Tuesday, June 24, 2008

It's an honor and a joy...

I did four shows in one week. I think that could be a personal record. August on Tony Sunday. Gypsy first post-Tony. Then Friday evening I took in the Roundabout revival of Les Liaisons Dangereuses and Sunday afternoon Curtains.

When I go to the theatre alone, it's very much a gamble the sort of audience experience I will have. I was most fortunate that my mezzanine seat was traded in for a center orchestra spot. I had the most wonderful conversation with a very classy, middle-aged couple who love the theater immensely and go as often as they can, whether together or alone. We discussed everything about the current season, the Tonys, what we were most looking forward to the coming year. It was akin to our blogger brunches, deep common bond stemming from a genuine enjoyment of the live theatre experience. I greatly enjoyed my twenty minutes spent with this witty, urbane couple prior to the show. Plus the engaging 15 minutes intermission (I was asked if I wanted anything from the bar. God, I love manners).

Then the houselights dimmed and the curtain came up on Ms. Laura Linney looking resplendent in period costumes and a surprisingly drab set. (Roundabout, you gave Old Acquintance an applause worthy second act set, you had to skimp on an opulent period production?) Les Liaisons, which first played Broadway in 1987 with Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan (that must have been some production) is adapted from the novel by Choderlos de Laclos by Christopher Hampton. My connection with the story goes back to an 18th century literature course I took in college. Truth be told, I didn't care for it when I read it, studied it or when we watched the 1988 film adaptation of Hampton's play Dangerous Liaisons with all its Oscar nominated glory and Glenn Close. This let to some trepidation from me upon spending the money to see the show, but I wasn't about to pass up the opportunity to see Laura Linney onstage. That was the sole reason for going.

The current production is decidedly uneven. Clocking in at 2 hours and 45 minutes, it makes for a rather long evening. And though she proved fascinating to watch on stage and was giving 110%, Linney felt miscast as the Marquise de Merteuil. The reason to see it surprisingly enough turns out to be English actor Ben Daniels in his Broadway debut as Valmont. The word that springs to mind most to describe him onstage would be fearless. An engaging, witty and foppish presence, the play loses steam whenever he isn't around. (The audience gasped en masse when he dropped his robe in the forced seduction scene). The scenes he has with Linney are the most interesting and compelling, everything else feels like waste. Mamie Gummer (aka Meryl Streep's daughter) is making her Broadway debut as the virginal Cecile and Sian Philips has the choice supporting role of Madame de Rosemonde. Well, actually the entire supporting cast was underwhelming. I couldn't help but think how interesting this story would be as a mere two-hander, akin to the style of the original novel. I was glad for the opportunity to see the two actors, but I still don't like it.

Things were much more entertaining at Curtains. Now, for whatever reasons (financial or otherwise) I'd held off on seeing the Kander and Ebb musical, though my desire to see it was never in question from the first announcement of its out of town tryout. I saw the original cast of Spamalot the week before the Tonys, and I thought David Hyde Pierce was the most Tony worthy of the three stars, yet the only one overlooked for a nomination! His "You Won't Succeed on Broadway" was a colossal showstopper, and he proved himself a successful - if unlikely - musical comedy star.

Curtains isn't a perfect musical comedy. There are incredible flaws, but I'm assuming that stems from the unfortunate fact that both bookwriter Peter Stone and lyricist Fred Ebb passed away while the musical was still in development. While John Kander continued the project, bringing Rupert Holmes on board to finish. The story is a murder mystery set at the Colonial Theatre during the out of town tryout of a 1959 musical. The leading lady, who is atrocious, is killed during her curtain call and everyone in the company is kept in the theatre while the affable Detective Cioffi, a big theatrephile alternately solves the crime and helps turn the show into a hit. There is a great deal of charm and heart to the show, which is probably why I admired it. The book's structure could have used some work, especially the first twenty minutes or so. Also, there were issues to be had with some of the lyrics - mostly in the show-within-a-show's songs. In particular, the big production number "Thataway," the word "bitch" or the lyrics "what's that stirring in my pants" are two lyrics that would never have been considered for a stage musical, especially in 1959 Boston (where things were too often banned for being too salacious). (It has to be Rupert Holmes contribution as Kander and Ebb would have been aware of what would fly and what wouldn't).

