Intermission Talk

“The Great Comet”

Lights Up Your

First “Jitney” Ride

on “Sunset Boulevard,”

in “The Present”

by TONY VELLELA

Eight times a week, at the Palace Theatre, home to the current revival of “Sunset Boulevard,” there’s a performance that lights up that space with energy, depth and the ability to grab and hold your attention.  That would be the one being given by Michael Xavier, in the role of the writer Joe Gillis, whose broken-down debt-laden roadster finds its  way unknowingly into the driveway of silent screen legend Norma Desmond.  She is once again being portrayed by Glenn Close, who starred in the original Broadway production in 1994, for which she won a Tony Award.

Xavier’s pitch-perfect booming voice overcomes its surroundings, some of which prove to be distracting, such as having the orchestra on stage, and keeping the back wall and surrounding surfaces mostly in dim lighting or in the dark.   And Xavier has the tough assignment of coming across as someone both sympathetic and heartless – in the original 1950 picture, William Holden filled the role perfectly, although he wasn’t required to sing.

Of course, the ‘draw’ for this revival is the chance to see Ms. Close in a role she first did 23 years ago, when she was 44.  Norma, as written, is 50.  [Aside:  one of the original ideas, instead of Gloria Swanson in the lead, was to have her portrayed by Mae West.  Add your own exclamation point.]

There are thousands of enthusiastic fans of Ms. Close, and from time to time, I count myself among them.  In this circumstance, though, this was an over-the-top, eccentric behavior reading of Norma, who you might think can absorb all the ‘top’ behavior one might throw her way.  Here, though, she has become a two-dimensional version of the original silent screen megastar, and the production has become a kind of Classics Illustrated version of the original musical, which was itself an adaptation of the film.  She is a woman who has managed to find the balance between being strong and being fragile.  There’s too little of the former on view.

Director Lonny Price, assisted by set designer James Noone, seemed to want to go in the opposite direction of the 1994 work, which was criticized by some for the elaborate interiors of Norma’s palatial old-Hollywood digs.  Here, we have a series of interconnecting fire escape-type stairs and landings, contributing to the coldness of the proceedings.

Now, if you love/loved the original musical, or are a Glenn Close admirer, this is just the ticket for you.  But compare the potential experience with the ticket price before you get out that credit card.

The environment contributes a large percentage of the fun that can be found at the Imperial Theatre, where “The Great Comet,” [aka “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812”] is unleashing all its fascinating elements.  And all creative credit goes to Dave Malloy, described in his Playbill bio as a composer/writer/performer/orchestrator/sound designer.  Every one of those talents is given a real workout in this remarkable show.

Based on a section of Leo Tolstoy’s  epic novel ‘War and Peace,’ “The Great Comet” is a love story wrapped in layers and layers of artistic coverings.  And the main ‘draw’ here is the Broadway debut of singer Josh Groban who, despite  several guest appearances on many television shows, has a limited resume when it comes to acting.   He wears ample padding under his costumes, to fill out his slender frame.

One of the early lyrics warns the audience to pay attention, because “everyone’s got nine different  names.”  Turns out to be pretty close to the truth.  And any attempt at unraveling the interconnectedness of these characters’ story lines could leave you with a dizzying headache.  Because, for a start, all the dialogue is sung.  Part of the premise here is that this is a story that belongs inside an opera, rather than inside a musical theatre frame.  Pierre and Natasha are linked through their connection to his old friend and her godmother, Marya D.  Pierre is [unhappily] married to Helene, whose brother Anatole is close friends with Dolokhov.  Natasha is engaged to the vainglorious Andrey, who is best friends with Pierre.  Okay, pencils down.

