Sunday, June 30, 2013

'Cinderella': Will You Love It Because It’s Beautiful?

A Sublime Moment from 'Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella'

You know who would just love Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella?

Jake, the four-year-old title character in Daniel Pearle’s play, A Kid Like Jake, currently  on view at the Claire Tow Theater. Much discussed but never seen, Jake has begun to show a distinct predilection for playing dress-up and for all things Cinderella, much to the discomfort of his parents.

I say go with the flow, Jake’s Mom and Dad. Honor your son’s—what do you call it?—“gender-variant play”—and take him to the Broadway Theatre to see Cinderella.  And after he has feasted his eyes on Anna Louizos’s dazzling set and William Ivey Long’s Tony-winning costumes, buy him a truckload of souvenirs, including the $25.00 glitter T-shirt, the $40.00 clock necklace, and the $30.00 tiara.  He will be in Cinderella Heaven!

The same goes for all you parents and caregivers out there.  The kids will love it, and, fortunately, you will find much to like as well.

This is true despite the fact that the production is excessively overwritten in order to stretch it out to two hours and fifteen minutes (including intermission—a good time to stock up on those souvenirs), thus rendering it suitable for a long run as a full-scale Broadway musical.  By way of contrast, the original 1957 television production, the one that starred Julie Andrews in the title role, ran for 76 minutes, which is just about the right length to get in all the good stuff. 

With this production, the good stuff begins with the score, orchestrated by Danny Troob and performed by a nice full orchestra under the direction of Andy Einhorn. I mean, we’re talking Rodgers and Hammerstein here, and even if Cinderella can be considered a lower-shelf work from the masters' oeuvre, it does contain some lovely songs: “In My Own Little Corner,” “Impossible,” “Ten Minutes Ago” (brings tears to my eyes every time), and “There’s Music In You,” a number interpolated from an obscure movie called Main Street to Broadway (1953) that becomes an anthem of empowerment that the Fairy Godmother sings to Cinderella.  Oh, those lovely, uplifting Hammerstein lyrics:

Move a mountain
Light the sky
Make a wish come true
There is music in you

It’s also nice to see a cast of over two dozen filling up the stage and dancing to the very fine choreography by Josh Rhodes.  The scene of the ball at the end of Act I is pretty near sublime. 

Finally, there are the performances, excellent to a person.  Santino Fontana (Prince Topher, aka Prince Charming), always a pleasure to watch on stage, was out during the performance I attended, but truly, his understudy Andy Jones handled the role with plenty of charm and aplomb of his own.  Since Cinderella marks his Broadway debut, this is no small accomplishment.  Laura Osnes as Cinderella, Victoria Clark as Crazy Marie (aka the Fairy Godmother), and Harriet Harris, Marla Mindelle, and Ann Harada as Cinderella’s step-family all shine in their respective roles.  And they are aided in no small part by the rest of the cast.  This is a big production, with big production numbers, and so much credit must go to director Mark Brokaw.

Unfortunately, there is a down side, driven by the determination to stretch this pleasant little show to the limits. 

Puzzling decisions include opening on a dense forest better suited to a certain Stephen Sondheim show (I was looking for the Baker and his Wife to show up, and half expected Cinderella to sing “I wish to go to the festival” instead of her opening number).  Then, what should come lumbering through the forest but a rogue Ent, the tree creature from Lord of the Rings.  Don’t ask. 

However, things do finally settle down, and Act I turns out to bear sufficient resemblance to the well-known tale so as to be pretty enjoyable.  The three lovely songs from the original production that I mentioned previously are all performed in the first act, and it does end with the delightful ball scene and Cinderella’s midnight escape. 

It is in Act II that things nearly collapse under the weight of Douglas Carter Beane’s new book.  He has re-imagined most of the key characters and has added a plot thread (a thread that grows into a hefty rope in Act II) about government corruption and the mistreatment of the peasants.  The jokes and the tone are disconcertedly modern and really do begin to interfere with the main storyline. It takes the sweetly romantic “Do I Love You Because You’re Beautiful,” a wedding, and more of  William Ivey Long’s scrumptious costumes to bring us back into the story, so that it's (almost) possible to ignore the arrival of Mothra (sorry, I mean the Fairy Godmother) onto the scene, flying above everyone’s heads and bestowing her blessings on all. 

