Sunday, 28 February 2016

SOUTHERN COMFORT by Dan Collins and Julianne Wick Davis at the Pubic

     SOUTHERN COMFORT is a chamber musical based on the 2001 documentary about an intentional family of transgendered people living in rural Georgia. Spurned by their biological families and lacking any institutional support (benighted Georgia still has no legal protections for lgbt folks and is working hard to make things even worse). The central character is Robert Eads (Annette O'Toole in an amazing performance). Eads has never had the full surgical conversion--"just enough to pass," as he puts it. He doesn't believe that it is wise to give over so much power to doctors. It is a tragic irony that he is dying from ovarian cancer, more tragic that he can't find a hospital to treat him because of his gender identity. He fights with his best friend Jackson (Jeffrey Kuhn) who wants to complete his conversion. Robert is in love with John/Lola (Jeff McCarthy), a man who is just beginning to move toward changing his gender. Jackson is also jealous of losing his best friend to Lola. Sam (Donnie Cianciotto), Carly (Aneesh Sheth) and Melanie (Robin Skye) complete the group. The monthly Sundays these folks spend together give them a refuge form the hostility they face elsewhere. Only Cianciotto and Sheth are really transgendered performers, which has led to some controversy about the casting. One could also quibble about the fact that visually the show presents us with three male-female romantic couples. There's a lot that is conventional about SOUTHERN COMFORT despite its subject matter.
     The show is simply, effectively staged. The musicians (a small band--piano, strings, percussion) take on the supporting roles.  Julianne Wick Davis's music is pleasant, but forgettable. James J. Fenton has designed an attractive, rural looking unit set.
     Ultimately, this is what Stephen Sondheim would call a "why" musical. Why turn this powerful film into a musical? It made me want to go back and look at the film again.
SOUTHERN COMFORT. Public Theatre. February 26, 2015.  

Thursday, 25 February 2016

Alex Timbers' production of THE ROBBER BRIDEGROOM at the Roundabout Laura Pels

     The Roundabout's production of THE ROBBER BRIDEGROOM is the first New York production the show has had in forty years. The small-scale musical is famous for being one of the first productions of John Houseman's The Acting Company, a select group of advanced Juilliard graduate alumni/ae who plays a limited run in New York and toured the country. Patti LuPone and Kevin Kline headed the original cast. Now it is back with an excellent ensemble of singers and musicians headed by Steven Pasquale.
     Based on a Eudora Welty novella, THE ROBBER BRIDEGROOM is a piece of Southern whimsy filled with oddball characters. It centers on a romance between a bandit (Pasquale) and the daughter of the wealthiest man in the area (Ahna O'Reilly), who is doted on by her father but mistreated by her stepmother Salome (Leslie Kritzer) --  a bit of Cinderella there. Alfred Uhry has trimmed his original book so that Robert Waldman's Appalachian-inflected score dominates. The show now is a fleet ninety minutes, a perfect length for this sort of confection.
     One's response to this production will depend a lot on whether one enjoys Alex Timber's relentlessly inventive direction. There's no question of Timbers' love of theatre, nor is there any question of his ingenuity. However, he throws so much clever stuff at the audience at such a fast pace in this show that it can get exhausting. Connor Gallagher's choreography is crucial to the constant action. I saw a preview and perhaps in time the show will allow for some breathing room for the audience. Donyale Werle's sets are as busy as the direction.
     There's no question that Timbers has amassed an excellent ensemble of performers including the small onstage band that is very much a part of the cast. Pasquale radiates his usual charisma, able supported by his two leading ladies.  
     I guess I have conclude by saying that THE ROBBER BRIDEGROOM lives up to the Roundabout's high standards. The music is delightful, the story amusing, the production highly imaginative. It just needs to relax a little.
THE ROBBER BRIDEGROOM. Laura Pels Theatre. February 22, 2016.

