There is a certain amount of, oh, let's call it "controversy," surrounding Spongebob Squarepants: The Broadway Musical. It's mainly a largely unspoken controversy between children and adults; children, from most reports, seeming to love it, and as for adults, well, mileage varies widely and wildly. While I tend toward shying away from citing other reviews in my own (most of the time, I don't read reviews other than my own, at least not until after mine are written), something in the New York Times critic Ben Bradley's review tweaked, for me, where the new musical based on the popular animated cartoon series falls short.
Brantley, who rather liked the show, advocates that the uninitiated, before attending, immerse themselves in a few episodes, the earlier the better, for familiarity with the universe—as he did. While this is perfectly legitimate advice, it's not something everybody would necessarily have time, patience, wherewithal and willingness to do. But it does prove to be entirely necessary, unless you have some prior Spongebob cred. If you do, everything has a wider context, and the flaws of the show become much less important. If you don't, however, you may find yourself having a hard time knowing exactly what the hell is going on, within the slender and almost egregiously attenuated story (book by Kyle Jarrow); and caring less, because the relationships are not freshly delineated so much as buckshot at you in full right off the bat, in the matter of a fanboy-fangirl member-of-the-club secret handshake.
But it should be the job of a musical to bring in any audience into its storytelling universe. My introduction to South Park was the musical feature film South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut. I hadn't had any prior knowledge of the conceit of the show, nor very much about its characters; but an extremely clever opening number sequence brilliantly introduced everybody and everything in a manner that let fans know their expectations would be met; and walked newbies through the ground rules such that they were "experts" within about 10 minutes. The same is true of the animated movie musical Hey There, it's Yogi Bear; and even the holiday perennial Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol lets a viewer who may never once have heard nearsighted old man Quincy yelling "Road hog!" while driving the wrong way on a one way street, know why the icon Magoo and the icon Scrooge are meant for each other and an inspired conflation. And though it's hard to be wholly objective, it did seem to me, from the Paper Mil run, that the new musical based on The Honeymooners pulls off the necessary fan-reassurance/newbie-introduction too.
Of course, it's largely impossible to accomplish anything so sophisticated—and for all its seeming simplicity, such dual purpose introduction being highly sophisticated, the illusion of effortlessness being the tell of sophistication—when you have a kind of jukebox-anthology score written by a dozen or so pop writers, not one of whom has theatrical credentials or training. Which adds to why the musical is such a hodgepodge if you're not a seasoned Spongbobian.
There's more to say about the production, the cast, the design, the direction (Tina Landau) etc. But all that has been said elsewhere by others and you don't need my version of it here. Let's leave it, then, with the above consumer advisory and let the buyer beware; or be down and funky.
Though late 19th century playwright Henri Becque created a few scandals with dramas whose openly sexual components were ahead of their time, to put it mildly, the time they were ahead of is now long past, and those sexual components are now common dramatic currency. Subsequently, Beau Wilimon's updated paraphrase of The Parisian, redubbed The Parisian Woman (rendering the original noun an adjective, making the locale a metaphor for libertinism) comes off rather like a drawing room comedy-drama with offstage promiscuity behind on stage political maneuvering. It's all pretty staid and tedious stuff until about the last third, when the title character, a politician's wife, assayed by Uma Thurman, is revealed to be both more brazenly Machiavellian, and in secret moments less emotionally unaffected, than the play would have had us believe at the start. Though none of that seems very surprising among a collection of characters who are implicitly all Republicans under the Trump administration. The cast does decent work under the likewise decent direction of Pam McKinnon; but at the core, the play is too lacking in either a sense of urgency or a compelling enough point of empathy to be more than mildly engaging. If that.
Farinelli and the King, set in 1737, has a little too much going for it in terms of style, design, production and imaginative theatricality to be classified as disappointing, exactly. In dramatizing the relationship between (and the relationships surrounding) manic-depressive King Philippe V of Spain (Mark Rylance) and famous Italian castrato countertenor Farinelli (Sam Crane acting; Iestyn Davies singing), whose singing, it was said, was the sole balm to the king's unquiet spirit, it demonstrates enough verbal dazzle and effective integration of music to weave a spell that keeps you concentrating; but it also delivers a trail of echoes of far better plays, such as The Madness of King George by Alan Bennett, Amadeus by Peter Shaffer, and Coram Boy by Helen Edmondson (from the novel by Jamila Gavin). Much of this has to do with the fact that those other plays delivered genuine story and plot tension; while Farinelli and the King doesn't really deliver much more than situation and interpersonal dynamics among the lead characters. The seeds of drama are there, but they may require stepping away from actual history and inventing machinations that didn't exist—or, giving author Claire Van Kampen token credit for knowing she would need to invent something, perhaps the actual need would have been to invent much more boldly. Under the direction of John Dove, the cast does very well without being transcendent. Even Mr. Rylance, charismatic and brilliant as he can be, is simmering on low boil, showing us nothing much other than persona/performance tics and quirks of his that he has used to inform other, better characterizations…and characters.
