23 May 2018

'Summer and Smoke' (CSC)


I’m not a full-fledged authority on Tennessee Williams, but I do know good deal about him and some of his plays as the result of several years of work with and for some scholars who are TW experts.   (For a number of years back in the ’80s, ’90s, and ’00s, I did research for pay and my principal clients ended up being a passel of Williams scholars who lived out of town and needed someone in New York City who could track down information and documents here.   That led me to doing several Williams-related projects of my own—some of which have been republished on Rick On Theater—and thus, I gathered a lot of biographical, literary, and theatrical information about the great playwright.) 

In particular, I did a great deal of work on two of Williams’s connected plays: Summer and Smoke (première 1947, Broadway 1948) and The Eccentricities of a Nightingale (written 1961, première 1964, Broadway 1976), his  reconsideration of the earlier play.   One of the Williams scholars, Philip C.  Kolin, asked me to contribute the chapter on the two plays to Tennessee Williams: A Guide to Research and Performance (Greenwood Press, 1998), which he was editing.   That eventually led to “The Lost Premiere of Tennessee Williams’s Eccentricities of a Nightingalefor The Journal of American Drama and Theatre (Spring 1999) and ultimately to “‘The Sculptural Drama’: Tennessee Williams’s Plastic Theatre” in the Tennessee Williams Annual Review (2002).   (The latter was posted in ROT on 20 March 2010 and the former on 9 May 2015.   I also wrote two original pieces for this blog: “Getting from Summer and Smoke to Eccentricities,” 26 February 2015, which, as the title suggests, relates how Williams reimagined Summer and Smoke as Eccentricities, and “‘The Pieces Don’t Fit!,’” 13 March 2015, which was suggested by a line spoken in the first act of Summer and Smoke and echoed in the second.)

In the spirit of full disclosure, I’ll also note that I appeared in a production of Eccentricities of a Nightingale in New Jersey in 1979—my first union show, from which I got my Actors Equity card.   (I played Roger Doremus, Alma’s nebbishy wannabe suitor.)

So, as I said, I know a bit about Summer and Smoke, currently running at the Classic Stage Company (for the next couple of days, anyway).   I also have strong feelings about the play, somewhat proprietary in a way, which will necessarily inform my report on the production.   

Summer and Smoke was the second of his major plays Williams wrote but the third to be staged on Broadway.   He began composing it in 1945 (as Chart of Anatomy) and it was first produced (as Summer and Smoke) in Dallas by Margo Jones at her esteemed regional company, Theatre ‘47, premièring on 8 July 1947.   Because A Streetcar Named Desire, written after Summer and Smoke, opened in December, the Broadway transfer of Summer to the Music Box Theatre was delayed until 6 October 1948.  (The Glass Menagerie had opened on Broadway on 31 March 1945 and ran until 3 August 1946.)  Compared unfavorably to both Menagerie and Streeetcar, Summer ran only until 1 January 1949, 102 performances.  (Menagerie and Streetcar had original runs of 563 and 855 performances, respectively—very long for that time.)  The play was considered a flop and nearly derailed the nascent playwright’s career.   

Directed by Jones in both Dallas and New York with Tod Andrews as John and Katherine Balfour as Alma in the world première and then Andrews and Margaret Phillips on Broadway.   On Broadway, Mrs.  Winemiller was played by Marga Ann Deighton, Reverend Winemiller by Raymond Van Sickle, Dr.  Buchanan by Ralph Theadore; Anne Jackson appeared as Nellie Ewell and the wonderful Ray Walston had the near-cameo role of the salesman Archie Kramer.   The Broadway set and lighting were designed by Jo Mielziner and the costumes by Rose Bogdanoff; Williams’s friend Paul Bowles wrote original incidental music for the production.  Mielziner’s scenic design was highly praised in the 1948 reviews and I’ll have something to say about this aspect of the CSC production shortly.

In 1950, a tour of Summer and Smoke starring Dorothy McGuire and John Ireland covered the western United States.   On 22 November 1951, the London premiere, directed by Peter Glenville, opened with William Sylvester and Margaret Johnston as the would-be lovers.  (Foreign-language premières opened all over the globe from 1950 to 1994.)  Then, on 24 April 1952, Off-Broadway was born when Circle in the Square restaged Summer and Smoke starring Lee Richardson and Geraldine Page.   Running for 356 performances, the revival was directed by José Quintero.   The production established Off-Broadway as an important venue for serious theater, revived the reputations of the play and the author, and made names for Quintero (who went on to become a renowned interpreter of Williams’s work) and Page.   

Two years later, Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage produced a popular Summer (9 February-21 March 1954) directed by Alan Schneider with George Grizzard and Dorothea Jackson, with Frances Sternhagen as Mrs.  Winemiller.   In 1975, Gene Feist staged an Off-Broadway revival for New York’s Roundabout Theatre Company in its Chelsea home with Michael Storm as John and Debra Mooney as Alma.   In July 1986, Christopher Reeve and Laila Robins portrayed the central couple at the Williamstown (Massachusetts) Theatre Festival and two years later, Marshall Mason directed Reeve for the Center Theatre Group, Los Angeles, opposite Christine Lahti (11 February-1 April 1988).  Roundabout revived Summer and Smoke on Broadway in 1996 with Harry Hamlin and Mary McDonnell as John and Alma under the direction of David Warren.   

Paramount produced the film adaptation of Summer and Smoke, with a screenplay by James Poe and Meade Roberts, in 1961.   Geraldine Page, nominated for an Academy Award, repeated her Off-Broadway stage success as Alma opposite Laurence Harvey under the direction of Peter Glenville (director of the London stage production).   On 23 January 1972, a television adaptation of Summer and Smoke was aired in the British Broadcasting Company’s “Play of the Month” series.   Never broadcast in the United States, the program starred American actors David Hedison and Lee Remick.

Summer and Smoke is the only major Williams play to have been set to music in his lifetime (not counting the 1952 Streetcar ballet).   Composed by Lee Hoiby with a libretto by Lanford Wilson, the opera debuted on 19 June 1971 by the St.  Paul Opera Association with John Reardon singing John and Mary Beth Peil, Alma, under the conductor Igor Buketoff.   

