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Thursday, April 19, 2018

Carousel

Among the many ways Rodgers and Hammerstein helped innovate the American stage musical was through depth of character. Their musicals, after all, featured some particularly memorable ones, many of them women, with nuanced inner lives that they expressed to audiences through increasingly sophisticated song, dance, and dialogue. The anxious Laurie manipulated her suitors and then had psychosexual nightmares about them in the form of a lengthy, absorbing, and downright creepy ballet. Nellie Forbush casually tossed off some lame excuses about her own racism, but then struggled to overcome it so that she could live happily ever after with Emile DeBecque. Maria, a terrible nun with no direction in her life, slowly realized her potential as a governess, music educator, mom, and Nazi-evader once she ended up getting saddled with a bunch of neglected, unruly kids.



But depth of character somehow evades poor Julie Jordan, which is a problem because her paramour, Billy Bigelow, is a hot mess who also just happens to be endlessly fascinating: smarter, deeper, and more philosophical than he seems at the outset, with a restless mean streak and oceans of bitter agita beneath his easy charm. Bigelow is fire and brimstone; Jordan is merely a "queer one" (not remotely in the contemporary sense of the word), at least as she's described by her way better-developed and more interesting friend, Carrie Pipperidge. I've long struggled with Carousel in this particular respect, because the imbalance disrupts a show that might otherwise be perfect: dazzling to look at, ravishing to listen to, so far ahead of its time in particular ways, so extraordinarily weird as a piece.

The dark midcentury musical adaptation of an even darker early-20th-century play (Liliom by Ferenc Molnar), Carousel touches on themes that certainly weren't considered musical theater-fodder at the time, and that still come off as reasonably edgy today: "Hey, Oscar! How about we adapt that Hungarian flop into a musical about America's cruel and random class system, maybe with a side-serving of spiritual nihilism?" "I like what I'm hearing, Richard. But can there be a botched robbery that becomes a messy suicide and some domestic abuse? Also--stay with me--a clambake? If so, you got yourself a deal!"

Monday, April 16, 2018

Happy Birthday, Wanda June

If there is an afterlife, I hope Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., has had the opportunity to look down and watch the Wheelhouse Theater Company's excellent production of his hilarious, incisive farce, Happy Birthday, Wanda June (directed by Jeff Wise with vitality, creativity, and respect). I'm sure Vonnegut would be thrilled with the show, although he would likely also be depressed at how timely it remains.

Kareem Lucas, Matt Harrington,
Kate MacCluggage, Jason O'Connell,
Craig Wesley Divino, Finn Faulconer
(not pictured: Charlotte Wise)
Photo: Jeremy Daniel 

Harold Ryan, a man's-man's man's-man, has been missing for eight years. His wife, Penelope, and son, Paul, have kept the living room the way he left it--full of animal heads and jungle rot. (The fabulous set was designed by Brittany Vasta). Harold has been declared dead, and Penelope has finally moved on. She is engaged to a pacifist obstetrician named Norbert. Paul still believes Harold is alive, even though Penelope tells him, "Not even Mutual of Omaha thinks so anymore." However, Paul is right.

Harold comes home, full of bravado and raging masculinity, bragging of all the humans and "other animals" he has killed and all the women he has bedded. ("If I'd ever been to the South Pole," he says, "there'd be a hell of a lot of penguins who look like me.") He's horrified to find that Penelope not only doesn't want him, but that she is engaged to Norbert, about whom he says, "I could carve a better man out of a banana."

The plot is not the thing in Wanda June; it's all about the characters and their interactions. Other characters include Colonel Looseleaf Harper, the pilot who dropped the bomb on Nagasaki,  missing with Harold for those long eight years; he is overwhelmed by life and constantly uncertain. Herb Shuttle, another beau of Penelope's, is a vacuum cleaner salesman thrilled to meet Harold, who he sees as a mythic hero. Major Siegfried von Konigswald, a Nazi killed by Harold during the war, brags that he killed ten times as many people as Harold did. He acknowledges that Looseleaf killed many more but says, "Harold and me--we was doing it the hard way."

