KPBS AIRDATE: October 20, 2006
The best of intentions don’t always engender the best of results. Two theatrical cases in point: the much-anticipated revival of “The Wiz” at the La Jolla Playhouse and the regional premiere of the Off Broadway hit, “Bug,” at Cygnet Theatre. Both companies set out to achieve something new, different and thrilling. But alas, both fell short of the mark.
For years, there’s been a coast-to-coast buzz about Des McAnuff’s re-imagining of “The Wiz.” When the show premiered on Broadway in 1975, it was a groundbreaking, all-black musical incarnation of the beloved “Wizard of Oz” that had everything to do with empowerment, identity and self-respect. Now it’s updated and multicultural, ultra high-tech, bling-enhanced and hip hop-happy. Somewhere along the yellow brick road that winds through the reconfigured theater, it lost its heart and soul. Making the piece loud, brash, hyperactive and visually assaultive, giving it the sound and feel of a mega-projection rock concert, mentioning GPS and oil shortages, doesn’t automatically make it hip, fun or relevant. The outcome is more shallow, less engaging and far less exciting than it was back in the ‘70s. It’s actually a lot more like the overblown 1978 all-star African American movie than the unforgettable 1939 MGM original. McAnuff, once more relying on a metal girder Erector set, has created a whirlwind environment that overstimulates the senses but understimulates the emotions and intellect. The score, never as vibrant or memorable as the MGM movie’s, sounds more retro and tired than fresh and electrifying, and despite a bevy of competent and/or multi-talented performances, there are no star turns here. Good voices, and a few eye-popping scenes, but in spite of all the bells and whistles, smoke, confetti, banging and reverb, the show is actually soporific at times. All the multi-million-dollar bling just can’t make it sparkle.
Sparkle and shine were the furthest thing from the mind of the wildly talented Sean Murray, founder/artistic director of Cygnet Theatre. It was a coup to snag the regional rights to “Bug,” so soon after its New York production of 2004. It’s a creepy little piece, the title referring to bugs of both the insect and surveillance variety. The dark, occasionally comic drama should build to a frightening crescendo of violence and governmental distrust. But without a sufficient level of paranoia engendered in the audience, despite the moody lighting and ‘Jaws’-like thrumming that underscore the action, what we mostly get is a freak show, a tale of contagious, flea-bitten delusional insanity. The performances are strong, but the production leaves us feeling distanced and voyeuristic, revolted perhaps, but not emotionally, physically or most significant, politically engaged.
Theater is always a gamble; you win some, you lose some.
©2006 Patté Productions Inc.