Grand Hotel (Encores!)

A 1929 novel begat a 1930 Broadway play begat an Oscar winning Best Picture in 1932 starring Greta Garbo.  In 1958, a musical called At The Grand debuted in San Francisco but failed to reach Broadway.  Thirty one years later, a renamed Grand Hotel finally arrived, directed by Tommy Tune with some new songs by Maury Yeston (Nine).  To get there, the writer and original composers were dumped during the out of town tryout in Boston.  Songs were added and cut, the book rearranged and refocused.  Set in 1928 Berlin between the wars and right before the Depression, the musical became a hit, winning five Tonys and running for 1,077 performances.

Encores! produces fairly high quality concert versions of forgotten or slightly flawed works for a week.  This version in particular had a set which harked back to the original with polished staging, nice choreography and impressive costumes.  A real opportunity to revisit and reassess this piece.  My memory of Grand Hotel is that the show was stylish but forgettable and boring.

In 1989, critics were quite mixed to negative in their reviews.  Tommy Tune’s creative imagination was uniformly praised and the show “should satisfy those with a boundless appetite for showmanship untethered to content.”  Others had more fun with headlines such as “Vacancies at the Inn” and “A Few Reservations about Hotel.”  Clive Barnes knocked the “dull” score which had “Tune where its tunes should be.”  The Wall Street Journal used the words superficial, melodramatic and pedestrian, with a story “as empty as the lives of those who inhabit the hotel.”

Viewing Grand Hotel nearly thirty years later, there is no surprise revelation.  There are a few good songs, notably “Love Can’t Happen” and the showstopper, “We’ll Take A Glass Together.”  The book is not good and quite scattered as evidenced by the multiple bellhop phone conversations with his pregnant wife in a hospital delivery room.  The German boss, naturally, demands double shifts.  Whether in the original story or not, it’s another undeveloped distraction.  The enjoyably oddball characters remain sketchily drawn but the pace doesn’t really slow down so the overall effect is akin to entertaining blah.

Grand Hotel made Jane Krakowski a star as the typist with dreams of Hollywood glory.  The showstopper featuring Michael Jeter’s Tony Award winning performance as the terminally ill accountant can still be found online.  Most of this cast sang the score beautifully but fully developed characters did not really emerge.  Given this show’s pedigree, they cannot be entirely blamed.  For musical theater fans, the Encores series is invaluable, informative and fun.  On the subway, a handful of strangers compared notes after Grand Hotel.  Unfortunately for this show, we were all in complete agreement.

The Stone Witch

After having just endured The Low Road at the Public Theater, could another play assault me with a thematic bludgeon so soon again?  The answer, thanks to The Stone Witch, is an unqualified yes.  This play was written by Shem Bitterman.  We are a cabin in the woods where revered children’s author Simon Grindberg lives.  The handsome set promises Maurice Sendak.  That is exactly where this play goes, from the Hans Christian Andersen award hanging on the wall to the death of family members during the Holocaust.  Even the young naked boy from the controversial In The Night Kitchen is referenced.

Dan Lauria (Lombardi, The Wonder Years) plays the fictional author who is in a major writing slump, not having written a book in twelve years.  His agent, described multiple times as a barracuda, hires an aspiring writer to help coax another book out of him.  Into the woods and off to the cabin we go.  Naturally our genius is an irascible fellow and drawn with every mood that could possibly fit into a long ninety minutes.  The result is that the promising idea of this play is not achieved.

Rupak Ginn plays Peter Chandler, the young man who arrives with his newly minted manuscript of The Stone Witch.  The two men start down an interesting, albeit very brief path of collaboration.  Why is she made of stone?   Unfortunately the play takes a quick turn to crazy town and plants it flag down firmly.  If you miss any of the plot points, don’t worry.  They are all repeated.  On the plus side, I did leave the theater wanting to read the fictional children’s book.


The Low Road (Public Theater)

In one scene of The Low Road, a character is rambling while another punctuates his speech with individual words as commentary.  When he shouts “mellifluous” my eyes roll back into my head.  Unfortunately I am not the three-eyed raven in Game of Thrones and I was unable to transport myself to another time and place.  This ambitious comedy was written by Bruce Norris who authored the multi-award winning Clybourne Park.  Both plays concern themselves with race and injustice, with The Low Road also questioning the validity of capitalism.  The bludgeon is the weapon of thematic choice.

Adam Smith, the man who laid down the foundation for classical free market economic theory, narrates this tale set in the early stages of America’s founding.  It’s a big, bold new country and history is happening!  A young bastard named Jim Trewitt is raised in a brothel, winds up stealing his mother’s money, buys a slave and heads down the low road of capitalism.  During his journey, he gets to stand naked, stripped of his clothes.  He is shackled to his slave.  He is just another bad boy capitalist destroying wealth with lousy investments.  He is well played by Chris Perfetti.

