“It’s the role of a lifetime. It’s the best written role for a woman over 40 with the possible exception of Mama Rose. Desiree in A Little Night Music is up there too, but Desiree doesn’t carry around the same kind of baggage with all that passive-aggressive Southern charm and complexity. I would say that all three women have spent the majority of their adult lives running away, and come face to face with their destiny, their reason to stop running. All three are terribly vibrant, funny, and flawed beyond belief. That is my favorite thing about them. Their imperfection.”
– Victoria Clark, in an interview with BroadwayWorld, discussing Margaret Johnson of The Light in the Piazza fame
‘Staying on the subject of the presidency, Bruce Haberkern wrote that “With the events of this month’s Inauguration, it might be a chance to revisit the Bernstein-Lerner unsuccessful musical, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The musical had a lot to do with the black servants’ participation in maintaining the White House, especially in the lyrics of ‘Take Care of this House.’ Today their descendants are actually taking care of that (White) House.”
Kevin Daly mentioned 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, too, and cast Victoria Clark in the Patricia Routledge role should the show ever materialize. (Given the estates’ feelings about the quick flop, that will only happen when the show goes into the public domain.) But Daly came up with an even more fetching idea that really should happen — and could: “Let’s have the upcoming cast of Blithe Spirit present a one-night concert performance of High Spirits for their Actor’s Fund performance.” If it happens, I’m there!’
Hey Bernstein and Lerner estates, let’s talk, shall we?
Kevin Daly did Encores! a favor by casting Darling of the Day for them. Now all that Encores! has to do is do the show. Daly wisely chose David Hyde Pierce as Priam Farll, Victoria Clark as Alice Challice, Judy Kaye as Lady Vale, and Gavin Lee as Alfie. I’m interested; aren’t you? Hope the powers-that-be at City Center are listening.
After taking a two month hiatus, I finally made a triumphant return to the Great White Way. Alright, so it doesn’t actually call for a title song with high-kicks down a staircase, but it’s really good to be back in the Midtown area, inspite of the tourists. I convinced fellow blogger and regular partner in crime Roxie to play hooky from work (almost, she worked the morning) and have a two-show Wednesday with me.
First up was the Tony winning Best Revival of a Play, Boeing-Boeing (sad they relegated this to the off-air hour that wasn’t televised). It was my first time back in the Longacre since Well and the restoration is complete. Rox and I agreed that we didn’t particularly care for the peach-pink paintjob, but the hunter green seats are quite nice and more comfortable than I expected. All I can say about Boeing-Boeing is that it is a fast-paced, first rate and furiously funny production of a rather unremarkable farce. It’s a testament to the company that they can take something that in less capable hands would be lethal and turn it into a comic gold mine. The cast, extraordinarily directed by Matthew Warchus, stars my new hero, Mark Rylance in his Tony-winning Broadway debut, Bradley Whitford and Christine Baranski. The gist of it, Whitford is a savvy businessman in Paris is romancing three stewardesses from three different airlines (each from a different country), played by the gam-happy trio of Kathryn Hahn as the obnoxious American, Gina Gershon as the lusty Italian Gabriella and the scene-stealing, Tony nominated Mary McCormack as the German amazon Gretchen. (Note: Gershon was out, her understudy is the incredibly talented and uber-sexy Roxanna Hope). Rylance plays his childhood friend from Wisconsin, a naive sad sack type who gets thrust into the middle of the hectic day in which Whitford’s carefully calculated affairs collide with the inevitable date with oblivion. Rylance was endearingly funny, as he does his best to cover for his friend, getting more and more outrageous as the play goes on. Whitford excels as the swaggering businessman who suffers panic attacks when his careful existence is threatened. (One of the day’s highlights is when Whitford literally climbs the walls of his apartment while Rylance rolls himself under the carpet). Baranski is a delightfully droll highlight as the long-suffering yet chic maid Berthe. This is the first farce I’ve enjoyed in NY since the 2002 revival of the superlative Noises Off! and you know what? We could use more of this genre in NY. Whitford and McCormack leave the show this Sunday. The rest shall carry on the funny at the Longacre for hopefully quite some time. Here’s his hilariously offbeat acceptance speech at the 2008 Tony Awards, which consisted of his recitation of a prose poem:
In between shows we grabbed dinner at O’Lunney’s with my best friend Matt who happened to be in NY for some auditions where he and Roxie discovered the secret to interpretive dance in Sondheim. The results were nothing short of hilarious. Then as if the comedic gods were still smiling post matinee, an old guy walked into the restroom on Matt directly across from our table, at which point Roxie and I went into complete hysterics. (Who doesn’t love a little low comedy in real life?) Loving the O’Lunney pens, I made sure to grab a handful in the greatest tradition of Sophia Petrillo. (What? I love how they write!)
