Jan 26, 2019

Julia and Paul and Some Guy Named Bradley

Actors Paul Rudd, Julia Roberts and Bradley Cooper appear onstage during curtain call at the opening night of “Three Days of Rain” at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre on April 19, 2006 in New York City | Paul Hawthorne/Getty Images
I recently caught the so-so Amazon series Homecoming (a sharp 90-minute paranoid thriller unaccountably stretched to 5 hours) and found myself mostly enjoying Julia Roberts's sturdy yet labile performanc. After all these years the camera still loves her and she loves it right back, but with a mature, confident, middle-aged-married-for-life kind of love, not with the needy, eager, puppyish affection of her past, which also had its appeal. Clearly she's not going anywhere and I count myself happy—nay, contented—to know we'll be watching her for many more years. You can also sense her relief that it's all going to work out; there's a certain settling down about her, if not quite settling for less. (This serene control makes the contrast with Bobby Cannavale's nervy, jumpy performance all the more fascinating.)

Then I happened to remember the time I reviewed her one performance on Broadway, in Richard Greenberg's Three Days of Rain, for Broadway.com. She wasn't very good onstage, it turned out, and her co-star Paul Rudd wasn't a whole lot better. But there was a young upstart I think I'd noticed on Alias who made a strong impression in his Broadway debut: Bradley Cooper.

In any case, I for one find interesting to look back, though of course one of the lessons of Greenberg's play (if not of Homecoming) is that the past doesn't always provide you the answers you're looking for.

Three Days of Rain

Reviewed by Rob Kendt
Broadway.com, April 20, 2006

Star power is a fragile thing. It can be measured in box-office dollars and eight-figure salaries, it can be burnished by sympathetic lighting and framed by deft publicity spin, but ultimately it's reducible to the flesh-and-blood presence of a single human actor. Nowhere is this more true than in the real time and shared space of the theater, which can prove to be a most unforgiving microscope for an actor's instrument, particularly if that instrument is accustomed to different registers. In the case of Julia Roberts, who uneasily headlines the new Broadway production of Three Days of Rain, the stage is more like a telescope through which her star flickers, recognizably but dimly.

With her Easter Island bone structure, gulping smile and preposterously red cheeks, Roberts is the kind of sui generis star Hollywood supposedly stopped minting decades ago; a soft-focus hybrid of Joan Crawford and Audrey Hepburn, she's a gamine with backbone. But in Richard Greenberg's meditative gem of a play, which has seen better productions elsewhere (including one at L.A.'s Evidence Room five years ago), Roberts is all spine and teeth. First as Nan, a woman mourning her father and tending to her messed-up brother, Walker (Paul Rudd), then as Nan and Walker's blowzy mom, Lina, Roberts gives careful, stilted line readings and moves with a studied diffidence that doesn't seem to belong to the same lithe physical comedienne who caromed so winningly through Erin Brockovich or My Best Friend's Wedding. She's on slightly surer footing when she's still, in tete-a-tetes that play like virtual close-ups, though even from Row D these moments resonate faintly at best.

Roberts' reticence seems to have sent Rudd into hysterics. In the first act, in which Nan and Walker have a tense reunion in the abandoned former studio of their architect father and his partner, the fine-featured, shaggy-haired Rudd paddles furiously, as if he's trying to keep a sinking ship afloat, but he can't strike sparks against Roberts' flinty passivity. Sure, Walker is a raw nerve prone to dramatic disappearances and emotional blackmail, but Rudd plays his highs and lows with such strenuous exertion that Roberts' Nan seems to have little choice but to recede into pity and disapproval. There's little evidence of director Joe Mantello's work in these early scenes, except possibly as a referee.

It takes a third wheel to balance this wobbly frame. As Pip, a happily shallow TV actor whose late father was the other half of the architecture partnership, Bradley Cooper gives a preternaturally assured performance, working himself up to a first-act aria of exuberant pique that kicks the play into vibrant life. With an equal sparring partner, Rudd suddenly has a plausible target for Walker's overcooked anger, and even Roberts rises, with disarmed amusement, to the occasion presented by Cooper's undeniable presence. She may have star power, but Cooper has stage power.

In calling out Walker's self-important angst, Pip doesn't just clear the air; he also clears the way for Greenberg's themes, which had languished under wraps like the old furniture on Santo Loquasto's set, to take dramatic shape. What had seemed until Cooper's entrance like a rough passage from a Lifetime movie starts to resemble the essence of Greenberg's play—a delicately mournful parable of dashed hopes, of well-intended legacies gone awry and of pleasures barely grasped before they fade. And Mantello's production begins to breathe a little.

