Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Intermission Talk, November 17, 2009

Intermission Talk

November 18, 2009

by Tony Vellela


"The Royal Family"

and "Superior Donuts"

It takes a world class juggler to keep a hatchet, a bottle of molasses, a raw egg and a brick in the air at the same time. If the juggler is not world class, he would wind up slipping on the spilled molasses, severing a few toes, with a bump on the head and egg on his face.

"Ragtime" needs a world class director to keep all its parts in the air. Unfortunately, director/choreographer Marcia Milgrom Dodge falls into the second category, hobbled toes and all.

This epic story, condensed from the award-winning E.L.Doctorow novel, comfortably filled out the Ford Center [now the American Airlines] Theatre when it glided onto that mile-wide stage ten years ago. It's an epic, for goodness sake. And while it is possible, even fashionable to downsize originally big musicals, you choose a 'somewhere in between' scale at your own peril. The Neil Simon is not a small house, but one can almost hear this production crying out for more room.

Derek McLane has designed some of the most memorable sets in recent years, from "The Pajama Game" and "The Women" to "33 Variations" and "Abigail's Party." His three-level wrought iron scaffolding piece that runs along all three walls of the stage, while visually appealing, manages to quickly turn into a giant cage. And the dark clouds projection that runs from floor to ceiling further grims up the proceedings.

To be sure, there are plenty of grim elements in this tale of three eventually intersecting family groups during the dawn of the twentieth century in and around New York. The Lower East Side's Latvian Jew and his little girl, and the inhabitants of some unspecific Harlem denizens, are knee-deep in a land of grim. But the upper upper class folk in New Rochelle, in their hilltop mansion and manicured gardens, deserve brighter environs. Design work itself does not dictate the tone of a piece. And this musical saga [book by Terrence McNally, music by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens] would be able to overcome these miscalculations with the strong, creative hand of a director/choreographer who could juggle these three sharp-edged story lines.

There is a richness to seeing and hearing a cast of forty bring any musical to life, and that part of this revival is reminiscent of the original production, which featured all manner of big stuff, including a working Model T, all courtesy of Broadway's brief reign of impresario Garth Drabinsky. That production benefited not only from having two people in those two jobs, but they were Graciele Daniele doing the choreography and Frank Galati helming the action. It's easier to keep a bunch of stuff in the air with four hands.

In the showcase role of Sarah, the Negro washerwoman who leaves her out-of-wedlock child in the garden of the New Rochelle family, Stephanie Umoh has vocal and visual appeal. The baby's father, a ragtime piano player who introduces the rich white family to these wicked new sounds, is portrayed by Quentin Earl Darrington. He delivers the songs in fine style, but veers too close to conventional musical theatre performance moves to convince us that he 'lives' in the worlds-apart worlds of highly-regarded musician in his neighborhood, and outsider black man everywhere else. He does not seem uneasy seeking out Sarah in New Rochelle, at least until locals run him off and vandalize his auto.

The third plot, involving the Jewish immigrant with stars in his eyes that get blackened with by the economic realities of tenement life, gets the least attention in terms of detail, until Emma Goldman shows up to tie his woes to the oppression of all workers.

How well you grasp how these disparate family groupings navigate the big and little influences, injustices, love moments and cultural highlights of their times, an already killer task for the librettist, will depend on how recently you read or re-read the novel. Some of the most critical plot points [Sarah's brutal death, for instance] suffer from murky direction. The show's opening number, running nearly ten minutes, carries you along by dint of its size and sound. Epic stories can be told with grandeur and clarity, inducing a few shivers along the way [see "Show Boat" from Hal Prince and choreographer Susan Stroman]. This one's less than grand, not clear, and desperately in need of air. [P.S. Doesn't any prop house have a supply of year-appropriate American flags? The Presidential visit scene needs flags with 46 stars. Why spend a jillion dollars on costumes and overlook something so easy to get right?]

