Nov 20, 2017

The Review Files, Sondheim Edition

From The Sondheim Review, December 2011

Bittersweet Homecoming

By Rob Weinert-Kendt

The perfect Follies, it should be admitted by even its most fervent acolytes, does not exist, and may in fact never have walked the earth, even in its legendary 1971 Boston tryouts and subsequent 15-month original Broadway run. This phantasmal swirl of a musical, in which scenes and songs trace elliptical orbits through a nebulous cloud of faded glitter and wrecking-ball dust, comes together, if it does at all, only when these free-floating elements align in the perception of the attentive viewer, however fleetingly. All theater is ephemeral, of course, alive only in the moment of performance, but it's especially true of Follies.

This alignment of the planets is still rarer due to the show's daunting scope, both in its sheer budgetary scale and in the range of its aesthetic demands. It requires not only a large complement of acting-dancing-singing triple threats, but a double cast of them, in young and old flavors. It's a casting puzzle with several moving parts, literally, and by some accounts even the original production didn't get it "right." A colleague of mine, who has seen the show in four different productions and possesses many more recordings of its score than have been legally released, recently confided that his ideal Follies is a mental chimera, a Frankenstein assembled in his mind from the various productions and recordings he’s seen and heard—his favorite Phyllis from one, a Ben from another, this Sally with that Buddy, a stray Carlotta from an obscure recording, and so on.

This colleague, who like myself is too young to have seen the original 1971 production, has found plenty of fresh parts with which to stock his dream Follies in the current Broadway revival, a hit production transferred from Kennedy Center. And director Eric Schaeffer's production seems to satisfy most of those who've wished for a Follies worthy of their lavish imaginings, as little expense has been spared, from the full 28-piece orchestra to the garish costumes for the Loveland sequence (courtesy of Gregg Barnes). For myself, though I find its musical virtues nearly definitive, this Follies is on the whole a bittersweet homecoming. What I glimpse through its whorl of disparate elements—many if not all of them exquisitely conceived and rendered—is not quite a great show but a great idea for a show, or perhaps more accurately, a number of great ideas for shows.

Sondheim and James Goldman's central idea, of course, is to use a reunion party of the Weismann Follies girls as a way to both evoke and upend rosy-eyed nostalgia for the musical theater of the 1930s, the pre-Rodgers & Hammerstein era that gave us much of the great American songbook, if not our most enduring stage musicals. This gently deconstructive project, whose signature images of older dancers shadowed by their younger selves is still deeply moving, largely evaporates by show's end, which comes to dwell instead on the cross-examination of two foundering marriages originally formed around the Follies stage door.

The link between these retrospective concepts—the ensemble reunion and the brokenhearted quartet—is, I think, meant to be in the way the hope and optimism of the carefree Follies era impossibly raised expectations of fairy-tale romance and an ever-brighter future for Buddy and Sally, Phyllis and Ben, now middle-aged and soured on everything. Follies wants to contrast the sunny bromides of midcentury musical theater ("You're Gonna Love Tomorrow") with gritty truths about aging, death, and regrets ("The Road You Didn't Take").

But one curiosity about the show's structure is that the chronology of decline is reversed; "Your'e Gonna Love Tomorrow" comes well into the second act, as part of a flashback to a Follies-style revue (the Loveland sequence), while "The Road You Didn't Take" is the second of a series of bracing first-act reality checks among the lead couples. Indeed, in Follies, the backward-looking expressions of regret largely precede the forward-looking effusions of hope. While it's true that a clutch of vintage Follies numbers are offered by the ensemble early in the first act ("Rain on the Roof"/"Ah, Paris"/"Broadway Baby"), these don't express the aspirations of our four leads. Follies is not as literally backwards as Merrily We Roll Along, but as in that show we're made to wait to see what these people first saw in each other, and by the time we do, it's too little too late.

There are three notable exceptions to this reversal of expectations and disappointments, and they give this production—and, I'd imagine, nearly any production of Follies—some inarguable high points. First, there's the perfect, self-contained musical scene "Waiting for the Girls Upstairs," which accomplishes in miniature the flashback-doubling the whole show struggles to achieve. Similarly, there's the revelatory mirror number, "Who's That Woman," forcefully led by Terri White (though, it must be said, less than thrillingly choreographed by Warren Carlyle, who understandably doesn't even try to fill Michael Bennett's tap shoes here). And "I'm Still Here," that sui generis not-quite-pastiche showstopper, gets a jagged but grippingly defiant interpretation from Elaine Page.

The lead performances here work better individually than together. The hulking Ron Raines, in particular, nails the ashy bitterness of Ben's self-inflicted despair, and makes the case for songs like "The Road You Didn't Take" and "Too Many Mornings" as singularly unromantic yet somehow rapturous ruminations—songs no one else but Sondheim could have written. But he's an odd match for the petite Bernadette Peters, who is herself something of a rough fit for the sad, deluded Sally. Peters is never less than compelling, but Sally's deep-dish melancholia doesn't quite harmonize with Peters' brittle neurosis, so that her "Losing My Mind" doesn't sear and soar like it can, though her earlier "In Buddy's Eyes" is transfixing (that reversal again).

Danny Burstein, though too young by about a decade, is an ideal Buddy; a tummler with a paradoxical gravity, Burstein is both gladhanding salesman and near-tragic hero, Willy Loman Jr. with ants in his pants. (Carlyle's choreography noticeably fails him, though, on the one-note soliloquy "The Right Girl.")