The second act flashes back to the same studio and shows us a past the architects' children have not imagined: Nan and Walker's yet-to-be father, Ned (also played by Rudd), is a shy, stammering nebbish who allows his partner, Theo (Cooper), to supply the ideas and the ambition he lacks. It makes sense that at first it's the alpha male, Theo, who has the girlfriend, though he doesn't have her very securely; the feisty, erratic Lina (played by Roberts with a swooping, not entirely convincing Southern accent) has the sort of willfulness that blurs with a few drinks into dissatisfaction. So it also makes sense when she turns her fluttering attentions to Ned, and, quite movingly, lends him what is probably her last shred of encouragement.

Here, as in the first act, Roberts underplays and Rudd overcompensates, but this contrast at least resembles the light friction of romantic comedy. And the appropriately rainy climax of this fraught triangle comes off with unexpected force. Ultimately, though, the weather report on this uneven Three Days of Rain is lightly cloudy, zero chance of thunder.

Three Days of Rain
By Richard Greenberg
Directed by Joe Mantello
Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre

Jan 18, 2019

Flash in a Pan: 'Lestat'

Rob Harvila's much-discussed recent article on the meaning and value of harsh criticism in the age of social media got me thinking back to my days as a more or less full-time critic in New York. While it's been a while since I've delivered a full-on assault (I guess this counts), the season I covered New York openings for Broadway.com (which came to an abrupt end as detailed here) gave me plenty of fat targets: Roundabout's terrible The Threepenny Opera, the wildly overpraised dramatic hairshirt called Rabbit Hole. (Of my days reviewing in L.A. and elsewhere I might offer this exhibit of a relatively high-profile slam.) But when I think back on "favorite negative review" I inevitably settle on my review of Lestat, Elton John and Linda Woolverton's short-lived Anne Rice pilaf. Looking back, if I got anything wrong it's that I predicted the show might have a future as a camp favorite. Otherwise I stand by every word (and hey, I didn't even resort to a joke about "sucking").

Reviewed by Rob Kendt for Broadway.com
April 26, 2006

The season's most hilarious musical, it turns out, is not a comedy. It is Lestat, an adaptation of the Anne Rice vampire novels so laughable, and so sumptuously designed, that it makes for a surprisingly good time at the theater. No, musical-theater-train-wreck aficionados, it's not quite another Carrie, or even another Dance of the Vampires. Instead it comes off more like an unholy blend of the Disney musical Beauty and the Beast and the cult TV series Beauty and the Beast. In fact, I'll go out on a limb here and bet that, with its earnest embrace of Rice's labyrinthine mythology and its unabashed pop-Goth sensibility, Lestat will win over a small but ardent legion of swooning Riceheads. The rest of us will be more bemused than entranced.

Boldly forgoing the needless frills of exposition, Lestat gallops out of the gate with a senseless massacre performed in pantomime, as our title character (Hugh Panaro, dressed like a gypsy Fabio) rumbles with an unseen wolf pack and thereby unleashes his own inner beast. "Fear was never present," he sings, speaking for us all. Naturally, Lestat's newfound bloodlust means he must leave his French country estate, where his mother, despite appearing in the person of the entirely healthy-looking and full-voiced Carolee Carmello, insists she is dying, not that her son should worry.

As strange and blunt as this opening may seem, it sets the tone for the evening before us quite efficiently: Lestat will deliver a parade of characters killing, singing and painfully parting ways under the overwhelming power of inner directives that make sense only to them. When Lestat hits Paris to hang with his meek fiddler friend Nicholas (Roderick Hill), he's not there one night before a mummified Alice Cooper lookalike named Magnus (Joseph Dellger) summons him to his true calling. The queasy, faintly erotic, mostly mussy bite-and-suck ritual of vampire's feasting becomes the show's most persistent refrain: The sound goes all schwingy and woozy, while a disturbing projection of boiling orange juice is projected on the moveable bandage-flats of Derek McLane's set. As Lestat later succinctly tells Mom, who follows him to Paris after all, "He drank my blood, and I drank his blood." If only coming out were that easy.

And so the plot coagulates, from Paris to the ends of the earth, and by the second act to antebellum New Orleans, where Lestat sets up house with his newest victims-turned-vampire playmates, sensitive Louis (Jim Stanek) and a 10-year-old bad seed named Claudia (Allison Fischer). It's safe to say that we've never seen a household quite like this in a musical before: two bickering dads raising a bloodthirsty little goldilocks who will never age past 10. Though director Robert Jess Roth allows no winking or intentional camp, this sequence practically enters Little Shop of Horrors territory, only weirder, and the fierce little Fischer knocks her big numbers—"I Want More" and "I'll Never Have That Chance"—out of the park.

