Intermission Talk

July 29th, 2015

“Shows for Days”

Need “Amazing Grace”

Notes as “Preludes”

 

by Tony Vellela

 

From knowledge of Moss Hart’s achingly sentimental chronicle of his entry into the world of Broadway in “Act One,” to the homage to the vaudeville lives of closeted gay men he wrote about in “The Nance,” Douglas Carter Beane is in familiar, comfortable territory in his new comedy “Shows for Days,” now at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi Newhouse Theatre. Beane has both the skills and the anecdotes to deliver a minor gem of a play about a young [still questioning] gay boy/man’s entry into the whirling world of theatre. In “Shows for Days,” the central character/narrator subconsciously brings himself to volunteer at his local community theatre, and with little resistance, finds himself both on stage speaking lines, and offstage, writing them.

 

Beane’s real-life adolescent coming-of-stage took place in Reading, in southeastern Pennsylvania, a small town struggling to stay viable, in 1973.   The tale is told by the mid-teens Car, [short for Carter?], as he ignores the fourth wall to explain to the audience the backstories of the circumstances, and in particular the emotions, as they unfold. The Newhouse thrust stage enhances a casual informality. Beane, with the able assistance of director Jerry Zaks, has found in Michael Urie the ideal candidate to step into that pivotal role. Urie, all jutting elbows, levitating eyebrows and toothy grins, [and liberated from his star-making turn in la Streisand’s basement mall in “Buyers and Cellars”], provides just enough angular physicality to convincingly represent a fourteen-year-old’s un-tethered life challenges. Car, as has happened with a handful of other art-driven Reading thespians, has been pulled into the orbit of the magnetic Irene, a mesmerizing, organizing, dramatizing life force brought to full-measure life by our real-life life force, Patti LuPone.   Her persona magna is given the full visual measure of spark and fire, and then some, by costumer extraordinaire William Ivey Long, missing no opportunity to dress her in gold-lame, shiny satin-esque outfits.

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The basics in “Shows for Days” will ring true to anyone who has done time in community or summer theatre. Aspirations and expectations far exceed possibilities and actualities. What makes the enterprise so captivating is the genuine dedication of those devoted souls, to deliver ‘culture’ to the masses, whether they like it or not. [I spent a few summers in that realm in Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains, and know whereof I speak. I once produced a season of summer theatre at the ambitious, naive, and blindly determined age of 22, opening our season with Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” in its unedited, stark entirety. Without fail, at every performance, when Martha calls George a prick, about a third of the offended, shocked house would stand up and indignantly march out. And, no, they did not get a refund.]

 

The Prometheus Players’ doyenne Irene is also not one to be deterred. What Beane has done so charmingly is marry the facts [or their reasonable facsimiles] to invented events, yielding a comedy that would make Hart, George S. Kaufman, et al, proud of their incidental protege.

 

This is not high drama, but it is also not low comedy. Beane has structured the telling in a rehearsal-room sized space, with the floor marked out in various colors of masking tape, and then given Car/Beane permission to guide us through the antics. Along with its natural flow and easy presentation, Beane has fashioned a piece that itself becomes a prime candidate for any community, summer or university theatre to captivate its audience, as the players pull from their own resources, reflect on their own ambitions and along with their audience, have lots and lots of fun.

 

The real “Shows for Days” doyenne could certainly be credited with discovering Beane. There’s something special about ‘discovering’ new talent. I’m reminded of my first opportunity to see Michael Shannon, in the off-Broadway production of Tracy Letts’ “Bug,” at the Barrow Street Theatre. Similar good memories accompany my recollection of seeing the incandescent Lily Rabe, in Shaw’s “Heartbreak House,” at the Roundabout. Doesn’t matter whether you are late to the ‘discovery’ party. When you personally experience a talent like those, and others such as Patricia Clarkson, or Dana Ivey – you remember. So it was, seeing Gabriel Ebert as Jonathon/Miranda in Harvey Fierstein’s tender “Casa Valentina.” Finding out that he was heading the cast of Dave Malloy’s “Preludes,” about a complex, troubled period in the life of composer Sergei Rachmaninoff, [1873-1943] provided the push I needed to see a play about a subject very unfamiliar to me.

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It paid off. Ebert inhabits the volatile Russian with every ounce of his energy, pumping up every nerve ending to the max, while all the while paying rapt attention to each moment’s tensions, splayed out across the footlights. His is indeed an historic performance. Set, according to the Playbill, ‘in the hypnotized mind of Sergei Rachmaninoff, in Moscow, 1900,’ this piece shakes out the demons, confronts [or attempts to] the terrors that great artists of any persuasion must face, before they overtake him. His listless behavior threatens to rob him of the vitality needed to do the creating he was meant to give the world.

 

With the exception of one piece by Mussorgsky and Golenishchev-Kutuzov, and one by Beethoven, all the music is either by Rachmaninoff, or original work by Malloy.  What he has done is construct a rhapsody for the stage. He uses a narrative device employing three different individuals, to explain the actual, tormented, psychologically-battered three-year period Rachmaninoff survived. He was, after all, recognized as being in possession of great gifts, and counted among his personal mentors from the age of ten, the legendary Tchaikovsky. When we join Rachmaninoff’s story, he is in his early twenties, and had been primed for a breakout concert, when it all fell apart. Chief among the explainers of this lamentable period is the hypnotherapist Nikolai Dahl, summoned by the composer’s wife Natalya Satina, to cure her husband of the deep doldrums he had fallen into. This nightmare period seized him when, at age 24, his Symphony no. 1 in D minor, op. 13, premiered in St. Petersburg, under the drunken baton of conductor Alexander Glazunov. The concert was a shambles. Result: the young composer’s reputation spiraled downward, and the disastrous performance very nearly could have resulted in a suicide.

 

Instead, Dahl forced him to confront every demon and fear. Rach, as he is called here, is abetted by his alter ego dubbed the full Rachmaninoff, who is tasked with doing the actual piano-playing, portrayed perfectly by Or Matias.   Malloy, and his dexterous director Rachel Chavkin, escort us through the labyrinthine chambers of Rach’s mind, with drop-in visits from Tchaikovsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov and Czar Nicholas II, among others, all courtesy of excellent portrayals by Chris Sarandon, with no apologies for anachronisms and fanciful fictions woven into the facts of Rach’s life and times. This eclectic, eccentric melding of styles bears strong echoes of the legendary “Dr. Selavy’s Magical Theatre,” Richard Foreman’s 1972 creation wherein a hapless Ben undergoes various musical ‘treatments’ to cure his madness, drawing from lyrical folk music, Tin Pan Alley and “Hair,” all of it decked out in a riot of disparate objects, textures, colors and sounds. Malloy and Chavkin make maximum use of the unbridled talents of their creative team [Mimi Lien’s sets, Paloma Young’s costuming, Bradley King’s lighting, Matt Hubbs’ sound design, synthesizer musicians Wiley DeWeese and Emily Marshall, and musical director Matias].

But Foreman invented Ben. Malloy is ‘honoring’ the very real Rach. And if there’s a ‘rub,’ it is that ‘Preludes” promises to reveal an understanding of the submergence and subsequent re-emergence of the state of mind of a genius. Tantalizing as it is, the masterful piece concludes with some unfilled expectations. Case in point: the taunting query near the close of act two, about why a piece with four sharps is so difficult to play. As it happens, the real-life Rach was known to have large hands, a wide ‘spread’ of fingers and thumbs. Four sharps are difficult to play because it involves four black notes on the keyboard. In a key with flats or sharps [flats being certain white notes lowered, and sharps being white notes raised, the position of the hand is different, requiring a reach to keys farther apart. That’s why the C-major scale [on the piano = all white notes] is the easiest to play.

 

And in case you’re still wary of witnessing this glorious piece, based on the life of a Russian composer you think you don’t know, recall, please: the haunting melody behind Frank Sinatra’s mega-hit “Full Moon and Empty Arms” is a direct lift from Rach; the Geoffrey Rush character in “Shine” performed a Rach piece before suffering his breakdown; Tom Ewell plays Rach’s 2nd piano concerto for Marilyn Monroe in “Seven-Year Itch;” NASA named the 290 K-wide impact basin on Mercury after Rach; his influences can be heard in Muse’s “Space Dementia” et al – need I go on?

 

My recommendations: [1] see this remarkable achievement that provides a dazzlingly well-written role for Gabriel Ebert, and nearly explodes the musical theatre form, and [2] if possible, bring an accomplished musician as your guest.

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A different kind of musical creation story is being told in “Amazing Grace,” the new show at the Nederlander Theatre, featuring music and lyrics by Christopher Smith, and book by Smith and Arthur Giron. Musical director Joseph Church also supplied incidental music.

 

Just about everyone, from President Obama to the very occasional visitor to any Christian ceremony, will recognize the title song. Its message of hope, inspiration and devotion can be heard thousands of times every day, everywhere. Its composition is the product of John Newton, an 18th-century British slave-trader, who was for a time caught up in his father’s business of the trafficking in human beings, kidnapped from Africa, or in some cases, bought outright from the native rulers in the countries of their origin. All the elements of this saga, despite some shifting of the real particulars, strike deep, as much or more now, in light of our recent infestation of racist occurrences. Newton, played and sung with ringing conviction by Josh Young, finally cut his ties to the trade, and to his father, only reconciling when the senior Newton himself saw light. As Newton’s sorely-tested fiancee Mary, Erin Mackey lends a silvery soprano voice that puts her squarely in the company of Kelli and Kristin.   And the towering Chuck Cooper provides another kind of ballast to the proceedings, as Newton’s paternal-substitute slave, Thomas.

 

While there is certainly room to criticize this daring undertaking, there are stellar moments that generate chills. They include the depiction of young, black bodies being branded like cattle, an image that is not easily forgotten, and should not.

 

“Amazing Grace” easily fulfills its promise to captivate the senses, and at the same time explore serious issues. The story line is clean and clear – a blessing when, at times, plot lines seem often to spin out of control in other undertakings. Discovering these in a well-presented combination, especially for those who seek out the chance to introduce their children to the joys of A-list performances and stagecraft, in service of a meaningful, moral tale – that’s a real gift.

 

On Book

 

Another of my fond ‘discovery’ memories happened back in ’69. I’d gone to see a friend of mine, Margo Sappington, in her Broadway debut, in the chorus/ensemble of ‘Promises, Promises.”   There was a real spark-plug little performance in a bar scene; the character was called Marge; the actor was Mary Louise Wilson. So now, unless I’ve got two broken legs and an outbreak of hives, I wouldn’t miss anything she’s in. And it’s great to share the news that her so-easy-to-read autobiography “My First Hundred Years in Show Business” is out, from Overlook Press. Her writing talents have been honed via pieces in The New York Times and The New Yorker, and along with Mark Hampton, she co-authored her stunning off-Broadway hit “Full Gallop,” about fashion icon Diana Vreeland.

MLW

Mary Louise played the title role in the solo piece, garnering a Drama Desk Award. And if you were lucky enough to see her as Big Edie in “Grey Gardens,” you’ll have enjoyed a landmark performance . . . from Douglas Carter Beane’s local life-story to the world-class sagas of Rachmaninoff and John Newton, the story-telling aspect makes or breaks any ambitious piece. And one of the most acclaimed story-tellers of the big screen was Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Now in paperback, Kenneth L. Geist’s “Pictures Will Talk” traces the endeavors of Mankiewicz as he weaves the fascinating adventures and misadventures of his characters in such landmark pictures as “All About Eve” and “Letter to Three Wives.” If the creative process fascinates you, as it does me, this book, from Da Capo Press, will satisfy your craving for another story well-told. . . and the first-person telling of the story of John Newton can be found in his autobiography “Out of the Depths,” in which he relates his own personal struggles with the perils of confronting slavery, and turning his life around.

 

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TONY VELLELA wrote and produced the PBS documentary series about theatre “Character Studies.” His Best Play Award-winning “Admissions,” at the New York International Fringe Festival, is published by Playscripts. His comedy “Maisie and Grover Go to the Theatre” is published by ArtAge Press. He wrote the CableAce Award-winning “The Test of time” for Lifetime Television. He has written about the performing arts for dozens of publications, including Parade, Dramatics Magazine, The Christian Science Monitor, Rolling Stone, and others. Vellela teaches theatre-related sessions at the 92nd St. Y. His new play “Labor Days” is currently in development.

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Exclusive car and limousine transportation provider for Intermission Talk is Manhattan-based New App Car Limo Service [www.NewAppCarLimo.com = 212-222-7999].

Intermission Talk 6/20/15

June 20th, 2015

Is “Wolf Hall, I & II”

“An Act of God,” or

. . . something else?

 

by TONY VELLELA

 

If you listen very, very closely, you may be able to hear the sounds of

someone [that would be yours truly] going ‘against the grain,’ as they say.

One of Broadway’s most eagerly-anticipated theatrical events of this or any other season, the importing of the Royal Shakespeare Company Production of “Wolf Hall: Parts One & Two,” has settled in at the Winter Garden. Based on Hilary Mantel’s multi-award-winning pair of novels “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies,” the plays are running in rep, with Mantel listed as the playwright, and Mike Poulton credited with the adaptation.

 

An energetic ensemble cast of twenty-three inhabits the scabrous environs of 16th century Britain’s royal court. The ever-imposing King Henry VIII [an imposing Nathaniel Parker] is in an almost constant state of bereavement because his Queen has not supplied a male heir to his Tudor throne. And the ever-watchful, ever-scheming lawyer-at-court Thomas Cromwell [Ben Miles, with easy confidence serving the role well] seems to pop up everywhere necessary, like a whack-a-mole in cape and leggings, to attempt to remedy the situation and at the same time, maintain his envied position as the one man who can always gain access to His Majesty’s ear.

wh1

The grand sweep of the interwoven personal and political tales, stretching as they do from the fall from grace of Queen Katherine of Aragon, [Lucy Briers, showing touchingly her character’s resignation tempering the cursed hand she’s been dealt] to the rise and bloody descent of her wily successor, Anne Boleyn, [Lydia Leonard, snarky before there was such an adjective] fills both plays to overflowing, clocking in together at nearly six-and-a-half hours. Others have noted in commentary better written than I am capable of generating, that a great deal of the dialogue starts with “I hear,” or “they say.” And there’s the rub. For a very large portion of the time spent in attendance at both parts, what ‘they’ said was something that I could not hear.

 

Carefully combing through all the emotions and agendas, the seductions and the confessions, the taunting and the appeasements, adapter Poulton has applied the surgeon’s scalpel and the calligrapher’s quill to all this information, a task only a very few writers would have the skill and the courage to attempt. And he has, it would seem, managed to retain not just the headlines, but the complete accounts, including sidebars, of these stories, a dutiful court reporter, if you will. And he is not without a sense of dry humor – one of his best moments slides in very unobtrusively when, at the close of Part One’s first act, an unimposing little slip of a thing responds to a question of her identity by responding modestly “Oh, I’m nobody. I’m only Jane Seymour.” The lady will be the next to occupy the throne to Henry’s right.

 

The production’s design elements adhere faithfully to the less-is-more school of theatrical presentation: all but bare stage, except for the occasional piece of furniture required when someone needs to sit, or something needs to rest upon a surface; attention-focusing lighting [expertly delivered by Part One: Paule Constable, Part Two: David Plater] that assists in telling you where to look and who is speaking, and a dazzling display of the greatest array of heavy-brocade, silky-fabric, fur-trimmed, jewel-encrusted costuming [compliments of Christopher Oram, who also designed the sets – less there to distract from the costumes?] ever seen in a production that does not include singing and an eleven o’clock number.