That night we took in The Marriage of Bette and Boo at the Laura Pels. So far, Roxie and I have taken in both Juno and Inner Voices because of great affection for Victoria Clark. Needless to say, we were going to continue the trend with this revival of Christopher Durang’s darkly absurdist comedy that deconstructs a complex marriage (ripe with Catholicism) over the course of 3o years. Clark was joined onstage by John Glover, Julie Hagerty (who shouldn’t be allowed to ever leave NY theatre), Kate Jennings Grant (whom I adored in Proof and is a decidedly lovely human being as well) and the standout, Terry Beaver, who dominates in the second act as Fr. Donnally, the family priest, with two glorious monologues about marriage and death (leading, respectively, a marriage counseling session and a funeral). One of the highlights of the entire day was the moment in which gives the congregation his impression of a piece of bacon in a frying pan. As someone brought up in the Catholic faith, with nine years of parochial school and countless years in choirs and as an altar server, I could relate to practically everything going on in the play, and laugh at it with knowing incredulity. Clark scored comedic pathos in a scene involving a birthday cake, quite possibly her best moment of the entire evening.
Non-sequitur: I was at one time an incredibly obedient practicing Catholic, so much so that it was thought I’d be a priest. Some even went as far as suggesting I’d be the first American pope. However, I had my “calling” in seventh grade when I decided that I wasn’t about to go through life without sex. Many people laugh when I relay this story.
Anyway, it’s definitely not a play for the faint of heart. The diabolically funny running gag of the play is that Bette constantly delivers stillborns, with the unceremonious dumping of the baby on the stage by the doctor, which eventually lends itself to swaddled bundle being tossed in from the wings. I imagine were I still a devout Catholic I might be offended at what was going on, but years of religious disillusionment open one’s mind to the appreciation of such goings on. (Oh the irony…)
As I type this, Adam LeFevre, who played Paul Brennan in Bette and Boo is currently on TV in a bit role on “Law & Order: SVU.”
– The Zipper Factory Theatre is one of the more unique performance spaces I’ve seen in my life. Great is the confusion Roxie and I have upon entering the lobby. Or bar. (It’s both. This is a bit unusual and really cool). Looks like we’re waiting for the rave to begin. (Roxie: “Oh didn’t you read about that. I brought glowsticks.”)
– House opens. General admission. You can pick your own seating. In this case the minivan bench of your choice. (Whaaa?) The atmosphere is more that of an acting conservatory than say a theatre. Has that black box meets thrust stage quality about it.
– Victoria Clark is one of the most superlative talents on the NY stage.
– OMG. Victoria Clark is in a nightgown and playing a character at three distinctively different phases of her life. She’s incredibly genuine as an eleven year old pre-pubescent. The work is musically and dramatically fascinating. Probably the first thirty-minute, three-act play I’ve ever seen.
– Roxie and I are six feet away from Victoria Clark. I imagine it’s akin to what it’s like to be looking into the face of God.
– Tres Ninas is offering Victoria Clark a chance to play a fascinatingly self-destructive divorced alcoholic mother of two who has sex with someone half her age.
– OMFG. That was an orgasm. Strange feeling of deja vu hits…
– Catharsis. Supreme acting through song. Clark has a gift when it comes to subtext and giving a layered, complex performance. The woman to my right is an absolute emotional wreck. And rightly so. The audience gives her a Routledge (mid-show standing ovation). She exits. She is missed already. My neck hurts. It’s the damn van seat.
– The woman in front of us looks like Liz Smith. Is that her?
– What the hell is this girl wearing? Okay. This is the girl from Spring Awakening. It’s Alice Unwrapped. There’s a vamp. I’m already bored. Bring back Vicki.