I've saved the best for last: Jan Maxwell's Phyllis may be definitive, not least because, while her performance has an effortlessly lived-in quality, Maxwell has nevertheless not taken the easy route with the character. Phyllis can be a scene stealer and a ham; she's given some of Goldman's most piquant zingers (there aren't many to go around), and she has the crowd-pleasing profile of the cougar diva, dripping world-weary elegance and keeping a raised eyebrow trained on the young "talent." But Phyllis is a vulnerable soul at bottom, a social climber in a loveless marriage, and it's to Maxwell's credit that she shadows her commanding numbers—the peerless kiss-off "Could I Leave You?," the sassy "Story of Lucy and Jessie"—with a sense of the neediness behind the sneer and the leer.

I can't praise enough the music direction of James Moore, who makes Sondheim's score sparkle and sting, but who crucially lets his lead performers luxuriate in the songs; I've seldom heard Sondheim's music delivered with such ease and confidence, and with none of the familiar anxiety about meeting its daunting musical demands. This unhurried approach pays huge dividends for the lead quartet, who feel throughout like they're singing in character, in the moment, even—remarkably—in the pastiche numbers. Though I missed the chemistry among these four, and I remain unconvinced that the far-flung planets of Follies can ever align to form the masterpiece many of its advocates claim it to be, to witness Sondheim's score performed with such attention to its full breadth of musical and dramatic potential makes this production a good start toward the ideal Follies I will now begin forming in my mind.

Sep 4, 2017

Gotta 'Like It'

The 1950 Broadway production of As You Like It, with Katherine Hepburn as Rosalind/Ganymede. 


Tonight I'm taking my eight-year-old son to see his first Shakespeare: Public Works' adaptation in Central Park of As You Like It. These versions are significantly condensed, musicalized, community-cast a la Cornerstone, and just plain fun, so I'm hoping it will be a delightful and welcoming entry point (that it prominently features wrestlers probably won't hurt). I've been going back and forth on whether to give him a thumbnail synopsis going in, and as I think about it, I'm not sure that task is easier or harder given that this may the Bard's least plotty play ever.


It's an aspect of the work I hadn't fully registered till I was asked some years ago to write a program piece for a production at the Ahmanson, and I fully considered it. Here's what I wrote.

 


CTG Performances Magazine

February, 2005

"It goes like this..."
As You Like It: The Plot Plays On

by Rob Kendt

A plot in a play is like a melody in a song: It's the clearest characteristic the layman can point to and say, "It goes like this..." It's also the thing the average theatregoer or listener is apt to find missing from a piece he doesn't like. A tune we can hum, a story we can follow—that's all the people ask for. Is that so wrong?

Well, it may not be wrong, but based on many of the works that have survived as classics, it would seem to be mistaken. Try to hum a Bach tune, if you would, or a Chopin etude. And while you're at it, try to recount the plot of As You Like It, one of Shakespeare's most beloved romantic comedies.

You're forgiven if you falter, for As You Like It doesn't have a fully operative story so much as a riot of incident early on—multiple banishments and a would-be deadly wrestling match—and another rash of reconciliations at play's end. These storm-like outbreaks of plot are separated by several cloudless acts of sharp, funny chatter in the Forest of Arden, a seemingly timeless and weightless idyll where not much is in a hurry to happen—unlike, say, the woods of A Midsummer Night's Dream, where mischief and mayhem are the norm.

So why do we keep returning to this smiling, saturnine meditation on love and forgiveness from 1599? And why is Rosalind—a banished noblewoman disguised for much of the play as a boy, mainly for her own perverse amusement—considered such a great role, played in recent times by the likes of Peggy Ashcroft, Katharine Hepburn, Vanessa Redgrave, Juliet Stevenson, and Adrian Lester (in Cheek by Jowl's all-male 1991 production)? Surely it can't just be that she's got the most lines of any female in the Bard's male-dominated ouevre, though that's closer to the mark.

For in As You Like It, Shakespeare comes as close as he ever did to a kind of Socratic dialogue in theme-and-variations form, with characters gathering in various combinations in their languorous forest exile less to advance the plot than to talk, mock, and muse. The mere wisps of story Shakespeare provides are there primarily to usher the characters into the forest as quickly as possible, and later to provide a quick and painless ending. At the play's center, then, are some of the Bard's great ruminative exchanges on life and love, sharpened by contrasts—male and female, jaded and hopeful, city and country—and leavened by an easy laughter that bubbles throughout like an unhurried brook.

One clue to the play's unbuttoned, conversational tone is the relative scarcity of verse: The lovesick Orlando writes doggerel poems to his beloved, and there are verse passages almost arbitrarily scattered throughout, but for the most part As You Like It is as unconstrained by linguistic form as by story structure. Not even Rosalind's Epilogue, in which she steps out of the action and addresses the audience directly, is written in verse.

But there is a form behind the seeming formlessness, or a genre, at least—one that would have been familiar to Shakespeare's contemporaries. The "pastoral" narrative, which juxtaposed the rustic, idealized lives of shepherds with the craven, petty society of the court or the city, was commonplace at the time. Indeed, Shakespeare's source for As You Like It, Thomas Lodge's Rosalynde, had been a popular pastoral romance only 10 years before Shakespeare's play. Lodge himself took inspiration from a 14th century poem, "The Tale of Gamelyn," which concerned itself greatly with the injustices and intrigues of a usurper who sent his enemies into exile.

Both Lodge and then Shakespeare, by focusing more on the exile than the usurping, turned to the pastoral tradition for inspiration. As a style, the pastoral is distinguished more by poetry and song than story; by eulogy as much as mirth; and above all by a conscious idealization of the bucolic over what we might call the cosmopolitan. Most writers in the pastoral mode—which dates back to Greek and Roman literature—did not intend this elevation of country life over court intrigues literally, like some kind of Elizabethan version of our own Jeffersonian myth of the gentleman farmer. Instead they used it figuratively, formally, as a way to critique the mores of contemporary society. The moralizing of the pastoral could also be prone to extremes: Lodge's Rosalynde includes a number of deaths, as well as justice for the story's usurpers.

