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November 15, 2013

Reviewing a revue and a musical

BIG FISH is struggling and closing. AFTER MIDNIGHT is running and thriving.

I saw both and preferred BIG FISH.

Not because BIG FISH was such a great musical. It doesn’t sport Andrew Lippa’s best score.

But at least it was a musical.

AFTER MIDNIGHT is a revue in which we see and hear one song after another that a stellar cast performs to perfection.

All we can do, however, is say:

“Wow, can she sing!”

“Look how he can dance!”

“Oh, they nailed that one!”


Genuine God-given talent and sheer professionalism that results from years of practice and devotion are not to be dismissed. But “musicals” such as these have no real emotional content.

To be sure, some songs contain emotion. When Fantasia Barrino sings “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love,” yes, she’s sincere in proclaiming her devotion to –

Well, that’s the question. To whom? Even in revues when the director puts a person next to the singer, we don’t really make an emotional connection as we do in a book musical when we’ve come to know the characters.

That’s the problem with revues. No real characters. Nothing’s at stake. There’s little if anything that we can learn from anyone. In real musicals, people endure conflict and either survive and prosper or fail miserably. We can be inspired by the way they succeed or be warned not to make the mistakes they make.

In revues – even one as fine as AFTER MIDNIGHT -- our only responses can be:

“Wow, can she sing!”

“Look how he can dance!”

“Oh, they nailed that one!”


During a revue, when I hear the sound of “a silver-plated wah-wah mute,” I’m reminded of a 50-year-old book musical that took its lumps for being trite. But at least we came to care for Fanny Brice’s triumphs and problems.

Over the years, so many have complained about the template for the Broadway musical: the opening number, the want song, the charm song, the comedy number, the first-act cliffhanger, et al.

But big Broadway revues are much more formulaic.

First we’ll see the band that’s been put onstage so that no significant money need be spent on a set. We’re supposed to get excited by the big special effect when the platform on which the orchestra sits glides forward.

We’ll see a conductor who bounces in rhythm in front of musicians. Some of them will look bored while others will pretend that they’re seeing the acts for the first time and are genuinely excited by them.

No matter who’s directing or choreographing – and Warren Carlyle has done his job extraordinarily well -- we’ll see production numbers in which the entire cast of men will be neatly partnered in dance with the entire cast of women. In a solo number, a performer will slide across the floor and/or do a cartwheel or two. Women will twirl around quickly and forcefully enough to give panty freaks a quick thrill.

Certain to be included will be two guys who tap together and mid-number look at each other, clap their hands together once and give each other a smile. At number’s end, they’ll shake hands to show admiration for the other’s talent.

After such a big number, a stand-up mike will be brought out. We may get a torch-song solo or perhaps a trio of women singers will come forward and sing and make their white-gloved hands sway along with their hips.

On the button of one number – maybe two, but not more -- the entire proscenium arch will be illuminated by little lights that dot the left, top and right sides.

All this will happen during second-hand show songs – old pop songs that are often A-A-B-A in structure and will repeat verbatim the B and the final A. One will have a woman complaining about her man (here it’s “Go Back Where You Stayed Last Night”). Another will detail unrequited love (“Stormy Weather”). Another will have non-words (“Diga Diga Doo”). Melismas will occur where the composer never envisioned any. Performers will hold the last notes of songs to show that they can.

Many in the audience will be seen bobbing their heads along with the music and at least once the crowd will be moved to applaud mid-number. Yes, there’s something to be said about introducing good vintage music to a new public. But there’s more to be said when a song in a real musical moves you in what it says and how it illuminates the character.

As for scenery, look for an occasional formal-looking sequined curtain and then a colorful scrim. Chandeliers will fly in, reminding me of the greater assets found in GRAND HOTEL and THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. (Yes, THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. Don’t be down on it because it’s been so successful.)

Most songs will be performed by those who are beautiful of face and body, although there will always be one or two odd-looking ones. We’ll watch them put their hands over their mouths and make the sound of musical instruments … the ingratiating smiles given directly to those sitting in the first row … the dancers coming out in similar if not identical outfits, but each one in a different color ... a woman who sings while smiling male admirers buttress her on each side ... a tap-dancer making his way down a flight of stairs ... a friendly rivalry between duetting singers. And just when we think a number is over, we’ll be treated to an encore.

My mind will drift. I’ll start thinking, “Hmm, have I seen a show in this Brooks Atkinson theater for every letter of the alphabet? Let’s see: AFTER MIDNIGHT, BURIED CHILD, THE CEMETERY CLUB, DEMOCRACY … nope, can’t think of one for ‘E,’ and I should be concentrating on the show, anyway.”

Should I? I’ll only have to witness the inevitable moment during a song when the audience is encouraged to take over and sing. After the performer issues this instruction, he’ll smile as the audience does its best to croon along. Another number, usually the finale, will have the cast move downstage, clap hands in rhythm and telegraph to the audience that it too should start clapping along in rhythm. At the finale, the lights along the proscenium will again illuminate.

I won’t begrudge AFTER MIDNIGHT any of its Tony, Drama Desk, Theatre World, Drama League or Outer Critics Circle nominations or awards. It certainly does what it sets out to do, and it will bring a great amount of pleasure to people, especially those who never saw television variety shows of way-back-when.

But to me, hearing and seeing one number after another is tantamount to a series of musical sketches. And sketches aren’t as powerful as a portrait, which is what songs that complement a book can create. No, not every portrait will be glorious, but it will far more often than not offer more compelling brush strokes.

BIG FISH – with a cast that can sing, dance and nail numbers, too -- at least addresses some father-and-son issues, which would attract the interest of many theatergoers. Ultimately, the show offers a metaphor that your father may have more to offer you than you may think. It also says that adventure finds those most open to adventure.

Is any of this new? Not really. And yet, perhaps a grown son who sees BIG FISH and who’s had hard feelings toward his aging father will realize that that he’d better talk to the man before the passage of time prevents a possible reconciliation.

Yes, AFTER MIDNIGHT gives us an escape from the real world for 90 minutes. But all it can teach is that we should have taken our singing and dancing lessons more seriously.

         — Peter Filichia

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