Friday, June 29, 2007

William Hutt, 1920-2007

Word reaches us that William Hutt, a mainstay at Canada's Stratford Festival, died on Wednesday. Little known to Boston audiences, Hutt was a legend in the Canadian theatre, playing at Stratford (which I regularly attend) for a staggering 39 seasons and 130 productions, essaying virtually every major role in the repertory. His most famous performances included Prospero, King Lear (he also played a memorable Fool to Peter Ustinov's Lear), and Falstaff; he was also remembered for a hilarious turn in drag as Lady Bracknell in Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest. Perhaps his best recent performance was as James Tyrone in O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night, opposite Martha Henry; the production is available on DVD. Despite his official retirement, the Stratford Festival had asked Hutt to return for a production of A Delicate Balance this season; he at first accepted, but then withdrew as his health worsened. Hutt can also be seen in the final season of Slings and Arrows, as an actor in declining health who is invited to attempt King Lear one last time - a poignantly fitting capstone to a great career.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Reigning men

He's here, but is he queer? Xerxes rises in 300.

There's a fun article over at slate which attempts to answer the rhetorical question, "If you liked 300, are you gay?" Its author, Matt Feeney, answers "no" - a point with which I agree; he's quite right that celebrations of "heroic masculinity" are willfully misread these days (by "clueless film critics" - and, of course, Andrew Sullivan) as gay. Feeney is likewise quite right to insist that the animating principle of these and similar displays (he has a specific jones for surfer flicks) is not homo-erotic attraction but sexual narcissism - although Feeney makes these points with a petulant passion that's a little amusing in and of itself ("If Point Break is homoerotic . . . then so is Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit," he cries, sans irony - which only makes me want to cue up White and Nerdy).

Now I didn't see 300 (and I'm gay!) - but I have to admit images like the ones above and below seem to undermine Feeney's thesis (at least in regards to this particular movie). Apparently Xerxes - and the pierced, bejewelled Persians in general - are styled here as gayer than the Spartans (some have seen the movie as a battle between "butch queens" and "bar queens"), but still, the digital airbrushing of the images hints at a certain feminization - or at least subconscious onanism (compare the sweaty images from Ben-Hur, and you'll see what I mean). The fact that in ancient Greece the warrior culture did spill over into homosexual culture (rather than being in tension, as depicted in 300) also gives one pause - could 300, despite its evident stupidity, map out this intersection fairly well in its images, if not its action?

The problem with Feeney's thesis, then, is that he doesn't really address the boundaries of the phenomenon he's discussing - he never ponders when or how narcissism/onanism might morph into actual attraction, despite the fact that in the ancient Greek culture, it evidently did. This topic is of particular interest for me because I witness the same tension between gay and straight culture in our own society - straight culture is constantly absorbing gay influences, as long as there's some fig leaf of denial available ("metrosexuality," etc.). Does that fig leaf, essentially, serve as the dividing line between narcissim and homo-eroticism? Do the two modes operate as twins in today's culture, serving each other's needs but never really overlapping? If this is the case, it's worth pondering why the boundary should be so impermeable - and my guess is that it has something to do with the status of women. In ancient Greece, of course, women were chattel, and no sexual practice could ever transform a boy into a girl; in modernity, however, the rise of gay rights has roughly paralleled feminism. Perhaps it's women's rights - or rather the modern permutation of sexism (which, stripped of its reliance on status and power, is based largely on sexual practice) - that's holding the gay/straight line.

Leonidas and Xerxes get in touch with their inner Hegel.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Post-apocalyptic cabaret

Ta-da! It's the end of the world, with Kiki & Herb!

Time is short (I'm on va-kay this week), so I must only sketch in my thoughts on "Kiki & Herb, Alive from Broadway" (through June 30 at the Calderwood). You might be surprised to learn there's a lot to think about - drag cabaret is constantly being pulled in new directions, but no one has driven the form quite so far as Justin Bond (Kiki, an aging, booze-hound chanteuse) and Kenny Mellman (Herb, her equally ancient accompanist). Certainly the show is being misleadingly sold - it's hardly the wacky, witty bitchfest one might expect to see on Saturday night in Provincetown; instead it's brimming with cultural disgust and haunted by a tone of incipient horror. It's hard to believe, but this strange little lounge act may be the most accurate barometer of the zeitgeist we've got.

