April 30, 2008

Fishburne Brings the Goods to "Thurgood"

Making fun of movie stars who sign up for Broadway shows is something of a blood sport for the theaterati. But over the past few weeks, I think I’ve begun to understand those film actors a little better. If they’re truly talented and if they really care about their craft, how much satisfaction can they get from just cavorting in front of a blue screen, issuing imperious commands, saving the world over and over again as the big blockbuster movies that now dominate Hollywood demand they do?

So it makes sense to me that Professor Xavier of the “X-Men” series and Morpheus of “The Matrix” movies are currently appearing on Broadway. And Patrick Stewart (Xavier) and Laurence Fishburne (Morpheus) are not only nourishing their own creative souls but also treating audiences to superb performances in, respectively, Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Thurgood, the one-man show about the civil rights attorney and the nation’s first black Supreme Court Justice that opened Wednesday night at the Booth Theatre.

Both actors are truly talented and masters of their craft who not only have appeared on Broadway in the past but have been nominated for Tonys. And I’m betting that they’ll be nominated this year too. Fishburne actually won a Tony with his Broadway debut in 1992 as an ex-con in August Wilson’s Two Trains Running. And seven years later, he made a splendid and regal Henry II opposite Stockard Channing’s Eleanor of Aquitaine in The Lion in Winter. Although I confess what I most remember about the latter performance was Fisburne’s stepping out of character to dress down an audience member whose ringing cell phone interrupted an intense scene between the royal pair. Channing seemed taken aback but the audience burst into supportive applause.

Fishburne stays brilliantly in character during Thurgood. The play was written by George Stevens, Jr., the film and TV producer whose credits include the annual “The Kennedy Center Honors” broadcast and the popular “The American Film Institute Life Achievement Awards.” But back in 1991, Stevens also produced, directed and wrote the TV movie “Separate But Equal” about the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision that legally ended segregation in the U.S. Sidney Poitier played Marshall, who, as the lead attorney for the NAACP, argued the case before the Court. Stevens has said that his continuing interest in Marshall lead him to write a play, his first, about him.

The resulting 90-minute piece is presented as a lecture that the elderly Justice gives
about his life at his alma mater Howard University. Thurgood trades on Marshall’s reputation as a raconteur and it’s nicely salted with humorous tales. But it still comes off as one of those Ken Burns-style documentaries you might see on PBS or the History Channel, complete with video projections of relevant scenes—a sharecroppers’ shack when he talks about his travels through the segregated south; pretty brown-skinned flappers when he describes meeting his first wife; the steps of the Supreme Court when he recalls his first visit there.

You need a great actor to bring a work like this to anything approaching dramatic life. James Earl Jones leant his commanding presence to the role when the play was originally produced at the Westport Country Playhouse in 2006 but, apparently, opted to do the all-black revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof instead of bringing Thurgood to Broadway. Luckily, the producers persuaded Fishburne to step in. Fishburne, who is only 47, wasn’t even born when the Court handed down the unanimous Brown decision and he has admitted in several interviews (click here to read one he gave New York magazine) that he knew very little about Marshall before accepting the role. But he looks eerily like the Justice and he uses both his acting chops and movie-star charisma to draw the audience into Marshall’s story.

I’ve just finished reading Jeffrey Toobin’s terrific new book “The Nine,” which focuses on recent Supreme Court justices but includes a sizable cameo on Marshall, and so his story wasn’t new to me but I still had a good time.
Like Golda’s Balcony, the one-woman show about the former Israeli Prime Minister that opened in 2003, Thurgood clearly intends to educate as much as entertain. And it does a fairly good job of both. “You learn so much,” I overheard a woman saying as we all made our way out of the theater. But unlike Golda’s Balcony, which starred the stage stalwart Tovah Feldshuh and played 493 performances, Thurgood is scheduled for a limited run that is now set to end on June 22. After that, Fishburne, alas for theater lovers, is heading back to making movies.

