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November 28, 2014

Ten Thousand, Ten Thousand and One, Ten Thousand and Two …

I needed 53 years, three months, 29 days and five hours to do it, but on Nov. 18 at 7 p.m., I sat down to see my 10,000th live stage show.

How fitting that it was a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, for the second-ever show album I ever heard – and one that spurred me to investigate this new world of musical theater -- was SOUTH PACIFIC.

However, Show Number 10,000 was no SOUTH PACIFIC. It was ALLEGRO.

Not every musical staged by John Doyle has his actors playing instruments, but this one at Classic Stage Company does. Well, ALLEGRO does start in 1912 when most everyone with any culture or breeding did play an instrument.

All right, in those days, piano tended to be first choice, while here virtually the entire cast plays violins. This is one Richard Rodgers musical that can’t be called NO STRINGS. But Alma Cuervo merely plays the triangle, which is quite a compliment to the actress; Doyle must have really wanted Cuervo although she’s fiddle-impaired.

Hearing the underrated score so differently orchestrated is a treat. The harmony from the Greek chorus is equally beautiful. Although Doyle has cut the show to 90 intermissionless minutes, virtually all the music remains. The speedy rendition underlines the fact that life goes by faster than Danny Burstein can say “Adolpho.”

Trimming also helps because ALLEGRO has never been as scintillating as we’d like. Funny that it’s R&H’s least sentimental show; in their 11 projects, Hammerstein never wrote tougher than the conversation between Joseph Taylor, Jr.’s mother and girlfriend. Who expects an R&H scene to end with a young woman telling her mother-in-law-to-be “I feel better now that war’s declared” between them?

Although ALLEGRO starts with Joe’s birth and takes us through his first attempts at walking, Claybourne Elder is always dressed in a suit and tie (with a tiepin placed very high, as was the fashion then). Because he faces forward most of the time, we get the impression that he’s reflecting on his life.

ALLEGRO will always be known as the show on which 17-year-old Stephen Sondheim was a gofer. It’s also the musical that he’s often said he’s been trying his entire life to fix. I suspect he’ll attend this production, partly because Doyle has staged a few of his musicals and partly to see if an idea on how to fix it will now come to him. Or will he feel that Doyle’s already done the fixing? Frankly, I felt this rendition was ultimately no better or worse than any ALLEGRO I’ve seen dating back to 1966 (when it was Show Number 64).

Show Number 10,001 was Katori Hall’s terrific OUR LADY OF KIBEHO at Signature. A priest, a bishop and a nun – hey, that sounds like the start of a joke you’d find on the back of a Playboy centerfold, doesn’t it?

Hall has more serious issues in mind. Anathalie (the marvelous Mandi Masden) is a young Rwandan Catholic school student to whom the Virgin Mary appears. So how do these three religious people in charge react to her claims? They think she’s crazy or pretending.

KIBEHO asks why those who solidly believe in the Virgin Mary would automatically doubt that she is capable of visiting Earth. The priest, nun and bishop grill the poor kid and try to make her recant. But why isn’t their response “Oh! How wonderful! What did Mary say?” Why is the claim of an appearance by any godly creature immediately smacked down as impossible? Is it because way down deep these religious people don’t believe such holy luminaries actually exist?

Show Number 10,002 was even better. Heidi Schreck’s GRAND CONCOURSE at Playwrights Horizons also deals with matters of faith. Shelley (Quincy Tyler Bernstine, in a great performance) is a nun in mufti who tirelessly runs a soup kitchen. With the likes of a too-talkative and always-butting-in “customer” (a fine Lee Wilkof), Shelley can use help and is glad when Emma (an effectively inscrutable Ismenia Mendes) volunteers.

Emma turns out to be no help at all, and that’s putting it quite mildly. The decision that Shelley makes about her faith is the direct result of Emma’s actions, and shows that even the most saintly of us has limits. Kip Fagan’s direction builds the suspense, which isn’t easy to do in a play that shows a dull, workaday environment. GRAND CONCOURSE will make you feel much better about your job – whatever it is.

Show Number 10,003 was LITTLE DANCER, the new Lynn Ahrens-Stephen Flaherty musical at the Kennedy Center. Ahrens has provided the book, too, mostly imagining the relationship between painter-sculptor Edgar Degas and Marie van Goethem, his model for the famous sculpture “Little Dancer of Fourteen Years.”

I hope the show runs for fourteen years. It certainly has that much potential. With a little work, LITTLE DANCER will be a big hit.

Flaherty has provided glorious music and Ahrens apt lyrics that both reflect the great Broadway tradition. The score sounds right for Paris in the late 19th century (with the possible exception of one song that Marie’s would-be suitor delivers to her). During the opening sequence in which Tiler Peck’s Marie danced, the first-nighters wildly applauded the ballerina – but I’d like to think they were appreciating the lush music, too.

Not much is actually known about Marie, so Ahrens has imagined a story in which the lass turns to minor crime to help her impoverished family. We see her pick a pocket or two, but the problem is that Susan Stroman has directed Peck to be blithe as she takes what isn’t hers. That Marie steals so matter-of-factly and without guilt or shame turns us against her. Marie’s utter amorality is positively immoral.

Degas is one of Marie’s victims. Once he catches her, he demands that she be his model as recompense. Credit Ahrens for a novel plot twist, but the show would be better served if Degas simply saw Marie on the street on her way to ballet class and offered her money to pose for him. Then she’d be torn between the bird-in-the-hand money for modeling instead of the two-in-the-bush off-chance that she’d have to make money in the world of dance.

Her posing for him would also be an opportunity for a funny song, which would help this short-on-humor show. While Degas demands that Marie stand still, she cannot, because she’s natively a dancer. We’d relate, because we know that if we were asked to stand motionless for an artist that we wouldn’t be able to keep from twitching and itching.

Susan Stroman’s last musical included the phrase “Don’t speak.” This one should sing “Don’t move.”

Marie is told by the ballet company’s powers-that-be that she cannot waste her time modeling, but must concentrate on dance alone. At the same time, Degas finds that he is going blind which is, needless to say, hell on earth for an artist. We’d like Marie more if she didn’t want to abandon him because of this development and not merely because she’s indentured to him.

Boyd Gaines plays Degas, and Stroman should encourage him to act increasingly blind in each successive scene. As of now, he’s matter-of-factly and briskly walking around his studio as if nothing has affected his sight. Let’s see him hesitate, stop, pause and have his face show the agony of his not being confident of where he steps next.

The statue turns out to get terrible reviews; the critics and public deem it somewhere between vulgar and pornographic. As a result, the ballet company fires Marie, who rails in fury against Degas. Better that she feel that she made the right sacrifice for an artist who’s losing his sight and livelihood.

As Marie’s mother, Karen Ziemba doesn’t have much to do, and Rebecca Luker, playing an all-grown-up Marie, possibly has less. We could say they’re wasted, but let’s instead be grateful that actresses of their caliber believe in the show enough to take these roles. We’re richer for their cooperation.

At this point in its Broadway tryout (or so everyone hopes), LITTLE DANCER has most of its pieces in place. It moves well in front of Beowulf Boritt’s evocative scenery and the dancing, which even includes – yes! – a dream ballet, is lovely. Stroman’s choreography scores even in the first scene when Peck dances in such a way that suggests she’s trying to find her legs.

LITTLE DANCER is doing the same, but here’s betting that it has legs. I’m earmarking it to be my Show Number 15,000.

         — Peter Filichia



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