April 15, 2023

A "Camelot" That's Not the Most Shining Spot

O.K., so here’s the dilemma: when you revive a classic show that has problematic elements (and which of them doesn’t?) should you keep it the way it was written or update it for modern sensibilities? The new production of Camelot, which opened in Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater this week, chose the latter. And I’m not sure that was a good idea.

Camelot has always been problematic. Its score by Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner is delightful and filled with gorgeous ballads like “If Ever I Would Leave You” and “I Loved You Once in Silence” but Lerner’s book, adapted from T. H. White's fantasy novel “The Once and Future King” with its story of the love triangle between King Arthur, his queen Guenevere and the cocky knight Sir Lancelot has always been clunky.  

That was in part because Lerner had a mental breakdown during the writing of the show and its director Moss Hart suffered a heart attack during rehearsals, all of that making it even more difficult than usual for the creative team to agree on what to cut, what to add and how to refine the end product.  

The reviews were understandably mixed but the appearance of four numbers on TV host Ed Sullivan’s popular variety show caused ticket buyers to line up, resulting in the show’s running for nearly 900 performances and winning five Tonys, including one for Richard Burton’s portrayal of the cuckolded king. 

But the show’s greatest claim to fame may be the fact that a week after JFK’s assassination, his widow Jackie Kennedy gave an interview in which she compared his brief time in office with the mythical Arthur’s hopes for a utopian society that would be just for all its inhabitants, or as the title song's lyrics say "Once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment, that was known as Camelot."

The current problem with the show—no surprise—rests in the book’s treatment of Guenevere. Even though Julie Andrews leant her trademark sparkle to the role in the original production, Guenevere is basically just a trophy wife for the guys to fight over.  

So when the director Bart Sher decided to revive Camelot, he also decided that it need a book that reflected more updated views about women and he drafted his buddy Aaron Sorkin to supply them (click here to read more about that).

For his part, Sher has cast the show well and created some beautiful stage pictures. The opening image of the show as Arthur’s knights emerge to greet the arriving Guenevere is spectacular. But the show never hits that height again, not even in the terrific swordplay choreographed by the legendary fight director B.H. Barry (click here to read more about him).  

And what’s up with Michael Yeargan’s scenery? Why is the tree in which Arthur is supposed to be hiding at the beginning of the play so spindly that it looks unable to support a canary, less than a king?  And where is the round table that’s supposed to be the symbol of equality in Arthur’s realm?

Still, I’m afraid most of the blame for this revisal’s failings have to be laid at Sorkin’s door. As he’s said in many interviews, Sorkin decided to excise the magical elements that animated the original production. So Merlin is no longer a wizard but simply a wise tutor. Even the story of Arthur’s claiming the throne by drawing the sword Excalibur from a stone is given a rational explanation. 

And this being a Sorkin jam, there’s a lot of West Wing-style talk about good government. Don’t get me wrong, I love his TV series “The West Wing;” but I’m not sure it would make a good musical.  

Some of the changes come off as tone-deaf pandering: the character Morgan Le Fey is no longer a sorceress but a scientist (really, a woman scientist in the Early Middle Ages?) and given so little to do that the character’s one song, the lovely ballad “Follow Me,” has been cut, which hardly seems female-friendly.

Just as egregiously, Guenevere now comes off as the kind of smarter-than-everyone-else heroine that turns up in so many YA novels, Meanwhile Arthur is pretty much a nebbish. Lancelot is left largely alone but as a result seems to have wandered in from some other show. 

Phillipa Soo looks and sings like a queen but she seems too—how should I say it—modern for the story’s historical setting. Still she fares better than Andrew Burnap, whose Arthur seems like an emo lightweight, until the final few scenes by which time it was too late to get me onboard.  

Jordan Donica, tall, hunky and blessed with a marvelous voice, would seem to be a perfect choice for Lancelot (click here for more about him) but he lacks the knowing humor that Robert Goulet brought to the role. In fact there’s too little humor in this updating. And what there is relies mainly on groaner jokes that someone as skilled as Sorkin shouldn’t have let in. 

Those determined to put on classic musicals may have more choices than I suggested at the beginning of this review. They can lean into nostalgia as Sher successfully did with his sumptuous productions of South Pacific and The King and I.  