The current Off-Broadway revival, co-produced with the Transport Group Theatre Company and directed by its artistic director and co-founder, Jack Cummings III, began previews at CSC’s East Village home on 11 April 2018 and opened on 3 May.  The production, extended from a 20 May closing, is now scheduled to end on 25 May; I saw the 8 p.m. performance on Friday, 11 May.

The Transport Group Theatre Company is a non-profit, Off-Broadway theater troupe in New York City.  Founded in 2001 by now-artistic director Cummings and actress Robyn Hussa, Transport stages new plays and musicals and revivals with a focus on American stories told in a visually progressive way.  The company, which currently performs in various venues around New York, also commissions new works by American writers, including re-imagined revivals.  Since 2007, Cummings has been artistic director and Lori Fineman, executive director.  Through its first eight years, Transport Group was a resident theatre company at the Connelly Theatre; an Off-Broadway venue in Manhattan’s East Village.  Transport’s produced several environmental productions including the OBIE Award-winning The Boys in the Band (2010), which seated the audience in chairs around the play’s living room set in a Chelsea penthouse, and the first New York revival of Michael John LaChiusa’s Hello Again (2011), in which round banquet tables doubled as both the audience seating and the actors’ playing space. 

In 2007, Transport Group received a special Drama Desk Award for its “breadth of vision and presentation of challenging productions” and in 2018 the company won a Drama Critics’ Circle Award Special Citation.  Transport Group has been nominated for 31 Drama Desk Awards, five Outer Critics Circle Awards, five Drama League Awards, three Off-Broadway Alliance, and two Lucille Lortel Awards, among others.  In 2011, Transport Group’s production of the Douglas Carter Beane-Lewis Flinn musical Lysistrata Jones transferred to Broadway and was nominated for a Tony Award.   The American Theatre Wing awarded Transport Group a National Theatre Company Grant in 2011.

In 1967, director Christopher Martin founded the Classic Stage Company Repertory in a 100-seat theater at Rutgers Presbyterian Church on Manhattan’s West 73rd Street as a theater committed to reimagining classic plays for contemporary audiences.  In 1973, after a period of peripatetic existence, the theater moved into its present home on East 13th Street, formerly an East Village carriage house.  Martin left the company in 1985 and was succeeded as artistic director by Craig Kinzer and Producing Director Carol Ostrow (until 1987), Carol Perloff (1987-92), David Esbjornson (1992-98), Barry Edelstein (1998-2003), Brian Kulick (2003-16), and John Doyle (2016-present).  In the 50 years since its founding, CSC has become a leading Off-Broadway theater that is a home for new and established artists, as well audiences seeking epic stories intimately told.  (The troupe’s performance space, a thrust configuration with seating on three sides of a floor-level acting area, holds only 199 spectators.)  CSC Productions have been cited by all major Off-Broadway theater awards including the OBIE, Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, Drama League, and the Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Body of Work.  Summer and Smoke is Tennessee Williams’s debut production at CSC.

Tennessee Williams (1911-83) was born Thomas Lanier Williams III in Columbus, Mississippi, to Cornelius Coffin (C. C.) Williams (1879-1957), a traveling shoe salesman, and the former Edwina Dakin (1884-1980), who like many of her son’s heroines thought of herself as a Southern belle; the couple married in 1907. (Tom Williams became Tennessee in 1939.  Through his father, Tom was a descendant of John Sevier, 1745-1815, the first governor of Tennessee from 1796 to 1801, and 1803 to 1809.)  Edwina was the daughter of the Reverend Walter Dakin (1857-1955), an Episcopal priest, and Rosina (Rose) Otte Dakin (1863-1944), who taught music and singing to some of her husband’s parishioners.  Because of his father’s peripatetic work, Williams and his mother, sister  Rose Isabel Williams (1909-96), and brother Walter Dakin Williams (known as Dakin; 1919–2008) lived with his maternal grandparents in the parsonages where Williams’s beloved grandfather was pastor. 

In 1915, Reverend Dakin, a fixer for troubled parishes, was assigned to St. George’s Episcopal Church in Clarksdale, Mississippi, a small river port in the Mississippi Delta area. The Dakins and the Williamses lived in Clarksdale until 1918 (and Tom returned there from 1920 to ’21 to finish elementary school), so the dramatist lived there for a large chunk of the period in which Summer and Smoke is set.  It’s generally accepted that Clarksdale became several towns of Tennessee Williams plays, including the Glorious Hill of Summer and Smoke and Eccentricities of a Nightingale. 

(From 1902 to 1905, Reverend Dakin served as Episcopal minister in Port Gibson, Mississippi, 175 miles south along the Mississippi from Clarksdale.  This town has a famous landmark: the First Presbyterian Church whose steeple is topped by “an enormous gilded hand with its index finger pointing straight up, accusingly, at—heaven,” as Alma describes her father’s Glorious Hill Episcopal church in Eccentricities.  The description doesn’t appear in Summer and Smoke, however.) 

Williams is far too well known (and his life much too full) to summarize here; he’s easy to look up in any number of sources.  This brief snippet, however, provides many clues to the origins and conception of the playwright’s second major play.  In all his plays, Williams was a compulsive recycler of bits of his biography and experiences.  In Summer and Smoke, like Reverend Dakin, for instance, Reverend Winemiller was the Episcopal minister of the town and like “The Nightingale of the Delta,” Williams grew up at the rectory.  (Williams once insisted, “I’m Alma.”)  Reverend Dakin’s father had been a small-town doctor like the Drs. Buchanan and Rose Dakin had taught piano and voice like Alma.  C. C. Williams was a drummer for a shoe company, just as is Archie Kramer, the young man Alma picks up in the play’s last scene.  (The salesman’s last name comes from Tennessee Williams’s first girlfriend, Hazel Kramer, the only woman to whom he proposed marriage when he was 18.)

