Wednesday, November 30, 2011


Godspell contains one of my favorite scores. Growing up enamored as much by Amy Grant and Sandi Patty as Betty Buckley and Jennifer Holliday, Godspell was one of those college discoveries that overwhelmed me and created a connection that still grips me. The production at Loyola University in New Orleans, set in a small room with folding chairs, was clear and powerful and funny and thrilling.

The current Broadway revival fails to capture the nostalgia of two decades ago, but I certainly can’t fault it that—a second affair can’t live up to the thrill of the first time, especially when the emotional memory is stronger than the actual memory.

My biggest challenge with the current production is that it isn’t clear. Had I not known what it was about, I would still be scratching my head. To be fair, the show itself is muddled. Further, the production is almost done in by atrocious sound that, on the night I attended, rendered some actors unintelligible—singing songs for which I know every single word. It is unfortunate because there is a lot of talent on the stage at Circle in the Square.

It is hard to pick a stand out. All the women are solid pop tarts although, with the exception of Uzo Aduba, they sound indistinguishable with the same gospel riffs and upper range wails. Hunter Parrish, as Jesus, lacks the focus and sincerity that made his debut in Spring Awakening so powerful. I can only imagine that he was directed toward the particular spasticity that seems to have taken over his arms and the over-happy, jerky delivery of his lines. Perhaps, it is because he is surrounded by a cast that is very comfortable with the improvisational farce of the script and the mix of simplicity, soaring, and sass of the songs that he doesn’t fare as well in comparison. Perhaps, he needs a little more time in the role to inhabit it comfortably. Perhaps, Jesus is just tough to nail. Parrish’s voice is fine but limited, and the noticeable strain on that particular Sunday night actually gave him a raspy depth that was appealing in the lower register.

The production comes across as a college mounting, a very fine college performance, which isn’t inappropriate. While I caught myself occasionally wondering what might have been in more experienced hands, I had to remind myself that the spirit of this show is rooted in the joyous fumblings of youth and inexperience. Also, it is almost impossible to evaluate the performances and the greater production when you can only hear and understand about sixty percent of the show.

To be fair, my companion that night had seen the show the previous week from the other side of the theater and understood everything and enjoyed the show so much that he couldn’t wait to see it again. Part of the problem is that the band was often too loud, but that was occasional. The mics and sound were the main culprits. Actually, three in the cast reprised a first act number during Intermission with only piano accompaniment, no microphones. It was splendid, and not because the voices were one bit better than that of the actress who performed it during the show—the audible glimpses of her voice were spectacular.

I am not sure this production builds a case for sitting through it, but I would love to hear the cast recording. The show itself delivers on the God but falls short on the spell.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Bonnie and Clyde: The Musical

No surprise to find a show in its third full production in fine form during a preview. Three out of four of the lead performances are spectacular. The featured actors, young and old, are strong. The ensemble solid. The staging is efficient. While the score is more swollen than swell and the book is mostly functional, in the hands of these talented actors, both provide more than enough flint to catch fire.

Jeremy Jordan, as Clyde Barrow, is tremendous. He has more killer charm than killer instinct, but from a musical standpoint, he kills it. Everything about him is effortless, especially his lyric and lovely voice. His country cool isn’t layered so much as cellular. Even when he is saddled with a score where every song sounds alike, he meets the monotonous task with passion. When cuffed (sometimes literally) with clichés, especially in the moment the whole show and his whole life are justified for the sake of his inner child—rather anti-climactically since his inner child is an asshole too—Jordan rises above the stagemine and soars above the material.

Laura Osnes, as Bonnie Parker, gets a far less showy role which makes it all the more gripping when she grabs you by the throat in the second act and wrenches your gut with the big show ballad. The fact that the song is beautiful but stupid is all the more impressive.

The revelation of the show is Melissa van der Schyff, as the Bible-thumping Blanche Barrow. She is natural, vulnerable, passionate, and comedic without a hint of caricature. I grew up with a woman who could have been Ms. van der Schyff in this role. That’s what was so exciting, she convinced me she was a real person—an incredibly talented real person.

Clayborne Elder will, hopefully, use the days until opening to find some shade of honesty. He’s got the loping gait, the sloped shoulders beaten down by the shame of poverty, and he’s nailed the accent. The downfall is that he seems to think that the mastery of drawl and diphthong requires a descent into duncery. One can be a follower without being a complete moron, and one’s reasoning can be clouded by family loyalty without boarding the short bus.

The supporting cast is fine. Joe Hart and Louis Hobson don’t really stand out. Hobson, who was so appealing in Next to Normal, may need to settle into this role. The performance is disjointed and he isn’t gifted much from the page. Neither does he bring much to filling in the blanks. Michael Lanning stands out as a preacher who wails a nice gospel tune and a pedantic pander called “Made in America,” easily the worst song in the show with the most tone deaf sentiment—you may be starving, poor, out of work, have no options but keep a smile on your face, gosh darn it, because you were made in America.

