Saturday, March 21, 2015

ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY: A Home Run For Roundabout and a Grand Slam for Kristin Chenoweth

Move over, Helen Mirren, and prepare to be deposed. It’s true you are doing a lovely job portraying Queen Elizabeth over on 45th Street, but look out for upstart Queen Kristin Chenoweth, the glittering star of the Roundabout Theatre Company’s sublime revival of the Comden and Green/Cy Coleman screwball musical comedy On The Twentieth Century at the American Airlines Theatre in the heart of Times Square.

Ms. Chenoweth is riveting in a role that fits her talents as if it had been created for her, though she was but 10 years old and living in her native Oklahoma when On The Twentieth Century opened on Broadway in 1978. Its star, Madeline Kahn, unfortunately withdrew after a couple of months into the run, citing damage to her vocal cords.

Heaven forefend such a fate befalling Chenoweth, an operatically-trained coloratura soprano whose singing is put to grand use with Coleman’s score, one that pays tribute to comic operas and the operetta style associated with the likes of Sigmund Romberg. On The Twentieth Century allows Chenoweth to combine her ability to knock off those High Cs—as she amply demonstrated in her performance in the New York Philharmonic’s concert version of Candide in 2004—with her keen sense of physical comedy, on great display in The Apple Tree, another Roundabout production in which she starred two years later.

So it’s Cunégonde meets Passionella, a combo punch that results, to borrow a quote from Candide, in creating the best of all possible worlds for anyone who longs for that magical blend of star power and production values that makes for a perfect Broadway musical. 

Chenoweth plays a 1930s Hollywood superstar at the top of her game, who meets her egomaniacal match in Oscar Jaffee (Peter Gallagher). Jaffee is the theatrical impresario who discovered her when she was barely eking out a living as a rehearsal pianist, a moment we visit in flashback. Goodbye Mildred Plotka; hello Lily Garland.

Together, the pair embarked on a whirlwind of theatrical successes and a torrid love affair, both of which ended when Lily jumped ship and headed out to Tinseltown. Now Jaffee is down on his luck.  With four flops in a row and facing a mountain of debts, he is fleeing aboard the train known as the Twentieth Century Limited. Much can happen in the 16 hours it takes to get from Chicago to New York, and Jaffee intends to make things happen. It seems he has arranged to be ensconced in the stateroom next to the one in which Lily Garland is staying. His troubles will be over if only he can get her to sign a contract with him.

This is the basic set-up that encompasses Act I. Not only do we get to know Oscar and Lily, we meet the show’s significant supporting players as well. There are Oliver (Mark Linn-Baker) and Owen (Michael McGrath), Oscar’s loyal managerial team; Bruce (Andy Karl), Lily’s hunka-hunka plaything, whose slim movie career is dependent on his good looks and on keeping Lily interested in him; Letitia Peabody Primrose (Mary Louise Wilson), an eccentric and evangelical woman of wealth who offers to back Oscar’s next production, an epic about Mary Magdalene in which he hopes to star Lily; and a show-stopping quartet of tap dancing porters (Rick Faugno, Richard Riaz Yoder, Phillip Attmore, and Drew King) who undoubtedly will have their own fan base as the run continues.

All of the elements come together in the grand meteor shower that is Act II. No plot spoilers here, but kudos to the book’s writers, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, who found a way to bring every wild tangent back to the central story of Oscar and Lily. The writing partners adapted the musical from the 1934 Howard Hawk film (titled Twentieth Century), which starred John Barrymore and Carole Lombard as Oscar and Lily. But even before that, there was a play of the same title by Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht. As it happens, Hecht also penned some of the Marx Brothers movies; that is the kind of madcap mentality we can see at work here.

Although this is not a show that is filled with hummable hit tunes, Cy Coleman has given us multiple musical highlights, where the songs themselves join in glorious harmony with the performances and with director Scott Ellis’s inspired staging. A couple of highlights from Act I are the catchy title song, the splashy “Veronique,” performed by Lily in her very first musical as Oscar’s protégée, and “Repent,” sung by Ms. Wilson’s character with a twinkle in her eye as she relishes a sinful past that predated her current religious fervor. 

