Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Sondheim's MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG by the Porchlight Theatre, Chicago

     As is sometimes the case with Sondheim musicals, the best of the always problematic MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG is in the score. The talky book, radically repaired since the show's disastrous, short Broadway run in 1981, still doesn't work. I think of the show as Sondheim's ALLEGRO, the 1947 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical flop. Hammerstein was a surrogate father and mentor to the teenage budding composer-lyricist and Sondheim was fascinated with the making of ALLEGRO. Both ALLEGRO and MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG are musicals about the loss of ideals, about selling out. Sondheim's score has also been revised considerably since the short run at the Alvin Theatre. Michael Weber's production for the Porchlight Theatre (Associate Directio nand Musical Staging by Christopher Pazdernik), makes more sense than any production I have seen of this show but still doesn't solve the show's basic problems.
     For those who aren't familiar with the show, MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG (based on a 1930s play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart), tells the story of Franklin Shepard from youthful idealism to great success bought by personal compromises. In the musical, Shepard moves from being an extremely talented composer of Broadway musicals to a successful Hollywood mogul. The show assumes that Hollywood success is "selling out." The gimmick of the original play and the musical is that the story is told backward from Franklin in Hollywood in 1980 to him and his best friends on a New York rooftop in 1957 watching Sputnik fly overhead. Then Frank was an idealistic composer with his two best friends, lyricist Charlie Kringas and writer Mary Flynn. During the quarter century the show covers, Frank loses both his best friends and two wives. The show wants us to see Frank as a heartless sellout and his two best friends as his lost conscience. The problem is that Charlie is a kvetch and Mary a self-pitying drunk. They both make a point of humiliating their supposed best friend in public. I can't help feeling the Frank is well rid of them. Is he really so bad? Like Bobby in COMPANY (also book by Furth), Frank's a charming, good-looking cipher, more defined by the people around him than by the book writer. He doesn't even get character-defining songs. He's more sung about than a singer. As for Mary and Charlie, they only make sense if they're both in love with Charlie but, as with COMPANY, Sondheim and Forth, both gay, want to skirt around Charlie's desire for Frank. Without it, all his ravings just seem ill-tempered. Charlie's wife and family are invisible. Frank is the most important person in his life. As for Frank's wives, he says himself that he should have said "No." The marriages were mistakes from the start.
     Sondheim's score contains some gems and gets better as it goes along. I could do without the nightclub act the characters perform in the early 1960s, a satire on the Kennedys. It's too long and not really very good satire. There was a lot better stuff being performed in cabarets during the Kennedy years.
     The Porchlight directors gave the show a new frame. At the opening and closing we see Frank an old man in the present, sitting alone in a wheelchair, watching one of the movies he produced. As the end credits roll, Frank recalls his life. The periods of time are defined by projections of headlines and television clips. The cast are fine actors and singers. Jim DeSelm is handsome and charismatic but can't make Frank more than the cipher Furth wrote. That's not his fault. He makes more of the part than the other Franks I have seen. Neala Barron makes Mary too pathetic. This is a woman who has been a successful writer. We have to believe that Frank just doesn't see that she should be his wife--but the show gives us no reason for him to love her. Matt Crowle wasn't as much of a irritating kvetch as the last Charlie I saw in London. He's a winning performer. Still I ask, as I do every time I see this show, what do Mary and Charlie want from Frank? Basically they want things and people not to change. "I want it the way that it was," Mary sings. I always find myself on Frank's side. Charlie at least moves on after his break from Frank and becomes a successful playwright.
     MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG isn't as meretricious as ALLEGRO. There we're supposed to believe that small town life is the only good life, that success in the Big City is always a bad thing. This from two successful New Yorkers! In MERRILY, too, success means selling out, particularly if it's Hollywood success. Is there a bit of sour grapes in this attitude?
     Kudos to the fine ensemble and terrific band. This is my first Porchlight show. If this is their usual level of quality, I'll be back.

