Flying Over Sunset


 

“Flying Over Sunset” by James Lapine, Tom Kitt, and Michael Korie

At the Vivian Beaumont Lincoln Center Theater

 

In my recent review of a wonderful new musical, “Kimberly Akimbo,” I complemented its director, Jessica Stone, suggesting that not noticing the hand of director is a good sign of effective directing. There is no better affirmation of this belief than the production of “Flying Over Sunset” at the Lincoln Center Theater.  There is not a moment in this disappointingly misguided musical that you do not see the heavy hand of James Lapine.  It seems that even the PR department at LCT wanted to make his absolute control clear by labeling it “A James Lapine Musical” in many ads, ignoring the contributions of the composer, Tom Kitt, and the lyricist, Michael Korie, usually listed as co-creators in musical promotions.  Mr. Lapine wrote the book and directed the show.

 

Mr. Lapine has been working on this show for six years with readings in 2015 and 2016.  The initial Lincoln Center production was shut down along with all Broadway theaters at the start of the pandemic in Spring 2020 (Yes, the Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater is considered a Broadway house). Originally he tried to get the late Stephen Sondheim to collaborate with him, but he (wisely) declined.  Instead, Mr. Lapine found two experienced colleagues to work on his creation.  Tom Kitt has a long list music for Broadway shows(Next to Normal, If/Then) and Mr. Korie wrote the lyrics for Grey Gardens and a number of off-Broadway and regional musicals.  But this show is James Lapine’s conception and execution (figuratively and literally)!

 

This is a musical about LSD – yes, acid!  Well, that is not totally fair.  It is about a group of very famous people in the 1950s who partook of the drug that became famous in the 60s and 70s while it was still legal in the 50s.  Mr. Lapine was stimulated by the mention in a biography of Clare Booth Luce that this queen of many different social circles took LSD.  Evidently it is a well-known fact that film idol Cary Grant used LSD as part of his consultations with a psychologist.  And Aldous Huxley, the multi-faceted author and philosopher, was a great advocate for acid; he even wrote a book about it.   All of these well-known figures circulated among the exclusive social and artistic spheres in Los Angeles during the 1950s.  Another member of that clan was Gerald Heard, also an author with diverse interests who had close friendships with both Huxley and Luce.

 

The structure of the entire show is sort of modular.  We go from the introduction of Aldous Huxley to the presentation of Claire Booth Luce, their only connection appears to be Mr. Heard’s role as their gay confidante.  Unfortunately, Mr. Lapine really did not develop Heard’s character. Most of the time he was simply a “yes-man” to the other three. We are introduced to Cary Grant in his first visit with a psychologist and he is portrayed as an egotistic, self-centered bully with a sad and difficult childhood. Floating in and out of scenes, there is a child actor playing Archibald Alec Leach in the dress that his mother made him wear when he entertained in bars and clubs to earn a living as a child.  He appears in several scenes when Grant is confronting his demons.   

 

Mr. Lapine uses the first act to introduce each of these four famous Angelenos and to touch on their hidden traumas.  The second act, presumably purely the book writer’s invention, has the four lounging at Ms. Luce’s rented Malibu beachfront villa and dropping acid.  What follows is a dramatization of each character’s adventures into their disturbing memory of their past life’s psychological ailments under the self-revealing effects of this powerful drug.  Beyond what I have just described, the musical has no real plot.  That is clearly Mr. Lapine’s intention. 

 

The problem is that there is very little that links these acid-induced discoveries.  There is really no thematic connection to engage the audience.  Each character has different “issues” in their past.  Their “trips” force each of them to confront their past and, under the haze of the drug, each finds that confrontation as psychologically revealing. While the first act includes the introduction of each character’s secret phantoms, the play does not dramatize the effects of these psychological barriers on their lives.  We must simply assume that they are the source of failures in their relationships with others.  The only take-away I found at the end of the second act was “acid is good,” something I knew from my life as a college student in the 1960s.

