April 27, 2011

"Séance on A Wet Afternoon" Is Haunting

It was, by chance, a rainy afternoon when I saw Séance on A Wet Afternoon, the haunting new opera that is playing just through this weekend at the New York City Opera. Because seeing theater is always my first choice, I don’t usually have much time left for opera but I confess to a weakness for new ones. 

Over the years, I’ve seen the original productions of Nixon in China, The Death of Klinghoffer, The Great Gatsby, Margaret Garner, Dr. Atomic,  and The Ghosts of Versailles, which, at the time, was the first new opera to debut at  The Metropolitan Opera in 25 years. But not one of them moved me more than Séance on A Wet Afternoon, the first opera by Stephen Schwartz, the composer of the hit Broadway musicals Godspell, Pippin and the megahit Wicked.

Alas, my admiration isn’t shared by the opera critics. They give Schwartz, who did both the libretto and the music, an A for effort but drag down his overall grade by condemning Séance on A Wet Afternoon for being too accessible.  That, of course, is precisely what I love about it.

Schwartz based his opera on an existential mystery novel and the subsequent 1964 film adaptation that starred Kim Stanley. In both, an unhappy and unstable psychic named Myra concocts a plan to kidnap the daughter of a wealthy family so that she can gain glory by leading the police to the missing child. Myra’s accomplices are her milquetoast but devoted husband Billy (played by Richard Attenborough in the movie) and the ghost of their own dead son Arthur.

It’s a great scenario for an opera, filled with moments of heightened, over-the-top emotion that can be put to good melodramatic and musical use. And, in Schwartz’s retelling, the tale unfolds with compelling intensity, a marvelous mash-up of Passion and Next to Normal, catnip for any lover of serious musicals.

But, of course, even more than in musicals, it’s the music that makes an opera. The trend in modern operas has been for complex, atonal scores.  Schwartz has consciously gone in another, more ear-pleasing direction. “That is not to say the music is not more harmonically complex than much of my theatre work,” he explained in a fascinating Playbill interview (click here to read all of it). “But it is still melodic and accessible. I may get criticized for that, but that's the way it is.”

And, indeed, critical bashing is the way it has been.  The New York Times has dismissed Schwartz’s score as “a gloss on Bernstein, or tepid Copland” while New York Magazine puts down his arias as mere tunes. But the music sounded lushly melodic to me and there were passages that actually made me swoon with pleasure.

Even the naysayers agree that the production is first rate.  Schwartz says he wrote the part of Myra for the soprano Lauren Flanigan, who has specialized in contemporary operas and can act as well as sing. And her performance validates his decision. Her “mad” scene at the end of the first act is both wrenching and riveting. 

Flanigan's cast mates are equally good. The baritone Kim Josephson is in fine voice and poignant as Billy. The child singers Michael Kepler Meo as Arthur and Bailey Grey as the kidnapped girl are also excellent. And the soprano Melody Moore drew cheers as the girl’s grieving mother.

They are all deftly directed by Schwartz’s son Scott, whose previous credits range from Golda’s Balcony on Broadway to Bat Boy: The Musical off-Broadway. Here, his sensitive staging gives nepotism a good name.

Kudos must also be reserved for Broadway vet Heidi Ettinger who has created a magnificent set –a revolving two-story house with eerie translucent walls—that is beautifully lit by David Lander.

New operas can be like spring rain storms.  They blow in, drench the cultural landscape and then evaporate. Only four more performances of Séance on A Wet Afternoon are left. There are no current plans to record the opera and no future productions scheduled. So go, whatever the weather over the next few days, and see this one while you can.

April 23, 2011

There's No Wonder in "Wonderland"

Bad-mouthing Frank Wildhorn’s musicals has been a blood sport for years. Critics complain that his shows—Jekyll & Hyde, The Scarlet Pimpernel and The Civil War—pander to plebian tastes and that his songs are sappy and sentimental. I had declined to join the disparagers. Until now. That's because I've now seen Wonderland, the totally vapid retelling of “Alice in Wonderland,” which opened at the Marquis Theatre last Sunday night.

