Sunday, 9 June 2013


     Did Daniel Pearle really mean to make Alex, the leading character of his new play A KID LIKE JAKE, such a repellent, unsympathetic character? His attempts to redeem her in the last five minutes of the play suggest not. Nonetheless, what we watch for an hour and forty-five minutes is a totally self-centered, manipulative woman. Alex gave up a career as a lawyer to be a full time mother. That hasn't gone too well. Her recent attempts at having a child have resulted in miscarriages. Her four year old son, Jake (unseen during the play), seems to have issues of gender confusion. More important, like his mother, he is selfish and aggressive. Alex and her long-suffering psychotherapist husband are trying to get Jake into a good private elementary school. For Alex, this is an obsession. She doesn't want to deal with Jake's behavioral problems because they might reflect badly on her. Jake may over-identify with Disney heroines like Cinderella and the little mermaid, but Alex gave him the books and dvds that piqued his interest. Greg, Alex's husband, tries to be the good liberal father who accepts his sons eccentricity. He also tries to avoid conflict with his wife until she goes too far over the line. Jake's problems cannot be solved because Alex makes any comment about Jake an attack on her.
     The problem with A KID LIKE JAKE is that we see what a monster (I was very tempted to use the B word) Alex is in the first scene. Other scenes are merely repetitions of or variations on her defensiveness and aggression. Her husband is a nice guy, but why doesn't he take his son and get out of there? All one can say at the end of the overlong play is, "Poor Jake."
     I have always liked Carla Gugino. Here, with died red hair (why?), she does the best she can, but no one can make us feel much but anger for her character. Peter Grosz is credible as her conflict-avoiding, somewhat masochistic husband. Caroline Aaron is excellent as Judy, the guidance counselor at Jake's pre-school, particularly in the scene in which Alex turns the full force of her hostility onto Judy when it is clear Jake is not going to get into one of the best schools.
     After one-hundred minutes of realism, we are given a dream sequence that makes no sense at all. Clearly the playwright wanted us to feel something positive for Alex, but the abrupt shift in style and the conceit of the gynecologist's nurse becoming Jake simply do not work. Pearle also overuses Cinderella as a metaphor for Alex's frail self-image and its effect on Jake.
      Good acting, clean direction, but why should we invest almost two hours of our lives watching a totally unpleasant character flail about. At least Ibsen's Hedda Gabler had the common decency to shoot herself at the end.
A KID LIKE JAKE. Claire Tow Theatre, Lincoln Center Theater. June 8, 2013.  