 

One of the obvious challenges that Mr. Lapine fails to effectively meet is dramatizing what an acid trip is like to an audience that has never experienced its extraordinary effects.  Along with his set, lighting, and projection designers, he tries to either replicate the visual pleasures  of acid or, through rather silly dramatizations of early life experiences, show each character’s confrontation with their past while overwhelmed by the drug’s tampering with their minds.  For example, after reluctantly swallowing the drug, Cary Grant goes to the beach with the other two men. Soon he is drawn into the deep sea while trying to rescue the image of his childhood figure from drowning.  There are projections of the rising sea and strange lighting effects on the rescue of the drowning actor by Mr. Heard, who, you guessed it, longs to touch this symbol of desirable manhood. But we never hear what the movie star discovers about himself and, as a veteran of the Timothy Leary era, I can confirm that the visuals hardly replicated the consumptive delusions that accompany this extraordinary drug that is reemerging as a possible treatment for extreme psychological traumas like PTSD.

 

The music and lyrics are not particularly revealing either.  Mr. Kitt wrote the music for the most extraordinary portrayal of bipolar disorder in the musical, “Next to Normal.”  And Mr. Korie found words to help an audience understand the strange mentality of the Edith Beale and her daughter, Little Eddie, in the musical adaptation of “Grey Gardens.”  However, it appears Mr. Lapine preferred two more traditional musical styles: musical recitatives that allow the pre-drugged characters to interact with each other through song and some rather ill-conceived production numbers that either dramatize the acid trips or simply inject the usual delights of musical theatre regardless of their appropriateness to his story telling.  At one point, the three Englishmen -- Cary, Huxley, and Heard (who repeatedly is careful to correct his heritage with the fact that he is not English but Irish) -- break into a tap dance and they are not even on drugs when this out-of-place number occurs.

 

If all of this sounds very messy, you are getting an accurate picture of this misdirected effort to bring these complex subjects to the Broadway stage.  No expense has been spared in this effort.  Beowolf Boritt demonstrates his facility in using mobile sets that transform into new locations. 59 Productions, a renowned multimedia design company, labors to replicate LSD visuals.  Costume designer Toni-Leslie James has captured 1950s attire that helps define each of the “in the spot-light” characters.  But in the end, all of this expense does little to make Mr. Lapine’s vision more meaningful.  Like the more traditional Broadway musicals, the audience does not leave the theatre humming the sets.

 

Coincidentally, I frequently found Mr. Lapine’s contributions to Sondheim’s musicals less than extraordinary.  During a post-performance discussion with the audience after a performance of “Sunday in the Park with George,” Mr. Sondheim was asked about his collaboration with James Lapine.  He explained that his original idea for the structure of second act was to have the story of the characters in the painting and the artist retold with different dimensions and musical variations.  However, Mr. Lapine convinced him that a Broadway audience would not tolerate that type of artistic indulgence.  So, the second act of that popular musical tried to convince an audience that a contemporary light show was the equivalent of Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.”  As was typical in Sondheim’s collaborations with Lapine, the late composer’s amazing unification of music and lyrics carried the show.

 

James Lapine has a long record of clever directing on- and off-Broadway shows such as “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” and a mildly successful revival of “Annie.” Perhaps his most successful journeys into “serious musicals” (other than his collaborations with Sondheim) was the three-part series of “Falsetto” shows about a man discovering his homosexuality and his efforts to maintain a relationship with his family from his former marriage.  The “Falsettos” shows were a collaboration with William Finn that was successfully unified around themes of Jewish identity, gender roles, and, eventually, AIDS.  It was the success of those serious, yet entertaining, musicals that made me anxious to see “Flying Over Sunset.” That expectation also made its failure so much more disappointing.

 

Rating: D



“Kimberly Akimbo” at the Atlantic Theater on 20th Street

A musical by David Lindsey-Abaire and Jeanine Tesori

 

Let’s start with the fact that Victoria Clark is playing a teenager on her 16th birthday.  No, this is not a sad case of an aging musical comedy star trying to convince an audience that she still has her stuff.  Ms. Clark, a veteran of Broadway, film, and television actor, is playing a teenage girl that suffers from Progeria Syndrome – a very rare but deadly DNA related-condition that causes children to age very quickly and usually leads to their death while still in their teens.  Even more remarkable, “Kimberly Akimbo,” playing at the Atlantic Theatre downtown is a delightful, charming, and, in the end, a moving experience.

 

This refreshing musical is based on a play of the same name by David Lindsey-Abaire, who has adapted the book from his 2003 play and provided lyrics to Jeanine Tesori’s winning upbeat score. While Ms. Clark’s Kimberly lets us know early in the proceedings that she does not have long to live, this is a funny, engaging, and, as it progresses, insightful look at mortality and what we do in the face of the inevitable. 

