Monday, June 17, 2013

America in London

Seth Numrich and Kim Cattrall in Sweet Bird of Youth (Photo: Alastair Muir)

Marianne Elliott is a gifted director (War Horse, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time) but in her latest production, a revival of Tennessee Williams’s Sweet Bird of Youth at the Old Vic, she seems utterly at sea. She tries to render it as straight realism for the first half, and that doesn’t work: her staging feels constricted and has the effect of flattening out the lyrical weave in the dialogue. You get a little respite when expressionistic shadows dance behind the upstage curtains between the first and second scenes (Rae Smith designed both set and lights) but it isn’t until act two that the show breaks out of its naturalistic corset. And then it goes nuts. The actors start to chew the scenery, and a speech by a southern demagogue named Boss Finley (Owen Rae) is televised in a hotel lounge on four TV sets as if it were a scene out of The Manchurian Candidate (although only three or four people are seated in the room), while a heckler who tries to derail Finley’s big moment is dragged inside and beaten savagely by his thugs. The shift in style shakes things up but it doesn’t salvage the show, though it does give you the weird impression that the company has switched plays in mid-performance.

Set in a fictional Louisiana town called St. Cloud, Sweet Bird of Youth is one of Williams’s hothouse southern-Gothic specials, like Orpheus Descending. It was produced on Broadway in 1959 with Geraldine Page and Cliff Robertson, and Page starred in the gaudy 1962 Richard Brooks movie version opposite Paul Newman. I’ve seen it performed a few times on stage, and it never works, though there’s some intrigue in seeing how a large personality – this time it’s Kim Cattrall, best known for playing Samantha on HBO’s Sex and the City – approaches the Page role, a faded movie star named Alexandra Del Lago (a.k.a. the Princess Kosmonopolis) who’s barely able to keep it together with the help of vodka, pot, goofballs and sex. Her current bedmate is Chance Wayne (Seth Numrich), a cabana boy she picked up at a resort. He’s managed to charm her into making a visit to St. Cloud, his home town, where he has the crack-brained idea of resuming his old romance with his high-school girl friend, Boss Finley’s daughter Heavenly (Louise Dylan). (That’s right: Heavenly from St. Cloud.) Chance doesn’t know that the last time he saw her, years earlier, he infected her with syphilis, and she had to have an operation that left her sterile and a psychic wreck. Chance is only twenty-nine but he’s already a has-been, deluding himself that he can parlay his physique and some mostly imagined acting talent into a Hollywood career with Alexandra’s help.

Kim Cattrall as Alexandra Del Lago (Photo: Alastair Muir)
Page was awful in the movie, and from the few scenes I was able to sit through of the 1989 TV movie with Elizabeth Taylor you could see that it didn’t serve her well, to put it kindly. (David Cromer staged the play at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago with Diane Lane last fall, but though the production was rumored to be moving to New York, it never arrived.) A few years ago, in a revival at Williamstown, Margaret Colin envisioned Alexandra as an evocation of Judy Garland past her prime: it was an inspired choice, and she was brilliant – she managed to ground this outsize, Loony Tunes character emotionally, though her efforts couldn’t transform the play from melodrama into drama. Cattrall, who last appeared on stage in a short-lived version of Noël Coward’s Private Lives, grabs hold of the part with both hands and hauls it back and forth across the Old Vic stage. What she brings to it that makes a huge difference is a sense of humor. She gets considerable mileage out of lines like (sizing up Chance when she wakes up to find him in her bed) “Well, I may have done better, but I’ve certainly done worse.” And she does wonders with the big eleventh-hour monologue, one-half of a telephone conversation with a Hollywood gossip columnist who assures her that her comeback performance, which so embarrassed her at the premiere that she ran out of the theatre, is the best thing she’s ever done and has put her back on top. When Cattrall is on stage, the production has a focus.

