Monday, 16 May 2016

DO I HEAR A WALTZ at City Center Encores

     Is there a more devoted audience than the one for the City Center Encores series? These are folks who really care about musical theatre. They're also curious about past musicals and often quite knowledgable. The folks around me at the Saturday matinee performances of DO I HEAR A WALTZ (music, Richard Rodgers; lyrics, Stephen Sondheim; book, Arthur Laurents), had all read Laurents' memoirs. Two gentlemen had been involved with productions of Laurents plays during their students years. Everyone, of course, knew the work of Rodgers and Sondheim and the unhappy saga of the creation of DO I HEAR A WALTZ in 1964.
     What can one say about this show that Sondheim didn't say. He described it as a "Why" musical, a show that has no reason for existence. There's no reason for the characters to sing. There seems to be more book (a condensation of Laurents' play, THE TIME OF THE CUCKOO) than music and, except for the title song and one ballad, the music is forgettable. Sondheim's lyrics are better than the music.
       The production was enjoyable because of the superb performances of a top-drawer cast. Melissa Errico gave real star quality to the leading role, a lonely 40-ish secretary looking for romance in Venice. Richard Troxall didn't look very Italian, but he sang beautifully and gave substance to the role of the Italian shopkeeper with whom Leona has a brief romance. Karen Ziemba was wonderful, as usual. The rest of the cast did all they could to make a weak show enjoyable. Rob Berman conducted a large, excellent orchestra. The choreography (Chase Brock) was cliched, but Evan Cabnet's staging was very effective.
      Not a show I want to see again, but I'm glad I had this opportunity.  

Thursday, 12 May 2016

INDECENT by Paula Vogel at the Vineyard Theatre

     Despite its dark subject matter, INDECENT, created by Rebecca Taichman (who also directs), and Paula Vogel and written by Paula Vogel, is a superb theatrical celebration. Basically is tells the story of Polish born Jewish writer Sholom Asch, whose Yiddish play, GOD OF VENGEANCE, was banned on Broadway in 1923 after being celebrated all over Europe and Off-Broadway. GOD OF VENGEANCE contains a lesbian romance. INDECENT is also the saga of a dedicated company of actors who dedicated much of their lives and careers to the play. After the play was banned in New York, Lemmi, the stage manager and central character of the play, goes back to Poland where he keeps producing the play in attics in the Polish ghettoes. Lemmi falls in love with theatre when he is invited to an early reading of Asch's play. Ultimately he devotes his life to keeping the play on stage. By the time GOD OF VENGEANCE opened on Broadway, Asch was a celebrated novelist and no longer interested in theatre or the fate of his play. Lemmi and the actors are the ones devoted to it. GOD OF VENGEANCE is banned because a leading Rabbi is furious at a Broadway play that presents Jews in a bad light. The patriarch is a brothel keeper and his daughter falls in love with one of the prostitutes. The play falls victim to conservative identity politics--the influential Rabbi doesn't want people to see bad Jews on stage and certainly not lesbian Jews. A few years after GOD OF VENGEANCE's one night on Broadway, the Wales Padlock Act would be enacted that forbid any play that brought homosexuality on to the New York stage. At the end, as rain pours down onto the stage, we see the touching lesbian love scene, still one of the sweetest love scenes between two women ever written for the stage.
     INDECENT is a celebration of theatre, of Jewish art and culture, and of same-sex love. On a bare stage a company of performers and musicians act multiple roles, sing and dance this multi-layered story. However sad life is for the characters these actors play, there are the saving graces of love and art.  Vogel's script is inspiring, Rebecca Taichman's direction is lyrical and masterful, David Dorfman's choreography looks natural. The company of actors and musicians couldn't be better. All in all, INDECENT is a lovely experience. The audience was on its feet cheering at the end. This was not one of those automatic Broadway standing ovations, but a heartfelt gesture of appreciation for something special.
INDECENT. Vineyard Theatre. May 11, 2016.