 

So far this season, new musicals have been disturbingly misguided.  “Trevor” took a compassionate short film about a pre-teen boy struggling with his sexual identity and made it into a ridiculous singing and dancing would-be take-off on “Grease.”  Then, there was “Mrs. Doubtfire,” a mildly entertaining 1950s style musical that made me wish the adapters had listened to the wisdom of its theatre’s namesake, Stephen Sondheim. 

 

Ms. Tesori and Mr. Lindsey-Abaire have learned from the master.  Their music and lyrics advance or reflect on the plot.  No, they do not have the wit and inventiveness of Mr. Sondheim’s works; but they are the perfect complement to Mr. Lindsey-Abaire’s witty and inventive treatment of young people growing up and adults who never have. As with many musicals, there are plenty of moments that stretch belief; but when a show works as well as this one, the audience goes with the flow. 

 

There is not a weak link in the cast.  Victoria Clark amazingly maintains the feeling that we are watching a teenager in the body of 72-year-old woman.  That careful, moment-by-moment coloring of her character is at the core of the charm as well as the underlying angst as this young woman faces mortality.  Ms. Clark is surrounded by a uniformly perfect cast.  Steve Boyer and Alli Mauzey play Kimberly’s parents – Steve, a friendly alcoholic dad; Pattie a miserably pregnant mom – with Bonnie Milligin as her “got a plan” aunt.  But, for me, the standout was newcomer, Justin Cooley, as Seth, Clark’s empathetic buddy and eventually a bit more.  This is a very talented young actor, and his jubilant performance should put him at the top of the list of casting directors. 

 

Then there are the four other teenage song-and-dancers that share lockers and classrooms with Kimberly and Seth, each with a well-defined personality.  Olivia Elease Hardy, Michael Iskander, Nina White, and Fernell Hogan II added musical richness in background numbers and brought excitement to their production numbers.  

 

David Zinn provides an inventive unit set with lots of moving parts to change environments.  Sarah Laux’s costumes are unnoticeably appropriate.  All of these elements are brought together by Jessica Stone, an experienced actor who has turned to directing.  If you don’t notice the direction, that is usually a good sign of the effectiveness of the director.  Ms. Laux’s work was wonderfully invisible. 

 

This is the type of small musical that deserves to find a home in an off-Broadway theatre after its Atlantic run.  That type of transfer (versus a Broadway production offer) is quite rare these days.  “Kimberly Akimbo” is a small musical that deserves a level of intimacy.  For now, it has a home in a theatre that makes the musical’s humor and its portrait of our common destiny readily accessible and, more significantly, totally enjoyable. It even has a happy ending that points to the universality of the show’s message about something we share with Kimberly Akimbo – mortality.

 

Rating: A





Mrs. Doubtfire - The Musical

 


Mrs. Doubtfire at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre

43rd Street off Times Square

 


This Saturday I had one of the strangest experiences that I can remember while attending a Broadway musical. I had tickets to see the first new musical to open on Broadway since the pandemic shutdown a year and half ago, Mrs. Doubtfire.  I might not have seen this show if the Roundabout Theatre Company had not offered tickets to see this musical in a theatre that they control as a bonus for their early subscription offer.  Broadway has been deluged in the past ten years with musical adaptations of popular Hollywood movies.  Aside from Harry Potter and the Disney productions, few have reached the popularity or extended run that more original shows have experienced.

 

But the strangeness did not occur because this was yet another film adaptation.  The oddity was the name of the theatre and what the person for whom the theater was named had done in transforming the Broadway musical into a complex, enlightening, and intellectually challenging experience for me.  Mrs. Doubtfire is opening in the Stephen Sondheim Theatre and last Saturday was the day after this musical genius left us. 

 

So, it was tough to evaluate this show objectively.  Afterall, this adaptation demonstrates everything that Mr. Sondheim rejected in developing his highly regarded creations.  However, it is everything most audience members expect when they pay inflated prices to see the latest Broadway musical.  But for me, I had to view it as a reminder of what we had lost the day before.  Mrs. Doubtfire is entertaining and full of the pleasures that singing, dancing and on-the-mark humor can produce.  But it is an old, and I would say out of, fashion musical.  It did not have, nor did it intend to have, any of the subtilties, commentaries, or the perfect joining of melody with lyrics that Mr. Sondheim trained his audience to expect in a new musical.  Mrs. Doubtfire is a 1950s musical filled with updated 2021 technology – a sort of Pajama Game in drag.

