Sunday, November 21, 2021

The Alchemist

Robert Frost once said, "Poetry is what gets lost in translation." To this I add, theatre is what gets lost in streaming. Please don't misunderstand: I am totally grateful for all the theatre-related material available during the covid-induced shutdown. I loved, eg, the Sondheim 90th birthday celebration, the plays that The Mint shared, and new work such as PCP/NYC's Standing on the Edge of Time and MasterVoices Myths and Hymns. And I don't know what the ticket price would have been if Meryl Streep, Audra McDonald, and Christine Baranski sang "Ladies in Lunch" in person, though I do know I couldn't afford it.

Manoel Felciano, Reg Rogers
Photo: Carol Rosegg

But: theatre is about being there, in the moment, with those wonderful living people on stage in front of you, sharing their talents and working their butts off. Eight performances a week they are shot out of a cannon and expected to be perfect--every time, with no pauses, pratfalls, or do-overs. Live performance is in many ways the bravest of arts, and perhaps the most human. It's all of us, in a room, interacting in real time, having an experience that will never be--can never be--repeated.

All this leads me to the rollicking Red Bull Production of Ben Jonson's The Alchemist, as adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher and directed by Jesse Berger. It is that most theatrical form of theatre, the farce, full of schemes and changing identities and bawdy humor and pointed satire and greed and hypocrisy and, yes, doors swinging open and closed as near-miss follows near-miss. 

Hatcher's adaptation is first-rate--clear, funny, and witty. In one aspect I think he actually improves on the original (it would be a spoiler to say anything more). There are some disappointing facets to his work. For example, there is no good reason why one female character spends much of the first scene wearing so little clothing that she is in danger of flashing the audience. For another example, having the one Black character, a full-out fop, suddenly spew a "Goddamn motherfuckers!" is, if not racist, at least racially uncomfortable and cheap. But the play's strengths far outweigh its weaknesses (which actually makes the disappointments that much more disappointing).

Berger's direction is as madcap, quick, and fluid as one could wish. And, oh, that cast. Reg Rogers as the alchemist delights with a performance that boasts the stamina, speed, and reflexes of an Olympian. Also delightful are, well, everyone else: Nathan Christopher, Stephen DeRosa, Carson Elrod, Manoel Felciano, Teresa Avia Lim, Jacob Ming-Trent, Louis Mustillo, Jennifer Sánchez, and Allen Tedder.

The design elements are attractive, appropriate, and hard-working. Alexis Distler provided the handsome, clever set, Tilly Grimes the splendid costumes. Cha See and Greg Pliska (lighting and sound design, respectively) also contributed richly.

The Alchemist was the second show I saw after that long, painful covid entertainment desert, but the first one was mediocre, and this one was so  much fun, and so thoroughly theatrical, that I consider it my real first time back. Thank you, Red Bull. Missed you a lot.

Wendy Caster

Monday, November 15, 2021

Diana: The Musical (Netflix version)

Hi, it's been a while because--well, you know. But I'm back with news of Diana: The Musical, which received mixed to positive reviews during its 2019 La Jolla run, despite what were cited (politely and with weary resignation) as minor problems (among them: character development, lyrics, scene-work, plot trajectory, length, tone, depth, pacing, set design, and an unsettling distance from anything remotely British). Clearly encouraged though they probably should not have been, the producers transferred the show to Broadway, where it ran for nine previews before the shut-down of March 2020. At some point thereafter, the producers made the innovative if fateful decision to film a performance of Diana before an empty house for an October 2021 release on Netflix in hopes of stimulating the box office in time for the production to resume at the Longacre (it finally opens on November 17). 

This is one jolly well-done son, Diana! 

The decision to prerelease Diana is easily the most interesting thing about the show. In the Before Times, it was typically argued that audiences wouldn't pay to see something live if they could stream it at home. But the industry has an enormous amount of restructuring and rethinking to do as it drags itself out of the pandemic. At the moment, attempting to lure audiences to live versions of productions they've fallen in love with from home no longer seems like such a ridiculous idea. So while Diana gets props for introducing a new approach that can truly only be improved upon, I have less faith in the musical itself.

That's a shame, because a show about how Diana challenged and modernized the royal family would seem musical theater-ready in lots of ways: it's a melodramatic story that justifies some serious pomp and circumstance, it has hugely famous characters that people nevertheless want to know more about, and it ends in Great Tragedy but also offers Much Hope and Enormous Promise. Alas, Diana is a huge fail in that it never digs into the characters or their motivations, so none seem to have even a hint of an inner life. The result is two hours with a bunch of stick figures who change costumes many, many times, between performing frantic dance numbers and singing a sequence of late-80s-power-pop songs set with thuddingly unimaginative lyrics (composer-lyricist David Bryan played keyboards and wrote songs for Bon Jovi).   

