Oct 27, 2014

The Last Real Thing

I'm not a big fan of the current Broadway revival of Stoppard's Coward-esque romcom, but I had seen and, to my recollection, somewhat enjoyed a production of it about a decade ago in L.A., at International City Theatre. I just dug up my brief review as part of my old Wicked Stage column for Back Stage West, and see that not only did also happen to catch a (lukewarm) production of Cloud 9 around that time featuring Ione Skye (!) but that I actually found The Real Thing somewhat wanting as a play, as again I do on Broadway:
The problem isn't Jules Aaron's direction but, I dare say, the play. This is probably Stoppard's most popular work--with American audiences, at least--and it's easy to see why: It's smart and sexy, and it's teasingly doubtful but ultimately affirmative about the possibility of long-lasting human relationships. I'd say it cheats a bit too much, though, to bring its leads together, finally; Stoppard sloughs off the moral compromise of Henry, a playwright roped into rewriting a terrible political play, a little too easily by having his actress-wife make a confession and then humiliate the play's talentless original author. It's a sour climax that effectively tacks a crude Post-It on all the play's wonderfully pointed exchanges about the high calling of writers. Still, I do love the way Stoppard warmly but unmercifully nails the vulnerabilities of luvvie theatre folk, and these are lushly realized by Laura Wernette, Spencer Garrett, Joseph Sanfelippo, and above all the dusky Michelle Duffy, showing herself a most fetching romantic comedienne. Best of all, the production has Robertson Dean in the lead; Dean perfectly captures the intelligent self-absorption that can make writers simultaneously so attractive and so maddening. Like Chekhov's Professor Serebryakov, he's the sort who always gets the best women but can't relax enough to be satisfied with them. That is, until they beg for his forgiveness.
That sounds about right, though that part of loving the luvvies--maybe not so much anymore. Still, it's nice to recall the performances of Rob Dean and of Michelle Duffy, who I most recently saw as the concerned mom in the Off-Broadway tuner Heathers.

(And at least the Roundabout has one good Stoppard play running now; it's called Indian Ink and I urge you not to miss it.)

Oct 15, 2014

I Could Laugh Out Loud

Jay Armstrong Johnson, Tony Yazbeck, Clyde Alves
If I were "officially" reviewing the new Broadway revival of On the Town for hire, I would probably be required to note some of its flaws and excesses; it has both. But I feel bound to record here that I found John Rando and Joshua Bergasse's production glorious top to bottom, and that it captured like no other show I've ever seen on a stage the bright-eyed, bushy-tailed pop fizz of the great mid-period MGM musicals--Singin' in the Rain, The Band Wagon, Easter Parade (I don't usually include the just-fine film version of On the Town in my pantheon, though it's worth a spin).

It's all there, from the corny jokes to the tenderly diverted romance, from the anything-for-a-laugh comedy songs to the arguably unnecessary but deliriously sexy 11th-hour dream ballet. Indeed, Leonard Bernstein's score--chock-a-block as it is with fun, tossed-off cabaret novelties--also has his finest collection of sinuous, restless, yearning blues ballets, which provide an emotional undertow that Comden and Green's daffy book doesn't even try for.

In particular, the "Lonely Town" sequence, in which Gaby sings of the acute mutual isolation and anonymity of a crowded, busy city, then dances about it, then is joined by a chorale that director John Rando spreads throughout the Foxwoods Theatre--I won't say I teared up, exactly, but it was a bracing and beautiful moment in the midst of the show's randy comic bustle, like a prayer meeting in a speakeasy. Which pretty much describes my sweet spot.

Don't miss it, in other words.

Oct 9, 2014

FoS, Bonus Track 1: The Subtle Distinctions

As I learned in my reporting on the new musical of Jonathan Lethem's novel The Fortress of Solitude, Lethem made a two-CD "mixtape" for supplementary listening when the book was published in 2003, and he "semi-mass-produced" it for interested friends and colleagues (he estimated he made about 500 copies--enough to catch the attention of, and get a formal review from, no less an eminence than Robert Christgau). He handed over a copy to composer Michael Friedman, director Daniel Aukin, and bookwriter Itamar Moses when they embarked on their unlikely adaptation, which opens at the Public Theater in a few weeks.

With Lethem's encouragement, I tracked down the playlist online, and herewith reconstruct the jam titled "The Subtle Distinctions," after the singing group the fictional soul singer Barrett Rude Junior joined, then left for a challenging solo career. As Lethem put it, this isn't necessarily a soundtrack to the novel--some are the selections are "just intuitive." I'll weigh their relevance below.