 

For the most part, it’s a pretty good 1950s musical that remains faithful to the ever-popular movie it is based upon.  The laughs are still there.  There are lots of production numbers, although they frequently involve bringing most of the cast into a scene in which they have no reason for suddenly appearing.  And the lyrics give us little insight or skillful use of language.  The pleasingly elaborate realistic sets appear from all directions under the proscenium giving the production the sense of a “no-cost-spared” show that has become a requirement for contemporary movie adaptations.

 

At the center of the show’s restoration of several of the classic film roles is Rob McClure’s portrayal of the divorcee, Daniel Hillard, who turns himself into a Scottish nanny to maintain contact with his children.  Anyone over 40 must walk into the theater wondering how Mr. McClure is going to measure up against the unforgettable performance by the late Robin Williams.  The answer is that he is totally wonderful in this role even if there is little that can distinguish his Doubtfire from its original creator.  He is an amazingly talented performer, and this was not his first shot at portraying a character who is happily implanted in the minds of the viewers. In 2012, he starred as Charlie Chaplin in a musical biography of the silent film star.  He won several awards and rave reviews for his Chaplin, but the show was not very successful, closing just a few months after it opened.  I would not be surprised if he wins this year’s Tony Award for lead actor in a musical – he deserves it, but it’s still early in the season.

 

The rest of the cast is equally well suited for roles originated by the likes of Harvey Fierstein, Pierce Brosnan, and Sally Fields.  Of special note is Charity Angel Dawson, who plays the court officer assigned to evaluate Daniel Hillard’s progress towards becoming a suitable father under the court’s offspring visitation agreement.  The story has been updated a bit. Hillard’s gay brother married his “domestic partner” and they are trying to adopt a child.  They are appropriately inelegantly played by Brad Oscar, a supporting role veteran in a string of major musicals, and a newer Broadway face, J. Harrison Ghee. 

 

Then there is the music.  This is where the shadow of Sondheim is inescapable. There is not a hummable tune to be played nor a probing or enlightening lyric to be sung.  Unlike the best of the 1950s musicals, the songs are not heartwarming or humorously lyrical.  These melodic failures are camouflaged by frequently over-produced musical numbers that never quite make sense but usually muster audience approval.  This show has been in development for several years, starting with a Seattle tryout in 2019 followed by a few preview performances on Broadway in March 2020, before the theaters were closed down in the face of COVID.  With all that “tinkering-time,” it’s disappointing that the composers and lyricists Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick could not have made a more engaging score with inventive lyrics.  But most of these failings are covered-up by the ever-capable king of Broadway comedy directors, Jerry Zaks.  In short, it's enjoyable if not particularly distinguishable from so many Broadway musical adaptations.

 

My hero, Mr. Sondheim was not afraid of a movie adaptation, but he chose much more challenging originals. One of his most cherished creations, A Little Night Music, is based on Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night.  And at the time of his passing, Sondheim was working with playwright David Ives on a musical based on the works of the Spanish surrealist filmmaker, Luis Bunuel – definitely not in the tradition of shows like Pretty Woman, Waitress, or Mrs. Doubtfire.  But taken for what it is, Mrs. Doubtfire is an audience pleaser. Like those recent musical adaptations of movies, recognition of the film-name is likely to draw tourists and less-discriminating NYC musical lovers.  Send in the clowns!

 

Rating: B- 



The Alchemist



The Alchemist by Ben Jonson; adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher

Red Bull Theater at the New World Stages on 50th Street

 

You can stop reading this brief review after the first sentence: It’s lots of fun! Playwright Jeffrey Hatcher has adapted the Jacobian poet and playwright Ben Jonson’s classic farce into two hours of laughs.  As Mr. Hatcher notes in the program, “Purists will call what I’ve written a free adaptation, and much of it anachronistic, but it’s intended to be Jonson’s style and spirit, if not his meter.”  And in that effort, Mr. Hatcher definitely succeeds.  As is typical of this comic format, the biggest laughs are in the second half, but the lead up to the door-slamming entrances and exits typical of the conclusion of a farce is also quite enjoyable.

