Monday, August 26, 2013

Soul Doctor

Soul Doctor is not the greatest show on the planet, for sure, but it's certainly not the worst, either--and while there are problems with the show that have been cited repeatedly by critics and other bloggers, I found myself enjoying it immensely nonetheless.

Shlomo Carlebach might not be a household name (at least not in non-Orthodox Jewish households, or in households that are even a few miles from the Carlebach Shul on West 79th Street), but his approach to synagogue worship was both revolutionary and enormously influential. An early Schneerson follower, he was prominent in the baal teshuvah movement (in which a comparatively secular Jew "turns" toward Orthodoxy), and instrumental (pun intended) in infusing the contemporary worship service with music. If you've ever been to a synagogue service--whether Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist, or Reform--in which congregants sing ecstatically, dance in the aisles, and intone extensive niggunim (Hasidic chants), you've likely witnessed Carlebach's influence whether you knew it or not. A devout Jew who devoted his life to outreach through music, Carlebach would seem to serve naturally as a central character in a musical.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Old Familiar Faces

The real-life siblings Mary and Charles Lamb lived in the 1800s in London and wrote together. The fictional (but-somewhat-based-on-Vivien-Leigh-and-Laurence-Olivier) Lee and Oliver are former lovers in present-day New York. The four personae share an intense love of Shakespeare. Perhaps more importantly, the four share the play Old Familiar Faces, written and directed by Nat Cassidy and late of the Fringe Festival.

Tandy Cronyn, Sam Sam Tsoutsouvas
Old Familiar Faces cannot help but bring to mind Tom Stoppard's Arcadia, as the characters overlap in scenes and interests from century to century. But the comparison isn't quite apt; where Stoppard connects his characters in location and history, Cassidy connects his in language and sensibilities.

Language is the play's raison d'etre. Combining quotations from Shakespeare and his own blank verse, Cassidy presents us with much that is beautiful and moving. To combine his own writing with Shakespeare's takes, what?, daring, courage, ego, balls? But Cassidy pulls it off, and the play is an aural pleasure.

Cassidy also presents us with three fascinating characters. Mary Lamb is seriously mentally ill; in a past attack of insanity, she stabbed her mother to death (true story!). Her brother cares for her and tries to make her life bearable, at obvious cost to his own. But while their lives as people are painful, their lives as writers challenge and fulfill them. They seem truly happy only when discussing their Tales From Shakespeare and what might go into the next volume. It is an odd, sad, emotional sibling love story.

Oliver is snarky, self-pitying, difficult, immature, mean, smart, and funny. He definitely gets some of the best lines in the play, as in:
You are insanely beautiful, you know that? Like, literally, Nietzsche-stare-into-the-abyss insane. You have the single most perfect ears. These little spirals that would make Fibonacci cry. Even this little thing here, what is it, a scar? It’s so perfect it’s unfair to the rest of the world, it’s almost treason. You should be beaten to death in the square for how beautiful you are. Where’d you get this little scar?

Monday, August 19, 2013

Lombardi Case 1975

My ten-year-old daughter, a native New Yorker, is occasionally bummed that we don't have space for a dog, that she has to share a bedroom with her little brother, and that we don't yet let her go too terribly far from our apartment without adult supervision. But otherwise, New York suits her just fine. She has been exposed to every culture and language you can imagine (and maybe some you can't). She's been to the Met, to Broadway, to the MOMA, and to Carnegie Hall many times (even though she never practices). She has developed a genuinely convincing menacing stare. She has heard and is unperturbed by the filthiest language you can come up with, practically since birth, whether on the street, in the subway, or, let's face it, out of her mother's mouth (I can't help it--I suspect I'd be able to make Ethel Merman blush). She is, in short, not easily phased by anything (except flying insects, but that's another story, and one that only bolsters my argument that she's a city mouse through and through).

I mention all this as a means for justifying the fact that when I got an offer to see LiveInTheater's Lombardi Case 1975--in which actors reenact a composite of several particularly seamy murder cases investigated on the drug-addled Lower East Side during the 970s--I promptly invited my kid along to see it, even though the description on the website, which you can read here, makes it clear that the show is rated R. Don't get me wrong: I was a little hesitant about bringing her, and I did plenty of explaining before we got on the subway and headed up to Ludlow Street. "This is a show about a murder, and it's set during a really rough time in New York's history, so the characters will probably talk a lot about drugs and sex and violence, and will probably use some pretty harsh language, but I think you'll be able to handle it," I told her, probably a few times more than I needed to. She shrugged, told me she was game, put on a sequined tank top that she deemed fancy enough for the theater, and then bitched about having to ride the subway from Brooklyn to lower Manhattan, and then about having to walk from the subway station to the Living Room, a whole four blocks away.