Harold is a gigantic-er-than-life character and a horrible man. In order for Wanda June to work, he also has to be charming and sexually attractive. Jason O'Connell manages all of Harold's dimensions in a tour de force performance that would merit a Tony if the show happened to be on Broadway. Kate MacCluggage as Penelope, in a less showy role, is every bit as good. Both actors do that fabulous juggling act of being farcical while also inhabiting three-dimensional humans with real dreams and feelings.

It helps that Vonnegut, whose life was permanently marked by his experiences in WWII, wrote such an open-hearted, textured farce. Every character is ridiculous; every character is sympathetic; no one is a complete hero or villain. Wanda June is a delayed-release show, where you laugh nonstop while watching it yet remain genuinely moved by it afterward.

Wendy Caster
(press ticket; 4th row center)

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Three Tall Women

Edward Albee was not exactly fond of his mother. The headmaster of a boarding school Albee attended was quoted in the New Yorker as saying, “[He] dislikes his mother with a cordial and eloquent dislike which I consider entirely justifiable .... I can think of no other boy who ...  has been so fully the victim of an unsympathetic home background ...” Albee's feelings about his mother show up in many of his plays, nowhere more overtly than in Three Tall Women. 



In the first act, character A, based on Albee's mother, is an old infirm woman with control of neither her mind or her bladder. B is her aide; C is her lawyer. In the second act, A, B, and C are all character A, at different ages. 

In the current, elegant Broadway production, directed by Joe Montello, the three women are played--superbly--by Glenda Jackson (A), Laurie Metcalf (B), and Alison Pill (C). Their costumes, by Ann Roth, add texture to the characterizations and are often beautiful (I particularly love Glenda Jackson's dress in Act 2). The scenery, designed by Miriam Buether, is both attractive and fascinating, using a mirror (or mirrors?) to give a sense of a full but split milieu, perhaps representing A's mind as well as her location. The lighting, by Brian MacDevitt, embraces and enhances the play and design elements.

Being an Albee play, Three Tall Women is both devastating and funny as it examines love, motherhood, marriage, life, and death. The show is surprisingly compassionate. Three Tall Women could easily have been Albee's revenge on his mother, yet he takes a kinder, more complex approach. I believe it is this compassion that makes the play as hard-hitting and excellent as it is.

(For an amazingly different take of Three Tall Women, check out Hilton Als' review in the New Yorker. It's hard to believe that he saw the same play I saw, but I guess, ultimately, he didn't.)

Wendy Caster
(full price $49 ticket, second-to-last row in the mezzanine)

Monday, April 02, 2018

Jesus Christ Superstar

To stage Jesus Christ Superstar, I've long been convinced, is to set yourself up to fail. I'm not just being crabby, here; I love the piece very much. But it was not conceived for the stage in the first place, so putting it on one tends not to work very well. 

Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice initially hoped to develop it for the West End, but after every theater producer laughed the young men out of their office for the very idea of rock-operafying the days leading up to Jesus's crucifixion, Superstar was instead composed and released in 1970 as a remarkably popular concept album. The studio setting arguably contributed to the rock opera's worldwide success: recording happened over many weeks, so vocalists could take breaks whenever they needed to rest their shredded vocal cords; flaws detected in playbacks could be nipped and spliced or recorded anew. And unlike West End producers, executives at Decca--flush from the recent success of the Who's Tommy, which had almost singlehandedly revived the dying label--were all too happy to market the daylights out of the finished product. To that end, the Murray Head recording of "Superstar" was released a full year before the album was; the BBC teaser, in which Head wanders earnestly around some church ruins while sporting a mullet and a cloth choker, is awesome

