Friday, July 14, 2017

Musicals Round-up Part II: New York

Corey Cott and Laura Osnes star in Bandstand. (Photo: Nathan Johnson)

This article contains reviews of Bandstand (Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre), War Paint (Nederlander Theatre), and Pacific Overtures (Classic Stage Company).

Ben Platt’s Tony Award for his portrayal of the anxiety-ridden teen hero of Dear Evan Hansen was no surprise, and he deserves all the recognition he’s received. But the fact that Corey Cott didn’t even receive a nomination for Bandstand constitutes highway robbery. Cott played the Louis Jourdan role in the Broadway retread of Gigi two seasons ago, and he was so callow and insipid that the character barely made sense. But when you see him as Danny Novitski, Bandstand’s haunted hero, who returns from WW2 and puts together a jazz band made up of fellow vets – responding to a competition for the best song honoring the contributions of the military, the prize for which is an appearance in a new M-G-M musical – you can hardly believe it’s the same performer. He brings the role a late-forties, early-fifties-style hard-edged sensitivity – part Dana Andrews, part Frank Sinatra. He gets you by the throat and the heart in his first, self-defining number (called “Donny Novitski”) and you’re right there with him for the next two and a half hours.

I hadn’t planned on seeing Bandstand, but I caught the second-act opener, “Nobody,” on the Tonys show and instantly changed my mind. And even then I didn’t have high hopes for anything except the choreography by Hamilton’s Andy Blankenbuehler (who also directed) and maybe the rest of the score (music by Richard Oberacker; lyrics by Oberacker and Rob Taylor, who also collaborated on the book). But it turns out to be a wonderful musical, for these and other reasons. The opening number, “Just Like It Was Before,” sets out America’s agenda to behave, in the wake of the devastating war, as if we could simply turn back the clock, and the show is about the psychological impossibility of doing so for the men who fought the war and the women who lost men in it. All six of the musicians in Danny’s band suffer from some form of PTSD. The woman who becomes their vocalist, Julia (Laura Osnes, in an excellent performance), is the widow of Danny’s best friend (also a jazz player), whom he promised to keep an eye on if anything happened to his buddy. But he avoids her initially because he saw exactly how he died and doesn’t want to share the information with her. The musical is about the struggle of figuring out who the hell you are when you’ve been through an experience that’s scrambled you and made it impossible for you to get back to who you were before.

It’s true that the show borrows a contemporary perspective on the trauma of battle, but though the term “PTSD” wasn’t current in 1945 (so it doesn’t pop up in the dialogue), I don’t think it’s so far removed from the way the culture was beginning to think about what happened to men in war when the boys came home from Europe and the South Pacific. President Truman signed the National Mental Health Act in 1946, validating the idea that the injuries veterans brought home after the war weren’t just physical. John Huston’s great documentary Let There Be Light, made in 1946 though not released until 1981 (because of pushback from the Armed Forces), is about the attempts to heal those psychic wounds. Film noir, which began to show up on movie screens in 1941 but had its real heyday between 1946 and 1950, introduced the dramatic device of the vet who came home no longer whole in spirit. Both American drama and American film became darker (and distinctly Freudian) in those years. Nothing in Bandstand feels rigged to me except for the overexplicit eleven o’clock number, “Welcome Home” (which is intended as a counter to “Just Like It Was Before”).

Oberacker and Taylor and the half-dozen actors who play the members of the band make the characters as distinctive as their musical contributions. Cott’s Donny sings and plays piano. Jimmy Campbell (James Nathan Hopkins) is the bespectacled saxophonist/clarinetist who’s juggling rehearsals and gigs with law-school classes – and it’s he whose initial contacts Donny mines to track down his combo (in the kinetic, likable “I Know a Guy” number). Bass player Davy Zlatic (Brandon J. Ellis), one of the GIs who liberated Dachau, is robust, merry and alcoholic. Trumpeter Nick Radel (Alex Bender) spent time in a POW camp. Wayne Wright (Geoff Packard), on trombone, is a former Marine whose compulsive demand for order alienates his wife and children. (He’s the one we fear for the most, when we see him with a rifle in his hand; fortunately the musical doesn’t follow through on that particular threat, which the writers clearly realize would have been an irrevocable mistake.) Johnny Simpson (Joe Carroll), the drummer, pops painkillers to deal with the injuries sustained in a tank crash that also left him discombobulated, with a spotty memory for everything but music. All five of the supporting actors provide Cott and Osnes with solid, grounded support, and they have fine chemistry as a group. Beth Leavel (The Drowsy Chaperone), as Julia’s earthy, good-humored mom, gets to move front and center for a memorable solo, “Everything Happens,” in the middle of act two.

