Monday, October 20, 2008

Intermission Talk by Tony Vellela: Reviewing Equus, 13 and A Tale of Two Cities

Hidden agendas perpetuated on adults by adults is reprehensible enough, but to use talented, wide-eyed, star-struck children to perpetuate a hidden agenda on other children is beyond moral acceptability.

And that is what unspools in a ninety-minute intermission-less sugarfest eight times a week at the Jacobs Theatre, innocently labeled "13." Behind the calculated cuteness of having a new musical supposedly about the (tiny) trials and (innocuous) tribulations of a 12 1/2 year old Upper West Side Jewish lad heartlessly moved by his newly-divorced mother to Appleton, Indiana is a cold-as-cash formula to lure unsuspecting high school musical theatre students across the country into mounting this schlock on their auditorium stages, once it receives the 'as seen on Broadway' imprimatur.

The cool customer behind this fraud is Jason Robert Brown, whose The Last Five Years has accumulated a cult following despite its limited and ego-centric substance. His Tony Award for Parade came during one of the driest years ever on Broadway for musicals, which found it virtually unchallenged in its category. The less said the better about his contributions to Urban Cowboy.

So how best to get back in the game? How about a gimmick in which all the characters, two-dimensional as they are, are teen-agers and - OMG!!! - they are all PLAYED by teen-agers! And - OMGGG !!! - the entire BAND is comprised of teen-agers, too? And - wait, there's more - there are - I can't believe it! - there are thirteen CHARACTERS, too. This level of calculated cleverness belongs in the State Department.

The negligible storyline finds young Evan (the competent Graham Phillips) meeting the interesting girl next door in his new home town, finding out she's an outcast, and when he starts his quest to produce the perfect bar mitzvah, throws her under the hay wagon. The rest of the characters are straight out of Saved By The Bell, or the lame Broadway musicalization of Footloose. Archie and Veronica had more backstory than this bunch.

The only character with a distinguishing feature that would not be expected is Archie [the brave Aaron Simon Gross], who endures his degenerative neuro-muscular disorder, which requires him to use crutches, with a kind of unjustified peppy c'est la vie. He is rewarded with several moments and lyrics that tastelessly mock his physical condition, including some in which he cheerfully participates.

The lyrics are in no danger of sounding like they were penned by an adult, featuring such memorable rhymes as "move" and "prove," "fine and "mine" and inevitably, "school" and "cool."

It is a hard sell to anyone who remotely knows a savvy Upper West Side teen to think that they would countenance the openly-homophobic words or behavior. And even if this young lad were soooo desperate to be accepted, his "inner voice," (perhaps brought out as everyone remains frozen in place as he expresses his revulsion in a tight spot), would cry out for his former tolerant 'hood.

Two new discoveries manage to break through this travesty—Allie Trim as the aforementioned wronged-but-later-redeemed real girl person who has a voice that will soon compare to the iconic likes of Rebecca Luker or Kelli O'Hara, and the explosive and underused Eamon Foley, whose glorious voice, kinetic-times-a-million energy and head of golden shag hair are buried in the chorus, but who always blazes through the surrounding mediocrity whenever he's present.

The tantalizing three-sheeter outside the Jacobs shows us the 13, each slapped with a label across their body—such as The Gossip, The Outsider, etc. which offers a whiff of promise to parents hoping to get a window into their teen-ager's world. But these cardboard characters never deliver, except to serve as vehicles for ambitious young performers, sort of a farm team for Spring Awakening.

And the appropriation from other work that tells real stories about young people in love ["Getting Ready" is a lift from West Side Story;"A Little More Homework" is a lift from Rent] is blatant.

But the damage is done. It can now claim "as seen on Broadway." Would that those of us who have seen it on Broadway could somehow un-see it.



Now, if you are seeking a genuine tale of a troubled teen, walk one block south to the Broadhurst and take in the joys of Equus. This revival of Peter Shaffer's 1975 Tony-winning drama alternately crackles and whispers, lures and repulses. The sexually-confused Alan Strang confesses to blinding six horses whose care he is charged with, using an iron spike to gouge out their eyes. Instead of jailing him, a sympathetic magistrate named Heather Saloman begs the overworked child psychiatrist Dr. Martin Dysart to take him into his on-site facility for examination and possible treatment. The good doctor's practiced detachment lays the groundwork for the conflict between his cool and the young man's intensity—fire and ice.

This excruciatingly measured choreography—between a young man caught in the act of brutalizing the very witnesses to his mental torture, and a nearly-retired caregiver witnessing his own internal breakdown as his self-doubt tortures his every act—plays like a spoken sonata. Alan allows himself to reveal his demons to the doctor, when his religious zealot mother and clandestinely promo-addicted father have both failed to win his respect. A young girl (Anna Camp, who flatteringly recalls the appeal of the teen-aged Cynthia Nixon) secures a part-time job for him at the stable where the crime was executed, and nearly frees his libido, but even she cannot help him reconcile his crazed mindset that replaces the picture of the suffering Jesus at the foot of his bed with the image of a commanding steed's noble head.

Broadway newcomer Daniel Radcliffe [the magic Harry from the movies] and stage veteran Richard Griffiths [late of the classic The History Boys] demonstrate exactly and definitively how two-hander scenes should be played. There is an organic interaction between boy and man, a great series of moments that add up to more than the sum of their parts. Other cast members deliver their roles admirably, with only Kate Mulgrew as the magistrate careering off the tracks with acting choices that somehow suggest that she is either trying to seduce or reignite a sexual relationship with the doctor, and is using this poor lad's plight as a means of getting face time in the doc's office.

As the resolution is achieved, it is clear that this is a good but not great play, one that depends for its value on strong performances. The story line owes more than little to the Carson McCullers novel turned 1967 film Reflections in a Golden Eye. Thankfully, Griffiths and Radcliffe deliver. It is also possible that each of them has pulled from past roles (Griffiths from "Boys," and Radcliffe from another boys project, the Australian film December Boys) to mine the gold in these characters. Whatever the source, these are thoroughbred performances that belong in the winner's circle.


As the good doctor might advise in matters that require care, "First, do no harm." Such may have been the admonition chosen to fashion the new musical adaptation of Charles Dickens' "A Tale of Two Cities." Ricocheting around the stage of the Hirschfeld Theatre, this harmless grade B near-clone of "Les Miz" chose wisely where it matters, and in a way that recent Gothic and costume-drama musicals did not - it does not take itself too seriously. And we are the better for it. Once again, the "Mamma Mia" model rescues a show that could have suffocated itself with cloying self-importance.

Instead, what is presented is unself-conscious good humor, a lightness in the story-telling that is almost on the level of children's theatre, which is meant as a compliment. An acceptable portion of the original source material survives, built around the wastrel, hard-drinking solicitor Sydney Carton (James Barbour), the unwilling ex-pat French aristocrat Charles Darnay (Aaron Lazar), and the fetching Lucie (Brandi Burkhardt). Lucie's dad is still recently released from the Bastille as a result of the citizens seizing power during the French Revolution. There is still the Carton-loves-Lucie, Lucie-loves-Darnay, Carton ain't too taken with Darnay story line, along with the indomitable Madame Defarge, who does more than keep to her knitting.

Rousing moments in Act Two replace plot-point ones in Act One, starting with a robust number titled "Everything Stays the Same." And the voices are uniformly first-rate, and none more than Barbour. The proceedings are served well by Tony Walton's versatile skeletal sets and rear-wall silhouettes, reinforcing this production's choice to give us realism once removed, fidelity selectively honored, and a welcome antidote to the never-ending Masterpiece Theatre imports that, when aired past eleven, dispense with the need for sleeping pills.

TONY VELLELA, the veteran theatre correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor, writes and produces the PBS series about theatre, "Character Studies". His work has also appeared in Parade, Theatre Week, USA Today, Dramatics, Rolling Stone, and several other publications.

Titles Mentioned in this Article and Available from The Drama Book Shop:


The Last Five Years
The Last Five Years (Vocal Selections)
Jason Robert Brown
Hal Leonard, 2003. Paper: $17.95

Parade (Libretto), in the collection: The New American Musical
Edited by Wiley Hausam
Theatre Communications Group, 2003. Paper: $18.95

Footloose (Vocal Selections)

Hal Leonard, 1999. Paper: $17.95

Spring Awakening (Libretto)
Theatre Communications Group, 2007. Paper: $13.95

Spring Awakening (Vocal Selections)
Hal Leonard, 2008. Paper: $19.95


Equus by Peter Shaffer
Samuel French. Acting Edition: $7.50

The History Boys by Alan Bennett
Faber & Faber, 2005. Paper: $13.00



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