Sep 11, 2014

From the Review Vaults: The Color Purple, 2005

I felt pretty lonely back in 2005, when as the critic for Broadway.com I raved about the musical version of The Color Purple. My colleagues were largely unimpressed, as you can see here. So I felt a tad vindicated when Ben Brantley all but recanted his earlier review after seeing John Doyle's stripped-down staging last year in London; all of a sudden the show's virtues shone through. I recently stumbled upon a copy of my review (some industrious chatboard poster had preserved it, as Broadway.com not only made sure I was the last theater critic in their employ, they also deleted all previous reviews), and I stand by every word. Here it is in full, from Dec. 1, 2005:
Jukebox musicals and chamber pieces are fine and well. Ditto theme-park spectacles and ironic lampoons. But the new musical The Color Purple reminds us what Broadway's for, and all that Broadway can be: big-hearted, broad-stroked storytelling, with the epic emotional sweep only music can conjure. On its own terms, this deft, moving adaptation of Alice Walker's seminal feminist novel works like gangbusters; that's cause for rejoicing enough. We should also save some hallelujahs for what it represents: another alive-and-kicking incarnation of that seemingly endangered species, the straightfacedly serious book musical. A breed born with Show Boat, nurtured to adulthood by Rodgers & Hammerstein, and most recently invoked by Ragtime and Caroline, or Change, it has miraculously survived generations of deconstruction, mockery and, worst of all, indifference.

Maybe it takes outsiders and first-timers to ignore the steep odds against such a leap of faith. Though the book is by seasoned librettist Marsha Norman, the inventive, infectious score and lyrics were fashioned by an unlikely triumvirate of pop tunesmiths, Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray. And director Gary Griffin, though no musical-theater neophyte, is making his Broadway debut here. They've made some choices we can quibble with, and, given the show's incendiary subject matter, even squabble over. But you'd have to have ice water in your veins not to be stirred by this unabashed paean to human resilience, and impressed by a production as masterfully executed as it is soulfully intended.

Make no mistake: It's a "serious" musical but not a dour one. Indeed, by compressing the book's early chapters, Norman has emphasized the positive life lessons learned by Celie (Kenita R. Miller on the night reviewed), a poor, reticent girl in the sharecropper South, rather than dwelling on her numerous defeats and humiliations. The horrifying plot points get hit: her predatory father (JC Montgomery) impregnates her, twice, and promptly spirits her babies away; her proud, cruel husband Mister (Kingsley Leggs) violently separates her from beloved sister Nettie (Renée Elise Goldberry), and generally treats her like a pack mule, only with less affection. But the everyday sense of Celie's bleak, slavish lot in life, which makes her openly long for a merciful death, is taken for granted rather than hammered home. This Celie smiles--with bursting hope, with shy flirtation, with the joy of being alive--more than she cries or rages at the God she thinks has abandoned her.

Still, that smile is irresistible and heart-rending. (Miller tore up the role on the night I saw it; I can only imagine that the transcendent LaChanze, out sick for a pre-opening preview, will do the same, and more.) Celie's slow bloom from doormat to self-sufficient woman is authentically inspiring: When this stiff, retiring figure eventually throws herself into a dance step or two, even waggles her tush triumphantly in our direction, we feel her interior awakening with visceral force. Donald Byrd's choreography has a number of offhandedly jiggy high points, even if it often feels crammed onto John Lee Beatty's imposing, woodsy, storybook set, which includes a busy turntable and sparingly used dock-like runway over the orchestra pit. The arrival of the dissipated sexpot singer Shug Avery (Elisabeth Withers-Mendes) inspires one such orgy of seemingly spontaneous movement, which is effectively topped by the jitterbugging around her steamy blues number, "Push Da Button."

If the show occasionally threatens to acquire a get-happy gloss, the cast brings it back to earth with admirable grit and conviction. Withers-Mendes lends a marvelously icy sheen to the self-centered Shug, which makes her warmth all the more touching. While the role of Mister feels slightly defanged from the book, Leggs effectively clouds the character's villainy with a haunting despair. Special credit should go to comic trio of busybodies, Kimberly Ann Harris, Virginia Ann Woodruff, and Maia Nkenge Wilson, who could walk away with the show given the chance. Stealing every moment they get are the bickering couple Sofia (Felicia P. Fields) and Harpo (Brandon Victor Dixon), who nail a playfully randy duet, "Any Little Thing," late in the show.