Sunday, 17 December 2017


     I didn't see BEAUTIFUL in New York so was curious about the show when the national tour landed in Chicago. I love Carole King's songs and was of the generation that rushed out to buy TAPESTRY when it came out in the early 70s. In general, I'm not crazy about jukebox musicals. MAMMA MIA was fun because it paired nonsensical songs with an equally nonsensical book and made fun of its own efforts at making the songs fit into a narrative. JERSEY BOYS tried to do some interesting things with the biographical book. The Four Seasons were good musicians but not the most interesting people on the planet. I saw the show in London where the performers playing Frankie Valli and company would never pass as New Jersey Italian-Americans. The book of BEAUTIFUL (Douglas McGrath)--and there's a lot of book--is FUNNY GIRL for the twenty-first century. A very talented sixteen-year-old Jewish girl from Brooklyn has her first hit song and her first child at age sixteen. Gerry Goffin the eighteen-year-old father of the child does the right thing, as they used to say, and marries her. He also becomes her lyricist. They turn out hit after hit but he feels trapped by his life and work and starts having affairs. Eventually she realizes she can go it alone personally and professionally. She also decides to perform her music herself and becomes an even bigger name. There's also a second, comic couple as in the old days of musical comedies. They are also a composer-lyricist team, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil. The show features their songs as well as the songs of King and Gerry Goffin. The songs range from fun to very good.
     As I said, there's a lot of dialogue but also twenty-six songs. There is a basic problem with a musical in which characters spend a lot of time sitting at pianos. In Marc Bruni's production (choreography by Josh Prince), the scenery, including the piano, seems to move more than the performers. The show might work better in the more intimate Stephen Sondheim Theatre in New York. In the cavernous Cadillac Palace Theatre, it cries out for more movement, particularly more dancing. The cast, many of whom had understudied their roles in New York, were able performers but the charisma quotient was very low. In other words, they performed like understudies. I would love to have seen someone with real pizzazz like Jessie Mueller as Carole King. There was a time in the Golden Age when stars headlined national tours of shows. That is virtually nonexistent these days.
     It was an enjoyable way to spend an afternoon. I got a discount ticket, so feelI got my money's worth.

Sunday, 19 November 2017

HARD TIMES FOR THESE TIMES at Lookingglass Theatre

     I remember having to read Charles Dickens' HARD TIMES as a college freshman. I have never been a Dickens fan. His coincidence-filled stories have never seemed credible to me. His characters are often cardboard. And there's the sentimentality. Give me George Eliot or Anthony Trollope any day but, please, don't make me read Dickens! Yet, over the years, Dickens has been the source of some brilliant theatrical adaptations. The novelist loved theatre and loved the conventions of Victorian drama--or should I say melodrama. His villains are villainous, his heroes and heroines virtuous and beset with troubles they nobly endure. They make fun theatre.
     HARD TIMES is a satire on rampant capitalism, utilitarianism and the fact-based education it espoused. Capitalist Mr. Bounderby, who professes to be a proud exemplar of rags-to-riches, is a ruthless materialist. He made his money the hard way and has no sympathy with the rights of his workers. With Bounderby's money Gradgrind has founded a school, run by Mr. McChoakumchild, which offers a totally fact-based education. There is to be no imagination, no creativity, no feeling. During the course of the novel and the play, we watch the effects of this education on Gradgrind's son and daughter and on the ruthless pragmatist, Bitzer. The school is set against a traveling circus where young Sissy was raised until she is taken into the school and into the Gradgrind home. Sissy fails at facts but excels at compassion. Add a noble laborer, his ailing wife and woman friend and you have a celebration of principle over pragmatism. The men are nasty, the women have heart. The play is an entertaining mishmash of story lines and one-dimensional characters. It's also based on Dickens's shortest novel, so easy to condense into two-and-a-half hours of stage time. It also seems particularly timely in the age of Trump. Bounderby's crass, vulgar personality and pride in his ignorance makes him kin to the current President. The current downturn in the popularity of humanities courses shows how "practical" knowledge is prized over creativity. Unlike the workers in HARD TIMES, many in the American working class have chosen to believe the propaganda of the plutocracy.
     Adapter and director Heidi Stillman has crafted an absorbing, entertaining theater piece out of HARD TIMES. The excellent circus work is a colorful foil to the polluted air and harsh world of the fictional northern English town in which the play takes place. The cast, most of whom play multiple roles, is uniformly fine. The movement of the simple sets is choreographed to be an essential part of the production. Highly recommended.

