Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Not so Black and White, Anymore

"Grey Gardens" at the Walter Kerr Theatre, October 24, 2006

After a four-month, sold out run off Broadway at Playwright's Horizon, "Grey Gardens" has transferred to Broadway, giving Christine Ebersole the exposure she deserves in her tour-de-force performance as both Edith Bouvier Beales, the mother and daughter.

Based on and extrapolating from the documentary of the same name by David and Albert Maysles in the early 1970's, Doug Wright has taken the tale of Edith and Little Edie Beale, relatives of Jackie Kennedy, who were found living in squalor, on their family estate - Grey Gardens in Easthampton, NY.

Act I finds Edith preparing to perform at the engagement party of daughter Little Edie to Joseph Kennedy, Jr. Edith's father, the Major is along to balance the presence of little cousins, Lee and Jackie Bouvier. Also present is the resident fop, George Gould Strong, Edith's accompanist, bon vivante, and ever so fey confidante. By the end of the act, the Beale women have been dealt major blows. Mr. Beale has wired to say that not only is he not attending the engagement party, but that he is divorcing Edith in Mexico. Edith's response is to sabotage the engagement, driving Mr. Kennedy out of Little Edie's life. The act ends as Little Edie packs a suitcase and flees the house as Edith greets the party guests with one of the songs she has prepared to perform.

Act II picks up in 1972, the period during which the documentary was filmed. Little Edie, now 56, lives with Edith in the house which is overrun with cats, raccoons and garbage. A neighbor boy, Jerry, has taken an interest in the two and shows up regularly to help out, and enjoy the fun of watching these two eccentric and bizarre women.

Mr. Wright has used artistic license to create the events in Act I. It is known that efforts to join the Bouviers and the Kennedys had been underway long before Jackie and Jack got together. Both families saw the advantages that would be afforded to both sides, so a proposed union between Little Edie and Joseph, Jr. might have been considered.

To turn this story into a musical seems the bigger challenge, in my view. The Maysles' documentary presents a pitiful scenario of two women on and near the end of a downward spiral, caught between pride and poverty on the edge of insanity. Scott Frankel has done an masterful job of capturing the diverse moods and feelings in the two acts. I had the fortune to crash the cast talk-back after the performance and asked Mr. Frankel about the first act score. As I watched the show, the overall sense I got was a Kern/Porter/Gershwin/Rodgers feeling, which would suit Edith's musical tastes. Edith was famous (infamous?) for performing extensively at her own high-society parties, and did make several records in the 30's and 40's. I asked Mr. Frankel if he had a single composer of the era in mind. He confirmed the Porter/Gershwin/Kern flavor was his intent. Michael Korie's lyrics match the styles and integrate song into story beautifully.

The opening number "The Girl Who Has Everything" evokes the Kern/Lehar era as it reveals Edith in rehearsal for the engagement party. A quick segue way into "The Five Fifteen" gives just the right level of exposition and sets the excitement for the evening's party.

Joe appears after Edith and Little Edie have had their first go-round about the musical plans for the party in "Mother Darling." They escape to the terrace where he shares his family's ambitions, "Going Places."

The Major enters next and takes young Lee and Jackie outdoors for a little golf lesson and grandfatherly advice, "Marry Well." It is here that his influence becomes apparent as a driving force among these Bouvier women.

As Little Edie in Act 1, Erin Davie softens the role originated by Sara Guettelfinger, and instills sympathy with her fragile performance. Her Edie sees spinsterhood looming in her future and is desparate to avoid it, as well as escape from the passive/aggressive destructive treatment she gets from her mother. Her "Mother Darling" is much more of a plea than a demand for Edith to allow the party to occur naturally, without Edith's usual "impromptu" vocal performance that has become standard fare at a Grey Gardens event. She has her own ambitions for a performing career, sharing it with Joe during their duet "Going Places." Unfortunately, Joe's (or the Kennedys') plans do not include a working wife, particularly working in show business.

Matt Cavenaugh has grown nicely in his role as Joe Kennedy, Jr. He has managed to nail down the flat and nasal Massachussetts drawl so strongly identified with that clan. His role has been modified, but to the advantage of the story. Off-Broadway, Joe was used more as a stock juvenile role. Now his character has some depth and helps bring the story along. In Act II, Mr. Cavenaugh plays Jerry, the neighbor boy who stops by to lend a hand. He transitions between roles nicely.

John McMartin as Major Bouvier also benefits from the changes to Act I. His Major may have retired to enjoy his family and free time, but he still wields a firm hand with daughter Edith. When Little Edie finds her opportunity to let him know that Edith plans to sing at the party, he puts his foot down and as he speaks to Edith, we get a taste of how Mr. Beale speaks to Little Edie. His number "Marry Well" sung to little Jackie and Lee foreshadows the profitable unions those two will achieve as adults. When Little Edie joins the number late, you already get the sense that for all her efforts, she will not have the same fortune.

