Sunday, 19 November 2017

HARD TIMES FOR THESE TIMES at Lookingglass Theatre

     I remember having to read Charles Dickens' HARD TIMES as a college freshman. I have never been a Dickens fan. His coincidence-filled stories have never seemed credible to me. His characters are often cardboard. And there's the sentimentality. Give me George Eliot or Anthony Trollope any day but, please, don't make me read Dickens! Yet, over the years, Dickens has been the source of some brilliant theatrical adaptations. The novelist loved theatre and loved the conventions of Victorian drama--or should I say melodrama. His villains are villainous, his heroes and heroines virtuous and beset with troubles they nobly endure. They make fun theatre.
     HARD TIMES is a satire on rampant capitalism, utilitarianism and the fact-based education it espoused. Capitalist Mr. Bounderby, who professes to be a proud exemplar of rags-to-riches, is a ruthless materialist. He made his money the hard way and has no sympathy with the rights of his workers. With Bounderby's money Gradgrind has founded a school, run by Mr. McChoakumchild, which offers a totally fact-based education. There is to be no imagination, no creativity, no feeling. During the course of the novel and the play, we watch the effects of this education on Gradgrind's son and daughter and on the ruthless pragmatist, Bitzer. The school is set against a traveling circus where young Sissy was raised until she is taken into the school and into the Gradgrind home. Sissy fails at facts but excels at compassion. Add a noble laborer, his ailing wife and woman friend and you have a celebration of principle over pragmatism. The men are nasty, the women have heart. The play is an entertaining mishmash of story lines and one-dimensional characters. It's also based on Dickens's shortest novel, so easy to condense into two-and-a-half hours of stage time. It also seems particularly timely in the age of Trump. Bounderby's crass, vulgar personality and pride in his ignorance makes him kin to the current President. The current downturn in the popularity of humanities courses shows how "practical" knowledge is prized over creativity. Unlike the workers in HARD TIMES, many in the American working class have chosen to believe the propaganda of the plutocracy.
     Adapter and director Heidi Stillman has crafted an absorbing, entertaining theater piece out of HARD TIMES. The excellent circus work is a colorful foil to the polluted air and harsh world of the fictional northern English town in which the play takes place. The cast, most of whom play multiple roles, is uniformly fine. The movement of the simple sets is choreographed to be an essential part of the production. Highly recommended.

Sunday, 12 November 2017

ONCE ON THIS ISLAND at Circle in the Square

     I tend to get notes from press representatives when I review a show in previews although I firmly believe a show is fair game when it charges an audience money to see it. ONCE ON THIS ISLAND didn't to do well on its first Broadway outing in 1990, but musical aficionados love the Stephen Flaherty-Lynn Arenas score. The show is a kind of fairy tale set on a Caribbean island with a charming quasi-calypso score. The brilliant young director Michael Arden has cut the show to ninety minutes and made it more about storytelling as a group of islanders tell and enact the story for a young girl. The story is a romance of star-crossed lovers whose fates are sealed by the battling gods (goddesses, actually) of the island. It's a simple story but the telling couldn't be more inventively staged. Arden's production is an antidote to the impersonal Disney spectacles that have been the rage for the past twenty years. It would take a heart of stone not to be moved and charmed by Arden's production. The costumes here are clever but ragtag, the scene a few simple elements on a sandy beach. The show is performed in the Circle in the Square, a theatre-in-the round and Arden has used every inch of the space for his production. This is immersive theatre. The cast is uniformly excellent but I have to praise the amazingly talented Hailey Kilgore who plays the girl who is the central character in this romance. She's beautiful, she sings magnificently and is an amazing dancer. She's a star in the making but everyone is a joy to watch and hear.
     If I had kids, this is the Broadway show I would take them to. It's a celebration of the magic of theatre.