It's so late in the show, in fact, that we can only marvel at the supreme storytelling confidence of this adaptation. After hurtling forward decades, encompassing huge character turns, and taking a somewhat risible side trip to a fancifully decorative Africa, The Color Purple settles into a sweet, autumnal rhythm as it builds to its unabashedly life-affirming climax. And, miracle of miracles, we don't feel any of this as second-act slack; we hang on every word.

If that's not musical theater magic, I don't know what is. Can I get an amen?

Aug 29, 2014

Too Much Freedom to Fail

There's been a fair amount of rumbling from L.A. theater folks I know and/or follow via the indispensable site Bitter Lemons about a coming "war" over the long-contested Equity 99-Seat Plan. I'm not sure if the martial metaphor is really helpful, but suffice to say: What I've heard and read so far makes me very interested to see where the discussion goes.

And it made me think, unavoidably, of things I've written about this seemingly undisentangle-able Gordian knot before; this two-part history of the Equity "Waiver" agreement, for one, but also a speech I was invited to give at the L.A. Stage Alliance's SRO conference in the spring of 2003. I remember it as being a speech that essentially told L.A. theatermakers, to their faces, to STOP MAKING SO MUCH THEATER; and I remember it getting some confused pushback from artists and colleagues I really admired. But I had my reasons, and I laid them out in the speech. I just found the complete text online today at my old employer, and I still stand by every word.

Indeed, I've decided to post the whole thing today to lay my cards on the table and declare my rooting interests in the brawl that may or may not be about to break out. No, I don't just write glowing encomiums to how great L.A. theater has been. I also say things like this:
I saw "avoiding burnout" on the roster of topics for this second annual SRO event, and it got me thinking. I assume that panel will address ways to combat feelings of helplessness and insignificance, and the danger of sheer work overload, among theatre artists. But what about the feelings of confusion, disappointment, and disillusion among longtime observers and boosters of Los Angeles theatre, like myself? How can we who try to keep track of and make sense of this sprawling scene avoid feeling overwhelmed by, well, to put it positively, its awesome diversity and creative fertility and stunning resilience and…

Sorry, I can't go on in that vein. Too often, truth be told, L.A. theatre's awesome diversity feels like utter incoherence; its creative fertility can feel like rampant self-indulgence; its stunning resilience sometimes looks more like the sheer Sisyphean persistence of folks who feel they've got to keep putting on show after show after show or their doors will close because the dues money or the rent will stop coming in. To put it brutally, week in week out, I've begun to feel in my gut that there are just too many goddamn plays in Los Angeles. And that rather than creating a vibrant marketplace of theatrical artistry, or offering that many more exciting consumer options for the region's eager theatregoers, the sheer glut of productions on Los Angeles area stages creates a kind of white noise, a traffic jam through which established theatre companies of quality must navigate to compete for audiences, reviews, editorial attention, grants, and awards.

I never thought I'd say this, but I feel like something must be done to thin the ranks. Darwinian economics alone can't do it; the popular 99-Seat Plan is still such a cheap way to produce shows that not only is it nearly impossible for producers or artists to make any money at it; it's hard for them to lose enough to learn. The cost of failure is often too small to be instructive at all. The freedom to fail is intrinsic to the artistic process, but for failure to have its proper value, artists must feel some of its sting—they must have some sense that they've failed, whether it's from an instructor in the safety of a classroom, or a director, or a critic—or they will have no incentive to improve. The late great actor David Dukes once told me that the interesting difference between working in L.A. theatre and New York theatre, especially on Broadway, was that the economics of the situation focused one's attention; you had to do everything you could to make the play as good as it could be or it would close and you'd be out of a job. That's not the case with any L.A. shows I can think of, apart from the occasional sitdown of a Broadway show, like that one, what's-it-called, at the Pantages right now. For too many L.A. theatres, the 99-Seat Plan's cheap labor and its built-in freedom to fail provide an incentive to keep failing, and when they do succeed, its economics prevent them from building on that success.

