Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Perfect Form(ula), Bitter Outcome

"Deuce" at the Music Box Theatre, April 24, 2007

It has all the pieces one needs for a smash. Two award-winning leading actresses, an award-winning director and an award-winning author with 11 Tony wins, 11 Tony nominations, 10 Drama Desk Awards, 14 Drama Desk nominations. How could it go wrong?

Sadly, and much to the pain of theatrical producers, there is no formula to stage a hit on Broadway. The producers of "Deuce" certainly had the right parts of what successful shows have.

Sadly, too, there is no hit here.

Mr. McNally, who has displayed such brilliance in the past with the books for the musicals "Ragtime" and "Kiss of the Spider Woman" and the plays "Master Class" and "Love, Valour, Compassion" seems to have phoned this one in. Even his "Some Men" currently running at Second Stages is stronger than this effort. His tale of former tennis doubles partners meeting for what may be the last time in their lives never rises above mildly amusing and occasionally descends into cheap jokes and bathroom humor. He pulls from his regular bag of tricks, expository monologues in the middle of the action from featured characters, asides and observations from peripheral characters, as well as a pair of inane commentators.

Sometimes a particularly talented cast can keep a play from collapsing from its lack of structure. Angela Lansbury and Marian Seldes would certainly seem to be two actors up to that task, and yet, they both display their own weaknesses. At the top of that list is stumbling over lines. This was my first opportunity to have seen either of these fine actors in a live performance. There has been a certain amount of buzz about the problems with the show. I was hopeful that by the time I attended that many of this issues would be solved.

They weren't.

And sadder still, most of the negative buzz referred to Ms. Lansbury's missing lines while Ms. Seldes was steadfast holding up her side of the show, supporting Ms. Lansbury as best she could. Tonight it was Ms. Seldes that missed the first of many of her own lines. Ms. Lansbury matched her in that category. When one is pulling so hard for performers to do well, it can be difficult to observe characterization. A weak script does little to help.

There is a line near the end of the play which has been mentioned in several other blogs. "We shall not see the likes of these two again." (paraphrased) It was very obviously a larger statement about the two women than just an observation of the two characters. And, he's right.

Turn Up The Heat

"110 in the Shade" presented by the Roundabout Theatre Company at Studio 54, April 21, 2007

Most famous for "The Fantasticks," Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones collaborated with N. Richard Nash for its first Broadway run in 1963-64, based on Mr. Nash's play "The Rainmaker."

This Roundabout Theatre production is its first Broadway revival and while the book and score are solid, I'm unsure why this didn't turn up as an Encores! production instead. Based on information from fellow theatre-goers, Mr. Nash apparently didn't make significant changes to this adaptation from the original script, which explains why so much of the score repeats information from the dialogue that led up to it. Messrs. Schmidt's and Jones' music and lyrics are certainly enjoyable, but our result is a production that lingers for two and a half hours.

As for the casting, some very talented people are involved. Audra McDonald takes the role of the spinster, Lizzie. Playing her father is the ever-solid John Cullum. Her brothers Noah and Jimmy are played by Chris Butler and Bobby Steggert, respectively.

Ms. McDonald is in beautiful voice for this role - as she seems to be in any role she performs. Despite this, I couldn't help feeling that she's ultimately miscast. Her first song, "Love, Don't Turn Away" is sweet and tender. Even with her thick dark hair pulled back (not nearly severely enough) she still exudes an attractiveness that undercuts the role of this plain, ordinary looking woman longing for love in a dried up Texas town. There too, we don't get to see Lizzie's vulnerability until the second act. By then it's hard to distinguish vulnerability from desperation.

Mr. Cullum's H. C. Curry, Lizzie's father, has realized early on that since tradition (and to a certain point, common sense) has given up on Lizzie, he's willing to entertain new possibilities as to how his only daughter can find happiness.

Mr. Butler's Noah, Lizzie's older brother is much slower to give up on tradition, but more for his own comfort than hers. Also single, having this spinster for a sister provides him with cooking and cleaning without the entanglements or responsibilities of a wife. Younger brother Jim, eagerly and delightfully played by Mr. Steggert, is ahead of his father about finding a man for his sister.

