AISLE SAY New York


SEPTEMBER IN SHORT

A Personal Sidebar on
A TALE OF TWO CITIES
by Jill Santoriello
(Al Hirschfeld)

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Reviewed in Brief:
WHAT'S THAT SMELL?: THE MUSIC OF JACOB STERLING
Book and Lyrics by David Pittu
Music by Randy Redd
(Atlantic)

THE TEMPEST
by William Shakespeare
Starring Mandy Patinkin
(CSC)

OKLAHOMA!
Music by Richard Rodgers
Book and Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein III
(Paper Mill)

Reviewed by David Spencer


I apologize for the delay in getting up this most recent ish of the ‘zine. Critic-ing has always, for me, been the avocation, not the vocation, and several paying jobs in a row that had tight deadlines—and paid well—had to take precedence. (And when you’re a lyricist getting decent money to be a lyricist, well…it beats real work.) Further apologies for kicking off the season with more short-form reviews than I’d like, but in order to keep pace, I must, this issue, be brief. Well, brief-ish…

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I farmed out Jill Santoriello’s new musical based on Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities to my Aisle Say colleague Adasha Greenwood (you will find her more detailed review in these cyber-pages here) because I know Jill well enough to consider her a good friend, if not well enough to consider her a close one, and while I judge “conflict of interest” on a per-case basis, without a set policy, I was too much of an insider, with too much of an opinion already in place, to risk taking on the responsibility of a detailed analysis in print. And I would not pause to say anything here either, except that when I finally saw the finished show at the Al Hirschfeld theatre, I had a reaction that surprised me a little, because I had worried about a previous incarnation of the show. And I felt honor bound—that's the best way I can describe it—not to let it go without mention here, since I do have the forum.

                       I thought Jill and the show had gotten bum-rapped by most of the press.

                 I’m not going to tell you ATOTC is a masterpiece, nor am I going to tell you I’m a fan of the Euro-musical approach and locution Jill has taken as a major influence. But having made something of a living in the musicals game, I found my appreciation for what it takes to pull off certain feats kicking in. As I say, I'd seen the work previously in a transitional phase and thought its narrative, at that time, almost incomprehensible, and its score bloated and unfocused. Had you asked me then, I would have said the novel’s structure was too complex to adapt cleanly in musical theatre language, without sprawl. Maybe even that Jill was attempting more than she could manage.

                But, lo, Jill has indeed rendered it clearly and cleanly, and the improvements are vast, and to me vastly impressive. The dramatization has an economic pace, some wit (there is far more dialogue than in the average Euro-style tuner), and very decently rendered characterization. I won’t give the score unqualified praise either, but there is an attractive emotional and dramatic efficiency to it. It all holds the audience from beginning to end, and none of that comes easy, especially for a musical this ambitious. If the real review I daren’t write wouldn’t be close to a rave, it would also be far better than mild and dismissive. (There is an argument to this kind of appraisal that goes, “Just because it’s efficient doesn’t mean it’s good,” and in some contexts that’s undoubtedly true; but in this case, I believe the efficiency is a real virtue that colors and boosts some other real virtues.)

                  Is my fondness for Jill making me bend over backwards to say nice things, or simply blinding me to elements that a majority of voices in the press and in internet-land have lambasted? Anything’s possible, given the complexity of the sub- and pre-conscious mental process, but, my hand to heaven, I truly don’t think so. Indeed, if I felt those voices had the issues well-represented, I’d’ve opted to step back and say nothing—either about the show or my previous reaction to the older draft. (And if I felt like writing a bubbly review simply on Jill’s behalf, I could do it a lot more effervescently than this.)

                  No, I risk raising my hand because there’s work of some value here, in a respectably professional evening. Directed cleanly (also not easy) and performed well by a game and (seemingly) enthusiastic cast. I think A Tale of Two Cities merits taking a look at. And sticking around a while to see if the audience that would support it (and they’re out there) might find it.

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By the same token, somewhat overrated seems What’s That Smell: The Music of Jacob Sterling, the review of a faux career, placed in the context of a cable access TV show hosted by Leonard (Peter Bartlett) an extravagant theatre queen (and it is implied mostly watched by them too). His guest for the evening is the never-quite-produced but ubiquitous and eponymous composer-lyricist of the title (played by David Pittu, the show’s lyricist librettist). Jason is unaware of the self-destructive pretentiousness that sabotages his work, yet it is that same pretentiousness that has kept him energetic and afloat on the periphery of the business.

                  Every few years (perhaps even once a year, these days!) there’s a self-referential musical about musicals, and the fate it meets with is pretty much determined by how it strikes the Times critic on opening night. For my money, two of the best—Smith, from the 70s and The Big Bang from the 90s—never got their due; two of the blandest—Gutenberg: The Musical and [title of show]—got way more attention than they deserved; and two more of the best—Musical of Musicals and most especially The Drowsy Chaperone—were justly rewarded.

                  What’s That Smell? hovers somewhere in the midrange. It has a good deal of showbiz savvy (co-conspirators are composer Randy Redd and Neil Pepe who co-directed with Pittu), but for me, I was kind of over it 15 minutes in. Once Pittu enters with his hair in Sterling’s ridiculous coif, and the absurd, slightly dated, tight fitting “composerly” clothing (his wide-lapels sport music notation), and then starts speaking, it’s well apparent why he’s such a peripheral player; and after two songs, the joke really has nowhere else to go and nothing else to do but to spin variations on what has already been well-established. (By contrast, The Drowsy Chaperone, in keeping its fictional authors offstage, and having the Man in Chair be our guide, painted on a much larger canvas; each new character we met added depth to a bygone era and our view of it; each new song, no matter how silly, allowed us to imagine for ourselves what the songwriting team who [presumably] wrote it might be like.)

