Thursday, April 28, 2011

PETER and ALICE: Reconnecting With My Inner Child

Adam Chanler-Bedrat (Peter) and Christian Borle (Black Stache)

When I wrote recently about the highly acclaimed production of War Horse at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre, I mentioned that my less than enthusiastic response was perhaps tied to my inability to tap  into my inner 12-year-old self, who—had he accompanied me—would surely have led to my being swept away by the grand spectacle of it all.

I feared we had lost touch altogether or that I had contracted a fatal case of curmudgeonness. But I am happy to report that my inner child and I had a happy reunion last weekend at productions of Peter and the Starcatcher and Wonderland. Both shows succeeded in reminding me of the magical power of storytelling that had captivated me as a youngster.

Let’s start with Peter and the Starcatcher, a delightful romp of a show. I haven’t read the book of (nearly) the same title by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, so I can’t speak to how well Peter and the Starcatcher sticks to its source material. But anyone who grew up with the story of Peter Pan—as a book, the Mary Martin musical, or the Disney animated version—would certainly recognize the show as a prequel, addressing the origin of the Boy-Who-Would-Not-Grow-Up, the Lost Boys, Captain Hook, Tinker Bell and even the clock-eating Crocodile.

The play, adapted by Rick Elice (co-writer of Jersey Boys and The Addams Family) and directed by Roger Rees and Alex Timbers, represents theatrical imagination and creativity at their very best. A fine cast, a handful of simple props, and a shipload of whimsy and silliness—including a chorus line of singing and dancing mermaids, conversations in Dodo language, and more puns than should ever be allowed to be expressed in a single evening—combine in such a glorious way as to please anyone’s inner or outer child.

Of the acting company, I would like to single out Christian Borle for high praise for his performance as the wicked and wickedly funny pirate captain, Black Stache, the precursor to Captain Hook. For the role, he became the embodiment of a young and totally wigged-out Groucho Marx, with maybe a dollop of Cyril Richard, who starred as Captain Hook opposite Mary Martin’s Peter Pan. Every moment Borle was onstage was sheer delight, and how nice to see him having what seemed to be a ton of fun after his recent excellent performance in the decidedly un-fun role of the AIDS-infected Prior Walter in the revival of Angels In America.

Alas, Peter and the Starcatcher has ended its run at the New York Theatre Workshop, but surely it will return there or to another venue.  Clap your hands if you believe!. 

Janet Dacal (center) and the cast of Wonderland

From Neverland, we move on to Wonderland, a full-scale tuneful Broadway musical, now on view at the Marquis Theatre.

Wonderland had me even before the curtain rose, with its use of projected images of iconic drawings by John Tenniel from the original Alice in Wonderland book that serves as the musical’s inspiration. But it wasn’t just the drawings that put the smile on my face; it was the accompanying projections of quotes from the book that meandered snake-like across the curtain. The twisting lines were reminiscent of "The Mouse’s Tale," a short segment in an early chapter of Alice in Wonderland, in which the words are typeset so as to follow the curves of a mouse’s tail (pun intended by Lewis Carroll). Someone knows their “Alice,” I thought, as I happily awaited the unfolding of the musical.

Wonderland is hardly the perfect show, but it has enough going for it to make the visit worthwhile, especially if you happen to be an admirer of Lewis Carroll’s off-kilter nuttiness. The well-known characters are all there and cleverly portrayed, with uniformly strong performances. Noteworthy are Janet Dacal as Alice, Kate Shindle as the Mad Hatter, Karen Mason as the Queen of Hearts, and E. Clayton Cornelious as the Caterpillar, but no one is miscast or is a weak link.  Director Gregory Boyd (who is also the book writer, along with Jack Murphy) and choreographer Marguerite Derricks keep things hopping.  

Frank Wildhorn, a generally underappreciated tunesmith, has come up with a batch of catchy, bouncy, and entertaining songs (lyrics by Mr. Murphy)—even if at times it feels as if you were in the audience at a Las Vegas revue (lots of amplification and wall-of-sound orchestrations). Terrific, Tony-worthy costumes by Susan Hilferty and video projections by Sven Ortel add tremendously both to the Las Vegas effect and to the production itself. 

I feel obliged to note that my take on Wonderland veers sharply from that of many of the professional critics, who have brushed it off as trite and inconsequential. For me, though, Wonderland shows a real strength in its ability to tap into the spirit of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, the plot of which, if I may be so bold as to mention, is no less inane the one whipped up by Boyd and Murphy.  The old don himself even makes an appearance in a scene that is perhaps tangential but is also charming and heart-warming.

