Sunday, 8 October 2017

FUN HOME at Chicago's Victory Gardens Theater

     If HAMILTON offers an upbeat view of American history, a celebration of ego, drive and talent that is typical of the American musical, FUN HOME, though a musical, is more in the tradition of classical American domestic drama, a probing view at the tensions and unhappiness that can roil under the myth of the American family. What this musical shares with many, if not most musicals, is a celebration of queerness.
     There's a brilliant moment in FUN HOME, botched a bit in Gary Griffin's production at Victory Gardens, when the ten year old Alison is watching a television show like The Partridge Family, one of those 70s sitcoms about a happy American family that also performs together. Bruce, Alison's deeply unhappy father turns off the set and tells Alison to read a book. Suddenly we're transported into Alison's imagination where her own family becomes one of those happy, sappy, singing and dancing families.  Of course, her family is anything but a Partridge-type clan. Alison is a lesbian in embryo, her father a closeted homosexual, her mother deeply frustrated woman. When college-age Alison comes home with her girlfriend, her mother tells her, "Don't come back," not as a rejection but because she wants her daughter to be able to escape this oppressive household. There are things Alison cannot escape, even at 43 years old as she looks back on her family, particularly her guilt at her father's suicide, which came shortly after she came out to her parents. Did her coming out lead to his death? It's a puzzle that can never be solved because Bruce is himself a puzzle. The musical dramatizes the process of her coming to terms with her father and, in the process, coming to terms with herself.
     FUN HOME is not a typical musical, but it's a brilliant one. Jeanine Tesori's score, very much in the Sondheim mode, is full of clever lyrics, very much in character, and lovely melodies. Some of the songs are gems, particularly "Ring of Keys" in which ten year old Alison realizes her attraction to very butch lesbian delivering packages to a coffee shop, and her mother's cry of anguish, "Days and Days." Tesori and book writer Lisa Kron pack a lot into an intense 100 minutes. FUN HOME is, with HAMILTON, a towering 21st century musical, not likely to be topped soon.
     The Victory Gardens Theater production is worthy of the show. I was particularly impressed with Rob Lindley's Bruce, the unhappy, obsessive, sometimes nasty father. Bruce is an oddity in a musical, a completely three-dimensional character. Lindley played the nastiness more overtly than Michael Cerveris in New York, but it was good to see all the contradictions in the character. Everyone else was convincing and committed. Not all the singing was on a par with the New York production, but director Gary Griffin got rich performances out of everyone.
     I had been talking to a producer the day before about the problem of getting young audiences to the theater. It was particularly joyful to see Victory Gardens packed with young people last night. They were attentive to every line and lyric, were totally with the show from beginning to end.

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

HAMILTON in Chicago

     Since I saw HAMILTON at the Public Theatre a few years ago, the show has become a phenomenon. The first best-selling cast album in decades. Ridiculously inflated ticket prices. For almost a year now, the show has a second company playing an unlimited sellout run in Chicago. I wondered whether, in the face of all the hype, the show would look as good to me as it did at the Public. The answer is a resounding yes. HAMILTON is one of the great works of the American musical theatre. The music and lyrics are brilliant and Thomas Kail's production with Andy Blankenbuehler's almost constant choreography perfectly complement the score. Special mention also goes to Howell Binkley's lighting design. HAMILTON is a perfect example of what Wagner called Gesamptkunstwerk--a unified work of theater in which all the elements perfectly coalesce.
     Overall, I found the Chicago company to be on a par with the original New York cast. I thought Miguel Cervantes brought more to the title role than Lin Manuel Miranda did. He has a better singing voice and is a better actor. Miranda gave you Miranda playing Hamilton; Cervantes gives you Hamilton. If only his Burr, Gregory Treco, was as good. I don't know if Treco was having an off-night, but he was a dull Burr, nowhere near as powerful as the charismatic Leslie Odom was in New York. Everyone else was on a par with the original cast.
     With HAMILTON playing in the old Shubert, now the CIBC Theatre, and FUN HOME at Victory Gardens, Chicagoans can see the two best musicals of this century.

Monday, 25 September 2017

THE REMBRANDT by Jessica Dickey at Steppenwolf

     The Rembrandt is a lovely meditation on mortality and art. Henry (Francis Guinan), a former prep school art history teacher is a museum guard. His dedication to his job and his love for the art keeps him from thinking constantly about his partner Simon, who is dying of cancer. On this Monday morning, Henry has to mentor Dodger (Ty Olwin), a new young guard whose primary vocation is creating graffiti on public buildings. He also has to watch over Madeline (Karen Rodriguez), a young woman assigned to copy Rembrandt's "Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer," for an art class. Madeline is grieving the recent death of her beloved grandmother and may be getting sick herself. Dodger, heavily tattooed and sporting a Mohawk haircut, has a peculiar idea of the duties of a museum guard. He goads Henry and Madeline into touching the painting. Dodger believes that people in museums are to disconnected from the art. Henry and Madeline know that Dodger's dares are crazy and destructive but the temptation is too great. Touching the painting moves the play into a different realm. Suddenly we are in Rembrandt's studio. Is this some magical transport or Henry's fantasy? Henry has become Rembrandt, Madeline his maid turned mistress, and Dodger his adoring, nagging son who worries constantly about his father's penury and his mortality. Rembrandt touches the plaster bust of Homer in his studio and the Greek poet appears (John Mahoney), to deliver a long monologue on poetry and mortality. Is it really Homer or is it Henry's terminally ill lover, a celebrated poet himself (also played by Mahoney). The final scene is a touching dialogue between Henry and Simon. Henry, now fired from the museum is terrified of losing his life partner. Simon is realistic about his death.
     On the whole, this is a beautifully written, rich play. I could have done without the scene in Rembrandt's studio. I'm always bothered by plays that reduce great artists to talented idiots (case in point Peter Shaffer's AMADEUS). The contemporary scenes in the museum and the final scene between Henry and Simon are both funny and deeply moving. It's nice to see a play or film that deals with a loving relationship of elderly gay men. Dickey is at her best in dealing with contemporary love and grief--less good at historical fiction (or historical hallucination?).
     The acting was uniformly good. Frances Guinan is superb as Henry, capturing his kindness and his fear. Note to Chicago theatergoers--for some reason, Guinan is only playing the role until October 22. He will be replaced for the last two weeks of the run). John Mahoney doesn't appear until the last third of the play. Homer's fifteen minute monologue could use a bit more energy but Mahoney is his usual charming self as the dying Simon. Ty Olwin captures both the brash, eccentric Dodger and Rembrandt's devoted but chiding son. Hallie Gordon has paced the actors effectively.
     Well worth seeing.

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Ivo van Hove's production of Arthur Miller's A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE at the Goodman

     I avoided this production in New York in part because I have trouble with Miller's play--well, particularly the last lines when Miller tries to justify, even praise, his loathsome central character. Miller's great weaknesses was his uncritical view of the respect due to white patriarchs, no matter how flawed or destructive. Now in the age of Trump and the campaign on the part of some men, with Trump's blessing, to restore white patriarchy, A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE seems frighteningly timely.
     Miller once wrote an essay entitled "Tragedy and the Common Man," expressing his desire to adapt Greek tragedy for ordinary American male protagonists. Eddie Carbone, the central character in A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE, is a Brooklyn longshoreman who lives with his childless, sexually unsatisfied wife Beatrice and the eighteen-year-old- niece he has raised. Clearly he is in love, or at least in lust, with his niece and, naively, perhaps, she feeds his desire. Neither Eddie nor his niece Catherine are good at recognizing and acknowledging their sexual impulses. Enter  two distant relatives of Beatrice's, Sicilian illegal immigrants Marco and Rodolfo, and things in the Carbone household reach a boiling point. Catherine turns her attention and desire onto blond, handsome Rodolfo, which turns Eddie into Othello. He decides that Rodolfo must be homosexual because he is blond, likes to sing and can make a dress. All this is a way to mask his desire for his niece and perhaps a latent desire for Rodolfo. At the climactic moment, he passionately kisses his niece and, when Rodolfo tries to beak that up, kisses Rodolfo, ostensibly to prove that he isn't fully masculine. When that doesn't work, he turns Rodolfo and Marco into the immigration authorities.
     Eddie is a man who is totally unable to acknowledge his true desires. He demands his authority as patriarch and full respect from everyone in his household. His wife is not to talk to him about the fact that they have not had sex for months. When Marco accuses him of turning them in, he demands a public apology. In a Christian framework, Eddie might deserve forgiveness if he ever confessed to wrongdoing but he will not do that--it would weaken his position as patriarch. Greek tragic protagonists alway had a moment of anagnorisis, of recognition of their complicity in the horror we see. Not Eddie.
      Watching A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE is watching the inevitable damage wrought by a repellent human being. Yet the last lines of the lawyer Alfieri, who serves as a kind of Greek chorus, demand that we see "purity" in Eddie's actions, that we see his demand for an undeserved authority and respect as somehow noble. I could see Eddie Carbone marching with the other Fascists in Charlottesville or shouting "Lock her up" at a Trump rally. He's a man who demands his authority as a straight (maybe), white American male. To quote the 2016 Democrat candidate for president, he's a "deplorable." Too bad Miller, from his 1950s patriarchal viewpoint, doesn't see that.
       Oddly, Miller presents a Sicilian Catholic family with no mention of Catholicism or the influence that might have on the Carbones. There's no religion here. Wouldn't Eddie, in his need for self-justification, go to a priest rather than a lawyer? Miller's only concern is with the irrelevance of the law when faced with passion or a primal code of vengeance. The lawyer-chorus can only watch helplessly as Eddie becomes more and more destructive and one Sicilian vows revenge. Yet Eddie's ultimate weapon to keep Catherine under his control is immigration law.
      Ivo van Hove's production, played on a small, bare playing area, does away with all the trappings of realism and gives us a powerful elemental conflict. The cast was uniformly excellent. Ian Bedford caught all of Eddie's bluster, his jealousy and his domineering nature. He made Eddie interesting--it's impossible to make him sympathetic. Andrus Nichols made his wife Beatrice more tough than the usual dippy Arthur Miller wife. Catherine Combs caught Catherine's naivete and confusion.
     Given the minimalist physical production, one really notices the music and sound effects. I am still a bit baffled by van Hove's constant use of Faure's gentle, elegant Requiem as the opening and closing music. Key scenes are punctuated by ominous percussive sounds.
      All in all, a great production of a problematic play whose passions, in van Hove's hands, become truly operatic.
     
