Monday, June 11, 2018

Effigies of Wickedness!, The Rink, Brief Encounter: Words and Music

Lucy McCormick, Le Gateau Chocolat, Peter Brathwaite, and Katie Bray in Effigies of Wickedness! (Photo: Helen Murray)

When the Nazis staged an exhibition of “degenerate music” in Düsseldorf in 1938, the accompanying manifesto characterized the targeted music – some the work of Jewish and black artists, much of it political and cynical and satirical, some of it experimental – as “effigies of wickedness.” The current co-production of the Gate Theatre and the English National Opera, a cabaret of German songs from 1920 through 1939 but mostly representing the Weimar era (which officially ended with Hitler’s rise to power in 1933), has taken that phrase as its title. This is social and political theatre – Brechtian theatre – at its most potent. In the Gate’s compact Notting Hill space above a pub, four dazzling singer-actors – Peter Brathwaite, Katie Bray, Lucy McCormick and the drag performer Le Gateau Chocolat – and three wonderful musicians (Geri Allen, Cassie Kinoshi and Fra Rustumji), under the direction of the Gate’s artistic director Ellen McDougall and the musical direction of Phil Cornwell, present fourteen songs, most of them translated into English by Seiriol Davies and David Tushingham. Many who love Bob Fosse’s Cabaret may understand that the Kit Kat Klub numbers are imitating a style of commentary art songs that was popular in the late twenties and early thirties, but we know almost nothing from the repertoire of Berlin’s kabarett theatre: the score of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera (1928), perhaps a smattering of songs from their Happy End and The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (1929 and 1930 respectively). The only tune I recognized in Effigies of Wickedness! was “Petroleum Song” (lyric by Felix Gasbarra), which Teresa Stratas recorded in her magnificent two-album set of Weill songs nearly thirty years ago. All the others were revelations to me, and every one is a gem. The production illuminates the work of forgotten composers like Misha Spoliansky, Hanns Eisler and Frederick Hollander, whose name may be familiar to Marlene Dietrich aficionados. (He wrote the music for The Blue Angel and, emigrating to Hollywood in the crush of German-Jewish artists fleeing Hitler in the early thirties, worked on several of her American movies as well as many others.)

In a sense, every number in the show is a highlight, but I’ll restrict myself to just a handful. McCormick performs “Paragraph 218 (Abortion Is Illegal)” (Eisler/Brecht), which chronicles an exchange between a woman mired in poverty and the smug, self-righteous doctor who not only denies her an abortion but shows no compassion for her state, presenting the illegality of her request as if it were an affront to the social order and to moral rectitude. McCormick takes the character from fear and pleading to sorrow and finally to irony and fury. Shortly afterwords she sings an amazing number called “Sex Appeal” (words and music by Hollander), which recalls the interplay of bravado and fragility of Liza Minnelli’s Sally Bowles in Cabaret and her plunge into a champagne- and sex-fueled maelstrom. It’s a song about starry-eyed delusion, and McCormick’s rendition is full of pathos and terror. McCormick’s persona in the revue is mocking and flirtatious; she plays with members of the audience, demanding praise and a kind of parody of sexual enslavement. (She invites a couple of spectators at the tables up front to remove her shoes and stockings.) But what we get in “Sex Appeal” is the neediness behind the sexual forthrightness, and then the self-destructiveness. She also performs “Best Girlfriends” with Bray, a paean to lesbian love in a tinkly ragtime style – Spoliansky wrote the music, Marcellus Schiffer the lyrics – in which the playful tone is lent depth by the exquisite harmonies by the two female voices.

The poignant ballad “Tonight or Never” articulates Spoliansky’s decision – like Hollander’s and Weill’s and that of other German Jews from the theatre world – to leave Berlin. (It was written in 1932.) But the most devastating number is “Munchhausen” (Hollander, English translation by Jeremy Lawrence), in which Le Gateau Chocolat presents a dream version of a democratic, liberal, open-hearted Germany while each verse is countered by McCormick, Bray and Brathwaite in a chorus that begins, “Liar, liar . . . “ The fact that Hollander’s melody is so beautiful, the most romantic music of the evening, especially in the chorus, and the fact that the four singers have gorgeous instruments that swirl in a palette of rich vocal colors when they harmonize, makes “Munchhausen” an elegy rather than a protest song. Its tone is one of aching longing, and it breaks your heart.