Although this production of Cinderella is decidedly a mixed bag, I’m not sorry I saw it, and if I had a little boy or girl, I would not hesitate to bring them. With the sets and costumes, the lively action, and the beautiful singing and dancing, there is plenty enough to please the kids and the grownups. The audience seemed to love it, and the cast appeared to be basking in the joy that spread through the theater.  There are, believe me, less entertaining ways to spend an evening.   

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Tuesday, June 25, 2013

‘The Two-Character Play’: Exquisite Production Reveals A Tennessee Williams Masterwork

Brad Dourif and Amanda Plummer:  Brilliant in 'The Two-Character Play'

I owe Tennessee Williams an apology—though, in my defense, it has taken a near miracle to get me to understand this. 

Indeed, something nearly miraculous is occurring at the New World Stages, with the revival of Williams's seldom-seen The Two-Character Play: the opportunity to discover that the old boy still has the power to amaze and thrill audiences.

Prior to last night—having seen the play 40 years ago in its earlier incarnation as Out Cry—I had placed it near the top of a shortlist of Disasters-I-Have-Endured as a lifelong theatergoer.  

Not any more. 

Thanks to brilliant directing by Gene David Kirk and exquisite performances by Brad Dourif and Amanda Plummer, this production is a true revelation. 

Williams, who famously never stopped tinkering with his writing, spent ten years working on The Two-Character Play, which he called his best play since Cat On A Hot Tin Roof and the “most beautiful” since A Streetcar Named Desire.  Based on the current production, I would tend to agree.

The Two-Character Play is nothing like his more famous and far-more-popular earlier works. It takes us deeply into the realm of Pirandello (metatheater), and Beckett (absurdism), and Ionesco (absurdism with an emotional fillip).  The transition is complete and can stand proudly alongside the best of those more famous purveyors of the form.  Williams totally gets it.   

I felt this way last year when I saw the engaging production of In Masks Outrageous and Austere at the Culture Project.  But that play, said to be Williams’s last completed work, does carry with it an asterisk of sorts, as many hands set about shaping it after his death.  I was particularly taken with the sly humor that pervaded that production, a contrast with the popular image of Williams in his later years as a depressed alcoholic has-been.  

However, The Two-Character Play is all Williams, and is subject only to rediscovery.  The heightened language (at times Shakespearean), and the often-quite-funny gallows humor are all his. 

This is a tale of the downward spiral of a brother and sister (Felice and Clare), a pair of middle-aged actors, whose lives were damaged beyond repair when their father shot their mother and then himself, “unkindly forgetting his children,” as Clare puts it in a line ripe with double-edged meaning.  The pair are bound to one another, both understanding they are doomed to the inevitable act of finishing their father’s task, yet wanting to postpone their fate as long as they possibly can.

The title references the play-within-a-play, a version of their lives they perform for themselves and for us, their audience.  It is a theme with many variations and improvisations, and carries with it colorations of agoraphobia, fear, anxiety, escapist fantasy, paranoia, loss, and dementia:  a Pandora’s box with dark humor and imagined hope in place of the real thing. 

Watching Mr. Dourif and Ms. Plummer bring these characters to three-dimensional life is to study theatrical masters at the top of their game. It seems that Ms. Plummer, in particular, has figured out every breath, every gesture, every quality of speech she needs in order to fully occupy the character of Clare—so much so, that by play’s end, I wondered whether Felice was actually still alive or was only being kept alive in Clare’s determined if troubled mind. 

Much speculation has been offered up regarding the extent to which Williams was representing aspects of his life and that of his mentally ill sister, Rose.  But I prefer to credit him as an artist who wrote with great intentionality and with an eye to having his work produced for a paying audience.  This above all kept him going despite his battles with personal demons. 

In the play, Clare mentions a doctor who  once told me that you and I were the bravest people he know.   

“I said, ‘Why, that’s absurd.  My brother and I are terrified of our shadows.’

“And he said, ‘Yes, I know that, and that’s why I admire your courage so much.’”  

This is how I think of Tennessee Williams, a brave artist who remained always faithful to his calling, continuing throughout his life to learn, explore, and grow as a writer, whatever temptations there may have been to stick to the tried-and-true.

I apologize for ever doubting. 

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Tuesday, June 18, 2013

'Murder Ballad': Good Singing, But Not Much Sizzle

The cast of 'Murder Ballad'

Who would have thought that lust, murder, and rock ‘n’ roll would add up to such a tame evening of entertainment?

I’m speaking of Murder Ballad, the “steamy and fun” (quoted in the ads) rock musical now on view at the Union Square Theater after a transfer from the Manhattan Theater Club’s Stage II.  

