Wednesday, March 26, 2014

'Jasper In Deadland': Rockin' Out In The Underworld

Matt Doyle and Allison Scagliotti in 'Jasper in Deadland'
Photo by Matt Murphy

To commandeer a quote from Stephen Sondheim, “They do an awful lot of dancing, the dead.” They do a lot of singing, too, in the Prospect Theater Company’s production of the rollicking new rock musical Jasper in Deadland, on stage at the West End Theater in the Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew. 

The show, boasting a score by Ryan Scott Oliver (a Jonathan Larson grant recipient) and a book penned by Mr. Oliver and Hunter Foster (yes, that Hunter Foster, now treading the boards in Broadway’s The Bridges of Madison County), is a thrilling ride through the Underworld as its title character seeks to rescue his best friend and bring her back with him to the land of the living.

Jasper in Deadland, a mashup of Dante’s Inferno and assorted myths about the Netherworld, may owe a nod to Larson’s megahit Rent, which also borrowed its plot from a classical source.  But its musical inspiration is surely Spring Awakening; if you should happen not to catch the connection to “The Bitch of Living” through the music and choreography, one of the characters is there to remind us that “life is a bitch.”  

Unlike its predecessors, however, Jasper in Deadland eschews a tone of overbearing angst for one that is far more upbeat.  Oh, there are moments where we may briefly fear that Jasper will fail at his quest and either return empty-handed (like Orpheus) or remain among the dead until he becomes one of them permanently. But, really, it’s OK to ignore Dante’s warning; do not “abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”

So forget the ugly stuff under the rock.  Jasper’s main torment is “the noise” of a teenager’s daily life, exacerbated by the breakup of his parents and a gnawing sense of responsibility when his friend Agnes (who is in love with him) dives off a cliff into a lake—either in an act of conquering her fear or one of desperation.    

It is through his attempt to save her that Jasper (Matt Doyle)—a star swimmer—finds himself at the entrance to Deadland, a world that is surprisingly similar to the one he left behind, with plenty of “noise” of its own. Here he experiences a multitude of adventures as he wends his way through the six zones (reduced from Dante’s nine circles of hell) leading eventually to Elysium, all the while looking for Agnes. 

The problem is, one of the side effects of hanging out with the dead is that you tend to forget things—which can either be a curse or a blessing, depending on what it is you start to forget. In this instance, forgetfulness is purposefully promulgated by a fiendish character known as Mr. Lethe (Ben Crawford), who has cornered the market on bottled water from the River Lethe. If Jasper had been paying attention in his Humanities class, he might have known that one of the properties of the water in that river is that it promotes forgetfulness in all those who drink from it.  And so, with each sip, Agnes starts to fade from his mind.

Fortunately, Jasper has had the good fortune to hook up with a sympathetic tour guide, Gretchen (Allison Scagliotti, best known for TV work but who takes to the musical theater stage like a seasoned veteran). 

Poor Agnes.  Whoever she is, she can’t possibly hold a candle to Gretchen for friendship, sacrifice, and love. It is Gretchen who guides Jasper safely past the dangers posed by the likes of Mr. Lethe and his aide-de-camp, the Chuckster (F. Michael Haynie, a talented and comically eccentric actor); the Egyptian demoness Ammut (Danyel Fulton, a powerful belter), known—for good reason—as the “Eater of Hearts;” and the oddball pair from Norse mythology, Loki (Mr. Haynie again) and Hel (Bonnie Milligan). These two pop up periodically, like Lewis Carroll’s Tweedledee and Tweedledum—thereby providing the connection between the musical’s title and Carroll’s Alice In Wonderland (though with a touch of Wagner in their singing).   

In the end, with a last-minute intervention by the goddess Persephone (Andi Alhadeff), who, after all, is well acquainted with entering and exiting the Underworld on a regular basis, Jasper is allowed to return to the land of the living (With Agnes?  With Gretchen?  Please—no spoilers here!), and all ends on a most hopeful note with the joyful and spirited song “One More Day of Snow.” 

Commendations all around for this production, which makes full use of the small stage area at the West End Theater—from Lorin Latarro’s choreography, to Patrick Rizzotti’s scenic design (which makes clever use of a breakaway platform), to the costume design by Bobby Pearce, who makes the world of the living rather bland looking and the world of the dead a most colorful place to be, sort of the costumer’s version of the switch from sepia tones to Technicolor in The Wizard of Oz.  Thumbs up, too, to the fine band, conducted by Ryan Fielding Garrett.

Under Brandon Ivie’s fast-paced directing, the cast is excellent, starting with Mr. Doyle (a boy-next-door charmer who has played the role of Elder Price in The Book of Mormon on Broadway and whose singing brings to mind Aaron Tveit), and Ms. Scagliotti (who really must do more musical theater), and including all the rest of the high caliber performers. 

One last thing before I end.  At the performance I attended, I sat next to a young woman named Amara, an up-and-coming actress from Chicago who clearly loves the theater. I give a shout-out to Amara and to all of the members of the mostly youthful audience who are living proof that the musical theater is vibrant, alive, and well—and far from heading to Deadland.