A few words about those numbers, and about the rest of Elton John's score, his first with longtime lyricist Bernie Taupin: Sir Elton recently boasted to The New York Times that he wrote it in two weeks, and it sounds like it. And no matter how pop-operatically ponderous or horror-movie creepy the music tries to be, it cannot be accused of over-seriousness. "Embrace it," Lestat urges Louis, in a sunny number that makes an eternity of carnivorous slaughter sound as refreshing as switching cola brands. And in a show studded with some of the worst lyrics you'll find in any Broadway show, John and Taupin's greatest crime must be the inelegant group chant, "No greater crime than to kill your kind."

To their credit, the cast delivers all this with unshakeably straight faces. Particularly impressive in this regard are Carmello, whose transformation from stately matron to blood-sucking freak offers a startlingly intentional laugh, and Drew Sarich, as an intermittent annoyance named Armand. The hunky Panaro doesn't embarrass himself, though if this role nets him offers from daytime TV, that would only be fair. Helping the show pulse with life-like shape are McLane's lush sets, Kenneth Posner's cavernous lighting, and Susan Hilferty's lavish and shockingly tasteful costumes.

Even if you feel early on a bit like the character who sings, "My need to go is hard to fight," you won't want to miss Lestat's final epiphany. "I accept what I am," he tells the man upstairs. "I am evil and I'm so sorry." We're so not.

Book by Linda Woolverton
Music by Sir Elton John, lyrics by Bernie Taupin
At the Palace Theatre

Dec 17, 2018

I Love Him But It Embarrasses Me

Galt MacDermot.
It doesn't actually embarrass me to love Galt MacDermot, the composer of Hair and Two Gentlemen of Verona, whose death was just announced--I'm just using this opportunity to express my love for his work by using a lyric from one of my favorite showtunes ever. I had the opportunity to speak to him for my old Back Stage West column, also called the Wicked Stage. Here's the item from June 14, 2001. Wish it were 10 times longer:

I've always had a soft spot for Hair, the "tribal love rock musical" that's younger than I am but not by much. For many it evokes a world they remember firsthand; for folks my age it's a period piece that evokes a world we largely missed--which, through the disarmingly sexy and silly prism of Hair, seems to embody that great line from Sondheim's Follies about a time when "everything was possible/and nothing made sense." I spoke recently with Galt MacDermot, the composer who appears famously on the Hair cast album in a tie and crew-cut next to the show's longhaired writers, James Rado and Gerome Ragni. He recently helped lead a concert reading for New York's Encores and may do the same for the upcoming Reprise! rendition here in L.A. (opens this weekend at the Wadsworth) featuring Sam Harris, Billy Porter, Steven Weber, and Jennifer Leigh Warren. MacDermot had been toiling in Manhattan as a church organist and jazz pianist when Joe Papp hooked him up with Ragni and Rado, two young actor/writers from the East Village, to do the music for a new musical by, about, and starring members of the free-loving, drug-taking, draft-card-burning counterculture. "They said they wanted to make it a rock 'n' roll show. I was more interested in R&B," said MacDermot, who attributes great influence to a youthful residence in Africa with his diplomat father. What's more, he said, Rado and Ragni's lyrics weren't "typical rock lyrics. They were funny, witty. Most rock songs aren't funny." So is Hair a rock score? Yes and no. It is exuberant, funky, eclectic, occasionally cheesy, but above all it manages to sound both accomplished and innocent. I had to ask MacDermot about Rent, Jonathan Larson's recent through-sung youth-rock hit. He was mixed: "I liked certain moments of it; it didn't kill me." But then, he's not too sanguine on Broadway, anyway: "After a while I realized that theatre isn't where it's at in terms of music. In the New York theatre, their minds are mostly back in the '50s, or back further." He's worked on more modest projects since Hair, but that's fine with McDermot: "I don't want another Hair. One is enough."
My only other published writing about his fine work came a few years back with Time Out NY asked me to contribute to their list of "50 Best Broadway Songs of All Time." I didn't have a part in voting for the list but I was able to choose which songs I got to write about, and I happily snapped up "Aquarius":

Nov 20, 2018

From the Review Files: Tarzan, or the Review That Got Me Fired

Long story short: I was the last regular critic employed by the ticket-concierge site Broadway.com, for whom I reviewed the 2005-06 season (highlights included Sweeney Todd, Bridge & Tunnel, The History Boys). I was let go, apparently, because in reviewing the Broadway season's final show I ran afoul of the site's business model. They'd never said a word about my reviews, positive or negative, before. But the following review of Disney's misbegotten Tarzan, which hardly differed from the critical consensus, was apparently a pan too far for a site devoted to hawking tickets. I reprint it now mainly because Broadway.com's editor-in-chief, Paul Wontorek, recently tweeted--probably in response to an overblown recent controversy over a negative Times review of another ape-centered spectacle, King Kong--that folks fed up with allegedly nasty critics should just "stop reading reviews!" Paul has deleted the tweet, but it was captured for posterity in a FB post:

Herewith, the review that cost me the gig. Nasty or fair? You be the judge.