– So the girl is one of those delusionally weird teens who prides herself on being different. Her dad is in Iraq. This cannot be ending well.
– Dad is missing. Mom goes depressive. Daughter goes delusional. Younger sister sounds like an irritating know-it-all who deserves to be slapped.
– This is starting to get tedious. Do we really need thirty minutes to cover what probably should be a ten-minute one-act?
– I would love to hear Victoria Clark’s take on the “Duet for One” from 1600. And see her play Alice Challice in Darling of the Day. She can do anything.
– Jennifer Damiano seems like she needs more time in acting school. Or she should be in the house for Victoria Clark to see how you tell a story, create a complex character and captivate an audience all by your lonesome. Then again, Clark also teaches… hmm…
– Is Bill Finn aware of this?
– Okay, so the little girl is the one who’s mind is still with it. I’m starting to think this story would be more interesting if it came from her perspective. Or the mom’s. Anyone but this girl.
– More vamping.
– I think Bill Finn should sue…
– Okay. She takes off the vest. An interesting concept is marred by poor writing and poor execution. Polite applause. Slight headache. I guess that’s what a thirty minute rip-off of “Passover” from Elegies will do to you.
– Bring back Vicki Clark. Is that Liz Smith? I still can’t tell.
– Ohh. Here’s Barbara Walsh. It’s A Thousand Words Come to Mind. I’m captivated from the way she puts down her handbag.
– Oh my. Mom is dying. This isn’t going to end well either.
– I’ve never seen Barbara Walsh perform before. Now I want to see everything she does from here on out.
– She manages to be quite affecting in disclosing the nature of her relationship with her mother. All the while revealing oh so much about herself in the process. Now that is effective acting.
– Ooh. This has a literary angle. The mom tells her daughter she was the inspiration for a character in Philip Roth’s The Human Stain. Mom starts to learn of her mother for the first time in her life.
– Um.. Mom is dying. Someone in the upper decks shrieks with laughter. Let the awkward times roll… Walsh blazed on unfazed. We turn back to Walsh, fazed.
– Borders? What the hell? Sorry. Bizarre loyalty to B&N.
– Barbara Walsh should be the next Vera in Mame. Her ability to be wry and dry is succinct. But she is also so damn touching. Damiano should stick around for this master class too. I have a sudden desire to see Walsh and Clark work opposite each other. And I want to see Walsh play Charlotte in A Little Night Music.
– The mom has died. Time for the denouement. We discover that she was a frustrated writer who never realized her dreams. Daughter understands her now more than ever. They’ve finally connected.
– The letter from Philip Roth. Exactly the satisfactory touch the audience wanted. Many sighs from all over.
– My neck pain has spread into a tension headache. All from that awkward seating. Time to go.
On this day three years ago I attended my first-ever Broadway opening night. It was also the night I fell madly in love with a new musical; a feeling that I had never experienced before nor since. The show: The Light in the Piazza.
It was an interesting progression for me. I was familiar with the film adaptation of Elizabeth Spencer’s original novella when it played on TCM a few years before. It starred Olivia de Havilland and Yvette Mimieux, respectively, as the mother and her daughter on vacation in Florence, Italy. George Hamilton was Fabrizio, who came off lecherous rather than romantic – to the point where I was actually disappointed the two got together. Rossano Brazzi was his father. It wasn’t a spectacular film, but it featured a stellar performance from de Havilland and beautiful CinemaScope cinematography (shot on location).
Anyway, as I heard this was being adapted as a stage musical, I was instantly intrigued at the prospect. I’d never really heard Adam Guettel before. I knew about Floyd Collins and that he was Richard Rodgers’ grandson, but that was it. I vaguely followed the musical while it was out of town, my interest piqued because I had recently seen Victoria Clark in performance for the first time in the Broadway production of Urinetown, in which she briefly assumed the role of Penelope Pennywise. Hearing her knock “It’s a Privilege to Pee” out of the ballpark remains one of my favorite discoveries of a talent ever. The song is mostly high belting, but it culminates in an operatic high C. From my vantage point mid mezzanine at the old Henry Miller’s I could hear her acoustic sound. Needless to say, I was very impressed.
