Sunday, May 29, 2011
Schaeffer's first mistake is using a pared-down version of the book, in which character development and atmosphere are given short-shrift and relationships are insufficiently delineated. This wouldn't matter as much if Schaeffer had directed the actors to take up the slack. Instead, he has led them into one-dimensional, ham-handed performances that telegraph the obvious points while completely ignoring the subtle ones.
Here's the rundown: Phyllis (Jan Maxwell) is angry. Ben (Ron Raines) is angry. Buddy (Danny Burstein) is angry. Sally (Bernadette Peters) is losing her mind. Period.
There is no sign of the spark between Phyllis and Ben that makes their somewhat happy ending effective. Maxwell shows no build or development in "Could I Leave You?" and Raines sings every note in every song the same exact way. Burstein's Buddy has a bit of a trajectory, going from vaguely hopeful to angry and resigned, but his version of "The Right Girl" is all grimaces and grunts.
Bernadette Peters, very much the star of this production, is not up to the task. She gives a whiny, teary, baby-voiced performance that is occasionally flat-out embarrassing. In fact, to find a line reading as bad as her "If you don't kiss me, Ben, I think I'm going to die," I have to go all the way back to Linda Ronstadt in The Pirates of Penzance in the 1970s. And Peters' "Losing My Mind" is dreadful, featuring every obvious depiction of losing one's mind short of eye-rolling.
The supporting cast is no better. Elaine Paige's "I'm Still Here" is about her ego and not about the song. Linda Lavin's "Broadway Baby" is about her ego and not about the song. God only knows what Regine's "Ah Paris" is about, but it's certainly not the song. Terri White's rendition of "Who's That Woman?" is good, but the direction removes the bittersweetness, leaving it as one-dimensional as the rest of the show.
The good points: Rosalind Ellis and Leah Horowitz did a lovely job on "One More Kiss," providing more subtlety than the rest of the show combined. Bernadette Peters' dresses were both beautiful, though the first one was wrong for the character. My friends and I had a lovely trip to DC. The crab cake at lunch on the way home was amazing.
($115 seats, 4th row center)
Friday, May 27, 2011
If you are going to create a play about Shakespeare, it better be about the writing. The Resonance Ensemble’s production of Shakespeare’s Slave is all about the writing; and in this production, the costumes, designed with genius and ingenuity by Mark Richard Caswell. This is not to say the actors, especially David L. Townsend as the Bard himself, and director, Eric Parness, aren’t providing powerful support. They navigate some jolts in the script, some limitations of the space, and some inherent challenges in a contemporary telling of a period tale with nimble focus.
Along with Mr. Townsend, actors Chris Ceraso and Romy Nordlinger are standouts. Shaun Bennet Wilson, in a central role, has struggles that are not entirely of her creation. She is playing a theatrical device that has been written for function more than character, which brings me back to the writing.
For good and bad, this new script by Steven Fechter, is the star of the show. The best part of the script is merely that it exists, that the company commissioned it, and that this production could lead to revisions that can only make future productions stronger. Seeing a play of this quality and this potential in its infancy is a gift. It isn’t perfect, but to discover it is reason enough to see it. And to discover the Resonance Ensemble and their commitment to producing a classical play and a modern play with a common theme in rep was a treat for me.
In its current stage the play resembles a graduate school honors thesis, and I don’t mean that pejoratively. It is well thought out, well written for the most part, and well conceived. The idea of deconstructing characters from Shakespeare’s writings and casting them as acquaintances and intimates from his life isn’t a revolutionary concept, but it makes sense and provides dramatic fodder. It worked effectively for Shakespeare in Love, and works here, or is beginning to work. The dark lady of the sonnets is brought to life, into Shakespeare’s life, and changes it to the benefit of his writing and generations who might have missed out on his brilliance had these two lives and hearts not crossed.
Casting the dark lady as an African slave actually creates more problems than it solves, not the least of which is that it isn’t believable and borders on offensive. By making this slave feisty and defiant with the ability to sneak around freely, glosses over the reality and humiliation of being owned. The play is left to tell you how bad slavery is and relegates all that badness to an intellectual exercise rather than forcing the audience to confront it or feel it. The script simply tells us that many things are bad: slavery, rape, grief. All three are subjects with the power to move and compel, but there isn’t much compelling and absolutely nothing moving about the treatment of these particular subjects here. They are devices, nothing more.