The score is classic Frank Wildhorn—too many songs with too little payoff, that don’t move the story along. He is clearly a graduate from the Andrew Lloyd Webber school of songwriting. The music swells to a bloat, leaving the show herniated and unstable. He uses the same four-note regression so many times, he reprised songs before he’d ended them. The melodic déjà vu was just as well, Don Black’s lyrics were recycled from an after-school special, a really dumb school.

The book by Ivan Menchell tries to be serious but descends into formula; and when the author’s note spends five paragraphs on how yours is the only true take on the subject matter ever written, you better deliver. He seems to have gotten caught up in the hype and offers more glorification than insight.

Bonnie and Clyde isn’t the killer it should have been, more of a miss-demeanor; but Jordan, Osnes, and van der Schyff should be classified America’s Most Wanted.

It Is Done

The great thing about site-specific theater is that even when the play's awful, you're at least somewhere new. Thankfully, Alex Goldberg's It Is Done isn't awful -- just mediocre -- and it's in the basement of The Mean Fiddler, a cheery, old-fashioned bar, so you can pass the time with a few drinks. Passing the time is also the theme of Goldberg's ninety-minute play, in which Matt Kalman plays a horny bartender whose godforsaken watering hole is visited by two strangers, Ruby (Catia Ojeda) and Jonas (Ean Sheehy), and their two dark secrets.... It Is Done has no shortage of quips (e.g., if rotary phones are classic, so's syphilis), but writing like that's bottom-shelf theater. If we begin as flies on the wall, eavesdropping on a fresh first date, by the end we're closer to the sort of flies that buzz around a long-dead corpse.

[Read full review here]

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

An Evening With Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin

Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin are deserved legends. Spending an evening with them singing two dozen or so songs, you know, during some incredibly magical moments, exactly why. When Ms. LuPone sings “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina,” she needs neither trappings nor context. She devastates with raw vulnerability and abundant vocal guts. She delivered a dizzying performance of “Not Getting Married Today.” Actually, she delivered it twice on opening night, just to get every word out perfectly.

She is never more charming and enjoyable than when she assumes the role of underdog. It was as lovely as it was rare to see. Likewise, Mandy Patinkin’s best moment came after a few flubs and false starts during “Everybody Says Don’t.” When Ms. LuPone distracted him with an impromptu waltz, he stopped performing and just sang the song—beautifully.

Much of the rest of the evening is labored and moves far too slowly. Nobody comes to a Mandy and Patti show and expects subtlety or boredom, but they have included scenes from musicals associated with some of the songs. That is a mistake. Their acting is stilted and the scenes contrived and the flimsy thread that connects the whole affair is cute at best. They spoke as themselves once each during the evening. They are so personal and human and connected to the audience, you long for more banter. More of them. It is what you walk in expecting. So, it becomes not so much an evening with them as an evening watching them half-act what one can only imagine are dream roles. That their dreams include so much Rodgers and Hammerstein made me want to pinch myself. I couldn’t wake up fast enough.

You really need to be a fan, perhaps not die hard but a fan nevertheless, to fully appreciate the evening. Patinkin hasn’t so much lost his voice as his lilt. He seems to be recasting himself as a baritone, but his voice in that register is wobbly and overworked. His vibrato is like a cement mixer, and his phrasing is all jerks and lurches. I know voices settle as they age, but his upper range is clear and beautiful and breathtaking. The lower range sounds like he settled and then settled. Ms. LuPone has either become a caricature of herself or is atrophied by habit. That she over articulates when she speaks and sings without burden of a consonant is an expectation as much as an enigma; but the mouth is more cocked, the phrases spit as often as sung, and so many notes got trapped in her nose, I suspect at least one was of the ransom variety.

But these are stars, still bigger than life. They deserve a show that is as big as they are, as monumental. Watching tigers wimper and only occasionally growl feels like voyeurs at the zoo, waiting for the caged animals to yawn or lick themselves. One expects that the stage is LuPone’s and Patinkin’s natural habitat. They do attack from time to time—a charming chair dance, an uncharacteristic “A Quiet Thing” and “Like It Was” from Ms. LuPone, exciting reprises of past performances of “The-God-Why-Don’t-You-Love-Me Blues” and “Oh What a Circus” from Mr. Patinkin, and two delightful duets for an encore. Even a theatre cub would starve on the amount of red meat they served up, quality though it was.