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Monday, March 24, 2014

‘Mothers and Sons’: What Does Katharine Want?

Cast of 'Mothers and Sons' 

No one can top actress Tyne Daly at portraying complicated women who are tough and sometimes overbearing in the face they display to the world, while being internally vulnerable and secretive.  Her Tony Award-winning take on Mama Rose in Gypsy, her layered turn as Maria Callas in Master Class, and even her four-time Emmy-winning role as Detective Mary Beth Lacy in the long-running television series Cagney and Lacey have all borne the unique Daly stamp. 

So if anyone could mine the character of Katharine Gerard, the “Mother” in Terrence McNally’s new play Mothers and Sons opening tonight at the Golden Theatre, it would be Ms. Daly. The problem is, Katharine is such a mass of radioactive toxicity that Daly might just as well be asked to play, and find redemption in, the recently deceased and deservedly despised pastor-of-hate Fred (“God Hates Fags”) Phelps. 

Katharine is the mother of Andre, who died 19 years previously of complications arising from AIDS. She has shown up, unannounced and unbidden, on the doorstep of Andre’s long-time lover Cal (Frederick Weller), Cal’s husband Will (Bobby Steggert), and their son Bud (Grayson Taylor). This is not a visit of attempted reconciliation, however; indeed the purpose for Katharine’s appearance is never made clear, possibly not even to herself.   

All we know at curtain’s rise is that she is there, standing downstage center in Cal and Will’s lovely New York apartment (nicely rendered by John Lee Beatty), dressed in a floor-length fur coat, resisting Cal’s polite entreaties to remove it and sit because she has no intention of staying (though, of course, she does stay, and even occasionally sits).

What does Katharine want? That becomes the central question of the play. She makes it clear that she offers no acceptance or approval of Andre or Cal (“I don’t have to approve,” she says most emphatically, as if there were any doubt) or later, when she meets him, of Will. The only one she takes to is young Bud, who is innocently accepting of her as a potential Grandma to fill the absence of one in his life. 

Ostensibly, the visit is sparked by Katharine’s wish to return Andre’s diary to Cal (she couldn’t mail it?). She hasn’t read it, and has no interest in doing so. Neither, as it happens, does Cal, whom she last saw at Andre’s memorial service (“a little too gay for my taste,” she says). It just seems that Katharine’s days are marked with bitterness and resentment, and now that her husband has also passed away, she cannot abide her life but can only lash out like a cornered she-bear.

And so it goes. Cal and Will each take turns with Katharine, alternately trying out polite small talk and taking the opportunity to apprise her (and the audience) of the roller coaster ride that has marked the last two decades for gays—from ostracized bearers of a deadly virus to marriage equality. Both Mr. Weller and Mr. Steggert do splendidly in roles that really serve as foils to Katharine’s mostly vitriolic comments (“He wasn’t gay when he left Dallas,” she says of Andre, eyeing Cal most accusingly).

It would seem that Mr. McNally (who also penned Master Class, though Ms. Daly’s participation in it came later, with the most recent Broadway revival) had a lot on his mind that he wanted to address with this play. He wrote an earlier incarnation titled Andre’s Mother back in 1988, a short work that took place at Andre’s memorial service in Central Park.  The playwright has also spoken of his rocky relationship with his own mother, proud of his accomplishments but none too happy with his sexual orientation.    

There is, then, authentic motivation behind Mothers and Sons. As a play, however, it is unfortunately clunky.  Emotionally charged speeches, which abound, are not enough to raise the work above that of a polemic. Cal exists as representative of the link between past and present. The younger Will exists as representative of a new generation of gay men who grew up with a greater sense of self-respect and acceptance, so that they expect it rather than appreciate it when it kindly shows up. 

Bud serves three purposes. One purpose, of course, is to let us know that married gay couples with children are becoming an established feature of the landscape. A second purpose is that of a theatrical device to allow Cal and Will to take turns with Katharine, as one or the other leaves the room to help their son with his bath or to get him changed for bed.

The third purpose, and the most manipulative one, is to tug at Katharine’s (and the audience’s) heartstrings, so that at the very end we are expected to find a glimmer of hope in an Oreo cookie she accepts from the lad. (I will say, I suspiciously eyed an untrimmed Christmas tree in the corner, fearing an outbreak of caroling would ensue).

If there is a lesson to be learned from all of this, it is that playwrights—no matter how established and successful they have been—need someone to read their work through a clinical and unemotional lens and consider its impact and potential for presentation to an audience that is not necessarily as personally invested in the message. Whether director Sheryl Kaller had that role is unknown to me. 

In this case, the message is significant enough to warrant additional work on the play, and the quality of the acting—first-rate all around—makes it worth the visit. But I can’t help thinking of the stunning 2011 revival of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, which so successfully married message with theatrical verisimilitude. It can be done. 

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Friday, March 14, 2014

'Satchmo At The Waldorf' Offers A Sterling Performance by John Douglas Thompson

John Douglas Thompson as Louis Armstrong
Photo by T. Charles Erickson

There are three really good reasons to see Satchmo At The Waldorf, now on view at the Westside Theatre. 

