Monday, November 27, 2023

The Turbulent Thirties: I Can Get It for You Wholesale and Spain

Judy Kuhn and Santino Fontana in I Can Get It for You Wholesale. (Photo: Sara Krulwich)

The composer-lyricist Harold Rome, who died in 1993, has been more or less forgotten, but he was one of the few Broadway songwriters who wore his leftist politics on his sleeve. He broke through in a 1937 revue called Pins and Needles that focused on the uneasy relationship between management and labor and was produced by the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, whose members performed the sketches and musical numbers. How it managed to move from a tiny studio above the Labor Stage (the former Princess Theatre) to a Broadway house is something of a mystery, but counting all three editions, it ran for more than three years and made Rome’s reputation. His career spanned more than three more decades. A few of his shows were successful: the 1946 revue Call Me Mister, about returning servicemen; Wish You Were Here (1952), an adaptation of the Arthur Kober play Having Wonderful Time, set at an adult summer camp in the Catskills; Fanny (1954), based on a trilogy of French romantic dramas by Marcel Pagnol; and Destry Rides Again (1959), with Andy Griffith and Dolores Gray taking the roles played famously by Jimmy Stewart and Marlene Dietrich in the 1939 picture, a hybrid western-romantic comedy. (Destry Rides Again was the first show I saw on Broadway, when I was eight.) Until this season the only one that has been revived in New York, to my knowledge, is Fanny, which made it onto an Encores! slate in 2010 and proved to be just as bland and unmemorable as the original cast album indicated. It would be fun for someone to mount Wish You Were Here, which contains some lovely songs; Eddie Fisher made the hit parade with his recording of the title song. But don’t get your hopes up: in the original version the director, Joshua Logan, and the designer, Jo Mielziner, flooded the orchestra pit to create a swimming pool, which made even a pre-Broadway tryout tour impossible.

After the one-of-a-kind Pins and Needles, Rome’s most interesting musical was I Can Get It for You Wholesale (1962), which Jerome Weidman culled from his 1939 novel about life in Manhattan’s garment district. If musical theatre mavens know it at all, it’s for introducing Barbra Streisand, who played the indispensable secretary of the show’s protagonist, Harry Bogen, and brought down the house with her big number, “Miss Marmelstein.” (Bogen was played by Elliott Gould, nearly a decade before Robert Altman made him a movie star in M*A*S*H; Gould became Streisand’s first husband. And Streisand was among the singers who made the only recording of the score for Pins and Needles the same year, to honor the twenty-fifth anniversary of its premiere.) Perhaps Trip Cullman’s sharp-edged, sharp-witted production of Wholesale for Classic Stage Company, which closes December 17, will have the effect of bringing a woefully neglected musical to light. Weidman’s son John, who wrote the books for three of Stephen Sondheim’s shows – including, in this critic’s opinion, his finest, the 1975 Pacific Overtures – has reworked the original book, and never having read the original I can’t say how much he’s altered it. One change I could deduce by looking at the 1962 playbill online: he’s added an opening episode with real punch that dramatizes Harry’s first bitter experience of the tough (and anti-Semitic) New York streets, which, at about thirteen years of age, he has to navigate while delivering goods for garment manufacturers. Weidman, Cullman and the inventive choreographer, Ellenore Scott, have initiated this section with a dance number featuring the talented young dancer Victor de Paula Rocha as the young Harry and ended it with Judy Kuhn as Mrs. Bogen introducing the song “Eat a Little Something,” which didn’t appear until late in the second act in the original production. In this iteration that version of the song is a reprise, sung to Santino Fontana as the grown-up Harry.

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Feeling Her Pain: Emma Bovary at the National Ballet of Canada

Hannah Galway and Siphesihle November in Emma Bovary. (Photo: Karolina Kuras/Courtesy of The National Ballet of Canada)

Emma Bovary ran at Toronto’s Four Season’s Centre from November 11-18.

