Saturday, July 24, 2010

With Glee

This little musical suggests there will be a Glee Club figuring in the story and providing reasons for musical numbers, but no. “Glee” in this case means gleeful, which is strange since the 13 year old boys who figure in this story set at a boarding school are anything but happy. They spend the entire 90 minutes of playing time complaining about their parents, their life at school and each other. By the end of it all they become friends––the trials and tribulations of boarding school bringing them together. The main characters each project the traits of a one line description and nothing more: The gay one likes musicals, the one that has a hard time making friends can’t make friends, the wealthy kid is stuffy and has a butler, the geek wears glasses and clings to a model boat as his only friend, the poor kid is a bit of a pudgy slob and steals things. There is nothing more. There are two older actors to play all of the adults: teachers, parents and the like. These two (Greg Horton and Erin Jerozal) draw their various characters even more broadly, picking an outrageous trait for each so that we can easily recognize the difference. This is just fine since the focus is on the boys, but there is no careful exploration of their characters. The show might be subtitled, “Episodes from the Boarding School.” We go from one incident to the next, separated by blackouts and a song to embrace each topic.

Book, music and lyrics are all by John Gregor and he has written some entertaining songs sung in good harmony by the cast (this aspect being the only link to a Glee Club idea). The most successful song of the show had nothing to do with the revelation of character, but served to cover the boy’s trip in a stolen car to Worcester with the idea of meeting some girls (“We’re Going to Worcester”). The fun and great spirit of this travel number epitomized the best of this musical and if only everything else could have hit as well, the score might have held the production together. However, as cute and as well sung as the score is, it cannot save a disjointed and inconsistent book. The opening number, “Bad Kid School,” introduces us to the characters and let’s us know they’re off to boarding school––check. That’s durable. That serves. But, that’s the end of the score providing function. “Gaul Was Divided Into Three Parts” is about Latin class (the story is contemporary and latin is not taught in American junior high boarding schools anymore). The boys don’t like Latin. “Clay’s Song” is about how Clay loves his toy boat, but we knew that from the opening number. This makes him ridiculous and no more information is given to illuminate his character. More successful is “Normal” which has the kids wishing they were something other than who they are. This is a universal feeling we can all recognize and leads to the inevitable moral that in the end they are just fine being themselves. “Home” was a lovely ballad expressing the change of heart the boys feel for their school. Their real homes are a mess, so their adopted family at school now seems more like home than the ones they left. The strange final number, “Co-ed Dorms,” has the boys dreaming about college life and the prospect of girls. It represents just another episode in the lives of middle school boys rather than an ending to a story, though the school year has come to an end. Still, on its own, the song successfully relates the feelings of adolescence.

From the beginning this musical could have gone many directions and nearly does just that without finding completion, unless the geeky kid with glasses finally parting with his beloved boat is a resolution of consequence. There is also the sentiment of the boys finally becoming a family, but this is just not enough for they never seemed like real people to begin with, so it is hard to feel very happy for them. “Boys will be boys” is about the general sum of it. There is the basis for a show here, but the author has had no interest in focussing it––he seems to have no particular statment to make about boyhood.

Igor Goldin did his best to direct this material and give it a sense of polish and made ingenious use of a small stage, but he was not influential in the formation of the material into something better than a half baked idea. This is the same half baked idea that ran in a lesser production in the 2007 New York Musical Theatre Festival. This production is enhanced by Jen Price Fick’s handsome and sturdy unit set design and a nice band headed by Music Director Daniel Feyer. THE NEW YORK TIMES critic, Neil Genzlinger, says that “real artistry is going on amid the antics.” That’s true, but no one––not director, choreographer nor author––has shown the ability to pull that artistry into a cohesive whole. If it were not for the attractive personalities of the 20-somethings playing at being 13, there wouldn’t be much of a show, so credit Zack Bandler, Christopher Davis Carlisle, Jason Edward Cook, Dan Lawler and Max Spitulnik with giving WITH GLEE the actual glee of the title.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

