Arts In LA

Arts in New England

Merrily We Roll Along
Huntington Theatre Co.

Reviewed by Bob Verini


Eden Espinosa, Mark Umbers, and Damian Humbley
Photo by T. Charles Erickson

There’s enough interest in Sondheim generally, and in Los Angeles in particular, that I felt a strong need to let my West Coast friends know about the superlative production of Merrily We Roll Along that is being hosted by Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company through Oct. 15. The show itself is not perfect and perhaps never will be. But its score is, in my opinion and that of others I respect, Sondheim’s best or at least one of his top three. And for score or story, Merrily has never shone quite so merrily as in this endeavor piloted by international musical comedy star, and now newbie-director-with-a-bullet, Maria Friedman.
   This is the revival, by London’s Menier Chocolate Factory, of which the composer-lyricist himself said he’d never seen a better; and considering the show’s disastrous 1981 premiere production and many other often-disparaged attempts, he certainly has had many opportunities to experience much worse. Though I left LA prior to the Wallis staging in Beverly Hills, I myself have seen numerous stagings in which the infelicities of George Furth’s book—mostly carried over from Kaufman and Hart’s original 1934 straight play—stood front and center in a predictable, dreary evening. Not this time, not in Boston.
   For those readers unfamiliar with this property, if any there be: This the one about the super-successful Franklin Shepard (playwright in the original; composer in the musical) whose rise to the top of his profession, and corresponding fall into moral infamy, is told riches-to-rags style, backwards, from a Bel Air beach house party in 1976 to a Harlem rooftop in 1957. He’s accompanied along the way by erstwhile roommate and later collaborator Charley Kringas, and Mary Flynn, the littérateuse they meet on the night Sputnik makes its way across the skies: musketeers forever, “Who’s like us?/Damn few” in the words of their musical refrain. The trio falls apart, though of course in this storytelling we first see them at rock bottom, observe the crises along the way, and end up with them at their hope-filled, youthful beginning.

For decades, those with a Merrily problem have traditionally cited screenwriter and professional cynic Herman J. Mankiewicz, Orson Welles’ collaborator on Citizen Kane, whose informal review went as follows: "Here's this wealthy playwright who has repeated successes and earned enormous sums of money, has mistresses as well as a family, an expensive town house, a luxurious beach house and a yacht. The problem is: How did the son of a bitch get into this jam?” That’s kind of ham on wry, and I get his point but I think the real flaws in the plot’s design can be found elsewhere.
   As originally framed by Kaufman and Hart, and as usually portrayed in the musical, there’s precious little for the audience to discover or root for along the way. Since we’ve already witnessed each miserable or fraught or disappointing outcome, seeing what led to it simply makes us feel superior to the characters while limiting emotional involvement with them. Shepard’s downward spiral, which takes Charley and Mary down at the same time, takes on an iron determinism that would embarrass the strictest Calvinist. The program might as well quote “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here,” because there’s never the slightest chance of expecting that things may go well.
   More significantly, a trap in the piece that most productions fall into is a heavy-handed moralism about the wages of artistic endeavor. Frank starts out noble and idealistic, regularly planning to turn his and Charley’s hands to a progressive epic about working folk they’ve titled Take a Left, though it always gets pushed aside, first by their early breaks and then by the increasingly commercial stuff Frank is drawn to like moth to flame. What usually comes through in the playing is a blanket indictment of show business ambition and success, as if all who aspire to make an enormous living must inevitably lose their souls in the process. It’s a sophomoric and oddly Manichaean view of the biz—you’re either pure, idealistic and just scraping by, or earning a fortune and becoming corrupt—and even odder when you consider the enormous wealth of the Messrs. Sondheim, Furth, Prince (original director), Kaufman, and Hart who preached this sermon.

The Menier-Friedman take avoids this pitfall entirely, but focusing not on “artistic creation” generally or universally but on one man—Franklin Shepard—and his bad, bad choices made along his merry way. This revival resists any universal indictment of wealthy writers, let alone any idealization of poor, struggling ones. Instead, it keeps its eye firmly fixed on a single, flawed character with whom we actually can identify and even sympathize.
   The means by which this is achieved begins with Friedman’s bookending the entire saga with Frank’s reflection, so that the production scheme seems to be his personal self-examination. It also involves performances by the principals that are more than usually nuanced. Take our anti-hero, for instance. Even at Frank’s lowest ebb (the early scenes), when he’s usually portrayed as an unambiguous rotter, Mark Umbers is personally appealing, and only becomes more so as the musical goes along (while Umbers makes one of the most believable transitions from age to youth I have ever seen). He’s so likable, in fact, that he does the impossible and wins our sympathy, or at least see the conflicts in his life from his point of view.
   Meanwhile, in most Merrilys the other two musketeers come across as the put-upon voices of reason, passive victims of their best friend’s thoughtlessness and greed. But the wonderful Eden Espinosa—so marvelous as Elphaba when Wicked first descended into LA’s Pantages Theatre—embraces Mary’s delusions and self-pity with both hands, making it clear that her descent into alcoholism and writer’s block has a complex skein of causes behind it. And the superb Damian Humbley’s Charley reveals his own wellspring of selfishness and cluelessness.