I have no doubt that an evening with LuPone and Patinkin could be thrilling. I have spent evenings with them that were thrilling. Unfortunately, not this time, not entirely.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Wild Animals You Should Know

[spoilers below]

I'm not exactly sure what Thomas Higgins is trying to say in his intriguing play Wild Animals You Should Know (currently at the Lucille Lortel Theatre). He's clearly interested in relationships, definitions of manhood, and the lies we tell ourselves, but his beliefs and conclusions on these topics are obscure.

The plot: Jacob and Matthew are teenage friends. Jacob loves, or at least has a major crush on, Matthew. Matthew accepts Jacob's adoration because it makes sense to Matthew that people love and want him.

When Matthew finds himself attracted to his scoutmaster Rodney, he ruins Rodney's life, mainly because he has the power to do so. So, is Matthew a narcissist? Pathologically self-hating? A garden-variety psychopath? Sociopath? Was he "born bad"? Did his parents do something terribly wrong? Who is he anyway? What is this play about?

I suspect that Wild Animals You Should Know would not hold up well to repeat viewings or careful reading. However, despite its faults, it is consistently thought-provoking and never dull. The solid direction by Trip Cullman helps, as does the top-notch acting, particularly by Patrick Breen as Matthew's ineffectual father (his pratfall is a thing of beauty), Gideon Glick as Jacob (he brings depth to a role that needs it), Daniel Stewart Sherman as an adult who seems to know the "man rules," and John Behlmann as the scoutmaster whose life is destroyed by Matthew. Higgins--and the audience--is lucky to have them all.

(subscriber ticket, first row center)

Standing on Ceremony: The Gay Marriage Plays

Once upon a time, it was considered risky for performers to play homosexual characters because people might think that they were homosexual. Once upon a time, homosexual characters were pathetic, tortured, and suicidal. Once upon a time, overtly lesbian- and gay-focused theatre barely existed. Once upon a time, lesbians and gay men didn't think much about marriage, because they were too busy fighting for the right to be who they were without risking their jobs, their homes, and, yes, their lives.

Harris, Leavel, Consuelos, Bierko,
Draper, and Thomas
(photo: Joan Marcus)

In altogether too many places, "once upon a time" is still today. In others, however, "once upon a time" is receding into the past. Standing on Ceremony, The Gay Marriage Plays, reflects--and contributes to--this progress.

A collection of sometimes funny, sometimes heartbreaking one acts, Standing on Ceremony includes pieces by Mo Gaffney, Jordan Harrison, Moisés Kaufman, Neil LaBute, Wendy MacLeod, Jose Rivera, Paul Rudnick, and Doug Wright. The plays range in tone from the hysterics of a wacko homophobe, written by Rudnick and perfectly portrayed by the amazing Harriet Harris, to a touching eulogy for a partner of 46 years, poignantly written by Kaufman and sensitively depicted by Richard Thomas. The one acts also present a groom-to-be who insists that his wedding vows reflect current laws exactly, a long-time lesbian couple dealing with last-minute pre-wedding jitters, a handful of people arguing about gay marriage on Facebook, and a couple whose wedding bliss is tragically short-lived.

The excellent cast, which also includes the charming Craig Bierko, the gorgeous Mark Consuelos, and the wonderful Beth Leavel, performs at music stands, paying more or less attention to their scripts in the manner of Love, Loss, and What I Wore

I hope Standing on Ceremony enjoys the same success as Love, Loss . . ., running indefinitely with changing casts. It's not a masterpiece, but it's frequently first-rate, and its very existence is a treat.

(press ticket, second row center)

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Standing on Ceremony: The Gay Marriage Plays

The power of this collection of same-sex marriage shorts isn't the words. You won't hear anything you haven't heard before if you've been listening to anyone with anything to say on the subject.

What is transformative is the master class being provided by Harriet Harris. Without the trappings of costume or set or the freedom to storm the stage, she does the hardest and simplest and best that any actor can--she tells the story, honors the words and fills the space between the page and the audience with heart, humor, and humanity. Ms. Harris is the perfect muse for Paul Rudnick's exaggerated reality and goes from zero to hilarious in a glance. If it is true, as many actors will tell you, that comedy is harder than drama, don't point to Harriet Harris as your evidence. Her performance is effortless, which is not to say that she isn't working hard. She is any playwright's or dairy farmer's dream, she milks every moment for what it's worth but offers you nothing but the cream.

Her performance alone is reason to see this reading of 9 playlets. Fortunately, Harriet Harris doesn't stand on ceremony alone. Beth Leavel is one of the most consistent delights working in the theatre today, and she is no less terrific here. Richard Thomas, occasionally slathering the effete on top rather than baking it into the performance, is ultimately heartbreaking and wonderful, brilliantly navigating the traps of an obituary monologue by Moises Kaufman. Mr. Kaufman contributed the most thoughtful and strongest piece of the day with a fairly compelling argument against marriage as the ultimate acknowledgement of commitment, suggesting the life and the love speak louder than any single word.

