Personal ponderings from a natural night-owl!

Archive for the ‘Theatre’ Category

Something’s Coming

I attended tonight’s opening night performance of West Side Story at Playhouse Square as part of my Review Crew duties (it’s a tough life, but someone has to live it!).  Now, I am a true aficionado of this classic show.  I’ve watched the movie more times than I can count, I know nearly every single word of every song, and I’ve seen this show live on-stage twice.  Despite my history with West Side Story, tonight’s production was an eerie mix of complete familiarity and utter foreignness; at once timeless yet edgy, comfortable yet unsettling.

From the orchestra’s first note, I was thrown off-guard.  No long orchestral easing in. The curtain rose immediately and the first actors were already on-stage. It was immediate and dramatic. The one-two punch came in the form of Jerome Robbins’ original choreography. The moves and postures were familiar, but the visceral energy created live in the theatre was astonishing. The cast literally snapped and crackled with tension and emotion. By the end of the opening sequence I was breathless and tense.

The next several scenes were delightful in their familiarity, with Maria’s exasperation and innocence played out perfectly with just the right balance. The actress really had an intuitive feel for the role! The twist of very authentic (to my ear) accents brought depth and realism to Puerto Rican roles (because as much as we love the movie version, we all know that Natalie Wood was NOT Hispanic!).

After this spectacular debut, I’m sorry to say that the character of Tony fell flat for me. The actor’s voice soared and I very much enjoyed his dynamic range, but he just didn’t seem to connect emotionally with the role.  In contrast, the social worker running the dance (a character by the name of Glad Hand, for you trivia buffs) stole the show while he was on-stage. What a ham!  And believe me, we needed the comic relief to break the mounting tension.

The dance in the gym was masterfully staged. The dancing was explosive, really punctuating Anita’s later line: “Well, you saw how they dance — like they gotta get rid of something quick.”  The back-and-forth, give-and-take of the two types of dance sucked me right into the action and made me want to jump up on stage, too! And the costumes were a riot of exotic colors interspersed with flashes of leg and thigh.  The sexuality crackled and bubbled in the dance moves and I didn’t want it to ever stop.

The transition to Tony and Maria’s meeting was seamless and flawless. The woman in the role of Maria played her as an old soul in that moment, and it was captivating to watch. Even the flatness of the actor playing Tony could not dull the magic of the moment.

At this point, the staging veered away from the scene order of the movie quite significantly and in a way that made transitions jarring and really disrupted the flow of the show for me. The “America” scene was performed by the women alone and lacked the sense of playfulness and conflict as a result. Instead, it came off as more of a catty number with the women fighting among themselves. Then after the scene at Doc’s store, I was eagerly anticipating the “Officer Krupke” number, but “Cool” was staged there instead and “Officer Krupke” instead provided comic relief for the second act. Likewise, I was waiting for the Act I break, but the storyline pressed on to the bridal store. Instead of leading with “I Feel Pretty” (which was also moved later in the second half), “One Hand, One Heart” came in almost immediately followed by the quintet, the rumble (which was well staged but not as impactful as the dancing), and intermission, making the first half a good hour and a half long and bit disjointed for me near the end.

The line of tension, which extended into a very muted intermission, was broken at the beginning of Act 2 with the insertion of “I Feel Pretty.” It was jarring and unsettling after the abruptly dismal end to Act 1.  In addition, most of the song was done in Spanish. Although (presumably) authentic Spanish was successfully inserted throughout the production, it really bothered me here since most of my favorite lines in the song were lost. I was doubly disappointed since my 11 year old daughter was with me experiencing this production for the first time and she speaks no Spanish. She was absolutely lost during some overly-lengthy Spanish dialog parts, and I know she completely missed the meaning of that particular song.

There was another jarring transition here to Maria receiving news of Bernardo’s death, then Tony appeared from the fire-escape and a magical transformation happened. As they discuss a desire to run away, to find “Somewhere,” they were launched into an ethereal dream sequence where Shark and Jet danced and played barefoot together without rancor. Maria laughed with delight and there was a real feeling of love in the air.  But the most striking part was Anybodys coming between Tony and Maria to sing, “There’s a place for us…” adding significant depth and meaning to the number – especially in light of the current events of the last few days and months.  I did feel, however, that the symbolism there and the emphasis on Anybodys’ outsiders status did undermine the romantic poignancy of the moment in the original production.

Another jarring transition back to “reality” and the scene of chaos on the street as the Jets regroup, but then somehow dive into the hilarity of “Office Krupke.” The piece was brilliantly sung and acted, albeit much more explicitly raunchy and shocking with the original stage lyrics used. Overall, I enjoyed it very much – as did the rest of the audience, judging from the applause.  But it just felt out of place at this point in the production.

The scene in Maria’s bedroom with “I Have a Love” and “A Boy Like That” was gorgeously acted and sung. The lady playing Anita was top notch all the way through the show and she did not disappoint here. Her voice blended with Maria’s and together they brought tears to my eyes.

