Saturday, April 30, 2011

Priscilla, Queen of the Desert

This will be my shortest review ever because I just don't care enough about this show to complain more. It's so mediocre, and I can barely remember any of it other than the crushing weight of disappointment I felt at watching it fall so flat.

The costumes are visually assaulting, sometimes in a good way (how the three leads' dresses fit together at the curtain call is worthy of a Tony all by itself). But I don't remember any of the songs, the show ends well after the emotionally satisfying reconciliation between drag queen and son, and, though his dad scenes are great, Will Swenson just doesn't sell the swish. That said, Tony Sheldon and C. David Johnson are great as Bernadette and Bob. And Nick Adams ... is very athletic.

This is a musical about two guys and a transgender woman traveling across the Australian desert to do a drag show at a big casino and for one of the guys to meet his young son. That should be awesome, right? The movie definitely is: It's smart, full of heart, and, appropriately for a movie about Australian drag queens, bitingly hilarious. This Broadway musical, however, is the Disney version of drag queens. I said funnier, gayer, more shocking things in high school than this gang does on stage. The clearest indication that the show is only trying to appear edgy--to make the tourists feel that they're seeing something shocking, without doing anything that might actually alienate middle Americans--is that the three people on the show's webpage are not the three leading men but instead three minor women. Yup, nary a drag queen in sight.

But I'm sure people will love the tour. Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

American Idiot

When is a jukebox musical not a jukebox musical? No, I'm just kidding. American Idiot is definitely a jukebox musical--perhaps moreso than most in that it has practically no book. In a brilliant move, director Michael Mayer decided not to bloat it with cheesy dialogue to detract from the gorgeous people singing fantastic songs, dancing to cool choreography, and basically rocking our faces off. That also keeps the show at just over 90 minutes plus a fun curtain call, which makes it about perfect for adrenaline junkies with short attention spans (or people who are seeing a long-ass show like Jerusalem or The Intelligent Homosexual's ... the same day).

All together, there's less than five minutes of dialogue in American Idiot. Instead of a more traditional style of jukebox storytelling--which is often clumsily tacked onto a score of unrelated songs (Mamma Mia, All Shook Up)--Mayer and Green Day frontman and lyricist Billie Joe Armstrong give a sketch of character arcs for the leads (and a blank canvas for the large ensemble) and let them stand in for a whole generation of angry, aimless, impulsive youth desperate to break out of tiny towns and meaningless lives but unsure how. In the meantime, they settle for anything that gets their blood pumping: music, sex, drugs, fighting. It's a visceral show, aimed at the gut more than the head, and if the lyrics sometimes don't quite match up to the already thin plot (Extraordinary Girl???), no one cares much because the songs are damn catchy, and there are a million other details vying for attention.

I've seen this show an excessive number of times. Truly. And I'll see it again when the tour comes through Boston. The performers have been almost universally fantastic (late replacements for Will, Tunny, and St. Jimmy aside). And the set design, projections, and dances are so overwhelming that I could probably never see everything no matter how many times I might go. I love seeing what the understudies, who've had such different voices, bring to the songs gorgeously arranged by Tom Kitt. The added strings and the strength of so many great voices makes them so lush. I'll never get tired of the cast recording, even if it's overproduced and pop-sounding compared to the raw live show.

The show has been full of fantastic dancers, too (Leslie McDonnell, Declan Bennett, Andrew Call, Rebecca Naomi Jones, Gerard Canonico, and Mikey Winslow in particular), who performed the crap out of choreography that is perfectly matched to the style and energy of the show. I was sitting at Junior's splitting a slice of devil's food cheesecake with a friend after the show a few months ago and I mentioned how much I love the choreography. He said he didn't think there was much to it, which surprised me, but he admitted that West Side Story-style dancing would definitely have felt wrong. I love how Steven Hoggett exaggerates and smooths out the movements of kids who hang out in convenience store parking lots looking for trouble and turns it into (often-concussive) dance. The posturing in picking a fight with other kids killing time at the 7-11 and the struggle between new parents Will and Heather as she moves out are perfect. And the bombing dance, combined with actual night-vision footage from Iraq, is stunningly brutal. (I look forward to comparing it to the movement he created for the war scenes in Black Watch.) There's also a flying scene. (No, really.) My friend hadn't really considered any of that to be choreography, which I think speaks to how organic it feels to the music and the characters.

