Monday, July 25, 2011

Never Trust A Character Called 'Death'


Don’t be taken in by the alluring advertising art for Death Takes A Holiday, now playing at the Laura Pels Theatre.  By the looks of it—a beautiful couple dressed to the nines and elegantly waltzing on air (literally)—you could be forgiven for expecting that you are about the see a classic romantic musical comedy à la Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

If you do have Fred and Ginger on your mind when you take your seat, however, you will soon be dispelled of that notion.  Death Takes A Holiday is romantic the way that Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther is romantic, and it is a comedy the way that Shakespeare’s All’s Well that Ends Well is a comedy.  Both terms, “romantic” and “comedy,” tap into their older meanings rather than the ones we’ve come to know from watching those charming movies of a bygone era.  Expect something other than smiles and sighs.

Come to think of it, pretty much everything about Death Takes A Holiday takes on multiple meanings, and unless you parse the words and enjoy a certain bitter irony, you may end up confused and disappointed.  Even the term “holiday”  (Philip Barry wrote a light and airy play with that title; perhaps you remember the film with Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn) here means nothing more than a short suspension of business-as-usual, an interlude, like a bank holiday in which debts are not forgiven, just briefly uncollected.   

Adapted by Thomas Meehan and the late Peter Stone from a 1924 Italian play by Alberto Casella, and filled with soaring music and unfortunately moribund lyrics by Maury Yeston, Death Takes A Holiday is mostly about what takes place during that interlude.

Death has decided to suspend his normal routine of collecting souls in order to adopt the persona of a Russian prince so that he may satisfy his curiosity about what it feels like to be human.  (If this sounds a tad familiar, perhaps you have seen the movie Meet Joe Black, yet another version of Casella’s play, starring Brad Pitt in the central role).

During the course of the play, in which “Prince Nikolai” joins the family of Duke Vittorio Lamberti at their villa, Death learns paradoxically to embrace both life and the duke’s lovely daughter Grazia.  For her part, Grazia is totally smitten and immediately breaks off her engagement in order to take up with the interloper. Only the duke knows of his guest’s true identity, and he is sworn to secrecy—though, at least in this version, secrets and promises are quickly and easily set aside by both the quick and the dead whenever it suits them.   

Actually, this is not the first time Death has come calling.  The family is still mourning the loss of Grazia’s brother Roberto, a World War I fighter pilot who was killed when his  plane was shot down. The few truly poignant moments in Death Takes A Holiday are those in which Roberto’s mother (the ever wonderful Rebecca Luker, here given too few opportunities to shine) and Roberto’s pal Major Eric Fenton (well played by Matt Cavenaugh), sing separate numbers about him.  In “Losing Roberto,” his mother, the duchess, steps into his bedroom and sings of her loss and grief, and in “Roberto’s Eyes,” the one number that made me sit up and take notice, Eric sings of seeing death reflected in Roberto’s eyes just as his plane went down. 

For me at least, this is where the musical falls apart.  There is nothing romantic about Roberto’s death and the obvious pain it has caused; to have another death waiting in the wings is just too much weight for this musical to carry. 

As the pair of oddly matched lovers, Jill Paice as Grazia and Julian Ovenden as “Prince Nikolai,” give strong performances and sing beautifully.  But all in all, there are just too many elements that simply do not work, including a plot that does not know what to do with this most strange and altogether disturbing of stories.  In the end, any remaining shred of hope—has death learned nothing?—is dashed; the clock strikes midnight and the “holiday” is over. 

                                  *                                    *                                    *

Another play in which Death hovers over the proceedings is the two-hander, Tryst, playing at the Irish Rep. Playwright Karoline Leach, in her first full-length outing, has given us a piece that draws from George Bernard Shaw, along with perhaps a dash of August Strindberg and any number of period melodramas (the play takes place in 1910 in London and at a seaside resort town).

Mark Shanahan plays a con man who calls himself “George Love,” a sort of Harold Hill without the musical instruments.   It is George’s mission in life to woo spinster women, pretend to wed them, give them one night of connubial bliss, and then abscond with their money. 