Shakespeare not only excised the fatalities and the payback, he largely ignored the verse form that characterized most pastorals. Perhaps most importantly, Shakespeare did not use the rustic setting primarily to mock the manners of the court but allowed both "sides"—wise shepherds as well as witty courtiers—plenty of stage time to share and compare points of view.

Rosalind is at the center of this lively symposium, and her willful, even manipulative personality is the key to the play's tone. Dressed as a boy, Ganymede, for her own safety in transport from the court to the country, she remains disguised well past the need for safety—to test the love of Orlando, presumably, but more generally, as she puts it to her friend Celia, to "play the knave." When she chooses to end the charade, it's in her own good time, not because her hand has been forced by an ever-thickening web of lies built on mistaken identities, as with Shakespeare's "twin" comedies—The Comedy of Errors and Twelfth Night. Nor is she cross-dressing to pull off a specific scam, as do Portia and Nerissa in The Merchant of Venice.

This Rosalind is such a cool customer, in fact, that when she meets her long-estranged father, the banished Duke, in the woods, she stays in disguise till play's end. Compare this attitude to Twelfth Night's passionate Viola, whose feigned role as servant boy to the man she loves causes her more anguish than joy, and whose reunion with her surviving twin Sebastian, which clears up all the confusion, is sincere and immediate.

There's a subversive appeal, of course, in such a smart, contrary leading lady. Think of the snappy Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, or even of Kate in The Taming of the Shrew: These are not shrinking violets at men's mercy, though both are ultimately humbled (in wildly varying degrees) into matrimony. Rosalind is no less feisty, but she's considerably slyer: She realizes she can be both more saucy and more mock-subservient as a boy than she ever could be as a strong, thoughtful woman. And she finds that fun—fun to pull off the ruse, and rapturous to hear her lover talk about her as if she's not there. How can we not root for a woman who gives in to such harmless pleasures—who has the savvy, essentially, to treat exile like a sort of vacation? After all, she even packs her fool from court, Touchstone, for the journey.

Comedies are characterized by a movement from discord to harmony, which is why so many of them end in marriages and reconciliations. The special genius of As You Like It—a title whose self-confidence mirrors its heroine's—is that Shakespeare managed to minimize the discord so he could vamp expertly on his chosen themes, like a composer holding a suspended chord in mid-air until he's good and ready to resolve it. It's a rarefied comedy form, certainly, but consider the durability of such plot-light and argument-heavy descedants as The Importance of Being EarnestHeartbreak House, or the entire ouevre of Chekhov, who famously thought of his plays as comedies. As You Like It proves, as if we needed proof, that Shakespeare's virtuosity is in his insights as much as his imagination.

Rob Kendt writes about theatre for the Los Angeles Times, American Theatre, LA Stage, and the Downtown News.

Aug 25, 2017

Old School Throwback

Zilah Mendoza in Electricidad at the Mark Taper Forum, 2005. (Photo by Craig Schwartz)
Luis Alfaro has been retrofitting Greek tragedy to L.A.'s Latinx gang culture for many years now, and by many accounts his Oedipus El Rey is among his best. After runs all over the country, including at Oregon Shakes, it's coming to New York's Public Theater in October. I haven't seen it, but I remember being mightily impressed by his take on Electra, a highlight of Gordon Davidson's last season at the Mark Taper Forum. To celebrate Oedipus's New York arrival, and the whole run Luis has had with this approach, here's my whole review of Electricidad from the L.A. Downtown News, April 11, 2005.


Sophocles Meets Switchblades
By Rob Kendt

Who says kids got no respect? In Luis Alfaro's gritty, witty Electricidad, one young woman's dogged attachment to tradition is a key element of the tragedy. In adapting Sophocles' severe, probing version of Electra to contemporary Los Angeles, Alfaro has persuasively conjured a fateful moral mythos as unforgiving in its way as the Greeks': the self-made switchblade chivalry of the cholo.

It's a world in which "old school" and veterano are ultimate compliments, where oldies radio and obsessively detailed Chevys are the height of fashion, where everyone speaks in terms of "rules" that determine and measure their actions.

At the play's start, there has been a huge disturbance in the cholo force: Clemencia (Bertila Damas) has flouted the code by killing her husband Agamemnón, the barrio's former "king," and put a hit on their son Orestes (Justin Huen). While Clemencia struts on heels and seethes on the phone in her cutaway frame house, her hair piled in a half-beehive helmet, her daughter Electricidad (Zilah Mendoza) holds a defiant vigil over Agamemnón's body on the front lawn.

No one who stops by this makeshift grave site—her sister Ifigenia (Elisa Bocanegra), a reformed chola, her saucy Abuela (Alma Martinez), or a Greek chorus of broom-toting busybodies in housecoats (Denise Blasor, Catalina Maynard and Wilma Bonet)—can dissuade the wracked Electricidad from this show of grief. Meanwhile brother Orestes, away in Vegas, trains for la vida loca with battle-wizened Nino (Winston J. Rocha).

Even if we know how this must end, Alfaro's free-ranging Spanglish text has many surprises and jolts up its Pendleton sleeve. Ifigenia, with her tight, wet curls and Goth eye shadow, looks like she could cause some serious damage—until she opens her puffy windbreaker, and her heart, to reveal that she has joined a convent and is trying to learn to forgive.

For all her withering witchiness, Clemencia explains her motives for murder in bracingly feminist terms that almost seem to crack Electricidad's resistance.

Perhaps most startling of all, Electricidad herself gets quieter and calmer the closer she gets to the play's inevitable confrontation. In an extraordinary performance of breathtaking, almost operatic range, Mendoza goes from roiling machisma to broken, even apologetic quiescence as she comes to believe she's only doing what must be done.

