Monday, June 27, 2011

All's Well That Ends Well

This summer in Central Park the Public Theatre is tackling two of Shakespeare’s “problem” plays. The first to open, All’s Well That Ends Well,” is officially one of the comedies, but although there are laughs and mix-ups between lovers the happy ending of this play has always been debatable. Directed with an eye on this problem, Daniel Sullivan does his best to make sense of the ludicrous plot and turns out a very handsome production whether he solves the problems or not. It certainly helps to have an excellent cast headed by the dignified Annie Parisse as Helena, Tonya Pinkins as the Countess and John Cullum as the King to make the mayhem believable. AndrĂ© Holland is sturdy as Count Bertram, but cannot invoke the sympathy necessary to make the ending believably happy. The play may be more at fault, but just the right personality in the role could assuredly help matters considerably for it is too easy to mark Bertram as a cad and leave it at that.

Because of the class system, Helena has no hope of attracting nobleman Count Bertram. However, after cleverly applying her father’s healing arts, she cures the King of France from fistula. As a thank you gift the King offers Helena her choice of husband from a number of men of the court. She picks Bertram, but he is not enthused. When Bertram skips out on Helena to go to war without consummating the marriage, the plot kicks into gear as Helena sets out to win her husband back. Ridiculous plot points ensue until in the end, “all’s well that ends well.” Through trickery Bertram is forced to marry Helena and although this is her wish, it is made crystal clear that it is not his wish. Yet, the final dialogue illogically makes us understand that this “comedy” has a proper happy ending––the couple is finally brought together. To a modern audience it is a great suspension of disbelief to accept the forced marriage as a happy one.

Sullivan attempts to solve this problem by allowing Bertram to find a kind of happy surprise in his feelings upon his one and only kiss with Helena before running off to war. This glimmer that some special thing connects the pair is the one and only link to the notion that the marriage is meant to be despite his philandering. This careful touch helped a lot, but the rest of the proceedings are too ridiculous to completely support it. However, put the obvious problems of the text aside and there is a handsome, entertaining production, coupled with the always enjoyable outdoor setting of the Delacorte Theater. The production is well worth the arduous wait in line to pick up those free tickets.

Unnatural Acts

Only for approximately the past twenty years has gay history been seriously brought to light. For most of the twentieth century the subject has been kept hidden in the great hope that by not talking about homosexuality it would disappear. However, recent historians have unearthed hidden boxes of files, letters and diaries that give a surprisingly modern picture of gay life before the gay liberation movement sparked by the Stonewall riots in 1969. There were, in certain circles, such as the male dominated universities, big cities, and war time events, underground communities of gay men who were open with each other and able to express their true selves to a point. Such files regarding Harvard University were explored as recently as 2002 with the result of a very interesting play now running at the Classic Stage Company called Unnatural Acts. The play was written by the members of the Plastic Theatre and was conceived and directed by Tony Speciale. Several members are also cast in the play.

Staged in the three quarter thrust with a large fireplace and bookshelves as a collegiate backdrop, the various places of Harvard are handled with the simple shifting of lights and select pieces of furniture. The all male cast of the play are dressed in the dapper fashion of 1920 and play both the key student characters as well as faculty and officials as needed. Occasionally, documentary style narration is delivered to lend the scenes of historical fiction a context and provide transitions, but most of the material is handled in the form of dramatic scenes establishing the nature of the gay subculture and the events leading up to their discovery by officials due to an investigation of one sudent’s suicide.

All the characters are nicely drawn with a clear individuality. They each exist in various levels of comfort regarding the acting out of their nature. All seem able to camp it up at a party among friends, but intimacy takes on different degrees of courage and guilt. The result of Harvard’s discovery that a hotbed of homosexuality existed among the student body caused the eviction of the men involved not only from the college, but from the town of Cambridge. For the most part their lives were a struggle from that point on and two others committed suicide as a result. As easy as it is to view these events as long ago and far away, especially in light of New York having just passed a same sex marriage law, it is important to note that a good portion of America would still like to see homosexuality suppressed and outlawed as if it could be extinguished. Even as a three part article about the Harvard secret files was featured in the college’s own newspaper, a student of Harvard wrote a letter to the editor saying that the school should take a stronger position on the preservation of morality. It seems that even some intelligent students of Harvard today do not have a fundamental understanding of the phenomenon of homosexuality and fear it enough to feel that it ought to be regulated. We have come a long way and yet there is a long way to go. This play can only help in furthering that education.