When George sets his sights on Adelaide Pinchin (Andrea Maulella), a shy, timid, and self-effacing hat maker, you watch as the two of them play off each other.  It isn’t long before both Adelaide and George start to show they have unexpected depths, and, in the course of things, she softens him up, while he gives her some confidence in herself.

Predictable enough, and perhaps there might have been a sufficiency of charm on display to end the play right there. 

However, the playwright has rather more to say, and so, after Adelaide has figured out exactly what George has been up to, she turns into one of Shaw’s highly independent modern women and decides that they should stay together—married or not—and set up shop, where she can manage the business and he can charm the lady customers.   Ending Number Two, perhaps. 

But, no. There’s more.  The pair continues to circle one another, dark secrets come to the fore, and it becomes evident that neither really has the upper hand (think of Strindberg’s Miss Julie, with the seesawing power struggle that spins out of control).

Shanahan and Maulella do their best with the material, but the problem is the obvious one. The playwright is neither Shaw nor Strindberg, and ultimately, it is the tone of melodrama that wins out.  In the end, the lesson is:  never trust a sociopath.

And Death once again takes the final bow. 

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Friday, July 8, 2011

How Much Will You Enjoy 'Baby It's You'? Tell Me How Old You Are, and I'll Let You Know!

How can you predict the extent to which you are likely to enjoy the journey into nostalgia referred to—usually in a scornful way—as the “jukebox musical?”

As it happens, I’ve seen three of these in recent weeks, and I’ve been thinking about my own reaction to them, as well as why people seem to either love them or hate them.

Indeed, why such a passionate response either way? Everyone knows what a jukebox musical is—a forum for performing a collection of songs associated with an individual singer, a once-popular singing group, or a particular era. If you go, why would you expect to be even remotely surprised? It is what it is.

So, here’s my hypothesis. Let’s call it ProfMiller’s First Law on the Pleasures to Be Obtained from Jukebox Musicals.

I attribute everything to puberty.

That’s the time in your life when you began to develop your own musical tastes. Those songs, whatever they may be, embed themselves permanently into your head and heart, so that whenever you hear them—even decades later—they carry you back to a place and time when all of this was new. It’s part of how you come to identify with your cohort group, your generation.

Given this premise, how could I fail to like Baby It’s You!? It’s my music, the soundtrack of my young adolescence, the tunes that emerged from my transistor radio and enveloped me day and night.

For what it’s worth, there is also a story to be told, in this case one that is based on the life and times of Florence Greenberg, the middle-aged housewife from Long Island who established her own record label and shepherded the careers of the Shirelles, the Kingsmen, the Isley Brothers, and Dionne Warwick.

Admittedly, what there is of a storyline is slim and has more holes than Swiss cheese. It’s the target audience of baby boomers who need to fill in with their own recollections of life in post-war suburbia, the emerging battle for women’s rights and racial equality, payola as a way of doing business in the record world, and the rapidly changing musical tastes across generations. If you don’t know about these things, you may have a hard time latching on to the significance of the unfolding events.

But, if like me, you are of a certain age, the more than two dozen songs featured in Baby It’s You!—performed by a talented and energetic cast—will give you ample reason to put this on your list of "must sees."  To name but a few of the hits: ‘Book of Love,’ ‘Mama Said,’  ‘Dedicated to the One I Love,’ ‘Shout,” and ‘Soldier Boy.’ Are you singing along already? 

Among the performers, standouts are Christina Sajous as Shirley, lead singer of the Shirelles; Allan Louis as Luther Dixon, the African American record producer who became Greenberg’s business partner and lover; and Geno Henderson in several different roles, including those of singer Ronald Isley, and Jocko, a popular and influential DJ.

Mostly, though, the show belongs to Beth Leavel as the gritty and determined Greenberg, who unexpectedly leaves her husband and children to make her own way in the world of record producing. Leavel, who is a terrific belter in her own right, displays an air of gritty defiance that seems to be aimed as much at the critics of the poorly reviewed Baby It’s You!  as the world that her character reshaped by willpower alone. She seems to be saying to the audience, “to hell with the critics. I know why you’re here, and we’re going have a great time together!” The crowd at the sold-out performance I attended seemed to agree, as do I.

