Archive for the ‘theater’ Category

Patti Lupone Show Missing Only One Thing…

January 13th, 2012 No comments

…Patti Lupone.

So you think they’d have canceled the show when the star couldn’t/wouldn’t take the stage. No. Instead, Mandy Patinkin, taking the maxim “the show must go on” too much to heart, decided to mount a one-man show, moving from behind the piano to center stage. The result couldn’t have been worse had the blue haired dowagers in the audience (that is, most of the audience excluding the gay men) joined in.

But let’s talk about who did join in: Patinkin’s no-name son (well, his name is Gideon, but you get the point), whose slapdash appearance called out “Old Navy, 2007.” Gideon was the “surprise” that Patinkin promised at some point early in the show, doubtless hoping to keep some of us in our seats in the hope that someone more noteworthy (say, Joanne Worley) would bound onto the stage and launch into a show-stopper from “Gypsy!” Gideon was game, but…well, I don’t want to dump on him for trying to help his dad. (But bait me a bit and I will.)

And if there’s one thing this show needed (OK, there were many things), it was stopping. Patinkin routinely forgot lyrics, stopped songs in midstream, and dismissed the audience with statements like “I don’t give a shit.” At least he tried to make up for it with his appearance — an all-black ensemble that called to mind a central-casting cat burglar who’d just straggled in after an unsuccessful night.

After about an hour of this crap (which included a reading of the Gettysburg Address, punctured and deflated by musical interludes at several points), we’d had enough and demanded a refund. The theater manager, besieged by three fur-clad women on one side and my withering diatribe on the other, only offered token resistance. Less the Ticketron and other ridiculous charges, we got our money back.

But the show should just have been canceled. By the time we found out what was going on, it was curtain time and too late to seek a substitute. The theater obviously decided that they’d try to hold on to at least some of the audience with this Patinkin stunt, which amounted to little more than a sloppy rehearsal for a show you’d pay not to see. For this, we gave up a chance to see “The Book of Mormon.”

The Dam’s Been Breached

February 8th, 2011 No comments

I wonder if Julie Taymor’s spidey-sense was tingling just before these unsporting reviews came out. Once the Times flouted the don’t-review-in-previews convention, the pressure on other outlets became too great. Here’s a Slate reviewer’s very different take on “Turn Off the Dark” that focuses on Taymor’s ego as the driving force behind this unwieldy contraption. (See post below for NY Times review.)

While reviewer Jacob Zinoman might be captivated by (yet ambivalent about)  Taymor’s effort to reconcile art to commerce, the reader of the review will likely say: “No, thanks.”

Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark, Establish the Compensation Fund

February 8th, 2011 No comments

Regular readers of this site (and my other venues) know that I’ve written and thought a lot (too much?) about compensation funds. Well, I’m about to propose two more: One for the poor actors and stunt people injured in the lavish, doomed production of Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark, and — based on this review in the New York Times — one for the audience-goers. They should surely be entitled to some kind of mental distress recovery.

The Times’ theater critic, Ben Brantley, cheerfully violated one of the firm rules of theater review: Wait until the play formally opens before reviewing it. Previews are intended to massage the work into shape, and it’s understood that the finished product will differ from what’s on display before then. Brantley’s excuse? There’s no reason to think that the play will ever open, given how often its opening has been put off. And anyway, he adds, there’s no point in waiting any longer to review it because: “from what I saw on Saturday night, “Spider-Man” is so grievously broken in every respect that it is beyond repair.”

The review is about as ravenous an evisceration of a work as I’ve seen. Read the whole thing to capture Brantley’s delighted horror at the spectacle he was sitting through. A few highlights:

[S]ignature [Julie] Taymor [the director]  touches like airborne puppets, elaborate masks and perspective-skewing sets…are all on hand. But they never connect into a comprehensible story with any momentum. Often you feel as if you were watching the installation of Christmas windows at a fancy department store.

The sheer ineptitude of this show, inspired by the Spider-Man comic books, loses its shock value early. After 15 or 20 minutes, the central question you keep asking yourself is likely to change from “How can $65 million look so cheap?” to “How long before I’m out of here?”

[T]here are lots of flat, cardboardish sets, which could easily be recycled for high school productions of “Grease” and “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying[.]”

The songs by Bono and the Edge are rarely allowed to take full, attention-capturing form. Mostly they blur into a sustained electronic twang of varying volume, increasing and decreasing in intensity, like a persistent headache. A loud ballad of existential angst has been written for Peter, who rasps dejectedly, “I’d be myself if I knew who I’d become.” That might well be the official theme song of “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.”

Will this play even make it out of previews after this review? I don’t know. But I surely won’t be seeing it, comic book devotee though I am. On the rare chances I have to get to New York, I’d rather spend my time and money on this or this — or even this!

$65 million, circling a drain that not even Spidey’s web can gunk up.