With a book by Julia Jordan, who is credited with the original concept for the show,  and music by Juliana Nash (they collaborated on the lyrics), Murder Ballad takes its title from a style of story-telling song that narrates a crime of passion. “Tom Dooley” and “Frankie and Johnny” are examples that come close to the balladeer roots, but theater composers have also played with the form (Cole Porter’s “Miss Otis Regrets” or even Stephen Sondheim’s “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd.”)

What Ms. Jordan has come up with is a modern take, in which a pair of downtown lovers goes hot and heavy for a while then break it off.  She marries a nice guy and has a kid, but later runs into her former lover, and…

Well, you probably can take it from there. 

Trip Cullman, who really is a good director, has only been partly successful with the staging.  The Union Square Theater has been outfitted with an onstage bar (you can buy drinks there before the show; thanks for the idea, Once), and the floor space is taken up with round club tables, where some of the audience sits.  The rest of the audience is in tiered seating on three sides, with a band on a stage on the fourth side.    There is also a pool table, which functions as a bed. 

The show is completely sung through, which is where its strength lies.  The cast is made up of four very talented singers:  Will Swenson and Cassie Levy are the on-again/off-again lovers, John Ellison Conlee is the good-guy husband (with a PhD in poetry, no less), and Rebecca Naomi Jones serves as the narrator.  The music is enjoyable, and the singers and the band perform with gusto.

When I said that Trip Cullman has been partly successful, what I meant was that the show promises but fails to provide any real heat or sense of danger that might be anticipated from the setting and the East Village vibe.  There are so many opportunities to pull the audience into the show, or to raise the temperature on the action—but none of these has been met.  It’s like the Disney version of CBGB.

So go for the talented singers, if you’ve a mind to, or check out the forthcoming original cast album.   There is entertainment to be found, if not a lot of steam heat coming out of the pipes.   

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Monday, June 17, 2013

'The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin:' Portrait of a Callous Narcissist

“Everybody’s laying all their shit on me!”

That’s the voice of the title character in playwright Steven Levenson’s (The Language of Trees) latest work, The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin, now on view at the Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre. 

Depending on the line reading, this could be a cry of self-pity, or it might be a determined declaration of independence.  Coming from the mouth of David Morse, the splendid actor playing the role, it is neither.  It is just another attempt at manipulating everyone around him into doing exactly what he wants them to do—the very sort of tactic that landed him a five-year stint in federal prison for securities fraud and insider trading.    

Now he is out, not the least bit remorseful, and bound and determined to insinuate himself back into the lives of his family as if it were his due.

In brief, Tom is the perfect a-hole, a man who would shame his son (Christopher Denham) into letting him move in, who would blackmail his son-in-law (Rich Sommer) into helping him get rehired at the firm where they both had worked until Tom was arrested, and who would stalk his ex-wife (Lisa Emery).  Where is their loyalty to him, he demands repeatedly. 

The play is at its best when it demonstrates the impact of a callous narcissist on those around him.  Mr. Morse owns the stage whenever he is on it, and he plays the role to the hilt.  His Tom Durnin is a most hiss-worthy villain; at the performance I attended, I was surrounded by any number of audience members who kept muttering nasty things about the character.  I’ll confess to having cursed him myself once or twice. 

It’s not hard to understand why Tom’s daughter and wife want nothing to do with him, but it’s also not that difficult to understand why his son James takes him in, albeit reluctantly. 

James is going through some tough times himself.   He is a lost soul, still reeling from a difficult breakup, stuck in a stultifying job, and unsure of what to do with his life. Taking in his father means he does not have to come home to an empty house day after day.    

With the financial support of his mother, James has quit his job and is now taking a writing course at the local community college and is attempting to write a novel.  At the college, he befriends Katie (Sarah Goldberg), who has her own problems with trust.  The two of them are starting to build a relationship, which James nearly derails when he starts to fall into his father’s pattern of lying and misleading. 

Under the direction of Scott Ellis, the cast does a fine job all around.  I was particularly taken with Ms. Emery’s portrayal of Tom’s ex-wife in their confrontational scene. But the play truly belongs to Mr. Morse, who sinks his teeth into the powerful title role like a junkyard dog.  His interactions with his son, his son-in-law, his ex-wife, and with Katie are most discomfiting, and by the time Tom “unavoidably disappears,” it is clear he has left much damage in his wake.  We can only hope he stays away.

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