Both Mrs. Winemiller and Alma manifest characteristics of Williams’s sister, Rose, and mother.  The older woman is drawn from the later, clearly schizophrenic Rose, but Edwina Williams’s depiction of her daughter’s overreaction to illness echoes Alma’s.  (Rose Williams began exhibiting symptoms of her illness at 14 and was diagnosed in 1937, when she was institutionalized.  Rose was lobotomized in 1943 and Tennessee looked after her all of his life.)  Much of Alma is also drawn from Edwina Williams, the small-town minister’s daughter with a streak of Puritanism who had been called a nightingale. 

The egocentric hedonist of Summer and Smoke, John, is a portrait of Williams’s father, who preferred carousing to domesticity.  C. C. Williams lost part of his ear in a fight over a card game; John is knifed in a drunken fight while gambling at Moon Lake. (Moon Lake is a real recreation area just 18 miles north of Clarksdale and Lyon, where Dr. Buchanan, Sr.’s fever clinic is, is a tiny town about two miles northeast of Clarksdale.).  The elder Dr. Buchanan, a remote, cold, and censorious father, depicts another aspect of C. C. Williams, who denigrated his son and called him “Miss Nancy.”  The Reverend Winemiller is inspired by (but not a portrait of) Rev. Walter Dakin, whom Williams adored all his life.. 

The foundation of Summer and Smoke (and Eccentricities) is Edwina Williams’s tales of her youth in Port Gibson and Natchez, Mississippi, that she told her children (and which were published in her memoir, Remember Me To Tom [G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1963]).  Both plays had their origins in a short story, “Bobo,” which Williams wrote in 1941, then revised into “The Yellow Bird” in 1946; published in 1947, “Yellow Bird” centered on a preacher‘s daughter named Alma Tutwiler.  (There were Tutwilers in Clarksdale; the name Winemiller came from another story, “One Arm.”) 

Like most of Williams’s plays, Summer and Smoke exists in two versions, a “literary” or “reading” text and an “acting” text.  The longer, “literary” version was the play as Williams wrote it, successfully produced in Dallas, but trimmed during Jones’s rehearsals in New York.  The shorter version is the text sold by Dramatists Play Service, the agent for all non-professional productions and publisher of the official “acting version.”  The “literary” text is published in hardcover volumes (including anthologies such as The Collected Plays of Tennessee Williams from the Library of America) and trade paperbacks (New Directions’ The Theatre of Tennessee Williams).  The historic Quintero revival in 1952 was based on the longer version, with the Prologue of Alma and John as children meeting by the stone angel, the iconic image of the play, and so is the CSC mounting.

Set in the fictional town of Glorious Hill, Mississippi, in “the first few years of” the 20th century to 1916, Summer and Smoke—the title comes from a line in the poem “Emblems of Conduct” (c. 1924, pub. 1926) by Hart Crane (1899-1932), an important emotional influence on Williams—opens at “dusk of an evening in May” in the town square.  There we meet Alma Winemiller, the daughter of Glorious Hill’s Episcopal minister, as a ten-year-old (played at CSC by the same actress who plays the part as an adult, Marin Ireland), standing in front of the stone statue of an angel—which in Cummings’s mounting is represented by a framed tinted photograph on an easel. 

As Alma leans down to drink from the statue’s fountain, young John Buchanan, Jr., son of the town doctor (Nathan Darrow, also the adult actor for the later character), sneaks into the square and startles Alma.  They are schoolmates and clearly well acquainted with one another as Alma has given Johnny a box of handkerchiefs because he has a runny nose, and he knows exactly how to tease her.  As they banter, Alma tells John that the stone angel has a name: Eternity.  In fact, the two Buchanans and the Winemillers are neighbors, for the church’s rectory and the doctor’s office and home are next door to one another.

This Prologue, omitted from the “acting” version of the text, prefigures Alma and John’s relationship as adults.  We see her as a sensitive, possibly even hyper-sensitive, girl with religious tendencies (“My name is Alma and Alma is Spanish for soul,” she tells Johnny) and an almost maternal concern for John’s well-being and demeanor.  John, on the other hand, reveals the beginnings of his carelessness, apparent callowness, and rebelliousness at the same time as he’s obviously drawn to Alma—though not in a particularly spiritual way.  As young adults, both will manifest these characteristics to a more (over-)developed degree.  In Cummings’s production, the Prologue isn’t Williams’s foreshadowing of things to come, however, but Alma’s memory of the way things were before life happened.  In this conception, the adult actors portraying their characters’ younger selves works well.

After the Prologue, the scene jumps to July 4th a few years before the U.S. entry into World War I.  Reverend and Mrs. Winemiller (Jay Russell, taking the place at this performance of T.  Ryder Smith, and Barbara Walsh) arrive just as Alma finishes singing in the town’s Independence Day band concert.  (In the “literary” version, there’s a short scene that Cummings didn’t use of townspeople gathering in the square for the entertainment.  It seems that the Transport Group director reverts to the shorter script at this point.)  It’s apparent that Mrs. Winemiller is, as we used to say, not a well woman, having suffered a breakdown years earlier.  She slipped “into a state of perverse childishness,” Williams states, and Reverend Winemiller and his daughter refer to her as their “cross to bear.”  
After the elder Winemillers depart, John, who’s just returned home after studying medicine in Baltimore, approaches Alma, who is waiting to meet Roger Doremus (Jonathan Spivey), Alma’s would-be gentleman caller who plays French horn in the town band.  To attract her attention, John tosses a firecracker toward her when she isn’t looking.  Also passing through the square, as Alma and John banter somewhat tentatively, are Rosa Gonzales (Elena Hurst), whose father (Gerardo Rodriguez) owns the Moon Lake Casino, and Nellie Ewell (Hannah Elless), a 16-year-old voice pupil of Alma’s; we learn a few details about both women (who both represent figures in Williams’s pantheon of women). 