All the performances in director Lisa Peterson's bold, clear-eyed production have similarly gratifying richness, from Damas' cool, luxuriant bitterness to Martinez's crass ebullience, from Huen's palpable vulnerability to Rocha's crusty chill. Apart from Mendoza, who rivets our attention even in repose, Bocanegra—with her hoarse voice and versatile Greek mask of a face—delivers the show's breakout turn.

She also gets some of the show's best reality-check one-liners. "Your loyalty to Papa has always been deep and kinda creepy," she tells Electricidad, and later dismisses one of her sister's sweeping invocations with the unanswerable put-down, "That's poetic but stupid."

Alfaro gives his chorus plenty of other snappy contemporary in-jokes. "In the beginning, before Mayor Bradley and Gloria Molina..." goes one iteration of the play's pre-history. But alongside liberal references to Tupac, Oprah, Boyle Heights hero Father Greg Boyle and the gory Mexican rag Alarma!, this chorus of neighbors also delivers some fearsome perspective: "It's a city with no center, no heart," they conclude about Los Angeles. "It's all bordertowns. It's the wild, wild west!"

Not only the performances but everything about Peterson's staging - Rachel Hauck's dusty, exposed-seam set, costume designer Christopher Acebo's perfectly observed threads, Geoff Korf's dusky lighting, Paul James Prendergast's crackling sound design - root the play's primal tragedy in contemporary reality without reducing either to caricature.

While it's a scandal that it took so long for Taper resident artist Alfaro to get a show on the mainstage—he's an essential voice long overdue for a wider audience - it is clear why Gordon Davidson selected it for his final season at his theater. He's long been cited for his commitment to political theater, but Davidson's most important legacy to his adopted city of Los Angeles is the series of plays he's produced about the tragic contradictions and dizzying juxtapositions of the city itself, from Zoot Suit to Twilight: Los Angeles to Chavez Ravine to Living Out. Electricidad is a stunning consummation of this often overlooked vein of Taper gold—a tradition we can unambiguously embrace.

Electricidad is at the Mark Taper Forum through May 15.

Jul 18, 2017

Martin Landau on Acting


I had the pleasure of interviewing the late, great Martin Landau back in 2005 for the shortlived magazine Moving Pictures. Here's my story in its entirety.

Martin Landau has been places, both in actuality and in his imagination. And at this point in his five-decade career, he's the kind of actor for whom the distinction between the worlds he's experienced and those he can conjure, like a kind of sorcerer, is marvelously fluid.

Yes, he steeped himself in the famous actor's Method—was a protégé, in fact, of its main guru, Lee Strasberg, at the Actors Studio, where his best friend for a time was James Dean—which had as its mission a recreation of real life down to its tiniest detail. The Brooklyn neighborhood in which he grew up was filled with the kind outsized characters he can still flip through like a sort of actor's Rolodex, and into whose personae and accents he'll go at the drop of an anecdote: Italian goombahs, Irish upstarts, Jewish kvetchers. And New York City's hustle and bustle provided a virtual laboratory of walks, voices, types, and quirks to observe and imitate.

For evidence of how well he learned the lessons of Method-style realism, his Oscar-nominated performance as a quietly anguished philanderer in Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors stands as a model of acting economy—of maximum emotional impact with minimum histrionic fuss.

But the role he won the Oscar for—aging Hungarian horror star Bela Lugosi, in Tim Burton's elegiac comedy Ed Wood—is an appropriately theatrical, even fanciful creation. While that performance is finely detailed enough to honor the rigorous tenets of the Method, it is nevertheless a brilliant act of sustained imaginative creativity on Landau's part.

This skill—for "going places" he's never been—is one he developed over decades, traveling everywhere from dusty Western streets to Space: 1999, inhabiting everyone from Simon Wiesenthal (in the TV movie Max and Helen) to toy-maker Geppetto (in a series of live-action Pinocchio movies), from sleek superspy Rollin Hand (in the series Mission: Impossible)  to Hebrew patriarch Abraham (in the biblical film In the Beginning).

The gift of a wide-ranging imagination began not on the mean streets of Landau's childhood but in the Sunday color comics.

"New York had a lot of newspapers in those days, and all had color comic sections," Landau recalls with relish. "On Sunday morning, there was this short pile of comic sections—Mickey MouseBringing Up FatherDick TracyKrazy Kat. I couldn't read yet, but those strange worlds—the Krazy Kat world, the Willie Winkie world—were all in color and all strange, and the people were all unique and different. I could sit and look at these pictures for hours."

At 17, Landau took some drawings of his own to the New York Daily News and—in what may be may have been his first successful acting performance—lied about his age and got a job as staff artist, working a four-to-midnight shift after his high school classes. For a time, he thrived on the breakneck pace of the newsroom.

"In those days it was still about scooping the town, and re-plates, and extra editions, and getting the newspaper out, and beating the other papers," Landau recounts. "There was a sense of drama, because if a story broke, they would stop the presses."

But one day he realized that grind wasn't for him.

"I was doing at 17 what these guys who were 45 or 50 were doing," Landau recalls. "And I looked around at these guys, and said, 'You know, I don't wanna be doing this when I'm their age.' "

He'd been introduced to the theatre by his mother, and, like the comics, it had always seemed like a "fanciful place." He'd never seriously thought that he could be an actor himself—"I always thought you were an actor because you were born to it or something"—until a newsroom colleague who moonlighted as an actor invited him to a performance.

"He did an Off-Broadway show, T.S. Eliot's Family Reunion, and I went to see it," Landau says. Was his friend's performance so inspiring that he caught the bug, too? Not exactly. "I thought he was awful. He was a nice-looking guy, had a wonderful kind of joie de vivre, but he was terrible. And I said to myself, 'I could do it a lot better than that right now, without any training!' "

Still, Landau did end up getting training, doing seasons of summer stock and getting into Strasberg's exclusive Actors Studio. By the time he made his Broadway debut in 1957 in Paddy Chayefsky's The Middle of the Night, he was well on his way. The relatively new medium of television, still based largely in New York, had appeal mainly as an occasional odd job to pay his rent.

