There are those who think, in terms of the innovations that Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein brought together to create the undisputed watershed that was Oklahoma, that Carousel was even better. Stronger emotional content. More ambitious and successful integration of scene, song and dance. In general, just an overall better show. I happen to be one of these people.
Does the current Goodspeed production do Carousel justice? Click through here to find out.
I've been reviewing musicals and other theatrical productions on this blog for over six years now. For the most part, I've been doing it for the sheer love of theater, and musical theater in particular. I never had any illusions about actually making a living as a critic.
Well, as luck would have it, someone has deemed it appropriate and advisable to actually pay me to foist my opinions on an unsuspecting public. Go figure.
As some of you may know, I started writing for TheaterMania a few months back, mostly with the idea of covering Boston-area theater topics. My first article was about ArtsEmerson, an innovative arts-programming series that operates under the auspices of Emerson College. I'll be working on more Boston-based feature stories in the months to come.
I knew when I started with TM that there would also be the possibility of reviewing productions in Boston and New England, and my first actual review as a professional (i.e. paid) critic just went live. That review is of the latest production at the venerable Goodspeed Opera House, which is Mame. I won't be posting my TM reviews here on my blog, but I will be providing links to those reviews. To read my TM review of Mame at the Goodspeed, click here.
For those of you who are worried this might be the end of EIKILFM, fear not. (Or, for those of you who might have been relieved to think that this was the end of my blog, tough luck.) I have absolutely no intention of giving up blogging. My TM reviews will most likely be occasional at best, and will probably only focus on productions in the Boston and New England area. I'll still be covering as much of the New York musical-theater scene as I can humanly keep up with.
How can a show be a masterpiece if it has no official version? That's the question I always pose to my students when we cover Show Boat. There's no question that the show is historically significant. With Show Boat, librettist and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, along with composer Jerome Kern, introduced credible drama, three-dimensional characters, ambitious musical sequences, dramatically purposeful dance, and a host of other innovations to the musical stage.
But Show Boat has changed significantly since its 1927 premiere, with every subsequent stage version and movie treatment. Songs and scenes have come and gone. Depending on the version you happen to catch, the entire second act might look completely different from that of any previous production you may have seen.
And the tinkering continues to this day with the current production at the Goodspeed Opera House, which opened this past Wednesday. The good folks at the Goodspeed set for themselves two primary challenges with this production: to find a way to make this sweeping pageant of a show work in the diminutive Opera House space, and to streamline the show to make the whole event clock in at around two and a half hours. I'm very happy to report that the Goodspeed production succeeds splendidly in its first goal, but as for hitting the mark on the second, well, the production is certainly swift and efficient, but at the expense of the human drama that's crucial to the overall effectiveness of the piece.
It's difficult to imagine that the Goodspeed has never done Show Boat before. The setting is perfect: the theater is perched on a scenic riverfront, and the building itself is a charming slice of Americana. Take a look at the photo to the right: doesn't it just look like the boat pictured above might pull up at the dock at any moment? Also, the Goodspeed auditorium looks as though it could be the actual hall from the titular show boat.
And this last point becomes one of the key elements in making Show Boat work in this compact house. The scenic design by Michael Schweikardt is both attractive and ingenious. In addition to designing a stunning set piece for the actual on-stage boat -- which places the audience on the ship rather than staring at the side of the boat, as many productions do -- Schweikardt takes full advantage of the Goodspeed auditorium, with its brass railings and horseshoe-shaped balcony, to create the illusion that the audience is actually in the hall of the show boat itself. It's simple but ingenious. I never got the sense that the show needed a bigger playing space. Not once. That's effective design. Director Rob Ruggiero shrewdly places performers throughout the hall throughout the show, and has cast members make many of their entrances and exits through the house to emphasize the atmospheric design of the show.
But whereas the design and direction make an asset out of the performance space, this script and score for this particular version of the show were somewhat less successful. The production staff have made what the press materials call "adjustments, edits, and changes," with the full knowledge and approval of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization. The result is streamlined and brisk, but emotionally a bit cold. Part of this might be the breakneck pacing. Even the song tempos seem accelerated, particularly in "Make Believe" and "Why Do I Love You?" I got the impression that Ruggiero was at the back of the house with a stopwatch, watching every song and scene with an eye toward efficiency.
But the real problem seemed to be that the staff have removed too much material that develops the central relationship, between Magnolia Hawks and Gaylord Ravenal. The role of Gaylord seems particularly pared down. As a result, the show hits all the important plot points, but doesn't give us time to stop and care about these people. Casting may be partly to blame here. Ben Davis as Ravenal has a terrific voice, but he doesn't have the physical countenance to give the role the larger-than-life quality it needs. Davis was never less than professional, but he wasn't dashing or charming, or full of the kind of dangerous appeal that Gaylord really needs to have to make the audience believe that Magnolia would fall for him at first sight. As Magnolia, Sarah Uriarte Berry started off a bit overly childish, but developed greater balance as the show progressed. She fared far better in act two, the events of which seem more suitable to a performer of Berry's experience.
