis, of recognition of their complicity in the horror we see. Not Eddie.
      Watching A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE is watching the inevitable damage wrought by a repellent human being. Yet the last lines of the lawyer Alfieri, who serves as a kind of Greek chorus, demand that we see "purity" in Eddie's actions, that we see his demand for an undeserved authority and respect as somehow noble. I could see Eddie Carbone marching with the other Fascists in Charlottesville or shouting "Lock her up" at a Trump rally. He's a man who demands his authority as a straight (maybe), white American male. To quote the 2016 Democrat candidate for president, he's a "deplorable." Too bad Miller, from his 1950s patriarchal viewpoint, doesn't see that.
       Oddly, Miller presents a Sicilian Catholic family with no mention of Catholicism or the influence that might have on the Carbones. There's no religion here. Wouldn't Eddie, in his need for self-justification, go to a priest rather than a lawyer? Miller's only concern is with the irrelevance of the law when faced with passion or a primal code of vengeance. The lawyer-chorus can only watch helplessly as Eddie becomes more and more destructive and one Sicilian vows revenge. Yet Eddie's ultimate weapon to keep Catherine under his control is immigration law.
      Ivo van Hove's production, played on a small, bare playing area, does away with all the trappings of realism and gives us a powerful elemental conflict. The cast was uniformly excellent. Ian Bedford caught all of Eddie's bluster, his jealousy and his domineering nature. He made Eddie interesting--it's impossible to make him sympathetic. Andrus Nichols made his wife Beatrice more tough than the usual dippy Arthur Miller wife. Catherine Combs caught Catherine's naivete and confusion.
     Given the minimalist physical production, one really notices the music and sound effects. I am still a bit baffled by van Hove's constant use of Faure's gentle, elegant Requiem as the opening and closing music. Key scenes are punctuated by ominous percussive sounds.
      All in all, a great production of a problematic play whose passions, in van Hove's hands, become truly operatic.

Sunday, 27 August 2017

Disney's ALADDIN

     As I watched ALADDIN, I thought about how, whether intentionally or not, it is a tribute to earlier forms of musical theatre: the fairy tale spectacular that was popular around the turn of the 20th century and old-fashioned Golden Age musical comedy. It certainly is the most spectacular show I have ever seen. Disney specializes in grand, old-fashioned spectacles enhanced by the possibilities of contemporary computer technology. The show keeps topping itself. Just when you think they have run out of grand coups de theatre, you get another one. Veteran scene designer Bob Crowley has outdone himself and the hundreds of costumes by Gregg Barnes are witty and beautiful. The show is also a tribute to old-fashioned musical comedies. There's a winking, self-reflexive dimension to the show, an acknowledgement of the audience and the history of the genre. One number, "Friend Like Me," is an entire history of Broadway musical production numbers in one song. Director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw has created a valentine to the musical.
       Alan Menken's score could have been written in 1950. No rock or rap here, just old-fashioned show tunes with witty lyrics (Howard Ashman, Tim Rice, Chad Beguelin). The orchestra had strings, horns and saxophones along with the inevitable synthesizers. It's a catchy score while you hear it but not a score you remember after leaving the theatre. I had never seen the animated film so the score was new to me.
         The problem with the show, which was also the problem with THE LION KING (for me at least), is that the show soars during the musical numbers and falls flat during the dialogue scenes. The villains, tall, thin Jafar and short, chubby Iago, are neither funny nor frightening. They may have worked as cartoon characters but they don't work on stage. Physically they look like a comedy team but their are too scripted --the performers don't seem to have personality of their own, a problem endemic to Disney musicals with their assembly line casts who are supposed to repeat exactly the same performance as their predecessors. I came to dread their entrances. They barely have any music to sing, thus seem outside of the world of the musical. In an old fashioned musical, they would have been played by comics whose schtick was both familiar to audiences. They would also have room to improvise (think Jackie Gleason, Phil Silvers, Nathan Lane). Few performers are allowed to do this nowadays. When I saw the current revival of HELLO, DOLLY!, Bette Midler and David Hyde Pierce ad libbed a bit. The audience loved it.
     The show really comes to life late in the first act when The Genie appears. I doubt if Anthony Murphy was allowed much freedom to be improvisatory in the machine that is a Disney musical, but he had the funniest material and lived mostly through the musical numbers. It was literally a fabulous performance. Adam Jacobs, the original Broadway Aladdin was charming but I did have a sense that he's done the show a hundred too many times. There was not even the illusion of spontaneity (the illusion of spontaneity is all one can expect in a Disney extravaganza). He gets the best songs and is a terrific singer. Everyone else was perfectly fine, if not as funny as they could be (not necessarily the performers' fault). Real musical comedy is an art mastered only by years of experience. You can't teach someone to be funny or direct someone to be funny. Real comedy comes in part out of the personality of the performer. One rarely sees a group of good seasoned comics in a musical. SOMETHING'S ROTTEN (also directed by Casey Nicholaw), was the only musical I have seen in years with a cast of gifted comics. It was funny in a way that ALADDIN rarely was. Some of the lines were funny, the delivery less so. There was one woman in the cast who had about four lines in the entire show but managed to land laughs better with her few lines than most of the leads did. One problem is that ALADDIN is playing in the gigantic, 2500 seat Cadillac Palace Theatre. I was in the seventh row, so could see facial expressions. Most of the audience was much, much farther back, so all that registered were the heavily amplified voices, large physical gestures and scenic effects.
      I enjoyed the musical numbers enormously--could have done without a lot of the talk. Still, glad I saw it.

