Thursday, December 8, 2016

More Second Opinions

“Dear Evan Hansen” was, in my view, an undeserved hit Off Broadway, and is so again on Broadway, once more harvesting critical raves as numerous and useless as fallen autumn leaves.

In one respect, though, this show is typical—indeed archetypal—of current musicals: it has poor, monstrously repetitive lyrics, and absolutely not a single tune, either sung or instrumental. It is a wonder that such so-called music can be sung at all, although false notes would fit imperceptibly in.

The contrived and pretentious book is by Steven Levenson, the music and lyrics are by the currently hotshot team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, whose previous flukes include “Dogfight,” “A Christmas Story: The Musical,” and “James and the Giant Peach.”  All of them should be subtitled “The Musical,” lest the score be mistaken for so much noise.

This is the tale of prototypical nerd Evan Hansen, a high-school kid sorely lacking friends and advised by his shrink to write himself encouraging letters. He signs them “Me.”  One such is printed in the school computer lab and pocketed by a fellow student, Connor Murphy, who later commits suicide due to loneliness and depression.

Connor’s bereaved parents, Larry and Cynthia Murphy, find Evan’As letter signed “Me” in Connor’s pocket, on the basis of which they assume that Connor and Evan were secretly bosom buddies, and, what with Evan loath to disillusion them, more or less adopt him as a substitute son. This partly because his own mother, Heidi Hansen, a single parent constrained to toil at two jobs, has scant time for her boy.

There is also the Murphy daughter, Zoe, the class belle, who warms to Evan as he co-founds, with a couple of other kids (one Jewish, one black—make your own deductions), a manifold memorial, turning the hostile Connor into a posthumous hero, with a feel-good ending for all concerned.

The cast, even under the undistinguished direction of Michael Greif, does well enough—I particularly liked Laura Dreyfus (Zoe), Rachel Bay Jones (Heidi) and, as Evan, Ben Platt, doing almost frighteningly well down to the last stammer and nervous tremor in his legs. The final insult, presumably to epitomize the role of the Internet, consists of dogged but irrelevant projections by Peter Nigrini onto David Korins’s drab, dromomaniac panels, depressingly matching a certifiably tuneless score.

The quasi-autobiographical story of Chazz Palminteri’s early life, “ A BronxTale,” can match any Indian cult of avatars with reincarnations worthy of the phoenix. Having begun as a play and re-emerged as a movie, it now pops up as a musical, with who knows what further variations to come. A comic strip? A ballet?

As a musical, it has lyrics by Glenn Slater and music by Alan Manken, the former an old hand and the latter an all but perennial one. It returns co-directed by Jerry Zaks, another old pro, and Robert De Niro, who co-directed and starred in the movie version. So, you see, there is a kind of Bronx Tale industry, somewhat larger than a cottage one, but just as dedicated. The book of the musical, need I say, continues to be by Chazz.

I won’t go into details of a plot that you can hardly have wholly avoided, but will say that it is the story of a boy with two fathers: the real one, a decent hard-working bus driver, and an adoptive one, Sonny, crime boss of the neighborhood, who took him on after the kid, then nine years old, refused to finger him upon witnessing a flagrant murder.

Chazz figures as the plucky boy and, later, devoted Sonny protege called Calugero, which the gangster, good at cutting lives and names short, reduces to a mere C. As C.  Calugero becomes head of his own, noncriminal gang, and courts a black girl from a neighborhood with which his Italian one has strictly no truck. He does get support and a sexual education from Sonny (which is quite amusing), and, under his real father’s guidance, manages to outlive the murdered Sonny and, we assume, go straight.

The show makes it all amorally jolly, and Sergio Trujillo furnishes it with a lively choreography. There is good scenery from Beowulf Boritt and authentic costuming from William Ivey Long, as well as helpful lighting by Howell Binkley.

But here again, the score, with only passable lyrics, gets second-rate support from the experienced Alan Menken. Having provided music for so many works in various media, largely for Disney, Menken may have depleted his stock that, for his penultimate, “Aladdin,” still managed rather better. Which is not to say that it does not surpass drear [sic] “Evan Hansen.”

 The acting is mostly fine, though I do not prefer the current Calugero, Bobby Conte Thernton, to the previous one at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse. But there is one performance that outshines all others, the Sonny of Nick Cordero. This, down to the tiniest threatening facial expression and most sparing minatory gesture, is sheer perfection, making criminality unleashed fun. You may have reservations about everything else, but Cordero, even in an ominous silence, is an ungainsayable last word.

“Sweat” is another show hailed by the reviewers as a masterpiece, though it is not the author’s finest. Lynn Nottage is, along with August Wilson, the black theater’s best; the rest, no matter how many genius awards are lavished on them, are not in the same league. Among Nottage’s virtues are the not inconsiderable ones of never repeating herself, and of basing her work on irreproachable on-site research.

Here she deals with blue-collar workers of uneventful Reading, Pennsylvania; the  bar in which they hang out; their financial, social, emotional problems; their friendships and hostilities; their boozing and gossiping. It is impossible to provide a précis of the goings on, what with nine characters’ tribulations complicatedly interwoven and in constant, however minor, change.

What is particularly good about “Sweat” is the capture of these mentalities and misadventures in the exact language in which they are given voice, rendering them incontrovertibly real. But therein lies also the danger: in this long, perhaps overlong, play, no character commands more than a genuine but transient empathy. Turns and tensions abound, but our feelings are never vitally engaged.

