Sunday, January 30, 2011

CHICAGO 15 Years In

Bianca Marroquin

I lucked into a free ticket to CHICAGO, but then so many others did too. This performance was full of fans who won free tickets on Facebook. I did not win my ticket on Facebook, but rather someone else did and it was handed off to me, but there I was. I had seen the show twice on the road in Sacramento about twelve years ago and outside of the movie, haven’t thought about the show since. In fact, I would sometimes walk by the Ambassador Theatre and be re-surprised that CHICAGO was still running. This is quite an amazing success story when you consider this is a revival of a show that ran only two years the first time out. This production started as a City Center Encores! concert and is more or less exactly the same as that concert production with the lines memorized. The show is produced in the simplest way and yet it is as chic as a late 1990’s Vogue photo spread––a look that still holds up as sexy. The whole show holds up, even without a star stuck in to boost ticket sales. The low maintanence of the production accounts for some of its longevity.

Right now there is “nobody” in it. There is, however, a cast of talented people, most of whom have been in and out of the show for years––on the tour, Broadway and playing it in London. Bianca Marroquin as Roxy comes from the Mexico production originally and Leigh Zimmerman as Velma was in the opening night cast as “Kitty.” Zimmerman is long and fierce, is a beautiful dancer of the Fosse style and can really belt out her numbers. It took me a bit to warm up to Marroquin, but eventually found her to be quite clever and delighted in the way she found new original ways to deliver the old lines. Although she is short of stature, Marroquin kept up with Zimmerman all the way with high kicks and tremendous energy. Colman Domingo, lately from SCOTTSBORO BOYS, has taken over Billy Flynn. He may not be inspired, but he keeps the entertainment going. LaVon Fisher-Wilson tears it up as “Mama” Mortan and R. Lowe’s drag soprano is truly amazing for Mary Sunshine. The show is in top form, though it doesn’t seem nearly as fresh and exciting as it did a decade ago. A few of the long term chorus boys have put on a few pounds and are doughier than their revealing costumes allow. As a group, the chorus is not nearly as ferocious as they once were.

In the audience of this special performance were past cast members Chita Rivera, Uta Lemper and director Walter Bobbie. Seth Rudeski hosted a pre-show giveaway of prizes and everyone walked away with a t-shirt. This was the kind of performance where the songs received applause at the beginning of the numbers as well as the end. A theater full of devoted fans is not a bad crowd with which to pay another visit to CHICAGO!

Uta Lemper signing autographs outside of CHICAGO

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

John Gabriel Borkman

Henrik Ibsen’s play from 1896 has been newly translated by Frank McGuinness for Ireland's Abbey Theatre now in residence at BAM’s Harvey Theater. The production stars the always interesting Alan Rickman as Borkman and the fierce Fiona Shaw as his wife Gunhild, which is a pretty good start for a good production. Lindsay Duncan plays the third key role, Miss Ella Rentheim and she is equal to the task of bringing life to this century old play. The production, directed by James Macdonald, has a leisurely paced first act, which could have used a shot of energy and a stronger pace. Then came the second act, which was very lively indeed and contained ferocious scenes from the actors as well as the theatrically created snow storm in which half of it took place. Tom Pye’s set would be a bare stage with just the essential furniture pieces, save for the small mounds of snow surrounding the playing area. On stage it looked a lot like it did outside on the street. One of Gunhild’s early lines is “I am often cold” and this was immediately linked to her environment as well as her personality.

The story surrounds Borkman, who has suffered disgrace from a term in prison for embezzlement, and his wife Gunhild, who is dreaming up how to re-enter society. Both hold their grown son, Erhart (Marty Rae), as the way to restore the family name. Gunhild’s sister, Ella, arrives on the scene with only months to live and wants to find out from Borkman why he gave up true love with her to settle instead for an unhappy marriage to Gunhild. She half raised Erhart and so she would like him to live with her in her final days and take her name so that she will not be the last of her line. Erhart has other ideas and decides that while he is young he is only going to live for happiness and elopes with a divorcĂ©e (Cathy Belton)––ruining his family’s hope for social salvation. All through this little story-line there is quite a bit of humor, but by the final scene things become pretty dismal for all.