Or they can go the celebrity route and turn the shows into star vehicles as Jerry Zaks did for Bette Midler in the recent revival of Hello, Dolly and as just about everyone has done with Gypsy

Or they can take the Shakespeare route, hewing close to the original text and the original songs but finding new ways to frame them as Daniel Fish did with his "sexy "Oklahoma, or Marianne Elliott did with her gender-flipped Company and as even Ivo van Hove did with his controversial production of West Side Story .

Or—and I’m thinking this may be the best way to go so that we don’t have to lose direct access to those golden scores (this time out, the original orchestrations for Camelot’s are terrifically played by a 30-piece orchestra)they can just do concert versions of the shows that don’t have to wrestle with the problematic elements, which may require different responses in future days anyway. 

April 8, 2023

"Life of Pi" Ponders the Mysteries of Faith

It somehow feels appropriate during this Easter-Passover weekend to note that a lot of shows both on and off Broadway have been wrestling with faith this season (click here to read more about some of them). Maybe that’s because the pandemic has pushed thoughts about belief and mortality to centerstage for so many of us. Whatever the reason, I’ve been particularly struck by how New York audiences—almost defiant in their secularism—have received these shows and it’s been particularly interesting to check out the response to Life of Pi, which recently opened on Broadway. 

As you probably know, Life of Pi is based on Yann Martel’s metaphysical novel about an Indian zookeeper’s son named Pi who survives a shipwreck after being stranded on a lifeboat for 227 days with, he tells his rescuers, a Bengal tiger as his only companion. 

A precocious teen, Pi had regularly attended a Christian church, a Muslim mosque and a Hindu temple before political unrest in his homeland caused his family to pack their animals onto a cargo ship and head for Canada. But a storm strikes and the boat sinks, drowning everyone, including Pi’s mother, father, sister and most of their menagerie. Left alone, Pi calls on both his faith and his own ingenuity to help him survive—and to fend off that tiger.

This has proven to be a crowd-pleasing story. The novel sold over 10 million copies and won the prestigious Man Booker Prize for Fiction in 2002.  A 2012 film directed by Ang Lee grossed over $600 million worldwide and won four Oscars, including for best direction. More recently, this staged production, adapted by Lolita Chakrabarti and directed by Max Webster, won five Olivier awards for its run on London’s West End.  

But somehow this was my first experience with any version of "Life of Pi" and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Was the whole story going to unfold on the boat?  Would the tiger be portrayed by an actor dressed in mufti as Robin Williams did a decade ago when he played the title role in Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo or as a lumbering animatronic creature like the ape in the 2018 production of King Kong?  And would the spirituality be overly reverent or ridiculed? The answers turn out to be no, neither and determined to find a middle path.

The show opens in the hospital room where Pi is recuperating and his tale unfolds in a series of flashbacks. The set design by Tim Hartley flows almost cinematically between the sterility of the hospital, the colorful world Pi and his family leave behind and his alternately desolate and ecstatic experiences on the water. Lighting designer Tim Lutkin and video designer Andrzej Goulding provide award-worthy service when it comes to recreating the storm and the subsequent sense of being adrift at sea. 

The animals were designed by master puppet makers Finn Caldwell and Nick Barnes and range from delightful fluttering birds and leaping fish to the menacing life-sized tiger, who, through a series of events too complicated to explain here, is named Robert Parker. Onstage puppeteers skillfully manipulate all these creatures and although the humans are always visible, the effect is often magical (click here to read more about how they do it).

Even critics uncomfortable with the show's religious undertones—most of them—have readily marveled at its stagecraft. But I don’t want to shortchange the actual performances, particularly that of the Sri Lankan actor Hiran Abeysekera, who plays Pi with a combination of wit, physical dexterity and the ability to convincingly play a teen even though the actor, who never leaves the stage, is actually in his late 30s (click here to read more about him).

All of this has been sensationally orchestrated by Weber, even if he does lean a bit too heavily into the show's humorous moments. Still, the point of Life of Pi is to make the case for faith. My theatergoing buddy Bill tells me that the movie is more overt in its spirituality and I suspect the book probably is too. But theater began as religious ritual and so it seems fitting that this version remind us believers and non-believers alike that we all need stories, myths and gospels to help us survive. Or at least that’s what I believe.