It turns out that Kiki & Herb aren't just survivors - they're actually so old they knew Jesus (get ready - they drank milk from a cow that chowed down on the immaculate afterbirth, so now they're immortal). Alas, said miracle didn't include a vocal upgrade - Kiki doesn't have much of a voice, and generally either belts or wails while Herb jack-hammers the ivories. Even this doesn't really matter, because their material (which wends its twisty way through Public Enemy and Scissor Sisters, for starters) isn't very good, either, so there's not much melody to be squandered by their approach.

But don't make the mistake of thinking Kiki & Herb are trying to conjure one of those they're-so-bad-they're-good camp tributes; they're far too perversely sophisticated for anything so straightforward. They are, in fact, above all, cool saboteurs of everything that's already been accorded an accepted, affectionate cultural niche, be it campy, conservative, high- or low-brow (even William Butler Yeats, via "The Second Coming," makes a brief appearance). The n-word gets tossed around, Herb is repeatedly called a "gay Jew-tard," ("We own that word!"), and there's generally a sense of assault on all norms of civilized behavior, coupled with a rueful sense of their disappearance. (The demented structure of their act - which tries to deliver cabaret versions of brain-dead rock and rap, is just the first of their many counter-intuitive gambits.) In the end, this is a go-for-broke wail of pain at the fact that our insane religious manias (not for nothing are Kiki & Herb as old as Christ) combined with the market-driven drivel of our culture are driving us swiftly to ruin. It's the end of the world as we know it - you can tell that from the twisted, plastic tree next to the piano, which is itself sinking into what looks like magma on some kind of blasted heath - and Kiki & Herb hardly feel fine; no, they're just too drunk to care (by the finish, you may need a stiff drink, too). This pair may make you howl with laughter - but they also make you want to howl.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Life with Father

tell me all about
Lucia Anna! I want to hear all about Lucia Anna.
Tell me all. Tell me now. You'll die when you hear. Well, you know, when the old chub went futt and did what you know. Yes, I know, go on. Tell me all about Alice and Ada and Fanny and Clara too. Tuck up your sleeves and loosen your talktapes. And o yes Cosima and Eva two no wait forget about THEM!

Okay, okay, you get the idea. If you're like me, that famous pyramidal paragraph was as far as you got in Finnegans Wake before skipping ahead to the ravishing babble of the River Liffey. Those durabelle moments, after all, are what everyone loves about Master Joyce's lasterpiece - a wild attempt to commodiously recirculate all the world's language and myth into an occihystorical knightbook of Death and res-errection (there I go again - I'm beginning to see why that logorriver ran over sex hoondred pages). Of course we've all been trained to bow before Sham and Shaun and Here Cummz Everypun, etc. - but we only adore that pale soft shy slim slip of a thing, Anna Livia Plurabelle.

But who's really behind those lovely, impacted rushes of feminine song? For years we might have assumed Joyce's wife, Nora, but lately post-feminist interpreters have excavated the sad history of Lucia Joyce, the lonely, promiscuous daughter (at bottom right, in a family photo by Berenice Abbott) - whom James himself once described as the inheritor of his genius - and begun edging her out of her long-acknowledged role in Finnegans (as goddess-daughter "Issy") and more to center stage.

Alas, after dabbling in dance and free love - Samuel Beckett was one rumored recipient - Lucia slid slowly into instability (no doubt being dumped by Beckett will do that to you). She was institutionalized at the behest of Joyce's son (after she attacked Nora), and was ministered to by Jung himself - but after her father's untimely death, poor Lucia remained institutionalized (and forgotten) until her own death decades later. But during the construction of Finnegans, Joyce seems to have looked on her decline almost as raw material - which either intrigues or disturbs you, as the case may be - and her ramblings and inspired "portmanteau" words are credited as a major influence on the novel's collective-stream-of-unconsciousness style.