Disc One
1. David Ruffin, "No Matter Where" (1974)

Ruffin, a former Temptation who went solo with less than spectacular chart results, is specifically name-checked in the "liner notes" chapter of Fortress as one of a "shadow pantheon" of "singers who just fell short" of the ranks of Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke, and Al Green--a group of also-rans which were the inspiration for the novel's fictional soul singer Barrett Rude Junior.

2. The Four Tops, "Ain’t No Woman (Like the One I've Got)" (1972)

Like Ruffin, Phillippe Wynne, the lead singer of the Tops, is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest singers of this era you've never heard of. And, like Marvin Gaye, Wynne was raised in a syncretic faith tradition that combined Jewish and Christian practices--a trait that Lethem also gave the Rude family. As he writes in the liner notes chapters, in a parenthetical: "It's odd to consider that Marvin Gaye, Phillippe Wynne, and Barrett Rude Jr. were all, by choice or upbringing, weird black jews.")

3. Bill Withers, "World Keeps Going Around" (1973)

Withers gets at least one name-check in the novel, though not for this song--which is a scorcher.

4. Randy Newman, "Short People" (1977)

5. Syl Johnson, "Anyone But You" (1971)

Syl Johnson gets a mention late in the novel, but for a different track (see below).

6. The Spinners, "One Of A Kind Love Affair" (1973)

7. Marvin Gaye, "I’m Going Home" (1971)

Gaye and his story hovers behind the novel (particularly in the denouement among the Rude generations), but only explicitly in the last track on this two-CD mix (see below).

8. The Prisonaires, "Just Walkin’ in the Rain" (1953)

The third section of Fortress finds its protagonist, Dylan Ebdus, as a rock critic in his mid-30s, pitching a film idea to someone at Dreamworks. The story is compelling enough that it's hard to believe it hasn't been a film yet: The Prisonaires were an a cappella group that formed in prison and recorded this song on furlough--and at Sun Records, no less.

9. Hot Chocolate, "Brother Louie" (1974)

10. The Manhattans, "Shining Star" (1980)

A band name-checked in hindsight in the novel.

11. Gillian Welch, "My First Lover" (2001)

This out-of-left-field and strictly speaking out-of-period choice would seem to be a nod to the folk music favored by Dylan Ebdus' mom, Rachel--though listening to it in the context of the novel, it's hard not to think of Dylan's recurring reference to Mingus, his black childhood bestie, as "the rejected idol of my entire youth, my best friend, my lover."

12. Marvin Gaye, "Time To Get It Together" (1978)

13. Phil Ochs, "City Boy" (unreleased demo, mid-1960s)

Another nod in Rachel's direction.

14. Billy Paul, "Let ‘Em In" (1976)

A slightly kitschy cover of the Wings hit.

15. Howard Tate, "Get It While You Can" (1967)

Another name in Lethem's "shadow pantheon," and an even more direct inspiration for Barrett Rude in one respect: Unlike Wynne and Ruffin, the group Tate was a member, the Enchanters, was pretty unknown, as was Rude's fictional Subtle Distinctions. This song, which Tate wrote, is best known for Janis Joplin's cover.

16. The Spinners, "Sadie" (1974)

17. Pete Wingfield, "18 With a Bullet" (1975)

18. Marvin Gaye, "You're the Man" (1972)

19. The Last Poets, "Two Little Boys" (1970)

20. Maxine Nightingale, "Right Back Where We Started From" (1976)

Disc Two
1. The Spinners, "Games People Play" (1975)

This song's expansive form, Lethem told me, was part of his inspiration for Barrett Rude Jr.'s fictional No. 1 hit, "Bothered Blue."

2. Syl Johnson, "I Hear the Love Chimes" (1972)

3. Marvin Gaye, "Anger" (1978)

4. Slick Rick, "Children’s Story" (1988)

Hip-hop is not a huge part of the novel, but there's a memorable scene of rival DJ crews squaring off at a nearby schoolyard, and a scene in which a bunch of white kids listen giddily to Grandmaster Flash's "The Message."

5. Langley Schools Music Project, "Desperado" (1977)

One interesting footnote: In his review, Christgau takes a moment to diss Ruffin's solo work but lets this one pass--an interesting omission given his flagrant disdain for Irwin Chusid's nostalgia project.

