Monday, July 23, 2018

More Sounds of Music: Hair, Oliver!, & On a Clear Day You Can See Forever

The company of Hair. (Photo: Emma Rothenberg-Ware)

Daisy Walker’s production of Hair at Berkshire Theatre Group begins badly, with rather mechanical by-the-numbers choreography (by Lisa Shriver) on an ugly, perplexing set (designed by Jason Simms) that consists of a wall with opaque windows and a double-tiered wooden platform. Where is the action supposed to be taking place? This isn’t a question you’d ask with an abstract, open unit set, but the wall tells us we’re inside a building, so we want to know what kind of building. And why a building at all? Hair is about hippies interacting with each other and with the straight world, presumably on the streets of New York or (in the first half of the 1979 movie version) Central Park; it hardly makes sense to place them inside some room – especially this one, which looks like a recreation hall in a summer camp. The young actors, a mixture of professionals and others just out of actor training programs working toward earning their Equity cards, generate a lot of good energy, but they’re restricted by the space and the staging.

That is, until after intermission. The second act of this Hair is exponentially better than the first, despite the fact that it’s act two of the musical that is classically problematic because a long acid-trip sequence weighs it down. Unexpectedly, the choreography loosens up and showcases the performers more effectively, and the ensemble comes together – you start to believe in them as a “tribe,” to use the term the book writers, Gerome Ragni and James Rado, adopt for them.

The first rock musical to make it to Broadway (in 1968, after a run at the Public Theater and a nightclub called The Cheetah), Hair has always been a beloved property whose whole exceeds the sum of its parts. What Rado and Ragni wrote is scarcely a book; it’s more a series of musical sketches, some of them satirical, that swirl around the Vietnam War and the draft, drugs, race, and sex, and posit unconventional lifestyles as desirable alternatives to the models offered by the uptight, racist, authoritarian straight world – the world that got America into the war in the first place. You wouldn’t say that Rado and Ragni make a coherent argument, rather that they present a series of popular counterculture attitudes. But a great deal of the Galt MacDermot music is lovely, and the show is shaped to promote the sweetness and talent and kinetic force of a fresh young cast. When Diane Paulus revived it on Broadway in 2009, those qualities shone through in the first act, but the acid-trip episode brought the show to a standstill early in act two and by the end the show had slicked up; when the ensemble invited the audience up on the stage to dance with them I felt like I was at the Disney World version of Hair and I just wanted to get the hell out of there.

Claude (Andrew Cekela), centre, surrounded by the Tribe. (Photo: Emma Rothenberg-Ware)

The Berkshire Theatre Group production has the opposite effect: by the end I was on its wavelength, even moved by it. Walker never makes the mistake of turning the show into a nostalgic trip, and whatever its other mistakes, it’s not disingenuous. The highlights are “Easy to Be Hard,” sung with soul and brio by Kayla Foster, and the joyous back-to-back paeans to interracial sex, “Black Boys” (performed by Shayna Blass, Katie Birenboim and Sarah Sun Park) and “White Boys” (Latoya Edwards, Ariel Blackwood and Park again). Since Park is Asian, it’s a nice touch to have her extolling the virtues of African American and Caucasian boys – and she’s such a loose-limbed, ebullient dancer that it provides a good excuse for the audience to watch her in both numbers. I’ve always found the racial satire of “Abie, Baby” labored, but the two black men (Eric R. Williams and Kristopher Saint Louis) and two black women (Edwards and Blackwood) who sing and dance it easily transcend the material.

To the extent that the musical has a plot, it’s focused on Claude, who walks out on his parents’ middle-class existence and rejects their values to join the tribe but whose induction into the army is hanging over his head. He moves in with Berger and Sheila, both of whom he’s fallen for (though the musical doesn’t labor the point of his bisexuality). For her part, Sheila is stuck on Berger, who’s moody and unreliable. Rado and Ragni played Claude and Berger on Broadway; in 2009 the roles went to Gavin Creel and Will Swenson. At Berkshire Theatre Group both Andrew Cekala as Claude and Brandon Contreras as Berger are somewhat off-putting; both could use some toning down, especially in a venue as intimate as the Unicorn Theatre, the smallest of BTG’s three spaces. Berger’s attitudinizing and acting out may be impossible to get around, but I think you can respond to Hair even if you think the character is an insufferable asshole. But Claude is the protagonist, and we need to identify with him. Cekala plays him like a needy teddy bear; he presumes too much on the audience’s impulse to hug him.

In the movie version, which I revisited after seeing this production, Treat Williams’s Berger is definitely insufferable (though his dancing is great), but Michael Weller, who wrote the screenplay, gives Claude, now a Midwestern transplant who actually likes his parents, a more complicated transition from straight to hippie, and John Savage, an actor I rarely like, is interesting – conflicted – in the part. The movie has marvelous, highly original choreography by Twyla Tharp, and some very talented performers in the supporting cast (Beverly D’Angelo, Annie Golden, Dorsey Wright and, practically leaping off the screen in an Aretha Franklin-esque rendition of “Easy to Be Hard,” Cheryl Barnes). It also has surely the most startling imagery Milos Forman ever came up with. But, on and off, it’s also hateful – its tone toward the straight world, with the exception of Claude’s laconic farmer dad (who appears in only one short scene), is smug and mean-spirited. Still, the finale slays you. In Weller’s adaptation, Claude goes off to basic training and Berger rounds up the members of the tribe who are closest to him to take a road trip to visit him. Berger dreams up a scheme to cut his hair and put on a uniform so he can infiltrate the army barracks and substitute for Claude while he goes on a picnic with the others, but the unit is abruptly hauled off to Vietnam before he gets back, and Berger winds up going into battle in his place. The “Flesh Failures” number, where Berger enters the plane with the other soldiers, is beautifully conceived, and at the end, when that ominous march melts into “Let the Sun Shine In,” Claude and the others sing it at Berger’s grave, in the middle of rows of tombstones at Arlington National Cemetery. I think my mixed feelings about the movie are unresolvable, but those final moments always quiet my objections.

Elijah Rayman as Oliver Twist, with the company. (Photo: Diane Sobolewski)

Oliver! – book, music and lyrics by Lionel Bart – is one of the few English musicals I know that works, though the problem facing anyone who revives it, like Rob Ruggiero for the Goodspeed Opera House, is that Carol Reed’s 1968 movie version is considerably better than the stage version. The screenwriter, Vernon Harris, improved Bart’s script with more interpolations from the source, Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist. Reed took out the operetta-like sequences and – drawing on Dickens’s distinctive gift for caricature as well as on the style of some of the first movie-musical experiments (like RenĂ© Clair’s movies from the early 1930s and Lewis Milestone’s 1933 collaboration with Rodgers and Hart, Hallelujah, I’m a Bum) and, perhaps, on the memorable Halloween sequence in Vincente Minnelli’s Meet Me in St. Louis – he turned it into a Victorian fairy tale. Reed’s movie is one of the greatest of all movie musicals. So a revival of the original stage musical faces a similar problem to revivals of the stage version of Cabaret, though not to the same extent. When the Roundabout Theatre mounted Cabaret in 1998, it commissioned a new book that tried to reach a compromise between the 1966 Broadway version and Jay Presson Allen’s 1972 screenplay, and the result was neither fish nor fowl – and, I thought, pretty awful. The Goodspeed hasn’t made that mistake; for good or for ill, they’ve stuck with Bart’s script and score. So here, once again, are the limp novelty numbers no one remembers, “I Shall Scream” (for Mr. Bumble, the workhouse beadle, and Widow Corney, the workhouse mistress, played by Richard R. Henry and Joy Hermalyn) and “That’s Your Funeral” (for Mr. Bumble and the undertaker and his wife, Mr. and Mrs. Sowerberry, played by Jamie LaVerdiere and Karen Murphy). Here is the second-act trio for Nancy (EZ Zimmerman), Fagin (Donald Corren) and Bill Sikes (Brandon Andrus), which is the moment when the musical most closely resembles an operetta. And here’s Sikes’s utterly expendable identity song, “My Name.” (As the friend who accompanied me to the revival observed, Bill Sikes is not a character to inspire a solo.)

I think that Goodspeed made the right decision – if you’re going to stage Oliver!, you should take it with all its blemishes. But it takes a while for Ruggiero’s production to get on its feet. The opening number, “Food, Glorious Food,” which borrows from the movie, is adequate, but until Oliver gets to London and the show gets to “Consider Yourself,” about halfway through act one, the staging is, oddly, both cramped and underpopulated, and the transitions lack fluidity. Michael Schweikardt’s set, dominated by a bridge, is full of nooks and crannies, evocatively lit by John Lasiter, but he hasn’t done enough to distinguish the locations (the workhouse, the street, the undertaker’s parlor). And with a cast of twenty-one, couldn’t Ruggiero have put a few more of them on stage during Mr. Bumble’s “Boy for Sale” song so that you don’t ask yourself whom he’s trying to sell Oliver to? (A single stranger crosses the space during the song.) After slipping through the clutches of Bumble and the undertaking staff, Oliver sits downstage right, where The Artful Dodger (Gavin Swartz) comes upon him; suddenly we learn we’re in London and Oliver has been on the road for a week, but nothing in the staging suggests movement or the shift from the provinces to the big city.

Fortunately, these problems vanish during “Consider Yourself” and never recur. The settings – the London streets, Fagin’s den, the tavern, Mr. Brownlow’s house, London Bridge – begin to develop autonomy, and Ruggiero shifts the characters confidently from one to the next. Instead of coming across like an obstacle course, Schweikardt’s set takes its rightful place as one of the virtues of the production as the staging becomes wittier and more imaginative. (The climax, from Brownlow’s appearance on the bridge to receive Oliver through Nancy’s murder and the chase after Bill Sikes, is the highlight of the evening.) And James Gray’s varied choreography, in the best Goodspeed tradition, underscores the talents of the dancers. The brightest spots are “Consider Yourself,” “Oom-Pah-Pah” and “Who Will Buy,” which muses colored streamers as maypole ribbons. For “I’ll Do Anything” Gray more or less reconstructs Onna White’s choreography from the movie.

Corren is a pleasing Fagin, especially when he sings “Reviewing the Situation” midway through the second act. Elijah Rayman handles the musical and dramatic demands of the title character efficiently; as Dodger, Gavin Swartz is a strong dancer but less vivid than he might be. Zimmerman sings adequately, but with the exception of Nancy’s big ballad, “As Long as She Needs Me,” which she dispatches affectingly, her acting is strained and unconvincing. Brandon Andrus gives the best performance of the evening as Nancy’s lover, the brutal, frightening Sikes. One of the problems with the production is that the ensemble hasn’t found a consistent style for the characters that satisfies the requirements of both musical theatre and Dickens; some of the acting is way too broad (like Henry’s as Mr. Bumble, though he certainly has the musical chops for the part). Among the performers in smaller roles, Karen Murphy, double-cast as the undertaker’s wife and the loving Mrs. Bedwin, who keeps house for Mr. Brownlow (James Young), the rich man who adopts Oliver, strikes the best balance.

John Cudia and Melissa Errico in On a Clear Day You Can See Forever. (Photo: Carol Rosegg)

I went to see the Irish Repertory Theatre revival of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever out of curiosity, or perhaps out of a lingering hope that, given the gorgeous Alan Jay Lerner-Burton Lane score, it might be possible to find a way to make Lerner’s book less of an obstacle course. I should have known better: Encores! tried it in 2000 without success. Charlotte Moore, the director-adapter of the current production, has eliminated the two most dispensable plot strands (the psychic, reincarnated heroine’s dull fiancĂ© and the Greek tycoon who wants to leave his fortune to whoever he turns out to be in his next life). But she can’t figure out a way to make us root for Daisy Gamble (Melissa Errico) to wind up with the shrink, Mark Bruckner (Stephen Bogardus), who has fallen in love with the eighteenth-century British aristocrat, Melinda Wells, he encounters when he regresses Daisy, who has fallen in love with him. (Got all that? It’s pretty nutty stuff.) Mark uses Daisy very badly, a conclusion she herself reaches when he accidentally turns on the tape recorder in his office and finds out that he’s only been spending time with her so he can get to Melinda. Then suddenly he decides it’s one-of-a-kind Daisy he loves, and because she’s so susceptible to auto-suggestion, he gets inside her head to make her come back to him after she’s declared she never wants to see him again. He’s a creep, so their reconciliation at the end of the musical isn’t exactly a cause for celebration, whatever Lerner thought. (The 2012 Broadway revival, with Harry Connick, Jr. as Bruckner, rejiggered the book to turn the heroine into a gay man who, in an earlier life, was a female Big Band singer. That was much worse.)

Bogardus can’t do much with the part of the psychiatrist, and unlike Connick he isn’t especially charming. As for Errico, she’s a puzzle. She has a lovely, expressive voice and in some roles – Venus in the Encores! One Touch of Venus, Clara in the Classic Stage Company revival of Sondheim’s Passion – she’s ideal (and those characters have very little in common). But her performance in Do I Hear a Waltz? (also Encores!) was badly misguided, and she doesn’t come close to getting Daisy’s combination of touching insecurity and spirited kookiness, which Barbara Harris famously nailed in the original production. You need someone like Chenoweth, who was a delightful Daisy; the young Barbra Streisand should have been able to pull it off, but the 1970 Vincente Minnelli movie was pretty much a wash. Errico is a lot more persuasive as the put-together English Melinda – the part of the character Chenoweth didn’t get. As Edward Moncrief, the rake Melinda falls for in the eighteenth-century story and then runs away from to her doom, John Cudia, who has played both the Phantom of the Opera and Jean Valjean, gives a stiff operetta performance but he certainly does justice to Edward’s ballad, “She Wasn’t You.” I liked the bright, melodic ensemble, and Moore uses them cleverly. Florrie Bagel is a standout when she sings “Who Is There Among Us Who Knows?” at the top of the second act – a song that Lerner and Lane wrote for the movie (for Jack Nicholson, of all people, in the added part of Daisy’s brother) but ended up on the cutting-room floor. I’ve never thought much of it (I have Nicholson’s rendition on an obscure vinyl recording) but Bagel brings out unsuspected virtues in it.

– 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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