The only local candidate is the local sheriff, File, played by Christopher Innvar. He's got the tall, dark and handsome thing down well. Combine that with a fine voice and subtle but effective performance and it becomes a question as to why Lizzie would ever look anywhere else.

Well, the script brings along Starbuck, a drifter/con man billing himself as a rainmaker who's arrived just to help the poor town end their draught out of the goodness of his heart (and $100 from whomever is willing to shell the cash out). Steve Kazee's Starbuck comes across like semi-skinnied-down Meatloaf crossed with Black Bart (including hat and vest). What ought to be a performance of mystical charisma never seems to arrive. Mr. Kazee seems to have a good voice, but doesn't seem well-suited to this score. Also, he never reveals that inner spark needed to attract others to him. I'd like to see Mr. Innvar in his role for one performance.

Having been in previews for a week when I attended the show, I was surprised that there seemed to still be a problem with lines from time to time - most noticeable from Mr. Cullum and Ms. McDonald.

Director Lonny Price has taken a fairly soft approach with this show. It seems to be missing a certain edge, falling back to predictability as the events of the story unfold. Santo Loquasto has created an excellent foundation with the sun-like turntable stage and an over sized sun which hangs ominously over the set. Christopher Akerlind's lighting hints at the heat only during the opening of the show. Once the story gets moving, everything seems to cool off much too quickly into pastel blues and greens.

It's a solid production, but in the end, an unremarkable one. Maybe they can spark a little life into the show by the time it opens.

18th Century Birth Control - Darker Than the Dickens!

"Coram Boy" at the Imperial Theatre, April 17, 2007

Continuing an impressive season of plays is another arrival from London, the National Theatre's "Coram Boy." Adapted from Jamila Gavin's novel by Helen Edmundson, it's quite a dark tale of pain, love, deception, denial, murder and sexual slavery. Also interesting is that the source novel was written for "young adults."

There are many familiar themes at play, Dickensian and Shakespearean among them. A brief plot summary (Spoiler Alert): In 1742, Alexander Ashbrook (from a family with station and money) and Thomas (not) are music students. Alexander is the eldest son, and scheduled to take over the family title and responsibilities but wants to be a musician instead. Coming home to address this, he meets Melissa, the daughter of staying with his family. They fall in love and conceive a child, about which he knows nothing when he decides to run away to pursue music. Melissa has the child, but her mother has decided that keeping it is out of the question and enlists the aid of Mrs. Lynch, the housekeeper, to have the child sent to the Coram Hospital, an orphanage. Melissa is told that the child was stillborn. Mrs. Lynch is working in cahoots with Mr. Gardiner, who claims to be an agent of the Coram Hospital, but instead demands significant cash donations for the child's keeping to take a child, then buries the child (sometimes alive) and pockets the cash. He has a half-wit/epileptic son Meshak, who helps him with the burials. Meshak is in love with the image of an angel in the church. When he sees Melissa for the first time, he thinks she is his angel come to earth. It is he who takes Melissa's child, but instead of burying him, flees and finds himself a position at the Coram Hospital and gets the child (Aaron) admitted. Mr. Gardiner's crimes are exposed and an execution is held.

Eight years later, Aaron is now the gifted musician at the age of 8, discovered by Handel who is working on "The Messiah" as a fundraiser for the Coram Hospital. Aaron and his friend Toby, who believes his mother was an African Princess, are placed with patrons. Aaron's patron is a composer, Edward Bruck. Toby's is Phillip Gaddam, who will keep him as a liveried house servant. Gaddam is the vilest of villains, "placing" young girls from the Coram Hospital into sexual slavery in Turkey. Meshak, still dim but devoted to Aaron, his "angel child." Aaron knows Meshak brought him to Coram, but can't get Meshak to tell him who his parents really are. All is soon resolved and several true identities are revealed, resulting in good winning over evil with plenty of casualties along the way.

