Thursday, February 23, 2017

SUNSET BOULEVARD: With Just One Look, Glenn Close Has Us in the Palm of Her Hand




Glenn Close as Norma Desmond
Photo by Nick Wall





Here she is, boys! Here she is, world! 

It's Norma Desmond, back on Broadway again, lighting up the stage of the Palace Theatre in a grand and glorious return befitting a queen - albeit a narcissistic, manipulative, gothic, opium dream of a queen.       



Gloria Swanson's portrayal
Yes, she's back, that crazed silent film phenomenon so perfectly portrayed by Gloria Swanson in Billy Wilder's 1950 film noir classic Sunset Boulevard, and then later turned into a musical star by  Andrew Lloyd Webber, no less a phenomenon himself.    


Webber (more formally, The Right Honourable The Lord Lloyd Webber -- or, if you prefer, Baron Lloyd Webber of Sydmonton in the County of Hampshire), who is about to turn 69, finds himself in the extraordinary position of being represented by four separate musicals currently on Broadway (Phantom of the Opera, Cats, and School of Rock are the others). 

But enough of the composer, not to mention (and no one ever does) the book's writers and lyricists Don Black and Christopher Hampton. It's really the star you're interested in - Glenn Close, who is recreating her Tony winning performance from 1995. 

Let's get one bit of unpleasantness out of the way first. Other "Normas" (Patti LuPone, Elaine Paige, and Betty Buckley) were truly able to deliver the vocal goods when it comes to Mr. Lloyd Webber's opera-ish score. With Ms. Close... let's just say it's fitting that her character gained her one-time position at the top rung of the Hollywood movie star ladder as a silent actress, someone who could devastate audiences "with one look." 


Patti
















Betty
Elaine













This is something Ms. Close clearly understands when it comes to "selling" Norma to a Broadway audience. Vocal challenges notwithstanding, there is not a moment she is on stage that is not pure gold. And when she's off, all you can do is await her return.  

It's a good thing, too, because as a musical, Sunset Boulevard has little reason to exist. This is not one of Mr. Lloyd Webber's stronger scores, lacking the cohesiveness of Evita, say. Instead, there's a mishmash of styles, with a lot of soaring anthems serving as anchors. And even Norma's two big front-and-center numbers are suggestive of other pieces by other composers. (You might wish to compare "With One Look" with the aria "Avant De Quitter Ces Lieux" from Gounod's opera Faust, and "As If We Never Said Goodbye" with "Pure Imagination" from Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley's score for Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.)

So, a stage version of Sunset Boulevard without the music might work just as well, maybe even better. You might be able to mine the story of Norma Desmond, her bought-and-paid-for lover Joe  (Michael Xavier), and her protector Max (Fred Johanson) for the rich vein of cynicism and faded glory that made Billy Wilder's film so memorable. 

But, still, there is something about a big Broadway musical, with, as is the case here, a 40-piece on-stage orchestra grandly performing the lushly arranged (by the composer and David Cullen) orchestrations. The sheer awesomeness of it all almost makes up for the lack of depth and its overlong subplots.   

Where the original production gave us a gaspingly ornate set, that has been replaced with a more efficient one that calls on us to use our imaginations as we move to different locales without really going anywhere. One thing I think works rather well is that the basic set design places us in both the film studio and Norma's mansion at the same time, a fitting representation of the state of her mind.  

Lonny Price directs the enterprise the way Norma would want to be directed by Cecil B. DeMille, with her at the center of the universe. The rest of the cast is certainly talented, but no one is allowed to match, or even come close to, the powerful presence of Ms. Close as she puts Norma's neuroses and psychoses out there for all of us to gape at; Indeed, it is easy to see why Joe and Max are subsumed. Norma is a black hole from which there can be no escape.  

Feel free to share this blog with your friends, and to offer up your own theater stories by posting a comment. I also invite you to check out the website Show-Score.Com, where you will find capsule reviews of current plays from Yours Truly and many other New York critics.  




Friday, January 27, 2017

YOURS UNFAITHFULLY: Mint Theater Company's Production of A 'New' Old Play Explores Open Marriage










I recently had the long-delayed and therefore unexpected pleasure of publishing a book I co-authored some 35 years previously (Link here, if you are curious)  But now that I've seen the Mint Theater Company's premiere production of Yours Unfaithfully, a play that was written more than 80 years ago, I realize it may not be all that unusual for elongated bouts of patience to pay off eventually.   