The Living Room, a bar with a small theater in the back, served as our meeting place. We took our seats at one of the small cocktail tables and were quickly approached by Officer O'Donnelly, who asked us repeatedly if we were ready to help solve the case. As more spectators began to trickle in, I noted that the audience was among the most ethnically and racially diverse group of spectators I think I've ever seen (seriously, Broadway, what the fuck? You should study this troupe, because damn if they don't do a good job of bringing representatives from just about the whole damn city together in ways that you still just don't). I also noticed--not as quickly as my daughter did--that she was the only kid in the room. "I sorta wish I'd invited someone to come with me," she mumbled, a few minutes before the show started. We sat tight, despite our misgivings. We're both so glad we did.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Love's Labour's Lost

Love and the fools it makes of us sets the background for The Public Theater’s world premiere of a new musical version of Love’s Labour’s Lost, the second show of The Public’s 2013 free Shakespeare in the Park season at the Delacorte. The 90-minute musical opened yesterday.

The team that created Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Alex Timbers (director and book adaptation) and Michael Friedman (songs) takes one of Shakespeare’s lesser known plays and remakes it into a story about the rekindling of relationships at a liberal arts college’s reunion, done Vaudevillian style. Besides adding some cleverly fashioned tunes, the team trims down some of Shakespeare’s dialogue while beefing up the women’s roles, creating more nuanced characters. Some of this works well: Jaquenetta, for instance, played by the wonderful Rebecca Naomi Jones (Murder Ballad and American Idiot) appears world-weary and wistful in the knockout ballad, “Love’s a Gun.”

The main story tells of a three-year chastity pledge a group of young men make while pursing intellectual insight. As soon as the King of Navarre (Daniel Breaker) and his three friends – Berowne (Colin Donnell), Longaville (Bryce Pinkham) and Dumaine (Lucas Near-Verbrugghe) grudgingly make their promises, like a madcap bachelorette party, four girls arrive to tempt them: Princess (Patti Murin) and best buds Rosaline (Maria Thayer), Maria (Kimiko Glenn), Katharine (Audrey Lynn Weston).

The addition of music both dilutes Shakespeare’s verse and makes it more accessible. Many of the lyrics appropriate the original prose, and all the songs intimate a wink-wink sense that the audience is in on a joke; as when the boys sing “Young Men” with such foreshadowing lyrics as, “Young men are supposed to be callow and cavalier about things that later they will have to think are important.” The best line of the night references the Public’s free summer theater, itself, with one character musing: “Rich people. They pay for better seats in plays that should be free.”

Love’s Labour’s Lost, both heartfelt and zany, appropriates many musical styles, from Madrigals to doo-whop, and pays homage to popular Broadway shows such as A Chorus Line (with a terrific sneaker tap worthy of Savion Glover) and Grease (in a Shakespearean teen angel number). But the impact of the play’s ending is diminished in exchange for hilarity and over-the-top parlor tricks as an entire marching band plays its way Music Man style on stage (a huge budget expense for a little laugh) and a slinky cat dances amidst the crowd in a random Andrew Lloyd Webber homage.

Sometimes it seems that more surgical cutting might benefit the musical. After all, Love’s Labour’s Lost, like much of Shakespeare’s works, remains a carnival of activity. Besides the ins and outs of five potential relationships, the play balances multiple themes—the flirtation between the frivolity of youth and the responsibility of adulthood, the role knowledge contains in having a well-lived life, the rich versus the poor—and several subplots. Simply some things don’t fit after all the musical numbers are added, such as the periodic appearance of pedantic professors and a bumbling local cop. The sideshow of Holofernes (Rachel Dratch) and Nathaniel (Jeff Hiller) may offer a reason to have the concluding pageant that wraps up the show yet both performers seem so dreadfully underutilized that their removal from the action might benefit the musical. Armado (a deliciously hapless and out-of-his-mind-with-love Caesar Samayoa) could have continued that subplot by himself.

The scenic design by John Lee Beatty exploits the outdoor setting and uses the looming Belvedere Castle as a background university building. Also from the Bloody team is choreographer Danny Mefford, who keeps things high-spirited, the boorish academic Hiller and the multi-tasking Justin Levin (Moth/music director/co-orchestrator).

Ultimately, the trim hour and 40 minute show, with no intermission, provides frolic and fun. Like a summer romance, though, it charms and beguiles without long-term engagement.

Runs through August 18.