In very dark times, I'm always telling my students, people crave the comfort-food version of mass entertainment: breezy movies, bubbly Broadway shows, silly TV sit-coms, trashy romance novels. But lately, I've been disproving my own axiom. For the first time I can think of, at least in my life, the news has been so relentlessly, sloggingly bad, and the state of the country so brutally disillusioning, that somehow, easy escapism just isn't doing it for me. A very large portion of the country is going through in a period of collective mourning that I somehow feel the need to remain ever alert and connected to. Tuning out completely, while certainly tempting, feels cheap, at least for right now. I'm envious of those who can do it, but I haven't felt completely safe in totally blotting the world out. Somehow, remaining connected to the problems plaguing the country, while at the same time seeking solace in diversions that allow me to sort of tune out halfway, is where it's at for me these days. So I thought I'd weigh in about two shows that recently worked for me, despite--or perhaps because--of their heavy themes and underlying sadness.
Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 is a puzzle to me because the show is invigorating, original and evocative and, yet, also overbearing in its intensity. Based on 70 pages of Leo Tolstoy's second volume of War and Peace, the Off-Broadway transfer, which features the Broadway debuts of singer Josh Groban (Pierre) and Denée Benton (Natasha), offers a sometimes annoyingly frenetic, immersive experience that both irritates and captivates.
Audience members enter an opulent nightclub, dubbed Kazino, where the stage overtakes the Imperial Theatre, transforming it into a Slavic Studio 54, all red velvet and gilt. Two hundred individuals sit among the actors and orchestra on banquettes, armchairs and stools. The fourth wall disappears as characters occasionally involve the audience in the action. The astounding set (by Mimi Lien), which actually reduced the amount of available seating in the theater, brings even the last seats in the mezzanine into 19th century Russia, with a small square stage built amid the uppermost seats and cafe tables scattered throughout the area. Dozens of old-fashioned lightbulbs suspend from the ceiling, mixed among several chandeliers that look like clusters of stars (lighting design by Bradley King). Actors run up and down the aisles, playing music, dancing -- even handing out potato dumplings to the most enthusiastic applauders. With 22 ensemble members, the company numbers are colorful and exuberant but can over-stimulate (you'll see strobe warnings in the lobby); it's like a gypsy circus (with more leather, halters and tattoos) in constant motion--imagine Diane Paulus' Pippin on acid.
Comet tells the story of Natasha, an innocent girl engaged to Andrey, a prince who leaves to fight the war. When Natasha journeys to Moscow she meets Anatole (a sexy Lucas Steele), a married rogue, who convinces her to forsake her betrothed for him. Her elopement is stopped by her best friend, Sonya (Brittain Ashford), and Natasha, in her distress over her lover's betrayal and her reputation's ruin, tries to poison herself. Pierre (played capably by Groban) drinks his way through an identity crisis and a loveless marriage with Anatole's sister, who like her brother enjoys sleeping in many beds. A handful of other characters populates the melodrama; they ponder loneliness, old age and the loss of friendship. By the time the comet swoops in, all the lingering plot lines are coiled together and magically solved with one act of mercy and a song.
The electro pop opera-styled music and lyrics by Dave Malloy (who also did the book and orchestrations) are often clever and entertaining, but sometimes feature too much oversimplification and not enough emotion. The opening song, for instance, serves as a character primer detailing all the parts with one word monikers--Sonya is good, Natasha is young and Helene is a slut--because, after all, as the cast sings: "It's a complicated Russian novel. Everyone's got nine different names." If you missed the beginning, no worries: there's also a synopsis and a family tree in the program. Still, other numbers ("Sonya Alone," "Pierre & Natasha") provide heart-warming flashes. When Natasha sings "No One Else," the sweetness of Benton's voice glides through the song as twinkling bulbs overhead lower downward like slow-moving shooting stars, and a fluff of snow swirls around a faraway Andrey. The joy of Natasha compounded by the settings' stillness connects the audience to the character in a profound way.
