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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

at City Center


  Renee Elise Goldsberry and Frederick Weller/ Ph: Joan Marcus

A common charge against plays being revived is that they have become dated. But what do we really mean by that? Everything ever written, from Romeo and Juliet to Rent, is obviously a product of a period and its artistic conventions and politics. Yet a few are so powerful and speak so directly to the human condition that they manage to transcend their original cultures and live on. Others just happen to regain relevance in light of new circumstances that mirror those that gave birth to the piece in the first place.

Take, for instance, The Cradle Will Rock, Mark Blitzstein’s 1937 allegorical, agitprop musical that stood as a call for unionization. City Center kicked off its all-new, month-long “Encores! Off-Center” series, dedicated to showcasing smaller-scale, Off-Broadway musicals, with a muscular revival of this very difficult show, the merits of which have been overshadowed for decades by its legendary opening night, in which the cast performed at a different theater in defiance of right-wing opposition. The Cradle Will Rock, with its themes of the rich few influencing and controlling every facet of a community and overwhelming political opposition to union power, turned out to be more relevant than ever.

Then consider I’m Getting My Act Together and Taking It on the Road, composer Nancy Ford and lyricist-book writer Gretchen Cryer’s late-1970s light rock musical, which premiered at the Public Theater during producer Joseph Papp’s glory days and went on to run more than a thousand performances. It is rarely seen nowadays, partially because of the assertively feminist, somewhat moralizing tone that once made it so fresh and popular.

Set in a nightclub, it revolves around Heather, a fading singer-songwriter who is on the verge of turning 40 and attempting a concert comeback, and her chauvinistic manager Joe, who has walked into her band’s rehearsal just prior to opening night. Joe is less than thrilled to learn that Heather is discarding her old act of sentimental, romantic ditties and attempting to redefine her image with raw, riskier material that reflects upon her parents, ex-husband, and past and present emotional states. She's even added skits.

The songs, which are those that Heather intends to do in concert, do not grow organically out of the dialogue. A handful of the songs still impress, especially the exquisite ballad “Old Friend." But for the most part, the musical now feels not just culturally dated but also simple minded. Joe, for instance, is essentially a one-dimensional satire of overblown male egotism.

Renee Elise Goldberry, an absolutely vibrant performer, appears too at ease to convey Heather's angst and edge. And while Goldberry is 42 in real life, she could easily pass for 22. Frederick Weller unapologetically embraces Joe’s macho nature, but it is a performance that gains few, if any, laughs. The shock value is gone. 

Tie-dye pattern sheets fill the stage in an attempt to recreate a club-like, more intimate setting, but this production certainly does seem out of place at the City Center auditorium. Nevertheless, it must be noted that Encores! Off-Center is an unqualified success. Here’s hoping that the series, which brought smaller Off-Broadway musicals to the same stage where rarely seen Broadway classics are produced by Encores! each year, returns next summer.


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