     

Sunday, 27 August 2017

Disney's ALADDIN

     As I watched ALADDIN, I thought about how, whether intentionally or not, it is a tribute to earlier forms of musical theatre: the fairy tale spectacular that was popular around the turn of the 20th century and old-fashioned Golden Age musical comedy. It certainly is the most spectacular show I have ever seen. Disney specializes in grand, old-fashioned spectacles enhanced by the possibilities of contemporary computer technology. The show keeps topping itself. Just when you think they have run out of grand coups de theatre, you get another one. Veteran scene designer Bob Crowley has outdone himself and the hundreds of costumes by Gregg Barnes are witty and beautiful. The show is also a tribute to old-fashioned musical comedies. There's a winking, self-reflexive dimension to the show, an acknowledgement of the audience and the history of the genre. One number, "Friend Like Me," is an entire history of Broadway musical production numbers in one song. Director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw has created a valentine to the musical.
       Alan Menken's score could have been written in 1950. No rock or rap here, just old-fashioned show tunes with witty lyrics (Howard Ashman, Tim Rice, Chad Beguelin). The orchestra had strings, horns and saxophones along with the inevitable synthesizers. It's a catchy score while you hear it but not a score you remember after leaving the theatre. I had never seen the animated film so the score was new to me.
         The problem with the show, which was also the problem with THE LION KING (for me at least), is that the show soars during the musical numbers and falls flat during the dialogue scenes. The villains, tall, thin Jafar and short, chubby Iago, are neither funny nor frightening. They may have worked as cartoon characters but they don't work on stage. Physically they look like a comedy team but their are too scripted --the performers don't seem to have personality of their own, a problem endemic to Disney musicals with their assembly line casts who are supposed to repeat exactly the same performance as their predecessors. I came to dread their entrances. They barely have any music to sing, thus seem outside of the world of the musical. In an old fashioned musical, they would have been played by comics whose schtick was both familiar to audiences. They would also have room to improvise (think Jackie Gleason, Phil Silvers, Nathan Lane). Few performers are allowed to do this nowadays. When I saw the current revival of HELLO, DOLLY!, Bette Midler and David Hyde Pierce ad libbed a bit. The audience loved it.
     The show really comes to life late in the first act when The Genie appears. I doubt if Anthony Murphy was allowed much freedom to be improvisatory in the machine that is a Disney musical, but he had the funniest material and lived mostly through the musical numbers. It was literally a fabulous performance. Adam Jacobs, the original Broadway Aladdin was charming but I did have a sense that he's done the show a hundred too many times. There was not even the illusion of spontaneity (the illusion of spontaneity is all one can expect in a Disney extravaganza). He gets the best songs and is a terrific singer. Everyone else was perfectly fine, if not as funny as they could be (not necessarily the performers' fault). Real musical comedy is an art mastered only by years of experience. You can't teach someone to be funny or direct someone to be funny. Real comedy comes in part out of the personality of the performer. One rarely sees a group of good seasoned comics in a musical. SOMETHING'S ROTTEN (also directed by Casey Nicholaw), was the only musical I have seen in years with a cast of gifted comics. It was funny in a way that ALADDIN rarely was. Some of the lines were funny, the delivery less so. There was one woman in the cast who had about four lines in the entire show but managed to land laughs better with her few lines than most of the leads did. One problem is that ALADDIN is playing in the gigantic, 2500 seat Cadillac Palace Theatre. I was in the seventh row, so could see facial expressions. Most of the audience was much, much farther back, so all that registered were the heavily amplified voices, large physical gestures and scenic effects.
      I enjoyed the musical numbers enormously--could have done without a lot of the talk. Still, glad I saw it.
     

Monday, 14 August 2017

TREVOR, the musical at Writer's Theatre, Glencoe, IL

     We have moved to Chicago and heretofore, most of my postings will be about Chicago theatre and opera. There's a lot of new theatre in Chicago, often written by playwrights who are not yet known in New York. I'll cover as much of it as I can.
     The Writer's Theatre in suburban Glencoe, is a beautiful modern facility a block from the train station (40 minutes from Chicago). The repertoire is mostly revivals. This season they are offering THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST, BURIED CHILD and a new dramatization of DON QUIXOTE. However the season is opening with the tryout of a new musical by the creators of SOUTHERN COMFORT (Book and lyrics, Dan Collins; music Julianne Wick Davis), which played at the Public last season, and the director and choreographer of BEAUTIFUL: THE CAROLE KING MUSICAL. TREVOR I based on the 1994 Academy Award winning short film of the same name, told the story of a flamboyant thirteen-year-old boy who is obsessed with Diana Ross. Trevor discovers that he is gay at the same time his schoolmates do. Their rejection and his own inability to deal with his sexuality lead him to a failed suicide attempt. Trevor ultimately embraces his uniqueness. The film led to the founding of the Trevor Project, whose mission is to prevent suicide among lgbtq kids.
     Collins and Wick have opened up the seventeen-minute film, added secondary characters and fleshed out Trevor's journey. In the process, they have created a charming, touching show. It's sweet and endearing and the dark moments never get too dark. Trevor's imaginary companion, Diana Ross, wonderfully played by Salisha Thomas, is now a major character. Trevor's junior high companions have a lot of energetic numbers. Director Marc Bruni and choreographer Josh Prince keep the show moving at an energetic pace that is perfect for the hormonal adolescent characters. Donyale Werle's sets are simple but highly effective. The cast couldn't be better. Trevor is never offstage and young Eli Tokash, a veteran of a number of Broadway shows, is prodigious. He manages to keep Trevor "natural" rather than a child actor star turn. He's a junior Ben Platt. He is surrounded by a consistently excellent, convincing supporting cast of sixteen.
     My one reservation about the sow is that Trevor's social world seems to be more 1950s than early 1980s. No one seems to know the word "gay," which had been around for decades. The writers seem to be reluctant to use the kind of anti-gay slurs that homophobic kids would use. We get asexual euphemisms like "weird." The show could be a little less tame about how kids really talk.
     In every way, this show is Broadway caliber and worth the train ride to Glencoe. In the Age of Trump when all sorts of bigotry seem to be legitimized, TREVOR is still timely.  

Monday, 29 May 2017

ROTTERDAM by Jon Brittain at 59 E 59 Theatre

     ROTTERDAM could have been didactic and sentimental like a made-for-tv movie on such a hot topic as transgender politics. Instead it is a probing character study of two women at a crisis stage in their relationship. Alice and Fiona are a British couple living in Rotterdam where Alice works for a shipping firm and Fiona is a teacher. Alice, like many British expats, has never bothered to blend into Dutch society. After all, since everyone speaks English, why learn Dutch? To put it mildly, Alice is uptight and an inveterate conflict avoider. She has never come out to her family. In fact, Alice keeps too much to herself. Since she is not good at dealing with her emotions, Alice freezes when Fiona tells her that she is a man in a woman's body and that she wants to transition. From here on, he will be Adrian. We won't ask why it took so long for Fiona to figure this out or why she does so at this particular moment. The playwright seems to be dissecting British emotional constipation as much as gender politics. Alice and Fiona/Adrian share an apartment with Fiona's brother, Josh, who also was Alice's boyfriend until she met Fiona. Josh, a sweet guy, seems to be frozen into the odd position of living with his ex and her lover.
     The play focuses on the emotional roller coaster ride Alice goes on. She's a prickly character who reacts testily when anyone tries to break through the wall of her privacy and reserve. However, living through watching her female lover turn into a man is too much for her. "I'm gay," she cries. The woman she loved is turning into someone else who is not feminine. Alice experiments with living the high (in all senses of the word), life in Rotterdam with a twenty-one-year old party girl, but doesn't find that totally satisfactory.
      ROTTERDAM is somewhat about gender and sexual identity but more about the larger general issue of identity. Alice doesn't seem to have any real sense of self. Fiona is massively changing who she/he is. Josh's identity seems totally to be built on old relationships, on past, not present. It's a fascinating play. Yes, there is a ridiculous plot twist in the second act, and Alice's sudden Dutchness seems to be something out of an "I Love Lucy" episode, but these flaws doesn't weaken the strength of the studies of the major characters. Alice is not a pleasant person to be around. British drama is better at people who are fascinating but not nice than American drama is. The weakness of J.T. Rogers OSLO, for instance, which is likely to win the Tony (alas!), is that it tries to hard to make all of its characters charming. Much of ROTTERDAM is comprised of heated arguments, but they are well and wittily written. Alice is a mess. So is Adrian in many ways. But they are interesting messes.
    The production is cleverly directed by Donnacadh O'Brian and very well acted by the four person cast. Highly recommended.
 

Friday, 26 May 2017

The Shuberts, Bottled Water and Theatergoing in the 21st Century

     We paid big bucks to see HELLO, DOLLY! last night. The performance was worth every penny but going to a Broadway theatre these days is worse than going to LaGuardia airport, almost as bad as   leaving from Penn Station. What has happened to the theatergoing experience? For the current high price of tickets to a Broadway show, the audience deserves to be treated with more respect.
     Last night was chilly and rainy. Not only were we herded into long lines, but the employees running the lines shouted orders at us as if we were lining up for a prison camp. No "Please" or "Thank you." The lines were slowed down for a "Security Check" that was mostly designed to make sure we weren't bringing our own bottled water or candy into the theater so we would have to buy the ridiculously overpriced water and candy being sold inside. So far as I can see, this is only happening at theatre owned by the Shubert Organization.There is no law against bringing your own water into a theater, folks. Or your own M&Ms. Last night the security guards who were confiscating people's water and food announced that it was going to the homeless. Used bottles of water????? Open packages of candy? Please!!! No one treated audience members--folks who paid up to $399 a ticket--with any courtesy. This suggests bad management and bad training.
     When did this herding of customers into the theatre begin? Maybe it's my aging memory but I don't remember it happening when I was going to Broadway shows as a kid or younger man. Is it because people now tend to get to the theatre before the doors open (why?). I do remember when the ushers were middle-aged women in black with white collars who were like strict elementary school teachers but there was some modicum of courtesy involved. Now it's a mixed bag. The best ushers now are young people who obviously love theatre and want to chat about it. They want you to share a good time. The gang at the Shubert last didn't didn't seem to want to be there. Worse, they didn't seem to want the audience to be there.
     I was always taught that the show begins when the audience arrives at the theatre and doesn't end until the audience leaves. Some Broadway theatre owners have forgotten that. Audiences should remind them!

Bette Midler in HELLO, DOLLY!