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The promise of the chance to bathe in the gossipy-style revelations of this historically critical period in western civilization, the expectation that we will witness lethal clashes between the low-born and the highly-placed, the anticipation ginned up with the sterling credentials of its creators on and off stage – all that, held out to theatre-goers hungry for what all that could satisfy . . . and then, what happens? Clearly, obviously, certainly, all the stories have been honored. There are twenty-three named court members, from King Henry VIII down to a musician, Mark, each of whom can lay claim to being a Duke, a Lord, a Lady, an Earl, a member of the Boleyn family, or one of their servants. Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, a prime mover in Henry’s clash with the Pope over the subject of divorce, and half a dozen other clergy or officers of state, constitute another dozen or so characters with roles to play and words to say. And at the epicenter of all the intrigue, active or passive, is Thomas Cromwell [and his family and staff]. One begins to ache – really, ache – when the difficulties of trying to follow the machinations unfolding on the cavernous set begin to take their toll. This issue may not receive much attention in polite discourse, but how is it that director Jeremy Herrin, a much-honored member of London and West End A-listers, would not realize that language so well-sculpted, delivered anywhere but straight-on and loud, will just not be able to be heard well enough to be understood?   This failing, coupled with the near absence of visual cues as to who’s who [all we have are costumes] means we have been left outside the action. We can see compelling confrontations, we can hear inflections that indicate anger or jealousy or lust or compliance, but we [at least not yours truly] were not able to match emotion to situation, or speaker to listener. This results in lots of loss. Rich language dissipates. And more seriously, facts are also lost. Taking one of the most basic: why did the house of Boleyn hold such a privileged position that gave them an E-Z pass to the King’s short list of prospective brides? Not an avid student of history myself, the assumption that an audience member would blindly accept that condition, at the core of the dynamics this vast drama depicts, suggests a kind of elitist attitude that poisons the proceedings.

 

This glossing-over of primary conditions, or the idea that they are not able to create a dynasty or cause a regent-pretender to part company with her head, is not inherent in the tales being told. There is an crucial difference between these stage adaptations, and the recent television and feature film versions of roughly the same tales [notably the BBC Two television series top-lining Mark Rylance as Cromwell, and the 2008 picture “The Other Boleyn Girl,” also with Rylance, and Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson as the sisters Boleyn]. Film/video cameras show us where to look, who is speaking, and with necessary visual detail, where we are. Is theatre different? Of course. And it should be. But not at the expense of experiencing the real rewards of powerful, compelling story-telling. It’s not enough to know that they are telling the story. We must be able to hear it.

 

What does Dr. Sheldon Cooper have in common with Dolly Gallagher Levi and the King of Siam? Like that Empress of the Harmonia Gardens and the ruler of a proud southeast Asian monarchy, the mega-watt-brained physicist Cooper is also the central character in a work of popular culture [the funniest, modern-ist television sitcom “The Big Bang Theory.” Dolly lives in the Jerry Herman musical “Hello, Dolly!” and the King in the Rodgers & Hammerstein classic “The King & I”].

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And like the other two larger-than-life characters, Cooper’s real-life counterpart is identified with one actor. Cooper’s real person is actor Jim Parsons, who has received four Emmy Awards for playing the role, just like the much-awarded Carol Channing and Yul Brynner for their career-defining performances as the above-mentioned.

 

And now, that beloved and exasperating physicist has landed on the East Coast – at Studio 54 to be precise – as the central stand-in for the Almighty in David Javerbaum’s delightful new comedy “An Act of God.” The Big Guy has chosen to revisit our home planet in the guise of this sitcom star, and we’re the better for that choice. Who are we to argue with BG?

 

Director Joe Mantello, wisely assisted by set designer Scott Pask with production design chores from Peter Nigrini, makes it very easy for us to bask in His revelations, even when they are less than revealing. God did, however, reveal Himself to be a savvy Superior Being with his choice of Parsons to be his human host. Parsons [could that ecclesiastical-sounding last name have given the actor an advantage?] possesses that rare combination of stage-friendly qualities: a measure of self-confidence that does not tip the balance over into arrogance; a firm, direct ability to master the task of having his voice reach to the back of the house; the invisible wink to the audience that lets us know we’re all in this together, and finally, he’s cute as a baby’s belly button.

 

Turns out God’s got some unburdening to do. He’s not happy with how we’re doing as the resident population of this particular planet. He’s also very not happy with all those myths and mysteries attributed to him and his contemporaries. And one by one, and even two by two [he corrects that Big One about a wooden boat and a pair of every known type of living thing crammed on it], he dissects and corrects. He’s also gracious enough, due to precise comedy timing, to give us time to laugh ourselves silly between pronouncements.

 

Gabriel and Michael, his angelic pair of wing-men [get it? angels? wings?] assist, when necessary. Tim Kazurinsky’s Gabriel keeps watch over the Bible, with God acknowledging that, ever since Guttenberg ran it off, it’s been downhill for publishing ever since.   And Christopher Fitzgerald’s Michael proves to be almost too frisky and contrarian as the bad boy brat, sewing a few too many seeds of discontent that leaves God with no choice but to clip his wing.

 

In what may be the consequence of the popularity of Letterman’s ‘Top Ten’ lists, God unveils His new set of commandments. Not enumerated but definitely apparent, this one: Thou Shalt Not Miss This Show.

 

On Book

 

Technically not a theatre book, “The Science of TV’s ‘the Big Bang Theory’ – Explanations Even Penny Would Understand,” by Dave Zobel, walks us through the actual science behind all those formulas on the white boards in Sheldon and Leonard’s apartment. Dotted with dialogue from various episodes, from ECW Press, it’s a rousing browser of a book, that will make you appreciate just how smart this show is, and marvel at how it can be that, and also be so damn funny . . . and lest you be discouraged about not seeing [or hearing] the “Wolf Hall” plays on stage, you would certainly do well to pick up the print versions of the playscripts penned by Hilary Mantel, from her pair of award-winning novels “Wolf Hall,” and “Bring Up the Bodies.”   A Nick Hern book from Fourth Estate, London, the stage version from adaptor Mike Poulton proves to be compelling reading, in large part because the front of the book includes five pages of detailed descriptions of who the players are

Mearas

. . . and finally, it was sad news indeed to learn of the passing of actor/playwright/comedy icon Anne Meara. With a smile and a wit as dazzling as her bright red hair, Anne instinctively, naturally made you feel comfortable. My visits with her were always enjoyable, always laced with laughter. To share that legacy, pick up her husband of sixty-plus years Jerry Stiller’s “Married to Laughter – A Love Story Featuring Anne Meara,” from Simon & Schuster.

 

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TONY VELLELA wrote and produced the PBS series on theatre, “Character Studies.” His New York International Fringe Festival Best Play “Admissions” is published by Playscripts. His comedy “Maisie and Grover Go to the Theatre” is published by Art Age Press. He has covered theatre and the performing arts for dozens of publications, including Dramatics Magazine, the Christian Science Monitor, Parade, Rolling Stone, etc. His new play “Labor Days” is on track for a production in the fall.

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Exclusive car and limousine transportation provider for Intermission Talk is Manhattan-based NewApp CarLimo [www.NewAppCarLimo.com = 212-222-7999].

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Intermission Talk

May 11th, 2015

“Hand to God,”

You Can’t Beat

“Fun Home”

by TONY VELLELA

George Burns once told me that he and Gracie learned to be prepared when they were introduced to people, who would then laugh riotously at almost anything Gracie said.  When someone is pre-conditioned to expect ‘funny,’ then just about anything will get a laugh.  It’s all about expectation.   And though it certainly does not need to be thought of as a detriment, and though it certainly is so true that the Robert Askins romp “Hand to God” is chock full of great laughs, there are some admittedly short stretches, and dry-spell pockets that keep it from being what’s being heralded as a Second Coming for theatre comedy.

Maybe that’s appropriate, because the proceedings are under the snarling control of a decidedly other-worldly, Satanic-inspired sock puppet.  The cotton, yarn and button-built Tyrone has taken up residence on the left hand of Jason, a shy, disturbed teen-age son of Margery, an addled, middle-aged church lady.  As a gesture to help her handle the grief of losing her husband recently, Margery’s Pastor Greg has set her up with a teen puppet ministry.  He’d much rather stick his hand not up inside a limp sock, but up inside Margery’s skirt.  For her part, she saves that pleasure for the hunky eighteen-year-old Timothy, who comes to Bible study to moon over Margery.  A decidedly dim bulb in many departments, he does know how to lock the door, lift Margery up onto a desk, and have a quick one in the church basement meeting room.

Rapid-fire mono-dialogues ricochet between the actual Jason and the puppet Tyrone. Bold defiance, heresy, physical violence, blood-letting and wicked wordplay roll out at breakneck speed, giving this remarkable comedy, well, legs.  Jason’s withdrawal from the world, and the pervasive lost-boy aura that engulfs him, seemingly from the poisoned relationship he had with his now-deceased dad, and from his mother’s utter failure to relate to him, all combine to render Jason out-of-control.  Or, rather, an easy victim of this evil puppet, who overtakes Jason’s mind.  The results are brimming with both hilarity and horror.   Anyone of a certain age may recall the sweet innocence of the Shari Lewis hand puppet Lamb Chop.  They may also recall several versions of the story line [think “The Twilight Zone,” or maybe “Outer Limits”] wherein a ventriloquist’s dummy gradually takes over his master’s mind, with murderous consequences.  Tyrone would be the issue if they were to mate.

Askins cleverly weaves in an homage to the Bud Abbott/Lou Costello ‘Who’s On First?’ classic routine.  He appropriates the type of foul-mouthed screeds of the residents of Avenue Q that jolted us when they first hit town a few seasons back [and have taken up residence off-Broadway].  Askins even choreographs a plethora of sex acts between Jason’s Tyrone, and the compliant girl puppet who is owned by  the teen group’s only female [a winningly deadpan Sarah Stiles].  Her mission is to satisfy Jason/Tyrone’s  urges and squelch his anger.   There’s enough story line to connect the bursts of bad behavior and unmet needs  to keep it from careering off the rails.  It’s telling that the human characters have not much more dimensionality than the puppets.  And if you’re fine with not having anyone to root for, the laughs will come – accompanied by lotsa blood, perhaps in honor of the Grand Guignol traditions that Askins seems to be saluting.   And if you’re of a mind to confirm the guidance of some other-worldly entity to this raucous comedy’s success, look no further than its slow-and-steady rise through the ranks of the New York stage world: Askins and company, under the astute guidance of its director Moritz von Stuelpnagel, have slowly, steadily ascended from small readings to developmental workshops, through Ensemble Studio Theatre’s artistic director Bill Carden’s inclusion in its 2011-2012 season, and then on to the 2014 support of Robert LuPone, Bernie Telsey and Will Cantler at their MCC Theatre.  Whatever else this piece has bestowed on it, there should be a special category award for the dedication of its entire team, on and off stage, in particular giving early cast members the opportunity to display the selflessness that has helped it rise through the ranks.  [There’s some sorta pun in there somewhere, giving a wink and a nod to such a ‘rank’ story.]

By the bye, as Tyrone nearly manages to cause his host Jason to suffer a mild amputation, one wonders if Jason has fallen victim to a very real neurological condition known as somatotopagnosia, a dissociative disorder where a person, as a result of a neurological ‘insult,’ such as a stroke, comes to believe that a part of his body no longer belongs to him, and seeks to have it removed.  Yeah, I know – not the usual motivation for a comedy.  From the get-go, “Hand to God” overcomes some glaring short-cut writing, assuming that you’re primed to laugh.  Tyrone, without a visible Jason to be seen, delivers an opening monologue that pulls you in.  He returns at the end, to stake out his claim on the proceedings.  What a little devil !

How satisfying it is to report that there are no short-cuts in the crafting of “Fun Home.”   It’s not always a compliment to state that something seemed ‘familiar.’  That often means that it’s derivative, that its elements remind you of that person or that place – one of the cardinal sins of short-cutting.  Instead, the ‘familiars’ that “Fun Home” evokes, without the aid of types of people, sounds of voices and musical phrases or place-names, are memories, states of mind, emotions, moods and feelings.

The specifics in this musical masterwork have been put/pulled together by Jeanine Tesori [music] and Lisa Kron [book and lyrics], based on the graphic novel by cartoonist Alison Bechdel.   She subtitled her autobiography “A Family Tragicomic,” in which she reveals the stages of her life, maturing into an insightful cartoonist whose lesbianism informed how she saw the world, and how the world saw her.

Tough stuff, that.  In part, it’s because Bechdel’s father, Bruce, who taught English in the small western Pennsylvania town where she grew up, and operated the town’s undertaker establishment, had his own parallel biography unfolding, secretly – a penchant for sex with boys and young men that may have triggered his death, a possible suicide.  [The children have pared down the description of their father’s funeral home occupation, tagging it a “Fun Home.”]  The interweaving of these two lives, through decades of discovery, is glowingly achieved because Tesori [“Violet,” “Caroline, or Change”] and Kron [“Well”] are gifted, sensitive story-tellers, keen to reveal what’s behind the facts of a character’s life, and in this case, two characters’ lives.

Director Sam Gold has broadened his palette, formerly focused on dramas/straight plays [“The Flick,” “The Mystery of Love & Sex”], displaying a genuine affinity for musicals that do not fit the conventional musical theatre mold.  The Bechdels’ multi-layered lives demand acute attention to the non-verbal cues that stitch together the easily-misunderstood or the stereotypical, all the short-cuts that lazy producing rely on.  And in this case, Gold has dug deep into the talent pool to locate just the right person to represent the Bechdel family, and in particular, the role of Alison, subdivided into three periods of her life.  Judy Kuhn’s mother, Helen, seems to know just when to make her presence known, and just when to recede.  As the adult Alison, Beth Malone realizes how much her younger selves have shaped the grown-up.  On the tightrope balance between teen years and emerging college adult, ‘Middle Alison’ Emily Skeggs finds the sweet spot that allows for the missteps and happy events that open up Alison to her future self.  And as ‘Small Alison,’ the gifted, bravely-nuanced Sydney Lucas carries her young self through one of those iconic ‘theatre history’ moments.  In a heart-wrenching number titled “Ring of Keys,” Lucas chronicles how the pre-teen tries to make sense of her ill-defined but touchingly real discovery of mutual identity she shares with a lesbian delivery woman.

All three versions of Alison enjoy the benefits of having their outer and inner selves play off the same actor portraying the father, Bruce.  In yet another demonstration of his versatility, Michael Cerveris lets out some of this man’s tortured personality, and like a fishing rod, reels it back in again when it starts to get too close to endure.   Watch Cerveris let his postures, his behavior and his fluid physicality silently speak – hand-wringing when too-true revelations burble up to the surface, awkward little dance steps as the family inhabits a mock Partridge Family homage, uneven gestures of generosity when trying to seduce one of his young male targets.  Recall the defiance in the upward-thrust of Sweeney Todd, as portrayed by Cerveris, and you can understand how and where he can inject such decisiveness into such tentative movements.

Ben Stanton’s lighting design projects empty picture frames on the stage floor, reminding us that this is a family that does not ‘fit’ into any conventional depiction of ‘family.’  And similarly, the Kron/Tesori score does not ‘fit’ into any conventional set of categories that usually define a musical theatre creation.  They’ve all come together to craft and build a work that dares to move beyond even the most recent rule-breaking works, such as ‘Next to Normal,” as it sacrifices none of its powerful stories in its ability to invite you in – all the way in – to these lives.

AfterPlay

Keeping to a roughly-every-twenty-years cycle of Broadway productions, the D.L.Coburn two-hander “The Gin Game,” returns to the boards this fall, starring Cicely Tyson [age 90] and James Earl Jones [he’s 84.]  It had its premiere in 1977, starring Hume Cronin and Jessica Tandy, followed by its first revival in 1997, with Julie Harris and Charles Durning.  I saw both of those productions, have a great respect for the tender yet sharp-edged story of two retirees in a nursing home, and eager await its next incarnation . . . If you never quite got around to seeing the Tom Jones-Harvey Schmidt musical fable “The Fantasticks” during its last 42 years, you will get another chance.  An anonymous donor has come forth to extend its run  at the Snapple Theatre Center . . . And if you didn’t quite make it to the opening night event for the 13th Annual Downtown Urban Theater Festival on May 12, the festivities continue through May 30th, at HERE.  Visit www.dutfnyc.com for the details about the seventeen new stage works being presented.