Sunday, 2 June 2013


     May and June are high ballet season in New York with American's premier ballet companies, American Ballet Theatre and the New York City Ballet, playing next door to each other at Lincoln Center. We like to pig out on ballet during this spring dance feast.
     The two companies have different personalities even when performing the same ballets. American Ballet Theatre's annual Spring season at the Met, is a parade of star turns. Like the Met, the company showcases an international roster of leading performers (few Americans, lots of former Soviet bloc and South American dancers). The leads, particularly the men, are spectacular. The audience cheers wildly for the leaps and spins of Ivan Vasiliev (athletic but not elegant), David Hallberg, Marcello Gomes (intense), Herman Cornejo (the best leaper and twirler -- like a coiled spring), Daniil Simkin and Denis Matvienko (amazing in DON QUIXOTE last week). For the most part, the ballerinas are excellent, but since the defection of Nureyev and Barishnikov a generation ago, male dancers have generated the most excitement. The corps is solid and there are lots of gifted soloists waiting to move up to principal. During the Met season, the bread and butter of the ABT are the big story ballets. Unlike the Royal Ballet, for instance, they don't do much new work, though this past week they unveiled a trilogy of non-narrative ballets set to the music of Shostakovich by their Artist-in-Residence, Alexei Ratmansky. The choreography was always inventive and witty, particularly in Ratmansky's handling of groups. Different groups on the Met's large stage are dancing different steps. There's almost too much to take in. Ratmansky was wise to take full advantage of the starry cast at his disposal. The third ballet, to Shostakovich's first piano concerto, pitted Ivan Vasiliev's narcissistic flashiness against Cory Stearns' grace. Ditto Natalia Osipova and Julie Kent. The second ballet to the Chamber Symphony was a vehicle for David Hallberg, star of both the ABT and the Bolshoi, with three of the company's leading ballerinas. Earlier in the week we saw a brilliantly danced DON QUIXOTE with veteran ballerina Gillian Murphy and Matvienko. Their dancing was nothing short of spectacular. That's what the audience came for and the cheers went on and on during the many curtain calls.
      The ABT's new production of LE CORSAIRE had some spectacular dancing, but was a mixed bag. LE CORSAIRE must have the worst musical score among ballets in the standard repertoire. Depending on the production, five to eleven composers are represented, but there is no musical interest in any of it. The story is supposedly based on Byron, but it is a silly mixture of harems, drug-induced dream visions of ballerinas as flowers, a bit of swashbuckling, a shipwreck (very tacky in this production). I have never understood why this ballet is done as often as it is. Nonetheless, for some reason, we attended the opening of the ABT's supposedly new production, though the choreography was the same as its last production. The production is actually borrowed from Buenos Aires. Osipova and Vasiliev were the leads. He is now so bulked up that one is always aware of the effort in his defying gravity. Yes, his leaps are still impressive, but it's a hefty body to move around -- like watching an NFL linebacker dance ballet. The audience's favorites among the male dancers were Daniil Simkin and Herman Cornejo. Simkin stopped the show with his virtuoso airborne solo in the second act pas de trios with Osipove and Vasiliev. There was no question who was the audience favorite. All the intermission talk up in the balcony - family circle lobby was about Simkin. Cornejo was superb in his first act pas de deux with Isabella Boylston. Osipova did some brilliant work, particularly in the silly flower dream. Everyone danced well, but after seeing four performances of LE CORSAIRE over the past few years (two from the ABT and two from the Bolshoi), I'm swearing off this ballet for a long time.
     Next door, the New York City Ballet is much more of an ensemble. The leading dancers are all very good, but they don't try to wow the audience the way ABT dancers do. There's not the sense of "Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better" that you have at ABT. There's more of a sense of dancers working together to achieve a mutual goal, even in a flashy work like Balanchine's "Tchaikovsky Suite #3", that concluded last night's mixed bill. The last time I saw its final movement, "Theme and Variations", performed by the ABT, I was wowed by Daniil Simin's spectacular dancing. This time I was thrilled by the totality. Everything was as close to perfect as one can expect of a live performance. No one was trying to get the most attention, as Vasiliev does at the ABT to the cheers of the audience, yet the dancing is equally good. On June 5, Robert Fairchild executed the difficult solos in Peter Martins' angular "Calcium White Light", then wowed everyone with his leaps and whirls in Balanchine's "Western Symphony." Over the past week, we have seen two casts dance Balanchine's "Stravinsky Violin Concerto", both excellent. What is also most impressive about the New York City Ballet is their versatility. They specialize in evenings of short ballets that showcase the dancers' mastery of different styles. Since it is more of a stable company than the ABT, and many of the dancers have trained at the company's school, they know the core repertory (George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins) from their student days and are good at learning new work together. Their performance, for instance, of Christopher Wheeldon's "Dance a Grand Vitesse" is much looser, jazzier and more effective than the Royal Ballet's version.
     I grew up on Balanchine's choreography for his company, the New York City Ballet, at their old home, the New York City Center. Seeing the work again, I am still amazed at how varied Balanchine's dances are. The contrast last night between his witty, angular setting of Stravinsky's violin concerto and the elegance of his setting of the Tchaikovsky suite is impressive. I can't help but be equally impressed at Balanchine's showmanship. He created great ballets that are also great entertainment. Every major company dances his work, but there is something special in seeing the company Balanchine founded dancing his work.
      We go back and forth between the two companies and wouldn't want to have to choose between them. What a joy to have them both! At the same time, I have to say that one of the things I miss about spending a lot of time in London is the Royal Ballet. I went to everything and really felt invested in their dancers.
        Yes, as the song goes, "Everything is beautiful  .  .  ."