6. The Main Ingredient, "Work to Do" (1973)

7. David Ruffin, "Walk Away From Love" (1975)

8. Timmy Thomas, "Why Can’t We Live Together?" (1972)

9. The O’Jays, "Use Ta Be My Girl" (1978)

Another band name-checked in hindsight in the novel.

10. Syl Johnson, "Is It Because I’m Black?" (1969)

The adult Dylan has a black girlfriend, Abby, who calls him out for his love of "tragic negritude." This is one of the titles she repeats aloud, and askance, while surveying his CD collection.

11. The Marigolds, "Rollin' Stone" (1955)

Another iteration of the aforementioned Prisonaires.

12. The Originals, "Baby, I’m For Real" (1969)

13. War, "Why Can’t We Be Friends?" (1975)

Explicitly name-checked as the background of a scene in the novel; it's playing in a cab during Dylan's high school years, that liminal CBGBs/early hip-hop days, when he's still sorting out his musical tastes and doesn't know what to do with all the black music he absorbed in his childhood and in Brooklyn.

14. Bill Withers, "Better Off Dead" (1973)

15. The Manhattans, "Kiss and Say Goodbye" (1976)

16. Sly Stone, "Remember Who You Are" (1979)

17. Arthur Alexander, "Anna" (1962)

18. Brian Eno, "Golden Hours" (1975)

The crucial soundtrack of the novel's moving final scene between Dylan and his father: "How can moments go so slowly?" Lethem (mis)quotes the song, and "You'd be surprised at my degree of uncertainty."

19. Marvin Gaye, "Got to Give It Up" (1977)
Another key moment: At a key tween moment, Dylan jumps to catch a spaldeen while wearing an apparently magic ring, and flies a little--while the girls on the street sing this song.

Fortress Goes Public

The cast of The Fortress of Solitude at Dallas Theater Center (photo by Karen Almond)
I've been hearing about this Fortress of Solitude musical for nearly as long as it's been in development. I think Itamar Moses told me about it for this LA Times piece, but I'm pretty sure that Isaac Butler--a huge fan of the novel and a friend of all the musical's creators, including Moses, director Daniel Aukin, and composer Michael Friedman--tipped me off about it earlier. Aukin mentioned it when I spoke to him for the NY Times, too.

In any case, this unlikely project has reached fruition and has is playing at the Public Theater, and for my Times preview on it, I talked to all the creators, and to the novel's original author, Jonathan Lethem. The idea to adapt Lethem's sprawling coming-of-age story, set in the crucible of pre-gentrification Brooklyn, came from the director:
The prominence of music in the novel is one reason Mr. Aukin, the show’s director, had a “gut impulse” that it could be turned into a piece of musical theater, and enlisted Mr. Moses (“Bach at Leipzig,” “Nobody Loves You”) to adapt the book and Mr. Friedman to write the music. Mr. Aukin happened to approach Mr. Lethem at a fortuitous moment: at a time when Hollywood was contemplating but not committing to film adaptations of his novels, including “The Fortress of Solitude,” and the author was getting fed up with film companies’ demands for exclusivity.
“I had to insist that it was O.K. to split off the musical rights,” Mr. Lethem said in a phone interview from Pomona College, where he teaches writing. To the film companies, “I said, ‘You’re not even making these movies, so let these little theater people do this thing.’ It was seen as a diversion, a sport.
“So it’s a beautiful irony that long before any film version comes to the screen, they’re the ones who are getting it done. It vindicates every left-field impulse you could have.” 
The Times piece is almost entirely about Friedman's extraordinary, pop-drenched score, and I have to acknowledge Butler--who's seen several readings and heard demos over the years as the show's evolved--for the inside scoop on that. To report this story I went to my first sitzprobe--a musical-theater ritual in which the full orchestration comes to life for the first time--and I sat in awe of the musicianship of, in particular, barefooted music director Kim Grigsby, a legendary figure who has clearly earned that status.

The full Times story is here; I'm planning to have "bonus tracks" in this space soon, so stay tuned.

Oct 7, 2014

The Annoying Guy at the Party

I've heard from colleagues that sometimes they don't really know what they think until someone asks them--whether in the context of teaching a course explicating what they do, or just in the context of a pointed interview question. I shouldn't be surprised by the notion; I've often said I don't know exactly what I thought of a show until I've written the review. I recently had the occasion to be interviewed by Matt Windman, a theater critic for am New York, for a book about theater criticism, slated to be published next year by McFarland & Company. One answer he got from me so well encapsulated my thinking on a question I'm often asked, and have frequently written about here and elsewhere, that I thought it was worth sharing.
Is a critic part of the theater community or outside of it?