That bizarre flying scene is a duet between Extraordinary Girl (originally played by the golden-voiced Christina Sajous) and Tunny (originated by Stark Sands, the only one I've seen who's been up to the role). I get that it's a dream sequence, but even so it just doesn't belong in the show. EG glides down in a burka, which she then removes piece by piece, like a stripper, to reveal a midriff-baring I Dream of Jeannie outfit. Then they fly around (him in his hospital gown) singing the song Extraordinary Girl, which has lyrics that are probably the worst fit in the show (war is definitely not an ordinary world, the song mentions Whatsername, whom EG and Tunny have never met, etc.). It's a great song and flying is fun(!) but, like 3-D for movies, just because you can put something in your show doesn't mean you should.

The show itself is great, but the choices by director Mayer and casting director Jim Carnahan (who both also handled Spring Awakening) deserve much of the credit for Idiot's success. Individually he found the best people for each role (regarding the original cast), and their chemistry together was palpable. I really am in love with most of this cast (ensemble included) and can't wait to see what they do next. (Below the jump, I go on at length about the cast, especially Michael Esper and Tony Vincent, and talk about their other projects.)

Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures

This play and especially this cast are completely brilliant. In fact, I'm downright in love with them. I like shows that make me feel ignorant but not stupid--ones that make me want to read, read, read to catch up. Or, in the case of Tom Stoppard's Arcadia revival now on Broadway, make me want to scour Wikipedia and then ask my husband to explain the math and science. The same is true for Tony Kushner's The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures at the Public Theater. (How ridiculously long is that title? I think others are calling it iHo--iHo? really?--but for me it's iHomo.)

iHomo drops so many names of seminal works in political economy that I can't even remember them all in order to look them up. That's one reason it's so frustrating that the play isn't published yet (well, I can't find it on Amazon). The other is that there are often two or more conversations going on at the same time, with important things being said and not just throwaway lines for effect. Somehow, much of it is actually intelligible, and that is a miracle of timing on the actors' part. Still, when they all started shouting over each other toward the end, from my seat on the outer aisle I couldn't follow what was happening on the other side of the stage. Of course, that just gives me a happy excuse to go see it again.

Overlapping or interrupted dialogue often goes horribly, horribly wrong (e.g., almost every David Mamet production I've ever seen). But the dialogue in iHomo--and its perfectly timed delivery--is achingly real, even as the characters have conversations levels beyond what I've encountered anywhere but a pretentious coffee shop or college campus. All the talking, talking, talking and overanalyzing that bothers me in Kushner's Angels in America (and in Mamet's and Wendy Wasserstein's plays) feels so organic to this brilliant family. One moment I'd think no one really talks like that, throwing those ideas around in casual conversation at home, but every character is so nuanced that I couldn't help but believe that they are real people--real, devastatingly brilliant people. It helps that they threw in one everyman character (played well by Steven Pasquale, except for one outburst that rang false--but it's a measure of the cast's overall strength that that moment even stood out).

On the other hand, no conversation is casual for this family, even when they're not discussing the central problem to this play: The family has gathered for patriarch Gus (Michael Cristofer) to announce his decision to off himself because he thinks he has Alzheimer's. Gus's life work has been organizing labor (and laboring himself), but he's come to realize that his greatest achievement is also his biggest failure. I didn't know about the union compromise discussed in the play, but it was fascinating in light of the current union-busting fervor in this country. The timing of this play is perfect, and I hope it goes on to reach many more people because the lessons about family, work, and letting go are all so important and just beautifully, beautifully handled.

I could go on for days about the cast, which is excellent all around (the ex-husband, the everyman's wife, and the pregnant lesbian less so than the more major characters; but Molly Price is fantastic in her one scene). Cristofer is mesmerizing in a role stuffed with grandiose speeches that could so easily have been overblown. His interactions with the equally wonderful Linda Emond are the heart of the show, and her performance is completely heartbreaking without being maudlin. Brenda Wehle's understated portrayal of Gus's kooky sister makes what you find out about her past even more hilarious. Stephen Spinella is great, as always. His opening monologue is brilliantly delivered (a fun wink to a theater-loving audience that is sadly also completely overindulgent and kind of bratty on the playwright's part--it really should be cut from the play). And every moment between him and Michael Esper crackles with tension. Even when he's being a complete douche, he's still so lovable.

In my eyes, Esper can do no wrong. He and Frank Langella are really all I liked in Roundabout's underwhelming production of A Man for All Seasons, a play I really didn't connect with at all (I couldn't get through reading it either, though). And I'm a bit obsessed with his performance as Will in American Idiot. I've never seen anyone make a more compelling performance out of what was written as kind of a nothing role--he spends almost the entire show sitting on the couch silently, after all. (Even with Billie Joe Armstrong on stage as St. Jimmy, I spent most of my time watching Esper play a character that it seems he created from whole cloth to become the most well-developed character in the show.) I love his physicality in every role and how natural his character's nonscripted moments are, so fully realized with mannerisms and achingly human fidgeting. I will definitely go watch him in anything he does in the future. (And oh, how lovely it is to get to hear him sing again, even briefly!)

I'm so excited to see this again in June, at the end of the run (though I wish it would extend for months). I'm hoping that the minor characters feel a bit more fleshed out and up to the level of the leads. And I just can't wait to spend more time with this brilliant family and the ideas they discuss in their gorgeous home. (Oh, did I mention that they built a two-storey brownstone???)

And just to indulge my love for them, here's a photo of Esper and Spinella:

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Frankenstein at London's National Theatre (filmed live)

I'm inclined not to like works based on Frankenstein. I was assigned the Mary Shelley book three times in college, and I didn't even enjoy it the first time. The ideas behind the book are impressive, especially for such a young author, but I find the writing itself dreadful. I also don't like horror movies, and Frankenstein movies have generally abandoned all that's good and thoughtful in the book in favor of the archetypes of the mad scientist and his dumb monster (archetypes that might, in fact, have originated there).

With all that in mind, I was wary of the National Theatre (London) production, even though it was adapted by Nick Dear (who also adapted Jane Austen's Persuasion for the 1995 film starring Ciaran Hinds and Amanda Root, which I have seen at least fifty times) and directed by Danny Boyle (who won an Oscar for directing Slumdog Millionaire). But the production stars my current obsession Benedict Cumberbatch (finally coming to fame as Sherlock on the BBC's new hit show) and my longtime obsession Jonny Lee Miller (unfortunately probably still best known as Angelina Jolie's first ex-husband) alternating in the roles of Victor Frankenstein and the Creature. Of course I had to see it!

I couldn't quite fit a jaunt over to London into my recent trip to Dublin, so I had to settle for a screening of each version of the play at the marvelous Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline. The National Theatre recorded and broadcast it live and also made it available for later showings at movie theaters across the world. I was lucky enough to see screenings of both versions of the cast, and I'm so grateful that I did. The filming was much better the second time, the actors fit their parts better, and I'm just in love with this beautiful production. Once War Horse closes at Lincoln Center, this should be the next production there. I can't think of another Broadway theater that would suit.

I won't go into the plot of the show, as that's all readily accessible on Wikipedia (or--*gasp*--in the book). I will say that having the play take place mostly from the Creature's perspective rather than Victor's was brilliant. The extended birth scene was breathtaking. It felt like a full five minutes of the Creature's stunning wordless grunting and frustration as he struggled to master his gross motor skills, and my heart cheered as he took such delight in being able to walk and even run. That entire scene was so different in the two performances, and I loved them both. (Before the performance, they showed an excerpt of a documentary about the development of the show, and Cumberbatch and Miller talked about their different influences for that scene. Cumberbatch studied how brain-damaged people relearned to control their bodies, while Miller took his inspiration from watching his toddler learn to walk.)

Between the brilliant use of lighting to represent the fairly new marvel of electricity and the invigorating birth scene, the opening of Frankenstein is one of the most exciting scenes I've ever seen on stage (up there with the canvas priming in Red), and I only hope I can someday see it live. If Cumberbatch and Miller came with the production, I would have to move to New York for the length of the run, though I would definitely go see it with any talented no-name actors too.

Naomie Harris was wonderful as Elizabeth, though she was more compelling with Cumberbatch's Victor as she had no real chemistry with Miller (more on that later). Andreea Padurariu's dance as the Female Creature was beautiful, and I really loved that dream moment in the show. Ella Smith was completely hilarious in both her roles, the town wench and a Frankenstein family servant. The kindly old man who nurtures and tutors the Creature (I believe played by Karl Johnson, but I don't remember most of the characters' names) was brilliant and both Creatures played off him wonderfully. Victor's young brother William was double cast and one was really so much better than the other, but I don't know which. George Harris was bloody awful as Victor's father--stunningly bad in an otherwise excellent cast.

The filming was much better for the second showing (Cumberbatch as Victor). The first time (Cumberbatch as the Creature), there were too many closeups so that we lost perspective with what was going on elsewhere on the stage or others' reactions to the speaker. That's fine for TV and movies, which are blocked with closeups in mind, but much of the director's intent is lost when the full stage is rarely visible. Also, they spent too long panning up to the gorgeous overhead lights that stood in for lightning and electricity at the expense of what was happening onstage.

And, ok, even with the modesty loincloth they added just for filming, during the birth scene I really, really, really didn't need to get so up close and personal with Sherlock Holmes's junk--and certainly not for that amount of time. AWKWARD. Miller spent less time with his bum in the air as he learned to walk, and the camera angles were much more appropriate (and flattering) for the second show.

Oh dear. This is a long post already and I haven't even compared the two leads. The first time around, I was blown away by the production as a whole. It's visually fantastic and has wonderful things to say about the nature of humanity, obsession, responsibility, and fear of the unknown. Cumberbatch was fantastic as the Creature, but I was a little disappointed with Miller as Victor. He was good, very good, but I had heard that they were both better in the opposite roles, and after seeing both I definitely agree. Miller came across as completely self-centered and unable to connect with anyone, including his betrothed, Elizabeth. Even beyond his acting choices, they had no spark, and I really couldn't see at all why they were engaged, what she saw in him, why she was willing to follow him anywhere and indulge his obsession with science. Also, I found much of his dialogue awkward, which I attributed to the script at the time.

But after seeing the roles switched, the entire production clicked. Part of that was better filming and part me knowing what to expect (after seeing the ending once, the weird train scene at the beginning seemed to make more sense). And I was free to pay attention to smaller details. But the cast as a whole (two exceptions noted above) seemed to mesh so much better in this configuration. Elizabeth was captivated by the distracted but generally well-meaning genius, and she saw that her "unwomanly" yearning for knowledge and adventure could be indulged as his wife if he would just take her with him. He clearly didn't think she could keep up and didn't want the distraction, but he did connect with her, was drawn to her, was attracted to her--but the opposite force was just greater for him. His Victor was just so much more human, and Miller's Creature became over the course of the show much more human and erudite than Cumberbatch's did, which for me better drove home the point of Victor being much more the monster than the Creature ever was. The dialogue seemed perfect when coming out of their mouths in these roles. And looking back I know that the opposite casting has merit and really some wonderful details, but for me this version was just at a whole different level.

I hope the National Theatre decides to release it as a two-DVD set so that I can watch them both to my heart's content, but it seems unlikely so far. Alas. (Apparently if you visit the NT, you can watch any of their filmed productions. When I make it to London, I suspect I'll spend my days in the archives and my evenings at the theater.)

And now I leave you with one of the most stunning ads I've seen for a theater production (though I like the official image at the top of this post, too):

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Stephen Sondheim's Company in concert with the NY Philharmonic

I'm 35 and married, so Company has a special place in my heart. As always with Sondheim, the lyrics are brilliant and razor sharp, and often sung machine-gun fast to a challenging score. In other words, performers: enter at your own risk.

