Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Theatre Droppings: Everything From A to Zukor

I did a lot of traveling during the holidays, but that did not stop me from popping into more than a handful of shows, both in DC and in L.A. I had never heard of Theatre Banshee, one of the myriad of tiny performance spaces which litter the Los Angeles landscape. But Daniel Stewart, the teen-aged son of my old friends and colleagues Judi and Stephen, was making a big-time debut in an Irish play there, so I drove across the Valley to catch a matinee.

Though I've only met this kid twice, both times after one of his stage performances, I am very excited to watch his career take flight. (I wrote about seeing him in an all-teen production of Into the Woods last May.) And of course, I wanted to kick the kid's teeth in when I heard, just a week or so ago, that he has snagged the role of Master Harold in a full Equity production of Fugard's early classic Master Harold and the Boys.

That role was on my wish list in my (much) younger days, but I never had the chance to play it; I'm thrilled and jealous as hell that young Daniel is getting to play the part.

I saw two other shows while in LA, and both of them were stolen by unlikely characters, which signaled trouble.The touring production of the recently closed (the other day, in fact) Broadway revival of West Side Story was holding court at the cavernous Pantages in Hollywood, and I accompanied my buddy Judy and her musical theater students to see it. This is the revival which was directed by librettist Arthur Laurents (in his 90s), and made some news when he put some of the dialogue and some of the lyrics into Spanish. I actually enjoyed that aspect of the show, but this tour was not overseen by Laurents, and the leading players were pretty lackluster. When the highlight of West Side Story is the guy playing Action, you've got some dull leading players.

The same thing happened when Judy and I attended The Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles's production of Much Ado About Nothing a week later. I love Much Ado, having played the constable Dogberry in South Carolina years ago, and having fallen in love with both Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh in the film version. This one was headlined by one of my favorite sitcom actresses Helen Hunt, whose performance as Beatrice was chilly and pretty non-descript. The show was thrown off-kilter by the presence of Lyle Lovett in the cast, playing a very minor role who shows up periodically and croons a tune. Because Lovett is a legitimately famous recording star, any time he began to sing, the show stopped in its tracks so the audience could enjoy the mini-concert. The music was enjoyable but disruptive to the play's forward motion.

As in West Side Story, this Much Ado was pretty much dominated by one of the supporting players, this time character actor extraordinaire Dakin Matthews. When the guy playing Beatrice's uncle steals Much Ado, well, we need to get Hamlet in here to give his advice to the players.

The shows I saw in DC during the hols were much more enjoyable. The day after Thanksgiving, I attended a matinee at Theatre J, which is DC's Hebrew-centric theatre company. The show was The Odd Couple, and what the heck that chestnut reveals about the Jewish experience is beyond me. But Theatre J had some success with Lost in Yonkers a while ago, so I guess they decided to revive one of Neil Simon's early triumphs. The reviews had been universal raves, and I found out why. Turns out that, like that pasta which gets flung against the wall in Act II, this play has something that sticks. Under Jerry Whiddon's direction, this top-notch cast of some of DC's favorite character actors was able to dig deeper into these folks' psyches than I have ever seen in one of Simon's early plays. There were no laughs sacrificed, from what I could tell, but I have never seen The Odd Couple deal realistically with its underlying themes of divorce and failure. In particular, Rick Foucheaux and Fred Shiffman, as the titular heroes, brought great humanity and, dare I say it, pain to their hilarious performances. I guess I was used to the sitcom portrayals of these guys, which, as I remember, were played (brilliantly) for laughs. Here at Theatre J, the mismatched Felix and Oscar were both dealing with huge losses in their lives; when Foucheaux's Oscar made the phone call to his ex, and spoke of his daughter, well, I understood for the first time that he was dealing with failure as raw as Shiffman's Felix.

This was the strongest production of a Neil Simon play I have seen onstage (and haven't we all seen dozens?), and the fact that it was one of his earlier, more primitive works is a tribute to director Whiddon and his glorious cast.

Speaking of Fred Shiffman, he moved from The Odd Couple into the current offering at Signature Theatre, Sunset Blvd, where he does a great job playing a movie studio exec. I've admired Fred's work for years, but have never met the gent, so I can say without fear of hurting feelings that he is severely underused in his current gig. So is Harry Winter, playing C.B. DeMille; their time onstage is brief enough to be considered cameos. Ah well, we go where the work is, so who's to complain?

