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.
 

Friday, 26 May 2017

The Shuberts, Bottled Water and Theatergoing in the 21st Century

     We paid big bucks to see HELLO, DOLLY! last night. The performance was worth every penny but going to a Broadway theatre these days is worse than going to LaGuardia airport, almost as bad as   leaving from Penn Station. What has happened to the theatergoing experience? For the current high price of tickets to a Broadway show, the audience deserves to be treated with more respect.
     Last night was chilly and rainy. Not only were we herded into long lines, but the employees running the lines shouted orders at us as if we were lining up for a prison camp. No "Please" or "Thank you." The lines were slowed down for a "Security Check" that was mostly designed to make sure we weren't bringing our own bottled water or candy into the theater so we would have to buy the ridiculously overpriced water and candy being sold inside. So far as I can see, this is only happening at theatre owned by the Shubert Organization.There is no law against bringing your own water into a theater, folks. Or your own M&Ms. Last night the security guards who were confiscating people's water and food announced that it was going to the homeless. Used bottles of water????? Open packages of candy? Please!!! No one treated audience members--folks who paid up to $399 a ticket--with any courtesy. This suggests bad management and bad training.
     When did this herding of customers into the theatre begin? Maybe it's my aging memory but I don't remember it happening when I was going to Broadway shows as a kid or younger man. Is it because people now tend to get to the theatre before the doors open (why?). I do remember when the ushers were middle-aged women in black with white collars who were like strict elementary school teachers but there was some modicum of courtesy involved. Now it's a mixed bag. The best ushers now are young people who obviously love theatre and want to chat about it. They want you to share a good time. The gang at the Shubert last didn't didn't seem to want to be there. Worse, they didn't seem to want the audience to be there.
     I was always taught that the show begins when the audience arrives at the theatre and doesn't end until the audience leaves. Some Broadway theatre owners have forgotten that. Audiences should remind them!

Bette Midler in HELLO, DOLLY!

     Television networks like to call a show that they are promoting an "event" as if that word conjures something so special you can't possibly miss it. For aficionados of the Broadway musical, Bette Midler's performance in HELLO, DOLLY! is an "event." Other than a stint as one of the daughters in  the original production of FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, Midler has never been in, much less starred in, a Broadway musical. What is extraordinary about Midler is that she invented her own form of musical revue and took it into giant venues across the country. She created and performed her own bizarre cast of characters. Occasionally she would bring her extravaganzas into a Broadway theatre but she usually played to ten thousand, not the fifteen-hundred of the larger Broadway theatres. Midler's core audience was gay men from the days of her appearances at the Continental baths to her touring spectacles. Then she went Hollywood and became more mainstream. Nonetheless, for many gay men, Bette is part of gay history, the first diva to play to and for gay audiences. Given this, I was surprised to see that the audience wildly cheering her last night at the Shubert Theatre was predominantly straight. The Continental Baths was over forty years ago and many of her towel-clad audience there and then were lost in the AIDS epidemic. The audience last night was also decidedly middle-aged and older. Younger gay men have their own divas though none of them play as specifically to the gay community as Bette did back in the day.
     Bette is the centerpiece of an excellent revival of the Jerry Herman-Michael Stewart-Gower Champion extravaganza, HELLO, DOLLY!, a show built to celebrate its title character and the performer who plays her. HELLO, DOLLY! is a faithful musical adaptation of Thornton Wilder's farce, THE MATCHMAKER, which played successfully on Broadway in the 1950s with Ruth Gordon giving a typically bizarre performance as Dolly Gallagher Levi. I was in high school when I saw THE MATCHMAKER and thought the play was hilarious but that Gordon was just plain weird. The next year Shirley Booth made more of the role in the lovely film adaptation. THE MATCHMAKER was my high school's Senior Play. I was student director. Like many of Thornton Wilder's works, HELLO, DOLLY is a call to celebrate life. Strangely, it is also a celebration of money, for, according to the show, only with money can one live fully.  As Dolly says, "Money is like manure. You've got to spread it around to make little things grow." Dolly forces miserly, stodgy Horace Vandergelder to enjoy life as she rescues his young employees, Cornelius and Barnaby from tedium.
     The musical gives its audience the gist of the play, soliloquies and all, and uses it as a foundation for a brilliant score from Jerry Herman. There isn't a weak number in HELLO, DOLLY, except, in this revival, "Penny in My Pocket," the number Horace (David Hyde Pierce), sings at the top of the second act, which was rightly cut from the original production. It's obviously there only to give Pierce another number. Jerry Herman was the last of the great Broadway composers who wrote traditional show tunes. Like Sondheim, his active career ended in the 1980s. Even in 1964, when The Beatles became big stars, one could say that his music looked back to another era and another style. He is the last great creator of traditional American popular songs, of the kind of show tunes we call The American Songbook.  My kind of music.
     The producers of this revival have lavished great care. Though credit is given to Jerry Zaks as director and Warren Carlyle as choreographer, the production keeps key elements of the Gower Champion original. If anything this version, with gorgeous sets by Santo Loquasto (even painted drops like the old days), and brilliantly colored costumes (also by Loquasto), are more lavish than the original. There's a big orchestra and good sized chorus. There is also a star-studded supporting cast for Ms. Midler. David Hyde Pierce is the best Horace I have seen. The wonderful Gavin Creel is totally charming as Cornelius. Kate Baldwin sings beautifully, as always. Even without Midler, this is a starry revival.
     Then there's Bette Midler. Broadway musical expert Ethan Mordden has written, "The ideal Dolly is the ideal entertainer, a fabulous freak." Look who played her in the original seven-year run: Carol Channing, Ginger Rogers, Martha Rate, Phyllis Diller, Ethel Merman and Pearl Bailey (with an all-Black supporting cast). I felt a sense of deja vu as I watched Bette's performance, which evoked memories of star turns I saw as a kid in that same theatre--Judy Holliday in BELLS ARE RINGING, Jackie Gleason and Robert Morse in TAKE ME ALONG. Across the street Phil Silvers and Nancy Walker in DO RE MI. Star turns by big stars. They don't make them like that anymore. The audience didn't expect them to be anything but who they were. Did anyone expect Ethel Merman to act? Like audiences in the Golden Age of the Musical, the audience was there to see Midler who played Midler playing Dolly. She flubbed her first lines, then ad libbed, "It's the meds." The audience loved it. When she finally got the line right, she got another ovation. In the final scene, her hat fell off. The audience applauded. She and David Hyde Pierce ad libbed a few lines about the hat. More applause. There was a sense that these little mistakes were what the audience wanted, what made it a live event. They could tell their friends that they saw Bette the night her hat fell off, the night she got tongue-tied on one of her first lines. It sounded like she has never gotten over the throat problems that plagued her earlier in the run. She is now almost as much of a baritone as Carol Channing was. But there was the presence, flashes of the old Bette who loved nothing more than pleasing an audience and having them show their love for her. She's 70 now, older than Carol Channing was when she did her farewell tour of HELLO, DOLLY!, but once in the spotlight Bette seemed to have boundless energy. It was a love fest and she deserved the love for giving the audience a taste of what Broadway used to be like.
     It is highly likely that Bette Midler and Ben Platt, who performs in DEAR EVAN HANSEN a few yards away from the Shubert at the Music Box Theatre, will win the Tonys for best performance in a musical. What a contrast! Platt's performance is an amazing case of a performer seeming to totally lose himself in a role. Bette Midler is, splendidly, Bette Midler. That's what we paid the big bucks to see. The fact that she is surrounded by some of the best talent on Broadway singing a great score in a fabulous production only makes it an even greater event.
     