In the promo video the National Ballet of Canada put out in advance of the world premiere of Emma Bovary, choreographer Helen Pickett says that her intention was to get the audience to understand what the titular character – one of the greatest female creations in all of literature – is feeling. That undersells it.

A triumph of dance-theatre where every gesture is loaded with narrative meaning, Emma Bovary has more to do with how we feel while watching it. Much like Gustave Flaubert’s original mid-19th-century realist novel, the experience is vividly complex. We are riveted, repulsed, seduced, astonished, amused, horrified and ultimately sympathetic. Gratification is also part of the emotional mix. Together with her collaborator, the English theatre and opera director James Bonas, the California-born Pickett – a former Ballet Frankfurt dancer who has choreographed more than 60 works – has created an ultra-physical narrative ballet so potent it grabs you at your core.

Wednesday, November 15, 2023

Steve: Merrily We Roll Along and Here We Are

Daniel Radcliffe, Jonathan Groff, and Lindsay Mendez in Merrily We Roll Along. (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

Every time there’s a new edition of the Stephen Sondheim-George Furth musical Merrily We Roll Along critics proclaim that this notorious 1981 failure has finally been fixed or that it was misunderstood in its time but now we can see clearly the gem that was always hiding under the unjust hype. I didn’t like the show from the first and none of the productions I’ve seen has changed my mind. But since I’ve written about two of them on Critics At Large, I’ll be brief here about my objections. I think that, like its source material, a 1934 play of the same name by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, it’s disastrously misconceived: a play about a messed-up three-way friendship that begins when the three main characters – a composer and playwright-lyricist who were once collaborators and a novelist-turned-drama critic – are already middle-aged and moves backwards to their hopeful youth, by which time we dislike them so much that we have no sympathy left for the people they used to be. Furth’s book is as thin as rice paper and as phony as plastic, and only a few of the songs are worth much (mainly the two ballads, “Not a Day Goes By” and “Good Thing Going”). Ironically, the 2016 documentary Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened, directed by the original Charlie, Lonny Price, in which (among other things) he listens to the resurfaced interview tape Harold Prince had him make when he auditioned for the part, works in precisely the way the musical doesn’t: it truly is about a man in middle age looking back on the naïve, hopeful kid he once was. It made me cry as Merrily We Roll Along had never come close to doing.

Wednesday, November 8, 2023

Mickey and Joey: Sabbath’s Theater and Pal Joey

Elizabeth Marvel and John Turturro in Sabbath's Theater. (Photo: Jeenah Moon)

Devoted as I am to Philip Roth’s novels, I had trouble with his National Book Award winner Sabbath’s Theater, which he released in 1995. Its stylistic excesses in the service of underlining the sexual indulgences of its sixty-four-year-old protagonist, the one-time puppeteer Mickey Sabbath, whose career was sidelined by arthritis, defeated me; I put it down after a couple of hundred pages. It’s the only one of Roth’s many books I couldn’t finish. But maybe I should give it another try. Ariel Levy and John Turturro’s stage adaptation, produced by The New Group at the Signature Theatre with Turturro as Sabbath, is a majestic piece of theatre, notwithstanding the modesty of Jo Bonney’s production: three actors, two of whom, Elizabeth Marvel and Jason Kravits, play several parts; a small space containing a few props and an upstage screen for projecting a handful of evocative images (and in one scene Kravits’s silhouette); Roth’s 451 pages trimmed down to an hour and forty minutes of text without intermission.

Monday, October 30, 2023

Killers of the Flower Moon: Martin Scorsese’s Hobbled Epic

Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio in Killers of the Flower Moon.

