As I mentioned a while back, I picked up a new gig writing for About.com as the Musical and Theater Expert. I was hoping that the gig wouldn't interfere with my blogging, and so far that has actually been the case. As to whether this will continue as the school year starts up, well, stay tuned.
I'll still be publishing most of my reviews here on my blog, while at About.com I'll be posting more evergreen stuff about theatergoing in general. One review that I decided to post on About.com was for my recent revisit to The Phantom of the Opera with its new stars, Norm Lewis and Sierra Boggess. Here's a link to that review, as well as to the rest of my About.com postings for August.
1. What musical is the following lyric from? 2. Which character is singing? 3. What is this character singing about?
All that matters now Is where we go from here. There's an easier way If we live for today. The singing in my heart Is all that matters.
Well, you can probably tell from the title of this review, as well as the accompanying artwork, that we're talking about the new Broadway-bound musical Finding Neverland. The character singing is named Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, played memorably by Kate Winslet in the 2004 movie of the same name. And the character is singing about...well...I really have no idea. Therein lies one of the major liabilities of Finding Neverland in its current form: You could hear the entire score and still not really understand what was going on in the show.
When the first announcements appeared about Finding Neverland becoming a musical, the composer and lyricist were to be Scott Frankel and Michael Korie, respectively. After multiple readings and productions, Frankel and Korie were suddenly no longer attached. We may never know how the show would have fared with Frankel and Korie, but based on my experience with their previous work (Grey Gardens, Happiness, Far From Heaven), I have to conclude that the show would have been significantly more intelligent, tuneful, integrated, and original than the uninspired concoction that is currently playing at the American Repertory Theatre.
As anyone who's seen the original movie knows, Finding Neverland concerns playwright J.M. Barrie and his relationship with a young widow and her four boys, who inspire him to write his best-known work, Peter Pan. It's a wonderful idea for a musical, and there are brief moments in the current show that hint at the magic that could have been. Most of these come in the form of stagecraft, as at the end of the show when Sylvia makes her most significant transition. Powerful fans emerge in a circle in the center of the stage, which create a whirlwind of golden glitter, a gorgeous moment that brings the stories of the musical and Peter Pan together in a stunning coup de théâtre.
In between these rare moments of wonder, we must contend with an inferior score and a merely serviceable book. Producer Harvey Weinstein replaced Frankel and Korie with musical-theater neophytes Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy (music and lyrics together). Their lack of musical-theater experience shows, partly in the overabundance of slant rhyme, poor scansion, and forced extra syllables, but also in their tin-eared, derivative contemporary musical style. The only decent song in the entire score is "Neverland," although you'd never know it from Jennifer's Hudson's riffando version on the Tony Awards. Add in James Graham's bald-faced dialogue and ham-fisted plot exposition, and we have a musical that would seem more fitting for The Disney Channel than the legitimate Broadway stage.
Barlow and Kennedy also show their inexperience in their choice of moments to musicalize. The third number in the show, when I saw it in previews, was a rather odd number for J.M. Barrie's wife, called "Rearrange the Furniture," which is pretty much as it says on the box. The number is superficial character work at best, and the character doesn't really warrant a number in the first place. On the other hand, we have a major moment in the second act, when J.M. Barrie brings the entire cast of Peter Pan to recreate the show in the bedroom of an ailing Sylvia, a moment that would seem to cry out for a musical number, but all we get is a stylized retread of Barrie's play.
Another problem with Finding Neverland is a rather bizarre mismatch of styles. The generic pop score is at odds with the Victorian time frame, which would be fine if not for the rather literal period costumes and sets. We also get a series of jarringly angular and jerky dance sequences from choreographer Mia Michaels, a self-aggrandizing style that disappears about a quarter of the way through the show, never to return. (Michaels' most significant credit would seem to be So You Think You Can Dance. Yeah, that's who I'd hire for a 19th Century period piece.)
Director Diane Paulus seems to be struggling with how to bring the material to life, and a number of sequences reflect this uncertainty. There's a dinner-party number that's meant to show how the kids, Sylvia, and Barrie occupy one world, while Barrie's wife and Sylvia's mother are in another world entirely. It's a good idea, but as currently staged the number has no focus. There's so much going on, it's hard to know what to pay attention to, an issue exacerbated by a spate of mugging chorus members continually trying to pull focus.