From this point on, the scenes mostly alternate between the rectory and the doctor’s office, with occasional visits to the fountain and one trip out to Moon Lake.  This rotation starts in Dr. Buchanan’s office, which is visually distinguished by a wall chart of human anatomy (represented in Dane Laffrey’s minimalist CSC set by a framed chart on another easel).  Each scene emphasizes the differences between Alma’s and John’s outlooks on life, reflected in the “triptych” set that Williams conceived for the play: the rectory (soul) on one side of the stage, the doctor’s office (body) on the other, and the stone angel (“eternity”) between them.  Cummings, however, has conceived a non-set that dispenses with all visual representations of the themes except a photo of the stone angel and Dr. Buchanan’s anatomy chart.  (All hand props, from Mrs. Winemiller’s picture puzzle to the telephones in the rectory and the doctor’s office to the firecrackers, are mimed.  Kathryn Rohe designed period costumes, but they don’t change from scene to scene.)

The rest of the acting environment is a white platform with a half dozen plain wooden chairs, moved by the actors to create seating arrangements for each location, and a hanging “ceiling” of a framed opaque white fabric which, from my seat’s perspective (fourth row up in the center section of CSC’s three-sided audience), made the space that is Glorious Hill seem all the more claustrophobic and closed-in than the text alone ordinarily would.  (Jesse Green likened the set to a “coffin” in his New York Times review.)  According to Cummings, in a program note, his purpose here is to “return the focus back on the actor and the writing.”  In Williams’s script, he indicates the scene shifts with lighting cross-fades, but R. Lee Kennedy’s lighting design, which is essentially continual muted white light covering the whole acting platform, doesn’t accommodate this technique.

Alma, who reminds us several times that her name means ‘soul,’ is Williams’s embodiment of piety, exaggerated and exclusive of all other human impulses, and the young Dr. Buchanan, who lives to use “his senses to get all he can in the way of—satisfaction,” represents a life devoted entirely to physical experience in pretty much all its forms.  But the playwright doesn’t advocate for either position, and Alma and John essentially switch philosophies at the end of the play.  The actual struggle between these two impulses isn’t between Alma and John, however; it’s really within each of them.  Alma comes off the worse in the end, as she goes from one extreme to the other.  In the last scene of Summer and Smoke, Alma picks up a traveling shoe salesman, Archie Kramer (Ryan Spahn), following in the path of Nellie’s mother, who’s known as Glorious Hill’s “merry widow” because she meets all the trains coming into town to pick up drummers.

Other characters exhibit a range of other positions on the continuum, as well as other attitudes Williams diagnosed in American society.  Both fathers are remote and disapproving men, valuing public opinion and social reputation above all other attributes, but they are both leading representatives of the establishment (the church and business community).  Alma’s “little group . . . of young people with—intellectual interests” (Roger; Rosemary, the town librarian played by Glenna Brucken; and Mrs. Bassett, a gossipy widow portrayed by Tina Johnson) are the social rejects, along with Alma, Nellie Ewell (ostracized because of her mother’s reputation by everyone in Glorious Hill except Alma), and Rosa (the young Mexican good-time girl with whom John takes up), who are marginalized by the likes of Reverend Winemiller and the elder Dr. Buchanan (Phillip Clark).  The men, who are both images of Williams’s own father, don’t see that all the outcasts are products of their unrelenting censoriousness. 

Rosa is essentially a female counterpart of John, but she is also a manifestation of Williams’s view, now seen as an unflattering stereotype, of Latins as “elemental” people (South Americans and Mexicans, Spaniards, and Italians often appear in this guise in Williams’s plays and stories), while Nellie is the character who has found the healthy balance between her sensual and physical nature and her spiritual side—and is largely responsible for John’s salvation in the end when he turns from Rosa and a life of pleasure (in South America, notably) to marriage to the wholesome and rounded Nellie.  (Nellie Ewell isn’t a large role in Summer and Smoke, but the character is significant and dramatically pivotal.  Some top actresses, some before they became known, took the part.  In the Broadway première, it was Anne Jackson, who married Eli Wallach the year the play was presented in New York and became one of our leading actors of the 20th century; Pamela Tiffin played Nellie in the 1961 film.)

Summer and Smoke is filled with symbols and symbolism.  Some critics have complained that there’s too much of that, but Williams wove it into the play.  Cummings’s stripped-down mise-en-scène left me somewhat bereft because I felt the lack of the visualization of Williams philosophical and dramatic themes.  (I refer readers to my blog article on plastic theater, mentioned earlier, for a discussion of Williams’s notion that playwrights should construct their texts to include the physical environment they conceive as integral aspects of the play and not abandon that element of dramaturgy to directors and designers.) 

Very possibly, a viewer who doesn’t know as much about Summer and Smoke as I do now won’t have missed the triptych and the imposing omnipresence of the stone angel, and I had no serious problem with the mimed hand props or the imaginary fireworks (which all have symbolic significance in Williams’s concept, such as the plumed hat), but the total absence of any visual reinforcement of Williams’s ideas weakens the play in my estimation and interfered with my reception of the performance.  (A note: Cummings’s physical reinterpretation was not nearly as detrimental to Summer and Smoke as Sam Gold’s of The Glass Menagerie was to that production; see my report on 8 April 2017.)

The actors, however, do fine jobs in this bare-minimum production.  Among Williams’s principal strengths as a playwright were always his lyric dialogue, rising to the level of prose poetry in his best plays, and his characters, especially his women.  Cummings’s cast gives straightforward characterizations, strongly focused and beautifully delivered (including Jay Russell, who took the part of Reverend Winemiller at the performance I saw).

The CSC-Transport presentation of Summer and Smoke is an ensemble show, a strong one, though the portrayals are a bit bland for such a melodramatic property.  One exquisite performance, however, does stand out—that of Marin Ireland as Alma.  I gather that she has a reputation for fine acting, especially in contemporary roles, but I’m unfamiliar with her work.  I can’t compare her Alma with past work, but I can state that her embodiment of this ephemeral and conflicted woman is sensitive and emotionally gripping, and a lovely rendering of the heart of the production.  Alma, like all of Summer and Smoke’s characters, is, at most, two-dimensional, but Ireland keeps her alive and engaging; unfortunately, her John, in the hands of Nathan Darrow, is no match for her on this score.