Director Lonny Price put together a great cast. They were universally charming, and even though their vocal prowess varied, they were well matched with their songs and no one really dropped the ball. And wow, the orchestra sounded fantastic, of course. But the singer's mics were completely ridiculous. I'm not sure if the sound was optimized for recording (the show was recorded live to be screened in theaters in June), but it sounded awful in the house, like the mics were too hot. I'm pretty sure my community theater productions had better sound design. What was crushing was that many lyrics--especially in the brilliant Getting Married Today--were just incomprehensible. I know Katie Finneran killed that song, even if I couldn't exactly hear it. The technical problems with the production just didn't do the performers justice, which is sad. They--and we--really deserved much better.

Not only could I not hear the songs properly, I couldn't see at least a third of the stage from my "cheap" ($73) seat on the side in the third tier. I still have a crick in my neck. And I was so far away that I totally forgot Martha Plimpton was even in the show, though I did love her performance. I would never sit there in that theater again, or even go to a performance with singers at the Philharmonic. And that's sad, because the actors put on a charming show.

I saw the last performance, so at least they had all performed together a couple of times by then. (Really, they did a great job given a stupid "rehearsal" plan that had them all together in the same room for the first time at the first performance.) The dance numbers (such as they were) seemed smooth enough. Though, really, what WAS that bit with the girls dancing backlit behind blankets? That was one of the stupidest "dances" I've ever seen, and the show seemed to grind to a halt.

Really, the cast was lovely. I would have appreciated a bit of blase smarm mixed in with Neil Patrick Harris's Bobby. The actor seemed to be having such a great time with the show that it bled into his performance, and I didn't really believe Bobby was unhappy with his bachelor ways. His voice didn't blow me away, especially on Being Alive (remember Raul Esparza? wow), but it was generally up to the task.

I love Stephen Colbert unconditionally, but even so I thought his performance was great. He has a decent voice, but his part wasn't very vocally demanding, so it was fine, and he was hilarious and charming as ever. The same with Ducky Jon Cryer. I forgot about Craig Bierko and Martha Plimpton altogether and just assumed they were real musical theater actors, so clearly they were great. Jill Paice was suitably adorable. And Katie Finneran was excellent. I could have done with a little less Marilyn Monroe from Christina Hendricks's flight attendant. And Anika Noni Rose could have used, well, I'm not sure what, but her energy didn't quite click with the rest of the cast somehow.

No one will be surprised that Patti LuPone brought down the house. It may, however, shock you that I didn't love her in Gypsy. She's almost always too over the top for me, but she was spot on as Joanne, and her Ladies Who Lunch--a droll, almost deadpan song that requires restraint until the very end--was absolute perfection. Perfect, perfect, perfect. I cannot wait to relive that song when I rewatch the show at the movies.

I know I've been negative here, but the show was great. It was more fully staged than I expected (in many ways more so than the recent Broadway production), and technical issues aside it sounded gorgeous, and I hope the sound is better in theaters than it was live. Company is a brilliant show, and everyone should see it (either this version or the one with Raul Esparza, which streams in high def via Netflix and is available on DVD).

All in all, this was Neil Patrick Harris's show. And really, it's impossible not to love him. He's charming and aw-shucks and works so hard that you have to root for him. And even when he misses the mark, it's hard to mind because you're having such a great time. I just feel like he could have done better. Perhaps if the director had fewer logistical problems to wrangle he could have finessed the acting. As one of my show companions said, it seemed like he was working so hard to not be Barney Stinson that he ended up as Ted Mosby--and that's pretty far from Bobby, baby.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Other Place and the blessing of theatrical synergy

Two-show days/three-show weekends can be utterly exhausting. They're trying physically because I get fidgety and my knees start to protest after so much sitting still in a cramped space, mentally because it requires so much attention, and sometimes emotionally. That makes it hard to give each show the reflection it deserves. (I have become so grateful for the ninety-minute shows, which let me actually think between performances!) But I live outside New York, so there's just no way to see even half of the productions I want to unless I just cram them all in on the weekends. (A huge thank you to Chris, Seth, and Becca for letting me crash at their place--all the time.)

The flip side of this is that seeing shows back-to-back can create wonderful serendipitous experiences. Most recently, I saw Brian Friel's Molly Sweeney at the Irish Rep on a Saturday and Sharr White's The Other Place at the MCC the following day. Both are impressive performances in their own right, but the combined experience is far greater than the sum of its parts. In fact, if I had seen them months apart, I'm not sure my puny, forgetful brain would have made a connection. The plays tell the stories of women dealing with their own physical deterioration and its mental effects, how their husbands struggle to help them, and whether that help is more or less useful than how they struggle to help themselves.