     Television networks like to call a show that they are promoting an "event" as if that word conjures something so special you can't possibly miss it. For aficionados of the Broadway musical, Bette Midler's performance in HELLO, DOLLY! is an "event." Other than a stint as one of the daughters in  the original production of FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, Midler has never been in, much less starred in, a Broadway musical. What is extraordinary about Midler is that she invented her own form of musical revue and took it into giant venues across the country. She created and performed her own bizarre cast of characters. Occasionally she would bring her extravaganzas into a Broadway theatre but she usually played to ten thousand, not the fifteen-hundred of the larger Broadway theatres. Midler's core audience was gay men from the days of her appearances at the Continental baths to her touring spectacles. Then she went Hollywood and became more mainstream. Nonetheless, for many gay men, Bette is part of gay history, the first diva to play to and for gay audiences. Given this, I was surprised to see that the audience wildly cheering her last night at the Shubert Theatre was predominantly straight. The Continental Baths was over forty years ago and many of her towel-clad audience there and then were lost in the AIDS epidemic. The audience last night was also decidedly middle-aged and older. Younger gay men have their own divas though none of them play as specifically to the gay community as Bette did back in the day.
     Bette is the centerpiece of an excellent revival of the Jerry Herman-Michael Stewart-Gower Champion extravaganza, HELLO, DOLLY!, a show built to celebrate its title character and the performer who plays her. HELLO, DOLLY! is a faithful musical adaptation of Thornton Wilder's farce, THE MATCHMAKER, which played successfully on Broadway in the 1950s with Ruth Gordon giving a typically bizarre performance as Dolly Gallagher Levi. I was in high school when I saw THE MATCHMAKER and thought the play was hilarious but that Gordon was just plain weird. The next year Shirley Booth made more of the role in the lovely film adaptation. THE MATCHMAKER was my high school's Senior Play. I was student director. Like many of Thornton Wilder's works, HELLO, DOLLY is a call to celebrate life. Strangely, it is also a celebration of money, for, according to the show, only with money can one live fully.  As Dolly says, "Money is like manure. You've got to spread it around to make little things grow." Dolly forces miserly, stodgy Horace Vandergelder to enjoy life as she rescues his young employees, Cornelius and Barnaby from tedium.
     The musical gives its audience the gist of the play, soliloquies and all, and uses it as a foundation for a brilliant score from Jerry Herman. There isn't a weak number in HELLO, DOLLY, except, in this revival, "Penny in My Pocket," the number Horace (David Hyde Pierce), sings at the top of the second act, which was rightly cut from the original production. It's obviously there only to give Pierce another number. Jerry Herman was the last of the great Broadway composers who wrote traditional show tunes. Like Sondheim, his active career ended in the 1980s. Even in 1964, when The Beatles became big stars, one could say that his music looked back to another era and another style. He is the last great creator of traditional American popular songs, of the kind of show tunes we call The American Songbook.  My kind of music.
     The producers of this revival have lavished great care. Though credit is given to Jerry Zaks as director and Warren Carlyle as choreographer, the production keeps key elements of the Gower Champion original. If anything this version, with gorgeous sets by Santo Loquasto (even painted drops like the old days), and brilliantly colored costumes (also by Loquasto), are more lavish than the original. There's a big orchestra and good sized chorus. There is also a star-studded supporting cast for Ms. Midler. David Hyde Pierce is the best Horace I have seen. The wonderful Gavin Creel is totally charming as Cornelius. Kate Baldwin sings beautifully, as always. Even without Midler, this is a starry revival.
     Then there's Bette Midler. Broadway musical expert Ethan Mordden has written, "The ideal Dolly is the ideal entertainer, a fabulous freak." Look who played her in the original seven-year run: Carol Channing, Ginger Rogers, Martha Rate, Phyllis Diller, Ethel Merman and Pearl Bailey (with an all-Black supporting cast). I felt a sense of deja vu as I watched Bette's performance, which evoked memories of star turns I saw as a kid in that same theatre--Judy Holliday in BELLS ARE RINGING, Jackie Gleason and Robert Morse in TAKE ME ALONG. Across the street Phil Silvers and Nancy Walker in DO RE MI. Star turns by big stars. They don't make them like that anymore. The audience didn't expect them to be anything but who they were. Did anyone expect Ethel Merman to act? Like audiences in the Golden Age of the Musical, the audience was there to see Midler who played Midler playing Dolly. She flubbed her first lines, then ad libbed, "It's the meds." The audience loved it. When she finally got the line right, she got another ovation. In the final scene, her hat fell off. The audience applauded. She and David Hyde Pierce ad libbed a few lines about the hat. More applause. There was a sense that these little mistakes were what the audience wanted, what made it a live event. They could tell their friends that they saw Bette the night her hat fell off, the night she got tongue-tied on one of her first lines. It sounded like she has never gotten over the throat problems that plagued her earlier in the run. She is now almost as much of a baritone as Carol Channing was. But there was the presence, flashes of the old Bette who loved nothing more than pleasing an audience and having them show their love for her. She's 70 now, older than Carol Channing was when she did her farewell tour of HELLO, DOLLY!, but once in the spotlight Bette seemed to have boundless energy. It was a love fest and she deserved the love for giving the audience a taste of what Broadway used to be like.
     It is highly likely that Bette Midler and Ben Platt, who performs in DEAR EVAN HANSEN a few yards away from the Shubert at the Music Box Theatre, will win the Tonys for best performance in a musical. What a contrast! Platt's performance is an amazing case of a performer seeming to totally lose himself in a role. Bette Midler is, splendidly, Bette Midler. That's what we paid the big bucks to see. The fact that she is surrounded by some of the best talent on Broadway singing a great score in a fabulous production only makes it an even greater event.
     

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Sondheim's PACIFIC OVERTURES at the Classic Stage Company

     Hearing Stephen Sondheim's glorious score for PACIFIC OVERTURES (well, most of it), was like a breath of fresh air after a season of musicals with bland, forgettable music. There are sweeping, beautiful ballads ("There Is No Other Way" is one of Sondheim's best), and truly funny pastiches ("Please, Hello"). Every song is a jewel and, most amazing, every musical number is a self-contained mini-drama telling a story and defining characters. The show has a sweeping narrative but the score is like looking at a gallery of fine Japanese woodblocks, which can often in one image tell its own psychologically complex story. Every other show I have seen this season, with the possible exception of DEAR EVAN HANSEN and AMELIE, has worked too hard at ingratiating its audience, at winning us over. GROUNDHOG DAY and NATASHA, PIERRE AND THE GREAT COMET almost exhaust you with their spectacle and constant movement, though Tim Minchin's score for the former has the best lyrics and some good tunes sprinkled in all that visual busyness. Sondheim's great musicals draw you in. They require the audience to participate intellectually and emotionally. I must mention, too, Jonathan Tunick's beautiful orchestrations. One can't help but think at times of the haunting, elegiac quality of Mahler's DAS LIED VON DER ERDE, which I am sure Sondheim had in mind when he wrote some of PACIFIC OVERTURES. I do not exaggerate in comparing PACIFIC OVERTURES with great works of art and music (anybody who knows me knows I adore Japanese woodblocks and Mahler). The score earns the comparison.
     PACIFIC OVERTURES is the story of the Western incursions into "barbaric" Japan in the mid-19th century, told from the point of view of the Japanese, particularly a Shogun, a minor bureaucrat and a prisoner who has spent time in America. The show traces the elevation and cultural confusion of these men as personifications of what is happening to Japan itself. Director John Doyle, a leading advocate of the "less is more" school of direction, has pared a long show down to ninety minutes by cutting the book down to the bare essentials. In simplifying the narrative he has also, with Sondheim's permission, cut one excellent number, Chrysanthemum Tea." Those of us who love the score lament the loss of that witty musical mini-drama. It would have been better to have the complete score.
     Doyle's production is simplicity itself. It is performed on a white transverse stage. The only furniture is one stool. The cast wears contemporary casual dress. A few pieces of Japanese fabric are used to turn actors into shoguns, women, emperors. There are only a few necessary props. In my experience, PACIFIC OVERTURES works best in such pared down productions rather than the spectacular original production directed by Harold Prince. I have never heard or seen "Someone in a Tree" better performed or sung. Kudos to Austin Ku and Thom Sesma.
     The super-talented cast couldn't be better. The original production was all-male, but Doyle has added two women for the few female roles (men still play the prostitutes in "Welcome to Kanagawa"). Everyone sings beautifully and effectively executes Doyle's simple, ritualistic staging. The small band sounded like a full orchestra.
     The revivals of PACIFIC OVERTURES and SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE have been high points of my theatergoing year. Stephen Sondheim hasn't been actively composing new work for almost three decades now but he has left us some of the greatest scores in the history of American musical theater. Nothing now on Broadway comes close to his achievement. We were lucky this year to have two excellent revivals. Like the great operatic classics, Sondheim's work deserves to be revived regularly.

Sunday, 21 May 2017

AMELIE, THE MUSICAL and The Misuse of the Term "Flop"

     We saw the final performance of AMELIE (Book, Craig Lucas; music, Danielle Messe; lyrics, Nathan Tyson and Daniel Messe), today. The show had twenty-seven preview performances and fifty-six performances before a closing witnessed by a thousand or so highly enthusiastic theatergoers. I heard high praise from the people around me and the stage door mob almost completely blocked Forty-eighth Street. Moreover, AMELIE is one of the best musicals of the season with a charming book by Craig Lucas (adapted from the French film) and a tuneful, delightful score, better than any Tony-nominated score except, perhaps DEAR EVAN HANSEN. The small-scale production (Directed by Pam McKinnon, musical staging Sam Pinkleton), is visually witty and perfect for the tone of the material. David Zinn's designs and gorgeous. AMELIE may not have attracted the audience it needed, but it would be highly unfair to call it a flop. It was an artistic success that didn't attract audiences. One can try to second guess the producers. Perhaps a clever title in English rather than assuming theatergoers had seen the charming French film. Perhaps realizing that Philippa Soo is not a big enough star to attract a large audience (what leading lady under thirty-five is these days?),
though she was perfect casting as was the always magnetic Adam Chanler-Berat. The show was advertised as if Soo were a big star. Perhaps, perhaps, but, thank God I'm not a producer. What I did see this afternoon is that young women--the theatre was full of them--adore the show. Surely there was a way to market it more effectively.
     AMELIE is not a easy show to explain. It is whimsical and offbeat in the manner of many successful French films. Suffice it to say that it is an eccentric love story about eccentrics, the coming together of two people who prefer to live life at a distance from other people. What was most impressive is that the production caught the offbeat quality of the film without being the least bit heavy-handed, as Broadway can often be. It respected its source material but one could certainly enjoy the show without having seen the film. I'm not sure Philippa Soo is above the title star material. She's pretty and has a decent, but not great, singing voice--some notes seem to disappear altogether even with miking. The girl who plays her younger self has more pizzazz. But Amelie is an odd star turn, a self-effacing leading character. Adam Chanler-Berat is one of those performers who seems to belong totally onstage. He gets the best songs and makes the most of them.
     I'm so glad I got to see this charming show.
   

