Tuesday, May 28, 2013

We Need to Talk About Annie

I saw the current Broadway revival of Annie last week, and immediately got requests from my friends to write a review of it. I took notes, but my notes were so vitriolic, I couldn't quite bring myself to write the review they dictated. I like to be conscious of how much bile I put out for public consumption. But I think the majority of my objections stemmed, not from the production, but from my general distaste for the show itself. So rather than review Annie, I'll just break down the basic crippling flaws in the show itself and leave it at that.

(This production? It was fine, veering strongly into dull. There was nothing new being said about the show in the staging or the design, the kids all sang fine, and my biggest complaint in terms of choices being made would probably be Andy Blankenbuehler's choreography, a bewildering hybrid of Bill T. Jones-esque stylized gesture, naturalistic movement, and (of course) tap routines.)

My Three Big Problems with Annie the musical

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Chandeliers and Caviar: Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812

Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, by Dave Malloy, adapted from War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. Directed by Rachel Chavkin. Starring Phillipa Soo and Dave Malloy. Currently running at Kazino through September 1st, 2013. Previously ran at Ars Nova in 2012.

Lucas Steele as Anatole
You are seated at a small round table in a club lined with plush red curtains, adorned with 19th century paintings (including the famous Napoleon portrait). The tables are scattered across the long space, some on the ground level, some up small sets of stairs, lining the walls. The tables are crowded with food - fruit, crudites, small pastries, shots of borscht, as Dmitri (or a similarly Russian-named and -accented waitstaff) takes your drink order. Techno music plays as you observe the starburst-shaped chandeliers and naked bulbs hanging down, and Royce the House Manager makes his rounds, swatting playfully at the waitstaff, saying hello, and being the first to ask you to turn off your cell phone (he will not be the last). Dmitri brings you your second course as you anxiously wait for the show to start. You've skimmed through your program, where there is a helpful summary and character chart, but you're still trepidatious. You never read War and Peace, but you strongly suspect it is Russian, which means it is complicated, depressing, and full of characters with at least three different names apiece.

But the atmosphere is festive, and some of the ensemble have begun to mingle, and perhaps this will not be as dark as all that.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Murder Ballad: The Problem of the Pop Opera

Caissie Levy and Will Swenson as Sara and Tom
Murder Ballad, by Julia Jordan and Juliana Nash. Directed by Trip Cullman. Starring John Ellison Conlee, Rebecca Naomi Jones, Caissie Levy, and Will Swenson. Currently in previews Off-Broadway at Union Square Theatre, opening May 22nd, running through September 29th. Previously played at MTC at City Center Stage II, October 21st, 2012-December 16th, 2012.

The Pop Opera is a troubling genre. It's not true musical theatre, it's not true opera, and it's not a concert (well, maybe Movin' Out was a concert with dance). There's no problem with having a sung-through narrative, provided the narrative still takes precedence in the storytelling, but all too often that is sacrificed - because in the pop idiom, the songs are not plot- or character-driven, as in a traditional musical, but emotion-driven. Pop songs, as a form, sit in the emotion of the moment, but rarely move beyond it. And often (unless we have a narrator to help us through it, which we'll get to in a moment), we are left to rely on a bare-bones narrative full of familiar tropes and archetypes (or just flat-out cliches), with not much new to say about any of them. American Idiot was a rousing good time, but I don't think anyone was there for the story; I don't think anyone left with much of a story beyond, "Gee, it's hard to be a guy in his 20s in Modern America." The plot's there, but it's rarely actually in the action of the songs themselves - the songs are reactions to the plot. And there's no dialogue to help us literalize whatever dreams or plans were abandoned or compromised, as it's all skated through on the way to the next chorus.

This is the way the Pop idiom cripples storytelling and prevents Pop Operas from being true musicals.

What's fascinating here is how much Murder Ballad embraces those very limitations of the genre and turn them on themselves - it luxuriates in those flaws and says, "Yes, that's the point, and that's the story we need to tell."

Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Trip to Bountiful: Her Story and Her Song

The Trip to Bountiful, by Horton Foote. Directed by Michael Wilson. Starring Cicely Tyson, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Vanessa Williams, with Condola Rashad and Tom Wopat. Currently running on Broadway at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre through September 1st.
Vanessa Williams as Jessie Mae
and Cuba Gooding, Jr. as Ludie

There is hardly anything more satisfying than a good story, well-told. Well, there's one thing - being surprised into a good story, well-told. I didn't know what I was in for when I saw the current revival of Horton Foote's The Trip to Bountiful. I usually have some clue, before I see a show, of how much I'm going to like it. Whether it's from some prior interest in the performers, the writer(s), the director, or the company presenting it, or from word-of-mouth, I can usually predict accurately at least an outline of my enjoyment (or lack thereof). Here, I had almost no predictions. I didn't know the play or director, I didn't have much investment in the performers, and the poster art didn't really tell me much beyond what the leads looked like:

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Jekyll & Hyde: Bad News From God

Constantine Maroulis as Jekyll
Jekyll & Hyde, by Leslie Bricusse, Frank Wildhorn, and Steve Cuden. Directed/choreographed by Jeff Calhoun. Starring Constantine Maroulis, Deborah Cox, and Teal Wicks. Currently running on Broadway at the Marquis Theatre through May 12th.

It's almost cruel, at this point in Jekyll & Hyde's abbreviated run, to spit too much upon its grave, or to take much joy in its failings. It's a flawed show, and everyone knows that. The lyrics are uneven at best, the book is clunky and blunt, and it indulges more in the pulpy love triangle than in the more compelling moral quandary of its source material. But I want to like it. I'm in the minority, but I like Frank Wildhorn. I like his music. There's a heroism to it, a romantic hope for the best in us. The Scarlet Pimpernel was my first Broadway show, and it made me fall in love with live theater in a permanent way. And I loved the two-disc concept album for Jekyll & Hyde, starring Anthony Warlow, Carolee Carmello, and Linda Eder. The original Broadway production, which I saw in 1999, did not live up to the show I imagined as I listened to the concept album; but then, neither did this one.

Friday, May 3, 2013

The Assembled Parties: Confronting Our Expectations

(not a review, but a response to The Assembled Parties)

Jessica Hecht as Julie, Jeremy Shamos as Jeff,
and Judith Light as Faye

There's a little Jewish Mothah in all of us.

Just as the stereotypical Jewish Mother is always looking to matchmake her children (and everyone else's children), so we the audience, while watching a story unfold, are looking for clues for how it will all work out. This includes, of course, any romantic options for our characters. We expect a little romance with our drama.

So when Jeff, under interrogation by his best friend's parents, with whom he is spending a Jewish Christmas dinner, starts describing their son's girlfriend in glowing terms, even revealing that he met her first, we think, "Aha! He is in love with her." And perhaps he is, but as we never meet her, that is a love that never comes to fruition. But then - his best friend's cousin Shelley, an awkward young woman, appears, and her Jewish Mother deliberately leaves the two of them alone to get acquainted. Could perhaps this be our expected romance?