As the editor of an actors trade paper, I understand all too well why there's too much theatre here, and why actors can't get paid for it. There are simply too many actors in L.A. who want and need to get up on a stage to act, both as an exercise and as a showcase. It's the same kind of talent glut that fills the town's hundreds of acting classes, and which has created the phenomenon of cold reading workshops, in which actors essentially pay to audition for casting directors. These are all essentially byproducts of an economic bind: The supply of acting talent and the demand for it are so out of kilter that it's a miracle there are still any union jobs on offer in L.A. at all.

If you look at the theatres that do offer union gigs, I think you'll see a common thread: They have a reason to exist other than their actors' need to get on a stage. They have boards to answer to; grants to fulfill; they often have a civic mandate, or at least a good relationship with the city they're in; they have a constituency other than their own company and its self-selecting clique, or they've expanded their clique. They have a mission which matches a demonstrated audience demand.

And I understand that in essence I'm preaching to the choir: You are all gathered here to learn from each other's success, to learn the best practices to build viable theatre companies that sustain themselves and pay their way. That's why Back Stage West is proud to be a sponsor of this event—in fact, it's the only outside event to which our paper actually contributes cash rather than simply advertising space, because it seems to represent a real movement toward making this theatre community more cohesive, and to support its future as an industry rather than as a hobby. And because I think Back Stage West's role is to lift up those theatres which are committed to making great theatre in and for L.A. over the long haul—to lift them up not only because they deserve it but so that they can be recognized above the fray.

I for one look forward to a day when theatre artists will come to L.A. to work in the theatre and will be able to afford to stay here to work in the theatre. I look forward to the day when it will be just a little easier for those of us who love the good theatre we've seen here as much or more than we deplore the mediocre and the terrible theatre we've seen here, to reel off a list of the top professional L.A. theatre companies that could stand with the best theatres in the country, from the Guthrie to Oregon Shakespeare Festival, from the Wooster Group to Lookingglass to Actors Theatre of Louisville. I believe that there are some in our present company who could proudly stand in those ranks, or who are well on their way in that direction. Are there enough of these shining examples to call L.A. a truly great theatre town? I think the jury is still out—literally, the jury is out, combing the wide boulevards of L.A., trying to find that little hole-in-the-wall theatre their friends told them did really interesting plays. I hope they can find it."

Aug 12, 2014

Play On

I've mentioned it a few times in this space, but it's official now: Today is the release of a CD I helped make with my old film-school and campus newspaper colleague Susan Lambert: O Baby Mine: Sing a Song of Shakespeare, a collection of songs based on and/or inspired by Will's works and words, geared toward kids but (we hope) also bearable listening for their whole family. I can quote from an actual press release from Ken Werther:
O Baby Mine: Sing A Song of Shakespeare is for anyone who wants to share their love of theatre, music, and the Bard and his language with their families. Featuring eight songwriters and 14 tracks, Shakespeare plays represented include Twelfth Night, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Tempest, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Romeo and Juliet, Much Ado About Nothing, The Comedy of Errors, As You Like It, Macbeth, and King Lear. The composers are (in alphabetical order) Raymond Bokhour, Sean Galuszka, Rob Kendt, Susan Lambert, Cinco Paul, Madison Scheckel, and David Tobocman. The project was conceived by Susan Lambert, who also acts as executive producer.
I was happy to contribute a number of originals and semi-originals (a Dixieland take on Shubert's "Who Is Sylvia?" would be in the latter category), but I have to give special props to the versatile, dulcet-voiced Madison Scheckel, who also contributed some lovely originals and played all over a bunch of the tunes; to my old friend Cinco Paul (yes, that Cinco Paul), who came in to play trombone on "Sylvia," and then sat down and played this sparkling new song about the Bard's contributions to the language; to crack drummer/producer Matt North, who added parts from his Nashville studio; and to Raymond Bokhour, who lent his guitar to a couple of his own originals, culled from productions he's appeared in over the years. I'm particularly happy with this expansive take on the closer of As You Like It, "In Springtime":

You can buy the CD here, and you will soon be able to download tracks here. Let the music play on.