 

This type of farce relies on a director and cast willing to exaggerate the idiosyncrasies of their character and to display timing that can succeed or fail by taking too long or not long enough with a smirk or a raised eyebrow.  Alexis Distler’s set, a 1500’s London home-entry room, gives director Jesse Berger all of the doors, grand stairway, and moveable walls needed to support the antics of three scheming scammers steeling gold coins from gullible victims in Jonson’s complex plot, simplified by Mr. Hatcher.

 

Red Bull Theater is best known for adapting classic plays in a style that is accessible to contemporary audiences and the cast of this production meets that challenge superbly.  The three scammers – played by Manoel Felciano, Reg Rogers, and Jennifer Sanchez – make their plots against others and against each other the perfect setup.  And each of the actors portraying the would-be victims create hysterical stereotypes that have the size and exaggerated personas that bring laughs to their gullibility.  Of special note are Jacob Ming-Trent, who plays an egotistic rich man who displays the joy of the outrageous costumes designed by Tilly Grimes and Nathan Christopher as the timid and na├»ve tobacconist.  But each of the other cast member’s rendering of these dupes is equally fun to watch.

 

It is wonderful to see Red Bull reentering its role as the advocate for plays that are usually limited to classroom discussions in theatre history classes.  After a year and a half of COVID craziness, it’s fun to see theatre at its craziest.

 

Rating: A (but only if you like this type of farce)

Trouble in Mind

 


Trouble in Mind by Alice Childress

At Roundabout’s American Airlines Theatre on 42nd Street

 

The history of the first Broadway production of Alice Childress’s Trouble in Mind is crucial to fully appreciating this fascinating play first performed off-Broadway in 1955. In fact, the producing organization, Roundabout Theatre Company, goes out of its way to inform the audience about the play’s history with program notes and an unusual pre-curtain-up announcement of that history.  In fact, as a book on the evolution of Black female playwrights notes, at the time of the first production, “Childress was the only African-American woman to have written, produced, and published plays for four decades.”  The original off-Broadway production stimulated interest in producing the play on Broadway.  However, when the producers insisted that Childress tone down certain parts of the play, she refused the production on “the great white way.”

 

This is a play about the way Black actors were treated in the 1950s and the limitations of the type of roles that were written for people of color – maids, butlers, etc. A multi-racial cast is gathered to rehearse a play-within-the-play that ends with a southern young Black man falsely accused of a crime and the eventual lynching of that innocent youth.  It’s a bit difficult to completely understand the full script for this would-be play, but it’s clear the enthusiastic White director, played by Michael Zegen, sees the play in-rehearsal as an opportunity for a Black actress to play a lead role. LaChanze gives a startling perfect performance as the actor, Wiletta Mayer, who struggles with portraying a southern mother in a racist society -- a break from the stereotypical roles she has always had to tolerate as a working actor in the 50s.  

 

This production is promoted by Roundabout as a “wry and moving look at racism, identity, and ego in the world of New York theatre.” The first act portrays the first day of rehearsals and, as I watched it, I kept seeing this production in light of the current revolution taking place with on- and off-Broadway with Black playwrights painting diverse and fully developed perspectives on the African American culture and challenges.  It’s easy to forget that this play is a portrait of the way Black actors were treated by directors, producers, and playwrights in the time before the civil rights movement of the 60s and 70s (and, unfortunately, decades after that time).

 

It's not until the second act that LaChance’s Wiletta Mayer rebels at the way the mother she is playing treats the son’s impending arrest. The last thirty minutes become an riveting and inspiring portrait of an actress who refuses to be a part of a completely unreasonable depiction of how any mother would advise her son in the face of racist violence.  Her turbulent rejection of the script with the director, and what her uproar reveals about the other characters, Black and White, puts the first act into perspective. Ms. Childress, is demanding the audience see the injustices that people of color experience both as theatre professionals and as members of our society.

