Scenery Chewer Critiques


I was busy over the last few weeks reviewing Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet and Garth Fagan Dance at the Joyce.  Click on the links to read reviews.

 

 

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I had the pleasure of guest blogging for Idanz.net, a website for teenage dancers that lets me use words like ‘fierce.’  Very fun.  Check out my review of Kate Weare Company and Monica Bill Barnes!

It took me some time to cultivate a response to Every Little Step, the documentary about casting the Broadway revival of Chorus Line. I hadn’t seen it in the theatre, despite astounding reviews, because it hit a bit too close to home for me.  I doubted any filmmaker’s capacity to get the casting process right.

But directors Adam Del Deo and James D. Stern for the most part do.  Of course, I can’t possibly watch this objectively.  I know too much.  I know, for example, that when the casting assistant tells the girls lined up outside in the freezing cold that they’ll be sure to see everybody, what she means is they’ll have  everyone do a double pirouette and then cut most of them.  (This happened to a Juiliard-trained dancer friend of mine.)  In fact Jay Binder calls the non-union kids amateurs on film, and his office’s claim that they saw everybody “who said they could dance on their resume” is relative to what they mean by “see.”

But no matter.  The subject matter is exciting:  kids realizing their Broadway dreams!  Never mind that the show isn’t written about kids.  It was conceived when Michael Bennet got a bunch of seasoned, experienced Broadway dancers in a room and turned on a tape recorder.  It’s a show about needing a job, not just wanting a job.  The documentary chooses several chorines to follow, including one Jessica Lee Goldwyn who, at 22, doesn’t realize how naïve she sounds when she says, “If you can do something else, you should do it.”  Dedicated?  Certainly.  But all I could see is her narrow-mindedness and lack of self-realization.  No matter what your profession, we are more than our jobs.  Certainly there’s something else Goldwyn enjoys?  But no, here’s her mother telling us that she never went to the mall or saw a movie or anything.  She just works, works, works, rehearses and rehearses.  Sad. Because once you book the job, doing the same show night after night really can grind on your nerves.  Better to have some outside interests so that you can, like,  have a life… or a blog… but what do I know?

Moving on.  Easily my favorite character was Rachelle Rak, a tough, ballsy broad who really is  Sheila, the tough ballsy character who has lines like, “You need seven men and four girls?  Need any women?”  (I’m paraphrasing.)   I loved Rachelle’s journey.  She kept getting callback after callback, and when questioned about it, she would say, “I just can’t think about it.  I want it so much that if I start to think about it, I’m afraid my heart will just end up getting broken.”  (Once again, I’m paraphrasing.)  That’s a far truer phrase than Miss Goldwyn’s philosophical waning.    Rak is no newbie, and she knows better than to want it too much.  She knows to steel herself for rejection even though she’s perfect for the role.  And in true Broadway fashion, she doesn’t get it.  At her final callback, they ask her to do what she did eight months ago, which brings on my second favorite quote from her, “I don’t know what I did eight months ago.  Who knows what I was going through then?”   As far as she’s concerned, she’s already doing what she did eight months ago:  reading the same lines with the same emotions and intentions, nailing the same choreography, singing the same songs.  When she calls Jay Binder over and asks him point-blank if she got the part, she became my hero.  The part went to the much sweeter Diedre Goodwin, whom everyone loves and respects and is very talented, but isn’t in person a Sheila.  I was reminded of the time I saw Donna McKechnie’s one-woman show.  She tells a story about going to an audition for a “Donna McKechnie type.”  She didn’t book it.

Overall, I thought the movie too easily exalted the winners and dusted over the losers.  For anyone who doesn’t come from the world of music theatre, it makes the audition process seem far easier than it is, believe it or not.   But the film does allow the audience to taste the sweetness of  success for a few well-deserving dancers.  It seeks to glorify  a life in music theatre, and Broadway,  so often misaligned in mainstream culture, deserves the tribute.

Forget Nietzsche:  God is alive and well and performing Off-Broadway.

