Friday, 31 May 2013

Richard Nelson's NIKOLAI AND THE OTHERS at Lincoln Center Theater

     The first Richard Nelson play I ever saw was SOME AMERICANS ABROAD, performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company with terrible American accents (Twenty years ago, British actors had not mastered American accents. Now they star as Americans on half our tv shows). Nelson's latest play is NIKOLAI AND THE OTHERS, which could be subtitled SOME RUSSIANS ABROAD; for, all but three of the eighteen characters are Russian emigrees to America. Though many of these people left Russia forty years ago when they were children or teenagers, they still consider themselves Russian. At this weekend at a Connecticut home in 1948, they insist on speaking Russian, even when there are non-Russian speakers in the room (rude, I thought). Nelson has effectively used the conceit that his actors only use Russian accents on the rare occasions when they speak English. His Russians clearly feel that they are culturally superior to the land they live in -- that they have brought culture to America. Of course, some members of this group are high cultural celebrities: Composer Igor Stravinsky, choreographer George Balanchine, conductor Serge Koussevitsky. The women are wives, ex-wives or acolytes to Balanchine and Stravinsky. This is a small, parochial, incestuous, and snobbish group. The only non-Russians are Balanchine's current wife, the great ballerina Maria Tallchief (Balanchine cheats on her with a teenage would-be ballerina), dancer Nicholas Magallanes and an American red hunter (this is the age of the anti-Communist witch hunts). Balanchine and Stravinsky are busy creating their ballet, ORPHEUS, which will star Magallanes and Tallchief (we see some of the ballet rehearsed), but the focus of the weekend is the name day of the groups eldest member, Sergey Sudeiken, the ex-husband of Vera Stravinsky and a designer who no longer can get work. As a name day present, the group pays Magallanes to stay in the room with Sudeikin, so the old man can watch the beautiful young man sleep.
      As the title suggests, the central character is composer Nicolai Nabokov. Nicky, as he is called, hasn't written a note in years and spends most of his time working for the U.S. government in their effort to find the communists in the Russian community. Nicky sees his role as one that allows him to help his Russian friends who, during much of the weekend come to him asking for favors and advice. While his so-called friends need him and his contacts, they have little respect for him because he is no longer an active artist. Over the weekend, Nicky goes through two personal crises. Watching the great artists work on ORPHEUS convinces him that he has to cut his ties with the government and go back to being a working artist. When he tries to do this, Chip, the government red hunter, tells him the cruel things his Russian friends have said about him behind his back and also makes clear that he can't cut his ties with the government. At the end, Nicky is watching Stravinsky, Balanchine and Magallanes rehearse. He is no longer an active artist and he can no longer trust his friends; nonetheless, this is his world. This is family for these self-absorbed people and we watch their affection for each other and their small and large betrayals. There's nothing melodramatic here. When Balanchine has his way in the barn with the teenager (offstage), the others know. There are looks, but no direct comment. The women all adore or worship George. To them, his at times predatory sex with real and would-be dancers is part of his genius. They have no respect for George's young American wife, even though she is one of the world's great dancers. She is not Russian and she is a racial other (Native American). When she is in the room, the other women continue to speak in Russian (again, rude). Setting Magallanes up with Sergei is to them the nice thing to do. Nelson never judges his characters. Like many of Chekhov's people, they are narcissistic, oblivious of the consequences of that they say and do and without much empathy.
      Throughout this quasi-Chekhovian play (THE SEA GULL is even quoted at one point), Nelson is concerned with questions about the making of art. Whatever Balanchine's and Stravinsky's failings as human beings, they are busy creating a work of genius. Making art is so much their focus that the human stuff gets left by the wayside. The others wish they were like that and bask in the reflected glory.
      I found NIKOLAI AND THE  OTHERS constantly absorbing, but I came to the play with a fair amount of knowledge about its historical characters. I must note that at least a quarter of the audience left at intermission and it was quite clear from their conversation on the way out that some had no idea who Balanchine was, though his work is being danced a few yards away by the company he founded at the Koch Theatre. To my horror, I heard one person ask another who Igor was! So much for cultural literacy even among New York theater goers (and yes, I am a troglodyte, a believer in cultural literacy!). David Cromer is always great at ensemble pieces that demand realistic acting and emotional honesty and he has staged the play beautifully in that tricky space. I was way over on the side in the Mitzi Newhouse theatre, and never felt left out of the action. What a group of actors he has assembled! It's difficult to single anyone out. Veteran Alvin Epstein was superb as old Sergey, who feels dead already because he no longer is asked to work as an artist. Blair Brown perfectly captured Vera's dutiful devotion to her ex-husband, whom she left because he wasn't famous enough, and her adoration of the famous Stravinsky. Michael Cerveris and John Glover were an excellent team -- the emotionally (though not sexually) reticent Balanchine who, as someone says, "keeps his cards to his chest", and the voluble Stravinsky who loves to talk. The two dancers, Natalia Alonso and Michael Rosen as Tallchief and Magallanes, managed to dance Balanchine's difficult choreography acceptably (few can dance this choreography as well as Tallchief and Magallanes) and act touchingly. Rosen was particularly good in the final scene, stuck in a room with everyone speaking a language he doesn't understand. Stephen Kunken touchingly acted Nikolai's hurt silences.
     Thanks to the Lincoln Center Theater for giving us this large, eighteen character work in such an excellent production. What a year for the Lincoln Center Theater. Bartlett Sher's production of Odets's GOLDEN BOY (even more characters!), was one of my favorite productions of the past season. THE NANCE is an ambitious, important, intelligent, entertaining and touching play. I'm shocked that it isn't up for the Tony for Best Play (but neither is Craig Wright's GRACE, also a fine, thought-provoking work). And Chris Durang's VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE is lightweight but delightful. That's an amazing season for any theater anywhere in the world.
NIKOLAI AND THE OTHERS. Mitzi Newhouse Theater, Lincoln Center Theater. May 30, 2013.

