Friday, July 17, 2015

Margin Notes: Amazing Grace

Josh Young as John Newton, with Ensemble.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Seen on: Thursday, 6/25/15.
My grade: D.

Plot and Background
John Newton, who would later go on to write the song "Amazing Grace," is in his youth a bit of a manchild, rebelling against his emotionally withdrawn father, drinking too much, and getting into one too many scrapes. When his ship is attacked at sea, he's taken hostage by Princess Peyai, and continues in his father's line, helping her to sell African slaves. After his father rescues him, their ship is torn apart in a storm, and Newton experiences a religious awakening when he cries out to God and the ship is spared. Meanwhile in England, his childhood sweetheart Mary risks her life by spying for the abolitionist movement. This show was originally workshopped at Goodspeed's Norma Terris Theatre in Connecticut in 2012. It had its world premiere in Chicago this past autumn, and has transferred to Broadway.

What I Knew Beforehand
I knew (or thought I knew) it was about the genesis of the popular titular song, which turned out to be incorrect. And I was excited to see Josh Young perform again, having enjoyed his voice in JCS.


Play: Big ol' grain of salt - I saw the first preview performance. That being said, my issues with the show don't seem to be ones fixable before opening night. The first and possibly biggest problem is the show's chosen subject: John Newton, as portrayed in the show, is a drunkard, a dropout, a dick with daddy issues, a man unwilling to acknowledge the consequences of his actions, and by the way a man who sells and trades literally thousands of slaves in both England and Africa. The show assures us in its epilogue that, after the nearly three hours we watched of him being awful, he went on to fifty years of working for abolitionist causes. That's awesome, and I'm glad he finally learned from his actions, but where is that story? Why do we get only an epilogue acknowledgement of the show's protagonist not being a shit? The only redeeming thing about Newton as portrayed within the show's narrative is the fact that he's played by Josh Young, who has one of the most beautiful baritones on Broadway.

Other issues I had with the show include:
  • Too many monologues and speechifying. Typically in a musical, when a character feels the need to speechify, he or she expresses that through song and thus sways the audience with the power of the emotion and the rhetoric and soaring melody and whatnot.
  • You would think, with a show that takes its title and its advertising from the fact that Newton would go on to write the universally known song "Amazing Grace," that that would also work its way into the narrative, instead of serving as a coda to the epilogue.
  • Honestly, the structure was all over the place. The villain Major Gray isn't that villainous (he's a dick, but so is Newton), the hero (as already pointed out) isn't that heroic, and Mary, the female lead and love interest, the one with the actual heroic plot of intrigue and nobility, is handled so dully that I kept tuning out.
The writing's not all bad - there is definitely an appealing bombast to a lot of the score, even if the lyrics are largely unmemorable, crutching on abstract concepts. And I don't think a single audience member could help getting chills when the entire company sings the title song in full-throated harmony, a cappella. There are bits of this show that hint at what could be a good show. Some of the bones are there. But the majority of it is so awkwardly constructed that you'd need a complete overhaul (plot, book, score) in order to actually mine the show's potential. I could see, sometimes, how to fix it, or at least part of it. But I'm afraid all we might achieve would still be a bit of a dullard.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Margin Notes: The Wild Party

Brandon Victor Dixon, Steven Pasquale, and Sutton Foster
as Black, Burrs, and Queenie. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Seen on: Wednesday, 7/15/15.
My grade: C+. Not really my show, and the acoustics didn't help.

Plot and Background
Queenie and Burrs, a vaudeville couple on the rocks, throw a raucous party to distract from (or perhaps exacerbate) their quarreling. When Queenie's friend Kate brings the mysterious and attractive Black, Queenie sees a way out - and Kate sees a way in. Filled with a menagerie of personalities and showcase songs, the show is based on Joseph Moncure March's 1928 narrative poem, and was workshopped in 1997 before its Off-Broadway run at Manhattan Theatre Club in 2000 (in a weird bit of theater kismet, another adaptation of the poem, this time by Michael LaChiusa and George C. Wolfe, opened in the same season, but on Broadway). Lippa's version is presented here as part of New York City Center's Encores! Off-Center Series.

What I Knew Beforehand
I knew the strange story of two separate adaptations of The Wild Party running in the same season. I'd heard both cast albums once or twice, and had read the synopsis in the liner notes. I think I probably had a better sense of the Broadway/LaChiusa adaptation than the Off-Broadway/Lippa, going in. I also knew that the issue of which adaptation is superior is a rather divisive one among theater aficionados. Not having seen the LaChiusa adaptation, I'm not ready to weigh in on that debate.


Play: I should start off by saying the acoustics were bad enough that any time the orchestra (or singers) were at full volume, I couldn't understand a word. This was obviously not a problem for some of the audience, either because they could hear fine, or because they already had the show memorized. There were clearly a lot of fans in the audience, as numerous songs were greeted with cheers before they even started. Sound issues aside ... I think this just isn't my show. Surrounded by cheering fans, I all too often felt like I was missing out on something everyone else was experiencing. What I experienced was a collection of generally unlikable characters who weren't giving me a reason to root for them, and a rather depressing conclusion (I get that that's the point, but ... why do I need to see it?). What I could hear of the score was definitely catchy, jazzy and fun, though the lyrics weren't always the most compelling.

(Also - I don't typically address design with the Encores! shows, but I want to note that Donyale Werle's set - with its clotheslines draping the back wall, strings of lights overhanging the playing space, and rugs draped everywhere - and Clint Ramos's costumes - full of flappers, fringe, and outlandish suits - were quite the treat for the eye.)

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Margin Notes: Ruthless!

Kim Maresca, Peter Land, and Rita McKenzie
as Judy Denmark, Sylvia St. Croix, and Lita Encore.
Photo by Carol Rosegg.
Seen on: Monday, 7/6/15.
My grade: B. Good campy fun.

Plot and Background
Tina Denmark, at only eight years old, is the biggest star her town has seen - or so she thinks. When Louise Lerman is cast as the lead in the school play over Tina, bloody intents are revealed, as well as shocking (!) backstories. Is Judy, Tina's housewife mother, quite as talentless as she believes? And what is Sylvia St. Croix's scheme when she invites herself into their home? Bookwriter and lyricist Joel Paley directed the award-winning original production of this campy take on the already-campy The Bad Seed in 1992, and returns to direct this production as well, which is touting itself not as a revival but a re-imagining - the show is streamlined and updated.

What I Knew Beforehand
I knew the musical took at least some of its inspiration from the cult classic melodrama The Bad Seed, which I'd seen in my youth on one of my TCM kicks. And that this version had to do with show business.


Play: The show starts off strongly, with Kim Maresca knocking "Tina's Mother," a paean to her supporting role in her daughter's budding showbiz career, out of the park, followed quickly by the prancing Annie-on-crack herself. The script is riddled with musical theater references galore (like a "Hidden in This Picture" for nerds), including a Sweeney Todd factory whistle and nearly every line from Gypsy. It's a relatively fun journey, as camp as you can get (the climax is a murderous showdown where all the guns are pointed fingers), and the songs are (with the exception of "I Hate Musicals!" which outstays its welcome) generally fun and keep things moving. At some point, however, the camp isn't enough to sustain the story or the audience's energy - at only 95 minutes it feels overlong. Still, it ends charmingly enough, and shows off its cast to good effect.