American Idiot

Greenday’s 2004 Grammy winning album AMERICAN IDIOT, told a story about the choice between self-destruction and redemption through the journeys of three friends. Director Michael Mayer, still in his mode from SPRING AWAKENING, saw a show in this number one album and pulled together a first production in Berkley, California where the members of Greenday originally emerged from the underground Punk Rock scene. Now on Broadway, this rock concert play is headed by SPRING AWAKENING alum John Gallagher, Jr. as “Johnny,” a young man who runs away to the big city in order to stave off boredom and ends up drugged out of his mind before realizing he must go home to become a sturdy human being again. His friend Will (Michael Esper) stays home to have a baby with his girlfriend, but shortly that goes sour and she leaves him to his cans of beer and a dirty couch. Tunny, played by the always wonderful Stark Sands (why is it that Stark Sands is growing visibly younger with every show he appears in?), runs off with Johnny, but an ad for the adventure of the Armed Forces lures him into the Army where he looses a leg fighting in the war. He too returns home, with a new wife and a new mechanical leg, ready for a new day. Enough time goes by so that Will can reunite with his child and we assume, participate in its life. The moral of the story is “East, West, home best.” What this has to say about the current American psyche is not untrue, but neither is it the whole picture. AMERICAN IDIOT says that the teenagers are bored and so they are fleeing from boredom to go through a period of decadence and self-destruction before realizing that excess won’t get them anywhere and sober responsibility will. For all that, this trip to a proverbial Oz focusses on angry sex, profanity, drugs and rock ‘n’ role. The journey of the characters is only scantly traced. There is a stimulating unit set by Christine Jones full of TV sets blasting images that correspond to the story. There is rock concert lighting by Kevin Adams. There is down and dirty choreography for bouncing, stomping, raving teens by Tom Kitt. There is even a beautiful flying sequence where Tunny dreams he can use his shattered leg again. The whole noisy, explosive, eye-popping show runs a slick 90 minutes to final curtain. Somehow it seems that it ought to mean more than it does––it purports to be important, but it is just edgy fun with a few stunning visual images that propel it into a wonderful work of art.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Excursion to Massachusetts


The Williamstown Theatre Festival is enjoying its 56th season. This, one of the great summer theater companies of the U.S. (and having received the Regional Theatre Tony Award to prove it), is still situated on the campus of Williams College as always, though there is now a brand new theatre arts building to house it. The main stage is a beautiful modern, multitiered proscenium theater in metal and sandy woods with comfortable seating and a deep red act curtain. Currently upon the stage is a wonderful assortment of New York talent performing Stephen Sondheim’s A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM in an all male casting in the manner of the ancient classical theatre. This novelty doesn’t exactly help the show, but neither does it harm the show. The fact that men are in drag playing female characters is a laugh that comes and goes quickly. The real humor comes from the characters these men have developed and they are just as honest and hilarious as they would be with a traditional casting. The merry band of players is headed by Christopher Fitzgerald as Pseudolus. Anyone who saw him on Broadway as Igor or Og understands the deliciousness of this choice. Josh Grisetti plays Hysterium and delivers the kind of delightfully quirky character expected from this star of Off Broadway’s ENTER LAUGHING (I am still upset that BROADWAY BOUND never opened last season because we were robbed of a potentially brilliant night at the theatre with Josh Grisetti). He frolics about the stage like a young Ray Bolger––nearly a replica. Kevin Cahoon, that veritable martian who was featured in THE WEDDING SINGER and CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG to freakish delight, played Tintinabula and Erronius. David Turner was wonderful as Philia, making “I’m Lovely” a new comic masterpiece. Brice Pinkham was Hero in an expected reading of the character, strangely sporting a horrid white blonde wig, though he sang is material nicely. Jessicca Stone directed an hysterical production upon Alexander Dodge’s sturdy three dimensional set, punched up with Catherine A. Parrott’s colorful costumes. Gary Adler conducted a fine orchestra and Denis Jones choreographed the numbers with whimsy. Stephen Sondheim was in the audience, for all the critics praised this all male production and it was well worth the trip to the Williamstown Theatre Festival to see the show in top form.

