Follies: Ahmanson Theatre

15 05 2012

Follies: Review for L.A. Weekly


A Year in Theater: 2011

20 12 2011

2011 has been a whirlwind theatrical year. Last winter, I music directed two incredibly rewarding ensemble shows: Brecht and Weill’s Happy End (with director Hunter Bird) and The Civilians’ Gone Missing (with director Lane Williamson). My family musical Thank You, Mr. Falker (with book and lyrics by Andrew Bentz) premiered at the Morgan-Wixson Theatre in May. I traveled across the US to see and review and dramaturg shows this summer and fall. I was particularly drawn to experimental literary adaptations this year, straying from the mainstream venues and musicals that dominated last year’s list.

I always see more theater than I have the time to review, but here are my top 10 shows of 2011 – from LA to Chicago to NYC, from gritty black box theaters to Broadway stages.

10. The Comedy of Errors (Los Angeles Theatre Ensemble) – Review

Playing in the realm of contemporary pop culture, this free summer Shakespeare production had the audience roaring with laughter from start to finish. It’s perhaps no surprise that I saw The Comedy of Errors twice.

9. God of Carnage (Ahmanson Theater)

Yasmina Reza’s play snaps from a sophisticated realist dramedy to a brilliant physical satire of “modern” man. With a star studded cast direct from Broadway, God of Carnage was an unexpectedly explosive favorite this year. (While the stage show has more fireworks, Roman Polanski’s film Carnage offers powerhouse performances and clever drunken camera work.)

8. D is for Dog (Rogue Artists Ensemble) – Review

The collaborative artistry behind D is for Dog was astounding – from the story to the music, from the set to the puppetry. I was enthralled by every twist and turn in Rogue Artists Ensemble’s smart sci-fi thriller.

7. Hugh Jackman, Back on Broadway (Broadhurst Theater)

This unbelievably charismatic man lives up to the hype. Whether you’re seated on the first row of the orchestra or the back of the mezzanine (like me), Hugh invites you into his musical world with silly stories and flirty banter, cool and confident moves, a powerhouse voice, and genuine smile. He leaps effortlessly from macho Billy Bigelow to flashy Peter Allen, and I adore him for it.

6. Jerry Springer the Opera (Chance Theater) – Review

Kudos to the Chance Theater for conquering such a morally and musically challenging opera. Jerry Springer the Opera has yet to receive (and may never receive) a full production at a mainstream venue in the United States, but the Chance continually impresses with exciting productions of innovative work.

5. David Greenspan’s Poetics and Plays (Getty Villa)

David Greenspan’s performative lecture of Aristotle’s Poetics and Gertrude Stein’s Plays enacts the imbrication of performance in academics and academics in performance. I was dorkily enthralled. Charles McNulty may have preferred the classical Aristotle portion, but my theatergoing companion and I found Greenspan’s Stein to be uncanny.

4. The Last Act of Lilka Kadison (Lookingglass Theater) – Review

On my first trip to Chicago, I was inspired by the palpable art of listening across ensembles at Steppenwolf and Lookingglass. The Last Act of Lilka Kadison made theatrical magic of an utterly predictable story.

3. The Select (The Sun Also Rises) (Elevator Repair Service)

I have never been a fan of Hemingway’s macho prose – but with an ensemble of enthralling storytellers in a bar, corks popping and bottles flying, and a dash of music and dance, Hemingway was transmuted into a kind of camp. I was captivated. I’ll be back for Gatz this spring.

2. Septimus and Clarissa (Ripe Time) – Review

I was already a fan of Virginia Woolf’s soft, sensuous narrative voice that sweeps from one character to another, from interiority to exteriority. Ripe Time clarified and amplified Mrs. Dalloway for me, physicalizing Woolf’s words with such profound nuance and care.

1. Cyclops: A Rock Opera (Psittacus Productions) – Reviews and More

This raucous rock opera adaptation of Euripides’ satyr play consumed me – from Son of Semele to Pasadena Playhouse to the NY Musical Theatre Festival. I ended up occupying a strange and shifting position as a fan, critic, scholar, and dramaturg on the company’s road to NYMF. But most of all, I loved being a friend and advocate for such a smart and sexy new work.

Happy holidays, all. Looking forward to a very theatrical 2012! I’m kicking off the new year by dramaturging a new rock opera The Demise, previewing at The Roxy on January 19. And look for me music directing Act III Theater Ensemble’s Xanadu at UCLA in early March!

