I’ve never had a strict “conflict of interest” policy; I’ve always let instinct guide me when productions involve collaborators of mine, people I know in a context that’s particularly nuanced, and/or having seen a production under circumstances that would behoove me to behave more like a guest than a critic. And with regard to both Sister Act and Séance on a Wet Afternoon, instinct tells me to default to my best compromise: the review that isn’t really a review. I wouldn’t even write that much about most such pieces that left me with a negative impression (I say most because I’d hate for silence always to be inferred as de facto disapproval), so the fact that I’m mentioning these shows at all constitutes an unambiguous endorsement of both.
Were I to write about Stephen Schwartz’ opera in serious detail, I suppose my opinion would fall into the mixed-positive category, for reasons I won’t detail. But I will tell you that it’s a substantial and very worthwhile work, that represents the concept “creative risk” at its best, managing to be both a renegade stretch for its author while remaining accessibly expressed, with a clear narrative and a score of some power and beauty. The after-show discussions it engenders are passionate and mixed (which seems appropriate) but it absolutely “knows its own mind” and hits the target it means to hit. Which alone makes it worth seeing. How you may feel about it I can’t predict, but I can say you won’t feel your time was in any way wasted.
Sister Act, based on the popular comedy film of the same name, just flat out seeks to be a crowd-pleaser, and is very successful at it. (I know more than a few who liked it better than The Book of Mormon). This one too hits its target toward a much less equivocal response, after-show controversy relegated to the slickness of the package, and how much actual heart may exist at the core (to disclose just a little on a personal, rather than analytical, note: through Act One I wondered, but through Act Two I was swept along). But again, it’s one of the season’s shows you can feel good about having attended, whether to simply revel in its energy (which seems to be the majority response) or stock up on energy for a post-show debate.
I can however, give a fully committed review of the new production of Curtains, the Kander-Ebb-Holmes-Stone backstage murder-mystery musical currently in regional revival at the Paper Mill Playhouse. For a detailed analysis of the show proper, and what I still, by and large think of it, you can see my review of the Broadway production here.
to talk simply of the new production itself, director Mark S. Hoebee has made things a little lighter and brighter than
they were on Broadway, which helps the material, which is on its own terms very
respectable without being extraordinary, a good deal. The arguably “gimmick”
casting of two soap stars from the same daytime drama in the show’s lead
roles—Robert Newman and Kim
Zimmer who are both approximately
quarter-century veterans of The Guiding Light (which ended its
run in 2009)—proves both a PR coup and a delightful surprise for any who
haven’t seen them onstage before: for each is excellent at comedy both light
and broad, and equally proficient at delivering musical theatre. (I daresay too
that anyone seeing them onstage without having
seen them on the soap would be amazed that performers with that much high
octane exuberance could sustain anything as contained and camera-constrained as
a character in a daytime drama). The rest of the cast is as impressive,
including Helen Anker, Ed Dixon, Anne Horak, my old
friend and occasional performer of my work Daniel Marcus and veteran of the Broadway company David
Elder, among as many equally terrific
supporting players and a top notch singing-dancing ensemble. Add to this
Broadway-savvy choreography by Joann M. Hunter and a fine design team, and Curtains is…well,
how shall I put this…about as good as it can be. Which for a lightweight night
out is good enough.