Sep 182018
 

Uncle Vanya: Scenes from Country Life in Four Acts by Anton Chekhov

Translated by Richard Nelson, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

At the Hunter College Frederick Lowe Theater, 68th and Park Avenue

BS Score Rating: C-

Show-Score Rating: 65

Richard Nelson’s adaptation of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” is disappointing, not so much for the translation of the Russian master’s play but for the production Mr. Nelson has directed on the Frederick Lowe stage at Hunter College.  Chekhov’s “scenes from country life in four acts” (the play’s subtitle) is full of humor and emotional angst as seven residents of a rural estate grapple with their inability to find happiness.  This production lacks the humor and the emotional clout that makes Chekhov’s work so fascinating.

Mr. Nelson was hailed as a sort of American Chekhov when his two family cycles, the Gabriels and Apple Family, were produced at The Public Theater.  Those plays, three in one cycle and four in the other, focused on everyday middle-class family challenges framed around the dates of current major political events, the Obama years and the 2016 election.  They were quiet plays that focused on small talk that revealed underlying tensions and frustrations – very Chekhovian.

So, the connection between this playwright/director’s recent successes and this production of Chekhov’s classic is quite clear.  Unfortunately, Mr. Nelson has carried over to this Chekhov production one of the elements of the family series that made those plays so special, but also made them a challenge for many audience members.  The actors speak at normal voice levels, that is, they do not project their lines.  So, it is quite difficult to even hear what the actors are saying, particularly when they are facing in another direction in this theatre-in-the-round setting.

In interviews, Mr. Nelson has contended that this style makes the play more realistic – the people speak as real people speak.  He even suggests that the audience’s struggle to simply hear the actors is productive, forcing the audience to pay closer attention.  Alas, the effect for Uncle Vanya is quite the opposite.  The battle to hear was a massive distraction.  In fact, the style was quite unrealistic.  Each of the characters is going through a disturbing self-assessment, but each shows little emotion in their voice or gesture.  Much of the play’s humor relies on the logical fallacies that each character utters. But with Mr. Nelson’s muttered voices, the play is stripped of its desired effect upon the audience.  BTW – Any well-trained actor is fully capable of projecting his/her voice without losing the tone of natural conversation.

Two of the actors from the Public Theater’s family series appear in this production.  Jay O. Sanders conquers the restrictions of the production’s style to provide a full-blown and thoroughly interesting portrait of the title character.  Similarly, Jon Devries, another Apple family veteran, commands the stage as the aging professor with a beautiful, and surprisingly young, wife

Jesse Pennington is terribly miscast as Mikhail Astrov, the country doctor buried in alcohol and plagued by his conservationist beliefs.  His speech is particularly difficult to understand; but, more significantly, he never convinces the audience that his is a troubled soul searching for his identity – a major flaw in the production.  Yvonne Woods, as the marriageable but plain daughter of the professor, and Celeste Arias, as the professor’s young wife, both suffer from the totally bland style Mr. Nelson has imposed on the play.  Their interactions become indecipherable.

Mr. Nelson clearly has a feel for this play.  The adaptation, translated in collaboration with Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, very effectively captures Chekhov’s characters’ musings with a sense of contemporary language.  The actors are in modern dress.  All of the action is set up around a non-descript dining area reinforcing the present-day approach.  This simplicity is at the core of Mr. Nelson’s style and it works very well for Chekhov’s portrait of lost souls.  Mr. Nelson has elected to have no intermission, a decision that might have been more effective had the production’s style allowed the audience to more effectively enter the world of these characters.  But an hour and fifty-minutes of struggling to hear the dialogue would have benefited from 15 minutes of recovery halfway through the four acts.  Sitting in the second row, I had the feeling that this might have been a Chekhov production to remember – if I had been sitting in the middle of the stage.

 

 Posted by at 9:51 am
Sep 122018
 

Collective Rage: A Play in 5 Betties by Jen Silverman

MCC production at the Lucille Lortel Theatre on Christopher Street

BS Score Rating: B
Show-Score Rating: 82

Writing about “Collective Rage: A Play in 5 Betties,” a MCC production at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, poses a linguistic challenge. This is a play about women’s vaginas. Yes, a 90-minute exploration by five women named Betty of their genitals. But the real challenge in discussing Jen Silverman’s wacky play is the fact that word “vagina” is rarely uttered; this is a play about “pussies.”

Three of the five Betties are lesbians; the other two are exploring their options. The play is a series of intertwined scenes as the various Betties interact with each other exploring the meaning of “their organ.” To say that the play has a plot is a bit of a stretch, although the outlandish preparations by the five women for a theatre presentation does give some sense of direction to the action. However, it is quite clear that Ms. Silverman does not mean to abide by the Aristotelian model.

In fact, this play is written in that rarest of genres. It’s a travesty. That’s not a criticism; it is, in fact, a source of delight. A travesty paints an absurd or distorted representation of something, in this case the worship of the female sex organ. “Collective Rage” is very funny and totally off-the-wall. The play’s full title makes it clear how we are to take this 90 minutes of genital geniality:

Collective Rage: A Play in 5 Betties; in essence, a queer and occasionally hazardous exploration; do you remember when you were in middle school and read about Shackleton and how he explored the Antarctic?; imagine the Antarctic as a pussy and its sort of like that.