The title is Tarzan, and the wild child with the rat-tail dreadlocks and leather briefs is ostensibly the subject of Disney’s lavish but ragged new stage musical, based on the lithe animated film of 1999. But the chest-beating jungle man himself seems strangely absent from this clumsy spectacle, and never moreso than when he’s onstage.

As played by the endearingly scrawny and utterly innocuous Josh Strickland, this show’s Tarzan comes off less like a strapping nature boy raised by apes than as a sweetly mellow beach bum on an endless vacation. Yes, he does the famous rebel yell and swoops over the audience in dandy aerial sequences designed by De La Guarda’s Pichón Baldinu. But I’m with Jane (Jenn Gambatese), who punctuates her first glimpse of the airborne apeman with a loud “ah-choo!” This Tarzan is something to sneeze at.

So is the show, which labors mightily in the shadow of The Lion King’s stunning stagecraft, and which handily demonstrates the wide gulf between a talented designer, which Bob Crowley is, and a visionary director, which he is not. The spellbinding opening uses Baldinu’s ropes (and Natasha Katz’s deliciously rich lighting) to depict a shipwreck from vantage points we’re not used to seeing onstage: underwater, for one, and looking down on a beachfront. But once we’re in jungle-land, the scenic invention effectively halts, as we stare at four walls of green fringe and a gaping trap-hole.

We may fleetingly hope that the lengthy scene change that glosses the years between young Tarzan (a feral, ginger-haired Daniel Manche, who alternates with Alex Rutherford) and Strickland’s young-man Tarzan is going to reveal a mind-blowing new design. Alas, no; it’s the rain-forest cell block again, into which Strickland hurls himself, dabbles briefly with a fire stick, then promptly disappears so his adoptive gorilla parents can have a heart-to-heart. Shuler Hensley and Merle Dandridge bring as much dignity as they can to these risible parts, though they’re saddled with moss-like gorilla suits that reveal midriffs scarred with smudgy body paint.

As the show’s meager comic relief, the purported wiseacre Terk, Chester Gregory II adds to his similarly silly monkey suit a spiky purple do that wouldn’t have been out of place in Prince’s back-up band circa 1987. He does get to deliver the show’s most rousing lyrics: a scat solo for the lively second act opener “Trashin’ the Camp” (or is that “Campin’ the Trash”?), in which he and his fellow apes throw an impromptu set-strike party. Another fine musical number is similarly wordless: A drum-and-didgeridoo romp early in the first act showcases the invigorating mix of Meryl Tankard’s athletic choreography with Baldinu’s rope tricks. But when the characters open their mouths to sing, forget about it; composer/lyricist Phil Collins lathers on the clichés and pumps up the volume, making fellow popster Elton John’s cheesy theater music sound richly nuanced by comparison.

A show like this may be critic-proof—its advance sales are upwards of $20 million, roughly equivalent to its budget—but on the evidence of the matinee I attended, it seems to be pretty kid-resistant, as well. The restless youngster behind me offered a helpful running commentary, peppered with some practical staging questions, such as, “How did the lion thingy climb up there?” (He was referring to an eerie leopard figure who menaces the hero and his family, though to my eyes it looked more like a cross between a jackal and a frog.) My junior colleague, it must be said, couldn’t stay on topic during the second act’s merciless parade of mid-tempo ballads, or the tedious dialogue scenes between lovestruck Jane and her kindly explorer father (Tim Jerome). For the record, the book is by David Henry Hwang; we hope he doesn’t spend the money all in one place.

Disney Theatricals certainly has, and so must all parents of small children with even the slightest sense of family duty (unless they can persuade the tykes to wait till Mary Poppins alights in the fall). The rest of us do well to swing wide of this jumble in the jungle.