April 26, 2008

"The Fifth Column" Isn't Sturdy Enough

The Mint Theater Company prides itself on presenting unknown plays by very well known writers. Over the years, it has presented, with varying degrees of success, plays by D. H. Lawrence, A.A. Milne, Dawn Powell, Thomas Wolfe, Leo Tolstoy and, most recently, Ernest Hemingway. I’d never seen a Mint production (although last fall’s world premiere of a “new” Tolstoy work was tempting) and since I fell under the Hemingway mystique while reading Carlos Bakers’ still-unrivaled 1969 biography, I decided to see the Mint’s production of The Fifth Column, the only play Hemingway every wrote and something of a companion piece to his classic novel “For Whom the Bell Tolls.”

Hemingway wrote The Fifth Column in 1937, while in Madrid covering the Spanish Civil War. The play centers around two American journalists—clearly modeled on Hemingway and his soon-to-be wife Martha Gellhorn—who are covering that conflict and getting more involved in it than they should. Hemingway shopped the play around for a while until the Theater Guild finally agreed to produce it in 1940 but, apparently believing him to be a better novelist than playwright, the Guild brought in Hollywood screenwriter Benjamin Glazer to doctor the script.

The Glazer version opened on March 6, 1940, the same year that “For Whom the Bell Tolls” hit the bestsellers’ list and three years before the Gary Cooper-Ingrid Begman film adaptation of the novel hit the big screen. The play was directed by Lee Strasberg and starred Franchot Tone as the Hemingway stand-in Philip Rawlings. (Lee J. Cobb, who nine years later would create the role of Willy Loman in Death of A Salesman, had a supporting role as an underground fighter who enlists Rawlings’ help.) The critics liked it. “Although The Fifth Column is an uneven play that never recovers in the second act the grim candor of the beginning, it manages to make a statement that is always impressive and sometimes poignant or shattering,” wrote Brooks Atkinson, who was so impressed that he wrote a longer analysis 10 days later (click here to read it).

Still, the show played just 87 performances and a national tour fell apart when Tone bought out his contract. The play was never produced again until the Mint’s artistic director Jonathan Bank decided to put it on. Bank, who also directs this production, has gone back to Hemingway’s original three-act script, which gives the Mint bragging rights to a world premiere but made me wonder what the shorter version Atkinson championed might have been like since the show my buddy Bill and I saw simply isn’t very good.

The cast of 13, lead by Kelly AuCoin as Rawlings, Heidi Armbruster as his paramour Dorothy Bridges and Ronald Gutterman as the freedom fighter Max, is fine. Although Jeff Nellis’ lighting and Jane Shaw’s sound design are actually better. But probably the best part for me was the exhibit in the lobby that recounts the show’s history, complete with photos of and even letters by Hemingway and Gellhorn. You can see it, and the play too, through May 18.

In the meantime,
I'm wondering what Gellhorn, an outstanding war correspondent in her own right, thought of his portrait of her. Earlier this year, she got her own play when another small company, the Keen Company, presented The Maddening Truth. Its playwright David Hay doesn't have a famous name but I think I might have enjoyed that one more.

April 23, 2008

A Great Party for a Great Guy

“Jonathan wants to know if you’re coming to his party,” my husband K told me last week. Jonathan is Jonathan Tunick, the foremost orchestrator on Broadway and one of only nine people who have achieved the show business Grand Slam of winning an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Tony (click here to find out the other eight recipients). The party was to celebrate Jonathan’s 70th birthday. And the fact that he would even care whether I would be there is a testament to what a really great guy he is. Because, me aside, the guest list for his party was a literal Who’s Who of Broadway royalty.

