Does “London Wall” Lead
To “The Bridges of Madison
County?” Read on, read on.
by TONY VELLELA
If he has any kind of superstitious nature, Jason Robert Brown, in future, should tread very carefully when involved with any project that’s got a large tree on stage. The set for his Tony-winning “Parade” was dominated by a towering dead hanging tree, and that show suffered from a scrambled plot line that robbed the audience from feeling the pathos at the heart of the story. In the new musical “The Bridges of Madison County,” a large, leafy tree anchors the Iowa landscape, the only actual natural element in front of lush, Technicolor scenes projected on the back wall, an apt representation of the contrast between this production’s genuine and disingenuous elements. Fortunately, leads Kelli O’Hara and Stephen Pasquale manage to carve out a few scenes that burst through, with heart-stopping passion.
This is Iowa farm country, circa mid-sixties. Italian war bride Francesca [O'Hara] has long since carved out her comfortable routine, caring for her farmer husband Bud [Hunter Foster] and now teen-aged children Carolyn [Caitlin Kinnunen] and Michael [Derek Klena]. When her family embarks on a trip to the Iowa State Fair, an event whose charm Francesca does not appreciate, she covets the prospect of four solitary days and nights. On the first day of that respite, a handsome photographer on assignment for National Geographic to photograph the county’s wooden covered bridges, drives up and asks her for directions. It’s meet cute, the corn country version.
It’s based on Iowa native Robert James Waller’s wildly popular 1985 novel, which was adapted for the screen in 1992, starring Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood. Like its progenitors, this musical is unapologetically uber-romantic, at a time when Broadway doesn’t usually reward such a choice, but can find a place for it when a production finds the right balance – i.e. “Once.”
Here, its creative team of book writer Marsha Norman, composer-lyricist Brown, and director Bartlett Sher struggle to give us the basic components that would successfully combine to make it a kind of love tragedy. There’s much to like, including the haunting “Another Life,” sung by Whitney Bashor, as Robert’s ex-wife, in a guitar-accompanied solo that echoes that era’s Joni Mitchell. It also provides his first flat-out, front and center showpiece musical theatre lead role for Pasquale, who has the same rare combination of all-man virility, stage presence grace and powerhouse vocal chops that equal the strengths of Hugh Jackman.
And best of all is Kelli O’Hara. She’s been cast in a variety of roles that all share that pretty or spunky blonde quality ['South Pacific," "Pajama Game," "Nice Work If You Can Get It"] and finally – maybe it’s the Neapolitan dark-haired wig – she’s been liberated, unshackled, able to tackle the role of an adult woman, with serious conflicts, buried disappointments, lost dreams and layers of responsibilities to people she loves. Francesca, thanks to how Norman chose to depict her, retains the wide scope of dramatic facets afforded to Streep in Richard LaGravenese’s screenplay [result: Oscar nomination for her]. Likely result: Tony nomination # 5 for O’Hara. At least.
The bad or flawed choices can’t be overlooked, because they rob the piece of fulfilling its really grand potential, aligning it with some of the most memorable, affecting mid-last-century musicals, such as “Carousel.” This, for instance, is Iowa, a fairly empty place if you’re talking numbers of people per square mile. Bud and Francesca and kids live on a sprawling farm, with only one family across the street, and lucky for us, it provides another chance to enjoy the wonderful Cass Morgan. Yet, once Francesca’s family has left town, you’d think she’d be pretty alone. But, no. There are unnamed people dragging in fences and positioning set pieces, with others silently, visibly seated on straight-back chairs on either side of the stage. Are they meant to be witnesses? To what end? Is this “Our Town – the Iowa version?” It means that we rarely connect with the so-necessary feeling of solitude Francesca at first welcomes, and then, when Robert becomes a live-in guest, counts on. Even when they’re finally in bed together, there are these other unnamed people around. Mood killer. The staginess of having these folks moving around in front of farm country projections couldn’t help but put me in mind of the hokey musical scenes injected into the film version of “Country Girl,” to accommodate casting Bing Crosby in the lead. Tellingly, the musical high point comes at the close of the first act, when the lovers meld into each other’s voices and arms, alone on stage, singing probably the best song Brown has ever crafted, the enchanting “Falling Into You.”
Ultimately, this is and should be a small story, two people who ignite all kinds of unrealized passions, confronting the possibility of making undefined fantasies into realities, however dangerous and remote that may be. Those heightened feelings are literally given full voice whenever the rich, textured, lush sounds of Kelli O’Hara are allowed to soar.
Look at how John Van Druten chose to title his play “London Wall.” Inside London there is a specific area known as the City of London, stretching between Aldersgate Street and Bishops Gate, and among the major thoroughfares is one named London Wall. Financial and legal firms make up most of its occupants. The office of Van Druten’s fictional solicitors Walker, Windermere & Co. is among them.