On Book

It’s that time of year, when graduations propel some folks into the career-search mode, and catapult others into the June wedding mindset.  Suppose you’ve gotten it together enough to consider a life upon the stage – what’s out there to help?  The Fifth Edition of Brian O’Neil’s “Acting as a Business – Strategies for Success,” from Vintage Books – Random House is a very good place to start . . . and from a different perspective, check out Lisa Mulcahy’s unsentimental “The Actor’s Other Career Book – Using Your chops to Survive and Thrive.”  This Allworth Press edition walks you through the many ‘stages’ you need to learn about before you make that big decision . . . and if you and your theatre-folk friends will be gathering to view the Tony Awards broadcast on Sunday, June 7, pick up the latest collection of Tony Awards data from Heinemann, “The Tony Award” . . . and if you’ve decided to re-live some sugar-coated memories of sitcom days gone by, you can furnish your new digs using Diana Friedman’s “Sitcom Style,” from Potter Publishing.  It’s subtitled “Inside America’s Favorite TV Homes,” and lets you duplicate the interiors of more than a dozen popular T-V shows, from “Frasier” and “The Nanny” and “Murphy Brown,” to “All in the Family” and “I Love Lucy.”  Why not, after a hard day at work, come home to some real nostalgia-lovers’ dream home?

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TONY VELLELA wrote and produced the PBS documentary series about theatre, “Character Studies.”  His play, a Best Play winner at the New York International Fringe Festival, is published by Playscripts.  ArtAge published his “Maisie and Grover Go to the Theatre.”  He recently accepted a staff position presenting a variety of theatre-themed sessions at the 92nd St. Y [visit 92Y.org for details].  His new series of live, in-person conversations there, “Tony Vellela Talks Theatre with . . . ,” will next feature Susan Stroman on June 1. Two more one-day in-depth explorations of iconic works are on his calendar: “The King & I” on May 19, followed by “Chicago” on July 14.  These sessions feature segments from his exclusive interviews with theatre greats, including Angela Lansbury, Chita Rivera, Bebe Neuwirth, James Naughton, Ann Reinking, Debra Monk, Barbara Cook, and many others.   His interview pieces and feature articles on the performing arts have appeared in Dramatics Magazine, Life Magazine, Rolling Stone, The Christian Science Monitor and dozens of other outlets.

Intermission Talk

April 30th, 2015

“The King & I” Enjoyed

“The Visit” with “An

American in Paris”

by TONY VELLELA

When a person [or for that matter, a place], deprived of true romance, finally has that loss put right, everything seems to lift off the ground, as the joy of sharing that new, fresh love infuses its gravity-defying powers in everything it touches.  World War II -ravaged Paris, just after the liberation, was just such a place.   The new stage adaptation of the 1951 George and Ira Gershwin movie musical “An American in Paris” is filled with all those emotions, and so much more.  Director/choreographer  Christopher Wheeldon has expanded his creative repertoire from New York City Ballet  principal dancer and artistic associate of England’s Royal Ballet, to the Broadway stage.   A new work has successfully retained the admittedly simple story line of Jerry [splendid Robert Fairchild], an American GI staying behind in Paris after his discharge, to follow his dream of being a painter [Gene Kelly in the film].  He meets [not really by chance] a timid but radiant young ballerina/shop girl, Lise [a lissome, doe-eyed Leanne Cope, and Leslie Caron in the film].  Along the way, his composer friend Adam [a charmingly churlish Brandon Uranowitz], an arts patron Milo [a fetching Jill Paice, who admires more than Jerry’s creations], and the ballerina’s intended fiance Henri [Max Von Essen] conspire and contradict each other, injecting plot complications that any love story can easily overcome.  And the always-delightful Veanne Cox turns the part of Henri’s mother into a delicious role, adding a few more twists to the story line, but never overpowering the romance.

This sumptuous production is about showing more than telling.  The serviceable book, by Craig Lucas, handily connects the dots.  [An earlier, aborted project to adapt the movie for the stage had Wendy Wasserstein attached to pen the libretto – one wonders . . .]  Nowhere else in town can you revel in a piece that has dance, movement, music, lights and atmosphere combine to warmly wrap its arms around you.  Tapping Wheeldon to oversee the wedding of book and music gives the entire musical the invaluable benefit of someone who knows how to unspool dances, like silk billowing off a bobbin.  He starts with a wordless pastiche that presents the Paris of that moment, from the quickened pace of Parisians expressing their new-found freedoms, to a fierce mob-attack inflicted on a Nazi sympathizer.  He delivers great showmanship to the many standards, songs that have lived on, apart from the show, including “I Got Rhythm,” “Who Cares?,” “The Man I Love,” “Shall We Dance?,” “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” and many others.  And he offers us a spectacular ballet suite for the entire company, set to Gershwin’s brilliant, haunting “An American in Paris.”

Wheeldon very wisely has collaborated with an A-list of designers: Natasha Katz [lighting], Jon Weston [sound design], the 59 Productions team [projection design] and first among equals, Bob Crowley [set and costume design].  What they have given him, and his stand-out ensemble, is an environment that appears to float – yup, float – because all the set pieces have been mounted on silent wheels.  They are positioned and re-positioned by people rather than electronics, gliding into place and away again, all with a welcome dash of whimsy.  And he fills the spaces with the assured aplomb of a veteran director.  One lively set-piece has Jerry follow Lise into the shop where she works, resulting in a boisterous, cheerful number that brings to mind that same kind of choreographed chaos  Prof. Harold Hill unleashed in Marian’s library.

No musical like this can survive if it feels like a stitched-together collection of scenes and sequences.  This production owes a great debt to Rob Fisher, who has adapted pieces from the Gershwin canon, gifting them to Wheeldon, who in turn gives his cast  these excellent orchestrations to move to, as they segue from moment to moment.   He has chosen a handsome, appealing, musically masterful pair in Fairchild and Cope, who bring to mind memorable, versatile on-screen dancers of the era when the Oscar-winning picture was made, such as Kelly, Caron, Cyd Charisse, Fred Astaire, Bambi Lynn, and Marge and Gower Champion.

If one wants to dispense credit where credit  is due, some of it needs to be sent back in time to Vincente Minnelli, who directed the 1951 lush, sensuous motion picture, staking out the territory this production needed to recall.  Happily, it does.

At the same time [1951] that movie-goers were being dazzled by “An American in Paris” on the big screen, theatre-goers visiting Broadway’s St. James Theatre were experiencing the birth of another classic – composer Richard Rodgers and book and lyric-writer Oscar Hammerstein II’s “The King and I.”   Today’s audiences can, with no disrespect intended, say they’ve seen this classic tale of courage, dignity, and the clashes of cultures and human hearts brought to life at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theatre in a production superior to any in its history.

Alone among Broadway producing entities, Lincoln Center operates much like the fabled movie studios during Hollywood’s Golden Age, with vast resources of all kinds brought together to present matchless work.  And that becomes apparent within minutes of the opening, as the ship carrying schoolteacher Anna Leonowens and her young son Louis glides into the port of Bangkok.  That’s because the ship makes its way right into the audience, a stunning effect, as mother and son peer expectantly onto the dock, awaiting a welcoming party to escort them to the palace of the King of Siam.  It is 1861, the world’s leading political players are snapping up countries around the globe to claim as their colonies, and the insightful but poorly educated King has hired Anna to teach his children [and perhaps their mothers as well] the ways of the West, hoping to hold off the very real threat that the British Navy, docked nearby,  will soon invade.

And the King’s welcoming party does arrive, streaming down the aisles of the Beaumont much like the parade of animals entering the realm of “The Lion King.”  The sounds, dance moves, costuming and colors of Siam seem to provide the newcomers with a sense of how rich and textured this place will be, and they are escorted into the palace without incident, until a major snag hits the proceedings.  Anna’s version of her contract included having a private, separate house outside the palace, a provision the King has chosen to forget and ignore.  Against her better judgment, she agrees to stay, charmed by the parade of the King’s many, many children who will be her charges.  [Remember how Nellie’s heart was melted by Emile’s children in another  R&H classic, “South Pacific.”]

Easily negotiating her way despite the miles-wide hoop-skirt dress she wears, Kelli O’Hara presents a woman balancing the many stages of her life that have all come together at this critical moment.  She is the widow of a navy captain, as well as the mother of  pre-teen, inquisitive son Louis, and also, the representative of Western culture.  She stands as the embodiment of what the King calls the ‘scientific’ way of doing things.  And at or near the bottom of the list, she is, save for Louis, a woman alone in a strange and challenging land.  Perhaps more than any other role in her illustrious career, O’Hara has been provided with the opportunity to inhabit a character who is juggling all these elements at the same time.  Not even the very commendable portrayal she fashioned in the recent “Bridges of Madison County” involved bringing to life such a complex, conflicted and compelling role.  And the production’s strength and substance starts and ends with her.

This is a genuine eye-popping spectacular, and not simply because of lavish sets and costumes.  Dances reflect the stylized movement of men and women from this region: eye-filling,  angular-limbed movements of native rituals, which have long been repeated in tapestries and pottery.  And the ubiquitous applications of gold echo how southeast Asian cultures have traditionally always used it to summon good fortune, nowhere more than an all-seeing, all-knowing statue of Buddha that presides over the King’s domain.

To impress the landing party of British naval officers who have arrived to check out how ‘civilized’ the Siamese people are, Anna suggests presenting a stage play based on Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” a book being eagerly devoured by slave girl Tuptim.  The beguiling young woman has been presented to the King by his neighbor and potential adversary, the King of Burma.  The result: a narrated-ballet depiction of how she has translated the American classic into “The Small House of Uncle Thomas.”  The result: a folklore tale amusingly assayed through the simple yet respectful cultural references of the young woman’s experiences.   This world of “Uncle Thomas” swirls about, as giant snowflakes suspended from poles, represent the harsh winter in ‘the kingdom of Kentucky.’   Acres of billowing silk represent the tumultuous river runaway slave-girl Topsy tries to navigate.  This production’s lilting, child-like version of the saga is better than any other version I’ve ever seen of this vital element in the emergence of the critical breach between Anna and the King.

Young Jake Lucas maintains a proper, poised demeanor as Anna’s son Louis, matched by Jon Viktor Corpuz’s performance as the Crown Prince.  And as the powerful, influential Lady Thiang, the King’s first wife, Ruthie Ann Miles commands the respect that must be shown to her as mother of the future king.   She treads a perilous tightrope in the King’s court, overseeing all the other wives, protecting both her son and her husband from those who would try to supersede the succession.  She understands that there are those who are wary of Anna’s growing ability to persuade the King that many ingrained traditions regarding the treatment of his subjects, and in particular of women, are indeed barbaric.  Miles delivers a nuanced, calibrated performance, showing how this woman, through restraint rather than assertions,  has managed to grow into much more than a wife/mother, and has learned well how to manipulate situations to keep the peace, with no loss of face to the King, while at the same time insuring her son’s succession to the throne.

If there is a weakness in this otherwise glorious production, it is Ken Watanabe’s poor diction.  Of course, the King’s English should be unpolished, but that does not excuse his often flawed pronunciations and garbled articulation.  More’s the pity, since his otherwise anchored performance captures the evolution of a supreme ruler who has come to terms with the myth of his ‘infallibility,’ as he discovers, and acknowledges his human emotions and vulnerabilities.

The actual life story of Anna Leonowens stands as one of those properties that has successfully withstood many translations, from personal memoir, to stage play, to black-and-white film, and color film, and adaptation into a stage musical [that is this version], and a last stop on the ‘popular culture’ train when the musical emerged as a beloved motion picture.  Yet, for those who have seen that picture [starring Yul Brynner as the King, repeating his Broadway performance, and Deborah Kerr as Anna, ably aided by the off-screen vocals of Marni Nixon], the experience of being brought into the lives and feelings of these characters will more than match the impact of a two-dimensional telling of the tale. Like Anna, you become immersed in the vibrant hues, the tactile surfaces, the memorable melodies and the powerful emotions this masterwork contains.  All hail the King!

Talking of royalty, the [relatively] new musical “The Visit,” from John Kander (music), the late Fred Ebb (lyrics), and Terrence McNally (book) currently in residence at the Lyceum Theatre, might better be titled “The Visit From Queen Chita.”  Broadway legend, winner of two Tony Awards and seven additional nominations, and uncontested doyenne of The Great White Way, Chita Rivera carries her 82 years with a regal presence that still captivates.  Her newest role, Claire Zachanassian, is part romantic, part villainess and all seductress.  Based on the 1956 folktale drama of the same name by Friedrich Durrenmatt, the almost macabre proceedings unfold in a lean, spare single setting, a railway station long ago fallen into disrepair.  Dead and dying grape vines strangle the rusting girders.  And the townspeople in this desolate, bankrupt backwater Mediterranean village await the arrival of one of their own, the long-departed waif who has since become the wealthiest woman in the world, whom they hope will rescue them from certain extinction.  And she’s not alone.

Escorted by a sinister butler, and a pair of blind eunuchs, who protect  an imposing ebony coffin,  she has also brought a proposition to save their village.  However, before her ‘deal’ can be revealed, she methodically, coldly reminds those welcoming her today to the injustices she suffered as a wronged teen-ager, and of the emotional lacerating she endured from her handsome, cocksure boyfriend Anton all those many decades ago.  The weather-beaten old man he has grown into is played with both melancholy and bravura by Roger Rees.  It is Anton that she has returned to see, and she demands nothing less than his life, in exchange for a gift of $8 billion to the town, and an additional $2 million apiece for its residents.  Kill him, and she writes the checks.

This seemingly simple plot, however, teases us with all the hard-core questions that people have tried to reconcile since civilization began – what is one person’s life worth?   Is there an expiration date that attaches to an injustice?   What can money buy beyond material things?  And can an old, long-dead love be revived?  Should it?  Claire challenges her hated birthplace to settle her score with Anton, who can still stir some embers in this cheetah, a commanding vision in blazing white mink and blinding red lipstick.

It is to director John Doyle’s credit that the outcome is never certain, that he keeps tension alive, as songs and dancing reveal the intricacies of Claire’s poisoned past.  And after seven or nine husbands, she knows exactly how to play things moment to moment, and how to torture all assembled with her tantalizing bargain.  Will they comply and shoot their beloved neighbor and friend, in exchange for the fortune?  Will Anton’s long-suffering wife intercede and disrupt Claire’s plan?  Can Claire and Anton recapture their youthful rapture?  Will she kill him and then herself, leaving their burial together in that coffin to her grim attendants?

The musical has travelled many roads before landing on Broadway.  Originally conceived as a vehicle for Angela Lansbury, that plan was abandoned when Ms. Lansbury had to withdraw to attend to her ailing husband.  Chita [who has a rich history with the creators, as well as with choreographer Graciela Daniele] has taken Claire from Chicago’s Goodman, to DC’s Signature Theatre, and finally to last summer’s Williamstown Theatre Festival, while the piece was tweaked and prodded into its current intermission-less ninety-eight minutes.  Fred Ebb’s score, while revisiting familiar chords and patterns heard in works such as “Chicago,” “Cabaret,” “Steel Pier,” and “The Scottsboro Boys,” has infused it with the haunting harmonies reminiscent of Federico Fellini’s longtime composer/collaborator Nino Rota.  And throughout the show, Chita/Claire commands the spotlight.  Yes, the dancing has been toned down to accommodate those sixteen metal screws in her character Claire’s left leg, a repair made following a 1986 car accident.  And yes, her singing voice has echoes of its decades of good service, from “West Side Story,” “Bye, Bye Birdie,” “Chicago,” and “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” to “The Rink,” and many other vocal victories.

But, hey!  Chita’s back!  And there will always be a time and a place for a visit with this royal legend.