There were the composers and lyricists Sheldon Harnick, Charles Strouse, Maury Yeston and, of course, Stephen Sondheim; the divas Barbara Cook, Angela Lansbury, Priscilla Lopez, Patti LuPone, Donna Murphy, and
Bernadette Peters; the leading men John Cullum, Brian Stokes Mitchell, and Edward Hibbert; the director and producer Hal Prince; the theater historian Robert Kimball, the guardian of the Rodgers & Hammerstein estate Ted Chapin; the opera singer Harolyn Blackwell; the theater critic and columnist Howard Kissel (click here to read his account of the party); our mutual friend Seymour “Red” Press, the musical contractor extraordinaire; and the Broadway Moonlighters, a 12-member band of Jonathan’s favorite musicians including, I am proud to say, K. And those were just the people I recognized by sight.

The affair was held last Sunday, a traditional party night for theater folk since there are usually no Sunday evening performances. And the gathering took over the entire front room of O’Neal’s, the show business canteen across from Lincoln Center that is a personal favorite of Jonathan’s. Other guests included cousins and old friends, including one who went back with Jonathan as far as kindergarten, classmates from Juilliard and one pal who recently retired as a psychologist and had returned to the saxophone with enough dexterity to allow him to sit in—and fit in—with the Moonlighters.

It was a great party. Red and his wife Nona, who helped to organize things, got there early, took a table right at the front of the room and saved a place for me. So I had a literal front row seat that was just a table away from the one where Angela Lansbury and Barbara Cook sat and just about everyone else visited to pay their respects. But there was no grandstanding that night just generous displays of goodwill towards a guy that everyone was obviously happy to celebrate.

Jonathan’s manager and friend, Jeff Berger served as the evening’s MC and was so funny that Hal Prince later quipped that he’d be his agent if Berger wanted to launch a career as a standup comic. Jonathan, whose boyhood dream was to lead a big band, lead the Moonlighters in both standards and tunes he’d composed and took nice solos on the clarinet too. His frequent collaborators Prince and Sondheim toasted him. “My reputation would not be what it is without Jonathan Tunick,” Sondheim told the group. Bernadette Peters serenaded him with a lovely rendition of "If You Were the Only Boy in the World."

But the highlight, at least for me, came when Jonathan’s wife, Leigh Beery Tunick, herself a Tony nominee for her performance as Roxana in the 1973 musical Cyrano, performed a moving interpretation of "Time After Time." “There are a lot of great singers in this room” her grateful husband said when she’d finished. “But I think everyone would agree you held your own among them.” I thought so too. “As someone who’s crazy about her guy, I could hear how crazy you are about yours,” I told her when she sat down at our table afterward. “You made me cry.” We’re not personal friends. I only see her at opening nights and other large gatherings. But she squeezed my hand in solidarity. “Are you crazy about yours too?” she said, adding, “Aren’t we lucky?” Indeed. In fact, the other treat for me was watching Barbara Cook whoop with delight after K took a solo.

Later, after everyone had queued up for the buffet dinner of grilled chicken and salmon and penne with vegetables, they brought out a big chocolate cake and we all sang "Happy Birthday." The band played a few more numbers and Jonathan, known for his sober mien, looked as happy as a kitten in a dairy barn. “I’m not going to retire,” he said during his thank-you speech. “I’m going to keep working as long as you’ll have me.” Which, undoubtedly, will be for a very long time. In fact, the very next morning, he, Prince and Sondheim were scheduled to meet at 10 a.m. to work on a new show.
And as for me, I’m grateful that I got to be there on Sunday night and to know, even a little, such a truly great guy.

April 19, 2008

Regrets Only for “A Catered Affair”

My regret is that I didn’t like the new musical A Catered Affair more. Its pedigree seemed to promise such great things. The story about a blue collar Bronx couple who decide to throw their daughter a big wedding that she doesn’t want and they can’t afford is based on “The Catered Affair,” a drama the great Paddy Chayefsky wrote for "The Philco Television Playhouse" back in 1955 at the height of The Golden Age of TV. Gore Vidal adapted it for a movie the next year that starred Ernest Borgnine, fresh off his Academy Award-winning portrayal in "Marty", as the taxi driver dad; Bette Davis as his unhappy wife and Debbie Reynolds as their daughter. (My unendingly resourceful friend Bill discovered that Turner Classic Movies is running that version on its On Demand channel through mid-May).