With tweaks and tightening (too many short scenes, many dramatically unnecessary, too much homage, too much focus on Shakespearean references, too little focus on Mr. Fechter telling his story, and trying too hard to be significant), Shakespeare’s Slave could be liberated and soar. I personally hope the first tweak is to change that dreadful title—perhaps if the creators took slavery seriously, understood the effect of being owned, they wouldn’t apostrophize and could transform a pivotal device into an affecting character. Shakespeare’s Slave is good enough that it (and she) deserves it.
Shakespeare’s Slave is running in rep with H4, a modern, multi-media telling of Henry IV that I did not see but wish I had.
(Press seats, 5th row, aisle in a small house with no bad seat)
Thursday, May 26, 2011
Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo
No one is happy in Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, regardless of whether they are Iraqi or American, soldier or civilian, human or animal, alive or dead. The living are tormented by guilt, and ghosts, and their own morally questionable actions; the dead can’t figure out what they’re supposed to be doing other than roaming around town, pondering morality, and driving the living insane. Whether specter or living being, everyone wandering around Baghdad is a half-mad, restless soul.
Of course, the fact that no one is happy in Baghdad in 2003 makes sense, since, as we all know, war is hell. But then, in Rajiv Joseph’s interesting, engaging, and flawed play about Operation Iraqi Freedom, so is everything else: loss, acquisition; bondage, freedom; Western culture, Iraqi culture; life, death; religion, atheism; and—still with me?—heaven. Does heaven even exist, come to think of it? Is it so bound up with the notion of hell that one becomes the other? Is it possible that God—if there even is a God—is less a benevolent force than a vicious, uncaring, neglectful punk? If so, why do we attempt to understand ourselves and others? To be kind? To even pretend that we are anything but brutes?
This is meaty, compelling, absolutely enormous stuff to ponder, and the play demands a lot of its audience in asking it. The problem is not that Joseph offers no resolutions; it’s that his play doesn’t tangle deeply enough with any one of them, which leaves the spectator hanging, and curiously detached about it, to boot.
Wednesday, May 25, 2011
It's Maye in May: Marilyn Maye at Feinstein's
Really, what's not to love? Maye is an American Classic, a jazz-cabaret singer who started singing professionally in the Great Depression, an 83-year-old who swings with the energy of someone half her age, a lady who is also a broad (or vice versa?), a woman who has seen and done it all with her sense of humor intact. When she sings "I'm Still Here," she ain't kidding!
In her current show at Feinstein's, It's Maye in May, Maye stays largely on the sunny side of the street. She starts with "Young at Heart" and "You Make Me Feel So Young" (which, coincidentally, is the name of the show her sister octogenarian Barbara Cook is bringing to Feinstein's on June 7). Her emphasis on youth makes sense; she is absolutely young at heart. Her other songs include a charmingly bawdy "Honeysuckle Rose," a rollicking "Get Me to the Church on Time," and a poignant "Wouldn't it Be Loverly?" She includes some medleys, and while medleys usually annoy me (they're series of teases), hers flow beautifully (kudos to musical director Tedd Firth for that!). She kicks butt with her Fats Waller medley, and her rainbow medley is thoroughly delightful. The band--Firth on piano, Tom Hubbard on bass, and Jim Eklof on drums--is outstanding.
So here is Maye, in a sparkly black top, 83 years old, doing an amazing set, even dancing a bit (in high heels!), and giving a show that is, simply, as good as it gets. If you have any interest in cabaret or jazz, do yourself a favor: check her out.
(Press ticket, to the side, nice seats.)
The Best Is Yet to Come: The Music of Cy Coleman
The band is small (eight men) but robust, and the orchestrations by Don Sebesky and musical direction by Billy Stritch (who also sings) are excellent. Lillias White raises the roof, as always, and Sally Mayes turns each number into a well-told story. These are the pluses, which are major.
The minuses, unfortunately, are also major. Zippel's direction is so cutesy-smarmy that I wondered if Lonny Price had directed the show. To both men, I say the same thing: Trust the songs! They can stand on their own! That's why you're honoring this composer with an entire show! Also, Rachel York is so on that she seems to be doing a take-off on herself. And Howard McGillan and David Burnham give imitations of lounge lizards worthy of a Saturday Night Live skit.