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

THE VIEW UPSTAIRS at the Culture Project

     It would be difficult for young gay folk to imagine how tacky gay bars were in the old days. They were dingy joints but to their denizens they were a safe space--until the police brutally raided or, as in the case of the UpStairs Lounge in New Orleans, the setting for the new musical THE VIEW UPSTAIRS, set ablaze by some raging homophobe. Twenty-nine people died in the fire at that bar in 1973. THE VIEW UPSTAIRS gives us a picture of that bar which, in the early years of gay liberation, was home and church for its regulars; queens, drag queens, closeted married men, hustlers, many of whom had been thrown out of their homes. The musical is also a kind of time travel show. A young gay fashion designer buys the bar in 2017 as a workshop and showroom for his clothes. His world of Grindr, cell phones and anonymous, casual sex isn't much more satisfying than the gay life offered in the UpStairs Lounge in 1973. At least that seedy place, raided regularly by brutal
homophobic police, offered a sense of community.  Alone in his new workshop, Wes (Jeremy Pope), finds himself surrounded by the ghosts of the denizens of the UpStairs Lounge. The cast of characters is a collection of types: homeless hustler, grand Black queen, Latino drag queen and his mother, closeted married man, butch bartender, MCC preacher.
     As is often the case in shows like this, there's a bit too much preaching and victimhood here. The meat of the piece is the contrast between Wes and Patrick (Taylor Frey), the ghost from the past he falls in love with. Their arguments underscore the differences between past and present for young gay men. Wes gets on his moral high horse about Patrick's hustling and Patrick counters that Wes's world of anonymous encounters is too impersonal and no more moral.
     Max Vernon has written the book, music and lyrics. The only two really interesting characters are Wes and Patrick. Everyone else is cardboard. The songs, all character songs, are pleasant and forgettable. Director Scott Ebersold and his designer Jason Sherwood have turned the Lynn Redgrave Theater into a facsimile of the UpStairs Lounge. There are tables in the playing area and the actors use the aisles as well as the stage.
     The cast is a mixed bag. Jeremy Pope was having voice troubles the night we went. He has the right sort of theatrical personality to hold this sprawling show together. Taylor Frey is sweet and sings beautifully -- the best voice in the cast. As Willie, the Black queen, Nathan Lee Graham gives one of the most shameless, self-indulgent performances I have seen in the professional theater, mugging endlessly and milking lines and pauses beyond the breaking point. In my experience, grand old-style queens always had a great sense of timing. Graham doesn't. Awful!
     I guess I'd call THE VIEW UPSTAIRS a noble effort, most interesting in its clash of past and present.

Sunday, 14 May 2017

THE GOLDEN APPLE by Jerome Moross and John LaTouche at City Center Encores

     Like many musical theater aficionados, I have always wanted to see a good performance of THE GOLDEN APPLE. The show opened at the Phoenix Theatre, a former Yiddish Theatre on Second Avenue and 12th Street, in 1954 and became a cult hit. Writer James McCourt wrote that it was on his "free-association queer syllabus," a show gays at the time had to see (I don't quite get this). I remember as a budding show queen of 12 all the hoopla about the musical. The producers moved it to Broadway where it quickly died--too witty, too musically sophisticated for Broadway in the age of THE PAJAMA GAME (not that there's anything wrong with THE PAJAMA GAME but THE GOLDEN APPLE is another animal altogether). Failure on Broadway only made the show more of a cult hit for the cognoscenti. An original cast album was produced of less that half of the two hour score--bits an pieces of a coherent work. McCarthyites found the show's satire of American lust, greed and hunger for power un-American. A complete recording of a not very good Texas production was put out a few years ago.
     THE GOLDEN APPLE is an American retelling of Homer, set in a small town in the state of Washington. Yes, there's Helen (the always fabulous Lyndsay Mendez), a sexually-liberated belter common in American musicals since at least Ado Annie in OKLAHOMA, married to a middle-aged Menelaus. She flies off in a hot-air balloon with a Paris (Barton Cowperthwaite), a lingerie salesman (a mute dancing role). Ulysses (Ryan Silverman), fresh home from the Spanish-American War, goes off to avenge Menelaus and bring Helen home, leaving his wife Penelope (Mikaela Bennett), behind. Much of the second act is taken up with the temptations Ulysses and his men face trying to get home. These are 1950s versions of Ulysses' trials--greed, lust, power American style.
     THE GOLDEN APPLE is through sung, more an opera than a typical musical. There's none of the weak musical padding of pop-operas of the 1970s and 1980s, none of those awful, endlessly repeated four note recitatives. This is a real score, a worthy companion to the great American operas of the period, Douglas Moore's THE BALLAD OF BABY DOE (also with LaTouche words), Carlisle Floyd's SUSANNAH, and Robert Ward's THE CRUCIBLE and that brilliant, if problematic operetta, Bernstein's CANDIDE (LaTouche was one of the many lyricists on that work). It's one of the great words-music collaborations in American musical theatre. There's every kind of American musical form in this rich, varied score.
     The City Center has done us an enormous service in producing THE GOLDEN APPLE so well. The musical values have been not only preserved but celebrated. A thirty-one piece orchestra (not a synthesizer in sight) give us a beautiful rendering of Moross's orchestrations. There's a big chorus and     excellent leads. Ryan Silverman and debutante Mikaela Bennett sing beautifully. Silverman is a great exemplar of a dying breed, the handsome baritone lead. Bennett, still a Juilliard student, pushes her beautiful voice too much. She will be a real opera star one day. Lindsay Mendez is her usual terrific self singing and acting as if there is nowhere she should be but in a spotlight. Everyone else belongs in this company. Michael Berresse's staging is simple but effective as is Joshua Bergasse's choreography. Bravos to Rob Berman for such superb musical direction. The Encores series gets minimal rehearsal. I saw the last performance, which was totally assured musically and theatrically.
     THE GOLDEN APPLE was a real treat. Kudos and thanks to all involved.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

The Tony's - My picks and what I think will win

     I have just seen all the nominees for Best Play and Best Musical. My thoughts.
     First of all, as everyone knows, the Tonys only represent Broadway, so they only represent a small portion of all the shows running in New York. The most interesting works don't begin their lives on Broadway. They have either begun life in one of the Off-Broadway non-profit theatres or at a regional non-profit theatre. The trip to Broadway is often a long one. COME FROM AWAY began in Canada and was further developed in runs at the La Jolla Playhouse and the Seattle Repertory Theatre before moving onto 45th Street.
     This season a particularly strong group of plays moved from Off-Broadway or the regional theatres to Broadway. My pick is A DOLL'S HOUSE, PART 2, though I think SWEAT will win the Tony because it speaks directly to the historical moment. All four nominations (all reviewed elsewhere on this blog), are strong. I found OSLO absorbing if a bit overlong, the characters too genial and self-congratulatory. I'm glad I saw it in the smaller Newhouse theatre rather than in the ungainly theatre upstairs. SWEAT is gripping in places but I felt that the characters preached and explained themselves too much. There was a bit too much docudrama under the drama. INDECENT is a fascinating historical drama, but Rebecca Taichman's direction is as important to the overall work as Vogel's script. Lucas Hnath's sequel to the Ibsen classic is taut, funny and powerful. It's Ibsen with a sense of humor; Shaw with more dramatic economy. I loved its intersection of past and present. I have seen three brilliant Hnath plays in the past eighteen months. He is one of our most prodigiously gifted playwrights. All four Tony-nominated plays are superbly directed and acted. I saw SWEAT, OSLO and INDECENT in small Off-Broadway venues, so I can't speak to how they translate to larger theatres. All four plays show up on tdf, so if you are a tdf member you can catch them all at a reasonable price.
     DEAR EVAN HANSEN probably will win Best Musical (COME FROM AWAY may be a dark horse surprise winner). It deserves to win. It has the strongest score of any of the nominees (not saying much this season), and a touching, character-driven book by Steven Levenson. It's another intimate musical and a lovely one. All the other shows raise a big question--can you have a strong musical without a strong score? The scores to the other shows range from forgettable to irritating (NATASHA, PIERRE AND THE GREAT COMET). COMET and GROUNDHOG DAY are all about the production, not the script or score. I've never seen environmental theatre on the scale of COMET. It's impressive in its own way, but turning bits of WAR AND PEACE into a grotesque, simple-minded, heartless cartoon didn't excite me. GROUNDHOG DAY was another heartless exercise. I didn't see Andy Karl, whom I admire as a comic performer, but it would be difficult to do much more than keep out of the way of all that moving real estate. Tim Minchin's lyrics are clever. I can't say I remember anything about the music. My runner up to DEAR EVAN HANSEN would have to be COME FROM AWAY. Another forgettable score but a delightful show about community and we really need to celebrate and aspire to community in these angry times.
     As to performances....I haven't seen Bette yet or Patti and Christine, so I'll wait a few days to comment on those. Of course Ben Platt is extraordinary and should win hands down for his performance in DEAR EVAN HANSEN. This is a year of shows with ensemble casts. The Tony's need awards for Best Ensemble Performance in a Play and Musical. COME FROM AWAY, INDECENT, OSLO, SWEAT And, yes, I agree that Gideon Glick was robbed of a Tony nomination he well deserved.
   

COME FROM AWAY: A New Musical by Irene Sankoff and David Hein

     The thirty-seven producers listed above the title for COME FROM AWAY were on to something. This low-budget musical about the citizens of Gander, Newfoundland and the seven-thousand passengers of the planes forced to land there on 9/11 turns out to be a sellout hit and a nominee for the Tony Award for Best Musical. It's a total crowd-pleaser.
     Twelve actors play a variety of roles--citizens of Newfoundland who treat the "plane people" with amazing generosity and passengers who begin angry, frightened and confused and become good friends with their hosts. It's a little hokey. The Canadians are all sweet, liberal (except at first to the Muslim), kind and provincial. The Americans are like a disaster movie cast--everything but a singing nun. There are two middle-aged people who fall in love and a gay couple who expect bigotry in this small town but find none. There's a female pilot who lives for her work. For the most part characters address the audience directly. This is an ensemble piece about community, so for the most part the actors remain on stage throughout the performance changing characters without changing costume. Most of the musical numbers are ensemble pieces.
     The music has a Celtic flavor. It is serviceable. At first I cringed at the opening number, which is basically one note--kind of Celtic rap. I thought, "Oh, God, it's going to be like ONCE,"which I hated. There isn't much in the way of great tunes. The songs are basically lyric heavy (good, lyrics too), patter songs that are interwoven into the dialogue to tell us more about the characters or the community dynamic. The show rarely stops for applause.
     All in all, COME FROM AWAY is a superbly crafted show. It's a feel-good musical but you never feel that you are being cheaply manipulated. The ensemble is excellent and the simple staging fits the material perfectly. There isn't any set except chairs, but that's all the show calls for. It's about people, not scenery. A number of my friends were left cold by the show so I went in curious but skeptical. By the end of the show's intermission less one-hundred minutes, I was won over. In the angry, dark age of Trump, it's good to see a show that makes you feel positive about the human race.