 

It's rare that I decide that the last part of play redeems apparent weakness in everything leading up to the climax.  But Ms. Childress’s portrayal of actors trapped in the racism of theatre was important to show in this play in 1950s and now.  So, in the first act, Wiletta coaches the young actor playing her son in the play-within-the-play how to respond to the director -- Always laugh at his jokes and tell him his notes to the actors are right on the mark. Much of the subservience of the Black actors to the director, and to the racist demands of their profession, elicits laughs from the 2021 audience.  The actors’ “acting as they are supposed to act” are humorously exaggerated by the current production’s director, Charles Randolph-Wright; and the laughs seem to come from both White and Black audience members. I do not know how these roles were played in 1955, but this production certainly makes the playwright’s intent is clear and moving.

 

I should mention that a lot of the humor in both acts comes from its satirical references to method acting.  The 1950s were the heyday of Lee Strasberg and those who subscribed to his theory that good acting occurred when the actor internalized the character’s emotional response inside of the actors themselves.  Whether an audience in the 50’s recognized these exaggerated impositions on the actors’ style, clearly director Randolph-Wright coaxed laughs from a contemporary audience that has lived with actors committing excessive reliance on Strasberg’s theory ever since they started going to the theatre.

 

While LeChanze’s extraordinary performance is the highlight of the production, the rest of the cast is equally well suited to their parts.  Several actors (Black and White) must play self-deprecating characters whose subservience or old-fashioned acting style produces laughs.  A good example is Chuck Cooper’s Sheldon Forrester.  Forrester is so stereotypical of a “please the master” actor that he is actually accused by another character of being a Jim Crow.  But Cooper has been a proud American actor for over 45 years. He knows how to play this character with his tongue planted deeply in his cheek, forgiving the contemporary audience’s laughter at his character’s “yes-um” personality. This production maintains a carefully crafted balance between the humor and the horror of Ms. Childress’s intent.

 

Michael Zegen overplays the heavy-handed and totally insensitive first-time Broadway director – a veteran of Hollywood where the misrepresentation of people of color is rampant in the 1950s.  We would “get it” if Zegen toned down his overbearing persona and we might even find his Lee Strasberg moments humorous rather than simply domineering. Simon Jones’ as the Irish theatre doorman who has spent his life in various backstage positions acts as the frame for the play – speaking sense at the beginning and the end. The rest of the cast all fit their roles without flaw.  But it is LaChanze that carries the weight of a character discovering her true self and fearlessly confronting the injustices of her life that makes this production a rewarding evening in the theatre.  

 

Yes, the play appears to be dated and you might wonder during the first act why this play is currently relevant. But that seems to be the point of this revival.  The audience is supposed to look at this 1950s work and decide what it means in the 2020s – and there is much to enjoy and think about in this production as it stimulates “trouble in the mind” in the midst of our Black playwright revolution on- and off-Broadway.

 

Rating: A-

 

Morning’s at Seven by Paul Osborn

At Theatre of St. Clements at 46th and 9th Avenue

 

A classic comedy without the laughs!  That unfortunately describes the revival production of “Morning’s at Seven” playing at the Theatre at St. Clements on 46th Street at 9th Avenue.  Anyone who saw the multi-awarded 1980 revival knows that there are lots of laugh-out-loud moments in this 1920s portrait of four sisters, their mates, their off-spring, and life “in the golden years.”  But the current revival plays more like a Chekov play without that master’s sense of irony.

 

The failure is not in the casting.  This production has a group of a very experienced Broadway actors – Lindsay Crouse, John Rubenstein, and Tony Roberts to name a few.  These actors know how to play comedy.  So, the fault must lie with the director, Dan Wackerman, who has a history of successfully reviving old comedies. The combination of a great cast (on paper) and an experienced director drew me to buy a ticket to be reacquainted with a play that I loved when I directed a production in my days a theatre professor.

 

The humor in this play does not grow out of witty lines or surprising responses from characters.  What is funny are the delayed reactions, the unexpected facial expressions, and a plot that captures families grappling with the little things in their everyday life – oh, yes, and the possible marriage of a 40-year-old son and nephew to a woman he has been “dating” for 17 years.  Ironically, the two actors portraying the soon-to-be, or possibly soon-to-be, married couple seem to be the only players who know how to draw laughs from the eccentricities of their characters without destroying the charm of an old-fashioned play. 