This newly-revived work, which shifts between W W & Co.’s general office and that of senior partner Walker’s office, was heralded when it premiered in 1931 for its frank depiction of how young women functioned in the business world. The still innocent novice stenographer, nineteen-year-old Pat Milligan [sympathetically played by doe-eyed Elise Kibler] and the world-weary senior secretary, thirty-five year-old Miss Janus [given the fearless candor of a dozen Eve Arden roles by Julia Coffey] depict the opposite ends of the lives of women working in post Great War Britain. And true to his career-long style of giving audiences credible characters instead of stick-figure symbols in his plays, Van Druten calls this one “London Wall,” a place. These women, and the other distaff staffers, are individuals, who they are because of where they are, and when they are there.
Britain experienced the deaths of 956, 703 young men, with an additional 2.2 million+ wounded, meaning the loss of that many young male workers in all segments of the economy, and that many young potential husbands in all segments of society. Result: unprecedented numbers of job openings now filled by women, hired often begrudgingly by 19th century generation bosses. And, the drastic shortage of eligible [forget desirable] bachelors. Miss Milligan, Miss Janus and their co-workers, socialized to pin their survival by making a prudent marriage, became easy targets for predatory men who looked like viable prospects, when, in fact, they were so many dapper foxes loose in so many oak-paneled henhouses.
Over the course of two days, Van Druten’s law firm world takes a few body blows to its smooth-running constitution. The resident lothario, Mr. Brewer, shows an appropriately obsequious side to his boss, and an equally false solicitude to the women in the office, both done to perfection by Stephen Brewer. His latest target for conquest is Milligan, an orphan, ill-prepared to resist his sweet-talk, his casual invitations to dinner and the theatre, and his polished practice of escalating his familiarities. When she finally turns down his invitation to dine in his flat, he corners her in the now-empty late afternoon general office, a full-force assault that could easily end in rape. Only the unexpected arrival of Walker interrupts him.
Janus, meanwhile, has been offering encouragement to young Hec, a callow, gangly office boy who works in the same building, and can’t seem to figure out how to express his love for Milligan. As a possible husband candidate, Hec seems to Milligan to be lacking in career possibilities, especially compared to Brewer, an established solicitor at a reputable firm. The situation for young women, who have very limited opportunities to rise very far in the business world of 1931, and very little interest in doing so, seems to favor cads like Brewer, and trump Hec’s sincerity and charming lack of guile. Hec could easily serve as a template for Matt, the boy of “The Fantasticks.”
The day-in, day-out routine is founded on a pattern familiar to anyone who recalls the PBS series “Upstairs, Downstairs,” or currently, the addictive “Downton Abbey.” While those domestic worlds include both genders, the office world has, forgive me, the men on top and the women on the bottom. Van Druten tells this story from the women’s POV, making clear just how little control they have over anything – their pay scale, their responsibilities, their schedules. Alongside Janus and Milligan, we see two other co-workers – the skillfully flirtatious Miss Bufton [played with comic confidence by Katie Gibson,] sporting a vivid blonde coif that owes its sheen to something out of a bottle, and ready for a good time for as long as it lasts, and the good-girl, good-wife-to-be Miss Hooper [given a muted appeal by Alex Trow], who proudly shares the glisten of her newly-acquired diamond engagement ring with the other girls. She’ll be leaving soon.
What tips the balance of this well-ordered dynamic is a brutal act visited on Janus. After investing seven long years as a dutiful mistress to a married lover, she learns, in a clandestine, brief phone conversation, that he’s calling it quits, leaving for America that night. Still in shock at this turn of events the next morning, she learns from Miss Hooper that her heartless cad was killed in an accident hours after the phone call. Suddenly clear-eyed, Janus informs Walker that she’s giving her notice, after devoting fifteen years to the firm. Her personal resources are limited, but to her, she boldly looks forward to enjoying this new-found freedom from the dual caged roles of being a secretary forever and being always a mistress/never a wife. It’s female empowerment, and she doesn’t let the uncertainties scare her. And in a generous act of sisterhood, she escalates her attentions on the Pat-Hec stalemate, and takes real joy in orchestrating a scenario that results in them becoming an actual couple.
“London Wall” is laced with light-hearted, humorous moments, to leaven the serious, even dark ones, and under Davis McCallum’s brisk direction, we can savor all of them.
And once again, the Mint Theatre Company creates a marvelous environment for a period play to play in. Tiny, era-perfect details in set decoration, props and costuming insure that we are brought fully into this world. Special credit goes to Marion Williams [sets], Martha Hally [costumes], Gerard Kelly [wigs] and Joshua Yocom [props]. They demonstrate how valuable the contribution can be, when designers are in sync with the script, and with each other.