Another revival, this one from a 1930's comedy missing long enough to deserve a fresh look, has thrown its satin-clad shoulders back and put its boards-trodding feet up on the stage of the Friedman Theatre. "The Royal Family," a product of George F. Kaufman's collaboration with Edna Ferber, celebrated and satirized the Barrymore dynasty of stage and screen at a time when zaniness and whimsy were welcome, and knew their place. The Cavendish clan, headed by the ever-radiant Rosemary Harris, scampers in and out of, and up and down the staircase of their lavish Upper East Side townhouse, hooking servants in their wake to whip up a souffle, pay off a taxi, tote a slew of packages and deliver lies to whomever is on the other end of the phone(s). Like the breezy "Dinner at Eight" and "Stage Door" that Kaufman and Ferber also penned together, "The Royal Family" mines the comic life out of the interactions of people who don't know their place, don't respect what came before or are just too darned entitled to give a hoot and a half.

Laughs abound, in large part because one knows this is a pop-up book of two-dimensional characters we need not invest much credence in. When one does, and closer attention is paid, the weakness in some of the performances [which means talking past others or unspooling speeches like prerecorded messages], deflates the balloon. Squint. Exhale. Cock your head to one side. Then, let yourself be entertained. At one point, Harris' Fannie chides her offspring and grand offspring about the good ole days, and the reverence she has for how glorious and magnificent they were. Today, any play co-written by George Kaufman looks very much to us like the real good ole days.

At last - a new play! "Superior Donuts," from Tracy Letts, takes an all-too-familiar formula [underclass youth rescues older middle class male from moral and/or spiritual dissolution] and plunks it down in a nondescript coffee and donut shop in Chicago's Uptown neighborhood [underclass territory]. When its proprietor Arthur gives into the entreaties of African-American college student Franco, in a show billed as a comedy, the end is clearly in sight from the beginning. Perils imperil Franco's ambition to be a writer, Arthur's plan to sell the place to the aggressively enterprising Russian DVD store owner who covets the space to expand, and the female beat cop's barely veiled interest in creating a social connection to Arthur when she answers the call that his shop has been vandalized.

Photo: Robert J. Saperstein

Sitcom-land handles these soft confrontational dynamics better, in part because they have more than 110 minutes total to introduce, develop, thrust together, push apart and reconcile their characters. And Letts, a Pulitzer winner for "August: Osage County," falls back on an embarrassing array of cliched events [an estranged daughter for Arthur, the destruction of Franco's ONLY copy of his manuscript masterpiece]. Michael McKean invests Arthur with a gentle weariness, sparked at times with a justified bristle when backed into a greasy corner. Jon Michael Hall dispenses charm as easily as Sarah Palin spouts bromides. And the Chicago setting merely stands in for other inter-generational, bi-cultural stories, such as "Chico and the Man" or "Diff'rent Strokes." Letts, however, hangs out at Steppenwolf, so Chicago it is.

On Book

If the Windy City beckons you to spend more time with it, why not spend time with, well, "Chicago." Actually, the two versions, straight play, by Maurine Watkins, and the John Kander and Fred Ebb musical. Watkins started out as a yellow journal reporter, known then as a Sob Sister, covering the very type of trials that form the basis for these works. Watkins did not, however, remain objective, instead hyping up the cases and getting herself in cahoots with law officers, prosecutors and the un-gentler sex murderesses to pump up the readership and make a name for herself in the bargain. Reading the Kander & Ebb playscript will permit the savoring of plenty of juicy lyrics that deserve to be read quietly at least once, and then revisited on the stage.

Another courtroom comedy that hails from Big Shoulders town is the Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur classic, "The Front Page." This is another case of great writing that should be read, and then revisited in any of its eventual screen presentations, including the eternally-golden "His Girl Friday." And if you would like to recall the societal foundation of Uptown in the Letts play, read Lorraine Hansberry's "A Raisin in the Sun." It's not the recent T-V Sean Combs version or even the Poitier/Dee original film. The most recent stage revival got it very right. The playscript gets it totally right.

And to learn more about that master of the shared writing credit, George F. Kaufman, check out "Kaufman & Co." This collection of plays that he created with Ferber, Moss Hart, Ring Lardner or Morrie Ryskind, will make you laugh yourself silly. And what's wrong with that?

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- TONY VELLELA wrote and produced the PBS documentary series "Character Studies" about theatre, served as Broadway critic or theatre reporter for The Christian Science Monitor, Dramatics Magazine, Theatre Week and dozens of other publications, wrote the award-winning play "Admissions' [Playscripts], and teaches theatre classes at HB Studio.


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