Saturday, 30 November 2013

Eileen Atkins in Samuel Beckett's ALL THAT FALL at 59E59

        The great Irish novelist-playwright-poet Samuel Beckett wrote ALL THAT FALL in 1956. It was his first radio play and the first play that had a woman as the focal character. Radio allowed a free movement in time and space not available to Beckett in the theatre. ALL THAT FALL is a more "realistic" work than one expects from Beckett. It depicts the long walk of 70-something Mrs. Rooney, a garrulous, cantankerous woman, to the railroad station to meet her blind husband and their walk home. On the way to the station, Mrs. Rooney encounters a number of local characters to whom she is not very pleasant. She softens as she talks to her husband on the way home. All nine characters are fully drawn, but Mrs. Rooney is particularly interesting, the first of those wonderful Beckett women who manage to turn the commonplace into a kind of poetry.
          How do you turn a radio play depicting characters walking along muddy paths, into a stage play? Perhaps a film would be best, but we would lose the primacy of language. Everything would be too literal. Veteran director Trevor Nunn rightly decided to keep the conceit of a radio play. The actors enter, scripts in hand, and sit on chairs along the side throughout the play until it is time for their characters to speak. A red light goes on and the play begins. Yet within that framework, the actors, basically on a bare stage with minimal props other than a simple mock-up of a car, convince us that they are in that damp, rainy Irish countryside.
         The greatest of many pleasures in this production is the magnificent Eileen Atkins as Mrs. Rooney. I have long admired the economy of Atkins's acting. She is one of those great actors who draw her audience to her rather than play to her audience. One can't take one's eyes off of her. Atkins beautifully captures this frail but tough old lady and her special relationship with her husband, played by the masterful Michael Gambon. They have their private jokes and their long-practised means of comforting each other. The world is a somewhat less fearful place when they are together. The other actors, playing the men and women Mrs. Rooney encounters on her way to the station, are fine in their small roles, but the real joy here is in the glorious language and the acting of Atkins and Gambon.
       ALL THAT FALL is only 75 minutes long, but it is a gem of a play. Like much of Beckett, it is bittersweet -- funny and also profoundly sad. The bleak Irish landscape becomes a more realistic version of the bare, lonely setting of WAITING FOR GODOT, another instance of Beckett's godless world, one in which the Rooneys laugh wildly and bitterly at the thought of a God who will raise up all that fall.
       I wonder what Beckett would have thought of the fact that in 2013 his work is selling out in two New York theaters. Perhaps he speaks to us more than he spoke to audiences sixty years ago.  
ALL THAT FALL by Samuel Beckett. 59E59 Theatres . November 27, 2013.


          I actually enjoyed those 1970s disaster movies -- the AIRPORT series, THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE, TOWERING INFERNO. They had their own set of conventions, as rigid in some ways as those of a baroque opera, but they were campy fun, greatly because they were so earnest. Poor Karen Black trying to land that 747, poor Shelley Winters on that upside-down ship. I'm sure some people took them seriously, but I always found them amusing. Of course Hollywood quickly took to spoofing its own product with the AIRPLANE series and other parodies. Now in a dingy little theatre on 46th Street (a reminder of what Off-Broadway theaters used to be like), we have DISASTER, a zany parody of these movies with dozens of 70s pop hits thrown in. As in MAMMA MIA, part of the fun is in how the songs are worked into the score -- just when and how will they sing "Feelings" (yes, they do!). We have the fat lady a la Shelley Winters, hilariously played by Mary Testa, the singing nun (Jennifer Simard - wonderful), the Black diva with the dog, the crooked owner of the doomed ship (here a floating casino in the Hudson). I have to single out young Jonah Verdon who plays boy/girl twins. In this cast of fourteen singing comics, he manages to be the funniest.
          Written by Seth Rudetsky and Jack Plotnick and directed by Plotnick (at the performance I saw he was also covering for one of the leads), DISASTER is tacky and very, very funny.  Everybody in the cast can sing well and do the spastic seventies dance moves. And, miracle of miracles, it never flags over its two-plus hours. It's also great to hear those tunes again in this context.
           A warning, the theatre has fifteen or so rows on the same level in a low-ceiling room that was a restaurant -- minimal risers. If you're short, get a seat up front.
DISASTER. St. Luke's Theatre. November 27, 2013.

