Thursday, December 16, 2010


Michel Altieri as Dracula

Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston’s adaptation of DRACULA made its Broadway debut in 1927 and made Bela Lagosi immortal as the title character, for he went on to make the film version of the stage play as we all know. The original production ran a season and then toured for two more years. In 1977, Frank Langella put his stamp on the role and also starred in a subsequent film version. That production won the Tony for Best Revival and played 900 performances on a unique set design by Edward Gorey. Now at the Little Shubert Off Broadway, that same 1927 version of DRACULA is back. This production has its little changes, edits and adjustments, but it is more like the production an audience might have seen in the ‘20s than it should be. That is to say, we have been through a lot with Dracula since Bella Lagosi and the melodramatic hokum of that era’s stage is hard to take seriously today. I wanted to love this production so much, but it was impossible. This material is delicate, for there are nearly ridiculous and grandiose lines that must be said, the trick of Dracula turning into a bat, the ladies fainting and screaming at the sight of shadows and recorded noises such as wolves howling and bats squeaking is all a bit sticky. The vampire recoils from the cross, he smashes a mirror when it is discovered that he does not reflect in it, and overly familiar words like, “I never” are uttered. There are also hokey comic bits between a maid and caretaker, Renfield eating his bugs and the pounding of a stake through Dracula’s heart. How to handle all of this so the audience doesn’t giggle? Very carefully, but director Paul Alexander doesn’t seem to have the touch and neither does most of the cast.

Helming the production as Van Helsing is the commanding George Hearn, who gives the entire production credibility. Right behind him is the stalwart Timothy Jerome as Dr. Seward. These two veterans handle this dusty material expertly and everything they say and do is utterly believable. Less so for everyone else, though they give it the old college try, which is all the production amounts to: no more than a rudimentary college production distinguished only by the guest appearance of George Hearn.

Frank Langella as Dracula

Jake Silbermann, known to soap fans as Noah on “As the World Turns,” is Jonathan Harker. He is handsome and likable, but he hasn’t the ability to live within this particular world and comes off as out of place in his British accent and uncomfortable period starched collar and suit. Katherine Luckinbill as the comic maid gets by, but her role asks her to participate in some hocus-pocus that she barely makes believable. As Butterworth the caretaker to Renfield, Rob O’Hare creates a fun comic character that is just about what the play requires of him.

Jake Silbermann as Jonathan Harker

Two characters are rather miss-cast. The worst offense is John Buffalo Mailer (who happens to be the son of Norman Mailer) as Renfield. He is taller than anyone on stage and a strapping lad who is more in line of a romantic leading hero than the slight, bug-eyed, quirky character we have always known Renfield to be. He is played as a southern American with a slow drawl. He isn’t convincingly crazy and he is so robust that when he throws his fits it is unbelievable that the shorter Butterworth could ever control him. I kept waiting for Renfield to throw chairs around the room and single handedly toss Butterworth out the window. Renfield is a great character and a substantial one, both lovable and weird, and here he is such a disappointment that literally half the fun of the production has been sacrificed. The other disappointment is the hard working Emily Bridges (daughter of Beau Bridges) as Lucy, who was thrust into the role days ago when the original actress, Thora Birch, was fired. She tries, bless her, but she hasn’t the beguiling presence to captivate us. Her particular affliction, which takes on a subtle insanity and requires her to be startled by bats on wires and fall under the hypnotic spell of Dracula, not to mention deliver impossible lines of a 1920s ingenue as if she believed them, does not sell.

Now to Dracula, played by the Italian actor making his American stage debut, Michel Altieri: He looks great and has an exotic accent, but he does not possess that otherworldly magic personality that is required. This quality is hard to describe and impossible to teach. So, it is not enough that Mr. Altieri looks right and is dressed in cape and tuxedo, but he must be mesmerizing. Two famous lines from the 1930 film have been added to the play, “I never” and “Children of the night, what music they make.” Mr. Altieri can’t say them with any sense of the weight they held when Bela Lagosi said them. In fact, he throws them away, which kept them from being silly, but did nothing to define the character as they had with Bela Lagosi. It wasn’t worth sticking the lines into the play.

Bela Lagosi as Dracula

That leaves us with George Hearn and Timothy Jerome to hold the show together and it isn’t enough. DRACULA is hard. It must be treated like Shakespeare or the Greek plays where great care is taken to get the line readings to sound natural. It takes a highly seasoned and probably classically trained actor to take these old lines into their being and bring them to life in a way we can believe in them. This cast is full of youngsters without the chops to handle the job, which is why it feels like a college production.