"For me, it wasn't about film or television, it was about theatre—only about theatre. It was about getting onstage, having rehearsals, doing interesting plays. I think it's different today—why people become actors is different. It's about being a television star, a movie star; it's a different thing that motivates people."

This lack of purpose shows in a lot of today's acting work, he says.

"There's an inordinate amount of bad acting that has become 'good' acting in people's eyes, and in the critics' minds," he says. "I start thinking: 'Am I one of those old farts who thinks because I've been around, the younger generation doesn't know anything?' It's not that! Stuff I see that's awful, that's up for an Oscar, I think, 'That's really not very good work.'

"I don't get Sideways at all. I wouldn't spend 20 minutes with these guys, why am I going to spend two hours? I mean, in life, maybe I get stuck with them—but the next time, I would say no, I promise you. It's a nice little slice of life, it's well acted, but who gives a shit? Million Dollar Baby: It's a nice boxing movie—a nice boxing movie. But so is Body and Soul; so is The Champion. OK, Scorsese, The Aviator: a wonderfully mounted movie—about a very rich nut, and there's no one to connect to."

He gives some tell-tale signs of deficient acting craft.

"No one in the world tries to cry except bad actors," he points out. "Good actors try not to cry. No one tries to laugh except bad actors; people try not to laugh. No one tries to be drunk; drunks try to be sober. You ever see a drunk who wants another drink pick up a drink?"

He illustrates with a coffee cup, slowly and meticulously trying to raise it to his lips without spilling. This illuminates his key point: "How a character hides his feelings tells us who he is. No one shows their feelings. I mean, anger—the clenching of the teeth, the gripping of the hand is holding back anger, that's not anger. Bad actors run to all that crap.

"Jimmy Woods once asked me, 'How would you succinctly define acting?' And I said, 'In a well-written script, the dialogue, what characters say to each other, is what a character is willing to reveal and share with someone else. The 90 percent he isn't saying is what I do for a living.' "

He has offered such acting wisdom, first as a much-sought-after coach in the 1970s (his students included Jack Nicholson and Anjelica Huston), and now as a moderator of the Actors Studio's West Coast incarnation. And he continues to follow it in his work: In his most recent project, John Daly's The Aryan Couple, Landau plays a Jewish industrialist during WWII who makes a deal with the Nazis to exchange his wealth and property for his family's survival. Landau was able to draw on both realism and imagination for the part: One location in Poland was a 15th century castle actually used by the Nazis to intern Jews en route to a nearby concentration camp. But, chillingly, Landau learned that in contemporary Poland there is still one thing he'd rather imagine than experience firsthand.

"Stacy Keach is married to a Polish gal, and he spends months in Warsaw with her every year. So Stacy said to me, 'You're going to Poland! That's wonderful, I can give you some names of people.' And then he said, 'Maybe I shouldn't.' I said, 'Why?' And he said, 'Because they're all anti-Semitic. It's crazy. I'm not Jewish and my wife isn't Jewish, and so I hear these things that are mind-boggling to me! These are wonderful people—we're talking about the intelligentsia, writers, editorialists, artists, playwrights, actors. And the degree of anti-Semitism is shocking. It's profound. It's centuries old.' So I figured: The script will give me enough of that, I don't need to feel it for real."

A good actor, Landau concludes, brings all his experience, and all his imagination, to a role. That's why, for him, actors are creators as much as interpreters.


"A role is a bunch of words on a piece of paper. When a performance fulfills what the author allows, and illuminates it, and affects you to the point where you are connecting viscerally—that is magical. It's hard to get 10 people in a room, your best friends, to agree on anything. But if that's going on, whether it be on a screen or on a stage, you have 1,000 people all experiencing the same thing, literally fighting tears, laughing vociferously, erupting with laughter. And if ideas are also along with the feelings, if you can get people to think about things in ways maybe they hadn't before—that's art."

May 4, 2017

'Monsoon' Overflow

Vishal Bhardwaj.
One of the joys of reporting on the upcoming Monsoon Wedding musical, apart from the chance to chat over chai with one of my idols, director Mira Nair, was that everyone involved could have been the subject of their own feature, not only Nair herself or writer Sabrina Dhawan but also Namit Das, the actor who plays Dubey, who comes from a family of classical musicians and is best known in India as the star of its version of "Everybody Loves Raymond" ("Sumit Sambhal Lega") or Palomi Ghosh, who was the star of a film about Goa's answer to Edith Piaf (Lorna Cordeiro). I could go on, seriously, this cast and company are an embarrassment of riches.

Possibly my favorite under-explored subject was Vishal Bhardwaj, the show's composer, who I learned is a major Indian filmmaker in his own right, known for his musical adaptations of Shakespeare's Hamlet, Macbeth, and Othello. I was intrigued to learn that he started as a composer but became a film director for the same reason many screenwriters say they do: because they crave more direct creative input. As Vishal put it to me, he realized at a young age, "If I want to express my kind of music, I need to become a filmmaker." This is at least partly because, as he also pointed out, Indian popular music is Bollywood music, and vice versa.

He also told me that when he writes songs for the musical, he likes to go for a walk or have tea with the lyricist, Susan Birkenhead, and he makes sure to compose with the whole tune before he ever sits down at an instrument. (I told him this was Cole Porter's method too, minus the lyricist.) But by far the favorite quote from anyone I couldn't use in my story was this:
Before I became a composer, when I was in college, what I used to do before my exams was, when I had to remember four pages of an answer, I would compose a paragraph, so the melody could remind me of the lines I had to remember. That’s how I started to enjoy my studies. Now, today, if you give me the front page of The New York Times, I will musicalize it. 

Apr 16, 2017

Next!