Monday, 14 August 2017

TREVOR, the musical at Writer's Theatre, Glencoe, IL

     We have moved to Chicago and heretofore, most of my postings will be about Chicago theatre and opera. There's a lot of new theatre in Chicago, often written by playwrights who are not yet known in New York. I'll cover as much of it as I can.
     The Writer's Theatre in suburban Glencoe, is a beautiful modern facility a block from the train station (40 minutes from Chicago). The repertoire is mostly revivals. This season they are offering THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST, BURIED CHILD and a new dramatization of DON QUIXOTE. However the season is opening with the tryout of a new musical by the creators of SOUTHERN COMFORT (Book and lyrics, Dan Collins; music Julianne Wick Davis), which played at the Public last season, and the director and choreographer of BEAUTIFUL: THE CAROLE KING MUSICAL. TREVOR I based on the 1994 Academy Award winning short film of the same name, told the story of a flamboyant thirteen-year-old boy who is obsessed with Diana Ross. Trevor discovers that he is gay at the same time his schoolmates do. Their rejection and his own inability to deal with his sexuality lead him to a failed suicide attempt. Trevor ultimately embraces his uniqueness. The film led to the founding of the Trevor Project, whose mission is to prevent suicide among lgbtq kids.
     Collins and Wick have opened up the seventeen-minute film, added secondary characters and fleshed out Trevor's journey. In the process, they have created a charming, touching show. It's sweet and endearing and the dark moments never get too dark. Trevor's imaginary companion, Diana Ross, wonderfully played by Salisha Thomas, is now a major character. Trevor's junior high companions have a lot of energetic numbers. Director Marc Bruni and choreographer Josh Prince keep the show moving at an energetic pace that is perfect for the hormonal adolescent characters. Donyale Werle's sets are simple but highly effective. The cast couldn't be better. Trevor is never offstage and young Eli Tokash, a veteran of a number of Broadway shows, is prodigious. He manages to keep Trevor "natural" rather than a child actor star turn. He's a junior Ben Platt. He is surrounded by a consistently excellent, convincing supporting cast of sixteen.
     My one reservation about the sow is that Trevor's social world seems to be more 1950s than early 1980s. No one seems to know the word "gay," which had been around for decades. The writers seem to be reluctant to use the kind of anti-gay slurs that homophobic kids would use. We get asexual euphemisms like "weird." The show could be a little less tame about how kids really talk.
     In every way, this show is Broadway caliber and worth the train ride to Glencoe. In the Age of Trump when all sorts of bigotry seem to be legitimized, TREVOR is still timely.  

Monday, 29 May 2017

ROTTERDAM by Jon Brittain at 59 E 59 Theatre

     ROTTERDAM could have been didactic and sentimental like a made-for-tv movie on such a hot topic as transgender politics. Instead it is a probing character study of two women at a crisis stage in their relationship. Alice and Fiona are a British couple living in Rotterdam where Alice works for a shipping firm and Fiona is a teacher. Alice, like many British expats, has never bothered to blend into Dutch society. After all, since everyone speaks English, why learn Dutch? To put it mildly, Alice is uptight and an inveterate conflict avoider. She has never come out to her family. In fact, Alice keeps too much to herself. Since she is not good at dealing with her emotions, Alice freezes when Fiona tells her that she is a man in a woman's body and that she wants to transition. From here on, he will be Adrian. We won't ask why it took so long for Fiona to figure this out or why she does so at this particular moment. The playwright seems to be dissecting British emotional constipation as much as gender politics. Alice and Fiona/Adrian share an apartment with Fiona's brother, Josh, who also was Alice's boyfriend until she met Fiona. Josh, a sweet guy, seems to be frozen into the odd position of living with his ex and her lover.
     The play focuses on the emotional roller coaster ride Alice goes on. She's a prickly character who reacts testily when anyone tries to break through the wall of her privacy and reserve. However, living through watching her female lover turn into a man is too much for her. "I'm gay," she cries. The woman she loved is turning into someone else who is not feminine. Alice experiments with living the high (in all senses of the word), life in Rotterdam with a twenty-one-year old party girl, but doesn't find that totally satisfactory.
      ROTTERDAM is somewhat about gender and sexual identity but more about the larger general issue of identity. Alice doesn't seem to have any real sense of self. Fiona is massively changing who she/he is. Josh's identity seems totally to be built on old relationships, on past, not present. It's a fascinating play. Yes, there is a ridiculous plot twist in the second act, and Alice's sudden Dutchness seems to be something out of an "I Love Lucy" episode, but these flaws doesn't weaken the strength of the studies of the major characters. Alice is not a pleasant person to be around. British drama is better at people who are fascinating but not nice than American drama is. The weakness of J.T. Rogers OSLO, for instance, which is likely to win the Tony (alas!), is that it tries to hard to make all of its characters charming. Much of ROTTERDAM is comprised of heated arguments, but they are well and wittily written. Alice is a mess. So is Adrian in many ways. But they are interesting messes.
    The production is cleverly directed by Donnacadh O'Brian and very well acted by the four person cast. Highly recommended.