Aug 11, 2014

The Word Word

My first exposure to Dennis Miles' work was inauspicious: His one-act Rosa Mundy, about a strange young woman who alternately lusted for and killed visitors to her lonely home, was staged as part of a one-act festival at, if memory serves, Theatre Geo on Highland Ave. It was simpering and soapy, as I recall. But then I happened to see it again at the far edgier Theatre of NOTE on Cahuenga, in a production by director Diane Robinson that brought out the work's odd intensity and intense oddness; I remember in particular the sight of blowzy Elaina McBroom riding dementedly on a tricycle, a dangerous but weirdly endearing girl-child. It was like a work reborn, and I never took Miles--or my first impressions--for granted again.

His plays were not always so outre, but the full range of his work seemed to find an extremely sympathetic home at NOTE, where the actors and directors had (and still do, by most accounts) a shared interpretive nimbleness, and the space itself seems to encourage open-ended experimentation (I wrote roughly as much here). I regret that I didn't see more of Dennis' work, but I remember quite fondly the last play of his I saw, Destronelli, and not simply as an acting vehicle for the late, great Pamela Gordon in all her gritty-pixie glory. In a column for Back Stage West at the time, I called it Miles' "most accessible work yet," and said that its "combination of provocation, puzzlement, perversity, and unsentimental tenderness reminded me of Albee."

I only spoke with Dennis a few times, and he seemed a dear, sweet man. I believe he made his living working at an AIDS research project at UCLA. In the years since I left L.A., we corresponded by email, and he sent me some lovely homemade postcards from his travels. More significantly, he asked me to write music for songs in two of his shows. One was for a song called "Roosterfish" in a play called Sona Tera Roman Hess ("my unintentional version of Phaedra," as he put it to me). Here's my demo of the song, which I sent to the production with sheet music, though I never heard how it sounded sung by the cast:

The other tune was for a show, never produced as far as I know, called Tivoli Tsadik, for which Dennis had written a bitter, digressive song called "Ballad of the Squanderer." He was expressly looking for a Kurt Weill sound, and I was happy to oblige:

Dennis died from lung cancer on Sunday, and with his passing the world lost a truly original voice, a weird and dark and stubbornly lyrical poet/playwright whose work was known by all too few; such are the rewards of playwriting in a film capital. This quote from Dennis' interview at Adam Szymowicz's blog captures his independence, and his utterly unpretentious sense of artistic calling:
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?

A: I don't have any. I don't listen to advice myself, so I do my best not to tell people what might work for them. Artistic writing is an organic endeavor, it is one's life, there's no advice for living out your life, artistic writing is a natural emanation of one's experiences and one's singular mind.
In one of our back-and-forths about his lyrics, in which I tried to steer him to imitate more standard meters and forms, he confessed, "I really don't think looking at/listening to songs will teach me to write you a good lyric...I don't think that's how I learn. What I do, for whatever it's worth, comes out of some unschooled, unlearned, automatic place, and if I set out to write a sonnet, let's say, I would bollocks it for sure."

And in this quote from a feature on his play Von Lutz, he said this of his work: "I am appalled by the plays I write...I like to blame Antonin Artaud, but no one forced me to read him. There is beauty at that edge between what's funny and what's horrendous." I'd like to celebrate Dennis and his vision with a poem he emailed me in January of 2006, with the subject line, "My version of a happy poem."
WORD

by Dennis Miles

To write just to write.
To write the word word. To write a few words.
To wr.. right a mistake, righten a mistake.
To engage in a rite of writing.
To turn from my right to my
left
right away.
Write away, swift over the page.
To wright a smith over the hearth of earth.
Wratten, wretten, written, wrotten, wrutten
A game hen and a wren.
To write a caged bird to liberate,
To deliberate over the written word.
To be the writer of a word. Of the word word.
To have a written word for supper any day.
Across the room, across the page.
You can’t tell anymore who among us talks alone to himself.
You have never been able to tell who among us writes alone to himself.
A written word spoken as it is said.
It. Word. The written word. It. They. Two words.
To write just to write, because I’m human and I can…
No more meaningless than…
Right now some one plots to obliterate
the innocence that, amidst the deviltry, lives naively in the West.
And don’t forget wrest, which does not rest. An action verb.
Writ of habeas corpus. Written on the wind which is this page.
Written for the future. Written on a carousel.
Who is the king of nothingness: obliterate, literate, liberate, deliberate.
I write the word I wrote. I wrote the word I’ve written. I’ve written the word wrote. I wrote it. I wrought it. I brought it forth like a birth---
Oh, celebrate, I celebrate the word word

