|SONG, DANCE AND POLITICS
|By CLIVE HIRSCHHORN
| Josh Lamon, Beth Leavel, Brooks Ashmankasas, Angie Schworer and company in The Prom/ Ph: Deen van Meer
It’s no secret that there hasn’t been a really good new British musical in at least a decade. Maybe more. While other areas of our theatre are in rude good health, indigenous musicals are barely staying alive by artificial respiration. Which is why it is such a pleasure to make the acquaintance of two new Broadway shows that restore comedy to musical comedy – The Prom and Tootsie. They’re no masterpieces to be sure, but both have an abundance of know-how, pizzazz and stories that send you home smiling.
The Prom offers you two plots for the price of one. The first concerns a pair of Broadway stars (Beth Leavel and Brooks Ashmanskas) whose latest show, a misguided musical on the life of Eleanor Roosevelt, closed the night it opened. Abetted by a disillusioned chorus girl (Angie Schworer) and an out-of-work waiter-cum-actor (Christopher Sieber), this self-serving quartet, together with their press agent, sets out to rekindle their failing careers by using their erstwhile celebrity seemingly to help others in need.
A Twitter search throws up the case of Emma (Caitlin Kinnunen), a lesbian teenager in Indiana who is refused permission to attend her school prom with her girlfriend. Enter plot number two as the opportunistic “celebs” embark on a cross-country excursion to bulldoze Emma’s homophobic small-town community into changing their minds.
With words, music and book by Bob Martin, Mathhew Sklar and Chad Begulin, who wrote the Drowsy Chaperone – the best spoof of 1920s musicals since Sandy Wilson’s peerless The Boy Friend – The Prom is a happy combination of camp and tenderness whose heart is in the right place as it wittily confronts anti-gay prejudice.
It doesn't matter that Emma is basically a two-dimensional character and her Broadway rescuers are instantly recognizable stereotypes. Or that the score is not especially splattered with hits. The Prom combines the best qualities of Hairspray and Bye Bye Birdie, substitutes fun for depth, offers a deliciously over-ripe star-turn by Beth Leavel, and is directed by Casey Nicholaw with the same energy he brought to Aladdin.
Despite the ongoing success of The Book of Mormon, whose humor eludes me, laughter is the rarest commodity in the contemporary musical theatre. Tootsie goes some distance in addressing that. Not since Mel Brooks’ The Producers have I guffawed so heartily at the book Robert Horn has provided for this delicious re-tread of Sydney Pollock’s 1982 Oscar-winning classic. But at a price.
In spicing up the script with the kind of one-liners Neil Simon manufactured by the yard, Horn has sacrificed reality for a silliness I must admit I had no problem embracing.
In Larry Gelbart, Murray Schisgal and Don McGuire’s original screenplay, a thoroughly obnoxious struggling actor named Michael Dorsey finds his better self after pretending to be a female (named Dorothy Michaels) in order to land an acting job. The same tactic applies in the musical version, but with one major change. In the film, Dorothy (played by Dustin Hoffman) appeared in a daytime soap opera. Now the character, wonderfully reinvented by Santino Fontana, finds himself the star of a Broadway musical called Juliet’s Curse – a sequel to Romeo and Juliet in which Juliet (Lilli Cooper), somehow brought back to life (don’t ask), becomes besotted with Romeo’s witless muscle-bound hunk of a brother (John Behlman) named Craig.
Constantly undermining the show-within-the-show’s inept director (Reg Rogers), Dorothy, feigning a Southern accent as Juliet’s nurse, slowly but surely insinuates herself into the action, usurping the star role in the process. To put it simply, Horn’s book demands that you check your disbelief together with your hat and coat at the door.
The score by David Yazbeck is serviceable without being memorable and fuses comfortably with Denis Jones' high-octane choreography and Scott Ellis’ surefire direction.
Santino, in the challenging dual roles of Michael Dorsey and Dorothy Michaels, doesn’t put a foot wrong – either physically or vocally – and takes full advantage of a script that, for all its hilarity, allows you to witness the changes imposed on his masculinity after discovering something deep in himself by playing a woman.
Cooper is excellent as Julie, and in this updated version, her relationship with Dorothy crosses a path that was avoided in the original film. There are super performances too from Sarah Stiles as Michael’s neurotic, long-standing girl friend Sandy and Andy Grotelueschen as Jeff, his laidback roommate.
The third new musical I caught was King Kong, a witless, albeit eye-popping, ear-splitting spectacle in which the only performance showing even a smidgen of emotion was provided by the eponymous gorilla. The creative team behind his creation and manipulation are the show’s true heroes, together with the scenic and projection designs of Peter England. Otherwise, there isn’t a single memorable tune, lyric or human performance to savour.
Though the West End may be derelict where current indigenous musicals are concerned, there have been some excellent revivals of late. The days when British theatre couldn’t compete with Broadway are over, as recently witnessed by 42nd Street, Dreamgirls, Follies, the gender-changing Company, Sweet Charity and Fiddler on the Roof.
But London has seen nothing as revolutionary as Oklahoma! – the most divisive show in this most divisive period in America’s recent history. Nothing on Broadway has elicited more opprobrium or more praise. People either love it or hate it. It also raises questions as to how far it is permissible to go when it comes to tampering with classic musicals even though opera does it all the time. Is it okay to makeover a masterpiece at the expense of the authors’ original intentions? After all, Oklahoma!, for all its darker elements, was a 1943 wartime musical designed to send people home with hope in their hearts. But not this production.