Compressing the source material into such a small section takes much of the luminescenceof the original work away -- even though Comet intends to take inspiration from War and Peace and not be it, the musical feels more Les Liaisons Dangereuses: Russian style than Tolstoy's war classic, with the only battles depicted on stage of love and betrayal. Groban, though, fares well in his debut with solid songs like "Dust and Ashes" and "The Great Comet of 1812" that suit his famous baritone. He's sympathetic as a man who's frozen inside, who wants to be more than he is--and his musicianship is obvious as he switches from accordion and piano player to singer. Ultimately, despite the show's flaws, director Rachel Chavkin deserves much credit for creating an experience that allows the audience to feel a show rather than just see it.
I can't be 100% certain what William Shakespeare would think of the current election season, but, as Director Michael Sexton and the good people of the Red Bull Theater show in their dynamic and impressive production of Coriolanus, he might well think, "Same as it ever was, same as it ever was."
Aaron Krohn, Patrick Page Photo: Carol Rosegg
Coriolanus is a war hero, running for consul, who just can't and won't play the political game. It's not that he has superior ethics; instead, he is so sure of his own worth that he thinks power should be handed to him. He's an emotionally blind narcissus; he changes his allegiances to suit his needs; he sees "the people" as useful or not-so-useful tools. Sound like anyone who's been in the news lately?
School of Rock is charming and engaging and the kind of big, shiny Broadway musical you could totally bring your kids or your friends from out of town to. It's basically a stage rendition of the movie, with a few catchy (if too frequently reprised and thus eventually a little tiresome) songs by Andrew Lloyd-Webber tossed in for good measure. (I say this, by the way, as someone who has absolutely no problem with Lloyd-Webber or his compositional style; in fact, I found some of his signature modal flourishes weirdly comforting, here.) Alex Brightman, as Dewey, is as committed, adorable and talented as everyone says he is. The kids are, too--even those who don't totally fucking wail on the guitar, bass, keyboards or drums. The whole cast, really, is energetic and hard-working. They all did their damnedest to win me over. They came pretty close.
Full disclosure: I am a cynical theatergoer and I'm especially critical of staged rock musicals, which I've noted in previous posts is a very rare occupational hazard but one I can claim nonetheless. Also, this election has totally fucked with my head and put me in an even darker place than I typically am. So take this review with a grain of salt. I realize that for many people, a light, funny evening at the theater with winning characters, reasonably catchy songs and some jokes that even I laughed out loud at would be plenty. But here's the thing that bugged me: School of Rock plays on a bunch of racial and cultural stereotypes that I'm really, really tired of seeing on Broadway all the damn time.
A couple of years ago, I dug into some of the ones that bug me most in my review of Rock of Ages, which School of Rock reminded me of in a number of ways. Both are breezy, funny, high-energy rock musicals that don't take themselves too seriously, and that poke fun at while simultaneously reinforcing rock's cultural conventions. Rock culture is certainly worth taking potshots at, lordy knows. It's the reinforcement of some of its more stubborn assumptions that wear me down.
The great comet in question was actually in 1811. Just sayin'. Not like it matters: Broadway musicals are hardly the medium through which accurate historical information gets passed along to the masses, and if you don't believe me, you'll be surprised to learn that in reality, this country's founding generation was built overwhemingly of white dudes who didn't know shit from shinola about rap. But the fact that the real comet was in 1811 and the one in Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet shows up in 1812 (in truth, it was still visible early that year) bugs me a little because someone clearly thought long and hard about changing the date, in the same way that someone--hell, maybe the same someone--thought long and hard about how it might be cool to throw little boxes of potato pelmeni at the audience before the show and also about how it might be cool to have chandeliers that constantly rise and fall over the hyped-up action, and also animal masks and day-glo clothing and strobe lights, but did not put the same amount of thought into plotting, pacing, or character development.
And yeah, yeah, yeah, whatever, I know I sound old and fussy about this, call me an old biddy. But hear me out: I know full well that some shows are about things other than that old-fashioned Golden Age of Musicals shit. But I saw Blue Man Group before you were born, probably. I saw The Donkey Show before knowing anything about it or what the hell it was, and it blew me away. Last summer, I saw Hadestown, which was also more about mood and space and multisensory immersion than it was about plot and character, and I haven't been able to stop listening to the concept album on which it was based, or thinking about aspects of the production since.