When time came for the show to come into New York, I very calmly yet honestly told everyone it was the musical I was looking forward to the most. The out of town reviews were mixed to positive, but it was a work in progress so I expected continued work. Vicki earned raves for her characterization of Margaret Johnson and was supported by Celia Keenan-Bolger as her daughter, initially in Seattle at the Intiman (where Sher is artistic director) and in Chicago at the Goodman.
It was Lincoln Center Theatre who brought the musical to Broadway as part of their 2005 season. Noah went to a preview and called raving about and I knew that we were onto something special here. I followed his lead and joined the student ticketing program on the Lincoln Center website and proceeded to look for my $20 seat. When performing my search I did a double take when I saw they were offering the opening night performance for sale (While roaming through Lincoln Center on the day of the show, I would discovered the opening night performance was on TKTS). Well, I snatched that up immediately. My seat was in the rear of the Loge, but that didn’t matter for that price and the opportunity.
I’d only done the closing of the Bernadette Peters Gypsy prior to this, so my experience with high energy theatrical events was considerably limited. But there in the lobby of the Vivian Beaumont I watched as John Lithgow, Helen Hunt, Marc Shaiman, Scott Wittman, Adam Guettel, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Peter Sarsgaard, Frank Rich roamed about while Mary Rodgers Guettel stood receiving people like royalty.
The uniqueness of this experience is pretty much beyond the mere use of words. I can draw out all the adjectives I know: resplendent, ethereal, cathartic, et al. to describe what is was like for me. But none can ever do justice to the emotional impact that was delivered. I made fast friends with an aspiring actress and her friend next to me. There was the hat placed downstage center on the bench with a pin spot. The cell phone announcement wonderfully delivered in Italian by Felicity LaFortune. Then down came the house lights. And that overture started. A simple harp gliss with a hint of tension building from other instruments which released into the main “Light” theme. I knew within seconds – and this is a rare occurrence – that I was going to love this new musical. And I did. I immersed myself in the beauty and grace of the musical’s staging and scenography. I am forever a fan of Bartlett Sher. One thing about that opening night performance I will specifically never forget is how “Dividing Day” completely devastated me.
The actors were stellar, such legit singing on Broadway, though I was thrown by the more pop sounding Matthew Morrison as Fabrizio, though admittedly, he grew on me during the run. Kelli O’Hara was the perfect embodiment of the child-like Clara, creating a character of nuance and ambiguity that complemented Clark’s Margaret (her replacement Katie Rose Clarke, embodied the childish aspects of the character as well, but was nowhere near O’Hara on the acting and singing fronts). But the entire performance was centered around Clark’s tour de force as Margaret, giving a devastatingly beautiful performance that ranks among the best I have ever seen in my theatregoing life.
The first act ended with the gorgeous “Say it Somehow” with that coda and gasp-inducing black out. The second act ended with “Fable.” The audience went wild. I mean we went completely nuts – the entire house was on its feet before a single person re-entered for their curtain call. And another theatrical first: after the actors made their exit, our applause continued and continued. In fact grew louder and we would only cease once Messrs. Guettel, Sher and Lucas made a bow. I had a feeling akin to sailing, I think. A natural high. I had been both moved and affected by this work of art which to me was challenging but accessible.
I like to consider 4.18.05 the night I rediscovered my lost romanticism. As I left the Beaumont, I was already on my cell phone to Noah, proclaiming “Oh my God, this is the best new musical I’ve ever seen.” And he proceeded to read me back a rave review from Broadway.com. I strolled by the fountain at Lincoln Center in a daze, almost walking into Mr. & Mrs. Peter Boyle, Mike Nichols and Diane Sawyer, who were attending a Dustin Hoffman celebration at Avery Fisher Hall. I watched a rather attractive young couple walk by the fountain, also having emerged from Avery Fisher. The gentleman placed his topcoat over the shoulders of his lover with such tenderness and care that I could and only pause and smile. Truth be told, I’d been more likely to roll my eyes and scoff, but then again, it’s much easier to be a cynic than a romantic, no?
