Monday, February 19, 2018

Weekly Margin, 2018 W7: At Home at the Zoo, Chess (twice)

1/10/18: At Home at the Zoo
What: Edward Albee's famous The Zoo Story is paired with a prequel, Homelife, to show Peter's relationship with his wife, Ann, prior to meeting a strange man, Jerry, on a park bench, who seems determined to unsettle him.
And? I saw this the last time it was done in New York, at Second Stage, and was disappointed at the time - Homelife seemed to have been written for the sole purpose of giving us a clue who Peter was prior to Jerry, but I was just bewildered by it. This time, however, I was mostly won over by Homelife. Yes, aspects of it are still bewildering (it's Albee), but the relationship felt real, and was affectingly performed by Katie Finneran and Robert Sean Leonard. I had a sense of what could be lost in the next act. But then, for the first time, The Zoo Story half didn't work for me. It was working for a while, mind you - Paul Sparks did great work with the dog story. But the final escalation felt inorganic, and so I felt nothing at the conclusion, because I didn't trust it. I'm not sure what went wrong here, but something did.

Top: Katie Finneran and Robert Sean Leonard as Ann
and Peter. Bottom: Robert Sean Leonard and Paul Sparks
as Peter and Jerry. Photos by Joan Marcus.

1/10/18: Chess (twice)
What: Kennedy Center, a la New York City Center's Encores! series, presents a concert staging of Chess with newly revised script by Danny Strong. Florence, a refugee from Hungary, is poised at the epicenter of an East-West rivalry during the height of the Cold War, as two chess champions, one Russian, one American, vie for the title amid geopolitical machinations and romantic entanglements.
Why Twice? Well, Raul Esparza, Ramin Karimloo, Karen Olivo, Ruthie Ann Miles, and Bryce Pinkham.
And? One of musical theater's famous problem shows, Chess once again attempts to fix itself and find its "final" version. It's still Chess. It's still got its infectious score with its lyrics that don't always make sense or sit comfortably on the melody, and a story that never quite works. But the cast is great, strong acting and strong vocals (the unfortunate exception to this turned into a moving moment of live theater: Raul Esparza has been battling an infection all week. We could hear him struggling with the notes at the top of his register on Saturday; on Sunday they delayed curtain 15 minutes, then announced that he was sick but would perform regardless. His Sunday Freddie shouted a bit less, took a good deal of his stuff down an octave (the high stuff just wasn't there when he reached for it), and was aided and supported by Florence/Karen Olivo. He was conserving what limited access he had to his high range for his big act two number, "Pity the Child," and while it was still rough, it was incredibly performed. When he finished, the entire cast burst into applause along with the audience, and I saw several wiping tears from their eyes. It was a wonderful reminder of the camaraderie and support that is built in a company of players). Back to the show: It's a well-staged concert, and this was probably the funniest version of the show I've encountered, so I assume that's part of what Strong added, along with more specific ties to contemporary conflicts between the USSR and the US.

Karen Olivo as Florence. Photo by Teresa Wood.

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