As George Gould Strong, Bob Stillman fulfills the role of Edith's accompanist, best friend and confidante. His Gould is another stock character, the dandy, but he keeps from suffering the stereotype. He knows his position in the household is tenuous and since he truly cares about Edith, he is quick to offer to leave Grey Gardens to return to NYC and make his own way. She won't hear of it.

It is Christine Ebersole who is the heart and soul of this production. As Edith, she coos, cajoles, threatens, berates and pleads her way through the party preparations. She demonstrates in "The Five Fifteen" that she has entertained enough to let the minor details of flowers, food and chairs take care of themselves while she rehearses her songs. Her dysfunctional relationship with Little Edie appears early in their duet, "Mother Darling." It is when Mr. Beale's telegram arrives for Little Edie that she sees just how desperate her situation is. She betrays Little Edie to Joe with the tale of an embarrassing swimsuit accident which Little Edie suffered through, sabotaging the engagement. Knowing Little Edie will have no other option but to stay, Edith's final song of the act, "Will You?" becomes a plea for forgiveness.

Mary Louise Wilson reappears in Act II as Edith, after the very brief Prologue that began the show. You quickly sense the how the years have worn on her. Her first song “The Cake I Had” is both proud and rueful, as she explains why she did some of the things she did which have landed her in her present state. Her Edith is still just as competitive with Little Edie as ever. When they talk about Jerry, she is quick to squelch Little Edie’s misplaced ideas that he is sexually interested in the younger Beale woman. While her concept may be right, it is only partially so. She sings “Jerry Likes My Corn” and you think she feels Jerry is more interested in her.

With all the style and confidence displayed in Act I, Ms. Ebersole's Little Edie in Act II has become a shell of what she might have been. Unconfident, no self-esteem and bordering on lunacy, Little Edie can only focus on things she knows - working with what few clothes she has left, trying to carry any sense of style her poverty will afford. The stress of the intervening years has made her bald and she has taken to wearing cardigan sweaters on her head, buttoned under her chin and tied with a brooch to serve as "hair." The verge of paranoia hangs over her Edie, but one can still see the trapped young woman desperate to escape this twisted jail her life has become. Opening Act II with “The Revolutionary Costume for Today,” is the first of many quotes from the documentary that are expanded upon in this act. When Edie works up the courage to actually leave Grey Gardens, she sings longingly of what she’s missed in “Around the World.” Suitcase in hand at the edge of the property, it is Edith’s call to Edie that she is compelled to answer, and seals her own fate to remain there. A reprise of “Will You?” is now again a plea for forgiveness, but from each woman to the other.

Director Michael Grief has refined his efforts with the streamlining of both acts. Three new songs were added to Act I, with a new reprise in Act II. The changes to both book and score have cleared up both motivations and reactions to the pivotal events instigated by Mr. Beale's telegram. Having now seen the original documentary between these two productions, He has really captured not only the reality of the events in Act II, but also has managed to look into the minds of the two women as well. He has lifted events from the documentary and translated them to the stage with grace and truth. When Little Edie shows Jerry her marching song, the soldiers she sees in her mind appear and dance along with her.

Sets by Allen Moyer are unchanged from the earlier production, but sitting in the mezzanine for this show, I now understood the intentions behind the design. The main stage area slides forward and back to make room for various changes downstage, such as a lovers’ bench for Joe and Little Edie, or the terrace steps for Edith’s number which closes Act I. During Act II, as Little Edie stands frozen with her suitcase contemplating her departure, she is below a gap in the stage that separates her from the house. As Edith calls to her, her voice closes the gap and Edie crosses back to her old life.

I saw the Playwright's production last spring and enjoyed it, but felt it was more an evening of two one-act musicals, only connected by common character names.

When I learned that the show was going to transfer, I was hopeful that the creative team would have (and take) the opportunity to make the changes necessary to give the audience a more cohesive evening at the theatre.

I'm so happy they have - and beautifully so!

Friday, October 20, 2006

Resist the Temptation

"Ascension" Red Light District production at The Lion Theatre on Theatre Row, Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Look at the picture. Isn't he pretty?

That was the highlight of this overwraught and poorly written knockoff of "Doubt" with a twist in the wrong direction. (Spoiler Alert)

Father Cal (Stephen Hope) is accused by Agnes (Lucy McMichael) of molesting her son Lorenzo (Brandon Ruckdashel) when he was an adolescent. Shortly after she leaves her blackmail terms, Lorenzo, now a young adult, shows up. His story is slightly different from Mom's and leaves poor Father Cal equally threatened. Seems Father Cal is about to leapfrog from pastor to bishop, and a sex scandal is the last thing he needs in his life.

