Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Do You Hear the People Sing? (One or Two, Maybe)

"Les Miserables" at the Broadhurst Theatre, December 12, 2007

A couple of months ago, I posted my thoughts on last season's revival of "A Chorus Line" and described it as a second national tour. Having seen this third national tour of "Les Mis" I have to say that I spoke too highly before. ACL, compared to LM, is actually more of a non-equity regional production.

This production of LM, initially to be a "limited run" of some six months, has recently announced a closing date of January 6, 2007. Time to get back on the road, I suppose?

I also have to say that LM is one of my favorite scores in the world. I've seen it three other times, once in Washington, DC at the Kennedy Center prior to its Broadway debut, again in the first national tour (also in Washington, DC) at the National Theatre, then a later tour at Oven Auditorium in Charlotte, NC. The first production was truly mammoth, the most enormous thing I'd seen on a stage. The second was scaled down, but it was then I realized that what made the show work so well was the music. Even the third was the last show in a five-show weekend and the tenor singing Valjean sounded completely exhausted. It was still thrilling.

Now, at least fifteen years later, I finally got to see LM in New York. The score is still thrilling, but there's much that has been lost in nearly 20 years of touring.

John Owen-Jones, billing himself as the youngest actor to have played the role when he was 26. (Yes, my first thought was "casting mistake" too.) This must have been many years ago. His younger Jean Valjean through much of the first act, came across with an odd feeling of Jonathan Pryce. As he aged, the interpretation came off a bit more traditional, if a bit vocally indulgent, particularly in "Bring Him Home."

Another disappointment was Gary Beach's Thenardier. I had high hopes for him in this role, yet it appears he's gotten his first laptop and was just emailing his performance in. Jenny Galloway snatches away the comic focus in her two brief lines in "Master of The House." She maintains that control in all of her remaining scenes as well.

A lovely ray of light was Judy Kuhn's Fantine. In great voice, and hovering head and shoulders above all those around her with her performance, I was anxious for her reprise late in Act II.

In the meanwhile, I suffered through Associate Director Shaun Kerrison's mediocre restoration of Trevor Nunn's work in scene after scene that had degraded from powerful and thoughtful moments, to the lowest common denominator of only going for the laugh. One of the most regrettable examples of this was Marius' (Adam Jacobs) giving us what should have been a vulnerable young man making his first testament of love, but turned out to be a poor Al Jolson-style, one-kneed, minstrel plea. The romance and tenderness were shattered.

Mr. Jacobs also demonstrated a vocal weakness shared by many of his cast mates, including Max von Essen as Enjolras, neither of whom projected much past the 3rd or 4th row. Two roles of such passion should be presented by particularly strong voices. I think the sound design was also a factor. Even Gary Beach was just about unintelligible on every line. I realize it was a two-show day for these guys, but the Wednesday ticket-buyers deserve the same performance seen by the audience on a single-show day.

Megan McGinnis struggles similarly as Eponine. After a lovely and touching performance as Beth in "Little Women" three years ago, she's in a role that requires more voice than she's got. Again, sound design could be an issue - the orchestra totally overpowered her in "On My Own."

Leah Horowitz' Cosette is best described by the late Anna Russell when she discusses how to write your own Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, "...the British piercing soprano one finds in these sort of operas...she's very sweet." Sweet, bordering on the precious, I must add.

John Napier's production design holds up as well as can be expected for 20 year old technology.

Nonetheless, the show finishes on a high note. If only the rest of the show carried that level of thrill.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

The Devil and Danny O'Webster

"The Seafarer" at the Booth Theatre, December 2, 2007

(Photo by Joan Marcus)

Conor McPherson's latest supernatural tale of from the Emerald Isle has arrived, and for one who's been a bit tired of Irish drama lately, it's a welcome addition to the current Broadway play season. Following last year's ghost story in "Shining City" at Manhattan Theatre Club, Mr. McPherson is now taking on the larger spectrum of faith. In "Shining City" Mr. McPherson took on ghosts and guilt. This time he's broadened the demons of guilt to the ultimate battle of good and evil - man vs. the devil.

Richard (Jim Norton), recently blinded after a hitting his head in a drunken episode is being looked after by his brother Sharky (David Morse) who has recently returned home after losing yet another job. Drinking buddy Ivan (Conleth Hill) can't seem to find his way home to his family, encouraged by Richard to keep the booze flowing. Soon enough Nicky (Richie Coster) shows up. Seems Nicky stole the love of Sharky's life not so very long ago, contributing to Sharky's inability to focus on anything. In tow, Nicky has brought along one Mr. Lockhart (Ciaran Hinds), something of a misfit among this motley crew of Irishmen. Each of these men is fighting their own individual demons.

Part of Sharky's return is his goal to stop drinking for a while, to see if he can get his life back on track. Richard will have none of that, taking every opportunity to make that choice more difficult for Sharky. When Mr. Lockhart shows up, we learn that he and Sharky had met once before, after Sharky beat a man to death 25 years before. A jailhouse card game won by Sharky compelled the not-so-human-but-really-Lucifer-not-Lockhart to create a diversion where Sharky was released and never charged.