Sunday, 12 November 2017

ONCE ON THIS ISLAND at Circle in the Square

     I tend to get notes from press representatives when I review a show in previews although I firmly believe a show is fair game when it charges an audience money to see it. ONCE ON THIS ISLAND didn't to do well on its first Broadway outing in 1990, but musical aficionados love the Stephen Flaherty-Lynn Arenas score. The show is a kind of fairy tale set on a Caribbean island with a charming quasi-calypso score. The brilliant young director Michael Arden has cut the show to ninety minutes and made it more about storytelling as a group of islanders tell and enact the story for a young girl. The story is a romance of star-crossed lovers whose fates are sealed by the battling gods (goddesses, actually) of the island. It's a simple story but the telling couldn't be more inventively staged. Arden's production is an antidote to the impersonal Disney spectacles that have been the rage for the past twenty years. It would take a heart of stone not to be moved and charmed by Arden's production. The costumes here are clever but ragtag, the scene a few simple elements on a sandy beach. The show is performed in the Circle in the Square, a theatre-in-the round and Arden has used every inch of the space for his production. This is immersive theatre. The cast is uniformly excellent but I have to praise the amazingly talented Hailey Kilgore who plays the girl who is the central character in this romance. She's beautiful, she sings magnificently and is an amazing dancer. She's a star in the making but everyone is a joy to watch and hear.
     If I had kids, this is the Broadway show I would take them to. It's a celebration of the magic of theatre.

Michael Urie in Harvey Fierstein's TORCH SONG at Second Stage

     This is a season of revivals of the canonical American gay dramas. First Harvey Fierstein's somewhat shortened version of his TORCH SONG TRILOGY, which, after runs Off-off- and Off-Broadway,  ran a thousand performances on Broadway in the early 1980s and was made into a film. In 2018, the National Theatre of Great Britain's production of Tony Kushner's ANGELS IN AMERICA will play at the Neil Simon, followed by Mart Crowley's controversial picture of gay self-hatred, the 1968 play THE BOYS IN THE BAND, will come into the Booth with a cast of gay actors who have become stars including sitcom favorite Jim Parsons as the miserable Michael.
     TORCH SONG may have moved beyond being dated. We may wince at the backroom bar anal sex scene played for easy laughs, as if the AIDS crisis never happened, and be slightly discomfited in the light of all the Kevin Spacey revelations, at the lead character's love for a teenage boy in the second act. Fierstein's easy wit and Michael Urie's brilliance as a comic actor allow us to enjoy the ride through the life of a drag queen in the 1970s. There actually isn't any drag beyond the first few minutes, so "straight-looking and acting" gay men don't have to be uncomfortable with such violations of masculinity. What ensues in the almost three hours of the play is a pleasant combination of sitcom and seriousness. TORCH SONG TRILOGY is the gay version of good Neil Simon, the playwright who was still the king of Broadway when Fierstein wrote the play but has since gone out of fashion. FIerstein's weakness was his penchant for cloying sentimentality, which this production successfully overcomes. The many good lines are still very witty--it's still a very funny play.
     Basically,  TORCH SONG is three related one-act plays centering on ten years in Arnold Beckoff's (Urie), relationship with Ed, a bisexual man (Ward Horton). Each playlet is in a different style. The first is mostly alternating monologues of Arnold and Ed. The second, most inventive, depicts a weekend at the country house of Ed and his wife Laurel with Arnold and his new eighteen-year-old lover, Alan (Micael Rosen, gorgeous), a hustler turned model, as house guests. The third, more realistic in style, has Arnold battling with his mother (the magnificent Mercedes Ruehl), over his adoption of a fifteen-year-old gay boy, (Jack DiFalco (As my mother would say, I'd hate to be hanging since DiFalco was fifteen), and negotiating a relationship with Ed, who has left his wife.
     It's Arnold's play, one Fierstein wrote for himself to perform. Urie, a brilliant casting choice, is svelte where Fierstein was hefty, tenor where Fierstein was gravelly bass. The joke with Fierstein was that with that voice and figure he was an unlikely drag queen. Good-looking Urie makes a great drag queen. He's also a much better actor than Fierstein who was always more a "performer" than an actor. When Urie's Arnold explodes at his mother's homophobia, it's a real emotional explosion. He never wants pity, which Fierstein often demands. He wants to be respected and loved. Urie is both more sensitive and tougher than Fierstein. Going for the easy laugh is always a defense mechanism. Mercedes Ruehl wisely underplays the schtick as Arnold's monster mother (the original Mother was Estelle Getty who went on to play the mother in GOLDEN GIRLS, that favorite sitcom of gay men). She's less a monster than merely clueless. Ed is in a way a thankless role, a man without a sense of humor. At least, in this production, Ed isn't just a punching bag for Arnold, unlike unhappy bisexual Joe Pitt, the whipping boy for Kushner and his characters in ANGELS IN AMERICA, Ed is treated with some understanding in this production and Ward Horton makes a humorless character charming. The question in this production is not just "What does Arnold see it Ed?" but also "What does Ed see in Arnold?" Michael Rosen makes all he can of Alan's half hour on the stage. Jack DiFalco works a bit too hard as Arnold's adopted son. Moises Kaufman has given the play more depth than I have seen in previous incarnations.        
     This production gives TORCH SONG more substance than I have seen in other productions and Michael Urie, one of our best comic actors, gives another terrific performance.