Saturday, 9 November 2013

THE LANDING by Greg Pierce and John Kander at the Vineyard Theatre

     THE LANDING is a charming, if insubstantial chamber musical from playwright Greg Pierce, whose SLOWGIRL was the first production at the Lincoln Center Theatre's new Claire Tow Theatre, and octogenarian songwriter John Kander of Kander and Ebb fame. Perhaps I should say three musicals; for this 105 minute show is comprised of three one-act musicals, all about the relationship of a boy to the grown up world. In the first, ANDRA, a lonely, nerdy boy is befriended and, he thinks, betrayed by the astronomy-loving carpenter who is redoing his family's kitchen. With a father who is always traveling and an obsessive-compulsive mother, the carpenter becomes, briefly, a surrogate father figure. In the second mini-musical, THE BRICK, very odd things happen when a boy visits his eccentric aunt and uncle. Finally, in THE LANDING, a gay couple think they have adopted the perfect son, but the boy turns out to be too perfect to be real. All three mini-musicals are performed by a cast of four, headed by David Hyde Pierce, who always seems totally at home on stage, so at home that he doesn't have to work very hard.
     Pierce's little dramas all veer toward the surreal. The first and third are quite moving while the joke of the second wears a bit thin. Kander's music sounds like John Kander -- a bit old fashioned for these contemporary stories -- Kander's music was always more convincing in show set in the 1920s. It's catchy, as always, but not always convincingly in character.
     The shows are played basically on a bare stage with only necessary furniture. Walter Bobbie has staged them effectively and the members of the talented cast get to demonstrate their versatility. If I had to rank them in order of impressiveness of performance, I would start with Paul Anthony Stewart, convincingly complex and enigmatic in Andra, hilarious in multiple male and female roles in THE BRICK and appropriately overwhelmed with his new role as parent in THE LANDING. New York theatre is now filled with child performers, but young Frankie Seratch is a special case. This kid is really a good actor with a different personality for each of the boys he plays. David Hyde Pierce doesn't have much to do in ANDRA, but he is an excellent, funny song and dance man in THE BRICK. I wish he had brought more range to THE LANDING. Julia Murney is appropriately zany in THE BRICK, but has lesser roles in the other two musicals. There's a four piece band that seems perfect for this little show.
     THE LANDING isn't going to go down in musical history. It's nowhere near as good as FUN HOME, a few blocks south at the Public. However, as a Vineyard Theatre member, I paid only $25 to see it. At those bargain prices, it offered a delightful afternoon and, on occasion, a bit more than that.
THE LANDING. Book and lyrics by Greg Pierce, Music by John Kander. Vineyard Theatre. November 9, 2013.

Monday, 4 November 2013

Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron's FUN HOME at the Public Theatre

