By Andy Propst on May 29, 2009 | In ATW Reviews
Two men play 21 characters to bring to life Texas’ third smallest town in Greater Tuna, produced locally as part of The Bushnell’s 2009 Broadway season. The transitions to various characters by actors Neal Mayer and Bran Mathis, directed by Robert Tolaro, are well done, but what the men, women, children and animals of Tuna, have to say seems dated, not all that funny and suggests the shelf life for this comedy might have expired.
The show began more than 30 years ago in Texas as a party skit based on a cartoon and went on to phenomenal success with a national tour, a short Broadway run in 1994 and productions in high schools coast to coast and spawned several sequels: A Tuna Christmas, Red White and Tuna and Tuna Does Vegas.. The social satire, which pokes fun at life in a rural community, might have been ground-breaking 30 years ago, but in 2009 it smells like a fish left out in the sun too long.
All of the action takes place on a very simple set (design by Kevin Rupnik) with a backdrop featuring some local business signs and it's behind this that the two actors can slip to make their costume changes. Two tables and chairs on either side of the stage represent all of the locations.
As the play progresses, two radio commentators relate all the latest Tuna news and gossip. During the sports report we’re told that factors contributing to the local football team’s loss include their inability to score a point while the other team made seven touchdowns. Now if you’re splitting your sides over that joke, you’ll love the rest of the news, sponsored by “Didi’s Used Ammunition.” A weather report about a swarm of locusts and an appeal from the Humane Society pleading the plight of homeless ducks eclipse the big news story of the day, the death of a prominent judge found wearing a Dale Evans swimsuit. Oh, but the broadcasters forgot to flip the “on air” switch, so no one heard any of that and they start again.
A bunch of other locals join the action, among them Vera Carp, heading a campaign to limit the number of Spanish phrases taught in the schools to a few that “red-blooded Americans” might need to know. There's also Vera's pastor, the Reverend Spikes, who puts her to sleep with a cliché-laden eulogy for the departed judge. Their Baptist church, where everyone is welcome, “even Catholics,” leads a crusade to ban undesirable books like “Roots” (it only tells one side of the slave issue) “Huckleberry Finn” (it has a pre-teen boy acting badly), and “Romeo and Juliet” because it features teenage sex.
Head of the book banning committee is Charlene Bumiller, who has some issues of her own. Her daughter is moping around after not making the cheerleading squad for the seventh year in a row, her husband might be having an affair and in a really bizarre plot twist, her nephew might actually be a murderer. And if that’s not enough angst, Charlene poisoned her husband’s prized hunting dog, so she and the nephew run it over with a truck to make it look like an accident.
There may be a few sparks of humor in "Tuna,," but they come from another era, and even if they bring a chuckle the first time, the piece's repetition of them (how many times can you laugh at a guy dressed in the ridiculous dresses from costume designer Linda Fisher or poke fun at Baptists?) quickly makes us think Greater Tuna has outlived its expiration date.
---- Lauren Yarger
Greater Tuna plays at The Bushnell (166 Capitol Avenue, Hartford, CT) through May 31. Performance times are 7:30 Thursday; 8pm Friday; 2 and 8 pm Saturday and 2pm and 7:30 pm. Tickets are $20-$65 and can be purchased by calling 860-087-5900 or by visiting www.bushnell.org.
By Andy Propst on May 29, 2009 | In ATW Reviews
Director Gordon Edelstein’s new take on Tennessee Willliam’s The Glass Menagerie at Long Wharf Theatre is different, that is certain, but sometimes, the adage “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it” is good advice for classic theater.
Edelstein changes the setting from the Wingfield’s troubled St. Louis apartment parlor to a New Orleans hotel room where Tom (Patch Darragh), attempting to turn memories of his family into a play, remembers his overbearing mother Amanda (Judith Ivey), his painfully shy sister Laura (Keira Keeley), whose limp socially handicaps her further, and the gentleman caller, Jim (Josh Charles), a friend from work he brings home to meet Laura at Amanda’s insistence.
Amanda and Laura “materialize” in Tom’s memory behind a scrim in an effect expertly crafted by scenic designer Michael Yeargan and lighting designer Jennifer Tipton. As memory takes over and the action of the play switches to events in the past, the setting does not, however, and we’re held hostage in a hotel room while being asked to believe what we’re really seeing is the Wingfield’s tenement.