Still, it's hard to fault a show that includes "The Best Is Yet to Come." And "Nobody Does It Like Me." And "Witchcraft." And "If My Friends Could See Me Now." And "Hey, Look Me Over." And "Little Me." And "Big Spender." And "Hey There, Good Times." If only all the songs had been performed as well as they were written!
(Reviewer ticket, eighth row on the aisle.)
The Normal Heart
Death may saturate this show, but it is the vividness of love and friendship, in all of its foibles, that provides the heart of the play. The story, based on the playwright’s early days as an AIDS activist, follows Ned Weeks (Joe Mantello) as he tries to grapple with a disease few want to address and no one understands. Although charismatic and intelligent, Week’s no-holds-barred passion for the cause alienates those unwilling to match his fervor. Mantello shows us this duality beautifully, overtaking the stage with magnetic earnestness as he first organizes his AIDS awareness group; later turning strident and angry, a performance full of frenetic gesticulations, as ideologies clash. “Of course, we have to tell people how to live,” he insists to his friends. Ned wants AIDS stopped at whatever expense. Others, more afraid of losing their jobs, their status, and other things, want to remain under the radar. For instance, Bruce Niles (Lee Pace), who sports the good looks of a Marlboro man, won’t go on Dan Rather to represent the group—an opportunity Ned can’t understand missing. Moments like this send Ned into hair-pulling diatribes as he continually attempts to seize every possible moment to publicize the viciousness of this worldwide plague. For him, there is only black and white.
The polemic script has the potential to seem more lecture than story but it is the relationships that elevate this play into a visceral expose that leaves audience members crying at the end. There’s a real poignancy in the coupling of Felix Turner (John Benjamin Hickey) and Ned, from the awkward initial embraces to the fear of losing one another as the disease progresses. Ned’s brother, Ben (Mark Harelik), struggles with Ned’s homosexuality and as a consequence words never spoken aloud cloud their camaraderie—something that hurts both of them. Directed by George C. Wolfe and Joel Grey, who played Ned Weeks in the original version, the show contains the Broadway debuts of Jim Parsons (Sheldon on TV’s “The Big Bang Theory”) and movie actress Ellen Barkin, who plays the no-nonsense wheelchair-bound Dr. Emma Brookner with tart preciseness. Parson excels as well, bringing top-notch comic timing and an impish grin to Tommy Boatwright. The amazing set by David Rockwell offers a flexible landscape, moving from the bricklike texture of a hospital to the Venetian blinds of Ben Week’s law firm with a mere readjustment of light (designed by David Weiner). Near the end of the play, an audience of spectators join the main cast onstage, with characters such as Emma and Ben, sitting in shadow observing the action, a symbol of all those, perhaps, who merely watched themselves. The 12-week run ends July 10.
(Purchased ticket, ORCH, row L, seat 101)
Monday, May 23, 2011
Book of Mormon and Sister Act: A Second Glance
Sunday, May 22, 2011
2010-2011 Patrick Lee Theater Blogger Award Winners
Monday, May 16, 2011
|Joy Yandell, Karson St. John |
(photo: Daren Scott)
San Diego's excellent Cygnet theatre is presenting a problematic production of Kander and Ebb's classic musical Cabaret.
The show is preceded by a German-language sing-a-long that the director presents (I think) as playful but that made me uncomfortable. This was my first Cabaret with a largely non-Jewish audience, and being surrounded by people cheerfully singing in German in the context of a show about Nazis made the hair stand up on the back of my Jewish neck. Was I reacting reasonably or overreacting? I could make a case for either one. (The non-Jewish friend I went with sang along innocently and happily.)
The choice of a female emcee is intriguing, and Karson St. John is good (though not great) in the role, but the gender switch is undercut in a number of ways. For one example, having men in drag playing the "Two Ladies" feels like a cop-out. In addition, the Emcee's representation of evil oozing into society is played inconsistently, and having Nazi soldiers rather than the Emcee throw the brick that breaks Herr Schultz's window strikes me as a flat-out mistake.
Another problematic directorial decision was to have the "her" of "If You Could See Her Through My Eyes" be a pig rather than a gorilla, particularly since the pig is directed to behave as grossly as possible. This heavy-handed, arguably insensitive change took the song from wistfully and ironically satirical to obvious and icky. And having the Emcee put a black bag with a star of David over the pig's head completely ruins the timing and effect of "she wouldn't look Jewish at all."