     In my last review, I commented on why LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE didn't work as a musical. Why does FUN HOME work so well?
      The musical is based on Alison Bechtel's autobiographical graphic novel. Here pictures and captions have been successfully turned into fully fleshed out characters. We see the quasi-autobiographical central character, Alison, at three stages of her life, played by three different actresses: Alison as a child wishing for a more ideal family than the one she lives with -- actually wishing she was a member of the Partridge Family; Alison as a college student discovering her sexuality and her father's troubled sexual orientation; and Alison as a forty-something artist who is still haunted by her past, particularly her relationship with her father. The creators of FUN HOME aren't the first to use this conceit. Edward Albee used it in THREE TALL WOMEN and in the 1950s Arthur Laurents tried it with less success in A CLEARING IN THE WOODS. In the less realistic context of musical theatre it works well, as it emphasizes the musical's idea that we never lose our past selves, particularly when we go home. Home in Alison's case was an environment controlled by her complex, controlling, deeply unhappy father Bruce (Michael Cerveris). He has two occupations; high school English teacher and funeral home director. He also has an obsession, their house, which he has renovated and redecorated. Controlling his environment is a substitute for controlling his own impulses.  Bruce wants to be a loving supportive father to his daughter and two sons, but he is too much a control freak for that. When young Alison shows him a drawing she did, he has to show her how it should have been drawn. Nonetheless, the children have rich fantasy lives, even turning the coffins into settings for funny television commercials. The one thing Bruce cannot control is his desire for young, sometimes underage, men. His wife, Helen (Judy Kuhn) has spent years suffering humiliation and abuse as Bruce's guilt is channeled into rage at her. Shortly after Alison brings home her first girlfriend, Bruce kills himself.
     This narrative is hardly THE LION KING or KINKY BOOTS. It's a serious play about loss and discovering sex and love. Tesori and Kron have found the music in it. Yes, one can hear the echoes of Sondheim, particularly in Bruce's jagged music. His final aria of rage and frustration reminds one of Sweeney Todd's "Epiphany," particularly as performed by Cerveris, a celebrated Sweeney. However influenced by Sondheim (what serious composer of musical theatre isn't?), Tesori has her own voice. There are delightful, playful numbers for the young Alison and her siblings and for teenage Alison after her first sexual experience. Helen's one big number shows that there is warmth under her protective chilliness. Equally important, Kron's lyrics never sound forced. They are articulate -- the characters are articulate, after all -- and witty, but the characters seem to have their own diction. John Clancy's orchestrations for a chamber ensemble have an appropriate elegiac mood.
      Sam Gold's has given the piece the right sense of visual style and pace. At first, as Alison begins her journey through her memories, the stage seems filled with objects randomly placed. Gradually the house becomes more coherent, more realistic as Alison organizes her memories into art. The staging balances realism and lyricism. The cast couldn't be better. Michael Cerveris is a master at playing troubled, slightly creepy characters. His Bruce can be a tyrant but one always sense the anguish underneath. If only he had the courage to see the possibility of a loving same-sex relationship, but this is the 1970s )Alison is in college during the Jimmy Carter years) and gay liberation hasn't yet hit this small Pennsylvania town. One wishes the wonderful Judy Kuhn had more to do, but when her big moments come toward the end of the show, she makes the most of them. The three Alisons (in chronological order Sydney Lucas, Alexandra Socha and Beth Malone) are all superb. Joel Perez plays the young men Bruce picks up. Roberta Colindrez seems a bit too old to be playing Alison's first college girlfriend, but she gives the role the right strength.
     Last season the most interesting musicals I saw were at the Public. This season FUN HOME will be hard to beat. Unmissable.
FUN HOME. Music by Jeanine Tesori. Book and lyrics by Lisa Kron. Public Theatre Newman Auditorium. November 3, 2013.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Matthew Bourne's THE SLEEPING BEAUTY: A GOTHIC ROMANCE at the New York City Center

      Over the years, I have been alternately frustrated and impressed with Matthew Bourne's work. I love it when he cleverly combines dance and narrative as he does in his SWAN LAKE and PLAY WITHOUT WORDS (based loosely on the Pinter/Losey film, THE SERVANT). I am frustrated when it is basically a play without words -- pantomime with minimal dance -- as it is in EDWARD SCISSORHANDS. His NUTCRACKER is not an improvement upon the original, nor is it as clever or well choreographed as Mark Morris's THE HARD NUT. I did like much of his DORIAN GRAY. Bourne is very good at finding a contemporary twist on a nineteenth century work, as he did with SWAN LAKE and he does with much of SLEEPING BEAUTY. He is also good at bring out the eroticism in the stories he chooses to tell and adding a good bit of homoeroticism.
     I love a lot of the Petipa/Tchaikovsky ballet, SLEEPING BEAUTY but, like all of the great Russian story ballets, it actually doesn't tell its story very well. The original SLEEPING BEAUTY is filled with dances that have nothing to do with the narrative, which is basically told in pantomime in the last few minutes of the key scenes. What Bourne has been able to do, as he has with SWAN LAKE, is find a way to use Tchaikovsky's music to tell a coherent, interesting story. He also does some of his usual gender switches. Even the Lilac Fairy becomes male (and a vampire to boot!). All Bourne's changes to the narrative make THE SLEEPING BEAUTY into an absorbing, sexy two hour dance drama. And it really dances. Bourne's choreography isn't endlessly inventive. The same steps and turns are repeated and he seems to dislike leaps, thus robbing dance of some of its excitement. Except for some of the dances in the first scene, all the dance is there to propel the narrative. As usual, the action gets updates so that the final scenes are contemporary. Bourne cuts and pastes Tchaikovsky's numbers to tell his story. I am happy to lose all those unnecessary (to the narrative) specialty dances that comprise at least half of the Petipa ballet. What Bourne does with some of the music, such as the music for the "Puss and Boots" duet (which I always hated) is very clever.
     Bourne's Aurora (the sleeping beauty) is a feisty creature. She begins as a very energetic baby (a delightful puppet) and grows into a hyperactive, rebellious princess in love with the gardener and pursued by the villain Caradoc, the son of the evil fairy Carabosse. Count Lilac, King of the Fairies, keeps Leo alive (sort of) so he can be reunited with his sweetheart one-hundred years later. The narrative is surprising in places and absorbing giving us both good storytelling and good dance.
       As usual with Bourne's work, there are lots of semi-clad male dancers to please the women and gay men in the audience.
        Bourne's virtuosic, hard-working company of twenty-four dancers are splendid. I'm not sure who I saw last night. I did notice that Liam Mower, who was the first Billy Elliott in the London production of the Elton John-Lee Hall musical was Count Lilac. I'm not surprised that he has grown into such a good dancer.  The Aurora (Ashley Shaw or Hannah Vassalo) was a convincing teenager discovering her sexuality, a charming stage presence and an excellent dancer). Instead of a live orchestra, we got a recording of the score played at a very loud volume.
     This is a delightful work, one of Bourne's best.
Matthew Bourne's SLEEPING BEAUTY: A GOTHIC ROMANCE. New York City Center. November 2, 2013.          

