Wednesday, May 15, 2013

More Really Horrible Capsule Reviews

It is rather odd.  I've worked most of my life in theater, but I'm not "that kind" of theater person.  I don't follow the careers and openings on Broadway, I don't watch any of the awards shows.  Heck -- I hardly SEE any theater that I'm not working on myself (usually, because I'm busy most nights.......working on a show).

So I have no context for how a show compares to what is being done, or how it fits into the history of theater.  I only know a show in two contexts; how it was to work, and how it felt to me in the context of other shows I've worked.

I've also realized it is a lot easier to get a handle on a show if you've done it more than once.  Then you can de-couple the roles from specific actors, and see how different production choices bring out the strengths or weaknesses of the narrative.

Be that as it may.  Since the changes at my favorite rental facility (and since leaving my old Master Electrician job behind), I've done practically no plays, but I've been exposed to a LOT of musicals.

Peter Pan Junior:   Odd show.  It has practically none of the songs from Peter Pan (The Musical).  But it also doesn't hit all of the Disney stops you'd expect -- no "Wish Upon a Star," for instance (thank you!)  One nice addition is the replacement of "Never Smile at a Crocodile," which almost entirely vanished from the original Disney animation (leaving only a Cheshire Cat grin of the motif behind).

It is also revisionist and very slightly fourth wall breaking, like the stage version of Wizard of Oz (which stops the action entirely to explain what "Yo-ee-oh" means).  "What Makes the Red Man Red" turns into "What Makes the Brave Man Brave," and then revises itself by letting TIGER LILY take over the song to deliver a rousing girl power soliloquy that wouldn't be out of place in Mulan.  Which, oddly enough, is one of the more magical moments of the show.  Go figure.

TINKERBELL addresses the audience directly.  Battering down even more of the fourth wall, WENDY is the one who is telling the other children fabulous stories...and it is strongly implied that all of the action of the play is a story she is actively telling.  This adds an intriguing level of meta-story that, unfortunately, never quite pays off.  It also leads -- albeit indirectly -- to the worst example yet of a Disney Ending Moral; where it is good that WENDY is growing up and doesn't need stories anymore, but it is also good that MR DARLING is childish enough to not just believe in stories, but to take a walk of faith out of a second-story window, and....I don't know what it is all supposed to mean. (The cast was equally puzzled).  Just sing the closing number and let the feel-good vibes wash over you, okay?

Lucky Duck:  completely meaningless, but it does it well.  The most interesting aspect of the show is the treatment of the Carnivores.  WOLF is entirely willing to play the "Specist!" game;  "Oh, I see.  You just don't trust me because I'm a Carnivore."  And there is real racism in the way the Carnivores are treated.  But, on the other hand -- they are entirely willing to eat the rest of the cast, and attempt to do so several times during the show!

It is very much a show of Gray v. Gray morality; SERENA is self-centered and shallow (although she grows just a little).  WOLF is two-faced, playing the victim card while plotting murder, but you can't help but side with him a little in his struggle.  DRAKE is also self-centered and opportunistic (actually, that pretty much describes the entire cast) but is so cheerfully honest about it one largely forgives him.

The songs are pop and rousing.  The throwaway references are hit-and-miss (WOLF: "I might go North and look up my old friend Peter," maybe, but ANNOUNCER: "And special guest star Tony the Tiger!?")  But it all comes together for a smooth-running machine good for a fun but forgettable night at the theater.

Seussical:  I don't know why I haven't mentioned this one before, having designed it twice.  The first thing to keep in mind is that, in the parade of "animal ears" musicals (Aristocats, Narnia, Honk!, etc.) you must avoid the temptation of putting Halloween animal masks on the casts.  Seussical, like Lucky Duck, like so many of these shows, works best if the animal natures are only eluded to by costume details and postures and so forth.  And it works even better if there is an internal logic that drives the costume choices and brings them together; like the African art-inspired mask work and puppetry of Broadway's The Lion King.

The second production I worked chose an urban metaphor.  HORTON was a wonderful everyman in gray plumber's boiler-suit, with just a pair of ears and his own acting to suggest the trunk.  GERTRUDE was made up of cleaning supplies, from the yellow rubber gloves on her hands to a fabulous tail of feather dusters and toilet brushes.  The WICKERSHAMS were skate punks -- and you get the idea.