Case in point. Sondheim gives Charley, and whoever plays him, an incredible first act tour de force called “Franklin Shepard Inc.” in which, during a TV interview with the collaborators, the lyricist explodes in a torrent of animus and mockery, explaining what it’s like to try to create art with an entrepreneur wheeler-dealer like his partner. Like “I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” in Dreamgirls, it never fails to get screams, and Humbley does it full musical and comic justice. However, it’s performed here in a vein of entitlement and vanity I’ve never seen injected into the number before, and Frank reacts with an unprecedented blend of genuine rage and hurt. For the first time in my Merrily experience of six or seven previous productions, the scene was not some Old Testament prophet denouncing a sinner, but a friend carelessly and wantonly betraying another friend who, whatever his personal weaknesses, didn’t deserve that treatment.
   Throughout the evening I found moment after moment like this—staging and acting that rang with the truth of human behavior, no one fully saint or sinner but all possessed of grace and blind spots in pretty much equal measure. Well, maybe not all; Aimee Doherty’s Gussie struck me as too one-dimensional in her villainy, and for my money Christopher Chew never fully inhabited her woeful producer-husband. But Merrily rolls or founders on its three principals, and there this production has it made.

What’s universal in Friedman’s production is what’s best about Merrily We Roll Along specifically—nostalgia for the optimistic, ambitious, wide-eyed kids we once were, accompanied by rue at the choices we ourselves made along the way. I wish I could say everything I wanted to about the brilliance of Sondheim’s score in this regard. It evokes each of its eras from late ’70s pop to the late ’50s Broadway sound but muscularly, without pastiche. Individual leitmotifs filter in and out across the years to point up character. So many sublime songs, several ingeniously presented in double or triple contexts: “Not a Day Goes By” as bitter indictment and then yearning ballad; or “Good Thing Going,” first a syrupy hit single, then a hymn of regret, and finally a tinkly, upbeat paean to Manhattan.
   And finally “Our Time,” that swelling anthem to the dreams of youth, sure to bring any listener to memories of their own dreams of a bygone day, and maybe a few tears over what actually transpired in the course of our lives as we rolled along, so merrily.

October 3, 2017
 
Huntington Theatre Co., Boston, Mass. Sept. 8–Oct. 15. Running time 2 hours and 40 minutes, including intermission.

Theater
 

 
Our American Hamlet
Commonwealth Shakespeare Company in residence at Babson College

Reviewed by Bob Verini


Jacob Fishel, Maureen Keiller, Jake Broder, Will Lyman, and Joe Fria
Photo by Nile Hawver/Nile Scott Shots

Even if the youngest son hadn’t sought immortality by murdering our 16th president, the Booth family story would eminently qualify as the source of high drama, early-American style. In the saga of fabled, dissolute touring tragedian Junius Brutus, and even more fabled classical actor Edwin, can be found such fertile themes as father-son competitiveness; modern artistic concepts elbowing out traditional ones; infidelity and betrayal (Junius kept a second wife and family in the UK, to the chagrin of the home folks); sibling rivalry (young Johnny, too, aspired, to his father’s crown), and the remarkable and persistent vulnerability of performers to demon rum and mental illness.

   With the blossoming of an assassin on the family tree comes a wealth of additional facets, including a family’s shame at having raised a viper in their midst; the “celebrity murder” phenomenon, which caught on a century later but whose roots lay in the tragedy of 1865; the haunting of the present by the past; and the unforgiving nature of the mob, who insisted on tarring Edwin with the same bloody brush as John Wilkes. Multitalented Jake Broder—he who rocked L.A. with his writing and acting in Louis & Keely ‘Live’ at the Sahara and Miravel—has managed to incorporate all of the above thematic elements into a 90-minute dramatic portrait.

