Monday, July 25, 2016

Hither and Yon: Theatre Round-Up

The Cast of Goodspeed's Bye Bye Birdie. (Photo: Diane Sobolewski)

This piece contains reviews of Bye Bye Birdie (Goodspeed Opera House), Alice in Wonderland (Shaw Festival), The Stone Witch (Berkshire Theatre Group), and Romance Novels for Dummies (Williamstown Theatre Festival).

Framed by Daniel Brodie’s nostalgic projections that reminds us what we saw on TV in 1960, the revival of Bye Bye Birdie at the Goodspeed Opera House is a little uneven but quite enjoyable, and I don’t think that the director, Jenn Thompson, can be faulted for most of the problems. Time hasn’t been kind to Michael Stewart’s book, a satirical take on the pop-cultural phenomenon of Elvis Presley and his imitators that felt fresh as the country cartwheeled into the sixties and for at least a few years thereafter. Stewart was inspired by Presley’s 1957 army induction. When Birdie is drafted, Rosie, the quick-witted secretary to his combination manager-songwriter Albert Peterson, comes up with the idea of picking one teenage girl from the legion of Conrad’s fans to receive a goodbye kiss from him on The Ed Sullivan Show, guaranteeing that the song with which he serenades her, “One Last Kiss,” will become a big enough hit to bankroll Albert’s departure from the music business and enable him to marry Rosie – a fiancĂ©e almost as long-suffering as Miss Adelaide in Guys and Dolls – and realize his original dream to become an English teacher. The adolescent they pick at random, Kim McAfee, has just become pinned to her jittery boy friend, Hugo Peabody. Conrad’s descent upon her small Ohio town, Sweet Apple, doesn’t just unnerve Hugo; it puts all of the teenagers into a state of hormonal hysteria. Albert’s possessive mother, Mae, who views Rosie as competition, arrives on the scene, too, to block her marital plans.

In its original incarnation (it opened in 1960), Bye Bye Birdie starred Dick Van Dyke and Chita Rivera; there was a deflated revival in 1990 that toured the country with Tommy Tune and Ann Reinking. The Roundabout Theatre staged a truly misbegotten one in 2009 with John Stamos and Gina Gershon befuddlingly cast as Albert and Rosie and Bill Irwin in a merciless scene-chewing performance as Mr. McAfee (the character that is still associated in most people’s minds with Paul Lynde, who originated it and, like Van Dyke, appeared in the film as well). Jason Alexander and Vanessa Williams starred in a TV movie version in 1995, and it wasn’t very good either.

Janet Dacal and George Merrick. (Photo:Diane Sobolewski)
The line one always hears about Stewart’s book is that it runs out of ideas at the end of act one, but I think this mistaken point of view is the result of the fact that the disappointing 1963 movie version ends right after the debacle on The Ed Sullivan Show, when Hugo, incited by Rosie, delivers Conrad a left hook on camera that lands him on his ass and prevents him from delivering that kiss. (It’s Rosie’s revenge on Albert, who has effectively chosen his mother over her.) In the movie, Kim is enchanted by Hugo’s heroics; in the play, she’s so angry at him that she runs off to the local (not-so) hot spot, The Ice House, with Birdie, while Albert fires Rosie and she packs up and leaves him. The conflict gives Stewart plenty to dramatize in the second act; the trouble with the book isn’t structural. It’s that so many of the gags are stale. Kim’s father has a big speech in act one about how Conrad’s presence (they’re playing host to him) has unseated him as monarch in his own home; Mae has another one in act two meant to guilt Albert when he finally tells her that he doesn’t need her any more. Both of these monologues stopped generating laughs about half a century ago.