Some of the weirdness of the filmed version is that it was taped before an empty house, which surely helped the production avoid health risks but did nothing to boost it artistically. Live theatre, after all, depends on an audience--especially when your show is wildly inconsistent in tone and mood, and features characters with the collective depth of water in a toilet bowl. Is Diana a straightforward biography? A campy romp that winkingly shows us a royal marriage we all know is doomed? A flight of fancy that takes wild, fantastically liberties for the sake of entertainment? Are Charles and Camilla evil manipulators or just two innocent kids in love? Is Diana a scheming, monarch-challenging mastermind, or just relatively down to earth, lonely and bored? Why does the Queen double as Barbara Cartland, and who slept with whom to get Judy Kaye to be part of this exercise? Absent an audience whose reactions might have provided valuable clues for schmucks like me viewing from home, it's difficult to figure out what parts of the show were meant to be funny, moving or serious. I ended up settling on "inadvertently hilarious" as my go-to interpretation, which was fun for me but not a good sign for Diana.   

Anyway, here's what happens: the show opens with Diana alone, singing a huge rock anthem about how she's livin' large but feelin' small. This number, like virtually all to follow, sounds like those late-80s MTV-ready rock anthems where dudes with electric guitars sing wistfully about how hard touring can be, and how they are forced to take comfort in an unending supply of groupies and blow. I guess Diana's rosy life had its thorns, too, man.

Charles, who in this show is supposed to be (a) dashingly handsome and (b) a huge enough player that he can't find a wealthy woman in all of England that he hasn't already nailed and dumped, is under pressure to marry because of some stiff exposition the Queen utters at him about The People. Everyone holds their arms very still and in formal positions to imply their royalness, and I found myself disappointed that no one did the Queen wave even once, especially because this is the kind of show where such a move, correctly timed, might actually work to bring the house down.

Camilla Parker-Bowles is supposed to be the real villain in Diana because she is (a) older and (b) not as beautiful as Diana and (c) that's the way mainstream entertainment created by men tends to roll. Camilla pushes Charles to marry Diana because she strikes them both as unintelligent, young and foolish, and thus surely someone who will leave them to their affair(s) in exchange for getting to be a princess.

Charles takes Diana to a concert and Diana gripes about how Charles likes the music of Dead White Men (like Bach and Beethoven), while she prefers the much cooler music of Slightly Younger Dead White Men (like Freddie Mercury and David Bowie). She also mentions Elton John, whose involvement in this show would have surely made it less cringeworthy, and I say this as someone who loathes that fucking song about the fucking candle and the fucking wind. The Queen sings Charles a song about love and her own experiences, which are thoroughly unrelated to anything Charles is concerned about, so he and Diana get hitched. The press dances maniacally around Diana while singing about having a wank and drinking Guinness because oo, British references!

Charles and Diana meet the People of Wales, who apparently all dress like chimney sweeps and live horrible, dark lives that improve instantly when Diana says hello to them. Charles is not nice to Diana but does manage to congratulate her for having their child by singing appropriately bad lyrics at her. Charles and Camilla sing of their everlasting love for one another with more bad lyrics. Diana sings in passing about her struggles with self-harm and bulimia, but then realizes that changing up her wardrobe will be truly liberating for her, hurrah.

Diana does genuinely impressive charity work, which in this production apparently involves sending cases of eyeliner to an AIDS ward because she's good with makeup. The patients are initially camera shy, given the fact that their illness might result in all sorts of inconveniences like losing their homes, jobs, and families, but once she bonds with them over clothing, they come right around and smile pretty for the camera. Charles attempts to contain Diana's popularity by speaking publicly about architecture. Diana starts an affair with James Hewitt, who rises shirtless from beneath the stage floor on a pommel horse, and whose name surely made the lyricist's day by conveniently rhyming with "Let's do it!"

All of the characters debate the possibility of divorce while they dance, fight, drink tea and hop into bed with one another. Diana's affair with Hewitt ends when, despite constant pleas to run off with her to America, he suddenly decides that his career matters and that his new position in Germany will make it absolutely impossible to ever again see one of the richest and most powerful women on the planet because borders are difficult to navigate and flights are prohibitively expensive, or something. Diana becomes newly bothered by the fact that Charles and Camilla are still Doing It now that she and Hewitt are no longer going to Do It, so there is a fight that is likened to a thrilla in Manila but instead is just a shoutfest in some palace basement or moat or back alley or something.

Finally, the Queen tells Diana they are a lot alike before launching into a song about how they are nothing alike. She insists that Diana will never be permitted to divorce and then magically grants her a divorce. Diana sings about how she is newly happy and motivated and eager to make good in the world and maybe have a daughter or several. Then she does a slow walk upstage that is meant to represent her death. The ensemble, clearly exhausted from gyrating in multiple outfits, earnestly tells the audience that the people you don't think are going to make change in the world sometimes do, and that is the end.

Is the show any better in front of a live audience? Hell if I know, but I think now I need to find out. Stay tuned....