While the story is obviously operatic, with its circuitous plot and twists, it is director Melly Still who, from casting to staging, brings us through this impressive night of theatre. From the use of a Greek chorus of sorts made up of young women, who play various roles including young boys and girls at Coram, the voices of the crying children as they are buried alive, and the clergy for whom the drama is performed (sitting above and watching, a la "Marat/Sade" - this time, however, it is the congregation putting on the performance for the clergy instead of the inmates). I'm not sure I could adequately describe some of the techniques and staging effects well enough to give you an accurate picture of the results, suffice to say that on a relatively simple turntable, the audience is transported from a forest graveyard, to a choir loft, to the deck of a ship, to the interior of several homes and rooms, to a gallows, to the depths of the English Channel.

Performances among the cast were all convincing. Special notice should be made of Jan Maxwell's Mrs. Lynch, the conspiratorial housekeeper who when confronted with her crimes, quickly turns the moment into one of self-reflection for her self-righteous employers accusing Lady Ashbrooke of selfishness for not funding more assistance to the poor than she had already. As Otis Gardiner, Bill Camp brings all of the bile and oiliness of Fagin, with none of the soul - a delightful villain you love to hate.

It is Brad Fleischer's half-witted, epileptic Meshak who gets the corner on sympathy. Wounded and handicapped, his Meshak still yearns for the love his father was incapable of providing. His death scene was a terrific execution of brilliant theatre craft.

Ms. Still is also credited along with Ti Green for sets and costumes, and understandably so. The thorough vision of concept like this couldn't be split completely. Paule Constable's lighting is the hingepin that makes all of this work so beautifully. Throughout, it is the music of Handel and Adrian Sutton, under the direction of Constantine Kitsopoulos that weave all of these aspects together. The "Hallelujah Chorus" that closes the show did feel a bit manipulative, since it is traditional to stand when this movement of the oratorio is performed.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Pardon Me, While I Pause for a Moment of Self-Promotion

I have accepted the role of Larry in the upcoming production of "In The Schoolyard" to be produced at Theater For The New City in the East Village.

Click here for more information about performances and tickets.

I'm apparently replacing another actor (not sure why) so the rehearsal period will be a bit "condensed."

Sunday, April 15, 2007

But Where Was Pirate Jenny's Song?

"LoveMusik" presented by the Manhattan Theatre Club at the Biltmore Theatre, April 14, 2007

In what should have been a triumphant return to directing on Broadway, Hal Prince's latest effort is (so far - since the show is still in previews) a long and drawn out affair that seems most interested in trying to present the entire Weill songbook in a single evening of theatre. He's got some significant talent to work with in Donna Murphy as Lotte Lenya and Michael Cerveris as Kurt Weill. Alfred Uhry's book takes a while to find its way, and does manage some interesting moments. There is a tendency to get bogged down in minutiae to accomodate the song coming up next. I liked that they indicated the lyricist for each song, but wish they'd taken the next step and identified the show in which it appeared. MTC has done a nice job with program notes about the four principal characters of Lenya, Weill, Bertold Brecht and George Davis.

As Lotte Lenya, Ms. Murphy works hard to remain compelling with some rather redundant moments. It's established early on that fidelity is not her strong suit, but challenging Weill's ability to love her is. That said, it took a while for that passion to really come through. Though Weill was of a particularly passive nature, I didn't sense that the book provided Mr. Cerveris the chance to really express himself in their first argument. Once that passion was revealed a scene or two later, Mr. Cerveris' awkward and tender portrayal came through beautifully. Even though it's only listed twice in the playbill, it seemed like there were at least three (if not five) reprises of "I Don't Love You."

Ms. Murphy, all gangly knees and hips again like in the recent "Wonderful Town" gives us a Lenya who is free with her love as a defense to mask her fear of rejection. I do have to say, though, that her songs reminded me a lot more of Edith Piaf than Lotte Lenya. I did a quick internet search to find a Lenya recording and think Ms. Murphy's own un-accented voice much closer than that of her performance in this show.

As Bertold Brecht, David Pittu, whose skills remind me more and more of a Stanley Tucci for musical theatre with another chameleon-like turn. His Brecht is trashy and talented, only concerned about self-promotion and pleasure.