I hadn’t expected Wonderland to be a great show. Not every show has to be great. Jekyll & Hyde wasn’t and it ran over 1,500 performances  And I had been amused by The Scarlet Pimpernel, which, Spider-Man-style, shut-down midstream and overhauled its production (I saw both the before and after) and ended up running for a not-shabby 772 performances. 

Both shows were extravagant undertakings with lavish sets and costumes. Sophisticated theatergoers may have scoffed but regular folks ate them up. And, as an unabashed theater populist, that was fine with me.

“Alice in Wonderland,” which in the past year has also been made into a popular Tim Burton movie and two ballets, would seem to be right up Wildhorn’s alley.  But it was clear within the first five minutes that, this time, he’d taken a really bad turn. 

For some inexplicable reason, Wildhorn and his collaborators decided to reimagine the story so that Alice isn’t a Victorian-era little girl but rather a contemporary single mom, recently separated from her unemployed husband, working hard at a job she doesn’t like and too harried and depressed to have much time or energy to spend with her daughter.

Alice’s playmates have gotten makeovers too. The Cheshire Cat is transformed into El Gato, an Hispanic character so stereotypical that the National Council of La Raza may want to haul him and his creators up on anti-defamation charges.  Meanwhile, despite the classic illustration in the show’s logo, the Mad Hatter has undergone a sex-change and now comes off as a wannabe-dominatrix. 

Gregory Boyd and Jack Murphy wrote the book; Murphy did the insipid lyrics to Wildhorn’s pop-rock score and Boyd directed. I ached for the actors as they determinedly made their way through groaner jokes about the Tea Party movement and the now-requisite ironic shout-outs to other musicals including Evita, South Pacific and Gypsy. I’m purposefully not naming any of the actors' names cause they’re already suffering enough.

I know that no one sets out to do a bad show and so I was prepared to give Wonderland the benefit of the doubt.  But this production, financed largely by some Florida-based investors, looks as though it’s been done on the cheap, even though it reportedly cost $15 million. A show doesn’t have to be a spectacle but it shouldn’t look like a high school production if it’s charging Broadway prices. 

I confess that I had expected some eye candy and had even invited my artist friend Lesley to see the show with me so that we could talk about the visual aspects. Instead, the set is basically a collection of cubes covered in what appears to be green AstroTurf. Not much wondrous in that. 

With just a couple of exceptions (the chorus girls who plays the Caterpillar's “legs” do a cute number early in the show) most of the choreography is generic and slapdash. I’m guessing that heavy-weight costume designer Susan Hilferty, who won a Tony for Wicked, refused to sign on unless she got a half-way decent budget and so the costumes, at least, provide something worth looking at.

There are, however, two other good things in the show. Carly Rose Sonenclar, the 11-year-old who plays the neglected daughter, has a mature and lovely singing voice that made me wish the show had gone the traditional route and cast her as Alice. And Sven Ortel has charmingly animated the familiar illustrations that John Tenniel created for Lewis Carroll’s books about Alice’s adventures. 

Ortel’s video projections play on the curtain during the intermission and are the best part of Wonderland. Unfortunately, the man sitting next to me didn’t get to see them. He had come alone to the show and I imagined that he was in-town on a business trip and hoping to catch a Broadway show that he could boast about when he got back home. But he left as soon as the first act curtain came down.  After all, even plebeians have some taste.

April 20, 2011

"Anything Goes" Is Worth Your Going to See

If Broadway were a high school, Sutton Foster would be a shoo-in for class sweetheart.  She’s not a beauty but there’s an endearing quality about her gawkiness.  She’s multi-talented but she isn’t a show-off. She works hard and she’s fun to be around. All those attributes are on vivid display in the Roundabout Theatre Company’s hit revival of Anything Goes, which has already extended its run at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre through next January.

First performed in 1934, Anything Goes is more a revue than a real musical. The book is there mainly to set up the song and dance numbers.  But that’s fine in this case because the music is by the sublime Cole Porter and this score is a greatest hits collection that includes “I Get a Kick Out of You,” “You’re the Top,” “All Through the Night” and, of course, “Anything Goes,” along with “It’s De-lovely,” and “Easy to Love,” which were added in later productions. (Click here for a piece about all its cast recordings.)

