Thursday, August 29, 2019


What Is happening to America's greatest contribution to the theater, musical comedy? Why so many jukebox musicals? Why so many paltry shows?  Why haven't you even tried to hum a  song from a show as you were leaving it? The answers tend to be forbidding. Can it be that possibilities are exhausted? There has not even been a brand new Sondheim show for some time now, and the recent "Road Show," is merely a third version and  even so not a real success. Is there nothing new under the limelight? Is every new note really an old note? No use pointing to new operas, few of them hits and having, as a genre, options that the Broadway musical doesn't have and the off Broadway musical doesn't afford. Some of the new or newish Broadway musicals smell to me of desperation. Take "Hadestown," which, to my nose, is redolent of that desperation, holding no other real interest than Andre de Shields's marvelous performance. But can a single safety belt save a shipload of drowners? The plot is part exhausted myth and part farfetched claptrap.That this elicits ovations reminds me of the German saying "In compulsion, the Devil will eat flies." That is what keeps a mediocre show like "Frozen" going,  that children love it and their parents can at least  bear it. Only two recent musicals have earned my approbation, with "The Prom," despite a sensational performance by Brooks Ashmanskas, already closed, and '"Tootsie," based on a popular movie that offers an adroit actor a timely genderbending role.

Still, with the excellent exception of "The Band's Visit" gone after a respectable run, shows like "Waitress" and "Mean Girls" offer audience-flattering elements  that differ from real quality. Such shows depend largely, if not quite exclusively, on the hunger and gullibility of audiences willing to stand, and stand up for rather meager fare. Most often these are cult favorites, like "Beetlejuice," aimed at and cherished by specific minorities. Another, "ain't too proud," caters to nostalgia for "the life and times of The Temptations," and has at least decent choreography by Sergio Trujillo well executed by an able cast. However, some shows boggle the mind. I am thinking of such nonmusical dramas or comedies as the double bill of "Sea Wall" and "A Life," whose two British authors seem to have gone out of their way to make things needlessly complicated and barely comprehensible as tokens of  presumed profundity. In the former, by Simon Stephens, you never know why a hardly mentioned, submerged wall of sea shore should have become titular; in the latter, by Nick Payne, we never know whether we are dealing with a stepfather's dying or a wife's birthing, the two  becoming somehow scrambled.

But to return to musicals, what are we to make of "Bat Out of Hell," with book, music and lyrics by the songwriter Jim Steinman? He is known for stuff written for, or performed by, the likes of Celine Dion, Barbra Streisand, Bonnie Tyler, and Andrew Lloyd Webber, and a whole trilogy performed by Meat Loaf. But basing an entire show on preexisting numbers is almost like finding a button in the street and having a suit made to go with it. It does not make much sense. Its young hero, Strat, is lover to both Raven and her mother, Sloane, on a rather unbecoming set by Jon Bausor which, not only hard to decipher, does not follow locations called for by the script. The chorus that provides most of the backup is labeled the Lost, though we never find out what they have lost and how. The presumed villain, Falco, is just as vague as the rest, provenance and relationships remaining obscure. The title song does not emerge until the end, and does not explain much of anything.

The show's young hero, Strat, gets little help from having to say or sing things like "Though it's cold and lonely in the deep dark night,/ I can see paradise by the dashboard light." A car and motor bike do indeed figure prominently. The latter "explodes apart/ and his heart explodes out of his chest." "He is drenched in blood" as the Ensemble goes  on repeating without respite oohs and ahs, and we wonder "if life is just a highway. and the soul is just a car" and our hero "seems dead or near dead" in an ambiguity rather hard to enact. Oddly named characters such as Tink and Zahara sprout out of nowhere, the former to have his name comedically mangled, and finally "disappear in a cloud of feathers," which the costume designer, again Jon Bausor, does not quite manage to pull off. And what are we to make of characters named Ledoux, Valkyrie, Kwaidan and Jagwire, among others, who may emerge from the chorus without much conviction or function?

One question haunts the mysterious proceedings: "On a hot summer night/ Would you offer your throat to the wolf with red roses?" As it is worded, I could not even tell whether the red roses come from the unseen wolf or from your throat. After two and a half hours, we get several iterations of a "bat out of hell," when  all we want is for the whole damn thing to be over already instead of coming up with ever more quasi endings. Why doesn't it just go to hell or Hadestown and let us go home? There we can at least play our recordings of true musicals past.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Moulin Rouge!

If you like splash, “Moulin Rouge!” is the show for you. Even more than the Baz Luhrmann movie, on which the musical is loosely based, it can hold your wonderment without abate from start to finish. Let us begin with the enchanting lighting design.

This superabundance of lights basks in everything from several chandeliers to hundreds or seeming thousands of colored bulbs all over the stage and parts of the auditorium. Also neon lights, chamelioning it up from color to rich color. Justin Townsend outlines the stage in concentric heart-shaped frames of differently colored light, simultaneous or successive, to our irresistibly dazzled delight.

Then take the costumes by veteran Catherine Zuber. They can be seriously beautiful or slaphappily comic, but always helping the wearer to the desiderated character. Like the men in top hats and evening garb, smoking cigars, in various parts of he stage, mostly balconies; or, in diverse configurations, the group of cancan dancers, performing or just oolalaing to heart’s content.

Much of the music that Justin Levine has culled, arranged and orchestrated derives from very smart jukeboxes melodious to begin with. Eight experts assisted Levine in their various capacities, all to good effect.

But what about the book by John Logan, primarily the tragic story of the young, innocent composer, Christian (here an American), in love with Satine, experienced   headliner at the Moulin Rouge and courtesan of a certain age? It is clearly influenced by Alexandre Dumas fils’s truth-inspired drama, “La Dame aux Camelias,” and by what Francesco Maria Piave’s libretto for Verdi’s “La Traviata” made of it.

There are thus also the wealthy Duke of Monroth, Christian’s rival for Satine’s body if not heart, and Harold Zidler. a historic figure, compere for both the show and the nascent show within the show for which Christian is providing the music, and which features the secondary, comic couple of Nini, a dancer,  and Santiago, a Hispanic performer, known as the King of the Tango.

Interwoven throughout is the bevy of girl dancers, largely governed by Toulouse-Lautrec, a patron of the Moulin, painter and cripple, enacted by the gifted Sahr Nigaujah.

Satine marks the return to the stage after a long absence by the wonderful Karen Olivo, who looks never a day older or a bit less convincing than of yore. She manages the role with its inherent self-contradiction with exemplary professionalism and compelling charm. She also carries consummately the choreography of Sonya Tayeh, which is consistently evocative.

As Christian, the youthful Aaron Tveit manages the not all that easy task of making innocence interesting in a penetrating role, and there is steady support   from Danny Burstein as Zidler, Robyn Hurder as Nini, Ricky Rojas as Santiago, and Tam Mutu as an almost too appealing Duke.

The show profits greatly from the long-active designer Derek McLane, whose scenery does admirably by conjuring the Paris of 1899 and the particular ambiance of the Moulin Rouge, keeping the versatile sets from succumbing to sprawl. This is a show to make the young feel mature, and the old blissfully young again.

Road Show

It was clever of Encores! to revive Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s musical “Road Show,” a musical with some gorgeous music both for individuals and choral. The orchestra under James Moore performed, as is the custom at Encores! admirably, and the chaste scenic design by Donyale Werle like the sober costumes by Clint Ramos were all to the good. So too were Will Davis’s direction and choreography, proving that indeed less can be more.

This is a road show in the sense the that its main characters, the fabled Mizner brothers, Wilson and Addison, moved all over the place along what seems like very divergent roads to what ends up as a shared one. Here is how Sondheim puts it in his book “Look, I Made a Hat,” concerning a show that exists in three different versions:  “Wise Guys,” a1998 reading,  “Bounce” of 2003, my favorite, and “Road Show.” (2008), the final one,

The storied brothers started out in the small California town of Benicia, and headed from the 1880s for the world and their end in the 1930s. Here is how Sondheim puts it; “Wilson was a conman, entrepreneur and. wit, Addison was chiefly an architect. Their personalities were polar opposites, but their relationship was intense and complicated. The show charts their lives from Benicia California through their adventures in the Klondike gold fields of the 1890s to the extremes of New York City society in the early 1900s and into the Florida real estate boom and bust of the 1920s, for which they were largely responsible,”

The difference was that Wilson was a “brilliant and shifty fellow who through a colorful life was at times a goldminer, a saloon keeper, a prize fighter, a cardsharp, a conman , manager of a hotel for criminals as well as the manager of the world’s welterweight champion, a celebrated Broadway playwright, the husband of one of the richest women in America,, a raconteur known for his wit, an entrepreneur majorly [sic] responsible for the Florida real estate boom and bust of the 1920s, a drunk, a cocaine addict, a notorious womanizer, and finally a Hollywood hack and a successful one..” Conversely, the younger brother, Addison, was a closeted homosexual, a gifted If somewhat bizarre architect, think Boca Raton. Of all this you would need more than a clever musical, perhaps a television series.

Even so, Sondheim and Weidman have come up with quite a musical of some 19 winning numbers, among which my favorite is ‘The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened,” as fine a number as anything in the Sondheim catalog. It is sung in “Bounce” to a woman, but here to a man.

The show needs two splendid actors in the principal roles, and here it gets them in Raul Esparza (Wilson) and Brandon Uranowitz (Addison), both terrific in their different ways, both excellent singers. Esparza is one of America’s best actors tragically undervalued  and underemployed. His Wilson moves idiosyncratically and nervously yet also gracefully with the agility of a dancer, along with crystal - clear delivery of dialogue, and  his disputes with his younger brother are part of a uniquely blended natural and theatrical charm. Uranowitz, in turn, puts to good use his talent for comedy plus a childlike innocence combining jovially with adult smartness.

What both Mizners are in this version is ever so fond of their mother, beautifully played by Mary Beth Peil. Whenever either son is in trouble, he comes back home to her to be affectionately chided and straightened out. The admonitory father, earlier deceased, is nicely handled by Chuck Cooper of the commanding baritone.

The final scene is a moving effusion of brotherly love and a reminder of the show’s leitmotif, and its contrasting traversals. Wilson points ahead: “Addie,, you know what that is? It’s the road to opportunity!” To which Addison: “It’s the road to eternity. ” And Wilson sum up, “The greatest opportunity of all. Sooner or later we’re bound to get it right.”

As Will Davis directs, they’re close together, moving upstage, away from the audience as the final darkness falls. Too bad that this excellent production for Encores! as always plays only a few performances.