On Book

Coming up next week will be a rather thorough review of the exciting, much-buzzed-about new musical “Fun Home,” which features Jeanine Tesori’s splendid score , matched with book and lyrics by Lisa Kron.  This show is based on the graphic novel by cartoonist Alison Bechdel – full title: “Fun Home – A Family Tragicomic,” from Houghton Mifflin’s division that publishes its Mariner Book collection.   Why mention it in the ‘On Book’ section?  To urge you to pay a visit to the Drama Bookshop to pick up a copy of that novel,.  It’s certainly a worthy way to spend your ‘down time’ reading, and I think it will enhance the experience of seeing the show, running now at the Circle in the Square theatre . . . However, if you’d like to dive into a fascinating reading experience that also honors the idea of ‘home,” consider a very engrossing pair of new books from Dress Circle Publishing. The musical theatre historian and producer  Jennifer Ashley Tepper has compiled this literary ‘duet,’ with the full title “The Untold Stories of Broadway – Tales from the World’s Most Famous Theaters.”  The list of people interviewed for this project runs well past one hundred, everyone revealing inside anecdotes and, as they say, ‘fun facts.’  Wanna sneak behind the curtain at “Wicked,” or “Rent” or “A Chorus Line?”  What did Jonathan Groff undertake to cop tickets for “Thoroughly Modern Millie?”  And who was observed dropping trou in the direct sightline of a venerated TV icon?  And the good news is that there are more editions on the way.

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TONY VELLELA wrote and produced the PBS documentary series about theatre, “Character Studies.”  “Admissions,” his Best Play Award-winner [N.Y. International Fringe Festival] is published by Playscripts.  ArtAge Press published his play “Maisie and Grover Go to the Theatre.”  His articles about the performing arts have appeared in dozens of publications, including Parade, the Christian Science Monitor, Rolling Stone, Dramatics, Reader’s Digest and the Robb Report.  He has taught at several institutions, including Columbia University Teachers College, HB Studios and the New School.  He is currently conducting theatre-topic classes and sessions at the 92nd St. Y [visit 92Y.org for details], as well as small-group sessions and individual coaching from his home in Manhattan.

Intermission Talk March 30, 2015

March 30th, 2015

“The Audience” for

“The Heidi Chronicles”

Crosses All Generations

by TONY VELLELA

“I’m sorry I don’t want you to find out that I’m worthless.  And superior.”  Dr. Heidi Holland, art historian, author, professor, friend, makes this confession as guest speaker to a banquet room of other Miss Crain’s alumnae, the exclusive Chicago girls’ school.  The topic?  Women, Where Are We Going?  It’s 1986.  And Heidi does not know where she is going.

When Wendy Wasserstein’s brilliant play “The Heidi Chronicles” premiered in 1988 at Playwrights Horizons, later moving, for a three-year run, to Broadway’s Plymouth Theatre, it’s fair to say that the playwright also did not know where she was going.  What she did know was that her tightly-constructed serious drama, laced with wit sharp as a carving knife, had up-ended both how a certain category of women looked at their lives, and how women characters would forevermore be depicted.  Spanning nearly a quarter century [1965 – 1989], the story line explores personal and professional relationships, at a time when the notion of women ‘Having it all’ first gained real traction.

Going from inside out, this production has been blessed with a few real assets, chief among them casting Elisabeth Moss as Heidi.  Her career has included other characters with challenging life situations, including Peggy Olsen, whose evolving assertiveness in AMC’s “Mad Men” has much in common with Heidi, and Zoe Bartlett, daughter of President Jeb Bartlett, in NBS’s “West Wing.”  Moss possesses an elusive quality that may just come naturally to some – her public ‘image’ has few definitive adjectives attached to it.  People like that often find that others project onto them the characteristics they believe the person has or should have – a kind of blank slate – not judgmental, not aggressive, not flirtatious, and not ego-centric.  Wasserstein told me on more than one occasion how lucky she felt that it was Joan Allen who originally brought her Heidi to life, because she’s an actress in possession of these highly-cherished characteristics.   [It’s the principal reason I found Jamie Lee Curtis’s Heidi in the T-V movie version less convincing.  She, whether consciously or not, projects certain attitudes, regardless of the role, the circumstances or the dialogue.]

With Moss as Heidi, this production has made room for the work of Jason Biggs and Bryce Pinkham, who round out the three main characters.  While attending a dance with her best friend Susan [a smart, focused Ali Ahn] while still a high schooler at Miss Crain’s, Heidi meets cute – Pinkham’s clever, witty Peter Patrone.  The pair complement each other’s natural inclination to stay removed from the action, using for-their-age rather well-developed repartee [him to her: You look so bored you must be very bright.]   Somewhat prophetically, he affirms: “I want to know you all my life.  If we can’t marry, let’s be great friends.”

The third point on this triangle is Scoop Rosenbaum [Biggs].  When he meets Heidi at a Manchester, New Hampshire mid-winter dance for Eugene McCarthy’s Presidential ambitions, she’s now a Seven Sisters college student, still more comfortable on the outskirts of the dance.  Scoop trumpets his importance, boasting that as a reporter for The Liberated Earth News, he’s been chosen to pick up Paul Newman from the airport.  Like Peter, Scoop has an immediate attraction to Heidi’s quick wit, but Scoop manages to use his as a kind-of verbal truncheon, deployed in service of picking up women, or at least, her.  Even at this first meeting, Heidi and Scoop lay out their fundamental life positions.  She states “All people deserve to fulfill their potential,” and reacting to his polished confidence, wonders “what is it that mothers teach their sons that they never bother to tell their daughters.”

During the ensuing two-and-a-half decades, Heidi’s world takes her to representative situations, places, events and societal moments that define the state of American life.  She joins women friends protesting the exclusion of women artists at the Chicago Institute of Art – on the day Richard Nixon resigns.  She attends a baby shower for Scoop’s accommodating wife, in the wake of the assassination of John Lennon.  And a secondary character, Lisa’s younger sister Denise [an appealing Elise Kibler] holds an important key to Wasserstein’s overview of the play’s topic of feminism.  As the playwright anticipated, younger women would come to take for granted the advances made by Heidi’s generation, even finding fault with how they conducted their lives.  Women today in their teens and twenties find it implausible that there was a time in this country in the not-so-distant past when the questions Heidi’s cohorts struggle with were ever a real issue.  The quarter century the play spans was riddled with assaults on women’s rights from many quarters.  The thought that a single woman could/should be a mother – natural or adoptive – rocked institutions, split apart friendships and working relationships, caused many women to re-examine very carefully all the parts of their identity and self-image.  It seemed like, every week, there was another ‘the first woman . . .’ story in the news, and that stage of American life continues.  One of the most poignant consequences of Heidi’s journey emerges when her best friend Peter comes out to her during the women artists protest, and they manage to heal the breach that so many others never did – the strain of who’s liberation was more critical, more painful, more significant – equality for women, or for the gay community.  And again, Wasserstein’s writing personalizes the issue so poignantly, as we see two individuals, rather than two stereotypical characters, try to understand each other.

Wasserstein’s very canny decision to make her central character someone who is not the central character in her life story presented an unusual challenge – how to make a self-defined outsider the person whose life we want to follow.  There’s been a fair amount of carping in reaction to the staging of this revival, about how relevant Heidi’s story still might be, and how the events and people mentioned still might be.  I would ask those making these kinds of observations whether they were unable to feel moved by the revelations in the dark corners of the Keller family  in “All My Sons” without specific knowledge of World War II homefront activities, or whether lack of familiarity with the politically-motivated blacklisting that went on during Korean War years reduced their feelings for Katie and Hubbel in “The Way We Were.”  I confess to one area of nit-picking that hit me as soon as I saw the first full-page New York Times ad, announcing the production.   There’s outsider, reserved Heidi, holding forth in a short-sleeved, fire engine red, low-cut dress, with a come-hither smirk on her face to match.

Costume designer Jessica Pabst made a serious misstep here – was it trying to make her look more contemporary?  More social [both male characters have always been featured behind her in the red-dress shot].  Others who also saw the original production have also told me how jarring that photo was to them when it first ran, and made them think twice about revisiting the play.

Wendy spent a good deal of her time trying to make the point that she wrote about specific people in specific situations, and not stand-ins for societal stereotypes.   That meticulous crafting of her work paid off – members of any generation can find a great deal to enjoy in this classic Pulitzer Prize, Tony Award winner.  Despite her noteworthy good humor, it remained a sore point for her to continue having to say that Heidi’s life choices were those of Heidi, not of an entire generation.   And as long as anyone believes that the other people whom she’s close to may be at odds with her choices, and as long as society forces labels onto its members that marginalize rather than include them, this play will resonate.  For now, take this opportunity to experience the signal achievement of one of our great playwrights – gender aside.

What do Queen Elizabeth II, Dolly Gallagher Levi and the King of Siam have in common?  They’ve all been brought to stage by one actor [not the same one for all three], and all garnered considerable acclaim.  In reverse order, those thesps are/were Yul Brynner, Carol Channing and Helen Mirren.  [Remember James Tyrone in “Long Day’s Journey. . .?”]  And Ms. Mirren’s regal recreations of meetings with Britain’s prime ministers can be seen right now at Broadway’s Schoenfeld Theatre, in Peter Morgan’s “The Audience,” where she is revisiting the role that won her the 2006 Best Actress Oscar for portraying Her Majesty in “The Queen.”  This production, which earned her an Olivier Best Actress Award, has been transported from its London origins, two years ago.  [I refuse to use that wearying phrase ‘from across the pond.’  Retire it, please.]

And just as a lack of specific knowledge of who all the bold-face-named people are does not detract in large measure from enjoying “The Heidi Chronicles,” here, too, one can enjoy so much of the goings-on without being steeped in all the historical names/dates/places ricocheting round the stage.

And what a stage!  The Windsors inhabit two splendid domiciles – their day-to-day digs, London’s Buckingham Palace, and their working country estate in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, that serves as the nestling-place for Balmoral Castle.  Both locales are presented with just enough detail to evoke their splendor, their provenance, and ironically, despite ever-soaring ceilings and vast expanses of rugs and drapes, their ability to make one feel quietly confined.  Understandably, the Queen appears more relaxed at Balmoral, possibly because it is privately-owned by the family, and not by the Crown.  She’s perfectly comfortable when one minister’s audience at Balmoral has a backdrop of “a spot of summer rain.”  [The estate was a gift to Queen Victoria in 1852 by her loving consort, Prince Albert.]   And once again, designer Bob Crowley [no relation, I believe to the residents of Downton Abbey], has delivered a masterful depiction of place, time and atmosphere.

Portraying a living monarch presents specific challenges for any actor.  In this case, Mirren is tackling the unique challenge of giving us moments in someone’s public and private life during sixty-plus years, and out of chronological sequence.   Wizard Crowley, ably aided by hair and make-up designer Ivana Primorac, repeatedly transforms Mirren from one era to another, often during the flick of an eye.  This venerable actor hits all her marks – watch her posture arch and straighten, hear her voice almost sparkle as a young girl and devolve into sterner stuff as age, health and crises take their toll, and take notice of how her body will gently rock back and forth in a gesture she retained all her life.  We witness the intellectual growth of this young girl through her teen years, jolted by the death of her father, King George, and marred by Europe’s clumsy descent into another war.  These were duty-driven times when she reluctantly but with a steely sense of purpose, exhibited a maturity her troubled realm will come to rely on.  If we don’t understand that she understands how she possesses power through influence, all we would get is an impersonation of familiar public moments and little else.  The full sweep of the play’s chronology assures us, as the play’s audience, that there is substance here.

Elizabeth’s personality manages to serve her well, as it bumps up against prime ministers large and small, modest and arrogant, grounded and unsteady, each one learning how to back out of the room while maintaining a modicum of dignity – some more successfully than others.  Director Stephen Daldry has carefully assisted an estimable ensemble in extracting choice moments, as minister after minister must attend their weekly meetings, policy reviews masquerading as afternoon tea sessions.

Among the passing parade of spot-on depictions are Dylan Baker, capturing the boyish charm of a politically naive John Majors;  Judith Ivey, giving the Queen some unladylike push-back as Margaret Thatcher; the rumpled bulldog Winston Churchill, trying to secure a place in the Queen’s confidence as a seasoned grandfather figure, done to perfection by Dakin Williams, and seemingly her favorite, when it comes to sheer camaraderie, Richard McCabe’s humane, almost homespun Harold Wilson.  When the crisis builds concerning the Suez Canal, she laces her colloquies with Sir Anthony Eden with just enough starch to make it clear that she is, indeed, thank you very much, on top of all the issues.  A simple “I read everything” puts his borderline paternalism to rest.

Lest one feels put off by the prospect of a come-to-life series of historical Madame Tussaud-inspired dioramas, there is a different prospect on offer.  Here is a to-be-cherished opportunity to experience capital G great capital A acting.  Two of the most celebrated and honored grande dames of the theatre of the last century  made their mark in roles about royalty.  Laurence Housman’s 1931 drama “Victoria Regina” provided Helen Hayes with the role that she became identified with, which required her to depict the British monarch from youth to old age, and with a reputation that resulted in having a Broadway theatre named for her.  Thirty years later, Julie Harris brilliantly mastered the same role for television’s Hallmark Hall of Fame.  And now, Helen Mirren joins that small list of greats.

On Book

Talking of greats, few people have worked with as many greats as Robert Lewis.  His penetrating, well-written autobiography “Slings & Arrows: Theater in My Life” has been in paperback for a while, from Applause Books, and in it, you will find an overflowing life, filled with the likes of Julie Harris, Lillian Hellman, Marilyn Monroe and Tallulah Bankhead, not to mention Stella Adler, Arthur Miller, Elia Kazan and Agnes De Mille.  You’ll also be acquainted with how Lewis worked with Tennessee Williams, Orson Welles, Alan Jay Lerner, Charlie Chaplin and yes, even Eleanora Duse . . . . the new Broadway season promises to introduce several new musicals, and if you’d like to ground yourself in their ancestry, pick up a pick-up [you may need it to tote this tome home], and buy David Leopold’s “Irving Berlin’s Show Business.”  Coming in at more than 225 pages, it’s not a coffee table book – it’s a coffee table on its own.  That’s because Leopold has peppered this work with many dozens of full-color photos, production stills and publicity shots, all of them delicious. Berlin was another giant in the world of theatre, his 100+ years churning out classic after classic – from half a dozen Ziegfeld Follies, five Music Box Revues and “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” to “Annie Get Your Gun,” “Call Me Madam,” “Easter Parade” and more, all brimming with numbers that got recorded in every style, by all of the country’s greatest warblers – it’s the true chronicle of American music . . . I’m re-referring “Wendy and the Lost Boys,” Julie Salamon’s captivating biography of Wendy Wasserstein.  Now that Heidi has returned to Broadway, it’s fitting that this loving  look at a genuine genius of her era be read and enjoyed . . . and going back to the importance of accurate, character-specific costuming, there’s a very comprehensive little volume simply titled “Edith Head,” a commendable compilation pulled together by Isabella Alston and Kathryn Dixon, for TAJ Books International.  Head received thirty-five academy Award nominations, winning eight Oscars, a still-standing record.   It’s loaded with sketches and full-color photos from her decades-long career.

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TONY VELLELA wrote and produced the PBS documentary series about theatre, “Character Studies.”  His play, a Best Play winner at the New York International Fringe Festival, is published by Playscripts.  ArtAge published his “Maisie and Grover Go to the Theatre.”  He recently accepted a staff position presenting a variety of theatre-themed sessions at the 92nd St. Y [visit 92Y.org for details].  His new series of live, in-person conversations there, “Tony Vellela Talks Theatre with . . . ,” will next feature Susan Stroman on June 1. Two more one-day in-depth explorations of iconic works are on his calendar: “The King & I” on May 19, followed by “Chicago” on July 14.  These sessions feature segments from his exclusive interviews with theatre greats, including Angela Lansbury, Chita Rivera, Bebe Neuwirth, James Naughton, Ann Reinking, Debra Monk, Barbara Cook, and many others.   His interview pieces and feature articles on the performing arts have appeared in Dramatics Magazine, Life Magazine, Rolling Stone, The Christian Science Monitor and dozens of other outlets.