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Sondheim's PACIFIC OVERTURES at the Classic Stage Company

     Hearing Stephen Sondheim's glorious score for PACIFIC OVERTURES (well, most of it), was like a breath of fresh air after a season of musicals with bland, forgettable music. There are sweeping, beautiful ballads ("There Is No Other Way" is one of Sondheim's best), and truly funny pastiches ("Please, Hello"). Every song is a jewel and, most amazing, every musical number is a self-contained mini-drama telling a story and defining characters. The show has a sweeping narrative but the score is like looking at a gallery of fine Japanese woodblocks, which can often in one image tell its own psychologically complex story. Every other show I have seen this season, with the possible exception of DEAR EVAN HANSEN and AMELIE, has worked too hard at ingratiating its audience, at winning us over. GROUNDHOG DAY and NATASHA, PIERRE AND THE GREAT COMET almost exhaust you with their spectacle and constant movement, though Tim Minchin's score for the former has the best lyrics and some good tunes sprinkled in all that visual busyness. Sondheim's great musicals draw you in. They require the audience to participate intellectually and emotionally. I must mention, too, Jonathan Tunick's beautiful orchestrations. One can't help but think at times of the haunting, elegiac quality of Mahler's DAS LIED VON DER ERDE, which I am sure Sondheim had in mind when he wrote some of PACIFIC OVERTURES. I do not exaggerate in comparing PACIFIC OVERTURES with great works of art and music (anybody who knows me knows I adore Japanese woodblocks and Mahler). The score earns the comparison.
     PACIFIC OVERTURES is the story of the Western incursions into "barbaric" Japan in the mid-19th century, told from the point of view of the Japanese, particularly a Shogun, a minor bureaucrat and a prisoner who has spent time in America. The show traces the elevation and cultural confusion of these men as personifications of what is happening to Japan itself. Director John Doyle, a leading advocate of the "less is more" school of direction, has pared a long show down to ninety minutes by cutting the book down to the bare essentials. In simplifying the narrative he has also, with Sondheim's permission, cut one excellent number, Chrysanthemum Tea." Those of us who love the score lament the loss of that witty musical mini-drama. It would have been better to have the complete score.
     Doyle's production is simplicity itself. It is performed on a white transverse stage. The only furniture is one stool. The cast wears contemporary casual dress. A few pieces of Japanese fabric are used to turn actors into shoguns, women, emperors. There are only a few necessary props. In my experience, PACIFIC OVERTURES works best in such pared down productions rather than the spectacular original production directed by Harold Prince. I have never heard or seen "Someone in a Tree" better performed or sung. Kudos to Austin Ku and Thom Sesma.
     The super-talented cast couldn't be better. The original production was all-male, but Doyle has added two women for the few female roles (men still play the prostitutes in "Welcome to Kanagawa"). Everyone sings beautifully and effectively executes Doyle's simple, ritualistic staging. The small band sounded like a full orchestra.
     The revivals of PACIFIC OVERTURES and SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE have been high points of my theatergoing year. Stephen Sondheim hasn't been actively composing new work for almost three decades now but he has left us some of the greatest scores in the history of American musical theater. Nothing now on Broadway comes close to his achievement. We were lucky this year to have two excellent revivals. Like the great operatic classics, Sondheim's work deserves to be revived regularly.