Mark Consuelos and Craig Bierko are both strong and steady with uneven material. Polly Draper appears to have believed she was, in fact, hired to perform in a reading. Perhaps if her co-stars had gotten the same memo and not delivered fully-formed performances, her brilliance might have come through more consistently; but her online lesbian in Doug Wright's "On Facebook" is a scream, every line. While clumsy in Mo Gaffney's "Traditional Marriage," I have to give her credit for jabbing me in both eyes as she tore through my heart.

Standing on Ceremony won't change your life and won't change your mind about gay marriage. Many of the pieces are overly sweet with a side of trite. Paul Rudnick makes you not care about the content or the concept in either of his two pieces because the form and style are so strong and so him. Neil LaBute's "Strange Fruit" is just too trying--trying too hard to shock, trying too hard to force emotions without taking the time to earn them, and trying my patience for borrowing a bit too much from Torch Song Trilogy. Jordan Harrison, Wendy MacLeod, and Jose Rivera contribute fine but expected points of view.

Unless you are simply in need of an hour and a half of "atta gay," the plays aren't the thing; but with this cast, neither the subject nor the matter are the point. The reason to stand on ceremony, to stand up and celebrate are the players not the plays. All six of these actors have been brilliant before and will be brilliant again, just maybe not on the same stage at the same time. If Standing on Ceremony gets you to consider only one commitment, make it not missing these performers.

Monday, November 14, 2011

King Lear

Why would King Lear do something as foolish as give up his kingdom? What if he were secretly aware of showing early signs of dementia?  Sam Waterston seems at first to take this approach in the current production of King Lear at the Public Theatre, and it's an interesting interpretation. Unfortunately, he soon trades it in for yelling. And yelling. And yelling. And when he finally does drop his yelling--to whisper, "Howl. Howl."--it comes across as a gimmick rather than a moment of heartbreak. His Lear is one-dimensional.

But, of course, Lear is not just about Lear. It's also about his three daughters--the two glib connivers and the loyal but tongue-tied youngest. And it's about Gloucester, who is no better than Lear at knowing which child to trust. And it is about the stalwart Kent and the wily Fool--and about Edmund and Edgar, whose life stories were determined when one was born on the right side of the sheets and one on the wrong.

The cast has that trademark Public Theatre variety of races, acting backgrounds, and types. Some of the performers nail their roles. Kelli O'Hara works against her sweetness and is satisfyingly rotten as Reagan; the reliable Enid Graham is even rottener as Goneril; Michael McKean, famous for his comedy roles, makes a credible Gloucester; Seth Gilliam is a charmingly evil villain; Bill Irwin provides a textured and touching Fool; and John Douglas Thompson does well as Kent (but would do even better as Lear!). On the other hand, Kristen Connolly as Cordelia and Frank Wood as Cornwall lack the skills to perform Shakespeare effectively.

The direction, by James Macdonald, does not unite the components of this production into a coherent whole. But, and this is a big but for a three-and-a-half hour performance, the show is never dull.

Sunday, November 13, 2011


There are few things as purely joyful as watching an excellent version of a superb show. The New York University Tisch Drama Stageworks production of Violet fits that description perfectly, and I left the theatre happy, excited, and totally satisfied.

Violet (based on ''The Ugliest Pilgrim,'' a short story by Doris Betts) is a road story; the title character, an isolated young woman, travels hundreds of miles by bus to have a horrible scar on her cheek cured by a TV preacher. As is common to odysseys, her journey is both physical and internal. She leaves the stability and security of home, meets people different from any she has known, experiences unexpected adventures, and eventually finds/develops a new self.

It is hard to understand why this show isn't more renowned--although Ben Brantley's lukewarm review in the New York Times of the 1997 Playwrights Horizons production probably didn't help. Written by Jeanine Tesori (music) and Brian Crawley (book and lyrics), Violet  is touching and funny and true, and the score, which encompasses gospel, bluegrass, blues, and country, is exceptional. For example, "On My Way," sung by the bus passengers as they set off to meet their futures, is thrilling; "Let It Sing," a soldier's salute to self-expression, soars; and Violet's confrontation with her father, "Look at Me" and "That's What I Could Do," breaks your heart.

Michael McElroy, who sang "Let It Sing" in the original Violet, directs here, and his work is sure and clean, as is Jason Burrow's music direction. The seven-person band is quite good, though I wished at some points that they weren't quite so amplified (ditto some of the singing).