David Hyde Pierce provided the lone upset at the 2007 Tony awards with his win over Raul Esparza (much to the chagrin of many Company enthusiasts). Truth be told, I enjoy a good upset, so it made me almost hit the floor when Bernadette Peters shouted out his name as the winner. You could also tell that he was just equally shocked through his extraordinarily gracious and humble acceptance. His performance was stellar; a musical comedy turn that was funny, offbeat and surprisingly touching. Plus, he had one of the most convincing Boston accents I've ever heard. Karen Ziemba was everything I wanted her to be and more - a winning performer giving her all. And at 50, she shows no signs of slowing down or aging. Seriously, the woman looks like she's in her late 30s, early 40s. And dances like she's 20. "Thataway" stopped the show. Debra Monk was out, but Patty Goble was on, giving a strong performance as the ballsy producer Carmen Bernstein, reminiscent of a broad Andrea Martin. Jason Danieley's tenor soared on the lovely "I Miss the Music." Noah Racey and Megan Sikora were superlative dancers. Edward Hibbert got the best lines and the most laughs from his wry lines as the flamboyantly acerbic British director. Erin Davie has yet to shirk off her Little Edie-isms, and that distracted from her performance. I think out of the score, the only song that felt like a total dud was "The Woman's Dead." It wasn't funny, it didn't work and only provided amusement in conductor David Loud's reprise "The Man is Dead" at the top of the second act. Aside from that, "Show People," "Music," "It's a Business" - it was a tuneful musical comedy score. I haven't been able to get the infectious melody for "Thataway" out of my head.

The production was solid. Great orchestrations, clever choreography and good staging. I couldn't help but be reminded of Destry Rides Again when looking at the scenes from Robbin' Hood. (A western musical on Broadway in 1959, yeah, it was bound to happen). It felt like I was watching a Golden Age show. Not necessarily one of the top-tier, but a solid B musical. For a contemporary musical comedy it was especially wonderful in that it wasn't overtly tongue in cheek or self-referential, which has become the norm these days. It wasn't perfect, I readily admit that. But if it provides a genuine, grin-inducing, feel-good experience, who cares? After leaving the Al Hirschfeld Theatre (last time I was there it was the Martin Beck), I couldn't help but be pleased that in a few years this show will reach the high school realm. For educational theatre, particularly on the high school level, it will provide a great male lead for those unlikely to be considered for similar roles in classic titles. The show closes this coming Sunday, so hurry if you can.

While I didn't make any acquaintances at the Hirschfeld, on the train ride home, I encountered an elderly couple that had attended Chicago. The cue was "I hear Gypsy is excellent." Of course I had to corroborate their source. It led to an engaging conversation that lasted for the entire train ride. Again, the common bond was the love of the theatre. The husband recalled his first Broadway experience, which was the original production of The Diary of Anne Frank with Joseph Schildkraut. The wife immediately one-upped him by recounting her experience seeing The King and I with Gertrude Lawrence. She even went on to tell how the night she went, the Queen of the Netherlands was in attendance, making it all the more special for her. When I mentioned that I wished I was there, she told me 'You're young. When you're older, you'll hear the same thing from the younger generations when you tell them you're story. It evolves like that and that is part of what makes it so special."

And I think with those sage words, I bid you a good night!


Flip Chick said...

Glad you got to see CURTAINS before it closed. It's not a perfect show, but such an enjoyable one. I've seen it multiple times and I just sit and grin for 2 1/2 hours every single time. Who could ask for anything more? I'm sorry you missed Debra Monk (she's wonderful). I liked the whole company, but she, David Hyde Pierce and Karen Ziemba really blew me away. And I've become a *huge* Karen Ziemba fan as a result of this show. I couldn't agree more with your comments. She is truly amazing.

Esther said...

Congratulations on your all-time record! I did see seven musicals in five days last summer, which may stand as my all-time personal best.

And I'm so delighted that you loved Curtains! As you know, it was the first musical I ever saw on Broadway. (As opposed to my first Broadway musical. I saw a touring production of A Chorus Line in Boston many years ago).

I have to admit that as I was watching, I wasn't thinking of flaws in the book or anachronistic lyrics, I was just reveling in my third-row, center orchestra seat, taking it all in. I could even see the sweat on David Hyde Pierce's face. It was wonderful. And I agree about his Boston accent - I've heard some atrocious ones in movies, and I thought his was pretty good. The whole cast was great, and I loved it from start to finish.

I know what you mean about having great conversations, too. In some ways, it reminds me of the trip to Europe I took after I graduated from college. You meet other young Americans, you talk about where you've been and where you're going next. It's the same thing - you meet people standing in line for a show and you find out what they've seen, what they liked and didn't like. It's great fun and a great feeling of community.