Orville Mendoza at Stephen Sondheim's piano.
I first saw Orville Mendoza in the lead role of Sweeney Todd at East West Players in 1994; I later had the distinct joy of reviewing him in the lead role of Kayama in a definitive-for-me production of Pacific Overtures, also at East West Players (though in a different space; more about that below). Apart from Aladdin at Disney Adventure (a production, directed by Francesca Zambello and scheduled to close soon after 13 years to make way for a Frozen stage show, that is not to be confused with the Broadway version), I think the only other show I've seen Mendoza in was Road Show at the Public.

Which means that Orville Mendoza has been one of the central Sondheim performers of my theatregoing life. Needless to say I'm excited to see him in Classic Stage Company's new staging of Pacific Overtures, directed by CSC artistic director John Doyle. Mendoza plays Manjiro, essentially Kayama's opposite number, in the new production.

To celebrate, I dug up my reviews for Back Stage West of both Pacific Overtures and Sweeney Todd. Though my memory of each of these shows remains vivid, rereading my impressions of them is like a ritual reimmersion. No bird exploring in the sky explores as well as I the corners my life, or at least the corners of my own back catalog.

Back Stage WestMarch 26, 1998

PACIFIC OVERTURES
at the David Henry Hwang Theatre
Reviewed by Rob Kendt

East West Players' current revival of Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman's Pacific Overtures is a triumph on so many levels that it feels churlish to point out its shortcomings. Yes, in its move to a new mid-sized theatre in Downtown Los Angeles, this scrappy Asian/Pacific American theatre company bit off a lot more than an Equity rehearsal schedule could chew--a wide load of technical and political hurdles that had more to do with putting up a new theatre facility than putting up a show. And the resulting production not only evinces the expected signs of under-rehearsed performances, it also has moments in which the staging ideas, not just their execution, seem under-developed.

But giving a frame and purpose to this inspired imperfection is a project of such passion, grace, and intelligence that it often takes the breath away--not only Sondheim's bold, lapidarian score or Weidman's witty, serious, absorbing book but director Tim Dang's gorgeously imagined and movingly played production. Employing floating and sliding Japanese screens on Lisa Hashimoto's beautiful modular set, lit evocatively by G. Shizuko Herrera, the show moves like a dream--a haunting, outsized dream outfitted with the stunningly signifying costumes of Naomi Yoshida Rodriguez and the letter-perfect hair and make-up of Newton Kazuo Koshi, and choreographed mostly winningly by Betsy Chang and Kabuki consultant David Furumoto.

In telling the unlikely story of feudal Japan's reluctant opening to the West, Weidman and Sondheim's 1976 show adapts a roughly recognizable revue format to Asian theatre practices--or vice versa--and comes up with as many pristinely lyrical moments as it does fiercely pointed passages. Kayama (Orville Mendoza) is a low-level samurai thrust by the ruling Shogun into dealings with the West--of which his first is meant to be a deal-breaker, since the Japanese from the 17th through the 19th century were militantly xenophobic, strictly forbidding any foreigner to even touch their soil. To help Kayama negotiate with the Americans, whose Admiral Perry has come with four warships to open East-West trade relations or else, the Shogun releases a prisoner, Manjiro (Michael K. Lee), who has lived in the U.S.

These two bond in the playful modal duet "Poems," which is staged beguilingly by Dang and performed sunnily by Mendoza and Lee, and which typifies the score's brilliance. As in the serenely moving "There Is No Other Way," the ploddingly prickly "A Bowler Hat," and the soaring "Someone in a Tree," Sondheim somehow makes the knottiest harmonic material and the trickiest intervals sound as natural as folk tunes, and this production's crowning success--adequate rehearsal time or no--is in perfectly realizing this difficult simplicity. Music director Scott Nagatani has done his job exceedingly well, and continues to do so, directing a small but precise arsenal of drums, winds, and keyboards from across raised platforms.

There are too many high points in the cast to mention them all: Mendoza is an embracing, generous presence, with a husky, pliant baritone and a jack-o-lantern face that registers emotion tellingly; David Furumoto is funny and menacing as Lord Abe, and about equally so in a pair of drag roles; Alvin Ing, who was in the original Broadway cast, has a beatific peace about him (which is wrong for a few of the roles he's assigned) and a searing, feminine voice; Tedd Szeto and Hisato Masuyama score big laughs as Russian and French admirals, respectively; Reggie Lee flawlessly executes a pair of expressive dances; Sabrina Lu has a striking turn as a ventriloquist priest, and Paul Wong and Deborah Nishimura each especially bolster the vocal department in a variety of roles. And as the Reciter, who narrates, comments on, and occasionally steps into the action, Keone Young runs through a kaleidoscope of facets and faces, from warm to proud to distrustful to sardonic, and finally to heartbroken (and he plucks a mean shamisen).

The show ends with the brash, buoyant "Next," in which the Japan that has embraced American-style modernity struts its stuff, both tacky and impressive, while Young collapses in tears at the memory of lost traditions. Needless to say, the resonance of this stirring production seems to multiply endlessly as one walks out of the new theatre into bustling Little Tokyo. It's been a long time since I was this proud to live in Los Angeles.

"Pacific Overtures," presented by East West Players at the David Henry Hwang Theatre, Union Center for the Arts, 120 N. Judge John Aiso St., Little Tokyo. Mar. 18-Apr. 5. (800) 233-3123.



Back Stage West
Sept. 15, 1994

SWEENEY TODD 
at East West Players
Reviewed by Rob Kendt

Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler's gruesome operetta Sweeney Todd is full of unlikely pleasures: an overachieving score of equal parts bile and grace, an absurdly intricate pot-boiler plot, and an overlay of lipsmackingly draconian social satire. This tale of a murderous, revenge-starved barber and his grasping capitalist handmaiden piles gleeful Gothic mayhem upon stark, Dickensian squalor. It's musical comedy with a body count.

