27 August 2015

'Ubu Roi' (Lincoln Center Festival, 2015)

In addition to my two trips to 59E59 (reports on Summer Shorts and Bette Davis Ain’t for Sissies are posted on ROT on 12 and 17 August, respectively), Diana, my frequent theater companion, and I went to the Upper West Side to see a couple of performances in this year’s Lincoln Center Festival.  Our first was Ubu Roi by Alfred Jarry, produced by Cheek by Jowl, a London-based troupe, and co-produced with the Barbican, London; Les Gémeaux – Scène Nationale de Sceaux, Paris; and Comédie de Béthune – Centre Dramatique National du Nord – Pas-de-Calais.  Performed in French with English supertitles, the new production was directed by Declan Donnellan, Cheek by Jowl’s artistic director, and staged at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater of John Jay College of Criminal Justice (a division of the City University of New York) at 59th Street and 10th/Amsterdam Avenue (the street name changes right at that corner).  Like most LCF performances, Ubu had a short run in New York City, from 22 to 26 July, and the final performance was streamed live around the world.  Diana and I caught the show on Thursday, 23 July, at 7:30 p.m.

The Lincoln Center Festival, which just celebrated its 20th anniversary, was launched in 1995 and in July 1996 began showcasing performances from around the world in opera, chamber music, theater, multimedia performance, ballet, modern dance, and multidisciplinary works.  2015’s entries included 58 events from France, Germany, China, England, Ireland, Russia, Georgia, Japan, and all over the U.S.  Some presenters, like Cheek by Jowl and Yukio Ninagawa, are internationally famous; others received a rare exposure to U.S. audiences.  According to its own statistics, over its two decades, LCF has presented more than 1,300 performances, commissioned over 40 works, and hosted 142 U.S., New York, and world premières.  To accomplish this feat, LCF uses not only all the facilities of the campus of the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts on Broadway at 65th Street—including the outdoor venue, Damrosch Park—but theater and performance spaces all over the neighborhood from Columbus Circle (including space in the Time Warner Center) up to Juilliard, and even farther afield, going as far east as the Park Avenue Armory (between 66th and 67th Street on Park). 

Nigel Redden, artistic director of LCF, states: “We have always believed that classical and contemporary art forms, Western and non-Western traditions, and technologies old and new, have much to learn from one another.”  Expressing one of the principal benefits I always cite of living in New York City, Redden added: “One of the most unique and exciting things about Lincoln Center Festival is the chance to experience within the space of one month the contrast between different artists’ works from around the globe . . . .”  Many of these artists and companies appear in other cities—but almost all of them sooner or later come to New York!  Part of that phenomenon is LCF. 

Cheek by Jowl’s co-artistic directors Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod (the company’s designer) established the company in 1981, with its first presentation at that year’s Edinburgh Festival.  The company, dedicated to productions that focus on the art of the actor, presents work in English, French, and Russian.  The company has so far performed in 380 cities in over 50 countries on six continents.  With Cheek by Jowl performing regularly in Moscow through the 1980s and ’90s, the Chekhov International Theatre Festival commissioned Donnellan and Ormerod to form a company of Russian actors in 1999.  In 2007, Peter Brook, whose International Centre for Theatre Research is in residence at Paris’s Bouffes du Nord, invited the Cheek by Jowl leaders to form a group of French actors.  (Ubu Roi is the latest work of that troupe.)  I’ve seen a number of Cheek by Jowl productions over the years, starting with The Duchess of Malfi in 1995 and going up to 2012 when I saw my last Cheek by Jowl production, ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore.  I didn’t like them much—but, then, I’m not a fan of Jacobean tragedy. 

Jarry (1873-1907) was a brilliant and curious young man, independent but shy.  He entered a Breton lycée (sort of like a prep school in the U.S.) in 1883 where he proved to be an excellent student intellectually, but indifferent about following rules and doing assigned work.  Young Jarry was something of an anarchic presence in his classes and at 15, he joined a pair of his schoolmates, brothers who’d been writing satirical pieces on the sly making fun of a physics teacher, one Félix-Frédéric Hébert.  Known on the QT as “Père Ébé,” the teacher had the appearance and the reputation of a pompous buffoon.  The boys had written a short farce called Les Polonais (“The Poles”) which portrayed Père Ébé as the king of a fantasy Poland.  Jarry transformed the sketch (the original version of which is now lost) into a marionette play which the boys performed in one of their homes.  That was in 1888; eight years later, Jarry returned to Les Polonais and turned the puerile skit “into a highly charged political statement about a type of person he despised—a bourgeois nationalist who is submissive to, and unquestioning of, authority,” according to Charles Sheek, the LCF program editor.  On 10 December 1896, Ubu Roi débuted in Paris at the Théâtre de l’Oeuvre.  The critical reception was quite mixed, but the production made Jarry famous.  (Jarry, who despised praise and flattery, didn’t keep the positive reviews but made a scrapbook to preserve the negative ones.)

Jarry had made a speech introducing the play before the first performance and when he stepped off the stage, the audience heard the first word, uttered by Père Ubu: merdre!  (It’s an invented substitute for merde, the French word for ‘shit.’  The supertitles at the Lynch translated it as ‘shitke’—other variations are used in most English renditions—but it’s akin to the British euphemism ‘shite.’)  According to Jill Fell, Associate Research Fellow at the Department of European Cultures and Languages of the University of London, in her biography of the playwright, Jarry had intended his claque of drinking buddies in the audience to create a disturbance that would disrupt the performance and become its own “theatrical event.”  Poet William Butler Yeats (1865-1939), who was in the opening night audience, recorded: “The audience shakes their fists at one another, and the Rhymer [a reference to a member of the Rhymer’s Club, which Yeats had formed] whispers to me, ‘There are often duels after these performances,’ and he explains to me what is happening on the stage.” 

The daring play, wild, bizarre, and comic, is seen by many in the arts as significant because Jarry overturns cultural rules, norms, and conventions.  Those in the opening-night audience witnessed what seemed to be a revolutionary artistic event seen by many today as a precursor to Dada, Surrealism, and Absurdism.  Like his other writings, Ubu is controversial for its disrespect of royalty, religion, and society in general.  Jarry indulged in vulgarity, scatology, brutality, and low comedy, and his work is often criticized for a complete absence of literary polish.  Ubu Roi is loosely plotted with numerous characters (pared down to six actors by Donnellan), many of whom appear for only one short scene; some of the characters’ names are childish references to French vulgarities: Bordure, for instance, sounds like ordure, French for ‘manure’; Bougrelas is built on the word bougre, French for ‘bugger.’  The play’s diction is a pastiche of high literature and slang, much of it made up.

Catulle Mendès (1841-1909), a  poet, critic, and man of letters, wrote of Ubu Roi:

A new type has been put before us, created by the extravagant and brutal imagination of a man who is a sort of child.  Père Ubu exists . . . .  You will not be able to get rid of him; he will haunt you and perpetually force you to remember not only that he passed this way, but that he has arrived and is here . . . .

Poet and critic Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-98), to whom Jarry had sent a presentation edition of Ubu, applauded:

With the skill of a sure and sober dramatic sculptor, my dear friend, and with a rare and durable clay upon your fingers, you have set a prodigious figure on his feet, together with his troop.  He enters the repertoire of high taste and haunts me; thank you.

In his Autobiographies, Yeats confessed that

that night at the Hotel Corneille I am very sad . . . .  I say: “After Stéphane Mallarmé, after Paul Verlaine, after Gustave Moreau, after Puvis de Chavannes, after our own verse, after all our subtle color and nervous rhythm, after the faint mixed tints of [Charles Edward] Conder, what more is possible?  After us the Savage God.” 

That opening night performance of Ubu Roi was the last one, except for some marionette versions, until after Jarry died.  The play became popular in, of all locations, eastern Europe, first in the ’20s and then again in the ’90s following the fall of the Soviet Union.  Ubu became the basis of several films and a 1992 opera.  A number of modern adaptations of Ubu have been produced, including Jane Taylor’s Ubu and the Truth Commission (1998) which criticized the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission in response to the atrocities committed under apartheid, and United States of Banana (2011), a Puerto Rican black comedy by Giannina Braschi which ridicules the United States.  Modern translations and adaptations, often interpreted as commentary on the many 20th-century tyrants from Idi Amin to Nicolae Ceausescu to Papa Doc Duvalier (and his son, Baby Doc) were mounted in the U.S., Canada, and Australia in the 1990s, 2000’s, and 2010’s (including the International Festival of Puppet Theater in 1996).  Cheek by Jowl’s current staging was presented in Paris on 5-8 March 2013 and then Aquitaine (26-29 March) and Marseilles (3-6 April); the production then moved on to the Barbican in London from 10 to 20 April 2013 followed by a tour of the U.K. before coming to New York’s Lincoln Center. 

Jarry descended into alcohol and drug abuse after the death of his parents in 1893, soon spending all his small inheritance.  He lived in squalor and often didn’t leave his room for days on end.  Jarry’s friends became concerned at not seeing him for several days and went to check on him, finding him unresponsive.  They rushed him to a hospital, but the dissolute playwright died at 34 from tuberculosis on 1 November 1907.  In addition to seven novels, some of which weren’t published until long after Jarry’s death, he only wrote five plays—four of which were about Ubu.  His influence, however, far outstripped his productivity: he was esteemed by, among others, Guillaume Apollinaire (poet, playwright, short story writer, novelist, and art critic;1880-1918), André Salmon (poet, art critic, and writer;1881-1969), and Max Jacob (poet, painter, writer, and critic;1876-1944); Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) was so fascinated with Jarry that after the writer’s death, the painter bought the revolver Jarry used to carry with him and, eventually, many of the dramatist’s manuscripts.  Picasso also did a sketch of Jarry, 1907’s Composition with a Death’s Head, and surrealist painter Joan Miró (1893-1983) used Ubu Roi as a subject for a series of lithographs in 1940 that also satirize then Spanish dictator Francisco Franco. 

Donnellan’s Ubu begins with Mère Ubu (Camille Cayol), like a bizarro Lady Macbeth, urging her husband, Père Ubu (Christophe Grégoire), Captain of the Dragoons and councilor to King Wenceslas (Vincent de Boüard), to kill the King and his family and usurp the throne.  Père Ubu immediately agrees and persuades Captain Bordure (Xavier Bolffier), to whom Ubu promises the Dukedom of Lithuania, to join the plot.  As Ubu continues with his nefarious plan to ensure that Wenceslas and Queen Rosemonde (Cécile Leterme), and especially young Prince Bougrelas (Sylvain Levitte), are killed as well, Wenceslas announces that he intends to make Ubu Count of Sandomir during a parade the next day. 

Donnellan added scenes of an elegant dinner party with Bordure, Wenceslas, and Rosemonde, with whispered conversation about wine and food and trivialities of polite chit-chat (which weren’t included in the supertitle translations), alternating with the frenetic violence and brutality of Jarry’s play.  The performance vacillated between Jarry’s scenes from the original text and the staid, formal dinner scenes.  The Ubus and their guests never seemed to notice the progressively deteriorating state of the apartment, which was pristine at the opening but ended up a disaster site.  The Ubus’ teenaged son (Levitte), a character who doesn’t exist in Jarry’s original play, videotaped everything and the videos (created by Benoit Simon and Quentin Vigier and sometimes showed scenes on stage in real time and sometimes showed scenes taking place off stage which we didn’t see live) were projected onto the back wall of the apartment set, revealing aspects of the bourgeois Ubu family we wouldn’t otherwise have seen.  Ubu fils was like a film auteur making a docudrama, it seemed, imagining his parents as King and Queen Ubu and himself as Bougrelas.  We were seeing the story through his distorted, nightmare vision.

Aided by Bordure and his supporters, Ubu carried out the murder of the King at the parade and took the crown—but Bougrelas managed to evade the assassins and escape with his mother, who quickly sickened and died.  Ubu, who began spending the country’s treasury profligately, rounded up the noblemen, magistrates, and financiers (played by the suitably recostumed Bolffier, de Boüard, and Leterme, who also took other parts as needed) and executed them one by one because they stood in the way of Ubu’s plans to use dubious reforms to gain huge sums of money. 

Bordure began to conspire against Ubu, who imprisoned his former coconspirator, but Bordure escaped and fled to Moscow to join the Russian emperor in the fight against Ubu.  In Poland, Ubu prepared for battle and marched into the Ukraine.  Ubu learned that the Poles had risen up and all seemed lost.  The Russians attacked, and Ubu fled the field to take refuge in a cave in Lithuania.  Coincidentally, Mère Ubu, having taken flight from Poland with Bougrelas at her heels, came across the same cave.  The two were arguing ferociously when Bougrelas and his army assaulted the cave.  But Ubu’s supporters arrived just in time to provide the Ubus a quick escape.  The battle lost and his power gone, Ubu declared that he was happy to be rid of the crown and he, Mère Ubu, and their followers set out for a new life.