The album version of Jesus Christ Superstar went platinum in the US, and sold incredibly well in many European and South American countries. Its success--compounded by reports of numerous amateur stage and concert versions taking place across the US--finally convinced theater producers that a rock opera about Jesus's last days wasn't such a stupid idea after all. But among the many problems people encountered when trying to launch one: fans had already bonded deeply with the album and expected live versions to sound just like it; voices straining through full productions multiple times a week couldn't hold a candle to ones that could shriek for an hour and then rest for a few days, probably at a spa paid for by Decca; it's more interesting to listen to people thinking about things than it is to watch them wander in circles, however purposefully, scratching their chins or wringing their hands as they wonder "what then to do about Jesus of Nazareth." Directors have pulled out all kinds of stops to counter what is ultimately a pretty stagnant show: tiered, obstacle course-like sets; groovy laser Floyd-inspired lighting; gaudy makeup, day-glo costumes, an insect-inspired subtext. And yet I've never seen or studied a stage production of Superstar that has managed to triumph over a lack of dramatic build. 

James Dimmock
A "live in concert" televised event, however, is a different story, especially when it's been staged in a venue the size of an airplane hangar (an armory, actually, which is close) before an audience that sounds like it's having a collective orgasm for two-and-a-half hours. The spectators helped galvanize a production that drew almost immediately from a frequently overlooked ingredient that makes the sound recording as powerful as it is: its instrumentals. The son of a composer and organist (dad) and a violinist and pianist (mom), Lloyd Webber knows way more about music than his haters like to acknowledge; of all his pieces, Superstar is paced particularly beautifully. Beneath and between the voices, the score builds from those first distinctive licks on electric guitar into what eventually becomes deeply satisfying epic Wagnerian hugeness. This production not only took note of that fact, but milked it: following the first sweeping shots of Brooklyn, the armory exterior, and the audience of superfreaks within, cameras lingered lovingly on the large, multiply tiered, beautifully diverse orchestra, and then on four of its string players, who jammed together onstage in a tight circle before ushering in the cast. Yay, huge orchestra! You rocked!!

The production continued to deliver throughout, which is not to say that it didn't have its problems. There will always be a pacing issue with Superstar due to its tendency to dwell on chatty ruminations; the frequent commercial breaks sucked a little of the energy, too. But for the most part, jump-cuts, whizzing cameras, closeups, oceans of glitter, and a big giant cross that floats into an even bigger cross before being swallowed up in a beacon of light kept the action moving, even when the audience needed to pause to keep from hyperventilating. The sharp, active choreography by the exceptionally talented Camille A. Brown helped a hell of a lot, too; I can't say I've ever seen a Superstar with more dance than this one had, and it turns out that the stage production was crying out for it all along. Who knew? Not me.

People are already weighing in on the actors' interpretations, so here's what I think: they were all fine, though some certainly strayed from the original recording in ways that took some getting used to. The most noticable in this case was John Legend's Jesus. Whatever, the man's not a heavy metal screamer, and while I missed the dramatic, shouting-Jesus moments that occur through the piece, Legend's not nearly as petulant or whiny as Ian Gillan's Jesus was. This was a fair trade for me, especially since Jesus is not really the most interesting character in Lloyd Webber and Rice's retelling, anyway. As the second-least interesting character, Sara Bareilles's Mary was terrific, especially with her sweet and plaintive "Could We Start Again, Please?"

I have enough riding on Alice Cooper's aura that I could overlook the fact that he can barely move at this point in what has been an exceedingly excessive life (while not as iconic as JCS, Alice Cooper's Billion Dollar Babies is a brilliant concept album from the 1970s that is a favorite of mine, too). The supporting cast was beautiful, committed, terrific sounding, and diverse enough to remind anyone who cared to watch that the very point of world religions is that they are followed by lots of different people everywhere, and not just blonde Caucasians in the American midwest and south. And while I suspect it didn't enter into consideration, since it kind of never does, the multicultural ensemble helped negate the not-so-subtle implication that one particular group of people (mine, in fact!) killed Jesus; if you view this piece as inherently anti-Semitic, this production just might make you feel a little less alienated from it, though I can't promise you anything. Anyway, for what it's worth, I appreciated Norm Lewis and Jin Ha's chilly, Matrix-like takes on Caiaphas and Annas.