The lyrics to some of the songs may be woefully outdated (click here to see a New York Times visual glossary to the references in “You’re The Top") but Porter’s music is so irresistibly intoxicating that people in the audience at the performance my husband K and I attended started nodding their heads, patting their hands and tapping their feet as soon as the orchestra started playing the overture. Everyone had grins on their faces.  Me too.

P.G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton’s book, which was rewritten by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse and later revised by Crouse’s son Timothy and his college buddy, the frequent Sondheim collaborator John Weidman, deals with the varied romances and other goings-on aboard a London-bound ocean liner. 

The passenger list includes a young engaged debutante, the stowaway who is her true love, a bibulous old Yalie, an eccentric English lord, a mobster masquerading as a minister, his licentious moll, two Chinese missionaries (so stereotypical that it’s a shame they haven’t been revised right out of the book) and a nightclub entertainer named Reno Sweeney.

Foster plays Reno, the role originated by Ethel Merman and later reinvigorated by Patti LuPone in Lincoln Center’s much-acclaimed 1987 revival. As the Merman and LuPone castings suggest, Reno’s a brassy broad, probably based on the Prohibition-era speakeasy owner Texas Guinan whose trademark greeting to her patrons was “Hello, suckers.”

More perky than brassy, Foster wouldn’t seem a natural choice for the role. But, pulling out all the stops, she remakes it in her own image. Her Reno is everyone's best friend. Director Kathleen Marshall helps out by turning many of the songs into dance numbers that showcase Foster’s agile footwork.

In fact, Marshall’s choreography may be my favorite of the many dance routines I’ve seen over the past few weeks as I’ve been making my way through this season’s many musicals.  Unlike so many of the others, Marshall doesn’t try too hard.  Unabashedly channeling Busby Berkeley and Fred Astaire, her dances transport us to a time when people—or at least people in showsjust danced their troubles away. 

Martin Pakledinaz’s costumes are swell too.  The women wear gowns to-die-for and all the guys look dapper. They do it against a terrific shipboard set that Peter Kaczorowski created and lit himself.

And Anything Goes offers lots of chances for actors to shine.  Colin Donnell and Laura Osnes look and sound just like the show’s lovebirds should.  Adam Godley is a hoot as the British fop of a fiancé and John McMartin makes a lovable lush.   

The only one who didn’t quite work for me was Joel Grey.  He’s too pixyish to be believable as a mobster, even one in disguise.  But Grey comes with so much goodwill from his past triumphs and, at 79, is still so game that I was more than willing to just sit back and watch him enjoy himself.

In fact, I felt that way about the entire show. Cause like its star, this production of Anything Goes is a real sweetheart.

April 18, 2011

Broadway & Me on the Radio

Yep, it’s true. I’ve just come off an incredible multimedia weekend.   
Not only did I make my debut on The American Theatre Wing’s long-running TV series “Working in the Theatre” yesterday afternoon (see the post below) but I also got the chance yesterday morning to participate in the latest episode of "Broadway Radio," the  gabfest that BroadwayStars’ James Marino hosts each week. The show’s regulars Peter Filichia and Michael Portantiere and I talked about The Motherf**ker with the Hat (which we called by its real, unbowdlerize name) Catch Me If You Can and Anything Goes.  Click here to give us a listen.  

April 16, 2011

Broadway & Me Goes on TV...

..well, kind of. The folks at The American Theatre Wing invited me to moderate some episodes of their long-running TV series "Working in the Theatre." The hour-long shows bring together panels of four or five actors, playwrights, directors, designers or other theater folks to talk about what it takes to make it in the business.

I’m thrilled and honored to play even a small part in that.  And, in my first time in the moderator’s chair, I had the unbelievably good fortune to host a panel of stage legends that included F. Murray Abraham, Stacy Keach, Estelle Parsons and Lois Smith. They—and the stories they told—were, as you can imagine, fascinating. 

