February 27, 2008

Hailing "Macbeth"

Part of the fun of seeing Shakespeare is seeing what the director, designers and actors do with the play they’ve chosen. No other playwright in history has had more stuff done to interpret and reinterpret his work. Rupert Goold, one of a seemingly endless string of smart young British directors, does lots of stuff with his production of Macbeth that hit it big in London last season and opened last week at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. For starters, he has cast Patrick Stewart, the classically trained stage actor who made his name in the TV series, “Star Trek: The Next Generation;” and the “X-Men” movies, as the ambitious Scottish lord; and the actress Kate Fleetwood as a much younger Lady Macbeth, who is as high strung and lethal as a razor blade. That sets up a dynamic that makes great sense and gives the proceedings an extra edge—who needs Viagra when you’ve got the aphrodisiac of larcenous ambition shared by a successful older man and a trophy wife half his age.

But Goold doesn’t stop there. He sets the action in a Stalinist-like country and his basic set is a harsh industrial space that most closely resembles the morgue of a poorly funded hospital. He portrays the three witches as nurses there and then turns them into omnipresent muses of evil that neither Macbeth nor the audience can escape. Goold also uses the video projections that contemporary British directors seem to love. (I first saw them put to eye-catching effect two years ago in The Woman in White but now see them everywhere British imports are playing from Jerry Springer: The Opera to the current revival of Sunday in the Park with George.) The energetic director enlists horror movie techniques; there’s lots of blood and gore and shocks that actually made me jump. And he wades right into the play’s psychological murk; this is the most Freudian Macbeth I’ve ever seen.

And I’ve seen my fair share of Macbeths over the years. It may be my favorite of Shakespeare’s plays. That’s not necessarily because it’s one of his best but because it was one of my first. I can’t remember now if Macbeth or Twelfth Night was the actual first Shakespeare I ever saw but I saw them both when I was in grade school, thanks to the legendary Joe Papp’s free productions of the Bard that played in New York City parks during the summer and for New York City school kids during the rest of the year. I don’t know who was in the productions I saw but I do remember the thrill of seeing those two plays and I can still quote many of their lines. I imagine the relationship I have to these works is similar to the one the groundlings who first saw Shakespeare’s plays had with them. I think the groundlings would have liked Goold’s visceral production too.

And now word has come that Macbeth will march across the river and into the Lyceum Theatre (about to be vacated by Mark Twain's Is He Dead?) for an eight week run, beginning at the end of March. Just hearing Stewart, who has dreamed of playing the role since he was a boy, wrap his dulcet voice around Macbeth's speeches is probably worth the price of the ticket. And then, there's all the other stuff. One bit of warning, though, it all adds up to a production that runs about three hours.

February 23, 2008

A Lazy "Sunday in the Park With George"

There’s a reason they call a musical a musical: it’s because of the music. It’s kind of like an ice cream sundae—you gotta have the ice cream. The book of a musical, particularly if it’s good, is like chocolate sauce: it turns a bowl of ice cream into a real treat. The choreography, sets and costumes are the whipped cream, nuts and cherry that help to dress it up. But the whole thing starts with the ice cream and, at the risk of really overworking this metaphor, when I get a sundae, I don’t want it with low-fat ice cream. That’s how I feel about musicals too—I want a big orchestra and full orchestrations.

All of this explains why, despite Stephen Sondheim’s exquisite score, James Lapine’s Pulitzer Prize-winning and moving book, nice performances from the British actors Daniel Evans and Jenna Russell who recreate the roles that won them Olivier Awards in London, and some of the best reviews of the season, I was disappointed with the Roundabout Theatre Company’s new production of Sunday in the Park With George, the latest in a chain of low-calorie musicals that have been imported from England.

Back in the late 1980s and early ’90, the Brits were famous—or infamous, depending on how you felt about it—for gigunda spectacles like The Phantom of the Opera and Miss Saigon. But in recent years, they’ve boomeranged in the other direction with shows like director John Doyle’s revivals of Company and Sweeney Todd in which the actors double as the orchestra. The actors don’t play instruments in Sunday in the Park With George but I almost wish they did since there are more of them than the five members in the show’s band.

Trend watchers have labeled such shows minimalist musicals. I call them cheap shows. O.K., I fess up to a certain bias that comes from being the wife of a pit musician. But, as I said, there’s a reason they call these shows musicals. And Sunday in the Park With George may be one of Broadway’s most important musicals. Sondheim wrote it after the painful failure of Merrily We Roll Along, when he was discouraged by the seeming inability of Broadway audiences to appreciate innovative approaches to his art form. He teamed up for the first time with Lapine (they would later go on to collaborate on Into the Woods and Passion), a young writer-director who had made a name for himself in the freer, innovative off-Broadway musical sandbox at Playwrights Horizons.