 

One of the most telling indications that most this production’s failure is the fault of the director is the way he handled the “spells” suffered by Carl, one of the aging husbands and father of the potential groom.  Whenever he experiences any type of pressure, he leaves his house and bangs his head on a tree in the backyard.  But John Rubenstein, playing the temporarily unbalanced father of the would-be groom, puts both of his hands on top of each other and then bangs his head against hands, not the tree.  This is a minor buffering of the play’s humor, but this production is full of such misguided toning down.

 

What is left is a portrait of families that have tolerated each other for 40+ years coming to the conclusion that what they have is what they want – with one exception that is the inescapable laugh-line at the end of the play.  What’s most disappointing is that people who saw the 1980’s production will think their fond memory of this play is suffering from the type of forgetfulness that accompanies growing old.  And worse, those who never saw a good production of this classic will wonder what all of the fuss is about; why was this unamusing comedy revived? That’s a question that my very good memory of this play’s charm kept asking me as I watched this revival.  I sort of felt like leaving the theatre and banging my head against a tree.

 

Rating: C-

Trevor - A New Musical

Trevor - A New Musical
Stage 42 on 42nd Street




The new musical, Trevor, is based on an Academy Award winning short film by the same name.  Both portray a junior high school boy struggling with his identity, sexual and otherwise.  The short film led to the creation of the Trevor Project, an American non-profit that seeks to prevent suicide among LGBTQ youth.  Yes, both the movie and the musical portray that deeply disturbing event, and both have a happy ending, sort of.

 

However, the tone of these two fictional works is considerably different.  The film is narrated by the young boy named Trevor and combines tongue-in-cheek humor about his trials and tribulations at home and in school with the serious questions he has as he discovers his sexuality.  The musical portrays the boy as a “limp wrist” young gay stereotype who loves Diana Ross and wants to direct the “butch boys” at his junior high school in a choreographed entry in a school talent show.  The second act gets more serious when Trevor’s sexuality is discovered by his classmates and he attempts to put an end to his life with an overdose of aspirin. 

 

The big difference between the movie and the musical is the way the production team converts a 20-minute film into a two- and half-hour musical.  In the film, Trevor describes his discoveries directly to the camera. By the start of the movie, he has already come to the conclusion that he is different and that is OK.  The musical portrays the events in chronological order.  Trevor has not discovered his sexuality. He is unknowingly flamboyant.  He loves to imitate Ms. Ross when he is alone in his bedroom.  He feels more attached to the girls in his junior high school class.  His parents seem to be completely oblivious to their son’s “differentness” until his diary is discovered, and it reveals his feelings for the leader of a school athletic team, ironically named Pinky.

 

Alas, this is a musical and the creators are clearly more interested in making this show a hit than in truly dealing with the struggles that teenagers, gay or straight, have discovering their identity.  As such, it’s quite entertaining.  There are a lot of production numbers with young people dancing up a storm.  There are also two dozen original songs, although frequently it is tough to tell one musical number from another.  The opportunity to use the songs to reveal the young boy’s struggle with his identity was completely ignored.  Instead, a less than convincing portrayal of Diana Ross lurks above his bed as Trevor imitates her every move. Cute, but not terribly insightful.

 

The cast is generally very talented even if a few appear to be beyond the junior high school age – but boys always grow at different rates.  The young man playing Trevor, Holdem William Hagelberger, is quite amazing.  This 13-year-old from Sugarland, Texas, is the energy behind whole production.  He sings, he dances, and he keeps his audience rooting for him right up until the finale set to Ms. Ross’ hit “I’m Coming Out.”  The other boys and girls match Hagelberger’s energy while the adults are all portrayed as sort of “stick figures.”

 

Most of the events in the original film are replicated in the musical.  However, it’s unfortunate that the book and lyrics by Dan Collins and the music by Jullianne Wick Davis did not use the expansion of the piece into a two-and-a-half-hour production to more fully portray the struggles of LGBTQ youth trying to discover who they are and what their identity means to them.  There was room for lots of fun in this story without losing the opportunity to inform and challenge the audience.  The direction by Mark Bruni and choreography by Josh Prince are lively and engaging. This is an entertaining evening in the theatre.  But it’s also quite disappointing.

 

Rating: B-



Flying Over Sunset

  “Flying Over Sunset” by James Lapine, Tom Kitt, and Michael Korie At the Vivian Beaumont Lincoln Center Theater   In my recent review of a...