Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Theatre Droppings: All's Well That Ends With An 11 O'Clock Number

I attended two theatrical offerings this past week, which could not have been more different. Naturally, I'm including them both in the same entry. I'm economical that way.

All's Well That Ends Well is receiving a literate but somewhat sedate revival at The Shakespeare Theatre Company. The play is not one of the Bard's most popular, which may explain why The Shakes has not attempted it since 1996. I was in that earlier production, so I came to the current showing with some preconceptions. The reviews for this production have been pretty lukewarm, and I have to agree with most of them. There is nothing really wrong here, but the evening has a lusterless, moderately paced lack of urgency which is unusual for The Shakes. Trouble begins right away, with the terrible set design.

The Shakes has a reputation, well earned, for spending mountains of money on their scenic designs, and it usually pays off. But this is certainly the dullest set I have ever seen at the Lansburgh Theatre, and that includes my own production of All's Well, which was only a carpet and a platform:

You certainly don't need an expensive, elaborate set in order to effectively perform your story (see below), but this show's minimalist approach actually took away from the project at hand.

Marsha Mason has picked up some critical flack for her portrayal of the Countess, but I enjoyed her performance. It's down-to-earth and very American-sounding, as opposed to most of the other cast members, who are using the standard Mid-Atlantic accent which is favored at this most classical of companies. The other leading players here are doing a good job of telling the story, in fact, I freely admit that this production tells the story better than mine, which was hampered by Kelly McGillis's weepy performance as Helena. Not by coincidence, Ted van Griethuysen is playing the same role this time around as he did in 1996, the dying King of France. I've never seen Ted bad, and this is no exception. Paxton Whitehead is swiping all his scenes as a courtier and confidante, and my buddy Barbara Pinolini is injecting energetic juice into all the scenes in which she appears.

Though this production seems to tell the story better, I have to claim that my production in 1996 was a lot funnier. We had first class clown Floyd King in our cast, and, with Philip Goodwin and Wally Acton leading the charge, the scenes concerning the abduction of the vainglorious Parolles were laugh-out-loud funny.
Here, those same scenes barely raise a smile.

Over the weekend, I attended the latest offering from Ganymede Arts, a revival of the 1990s musical Falsettos. This theatre company, run by my old buddy from South Carolina, Jeff Johnson, deserves lots of credit for tackling such a difficult piece, and for finding a space in which to do it. Ganymede Arts has been homeless for I don't know how many years, producing their shows wherever they can. The past two seasons, they stopped renting spaces, and made their own.

Last year, they converted a back room of a knick-knack shop on 14th street into a performance space, and premiered a new piece called Edie Beale Live at Reno Sweeney (I wrote about seeing it here). That play (actually, it's a hybrid of a play and a cabaret act) has since taken on a life of its own. Ganymede has sent the piece to New York, twice, to appear at Joe's Pub, the cabaret space at the Public Theatre, and will be returning to Manhattan next month for a Halloween show at the Laurie Beechman Theatre. The show will also have several West Coast performances in November (if you are in any of those areas, the piece is worth a look, go here for more info).

Have I wandered off-track here? What are the odds of that? Ganymede has apparently lost the use of the theatre they created last year, so this season, they have created another one. They have taken some backroom space at Go Mama Go, another boutique on 14th street, and built another performance venue. This one looks a lot more like a traditional theatre than the last, which is a good thing, since their first offering there is an established show.

Falsettos is a chamber musical using seven performers to tell the story of a man who leaves his wife and child for another man. I have been familiar with the piece since it hit Broadway in the early 90s, winning Tonys for Best Book and Best Score. (That award for Best Book baffles me a little, since there is so little spoken dialogue in the piece, it should be considered an opera.) But I had never seen a production of Falsettos, nor of its components, March of the Falsettos and Falsettoland. Composer William Finn, you see, wrote the piece as individual one-act plays, and it was director James Lapine who had the idea to put them together into a single evening. He obviously decided to ignore the first show in the trilogy, In Trousers. Well, who could blame him? That first effort was a pretty slight piece by a very young composer (I saw a rare professional production of it in a basement in Los Angeles, starring Bill Hutton; I wrote about it here). While I imagine that first one-act enjoys life on college stages, it's really not a bright opportunity for professional productions.

I've wandered off topic again. Jeez. Back to the current Falsettos at Ganymede Arts. The production is being presented on a postage-stamp sized stage, with only a piano and a set of chairs on wheels as scenic elements.

That's okay, this is not a piece which requires a big visual element, though it gets plenty of elegant support from the lights. Marianne Meadows has provided the strongest design element in the production, and though I've actually performed several times under her lights, I have to say this is the best, most evocative lighting design I have seen from her. She ought to be designing the lights for musicals all the time.

The stand-out performer in this Falsettos has got to be Noah Chiet as the young kid Jason.

He's got swell timing and a strong presence which more than stands up to the adult cast members. He is at the center of the proceedings during act one, though in act two, emphasis shifts more to the adults. I suppose the best known song in Falsettos is "What More Can I Say," a love ballad frequently heard on cabaret stages, but I particularly loved "Unlikely Lovers," a quartet sung by the two gay couples at the heart of act two.

By this time in the proceedings, there were quite a few moist eyes in the house, even among the straight college boys who were trying to hide their tears from their dates. To conclude the evening, Finn has provided one of the great 11 o'clock numbers in "You Gotta Die Sometime," delivered by Michael Sazonov playing a gent dying of AIDS. Whether by Jeff's direction or Michael's instinct or the composer's design, the build in this number was pretty spectacular, with an ending which left a ringing silence in the air. Nobody could clap after that display of searing emotion.

This production of Falsettos is a bit raw and underproduced, but in the end, that doesn't matter. The poignancy of the story wins out, and this cast is telling that story with heart and spirit. I only wish that Ganymede Arts had the resources to play it in a larger venue.