KPBS AIRDATE: May 21, 2004
Springtime in New York is Tony season. Last week, I caught three musical nominees, all groundbreakers in form or content. “Assassins” concerns presidential killers. “Caroline, or Change” features a singing washing machine, and “Avenue Q” has ‘full puppet nudity.’
The one with the strongest San Diego connections is “Assassins.” The dark but often funny musical was written in 1990, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by John Weidman. When the musical premiered locally in 1992, at SDSU, I didn’t like anything about it. I’m not sure what’s changed — the show, the country, or me (probably all three) — but I absolutely loved this Broadway revival. It’s deep, rich and provocative. And while the focus is nine misfits, the show’s about all of us — how we marginalize outsiders, sanitize our history, and pursue the elusive American Dream. The terrific scenic design, a carnival shooting gallery, was created by Robert Brill, graduate of UCSD and co-founder of Sledgehammer Theatre. Another UCSD alum, Mary Catherine Garrison, is frighteningly adorable as Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, disciple of Charles Manson and failed shooter of Gerald Ford. Only Sondheim could write such beautiful songs on such bleak themes. The lighting design is a killer, too. Catch “Assassins” if you can — it’s a sure shot for a Best Revival Tony.
A bull’s-eye is also scored by “Avenue Q,” which is an X-rated “Sesame Street.” The enormously skilled puppeteers — all Muppet veterans — stand onstage, creating characters and singing their hearts out. The hilarious and poignant songs focus on life, love, friendship, purpose and social responsibility. It’s a fabulous creation, an incredibly inventive way to say all the things people think but wouldn’t dare express. But puppets can! Truly a delicious show.
The least satisfying of the three was “Caroline, or Change.” Tony Kushner, creator of the brilliant “Angels in America,” is making his first foray into musical theater, writing book and lyrics for Jeanine Tesori’s score. Frankly autobiographical, the piece takes place in a Jewish home in Louisiana, 1963, and concerns the solicitous and ultimately racist treatment of a black maid by a 9 year-old boy. Unlike most of Kushner’s work, which is lush and expansive, this one feels small and superficial, appealing to liberal guilt but skipping any real heart connection. Tesori’s songs are generally forgettable — but the singing is spectacular. At the center, as the domestic, Caroline, is Tonya Pinkins, whose 11 o’clock number is a knockout, and nearly worth the price of admission. But those singing appliances sure wear out their welcome.
Watch the Tonys on June 6, and see if the voters agreed with me. I’ll be glued to my set, humming songs from “Avenue Q.”
©2004 Patté Productions Inc.