Reason Number One: John Douglas Thompson’s powerhouse performance as iconic jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong, pensive and in poor health near the end of his career and of his life. 

Reason Number Two: John Douglas Thompson’s powerhouse performance as Armstrong’s long-time manager Joe Glaser, a tough-as-nails businessman and confidant. 

Reason Number Three: John Douglas Thompson’s powerhouse performance as iconic jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, harshly judgmental of Armstrong’s popular appeal to a largely white audience through his recordings of such mainstream tunes as “Hello Dolly” and “What A Wonderful World.” 

Playwright Terry Teachout, who is the drama critic for the Wall Street Journal, has written biographies of Armstrong and Duke Ellington, so he knows his way around the world of jazz performers as well as the theater.

But it is very difficult to pull off a truly original and compelling bio-play. I Am My Own Wife comes to mind as one that met both criteria, but in that case, the play's intriguing story was brought to stellar heights owing to the extraordinary performance by Jefferson Mays.

Satchmo At The Waldorf does not rise to that level save for the bravura acting, in which Thompson flips among the three characters pretty much instantaneously through shifts in body language and voice, abetted nicely by Kevin Adams’s lighting design.  As Armstrong, Mr. Thompson enters the stage in a state of exhaustion after a show; it’s a wonder he doesn’t exit in the same condition after performing for the entire 90 minutes without a break. 

The play takes place in 1970 in Armstrong’s dressing room at the Waldorf, where he and his wife Lucille (his fourth and best, he keeps reminding us) are ensconced in a suite at the luxury hotel. At the opening, he is worn and frazzled, and he barely makes it to the sofa in time to collapse and take several deep breaths through a mask attached to a tank of oxygen.

But as he starts to relax and change out of his dress clothes, he finds new momentum, and he rises to show us two tape recorders sitting on a table. One of them has recordings of his music, which we get to hear from time to time. This means, fortunately there is no pretense of trumpet playing by Thompson, though he does a fine job carrying out the rituals involved in cleaning and putting away the instrument. 

The second tape recorder is there for him to dictate his memoirs, which, of course, gives us the basis and rationale for the play.

Two themes emerge to shape the play beyond the basic stories of a life in the spotlight. One is that of public image vs. private reality. Behind the famous cheerful image of “Pops” Armstrong lay a man who knew his way around salty language, women, and reefer—learned early on growing up in Storyville, the red-light district of New Orleans, not a cheery place for him. His mother was a prostitute and his father disappeared around the time of Armstrong’s birth in 1901. (He was also the grandson of slaves, a fact that does not come up during the course of the play). 

Armstrong began performing as a street singer in New Orleans as a pre-teen and seemed destined for a life as a street urchin and juvenile delinquent. But he also
did odd jobs for an immigrant Jewish family who treated him as one of their own and showed him a kinder and gentler way of living. During the play, Thompson sings a bit of Hebrew melody and tells us that Armstrong wore a Star of David pendant for the rest of his life as a reminder of those happy days.

The cornet became a permanent fixture in his life around the same time, and music turned out to be Armstrong’s savior.  But it also led him into an insulated life, marked by a certain degree of naiveté in which he sometimes mistook friendliness for genuine friendship. Thus, we have the play’s second theme, that of abandonment and betrayal.

Early on, Armstrong aligned himself with Joe Glaser, who became his manager of four decades. Armstrong turned to him because he had ties to the mob and could—as he did—take care of all of the business arrangements and serve as a barrier between the performer and outside interference. But when Glaser died and failed to leave Armstrong a share of the business, the performer felt deeply betrayed.

Armstrong was also bitter that neither Glaser nor his other “pal” Bing Crosby ever invited him to their homes. But an even keener sense of being stabbed in the back came from his treatment by younger black jazz musicians who emerged during the time of the African American Civil Rights Movement. As embodied in the play by Miles Davis, that generation viewed Armstrong not as a revered mentor, but as a sell-out Uncle Tom, who, says Davis, “pulls out that hankie and starts jumping around like Jim Crow on a stick—all to make them sad white motherfuckers happy.”

Theatrically—even though the character of Davis is only given a few minutes of time—this is the most compelling element of the play. We can feel Armstrong’s pain at being rejected by the younger performers, not one of whom attended any of his shows in those later years. If you think back to his early days of actually being abandoned by his father and pretty much raising himself on the streets, it’s not difficult to connect the dots and understand why he was devastated by such treatment.

Based on these few short scenes, I would love to see a reworked play that puts Armstrong into contact with Davis and other musicians, both the rising stars and his contemporaries, instead of focusing on the performer and his deceased manager. We might lose the tour de force opportunity of one actor carrying the entire show, but I do think the dramatic tension would rise…well…dramatically.

Still, it is well worth the visit to see Satchmo At The Waldorf for the sterling performance by John Douglas Thompson. Previous outstanding work in the lead roles in Shakespeare’s Othello and Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones have shown him to be an actor to be reckoned with, and his portrayal of Louis Armstrong and the others is no exception.  

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