Music and lyrics by Phil Collins
Book by David Henry Hwang
Directed by Bob Crowley
At the Richard Rodgers Theatre

Nov 25, 2017

Review Files: Sarah Jones's Bridge & Tunnel

Sarah Jones in Bridge & Tunnel. (Photo by Paul Kolnik)

Broadway.com, Feb. 1, 2006

Bridge & Tunnel
Reviewed by Rob Kendt

If the Tonys had an ensemble award, Sarah Jones would be an odds-on favorite. For among the many feats of her extraordinary solo show Bridge & Tunnel, newly transferred to Broadway after a hit downtown run, is the palpable sense of community Jones creates among her 14 fictional characters. These finely drawn and even more sensitively acted figures—readers at an immigrant-themed South Queens poetry open mike—appear individually, with the merest change in posture, costume and eyewear. But Jones knits their entrances and exits together so smoothly and sympathetically that when the evening's genial emcee, a jittery Pakistani joker named Mohammed Ali, asks for applause for a young performer who just "left" the stage, we clap appreciatively, as if she were actually walking back to her seat.

Jones' artistry as a mimic is what grabs us first. She can sketch a person's entire body of experience on her thin, rangy frame, then color in these contours with her voice, which can modulate texture and tempo as freely as she changes accents. But it soon dawns on us with something close to awe that Jones is not really mimicking at all but rendering a world with a novelistic attention to detail, in an imaginative style closer to that of Lily Tomlin or Danny Hoch than to the docu-theatrics of Anna Deavere Smith or Culture Clash. If Bridge & Tunnel feels a bit more like the non-fiction variety, it's probably because the participants at Jones' imagined poetry reading don't offer poems so much as they do straightforward narratives about their immigrant experiences.

It's also because Jones is so self-effacing, both as a performer and as a writer. She keeps the show's patter realistic to a fault, down to every hem and haw and misfired joke. Mohammed, in particular, is the sort of over-eager goofball who provides his own laugh track, even if his laughter begins to sound more desperate as we learn that he's the subject of an ominous-sounding federal investigation. But as skilled as Jones is at inhabiting these impossibly diverse ages, genders, and nationalities, what makes Bridge & Tunnel more than a mere virtuoso showcase is the acuity and insight of her writing. Jones captures the distinct voices of these variegated immigrants so well, and with such an invisible authorial touch, that the show feels like a social documentary in the best possible sense.

It will occur to some theatergoers that for all the truthfulness of these individual portraits, there's a certain amount of rose-colored thinking in juxtaposing them without sparking any inter-cultural tension. The closest the show comes to that kind of friction is when DJ Rashid, a bouncy young rapper in a big orange parka, rushes the stage and offers some ill-considered opinions of Barack Obama and the affinity between immigrants and African-Americans. Otherwise, irreproachable politeness and liberality prevails: A Jordanian woman in hijab praises sensual Arab poetry and "women's freedom"; a conservative Chinese matriarch recounts how she learned to accept her lesbian daughter; a sweet elderly woman assures today's immigrants that her parents, Eastern European Jews, were treated with exactly the same suspicion and prejudice that greets today's new arrivals. There's a slight thread of suspense about Mohammed's fate, but this is attenuated and dropped unceremoniously in the show's uncharacteristically weak final moments.

If she skimps on conflict among her characters, though, Jones doesn't flinch from the complexities of their bi-cultural immigrant lives. A Vietnamese-American slam poet counts the ways he's alienated from both mainstream culture and from his own; a Chicano union organizer, injured on a construction site, talks with heartbreaking past-tense hopefulness about his crushed dreams; a Haitian woman embodies the mix of optimism and outrage felt by newcomers who believe in the American promise with more passion than natives ever do.

The evening's giddy high point comes when a stagestruck 11 year old reads a doggerel poem from a school notebook in a chirpy singsong, pausing with intoxicated glee when she gets a laugh. Not only is Jones' rendition of this pre-teen pixie close to an out-of-body experience; the girl's poem, about not wanting to grow up and feel her elders' pain, is a gem-like study in Jones' ability to write pointedly from within her characters' experiences. This precocious charmer is the one, naturally, who gets our applause even after she's disappeared.

This is the great gift of Bridge & Tunnel, liberal pieties and all. It's one thing to feel empathy for the show's outsiders—marginalized people who are too often absent from our stages and audiences, let alone our national conversation. It's quite another to do what Jones does here, which is to put such empathy into action, and to demonstrate its imaginative power on no less a platform than a commercial Broadway stage. Jones' craft resembles that of a sleight-of-hand artist with inexhaustible tricks up her sleeve. But on her sleeve is the unmistakable impression of her heart.

Bridge & Tunnel
Conceived by Sarah Jones and Steve Colman
By Sarah Jones
Directed by Tony Taccone
Helen Hayes Theatre

Nov 20, 2017

The Review Files, Sondheim Edition

From The Sondheim Review, December 2011

Bittersweet Homecoming

By Rob Weinert-Kendt

The perfect Follies, it should be admitted by even its most fervent acolytes, does not exist, and may in fact never have walked the earth, even in its legendary 1971 Boston tryouts and subsequent 15-month original Broadway run. This phantasmal swirl of a musical, in which scenes and songs trace elliptical orbits through a nebulous cloud of faded glitter and wrecking-ball dust, comes together, if it does at all, only when these free-floating elements align in the perception of the attentive viewer, however fleetingly. All theater is ephemeral, of course, alive only in the moment of performance, but it's especially true of Follies.