In an ambitious current revival at East West Players, most of the show's felicities remain robustly intact, starting with the first: Under Scott Nagatani's flawless musical direction, both the operatic scope and the prickly particulars of Sondheim's score are in perfect proportion and focus. The hair-raising chorales and peripatetic solos are in solid vocal hands, and a busy pit band of three keyboards and drums gives unerring support. Under director Tim Dang, the show's non-musical virtues are strongly realized as well. For one, Dang has worked wonders in East West's small space, with a fluid, modular set by Chris Tashima and amazingly varied staging and lighting (by G. Shizuko Herrera) that parallels the dynamics of the music. He's also mostly achieved the text's grim penny-dreadful tone, with a rabble dressed down in Naomi Yoshida Rodriquez's raggedy costumes and Christina Souza's blowsy make-up and hair giving us the declamatory stare-down demanded by the opening line, "Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd..."

In the lead, Orville Mendoza has a leering jack-o'-lantern face and a wracked, righteous baritone, though we can't help feeling, as spunky Mrs. Lovett (a fine, comically ruthless Freda Foh Shen) complains, that he's "always brooding on your wrongs." Also worth mentioning are Deborah Nishimura, whose Beggar Woman has a demonic authority, and Radmar Agana Jao, who makes a perfectly childlike, clarion-voiced Toby. If the villains of the piece hardly threaten, if the small space is at times constraining or overwarm—these are minor quibbles. It is a forceful rendition of a contemporary classic.

"Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street," presented by and at East West Players, 4424 Santa Monica Blvd, Silverlake. Sept. 9-Oct 30. (213) 660-0366.

Apr 6, 2017

Big Sister's Clothes

Patrick Wilson and Amanda Peet in Barefoot in the Park. (Photo by Carol Rosegg)
Amanda Peet recently contributed this funny, lightly harrowing essay about the weird contortions she put herself through to not read Ben Brantley's slam of her performance in the 2006 Broadway production of Barefoot in the Park. It drove me back to check my review of same. For the record: I thought she was all right.

I've republished it below.

Barefoot in the Park
at the Cort Theatre
Reviewed by Rob Kendt
Feb. 17, 2006
Broadway.com

Here's something you don't see every day: a film actress making her Broadway debut with nary a trace of gratuitous glamour or hammy, I-have-arrived overstatement. As Corie, the erratic young newlywed in a perky if pointless new revival of Barefoot in the Park, Amanda Peet doesn't get a single star's entrance; instead she opens three out of the show's four scenes already onstage and haplessly engaged in some solitary housewifely duty, from wallpapering to butchering a batch of martinis.

And though she's dressed in loving retro designs by Isaac Mizrahi, Peet has a knock-kneed, perpetually disheveled look about her, like a tomboy dressed up in her big sister's clothes. Or her mom's: As Corie's wry, widowed mother, Jill Clayburgh gets sleeker outfits and better lines. These, and her budding romance with a rakish eccentric, Victor Velasco (Tony Roberts), make an excellent case that youth is overrated. This was not quite the point of Neil Simon's 1963 hit, which seems to share some of Corie's dizzy screwball romanticism about her brand new marriage to Paul (Patrick Wilson), an ambitious young lawyer. But by taking a tone of affectionate, knowing hindsight, both for the '60s and for just-married puppy love, director Scott Elliott's production gives off an attractive patina of worldly wisdom, even if it's short on revelations.

Like most of Simon's best work, Barefoot is a kvetchy valentine to New York City, though the new production has relocated its young couple's underfurnished fifth-floor fixer-upper from the East 40s to the more iconic Greenwich Village. Certainly Mr. Velasco's beret, and his matter-of-fact question to Corie, "Are you a folk singer?" fit the new neighborhood, but one suspects that this downtown-ization owes more than a little to our contemporary sense of where New York's youthful heart is. Like the nearby Broadway revival of The Odd Couple, the first act of Barefoot dramatizes an applause-getting apartment makeover (set by Derek McLane), and its second builds to a near-breakup of this fragile, transient domestic arrangement.

At least this roommate saga has better chemistry than that odd Couple. While it's very hard to imagine this marriage proceeding very smoothly past the final curtain, Peet and Wilson do come off as exactly the sort of pair that would end up—or at least start out, and maybe keep coming back—together.

Wilson's strapping, babyfaced Paul has enough cocky virility to explain his attraction to and for a volatile wildcat like Corie, even as he's edging into a recognizably cranky, baiting exasperation that will only make her wobble and worry all the more. And both performers have the crucial capacity to seem both genuinely riled and amused by the other—what Corie's mother must mean when she tells her uncertain daughter, "I've never seen two people more in love."

There's a whole other play, a delicious side dish, simmering between Roberts and Clayburgh. Both actors have gracious, unpushy comic timing, which makes them seem positively courtly, and in their own way much sexier than the randy youngsters. When Corie starts to rave to her mother about the joys of carnal love, and recommends that Mom give it a try, Clayburgh turns her character's studious avoidance of the subject into a witty generation reversal—a turnaround of the well-known discomfort of young people with the topic of their parents' sex lives. "Don't you even want to discuss it?" asks Peet's Corie, guilelessly. "Not with you in the room," replies her mother. In Clayburgh's hands it's clearly not prudery that makes the subject out of bounds, but a thoroughly earned, and lightly worn, sense of superior knowledge. She knows what Corie will have to learn on her own: that a companion for life's journey will have to be good for more than a roll in the sack, or even a walk in the park.