Friday, 5 May 2017

BANDSTAND with Laura Osnes and Corey Cott Directed by Andy Blankenbuehler

     I enjoyed BANDSTAND. The cast is enormously talented--some sing, dance, act AND play instruments expertly. The music is catchy and tuneful, if forgettable but how many current shows have memorable scores? The band, onstage and in the pit is excellent. It's a joy to hear a pit band that isn't synthesizer heavy--that doesn't sound like a hurdy-gurdy. The dancing (choreography Andy Blankenbuehler), is fabulous. So why were there so many empty seats in the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre last night? Part of my brain was asking why this show is not going to make it.
     Is it that the show is a period piece set at the end of World War II? Is it that the plot hinges on a talent contest at a time when we are inundated with musical talent contests on television? Is it that in an era of Broadway multiculturalism the cast of characters is so white (historically appropriate, but odd), and straight? It's odd that there are references to the Astor Hotel and bar in the show when the Astor bar was a favorite gay meeting place during World War II.
     Donny Novitski (Corey Cott), a former club pianist, has come home from the war psychically damaged but determined to restart his musical career. When he hears of a radio contest for the best swing band and song, he decides to build a band out of army veterans, all of whom have been in some way psychologically maimed by the war. Along the way he meets Julia (Laura Osnes), the widow of his best army buddy and who just happens to be a terrific singer. You can tell what's going to happen, right? The fact that the script ((book and lyrics by Rob Taylor and Richard Oberacker), is so predictable is the show's principal problem. I kept trying to think of ways to make the book more interesting. Perhaps the show could have fleshed out the back stories of the other band members. Perhaps the writers could have updated the timeliness of the issue of  the problems veterans still face by creating a show about a contemporary vet with the wacky idea of bringing back swing music and dancing. For all its virtues, BANDSTAND is saddled with a book that  resembles a 1940s B musical movie.
     Corey Cott sings well. He doesn't seem to be able to dance, which is a problem in this dance show, and I may be wrong but I am quite sure he was faking the piano playing while the other performers were really playing their instruments. His performance harks back to the old-fashioned musicals where the leading baritone was never expected to dance. I wonder if the show would have been stronger if the producers had cast someone who was less "cute aging juvenile" and more offbeat--and could dance! Laura Osnes sings beautifully, but also may be too conventionally "pretty ingenue" for 2017. They seem awfully WASP for the ethnic characters they are supposed to be playing, particularly when Julia has a Jewish mother!
     Most of the show is played in front of a drab barroom set (I thought at first they had recycled the pub set from ONCE, which played in this theatre a few years ago). All those brown tones are pretty dull for a musical. In the middle of the second act, when the gang heads for New York, the show takes a totally different, more spectacular look as if somewhere late in the creative process the producers said, "We need more glitz." It's an abrupt change of style. The war flashbacks are pretty cheesy.
     OK, much of this review is second-guessing a lot of talented Broadway minds. I still enjoyed BANDSTAND. I'm sure part of my enjoyment is based on the fact that my greatest musical love is pre-rock American popular music--what is referred to as the American Songbook. Composer Richard Oberacker creates a good pastiche of this kind of music. Here's a show where the orchestrators (Bill Elliott and Greg Anthony Rassen), deserve star billing. It's the way this old codger thinks a pit band should sound. The playout is almost worth the price of admission.
     One final note: the boomy sound resembles the public address system in Grand Central Station. Really poor, artificial sounding sound design.  
     

Thursday, 4 May 2017

Allison Janney and Corey Hawkins invJohn Guare's SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION

     John Guare's SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION was a critical and box office hit when it opened at Lincoln Center twenty-seven years ago. The production was a triumph for Stockard Channing who went on to star in the film version alongside Will Smith. The story is still a fascinating one although seeing this revival makes one aware how much has changed in a little over a quarter of a century. As many critics have noted, the internet has changed everything. The imposter would be easily unmasked. Moreover, nowadays many people are internet imposters posting fake versions of themselves.
      Into the elegant apartment of an Flan, an art dealer (John Benjamin Hickey), and his beautiful wife Ouisa (Allison Janney), comes Paul (Corey Hawkins), a young Black man who claims to be Sidney Poitier's son. He claims that he has been mugged in Central Park, close to the home of his Harvard friends, so he comes to their parents for help. Of course this young man has never gone to Harvard and is not friends with Flan and Ouisa's children. They discover that he has given this same performance in other elegant apartments. He doesn't steal anything--he only wants to be accepted in the role he has chosen to play. No matter how good the actress is who plays Ouisa, and Allison Janney is very good, the interesting character is Paul who lives out his fantasies of the person he would like to be. Unfortunately, like many people who don't really belong, Paul can easily be erased from the glittering world he has invaded. Paul is also gay, which was more shocking in 1990 than it is now. The suicide of the innocent young man from Utah Paul seduces ("I don't want to be this," he cries before jumping off a roof). seems a relic of another era of gay representation.
     There are funny and touching moments in SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION but Trip Cullman's production can not cover up the uncertainties of tone in Guare's script The obnoxious teenage children of the middle-aged characters seem to come out of some awful television sitcom. Some characters are barely drawn at all and Ouisa's change of heart about her marriage at the end seems to come out of left field as does her insinuation that her husband has a crush on Paul. Cullman tries to cover these flaws with speed. The original production, directed by Jerry Zaks, a devotee of the "Faster-Louder" school of direction, did the same thing. Cullman does know to slow down for the serious moments.
     The three leads are very good. Allison Janney looks gorgeous in the beautiful outfits she has been given to wear (Clint Ramos designed the costumes). She's charming, funny and obviously feels a kinship to Paul. After all, so much of Ouisa's social life is a performance designed to woo money from rich backers of her husband's art business. John Benjamin Hickey, always a fine actor, makes more of the underwritten character of Flan than other actors I have seen in the role. I first saw SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION in London. There Adrian Lester was charismatic as Paul. He made the audience aware of why these rich people are so drawn to him. It's not only his supposed relationship to Sidney Poitier: it's sheer force of personality. Corey Hawkins is almost too forceful as Paul. The charm isn't there. When he tells Ouisa that he will clean up, it sounds too much like an order. His line, "I like to be looked at" is said so powerfully that it seems creepy. At times it's as if Hawkins is running a vocal yellow highlighter over key speeches--"This one is important"--then speeding over the less important stuff. Hawkins is at his best in the poignant final scenes.
           If you have never seen the play, it's worth seeing, particularly if you can pick up a cheap ticket via tdf or the half-price line.

Sunday, 30 April 2017

Harvey Fierstein and Gabriel Ebert at GENTLY DOWN THE STREAM at the Public Theatre

     One of the memories of Beau (Harvey Fierstein), a repository of memories of the bad old days of gay life, is of a night in a Manhattan YMCA, once a celebrated site of gay sex. One man was so happy that he had sex that he started singing "Row, Row, Row Your Boat." Soon from all the rooms there was a chorus of the familiar round -- the voices of lonely, damaged gay men who had had a moment of sex and companionship. Beau has a lot of sadder memories--of a lover killed in a terrible fire, set by a homophobe, in a New Orleans gay bar and of a lover destroyed by AIDS. He also has tender memories of his relationship with James Baldwin and his piano playing for Mabel Mercer who sang songs written by men of desire for men but made "respectable" by being sung by a woman. Beau, now living in London and playing piano at a gay club, has obviously been damaged by what he has lived through. Enter Rufus (the wonderful Gabriel Ebert), a young bipolar lawyer and what was supposed to be a one-night stand turns into a relationship. Rufus is attracted to older men in general and Beau in particular and wants the relationship to be permanent but Beau is too damaged by his history to accept legal recognition of their life together. Martin Sherman's sweet, funny play traces a decade in their ever-changing relationship. Sherman's play alternates scenes with monologues in which Beau recounts the most important moments in his past. The gay world has changed since he was Rufus's age and Beau at least can give the new world his blessing.
      I've never been Harvey Fierstein's greatest fan but here he gives a beautifully modulated performance. There's some of the Fierstein schtick, but moments that are genuinely moving. Gabriel Ebert, as always, is charismatic onstage. What a talent! Christopher Sears gives substance to his underwritten role as the man Rufus marries.
      GENTLY DOWN THE STREAM isn't a masterpiece but well worth seeing, particularly for the teamwork of Fierstein and Ebert who obviously love performing together.
     A POSTSCRIPT....The night after I saw GENTLY DOWN THE STREAM I had the pleasure of seeing the fine new production of DER ROSENKAVALIER at the Met, the best of this season's new productions, most of which have had strong musical values but weak or misguided direction and/or design. In a way, GENTLY DOWN THE STREAM is a version of the ROSENKAVALIER story--a mature person can't trust his relationship with an ardent younger lover and nobly accepts that lovers new young love. This story in various forms has been a part of gay fiction and drama.

Saturday, 29 April 2017

VENUS by Susan-Lori Parks at the Signature Theatre

     There was once celebrated play about a nineteenth-century freak, Bernard Pomerance's THE ELEPHANT MAN. Susan-Lori Parks's VENUS tells the tale of a 19th century Black female "freak," Saartjie Baartman, The Venus Hottentot (Zainab Jah). Since this is a play by Susan-Lori Parks, the story will be told in a roundabout fashion (literally here), and include many authorial interventions. A narrator, The Negro Resurrectionist (Kevin Mambo), acts as interlocutor for the scenes that work in circular fashion from her death to her death. Parks's interest is in the ways a Black woman's body is violated. The Negro Resurrectionist reminds us that her story begins three years after England made slavery illegal, yet Baartman is always a slave. She moves from indentured servitude in South Africa to basically unpaid life in a touring freak show in England to the kept woman of  racist French professor of anatomy who loves her in his limited fashion (John Ellison Coulee). She is placed on display by the owner of the freak show and sexually abused by drunken men. Bought by the French doctor, she is his kept woman until he tires of her and his reputation is threatened. Ultimately she dies of exposure in Paris.
     This is a profoundly disturbing tale of injustice, but Parks always keeps us at a distance from the emotional power of the story. In Brechtian fashion she throws in various distancing devices--the narrator, the grotesque chorus who play a variety of characters, an occasional song, the reverse numbering of scenes and an occasional historical "footnote." As usual with her work, theatre/performance is a metaphor for human relations. At Parks worst, her work can be pretentious and off-putting. This 1996 work is best in the second act where there are less of her intrusions.
     Lear Debessonet gives the play the theatrical flair it needs. Zainab Jah and John Ellison Conlee, the only actors who have real characters to play, make the most of the material. As usual, Kevin Mambo is charismatic and the ensemble is effective.

