Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Catch Me if You Can

Like Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Catch Me if You Can fills me with inertia. The second act is better than the first, but everything about it should be better. Sure, Aaron Tveit and Norbert Leo Butz throw their all at what they're given, but I was still bored. After holding his own in Next to Normal opposite the formidable Alice Ripley, it's clear Tveit has the charisma and the pipes to carry a musical. Just not this one.

Both actors are charming and funny and sound great, but I just don't care what happens to either of them. The stakes are too low (and not just because we've all seen the movie). Tveit plays larger-than-life Frank Abagnale Jr. in a very understated, natural way, which would be lovely with a better script and if it weren't a completely different style from Butz's over-the-top bumbling FBI agent Carl Hanratty. Pratfalls aren't really my favorite kind of humor, but I'm also disturbed that the too-glib tone glosses over the very real effects that con artists have on the people they swindle and, in this case, on patients who might have been endangered by Abagnale posing as an emergency room supervisor. And rather than dragging down the show, more dramatic material might help the jokes land better.

For me, Tom Wopat is the standout of the show, perhaps partially because Abagnale's smary, boozy father has the only serious scenes and suffers the only real consequences in the show. Also, Wopat has amazing stage presence and a great, booming voice. I know he's been in several Broadway shows before, with good reviews, but I had only ever seen him in reruns of The Dukes of Hazzard, so his charismatic performance in Catch Me is a brilliant surprise. His descent over the course of the show is inevitable but sad. Kudos for making me wish, just a little bit, that he wouldn't get what he deserved. (And for wishing Jr. would.)

I like David Rockwell's set design (other than the cheesy cutout plane) and love his cool, mobile onstage home for the fantastic orchestra. William Ivey Long's costume design bores me to tears and makes no sense to me. Toward the end of the show I realized that he is carrying through an all-white theme for the ensemble women (even in their first big number, "Live in Living Color"!). And while I don't really understand it as a choice (imagine the great, colorful '60s-inspired dresses that could have been used!), I would be less disappointed if the great white parade weren't interrupted by the Pan Am women wearing pastel blue flight uniforms. And to be exceedingly picky, the satin nurse uniforms may be the ugliest, cheapest-looking costumes I've ever seen on stage (including high school productions).

The vocal performances are powerful, and the sound from the orchestra is joyous and full, but I remember none of Marc Shaiman's bland music or Scott Wittman's lackluster lyrics.Terrence McNally's book is superficial and dissatisfying, and the too-frequent breaking of the fourth wall at first seems like a good way to hold the story together but descends into lazy, wink-wink storytelling.

After initially being excited about the show because I love Tveit and Butz and was curious to see Kerry Butler (so underused that it's not worth discussing), I lowered my expectations based on word-of-mouth. I was still disappointed, but the show isn't awful. There's enough there to be fun for the once-a-year tourist looking for a big Broadway musical. But given all the talent involved, it should have been much, much better.

Seriously, how do you make a boring musical about the country's most famous con man? (In the same way you make a musical about Australian drag queens boring, I guess.) The hard emotional, racial, and socioeconomic issues lurking within fun shows like A Chorus Line, Billy Elliot, In the Heights, and Passing Strange make those stories richer without zapping the joy and spectacle out of them. These shows expect more of their audiences and are more satisfying for it.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Black Watch tour

I'm not a fan of war drama at all, but I decided to see Black Watch anyway because I was desperately curious about the movement, created by the choreographer of American Idiot and Peter and the Starcatcher. It helped that the rave reviews specifically praised that choreography. And, ok, I figured if nothing else I'd enjoy listening to a company of cute young Scottish men talk for a couple hours.

So I was unprepared when Black Watch (about the regiment's involvement in the recent Iraq war) knocked the wind out of me. I am completely in love with this National Theatre of Scotland play-with-music. Written by Gregory Burke and directed by John Tiffany, with movement/choreography by Steven Hoggett and music by Davey Anderson, the piece is honest, beautiful, and not even a little bit overwrought.

The play surprised me so many times during its two hours, and it's a bit difficult to categorize. It's somehow grittily realistic one moment and gorgeously impressionistic the next without falling apart stylistically. That may arise from being wonderfully infused with sound and movement throughout instead of having separate speaking and singing-and-dancing scenes. There's movement ranging from background characters in subtle tableau during talk-heavy scenes to coordinated group movement that might as well be called dancing. The same with sound: a few delicate piano notes repeating softly in the background or static from the TVs, percussive marching, beautiful full-out singing of folk tunes and, of course, bagpipes. But it's still not a musical.