John Scherer gets saddled with the standard-required-gay-role of George Davis, Weill's American agent. He does get to show off some nice song-and-dance skills in "The Illusion Wedding Show." I'm still not sure why Patricia Birch didn't put tap shoes on him for that number - he certainly hit the marks from what I could hear in the mezzanine.

I was struck with how many scenes/moments reminded me of Kander and Ebb's "Cabaret, originally directed by Mr. Prince. From the first scene between Weill and Lenya in Weill's tiny apartment, which seemed much like Cliff and Sally's first scene at Frau Schneider's boarding house, to Brecht's first number, "Tango Ballad" and "Schickelgruber," both of which pointed back to Cabaret's "Two Ladies."

I did have a couple of tactical questions about some staging decisions.
  • Why did the rowboat bit at the beginning look so cheaply done?
  • Why were some parts of scenes staged out of view of the mezzanine?
  • Why was one of Brecht's companions scrubbing the sand outside his trailer in Santa Monica?
  • Why did Alan Lake's costume during "Buddy on the Night Shift" look like a Chelsea-boy sleeveless tshirt?
  • Has anyone ever seen such well-endowed figures as were depicted on the first act false proscenium?
  • Most of all, with all the music they did manage to put into the show, why would they leave out Pirate Jenny's song from "Threepenny Opera," a number I saw Ms. Murphy sing at the Public's anniversary celebration (summer of 2004?) in a devastating performance? There are many references to TPO throughout the show, but for a role so closely associated with Lenya, how does one leave it out?
Overall, I would have to describe the production as slightly awkward right now. It seems like a production that should still be out of town, working through some of these issues, the most pressing of which is the nearly three-hour running time.

Technically, this isn't one of MTC's better efforts. Costumes by Judith Dolan are a mish-mash of styles, with no indication of a unified look. Beowulf Boritt's sets are also an uneven affair, working from a palette of red and black, but tossing in a mix of styles without much apparent attention to theme. It is early in previews, but the Howell Binkley's lighting experienced a few glitches here and there.

That said, there is much to be seen here. When Ms. Murphy sings "Surabaya Johnny," she is mesmerizing, once again earning her reputation as a powerful and charismatic performer. I thought the staging of Weill's death was beautifully done, followed by a heartbreaking delivery of "September Song" by Ms. Murphy and Mr. Davis. Mr. Cerveris is equally compelling, particularly so in the reprises of "I Don't Love You."

"How Did I End Up In This Mess?"

"The Pirate Queen" at the Hilton Theatre, April 10, 2007

It's here, it's big, it's splashy and it's a mess. Boublil and Schonberg's latest stage effort has arrived at the Hilton Theatre. After much reported doctoring on the script, score and staging, the producers decided to open this show anyway.

With their first two successes, "Les Miserables" and "Miss Saigon," Messrs Boublil and Schonberg proved that even though the good stuff comes out of London, it could be Frenchmen that actually wrote quality theatre.

Unfortunately, they've not matched their earlier success, first stumbling with "Martin Guerre" which underwent a total re-write from the London to the Canadian productions and never made it to Broadway after a US tour in 1999-2000 (I saw it in Washington, DC on New Year's Eve).

What we get is a not-bad concept that is unfocused and without a compelling book or score. They have assembled some talent in their cast, but all of their efforts aren't enough ballast.

Stephanie J. Block in the title role is likeable and remarkably talented, but no one could bring credibility to a role that has her crawling out of the birthbed where her son was just delivered, to strike the fatal blow vanquishing an English attack on her ship, without rising to her feet. It was not the only time I laughed out loud at what should have been a dramatic moment.

Linda Balgord as Elizabeth I gets all the fun and some fabulous costuming. It's curious that this role was written to be so vocally shrill.

As Grace's real love interest Tiernan, Hadley Fraser is another waste of talent. Great voice, excellent stage presence in an apology of a role.

My biggest thought was that the show was misguided in its plotting, in the same manner that I thought "Boy From Oz" was misguided. BFO should have focused on Judy Garland as the center of the show, with Peter Allen as a featured character, instead of the other way around. With PQ, I think the show would have been much more interesting had it focused on the parallels between Grace's and Elizabeth's life journeys as unconventional leaders in a world that was otherwise totally dominated by men. I think the scenes between Grace and Elizabeth support that - they seemed more interesting to me, relatively speaking.