Sunday, 12 May 2013

City Center Encores ON YOUR TOES

     If I had to name the most thrilling moment of musical theater this season, it would have to be the performance of the title song of Rodgers' and Hart's ON YOUR TOES, as staged by Warren Carlyle in the City Center Encores revival (second place would go to the first act finale of KINKY BOOTS). It moves from solo piano, to full band, to solo singer to singing chorus to some amazing competitive dancing between a troupe of tappers and a troupe of ballet dancers, all to a catchy Rodgers tune from when he could write jazzy (before he lost his mojo in his collaboration with Hammerstein). A series of benches are in constant motion as the dancers move in ever-changing patterns. The song goes on for about five minutes and all of us in the euphoric capacity audience would have been happy for another five minutes. It is the greatest joy in this joyful, beautifully staged production of a show with one of Richard Rodgers' finest scores. If I had to choose between Rodgers' scores with Hart and his scores with Hammerstein, I'd choose Rodgers and Hart every time. Hart was a brilliant lyricist, tangy where Hammerstein was corny. ON YOUR TOES is filled with brilliant lyrics; for ballads like "Glad to Be Unhappy" and for comic numbers like "The Heart Is Quicker Than the Eye." Rodgers' tunes and all memorable, from the sweet, simple "There's a Small Hotel" to the soaring melodies of the ballet "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue."
     Yes, the book (credited to Rodgers and Hart and George Abbott) doesn't make a lot of sense, and Encores has wisely trimmed the dialogue to the essentials. It's there to provide continuity for the magnificent score. What's left are the wittier moments as when Junior, the leading character (Shonn Wiley) asks sophisticated patron of the arts Peggy Porterfield (the wonderful Christine Baranski), "Can a good person love two women," and she responds "Only if he's very good." Of course, this is the kind of line Baranski relishes. 
     Encores is always brilliant in its casting of a balance of established stars and newcomers. The surprise here is American Ballet Theatre star ballerina Irina Dvorovenko playing a star ballerina. Of course she dances brilliantly, but who knew she could deliver funny dialogue? She's delightful. New York City Ballet dancer Jaoquin DeLuz matches her in diva/divo rivalry. Baranski and Walter Bobbie are great as the impressario and his patroness. When are they going to revive MAME on Broadway for Baranski? Kelli Barret is a fine singer who makes the most of "Glad to Be Unhappy." The part of Junior is a killer. He has to be a good singer, comic actor, tap dancer and ballet dancer. I've never seen a performer do well in all four areas. In a London revival some years ago, Adam Cooper danced brilliantly, but wasn't much of a singer or actor. In the 1983 Broadway revival, Lara Teeter danced and sang well, but did't exude much personality. Here Shonn Wiley is a charming performer with a solid tenor voice. He is very funny in the parody ballet "La Princesse Zenobia" that ends the first act. What he can't do is match Dvorovenko's dancing in "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue" where he seems out of his depth as a dancer. He's such a winning performer throughout the rest of the show that we accept his game try at the big ballet. There was only one Gene Kelly who could do everything the role demands and he never played Junior onstage.
     A great afternoon of theater that left the audience on a grand high.
ON YOUR TOES. New York City Center. May 11, 2013.

