Saturday, January 10, 2009

Theatre Droppings: (F)Abnormal Edition

There are a couple of ladies currently living on DC musical stages who are, how should this be put? They're a couple of tacos short of a combo plate...

I've been curious about the musical Grey Gardens since the great Christine Ebersole made such a splash with the original on Broadway. I've listened to the score several times, but I can now attest that the music plays better in the theatre than on record. Studio Theatre is presenting the area premiere, in a version which, out of spacial necessity, is scaled down. But the performances are terrific, particularly DC's own Jenna Sokolowski. Her Act One role of Little Edie makes almost no impression on the original cast recording, but in the theatre, the character, as played by Sokolowski, is a major presence. Score one for the home team.

As I said, everybody's good, but the second act is pretty much swiped by Barbara Broughton as Big Edie. She's clearly having a ball. The cast is headed by the great Barbara Walsh in the Ebersole role(s). Walsh is another of those well-respected Broadway performers who would probably have graduated to national stardom in a different generation. Because that kind of thing does not happen nowadays, her fame is restricted to the theatre community. I had heard her name for years, and finally saw her in the video of the Company revival (you know, the one where everybody carried around a trombone). In that one, I was suitably impressed by her work as Joanne, a role which, for a lot of people, cannot be played effectively by anyone except its originator, Elaine Stritch. But Walsh made the role her own, and, at least for me, was able to put her own stamp on the show's most famous song, Ladies Who Lunch. Here in Grey Gardens, she is doing a bang-up job, but I got the feeling that, the afternoon I was there, she was disturbed by something, or in a bad mood, or...something. Just a feeling that she had not jumped headfirst into her dual roles that day, that she was not having any fun. Ah well, whatever the problem was, the show was a good one, and director Serge Seiden did a terrific job fitting a large scale musical on his small stage.

Across the river on Arena Stage's temporary stage, there's another gal in need of some therapy. Next to Normal had a production in New York a while back, and the authors have been tinkering. This version is riveting; I don't know when I've admired a new musical so thoroughly. It's a simple story of a family dealing with grief, sort of Rabbit Hole, 15 Years Later, With Music. These writers really sucked me in, and the rest of the crowd too, so when the "reveal" happened, there were audible gasps in the audience. The performers sang the heck out of the score, which was pretty relentless, reflecting the tortured feelings of these characters. I am no judge of music, but I can report that the lyrics are clear and clean and rip at your heart. I attended a noon matinee, so the house was not at all full, and as I have noticed often with noon matinees, the star was absent. Alice Ripley, who was a standout in the Company which the Kennedy Center produced several years ago, has been playing the central role of the mother, but, as I said, she was out the day I caught the show. The understudy was absolutely fine, but I have a hunch there might have been an extra sparkle had Ripley been there. No matter, the show is extremely well cast, mostly with hold-overs from the Off-Broadway production. Aaron Tveit stands out as the teen-age son, darting up and down the three story set while belting out the rock-tinged numbers. He effectively oversees a lot of the action, and is a terrific "observer." (He looks pretty good in those boxers, too.) But the heroic performance is being given by J. Robert Spencer as the Dad. He is playing the least flamboyant character in the piece, so had the harder time of it. But his "recognition" scene with his son is so powerfully played, so powerfully sung, that I lost it. I admit I had been crying well before that moment, but at that instant, well, just shoot me now. Fathers and Sons and all that. The show, as I said, is pretty relentless, but is handled with a lot of dark humor which makes the piece very enjoyable. This endeavor deserves to have a future life. Any show that can make a musical number out of electro-shock therapy is a keeper in my book.

(update: 2/24/09: Next to Normal has announced a Broadway production, including the entire Arena Stage cast, to open April 15 at the Booth)