This was a worthwhile production, but it is only too bad that the first act did not match the variety and electricity of the second.

The Majestic before being saved by BAM

The BAM Harvey Theatre is a fascinating space with entirely uncomfortable seats. It is formerly the Brooklyn Majestic Theatre built in 1906 as a legitimate theatre for plays and musicals. For the first twenty years of its life it was used as an “out of town” tryout house (funny that Brooklyn was ever considered to be “out of town”) and then conversely housed Broadway productions that couldn’t be held over and needed a new home. The theater turned over its program to Vaudeville (one of the houses on the “subway circuit” as it was known in days of yore) and then to movies. In the later years of the 1970s the Majestic was reduced to showing triple X movies and then closed until BAM rescued it. The interior was “restored,” leaving its abandoned theatre character in place. The old Orchestra level was raised to blend into what was the mezzanine level, which is why you walk upstairs to get to the orchestra level now. The current balcony (and old third level) still utilizes the old segregated (and steep) staircase, formerly used for “colored people only.” Uncomfortable though it is, this is a very nice use of an aging theater once on the brink of being demolished.

The Majestic today: Saved as the BAM Harvey Theater

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark

When I was small I had seen Walt Disney’s Peter Pan and wished out loud that “they” would make a live action version. My mother informed me that “they” had; that an actress named Mary Martin had starred in it on the Broadway stage. I then began dreaming about a time when I could see this live action stage version. When I was in my late teens I came across an LP in a record shop of It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Superman the Musical and began to salivate. That was a fascination for me––live on stage the characters beforehand only having been in the movies and animated. I finally did see a very good production of “Superman the Musical” at PCPA in Santa Maria and of course have seen Peter Pan on stage many times. When I was twelve I would have loved to be taken to Julie Taymor’s Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark, and would have forgiven its flaws as a musical play and reveled in its spectacle of the mere sight of Spiderman spinning webs and flying over the audience. As an adult, I have no choice but to step back and really see this gargantuan, multimillion dollar experience for what it is––not so good. I will go on to say that I was fascinated by the show and delighted by many individual components. However, string those components together and you have a lot of noise, but not much of a play. Is it supposed to be a musical play or simply a concept––an experience? Expectations will have a lot to do with each individual’s reaction, which so far has ranged from “the worst show I ever saw,” to “I loved it.”

Let it be known that I saw the thirtieth preview performance. By this point the show should have been frozen and ready to open next week, but it has been postponed another month due to the well reported accidents as this wild theatrical experiment irons out the kinks. What I have always loved about Julie Taymor is her visual expression on stage. With puppets, masks, theatrical conventions both embraced and broken, she gives us unusual perspectives, pictures, images and characters. Her imagination is not restricted by the stage but opened up. She is both a serious professional who believes she is imparting a profound message and a kid who has the best box of Crayola crayons ever and her most extravagant dreams are still not her limit. What Taymor was able to do with The Lion King so perfectly has not happened for “Spiderman.” For one thing, she does not have a good enough story to tell––at least the way she and Glen Berger have written it along with songs by Bono and The Edge.

The show plays like a staged concept album in the vein of The Who’s Tommy or American Idiot, only the concept album did not come first this time. Bono and The Edge have written songs with appropriate hooks: “Bouncing Off the Walls”, “Rise Above”, “The Boy Falls From the Sky,” which all sound good for a “Spiderman” musical, but the end result is a ballad heavy song cycle with interspersed dialogue to keep a sense of story together. The sound is horrid and so it is impossible to appreciate the lyrics if they are to be appreciated at all. The book, for the first act anyway, follows generally what we know of the story from the film. For some reason a quartet of teens act as narrators, sometimes to clarify the muddle we have just witnessed and sometimes to cover a set change in the old fashioned “in one” convention. There are newer ways to cover a scene change and it could have been possible to tell the story through the characters rather than the children’s theater way of relating transition information. In the next month of previews it would be easy to cut those four teens and find better band-aids to cover the set changes (but sadly four actors would suddenly be out of work).