Clearly, Ms. Silverman does not expect the audience to connect the dots. We are just supposed to sit back and enjoy the antics of five actresses set loose in a hellzapoppin look at pussy appreciation. Dana Delany and Adina Verson are particularly good as the two women “in transition.” In the midst of hilarious awkwardness, each gives us a sense of the amazing discoveries they are making about their anatomy. Comedian Lea Delaria plays the butch lesbian, not exactly a stretch from her stand-up persona; but she never really projects the kind of authenticity that her character demands. Ana Villafane has the least believable Betty to portray: a beautiful model-type who decides she is going to write, direct, and star in a play and recruits the other four Betties to join her. Ms. Villafane doesn’t let credibility get in her way. She brings energy and determination to her Betty, giving the audience the delusion that the play is actual going somewhere – it’s not.

Director Mike Donahue has collaborated with a design team that captures the play’s inanity. On a blank stage, furniture falls from the ceiling, convoluted scene descriptions are projected onto the ceiling, and rap music accompanies antics. Only the title is a bit misleading unless you use the a more colloquial definition of “rage,” as in “my pussy is all the rage.”

 Posted by at 11:23 pm
Aug 162018
 

Pretty Woman-The Musical

At the Nederlander Theatre on 41st Street

BS Score Rating: C-

Show-Score Rating: 60

If there is a full blown example of mediocrity on Broadway these days, it has to be “Pretty Woman” at the Nederlander Theatre on 41st Street.  This musical adaptation of the ever-popular 1990 film starring Richard Gere and Julia Roberts holds pretty close to the plot of the original.  This is not surprising since the original writer, J. F. Lawton, collaborated with the late Garry Marshall, the film’s director, on the book for the stage.  The program acknowledges Marshall’s “passion to make it a Broadway musical because he loved live theatre.” 

But as any number of flops, and near flops, adaptions of popular movies into a musical of late have illustrated, that transfer is very tricky.  The best transfers reconceive the original, finding ways to draw the audience into the story and telling that story with inventive music, choreography, and design.  On the surface, “Pretty Woman” has a creative team fully capable of delivering that innovation.  Director/Choreographer Jerry Mitchell brought us the revival of “La Cage aux Foiles” and “Kinky Boots,” both appealing and surprisingly imaginative adaptations from the cinema. For the recent revival of “She Loves Me,” set designer David Rockwell gave us one of the most charming designs for a Broadway revival in recent memory.  Similarly, costumer designer Gregg Barnes has a long list of successful meldings of period and character into wardrobes that help us appreciate the person in the clothes.

But to make a musical production rise above competence, there needs to be a chemistry among all of those elements and “Pretty Woman” lacks even a whiff of that mixture of imagination and creativity.  The story is a sort of Cinderella meets heartless capitalist.  Vivian is an abused woman from Georgia who resorts to selling her body on Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles.  By chance, she meets Edward, a handsome, seeming amoral businessman who buys out failing companies regardless of any concern for the human toll.  By the end of the show, we are expected to believe that Vivian has gone through an Eliza Doolittle transformation and Edward has come to see his need to be a human businessman.  And why do these miraculous changes take place?  Because each of these “love at almost first sight” opposites see something in each other that transforms them. 

The only problem is the script never really lets the audience in on what it is about their attraction to each other that produced these changes.  In fact, it never even reveals what it is they see in each other except “that something.”  Plenty of musicals use love as a source for transformation, but the good ones show us what is in their attraction to each other and how that changes them.  In “Pretty Woman” it just happens, no “ifs ands or buts.”  To be fair, many of the songs in Bryan Adams and Jim Vallance’s pleasantly pop-style score, show the two leads questioning who they are and what they are doing.  But the book never shows us how those questions lead to their inevitable love for each other.

In the age of “me too” and the questions surrounding the portrait of women in classics like “My Fair Lady” and “Carousel,” it’s rather disturbing that this portrayal of prostitution in the dregs of Hollywood comes off like production numbers by the citizens of Dogpatch

in “Li’l Abner” – yes, these people are “different,” but joyful. Ugh!  The effete prejudices of the Beverly Hills culture are treated no more insightfully.  Edward’s associates in corporate destruction are portrayed like Sky Masterson’s thug-associates in “Guys and Dolls” – “Where’s the game?”

The sets are merely functional.  David Rockwell has chosen to portray most of the settings with skeletal outlines– except for the required palm trees that, you guessed it, light up every so often to remind us we’re in SoCal.  There is no connection in the style of the various set wagons that float onto the stage. For a city like Los Angeles, that has its own “look,” there is little to connect us with the styles of the entertainment capital except for the requisite rear view of the Hollywood sign that acts as the curtain warmer.