Thursday, 27 April 2017

A DOLL'S HOUSE, PART 2 by Lucas Hnath

     My first thought as I experienced this brilliant play is that it is too good for Broadway, which is sadder for Broadway than for the play. In the past couple of years, Lucas Hnath has given us a series of stimulating, challenging plays about big issues. Like Henrik Ibsen and the classical Athenian playwrights, Hnath's plays are consciously a series of intense dialogues on big subjects: faith (or the loss of same) and doctrine in THE CHRISTIANS, American moral corruption in RED SPEEDO. There's none of Ibsen's solemnity in Hnaths' fast, furious and often funny work. He's more like George Bernard Shaw at his best. Hnath's plays are certainly well-made and highly theatrical. He has a strong sense of narrative and draws rich characters. And his plays, models of dramatic economy,  are full of surprises.
     You don't have to know a lot about Henrik Ibsen's A DOLL'S HOUSE to enjoy Hnath's sequel. Nora left home, marriage and family to find herself. In Norway in the1870s, this was a scandalous act. The sad fact is that there would be nowhere for such a rebellious woman to go. Perhaps she could find a menial job or become a prostitute. Hnath's Nora (Laurie Metcalf), was much cleverer. Under a pseudonym, she became a writer of best-selling feminist novels, the first of which is a fictional retelling of her stultifying marriage. Women love her novels; men in power want to destroy the woman who wrote them. Fifteen years after walking out the door of her home, Nora returns beautifully dressed and very self-possessed. She has come back because she has discovered that Torvald, her husband (Chris Cooper), never divorced her. This means that as a married woman she had no legal right to conduct business or have affairs. Nora needs a divorce or she could be ruined. However, if she has her way, everyone else could be ruined. In a series of witty, intense dialogues with Torvald, her old nurse (Jayne Houdyshell) and her daughter (Condola Rashad), Nora continues to argue for her freedom and her beliefs. Nora's feminism and anti-marriage stance have validity, of course, but like many radicals, Nora is not very strong on compassion or on arguments based on emotional need. Like many of Ibsen's heroes, she's both a creator and a destroyer. There's a lot at stake here for all the characters.
     One of the fascinating aspects of the play and the simple but effective production by the ubiquitous Sam Gold (obviously influenced by the work of Ivo van Hove), is the confluence of past and present. Rock music blasts from the speakers as the audience enters the theatre and a neon sign bearing the play's title hangs over the stage. The walls of Miriam Buether's thrust stage set could be of a large 19th century house, but the few chairs are contemporary. A box of Kleenex sits on a small table. The language is definitely a mix of period and contemporary. The audience laughs when Nora says that within thirty years her feminist ideas will take hold. We know there are still places in the world where women are in positions worse than Nora could ever imagine.
     What a cast! Laurie Metcalf stalks the stage like a person hungry for power. She's something of a bully but Metcalf brings out all the humor in the text. Jayne Houdyshell, Chris Cooper and Condola Rashad are worthy adversaries.
      Unlike SWEAT, which will probably win all the awards, A DOLL'S HOUSE, PART 2, is never preachy. It never falls into melodrama. It deserved the cheering it got at the performance I attended.
If I gave stars, Hnath's play would get five.  

Saturday, 22 April 2017

THE PROFANE by Zayd Dohrn at Playwrights Horizons

      We've seen some elements of THE PROFANE before--the parents' shock and disapproval at the seemingly inappropriate marriage of a child; the child's rebellion against doctrinaire parents; the battle of Western secularism against devout religion, particularly Islam; the identity crisis of a cosmopolitan Westerner when faced with reminders of his middle-Eastern religious background. However, Zayd Dohrn brings a different, fascinating focus to these materials. His central character, Raif (Ali Reza Farahnakian), is a novelist living the good life in a book-lined Greenwich Village apartment. He has renounced his Islamic background and has embraced secular humanism. As his daughter tells him, his only community is fellow readers of The New Yorker. Raif is in a not-very-fulfilling relationship with his wife, Emina, a former ballet dancer (Heather Raffo). Their was an arranged marriage that has managed to survive, if not thrive. Their eldest daughter is a kind of free spirit, a lesbian bartender. Her eccentricities are OK with her parents. The conflict comes with younger daughter Emina (Tala Ashe), announces that she is going to marry Sam, the son of a devout Muslim family.
     Raif is a brilliantly drawn portrait of a type anyone unacademic as familiar with, the secular intellectual who is every bit as doctrinaire and intolerant as the most rigid fundamentalist. He ignores Sam (Babak Tafti), when he arrives at his home, then goes so far as to rip pages out of Sam's parents' Koran. He would be part of a very simplistic dramatic construction, except that Dorn has surrounded Raif with characters who are at moments of transition. Though she won't admit it, Emina is more drawn to Islam than to Sam. Sam loves Emina but has lost his faith. Their relationship faces problems they don't foresee. Sam doesn't fully understand that he is on the way to becoming a version of Raif. He has lost his faith and is an enormous admirer of Raif's novels of exile and rebellion. One of the most powerful moments in this play filled with voluble, hyper-articulate characters is a silent one, Emina's embrace with Sam's mother and the arranged wife that Sam spurned--a moment of solidarity of Muslim women without any men in sight. There's a sense of kinship there missing in Raif's secular family.      
     Sam's family is as prosperous as Emina's, but they're not educated, not intellectual and, worse, the only book in sight in their White Plains home, complete with swimming pool, is the Koran. They're Raif's worst nightmare--they're religious and materialistic. At the end, Raif's eldest daughter is reading him an excerpt from one of his own books, a reminder of Raif's solipsism.
      THE PROFANE is a stimulating play, effectively directed by Trip Cullman and performed by a consistently fine ensemble.

Friday, 21 April 2017

MICHAEL McKEEVER'S DANIEL'S HUSBAND AT PRIMARY STAGES

     A few years ago, Geoffrey Nauffts' play NEXT FALL chronicled the awful things that can happen to a gay couple who have no legal protections before the Supreme Court made gay marriage the law of the land.  Michael McKeever's well-written DANIEL'S HUSBAND covers much of the same ground. DANIEL'S HUSBAND is a textbook example of a finely crafted play, but, really, what is wrong with those people up there on stage?
     Daniel and Mitchell seem to have the perfect life. Daniel is a brilliant, successful architect who comes from a wealthy family and Mitchell makes a decent living writing gay fiction (does anybody still write gay fiction?? Whatever happened to Gordon Merrick??). They live in a gorgeous house that Daniel designed. Daniel is also a gourmet cook and the couple only drink vintage wines and well-aged whiskies. Mitchell's best friend is Barry, his agent, who is drawn to short-term trysts with men thirty years his junior. One of them, the adorable Trip, loves his job as a caregiver to invalids who can't take care of themselves. Trip is like the gun Chekhov commented on: "If you show a gun in Act I, it has to be used in Act III." The only other character is Daniel's totally self-absorbed mother, a very spoiled rich woman who is used to getting her way--another Chekhovian gun.
     When Trip asks Daniel and Mitchell why they aren't married, Mitchell goes off on a rant about what is wrong with marriage in general and gay marriage in particular. He drowns out Trip's arguments for marriage, though ultimately Barry has the best rejoinder, "Because we can." Not only are Daniel and Mitchell without the legal protections of marriage; they have never signed a health care power of attorney. What could possibly go wrong in their ideal lives? Well, something goes very, very wrong. McKeever has crafted his play brilliantly, moving from witty banter to argument to crisis. There were a lot of laughs in the first half and a lot of sniffling during the denouement. Yet I could not help thinking, as I did with NEXT FALL, how stupid the ocuple was not to get appropriate legal protection. Back before gay marriage when my place of employment recognized same-sex domestic partnerships, we had to bring in a set of documents to register--wills, legal power of attorney and health care power of attorney. In other words, Duke ensured that we were legally protected as domestic partnerships. Married or not, every couple needs these protections. The horrors than ensue for the couple in DANIEL'S HUSBAND hinge on unsigned documents.
     Joe Brancato has paced the play effectively (the production originated at Penguin Rep in Stony Point, NY) and the cast couldn't be better. Ryan Spahn and Matthew Montelongo made a convincing couple. Montelongo has the more emotionally demanding role and he managed to modulate Mitchell's grief and anger perfectly. From Row H, Anna Holbrook looked a decade or so too young to be Ryan Spahn's mother though Holbrook captured an intensely selfish woman who wants everyone to think well of her. Leland Wheeler managed to be sweet without being vapid and Lou Liberatore was the stalwart, adoring best friend. Bryan Prather's living room set looked too generic to be the work of a brilliant architect. When I walked into the theater and looked at the stage, I thought, "How many times have I seen this set?"
     DANIEL'S HUSBAND got a prolonged standing ovation. It's not a masterpiece--it's an old-fashioned drama built to please. I don't mean that at all in a condescending way. It was a pleasure to experience such a well-made play with such a fine cast.
     
    

Thursday, 20 April 2017

ANDREW CALL IN GROUNDHOG DAY: THE MUSICAL

     If you haven't seen the GROUNDHOG DAY, the movie (yes, Virginia, another musical based on a movie--will it never end?), it tells the story of a cynical small-town weatherman who, for some reason, is cursed to relive incessantly Groundhog Day until he is cured of his cynicism. Danny Rubin has adapted his own screenplay. The book is clever but the show depends more on visual magic than dialogue. Tim Minchin's lyrics are always witty. His best tunes are in the second act (more on that later).
     The poor denizens of Paris in LES MISERABLES only got to spin incessantly on one revolving stage. In Matthew Warchus's constantly clever--some might say too clever by half--production, the citizens of the small town of Punxsutawney, Pa. whir around on five revolves. You wait for them to sing "Stop the World, I Want to Get Off." The scenery for GROUNDHOG DAY (Rob Howell designer), does all the dancing. The cast only has to stand still to move. After a while this incessant whirling gets to be too much, distracting us from caring about the show's central character, cynical weatherman Phil Connors (the excellent Andrew Call). What a role Phil Connors offers a singing actor! He's never off stage except during an unnecessary song in sung by a secondary character at the beginning of Act II (why take focus from your central character at the beginning of the second act?). I begin with Matthew Warchus's too clever by half, too busy by half, production because it is both the show's strength and its greatest weakness. The show should be about Phil, not the stage machinery. It takes a strong performer to steal focus from the moving real estate. I read that Broadway stalwart Andy Karl, who injured his knee last week, gave such a performance. For those who have tickets to a performance featuring Andrew Call (strange about the similarity in names), don't despair. Call doesn't try to imitate Karl -- he gives his own performance. He looks like the generic forever cute small market tv anchorperson or weatherman. He's the mediocre guy who thinks he deserves a better, more appreciative world. Call sings well and gets through all the many stage tricks as if he has been rehearsing them for years. His Phil is steely until he finally melts. It's a tour de force just to get through all an actor has to get through in that production and Call does much more than that. He makes Phil his own and doesn't get overwhelmed by all the whirring furniture. Barrett Doss is charming and sings well as Phil's love interest. The supporting cast is appropriately eccentric.
     Is there any other musical in which the second act is stronger than the first? At my performance, the audience seemed underwhelmed with the show at the intermission. In fact some people around me left. The barrage of visual cleverness didn't even stop for applause at the end of numbers. For all the work of Call and his fellow actors, the first act seemed frenetic and heartless. Call tried to establish a rapport with the audience but everything moved to fast. The second act slows down enough for characters to establish themselves in solid songs. Occasionally characters are even allowed to stand still. Finally the audience is given a chance to identify with the people on stage. The audience is given the opportunity to applaud songs. The second act did what first acts usually do--it allowed us to get to care about the characters and performers.
     I may be wrong but I don't think GROUNDHOG DAY is going to be the success in New York that it was in London. Until Act II it all seems as heartless as its central character. Clever, yes. Spectacular, yes. It's also a bit exhausting.

