August 16, 2019

Shifting into End of the Summer Mode

A whole bunch of shows are closing this weekend (including The Cher Show, King Kong, Pretty Woman on Broadway and Broadway Bounty Hunter, Mojada, Puffs, and The Way She Spoke off-Broadway). Even more are scheduled to close next week and the theater season in general is slowing down as we all savor these final weeks of summertime. So I’m going to do the same and there will be no posts for the next couple of weeks. But the fall season looks to be a busy and promising one so I hope you’ll come back in September and journey through it with me.

August 10, 2019

"Moulin Rogue" Is Both Colorful and Colorless

The new musical Moulin Rouge! stars Broadway faves Karen Olivo, Aaron Tveit and Danny Burstine. It was staged by the go-for-broke director Alex Timbers and has a book by the award-winning playwright John Logan. 

It is also extravagantly outfitted by the Tony winning set designer Derek McLane and costume designer Catherine Zuber. But the show’s true star is Justin Levine, the musical supervisor who put together the patchwork of pop songs that make up Moulin Rouge!’s score (click here to read more about how he did it.) 

For if you love jukebox musicals, this is the ultimate one. It boasts more than 70 songs (or really snippets of most of them) by everyone from the Rolling Stones and the Talking Heads to Beyoncé and Lorde.

And lots of people do seem to be loving it. In the first week after the show opened on July 25, it grossed nearly $2 million, trailing only the box-office juggernauts The Lion King and Hamilton. 

My sister, a connoisseur of jukebox musicals, counted herself among the delighted and as we sat in the Al Hirschfeld Theatre watching the show, she nodded her head and bopped along happily to the parade of familiar tunes.

I’m fond of a lot of those songs too but they didn’t work for me here. As in so many jukebox musicals, they’ve been shoehorned in and strain to say anything meaningful about the characters or to move the plot along. 

Instead, they’ve turned Moulin Rouge! into a gameshow in which audience members compete to acknowledge each tune with audible sighs, chuckles of recognition and even applause, all with little regard for whether they are disrupting the flow of the storytelling.

As you no doubt know, that story is based on the 2001 Baz Luhrmann movie musical that used an anachronistic pop playlist to tell the story of a young writer named Christian who moves to the bohemian section of fin-de-siècle Paris where he hooks up with the artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and falls for Satine, a courtesan who headlines the shows at the titular club.

Satine falls for Christian too but their romance is challenged by a wealthy duke whom the club’s owner has persuaded to invest in the place in exchange for having Satine become his mistress, and by an ominous cough that she can’t seem to shake.

Logan’s book sticks close to those plot points (albeit adding a few nice nods to LGBTQ+ concerns) but the film, which earned eight Oscar nominations, had fewer songs and so more room for the emotional beats of the story. In order to get in its full playlist, the stage version just skims the surface of emotion.

Despite some good work by Olivo (click here to read an interview with her) as Satine, Burstine (click here to read more about him) as the club owner Harold Zidler and Sahr Ngaujah, non-traditionally cast as the real-life Toulouse-Lautrec, I never cared about any of the characters or what would happen to them.

Even the spectacle—and there’s plenty of it—failed to excite me. The film won its Oscars for set and costume design and McLane has made sure to include its iconic images of a windmill and a giant blue elephant. He’s even extended the club’s louche bordello-like atmosphere into the theater (click here to read more about him). Instagramming is encouraged before the show starts.

Similarly, Zuber has dressed the cast in period costumes-sexy bustiers and crinoline petticoats for the women, dandyish top hats and tight frockcoats for the men-- that are suitably garish.

And in her Broadway debut Sonya Tayeh, one of the most inventive choreographers on the TV competition show “So You Think You Can Dance,” has put together lots of splashy production numbers that have everyone, men included, doing the can-can. The ethnically diverse and uniformly talented 20-member ensemble work their hearts out.

The problem is that it all seems so paint-by-the-numbers. And at times rushed, as everyone hurries onto the next pop song. Even the story’s inherently melodramatic ending Is undercut by an extended postscript that has everyone, including characters who have died, singing and dancing to the classic LaBelle song “Lady Marmalade.”

The audience at the performance my sister and I attended loved all of it. And the folks onstage seemed to be having a great time too. The reviews have also been forgiving. ("There are certainly worse ways to spend an evening than with a musical so visually gorgeous and vibrantly performed," read one.) 

