· It's McNally Month in San Francisco...
· Turner Tries Out Tallulah in the Twin Cities...
· Not Outrageous Enough in Toronto...
San Francisco Opera's world premiere of Dead Man Walking is a triumphant step for American opera, and, although a maiden effort for both composer Jake Heggie and librettist Terrence McNally, its emotional impact in musical theatre realism assures it becoming an established work in the operatic repertoire. Heggie's music is richly lyrical, with immediate appeal to audiences—with echoes of Debussy (in the intimate, dramatic scenes) and Benjamin Britten (in the powerful interludes and choral sections). McNally's superb libretto, and director Joe Mantello's brilliantly inventive staging (abetted by Michael Yeargan's set and Jennifer Tipton's lighting) compellingly capture Sister Helen Prejean's self-discovery of faith and redemptive love. Mantello has also elicited remarkable performances from a cast of magnificent singer/actors, particularly Susan Graham as Sister Helen, John Packard as the doomed convict, and the incomparable Frederica von Stade, whose two brief scenes are hauntingly heartbreaking—both musically and dramatically.
While in San Francisco for the opera opening, Tony Award-winning playwright McNally found time to work with The New Conservatory Theatre's Artistic Director, Ed Decker, in presenting the Bay Area premiere of McNally's Corpus Christi, which will run through Dec. 9. The controversy that surrounded the 1998 New York premiere (including anonymous death and bomb threats) was coordinated by the Catholic League of Religious and Civil Rights. After having seen Corpus Christi, it would appear that the outrage came from pure homophobia masquerading as pious indignation.
The play is a deceptively simple retelling of the story of Christ, but as a gay parable, in which Joshua, the hero (who is born in Corpus Christi, Texas) grows up with hostile bigots who eventually crucify him for being "different"." McNally's daring theatrical device is to reenact this passion play with 13 ingenuous, young actors, on a bare stage with a minimum of props and costumes. This "children's theatre" staging occasionally sags and reminds one of Godspell (without the songs), but McNally's deft touches (e.g. Satan as a James Dean look-alike) and Decker's talented and amiable ensemble make Corpus Christi a joyous and ultimately moving experience.
Kathleen Turner works hard to bring Tallulah Bankhead to life in Sandra Ryan Heyward's Tallulah, launching a national tour at the Historic State Theatre in Minneapolis. But the play is a thin, telephone-dependent, one-actor piece, and Turner's star power is softer and more ingratiating than that of the alcoholic and sexually voracious Bankhead. So, despite her authority and considerable charm, Turner never really evokes the basso-voiced legend, better remembered for her offstage peccadilloes than for her handful of outstanding performances.
Claudia Wil-kens, one of the best of Twin Cites-resident actors, is superlative as the ever-optimistic Winnie in Samuel Beckett's Happy Days, at the Jungle Theater in Minneapolis. Sensitively directed by Jungle Artistic Director Bain Boehlke, Wilkens modulates her powerful vocal and physical resources to inhabit the hapless character, who still finds reason to hope when she is buried up to her neck. She may not be as funny as some past Winnies, but, with the capable support of Stephen D'Ambrose as husband Willie, she brings the elliptical play warmly to life.
The producers of Copacabana, at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts in St. Paul, have wisely chosen to tour extensively before braving Broadway. The Barry Manilow name is a strong draw, and the songs he has composed for this throwback to old-fashioned musical comedy style are pleasantly melodic, if unsurprising. The book, by Manilow, Jack Feldman, and Bruce Sussman, strains mightily to amplify the plot outlined in the original song, but offers little style or humor. Director David Warren and choreographer Wayne Cilento keep the action moving, Franc D'Ambrosio and Darcie Roberts are capable singers, if not comedically gifted actors, and TV veteran Gavin McLeod and Beth McVey mine all the humor they can from the script. The splashy package just isn't enough to mask the weak content.