The following scene at the drugstore was appropriately shocking when played out with live actors – especially the near-rape of Anita. But the ending scene came to quickly and – most disappointing of all – there was no sense of coming together, of reconciliation, at the end as there was in the movie. Maria also made a critical mistake in the dialog stating, “WE all killed him” instead of “YOU all killed him.” It seems minor, but altered the impact of the end for me.

Overall, this production was solid and well worth seeing.  It’s a rare chance to see Jerome Robbins’ original choreography blended live with Leonard Bernstein’s very gritty and emotional music and brought to life by an outstanding troupe of dancers and actors. I hope you go see it for yourself – then come tell me what you thought!

[West Side Story plays at the Palace Theater in Playhouse Square from May 3 through May 15, 2011. Ticket prices start at an amazingly low price of $10 and can be purchased online or by calling 216-241-600 or 866-546-1353.]

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Some Enchanted Evening

It wasn’t the usual start to a tropical get-away.  Weather reports were calling for a MASSIVE ice storm, schools were closed in anticipation, and the sleet was beginning to fall.  Nonetheless, I was not going to miss this opportunity to see at Playhouse Square in Cleveland, OH one of THE most classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals EVER: South Pacific!

I’d never seen the stage version, though I know many of the songs.  I thought I’d seen the movie ages ago, but couldn’t remember many key plot details (and afterwards, I’d decided I must have turned the movie off at intermission!).  I took along a friend who was well-versed in the stage version and tried to describe to me the hand animations of “Happy Talk” she’d seen in the past, which made for an amusing car ride to Cleveland!

When we got to the theatre, we were greeted on-stage with an ENORMOUS partial first page of James Michner’s book “South Pacific” on which the musical was based.  As the 26 piece orchestra played the overture, there was a collective sigh of delight from the audience over the resonance of the live music and the book page was illuminated with lighting reminiscent of slatted shades. It was a treat for both ears and eyes.

When the scrim rose, the treat became a smorgasbord.  We were suddenly looking out over the seascape of the South Pacific, complete with a beach and palm tree.  I could almost feel the sun beating down and the tropical breeze wafting sea salt scent off the ocean.  It was breath-taking and thoughts of the sleet outside melted like snow in the sun.

The entire show runs 3 hours, but you’ll wish it went on for 3 more!  The sets and lighting are exquisite: subtle, but impactful; detailed and so very realistic you really will think you’re on a beach. When Bali Ha’i appears – and disappears – you’ll rub your eyes and swear it’s a mirage, then spend the entire intermission trying to figure out how the heck they do it!  (Oh, the magic of live theatre!)  The live orchestra carries you away on swells of gorgeous sound and the singing…well, the singing is faultless – from every single performer.

Carmen Cusack really is from Arkansas, right?  I mean, the accent, the demeanor, the youthful exuberance and nervous unsophistication were expertly acted.  Her use of grace notes and the inflection in her voice as she sang, “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair” made my jaw drop.  The bass notes emanating from the throat of the man playing Emile were astonishing every time and the chorus of men singing, “There Ain’t Nothin’ Like a Dame” just made we women in the audience remember that there ain’t nothin’ like a muscled man who can sing and dance!

The production was playful and fun, yet still addressed serious issues of  racial prejudice which are sadly relevant even today.  There was a current of gender prejudice apparent to the modern eye as well, though the show doesn’t really address it. The issues of war and survival and culture clash are all woven seamlessly into the rich tapestry of this production’s social commentary.

I tried to find something I didn’t like about the performance, but was tough. There were a few microphone problems which created some distracting feedback at times, but those types of technical glitches were likely ironed out by the next performance.  There were a few timing issues with lines in the first romantic scene near the beginning, but the mikes were also dropping out, so that might have added to the problem.  Finally, though the role of Bloody Mary was as hilarious as always (“Steeengee BAS-tard!” “Speh-seal EYE-land!”), she wasn’t portrayed as raunchy and flamboyant as she could have been.

Quite honestly, this is classic Broadway-style live theatre at the very top of its game. You don’t usually see this quality of live theatre ANYWHERE but New York or London, so to have it land in our own backyard, in Cleveland, is an opportunity not to be missed.  If the doldrums of winter in Cleveland have you dreaming of lush beaches and warm waves but firmly tethered to the icy ground, set sail on a 3 hour tour to South Pacific at Playhouse Square!

“South Pacific” runs only until February 13th.  Buy your tickets here and don’t wait or your ship will sail on this great show!

Billy Elliot: Dancers Soar, Writing Falls Flat

Tonight I saw Billy Elliot: The Musical, the 2nd of 7 Playhouse Square Key Bank Broadway Series shows I have the privilege of reviewing as part of the official Playhouse Square Review Crew.  As usual, I’d done my pre-show homework: I’d browsed various Billy Elliot websites,  googled details about the show, watched Twitter for other people’s opinions, and read the educator’s guide for students.  I even watched a live-streamed webcast session with some of the cast and crew from Durham, NC (where this second tour opened on October 20th) and interacted via back-channel chat with the actress playing Debbie!