                  But this one has found favor with the Times, and the night I was there, most of the audience seemed appreciative—it’s hard to miss with a crowd that gets the inside jokes, if you deliver them with enough panache—so it seems that its odor will be with us for a while. I don’t begrudge What’s That Smell it’s snarky redolence, nor do I mean to say you should wear nose plugs. I mean only—I guess—to say that “inside” humor about musicals is ultimately a personal matter> Bit now at least you know what type of inside you’re in for.

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One of the most thrilling performances I ever saw was also, in a weird way, wholly predictable. It was that of Tony Randall, having assumed the role of Gallimard in M. Butterfly. Who didn’t do anything that wasn’t quintessentially Randallesque, his mannerisms and nuances by then well known via television and several sitcoms, most prominently of course The Odd Couple. But Gallimard’s comic fussiness, over-blown romanticism, capacity for extravagant self-delusion, mixed with a deep self-loathing, were all qualities that Randall’s distinctive imprimatur could not just embrace, but embody, and when he assayed the role, he did it with a fearlessness that no actor before him had come close to matching. In a very real way, Randall was Gallimard, had been gearing up for Gallimard all his life, and it was the summation of his years as an actor.

                  I can’t be quite as hyperbolic about Mandy Patinkin’s Prospero in the CSC production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, yet it puts me in mind of Randall nonetheless, because it is likewise only quintessentially Patinkinesque, exploiting all the signature tics, gestures and vocalizations that, once revelatory, have become easy targets for parody. Yet, the heightened locutions of Shakespeare’s magical universe are the perfect vehicle to convey the commensurately heightened embellishments of the Patink, and his way through the exposition (as Prospero explains the backstory to his daughter) is alone worth the price of admission. My favorite moment: daughter Miranda (in the person of the endearing Elisabeth Waterston) asks her father why those who banished them did not simply destroy them. She’s seated on her haunches on the beach of their island, and Patinkin leans in close, taps his nose as if to say her point is right on it, and with a delivery that is part growl, part hearty pride, husks, “Well demanded, wench!” As quotable as Shakespeare may be, any actor whop can brand those three words indelibly into your head as an event deserves attention. (And no, I haven’t forgotten Patinkin’s impassioned and charismatic Hotspur at the Delacorte in 1981. But that’s when Mandy was still new.)

                  The direction, as usual for Brian Kulik, places Shakespearean proceedings in a never-never land that is beholden to no specific era (though for once he doesn’t channel so much as faint allusions to the last century or two), but like Patinkin—and perhaps in a way because of him—his own by-now familiar style has found a new freshness. The excellent Angel Desai (Ariel) aside, the rest of the players are a mixed bag (my evening’s companion would have added “of mixed styles,” she thinking they didn’t all seem to be in the same play), yet I still found verve and tastiness to this Tempest that I haven’t felt the play infused with in a very long time.

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Even though you can’t (and wouldn’t want to) perform Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals with the same plant-your-feet-and-sing broad strokes of old (I’ve seen entire performances of the era, archived on film—historically fascinating, but astonishingly light on the nuance of a third dimension), there is nonetheless a middle ground between “doing it traditionally” and the kind of wholesale stylistic renovation to be found in, say, the current (and excellent) production of South Pacific at the Lincoln Center Theatre. And that is to stage Rodgers and Hammerstein the way people think they remember it (if they’re old enough) or think it was done (if they’re not). Which is to say, play the bold strokes, but temper them with real human interplay. It may not sound like much, but it’s a delicate balance, and with his lovely revival of Oklahoma! at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse, director James Brennan has done exactly that.

                  The cast is almost uniformly pretty terrific, not merely the “triangle” leads—Adom Monley (Curley), Brynn O’Malley (Laurey), Andrew Varella (Jud Fry); but the secondary triangle too: Jonathan Brody (Ali Hakim), Brian Sears (Will Parker), and especially Megan Sikora, whose Ado Annie, if it were on Broadway, would be a flat-out star-making turn. As the “parent” grown-ups, Louisa Flaningham’s Aunt Eller is charming, and John Jellison turns the crusty Andrew Carnes (Ado Annie’s rifle toting dad and the town’s part-time judge), which is usually an amusing cameo, into a memorable tour de force. Add tone-perfect Agnes de Mille-style choreography by Peggy Hickey and pitch-perfect musical direction by Tom Helm and this is about as nice a classic, straight-up Oklahoma! as either veteran R&H aficionado or newbie could wish.

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Finally, there’s a charming little comedy-drama by renowned drama critic, director and teacher Robert Brustein at the Abingdon called The English Channel, whose title makes for a nice pun, when it’s all done.

                  To quote from press notes (with me interpolating the cast, the story, set in a young Shakespeare’s single room domicile at an inn, “examines the murky relationship between great writers and their proclivity to ‘borrow’ ideas and material, tracing the relationship of Shakespeare (Stafford Clark-Price) with The Earl of Southampton (Brian Robert Burns), the Dark Lady of the Sonnets (Lori Gardner), and Christopher Marlowe (Sean Dugan) during the turbulent months before Marlowe’s death.” Brustein postulates the possible identities of the Dark Lady and Fair Youth of the sonnets, while also suggesting that there is both more—and less—to the theory that Shakespeare didn’t do all his own playwriting than one might suspect. Engagingly acted by all, especially Ms. Gardner, a last-minute replacement who managed to make you almost entirely forget that she was so rushed into the part that she had to spend most of her time onstage script-in-hand. (What is it about the magic of theatre that turns such things into a virtue? I mean, try excusing a visible boom mike in a movie shot as ambiance…)

                  As directed by Daniela Varon, this little sleeper of a play is sort of like a lovely little pop-up card with verses inscribed, sent to you by someone who knows how much you love theatre and language.


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