As Violet, Molly Jobe is amazingly good. It's a marathon role; not only is Violet onstage throughout the show, but she goes through a roller coaster of emotions. It would be easy to overplay her, but Jobe is a subtle and smart actress--and she sings the roll beautifully. Also outstanding are Dimitri Joseph Moise and Dustin Smith as the two soldiers that befriend Violet, Travis Slavin as the TV preacher, and Emily Ide as an old woman who sits next to Violet on the bus. But, really, the entire cast is wonderful; the rest are Michael Ruocco, Elizabeth Evans, Gerianne Perkins, Maria Norris, Meryl Williams, Vinnie Urdea, Corey Camperchioli, Carl Michael Wilson, Jelani Alladin, Sydney Blaxill, Molly Jean Blodgett, Taylor Daniels, Tara Halpern, Keziah John-Paul, Charlie Kolarich, and Gabriella Perez.

While this is a university production, the only way it feels different from a top-notch professional production is the youth of the performers. I look forward to following their careers.

($14 full-price ticket, first row center)

Friday, November 11, 2011

Sweet Bye and Bye (CD Review)

The CD of the Sweet Bye and Bye is a complete and total treat. The people at the invaluable PS Classics have not only presented us with the world premiere recording of a musical by Vernon Duke and Ogden Nash, but they have done it with class, including an 11-musician orchestra (conducted by Eric Stern), a strong cast, and a thick booklet with lyrics, a history of the show, a synopsis, great pictures, and an Al Hirschfeld illustration.

Sweet Bye and Bye closed out of town in the mid-1940s because librettists S.J. Perelman and Al Hirschfeld had one show in mind and composer Duke and lyricist Nash had another. For this CD, producer Tommy Krasker assembled a version, cobbled out of eight distinct generations of the book, reflecting Duke and Nash's preferences. And, since none of the original charts exist, he hired Jason Carr to do the orchestrations (Carr's work is fresh, bright, and true, it seems to me, to Duke's sound).

Sweet Bye and Bye takes place in 2076. While the creators present a charming vision of the future, with televisors and revolving comfort stations, their focus was clearly on satirizing the 1940s, which they saw as a time of rapacious businesspeople, dishonest advertising, too much focus on appearances, and lost values. Hmmm, does that remind you of any other decade?

The plot, such as it is, is simple: Solomon Bundy, a tree surgeon who is totally out of touch with the ever-changing world, inherits a candy company. He becomes a businessman with the help of Diana, a "personality consultant." Diana falls in love with him despite herself, but he breaks her heart by turning into a run-of-the-mill self-centered executive. Along the way we meet greedy businessmen ("Our Parents Forgot to Get Married"), yes men ("Yes Yes"), a self-important company manager ("Ham That I Am"), gossiping secretaries ("I Says to Him"), and an Eskimo chief (you see, Bundy chases after Diana by parachuting over the North Pole . . . okay, the book isn't the strong point).

Many of these songs are funny and smart. The main love song, "Too Enchanting," is lovely. And how can you fault a score that includes "Eskimo Bacchante"? There is a tendency toward too many list songs that offer no character or plot development, and sometimes the lyrics get just plain silly, but they also include gems such as "Executive weasels hate ethics like measles." And it's so much fun hearing a "new" score from the 1940s that it feels churlish to criticize. This glass is way more than half full!

The cast is led by the wonderful Marin Mazzie, who imbues her numbers with texture, personality, and build, offering character development even when the song doesn't. Other performers include Philip Chaffin, Danny Burstein, and Jim Stanek, as well as "special guests" John Cullum, George Engel, Edward Hibbert, and Rebecca Luker.

Sweet Bye and Bye, whatever its faults, is a treasure.

(press copy)

Follies: Revisited

I am not sure there is anything left to be said about Follies. I saw it early at the Kennedy Center and was more grateful for its existence than evincing its greatness. I was surprised it transferred to Broadway but hoped it might settle and find its legs if not its heart.

A few of the problems from those early days have been resolved. The choreography in Who’s That Woman is no longer a cluster tap, and the character of Solange is now intelligible (understated and humorously played by Mary Beth Peil). While I greatly enjoyed Linda Lavin at Kennedy Center, Jane Houdyshell is a surprising delight. [Total aside: As I dropped money into the BC/EFA bucket, I said to her, “You were wonderful.” She responded, “Thank you, so were you.”]

Some of the show has improved with age. Jan Maxwell’s interpretation of Could I Leave You? is stronger than ever. Who’s That Woman is the single most thrilling part of the show. One More Kiss rended my heart. And with Regine’s exit, the trio of Rain on the Roof, Ah Paris, and Broadway Baby comes together for a swelling conclusion befitting a big time Broadway show.

One of the most joyful surprises of the show was Bernadette Peters’ honest and touching and personal performance. Sadly, it was during the post-curtain speech urging donations to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights Aids. Oh, that she could have brought a moment of that to the script. Unfortunately, her “performance” has gotten more self-conscious and self-important (her final exit was so protracted and masturbatory that it was embarrassing). Perhaps it was just the day, but she also had a more tenuous relationship with the music than she did with Buddy.