FAR FROM HEAVEN, the musical, at Playwrights Horizons

     FAR FROM HEAVEN, with a book by Richard Greenberg and lovely score by Scott Frankel (music) and Michael Korie (lyrics), would be a better show if it were freer with its source material. The Todd Haynes film, a twenty-first century imitation of a 1950s Douglas Sirk tearjerker, told the story of a middle-class housewife in Hartford, Connecticut, who is forced outside the confines of conventional thought and action at a time when there were socially proscribed limits on one's behavior. Everyone thinks Kathy is the perfect wife for an up and coming businessman until, as her husband Frank can no longer repress his homosexuality, she becomes close friends and potentially more with her Black gardener, Raymond, a relationship that costs him much more than it costs her. At the end, Kathy is a divorcee (not easy for a housewife in 1957) and the subject of scandal. I'm not sure this moody film, which depended a great deal on closeups of Julianna Moore and the other actors, is surefure material for musical theatre. Opera, perhaps, and this version of FAR FROM HEAVEN verges on opera. It is almost through sung and filled with sweeping lyrical moments. While I liked FAR FROM HEAVEN, I couldn't help noticing its flaws.
     Richard Greenberg is usually an old-fashioned realist, writing elegant dramas about highly articulate upper middle class Americans, often Jewish. His most recent play THE ASSEMBLED PARTIES, now at the Friedman, is as much about the massive revolving setting of an elegant Manhattan apartment as it is about its characters. He actually wrote his best work, TAKE ME OUT, when he was willing to stray from his usual subject matter and his usual style. Greenberg has written a fairly literal adaptation of Haynes's film when a freer version would have been more interesting. He may have been hamstrung by the fact that this musical version of FAR FROM HEAVEN seems from the outset to have been conceived as a vehicle for Kelli O'Hara. She's wonderful (more on that later), but I think there was a missed opportunity to create a sharper comparison between what she and her husband experience as they move outside contemporary social mores. Kathy never actually goes to bed with Raymond, but she is seen publicly with him which is almost as dangerous. Frank risks everything when he finally experiences real love: his home, his family and probably his job. In 1957 he has made a daring, difficult choice for which he will pay a high price, as Raymond has paid a high price for his relationship with Kathy. Unfortunately, Frank in this version is neither well drawn nor sympathetic. In the film, we felt for Dennis Quaid's Frank. I don't understand why the gay creators of this musical have so little interest in him as a character. I also think there were opportunities to bring him more into the picture. There's a moment toward the end of Act I when Kathy and Raymond sing a duet, "The Only One", about their outsider status. Both my partner and I felt that it should have been a trio with Frank. That choice would have involved moving away from the conventional, realistic narrative approach Greenberg, Frankel and Korie had chosen, but why stick to that conventional approach? Musical theater allows a different kind of freedom than film does. Musicals can easily be two places at once, or in the minds of the characters. Greenberg stuck too closely to the film, giving us too many secondary female characters and not developing the men sufficiently. Don't Raymond and Kathy know what they're getting into? Are they so ignorant of the norms of their respective communities? Shouldn't the musical mention the gender politics here -- what attracts Kathy to Raymond is that he can conceive of a woman as his friend. The other husbands cannot. The show ends much too abruptly. Where is Kathy mentally at the end? What is she thinking? The film gave us a telling close-up on Julianna Moore. The show needed another song. I was surprised to see that Michael Greif and his actors seem scared of the gay stuff, which is presented much more cautiously in the musical than it was in the film. Again, without close-ups, we need a song, particularly in the Miami hotel room when Frank encounters the young man he will fall in love with. The musical presents this in upstage darkness as if something awful is about to happen. In the film it was brightly lit and very erotic -- we felt Frank's attraction. Cut the society reporter and give Frank more to do -- or simply make the relatively short show a bit longer and develop Frank.
     I liked the lush score. The orchestra is a crucial player here as it is in 1950s melodramas and Bruce Coughlin's orchestrations make the twelve piece orchestra sound like a Hollywood studio orchestra. Much of the musical language is of the period, particularly of film dramas of the period -- lush melodies, some harsh jazz for more tense moments. Michael Korie's rhymes are sometimes predictable and sometimes too solemn. The film is aware of its ironies: the musical doesn't have an ironic bone in its body and what is a musical without irony? Kathy gets most of the music when, as I have said, Frank needs more.
     I saw the fourth preview and the production is in surprisingly good shape. The moving black skeletal sets (Allen Moyer) are enlivened by the bright period costumes for the women (Catherine Zuber). Kathy goes through more costume changes than Auntie Mame does. Michael Greif's staging is, wrongheaded at moments (see above) but generally effective, if not inspired, Kelli O'Hara is a performer I have not previously loved. She was a good ingenue in THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA and a good, but not great Nellie Forbush in the Lincoln Center revival of SOUTH PACIFIC. I thought she was blah in NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT and in the recent telecast of the New York Philharmonic CAROUSEL, Jessie Mueller's Carrie stole the show but, in all fairness, Carrie usually steals the show. Julie Jordan is a bit of a sap. Finally in FAR FROM HEAVEN I understood her star status. She's an excellent singer who, like Audra McDonald can use her legit voice in very expressive ways. She's better in drama than in comedy, which is odd for a musical theater star. Stephen Pasquale is a fine singer and actor who hasn't been given enough to do. Isaiah Johnson sings well and does all he can with the role of Raymond, who is too good -- and naive -- to be true.
     I hope the creators do the work necessary to give the show a future. It needs to be more daring with its source material. We don't need a faithful replica of the screenplay with songs. We need a new take on the material that takes advantage of the possibilities of musical theater. I doubt Richard Greenberg is the person do that.  However, the score and the performances make it worth seeing, even in its current state.
FAR FROM HEAVEN. Playwrights Horizons. May 11, 2013.