Director Daniel Fish sees it as an allegory for America today, with, it could be argued, the farmers and the cowmen as Democrats and Republicans; a place where hatred prevails and whole communities are corrupt. The country’s gun culture leaves people with blood on their hands. Also, It’s the only Oklahoma! I’ve seen in which I felt any sympathy for Jud Fry or where "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’" is tinged with irony.
What, you ask, would Rodgers and Hammerstein have made of it all? Good question. I found it refreshing, stimulating, disturbing, even challenging. I still haven’t made up my mind about the smoke-filled dream sequence, acrobatically interpreted by dancer Gabrielle Hamilton. Nor was I happy with all the performances. But Damon Daunno is terrific as Curly, even though nothing about his vocally strong, attractive appearance or even his taunting of Jud in their big scene together (played out in total darkness against homoerotic back projections of the two of them in very close contact) prepares you for the show’s shattering climax.
There’s a feisty turn from Ali Stroker as a wheelchair-bound Ado Annie, and excellent work from James Davis as her suitor Will Parker. Will Brill and Mitch Tebo effectively flesh out Ali Hakim and Judge Andrew Carnes, while Patrick Vail as Jud Fry is the best I have ever seen. An unforgettable revival, but definitely not for purists.
Having recently enjoyed Trevor Nunn’s intimate ensemble production of Fiddler on the Roof, which started life at the enterprising Menier Chocolate Factory and has now transferred to the Playhouse Theatre in the West End, I was intrigued to see Joel Grey’s take on this oft-revived Broadway masterpiece. Performed in Yiddish with English and Russian surtitles, it is the most moving and authentic version of this cherished classic I have seen since I first saw it with Zero Mostel in 1965.
At the performance I attended, Steven Skybell was replaced by a superb Bruce Sabath, the production’s Leyzer-Volf. As a result, three other roles were also filled by understudies. There is no higher praise I can bestow than to say these changes in no way impaired or compromised the quality, commitment and talent on view. As good as Nunn’s production was, Grey’s is superior on every level. It’s a Fiddler for the ages, with outstanding performances from Jennifer Babiak as Golde, Ben Liebert as the tailor Motl Kamzoyl and Jackie Hoffman as the best Yente yet. Mazel tov to all!
The finest play I saw on Broadway in 2017 was Lucas Hnath’s A Doll’s House Part 2, in which its star, the incomparable Laurie Metcalf, gave a performance of surpassing brilliance as Ibsen’s Nora after she walks out on her husband. In his riveting, but less nuanced new play Hillary and Clinton, he takes us behind the scenes of another woman on a mission (also played by Metcalf).
The setting is a hotel room in New Hampshire before and after the 2008 Democratic primary. Given what came to pass in November 2016, everything that is discussed and done in the eight years prior to her losing the presidency is seen through retrospective 20-20 vision as she assesses her prospects of success (or failure) at the primary with her campaign manager (Zak Orth) and estranged husband (John Lithgow), who pays her an unexpected visit to offer some sanguine (but not sought-after) advise about the best way to get a stranglehold on the electorate. “Feelings,” he says to her. “People don’t think you have them.”
Throughout this slender but revealing 90-minute encounter, Metcalf mesmerically conveys her frustration, anxiety, doubts and anger, questioning her capabilities and ambitions while never relinquishing the sense that at heart she is a fallible woman, deeply hurt and embarrassed by her philandering husband’s indiscretions and pondering whether people would have had more respect for her had she divorced him.
Though Hnath invents every conversation Hillary has with Clinton, they throb with authenticity. What the two say to one another must surely, at some time or another, have been said. Though the role of Clinton – a man no longer with any power but with a canny knowledge of how to succeed in politics – is far less showy or complex than Hillary, Lithgow convinces in a quiet way that although his career is over, he can still be of service to his ambitious wife, if she will let him.
The play’s fourth character is Barack Obama (Peter Francis James), who pays a surprise’s visit to Hillary’s hotel to make her an offer she refuses: the job of being his running mate if she drops her campaign. It’s slight, but never trite. Metcalf is on top of her game, and it’s seamlessly directed by Joe Mantello.
There is no question that Heidi Schreck, the author and star of the highly praised What the Constitution Means to Me is offering a tour de force in what is basically a one-woman show that dissects certain aspects of the U.S. Constitution and demonstrates how, over several generations, it failed to protect the female members of her family from acts of physical violence.
As a young girl, Schreck became a passionate debater, moving cross country from one American Legion Hall to another and earning enough money from her lectures on the Constitution to pay her college fees. Years later, she has come to the grim realization that the Constitution was designed to “protect the interests of a small number of rich, white property owners.”
At the matinee I attended, the audience, predominantly women, almost matched Schrek when it came to leaving raw emotions exposed. The woman sitting next to me was in tears as a highly charged Schreck described her beloved grandmother’s spousal abuse and how she was overcome with what she calls survivor guilt.
Schreck’s ability to infuse what could so easily have become an angry feminist riff on the Constitution’s flaws with humour and charm detonates any potential preachiness in the material. However, the knowledge (as discussed in a debate towards the end of the play between Schreck and a high school student) that things are changing for the better left me pleased for her and her put-upon sex, but emotionally uninvolved.