Monday, October 22, 2018

Trying to Make the Old New Again in Oklahoma! and A Star Is Born

Jordan Barbour and Jonathan Luke Stevens in Oklahoma! at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival  (Photo: Jenny Graham)

Every few years or so someone mounts a major revival of Oklahoma! (1943) or Carousel (1945) on Broadway or in the West End – or in the West End and then on Broadway – and critics fall over themselves proclaiming that this rendition of a Rodgers and Hammerstein blockbuster is fresh and relevant and reaffirms their rock-bound standing in the musical-theatre canon. But no production in my experience has managed to transcend the tinny, pedantic banalities of Oscar Hammerstein’s lyrics or the embarrassing pseudo-populist vernacular, which makes the fake poetry in The Grapes of Wrath sound like Walt Whitman by comparison. God knows I should have known better, but I checked in on the latest Broadway Carousel, directed by Jack O’Brien. But though the choreographer, Joshua Peck, came up with one thrilling number (“Blow High, Blow Low,” showcasing the dazzling high stepping of Amar Ramasar as Jigger Craigin), the dialogue, with its hopeless attempt at mimicking the sound of turn-of-the-century Mainers, sank the performances of the talented cast, Jessie Mueller, Joshua Henry, Lindsay Mendez and Renee Fleming among them. (Plus there was no fucking carousel.)

There are two new versions of Oklahoma! these days, one on each coast. I skipped Daniel Fish’s at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn (which prompted The New York Times’s Ben Brantley and Jesse Green, in “conversation” on the front page of the arts section, to outdo each other with kudos) but sat through Bill Rauch’s, which is selling out the big house at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, where Rauch is artistic director. Rauch and Fish seem to be in competition for the most up-to-date twenty-first-century revival of a classic musical. At St. Ann’s Ado Annie is in a wheelchair, but Rauch has cast a man, Jonathan Luke Stevens, as Ado Andy, and a woman, Tatiana Wechsler, as Curly. Two same-sex couples versus one disabled actor: Rauch wins the virtue sweepstakes hands down.

Carousel is dopey and its saccharine operettishness is depressing, but at least it has a relatively compelling story line; the Hungarian playwright Ferenč Molnar thought it up, for his 1909 Liliom, a domestic drama that morphs into fantasy in the second half. It’s a mystery to me how anyone can keep from going numb with boredom during the unspooling of Oklahoma!, which Hammerstein derived from Lynn Riggs’s Green Grow the Lilacs, an implausible hit for the Theatre Guild in 1930. (In his director’s note, Rauch makes sure to mention that Riggs was a gay man and part Cherokee; does that make Oklahoma! politically worthy by osmosis?) Here’s the plot. In Oklahoma Territory in 1906, Curly the cowhand and Laurey the ranch owner (Royer Bockus) are in love but both have too much pride to admit it, so when her brooding, sinister hired hand Jud Fry (Michael Sharon) invites her to the box social at a neighboring homestead, she says yes, though she regrets it as soon as he puts the moves on her. At the social, where the local women have prepared box lunches for an auction, the proceeds to go to the building of a schoolhouse, the two rivals square off for Laurey’s, and Curly sells first his saddle, then his horse and finally his gun so he can outbid Jud. Laurey is moved enough at the gesture to marry him, but Jud shows up drunk at the wedding to make trouble and winds up dead. Who knew that in turn-of-the-century Oklahoma box lunches were so expensive? And these paralyzing plot developments are rendered by characters whose diction makes the eye roll and the jaw drop – “purty” for “pretty,” “orter” for “ought to” and so forth. “Oh, whut ud I do ‘thout you, you’re sich a crazy!” Laurey exclaims to her sage Aunt Eller (Bobbi Charlton), to which the old woman replies, “Shore’s you’re borned!”

Royer Bockus and Tatiana Wechsler in Oklahoma!. (Photo by Jenny Graham)