 Our American Hamlet received a stylish, accomplished world premiere engagement by the prestigious Commonwealth Shakespeare Company of Wellesley, Mass., and now that the short run (ending April 2) has ended, the way should be clear for some needed script work prior to the many additional productions that will doubtless follow. (Full disclosure: Jake hosted the 2016 LA Drama Critics Circle Awards, which I produced, and we became friends.)

The Booths have been the source of drama before, of course. But the biography Prince of Players, the film adaptation of the same name starring Richard Burton, and Milton Geiger’s stage play Edwin Booth failed to do their subject justice due to a sluggish, conventional, chronology-based approach.

   Broder has wisely chosen a more impressionistic take on the material, one that director Steven Maler has happily run with. The action is set within a framing device in which, months after the assassination, Edwin Booth (Jacob Fishel) is about to face the madding crowd in a New York revival of Hamlet. Passions are high and death threats swirling, as reported by Booth intimate Adam Badeau (a real-life character, portrayed by Broder here). Would it not be wiser to go abroad or just lay low? But Edwin is driven, and we alternate between the dressing room and flashes of his past, often enough to render it not just understandable but also inevitable that he would seek to make this most daring public appearance at this most fraught public moment.

   Julia Noulin-Merat’s set is itself a stage, opening out to the auditorium shown on the back wall, with a dressing room, ropes, and a locking rail stage left. And why not, since the world of the Booths was always the world of backstage and greasepaint. Maler and Noulin-Merat have platforms and furniture deftly sliding in and out so that the events of a half-century of touring and family tension can sail along. Particularly impressive is the sound design of David Remedios, which makes ghostly voices manifest and allows us to feel the impact of a bloodthirsty mob even while the onstage cast merely numbers seven.

But Broder has something even more sophisticated in mind than just fracturing time frame and incident. He has taken pains to weave the plot, characters, and lines of Hamlet into the Booths’ everyday and professional lives. This effort—which one senses really tickled the playwright—feels very right: A family defined by its relationship to the theater might well be in the habit of communicating through Shakespearean references. And with Edwin so obsessed by the role of the haunted Prince, it makes psychological sense that his shaky command of reality should be seen through the lens of that play.

   The whole thing is a tall order for any cast to handle, but Maler’s ensemble is up to the challenge. Fishel is a splendid Edwin, louche and period-believable in his relaxed moments and scarily frenzied when madness is upon him. You start to wish you could see him play Hamlet in full, which could be the best possible compliment to anyone portraying this role. The playwright is quite persuasive as Badeau, whom historians have believed for years was enamored of Edwin in every possible way and may or may not have made his intentions known; Broder subtly hints at the role’s undertones.


Jacob Fishel and Will Lyman
Photo by Nile Hawver/Nile Scott Shots


   The superb Will Lyman—a local stalwart, known by voice around the world as the longtime narrator of PBS’s Frontline—goes toe to toe with Fishel as the patriarch, while Joe Fria, familiar to LA audiences, manages to negotiate both the comic swagger and murderous mania of John Wilkes. Kelby Akin gets less to do as the eldest Booth son (I’d forgotten about June, who went off early to produce plays on the Pacific Coast and missed most of the sibling warfare), but acquits himself capably in various other roles. It’s a little odd to have the same actor double as Edwin’s sister and wife—yikes!—though Lucy Davenport differentiates them nicely; the doubling of Junius’s two wives is a little less weird and Maureen Keiller thrives in both parts.

To bring his play to the next level, Broder needs to reexamine his framing device, which is predicated on Badeau’s attempt to dissuade Edwin from making himself available to the angry crowd. But that effort dissipates quickly, and very soon each revisit to the 1866 playhouse just becomes a too-convenient way to lay out exposition. If we’re going to keep returning to them, Badeau and Edwin need a genuine dramatic question they can wrestle with for the play’s duration, and the transitions between 1866 and the past need clarifying (the director’s aid could be enlisted here). More knotty—although rather noble, all things considered—is the confidence Broder has that his audience is intimately familiar with Hamlet’s plot and lines. Amidst the prevailing 19th-century diction, we’re never quite sure when they’re shifting into Shakespearean quotes; as it is, those references seem shoehorned in by the playwright, rather than the result of conscious character choices.
   Whatever work it needs, Our American Hamlet is already an ambitious and absorbing entertainment.

April 10, 2017
 
Arrabal
American Repertory Theater, Cambridge, Mass.