Tuesday, 23 February 2016

NOiSES OFF and SHE LOVES ME at the Roundabout

     I had some trepidation about seeing NOISES OFF again. I have seen it many times before and feared I wouldn't find it funny on the fifth or sixth viewing. I was wrong. Jeremy Herrin's revival for the Roundabout at the American Airlines Theatre is hilarious.
     By this time, most regular theatergoers know what happens in NOISES OFF. In Act I, an oddball assortment of professional actors are having a dress rehearsal of one of those British sex farces that used to be popular in the 1950s and 1960s. This one, called "Nothing On" is supposed to begin a tour of English provincial theatres on the next evening, but the dress rehearsal seems endless. Dottie, the has-been actress cast to play the maid (Andrea Martin), can't remember her stage business. Frederick Fellowes (Jeremy Shamos), is looking for the motivation of his character (there isn't any). Frederick also has a tendency to faint at any violence or blood. Brooke Ashton, the dumb blond (Megan Hilty), can't act and keeps losing her contact lens. Of course, she is sleeping with the director, but so is neurotic, pregnant Poppy, one of the stage managers (Tracee Chimo). Between keeping the two women apart and trying to get his cast through the dress rehearsal and some ghastly performances, it's no wonder that the director (Campbell Scott) is increasingly frantic. In the second act, a month later, we see the play from backstage. By this time, conflicts between the actors have escalated and there is more action going on backstage than in front of the fictional audience. Two months later, the performance has descended into sheer chaos.
     NOISES OFF takes a cast of superb actors who are masters at physical comedy. The play has to be choreographed as completely as a ballet. The timing has to be perfect. One could not ask for a better cast than that appearing at the Roundabout. Andrea Martin is brilliant as always. Everyone else is fine, but I have to give special recognition to Megan Hilty's screamingly funny, uncoordinated dumb blond and Rob McClure's frantic stage manager.
     The night we went, the packed theatre was full of young people who were probably seeing the play for the first time. They screamed with delight, as well they should.
      Twelve blocks uptown, the Roundabout is reviving one of my favorite musicals, the great Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnick, Joe Masterhoff show SHE LOVES ME. Twenty-three years ago, the Roundabout had a great success with this intimate musical. This revival is the best production of the show I have seen including the original. Scott Ellis's direction sets the proper mood for this sweet show, David Rockwell's sets earned repeated applause, Scott Mashie's costumes were lovely and the cast couldn't be better.
     SHE LOVES ME was never a big hit. It's an intimate musical with half a dozen major characters, a small chorus that seldom appears and very little dancing. The show takes place in and around a parfumerie in Budapest in 1934, shortly before that city would be wounded by Hitler and Stalin, though  there is nothing political about the musical. The colorful sets evoke a fantasy old world middle Europe. At the center of the show is a tempestuous romance between coworkers George (Zachary Levi) and Amalia (Laura Benanti). While they feud at work, they don't realize that they are writing endearing letters to each other through a lonely hearts club. A slight plot, yes, but SHE LOVES ME has a great score, up there with the best scores that the American musical has produced, far better, I think, than the score Bock and Harnick wrote for FIDDLER ON THE ROOF a year later.  
    SHE LOVES ME takes excellent singing actors. I can't believe I am writing this, but Laura Benanti, always a winning performer, sings her gorgeous songs as well as Barbara Cook did fifty-three years ago. That's high praise, but Benanti deserves it. I have seen a number of productions of SHE LOVES ME, but this is the first in which George was played by someone who is really a good singer. Zachary Levi has a lovely baritone voice. We all know he's a winning actor who is also incredibly handsome. Gavin Creel magnificently sings and acts the caddish Kodaly. The weak link in the early preview I saw was Jane Krakowski, who usually can effortlessly steal a show. She underplays Ilona's witty songs too much. It may be the miking, but her parts in the duets didn't come through in the front mezzanine. Everyone else--Michael McGrath, Byron Jennings and Nicholas Barasch--make the most of their moments on stage but never lose sight of the fact that this is an ensemble show.
     I saw the second preview and was surprised at what good shape the show is already in. It can only get even better. A fabulous production of one of my favorite musicals.
NOISES OFF. American Airlines Theatre. February 19, 2016.
SHE LOVES ME. Studio 54. February 20, 2016.

