Monday, August 8, 2016

Two Musicals and a Two-Hander

The Pirates of Penzance at the Barrington Stage Company (Photo by Kevin Sprague)

Musical theatre buffs are treated these summer days in the Berkshires, where Berkshire Theatre Group and Barrington Stage Company have been mounting exceptionally well produced shows just a few blocks from each other in Pittsfield. Both BTG’s Little Shop of Horrors and BSC’s The Pirates of Penzance are winding down their runs. Pirates, directed by John Rando and choreographed by Joshua Bergasse (the team responsible for the best production I’ve ever seen of On the Town, which began at BTG and transferred to Broadway), revives the version of the Gilbert & Sullivan operetta Joseph Papp had a hit with at the New York Shakespeare Festival in 1980. I saw the Papp Pirates in L.A. with Barry Bostwick as the Pirate King, Clive Revill (the original Fagin in Oliver!) as Major-General Stanley, and Andy Gibb and Pam Dawber as the lovers, Frederic and Mabel, and though Wilford Leach’s staging was erratic and the energetic mugging was sometimes a bit much, it was great fun. After years of sitting through G&S shows that dutifully mimicked the D’Oyly Carte traditions, it was refreshing to see a Yankee take on the operetta that parodied an entirely different set of conventions – out of American musical comedy, silent movie comedy and swashbucklers. (I wouldn’t put them on the same level, but the effect reminded me of Peter Brook’s marvelous 1953 film of The Beggar’s Opera, where the sources of the burlesque were twentieth-century operettas and swashbucklers.) The Papp Pirates was televised on PBS, but I’m sure far more people saw the 1983 movie adaptation, a loud, charmless mess that had only one thing going for it: Kevin Kline, who, recreating his stage performance as the Pirate King, sent up Douglas Fairbanks, Errol Flynn and every baritone in American operetta from Dennis King to Howard Keel.

Much as I enjoyed Pirates back in 1981, Rando is a better director than Loach, and his production, though certainly athletic and loaded with music-hall bits, is more graceful, the onstage chaos more controlled. The hamminess – a mainstay of the Papp revision – is perhaps overstated in the first act, and for me, at least, though Will Swenson’s Pirate King and his crew’s flirting with the women in the audience is a surefire crowd-pleaser, a little of that sort of hijinks goes a long way. But the show is extremely pleasurable, and it’s paced like lightning. Swenson digs into his hearty baritone to offer up “Oh, Better Far to Live and Die,” and David Garrison, a musical-theatre veteran whose career began around the time of the Papp Pirates, dispatches “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General,” the most famous of the G&S patter songs, with cool finesse, tossing off a light buck and wing at the top. The otherpatter song, “Now for the Pirates’ Lair” early in act two, performed by Swenson, Jane Carr as the “piratical maid-of-all-work” Ruth and Kyle Dean Massey as Frederic, is just as much fun. Massey, whom Nashville viewers will recognize as Chris Carmack’s on-again-off-again soulful songwriter boy friend Kevin Bicks, is handsome and boasts a well trained voice, and he’s lucky enough to have Scarlett Strallen as his Mabel. She has personality and the wit as well as the chops to pull off a bull’s-eye parody of the typical trilling operetta soprano (on “Poor Wandering One”) – and then in act two, when she’s handed one of those gorgeous Arthur Sullivan arias, “Sorry Her Lot,” she turns around and performs it straight, with genuine feeling. The seven other Stanley daughters, which include a pair of identical twins, Alanna and Claire Saunders, are entirely winning. Phillip Boykin, the barrel-chested bass who was a memorable Crown in the recent Broadway revival of Porgy and Bess, enriches the ensemble in the small role of Samuel, the Pirate King’s lieutenant.