Aug 8, 2014

Iceland Follies


I spent a fascinating afternoon a few weeks ago at the Minetta Lane Theatre in Greenwich Village talking to some unfailingly gracious Icelanders, and a few slightly baffled American actors, about a strange new musical they're working on called Revolution in the Elbow of Ragnar Agnarsson Furniture Painter. I learned a bit more about Iceland's acute economic crisis (parallel to ours and everybody's in 2008, but much worse) than I'd known before, and I learned that there are very good reasons Icelanders' names often seem to be interchangeable (patronyms is one reason, a rigorously tight naming regimen is another). And I'm happy with the piece I wrote up for the paper of record. A highlight:
Conceived by Ivar Pall Jonsson, a tall, taciturn former journalist from Reykjavik, the show is unmistakably his take on his nation’s rocky financial fortunes.

"It’s a story about love and deception, and how people get caught in something that’s superficial,” Mr. Jonsson said, perched in the theater’s upstairs lobby on a kidney-shaped couch that had been tried out as part of the show’s set but discarded. “They get carried away, until one day, reality knocks on the door, and they wake up. That’s the story I wanted to tell.”

Why, though, set it inside a man’s elbow? In a conception that suggests “Horton Hears a Who” meets “Fantastic Voyage,” Mr. Jonsson’s musical concerns an apparently tiny race of people living in Elbowville, who dine on lobster fished from their host’s lymphatic channels and keep viruses as household pets.

He chose a “surreal setting,” Mr. Jonsson said, so he could tell the story without reference to “specific details and persons.”

Mr. Jonsson’s brother, Gunnlaugur Jonsson, who is credited with Ivar for the show’s story and serves as its executive producer, added: “If you have a play about something in the financial world, honestly it can become very boring, because you have to explain complicated things. Doing it abstractly in a world that doesn’t exist, you can just get rid of all of that and get to the heart of the story.”
But one thing I didn't talk enough about in the Times piece was Ivar Pall Jonsson's music, which really is quite lovely; a key track is embedded above.

Hope at NOTE

Ballinger and Nithapalan
I had the pleasure of breaking bread (larb, actually) with Erik Patterson yesterday. He's an L.A.-based playwright whose work I admired more than a decade ago at Theatre of NOTE in Hollywood (loved his Yellow Flesh Alabaster Rose, was more mixed on the sequel, Red Light Green Light); he was in town to soak up some N.Y. theater in advance of his birthday (which is today, if memory serves; so happy birthday, Erik!). His newest play at NOTE, I Wanna Hold Your Hand, is not about the Beatles but is based on a personal tragedy I've written about in this space twice before: the brain aneurysm and stroke suffered by the marvelous young L.A. actress Uma Nithapalan in January of 2007. Uma was Erik's best friend and longtime roommate; she was at the time engaged to the composer John Ballinger, and they subsequently were married as soon as Uma was well enough.

That she is indeed relatively well, even seven years later, is something of a miracle. And that she and John came to the opening of Erik's new play roughly based on their harrowing experiences in the ICU is another kind of miracle:
After opening night, both Uma and John told me it had been painful to watch – but painful in a good way, because it reminded them of how far they’ve come. Uma said she’s never seen her struggle with aphasia reflected in a piece of entertainment before. As hard as it was for her to watch, she was grateful that people would leave the play with a better understanding of what she’s been through.
Chalk up another title in the wish-I-was-in-L.A.-to-see-it file. Erik also told me about a group of playwrights he meets with regularly to keep up their chops—including folks like Bridget Carpenter, Jessica Goldberg, Diane Rodriguez, and the indispensable Michael Sargent—and it gave me both a pang of nostalgia and a burst of hope. If those writers are still making plays in L.A.—a place where the relative indifference of the media and audiences, let alone the rest of the theater world (let alone "the industry"), ever threatens the persistence of even the good and great theater that gets done there—then something is still right with the world. As Erik has one his characters say: “The doctors are always warning you not to have false hope. But you’ve gotta have hope.” Amen.