As Sharky, Mr. Morse still maintains a boyishness that belies his whitening hair. In fact, until it was stated, I thought he was Richard's son. His Sharky is shaky and nervous, first from alcohol withdrawal, then at the thought of life in the hell that Lockhart describes in vivid detail. It's a solid and notable performance. Sharky's demons from 25 years ago return as Lockhart demands a chance to win Sharky's soul in a rematch card game.

Mr. Coster, tall and rangy, his Nicky comes across a bit fey with a special delight in his Versace leather jacket. Mr. Hill's Ivan brings a bit of Benny Hill to mind, as he searches for his glasses lost during the previous drunken night, fumbling about the house for two acts. His demons are also revealed to connect with Lockhart as well, stemming from a fire that killed two families.

Mr. Hinds' Lockhart comes off a bit glib at first. His well-heeled look seems out of place among the his drunken compatriots. His Lockhart does belie his own goal of collecting another human soul, yet appearing so uncomfortable in the human shell he's assumed. It's interesting that the demon of alcohol weakens Lockhart as he torments Sharky.

Mr. Norton is the one to watch. He flails and fumbles as he adjusts to his recently lost sight. Richard's blindness has little impact on his inability to care for himself - many times charging off fueled by a constant flow of whiskey. His mix of physical comedy and detailed characterization is masterful.

Mr. McPherson, who also directs, gives us an excellent evening in the theatre. From the fine performances he's coaxed from his talented cast, to some clever nuances (watch the candle under the picture of Christ that hangs in the upstairs hallway), he has translated his work from paper to stage quite successfully.

Rae Smith's sets and costumes thoughtfully portray the worn-down lives of these men. I thought the flashes of red in Lockhart's ensemble (tie and suit jacket lining) were a particularly nice touch. Neil Austin's lighting ably assists, though some effects when Lockhart flexes his power come off a bit cheesy.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Third Person Jimmy

"Doris to Darlene" at Playwrights Horizons, December 1, 2007

This new play by Jordan Harrison takes an clever concept, hints at moments of interesting possibility, but doesn't really deliver in the end.

There are actually three story lines in the play. The title refers only to one of those, which is the grooming of a young bi-racial woman, Doris (De'Adre Aziza) in the 1960s into a pop star, with a song based on Richard Wagner's Leibestod from "Tristan and Isolde." (First I'll have to say the Peter Schickele's tango version of the tune is a much better twist, than the doo-wop schtick of which we only hear a little.) There's a bit of "Dreamgirls" in this subplot, grooming a shy but talented young woman to stardom by a too-slick (and white) songwriter/producer Vic Watts (Michael Crane) likely modeled on an early Phil Spector, before the handguns. The second subplot is that of crazy King Ludwig II of Bavaria (Laura Heisler) and his infatuation with Richard Wagner (David Chandler), building rooms and grottos in his fantasy-land castles based on tales from Wagner's operas. The third subplot concerns a contemporary high school boy, only identified as "the Young Man" (Tobias Segal) and his fey Music Appreciation teacher Mr. Campani (Tom Nelis). The Young Man is coming to terms with his sexual orientation and sees a fellow sufferer in his teacher.

Director Les Waters has gathered, for the most part, a very talented cast to perform this work, which doesn't equal the talent being given to it. Ms. Aziza's Doris absolutely looks the part, and sings adequately, but never really gets beyond the two-dimensional writing she's been given.

Mr. Crane's Vic is sleazy, greasy and fast-talking. When he ends up married to Doris, now renamed Darlene DuPont, the relationship is doomed as his writing style falls out of style with the British invasion. Mr. Crane also does a nice job in the Young Man's story line as the hot bad-boy Billy Zimmer, an object of the Young Man's affections.

As Wagner, Mr. Chandler brings us a talented, if manipulative, composer who understands on which side his bread is buttered. Ms. Heisler's Ludwig brings a fresh vulnerability to the young king, an interesting and effective casting choice more often used in opera than traditional theatre.

Mr. Segal's Young Man quivers and quakes in his own vulnerability, eager to know what his life will be like, but totally unsure how to find out. Ultimately, it is Mr. Nelis' Mr. Campani who is most effective in his roles (he also doubles as Doris' grandmother). This teacher, a former vocal student himself who gave up his own dream of a performance career and suffers through his life unfulfilled by his own students who only take his class because they think it's an easy A. His tension with Mr. Segal is palpable as the Young Man asks the teacher if he's attracted to the Young Man. The older man knows the question is truly innocent, but understands the impropriety with which an honest answer would be viewed.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, Mr. Harrison starts with a clever concept. Where he errs is that just about all of the dialogue in this play is spoken in third person (remember the Seinfeld episode with Third-person Jimmy? Hence the title of this post). The only subplot that ever gets close to actual dialogue is the Young Man's, and even then it's inconsistent. Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, as well as Terrance McNally have all used a third person technique to end a play (Ragtime, Glorious Ones), but here it only falls flatter than the two acts that preceded it.

Production values were satisfactory, if unremarkable, with sets by Takeshi Kata, lights by Jane Cox and costumes by Christal Weatherly (while Wagner's dressing gown was notable, Mr. Campani's pink bow tie pushed the stereotype just a bit too far).

Click here for a discount ticket offer from Playwrights Horizons.