Of course this opens the door to Lucia's canonization in the sisterhood of suppressed muses who may (or may not) have been the true inspiration for various geniuses (move over Fanny Mendelssohn, Alice James, Ada Lovelace, et. al.). Or, on the other hand, Lucia may also be responsible for making so much of Finnegans Wake incompresensible (and thus frighting editors from later mammoths like Gravity's Rainbow and Giles Goat-boy). To me, you should be able to take your pick of these interpretations - but recent ham-handed attempts by the Joyce estate to control (some have said even destroy) Lucia's and Joyce's private papers have turned the situation into a minor cause célèbre, and now the venerable Mabou Mines theatre troupe has developed yet another mournful, multi-media performance, Lucia's Chapters of Coming Forth by Day, to insinuate, but never quite insist, that this abused Anna was the true spring of the River Liffey.

In the end, as you might expect, Lucia's Chapters (which seems to be a revision of an earlier work, Cara Lucia) isn't so much a play as a thesis, and theses tend to make me sleepy. So I'm afraid I drifted during a few stretches of Mabou mainstay's Ruth Maleczech's monologue (don't worry, much of it was repeated - and her occasional screams, coupled with the Charlestown Working Theater's Irish-rectory seating, kept me awake). I admit that Maleczech (at left) was in solid form, however, from her calm opening announcement of her own death (the conceit of the text, by director Sharon Fogarty, is to structure itself á la the Egyptian Book of the Dead, itself an influence on Finnegans) to her final dance - or descent - into the sparkling Liffey. In between, of course, her addled, curious, sexualized-yet-infantile perspective was haunted by the literal shadow of her mad old feary father (Paul Kandel, a physically plausible "Mr. Joyce"), while we were haunted by the incipient shadow of cliché.

The psychosexual mood of Fogarty's script (which I get the impression has been tightened and de-jargonized since its last outing) feels a bit dated in that downtown way (of course, Joyce and Jung do, too), and the whole modernist Beckett-goes-to-the-movies "environment" was likewise predictable. Still, it was elegantly rendered (on a shoestring, no doubt, at CWT), and Julie Archer's projections were lovely and evocative. The evening's best moments, indeed, depended on the overlay of live performance with projected images, be they the snow-laden branches of a Hokusai (oh, don't ask why), glittering ripples in the Liffey, or steadily encroaching columns of text (which Lucia eventually haunted).

Still, whomever one credits for these tableaux (director or designer), visual metaphor alone does not a full performance make, whatever the Mabou Miners think. And Fogarty's text, perhaps out of a subconscious will to always sympathize with Lucia, never dramatizes the harrowing episodes of conflict and misbehavior (on both sides) which might have gripped us. At least for this viewer, murmured hints of repression and Daddy's dark side - which may (or may not) have included actual incest - don't cut it. Without anything in writing, it may be time to close the book on Lucia's Chapters.

Another Critical Darwin Award Nominee!

The field is getting crowded. I may have to narrow my criteria: from now on, quotes must not merely be stupid and pretentious, but must also make me laugh out loud. The latest from Manohla Dargis of the NY Times, however, certainly qualifies:

“Rise of the Silver Surfer” is an existentially and aesthetically unnecessary sequel to the equally irrelevant if depressingly successful “Fantastic Four.”

Did I read that right? The Silver Surfer is existentially unnecessary???? Them's fightin' words!

Thursday, June 14, 2007

That was fast . . .

The North Shore Music Theatre has just announced they have found a successor to outgoing Artistic Director Jon Kimbell in director and choreographer Barry Ivan (looking overjoyed at left). From the press release:

“It is with great pleasure and sincere commitment that I accept this position,” said Mr. Ivan. “Under Jon Kimbell’s direction, NSMT has gained an outstanding reputation for artistic achievement, specifically in the areas of developing new works and providing outstanding theater arts and education programs. My overarching goal in moving forward is to work with the Board of Trustees and staff to build on these considerable accomplishments and further develop and implement the artistic vision of North Shore Music Theatre.”

A nationally recognized director and choreographer, Mr. Ivan’s versatile career includes work in New York City theater, television and film. His accomplishments range from directing and choreographing over 20 musicals at NSMT to being a guest director at Yale University; and his international credits include directing and choreographing West Side Story at the German State Opera. A four-time Independent Reviewers of New England (IRNE) nominee for Best Director and Best Choreographer, Mr. Ivan’s productions of The Full Monty and Hairspray at NSMT both received IRNE awards for Best Musical.

