Sunday, February 25, 2007

Kiss of the Body Snatcher

"Prelude to a Kiss" presented by the Roundabout Theatre Company at the American Airlines Theatre, February 25, 2007

Craig Lucas' play debuted on Broadway in 1990 with Mary Louise Parker, Timothy Hutton, and Barnard Hughes and has been revived by the Roundabout. It's not a bad play, but having seen it, I'm not sure why RTC found it necessary to revive it. (Spoiler Alert)

Peter and Rita meet at a party - fall in love and marry in 6 weeks' time. At the wedding, an old man shows up (whom no one knows, or questions for that matter), kisses the bride and swaps bodies. Confusion, frustration, questions of what love is really based on all get addressed and there's a happy ending.

Peter is played by the very attractive Alan Tudyk. Why is it that his scenework sounds like narrative and his direct addresses sound like scenes? Annie Parisse takes on the role of Riat, originated by Mary Louise Parker. She has a grand time as the old man, but I never got a sense of the kind of quirky, off-center, bohemian that Rita is. I also never got a sense of the "I-can't-live-without-you" between Ms. Parisse and Mr. Tudyk. John Mahoney as the old man has little to do in the first act. By the time he gets to work for us, he's basically working on his own, pulling the rest of the cast along with him. I got a much stronger sense of Peter's love for Rita, when she was in the old man's body than before or after.

Santo Loquasto's deep blue set functions well and Donlad Holder's lighting accents nicely.

Director Daniel Sullivan appears to have phoned this one in. I didn't see the nurturing and guiding hand that shaped "Rabbit Hole" anywhere.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Go Ahead Caller, You're On The Air.

"Talk Radio" at the Longacre Theatre, February 18, 2007

Eric Bogosian's "Talk Radio" originally produced by the NY Shakespeare Festival (now the Public Theatre) in 1987 makes its first Broadway bow. Under the direction of Robert Falls, the cast is fearlessly led by Liev Schreiber as Barry Champlain, a 1980's "shock jock" of the first order.

It's a solid play, but the performances are better than the material. Mr. Schreiber is ruthless in his portrayal of the arrogant Cleveland Ohio radio host. As he is described by his producer, Stu (Michael Laurence) "...Barry looked like he had seen God. In the mirror." His Barry knows the financial success he's brought to the once-struggling radio station and flexes that muscle at every appearance of the station manager, Dan (Peter Hermann).

I struggled a bit with the structure of the play. The action is basically real-time, but there are three direct-address monologues that interrupt the action to provide exposition. Stu's is first and when it comes, it looks like it justifies that Barry (and hence, Mr. Schreiber) needed a break. from their respective shows in progress.

The second is when Linda (the quite beautiful Stephanie March), Barry's assistant and sometime girlfriend/bed partner shares her take on the man. She finds him fascinating, but almost morbidly so, "Barry is a nice place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there." Despite her words, apparently she does, attempting to call into Barry's show and asking him as an anonymous caller the things she hasn't found the nerve to ask him face to face. Barry immediately recognizes the ploy and ends both the call and the relationship.

The third is that of the station manager, Dan. Mr. Hermann explains that it was he who discovered Barry in Akron while he was developing the whole "shock" approach to talk on the radio. Dan has saved what was a financially failing station by switching to the all talk format and credits himself with creating Barry's on-air persona. With the possibility of taking the show to national syndication, the evening's broadcast is pivotal to everyone's financial success.

Barry takes this bait and runs with it, appearing to dare these potential buyers with the notion of "be careful what you wish for." Dan is terrified over how extreme Barry's show is, but in the end, Barry does prove himself as being right about some controversial events along the way. Dan warns the audience about the battle of Barry's ego over knowing it's just a job. Barry's final revelation points that concept right back at him.

Mark Wendland's broadcast studio is a bit expansive, but has some excellent detail. Laura Bauer's costumes are spot on.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Saving Captain Stanhope

"Journey's End" at the Belasco Theatre, February 13, 2007

Following a successful revival in London, R. C. Sherriff's "Journey's End" has been revived at the Belasco. Written in 1928, it's a powerful indictment of war, following the days leading up to a WWI battle in the trenches in France. All the class delineations of the British miltary are intact, officers "upstairs" and enlisted "downstairs" although their physical locations are reversed in the trench fortifications. There's also a certain reversal of age too, higher ranked officers are recent university graduates and lower-level officers from the professional class of older men.

Captain Stanhope (Hugh Dancy) has been commanding his unit in this location for nearly 3 years. The experience and stress have taken their toll and he fuels his courage and hides his terror in whiskey. Mr. Dancy, making his Broadway debut gives terrific intensity and self-torture in this role, originated by no less than Lawrence Olivier.

Rotating in for a six-day tour is Lieutenant Osborne (Boyd Gaines). A school master, everyone refers to him as "Uncle." Mr. Gaines masks Osborne's fear in devotion to the young officers he supports, giving him a bit of a Michael Redgrave flavor. Nice job with the accent, I thought.