And why was the Emcee dressed as Charlie Chaplin for that song? As an excuse to wear a Hitler-esque mustache? Why would Hitler be singing that song? Why would Chaplin? Why change the "her" from a gorilla to a pig? The friend I went with suggested that the director was trying to emphasize the insult to Jews, and she may be right, but it seems to me a misreading of the song.
Another problem is presenting Frauline Schneider and Herr Schultz as an almost cartoon couple in the first act; they need to be sympathetic humans. And having Frauline Schneider sing directly to the audience is wrong. She's not at the KitKat club performing; she's at home, singing non-diegetically. (That is, the character does not perceive herself as singing and has no reason to face an audience.)
I am a big fan of director Sean Murray. His Arcadia and A Little Night Music were wonderful, subtle, and sensitive. Because I know his work, I am inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt here. Many people have been blown away by the show, including a friend of mine who is Jewish. But the show left me feeling creeped out in the wrong way.
(First row, slightly to the side, full-price tix, $36 or so.)
Friday, May 13, 2011
The Normal Heart
Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem, currently playing at the Music Box Theater, takes its name from a hymn that, according to director Ian Rickson, is held dear by the English people. “Its words,” Rickson writes in the director’s notes, “have helped form an idyllic sense of aspired Englishness.” It is quite fitting that none of the characters can remember the song, which is on the tips of their tongues until near the very end of this sweeping, insidious play. Jerusalem is about English people, yes, but it is also about a whole mess of cultural ambiguities that relate not just to England but, really, to the human condition.
Themes that run through Jerusalem are not neat or tidy; they frequently clash and sometimes directly contradict one another: The state of the nation is strong; the nation is in decline. You can’t go home again; you can’t run from your past. Same shit, different day; if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. We are a highly sophisticated species; we are, in the end, animals. Technology helps us; technology has made us emotionally disconnected idiots. See the world; there is no place like home. Cultural messages are messy, and so is Jerusalem, but in increasingly profound ways.
The central character is, like the themes of the play itself, a tangled mess of contradictions. A middle-aged, black-out drunk who has long lived illegally in a trailer on a small clearing in the woods in Wiltshire, England, Johnny “Rooster” Byron (played with scenery-chewing awesomeness by Mark Rylance) is the kind of perpetual adolescent that both English and American culture has long been fascinated with: he is equal parts Peter Pan, Stanley Kowalski, that self-destructive, brilliant guy that Kevin Bacon played in the 1982 film Diner, and that self-destructive, benignly predatory guy that Matthew McConaughey played in the 1993 film Dazed and Confused (“That’s what I love about these high school girls, man. I get older, they stay the same age.”).
Rooster spends his days drinking, partying, and creating a nuisance. As the town around him becomes more and more upscale, a growing number of locals voice their desire for Rooster to simply go away; the local government would prefer this, too, since there are plans to develop his patch of woods into a housing development. All this doesn’t stop many of the locals from buying drugs from Rooster, whose trailer has for decades been a place where local teens hang out, get high, and listen to Rooster’s tall-tales. The fact that most of the kids who kill time gobbling drugs and guzzling booze with Rooster are safer with him than they are in their own homes is just one more of the many contradictions this play toys with.
Another is the characters’ tortured relationships with both the past and the future. Rooster’s tall-tales are the only things that make the past interesting for many of these characters, whose lives all exhibit a deadening sameness that is clearly never going to change. Rooster has done nothing but swagger around his trailer since the early 1980s; his behavior is beginning to catch up with him, but he’s utterly incapable of changing into anyone else, except perhaps, eventually, The Professor (Alan David, hilarious and terrifying), a senile, alcoholic professor emeritus who wanders frequently through Rooster’s woods in a blithely befuddled search for Mary, who might be a dog, or his long-dead wife. Ginger (Mackenzie Crook, also hilarious and terrifying), a man in his early 20s, is as close as one can be to Rooster, which is not very close at all; Ginger is clearly a Rooster-in-training, and while Rooster is well aware of this fact, Ginger is not.
