Sunday, January 7, 2007

When bad things happen to good theatres . . .

Somebody call Rabbi Kushner! Only he could explain See What I Wanna See, the new Michael John LaChiusa musical at the Lyric Stage. How could this smart, scrappy little theatre, which has successfully stretched its limited resources to encompass everything from A Little Night Music to The Goat, have strapped itself to this bomb? Hadn't anyone seen the damn thing? Or had the respectful reviews in New York (a town with notoriously low standards), and LaChiusa's growing reputation as Sondheim's heir, been enough to blind the eyes (and deafen the ears) of those who had?

Whatever the reason for its arrival, the debacle is all the more poignant in that it's a great production - just of a terrible show. The talented cast sings its heart out (and acts up a storm), and the direction is tight, while the design is sharp. But all this effort is for naught: the musical only rises from dreadful (the first half) to passable (the second). Maybe if there were a third act - but no, think not on't, that way madness lies!

To be fair, part of the problem is the challenge LaChiusa (who's responsible for book, lyrics and music) has set himself: to adapt the sources of Rashomon (left), the Akira Kurosawa film that's on everybody's all-time Top 10 list (unless it's been bumped by another Kurosawa flick). Rashomon, in case you've forgotten, is the classic demonstration of the unknowability of truth. A murder has occurred in the forest, and a judge at the gates of the city ("Rasho-Mon" means "Dragon Gate") cross-examines the wife of the victim, his bandit attacker, and then the ghost of the dead man himself (via a medium). But all three tell self-serving versions of the event - and even when a fourth witness comes forward, the truth of what occurred "In the Grove," (the title of the source story, by Ryunosuke Akutagawa) remains obscure.

This potent parable was recognized as a classic almost immediately upon its release (and so launched the global careers of Kurosawa and the exuberant Toshiro Mifune). But from this gold LaChiusa spins only dross; he has little of the great director's muscular lyricism, and none of his sense of poetic mystery. LaChiusa updates the story to 50's New York, for instance, for the stupidly "meta" reason that now he can stage the murder after, yes, a showing of Rashomon. That's the first, but certainly not the last, obvious idea in the show - but it may be the least offensive; See What I Wanna See clumsily pushes its sexual themes in our faces, cheapening both its tale and its tellers (in the original, sexual shame was a motive; here, sexual liberation is - which makes you kinda re-think sexual liberation). In short, this "update" is more of a date-rape - and musically, its pastiche of pop and jazz - cut with the occasional Japanese flute - is not about to make you forget LaChiusa's obvious model, Sondheim. ("It's like Pacific Undertures," my companion quipped.)

Fortunately, in his second act, LaChiusa finds more success adapting a lesser, but still interesting, story by Akutagawa ("The Dragon," here retitled "Gloryday"), in which a disillusioned priest spins tales of a Second Coming in Central Park. While there are still a few more bald swipes at metaphysical importance (the proceedings are set just after 9/11 - don't get me started), at least this time there's no classic version looming over the material like a tombstone. And the story's sly satire seem to loosen up LaChiusa; his music grows more melodic, and his lyrics improve, turning from declamatory to predictable-but-sharply-observed (there are even some genuine laughs).

Cheer up, kid, we're in Act II!

The cast responds to the superior material by putting it over with a passion. Brendan McNab, as the troubled priest, has never been better (and that's saying a lot), but he's given a run for his money by the hilarious June Baboian (both above) as his atheist aunt. Meanwhile Aimee Doherty nails her fallen Hollywood starlet, while Andrew Schufman and Andrew Giordano do clever turns in their supporting roles. And throughout the singing is splendid (special kudos to Mr. Giordano and Ms. Doherty) - the whole ensemble, I predict, will be nominated for IRNE awards (and maybe even, if the dead-tree critics' heads are screwed on right, Norton awards). Meanwhile the orchestra, under the direction of the talented Jonathan Goldberg, plays with confident energy (but with Goldberg, you knew that already).

Still, there's that godawful first act. My suggestion is that you a) rent Rashomon and b) watch it, then c) go to this show at intermission. (The first half is a little over an hour long.) I'm sure Mr. LaChiusa would not approve - but then he'd have to agree that we should only see what we wanna see.

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