In Act II, almost every song is a winner—from the dancing porters’ opener “Life Is Like A Train,” to an ode to Letitia Primrose'’s money (“Five Zeros”), to a number about trying to get Lily to sign a contract (“Sign Lily Sign”). There is also a hilarious chase through the train (“She’s A Nut”), a grand production number that has Lily debating with herself over what kind of role she should take in order to further her career (“Babette”), and the final duet between the crazed couple when Oscar is pretending to be on his death bed (“Lily/Oscar”). 

And while Kristin Chenoweth is the undisputed top banana, everyone else more than rises to the occasion. Peter Gallagher, who suffered from a voice-damaging infection through much of the preview period, is in fine fettle, giving a John Barrymore-worthy performance as Oscar. Andy Karl shows great comic chops as Lily’s boy toy, and Mary Louise Wilson is splendid as the kooky Letitia Primrose. The production is blessed as well with David Rockwell’s art deco set design and William Ivey Long’s period costumes. The only quibble: the orchestra is rather scaled back for such a full-throttled production.     

Somewhere in Broadway Heaven, Betty Comden and Adolph Green are grinning from ear to ear, with two of their shows delighting audiences in theaters residing on the same block of 42nd Street – On The Town at the Lyric and On The Twentieth Century at the American Airlines. There could not be a happier coming together of great American Broadway musicals at their best.     

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Wednesday, March 18, 2015

PAINT YOUR WAGON: Complex Orchestrations and Big Production Values Clash With An Intimate Story

If ever a show needed to be John Doyle-ized, it’s Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s 1951 musical Paint Your Wagon, now having a brief run as part of the Encores! season at City Center. 

Doyle, of course, is a director known for his stripped-down versions of Sweeney Todd, Company, and Allegro, among others. He has nothing to do with the Paint Your Wagon revival, of course (Marc Bruni is doing the honors at Encores!), but his ability to tame lavish productions to get at their essence—including having the acting company double as musicians—would do this musical a world of good.  

Lerner and Loewe, coming off their lushly-scored hit musical Brigadoon, switched gears entirely with this earthy tale about the dreamers and drifters who pinned their hopes on the California Gold Rush of the mid-1800s. The theme is set with the opening song, “I’m On My Way”:

                             Where am I goin’
                             I don’t know
                             Where am I headin’
                             I ain’t certain
                             All that I know is I am on my way

The song is performed by a male chorus that includes stock American characters and recent immigrants from various European countries.  It perfectly captures the sense of men adrift.   

One of these is Ben Rumson, a grizzled ‘49er who stumbles across a vein of gold, stakes a claim, and establishes the town of Rumson Creek somewhere in Northern California, where he is quickly joined by the other gold-seeking men. The only female in town is Rumson’s 16-year-old daughter Jennifer. The plot, such as it is, has two central storylines.  One follows Rumson and the men. The other follows Jennifer, who falls in love with Julio, a handsome young miner pressured to live alone outside of town, treated as an outcast because he is Mexican. Added to the mix is a separate off-the-wall thread that has to do with a newcomer, Elizabeth, one of two wives of a Mormon man who auctions her off to the highest bidder.  

Paint Your Wagon is not exactly a well-plotted tale (Lerner wrote the book as well as the lyrics to Loewe’s music), but it does have some interesting elements, including a cross-ethnic love story, broaching the theme of prejudice that Rodgers and Hammerstein made central to their glorious South Pacific (1949), and a character (Elizabeth), who bears a resemblance to the same pair’s Ado Annie from Oklahoma (1943).

What rescues Paint Your Wagon from its clunky and at least partly derivative storyline are a plethora of catchy and memorable songs that have withstood the test of time (“I Talk To The Trees,” “They Call The Wind Maria,” “Wand’rin' Star”) and that fit the characters to a T.  What they don’t fit, however, is the outsize production or Ted Royal’s original (i. e. from 1951) orchestrations, though I hasten to praise the on-stage orchestra which does a splendid job of performing the score under Rob Berman’s always-masterful direction. 