Setting the play in the hotel room diminishes the work's impact as we’re constantly distracted by the set. A slight pause can be heard as Amanda asks Jim to have a seat on the sofa – actually a bed – as though she has to remember to insert the correct noun since Ivey’s literally looking at the bed. Later Jim and man-shy Laura sitting side-by-side on the bed seems ludicrous. Jim and Tom step out onto the “terrace” to talk and smoke, but really, they stand on the edge of the hotel carpet, not even “outside” in that setting. For the quartet's dinner, serving trays suddenly appear from under the bed and items are fetched from the suitcase on a hotel luggage rack at the foot of the bed.
An extended period of darkness when it's very difficult to see anything in the second act and a ridiculous disco ball effect while Laura and Jim dance may be as much attempts to keep us from noticing the set as they are Tipton’s efforts to recreate candlelight and a romantic atmosphere.
Even the play's all important prop - the glass menagerie itself – seems slighted in this production. Instead of being displayed prominently and reverently, the crystal animals that make up Laura’s world of escape are scattered haphazardly on a rag-like cloth on a desk. If the play weren’t called The Glass Menagerie, we might not even notice the collection of glass, let alone recognize the prism of emotions it represents when Jim accidently breaks one of the figures.
Despite the staging, Ivey emerges as one of the more multi-faceted Amanda’s to date. A concern for the welfare of her children drives her behavior. She doesn’t want them to follow in her footsteps: abandoned by a husband (his portrait constantly gazes at the family from its place on the wall) and unable to provide for herself. Her escape comes from reliving the triumphs of her past as a belle who entertained many gentleman callers before she married the wrong one. This understanding makes her appearance in one of her old girlish gowns (costumes by Martin Pakledinaz) when Jim calls even more poignant. This Amanda also combines a sense of humor with the annoying, obsessively controlling nature that frightens Laura and alienates Tom.
Keeley’s Laura is uneven, sometimes limping and shaking to overdramatic effect and at other times, appearing almost as strong as Amanda. Charles’ portrayal of Jim is strong and the scene in which he shares memories with Laura, whom he had met in high school, and tries to boost her self esteem, is the play’s finest.
Darragh and Ivey interact well in the humorous exchanges between mother and son, but we never get a full sense of Tom’s feelings of suffocation or the burning need to be free of Amanda, especially when that desire is so strong it eventually prompts him to abandon his responsibilities and leave the two women to fend for themselves.
It’s a play about broken dreams, but in this rendition, it’s also about a play getting lost in broken sets caused by trying to fix something that wasn’t broken.
---- Lauren Yarger
The Glass Menagerie plays at Long Wharf Theatre Mainstage (222 Sargent Drive, New Haven, CT) through June 7. Performances are Tuesdays at 7 p.m., Wednesdays at 2 and 7 pm, Thursdays and Fridays at 8 pm, Saturdays at 3 pm and 8 pm, and Sundays at 2 pm and 7 pm. Tickets are $32-$62 and are available by calling 203-787-4282 or online at www.longwharf.org.
By Andy Propst on May 28, 2009 | In ATW News
If the weekend of June 6 and 7 isn't filled with enough theater excitement for people around the country because of the Tony Awards, Ovation TV has a solution – a hot of of programs celebrating and showcasing the Broadway musical.
At the center of the cable channel's week-long celebration of the energy and creativity of this uniquely American artform, will be a the premiere of a documentary about Hal Prince, the theatrical producer and director who has been responsible for some of the most beloved Broadway shows in history. The documentary, Mr Prince, is an Ovation original special and is the director/producer's first-ever television profile.
In addition to this, which will have its premiere on Ovation on Saturday, June 6, the channel will also air over the course of the week, such films as Bob Fosse's Cabaret, Martin Scorsese's New York, New York, the 2002 television production of The Music Man and the documentary Annie: Life After Tomorrow.
By Andy Propst on May 28, 2009 | In ATW News
If Tennessee Williams' Vieux Carré, which opened in solid, but unexciting, revival last night at the Pearl Theatre, were a movie, it might be marketed at "Glass Menagerie 2: The Writer Moves On." Or, to retain the cinema metaphor for a moment, it might also be considered a sort of coming attractions piece because, although the play only debuted in the late 1970s, Williams began working on it in the 1930s, and in "Vieux," theatergoers will encounter situations and characters that have become part of our cultural currency from works far more famous than this.
"Vieux," as one might guess is set in New Orleans, in a seedy boarding house run by the elderly and increasingly delusional Mrs. Wire (a formidable Carol Schultz). It's to this house on Toulouse Street (its multiple floors and rooms rendered abstractly on one level by scenic designer Harry Feiner) that a sensitive writer, known only as "The Writer" (played winningly by Sean McNall), has retreated from St. Louis (where "Menagerie" is set) in hopes of finding inspiration. And he's certainly chosen right. The place is filled with colorful, pitiable creatures, each with a story.