Perhaps three-quarters of the way through the cabaret, the four performers take a series of mock-bows that the audience greets with delighted giggles as well as applause. But this premature curtain call goes on and on, past the point where we’ve stopped clapping, so that for a full minute they’re bowing in sinister silence. It’s a lesson in fascism; it’s also a reflection of a culture gone dead. This is one of the most remarkable evenings I’ve spent in a theatre in a long time.

Elander Moore, Gemma Sutton, Caroline O'Connor and Ross Dawes in The Rink. (Photo: Darren Bell)

The Southwark Playhouse, an intimate venue far from the West End that looks like a community theatre, is presenting a revival of The Rink that is equal to the best production of a musical play I’ve seen in London. It’s a revelation, too, since The Rink – book by Terrence McNally, music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb – played on Broadway for only about half a year in 1984 before disappearing into obscurity, despite its West End debut four years later. Kander and Ebb wrote it for Chita Rivera and Liza Minnelli. (The original book writer, Albert Innaurato, was fired along the way, along with the original director, Arthur Laurents, whom A.J. Antoon replaced.) The narrative, which crosshatches present and various moments in the past, is a complicated exploration of the troubled relationship between a mother and a daughter (played at the Southwark Playhouse by Caroline O’Connor and Gemma Sutton). The mother, Anna Antonelli, has just sold the roller rink at a quickly deteriorating Jersey seaside resort that she inherited from her father-in-law (played in flashbacks by Ross Dawes) after her husband, Dino (Stewart Clarke), left the scene when her daughter was a little girl; we don’t find out until the end of act two what happened to him. Just as the demolition men she hired are about to take the place apart, her daughter Angel shows up, reminds Anna that she is co-heir to the rink, and insists that, since it represents her bond with her father and the only happy hours of her childhood, she wants it to remain standing. Angel left home when she was sixteen and has stayed away for fourteen years, returning only once and then fleeing again after the usual altercation with her mother. It takes both acts for us to get the full story of the two women’s mutual resentment, and its gradual unfolding, which makes it possible for them to reconcile at last, includes information that they have never exchanged with each other about their separate lives.

I’m not sure why The Rink was hit with lousy reviews and did such mediocre business on Broadway, but it’s easy to guess that no one wanted to see two glamorous musical-theatre stars in a downbeat musical about the working-class experience (which is almost never dramatized in American musicals, Fiddler on the Roof being the special-case exception). And possibly a Broadway house isn’t right for this particular show. In Adam Lenson’s current revival, the restrictions of the tiny playing space, framed by audience three-quarters around, link up with the dilapidated setting, the instantaneous time shifts, and the stripped-down ensemble: Lenson has staged it with six men in addition to the two principal women, each in several roles, hewing fairly closely to the way it was done in 1984. And the challenges of the space have forced Lenson, set designer Bec Chippendale and choreographer Fabian Aloise to be inventive. One number, “What Happened to the Old Days?,” relies on the movement of three rocking chairs while three of the men take on the roles of aging women without donning drag – not the only time the show invokes Brechtian gestus as a way of expanding the cast of characters. The “Mrs. A” number brings together Angel’s memories of growing up fatherless, raised by a mother whose anguish and bitterness got in the way of giving her daughter the kind of love she needed, with the seedy attention Anna received (and encouraged) from local young men. The title number, performed by the sextet of men on roller skates, is a marvel of emotional exuberance presented with – but in no way tempered by – the modesty imposed by the physical space.

The musical begins with so much unpleasantness between Anna and Angel – especially on Anna’s side – that it asks us to hang in long enough to find out what caused it. I think that Lenson botches the moment when Angel first appears: he’s staged it too far upstage and we don’t see the impulse to come together that both women are furiously tamping down. Admirable as her refusal is to make herself likable in the early scenes of the play, Caroline O’Connor might ease up a little – there are ways to show us other sides to Anna without making her soft. It’s a strong piece of acting, though, and Gemma Sutton is almost as good. And the men are all splendid: Ross Dawes as the papa, Lino, Ben Redfern as Lenny, who’s loved Anna all his life and has waited around for years for her to turn to him as more than a friend, Michael Lin, Elander Moore and Jason Winter in a variety of parts, and especially Stewart Clarke as Dino, who shares the climactic scene with Sutton, which is also the most touchingly written and directed. Most of the time Terrence McNally’s plays and his musical-theatre libretti leave me cold, but every now and then – here and in The Visit, another collaboration with Kander and Ebb – he hits a vein of something genuine. The book for The Rink is overloaded: I’d cut the thread about the local toughs who beat Anna up and the one about the fate of Angel’s druggie boyfriend. But you never feel the emotions are rigged or the plot is working you over.