Frank Galati and Graciela Daniele at the helm, could save this wreck from sinking, sadly. The production plows from number to number, almost in a formula of power ballad-battle-irish dance. Martin Pakledinaz' costumes are a mix of trash and treasure. He does provide nice exposure to some of the hotter pirate/chorus boys as well as the aforementioned Elizabethan regalia. Eugene Lee's overproduced sets, including a three-story trapeze of ship's rigging (which Ms. Block had predictably scaled before the opening number was finished) and a series of theme-park-ride projections. Kenneth Posner's lighting does manage a little more restraint.

I really wanted this show to fix the problems that preceded its Broadway bow. I'm disappointed.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Into the Words, Part One

"The Coast of Utopia: Voyage" at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre at Lincoln Center, April 6, 2007

At last I got to Part I of Mr. Stoppard's trilogy running at Lincoln Center. After seeing Part II, "Shipwreck" first, I thought I had missed a good bit of the plot underway. Turns out, not so much.

This Chekovian tribute by Mr. Stoppard is an epic endeavor, attempting to span the philosophical awakening of Tsarist Russia from the perspective of the newly dubbed intelligentsia: students, radicals and philosophers seeking to find a place of equal footing among the more enlightened cultures of the West.

This installment focuses on the lives of the Bakunin family, controller of some 700 "souls" (meaning Russian serfs) on the family estate, Premukhino, 150 miles north of Moscow. You can check out the production website for more information on the plot and period.

Coast of Utopia

Hard at work here is Ethan Hawke, shouting, blustering and spitting his way through both acts as the indulged and spoiled only son, Michael Bakunin. After following tradition for as long as he could stand, he's left the military in search of a new philosophy (he almost sounds like Sallie Brown at times), finding a new one to follow as the wind changes, but none of them which allow his to remain a spoiled and indulged child like he wants. Needless to say, his search continues.

The always-impressive Richard Easton is Michael's doddering, yet still occasionally imperious father, Alexander. With four daughters and a son, he's well past his prime but not yet willing/no longer able to maintain family control. Amy Irving as his wife, Varvara, has a wonderful time flitting in and out, worrying over everyone and unable to impact anyone.

The daughters, Liubov (is it me, or is it really strange for a feminine Russian name to end without a vowel? Shouldn't it have been Liubova?) played by Jennifer Ehle is the Beth of these little women - beloved by her family and eager to find love, but dies before any of her engagements can be completed. Varenka (another always-impressive Martha Plimpton) is the Jo, but not quite strong-willed enough to make the right choice, only to recognize when she's made the wrong choice and then bemoan it. Tatiana (Kelley Overbey) is Meg, the pretty one, and Alexandra (Annie Purcell) is Amy, the youngest. It struck me as a little odd, however, that all four sisters seemed to be in love with their brother, all fawning over his every word and deed. Varenka is the only one to express the negative impact that has on her life.

Billy Crudup, as Vissarion Belinsky brings an earnest and awkward passion to his role. Belinsky, like Michael, is also in search of a new philosophy, but is a bit more pragmatic about it. He understands that one must manage some way to eat, in order to make the search.

Brian O'Byrne makes his first appearance in the series as Alexander Herzen, but doesn't have significant action yet, merely laying the foundation for his work in Part II, Shipwreck.

Director Jack O'Brien has shown himself a master in keeping all of this moving and engaging, despite Mr. Stoppard's challenging plot and character list.

As before, the physical production is quite elegant, from the torn scrims and projections to some really fabulous torchieres and a terrific chandelier that looks like an ice version of St. Basil's and the Kremlin in Moscow.

On reflection, as much as I enjoyed the performances in this play, I did feel a bit lost by the pace of the plot and the turnover of characters. Having now seen 2/3 of the trilogy, it feels like this work is more about literature than entertainment. I haven't decided how much effort I'll make to see part III.