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Intermission Talk

March 3rd, 2015

“Between Riverside

and Crazy” There’s

No “Abundance”

by TONY VELLELA

If there’s one thing there’s plenty of in Beth Henley’s 1989 play “Abundance,” now in revival at Theatre Row’s Beckett Theatre, it’s exposition.  Admittedly, she has chosen a sweeping saga to relate – the play follows a twenty-five year period in the lives of two mail order brides, from their arrival in the relatively-untamed Wyoming Territory of the 1860s, through a final encounter in St. Louis.

When we meet them, Bess is an outwardly meek, plain-ish young woman, enraptured by romantic notions engendered in dime novels about true love, while Macon, the first person who talks to Bess after a nine-day wait for her intended, is outgoing, boisterous and eager for adventure.  The man who shows up for Bess is the brother of the man she expects, because that man has died.   The brother, Jack, has none of the intellectual or aesthetic inclinations of his deceased brother.  He drags Bess off, marries her, and thus begins her abusive odyssey.  Macon, meanwhile, is claimed by Will, a humble, modest man with a scarred face and missing one eye, covered with a eye patch – not a love match, but a serviceable one.

As time passes, we learn, through rather blunt dialogue, about how the two women’s friendship fills in for what’s missing in their marriages.    And while colorful dialogue gets bandied about, some of it laced with more two-dollar words than seem natural to their users, meaningful facts and events get told rather than shown, breaking any mood.  [“Can you believe it’s been four years since. . .” or “It was just last summer she buried her infant child in a soap box. . .”]  When Bess fails one night to return to the cabin they’re all sharing, it’s discovered that she’s been kidnapped by Indians.  Despite the deep bond between the women, Macon doesn’t actively resist the advances of Jack, almost immediately, launching an ongoing sexual relationship.

More time passes,  crops fail, and Bess reappears.  She’s been held captive by an Indian tribe and turned into a slave bride, complete with facial tattoos.  Her survivor tale becomes the fodder for a true adventure book, and the subject of a wildly successful speaking tour.  With this comes the searing rift between the women, as Bess becomes the more powerful, and turns her back on the others.

Sounds like a hoot, don’t it?  Well, sadly, some serious missteps weaken the impact of the tale, chief among them how the drama is compromised by Henley’s often lazy writing, that foregoes crafted expository scenes for exclamatory statements.  At  rise, a striking wrap-around piece that resembles tree bark graces all three walls, and lighting changes produce some eye-pleasing effects.  But designer Wilson Chin undercuts that clever choice by adding a ten-foot tall block-and-tackle rigging that overhangs the proceedings, yet never comes into play at any time, ever.  Not since the huge dead tree that haunted the stage of “Parade” has such an overpowering image done such damage.  And despite program notes that explain how the play is based on factual events, Henley has a lovely feature of the women’s friendship, how Macon teaches Bess to whistle.  She uses Joseph Brackett’s Shakers dancing song “Simple Gifts” as the tune.  It’s another unexplained, facile choice that, because of its familiarity as the basis for Aaron Copland’s theme in his ‘Appalachian Spring,’ takes us out of the story.

All four principals – Ted Koch, Kelly McAndrew, Todd Lawson and Tracy Middendorf – do their very best to mine what’s on the page, but even their best efforts can’t kindle enough interest to make us invest emotionally in the outcome.

Ironically, despite being drawn from factual events, “Abundance” rings false, while the new Stephen Adly Guirgis play “Between Riverside and Crazy,” an entirely fictional story, bristles with real-life feeling.   The central role of Pop, a retired New York City policeman, is stunningly portrayed by one of our most accomplished actors, Stephen McKinley Henderson, who has finally been given a leading role.  Ensconced in the kitchen of his rambling Upper West Side rent-controlled apartment, Pop chooses to sit in the wheelchair that belonged to his deceased wife.  His choice to do that reflects a willingness to appear victimized, the basic characteristic that threads throughout.

One of the many virtues of any work by Guirgis is that who it’s about – here, it’s a retired cop, a jailbird son, a shiftless hanger-on and his slutty-looking girlfriend, the cop’s former female partner, and devoted Church Lady – does not begin to tell you what it’s about.  This writer instinctively creates layers of behavior, varieties of personal agendas, well-hidden facts and contradictory responses for each of his characters.  And under the astute direction of Austin Pendleton, a pitch perfect ensemble delivers the goods for each of their roles.

A few plot points include an aggressive campaign to oust Pop from the apartment, so landlords can charge a market rate rent; a shooting in which Pop was seriously wounded by another off-duty cop that Pop believes has not been properly compensated; some losing struggles with various addictions, and an over-eager evangelist church lady who weaves together religion with mysticism.

The chronicle unfolds on a multi-segment turntable set, meticulously dressed under the superb direction of set designer Walt Spangler.  As various rooms in the coveted apartment turn into view, so, too,  do the various themes and situations, providing just the right sense of how separate events, like separate spaces, can co-exist distinctively,  rather than blend together and lose their integrity.

Because the playwright has us meet his central character in a somewhat comic set-up – the first kitchen scene when dietary foibles stand in for larger conflicts – the steady if irregularly-spaced [that’s a good thing] turns of events can never be predicted.   Each one of these walking wounded speaks with a unique voice, a particular dialect, a personal point of view.  Very rarely do all the components of a stage drama come together as organically as they do here.  And if there’s a middle-management type holding down an acquisitions post at any cable television network, hustle yourself over to the Second Stage Theatre and snap up this gem, so that the whole country can bask in the sheer pleasures it provides.   And while we’re at it, where’s the visionary producer who will mount an all-black cast version of “Death of a Salesman,” toplining Henderson and S. Epatha Merkerson?  I’m there.

On Book

How to fight the drearies of this endless winter!  Immerse yourself in the life stories of theatre folk who have given us so much pleasure, diversion, entertainment and food for thought.  Here are four recommendations to take you away from the now.  Given his monumental contributions to the American theatre, one would have imagined that, by now, a theatre would be named for Moss Hart.  In Jared Brown’s diligently compiled “Moss Hart: A Prince of the Theatre,” from Back Stage Books, the all-too-short life of this genius unfolds, and wraps you up in its warmth . . . although ‘warmth’ is rarely used to describe the personage of his subject, Robert Dowling’s “Eugene O’Neill – A Life in Four Acts” from Yale University Press,  makes it very clear why this dramatist remains a giant of the stage.  Much more than a diary of plays produced and productions heralded or derided, this dutiful biography gives us more insight into the man, the women in his life, the people who governed his place in American theatre, and all of it set against the backdrop of the times when they occurred.  It’s as substantive as any PBS special, and you get to go back and revisit sections as your knowledge of this remarkable life grows from chapter to chapter . . .

While preparing for my recent special class at the 92nd St. Y on Clifford Odets’ “Golden Boy,” I discovered Victoria Wilson’s utterly charming new book “A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True 1907 – 1940.”  Stanwyck famously portrayed Lorna Moon in the film version of that play.  In her volume, Wilson takes us by the hand and walks us through every phase and stage of this not-heralded-enough actor, who had her early success on the New York stage.  The term ‘page-turner’ was coined for this one . . . and finally, a little-known personal story to consider as a welcome respite.  Character actor, producing associate, librettist and agent Richard Seff has seen it all, from every vantage point, and reports his memories, anecdotes, observations and advice in “Supporting Player – My Life Upon The Wicked Stage.”  Boldface names weave in and out of his glorious life, as we bump shoulders with Chita, Roz Russell, the Merm and many, many more.   Treat yourself.

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TONY VELLELA wrote and produced the PBS theatre documentary series “Character Studies.”  His play “Admissions” won a Best Play Award at the New York International Fringe Festival, and was published by Playscripts.  He’s written nine other produced plays and musicals.  He teaches theatre sessions at the 92nd St. Y [92Y.org for details], and launches a new series of live events, “Tony Vellela Talks Theatre with . . .” on March 12, when he welcomes Michael Cerveris as his first guest.  On June 1, he interviews Susan Stroman as the next entry in the series.

Intermission Talk

January 27th, 2015

Will the ‘Constellations’

Unite ‘The Elephant Man’

and ‘The Merry Widow’

for a ‘Honeymoon in Vegas?’

by TONY VELLELA

Playwright Nick Payne has titled his dazzling new drama “Constellations.”  That’s constellationS – plural.  He has given us two rather bright, slightly above-average attractive young Brits whose individual realms, or universes [or constellations] are intercepted by each other.  She is Marianne, [an appropriately confident Rose Wilson] an academic careerist at Cambridge whose area of concentration is “theoretical early universe cosmology.”  Truly.  And he is Roland [a disarmingly fetching Jake Gyllenhaal] who makes his living as a bee-keeper.  Payne instructs us to place our minds, and therefore the location of this story, in ‘the multiverse,’ set in the ‘Past, Present and Future,’ capital letters noted.  He has selected a quote from Paul Davies that points out, in part, that ‘time is an illusion.’

Armed with these points of orientation, one should be prepared for an array of mini-scenes that kick in almost immediately.  Under a buoyant firmament of pink-tinted helium-inflated balloons that form their own unique and personal pantheon, Marianne and Roland start off in a meet-cute dialogue at the backyard barbecue of a mutual friend, and in short order, we see their two-to-three minute encounter replayed, this time with a different emphasis, and then again, with a third and fourth.  Getting past their ‘meet’ moment(s), they seem to stumble into a relationship, with several at-times humorous, at-times serious points of emphasis, depending on who is doing the recounting.

Payne has taken the tortured human exercise of ‘what if’ and given it a more engaging framework – starts and stops that will remind anyone who has taken an acting class of the kinds of improvisation games that are supposed to prepare actors to be at the same time spontaneous and reactive.  And unlike the currently running musical ‘If/Then,” which attempts to show two possible life lines that could have happened in the life of one young woman, ‘Constellations” ups the ante.  As we all [painfully] realize, our lives are built from mega-endless choices  made or not.   The collective result is the telling of several different stories that have happened, are now happening or may in future happen to this couple.

Payne’s writing looks deceptively simple, but in fact, it demonstrates a keen sensitivity to the role of the reaction in any relationship or encounter.  You can’t resist trying to re-weave these threads as they are unspooled, however difficult that may be, because it requires an ability to record each variation in your mind just as the next one is coming at you.  The general theme is delivered – the most pervasive illusion humans need to disavow themselves of, is that they have practically any control over the way their lives occur.  Director Michael Longhurst should be very grateful for at least one occurrence connected with his production of “Constellations” – the casting of two supremely talented, sharp-as-tacks actors who can re-wind, re-play and react as quick as a flash.  [And in that regard, lighting designer Lee Curran’s use of blackout flashes creates the exact ambiance that surrounds the story/stories.  It resembles the viewing of a collection of different takes of one scene during the filming of a movie.]   Wilson and Gyllenhaal score career triumphs as they live and re-live these conflicted lives.

Life’s random blessings and curses made the life of Joseph [John] Merrick a study in personal triumph over unimaginable misfortune.  Born in Leicester, England in 1862, Merrick suffered from a relentless amalgam of physical deformities and crippling diseases, damning him with a grotesque, misshapen appearance.  As a young man, he was taken in by a sideshow manager and turned into a popular ‘attraction’ as The Elephant Man.  Bernard Pomerance’s  play “The Elephant Man,” now in revival at the Booth Theatre, starring screen star Bradley Cooper [currently in ‘American Sniper’], follows Merrick’s tortured yet at times triumphant career, moving from circus freak to society darling, as his intellectual faculties trump the off-putting appearance that most people never see beyond.

At rise, a tawdry soiled  red curtain frames a translucent screen.  Behind it, the figure of an adult man stands, waiting to be revealed.  When he comes into view, it is a muscular, well-defined body that looks so perfect that one wonders if this is indeed the title character.  Then, with remarkable, slowly-evolving movements and twists, slowly and silently, the body assumes its contorted, gruesome form, depicting a human person who has been cursed with near sub-human features.  Cooper manages this transition with such ease, such rhythm, that it’s difficult to picture the original shape once the transition has been completed – an actor’s physical triumph.  Merrick’s true-life tale begins with him being set-upon by street thugs, and discovered by a carnival-type showman who sees Merrick as a guaranteed crowd-pleaser, a novelty worth paying for, to ogle at.  Merrick’s fate is forever altered when young Dr. Frederick Treves, an inquisitive surgeon, hears Merrick, tormented by his caged-animal type existence, crying out ‘Help me!  Help me!”  Treves invests time, money and personal reputation, bringing this outcast into the world of Victorian London society.  As memorably presented by Alessandro Nivola, Treves struggles to balance his competing objectives, namely to be sympathetic, analytical and mercenary.  Meetings with other professionals, clergy and even nurses hired to care for him always end badly, even harshly.  But it is the friendship of Mrs. Kendal, a prominent stage actress of the day who at first finds the prospect of meeting him an adventure in personal discovery, that gives Merrick the cerebral companionship that, at least temporarily during their times together, overrides the superficial rejections that constantly define his existence.  And as Lady Kendal,  Patricia Clarkson shows how genuine compassion, matched with a disregard for the opinions of others, can trump even the most traumatic circumstances a person has been subject to.

As a famous stage personage, Mrs. Kendal knows too well the curse of having others pay unwanted or at least unsolicited attentions.  This is a bond that permits each of them to look past appearances, and instead look into curious minds, and unfulfilled souls.  Ms. Clarkson, in my experience seeing her work for twenty + years now, has the rare ability to pull out of her characters an aspect of their experience, or their private view of life, that makes them the unique persons their writer/creators hoped to present.  I often refer to her breath-taking portrayal as Blanche in the Kennedy Center production of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” as the finest depiction of that complex character I’ve yet seen.  Here, she has a self-aware understanding that as an actress, she is permitted to always be acting – that is, at the same time to speak or comment or move, whatever the situation requires, and to see herself doing it.  It’s a very private awareness of oneself, a characteristic they each discover, that both know about themselves.  It’s a non-expressed wink at the rest of the world.

As his endeavors to bring Merrick into the London circles of the rich and famous demand constant vigilance, Treves confronts every kind of obstacle.  In his curiosity to understand Merrick the person – every aspect of what that means – Treves finds this part of his medical study grow into almost an obsession, and it overcomes him.  At his end, the compulsion reduces him to a compromised man with his own set of crippling mental and emotional afflictions.  We see him, at the end, plaintively crying out with the same plea he heard from his protege: “Help me!  Help me!”

Both “Constellations” and “The Elephant Man,” though vastly different in their details and circumstances, rely most heavily on the subtle interplay between and among actors filling their roles.  It’s fortunate indeed that both of these presentations have been blessed with  such high-caliber stage actors, capable of the moment-to-moment behavioral and vocal nuances that keep us so engaged.

Opera, of course, is all about voices.  While this is not a realm I have visited frequently, the opportunity of seeing/hearing Broadway’s Kelli O’Hara in a previously-unseen type of role was a great attraction.  She’s currently on view at the Met as a flirtatious ambassador’s wife in turn-of-the-last-century Paris, the catalyst for some rollicking shenanigans in Franz Lehar’s “The Merry Widow.”   Paired with the splendid soprano Renee Fleming, in the title role, on her ‘home turf,’ Ms. O’Hara more than provides the hoped-for vocal displays that have made her a star twenty blocks south.

Also making her Met debut is five-time Tony Award winner Susan Stroman, who has directed and choreographed this production, resplendent with all the design magic that transforms the Metropolitan Opera House into a fantasy world.  Ms. Stroman applies her musical theatre expertise to give us a light-as-meringue operetta confection, where we get the eye-popping treat of grand waltz music [most famously ‘The Merry Widow Waltz’] choreographed with stunning precision.  And the riotous chorus girls spin their allure in true Stroman style, as if the historic Maxim’s has come to life after a century of repose.   And it explodes with all the high-kicking and skirts-flouncing the stage can contain, and then some.

And where would you find contemporary versions of those flashy, splashy musical riots in Maxim’s ?  That would be Las Vegas!  When award-winning screenwriter Andrew Bergman penned, and directed his 1992 film farce “Honeymoon in Vegas,” he felt it could easily be the basis for a musical.  Nearly a quarter century later, he’s done it – now easily filling the big big stage at the Nederlander Theatre, this adaptation has been tune-ified via the music and lyrics of Jason Robert Brown.   And from the opening moments of its overture, “Honeymoon” conveys all the giddy glitz and razzmatazz of unapologetic Vegas lounge life.  Just a guess, but it’s possible that orchestrator Larry Blank’s prior assignment on “Catch Me If You Can” provided that brass-blaring, percussion-pounding sound that so perfectly sets the mood.