I had high hopes for Natasha precisely because of my experiences at these aforementioned shows, as well as because Rachel Chavkin impressed me immensely last season with her moodily gorgeous production of The Royale at Lincoln Center. Also, I've long regretted the fact that I never saw Natasha during its original run, first at the teeny Ars Nova and then in a huge pop-up tent in the meatpacking district, where I bet it was really cool.
Aspects of it are really cool on Broadway, too. Chavkin is ingenious when it comes to utilizing space, and I can't think of a show on Broadway that manages to immerse its audience--even those of us who saw it up in the cheap rear balcony seats--any better than this one does. The stage has room for something like 200 audience members, who sit amid the action, and the entire house is covered in red velvet and photographs and outfitted with tiny little table lamps. The cast makes frequent visits up to the mezzanine and balcony to dance, engage with spectators, toss dumplings around, and harmonize in venue-shaking sonorities that I very much appreciated. There are, as my fellow blogger Sandra noted in her slightly more positive review of the show, a few truly moving numbers that bring the house down. I was especially taken by "Dust and Ashes," Groban-as-Pierre's big solo number that muses moodily about the difficulty and miracle of finding love; "Sonya Alone," too, digs deep into the nature and demands of real friendship, and stayed with me long after the show. But the rest of the score, with a few motifs here and there as the exceptions, struck me as a weird combination of very complicated (lots of chromaticism, lots of tricky meters, lots of unexpected melodic directions) and simultaneously repetitive and uninteresting.
The production tries hard to make up for the lack of character depth or clear plot with a lot of energy and pep. There is lots of winding through aisles, lots of fast-paced dance numbers, lots of constant motion. But it signifies nothing; at one point, right before intermission, a friend I saw it with erupted in near-manic giggles at the masked ball scene, which sent many members of the enormous cast up into the balcony in various animal masks and typically amped choreography. "Of course there are animal masks!" she cackled. Why not, really? There is just about everything else.
I suspect the correct way to see a show like this would be to sit right in the middle of it--either on the stage or, if one could go back in time, under a huge tent, where Russian food (and lots of vodka) was apparently served and where the cast wound tightly around the spectators, who were thus both plunged into and made part of the action. Chavkin does wonders to create intimacy here, too--my respect for her has hardly been shaken by this. But I came away feeling that the nearly-1500 seat Imperial (late the home of Les Miz) couldn't quite handle the show it's housing. The result was emotional distance from characters who aren't terribly developed in the first place, in exchange for sensory overload that felt forced and exhausting.
Okay, so here's an awkward thing: what happens when you're a reviewer, and you're not feeling well, and you fall asleep during a show? That happened to me the other night at The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. (I woke up the next morning with a full-blown cold.)
I could have just skipped writing about the show at all, but small theatres need press, and the folks at Phoenix Theatre Ensemble deserve attention. I finally decided that the fairest thing I could do is link to other reviews of Arturo Ui. An ideal solution? No. But a solution. So, here goes:
Every so often, especially when you don't get too close or take them too seriously, selfish people can be enormously entertaining company. In Love, Love, Love, Mike Bartlett's short, lacerating play currently running at the Roundabout, Kenneth (Richard Armitage) and Sandra (Amy Ryan) are some of the most endearing and amusing awful people you're likely to hang with anytime soon. And as my co-blogger Wendy points out in her non-review review of the first preview, even when this utterly self-involved couple is being particularly awful, they're still pretty damned hard to hate. Unless, of course, you are related to them, which is at least occasionally a very different story altogether.
Wendy describes the basic plot in her writeup of the show, which follows Kenneth and Sandra's relationship over what seems to be about fifty years, so I won't rehash it here. But I will reiterate her rave of Amy Ryan's performance, which I agree is superb. Don't get me wrong--the rest of the cast is terrific, too. But Ryan's character is the glue that holds the ensemble together, and this is all the more challenging since her Sandra needs to be loopy and endearing enough not to alienate, while still being inconsiderate and unthinking enough to believably inflict lasting pain on the people who love her. It's a razor-thin line Ryan walks, and she makes it look easy and natural.