Our episode will run here in New York City on CUNY TV, Channel 75, at 
5 p.m. this Sunday, April 17. Set your Tivos. But if you miss us, the show will be repeated on Friday, April 22, at both 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.; on Saturday, April 23, at 11 a.m. and on Sunday, April 24, at 5 p.m. It also will be permanently archived, along with all the other episodes of "Working in the Theatre," on the Wing’s website: http://americantheatrewing.org/wit/

How "Catch Me if You Can" Tripped Itself Up

If you like musicals, then Broadway would seem to be the place for you this season.  Eight musicals have been scheduled to open in March and April—six of them new shows.  And we’re not talking small chamber-music musicals or even serious opera-esque musical dramas. We’re talking old-fashion, brassy song-and-dance shows with leggy chorus girls, technicolor costumes and hummable songs.

Among the most anticipated of them has been Catch Me If You Can, which opened this past Sunday at the Neil Simon Theatre. People have been predicting for weeks that it was going to be a “must catch” show that would slay the competition at awards time (click here to read what one critic wrote after he caught the sneak peek for the press).

The excitement was understandable.  Catch Me If You Can probably has the best pedigree of any show on Broadway this season. Just about everyone involved with it has a Tony on his shelf or, at the very least, was nominated for one.

The real-life couple Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, who did the music and lyrics for the long-running hit Hairspray, take on the same duties for this show. Meanwhile, the abundantly-talented Terrence McNally wrote the book, which is based on the popular 2002 movie that starred Tom Hanks and Leonardo DiCaprio. 
As if that weren’t enough, the director is the artistically ambidextrous Jack O’Brien, who has worked magic on both classy plays like The Coast of Utopia  and Henry IV and mass-appeal musicals like Hairspray and The Full Monty

The rest of the all-star creative crew includes choreographer Jerry Mitchell, set designer David Rockwell, and costume designer William Ivey Long. Meanwhile, the cast is lead by the irrepressible Norbert Leo Butz and Aaron Tveit, a young cutie who broke into the major leagues as the original son Gabe in Next To Normal (click here for a video profile of him).

And yet, this is one of those times when the whole is less than the sum of its parts. Now, there are lots of good parts to Catch Me if You Can.  Like the movie, it tells the hard-to-believe-but-true story of Frank W. Abagnale, Jr., who, while still in his teens, successfully passed himself off as a doctor, a lawyer, and an airline pilot. The plot tracks “The Fugitive”-style manhunt to catch the young conman that’s led by a no-nonsense FBI agent named Carl Hanratty.

It all takes place during the early ‘60s, which gives O’Brien and his cohorts the chance to indulge in all the ephemera of that decade—the bouffant hair-dos, the mini-skirts and skinny ties, the sexy glamour of air travel, the go-go dancing, and the whole “Shindig!” sensibility that the show “Mad Men” has made cool again.

All of it is fun to see onstage, even if it is starting too look a bit familiar after Promises, Promises last season and the current revival of How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying with which Catch Me if You Can has so much in common that some of the stage direction is the same.

The decade also offers up all kinds of musical styles—jazzy Bossa nova, girl-group soul, ring-a-ding swing, piano-bar ballads and Mitch Miller sing-alongs—that Shaiman and Wittman exploit wittily.  And, borrowing a page from Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse’s book for Chicago, McNally and O’Brien have staged Abagnale’s story as one of those TV variety shows that were so popular at the time, a conceit that lots of folks including my pal Bill didn’t care for at all.

Many critics have said that the device distances the audience from the character. But I think it might have worked if the creators had stuck to their conceit instead of dropping it whenever it became inconvenient.  And if all the songs had sprung from Frank’s point of view, the way they did in such variety spectaculars as “Liza With a Z’ and “Elvis in Concert.”

However, the bigger problem for me is that I never really felt anything for young Frank. As Bill later said, we never get to know the guy.  Oh, there’s plenty of back-story. Tom Wopat is poignant as Frank’s feckless dad, Kerry Butler, hardly recognizable and terribly underused, plays the sweetheart who becomes Frank’s downfall. But I could have done with less of them and other domestic scenes in exchange for more on how Abagnale committed his crimes and how he got away with them.

It’s not that Tveit doesn’t do a good job because he does. And he's certainly got all the right tools. His voice is strong, his looks winning and his commitment total. But what he lacks is the impishness that should animate the role.