Seems each character has their own agenda, murky as those agendas may be. Agnes turns out to be schizophrenic, Lorenzo a sociopath, and Father Cal is just overly ambitious.

Edmund De Santis' script has some interesting potential, playing off the not-so-current wave of sexual abuse scandals that have rocked the Catholic Church over the past few years. It turns out that Father Cal is indeed physically innocent of Agnes' charges. Lorenzo has been carrying a torch for the padre since he was an altar boy. Father Cal thought he'd dodged the bullet of Lorenzo when he turned away from the boy before anything could happen between them.

Now that Lorenzo has returned in the flesh, quite literally, he seduces Father Cal, fulfilling Agnes' accusations, but now with much less weight. Even after the seduction is complete and Lorenzo has left, the plot twists continue with Father Cal pulling a few rabbits out of his own hat.

Mr. De Santis has created a complicated series of plot twists that I suppose were meant to be clever, but the result is a convoluted and confusing story line, which I'm not sure I understand even now. Just about everything presented gets contradicted. I don't know which were true in the end, and I'm not sure I care.

Marc Geller has directed this piece with only one eye open. If he had opened the other, he might have seen a way to instill a little more reality in the production.

As Father Cal, Mr. Hope is the hardest working man in NY theatre. He's giving everything he has and then some to try to instill some level of realism or credibility into this play. His physicalization: quivers, shakes, fumes, and even a pretty believable asthma attack on more than one occasion shows an actor who knows his craft.

Ms. McMichael seems to have much less to work with, both from her material and her skill. Her only expression throughout the show is like she smells rotten fish. Even when her character switches from one personality to the other, it's only her words that give any signal of the shift. And for all the anger in her lines, there's rarely any of it in her voice.

Mr. Ruckdashel is surely pretty, though. His diction isn't bad, but most of his lines sound like he's reading from his script. His Lorenzo doesn't give us the kind of calculating, scheming, desperate young man that his lines would portray.

Aaron Mastin's set, with its red walls and floor and cross-shaped mullions in the skylight strive to evoke the spirit intended, but the large, somewhat eroticized painting of Christ on the cross seems out of place for Father Cal's office in his private quarters. There were several references to the attractive physique portrayed in the painting, but I think a small three-dimensional crucifix would have served the proceedings better.

Costumes by Dennis Ballard are perfectly serviceable. Of course, we get to see both Father Cal and Lorenzo in and out of costume, so we know exactly what he was given to work with.

Other reviewers seemed to have found much more depth in this production. I didn't see it.

A Dead Bird

"Swan Lake" Conservatory Theatre, St. Petersburg, Russia, October 2, 2006

The Conservatory Theatre is part of the school where Tchaikovsky studied and taught. Imagine how many of his compositions debuted in that hall! We arrived to find the entrance and lobby in well-preserved condition. To our horror, the interior of the house had been butchered in what looked like a mid-twentieth century Soviet renovation. Just dreadful!!

The act curtain seemed based on an older more classic design with fringe and other passementerie - very much at odds with the severe and bland appearance of the house.

Hopes for a true Russian ballet in the best sense were dashed as the curtain went up to reveal one of the ugliest Swan Lake sets I've ever seen. Programs were not included with admission, so I will not be able to accuse identify either designers or dancers by name.

Act I brought out the cast in a mish-mash of costumes. Blue was the apparent theme, however, no two garments managed to share the same shade - anywhere! Our guide on the bus had prepared us for the choreography originally set by Marius Petipa. (On occasion a ballet director will have the artistic need to make some modifications to original choreography to suit either a particular dancer, or perhaps make new interpretive choices. This is typically noted in a program as "Choreography after..." ) Not recognizing a single move in Act I, I commented that the evening's choreography was "after Petipa and Ivanov were dead and spinning in their respective graves."

Prince Sigfried's only connection to his character was his age. Incapable of acting and merely acquainted with the steps, he created a vaccuum of performance energy every moment he spent on stage.

Our Odette/Odile, performed without an iota of emotion. Technically weak, she did manage one or two very nice penche' arabesques.

Von Rothbart was one of the largest dancers I've seen on a stage. Credit him for at least trying to bring some interest to this tired and under-rehearsed prduction. Only the female corps de ballet offered any visual interest and they were spotty at best. When the swans entered wearing romantic tutus, I immediately longed for the opera gloves and chest hair sported by Ballet Trockadero De Monte Carlo. Say what you will about the Trocks, their Swan Lake Act I, Scene 2 was far superior to what we were forced to endure - those boys can dance!

Adding final insult to final injury, this production chose the "happy ending" instead of the traditional tragic end. I had to look around to make sure I was really in Russia!

If this performance is representative of the quality of dance instruction at the Conservatory, their administration needs to find new artistic direction.