Another number, called "Believe," is meant to be inspirational, with Barrie encouraging the Llewelyn boys to let their creativity take flight, but Paulus fleshes out the number with a rather bizarre admixture of buskers and bees. As I sat watching the show, I kept thinking of Big Fish, another show that wanted to celebrate story-telling and imagination, but wound up demonstrating very little of either.
One thing that Finding Neverland has in its favor is a stellar cast of first-rate Broadway performers, including Jeremy Jordan as Barrie, Laura Michelle Kelly as Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, and Carolee Carmello as Madame du Maurier, Sylvia's mother. They all get their chance to belt their brains out, if that's your idea of great theater, but I had to feel sorry for Carolee for having to deliver the reprise of "All That Matters," generic lyric and all. Also in the cast is Tony winner Michael McGrath as theatrical impresario Charles Frohman, and I swear I could sense McGrath gritting his teeth while trudging through a show that is decidedly beneath his talent.
On a final note, why is such a manifestly commercial show even playing at the ART to begin with? Other than money, that is? I suppose it's possible to argue that All The Way, The Glass Menagerie, Porgy and Bess, and even Pippin might in some way intersect with the artistic mission of a major nonprofit theater at one of the most prestigious universities in the world. But Finding Neverland? Such a patently mercenary venture feels like filthy lucre, and nothing more.
John Waters writes in one of his books (I think it was Crackpot) that he wishes that someone would discover an unpublished Jean Genet novel. He's read everything extant by Genet, he says, and longs for that special feeling of experiencing something truly great for the first time.
That's how I felt watching The Visit, the hauntingly satisfying "new" musical with music by John Kander and lyrics by the late Fred Ebb: thrilled to experience something genuinely ambitious and frequently wondrous, and yet sad that most of the genius involved in crafting this stunning show is either gone or in its dotage.
And then there's The Visit, which had a well-received run in 2008 at The Signature Theatre in Arlington, VA, although talk of bringing that production to New York never bore fruit, purportedly because of the 2008 recession. Thankfully, The Visit is now enjoying a stunning production, significantly revised and shortened from previous versions, at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, playing now through August 17th.
The musical is based on the eponymous 1956 play The Visit by Friedrich Dürrenmatt, and the musical sticks fairly close to its source. The story concerns one Claire Zachanassian, who returns to her hometown after becoming the richest woman in the world. She offers to save the town from its ruinous state, but with one chilling proviso: the town must kill her former lover, Anton Schell, now an indigent shopkeeper with a wife and two children.
If that conceit seems static -- I mean, once the horrifying condition is revealed, where do you go from there? -- both the play and the musical follow up with an intriguing series of developments and revelations that add layers to the seemingly inert premise. The musical is by turns arresting, poignant, and darkly humorous. It also manages to paint a balanced portrait of horror and justice: Claire is clearly a deeply wronged woman, and yet Anton makes for a penitent and sympathetic foil. When we discover exactly what Anton did to Claire, we almost accept the righteousness of her demands, the justice inherent in her savage proposal.
I've seen many musicals attempt to balance dark subject matter with a satisfying sense of entertainment and humor, and it's a really difficult task to pull off. (Just ask the authors of Lestat, Bare, Heathers, The People in the Picture, Scandalous, Soul Doctor, etc.) Librettist Terrence McNally finds just the right balance of the edgy and the enjoyable in The Visit, something he was unable to do for Catch Me If You Can.
Composer John Kander matches McNally's balance with a lush and soaring score with numerous complex contrapuntal passages. Kander and Ebb together crafted songs that can easily stand among their classics, including "Love and Love Alone," a triumphant 11 o'clock number for Claire, and "You, You, You," a soaring love duet for Young Claire and Young Anton, who act as mostly silent witnesses throughout the entire show. (Young Anton is played here by golden-voiced Boston Conservatory grad, John Bambery. Full Disclosure: John is a former student of mine, but trust me, the guy's got the pipes. Yowza.)