Killers of the Flower Moon is great around the edges. Martin Scorsese’s movie, adapted from David Grann’s jaw-dropping 2017 account of the serial murders of Osage Indians in Oklahoma in the 1920s that enabled white men to secure their “headrights” – the legacy, shared equally among the community, of land rich in oil – is three and a half hours long and cost $200 million, and God knows you can see the money on the screen. The film, shot by Rodrigo Prieto, with production design by Jack Fisk and costumes by Jacqueline West, looks magnificent. The period reconstructions are dazzling and capture a cross-hatched culture, rich in visual irony, where natives, professing a faith that mixes Catholicism with the religion of their ancestors, dress in a combination of traditional garb and the flamboyant style of wealthy white men while they tool around in chauffeured Pierce Arrow roadsters and fly private airplanes. The opening scenes are lively and exciting, a circus-like montage of oil strikes and auctions and raucous general celebration that spills out of barrooms and restaurants into the streets of Fairfax, the Osage reservation town that has grown out of the oil boom. This is some of Scorsese’s best filmmaking – visually dense, outré, darkly funny. We barely have a chance to process the omnipresence of white men who have intermarried with the Osage women before it all turns sinister. The natives are dying in staggering numbers, some the victims in unsolved murders, others expiring from suspicious illnesses.

Thursday, October 26, 2023

In the Labyrinth: Picasso’s Graphic Work

Lucien Clergue, Portrait (1956).

“Mystery is the essential ingredient of every work of art.” – Luis Buñuel

Who and what do we see when we study the splendid photographic portrait of Pablo Ruiz Picasso captured by the esteemed Lucien Clergue in1956, when the Spanish artist was at the height of his powers? Having been adopted as a global cultural citizen beyond all mere geographical borders, the words who and what are both applicable in his unique case, as someone who was as vital and revolutionary in painting as his countryman Cervantes was in literature three hundred years earlier. So when Clergue memorialized that dramatic face, some four decades after the artist first reinvented the history of art at the turn of the last century, recasting it in his own image by collaborating with Georges Braque in the revelation of Cubism, and with roughly another two tumultuous decades still remaining in his titanic aesthetic mission, what sort of portrait telegram did the photographer manage to send us all in the future, and yet further into the future of the future? His portrait seems to whisper: behold, a living archetype.

Picasso’s elusive and mercurial character, a persona he appeared to perform as if he lived on a stage, still has the capacity to allure and amaze us. With good reason, and these powerful works on paper assembled here are an accurate indication of exactly why. He was a towering figure who looms large in both the art world and the world of popular culture, a gargantuan artist beyond most limits and even any definitions. Gazing at the overwhelming confidence in the awesome face of the man behind these prints, I am often reminded of the words of a favourite Brazilian author, Clarice Lispector: “He had the elongated skull of a born rebel.” I do hope so, Clarice, but all the landforms of his skull grew inward, like stalagmites, rather than upward and out. His Guernica painting from 1937 was one such interior landform, but then, so are his many masterful prints: each one is a mountain peak in reverse on paper, a spritely graphic Everest.

Wednesday, October 25, 2023

The Child Is Father to the Man: Nowhere Special

Daniel Lamont and James Norton in Nowhere Special.

The Irish movie Nowhere Special came out in 2020 but never made it to these shores. A friend put me on to it, and I saw it in the only form currently available to North Americans – on an imported disc that you can only access if you have an all-regions DVD player. It’s a small, intimate picture about a working-class man named John (played by James Norton) who has been raising his three-year-old, Michael (Daniel Lamont), by himself since his partner abandoned them and moved back to her native Russia. Now John is dying of cancer. The film is about his struggle, through the services of an adoption agency, to find foster parents for Michael while he tries to figure out a way to prepare the boy for his departure. In some ways Nowhere Special reminded me of another recent small-scale Irish film I liked, The Quiet Girl, about a shy little girl whose parents send her to live for a few months with her childless aunt and uncle in the country in the aftermath of the birth of their fourth child, and who finds more love there than she’s ever been shown by her immediate family. The director of The Quiet Girl, Colm Bairad, has a more sophisticated technique than Pasolini, and the movie counts visual splendor among its virtues. Nowhere Special is closer to many TV movies that used to pop up in the seventies and eighties, but the writer-director, Uberto Pasolini, who based his script on a true story, barely takes a false step. His understatement suggests to me a kind of honor – a refusal to sentimentalize or otherwise falsify the difficult subject matter.