And, like everyone else, I was thrilled by Brandon Victor Dixon's intense, muscular Judas. Not afraid to experiment vocally while doing a fair amount of scenery-chewing in a role that pretty much requires it, Dixon owned the piece. He has long been a dedicated Broadway performer; I hope this thrillingly successful live-tv event makes him a household name. Christ, he deserves it.


Monday, March 19, 2018

Art Times: The Thing About Revivals


My latest essay is up at Art Times. I would love to hear what you all think about the issues discussed.
Periodically, old shows with iffy depictions of women are revived on Broadway. People, mostly but not all women, complain about those depictions. Then other people complain about the complaints. Rinse and repeat.
Read more.

Wendy Caster

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Angels in America

It's been 25 years since I last saw Angels in America, which remains one of the most powerful theatergoing experiences I've ever had. I was so overwhelmed by the original production that I've long been afraid to revisit the show, as if somehow the very idea of seeing it again would negate the intensity of emotions I felt when I saw it the first time. But if the excellent National Theatre revival, currently at the Simon, teaches me anything, it's that I needn't have held my memories in such precious check. Sometimes, going back to see a beloved show is like checking in with an old friend you haven't seen in decades, only to find that you can easily pick up exactly where you last left off.



I saw the production over the course of two Sundays, both early enough in the run to notice a significant increase in fluidity between parts one and two. At least at that point, Millennium Approaches suffered a bit from a lack of design cohesion: lights glared and swamped the actors, casting enormous shadows across the set and making it hard to see facial features; trapdoors failed to open or close on cue; clunky scenery revolved around the stage making distracting grindy noises. I'm hoping at least some of this has been addressed, though I assume it's too late to fix the set design as a whole. I understand the attempt to mirror the deeply unhappy, restlessly boxed-in lives of the newly abandoned, bedridden Prior Walter (Andrew Garfield) and the valium-addled claustrophobe Harper Pitt (Denise Gough). Still, the stage is densely crowded through much of part one with tiny, neon-studded compartments--apartments, offices, restaurants--that look unfinished and cheap. These all eventually give way, along with Prior and Harper's hold on reality, to wider, less constrictive spaces. I have no idea how to represent ugly and confining without actually being ugly and confining, but the first half of the piece doesn't quite manage it.

You know what, though? It doesn't matter, especially since this is truly the only significant criticism I can come up with. Once the set opens up late in part one, the production is beautiful--and alas, its stark political landscape remains relevant, even if we have evolved by leaps and bounds when it comes to sexuality and gender. The more things change, the more they stay the same, I guess; at least it's reassuring to have lasting artwork that reminds us of where we've been, how far we've come, and where we still desperately need to go.

While it was impossible for me not to compare the production with the original, this one holds its own due in very large part to an excellent cast. While I was impressed with the entire company, I feel compelled to single out Nathan Lane as Roy Cohn, only because I've only ever seen Lane in loose, comic roles, and I fully admit that I've long underestimated him. Kushner's Cohn character is the roaring id that centers the epic, and Lane's take on him is arrogant, power-drunk, self-pitying...and squirmily endearing. Lane's Cohn is very much a monster, but the kind whose influence and reach make perfect sense, especially when he shows anything approximating humanity. Clearly, as a certain current president the real Cohn once mentored now demonstrates on a daily basis, rotten breeds rotten, and power-hungry people will always tolerate monsters with money and reach, no matter how putrescent their souls.

