Show Round-Up

Annie – I caught an early preview of the classic Strouse-Charnin musical at the Palace. I have a dubious history with this one; the last time I saw it onstage was 21 years ago and while I don’t remember much, I wanted Hannigan to win. Fortunately that was not the case in this new production directed by James Lapine and choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler. Katie Finneran holds nothing back as Miss Hannigan, but the performance hadn’t quite gelled when I saw the show, and it didn’t help that her Rooster and Lily are barely there (and what’s up with Lily’s accent? Not cool, kids). Lilla Crawford has great sincerity and a clarion voice that brought down the house repeatedly, but her accent gets in the way. Merwin Foard, a reliable standby in so many recent productions, is finally onstage and a total delight as FDR. The real standout, though, is Australian baritone Anthony Warlow, whose sumptuous baritone is the 8th wonder of the world. His “Something Was Missing” stopped the show cold in act two. I was mixed on the set, though I loved the chandelier/Christmas tree effect. The choreography is, to put it mildly, terrible. Only the final number really had cohesion, and it was still a hot mess. Quibbles aside, the show is a charmer, thanks to its score and the sharp libretto by Thomas Meehan.

The Performers – I caught a late preview of this fast flop, which was entertaining but tremendously slight. There was no real conflict, mostly a non-porn couple who inexplicably question their monogamy while visiting Las Vegas for an adult film industry awards show. The play is rife with enough raunchy dialogue to make your great-grandmother’s monocle pop, but ultimately feels…tame. That said I found much to enjoy, and much to laugh at. Props to the terrific ensemble led by Alicia Silverstone, Henry Winkler and Cheyenne Jackson. However, the real star of the evening was Ari Graynor as Peeps, a dim, defensive porn star with a heart of gold. Everything she said or did went over like fireworks on the 4th of July, and a performance I am glad I had the opportunity to see. The play’s closure after 7 performances was a bit of a shock, as I’ve seen far worse enterprises run longer. While I don’t think it’s much of a play, I think the script could make for a more enjoyable film.

Giant – Edna Ferber’s novel is now a musical, in a sprawling retelling of the story of a Texas cattle baron and his decades long marriage to a Virginia socialite. This bold, ambitious piece is currently playing the Public Theater  and while it could use some tinkering and fine-tuning, it’s a thrilling experience. Michael John LaChiusa’s music is haunting and often soars. The show has a cast of 22, and an orchestra of 16 – rare for an off-Broadway production. Brian D’Arcy James is excellent as Bick Benedict, a cattle baron whose unconditional love for Texas is challenged by a changing world. Kate Baldwin is giving the the performance of a career as his wife Leslie. John Dossett provides brilliant, sympathetic support as Uncle Bawley, while Michelle Pawk brings gruff pragmatism to Bick’s older sister Luz. Katie Thompson is a find as Vashti Hake, a ranch heiress jilted by Bick who becomes one of Leslie’s closest friends. Thompson can really sing, and deserves to be a leading lady herself. The character of Jett Rink lacks definition and as written barely registers as an antagonist (played by a game P.J. Griffith). For a show set in and about Texas, the musical feels somewhat cramped on the Newman stage. A show of this scope cries out for a venue like the Vivian Beaumont.