But she isn’t on stage enough. One of the seemingly insurmountable problems with the script is structural: it can’t make up its mind if it’s Alexandra’s story or Chance’s, so it veers uneasily from one to the other. (It’s also inconsistent about her attitude toward him: she’s sometimes sympathetic, other times high-handed.) Numrich, who gave a fine performance as the boy in War Horse on Broadway, plays Chance’s naiveté as obliviousness; he doesn’t seem tuned in to what’s going on around him, which makes Numrich – rather than the character – seem disconnected. You don’t get any of the dreamy sweetness Newman brought to the role in the movie, and in the big hotel-lounge scene where, fueled by pills and liquor, he tries to work his old charm on the local good ol’ boys, he isn’t charismatic, just jittery. Owen Rae as Boss Finley, Daniel Betts as Heavenly’s doctor fiancé, Brid Brennan as her weak, affectionate aunt (Chance’s only friend in St. Cloud) and Charles Aitken as Finley’s sadistic son, are collectively inadequate to the poetic demands of Williams’s play, though to be fair I have no idea how you’re supposed to pull off these roles. Ed Begley won an Oscar for his big-eyed, roaring portrayal of the Boss; he was preposterous, but he held the camera. In this production Lucy Robinson (as his alcoholic mistress) and Michael Begley as the hillbilly heckler (!) get the message that the only thing to do with this ripe language is to take a huge bite and let the juice ooze out; their scene together is a hoot. On the other hand, Dylan’s histrionics in her scene as Heavenly are a little embarrassing.

Smith’s set, a cream-colored pillared structure that serves for Alexandra’s hotel room, the exterior of Finley’s mansion and the hotel’s cocktail lounge, is impressive but booby-trapped. I liked the overscaled, luxurious southern feel it lends to the first two scenes, which is enhanced by the billowing curtains, but when locations shift you see that any actor who gets has to move around the upstage area is caged in by those pillars and the ceiling. Elliott has to keep moving everyone downstage, which makes the lounge scene, which involves the largest number of bodies, awkward and unbalanced.

A botched Sweet Bird of Youth is not exactly a tragedy. After all, nothing in the play is convincing on the most basic narrative level, especially Williams’s overheated depiction of the rednecks who salivate over the news of a mob from a nearby town that castrated a randomly chosen black man. Williams isn’t much good at villainy (you can see that in Orpheus Descending, too); his wounded sensibility is too complex to portray it convincingly. So far the only version of this play I’ve ever liked is the excerpt in Robert Zemeckis’s movie Death Becomes Her of an invented musical version called Songbird with Meryl Streep in the Alexandra part. I recommend it as an antidote.

James Baldwin’s play The Amen Corner was written early in his career, in 1954 (just after his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain), but it wasn’t performed until 1965, and the production at the National Theatre is one of the few it has ever received. (There was a short-lived musical version in 1983; Baldwin penned only one other play, Blues for Mister Charlie.) Set in Harlem in the early fifties, it’s about the struggles of Sister Margaret, the earnest pastor of a small church. Her gossiping, power-grabbing elders plot to remove her from her post at the moment when she has to deal with a son who has lost his commitment to the holy life she’s staked out for him and the return of the jazz-musician husband, now dying, she left years ago. The subject matter and especially the setting, with its accompanying gospel music, are more interesting than the play itself, which is conventional in structure yet underwritten. Rufus Norris’s production doesn’t solve any of the problems in the text but it generates a great deal of energy, especially in the rousing moments when the ensemble is singing. (The musical director, Tim Sutton, supplied additional music.) And some of the acting is certainly good enough to justify a revival.

The company of The Amen Corner
In the principal role Marie-Jean Baptiste – a co-star of the TV series Without a Trace, though movie buffs will remember her from Mike Leigh’s movie Secrets and Lies – is warm and vibrant, and for the first fifteen or twenty minutes, when Sister Margaret is leading the service, she’s so commanding that you wonder if you’re about to see a legendary stage performance. It doesn’t work out that way, unfortunately. As we find out much later, Margaret took refuge in the church after losing a baby, her second child, and she walked away from her husband, Luke (Lucian Msamati), whose sinful ways (drinking, primarily) she blamed – along with his long absences on the road – for the child’s death. She’s presented a different picture to David (Eric Kofi Abrefa), their son, who has always assumed his father abandoned them. Margaret’s protectiveness toward David, which is suffocating him, is an extension of her own terror of living in the world. The life she’s planned for him, as a piano-playing minister, is outside it, but he’s a young man who’s stirred by the promises of jazz (both artistic and sexual) – by the life his father has been leading. (Msamati and Abrefa give insipid performances, but Baldwin didn’t flesh out either of these characters.) In order for us to understand Margaret’s increasingly desperate efforts to hold onto her son and her unyielding attitude toward her husband, we have to see what she’s fighting in herself – the fiery, carnal woman she was before the death of the baby shattered her. Luke makes reference to what she was like in the early days of their marriage, but Baptiste never gives us a glimpse, and her Margaret displays so little concern for her ailing husband that we lose patience with her. And in the episode involving Ida Jackson (Naana Agyei-Ampadu, mesmerizing in her two scenes), a young woman who comes to Margaret’s church with her own sick baby and then returns after the child dies, Baptiste misses an opportunity. Baldwin clearly means Ida to reflect a younger Margaret, but there’s no moment when Baptiste lets us see that the pastor recognizes herself or fights her own humanity as she coolly advises Ida to accept God’s will.