Highlights from Mr. Ivan’s extensive regional theater career include directing and choreographing Company starring Malcolm Gets and Michelle Pawk; Anything Goes starring Carolee Carmello; and several productions of Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, including a recent production starring Dee Hoty and Tony Award winning actress Beth Leavel. Actively involved in the development of new works, Mr. Ivan staged Tony Award winning composer Maury Yeston’s new musical, In The Beginning, and recently directed Tales of Tinsel Town for The Director’s Company in New York City.

Through the end of the 2007 season, Mr. Ivan will work closely with Jon Kimbell to ensure a smooth transition of the day-to-day Artistic Director and Executive Producer responsibilities. In February, 2008, Mr. Ivan will assume the full-time Artistic Director and Executive Producer role. In addition, Mr. Ivan plans to direct and choreograph at least one musical each season.


We interrupt our regularly scheduled programming simply to note that history was made today at the State House. And I was there, for what I hope will be the last time, hollering my guts out. Ten years ago, I never would have believed I would someday be a full citizen of this country. And of course I'm still not. But I'm a full citizen of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. We're getting there.

Lost Love's

Johnny Lee Davenport and Khalil Flemming in Love's Labour's Lost.

Shakespeare is, indeed, the playwright of a thousand faces, and open to at least as many interpretations. Still, the local reaction to the Actors' Shakespeare Project's production of Love's Labour's Lost was enough to make your head spin. Louise Kennedy, in the Boston Globe, pronounced LLL "the closest thing Shakespeare ever wrote to a Marx Brothers comedy." (Rosaline, meet Margaret Dumont!) Meanwhile, over at the Phoenix, Carolyn Clay mused that LLL was actually one of the Bard's "most mannered and formulaic comedies."

Hmmm. A mannered and formulaic Marx Brothers comedy. Both ladies were seemingly vying for my recently announced Critical Darwin Award. Still, their fumbles weren't as irritating as the production's own pronouncements, via dramaturge David Evett (father of ASP Artistic Director Benjamin Evett):

"Love's Labour's Lost" emerges from a period in English drama . . . in which the structural principle is the principle of beads on a string: a series of interesting moments linked . . . by a plot but largely treated as ends in themselves.

Is he kidding? There's really no precedent in English drama for the carefully balanced thematic mandala of Love's Labour's Lost (or that of Midsummer - the two are so developmentally entwined they seem to orbit each other). And dating the play as prior to 1594 (as Evett seems to do) would strike many as controversial. So is Evett père simply covering for Evett fils? Probably - for his supposed "structural principle" is an apt description of precisely what's wrong with the ASP production. With a cast of just six actors, director Evett pulls off an amusing series of clever dumbshows and gender switcheroos, but the accumulative power of the play evaporates as it is, indeed, reduced to a series of funny snippets on a string. What's weird is the string is so taut - the actors (much like the actors in Boston Theatreworks' recent Midsummer) understand exactly what they're saying every minute, and make many of the obscure jokes (if not all - the text in places is highly cut) work superbly. You can get a rousing introduction to Elizabethan low comedy from this crowd - you just can't get Love's Labour's Lost.

Which is a pity, because the play is a novel, and utterly exquisite, double critique of erudition and narcissism (in which the learned and the lovers are both blind), with an equally original structure (sorry, Professor Evett!) - it closes with a twist which would shock us in a romcom even now (a death in the family), and the curtain falls on a rueful acceptance of romantic and sexual frustration (just like Animal Crackers!). Luckily, Boston saw a brilliant (if at times too broadly comic) production of LLL at the Huntington last summer (to the Globe's Kennedy, that version simply had "a bigger budget, a larger cast, and more elegant costumes" - cue sound of teeth gnashing). One might expect, in fact, that the ASP would produce a more sober, thoughtful LLL to contrast with the Huntington's take - but no, Evett actually ups the ante on the schtick, so we're left hanging as to the production's motivation, except perhaps as an actors' showcase.

Sarah Newhouse and Marianna Bassham get showcased.