This alignment of the planets is still rarer due to the show's daunting scope, both in its sheer budgetary scale and in the range of its aesthetic demands. It requires not only a large complement of acting-dancing-singing triple threats, but a double cast of them, in young and old flavors. It's a casting puzzle with several moving parts, literally, and by some accounts even the original production didn't get it "right." A colleague of mine, who has seen the show in four different productions and possesses many more recordings of its score than have been legally released, recently confided that his ideal Follies is a mental chimera, a Frankenstein assembled in his mind from the various productions and recordings he’s seen and heard—his favorite Phyllis from one, a Ben from another, this Sally with that Buddy, a stray Carlotta from an obscure recording, and so on.

This colleague, who like myself is too young to have seen the original 1971 production, has found plenty of fresh parts with which to stock his dream Follies in the current Broadway revival, a hit production transferred from Kennedy Center. And director Eric Schaeffer's production seems to satisfy most of those who've wished for a Follies worthy of their lavish imaginings, as little expense has been spared, from the full 28-piece orchestra to the garish costumes for the Loveland sequence (courtesy of Gregg Barnes). For myself, though I find its musical virtues nearly definitive, this Follies is on the whole a bittersweet homecoming. What I glimpse through its whorl of disparate elements—many if not all of them exquisitely conceived and rendered—is not quite a great show but a great idea for a show, or perhaps more accurately, a number of great ideas for shows.

Sondheim and James Goldman's central idea, of course, is to use a reunion party of the Weismann Follies girls as a way to both evoke and upend rosy-eyed nostalgia for the musical theater of the 1930s, the pre-Rodgers & Hammerstein era that gave us much of the great American songbook, if not our most enduring stage musicals. This gently deconstructive project, whose signature images of older dancers shadowed by their younger selves is still deeply moving, largely evaporates by show's end, which comes to dwell instead on the cross-examination of two foundering marriages originally formed around the Follies stage door.

The link between these retrospective concepts—the ensemble reunion and the brokenhearted quartet—is, I think, meant to be in the way the hope and optimism of the carefree Follies era impossibly raised expectations of fairy-tale romance and an ever-brighter future for Buddy and Sally, Phyllis and Ben, now middle-aged and soured on everything. Follies wants to contrast the sunny bromides of midcentury musical theater ("You're Gonna Love Tomorrow") with gritty truths about aging, death, and regrets ("The Road You Didn't Take").

But one curiosity about the show's structure is that the chronology of decline is reversed; "Your'e Gonna Love Tomorrow" comes well into the second act, as part of a flashback to a Follies-style revue (the Loveland sequence), while "The Road You Didn't Take" is the second of a series of bracing first-act reality checks among the lead couples. Indeed, in Follies, the backward-looking expressions of regret largely precede the forward-looking effusions of hope. While it's true that a clutch of vintage Follies numbers are offered by the ensemble early in the first act ("Rain on the Roof"/"Ah, Paris"/"Broadway Baby"), these don't express the aspirations of our four leads. Follies is not as literally backwards as Merrily We Roll Along, but as in that show we're made to wait to see what these people first saw in each other, and by the time we do, it's too little too late.

There are three notable exceptions to this reversal of expectations and disappointments, and they give this production—and, I'd imagine, nearly any production of Follies—some inarguable high points. First, there's the perfect, self-contained musical scene "Waiting for the Girls Upstairs," which accomplishes in miniature the flashback-doubling the whole show struggles to achieve. Similarly, there's the revelatory mirror number, "Who's That Woman," forcefully led by Terri White (though, it must be said, less than thrillingly choreographed by Warren Carlyle, who understandably doesn't even try to fill Michael Bennett's tap shoes here). And "I'm Still Here," that sui generis not-quite-pastiche showstopper, gets a jagged but grippingly defiant interpretation from Elaine Page.

The lead performances here work better individually than together. The hulking Ron Raines, in particular, nails the ashy bitterness of Ben's self-inflicted despair, and makes the case for songs like "The Road You Didn't Take" and "Too Many Mornings" as singularly unromantic yet somehow rapturous ruminations—songs no one else but Sondheim could have written. But he's an odd match for the petite Bernadette Peters, who is herself something of a rough fit for the sad, deluded Sally. Peters is never less than compelling, but Sally's deep-dish melancholia doesn't quite harmonize with Peters' brittle neurosis, so that her "Losing My Mind" doesn't sear and soar like it can, though her earlier "In Buddy's Eyes" is transfixing (that reversal again).