The rest of Rooster’s entourage consists of a group of stubbornly provincial teenagers, who don’t hesitate to mock him behind his back. Like Ginger, they have no intention of admitting to themselves that they, too, will be Rooster one day, and ridiculing him helps them keep such realizations at a distance. While many of the kids, like Davey (Danny Kirrane, very good), never question their humdrum, lackluster lives, a few, like Lee (John Gallagher, Jr., fine, but could use a few more sessions with his dialect coach), dream of leaving home to seek adventure on their own. There are plenty of girls around to party with and, occasionally, to fuck; alas, I would have liked to have heard more from at least one of them.
Butterworth never dashes his characters’ chances of making changes, but always makes absolutely clear just how hard real change can be. This is especially the case when complacency is, if boring, also so comfortable, and the past—at least as reinvented by Rooster—so awesome and powerful. Rooster’s actual past—which has resulted in a young son that he’s utterly incapable of caring for or even relating to, and at least one ex-lover, the boy’s mother (Geraldine Hughes, heartbreaking), who views Rooster with contemptuous disappointment—is pathetic, and very much his fault. So he takes refuge in tall-tales, which take on a growing desperation as the future closes in on him.
Butterworth doesn’t tie up all the loose ends at the end of Jerusalem. Which is as it should be: how can one solve a nation’s identity crisis, resolve the human condition, untangle the mess of cultural baggage, and explain the appeal of suspended adolescence in a mere three-plus hours?
Tuesday, May 10, 2011
ITBA AWARD NOMINATIONS 2011
OUTSTANDING NEW BROADWAY MUSICAL
Catch Me If You Can
The Book of Mormon
The Scottsboro Boys
Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown
Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo
OUTSTANDING BROADWAY MUSICAL REVIVAL
How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying
OUTSTANDING BROADWAY PLAY REVIVAL
The Importance of Being Earnest
The Merchant of Venice
The Normal Heart
OUTSTANDING NEW OFF-BROADWAY PLAY
Other Desert Cities
Peter and the Starcatcher
The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity
The Metal Children
OUTSTANDING NEW OFF-BROADWAY MUSICAL
The Burnt Part Boys
We the People: America Rocks!
OUTSTANDING OFF-BROADWAY REVIVAL (PLAY OR MUSICAL)
Angels in America Part 1: Millennium Approaches
Angels in America Part 2: Perestroika
The Little Foxes
OUTSTANDING SOLO SHOW/PERFORMANCE
(ALL VENUE CATEGORIES)
Kimberly Faye Greenberg, One Night with Fanny Brice
John Leguizamo, Ghetto Klown
Michael Shannon, Mistakes Were Made
Mike Birbiglia, My Girlfriend's Boyfriend
Tim Watts, Alvin Sputnik: Deep Sea Explorer
OUTSTANDING OFF-OFF-BROADWAY SHOW
Belarus Free Theater's Discover Love
Feeder: A Love Story
Reefer Madness, The Gallery Players
The Caucasian Chalk Circle
Monday, May 09, 2011
Follies: Kennedy Center
What haunts most about any production of Follies is not the chorus of ghosts that infiltrate the stage, the unfulfilled dreams or festered regrets infecting the wings, or even the bookends of youth and truth slammed into wrinkled reflection. What haunts, what thrills in a full-blown production are far more personal demons that tickle and torture when stirred and sickened by its score-borne virus. Follies is arguably the most likely musical to shame your dreams as it shipwrecks them upon the rocks and swells and troughs of its nearly three-hour tour. (Running time is actually 2 hours and 30 minutes--Gilligan be damned!)
Sunday, May 08, 2011
Be a Good Little Widow
|Jill Eikenberry, Wrenn Schmidt (photo: Ben Arons)|
Brunstetter's play, Be a Good Little Widow, combines the three scenarios described above, yet it is surprising, multidimensional, and moving. The new wife and the judgmental mother-in-law--and the other two characters--are specific, living people. The play mixes humor and heartbreak, all richly earned. It is a deeply satisfying show.
Director Stephen Brackett supports Brunstetter's writing with clean, clear direction. The four-person cast shines. The two men, in smaller roles, are solid and believable. Jill Eikenberry is perfectly cast as the mother-in-law, and she gives a performance that is uncompromising yet compassionate, dignified yet nakedly vulnerable. As the not-so-good little widow Melody, Wrenn Schmidt combines staggering depth, truthfulness, and physicality. During the show's 90 or so minutes, there is not a molecule of her body that is not Melody.