The honeymooners are Jack Singer [the ebullient Rob McClure, of ‘Chaplin’ fame], and his perennial betrothed girlfriend Betsy [an ideal girl-next-door Brynn O’Malley].  What’s been holding up the vows-taking?  Rob’s now-departed, but never forgotten mother Bea [made joyfully overbearing by the priceless, energy-bursting Nancy Opel, possessing all the charms of past comediennes such as Nancy Walker and Kaye Ballard].  Seems mom left this mortal coil with one last wish on her deathbed, that Jack never, ever get married.  And to reinforce this dying demand, mom manages to materialize, for Jack’s eyes only, anytime or anywhere wedding bells seem imminent.  [The son-smothering mother in “Bye, Bye Birdie” is a theatrical ancestor.]  Ms. Opel’s jack-in-the-box pop-ups alone are worth the price of admission.

When Jack finally breaks loose and impulsively grabs up Betsy, they fly off to Vegas for a wedding honeymoon trip in one.  With just a few hours to fill before they make their trip to a quickie wedding chapel that evening, Jack decides to grant himself one last round of poker, especially since casino owner Tommy Korman [a true beacon of light and smiles Tony Danza], invites him to join a special-guests game.  What Jack doesn’t know is that Tommy has spotted Betsy during their check-in, and was stopped in his tracks.  The young woman bears an uncanny resemblance to Tommy’s recently-departed wife Donna, a victim of too much sun-bathing that caused skin cancer.  To Tommy, this is no coincidence – it’s his opportunity for a second chance with a Donna look-alike, and he will do anything to make that happen.  What he does is rig the poker game, so that Jack loses multi-thousands of bucks that he has no way to cover.  Tommy’s offer: let me spend a weekend with Betsy, and your debts will be wiped clean.

Well, the permutations are not that difficult to imagine.  But they’re unspooled with so much old-fashioned musicals-type numbers and comic set pieces [including numerous reappearances of mom Bea, materializing in the most unlikely settings], that you just go with it.

McClure once again demonstrates his natural charm and boyish vigor, akin to the young Dick Van Dyke, that you forgive his dopey decisions.  And Danza, already accorded icon status by a certain demographic of the audience for whom he will always be the boss, tops it when he breaks into a pretty decent tap routine.  He seems just as surprised as the audience that he’s pulling it off so smoothly.  He’s still got some rough spots in his overall delivery.  However, the screwball premise and his mostly heartfelt pining for a lost love let you forgive.

The show?  Could easily lose about twelve minutes.  The book?  Vintage [which is to say the work of a veteran] Bergman.  The score?  Some of Brown’s best [albeit hindered at times with kind of tortured lyrics.]  There have been, during the last many or so decades, a phenomenon in television sitcom-land – those second-tier comedies that don’t merit Emmy Awards or nominations, but manage to be renewed year after year, because they are safe bets to offer up a pleasing storyline, a gaggle of very good performances and no bitter after-taste.  Think “The King of Queens,” or the current “The Middle.”   If there were a category of musical that holds the same place on Broadway, that’s where you’d find “Honeymoon in Vegas.”

Afterpieces

The indomitable Woodie King, Jr. launches the 46th season of his distinguished New Federal Theatre with “The Amira Baraka Project.”  His approach is to bookend the offerings, starting with a revival of the memorable “Dutchman,” from 1964, [performances begin on February 5th and continue through March 8th], and progress toan engagement of “The Most Dangerous Man in America (W.E.B.DuBois), scheduled for May.  The productions will take place at the Castillo Theater [543 west 42nd street] . . . Currently in rehearsal for production at Joe’s Pub, at the Public Theatre, is a production unfolding with a touch of poignant sadness.  “Josephine and I” recounts the near-fantastical life story of Josephne Baker, who went from the slums of St. Louis to international stardom as an entertainer, and a separate, perilous life as  a French Resistance spy and civil rights activist.  The production comes as the Broadway world mourns the recent loss of Baker’s adopted son Jean-Claude, who for decades presided over his all-welcoming theatre district cafe, Chez Josephine.  Previews begin 2/17 . . . Previews begin 2/10 for a production of the Clifford Odets’ classic “Rocket to the Moon,” at the Theatre at St. Clements.  Starring the ever-impressive George Morfogen, this tale of a Depression-era loveless marriage, spirit-sapping career and the temptation to leave it all behind also features Lou Libertore, who first made a Broadway mark in the original cast of “Burn This,” opposite John Malkovich and Joan Allen . . . and coincidentally, the subject of the Depression is what I’ve chosen as the theme of my newest round of sessions at the 92nd St. Y.  Check out the offerings by visiting 92Y.org — I’m exploring plays and musicals from and about that decade, including Rodgers & Hart’s “Babes in Arms,” Steinbeck’s  “Of Mice and Men,” Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie,” Kaufman & Hart’s “You Can’t Take It With You,” Arthur Miller’s “The Price” [featuring unseen video excerpts from my exclusive interview with the playwright], Lawrence & Lee’s “Auntie Mame” & and Jerry Herman’s musicalization of it, “Mame,” and two Odets classics “Awake & Sing!” and “Golden Boy.”  Join me!

On Book

“Mame” is part of the new collection of Ethan Mordden’s essays and musings, “Open a New Window – The Broadway Musical in the 1960’s,” from Palgrave Macmillan . . . and for a thorough and thoroughly-engaging look at the landmark career of Mame’s musical mentor Jerry Herman, check out Stephen Citron’s ‘Jerry Herman – Poet of the Showtune” from Yale University Press . . . Moss Hart, though his life and career were tragically cut short at the age of fifty-seven, left an unparalleled legacy as writer and director for stage and screen.  His autobiography “Act One” remains a loving testament to his early years, but it closed its coverage halfway through his life.  Now, finally, a comprehensive chronicle of Hart’s life “Moss Hart: A Prince of the Theatre,” is available from Back Stage Books, by Jared Brown.  I remember his wife and widow Kitty Carlisle Hart once confiding how sorry she was that he was not alive to tell his own story.  She always kept a copy of “Act One” on the grand piano in their sprawling, east sixties apartment.  Here’s a chance to read it, beautifully told.

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TONY VELLELA wrote and produced the PBS documentary series about theatre, “Character Studies.”  His play “Admissions,”  a Best Play winner at the New York International Fringe Festival, is published by Playscripts.  His play ‘Maisie and Grover Go to the Theatre” is published by ArtAge.  His performing arts articles have appeared in Parade, Theatre Week, Dramatics, Rolling Stone, the Robb Report, the Christian Science Monitor and dozens of other publications.  He has written nine other produced plays and musicals, three books and will soon host a series of live interview evenings at the 92nd St. Y, beginning with his first guest, Michael Cerveris, on March 12.

Intermission Talk 11.23.14

November 23rd, 2014

“The River” is

no “Side Show.”

It’s “The Real Thing.”

by TONY VELLELA

Count me among the millions of folks who love a good mystery.  I’ve even penned a mystery play [“What We Don’t Confess”] and a mystery novel [“By Book or By Crook”].  So discovering a ‘mystery’ element in the new play “The River,” by Jez Butterworth [“Jerusalem”] was a bonus, added to the prospect of seeing Hugh Jackman on stage again.  To my mind, he’s a true acting Renaissance man – he does it all, and exceedingly well.  The in-the-round playing space at Circle in the Square offered director Ian Rickson real challenges, and his has been well-served by the designs of the set and costumes [Ultz] and lighting [Charles Balfour], which all combined to give Jackman an environment as real as any actor could hope for.

Where are we?  It’s an isolated cabin on the edge of a lake in rural England [I assume, judging from everyone’s accents].  The central character, only referred to as the Man, has been visiting since he was a boy.  He has always made these trips to enjoy the thrills of trout fishing – physical, epicurial and spiritual.  When we meet him, he’s in the company of a comely young woman [called The Woman], and they appear to be in mid-sojourn, enjoying the aforementioned thrills, as well as others, particularly sexual and even romantic.  Jackman’s Man is perfectly comfortable here, right down to not worrying about that hole in his sock.  He seems eager to please her, and treads most carefully on the right side of the line that separates being respectfully engaged emotionally, a romancer, rather than being overtly aggressive, a seducer.  Until he doesn’t.

There’s been a surfeit of hedge-betting in much of the written commentary about this play.  It’s elliptical structure, in which we seem to be re-visiting moments we’ve seen before, as well as Butterworth’s bone-marrow simplicity in the setting-up of it, easily lend themselves to generating head-scratching among even the most attentive audience members.  Is this man dangerous?  Delusional?  Prone to fantasized re-enactments of some past traumatic event?  Fact is, we’re not meant to know the answers to these questions, as Butterworth exercises his considerable talents to generate a world as unknowable as the whereabouts of Godot.  And what about that Other Woman?

What’s there to recommend?  Jackman, of course.  Few working actors can create as much realism inside the characters they are contracted to portray, and I think it has something to do with an actor’s willingness to being seen unadorned, however acting-classy that may sound.  The same vulnerability that gave us his Curly [“Oklahoma!”], who never crossed over into overly-boastful arrogance is also present here.  Whatever the truth is, past and future, again and again, in that remote cabin, I’m willing to give that Man some latitude by assuming he’s got a pretty good reason.  Butterworth’s reason for writing such an unsatisfying puzzler?  Like the story itself – no clue.

In stark contrast to the exemplary design work that gives “The River” its aura of place authenticity, director Sam Gold has permitted [or been party to] real missteps in the production of the revival of “The Real Thing” at the American Airlines Theatre.  At rise, we see what appears to be an expansive contemporary [for the late ’80s] living room.  There’s the sofa.  There’s the sideboard.  There’s the armchair.  There’s the bookshelves.  There’s the area rug.  David Zinn’s stage-wide set does double [or is it triple?] duty as the homes of two separate couples in London, and with a few modifications that aren’t related to what they are to represent, a recording studio, and a train coach.

Why quibble about this?  Because Tom Stoppard’s [melo]drama about the coupling and uncoupling of one playwright [male], and three actors [two female, one male] wants us to be interested in their lives, their choices, their disorientations.  A new play by Henry [an endearing Ewan McGregor], meant to star Annie [Maggie Gyllenhaal, as charismatic in her Broadway debut as she has been on film], goes off the rails as his marriage comes apart, when Henry and Annie fall in love, as he also discovers his wife Charlotte’s infidelities.   His wife [the always-reliable Cynthia Nixon] becomes enamored with a young anti-nuke militant she has met on a train ride back from appearing on stage in Glasgow.  Her first husband, Max [a likeable Josh Hamilton] manages to figure in the mix as well.

This is Tom Stoppard, circa 1984, already a force to be reckoned with in the English-speaking theatre, his swoon-worthy dexterity with the spoken and the written word emerging more fully here.  When viewing the original production thirty years ago, I was absolutely gob-smacked  hearing a gentle diatribe [if that’s not a contradiction] delivered by Henry, relating his core philosophy about the value of how a carefully constructed sequence of words can deliver truths, and how a badly assembled sequence of words can pervert even the simplest of intentions.  The metaphor?  How a cricket bat is constructed – the choice of the wood, how it is shaped and assembled, to do its job very very well.  All of Stoppard’s splendid semantics is here in the service of what one might call an examination of what constitutes genuine love for someone else, despite any new revelations that surface about that person.  Here, it’s not simply the predictable discovery of sexual infidelity, but also the utter disbelief in how someone views the subject, and practice of opportunism.   The particulars here center around a willingness to bestow virtuous motives on someone who, to others, may seem short on integrity and long on self-aggrandizement.  Do you, as an actor, play a role for the sake of your or your playwright’s career, or reject the opportunity when that role challenges your basic principles?

While all this may sound very High-Minded, [and my recollection after seeing the original production is that it seemed so], the play has been short-changed in this revival.  It now merely serves as a platform for a handful of very engaging mid-career actors to ‘play’ in the land of Stoppard.    Surprisingly, very little believable, deep warmth, or emotional fervor  passes among them in any combination.   And after a while, it becomes distractingly tedious to try to decipher where we are, both in the scrambled interrelationships and in the free-form set design where they take place.

The tawdry world of Depression-era vaudeville is where we are, in the dazzling revival of  “Side Show.”  The original book and lyrics by Bill Russell and music by Henry Kreiger have been supplemented with additional book material by Bill Condon, who also directed the production, at the St. James.

Of the batch of revivals from twenty-five/thirty years ago that populate this season’s list of offerings, this one has done the best job so far of justifying the decision to bring it back.   In its original incarnation, the story of the lives of the British conjoined twins Violet and Daisy Hilton, followed them from being treated as property, sold to a ‘manager,’ who exhibited them as side-show oddities, through their discovery by a vaudeville impresario, their popular success as singers and the turmoil they suffered when private feelings were never able to be realized.  The same storyline unfolds here, but this time, the girls seem to have become the fully-actualized, three-dimensional people they longed to be.   This transformation may be due, in part, to the simple casting choices this time.  Alice Ripley and Emily Skinner, both first-rate talents by any standard,  portrayed the girls in the original cast, and from the first moment we see them, they had, in my recollection, a muted allure about them.  All it needed was nurturing.

Here, the equally talented Erin Davie [Violet] and Emily Padgett [Daisy] look as weary, as haggard, as beaten-down as their existence would have caused them to become.  This is not meant to suggest any lack of, how-to-say, attraction these women have.  What it does is give them, the characters, so much more room to grow, so much more history to overcome.   Their rescuers, played convincingly by Ryan Silverman and Matthew Hydzik, arrange a slow ascent from side show to vaudeville to popular theatre events and even briefly into film.  This time, legendary film-maker Tod Browning [“Freaks”] appears as the pivotal character he was in their real lives, including them in that iconic classic about the shadowy world of the lives of those circus curiosities whose physical oddities defined them as permanent outsiders, near-defenseless against exploitation and ridicule.

“Side Show” owes its revitalized new life in large measure to director Bill Condon’s application of the masterful story-telling he so expertly exhibited when helming the screen version of Krieger’s dynamic show-business opus “Dreamgirls.”  And his sensitivity to the particularities of human diversities, so vividly on display when he wrote and directed the films “Kinsey” and “Gods and Monsters,” are so well-utilized again, bringing us inside the lives of two young women whose outward identities are forever linked, while their inner personalities and desires could not be more different.  This time, we discover that distinction, and enjoy seeing the journey of discovery as they experience it.

Afterplay

Is the noise of city life getting to you?  Have you felt that true creativity no longer exists?  Take heart!  The world-renowned theatrical troupe Mummenschanz has taken up temporary Big Apple residence for a short time only.

They’re displaying their wordless, silent magical imagination-creations at the Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, at the south end of Washington Square Park.  If you’ve seen them before, renew your memories, and if not, make new ones, and share them with your children, or treat someone else’s to this wondrous event.  Visit www.Mummenschanz.com for details . . . another holiday  treat is available for families, as the longest-running musical in the world, “The Fantasticks,” offers a discounted package . . . and there’s a different special on display at the Merchant’s House Museum, a National Historic Landmark, as the Summoners Ensemble Theatre returns to re-tell Charles Dickens’ timeless classic “A Christmas Carol,” set in the museum’s authentic period dwelling, built in 1832, still featuring original family possessions.  Limited seating – details at www.merchantshouse.org.