Thursday, 23 February 2017

EVERYBODY by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins at the Signature Theatre

     I have admired everything I have seen for far by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, so I really looked forward to EVERYBODY, his take on the quasi-morality play EVERYMAN. EVERYBODY was, alas, a disappointment.
     EVERYMAN itself if a strange hybrid. In my day it was taught as the best example of a medieval morality play but it isn't typical of the genre and was probably written as a closet drama, to be read, not to be produced. Popular English morality plays of the 14th century were far more ribald and crass (the devil, the most popular character, often farted fireworks). EVERYMAN (perhaps based on a Dutch play), is far more austere with far fewer theatrics. It asks a question often asked by medieval and early modern drama--of what value is an individual's life? What matters at the moment of death? What mattered to a Christian audience of the period and to the author of EVERYMAN was faith and, in EVERYMAN, Good Deeds (not an idea that Martin Luther would approve of. God in EVERYMAN is ultimately interested in teaching the title character that only one's good works accompany one to the grave. Only one's good deeds redeem one's life. What do you have left of EVERYMAN if you take away the religion that is the heart and soul of the play? In Jacobs-Jenkins version of EVERYMAN, to quote the Beatles, "All you need is love." Now a good Christian would agree that love, caritas, is what we should feel toward every living thing including our enemies. But what does love mean in EVERYBODY? Love for whom, for what? Jacobs-Jenkins never explores this, making EVERYBODY his least intellectually rigorous or coherent play. In fact, I found it to be quite a despairing play. His gender neutral Everybody finds that all the things he valued in life are worth nothing at the moment of death.  He's left with love, played by a cute sweet guy. Instead of Good Deeds, he's left with "All the shitty things he ever did." As a person of faith, I found the play amusing but sad and empty. Be nice to everybody" is a sad dilution of the message of EVERYMAN or the message of love espoused by many faiths.
     As usual with Jenkins, the play is imbued with a great sense of theatre. There's a lottery in which one of the actors is randomly chosen to play Everybody (Louis Cancelmi at my performance). There's a light show and a dance of death performed by two skeletons. There's a lot of contemporary humor. There are also tiresome moments--much sitting in the dark while we hear the recorded voices of a man and a woman arguing over whether one or the other is racist. I felt that many scenes were a minute or two too long.
     Until the final moments, much of the production takes place in the auditorium rather than on the stage. Lila Neugebauer has used the space effectively but I felt that the actors were left to their own devices. The rhythm overall was a bit slack. Perhaps if the lottery had had a different result and I had seen Everybody played by a more interesting actor, I would have felt more dramatic tension. Cancelmi sleepwalked through the performance rather than portraying a man terrified of death and the loss of all he valued. This should be a frightening play. It wasn't.
   

Sunday, 19 February 2017

John Kander and Greg Pierce's KID VICTORY at the Vineyard Theatre

     After a week of enduring Wallace Shawn's dystopian yawn and David Byrne's dreary history lesson, I was almost ready to give up on theatre. John Kander and Greg Pierce's daring, deeply moving KID VICTORY shocked me back into my love for theatre and optimism about the possibilities for the American musical. KID VICTORY takes you the audience into very dark places. It has the depth and emotional impact of a fine play. Actually it is more a play with music than a conventional musical.
     Luke (Brandon Flynn), is a troubled adolescent with a much darker and more complex emotional life than his Broadway counterpart, the title character of DEAR EVAN HANSEN. When the show begins, Luke has returned from almost a year in bondage in the basement of Michael (Jeffrey Denman), a former history teacher and current psychopath. Michael alternated being loving and crazy-cruel, nonetheless the relationship was not totally forced on Luke. Return to a cozy, conventional, rural, Christian Kansas home is impossible for Luke who has been much too changed by his life with Michael, who will never be totally out of his head. He knows he's a freak, an outsider. His mother (Karen Ziemba), and former girlfriend (Laura Darrell), want him to be the way he was before he left. His father (Daniel Jenkins), is silent but more an ally that Luke at first comprehends.  Luke's only friend is an older woman, sort of an ex-hippie, who runs a failing garden store. Outside of that store, Luke feels more imprisoned than he was on the island with Michael.
     Through flashbacks we discover the complex nature of Luke's relationship with Michael. I'm not going to indulge in spoilers. Suffice it to say that what we see in KID VICTORY challenges our definition of love and, if we can't suspend our moral judgment, we loosen it a bit. Some folks--even in New York--will be shocked by KID VICTORY. Like his contemporary Stephen Sondheim, John Kander has always been drawn to outsiders. In KID VICTORY, it's the normal folks who seem strange--and it's the normal folks who do most of the singing. Luke doesn't sing at all.--he's too trapped inside his head for music. John Kander has written a beautiful score and Greg Pierce's lyrics are always in character and often deeply moving. Special praise. also needs to be given to Michael Starobin for the lovely orchestrations. The small band sounds like a full orchestra.
     The cast is superb. Brandon Flynn makes us feel Luke's torment. This isn't a kid simply trapped in a lie like Evan Hansen. Luke can't accept that he is feeling powerful emotions he knows are not "normal."  This is anguish and Flynn's body language captures it beautifully. He is surrounded by an excellent ensemble of singing actors. Liesl Tommy's staging and Christopher Windom's unobtrusive, choreography perfectly underscore the show's complex mood. The setting never changes from the room in which Luke was imprisoned--mentally and emotionally he's still in that room. There's an odd moment where Kander and Pierce give us an upbeat number complete with tap dancing. At first it seems odd, but it's a moment in which Luke is offered a moment of joy and sex that he is too haunted to enjoy.
     KID VICTORY is dark, but it is anything but hopeless. It's about redemption and forgiveness, including self-forgiveness. Above all it's about love. I have already seen it twice. If you have any interest in musical theatre that presents real, contemporary situations and emotions, don't miss KID VICTORY.

Saturday, 18 February 2017

Jake Gynnelhaal in Sondheim's SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE

     I don't know why I didn't comment back in October on the brilliant City Center Encores presentation of SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE. It was one of those very special theatrical events--a starry cast doing their best in a simple but effective staging of a great musical backed by a superb orchestra. Jake Gyllenhaal surprised everyone with the quality of his singing. Intense, sensitive, anti-social genius Georges Seurat seemed the perfect part for him. Annaleigh Ashford made Dot her own. Phylicia Rashad made Georges' mother a powerful presence. Small parts were filled by the likes of Zachary Levi and Ruthie Ann Miles. It was a great night.
     The production has now moved into the renovated Hudson Theatre and, despite some major cast changes, it is a great revival. Gyllenhaal and Ashford are still superb. Penny Fuller has replaced Rashad and makes the part her own. "Changing"--one of my favorite songs in the show--was one of the evening's high points. Robert Sean Leonard has replaced Zachary Levi as Georges' artistic rival. Levi was too much "handsome leading man" for the role. Leonard gives it more substance. The rest of the ensemble is as excellent as it was at the City Center and the orchestra (visible behind a scrim) is up to City Center standards. Chris Fenwick again conducts.
     The production is done on a bare platform with some props and projections. The show is so strong that it really doesn't need anything more. Sarna Lapine and Ann See (credited with musical staging) have used the space and performers effectively. Whoever designed the spectacular "Chromolume #7 that Georges' grandson creates in the second act deserves his or her own standing ovation.
     Of course, SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE is a show that should be seen by anyone interested in musical theatre. It's a twentieth century classic with a great score and brilliant lyrics. It's not easy for folks who only know Disney shows ("Art isn't easy" as Georges sings). You have to listen carefully but the rewards are great. It is also one of the best works about the making (and selling) of art.
     Speaking of the selling of art, the refurbished Hudson Theatre looks great. It has sat idle for too long. However, it is being run by the Ambassador Theatre Group, who seem to think of their properties as bars with theatres. Big bars, tiny bathrooms. Audience members are allowed to being glassware to their seats--not a good idea, particularly for the folks who have to clean the theatres. Most egregious is the muzak piped into the public spaces before the show begins and at intermission. I noticed this when I went to see ON THE TOWN at the Lyric (also an Ambassador house) a while back. When one goes to see a musical, one shouldn't be bombarded with other music everywhere else in the theatre. It isn't a supermarket. The jazz being piped in at SUNDAY AT THE PARK WITH GEORGE distracted from the experience of hearing a Sondheim score as the Christmas tunes distracted from the Bernstein score. Silence is golden before a show.

David Byrne's JOAN OF ARC INTO THE FIRE at the Public

     Like many others, I raved about David Byrne's HERE LIES LOVE, a techno-opera about Imelda Marcos. The music was terrific and Alex Timbers' immersive production was thrilling. It is interesting to note that when friends recall HERE LIES LOVE, they talk about the production, not the score. JOAN OF ARC INTO THE FIRE is nowhere near as strong musically and the production is more pageant than storytelling.
     As I watched the production I thought about Stephen Sondheim's notion of a "Why" musical. Why turn the story of Joan of Arc into a rock musical? Did Byrne have any idea he wanted to share about Joan's life, so brilliantly dramatized in George Bernard Shaw's SAINT JOAN? The show curtain offers a spurious quote from Margaret Mead to the effect that great social changes are caused by one person. Byrne seems interested in women who are historical figures--Imelda, Joan--but he doesn't make clear why. Any version of Joan has to explain how this girl was able to win over soldiers and princes-- as Shaw's play does so brilliantly. Byrne's musical just recounts facts. I know why Andrew Lloyd Webber was fasciated by Eva Peron. He loves divas. I'm not sure why Byrne wrote a musical about Joan. I mention EVITA because there are similarities between the two shows. An historical female at the center and a male narrator on the sidelines. The difference is EVITA is fun and JOAN OF ARC is deadpan solemn. EVITA without the camp.
     There's too much narrative here and not much character. The lyrics are truly awful, worse than the lyrics to most of Lloyd Webber's musicals and that's going some. They're filled with one syllable words and forced rhymes. My husband rightly called them "doggerel." I associate the Talking Heads with witty lyrics. Don't look for them here. The music isn't Byrne's best. Some good songs, but a lot of it sounded like the same song being repeated.
     As for the production, a black set revolves a lot a la LES MIZ. There's a lot of going up and down stairs. A group of men are backup chorus to Joan and play the supporting characters. There's some macho choreography as Joan learns to be a soldier. Two guitarists are part of the scenery and join in some of the choruses. Jo Lampert gives a terrific performance as Joan. She looks like an androgynous punk rocker, sings well and gets tossed around a lot.
     I saw an early preview and its 100 minutes seemed endless. After Joan has been burnt at the stake and you think you can go home, her mother, who has never appeared before, enters the scene to sing a long, banal, totally unnecessary song. Why??
     Finally, hasn't the historical figure as rock star thing been done at least six times too often? As they sing in SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE, a great show about an historical figure, "Move on!"