Many of the people involved in this show--in particular, Brunstetter and Schmidt--are quite young. I am looking forward to their work over the next decades.
Tuesday, May 03, 2011
Lisa Howard: Songs of Innocence and Experience (CD Review)
I've since seen Howard's wonderful performance in Spelling Bee (and also saw her be terribly underutilized in 9 to 5 and South Pacific). And now she has released a solo CD called Songs of Innocence and Experience (Ghostlight Records), which is a collection of songs by William Finn. Although I don't think the CD is a home run, there is much to like about it. Howard's voice remains beautiful, and her interpretations are well worth many listens. Particular highlights include "When the Earth Stopped Turning" from Elegies and "Bad Boy," "Listen to the Beat," and "I Don't Know Why I Love You" (a duet with Derrick Baskin) from The Royal Family of Broadway.
But, and this is a fairly large but, Finn's songs don't offer enough variety for a solo CD. Mind you, I love Finn's work. March of the Falsettos changed my life. Spelling Bee is amazing. I hope that The Royal Family makes it to New York. But (1) his songs are mostly character-driven and can be awkward when taken out of context, (2) some of his music has a sameness to it, and (3) his awkward and odd rhymes, while charming and funny in his shows, can become annoying on the multiple listens that a good CD deserves.
However, the CD's strengths far outweigh its weaknesses. The 14-person band is a treat, and the orchestrations by Carmel Dean, Eugene Gwozdz, and Michael Starobin, among others, are excellent. And while there is a sameness to some of the songs, there is great texture and variety to Howard's singing.
When I like a CD, I listen to it over and over without interruption. This CD won't get that treatment. However, I am sure that I will pull it out again and again over the years and always be pleased.
Let Me Entertain You: Laura Benanti at Feinstein's at Loews Regency
And, oh, yeah, she can sing.
With the excellent Mary Mitchell Campbell playing both piano and straight man, Benanti offers a surprising and entertaining 75 minutes of songs, including "Skylark" (which she sang in Swing), "The Sound of Music" (which she sang in, well, guess), a Gypsy medley, "I Want to Be Loved by You," "Honey Pie," "Unusual Way" (which she sang in Nine), a Sondheim medley, and Harry Chapin's poignant "Mr. Tanner." The pièce de résistance is an amazing bits-and-pieces medley that she introduces as being "heartfelt," but that isn't the only part of her that feels those songs!
While I would give Benanti's patter an A+, some of her songs don't land quite as well. They are still excellent, but Benanti's incredible presence dissipates a little when she sings serious pieces. It's as though an attack of formality causes her to close herself off a bit. I feel churlish to even mention this, since the evening is so entertaining, but you know what? She could be even better!
One other point. Benanti should take a mike-wielding lesson from Barbara Cook (as should many performers of today's generation, actually). Benanti holds the mike too close to her mouth, which blocks part of her face and sometimes exaggerates her breathing and her "P"s. (I never understand why people use mikes at Feinstein's anyway. It's not a large room, and the unmiked voice is a beautiful thing.) On the other hand, Benanti is excellent at playing to the entire room, left, right, and center, and as I hope I have gotten across, she's amazing overall.
Benanti is appearing again on May 22. Catch her if you can.
(Press ticket, far audience right.)
The School for Lies
Photo credit: Joan Marcus.
I have to begin this review with a caveat: At the performance of The School for Lies I attended, an electrical outage down the block caused a loss of some of the lighting and set off a warning alarm on the (sound?) equipment, which happened to be quite close to me. During the last five or ten minutes of the first act, a series of four high-pitched beeps repeated at changing intervals, over and over, right in my ear. It severely messed with my concentration (although the actors, impressively, didn't bat an eye). This may well be why I had a less ecstatic response to this show than many other critics did. I did, however, like much of it, and I did laugh a lot.
The School for Lies is David Ives' riff on Molière's classic comedy, The Misanthrope. It combines poetry and period dress with contemporary language and sometimes attitudes. The plot focuses on the romantic quadrangle of Celimene, who either loves Frank or wants to use him; Elainte, whose hots for Frank cause her to, uh, lose all sense of decorum; Philante, who loves Elainte; and of course Frank himself, the outspoken, frank (duh) misanthrope whose churlishness is subdued by the possibility that Celimene loves him. Add to the mix Celimene's three other suitors (ridiculous men all), Celimene's frenemy Arisinoé, Frank's odoriferous cohort Basque, and Celimene's much put-upon servant Dubois, and you have the confusion, egos, slapstick, and silliness that make up a good farce.