Jul 7, 2014

Tough Deal



My heart sank early and often last week at the City Center concert rendition of Randy Newman’s Faust, but never so low as when Newman muffed one of his own best lines. That he was onstage at all, half-playing the piano, half-playing the role of the Devil, and generally serving as the evening’s impish emcee, was the evening’s signature mistake. While his droll presence is usually entirely welcome--his solo live shows are some of my favorites in memory--having him at the piano to guide us through the alternately brilliant and flimsy score, and even more flimsy book, of his 1995 musical Faust, while some over-qualified actor/singers did their thing around and opposite him, leached the show of any drama.

Or rather, musical comedy, which is what the show was when I saw it in La Jolla. There, having David Garrison’s Devil slither about in a sharkskin suit opposite Ken Page’s cuddly God made all the difference; and Michael Greif’s staging for some of the slighter, stuntier songs (“Damn Fine Day,” “Bless the Children,” “March of the Protestants”) at least gave them a theatrical point. At City Center, there was very little book to speak of, and almost zero staging; the result was that too many of the show’s songs, unable to stand alone, just sat there, well performed but unmoored from any frame of reference.

A few songs in the score really do have dramaturgical heft, though; one is the achingly beautiful “Gainesville,” whose old-time harmonies and sweetly insistent, clear-eyed innocence found an ideal match in Laura Osnes. But perhaps the most striking sequence in the original show--one that sharply summarizes the critique of pure faith that was clearly Newman’s main interest in writing the show in the first place, certainly moreso than the central Faustian bargain--comes when the Devil, down in the dumps, stops by Heaven to kvetch about the thankless challenges of his job. God takes a break from leading a swarm of child angels on a nature hike to offer the Devil a saccharine entreaty to “Relax, Enjoy Yourself”:


Then a little angel breaks from the crowd and approaches the Devil; she wonders aloud if he’s gone bad because of a lack of love in his childhood. At City Center, this part was sung by Brooklyn Shuck of Annie fame; her exchange with a quizzical Newman was one of the evening’s high points.


ANGEL CHILD:
It must be very trying to be bad all the time
Vicious and cruel and mean
When there's so much beauty
All around us to be seen
And so very little time in which to see it all
And feel it all
So little time
Perhaps when you were little
No one held you in their arms
And told you that they loved you very much
Perhaps you were embittered
By your fall from grace

DEVIL:
How long have you been dead?

ANGEL CHILD:
Two months.

DEVIL:
Do you miss your friends?

ANGEL CHILD:
Yes, I miss them,
I've tried to make friends here, but it's hard

DEVIL:
You were a good girl
Cut down in your prime

ANGEL CHILD:
Yes.

Newman, trading the mike with Shuck, pulled off that exchange just fine. But then comes maybe the most scalding moment in the show, and I have to wonder if the concert’s director, Thomas Kail, lost his nerve here--he didn’t want the Devil to sing these harsh words directly to a sweet little girl, and let Shuck run to join the angel choir. When Newman turned back to the piano, he got a little lost and didn’t punch his pickup to the next section. And while last week’s concertgoers more-or-less heard much of the following, I’d be surprised if anyone who didn’t already know the original score actually took in the first three lines, and hence the entire import, of this clarifying bit of theodicy in song:


DEVIL:
The man who shot you in the head
In that Burger King in Tucson
Well, he never will be punished, you know
He will move to Big Pine, California
Become the richest man in Inyo County
While that may not be much, it's enough
When he dies
Sixty-five years from today
With his loved ones all around him
He'll be whisked right up to heaven
He won't pass go or have to wait
He'll just march right through the Goddamned gate
And why, you may ask yourself why
For thousands and thousands of years
I have asked myself why

LORD:
Faith. Contrition. Sincere contrition.
Confession. Sincere confession.

ANGELS:
Yes, Lord! Yes, Lord!

LORD:
Redemption. Absolution.
Those who seek Me shall find Me
In the case of this man,
Predestination.

My ways are mysterious
Sometimes even to myself
My ways are mysterious

DEVIL:
Relax, old chum, relax
It's only a glorious game that we're playing
And in a few more years
When I move up here
Things will never be the same

Even at its best, Faust has too few truly theatrical turns like that. But in its weird hybrid of Randy Newman concert and fully acted reading, last week’s Faust didn’t even present the best of Faust all that well. If, as I wrote for Slate, the failure of Faust and Newman to be Broadway contenders 20 years ago represents a great missed opportunity, last week’s concert only served to seal that fate.