This, of course, is beginning to seem like the actual raison d'être of the ASP - or as a friend of mine once termed them, "the Actors-Versus-Shakespeare Project." If there really is anything to their actor-centered approach, you'd think it would have borne more artistic fruit by now - but Titus, easily the best production of theirs I've seen so far, was a triumph of atmospheric design and lighting rather than acting. There have been strikingly good performances in other ASP efforts (indeed, there are some here) - yet the productions almost never cohere. Does this matter to them? Or can they not see the failure of their M.O., ironically enough, because of the kind of innocent narcissism that blinds the lovers in LLL?

These are questions which have long since been answered, actually, but I doubt said answers are going to impact the ASP any time soon (Cambridge and the academy have, for obvious reasons, a soft spot for this sort of collegiate Shakespeare). In the meantime, there are laurels to be spread around the LLL cast. The production will probably be best-remembered as the moment when Marianna Bassham broke free of her trailer-park typecasting and came into her own: her Rosaline left the Huntington's in the dust, and only made you wish she could do Berowne, too (meanwhile her takes on Costard and Dumaine, though dumb, were pretty damn sweet). I look forward to Bassham's Beatrice, Kate and Imogen, and maybe even her Viola. Johnny Lee Davenport's Don Armado was a boldly, but accurately, rendered delight, which completely redeemed his crass take on Claudius last season (or was that Rick Lombardo's take?). My only quibble with Davenport was that the pathos that should haunt Armado was little in evidence till the finale (when essentially it's too late). Meanwhile Sarah Newhouse, Michael Forden Walker, and the preternaturally self-possessed Khalil Flemming all spun skillful performances - only Jason Bowen was a bit overwhelmed (and miscast) as the scornfully witty Berowne. Still, he found nice moments in drag as Katharine - and it was good to see an African-American actor casually masculine enough to play with his sexual presentation on stage (sorry, but we all know how rare this is). As usual for the ASP, I left the production liking the actors more than the show - but someday, I hope, I'll enjoy both equally.

It's the economy, stupid

A debate is raging these days over how to revive the supposedly moribund art form of theatre. To me, of course, it ain't moribund; it's just too expensive. I found some support for my view in this article in today's Times, about the Signature Theater Company, which dedicates each season to a single playwright's work. Signature is even better known, however, for its low ticket prices - last year $15, this year $20 (with help from a generous corporate sponsor, Time Warner - I'll try to find out who to write to to thank them - as well as a board member).

The "money" quote (as it were):

For the last two seasons Signature charged $15 for every seat through a deal with Time Warner, the lead sponsor of the ticket initiative. (When shows are extended, tickets go back up to the normal price, which was $55 last season and will be $65 in the coming four.)

James Houghton, the Signature’s artistic director, said the ticket initiative was an unambiguous success, with all productions selling out, some within 48 hours. According to surveys conducted at the theater, half of the ticket buyers were new to the Signature, a quarter earned less than $50,000 a year, and a fifth were under 35.

Monday, June 11, 2007


Although Judy Garland all but haunts our pop history, she proves a recalcitrant ghost for the first half of "And Now Ladies and Gentlemen, Miss Judy Garland," the one-woman show featuring Kathy St. George (at left) as the down-and-out but indomitable chanteuse. St. George and director Tony McLean (who developed and produced the show) have clearly tried to distinguish their efforts from those of the many female impersonators who have donned cocktail drag and tremblingly belted "Over the Rainbow" to appreciative crowds. And for good reason - the king of these impressionists, Jim Bailey, once actually got Liza Minnelli to squeal, "It's Momma!" (she later did a gig with him in Vegas). Even Bailey only approximated Garland's look, but he nailed her lushly brassy sound.

Of course these days female impersonation has gone post-modern: Rufus Wainwright recently re-staged Judy's celebrated Carnegie Hall concert completely on his own terms -perhaps because Judy's talent, one of the greatest of the twentieth century, attracted some of the greatest material of said century. St. George benefits from the same strength: after a wobbly first half, in which she tries to play the "real" Garland (reading verbatim some notoriously dishy tapes she recorded for her autobiography), St. George settles back gloriously into Garland's stage persona for the second half, and delivers knockout renditions of such standards as "Almost Like Being in Love," "The Trolley Song," "The Man That Got Away," "A Couple of Swells," and, of course, "Over the Rainbow." Alas, despite an admirable simulation of Judy's mannerisms (the spastic fluffing of the hair, the splayed palm inching skyward), the illusion that Garland is actually standing before us never quite takes hold - but the sense that St. George is channeling Judy's energy is more than palpable (she's most Garlandesque, actually, in her comic repartee - some funny bits while changing behind a stage trunk, in fact, mark precisely a transition from Kathy to Judy and back).