Less aggressively highbrow plays might be crucified for slathering on the racial, economic and religious stereotypes that are in full bloom here.  I found this pretentious drivel repulsive.  The opening time shifting perspective which begins the second act is particularly sophomoric. All of this self-important farcical babble is given a big budget and highly stylized staging by Michael Greif (Dear Evan Hansen, Next to Normal, Grey Gardens, Rent).  The costumes by Emily Rebholz are quite good.

If you bother to attend this play, stay until the end so you can experience the wildly ridiculous conclusion which bellows CAPITALISM IS BAD!  Maybe then you can explain to me the purpose of the mockingly disabled character who was kicked while in his mother’s pregnant belly and now repeats what other characters say.  Oh, and you could also decode why he wore a Hannibal Lector-like face mask for part of the proceedings.  If you need your fix of early American history, go uptown and see Hamilton.  The Low Road made me regret being in the room where it happened.

A Letter To Harvey Milk

Harvey Milk was the first openly gay person in the United States to win a political office when he was elected.  Along with the mayor of San Francisco, he was murdered in 1978 during his first term in office.  Fairly grim stuff and covered by the multiple Oscar winning film Milk, starring Sean Penn.  The musical A Letter to Harvey Milk takes place in the spring of 1986, seven years after the murder.  While the musical has serious themes, it is not a biography at all.

Based on a short story, this show is about a older man named Harry Weinberg, beautifully played by Adam Heller.  Harry used to be a butcher and Mr. Milk was a frequent customer.  Harry joins a writing class in his Jewish Community Center, eventually penning the letter of the title.  Along the way, there are brief moments with Harvey Milk (Michael Bartoli) but this show focuses on Harry, his wife Frannie (Cheryl Stern) and Barbara, the young writing instructor (Julia Knitel).  Through ninety minutes we engage in fairly familiar emotional territory with the main conceit centering on homosexuality and acceptance, with a large schmear of Jewish humor.  Example:  Who do you think I am?  Shylock Holmes?

Thankfully, A Letter to Harvey Milk has a very strong book and the three lead characters are given a lot to say and think about.  The story arc surprised me and was very effective in peeling back the layers within both Harry and Barbara, and the letter that was written.  The music and lyrics range from garden variety to schtick.  However, the big ballads are very good and memorable, notably “Frannie’s Hands” and “Love Is a Woman.”  Evan Pappas skillfully directed A Letter to Harvey Milk.  Interesting scene transitions and captivating lighting effects enriched the storyline in this well-performed production.

Nanette (Soho Playhouse)

Based on a recommendation, I went to see Nanette, written and performed by Hannah Gadsby.  Advertised as an award winner at the Edinburgh Fringe and Melbourne International Comedy Festivals, I expected to laugh.  And I did.  Cursive letters are like friends holding hands.  Ms. Gadsby’s Tasmanian family tree isn’t really branches reaching out, it’s more inbred and resembles a topiary at the top.  Her mother equates the shock of hearing that Hannah is a lesbian to telling her that she is a murderer.

Nanette of the title is a barista shaped like a thumb in an apron.  Presumably there was some sort of relationship there but it’s not really explored much further.  There are laughs on order here.  Like many great comedians, Ms. Gadsby knows how to wring humor from discomfort.  What makes Nanette so much more than a comic monologue is the willingness to pause from the funny and take us down to a much darker, more intimate place.  She is very angry and we learn why.  The segment on art history will forever change how I look at a Picasso.

No more needs to be said.  Nanette is running until April 15th for those with the time and inclination to see something unique, memorable, hilarious and devastating.  If you cannot attend this run, a performance in Sydney has been taped for Netflix.  Nanette is another show perfectly suited for the time in which we live.  Ms. Gadsby claims this is her last show.  Let’s hope not.

Folk Wandering (Pipeline Theatre)

In development for seven years in various theater incubators, the musical Folk Wandering has now been given a full production by the Pipeline Theatre Company.  This show seems to be about three women and their experiences in 1911, 1933 and 1955 America.  One is a young girl of thirteen living in a tenement but wants to be a journalist.  Another is wandering the west during the Great Depression with her daughter.  The third is in a relationship with a musician who looks like James Dean.

Folk Wandering’s opening number is “Attic Song” in which the entire cast is rifling through the bins and boxes of a large attic (quality scenic design by Carolyn Mraz).  All of these talismans and trinkets must have stories; they are not simply piles of junk.  From this premise, the three different unconnected plots emerge.  This musical’s book was written by Jaclyn Backhaus who had  major success with the terrific Men In Boats a few years ago.  The music and lyrics are credited to ten different artists.  There are some very tuneful songs here and also some blatant borrowings, notably the Once clone.