April 1, 2023

Swooning—Once Again—For "Sweeney Todd"

People always ask people like me—people who've been blessed with the opportunity to see lots and lots of shows—what our favorites are. I tend to hem and haw when it comes to plays (sometimes it’s How I Learned to Drive; sometimes it’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone; other times it’s Death of a Salesman or Long Day’s Journey Into Night). But there’s no question when it comes to my favorite musical: it’s Sweeney Todd. 

Before its latest revival opened last week, I’d seen five major productions of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s masterful retelling of the tale of the barber who goes on a throat-slitting spree while seeking revenge on the judge who destroyed his life when he sentenced the barber to a penal colony on falsified charges, ravaged his wife and virtually imprisoned their young daughter Johanna under the guise of making her the judge’s ward. It’s melodrama at its best and the score is arguably (or at least I would argue) Sondheim’s greatest. Which, of course, is saying something.

Knowing of my deep love for the show, my dear husband K worried that I might be let down by this new production that stars Josh Groban and Annaleigh Ashford. So I’m both delighted and relieved to be able to say that this Sweeney lived up to, and maybe even surpassed, my expectations.

Now I wasn’t the only one who had worried. Some skeptics had predicted that Groban, an émigré from the pop world who has sold over 25 million records, wouldn’t be up to the challenge of playing such a demanding stage role. But a truly great role—and Sweeny Todd is a great role—can be interpreted in many ways (click here to read about how some have done it). 

Groban, who studied theater before becoming a pop star (click here to learn more about him) doesn’t try to be as wild-eyed or scary as some of his predecessors have played the part. Instead he leans into the disorienting, almost numbing, grief that all the tragic things that have happened might trigger in Sweeney. And for me, it was easier to feel the pain of this more human-sized man. 

Plus, there’s Groban’s glorious baritone. He sings the hell out of Sondheim’s almost operatic arias, including "Epiphany," which rivals the famous "Soliloquy" that Sondheim's mentor Oscar Hammerstein and his partner Richard Rodgers wrote for their bad boy Billy Bigelow in Carousel.

On the other hand, almost no one doubted that Annaleigh Ashford would be right for Sweeney’s loony landlady and partner-in-crime Mrs. Lovett, who not only tolerates his butchery of the men who climb into his barber’s chair but comes up with the idea of baking their remains into the pies that she sells in her shop downstairs. 

Ashford has been working her way through some of the best comedic roles in the Broadway canon over the past decade and a half and picked up a Tony award along the way. Here she crafts a Mrs. Lovett who is earthier and more antic than the iconic character that Angela Lansbury created in the original 1979 production but one who is just as endearing. 

Together, Ashford and Groban make such a symbiotic and sexy pair that you’re almost rooting for them to make it. Which, in turn, makes the end of their relationship all the more poignant. 

In fact almost all the principal actors in the cast play the emotions of their characters, rather than broadly portraying them as the stock figures in the cheap 19th century penny dreadfuls in which Sweeney’s story was first told. 

In her Broadway debut, Maria Bilbao uses her soaring soprano to underscore the captive Johanna’s yearning to escape the cage in which the judge has entrapped her. Meanwhile Gaten Matarazzo mines every bit of pathos from the vain promise that Tobias, the boy who works in the pie shop, makes to Mrs. Lovett that nothing will harm her while he’s around. And Ruthie Ann Miles turns the neighborhood Beggar Woman into the haunting presence she was always meant to be.

But when you get right down to it, the score has always been the true star of Sweeney Todd.  And here, it’s performed by a 26-member orchestra, playing the magnificent original orchestrations of Jonathan Tunick (who, in full disclosure, is a family friend but who is also the indisputable dean of Broadway orchestrators). This is a show you could enjoy with your eyes closed.

Of course, you don’t have to and for that I’m going to give props to director Thomas Kail. At a time when so many directors seem hell bent on showing that they're auteurs who can put their distinctive stamp on any show, Kail, whose inventive staging for Hamilton proves that he can stamp with the best of them, has taken an if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it approach here: he isn’t copying Hal Prince’s original concept but he isn’t wiggling away from it either. 

Kail roots his Sweeney firmly in Victorian London and he’s brought in Natasha Katz to supply the moody lighting for Mimi Lien’s deceptively simple set and movement master Steven Hoggett to devise some smart choreography for the large ensemble, which has been handsomely dressed by Emilio Sosa. 

I could go on and on but I'm going to give the final words to Sondheim himself and if you're a theater lover, you'll heed them: Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd.