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?
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
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.
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.
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.