I haven’t sorted this all out yet.  (To dispel a possible misapprehension, I should say that I liked the performance; I just haven’t figured out what to make if it.)  The actors are all French (as opposed to “international” actors speaking French), and I don’t think the company messed with the text.  There’s no “adapter” listed, but Donnellan did make some changes, and the publicity material states that Cheek by Jowl has “ingeniously re-imagined” the play.  The last time I saw a production of Ubu was at the Lincoln Center Theater (the Mitzi E. Newhouse) in 1989.  I don’t remember the text, which was an adaptation and translated into English, at all, but Donnellan doesn’t seem to have substantially altered Jarry’s original text.  He’s pared the cast to six from several dozen (by multiple-casting some roles and eliminating others); the “ingenious re-imagining,” however, doesn’t appear to have come from a revision of the script, but a reinterpretation of the structure and the central viewpoint.  Cheek by Jowl has also shifted the point of Ubu Roi: it’s usually seen as a study of a tyrant and his tyranny, but Donnellan’s made it an examination of the “thin line between order and chaos” (Elisabeth Vincentelli, New York Post) and a demonstration of “how a middle-class household can be just as tyrannical as an old-fashioned dictatorship” (Brendan Lemon, Financial Times).  I guess it’s accurate to label Donnellan’s reinterpretation of Ubu Roi a deconstruction of Jarry’s play, or what the Situationists would have called a détournement.

The Cheek by Jowl production was starkly modern: Ormerod’s very contemporary, cream-and-taupe upscale bourgeois’s apartment, set for a dinner party; the characters were well-dressed—men in suits, women in elegant gowns (except for the teenaged son, who wore jeans, sneaks, and a long-sleeved T).  Ormerod also did the costumes, and all of this, except the boy’s attire, was stylish but cold, like a room in a design or architecture magazine where no one actually lives.  The familiar household objects of a middle-class home became significant in unfamiliar uses: a toilet brush became Ubu’s scepter, an ice bucket his “orb,” a lampshade the crown of Poland, and an electric kitchen appliance his weapon of execution. The lighting and tech were also very contemporary (rather than some approximation of 19th-century staging), with strobe effects, blackouts (or dim-outs), and blaring electronic music/sounds, not to mention the video.  

The production was excellent, including the demanding acting (both physically and, I’d imagine, emotionally exhausting).  The show was an hour and 50 minutes without an intermission, so it was pretty taxing, I’d think.  I can’t single out one or two performances over the others, first because this was a true ensemble cast, and second because all the actors were tremendously skilled.  Distinguishing between the script scenes, delivered at full stage energy—perhaps even at a higher-than-ordinary level under Donnellan’s heightened pace and volume—and the sotto voce dinner-party scenes without losing the separation and without making either of them seem artificial in the context of this Cheek by Jowl interpretation, was a remarkable acting achievement in my book. 

Diana found the production “alienating” (my word from her description), which I think was Donnellan’s intention.  There was some laughter in the audience, but I’d guess those were French-speakers who got a joke (or an obscenity) here and there the rest of us didn’t catch.  Jarry turned the student-written original sketch into a brutal political commentary, and I think Donnellan took that further.  The play contained a lot of chit-chat and mumbling that was adlibbed and too low to hear clearly (and wasn’t in the supertitles)—the play started with a very long scene of this as the Ubus got ready for their dinner party—I couldn’t time it because I couldn’t see my watch in the semi-darkness, but it must have been five minutes of semi-pantomime—and in one such bit, Ubu was off the front of the stage in front of the first row and he was saying things about “business moguls,” “Will you vote for me?” and “the primaries” (in English)—and I believe those were meant to be taken as allusions to the Republican presidential primary campaign and, specifically, Donald Trump (the only “business mogul” in the race, I believe).  

Press coverage of the Lincoln Center Festival was scant.  The New York Times seemed to have reviewed more of the events than any other outlet, and Ben Brantley, calling Ubuflamboyantly vicious,” had a lot of praise for Cheek by Jowl’s delivery (though he had small reservations about the original material’s usual presentation).  “Vive l’adolescence!” shouted the Timesman, who saw the play as a representation of “more or less what their high-school-age sons and daughters see when they look upon their doting parents” because Cheek by Jowl’s interpretation “asks us to see Jarry’s play through the eyes of a sulky, moody, sexually tormented adolescent, who is pitilessly judgmental of his elders.”   Brantley added, “The spirit of rancorous rebellion that rumbles within every teenager is storming the bourgeois barricades in” Cheek by Jowl’s interpretation of Jarry’s play as the teen’s “hard, warping gaze . . . turns his parents and their guests into the pathological cast of ‘Ubu Roi.’”  Brantley declared, “Like many visions born of disgust and hormones run riot, this one is a horror to behold,” but found that the troupe “have come up with a revitalizing approach to a watershed of transgressive culture.”  The Times reviewer reported that “what makes this ‘Ubu Roi’ more than a clever riff on a period piece is its sense of the raw, ravening anger in the boy’s satirical vision.”  In the realm of performance, furthermore, Brantley asserted that “it’s impossible not to be transfixed by the raging force of its energy.”  He thought, “Watching the cast move seamlessly from raffiné propriety to violent anarchy is a rousing testament to the metamorphic joys of acting.  The ensemble deploys a scenery-battering physical vocabulary that turns pratfalls into rattling death throes and finds the kinship between tragedy and farce.” 

Brendan Lemon of the Financial Times deemed that the Cheek by Jowl production made “a scenario [that] seems a stretch . . . effective through sheer exhilaration.”  The FT review-writer, however, gave credit where it was due, recording that “Donnellan . . . and his designer, Nick Ormerod, rescue the evening from glibness by visually and verbally switching the point of view.”  Lemon also saw that the “story is not offered as third-person reality but as the ravings of a teenage obsessive.”  In the acting realm, he singled out Grégoire, who, as Ubu, “is especially demented in his zigzag between bourgeois père and clownish monarch,” and Levitte, who “imbues the son with . . . bourgeois mischief.” 

In the New York Post, Elisabeth Vincentelli dubbed Cheek by Jowl’s Ubu “a punk play” that’s “as anti-establishment as the Sex Pistols braying at the queen.”  The NYP reviewer, however, asserted, “The problem is that Alfred Jarry’s nihilistic masterwork is completely gonzo, with made-up words, grotesque characters and outlandish plot developments—bloody massacres, a character fighting a bear in a cave—that make it hard to stage.”  To solve this, Vincentelli reported that Donnellan “switches back and forth between the ever-polite party’s hushed talk of wine and cheese—scenes added by the director—and Jarry’s play, which now appears to take place in the son’s semi-psychotic mind.” 

On the website CurtainUp, Deirdre Donovan decreed that though Ubu Roi may not cause riots as it did in 1896, “A century later . . . shocking it is.”  Donovan insisted that director Donnellan and designer Ormerod “deliver one unforgettable production” from which “you get . . . an undiluted dose of Jarry’s drama of grotesques.”  As for the cast, “What is astonishing,” noted the CU reviewer, “is their versatility”: “The actors nail down their respective characters, and marvelously reveal them in their alternating rational and irrational moments.”  In conclusion, Donovan’s ultimate assessment is: “This is a dream production.” 

[Diana and I went to two LCF events this year.  The second was Yukio Ninagawa’s Kafka on the Shore, an adaptation of the novel by Haruki Murakami.  Because of scheduling, I won’t be posting that report until early September.  (The Festival closed at the end of July, so neither show is available now.)  I hope ROTters will come back then and see what I thought that was all about.]

22 August 2015

Dispatches from Israel 5

by Helen Kaye

[On 20 July, Helen Kaye, a regular reviewer for the Jerusalem Post, sent me a pair of recent notices, one for an Israeli play by Gilad Evron, a 60-year-old playwright, screenwriter, and author, called Jehu, also one for an adaptation by Romeo Castellucci of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar seen at the Israel Festival.  (Castellucci, 55, is an Italian stage director, playwright, artist, and designer who’s part of the European avant-garde theater.)  “Both, I think, icons for our times,” said Helen in her cover e-mail.  Helen’s other contributions to ROT include “Dispatches” 1, 2, 3, and 4 on 23 January 2013, 6 August 2013, 20 November 2013, and 2 June 2015.  (I also posted another of Helen’s JP reviews, Molière’s Tartuffe, on 2 November 2014 as a Comment to “Dispatches 3.”)  ROTters might also enjoy looking back at ”Help! It’s August: Kid-Friendly Summer Festivals in Israel,” 12 September 2010; ”Acre (Acco) Festival, Israel,” 9 November 2012; “Berlin,” 22 July 2013; “A Trip to Poland,” 7 August 2015.]

Julius Caesar – Spared  Parts
Conceived and directed by Romeo Castellucci
Based on Shakespeare’s play
Israel Festival, 3 June 2015

 “The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.” Thus said Sir Edward Grey on the eve of World War I, those four ghastly years of death and destruction that were the genesis of the even ghastlier horrors of World War II.

There are nine lamps on the stage of Romeo Castellucci’s poetic, chilling, utterly extraordinary, pared to its essence Julius Caesar. The number 9 is significant in both Christian and Jewish numerology for both good and evil.  The lamplight does not illuminate the action. It’s just there, until it isn’t.

The stage is covered in white, the color of purity, the color of mourning in some cultures. Caesar’s robe is blood red. The “acolytes,” there are three of them, wear white. There’s a blood- red stripe on the white of Mark Antony’s costume, an ironic echo to his famous speech, like the irony of the word ARS (art in Latin) on the plinth from which he speaks.

This Julius Caesar is all about the power for destruction and violence of words, or in their absence, the frightful deeds for which thumps, murmurs and other sound effects suffice. Not that there are all that many words. At the beginning we hear and see the exchange between the Tribune and the workmen of Rome, quite literally see because the actor (Simone Tony) shows us throat, uvula and vocal chords in action via an endoscope. It’s eerie, an internal universe.

Then Mark Antony (Dalmazio Vasini) haltingly speaks the famous “Friends, Romans and countrymen,” haltingly because the actor has undergone a total laryngectomy for cancer of the larynx and has learned to speak using his oesophagus. He struggles, but he gets them out, those inflammatory, provocative words that inflame and provoke even if we don’t quite understand them. We get the meaning. Caesar (Gianni Plazzi) doesn’t speak at all. He’s old, he shuffles, he hesitates, he gestures. But those gestures are firm, magisterial, confident. We get the meaning.

It’s over in 35 minutes, this Julius Caesar, but it continues to reverberate in the mind. The deserved accolades are almost incidental.

*  *  *  *
By Gilad Evron
Directed by Ilan Ronen
Habima, 23 June 2015

Ilan Ronen’s electric production of Jehu by Gilad Evron is not a cry. It is an apocalyptic screech.
“Watch out,” it howls. “This is the way we’re going; from violence to violence to destruction.”

There’s uncomfortable symbolism too, like the huge white on red א (aleph) that’s hung on the wall when Jehu assumes the crown, like the big aprons the men wear – absorb blood nicely – like the cleavers and big butchers’ knives the two soldiers – “we’re just the messengers, obeying orders,” carry in their belts, like the double row of grey filing cabinets on Niv Manor’s grim, functional set, like Natasha Tuchman Poliak’s meat-market costumes for the men.

Evron’s Jehu switches between its present and its past, and on the face of it, has nothing to do with us, here and now. It’s a Bible story, all written down in Second Kings, the story of Jehu who violently usurps the kingdom of Israel after shooting its rightful king, Yehoram, the son of Ahab and Jezebel, in the back. He then murders all of Ahab’s remaining 70 sons, not to mention Ahab’s assorted relatives, including Jezebel.

Actually, in the Bible, Jehu’s actions are sanctioned by the Lord and by prophecy because Ahab, encouraged by the pagan Jezebel, was an idolater and so the Lord is wroth. Jehu dies peacefully in his bed after 28 years and is succeeded by his son, Jehoahaz.

Is it true, what the Bible tells us, or just wishful thinking, the perpetuation of a myth?

And Evron’s Jehu (Gil Frank) is violent, charismatic, wily, a fast learner who turns on his creator, like the golem of Prague. His creator is Ziff (Dov Reiser), the king’s minister who is catatonic at the start of the play, but he’s voluble, manipulative and crafty when the action begins, when he first meets Jehu, when the ineffective Yehoram is still alive.

Jehu has been arrested for the massacre of Aramean villagers, and is brought before Ziff. Seeing in Jehu someone he can use, and consummate bureaucrat that he is, Ziff countermands the death sentence Army Chief Azgad (Alon Neumann) has decreed.

“It all started with that,” Azgad later hurls at him, but Ziff manages not to see anything of what horribly follows until Jehu grabs his daughter Keturah (Lea Gelfenstein).

Remember Pastor Niemoller’s famous quote?

“. . . then they came for the Jews and I did not speak out, for I was not a Jew. Then they came for me, and there was no-one left to speak for me.”

So it is for Ziff and Reiser has him down eerily pat. As the baffled, dogged, elderly Azgad, Neumann does very well, as does Razia Israeli as his wife, Ma’achah. Most affecting is the quiet dignity of their final scene together.

Gelfenstein does a high-wire, high-tension Keturah and Maya Maoz a steady Zilpah. She is Yehoram’s widow, brutalized by Jehu, and holding on by the most tenuous of threads.

Over the past few years, Gil Frank has been growing steadily as an actor and his Jehu is his finest work yet. Two years back he did an amazing Macbeth at the Cameri. More recently he was a wise and wary Creon/psychiatrist in Habima’s Oedipus. Frank’s emotional acuity propels him into the character’s essence, into its very guts, if we want to be a tad vulgar. His Jehu is a fine-tuned, street-smart thug, a maestro of the big lie. Frank doesn’t push Jehu at us, just lays him bare for us to shudder at.

Finally, Daniel Sabag and Shlomi Bertonov are very, very efficiently the two deliberately nameless soldiers who move the action along. They are the chorus, the movers, the necessary comic relief. They do not question. They are bland, unfailingly polite, most marvelously menacing and completely chilling. They are the apostles and the perpetrators of sanctioned violence.