STRAIGHT by Scott Elmegreen and Drew Fornarola at the Acorn Theatre

       I'm doing something here I have not done before. Upon a good deal of reflection, I am revising my comments on STRAIGHT. I totally wasn't accurate in my reading of the play. I still have reservations, but think there is something different in the play from what I first saw. It is also fair to underscore that I saw a preview--a late preview (it had been running for two weeks when I saw it and would formally open on the 29th, which means it has to be frozen and available to critics before then).
      For the first time in the history of this blog, I received a request from the show's press representative to take down my review. I didn't for two reasons. First, I believe that once producers put a show before a paying audience, it is fair game for criticism. Second, because I am sure the press rep would not have asked me to take my comments offline if they were filled with praise. In all fairness, I went after the play with a cleaver. My comments were too passionately negative. I also gave away too much of the ending. Mea culpa.
     Scott Elmegreen and Drew Fornara's play gives us scenes between Ben (Jake Epstein), a twenty-six-year old man who works in finance and his girlfriend Emily (Jenna Gavigan), alternating with scenes between Ben and Chris, a twenty-year-old Boston University undergraduate (Thomas E, Sullivan). Ben and Emily have been dating since college though they still have separate Boston apartments. Emily seems much more devoted to her career than her erstwhile boyfriend is committed to his. Ben and Chris hook up through a grindr-like website, but, during the four months of the play's action, come to love each other. Ben is honest with Chris about Emily, but totally dishonest with Emily about Chris.
     While Chris gradually comes out to his college friends during the course of the play, Ben is terrified of being branded as gay. He thinks that if people think he's gay, that is all he will be to them--the gay guy. Ben may not be 100% gay, but he certainly isn't 100% straight. I am a believer in Kinsey's idea of a spectrum of sexual desire, but, at least as it is acted in this production, Ben clearly is more attracted to Chris sexually and emotionally than he is to Emily. His sexual overtures to Emily seem forced, either tactics to shut her up or attempts to prove his heterosexuality while, by the end of the play, he seems to be in love with Chris. I don't know if this is what the playwrights and director intended, but this is what played on stage on Monday night. Why is Ben so terrified of his homosexual desire? He's in Boston in the 21st century, for heaven's sake.
       One problem with the play is that we don't learn much else about Ben. What else is he but a man filled with internalized homophobia and more ambivalence than Hamlet? He doesn't like his job and doesn't seem to have any interests. During the course of the play we find out more about his lovers, in part because they are more interesting characters. Emily has a blossoming career as a scientist. In addition to his constant horniness, Chris manages to balance his sexuality with his religion and he has a real curiosity about other people and a good deal of empathy. While he is closeted himself at the beginning of the play, he longs to break out. When he drunkenly dances around Ben's apartment, Ben calls him a "faggot." We're supposed to care about Ben's confusion, but the playwrights haven't given him much substance.
       One more question.... Why do Emily and Chris love this guy who won't commit to either of them. Why is a smart woman like Emily so cloyingly in love with Ben? Why doesn't Chris move on to someone less self-absorbed and self-hating?
      There's one scene between Ben and Chris where I believed that the writers of STRAIGHT seem to be totally sympathetic with Ben--that they believe, as he does, that there is reason to fear being known as gay, that being known as gay makes you only gay to other people. It's the only time in the play that Ben is at all eloquent. Chris doesn't really argue with Ben's contention. He has felt this himself at times. My sense is that the playwrights want us to see a gay identity as irrelevant. In refusing that identity Ben isn't "gay." However, he seems more attracted to men than women. It's certainly OK not to want to be categorized as gay. However, it's not good for Ben or the people around him that that side of himself so frightens him.
      At the center of the play is the scene the audience had to expect--the moment when Emily walks in on Ben and Chris semi-nude on the sofa. Oddly, incredibly, Emily registers no suspicion. Can a smart scientist be so clueless? Of course, if Emily caught on it would be a different, shorter play. Ben goes into a total panic and wants Chris to make a fast exit, but Chris stays. I mention this moment because it raises a problem with the writing and the direction. Jake Epstein was directed to play the scene as if it were on a television sitcom. I thought real panic was called for at that moment if we are to believe Ben's character. This is the scariest moment of his life. This raises another question. Did the writers intend STRAIGHT to be a comedy or a serious drama? The people around me thought the play was going to be a comedy. There was a lot of forced laughter for the first few minutes but it soon subsided. Eventually, my audience wanted to take the play seriously but Ben isn't deeply enough written for a successful serious play. However,  comedy needs funny lines and these are rare in STRAIGHT.
       I think the ending shocked me most of all. It did elicit gasps from the group of women sitting behind me. Without being a spoiler, I can just say I hope that sort of thing doesn't happen any more. It's sad for all involved and took away the limited sympathy I had for Ben.
     Yet here I am writing a long review of STRAIGHT. The play is far from a masterpiece but it intrigued me.
     Oh, the acting. I found Jenna Gavigan's clingy Emily to be irritating-- was it Gavigan or her character? Jake Epstein caught Ben's fierce desire to be liked even when he is being a cad. We will hear from the charismatic Thomas E. Sullivan again. He, more than anyone, gave STRAIGHT substance and depth.
STRAIGHT. Acorn Theatre. February 22, 2016.