As with all fantastical tales, it is the ability to reach out to identifiable characters and situations and tell the emotional story that matters.  And this is a tight book.  Maybe too tight -- maybe a little too clever in how it wraps a dozen different stories together and finds organic reason for many more characters, situations -- and songs.  For instance, "Solla Sollew," which is a reference that comes out of practically nowhere, but becomes one of the most magical songs in a musical which is, honestly, replete with wonderful songs already.

There was an odd bit of direction in the second production I worked of this.  Because of time and the difficulty of costume changes, the "Hunch" song was cut.  But because of this cut, JOJO never got his epiphany; realizing that he needed to trust his "thinks" even if the place they took him might look very dark.  "I've got brains in my head and feet in my shoes," he sings.  That is a moral I can stand behind, and I'm sorry not just that it was cut, but that the production didn't even realize what they were leaving out.

Narnia:  Okay, first off, I am ambivalent about the source material.  There's a fine deconstruction going on right now at Ana Mardoll's blog.  The biggest problem I have personally with the show is it plays like a church pageant.  It takes the stealth Christianity of the source and manages to make it much more obvious -- and much more trite.  Lewis was adamant that he wasn't writing metaphor; that he was creating an alternate world that had its own distinctive Christ.  The musical, perhaps because of the needs of casting a man instead of, well, an actual lion, can only be seen as metaphor.  And a bald one at that.

But there are many other flaws to this work outside of the philosophical.  The songs are trite.  The motifs are promising, but they are not developed in any interesting way.  (That said, "Do You Remember" is really rather delightfully melancholy, even elegiac, and the song sung by the female Pevensies after Aslan's death also raised a tear most nights.  A bigger problem is one of focus.  They follow the Disney pattern by making the villain the most interesting character, but the White Queen that results belongs in some other show.  She is funny, has the best numbers in the show, has a lot of sass...and is about as frightening and plausible an antagonist as an angry goldfish.  Without some grounding in real threat and real sorrow, the proceedings devolve into random posing and farce.

All that said, it is not surprising that most of the YouTube productions I viewed were animal masks, recycled robes from the last "King of Kings" pageant, and were all in all a good match for this -- I'm sorry to say -- Hallmark Greeting Card of a musical.

(One last word:  I know one of the people who developed this script and I am deeply respectful of the man and his talent.  And I think that given some script engineering and a smart production, this could one day become a decent show.)

Carnival:  Many nice tunes but so many they start to blend together in the mind.  Eventually one wishes Paul would just stop singing about how angry and confused he is.  The naif quality of Lili can too easily become irritating -- there are also scenes that veer parlously close to "What is this thing called 'kiss?'"  It seems a natural for both theater schools and spaces with lots of good local connections; the former because of all the chances for the kids to show off what tricks they might be able to perform, the latter because there might be some people within the reach of a community-based production who can actually pull off a good rope walking or juggling act.

Which brings us back to Paul.  In the production I worked, we cast four puppeteers so we didn't need one hypernatural talent to pull the puppet scenes off.  The puppet scenes are of course the heart of the show; for all the dance numbers and parades, the important scenes are those with a girl and four puppets in a little puppet box, and you really don't want to do this in a stadium-sized theater.  In that small space, and with a good cast (and good puppetry) this does achieve a little bit of real magic.

A Year with Frog and Toad:  I love this show.  I play the broadway cast recording over and over -- and like I said, I'm not that kind of theater person.  I rarely listen to the CD of any show I'm not in the middle of designing (and often not even then.)  The mix of children's storybook and 1920's jazz -- with a light but very much there Ziegfield Follies twist -- just plain works.  Of course it does depend on the strength of your two leads.  And there is a fine line as the simplicity of some of the material could turn maudlin.  I think it is the unflinching admission that there is negative -- seeds don't always sprout, it probably hurts to be chewed, and Toad does look funny in a bathing suit -- that keeps it from this descent.  That, and the music.