Friday, July 9, 2010

The Chase Brock Experience

The Connelly Theater sits inside an old orphanage from the 19th Century at 220 East 4th Street. The place looks like a miniature opera house because of its decoration and layout, but it was originally a kind of multipurpose hall with a stage at one end and a flat gymnasium floor. A flat second level balcony area might have served as a place for additional meetings or for the set up of tables as patrons looked down on the proceedings of a community dance with a band performing on stage. Certainly the space has served numerous purposes, but the architect did put a stage in and a beautifully ornate proscenium arch and so more than anything it is a theater. Later the orphanage became a girl’s school and is that today, with the Connelly Theater being used both for the school and rented out to arts groups. After being dark for ten years the theater was fixed up with air conditioning, a rudimentary black and gray paint job, the installation of raised seating units, made safe again and opened in 1997 to serve as a very nice arts venue full of character. Young choreographer Chase Brock loved the space and thought up two dances to fit especially onto the smallish stage, danced by the company of his Chase Brock Experience.

The fun first piece of about 30 minutes in length was “Whoa, Nellie!” danced to the songs of Nellie McKay. The colorful set and costumes by Dane Laffrey suggested a carnival atmosphere, but there was no story here, just a wild and humorous interpretation of the music. Strangely the sense of circus turned into comic horror when the piece ended in a depiction of zombies. Irreverence was the order of the production. Mr. Brock uses unusually shaped dancers––they come shorter and stockier than your typical ballet dancer, but they are both powerful and graceful and it is nice to see a different type represented in the dance world. Each of the seven dancers were given the spotlight to display their individuality and worked beautifully as an ensemble. They were Dean de Luna, Ashley Eichbauer, Erica Furst, Drew Heflin, Yukiko Kashiki, Micki Weiner and Michael Wright.

More satisfying, perhaps because it was more intellectual and had something of a story to it, was a dance of psychological investigation called “Mirror, Mirror.” This was danced to an original score by Michael John LaChiusa and played by the sensitive fingers of Jamie Schmidt on a baby grand piano. Connor Kilian Weigand danced a character called “Narcissus” in the program. He went through a series of dances depicting the removal and replacement of garments. For some reason his pajama bottoms were removed and thrown in the trash, then he put on a pair of pants and a sweatshirt, then removed them. He considered himself in the mirror, he anguished over what he saw, yearned for something, and was sorrowful of some event. All this was danced and as simple as it sounds it was rather fascinating and then the lights blacked out. Lights up and we are on the other side of the long mirrored space. There is another character, danced by Drew Heflin, “The Observer,” on the other side of the mirror watching “Narcissus” go through his routine again. Is he the alter ego? Is he the neighbor? We don’t know, but sometimes he mimics “Narcissus” and sometimes he dances for himself as a kind of response to what he observes, but there is also a yearning there. Black out. The lights come up and this time a girl is involved–– “Object d’Amour,” danced by Yukiko Kashiki shows “Narcissus” making love to this girl while the “Observer” looks on (for isn’t a pas de deux always representative of sex?). One more scene comes and the “Observer” crosses through the mirror and dances a pas de deux with “Narcissus.” The two end quietly in each other’s arms and the “Object d’Amour” is nowhere to be seen.

Only Mr. Brock can tell us what this all means, but it is an interesting wrestling with desire and a search for self-discovery. “Mirror, Mirror” was beautifully danced and intriguing as it unfolded and should be the pride of the company to be revived in future programs. I hope that if the day comes that the Chase Brock Experience finds itself playing upon the City Center stage between seasons of Alvin Ailey and Paul Taylor, that “Mirror, Mirror” will be in the program. Mr. Brock has a unique voice in the New York dance scene and I hope the company blossoms and can be received in larger venues where many more people will take the opportunity to see and delight in his work.