I would say the critic is part of the theater community, but he is that annoying guy at the party who’s telling everybody, “You look like shit.” He’s the kind of person it might be hard to be friends with all the time, but he’s the kind of person you need. You need the truth teller. The problem is confusing him with an authority. He’s not the authority, but he’s the one who’s going to tell you what he really thinks. And I think there’s value in his subjective opinions. He’s not objective. He’s not standing outside, from some mountain looking down. He’s in the mix of everything. Whether you like him or not, whether you or not you trust him, you can trust him to say what he thinks. I think there’s a huge value in that, and the theater community could definitely use more people like that, who will tell the truth, not just to the people in the room, but to everyone.

Sep 24, 2014

Untangling the Web

Today my employer American Theatre joins the 21st century and debuts a fully functioning, up-to-the-minute website, Americantheatre.org (apparently "americantheater.org" also takes you there). This also happens to be our October season preview issue, which means the unveiling of our Top 10 Most-Produced Plays list, as well as our Top 20 Most-Produced Playwrights list, and an extra bonus that's kind of a dream come true for me: As a fan of podcasts like Bloggingheads and the various Slate-casts, I'm proud to inaugurate the new semi-weekly edition of AT Offscript, the debut episode of which features myself and my fellow editors Suzy Evans and Diep Tran, as well as my interview with the year's most-produced playwright, Christopher Durang, and a round table with critics from around the country who've seen his latest comedy, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike (you can also find Offscript in iTunes). While the technology of theater remains irreducibly live and human, other communications media haven't stayed so static; I'm happy (relieved, really) to be at an organization that's honoring the latter by responding (relatively) nimbly to the latter. The web, at its best, has its own kind of liveness and immediacy, after all--all it lacks is the in-person contact, and for that, we'll always need theater.

Sep 17, 2014

Alive At Last

The New York Philharmonic's live concert staging of Sondheim's masterpiece Sweeney Todd will be broadcast on PBS stations on Sept. 26. I had the privilege of covering the show for current issue of The Sondheim Review. Below is the full text of my review.

If, as Sondheim will remind anyone who asks him, the hard-to-find dividing line between the opera and the musical is in the venue and its attendant audience expectations--if it’s done in a theater, it’s a musical, and if it’s in an opera house, it’s an opera, even if it’s the same text and score--then what do you call it when it’s done in a symphony hall under the aegis of one of the world’s great orchestras? A symphonic drama? A concert-ical? A philharm-opera?

The New York Philharmonic’s five-show staging of Sweeney Todd in March raised this mostly academic question in a new way, if only because the title character was played by the Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel, in between gigs as Falstaff (with San Francisco Opera) and Mephistopheles (with Royal Opera in London). The rest of the cast was filled with musical-theater pros, with another notable exception that, like Terfel’s casting, threw the work into a new light: Sweeney’s partner in crime, Mrs. Lovett, was played the flinty polymath Emma Thompson, whose only prior experience in a bona fide musical was the 1985 West End revival of Me and My Girl. At the helm of this grim but astonishingly full-hearted revengers’ tragedy, then, were a pair of performers from outside the American musical theater mainstream--essentially, from the opera and the music hall (by which I mean the seemingly native British gift for patter, lazzi, and panto, a tradition to which Thompson can lay full claim). How did Sweeney harmonize with these fresh, contrasting voices?

One answer can be found in Terfel’s and Thompson’s shared citizenship; they may hail from different performance worlds, but they are unmistakably from the same isles as their characters, and this gave their scenes together a familiarity, an ease, that helped compensate for the inevitable disconnect between the two. Terfel is one of those impossibly towering, huge-headed operatic basses who loom over the stage more than they occupy it, and opposite the spry, straw-haired, nearly gamine-like Thompson, he occasionally seemed adrift in space, his only center of gravity being his lush, resonant voice, which wrapped lovingly around especially Sweeney’s more tender moments. For her part, Thompson managed Mrs. Lovett’s vocal duties with a valiant faux-warble that faintly but distinctly evoked a Monty Python drag falsetto, and filled all her scenes, sung and otherwise, with a vigorous sense of purpose, even an edge of aggression, that made Hugh Wheeler’s dialogue pop with an almost improvisational sizzle.