Legally Blonde:  First thing you have to realize is this is a seat-filler, particularly dragging in hordes of 'tweens.  If you can pull it off, you'll make money.  Second thing to realize is it all rests on ELLE.  Sure, there are other roles that can bring the show up in their focus scenes -- CALLAHAN, PAULINE in particular -- but if they are phoning it in, it doesn't hurt the show as much as problems with your ELLE.  The time we did it, we had Bailey, and she did so well I can't see anyone else in the role now (including the originator of the role in the movie!)

It's a feel-good show, a fluff show with Disney morals that doesn't take its own story that seriously.  ELLE starts the show as a shallow, clothes-obsessed, husband-hunting sorority stereotype, and despite the bulk of the show being her struggled with a male-dominated law school, the show never goes in a feminist direction; she ends the show clothes-obsessed, flirty, sorority girl; just one who has revealed the real intelligence that was there all along.  Which is refreshing when you think about it; she doesn't show she is "better" than all her friends; she shows that all of her friends were all along better (or at least more complex) than we might have thought.   It is also refreshing in that her growth arc is never about "Be more like the average viewer," (the usual assumed "norm" of such things), but that she takes the viewer along to see the advantage in being able to discern a properly turned seam or the fun in performing a good "Bend, and pop!"

(Been a couple years since I did this show and I'm not bothering to look up the right names of characters and songs just for this capsule review, sorry!)

Musically, I am ambivalent.  The music rests on extremely short motifs, which are essentially never developed in any musical way, but are instead brought through key change after key change in an ever-increasing round of meaningless intensity.  It makes the music (if performed with the right pit; some serious brass, a wizard electric guitar, and lots and lots of drum) extremely exciting and seemingly building endlessly (Elle's Return goes on for something like ten minutes from turn-around to courthouse!)  But the end result is, I found, not completely satisfying.  I'd almost prefer one of Sondheim's famous broken cadences.

Technically, you have many challenges.  The first scene alone is a nightmare.  The second act starts with aerobics on stage.  Singing.  And cuts away to a room full of lawyers.  Which makes for extremely challenging microphone work.  ELLE is almost never off stage, except for millions of quick-changes.  And the energy required of your chorus is monstrous.  To make the show work the dancing needs to be hyper-kinetic.  All in all, doing the show feels like running a marathon.


You have to doo-wop.  Fortunately that seems to be something most singers can learn.  (As an aside, I am constantly surprised by how many songs, from how many disparate musicals, sound perfectly natural with "Doo-waday-do-waaaah" added at the end.  Try it some time!)

It is a silly show.  I suppose if you really worked at it you could drill down past the easy 50's nostalgia and say something meaningful about the time and place and the tensions under the surface.  Our heroes are very much working class, which is in a way refreshing.  And there is a brutal honesty in how FRANKIE describes the limited options available to her, or to any of them; when a job as a beautician is "aiming high."  The crass honesty of "Freddy My Love" is a similar speech; the luckiest of these girls is the one who found a sugar daddy who mails her money...and otherwise stays far away.  And even DOODY and his dreams of rock stardom could be seen in this way.  Really, every character from SANDRA to the seemingly-successful RICK FONTAINE can be summed up in the phrase "Lives of noisy desperation."

Unfortunately all of this subversion seems to be forgotten in the next up-beat song, and the inchoate reaching for a brighter future the characters can hardly imagine is completely masked by the audience's equally inchoate longing for a time that never was.  Nostalgia fights social realism, and nostalgia wins.

I suppose you could break through in some production by taking those strong emotional moments that are there.. the pregnancy, the rumble, etc...and kicking them up into that all-the-music-stops intensity and realism.  But the instinct to most productions is, not so much to paper over the dramatic moments, but to take as many of what are potentially heart-breaking and play them for laughs.  And that means, for most productions, what this is is style over substance, basically safe, amusing, and above all extremely listenable.

Willie Wonka:

I've only done one production, and that was at a company that has developed a specific style of using the reality of theater to advance the story, instead of attempting to out-do the movies in some sort of seamless special effect.  I can see how a show like this could be a nightmare if you tried to achieve all the various effects called for in the script with projections and fishline and who knows what.