We laugh at them, but we’d better pay attention. This Jehu serves as warning.

*  *  *  *
[I went on line in search of some basic facts about the Israel Festival and, lo and behold!, I found an article in the Jerusalem Post about this year’s event.  Guess who the reporter is.  Did ya guess?  It’s our very own Helen Kaye.  So, since the two reviews Helen sent me are so short (the JP severely curtails Helen’s column length for her notices), I’ve decided, with Helen’s acquiescence, to republish the article.  The basic factoids of the Festival are below in my exit remarks, but Helen’s report will answer some readers’ questions and lead you to more information.  Thanks Helen!  Once again.]

27 April 2015

An exciting European line-up is set to expand the festival’s horizons.

This year’s Israel Festival grabs the whole concept of a genre convention and tosses it into the nearest trashcan.

“Simply put,” says new festival artistic director Itzik Juli, “the stage begins to live when it frees itself of prior expectations and manages to shake us, the audience, into thinking afresh.”

Local artists from Germany, France, Finland, Romania and the Czech Republic are among the 12 participating nations focusing on new frontiers, transcending boundaries and exceeding limits.

The 54th Israel Festival in Jerusalem takes place from May 25-June 24 at the Jerusalem Theater and at venues all over the city.

Let’s get started with theater and the Jerusalem YMCA which Romeo Castellucci has reconfigured for his Julius Caesar, Spare Parts, a piece he calls an intervention in Shakespeare’s play. In it, the actors struggle mightily both to “reevaluate the text” as Castellucci puts it, and the deliberate obstacles in their way. Castellucci (b. 1960, Italy) is a hugely respected and prize-winning avant-garde director, playwright, designer and artist. This is his Israel Festival debut. (Italian w. Hebrew subtitles; all foreign-language performances in the festival are subtitled.) Adapted by Julien Gosselin from French writer Michel Houllebecq’s controversial novel Atomized, Elementary Particles was an instant hit at last year’s Avignon Festival. The multi-disciplinary work relates to the psycho-sexual perplexities of a whole generation via the adventures of two brothers abandoned by their mother in her quest to “find herself.” The performance is four hours long, with an intermission.

The concept of post-dramatic theater (PDT) informs She She Pop’s (Germany) take on Stravinsky’s famed Rite of Spring. PDT focuses not on the drama as such but on the context of performers, performance and stage.

The performers on stage and their real mothers (on video) delve into identity, the generation gap, mother- daughter relationships and more.

Belgian creator Miet Warlop and her Campo company bring us Mystery Magnet. At once funny and savage, Magnet has been described as “an amusement park for adults, on steroids.”

Good theater often asks difficult questions and young Rosenblum Prize-winning Israeli director Eyal Weiser poses some tough ones in How Is the Beast. In it, three fictional artists from Poland, Israel/Germany and Israel meet in Berlin during last year’s protective Edge campaign. Their fictional responses to an actual and critical article is the meat of the piece.

Another war, another time: in LysistrataX director Emmanuela Amichai takes Aristophanes’ anti-war satire into the future via dance, theater and video, and from Jerusalem’s Khan Theater comes KineretKineret based on Nathan Alterman’s 1912 play that asks, via idealistic young settlers, “Where have we come from, and where are we going?” The festival, like last year’s, hosts Center Stage, Jerusalem’s monodrama festival featuring 10 plays.

And let’s not forget the kids. Among their three shows are Bear in Mind, a musical by Eli Bijaoui based on the Three Bears fairy tale, and a dance theater piece, Carnival of the Animals (Saint Saens), by Barbara Latalova and company, that involves the kids in the action.

In dance, the Trisha Brown Company has two programs. One features three of Brown’s iconic pieces including Set and Reset. The other is In Plain Site, a homage to the 78-year-old post-modern dance pioneer specific to the Israel Museum. Unfinished Self, a deft solo by French dancer choreographer Xavier le Roy, looks at possible consequences to the human body of genetic engineering.

Snakeskin, performed within a poetic string installation, is by Canadian dancer Benoit La Chambre and won the 3013 Montreal Dance Prize.

I-On and X-On by Ivo Dimchev comes from a collaboration with iconoclastic sculptor Franz West that began in 2010 when the two met. Art transcends galleries, both agree, so in I-On Dimchev, alone in a gallery with abstract art, tries to come to grips with it, and himself. In X-On tourists in a museum are asked to interact with the sculptures. Watchable weirdness results.

And socially conscious, always innovative Vertigo returns to the Festival with a contemporary version of Anna Halprin’s (she worked with T.

Brown), seminal Parades and Changes that looks at and compares dance with everyday life. It was censored when first performed in the 1960s.

[The Israel Festival is a multidisciplinary arts festival held every spring.  Launched in 1961 as a summer program for classical music in the ancient Roman theater in Caesarea, the Festival’s center is now Jerusalem.  Current Festivals include, in addition to classical music, high-quality programs in ballet, jazz, theater, visual arts, and lectures, from Israel and abroad. Street performances and special events for children are also part of the Festival.  The Festival, a non-profit organization, is sponsored by the City of Jerusalem, and some of the performances are free.]

17 August 2015

'Bette Davis Ain’t for Sissies'

My second trip to the 59E59 Theaters last month was for Bette Davis Ain’t for Sissiesone of the entries in East to Edinburgh, an annual series of plays from North American companies before they make the journey to the largest cultural festival in the world, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in August.  The 2015 edition of East to Edinburgh ran from 7 to 25 July in Theaters B and C.  (For a brief background on the 59E59 Theaters, see my ROT report on Summer Shorts, posted on 12 August.)

Held each July, East to Edinburgh started in 2004 “as a way to help shows get on their feet before traveling to Scotland, simulating the same production constraints as the Edinburgh Festival Fringe but in a clean, comfortable and nurturing space to fine-tune their productions.”  As at Edinburgh, the programming is not curated and the technical productions are kept minimal.  The 2015 festival featured 17 productions from around New York and across the U.S. 

Bette Davis, written and performed by Jessica Sherr and directed by Antony Raymond, ran at 59E59 on 8-10, 15-16, and 21 July (it played in both 59E59 houses) before moving first to Rochester, New York, for a short run and then to Edinburgh in August; in October, Bette Davis is booked in Hopewell, Virginia.  Sherr’s one-woman performance piece began life in 2010 as part of a 30-minute show called The Redheads, which she had also authored.  Sherr rewrote the piece and Bette Davis Ain’t for Sissies débuted in 2011 at the New York International Fringe Festival.  (The title, for those who don’t recognize it, is a parody of a line attributed to Bette Davis, “Old age ain’t for sissies,” which she’s quoted as saying in a number of interviews in her later life.  The wording, of course, may vary and many other luminaries have used the line over the years as well.)  Bette Davis went on to several short runs in cabarets and small theaters, mostly Off-Off-Broadway, in New York City in 2011-2013, including 59E59’s Off-Broadway East to Edinburgh program in July 2013 (and then again in 2014). 

Sherr’s playlet has played at the Edinburgh Fringe previously in 2013 and 2014, followed in both instances by limited runs at St. James’s Theatre in London.  In between trips to the U.K., Bette Davis Ain’t for Sissies was seen at the Michael Chekhov Theatre Festival in Ridgefield, Connecticut, in September 2013 and at the IRT Theater in Greenwich Village in October 2014.  Though Sherr, a Southern Californian with a BA in English and Dramatic Arts from the University of California, Santa Barbara, has done other work as an actor—her most prominent is probably a featured role in the 2014 remake of Annie—her principal occupation seems to be touring Bette Davis.  Her program bio states that she’s “always had a love of the 1930’s and 40’s,” which led her to Bette Davis.  Given her preoccupation with her one-act personification, you might even call it an obsession.

Diana and I attended the Tuesday, 21 July, performance of the 80-minute, one-act Bette Davis Ain’t for Sissies at 8:30 p.m. in Theater C, 59E59’s 50- to 70-seat black box, variable-seating space.  The performance had general admission (no reserved seats), so the box-office staff recommended arriving early even though theatergoers weren’t admitted to the house (or even the third floor) until quarter or even twenty past the hour.  (59E59 publicity admonishes that “all shows begin promptly at their advertised time,” which turned out to be relatively accurate.)

The play’s set on 29 February 1940, the night the 1939 Academy Awards are being handed out.  Thirty-one‑year‑old Bette Davis has been nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for Dark Victory and Vivien Leigh has been tapped for Scarlet O’Hara in the blockbuster hit, Gone With the Wind.  The Los Angeles Times, however, released the winners’ names before the actual ceremony—and Leigh had won the Oscar.  Rather than sit at the banquet in the Coconut Grove at L.A.’s Ambassador Hotel, Davis decided to go home so her Hollywood friends and rivals wouldn’t see her obvious disappointment.  (Davis had won the year before for her performance in Jezebel and in 1935 for Dangerous.)  Bette Davis Ain’t for Sissies unfolds in Davis’s boudoir where she makes and takes phone calls, recalls memories of her Hollywood (some of which haven’t actually happened yet) as well as her pre-movie life with her mother, “Ruthie,” and on Broadway, and talks to us (whoever we are sitting in her home).

Overall, Bette Davis is unimpressive.  I’m not a fan of so-called monodramas—there have been exceptions: Clarence Darrow (1974) with Henry Fonda and Gertrude Stein Gertrude Stein Gertrude Stein (1979) with Pat Carroll—but this one was less than engaging.  It zipped around Davis’s life and films with little rationale, ultimately revealing nothing but a few factoids of mere curiosity value (unless you have a thing for Bette Davis trivia).  For instance, the play’s descriptive blurb in the theater’s publicity makes a strong point that Bette Davis Ain’t for Sissies explores the stars’ “battle to win freedom from the grip and control of the Hollywood studio moguls,” an allusion to the 1937 lawsuit she brought against Warner Bros. studios to try to get out of a contract she thought was deliberately holding her back.  But this event is just one of many mentioned in passing and is not a theme of the performance.  (There really isn’t one, so far as I could see.  Except maybe to show that Davis was a strong woman—but, a), we know that by now, and, b), there’s an awful lot of that on our stages and screens these days.  Not really news.)

The play unravels haphazardly in time; though ostensibly set on Oscar night in 1940, it jumps back to her arrival in Hollywood and forward even to the ’50s.  (The closing line is the famous quotation Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night!” from All About Eve, which was released in 1950.  I guess it’s supposed to be a comment on Davis’s decision to go back to the Ambassador Hotel, but I really think it was just an excuse for Sherr to get to speak Margo Channing’s legendary line.)  Sometimes it’s just Davis relating her memories to us, but at other times Sherr enacts moments from Davis’s past—one side of them, of course, since Sherr is alone on stage—as if we’re seeing the memories themselves.  Unless you know Davis’s biography or pick up on some reference in the lines, it’s sometimes hard to tell when in time the play is.

The actress-writer, Jessica Sherr, is not an impressive performer.  As long as she’s been doing this piece and as often as she’s spoken these lines, she still bobbled a few at the performance I saw, for example—the last of six.  (She also has a very strange mouth, which in the small proscenium house was very distracting.)  She doesn’t impersonate Davis, which is fine, I suppose, except that the movie star had such a distinctive and famous style it’s hard to picture her without it; when Sherr first came out on stage, my immediate reaction was that she looks more like a skinny Mae West than Davis.  (Sherr claims she was inspired to create this piece—in all its several incarnations over the past half decade—because she has “Bette Davis eyes.”  Personally, I didn’t see it.)  

There wasn’t much press coverage of the last New York outing of Bette Davis, though there’s some around from previous stagings that I’ve found.  Writing on Stage Buddy, K Krombie (apparently the guy—there’s a photo on the site—doesn’t use a period, like the actor A Martinez) described the one-act play as “a back and forth time construct “ that “works best during those moments in which the arch of an eyebrow or the inflection on a particular word transform Sherr into the Bette Davis so many are familiar with.”  “Sherr has made a wise decision in surrendering to high drama,” Krombie asserted.  “Bette Davis is not a woman who should ever be played down.”  Noting that “Davis acting strengths peaked with good, fast dialogue and her loaded trademark glances,” our Stage Buddy went on to determine, “Sherr uses the same technique, posturing, gliding, costume changing and cutting down to size those who dare to challenge her with ineptitude, discrimination or any kind of shortcoming.”  Krombie also acknowledged that Sherr’s “writing and characterization are well researched and plausibly over the top.”  Of Sherr’s 2013 East to Edinburgh appearance (directed then by Janice Orlandi), David Roberts wrote on Theatre Reviews Limited, “Jessica Sherr has those Bette Davis eyes along with remarkable Davis lookalike hair and lips.”  She uses these attributes, Roberts declared, “to create a winning retrospective of Bette Davis’ personal life and career.”  The TRL blogger further reported, “Sherr gives performances that are both comedic and dramatic,” delivering a portrait that Roberts felt “overall . . . is authentic and gracious” despite occasions when “the actor’s delivery loses the bite of the Yankee Davis.” 

Of the 2011 performance at the New York Fringe Festival, Erik Haagensen wrote in Back Stage, the theater trade weekly, that Bette Davis is “naïve” and “not remotely persuasive.”  Haagensen asked the same question about which I wondered: “To whom is the character talking?”  Noting that Sherr doesn’t seem to have answered it, the Back Stage reviewer posited that this “results in awkwardly unmotivated hopscotching through "Bette's memories.”  In addition, he noted, as I have, “Sherr neither looks nor sounds like the legendary star, despite an erratic attempt at a self-consciously cultured New England accent.”  (Davis, who referred to herself as “a Yankee,” was from Maine.)  The Back Stager went even further than I did by pointing out that “this Davis is suffused with self-pity, an emotion the flinty, iconoclastic, and ferociously intelligent original would have despised.”