Danny Burstein, though too young by about a decade, is an ideal Buddy; a tummler with a paradoxical gravity, Burstein is both gladhanding salesman and near-tragic hero, Willy Loman Jr. with ants in his pants. (Carlyle's choreography noticeably fails him, though, on the one-note soliloquy "The Right Girl.")

I've saved the best for last: Jan Maxwell's Phyllis may be definitive, not least because, while her performance has an effortlessly lived-in quality, Maxwell has nevertheless not taken the easy route with the character. Phyllis can be a scene stealer and a ham; she's given some of Goldman's most piquant zingers (there aren't many to go around), and she has the crowd-pleasing profile of the cougar diva, dripping world-weary elegance and keeping a raised eyebrow trained on the young "talent." But Phyllis is a vulnerable soul at bottom, a social climber in a loveless marriage, and it's to Maxwell's credit that she shadows her commanding numbers—the peerless kiss-off "Could I Leave You?," the sassy "Story of Lucy and Jessie"—with a sense of the neediness behind the sneer and the leer.

I can't praise enough the music direction of James Moore, who makes Sondheim's score sparkle and sting, but who crucially lets his lead performers luxuriate in the songs; I've seldom heard Sondheim's music delivered with such ease and confidence, and with none of the familiar anxiety about meeting its daunting musical demands. This unhurried approach pays huge dividends for the lead quartet, who feel throughout like they're singing in character, in the moment, even—remarkably—in the pastiche numbers. Though I missed the chemistry among these four, and I remain unconvinced that the far-flung planets of Follies can ever align to form the masterpiece many of its advocates claim it to be, to witness Sondheim's score performed with such attention to its full breadth of musical and dramatic potential makes this production a good start toward the ideal Follies I will now begin forming in my mind.

Sep 4, 2017

Gotta 'Like It'

The 1950 Broadway production of As You Like It, with Katherine Hepburn as Rosalind/Ganymede. 

Tonight I'm taking my eight-year-old son to see his first Shakespeare: Public Works' adaptation in Central Park of As You Like It. These versions are significantly condensed, musicalized, community-cast a la Cornerstone, and just plain fun, so I'm hoping it will be a delightful and welcoming entry point (that it prominently features wrestlers probably won't hurt). I've been going back and forth on whether to give him a thumbnail synopsis going in, and as I think about it, I'm not sure that task is easier or harder given that this may the Bard's least plotty play ever.

It's an aspect of the work I hadn't fully registered till I was asked some years ago to write a program piece for a production at the Ahmanson, and I fully considered it. Here's what I wrote.


CTG Performances Magazine

February, 2005

"It goes like this..."
As You Like It: The Plot Plays On

by Rob Kendt

A plot in a play is like a melody in a song: It's the clearest characteristic the layman can point to and say, "It goes like this..." It's also the thing the average theatregoer or listener is apt to find missing from a piece he doesn't like. A tune we can hum, a story we can follow—that's all the people ask for. Is that so wrong?

Well, it may not be wrong, but based on many of the works that have survived as classics, it would seem to be mistaken. Try to hum a Bach tune, if you would, or a Chopin etude. And while you're at it, try to recount the plot of As You Like It, one of Shakespeare's most beloved romantic comedies.

You're forgiven if you falter, for As You Like It doesn't have a fully operative story so much as a riot of incident early on—multiple banishments and a would-be deadly wrestling match—and another rash of reconciliations at play's end. These storm-like outbreaks of plot are separated by several cloudless acts of sharp, funny chatter in the Forest of Arden, a seemingly timeless and weightless idyll where not much is in a hurry to happen—unlike, say, the woods of A Midsummer Night's Dream, where mischief and mayhem are the norm.

So why do we keep returning to this smiling, saturnine meditation on love and forgiveness from 1599? And why is Rosalind—a banished noblewoman disguised for much of the play as a boy, mainly for her own perverse amusement—considered such a great role, played in recent times by the likes of Peggy Ashcroft, Katharine Hepburn, Vanessa Redgrave, Juliet Stevenson, and Adrian Lester (in Cheek by Jowl's all-male 1991 production)? Surely it can't just be that she's got the most lines of any female in the Bard's male-dominated ouevre, though that's closer to the mark.

For in As You Like It, Shakespeare comes as close as he ever did to a kind of Socratic dialogue in theme-and-variations form, with characters gathering in various combinations in their languorous forest exile less to advance the plot than to talk, mock, and muse. The mere wisps of story Shakespeare provides are there primarily to usher the characters into the forest as quickly as possible, and later to provide a quick and painless ending. At the play's center, then, are some of the Bard's great ruminative exchanges on life and love, sharpened by contrasts—male and female, jaded and hopeful, city and country—and leavened by an easy laughter that bubbles throughout like an unhurried brook.

