Thursday, May 07, 2009

Intermission Talk

April 29, 2009

"Next to Normal," "Hair," "West Side Story,"

"Reasons To Be Pretty" and "God of Carnage"

by Tony Vellela

Ever since Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler built a show around a throat-slitting barber and his cannibalistic femme-de-camp, just about anything has shown up as the core of a musical theatre piece. In "Next to Normal," by Tom Kitt [music] and Brian Yorkey [book and lyrics], middle-aged Diana [Alice Ripley] struggles with the bipolar disorder she has lived with for nearly two decades. The loving support of her husband Dan [J. Robert Spencer] and the complications brought on by teen-aged children Natalie [Jennifer Damiano] and Gabe [Aaron Tvett] combine to confuse Diana's tenuous grasp on reality, which drugs or treatment do not reconcile.

Seldom does an actor get the opportunity to tackle the challenges that the character of Diana offers, and Ripley more than scores. Broadway audiences have long known that here is a distinct talent [from "Tommy" to "James Joyce's The Dead" to "Side Show"]. Her abilities are far from normal. With Diana, Ripley brings a heart-breaking fragility to the woman, ricocheting among demons and loved ones and memories and dreams, landing nowhere for very long. There are no weak performances, but outstanding are Spencer, with the same powerhouse voice that helped win him a Tony Award in "Jersey Boys," and most notably, Tvett. Still in his teens, and already a veteran of smaller roles ["Wicked," "Hairspray"], Tvett's career takes a giant leap forward here, especially in his kick-ass rendition of the dynamic 'I'm Alive."

Director Michael Grief takes full advantage of his captivating cast, and excellent design work from Mark Wendland [sets], Kevin Adams [lighting] and Brian Ronan [sound] to divert attention from some of the musical's flaws, including weak, obvious lyrics and a book that fails to satisfy the curiosity the laying out of the storyline engenders. Instead, its soft landing forces us back onto generalities and even misconceptions about Diana's troubled condition. This is indeed a show for grown-ups and their smart teen-agers, but there remains plenty of room to enlighten our perception of this serious demi-world.

Altering perceptions was the raison d'etre for the American Tribal Love-Rock Musical "Hair" when it exploded forty-plus years ago [as I can personally attest], barreling up Broadway from the Public Theatre to the Biltmore. And any quibbles about its structure, its content or its mission fail to account for the times when it shook up every world it was any part of - from the straight press and their cartoon representations of young people in revolt against conventions that muzzled and held down differing opinions to the commercial theatre, which would not believe that a 'rock' musical could make it on the Great White [Right] Way. 'Til then, rock music had been unwelcome as the source of stage music, because ticket-buyers were older than rock fans. But the powerful messages of this musical were unstoppable, given the political climate of the day. When a major musical event lit up a theatre and its songs seized a nation the way "Hair" did, its place as an iconic cultural phenomenon was assured.

The original production, with book and lyrics by Gerome Ragni and James Rado, and music by Galt MacDermott, benefited from the inspired genius of director Tom O'Horgan, who was the only director ever to have four shows on Broadway at the same time [also "Lenny," "Jesus Christ Superstar" and "Inner City"]. While it's not possible to duplicate that historic original, this version, helmed by Diane Paulus, does recreate a level of enthusiasm and vigor that offers a new generation a valid glimpse into the past.

Among the tribe, stand-outs include Gavin Creel as the tortured Claude and Will Swenson as his liberating soul-mate Berger. The heavy burden of the Vietnam War ['The War' to anyone whose hair is peppered with grey], and the flagrant prejudices against any expression of personal liberties, punctuated by the blows from the batons of status-guarding cops, made the score of "Hair" a collection of anthems that have survived to today, from "Let the Sun Shine In" and "Good Morning, Starshine" to "What a Piece of Work Is Man," "Aquarius" and the title song. If you are now living in the 'grey' garden of life, relive that era happily. If you are still in the green years, first check out 'hippie' on Wikipedia to get the real backstory of the alternative lifestyle that "Hair" celebrates.

Instead of trying to push out the boundaries of convention and conformity like the twentysomethings of "Hair," their contemporary counterparts in Neil LaBute's "reasons to be pretty" ache to fit into society's molds. Two blue-collar couples, Greg and Steph [Thomas Sadoski and Marin Ireland] and Kent and Carly [Steven Pasquale and Piper Perabo] jostle with identity issues that break them both up, all stemming from a seemingly inocuous remark that Greg makes about his four-year live-in girlfriend, remarking that her face is "regular-looking." Her reaction opens the play: a volcanic, esteem-scarred, minutes-long, obscenity-laced vitriolic tirade against him broken up by the breaking of furniture. Greg and Kent work in a bulk goods warehouse, where Kent's pregnant wife shares the night shift as a security guard. Steph works in a shop.

