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.

Sunday, 21 May 2017

AMELIE, THE MUSICAL and The Misuse of the Term "Flop"

     We saw the final performance of AMELIE (Book, Craig Lucas; music, Danielle Messe; lyrics, Nathan Tyson and Daniel Messe), today. The show had twenty-seven preview performances and fifty-six performances before a closing witnessed by a thousand or so highly enthusiastic theatergoers. I heard high praise from the people around me and the stage door mob almost completely blocked Forty-eighth Street. Moreover, AMELIE is one of the best musicals of the season with a charming book by Craig Lucas (adapted from the French film) and a tuneful, delightful score, better than any Tony-nominated score except, perhaps DEAR EVAN HANSEN. The small-scale production (Directed by Pam McKinnon, musical staging Sam Pinkleton), is visually witty and perfect for the tone of the material. David Zinn's designs and gorgeous. AMELIE may not have attracted the audience it needed, but it would be highly unfair to call it a flop. It was an artistic success that didn't attract audiences. One can try to second guess the producers. Perhaps a clever title in English rather than assuming theatergoers had seen the charming French film. Perhaps realizing that Philippa Soo is not a big enough star to attract a large audience (what leading lady under thirty-five is these days?),
though she was perfect casting as was the always magnetic Adam Chanler-Berat. The show was advertised as if Soo were a big star. Perhaps, perhaps, but, thank God I'm not a producer. What I did see this afternoon is that young women--the theatre was full of them--adore the show. Surely there was a way to market it more effectively.
     AMELIE is not a easy show to explain. It is whimsical and offbeat in the manner of many successful French films. Suffice it to say that it is an eccentric love story about eccentrics, the coming together of two people who prefer to live life at a distance from other people. What was most impressive is that the production caught the offbeat quality of the film without being the least bit heavy-handed, as Broadway can often be. It respected its source material but one could certainly enjoy the show without having seen the film. I'm not sure Philippa Soo is above the title star material. She's pretty and has a decent, but not great, singing voice--some notes seem to disappear altogether even with miking. The girl who plays her younger self has more pizzazz. But Amelie is an odd star turn, a self-effacing leading character. Adam Chanler-Berat is one of those performers who seems to belong totally onstage. He gets the best songs and makes the most of them.
     I'm so glad I got to see this charming show.
   

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

THE VIEW UPSTAIRS at the Culture Project

     It would be difficult for young gay folk to imagine how tacky gay bars were in the old days. They were dingy joints but to their denizens they were a safe space--until the police brutally raided or, as in the case of the UpStairs Lounge in New Orleans, the setting for the new musical THE VIEW UPSTAIRS, set ablaze by some raging homophobe. Twenty-nine people died in the fire at that bar in 1973. THE VIEW UPSTAIRS gives us a picture of that bar which, in the early years of gay liberation, was home and church for its regulars; queens, drag queens, closeted married men, hustlers, many of whom had been thrown out of their homes. The musical is also a kind of time travel show. A young gay fashion designer buys the bar in 2017 as a workshop and showroom for his clothes. His world of Grindr, cell phones and anonymous, casual sex isn't much more satisfying than the gay life offered in the UpStairs Lounge in 1973. At least that seedy place, raided regularly by brutal
homophobic police, offered a sense of community.  Alone in his new workshop, Wes (Jeremy Pope), finds himself surrounded by the ghosts of the denizens of the UpStairs Lounge. The cast of characters is a collection of types: homeless hustler, grand Black queen, Latino drag queen and his mother, closeted married man, butch bartender, MCC preacher.
     As is often the case in shows like this, there's a bit too much preaching and victimhood here. The meat of the piece is the contrast between Wes and Patrick (Taylor Frey), the ghost from the past he falls in love with. Their arguments underscore the differences between past and present for young gay men. Wes gets on his moral high horse about Patrick's hustling and Patrick counters that Wes's world of anonymous encounters is too impersonal and no more moral.
     Max Vernon has written the book, music and lyrics. The only two really interesting characters are Wes and Patrick. Everyone else is cardboard. The songs, all character songs, are pleasant and forgettable. Director Scott Ebersold and his designer Jason Sherwood have turned the Lynn Redgrave Theater into a facsimile of the UpStairs Lounge. There are tables in the playing area and the actors use the aisles as well as the stage.
     The cast is a mixed bag. Jeremy Pope was having voice troubles the night we went. He has the right sort of theatrical personality to hold this sprawling show together. Taylor Frey is sweet and sings beautifully -- the best voice in the cast. As Willie, the Black queen, Nathan Lee Graham gives one of the most shameless, self-indulgent performances I have seen in the professional theater, mugging endlessly and milking lines and pauses beyond the breaking point. In my experience, grand old-style queens always had a great sense of timing. Graham doesn't. Awful!
     I guess I'd call THE VIEW UPSTAIRS a noble effort, most interesting in its clash of past and present.

