Saturday, March 30, 2013

‘Hands On A Hardbody’: Dreaming Big in Rural Texas

The cast of 'Hands On A Hardbody' surrounds the title character

The much-coveted cherry red Nissan pickup truck that is the title character of Hands On A Hardbody, the new musical at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, is such stuff as dreams are made on.  As one would-be owner of said vehicle puts it,  “the American dream…a Japanese truck.”

With a blend of country, pop, rockabilly and gospel songs by Trey Anastasio (music) and Amanda Green (music and lyrics), Hands On A Hardbody relates the story of an endurance contest, in which the Nissan will belong to whoever can remain standing the longest while keeping one hand affixed to the truck at all times. It’s winner-take-all as the 10 competitors fight the hot Texas sun, boredom, exhaustion, and one another’s psych-out plays and annoying habits over four grueling days.   

The competition is a modern take on the marathon dance contests held during the Great Depression, as was so hauntingly depicted in the novel and movie They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?  But there is an important distinction. 

The characters in They Shoot Horses have an air of desperation about them; they view the prize money as the only thing that stands between them and complete and utter defeat. No such burden haunts the quest for the Nissan.  Oh, all of the participants have their reasons for wanting the truck, and owning it would make their lives a little better.  But the stakes are not really that high for any of them. The winner may drive off with the prize, but the rest will get on with their lives as before and will have another shot in next year’s contest.

With nothing for the audience to look at but the truck and the people standing around it, that leaves quite a pickup load for the individual performances and the songs to carry.    

This, in a nutshell, defines both the downside and the upside to Hands On A Hardbody, which is based on a 1997 documentary about an actual group of rural Texans engaged in just such a contest. 

“Minimalism” is not a word too often associated with a Broadway musical, especially at Broadway ticket prices, although it is a relief to see a show that depicts a real-life story without resorting to bombast and overproduction.  An example that comes to mind is last year’s irritatingly overblown Leap of Faith that occupied some of the same territory as Hands On A Hardbody.  If that musical had been tamed down, and had lost its snarky attitude, it could have told a straightforward story of redemption and earned more respect for its efforts. 

Without all the noise and funk, what Hands On A Hardbody has to offer is a stage filled with talented performers, starting with Keala Settle, last seen on Broadway in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, who brings down the house with her fiery rendition of the powerhouse gospel number, “Joy of the Lord.”  Indeed, her singing is so infectious that even the truck joins the performance.  It’s also great to see Keith Carradine (so memorable in The Will Rogers Follies) back on stage, though I do wish he had been given more to sing. 

And how good it is that Hunter Foster has been given the opportunity to take on the juicy role of Benny Perkins, the cocksure defending champion.  Mr. Foster has had a number of acting detours since lighting up the New York theater scene in Urinetown and Little Shop of Horrors back in the day, and his more recent appearances were in non-singing roles that had him showing off his naked butt (Burning) or wandering aimlessly about (Million Dollar Quartet).  Producers take note; this man can sing, and he can rule a stage!

Doug Wright’s book and Neil Pepe’s direction keep a tight rein on things, allowing the characters to tell their stories, form relationships, and sing their songs.  Because of this approach, some wags have taken to calling Hands On A Hardbody the "redneck version" of A Chorus Line

It’s probably not the best comparison. Anastasio and Green’s songs are the right numbers for the characters to sing, but only “Joy of the Lord” stands out. Fans of A Chorus Line are not necessarily the audience for Hands On A Hardbody, which is more likely to find a longer life traveling around the country than it will on Broadway, which really does like its frills and furbelows. 

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Sunday, March 24, 2013

‘Superman,’ ‘Donnybrook,’ and ‘Happy Birthday': Splendid Revivals Brighten A Lackluster Season

While we are waiting for the damp wood of the 2012-2013 theater season to catch fire, I would like to send a shout-out to a trio of delightful shows from the past that are currently on tap in revivals.

The first of these, It’s A Bird…It’s A Plane…It’s Superman!, unfortunately ends tonight at City Center after a brief but glorious run as part of the Encores! series of semi-staged presentations of seldom-seen musicals.