The book for the new musical is written by Harvey Fierstein, a longtime fan of the movie and a four-time Tony winner including for writing Torch Song Trilogy and the book for La Cage aux Folles; and the music is by John Bucchino, the acclaimed cabaret performer and songwriter whose work has been performed by such singers as Deborah Voigt, Liza Minnelli and Audra McDonald, who has become a virtual one-woman bandwagon for the post-Sondheim generation of show composers. The cast is lead by Faith Prince, turning in a sensationally moving performance as the mother; Tom Wopat, almost as good as the father; Leslie Kritzer, a standout as one of the original sorority sister’s in Legally Blonde, as the daughter; and Fierstein, who expanded the part of the family’s bachelor uncle for himself, turning the character from a drunk lady's man into a gay guy. And yet, this may have been the most dour wedding since Miss Havisham got left with her molding cake in Dicken’s “Great Expectations”.

I suppose expectations might be my problem here too. The show’s advertising doesn’t help. Its logo centers around a smiling bridal couple enjoying their first dance. The Catered Affair website (click here to visit) includes a chatty blog by Fierstein, invites readers to write in with their own wedding stories and promotes a “Mother Of The Bridal Shower” that offers ticket holders discounts for lunch at Tavern on the Green and a special Wedding Cupcake at one of the Cupcake Cafés. It all makes the show sound like it’s fun but it isn’t.

The critics have lined up on both sides of the aisle. “This is the saddest show about a wedding that I ever saw. And I can't imagine anybody who would want to see it,” wrote The Journal News’ Jacques le Sourd. "A Catered Affair demands serious attention from an audience, but the effort is worth it," declared the AP’s Michael Kuchwara. The show won 7 San Diego Theatre Critics Circle Awards, including Outstanding New Musical, during its pre-Broadway run there last fall.

I have to say that I’m sitting in the naysayers pew on this one. Musicals obviously don’t have to be light and frothy (as regular readers know, my all time favorite is Sweeney Todd) but they don’t have to be unrelentingly grim either (both Grey Gardens and Spring Awakening deal with some pretty depressing stuff but still manage to allow you a few chuckles). The small amount of humor in A Catered Affair revolves around the anachronistic jokes Fierstein has written for the uncle, who in this version is constantly making “Queer Eye”-style quips at a time when a gay man in a working class family like his would have been burrowing into the closet or leaving home.

And the one thing that every successful musical needs is memorable music. It doesn’t necessarily have to be tunes that you’re humming when you leave the theater (I couldn’t hum the music from Passing Strange if you paid me and yet it fuels that show). There are 16 numbers in A Catered Affair. They’re pleasant but they’re also all so similar that I actually came home thinking there had only been about five. And none of them gave you anything to celebrate.

A Catered Affair runs just 90 intermissionless minutes. Some folks are calling it a chamber musical (minimalism in one way or the other seems to be a trademark of director John Doyle, who had actors playing their own instruments in the recent revivals of Sweeney Todd and Company). And those fans, like my blog colleague Chris at Everything I Know I Learned from Musicals, are calling the show charming. The tickets, however, are full symphony-priced. And my frequent theatergoing companion Bill had a different adjective for it. “Lugubrious,” he said as we walked to the subway after the show. I, with much regret, nodded in total agreement.

April 16, 2008

A Flawed Frame for "Another Vermeer"

People who love theater tend to be suckers for shows about the making or value of art. I’m one of them. And Austin Pendleton seems to be one too. A few years ago, he wrote a play called Orson’s Shadow, based on the events surrounding a 1960 production of Eugène Ionesco's Rhinoceros that was directed by Orson Welles and starred Laurence Olivier and his soon-to-be-wife Joan Plowright. And now Pendleton is starring in another docu-drama called Another Vermeer.