In addition to staging first-rate conventional dance numbers like “Nobody,” Blankenbuehler has fashioned a motif of balletic ensemble dancing that evokes mood and provides an ever-present reminder of the memories that torture the men – both our six musicians and the millions of other ex-servicemen whom they stand in for. Often Blankenbuehler brings on the male dancers (who are superb) as silent comrades for the characters – especially Donny: in one eloquent moment four men move his piano as he figures out how to write a ballad. I wish that Donny’s second-act speech to Julia about how her husband met his fate had been conceived as a number, too; as much as I liked Cott’s reading of the speech, you miss the follow-through on Blankenbuehler’s dramatic choreography (and it could have made a good song).

This affecting musical is the work of two men we haven’t heard from before, but they’re not exactly newcomers. In his bio in the playbill, Oberacker reveals that he’s been working at places like The Old Globe and Cincinatti Playhouse for years, writing original musicals; Bandstand is only the first to make it to Broadway. Taylor’s bio informs us that he’s “delighted to be considered a fresh face on The Great White Way at age 61.” There’s something inspiring about seeing a show this good by men who have been honing their craft for decades and are finally being given the opportunity they’ve been working toward all this time. It certainly explains why the score for Bandstand is so damn good. In a Broadway season overloaded with new musicals (largely because the thought of competing with Hamilton for last year’s Tonys was so daunting), this is one of the few that was truly worth waiting for.

Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole in War Paint. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

The idea of a musical about the competition of the two queens of mid-twentieth-century women’s cosmetics, Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden – both women from unprepossessing backgrounds who transformed themselves into American royalty – starring two Broadway divas, Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole, is a tantalizing one. And War Paint begins promisingly, with a chorus of mature women sporting Catherine Zuber’s drop-dead-gorgeous creations expressing their worries about the ravages of aging in a song called “Best Face Forward.” The year is 1935, and the tone and style of the number suggest a Cole Porter show from that era like Jubilee or Leave It to Me!: glamorous, cosmopolitan, frivolous, lightly satirical. But those adjectives don’t generally apply to the book writer, Doug Wright, and though Scott Frankel (music) and Michael Korie (lyrics) have penned several good songs for the first act, notably a solo for Ebersole called “Better Yourself,” the musical turns serious pretty quickly, and without the substance to justify the tone shift. (When war breaks out, it really gets stuck between portraying the two protagonists, who are struggling to reinvent their images, as patriots and revealing them as shameless commercial manipulators.)

Ebersole also had the best number in her last Wright-Frankel-Korie show, Grey Gardens (“Another Winter in a Summer Town”). As Arden, she manages a clever balance of the elegant and the pragmatic. I had more of a problem with LuPone, whose highly theatrical Polish accent adds an extra layer of mannerism to an already mannered performance as well as hampering our ability to understand her lines. The biggest obstacle, though is the structure of the show, which juxtaposes the two women’s careers, often dividing the stage between them but not actually giving them a scene together until the last fifteen minutes of act two. What’s the sense of writing a musical about these two characters going after each other with hammer and tongs if we’re denied the opportunity to see them face each other off for almost the entire show? That decision seems to me  to be the boner of this Broadway musical season.

Steven Eng, Megan Masako Haley, and Ann Harada in Pacific Overtures. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Pacific Overtures, the 1976 Stephen Sondheim-John Weidman treatment of the opening of Japan to trade with the West in 1853, is one of the greatest (and most dazzlingly original) musicals ever written, but you wouldn’t have known it from John Doyle’s production at the Classic Stage Company in the spring. Doyle made his name with a brilliant reimagining of Sweeney Todd, and I loved his revival of Passion at CSC (where he is currently artistic director) in 2013. But he’s an erratic director, even of Sondheim, and this latest effort was uninspired. I didn’t mind Doyle’s paring down the text and rendering it in one act, but if you’re going to cut “Chrysanthemum Tea” (fair enough), why would you want to keep “Welcome to Kanagawa”? And why keep the Reciter (played this time around by George Takei) offstage through the opening, “The Advantages of Floating in the Middle of the Sea”? The Reciter is the equivalent of the Stage Manager in Our Town; you wouldn’t be likely to rewrite the opening of Thornton Wilder’s play with the Stage Manager in the wings. And since “A Bowler Hat” is designed to juxtapose the westernization of the protagonist Kayama with his friend Manjiro’s claiming his Japanese roots after his sojourn in America – a reversal that is crucial for the conclusion of the narrative – it’s bewildering that Doyle would elect to omit Manjiro (Orville Mendoza) from the number. Doyle and actor Steven Eng work up some emotion during the song nonetheless, and the famous perspective number, “Someone in a Tree,” is very well directed and performed. But much of the rest of the staging is dull. Harold Prince’s Broadway production of Pacific Overtures was the most visually exquisite show I’d ever seen on a stage, and nothing in the last four decades has surpassed it. But it’s certainly possibly to revive the musical without all that spectacle and still make it compelling and moving – as Fran Soeder did off-Broadway in 1984. Doyle’s agenda here seems to have been only the elimination of the spectacle. I don’t get the point.

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 Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

No comments:

Post a Comment