Thursday, September 13, 2018

Sweet Charity - Adorable Characters / Fosse Edge

Sweet Charity is not a great musical.  But it is an entertaining musical.  The story concerns Charity Hope Valentine, a dance hall hostess (as opposed to being the prostitute of the source material) in 1966 Manhattan, and her search for love in the big, mean city.  Book by Neil Simon, music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Dorothy Fields.

There are a couple of major problems.  First, is the ending – which I won’t reveal.  It’s logical, it makes perfect dramatic sense, in its time it was completely unexpected while still feeling inevitable… and I hate it.  Second, about half the songs are great; the other half are merely competent.  The merely competent songs are the ones where the only reason to have them in the show is, “We need a song here…  I think.”  If They Could See Me Now is a perfect expression of Charity’s joy at having an opulent night out with a movie star.  But when Charity actually gets a marriage proposal, which should be an even bigger deal for her, I’m a Brass Band only packs about half the punch of If They Could See Me Now.  And it's a problem with the material, not the execution.

That being the case, should you see Marriott Theatre’s production of Sweet Charity?  Hell, yes.  It’s a case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.

Alex Sanchez’s direction and choreography are absolutely spot-on brilliant.  As with any Bob Fosse musical, the potential problem for a director lies in not being Bob Fosse.  There’s a dictation of style that you must acknowledge, without being a copycat.  Sanchez does a wonderful job with the choreography, and is an expert at staging the comedy.  Simon’s book is one where the comedy dies if you’re polite about it.  You have to go all out.  Sanchez does that, and it works beautifully.

As Charity, Anne Horak’s acting, singing and dancing are all top-notch.  She completely overcomes the issue that physically, she’s wrong for the part.  I didn’t believe that a gorgeous blonde in 1966 New York would be having her problems.  The role works best with a gamin.  But Horak triumphs.  By the end of the first act, you’re in love with her.  She is completely moving and engaging.

It’s a shame that Alex Goodrich as the neurotic Oscar Lindquist doesn’t appear until Act I is almost over, because he takes the comedy and rachets it up to a whole other level.  When I direct comedy, the biggest problem is getting actors to go as big as they need to be.  They think it’s overacting; but it isn’t supposed to be real – it needs to appear real to the people in the back row.  Goodrich is an expert at going extraordinarily big, getting huge laughs and keeping it believable.

So – the physical casting issue I had with Anne Horak (but she won me over)?  Same issue but different results with as Kenny Ingram as Daddy Brubeck, singing The Rhythm of Life.  Phenomenally talented man; wrong for the part.  His voice is too high.  (A) The pitch of the voice affected the clarity of the words, which come fast and furious.  (B) The role requires a voice that can win over a crowd.  Ingram has a great voice, but it’s a violin, not a trumpet.

Natonia Monét and Dani Spieler are fun as Charity’s pals Helene and Nickie; Adam Jacobs is charming as the suave but rather hapless movie star Vittorio and Alexandra Polkovic is great as his insecure bombshell girlfriend.

One of the truisms for ensemble members is this: give it your all, because somebody’s going to looking at you at all times.  And this ensemble gives it their all.  However, some people have more to give.  Kyra Sorce is very funny as a YMCA receptionist, but I started paying attention much earlier: in Hey, Big Spender, Sorce is one of the dance hall girls.  While beckoning to the off-stage men in the song, Sorce has this look of, “I really want to dance with you but I might have a knife and it’d be fun to use it but don’t think about that – let’s dance!”  It’s this insane look.  And later, she has a brief sideways-lower-lip expression that I first saw in Frankenhooker (also about a troubled Manhattan girl with promiscuity issues.)  Her verbal timing in the YMCA scene is pitch-perfect.  In short, this girl needs to be cast in a major musical-comedy role.  Soon.  (She's the one in the middle; short black hair.)

 Patti Garwood and her orchestra do a fantastic job with the music.  Mieka van der Ploeg’s costumes are period perfect.

To reiterate – Sweet Charity is not the greatest musical of all time.  But this is an amazing production where every aspect is first rate.  Spend the money.  Go see it.

Sweet Charity runs at the Marriott Theatre, Ten Marriott Drive, Lincolnshire, IL  60069.  For tickets and information: 

Thursday, February 15, 2018

"Cabaret" Bowles You Over a Cliff

(NOTE: is not letting me upload publicity photos right now.  I'll try again later.)

At a theatre where I worked, there was a flat with graffiti on the back.  It said, “Life is a cabaret – long, boring and full of Nazis.”  Katie Spelman’s production at the Paramount contradicts two of those items.