If you are not a fan of Alice in Wonderland, as I have been lo these many years, you should consider this to be a caveat. 

I think Wonderland is a worthy entrant to the Broadway scene.  Time and box office receipts will tell if it will become the next Wicked, another show based on a classic children's  book that failed to thrill the critics when it opened in 2003 and yet is still playing to capacity crowds.

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Friday, April 22, 2011

Jerusalem: Into the Woods with Mark Rylance

Mark Rylance as "Rooster" Byron

If you decide to check out the production of Jerusalem, the ponderous and meandering showcase for Mark Rylance’s not inconsiderable talents now on view at The Music Box, you may find your mind wandering upon occasion as you strain to sort out accents and try to figure out if there is anything like a plot that runs through the three-hour event. 

Here’s one mental game you can play with yourself.  Who does Rylance’s character, Johnny “Rooster” Byron remind you of?  Here is my own partial list:

·      Falstaff—perhaps Shakespeare’s greatest creation—charismatic and repulsive in equal measure. 

·      The Pied Piper, leading the village children astray.

·      Pan, the amoral seducer.

·      Peter Pan, the boy who refused to grow up.

·      Ed Bloom, the character played by Albert Finney in the movie “Big Fish,” a weaver of magical tales that proved, in the end, to have a basis in reality.

·      Big John, the pedophile played by Brian Cox in the film “L. I. E.”

·      Archie Rice, the burned-out vaudevillian portrayed so memorably by Laurence Olivier in John Osbourne’s “The Entertainer.” 

You can’t go wrong.  Rylance gives us all of them and more as he roars his way through Jerusalem, written by Jez Butterworth and coming to us by way of an acclaimed production at the Royal Court Theatre in London. 

Look—you either love Rylance or you think of him as too much of a good thing.  I’m in the latter camp.  I admired his exquisite farcical timing in Boeing Boeing a couple of seasons back, but I avoided La Bête, even though I am told I missed the greatest comic monologue ever in the history of theater.  Now, with Jerusalem, I found myself once again appreciating his ability to completely take over a role and dominate every single moment of the play, but I also found his portrayal of “Rooster” Byron to fall into the “sound and fury” category, all surface and lacking any of the subtlety that would truly bring the character to life. 

I much preferred some of the smaller performances, particularly those of Alan David as The Professor, but also Mackenzie Crook as Ginger and John Gallagher, Jr. as Lee.  All of their characters—sidekicks and hangers-on though they may be—drew  me in far more than did Rylance. 

Rylance’s “Rooster” Byron is a rooster indeed, a crowing, self-inflating supplier of drugs and alcohol and dreams to young teenagers who serve as an audience for his tall tales, in which he evokes a kind of Shakespearean Forest of Arden or an Arcadia or a Shangri-La or some other mystical, mythical place.   His kingdom is the mobile home he has parked for years just outside of a suburban tract, and his neighbors—at least the adults among them—would just as soon send him packing.  The opening scene, which might make you think you have wandered into a performance of American Idiot by mistake, will tell you all you need to know about why he is not considered to be adding value to the community. 

Of the three acts that comprise Jerusalem, only Act II seems to be going somewhere, with our “Falstaff” appearing to be moving along the path toward rejection and self-destruction.  But that potential movement of plot fades and we are left with what amounts to a character study.  That the character is both larger-than-life and a scourge on society does not, in my view, make the trip worth the effort—even if Jerusalem winds up walking away with a Tony Award for best play and another for best performance by a leading actor. 

Feel free to tell your friends about this blog, and to share your own theater stories by posting a comment.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The People in the Picture: The Wrong Music and Messy Storytelling Mar a Potentially Moving Story

A tender moment from 'The People in the Picture'

Here’s a quick quiz:

Say you were putting together a musical about a Yiddish theater troupe in 1930s Poland.  In order to capture the flavor of the times, you would:

A.  Use authentic period Yiddish music.
B. Hire a klezmer band to write and perform original pieces.
C. Turn the job over to the guy who wrote “Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock,”and “Love Potion #9.”  

If you answered C, congratulations!  You have the honor of knowing you are in synch with the folks behind The People in the Picture, an earnest if klutzy take on the recollections of a Jewish woman haunted forever by memories of a life upturned by the rise of Naziism.   

Don’t get me wrong.  I am a big fan of Mike Stoller’s rock era songs, written with his partner Jerry Leiber—the soundtrack of my youth.  Mr. Stoller is responsible for half of the music in the show.  The rest of the songs were written by Artie Butler, the music arranger for Joe Cocker’s “Feelin’ Alright,” among other hits.  I have no doubt that both are talented songwriters, but, please, not for this show, and, do pardon me if I say “oy vey!”  