Michael Urie in Harvey Fierstein's TORCH SONG at Second Stage

     This is a season of revivals of the canonical American gay dramas. First Harvey Fierstein's somewhat shortened version of his TORCH SONG TRILOGY, which, after runs Off-off- and Off-Broadway,  ran a thousand performances on Broadway in the early 1980s and was made into a film. In 2018, the National Theatre of Great Britain's production of Tony Kushner's ANGELS IN AMERICA will play at the Neil Simon, followed by Mart Crowley's controversial picture of gay self-hatred, the 1968 play THE BOYS IN THE BAND, will come into the Booth with a cast of gay actors who have become stars including sitcom favorite Jim Parsons as the miserable Michael.
     TORCH SONG may have moved beyond being dated. We may wince at the backroom bar anal sex scene played for easy laughs, as if the AIDS crisis never happened, and be slightly discomfited in the light of all the Kevin Spacey revelations, at the lead character's love for a teenage boy in the second act. Fierstein's easy wit and Michael Urie's brilliance as a comic actor allow us to enjoy the ride through the life of a drag queen in the 1970s. There actually isn't any drag beyond the first few minutes, so "straight-looking and acting" gay men don't have to be uncomfortable with such violations of masculinity. What ensues in the almost three hours of the play is a pleasant combination of sitcom and seriousness. TORCH SONG TRILOGY is the gay version of good Neil Simon, the playwright who was still the king of Broadway when Fierstein wrote the play but has since gone out of fashion. FIerstein's weakness was his penchant for cloying sentimentality, which this production successfully overcomes. The many good lines are still very witty--it's still a very funny play.
     Basically,  TORCH SONG is three related one-act plays centering on ten years in Arnold Beckoff's (Urie), relationship with Ed, a bisexual man (Ward Horton). Each playlet is in a different style. The first is mostly alternating monologues of Arnold and Ed. The second, most inventive, depicts a weekend at the country house of Ed and his wife Laurel with Arnold and his new eighteen-year-old lover, Alan (Micael Rosen, gorgeous), a hustler turned model, as house guests. The third, more realistic in style, has Arnold battling with his mother (the magnificent Mercedes Ruehl), over his adoption of a fifteen-year-old gay boy, (Jack DiFalco (As my mother would say, I'd hate to be hanging since DiFalco was fifteen), and negotiating a relationship with Ed, who has left his wife.
     It's Arnold's play, one Fierstein wrote for himself to perform. Urie, a brilliant casting choice, is svelte where Fierstein was hefty, tenor where Fierstein was gravelly bass. The joke with Fierstein was that with that voice and figure he was an unlikely drag queen. Good-looking Urie makes a great drag queen. He's also a much better actor than Fierstein who was always more a "performer" than an actor. When Urie's Arnold explodes at his mother's homophobia, it's a real emotional explosion. He never wants pity, which Fierstein often demands. He wants to be respected and loved. Urie is both more sensitive and tougher than Fierstein. Going for the easy laugh is always a defense mechanism. Mercedes Ruehl wisely underplays the schtick as Arnold's monster mother (the original Mother was Estelle Getty who went on to play the mother in GOLDEN GIRLS, that favorite sitcom of gay men). She's less a monster than merely clueless. Ed is in a way a thankless role, a man without a sense of humor. At least, in this production, Ed isn't just a punching bag for Arnold, unlike unhappy bisexual Joe Pitt, the whipping boy for Kushner and his characters in ANGELS IN AMERICA, Ed is treated with some understanding in this production and Ward Horton makes a humorless character charming. The question in this production is not just "What does Arnold see it Ed?" but also "What does Ed see in Arnold?" Michael Rosen makes all he can of Alan's half hour on the stage. Jack DiFalco works a bit too hard as Arnold's adopted son. Moises Kaufman has given the play more depth than I have seen in previous incarnations.        
     This production gives TORCH SONG more substance than I have seen in other productions and Michael Urie, one of our best comic actors, gives another terrific performance.

