Thursday, April 19, 2012

Café Variations at ArtsEmerson

Melody Madarasz in Café Variations 

The music of George Gershwin is a good thing; a very good thing.  Which is a very good thing for director Anne Bogart, as it repeatedly saves her beautiful, baffling, Café Variations (at ArtsEmerson through the weekend) from a persistent threat of tedium.

What's baffling about this show, you may ask?  Why it was ever produced, frankly; there really is no show here.  Bogart has simply set various snatches of dialogue from playwright Charles L. Mee, Jr. - with whom she often collaborates as she works the college circuit with her theatre troupe, SITI - against a clutch of Gershwin standards, played in a giant period café.  And - ta-da! - she seems to think this means she has made some sort of statement.

If only. Mee's banter can be cute in its bitchy pique (at least in the wonderful performance from Ellen Lauren it can), but it doesn't add up to much, and it only relates to the rueful swoon of Gershwin in the most desultory way.  I admit there's also some sort of folderol going on here about variations in personality over the course of the evening (the characters come in three variants, labeled A, B, and C) - but this also didn't seem to add up to much, and in fact I found I really couldn't be bothered with following Bogart's bogus acrostic.  Because the whole thing was obviously a weightless monument to academic conceit.

But there is that Gershwin.  Some of the music here is recorded, but there are also performances on offer from a live band tucked behind a shimmery curtain on Neil Patel's gorgeously luxe set (below).  The arrangements by Rachel Grimes - particularly the wordless chorale drawn from "Embraceable You" -  are likewise to die for, as are the costumes (Caitlin Ward), lighting (Brian H. Scott), and sound (Stowe Wilson).  It all made me wonder - couldn't we just keep this design team and drop Bogart?

If we do, perhaps we can dodge in future the dodgy vocals that dot the show.  The Emerson kids do okay - although only Melody Madarasz, who caught my eye in Bat Boy a year ago, is a standout.  The actors from SITI, Bogart's troupe, are another story.  In a word, SITI can't sing - which is a problem, because singing Gershwin is far more difficult than it sounds.  I love a Gershwin tune, but I know it usually hovers between at least two keys, and so any vocal jump larger than a third can be perilous (that's why I only sing them in the shower).  And let's just say there are a number of awkward landings here - in fact, some of the SITI vocals may be the weakest I've ever heard in a professional venue.  And I wish I could say that the dancing made up for this, but it really didn't until the very end (again, SITI can't dance - but Emerson has at least one talented hoofer in Maximilian Sangerman).  So I guess you could say I left singing the set, and dancing the arrangements, and that's about it.  But at least Bogart and Mee can't take that away from me.

Like the music, the set is 'swonderful. Photos: Paul Marotta


  1. I was so excited to see this show - love Gershwin - love the gorgeous Majestic Theater ... Unfortunately - perhaps because these two basic ingredients set the bar so high - a group of us - sitting front and center - were ready to leave after the first 15 minutes. The talent has great potential, the costumes lovely...but the set design, direction, writing, lighting, choreography (the last dance number an exception) all managed to pounce on what deserved to be and should have been a much more satisfying piece - even at the very basic minimum. Best of luck to the talented cast on future projects and I hope that Emerson students can get a bit more polished teaching and honest critique before launching their next theater opening.