Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Spring roundup, Part I: Sweeney Todd and Come from Away

Spring in these parts means fluctuating temperatures, the hectic and drawn-out end of the semester, more theater than I know what to do with, and very little time. What is a theater-loving, overworked, end-of-semester-slaphappy blogger like me to do at a time like this? Why, report on the shows I've seen over the past month more briefly than I usually do, for fear of never writing about them at all! To follow are two writeups; stay tuned for a few more, as soon as I can find some down-time.

Sweeney Todd (Barrow Street)
Joan Marcus
Ah, Sweeney, you brilliant little vacation in hell, you manifestation of the notion that to be human is to suffer miserably or be bugshit crazy or both, you homage to all that is corrupt and morbid and vile. You're so relentlessly nihilistic, and yet your themes are so relevant, your characters so complex and amusing, your score so brilliantly deep and warm. You never cease to thrill, amaze, challenge, and scare the bejesus out of me, and for that, I salute you with all the sneering, pitch-black cynicism I can muster.

The production at the teeny, tiny Barrow Street Theater, which has been repurposed as a rundown pie shop, is great fun, which is not at all a weird thing to say about this musical. Audience members sit at long restaurant-style benches, along tables atop which you can, if you have the stomach, enjoy meat (or chicken or vegetarian) pies and mash before curtain. I didn't partake, but I hear the pies are good. And even if they aren't made of human flesh, the face of Sondheim comes stamped on them--so you can pretend, I guess?

Like all fads, immersive theater can get old pretty fast, and in truth, it irritates me in many cases. But this production fits well into the small, shadowy, cramped quarters it occupies. Performers often plop down at tables next to spectators, weave their way through the narrow aisles, or confront unsuspecting audience members directly and abruptly, which I genuinely hope has not caused any heart attacks (or complaints by sourpusses), because it's done to hilariously terrifying effect. The cast is dedicated, the three musicians adept, the production beloved by my husband and teenage daughter. I loved it too, though I admit I missed the traditional three-tiered set, with the barber chair and slide stacked atop the shop and then the basement, which the space was just too small to accommodate. Still, the use of harsh red light. and sometimes near-total darkness, make it clear that this is a musical in which people die violently and man literally makes mincemeat of man.

Come from Away (Schoenfeld Theatre)
Matthew Murphy
The notion that 9/11 could inspire a feel-good Broadway hit musical initially struck me as off-putting at best--so much so that I wasn't sure I wanted to see Come from Away at all. But then, the more I thought about it, intense emotions are the stuff of musical theater--and there's nothing like a national disaster to stimulate the deepest and most lasting of feelings. Plus, I kept hearing genuinely good things about the show, which was warmly embraced wherever it played in its development (La Jolla, Seattle, D.C., and Toronto). Surprise, surprise: it is indeed a sweet, lovable show that, while hardly perfect, manages to steer clear of emotional manipulation or strident moralizing.

Essentially a fleeting portrait of a group of people thrown together over the course of a few days under unexpected, frightening, and very trying circumstances, Come from Away is more about the kindness of strangers and the bonds formed in crisis than it is about the attacks themselves. The skilled castmembers play multiple roles: a select few of the 6600 travelers suddenly grounded in Gander, Newfoundland immediately following the 9/11 attacks; residents of that tiny town which, stunned silly by the near-doubling of its population, nevertheless housed, fed, clothed, and entertained the unexpected guests for nearly a week. Very much an ensemble piece, the musical doesn't have enough time to develop any one character especially deeply, but the decency and humanity of everyone depcited comes through nonetheless. There's something reassuring about basic human decency these days, I guess, but the show did the trick for me.

Which doesn't mean I don't have a few quibbles. Come from Away started out with such hyped, overwhelmingly cheery peppy bouncy intense energy that I was concerned someone onstage would maybe pull a muscle or have some kind of rupture or something. I was also a little concerned that the frenetic pace would set the tone for the whole show. But it doesn't.

Some of the vignettes in the show, it occurred to me, were probably much longer and more detailed than they ended up being after years of workshops and previous stagings. Blink, for example, and you'll miss a funny if fleeting and seemingly random little boogie by a group of doctors who volunteer for a janitorial shift, and who probably had a much longer throughline once upon a time. Musically, too, I find I can recall a lot less of the score than I sometimes can, even weeks later, when something really grabs me. But I'll let that all slide, really, because any piece that manages to reflect that horrible, frightening time in a respectful, gentle, and often surprisingly moving way without slopping into mawkishness or melodrama is right on with me just now.

Also? Big ups to the dialect coach on this one. Seriously.  

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