Mitchell’s choreography is probably the most disappointing.  It’s filled with conga lines and faux 80’s disco.  Perhaps the most disquieting choreographic element is the very strange ballroom dancers in the background as Edward and Vivian watch the performance of “La Traviata” from an opera house box seat – a memorable moment from the movie that sticks out like a sore thumb in this stage adaptation. 

Both of the leads do everything they can to make their characters credible without a script that reveals why they are attracted to each other and how that attraction transforms them.  Eric Anderson is quite ingratiating as the combination “Happy Man” and hotel manager. Orfeh, as Kit De Luca, Vivian’s best friend and counsel, presses a little too hard as the experienced hard-line lady of the streets making her transformation into a vice squad intern at the end of the show down-right silly.  Tommy Bracco in the minor part of the bell-boy (and one of the street people on Hollywood Blvd) brings a smile to his antics that is one of the few consistently humorous elements of the show.

“Pretty Woman” has been doing very well at the box-office and, like “Mean Girls,” the fans of the movie may assure it of a reasonable run.  But what was once charming and engaging in the movie theatre has become mediocre and bland in the Broadway theatre.

 Posted by at 8:41 pm
Jul 162018
 

Fire in Dreamland by Rinne Groff

At The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Place

BS rating: D+

Show-Score rating: 55

Love stories usually have a catch – the couple’s opposite personalities, their professional or political differences, their disparate heritages.  It’s those very complications that draw us into their romance.  After all, who wants to sit through a play that is nothing but happy bedroom scenes followed by mushy dinner conversations.  Those differences either melt the characters’ resistance to each other or bring their would-be romance to an end.

Playwright Rinne Groff certainly demonstrates a commitment to fill her love story with lots catches.  In fact, the play itself melts down in the face of its complications.  Let’s start with the title, “Fire in Dreamland.” On the surface, it relates to an effort by the play’s central characters to capture the horror of the fire at Coney Island’s Dreamland in 1911 in a movie focused on the terrified animals as victims.  Jaap Hooft is a Dutch filmmaker who has a fake student visa; Kate (no last name) is a government worker, perpetually dissatisfied with her life choices. They meet near the ocean on the Boardwalk at Coney Island.  I guess you can imagine how things proceed from there.

Actually, you probably cannot imagine how things progress because Ms. Groff brings in a set of complications that defy credibility and lack any perceptible insights into love, art, or the death of animals (lions, tigers or people).  First there’s the difficulty they have communicating due to language differences: Jaap must be the only Dutchman that is not fluent in English.  He consumed by the his inspiration for the film. forget the details involve in make it.  Kate can’t get past the details – funding, permits, etc.  But none of this gets in the way of what appears to be their growing romance.  Then there is the possibility that Jaap had a sexual relationship with his well-to-do would-be assistant, Lance, a real film student who signs-out equipment from his film school for Jaap’s use.  That does not get in the way of their romance.  And then, I’m sure you guessed: the pregnancy.

These complications, and at least three or four more “mis-catches,” are framed in an inconsistent stylization.  The first half of the play is short scenes that are literally clipped by the sound of a man pounding a film-scene-clap-board.  Mid-scene, repeatedly, the lights isolate Kate or Jaap to capture their thoughts – later in the show these freezes focus on Kate’s obsession with the film’s story.  It turns out Lance has been the clap-board man and he enters to save Kate when Jaap squanders his charm, but, of course not Kate’s love.  Jaap loses his visa and is returning home with another woman as Lance and Kate appear to be developing a relationship – no clap-board scene changes but just as underdeveloped as everything else in this mish-mash of a play.

The actors and director do their best to make the play’s 90 minutes tolerable.  Rebecca Naomi Jones plays her emotions with commitment and passion.  Enver Glokaj brings a sort of handsome charisma to his character.  Kyle Beltran plays Lance as a confused dork – a portrayal that explains Jaap’s ability to use him, but only confuses Kate’s eventual attraction to him, unless we are to believe her pregnancy is her motivation.  Marissa Wolf, making her NYC directing debut, has done her best to make the play’s senselessness interesting.  But, as any director will tell you, the play’s the thing and this one has just too many unconnected things.

The Public’s artistic director, Oskar Eustis, has adopted the practice of including a note in the program that tells us why we should like this play, or at least why he liked the work.  This is the type of play that I left thinking “what made the theatre dramaturgs and play-readers recommend it for production?”  Eustis tells us “Rinne has always been a beautiful sensitive cartographer of the human spirit.”  More importantly, he cites his long-term relationship with the playwright.  His first Public production was Ms. Rinne’s “The Ruby Sunrise” followed by “Compulsion.”  It appears that, like the play’s main character, Mr. Eustis was also blinded by a relationship.

 Posted by at 10:19 pm
Jun 042018
 

The Great Leap by Lauren Yee

At Atlantic Theatre Company 2nd Stage, West 16th Street

BSonArts rating: A-

Show-Score rating: 90

Lauren Yee’s “The Great Leap,” at the Atlantic Theater Company’s 2nd Stage, has its own imaginative leaps to overcome.  A 17-year-old Chinese-American high school basketball player forces his way into the lineup for the University of San Francisco’s goodwill challenge to the University of Beijing’s team in the capital city.  The big game coincides with the peak of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.  And, as the personal story of the short but determined dribbler unfolds, the audience is usually one-step ahead of the plot.  In short, the plot is quite predictable.