J.B. Priestley's TIME AND THE CONWAYS at the Roundabout

     I saw  revival of this 1937 gem by British novelist, playwright and essayist J.B. Priestley at the National Theatre of Great Britain a few years ago and fell in love with the play. Priestley loved to begin his plays with a familiar genre, then turn everything on its head halfway through. Here we begin with a typical British drawing room drama. The time is 1917, the end of World War I, and one of the Conway daughters, Kay (Charlotte Parry), is celebrating her twenty-first birthday with her mother (Elizabeth McGovern), two sisters and two brothers. There are welcome friends like Joan Helford (Cara Ricketts) and the family lawyer (Alfredo Narcisco), who is smitten with the Conway matriarch and an unwelcome visitor, the ambitious Ernest Beevers (Steven Boyer), a working class man eager to move up in the society of this English town. Not much happens in Act I except introduction of the characters. Mrs. Conway is a charming monster who is brutally frank about the faults of her children and her preference for the youngest son Robin (Matthew James Thomas), who is charming but feckless. At the end of Act I in Rebecca Taichman's brilliant production, the set rolls back and another, less substantial version of the same living room descends from the fly loft. We are now in 1937 and we see what has become of all the characters. The family, now out of money, is anything but harmonious. Hazel (Anna Camp), has married Ernest, who treats her badly. Ernest, now the richest man in town, despises the Conway family who has treated him with snobbish contempt, and will not help them out of their dire financial straits. Robin has deserted his wife and children but still is the apple his mother's eye. Eldest son Alan (Gabriel Ebert),who still lives at home,  is content with his life as a bank clerk. This is what an upper-middle class family has come to during the depression and on the eve of World War II. At the end of the Act, Clare and Alan have a discussion about time--about how we don't live a linear progression from one moment to another. One can experience present and past or even present and future. Deja vu isn't a trick of the brain--it's being two places at once in time. Act III takes us back to 1917 and we see the events that will lead to the family collapse we see in Act II. Clare clearly has a vision of what this future will be as the play ends. Like a seer, she is in limbo between present and future.
     So the play is both a fascinating social satire and a philosophical rumination. It's brilliantly written and always intriguing. Rebecca Taichman, who so ingeniously directed Paula Vogel's INDECENT last year, has captured all of the play's dimensions and supported the actors' rich characterizations. Everyone is.excellent, particularly Gabriel Ebert as the unambitious Alan and Steven Boyer as the working class man on the way up. Ebert and Boyer are two of the best actors currently working today.  It's always exciting to watch them. I have never been impressed with Elizabeth McGovern's rather dull performances on the London stage but she is on fire here as a self-centered, impractical and not particularly loving matriarch, the opposite of her nice matriarch on Downton Abbey. Everyone else is fine, particularly Charlotte Parry as Kay, who grows from a debutante to a cynical woman of the world to a kind of visionary. Credit is due, too, to Neil Patel for his beautiful versions of the Conway drawing room--one realistic, the other more expressionistic.
     This is a fine production of a very special play.