In the absence of a central character we can sympathize with, Margaret’s sister Odessa, who lives with her and has helped to raise David, takes over. Sharon D. Clarke gives a performance of physical and emotional strength reminiscent of the great African American actress Claudia McNeil (A Raisin in the Sun, Black Girl). Cecilia Noble as Sister Moore, a self-righteous spinster whose high, silvery voice belies her bulk and her obstinacy, Donovan F. Blackwood as Brother Boxer, whose conflict with Margaret over a job he’s offered driving a liquor truck sparks the resentment that undermines her ministry, and Jacqueline Boatswain as Boxer’s bitter wife Judith give fine supporting performances.

The National has placed The Amen Corner in the Olivier, their immense barn of a theatre, though it calls out for a more intimate space. Striving to fill it, designer Ian MacNeil has built columns upstage right and center that might seem more appropriate in a production of Sweet Bird of Youth than in a play set in the Harlem of the early fifties. Director Norris fills one area with silent watchers who seem meant to represent a kind of Greek chorus and the other with musicians; the Greek chorus feels superfluous. The configuration of the stage space is semi-successful: its division into the church above and the small flat below where Margaret, Odessa and David live is effective, but David’s downstage bedroom is an awkward addition, especially in the scene at the end of act two where Margaret and the ailing Luke, whom David has put in his bed, quarrel with each other from two different rooms. The production never finds its shape, physically or dramatically, though Norris and his cast and the musicians work hard to provide a ground-shaking revivalist experience.

For Bob Avian’s production of A Chorus Line at the London Palladium, Baayork Lee recreates the original choreography by Michael Bennett, just as she did for the Broadway revival in 2006, so a new generation can see what the original 1975 production (which began at the Public Theatre and moved to Broadway) was like. I’ve never been a fan of this musical; I’ve always resented the way it strong-arms the audience. James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante derived the book from hours of interviews that Bennett conducted with “gypsies” (Broadway chorus dancers), yet nothing in it feels authentic, and the songs by Marvin Hamlisch and Edward Kleban are second – and in some cases third – rate. The director-choreographer of a new show, Zach (John Partridge), struggling to winnow down his final group of auditioners, nine women and eight men, to the four boys and four girls he needs, forces them to reveal personal stories about their lives. What results is intended to be a tribute to these hoofers whose lives are a constant struggle guided by full-out emotional commitment to their work. But the premise is rigged: if Zach is looking for eight dancers who can execute his challenging steps yet make themselves anonymous, a collective rather than eight separate personalities, then why the hell does he subject them to this psychological striptease? Zach (who’s a composite of parts of Bennett and Bob Fosse) appears to be a sadistic prick, yet the play wants us to buy his love and concern for these women and men – especially for Paul (Gary Wood), whose confession is especially wrenching. (Partridge, who sounds like Raúl Esparza, gives an affected performance as Zach that exacerbates the problems in the writing.)

The company of Bob Avian's A Chorus Line (Photo: Francis Loney)
The musical is loaded down with melodrama that we’re meant to take for real-life drama, like the dialogue among the auditioners about their attitude toward what they do, which leads up to “What I Did for Love,” the eleven-o’clock number. (The songwriters were obviously looking for a take-away hit, which is the reason Kleban’s lyrics are so non-specific; removed from the context of the play, it sounds like a ballad about risking everything for romance.) Kirkwood and Dante really work over the audience with the Paul episode. The fact that he’s the only important character who gets a speech rather than a song sets him apart; his coming-out monologue is about appearing in a drag show at eighteen that his parents attended and it’s full of angst. It climaxes with Paul’s father’s imploring the stage manager to take care of his son on tour, marking the first time he’d ever referred to Paul as “my son.” If that isn’t enough, Paul is so overcome by the memory that he starts to cry. If that isn’t enough, Zach, who has remained at the back of the house throughout the dancers’ stories, rushes down to the stage to throw an arm around the boy. If that isn’t enough, Paul’s the one who injures his leg in the final part of the audition and has to be taken to the hospital. Surely it isn’t possible to twist the tourniquet any tighter. The actor who plays Paul is, of course, encouraged to make a meal out of his monologue; the trouble here is that Wood does the same vocal tricks over and over again to heighten emotion, holding back and underplaying just before the big dramatic beats. The best reading of this speech I’ve ever heard was by an actor in a college production – but then, A Chorus Line works better (for me at least) in amateur performances, where the actors don’t have the slickness of professional singer-dancers and come across as more earnest.