Fortunately, the score by Charles Strouse (music) and Lee Adams (lyrics) remains vibrant, and under Michael O’Flaherty’s direction the Goodspeed cast – especially Janet Dacal as Rosie, George Merrick as Albert, Tristen Buettel as Kim and Brittany Nicholas and Hannah Bradley as her best buds Alice and Margie – sings it sweetly. The trio of teenage girls, bonding in close harmony, is a sterling element in the production, especially on “One Boy.” In fact, everything the teens do, from “The Telephone Hour” (the show has been reordered slightly so it begins with this famous number) to the rousing second-act “A Lot of Livin’ to Do,” where they accompany Conrad (Rhett Guter), is pleasurable. Those are also the numbers that showcase Patricia Wilcox’s sprightly choreography; I wish there were more of it, but Bye Bye Birdie isn’t a big dance musical, unlike Hairspray, which is in some ways its twenty-first-century counterpart.

Besides “Lot of Livin’” the big takeaway song from the show in 1960 was “Put on a Happy Face,” which Albert sings to cheer up some down-in-the-mouth Sweet Apple adolescents. In this version he first serenades Rosie with it, and that’s a smart alteration: when he clowns to change her mood, we get a glimpse of why she fell in love with him in the first place. (He’s such a workaholic and an easily cowed mama’s boy that there’s a danger we’ll root for her to walk out on him.) Merrick is charming as Albert, but aside from her singing Dacal is rather shrill and tends to act with her teeth. She’s much easier to take than Kristine Zbornik as Mae, however. Zbornik mugs relentlessly; it doesn’t help that the costume designer, David Toser, has made her look like a drag queen. Goodspeed has restored Mae’s one number, “A Mother Doesn’t Matter Anymore,” which was cut from the original production in previews and should have stayed cut. Warren Kelley doesn’t add much to the classic Paul Lynde take on Mr. McAfee, and though Alex Walton is an enthusiastic Hugo, he’s not really right for the part – he’s too old and too conventionally good-looking. But as the younger McAfee child, eleven-year-old Randolph, Ben Stone-Zelman, sober-faced and bespectacled, a miniature replica of his papa, is hilarious (and he can sing). Guter, the show’s Conrad, is very talented, though his take on “Honestly Sincere” and “One Last Kiss” is so canny – he signals the audience that he knows it’s just an act – that it almost comes across as Brechtian. But when he gets to cut loose on “Lot of Livin’” his buoyancy is infectious. I’d never seen this young performer before but I hope he shows up again at Goodspeed.

The cast of the Shaw Festival's Alice in Wonderland. (Photo: David Cooper)

Alice in Wonderland has been translated into dozens of stage, film and television versions (the earliest was in 1886), but it’s seldom satisfying because for all its charm and wit and invention it lacks a dramatic shape – it’s one damn thing after another. Peter Hinton’s new adaptation for the Shaw Festival, which he also directed, is elaborate: it has a cast of more than twenty, the stagecraft is extremely complicated and impressive, and he hasn’t left out any of Lewis Carroll’s beloved text, including the episodes that no one else seems to have bothered with, like the pool of tears and the caucus-race. He’s incorporated all the songs from the book too, set to dull music by Allen Cole, who is also the production’s musical director. And in an attempt to give it some kind of arc, or at least a theme, he’s added some speeches for Carroll, a.k.a. the Reverend Charles Dodgson (Graeme Somerville), in the second act about the sadness of leaving childhood behind for adulthood, but though their inclusion lends the play a melancholic undercurrent, it doesn’t give it the dramatic form it cries out for, despite the poignancy and musicality of Somerville’s line readings. This Alice also has a frame: the boat trip on the River Isis in Oxford during which Dodgson relates his story to his muse, Alice Liddell (Tara Rosling), and her sisters (Jacqueline Thair and Emily Lukasik). But since the story concludes with Alice waking up on the riverbank, Hinton has her fall asleep in the rowboat. So in fact it has a double frame, and the two frames contradict each other: either she hears the story from Dodgson or else she dreams it – she can’t do both.