The new show isn’t about the famous 17th century artist but a lesser-known 20th century Dutch painter named Han van Meegeren who was charged with treason after World War II for collaborating with the Germans by selling a previously undiscovered Vermeer to Hitler’s right-hand man Hermann Göring. Van Meegeren defended himself by saying that he had not plundered his country’s cultural patrimony but had instead duped the Nazi with forgeries of Old Masters that he had begun to make when critics turned away from the similarly-styled works he created under his own name in favor of Cubist, Surrealist and other more modern art.

In real-life, an international panel of experts from the Netherlands, Belgium and England analyzed the painting and concluded that it was van Meegeren’s work. But in the play, written by Bruce J. Robinson, the only way van Meegeren can keep himself from the gallows is by creating another work of the same quality as the disputed Vermeer. It’s a great set-up for a play. But, alas, the Abingdon Theatre Company’s production is something of a let down.

The company’s small black box theater doesn’t help. “They’re all good seats,” the usher said as she showed me to mine. Which is true in its way but the space is also so intimate that when an elderly man sitting in the front row at the performance I attended dropped his program and was too frail to bend down and pick it up, the actors had to keep stepping over the pages. At one point, an actor’s entrance was delayed because the same old guy was making his way back from the restroom along the aisle the actors used to enter and exit the stage area. But I think the real problem rests with the show’s director Kelly Morgan, who seems to crank everything up to such a frenetic level and to stuff in so much stage business that the whole thing verges on parody.

Pendleton, a man of many talents, teaches directing at the New School and I wish he’d done some tutoring here because there are some moments, such as a quietly intense confrontation between his van Meegeren and the critic who is his nemesis, played with just the right pompous brio by Thom Christopher, that provide a glimpse of the thought-provoking drama that this show might have been.

The show's run ends on Sunday but it would be great to see at some later time what another director might do with it.
Actors move from show to show, honing their skills as they go. Directors get to develop their chops as they work on a succession of different productions. But playwrights are dependent on having others perform their works and there are far too few of those opportunities for new playwrights. So Abingdon, which clearly cares about the making of art, gets points for continuing to give beginning playwrights a place to show their work and for charging just $20 a ticket so that people will take a chance and see it. I just wish Another Vermeer could have been displayed better.

April 12, 2008

Completely Enchanted by "South Pacific"

One entire page in the Playbill for Lincoln Center Theater’s sensational new revival of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s South Pacific is devoted to an acknowledgment of the 14 individuals and institutions who put up the extra funds for the production. Now I’m adding my thanks too. Because you can see what a difference their money has made in Michael Yeargan’s idyllic set, Donald Holder’s sensitive lighting, Catherine Zuber’s spot-on costumes and the uniformly brilliant cast of 40.

But nowhere are the extra dollars more evident than in the care that has been given to the music, something that shouldn’t be, but often is, the neglected stepchild in today’s Broadway musicals. It's not the score that usually gets short-shrift, but how it’s played. There are 30 musicians in the South Pacific orchestra, almost twice the current number for a Broadway musical and six times as many as those playing in the mini-orchestra for the current revival of Sunday in the Park with George. This means the South Pacific orchestra is able to play Robert Russell Bennett’s original 1949 orchestrations including a sumptuous, nearly six-minute-long overture that had the audience at the performance my friend Bill and I attended cheering before the show had even begun.

In an extra gracious nod to the players, the front part of the Vivian Beaumont’s thrust stage actually retracts so that you can see the tuxedoed and gowned musicians, beautifully conducted by Ted Sperling, as they play through that opening medley of gorgeous melodies like “Some Enchanted Evening,” “Bali Ha’i”, “Younger than Springtime” and “This Nearly Was Mine.” Every aural detail has been given attention: sound designer Scott Lehrer has somehow managed to make each note and lyric heard clearly without strapping those lumpish cigarette-pack-sized mikes to the actors. This is how the music was meant to be heard and it’s an unbelievable treat to be able to hear it this way.

