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.

1 comment:

  1. I had very different feelings on this, as you know, but I can see all of your points. The only one I find surprising is that you didn't find any of the music catchy. Even though it's all very fragmentary, I had snippets stuck in my head for days: "The greatest of adventures that a man and woman share is marriage," and "The one I love kisses me, and I flo-o-oat," in particular would not leave me alone.

    What I liked about the familiarity of the stories was that for me, the cumulative effect of this sort of catalog of the ways relationships fail only opened up a greater admiration and yearning for those that don't. For me, the near miss of Daniels and Hammond and the open desperation of Jones were emotional high points. It's not at all shocking, but I found it...tender.