An Encores! show is not always a sure bet; sometimes there is a very good reason why a musical has pretty much disappeared since it originally saw the light of day.  But when everything comes together—as has happened with this mounting of Superman—the result is a feast for the famished musical theater-goer.

If you are reading this, it is likely you are aware of the praise that has been heaped upon Superman, with music by Charles Strouse and lyrics by Lee Adams.  I can only add my own voice to the glowing reviews, along with the hope that this show will find a post-Encores! life elsewhere, possibly at an Off Broadway house.  One sign of hope:  Sitting two rows in front of me was Hal Prince, who had directed the original.  Might he be thinking of making another go of it? 

The decade of the 1960s was a busy time for the team of Strouse and Adams, with Bye Bye Birdie (1960) and Golden Boy (1964), both of which had successful runs (607 and 568 performances, respectively), as well as the problematic All American (1962, 80 performances) and It’s A Bird…It’s A Plane…It’s Superman! (1966, 129 performances).

Superman was generally well received by the critics at the time, and it garnered Tony nominations for three of its cast members, but it simply did not catch on.

Others who are better at 20-20 hindsight than I have speculated that the show, based as it was on a comic book, was not clear as to whether its target audience was children or grownups.  However, Broadway had already seen a successful production of Li’l Abner a decade earlier, and  Annie and Spider-Man:  Turn Off The Dark would not have trouble finding audiences down the road. So, Superman's lack of success remains a mystery.

As it happens, I saw the 1966 Superman and enjoyed it immensely.  The original cast recording has been a favorite ever since—due in no small part to the wonderful and intricate orchestrations by Eddie Sauter.  Sauter had been the musical arranger for Benny Goodman and also orchestrated a number of Broadway shows, including another of my favorites, The Apple Tree, which appeared the same year as Superman

Whatever else you get from an Encores! event, you are guaranteed a full orchestra, playing the original orchestrations.  And with Superman, the orchestra, under the direction of Rob Berman, has never sounded better. 

But the joys to be found in this production did not begin and end with the orchestra.  Everything came together like magic.  The cast was uniformly strong, starting with Edward Watts and Jenny Powers in the lead roles of Superman/Clark Kent and Lois Lane, and Will Swenson and David Pittu as the chief villains.  Mr. Pittu was marvelous in the role of the resentful ten-time Nobel prize-losing physicist, and when he and Mr. Swenson performed their duet, “You’ve Got What I Need,” in front of a curtain of shimmering streamers, it was pure comic bliss.  I don’t remember seeing such a grand pas de deux between two men since Harvey Fierstein and Dick Latessa tripped the light fantastic in Hairspray

Kudos to director John Rando, and, indeed, to everyone involved.  Everything from the bright comic book set design (John Lee Beatty is identified as the scenic consultant), to the lighting (Ken Billington), to the costumes (Paul Tazewell), to the just-right ‘60s-style choreography (Joshua Bergasse) was spot-on perfection.

Encores! shows are produced with very limited rehearsal time and a very tight budget.  One expects to see cast members clutching and referring to their scripts, and, even occasionally dropping a lyric or missing a note.  I saw Superman at its very first public performance, an invited dress rehearsal, and there was not a script to be seen or miscue to be heard.  Indeed, at the very end, Mr. Watts celebrated on behalf of the entire cast by grabbing a half dozen copies of the script and tossing them into the air in a well-earned gesture of triumph.

This is one Encores! show that deserves an encore.


Even if you missed Superman during its short run, you still have time to catch two other shows from the past that are having impressive revivals.

Dee-lightful is the word for The Irish Rep’s presentation of the 1961 Johnny Burke musical, Donnybrook!, which, like Superman, has lived on via its original cast recording.  Thanks to director Charlotte Moore;  to James Noone, a miracle worker of a set designer, who has done amazing things with the postage stamp of a stage; and to solid performances by a talented ensemble of actors.  Donnybrook! is a charmer of a show.

Finally, I’d like to call attention to another wonderful revival, Happy Birthday, written by Anita Loos and originally seen on Broadway in 1946.  TACT/The Actors Company Theatre, is offering up a first-rate production of this romantic comedy about a demure librarian (a splendid Mary Bacon) who lets down her hair and finds the man of her dreams at the friendliest bar this side of Cheers.  

