Thursday, 23 February 2017

EVERYBODY by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins at the Signature Theatre

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

Sunday, 19 February 2017

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

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

Saturday, 18 February 2017

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

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

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

Sunday, 12 February 2017

BIG RIVER at City Center Encores

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

THE LIAR at Classic Stage Company

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