The intriguing Yours Unfaithfully was written by a successful British playwright and stage and screen actor, Miles Malleson. You may not know much of his work, but he did appear in a couple of Alfred Hitchcock's films (The 39 Steps and Stage Fright), as well as dozens of other movies between the early 1920s and the 1960s.

Yours Unfaithfully was published but never produced in Malleson's lifetime (he died in 1969), possibly because of its controversial-at-the-time subject matter. The title aptly describes the play's theme, which treats monogamy as a bourgeois concept that is best ignored. The play remained unproduced until now, when the good folks at the Mint rolled up their sleeves and began to work their magic on it.  

Yet, for all its "shocking" stance, Yours Unfaithfully is a fairly conventional play of the drawing room comedy or comedy of manners school. British theatrical wags were puncturing traditional ideas about fidelity well before Malleson took it on, most notably Oscar Wilde ("Bigamy is having one wife too many. Monogamy is the same.") and George Bernard Shaw ("Confusing monogamy with morality has done more to destroy the conscience of the human race than any other error.")

In Yours Unfaithfully, honesty and the decorum of discretion are prized over fidelity, at least in the marriage of Stephen (Max von Essen) and Anne (Elisabeth Gray). 

In Act I of the three-act play, we learn the couple has been married for eight years and are, frankly, growing tired of one another's company and feeling rather closed in by the ordinariness of their lives. They operate what we're told is a rather successful progressive school, and they talk briefly about their own two children, but it's not enough to fulfill either of them. Stephen, a successful writer, has hit a block that he can't seem to shrug off, and ennui and gloom are threatening to overtake both of them.

To shake things up a bit, Anne encourages Stephen to have an affair with their recently-widowed friend Diana (Mikaela Izquierdo), a notion that he is more than happy to oblige her with. For her part, Diana acquiesces readily, once she has determined that it is with Anne's blessing.  

This kind of "openness" is not a new idea for Anne and Stephen. Both of them had taken lovers in the past, with the complete knowledge and approval of the other. But there is something about Stephen's eagerness to be with Diana that begins to gnaw at Anne, and in Act II she confesses to another of their friends, Alan (Todd Cerveris), that she is, to her surprise and embarrassment, jealous. (That she and Alan previously had carried on a year-long affair doesn't seem to carry much weight of irony in Anne's mind).  

The introduction of a conventional moral compass is actually the new concept that the playwright brings in as he tweaks  the amoral social comedy employed by Messrs. Wilde and Shaw. This twist and where it leads to come as something of a surprise, and it marks a shift in tone to the play. It doesn't entirely leave the realm of the lightweight, but it adds some gravitas to the proceedings. And by the time the blithely self-deluded Stephen understands what is at risk here, we're not entirely sure how things will resolve.  

Apart from some challenges with British accents (overdone in the beginning, and then pretty much set aside later on), the acting, under Jonathan Bank's direction, is of the high quality we've come to expect from the Mint. Max von Essen, a Tony nominee for his featured role in An American in Paris, is excellent as the not-quite-grown-up Stephen, who learns almost too late the price he has to pay for his Peter Pan existence. There is a terrific scene towards the end where we see him up all night anxiously awaiting Anne's return from one of her own amorous adventures. Between von Essen's body language and Xavier Pierce's lighting design, this scene captures everything you need to know about the playwright's intentions without a word being spoken.   

Elisabeth Gray as Anne and Mikaela Izquierdo as Diana both portray women who know what's what and are willing to accept as much of Stephen as they can get. Up to a point.  Todd Cerveris does nicely as Alan, a character whose primary job is to be there to listen to his friends as they unburden themselves. One other character, Stephen's rather sanctimonious clergyman father, is well acted by Stephen Schnetzer, who only recently stepped into the role and carries it off with great aplomb   

Thumbs up, too, to the really terrific costume design by Hunter Kaczorowski and to the set design by Carolyn Mraz.  Do hang around between Act II and Act III to watch the stagehands transform the set.  

All in all, Yours Unfaithfully is another winner for the Mint and for all involved in bringing this hitherto unproduced play to life.     


Feel free to share this blog with your friends, and to offer up your own theater stories by posting a comment. I also invite you to check out the website Show-Score.Com, where you will find capsule reviews of current plays from Yours Truly and many other New York critics.  