On the critical side, the overall presentation could have gone much smoother. The house opened nearly at curtain time and the show started 15 minutes late. The coordination of the technical elements was shaky and the overly long intermission displayed two sorry stagehands working in an archaic manner to change the simple set between programs. The evening went on one half hour longer than it needed to and it diminished the overall enjoyment of the evening that the front of house activities were not as polished as the dances themselves.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

La Cage Aux Folles

When it was announced there would be another revival of LA CAGE I heard a groan from everyone I knew. This production was coming from a celebrated London production to feature the London star, Douglas Hodge as Albin and paired with Kelsey Grammer as Georges. It just seemed too soon and very unnecessary to have LA CAGE back, but low and behold the reviews were valentines and to everyone’s surprise the show was stamped a hit. A lot of people like to go around saying that the last LA CAGE was bad, but it really wasn’t. Somehow, though it was big and splashy, had an excellent cast and fantastic staging of the musical numbers, the show didn’t hit the way it had originally in 1983. Even with its still topical subject matter, the show actually seemed a little old fashioned and the book seemed to be structurally choppy. All of a sudden now, in 2010, with half the musicians in the orchestra and a modestly sized production, LA CAGE emerges as perfection. The show has some strange things about it, which one could easily call flaws, but in the hands of a wise director like Terry Johnson, the bumps are smoothed out and the show just works like gangbusters.

Douglas Hodge is known as the award winning Shakespearian actor of London’s Royal Shakespeare Company. He gives a weird performance here, though completely intriguing. He does not have the big baritone voice of George Hearn (which when you think about it seems completely inappropriate for the character), but he is rich with ingenious bits of comedy. He is campy and mugs in a way that only Albin can get away with and somehow the director has not only allowed this, but guided the production so that the old-fashioned play it to the audience shtick worked with a blending of what needed to be real honest acting in order for us to feel for the characters when it was important to do so. His singing of the title song included impressions of Marilyn Monroe, Edith Piaf and Marlene Dietrich. Hodge had done his research and he was simply brilliant as an old time female impersonator who could really entertain a cabaret audience. His “I Am What I Am” was a triumph. Part of this is also simply the song––the perfect song at the perfect moment expressing the feelings of the character with bravado right at the end of the act. It is one of the greatest ends of a first act in musicals.

Kelsey Grammer couldn’t be more suited to his role. He has just the right demeanor, is greeted warmly by the audience when he first appears and leads the production as not only a gracious star, but a very good singing actor who makes the most out of both his comedy scenes and his emotional moments. His “Look Over There” is particularly moving.

A.J. Shively makes his Broadway debut at the son, Jean-Michel, and he is hands down the finest Sean-Michel I have ever seen. He is youthful, has a charming singing voice, dances with grace and is able to make what can be a hateful character into a sympathetic, though misguided youth. The moment when he apologizes to his parents for his great disrespect after all they have done for him caused me a small tear and a surprising round of applause from the audience. The thing about this production is that the audience is rooting for these characters––there is the feeling of an investment in their welfare. This was not the case in the last production. Maybe because this production isn’t so big and Los Vegas, but maybe the smaller Longacre Theater and the scaled down production makes the characters all the more human and less cartoony, as broad as they are.

Formerly, Jacob has been played by a black actor, but here it is the Hispanic Robin De Jesús, fresh from IN THE HEIGHTS. Elena Shaddow, who had burst forth as the title character in the City Center Encores production of FANNY with a stunning singing voice didn’t get to sing a solo word as Anne, but she was lovely and danced well in her dream appearance during “Anne on My Arm.” Fred Applegate and Veanne Cox played Anne’s conservative parents, wringing every comic possibility out of them as well as slyly doubling as the cafe owners earlier in the show.

The only real change to the material past the smaller orchestration was the elimination of the musicalized Promenade scene. The lyrics were spoken with the tune underneath. This is the only piece of music that never sounds like the rest of the score, but it did sound like France to me and I wish it was left in as a song. Matthew Wright’s costumes were glitzy, colorful and sometimes inventive, though the overall design was simplified from what we’ve seen in the past. Although Tim Shortall’s set design was modest, it did everything it needed to do and unlike the last revival, was unlikely to break down. I am a big fan of this show because it came along when I was a teenager and it spoke to me in a way no show had done prior to that point. I have seen it on tour, in regional theaters, dinner theaters and Broadway. This smaller LA CAGE was cute, but it was also potent and perhaps the most effective production of the show I have ever seen.