The show Sondheim and Lapine came up with is a meditation on what it takes—and what it costs—to be an artist. The first act centers around a fictionalized version of how the 19th century French painter Georges Seurat created his masterpiece ”A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,'' the scene of a verdant spot in the middle of the Seine that Parisians of different classes visited on weekends. The second act takes place nearly 100 years later when Seurat’s namesake great-grandson, an American multimedia artist, is trying to find his way in the contemporary New York art world.

One of the things that seems to have wowed the critics about the current production is the decision by its 32-year old British director Sam Buntrock, who has worked as a commercial animator, to use video projections to create the show’s sets, including the recreation of Seurat’s painting that has always been the emotional centerpiece of the show. The video images are smartly done and fun to see but they struck me as no more than high-tech versions of the clever cutouts and pop-ups that Lapine, who also directed the original production, and set designer Tony Straiges came up with over 20 years ago. And, of course, sets can’t compensate for the music or, as a friend once said, “they don’t call it a setsical.” The voices, particularly Russell’s, do justice to Sondheim’s music but the orchestra isn't powerful enough to hold up its end.

I also found myself missing the intensity and idiosyncrasy that Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters brought to the roles of Seurat and his mistress Dot in the first act (click here to listen to Peter's version of the title song and click here to compare Russell's version of the same number) and the younger George and his grandmother Marie in the second. So, last night, I watched the DVD of the original production that aired on PBS back in 1986. (I had treated myself to the must-have 6-disc "Sondheim Collection" set last year.)

Sunday in the Park with George isn't easy (the woman sitting next to me at Studio 54, where the new revival is playing, slept during the first act, woke up during intermission to chat with her husband, the presumed fan in their family, and then went right back to sleep during the second half). But the songs, particularly in the much debated modern half, are sumptuous, Patinkin and Peters are marvelous and the orchestra is gloriously full-calorie strength. There’s also a commentary track on which Sondheim, Lapine, Patinkin and Peters reminisce 15 years later about putting the show together. It’s all thoroughly satisfying.

February 20, 2008

The Saving "Grace" of Lynn Redgrave

Blame it on lingering unease about the turn of the millennium or growing antipathy towards religious fundamentalism (Islamic and Christian) but atheism has become a hot topic. And the Brits are the ones turning up the heat. Two of the most popular books in 2007 were the British-born literary critic Christopher Hitchens’ “God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything” and “The God Delusion” by Richard Dawkins, an Oxford professor of evolutionary biology. British Humanist Philip Pullman’s fantasy series for children, “His Dark Materials,” has become equally popular and one of the books, “The Golden Compass”, was made into a movie starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig. And now there is Grace, a play by Mick Gordon, a British theater director and AC Grayling, a London-based philosophy professor, about a college professor who is so anti-religion that she even rejects the term atheist because the word implies an acceptance of the concept of a God.

The action in Grace centers around the decision of the title character’s adored only son to become an Episcopal priest. The show was a hit in London and last week the MCC Theater Company opened its production at the Lucille Lortel Theatre down in the always-freethinking West Village. If the reception the show received during the performance I attended is any key, Grace has hit a sweet spot here too. One woman actually called out, like a penitent in a Pentecostal church, to voice her support for a line about the fallacies of the anti-evolution theory of Intelligent Design.

I’ve been fascinated by the God Wars for a while now but I wanted to see Grace because I wanted to see Lynn Redgrave, who is starring as the professor. I’ve liked Redgrave since her days as the awkward heroine who almost gets the guy in “Georgy Girl” and the People magazine reader in me has admired her for the dignity and honesty with which she’s dealt with having a-steal-the-air-out-of-any-room older sister (Vanessa) an in-the-closet father (Sir Michael) a philandering husband and a bout of cancer. But as the years have gone by, what I’ve really come to appreciate is the way Redgrave keeps getting better and better as an actor. In Grace, she may be the best she’s ever been (click here for an except from her performance). So good, in fact, that I’d almost recommend the show, even though I’m lukewarm about the play itself.

