Intermission Talk

A “Holiday Inn” “Encounter”

Leaves Us No “Falsettos”

During “A Day by the Sea”

 

by TONY VELLELA

 

Sometimes, despite the knuckle-rapping of the most dedicated first-grade teachers, one plus one does not add up to two.  Currently running on Broadway at the Walter Kerr Theatre, “Falsettos” proves the point.  It started as a modest 70-minute one-act musical titled “In Trousers,” by William Finn, was staged in his living room, with chairs borrowed from the synagogue across the street.  After several incarnations, which included being scouted by then artistic director of Playwrights Horizons Andre Bishop, who recommended it highly to his boss, and a developmental period when it enjoyed a somewhat successful run following a strong notice from Times critic Frank Rich, it got moved to a larger house.

The intention here was to create a “new family” storyline, one that pre-dated “Rent” and “The Heidi Chronicles” and “Next to Normal,” and the idea that people who live in our large cities often find that their friends ARE their families, and at a time [very early ’80s] when HIV was not even labeled AIDS.

Falsettos

What William Finn composed the music for, and wrote the lyrics for, with book assist from director James Lapine, has found its place in theatre history as a genuine artifact of theatre lore.  The ‘Dad,’ known as Marvin, in the spirit of what the women’s movement tried to re-imagine for the lives of young women, was a way ‘to have it all,’ except his ‘all’ included something extra – a live-in male lover named Whizzer.  In this current version, “Falsettos” marries the parts of Marvin’s life into an unsuccessful  perfect family unit, that includes the wife, Trina [here given great vocals to show off Stephanie J. Block’s  long-acknowledged vocal  chops, especially in the thrilling ‘I’m Breaking Down”], an on-call therapist [the appealing Brandon Uranowitz] and in a very commendable Broadway debut as their son Jason, eleven-year-old Anthony Rosenthal, who may have inherited great comic timing moves from the late/great Milton Berle.

The lover who has been welcomed into this triangular family unit, gives us the backbone and the wishbone of the story line.  As Whizzer, Andrew Rannells, late of “Hamilton” and “The Book of Mormon” among other A-list credits, offers just enough charm and neediness that makes anyone want to offer him cuddles and comfort.  As it happens, Marvin’s life gets upended literally when those needs become far more needy, and whose time for all these demands shrinks.  The missing link in this ‘perfect family unit?’ Time for Jason, whose bar mitzvah is fast approaching, and the details, or even the decision to have it or not, never gets enough attention.

When the split-screen story line that began as ‘Falsettoland’ and ‘In Trousers,’ needed punching up, it was Bishop and assistant Ira Weitzman who introduced a next-door lesbian couple, one of whom worked at a nearby hospital, and recognized that “something awful is happening,” before the epidemic even had a name.  She took on Whizzer as a patient, became part of the extended family, and took over some of the decisions related to Jason’s fete, which he was not sure he even wanted.

fals

In a commendably canny decision, Lincoln Center Theater, in association with the Jujamcyns, have chosen to stage a full-blown revival of the real, two-part musical, giving it all the support it really needs.  That includes bringing on board the brightest young choreographer on the street, Spencer Liff, who works true miracles with about a dozen grey foam pieces of varying sizes and shapes, that start their life as a Rubik’s Cube of parts perfectly assembled into one shape, and over time, become chairs, tables, sofas, desktops, and whatever else clever director James Lapine needs at the time.  Liff’s credit in the Playbill is for ‘choreography,’ but the mastery of his creativity should be included in that category when the Tony committee convenes.  Choreography includes movement [Did you see what clever moves Liff came up with for ‘Hedwig?” – Case closed].

This is not a grim tale of woe and recrimination.  This is a tale of what life has become today, and will continue to become as the decades roll by.  Wendy Wasserstein, not too many years later, shares a scene of  reprimand with her doctor friend Peter, who has just learned that she has taken a teaching position in the Midwest, stating that “Don’t you know by now that our friends ARE our families?”

“Falsettos” benefits greatly from the lyrical talents of William Finn.  Getting the ‘book’ right in a complex musical is a real challenge.  This one here?  Nothing false at all.

There is a truth that rings through “Encounter,” now at the Golden Theatre, which was  inspired by the book ‘Amazon Beaming,’ by Petru Popescu.  As an avowed anti-advocate [is it a word?] of one-person shows,  unless they feature the likes of Lily Tomlin, I am a card-carrying fidgetter [is that a word?].  So the appeal of “Encounter” by, from and starring Simon McBurney set off some alarm bells.  Not to worry.  This is not a one-person show in almost any sense of the word, because it more closely resembles a novel come to life.