Like all Rodgers and Hammerstein shows, this one has some a handful of nice tunes (“Out of My Dreams” is far and away the best) tucked in among the bland, sunshiny ones (“Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’,” “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top”). And there is a theme that explains its runaway popularity in wartime and post-war America; it ran so long that the premiere of the movie version in 1955 began with a procession from the Broadway house to the moviehouse. The territory is preparing for imminent statehood, and the union of a cowboy and a rancher, traditionally enemies in the old west, is meant to symbolize a bright new America. This is the idea that ostensibly inspired Rauch to put up Oklahoma! with two gay characters, a female Judge Carnes (K.T. Vogt), a heap of female cowhands and one cross-dressing young man in the chorus, as well as African Americans as Laurey and Will Parker (Jordan Barbour), the cowboy who aims to settle down with promiscuous Ado Andy, and a Middle Eastern actor, Barzin Akhavan, as Ali Hakim, the itinerant peddler who has a fling with Andy. (As Hammerstein wrote this role, his name and his claim to a Persian background are merely a ploy to make his wares sound more exotic; in the Fred Zinneman movie he was played by Eddie Albert.) Let’s grant Rauch the right to a fantasy of a brave new America defined by all-out gender, racial and sexual freedom rather than by the free mixing of farmers and cowhands – though it might seem less preposterous if the scenic design (Sibyl Wickersheimer) and costumes (Linda Roethke) didn’t keep reminding us that the play takes place in 1906 Oklahoma. But did Rauch stop to consider for a moment the implications of throwing same-sex couples and color-blind casting into a resolutely conventional 1943 musical without making any other alterations except for the pronouns? Unless they’re truly egregious (The Merchant of Venice and The Taming of the Shrew come to mind), I’ve never believed it was necessary to “fix” plays that were written in a different culture; just present them as what they are – period pieces. But to make sexual and racial changes to Oklahoma! without acknowledging that it’s patriarchal and sexist and loaded with stereotypes is idiocy. What Rauch winds up with is a cast of characters that includes a dumb black man (Will is too stupid to realize that if he squanders on gifts for Andy the $50 he’s earned to convince Andy’s mom, Judge Carnes, that he’s sturdy enough to marry her son, then he no longer has the $50), a promiscuous gay man (Andy sings, “I’m just a boy who cain’t say no”), and a clownish Persian. I’ve never seen an Oklahoma! I liked, but this is the first time I’ve seen one that’s downright offensive. And it’s the work of a gay director.

And what does Rauch do with the villainous Jud Fry? It’s not enough that he and Michael Sharon portray him as a psychopath; Rodgers and Hammerstein had no use for him either. (Their attempt to give him a sympathetic song, “Lonely Room,” is an abject failure; clearly their hearts weren’t in it. It’s the worst song in the score aside from Ali Hakim’s “It’s a Scandal! It’s an Outrage!” If you know the musical only via the movie version, you won’t recognize either of these tunes, since Zinnemann wisely excised them.) Agnes de Mille devised the interminable dream ballet that drags act one to a close nearly two hours on to dramatize Laurey’s dilemma over who should take her to the dance. In OSF choreographer Ann Yee’s version, Fry shows up as a fascistic conservative who represses homoerotic impulses; in an inadvertently funny moment, he rips the gown off the cross-dresser and forces him to wear pants.

The acting across the board is godawful; the show is a bad acting contest. Sharon is the clear victor: he reads his lines with such undifferentiated ferocity that it sounds like he’s biting the heads off mice. Everyone else goes for a cutesy cartoonishness, though Disneyfying the characters would seem to undercut Rauch’s agenda to make them into a brave cross-section of humanity. One of the friends I saw the show with commented that it was like watching circus animals, and the enthusiastic audience got right into the spirit, laughing merrily at every same-sex kiss the way you might at smooching monkeys.

After the performance my friends and I spent a fair amount of time trying to work out why the supposedly liberal OSF audience went wild for this crap. My guess is that Rauch’s superficial (and self-contradicting) progressiveness gave them permission to indulge an affection for a resolutely square old-fashioned R&H musical – just like Rauch himself, who tells us in his director’s note that he acted in Oklahoma! in high school and has always cherished a fondness for it. I know a lot of people who were in this musical in high school or summer camp (I played Curly when I was fifteen), but it really isn’t necessary to justify the activities of your adolescence by pretending that they’re worth revisiting as adults, dressed up in up-to-the-minute politics that accidentally throw their actual reactionary politics into glaring relief.

Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga in A Star Is Born (2018).

About an hour into A Star Is Born, I jotted down in my notebook, “At least this isn’t as bad as the 1976 version”; about an hour later I wrote, “Scratch that. It’s worse.” Bradley Cooper’s movie, with a screenplay credited to him, Eric Roth and Will Fetters, is the fifth go-round for this material, the story of an aspiring Hollywood actress – changed to a pop singer in 1976, an alteration that this version retains – whose ascension to fame coincides with the descent of the alcoholic star she falls in love with and marries. The first, What Price Hollywood?, came out in 1932; early in his career, George Cukor directed Constance Bennett as the waitress at the Brown Derby in L.A. who finds stardom while Lowell Sherman, in a terrifying portrait of an irredeemable drunk, comes apart. The two actors are evenly matched, and the movie, which shows up on TCM occasionally, is a home-town Hollywood triumph. The three remakes before the current one, each called A Star Is Born, are of variable quality but they all work out the same way: the actress cast as the rising star – Janet Gaynor in William Wellman’s 1937 film, Judy Garland in the famous 1954 musical (beautifully directed, once more by Cukor), and Barbra Streisand in 1976 (directed by Frank Pierson) – are all too old to convey the requisite bloom the narrative professes, while her co-star – Fredric March, James Mason, Kris Kristofferson – does the real acting. Garland’s performance has always been beloved by her legion of fans, but the neurotic quality she brings to the role, an obvious spill-over from her personal life, is all wrong for the character, and it’s unpleasant to watch her in most of her scenes.