J.B. Priestley's TIME AND THE CONWAYS at the Roundabout

     I saw  revival of this 1937 gem by British novelist, playwright and essayist J.B. Priestley at the National Theatre of Great Britain a few years ago and fell in love with the play. Priestley loved to begin his plays with a familiar genre, then turn everything on its head halfway through. Here we begin with a typical British drawing room drama. The time is 1917, the end of World War I, and one of the Conway daughters, Kay (Charlotte Parry), is celebrating her twenty-first birthday with her mother (Elizabeth McGovern), two sisters and two brothers. There are welcome friends like Joan Helford (Cara Ricketts) and the family lawyer (Alfredo Narcisco), who is smitten with the Conway matriarch and an unwelcome visitor, the ambitious Ernest Beevers (Steven Boyer), a working class man eager to move up in the society of this English town. Not much happens in Act I except introduction of the characters. Mrs. Conway is a charming monster who is brutally frank about the faults of her children and her preference for the youngest son Robin (Matthew James Thomas), who is charming but feckless. At the end of Act I in Rebecca Taichman's brilliant production, the set rolls back and another, less substantial version of the same living room descends from the fly loft. We are now in 1937 and we see what has become of all the characters. The family, now out of money, is anything but harmonious. Hazel (Anna Camp), has married Ernest, who treats her badly. Ernest, now the richest man in town, despises the Conway family who has treated him with snobbish contempt, and will not help them out of their dire financial straits. Robin has deserted his wife and children but still is the apple his mother's eye. Eldest son Alan (Gabriel Ebert),who still lives at home,  is content with his life as a bank clerk. This is what an upper-middle class family has come to during the depression and on the eve of World War II. At the end of the Act, Clare and Alan have a discussion about time--about how we don't live a linear progression from one moment to another. One can experience present and past or even present and future. Deja vu isn't a trick of the brain--it's being two places at once in time. Act III takes us back to 1917 and we see the events that will lead to the family collapse we see in Act II. Clare clearly has a vision of what this future will be as the play ends. Like a seer, she is in limbo between present and future.
     So the play is both a fascinating social satire and a philosophical rumination. It's brilliantly written and always intriguing. Rebecca Taichman, who so ingeniously directed Paula Vogel's INDECENT last year, has captured all of the play's dimensions and supported the actors' rich characterizations. Everyone is.excellent, particularly Gabriel Ebert as the unambitious Alan and Steven Boyer as the working class man on the way up. Ebert and Boyer are two of the best actors currently working today.  It's always exciting to watch them. I have never been impressed with Elizabeth McGovern's rather dull performances on the London stage but she is on fire here as a self-centered, impractical and not particularly loving matriarch, the opposite of her nice matriarch on Downton Abbey. Everyone else is fine, particularly Charlotte Parry as Kay, who grows from a debutante to a cynical woman of the world to a kind of visionary. Credit is due, too, to Neil Patel for his beautiful versions of the Conway drawing room--one realistic, the other more expressionistic.
     This is a fine production of a very special play.
     

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Menotti's THE CONSUL at the Chicago Opera Theater

     I haven't done many opera reviews on this blog so far but Menotti's THE CONSUL is a special case. It was first produced on Broadway in 1950. Perhaps the only revolutionary thing about Menotti was his desire to be a commercial opera composer. He was commissioned by NBC to write an opera for radio (THE OLD MAID AND THE THIEF) and for television (AMAHL AND THE NIGHT VISITORS), and many of his works were produced on Broadway (THE MEDIUM, THE TELEPHONE, THE SAINT OF BLEECKER STREET [his best work, I think] and MARIA GOLOVIN, which was also produced on television. It was only in later years that he wrote for opera houses.
     THE CONSUL was written at a time when Broadway was the site for works that blurred the lines between opera and the musical--Kurt Weill wrote STREET SCENE (with lyrics by Langston Hughes), in 1947. Marc Blitzstein's REGINA followed shortly after. Both works are now the province of opera houses and both deserve to be included in the standard repertoire. THE CONSUL has some good music but a turgid, dreadfully written libretto (also by Menotti). Everyone's English in the Chicago Opera Theatre's production could be heard perfectly but still we had surtitles and I couldn't take my eyes off of the awful, purple imagery and strained-to-the-breaking-point metaphors. The story is a real potboiler. The setting is some unnamed European police state. John Sorel has been a freedom fighter but has to leave the country or be killed. The opera focuses on his wife, Magda. Because of John's exile, the Magda and her mother live in stark poverty. Magda and John's baby dies of malnutrition. Many scenes are in the office of the consul of another country, perhaps the U.S., where a very punctilious secretary insists on correct paperwork from the group who want to leave the country (what's so awful about that?). Magda is desperate to leave but has a breakdown when she sees the secret police coming out of the consul's office. Have they told the consul not to let her go? There are further trials and tribulations and a couple of dream sequences. It's all silly, over-wrought and very repetitive. My husband was correct in saying that the work would have been more effective if it had been cut in half.
     Director Andreas Mitisek and designer Alan Muraoka have decided to present the opera as a kind of expressionist work with angular, distorted scenery and a giant, high desk from which the secretary rules her bit of bureaucracy. I'm afraid the approach to this piece of verismo only confused things more. The orchestra sounded scrappy but that may have been a result of the overly harsh acoustic of the Studebaker Theatre. Sounds don't blend in there. The raison d'ĂȘtre of the co-production with Long Beach Opera seems to be the presence of Patricia Racette as Magda. I was never the greatest fan of Racette's voice. She has been a favorite artist at the Met for a couple of decades and has specialized in verismo roles. At this stage of her career, the top has problems. In this over-wrought work perhaps one can pass off the spread notes as an excess of emotion. She's a game performer who was always dramatically involved but would have benefitted from a more coherent production. As the mother, Victoria Livengood got the best music and the most coherent role to play. I directed Livengood three decades ago as Rosina and Dorabella. She has moved from a being charismatic agile mezzo to a contralto specialist in character roles. She has the biggest voice of the cast and brought great authority and pathos to her role. The rest of the small cast was perfectly competent.
     This revival of THE CONSUL only showed that it is not a work that deserves revival.  There are far better works from this period that deserve to be seen and heard.