So why is this fabulous musical so, well . . .  fabulous?  It is enlivened by the straight-out , direct approach Malloy has employed, to get it all out there – think “Hamilton” with a Russian accent.  And the score deserved the accolade ‘lush’ because it keeps topping itself from one moment to the next.  With a work like this, where actors weave through the theatre, which has been reconceived as a Russian salon, it’s difficult to separate where one talent kicks in and another leaves off.  Director Rachel Chavkin has married all these top-drawer people – scenic designer Mimi Lien, costume designer Paloma Young, lighting designer Bradley King and sound designer Nicholas Pope assisted with wit and innovation by choreographer Sam Pinkleton – into a loving family of creative artists, come together to tell this elaborate story.

The ‘Natasha’ here is Denee Benton.  She had modest credits prior to bursting forth in this very challenging role, with a voice that rivals the early work of Julie Andrews or Barbara Cook.  And she, seemingly effortlessly, projects a warmth that can be infectious.  No wonder everyone is falling in love with her.

Director Chavkin has pulled off one of the most complex, most daring pieces of Broadway staging in recent memory, allowing you into the ‘space’ of these dazzling people.  Wandering minstrels distribute little treats of audience members – my companion, Linda, got an origami-type little red box, housing a delicious mini potato pancake [she allowed me half of it].  The show bears the same fantasy myth feel of Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt’s “The Fantasticks,” only multiplied by a thousand.   Single bright light bulbs descend and withdraw.  An off-stage angelic chorus expands the sound experience.  Good, and yet restrained use of day-glo and strobe  lighting are folded in to provide another type of artistic accenting.  Era-correct prints and pictures adorn the walls.  Small tulip lamps grace the small tables that audience members may have discovered comes with their seat, in the central playing arena.   Actor-singers brush past, all the while accompanying themselves on guitar, clarinet or concertina.  And by unleashing these wandering minstrels into the audience, Chavkin achieves a kind of wrap-around stereo effect.

At one point, a genuinely vexed Helene decries “I don’t know good from bad.”  In the world of the great comet, [which actually did take place], even the bad is good.

Two other plays that have grabbed the attention of regular Broadway theatre-goers, “Jitney” and “The Present,” are due to be shuttered on March 19th.  First, “The Present.”  is in actual fact, a deception.  The playscript results from tinkering and the wholesale chucking out of Anton Chekhov’s first [it is assumed] attempt at playwriting, bearing no title at that time.  As an act of loving collaboration, Australian adapter Andrew Upton redesigned this piece with Cate Blanchett in mind to play the leading role.  And as her foil, he envisioned veteran Aussie actor Richard Roxburgh.   who has good history as her playing partner.  Upton retains a few stock Chekhov ‘types,’ such as the cynical and a Russian country estate, only here, the time period has been shifted forward, to the 1980s.

There’s a fair amount of misplaced love interests, envy, debauchery, drinking and shouting.  And a little boozy dancing.  Upton has affixed a new title – “The Present” – to this piece, and the double meaning [it’s her birthday and she’s been gifted with a pistol, which, of course, gets fired, and the time period spotlights this moment, the present, in all their lives] does nothing to clarify what Upton was seeking to convey.  For all practical purposes, this present should fade graciously into the past.

On the other hand, the presentation of any August Wilson play from his ten-play cycle, each one taking place during one of the decades in the last century, is worthy of attention.  And in the case of “Jitney,” now in its final days at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Friedman Theatre, attention must be paid.

The premise is achingly familiar – a family-run, barely making ends meet little company peopled by its employees and hangers-on.  Here, as in all of Wilson’s cycle plays, it unfolds in Pittsburgh’s Hill District.  It’s been a while since I visited that part of the world, but scenic designer David Gallo has succeeded in capturing the sloping streets and grey atmosphere that provides the setting for the story, which centers on a struggling car service company used by near-by neighbors to do grocery shopping, run auntie to the doctor or keep a date in court.  Some of the same elements here also show up in Wilson’s final century play, “Radio Golf,” which repeats issues stemming from a city government bent on tearing down sections of the neighborhood to create middle-class housing [add your own exclamation point].  And there are also echoes of the lives glimpsed at in “Fences.”  The city plans to board up the car service’s cramped, one-room storefront, by the end of the month, and its owner, Becker [John Douglas Thompson, in a powerful portrayal], has no real plan for what comes next.  When his son returns from his incarceration, Becker seems to have no use for him, claiming that the crime he committed was an act of stupidity.