The score was unlike anything I could have anticipated. Orchestrated with as many strings as there are stars in the skies. (I’m a wee bit prone to hyperbole, sue me). All woodwinds save the flute and piccolo, which added just a tinge of melancholy to the score’s sound. And of course there’s that harp, that gorgeous harp around which the entire orchestration is built. I would venture a guess that I’ve listened to this score more times than any other. There were five months where the CD rarely left my player. And the repeat button was on. And repeat listenings/viewings only unraveled more and more depth and skill in the music and lyrics. (I know some people loathed the lyrics, but I admired their dramatic honesty and simplicity). Guettel as a musical composer managed to create a hybrid of the Rodgers & Hammerstein and the Sondheim schools of musical theatre, infused with a neo-classicist stream of consciousness in the flow of the melody.
It was also the night I became an ardent fan and supporter of the Lincoln Center Theatre, a non-profit company that is not afraid to take artistic risks and not afraid to spare any expense when they believe in a work. The show would eventually win six Tony awards – the most of any show that year – including a deserved sweep in the scenographic categories: Lighting, Scenic and Costume Design (the combination of the elements made me feel as though I was actually in Florence). The show was also awarded for its rich orchestrations, score and the coup d’grace: Best Actress in a Musical for Victoria Clark, whose performance in the role will one day be considered legendary. The show may have lost the Best Musical Tony, but it had already won Best Musical of my Heart – sentimental, yes, but I’ve never given that designation to any other show.
The 2004-05 season became a joyous one with four solid shows opening towards the end of the season, three of which were Spamalot, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and the fourth was Piazza, which became a surprise hit for LCT and warranted several extensions past its original June closing date (eventually extending its run by 54 weeks). By the time it closed on June 2, 2006, it had played 504 performances at the Vivian Beaumont. It would shortly thereafter launch a year-long national tour starring Christine Andreas and Elena Shaddow.
For the first time, I was compelled to go back to a Broadway show. Even when I thought of it prior, I had for whatever reason decided not to. But I returned, and returned. By the time of the closing (which, yes, I also attended) I had seen the musical 12 times. Can you believe it? And no, I don’t regret spending the money on it at all. If I could have, I would have gone back many, many more times. At this point, I do have to thank my friends who were so wonderful putting up with my year and four months of complete and total obsession. I wanted everyone to see this show, hear this score and could talk of little else. I took my a good friend to the closing performance who had listened to me harp on about the show for well over a year. He soon learned that I was rather calm in comparison to the woman to his left (who shouted “MATT!” at Matthew Morrison, who was in the audience for the last show, until he turned and gave her a quick wave). The only new musical to open since that I have appreciated nearly as much was Grey Gardens. I only hope it won’t be too long until a new musical captures my undivided attention.
The Light in the Piazza was a rare experience, and one which will forever hold a special place in my mind and soul. April 18th will always be an incredibly poignant and nostalgic date for me.
Here is Vicki Clark as Margaret Johnson performing the incandescent finale, “Fable.”
Colossal failure. That’s the summation I generally give 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the Leonard Bernstein-Alan Jay Lerner flop that played a tumultuously chaotic out of town tryout and limped into New York for a 7 performance run. Where did it go wrong? Probably at the very start. Lerner was frustrated over the Watergate scandal of 1972 and collaborated with Bernstein on a concept musical that would examine the first hundred years of the White House, with an emphasis on race relations through that time. Highly ambitious stuff.
Tonight I was at the condensed revision of the piece (which eliminated practically the entire book and focused on the historical musical scenes) called A White House Cantata. The event was presented by the Collegiate Chorale under the artistic direction of Tony award winning actor Roger Rees and marked the NY premiere of this revision, and the first time the score had been heard in NY since it closed May 8, 1976.