So who am I to argue with all that? The show seems poised to be the kind of long-running hit that makes theatergoers feel that they're getting their money’s worth and that gives out-of-towners something to brag about when they get home. But alas, for me, it’s too much flash and not nearly enough fire.

July 27, 2019

Chekhov Get a Post-Modern Makeover in "Life Sucks." and "Moscow Moscow..."

Poor Anton Chekhov. For some reason, lots of playwrights have recently decided that the best way for them to write a new play is to cannibalize one of his old ones.

That’s what Aaron Posner does in Life Sucks. (the period's included in its title), a snarky modern-dress riff on Uncle Vanya that had a successful run at The Wild Project earlier this year and is now playing in Theatre Three at Theatre Row through Sept. 1. And it’s what Halley Feiffer has done in her even more annoyingly titled Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow, a punk version of Three Sisters that is running at MCC Theater through Aug. 17.

Both playwrights profess to be big fans of the Russian master and to be paying homage or tribute to him with their reimagining of his classic works (click here to read a discussion between them). But their lavish use of potty-mouthed dialog, their constant breaking of the fourth wall and their replacement of Chekhov’s carefully calibrated subtext with hit-you-on-the-nose explications add up to a kind of simplified Chekhov for Dummies.

It’s not that Posner and Feiffer aren’t talented. Posner’s My Name is Asher Lev, a sensitive adaptation of Chaim Potok's novel about an Orthodox Jewish boy who breaks away from his family to become an artist, made my Top 10 list for 2013. And although parts of it made me cringe with discomfort, I was ultimately moved by I'm Gonna Pray for You So Hard, Feiffer’s 2015 drama about a toxic relationship between a father and daughter that seemed to echo the one between the playwright and her father, the cartoonist and playwright Jules Feiffer.

This time out however, both writers seem more interested in showing off how cleverly post-modern they can be. For the most part, the characters and the storylines in their updates hew close to the Chekhov originals. Vanya, the central figure in Life Sucks. is still a sad sack who has spent his life managing a country estate for the pompous professor who is his brother-in-law and pining for the man’s younger second wife. The three sisters in Moscow are still living in a provincial Russian town and longing for what they believe will be a more fulfilling life in the capital.

The entanglements with and among their relatives, friends and other hangers on also remain in both plays. What’s different are the self-consciously colloquial and often profane language (“I look like shit, but what else is new? I've always looked like shit,” complains Olga, the oldest of the sisters in Moscow) and the self-indulgent meta-theatrics that often mar the most tiresome skits on "Saturday Night Live" (at various points, the characters in Life Sucks. line up and dance awkwardly or quiz the audience about how sucky their lives are).

But Chekhov had already let me know how unhappy Olga was without the obscenity and how dispirited Vanya and his gang were without the embarrassing shuffling around. All that said, I did enjoy some elements of each current production.

Posner has made his female characters feistier than Chekhov’s. The snooty aristocratic mother-in-law has been replaced with a down-to-earth godmother and the gloomy male retainer Waffles has been transformed into a more upbeat lesbian named Pickles. Even Vanya’s lovelorn niece Sonia has been given more backbone than she has in the original version. And it's refreshing to see these women speaking up for themselves.

Feiffer meanwhile, has trimmed Chekhov’s sometimes rambling four acts down to 90-minutes. And although that might make some of the storytelling a little confusing for people unfamiliar with Three Sisters, it does give Moscow a propulsive energy. And even some of its silliest moments (and there are plenty of them) are laugh-out-loud funny.

Both Trip Cullman who directed Moscow and Jeff Wise, who helmed Life Sucks., honor the intentions of their playwrights and the shenanigans they’ve crafted (Cullman even includes some business with a Whoopee cushion) but they also leave room for the actors to breathe real life into their characters.

And those actors, cast without regard for race or in some cases gender, are almost across-the-board excellent. Moscow in particular features a murderers’ row of heavy hitters including Stephen Boyer, Tavi Gevinson, Sas Goldberg, Alfredo Narciso and Ray Anthony Thompson. But first among equals for me was the male actor Chris Perfetti, who portrays the unhappily married middle sister Masha who has an affair with a military officer temporarily assigned to the town.

Costumed in a long black dress but eschewing even the slightest bit of camp, Perfetti so perfectly captured both the humor and the pathos of the character that his performance would have been totally at home in even the most traditional production of Three Sisters. It reassured me that no matter what they do to him, Chekhov will be OK.