The set by Dana Kenn is old fashioned in its utilitarian aspects, but rather attractive and mood enducing––it was my favorite element of the production. Combined with Willa Kim’s Edwardian costumes and Brian Nason’s very effective lighting, the show looks wonderfully spooky. A few staging touches also make the show enjoyable such as Renfield crawling upside-down along the wall of the Sanatarium (aided by Flying by Foy), a bat flying in the window and up into the rafters was a fun moment, and Dracula dissolving out of sight while in the clutches of Van Helsing and Dr. Stewart was a real surprise. Still, no magic trick could save the production, for the cast just isn’t up to it. For the bows, the theme from SWAN LAKE was played as it had been for the credits of the 1930 film, but Helsing did not hush the audience with his famous last words:

“When you get home tonight and the lights have been turned out and you are afraid to look behind the curtains and you dread to see a face appear at the window...why, just pull yourself together and remember that after all, there are such things.”

Set design by Dana Kenn

Monday, December 13, 2010

Billy Elliot Two Years In

Now two years in to the run, BILLY ELLIOT holds up. The performance I attended on Sunday evening gave us the surprise of director Stephen Daldry taking the stage at the top of the show to inform us that the “Billy” of the evening, Dayton Travares, would be giving his final performance. Travares is from Australia and had played Billy all through the Australian run. His entire family moved to New York so he could continue on with the Billy family for a little while longer on Broadway. Daldry gave a lovely heartfelt speech, thanking Travares and his parents for letting the Billy family share in his childhood. Now his voice was changing (many alternate notes were taken in the songs) and he is off to embark on his final spring into adulthood. But for this last night Travares gave an exemplary performance. It doesn’t seem to matter which boy you see as Billy, he simply controls the hearts of the audience and key numbers such as “Solidarity”, “Dream Ballet” and “Electricity” get the usual incredible reception that literalizes the concept of stopping the show. By comparison to other Billy’s past and present, Travares wasn’t the best singing Billy or even the best dancing Billy, but he was genuine, as all the boys who play the character must naturally be, and his talents were considerable enough to amaze us. It is a wonder what path all these fantastic boys who have had the glory of heading a Broadway mega-hit will take as the years go on.

Gregory Jbara continues on as Dad, but he is milking all of his bits further than he can go. He is acting like an old school Broadway clown in a show that has nothing to do with a star comedian turn. He has become comedically drunk in the Christmas scene, robbing us of the beauty of his folk song, “Deep Into the Ground.” The “esquire” bit with Billy’s letter and the business with the smoking ballet dancer are all prolonged as if Bert Lahr had taken over his body. Stephen Daldry was watching from the back, so maybe there will be a notes session before the next performance, or maybe it is time for Jbara to move on––despite the Tony.

Carole Shelley is still in as Grandma and she has become delightfully batty. If it were possible to dance even less of her choreography than she started with, she has mastered it. However, it is astonishing how she keeps finding little new things in her character.

Laura Marie Duncan is the new “Dead Mum” and she is just right. Some how Stephen Hanna keeps dancing “Older Billy,” now with an extra spring to it. Tommie Retter seems to be all the more enjoyable as Mr. Braithwaite and works his hideously greasy hair for all it’s worth. Neil McCaffrey, who was so great as Randolph in the BYE, BYE BIRDIE revival last season, is ideal as Billy’s cross-dressing friend Michael.

This production has always taken its time to make moments count––a different quality than Broadway’s usually slick, fast and funny mechanized production values. However, some of the moments in the second act have become MOOOOOMMMEEENNNTS. Still, outside of the show needing a little tightening, it delivers where it counts and BILLY ELLIOT holds its own as one of the really great shows of the decade.

During the finale the other Billys were watching the show from the box seats and cheering on their friend Dayton as he danced his last tap dance. It was a special occasion and as the audience departed, behind the act curtain could be heard the voices of the cast privately singing “Happy Trails to You” as a collective good-bye to Dayton Travares.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Uncle Tom's Cabin

George Lee Miles as Tom

I have missed the few assorted productions of UNCLE TOM’S CABIN that have popped up in small theaters over the past ten years, but these have been deconstructions or modern politicized adaptations of the Harriet Beecher Stowe novel from 1852. Within six months of the release of that all important American novel came numerous unauthorized stage adaptations including the one that would settle into the position of the version written by George L. Aiken. This three act coherent melodrama has been the dominating version and for the Twentieth Century and on it has been the only version left for posterity from that pre-Civil War era. So I was excited to finally have the chance to see the Aiken version presented in whole at the Metropolitan Playhouse.