Friday, January 20, 2017

SUPPORT THE ARTS: Message from president of the Dramatists Guild of America








*The following statement is a message from Doug Wright, president of the Dramatists Guild of America, sent today to the Guild’s 7000+ members*

January 20, 2017

A STATEMENT FROM THE DRAMATISTS GUILD OF AMERICA

Dear Fellow Dramatists Guild Member,

Your Guild is acutely aware of newspaper reports stating that the incoming Trump administration wants to slash the Federal budget with a host of ill-conceived cuts. Notable among these is proposed elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts.

We recognize that this is a specious, even disingenuous idea since the Endowment is .003 percent of the national budget; abolishing it will do little to curb spending. On the contrary; such action will do us all financial harm, as we’ve seen again and again that the arts prove themselves a worthy investment. Theatre alone contributes roughly $7.1 billion to the national economy.

Destroying the endowment isn’t only misguided fiscal policy; it would also have catastrophic symbolic impact as well. It would render concrete the world’s suspicion that our nation 
is becoming increasingly anti-cultural, anti-intellectual, and anti-humanitarian. It will demoralize those Americans who already feel under siege by the new administration. It will demonize artists, the true arbiters of our national and spiritual conscience.

The arts promote empathy, nourish the spirit, and increase our understanding of complex,eternal truths. Our government should value them as central to our national wellbeing.
To do less is to invite a further slide into the rancor and vulgarity that increasingly constitutes our national discourse.

The Dramatists Guild will continue to monitor the situation closely. We are strategizing a rigorous, forceful response should plans to eradicate the NEA move forward. In the
meantime, we urge you—American dramatists—to use your authorial gifts to address these and other troubling political developments on stages all across this country.

Sincerely,

Doug Wright
President, The Dramatists Guild of America
_____________________

SUPPORT THE ARTS!!!




Feel free to share this blog with your friends, and to offer up your own theater stories by posting a comment. I also invite you to check out the website Show-Score.Com, where you will find capsule reviews of current plays from Yours Truly and many other New York critics.  


Monday, January 16, 2017

THEATER WEEK IN REVIEW - Jan 9-15 : DannyKrisDonnaVeronica; The Present; Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812; Consider the Lilies





January 9:  DannyKrisDonnaVeronica









In Lawrence Dial's play, DANNYKRISDONNAVERONICA, two 30-something couples struggle to balance the demands of career, marriage, and child rearing. 

Mr. Dial is a talented playwright who has received well-deserved praise for several of his works, including In The Room, which I saw in October. That one was an absorbing and insightful drama about the participants in a writing workshop. A producer of that play, Jeff Wise, serves as the director on DANNYKRISDONNAVERONICA

In the play, Danny (Ben Mehl) and Kris (Suzy Jane Hunt) are the designated stay-at-home parents, each of them responsible for an infant and a three-year-old. They start talking when they run into each other every day in a Brooklyn park with their children in tow. 

They have fallen into their caregiver roles due more to circumstances than to any predisposition to do so; neither is employed at the moment, while their spouses are. Makes sense from a practical standpoint, but that doesn't mean it is working out very well. Both of them are totally overwhelmed.      

The play focuses in part on the bond Danny and Kris develop over their common challenges. By identifying Kris as gay, however, the playwright makes it clear that whatever happens between them, they will not connect sexually. Instead, their mutual misery allows the play to highlight the disconnect each of them has with their respective spouses, Danny's wife Donna (Rachel Mewbron), and Kris's wife Veronica (Liz Wisan).  

For their part, Donna and Veronica are caught up in the demands of their work situations and don't really understand that taking care of kids full time can be quite a burden. A lack of honest communication between spouses threatens both couples far more than the growing friendship between Danny and Kris. By play's end, some progress has been made, but it is clear there is a great deal of work to be done if these marriages are to survive.  

Bottom line:  Great performances all around, and another solid piece of writing for Mr. Dial.  




January 10:  The Present


What is it about the plays of Anton Chekhov that brings out the apparently uncontrollable urge to remove it from its original context of pre-Revolution Russia and modernize or otherwise reshape it?  