Bring It On The Musical: Ahmanson Theater, 11/11/11

15 11 2011

Bring It On The Musical: Review for Stage & Cinema

Leap of Faith: Ahmanson Theatre, 10/16/10

25 10 2010

The more I think about Leap of Faith, the more artistically and ideologically problematic it becomes. In fact, it astounds me that Center Theatre Group could support the aesthetically groundbreaking and politically progressive Venice (currently at the Kirk Douglas Theatre) alongside the classically-integrated Leap of Faith – which is conservative at best, and downright offensive at worst. Even as I try to champion new musical theater, I have to confess that composer Alan Menken, lyricist Glenn Slater, and bookwriter Janus Cercone (with Slater) have concocted a truly irredeemable show.

To be clear, I love classic musical theater. The Rodgers and Hammerstein paradigm of the “integrated musical” pervaded my childhood and deeply inflects the way I compose, think, and write about musical theater today. But in deciding to use the integrated form today, one must be socially and culturally attuned: the R&H model stems from post-WWII anxieties about racial assimilation, gender roles, class, and sexuality. The contemporary musicals that most interest me are often ones that consciously tackle the politics of the integrated form and open the narrative to new subjects and possibilities: In the Heights, for instance, gives the Latino community access to the American dream, and Yank queers the central romance. Unfortunately, Leap of Faith assumes that the paradigm of the integrated musical is unproblematic and effects an ideological throwback to Oklahoma – without Rodgers’ tuneful songs or Hammerstein’s engaging plot and character-driven lyrics.

Leap of Faith opens in the dry fields of Sweetwater, Kansas. An all-white ensemble of country folk sways like stalks of corn in the wind (“we know we belong to the land …”), gradually crescendoing to a sequence of Rob Ashford’s intricate partnering. The beauty of this Oklahoma-like, Agnes de Mille-inspired choreography diverges completely from the gospel chorus of ethnic others that soon enters stage: mostly African-American, further coded as social outsiders through tattoos and dark clothing. These racialized “Angels of Mercy” pose a threat to the order of the white community. Led by Jonas Nightingale (Raul Esparza), the Angels of Mercy are a nomadic “ministry”: they drain each gullible midwestern town of money with flashy promises of miracles from their revival tent. And Sweetwater is certainly in need of a miracle or two: the crops desperately need rain, and waitress Marva McGowan (Brooke Shields) worries that her crippled son will never walk again.

The divide between white-washed Sweetwater and the racialized outsiders is perpetuated throughout the show in musical styles (pop v. gospel) and choreography (ballet vs. fierce “handography”): never shall the two meaningfully meet or interact. Opening a show with both an African-American chorus and a Caucasian chorus was a radical move in the 1927’s Show Boat. But in a new musical produced in 2010? This racialized segregation of choruses is inexcusable. Even more problematic is the religious “sign” that Jonas and his Angels of Mercy conjure at the end of Act I: the cross hanging above their revival tent bursts into flames. Resonances of the KKK, anyone? Symbols like a burning cross exceed their narrative contexts and point again to the deep, troubling racialized divides of this show.

Only one man from the Angels of Mercy eventually assimilates into the community of Whitewater: their “Harold Hill”-like leader Jonas Nightingale. The stunningly talented Raul Esparza glitters on stage – quite literally, when he dons a disco ball jacket that reflects across the theater. Though Esparza is actually Latino, he has historically been cast as “white” in shows ranging from tick, tick…BOOM! (Jonathan Larson) to Sondheim’s Company (Bobby). In Leap of Faith, then, it is unsurprising that his character Jonas reads as “white” – and thus not too different from the comfortable, pre-established Kansas community.

Jonas finds his home in Sweetwater by way of the tried-and-true marriage trope. I should mention that one must also pass as straight to belong to this community. A master of reading personalities, Jonas “outs” one resident of Sweetwater in an early scene; the gay man gets one line in the show – complimenting Shields’ shoes to solidify his sexuality – then disappears from narrative view into the tidy male-female pairings of Ashford’s choreography.

Though the phony evangelist usually has a meaningless fling in each town, he actually falls for the down-on-her-luck waitress Marva and becomes a father figure to her crippled son Boyd (the endearing Nicholas Barasch). With a remarkably weak voice and minimal stage presence, Shields is performatively dominated by Esparza: even though Marva may tower several inches above Jonas, the female is dominated by the male in this relationship. The couple is united by a newfound, “genuine” faith when – (spoiler alert?) – Boyd miraculously learns to walk. The nuclear family takes center stage as a second spectacular miracle closes the show: rain begins to pour from the heavens.

