Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Losing touch with reality

My favorite theatre critic distinguished herself again this weekend with this observation about the current New York productions of South Pacific and Passing Strange:

"You might not think that these two shows have anything in common, but ever since seeing them . . . I've been convinced that they do. And that shared quality, to reduce it to its essence, is one that at first sounds unlikely: They're both real."

Now I suppose that's a little better than "They're both good. Just really, really good," but it hardly counts as something worth publishing. It's not analysis - or even thought, frankly. It's just a kind of benighted self-reflection, a slight extrapolation of "Do I like this? Yes . . . yes, I do . . ."

There's nothing wrong with that, of course, if you're sitting at home sipping a cappuccino. "Mmmmm . . . rich and creamy . . . good feelings . . . this cappucino is really real"; who hasn't gone through something like that thought loop? Even a drowsy gastronome, however, often ends up bumping against reflections like, "Yes, but why does this particular cup of cappuccino taste better than so many others? Hmmmm! I must ponder this further, particularly before I publish my thoughts in a major daily!"

But the best Louise Kennedy seems to be able to manage in this vein amounts to lines like, "What seemed embarrassingly straight and square and fake just a few years ago now reappears as wonderfully straightforward, squarely built, and true. Did the times change? Did we? Probably both." Okay. This cappuccino was once not rich and creamy, but now it is. Did it change, or did I? Probably both. Mmmmm. Rich and creamy.

Of course, maybe it's better if Louise doesn't think about such issues too hard, because soon she's fielding deep thoughts like: "Nellie Forbush's story, like so many others in the native art form of this nation of immigrants, is the story of leaving home to find our true selves. That complicated, quintessentially American path - to move closer to ourselves by moving away - resonates throughout Nellie's encounters with her own "hick" self and with the strange new world she's landed in."

Wow. "To move closer to ourselves by moving away . . . that complicated, quintessentially American path." Mmmmmm. I just love that quintessentially American path. It's so rich and creamy. Meanwhile, of course, it occurs to the disinterested observer that perhaps something in South Pacific, and its naïvely self-affirming anti-racist message, appeals to many in an America facing its "Obama moment." But would Nellie Forbush vote for a black man for president? (Whatever the outcome in November, we'll certainly need a little cock-eyed optimism to heal the ravages of the Bush administration.) And is Louise even aware of that subtext - or is she simply cannily dancing around it in the manner of so many Globe writers?

Somehow I think I'm going to go with the "not even aware" option - if only because the rest of her review (of Passing Strange) is so similar in its cozily self-satisfied vacuity: the show is full of songs that "feel like the songs that Stew and his terrific ensemble simply have to sing in order to tell the story they want to tell." Then there's: "Like South Pacific, Passing Strange feels genuine - true to itself, not to someone else's idea of what a musical should be. . . .it feels fresh and right to see a show that simply wants to be what it is . . . Sure, it's wised-up enough to know that the musical is an artificial form - but it's wise enough to use that artificiality to say something real."

Louise does try to work up something like an argument - or at least a contrast - around the "irony" and "calculating fakery" of new musicals like Cry-Baby, but she doesn't seem to realize that this once again leads to the question, "But why does irony suddenly somehow feel dated?" That's where a review might actually begin. Instead she wraps up, by quoting Oscar Hammerstein II with the same awe Luke Skywalker reserved for Yoda: "There is only one absolutely indispensable element that a musical must have. It must have music. And there is only one thing that it has to be - it has to be good."

You see, little grasshopper, there is no why. There is only the real. The cappuccino simply is what it is. And it is rich and creamy. Mmmmmm.

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