I’m all for plays that take on big ideas. And it’s pretty damn hard to finder a bigger idea than the existence or non-being of God. I particularly appreciate those works that attempt to explore all sides of an issue. And in addition to her Christian son, Grace has a secular Jewish husband and a lapsed Buddhist daughter-in-law. But it’s not really a play for me when the characters simply declaim their views to one another or directly to the audience, as they do too much in this 90-minute, intermissionless drama. A play demands more grace than that.

February 16, 2008

A Heartfelt Anniversary Message

The date wasn’t chosen intentionally but it somehow seems like kismet that I wrote my first Broadway & Me blog entry on this subject that I love so much on Valentine’s Day. And so now, one year later, I’m taking time out to celebrate my first anniversary with you. And what a great year it’s been. I’ve seen over 100 shows and written about most of them. I’ve had the opportunity to read more and learn more about Broadway and the theater as I’ve prepared my entries. At the same time more and more of you are reading Broadway & Me, including folks in the theater community and my fellow theater bloggers online. My most heartfelt thanks to you all. I hope each of you—theater lovers, theater flirts and those who just want to know what is a good show to see—will continue reading and telling your friends to visit too. I’m also very grateful for your comments (a special thanks to those of you who have pointed out things that needed to be corrected!) and I welcome emails as well; you can reach me at jan@broadwayandme.com. In the meantime, let the shows go on and on and on. Cheers, jan

February 13, 2008

The Bravery of "Betrayed"

The War in Iraq may not be popular with Americans but it seems that art about the war has been even less so. Movies with war-related themes have tanked at the box office, even when starring big names like Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts. On TV, the get-the-terrorists-by-any-means-necessary series “24,” is now on tenterhooks over how much jingoism audiences will continue to accept. The Broadway revival of the World War I drama Journey’s End played to nearly empty houses and closed on the night that it won a well-deserved Tony.

So, you’ve really got to admire the folks down at the Culture Project, who continue to produce show after show exploring the U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. Its “documentary theater” productions have included Guantánamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom, Baghdad Burning: Girl Blog From Iraq, Guardians, a Scottish import about how journalists have covered the war, and Eve Enslers’ The Treatment about a traumatized soldier.

The latest offering is Betrayed, journalist George Packer’s adaptation of his 2007 article in The New Yorker about the plight of Iraqi interpreters who are regarded as traitors by many of their countrymen and as potential terrorists by the American government which has been reluctant to grant them asylum in this country, marooning them in a no-man’s land. (Actually, as both the article and play observe, many end up in Sweden, which has taken in some 20,000 Iraqi refugees, far more than any other European nation and five times as many as the U.S.)

Writers at the New Yorker seem to be stage struck. The magazine’s theater critic John Lahr wrote the book for Elaine Stritch at Liberty. Last year, staff writer Lawrence Wright turned his brilliant history of Al-Qaeda, “The Looming Tower”, parts of which appeared in the magazine, into the one-man show My Trip To Al-Qaeda that also played at the Culture Project and later at Town Hall. I missed that one and the other Iraq shows too but, having read and been moved by Packer’s article about the
interpreters (click here to read it yourself), I was determined to see Betrayed.

I recruited my old college classmate Lisa, who has studied peace and reconciliation issues and has a keen interest in topics like this, to be my comrade in arms and we made our way down to the Culture Project’s theater on Mercer Street. We found an SRO crowd that included Sarah Jessica Parker, who sneaked in and sat at the back. Over half of the audience also stayed on after the show for a talkback session with both Packer and Wright. It was an intellectually stimulating evening. I just wish I had found the play more involving as a dramatic work.

I don’t fault the actors. Aadya Bedi, Sevan Greene and Waleed F. Zuaiter, who played the three interpreters, are all top-notch, and how nice for such fine actors to get starring roles that don’t call for them to be terrorists. But Packer, who is also the author of “The Assassins' Gate,” the award winning chronicle of the early days of the Iraq war, is a rookie playwright and his characters are a bit one-dimensional, his narrative tilts more towards message-carrying than storytelling. Still, in the end, the plight of the interpreters can’t help but be moving. And maybe this play will help bring the urgency of their situation home to those who can do something about it.

“It’s take-you-medicine theater,” said Lisa as we sat with glasses of wine at the cozy old Soho bistro Félix after the show ended. “But sometimes, you need medicine to make things better.”

February 9, 2008

Only A Tepid Round of "Applause"

Is there anyone who loves theater who doesn’t love “All About Eve”? As I’ve written before, that classic backstage drama is my all-time favorite movie. Everything about it — Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s brilliant, quip-filled script; the high-octane cast (Bette Davis, Anne Baxter, George Sanders, Gary Merrill, Thelma Ritter, Celeste Holm, and even a cameo by Marilyn Monroe); its bittersweet view of the theater — is gloriously bitchy and I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen the film. When show business writer Sam Staggs’s history of the movie, “All About ‘All About Eve,’” came out a few years ago, I bought the book, read it straight through and then read it again.

