Friday, April 25, 2014

Cabaret: Willkommen Back, But Should We Care?

Alan Cumming and Cast of 'Cabaret'
Photo by Joan Marcus

“You cannot make a revolution with silk gloves.”

This quote, attributed to Josef Stalin, is a good way of explaining why the current revival of the 1998 production of Kander and Ebb’s iconic musical Cabaret—which takes place, after all, in Berlin in the midst of the rise of Nazism—fails to even remotely perturb its audience. And that, I think, is a problem. 

Case in point.  As the Emcee, Alan Cumming invites a couple of members of the audience onstage to dance with him.  At the performance I attended, the following conversation took place:

            Emcee to audience member:  What’s your name?
            Woman:  Laurie.
            Emcee:  Hi, Laurie.
            Woman:  Hi, Alan. 

Of course, Mr. Cumming is a pro. Though clearly taken aback at the breaking of the mood, he covered up by asserting that he was not “Alan,” whoever that is, but the emcee at the Kit Kat Klub.  The audience laughed, and the show went on.

Silk gloves. 

So my question is, why go through all the trouble of reconfiguring the seating so as to simulate the milieu of the decadent club and then offer up a show that is so incredibly tame? By comparison, the Nazis in The Sound of Music are more disturbing. 

Before I go further, let me explain that I did not see the previous incarnation of this production—though I did see the 1966 original and, of course, the memorable movie with Joel Grey repeating his performance as the Emcee and Liza Minnelli as Sally Bowles. My understanding, however, is that what is now on view at Studio 54 cleaves closely to the 1998 Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall staging, so forgive me if I am raising questions about points I very well might have brought up a decade-and-a-half ago. 

I’m not suggesting that the initial interpretation of the role is sacrosanct. But one thing I liked about it is that the Emcee seemed not to be human, but the kind of being that might have been conjured up by Ray Bradbury for the carnival of lost souls in his shiver-inducing novel Something Wicked This Way Comes.

Among such company, the Kit Kat Klub becomes a scary place to visit. We risk losing our own souls if we are not very careful—for instance, by getting caught up in the song “If You Could See Her Through My Eyes” and being hit in the face with its final anti-Semitic line.  That moment is truly disconcerting, not because it offends (although it does), but because it forces us into being complicit.     

The Emcee should be our amoral guide through the hell that is taking shape all around us—an opportunist willing to go in whichever direction the wind happens to be blowing.

But with this production, he is now an Everyman, clearly pretending to be naughty, repeating his same old shtick night after night (“Ladies…and gennlemen”) and someone we can picture removing his makeup and living a very ordinary life at the end of the performance. This Kit Kat Klub is no more scary than La Cage Aux Folles.   

Towards the end of the evening, as the Emcee becomes less steady, we are perhaps meant to identify with him, to share his sense of entrapment until the final image that is supposed to make us gasp.  The trouble is, with this reconceptualization no one has bothered to give the Emcee a backstory or any personality at all other than that of the ever-present overseer.  How are we to empathize with him when we don’t get to know anything about him? How much more effective would that final scene be if it were Herr Schultz we see in the hands of the Nazis? 

So, like the reporter at Ford’s Theater interviewing Mary Todd Lincoln right after her husband was shot, you might want to know “aside from that, what did you think of the play?” 

The songs are grand, of course, including those interpolated from the film, and Mr. Cumming and the rest of the Kit Kat Klub crew of performers and musicians are in solid form.  If some of their movements seem jaded and rote (especially in the opening number), that actually is appropriate and in character. It’s easy to imagine that the Emcee and his colleagues have been performing the same bits forever, so that they have become routine for them. 

As for the rest of the cast, only Aaron Krohn as Ernst and Gayle Rankin as Fräulein Kost, both of them Nazi sympathizers, capture the spirit of their roles. Linda Emond and Danny Burstein are fine as the middle aged couple who are drawn together out of mutual loneliness and a certain degree of affection, though their connection as a couple remains so tenuous that, frankly, it is no great loss when it falls apart. 

Much the same could be said of Bill Heck as Cliff, present as an observer of the scene, and Michelle Williams as Sally Bowles—a character who has been raised to a level of great significance by Liza Minnelli’s take on her but who seems to be just another lost and unaware wanderer. Neither the characters nor the actors portraying them in this production add much to the sketchiness of their roles, so that they seem to be cut from the same mold as Fräulein Schneider and Herr Schultz. 