I’d like to think that this is the start of a new trend. The size of orchestras has been shrinking steadily over the last couple of decades, and virtually disappeared in the recent John Doyle productions of Sweeney Todd and Company that had the actors playing instruments in between saying their lines. But the current revival of Gypsy also has a larger than normal orchestra with 25 musicians, including my husband K. And, seated on stage behind a scrim that rises and falls as the action requires, they, too, get their moments in the spotlight.

The actors rise to the high level that the musicians sets
in both Gypsy and South Pacific. And there is no doubt that the hardest decisions for Tony voters will be those categories in which both shows are nominated. Kelli O’Hara has been terrific before in shows such as Sweet Smell of Success, Light in the Piazza, and The Pajama Game but she breaks into the front ranks of musical stars with her performance as the spunky navy nurse Nellie Forbush, a southern girl who falls in love with a French planter on the Polynesian island where she is stationed during WWII but whose racial prejudice causes her to break off their affair when she learns that he had a previous relationship with a native woman. The role was originally written for Mary Martin but O’Hara makes it her own and will give Patti LuPone, also certain to be nominated for her powerhouse performance as Mama Rose in Gypsy, a run for her money for the Best Actress in a Musical award.

Similarly, the Brazilian opera singer Paulo Szot’s lush baritone and virile good looks redefine the role of Emile de Becque, the planter Nellie loves. “He may be the best musical leading man I’ve ever seen,” Bill remarked after the show. And equally good are the also-hunky Matthew Morrison as Lt. Joe Cable, the young officer who falls in love with a native girl but, like Nellie, succumbs to the racial mores of the time; Danny Burstein adding more than just the usual comic relief as the camp fixer Luther Billis; and the Hawaiian actress Loretta Ables Sayre, as the amusing but also self aware Bloody Mary, the native woman who sells souvenirs and other goods to the sailors.

This is the first time South Pacific has been revived on Broadway since its original production opened nearly 60 years ago but K and I saw a concert version at Carnegie Hall in 2005. That casting seemed perfect—Reba McEntire as Nellie, Brian Stokes Mitchell as Emile and Alec Baldwin as Billis—but we were ultimately disappointed. This time around, though, it was, well, a totally enchanted evening.

April 9, 2008

Out and About in "The Drunken City"

It wasn’t so long ago that gay people in plays were tragic figures who were struggling to come out or battling AIDS or sassy wiseacres who provided comic relief. But we now live in a different pop- cultural world, where a growing number of high schools have gay-straight alliances, rock stars like R.E.M’s Michael Stipe are openly gay and perhaps the most beloved character on the cult HBO crime drama “The Wire” was Omar, a stick-up artist, equally devoted to robbing drug dealers and romancing his male lovers.

Over the past few months, I’ve noticed a different kind of gay character popping up in new plays too. From Clarice Bernstein, the beleaguered presidential speechwriter played by Laurie Metcalf in David Mamet’s November; to Howie, the teenager who is totally unself-conscious about his sexuality in Stephen Karam’s Speech & Debate, these gay characters are the most stable and self-assured people in their shows. And now comes Adam Bock’s The Drunken City with two gay characters who are not only the anchors for their flighty friends but also of this meditation on love and marriage among today’s tewentysomethings.

I got a kick out of Bock’s last play, The Receptionist, and so I decided to see this new one without knowing a thing about it. My buddy Bill, always game for a theater adventure, met me at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater, one of the new spaces that Playwrights Horizons operates on 42nd Street, where The Drunken City is playing through April 20. The one-act show, which centers around six young singles who meet, hook up and fall out on a drunken night on the town, is slight but appropriately giddy and Bill and I had a good time.