For a guy who for most of the 2½ hours of this Summer and Smoke (there’s one ten-minute intermission) is a thoroughgoing hedonist, in the interpretation of Darrow, another actor with whom I have no experience, John Buchanan, Jr., is surprisingly tame.  Oh, sure, the script takes care of a number of depravations—he’s stabbed in a bar brawl over gambling, he hooks up with a hot Latina and a teenager, he drives fast—but Darrow’s persona is unthreatening. He fits the John of Eccentricities better than he does the John of Summer and Smoke.

The rest of the company, including Reverend and Mrs. Winemiller and Dr. Buchanan, Sr., do what they have to more than adequately but not excitingly.  This is  yeoman’s ensemble.  Only Hannah Elless’s Nellie Ewell comes close to sparkling—and much of that is accounted for by Williams’s writing.  They were like Laffrey’s set—utilitarian without being extraordinary.  (I will add that Elena Hurst brought a measure of earnest intelligence to her portrayal of Rosa which helped greatly to diminish the negative Latino caricature.)

On the basis of 34 reviews, the website Show-Score gave Cummings’s Summer and Smoke an average rating of 76, a somewhat middling score.  Positive notices made up 71% of the total, 26% were mixed, and 3% were negative.  The highest scoring review was 90, accounting for eight outlets, including BroadwayWorld, Time Out New York, and New York Magazine/Vulture, backed by a single 88 (the website BSonArts); the site’s lowest score was TheaterScene.net’s 45.  I surveyed 15 reviews for my round-up.

In the New York Times, Jesse Green singled out the performance of Marin Ireland for extensive praise.  Calling her “one of the great drama queens of the New York stage,” Green found her “a fascinating if counterintuitive choice” for Alma.  But the Timesman asserted that “the choice pays off; Ms. Ireland is riveting.”  Otherwise, the reviewer lamented, CSC’s revival of Summer and Smoke was “lackluster.”  Cummings “is known for minimalist, or essentialist, stagings,” observed Green; however, “this ‘Summer and Smoke’ has been scraped too close to the bone.”  By way of illustration, he wrote:

Dane Laffrey’s big white shoe box, or coffin, of a set conveys all too well Alma’s empty prospects but offers nothing to suggest either the suffocating trap of her Victorian circumstances or the richness and romance of her imagination.  Her statue of Eternity is not even stone; it’s a framed photograph.

I’m sorry if I seem to be beating a dead horse, but Green appears to feel the same way I do about the physical production at CSC.  He continued:

Williams specified minimalism—no doors or windows—but he meant something more poetic by it. In his production notes he refers to de Chirico and Renaissance paintings as a way of suggesting the natural world Alma must finally embrace.  . . . .  But it mustn’t play out its bleakness too soon or there’s nothing to lose, and thus no drama.

“Ms. Ireland’s imagination is so well calibrated that she manages, almost single-handedly, to correct for that distortion,” Green insisted.  If the production doesn’t fulfill Williams’s full intentions, the Times reviewer felt, “I don’t blame the cast.”  “No,” he insisted, “it’s the parsimony of the production that’s at fault, offering little that’s lovely.” 

Calling Cummings’s production “gripping” in the Village Voice, Zac Thompson contended that Laffrey’s “simple yet effective design is not only in keeping with the author’s production notes” (about which you know now I disagree strenuously).  Thompson felt that “the absence of scenery helps to strip away all distractions from the play’s central struggle between the sensual and the spiritual.”  Like most other reviewers, he heaped praise on Ireland, whose “gutsy depiction of what becomes a last-ditch grab for happiness is piercing and raw,” but the Voice reviewer also found Darrow’s “haunted vulnerability . . . adds poignancy to the character’s professed self-disgust.”

Sara Holdren of New York magazine/Vulture (one of the 90’s) labeled Cummings’s Summer and Smoke “a spare, intelligent, deeply affecting production” in which the director’s “light, exacting touch both lifts and elucidates the text.”  Holdren, too, lauded “the stellar Marin Ireland” whose performance “is an exquisite study in awakening.”  Darrow, she noted, “is delivering a tough, vulnerable performance” as John and the “riveting” Barbara Walsh makes Mrs. Winemiller “one of this Summer and Smoke’s brilliant surprises.”  The New York review-writer was pleased that Cummings and Laffrey didn’t pay any attention to the playwright’s detailed suggestions about the physical design of Summer and Smoke, providing only “a wall-less box that evokes both spartan purity and, despite its open sides, claustrophobia.”  She affirmed that “Cummings knows how little fuss-and-stuff a richly layered piece of writing needs to work on stage,” finding that “the play’s elegant staging is a lesson in trimming the fat.” 

In Time Out New York (another 90), Helen Shaw exclaimed, “Transport Group and Classic Stage Company's exquisite version is strong enough to power a rocket into orbit—and that’s without mentioning the gigantic performance at its center.”  That performance, of course, is Ireland’s and she “plays Alma Winemiller as though the part had been written for her, and as though it had been written yesterday; her Alma is at once radiant and frightening, as heart-stopping as a painting that looks up and catches your eye.”  Shaw declared Darrow “superb” and asserted, “The show is a painful dance between the two.”  She described designer Laffrey’s “cantilevered white roof-and-floor set” as “a tomb with the lid lowering into place” and felt that director Cummings “has taken away the heavy stuff of production so we can focus on—and have our hearts broken by—all those invisible shimmering things.”  The TONY reviewer left us with the thought that “the show does cling to you, hanging around you like a haze even once you’re blocks away.”

Pronouncing this Summer and Smoke revival “sultry and sensitive” (and “far superior” to all other recent revivals), Broadway World’s Michael Dale loaded his notice (yet another 90) with praise of Ireland, declaring her “one of the absolute best actors to regularly grace New York stages during this century.”  Dale proclaimed that Ireland is “so good” as Alma that “she just might have you leaving the theatre thinking that SUMMER AND SMOKE should be regarded right up there with A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE as one of the playwright’s master works.”  Darrow, the BWW review-writer said, gives a “nicely underplayed performance” and the ensemble is “fine.”  The director “creates a minimalist production that effectively focuses on Williams’ words and the captivating performances.” 