I can’t agree with the praise leveled on Bette Davis Ain’t for Sissies by Krombie and Roberts above, but Haagensen seems to have come down right on my own position.  I don’t recommend Bette Davis at all, even if it returns in some new incarnation.  (I saw a play in 2013 at the Atlantic Theater Company called The Lying Lesson, about Davis in her later years, on which I was fairly cool—but it has this one-hander beat by a mile; see my report on 6 April 2013.  Coincidentally, it was by Craig Lucas, the book-writer for An American in Paris, on which I reported on 2 August.)

12 August 2015

Summer Shorts 2015, Series A

In July I was able to return to New York City for an extended period and I tried to catch up with some of what I’d been missing while I was commuting south and staying with my mother in Maryland for often long stretches.  My frequent theater companion, Diana, called me one evening and proposed catching several performances around town over the next week or so and, since I’d had to say no to her so many times in the preceding couple of years, I decided I’d take a flyer on some unpredictable experiences and (over)indulge myself.  The decision ended up taking Diana and me to four productions in six days.  I can’t say it all turned out for the best—but, of course, I couldn’t know that going in, could I?  You pays yer money and you takes yer chances.

Our first selection was part of the Summer Shorts series for 2015 at the 59E59 Theaters.  59E59 (which is located right where the name suggests, at 59 E. 59th Street) promotes the series, whose full title is Summer Shorts: Festival of New American Short Plays, as a “summer of new American one-acts featuring original plays by the country’s top playwrights.”  Now in its ninth year, the program “celebrates theater, summer and the short form,” say the producers, Throughline Artists (J. J. Kandel, producing director), offering a variety of voices, styles, and subjects.  The Festival is divided into two series, A and B, each intermissionless, hour-and-a-half part consisting of three one-act plays; Series A runs from 17 July to 28 August and Series B from 25 July to 29 August. 

The 59E59 Theaters were founded by the Elysabeth Kleinhans Theatrical Foundation, a not-for-profit operating foundation led by 59E59 president and artistic director Kleinhans, which was established to create a state-of-the-art Off-Broadway theater complex for new and experimental work by non-profit producing companies from across the U.S. and around the world.  In 2002, the building at 59 East 59th Street, between Park and Madison Avenues in Manhattan, was donated to the Foundation.  Architect Leo Modrcin essentially gutted the building and designed three performance spaces to provide support for theater troupes.  The largest space, the 196-seat Theater A on the second floor (the first floor houses the box office; there is also a bar on the second floor), opened in February 2004 with the first performance of Terrence McNally’s The Stendhal Syndrome produced by then resident company, Primary Stages.  (I saw this Stendhal, long before ROT started, as well as several other of Primary Stages’ productions at 59E59.)  In April 2004, the two other houses, Theaters B and C (98 seats and a 50-70-seat black box, respectively) on the third floor, opened with productions for the first Brits Off Broadway Festival (of which annual series I’ve seen only one presentation: 2007’s Memory, a Welsh production from Clwyd Theatr Cymru by playwright Jonathan Lichtenstein).  59E59 hosts many series (another of which I’ll be reporting on next), as you can see, some annual events and others one-offs, but the multiplex’s main program is the 5A Season, a series of five new American and international plays (which are presented in Theater A, hence the name).  Shows and programs at 59E59, which won a Drama Desk Award for Excellence in Theatre in 2008, generally run for three to six weeks. 
Diana and I went over to 59E59 on Sunday, 19 July, to catch the 7:15 p.m. performance of Series A in Theater B.  (Sounds like something from a Danny Kaye movie or the set-up of a Marx Brothers joke.)  The playlets (all about half an hour) are well-enough written for the most part, and they are well-acted (by different casts for each show) and -directed, but none go anywhere or say much of anything.  They all have a sort of gimmick that I gather is supposed the be the dramaturgical element that sustains them, but doesn’t.  (The plays, though, were competently written enough as far as dialogue is concerned, even if the content didn’t amount to anything in the end, that I wouldn’t be surprised if the first and second pieces, both two-handers, didn’t show up in many acting classes soon if the texts become available.  They’re the kind of material actors like to work with.)

10K, written and directed by Neil LaBute, recounts the meeting of a Man (J. J. Kandel) and a Woman (Clea Alsip) on a wooded path while getting ready to jog.  We don’t know if it’s an accident or if it was planned or if it’s the first encounter or the latest in a long string.  10K’s characterized in the publicity material as “a suburban mystery shot through with humor and tension and desire.”  Well, only a little.  10K, which isn’t as raw or outrageous as LaBute’s higher-voltage works (Fat Pig, 2004; reasons to be pretty, 2009), is set in a park somewhere.  (On one page of 59E59’s website, the series is subtitled “Stories from the Five Boroughs” and, indeed, the other playlets are set in Grand Central Station and a coffee shop somewhere near Ground Zero.  But we never actually learn where 10K takes place, except that it’s in a wooded area of a park like, perhaps, Central Park or Prospect Park.  It needn’t even be in New York City.)  The Woman and the Man, each unhappily married to someone else (whom we never meet), end up running together.  We learn a lot about each of them (not all of it complimentary: in Time Out New York, the reviewer mentions “one Bad Mommy confession that will make you want to call child protective services.”   Why these folks would reveal such intimacies to a stranger, I wondered) and it looks like a romance (or at least a hook-up) might be about to start—but it doesn’t.  The gag is that almost the whole play takes place while the two characters are jogging (a few breaks to change things up a little).  The actors face the audience and “run” in place as they talk.  (It must be a hard play to perform since for the whole half hour or so, the actors are essentially jogging, even if they don’t go anywhere.  Like the play.  The New York TimesAlexis Soloski quipped: “Let’s hope someone hands them rehydration salts as soon as they come offstage.”) 

Playlet #2, Glenburn 12 WP (the name of a top-shelf whiskey), is by Vickie Ramirez and directed by Kel Haney.  It’s the encounter between a young man (W. Tre Davis) and a young woman (Tanis Parenteau) who walk into an Irish bar at Grand Central Station.  They’ve each ostensibly come in for a quick drink on the way home but the saloon’s apparently deserted, the bartender strangely absent.  The two strangers have the run of the place and what ensues is a conversation between them in the empty bar, and as the liquor starts to flow, so do some inconvenient truths.  Troy, the young man (who didn’t really look legal to me!), is black (there’s a “die-in” protest against police violence going on in the station, but that’s little more than a backdrop that gets overused without being dramatically significance).  The gimmick here is that Roberta is Native American (“Indian,” she insists).  Ramirez makes some significance of this—she is a Tuscarora Indian herself—but in the end it doesn’t actually bear on the play’s main action—just much of the conversation that pretty much merely delays the climax.  (To paraphrase former late-night TV host Craig Ferguson from a sketch series he used to do: There’s been a murder.)  The whole thing is very contrived and set-up.

The closer is Matthew Lopez’s The Sentinels, directed by Stephen Brackett.  (Lopez’s best-known work is probably The Whipping Man, presented in 2011 by the Manhattan Theatre Club at New York City Center.)  Once a year in September, Alice (Meg Gibson), Christa (Kellie Overbey), and Kelly (Michelle Beck) gather at a small downtown coffee shop for breakfast (where their regular waitress is played by Zuzanna Szadkowski).  There the three woman catch up on each other’s lives and remember another September morning many years ago, 11 September 2001.  The women are all widows of 9/11; their husbands (whom we never meet) worked in a company whose office was in the World Trade Center.  The most obvious trick is in this third play: the story is told backwards, from 2011 to 2000, starting with the day after the third man was hired and the executives and their wives have dinner at Windows on the World.  Nothing, however, is revealed and the connection to 9/11 might as well be to a fire or an earthquake.  Sentinels is little more than a character study of the three widows.

The technical production is all handled by one 59E59 team, and it’s kept to a bare minimum.  10K’s set was the background of some other play, for instance, with the suggestion of forestry provided by the actors—like a poor man’s Wooden O holding the vasty fields of France.  (The remains of the constructed set, a wood-paneled interior, are simply there but ignored.)  For Sentinels, the luncheonette table and chairs are merely set on stage amidst the wood paneling; a bar is moved on stage for Glenburn, for which the constructed set may even have been built (or it may just have been usurped).  The settings were designed by Rebecca Lord-Surratt, the costumes by Dede Ayite, the lighting by Greg MacPherson, and the sound by Nick Moore; it’s all in the practical/utilitarian vein and perfectly functional. 

For me, these three short plays aren’t interesting enough to warrant going back for Series B, but the press didn’t altogether agree with me.  Of 10K, the Times’ Soloski wrote, “You can feel the playwright’s manipulations, but the play is vigorously performed”; however, she noted that Glenburn, in which she found “some stiffness to the writing,” “starts slowly, develops admirably and ends implausibly.”  Soloski acknowledged that we probably “don’t need another 9/11 play,” but asserted that Sentinels is “elegantly constructed and under Stephen Brackett’s direction, gracefully performed.”  The New Yorker, saying that the series “airs private woes in public places,” pronounced: “Competently crafted and well acted, but trivial despite weighty subject matter, these plays, like that Scotch [in Glenburn], go down smooth, with almost no aftertaste.”  The unnamed reviewer dismissed 10K as “a pair of pent-up joggers [who] almost let their imaginations (and hormones) run away with them,” felt that Glenburn “has a premise like a joke in poor taste: a Native American lawyer and an African-American physicist walk into a bar . . . .  But there’s not so much a punch line as a literal skeleton in the closet,” and called Sentinels “maudlin.” 

At TONY, Raven Snook said that the overall program, is a “grab bag of the good, the not bad and the ugly.”  10K “is a physical tour de force,” the TONY reviewer decided, but it’s “the biggest miss” of the evening, with “characters [who] are nondescript ditherers you should run from.”  Sentinels’ “gimmicky reverse chronology doesn’t add to its insights,” she  asserted, even with a cast “all beautifully fleshing out skeletal roles.”  “The meat,” wrote Snook, “comes in the middle” with Ramirez’s Glenburn, which the TONY reviewer called “ smart and moving” because the “palpable chemistry” between Davis and Parenteau “leaves you wanting more time with these folks but is perfect as it is.”  She characterized the playlet as “a politically charged conversation with wit, intelligence and a perceptiveness about what it’s like to be a person of color in this country today.”  On Talkin’ Broadway, Howard Miller called 10K “an interesting study of two people who are playing with fire,” Glenburn “smart and engaging,” and Sentinel “sweet.”  Overall, Miller thought, “Solid performances make each of the plays well worth the visit, although a collective common theme would have been a good idea for linking them.”

CurtainUp reviewer Jacob Horn, as if in answer to TB’s Miller, posited,

It’s never been the style of Summer Shorts to arrange its series around an organizing theme, but in this year’s Series A, it’s almost as if the plays are tempting you to test different ways of locking them together.  While there’s still no central theme, the three one-acts have an uncanny way of echoing one another in ways that are reliably striking, if not necessarily of deep dramatic significance.

The first two plays are, in fact, thematically similar: they offer examples of men and woman meeting under unusual circumstances and somehow attempting to use one another.  The second and third plays, meanwhile, are grounded in recent history and explore how individuals relate to the larger movements that arise in the aftermath of tragedy.  The first and third plays both include similar conversations about the ‘ideal’ gender to have as a child; the second and third both happen to feature women who really like their whiskey. 

I think Horn’s reaching: I suspect you could contrive some apparent connection between any two plays.  (I found the gimmicks, after all—though I don’t see that as a connection, just a pattern.)  The CU review-writer went on to say that “these unconnected plays do overlap and adjoin.  Seeing how one treats a topic can color how you view another’s approach, which winds up being more satisfying than a lineup of shows that are truly disconnected from one another.”  He dubbed 10K “a suburban psychological thriller of sorts . . . where every line is loaded with hidden meaning.”  The actors, Alsip and Kandel, “are carefully attentive to subtlety and nuance,” Horn asserted.  Even if 10K “occasionally layers on the air of mystery a bit too thick,” the CU reviewer allowed, “there’s also something disarmingly real about the man and woman’s conversation.”  As for Glenburn, Horn felt that while “Davis and Parenteau have good stage chemistry” and the play’s “sharp commentary on race relations and elucidations of minority perspectives in contemporary America are jarring in a welcome, insightful way,” its “eventual rapid escalation feels somewhat incongruous.”  Sentinels, Horn wrote, displays an “artfully deployed timeline,” and the cast gives “sensitive portrayals.”  Of the three playlets, “though the short scenes of the short play don’t leave room for much nuance,” Horn felt that Lopez’s is “the most emotionally affecting.” 

[I returned to 59E59 a couple of days later to see Bette Davis Ain’t for Sissies, part of the theater’s East to Edinburgh series.  Come back to ROT in a few days to read what I gleaned from that performance.  ~Rick]

07 August 2015

A Trip to Poland

by Helen Eleasari

[I imagine by now, dedicated ROTters know who Helen Eleasari is and how I know her.  I’ve published many of her reviews of theater in Israel, written for the Jerusalem Post, and other posts she’s written expressly for ROT.  I’ve also run some of her reports and journal entries on her travels, and now she’s sent me a description of the short trip she and her daughter Rava took to Warsaw and Krakow, Poland.  I’m delighted that Helen’s permitted me to share her account with readers of ROT, and I hope it sparks interest in many of you—whether you’ve ever been to Poland, plan to some day,  or not.

