Feb 7, 2005

It Was (Always) Better in New York

My colleague James C. Taylor certainly does get around—he makes regular pilgrimages to New York and London, which makes him uniquely positioned to inform L.A. theatregoers what they missed from the original productions of plays that are only now making it to our local stages. (As a friend waggishly put it, riffing on Taylor's namesake: "I've seen fire and I've seen rain... and they were better in New York.")

In today's Times, he informs us exactly how the Taper's current production of The Goat or, Who Is Sylvia? falls shorts of the play's New York premiere:
…In the first third of the play… director Warner Shook too often goes for the easy laugh at the expense of atmosphere and character development. Not that Martin's early interactions with his wife and best friend can't be relaxed and amusing. The New York production pitched these scenes in much the same style as a Neil Simon comedy. Lines were played for small laughs, which worked to lull the audience into a sense of familiar complacency but also left space for the characterizations to breathe. In this staging, however, these exposition scenes are given the broad, punchy feel of an episode of "Everybody Loves Raymond." Shook has the actors mine the text for big laughs — which, it must be said, they deliver — but at the expense of nuance that the play needs to make the darker, more complex scenes pay off.

He felt similarly about another production last year:
When it opened in New York two years ago, a combination of timing and casting made "Thoroughly Modern Millie" an unlikely Broadway hit. The city was reeling from the events of the previous September… But the main ingredient of "Millie's" success was Sutton Foster, a then-unknown actress who originated the title role… [She was] so perfect that one couldn't help wondering what the show would be like without her.
The answer, judging from the touring production that opened at the Ahmanson Theater on Friday night, is a definite sort-of. The show still works as a ditzy song-and-dance revue, but far from Broadway and without its original cast, "Millie" doesn't quite cut it as a thoroughly modern musical…
In New York, Harriet Harris' Meers was a strong villain who served as comic foil to Foster's plucky flapper. Harris oozed wicked cynicism, and every time she purred her signature line—"Sad to be all alone in the world"—the audience at the Marquis Theater went wild. As performed here by Hollis Resnik, Meers lacks any real sense of menace and, even more disappointing, any sense of humor. Harris interpreted Meers as an over-the-top parody of Asian caricatures dating from less politically correct times, but Resnik's Meers is merely one of those stereotypes.

And about another play last year:
The character of Louise is the key role in [Steve} Martin's version of "The Underpants." In the New York premiere, she was performed by Cheryl Lynn Bowers as a sort of urban Madame—or Frau—Bovary. Exuding a wide-eyed innocence, Bowers made it clear that Louise was a girl forced into marriage early and that she quietly had doubts about the whole structure of her middle-class life.
At the Geffen, Louise is played with considerable charm by Meredith Patterson. Patterson is a stable presence in the central role, and her comedic talents are well showcased, especially when she throws herself at Versati, a hunky Italian poet (Anthony Crivello). However, Patterson's Louise is decidedly too mature. Louise is written as a confused twentysomething newlywed, yet Patterson makes her feel like a resigned thirtysomething veteran of married life—instead of Emma Bovary, her Louise suggests Lucy Ricardo.

Oh, and about one other production last year:
[Marissa Jaret] Winokur is not the only member of the New York cast on hand to reprise a role [in "Hairspray"]: Matthew Morrison returns as the hunky Link Larkin. But most of the performers in this touring production are more than up to their tasks…
Then, of course, there is the Vilanch Factor. Most Angelenos will not have had the pleasure of seeing Winokur's Broadway co-star, Harvey Fierstein, perform as Edna Turnblad… Instead of a Fierstein's gravelly baritone, [Bruce] Vilanch delivers Edna's patter with a low-pitched bleat. With his large frame and fleshy, trapezoidal face, Vilanch in drag looks like Dame Edna's ugly stepsister—in other words, a perfect fit. But aside from his physicality, Vilanch's performance is often at odds with the material.

These are all undoubtedly valid observations. I'm just a little puzzled why these comparisons should matter to L.A. theatregoers. Could it possibly be that the LA Times has New York readers in mind? This much is true: For those who do want to find out how L.A. productions of major new American plays and musicals measure up to their New York equivalents, the LA Times is only paper on the beat.

1 comment:

communicatrix said...

>>I'm just a little puzzled why these comparisons should matter to L.A. theatregoers. Could it possibly be that the LA Times has New York readers in mind?<<

You know, I was talking about theater in L.A. with a wise and well-travelled soul--the dearth of good "big" theater, that is (I think that for all the cries of showcase crap, a great deal of L.A.'s small theater puts many of the bigger shows to shame--check out my review of the Spamalot! preview I caught whilst in Chicago).

Anyway, this smart, well-traveled soul said he thought one of the reasons there doesn't seem to be the market you'd expect for Broadway-scale fare here is that most of the audience for it sees it on trips--business or otherwise--to that city on the other coast. An interesting theory. I wonder if any research has ever been done.

It would explain the L.A. Times' position, tho', yes?