So, I don’t know how I missed seeing Applause, the musical adaptation of the film, when it opened on Broadway in 1970, went on to win Tonys for Best Musical and for its star Lauren Bacall and then ran for over two years. All of which explains why I was thrilled when I learned that Applause was going to be the first of this season’s Encores! productions of semi-staged concert versions of old musicals. My pit-musician husband K is a member of the Encores! orchestra and so my friend Bill, who did see and remembers well the original production, and I went to the invited dress rehearsal at City Center on Wednesday. It was, to quote the most unforgettable line from the movie, “a bumpy night.”

The now-familiar story of the relationship between a devious ingénue and an aging stage actress was based on a real-life incident that the actress and writer Mary Orr turned into a short story that "Cosmopolitan" magazine published in 1946. It was adapted into a radio drama in 1949; made into the movie that is widely considered to have revived Davis’s career in 1950; and two decades later, became the musical that made Bacall a Broadway star. Now, Christine Ebersole has taken on the role of the aging actress Margo Channing in the Encores! production.

As she proved in last year’s Grey Gardens, it’s hard to find a more consummate stage actress than Ebersole. She also has that incredible singing voice. And, as she’s currently demonstrating, she's also got the soul of a true stage trouper. For Ebersole is performing the show’s five-day run, which ends Sunday, while struggling to recover from a bout of flu that kept her in bed for three days and that had her only able to walk through the technical rehearsal on Tuesday. She gamely, if hoarsely, sang on Wednesday but K tells me she's still not well. So it’s going to sound particularly mean to say this, but here goes: she’s wrong for the role.

It makes sense that actors are eager to do parts that will offer new challenges, allow them to stretch beyond what they’ve done before and already mastered. Sometimes it works (song and dance man Raúl Esparza as the no-nonsense pimp in Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming) and sometimes it doesn’t (the powerful actress S. Epatha Merkerson as the fragile wife in Come Back, Little Sheba). Part of what has always made the role of Margot Channing work is having her played by a female star whose own personality is as outsized as the fictional character’s. Ebersole lacks the imperiousnes that Davis and Bacall brought to Margot. She’s too nice. I kept wondering what Donna Murphy, an actress who knows how to wield big shoulders, might have done with the part.

And Applause needs a star who is larger than life because Charles Strouse’s music isn’t his best and the show comes off as a dated artifact from the ‘70s despite director Kathleen Marshall's effort to add modern touches, including an homage to other Encores! musicals she's embedded in the title song number. Meanwhile all of the actors, with the exception of Kate Burton as Margot’s best girlfriend, seemed muted. Erin Davie’s Eve wasn’t ruthless enough. Michael Park as Margot’s director and lover wasn’t dashing enough. Tom Hewitt as the producer who becomes Eve’s mentor wasn’t cunning enough. Even Mario Cantone as Margot’s gay dresser and closest confidante, tuned down his usual high camp.

Ebersole, of course, is too good to give a bad performance. But this show, even more than most, rides on the strength of its star and even if Ebersole had been in full health, I’m not sure she could have carried it.

February 6, 2008

'Hunting and Gathering" and Inheriting

Family dynasties are an established part of the theater world. I don’t know if that’s because the passion and talent are inherited or if the kids, growing up around actors, just drift into it. But Lionel, Ethel and John Barrymore were the third generation of actors in a family so celebrated that Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman parodied them in The Royal Family, the 1927 comedy about a quirky theatrical clan. Ethel is supposed to have hated the play so much that she threatened to sue. The Redgraves—Vanessa, Corin, Lynn and their children—can claim at least five generations in the business. One of the most delightful days I can remember is when I stumbled upon an exhibit about the family (glorious packrats, they seem to have saved every script, opening night telegram, playbill and ticket stub any one of them ever touched) at the London Theatre Museum when my husband K and I were on vacation a couple of years ago.

