Monday, March 25, 2019

Musical Evenings: I Married an Angel, Choir Boy, Spamilton

Sara Mearns and Mark Evans in I Married an Angel. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

I Married an Angel is the sixth musical by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart to be revived by Encores! The original production opened on Broadway in 1938 at the midpoint of an amazing string of hit R&H shows between 1935 and 1942 that came on the heels of their half-decade at M-G-M: Jumbo, On Your Toes, Babes in Arms and I’d Rather Be Right preceded it and The Boys from Syracuse, Too Many Girls, Pal Joey and By Jupiter followed it. (Only Higher and Higher, in 1940, was a disappointment at the box office.) I Married an Angel had initially been planned for M-G-M, an adaptation of a Janos Vaszary farce about the union of a man and a (literal) angel. (This was the era when Hungarian plays found a home in Hollywood, and some of them, like William Wyler’s The Good Fairy and Ernst Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner, were wonderful.) Jeanette MacDonald, who had just had a success with Love Me Tonight , with its ebullient R&H score, was set to play the earthbound angel. But the project was abandoned, and by the time they resurrected it for Broadway they had taken on a new collaborator, George Balanchine, who’d staged the dances – and ballets – for both On Your Toes and Babes in Arms. So the role of Angel was reconceived for a dancer, Vera Zorina, whom Balanchine himself married during the New Year’s Eve performance.

I love the backstage story, but the musical itself turns out to be rather dim, though the premise – Angel’s insistence on always telling the pure truth gets her banker husband Willy in trouble, until his worldly sister Peggy teacher her how to be charmingly insincere – sounds like it should make a good high-comic musical. (R&H wrote the book, too.) At least, it doesn’t sparkle in Joshua Bergasse’s production, though it might with a starrier cast. Bergasse’s wife Sarah Mearns dances the title role very prettily, but her acting is leaden, and though handsome Mark Evans, as Willy (a.k.a. Count Palaffi), sings the R&H songs delightfully, especially the indelible ballad “Spring Is Here,” he and Mearns don’t make a compelling match. As the much-married Peggy, Nikki M. Jones looks svelte and elegant in Alejo Vietti’s period gowns and she has the right brittle style, but her tremulous contralto isn’t pleasant to listen to. Despite the score – not first-rank R&H, perhaps, but it does offer “Did You Ever Get Stung?,” “I’ll Tell the Man in the Street,” “At the Roxy Music Hall” and the title tune – and Bergasse’s choreography, the show doesn’t come to life until the secondary couple, Hayley Podschun and Phillip Attmore, get together on “How to Win Friends and Influence People” shortly before intermission. They have the musical-comedy charisma the production otherwise lacks. But you have to wait until Podschun’s vocalizing and Attmore’s tap dancing on “At the Roxy Music Hall” late in act two to get it back again.

For the record: Encores! has also staged On Your Toes, Babes in Arms, The Boys from Syracuse and Pal Joey in addition to R&H’s 1927 A Connecticut Yankee. I didn’t see all of these revivals, but On Your Toes and Babes in Arms are among my happiest Encores! experiences, and whenever I spin the cast recording of Pal Joey, starring Peter Gallagher and Patti LuPone, I want to kick myself for missing it. Rob Fisher, the founding musical director of the series, oversaw all of these shows, and he makes a special guest return to his old post for I Married an Angel. He conducts the Encores! Orchestra with his accustomed panache, and whatever the deficiencies of the show, they do not extend to the twenty-nine musicians, who are, as ever, superlative.

J. Quinton Johnson and Jeremy Pope in Choir Boy. (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

I loved Tarell Alvin McCraney’s screenplay for Moonlight, which he and the director, Barry Jenkins, adapted from a play by McCraney, but his new play, Choir Boy, running on Broadway, didn’t work for me at all. It’s set in a Christian boys’ high school with an almost all-black student population. The main character, Pharus (Jeffrey Pope), in his senior year, has taken on the coveted position of lead choir boy. But his flamboyantly gay self-presentation incites, in different ways, a homophobic classmate, Junior (J. Quinton Johnson), and a closeted homosexual, David (Caleb Everhardt), with a difficult home life and ambitions to be a minister. When Junior, who is the nephew of the headmaster (Chuck Cooper), whispers insults to Pharus during a choir service that so unsettle Pharus that he can’t go on with his solo, it’s Pharus who gets in trouble, and he refuses to turn in his classmate because he thinks that ratting on a fellow student violates the ethic of the school. He doesn’t sustain that position, though: as head of the choir, he uses his power to bounce Junior out of the organization.

Choir Boy is a melodrama, and as a piece of dramatic storytelling it’s hopelessly clunky. And the director, Trip Cullman, amps it up with attenuated pauses and by coaching the young actors in the cast (Nicholas L. Ashe is the other major one, Pharus’s roommate Junior) to go for big, showy effects. The only one who comes across as completely authentic is Eberhardt; even Johnson, who made a strong impression as a Marine in the 2017 film Last Flag Flying, isn’t much good. Pope is clearly talented but since his performance is a series of routines you can’t tell what you’re supposed to think about the character. Even the singing, under the direction of Jason Michael Webb (who also wrote original music for the show and arranged it), and the dancing (choreographed by Camille A. Brown), which reside stylistically somewhere between gospel and a cappella, are tricked up.

Cooper is solidly grounded, and considering that most of his scenes are one-on-ones with the undisciplined, show-bizzy Pope, his actorly control is particularly impressive. (Sometimes it feels like he’s playing scenes in the middle of a late-night talk show.) Austin Pendleton, looking a good decade younger than his xxx years, plays an old friend of Headmaster Marrow whom he brings out of retirement to teach a class, and it is, as always, a delight to watch him. But I couldn’t figure out what the hell his character was doing in the play.

Chuckie Benson, Ani Djirdjirian and Datus Puryear in Spamilton: An American Parody. (Photo: Roger Mastroianni)

Gerard Alessandrini, the brains behind the Forbidden Broadway series, wrote and directed Spamilton, which is in the last couple of weeks of a Boston run in Huntington Theatre Company’s South End venue at the Calderwood Pavilion. At a brisk eighty minutes (no intermission), performed by five young men and one young woman, with the musical director, Curtis Reynolds, at the piano, it’s a cheeky, witty parody. Alessandrini, who is the ultimate musical-theatre aficionado, has seeded in allusions to The Music Man, Guys and Dolls, Gypsy, Camelot, Cats, Annie, Wicked, Aladdin, The Phantom of the Opera, Mary Poppins, The Book of Mormon, West Side Story and half a dozen Stephen Sondheim shows as well as Harry Potter and the Cursed Child; there’s even a rewritten version of “Dear Mr. Gable (You Made Me Love You),” which Judy Garland sang, pre-Wizard of Oz, in the M-G-M movie Broadway Melody of 1938. These are all great fun, but appropriately the revue is at its cleverest when it takes on Hamilton. The funniest of the rewritten numbers pops up near the end of the evening, when the quintet of performers proclaim that they want to be in “The Film When It Happens.” The only problem with the production is a felicitous imbalance. Good as the men are (Adrian Lopez as Lin-Manuel Miranda, Datus Puryear, Chuckie Benson, Dominic Pecikonis, and I saw Reynolds standing in for Brandon Kinley as King George III), Ani Djirdjirian, playing all the Leading Ladies, is such a master clown and impersonator that she’s really in a class by herself. Her impression of Bernadette Peters is a knockout.

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.

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