Last year, for example, I saw three versions of The Seagull. The only one that managed to maintain the spirit of the original while reimagining it for a contemporary audience was Aaron Posner's Stupid Fucking Bird, a brilliant reconceptualization of Chekhov. The others, less successful, were a musical set in a Nashville honky-tonk, called Songbird, with a book by Michael Kimmel and music and lyrics by Lauren Pritchard; and The Seagull and Other Birds, an absurdist version by the experimental Irish theater company Pan Pan. Both of these latter two were interesting in their own right, but their connection with Chekhov was tenuous at best.

The same can be said of this season's Broadway productions of Chekhov. First we had the Roundabout Theatre Company's  The Cherry Orchard, in an adaptation by Steve Karan (he's the playwright responsible for the multiple Tony-winning The Humans). While his version of The Cherry Orchard gave us the pleasure of seeing Diane Lane's return to Broadway - bolstered with fine work by John Glover and the audience-pleasing Joel Grey among its strong cast - it had precious little to do with Chekhov's play and showed as much Russian sensibility as as a bottle of Russian dressing.  

Now we've got The Present, starring Cate Blanchett and other members of her Sydney Theater Company in a version of an early Chekhov work; the original was never officially titled but generally goes by the name Platonov. This adaptation was written by Ms. Blanchett's husband Andrew Upton, and it is being performed and directed    John Crowley does the honors  –  with a wild abandon that is certainly entertaining, at least through the (literally) explosive ending to the first act. 

But, like so many of the others, The Present misses the Chekhov boat, in this case by resetting the time frame and thereby giving up the central Chekhovian theme that pits the fall of the aristocracy against the rise of the proletariat. (Usually it's the fading and generally helpless aristocrats who are at the core, and we are left to either sympathize with or rejoice over their changing circumstances). 

Here the time shift takes us to 1990s Communist Russia, though we could be almost anywhere in the world for all the Russian feel there is to the production. Little of the goings-on make sense in this new time period, and what remains are bits and pieces we associate with Chekhov (self-pity, ennui, diminishing financial standing, and unrequited sexual longing). We've even got "Chekov's gun," a plot device we sometimes term "foreshadowing" (If a gun shows up in the first act, it must be used before the play ends). Sure enough, a gun is waved around in the opening scene, though its use may remind you more of Ibsen's Hedda Gabler (the General's daughter) than it is of Ms. Blanchett's character (a General's widow).  

Bottom Line:  No one is working harder at selling a show right now than is Cate Blanchett, who performs the heck out of her role. Playing Chekhov or not, she is truly captivating. Whether it's worth three hours of your time is up to you. Or stay for Act I and go for drinks afterwards; you'll not be missing much during the second half.



Jan 11:  Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812



And we've got a winner, folks!  

Glory be, has director Rachel Chavkin ever pulled it off! She's taken this gloriously rich but decidedly intimate and audience-engaging pop opera away from its off Broadway roots and plunked it down in a big Broadway house, brought back most of the cast that has seen it through its various productions over the past several years, and – for good measure – has placed a superstar singer into the role of someone who is essentially an observer and bystander and allowed him to shine without taking away one iota from the rest of the company.  

The Great Comet, written by Dave Malloy, is based on a tiny subplot culled from Tolstoy's monumental novel War and Peace, about the very same Russian aristocratic types that would, in a few years time, populate Chekhov's plays.  It's playful, romantic, melodramatic, and gloriously performed.  Josh Groban is quite wonderful as Pierre, and Denée Benton is splendid as Natasha. She is engaged to marry Prince Andrey (Nicolas Belton), but when Andrey leaves to fight in the Napolionic wars, she is swept off her feet by the ne'er-do-well cad Anatole (Lucas Steele, also terrific). The show is inundated with Russian names and complicated relationships, and yet you will easily get to know each of the characters without even having to resort to the family tree that is included in your program.  

Bottom Line:  Идеальный! (Perfect!)  Absolutely the new musical to beat come award time.  



January 13:  Consider the Lilies


Stuart Fail wrote and directs this play about the relationship between an artist and his agent. Stars Austin Pendleton and Eric Joshua Davis do well with their roles, but the play itself needs a lot of revision and shaping to make it work effectively.


Bottom Line:  To carry on with the Russian theme – Nyet! 



Feel free to share this blog with your friends, and to offer up your own theater stories by posting a comment. I also invite you to check out the website Show-Score.Com, where you will find capsule reviews of current plays from Yours Truly and many other New York critics.