The show still has insufficient heart. The director and, by extension, many of the performers don’t seem to trust the songs. Elaine Paige shows no more interest in telling a story with I’m Still Here than she did in May. Danny Burstein’s The Right Girl is now more about a Tourette’s of jazz hands than an inner conflict. Ron Raines continues his one note performance that never quite finds the right key.

Instead of finding its way in the months since the Kennedy Center, the show seems to have lost considerable steam. It did, however, get me to thinking about its future. Will it close? Will it continue with a trickling of replacements? Or might they refresh the proceedings when Bernadette Peters goes with a new foursome?

I would love to see Reba McEntire step in as Sally, not just because she made stupid direction make sense in Annie Get Your Gun and offered a superior performance to Peters’ original, but also because I think she would be original and heartbreaking in the role. I have no idea how strong her soprano range is, but she would be certain to make the role and score her own. As Ben, I would be excited to see Tom Wopat, who was so achingly impressive in Catch Me If You Can. The replacement Phyllis is so obvious to me that I can’t believe she hasn’t performed the role on Broadway already. Bebe Neuwirth is all ice and stems and scared little girl gone hard. Finally, for the role of Buddy, my dream would be John Goodman. He has the chops, the comedic energy, and the everyman believability to play salesman, cheat, and unsettled man who settled.

I love this show so much. I long for it to be better. I saw the 2001 revival several times and, despite its deficiencies (particularly the female leads’ voices and the male leads’ "it"), it was haunting, beautiful, and devastating. And it had the perfection of Polly Bergen. I wish this version had half the heart and even a fraction of the vision. Like the characters in Follies, for now, I will just have to comfort (and torture) myself with the memories.

Queen of the Mist

Michael John LaChiusa is unique among musical writers. He often writes the book and the lyrics and the music for his shows, and his interests are wide and varied: perception, fame, sex, lack of sex, love, lack of love, self-deception, filicide, ambition, lust, and revenge. His music is often gorgeous, if sometimes difficult on first listen, and he generally brings a unique and elucidating point of view to his subjects, which span many time periods and plotlines.

Queen of the Mist, currently being presented by the Transport Group, is not one of LaChiusa's more impressive efforts, though it has many strengths: an interesting main character, Anna Edson Taylor, the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel and live; some beautiful songs, including "There Is Greatness in Me" and "Letter to Jane"; a compelling metaphor in the tiger that inhabits Taylor's imagination throughout her life; Mary Testa giving an impressive performance in the lead role; and Theresa McCarthy, lovely as Taylor's sister.

However, LaChiusa is on much-treaded ground here, and Queen of the Mist has little new to say. Fame and obsession are popular theatrical themes, and the show has echoes of Ragtime and Assassins. (I imagine anarchist Leon Czolgosz, who assassinated President McKinley, would be nonplussed to find himself featured in not one but two musicals written decades after his execution.) The show also fails to land emotionally. Taylor is not a likeable character, and her relationships with her sister and her manager are too thinly drawn for the audience to care much when they fail. 

The score is perhaps LaChiusa's most accessible but not one of his most intriguing. And the lyrics are surprisingly bland and predictable coming from the man who wrote the brilliant "When It Ends" for The Wild Party and "The Greatest Practical Joke" for See What I Wanna See. LaChiusa is capable of limning a character in a line or two--as when the spoiled college boy in Hello Again asks if he looks like Bobby Kennedy or the Young Wife in the same show sings during an adulterous encounter in a movie theatre where Follow the Fleet is playing, "I am morally bankrupt" and then adds "I hate Ginger Rogers"--but that level of acuity is missing here.

For all of my reservations, however, I would still cautiously recommend this show. While it does not live up to the high bar established by LaChiusa's other works, it still offers much that is worth seeing and hearing.

(press ticket, first row)

Wednesday, November 09, 2011


Is it fair to have high expectations of a preview? Medium expectations? Any expectations? What if the preview ticket is full priced? Discounted?

Previews live in a gray area, particularly in the era of blogging, when many of us review at least some shows that we pay for ourselves. The area is even grayer when it is an early preview.

(When we receive press tickets, the situation is clear: we go to late previews, when the shows are deemed ready to critique, and we don't post our reviews until the official opening.)

Theresa Rebeck's Seminar (directed by Sam Gold) is set to open in 11 days. It feels early to write about it, but tickets are being sold, and I did pay for one. Also, the show seems to be in good shape, with polished performances. And the negatives are in the sinews of the play, rather than being tweakable over time. For these reasons, I have made the decision to write this review and post it now.

So, here's the thing: I didn't believe a single character, situation, interaction, or conflict in this show.