But Ms. Yee handles the development of the plot and characters with so much aplomb that the audience is more than happy to take those leaps with her.  There is humor throughout, even in the tensest scenes.  The American basketball coach is a classic crass Brooklynite who is initially responsible for teaching the Chinese coach the ins and outs of the game.  Much of the humor involves the Asian’s efforts to understand American slang and basketball terminology, but Ms. Yee’s style is never condescending; it’s always about communication.  Similarly, the American coach transplanted to San Francisco has a tough time communicating with the teenage star player from Chinatown.

The play’s most interesting element is the complex pressures and historical legacy that haunt the Chinese coach who survived the brutality of the cultural revolution.  The play has one of the finest Asian-American actors in that role.  B.D. Wong is wonderful as the would-be Chinese basketball coach, showing as much of the character’s tensions in his body language as in the dialogue. Ned Eisenberg, opposite him as the Brooklyn bomber, fully embodies the fowl-mouthed coach whose back story is not unlike the ambitions of the young Chinese-American upstart.

At the center of the show is a knock-out (and exhausting) performance by Tony Aidan Vo as a 17-year-old high school dribbler who forces himself onto a college team to play the “good-will” game with the Beijing University team. The American and Chinese coaches meet again 17 years after their initial encounters. While the turns in the story are frequently predictable, Ms. Yee’s writing is so crisp and dimensioned that we just go with its flow. The direction by Taibi Magar strikes a balance between the humor (and there’s lots of it) and the unraveling of the characters’ stories at an energized pace.

The Atlantic 2nd Stage is turned into a basketball court by designer Takeshi Kata. Projections by David Bengali effectively set the tone and remind us of events as the play jumps between 1971 in China and 1989 in San Francisco and Beijing.

 Posted by at 9:08 pm
May 032018
 

Summer and Smoke by Tennessee Williams

At Classic Stage Company on East 13th Street

BSonArts rating: B+

Show-Score Rating: 88

“Summer and Smoke” meets “Our Town” in a moving production by Classic Stage Company in collaboration with the Transport Group.  Director Jack Cummings III has stripped the play of traditional sets and props and, in the process, he has given Tennessee Williams’ play a renewed sense of universality.  It is no longer simply a period piece about mores of southern culture at the turn of the 20th century.  Cummings’ production draws us into a conflict between the desires of the flesh and the entrapments of the soul.

Alma is the daughter of a minister and a mother who is mentally ill.  John is the son of a respected physician in the small town of Glorious Hill, Mississippi.  Alma and John are inexplicably attracted to each other but incapable of forming a relationship.  Alma is a product of her environment – she wants to be a proper woman who nourishes her soul by resisting temptation.  John wants to break out of his environment – he is a man who feeds on the pleasures of the flesh. 

Williams paints a portrait of two people who are mysteriously drawn together only to be repulsed by each other’s sense of self. As the play progresses, we see each of these tortured souls recognizing the futility of their beliefs.  Each slowly transforms their personas into a mirror image of the other, only to discover that their transformations come too late and their new perspectives continue to feed an insurmountable separation.

The CSC production uses only a bare stage with a few chairs and a portrait of a fountain, with the sculpture of the angel of eternity, that is where Alma and John discover their feelings and experience, for the first time, their inability to accept each other for who and what they are.  Williams’ script has thirteen scenes in a variety of locations.  Cummings’ not only does away with the scenery (appropriately minimized by designer Dane Laffrey), he also gives only the faintest representations of props through the actors’ mimes.  The actors perform on a white stage with a white roof overhead.  Even Kathryn Rohe’s costumes, generally close to period in style, are almost all variations of black and white. 

This is minimalist theatre at its best. By removing the specifics of time and place, Cummings gives us a purer portrayal of Williams’ agonizing on the conflicts between our image of self and our human desire.  The audience has only to focus on Williams’ use of language and the actions of the characters. 

Fortunately, Mr. Cummings has a cast capable of fully meeting the challenges of this minimalist style.  At the center are Marin Ireland as Alma and Nathan Darrow as John Buchanan.  Ms. Ireland gives us an Alma with torn insides.  She shows us a girl, and eventually a woman, who desperately desires a man who would destroy what she sees as her sense of self-worth.  Mr. Darrow reveals a boy, and eventually a man, who wants to break away from the societal constraints on seeking pleasure.  As each transforms into their opposites, both of these performers show us the pain and exasperation these two would-be true lovers go through trying to find their way in their journey to the other side. They handle Williams’ poetic language as common speech, giving it a uniquely powerful quality in a minimalist form. The supporting cast is equally resourceful, although Williams is clearly using them only as a framing device for the awkward meetings of the would-be, but could not be, lovers.