Jefferson Mays returns to Broadway for the first time since his tour-de-force performance in "I Am My Own Wife" as the officer's cook, Private Mason. Mr. Mays doesn't mince nearly as much here, but does give us a bit of the fey British simp.

2nd Lieutenant Trotter is a bit of a stock character, large, blustering but benign and caring as delivered by John Ahlin.

As Raleigh, Stark Sands (also making his Broadway debut) brings the needed youthful innocence as Stanhope's childhood friend to this fatal character. There is a fuzzy line about which one could wonder what the extent of the relationship exactly was between Raleigh and Stanhope. Stanhope had been linked with Raleigh's sister prior to joining the war, but is his affection for Raleigh a sublimation of his love for the sister or is his affection for the sister a sublimation of his love for Raleigh?

Dancy's Stanhope is nearly devastated over having to decide which of his officers must make a dangerous raid on the German entrenchment on the other side of the 70-yard wide no-man's-land that separates the two sides. His near-disintegration over the decision is heart-breaking.

Jonathan Fensom's set and costumes are eerily accurate. One could almost smell the earth of the underground bunker, complete with dirt floor and mud puddles. Jason Taylor's lights, seeming a bit too dim at first, did support the darkness in which these men were forced to flounder. It was Gregory Clarke's overwhelmingly effective sound design that brought the reality of war into the theatre. The bombing of the German attack in Act II wa truly frightening.

It's interesting to see how the truths of the human side of war is portrayed onstage. Such has gone on since the time of the Greeks. Such folly that recognizing it changes nothing in the "real world."

The Girls Upstairs

"Follies" Encores! production at City Center, February 10, 2007

An amazing cast, excellent direction with one of Sondheim's deepest scores, Encores! has delivered one of their best productions.

I think Encores! is one of the greatest ideas around. Gathering very talented performers and theatre artists to quickly mount a basic-staging of some of the theatre's better- or lesser-known shows that might not otherwise ever be seen. Encores! has had some significant successes in changing the fate of shows like "Chicago" (still running from its transfer to a commercial production) to "Wonderful Town" which enjoyed a good year or so in a commercial run, even to the soon-to-close "Apple Tree" at Roundabout's Studio 54.

There was a bit of buzz about transferring "Follies" to a commercial run, but the fervor for that seems to have waned and now appears unlikely (would have required some principal casting changes - Donna Murphy is already committed to another show this year).

Nevertheless, it was quite exciting to see this live production. The only other I'd seen was the 1985 documentary of the NY Philharmonic concert version with Lee Remick (Phyllis), Barbara Cook (Sally), George Hearn (Ben), Mandy Patinkin (Buddy), Carol Burnett (Carlotta), Elaine Stritch (Hattie), Phyllis Newman (Stella), just to name a few. At the time, I really thought I'd seen a definitive interpretation.

Not so.

Casey Nicholaw continues to prove himself as a thoughtful and talented director and choreographer. Of course, an all-star cast doesn't hurt a bit:
  • Victoria Clark - Sally Durant Plummer
  • Donna Murphy - Phyllis Rogers Stone
  • Victor Garber - Benjamin Stone
  • Michael McGrath - Buddy Plummer
  • Philip Bosco - Dmitri Weismann
  • Joan Worley - Stella Deems
  • Christine Baranski - Carlotta Campion
  • Lucine Amara - Heidi Schiller
  • Mimi Hines - Hattie Walker

Too many highlights to list without reciting the show completely, here are a few:

Victoria Clark - I LOVE her! And have since "Light in the Piazza." Barbara Cook is famous for her Sondheim interpretations, but she needs to watch her back. Vickie's got a voice (literally and figuratively) that's up for the challenge. Mr. Sondheim might do well to keep her in mind as he writes his next new show.

Donna Murphy - another musical theatre artist of the highest caliber. Merely her subtle physicalization of this role communicated the years of experiences in Phyllis' life. Quoting Ben Brantley in his review: "To understand what “Follies” is meant to be — and too rarely is — you need only look at Ms. Murphy’s expression when she first sees the actress playing her 19-year-old self."

Victor Garber was both the show of bravado and cringing child that is Benjamin Stone. He was most affecting in his breakdown amidst "Live, Laugh, Love." Michael McGrath came quite a long way from Spamalot's Patsy, giving a particularly athletic song and dance performance in both "The Right Girl" and "The God-Why-Don't-You-Love-Me Blues."

If Ms. Baranski's Carlotta had been any more deadpan, one might have needed to check for a pulse. Nonetheless, it worked for the world-worn character, although she wasn't in great voice the night I saw the show. (I have to add here Jackie Hoffman's comment about her from her "Jackie With a Z" cabaret show at Joe's Pub. "Christine Baranski - she said to me, 'I know Hanukkah - that's Christmas with the candles, right?' ")

There were a couple of staging decisions that seemed to undercut the proceedings. One was the opening, which was much more effective in the 1985 staging. Having so many of the returning Follies girls enter to applause before the "Beautiful Girls" number seemed to undercut its impact. I also thought William Ivey Long and Gregg Barnes' total costume and hair changes for Sally and Phyllis for their respective songs, "Losing My Mind" and "The Story of Lucy and Jessie" interrupted the flow of the story. Changing from the all-black concert attire into an all white gown for Sally and all red "jazz-hot" costume for Phyllis was a bit jarring. Even the baby blue dinner jacket for "The God-Why-Don't-You-Love-Me Blues" was more than what would have been effective.