20 years of Encores! A Gala Celebration – This 90 minute program featuring many of Broadway’s finest talents performing under the music direction of both Rob Berman and original Encores! musical director Rob Fisher. Kelli O’Hara opened with “It’s a Perfect Relationship” from Bells Are Ringing, but her highlight was a sumptuous rendition of “Lover, Come Back to Me” from The New Moon. Raul Esparza revisited “Everybody Says Don’t” from Anyone Can Whistle and cut it up big time with the tongue twisting “Tchaikowsky” from Lady in the Dark. Rob McClure was charm squared leading “Once in Love with Amy” (and yes, the audience sang along!) from Where’s Charley? Joel Grey did “Mr. Cellophane” from Chicago, Rebecca Luker, Sarah Uriarte Berry and Debbie Gravitte revisited their glorious “Sing for Your Supper” from The Boys from Syracuse. Other numbers came from Finian’s Rainbow, Too Many Girls, Fanny, Anyone Can Whistle, Do Re MiJuno, Lady in the Dark, Carnival and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Of special note was a middle section of found items, including “Where Do I Go From Here?” cut from Fiorello!, thrillingly sung by Victoria Clark. The most esoteric item on the bill was the overture for Nowhere to Go But Up, a nine performance bomb from 1962. Jack Viertel had asked Jonathan Tunick about whereabouts of its “the long-lost overture” during Merrily orchestra rehearsals. Turns out Tunick had it in his apartment. The evening ended with ‘Til Tomorrow from Fiorello! (which was the very first Encores! and will be revived this January). All musical numbers used the original arrangements and orchestrations. If there was a complaint it was that the evening ended too soon.

Everything’s bigger in Texas, y’all.

The first time an Edna Ferber novel was adapted into a musical the genre was changed forever with Kern & Hammerstein’s Show Boat. The libretto marked a huge departure for Hammerstein, who had written many operettas up to that point. He found a way to tell the story onstage as a musical, while establishing a structure out of the sprawling scope of the original novel. His adaptation of the novel was a major stepping stone for the musical as a serious art form as it marked the first time that darker themes permeated the American musical with characters dealing with miscegenation, alcoholism, failed marriage, etc.

Lightning didn’t strike twice, however, when Ferber’s novel Saratoga Trunk became the Harold Arlen-Johnny Mercer-Morton da Costa musical Saratoga in 1959. Starring Howard Keel and Carol Lawrence, fresh from her success in West Side Story, the show received poor notices and closed after 80 performances.

Then there’s Giant. The story is probably best remembered in its Oscar-winning film adaptation starring Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean. It tells of Jordan Bick Benedict, a Texas cattle baron who brings his Virginia socialite to live on his ranch in Texas and their ongoing battle with jealous handyman turned oil tycoon Jett Rink over several generations. It’s got everything you can think of: romance, drama, racial and sexual tensions, etc, all set against the sweeping backdrop of the Texas landscape.

Now fifty years following the failure of Saratoga on Broadway, a musical version of Giant, with a score by the Michael John LaChiusa, book by Sybille Pearson and the direction of Jonathan Butterall, receives its world premiere at the Signature Theatre today. The new work is the first presentation in the American Musical Voices Project sponsored by the Shen Family Foundation and stars Lewis Cleale, Betsy Morgan, Ashley Morgan, Judy Blazer and John Dossett. The show isn’t shying away from its status as an epic: the show’s website says it runs three and a half hours, divided into three acts (and is also where I got the title for this entry). According to a post on All That Chat, an email is going around letting ticketholders know that the running time is now approximately four hours, with two 15-minute intermissions. Curtain times are nightly at 7PM; matinees at 1PM. The post also says that the the lobby is offering a three course “Taste of Texas” meal. The first course, served preshow, is chowder and corncake. The next course is quesadilla with salsa at first intermission and a pecan tart is served at the second intermission. It may not be a marathon of The Norman Conquests, but it certainly seems like a full event.

It should be interesting to see how the new show is received. Larger scale musicals based on large-scale novels tend to vary in their success. Of course, there has been Show Boat, Les Miserables and Ragtime. But then again there has also been Here’s Where I Belong (East of Eden), Ari (Exodus), Gantry (Elmer Gantry), Shogun – the Musical, Angel (Look Homeward Angel), the aforementioned Saratoga, and Jane Eyre. Plus there have been two versions of Gone with the Wind. Harold Rome’s adaptation was a major success as Scarlett in Japan and a minor success under the original title in London. However, the American production flopped out of town. The second adaptation by Margaret Martin opened in London last year to blistering reviews and shuttered after 79 performances.

As a fan both the original novel and film adaptation of Giant, I’m looking forward to the reactions of both the audiences and critics and am almost nuts enough to consider traveling down to DC to see it.