William Finn and James Lapine's LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE at Second Stage

     Why turn a movie (or a book or a play) into a musical? The only good reason is that you find possibilities for musical numbers in the characters and narrative. You can imagine the characters singing. Now someone may have found the music in the film LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE, but William Finn didn't. This is one of the least musical musicals I have seen. It's basically a dramatization of the film with a few songs and snippets of songs. There's an opening "We're all neurotic losers" number that's typical William Finn. It reminds me of "Four Jews In a Room Bitching," the song that opens his FALSETTOS. There's one nice ballad. The only fully developed musical scene is set in a gas station men's room where Frank, the suicidal Proust scholar, runs into his ex-boyfriend and the boyfriend's overbearing new partner. That was the only five minutes I felt I was watching a musical, that Finn was really engaging with his material. Of course, he's been there before -- again FALSETTOS. Rory O'Malley, Wesley Taylor and Josh Lamon make the most of the moment. In general, Finn is a better lyricist than he is a composer. There's barely a recognizable tune in LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE, just words set to notes. The big laughs, and there are some, come during the dialogue scenes.
      If you haven't seen the delightful low budget movie, LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE is the story of a dysfunctional family from Albuquerque traveling in a broken down VW van to Redondo Beach so their daughter can participate in one of those creepy little girl beauty contests. Husband and wife aren't getting along, their Nietzsche-reading teenage son refuses to speak, grandfather is a coke-snorting sex addict and Uncle Frank has recently tried to slit his wrists. Of course, in its feelgood Hollywood way, everyone -- well, almost everyone -- is healed by the trip and the family becomes united at the final curtain. William Finn is much better at dysfunction than positive emotions, so the resolution, which seems to come out of nowhere, is totally unconvincing.
     James Lapine has staged the show very cleverly with six kitchen chairs on wheels. There's only one elaborate setting -- that men's room, as if Lapine too saw that scene as the meatiest in the score. The cast is comprised of some of the most talented folks in musical theatre: Stephanie J. Block and Will Swenson are their usual gifted selves, but they need more songs. David Rasche is charming as the cocaine and porn-loving grandfather, though no match for Alan Arkin's memorable performance in the film. Rasche can't really sing, but maybe that's OK for his character. Rory O'Malley shines as the depressive gay uncle. He comes close to stealing the show, but then again he gets one of the only fully realized numbers. Logan Rowland is winning as the miserable, mostly silent teenage son and Hannah Nordberg is delightful as the would-be Miss Sunshine. The talented Wesley Taylor is pretty much wasted except for that men's room scene.
     All this talent work very hard to make something out of a musical that really isn't a musical. See the movie instead.
LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE. Book and Direction by James Lapine. Music by William Finn. Second Stage Theatre November 2, 2013.