The pity of a small play like this, regardless of its excellence, is that only so many people will see it in this Off Broadway run. It will need many more productions in many more cities and particularly a film version for it to do any good politically. The play does have the feel of Clifford Odets’ Waiting For Lefty about it, though that play actually played to its Depression era audience right at the time the message needed to be voiced. Had Unnatural Acts appeared on the New York stage in 1920 the final speech calling out for justice and tolerance would have really been revolutionary. Still, the message is not lost on today’s audience. On the basis of simply being told a story, the play succeeds in setting up good sympathetic characters, balancing natural comedy with a serious situation and creating genuine suspense.

The play contains a generous eleven characters for Off Broadway and the cast is terrific––one and all. Brad Koed plays Eugene Cummings, the chief narrator of the crowd and is able to layer his expository speeches with emotion. Roe Hartrampf as Kenneth Day, the athlete of the group, must work though a slightly gratuitous nude scene, but has the physique for the job and handles his several serious and delicate scenes articulately. Max Jenkins as Stanley Gilkey is particularly entertaining as the boisterous one of the group and handles his scene of questioning by the court with a clever balance of humor and pathos. Frank De Julio is particularly good as Keith Smerage, an aspiring actor rehearsing for a part in the Dramatic Society’s production of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra and delivers a key speech about betrayal beautifully in counterpoint to a moment in the story dealing with the same subject. The balance of the cast is uniformly excellent, with Nick Westrate, Jess Burkle, Will Rogers, Jerry Marsini, Roderick Hill, Devin Norit and Joe Curnutte making up the best ensemble of actors going right now.

Now through July 10th.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Importance of Being Earnest

Brian Bedford as Lady Bracknell

The currently celebrated Roundabout Theatre Company production of The Importance of Being Earnest directed by and starring Brian Bedford as Lady Bracknell, which will shortly come to a close, was the first Broadway production of the Oscar Wilde chestnut since 1977 at Circle in the Square. Then it was Elizabeth Wilson as Lady Bracknell, Mary Louise Wilson as Miss Prism, John Glover as Algernon and James Valentine as John. That production was something of an event as the play hadn’t been seen on Broadway since 1947 with John Gielgud as John––a production that ended a long era of regular revivals. There were seven of them between the US debut in 1895 at the Empire Theater and 1947. Two of the more notable actors playing John were Henry Miller in 1902 (more famous now as the former name of the Stephen Sondheim Theater) and Clifton Webb in 1939. The many others filling out those long ago casts are names that have faded away, but for those who caught the current production it will be difficult to ever forget Brian Bedford’s transformation into Lady Bracknell. This casting was, in a way, a kind of stunt, but it was not treated as camp (even if this is Oscar Wilde). Mr. Bedford’s performance was pure character acting and utterly believable. If you didn’t know Lady Bracknell was being played by a man you would swear the person was a woman. Even when knowing the facts, the character was instantly believable from the moment Lady Bracknell made her entrance.

The top rate cast included David Furr as John, Jayne Houdyshell as Miss Prisim, Jessie Austrian as Gwendolen, Charlotte Parry as Cecily and Santino Fontana as Algernon. However, on the night I caught the show it was old friend Richard Gallagher going on for Algernon. He has been covering both John and Algernon and even has had to go on for both characters in the same week. When I mentioned to my house manager friends Steve Ryan and Zipporah Agusvivas that I was there especially to see Richard go on as Algernon they lit up and expressed how impressed they had been to watch him through the run jumping back and forth between the two characters. This was Richard’s Broadway debut and although he was an understudy, he had plenty of opportunity to trod the boards as both leading male characters. His friends, who sat in the audience in happy support, had known his past decade in New York forging a career playing odd out of town dates, Fringe theater productions, readings and a lot of office temp work inbetween it all, so it was a great joy to see him finally on a Broadway stage. In fact, during the run of “Earnest,” Richard kept going in to his long term temp job to insure that it would still be there for him when the show closed. He knows as well as anyone that there may not be a next Broadway show and then again the world can turn on a dime.