[I, as it happens, have visited the east European country, but it was only once for a few days in Warsaw back in 1965, then I was an 18-year-old high schooler in Switzerland.  I was on a school trip to the Soviet Union (which was an adventure in itself I may some day recount).  Unlike, Helen and Rava, I’ve never been to Auschwitz or any of the camps.  We did see the monument at Mila 18 to the Ghetto uprising and the Jewish underground, made famous by the 1961 Leon Uris novel.]

July 15, 2015

Rava and I are just back from 6 days in Poland: 3 in Warsaw, 3 in Krakow. We had a fine time . . . even the obligatory and dreaded visit to Auschwitz was less traumatic (for me) than I’d anticipated. I lit candles for those of my mother’s family who’d perished (we only know where for 2 of them) and because it was windy, I placed them in the lee of the execution wall beside the infamous barracks 11 in Auschwitz 1. 

It appears now that I did well to light my candles there because my cousin Arnold told me that his mother, my mother’s elder sister, Katje, died at Auschwitz on January 27, 1945 – the very day the Russians liberated the camp. . . .

As I wrote in my travel journal, What is beyond irony?

We’d booked a tour, which was the most sensible way of doing it because we got ferried there and back from hotel, from Auschwitz to mind- and soul-numbing Birkenau with an excellent guide in both places.

In Warsaw we stayed at the 5* Hilton (if there’d been a 6* it would surely have qualified) – very pampering and built, as we discovered, a stone’s throw from the Warsaw Ghetto. One of the 2 or three remaining bits of the wall was about 200 yards away. We did not see memorial as Rava balked, but I did manage to convince her to go to the former site of the Umschlagplatz [German for ‘collection point’ or reloading point’; the Warsaw square on Stawki Street, where Jews were gathered under German occupation for deportation from the Warsaw Ghetto to the Treblinka extermination camp] – now a wee, walled space with info thereunto written in Polish, Yiddish, Hebrew and English.

There it is, surrounded by apartment buildings just as in Berlin, the site of the Fuhrerbunker is now  a parking lots backed by apartment buildings.

Do you remember Carl Sandburg’s poem Grass?

Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo.
Shovel them under and let me work—
                                          I am the grass; I cover all.

And pile them high at Gettysburg
And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.
Shovel them under and let me work.
Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:
                                          What place is this?
                                          Where are we now?

                                          I am the grass.
                                          Let me work.

The thing about the Sandburg poem is that if you substitute the names of the death camps . . . it works horrifically!!   I have been busily looking him up. Grass was first published in 1918 – so it was a response to WWI. But Sandburg lived until 1967 (b. 1878) – so he’d definitely have been aware of the camps.

At Auschwitz now, the grass covers the ground between the paths, around and among the railroad tracks, so green and laced with its summer bounty of clover, vetch, horsetails and other wildflowers. I was very conscious of the poem, and not only there.

And there’s another supreme irony, that one of the most anti-Semitic nations in Europe (though perhaps now less so), is raking in millions from Holocaust tourism, itself an oxymoron.

In Warsaw we went to the Museum of the Uprising (opposite the Hilton), a small but very dramatic museum that tells the story of the 1944 Warsaw Uprising via posters, artifacts, pictures, movies, slide shows. The Warsaw Ghetto Rebellion also figured there . . . . We didn’t go to the Jewish Museum. 

On the lighter side we went to concerts, an organ recital with an awesome Toccata and Fugue in D minor [attributed to J. S. Bach] that left us totally limp, an equally awesome recital of early Polish music by the Ensemble Peregrina that makes this music its life work, and a lighthearted, utterly excellent production of La finta giardiniera [“The Pretend Garden-Girl,” W. A. Mozart]. . . it’s Mozart month in Poland, so a lot of what we heard was by him.

Poland has very thoroughly discarded its Soviet satellite past. Both Warsaw and Krakow are thoroughly cosmopolitan and capitalist with soviet architectural remnants here and there, especially the supernally ugly architectural abomination in Warsaw that’s called The Palace of Culture & Science, visible from everywhere in the city. Stalin’s ‘gift’ to the Polish people. It’s so ugly that I love it!!!

We ate good food – very international these days with every cuisine known to man, and delectable pastries. The most delicious meal we had was in Krakow, an unpretentious little place called Introligatornia – duck salad with raspberry vinaigrette, goose-stuffed pierogi and roast duck leg with red cabbage and ginger-infused stewed apples.

Rather than travel to Krakow by bus, we opted to fly. It was cheaper – $45 – than an express bus – $50+ – and took 35 minutes vs. 4½ hours on the road. Even with the security checks, etc., the whole trip took about 2½ hours. Rava had done her usual, i.e. seeking advice on the Trip Advisor forum. TA has become our bible!!

In Krakow, which the Nazis left untouched [except for looting], I did not feel oppressed as I had in Warsaw. Probably my imagination, but to me Warsaw was resonant with pain.

Krakow Old Town is a delight – a friend of Rava’s lives right off the Market Square – and we wandered happily. We went to the Jewish Quarter which is still full of synagogues, but there are no Jews to fill them – Amon Goth and Gov. Frank took care of that.  [Göth (b. 1908), or Goeth, was an SS captain who commanded the Krakow-Płaszow concentration camp during the Nazi occupation of Poland; he was tried in Poland for war crimes and executed in 1946. Hans Frank (b. 1900) became Governor-General of the Nazi puppet General Government of Krakow; he was also tried, in Nuremberg, for war crimes and executed in 1946.] Habad [also known as Chabad: the Lubavitcher sect of Hasidic Judaism] has taken over one of the oldest as its HQ and we saw a few Habadniks. . . The quarter has also (according to Rava’s friend) the best pastry shop in Poland, so thither we went for pastries and coffee. Yes, truly delicious. We also had a cup of hot chocolate at Wedel’s – Poland’s premier chocolatier. It was, as Rava said, like drinking a bar of chocolate – incredibly, impossibly, wonderfully velvety, smooth and rich rich rich!!!

Sorry about the rhapsodies but Rava and I are unreconstructed foodies.

Krakow also has a great castle [Wawel Castle]. We didn’t go inside, but wandered the grounds, and heard a concert in one of the courtyards – a lovely space that pampered the very good voices singing.

We spent some time in Wawel Cathedral, a huge, ornate and elegant European Gothic church with some impressive tombs, including one entirely of silver for St. Stanislaus, Poland’s patron saint. There’s another church – St. Francis – with some amazing art nouveau stained glass windows.

As you can see, we took it easy. No rushing from museum to museum, gallery to gallery.

We came home at 3 a.m. Monday on a ⅔-empty plane. I stretched across 3 seats and managed to nap a bit!!

[Helen’s past ROT contributions are: “Help! It's August: Kid-Friendly Summer Festivals in Israel,” 12 September 2010; “Acre (Acco) Festival, Israel,” 9 November 2012; “Dispatches from Israel,” 23 January 2013; “Berlin,” 22 July 2013; “Dispatches from Israel 2,” 6 August 2013; “Dispatches from Israel 3,” 20 November 2013; and “Dispatches from Israel 4,” 2 June 2015.  I also posted another of Helen’s JP reviews on 2 November 2014 as a Comment to “Dispatches 3.”  Helen’s just sent me more reviews of plays she declares are “icons for our times”; come back to ROT later (I haven’t chosen a date for publication yet) to see if you think she’s right.  (My bet, considering how astute I think Helen’s analyses are, is that you will.)  ~Rick

02 August 2015

'An American in Paris'

[My play report on the current Broadway première of An American in Paris, the stage adaptation of the 1951 MGM movie, is considerably longer than my habitual reports.  The extra length—nearly half the post—is attributable to the review survey I always include at the end.  An American in Paris attracted so much press attention when it came to New York City, more outlets covered it than I usually find on the ‘Net.  Rather than reduce the selection or trim the quotations, I decided to let the reporting of the critical reception go over my self-imposed maximum length.  Though I don’t endorse it, ROTters may chose to leave off after my performance evaluation.  I recommend you stay with the report and see what the published reviewers had to say about this attention-grabbing musical.  ~Rick]

I don’t seem to get to Broadway often anymore.  I used to, but before On the Town, which I saw at the end of June and reported about on ROT on 18 July, I hadn’t been to a Broadway show since last September (and that was a treat for my mother who’d come to New York City for a visit).  Mostly this is because of the ticket price: for the regular cost of a Broadway seat, I can see three Off-Broadway plays or more.  Further, too many of the shows on offer in the Theatre District lately are retreads of one kind or another, either revivals (On the Town, On the Twentieth Century, The King and I), movical adaptations (Kinky Boots, Once, Gigi), jukebox musicals built around some famous songwriter’s or popular group’s catalogue (Beautiful, Jersey Boys, Mamma Mia!), or eternally-running blockbusters (Phantom, 11,439 performances as of 26 July; Chicago, 7,765 performances; Wicked, 4,892 performances) that have been around so long that even if I haven’t seen them, I feel like I have.  But on Thursday, 9 July, I went up to the Palace Theatre on 7th Avenue and 47th Street, my second visit to Times Square in 12 days, for the 7 p.m. show of An American in Paris—the show’s 100th performance.  The reason this time was a trip to New York by my cousin Andy and her husband Robert who’d come up from Maryland for a friend’s (theirs but not mine) family event.  They’d decided to get seats for American the night before the big do and asked if I’d like to join them.  So I did!

The current two-hour-and-thirty-five-minute, one-intermission Broadway movical is based on the 1951 MGM motion picture directed by Vincente Minnelli (Meet Me in St. LouisFather of the BrideBells Are RingingOn a Clear Day You Can See Forever) from a screenplay written by Alan Jay Lerner (Brigadoon, My Fair Lady, Gigi, Camelot), with music and lyrics by George and Ira Gershwin.  (George Gershwin had died in 1937 at 38 so the movie’s score wasn’t original, but a pastiche of older Gershwin songs, culminating with the “American in Paris” ballet.) The star and choreographer of the movie is Gene Kelly (who played Jerry Mulligan, the American painter and ex-GI whose story the film tells) and the featured cast includes Oscar Levant (Adam Cook, the aspiring concert pianist who becomes Jerry’s friend) and Leslie Caron (Lise Bouvier, a young shop girl with whom Jerry falls in love).  Also appearing are Georges Guétary as Henri Baurel, a popular French night club singer who’s also in love with Lise, and Nina Foch as the wealthy “art patron,” Milo Roberts, who takes more than a professional interest in Jerry.  (I won’t synopsize the movie’s plot because, first, it’s easy to look up, and, second, the stage musical’s story differs significantly from the film’s.  As you’ll soon see, several of the characters’ names were also changed.) 

The movie itself was based on what George Gershwin described as an extended tone poem.  He originally composed the jazz-influenced American in Paris in 1928 on commission from the New York Philharmonic.  The 20-minute composition was inspired by Gershwin’s time in Paris in 1925; he returned to the City of Light in 1928 for a longer stay and wrote An American in Paris there.  “My purpose here is to portray the impression of an American visitor in Paris as he strolls about the city and listens to various street noises and absorbs the French atmosphere,” wrote Gershwin in the program note on which he collaborated with critic and composer Deems Taylor for the concert piece’s début.  Gershwin’s symphonic poem premièred at Carnegie Hall on 13 December 1928 with the NYP directed by Walter Damrosch (for whose family Damrosch Park on the campus of Lincoln Center is named).  The idea for the film of An American in Paris came to producer Arthur Freed (Babes in Arms, Girl Crazy, Singin’ in the Rain, Gigi) after a Hollywood Bowl performance of Gershwin’s symphonic composition in around 1947.  Freed liked the title and, after three years of negotiations with George’s estate and brother Ira, he built a musical from the symphonic poem with other Gershwin tunes.  The 16‑minute “American in Paris” ballet that ends the film is based on the 1928 composition.

In 2008, Houston’s Alley Theatre premièred a stage adaptation of An American in Paris by playwright Ken Ludwig (Lend Me a Tenor), directed by the Alley’s artistic director, Gregory Boyd, with choreography by Randy Skinner.  The Houston version starred Harry Groener (Crazy For You; Harrigan ’n Hart) and Kerry O’Malley but seems to have gone no further than its début.  In 2014, another stage version  premièred at the 150-year-old Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, which, like its predecessor, used the score of the movie plus several Gershwin songs from other sources.  (Since the movie’s essentially a juke-box musical, so are its derived stage versions.  For discussions of “The Jukebox Musical” and “Movicals,” see ROT postings by Kirk Woodward on 7 October 2011 and by me on 20 September 2013; a compilation of further articles on movicals from Playbill and the Washington Post appeared as “More on Movicals” on 21 February 2014.)  The Paris première ran from November to January 2015, then transferred to Broadway, with previews at the Palace beginning on 13 March 2015 and the press opening on 12 April.  Directed and choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon, the new adaptation was written by Craig Lucas (Prelude to a Kiss, The Light in the Piazza) and designed by Bob Crowley (Mary PoppinsThe History Boys, The Coast of Utopia).  In 2015, the Broadway staging of An American in Paris won musical Tonys for best choreography, best lighting design (Natasha Katz), best orchestrations (Christopher Austin, Don Sebesky, and Bill Elliot), and best scenic design (Crowley and 59 Productions); the movical also won the Drama League Award for Outstanding Production of a Musical and the Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding New Broadway Musical.  There were numerous nominations and other awards as well. 