The movement and music are at once arresting but not flashy, and always in service of the story. Each artistic component (dialogue, set, props, movement, music, video, wire work) is used in unexpected ways to take on burdens that traditional use of a more expected element couldn't adequately carry. A pool table is ripped open from within to reveal soldiers hiding there, and the movement of their exit is fantastically precise (as with every bit of the show); later its emptied-out shell is used as troop transport. The silent mail call uses subtle, gorgeous hand motions for each man as he reads news from home. There's even a series of hilarious costume changes enacted on one character by his mates to show him in various period uniforms during a retelling of the history of the Watch.

Kudos to the fantastic cast, which is pulled in so many directions over the course of the show. The requirements for this piece go way beyond being a triple threat, and the baby-faced cast delivered, one and all. Brilliant, brilliant ensemble work (from the cast and from the creative team).

I came to the show mainly for Hoggett's choreography, and it more than delivered. As I mention in my review of American Idiot, I love how he takes real-life movement and stretches it until it becomes dance. I can count on one hand the shows that have threatened to make me cry, and this one certainly surprised me. The ending of Black Watch is the first in which it was the choreography that brought tears to my eyes.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Carson McCullers Talks about Love

Carson McCullers Talks About Love, a meditation with song about McCullers's relationships with writing, men, women, and illness, opens tonight at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. Renowned for her decades of excellent storytelling through song, creator and star Suzanne Vega doesn't have much acting experience. But she has an affinity for McCullers and a similar gift with words, in addition to a strong physical resemblance. I thought she was great as both the writer in the past and as herself now commenting on her own history with McCullers's writing.

As a longtime fan of both women, I cannot be an objective observer here. I know this show isn't perfect, but it's so well crafted around its imperfections that I have absolutely no complaints about it except that I won't be able to see it again. Bringing in Duncan Sheik to help with some of the music was an excellent move. After all, he won two Tonys for Spring Awakening's music and orchestrations and has a few other musicals in the works. (The concept recording of Whisper House is stunning. The staged reading at Powerhouse a couple of summers ago was very promising, and a full production at the Old Globe in San Diego followed.) Sheik's style meshes well with Vega's, and he adds some layers to her usually sparse arrangements. I'd love to hear the show in its final form. If they released a cast recording I would wear. it. out.

Under Kay Matschullat's direction, the production does much to highlight Vega's strengths and shrug off her amateur status. Although the show was still in flux when I saw it, and Vega used a lyrics sheet for one of the two new songs and hummed through a few forgotten lines of another, it didn't affect my enjoyment a bit. She and Joe Iconis, a locally well-known musical theater writer, seem to have an easy, trusting rapport. As her piano man and witty sidekick, he's a great addition to what is essentially a one-woman show plus two onstage musicians. When Vega tripped up in a monologue, Iconis gracefully pulled the show back on track with such humor and natural timing that I wondered if it isn't even more enjoyable when things don't go exactly as planned.

Had I realized at the time how close the theater is to the Stonewall Inn, I would have swung by. I think the Carson McCullers of this time-shifting production would have approved. A comment from Iconis about the Stonewall riot as a flashpoint in the fight for gay rights--led by outcasts even within the gay community, the kind of misfits McCullers loved to study--would have fit right in stylistically and thematically, especially given her complex romantic history. (I wonder if Iconis will mention during the show that, like McCullers, Marie Osmond just remarried her first husband.)*

*At the performance I saw, he somewhat randomly brought up Martin McDonagh, modern playwright of the gruesomely hilarious. I was disappointed that my two companions and I were the only ones in the audience who seemed to find it hysterical. Still, it was a bit odd and didn't really belong in the show, and I didn't really want to encourage it, but I love McDonagh and the comment itself was apt, so I laughed. Really loudly.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Sons of the Prophet at The Huntington

Ah, I love shows like Stephen Karam's Sons of the Prophet, which just closed at Boston's Huntington Theater. It's clever and full of heart but also rudely funny. (I assume I'll feel the same way about The Book of Mormon, the musical by those South Park guys.)

The play begins with a car accident resulting from a stupid high-school prank, which is just the latest of the tragedies surrounding a Lebanese family that is descended from early-twentieth-century Prophet poet Kahlil Gibran. (Surely you've been at a wedding where this verse was read: "Love one another, but make not a bond of love / Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.") The play is structured around titles of Gibran passages that are projected as supertitles, like "On Pain," and this familial connection is central to their lives, especially the relationship between father and sons.

Set in a dying industrial area of Pennsylvania, settled by Lebanese expats and sharing names with places in the Middle East, geography is key to this tale: the younger brother is a geography bee champion because the father taught the boys to recognize countries based on odd shapes (Russia does look like a headless dog!), the older brother longs to escape but doesn't have a passport, the reporter is writing a travelogue, and the crazy boss has just moved to where her husband had grown up.

