Monday, September 5, 2011

Theatre Droppings: A Boy Detective and the Punks at Rydell High

I only had a couple of weeks between the completion of the last gig, and the beginning of the new one (and that's a pretty unusual thing in my career), so how did I spend the time? Busman's Holiday, of course.

I was very curious about the new musical rep which is just starting up over at Signature Theatre. As far as anyone can tell, it's the first time a professional theatre has attempted to run two World Premiere musicals in a rotating rep. My old friend Matt Conner is the composer of one of the shows, and I hope I can find the time to catch that one. But the double whammy we received here in DC, of the Unexpected Earthquake and Hurricane Irene, caused lots of box office trouble around town, so The Sig was offering hugely discounted tix to their preview performances of The Boy Detective Fails, the other musical in their Rep.

The show is based on a novel I have not read, so the story was all new to me. The production presented a bundle of contradictions, all of them good. The show has a lot of whimsy to it, not least of which is the scenic design, which turns all the buildings into dollhouses.

But the story at the center of the whimsy is psychologically dark. Our leading characters are all damaged souls who are haunted by losses of the past. I'm no judge of new musicals, that's for sure, but I think this one has a future.

Stephen Gregory Smith has the title role, and he illustrates those contradictions I mentioned, as he is both tightly wound and endearing, a pretty unlikely combo. The ensemble is quite strong, with some of the best character singers in town, including my former Don Quixote, Tom Simpson, who gets to go over the top as one of the villains of the piece. Tom plays his guy as a descendant of Christopher Lloyd at his looniest, I half-expected him to arrive onstage in a time-traveling DeLorian. Tom and Stephen have some great comic moments together, then Tom pulls a fast one by eliciting unexpected compassion from the audience, as he struggles with dementia. Joe Colarco has directed this piece with such strong visual and emotional elements, I hope it has further life.

From the sublime to the ridiculous, well, Grease is the word. I've already written a bit about my love/hate relationship with this perennial. I earned my Equity Card playing Teen Angel in this musical, and I remember well how much fun it is to perform. But having seen quite a few productions over the years, I'm not so sure that the audience has as much fun as the actors. Olney Theatre just closed their version, which was so successful it extended many times. It's a bundle of energy, and Olney's cast was peppered with quite a few performers with whom I shared the stage in Joe's Coat earlier this year.

Naturally, those folks did the most outstanding work. Funny how that always happens. A more lively bunch of slatternly thugs and molls you are unlikely to find. Grease, of course, makes heroes out of delinquents, and teaches the regrettable lesson that, in order to be accepted, you must conform.

Grease the stage musical is afflicted with the same phenomenon from which Cabaret the stage musical suffers. The film versions of these two shows were vastly more popular than the originals (and at least in Cabaret's case, the piece was greatly improved by the adjustments the film makers made). So nowadays, stage productions of these musicals are expected to incorporate some if not all of those changes. In the case of Grease, the show now includes the big hit numbers which John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John performed in the film, songs which were huge pop hits, but which do not appear in the original. These songs, including the title number, are shoe-horned into the stage show pretty bluntly, but what the hell. Anything which will increase the audience member's enjoyment is OK with me.

And Olney's show was great fun to watch, even as the leading players were, I guess necessarily, dead ringers for Travolta and Newton-John. My peeps did great, including Parker Drown as a pretty squirrelly Sonny, and Alan Wiggins as that engaging doofus Doody. Vinnie Kempski pulled off the Teen Angel number with terrific presence (and this kid is still in college!), and Ashleigh King dominated the prom scene as Cha-Cha (I was sorry that, in order to make room for all those songs from the film, the ballad usually sung by the character, "It's Raining on Prom Night," was cut). The choreography was electric, and in fact, was the most enjoyable part of this Grease.

I'm excited to begin Witness for the Prosecution tomorrow, at Olney Theatre of all places, and the show will keep me busy for the next couple of months. I may not be able to enjoy any more Busman's Holidays for a while, but I am glad I chose to see The Boy Detective Fails and Grease before my schedule filled up.