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