The People in the Picture stars Donna Murphy (undoubtedly the first name that pops into your head when you think of a Yiddishe mama), who jumps back and forth in time portraying an elderly bubbe in 1970s New York and her younger self in Warsaw during the Nazi years.  Remember, though, this is Donna Murphy we’re talking about here; to her credit, the two-time Tony Award winner gives it her all against the ineffective music and messy book and lyrics by novelist Iris Rainer Dart, best known as the author of Beaches.

The premise of the show is that a grandmother, Bubbe Raisel, is passing on the story of her life to her granddaughter.  As she speaks, her earlier years as a star of Yiddish theater unfold on the stage.  Ms. Murphy does a fine job of moving between the two roles so that the transitions are clear.  But the potentially compelling storyline, which might have worked with more appropriate music, is further lost when the framing device encompasses a separate plot about the stormy relationship between Raisel and her daughter. 

The single truly authentic moment in the show occurs when the songwriters step aside, and Ms. Murphy sings a tender and popular Yiddish children’s song (Oyfen Pripitchik, written in the 19th century by Mark Warshavsky) a tune you might recognize from its use in the movie Schindler’s List.  I could hear members of the audience, who undoubtedly remembered the song from their own childhoods, quietly singing along.

Of the rest of the performers, I would like to tip my hat to some old favorites:  Chip Zien, Lewis J. Stadlen, and Joyce Van Patten as members of Raisel’s Polish acting company.  Victims of the Holocaust, their spirits surround Raisel in her old age and offer peace and comfort against a troubled heart. 

These few effective elements suggest lost possibilities and make one wish for a better showcase for this story.  As it stands, the People in the Picture fades quickly from memory—the exact opposite of what Raisel would want to see happen.

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Monday, April 18, 2011

High: Can Faith See Us Through the Pain of Life?

Kathleen Turner and Even Jonigkeit

Question: Is playwright Matthew Lombardo planning to specialize in writing three-character dramas with complicated alcoholic foul-mouthed women at their center?

Just asking. Cuz last year he gave us Looped, a three-character play starring Valerie Harper as the complicated alcoholic foul-mouthed Tallulah Bankhead. And now, he is offering High, a three-character play starring Kathleen Turner as a complicated alcoholic foul-mouthed nun/drug counselor. Both plays, incidentally, were helmed by the same director, Rob Ruggiero. These guys may have quite a little franchise going.

In any event, High, like Looped, is a downtown play that got on the wrong subway and landed in the midtown theater district. As such, it has all of the markings of a vanity production in which a well-known actress rather past the ingénue stage of her career is brought on board to chew up the scenery and bring in the paying customers.

Oddly enough, this doesn’t mean that High isn’t interesting or compelling. It is actually both, thanks to some sharp dialog and strong performances by the two main characters: Ms. Turner as Sister Jamison Connelly, and Evan Jonigkeit, making his New York debut as Cody, a teen-aged gay hustler and drug addict undergoing court-ordered counseling. (The third character, a Catholic priest, is gamely played by Stephen Kunken, but the role itself is little more than a plot device that, unfortunately, takes away from the veracity of the play).

Despite the play’s shortcomings, it is fascinating to watch Turner and Jonigkeit dance around the boxing ring as they face off. Life has made Sister Jamie, as she is called, as tough and nearly as street-wise as Cody, and his efforts to psych her out lead him nowhere. As the play progresses, there are enough revelations about both characters to keep us engaged, and while the ultimate outcome is predictable, it is predictable in ways that are honest, if sadly inevitable.

Along the way, the playwright encourages us to consider questions of trust, faith, guilt, forgiveness, and even the routines and responsibilities of life that compel most of us to pick ourselves up and forge ahead, even during those times when we would just as soon chuck it all.

Had High been ensconced at a small off Broadway house, it might have fared better than it is likely to at the Booth Theatre. This is no grand enterprise about nuns and priests and the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church, like Doubt; it is a domestic drama of the sort that doesn’t draw the Wednesday matinee crowds or the accompanying must-see buzz. Still, it has the ring of truth (Mr. Lombardo has dedicated the play to his “sponsor,” which suggests he may know a thing or two about the subject matter of alcoholism and/or drug addition) and two solid performances at its core that make it worth a visit.

Feel free to tell your friends about this blog, and to share your own theater stories by posting a comment.