Of course, both Terfel’s occasional somnabulance and Thompson’s nerviness might fairly be attributed to the mad-dash rehearsal process by which these semi-staged concert renditions--both at the NY Phil and at the justly beloved Encores! series at City Center, across town--come into being. Director Lonny Price has become a duly celebrated master of this hybrid form, and to his great credit, his stagings haven’t settled into formula; where his Company at the NY Phil in 2011 had an appropriately presentational period gleam, his Sweeney staging was defined by its quasi-unruly chorus and a ghastly splattered-paint design. Price’s opening gambit was a deft bit of rabble-rousing: The company entered in formal evening wear and began reading the prologue from folders on music stands--then quickly ripped down this false front, fraying costumes, tossing music stands, exposing an ugly, wood-paneled back wall, even overturning a fake grand piano to create a stage in front of conductor Alan Gilbert.

The cheers this elicited from the crowd, though infectious, had little to do with Sweeney Todd, unless you see it as a show primarily about upending formality and decorum. But Price understands the entertainment value of such gimmicks, judiciously deployed, and no harm done. When Terfel and Thompson nodded to the respective orchestra sections on a few lines in “A Little Priest” (“fiddle player,” “piccolo player”), it earned little more than an indulgent grin; but when Thompson snatched Gilbert’s baton to primp Terfel’s hair, in a novel bit of staging for “By the Sea” (Mrs. Lovett giving Sweeney a quick trim), it captured perfectly the evening’s irreverent, let’s-try-this spirit.

On the other (bloody) hand, the red handprint by which Price signposted every murder--both with a looming projection and with the victims’ self-application of stage blood--had the benefit of consistency but little else; these handprints also turned up as a kind of brand label on the chorus’s otherwise tattered costumes, an odd fashion statement more than a binding design conceit. But it is to Price’s credit that somehow the awkwardness of Sweeney’s barber-chair victims having to rise, post-throat-slashing, and see themselves discreetly out the back door, came off with admirable fluidity.

Elsewhere the staging was nothing if not ambitious, with Josh Rhodes’ choreography expertly shaping the oversized crowd in “God That’s Good,” and action often spilling down the aisles and even into the balcony. Certainly the biggest challenge of the NY Phil’s “stage” for such events is the long egress on either side of the upstage platform, leading to breathless running entrances and exits across a pair of raked ramps, but Price and his cast--Thompson in particular--managed this acting/singing/dashing triathlon with aplomb.

Apart from the leads, the cast ranged from excellent to adequate. Philip Quast’s Judge Turpin suggested a superannuated leading man who still, to his doom, sees himself as dashing as ever. As Johanna, Erin Mackey largely bypassed the role’s chirpy ingenue brilliance for a more subdued and ultimately substantial reading, while Jay Armstrong Johnson’s Anthony largely offered the inverse: big vocals and bland affect. As Tobias, Kyle Brenn was similarly callow, and a tad soft-voiced for the part, but at least he comes by the youthfulness convincingly (he’s 16). And as if Jeff Blumenkrantz’s Beadle and Christian Borle’s Pirelli weren’t already perfectly slippery old-school villains, they capped their performances with a chilling blast of falsetto harmony in the finale.

It should be noted for the record that audiences at earlier performances were treated to Audra McDonald, in an unbilled performance, as the Beggar Woman, but on the night I saw it the role was played by Bryonha Marie Parham. And aficionados will want to know that while this rendition made some of the usual cuts--the tooth-pulling contest, the Beadle’s organ singalong--it did reinstate the Beggar Woman’s climactic lullaby, to a tune resembling “Poor Thing,” to fine if negligible effect.

McDonald also played the Beggar Woman in Price’s 2000 staging of Sweeney at the NY Phil, for which Terfel was originally slated opposite Patti LuPone (he bowed out due to a back injury, and George Hearn dutifully stepped in). I didn’t see that rendition, but on the reliable evidence of YouTube, it appears to have been a relatively formal, monochrome affair, with musical theater veterans who either had played or would play the leads on Broadway. The best that can be said for the new NY Phil rendition is that its two beyond-Broadway leads inspired similarly bold, out-of-the-box thinking among its creative team, from Price to the extremely game Gilbert and his world-beating band. Whatever we happen to call it--opera, musical, or just bloody good theater--this Sweeney was alive at last and full of joy.