Monday, March 14, 2022

Weekly Margin 2022, W12: Plaza Suite, The Music Man

 3/07/22: Plaza Suite
What: The Broderick-Parker revival of Neil Simon's comedy--three one acts that all take place in the same suite at the Plaza Hotel, with the two leads starring as the central characters in each act.
And? The tl;dr version is this show isn't for me, and I could have predicted that. I've never been a big Neil Simon fan, and I vaguely remembered being underwhelmed by this particular script when I saw a community theater production as a child. I'm also not a particular fan of the leads, especially Mr. Broderick, whose stage persona has been bewildering me for a few decades now. But I was graciously gifted a free ticket, and thought I might as well go. I've been told now that Act One is the weakest; I didn't end up staying to see Acts Two or Three. Watching Act One just made me tired and somewhat sad at the complete stagnant inertia of the performance. However, the audience around me was laughing and rapturously applauding, and I hope they enjoyed the next two acts even more than the first. I hope anyone who wants to see real life couple Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker onstage sees this show and  has a lovely night out, I really do. I don't want to yuck someone's yum. But this one just wasn't for me.

Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick as Muriel Tate and Jesse
Kiplinger in Act Two: "Visitor from Hollywood." Photo by Joan Marcus.

What: That big ol' revival starring Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster, about a conman who tries to sell a small town in Iowa on forming a boy's marching band, and gets his foot caught in the door.
And? Whenever my hometown would stage Golden Age musicals on our main proscenium stage, they adhered to the staging standard in which those shows were written: in the pre-hydraulic era of scenic design, where small talky scenes happen on the front apron of the stage while the big set is hurriedly changed over behind the closed curtains. In what is surely a deliberately nostaglia-inducing move, director Jerry Zaks's revival of The Music Man employs a similar device with a lowered barn-front flat (scenic design Santo Loquasto), as well as the use of Grant Wood style painted backdrops, which have visibly patched-together sections rather than being one large piece. So, a nostalgic throwback to an earlier style, but with some noticeable stitching on it.

Can you see where I'm going with this? If you've heard the gossip about this revival, then probably yes.

The rewrites are ... well, they feel inevitable after the slapdash revisal trend we've been seeing in the past few years, including the Gigi rewrite, which tried to rewrite its way around the fact that Gigi is a teen girl training to be a courtesan; the Kiss Me, Kate rewrite, which missed the point by trying to pretend pre-growth Petruchio is not the misogynist he is (why?); to this season's truly misguided Encores! rewrite of The Tap Dance Kid, which erased Emma's fat identity. I'm not saying there's nothing to grapple with when we revive older works with problematic content. But washing over them to pretend these issues were never there is problematic in a new and troubling way. To take it to the extreme, trying to pretend problematic attitudes don't exist, even in beloved works, is the kind of historical revisionist methodology that makes it easier for people to pretend slavery wasn't the monstrosity that it was, or that antisemitism hasn't been a problem for literal centuries. This is not woke culture. This is not even PC culture. This is people not understanding nuance, and trusting their audience to understand it even less. My friend and fellow pundit Michael Dale has also pointed out the basic problematic issue of rewriting works without an author's consent (because the author isn't alive to consent), and still selling it as the original thing, and not a new adaptation. If you don't feel safe doing the work as written, maybe don't do the show? Maybe write a new show?

To remove my Henny Penny hat though, I will say that the rewrites in this case are also just ... bad. The removal of the initial invocation of Balzac means that Marian's subsequent line to her mother, an intended laugh line, makes little sense and lands with a thud. The Mayor's dislike of Tommy Djilas is no longer rooted in Tommy's class status (and his implied first generation American status). And "Shipoopi" is now a song about "the boy who tries his best." That's ... that's a bad lyric. We can all agree that's a bad lyric, right?

Anyway. The show is okay. It's not extraordinary and it's not a total failure; it's okay. Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster are fine, but I have to make the damning admission that I enjoyed the show more in the moments they weren't onstage. I don't think Warren Carlyle's choreo is particularly effective at advancing plot or character (and it goes on too long, but I said the same thing about Kathleen Marshall's choreo for the last Music Man revival), and actually I think undermines Marian's arc in particular in "Marian the Librarian" (1, if someone was encouraging everyone to toss books in the air in MY library, that'd be a deal breaker for me; 2, it's a fine Taming-of-the-Shrew line but if you don't want Hill to come off as a complete stalker, we need to see Marian softening toward him earlier on, and this is the number to do it, and they don't do it). The kids are great, both the wee ones (Benjamin Pajak as Winthrop and Kayla Teruel as Amaryllis) and the teen ones (Gino Cosculluela as Tommy and Emma Crow as Zaneeta). The School Board barbershop quartet (Phillip Boykin, Nicholas Ward, Daniel Torres, and Eddie Korbich) sound amazing on all their numbers, and y'all, the opening number on the train ("Rock Island") is a complete DELIGHT start to finish. They nailed it. Oh and the puppet! The puppet is great.

See? I didn't hate it.

Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster as Harold Hill and Marian Paroo, center,
with the cast of The Music Man. Photo by Julieta Cervantes.

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