Bock specializes in snappy dialog that sounds like the kind of thing that people, or at least I, always wish they had said. The performances by the good-looking, interracial cast, lead by Cassie Beck's amusingly conflicted bride-to-be, is yet more proof that New York City is currently overflowing with a bumper crop of talented young actors. And David Korins’ clever set design, aided by Matthew Richards’ nimble lighting and Bart Fasbender’s smart sound design, create an evocative cityscape.

But what really struck me is the way the gay guys are portrayed. They don’t have swishy, stereotypical jobs—one’s a dentist, the other a baker. They’re comfortable hanging out with straight friends. Their concerns are ones we all share: how to care for our friends, where to find love and how to be true to one’s self. Having gay people portrayed just as people, now that's truly intoxicating.

April 5, 2008

Still Wrapped Up With "The Capeman"

Zillions of people have fallen in love with Broadway musicals before even seeing their first show. Instead, it was a cast recording that won their hearts. And that’s how I first fell for Paul Simon’s The Capeman. I’ve been a Paul Simon fan since seeing “The Graduate” when I was in my teens and over the years, I’ve loved Simon’s musical adventurousness. His 1986 album “Graceland”, an homage to the mbaqanga sounds of South Africa, is one of my all-time favorites. And so I was really intrigued back in 1997, when someone gave me a copy of “Songs from The Capeman,” a concept cast album that served as a kind of aural trailer for the show that was scheduled to open on Broadway a few months later.

As it turned out, The Capeman became a flop of myth-making proportions, and Simon vowed never to write for Broadway again but I continued to love the music and when I got a flyer in the mail saying that the Brooklyn Academy of Music was staging a concert version of Songs from the Capeman as the kickoff to its month-long celebration of Simon’s work, I clicked right on to Telecharge and ordered tickets.

The Capeman tells the story of Salvador Agron, a troubled Puerto Rican kid who joined a street gang in the late ‘50s, stabbed two white boys to death during a rumble and became a tabloid sensation for the dramatic black cape he wore during the fight and the defiant attitude he displayed during later interviews with the press. Agron spent 16 years in prison, became a born-again Christian and accomplished poet before being released in 1979. He died from pneumonia seven years later.

Simon’s wonderful score includes doo-wop, gospel, Latin jazz and his trademark folk-inflected pop. His collaborators on the show included Nobel laureate Derek Walcott who co-wrote the book and lyrics, choreographer Mark Morris as director, and the always innovative set designer Bob Crowley. The cast included Marc Anthony as young Sal, Ruben Blades as the older Sal, and Sara Ramirez, who seven years later would win a Tony for her scene-stealing role as The Lady of the Lake in Spamalot, making her Broadway debut as the pen pal who befriends Sal when he’s in prison.

With the exception of Crowley, they were all Broadway newcomers. And it showed. During the extended preview period, reports leaked out about the weakness of the book, about Simon’s refusal to listen to the advice of Broadway veterans, about Morris’ disappearance from rehearsals and finally about the arrival of show doctor Jerry Zaks. My pit-musician husband K had worked with Zaks on several earlier musicals and I so I approached the director in the lobby a few days before the show opened. “How’s it doing?” I asked after establishing our connection. “Well, it’s better,” I recall him saying. “But we could use some more time.” They didn’t get it. The show open to near universal pans and closed after 68 performances, losing all of its $11 million investment.

Still, the music was terrific. And so my sister Joanne and I trooped out to Brooklyn this past rainy Thursday night and trekked up what seemed like a hundred steep and rickety steps to the balcony of the BAM Harvey Theater. But once we got our breath back, we had a grand time. The legendary doo-wop group Little Anthony & the Imperials, celebrating 50 years together, warmed up the audience and set the mood with three of their classic numbers. Then the Spanish Harlem Orchestra took the stage and swung into the merengue rhythms of The Capeman’s opening number, “Born in Puerto Rico.” A company of nearly two-dozen people sang the entire score without any of the show’s dialog. But the story was fairly easy to follow and the music impossible to resist. By the end, company members were inviting audience members to come up and dance with them. At least one couple I saw didn’t even wait to be asked but just jumped up and joined in the fun.