The songs—in keeping with the rough-hewn characters—are carefully crafted so as to follow a simple and easy-going structure. They cry out to be accompanied by banjos and guitars (these instruments occasionally appear in this production, but, alas, only for moments at a time) rather than a large theater orchestra performing lush and complex orchestrations. On top of that, choreographer Denis Jones has taken a cue from Agnes de Mille’s original work, and so there are a several balletic dance numbers that--as nicely performed as they are--ill suit the production, which, after all, features a stage full of scruffy men for most of the time.   

There are, to be fair, a couple of lovely ballads, including “I Still See Elisa,” which Rumson sings about his late wife, and the duet for Julio and Jennifer, “Carino Mio.”  For these, a more lushly romantic arrangement makes sense. There is also a fun and raucous opening to Act II, featuring a troop of gals who have been brought to town to entertain the men in the saloon, performing the bouncy “Hand Me Down That Can O’ Beans,” followed by “Can-Can.” Here it makes sense to open up the production. But for much of the show, things ought to be focused on the individual characters, whose solitary, rootless lives gnaw at them (“Now I’m lost, so gol-durned lost, not even God can find me” is a powerful lyric that needs to be sung against a very quiet accompaniment).

Regardless of the cross-purposes facing the production, there are standouts among the cast at Encores! These include Keith Carradine as Rumson, Justin Guarini at Julio, and Jenni Barber in the comic role of Elizabeth, who is unfazed at the prospect of being auctioned off and who later happily runs away with one of the men. 

Certainly there are many who will be taken by the production values and the grand orchestrations. But if you were to strip a lot of that away, you would find an intimate musical about a group of society's rejects, the kind who will always be seeking to fill the holes in their lives by searching for the ever-elusive pot of gold.

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Thursday, March 5, 2015

HAMILTON: Will Lin-Manuel Miranda Have The Magic Touch To Produce Another Broadway Hit?

With slightly less than two months to go before the major theater award nominees are announced, and with 16 Broadway shows yet to open before then, there can be no legitimate speculation about the 2015 awards.  

However, the same cannot be said for 2016, at least not if we are to believe the outpouring of acclaim that is buzzing about a certain new Off Broadway production that is set to make its move to Broadway this coming summer. 

That new show is Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s long anticipated follow-up to his multiple-award winning hit musical In The Heights from 2007 (Off Broadway) and 2008-2011 (Broadway). Hamilton is currently in the midst of an acclaimed and nearly sold-out run at the Public Theater, where it closes on May 3. The Broadway production is set to begin previews at the Richard Rodgers Theatre (the same venue as In The Heights) beginning July 13. 

I attended a performance of Hamilton over the past weekend, and while it has a lot going for it, I would say that Mr. Miranda has very wisely warded off those who wished to make the move immediately, in time for its momentum to carry it through the current awards season. 

To be clear, I have no doubt it would be a strong contender, even in its current state, but it could use some work to solidify that home run its creator is looking for. It is too long, to begin with, running at two hours and forty-five minutes. More significantly, it has problems keeping its focus on the central rivalry between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr.

For what it is worth, here are my specific thoughts on various aspects of Hamilton, including the pluses:

The Production

There is no faulting the production values, from the set to the staging to the use of the turntable system to the costumes to Andy Blankenbuehler’s outstanding choreography. This is a team that will know exactly how to make the best use of the humongous stage at the Richard Rodgers (the staging was a great strength of In The Heights, as well). The early scenes are especially strong in conveying the immediacy and youthful exuberance of many of the key players who were barely out of their teens when our fledgling nation was on the brink of its war of independence—Hamilton, Burr, Lafayette, and the Schuyler sisters, among them. Hamilton does a terrific job of portraying the youth-fed sense of adventure, righteous indignation, and confidence at the approach of the Revolutionary War. 