This said, Kate Whoriskey has perceptively directed a persuasive cast, and we can practically smell the beers and hard liquor being prodigally consumed. Except perhaps for Johanna Day, we get a set of most likely unknowns, thus favorably contributing to our not viewing them as actors. In John Lee Beatty’s detailed scenery and Peter Kaczorowski’s unsparing lighting, we get a kind of reality show unknown to television.

The ending may be just a trifle pat, but this is forgivable after the authentic disorder we have been witnessing. You can apply quite a few gritty phrases to the proceedings, but “Don’t sweat it,” is not one of them.

In my opinion, Richard Greenberg , author of numerous plays, has scored only one winner: “Take Me Out,” directed by Joe Mantello and given a flawless production. Otherwise, neither his spotty wit nor his latent sentimentality has carried much weight with me.  It was Frank Rich, in a Times rave review for what may have been Greenberg’s questionable first attempt, who put this smartass on the map despite such blatant turkeys as “The Violet Hour” and “Our Mother’s Brief Affair” among others.

We now have “The Babylon Line,” neither his worst nor his best, but in which Greenberg tries to be a bit different. He has undoubtedly taught some classes in writing, and this is about such a one in unglamorous Levittown on Long Island’s Babylon railway line in what is doubtless some second-rate institution.

The unrewarded but conscientious teacher is the youngish Aaron Port, author seemingly of only one story in an obscure academic journal. His six students are three variously typical Jewish Long Island housewives  and mothers, and a weird, goyish, childless woman, plus one middle-aged man whom life has passed by and one quite oddball younger one, working on the first paragraph of a yet unwritten thousand-page opus . None of these have an easy time providing a piece of writing for discussion, though they do come up with eventual bits, as comic as they are banal.

Joan Dellamond is at least a strange kind of intellectual; Frieda Cohen is humorously commandeering; Anna Cantor is a squeaky mouse; and ludicrous Madge Braverman is somewhere in between. Aaron, in most cases, might have an easier time extracting the entrails from a goose, but, an underpaid and humble commuter from the Village, he tries to do his best.

There are some funny moments, and even a smidgen of pathos in an aborted love story between Aaron and Joan (a partial recluse who dreams of kicking a baby), but somehow the whole thing does not jell. You hope for a resolution, a purpose, at least an arc, but you just keep getting numerous short scenes, on and on, not leading anywhere. A pat ending is mercifully avoided, but something more is desperately needed.

Still, under Terry Kinney’s sedulous direction, an expert cast does yeoman’s work. As Frieda, Randy Graff, one of our finest actresses, is marvelous as a loudmouth and know-it-all, expertly making an annoying character just enjoyable enough but not too lovable. There is lovely work from one of our top comediennes, Julie Halston, as Madge Braverman, who comes into her questionable own, and Maddie Corman, who squeezes maximum life out of subaltern Anna Cantor.

On the men’s side, that most dependable of balding actors, Frank Wood, does touchingly by painfully ordinary Jack Hassenpflug; Michael Oberholtzer, as the untalented fanatic Marc Adams, couldn’t be more droll. The most notable character, Joan, may not be quite nailed by Elizabeth Reaser, but she comes disturbingly close enough. Richard Hoover (set}, Sarah J. Holden (costumes) and David Weiner (lighting) make sterling contributions.

On a show-off level, some of this works passably enough; if you can keep your expectations as low as those of Aaron Post, winningly acted by Josh Radnor, you can have a tolerably good time.

We come now to the modest Off Broadway musical “The Band’s Visit,” which I find slight but likable. Based on an Israeli movie by Eran Kolirin, this is a story of the uniformed Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra arriving at an invitation of the Israeli Betah Tikva  Cultural Department to perform at the Culture Center. At the outskirts of Bet Hatikva, they are informed that there is a Petah Tikva or a Bet Hatikva, but no Betah Tikva, and, as the owner of Dina’s Café and hangers out inform them, there is “Not culture, no Israeli Culture, no Arab, no culture at all.”

This leads to the first songs and much comical disputation about where the visitors are or should be, to the probable latter there being no bus any longer till next morning. What follows is the varied fascinating interaction among the Egyptians and sundry Israelis--chiefly, but by no means exclusively, between Dina, the spunky café owner, and Tewfyk, the widowed and repressed conductor of the orchestra.

There are quite a few minor characters with their several intertwined stories, including one family with a variously passed around baby, a young man afraid to woo a desired melancholy young woman, another chap glued endlessly to the sole payphone, hoping for a call from his girlfriend that doesn’t seem to be coming. Also some provocative female soldiers and a character or two whizzing about on roller skates, plus others just waiting for something different to happen.

The show is staged by David Cromer, a famous but somewhat overrated director, who can be effective as he is here, turning turmoil to scenic advantage. Conveyed is a sense of something larger, implied and all-encompassing, that bespeaks a confused and confusing society to which, however, music and goodwill may bring redemption.

The book is by Itamar Moses, whom I don’t trust as a writer, but who proves an acceptable adapter. David Yazbek has provided pleasant music and rather less impressive lyrics, although a kind of love song with “Omar Sharif” for refrain is not without piquancy. At the very least, credit must be given for Tewfiq and Dina not having the expected fling, despite her flagrant efforts.

And speaking of Dina, her embodier, Katrina Lenk, strikes me as the most interesting actress currently on view, displaying a perfect fusion of talent and looks, and easily worth the price of admission. Altogether, this “Visit” is worth visiting.

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