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Varla Jean Merman and the Unspeakable Act of Assimilation

July 30th, 2010 No comments

Last night, David and I prevailed on my in-laws to sit with the kids and ambled from our sleepy vacation spot in Wellfleet, MA to Provincetown. After a predictably low-key but excellent dinner at Cafe Heaven, we were ready for something more dazzling: Varla Jean Merman‘s Loose Chanteuse performance at the ArtHouse.

VJM is a whip-smart crackle of manic energy: able to glide to operatic heights, write and produce videos of snapshot genius, rap with street-savvy accuracy, and perform on-the-fly acts of performing derring-do that — abetted by the tidal tumbler of Myers’s Rum and tonic I’d downed — left me helpless. The few game straights in the audience struggled to keep up with the stream of gay-only references (some were even more targeted to “older gays”; as she pointed out, the audience was “riddled with them.”) I was reminded of another P’town show I’d seen, long ago, where the comic first asked whether there were any “straight folks” in the audience and then, after a few hesitant hands had gone up, shouted: “Get ’em!”

By “long ago” I mean: Before I had kids. And this brings me to the one real downer of the evening.

Tomorrow begins Family Pride Week here in P’town. So this gave Varla Jean a big, fat target that she hit again and again — even more often than she plumbed the comedic possibilities of Ambien). Most of it was fun: “Family Week seems like two weeks.” I bet that’s right, for many of those without kids. (Although one could always choose any other week of the entire summer for vacation if being around children were seen as that much of a crimp in one’s style.)

But some of it was quite ugly — on both sides of the performer-audience divide. When she mentioned “gays with kids,” there were more than a few hisses from the crowd. (She handled this well, offering that they’d “already started blowing up the balloons.” Yes, hisses.

We were appalled, but with reflection, I’m less than shocked. There probably isn’t anything that more suggests assimilation to the LGBT community — especially older members of that community — than the conformity to middle-class values that can be (too) easily equated with raising children. And surely no gay person at a Varla Jean Merman show wants to be reminded of these values after seeing the star talking to her diseased liver and then defeating it through heavy drinking of a substance too vile to mention here. (The video is from the “Don’t Eat Out, Varla Jean” series (see! punctuation is important); I couldn’t find it on youtube, but this one is great, too.)

Everything else, though is cute or cool: VJ called two couples up to congratulate them on their impending (same-sex) weddings, to more than polite applause (and no boos or catcalls) from the audience. She showcased her dog in a series of photos: more oohs! and ahhs! The pianist (lots of good puns there from the star) proudly announced that, in his mid-40’s, he’d just gotten involved in “adult movies,” and also received applause — presumably because of a combination of his undeniable sexiness and the career accomplishment of having broken into a market usually dominated by younger men, and at an age greater than Isabella Rossalini’s when Lancome dumped her as a model.

And then: VJ talked about the gay couples and “their inner city children.” The combination of classism and racism was jaw-dropping, and not mitigated by any jokey, or winking, disclaimers.

The P’town Library, where I’m sitting to write this, is about to close. I feel a lot more welcome here than I did at certain parts of the VJM show.

Is Kathleen Turner (Doing Molly Ivins) Bloggable?

April 25th, 2010 1 comment

“Red-Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins”

To me, that sounds like a title that’s trying too hard to sell something; in this case, the product is a new play featuring Kathleen Turner as the late Ivins. It almost works.

I should start by saying that I’d noted the play’s world debut here in Philadelphia, but had resolved to skip it. When a theater-loving friend asked whether I wanted to catch it before it closed, I emailed this response:

I was put off from it by seeing Ms. Turner’s head-scratching performance in the unwatchable (except as train wreck) show “Tallulah!” which the [Philadelphia Inquirer] corrected described as “two hours of unrelieved tedium.” It was at the [Philadelphia] Academy [of Music] so that the psychological and emotional pain of the performance was complemented by the physical pain of having no leg room. And then a man in front of us had an apparent seizure and mumbled and lurched through the second act (he could have given the actors lessons). Oh, and an enormous matron in a floor-length fur tripped over it and sprawled down across the aisle right next to my seat.

So you’re saying this Molly Ivins turn is better?

I heard KT on WXPN last week, her low voice impossibly lower than ever. I wasn’t totally surprised, though, as I’d seen her in a show D sometimes watches, “Californication,” where it took me several minutes to recognize her qua Kathleen Turner. My less-than-sensitive question to David was: “Who’d she eat?” [He] loved her before “Tallulah!” and actually sat next to her at a cast party following her Philly performance in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” years ago. He described her as a kind of drag queen.

But, my friend assured me, this performance was entertaining — and, targeting my weakness, bloggable! He’d already seen it, and he has good taste in — and an apparently insatiable appetite for — entertainment.1 He linked to very positive reviews from the Inquirer and a couple of other reputable sources, surprisingly including this blog post by Paul Krugman (yes, that Paul Krugman):

Last night I went to see Red Hot Patriot, a one-woman show with Kathleen Turner as the late Molly Ivins (I was there along with a big ACLU contingent). To be honest, I was worried — the play could easily have been either too preachy or too cute. But it got the tone just right. And Kathleen Turner was awesome.

That’s almost the entire post, but, to wrench a dead (and therefore helpless to stop me) Walt Whitman out of context, it “contains multitudes.” Krugman’s right about everything. The play really isn’t too cute or too preachy, and Kathleen Turner seems to have waited her whole life for this kind of role. But it’s mostly successful as a kind of hagiographic reminder of Ivins and what people loved about her — especially the true believers, like Krugman himself and the “ACLU contingent.” Beyond that, though, what does it have to offer?

Some great one-liners, for starters. Here are a couple of favorites:

  • When a legal challenge was brought against a nativity scene in front of the Texas State House, then-Governor Ann Richards said: “Oh, just leave it alone. That’s the closest three wise men will ever get to the Texas legislature.
  • As a columnist (with one of the many papers for which she wrote; I lost track), she once said of a legislator that, if his IQ slipped any lower, “we’ll have to water him twice a day.”
  • We were of course reminded that it was Ivins — not Richards — who coined the devastatingly apt term “Shrub” to describe W.

But the play, despite the talent of its lead actor and the great lines that the subject had already written for them, lacks dramatic tension and independent narrative structure. This Bloomberg review has it just right, and puts voice to the gnawing feeling I had while watching:

I wish there were more color in twins Allison Engel and Margaret Engel’s playwriting. They’re journalists with affection for their subject but no clue as to how a play — even one where so many lines were already written — gets built.

That affection counts for something, and a staccato, ninety-minute burst of energy is worth a weekday evening out. But I didn’t really get to know Ivins any better: She was a very smart, acerbic, liberal Texan with conservative parents. What was under that skin and wit, though?

  1. The one significant blemish on his record is his so-so reaction to “Glee.”

The Light in the Piazza (Or, Strained Connections to Tiger Woods)

December 11th, 2009 No comments

David and I recently took advantage of a generous invitation to see the latest production of the Philadelphia Theater Company, The Light in the Piazza. You might be asking yourself: What does this have to do with Tiger Woods? I’ll get to that.

The terrific show — which runs through this Sunday at the Suzanne Roberts Theater; go if you can — is set during a vacation in Florence, Italy, shortly after World War II. There, a middle-aged, Southern woman and her ingenue daughter (Clara) encounter a sexy Italian man who, with almost no effort, wins over Clara. Of course there’s a major obstacle to their union: Mother Margaret thinks that Clara “isn’t right,” and hasn’t been since she was kicked in the head, at age 12, by a pony.

The audience, though, knows differently. By the time we learn that Clara supposedly isn’t all there, the spoken and musical evidence (the show is a kind of operetta, but defies categories) has convinced us otherwise. So the story raises that universal question for parents: When do we let go? Clara is 26!

A parent’s natural protective urges, relinquished with difficulty in any case, would of course be even more powerful in a case like this. And it’s not hard to see how the challenges of raising a child with a (real or imagined) disability would crack open a marriage: Margaret and husband back home are finished, with the physical separation (he’s seen only on the other end of a few phone calls) underscoring for the emotional distance between them.

So Margaret has only Clara who, until now, has never talked back to her. Will she break free? Can Margaret allow herself to accept  the clear evidence that the doctors who predicted life-long arrested development were just wrong? After two hours of romantic comedy meets family therapy, you’ll have your answer.

And you might emerge from the experience reminded that letting go even when you — the parent — are not ready, is the right thing to do. Indeed, I thought back to this little essay after the show. Now I see why the mother let her son go live with his father, even though she could have fought this decision, and won. But when I read it, I thought: “Are you nuts? Why would you let your twelve-year-old son leave you for his long-absent dad?” The Light in the Piazza reminded me why.

Oh, right, Tiger: I hope this will be my only entry into the Tiger Woods Schadenfreude sweepstakes, but enter I will. Even though I, too, have slept with him, I’ve never really warmed up to the guy, and not just because I don’t get the whole golf thing. In fact, I might have gotten more interested in golf had I found something — besides the undeniable athletic genius, of course — to like. But no one is as chilly and machine-like as Tiger came across, really. Now we see that he’s…well, he’s a mess. And why? No shortage of amateur armchair psychologists here, and I might as well chime in. Lack of first-hand (or any hand) information will prove no barrier here.

Add Woods to Michael Jackson and countless other athletes and celebrities with insanely pushy, hermetic parents. I don’t know anything about Woods’s childhood, and it may be that his admittedly overbearing father did pretty well given his son’s early evidence of superhuman ability. But we all need to let our kids learn how to breathe on their own. If we don’t, they’ll hyperventilate later.

And perhaps pass out. As I was writing this, Tiger emerged from his bunker to announce an indefinite leave from golf.