Reviewed by Bob Verini


Juan Cupini and Micaela Spina
Photo by Cylla Von Tiedemann

T
he experience of Arrabal, the new tango musical at American Repertory Theater, is like stepping into a Latin American fever dream whose details you dread, yet you never want to leave. This tale of Argentina’s experience during the awful 1976–1983 junta is told almost completely with bodies yet without words. Never anything less than enthralling as a piece of theater, it cuts deeper, politically speaking, than the viewer has any right to expect of dance storytelling. The unusual artistic collaboration among composer Gustavo Santaolalla (Brokeback Mountain) and librettist John Weidman (Pacific Overtures), marshaled by director Sergio Trujillo (Jersey Boys) and his co-choreographer Julio Zurita, pays off intoxicatingly.
   After seeing Tango Argentino on Broadway years ago—the imported revue of which many Arrabal personnel were a part—I felt I had experienced everything the tango had to offer in a theatrical event. The dancers’ skill and athleticism were undeniable, but the succession of set pieces with Latin melodies and rhythms lacked variety and nuance for me as a novice, and I confess that it was a struggle to return for intermission. What I didn’t reckon on was the power of this dance form when tied to a muscular narrative, and this is precisely where Arrabal took me by surprise. As varied as the tango can be—sad or comic, sweetly romantic or torridly sexual by turns—this show demonstrates that it takes on even greater emotional impact when asked to express characters in turmoil.
   Therefore, as catchy and smile-inducing as Santoalalla’s melodies are, and as excitingly executed as they are by the tango-rock fusion quintet known as Bajofondo, Weidman is probably the key player in Arrabal’s success; and while the book writer is generally the key, if underappreciated, element in any musical, I would argue that’s even more true here. As with Contact, Susan Stroman’s brilliant 1999 Lincoln Center dance-theater triptych, Weidman was asked to supply a clear yet nuanced storyline that could both support the dance milieu and be understood narratively within it.

If all of that weren’t hard enough to do, Arrabal offered Weidman an even greater challenge in that it proposed to make use of a woeful page of history: the resistance to military rule that took thousands—known as the Desaparecidos, “the disappeared ones”—away from home and family, many never to be heard from again. (If U.S. audiences know the melancholy details at all, it’s probably through 1986’s Oscar-winning foreign film The Official Story.) Arrabal is treading in dangerous waters here. To play-act at those victims’ real-life sacrifices, couching them in generic dance clichés, would’ve been to trivialize them beyond endurance.
   Weidman chose to represent two generations simultaneously: the innocent Arrabal (Micaela Spina) and her stalwart father, Rodolfo (Zurita), the truth of whose fate under dictatorship proves to be the ingénue’s life quest. The story whipsaws between 1976 and 1984 through flashbacks and overlapping action, all centered on a Buenos Aires tango palace managed by the suave El Puma (Carlos Rivarola). The crucial link between the two stories, he’s one of those careful operators destined to survive under any regime, albeit at a significant psychological cost. And like the Kit Kat Klub in Cabaret, his establishment offers a haven of sybaritic pleasure on the surface, while harboring betrayal and intrigue behind closed doors and within dirty alleyways.
   The playmakers’ tactics work like a charm, but deceptively. Designer Riccardo Hernandez has replaced several rows of seats in the Loeb Theater Center with round tables and chairs, ashtrays and little lamps, and by the time most of the audience has arrived, the cast has grabbed a half-dozen couples for onstage tango lessons. It’s all very jolly and facile and Tango Argentino all over again—that is, until the projections begin: the newscasts announcing the arrest of strongman Gen. Jorge Rafael Videla; flashbacks to the TV announcement of martial law; the back wall of headshots of the actual Desaparecidos. The audience volunteers withdraw and the real dancers, dazzling in Clint Ramos’s color-saturated clothes under Vincent Colbert’s lighting, take the stage. Their passion is suddenly placed within a deadly serious context that pulls one up short.
   There are scenes of persecution, interrogation under torture, and random violence that convey in dynamic shorthand the perils of surviving in a fascist state. There are also moments of exquisite beauty when boy (dreamy Juan Cupini) meets girl, and even riotous comedy in the person of the zoot-suited Mario Rizzo, the Artful Dodger to El Puma’s Fagin, contorting head and body as he guides our heroine around the town. And it’s all told with crystal clarity, through virtuoso dance.

I wish Trujillo and Weidman had made more of the cabaret crowd. They tango on and on through oppression and liberation alike, but we don’t get much of a sense of their relationship to the political shifting of winds. Arrabal herself could use more of a character arc: Not that we need to see her become radicalized like a Patty Hearst, but sheltered as she is at first, it would be thematically useful to see how the revelations of the past, her country’s and her family’s, could lead to her maturity.
   But these are small cavils about a stunning total-theater experience, which I hope Los Angeles will get a chance to experience first hand.

June 4, 2017
 
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