At the end of Willkommen, the opening number of Cabaret, you pretty much sit there slack-jawed and ready to go home, thinking, “Okay, I got my money’s worth.”  It wasn’t just the best Willkommen I’ve ever seen, it’s one of the best stagings of an opening number I’ve ever seen; and this is the fifth or sixth Cabaret I’ve sat through.  It begins with the nominal hero, Cliff, starting to type out his story, which is a nice bookend placed by Spelman, whose work throughout is riveting, vital and it moves.  The wrap-around for If You Could See Her is jolting.  I can’t say enough about her work here.  Just stunning.

When casting Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz, precedence is usually given to acting; if they can sing, it’s icing on the cake.  This cake is fully frosted.  Hollis Resnick and Ron E. Rains both have beautiful voices, and play the most sympathetic characters in the show, an advantage they seize and run with.  Both actors are brilliant and heartbreaking.

Kelly Felthous is an excellent Sally Bowles.  She’s funny, talented and lovable (which is crucial when playing a shallow character; more on that in a separate post.)  And her casting gets around the Tricky Part: Sally is working in a sleazy nightclub because she’s not all that good.  Felthous’ voice quality is quirky without being bad – she’s an amazing performer.  She doesn’t have a stereotypical “showgirl” body, but she’s tremendously sexy.  Her performance works.

As Cliff Bradshaw, Garrett Lutz is saddled with one of the most impossible “heroes” in theatre.  The original non-musical version was called I Am a Camera – the character was mainly an observer; to say Cliff is not proactive is like saying Donald Trump is unknowledgeable.  A vast understatement.  Anything unsatisfying about Cliff is on Joe Masteroff’s (the librettist) shoulders, not Lutz’s.  Lutz is (sorry if this description gets tedious) an excellent performer.  Overqualified for the role.  He deserves more.

The Emcee is generally played as and made up to be androgynous.  And you always know it’s a Guy in Dainty Makeup.  But when I saw a captionless photo of Joseph Anthony Byrd, I thought, “Wow.  A female Emcee.  That’s interesting.”  And I still thought it during Willkommen.  It wasn’t until Byrd did a song with his suit coat off that I saw his arm muscles and realized how well everybody here did their jobs.  Byrd is an outstanding Emcee.  Powerful singer and dancer.  And I promise I’ll tone down the raving now.


Forgot that the Goddess Meghan Murphy is in this.  You’re in for more raving.  Fraulein Kost the hooker is usually a very minor supporting part that you remember (if you remember her at all) under the heading of, “Okay… yeah… she was good.”  Spelman wasn’t satisfied with that and cast Kost as a towering force of nature.  Murphy dominates every scene she has, and I wish to god somebody would cast her in Gypsy.  I’ve seen her in several shows and, frankly, catching her name on the cast list for this was what tipped the decision about buying tickets.

Brandon Springman as Ernst Ludwig was great.  And there was a very interesting acting choice near the end.  During Cliff’s confrontation with Ernst, the actor usually plays Ludwig as clueless regarding Cliff’s change of heart.  Here, Springman builds to it not as, “But Cliff, I’m your friend!” so much as a hard, “I’m your friend, motherfucker – and you’d better remember that.”  Very nicely done.

Ensemble is one of the best I’ve ever seen.  I wish I had something bad to say about the performances, to make this more interesting; but I don’t and I’ll have to live with that.

Set, orchestra, everything else – all top notch.

Was there anything I didn’t like?  Yes.  There was something I hated.  Passionately.  And you’ll find that discussion here, since it involves spoilers: Don't Give Iago a Puppy

However, for those of you who don’t have that problem, this is the best production of Cabaret you’re ever going to see.  Which is par for the Paramount these days.  Actually, I don't think I raved quite enough about Kelly Felthous.  Really outstanding.  My wife and I saw the Broadway production with Alan Cumming.  Spelman’s production is ten times better.  Plus, Meghan Murphy.
Cabaret runs through March 7 at the Paramount Theatre in Aurora.  Info here:

Don't Give Iago a Puppy

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read this if you are unfamiliar with Cabaret and how it ends.
ALSO: is not letting me upload photos right now.  I'll try again later.

“Don’t give Iago a puppy” is my phrase whenever directors/actors want to “humanize” not-so-nice characters by making them “sympathetic.”  This never means Enhancing the Bouquet of the Wine.  It means cutting 100 Proof Vodka with Water.  The most famous example is One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and trying to find the Humanity in Nurse Ratched.  Which would be great if her purpose in the show wasn’t to be the frickin’ embodiment of soulless inhumanity.

