Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Review: First preview of new Mamet play The Anarchist on Broadway, with Patti LuPone

The Anarchist
First preview, 13 November 2012
Golden Theatre, New York

There is a lot of buzz surrounding The Anarchist. Famed Broadway playwright David Mamet not only directs but he directs Patti LuPone, with whom he has a colourful 30-year past. Despite the hype, there are no fireworks – neither good nor bad – in this production. Mindful that this is only the first preview, there are significant kinks for the team to iron out before opening.

The play deals with heavy yet pertinent philosophical debates. Serving a life sentence in prison, Cathy (LuPone) makes a final plea to unsympathetic warden Ann (Debra Winger) for why she is sufficiently rehabilitated, in what becomes an intellectual battle about the necessity of the state over anarchy. Mamet’s work offers an enlightening engagement with the complex topics that come with such territory, like justice, faith, control and kindness.

Despite the compelling subject matter, the production fails to fully articulate its substance. It takes a long time to warm up, which is in large part due to the wordiness and awkward formality of the script. Both traits are textbook Mamet, but dozens of audience members didn’t settle into the play and left before curtain – which was particularly concerning considering the show only ran for 70 minutes without interval.

There is a stagnant nature to Winger and LuPone's performances. Both are robotic in their delivery (Winger more so than LuPone) to the point that it looks like a line run. The lack of variation in tonality and flow could be a sign of more time needed to settle into their characters, but is also likely a reflection of Mamet's deliberate creation of two clinical, almost emotionless characters. 

As it currently stands, the pair generate a strange energy; Winger as the warden is calm and bland to LuPone’s fidgety but somewhat sedated portrayal of prisoner, Cathy. They are chalk and cheese, only without the spark that you would expect from such antipodean characters. Drama stems from the language, not the performance (and certainly not the banal set and lighting design). While this may work stylistically, it makes for an unremarkable physical performance.

The Anarchist didn't thrill but it did stimulate. LuPone and Winger's performances were there but underdone, and it will be interesting to see the show post-previews when both have had time to roost. The play itself is intriguing and makes for an odd but interesting contribution to the current Broadway season.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Review - Broadway - Scandalous: The Life and Trials of Aimee Semple McPherson

Scandalous for all the wrong reasons
Sunday 11th November, 2012
Neil Simon Theatre, New York

Book and lyrics: Kathie Lee Gifford

Music: David Pomeranz and David Friedman
Director: David Armstrong
Choreography: Lorin Latarro

Carolee Carmello’s spirited performance as Aimee Semple McPherson in Scandalous is the only saving grace in what is otherwise a lackluster new musical.

Scandalous documents the life of early 20th Century evangelist Semple from her childhood to her mysterious kidnapping and ensuing public trial. Despite such promising subject matter, heaven couldn’t help this show, which spends too long preaching religious doctrines rather than examining the juicy details of the evangelist's controversial life. Villain or victim? Sinner or saint? The substance of the moral debate comes too little too late.
The religiosity of the show will distance many atheists and non-Christians. Bible bashing comes with the territory – a story about a preacher has to have preaching in it – but there is no creativity or imagination in the book or score. The show sounds like Oklahoma meets Wicked, with nothing original to offer. One of the big belty numbers “Why Can’t I” is more-or-less a regurgitation of “The Wizard and I.”  
The score’s only strength is that it gives Carmello a chance to show off her impressive vocals. Aimee Semple is a physically and vocally demanding role. Carmello leaves the stage so infrequently that cast members have to bring her a glass of water during transition scenes.
Staging (design by Walt Spanger) is one of the stronger points of the show, especially Semple’s versatile Angelus Temple set that transforms into ballrooms and houses. The show also churns through a great number of costumes (design by Gregory Poplyk); some for scenes that only last a few minutes. Particularly, a lot of effort is put into re-creating the elaborate Biblical sets Semple uses for her weekly sermons. From Adam and Eve to Moses and Samson and Delilah, the scenes are a visual spectacle, yet such colossal changes for so little stage time don’t add enough value to warrant the effort. If anything, they seem a shameless attempt to draw attention away from the boring book and score and add some life to the performance.
Funny moments with the stereotypical comedic black sidekick (played by a fierce Roz Ryan) make for the rare light touches in the story. Edward Watts as Semple’s first and (thanks to a wig change) third husband gives a solid performance. George Hearn as Semple’s father and later rival preacher, however, is a surprising disappointment. Hearn is so comfortable on stage that it felt like we were in his living room watching him perform. He lacked vocal projection and stage presence. Carmello as Semple, on the other hand, is stupendous. Her Semple is so lovable and warm that it’s hard to think ill of her even as she runs away with a married man.
A story about a woman surrounded by strong woman is fresh air in a male-dominated musical industry. Beyond gender politics, though, the strength of the story – and what gives the subject matter potential (even if it is unfulfilled in this production) – is the musical’s discourse about morality and justice. Here is a preacher who cares for people and gives their lives’ meaning but is a hypocrite by her own terms. Does such hypocrisy rule out all good? Justice is perverted and a guilty woman gets off free, but Semple couldn’t continue to help society’s needy from a jail cell. The show demonstrates that, ironically, there are no black and white truths; that what is right is not always clear-cut – despite the fervent doctrines Semple preached. This discussion, along with Carmello’s giving performance, are the only incentives to see Scandalous

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Review: Peter and the Starcatcher on Broadway

Peter and the Starcatcher

Sunday, 11 November 2012
Brooks Atkinson Theatre, New York

Peter and the Starcatcher
is to Peter Pan what Wicked is to The Wizard of Oz; it offers a compelling and imaginative precursor to a literary and theatrical classic. Better still, it stands its own against its older and more popular sibling.

When an orphan boy and his mates find themselves on board the S.S. Neverland, they cross paths with the crooked pirate Black Stache and a boisterous 14-year-old Molly on a secret mission
with her father from Queen Victoria. Through a series of cargo mix-ups, pirate plunders, and island wash-ups, Peter transforms into the Pan we know him to be. 

Peter and the Starcatcher
(adapted for the stage by Rick Elice - who recently brought us The Addams Family) is clever, witty and very funny. Scenes flow seamlessly under Roger Rees and Alex Timber’s direction, and the pliability and ingeniousness of the set (design by Donyale Werle) makes for an exciting adventure. Slapstick, witty and camp humour caters to all ages, and jokes hit their mark more often than not. The ensemble cast deliver solid, energetic performances, with Matthew Saldivar's Black Stache a stand-out.

There are few flaws in this show, which runs like a tight ship, but some jokes are too bizarre to land firmly, and the chummy boat songs scattered throughout the show seem out-of-place (and, for a second, had me thinking it was a book-heavy musical).

Peter and the Starcatcher
is a show for the entire family, and a production I foresee having a long life performed everywhere from school halls to regional theatres and mainstage venues.

For tickets, visit: www.peterandthestarcatcher.com