I enjoyed the high wit more than the low humor, and I found the major running joke annoying (many reviewers found it hysterical). I also thought the show was ten, perhaps fifteen minutes too long. Of course, a show like this lives or dies on the strengths of its performers. Hamish Linklater, as Frank, is flawless, whether serious or silly, scowling or lovelorn--and his diction is clear as a bell.
Mamie Gummer's performance is less compelling. For one thing, she needs to project better. It isn't that she can't be heard so much as her voice lacks a certain presence. Also, although this is not her fault, Gummer's resemblance to her mother Meryl Streep at her age can be distracting--and it is during Gummer's best moments that the resemblance is strongest. I don't like judging people by their relatives, and I thought Gummer was excellent in TV's "The Good Wife," where she was her own person. But here I occasionally felt as though I had slipped back to the 1970s and was watching Streep perform.
Of the rest of the cast, Hoon Lee as Philante is a particular stand-out. Walter Bobbie's direction largely keeps the festivities moving right along, with the occasional drag. The costumes by William Ivey Long are wonderful.
(Press ticket, fifth row center.)
Sunday, May 01, 2011
Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (CD Review)
However, Monday morning quarterbacking is no less frequent--and no more useful--in theatre than in football, and whatever its faults, Women on the Verge had and has many strengths. To start with, as this welcome original cast recording from the excellent Ghostlight Records demonstrates, the score is top-drawer, with composer/lyricist David Yazbek once again combining wit and energy to write an audience-friendly, completely enjoyable score. From the overture on, this is a score that moves. It completely sells the group nervous breakdown of the title, while also being melodic, wry, and entertaining. The lyrics are flat-out fun and quite clever. My favorite song is "Lovesick," which perfectly expresses the feeling of insanity that can accompany unrequited love. For example:
You're sick of what you're saying.And
You're sick of what you're thinking.
You'd have another drink
Except you're sick of what you're drinking.
You shudder, you tingleThese lyrics--all of David Yazbek's lyrics--sit perfectly on his melodies, giving the emotion a compelling propulsion and totally pleasing the ear. And Sherie Rene Scott nails the vocal.
The paramedic comes--
You wonder if he's single.
"Invisible," Yazbek's ballad of the disappearance of love, goes for poignancy instead of humor, and Patti LuPone does it full justice. Again, the lyrics are excellent. For instance:
You eat your lunch,Then there is the wonderful, insane "Model Behavior," in which the wonderful, insane Laura Benanti plays the wonderful, insane Candela leaving a series of phone messages on her friend Pepa's answering machine. For example:
A year is gone.
You go to bed, ten years are gone
Then you wake up and wonder
Where is it hiding?
Where did it go?
I don't understand
The life I had wanted.
The life I was promised
The life I had planned?
Then I realized it--
It was invisible.
I'm feeling kind of woozy.It's interesting to compare the performances on the CD with the live performances. Sherie Rene Scott comes across much better on the CD. She seemed almost lost in the show, but here she provides a full, textured character, and her singing is glorious (though her accent is still weak). Patti LuPone and Laura Benani were/are equally superb in both mediums. Brian Stokes Mitchell comes across less effectively on the CD, perhaps because his wry, self-mocking smile is not there to undercut the smarminess of the character. Justin Guarini is equally likeable in both mediums. The 16-person orchestra, conducted by Jim Abbott, is a delight.
I've been crying for an hour.
And my boyfriend has an Uzi
And he doesn't clean the shower.
The physical presentation of the CD is absolutely top of the line. The 42-page, full-color booklet includes essays by Pedro Almodóvar, director of the movie on which the musical is based, and Frank Rich. There is a detailed synopsis, complete lyrics, and a slew of wonderful pictures. Original cast recordings are never a given--my heart still breaks that James Joyce's The Dead was never recorded--and many thanks are owed to Ghostlight Records and Sh-K-Boom for their commitment to the fabulous American art form of the musical and to its incredibly talented practitioners.