As for that lame first half - it's most interesting as proof of Judy's personal wit, even in an apparently bombed-out state (not for nothing was she a favorite on talk shows back when they were about conversation). St. George gets her laughs, true, but she seems tentative in her physicalization, and simply unwilling (perhaps because of McLean's idolization of the star?) to take us as low as Judy was known to go. The burnt-out croak we briefly hear on tape is a sad testament to Garland's personal wreckage, but St. George, declaiming the same lines, may be blue but is clearly unbroken (even though the core of the piece is the contrast between the bright lights of Garland's onstage life and the dark depths of her offstage one). If this is an attempt to play "the role of Judy Garland" (as director McLean puts it), then St. George's performance, alas, isn't even a patch on the Emmy-winning turn by Judy Davis in the TV movie Me and My Shadows.

Ah, but then there's that concert, with St. George, ably accompanied by Tim Evans, at the top of her form - at times she almost jumps for joy in her nosebleed heels. McLean and his Backyard Productions have spent some money on the show, so we even get the signature wall-o-bulbs spelling out JUDY, and credible facsimiles of the props and costumes immortalized by the kinescopes of her shows and appearances. It's here that the love McLean and St. George have for their idol, which held them back in Act I, completely pays off - in the end, zing, zing, zing go our heartstrings, and we have to admit that Judy Garland is not the one that got away.

The Critical Darwin Award

I'm thinking of instituting a recurring series called the Critical Darwin Awards, named after the famously posthumous honors dedicated to "chlorinating the gene pool."

This week's nominee: Joan Anderman of the Boston Globe, who informed us on Sunday that:

"Rock musical is for all intents and purposes an oxymoron, two words -- and two worlds -- separated by a gaping divide in aesthetics, audience, and mission. Broadway's aim is to fill seats, to satisfy most of the people most of the time. Rock wants to stir and provoke."

Yeah, right. Sell it, sister.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

New New York theatre blog!

I just got a very nice shout-out from theater lover and writer/editor Leonard Jacobs, and so must return the favor by linking to his most excellent blog (it even has the same template as mine!) The Clyde Fitch Report. It's billed as devoted to "the trials and travails of writer and editor Leonard Jacobs, complete with ribald political commentary, too much sentimentality, a dash of being difficult, and a good sense of humor." All that and some truly hilarious YouTube videos (I'm still trying to figure out how to embed those) - what more could you want?

Friday, June 8, 2007

Log cabin club

Seven Brides a'leapin' for their Seven Brothers.

Sexism and the musical comedy seem to be a match made in heaven - or maybe our genes, if not just our jeans. What else could explain the durability of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, an entertainment loosely based on the classical tale of the rape of the Sabine women? Of course said "rape" was really an abduction (at least in the legends transcribed by Livy and Plutarch), and the tale is, in its entirety, an epic of war surmounted by sex (the Romans and the Sabines were eventually brought to peace by the abducted women, who cottoned to their new husbands).

In Stephen Vincent Benét's "Sobbin' Women," however, and the movie musical drawn from it - which transpose the story from Rome to nineteenth-century Oregon - the emphasis is on how adorable the all-American abductors really are. Indeed, in the musical's latest transmogrification (from Hollywood to Broadway, and then to the regional theatres, generally shedding weaknesses along the way), the sexual aspects of the abduction have been completely reversed - it's the eponymous seven brothers, not their seven brides, who are objectified. Thus the social status quo is preserved, even as the sexual one is subverted (see Giambologna's sexual take on the story at left, and the musical's, via actor Karl Warden, at right). Indeed, in its latest incarnation, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers targets two of the North Shore's key audiences - gay men and Republican women; it's truly a log cabin musical in more ways than one.