A few drivers, a travelling bookie, a displaced Vietnam vet and a few other ‘regulars’ drop in and out, with Wilson giving us just enough back story on each one to show how they are interconnected.  A sofa held together by masking tape, a pot-belly stove as the source of heat, the fulfillment of a standing appointment to ‘carry’ someone to the doctor, the ‘numbers’ guy who takes bets – they all stand ready to help Becker relocate, or create a new incarnation of the place, but no real plan emerges, until an unexpected turn of events seems to lead the way out of this dismal dark place.

Until now, this had been the only Wilson cycle play not presented on Broadway, so technically, this makes it eligible for consideration in the ‘best play’ Tony Award category.   Under the astute directorial eye of Ruben Santiago-Hudson, there’s so much here, you won’t feel like something’s been left behind.  Take a ride in this “Jitney” while you still can.

After Play

It’s been announced that Lincoln Center, continuing on its mission to revive mid-century classical musicals with full, lavish and engrossing productions, will be turning its attentions to “My Fair Lady,” with previews beginning on March 22, 2018, opening on April 19, 2018.  If anyone reading this can manage to get a few moments with director Bartlett Sher, whisper this name in his ear: Lindsay Mendez . . . theatre isn’t often able to ‘play’ off current events, but a new work by Jason Odell Williams, “Church & State,” directed by Markus Potter, and produced by Charlotte Cohnn, along with several partners, is now in previews, with a March 20th opening, at New World Stages, for an open-end run . . . the Onomatopoeia Theatre Company, in residence at the Gene Frankel Theatre [24 Bond Street], will present a very naturalistic production of John Steinbeck’s American/Great Depression classic ‘Of Mice and Men.”  The run starts on April 7, and lasts until April 29, to be directed by Thomas Gordon, who will also appear in this cast as George.  His ill-fated friend Lennie will be portrayed by Alexander Kafarakis.

On Book

What do “Hair,” “Hello, Dolly!,” “Sunset Boulevard,” “Taboo,” and “Cry-Baby” all have in common?  They’re all featured in theatre journalist Peter Filichia’s page-turner “Broadway Musicals – The Biggest Hit & The Biggest Flop of the Season – 1959 to 2009,” from Applause Books . . . if you’d like to delve deeper into the world of “The Great Comet,” the Samuel French acting edition is now available at the Drama Bookshop . . . and for those whose interests lie in theatre, but not ON the stage, here are two selections that could peak your interest:  “Hamilton: An American Musical” collects the vocal selections from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s powerhouse of the same name . . . and from Broadway Press, Louisville, Kentucky, comes “Backstage Handbook – An Illustrated Almanac of Technical Information,” by Paul Carter, with illustrations by George Chiang.  This handy, fit-in-the-palm-of-your-hand handbook is really an indispensible resource for anyone now working in, or planning to work in any aspect of the tech side of producing a show.  For more information, check out www.broadwaypress.com.

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TONY VELLELA wrote and produced the PBS series about theatre, ‘Character Studies.’  His play ‘Admissions,’ Best Play winner at the New York International Fringe Festival, is published by Playscripts.  His play “Maisie & Grover Go to the Theatre” is published by Art Age.  He has also written nine other plays and musicals.  His entertainment reporting has been published in dozens of magazines and newspapers, including Parade, Rolling Stone, Dramatics Magazine, Readers Digest and the Christian Science Monitor.  The documentary he wrote for Lifetime Television was awarded Best Documentary in its category.  He has taught theatre-related subjects at HB Studio, the 92nd St. Y, Columbia Teachers College, among other institutions.  His play “Labor Days’ is in development.

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