Adding to the whimsy of the delightful production was Desmond Heeley’s Victorian pop-up book sets and colorful detailed costumes. The flat painted look of the 19th Century was augmented with aspects of dimension and all three settings were full of interesting detail, yet subdued in a pallet that allowed the more vibrant costumes to pop and visually fuel the characters with an energy the cast more than matched in person. This production will come to a close on June 26th, but it was filmed and shown in movie theaters this past month, so here’s hoping a DVD release or TV showing is in the future. Although the play is produced continuously all over the world, it is rare on Broadway and you would be hard-pressed to see it done so beautifully all the way around.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, Revisited

After disastrous early reviews and constant postponements, the Julie Taymor musical Spiderman closed down to revamp the material without Julie Taymor. Reports that her schedule didn’t allow for her to continue daily attention to the show was supposedly the reason she was replaced. Although Taymor maintains a credit as “Original Director,” Philip Wm. McKinley, a circus as well as a theatre man, was brought in to take over the direction. His contribution has improved the production tremendously. Young Chase Brock, leader of the small Brooklyn based dance company, “The Chase Brock Experience” and expert in the history and traditions of musical theatre, took over the choreography duties, though Daniel Ezralo retains his credit as dance and arial choreographer. Also, comic book writer and playwright Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa was brought in to revamp the book, originally written by Taymor and Glen Berger. This is the area where the most work was done, for the majority of the book is brand new and all for the better. Now the building of the relationship between Mary Jane (Jennifer Damiano) and Peter Parker (Reeve Carney) is realized, now Aunt May (Isabel Keating) is a full through-line character rather than a cameo, now the Green Goblin (Patrick Page) is fleshed out and spans the whole of the story. In the old version, Act II. had a villainess, Arachne (T.V. Carpio), take over the plot in a confusing and senseless episode that didn’t relate much to the first act. Now the character is a kind of guardian angel for Peter Parker. Keeping the character allowed some of the production’s most stunning images to remain, even though the character has been changed and diminished. No problem there, for what we really want to see is how a lonely teenage boy suddenly finds himself with extraordinary powers and how he will use those powers for the greater good. The over all scope of the story now matches, more or less, what we know from the film, though it is told through high concept and immense spectacle. The book has structure, intelligence, character development and holds a bland, rock soundscape of a score together.

Bono and the Edge have significantly reworked their score to accommodate the story changes––especially in Act II. Songs have been moved around to new places, new lyrics added, new titles applied and it all makes sense now. However, the score is an ocean of rock ballads, is entirely uninventive, lacks variety and is over amplified to the point of drowning the singers half of the time. It is impossible to judge the lyrics, but thanks to the crystal clear book, it is easy to follow the story without understanding the lyrics. Even Peter Parker’s big power ballad, “The Boy Falls From the Sky,” which is given the power ballad treatment with the orchestrations, lighting and the actor’s final gesture of fist in air, is bland and without a thrill. Yet, a good portion of the audience reacted to it the way those Frank Wildhorn fans react to his power ballads in Jekyll and Hyde and other shows. But, there was no high belted note, no American Idol vocal pyrotechnics––just a middle of the road easily held long note in a comfortable placement. Reeve Carney’s singing voice is not shown to the greatest potential. Nor is Jennifer Damiano showcased well, for Mary Jane is a character that demands a great song and is given what amounts to leftovers. The authors have not utilized the talents of the leading couple to the best effect. The score fails the show more than any other element at this point.

The sets and costumes from the first version are retained with slight modifications and a lot more video projections to help in the transitions formerly handled by an irritating group of teenagers who used to narrate the show. Those narrators are thankfully gone, but this change didn’t help give the show a better pace. The show still plods along at times, especially during the first half hour as we lead up to the moment Peter discovers his powers in one of the more inventive numbers, “Bouncing Off the Walls,” where he literally springs and dances from ceiling to wall to wall. Chase Brock has added plenty of interesting moves to compliment the spirit and style of the street dancing and acrobatics that have always dominated the show’s musical staging, but he has added some quieter moments––giving the staging a poetry that elevates the experience above the level of an elaborate amusement park show.