On New York Stage Review (still another 90), David Finkle dubbed Cummings’s production of Summer and Smoke a “first-rate, top-drawer, A-number-one revival” with the “treamwork” of “nothing less than the best tandem performance currently available on a New York City stage” as the center of the production.  All this was an excuse for Finkle to say (surprise!) that Ireland has “quietly announced herself as one of the City’s most astonishing players—maybe the best.  As the nervous, uncertain, giddy to the verge of frequent hysteria Alma, she gives her best performance yet.”  Finkle asserted, “Distinguished by an inner glow, she inhabits Alma,” but added, “Just as astonishing is Darrow as” John.  Eliciting “courageous performances” from his cast, Cummings, insisted Finkle, “works . . . at the height of his substantial powers.”

Zachary Stewart of TheaterMania characterized the CSC Summer and Smoke as a “scorching revival” that “smolders with unsatisfied longing thanks to powerful performances and a handsomely pared-down staging by” director Cummings.  Ireland is “commanding” and Darrow exudes the “languid confidence of one who knows he doesn't have to try very hard to be adored.” “A drama of unexpected richness,” Stewart concluded, “Summer and Smoke reaches full bloom in this glorious production” which the TM reviewer observed Cummings “stages . . . with brutal simplicity.”

“Under Jack Cummings III’s careful direction, the cast captures the essence of” Summer and Smoke, said David Roberts of Theatre Reviews Limited.  “Each member of the ensemble cast develops her or his character with sensitivity,” found Roberts, “and each delivers an authentic and believable performance.”  In sum, this Summer and Smoke “is given a captivating interpretation in this well thought out production.”  Fern Siegel of TheaterScene.com dubbed Cummings’s interpretation of Williams’s play “an interesting, stripped-down” production in which Ireland “delivers a standout performance,” though Darrow “does not equal Ireland’s nuanced efforts.”  Cummings’s direction is “minimalist,” but “compelling scenes and a capable ensemble grip our attention.”  Siegel ends by stating that “it is a calibrated Ireland who deserves the shout out this round.”

Jonathan Mandell labels Summer and Smoke at CSC “a minimalist” production “which feels neither classic nor transporting” on New York Theater.  Taking exception to Cummings program statement that he wants to “return the focus back on the actor and the writing,” Mandell contended that “ironically the staging has the opposite effect.”  He argued, “The writing and the acting would certainly be more affecting in the CSC/Transport production, however, if it weren’t for the distraction of the staging.”  Laffrey’s set, the New York Theater writer reported, “looks like something out of a low-budget sci-fi movie about life in a spaceship.”  Miming the props didn’t work for Mandell for several reasons.  In “a fine 12-member cast,” however, Ireland is the “clear standout.” 

JK Clarke of Theater Pizzazz found that Cummings’s “hyper-minimalist approach diminishes” the “inspired” performances of several of the cast.  Clarke also wondered why, with the “beautiful and impressive period costumes (Kathryn Rohe), the stark ecru-and cream rectangular set looks like the ladies footwear department at Bloomingdales, circa 1979.”  The TP reviewer also found the miming of the props “on the whole is [more] distracting than instructive, and doesn’t seem to augment the story in any way.”  Ireland, Clarke felt, “inhabits Alma beautifully, but the strange, austere production design distracts from her character’s development.”  Quoting Mrs. Winemiller’s line “The pieces don’t fit!” Clarke pointed out, “They don’t.” 

The “superb Marin Ireland” gives “a performance of heartbreaking intensity and meticulous desperation” in Summer and Smoke, “joined by Nathan Darrow who . . ., too, is sensational in an almost impossible role,” proclaimed David Hurst on Talkin’ Broadway.  “It's a shame Cumming[s]’s oddly directly production isn’t as electrifying as its stars and their game supporting cast.”  Hurst complained that the director’s “stark concept for this revival” is bereft of “the traditional elements of any Summer and Smoke production.”  He also objected to the miming of the props.  Like so many other reviewers, Hurst lavished praise on Ireland, but in the end he had this to sat about the production overall:

In addition to lots of clumsy blocking, it’s a shame so many distractions of Cumming[s]’s making pull the audience out of the action and away from the story.  Why isn’t the cast using props?  I can forgive the spartan set (though it does nothing to help the story), and all the white lighting, but why have detailed, period costumes with no props.  Can you give John a stethoscope and, for goodness sake, let Alma have a pair of gloves?  And can Mrs. Winemiller please have a hat with a plume?  What does such a decision serve.  It’s bad enough they’re performing in a white cube of sterility and colorlessness, but then you force them to do all this crazy pantomiming.  It’s a testament to how wonderful the cast is that Summer and Smoke remains as affecting and moving as Williams no doubt hoped it would be. 

On CurtainUp, Elyse Sommer, who admitted she’s admired Cummings “for years,” labeled this Summer and Smoke “sluggish” and “disappointing” and complained that “minimalism . . . can distract as is the case here by keeping the audience so focused on trying to figure out what’s happening and where we are.”  Nonetheless, Sommer found the “performances at CSC . . . seemed to be in good hands” with a “solidly cast” ensemble and (once again) singled out Ireland, who “has the acting chops to be [a] riveting Alma.”  (Sommer was also peeved because CSC has started an “annoying custom of not handing out programs until after the show.”  I couldn’t agree more!)  The review-writer concluded by observing, “Even in a disappointing production like this, Williams’s language still gives Ireland’s Alma an opportunity to break our hearts.”