Cooper should have shrugged off the curse when he cast Lady Gaga, in her movie debut, as Ally, the titular figure. She’s certainly a fresh presence. She has charm, she’s a great camera subject, and God knows she can sing. She and Cooper, who, like his predecessors, gives a completely authentic performance, have obvious chemistry, and when they get up to sing together it’s thrilling. So are her solos, with the sole exception of her first, “La Vie en Rose,” which Ally performs at a drag club; Lady Gaga only really comes alive when she sings rock ‘n’ roll. (The new songs were written by Cooper, Gaga and a team of others.) The problem is that the trio of screenwriters didn’t get around to writing a character for her – or for anyone else. Cooper manages to feel his way into the role of Jackson Maine, whose alcohol and cocaine consumption has begun to eat away at his music, and he’s revisiting a classic role that has worked every time. The script makes Ally tough and feisty (and a waitress), like Constance Bennett in What Price Hollywood?, but there are no real scenes for her to play. The script is in tatters; it’s a series of semi-improvisations but the actors are improvising on nothing. The courtship scenes reminded me of the way celebrities interact on late-night talk shows, and in the dramatic climaxes the dialogue is so banal that the audience might have written it.

It’s nice to see Andrew Dice Clay makes an appearance as Ally’s father, a limo driver who once dreamed of becoming another Sinatra, and Sam Elliott as Jackson’s manager, though it takes a long time to figure out that he’s also supposed to be his brother (That’s partly because of the clumsiness of the storytelling and partly because Elliott is three decades older than Bradley Cooper and looks it, and the movie’s justification for the age difference isn’t convincing.) But all either of them gets to do is hover on the edges of the movie – or, in Elliott’s case, show up every few scenes to yell and curse at the way Jackson is screwing up his life and his career. Dave Chapelle gets one barely written scene as Noodles, an old pal of Maine’s he looks up in Memphis. (To be precise, he collapses, blotto, outside Noodles’s home, where his friend finds him in the morning.) Anthony Ramos plays the heroine’s gay pal, a cliché that simply swallows him up. And in a variation on the part of the embittered press agent (played blisteringly by Jack Carson in the 1954 edition), Rafi Gavron, as Ally’s manager Rez, gives off poisonous vibes and that’s about it. The section of the plot that focuses on their relationship doesn’t make much sense anyway. When Rez takes over her career, he gives her a lot of bad advice – he changes her hair color and hires dancers for her act. After Jackson sees her perform on Saturday Night Live (where guest host Alec Baldwin introduces her), he tells her how lousy her number was, but he’s smashed and she figures he’s just jealous because she’s a hit and the best gig he’s been able to land lately is playing in a band behind an uninteresting young up-and-comer on a tribute show. And then there’s no follow-through. Apparently Ally realizes that he’s right: the next time we see her she’s lost the silly imitation-Michael Jackson back-up dancers and she’s back to her true-blue rocker self. But there’s no scene in which she argues with Rez about her image, and she doesn’t fire him.

The awful script is exactly one-half of the problem with this Star Is Born; the other half is Cooper’s direction. He’s a novice and man, does it show. It’s not just that he shoots almost exclusively in close-up, with the odd medium shot mixed in; after all, he’s made two high-profile pictures with David O. Russell, who doesn’t believe in long shots. Cooper has no idea where to put the camera or how to edit a scene to shape it dramatically. I didn’t count, but if there are twelve musical numbers in the movie, he must cut away from seven of them after one verse. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to him that in a movie musical we might want to see the singers perform. When Jackson calls Ally, still an unknown, up in the middle of his show to duet with her on a song she’s written, she’s sensational, and we look forward to the moment when the crowd explodes; after all, the movie is called A Star Is Born. But Cooper cuts away before the audience response. He gives a splendid performance, but he’s inept as a filmmaker, and this is a terrible movie.

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