There’s a general air of confusion about the production that extends to the actors. Many of them are wonderful, conveying exactly the right storybook style for the material. There’s Somerville, chiefly, who also plays the Mad Hatter in a Cockney accent, with straggly yellow-green hair dripping down onto his shoulders, and the sorrowful Mock Turtle, whose outrageous puns he handles elegantly. Kyle Blair plays the March Hare and, ambling around on a pair of stilts that look great but must be torturous, the Gryphon as well. (William Schmuck designed the costumes, and they’re truly spectacular.) In a gray wig with ears that look like they’ve been fashioned out of pipe cleaners, Ben Sanders is the fussy worry-wart White Rabbit. Jennifer Phipps reads the Cheshire Cat’s pronouncements with stoned irony; she’s very funny. So is Donna Belleville as the Duchess, whose initial brusqueness with Alice turns mysteriously into conciliatory endearments on her second entrance. Her baby is played by a diapered Andrew Broderick, who squalls rhythmically. Neil Barclay is the French Mouse in the pool of tears sequence, holding his long, rat-like tail in one hand and a briefcase in the other, and subsequently he turns up as the Frog Footman and the Executioner. I liked all these actors enormously. Others, like Rosling and Patty Jamieson as the Dormouse (who delivers the opening speech to the audience) and Moya O’Connell as the Queen of Hearts, are playing in another style entirely, a kind of over-the-top presentational mode that becomes tiresome almost immediately. The casting of Rosling is bewildering, since she’s obviously an actress in her mid-thirties pretending to be a little girl, and though she’s very talented (as you can see in her other performance this season, in The Adventures of the Black Girl in Her Search for God), she doesn’t seem to have a clue how to go about it.

The stagecraft is premised on an intricate interplay, often played for a trompe l’oeil effect, among the live actors, Eo Sharpe’s set designs, and the projections by Beth Kates and Ben Chaisson. Phipps’ face, for example, is entirely on film, while the Cheshire Cat’s body is painted onto a scrim. The combination is dazzling and often gorgeous, as it is when Alice disappears into the pool of her tears under a Turner-like sky, or when the White Rabbit appears as a tiny figure on the distant shore during the Mock Turtle scene. But when Alice grows in the first act, the outsize footage of Rosling points up her physical unsuitability for the role of a child. And there’s an odd inconsistency in the way the production depicts Alice’s surreal growth: at the end, when she shoots up and towers above the Queen and King of Hearts (Jay Turvey) and their court, instead of relying on projections the contrast in size is symbolized only by the cards’ voices, which sound helium-sodden, like those of the Munchkins. It’s as if the show had suddenly run out of tricks. In fact, with some notable exceptions, the visuals in act one are way better than the ones in act two. The rose bush the gardeners are painting frantically (because they mistakenly planted a white one instead of a red one) looks like a big green soccer ball covered with pimples, and except for the costumes, which never disappoint, the croquet game, with hedgehogs rolling around the stage like drones, looks tawdry.

The best visuals take your breath away, like the opening tableau of the rowboat on a reflecting stage floor with the tree-lined river beyond. Six actors play the Caterpillar, totem pole-style, with Turvey at the top in a golf cap with a tassel; they wiggle white-gloved hands in choreographed precision. (It’s the only thing I really liked in Denise Clarke’s choreography.) This scene is performed in a garden with shadow-puppet birds darting above. The caucus-race is a mess, but the silly-funny creature costumes made me giggle – the actors (including, memorably, Blair as the Duck and Guy Bannerman as the Dodo) seem to be in a Ziegfeld Follies bird number. The table laid out for the Mad Tea Party looks like a lawn decorated with tea things. This Alice in Wonderland is really baffling: you wonder what the hell Hinton is trying for. And without any dramatic propulsion, it becomes rather dozy. But I can’t say that I’m sorry I saw it. Some of these images will stay with me.

Judd Hirsch in The Stone Witch at Berkshire Theatre Group. (Photo courtesy of Berkshire Theatre Group)

At eighty-one, Judd Hirsch hasn’t lost any of his commanding presence. He holds the stage for almost all of the intermissionless hundred minutes of The Stone Witch at Berkshire Theatre Group, in the massive role of Simon Grindberg, a children’s book writer and illustrator of legendary (say, Maurice Sendak-like) reputation who hasn’t produced a new work in a dozen years. Grindberg is an armored, irascible alcoholic who deflects anything that smells like pity, yet he’s piteously lonely. He’s also impossibly demanding. Hirsch makes Simon’s unpredictability into the dramatic impetus of a big, showman-like performance.