Whimsy threatens to engulf the first act of To Fool the Eye, at the Guthrie in Minneapolis, but things improve markedly after intermission. An adaptation by the prolific Jeffrey Hatcher of Jean Anouilh's Leocadia, based on a literal translation by Stephanie L. Debner, the fantastical farce is about a milliner hired to help a lovesick prince forget his dead inamorata. Director John Miller-Stephany, whose hand is at first too apparent, finds a more subtle tone in the second act. John Lee Beatty's sets are stunning, the costumes by Mathew J. Lefebvre are comic, and lighting designer Kenneth Posner bathes the proceedings in a warm glow. Barbara Bryne, as the eccentric duchess who puts the plot in motion, is outstanding, and Melinda Page Hamilton, Jim Lichtscheidl, Scott Ferrara, Steven Epp, and Dan Foss, not to mention a band of rambunctious gypsy musicians, offer skillful support.
A trio of musicals have been making box offices ring with the sound of money this fall. In fact, the longest running of the shows, Mamma Mia!, began performances last May and continues through next April at David and Ed Mirvish's Royal Alexandra Theatre. The show's energy comes partly from the tunes of pop group ABBA, tied—sometimes incongruously—to a book by Catherine Johnson. The story—a young woman on a Greek island invites to her wedding three of her mother's boyfriends, one of whom might be her father—has as much weight as seafoam on an Aegean beach, but the energy generated by a cast that includes Louise Pitre as the mother, and Mary Ellen Mahoney and Gabrielle Jones as her former band-member girlfriends, rocks the theatre nightly.
The first cast leaves with the production when it heads out for a U.S. tour beginning Nov. 17 in San Francisco, leading to a Broadway opening next October.
Hyped before its opening last September, Canadian Stage's Outrageous (runs to Nov. 18) proved to be surprisingly lightweight. Based on the '70s Canadian flick starring female impersonator Craig Russell, the musical—book and lyrics by Brad Fraser, music by Joey Miller—focuses on the '70s friendship between a schizophrenic woman and a budding female impersonator, linked partly through their status as social outsiders. Fraser's surface treatment of the story never lets audiences feel for the two central characters, despite the committed performances of Lorretta Bailey and Thom Allison. Another problem is Fraser's frequently awkward direction, which doesn't allow Miller's melodic music to be heard.
Far better is Vancouver writer Dorothy Dittrich's When We Were Singing (closed Oct. 15), the opening show at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre. A smart, sassy, sophisticated musical about a quartet of urban trendies whose lives are fuelled by alcohol and relationship crises, the sung-through show featured fine performances under David Oiye's direction, notably Paula Wolfson as an actor who can only make it in trashy commercials, and Marc Richard as a gay man who can't forget his dead lover.
Not only has Crossroads Theatre canceled its 2000-2001 season—the smartest thing it could have done after bleeding money for nearly a decade—it hasn't the resources to refund money to approximately 1,400 subscribers who paid a minimum of $100.
To soften the blow, neighbor George Street Playhouse is offering tickets to the New Jersey premiere of Wit on a first-come basis. The play features black actress Suzzanne Douglas.
Nine Crossroads staffers, including Executive Producer Andre Robinson and General Manager Deborah Stapleton, are furloughed to Dec. 1. Founder and former Artistic Director Ricardo Khan's future with the company is unclear.
The New Jersey Repertory company launched its third season with Sandra Perlman's In Search of Red River Dog. The four-character, one-set drama centers on out-of-work Ohio steel workers and the women who love them. Wonderfully acted by Dana Benningfield, Jeff Farkash, Betty Hudson, and Ross Haines, Perlman's well-written piece captures the frustration of men who see their jobs vanish and their women grow stronger than themselves.
Sam Shepard-like in its starkness, realism, and family dysfunction, Perlman nevertheless has a voice of her own. Under the direction of Rob Reese, the NJ Rep once again has produced high quality theatre with an edge in depressed, downtown Long Branch. Artistic Director SuzAnne Barabas and Executive Producer Gabor Barabas are pioneers. In Search of Red River Dog closes on Nov. 5.
