March 21, 2011

"Beautiful Burnout" is All Flash With No Fire

Beautiful Burnout, which is playing through March 27 at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn Heights, is the textbook definition of style over substance.  But the style is sensational. 

The show was put together by some of the folks involved in Black Watch, the National Theatre of Scotland’s magnificently imaginative meditation on the war in Iraq that was a hit back in 2008 (click here to see my review) and is returning for a three-week run at St. Ann’s starting April 16.

Like Black Watch, Beautiful Burnout uses thumping rock music (the techno band Underworld supplies the recorded soundtrack) CSI-style video projections and stylized choreography to help tell its story. But the tale this time is set on a smaller canvas: the world of amateur boxing.

The fact that the actors have—or affect—thick Scottish burrs makes it difficult to understand much of the dialog. But you don’t really need it. The plot is familiar (working-class kids try to punch their way out of a dead-end existence with the guidance of a gruff but dedicated trainer) and the moral is too (boxing hurts everyone involved). Besides what really matters here is the pumped-up choreography.

Action is a metaphor for emotion in Beautiful Burnout. When its characters want to express their inner thoughts, they break into visceral movement, the way characters in traditional musicals break into song. 

The problem is that there are no real emotions to convey.  The characters are little more than stock figures—the cocky one, the dumb one, the sensitive one—and although the actors look nothing alike, I had a hard time telling them apart because Bryony Lavery’s script gives them so little that’s distinctive to play. 

The only one to stand out for me was the sole female boxer in the group and I can’t tell if that’s because Lavery found it easier to write for a woman (the mother of the main boxer is pretty good too) or because like her character, the actress Vicki Manderson is working extra hard to prove that women can hold their own in a pugilistic environment.

Luckily—and this is where the sensational style comes in—Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett’s dance sequences are terrific.  The synchronized calisthenics and slo-mo fighting routines they've concocted are unbelievably strenuous. (Click here for a quick look at some of it.)  I marveled at how the actors are able to pull it off night after night.

Hogget, who also did the choreography for American Idiot and Peter and the Starcatcher, the new Disney musical that’s playing down at New York Theatre Workshop, is one of the most exciting choreographers to come along in a long time (click here to read a Q&A with him about putting this show together). I want to see more and more of his work.

In fact, seeing it in Beautiful Burnout kept me from going home in what otherwise might have been a grumpy mood. The audience at St. Ann's was sparser and more tepid in its response than I had expected it would be.  And I was hungrier than I wanted to be (I wish there was somewhere to eat near St. Ann’s  besides pizzerias, pub bars, the too-expensive-for-a-pre-or-post-show-bite River Café or the theater's lobby bar where the specialty is microwaved jerked chicken). But I walked out of the old warehouse feeling as though I wanted to dance.  And if a show can do that, it can’t be all bad.

No comments: