By Pat Launer
New Yorkers — direct, abrupt, non-phonies,
Are fun on Broadway in this time pre-Tonys!
A time for musicals, and memories to keep
Kushner’s shallow and the Puppets are deep?!!
And “Assassins,” with its San Diego connections
Is one of Broadway’s richest confections.
#1 – A KILLER
I’m always willing to accept any excuse to be in New York and see some theater. Last weekend, the unlikely reason was my summer camp reunion– 100 people I haven’t seen in 40 years! An amazing event — many lost and renewed connections — AND a great opportunity to take in a few plays. They were all musicals this time — and all groundbreakers to boot.
The oldest of the three will probably win the Tony for Best Revival. And it should. (It already snagged the Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Awards).
“Assassins” was written by John Weidman (Book) and Stephen Sondheim (Music and Lyrics) in 1990. Surprisingly, it made its San Diego –and West coast — debut at SDSU in 1992. I hated the show then (to quote myself: “Some compassionate soul should pull the trigger on this one”) and I loved it now. What’s changed — the show, the country or me? All three, I think. The Broadway revival was scheduled for 2001. But after 9/11, a dark musical about successful and wannabe presidential killers seemed ill-timed. With all the disaffection of the present political climate, the show seems just right. And there are lots of local connections.
The jaw-dropping production at Studio 54 was designed by Robert Brill, UCSD alum and co-founder of Sledgehammer Theatre. Playing Lynnette “Squeaky” Fromme is another UCSD grad — pert, perky Mary Catherine Garrison, who has already amassed other Broadway and Off-Broadway credits.
Other high-profile performers in the piece have graced local stages: adorable Neil Patrick Harris (“Rent” and “Luck, Pluck and Virtue” at La Jolla Playhouse and Romeo at the Globe); golden-voiced James Barbour (Rochester in “Jane Eyre” at la Jolla Playhouse and on Broadway); and Michael Cerveris (the original “Tommy” at LJP and on Broadway).
It’s a spectacular ensemble, magnificently and inventively directed by Tony-nominated Joe Mantello, who’ll be in San Diego next winter to direct his Tony Award-winning “Take Me Out” at the Globe.
Though the show seems especially dark in theme, it’s surprisingly funny. And it’s not just about a bunch of losers. It really concerns how we marginalize outsiders, rewrite and sanitize our collective history and pursue the ever-elusive American Dream.
The humor comes in the scenes including Becky Ann Baker as Sara Jane Moore. She’s played as a ditsy middle-aged housewife who can’t find her gun in her massive Mom’s purse, and barely knows how to use it. Her scenes with Garrison’s cute/scary/funny Manson-lover, “Squeaky” Fromme, are inspired.
Most fascinating in the play is what motivated this pack of nine misfits to do what they did (rarely was it politics!), and the hair-raising conceit that it was John Wilkes Booth (Cerveris) and the rest of the outcast assassins who appeared to lee Harvey Oswald (Harris) in the Texas Book Depository that November 1963 day and convinced him to make history instead of just offing himself (which, according to this version, was his initial intention). This, goes the lyric, is “the real conspiracy.” Chilling and thrilling.
Only Sondheim could pen such beautiful songs on such unsettling subjects. The score features some of his more lyrical melodies, and with its chiaroscuro shadow and light, humor and despair, it may be right up there with “Sweeney Todd.” Michale Starobin’s orchestrations are breathtaking (he just won the Drama Desk Award for same) and the orchestra and singing are superb. Brill’s shooting gallery set, with its drop-down, brightly lit sign, “Shoot a President! Win a Prize!” is dazzling — and so is the lighting design of Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer (also a Drama Desk winner). The show is, deservedly, a sure shot for a Musical Revival Tony.
#2 PUPPETRY OF THE PEOPLE
Here’s one show that may not be coming to town on tour any time soon. Talk about star-driven vehicles. “Avenue Q” is populated by puppets and its stars are former Muppeteers and current Tony nominees: gifted Stephanie D’Abruzzo (11 seasons with “Sesame Street”) and the irresistible and multi-talented John Tartaglia (8 seasons with “Sesame Street) – both Tony nominees. The show was written by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx (music, lyrics and original concept) and Jeff Whitty (book). All three are also up for Tonys. The musical won the 2003 Lucille Lortel Award for Best Musical (Off Broadway) and is up for a Best Musical Tony. Director Jason Moore is also in the Tony running.
Amazing acclaim for something that seems like it might be just.. silly. But it isn’t. some might call it an X-rated ‘Sesame Street,’ and there are certainly uproarious riffs on the familiar characters: the Oscar-like grouch is homeless; one of the Bert/Ernie-type roommates is gay; and the Trekkie Monster (played by Rick Lyon, another master puppeteer and “Sesame” vet) has an insatiable craving for Internet porn.
There is, as advertised, “Full Puppet Nudity” and also some fairly raunchy puppet sex. But the themes are far-reaching: feeling inadequate (“It Sucks to Be Me”), coming out (“If You Were Gay”), prejudice (“Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist”), the burden of grown-up responsibility (“I Wish I Could Go Back To College”) and ultimately, doing good for others, which does you good.
For some, the show requires a bit of an adjustment at first. Do you watch the lithe, black-clad, expressive puppeteer — or do you focus on the puppet? Or both? (Yes, to all). As in “Sesame Street,” there are also regular human characters: Brian, the Jewish, unemployed comedian (Jordan Gelber); his Japanese fiancée, Christmas Eve (Ann Harada) and an inexplicable, ever-smiling Gary Coleman (Jasmin Walker).
Everything about the show is sheer delight; it’s hysterically funny, poignant and thought-provoking. It manages to say things everyone thinks or feels but rarely has the guts to articulate. In the lobby, CD and T-shirt sales (especially “It sucks to be me”) were brisk. Folks not only came out smiling; they were talking about the content, and planning to bring some friend or loved one back to see it. I wouldn’t mind catching it again myself.
#3 NEED FOR SOME CHANGE
The big surprise of my NY sojourn was “Caroline, or Change.” I’d go just about anywhere to see a Tony Kushner play. So, although I knew this was a small piece, and his first musical, I expected something full and rich and deep, like all his other work. Kushner wrote the book and lyrics (the Book is up for a Tony); Jeanine Tesori (last represented in San Diego with her score for “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” for which she received 2002 Tony and Drama Desk nominations) is up for a Tony, too. The direction was by the much-lauded George C. Wolfe (recently named a “Living Landmark”). But all this brain-trust and talent, and some incredibly powerful vocal performances, just don’t add up to a satisfying evening of theater.
Frankly autobiographical, the plot is minimal — about a Jewish family in Lake Charles, Louisiana, in the fall-winter of 1963. Kushner always writes against a potent political backdrop; here, it’s the Kennedy assassination and the spiraling Civil Rights movement. Caroline Thibodeaux (Tonya Pinkins), a single mother of three, has been working for the Gelman family for decades; she earns $30 a week and seems to do more laundry than six households could generate. She spends her time in the basement, smoking, washing and ironing, and is frequently visited by 9 year-old Noah ( Harrison Chad) who lights her smokes and tries to cozy up to her, since he’s recently lost his mother. She isn’t very warm (to anyone) but he keeps coming back — mainly to escape his new stepmother. His father, a distracted musician, is also distant.
Caroline is spoken to (or, more accurately, sung to) by the Radio, the Dryer, the Washing machine and the Moon. Interesting, but not for long. The story also takes a long time to get going — most of the first act, in fact. It’s all buildup and back-story; the only action occurs in Act 2, and it really isn’t all that much. The whole business is sung-through; there’s no dialogue — and what with the Supremes-like Radio (Tracy Nicole Chapman, Marva Hicks and Ramona Keller) and the annoyingly re-appearing Moon (Aisha de Haas), it do drag on.
The theme is acceptance — and prejudice. Little Noah has an extremely goyish New York-Jewish family. Caroline has a smart/savvy/rebellious daughter (Anika Noni Rose) and a grounded, no-nonsense friend (Chandra Wilson). The “change” of the title refers to social (r)evolution as well as loose coins. Noah’s disenchanted stepmother, trying to teach him responsibility, lays down a rule that from now on, whatever money he leaves in his pockets is Caroline’s to keep. That’s fine for all concerned when it’s just a quarter here or there. But when the forgotten cash is a $20 bill (Noah’s Hanukkah gelt), all hell breaks loose, and irrevocable, racist things are said.
It feels like Kushner is still guilty about this little episode in his past, and he seems to be hoping to tap into (especially Jewish) collective guilt in theatergoing liberals (if that isn’t redundant, judging from NY audiences). The way I saw it, he’d be better off having his dynamite cast sing “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” (from “Avenue Q”) and let ’em go home.
Tesori’s music is a pleasant mix of R&R, R&B, gospel, musical theater and a few other genres, but it isn’t memorable, and Kushner’s lyrics are capable but not luminous. This is no “Angels.” Even as social commentary, it’s shallow and somewhat hollow. Not much of his signature humor here, and there’s insufficient depth and heart. But the singing is stellar all around, and Tonya Pinkins’ voice is a wonder of supple versatility. Her 11 o’clock, “Rose’s Turn”-type number, is a knockout.
Maybe the piece would work better in a smaller venue, the way it began Off Broadway. But I really don’t think that’s the problem. Though Kushner is experimenting with the musical form, his innovations — like talking moons and machines — become repetitive and irritating after awhile, and they interfere with the forward movement of the story. The musical accompaniment is outstanding, as are the 9, 10 and 11-year old performers. But great singing and cute kids (“Annie” notwithstanding) can’t carry a show. I love ya, Tony, but better luck next time.
FORTY MORE MILES…
The reprise performance of the Patté Award-winning McDonald Best New Play of 2003, Brandon Alter’s “Forty Miles from Tel Aviv,” was another triumph. The Neurosciences Center was just about full, and the audience was blown away. The post-show discussion, with playwright, director, cast, and two Middle Easterners, was electric. The provocative play, which gets inside the head — and family — of a Palestinian suicide bomber, was once again performed by Diep Huynh and Anahid Shahrik, terrific as the hopeless husband and the unsuspecting wife. Beautiful connection between the two, under Delicia Turner Sonnenberg’s precisely choreographed direction. The piece has already been produced elsewhere, and ‘scouts’ were there from the Globe and Playhouse. The play deserves a very wide audience. Keep your fingers crossed. Brandon will be interning at the Globe on “Lucky Duck” this summer, and he starts at USC in the fall. You’re gonna be hearing from him again soon…..
FROM THE DRAMA DESK….
San Diego is on the national theater map again… The Globe’s Jack O’Brien just won the prestigious Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Direction of “Henry IV,” which also won for Outstanding Revival. The La Jolla Playhouse’s inaugural Page to Stage Production, “I am My Own Wife,” which has already won the Pulitzer Prize this year, snagged the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play and its star, the spectacular UCSD alum, Jefferson Mays, got Best Solo Performance. The Drama Desk, fyi, is an organization of theater critics, editors and reporters.
EMMYs and other things..
Just before I left for NYC, I found out that The Patté Awards 2002 were nominated for an Emmy — Yippee!
And I also was asked to perform in “Mendel, Inc.,” part of the 11th annual Lipinsky Family San Diego Jewish Arts Festival. Todd Salovey directs, and David Ellenstein heads a large cast (I play his wife) in this comic Broadway hit from 1929. Check it out — one night only! WED. JUNE 2 at 7pm at North Coast Repertory Theatre (888-776-NCRT; www.northcoastrep.org).
And now, for THIS WEEK’S ‘DON’T MISS’ LIST
“A Life in the Theater” — outstanding duet by Jonathan McMurtry and Fran Gercke; they play actors who play off each other beautifully; at North Coast Rep, through June 6.
“La Traviata” — gorgeous sets and costumes and the glorious, mellifluous voice of Anja Harteros make this well worth your while, no matter how many times you’ve seen/heard it. Harteros is definitely someone to watch; at the Civic through May 19.
“The Road to Mecca” — Priscilla Allen and Jessica John in Athol Fugard’s thought-provoking play about the power of art; off-nights at 6th @ Penn, through June 2.
“Shirley Valentine” — virtuoso performance by Rosina Reynolds in a warm, funny, touching play. At 6th @ Penn Theatre, through June 6, and at North Coast Repertory Theatre from June 10-13.
“Fully Committed” — return, command performance of David McBean’s hilarious tour de force. Don’t miss it this time! Cygnet Theatre, through May 16.
Have a great, theater-filled week,
©2004 Patté Productions Inc.