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Broadway Bound: Four Reviews
by david   June 30, 2003

It's 6PM Sunday night. I meant to start writing this story two hours ago. I surfed through the TiVo channel guide a bit, looking for the perfect program to put on in the background while I wrote. Instead, I saw that Hoosiers was just starting on TMC. I cannot, cannot, pass on Hoosiers.

Now, two hours and more tears than I care to admit later (they were manly tears, dammit, and I'll hear no more of it), I realize I'm running up against deadline. So, without further delay, here's the deal...

Shannon and I went to New York City this weekend, just to get away for a few days. We saw three great shows and one, well, I'll let you read the four short reviews below:

Henry 5
Shakespeare in the Park
starring: Liev Schreiber, Bronson Pinchot

Shakespeare in the Park's Henry 5 was the lowest point of my New York trip, and I'm counting the four extra hours I spent in the Long Beach airport, waiting for my delayed JetBlue flight.

Henry 5 is a difficult show. True: it sports a couple of great roles (Harry, Chorus, the Dauphin), a couple of great scenes (the tennis balls, the courting of the princess), and a couple of great monologues (the prologue, the St. Crispin's Day speech). But far outstripping these is the difficulty of staging a play whose meaty middle consists of a jumbled collection of battlefield scenes, whose content is difficult to tie together, and whose principal action most often takes place (out of necessity) offstage. The result is, even in the most polished productions (like the Kenneth Branaugh film), a sort of barely controlled chaos.

Shakespeare in the Park's Henry 5 is not one of those "polished productions." This undertaking dissolves into complete, uncontrolled chaos somewhere in the first 40 minutes, and never really emerges. Even the final scene, the courting of the French princess, was unstructured, stale, and horribly boring. In better productions, the charm and sweetness of this scene causes the audience almost to forgive the disconnected jumble in the middle of the play. Not so here. While a lack of rehearsal could be blamed (several days of rain destroyed the cast's ability to properly tech on the outdoor stage, so that opening night was also, technically, first dress/tech), I think the primary responsibility falls on the slack direction (from Mark Wing-Davey) and a generally under-skilled cast. To be fair, Schreiber's Harry was excellent -- charismatic and engaging. and Pinchot did his damdest to make Ensign Pistol the hilarious character he must have been in Shakespeare's day. But both were plagued by terrifyingly un-supporting supporting players (apart from being, in many cases, just simply uninteresting and/or unintelligible, the supporting actors dropped, miffed and flubbed so many lines that it resembled less a professional production than my High-School production of Harvey). In addition, I'm sorry to say, the Pistol scenes are just simply not funny. All they do is add padding to an already excruciatingly long play. Even Steven Rattazzi, as the Chorus (one of the most coveted of Shakespearean roles), was poor -- he shouted each syllable of every word as if sheer volume could save the production. He was badly mistaken.

Shubert Theater
starring: Bernadette Peters, Tammy Blanchard, John Dossett

I like dark musicals -- shows where things end badly, characters are trodden-upon, the hero doesn't come out on top -- that's what I like to watch. Nobody has to die, necessarily -- there just shouldn't be a "happy ever after." I also like smart musicals -- shows where characters are fully realized, where they do the human things, not the musical theater things. People fuck up, they make bad decisions, they alienate their loved ones, and they end up dissatisfied.

Naturally, I love Gypsy.

I'm not gonna go into too many particulars here -- if you don't know the story, you should rent one of the many movie versions available -- any will give you the gist of the goings-on. What's different about this production is the sparse but imaginatively well-executed scenic design, the weary, threadbare supporting characters, and, of course, Bernadette Peters. I should interject here, that I am a Peters fan, and have harbored a crush on her since my first viewing of the Jerk as an adolescent (my Dad also has a thing for her -- I don't even want to talk about what kind of unsettling images that conjures-up) -- in my mind, she's a magical musical theater entity, and can do no (or very little, in any case) wrong. But when I heard she was playing Rose in Gypsy, I became frightened. I just didn't see her as the brassy, overbearing, emotionally abusive Rose.

