AISLE SAY New York
Reviewed by David Spencer
All of these production deserve longer consideration, which I suppose means they're worth your attention (and perhaps your attendance if the themes speak to you) but a time crunch has limited me to capsules—so:
It's almost ridiculously hard to create any kind of dramatic tension onstage where none exists (I'd quote Orson Welles the subject, but it's just too off-color considering the musical at hand), however director Mark Hoebee has managed, at times miraculously, to keep the stage musical adaptation of Meet Me in St. Louis, wrapping up a pre-Christmas run at the Paper Mill Playhouse, afloat and fun. How he manages it seems to be having his cast play the small moments as if they amount to life and death—which, I suppose, for characters as young as most of the leads are, is not all that far from the truth. MMISL is a musical about a normal family in the Midwest—they're even named Smith—and their day-to-day existence, circa 1903. Hugh Wheeler's libretto has its basis in a book of short stories by Sally Benson and an MGM Movie produced during WWII, which presented Apple-pie Americana to a country fighting the good fight (remember good fights?) exactly when it was needed. Perhaps Mr. Hoebee senses a similar need today, when the fight is not so honorable, and a reminder of a cleaner America wouldn't go amiss.
In any event, heading the pack of youngsters is Brynn O'Malley as Esther, just on the brink of womanhood. If inheriting Judy Garland's catalog of Hugh Blaine/Ralph Martin songs is a thankless task, you'd never know it from her perky, pretty enthusiasm, nor the audience reaction to her strong belt and sympathetic persona.
Grounding all the emotional strife of youth (and the eccentricities of elders) are Donna English and Gregg Edelman as the Smith parents, she the ideal wife, he the gruff patriarch whose bark is far worse than his bite, both strong-voiced and representing the parents everybody wishes they had—or at any rate the parental tolerance and understanding.
Not an easy show to make seem easy, but all manage it with great good cheer.
In The Piano Teacher by Julia Cho, the long-retired title character, Mrs. K (Elizabeth Franz) decides, seemingly on a whim, to seek out her former piano students, formerly kids from the neighborhood, most of whom left her tutelage rather suddenly. Without consciously or overtly doing so, she's on a quest to find out what happened—while at the same time wanting to maintain a state of denial. While kids waited for their lessons, they did after all spend time with her husband, a difficult and odd man, shaped by having survived awful treatment at the hands of a totalitarian country from which he escaped and emigrated as a young man...
Ms. Cho keeps everything vague—nationalities, names, dates, though we know it's a remembrance looking back over the last half of the 20th century, as if to say that the potential to breed and pass on spiritual darkness (and what Mr. K may or may not have done is not the Special Victims Unit crime we at first suspect) can occur anywhere.
In providing a tour de force role for an elderly actress capable of sustaining the tone and tension of its intermissionless 90 minutes, The Piano Teacher is an effective vehicle, and Ms. Franz and ideal "driver." As a play with a provocative point to make, it's a modestly effective chamber piece (John Boyd and Carmen M. Herlihy nicely round out the cast as former students), but never the hauntingly memorable tone poem it means to be.
A Hard Heart, by Howard Barker, recently at Theatre Row, is another political allegory, but a much cooler affair with much more overt Symbolism, about a brilliant political strategist called upon to save a walled city from enemy invasion. The strategist has an almost deadpan faith in her infallibility and the leaders who hire her are so cowed by her prior reputation that they accede to her demands and fall in line. Defeat upon defeat, of course, ensues, leaving the strategist to wonder what could possibly be going wrong...would that we in the audience could be made to care as much.
Kathleen Chalfant did her exceptional best with the role, as did director Will Pomerantz with the script, but the play never really gave us full-blooded humans to offset a bloodless—and in its Brechtian/Kafkaesque tone, familiar—political allegory.