Sunday, 14 May 2017

THE GOLDEN APPLE by Jerome Moross and John LaTouche at City Center Encores

     Like many musical theater aficionados, I have always wanted to see a good performance of THE GOLDEN APPLE. The show opened at the Phoenix Theatre, a former Yiddish Theatre on Second Avenue and 12th Street, in 1954 and became a cult hit. Writer James McCourt wrote that it was on his "free-association queer syllabus," a show gays at the time had to see (I don't quite get this). I remember as a budding show queen of 12 all the hoopla about the musical. The producers moved it to Broadway where it quickly died--too witty, too musically sophisticated for Broadway in the age of THE PAJAMA GAME (not that there's anything wrong with THE PAJAMA GAME but THE GOLDEN APPLE is another animal altogether). Failure on Broadway only made the show more of a cult hit for the cognoscenti. An original cast album was produced of less that half of the two hour score--bits an pieces of a coherent work. McCarthyites found the show's satire of American lust, greed and hunger for power un-American. A complete recording of a not very good Texas production was put out a few years ago.
     THE GOLDEN APPLE is an American retelling of Homer, set in a small town in the state of Washington. Yes, there's Helen (the always fabulous Lyndsay Mendez), a sexually-liberated belter common in American musicals since at least Ado Annie in OKLAHOMA, married to a middle-aged Menelaus. She flies off in a hot-air balloon with a Paris (Barton Cowperthwaite), a lingerie salesman (a mute dancing role). Ulysses (Ryan Silverman), fresh home from the Spanish-American War, goes off to avenge Menelaus and bring Helen home, leaving his wife Penelope (Mikaela Bennett), behind. Much of the second act is taken up with the temptations Ulysses and his men face trying to get home. These are 1950s versions of Ulysses' trials--greed, lust, power American style.
     THE GOLDEN APPLE is through sung, more an opera than a typical musical. There's none of the weak musical padding of pop-operas of the 1970s and 1980s, none of those awful, endlessly repeated four note recitatives. This is a real score, a worthy companion to the great American operas of the period, Douglas Moore's THE BALLAD OF BABY DOE (also with LaTouche words), Carlisle Floyd's SUSANNAH, and Robert Ward's THE CRUCIBLE and that brilliant, if problematic operetta, Bernstein's CANDIDE (LaTouche was one of the many lyricists on that work). It's one of the great words-music collaborations in American musical theatre. There's every kind of American musical form in this rich, varied score.
     The City Center has done us an enormous service in producing THE GOLDEN APPLE so well. The musical values have been not only preserved but celebrated. A thirty-one piece orchestra (not a synthesizer in sight) give us a beautiful rendering of Moross's orchestrations. There's a big chorus and     excellent leads. Ryan Silverman and debutante Mikaela Bennett sing beautifully. Silverman is a great exemplar of a dying breed, the handsome baritone lead. Bennett, still a Juilliard student, pushes her beautiful voice too much. She will be a real opera star one day. Lindsay Mendez is her usual terrific self singing and acting as if there is nowhere she should be but in a spotlight. Everyone else belongs in this company. Michael Berresse's staging is simple but effective as is Joshua Bergasse's choreography. Bravos to Rob Berman for such superb musical direction. The Encores series gets minimal rehearsal. I saw the last performance, which was totally assured musically and theatrically.
     THE GOLDEN APPLE was a real treat. Kudos and thanks to all involved.