Molly Sweeney has closed, but The Other Place is currently running through May 1 at the MCC and, although the script is flawed and devolves a bit into cliche, Laurie Metcalf's performance is mesmerizing throughout, even when she's just sitting on stage in character waiting for the show to begin. I don't want to give away her ailment, as it might be considered a spoiler, but for me the reveal was less interesting than the path to get there. Aya Cash is definitely better as the daughter than as the doctor, and John Schiappa is wasted in what amounts to a bit part. Dennis Boutsikaris is effective as the put-upon husband doing his best to deal with both the illness and his increasingly erratic and belligerent wife, who, to his dismay, keeps insisting that he's filed for divorce and is having an affair with her doctor. The technical jargon and its accompanying visuals are arresting, sometimes assaulting, but I'm a nerd so I enjoyed it. Tthe power of this piece, though is Metcalf's performance, one not to be missed.

Another recent pairing is immersive musicals Prometheus Bound and Hello Again, which I've already posted about. And although I don't think either production is great, I enjoyed being able to compare the big, loud Prometheus Bound (performed in the A.R.T.'s new club space) with the quiet, unamplified Hello Again (performed in a SoHo building the Transport Group temporarily converted for this show).

The most stunning example of theatrical synergy (surely there's a better term for this?) is seeing Adam Rapp's Metal Children at the Vineyard followed by John Logan's Red, the Donmar Warehouse production that transferred to Broadway. I was so surprised at how much the second show changed my feelings about the first.

Red, about painter Mark Rothko and his (fictional?) assistant Ken, is just a phenomenal play. Eddie Redmayne and Alfred Molina (I will not think of him as Doc Ock!) gave career performances infusing the talk-heavy script with irresistible energy. But the play itself is perfect, never feeling dull or preachy even during long monologues about, well, art. The whole production was flawless, especially the canvas priming--probably the most visually stunning scene I've ever seen on stage--though the opening to the National Theatre's current production of Frankenstein is right up there. (I'm so excited that the SpeakEasy Stage Company is doing Red in Boston next season!)

Metal Children, on the other hand, is good but not great, and I might have written it off as an interesting idea gone a bit wonky if I'd seen it in isolation. (I feel that way about a lot of Rapp's work, which is compellingly dark--and odd.) You can never go too wrong with Billy Crudup on stage, of course. Mostly, I loved how their meditations on the purpose of art and the dangers of being misunderstood but yet commercial artists play against each other and make me reconsider Metal Children, a play I enjoy more as I think about it afterward than I did while watching it.

These pairings are unintentional but delightful, and I would like to create more of these experiences but, as I said, I mostly just cram in as many shows as I can whenever I can. Tonight I'm in Cambridge to see Central Square Theater's production of Hugh Whitemore's Breaking the Code (about famous mathematician Alan Turing, who cracked the Nazi's Enigma code--perhaps you've heard of the Turing Test in relation to artificial intelligence). I would love to follow it up with Samara Weiss's Lines in Code in New York at Columbia Stage's New Plays Now (about the imagined--perhaps kinky--relationship between Charles Babbage, father of the computer, and Ada Lovelace, the world's first computer programmer), but it's playing only April 14 at 2, April 16 at 7, and April 17 at 2. Alas. I do hope I get to read it, though!

ETA: Yes, I get to read it! Thanks, Samara! Also, I just found out that one of the characters in Arcadia--which I'm seeing tomorrow--is loosely based on Lovelace. Isn't that awesome? Yay, serendipity! (Sorry for the sudden burst of exclamation marks.)

Monday, April 4, 2011

Hello Again: A Musical

Oh, the joy of an unamplified musical! And even better with one of the voices belonging to Blake Daniel (a favorite of mine from Spring Awakening)! It's been too long since I've sat in a room with live musicians and voices reaching my ears without electronic intercession. And that aspect was the greatest benefit of this production of Hello Again by the Transport Group, which they advertise as "staged non-traditionally in a raw space in SoHo." Words and music are by John LaChiusa with direction by Jack Cummings III.

