Monday, June 9, 2014

Audra McDonald, Sutton Foster and Those Damn Yankees

Audra McDonald and Shelton Becton (left) in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill. (Photo by Evgenia Eliseeva)

Playing Billie Holiday in 1959, just months before her death, in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill, Audra McDonald does an uncanny vocal impersonation of the great jazz singer in her late phase, when heroin had worn her astonishingly pliable buttered-rum contralto down to a nub yet her phrasing hadn’t lost its ability to wipe you out and she could still swing. It’s an impressive stunt – but it’s a stunt, and one that I wish McDonald, who has the finest instrument among today’s musical-theatre stars, hadn’t attempted. I had the same problem when, more than forty years ago, Diana Ross mimicked Holiday’s voice in the movie Lady Sings the Blues. It’s one thing when an actress who isn’t a singer plays a famous vocalist and lip-syncs her songs: in the title role of the TV movie Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows, Judy Davis got so far into the character that when you heard Garland’s singing voice come out of her, the results were spookily convincing. (It’s the best work Davis has ever done, which means, of course, that it’s one of the greatest performances ever put on the screen.) It’s quite another thing when one towering singer buries her own style and picks up another’s. I understand why McDonald chose to go this route: Holiday’s sound is distinctive and famous, like Garland’s. But so is Audra McDonald’s – and, certainly, Diana Ross’.

Actually I wish McDonald had passed on this project altogether. Lanie Robertson’s play (which I reviewed twenty years ago at Providence’s Trinity Repertory Company, when an actress named Rose Weaver took the part) is nothing but a series of monologues strung around fourteen songs – some of them Holiday standards (“What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” “Crazy He Calls Me,” “God Bless the Child,” “Easy Living,” “Strange Fruit,” “Don’t Explain” and “T’ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do”) and some fairly obscure. (The final number, George Cory and Douglas Cross’ “Deep Song,” which I’d never heard Holiday sing until Charlie Haden built a beautiful instrumental around it on his 1992 album Haunted Heart, is a personal favorite.) Holiday, performing in a dive in South Philly because, as a result of her drug conviction, she’s lost her cabaret card in New York, is drunk and high when she staggers onto the stage to accompany a three-piece combo, and in the course of the evening she gets drunker and higher. The set-up is both dramatically hobbled and purely melodramatic and the script is bald; it barely qualifies as a play at all. And McDonald, normally a splendid actress, gives a shrill, maudlin performance interrupted by a couple of moments of authentic power: one when she remembers getting the news of her father’s death and one when she talks bitterly about the humiliation of losing the right to perform professionally in New York, where she’d become famous in the thirties.

The band – Shelton Becton on piano, George Farmer on bass, Clayton Craddock on drums – plays well, though whenever Becton has to interact with McDonald’s Lady Day, it’s glaringly obvious that he isn’t an actor. The element of the show, which was directed by Lonny Price, that works most effectively is James Noone’s scenic design, which turns the stage of Circle in the Square into an old-style, slightly dilapidated nightclub. (That was the part I liked best when Trinity Rep produced it in 1994, too.) Otherwise I think it’s a crock.

Joshua Henry, Sutton Foster and Colin Donnell in Violet. (Photo by Sara Krulwich)

When I heard that Sutton Foster, whom I adored as the boisterous Reno Sweeney in Kathleen Marshall’s Broadway revival of Anything Goes, was playing a disfigured woman in the musical Violet at the Roundabout, I strongly considered skipping it, since it sounded like another kind of stunt. But it isn’t: neither Foster nor Emerson Steele, who plays Violet as a teenager (the accident that cut her occurred, we’re told, when she was thirteen), has to wear disfiguring make-up, so they’re not upstaged by the visual details of their character’s face. And Foster, singing Jeanine Tesori’s country-flavored songs – Violet is a young woman from a North Carolina mountain town who takes a bus trip through the south to locate the TV evangelist she’s persuaded can take her scar away – gives a commanding performance. She’s surrounded by a strong supporting cast: Steele, who matches up well with Foster’s rangy looks, Alexander Gemignani in the flashbacks as Violet’s father, the immensely likable Colin Donnell (Foster’s co-star in Anything Goes) and Joshua Henry as Monty and Flick, two soldiers who meet her on one leg of her Greyhound trip and more or less adopt her. The charismatic Henry, for whom Tesori has written a pair of blistering songs, “Let It Sing” and “Hard to Say Goodbye” (a duet with Foster), sends the audience into ecstasies whenever he sings. And the night I saw the show, Virginia Ann Woodruff, stepping in for Rema Webb, shook the house in a gospel number called “Raise Me Up.”

About half of Tesori’s music is good; I especially liked a quintet called “Luck of the Draw” in which Violet and the two soldiers play poker on one side of the stage while on the other we see how the young Violet learned the rules of the game from her dad. And considering that, like most 21st-century musicals, Violet contains far more music than you can reasonably expect one composer to turn out successfully for a single show, that’s not a bad percentage. (There are twenty songs and three reprises in an intermissionless hour and three-quarters. Give me a break.) And, like the music in Lady Day, it’s performed by an onstage band (conducted by Michael Rafter) that lends it some real vibrancy. But Brian Crawley’s book and lyrics are terrible. Crawley writes in platitudes, and platitudes, moreover, that don’t sing. I didn’t buy his central metaphor, which links Violet’s face with Flick’s black skin – fa├žades that most people can’t see past – or the notion that not one but both good-looking soldiers are so pure-hearted that they can manage to fall easily in love with a twenty-five-year-old woman whose face has been slashed by an axe.

