Monday, November 15, 2021

Weekly Margin 2021, W46: Urinetown: The Musical, Assassins

11/11/21: Urinetown: The Musical
What: Blue Hill Troupe's revival of the surprise Broadway hit about a town where the water shortage is so bad that people have to pay to pee.
And? The lovely thing about Blue Hill Troupe is you know the voices will be good--an especially nice thing when none of the cast are miked. And they're always having a lot of fun. In terms of acting and staging, they're about on par with community theater, which unfortunately means that a lot of the cast (and the directing) struggle to nail the tone of the script. However, three of their leads--Brady Lynch, Andrew F. Neuman, and Lauren Cupples, as Little Sally, Officer Lockstock, and Hope Cladwell--nail the tone, the acting, and the comedy.

The cast of Urinetown: The Musical. Photo source.

11/13/21: Assassins
What: Classic Stage Company's long-delayed John Doyle-directed revival of the Weidman-Sondheim musical about the various individuals who have tried to kill the U.S. President.
And? I should start off by saying that this is such a good show in its bones, so tight and clear, that even with the nits I'm about to pick, I still thought it was pretty good. Nit #1: while I think Doyle is more capable than a lot of other directors at staging his actors on a thrust stage so that they don't seem to be wandering aimlessly, the majority of his stage pictures still favor a minority section of the audience: the less than a third facing the front of the thrust. Seated as I was at the end of the side, I missed a number of the intended tableaux, especially in  the utilization of the projection screen bullseye (see image below). Similarly, while I don't know how the sound mixes from that minority angle, seated where I was, the instruments sometimes drown out the vocals. My biggest issue though is with Doyle's penchant for deliteralization. I still think his production of Company is the finest production of that show I've seen (don't worry, I'm seeing the newest one later this month), but I thought his Sweeney was weakened by not making it clear what particular actions were taking place. Similarly here, a number of the stakes are lost in particular scenes because we don't understand the physical threat: Booth parades around the space with no sign of a broken leg preventing his escape; Guiteau falters in his cakewalk but with no gallows for him to physically shy from, it's unclear why; Zangara screams from his chair but unless you have a good angle on the projection of the electric chair overhead, you don't realize these are his last words before his execution. And rather than being physically overwhelmed by the assassins, who shred him to transform the Balladeer to Oswald, actor Ethan Slater voluntarily surrenders his instrument and coverall.

Those issues aside, a lot works. Ann Hould-Ward's costume design is clear and clean, even against the rather unsubtle scenic design (which appears to be Doyle's work).  Will Swenson's Guiteau is twitchy mesmerizing, unable to be still even in stillness, his eyes darting in ever direction from beneath his lowered brow. Steven Pasquale's quiet dignity and charisma carry Booth well through many of the scenes, though I don't think he leans enough into the ugliness of Booth to remind us that this man is no hero. Brandon Uranowitz brings an earnest pathos to Czogosz. I could wish that Doyle brought more variety to the staging and light choreo for his ensemble--the first time they do a hopping march during "The Ballad of Czolgosz" it charms, but when that same move is repeated in later numbers, it becomes clear that there aren't a lot of tools in this particular box, and there is no staging particularity being given to the different musical styles. Final note, while the barbershop quartet harmonies still don't quite work (has anyone nailed them since the original 1991 cast?), the vocals are uniformly excellent and the orchestrations satisfying.

Regardless of the production, the thesis of the show remains chilling: the flipside of The American Dream, where Americans are born not only entitled to the pursuit of happiness, but happiness itself--and when happiness is denied, someone else is to blame and must be punished. This has always, unfortunately, resonated, but it is particularly pointed in light of January 6, 2021. 

I wouldn't mind seeing it again from a "better" angle.

Steven Pasquale as John Wilkes Booth, with Bianca Horn as the Flag Bearer,
and the cast of Assassins. Photo by Julieta Cervantes.

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