Broadway’s Palace Theatre, opened in 1913, is the famed vaudeville house featured in the ubiquitous phrase, “playing the Palace.”  (An allusion even made it into the lyrics of “Very Soft Shoes” from 1959’s Once Upon a Mattress, which is set in 1428: “In the days when my dear father played the palace / Back in 1392.”)  Major headliners appeared at the legendary house until 1932, when it converted to movies.  In 1936, the producers at the 1743-seat Palace began presenting live shows with the films, an attempt to revive vaudeville that lasted until 1957.  The shows, headlined by star artists like Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland, were successes, but vaudeville was beyond resuscitation and the Palace reverted to movies‑only again.  The Nederlander Organization, second-largest owners of Broadway houses, bought the theater in 1965 and it opened the following year as a legitimate theater, still showing movies between bookings.  (In 1990, a 45-story hotel, now called the DoubleTree Suites by Hilton Hotel, opened above the Palace.  The hotel building and dozens of billboards obscure all of the historic theater’s façade except the marquee.)

The Broadway movical of An American in Paris is the romantic story of a young American former GI and struggling painter, Jerry Mulligan (Robert Fairchild); a piano-player and incipient composer, Adam Hochberg (Brandon Uranowitz); a Parisian fabric-manufacturing heir who wants to be a nightclub singer, Henri Baurel (Max von Essen); a beautiful French ballerina, Lise Dassin (Leanne Cope), with whom all three friends are in love; and the fabled European city in which they all live, each yearning for a new start in the aftermath of World War II.  (The play’s set in 1945, right after the liberation of Paris and the Nazis’ retreat from the city in August, instead of the movie’s 1950, when it was filmed.)  Wheeldon and Lucas have let a shadow of the German occupation hang over the City of Light, as in the opening wordless ballet, to “Concerto in F,” when Jerry witnesses a woman wearing an armband and with her head shaved—the marks of an exposed Nazi collaborator—chased down and beaten in the streets.  Jerry’s stayed behind in Paris when his unit is shipped back to the States and meets Adam, who did the same thing (except that he bears a combat leg injury), when he steps into a bistro.  The play’s narrator is Adam (in the film, this task was performed by Kelly’s Jerry), who wants to be a serious composer (in fact, he’s a romanticized version of George Gershwin transported two decades down the road) but plays piano at a cabaret.  That’s where he met Henri, the scion of a wealthy and socially prominent family who Adam tells Jerry are the Fords of the fabric industry in France.  But Henri wants to be a cabaret singer-dancer and that’s where Adam came in: he’s writing songs for Henri and coaching him in his performing style for his début.  They treat Jerry to a run-through of “I Got Rhythm,” which Adam plays at a painfully somber and dirge-like tempo until Henri makes him lighten it up.  (Adam may be George Gershwin, but he’s got a touch of Edwin Booth’s melancholy.)  Henri has told Adam that he’s in love and is working up the nerve to propose to his beloved, but he’s never told his friend who the girl is.  (That’s the plot-thickener.)

Adam has another paying gig: he’s the rehearsal accompanist for a ballet company and he takes Jerry along to a reception at the rehearsal studio.  There, Adam conceives a crush on a pretty young dancer, Lise, whom we (but not he) soon discover is Henri’s intended.  Jerry, who’s begun sketching the dancers (shades of Edgar Degas, the subject of another new, Paris-set musical, Little Dancer, inspired by Degas’s famous sculpture Little Dancer of Fourteen Years, wending its way to Broadway) and falls in love with Lise, too.  Lise, who seems to be flirting with Adam, returns Jerry’s affections but wants to remain loyal to Henri to whom she’s indebted.  (Spoiler Alert: We find out much later that Lise’s family is Jewish and was hunted by the Nazis during the occupation of France.  Henri, who we also learn near the end of the play fought with the Résistance, and his wealthy family risked everything during the war to hide Lise, whose family didn’t survive the Holocaust.)  Henri, of course, is also at the reception because his parents (Veanne Cox, Scott Willis) are patrons of the company.  So we now have three men all in love with the same woman and none of them knows about the others.  (Like I said: plot-thickener.)  

Just to be sure there are other complications to prevent the course of true love from running smooth, there are some monkey wrenches in the works.  First, another visitor to the ballet studio is Milo Davenport (Jill Paice), an American heiress who’s not averse to throwing her money around to get what she wants.  She announces a large donation to the ballet company on the condition that the choreographer (Victor J. Wisehart) and the impresario (Rebecca Eichenberger) commission Adam to compose a short ballet (An American in Paris, do you suppose?) for Lise, to be designed by Jerry.  (Doesn’t that all work out neatly?)  There’s a bit of resistance on the point of Jerry as the designer because the maestro has his own stable of scenic artists—but Milo ultimately wins him over.  It’s clear that Milo has . . . umm, designs of her own on Jerry—she even invites him to a party (to meet some influential art people—that old line) at which he turns out to be the only hors d’oeuvre . . . sorry, I mean ‘guest.’

The second complication is that Henri has never told his socially conservative parents that he doesn’t want to go into the family textile business, but intends to become—zut, alors!—a nightclub song-and-dance man.  He plans to marry Lise (if he can ever work up the nerve to ask her) and go to New York ostensibly as the company’s U.S. representative, but really to make his début as a cabaret performer.  (He dreams of a performance at Radio City Music Hall, which is the carrot Adam holds out to him whenever he falters.  In the middle of his Paris coming-out, he fantasizes an elaborate production number—“I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise”—with Rockette-like back-up dancers and a set with flashing lights that resembles the crown of the Chrysler Building.)  What starts out to look like a misguided dream, with Henri stumbling and hesitating from stage fright, ends up with his wowing the little cabaret audience—which, unbeknownst to him, includes his parents.  Madame Baurel is at first aghast that her son would make a public spectacle of himself this way, but Monsieur Baurel clasps his son’s shoulders in pride and surprise: who knew a son of his had such talent?  It would be wasted in the fabric business!  (My own dad said something very similar to me once after a performance—for all the good it did me in the end!  Ah, well.  Life may be a cabaret, but it isn’t a musical comedy.) 

Since the play’s plot generally parallels that of the film, it’s not spilling any surprises to say that Adam sees that Lise loves Jerry and not him—and he takes the realization as a private inspiration to write significant music with his image of Lise as his muse.  Henri also realizes that Lise loves Jerry and though she’s ready to go off to the States with him as promised, he releases her to make the right choice for her.  (There’s also a confusing and unexplored suggestion in the new book that Henri is gay—but as a plot element, it never goes anywhere.)  An American in Paris concludes with a slightly bittersweet ending, but not a terribly surprising one, since we know pretty much from the start who loves whom—and this isn’t a “musical tragedy,” after all.  The film famously ends with the magnificent “An American in Paris” ballet, which is reconceived here for the stage (except that it’s a company number rather than a pas-de-deux between Jerry and Lise).  After the ballet, the movie ends wordlessly—no dialogue or singing for the final 20 minutes—a groundbreaking cinematic experiment; but the stage adaptation sticks around for one more number, a rendition by Adam, Jerry, and Henri of Gershwin’s “They Can’t Take That Away From Me”—their musical expression of “We’ll always have Paris”—from the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movie Shall We Dance (1937). 

Overall, the show was enjoyable (like my evening at On the Town, it rained again, but not until we left the theater—and even then is stopped quickly)—but American’s not as good a play as On the Town.  Craig Lucas’s book is very weak and there are lots and lots of inserted songs (“I’ve Got Beginner’s Luck” from Shall We Dance; “Who Cares” from Of Thee I Sing, a 1931 Gershwin play), so many—nine at my count—it’s hardly still An American in Paris any more!  Some of the “new” songs don’t really seem to fit, like when Jerry decides, for no apparent reason, to call Lise “Liza” (cyber reviewer Zachary Stewart compared him to “a particularly aggressive Ellis Island immigration officer” renaming a new arrival)—it never comes up again—just so he can sing “Liza” from the Gershwins’ 1920 stage musical, Show Girl.  (Six songs from the film were dropped for the movical as well.)  

The lead actor-dancer, Robert Fairchild, though he’s very good, is no Gene Kelly.  Kelly dominates the screen in the film version—it’s unquestionably his move (he shares On the Town with Frank Sinatra, but between the two of them they eclipse the third sailor—though not necessarily the women)—but Fairchild is just a good actor-dancer, nowhere near as dynamic as Kelly (and who could be, after all).  While Fairchild is lithe and graceful as a dancer, Kelly was physical and masculine.  The book doesn’t help him: it shares the focus among the three men too evenly; in the film, Oscar Levant’s Adam is clearly a side-kick and I didn’t even remember who plays Henri until I looked it up.  Not only is the stage version of American not Fairchild’s play, it’s not even Jerry Mulligan’s. 

Let’s back up and look at the production’s elements separately.  As I said, Lucas’s libretto doesn’t stand up so well, and he’s added plot and character details that I assume were intended to fill out a sketchy story in the film but which end up just complicating the plot rather than giving it heft.  For example, he’s made a minor plot element that Adam is Jewish (which isn’t mentioned in the screenplay even though Oscar Levant, whose character was named Adam Cook, not Adam Hochberg as in the play, was himself born into an Orthodox Jewish family), though it has little bearing on the drama.  Lise’s Jewish background, because it’s the backstory of her debt to Henri and his family, is more significant but still of only small impact on the drama.  Alan Jay Lerner’s original screenplay, set in the 1950’s, was reportedly intended to put the movie distant enough from the actual war so that the story could omit much mention of it; Lucas’s resetting the story to 1945, right after the liberation of Paris, makes it almost imperative that the war be a presence in the lives of the city and its inhabitants.  But it seems perfunctory to me, obligatory references rather than true character motivations or plot drivers.  (It’s interesting that Arthur Freed’s original idea for the movie was to set it in the 1920’s, when George Gershwin wrote the symphonic composition which inspired Freed, after World War I but a decade and more before the second 20th-century war with Germany.) 

Adam’s role in the play is built up in comparison to the film, as is Henri’s, so that the three men who love Lise share nearly equal prominence.  This prevents the play from focusing in one lover, as did the movie, dissipating the dramatic impact of Jerry’s romance and pursuit of Lise on stage.  The movie focuses nearly laser-like on that romance: Adam’s not a suitor for Lise and Henri is little more than an impediment for Jerry, like Milo, not a serious rival.  Adam’s and Lise’s faith is of little dramatic consequence, nor is the fact that Lise was in danger during the war or how she escaped.  There’s no exploration in the movie of why the Baurels behave so circumspectly, even after the Nazis have left, and returning all that to prominence in Lucas’s script does nothing to the heart of the story except distract from its importance to the narrative.  It’s a case of reality interfering with drama—it’s plain TMI.  This is not a historical drama; it’s a romance, a fantasy, a dream.

As director, Wheeldon doesn’t help Lucas much, never getting close to covering over the script’s inadequacies.  (Since the stage adaptation of An American in Paris was Wheeldon’s idea to start with, I assume he had some say in how Lucas approached the book.)  American is Wheeldon’s first directing gig; his career till now has been as a choreographer, including for the Royal Ballet and the New York City Ballet.  His two principal performers, too, are from the dance world, and this all shows in the staging of the Broadway movical.  The acting, which is all technically fine, never sparkled; the two actors who came closest to breaking out are both stage vets with plenty of Broadway and regional creds.  (They also had the most interestingly-written characters.)  The others mostly faded into the stage until the songs and dances came along.

As choreographer, obviously Wheeldon’s wheelhouse, he made a far better showing.  Of course, it’s hard not to be inspired by the music of George Gershwin, whose tunes still set people’s feet to tapping even almost 80 years after his death.  (It’s a tad ironic that one of the songs Wheeldon inserted into the play’s score is “Fidgety Feet” from the 1926 musical Oh, Kay!  In the stage version, the invited audience at an impossibly staid avant-garde ballet of The Eclipse of Uranus—think a Western version of Noh—begin to be unable to sit still as their legs insist on boogying while sitting down.  It’s a musical paean to restless leg syndrome!)  But once the performers get up on their feet and hit their marks, the show sparks up tremendously.  Wheeldon’s dances are charming, witty, sparkling, and fun.  Dancers Fairchild and Cope (with both of whose companies Wheeldon has worked) let loose their reserve and kick up a storm, even in the slower, more romantic numbers.  They do less well, especially Cope, in the singing department, but their dancing is, if not spectacular, certainly first-rate.  (Fairchild, as I said, may not measure up to Gene Kelly, but Cope makes a better rival to Leslie Caron, both making their non-ballet débuts.)  Since An American in Paris is still a show about dancing—Elyse Sommer of CurtainUp called the production a “dansical,” and many of Lucas’s script enhancements increase the importance of dance in the plot—this aspect of the production goes a long way in explaining the movical’s audience appeal.  (Note, too, that American’s principal Tony win was for Wheeldon’s choreography.)