David Beach (left), Stephen Mark Lukas and Angel Reda in Damn Yankees. (Photo by Diane Sobolewski)

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the book of the beloved 1955 musical Damn Yankees (by George Abbott and Douglass Wallop, based on Wallop’s novel The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant) is something of a mess. It begins with an ingenious idea, a variation on the Faust story in which the devil, in the form of one Mr. Applegate, offers, in exchange for his soul, to turn a middle-aged baseball fan named Joe Boyd into a hotshot young ball player named Joe Hardy who can lead his beloved Washington Senators to victory against their (and everyone else’s) nemesis, the Yankees. Boyd, who sells insurance, persuades Applegate to give him an escape clause, so Applegate summons his best homewrecker, Lola, to distract Hardy. It doesn’t work: Joe is hopelessly in love with his wife Meg (from whom, as Hardy, he rents a room so that he can stay close to her) and it’s Lola who falls for him. So far so good, but then the writers have Applegate cook up a scheme to discredit Hardy that doesn’t make any sense.

This is a classic case of second-act trouble, the bane of musicals. Still the show is a charmer, and the score by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross is one of the most tuneful and cleverest of its era. (It was Adler and Ross’ second hit score in a row, after The Pajama Game, but unhappily it was to be their last collaboration: Ross died at twenty-nine of lung disease.) And in my experience, when writers set about to improve a musical, particularly one from another era, by reimagining its book, the results are much worse than the problem they’re trying to fix. Richard Greenberg made a royal mess of the last Broadway version of Rodgers & Hart’s Pal Joey, and Joe DiPietro’s adaptation of the Abbott and Wallop libretto for Damn Yankees at Connecticut’s Goodspeed Opera House isn’t much better. DiPietro’s brainchild is to switch the Senators for the Boston Red Sox, throw in a lot of overly familiar chatter about the Curse of the Bambino, and interpolate anachronistic jokes to which New England audiences, with their loyalty to the Sox, can be counted on to have a Pavlovian response. But these addenda play like exactly what they are: inserts glued into a book that, for all its faults, has its own structure and integrity. Moreover, the new take on the musical collides with some of the casting decisions. Technically you shouldn’t be able to cast a period show color-blind, but the benefits far outweigh the inconsistencies, and who wants to sacrifice the presence of singers and dancers of color in order to be historically meticulous? However, once you pile Red Sox lore into Damn Yankees, you can’t pretend that your audience doesn’t know all of it – the fact, for instance, that Boston was the last major ball club to be integrated. So the non-white members of the ensemble suddenly become inexplicable, when in any ordinary revival of the musical you wouldn’t think twice about them. (Sean Ewing is stuck playing a Hispanic player named Hernandez who only speaks Spanish; he even gets a Spanish verse of “Heart,” the team’s anthem. Now that’s idiotic.) On the other hand, in order to stay true to the pop history he’s incorporating, DiPietro has to alter the musical’s ending. As Abbott and Wallop wrote it, Applegate turns Joe Hardy back into Joe Boyd just before the end of the final game of the pennant but Boyd manages to hit a home run and secure the Senators’ victory. In DiPietro’s version they lose, and even though Joe gets back to his wife and slips Applegate’s grasp, that ending is a bummer.

This production, which was directed by Daniel Goldstein and choreographed by Kelli Barclay, panders to the audience in just about every conceivable way. Adrian W. Jones’ set features the Green Monster, which dominates every scene, even the ones in the Boyds’ living room, and as much as the audience laughs in recognition, it’s remarkably ugly as well as distracting. And I’ve never seen so much shameless mugging in a Goodspeed show – from the ball players, from Ron Wisniski as Benny Van Buren, the coach, from Kristine Zbornik and Allyce Beasley as Meg’s Sox-fan pals. Even Ann Arvia mugs her way through “Six Months Out of Every Year,” the show’s opening song, though she calms down afterwards. (Instead of having a chorus of middle-aged couch potatoes answered by a second chorus of fed-up wives, the number eliminates the second and substitutes the ball players for the first, which turns some of the lyric into nonsense and wrecks the dynamics of the song.)

David Beach mugs a little as Applegate, but to be fair he isn’t as outrageous as Ray Walston was in the 1958 movie (and presumably in the original Broadway cast). Angel Reda is quite good as Lola and as the reporter Gloria Thorpe Lora Lee Gayer brings some liveliness to the “Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, MO” number, though Barclay’s choreography runs out of ideas halfway through and it begins to feel overlong. Stephen Mark Lukas is competent as Joe Hardy but he shows little personality when he isn’t singing or dancing. His best moments are in the second act, when he duets with Arvia on “Near to You” and with Reda on “Two Lost Souls.” Weirdly, in this production act two is an improvement on act one – mostly because of those two numbers.

“Near to You” is this show’s highlight. In the song, Joe Hardy persuades Meg that she hasn’t lost the husband she loves – that he’s still there with her, “even though he’s far away.” Since we know, though Meg doesn’t, that Joe Hardy is her lost husband, the conceit is nifty, and in this version Joe Boyd (James Judy), whom we haven’t seen since early in the first act, reappears to turn the duet into a trio and dance with his wife. It’s a touching variation, and the focus on low-key feeling rather than over-exuberance is a relief.

– 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 and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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