KPBS AIRDATE: September 13, 2002
It was high time I high-tailed it back to my hometown. I hadn’t been to New York since 9/11. I wanted to pay my respects at Ground Zero; plus, I needed a theater fix. The three vastly disparate, distinctly excellent plays I saw all turned out to be about love — in all its twisted, life-changing, soul-stirring forms.
I’d long lamented missing Mary Zimmerman’s “Metamorphoses” when it was nearby, in L.A. It was, as I’d expected, wildly imaginative, a presentation of visual poetry, inventively staged in and out of a shallow 30-foot pool. Tony and McArthur Award-winning writer/director Zimmerman and her lively, young, often inconsistent ensemble took several Greek and Roman myths and updated them or turned them inside out, to thrilling effect. These ancient, timeless tales of the transforming power of love nearly broke my heart.
Heartbreak is at the center of Edward Albee’s Tony Award-winning new play, “The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?” in which a successful architect falls head over heels for a goat. It sounds like a perverse comedy, or a twisted treatise on bestiality. But though there are many laughs, the story is no laughing matter. The play is really about the strange permutations of love, how unpredictable, unacceptable, elevating or shattering it can be. With its witty, biting repartee, the piece is so intense it leaves you breathless, completely caught up in a family’s angst, as the unfolding of an unbearable truth unravels their lives. The performances, by Mercedes Ruehl and Bill Pullman, were breathtaking. Their somewhat surprising replacements are Sally Field & Bill Irwin. I hope director David Esbjornson, a skilled Albee veteran, can tease from them the same depth and gut-wrenching intensity, while maintaining the play’s humor and humanity.
The grand finale of my brief Broadway sojourn was the much-anticipated new musical, “Hairspray,” based on John Waters’ 1988 cult film. The show is a puffed-up beehive of hilarity, sporting gorgeous costumes and a crafty book, with clever lyrics, by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, enhancing Shaiman’s terrific score, filled with early ’60s rock ‘n’ roll and R&B. The script is funny without being cynical, socially relevant without being preachy, as it touches on issues of body image and desegregation.
Tracy Turnblad, whose heart is as big as her plus-sized frame, just wants to get on the American Bandstand-like Corny Collins Show, so she can beat the reigning queen, win the hunk and integrate the dancing, all of which she actually accomplishes, with the support of her quirky parents, played with irresistible warmth and humor by Dick Latessa and Harvey Fierstein, he of the Gravel Gertie, sandpaper voice. There are three love stories here, but Fierstein and Latessa’s Mom and Pop romance is by far the most touching. As their not-so-tiny tot, Tracy, the oversized Cinderella of the story, Merissa Jared Winokur is a musical theater find. And the local thrill is the dazzling direction of our own Jack O’Brien. With “Full Monty” choreographer Jerry Mitchell, he keeps this bubbly bauble floating on air. Hail to Jack, and my own personal Tony nomination — for his extra-firm, super-hold “Hairspray.”
©2002 Patté Productions Inc.