Thursday, 9 May 2013

Diane Paulus's revival of PIPPIN

     In my last review, I began saying that sensory overload is one of the primary qualities of musical theatre (opera and ballet as well as the musical). HERE LIES LOVE gave us one form of sensory overload with its constant disco beat and audience participation. Diane Paulus's revival of PIPPIN gives us another. PIPPIN was always a show within a show -- a troupe of performers telling a story. Bob Fosse's original production, which ran for almost five years (1972-77), was imbued with Fosse's love for the excitement and tawdriness of theatre. PIPPIN has a thin narrative, but it is a myth of maturation in which theatre represents a childhood dream of a life of excitement, a life of being "extraordinary", as the central character sings. Eventually one has to give up that dream, but it's the showbiz dream that makes the musical exciting. In an age when everyone wants to be a celebrity, at least for fifteen minutes, PIPPIN has more resonance than it did four decades ago. In this revival, Chet Walker has given us choreography "in the style of Bob Fosse", and the allure of theatre has been magnified by the circus acts created by Gypsy Snider. Dance and the circus acts have been brilliantly integrated in this thrillingly staged production. The storytelling gets overshadowed, but there's not much of a story anyway.
     It was clear from the outset that most of the capacity audience at the Music Box Theatre last night knew the show -- thousands of people have seen or been in high school, college and community theatre productions of PIPPIN. The openings of Stephen Schwartz's songs were cheered by this audience of PIPPIN fans. It's an ingratiating score. Often songs barely fit into the narrative -- why is Pippin singing a song called "Morning Glow" after he has killed his father and usurped the throne? It's a sweet song that becomes a choral anthem before it finishes. It isn't the best fit for that moment, but PIPPIN is far from a Sondheim musical. The ending has always been a bit of a bummer. Pippin might want an ordinary life, but in a musical, showbiz always wins. That's what we're paying for.  This production redeems the childhood dream at the end.
     Through much of the first act, I was reminded that PIPPIN was a Nixon era show. All the anti-war material was originally seen in the context of the still raging Vietnam War and the show's tyrannical Emperor Charlemagne took on particular relevance as the Watergate scandal raged during the show's original run. We've still got war and cruel, absurd politicians, though this revival doesn't seem to care much about the contemporary relevance of the show. This one is all showbiz. Maybe Paulus's approach is perfect for what PIPPIN says for our age. Forget idealism, forget politics. We can't change anything -- all we can do is tend our own gardens, as Voltaire said. After all, PIPPIN is a softer version of Voltaire's CANDIDE. Under all the glitz is a cynical message.
     The cast is a mixed bag. Andrea Martin steals the show as Pippin's grandmother. "No Time at All" is always a showstopper in the right hands (Irene Ryan was memorable back in 1972), but in this production Martin does an amazing trapeze act in the midst of her number. She might be singing about the horrors of aging, but she proves to be ageless. Terrence Mann and Charlotte d'Amboise make the most of the cardboard roles of Charlemagne and his sexy wife. The singing, dancing, juggling, ensemble is simply amazing. That leaves the two principals. Matthew James Thomas, our Pippin, is cute, sweet and an amazing gymnast, but not much of a singer. This may be a minor cavil, but there are probably dozens of talented young American musical theatre performers who could have played that role as well and sung it better than Thomas (I have seen them in university productions). Why did Actors' Equity allow the casting of a non-American performer in the role? The crucial role in Pippin is the Leading Player, who must represent the magic and allure of theatre and be Pippin's guide through his maturation process. Ben Vereen became a star though that role in 1972, and I have seen lots of performers, male and female, make something of the part. All one can say of Patina Miller is that she looks good and goes through the motions in an efficient, soul-less way. She can sing and dance, but she's too cold a performer to be the spirit of theatre. Her hardness may be a directorial choice; nonetheless, it takes some of the sweetness and heart out of the show. The dream of theatre is the only positive thing PIPPIN offers and if the Leading Player is cold, nasty at times, even that dream becomes sinister.
     The audience genuinely loved the show. Like most PIPPIN audiences they were less enthusiastic about the celebration of ordinariness than they were about the glitz. Despite Miller's chilly performance, the glitz -- and the songs -- make this revival worth seeing.
PIPPIN. Music Box Theatre. May 8, 2013.

