Monday, June 02, 2008

Pre-Tony Roundup, after a fashion (TLDR)

It's a regrettable impulse, or perhaps one would have to call it an inhibition, that keeps me at home on my couch much of the year where theater is concerned, only to bound (wallet recklessly open) to the box office the moment shows are nominated for the yearly awards. For one thing, what's a Tony mean? As I was recently reminded, Bernadette Peters lost to Marissa Janet Winokur (who was good, but c'mon) so even if it weren't limiting from the outset to think only of shows moneyed enough to open on Broadway, a Tony nom is hardly a guarantee of quality.

It's just that the broadcast really is a lot of fun to watch if you have a dog in the fight, and the more the merrier. And so, with the regularity of old faithful or of Ed Rosen mentioning he knew Richard Tucker (did I ever mention my Opera-L drinking game? Well it was a little mean-spirited but you can imagine) early June finds me scrambling for mezzanine bargains at the Booth or the Brooks.

To wit, in the space of about a week and a half: the justifiably ballyhoo'ed revival of Thursday in the Zoo with Lloyd, the not-so-talked-about-because-it's-a-play revival or perhaps Broadway premiere of Caryl Churchill's Top Girls, and the inevitable but not unwelcome elevation of Patti LuPone into the very highest level of gay iconography by way of Gypsy.

Last things first: I understand most of Caryl Churchill's work is more like the rambling, bizarre, but usually gripping first act of Top Girls than its more or less traditional, even more gripping second and third acts. You may have read, and if you go to see it you should probably know going in (to make limited sense of things), that the first act is an imagined soiree the protagonist, here played with ardor and certainty by a Elizabeth Marvell, throws for herself upon being promoted within her agency of some sort or other. I wonder if the half act set in said agency was an exotic glimpse into a corner of the working world when the play was new. It ain't now, which isn't a gigantic problem, but it does mean that the rest of the play is less familiar and more gripping.

The party, too, in fact, begins to feel stylistically archaic, while the third act bids well to be ageless, as does the brief scene in the second, both of which consist of Elizabeth Marvell and Martha Plimpton knocking you dead over and over with their acting chops. (Now I have forced myself to picture Martha Plimpton beating someone senseless with a large pork chop. Poor Martha Plimtpon to be subjected to such a things, even in the limited space of my head. It is an ignominy on par with The Goonies, but without the fun Cyndi Lauper song.) If you do go, please let me know why you think Marisa Tomei is so utterly chameleon-like in the last act and so perfectly tin-eared in the first. As noted in the I think Times review, the Scottish accent alone is a cry for help.

I feel almost like discussing Sunday and Gypsy in one rhetorical breath, as they share a certain kind of self-referentiality; Sunday being (at the risk of belaboring the obvious) a work partly about Seraut that is, in its individual elements, nothing special--no single song could hope to compare with the best of A Little Night Music or Company--but as a whole, a deeply affecting work of perhaps genius. I ended the sentence there because it was getting umanageable. And Gypsy being a work partly about the death of an earlier kind of musical theater, in which the songs and scenes that represent it are so tiresome you understand in an emphatic, at times visceral way why nobody wanted to watch that kind of thing anymore.

Both are flawed, but Sunday is unquestionably a better chunk of art. LuPone as Mama Rose is larger than life and for much of the show delightful--there's a kind of idiomatic "I Know What Broadway is About and I'm Going to Tell You" quality to numbers like "Some People" that just fits, like Gedda in French opera type of thing. But Gypsy is very end-loaded; "Rose's Turn" is the masterpiece and absolutely central to the success of the performance. This is why Bernadette Peters, fach-wise not really a Mama Rose, pulled it off and should've won the big T her year. Watch her Tony broadcast performance of "Rose's Turn" on youtube and bite your lip and try not to be moved. (Your chances are approximately as good as listening to "Little Lamb" in the current production or really any production and not wanting to walk to the Hudson and drown yourself. Seriously, even a production in L.A. I think I'd start walking toward the Hudson with stones in my pockets.)

LuPone's performance throughout is more forceful, less vulnerable than her immediate predecessor's, and rather than just sustain that level of volume in "Rose's Turn" it's as if she yanks the volume knob off its...its...somebody run get me a new metaphor. She stops singing the notes at all and engages in the kind of behavior that, let's say, goes fine in certain lines of Elektra, but even there, you have to maintain some contact with the vocal line as written. For me the effect in sum was riveting but jarring, especially given what she could have done, given her vocal resources. I mean LuPone sounds for sure like she could sing this stuff without the mics, to the point that with them, she sounds a little bit ridiculous. "Rose's Turn" is too loud in a number of ways.

The supporting cast is very much in the shade, but Laura Benanti is essentially succesful as Louise. She, too, rings a little false late in the evening, in that she doesn't really convince as a devastating sophisticate, even a fabricated one. The three stippers got enormous laughs in "You Gotta get a Gimmick" but it's that kind of number and it was that kind of crowd.

God this is long.

So long, in fact, that I'm just going to say of Tuesday at the Lake with Clem that it has its issues but only a desperate curmudgeon would note them much. The performances are ensembley rather than individually brilliant, and the design is just ingenious in a way I won't slobber all over with my four word visual vocabulary. (Hey not for nothing, the design and the music were top notch in Top Girls, too.) Also, last thing, the very last gesture of the production is something that brought tears to my eyes not only as it happened but the next thirty times I thought about it including, hey, just now.

Coming soon to this space: blathering about Les Liaisons Dangermouse most likely, and The 39 Steps, and if I lose my mind entirely and opt for financial collapse, In The Heights. And if you're really good, I'm going to link to a wonderful performance of a terrific piece. As usual, it actually doesn't matter if you're really good; I'm going to do it anyway.

Bonus Review from Sources Who Have Not Stated Whether They Wish to Be Identified but Texted Me so Here You Go: Boring Boring! It was really dumb. Great looking production...think Noises Off but totally cliche and predictable. The audience was roaring with laughter at all the SHOCKING DOUBLE ENTENDRE!

Well that's enough to keep me away...


Anonymous said...

I have any say in the matter, please refrain from In the Heights. If American Musical Theatre is truly a corpse, then let's all just agree that the discussion of its most recent rape is not polite conversation.

Grrg said...

I think you are required to call her "Oscar Winner Marisa Tomei" at all times.

La Cowntessa said...

I think I am not allowed to say this without the requisite lynching following, but, uh, I kind of dislike Patty Lupone.

IMNSHO, there is a certain amount of "it's all about ME" to everyone of her performances. The show may change, the character name changes, but her performance stays essentially the same.

It's not a BAD performance, granted, but it's always "Patty Lupone IS So-and-So" instead of "Featuring PL in the role of So-and-So" if that makes sense.

And you know, sometimes it works quite well. A lot of the characters she plays are, well, a lot like her performance. But when it comes to a subtle performance where God is in the details, that's where she really fails.

Others' mileage may vary, of course.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous soprano, You are not alone to bemoan LuPone.

I still think the best point in her career was playing that damn tuba in Sweeney Todd, because it ensured that while she played, she was mechanically unable to sing.

I, as a homosexual, fear losing my gay card, because not only can I not stand LuPone (whose idea of pitch is something akin to darts), but I have an abiding distaste for Bernadette Peters (whose idea of timbre is something akin to Fran Drescher). In truth, I think Patti acts well when she plays big and Bernadette acts well when she plays small. But when they open their mouths to sing, I want to chew on a cyanide capsule while drinking hemlock. I pray to the gay goddess Judy that my adoration of Ethel Merman reactivates my gay card.

Maury D'annato said...

I definitely get the No Love for LuPone thing. For me she can be thrilling or monstrous, depending. Certainly she's not in my Pantheon, but I can't deny she is sometimes riveting.

Anonymous said...

^^ nice blog!! ^@^

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