Playing unsympathetic characters does NOT mean finding something sympathetic about them.  It means finding something empathetic about them.  Find something you like about the character’s evil; don’t force something “nice” on them because you’re uncomfortable.  That’s why those parts are fun.  Iago in Othello is absolutely horrible.  He’s also quick-witted and funny, which makes him palatable to the audience without ever letting them forget he’s a villain.  

One of the greatest tightrope walkers on TV these days is Robin Lord Taylor, who plays the Penguin on Gotham.  You always empathize with him, but you’d never want to spend time with him, because you’d most likely end up dead.  He doesn’t lose sight of the villainy.  If you want to cuddle with the leads in Cabaret – you’re doing it wrong.

In the movie version of Chicago, they had Fred Casely slap Roxie around before she shoots him.  Nooooooo.  She shoots him because she’s a vapid, shallow idiot – which is why someone tremendously likable has to play her.  You have to like Roxie in spite of what she does, not because she’s a Misguided Innocent.  Because the point of the show is that likability and sexiness is what enables monsters to use murders to become celebrities.  The show is an indictment of us for being shallow enough to make those people famous.

Which brings us to Cabaret at the Paramount.  Jesus.  The performers are brilliant.  But the original intent of Cabaret was a similar indictment of the audience.  It’s about how hedonistic apathy allowed the Nazis to come to power in Germany without much of a fight.  It’s telling us, “Hey, maybe you want to watch out for that quality in yourselves, or you might end up with an orange monster for a leader.”  To that end, there are deep characters (Schneider and Schultz), not so deep characters (Cliff and Sally) and deeply shallow characters (the Emcee).  The learning curve here goes to Cliff.  Trying to give them all the same depth subverts the story.

Starting with (I believe) the hideous Roundabout production, every director wants to Deepen Sally.  Cut the 100 proof vodka.  She is a twitchy emotional wreck through most of Act II, culminating in a final number, Cabaret, which is now always presented as Rose’s Turn, a mental breakdown, packaged for your convenience.  And it drives me fuckin’ bat-shit crazy.

Sally is a strong female character.  A survivor.  She is far stronger than Cliff (not in competition with him for Neurotic of the Year), and it is his discovery of that in the end which wrecks him.  The song Cabaret is not a nervous breakdown of a woman Just Realizing How Horrible Everything Is.  It is the triumphant 11:00 number of a tremendously strong woman making the choice to remain shallow because that’s how she survives.  She is exactly the same as Fraulein Schneider.  Do whatever you need to do to live.  Vomiting out “long pent-up emotions” is not tragic.  Ash-canning those emotions – in happy song – is blood-chilling.  And extremely tragic.

And let's not get started on the Emcee.

No.  Let’s.

In the Paramount production, the Emcee – and again, the performer is great – Sees All the Horror as it builds around him and is Appalled & Frightened.

Jesus H. Tapdancing Christ.  The Emcee is the villain.  He’s the BAD GUY.  He is the personification of gleeful political apathy.  And aside from the ineffective I Don’t Care Much, here’s where that hurts most: at the end of If You Could See Her (the gorilla dance), there wasn’t a shocked silence, there was applause, even though Herr Schultz had a moment at the end which should have quelled the clapping.  And here’s why that happened: nobody believed that this Warm, Human Emcee would say such a vicious thing.  They just didn't buy it.  The purpose of that number is to shock the audience with the awareness of the horror they’ve been laughing at.  If we don’t believe that the Emcee is uncaring, there’s no shock.

Don’t take my word for it.  Watch Alan Cumming and Joel Grey performing Willkommen.  Go here: Dueling Emcees.  The crowd enjoys Cumming.  But they go bat-shit for Joel Grey.  Alan Cumming had Layers.  Joel Grey was an Icon.  He is possibly the most technical, cold performer in musical history, which is why he made a lousy Amos Hart in Chicago.  But Grey was the perfect Emcee.

The Emcee is not the Lone Observer.  He’s the fucking problem.  He’s the Darth Vader of Cabaret; and Princess Leia (Sally) gleefully ends up on the Dark Side.  That’s the tragedy: societal decay, not one Poor Misunderstood singing waif.

Trying to care about these characters as sympathetic subverts the creators’ intent – not a tearful character study, but a warning to the audience not to be like those people.

The Nazis are not the villains in Cabaret.  The villains are the people who won't stop partying long enough to try and stop them.

Thus Endeth the Screed.