In the end, all of them are types rather than flesh and blood people that you can care much about. You could say that Cliff represents America as it blandly watched the rise of the Nazi state; that Sally represents the self-absorbed British; that Fräulein Schneider represents the ordinary German people who cast a blind eye and declared that they were helpless to do anything about politics; that Herr Schultz represents the German Jews who rationalized themselves into Concentration Camps; and that the Emcee represents the general corruption of the times.  

It all makes for a nice thesis, but, as Ms. Edmond’s character Fräulein Schneider sings early in the show, “It will all go on if we’re here or not. So who cares?  So what?” 

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Friday, April 18, 2014

‘Act One’: A Play About Rescuing A Play Needs Some Rescuing Itself

Tony Shalhoub and Santino Fontana in 'Act One'
Photo by Joan Marcus

There are many lessons to be learned from watching Act One, James Lapine’s affectionate if overindulgent adaptation of playwright Moss Hart’s classic autobiography of the same title, which opened last night at the Vivian Beaumont Theater. 

Lesson One:  Bio-plays are nearly impossible to pull off.

When they work on stage, it is because the person whose life is being portrayed and the performance by the actor at the center are so thoroughly compelling that the inherent flaws become significantly less important. The current Lady Day At Emerson’s Bar And Grill starring Audra McDonald as Billie Holiday is one example where this necessary requirement is amply met.   

On the other hand, there is a high risk of being narrative-heavy, pedantic, superficial, and undramatic. Unfortunately, these adjectives describe Act One, despite solid (though not extraordinary) acting by the entire company. 

Lesson Two:  Factual truth and dramatic truth need not fully coincide.

No one’s autobiography represents unvarnished truth. Rather it represents some variation, filtered through the author’s perceptions, including a certain degree of factual rearrangement, self-justification, and aggrandizement.  Memoirs are not encyclopedia entries. 

A play, no matter the subject matter, need not be a slave to its source material. Act One might have been better served by presenting itself as having been “suggested by” Mr. Hart’s autobiography. Some dramatic license might have made the straightforward narrative a bit more interesting for an audience. As it is, there is almost no dramatic tension, and the character of Moss Hart comes off as someone who breezed his way into a highly successful career in the theater:  “I tried it.  It worked.  Life is good.” 

Lesson Three:  Broadway is no place to do the equivalent of an out-of-town tryout. 

The early preview performance of Act One that I attended ran over three hours. It certainly needed cutting then, and it seemed to me there were several self-contained scenes that could have been removed without impacting the rest of the play at all. Indeed, as I glanced at my watch with greater frequency as the night wore on, I speculated that Mr. Lapine had deliberately included alternative scenes, with the intent of pulling some of them based on how well they played to an audience. (There obviously has been some snipping because they play now clocks in at two hours and forty-five minutes.) 

Lesson Four:  Less is more. 

First, there is Beowulf Boritt’s ungainly tri-level revolving set.  Yes, it is hard to figure out how best to use the Vivian Beaumont’s humongous stage, but director Bartlett Sher and set designer Michael Yeargan managed to subdue it quite spendidly a few years back with the glowing revival of South Pacific, as did director Jack O’Brien and his set designer Scott Pask for the more recent production of Macbeth.  

Second, do Tony Shalhoub and Andrea Martin (both truly excellent actors) really have to play three roles apiece? For instance, why couldn’t the equally talented Santino Fontana serve as the sole narrator instead of sharing the responsibilities with Mr. Shalhoub, who has quite enough to do (and he does do a fine job) as Hart’s father and as George S. Kaufman, Moss Hart’s talented, successful, and neurotic writing partner? 

Ms. Martin—always a joy on stage (including here)—is well occupied as Moss’s Aunt Kate and his theatrical agent Frieda Fishbein. Does she also need to appear as Kaufman’s wife Beatrice, a seemingly lovely person, but whose presence does not add a whit to the play?

Lesson Five:  Show, don’t tell.

Act One is partly a rags-to-riches tale in which a poor boy from the Bronx, son of struggling Jewish immigrant parents, makes it to the big time on the Great White Way. But the core of the play is about the process of developing a successful theatrical work, in this case Hart’s breakthrough hit (with Kaufman), the 1930 comedy Once In A Lifetime. We see a lot of fuss and bother as the pair struggles to save their play from poorly received out-of-town tryouts, but most of what we learn is through “tell” rather than “show.” Perhaps less of the family drama and more showing of the various stages of development of Once In A Lifetime (with actual scenes showing its evolution) would have made for a more compelling play. 

