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 April 26, 2013

April in Amsterdam

When producers of American and British musicals book a theater in Amsterdam, Theatre Carre is their first choice. The three-balcony, eight-chandeliered house is where popular hits go to thrive.

Last Tuesday, however, Theatre Carre was two-thirds empty. No usher I approached even had a program to give or sell (so don't expect any names in this review). When no one's even interested enough to hawk a program, the show on stage must be lackluster.

And it was: a touring company of Aspects of Love that dropped in for the week.

Frankly, here in Amsterdam I enjoyed the 1990 flop more than I had in two Broadway visits, a recent Walnut Street Theatre revival and -- believe it or not -- a New Jersey high school production. One reason is that here the show was delivered in Dutch.

No, I don't understand the language, but considering that I've never understood many of the characters' motivations in Aspects of Love, I could simply concentrate on Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber's music. Although this is far from his best score, it nevertheless contains many delicious "right notes" and "wrong ones," too. (The latter adjective is meant as a compliment -- a la Richard Rodgers' famous unexpected musical moves that surprised and delighted the ear.)

The director started the show by having the entire cast dance elegantly around, the way that Hal Prince opened Night Music. Eventually everyone went off except for Alex and Rose; he was the former Stage Door Johnny and she was the star he'd once approached and won -- for a while, anyway, until his Uncle George took her away from him. during this opening, after Rose left Alex alone on stage, we had a nice set-up for his stepping forward and singing "Love Changes Everything." The actor did it extraordinarily well, but during the reprise near the final curtain, he was even better. The last note he hit and sustained for umpteen measures was truly amazing -- and not in that American Idol-ish way. He sang it long, hard, straight and pure -- and just when you thought he'd have to wind down, he got even stronger.

Unlike Merlin in Camelot, however, this actor didn't youthen when the flashback took us to 17 years earlier. After "Seeing Is Believing," he looked silly putting his head onto her lap; he was simply too tall and beefy to play the little boy.


Of course, Alex must have a little boy's irrationality, when one considers what he did after he became jealous of George. He shot Rose, but she forgave him. Her rationale must have been that if she hadn't flung a pillow at him, he might not have shot the gun in panic. Still, pulling a gun on someone is always pretty serious and in this case was unforgivable. If Rose liked George, she owed Alex nothing.


Not that George was the faithful kind; he'd been consorting with Giulietta, an artist who entered while George had Rose draped over his lap. Rose snapped up her head and glared at her rival. Soon, however, the two women began a lesbian relationship. However, Rose would still marry George, with Giulietta as best man.


Perhaps Alex had revenge in mind 16 or so years later, when he took up with their daughter Jenny. It seemed to start off innocently enough with some "horsing around" between the two. But isn't "horsing around" what started Jerry Sandusky on the road to so much trouble?


I suspect that David Garnett's novel and Charles Hart and Don Black's adaptation wanted to indicate that in affairs of the heart, there are no rules and that anything can happen when physical attraction is concerned. John Irving has said that when formulating The World According to Garp he wanted to have the worst things happen to nice people; Hart and Black wanted to offer some outrageous situations to show that in matters of sex and romance, we're all crazy. If that was their point, the show probably succeeds.


But with whom? I'll grant you that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in my sexual philosophy -- and the thousands of audiences that didn't take to Aspects of Love. Many of us have found it a sterile modern operetta, but I'll concede that we may simply not be sophisticated enough to see that it has many truths to impart.


Before Aspects opened on Broadway, Hart told me that the set for the Broadway production actually cost more than the one for The Phantom of the Opera. That clearly wasn't the case here, where four interlocking arches and a few slide-on pieces were virtually all that graced the stage. What helped were flown-in paintings that ranged from modest-sized to quite large. A Venice canal, a countryside in the Impressionist style and even the Mona Lisa made for nice enough backgrounds. But they couldn't fill the Theatre Carre stage any more than audiences could fill the theater itself.


The next night, I went to the Stadsschouwburg Theatre, another three-balcony affair, but one with a more classical look. Statues of half-naked nymphs -- or, as we prefer to call them, Weismann Girls -- are cemented onto pillars that surround the stage. It's a beautiful theater, but is it the right space for Wachten op Godot?


Yes, I'm seeing a Dutch-language production of an Irish writer's play that had its premiere in Paris. Perhaps before the show I should have visited The Bulldog Cafe that's literally across the street; it's the town's premiere spot to buy pre-rolled joints for your legal smoking pleasure. If there's any play that might seem even more interesting under the influence, it's Waiting for Godot.

As much as I think that the theater is too hoity-toity, I must remember that Samuel Beckett's classic has often been staged in mainline Broadway and London houses. Still, I prefer seeing it in a dump, for such an environment better stresses Estragon and Vladimir's woeful circumstances.

In the 1956 Broadway premiere, Bert Lahr was 60 when he created Estragon and E.G. Marshall 45 when tackling Vladimir. In the same roles for the 2009 revival, Nathan Lane was 53 and Bill Irwin 59. Contrast those four with Sanne den Hartogh's Estragon and Stefan Rokebrand's Vladimir -- this time I got a program -- each of whom seemed to be in his early thirties. Can we infer that director Erik Whien was suggesting that today's hard times and bleak job opportunities make men into tramps at an earlier age?

Similarly speaking, Carla van Heeckeren van Bransenburg's costumes weren't as decrepit as the ones I've seen in six previous productions (dating back to a 1968 Boston staging that starred Danny Meehan -- yeah, that Danny Meehan who taught her everything she knew). Even the unlucky Lucky came on wearing a mauve shirt that was not to die for, but to live for. I started wondering if van Heeckeren van Bransenburg's point was that tramps dress better today because rich people throw out their clothes after they wear them one or two times. A thrift-shop manager I know has told me that many of today's donated duds aren't duds, but barely used designer fashions.

The fact that all three men were unshaven didn't make the same statement that it once did; men are no longer thought to be repulsively unkempt when they are seen with a few days' growth. Now they're viewed as uber-masculine. Beckett was pretty forward-thinking in his play, but he couldn't have anticipated that.

Nevertheless, all three did look seedy when viewed in comparison with Joep van der Geest's Pozzo. He came on prancing in the manner of a British twit, but, oh, did he become a Nazi when barking out orders and cracking the whip over Marcel Osterop's Lucky. The latter was a light-skinned black, so when the time came for his dance, he did one worthy of an African tribal ritual.


In these days when we have far more awareness of bullying, Pozzo's treatment of Lucky seemed even more inhumane. And yet we did get some mollification when Pozzo got his comeuppance by going blind in Act Two. Top billing Monday; Tuesday, you're touring in stock. Maybe Daddy Warbucks was wrong, and you do have to be nice to people you meet on the way up -- because you just might be coming down.


Am I reading too much into the play and the production? Is there some meaning to Whien's having the curtain go up to start the show, and yet concluding Act One with two different curtains, each easing its way from the wings and meeting in the middle? Well, hasn't most everyone had his own interpretation of what Waiting for Godot has meant since its debut more than 60 years ago? That's true even when you see it in Dutch and without benefit of marijuana.

         — Peter Filichia


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