CSC’s usual three-quarters in the round stage has been repositioned to make a longer playing area.  In general, the staging is mindful of playing to all parts of the surrounding audience, although some of the most important scenes related to Alma’s transformation are staged with Ms. Ireland facing the dead wall, cut off from much of the audience.  But otherwise Mr. Cummings uses this open space very effectively.  The style of this production is enhanced by the audience “seeing through” the stage picture to more audience.

We tend to think of Tennessee Williams as a period writer – a great playwright, but the plays are confined to time and place.  This production is not bound by realism and, in the process, becomes disturbingly real and sadly true.

 Posted by at 11:31 pm
Apr 202018
 

My Fair Lady by Alan J. Lerner and Frederick Loewe

At the Lincoln Center Theatre

BSonArts: Rating: A-

Show-Score Rating: 90

Move over Sutton Foster and Indina Menzel; there is a new Broadway musical leading lady who can transform a good production into a “must see.”  That’s Lauren Ambrose and she not only has the voice for Eliza Doolittle in the Lincoln Center Theatre production of “My Fair Lady,” but she also demonstrates how a masterful actor can bring new dimensions to a role that makes an entire revival a new experience.

Ms. Ambrose treats Eliza as a very real young woman discovering who she once was and who she has become.  As we watch her come to these realizations, we become totally absorbed into the book of the musical, a pretty rare experience for a pre-1970s show.  Ambrose’s Eliza is linked more to the female characters in the classic plays from the turn of the last century — think “A Dolls House” or “The Seagull “— than an ingénue in a 1960s musical.  Of course, the source material for this Broadway classic is a play from that same period, George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion.”

Ms. Ambrose does not sacrifice the humor in the show; she is charmingly befuddled by the demands made on her by the insensitive and self-centered Professor Henry Higgins in the first act.  But after her transformation at the start of the second act, we see a woman struggling with her identity, not fitting into her previous world and a stranger to her new world.  With the help of director Bartlett Sher’s minor tampering with the original ending, we are uplifted as she takes control of her future with a new confidence and a true sense of self – not too far from what Mr. Shaw had in mind in “Pygmalion.”

Mr. Sher has an affinity for this type of musical theatre heroine.  His previous two Lincoln Center musical revivals had similar central characters: Nellie Forbush in “South Pacific” and Anna Leonowens in “The King and I.”  He also has an affinity for taking an old-fashioned musical and rediscovering what “makes it memorable.”  As with the two Rodgers and Hammerstein revivals, this production is quite traditional but very stylish.  Mr. Sher has a wonderful ability to reproduce the original delight with a fresh vision.

It’s interesting to compare this revival with the recent, and far less successful, revival of R&H’s “Carousel.”  It comes down to good choices.  Mr. Sher and set designer Michael Yeargan have incorporated a massive turntable into the set for Professor Higgin’s home, almost as a tribute to Oliver Smith’s much lauded and, at the time, dazzling use of turntables in the original production.  Director and designer make the set changes almost a work of choreography.

The actual choreography by Christopher Gattelli is a mixed bag.  “My Fair Lady” is not much of a dance show, and Messrs. Sher and Gattelli have even minimized the dance in all but one number.  But that one number, “Get Me To the Church on Time,” is a show-stopper.  Sher and costume designer Catherine Zuber once again hark back to the original production for the “Ascot Gavotte,” recreating a vision of one of Cecil Beaton’s signature costume achievements. Unfortunately, Gattelli’s staging of that number never really captures the humor of the overly restrained highbrow responses that the snooty upper-class show as they watch a genteel horse-race.

Harry Hadden-Paton comes to the role of Henry Higgins with the appropriate credentials:  a British actor trained at the London Academy of Music and Drama, most recently seen in this country as a suitor of Lady Edith Crawley on Downton Abbey.  He is a quick-tongued Higgins who has no trouble capturing the professor’s insensitivity and self-absorption.  However, he rarely allows us to see the humor behind the bluster.  Alan Jay Lerner’s lyrics are full of delightful twists in songs like “Why Can’t the English?” and “I’m an Ordinary Man.”  Hadden-Paton shows us the arrogance, but not the wit.

Norbert Leo Butz is one of the most talented comic actors on the New York stage and he brings every bit of that skill to Alfred P. Doolittle.  But Doolittle is a blustery old man and Butz is neither old nor blustery.  Even so, he manages to create a believable Cockney good-for-nothing. The role of Higgins’ friend, Colonel Pickering, is the least  developed among the main characters; he is essentially “the straight man” and Allan Corduner does as much as is possible to convince us he is a compassionate and reasonable foil to Higgins’ arrogance.  Rounding out the leading roles is Diana Rigg as Higgins’ mother.  In contrast to the miscasting of Butz, Ms. Rigg exudes the stoic compassion that her rather minor role demands.  Jordan Donica has the creamy voice for Eliza’s suitor, hanging out “On the Street Where You Live.” Lerner and Loewe really did not give his character much more than that lovely number.

In the end, it is Laura Ambrose’s Eliza Doolittle that makes this revival special.  All of the elements that Ms. Ambrose exploits are in the book and lyrics; but she brings unique insight and deeply felt emotion in expressing them.  We feel for this Eliza and we revel in her discoveries.