Two original  musicals opened this summer that take an off-kilter approach to the Word of the Lord.  The first, Falling For Eve, re-tells the story of Adam and Eve and runs  through August 8th at the York Theatre.  The second, I’ll Be Damned, which twists the traditional Faustian tale of damnation, closed at the Vineyard yesterday after a too-short run.  Both approach our society’s greatest morality stories with just the right touch of silliness and sincerity.  Both feature original scores by people who aspire to win Tony awards, not rock the cover of Rolling Stone.   Neither one will change your life, or for that matter, the genre, but each one gives true music-theatre geeks reason to be hopeful.

I’ll Be Damned garnered a lukewarm review in the Times and an approving, but bizarre review in The Village Voice.   (Dear Village Voice: In music theatre you don’t have to search too hard for homosexual subtext.   If it’s there, it will up and bitch-slap you, mark my words.)  Falling For Eve, on the other hand, got undeservedly awful reviews, with the Times critiquing the play’s sense of logic.  Seriously?  Since when has the story of Adam and Eve ever been logical?  The Old Testament doesn’t try to address the particulars of creation– for example, if Adam and Eve only had Cain and Abel, then where did Cain’s wife come from?  No, no, no.  The Bible deals with the larger questions of temptation and loyalty, innocence and consequence, and that is what the play sings and dances about for almost exactly an hour and a half.

Need I recap?  God creates Adam and Eve, then places the Tree of Knowledge in Eden,and Eve eats the apple.  She then tries to get Adam to eat it as well, but in this version (spoiler alert) he doesn’t, so she’s cast out of Eden by herself.  Eve loses her innocence, becoming aware of the possibility of sin and sex, while Adam stays behind, eternally youthful and naïve, but despondent. How will the human race get started?  God, played by both a white man (Adam Kantor) and a black woman (Sasha Sloan), makes up His/Her rules as He/She goes along while  Eve wanders about scraping her knees and discovering the ocean.  The somewhat thin and familiar plot is helped along by a rollicking score by Tony winner Joe DiPietro and a talented, funny cast.  Jose Llana delivers a particularly inspired and hilarious portrayal of Adam, while Jennifer Blood brings oddball humor to her role as the angel Sarah.

I’ll Be Damned runs a much longer two and a quarter hours, but is sustained by its upbeat charm.  This is mostly due to the talents of exciting newcomer Jacob Hoffman, who plays Louis Foster, the sweet, flawed, desperately lonely and hopelessly dorky home-schooled hero.  (Will somebody give this kid his Equity card, please?  Music theatre needs him!)  Hoffman plays Louis with the perfect combination of intense optimism and aching vulnerability that will resonate with anyone who has at any point in his life longed for a  friend.   Because of his pitch perfect performance, Louis can do things like pull out a mirror and sing a song to himself entitled I Like You when his feelings have been hurt, and you don’t roll your eyes.  You laugh as something inside you melts.  If you’re a sap like me, you may actually cry.  (“Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion.”  –Steel Magnolias)  His feelings have been hurt by Satan (Kurt Robbins), with whom he has signed a pact to give up his soul in exchange for a friend.   Satan goes through a cast of friend possibilities, during which the talented ensemble steps forward to shine, particularly Alison Luff and Nick Gelona.  But no one befriends Louis until Satan realizes that he actually likes Louis– as a friend, Village Voice— and banf!  Everything goes to hell.

The catchy music and witty lyrics propel the cast through one great number after another.  Kenita R. Miller stops the first act as Friendetta, the comic book character of Louis’ creation, whom Satan brings to life to find Louis a friend.  Gregory Treco steals the second act as the petulant, attention-seeking God who is sick of angels and wishes for a friend of his own.  But the show belongs to Hoffman and Mary Testa, who plays Louis’ mother.  If Testa were my mother, I would’ve happily been home schooled.