Esteemed photographer McBurney, like the good fortune that struck Lin-Manuel Miranda when he came across Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton, was blessed with the same magical inspiration that transformed Chernow’s epic  into that theatrical behemoth.  What McBurney ‘saw’ was the chance to interpolate Popescu’s vivid novel into a theatrical experience like no other.  While in South America, the novelist was kidnapped by an elusive tribe of natives who had no prior history with civilization – none.  Is this true – or is it a fiction grafted from whole cloth?  Don’t know.  Don’t care.  Is this the start of civilization, or the end of it?

encounter

McBurney has given his audiences the full-sensory experience of seeing, feeling and hearing what the captor’s life was like for months at a time, before he managed to be rescued.  What this event does is ‘replace’ the sounds of the interior of the theatre with the pre-recorded sounds that McBurney has engineered, so that they are piped into the headphones each audience member must wear when arriving.  The grey/green crosshatch pattern that papers the theatre’s stage walls soon become invisible to anyone not paying attention to the words and sounds.  And McBurney has so cleverly overlaid the sounds he heard with those from other animals and birds and creatures that it’s not possible to discern where, in time, you are or are meant to be.  As a theatrical experience, it is matchless.

Getting back to the two-for-three theme [or maybe three for four?] that launched this column, the current musical running at Studio 54 – under the management of Roundabout – is titled “Holiday Inn,” which is a bit coy when it comes to tinkering with the truth.  The show’s full title is “The New Irving Berlin Musical – Holiday Inn,” which has stitched together as artfully as anyone’s grandmother’s nimble handiwork could, two or more pieces of any Berlin tuner.  The obvious progenitors are “White Christmas [1954],” “Holiday Inn [1942,” and “Summer Stock [1950.]”

holiday

Somehow, somewhere – it seems very much like post-WWII Northeast USA – a musical troupe winds up needing a place to put on a show, and hit on the idea of converting an under-visited inn into a . . .  [Oh, you heard this one?]  Well, what IS new is the loving manner that parts of these shows have been pre-and reassembled into a piece that holds its charm during the days [and Lordy, the nights] when we could all use some cheering up.  This version of Holiday Inn manages to give us full-bodied presentations of Berlin classics, such as “Shaking the Blues Away,” “Blue Skies,” “It’s a Lovely Day Today,” “Steppin’ Out With My Baby,” “Cheek to Cheek,” “Easter Parade,” “Be Careful, It’s My Heart,” “You’re Easy to Dance With” and many many more. A snappy cast, led by Megan Lawrence [the Nancy Walker stand-in], Lora Lee Gayer, Corbin Bleu and Bryce Pinkham, ably directed by Gordon Greenberg and put through their mid-century paces by choreographer Denis Jones, give the whole encounter an M-G-M Vista-Vision patina leaving you better than when you came in.

BTW – a tip of the silk top hat to Greenberg and co-writer Chad Hodge for managing to weave in a reference to the Marjorie Reynolds character who tries to carry off an impersonation of a nightclub singer in “Holiday Inn,” and who’s been named here Linda Mason – the same moniker that character was saddled with in that script.  Such detail.  Such a smile for bringing up a real detail.

Just about that time, when Broadway was awash in all-singin’, all-dancin’ musicals, there were some truly splendid dramas also filling many of the straight houses, among them, at the height of his career, was the British dramatist N.C.Hunter.  And in another of their spectacular series of great but long-forgotten classics, the Mint Theater Company has resurrected one of Hunter’s best.  Set in 1953, “A Day by the Sea” shows us not one but two days.  Guided by director Austin Pendleton, the seemingly simple but heart-wrenchingly complex aches that half-truths and unfinished lies can do to assault even the most sturdy constitutions are brought to full life.

sea

This is a generation that withstood two world wars, almost back-to-back, with a crippling Depression sandwiched in between, yet managed to hold on to their wit and their resilience, all the while keeping the children occupied and free from fear.  Hunter’s skills would do very well to be resurrected today, to show contemporary audiences what real story-telling is all about.

ON BOOK

Not sure whether your clock was turned back or ahead, but whatever happened, here are two tomes that could fill that hour.  Oxford University Press is out with another in its great series of anecdotes.  This one is “Show & Tell – the New Book of Broadway Anecdotes,” from Ken Bloom.  Flanked on the cover by Angela Lansbury and Carol Channing, you can’t get much more  ‘credentialed’ than that . . . and if you are a true Marx Brothers fan – I’m talking TRUE – you will be thankful for Noah Diamond’s dazzling discovery titled “Gimme A Thrill – The Story of ‘I’ll Say She Is’ – the Lost Marx Brothers Musical and How It was Found,’ courtesy of BearManorMedia.com.  Look around once you hit their site.

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TONY VELLELA wrote and produced the PBS series about theatre ‘Character Studies’  He has written for Parade, Rolling Stone, The Christian Science Monitor, Theatre Week, Dramatics, the Robb Report and dozens of other publications.  He has taught at HB Studio, the 92hd Street Y, Columbia University’s Teachers College and several other institutions, and conducts scene study and audition sessions from home.  His play “Admissions” won Best Play at the New York International Fringe Festival, and his new play, “Labor Days’ is in development.

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CARMEL CAR & LIMOUSINE SERVICE, in business since, 1978, has been selected as the official transportation company for Intermission Talk.  It’s wide variety of services, including special theatre packages, and reservations, are available at www.carmellimo.com, the Carmel App, or 212 – 666 – 6666.

 

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