As for the thin script, it’s less thin that those that were written for the Beatles show, Rain,  which is little more than a tribute concert, or for Million Dollar Quartet, co-written by Floyd Mutrux and Colin Escott, who also did the book for Baby It’s You!

Your enjoyment of Rain or Million Dollar Quartet will also rest on your familiarity with and level of nostalgia for their music. For me, Million Dollar Quartet, with the songs of Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Elvis Presley, represents a time just prior to my own golden age of popular music, and Rain represents the music of my later adolescence. There are plenty of pleasures to be found in both of these shows, but it is the sounds of the early 1960s that are on glorious display in Baby It’s You! that resonate most for me and why I consider it to be a terrific choice for a night out.

Will you like it as much?  It depends.  When were you born?

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Saturday, July 2, 2011

'Catch Me If You Can' Is Entertaining but Weak on Telling Its Story

Aaron Tveit and company.  Photo by Joan Marcus

It took me two viewings of Catch Me If You Can, the lively new musical at the Neil Simon Theatre, to figure out why the whole adds up to rather less than the sum of its parts.

This happens sometimes when an actor is woefully miscast, or the performers simply do not work well together  and you wind up with a production where everyone seems to be at cross purposes.  (For an egregious example, consider the woefully misguided revival of Hedda Gabler from a couple of years back, where no two actors seemed to be appearing in the same play.)

That is not the problem with the mixed bag that is Catch Me If You Can, where the company generally meshes well as an ensemble. Rather, the disconnect here lies between the musical side of this splashy and often entertaining show, and the unfortunately tepid book by Terrence McNally, upon which it rests.  (McNally’s talents are on far better display a couple of blocks south with the excellent revival of Master Class).      

On the plus side, you’ve got Norbert Leo Butz”s hyperkinetic and Tony-winning performance as the indefatigable FBI agent Carl Hanratty; Tom Wopat’s lost soul turn as Frank Abagnale Sr.; and Aaron Tveit's con artist Frank Abagnale Jr., the young forger and identity chameleon whose story this is. 

The best numbers in the show are the duets (with affectionate banter) that feature these fellows in pairs (Wopat and Tveit doing “Butter Outta Cream;” Wopat and Butz doing  “Little Boy, Be A Man;” and  Butz and Tveit doing “Strange But True”).  These songs bring back fond memories of what always felt at the time to be impromptu bits from the likes of Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, or Dean Martin and any of the guests on his eponymous TV variety show. 

Indeed, much of Catch Me If You Can is presented in the style of a TV variety show from the early 1960s—the ones that featured skits, songs performed by the likes of the "Rat Pack's" Martin, Frank Sinatra, and Sammy Davis Jr., and choreographed numbers by The June Taylor Dancers (The Jackie Gleason Show) or go-go girls (Hullabaloo.)  Catch Me If You Can even features an appearance by television’s king of the sing-along, Mitch Miller. 

The conceit is that Frank Jr., about to be arrested, is stalling by sharing a glitzy version of his life story with the audience, and the tale unfolds as if it were one of those TV shows.   

As homage, this all works up to a point, but it also makes for a herky-jerky retelling of the events surrounding the teenager’s life of crime and of the FBI’s efforts to catch him.  To cite Chicago's Billy Flynn, we are being given the old razzle dazzle, while the focus ought to be on the ongoing chess match between Abagnale and Hanratty--and the unexpected rapport that develops between the defiant misfit trying to stay one step ahead of the law and the compliant representative of social order.  

In the end, what Catch Me If You Can delivers is winning performances under the well-paced direction of Jack O’Brien, spirited choreography by Jerry Mitchell, catchy tunes by Hairspray’s Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (who have nicely captured the sound of the era), and the onstage dinner-jacketed band under the direction of John McDaniel, doing a fine job of selling the score.  

For many Broadway musicals, that would be more than enough cause for celebration.  Unfortunately, Catch Me If You Can is undermined by the decision to tell the story in short, self-contained vignettes that prevent it from captivating us with the true story of the boy who was able to take advantage of generally lax professional oversight during a more naïve and pre-Internet time in US history.  

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