As I write this I’ll Be Damned has officially closed.  But I hope to see more from JARADOA,  a theatre company that mixes seasoned Broadway veterans like Testa with exciting young professionals like Hoffman, that balances community outreach with performance.  I’d like to see more of DePietro’s funny, inventive work.  And I think we all would like to see more  original musicals in New York.   I hope that God, despite His somewhat irreverent interpretation onstage, wills it to be so.

Last Saturday I hauled my cookies down to see Little Doc at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre in Greenwich Village.  The Rattlestick is a funky, unpretentious, 100-seater where the public has to walk backstage to pee.  Thanks to a series of critically acclaimed productions of truly great plays, this tiny theatre has developed a reputation for producing smart, provocative material.  Which, unfortunately, Little Doc is not.

Little Doc tells the story of a Brooklyn kid who’s borrowed too much money, done too many drugs and become too disillusioned with society to try to rectify anything.  Does that premise sound tired?  It is.  Along the way we’re introduced to some equally tired stereotypes– er, characters:  the gangster bar owner (played with frightening sincerity by Dave Tawil),  the druggie idealist ( Bill Tangradi in a Pirates of the Caribbean wig), the emotionally stunted father (Steven Marcus), the druggie loser (Tobias Segal), the  Italian guy (Salvatore Inzerillo) and the trophy girlfriend (a hopelessly miscast Joanne Tucker).   The play runs 90 minutes:  the characters bitch and bray, pace and plead and in the end cheat the audience out of a satisfying ending.

However, while I can’t in good conscience recommend this play to anyone, I am happy to see something fail so well.  Though Klores didn’t so much write a play as create a setting–  Brooklyn, 1975– he nails the banter.  The actors, hindered by shallow writing and lack of plot, spin their wheels very nicely, enduring night after night of stifling cigarette smoke.  And while the play misses its aim, it seems a nice response artistically to any Brooklynite waxing on about the good old days, when Italians hated the blacks and even school teachers snorted coke.  Would we want to return to those days, the play asks?  No.  Would we want to return to the Rattlestick?  Sure.  Because full-length plays by new writers aren’t a safe bet.  And when theatre isn’t safe, very often it’s exciting.

Growing up, I played with an assortment of imaginary friends.  This was despite the fact that I had three sisters and a close-knit, safe neighborhood.  The most significant of the imaginary friends, or “pretend friends” as I call them, was Peter Pan, who, I reported to my mother, was my boyfriend.

There’s something irresistable about eternal boyhood.   It’s innocent and exhilerating in a messy, liberating way.  And that’s the spirit that Papermill Playhouse has managed to capture in its recent production of Peter Pan.

For those of you who are able to get out to Milburn this weekend and see the closing weekend of the show, I highly urge you to go.  You will not be disappointed, even if your pre-adolescent crushes do not feature prominently in the plot.  In fact, the trip out to Milburn is enchanting in and of itself.  It’s a mere 30 minutes via New Jersey Transit, and for some reason on the Dover line no one’s ever crazy or cranky, although on my trip there was a pile of what looked like vomit under the seat to my right.  No matter.  I got off the train with enough time to hit up Starbuck’s before joining my friend Erin in line for tickets.  The place was absolutely jumping:  Papermill is riding its cash cow straight to the bank, and children waved pirate flags and, strangely, light sabers.  Little girls were dressed like fairies.

The set, on loan from Cathy Rigby if I understand correctly, drew an audible gasp of appreciation from the audience.  (When was the last time you heard that?)  The darling, completely unannoying children run on in gorgeous costumes, followed by their mother in an even more  gorgeous costume, followed by a maid with the worst Irish accent you’ve ever heard– a rare misstep in the course of the night.  Douglas Sills enters next as the father, and allow me just a word about Douglas Sills.

Sills plays both Mr. Darling and Captain Hook, and when he’s on stage, you can’t take your eyes off of him.  I actually hate that term because it’s overused.  Bear with me:  Shakespeare, for example, frequently wrote a real, live dog into his plays.  They did this because even if the show was crap, the dog could always be counted on to be funny.  Having done a dog show or two in my lifetime, I can attest that that is true.   Animals are funny because you never really know what they’re going to do next.   Great actors are the same way:  they are so lively, so unpredictable, so fresh and inventive that you simply can’t stop watching them.  Katherine Hepburn had that, Gene Wilder has that, and Doug Sills has that as well.