Reeve Carney and Jennifer Damiano

The character of Spiderman himself is played by every able bodied male in the cast at one point or another and sometimes all at once. This is not a straight forward telling of a story in any way––both a blessing and a problem. Peter Parker is played by the accessible Reeve Carney who is every bit the skinny nerdy teen, but with a cool pop rock voice. I found him to be very likable and enjoyed following his scenes when they came around between the spectacle. Jennifer Damiano is Mary Jane and she has a grounded center that is comforting within the cartoon craziness of the rest of the production. Both Damiano and Carney are real and believable, which was absolutely necessary to make the story work, for the rest of the characters are played to full comic book broadness. Reporters at the Daily Bugle, along with J.J. Jameson (Michael Mulheren) are plucked form The Front Page or some ‘40s film noir. Secretaries are plucked from Mad Men. Teenagers are painted in black and yellow and manipulated like dancers in a stylish music video. The many villains produced are in such fabulous costumes and masks that they are given a fashion show runway on which to show off since they have nothing else to do but look fabulous.

For all the bold images, street dancing, rock sounds and really spectacular flying effects, Act One works fairly well at introducing us to the characters. Peter acquires his powers and learns to use them, gets his job with the news paper, shyly attempts to start up a relationship with Mary Jane, etc. The Green Goblin (Patrick Page) emerges and there is a great flying fight between Spiderman and the Goblin to end the act over the heads of the audience. Act Two, by contrast, loses the story entirely. A new villain is brought forth named Arachne (T.V. Carpio of questionable talents), who is a spider goddess controlling Peter’s destiny, but all the interesting Spiderman flying is mostly over and we are informed of his daring exploits rather than fully seeing them realized. There are long stretches where we don’t see anything of Peter and Mary Jane––the only two characters we actually care about. When we do see them they are suddenly a couple then suddenly engaged. The “I love you” scene was building up through act one, but the declaration is the only pay off we get from these characters and it comes too soon in the second act so that we have nothing left for an ending but to have another actor as Spiderman save Mary Jane from her final peril. The other plot build up is Peter’s coming out as Spiderman, but the scene never happens and yet Mary Jane comes to know this truth by the end of the show. We are robbed of real dramatic scenes between the only two believable flesh and blood characters in the show. Am I wrong to want this? Perhaps the polite cocktail applause that greeted the numbers and the absent standing ovation at the end says something about the lack of humanity in the show. When it is all puppets, masks and noise it might be a sensory overload, but it isn’t moving. Ultimately, that is the expectation of a Broadway show, whether it is Annie Get Your Gun or Sweeney Todd.

The very spectacular set done in comic book style is credited to George Tspin and the costumes of insanity are credited to Eiko Ishioka, but Julie Taymor’s hand has been into every aspect, for the visual production has always been her concern. This is Julie Taymor’s show all the way––not to discredit the army of artists who helped to bring this production to life.

This production is so unusual that it has to be seen to be believed. I was not bored, but I left with a feeling of emptiness towards it. Yet I was constantly surprised and interested as the thing unfolded (literally at some moments). Everyone who can must see it just to see what can be done with sixty million. After all, that is one reason one lives in New York: to see a crazy theatrical experience that can’t be found anywhere else. My guess is that the title, not unlike The Adams Family, will survive the critics’ wrath and run the four years needed to pay off the investment, but if you don’t see it in New York you aren’t going to see it, save for an imagined Los Vegas engagement. The physicality of the show can’t tour and the literature of the piece isn’t good enough to come off well in a scaled down production. “Spiderman” is just one of those crazy things that happen in New York sometimes.