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August 29, 2014

August’s Leftovers and September’s Brainteaser

The rumor mill: I’m told that none of us should be surprised if selections from a musical we saw on TV become a one-night charity benefit at the Shubert. ‘Nuff said.

Steven Fechter is a playwright who knows that if he gives us one clue per scene, we’ll eventually put it all together and be proud of ourselves for connecting the dots. His LANCELOT, a story of obsession, has powerful acting, too. What a shame that Thom Fogarty staged it in the middle of The Gym at Judson with the audience sitting in a single line of chairs on each side of a playing area. With Judson’s not-so-great acoustics, a third of the theatergoers had a hard time hearing the scene that was taking place far away from them. That’s a shame, for Fechter’s dialogue and characterization deserve to be heard.

Out in Sag Harbor, we have MY LIFE IS A MUSICAL, in which Parker complains that that’s his fate: everything he hears in real life is in book, music and lyrics (all by Adam Overett). When people are speaking to each other, Parker often hears what they’re saying as songs.

All this takes place Springfield, but apparently not in the same town in which the Simpsons have given us better musicals. Parker says in his opening number that he feels as if he’s on “an M-G-M soundstage.” If so, why don’t the songs sound as if they’re from that period? Instead, they’re generic pop rock of the most ordinary kind, befitting Zeitgeist, the rock group whom Parker is hired to promote.

Many complain that the sound of Golden Age Broadway is too dated for today’s audiences. But considering that people who are now affluent and old enough to buy tickets to Broadway were brought up on much heavier rock – metal, grunge and other assaultive types -- why do so many contemporary composers bother writing what rock aficionados would sneeringly refer to as bubble gum? Alas, Overett’s music could be described, to paraphrase a song of yore, bubble gum that lost its flavor on the bedpost overnight.

Parker early on moans, “But I hate musicals.” That’s understandable if he’s only seen ones that sound like this -- and look like this: David Arsenault’s set, mostly a series of mismatched doors of many colors, looks more like a construction site.

There is one good joke that comes from that set. Parker leans on it just as a vertical lighting panel illuminates, and he quickly removes his hand because the heat from the bulb has burned it. Another smart complication involves Parker’s hearing a vamp and assuming that someone’s going to start singing. No; it’s the music that comes from the truck that the ice cream man is driving.

Parker is established as a nerd with no friends, which is a lamentable cliché of musical fans. At least Overett didn’t make Parker gay; in fact, heterosexual romance is a big part of the show. Parker’s love for JT leads to a truly beautiful line about his musical life: “You’re the best song in the score.”

Howie Michael Smith works extraordinarily hard and gives a yeoman performance as Parker, but the show would be stronger with a handsome leading man to ameliorate the geekiness that Overett has written. Because JT is conceived as a lass who can’t carry a tune, Kathleen Elizabeth Monteleone has the difficult task of singing an entire song off-key and does it brilliantly. Robert Cuccioli is hilarious as a shadowy music man who gets some of Overett’s best jokes that verge on Dadaism.

Every now and then a clever allusion to musical theatre does show up. Zeitgeist has its tryout in Boston. There’s a fun montage, too, that references WEST SIDE STORY, A CHORUS LINE, THE LION KING and LES MIZ, but it arrives too late. And while Overett probably doesn’t know about a failed Broadway musical called A BROADWAY MUSICAL that lasted one cold December night at the Lunt-Fontanne in 1978, he echoes one of its lines when stating that a musical “doesn’t have one redeeming feature.” No, even MY LIFE AS A MUSICAL has a few.

Moving up to Westport, Connecticut, there’s Alan Ayckbourn’s 1997 comedy THINGS WE DO FOR LOVE. Ayckbourn has often been called “The American Neil Simon,” and this play brings to mind Walter Kerr’s famous review of THE STAR-SPANGLED GIRL: “Neil Simon,” he wrote, “hasn’t had an idea for a play this season, but he’s gone ahead and written one anyway.” Here Ayckbourn had an idea but one that he abandoned before Act One ended.

Barbara, a lifelong single, owns a house in which she rents both the upstairs and downstairs apartments. Below is Gilbert, who falls in love with her, only to find that love unrequited. Now moving in upstairs is Nikki, an old school chum (although not nearly as dear a friend as Nikki assumes) and her new fiancé Hamish.