These days a cast of twenty-two is probably the limit of what you can expect a professional theatre company to afford, and the Boyd-Quinson Mainstage couldn’t hold much more anyway. (Beowulf Boritt’s set, with its cartoon-style painted sky drops and its extension of the pirate ship into the middle of the audience for the opening scenes, makes delightful use of the space, as he did when he designed On the Town.) So the nine pirates in the ensemble do double duty as the policemen, cleverly costumed by Jess Goldstein – another On the Town alumnus – so you don’t notice until the chase scene in act two, where the number of pirates and the number of cops is necessarily cut in half. (We’re meant to figure it out; that’s part of the joke.) Bergasse, whose choreography is enjoyable and smart in the first act, ups his game when the police make their entrance at the top of the second. Their first number, “When the Foreman Bares His Steel,” is loose-limbed – vaudeville performed by a hipster variation on the Keystone Kops. Alex Gibson steps out of the chorus to play the Sergeant, and he’s hilarious, a scarecrow of a dancer with a wonderful cadaverous face. At the beginning of “When a Felon’s Not Engaged in His Employment” (the famous song with the chorus, “A policeman’s lot is not a happy one”), the men’s heads sway on their necks as if they were attached with strings and Gibson throws in some fine backward flips. I had a good time for the first half of this Pirates of Penzance; in the second act I fell in love with it. Long may that pirate flag wave. Any chance of a Broadway transfer?

Kate Baldwin and Graham Rowat in Constellations (Photo by Emma Rothenberg-Ware)

Though I saw Jake Gyllenhaal and Ruth Wilson perform Nick Payne’s two-hander Constellations on Broadway, I checked out the Berkshire Theatre Group production because it’s a lovely play and I wanted to see what Kate Baldwin and Graham Rowat, the husband-and-wife team who make a yearly appearance at BTG, usually in musicals, would do with the roles of Marianne and Roland. It’s a tricky little play – seventy minutes, no intermission – in which the physicist Marianne’s vision of alternate possible universes, in each one of which a different version of their lives together plays out, is dramatized in a series of scenes that repeat each other but with subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) variations. The theory becomes poignant when Marianne is diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. The final scene has the tonal complexity and some of the emotional power of the late sections of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and the “How Glory Goes” number at the climax of the Adam Guettel musical Floyd Collins.

In Gregg Edelman’s production, Baldwin and Rowat convey the qualities of the play, and if you haven’t seen it before it’s a more than adequate introduction. But their performances lack variety; the scenes that echo each other don’t underline the distinctions between them, so it often feels as if they’re virtual repeats of each other. And in some odd way these two actors, who partnered each other so easily in both A Little Night Music (as the Countess and the dragoon) and Bells Are Ringing (as Ella and Jeff), aren’t quite a match here in terms of style, because they read the text, with its British sound, differently. Her approach is more technical, his more naturalistic, and neither seems exactly right – you need less technique from her and more from him. I think they’re both terrific actors, and some moments work effortlessly. I wish all of them did.

Santino Fontana, Derrick Baskin and Company in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (Photo by Joan Marcus)

I’m not sure what to make of God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, the 1979 musical Howard Ashman-Alan Menken musical (with additional lyrics by Dennis Green) revived the last weekend of July in the Encores! Off-Center summer series. It was the first collaboration of Ashman and Menken, just before they wrote Little Shop of Horrors, and its source is a Kurt Vonnegut novel about the eccentric heir to a stupefying fortune who directs a foundation that funds generously a wide range of projects. Eliot Rosewater (Santino Fontana), the protagonist, decides to funnel the foundation’s wealth toward a group of “discarded Americans” (his term) in a small Midwestern town. He manages to rescue their dead-ended lives until a young lawyer named Norman Mushari (Skyler Austin) drums up some obscure Rosewater cousins and encourages them to challenge Eliot’s sanity so they can inherit the money and Norman can get rich off his percentage. The musical is part satire, part Frank Capra fable, and the parts don’t match up, nor do the tones. Some of the satire is clever, like the opening number, “The Rosewater Foundation,” and “Cheese Nips,” a lament by Eliot’s socialite wife Sylvia (Brynn O’Malley) about the horrors of hosting the underclass; some of it is unbearably smug. And sometimes the tone becomes sincere, with mixed results. Menken knows how to write ballads, so Eliot’s letter to his wife, “Dear Ophelia” (he thinks of himself as Hamlet), comes off, and members of the ensemble, especially Liz McCartney, bring so much authentic emotion to the first-act finale, “Since You Came to This Town,” a paean to Eliot’s kindness, that it’s quite touching. But though Fontana gives his big eleven-o’clock number, “A Firestorm Consuming Indianapolis,” all he’s got and cries real tears (I was sitting close to the stage), his emotional commitment to the song doesn’t translate into an emotional experience for the audience. The cast is good, and Michael Mayer supplies a few nifty bits of staging, but overall it’s an ambitious stumblebum of a show. At two hours, it feels about half an hour too long.

– 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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