Of Cummings’s production of Summer and Smoke, Samuel L. Leiter declared on Theatre’s Leiter Side, “It’s very likely . . . that, if Summer and Smoke’s lugubrious current Off-Broadway revival . . . were its premiere, it would suffer a fate worse than that of the original.”  Cummings, Leiter observed, follows an aesthetic of “paring shows down to their minimum” claiming that “the point of his sometimes daringly reconceiving familiar plays is to highlight the actors’ work.”  The TLS blogger proclaimed, “In Summer and Smoke, though, he seriously misfires.”  Leiter complained, “Removing all traces of traditional investiture and treating the play as if it were a cousin of the noh theatre completely deprives it of all-important atmosphere . . . and specificity of locale.”  (Leiter is an expert on Japanese theater, including Noh, and had published several books on the subject.)  One of the few reviewers who was displeased with Ireland’s performance, Leiter stated: “As Alma, the usually exciting Marin Ireland does a lot of acting, with numerous emotional transitions, but fails to conjure up the image of a wounded, soulful woman devolving into a creature of the flesh.”  The blogger finished by lamenting, “The uneven supporting cast is mildly satisfactory but, hampered by Cummings’s approach and the lack of a compelling Alma and John, it’s simply not strong enough to sustain interest in this doleful revival.”

In Show-Score’s lowest-rated notice (45), David Kaufman of TheaterScene.net (not to be confused with TheaterScene.com, quoted above) posited that Cummings’s Summer and Smoke “never rises above the play’s failure [in 1948] to become something of an accomplished piece.”  Kaufman complained about the lack of a set and that “the many players (a dozen in all) are often reduced to charades, as they describe a new gaudy hat, or a jigsaw puzzle, or gloves.”  He complimented Ireland somewhat wanly when he observed that “Alma is here played by Marin Ireland with appropriately scenery-chewing effects.” 

[I want to add two comments that don’t really fit in the report above.  One’s a simple complaint (already stated by reviewer Elyse Sommer of CurtainUp: I found that policy of not handing out programs until after the performance annoying and arrogant.  I like to read the program before the show and I like to be able to consult it at intermission.  That’s especially true if, like the CSC program for Summer and Smoke, there are informative essays or articles about the play or production.  But even if all there is are the credits, I still like to look them over to see if there are any actors or other artists whose work I know from before—or new artists about whom I know little.  I usually take my seat in the auditorium several minutes before the performance starts so I can look through the program.  It’s arrogant of the theater’s leadership to take that traditional activity away from me on spurious grounds that programs are some kind of distraction!

[The other note I want to make is about the plumed hat mentioned both in the play and in my report.  This is an interesting little bit of symbolism relating to Tennessee Williams view of himself and his family heritage.  Williams saw the two branches of his family, the Dakins (his mother’s side) and the Williamses (his father’s side) as descendents of the Puritans on the one hand and Cavaliers on the other.  He believed that his own nature was torn by a conflict between these two sides of his personality—represented in Summer and Smoke by Alma (Puritan) and John (Cavalier).  “Roughly there was a combination of puritan and Cavalier strains in my blood which may be accountable for the conflicting impulses I often represent in the people I write about,” the playwright wrote in 1952.  The hat with a plume is a symbol of the Cavalier side of Tennessee Williams’s nature; that’s why it’s in the play at all.  By the way, this isn’t a comment on the CSC production.  I just find it a fascinating little fillip and I wanted to share it.]

18 May 2018

Music Theater Programs for Kids


[Two topics readers of Rick On Theater will know are of major interest to me are arts and theater education for school children and young adults and live music in the theater.  I’ve written about them and posted articles by other writers on this blog many times, but I still see a need to reemphasize the importance of supporting these efforts.  (See “Degrading the Arts,” posted on 13 August 2009; “The Sound of Muzak,” 16 June 2011; “Arts & Music Education,” 21 March] 2014; and “Arts In Schools,” 18 November 2015, among others.)  I’ve been holding on to two articles on the subjects for a couple of years now, and I feel this is a good time to republish them on ROT.  Both are about musical theater programs for children and one emphasizes the importance of live music to the experience. 

[First up is the transcript of a broadcast of “On Stage,” a program of NY1 News, the local news channel of Time Warner Cable (now Spectrum).  Hosted by Frank DiLella, the Emmy-winning (2018) host of “On Stage” who’s also appeared as a theater correspondent for the BBC, Sirius XM, “The Early Show” on CBS, CTV (Canadian private television broadcaster), and Al Jazeera TV, the program aired on 18 August 2012.] 


PROGRAM BRINGS BROADWAY TO STUDENTS ACROSS THE WORLD
By: Frank DiLella

The classroom: Broadway. The course: musical theater. And the faculty: members of the Great White Way. Welcome to the school of Students Live!

Students Live! founder Amy Weinstein created the company after she was asked by the producers of the original production of “Rent” to form a curriculum that would help develop young audiences for Broadway.

“It grew into an interactive training ground to connect Broadway artists in front of and behind the scenes to young people from all over the world,” Weinstein said.

Students Live! teacher and “Wicked” dance captain Alicia Albright regularly conducts a Broadway choreography workshop for aspiring young performers. On the day NY1 stopped by, Albright was teaching a portion of the song “Dancing Through Life” to some students.

“The goal is that they leave remembering that hard work brings results and also, no matter what they do, whether they pursue this or not, if they do pursue it, hopefully it gives them hope and inspiration to pursue it and if they don’t, hopefully they will support the arts and the Broadway community for the rest of their lives,” Albright said.

“It kind of reminds us if we want to be an actor or singer, we can if we work hard and we put our minds to it,” said dancer Gianna Newborg.

While musical theater and Broadway are considered staples of American culture, in 2008 Students Live! opened up their program to folks overseas.

Forty-eight students from South Korea are currently putting the finishing touches on their musical show entitled “Journey to America.” The musical revue features well known Broadway songs including “One,” “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” and “NYC.” Tony-nominated actor John Tartaglia and Broadway casting director Benton Whitley recently attended a rehearsal to provide the kids with some musical theater advice.

“You forget that these kids are from another country. Most of them don’t speak English at all and all of a sudden they come here and in 14 days, it’s total immersion,” Tartaglia said. “All of a sudden, they’re singing all these complicated lyrics from 40 different Broadway shows. From where they started to where they are now, it’s incredible. It’s overwhelming.”

“I think a lot of times, kids from other cultures think they should be seen and not heard,” Whitley said. “I think theater is an incredible outlet for them to actually realize that’s not always the case.”