Of course, it can be hard to hold the spotlight when you’re standing alongside Butz. The biggest showstopper comes towards the middle of the first act when Butz and the dancers perform a kinetic number called “Don’t Break the Rules.”  If the show had been done 15 or 20 years ago, he would have made a must-see Abagnale. 

If you're just looking for some easy entertainment, Catch Me If You Can isn't as terrible as you've probably read (click here for the StageGrade scorecard).  But with so many other choices this season, it's no longer a frontrunner.  Instead, it will have to settle for being an OK-to-see show.

April 13, 2011

The Motherf**ker with the Hat is Frickin’ Good

My husband K and I were having dinner at Orso after seeing the new Stephen Adly Guirgis play when a silver-haired couple walked by, spotted our Playbill lying face down on the table and asked what we’d seen.  I smiled, took a deep breath and told them: The Motherfucker with the Hat. 

It turned out to be a conversation stopper.

Which is too bad because the show, which opened on Monday night at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, deserves to be talked about. The problem, of course, is how to do that without sounding like a refugee from the equally foul-mouthed but more amiably-titled The Book of Mormon.

The show’s producers have tried to get around the name thing by referring to it on the Playbill, in ads, and on the marquee as The Motherf**ker with the Hat, which is kind of like when the singer Prince changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol, which forced people to refer to him as The Artist Formerly Known as Prince.  Similarly, people have taken to saying “the new Guirgis play,” or “Hat” or “the Chris Rock show” because the comedian is making his Broadway debut in it.

But there’s so much more to say. For starters, I'm going to say that The Motherf**ker with the Hat may be the most entertaining show I've seen this entire season.  

It's a romantic comedy, hard-core style. One of its star-crossed lovers is Jackie, a drug addict with anger-management issues who has just gotten out of jail, is struggling to stay clean, and is crazy in-love with his childhood sweetheart.

The object of his affection is Veronica, who loves Jackie just as much but not enough to give up her own more-than-recreational drug use—or other men. The play centers around what happens when Jackie discovers some suspicious male headwear in the apartment they share and sets out to find the man he thinks Veronica is two-timing him with.

Guirgis likes to create oddball characters with street pedigrees and he’s a master of fast, funny and profanity-laden dialogue. His characters sound like the ADD love children of David Mamet and Aaron Sorkin. Casting is clearly key. And Guirgis couldn't have found better actors for his leads. 

Bobby Cannavale, always a treat to see, is giving his best performance ever.  His Jackie is a believably complex guy: sweet and scary, sincere and silly all at the same time. And Cannavale is evenly matched by Elizabeth Rodriguez, a longtime member of the LAByrinth Theater Company, where Guirgis is co-artistic director. 

Rodriguez plays Veronica with a go-for-broke intensity that is, at times, almost frighteningly real and yet totally relatable.  The two college-aged women in the seat next to me literally gasped at some of the words coming out of her mouth but kept nodding in solidarity at what she said.

Of course, many of the people in the audience—a much more diverse group than usually turns out for a straight play on Broadway—are there to see Rock. He plays Jackie’s AA sponsor Frank and although Rock is no where near as accomplished as Cannavale and Rodriguez, the comedian doesn’t embarrass himself but takes advantage of the similarities between his stand-up personae and the smart-talking character he plays.

Still, both Rock and Annabella Sciorra, who’s also making her Broadway debut as Frank’s wife, seem a little insecure onstage. On the way to the restaurant, K and I debated which stage vets we thought might have matched Cannavale and Rodriguez in those roles. On the other hand, it's hard to imagine who could do better than Yul Vázquez, who is a hoot as Jackie’s devoted cousin Julio.

Anne D. Shapiro, who won a Tony for directing August: Osage County back in 2007, does an admirable job of camouflaging the experience gap between her actors and she keeps the action at a suitably high pitch. 

Shapiro is supported by a crackerjack design team, particularly Todd Rosenthal who has put together a clever set that transforms right before the audiences’ eyes into three different apartments with amusingly distinct touches (check out the bathroom door in Julio's home). Jazzman Terrence Blanchard supplies the effective underscore.  (Click here to read a story about how the production came together.)