One clue to the play's unbuttoned, conversational tone is the relative scarcity of verse: The lovesick Orlando writes doggerel poems to his beloved, and there are verse passages almost arbitrarily scattered throughout, but for the most part As You Like It is as unconstrained by linguistic form as by story structure. Not even Rosalind's Epilogue, in which she steps out of the action and addresses the audience directly, is written in verse.

But there is a form behind the seeming formlessness, or a genre, at least—one that would have been familiar to Shakespeare's contemporaries. The "pastoral" narrative, which juxtaposed the rustic, idealized lives of shepherds with the craven, petty society of the court or the city, was commonplace at the time. Indeed, Shakespeare's source for As You Like It, Thomas Lodge's Rosalynde, had been a popular pastoral romance only 10 years before Shakespeare's play. Lodge himself took inspiration from a 14th century poem, "The Tale of Gamelyn," which concerned itself greatly with the injustices and intrigues of a usurper who sent his enemies into exile.

Both Lodge and then Shakespeare, by focusing more on the exile than the usurping, turned to the pastoral tradition for inspiration. As a style, the pastoral is distinguished more by poetry and song than story; by eulogy as much as mirth; and above all by a conscious idealization of the bucolic over what we might call the cosmopolitan. Most writers in the pastoral mode—which dates back to Greek and Roman literature—did not intend this elevation of country life over court intrigues literally, like some kind of Elizabethan version of our own Jeffersonian myth of the gentleman farmer. Instead they used it figuratively, formally, as a way to critique the mores of contemporary society. The moralizing of the pastoral could also be prone to extremes: Lodge's Rosalynde includes a number of deaths, as well as justice for the story's usurpers.

Shakespeare not only excised the fatalities and the payback, he largely ignored the verse form that characterized most pastorals. Perhaps most importantly, Shakespeare did not use the rustic setting primarily to mock the manners of the court but allowed both "sides"—wise shepherds as well as witty courtiers—plenty of stage time to share and compare points of view.

Rosalind is at the center of this lively symposium, and her willful, even manipulative personality is the key to the play's tone. Dressed as a boy, Ganymede, for her own safety in transport from the court to the country, she remains disguised well past the need for safety—to test the love of Orlando, presumably, but more generally, as she puts it to her friend Celia, to "play the knave." When she chooses to end the charade, it's in her own good time, not because her hand has been forced by an ever-thickening web of lies built on mistaken identities, as with Shakespeare's "twin" comedies—The Comedy of Errors and Twelfth Night. Nor is she cross-dressing to pull off a specific scam, as do Portia and Nerissa in The Merchant of Venice.

This Rosalind is such a cool customer, in fact, that when she meets her long-estranged father, the banished Duke, in the woods, she stays in disguise till play's end. Compare this attitude to Twelfth Night's passionate Viola, whose feigned role as servant boy to the man she loves causes her more anguish than joy, and whose reunion with her surviving twin Sebastian, which clears up all the confusion, is sincere and immediate.

There's a subversive appeal, of course, in such a smart, contrary leading lady. Think of the snappy Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, or even of Kate in The Taming of the Shrew: These are not shrinking violets at men's mercy, though both are ultimately humbled (in wildly varying degrees) into matrimony. Rosalind is no less feisty, but she's considerably slyer: She realizes she can be both more saucy and more mock-subservient as a boy than she ever could be as a strong, thoughtful woman. And she finds that fun—fun to pull off the ruse, and rapturous to hear her lover talk about her as if she's not there. How can we not root for a woman who gives in to such harmless pleasures—who has the savvy, essentially, to treat exile like a sort of vacation? After all, she even packs her fool from court, Touchstone, for the journey.

Comedies are characterized by a movement from discord to harmony, which is why so many of them end in marriages and reconciliations. The special genius of As You Like It—a title whose self-confidence mirrors its heroine's—is that Shakespeare managed to minimize the discord so he could vamp expertly on his chosen themes, like a composer holding a suspended chord in mid-air until he's good and ready to resolve it. It's a rarefied comedy form, certainly, but consider the durability of such plot-light and argument-heavy descedants as The Importance of Being EarnestHeartbreak House, or the entire ouevre of Chekhov, who famously thought of his plays as comedies. As You Like It proves, as if we needed proof, that Shakespeare's virtuosity is in his insights as much as his imagination.

Rob Kendt writes about theatre for the Los Angeles Times, American Theatre, LA Stage, and the Downtown News.