One of the many enduring strengths of Angels in America, perhaps regardless of the production, is that the characters in it are all so personable and approachable and flawed and real. The play takes frequent flights from reality, but its characters keep it firmly grounded--even when they find themselves meandering stoned through a hallucinatory Antarctica, walking the streets in a black-clad delirium, tangling with the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, going on intellectual diatribes that justify childish behavior, or wrestling with ominously creepy-crawly angels (here rendered through movement, puppetry, and costume in endlessly mesmerizing ways). I've missed these wise-cracking, smart, funny, human fuckups, I realize--enough that I won't be waiting another 25 years to catch up with them again to find out how they--and we--have fared.

Thursday, March 08, 2018

Good for Otto

What if the most heroic thing any of us can do is simply to survive?

[spoilers, arguably, but this is not a plot-driven show]

In Good for Otto, David Rabe gives us a microcosm of a small town--and perhaps of humanity--through scenes from a mental health center. Dr. Michaels (Ed Harris), whose mother killed herself when he was nine, devotes himself to his patients, often marrying calm acceptance with sympathetic guidance. But he also over-identifies with ssome patients, including the smart, volatile, and frighteningly ill Frannie (Rileigh McDonald), 12 years old with a brain full of "storms" that she relieves by cutting herself. Michaels' colleague Evangeline (Amy Madigan) also devotes herself to her patients, though her boundaries may be sounder. Both therapists despair at the bureaucratic limitations that threaten their patients' care.

Ed Harris and cast (and some audience members)
Photo: Monique Carboni

The patients vary widely. There's Timothy, on the autism spectrum and trying to learn how to "widen his circle," but unable to absorb the subtle rules of social interactions. This role verges on stereotype. (Although Mark Lynn-Baker's performance is charming, an actor on the spectrum might have offered more insight and less stereotyping.) Barnard (F. Murray Abraham) is trying to find a post-retirement reason to get out of bed. Alex is a manipulative gay man (also verging on stereotype), lonely enough to invent imaginary relationships. Jane is mourning her son Jimmy, who committed suicide. (Rabe's treatment of suicide is insightful and, perhaps accidentally, an excellent argument for gun control. Jimmy isn't planning to kill himself, but then he notices a shotgun in the corner. It speaks to him much as a piece of pie might speak to someone on a diet. And he picks it up, as he has hundreds of times, but this time he points it at himself. As he dies, he thinks, "Oh shit.")


Thursday, March 01, 2018

Bunny (Toronto)

When the stage went dark at the end of Bunny, my mouth dropped and I did not know what to feel. Empowered? Astounded? And just a tiny bit jealous that Hannah Moscovitch, Sarah Garton-Stanley, Maev Beaty, and the rest of the creative team had created this, a hauntingly beautiful story of a woman's sexual and emotional growth.

Maev Beaty as Sorrel in Bunny

Faced with the sexual advances of a much younger man (Jesse Lavercombe), Sorrel (Maev Beaty) runs back through the relationships that have shaped her life. Starting with the farmer's son she lost her virginity to (Tony Ofori) up through her college years to the man she married (Matthew Edison), Sorrel narrates what it felt like to grow into her body overnight and to navigate her desires with lovers and friends alike as a twenty-first century woman. Though the play's arc depends much upon the four men who shaped Sorrel's life, it is through her friendship with Maggie (Rachel Cairns) that Sorrel finds herself truly defined, as "Bunny."

The lines from the play haunted me the next day, as I thought through every phase in Sorrel's journey. She referred to men as "kittenish" and other bon mots--which kept the entire audience laughing and gasping at her honesty, the kind of honesty that most women think and yet never hear spoken aloud. Because women are not supposed to want sex. They are supposed to want love and marriage only. The girls at Sorrel's high school hate her for breaking these unspoken rules. Later Sorrel realizes that even her favorite Victorian novels hammer home that a woman's place can only be either blissful wedlock or disgraced in sin. Sorrel rejects this at every turn, not always consciously but because she just does not fit in these categories.