Along the way, Sons addresses dichotomies including the crushing responsibility of family bonds/the strength they give, wanderlust/cultural ties, fame/stable job with health insurance, youth/elders, Maronite/Mormon, big-city glamour/small-town stoicism, tightknit white family/black high schooler in Jewish foster home, justice/mercy and hope, creating healthy connections/severing disfunctional bonds. Plus death and pain and forgiveness. Yet the play somehow doesn't sag under that weight: the final scene is so sadly hopeful.

With so many themes crammed into one play, it's hard to explore all of them, of course, and some may find that dissatisfying. But one of the play's strengths is in showing how complex a life can be--the need to balance competing relationships, responsibilities to work and family, needs of self and others, and valid but opposing world views.

I went into the show expecting to like it and came out loving it. I've seen the Huntington production twice now, and I'll see it again after it transfers to Roundabout's off-Broadway theater in the fall. Speech & Debate, an earlier Karam play that I saw at Roundabout's black box and then in a separate regional production at the Lyric Stage in Boston, is charming and very funny, if a bit superficial and rough around the edges. But Roundabout's investment in this young playwright is well deserved. Sons is just as funny though less slapstick, more complex, and ultimately more satisfying.

Huntington artistic director Peter DuBois seems to be quietly working to strengthen the bonds between the Boston and New York theater scenes with this show and Becky Shaw, which he directed here and at Second Stage. (He'll be back at Second Stage this summer directing All New People, by Scrubs actor Zach Braff.) DuBois has assembled a strong cast for Sons, and I expect many of them will transfer, since most have New York credits. And the show definitely seems to be a vehicle for Joanna Gleason, a master of daftly charming characters.

Kelsey Kurz is excellent as a single man, almost 30, who is suddenly saddled with the care of his crazy family at the same time as starting work for a crazy new boss and starting to date a self-centered and ambitious reporter. (My only quibble with his casting is that Kurz is not at all built like the competitive long-distance runner he is supposed to be.) Lizbeth Mackay, who shows up very late in the play for a wonderful scene with Kurz, gives a beautifully understated performance, and I'll be keeping my eyes open for a chance to see her in larger roles. (I sadly don't remember her from the recent Broadway revival of All My Sons, but she was sharing the stage with the phenomenal John Lithgow, Diane Wiest, Patrick Wilson, and Becky Ann Baker--and the phenomenally bad Katie Holmes.)

The Boston production has just closed, so catch Sons of the Prophet in New York this fall.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Spring Awakening non-Equity national tour

Many people assume, not unreasonably, that my favorite musical is Spring Awakening. I've certainly seen it a ridiculous number of times--way more than I've seen anything else--and I love it a ridiculous amount. I still listen to the cast recording often. I've followed some of the actors to their new projects. Yes, I'm a huge Spring Awakening fan, but it's not my favorite musical and I certainly don't think it's the best musical ever (hello, Sondheim!). I do love the show, but I'm not blind to its many faults. It's clear that I've seen it for the last time, and I'm ok letting it go.

About three and a half years after seeing Spring Awakening on Broadway for the first time (two and a quarter since it closed) and almost two years since seeing it in Boston during its first national (Equity) tour, I finally saw it again last weekend. It was the second national (non-Equity) tour, in New Haven. There were apparently no understudies on, which is good because I don't know anything about the current cast, including their names. After seeing the show, I don't think I'll be bothering to learn them, but you can find the cast list here.

Can we all just agree that Steven Sater's dialogue here must be the worst for any show that has won a Tony Award for best book? (Suffering through it all again really makes me love American Idiot's dearth of dialogue even more. Michael Mayer, who directed both musicals, obviously learned his lesson!)

On the astonishingly positive side, this performance was the only time the beating scene EVER worked in any cast I've seen, Broadway or tour. The way Wendla breathed/gasped through the pauses in the whole never-felt-anything bit made up for so much awkward writing. How did no one ever think to do this before? Major kudos, kids (and/or whoever took over for Mayer in directing the tour).

Overall, sitting on stage was a terrible idea for me. I'm very glad I didn't pay more to see it (stage seats are cheap because they're partial view and awesome because the cast sings while sitting next to you), but I was in danger of being terribly rude and laughing my face off at the most inappropriate times. I didn't, but it was supremely awkward. Unfortunately, holding that in meant I didn't laugh at all because everything else ceased being funny several viewings ago.

Below the jump are my Twitteresque responses to everything else. They will only make sense if you've seen the show. Sorry. The performance just filled me with inertia and I can't face writing a real review (which would end up being twice as long as my Idiot post was, and no one wants that).