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Menotti's THE CONSUL at the Chicago Opera Theater

     I haven't done many opera reviews on this blog so far but Menotti's THE CONSUL is a special case. It was first produced on Broadway in 1950. Perhaps the only revolutionary thing about Menotti was his desire to be a commercial opera composer. He was commissioned by NBC to write an opera for radio (THE OLD MAID AND THE THIEF) and for television (AMAHL AND THE NIGHT VISITORS), and many of his works were produced on Broadway (THE MEDIUM, THE TELEPHONE, THE SAINT OF BLEECKER STREET [his best work, I think] and MARIA GOLOVIN, which was also produced on television. It was only in later years that he wrote for opera houses.
     THE CONSUL was written at a time when Broadway was the site for works that blurred the lines between opera and the musical--Kurt Weill wrote STREET SCENE (with lyrics by Langston Hughes), in 1947. Marc Blitzstein's REGINA followed shortly after. Both works are now the province of opera houses and both deserve to be included in the standard repertoire. THE CONSUL has some good music but a turgid, dreadfully written libretto (also by Menotti). Everyone's English in the Chicago Opera Theatre's production could be heard perfectly but still we had surtitles and I couldn't take my eyes off of the awful, purple imagery and strained-to-the-breaking-point metaphors. The story is a real potboiler. The setting is some unnamed European police state. John Sorel has been a freedom fighter but has to leave the country or be killed. The opera focuses on his wife, Magda. Because of John's exile, the Magda and her mother live in stark poverty. Magda and John's baby dies of malnutrition. Many scenes are in the office of the consul of another country, perhaps the U.S., where a very punctilious secretary insists on correct paperwork from the group who want to leave the country (what's so awful about that?). Magda is desperate to leave but has a breakdown when she sees the secret police coming out of the consul's office. Have they told the consul not to let her go? There are further trials and tribulations and a couple of dream sequences. It's all silly, over-wrought and very repetitive. My husband was correct in saying that the work would have been more effective if it had been cut in half.
     Director Andreas Mitisek and designer Alan Muraoka have decided to present the opera as a kind of expressionist work with angular, distorted scenery and a giant, high desk from which the secretary rules her bit of bureaucracy. I'm afraid the approach to this piece of verismo only confused things more. The orchestra sounded scrappy but that may have been a result of the overly harsh acoustic of the Studebaker Theatre. Sounds don't blend in there. The raison d'ĂȘtre of the co-production with Long Beach Opera seems to be the presence of Patricia Racette as Magda. I was never the greatest fan of Racette's voice. She has been a favorite artist at the Met for a couple of decades and has specialized in verismo roles. At this stage of her career, the top has problems. In this over-wrought work perhaps one can pass off the spread notes as an excess of emotion. She's a game performer who was always dramatically involved but would have benefitted from a more coherent production. As the mother, Victoria Livengood got the best music and the most coherent role to play. I directed Livengood three decades ago as Rosina and Dorabella. She has moved from a being charismatic agile mezzo to a contralto specialist in character roles. She has the biggest voice of the cast and brought great authority and pathos to her role. The rest of the small cast was perfectly competent.
     This revival of THE CONSUL only showed that it is not a work that deserves revival.  There are far better works from this period that deserve to be seen and heard.