(Starwatch: Neil Simon was in attendance)

And Now, For Something Completely Different

"Frost/Nixon" at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, April 5, 2007

In what is shaping up as a great season for straight plays on Broadway, the latest export from London has arrived, Peter Morgan's "Frost/Nixon."

Having only heard of the excellent reviews from the London production, I was anxious to see the retelling of how the interviews David Frost conducted with former President Richard Nixon came to be. I vaguely remember when the interviews aired in the 1970s. At the time, I had little interest in the subject. Mr. Morgan has done a splendid job of transforming these events into a lively evening of theatre. (Spoiler alert - is that possible with an historically-based play?)

As David Frost, the ever-talented Michael Sheen brings all the champagne dreams of a talk-show host trying to morph himself into a serious journalist. His Frost is living life in the fast lane, and understandably, is reluctant to give all of that up. He's a man wanting to have his cake and eat it too! To paraphrase a fellow blogger, there's a reason why the title is Frost/Nixon and not Nixon/Frost. Early on, Frost's goal was scoop Mike Wallace who was the pre-eminent master of the "get" interview at the time. Risking everything from personal reputation to personal fortune, Frost beat him.

But this is not meant to slight Frank Langella's performance as Richard Nixon in any way. Taking on such a formidable historical figure is fraught with possibilities, both good and bad. I do think Mr. Morgan's version of Mr. Nixon comes off a bit buffoonish at times, but remember, it's only a play and meant to be entertaining. Mr. Langella, in a similar fashion to Anthony Hopkins' dead-on portrayal of Richard Nixon, doesn't stoop to impersonate or mimic the trademark images - the ski-slope nose, the flapping jowls. He does alter his voice a bit, which when I closed my eyes sounded more like Walter Cronkite than Nixon, but it's still effective as he matches the timbre and pattern of the late President's speech habits. He captures the Nixon who was trying to re-brand himself after his disgrace, and regain his place of respect among the retired heads of state. From that end, he did achieve a certain level of success, reminding the viewers that aside from the Watergate scandal, his presidency was quite successful in several areas.

Mr. Morgan provides very interesting drama between Frost and Nixon once the interviews are actually underway. In the first three sessions Mr. Nixon maintains full control, driving the conversation to his own advantage, hardly allowing Frost to get a word in, edgewise. On the eve of the final taping, Frost receives a disarming phone call from Nixon. It's here that we see how clearly each man is trying to rise above his current reputation and how important success in this interview is to achieve that. During this call, Nixon effectively tosses down the gauntlet at Frost, Nixon feeling he is well on his way to his own salvation at Frost's expense. It is this period when Frost's assistants/advisers find previously unexplored transcripts of the White House telephone tapes revealing Nixon's foreknowledge of the break-in.

It is here when Nixon states: "When the President does it, it's not illegal." This was the fatal flaw in Nixon's administration - that he felt he was above the law. (I can't help wondering if our current administration has bothered to look at recent history in order to avoid making the mistakes of the past. Somehow I doubt it.)

The interaction in the final session is riveting. Now I want to find the original recordings and see them to compare!

Director Michael Grandage shows a firm and clever hand in this production. He updates the cheesy TV aura of the 1970s, matching it to the intensity and pace of the play. Christopher Oram's sets and costumes capture the shag and polyester gabardine days of the period, nicely enhanced by Neil Austins lighting.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

As I Speak of This, I'm Trying to be Kind

"Tea & Sympathy" presented by Keen Company at the Clurman Theatre, Theatre Row, April 3, 2007

I have a certain fondness for "T&S" because one of the first acting scenes I was assigned in high school was from this play.

I was pleased at how well Robert Anderson's script held up since its initial Broadway run of 712 performances beginning in 1953. His tale of a sensitive young man suffering under unfounded suspicions remains a compelling tale.

It's less fortunate that this production is so uneven. As Tom Lee, Dan McCabe (who's building some nice off-Broadway credits) brings the timeless discomfort of a sensitive teenager trying to fit into a boy's school which values virility over intelligence.