After a kind of out of town tryout in Troy, New York produced by George C. Howard, Aiken’s adaptation opened in New York City at Purdy’s National Theater and ran nearly a year (The program notes stated that Aiken’s version also ran at Barnum’s Museum, but that was actually another version by H. J. Conway which favored the anti-abolitionist cause). For the 1850s this was a record breaking run and the play retained its immense popularity in touring productions and revivals throughout the century. Not only was UNCLE TOM’S CABIN the most important American play of the Nineteenth Century, but it changed the style of programing forever. Before UNCLE TOM’S CABIN a melodrama would play as a first act and then the “after piece” would follow, which was generally an unrelated variety program of songs dances and concert selections. The band being on hand for this part of the program would underscore the preceding play and therefor we get the genre melo-drama. Due to the length of the play and a feeling that the traditional after piece would tarnish the production as low entertainment, the play was presented by itself, thereby starting the tradition of the stand alone play in American popular theater.

Inserted into a melodrama would be various songs, mostly derived within the drama from natural sources. As the years went by and various adaptations came and went, UNCLE TOM’S CABIN as a whole might be littered with more songs and dances, which historically added to the play’s connection to the minstrel show. Indeed, it was the case that the black characters were all played by white actors in black face. Put that aspect aside, however, and you have a serious story about the tragedy of slavery, which like the novel, greatly influenced the attitudes that built up to why we fought the Civil War. In fact, Lincoln was said to have commented to Harriet Beecher Stowe that more or less she was “the cause of the great war.”

Uncle Tom’s subservient “Yes Massa” nature mixed with the insult of black faced actors cartooning the experience of black citizens have made the title politically poisonous. I would like to think that in the Twenty-first Century we could look at this work with fresh eyes and thanks to the humble production directed by Alex Roe, with an excellent small company doubling the numerous roles, this proves to be possible. The character of Uncle Tom is, in his non-combative way, insisting that God is looking after him and will do right by him. He is able to convince his master that slavery is fundamentally wrong, but his master dies before he can free Tom, resulting in Tom’s sale to the cruel Simon Legree. Despite Tom’s pleas for tolerance, Simon will not be told his business by a slave and beats Tom to death. In his last words Tom exclaims that he knows God will finally free him. A final image of Tom reaching up to the light as an Angel descends from the heavens was not realized in this production, but we got the idea. Other historical productions showed Tom reunited with the other main characters in a cabin in the sky, which is like the ending we get from Tup-Tim’s Asian ballet version in THE KING AND I.

"Small House of Uncle Thomas" from THE KING AND I

There is no real point to staging Aiken’s UNCLE TOM’S CABIN today save for historical interest, for it rambles around for three hours and is definitely a production of mid-Nineteenth Century American Theatre. When acted by a fine cast, the dust of the years is not exactly blown off the piece, but the story can be told with intelligence and any relationship to the minstrel genre is virtually nonexistent. This production was distinguished by the contribution of George Lee Miles as Tom. Not only did he physically have a domineering presence, but his resonant voice explored the musicality of the words to mesmerizing effect and made Tom the noble human character he was always intended to be. Also excellent was Marcie Hendersen as Eliza, who escapes with her son Harry (a clever puppet) across the ice to Canada to meet her husband George (Rafael Jordan). Rick Delaney distinguished himself in his several roles, but especially as Tom’s sympathetic master who is converted to emancipator. Another historically controversial character is Topsy, who was played as an uneducated, undisciplined teenager with a heart of gold by Alex Marshall-Brown. This actress had, perhaps, the biggest challenge, for if the shiftless stereotypical “darky” character exists anywhere in the play it is with Topsy. In this production we can see Topsy as a product of her upbringing: sold into slavery as a baby and raised without education, religion, or family. She can be seen as a parallel to a girl of the contemporary urban ghetto. It is up to Ophelia (Lisa Riegel) to tame the unruly teenager. When she begins this seemingly impossible task, Ophelia is admittedly prejudiced, but through time comes to love Topsy and see her as a daughter. Aiken’s (and Stowe’s) imploring for change is very clear and any thoughts that UNCLE TOM’S CABIN is racist outside of racism as its topic, has not seen the play and is carrying an age old grudge against a work that is much more than the story’s splintered history. The play was worth it at the Metropolitan Playhouse and will be worth it in the future by other conscientious artists interested in exploring this most American of American plays.

The Duncan Sisters in a production in San Francisco, 1923