All said and done, the production does play like an amusement park show, but at least now it all makes sense. Those who saw the first version will notice the good in the changes, but ultimately this does not make Spiderman a good musical. For the teenagers and kids in the audience it was obviously an amazing experience and visually it is wonderful. A 14 year old boy seeing Spiderman as his first Broadway experience is bound to think that Broadway is pretty cool. For a seasoned theatre goer, this show may be a curiosity, but more so it is bound to be a disappointment.

The Sphinx Winks

Rebecca Riker and Bret Shuford

No less than five authors are responsible for this 90 minute Burlesque throwback of a musical: book and lyrics by Philip Capice, Anne Hitchner, Kenneth Hitchner, Jr., Robert Keuch and music by Kenneth Hitchner, Jr. According to the program notes this musical was conceived in the 1950s and was formerly three hours long. Now that it finally sees the light of day a half century later it is a blessing that the material has been chopped down to 90 minutes. However, even that is too long, for this trite, unoriginal, unfunny show with a mediocre cast to put it over is a dismal failure. Director Matthew Hamel found some charm in the idea of bringing back this style of show. It has been done much better with FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM and several of the Rodgers and Hart musicals such as THE BOYS FROM SYRACUSE. THE SPHINX WINKS uses the story of Caesar and Cleopatra as a setting for the fun, but there is not one single attempted joke that lands and not one musical number that can inspire more than dutiful applause for the sake of being polite to a hard working cast that couldn’t possibly save the show. Even if Cleopatra had been played by Donna Murphy, Marc Antony played by Hugh Jackman and Caesar played by Nathan Lane, the material could not be salvaged. To be kind, it should be said that handsome Bret Shuford does well as Marc Antony and multiple roles where he must become ridiculous cartoon characters. He dances well in the only choreographed moment of note with Rebecca Riker as Crecia. Riker partners with Shuford beautifully and both have attractive singing voices. Bruce Sabath as a character man (read lead comedian in Burlesque terms) version of Julius Caesar is proficient, but has little he can do to elevate the part or the show. Erika Amato wears the label of Cleopatra to little effect, though she sings her mundane songs with plenty of spirit and tries her best to adopt a comic persona. Beth Cheryl Tarnow is forced to spend the proceedings performing an irritating gag of singing off key, while Ryan Williams as the host and narrator of the evening fails at delivering one bad joke after another. The high school production level set by Robert Andrew Kovach was all that the material deserved and Gail Baldoni’s rudimentary costumes got the idea across economically. Not one dime should have been put into bringing this show to life, for in the end it was a complete waste of time.

Tifft Productions at The Beckett Theatre through July 24th.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

FOLLIES in Washington DC

Bernadette Peters is losing her mind

At the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C., a rare production of FOLLIES is drawing a New York crowd. Lovers of this Sondheim/Goldman musical can not pass up such a grand opportunity. Eric Schaeffer directed and Warren Carlyle choreographed as good a production as I have ever seen and this was production number four for me. FOLLIES is the kind of show that continues to fascinate, but rarely satisfies everyone on every level––too much can go wrong, or if not go wrong exactly––too much can fail to live up to one’s expectations. The big four this time were pretty darn good with Bernadette Peters heading the troupe as Sally, Jan Maxwell as Phyllis, Danny Bernstein as Buddy and Ron Raines as Ben.

The physical production gave us a properly singed and crumbling empty theatre setting––a shroud lifting to reveal the ghosts of the theater at the top of the show. Set Designer Derek McLane added a mylar curtain for “Who’s that Woman” and a beautiful textured archway of flowers for the “Loveland” sequence. This was all fairly simple, but add to that Gregg Barnes’ fantastic period “Ziegfeld” inspired costumes for the ghosts––absolutely stunning and as haunting as a faded photograph from “The Ziegfeld Follies of 1919.”