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Wallace Shawn's EVENING AT THE TALK HOUSE presented by the New Group

     I have never been a great fan of Wallace Shawn's work. He seems to take on interesting topics and drown them in language that isn't very dramatic. His works are often better read than seen. There's an interesting, very dramatic idea in EVENING AT THE TALK HOUSE, but the result is, alas, flaccid.
    The setting of the play, set in a dystopian future, is a failing club that has catered to show business types. Tonight it is hosting the reunion of a group of people involved ten years ago in the production of an unsuccessful play written by Robert (Matthew Broderick). From the long speech we hear from the play, some kind of idealistic medieval romance, it sounds quite awful, more Tennyson than anything seen on the modern stage. Robert has moved on to producing and writing a successful sitcom. The rest of the guests gathered for this reunion are cast members, designers and the composer of the show's music. There is an outsider (of course), Dick (Wallace Shawn), a failed actor who seems to be hiding out in the club. Dick has recently been beaten for saying something offensive to some unseen parties.
     Amidst the usual bitchy showbiz talk, another more sinister topic arises. Murder seems to be the stock and trade of this society. Ordinary citizens can be drafted to choose who in other countries can be targeted for assassination. Later we learn that there is also domestic assassination--offend the wrong people and you can be beaten or killed. Harbor someone who has offended the wrong people and your life is in danger. The most frightening thing about this society gone awry is that the violence and killing seems to be accepted by everyone. At one point there is a power blackout and that, too, is taken in stride. Showbiz talk continues. I was reminded of Hannah Arendt's writings on the banality of evil. This is a world where sitcoms have become the opiate for a violent society.
     This should have been an urgent, frightening picture of a terrible society in which people have come to accept and abet violence. It's easy to see what Shawn is doing with all the banal, self-absorbed talk of the tv folks who are complicit in the horror. Even the group singing of Sondheim's "Good Thing Going" makes sense. In theory, this is a good idea. The trouble is that all the dull talk of self-satisfied people is still dull. The horror or disgust we should feel is diluted, not intensified, by all the blather.
     In his long opening monologue (Shawn loves long opening monologues), Robert tells the audience that he no longer has an interest in theatre, in a group of people sitting in a room looking at another group of people, yet he laments the current state of theatre. Eventually we realize he is talking about the future, not the present. You'd certainly never know that theatre is dead from the crowded lobby of the Signature where three successful plays are running or from the Broadway grosses. Shawn has always seen himself as the playwright for an intellectually superior audience that is above the usual theatrical fare. EVENING AT THE TALK HOUSE would have been better if it had some of the elements of trashier theatre--a sense of structure, some suspense, interesting characters. Scott Elliott's production doesn't help. It is slack, lacking any rhythm--not at all typical of Elliott's work. It reinforces the script's weaknesses. The cast does what it can. I felt sorry for Wallace Shawn's Dick  having to read the awful, interminable speech from Robert's play until I remembered that Shawn wrote the damn thing.

Sunday, 12 February 2017

BIG RIVER at City Center Encores

     The audiences at City Center Encores are among the most appreciative in the city. It's always a delight to be part of the crowd at one of these events. I never saw BIG RIVER before and found it flawed but worth reviving for the Roger Miller score.
     I have to start by saying that I had to teach Twain's HUCKLEBERRY FINN for years in the days I taught American literature surveys at Duke. Although there are some patches of lovely writing, I always felt that Twain's novel was overrated, to put it mildly. All those nasty pranks on the runaway slave, Jim were both tiresome and offensive. For a novel that is against racism, it is filled with cringe-making racist moments and Twain's heavy-handed irony is anything but subtle. Son musical of a novel I don't like is not necessarily a must see. However, Roger Miller's generous score, filled with bluegrass, country and gospel, is very much worth hearing. Some songs seem tangential, but the novel is so episodic that not much justification for a rousing song is necessary.
     Lear de Bessonet has staged the show beautifully. Josh Rhodes' choreography is never obtrusive but always in character. As usual, the band is excellent and the casting first rate. Eighteen-year-old Wunderkind Nicholas Barasch is perfect as Huck. It's a long part -- is he ever offstage? Barasch is charming and sings and dances like an old pro. Jim, the runaway slave, is a tricky part to play in the 21st century. Kyle Scatliffe gives him great strength, integrity and pathos. He does all he can to make a human being out of a cardboard character. David Pittu and Christopher Sieber manage to make the villainous con men both nasty and enjoyable. The rest of the large cast sings beautifully and makes as much as they can out of Twain's characters.  
     The production didn't win me over to Twain's book, but reminded me of of how talented Roger Miller was.
     

THE LIAR at Classic Stage Company

     I for one wish the Classic stage Company would stick to classics. This season opened with an unnecessary stage adaptation of DEAD POETS SOCIETY and will close with Sondheim's PACIFIC OVERTURES, a classic of sorts. However, so few New York theatres do revivals of plays written before World War II that we desperately need the CSC to stick to its title. THE LIAR, the CSC's current presentation, is David Ive's loose translation of Corneille's comedy, THE LIAR. Of the 17th century French dramatic masters, We usually associate Moliere with comedy and his peer Corneille with tragedy, but Corneille's comedy THE LIAR is every bit as delightful as any play by Moliere. As in Moliere's plays, there is a character with an extremely exaggerated character trait, wily servants, a doddery father and romantic matches and mismatches. Plays of the period were written in Alexandrines, six foot lines that do not set will with English rhythms. Translations usually put them into rhymed iambic pentameter.
     In this production, the language is the star of the show. David Ives has created a delightful feast of witty verse. It is sometimes anachronistic, sometimes raunchy, often surprising and always great fun. The actors seems to relish the chance to speak language like this. Christian Conn is perhaps more dashing than one would expect as Dorante, the liar. His is the most demanding role as his language moves in and out of quotes from Shakespeare and grand melodramatics. The rest of the cast is up to his standard. Veteran Michael Kahn has directed with flair, but never allows the physical action to upstage the verbal wit.
     Yes, current events make a play about a man addicted to telling lies particularly timely. Perhaps the play should be called THE SPEAKER OF ALTERNATIVE FACTS.
     Delightful. Please, CSC, more productions like this and last year's PEER GYNT.

Monday, 9 January 2017

Leonard Bernstein's CANDIDE at the New York City Opera

     All lovers of musicals of what is considered Broadway's Golden Age (one could argue that any era that could give us shows as excellent and varied as FUN HOME,  HAMILTON and DEAR EVAN HANSEN is also a Golden Age), know the messy story of Bernstein's CANDIDE. Even with its brilliant, eclectic score (sometimes bel canto parody, sometimes operetta), the show was a mess. The book (originally by Lillian Hellman), didn't work and the lyrics were the production of a number of brilliant poets and lyricists, but certainly not in the Broadway vein. From its short run in 1956 to the mid-seventies, the show survived on the basis of the Columbia cast album. Other than the brilliant Barbara Cook, the original cast was mostly comprised of opera singers with actor Max Adrian as Pangloss. Then in the mid-1970s, Harold Prince created a small-scale environmental production that moved from Off-Broadway to a long run at the Broadway Theatre. The seats were taken out, and a theatrical environment created in that large house. The large scale orchestration was reduced for thirteen players scattered around the house. The Hellman book was replaced by one by High Wheeler who was at the time the main book writer for the Sondheim-Prince collaborations (A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC, SWEENEY TOOD). Wheller's book is an improvement on the original. It's consistent in tone, but one might argue that the tone is a bit too children's-theater-ish. Prince's take on the show was certainly carnivalesque. The young singers were more pop than opera and a comic actor played Pangloss, Voltaire, who now was narrator, and assorted other characters. When some years later, the New York City Opera asked Prince to create a production for them, he basically created a large-scale proscenium version of his earlier production; colorful, fun, but hollow. Lovers of the score could lament the many cuts and rearrangements of Bernstein's original, but the Prince production was a mainstay of the City Opera repertoire. Now, over three decades later, Prince has created a"new" production for the New York City Opera that isn't much different from his earlier versions. This is more a recreation than a rethinking. Chunks of the score are still missing including the beautiful "El Dorado" and most of the chorales. This would be fine for a Broadway production but one would expect an opera company to be more respectful of the score. But is this an opera production or a Broadway production? As in the 1970s, it has mainly been cast by Broadway performers. Only Cunegonde and Maximilian are performed by opera singers. Jay Armstrong Johnson who plays Candide, is a winning, immensely talented performed with a sweet, well trained singing voice. He can deliver the dialogue, and there is a lot of it, better than most operatic tenors would. His lack of an operatic voice can underscore Candide's youth and naivete, but this is supposedly a production by an opera company. This is not really a complaint. I admire Johnson's work as a performer, but it raises more questions about what CANDIDE is or should be. Meghan Picerno sings "Glitter and Be Gay" brilliantly and is a charming Cunegonde. Broadway veteran Gregg Edelman is funny in all the comic roles without being too hammy--always a temptation in this production. Linda Lavin, once a great Broadway belter, doesn't have a lot of singing voice left, but she manages to make a show stopper out of her big number "I Am Easily Assimilated" and be hilarious throughout without overplaying. The rest of the cast is fine, the chorus superb, and the orchestral playing good, though one didn't feel that Charles Prince (son of the director) is one of the world's great conductors.
     The production is full of lively movement. Clarke Dunham's sets are full of color as are Judith Dolan's costumes. It's a lovely looking production, though every bit as empty headed as its title character. Still, the score is gorgeous and the company does it justice. As usual, I got misty-eyed during that gorgeous final number, "Make Our Garden Grow." It's well worth seeing and hearing in the Rose Theatre, which is more like a European opera house than the giant barns in which American opera companies usually perform.