LaBute's writing aims for a lazer-point sting, and it lands, if you believe in the authenticity of the premise and the relationships of the characters. It's convenient to go along with the idea that bookworm Greg still looks to Kent for best friendship, or that he would not have drifted away from the less-than-literate Steph by now. It's easy to accept Kent [a ripe candidate for MTV's "Bully Beatdown"] as a poster boy for machismo grandioso, and his pretty wife's insecurities that she is only valued for her looks. But when you stir these four together, they do not credibly make ratatouille - more like three pepperoni slices and a still-growing truffle. If feeling superior to a lower economic class of workers and a few identity-conscious millenials will give you a warm glow as you laugh at their malapropisms and cliches, you will soak in every minute at the Lyceum. If not, don't. Caveat : if you would like to witness two of the season's most riveting performances that override the inconsistencies of how their characters are written, visit the Lyceum to see Sadoski and Ireland. They each mete out gloriously nuanced moments in their work, signaling great days ahead for both of them.

The original 'pretty' girl, Maria in "West Side Story," has reclaimed a part of the New York turf now that the Arthur Laurents [book], Stephen Sondheim [lyrics] and Leonard Bernstein [music] classic has returned. And, like "Hair," it's a welcome return. Years ago, Laurents told me he had been planning an updated version that had the Puerto Rican Sharks and their women speak and sing in Spanish in many sections of the show, an idea that originated with his longtime companion, Tom Hatcher. Now that Laurents has satisfied himself that he has directed the definitive production of "Gypsy" two seasons back with Patti LuPone, he has tackled the other crown jewel in his legacy, injecting new life into this musical that lost out to 'The Music Man" in the 1959 Tony Award race. And once again, this 91-year-old bantam rooster of ceaseless energy has left his mark. There are many stand-outs in this life force of a musical, but most significant in shedding new light on a role that has taken on larger meaning in the last half century is Karen Olivo, as Anita, her hair whip-lashing around as she dances in the gym, her motherly caring of Maria more deeply understood as they share their fears and dreams in their native language.

Oh-so-polite language perfumes the air as two civilized couples in civilized Cobble Hill, Brooklyn meet to sort out the apologies when one couple's son smashes the other with a stick, in Yasmina Reza's viciously funny "God of Carnage." The victim's mother, an art devotee and soon-to-be-published photographer of the Darfur genocides, believes in striving for a "moral conception of the world" to prevail. Her maternal counterpart, a 'wealth management consultant,' seems to concur. But the outcome is inevitable, even as the distaff duo devolve from cellphone-addicted lawyer and bathroom fixtures retailer to dueling savages, kept apart only periodically by their now-unmasked wives, stripped of their humanity and wearing their mutual contempt like battle fatigues.

Marcia Gay Harden and James Gandolfini [photog, fixtures] and Jeff Daniels and Hope Davis [lawyer, consultant] elevate this already-brilliant script to higher levels of giddy riotousness, abetted ably by Matthew Warchus' choreographic direction. Like his work in "Boeing Boeing," Warchus demonstrates how crucial it is for comedies that blend language humor with body laughs to stitch together these elements like a needlepoint of sounds, actions and colors. You will laugh at lines you shouldn't; you will wish this unwholesome foursome took longer than ninety minutes to wear each other out.


If you want to remind yourself what the best in comedy was like during the last financial meltdown, look no further than "You Can't Take It With You," by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman, which toasted the hypocrisies of the thirties in much the same way that Reza punctures the givens of today. And if you think you know this play because you have seen Jimmy Stewart, Jean Arthur, Lionel Barrymore, Ann Miller and others in the film, you do not. That Frank Capra production was filmed using a substantially rewritten script by Robert Riskin, a screen scribe unhappily bereft of the wit and whimsy that the original celebrates. In fact, to discover the origins of this masterwork, seek out Hart's autobiography, "Act One." His wife, Kitty Carlisle Hart, once told me that she had to prod him mercilessly into writing it, but we can all thank her posthumously for her efforts. Anyone who loves great theatre will love that book.

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.


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