Shem Bitterman’s play (which is receiving its world premiere under the direction of Bitterman’s frequent collaborator Steve Zuckerman) is the familiar tale of a young man, in this case a gifted but unpublished author of children’s stories named Peter Chandler (Rupak Ginn), who comes into the orbit of his long-time hero, learns he has feet of clay, but forges a friendship with him against all odds. Chandler is hired by Simon’s editor, Clair Forlorni, to work with him and help him birth his long-awaited new book. (Kristin Griffiths gives a thoughtful and intriguing performance as a formidable woman whose imperiousness hides both passion and compassion.) But Peter hits one wall after another with Grindberg, who has a bag full of tricks to delay the moment when he has to wrest an idea, visual or verbal, from the blank page. From the moment these two characters interact, we assume that each one is going to help the other in ways that neither could have anticipated. The problem with Bitterman’s play is that we don’t really see how Simon helps Peter, and even the growth of the camaraderie between them is assumed more than it’s dramatized. Still, I think the play might work with a more specific and revealing performance by Ginn, a TV actor (he appears on the series Royal Pains) who doesn’t have a substantial stage presence or at least doesn’t show one here.

Bitterman has an ace up his sleeve that both the play’s title and the fairy-tale decorations on Yael Pardess’ set hint at. But the play is clumsy. It feels like it needs another draft. Luckily Hirsch offers a colorful enough personality performance to keep our attention.

Mary Wiseman and Justin Long in Romance Novels for Dummies at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. Photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Romance Novels for Dummies is the other new play I caught in the Berkshires over the weekend. It’s a comedy-drama by Boo Killebrew about a transplanted young Mississippi woman named Liz Eberwine (Mary Wiseman) who’s set adrift when her husband – who was her high-school sweetheart – dies, leaving her with a six-year-old (Emily Lyons). Liz’s response is to transplant herself to Brooklyn, along with her sister Bernie (Ashley Austin Morris). With Bernie’s encouragement, she puts up an online profile at OkCupid, but she doesn’t tell any of the men she meets (there are three of them, all played by Justin Long) that she’s a widow or a mother. When she gets to like the third, a musician named Myron, she even lies to him about what she does for a living (which, at the moment, is nothing), claiming to be a romance novelist. The only grain of truth in this story is that she’s reading a book Bernie bought her about how to write romance novels. The meaning of the play’s title seems to be that Liz, who believed she was living happily ever after in Mississippi before her husband’s death, is so thrown by the reality of her situation that all she can think to do is to manufacture a life governed by the rules of romance writing.

I say “seems to be” because, honestly, the play is so scrappily thrown together that I’m not entirely sure what Killibrew is after. I spotted the influence of Beth Henley, the southern playwright of Crimes of the Heart and The Miss Firecracker Contest and most recently The Jacksonian, but though I have mixed feelings about Henley’s work I think she has dramaturgical skills that Killibrew hasn’t cottoned onto. I didn’t believe any of the scenes between the two sisters or the ones between Liz and her daughter Lily, and the arrival of Liz’s in-laws, an affable drunk (Andrew Weems) and his straight-laced wife (Connie Ray), merely adds another superficial layer to the action. The director, Moritz von Stuelpnagel, hasn’t shaped the material. Morris gives a strident, unappealing performance, but I’m not sure that it’s possible to make Bernie, whose only character traits seem to be a foul mouth and a fondness for weed, worth our time. She behaves like an out-of-control teenager; it’s a surprise to find out that she’s actually the older of the two sisters and that she raised Liz after their mother died. And Wiseman (whom I liked in last season’s Off the Main Road) is strangely unfocused here; in her scenes with Morris she barely seems to be in the same room.

The only saving grace of the evening is Justin Long. His first two roles are SNL caricatures (the second, a hipster bartender named Charles, is pretty funny), and that’s the way Killebrew wrote them. But when he glides into the role of Myron, who falls for Liz and can’t understand why she keeps him at arm’s length, he finds the truth of the character. Since Long has joined the Williamstown company – this is his sixth season – my admiration fo r him as an actor just keeps growing.

– 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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