After all my research, I was expecting the dancing to be stylistically diverse and extraordinarily well performed – and I was not disappointed!  If you’ve ever seen “West Side Story” or “My One and Only” on stage or “Footloose”, “Flashdance”, “Dirty Dancing”, or “Save The Last Dance” on screen, you’ll recognize the universal pull that top dancers have on your very soul.  They make it look easy, and regardless of your age or physical condition, you can imagine expressing yourself through dance as artfully as they do.

At the theatre, there is something even more special about the “aliveness” and presence of it all.  When you hear and feel the reverberation of the tap shoes on the stage floor, when you see the tension in the muscles that it takes to hold an extended pirouette, then the dancing connects with you on a visceral level.  And when you suddenly remember that some of these incredibly accomplished dancers are not even yet teenagers, you are truly blown away.

But a good Broadway show is more than just flashy dance numbers.  Solid, believable acting is equally important.  Here again, the entire cast of Billy Ellit was rock solid.  The best actors and actresses truly live their parts – and you can’t conceive of them being anyone else.  I honestly could not find fault with a single character on-stage tonight.  From the feisty grandmother to the conflicted father, from the gawky pre-teens to the worn-out dance instructor, from the miners to the police – each role was lovingly and thoroughly explored and completely believable.

So if both the acting and the dancing were outstanding, why did I leave the theatre feeling disappointed? In short: the writing. I don’t care how many awards this musical has won.  If THIS is the best Broadway has to offer in the past decade, then modern Broadway is in real trouble.

LearningNerd defines plot as, “a series of events deliberately arranged so as to reveal their dramatic, thematic, and emotional significance.” The show definitely attempted to cover a good deal of emotional and dramatic ground, tackling such diverse themes as homosexuality, death, unionism, homophobia, and the parent/child relationship.  But it felt like too much was bitten off at once with none of the topics really fully or thoroughly explored.  Even the flow from scene to scene was stilted and there just didn’t seem to be a cohesive storyline, especially in the first act.

The plot of Billy Elliot: The Musical hangs its contextual hat on the British coal miner’s strike of 1984, but the reasons for the strike and the animosity of the characters for then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher are never explained.  Few, if any, musicals hinge so directly on such a specific, modern political environment.  In order to really empathize with the characters, it would have been helpful to understand the situation more intimately. As an American audience member, I felt like an outsider.

Another aspect of the writing which fell flat for me was the language.  Although the dialect was heavily criticized by a fellow Review Crew-er as being completely wrong, I wouldn’t know Cockney from Welsh from a Scottish brogue.  However, cursing in any language comes across loud and clear.  Although gritty, earthy language was deliberately used to make the musical sound more “authentic,” such foul language coming from children – and some really YOUNG children at that – was an absolute turn-off.

I read an interview with Stephen Daldry, who directed the movie and helped bring the stage version to life.  He said that it is a reality that children use bad language and that this production was not going to ignore that reality.  That may be true, but no child I know has, at the age of 7, 8, or 9 (as some of these characters were), called his/her father a bastard or so casually and frequently sworn in front of and at adults. It was jarring and it was gratuitous.  It crossed the line, in my book, to the point where it took away from my enjoyment of the first act.  I had read and heard from many other people that the language on this second tour was very much toned down from the Broadway version.  Yikes!  I very nearly brought my 9 year old to this production, but in retrospect, I am SO GLAD I did not.  This is a show ABOUT a child, but it is not a show FOR children as far as I’m concerned.

I must close this review with special mentions for the two performers who, in my opinion, nearly stole the show out from under Billy’s ballet shoes.  The first was Faith Prince, the renowned Broadway star and Tony award recipient who was educated in Cincinnati, Ohio!  She stars on this tour as Mrs. Wilkinson, Billy’s ballet teacher and she sparkled in the role – both literally and figuratively!  I thought she played the wistful yet down-to-earth part with just the right combination of grit and polish.

And finally, Jacob Zelonky who played the part of Michael, Billy’s cross-dressing, homosexual best friend, should receive way more accolades than he is.  I cannot even imagine how completely wise-beyond-his-years and mature a young actor must be to play so confidently and truthfully so complex a role.  In many ways, Michael’s role is as difficult dramatically as Billy’s is physically.  Kudos, too, to Jacob’s parents for supporting him as they must be.

So should you go see Billy Elliot?  Yes – if only to see what the buzz is about!  Read up on your modern British labor (or should it be labour?) history then prepare to be dazzled by the dancing – and let me know what YOU think in the comments!

Billy Elliot: The Musical runs at Cleveland’s Playhouse Square until December 12th, 2010.  Get your tickets here or by calling the box office at (216) 241-6000 or (866) 546-1353.

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