Mar 9, 2017

TBT: 'Sweeney' Stripped Naked

Michael Cerveris, Patti LuPone, Manoel Felciano, and Donna Lynne Champlin in "Sweeney Todd" (photo by Paul Kolnik)

It's hardly controversial that Sweeney Todd is Sondheim's masterpiece (and, as I got him to reveal to me, possibly his most personal show). Not that it's production-proof, but I don't think I've ever seen a bad staging, come to think of it, or a pair of leads that were like any other pair: From Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel to Orville Mendoza and Deb Nishimura, from Kelsey Grammer and Christine Baranski to the stars of the smashing new New York revival, Jeremy Secomb and Siobhan McCarthy. (The film is a whole nother ball of wax.) In honor of the show's current revival, whose reviews except for Ben Brantley's have largely been ecstatic (a perfect argument for the value of a site like StageGrade or Show-Score), I look back on my Broadway.com review of the last big New York revival. Attend the tale.

Nov. 4, 2005
Broadway.com

As sharp and glistening as a straight-edge razor, director John Doyle's stripped-down concert/theater rendition of Sweeney Todd gives the kind of buzz you don't expect, and certainly almost never get, from a Broadway show. It is the distinct hum of musical and theatrical intelligence; it is the glow of sheer brilliance as an entertainment value in itself.

There has surely never been a grimmer or bloodier musical written for the Broadway stage than this 1979 masterpiece from composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim and librettist Hugh Wheeler. And Doyle's abstract, poor-theater staging only italicizes the show's unforgiving gallows humor. But somehow the artistry of this Sweeney lifts the spirits.

Actually, I think I can guess how: By having the 10-member cast play the score while they act and sing the show, Doyle's production makes the show's craftsmanship lovingly, nakedly transparent (the deft new orchestrations are by Sarah Travis). What this production lacks in definitive acting turns, vocal virtuosity, and realistic staging--and it does have some deficits in all these departments--it gains in intimacy and intention.

There's a matter-of-fact seamlessness to the concept that saves it from gimmickry. When Judge Turpin (Marc Jacoby) sits to converse with the Beadle (Alexander Gemignani) about his disturbing plans for Johanna (Lauren Molina), both are holding trumpets, at the ready for the next number. Are they in character or out? When Mrs. Lovett (Patti LuPone) emerges with a tuba, sassily tooting some bass notes and waggling her derriere in time, are we watching LuPone or Lovett? Actress, character, musician, or all of the above? These three identities bleed together throughout the cast, and the result brings both the score and the show to tactile, surprising life--or at least to the kind of life we've never seen before.

Certainly, we do miss the sweep of Jonathan Tunick's original orchestrations--the crushing timpani and high Bernard Herrmann strings that gave the show's penny-dreadful contours near-Wagnerian fury. And the symbolic staging of the show's murders is pretty wan indeed: tipped buckets of red paint, red lights, that blood-curdling factory whistle, all played in front of a tall backdrop of wooden slats and junk-shop shelves. (Don't ask about the baby coffin.)

And it must be noted that in the title role, Michael Cerveris is slightly off the mark. Looking like a mod Nosferatu in his thin black tie, leather jacket, and trademark shorn pate, Cerveris is appropriately chilling and pathetic, and he does bring a few unique assets to the role. Sweeney is supposed to have been so altered by 15 years of wrongful imprisonment that no one in his old neighborhood quite recognizes him on his return; I've never exactly bought that before, but Cerveris powerfully embodies that alienation. And hey, a bald barber--that's pretty unsettling by itself.

But Cerveris is too much of a bloodless vampire--and he's probably too young--to convey the damaged virility of a Sweeney like Len Cariou, who originated the role. There's a human touch missing from this revenge-addled monster.

Not so LuPone's tarty, lovable Mrs. Lovett. In a black Louise Brooks wig and seedy baby-doll dress and stockings, LuPone relaxes into this witchily sympathetic role with supreme confidence. She doesn't push or prod a single moment, nor does she oversell either Mrs. Lovett's craven, amoral practicality or her sweeter, dafter romantic side. Whether she's cleaning the tools of her dismembering trade or draining spit from her tuba, LuPone gives us a wonderfully undespairing anti-heroine.

Her evident joy brings out the best in Cerveris, in the delicious "A Little Priest," surely the funniest song ever linking cannibalism to capitalism. Consider the tools of the trade here: Mimed without props and sung without a single pop wail, "A Little Priest" brings down the house on the strength of its lyrics, delivered with lip-smacking relish by the leads. Forget the sight of LuPone playing the tuba for a second: How often do we see sheer wit stop the show on Broadway?

Jacoby captures the bourgeois banality of Judge Turpin's villainy, while Gemignani plays the Beadle so drily I thought he'd snap; he gets more laughs from this absurd flunky, and in more unexpected places, than would seem possible. So do Molina and Benjamin Magnuson, as the show's slightly befuddled young lovers, Anthony and Johanna; we know these two make a good match because they share a love of playing the cello and warbling ardent operetta. Donna Lynne Champlin plays the grandstanding Pirelli as a weird wind-up doll. Manoel Felciano's Tobias is another performance in which the sweetness of the playing (the violin, in the case) blurs nicely with the singing and acting. And I've never seen Beggar Woman as winningly pitiful as Diana DiMarzio's shuffling, clarinet-playing specimen.

Soon enough we don't notice the things we might have missed at first, not only because of the cast's conviction but because, as a show like Shockheaded Peter proved, a judicious use of light and shadow, and a properly placed accordion, can be infinitely creepier than any literal bloodbath or screeching string section.

I'm no box-office prophet; I have no idea whether this Sweeney will be a hit beyond the Sondheim cult. It certainly deserves to catch on with the sort of New Yorkers who feel too cool to go to Broadway shows. But the tourists and tired businessmen? They may not get the entertainment they're looking for here, but what they do get--essentially, the best bleak, funny Gothic chamber musical ever--they're never going to forget.

Sweeney Todd
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by Hugh Wheeler
Directed by John Doyle
Eugene O'Neill Theatre