The play itself may not be a masterpiece, but it's solid and compelling. It's a tough sell, in some respects: the characters' sadness builds over the course of the three short acts, so the broadest, easiest belly laughs diminish over time. The last act is the saddest, and focuses almost entirely on Kenneth and Sandra's two grown and clearly damaged children: the disillusioned, tightly-coiled Rose (Zoe Kazan) and the vacant, alcoholic Jamie (Ben Rosenfeld). And while I appreciated (and very much agree with) the play's implication that humans are shaped by both nature and nurture, I nevertheless wouldn't argue that this is a terribly startling or profound message, or one that offers much in the way of insight into the fate of the characters. Nor is it terribly new news that the middle class is declining steadily: it is, and it's become regular fodder for playwrights these days. Then again, as far as characters go, the ones in Love, Love, Love are memorable, curiously endearing, and beautifully rendered.
I saw Love, Love, Love with my parents--who are Kenneth and Sandra's contemporaries and who spent the two short intermissions reminiscing about old friends and acquaintances the characters reminded them of--and my teenage daughter, who was highly entertained and, while keenly aware of Kenneth and Sandra's faults, not convinced that their lousy parenting was entirely to blame for their children's shortcomings. Me? I came away from Love, Love, Love feeling twice relieved: on the one hand, I'm grateful that my parents, while of course not perfect, were nevertheless way more insightful and giving than Kenneth and Sandra are. And on the other hand, my daughter's reaction to the show gives me hope that someday, just maybe, no matter how much her dad and I screw her and her brother up, she'll be grudingly willing to let us off the hook for some of our very worst behaviors.
I wasn't even planning to see this brief production of Sunday in the Park With George, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and benefiting City Center. It's not my favorite Sondheim show, and my life has been a bit topsy-turvy recently, etc, etc. But a truly fabulous friend got us tickets, and, oh boy, am I grateful. I still find the show to be uneven and awkward as a whole, but this Sunday swept my reservations aside and replaced them with tears, laughter, and awe.
Gyllenhaal's voice didn't particularly impress me in Little Shop of Horrors, but he has clearly worked very hard since then to make it the best instrument it could be. He was wonderful. Sunday is odd in that George doesn't have a big number until seven songs in. We do get to see and hear what he wants--Dot to stay still, order, design, composition, tone, form, symmetry, balance, a new way of seeing and showing the world--but he isn't really fully dimensional until "Finishing the Hat." There was a little bit of suspense--how would Gyllenhaal do? Gyllenhaal did good! He gave us a gorgeous, emotional, character-defining version that made the song sound yet again new.
Annaleigh Ashford as Dot gave a full-blooded, human, funny-touching, beautifully sung performance. She was an excellent match for Gyllenhaal, the ideal bright yang to his dark yin. And their "Move On" was glorious, glorious, glorious.
But Gyllenhaal and Ashford were far from the whole story. Any show that has the brilliant Ruthie Ann Miles in a small supporting role and the insanely talented Michael McElroy in the ensemble is clearly presenting an embarrassment of riches. (Here's the rest of the amazing cast: Brooks Ashmanskas, Phillip Boykin, Max Chernin, Carmen Cusack, Gabriel Ebert, Claybourne Elder, Lisa Howard, Zachary Levi, Liz McCartney, Stephanie Jae Park, Solea Pfeiffer, Gabriella Pizzolo, Phylicia Rashad, Jaime Rosenstein and Lauren Worsham. I mean, really!)
Ben Brantley wrote in the Times, "this is one of those shows that seems destined to be forever spoken of with misty-eyed bragging rights by anyone who sees it." Forget bragging rights--someone has to video this production! It was too wonderful to be limited to the relatively few people who were able to see it at City Center.
(4th row balcony; ticket was a gift from amazing friend)