 

 

 

 Posted by at 10:44 am
Apr 132018
 

Carousel by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II

At the Imperial Theatre, 45th and Broadway

BS Rating: B-

Show Score Rating: 78

Walking into the Imperial Theatre, I thought “Carousel” was my favorite musical from the classic, pre-1960s, repertory. I love the score and I have always found Rodgers and Hammerstein’s conversion of a fairly dark drama, “Liliom,” into a musical that mixes the dark with the light as an extraordinary accomplishment.  While “Oklahoma!” is frequently cited as the start of the modern musical that integrates book, music, and choreography to tell a story, “Carousel” proved that the integration of these elements can take the musical into dark and complex areas.

As I watched the new Broadway production, under the direction of Jack O’Brien, I began to question the way R&H deal with some of those dark issues.  Set in Maine at the turn of the last century, Julie Jordan, an innocent factory worker, falls in love with a rough-hued carousel barker, Billy Bigelow.  They marry almost instantly — as only a musical can make acceptable.  But their marriage is not exactly a typical musical marriage.  Billy loses his job and feels guilty and restless.  He goes off on binges at night.  In a rage Billy slaps Julie and suddenly we have violence against women injected into a Broadway musical.

Rodgers and Hammerstein are frequently recognized for the insertion of social issues into their works.  “You’ve got to be taught…to hate the people your relatives hate” in “South Pacific” is a plea for tolerance as is the main character’s confrontation with her prejudices about “mixed marriages.” But the way this team portrays women and treats marital violence in “Carousel” raises questions in a contemporary audience.  In the famous “Soliloquy,” as Billy considers the possibility of having a daughter, he tries to suggest she will be exceptional by singing “she’ll be half again as smart as girls are meant to be” (emphasis added). Julie’s response to Billy’s violence against her is even more troubling. “What’s the use of wonderin’ if he’s good or if he’s bad, he’s your fella and you love him, that’s all there is to that,” sings Julie.  R&H foreshadow the show’s ending later in that song: “common sense may tell you that the ending will be sad and now’s the time to break and run away,” she continues, but “he’s your fella and you love him, there’s nothing more to say.”

Clearly, R&H are exploring how love can make a person blind to their lover’s bad side; but there is certainly “more to say.”  At its best, this portrait of an abused wife shows us the type of irrational delusions that some abused women live with. The show suggests that Billy is “redeemed” when he is offered the opportunity by the Starkeeper, who guards the back door to heaven, to return to earth after his suicide to advise the teenage daughter, who is being harassed by her school-mates. She resists his advice and, in another rage, he slaps his daughter. The show then moves to its finale at the daughter’s high school graduation.  Billy again urges her to be herself as the chorus sings R&H’s classic “When You Walk Through a Storm.”  The Starkeeper puts out his hand, we assume, to take Billy to his heavenly destiny. Curtain! Watching this 1945 musical in 2018, especially in this year of heightened awareness of the abuse of women, begs for some rethinking of how a new production should color its interpretation. 

Unfortunately, Mr. O’Brien’s production does little in that direction.  It’s a pleasant enough production, but it lacks imagination and any new insights into this classic musical.  Anyone who saw the extraordinary English National Theatre production 26 years ago knows that there is much a production team can do to make this show meaningful as well as wonderfully entertaining.  Instead, this production plays like it’s 1945.  In fact, it looked like O’Brien and Santo Loquasto, the set designer, intentionally wanted the production to look like a reconstruction of the original production. The set relies heavily on drops with minimal three-dimensional scenery except for a show-stopping appearance of the top of the Carousel.

One contemporary touch is the blind casting, i.e., multiracial actors playing parts that in the time and place of the play would not have been people of color.  But even that raises questions.  Billy is played by Joshua Henry, a talented and vocally gifted black actor, and his comrade in crime, Jigger, is played by Amar Ramasar, a mixed race principal dancer at the New York City Ballet.  Did Mr. O’Brien mean to suggest that the “bad people” are people of color?  We have to assume not, and he seems to try to counter balance that casting with a Black Starkeeper and even a Black policeman.  Of course, the whole point of blind casting is to have the audience see the actor inhabiting the character and without any superficial judgements based the color of the actor’s skin.   But in a production that otherwise looks so traditional, it’s tough not see the color as significant in New England at the end of the 19th century. 

Jessie Mueller plays Julie.  She received a well-deserved Tony Award for her portrayal of Carole King in “Beautiful” and her voice was perfectly suited to that pop music.  Unfortunately, while Ms. Mueller works hard at selling some of the most beautiful music in R&H ever wrote, her voice never quite meets the near-operatic quality of “If I Loved You” and “What’s the Use of Wond’rin.”  One of true delights of the show is someone who has no trouble meeting the composers’ operatic demands.  Renee Fleming is perfect as Nettie Fowler, the would-be surrogate mama to Julie.  She retired from the opera world last year and this performance makes you anxious to see her take on some of the most vocally challenging Broadway musicals.