Seeing qualities in Tom that remind her of her late first husband, Laura (Heidi Ambruster) aches over his pain and is eager to make up for things she didn't do or couldn't have done the first time. Ms. Ambruster, pretty and eager, doesn't manage to bring the quiet dignity that this role requires. She seems stuck in her craft of awkward poses, arms akimbo, and looking off to nowhere in particular when delivering some of her lines. While Laura is not happy in her current environment, she is certainly comfortable in her own skin. Ms. Ambruster seems to have missed that. She is almost glib when she talks about her first husband, hidden behind a nervous smile that undercuts many of her lines.

As Laura's husband Bill, who is the housemaster where Tom lives, he's got his own set of issues demonstrated by a glimpse of paranoia when he shares his own difficulties with Laura about growing from a boy into a man, almost confessing to the sins of which Tom is wrongfully accused.

As Al, Tom's uber-jock roommate, Brandon Espinosa has a nice turn trying to be loyal to his friend, but torn by pressure from classmates and his own father to separate himself from Tom.

Tom's father, Herb Lee (Dan Cordle) looks more uncomfortable about being on stage that uncomfortable about the situation with his character's son.

Director Jonathan Silverstein treats the script with a nice touch of reverence, but doesn't seem to have been able to communicate that to his cast, with such uneven performances. The set by Beowulf Boritt and Jo Winiarski looks like some of their concept might have gotten lost in translation or just jumbled in the metaphors. All grey set pieces on a wash of blue stage and walls, with a roof frame outline that extends over the audience leaves me wondering how many things they are trying to say. Is the empty roof trying to convey inclusion and safety? Are the "shades of grey" a representation of perception and interpretation? Is the blue background a false sense of the blue-sky 1950s? (If so, the shade of blue was a bit dark.) Josh Bradford's lighting accomodates the proceedings.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Oh My God, You Guys! It's a New Musical!!

"Legally Blonde" at the Palace Theatre, April 2, 2007

(photo by Paul Kolnik)

Well, our friends in San Francisco have misled us about another "screen to stage" venture, most recently having sung the praises of "Legally Blonde." It makes sense now why so many shows are running out of town there. They're like Mikey: they'll see anything - and like it!

From the opening number "Oh My God, You Guys!" (yes, that's really the title) to the dubious taste of the 'He's Gay' song during the courtoom scene, this bubble-gum (both in flavor and color) production tosses mixed messages out with such energy and glee that I can't help but wonder just how much Red Bull they force down the cast for each show (Red Bull also gets a heavy product placement). It's hard to tell whether it's misogynistic or just lost in search of a perspective.

There is talent in the cast, but the material is way below par in comparison. Laura Bell Bundy as Elle Woods works hard to fill shoes originated with such a nice flair by Reese Witherspoon in the movie, but even had a problem keeping shoes on in one number. Christian Borle, whose performance in "Spamalot" was a highlight for me, feels miscast as Emmett Forrest. With such a flair for character roles, why would he trap himself with such a bland character whether it's a leading role or not? Richard Blake brings a pretty face to the insipid role of Warner, the object of Elle's affections. Kate Shindle only gets a moment or two to exercise a rather impressive voice, the rest hidden in the role of Vivienne, Warner's new girlfriend. Michael Rupert does what he can to add some dignity to the proceedings, but is let down by the Heather Hach's weak book. The singly-named Orfeh, as Paulette the hairdresser, gets saddled with a rather pointless Irish song and dance number, which for some reason was deemed worthy of a reprise in the second act. Seems to me that if you're gonna poke fun at another show (presumably Pirate Queen) you need to be pretty sure yours is better from the outset.

The score, by Laurence O'Keefe and Nell Benjamin does little to expand the story or characters. The music is not remarkable, other than the lack of power ballads that have overrun most of the new shows running these days (thank goodness!).

Director and choreographer Jerry Mitchell seems to have had a great time putting all this together, but the result is mostly derivative Paula Abdul dance numbers, only enhanced by a very attractive roster of chorus boys.

David Rockwell has done a nice job with the sets keeping a similar style to his work on "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels," (the sorority house looks a lot like Lawrence's Riviera manse) which are complemented well by Ken Posner and Paul Miller's lighting.