Veteran Broadway producer Alecia Parker said programs like Students Live! are essential for the New York theater community and beyond.

“It makes our industry stronger and builds new audiences for tomorrow, which we can’t ever forget about,” she said.

While her program seems to be thriving, Weinstein said she has big plans for the future.

“My goal in the next five years is to have a brand name that Broadway has as a conservatory on Broadway to develop younger audiences,” she said. “Not necessarily just to sell a ticket but to create what they need to cast in their shows and to create appreciation for all the shows.”

[For more information on the Students Live program, log on to www.studentslive.net.

[Since 2000, StudentsLive’s Award-Winning live interactive education programming have attracted over 100,000 participants from as far away as Guam, the UK, Italy, and from all across the United States.  The League of American Theatres and Producers and the Theatre Development Fund have awarded StudentsLive grants for Outstanding Education Programs on Broadway.  StudentsLive’s programs are now attracting adult groups and tour internationally in collaboration with presenters all across the world.

[Guest Speakers and workshop participants at the high profile Exclusive Student Matinees and Workshops on Broadway have included: Judge Judy, Geraldine Ferraro, Johnnie Cochran, Tommy Hilfiger, Kathy Lee Gifford, Susan Lucci, George Hamilton, Reba McEntire, Chazz Palminteri, Bernadette Peters, Joey Fatone, Scary Spice

[StudentsLive’s ongoing commitment is to create highly effective, interactive and engaging workshops, events and programs for audiences of all ages in partnership with the best theater the  U.S. has to offer, Broadway.  The organization offers a highly personal inside connection to live theater with educators, corporations, group leaders, families, Girl Scouts, adult individuals, and overall educated, sophisticated, and new theater attendees worldwide.

[StudentsLive’s mission is to create and inspire newer, better and wider audiences and artists alike: and to connect and provide deeply engaging and creative access to Broadway shows by offering the highest quality programming, and services on Broadway today.  As Hilary Clinton stated: “Programs like these enable a new generation of audiences to make the arts a permanent part of their lives.”]

*  *  *  *
ENCHANTED!
by Bettina Covo

[The second article was originally published in the February 2014 issue of Allegro, the member magazine of Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians, the union that represents members of the pit orchestras for all Broadway and many Off-Broadway shows (among other gigs around town).  It’s no surprise, then, that its pages often contain articles in support of live music in New York theaters—Local 802 supplies the instrumentalists and music directors for all those shows.  I couldn’t agree with them more strongly—even though I don’t play an instrument.  This program, which AFM supports for obvious reasons, is Inside Broadway and the series in question is called Creating the Magic—because that’s what happens when drama, music, singing, and dancing all come together in a theater!  (It’s all the more appropriate that the production for this year was Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s most magical of all musicals, Cinderella—which ROTters will know is a show close to my heart since I saw it in its world première on television in 1957 (see my post “Cinderella: Impossible Things Are Happening,” 25 April 2013).]

Live music brings the magic of theatre to kids

What happens when you combine the wonders of live music with the power of live theatre? Magic! Recently, over 3,000 public school children were treated to a special holiday gift – a look behind the curtain into the inner workings of a Broadway show.

Inside Broadway has presented another wonderful production in its Creating the Magic series. This time, the show was Rodgers and Hammerstein’s magical “Cinderella” and the venue was the Broadway Theatre at 1681 Broadway.

As the morning began, excited students piled into the theatre, many of them rushing to take a peek at the musicians in the orchestra pit. Even though protective netting prevented anyone from getting too close, it didn’t stop the kids from trying. When asked if they played music, many of the students gleamed with pride as they named the instruments they studied. To say they were excited to hear live music from live musicians would be an understatement.

Inside Broadway’s executive director Michael Presser began the presentation with a short history of the Broadway Theatre, which was immediately followed by one of the numbers from the show. Spellbound, the children watched as the stage director and various crew members from the many theatrical departments – lights, sound, props, set changes, costumes – came out on stage to reveal the secrets of producing a Broadway show.

At every Creating the Magic event, representatives from Broadway unions are invited to speak. Recording Vice President John O’Connor attended on our behalf to talk about Local 802 and the importance of live music.

Later, the talented cast (Laura Irion, Andy Jones, Rebecca Luker, Laura Osnes and Kirstin Tucker) performed several more charming musical numbers from the show, accompanied by Local 802 members Brian Taylor (piano), Billy Miller (drums) and Mark Vanderpoel (bass), under the direction of musical director Andy Einhorn. After each number, Michael Presser interviewed the cast members to talk about their theatrical careers.

Andy Einhorn was then given the opportunity to address the audience from the podium, explaining the role of the music director in a Broadway show. The children were totally engaged, attentively listening to Einhorn talk about the music and the orchestra.

“Participating in Inside Broadway was truly a rewarding opportunity for me and the other musicians who helped out,” Einhorn said. “It was great to see so many children experience the joy of watching how the sets, props, lights and music all function to help create the totality that is a Broadway musical. We are blessed at ‘Cinderella’ to have a large orchestra thanks to our producers and our friends at the Rodgers and Hammerstein organization.”

The presentation concluded, aptly enough, with the song “There’s Music in You,” followed by a question-and-answer period. Most of the questions are usually directed towards the actors and sometimes the stage director and crew. This time, it was truly heartening to see so many of the children ask Andy Einhorn questions about being a Broadway musician. He was pleasantly surprised. “I particularly found myself encouraged that so many students had questions about how to become musicians on Broadway,” Einhorn said.

A young trumpet player asked “How does one become a Broadway musician?” Einhorn’s response, “Practice, practice, practice, but above all – have fun!”

And indeed, fun was had by all, especially the fortunate children who were privileged to see what it takes to produce the nightly miracle of a Broadway show. Thank you to the musicians and the creative team, and to Michael Presser and his dedicated staff as well as the board and patrons of Inside Broadway for giving everyone involved such a magical holiday gift. Finally, as reported in last month’s Allegro, Local 802 was recently asked to join the board of Inside Broadway. We’re proud that we are represented in this wonderful organization.