I had the experience of doing two plays by the magical realist Jose Rivera.  At Berkeley Rep, we went for realistic magic.  Radio control and an incredibly elaborate projection system and garbage drops and hidden cranks and all that.  When it was required that a giant "eye" bleed, the eye was projected onto a lucite half-dome, and the blood was shot from a syringe fifteen feet away via a hydraulic-actuated, electrically-fired circuit.  At the Magic Theater, when blood appeared on the corn, an elegant lady in chollo hat and tapered slacks (we started calling her a Latina kuroko, as her role was to move scenery but be assumed to be invisible) came out with a watering can. 

And geek I might be, but I think the latter was the stronger choice.  (Especially when it came to the possessed chicken, Malinche; as it was realized as a hand-puppet, there was a physical actor on stage to relate to emotionally during Malinche's scenes).

So at my current theater, much of Wonka was achieved through fabric and dancers and lighting and sound.  Which didn't stop us from having a remote-driving "robot" prop with live video camera mounted on it, but most of the effects were achieved in more low-tech fashion.  Or to be more specific; in ways that celebrated instead of hiding the fact that they were achieved by humans.  The candy boat was the fabric descending from a silk climber, who herself became the figurehead.  AND sung in the song!

That said, the show is a sort of disconnected set of short character vignettes, followed by a parade of Gorey-like unfortunate events that befall each of them.  Except that it is very, very hard not to see Wonka as manipulating everything behind the scenes.  At best he appears dangerously (and callously) blasé.  This means the only person who has a character arc worth noting is GRANDPA JOE, and his is over before the end of the first act.  After that it is mostly watching spectacular but essentially meaningless set-pieces, whilst various children and their caretakers are humiliated and killed.

Our production added a LOT of dance sequences, and it is possible another production could find more time to develop the characters and produce more interesting emotional through-lines.  But, given the right treatment, the music is catchy, and the kids sure do like the show -- we had packed houses.

The Producers:

This one made a nice subject for de-coupling actor and role.   At one theater, our leads more strongly resembled those of the movie (well, not our LEO.  But he was an actor we'd used several times before who has a pleasant, young-appearing, Ordinary Guy look to him.  And is apparently not a joy to work with backstage but that's hearsay!)  At the other, our leads were physically different, but they were a team that had worked together on such shows as "Frog and Toad" and I thought their dynamic was much superior.  Also, the FRANZ from that production was a completely different physical type; instead of being a squat, sweaty fireplug, he was a tall, big-boned, inevitably lovable galloot.

I really can't say anything about the other technical needs because this show is a nightmare to mix without a memory board.  And even then, even with VCAs, you have the near-impossible task of figuring out when and if various people will get out of their millions of quick-changes and get into one of the multiples of every-changing ensembles.  Unlike a show where, say, the SINGING NUNS are always nuns, and the NAZIS are always Nazis, this one has three people start a song, five others run on and join the chorus half-song whilst two leave to change, then a second set of voices come on that includes one of the two quick-changers, then a single solo line by someone who wasn't on stage before, then...

It is, well, it is Mel Brooks.  It is late Mel Brooks.  It is Mel Brooks after he went back to Broadway.  So the Borscht Belt stuff is still there, and the shock-value humor, ("Haven't you ever heard of Black Irish?" asks one of the cops), and on top of that is trodding down of the fourth wall; "When did you find time to repaint the whole room?"  "Intermission!"

And it is kind of funny because we now give Mel a special artistic license.  No-one stomps out of the theater at the racial jokes or sexual jokes, although no other director or writer would ever be allowed to make similar ones.  And in true meta-fashion, the show-within-a-show is all about an audience seeing "Springtime for Hitler" and deciding to be amused instead of offended.

Incidentally, tradition is you use a recording of Mel's voice for "Don't be stupid, be a smarty, come and join the Nazi party."

It is incredibly good theater.  The use of the resources is masterful; organization of scenes, use of the theatrical devices, development of story and character.  But this is not a show to do unless you can pull off at least a little of the spectacle...and you really, really need strong leads ("leads" being a bit of a flexible term here because of how many characters take a starring turn at some point!)

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