Seminar is the story of, yes, a seminar. Four young writers--two women, two men--pay a famous writer/editor (Alan Rickman) $5,000 each to teach ten classes in the home of one of the writers. Anyone who has ever seen a show or movie or TV show depicting a writing class--or who is aware of Rickman as an actor--knows that the teacher will be snarky, insulting, and belittling and claim it is for the students' own good. That some of the students will be better writers than others, that at least one will only care about art, that at least one will very much care about commerce, that sexual pairings will occur, and that a secret or two will be revealed are all also predictable.

And that's okay. Plays don't have to be startling or ground-breaking to be interesting. The playwright can show us why this group of students is interesting, why this grumpy teacher is compelling, why these two people do or don't get together, and so on.

But Rebeck doesn't. Instead, she gives us people, with random arrays of attributes, whose behavior is neither consistent nor convincing. Take Lily Rabe's character, Kate, a Bennington graduate with an enviable rent-controlled apartment. [Spoilers follow.] She's a feminist who lets repeated, egregiously sexist use of the word pussy go unremarked. She's foolishly attached to a story she has been working on for six years, yet suddenly can write a whole book in a couple of weeks. She hates the teacher yet sleeps with him, but not because of the sort of love-hate attraction that does occur in real life. Instead, it's a shock effect that doesn't work.

Or take Izzy (Hettienne Park), who seems to exist to provide a contrast to Kate. She seduces the teacher and one of the students, and in some confusing chronology seems to be sleeping with them virtually at the same time. Writing doesn't seem that important to her--certainly not $5,000 important.

Rickman's character Leonard is set up as a rat, but we find out later that he has done nice things for some of the students. Rather than this adding a level of complexity to his character, it elicits a "huh?"  For example, early in the play Leonard insults an artistically inclined writer by telling him he should be writing for Hollywood. Late in the play, we're supposed to perceive Leonard's introducing that writer to a Hollywood bigwig as a mitzvah.

Another annoying fault of Seminar is that the characters' writing is evaluated without having been read. Leonard eviscerates one story based on the first line and is greatly impressed with two others based on the first couple of pages. Later, Martin (Hamish Linklater), the student who is least impressed with Leonard, becomes convinced that Leonard has written a great book based on, yes, the first couple of pages.

The direction is smooth. The acting is fine. Rickman nails his big speech. But the play just isn't good.

(tdf ticket, third row, rear mezz)

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Venus in Fur

A story I once heard kept haunting me during Manhattan Theatre Club’s presentation of David Ives’ Venus in Fur: when Michelangelo worked on the Sistine Chapel’s The Last Judgment, the Pope’s Master of Ceremonies, Biagio da Cesena, continually complained about the nudity in it. So Michelangelo added his visage to the painting, casting him as a character in the underworld, for all to see.

Ives’ character, Thomas (Hugh Dancy), seems reminiscent to Biagio. A sanctimonious director/playwright, who says “ciao” at the end of his phone conversations, relinquishes his identity of game master, of controller, so readily in the play that the story becomes, in a sense, the ultimate revenge fantasy—which got me wondering: who pissed off Ives so much? After all, the playwright-director/actor-director relationship isn’t always ideal. Wouldn’t seeing a comeuppance on stage offer liberation? Could Thomas be more than just a character? And, for me, that was the problem: this conspiracy theory fascinated me far greater than the play itself.

This sexy story about submission, based on the 1870 novel Venus im Pelz by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch—a work that coined the phrase “sado-masochism”— contains a clever construct, a play-within-a-play structure: we see both the audition and Thomas’ new play unfold. Thomas, as director/playwright, has just finished auditioning actresses and the dearth of talent frustrates him. He vents to his fiancée on his cell phone that he longs for femininity, something the current crop of performers—dressed half like hookers, half like dykes—cannot provide. A clap of thunder, much like the sound of a snapping whip, interrupts his tirade and Vanda (Nina Arianda, who also played the role in the 2010 Classic Stage Company production) bursts in from the rain, wrapped in a trench coat, and brandishing a broken umbrella.

A force of nature herself, she chatters continuously until Thomas reopens the casting for Venus in Fur, a play coincidentally that’s also based on the same von Sacher-Masoch’s book about an aristocrat who becomes a willing slave to a woman. At first, Vanda and Thomas can’t connect. She sees his play as S&M porn; he insists it shows a great love story. As the audition progresses, though, Thomas’ perception of Vonda changes as she convincingly mimics the Continental diction of a refined Victorian woman completely transforming herself. As the two continue reciting lines, Vonda and Thomas switch roles, as she offers him direction and, ultimately, subjugates him.