THE RUINS OF CIVILIZATION by Penelope Skinner at the Manhattan Theatre Club

     Though I have spend my life devoted to making and going to theatre, I find myself much more drawn these days to concerts (classical), opera and dance performances. A live drama has to justify itself in this age of competition from quality television and other media. I thought about all this as I wasted a lovely, sunny Spring afternoon at THE RUINS OF CIVILIZATION. What is playwright Penelope Skinner trying to say in this confused bit of dystopian soap opera? The only question that kept me going was who was going to be the victim of the cat poison (yes, cat poison), introduced early in the play--remember Chekhov's dictum that if you introduce a gun in Act I, you've got to shoot it by Act III.
     We're in some future time where global warming has caused much of the world to be flooded. Altruism no longer exists. Since the play takes place in England (hence some really awful British accents), I couldn't help wondering why that small island has survived. For some reason--there is a lot that isn't explained in the play--women are not supposed to have children. Nor, it seems, are people supposed to have cats, which are considered vermin to be eliminated. Silver is an author (the now embattled publishing industry seems to have survived into the future). He's also a sanctimonious prig and bully who treats his wife as if she were a child. The usually charming Tim Daly has not found a way to make this character at all likable. In fact, I spent much of the play praying that Silver would be the recipient of the cat poison. Silver's wife, Joy, who is recovering from psychological problems because she can't have a child, brings into the house a pregnant Eastern European woman. Mara's child is the product of a brutal rape by her employer (the playwright isn't a fan of the male gender). Joy sees the baby as a kind of Christ figure who can save the world. Of course, Silver isn't happy with harboring a criminal in his home.
     What's the point of all this? The world is a mess because male brutality has won over women's love, fertility and generosity. Unfortunately, the play is heavy-handed. Has Joy been cast with a Black actress to give a racial dynamic to Silver's domestic tyranny? Rachel Holmes seemed to strong for her somewhat desperate character. I saw an early preview. Perhaps Leah C. Gardner's direction will get some rhythm during subsequent performances.
     Not a must see.
THE RUINS OF CIVILIZATION. Manhattan Theatre Club at City Center Stage II. May 8, 2016.

Thursday, 5 May 2016

Marin Mazzie and Daniel Dae Kim in THE KING AND I

      THE KING AND I comes as close to perfection as any musical in the canon. It boasts one of Richard Rodgers' greatest scores and Oscar Hammerstein's best work as lyricist and book writer. There is none of the cloying sentiment of Hammerstein's weaker work, nor does it have the second act problems that plague some of Hammerstein's books. The two central leads are the strongest characters Oscar Hammerstein ever created.
     For years, in countless performances in New York and on the road, the show was presented as if the central character was The King, who has only one song, albeit a song that defines his character perfectly. Yul Brynner, the original King, toured the show forever. Even Rudolf Nureyev had a go at it. Yet the show is about a relationship, a complicated, deep friendship, between a tough representative of nineteenth century British colonialism who has come to teach the King's children -- and the King -- more civilized Western ways. And here is the big potential problem with THE KING AND I. For many it can be seen as politically incorrect, unless Anna Leonowens is presented as as complicated and morally complex as The King. Marin Mazzie and Daniel Dae Kim, the new leads in Bartlett Sher's production of THE KING AND I, do more than any performers I have seen, to create the clash of two very complicated characters. For the first time in the many performances of this musical that I have seen in my life, I believe the Prime Minister at the end, when he screams at Anna, "You have destroyed him." Marin Mazzie's Anna loves the children and is a bit of a sentimentalist, but she is dangerously unaware to her sense of Western entitlement and superiority. She sees nothing wrong with publicly humiliating a King in front of his subjects. The only question is why he allows her to do so. The answer is in the focus on gender politics in this cast's reading of the play. Daniel Dae Kim's King -- the best I have seen -- is smart, sexy, deeply confused, and in awe of a woman who does not act like a woman should act. What makes the performance I saw yesterday (the second performance for these two leads), so special is their chemistry. When I saw Kelli O'Hara and Ken Watanabe is these roles a year ago, I thought they gave creditable individual performances but never felt that they played together very effectively. Mazzie and Kim are a partnership and the production is all the stronger for it.
     Oddly the rest of the cast (the other leads have remained the same) are giving even more committed performances than they did the two previous times I saw the production.
      If you saw this wonderful production before, I urge you to go again and see it with Mazzie and Kim. I have to add that for those of us who are fans of Marin Mazzie, it is a joyous experience to see her back on stage after her awful bout with cancer. She's as wonderful as ever.
THE KING AND I. Vivian Beaumont Theatre. May 4, 2016.