Finally, there is Lesson Six: Never ever ever direct a play that you have written. 

A director has to look at a play through an entirely different set of eyes than those of the writer. Yet Mr. Lapine has chosen to direct Act One himself. See Lessons One through Five for reasons why this was not such a good idea. 

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Sunday, April 13, 2014

'Lady Day At Emerson's Bar And Grill': Another Tony Award For Audra McDonald?

Audra McDonald as Billie Holiday

Before I wind up waving my hand among the “me, too” crowd, let me jump in here to state unequivocally that Audra McDonald is giving the performance of a lifetime as singer Billie Holiday in Lanie Robertson’s Lady Day At Emerson’s Bar And Grill, now on view at what will undoubtedly be a completely sold-out run at Circle In The Square. 

Ms. McDonald doesn’t merely suggest the persona of Billie Holiday, in the way, say, that Tracie Bennett poured herself into her portrayal of a barely-clinging-on Judy Garland a couple of years back in End Of The Rainbow.

And it is not just that she has managed to exchange her crystal singing voice for that of the great Lady Day—a tour-de-force of otherworldly proportions that in itself would be reason enough to beg, borrow, or steal a ticket.  

She totally is Billie, performing in a song-and-conversation evening at the modest South Philly club of the title, the kind of place where she was relegated to singing toward the end of her career and her life. (She died in 1959 at the age of 44, which is just about Ms. McDonald’s age right now).    

During the 90-minute intermissionless performance, Audra as Billie becomes, as she says, increasingly “juiced” while singing 15 full and partial numbers and interrupting the proceedings to tell stories from her decidedly downtrodden life of neglect, abuse, booze, and heroin to her audience—those sitting close at hand at one of the 21 club tables (and, yes, there is a premium price to pay for these seats) and the rest of us in regular theater seats arranged in a horseshow around the stage. (I hasten to note that I sat in economy class and could see and hear just fine, but if you’ve got the money you might want to spring for one of the club tables to be in close proximity to stunning theatrical genius). 

In any other hands but those of its star, Lady Day At Emerson’s Bar And Grill might easily fall into the mode of the typical bio-play, a form that is incredibly difficult to pull off without turning into a live, exposition-driven version of a book-on-tape. No names, but there are at least a couple of these running on and off Broadway right now.


Under the spot-on and unobtrusive direction by Lonny Price, I have never seen the genre treated with so much attention to detail as to make it virtually indistinguishable from the real thing. For a sheer nerve-racking experience, watching Audra/Billie pulling herself through a performance eclipses by light years that of attending the current revival of Cabaret—which places its audience into the mise-en-scène of pre-World War II Berlin.    


Yes, I am saying that watching Audra McDonald as the living-on-the-edge Billie Holiday is far more disturbing than being surrounded by Nazis at the Kit Kat Klub.


During the evening, Ms. McDonald, who is wearing a snazzy Esosa-designed gown matching the color of the gardenia in her hair, is not alone on stage. She is joined by a fine jazz trio, led by Shelton Becton (doubling as Billie’s accompanist and “nanny” Jimmy Powers) on piano, Clayton Craddock on drums, and George Farmer on bass. The trio performs a solo number when Billie briefly staggers offstage (to pull herself together, or perhaps to shoot up?), but if you plan to arrive 20 minutes or so before the official starting time, you’ll be treated to a pre-show set by the band as well.

Ms. McDonald performs memorable songs from the Billie Holiday songbook, including “God Bless the Child,” which she tells us she penned for her mother; “T’ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do,” which nonchalantly brushes off the experience of being in an abusive relationship; and the wrenching “Strange Fruit,” that conjures up images of lynchings. 

Between numbers, Audra/Billie talks about her mother (“The Duchess”), her great musical influences Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith, and others in her life, whose images are projected on the wall behind her. 

Many of the stories she tells are harrowing—both the ones of her sad personal life and those of the many experiences of racism she faced while touring around the country. It made me think of the line from Ntozake Shange’s masterwork for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf “I couldn’t stand being sorry and colored at the same time/it’s so redundant…”

Lady Day At Emerson’s Bar And Grill is as close to "must see" theater as you are likely to come across as we approach the deadline for Tony Awards nominations. I hope there is room for a sixth Tony in Ms. McDonald's home, because the odds are in her favor. 

Tickets for are on sale through June 1, and a CD of Audra McDonald performing the numbers from the show is in the works. 