The piece calls out for a more theatrical staging rather than the staid classical production it received tonight. The Collegiate Chorale stood and sat upstage in a semi circle, with four chairs and four mike stands (everyone had a binder) downstage. Chills were to be had several times throughout. “Take Care of This House” and “To Make Us Proud” (which reminded me so much of “Make Our Garden Grow”) are stunning pieces. The crescendo of the latter was beyond gorgeous. (“To Make Us Proud” should never have been cut as the finale. It is a stunning summation of liberal patriotism – and that last note is held forever and a day). Hearing those original orchestrations (by Bernstein, Hershy Kay and Sid Ramin) was worth the price of admission alone. Dwayne Croft was amusing as the President, and in stellar voice, if no great shakes as an actor. Emily Pulley‘s “Duet for One” was well executed – she found the comedy where June Anderson failed in the initial presentation/recording ten years ago. And needless to say, the number stopped the show. However – she did not take the high D above C at the end which separates the good First Ladies from the superlative First Ladies (like Patricia Routledge and Judy Kaye, who made the first official recording of the showcase for John McGlinn). Robert Mack and Anita Johnson were fine as Lud and Seena; especially with the infectious “I Love My Wife.” Rees also made an amusing cameo as Admiral Cockburn during the “Sonatina.”
As the show is performed now, with practically nothing left of the book it runs an intermission-less 90 minutes. Basically it’s everything you hear on the disappointingly lifeless album they recorded after the London premiere ten years ago (with Thomas Hampson and June Anderson). But I feel though that by removing the entire book, you’re left with just songs and little context. They tried to make up for that with a historical Powerpoint presentation that lasted the entire performance. They also wisely used supertitles for lyrical clarity. Which brings me to my aforementioned quibble. The piece is eminently theatrical and not classical – it would have fared better with musical theatre actors in the leads. Say for instance, Marc Kudisch and Victoria Clark as the President and First Lady. (Let’s face it, Victoria Clark should just do the Patricia Routledge songbook). There was a lack of cohesion that was made even more obvious with the lack of dialogue or even a narration. Hmm.. That sounds like an idea for the cantata, link the fragmented musical sequences with narrative. That would make more sense than just jumping from one musical piece to another. It could also help the audience care more for Lud and Seena, since they are the fictional characters of the piece, who really come out of nowhere and go nowhere, except to serve as catalysts for racial discussion within the musical numbers. We should have an opportunity to care for them. But let’s face it, it is a problematic show, otherwise it wouldn’t be obsessed by elitists and curious flop fiends.
I am, as many of you are well aware, fascinated to no end by the piece, especially since it’s one of such breadth and scope. And there seems to be a masterwork yearning to break out of the confines of the show in each of its revisions. I found that there was more fun to the piece when it was a Broadway musical and not an oratorio (the piece demands the energy and acting, especially in regards to the satiric numbers). They’ve reinstated the much more reserved original Prelude as opposed to the lively overture that opened the show on Broadway (which is decidedly Bernsteinian) and the framework of “Rehearse” which is infectious and little tidbits, like “The Honor of Your Presence is Requested” which for whatever reason I just love the melodic line. The impeachment scene between President Johnson and Seena is one of the most compelling dialogues that the show had to offer. It was nowhere to be seen. In fact, the servants rarely interact with the President and First Lady in the revision. The fragmentation sort of defeats the author’s original intent, doesn’t it?
The following quote from John Adams’ correspondence with his wife Abigail, written on his second day of occupancy was missing – and it makes for a beauty of a line:
“I pray Heaven to bestow the best of blessings on this House, and all that shall hereafter inhabit it. May none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof.”
After the show, there was a highly engaging talkback hosted by Seth Rudetsky with Richard Muenz, Beth Fowler, co-director George Faison and Fowler’s husband John Witham (they met during this production and were married a year later). Also present was Warren Hoge, who covered the show during its preview period in 1976 – and told an amusing anecdote about how he sang “Take Care of This House” to Ronald Reagan at a White House dinner. One of the audience questions was actually a comment from a man who was at the closing and recalled how Routledge received such an ovation for “Duet for One” that she performed an encore. Fowler backed him up saying it was the only time she had ever seen anything like that “They wouldn’t let the show go on.” She also does a rather amusing Pat Routledge impersonation. They mused on what worked and didn’t work. The chaos of rehearsals and being out of town. The confusion of having rehearsed half a scene, only to perform the new first half and the old second half at the evening perform. Yikes. Many mixed reactions on the original work from all onstage. “A wonderful-terrible experience.” They were all thrilled to hear the score again – and Faison summed it up best when he said that Lerner and Bernstein were trying to say too much.