The other treat is the perfect pairing of Lindsay Mendez and Alexander Gemingnani as Carrie Pipperidge and Enoch Snow, the comic relief couple that has long been a staple of classic musicals.  Ms. Mendez knows how to twist a line for a laugh and Mr. Gemingnani has the lyrical voice of a very fine Irish tenor.  The stage lights up whenever they are singing and they both make the most of their comic romance.  John Douglas Thompson looks like someone who could control the back door to heaven as The Starkeeper.  But for some inexplicable reason, Mr. O’Brien has him physically coming between Billy and Jigger every time they discuss their nefarious plans and looking on when Billy and Julie have a spat.  What is he doing there?  Does Mr. O’Brien really think that we need to be reminded that the authorities in heaven see our transgressions?

One the biggest challenges in any new production of “Carousel” is the choreography.  The legendary Agnes de Mille changed the role of dance in musical theatre with the original choreography for this show.  Kenneth MacMillan, the late artistic director of the Royal Ballet, choreographed the English National Theatre production with clear references to Ms. de Mille’s achievement.  This production’s choreographer, Justin Peck, also comes from a classical ballet background.  He is currently resident choreographer at the New York Ballet and has worked internationally.  However, very little of that classic ballet expressiveness is to be found in Mr. Peck’s dances for this show.  Jumping and spinning seems to be his predominant style with a kick here and there.  The exception is his inventive and entertaining choreography for the men in “Blow High, Blow Low.”

This show has a ballet as its 11 o’clock number rather than the usual big singing and dancing chorus number.  It portrays the harassment that Billy and Julie’s daughter is experiencing and the difficulty she is having “finding herself.”  There is little to excite an audience in Mr. Peck’s bland approach.  The point of an 11 o’clock number (or, in current Broadway scheduling, 10:15 number) is to energize the audience when their attention might be drifting toward the end of the show. I drifted quite a bit during this ballet.

The sound of the music was rich and sweet.  The show is accompanied by a 25-piece orchestra – a rarity in Broadway musicals these days. The score has been reorchestrated by the reigning king of accompaniment, Jonathan Tunick.  He has maintained the lush sound that the score demands while playing up the comedy and the drama.

If you have never seen “Carousel,” this production is pleasant and worth seeing. Several of the performances are as good as they possibly could be.  But the production lacks imagination and never really thrills an audience the way some past revivals have.  It does, however, remind us that our view of abuse and race has changed – or not.

 Posted by at 12:04 am
Mar 072018
 

The Low Road by Bruce Norris

At the Public Theater on Lafayette Street off of Cooper Square

BSonArts Rating: A-

Show-Score Rating: 93

“The Low Road” is a fascinating look at our current economic trends through the eyes of an 18th century youth who takes some of the words of one of the most influential economic philosophers of his time, Adam Smith, and turns them into a rationale for an amoral approach to capitalism.  Bruce Norris’ play is a sort of epic historical fiction designed to critique and connect us to the excesses and misguided presumptions about our current economics – and it could not come at a more relevant time as our nation faces renewed challenges to our view of the “haves” and the “have nots.”

Oscar Eustis, in his Public Theater Artistic Director program notes, provides a useful framework for Mr. Norris’ style and structure.  Mr. Norris has “written a rollicking picaresque adventure, a kind of anti-Candide.”   Indeed, the would-be young capitalist, Jim Trewitt, goes on an adventure through colonial America, moving from one location to another, and, at each stop along the way, tries to build his fortune, honestly and dishonestly, only to end up with neither capital nor dignity.

The baby Trewitt is left on the door step of a colonial “madam.”  She takes him in believing he is related to George Washington and that her reward for housing Jim will be substantial. Jim is very smart and, at a crucial moment in his development, he misreads Adam Smith’s “The Wealth of Nations.” “By pursuing his own interest,” as Smith describes the capitalist, “he frequently promotes that of the society more than he really intends to promote it… I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good.”  Thus, we have the one of the earliest arguments for the trickle-down theory.

But while Smith argued that competition in the free market would inevitably benefit society, he also warned against businessmen in their “conspiracy against the public or in some other contrivance to raise prices” (think the American drug industry!).  More importantly, Smith asserted that the pursuit of self-interest must function within “conditions of justice.”  And that is where the young Jim Trewitt becomes a reflection of our contemporary CEOs who see their role as profit at any cost to the well-being of our society (again, think of our drug industry and the opiate crisis).  Jim sees no ethical or moral restriction on his pursuit of wealth and Norris shows us both the terrible consequences of such a perspective as well as its futility.  Like Candide, Trewitt’s pursuits are frustrated at every turn; but unlike Candide, his efforts only lead to ruin, not enlightenment.

There is little doubt that Norris expects us to see this play as an indictment of the fallacies and excesses of Smith’s philosophy and its continued influence on American economics.  The action of the play is narrated by Adam Smith, played with delightful wit and appropriate authority by Danial Davis.  Norris uses another 18th century historical reality to counter Trewitt’s viewpoint: slavery.  As Jim sets off on his journey to make his fortune, he needs someone to carry his belongings – and after all, is not the presence of servants a sure sign of wealth?  He uses the money he embezzled from his adopted mother, “the madam,” to purchase a slave, John Blanke.  Norris uses the conflicts between Jim and John to illustrate the good and the bad.  And by the end of the play, Jim is an outcast from society and society is adjusting to, if not totally welcoming, John.