Sunday, 29 October 2017

CHOIR BOY by Tarrell Alvin McCraney at the Raven Theatre

     How does one react to being the brightest kid in the room and the most talented but also the most hated? How does one deal with the hate of others and the hate of oneself? That's the dilemma facing Pharus (Christopher W. Jones), a student at a Southern prep school for African-American boys. Pharus's way is to want to lead the most important arts institution at the school, the choir that sings at all the major school functions. Like many gay men of an earlier time, Pharus turns to the arts for self-expression and refuge. In the first scene of CHOIR BOY, Pharus, now a junior, sings the school song at the graduation ceremonies. He stops and turns around when his nemesis, Bobby (Patrick Agada), audibly whispers "faggot" and Bobby's friend Junior (Julian Terrell Otis), laughs. The rest of the ninety minute play gives us key moments of the year between graduations. Pharus' way of handling the homophobic sneers is to play the bitchy queen, returning nastiness for nastiness. Pharus keeps asking, "Which is better, to be feared or to be respected?" He wants the latter but feels that he has to settle for the former. He can be as cruel and insensitive as his enemies. Bobby and Junior represent the general attitude of the school toward "sissy" Pharus whose effeminacy is even a problem for his mother. He has some comfort from his kind roommate A.J. (Tamarus Harvell), and sex from an unlikely partner. There's a strict headmaster and an elderly white teacher who can't help spouting what we nowadays call microaggressions but who does have the boys' best interests at heart. There's another gay boy who can't deal with his gayness.
     CHOIR BOY is a beautifully written play that economically but richly offers us vivid pictures of its characters, particularly prickly Pharis, who reflexively employs the responses of embattled gay men, particularly effeminate ones -- lacerating wit and lots of irony. It's a fine play in its own right and also the best gay play of this century. Richness is added by the great a cappella numbers that separate scenes.
     The Raven Theatre's production, directed by Michael Menendian, was a good representation of the play with one crucial flaw. It was a mistake to dial back Pharis's effeminacy and prickliness. In many ways, Pharis is an old style queen. This makes him problematic for straight and gay audiences but I think the playwright wants us to confront our feelings about effeminacy and the performative responses to homophobia that gay men who can't look or act straight employ. In this production, Pharis is played as a nice guy who happens to be gay. Because of this, his character loses its arc from hostility to sensitivity in the penultimate scene with his loyal roommate. This is a major reservation but my only reservation about a fine performance from all the actors who also sing beautifully.
     An admirable performance of an excellent play.