But what the hay, as it were - you should see Seven Brides for Seven Brothers not for its dopey sexual politics, or even for its abductors' abs, but for its dancing, as it features some of the most stunning numbers ever seen in the backwoods of Beverly. The dancing was the movie's famous strength, too - Michael Kidd devised wildly athletic numbers for his seven hoofers, and many of its spirited sequences (directed by Stanley Donen in lurid "Ansocolor") remain classics. But the North Shore (and its co-producing theaters, the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey and Houston's Theatre Under the Stars) have not only picked up the movie's gauntlet, they've thrown it back in its flickering face: these seven brothers turn such setpieces as the "Challenge Dance" into something like an Olympic free floor routine, turning somersaults and backflips on a dime and tossing their frilled, beribboned fiancees into the air like so many nickels. Choreographer Patti Colombo and director Scott Schwartz have together worked a small miracle with their staging (which was originally designed for the proscenium houses of its co-producers) - Seven Brides doesn't just look tailored for the North Shore, it looks as if it was born there.

Not that the singin' is anything to sniff at. The movie's score, by Johnny Mercer and Gene de Paul, was as sturdy as the trees in the brothers' forest (which in the set design by Anita Louizos neatly retract into the ceiling), and the current version has retained a haunting ballad from the Broadway version, "Love Never Goes Away," by Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn. And unlike in the recent Crazy for You, the North Shore's cast sports serious pipes as wells as gams; they put the songs over, and then some. In particular lead hunk Edward Watts (above left, with Michelle Dawson), brings to the role of elder brother Adam a lustrous high baritone that he can effortlessly power into tenor territory. As his unhappy Eve, Dawson brings less vocal panache to the proceedings, but supplies a bushel and a peck of spunk 'n sass n' feistiness, etc. I found the brothers' mooncalf antics a bit on the broad side, but I have to confess the broads in the audience ate up their shenanigans. Kudos also to the balletic aplomb of Travis Kelley, and the plaintive vocals of Christian Delcroix - the Sabine women would indeed have stopped their sobbin' with bros (and beaux) like these.

Boston on Broadway

In the old days, critics used to complain that local theatres only produced last year's New York hits. The trend, however, may be reversing. Recently there have been hints that Sonia Flew, by local playwright/actress Melinda Lopez, may be headed for the Great White Way (see post below), and now it's been announced that Mauritius (which won an IRNE even though I hated it) will now open in September off-Broadway, at the Manhattan Theatre Club, with Bobby Canavale and Alison Pill under the direction of Doug Hughes (who directed Doubt). Mauritius will be co-produced by the Huntington, where it premiered last year. Are we once again becoming a try-out town - or is at least the Huntington becoming a try-out theatre?

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Has Lopez's Sonia flown to Broadway?

Amelia Alvarez, Will LeBow and Carmen Roman in the Huntington's production of Sonia Flew.

Possibly! Check out this website, which lists Randall Wreghitt, a well-known Broadway producer, as behind the effort to bring Melinda Lopez's Sonia Flew, which debuted at the Huntington, to the Great White Way. (Hat tip to Art at

Makin' it Snappy

An image from "String Beings."

About two years ago, with the opening of the Calderwood Pavilion, Boston underwent what I immediately termed a theatre renaissance - and I'm beginning to think the same thing may be about to happen to the local dance scene. There's a new and viable (though problematic) performance space at the ICA; the Boston Ballet is stronger than it's ever been, with a hot house choreographer; we're still a regular stop on the national circuits of Mark Morris, Alvin Ailey, and a number of other companies; and most excitingly, local troupes are beginning to make national (and even international) names for themselves.

One such company is Snappy Dance Theater, which is celebrating its tenth anniversary with an unprecedented (for a local troupe) two-weekend run of its newest work, "String Beings" (along with a number of audience favorites), at the Calderwood Pavilion through June 10. That any local dance group should have survived, let alone flourished, for a decade is indeed cause for celebration, and many of the virtues of Snappy's ensemble and collaborative working method (under the guidance of Artistic Director Marsha Mason) were evident in the evening's program. Above all, Snappy Dance is fun, in a smart, cleverly acrobatic way - think of them as a less jock-y Pilobolus and you're close to encapsulating their style. As it grew, however, the troupe edged away from pure dance and toward a mix of dance and theatrical techniques, often aimed at younger audiences (this approach bore amusingly ghoulish fruit in their famous Temperamental Wobble, which took Edward Gorey to the circus). Lately this exploration has led them toward the intersection of dance and technology - with "Lumen" (2005), for instance, Snappy aggressively explored the effect of light on the dance experience, and now in "String Beings," they have developed an often-haunting, sometimes-frustrating integration of video, software, and shadowplay.