Erik Haagensen, who was cited in the concert notes as having written an article about the musical for Show Music magazine in 1992, has worked on an estate-approved revision of the work that was done in the early 90s. What a shame we can’t get his work out in the open, because I feel that there is a masterwork among this ruin that has yet to surface.
One final quibble. For a show that deals with race it was jarring that the chorale was almost all white, with nary an African American woman in sight, save for Ms. Johnson.
While it was a treat to hear the piece live in NY, A White House Cantata is not and should not be the final word on this score.
It’s a whirlwind couple of days for me. In the span of two days I’ll have had the privilege of hearing two favorite flops scores. Unbelievable, huh? Tonight it was Juno, the Blitzstein-Stein adaptation of Sean O’Casey‘s acclaimed tragicomedy Juno and the Paycockat City Center Encores! Tomorrow night it will be A White House Cantata, the concert revision of Bernstein-Lerner’s 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, which is being presented by the Collegiate Chorale at Frederick Rose Theatre.
There is much to admire in Juno. Running for only 16 performances in 1959, the musical was plagued by the lack of a solid director, as well as being considered far too dark for its time. I treasure the original cast album. The score is fascinating to no end: Shirley Booth and Melvyn Douglas lead the way as Juno and Jack Boyle, with support from Monte Amundsen as their willful daughter Mary and Jack MacGowran (Squire Danaher’s lackey from The Quiet Man, playing a similarly sycophantic role) as Boyle’s drinking buddy Joxer Daly. Tommy Rall was Johnny, their son, who was left with one arm and the guilt of betraying his comrade in the rebellion to the British. When a British attorney comes to town, he says that the Boyle’s have come into an inheritance, and let’s just say it is downhill from there.
There are certain issues to be had with the musical. One: Juno and the Paycock is considered so deft a masterpiece that many critics feel musicalizing the material was necessary. Two: (and this could be from the Encores! treatment, not necessarily the show itself) the libretto is underwhelming and lacking cohesion. Three: Garry Hynes could have done a better job staging the piece. Four: A query more so than a critique… would Juno have fared better if it had involved the Irish civil war of 1922 (when the play is set) as opposed to the Irish rebellion against the English of 1921 (a not so subtle shift for which the author’s received O’Casey’s permission).
I am certainly most grateful to the Encores! crew for sticking to their mission this year (as much as I loved the Follies) and giving us these shows. I couldn’t help but feel that there were many directorial choices that could have been fleshed out further. Victoria Clark was a force of nature as Juno, the sharp tongued and long-suffering (yet good-hearted) earth mother. She sang with conviction and made the most of what is, musically, an underwritten role. Conrad Shuck was amusing, if not entirely successful as the Captain. He sang with gusto, but he missed much of the humor, particularly as Joxer’s foil in “Daarlin’ Man” (Listening to the cast album afterward, was a night and day experience; I was actually laughing out loud at the number). A stand-out was Tyler Hanes as Johnny; while we didn’t get the first act ballet, we got the second act nightmare in which the character faces much of his demons and fears onstage. It was a particularly breathtaking moment, and as pointed out to me, really difficult because he’s dancing with one arm. Celia Keenan-Bolger was excellent as Mary, even if her upper register is a bit under-developed. Michael Arden was good if vocally underwhelming (You couldn’t give us a real Irish tenor for the resplendent “One Kind Word”? Or at least one who could sustain those notes under Mary’s dialogue?). Celia’s art songs were fine; though “My True Heart” got awkward when it became a soft-shoe duet. Keep it a solo. But dramatically those songs are a marvel. The orchestrations are full and rich; Blitzstein really was wondrous at capturing the feel and texture of Irish folk music (even a parody of a John McCormack mother-worshipping tear-jerker). The “Hymn” and staged funeral should have not been placed upstage, I feel it would have had a better impact had it been placed downstage, with a more prescient force.
The surprise of the night to me? Juno and Mary’s madrigal “Bird Upon a Tree” stopped the show. And what a gloriously sung piece it was too.
Not a perfect piece but I’ll take it. And I’d gladly like to see it tried and attempted to be fixed once again…. all for love 😉
Milo O’Shea was in the house last night; why wasn’t the man onstage?
Had a grand time at Seppi‘s afterward with some grand company and some daarlin’ white Russians. One flop down, one to go…