Just in case the reader has no idea what this show is about, the concept is a reunion of the “Weisman Follies” cast members––all fifty plus years old––on the evening before the old theater that housed the annual revue is to be torn down to be replaced by a parking lot. The guests all reminisce about the old days and perform numbers that they used to do––albeit with lyrics that say a lot more about their true lives. The two main couples recount their history and we find out that two of them married the wrong person. Their lives are falling a part and the reunion brings up a lot of unfinished business. The show switches back and forth between honoring a faded type of show business that flourished between World War I. and World War II. and the trials and tribulations of the main two couples.

Most of the fun is had from the performances of the many elderly ladies who step forward to entertain again. There is always a double layer to this aspect of the show when people like Linda Lavin, Florence Lacey, Terri White, Susan Watson and Elaine Paige are involved. There is the nostalgia of the actual star performing for us layered on top of their character’s story. With unknown actresses, these roles would lose several degrees of potency. Terri White stopped the show with “Who’s that Woman” in an exciting tap dance staging involving the young ghost version of each lady dancing in reflection and White’s big booming voice filling the Edision Theatre. Elaine Paige as Carlotta got plenty of mileage out of “I’m Still Here” and her high belt is still pretty spectacular. Linda Lavin was cute with “Broadway Baby” and still knows how to sell a number. Opera star Rosalind Elias gave a moving rendition of “One More Kiss,” which in a way, is the theme song for the show. Singing in counterpoint, Leah Horowitz helped make the number truly beautiful with her delicate and clean soprano. The only big disappointment of the evening was RĂ©gine as Solange. She might actually be French, but her rendition of “Ah, Paris!” was a bore. Where was Leslie Caron? Sadly, no one applauded for the entrance of Susan Watson as Emily Whitman. But then, she’s been out of the scene since the days of No, No, Nannette and she was the original Kim in Bye, Bye Birdie. Her duet with Terrence Currier, “Rain on the Roof,” was very sweet.

As for the big four: Peters seems at home with Sondheim and delivered a very moving “Losing My Mind.” I have not been a fan of hers based on her past three Broadway outings, but here her particular quirks and bag of tricks did well for the character. Jan Maxwell turns out to be a surprisingly good singer and survived the rigorous choreography in her “The Story of Lucy and Jessie” number, keeping up with a group of well trained chorus boys. Her performance of “Could I Leave You” was a ferocious show stopper. Danny Bernstein was as perfect a Buddy as I have seen and summoned up a little Bert Lahr in his rambunctious delivery of “Buddy’s Blues.” Ron Raines retains his expert musicality and strong baritone, serving the material best with “The Road You Didn’t Take” and “Too Many Mornings” in the first act.

This Kennedy Center production is quite an event, with the full orchestration sounding better than ever as directed by James Moore. Yes there are mutterings about it moving to Broadway, but don’t get excited until you see the marquee go up, because it is a big endeavor. Also, save for the sets and costumes, it is likely that a somewhat new group of ladies will have to be assembled at the point when a production could actually open in New York. For now, a half day bus or train trip to Washington D.C. will bring you a healthy dose of Broadway magic.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

A Minister's Wife

Lincoln Center Theater presents an odd delight based on George Bernard Shaw’s Candida called A Minister’s Wife. Shaw’s play first appeared in New York in 1903, produced as a special matinee by Arnold Daily who played Marchbanks opposite Dorothy Donnelly as Candida. The reception was so good that additional matinees were added. According to Gerald Bordman in his Oxford Companion to American Theatre, good word of mouth primarily lead to a full run of four months in spite of the critics who largely ignored the play. The love story element has kept the play eternally popular as one of the most often revived of Shaw’s plays. Katherine Cornell stared in the play’s longest New York run of five months in 1924 and she returned to the role often. Some notable names playing opposite Cornell through the years were Orson Wells, Burges Meredith and Marlon Brando.