Thing is, that was my problem. I've always pictured Rose as the Ethel Merman/Tyne Daley/Bette Midler Rose -- less a role to be played than a Sherman Tank to be driven through the middle of the play. What Peters brought to the role was the fragility and sorrow of Rose -- the hint, all along, of an obsessive woman who has failed her life's ambitions and throws up a facade of toughness to protect her fragile ego. Peters' Rose is a wonderfully complex character who (unlike most of the women who have played her previously) can use her sex appeal, as well as fear, to control those around her, and whom you can imagine might have been a successful actress, had she not been (in her words) "born too early, and started too late." When "Rose's Turn" finally comes round at the end of the second act, you are not surprised at the breakdown -- it's been happening, really happening, little-by-little throughout the play. Peters' Rose is a brilliant realization of one of the truly great musical theater roles.

Peters' power is complemented by a very strong, polished supporting cast, especially in John Dosset, whose quiet, charming Herbie is the perfect compliment to larger-than-life Rose.

Henry Miller Theater
starring: James Barbour, Spencer Kayden, Tom Cavanaugh

I was excited to see Urinetown -- the one show I saw this weekend which I had not seen (in come form) before. In fact, all I knew of it was that is was a sort of satire of contemporary musicals, and that I loved the one song from it which was performed at the Tony Awards last year. I'm happy to say, this show was thoroughly enjoyable.

Without ruining too much of the pleasure of discovering a new show, here's the overview: Urinetown is set in a generic big city in the near future, where environmental conditions have caused a sever shortage of water. In order to conserve water, private bathrooms are no longer allowed, and access to public facilities is heavily regulated, and is taxed to avoid wanton, wasteful water-misuse. In addition, public urination is such a heinous crime that it is punished by sending the perpetrator to ... Urinetown.

The show is delightful -- irreverent and funny, and impeccably staged and acted. Every scene manages a dual purpose: to move along the absurd, hilarious story, and to parody the idea of musical theater in general. Each number ends with a dramatic flourish, and the entire play is narrated by Officer Lockstock (James Barbour) and Little Sally (Spencer Kayden), who treat the audience to much of the play's exposition, as well as a primer on the structure of musical theater.

There's not much I can say about Urinetown -- you should rather experience it for yourself. I will simply say that the acting is brilliant, the singing mostly very good (except where it is not supposed to be), the dancing is mostly purposefully ridiculous, the staging is wonderful, and the play itself is imaginative and hilarious. Particularly good are Barbour, Kayden, Carolee Carmello (Pennywise) and Don Richard (whom I saw as Cladwell -- he's the understudy). If you like musical theater, or if you like to make fun of musical theater, you really should see this play.

Man of La Mancha
Al Hirschfield Theater
starring: Brian Stokes Mitchell, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Ernie Sabella

Man of La Mancha is one of my top 5 favorite musicals of all time. It's beautiful and powerful and dark and sad. What's more, it's short and efficient , which sounds like a silly thing to say, but its slight 2 hours makes every moment engaging, and in wasting not a moment on extraneous silliness, La Mancha drives continually toward its resolution. In addition, Quixote is one of the few truly great baritone roles in musical theater, and when I'm older I hope desperately to play him.

The current Broadway production of Man of La Mancha is particularly wonderful. This is due chiefly to the awesome power and presence of Brian Stokes Mitchell as Quixote, and the versatile and enchanting Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio as Aldonsa. Mitchell is an unstoppable force onstage -- his acting is spot-on, and his voice is, in my mind, unmatched. Mastrantonio is a surprising stage presence -- her acting is strong (as expected) but her ability to pass casually back and forth between speaking and singing is remarkable, and brings a great depth to all of Aldonsa's songs. These two are backed up by a strong supporting cast (including Ernie Sabella as Sancho Panza) whose movement, voices and acting are all wonderful.

As if an incredible play acted by an incredible cast weren't enough, Man of La Mancha sports one of the most beautiful, intriguing sets I've seen. Paul Brown deserves a nod for this. I'm the type who doesn't normally go in for elaborate settings -- I'd rather see a handful of incredible actors on a bare stage than marvel at the workings of a complex set (which too often distracts for the play itself), but this set is wonderfully integrated into the show, and is just plain gorgeous to behold.

Man of La Mancha is not for everyone -- it's a play about a man who, unable to deal with the ugliness of life, invents his own more pleasant, more easily navigated reality. Such things can never end well, and this is no exception. But its power and beauty lie in its sadness, and I heartily recommend it.

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