It’s almost hate-at-first-sight between Barbara and Hamish. Each gives forth an opinion with which the other violently disagrees, leaving Nikki to put out each fiery conversation. Only seconds after she does, out comes another observation and another violent difference of opinion.

Okay, there’s the idea: What do you do when a friend has a lover you cannot stand? Unfortunately, Ayckbourn goes in an entirely different direction, one that’s psychologically valid, but one that isn’t nearly as interesting as the premise with which he started.

Many Ayckbourn plays involve gimmicks, such as HOUSE and GARDEN: two plays done simultaneously on adjoining stages. The device here is that we see only the bottom of the top apartment (a la “Famous Feet” sequence in A DAY IN HOLLYWOOD) and the top of the bottom apartment (the pit in which the orchestra usually resides).

Not so inspired a gimmick, is it? At intermission I hear many theatergoers complain that the thin strips don’t allow them to see enough. And there’s plenty to see, for the show is two-and-three-quarter hours long -- well past any comedy’s bedtime.

No problem with John Tillinger’s cast. Geneva Carr is the brittle Barbara, making an extraordinary statement “If I have been in love, I’ve never noticed” sound as if everyone feels this way. Matthew Greer’s Hamish does well in a speech explaining the many virtues of a jellyfish. Sarah Manton’s Nikki deftly shows the character’s damn-fool innocence when speaking of a former lover who beat her: “He was only mentally cruel to start with.” Michael Mastro excels as Gilbert, who dabbles as a handyman and tells you everything you DIDN’T want to know about radiators and wouldn’t think to ask. When he realizes that Barbara isn’t the Madonna he’d assumed, he makes us feel his heartbreak. THINGS WE DO FOR LOVE is a heartbreaker too, for its splendid start makes us assume it’ll be splendid all night long. Instead, its inordinate length makes it seem like an all-nighter.

There’s better news in town at Signature Theatre, where Naomi Wallace’s AND I AND SILENCE packs a wallop. If you missed THE MAIDS with Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert, catch Trae Harris and Emily Skeggs practice being maids so that they can conquer any each domestic duty that would come their way. While this may not seem to be anyone’s first choice of job, being a servant seems pretty terrific when you’re facing a nine-year incarceration, as Young Jamie and Young Dee are starting in 1950. They’re planning their careers when they’re released, and plan to be the best that they can be. “We’ll work in the finest houses, get paid in cash and eat what they leave over” is their motto.

Yes a capital “Y” on is required on “Young,” because the program also lists Jamie (Rachel Nicks) and Dee (Samantha Soule), their 1959 versions after they’re released from prison. Suddenly the clink seems to provide a much easier way to live, because Jamie is black and Dee is white – and in the segregated South they can’t even walk down the street together. In prison, they were free to be friends. Under Caitlin McLeod’s understand direction, AND I AND SILENCE is far more potent than its ungainly title would suggest.

How I wish I were paid by the word! Then I’d pick up a few extra bucks just by mentioning the title of the show at the Minetta Lane: REVOLUTION IN THE ELBOW OF RAGNAR AGNARSSON FURNITURE PAINTER. It’s a musical from Iceland in which Boy Meets Girl and Boy Loses Girl in a coin flip. The show takes place in a future era where men are getting silicone injections – to make their shoulders bigger.

Some of the numbers look perilously like they came from SATAN’S ALLEY, the musical in which Tony Manero starred in STAYING ALIVE. Most everyone here is costumed in red and black, which made me long for LES MIZ. And given that I’m NOT paid by the word, let’s leave it at that for this misfire.

Looking ahead: From the three songs I heard at a press preview of RED EYE OF LOVE, I have good feelings about the musical adaptation of Arnold Weinstein’s 1961 absurdist comedy. (It’s now in previews at The DiCapo Opera Theatre at 184 East 76th Street.)

Composer Sam Davis is a natural for this show that spans the musical styles of the first half of the twentieth century. “I love the classic sound of Broadway,” says the Michigan grad whose first trip to the theater was Sandy Duncan’s PETER PAN. That gives him a chance to write true boogie-woogie for the ‘40s sequence, which is expertly choreographed by Lainie Sakakura.