Oklahoma‘s rousing finale unites Laurey and Curly, the farmers and cowhands, Oklahoma and the United States. In a similar vein, Leap of Faith joins Marva and Jonas at the very moment that the rain nourishes the crops in the mythologized American midwest. These multiple layers of the marriage trope in Oklahoma and Leap of Faith establish a productive and reproductive national system – while banishing the outsiders that threaten this order. Leap of Faith‘s Jonas is successfully assimilated to the community as a white, Christian head of the household. His troupe of racialized others moves on to another town, much as Oklahoma‘s dirty and overly-sexual Jud Fry accidentally kills himself to pave the way for the pristine, white community to sing its solidarity.

As striking as Ashford’s choreography may be, dance is generally employed during scene transitions rather than being truly “integrated” with the plot – and the racially segregated styles of movement and music are continually problematic. Menken’s score is surprisingly unmemorable, while Slater’s lyrics are cliche as ever. Janus Cercone and Slater’s book is also predictable from the outset – offering no interesting twists or turns en route to the rousing, special-effect-laden finale …

Except perhaps that flaming cross. Transferring this show to Broadway will take a leap of faith, indeed.

Dreamgirls: Ahmanson Theatre, 3/23/10

5 04 2010

I have been assailed with the Charles McNulty quote, “It’s all about the MUSIC!” on each recent visit to the Center Theatre Group website.  In his LA Times review of Dreamgirls, McNulty lauds the performers’ “powerhouse singing” – and rightfully so.  The national tour of Tom Eyen and Henry Krieger’s 1981 musical about a 1960s female R&B trio offers a host of great performances, but I left the theater wondering: is it really “all about” the music?

I had high expectations for Dreamgirls, especially after some rave performance reviews from my undergrad musical theater history students – but this production ultimately came up short for me.  No doubt, Dreamgirls can be a vehicle for outstanding singers.  Jennifer Holliday’s and Jennifer Hudson’s renditions of “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” have become iconic.  Moya Angela delivers a staggeringly powerful Effie in the national tour, belting her way through the production with remarkable force night after night, while Chester Gregory’s James “Thunder” Early steals the show with his shocking falsetto and smooth dance moves.

But Charles McNulty may be right.  Dreamgirls is less about “music,” and more about “MUSIC!”  After all, the Dreams don’t win the audience’s hearts by tight harmonies alone. What the musical lacks in subtlety and nuance, it makes up for in volume, aggressive and impressive (and constant and exhausting) belting, dramatic swoops into notes, and – most importantly of all – spectacle!

The real star of Robert Longbottom’s production is not Eyen and Krieger’s music at all, but an awe-inspiring spectacle of changing sets, projections, lights, glittering costumes, and quick changes. Robin Wagner’s sets and Ken Billington’s accompanying lighting design seem highly influenced by the 2006 movie version of Dreamgirls, employing a rapid fluidity between sets that suggests filmic montage, not to mention massive background projections whenever the Dreams appear on TV. Videos consistently dwarf and sometimes even occlude the performers themselves. As the audience gazes at the screens behind the performers, the Dreams’ disembodied voices soar over the crowd – just like a film. William Ivey Long’s costumes sparkle in an array of period-specific silhouettes, shapes, and colors. The audience gasps every time the Dreams (again, with a filmic fluidity) seamlessly change from one costume to the next.  During “I Am Changing,” Effie’s transformation from a downtrodden, out-of-work singer to a budding solo star is more dramatically effected through costume than through performance; during a blackout with only her face illuminated by a spotlight, Effie’s garb literally goes from rags to riches in a matter of seconds.

I should make it clear that I take no issue with spectacle itself.  However, I do take issue with spectacle as a replacement for substance.  For once, I am inclined to agree with McNulty: “Spectacular effects are, by definition, thrilling to behold, yet they leave little room for subtler pleasures.” Dreamgirls left me entertained, but ultimately unsatisfied.  The individual characters, so well-sung, are washed away amidst this production’s high-gloss trappings. The story is a compelling slice of history and the singers are powerful; why not focus on and hone these inherent strengths?  This production needs to give the sensations a break: to find a pause in the constant flurry of motion and a breath amidst the belting.  I know Dreamgirls has something more to offer than a bombardment of visual splendors.