Arianda makes Vanda a multilayered character—initially she poses as a bondage babe clad in high-heeled ankle boots and black leather with a trash-talking mouth, before metamorphosing into someone doe-eyed and naïve, perhaps even stupid, to a more calculating figure, who just happens to bring costumes, including a white virginal dress for her and a $3 green velveteen coat for Thomas. Dancy’s portrayal isn’t as vivid. He often gets a laugh with a wide-eyed look of incredulity or a well-placed grimace. Yet, at times, his character feels withdrawn, almost too insular, rather than displaying the passivity of subservience expected.

The set, designed by John Lee Beatty, realistically portrays the cold barrenness of a rehearsal hall, with its eerie fluorescence—especially effective are the shafts of light filtering through the window as if the building once housed a factory (designed by Peter Kaczorowski). Directed ably by Walter Bobbie, the juxtaposition of the past with the present never becomes confusing and the machine-gun like dialogue moves easily, combining humor with an eroticism that’s both sensuous and uncomfortably sinister. Unfortunately, though, the story never surpasses its initial frothiness. It provocates without really moving you, which gets me thinking again: who is Ives’ Biagio?

Limited 10-week engagement through Sunday, December 18.
(Tickets purchased at Telecharge/mezzanine D3)

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

The Blue Flower

Jim Bauer and Ruth Bauer's musical The Blue Flower, currently in previews at Second Stage, has an awful lot going for it. Its sweeping, romantic plot covers both world wars, and its complex, interconnected themes explore the fine line between creativity and madness; the highs and lows of love, both romantic and brotherly; the hellishness and deeply unsettling beauty of war; the impact of world history on the national, the local, and the individual. Its book, like its very pretty score, is entirely original. It is not based on a movie, television show, comic strip, or golden oldies radio station.
This production of The Blue Flower makes ample use of projections and short films, which appear on a screen suspended within an interesting, multi-tiered, wooden set, on which the small, excellent cast and notably tight, swinging band perform. Chase Brock's choreography frequently twists the actors' bodies into surprising shapes, and the cast into cool vistas. The show is ably directed. What The Blue Flower lacks, however, is any sort of unifying thread that brings its ingredients--not to mention its enormous thematic ideas and concepts--together into anything approaching a satisfying whole.

The show places focus on Max, a German artist who speaks in his own, invented language that he calls Maxperanto. Max has left Europe--and everyone he loves, living and dead--for the United States during the onset of World War II. As the show begins, Max suffers a fatal heart attack, and the musical proper takes us back through his life--presumably as it flashes before his eyes during his dying moments--from the turn of the century through both wars, with emphasis on the first. Because Max has been working on a book of collages about his past, the show unfolds as a series of memories, which are presented through the use of movement, song, projections, and short films.

Yet The Blue Flower misses the mark. It can't seem to figure out if it's supposed to be serious or flip, which very quickly becomes very frustrating: A lengthy speech that Max gives--entirely in gibberish--about the murder-suicide of Rudolf, Crown Prince of Austria, and his mistress, is played, it seems, for broad laughs, while the death of a horse amidst a roadside bombing is treated, a bit later, as if it's the worst thing that has ever happened in the entire history of every war that has ever taken place on the planet. What should be funny is often glossed over; what might be truly touching or gently moving gets too bogged down in grandiose ideas to tangle with.

Horses, it seems, carry some sort of symbolic weight in the show, at least given the frequency with which they are mentioned, or shown on projections, but I was never able to catch why; conversely, curiously, the relevance of the blue flower that the musical is named for is given passing mention once. Throughout the show, things that should be justified are not: why is the score, pretty as it is, so steeped in American country and western music? Is it because Max delivers a lecture--in gibberish--in Texas? Speaking of gibberish, why is the need for a whole new language so important? Maxperanto is explained, near the end of the show, but not in any way that is relevatory, or even satisfying. So the use of the made-up language throughout the show becomes just one more gimmick that never finds true relevance.

I can't tell if this show has been workshopped to death, or if it never cohered to begin with, but there seem to be altogether too many ideas and not enough grasp of the source material. A show about Dadaism and Expressionism is a great idea, but not if the aesthetics of these movements fail utterly to translate effectively to the stage. Similarly, a show using film as a backdrop is a great idea--and has been used effectively in all sorts of other productions these days--but not if the projections merely alternate between showing images that don't quite mesh with the live action, and flashing lines of dialogue that the actors have just delivered. What might have added depth and deeper meaning to the show, then, becomes yet another distraction.

In such a mishmash of ideas, innovations, and techniques, the characters quickly get lost. They fall in love, drift apart, fight, forgive, wound and betray, but they remain stick figures throughout: they are Profound Artists, with the exception of one Profound Scientist, but we don't get the chance to draw close to any of them, nor to fully grasp why they all love one another as passionately as we are told they do. So when they die--and they all die, because we all die, eventually--it doesn't really matter. They were never anything but big ideas to begin with.