Last Friday, the New York Post columnist Michael Riedel wrote a really mean-spirited piece about the show (click here to read the crow-eating apology he posted the day after the rave reviews came in). The badmouthing had gotten around.  K and I ran into a friend on the way to the theater and he shook his head sadly when we told him what we were going to see. “I hear that’s not going to last,” he said. It would be a shame if it doesn’t. Because although The Motherf**ker with the Hat is not a particularly deep play, it is pardon my French, a frickin’ enjoyable one.

April 9, 2011

"Arcadia" Isn't Paradise But It's Worth a Visit

Arcadia is an amazing play. The language is, in places, sublime; the ideas totally scintillating. Many consider it to be Tom Stoppard’s masterpiece. And yet, the production now playing at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre through June 19 seems wanting. Or perhaps I just wanted too much.

I didn’t see the original American production when it played at Lincoln Center back in 1995.  Friends told me that it was a must-see and that I would be sorry if I missed it. Which I now am.  But everyone also said how intellectually demanding the show was. And, to be honest, I wasn’t sure I was up to the challenge. I still wasn’t sure about that when I heard about the revival but I was determined to see Arcadia this time.

To my relief, the play turned out to be almost totally accessible. Yes, it deals with a wide range of head-swirling subjects including Newtonian physics, Romantic poetry, 19th century landscape gardening and the epistemological nature of history.  But there’s also lots of everyone-can-get-‘em jokes and a good helping of sex talk too.

Arcadia is set in a British manor house during two different time periods. The people who populate them don’t time travel to interact with one another but they are intimately connected. Most of the characters in the contemporary present are scholars trying to piece together the lives and liaisons of those back in 1809, while those in the past try to imagine what the future will be.

The fun—and the affecting anguish—for the audience lies in observing what the characters get right and wrong. The challenge for the actors is delivering speeches chocked full of complex intellectual theories, while conveying the simple emotions that make their brainy characters as chaotically human as the rest of us.

It’s a tough task, made even more so by the fact that the cast is, by today’s standards, large. Nine characters occupy the past, five the present and only one actor plays dual roles that cause him to appear in both eras. It’s not easy to find a director who can oversee what is essentially two separate plays or to assemble a group of actors all of whom can fully realize such intricate roles.

David Leveaux originally directed the play in London two seasons ago but this production still comes off as though he didn’t have enough time to figure everything out or to get all the actors to buy into his vision. The casting seems a bit off too. 

The British actors who were in the London production fare best. Tom Riley is spot-on as the 19th century tutor Septimus Hodge and his performance appeals to the head, heart and eye.  And while many critics found Bel Powley too screechy, I think the gawkiness she brings to Hodges’ precocious charge Thomasina Coverly is just right. (Click here to read an interview with Riley and Powley.) 

The American newcomers are more problematic. Margaret Colin, a longtime favorite of mine, is too contemporary for Thomasina’s mother, the 19th century duchess Lady Croom. And Raúl Esparza, who in recent years has seemed as though he could do anything, falls short too. His character the modern-day scholar Valentine Coverly is a man who has trouble expressing his emotions but Esparza is so diffident that the lack of confidence seems more his than Valentine’s. 

Billy Crudup, on the hand, had some very strong ideas about what he wants to do.  Crudup, who made his name playing Septimus in the 1995 production, is now playing the pompous modern-day scholar Bernard Nightingale. (Click here to read an interview in which he talks about his two experiences with the play.)  Crudup makes some bold and idiosyncratic choices, not all of which work—the braying laugh he uses to punctuate Nightingale’s putdowns is clearly supposed to underscore the character’s haughtiness but just comes off as silly.

It was also hard at times to hear—and therefore understand—some of the actors,  although I suppose sound designer David Van Tieghem should bare part of the blame for that.  On the good side, Gregory Gale’s costumes are pretty to look at, as is Hildegard Bechtler’s spare but elegant set, which works well in both eras. 