The set (Crowley), including the projections (59 Productions); period-evoking costumes (Crowley); and romantic lighting (Natasha Katz) all contributed strongly to the play’s post-occupation atmosphere and feel.  Crowley’s sets were largely open to accommodate the dancing, using only a few important set pieces to suggest locations.  (Like most movies, An American in Paris moved around much more than stage plays customarily do, so Crowley gave us hints rather than fully constructed sets.)  One exception was the dream song-and-dance Henri performs in “Stairway”; the boîte itself is simple and inelegant, but Henri conjures up a full Radio City set for his fantasy.  The Baurels’ sumptuous home, decorated with many framed paintings, is outlined by mobile baroque-style window frames (to allow for changing perspectives as the scenes shifts) to which are attached various-shaped and -sized empty picture frames.  Milo’s modern apartment is indicated with a luxurious sofa-pit, an elegant liquor cart and fragmentary walls decorated with starkly modern art.  (Abstract painting, which arrived on the art scene before World War I, flourished in the U.S. during World War II, while the Nazis suppressed it in Europe as “degenerate.”  After WWII, with the prohibition lifted, the art style blossomed again in western Europe.  Ironically, the movie drew on the imagery of French Impressionism and Post-impressionism as the motif for much of its scenic look, a hangover from the original plan to set the film in the 1920s.)  Crowley’s palette, particularly in his costumes, instead of the bright, blaring technicolor hues of the 1950’s film, is muted and down-toned to evoke a Europe just returning to a world of color after “four years [during which] the City of Light went dark,” as Adam says.  59 Productions’ slides and videos, complimented by Katz’s lighting, which depict a sophisticated Paris dreamscape (much like Beowulf Boritt’s fantasy New York in On the Town, though in a different style), are more than just lovely.  I took particular note of the recurring image of boats floating on the Seine as seen from one of the bridges over the river; the perspective was impressionistic and striking. 

In the realm of performance, the two standout actors are Jill Paice as Milo Davenport and Brandon Uranowitz as Adam Hochberg.  Both had more to work with as Lucas’s script made Milo and Adam the more eccentric figures in the play.  In Paice’s hands, Milo’s rapaciousness comes close to cliché, but the actress pulls it off cleanly and committedly enough to make the character a full-blooded narcissist but not a travesty.  (Paice’s bio includes both musical and straight plays.)  Unfortunately for both Paice and the play, Milo doesn’t get much resistance off of which to play.  In the movie, Jerry tries at first to rebuff Milo’s efforts to coopt him, but on stage, he hooks up with her more readily until the end, even while he pursues Lise.  This leaves Paice standing in the ring unopposed so that her determination is often wasted.  This, of course, isn’t Paice’s fault, but Lucas’s, Wheeldon’s, and Fairchild’s.

Uranowitz, whom I saw as Arnold in a Washington, D.C., revival of Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy (see my ROT report on 5 October 2013), makes the most of the enhanced Adam Lucas provides.  Making Adam a third suitor for Lise’s attentions is dramatically unnecessary, but while Oscar Levant was largely on the sidelines (except for his piano playing and his sharp, witty tongue), the movical’s Adam is more present between being a major character and the story’s narrator, and Uranowitz creates for him a complex and sardonic persona—even as he has to deliver some of what USA Today’s reviewer called “Lucas’s hokier lines.”  I wish his Adam had more of Levant’s acid wit, but I suspect that was largely ad‑libbed on the soundstage, or contributed to the screenplay by Levant himself.  (Levant was as well known in his day for that attribute, on screen and off, as he was for his piano-playing.  Ironically, Uranowitz’s Adam even makes a direct comparison of himself with Levant in one scene.)  One question I had from Torch Song, by the way, was answered by Uranowitz’s work in American: his characterizations are not built around actorly tics and mannerisms: he invents his stage behavior fresh for each part.  (The actor does still have his mop of “ridiculously thick hair,” as I quoted in my Torch Song report.) 

The couple at the center of An American in Paris, Robert Fairchild’s Jerry and Leanne Cope’s Lise, have little chemistry or magnetism in the dialogue scenes.  The best suggestion Fairchild’s Jerry makes is pleading with Lise to “dance with me,” for as dance partners, the principal dancer from the New York City Ballet and the First Artist with England’s Royal Ballet work excellently together.  They seem to have been cast for their terpsichorean skills and not their acting talent, and Fairchild (whose sister, Megan Fairchild, is also a principle dancer with NYCB—and stars as Ivy Smith in the Broadway revival of On the Town) has a passable singing voice for musical theater.  (In the movie, Caron’s Lise isn’t a ballet dancer, just a salesgirl in a perfume shop.  Lucas and Wheeldon have made the stage version a dancer so that, like Ivy in On the Town—also a dance student—she can be cast with a dancer.  In the movical, Lise works at Galeries Lafayette on the side.)  As actors, however, neither one makes a strong impression.  (Megan Fairchild delighted audiences and most reviewers in her theater début in On the Town, a lagniappe for musical theater enthusiasts—among whom I count myself—but her brother and Cope don’t reach her level as actors or even singers.  Lightning only strikes once in a Broadway season, it seems.)  Jerry should be a magnetic personality, a bold artist and a nearly irresistible romantic figure—at least that’s what Gene Kelly made of him—but Fairchild is just a good dancer and a competent singer.

Cope, who has the gamine quality—her pixie bob doesn’t hurt—for which Leslie Caron was so well known (she later played Gigi in the 1958 Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe movie), is a meagre presence except when she’s dancing.  Her voice, both speaking and singing, is weak, and her characterization is wan.  It’s hard to imagine that she’d get not one, not two, but three men to fall desperately in love with her with so little provocation.  (She kisses Adam twice on the cheek—okay, both cheeks, but she’s French—and bam! he’s a goner.  She’s kind and respectful of Henri, but he’s ready to give up his family and run off to New York with her for love.)  Since the men’s romantic focus on Lise (and the complications that ensue) is the engine that powers this play, these pale relationships leave, if not a hole, then a big pit right in the center of the production. 

Max von Essen’s Henri, whose part has also been built up from the screenplay, is little more than a plot device, an excuse for Lise to vacillate between potential lovers.  (He’s made out to be a former Résistance fighter who saved not only Lise from the Nazis but others as well, and Lucas has made Henri a novice song-and-dance man wannabe rather than the successful entertainer of the film, just to give him more complexities—stage fright, fear of his parents’ reaction, secretiveness—to work with.)  The actor does perfectly well by the character, but Henri’s still pretty much a cypher as a dramatic figure.  Von Essen’s Henri has trouble working up the passion to propose to Lise, behaving more like a sitcom adolescent than a man in love, but then explodes in response to Jerry’s hints that Henri was a coward during the occupation, revealing the secret of his wartime service.  Though he dances well enough—his Henri is sort of a Gallic Fred Astaire, top hat and cane included—he had the best Broadway singing voice and style of the entire cast and he’s a better actor than Fairchild and Cope, making Henri a charming, if insecure, figure.  That’s not enough to compensate for the fact that the character’s a lightweight. 

An American in Paris was such a big event on Broadway that the press coverage was tremendous.  Most were far more enthusiastic than I’ve been.  “The city of light is ablaze with movement in the rhapsodic new stage adaptation of ’An American in Paris,’” declared the New York Times’ Charles Isherwood, characterizing the show as a “gorgeously danced—and just plain gorgeous—production.”  In a “marriage of music and movement,” the show is a “tribute . . . to cherished notions about romance that have been a defining element of the American musical theater . . .,” said the Timesman.  “Just about everything in this happily dance-drunk show moves with a spring in its step as if the newly liberated Paris after World War II were an enchanted place in which the laws of gravity no longer applied.  Even the elegant buildings on the grand boulevards appear to take flight.”  The production “is very much a traditional Broadway musical,” with a new book “that amplifies the movie’s thin story line, mostly to witty and vivifying effect.”  (He did, though, label much of the amplification as “hokum” and added that the new book gets “a little jambon-handed.”)  Isherwood thought that the principal performers “also sing (quite well) and deliver dialogue (more than quite well).”  In a hat-tip to designer Crowley (and, by implication the projection-creators at 59 Productions), the Times reviewer reported that “the musical is as rich a visual feast as it is a musical one.”  In the end, however, Isherwood felt that the new movical generated such “exhilarating brio that you may find your own feet fidgeting under your seat before it’s over, and your heart alight with a longing to be swept up in the dance.”

In the New York Daily News, Joe Dziemianowicz pronounced the movical a “beautiful ballet-happy show” and “richly satisfying,” placing the credit squarely on the shoulders of director-choreographer Wheeldon, who “shows a vibrant vision and buckets of imagination.”  During some of the book scenes, Dziemianowicz “nitpicked,” “Occasionally the show stubs its toes on corny jokes and book scenes that could use a bit more finesse.”  The New York Post’s Elisabeth Vincentelli called American an “airy, gentle caress of a show” which “is often swooningly beautiful.”  The Post reviewer added, however, “The downside of this elegance is that when the production needs pep and razzmatazz, it’s in short supply.”  Like Dziemianowicz in the News, Vincentelli also found some of Lucas’s plot enhancements “heavy-handed.” 

“From the first moments of ‘An American Paris,’ two things are clear . .  . .   First, it is far more than just another Broadway remake of a Hollywood movie,” declared Newsday’s Linda Winer in the first paragraph of her notice.  “And the ballet world’s choreographer Christopher Wheeldon . . . has made something special.”  The Long Island reviewer continued: “Just how extraordinary is unspooled all evening with exuberant, sweeping innovation, dark historical understanding and a big, smart heart.”  In am New York, Matt Windman affirmed that American has “intricate ballet sequences” by Wheeldon, “exceptional music supervision ” by Rob Fisher, “a dazzling design scheme” by Crowley, and “an unusually somber book” by Lucas.  “Though heavy-handed and drawn out,” complained Windman of Lucas’s new book, “he deserves credit for trying to add depth to the film.”  Regardless, the amny man reported that “the visuals are innovative and the performances are top-rate.”

Elysa Gardner of USA Today, giving the movical 3½ out of four stars, wrote that it’s “a show that looks and sounds sumptuous throughout,” heaping praise on Wheeldon, Lucas, Crowley, Fisher, and Fairchild, even though the “show’s tone can be darker and heavier than that of the film’s.”  The production, Gardner averred, “fares best when its talented cast is singing and dancing,” which she pointed out is often, and she doubled down by stating, “The ballet sequences . . . are the soaring high points.”  Gardner concluded that American on stage is “a dazzling achievement in its own right.”  The Wall Street Journal’s Terry Teachout effused about Wheeldon’s theatrical début, gushing, “This is what musical-comedy dance can look like when it’s made by a choreographer who knows how to do more than just stage a song.  Once you’ve seen it, you’ll know what you’ve been missing, and find it hard ever again to settle for less.”  Of Lucas’s book, Teachout noted that the book-writer “has added a sometimes heavy-handed but mostly welcome touch of grit.”  Overall, especially with the contributions of Crowley and dancers Fairchild (“an unbelievable find”) and Cope (“deliciously sly charm”), the WSJ review-writer summed American up: “It is, first and foremost, an old-fashioned, big-hearted spare-no-expense Broadway romance.  That it is also a masterpiece of theatrical dance is sweet icing on an already tasty cake.” 

In the only weekly that ran an on-line review (i.e., no Village Voice, inexplicably), the New York Observer’s Rex Reed quipped: “It had to happen.  With stage adaptations of two classic movie musicals opening on Broadway in one week—both based on masterpieces by Vincente Minnelli from the golden years of MGM, both set in Paris with screenplays by the great Alan Jay Lerner, and both starring the young Leslie Caron—attention must be paid.”  The Observer reviewer continued, however: “Except for one life-saving exception, both turn out to be bland, uninspired disappointments, so don’t be surprised if attention also wanes.”  (A revival of Gigi, the other movical Reed means, opened at the Neil Simon Theatre on 8 April and closed on 21 June after only 86 official performances.)  The saving grace, Reed reveals, “is the magical star-making Broadway debut of the dazzling dancer Robert Fairchild.”  The Observinator warned, “If you’re going to turn unforgettable movies into dull stage shows, comparisons are odious but inevitable.”  After dismissing Gigi, Reed went after An American in Paris: “Craig Lucas’ dreary ‘updating’ of Alan Jay Lerner’s perfect screenplay,” the reviewer declared, is “cheapened by awkward character twists and banal dialogue” including “a tiresome array of postwar jokes about Vichy, Nazis and swastikas.”  Furthermore, Reed complained, the movical’s creators “deleted the best songs and substituted tunes from other Gershwin shows where they do not fit.”  After having trashed Gigi, Reed dismissed American as well: “There’s no charm, no joy, and I didn’t care about any of” the characters.  Except, Reed insisted, for Fairchild, “the most magical discovery since Gene Kelly” débuted in Broadway’s Pal Joey.  “There is no chemistry between him and Leanne Cope’s Lise,” the Observer review-writer lamented, “but even when he isn’t dancing, you can’t take your eyes off” his movements. 

“The movie . . . can feel like a rented room; there’s plenty of space for someone else to move in, to make it deeper, better, more accomplished.”  That’s how Jeff Seroy of The Paris Review feels about the film original of An American in Paris; of the stage version, Seroy averred, “That’s what the new musical on Broadway attempts, and—though not without its longueurs and contrivances—on many levels it has the film beat by a mile.”  On top of the plot development, the Paris reviewer added that “the real news about the musical is the choreography and dancing.”  Seroy dismissed the jazz dancing as “merely acceptable,” but wrote of the ballet numbers: “ooh-la-la!  Robert Fairchild (Jerry) and Leanne Cope (Lise) are astonishing, and the chemistry between them is utterly believable.”  The “American in Paris” ballet itself, he affirmed, “is a major coup de théâtre.”  “On the whole, Wheeldon’s ‘American in Paris’ is tasteful, witty, sophisticated, decent-hearted—even lovely, often—and a little mild, a little pale,” said Joan Acocella in the New Yorker.  Wheeldon (and, by implication, Lucas), wrote Acocella, “gives us a more noir picture” of post-war Paris than Lerner, Minnelli, and Kelly did in the film, “adding sorrow to the story” even as he’s “given it clarity.”  She concluded that the movical “is not so much something as a meditation on something.”  