That kind of easy flow between the worlds of pop and Broadway used to be common. In the Golden Age, from the 1920s right through Hair in 1968, the country’s most popular songwriters wrote Broadway shows and show tunes played on the radio. Everybody hummed Gershwin and knew that some enchanted evening they might see a stranger across a crowded room and that once they’d found her they should never let her go. Then rock came along and for the next three decades, the Broadway musical and mainstream music went their separate ways. Hopes were high for a reconciliation in the late 1990s when, maybe because they were then in their 50s, both Simon and Elton John decided to tackle their first musicals. John wrote the stage version of Disney’s The Lion King but tuned down his sound to fit the Disney aesthetic. Simon was more successful at keeping his voice but The Capeman failed. I’m still hoping that Simon will reconsider and try another musical. In the meantime, the final performances of Songs From The Capeman are playing at BAM tonight and tomorrow. But, of course, if you miss them, there’s always the cast album.

April 2, 2008

"Something You Did" Doesn't Quite Do It

It doesn’t take much to get baby boomers bragging about the great things they did in the Sixties—Ending the Vietnam War! Kickstarting the feminist movement! Throwing out sexual inhibitions! But the books, movies and plays looking back at that period tend to take a more rueful view, often focusing on the doings of extreme groups like the Weathermen, the young radicals who split away from Students for a Democratic Society and took up political terrorism.

Nearly half of the Weatherman were female and women like Kathy Boudin and Bernardine Dohrn did play leadership roles but I’m not quite sure why most of the fictional stories dealing with such groups seem to find their most compelling characters in female protagonists like Merry, the radical bomber in Philip Roth’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “American Pastoral” or Anna, the unyielding revolutionary in Hari Kunzru’s crackerjack new novel “My Revolutions”. Now joining them is Alison, the heroine in Willy Holtzman’s new play, Something You Did, about a one-time revolutionary who collaborated in a bombing that killed a black cop and put her behind bars in a maximum security prison, where, 30 years later, she is now desperate for parole.

There’s obvious drama in such stories and the cast for the Primary Stages’ production of Something You Did—particularly Joanna Gleason who gives a wonderfully nuanced performance as Alison—keeps you involved in this version of the tale. But the deck comes stacked in this play. Alison is a model prisoner—tutoring not only her sister inmates but also her guard (played with good-humored verve by the one-named actress Portia). She maintains her principles—refusing to attend her beloved father’s funeral because she will not go in chains. She is truly sorry for the life she helped take. And, of course, she doesn’t name names, not even when her lawyer, genially played by Jordan Charney, tries to persuade her that doing so will help win her freedom. I’m not giving anything away; this is all made clear during the first five minutes or so of the play.

And that was the problem for me. Right from the start, the show wears its heart on its sleeve and its ideals emblazoned on its chest. Adrianne Lenox brings the same desperate passion that won her a Tony in Doubt to the part of the dead policeman’s daughter but her few words don't stand a chance against Alison’s saintly in-prison behavior. Victor Slezak plays a former radical turned neo-con who argues for the other side but his character is a standard Snidely Whiplash.

Holtzman does get points for taking on a subject bigger than the family relationships that provide fodder for so many contemporary plays but he and director Carolyn Cantor also lose some for pandering to the conventional thinking of the boomers who now make up the majority of the theater going audience for serious drama. Isn't art supposed to challenge us to see things differently? My friend Bill and I were surrounded by grey heads nodding in agreement to Alison’s aria-speeches during the performance we attended. But I think I might have liked Something You Did more if Holtzman had done something more to allow me to like Alison a little less.