Now, I have to admit that my husband K (who, alas, didn’t have a good time at all) and I didn’t see Arcadia under the best circumstances.  For some unexplained reason, the theater didn’t open its doors until about 15 minutes before curtain time, despite a sudden hail storm that had all us ticket holders huddled together under the marquee.

Later, a few minutes into the final scene of the first act, a voice came over the loudspeaker, asking the actors to leave the stage and telling those of us in the audience that the lights were going to come up because there was a medical emergency in the house.  The EMTs came in, lifted an elderly man onto a stretcher and wheeled him out. 

The whole process took less than five minutes and the actors quickly reappeared onstage and began the scene from the top.  But it was jarring.  And still is since I don’t know what happened to the poor man.  So please leave a comment or email me if you know.

April 7, 2011

"The Other Place" Is A Tough Place for Women

Unlike the movies or TV, the theater prides itself on being an art form that is supportive of women, including what people like to call “women of a certain age.”  Even younger male playwrights seem comfortable writing parts for women in their 50s and 60s. But, as my mother used to say, you’ve got to be careful what you wish for.  Cause the women in these plays often tend to be obsessed with their careers and childless or unfeeling towards the poor children they do have.  In other words, they’re bitches. 

The latest one is Juliana Smithton, the scientist who heads up her own biotech firm in the drama The Other Place that opened last week in an MCC Theater production at the Lucille Lortel Theatre.   

Like the poetry scholar in Margaret Edson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Wit, the musicologist in Moisés Kaufman’s 33 Variations, and the construction company exec in Adam Bock’s A Small Fire, Juliana is struck with a devastating illness that reduces her to a child-like state and forces her to give up her sense of control, regret her past ways and learn to depend on other people. 

I was terribly moved by this transformative story when I saw Wit back in 1998. And I enjoyed both 33 Variations and A Small Fire.  But now, I’m beginning to wonder if playwrights are pissed off at us Baby Boom women (click here to read about how the same trend is showing up in British theater). Would they be creating nicer roles—or at least more varied ones— for older women if more of us had stayed home, had plenty of babies and been around to serve milk and cookies after school? 

Thinking about those questions may have biased my feelings about The Other Place.  Most of the critics loved it (click here to read some of their raves). But I had other problems with the play too.

Its playwright Sharr White is 40 and has been writing plays for the past 15 years but admits that he adopted a more commercial formula for this one. And it's apparently worked because The Other Place is his New York debut (click here to read a profile about him)

White has constructed the play as a mystery with pressing questions of its own: why is Juliana's marriage in trouble? why is she estranged from her daughter? why is she having trouble with her memory? why is she obsessed with a girl in a yellow bikini?  why is she so attached to the beach house, the other place of the title that she never visits?  

But instead of letting the story and the clues unfold naturally, White tries to pump up the suspense by jumbling the scenes so that they appear out of order. He also relies heavily on having Juliana narrate the proceedings in direct addresses to the audience and comes up with a contrived ending.

It helps that Juliana is played with ferocious intensity by Laurie Metcalf. But not enough. The character has to be angry at and mean to so many people—her husband, her doctor, her former lab assistant—that it’s hard for someone even as munificently talented as Metcalf to find different ways to express Juliana’s discontent.

The other three actors in the cast are given too much or too little to do.  Dennis Boutsikaris gets off best as Juliana’s long-suffering husband.  But poor Aya Cash has to play three different women.  She works hard to make each of them distinctive but I still got confused. Meanwhile, John Schiappa is given so little to do that his part could have been cut and the money used to hire another female actor to help Cash out. 

There was a talkback after the performance my theatergoing buddy Bill and I attended.  But although the show lasted just 80 minutes, we skipped it (even though Bill did think I was being overly sensitive about the older woman thing) and headed down the street for a far more enjoyable dinner at the delicious iSodi.  On the way out of the theater, we passed posters of previous MCC hits. Prominently among them was Wit.

April 2, 2011

"The Book of Mormon": A Non-Convert's View

If you love meta musicals—and judging by the ecstatic reviews the show has gotten, a whole lot of people do—you’re going to love The Book of Mormon, which opened at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre last week.  You'll enjoy it even more if you have a fondness for potty-mouthed humor and pop cultural references.