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Friday, April 4, 2014

'Human Fruit Bowl': Fascinating Excursion Into The Nature of Art Through The Eyes Of A Nude Life Model

Harmony Stempel in 'Human Fruit Bowl'
Photo by Brittany Brett

Audiences at a play are always voyeurs. But it’s generally a “safe” kind of voyeurism, an artifice that keeps us behind an invisible but impenetrable barrier that stands between theatergoers and the unfolding events onstage.

In this, we are complicit with the playwright and the performers. Those on both sides of the barrier know the rules—so bring on the angst and family dysfunction, the blood and gore, the bodies in every state of dress and undress. 

But how might our experience change if the person standing before us were completely aware of our presence?  And nude?

That is the just one of the intriguing ideas to wrap your head around while attending a performance of Human Fruit Bowl, a smart and compelling one-person play written by Andrea Kuchlewska in collaboration with its star Harmony Stempel.

Human Fruit Bowl, now on view at the Baruch Performing Arts Center, is an award-winning monologue (2013 FringeNYC Overall Excellence Award, among others). It contains no angst, dysfunction, blood, or gore. But, as it happens, Ms. Stempel spends the entire 60-minute production alternately wearing a bathrobe, draped in a towel, or completely nude. 

Here I will hasten to add that only an exceptionally immature pre-pubescent child would find anything at all prurient about any of this. The character Ms. Stempel portrays is a life model in an art class—inspired by the actor’s experiences doing just such work. 

Before entering the theater, we are offered sketch paper and pencils and are invited to draw the subject. In a way, this seems to be just a gimmick to pull us into the play, but a display of completed work from previous attendees is posted outside the doors, startling us by crossing the line between what goes on in the theater and the outside world. 

For me, however, it was a sneeze that obliterated the fourth wall. Somewhere around the mid-point of the play, a man sitting to my left let out a sneeze, and it was Ms. Stempel herself who shattered the barrier with a simple “bless you.”  

That “bless you” made all the difference in the world as to how I watched the rest of the performance. Suddenly, I understood that the physical discomfort of holding a pose for 20 minutes at a time (with five-minute breaks in between) was as real for the actress as it was for the character. 

And I listened more intently to the monologue, which turned the entire performance into a shared experience, a lesson in the physical demands of modeling, and—as it happens—a most engaging series of mini-lessons on art, supported with a slide show of the kind that is ubiquitous to art history classes everywhere in the world. 

So, what would you think about if you were standing around posing in the nude for a group of art students? 

In the beginning, you might do as Ms. Stempel does, make to-do lists: 
                        Farmers’ market
                        Pick up dry cleaning
                        Get extra set of keys made

You might also think about everything that is involved in posing, especially how to meet the challenge of maintaining your position without moving a muscle (you’re allowed to blink and breathe, but that’s it) for extended periods of time. Try it. It’s not so easy.

But if, like Ms. Stempel’s character, you start to pay attention to your surroundings, you might begin to consider the connection between the “animus of the subject and the experience of the painter,” and how each influences the other in the creation of a work of art. You might, in your off hours, take in the art on exhibit at the Met. Or you might become interested in the real-life connections between artist’s model and artist, specifically the mystery surrounding the suicide of Renée Monchaty, a model for and lover of the artist Pierre Bonnard. 

All of these become fodder for Human Fruit Bowl, which grows increasingly layered and complex as it goes along. By the end, when Ms. Stempel sits quietly during one of her breaks from posing and we see the slides of every work of art she has talked to us about (including one of her painted by Samuel Wade Levy), we find ourselves as fascinated as she.

And we come to realize that this young woman, who took on the modeling job as a way to pay the bills, has led us through an hour-long exploration into the nature of art and the interplay between artist and subject.  

This collaboration among the playwright, the performer, and director Jessi D. Hill has produced a truly unique work that will get you thinking about every model who has ever posed for a drawing or painting. Take that thought with you the next time you go to the Met. 

As I end, let me mention that, totally coincidental to my visit to Human Fruit Bowl, Harvard University Press recently published a book I co-authored, a memoir of a woman who posed for artist Man Ray while living in Paris prior to the outbreak of World War II. A photo of her portrait is on the cover of the book, titled American Cocktail:  A “Colored Girl” in the World. In working on the book, I never gave the portrait much thought—other than to recognize that it would make a great cover.  I’ll not look on that with the same eyes again, either. 

Human Fruit Bowl is on view at Baruch Performing Arts Center until April 11. Catch it while you can.

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