Monday, 6 May 2013

HERE LIES LOVE at the Public

     Musicals have always been built on sensory overload -- music, words, dance, spectacle, performances and sheer numbers of performers. That sense of overload has increased in recent years as theatre technology has become more sophisticated and audiences want more spectacle for the amount of money they are shelling out for tickets. Alex Timbers' production of David Byrne and Fatboy Slim's HERE LIES LOVE takes sensory overload to a new level. The Luesther Theatre of the Public Theatre has been turned into a disco complete with loud techno music, lasers and projections. Most of the audience for this interactive show stands (most of the time) on the disco floor where platforms are moved around to create different stage configurations in addition to the stages that surround the audience. The rest of us are in galleries along the sides looking down on the action. Once the show begins, the audience is inundated with the production. Performers pop up everywhere. Sometimes a sung is performed in the midst of the crowd, with the singer's face captured by video cameras and projected on the walls. The cast seems to be constantly changing costumes. At times the audience is asked to become a kind of dancing chorus. It would take a heart of stone not to be taken in by this production, which ends with a singalong of the title song.
     HERE LIES LOVE began as a concept album a few years ago, so many in the audience already knew the score to this sung through musical (virtually no dialogue). I didn't, so its richness and variety was a pleasant surprise. The show has everything from big, energetic numbers to lovely ballads, all to a techno accompaniment. No band, only a DJ, supposedly mixing in the dance beats from a synthesizer until the final song performed to an acoustic guitar. I kept thinking that the score would have been just as good with real instruments, but the techno sound was a viable option. The hard working cast couldn't be better. Ruthie Ann Miles even looks like the young Imelda, and Jose Llana and Conrad Ricamora convincingly embody Marcos and Aquino and sing superbly.
     OK, so the staging was fascinating, the score was excellent and the performances fine. Why am I not totally impressed? Like BLOODY BLOODY ANDREW JACKSON, the last musical directed by Alex Timbers at the Public, HERE LIES LOVE is a hip, clever take on history without an interesting point of view toward its material. ANDREW JACKSON brought out the tired cliche of historical figure as rock star. HERE LIES LOVE gave us another first lady to a vicious dictator (shades of EVITA), but what actually was its take on her? She was complicit in the bloody doings of her husband but survived -- in her old age she is still a political force in the Philippines. For some she is still a saint. In this show, Aquino is the good politician who made the mistake of rejecting Imelda's charms early on because she was too tall. Imelda seems virtually clueless ("Why don't they love me?"), though she seems to be greatly responsible for Marcos's initial popularity. By the way, there is no mention of the famous shoe collection.. The show ends with the Marcos's exit from the Manila, though that is far from the end of Imelda's story. Though I succumbed to its immediate sensory pleasures I missed a sense of why Byrne and his colleagues had chosen to write a musical about Imelda Marcos.
HERE LIES LOVE. Public Theatre. May 5, 2013.