Take Nightingale (imbued with predatory sweetness and helplessness by George Morfogen) the elderly painter who lives just beyond the plywood partition of the writer's cubicle. He's a gay man battling tuberculosis, who's managed to convince himself that his job drawing quick sketches of tourists is only temporary and that bedbugs are the reason that he finds blood on his sheets every morning.
Other elderly residents include Mary Maude (a luminous Beth Dixon) and Miss Carrie (a heartbreakingPamela Payton-Wright) who spend their days in their darkened room and their nights rooting through garbage cans for food, bringing back what they do discover in "doggie bags" from the restaurant they've just visited. Their pride only goes so far. When they smell Wire cooking up a gumbo, they rush to the kitchen with a saucepan, hoping for a handout. They accept the stew even after Wire's spit into the concoction.
Although it may sound as if the Writer is surrounded by the eldery, he's not. Also living in the house is Jane (Rachel Botchan), a Yankee who's come to New Orleans to find herself, and along the way taken up with Tye (Joseph Collins), an abusive and alcoholic strip show barker, who now shares her room. Well-heeled by birth, Jane's finding it increasingly difficult to retain her proper ways, reveling instead in the sensuality that surrounds her.
If Jane and Tye's relationship often brings to mind the love-hate duality shared by Blanche and Stanley in "Streetcar," Nightingale seems to be a precursor to a character found in Williams' lesser-known Kingdom of Earth. Even some of the stories that the characters relate seem to be prescient echoes of later Williams plays. In one of Tye's stories, for instance, one hears of a grisly death that brings to mind the description of Sebastian's demise in Suddenly Last Summer.
Vieux Carré is heady and amorphous, a sprawling memory play and sketchbook of sorts. The play demands topnotch acting and director Austin Pendleton has elicited a host of performances that are, for the most part, impeccably rendered. Concurrently, the piece requires a staging that shapes its episodic structure into a cohesive whole, and here, Pendleton's work, though solid, falls short; individual moments and scenes work beautifully, but this "Vieux" never feels as if it's anything more than a series of Williams' vaguely interrelated lyrical memories of his first visit to New Orleans. Williams fans will surely savor the chance to see this rarely staged work in performance, but it remains a sadly unsatisfying late work from this master of American drama.
---- Andy Propst
Vieux Carré plays at the Theatre 80 (1st Avenue & St. Mark's Place). Performances are Tuesday at 7pm; Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8pm; and Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday at 2pm. Tickets are $45-$55 and can be purchased by calling 212-598-9802. Further information is available online at www.pearltheatre.org.
By Andy Propst on May 26, 2009 | In ATW Reviews
Today a look at five discs from Stage Door Records.
Probably the most obscure in the recent releases from Stage Door is Hermione Gingold Live at the Café de Paris with Bonus Tracks, a dazzling array of comic specialty material that the singer offers up with her inimitable dryness and pitch-perfect timing. To give you an idea of how unknown this material is many of the songs are listed with a credit of "composer unknown." This is unfortunate because it's some of the funniest material – to the point of burst out laughing – I've heard on disc in a long while. Giving away the jokes seems a little unfair, so let me just point, generally, to a few favorite tracks to share a sense of what's on here. I'm particularly fond of a song that listeners may have heard before "Which Witch?" – in which the singer describes her negotiations with John Gielgud about appearing in the Scottish play. "Witch," was introduced in Sky High, and then used in John Murray Anderson's Almanac and Sticks and Stories. Another grand number is "You've Got to Have a Photograph" – a number that Dame Edna herself might want to incorporate into her first farewell tour.
The bonus tracks on "Café" come from a 1955 disc, La Gingold, and here, you might want to direct your attention to "Cocaine" – which is one of the numbers from a tuner the singer's "written" for a "dope musical" and "Robert the Robot" – a ditty about love in the just-dawning computer age.
This is a disc you'll really want to add to the shelf.
Equally continental – for a variety of reasons that will soon be clear – is the label's Lerner & Loewe's Gigi - a 23-track compilation disc that includes not only the tracks from a British studio recording of this musical, but also French tracks which feature Maurice Chevalier and three Spanish ones.
The English-language tracks feature Gogi Grant and Tony Martin performing with Dennis Farnon's Orchestra. Martin is a particularly suave performer vocally, and it's difficult to not be swayed by his smooth, and slightly playful, "Thank Heaven for Little Girls." I happen to be fond of Grant's simultaneously acidic and blasé take on "The Parisians" (a song that didn't make it from film into the 1973 Broadway version of the show); it's a grand comic romp.