Saturday, 28 October 2017

HIS GREATNESS by Daniel MacIver at Pride Films and Plays

     This is going to be a season of plays about Tennessee Williams in Chicago. In the Spring, the Raven Theatre will be producing Philip Dawkins' new play, THE GENTLEMAN CALLER about a meeting of Tennessee Williams and friend, rival and perhaps onetime lover, William Inge. Now at Pride Plays and Films, we have HIS GREATNESS, a well-crafted play about Tennessee Williams toward the end of his life; broke, depressed about the loss of his artistic power and desperate for spiritual and physical rejuvenation as well as a jump start to a failing career. Since Daniel MacIver is a Canadian playwright, it is not surprising that his play depicts Williams' visit to Vancouver in 1980. A theatre there is opening a new play of Williams--actually a revision of a recent script that failed in London. Williams (Danne W. Taylor), is there for the opening with his former lover who for fifteen years has been his assistant (Andrew Kain Miller). Actually, given Williams current psychological condition, the assistant is more of a caretaker to a self- destructive old man who is dependent on liquor and drugs to keep going. Their relationship is now like a bad marriage. Whatever love the assistant felt for the playwright has been lost but there is still a strong co-dependency. At one point the Assistant quotes Edward Albee, a gay playwright who was much more of a survivor than Williams. The relationship of Williams and assistant has become like something out of an Albee play.  Enter the gorgeous hustler (Whitman Johnson), the assistant has hired to be Williams' companion at the opening. Williams sees the hustler as a new muse who will rekindle his imagination and the hustler foolishly thinks he has just gotten aboard a gravy train. He turns out to be a male Eve Harrington and manages to drive a wedge between Williams and his assistant. Like Tom in THE GLASS MENAGERIE, the Assistant, who also narrates the play, finally has to courage to escape.
     Loneliness and financial desperation are the subjects of much of Williams work and MacIvor has given us a powerful picture of those forces at work in this Vancouver hotel room. In Vancouver Williams faces another horrible defeat but he is desperate to find a way back to life as an artist. One is reminded of that brilliant self-portrait of Williams, Alexandra del Lago in that Mississippi hotel room in SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH with her beautiful hustler. You don't have to know anything about Williams to enjoy this picture of dreams and a soured relationship but the echoes of Williams' work are there.
     David Zak has been for decades the champion of gay drama in Chicago at Bailiwick Repertory and now at Pride Films and Plays. He has given the play the tone and rhythm it needs and gotten very good performances out of his actors. Danne W. Taylor and Andrew Kain Miller work well together as playwright and embittered assistant. This is a version of a bad marriage with both trying to break free but neither having anywhere to go. Handsome Whitman Johnson looks too healthy and needs some rough edges to be the hustler. He's a bit too sweet and refined but he captures the man's ruthlessness. Like Chance in SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH, he's getting too old to continue as a hustler and dreams of getting out.
     This production is well worth seeing. I was saddened by the very small audience last night. The play and production deserve a bigger audience.

Thursday, 26 October 2017

YASMINA'S NECKLACE by Rohina Malik at the Goodman Theatre

     YASMINA'S NECKLACE traces the developing relationship of Sam, the son of a Middle-Eastern father and a Puerto Rican mother, both Muslims, and Yasmina, an Iraqi refugee living in Chicago with her father. Sam has shamed his parents twice: first by changing his name to a generic American one in order to get a job and, second, by being a divorcee. Since the collapse of his marriage to Tracy, a non-Muslim, Sam has been depressed, confused and dependent on four medications to keep him going. Since his American-style romantic marriage didn't work, his parents want him to have a traditional arranged marriage. Yasmina's father is eager for her to find a husband but Yasmina is haunted by her past in Iraq and in exile in Syria. She deals with her past through her painting but doesn't want anyone to see them. For the most part, their romance is a conventional fictional romance--hate at first sight, then developing friendship, then love and marriage after which things briefly turn a bit less conventional. Yasmina repeatedly tells Sam that she's broken and that she's bound to hurt him but he continues to woo her. He's in love so all will be well. The play also includes brief flashbacks to Yasmina's past with the young man she loved since childhood and the intelligence officers and soldiers who abused her.
     Yasmina could be an interesting character but Malik's clumsiness as a dramatist keeps getting in the way of her storytelling. It's a dark story but Malik seems to want to write a crowd pleaser that doesn't really go to the dark places in Yasmina's past and in her psyche. It's all too nice. The parents are out of a sitcom, the Imam who engineers the relationship is too bland. The flashbacks aren't dark enough given their content. Yasmina has been seriously abused but the play doesn't make us feel that. The climax of the play only makes us ask why Yasmina doesn't tell Sam what's haunting her until after the wedding. Sam tells us that he's troubled but he doesn't seem very troubled. The play stays on the emotional level of a Hallmark made-for-tv film. Ann Filmer's direction reinforces the script's weaknesses. The rhythm of the production is off. There is no sense of forward momentum. The flashbacks are awkwardly handled.
     The actors do what they can with the material. Susan Jamshidi is so good that one wishes her part were better written, that the pain really came through in the script and direction. Michael Perez is sweet as Sam but the part is too one-dimensional. The parents have been directed to play their roles as if this were a sitcom.
     As written and directed, YASMINA'S NECKLACE makes a dark story bland. And, by the way, I don't for a minute believe the ending.

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.