To my mind, "Lumen" (which closes the first half of the current program) still stands as possibly the best thing Snappy's ever done. Set to a propulsive score by Wim Mertens, the ensemble's acrobatics are transformed by startling shifts in lighting (the design is credited as a collaboration with Joseph Levendusky), which alternately throw the Snappies (can you think of a better term?) into silhouette, shadow, or cornea-burning, contrasting color-fields. The piece opens with one of the troupe's most inspired gambits - like a beam of light physicalized, dancer Bonnie Duncan walks up Tim Gallagher's back, then over his shoulders and down his chest (after which Gallagher, no doubt, heads for the chiropractor!) - and closes with another (the group caught in mid-air in a stroboscopic snapshot), and in between it's almost pure pleasure.

The rest of the program's first half, however, was amusing but not always that challenging - the group's collaborative process has clear limits, in that it tends to lead the dancers into comic "bits" and cute conflicts rather than deeper ideas and designs (this is the downside of being "unpretentious"). Still, the decade-old "Limning Twilight" (above left) still intrigued in its evocative minimalism, and both "Four Fourths" and "Odd Egg Out" had their moments.

"String Beings," of course, was what everyone was waiting for - and in at least one regard it did not disappoint: the piece conjured a kind of ghostly digital "space" in which footwear and software indeed interacted (an effect which much of this kind of "performance" fails to evoke). The dancers moved behind a screen on which were projected images of their own maneuvers, "scrambled" by Jonathan Bachrach's software, which transformed them into scribbled figures of vigrating string (hence the title). The haunting results hinted provocatively at the edge between past and present, and the unseen ramifications of our every action, however small - most excitingly, this was a space that literally responded to the dancers, as if the very air around them were being choreographed. Alas, the dance itself didn't always keep pace with its environment's potential: the Snappies sometimes reverted to just horsing around (it was clearly time to leave the kid stuff behind), and the reliance on such props as tethers and tightropes (to explore the idea of "string," I suppose) felt a little labored and obvious. More apropos was the shadowplay on a hanging, glowing sheet, which was better at making concrete the piece's dialogue between action and information.

The choreography did boast at least one transporting moment - Artistic Director Mason, in thrall to her integrative theme, pulled her musicians right up on stage, and even drew her violinist into the dance. The preternaturally calm Lucia Lin carried on playing even as she was lifted onto the dancers' shoulders and then solemnly borne across the stage (when she's not surfing the Snappies, Lin can be found playing in the BSO). It was an elegant, meditative finish to the first of what one hopes is a new line of technology-focused work from Snappy Dance.

Monday, June 4, 2007

Will Stackman, R.I.P.

It is with great sadness that I report, via Larry Stark's Theater Mirror website, that fellow critic Will Stackman died at his home last night. Although Will and I often did not see eye to eye, I recognized that he was a true critic's critic - smart, scrappy and independent (perhaps even ornery) who dedicated himself to seeing as much theater as he possibly could (only other critics can appreciate how daunting this is over the long haul). Puppetry and lighting were special interests of Will's (I remember he once jumped all over me because in my praise of the Wimberley Theatre I had overlooked what he felt was a disappointing light grid), but he was truly erudite in all aspects of the theater, and his erudition informed a refreshingly unpredictable point of view.

An early web publisher, Will maintained at least two sites that I knew of, and contributed regularly to more. I'll simply quote the last few lines of his "And then I saw . . ." blog, because they seem to me to express so simply his dedication to the art he loved:

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

No reviews today. Seeing Present Laughter at HTC tomorrow. Rest of the week--who knows.
- will, 5:02 PM

Saturday, May 26, 2007

No new reviews, Not planning to see anyhting this weeked.
- will, 4:46 PM

Monday, May 28, 2007

No Memorial Days weekend surprizes. PR for PIAZZA. May try to see.
- will, 5:07 PM

I find that final "May try to see" heartbreaking. Will passed on just a few days later.