The play has been labeled a satire.  While satire usually raises smirks rather than laughs, I found Norris’ drama to be historical fiction with current social and political overtones.  Regardless of its genre, “The Low Road” is totally engaging with a timely critique of our economic and social values.  It is not intended as a Trump commentary.  In fact, to avoid a direct connection with our current President, Norris changed the name of the lead character from Jim Trumpett in the original 2013 London production to Jim Trewitt for its American premiere so that audiences would see the play as a refutation of much more basic and long-term American beliefs and values.

Director Michael Greif has staged the complex action of the play with style and lucidity.  We are swept into this 18th century world while still grounded in our 21st century morass. The cast of 18, with many actors playing two or three roles, is uniformly flawless (and only a not-for-profit like The Public could bring us such a large and rich cast).  Chris Perfetti shows us Trewitt’s innocence and naiveté laced with an amoral and self-consumed world view.  Chukwudi Iwuji portrayal of John Blanke pulls at the audience’s desire for reason and justice in a world where economic class eclipses equity. Harriet Harris’s performance as Jim’s adopted mother (and three other characters as the epic unfolds) is especially impressive.  But all of the roles are inhabited by actors with a fine sense of detail and clarity.  The sets and costumes provide a feeling of authenticity and the relative intimacy of the Anspacher theater makes a large epic drama into a personal experience.

“The Low Road” is an ambitious piece of theater that actually fulfills its ambitions. If only our nation could see its historical heritage as a lesson for our future.  In the words of Candide, that “would make our garden grow.”

 Posted by at 10:38 pm
Mar 052018
 

Queens by Martyna Mojak

At the LCT3 – Claire Tow Theatre at Lincoln Center

BSonArts Rating: C-

Show-Score Rating: 65

Watching LCT3’s production of Martyna Majok’s “Queens,” it’s important to remind yourself of the mission of Lincoln Center Theater’s most recent addition – it is a place for “new playwrights to develop plays for a new audience” according to the theater’s website.  The creation of “Queens” has had unusually robust support including a Lincoln Center Theater commission, several awards with financial support, and development at the renowned Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Playwrights Conference last year.

So, it is rather puzzling why Ms. Majok, with so much interesting and relevant material, and creative support from so many sources, has not received the kind of guidance that a young playwright needs to move from inspiration to a well-crafted and engaging play.  “Queens” is about the challenges, losses, and potential gains that young immigrant women experience when they leave their homeland for the promises of life in the United States.  The play centers on a sort-of basement half-way house in Queens where women who immigrated from Poland, the Ukraine, Syria, Afghanistan, and Honduras are housed as they try to find their way into some form of stability in their new land.

The play jumps forward and backward in time and place, frequently making it difficult for the audience to figure out where we are and what this time and place has to do with what came before. Because the play moves so freely in time, we frequently see characters dealing with events that took place long ago before we see (or are provided information about) that event in the past.   In addition, new characters appear causing more confusion about who is interacting with whom and when these exchanges occur in the history of this basement refuge.

However, Ms. Majok does identify many of the common challenges these women face. How do I deal with the loss of family and friends in my homeland?  Will I ever be reunited with my mother or my child who I left behind or who left me behind?  What do I have to do to survive in this new land? Do I still have the hopes and dreams that drove me here?  Will I ever be recognized as a member of this society or will my accent always make me an “other”?

Ms. Majok clearly has empathy with these characters.  She feels their pain and frustrations and frequently communicates those feelings to the audience.  She paints a convincing picture of people caught between their former identity in their homeland and the discovery that they are now in a different world that demands a new identity.  “You become different when you leave your country,” says one of the women, “you are here – no longer there.”  Sounds simple, but Ms. Majok has tapped into its complexity.

The cast is quite good, each handling their appropriate accent, while communicating the insecurity and anguish they are experiencing.  Ana Reeder, as Renia, the manager of the housing, portrays a character who is warm and considerate one minute and a fowl mouthed bully the next.  Sarah Tolan-Mee, as Inna, is a new arrival and her initiation into the culture of basement forms the plays most unifying aspect.  Ms. Tolan-Mee brings a pitiful innocence to this role.

Unfortunately, director Danya Taymor and her production team have done little to bring clarity and focus to the play.  The full stage at the Claire Tow Theater is revealed and the different settings are arranged using the simplist of furnishing and props.  At times, the same furnishings represent the basement and locations in foreign lands.  At other times, the representation of the basement changes for no seeming reason.  There is a large ceiling that rises and falls with no apparent consistency in what a particular position is supposed to indicate about the location. Previews are a time that a director and playwright can collaborate on clarifying the play’s actions and messages.  If that went on during the three weeks before this play’s opening, it was not evident to this observer.  Still, the potential for this material was clearly apparent, if only Ms. Majok could get some good advice.

 

 Posted by at 10:11 pm