Chita Rivera, who just finished at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Anything Goes, plays the lead of a blind and aging prostitute in Venecia, beginning Feb. 10 at the George Street Playhouse. The role reunites her with West Side Story colleague Arthur Laurents, who adapted and directs the American premiere of the Argentinian play by Jorge Accame.
Joseph Megel, artistic director at Playwright's Theatre for six years, leaves in December to become an adjunct professor in graduate playwriting at the University of Nevada/Las Vegas. He retains directing ties with the theatre.
Better late than never category: 17 professional theatres received a total of $2,547,369 from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, with Paper Mill Playhouse getting the most, $1,050,000, followed by McCarter Theatre, with $737,873, for fiscal 2001.
Gretchen C. Van Benthuysen
It might be hard to conceive of a pair of more different evenings of theatre than those provided by the Trinity Repertory Company's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Heather Henson's Echo Trace, which opened on consecutive nights in Providence.
Directed by Amanda Dehnert, with a plain wood set by David Jenkins, Trinity's version of Edward Albee's masterpiece sounded like the crack of a rifle for its more than three-hour length.
As George and Martha, two Providence veterans, Brian McEleney and Anne Scurria, began rather playfully. Their interactions gave you the idea that this couple might well be just a pair of boozy-soft academics. But as the evening flashed by, McEleney and Scurria hit the accelerator, and turned Albee's calamitous work into a play with all the heft and depth that Virginia Woolf has to offer.
There was strong support from Stephen Thorne, a new Trinity company member, and from Tanya Anderson, a Conservatory student, whose "interpretive" modern dance was a delight.
Up the block from Trinity the next night, Henson's mélange of marionettes and movers could not have been more different than Trinity's rifle crack. The artist (yes, daughter of Jim) aims to look at and portray the rhythms of nature. On stage at Perishable Theatre (as part of the Providence Puppetry Festival), her Echo Trace saw the birth of several deer as if unfolding from a flower. The dancers, manipulating the deer with long sticks, moved through the tiny performing space with quiet, easy grace. Miguel Frasconi provided the music, via electronic equipment and water-filled pyrex bowls. It was haunting and pleasant at once.
The 26-year-old Henson, who has moved from Providence to Orlando, Fla., once again showed herself to be an artist to watch.
Meanwhile, across town, the Sandra Feinstein-Gamm Theatre has a hit on its hands. Its movable version of Macbeth (the audience sits in 20-person pods, which the actors push all over the performing space) is completely sold out, and even three added performances were gone in less than a day.
The play's eccentricities—a pickup truck drives into the former garage to cart off Lady MacDuff and her children—undoubtedly helped sell the show, as did terrific performances by Nigel Gore in the title role, and Jennifer Mudge Tucker as Lady Macbeth.
Finally, Adrian Hall and Katharine Helmond did a lively version of Love Letters at Rhode Island College with Hall, the legendary former director of Trinity Rep, doing quite well—too fast, but lots of emotion—as an actor.
While Arizona Theatre Company offers an impressive version of Yasmina Reza's Art, and Phoenix Theatre presents a great 35th anniversary production of Man of La Mancha (with changes by author and valley resident Dale Wasserman), the local media chooses to cover the packaged touring company Theater League and their production of Evita. What has made them worthy of the extensive sound bytes? This season, rather than paying for a full orchestra, President Mark Edelman has brought in "a state-of-the-art musical enhancement system" to accompany a smaller eight-person orchestra.
Incensed by the move, the local musicians union organized a classy protest. Though Arizona musicians were invited to perform, they all declined. Instead, in front of the Orpheum Theatre, dressed in tuxedos and sporting plastic roses in their lapels, they handed out leaflets to opening night patrons that called attention to the "Virtual Pit Orchestra," asking, "Can an artificial rose smell as sweet as a walk in the garden?" Mr. Edelman countered by having ushers hand out hastily created leaflets in the lobby, countering that he has "done like almost all touring Broadway musicals…and supplemented our musicians with the latest in performance technology." Before it was over, all local television networks, whose coverage of theatre in Arizona is, in a word, non-existent, offered live coverage both inside and outside the Orpheum Theatre. On a single bright note, the coverage did seem more slanted toward the musicians.