After venting my spleen about how much I hate Diane Paulus's transformation of the A.R.T.'s smaller theater into Club Oberon, I'm glad to have a similar surround-sound show for comparison. As I mentioned in that earlier post, "It's one thing for a scrappy theater company to turn a run-down club into a low-budget, makeshift theater space. It's another entirely for a high-profile, well-funded company to turn a perfectly good theater with decent sound and sightlines into a crappy club performance space." Indeed, I love the set/atmospheric design of the large, non-theater room where Hello Again is staged. The use of mirrors and various kinds of lighting as the primary set decoration is visually interesting and thematically appropriate, and also just cool to look at. (The A.R.T. was using Oberon to perform both Prometheus Bound and The Donkey Show, so neither had any decorations to the space.)

Hello Again is the second Transport Group musical I've seen, both performed partially among the audience and directed by Cummings. (They call it "environmental," but when tables are being used as anything but tables, and when very little about the performance space resembles the piece's setting, I don't consider that environmental.) I definitely think the staging worked better with Adam Mathias and Brad Alexander's See Rock City & Other Destinations, with the audience on two sides of the space and very little action taking place from behind (and nothing particularly in-your-face).

I still don't love this particular kind of alternative setup. No doubt, it's thrilling to be up close to actors you admire--to see the minutiae of their performances and to hear their beautiful singing so close to your ears (one of the best things about stage seating for Spring Awakening). But for both Hello Again and Prometheus Bound, this could be (better) accomplished in a small performance space that uses a more traditional configuration. Plus, with a traditional setup, there's no annoying chair sounds or cricks in the neck as the audience strains to see action taking place out of the line of sight.

I've heard Hello Again called racy and daring, but I don't find it so. Rather than making the sex scenes more exciting, having them performed a foot away from your face just highlights how faked they are. (That is not to say I particularly wanted more nudity in my face, but why make the experience immersive only to highlight how theatrical it is instead of real and raw?)

I don't mean to harp on the staging and ignore the material itself, but I honestly don't have much to say about the book. It has some funny lines, and the performers act--and sing!--the heck out of it. But I was kind of bored, and by the end I was more than glad to escape my very uncomfortable chair. The orchestrations are gorgeous, and the voices are so, so lovely, but there are no actual, cohesive, distinct songs in this musical. And I can't remember any of the "songs," just two days later. The show is like listening just to the sung-through parts of Rent or Bare but skipping all the memorable songs. (And, really, when you're skipping through the cast recording, do you want to listen to Voice Mail #1 or to Seasons of Love?) I'm not a fan of sung dialogue to begin with, and when it's the entire script ... ugh.

I find it difficult to determine whether I would like the show any better if were a more traditional musical, with the dialogue spoken and the songs sung. I must also admit to being unfamiliar with the source material, Arthur Schnitzler's La Ronde, which was clearly much more provocative in its time than Hello Again is today. None of the sexual pairings surprised me, and none of the characters' stories seemed fresh or enlightening. Having the stories span decades didn't really seem to add much, either--are we really surprised by the idea that people were sexually confused and/or promiscuous in earlier times? Even the framework of two people pairing off and then one of them going off to have sex with someone else and then that someone else pairing off with yet another until it comes full circle seemed too familiar to prop up the well-worn individual tales.

I also found the show to lack emotional resonance, other than the pairing of Tony nominee Alan Campbell as The Senator and Rachel Bay Jones as The Actress. Oh, how trite that storyline is! But Jones acts it for all it's worth, and I feel her pain even as I want to laugh at her for thinking it will ever work out. A scene that should have been infuriating and heartbreaking (and was also about the only surprise in the script, so I won't spoil it other than to say it involves a famous historical event) because of one character's insensitivity to the needs of another--and it's horrible classism--is just glossed over, sapping it of all impact.

Yes, I think that is the problem I have with this show: it lacks impact. It's in your face without being intimate, full of singing without having any songs, and packed with great performances but playing no characters worth caring about (either to pity or to despise). Completely forgettable.