Things I really did like were the quartet number of young Sally, Phyllis, Ben and Buddy, "You're Gonna Love Tomorrow/Love Will See Us Through" with each couple interrupting and interpolating amongst themselves. It was a great concept that demonstrated how the couples matched and mismatched simultaneously. I also thought JoAnne Worley did a fantastic job leading "Who's That Woman?" and again kudos to Mr. Nicholaw for the mix of the older and younger versions of these characters dancing together.

Speaking again of Mr. Nicholaw (which one can't go without here) he also captured the various dance styles beautifully, (except perhaps for the tango number in Act I). From the tap of "Who's That Woman" to the Jack Cole style of "... Lucy and Jessie" to Busby Berkeley in "Live, Laugh, Love" he proves his worth in spades.

(Star Watch: David Hyde Pierce in the house. I even spoke to him - told him I was looking forward to "Curtains." He said I'd enjoy it "... a fun show")

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Band! Ten-Hut! Mark Time Mark!

"Company" at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, February 7, 2007

John Doyle strikes again with a stripped down, streamlined staging of Sondheim's "Company." In the same vein as last year's "Sweeney Todd," Doyle has tossed the pit orchestra onto the stage as the responsibility of the actors. Where it worked well with the concept of asylum inmates putting on a show, here it looks like the child of musical theatre and marching band. For those of you who thought "Blast" from several years ago, an indoor staging of drum and bugle corps-style performance event was that bizarro-child - you were wrong.

Unfortunately, this is not a love-child. Rather it's turned out to be the bastard child. My real fear is that Mr. Doyle has set a new formula by which producers will look to control the costs associated with producing musical theatre. What's next, Annie accompanying herself on the glockenspiel?

Aside from the close-order-drill staging, there are some very nice performances on view.

Raul Esparza gives us a very detached and emotionally-unavailable Bobby who's really anxious to change his life. He orbits the lives of his friends and vice-versa, making an occasional foray into their relationships as the naturally stumble along. The measure of time is contrived around Bobby's birthday, turning 35 as the show begins. We follow Bobby through the next year during a series of vignettes as he spends time with each of the five couples that make up his social world:
  • Sarah and Harry: uber-competitive, they seem to enjoy the fights and nitpicking more than the make-up sex.
  • Joanne and Larry: a little older; she, married for the #th time, a bit jaded and not quite ready to believe she's found the one who really loves her for who she is.
  • Susan and Peter: a bit too sweet and polished on the surface, so after their divorce they continue to stay together for the kids.
  • Jenny and David: traveling through life on pure momentum, hiding things that the other already knows anyway.
  • Amy and Paul: not yet married; she, frenetic and manic - he, calming and stalwart.
The score survives the Doyle treatment quite nicely, I must say. Not sure how to divide that credit between Mr. Sondheim and Mary-Mitchell Campbell who supervised the music and orchestrated this production.

A couple of standouts:
  • Barbara Walsh as Joanne - it's tough to rise out of the ashes of Elaine Strich. Congratulations to her for making this role her own.
  • Heather Laws as Amy - I think every good patter song deserves an encore. Gilbert and Sullivan knew this. Why doesn't everyone else?
  • Kelly Jeane Grant as Kathy - brings a full fledged performance to what otherwise would be a mere 2-dimensional featured role.
  • Elizabeth Stanley as April - a thinking man's blond bimbo.
David Gallo's set, open and thoughtful, supports Mr. Doyle's vision for this production most effectively. A central column evokes a Soho loft, as well as the "I" of Bobby's life as a single man. The diamond-shaped wooden floor on which it rests is surrounded by a track of darker wood which serves as a runway for the five couples to orbit Bobby. The rest of the set fades away in glossy black with acrylic tiered boxes/platforms. The acrylic boxes are an especially effective metaphor to me, portraying the artificial pedestals on which Bobby views his friends, as well as the three women (Marta, April and Kathy) we meet in his life. It is Thomas C. Hase's lighting that is the key to the set's ultimate success. Ann Hould-Ward's mostly-black costuming flatters each cast member without distraction, but doesn't add much either. I did have a bit of trouble with Amy in a black wedding dress and veil - seemed a bit strong even for her in spite of her fear of the commitment she's about to make. I think with the occasional shades of grey and white that were already there, a white (or at least grey) veil might have softened the impact.

Mr. Doyle is a talented man with a definite vision. I sure would like to see him interpret something like "A Little Night Music" on a full budget, leaving the orchestra in the pit.

(Star-watch: Susan Stroman in the house. With her hair down, I almost didn't recognize her - no ponytail through a black baseball cap.)