On Book

Two engrossing new volumes help us trace the fascinating history of America’s most widely-revered popular art form – the musical theatre.  John Kendrick has reached way, way back, showing us how theatre in the mid-1800s sowed the earliest seeds of what we love to indulge in – a great big musical show.  In “Musical Theatre – A History,” Kendrick makes visits with Gilbert and Sullivan, the great Al Jolson, Richard Rodgers and both of his talented partners, Lorenz Hart and Oscar Hammerstein, the genius of Sondheim, the emergence of the Disney musicals, and much much more, from Continuum Press . . . In “Anything Goes: A History of American Musical Theatre,” the journalist Ethan Mordden, writing for Oxford University Press, takes us from the dawn of the last century up to the early 2000’s, with great detail, insight and a healthy dose of sheer adoration for America’s musical theatre world . . . and who are the people responsible for what we see on the Broadway boards?  In “Great Producers,” Iris Dorbian introduces us to a dazzling display of the talented behind-the-scenes makers and shakers who have shaped all that theatrical history, and more.  From Allworth Press, this comprehensive volume explores the work and worry of more than a dozen luminaries, from David Belasco and Florenz Ziegfeld, through David Merrick and Joseph Papp, to today’s moguls, including Michael David, Andre Bishop and the Weisslers.  It’s a real eye-opener.

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TONY VELLELA wrote and produced the PBS documentary series about theatre, “Character Studies.”  “Admissions,” his Best Play Award-winner [N.Y. International Fringe Festival] is published by Playscripts.  ArtAge Press published his play “Maisie and Grover Go to the Theatre.”  His articles about the performing arts have appeared in dozens of publications, including Parade, the Christian Science Monitor, Rolling Stone, Dramatics, Reader’s Digest and the Robb Report.  He has taught at several institutions, including Columbia University Teachers College, HB Studios and the New School.  He is currently conducting theatre-topic classes and sessions at the 92nd St. Y [visit 92Y.org for details], as well as small-group sessions and individual coaching from his home in Manhattan.

Intermission Talk

November 2nd, 2014

We’re “On the Town”

As “The Last Ship”

Is  Not “Disgraced.”

by TONY VELLELA

How someone professes to feel about The Big Topics – religion, politics, equality, sexuality, economics, education – has more often than not been shaped to a persuasive degree by how he or she was raised, and when and where.  Those imprints linger long, below the surface, while even the most studied discourses of a university classroom or the elegant prose of a Times non-fiction best-seller can fail to completely erase their effects.

In Ayad Akhtar’s stunning play “Disgraced,” now unfolding under the deft hand of director Kimberly Senior, in a wisely-economical eighty minutes at the Lyceum, the prejudices and self-definitions of five people interplay to a volcanic climax.  The premise, which suffers only slightly from the conveniences of minor theatrical agit-prop, revolves around Amir [a charismatic Hari Dhillon], a rising mergers and acquisitions attorney of Pakistani heritage and birth, now fully assimilated into the enviably comfortable echelons of the Upper East Side.  He is married to Emily [fetching Gretchen Mol], a Caucasian painter who has embraced all the realms of Islamic traditions in her art.  Despite her concentration on the intricacies of tile pattern renderings from centuries past, she is rendering a portrait of her husband at rise.  There is love, admiration and pride in how she approaches his image, even as it mimics a Velasquez portraiture of his Moorish assistant [slave?].

In quick order, we learn that their first-time dinner guests are Jory [a riveting Karen Pittman], another rising attorney at the firm where Amir works, and her husband Isaac [a convincing Josh Radnor], who just happens to be an important Whitney curator, in a position to offer Emily a berth in their upcoming show examining the sacred in art.  The arrival in future scenes of Amir’s young nephew Abe, formerly Hussein before a name change [Danny Ashok, a real gift to Broadway from the London stage], completes the dramatis personae.

Because both his wife and his nephew goaded him into offering free counsel in the case of an imam revered by Abe, who has been accused of raising funds for Hamas, Amir finds his photo and name in a Times articles, which identifies him using the name of his law firm, even though his single visit was personal, and not meant as the start of a formal association.  The law partners are furious with him.  Wife and nephew feel that he did the right thing.  When Isaac and Jory show up for the special dinner party, the topic meant to be ‘on the table’ is Emily’s inclusion in the exhibition, a major advance in her career.  But the news that Jory, and not Amir, has been named the new partner, blackens the proceedings.  Along the way, all four try to explain and justify how they feel about the emergence of an Islamic presence on the world stage(s), each one relating it to their own backgrounds and agendas.  We know about Amir’s perilous journey, extricating himself from his deeply religious upbringing to mainstream American society, requiring a name change, and a fabrication when identifying his genealogical roots [the town was in India, but was soon after part of Pakistan when the Brits re-drew the borders].  His fierce ambition and drive led him to plow in longer hours before and after everyone else at the office.  Unfortunately, only surface details about the others [gender, race, occupation] are revealed.  When incendiary topics such as the impact of 9/11, the rise of Islamic terrorism, the comparisons to what some see as Israeli aggression, how a Euro-centric emphasis in education colors the nuances of Islamic tradition, women wearing ‘the veil,’ and so forth, it only takes a few drinks, and some unexpected, critical revelations,  to scrape away the veneer of polite social intercourse.

How these four adults relate to the issues this Pulitzer Prize-winning play pulls out, and how you feel about them, depends on where they want to go now in their lives.  While Emily’s fascination with the Islamic/Moorish traditions and accomplishments from centuries past serve to inform and distinguish her art, there is an aspect of how she relates to her dark-skinned husband that may seem to border on romanticism – idealizing him for who he was, and where he came from, and therefore giving her an identity-by-association that is distinctive from ‘white American female.’  While Jory’s African-American heritage is obvious, little else is known, except that she has learned to play the corporate world game far better than Amir, and no one accuses her of identity-upgrade because she is married to a Jewish art world leader.

If there is one watchword to keep in mind when you see this compelling drama – and you really should – it is that you must always keep in mind where these people see themselves going in their lives.  The personal, sexual, corporate, religious and integrity-based issues that implode inside each of them because of how their actions intersect, even violently, must be balanced against a need to remember that internal pressure to become who you think you are or should be,  will very often override what your right-brain conclusions may be. Structurally, “Disgraced” mirrors elements of Yasmina Reza’s “God of Carnage,” although the issues seem higher, deeper and more universal – but that’s in the eye and ear of the beholder.   In the end, Akhtar has succeeded in presenting enough justification for even the most horrific behaviors, if one pulls back and takes it all in from a larger perspective.  Tough stuff.  Good stuff.

The rollicking Betty Comden-Adolph Green-Leonard Bernstein musical “On The Town,” now in revival at the Lyric, initially burst forth during World War II, a nearly mindless confection that follows three on-leave-for-one-day sailors ready to conquer New York City.  While most people are familiar with the 1949 film version that  Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly directed, and starred Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Vera-Ellen, Ann Miller, Betty Garrett and Jules Munshin [and the indomitable Florence Bates], this production features the complete score, rather than the pared-down playlist in the movie.  Among the standout musical moments we are treated to here is Bernstein’s composition, the compelling, melancholy cornet solo “Lonely Town.”

One of the tars [that’s what they used to call sailors], becomes enamored with the poster showing the graceful winner of this month’s Miss Turnstiles, a beauty contest sponsored by the MTA patterned after the real-life Miss Subways of that era.  His buddies agree to help him track her down.  They all find girls.  They all have robust numbers.  Everybody dances.

The audience is greeted with a proscenium-wide American flag, Patton-size, and instead of the overture,  a rousing rendition of our national anthem fills the auditorium, and everyone obediently stands while it’s played.   Bordering the initial shipyard set is a billboard proclaiming ‘America Must Have A Full Day’s Work From Every American.’  No worries here – director John Rando oversees the proceedings, guaranteeing that this is a hard-working, working-overtime cast, belting it out 110%, and at times they seem over-eager to please.   The always enterprising designer Beowulf Boritt has generated background after background of moving images that fill the stage, and costume designer Jess Goldstein has cannily kept the all-white sailor suits distinctive from the riot of colors among the passing parade.  One very amusing set piece, at the Museum of Natural History, involves a giant dinosaur come to life, a la the manipulated bigger-than-life animals in “War Horse,” but here with hilarious results.

While the cast’s most familiar member is the ever-popular Jackie Hoffman [who could easily present a one-woman show on the life and work of television comic icon Imogene Coca], the relative newness to the audience of the principals winds up being an asset – no one story line outweighs the others because of the fame of its presenter.  There is one stand-out worth mentioning, however.

As the sex-starved cab driver Hildy, [recall that frantic number “Come Up to My Place”], Alysha Umphress fills the stage with voice, presence, sparkle and shine.  [Aside to adventurous producers: consider a revival of the antic, zany “Hellzapoppin,” with Ms. Umphress in the role assayed by Martha Raye.  And if you’re not familiar with Raye beyond her comic cut-ups in “Four Jills in a Jeep,” “The Boys From Syracuse,” and the Big Broadcast movies, find somewhere to download her powerful scat-singing and her Merman-class belted vocals.  A knockout].

Well, everyone has a good time, everyone finds love [except Ms. Hoffman], and the best way to take this one in is to realize its history: when audience members left the theatre when it first ran, they stepped outside into a New York engulfed in a world of war terrors, near and far.  “On The Town” was meant to be a bright and sprightly antidote, and for two+ hours, it delivered the goods, just in time, before the lads need to get back on board their ship.

A very different sort of vessel is at the heart of one of this season’s most highly-anticipated properties, “The Last Ship,” with a book by John Logan [‘Red,’ ‘I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat with Sue Mengers’] and Brian Yorkey [‘Next to Normal,’ ‘If/Then’] and featuring music and lyrics by pop superstar Sting, in his first outing writing for the stage.

It might serve this work better were it to label itself a folk tale, or a fable, because as a story, resting on the need to relate a real-world assault on the lives of a small coastal town in northeast England, it falls short.  Wallsend has thrived for generations as a well-regarded ship-building location, with its inhabitants living like any other population in a ‘factory town.’  When the shipyard closes down, they are thrown into a downward spiral of despair and economic ruin.

Fifteen years earlier, a scrappy teen-ager named Gideon chose to abandon his home, to escape the brutal treatment from his father, and the tunnel vision lives that surround him.  His heartfelt dilemma – leaving his girlfriend Meg, with a promise to return with fame-and-fortune earnings, to carry her off to a new, bright and happy life.  It doesn’t happen.  His real world, which brings him as much cold, stark  defeat as callow Matt in “The Fantasticks,” leaves him dissolutioned, and he returns following his father’s death hoping to pick up with Meg.  In his place with her is Arthur, himself a former yard workhand, and who has chosen to head up the corporate transition to convert the area into a scrap-metal operation.  This makes him the object of embittered resentment among the townspeople, despite the fact that there is no other alternative on the horizon.

“The Last Ship,” like the locales in “Billy Elliot” and “Kinky Boots,” depicts the loss of identity for people who have known no other.  Gideon’s return only rubs salt in their wounds, seeing a wastel son return from what they imagine has been a life of adventure and accomplishment, compared to their own bleak existences, something the facts belie.  He does not receive a prodigal son’s welcome home.

If this all sounds like grim pickings on which to base a musical, well, you’re right.  Sting has drawn many of the story’s basic plot points from the early, unsettling  days of his own life, which has given him an advantage that other ‘pop’ musicians, such as Elton John and Cyndi Lauper did not have when they tested the tumultuous waters of the Broadway stage.  But what elevates it above the particulars of the story, however much is autobiographical,  is its soaring score, one that engulfs the theatre with rousing, muscular strength, forcing you to pay attention.   Sting has long been noted for inventive metrical structures.   Here, he relies on 3/4 time, a choice he has often made in his career, for the show’s signature song, which repeats several times through the proceedings, guaranteeing that it will stick in your head for days to come.  If I ran into you tomorrow, I could still hum ‘…’til the last [two, three]… ship [two, three] … sails!]  Sting’s stock in trade, through his thirty-plus years of composing, has always been to give us melodies, harmonies and messages in his songs that combine in ways that are fun to listen to, crafted from infectious grooves, often in unusual or mixed meters [see his “Ten Summoners Tales” album, for example].   He ‘scores’ again with that talent for variety, matching meter to mood again and again.

Director Joe Mantello, who can deliver memorable work in service of complex, unique content [“Take Me Out,”  “Assassins” – both Best Director Tony Award winners], as well as somewhat pedestrian traffic-manager work when given less-original material [“Other Desert Cities,” “The Ritz”], is at the top of his game here.  And he has been given a superior cast to work with.

As Gideon, “American Idiot” star Michael Esper draws out every emotion this multi-faceted character must display, all with a voice that sounds like a Sting clone [that’s a compliment].  As Meg, the girl he  left behind, London import Rachel Tucker makes you see the gentle soul who has hardened over time, all with the ability to be endearing.  Doing double duty as young Tom, and the earlier Gideon, Collin Kelly-Sordelet  makes a dynamic Broadway debut, keeping the mix of cocky and respectful in appropriate balance.  And Jimmy Nail, as union boss Jackie, trying to hold his men’s lives and hopes in cheque, truly blows the walls out of the Neil Simon Theatre whenever he delivers the anthem boasting that “we built the greatest shipping tonnage that the world has ever seen, and the only life we’ve known is in the shipyards.”

What Gideon also finds when he returns is a son.  He wasn’t aware [nor was she] that Meg was pregnant when he first abandoned ‘ship,’ and now, Meg has a life revolving around scrappy fifteen-year-old Tom, and a successful lover Arnold who is devoted to both of them [a rock-solid Aaron Lazar], who is still waiting for her to accept his constant marriage proposals.   The best representation of the push-pull of past versus future is embodied in Meg’s tortured challenge: marry Arthur, whom she genuinely loves,  and guarantee a future for herself and her son, or rekindle a romance that still has claims on her heart.  In the show’s most affecting number, Sting has repurposed his song “When We Dance,” as Meg slowly, painfully glides between the loving embraces of both men, in a kind of pas de tres [is that correct?], three people dancing a ballad that will be a gut-punch to anyone who has ever been unexpectedly revisited by a long-ago lover and the memory of that tender love, which has never ever really been forgotten.  In contrast to David Zinn’s metal and scaffolds, dark skies and blank walls, this number, in a solitary follow-spot, shines like a glistening pearl inside the grey interior of a clam shell – a stunner.

So what’s the story line?  Prodded by the town’s loveable pastor, done almost stereotypical justice by Fred Applegate [in years past in the pictures, it would be Frank Morgan or Barry Fitzgerald], the townspeople decide to defy the new corporate owners of the shipyard, take it over, and build one more ship, to save their reputation and put up a fight for their heritage.  What happens to it when it’s completed?  Good question.  Lemme know if you find out.

There are other noteworthy aspects to this big show – Steven Hoggett’s stomp-and-turn choreography fits the genre perfectly, an entre-act musical performance of defiant distaffers, led by the powerfully-voiced Shawna M. Hamic, and as Jackie’s wife Peg, Sally Ann Triplett threatens to rip the paint off the tavern walls with her chillingly delivered  “If You Ever See Me Talking to a Sailor.”  She’d be a shoo-in as Nancy in an “Oliver!” revival.

It’s disappointing that the plot holes nearly distract you from all the fine, creative and compelling work in “The Last Ship,” which suffers the same fate as the currently-running “If/Then,” leaving you scratching your head, trying to figure out how, or whether the parts fit together.  But that doesn’t last too long.  Within another few minutes, another Sting-based number reminds you why you’re there in the first place.

Afterplay

Tickets are now on sale for the annual Kids’ Night on Broadway week, starting January 9th.  This terrific annual event, sponsored locally by The New York Times and administered by the Broadway League, permits kids ages 6 to 18 to see a Broadway show for free, when accompanied by a full-paying adult.  Close to twenty plays and musicals are on the roster, and all the details are available at kidsnightonbroadway.com.  And readers outside the metro area should note that similar events are held in many cities across the country. . . the recent gala honoring Joel Grey and Jeanine Tesori at the National Arts Club benefitted the work of the highly-esteemed Encompass New Opera Theatre, which for thirty-eight years has been dedicated to the creation, development and production of adventurous new theatre and contemporary opera.  Its next production, Richard Pearson Thomas’ “A Wake or a Wedding” will be presented at the Baruch Performing Arts Center, starting on November 6  [visit encompassopera.org for details].