I was pleased to get a chance to see this area premiere of Sunset Blvd, which many consider to be one of Andrew Lloyd Webber's minor works. I'm not a fan of Webber, so I'm not sure he has any major works, though his resume boasts many massive works. But I was familiar with Sunset, as I saw Miss Glenn Close bulldoze her way through the original American production in Los Angeles. Her performance was eccentric, brittle, and you could not look away. The critics couldn't look away either, and on the strength of Close's LA reviews, Webber dumped Patti LuPone, who was supposed to play in the original Broadway cast, in favor of Close. Glenn won the Tony, and Patti installed a new swimming pool with the proceeds from her breach of contract settlement.

Have I wandered off track? Back to The Sig's production, which is being played by some very winning actors. I very much liked this production, even as I had to admit to agreeing with some of the local critics, who have been complaining that the lyrics of the show are less than adequate, and that Webber's habit of reiterating a few melodies over and over and over again can get a bit frustrating. Webber made another big mistake, I think, with his terrific opening number "Let's Have Lunch." It's one of the few big production numbers in Sunset, and has a catchy melody and a nice build. Unfortunately, Webber robs the audience (and the actors) of a big finish to the number, which would have allowed the show to really burst open. Instead, the song peters out, and the viewer is left with the impulse to applaud, but nowhere to do so. I hate that.

But none of that is Signature's fault. I have a few acquaintances in the ensemble, and they all do good work, though I wondered if the performance I saw (a matinee on New Year's Day) was a little under-energized, perhaps due to some hearty partying by the cast the night before. (There are pictures and video on Facebook which verify that Signature ushered in the New Year with a boozy good time.) As for the leads in Sunset, Ed Dixon, playing the brooding butler Max, was an audience favorite. I thought his performance was better than that of George Hearn, who played the role opposite Glenn Close and who won a Tony for his work.
Oh, and the sound! The show is accompanied by a 20 piece orchestra, stashed above the stage as if on the second floor of Norma Desmond's mansion. I gotta hand it to Signature for conquering some pretty severe sound problems in the years since they opened their new theatre with Into the Woods. In that production, any time an actor turned away from you, their sound vanished. But after a few years of tinkering, the sound designers and engineers at The Sig have figured out how to mic their actors without it sounding like they are being amplified. This is a huge accomplishment, and integral to their ability to provide the best musical presentations in town.

Sunset Blvd is just one of several musical opuses (opi?) being presented around DC during the holidays. The one thousandth revival of Annie is still running out at Olney Theatre; the show is so popular, they've extended well into January. Over at the Kennedy Center, the national tour of South Pacific is being all lush and lovely. Arena Stage's Oklahoma! was a smash hit, filling close to 100% of their seats. I didn't see any of those shows, but I did see the fifth major musical revival in town, at The Shakespeare Theatre Company, of all places.

Mary Zimmerman has provided a new adaptation of Leonard Bernstein's famous flop from the 50s, Candide. This show may contain the most beloved score of any turkey in history, and people have made repeated attempts to elevate the book to match the music. Hal Prince was probably the most successful, at least commercially, when he revamped the show in the 70s, tossing out a lot of the source material (Voltaire wrote Candide in the 18th century). Zimmerman in turn tossed out a lot of Prince's improvements, and returned to the source material for her adaptation. For me, it didn't help much (there is a particularly draggy section in Act II), and maybe there is no way to bring Voltaire's episodic tale to the stage effectively.
But the music is glorious, delivered by a great cast which included a sprinkling of DC talent; Tom Simpson, with whom I did Man of LaMancha a while back, made the most of his limited time onstage. Chris Sizemore has one of the best tenor belts in town, and Margo Seibert, with whom I did Of Mice and Men quite a while ago, is pretty but underused as the serving maid.

Have I wandered off into Me-Land again? Hollis Resnik got the most laughs (she was shticking it up pretty good as the Old Lady with only one buttock) and Geoff Packard was outstanding as our hero. I caught a noon matinee, so I expected that someone would be out of the show, and I was right: the gal playing the ingenue was the understudy.

Whether or not Candide can ever be a fully satisfying musical, no one can complain about the show's finale, where the full cast, in full voice, promise to "Make Our Garden Grow." That section sung acapella was simple and glorious, and produced more goosebumps than I've felt in a theatre in a very long time.