Once On This Island has always been a magical musical. The deft adaptation of Rosa Guy's mythical novel My Love, My Love, has deservedly become a favorite of many owing to its relentlessly spellbinding theatricality and beautifully structured score, by way of lyricist librettist Lynn Ahrens and composer Stephen Flaherty. But the current revival-in-the-round at Circle in the Square pulls off yet another bit of magic in being at least as good a rendering as the original production in 1990. Director Michael Arden doesn't so much reinterpret the material as reimagine its physical delivery system—which may sound like splitting hairs over the meaning of "reinterpretation," until you realize that the original sensibility is very much intact. To some degree, this is inevitable, because the show is about 85% through sung, and if you're representing the score properly, you're almost certainly representing the show properly. But there's always margin for error. However, Mr. Arden never enters that margin. What he has reinterpreted is a device: the old trope of the contemporary troupe of players creating their storytelling universe out of available materials—and here, thus conjuring an island in the French Antilles. The design team has created a starkly original and memorable look for the production; and the cast, a multiracial ensemble of both familiar, seasoned veterans (among them Phillip Boykin, Kenita R. Miller, Merle Dandridge, Quentin Earl Darrington and Lea Saloga) and fresh newcomers (among them Hailey Kilgore and Isaac Powell) is top to bottom A-plus. Even those who assay only cameo roles and are otherwise part of the ensemble-narrative voice have been encouraged to be bracingly specific of face and personality (because of which, I often had a tough time looking away from Cassondra James, to name but one example; none of them "pulls focus"—but all of them fascinate). Nobody's anonymous. All of which makes Once On This Island among the best straight through 90 minutes on this island of Manhattan.
Finally, there's Describe
the Night by Rajiv Joseph at the Atlantic. This is the boilerplate from its
debut at the Alley Theatre in Texas earlier this season (same production,
mostly different cast): In 1920, the Russian writer Isaac Babel wanders
the countryside with the Red Cavalry. Seventy years later, a mysterious KGB
agent spies on a woman in Dresden and falls in love. In 2010, an aircraft
carrying most of the Polish government crashes in the Russian city of Smolensk.
…[This] epic new play …traces the stories of seven men and women
connected by history, myth and conspiracy theories." Pretty much.
An oldschool three-acter, long enough to start a half-hour earlier than usual on a Friday night, the play struck me as reasonably entertaining and once in a while surprising. It may remind of you of other plays that have done this kind of thing on a more intricate level (within the works of Tom Stoppard and Caryll Churchill, for example), or with similar, more potent personal-ideological dynamics (the relationship between Isaac and a rising career soldier named Nikolai [an excellent Danny Burstein and Zach Grenier, respectively] is very reminiscent of the relationship between Bulgakov and Stalin in John Hodge's Collaborators); but its colloquial language, modest narrative puzzle and happy avoidance of attenuation and wasted time—not to mention an excellent cast—keep it from suffering by comparison. Though I'm not sure I can tell you what it all adds up to.
Giovanna Sardelli's direction is mostly efficient, but contains one temporarily very confusing element: the casting of African-American actress Rebecca Naomi Jones as the direct descendant of Isaac Babel. I'm a passionate believer in ethnicity-blind casting, and Ms. Jones is a lovely and talented performer—but this is one of those contexts where the nobility of intention doesn't speak for itself without help: When a play that treats all other factors, religious and political, with literal realism, and has nothing in the text or the presentation to give the audience "the permission" (as we in the musicals game call it) to make the poetic leap, you might well spend a long stretch of the play misinterpreting her character's relationship to the others. I did, at first thinking her a neighboring young woman, spiritually adopted by a senior citizen not her biological mother; and since I can't remember this confusion ever happening to me before, I'd venture to say the use of Ms. Jones—and I would not deny her the gig—needed more thinking through to be unequivocally clear, and not a bump in verisimilitude.
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