The Visit benefits greatly from the sensitive direction of, and stark presentation by, director John Doyle. (And, in case you're wondering: No, the performers are not required to play instruments here.) In concert with scenic designer Scott Pask (who creates a gasp-inducing unit set) and costume designer Ann Hould Ward, Doyle has fashioned a hauntingly expressionistic, black, white, and gray production, punctuated with increasing accents of vibrant yellow, a symbol of the avarice that overcomes the townspeople as they gradually turn against Anton.
For many people, the big draw of this production will be the first-rate cast, lead by the irreplaceable Chita Rivera, so fluid and sharp, even at age 81. Roger Rees fares considerably less well as Anton: he's more than up to the acting challenge, but his singing voice is sadly lacking in strength and sustain. Also notable are Judy Kuhn, laser-sharp as always as Anton's beleaguered wife, and Jason Danieley, positively heartbreaking as the schoolmaster, and Anton's last remaining ally.
If The Visit never finds the thematic cohesion of, say, Cabaret or even The Scottsboro Boys, it still has much to reveal about the dark side of human nature and the artistic ambitions of musical theater. I'm not sure The Visit has much of a commercial future, but it would be great to see one of the Broadway nonprofits like the Roundabout or Lincoln Center scoop it up for a limited run.
Most jukebox shows rely on the name-recognition factor to lure in the crowds. Well, here's a musical that has sort of the opposite goal: to bring our attention to a name that many of us have never heard of.
A worthy goal. But here's the thing: after seeing Piece of My Heart, I don't really know any more about Berns than I did before.
As is often the case with songbook musicals, Piece of My Heart is at its best when it's singing. The production features a top-notch cast of New York professionals, including Leslie Kritzer, Linda Hart, Derrick Baskin, and Zak Resnick in the title role, all of whom bring intensity and kick-ass vocals to their performances. Also, director/choreographer Denis Jones provides slick and efficient staging, filling the stage with plenty to keep the eye occupied and interested.
The main problem with Piece of My Heart is Daniel Goldfarb's leaden and thin book. The interesting thing here is that the songs, unlike those of many other jukebox shows, actually feel like they fit the story, albeit with a few rather glaring exceptions. But the book is hampered by some rather hoary dialogue, underdeveloped plot threads, and a sort of rush to the finish line.
Perhaps the biggest liability here is Goldfarb's dialogue, which alternates between didacticism and cliché. Characters spout such ham-fisted chronological cues as "These past two years have been wonderful..." Another interchange has Berns pleading with a Cuban revolutionary, "Teach me the music of your people," to which the Cuban responds, "You have a sadness at one with my country's sadness." Yeesh. At other times, Goldfarb includes lines of implied portent without payoff. One of the characters says, of Berns, "To get to his music, he had to go to some dark places," which is fine, except that what follows isn't particularly dark.
The most risible dialogue of all comes during Berns's death scene. Berns died at 38 from a heart attack that stemmed from a bout of rheumatic fever when he was young. In Piece of My Heart, as Berns clutches his heart, he manages to write down on a piece of paper, "My children will know me through my music." I suppose it's possible that Berns actually did this as he died, but that doesn't make it any less treacly.
Goldfarb's book is full of events, but devoid of explanatory depth. Berns has an interracial romance that doesn't work out; a stint in Cuba complete with revolutionaries and whores; a fight over control of his record-label. Only the last of these really seems relevant to the task at hand. The show also features a framing device involving a posthumous battle between Berns's widow and a fictional daughter (although Berns did in fact have children of his own), who vie for control over Berns's work. Piece of My Heart seems to be in such a rush to cram all of the events of Berns's short life into the show that it doesn't take enough time to develop the events themselves.
The bar has never been very high for jukebox musicals, at least in terms of whether the public will attend. In that respect, Piece of My Heart is certainly more worthy than such theatrical dreck as Mamma Mia, Baby It's You or A Night With Janis Joplin. If it doesn't quite rank with the gold standards of the genre (Jersey Boy, Beautiful: The Carol King Musical), there's at least enough here in terms of the music, the staging, and the cast to warrant a trip to 42nd Street.