The strongest performers in the London cast I saw – it was the matinee cast and included five understudies – were James T. Lane as Richie, Leigh Zimmerman as the shiny, statuesque, tough-broad Sheila (showcased in “At the Ballet”), Georgie Ashford as Diana (who sings both “Nothing,” about her high-school acting-class experience, and “What I Did for Love”), Adam Salter as Mike (he has the exuberant “I Can Do That” number early on) and Daisy Maywood as Bebe (who gets the second verse of “At the Ballet”). These performers’ dramatic instincts are impressive; I thought that Maywood was particularly skilled at stylizing her musical reading so subtly that it was only a step away from being a monologue. And it was Lane, with his dynamic personality and spectacular form, to whom my eye strayed in every company number.

The key dancer in the group is Cassie, who is trying to return to her gypsy roots after an unsuccessful career in leading roles. Since Zach was the one who took her out of the chorus – and since they used to be lovers – the tension between them eventually takes center stage. The role was created for Donna McKechnie. It was largely autobiographical: Bennett discovered McKechnie and gave her a featured dance role in Promises, Promises, they were a couple for a while, and her fling at stardom failed. Reportedly she was the best of all Cassies, and it’s easy to believe, since “The Music and the Mirror,” Cassie’s number, was created with her body in mind. (She has legs that go on forever, like Cyd Charisse.) In my experience it doesn’t work for any other dancer: it always seems overly theatrical, with big dramatic moments that the Cassie always has to reach for. In this production it gets the best of Scarlett Strallen, whose non-dancing performance, moreover, is strained and unconvincing.

Whatever you feel about the rest of A Chorus Line, it has a knockout of a finale, “One” (easily the best song in the score), a dream version of the dance they’ve been learning throughout the audition in which all the gypsies, including the ones Zach has passed on and even Paul and Zach’s assistant choreographer, Larry (Alastair Postlethwaite), reappear in gold satin tuxes and top hats. Their delight in being part of a beautiful ensemble, dressed to the nines, is the one moment of emotion in the musical that doesn’t feel manipulated.

The company of Matthew White's Top Hat (Photo: Brinkhoff and Moegenburg @

Also playing in the West End is a stage adaptation of the 1935 Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movie Top Hat. Matthew White (who also directed) and Howard Jacques have remained reasonably faithful to the screenplay by Dwight Taylor and Allan Scott, and Irving Berlin’s glorious score has been bulked up with interpolations from other Berlin movies and shows – “I’m Putting All My Eggs in One Basket” and “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” from Follow the Fleet, “You’re Easy to Dance With” and “Better Luck Next Time” from Easter Parade, and so on. It’s perfectly enjoyable, though perhaps excessively boisterous, especially for those of us who cherish the casual style of the original. Chris Walker’s arrangements speed up the ballads and Bob Deamer’s choreography, though often excellent, is too heavy on tap; it’s a relief when the show relaxes in the second act for the musical’s most famous pas de deux, “Cheek to Cheek.” The Astaire and Rogers roles, Jerry Travers and Dale Tremont, are taken by Gavin Lee and Kristen Beth Williams, who are both fine dancers (Lee in particular), but for my taste they could both dial down their show-biz energy. Lee’s toothpaste-commercial grin – he has perhaps the whitest teeth seen on the English musical stage since Tommy Steele in the sixties – stands in for personality, and Williams has an annoying habit of batting her eyes every time she has a laugh line. (She also sings sharp and quavers on the high notes.) The comic supporting players are much easier to watch: Clive Hayward as Jerry’s manager and best friend Horace Hardwick; Vivien Parry as Horace’s sardonic, long-suffering wife Madge, who is Dale’s best friend; Stephen Boswell as Horace’s valet Bates; and especially Alex Gaumond as Alberto Beddini, the ridiculous, malapropping Italian designer whose dresses Dale models. They take over the roles created memorably in the movie by Edward Everett Horton, Helen Broderick, Eric Blore and Erik Rhodes respectively, and they’re all good enough that lovers of the film don’t feel compelled to draw comparisons. The show is smart enough to give Hayward and Parry a duet, “Outside of That, I Love You” (borrowed from the 1940 show Louisiana Purchase). It’s one of the high points of the evening.

- Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review, The Boston Phoenix and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

No comments:

Post a Comment