As is true of Superman and Donnybrook, the production of Happy Birthday (now on view at Theatre Row's Beckett Theatre) represents a labor of love by all involved—from the great set design, to the period music, to the direction, to every one of the performances.  Hats off to TACT, which last year gave us a top-notch revival of Neil Simon’s Lost In Yonkers, for putting together another winner.   

So here’s a question for all of you Broadway nabobs out there.  If Encores! and The Irish Rep and TACT can manage to put on first-class shows on shoestring budgets, why on earth has this been such a lackluster season on the Great White Way???  Just wondering.

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Sunday, March 17, 2013

'The Mound Builders' Is Defeated By An Insipid Production

Will Rogers as Chad Jasker and Lisa Joyce and Dr. Jean Loggins in The Mound Builders

Has the Signature Theatre fumbled the ball?

After last year’s mostly successful opening season at its new Frank Gehry-designed home  (first-rate productions of three works by featured playwright Athol Fugard, plus an equally powerful presentation of Edward Albee's undervalued 'The Lady From Dubuque'), the organization seems to have hit a wall.

This year started promisingly with a sublime mounting of August Wilson's The Piano Lesson, but since then, we’ve seen little to celebrate.  Sam Shepard's Heartless, and the two plays by Henry David Hwang—Golden Child and The Dance and the Railroad—have received tepid productions, and the third, Kung Fu, won’t be ready for viewing until next season, when the company will be abandoning altogether its core mission of spotlighting a single playwright.  (I haven't seen Old Hats, so I cannot comment on it.)

And now we have on view a frustratingly tedious production of Lanford Wilson’s The Mound Builders, a challenging play in the best of circumstances.  Here, unfortunately, the circumstances include uninspired directing, generally mediocre performances, and an insipid set. 

Wilson, who is far better represented by the engaging production of Talley’s Folly at Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre, wrote The Mound Builders a decade earlier than the better-known romantic comedy—though it is not an early work, which might have explained the clumsy crafting of the plot and the often leaden dialog.

This is a story that unfolds slowly, ostensibly held together by a narrator recalling his experience as an archeologist at a pre-Columbian excavation site that is about to be flooded out by a man-made lake aimed at turning the area into a resort destination.   The play combines esoteric archeological context with the various dramas that unfold among the members of the visiting team, and a growing conflict with the owner of the property on which the site is located. 

For about the first thirty minutes, we are exposed to all of the characters:  the narrator Professor August Howe; his wife Cynthia; their daughter Kirsten; Dan and Jean Loggins (he’s an archeologist; she’s an ob-gyn); Howe’s alcoholic novelist sister Delia; and Chad Jasker, the high-strung and unstable owner of the ramshackle house in which they are all staying during the dig. 

As directed by Jo Bonney, the cast members rush their lines and pretty much shout their way through the lengthy and difficult-to-follow exposition—as if rushing and shouting will serve to get us through the boring stuff.  It is difficult to figure out who is who, and even at intermission theatergoers around me were debating which characters were siblings and which were married to one another.  For my part, I took notes and drew arrows on the program in order to help me keep the relationships straight. 

All of this is unfortunate.  While The Mound Builders is unlikely ever to be viewed as a Wilson treasure, there are some interesting elements, including an air of growing danger that pervades the second act, and occasional pockets of smart dialog.  I was particular taken with a story told by an intoxicated Dan (well-performed by Zachary Booth), as well as some of the wisecracks and intellectual musings by Delia (Danielle Skraastad), such as the notion of eyes being projectors of images rather than receivers of them.  Unfortunately, there are not enough of these high spots, and, frankly, most of the cast is not at the top of their game here.

Wilson has been compared with Tennessee Williams, though I don’t see much of the latter’s poetry in Wilson.  The playwrights I am most reminded of are Sam Shepard and Harold Pinter, both of whose work can only come to life with the right director and the right set of actors who can capture the tension and rhythms in their work. 

So, even though The Mound Builders is problematic, I would be interested in seeing what a more visionary director and a top-notch cast could do with it.  Think  “Indiana Jones meets Sartre.” Now there's an image for your eyes to project!

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