“Yes, the show takes a similar path to Weill-Lerner’s 1948 musical LOVE LIFE,” according to director Ted Sperling. Here’s hoping that it’s as good as LOVE LIFE in quality but that unlike LOVE LIFE, it gets a cast album. Josh Grisetti, this generation’s Ray Bolger, heads a cast that includes the fetching Alli Mauzey and stalwart Kevin Pariseau.

So why is the Irish Festival called ORIGIN’S 1ST IRISH 2014 when this is actually the twelfth year of the event? Seems that the offices at 1st Avenue and 1st Streets were where the seeds were sown for the annual shindig.

Most of the attractions involve new plays: Dylan Coburn Gray’s BOYS AND GIRLS warns “Do not bring your kids – or do, but it might scar them for life.” Some sound American, such as WAITING FOR IKEA (by Georgina McKevitt, who’s in it, and Jacinta Sheerin, who isn’t) – or does it sound Swedish? And in case you’re wondering what a Yiddish-language WAITING FOR GODOT is doing in the mix, don’t forget that Samuel Beckett hailed from Foxrock, a suburb of Dublin.

ORIGIN’S 1ST IRISH 2014 runs through Sept. 29, and it’s best to make plans now, rather than miss shows and hear your friends rave – making you green with envy.

How can I prove to you that Jeremy Scott Blaustein is a terrific writer? Exhibit A occurs at the bottom of page 233 of his THE HOME FOR WAYWARD LADIES. There’s a discussion about Miss Ginny, a lesbian who’d started a Poconos theater after World War II, after she’d been toiling in some butch job. “When the men came home,” Blaustein writes, “they expected Rosie the Riveter to hang up her coveralls and quietly retie her apron strings. Needless to say, Miss Ginny wasn’t taking off her pants for any man.”

The story involves three good friends, a trio of young men, who come to the city to become rich and famous through show business. Nicholas has had such dreams after spending “years of studying Disney princesses on VHS.” He claims “I’m going to be so famous that when I die people I never met are going to shed tears.” For the moment, however, he works the TKTS line and is mighty tired of saying that THE LION KING is never there.

Eli gets a job as a Broadway usher. As for his uniform, “The only thing missing are stones for my pockets for when I walk into a lake.”

Hunter was always a bit behind the others and confesses to knowing “as much about New York City as Dorothy did when she landed in Oz.” Worse, he commits the “blasphemy in calling an original cast recording a soundtrack, which, trust me, is a mistake you only make once when you travel in that circle.”

Nicholas tries the hardest. He’s so exhausted preparing for his cabaret show that “the bags under my eyes are bigger than what Anna brought to Siam.” And when he looks to see who’s attending, he discovers that the RSVP list “is a veritable Who’s Who of ‘Who’s That’?”

And so they go, with a bit of sex mixed in. Maybe more than a bit. By page 28, I noticed that there had been much talk of anal sex, so I started keeping track of how many additional sentences would mention it. An even 25, in fact. This may encourage you to buy or pass by THE HOME FOR WAYWARD LADIES, but there’s no denying that Blaustein is quite the talented novelist.

Last month’s brainteaser: I asked what these songs from cast recordings had in common: “Adelaide’s Lament” (GUYS AND DOLLS), “Artificial Flowers” (TENDERLOIN), “Cabaret” (CABARET), “Gifts of Love” (THE BAKER’S WIFE), “Good Morning, Baltimore” (HAIRSPRAY), “He Plays the Violin” (1776), “High Flying Adored” (EVITA), “I Want to Be Seen with You” (FUNNY GIRL), “Irma La Douce” (IRMA LA DOUCE), “The Lonely Goatherd” (THE SOUND OF MUSIC), “Practically Perfect” (MARY POPPINS), “She’s Funny That Way” (BULLETS OVER BROADWAY) and “When You Got It, Flaunt It” (THE PRODUCERS).

The answer: they all modulate – i.e., change key -- at some point during the song. Doug Frasher was the first to get it, followed by Seth Düerr and Donald Tesione.

This month’s brainteaser is a little fanciful and facetious, but fun, too (I insist): What famous line that Tevye says could also be said by Captain Hook?

You know where to find me.

         — Peter Filichia

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