Some performances I’ve recently attended suggest that other theatrical families are also passing the torch on to their progeny. Having the famous name and the family contacts probably helped these young legacies get in the door but in all three cases, it's clearly their own abilities that are keeping them on stage. Zoe Kazan, granddaughter of Elia Kazan, the legendary director who brought Death of a Salesman and A Streetcar Named Desire to the stage and was an original member of the Group Theatre, is winning nice notices as the sassy young tenant who serves as the catalyst for the painful epiphanies in Come Back, Little Sheba. And just last week, I saw
Mamie Gummer (Meryl Streep’s daughter, above left) and Keira Naughton (James Naughton’s daughter, above right) give winning performances in Hunting and Gathering, playwright Brooke Berman’s comedy about the romantic entanglements and real estate woes of four restless young New Yorkers that opened at Primary Stages at 59E59 Theaters.

The play itself struck me as no deeper than an episode of the long-running sitcom “Friends.” Although
maybe I would have seen it differently if I were a Twixter, one of those young people between the ages of 20 and 40 who can’t seem to grow up or settle down and continually find themselves betwixt and between jobs, relationships and living spaces. There were amusing lines, Leigh Silverman’s direction certainly kept things moving along nicely and David Korin’s set, a collection of cardboard moving boxes that are stacked to resembled the Manhattan skyline and from which the actors extract various props, was clever.

But as is so often the case these days, it was the acting t
hat saved the evening. Gummer, as the more predatory, hunter-type; and Naughton, as the gatherer, struggling to pull her life together to find both a physical and metaphorical home, added luster to their family honor. Yet it is Michael Chernus who steals the show. Chernus has a natural stage presence, a shaggy sexiness and the ability to show the sadness that so often roils right beneath the best humor. I’ve never seen him before and I don’t know if he’s from an acting family but if he can handle drama as well as he does comedy, he just might start a dynasty of his own.

February 2, 2008

Having My "Jerry Springer" Moment

There’s a difference between liking a show and admiring one. Two days have passed since I saw Jerry Springer: The Opera, the sacrilegious, potty-mouthed musical that had a two-night run at Carnegie Hall this past week, and I still can’t decide if I liked it. But I certainly do respect its audacity.

British comedians Richard Thomas and Stewart Lee based their musical on the trashy American TV talk show on which people in dysfunctional relationships shamelessly reveal personal secrets that range from infidelity and incest to rac
ism and homophobia and then frequently end up trading blows with one another. Thomas and Lee placed their second act in Hell where Springer referees a debate between a diaper-clad Jesus and a nattily suited Satan, with a much put upon God making a cameo appearance. The situations are irreverent, the music is operatic; the lyrics are profane enough to make a gangsta rapper blush. (Click here to read an interview with Thomas and Lee about the show’s derivation).

Jerry Springer was a critical and commercial hit in London, moving from a five-month run at the National Theatre in 2003 to the West End, where it played for another 15 months (click here to see one of the dozens of YouTube clips
from that production). But a national tour through the rest of Britain set off protests from Christian groups at almost every stop, a BBC broadcast drew some 50,000 complaints, and a Broadway transfer was cancelled when financial backers got cold feet. The show finally made its U.S. debut last summer at Chicago’s Bailiwick Repertory Theatre, a non-equity company known for its gay-themed shows.

So when I saw that the infamous show was being done for two nights at Carnegie Hall, I knew that I had to see it. There was nearly as much to see outside the concert hall as there was on the stage inside at the second night performance my always-up-for-anything buddy Bill and I att
ended. Despite the cold, people milled around on the sidewalk, clearly pleased with themselves for being there and eager to see who else had come. A small band of religious protesters from the Catholic group The American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property stood to one side, carrying picket signs and, from time to time, tentatively singing hymns. But people mostly ignored them and kept schmoozing.

Even inside, it took a while for the SRO audience to settle down and the show started about 15
minutes late. Tough-guy actor Harvey Keitel seemed miscast in the non-singing role of Springer. But David Bedella, the one holdover from the original British cast, gave a high-voltage performance in the dual roles of Satan and the tabloid show’s Warm-up Man. The rest of the cast, all Broadway veterans, all eager and able to show off their operatic chops and, each wittily costumed by Ilona Somogyi, was equally terrific as the show’s unhappy guests.

It seemed deliciously transgressive to be watching so naughty a show in such a decorous setting as Carnegie Hall, although I do wish the acoustics had been better because I had trouble hearing all of the lyrics. I also wish that director Jason Moore, who also helmed Avenue Q, another cheeky TV to stage transfer, had drawn out more of the poignancy that is evident in some of the YouTube clips from the London production. Still, I laughed and I gasped and I wasn’t bored. But I still don’t know if I liked the show. Shock and awe can be dazzling and barrier breaking but sometimes, it is no more consequential than a sky full of fireworks.