The Cast

First-rate all around, with no complaints at all. For me, the standout is Daveed Diggs in the dual roles of Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson. Just love his Act II opener, “What’d I Miss?” I also love the care that was used in bringing together the multi-racial cast for telling this most American of stories.  Finally, I appreciate the quiet but significant references to immigration, race relations, and political shenanigans that compel us to make connections between then and now. 

The Music

Mr. Miranda is an undisputed expert at using rap to tell a story. His mastery of the genre’s rhythms and intricate rhyme schemes puts him on a par with the likes of Stephen Sondheim and W. S. Gilbert, to whom he pays homage with a reference to the patter song “Modern Major General.” It is possible to question the co-opting of a style that is associated with a particular segment of our culture, but I will say that the way he has shaped rap makes the form completely accessible to a typical theater audience member. It’s almost as if he slows it down imperceptibly, so that ears unused to rap can catch every word. 

With Hamilton, rap is used almost exclusively for exposition, but, really, there is simply too much of it. It begins to feel as though it were being used as a means of engaging high school students in learning about U. S. history.  But this is theater, not school, and we don’t need to know everything that Mr. Miranda has absorbed from studying Ron Chernow’s hefty biography of his protagonist. Tell us what we do need to know, and move on.    

Beyond the use of rap, Miranda has provided some lovely ballads, a great comic number for King George that draws on a ‘60s pop tunefulness (reminds me of The Monkees’ “Daydream Believer”), as well as a couple of terrific toe tapping jazz-inflected songs. This is one wonderful and eclectic score. 

Whose Story?

The focus of the story needs to be on Hamilton and Burr. We do get to know Hamilton quite well, but Aaron Burr remains a cipher, known almost exclusively as a fence sitter for his unwillingness to commit to one position or the other. About the only other aspect of his life that is referenced is his love for his wife and for his daughter, both named Theodosia. Yet neither of these women appears as a character in the show.  I say, lose the song (and its repetition) about Theodosia, or, better yet, add one or both of the characters and build up the human side of Burr’s story in a way that is parallel to Hamilton’s. We get to know something of Hamilton’s son; how about Burr’s daughter? 

In order to tip the scale to incorporate more about Burr, the show could reduce some of the time it devotes to several other characters. There is an awful lot of George Washington, for example. Yes, Washington apparently was a father figure for Hamilton, but that is not the central relationship. Lose the bit about the Whiskey Rebellion and de-emphasize Washington overall. While you’re at it, figure out what to do with the Schuyler sisters. Hamilton marries Eliza, but why are we given so much information about his relationship with Eliza's sister Angelica, especially since there is no affair?  And why do we need the third sister, Peggy, to show up at all? Also expendable: James Madison and possibly John Laurens. 

Again, it's not that the actors playing these roles aren't excellent. They most certainly are. But where's the focus?  Too many characters have their moment in the spotlight, so that the central figures risk being lost in the shuffle.  

While you are figuring out how to better balance the characters, think about what to do with King George. He does have a great crowd-pleasing comic number, but do we really need to hear it three times? As an alternative to cutting back, a possibility would be to give him something else to do. Add a scene in England with the king and his counselors agonizing over the Revolutionary War. Give them a song and drop the two repeated solos. Bear in mind that one great number was enough for Andrea Martin to clinch the Tony for her supporting role in Pippin.  

The Ending

There is a perfectly good ending to Hamilton, the duel with Aaron Burr. The build-up through the previous duels and the stylized number “Duel Commandments” are very effective.  The way the final showdown between the rivals is staged in slow motion gives Hamilton ample time to say everything he needs to say, in the manner of Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.”  There is no need for the appended epilogue told by Eliza Hamilton. What could be more final that the finality of death?    

Looking Ahead

We know that Mr. Miranda is not planning to rest on his laurels, as he has excused himself from several performances in order to sit in the audience and take notes. I look forward to seeing what he does to tighten and focus what could very well be his masterwork. He has said that in Hamilton, he has found his Les Miz, but what he needs to find is his Hamilton and his Burr.  

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