It all wound up being for naught. The production was a critical bash-fest, with performances similar to novellas on Spanish television. Despite this, the show was a financial success for its eight-night run. The precedent has been set.
Meanwhile, the new Dale Wasserman/Allan Jay Friedman musical, A Walk in the Sky, has finished its run at Stagebrush Theatre. There's no fear that this will be heading to Broadway in its current condition. The show, which deals with mountain men, Native Americans, and pioneers in the Rocky Mountains in the early 19th century, is packed with perky tunes, a cutesy plot, and not enough dramatic action or multi-dimensional characters to fill a thimble.
Mark S. P. Turvin
This October, North Carolina is observing the 100th anniversary of the birth of its most famous literary son, Thomas Wolfe. In Chapel Hill where Wolfe attended college, Playmakers Repertory Company is presenting Ketti Frings' Pulitzer Prize-winning adaptation of Look Homeward, Angel. Featured in the cast are Kathleen Nolan and Jonathan Bolt as Eliza and W. O. Gant. Liam Gerrity and Jordan Matter play their sons, Eugene and Ben. The director is Kent Paul, with the stage design by Tim Saternow. Production dates are Oct. 18-Nov. 12.
Charlotte Repertory Theatre offers Neil Simon's comedy Proposals. Directed by Terry Loughlin, the production runs Oct. 13-29.
The Bard is on tap for Raleigh's Burning Coal Theatre Company with a staging of Macbeth. Guest Director Alexander Vannis Stephano has a cast that includes California actor Scott Eberlein as Macbeth and Lynda Clark as Lady Macbeth. The "Scottish Play" runs Nov. 2-19.
In Sanford, the Temple Theatre's second production of the season is The Uneasy Chair by Evan Smith. Described as a Victorian comedy of manners, the play is directed by Tim Morrisey. Featured in the cast are Donna Shannon, Martin Thompson, Debra Gillingham, and Stephen Wilson. It plays Oct. 13-29.
Flat Rock Playhouse is into ghosts with its production of The Woman in Black, adapted from Susan Hill's novel by Stephen Mallatratt. Spooking dates are Oct. 4-22.
Actors Theatre Charlotte opens its season with Jeff Baron's Visiting Mr. Green. It is directed by Dennis Delamar and plays Oct. 4-22.
Raleigh Ensemble Players present Never the Sinner by John Logan. Described as a "riveting and unconventional love story," the drama emerges from the infamous Leopold and Loeb case. Production dates are Oct. 19–Nov. 4. Debbie Royals will direct.
Westchester/RocklandThis time around, Mr. Arlt played the sinister, theatrical Sidney Bruhl, the deliciously nefarious protagonist in Ira Levin's nearly perfect comic thriller, Deathtrap (closed Oct. 15). Sidney, a fading playwright whose moneymaking mysteries are all behind him, is as much an actor as a writer. He has flair, wit, charm, and he is always "on." Mr. Arlt has all of these qualities, and played them for all they're worth in this smooth, stylish, and handsome production.
Not everyone was up to Mr. Arlt's level. Mark Irish was a capable Cliff Anderson, Sidney's partner-in-crime. Kathryn Chilson was serviceable as Helga Ten Dorp, the psychic-next-door, as was Ted Guhl as Porter Milgrim, Sidney's Yale-bred lawyer. Liz Forst offered a Myra limited by hand wringing and an omnipresent furrowed brow.
Director Nelson Sheeley staged it crisply, enhancing the play's surprise element. Joseph J. Egan's set design of the Bruhls' converted barn in well-to-do Westport, Connecticut looked as solid as Sears, especially under Andrew Gmoser's lighting. Both designers made the most of Fleetwood's intimate space.
E. Kyle Minor