[SPOILER ALERT: I reveal the final tag of the show in the last paragraph]
The rest of the cast was almost universally strong. Lenny Wolpe was flat-out adorable as Captain Andy Hawks, with a delightful sense of mischief and playfulness that made him the heart and soul of the show. Karen Murphy made for one of the most imposing, but ultimately charming, Parthys I've ever seen. David Aron Damane as Joe gave a positively stirring rendition of "Old Man River." The only significant hole in the supporting cast was Lesli Margherita as Julie, whose "Can't Help Loving That Man" was marred by histrionic, Elphaba-esque vocal affectations. And her "Bill" was somewhat bizarre. I'm not sure what she was going for here, but she came off a bit more wild-eyed than the role would seem to demand. (A special shout-out to three of my favorite students, making their professional acting debut in this production: Elizabeth Ann Berg, Robert Lance Mooney, and Adam Fenton Goddu. Remember, guys and dolls: Show...Boat = Two...Words. Embrace the space!)
One change that the production staff made to the show that worked extremely well here came at the very end of the show. Depending on the version of Show Boat you may have seen previously, the show probably ended with Magnolia and Ravenal seeing each other for the first time in 20 years. Often, the final tag of the show has Magnolia and Ravenal fondly watching their now-adult daughter Kim from afar as the music swells and the curtain falls. But here, Ravenal approaches Kim, who recognizes her father, and rushes to his embrace. For me, it was the most emotionally stirring moment in a show that ideally would have provided a whole lot more.
When My One and Only had its out-of-town tryout in Boston back in 1983, word got around town rather quickly that the show wasn't working. Avant-garde opera director Peter Sellars was originally hired to helm the show, but the result was, by all accounts, a pretentious mess. What's more, star Tommy Tune wasn't happy with Sellars' vision of a Brechtian satire, preferring something more light and entertaining. So Sellars was fired just days before the show was set to open in Boston, and librettist Peter Stone and director Mike Nichols came in to doctor the show.
The producers were going to close the show down, but Stone and Nichols asked for ten days to rewrite. Meanwhile, the cast continued to perform the show, while it was under revision, to a somewhat confused Boston audience. At one point, act one had been completely rewritten, but they were still performing the show with the original second act, and the two bore little if any relation to each other. Tommy Tune famously came out at the end of each of these transitional performances and make a curtain speech to the effect of, "Yeah, we know it's confusing, but, hey, wasn't the dancing great?" I paraphrase, of course.
My One and Only made it to Broadway and played a respectable 767 performances, or a little less than two years. Not a smash-hit run, to be sure, but certainly more than anyone in one of those in-between (not to mention full-price) Boston performances might have predicted. The show won Tony Awards for best actor (Tune himself), best featured actor (Charles "Honi" Coles), and best choreography (Tune and Thommie Walsh).
Alas, I did not get to see My One and Only during its now-legendary Boston tryout. I was but a poor college student, and the horrific word-of-mouth was more than enough to keep me away. Opportunities to see the show since its Broadway run have been few, but fortunately our good friends at The Goodspeed Opera House saw fit to dust the show off and give it a good airing.
My One and Only was a prime example of a "songbook" show, what we would now call "jukebox" musical. Although when you're discussing the like of George Gerswhin and Ira Gershwin, somehow "songbook" seems more respectful, but also historically accurate, since the term "jukebox" didn't really kick in until the 1940s. Whenever I discuss the Gershwins in my musical-theater history course, I usually ask students to name the show that certain Gershwin songs were from. They're rarely able to do so, although to be fair, I'm not so sure I'd do so well myself. And why? Because the songs are more important the the shows.
In the 1920s, musicals weren't written to stand the test of time, and they didn't, for the most part. They were meant to play for a few months, make a profit, and maybe produce a few hit songs. Funny Face certainly produced its share of hits, four of which are included in My One and Only, including "He Loves and She Loves," "S Wonderful," and the respective title songs for each show. The creators of My One and Only also interpolated other Gershwin songs, including "How Long Has This Been Going On?," "Nice Work If You Can Get It," and "Kickin' the Clouds Away."
The resulting show, at least based on the Goodspeed production, clearly reflects the hurried nature of the show's construction. Peter Stone was one of the most successful and admired librettists musical theater has ever had, but here his work shows the strain of trying to shape the book around an existing set of songs and characters. The people here become mere tropes - a Lindbergh-like flyboy, a female English-Channel swimmer, a Russian impresario, a foul-mouthed female mechanic - which I guess is pretty faithful to how they would have been portrayed in an actual Gershwin musical, but I would have preferred something a bit more nuanced and three-dimensional. But, hey, great songs, huh?
The Goodspeed production is rather complex technically, with multiple set pieces flying in and out, and elaborate digital projections, but the overall visual feel of the show was washed out and diffuse. Fortunately the production has two major assets: Tony Yazbek in the Tommy Tune role and choreographer Kelli Barclay. Yazbek, whom I have seen in numerous productions, including A Chorus Line, Gypsy, and On the Town, is quite simply the consummate performer. He's an incredibly agile dancer and a fine singer, but he also brings a very credible and appealing quality to the characters that he plays. It certainly doesn't hurt the he's easy on the eyes, but fortunately this man has the talent to back up his looks.
Barclay's work here features some of the most raucous and joyous dance currently appearing on the eastern seaboard. When Yazbek is on-stage, particularly in combination with Barclay's energetic and plentiful tap choreography, the show is a joy. When the book kicks in, it tends to grind to a halt. The finale in particular is quite an uplifting and joyous affair, in which Barclay pays tribute to the original choreography (thankfully preserved on the Broadway's Lost Treasures DVD), but Barclay thankfully provides her own individual touches.
My One and Only runs until June 25th at the Goodspeed. If you want to see one of the best performers currently working execute some of the best dance you're likely too see all summer, you might want to head on down to East Haddam, CT.