After the 11 tracks of this studio recording come eight from the French Gigi - where the film's star Maurice Chevalier is joined by Sacha Distel and Marie-France. It's hard to beat the Chevalier vocals in which he's palpably debonair – and the blissfully airy orchestrations – in "Little Girls," but this is indeed topped by his work with Distel in "Je m'en souviens tres bien" ("I Remember It Well") – which is a drips with a comic bittersweet romance.
Finally, the disc is rounded out with a trio of Spanish-language tracks from Mexico. Here, there's a charming buoyancy to the songs that I've highlighted from the other sections of the disc in addition to "La noche en que nacia el champagne" ("The Night They Invented Champagne"). Like a similar recording from Bayview a few years back – An International Annie Get Your Gun - this disc is a terrific snapshot of a musical's durability and pleasures across borders and languages.
Stage Door, which is UK-based and has Footlight Records its sole U.S. distributor, isn't limited to recordings from "across the pond. In addition to these two recent releases, the company has also brought a handsome release of the original Broadway cast recording of Harold Rome's Wish You Were Here - the second such release this spring (the other's come from DRG Records).
For my money, the Stage Door release stands out because it contains not only the complete OCR, but also four carefully chosen bonus tracks. There are two of Rome himself performing songs from the show and one of Eddie Fisher delivering the show's title song in a pop version that puts a wonderfully smooth "cocktail music" sheen on the already beguiling melody.
Of course there are plenty of delights in the score for this show about life at a camp for adult just to the north of Manhattan. There's Sidney Armus' virtuoso delivery of the comic patter song lament: "Ballad of a Social Director," and Jack Cassidy's superlatively plaintive take on the lush romantic ballad "Where Did the Night Go?" and his delicate take on the wistful "They Won't Know Me."
It's a really swell release and not the only one from Stage Door where you'll find Cassidy performing. He's also on one half of a double release of On Your Toes / Pal Joey. It's hard to beat a jauntily playful "It's Gotta Be Love" and a lushly smooth take on "There's a Small Hotel" that he delivers with Portia Nelson (a Cassidy co-star a year following this recording in a revival of The Boys From Syracuse). Nelson's lovely soprano shines elsewhere on the disc particularly with the show's jazzy and tautly syncopated title song. One other highlight of "Toes" is Laurel Shelby and Ray Hyson's "Too Good for the Average Man," which I must think is one of the most intelligent renderings of Hart's hilariously erudite lyric about the things that can ironically elude an average Joe – things like being stuck with a check in a smoky supper club for instance.
Cassidy's not to be found on the nine Pal Joey tracks, but that's okay, this studio recording features some grandly jazzy arrangements from conductor Lew Raymond. Take for instance, Martha Tilton's "The Lady is a Tramp" (which shares some lyrical similarities to "Average Man"): this interpolated song almost sounds as if she could be performing this pleasingly teasing rendition at a small downtown club. The same can be said for "You Mustn't Kick It Around" where Bob McKendrick's silky vocals caress Rodgers' jagged melody. The two numbers that everyone probably wants to know about are "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" (here just "Bewitched") and "Zip." Both are delivered by Marilyn Maxwell – and while the latter will never top the Elaine Stritch rendition of the song from earlier in the 1950s, the former is a luxuriously graceful and interpretation of a classic.
Finally, Rodgers (with Hammerstein) and Cassidy show up on the fifth release from Stage Door - Shirley Jones: Then & Now - which begins with 14 tracks of the singer in her heyday and are followed by 10 from her today. There's some overlap – like "People Will Say We're in Love" (heard in duet with her film costar Gordon McRae) and "Out of My Dreams" and some disconnect (April Love and Brigadoon tunes don't make it to the "Now" portion of the disc, but "Beauty and the Beast" and "Memory" do).
There are joys to be found on both halves of the disc, and it's no surprise that Jones' clarion soprano can thrill during the disc's early tracks. What may take listeners may not be prepared for, though, is the richness of her voice on the latter ones. I happen to be quiet fond of the "Almost Like Being in Love" duet Jones shares with Cassidy during "Then" and from "Now," well, it's a toss up between a superb medley of songs from The Music Man and a medley of movie tunes ("As Time Goes By" and "Bill").
This one is really a keep all the way around – and if I had to pick which ones to buy in tight economic times, I'd say this one along with the first two.
----- Andy Propst