I have no idea how much the work of Lenson and his cast and the strikingly gifted Aloise is responsible for correcting the show’s imperfections. We should add the musical director/conductor Joe Bunker, who also plays keyboards in the tip-top seven-person band: this isn’t one of Kander and Ebb’s outstanding scores, but there isn’t a song in it that isn’t staged and performed effectively. Almost every musical I know, including many I love, has book problems, usually in the second act, but it’s amazing how little they matter in a really fine production. The latest Broadway revival of Sunday in the Park with George solved the show’s notorious second-act issues, and I’ve seen a couple of passes at Pal Joey that are so stylistically sure and render John O’Hara’s hard-boiled Depression-era tone so precisely that, if they don’t exactly fix the clumsiness in the plotting, it doesn’t spoil the proceedings. Time and time again Encores! or the Goodspeed Opera House or an especially canny Broadway mounting of some musical that time has passed by will remind us of how good it is and how unjustly it’s been treated through the years, often because the original version was botched – overproduced or miscast. Something like The Rink makes you feel grateful that the Southwark Playhouse has given the show such a talented and carefully thought-through showcase.

Jim Sturgeon (right) and the cast of Brief Encounter. (Photo: Steve Tanner)

Emma Rice’s Brief Encounter, which she adapted from the iconic 1945 movie and directed for her company, Kneehigh, has been around for more than a decade, but I missed it during its Broadway run and finally caught up with it in London, where it’s being revived on stage in a movie theatre (the Empire Cinema London). David Lean directed the film, from a screenplay Noël Coward built up from Still Life, one of the one-acts that made up his 1936 Tonight at 8:30, which stretched over three evenings. It is, famously, the account of a romance between a housewife, Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson), and a doctor, Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard), whom she meets in a train-station tea shop when he removes a speck of grit from her eye. Both are married, with children; they meet once a week, over tea and the movies and other harmless activities, but their love for each other is tumultuous. Since they never sleep together – he does bring her to the flat of a mate, who has loaned him a latchkey, but circumstances intervene before they consummate their relationship – yet they carry around all the guilt of an extramarital affair, the film is a sort of paean to middle-class English repression, and it’s not hard to make fun of it. And that’s what I thought Rice was doing at first, turning it into a cultural artifact and using Brechtian alienation devices – Coward’s songs, revue numbers, the extremely exaggerated acting of the supporting cast ensemble, mixed-media effects – to make the picture look foolish while commenting on the differences between the middle class represented by Alec and Laura and the less restrained working class represented by the tea shop owner, Mrs. Bagot (Lucy Thackeray), the station master, Mr. Godby (Dean Nolan), and another couple, Beryl (Beverly Rudd) and Stanley (Jos Slovick). But I was mistaken; easy jokes at the movie’s expense is not what Rice is after. Isabel Pollen and Jim Sturgeon, who play the would-be lovers, give purely realist performances (excellent ones) and Rice never allows either of them to look ridiculous. The play is sometimes funny but it never makes their anguish into a joke.

The show, with its mix of epic theatre, expressionism, surrealism and music hall, is very clever, and at times the benevolent ghost of Dennis Potter seems to be hovering over it. Jon Driscoll and Gemma Carrington designed the projections, which sync up ingeniously with the live action at key moments. But Rice sometimes miscalculates her effects, rendering them too big and a little clunky. I didn’t care for the use of puppets to stand in for Laura’s children, and the casting of Nolan, an outsize, rubbery fellow with a startlingly agile body, as her husband Fred is a mistake because he looks so clownish juxtaposed with Sturgeon’s Alec that you can’t imagine Laura isn’t already on the lookout for a more satisfying partner. When Rice gets the style and the tone just right, though, the results are magical, as when the ensemble, downstage right, sings “Go Slow, Johnny” from Coward’s 1961 Sail Away while Pollen and Sturgeon play a tender scene downstage left. Rice’s productions are hit or miss, but she’s a kind of genius, and with all its faults, I’d definitely put Brief Encounter in the hit category.

– 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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