The play and musical about a woman who must choose between a young visionary and a practical socialist minister is in essence more of a love story than a political statement. In fact the political aspect adds no more than texture to the story, while the passions of love dominate and makes possible the justification for bursting into song. The only truly successful musical adaptation of a Shaw play must be considered My Fair Lady, with Oscar Straus’ The Chocolate Soldier, based on Arms and the Man, coming in a distant second. Now, here is A Minister’s Wife, which will not challenge My Fair Lady for first place, but it should take over second place, though it is a chamber musical and will most likely be produced by small theaters.

As the minister James Mavor Marell, Marc Kudish stands tall––dominating the stage by merely existing. He sings with a strong, but uninteresting voice, yet manages a nice balance between a potentially unlikeable and distant husband with a charming and friendly manner. Eternally youthful Bobby Steggert, who now at age 30 is still able to get away with playing age 20, gives the production its greatest quality of delight as Eugene Marchbanks the poet. Steggert is graced with the best music in the score, and delivers his songs with heartfelt passion. In fact, Steggert has always surged forth to an elevated level of raw, naked emotion in his performances. This is the reason he has been nominated for all the major theatre honors for his past work in 110 in the Shade, Ragtime and Yank. As the title character, Kate Fry, who hails from the Chicago theatre scene, from where this musical originated, is pleasantly durable in the role and sings with grace. She is strong and appealing, but does not imbue Candida with an underlying vulnerability that would make her truly sympathetic. Partially, this is the fault of the adaptation, for in the pairing down of Shaw’s play to accommodate musical numbers (also, the running time is only 95 minutes), some of the complexity of the character is lost. In the supporting roles, Liz Bates as Miss Prosperpine Garnett adds pep and good humor, while Drew Gehling is comically enjoyable as the nebbish Reverend Mills.

Conceived and Directed by Michael Halberstam, the show is economically staged in the three-quarter Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater. Allen Moyers’ simple setting lets us view the small ensemble band through an interior painted scrim. Moyers adorns the smallish space with enough books, nicknacks and select pieces of ideal furniture to make the Minister’s home look well lived in without overwhelming the actors ability to move about. David Zinn’s period costumes are rich with details easily appreciated in the small theater. Keith Parhan’s lighting, though mostly just giving illumination, adds a few haunting touches for the select moments that deserve a bit of magic.

Austin Pendleton has adapted Shaw for Joshua Schmidt’s music and Jan Levy Traven’s lyrics. The songs nicely develop right out of the dialogue, making Marchbanks truly a poet. These are Art Songs with pretty motifs and harmonies, but no discernible tunes. There is nothing here that equals the resplendent melodies found in My Fair Lady and because of that, the score will never become an honored classic or enter the cannon of fifty or so most produced titles of musical theatre. This kind of show will not be everyone’s cup of tea and might even disgruntle fans of Shaw, but on the other hand it is a sturdy, solid, well conceived work and should be able to find its own niche for future productions.

Friday, June 3, 2011

I Married Wyatt Earp

This original musical with a book by Thomas Edward West and Sheilah Rae, lyrics also by Rae and music composed by Michele Brourman, took an all lady look at the Wild West. Cara Reichel had the difficult task of staging eleven actresses on an all too small stage at 59 East 59 Theaters. Worse, Joe Barros was required to supply choreography for several spirited numbers with nowhere to go. Circles became the most useful pattern. Although the songs were appropriate and even had variety, they were woven into a meandering book that didn’t find its focus until the end of the first act. The main action concerned the future Mrs. Earp (Mishaela Faucher) who, being an unconventional teen for her time, runs off with an all lady western tour of H.M.S. Pinafore. The troupe ends up in the town of Tombstone to play an ailing hotel and saloon run by the ladies of the Earp family. The story is told in flashback as an older Josie Earp (Carolyn Mignini) narrates, connects the scenes and argues about the facts and fiction with older Allie Earp (Heather MacRae). The flashback technique, as well as the older versions of the main characters, were unnecessary and the key scenes could have played well enough alone. However, this wouldn’t improve the overall rambling of the plot, which seemed to have as little to do with history as Doris Day’s Calamity Jane––though that would be fine if the material was as entertaining and delightful as that film musical. Structurally poor, musically mundane and only serviceably acted, this new Off Broadway musical was a major miss-fire.