For The Book of Mormon is written by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the guys who created “South Park,” the animated Comedy Central series with the fat little kids who do and say scatological things; along with Robert Lopez, one of the creators of the Tony-winning puppet musical Avenue Q.  

The Book of Mormon is just as irreverent and self-consciously ironic as its creators’ other shows. And it's become the hip show to see. Sting was sitting across the aisle from my friend Jessie and me at the performance we attended.

But what really has theater folks cheering is that The Book of Mormon is a classic book musical in the Rodgers & Hammerstein tradition, complete with ballads and novelty songs, tap dancing chorus boys, sight gags and a message about how people from different cultures can find a way to get along together.

I love all that stuff too. And I understand the excitement over an original musical that isn’t based on a movie or TV show—not to mention one that's bringing in the young and male audiences that Broadway craves. So why, you might ask, aren’t I grabbing a shovel to heap even more praise on The Book of Mormon?   

Well, I’ve got my reasons. First off—and I know I’m in a shrinking minority—I don’t love meta musicals. Or at least I’m tired of shows that send-up the musical genre by satirizing other musicals.

Not only is the music in The Book of Mormon a pastiche of familiar Broadway styles but the book is a collage of parodied scenes from other shows. You can spot “homages” to The King and I, Bye Bye Birdie, Wicked, Agnes De Mille’s dream ballets, and, as if poor Julie Taymor weren't already eating enough dung, The Lion King is skewered at least three times.

It also always strikes me as childish or cheesy (or both) when a show continually draws laughs just by having its characters say profane words. Sure, I'll admit I laughed. But I don't know if the show would be half as funny without the crude language. 

The dialog and lyrics of The Book of Mormon is so littered with f-bombs, d-jokes, c-words, and s-variations that it’s going to be a real challenge for the producers to find a clean-enough number for the Tony broadcast in June, where the show is already predicted to be a big winner.

And, despite its much-ballyhooed benevolence, I’m also uneasy with the show’s treatment of gay people and black people. Stone and Parker, who call themselves libertarians, have always gotten away with a lot of things that would usually turn off most liberals because they bubble-wrap them with funny jokes and cool pop cultural references (click here to read an interview with them).  

"Being gay is bad, but lying is worse,” goes one Book of Mormon lyric. “So just realize you've got a curable curse!"  When Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein preached tolerance, you knew they meant it.  With Stone and Parker, it could be just another joke.

The biggest laughs come at the expense of the Mormon Church in particular, organized religion in general.  So beware, or be prepared to squirm in you seat, if you’re devout. Although Jessie said she would have enjoyed the show even more if it had been meaner. Which, I suppose, is how other true "South Park" believers might feel.

The Book of Mormon tells the story of two young Mormon missionaries who are sent to a small village in Uganda to convert the people there.  They are the usual odd couple—in this case, a golden-haired Mormon poster boy who would rather be in Orlando and an overweight outcast who just wants people to like him. 

The Ugandans they encounter are plagued by poverty, AIDS, and an evil warlord who forcibly subjects women to female circumcisions. But despite all their woes, the villagers are good-hearted if simple-minded (one keeps referring to an old battered typewriter as her “texting machine”) and dubious about religion. The musical tells the tale of the missionaries’ campaign to win them over, with the help of Frodo, Yoda and Darth Vader.

Whatever reservations I may have about the show itself, I’ve none about the production.  Parker and Casey Nicholaw are listed as co-directors and they keep everything popping along. Nearly every one of Nicholaw’s dance numbers is a show-stopper. Scott Pask’s set and Ann Roth’s costumes  pull off the neat trick of being simultaneously cartoonish and believable.  But the real MVP on the design team is lighting designer Brian MacDevitt, who never loses focus amidst all the frenzy.

The cast is first-rate too.  Andrew Rannells and Josh Gad (click here to read an interview with him) are pitch-perfect as the mismatched missionaries.  Michael Potts brings a wry bemusement to the village elder and Nikki M. James is thoroughly enchanting as his daughter. 

I wish them all well.  And I hope you, too, have a good time if you can get a ticket to see them.  As for me, I think I'll worship elsewhere.