Saturday, March 29, 2014

Hello again, Bridge Rep

Sean Patrick Gibbons and Aubin Wise.  Photo: Marc J. Franklin
Casting directors, take note - this is a quick, late nod to Bridge Rep's production (it closes tonight) of Michael John LaChiusa's Hello Again, which will surely add to this young company's growing reputation for ingenious renditions of somewhat weak contemporary material. That was my take on their Libertine last fall, and I sometimes felt a distinct sense of "déjà vu all over again" during Hello, as I found myself saying hello again to what I'm worried could become a signature mix at Bridge: daring hipster smarts, fresh performing talent, innovative design - and a problematic script.

Oh, well. That formula applies to the majority of what I see these days - but at Bridge the contrast is particularly sharp. Even if it's the surround of this show that's most striking. Director Michael Bello and designer Anne Sherer have gone all Pierre, Natasha and the Great Comet of 1812 on Rehearsal Room A of the BCA, and have conjured - probably on a shoestring - an impressively "immersive" cabaret concept for their show (which I imagine actually works better for Schnitzler, whose La Ronde inspired LaChiusa, than it did for Tolstoy).  Thus the performers are often singing only inches from you - or even doin' it doggie-stye at your cocktail table (although don't worry, the flashes of nudity have been somewhat over-publicized; you won't get up close and personal with anybody's pubes).

The cast is also talented and confident, even in their underwear, although occasionally they're pushed to the edge of that talent by LaChiusa's demanding score, which calls for precisely dissonant duets with minimal instrumental support. That kind of thing requires a lot of experience and a lot of rehearsal, and frankly everyone here falls victim to the occasional flat or "found" note (although the tight three-piece band rarely goes wrong). But I was in the mood to be indulgent because - well, because this is Michael John LaChiusa; even Audra McDonald had trouble with one of his scores.  

Although honestly - sigh - I'm not really sure this particular composer is worth that trouble.  One always admires the complexity of the challenges he sets himself, I admit. Here, for instance, he works up a jukebox musical from several decades' worth of styles (his conceit is to leapfrog La Ronde across the twentieth century), all while toying with operatic conventions (it's almost through-sung) and subtle modernist dissonance. As an exercise, it's a tour de force. But as a living and breathing musical . . . well, let's just say LaChiusa never really shakes Sondheim's shadow, and like most of his work, Hello Again is highly sophisticated without being all that memorable.

Which is too bad, because LaChiusa is closer to a strong, or at least solid, concept here than he was with misfires like the dreadful See What I Wanna See or the not-so Wild Party.  For even as he pulls Schnitzler into several different eras (and gay as well as straight couplings), he subtly drops the playwright's tone and theme, and substitutes his own. La Ronde, of course, coolly anatomizes many hypocrisies, social as well as sexual, as its couplings cut across lines of class and romantic commitment. Indeed, Schnitzler's characters often ask each other, post-coitus, questions like "Are you proud of yourself?" or "Are you happy?"

But LaChiusa isn't really interested in any of that (he wrote his own book as well as lyrics); in fact his attitude is perhaps the opposite of Schnitzler's. To him, sex is the only reality (a fairly common attitude among certain gay men - and certain straight men, too!). And thus one character actually announces that happiness is impossible; there is only pleasure; so acting on the impulses of sex can't count as hypocrisy - instead, it's almost a duty. This is explicitly demonstrated in an odd little scene in which two passengers on the Titanic devote their last moments to a blow job - yes, they literally "go down" with the ship!

Well, far be it from me to disagree (particularly when the tide is high). But punchy as this theme may be, it feels somewhat reduced from Schnitzler's, and you don't need to go up and down the social ladder to send it home. Hence its repetition begins to grind over the many episodes of La Ronde. Still, there are fresh faces at Bridge Rep to get acquainted with, and that counts as serious compensation. The luminous Aubin Wise, who has understandably been seen all over town of late, was a standout both dramatically and vocally; Jared Dixon likewise impressed when he sang, but sometimes struggled in his characterizations. Other memorable turns, however, came from Andrew Spatafora, who made of "The Young Thing" a cocky cupcake with an attitude, and Sean Patrick Gibbons, who brought a sallow energy (if not quite enough horny swagger) to the Soldier, as well as Lauren Eicher, whose wearily knowing gaze was just right for Leocada, a.k.a. the "Whore." Indeed, watching this cast, it was hard to not feel that with this kind of talent on tap, it's only a matter of time before Bridge Rep finds a script worthy of its production standards.

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