It helps that he is given free reign and improvises so freely (particularly in the second act) that he stops the show cold several times.  Audience members are rolling in the aisles– in the case of my friend Erin, she would literally have done so except I had the aisle seat.  I’ve never seen someone fall out of her chair laughing.  During “Mysterious Lady,” Captain Hook is trying to figure out whose voice he hears singing and one of the kids calls out, “It’s Peter Pan!”  The audience dissolved into laughter while Sills quietly stroked his mustache.  Then he quipped, “I love children.  I just can never finish a whole one.”  This time the laughter came with applause, and Sills waited for it to finish before catapaulting back into the number.  It was genius.  In the second act, during which he has the run of the stage while the children are tied up, preparing to walk the plank, he careened so far off book, ridiculing Michael’s  pajamas (“What are those, boats?  In my day I had bloody limbs on my pajamas!”) that the poor child couldn’t keep a straight face.

I didn’t mind him going off book because he honored the style of the script so well.  The musical is based on the play by James Barrie, and the Victorian language would have sat heavily on the lips of a less talented cast.  Sills’ infectious silliness drips down through the rest of the cast, and the result is a joyful, high-energy romp through a lengthy but lovable classic.  It’s so refreshing to see musical theatre done well.  There’s no posturing, no whining, no high-concept misfires.  They embrace the corniness of it.  They embrace the fun.  The child inside of you will run out to play and you will have a ball.  It isn’t until Captain Hook screams, “Who are you, Peter Pan?,” and Peter yells back, “I am youth!  I am freedom!  I am happiness!”  that you realize what your adult self has been missing.

I regret that due to an insane schedule, I am only able to write about events some weeks or days after they happen.  It has been my intent for some time to write a review of the funny, under appreciated 9 to 5.

I had been encouraged to see 9 to 5 by some theatre-crowd friends whose opinions I respected, so I eagerly accepted my first invitation to go.  Reviews, I understood, had been lukewarm, which in the theatre world usually means everyone loved it but the Times or vice versa.  I didn’t read the Times review until just now (for inspiration).  Having seen the show, I can only assume that Ben Brantley meant to write a piece entitled, “A Stodgy Old Fart Goes to Broadway.”

The curmudgeonly review opens by comparing 9 to 5 to Eugene Ionesco’s absurdist work, Exit the King. This is like comparing Ace Ventura: Pet Detective to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.  Both movies feature Jim Carrey, just as both shows are on Broadway.  But other than that, he is comparing apples to oranges, to put it mildly.  They are just completely different shows.  Brantley’s point is that in such an intellectually exciting season, 9 to 5 feels like tourist-pandering  froth.  And to that end, he’s right.  Movie musicals appeal to the ignorant tourist as well as to the risk-averse investor.  But that doesn’t mean the show’s not good.

Scenerychewer, for one, is glad to see a good, old-fashioned book musical starring adult actors in undeniably grown-up situations.  I am happy to hear a score that sounds like it was written for the stage with songs that, believe it or not, advance the plot and reveal new aspects of the characters.  I am happy to see three gifted actresses strut their stuff on a stage filled with unleashed character actors.  In short, the show is a stitch.  Go see it.  You’ll have a ball.

Scenerychewer is not proposing the show is without its flaws.  The only particularly memorable song is the title number, although there are plenty of memorable moments within the songs.  Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography, which I liked so much in In the Heights, is a trifle too busy for my taste.  It seemed to be compensating for a slight lack of direction.  But the cast is first-rate, particularly Alison Janney and the hilarious Kathy Fitzgerald.  If you love good acting, a good laugh, and most of all, if you love musical theatre, go see this show.  You won’t be disappointed.

http://theater2.nytimes.com/2009/05/01/theater/reviews/01nine.html

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