Matt Sax and Eric Rosen's new musical VENICE at the Public

     When I look back on the musicals of the past twelve months, the most interesting have been at the Public Theatre -- well, certainly the most interesting to anyone over twelve. FEBRUARY HOUSE, with its haunting score by Gabriel Kahane; GIANT, an old fashioned musical with a sweeping, lyrical score by Michael John LaChiusa; David Byrne and D.J. Fatboy Slim's disco musical, HERE LIES LOVE; and now VENICE. These shows may not be perfect, but they are all fascinating and, except for the wonderfully old-fashioned GIANT, rethink the possibilities of musical theatre.
       Funny thing -- I don't like rap, yet found Matt Sax's score, musically inventive and consistently absorbing. I felt the same way about Lin Manuel Miranda's score for IN THE HEIGHTS (Maybe I don't dislike hiphop and rap as much as I think I do). Both these composers have found a way to combine rap with the best of theatre music. Sax's score for VENICE is a real hybrid -- hip hop blended with Sondheim. He knows how to write a haunting tune. Equally important, he knows how to write a musical scene that is both musical and dramatic. However hip the score of VENICE is, it is also rooted in the best of American musical theater of the past seventy-five years from the bench scene in CAROUSEL (hmm, a man slaps his wife in this show too) to SWEENEY TODD.
      VENICE is a modern, musical version of Shakespeare's OTHELLO. I'm not sure why Venice, when four of OTHELLO's five acts take place in Cyprus. The show has little sense of place, but that isn't particularly important. After an awful war, the city is ruled by a multinational corporation. Actually, for reasons the show explains, Venice is also the name of the central character, played by Haaz Sleiman, the leader of the rebellion against the dictatorship. The villain, the Iago figure, is Venice's jealous half-brother. The adaptation works. It is filled with echoes from Shakespeare's play but has a life of its own. If I have one slight reservation about the show is that the first act is too talky. We need a few more songs to replace some of the dialogue, particularly when the songs are so good.
       VENICE has been given the production it deserves. There is very little in the way of scenery -- who needs it with a show this strong? -- but highly effective staging and energetic choreography. The leads are all excellent. I know Sleiman from his terrific acting in the film THE VISITOR and from the first season of NURSE JACKIE on tv (why did they get rid of him?). He's a good actor and singer and stunningly handsome. Jennifer Damiano who was so wonderful in the musical NEXT TO NORMAL sings beautifully as the counterpart to Desdemona, now called Willow after the song Desdemona sings in Shakespeare's play. Leslie Odom, Jr. of SMASH fame, plays a good villain. Claybourne Elder and Victoria Platt (the Cassio and Emilia counterparts) have beautiful voices. Composer Matt Sax is riveting as the rapping narrator. Sorry to keep comparing him to Lin Manuel Miranda, but they both are fine theatre composers and charismatic performers. Overall, the singing is the best I have heard in a musical this year. The four piece band (keyboard, bass, cello drum) sounds like an orchestra, thanks to clever arrangements (Curtis Moore).
      The sad thing about excellent shows like VENICE is that, since they are not Tony eligible, they remain unknown to most Americans, who don't realize that the most exciting plays and musicals are not on Broadway. Yet it is interesting to note that this show began its life in Kansas City (maybe everything is up to date there, theatrically at least), then moved on to Los Angeles before arriving at the Public. VENICE would certainly win my Tony as Best Musical of the season.
     By the way -- a not insignificant detail -- the tickets for VENICE were $12. That's right, $12. As a result, there were lots of young adults in the audience, a switch from the usual geriatric audience at non-profit theatres in New York.
VENICE. Public Theatre Anspacher Theatre. June 2, 2013.