In New York magazine, Jesse Green stated, “With its odd combination of dour outlook and joyful movement,” the Broadway adaptation of American is “a Broadway unicorn.”  Right from the quiet, dance-less, music-less opening, Green insisted, American shows its “intention to distinguish itself in tone and pace, and in the way it conveys information, from other musical comedies.  In that, it completely succeeds.”  But, the man from New York continued, whether the effort does “justice to the underlying material—or, more important, at making a coherent stage entertainment—is another matter.”  Green reported that “when An American in Paris is on its feet, it’s often sublime,” but he went on, “As for the more traditional musical-comedy numbers, all are well danced”; nonetheless, “the stage musical has fallen into some of the same structural traps” that Green identified in the film.  The actors playing the principal characters, the New York reviewer observed, “work very hard . . . to make believable figures from roles that seem like collections of symptoms with no unifying principle.”  Green, however, had praise for the physical production: “Nothing on Broadway right now looks like it, either, with its saturated primary-color light (by Natasha Katz) and with settings (by Bob Crowley) that seem to evaporate and reconfigure themselves second by second, as quick as Jerry’s sketches.  (The projections are beautiful.)  And . . . the music as a whole . . . is beautifully proportioned and arranged.”  In the end, though, Green confessed, “I rarely wish for bigger helpings of American vulgarity, but I left An American in Paris wondering whether it could more effectively have blown away all those clouds of gray (if not the Nazis) with a kinky boot or a confetti cannon.” 

In Variety, Marilyn Stasio declared that “there is beaucoup beauty in director-choreographer Christopher Wheeldon’s ravishing production of ‘An American in Paris,’ smartly but not slavishly adapted by Craig Lucas from the 1951 MGM movie.”  “This is one of the most ballet-centric dance shows ever seen on Broadway,” Stasio added, and then gushed, “It’s hard to breathe during the dreamy, 14-minute ballet that brings the show to a close . . . —not only because the love story is so romantic, but because we rarely see this kind of dancing on Broadway and it’s hard to let it go.”  Overall, the Variety reviewer described this American as an “unorthodox transformation of a bright and cheerful All-American musical into an enchanting but more reflective and deeply moving experience.”  David Rooney of The Hollywood Reporter, describing American as “a breathtakingly fresh musical . . . embodied in ecstatic, transporting movement,” declared that “ballet luminary Christopher Wheeldon [is] taking an exhilarating leap as director-choreographer with An American in Paris” and that Fairchild is “a triple-threat revelation . . . who proves himself more than capable of following in the suave footsteps of Gene Kelly.”  While caviling that some of Lucas’s “embellishments” to the book “at times seem over-complicated, and some of the songs feel shoehorned in,” Rooney felt that “that’s a small price to pay” because “an awkward transition or two can’t diminish the pleasures of a show that’s one long sustained swoon.”  Some of the added songs are “not all . . . perfect fits,” observed the HR review-writer, but “the performances are invariably a delight.”  He concluded that, “melancholy, droll and breezily uplifting by turns . . ., [e]ven with its imperfections, [American] is a thoroughly captivating musical.” 

Time Out New York’s David Cote reported, “There’s much gorgeous ballet to admire in” An American in Paris, “set against attractive, painterly backdrops . . ., but the overall effect is of a dance concert with a semiserious musical squeezed into the cracks.”  Librettist Lucas “concocts a story tinged by Nazi-occupation guilt and soldiers with PTSD,” said the man from TONY, and though the “leads are charming and the score’s divine, . . . mainly there’s middling singing and loads of dance.”  In his final analysis, Cote lamented, “Hollywood made it look so easy, but simple amour can be hard to translate .”  Melissa Rose Bernardo quipped that American is a “misty-eyed romance/travelogue that could practically sell transatlantic tickets on looks alone.”  Bernardo suggested that “a healthy interest in dance” helps viewers to “appreciate” the performance, because the dancing “packs more content, smarts, and finesse than practically all the book scenes put together.”  This is because Lucas’s “plodding, paint-by-numbers-style script is, regrettably, especially insufficient.”  Her last words on the production were: “Crowley creates as stunning a vision of [Paris] as you can imagine, bathed in a stunning array of blues, using jigsaw-like set pieces—combined with incredible projections by 59 Productions—to represent any number of places in war-ravaged Paris.  And Wheeldon’s ballets are positively transporting.  If only the team had followed lyricist Ira Gershwin’s advice—as Milo herself sings: ‘Dance whenever you can!’ [‘Shall We Dance?’ from the movie of the same title].”

The press coverage of the Broadway opening of An American in Paris was so broad that a couple of on-line publications ran two notices.  (In several instances, in both the cyber and paper press, there were also various other features on the production.  I didn’t survey either the out-of-town coverage of the production such as the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and the Associated Press, or the reviews of the Paris début which ran in many British papers and such other outlets as The Daily Beast and Opera News.)  The Huffington Post is one of those that covered American twice.  In his “First Nighter” column, David Finkle started out his review by declaring, “Christopher Wheeldon’s choreography for An American in Paris . . . is so spectacular that you have to forgive anything else wrong with the production”—after which he acknowledged that “there’s plenty to forgive--and I mean plenty.”  For one thing, Finkle noted that “you see this An American in Paris for the dancing.  You don’t see it for Craig Lucas’s libretto.”  As the HP first-nighter explained, Lucas does “what he so often does in his plays: Wax pretentious while believing he’s being deep substantive.”  While he praised all the individual elements of the production (save the book and the ill fit of some of the later-inserted songs), the HR reviewer dubbed American “mishandled,” about which Finkle seemed particularly exercised.  A week later, HP’s Isa Freeling posted a notice declaring American “a must-see.”  Lucas, said Freeling, “has adapted the story with great style and substance” and Crowley’s “beautiful costumes, along with Wheeldon’s poignant choreography . . . likewise lend atmosphere to the production.”  The second HR reviewer continued, “The play’s weakest moments are in some of the performances,” complaining mostly about some shaky French accents and Uranowitz’s “over-the-top” Jewish speech pattern.  “The most important thing missing, however, seemed to be sexuality and romance,” asserted Freeling.  “Wheeldon’s choreography is lovely,” she agreed, but it lacked this “crucial element.”

The other two-timer in cyberspace was the website Broadway World.  Reminding him of Jerome Robbins’s dynamic Broadway theater début with his “dramatic stage pictures and ravishing movements [which] swiftly and effectively reveal emotions that would require pages of dialogue,” Michael Dale wrote of An American in Paris, “It isn’t just the dancing that’s impressive; it’s how Wheeldon places the evening in a heightened reality that embraces a people’s desire to wake from a nightmare and get back to the business of artistic creation.”  Declaring, “An American In Paris is a thrilling addition to Broadway,” the BWW chief theater reviewer observed, “New York audiences have grown accustomed to seeing a ‘new Gershwin musical’ pop up every now and then,” adding, “Hopefully we’ll be seeing new Christopher Wheeldon musicals more frequently.”  A little over a week later, Dale’s colleague at BWW  from the dance world posted her assessment of American.  Wheeldon, wrote Mila Kraus-har, is “[k]nown for his contemporary, abstract choreography” which “ventured towards epic storytelling.”  But though “Uranowitz and von Essen hold greater Broadway credits and musical capacity,” Kraus-har found that “what came to mind . . ., were . . . Robert Fairchild’s conjuring of Kelly’s ghost and . . . Leanne Cope’s delicate emotional tension, yet no-holds barred physicality.”  Her overall assessment: “Kelly’s maxim proved true: if one has the talent to capture the attention of others, why not use that power to lift their spirits?  For his directorial debut, Wheeldon couldn’t ask for anything more.”

The rest of the cyber press was pretty much in line with the newsprint-and-ink gang.  On CurtainUp, Elyse Sommer quipped of the stage production of the “jewel-studded” American, “It’s got rhythm . . . it’s got music . . . and it’s got superb dancers and colorful, eye-popping settings for them to strut their fleet-footed stuff.”  Then she doubled down: “Bottom line: It’s a Wow!”  Though Sommer found Lucas’s revised book merely “an okay attempt to add depth,” the CU reviewer declared that “the dancing . . . is sublime.  Add the lovely, ear-hugging Gershwin tunes . . ., the stunning stage craft and performances—and what you’ve got is a theatrical sweetshop filled to the brim with delectable eye and ear candy.”  Sommer had praise for the dancer-actors Fairchild and Cope, but she insisted that the show’s great distinctions are Wheeldon’s “dazzling story telling ballet scenes, and equally dazzling design work of set and costume wizard Bob Crowley.”  New York Theatre Guide’s Kathleen Campion labeled American “a dancer’s show” in which “the dancing matters more” than the acting and singing.  “The movement changes from . . . wartime dancing to a dizzying conflation of ‘then’ and ‘soon-to-be,’” continued the NYTG reviewer.  “The dances are progressively more sensual and stylish, sometimes right on the edge of gymnastic.”  In the end, Campion deemed An American in Paris “dazzling and noisy in the best sense of an American musical.  At the same time it puts a canny, majestic lift beneath the patter and pas de deux.”

On New York City Theatre, Nicola Quinn noted that Wheeldon “makes his brilliant directorial debut alongside his amazing choreography” in the stage adaptation of American and the “strength and talent of the company thrusts this production to its exceptional level of force.”  Affirming that the production “will leave you feeling inspired by love and hopeful of a better world” and awarding it “a five out of five stars,” Quinn summed up: “From set to song and every note played and performed, An American In Paris is simply, ‘magnifique’!”  Lamenting that “just as An American in Paris seems about to perform a grand jeté into something new and wonderful, it crashes awkwardly into the stultifying limits of the book-musical form,” Zachary Stewart of TheaterMania observed that nonetheless “the show is full of transcendent moments of music and dance.”  Stewart allowed, “The show is at its best when . . . director Christopher Wheeldon allows his brilliant choreography to tell the story.”  Suffering “from the chronic affliction of all jukebox musicals,” the TM review-writer complained that the show “grinds to a halt so the cast can deliver a sparkling rendition of a Gershwin tune that only vaguely relates to the plot.”  Despite praiseworthy “vibrant” sets and costumes, and “flawless” projections, “None of it quite makes up for a story that is more often confusing than it is enchanting”; Lucas’s book, Stewart wrote, “is teeming with dubious contrivance.”  Overall, Stewart felt, American’s “symphonic sound, hazy character sketches, and long stretches of fantasy all lend themselves better to dance—that’s why the show seems to come alive in the balletic passages.” 

Matthew Murray wrote on Talkin’ Broadway that the collision of “Wheeldon’s fantasy” of post-war Paris with “the harsh realities of life in Paris just after World War II,” though it “cannot salve all the ills of an evening that has been adapted, smartly if not always smoothly” from the 1951 movie, “it does set An American in Paris apart from the pack, and distinguish it as a classic, adult dance musical.”  With assistance from Crowley’s “excellent sets and costumes,” 59 Productions’ “both . . . earthbound and horizon-sweeping” projections, and Katz’s “gorgeous” lighting, Wheeldon, the “keen visual storyteller,” and Lucas, who “so nicely upped the stakes,” rendered the adaptation “immensely satisfying.”  With plaudits for the cast, Murray’s only real complaint was “with the songs”: “Wheeldon and Lucas,” Murray felt, “have turned out something so thoughtful, so serious, that too often . . . most of the numbers . . . feel like intrusions.”  Finally, though, the Broadway Talker conceded that “if An American in Paris fails as an integrated musical, it soars as choreography, and ought to be seen, admired, and appreciated as such.” 

TV and radio reviewers also got into the mix in larger numbers than usual, even for a Broadway première.  On New York’s WNBC (Channel 4), Robert Kahn reported that An American in Paris “doesn’t fare quite as well as ‘Gigi’—the story is comparatively listless” even though he found it’s “full of gorgeous ballet numbers.”  (As I reported earlier, the revived stage adaptation of Lerner and Loewe’s Gigi closed after only 86 regular performances and 20 previews.)  “‘An American in Paris,’” felt Kahn, “feels like a ballet with a narrative trying to make itself heard” because “the characters in Craig Lucas’s script aren’t developed enough to really endear themselves to the audience.”  Wheeldon, the WNBC reviewer averred, “works magic with near showstoppers . . ., but in many other places the dancing seems almost too much,” though Crowley’s set design “is magnificent.”  On NY1, the Time-Warner all-news channel for New York City cable subscribers, Roma Torre reported, “The dancing s’wonderful; the music s’marvelous; I was dazzled by the scenery, even if it was a little too busy.  But I didn’t feel the love.”  The NY1 reviewer said that “Lucas’s book gets bogged down with too many complicating subplots,” and “the high-tech scenery . . . doesn’t know when to quit and ultimately distracts from the delicate love story,” but asserted, “Wheeldon’s choreographed sequences paired with that luscious Gershwin score are the best thing about the show.”  Torre concluded, “On its toes, ‘An American In Paris’ is glorious.  But when the dancing stops, it falls disappointingly flat.”  On radio, reviewer Jennifer Vanasco of WNYC (a division of New York Public Radio) said that the stage adaption of An American in Paris “was definitely worth waiting for” because “nothing about ‘An American in Paris’ is merely standard.”  Praising the sets and projections that “evoke Paris not as it is, but as we all dream it to be,” Vanasco also acknowledged,There are a couple weak spots,” notably Fairchild’s singing voice, but noted that “they don’t matter” in this “ravishing production that will sweep you up in its arms.”