My best memory of Philip Seymour Hoffman goes back fifteen years. Ana Ortiz was part of a cast that was doing readings of a new musical of mine, and she invited me to see her in a new play by a playwright she thought was outstanding. The play was “In Arabia, We’d All Be Kings,” by Stephen Adly Guirgis, and Hoffman was its director. This bare-bones production was being presented in a small, kind of barren second-story space somewhere in the west twenties. When you reached the top of the stairs, holding open the door to the theatre was a broadly smiling Phil Hoffman. His expression was pure joy – like the kid who just unwrapped the Christmas present that contained exactly what he hoped for. Among all my memories of this gifted and talented man, on stage and off, this is the one I am happiest to recall.
If you are not among the 4 million people who have enjoyed the exhilarating “War Horse” when it galloped through Lincoln Center a few seasons back, you’ve got another chance to hop into that saddle. Britain’s National Theatre Live Program has partnered with venues around the world to screen Nick Stafford’s explosive creation, and New Yorkers native or visiting can experience it at Symphony Space at west 95th street and Broadway. The first of six showings takes place on Sunday, March 16 at 2 PM, with five more spread out on different days of the week, ending on Wednesday, April 16 at 2 PM. Visit www.symphonyspace.org for details.
A different kind of partnership has successfully entered its fifth year. The Broadway Green Alliance, teamed with the National Resources Defense Council, has already achieved significant accomplishments in its quest to convert, redesign and examine every aspect of every Broadway production, to implement sound, effective environmental policies. Broadway theatres have replaced all their marquee and outside lighting with energy-efficient bulbs [more than 10,000 and counting!], saving approximately 700 tons of carbon emissions a year. It can also count the switching to environmentally preferable cleaning products and appliances too numerous to count, as well as the creation of recycling, water filtration and energy efficiency programs as further evidence of its success. And now, they have begun a campaign that will share what they’ve learned with any off- and off-off Broadway production, and they encourage producers and company managers and persons in charge, at regional theatres, summer theatres and amateur theatre groups, as well as those in charge of the budgets and administration of high school, college and university theatre programs. This ambitious, dedicated initiative has brick-and-mortar offices in Washington, DC, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Beijing extending the on-the-ground reach of its New York home base. And for those who live and work and play elsewhere, they’re just a click away – email@example.com.
Another project to celebrate is the new Negro Ensemble Company Monday Night Reading Series at the Pershing Square Signature Center, which launches on Monday, March 17. My depressingly tiny one-room apartment on Avenue B meant I could walk to where the original NEC productions lit up the Lower East Side back in 1967, in an unassuming loft-like space above the St. Marks Playhouse. The announcement of this new project, where previously unseen plays by NEC alumni including Leslie Lee March, Micki Grant and Samm-Art Williams. Promise yourself now that you will check it all out at firstname.lastname@example.org – no ‘e’ right before the ‘@’, please, or ring them up at 212-582-9639.
John Van Druten has been heralded ever since his first plays were done, back in the early thirties. To get a better understanding of why he is so highly thought of, especially by fellow writers, you should pick up the play scripts for three of his best. They’re all published by Dramatists Play Service. “I Remember Mama” chronicles the lives of Norwegian immigrants in the early part of the turn of the last century, and the play [the Broadway premiere featured Marlon Brando] was followed by a popular film, and then a popular television series of the same name. Van Druten adapted his good friend Christopher Isherwood’s “The Berlin Stories” into a spiky, stunning play, “I Am A Camera,” which was the basis for the musical “Cabaret.” The Broadway premiere featured Julie Harris as Sally. And in yet another vein, his comedy “Bell, Book and Candle” starred Lilli Palmer in its premiere, a role handled memorably in the film by Kim Novak.
News that a play about the life of Moss Hart is coming to Broadway should lead you to the charming, very readable biography of the acclaimed writer and director, “Moss Hart: A Prince of the Theatre,” by Jared Brown, published by Back Stage Books.
To discover nine plays that share a heritage with the Negro Ensemble Theatre, pick up or order “Black Theatre U.S.A. – Plays By African-Americans, The Recent Period, 1935 – Today.” This revised and expanded edition, published by The Free Press, was edited by James V. Hatch and Ted Shine.
TONY VELLELA wrote and produced the PBS series “Character Studies,” about theatre. His award-winning play “Admissions” is published by Playscripts. He has covered the performing arts for more than forty years for dozens of publications, including The Christian Science Monitor, Dramatics Magazine, Parade and Theatre Week. He will soon present a three-part series of sessions on “A Raisin in the Sun” at the 92nd Street Y, starting the first Thursday in May. He continues to teach small group classes and conduct coaching sessions for actors, playwrights and directors, and can be reached at email@example.com.