On Book

To see where “On the Town” fits into the broad pantheon of American musical theatre, consult Stanley Green’s “Broadway Musicals – Show By Show” [fifth edition], published by the Hal Leonard Corporation.  This exhaustive overview starts with the classic 1866 “The Black Crook” and covers hundreds of shows . . . another valuable compendium is Penguin’s  “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Shakespeare’s Plays,” by Cynthia Greenwood.  The author covers the 21 major plays as well as the lesser-performed works, and expands her reporting to include references to significant speeches and quotations, and information on noteworthy productions . . . and for a look at the other side of the ‘successful theatre’ coin, check out Marilyn Stasio’s “Broadway’s Beautiful Losers – The Strange History of Five Neglected Plays,” in paperback from Delta.   You’ll be surprised to see S.J. Perelman, Saul Bellow and Hugh Wheeler among the also-rans.

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TONY VELLELA wrote and produced the PBS documentary series about theatre, “Character Studies.”  His play “Admissions,” published by Playscripts, received a Best Play Award at the New York International Fringe Festival.  ArtAge Press published his ” Maisie and Grover Go to the Theatre.”  He has also written seven other plays and musicals, all performed in New York and at other venues in the U.S.  He has covered the performing arts for The Christian Science Monitor, Dramatics, Theatre Week, Reader’s Digest, the Robb Report, Parade and Rolling Stone, among dozens of publications.  He has taught theatre classes at Columbia University Teachers College, HB Studio and several other institutions across the country, and currently conducts theatre classes at the 92nd St. Y [visit 92Y.org/InSession for details], as well as small group sessions and personal coaching from home [tvellelea@nyc.rr.com].

Intermission Talk 10.19.14

October 20th, 2014

“You Can’t Take”

“The Curious Incident”

for a “Tail! Spin!”

with all those “Bubbles”

by  TONY  VELLELA

It’s rare indeed when the hunger of a starvation situation can be satisfied by a serving of a souffle.  In this [admittedly very tortured] metaphor, the hunger causing the starvation is the lack of solid, intelligent, witty and non-puerile comedy, and the souffle is the revival of “You Can’t Take It With You.”

This 1936 classic by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, its story cradled in the ravages of the Depression, managed to provide much more than 155 minutes of pleasant diversion, like a bright new jacket that covers the threadbare garments beneath.  If you open it, its sturdy, all-purpose lining insures that its wearer will be ready for whatever a changeable, unforgiving climate might deliver.

The Vanderhof family, all three generations, fill a rambling brownstone in Washington Heights, around the corner from Columbia University.  Patriarch Martin, [the disarmingly sonorous James Earl Jones], who has probably seen his sixties come and go, presides in the gentlest possible manner over all those who reside here, many of whom are relatives.  They include his daughter Penny Sycamore, [a delightfully flighty Kristine Nielsen], who spends many hours pounding away at the keys of a typewriter that was delivered twelve years ago by mistake.  She is now at work on her eleventh play, none of which have ever been produced.  Penny’s husband Paul, [Mark Linn-Baker], currently partnered with one of their boarders, a Mr. DePinna [Patrick Kerr], in a quest to create the perfect fireworks display pieces.  The basement serves as their workshop.  The Sycamores are blessed with two daughters, aspiring, no-talent ballerina Essie [an effervescent Annaleigh Ashford], who creates home-made candies called Love Dreams, and the black sheep of the brood, young Alice, [Rose Byrne, in her Broadway debut, the only casting misfire, leaning far too much on screwball-comedy exaggerated mannerisms], who holds down a conventional office job in a financial institution, the very type that Martin walked away from thirty-five years ago, to pursue the joys of daily living, and counts snake-collecting and visiting circuses and commencement exercises as among his favorite pastimes.

Rounding out the household are Essie’s xylophone-player, printing-press aficionado husband Ed, and the cook, Rheba.  This is the type of family most ten-year-olds wish they were part of, where no one judges anyone else, where dinner consists of watermelon, corn flakes and Essie’s candies.

Life was rolling along its merry way until a serious affliction levels Alice – she falls blindingly in love with Tony Kirby, vice-president of the firm where he and Alice both work.  And Alice must try to calibrate exactly how to introduce Tony [a charming Fran Kranz], not to mention his parents, to her carefree clan, without losing him. Despite how deeply she loves her family, their long-term guests, and the assorted collection of free spirits and dedicated devotees of all things libertarian, she is fully aware that they are an acquired taste.

Other visitors drift in and out.  There’s Gay Wellington, the pie-eyed, down-at-heels, dipsomaniacal actress Penny brings home from a chance meeting on the cross-town bus, who is portrayed by the brilliant Julie Halston, in a performance worthy of a special Tony Award for most memorable exit. Elizabeth Ashley makes a meal and a half out of her role as the flamboyant Russian ex-patriot countess Olga, who trades her blintzes-making skills for a friendly shelter.  And in yet another display of his versatility, Reg Rogers ignites his role as Boris, ballet master who shamelessly encourages Essie.

I know!  It’s a lot to take in!   But this is where and how this production, blending the especially gifted talents of director Scott Elis, and designers David Rockwell [sets], Jane Greenwood [costumes], Donald Holder [lighting] and Jon Weston [sound], keeps all the balls in the air as though inflated with helium.  The dialogue doesn’t project out over the footlights; it floats, each hilarious line wafting out for a delighted audience to savor.

Complications?  They include threatening visits from G-Men, ill-timed arrivals of Tony’s parents for a dinner party; explosions from the basement; Treasury agents out to collect back taxes going back for decades, and worst of all, a lover’s quarrel that could break apart our lovely love story couple.   And when all comes together as it should and does, the deeper messages of honoring your bliss, respecting others and eschewing the reverance for money all come through, strong and sweet.

And in case any contract conflicts look to prevent an extended run for this Pulitzer Prize-winning classic, permit me to suggest a few possible second-cast choices: to replace Jones as the family’s beloved leader, Ed Asner; to inhabit the role of Penny, the priceless Marylouise Burke; Valerie Harper can gesticulate with great gusto as Countess Olga, and to fill the lovers’ spots, Bobby Steggert, and from the cast of the recent revival of ‘The Cripple of Inishmaan,’ Sarah Greene.  Something this good – no this great – should not be permitted to disappear until every man, woman and teen-ager gets to see it.  Twice.

Keep your eyes on his hands.  As Broadway newcomer Alex Sharp ignites the character of Christopher in the Simon Stephens stage adaptation of the Mark Haddon novel “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” he seems instinctively to know that young people who present somwhere along the autism spectrum have involuntary hand gestures that punctuate their speech.  This is a small story, on its surface.  In a London suburb, a dog is discovered dead, impaled on a garden pitchfork.  Some suspect the boy next door, an outsider who exhibits strange behavior traits, can’t tolerate physical contact, carries a heightened sense of justice and who has some negative history in the neighborhood.

While the basics do not warrant an episode on the best television procedurals, the value is in the telling.  Proving she can weave intricate details of fact and fantasy together to create stage magic when she helmed “War Horse,” director Marianne Elliott matches that virtuoso accomplishment here, again using diverse elements and disbelief-suspension techniques.   Christopher’s mind operates inside layers of abstract formulas, well beyond the ken of the most learned minds.  How, then does a theatrical experience do justice to the intricacies of this young man’s brain functions, while at the same time making it possible, even somewhat accessible, for an audience-member who barely passed high school algebra to absorb what the story is about?

For a start, the audience is asked to fill in most of the routine details on its own – in a playing area with nothing more than several white rectangular stool/cube pieces, graph paper layouts projected onto all walls and floor areas, and an underlay of LED lights that can translate sketchings and illustration drawings into dazzling displays.  Christopher speaks the English language with the attention to precise meanings that a linguist might, in conversation with HAL, the Space Odyssey computer-in-charge.  He does not tolerate sloppy wordplay.  And like many autistic adolescents, his social skills are negligible.   The current ABC Television sitcom “The Middle” does showcase the acting of Atticus Shaffer as the youngest child, Brick, also a social misfit and an intellectual wizard.  One uses careless phrasing or imprecise descriptions at one’s peril with him.

Finding the person or persons responsible for the murder of the dog becomes Christopher’s obsession.   He assumes what he believes are the characteristics of a sleuth on a case, without knowing how to interact properly or with any degree of subtlety.  He seems to possess a form of eidetic memory, lasting well into his teen years.  However, his clumsy inquiries turn him into a prime suspect.  And all the while, he is batting back the intrusive disruptions to daily life caused by the dissolution of his parents’ marriage, and the subsequent wrangling over custody of the boy.

Experiencing “Curious Incident” is rather like what happens when an untrained eye takes a first look through a very powerful microscope, at a drop of water – galaxies of activity, explosions of color and movement, innumerable points of light and no clear conclusions present themselves.

The skills here present among all the creators rarely come together as they do here – it’s possible to harken up previous theatrical moments that also stirred the senses – such as the moments between Peter and the horses in “Equus,” or the parade of the animals during the opening moments of “The Lion King.”  Playwright Stephens interjects self-referential elements, such as a visual reference to the constellation Canus Major [we’re looking for the killer of an important dog, remember].   But here, instead of isolated moments, these ‘moments’ are more than separate events, large or small – they just keep occurring, again and again, and what is most impressive, most rewarding, most satisfying is that they are cumulative.  Each one furthers the telling of the story, and the evolution of Christopher’s mind, and sensibility.  In its most accurate definition, the production is wonderful – full of wonder.

Not everyone knows how to traffic in correct use of language.  And it is that imperfection that playwright Mario Correa latched on to in crafting “Tail! Spin!”  Correa has mined the transcripts of press conferences, Congressional hearings, television talk show comments and media interviews to stitch together the lamentable misfortunes of four political animals – Florida Congressman Mark Foley, Idaho Senator Larry Craig, South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford and New York Congressman Anthony Weiner.  Director Dan Knechtges keeps shuffling and re-shuffling the deck, and with the exception of relying unwisely on staging crucial moments far downstage, gives each player his moment in the glare of the spotlight.

During a brisk seventy-five minutes, at the Lynn Redgrave Theatre  at Culture Project, and with an imposingly large American flag as its backdrop, this is a take-no-prisoners pastiche of personal misbehavior that torpedoed the political fortunes of four prominent men, and tarnished those around them.  Each one demonstrates an amazing aptitude for pulling myriad ‘what-were-they-thinking’ stunts.  Is it possible that men who control how media operates  can be so mind-numbingly clueless to the way every word, every text, every e-mail, every tweet and every sexting image lives forever, out there, just waiting to be viewed and reviewed by friends and enemies alike, providing enough fodder for any opponent to score points with?

Four on-target actors – Arnie Burton, Sean Dugan, Tom Galantich and Nate Smith – bring the culprits to life, and fill out the roles of assorted staffers, interviewers and talking heads, while the fearless Rachel Dratch makes certain that we also see the various women who all play supporting roles in these lascivious lives, their wives, their assistants, their mistresses and Barbara Walters.

America’s appetite for skewering political figures is unquenchable.  “Tail! Spin!” will satisfy those cravings nicely, and it would seem to be logical that this bill-of-fare would receive a strong reception down in D.C.

From dirty politics to good, clean fun – nothing beats the Gazillion Bubble Show.   While it may seem like an entertainment ready-made for children only, this time the parents can experience just as much enjoyment as the offspring.

This worldwide phenomenon recently celebrated its 3,000th performance in New York’s New World Stages, and there is definitely cause for celebration.  The feats accomplished here combine science and art, resulting in a series of magical moments.  The outward elements are simple enough: a liquid soap mixture, and an array of wands with circular appendages with diameters that range from a few inches wide to several yards.    Dip the wand into the liquid, swish it through the air and Ta-da!  Bubbles!!

While that in itself can generate genuine awe, it is the variations on that theme that make for memorable moments.  During the course of the seventy-five minute show, 23-year old  Melody Yang, [daughter of the Gazillion Bubbles creator Fan Yang], bubbles appear in larger and larger sizes, exemplifies poetry in motion, as she inserts small bubbles into bigger ones, encases five-year-old volunteers from the audience in a shimmering bubble cage, and swirls elongated bubbles into forms that resemble the underwater creatures in the underwater creature feature “The Abyss.”

Sandwiched between the creation of on-stage bubbles galore are videos on multiple screens that recall how Yang family members shattered Guinness World Records, such as the world’s largest [7.5 feet in circumference], created in Berlin in 1997, in Hollywood also in 1999, the most bubbles inside bubbles, a total  of nine concentric bubbles inside each other, and in Wavrin, France, in 2000, Yang’s youngest daughter managed to slide inside a gigantic bubble without having it burst apart.  Another record was logged when one hundred people found themselves inside a bubble, played out on the Oprah Winfrey Show in 2008.

At one point, Melody relates the quandry they faced while visiting friends Hawaii, who lamented their frustration at never experiencing a snowstorm.  When the tale concluded, the theatre was plunged into total darkness for fifteen seconds.   When the lights returned, the stage had been transformed into a lovely garden, with every surface covered by tiny bubbles, as a rapid stream of said bubbles cascaded out into the audience, amid squeals of unbridled ecstasy emanating from children of all ages.  The volunteer children were rewarded with soap bubble hats [that withstood their journeys back to their seats, as well as packages of the secret bubble liquid that could be tried at home.

Following the wrap-up of that section of the show, Melody proceeded to call up light show lasers, which she played with, and used them to create new visual images.  Overall, the Gazillion Bubble Show is good, very clean fun for the entire family.

AFTERPLAY

A pair of indomitables are worth noting: the whirlwind actor Angela Lansbury and the legendary diva Lypsinka, aka John Epperson.   First, Dame Angela.  For those readers who were not able to make it to New York for the 2009 acclaimed revival of ‘Blithe Spirit,’ you missed seeing her in the role of psychic extraordinaire Madame Arcati, a role previously done by Mildred Natwick and Geraldine Page.  Happily, a cross-country tour of the production launches in mid-December at the Ahmanson Theater in Los Angeles, then moving on, to San Francisco, Toronto winding up at the National, in Washington, DC in late March.  Details are available at www.BlitheSpiritThePlay.com . . . Meanwhile, Epperson’s Lypsinka re-visits the stage in a trio of productions, ‘Lypsinka! The Boxed Set,” “The Passion of the Crawford,” and “John Epperson: Show Trash,” running in rep from 11/5 through 1/3/15, at the Connelly Theater in the East Village . . . and finally, a third female icon, the character Heidi Holland, in Wendy Wasserstein’s “The Heidi Chronicles,” comes alive again, in a revival starring Elisabeth Moss, starting in early February, helmed by Tony-winning director Pam MacKinnon.

ON BOOK

Movie fans will be familiar with the 1938 screen adaptation of ‘You Can’t Take It With You,” Frank Capra’s Oscar-winning picture, which starred Jean Arthur, James Stewart and Lionel Barrymore.  Many other memorable films started as Broadway plays or musicals, and the Jerry Roberts comprehensive volume “The Great American Playwrights on the Screen” chronicles dozens of great adaptations by great playwrights, such as Arthur Miller, Lillian Hellman, Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill and Neil Simon . . . a different sort of compendium allows you to peek behind the curtain of nearly sixty Broadway and off-Broadway productions that opened during the 1967-68 season.  Compiled by William Goldman, with an introduction by Frank Rich, “The Season – A Candid Look at Broadway” not only presents all the basic information about the titles it covers, but also adds critical commentary as a bonus . . . not quite as precocious as Christopher in “Curious Incident,” the malicious little girl of Maxwell Anderson’s “The Bad Seed” makes for some engrossing reading into the damaged mind of a child criminal.

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TONY VELLELA wrote and produced the PBS theatre documentary series “Character Studies.”  His award-winning play “Admissions” is published by Playscripts.  ArtAge Press publishes his play “Maisie and Grover Go to the Theatre.”  Mr. Vellela has written about the performing arts for more than forty years, in a variety of publications, including The Christian Science Monitor, Dramatics Magazine, Parade, Rolling Stone and the Robb Report.  He teaches theatre-related classes at the 92nd Street Y [info at 92Y.org/InSession], along with small group theatre studies and coaching sessions from his home.