All of this material demands that it coalesce into a whole musical with a purpose.  That does not really happen.  Some plots are far stronger and clearer than others.  Dashes of comedy with dollops of tragedy.  Perhaps that is the plight of the female experience in early 20th Century America.  I loved the folk idea of the title to bind the three main character’s yearnings.  The music, however, did not commit to delineating three distinct genres (or one consistent one).  The overall effect is still experimental more than fully developed.

Folk Wandering has been creatively directed by Andrew Neisler.  Individual moments are very memorable.  A strong cast commits to this material with well-drawn characters.  The men here shine a little brighter than the women which is slightly harmful given the book’s focus.  Dan Tracy, DeMone and Seth Clayton were all linked in one section and developed heart-tugging emotions through their supporting characters.  In other scenes, they were each hilarious with expressively theatrical physicality.  Like many of the songs and scenes in Folk Wandering, these actors were an enjoyable part of an unsatisfying whole.

Good for Otto (The New Group)

At some very early point in the exhausting three hour marathon entitled Good For Otto, a young girl began crying.  Apparently inconsolable, she was taken out of the theater by her mother.  Why was she at a David Rabe play?  I’ve only previously seen two of his plays, Hurlyburly and Sticks and Bones, one of the trilogy of Vietnam plays from the 1970s.  I enjoyed them both but neither are in the elementary school curriculum for Intro to Dramatic Theater.

Good For Otto concerns itself with mental illness.  Two therapists (Ed Harris and Amy Madigan) work in a mental health center near the Berkshires and do their heroic best to help their patients.  A who’s who of calamities are thrust upon us:  dead mothers, cutting, suicide, child abuse, hoarding, gay acceptance and hamster love, namely the Otto of the title.  Therapy sessions happen around and around, and back and forth, bizarrely interrupted by musical interludes of old songs.  These group character sing-a-longs are played at the piano by the hoarder when his story ended abruptly and for no apparent reason.  Music as healing power, bluntly and repeatedly themed, both in words and song.

About thirty minutes in, frankly, I was hating this play.  Then I started enjoying some sections.  Then super boredom set it.  Plus eye-rolling.  Then internal groaning as this play churned on and on, consuming the audience with its simplistic preachiness.  The director, Scott Elliott, made a critically bad decision to seat audience members on the stage.  During the second, less attended act, a man sitting center stage was holding up his head up while balancing his elbow on his knee, slumped over and visibly suffering.  Was this intentional or unintentional meta?

The cast was filled with veteran talents including F. Murray Abraham and, perhaps my favorite performer here, Mark-Linn Baker.  Overacting was the chosen route which admittedly made some of this watchable.  Long, insufferably overbaked storylines, particularly Mr. Abraham’s, were so very dull.  When this play finally ended a woman next to me said, “I need a pencil for editing.”  Kind words indeed as I’m not sure the interminable, unnecessary length is even the biggest problem.

Daddy Long Legs (International City Theatre, Long Beach, CA)

Visiting Long Beach, staying with friends and following their recommendation to see Daddy Long Legs proved to be excellent ideas, all around.  I was not familiar with the loosely adapted 1955 film starring Fred Astaire and Leslie Caron which I could overhear being widely discussed amongst the audience.  Based on her very successful 1912 novel, Jean Webster adapted her story into a play.  Here is what the New York Times said on September 29, 1914:  “If you will take your pencil and write down, one below the other, the words delightful, charming, sweet, beautiful and entertaining and then draw a line and add them up the answer would be Daddy Long Legs.”

The play made Ruth Chatterton a star and she was later nominated for Best Actress Academy Awards for two pre-code films, Madame X (1929) and Sarah and Son (1930).  How significant was this story?  Films were made by Mary Pickford in 1919, Janet Gaynor in 1931 and a Shirley Temple adaption in 1935 called Curly Top.  This version is a musical first produced in 2009 with subsequent stagings in the West End and off-Broadway.  The effective book was written by John Caird (Tony Award Best Director of both Nicholas Nickelby and Les Miserables).  Paul Gordon (Jane Eyre) wrote this beautiful score which felt like a chamber piece overflowing with lilting, elegant, moving, character-driven heartfelt songs.

Daddy Long Legs begins at the John Grier Home, an orphanage where Jerusha Abbott is the oldest resident at seventeen.  One of the trustees, a “Mr. John Smith” becomes her benefactor and sends her off to college to fulfill her promise as a writer.  All she needs to do is write him a monthly letter.  Jerusha comes up with his nickname, Daddy Long Legs.  This musical traces the lives of these two characters through their letter writing.  While the original book and play had more than twenty characters, many of whom are mentioned here, this musical has been structured into an intimate two person show.

We have a good Samaritan using his considerable wealth to allow a smart, heretofore unlucky girl a shot at the opportunity of a lifetime.  Ashley Ruth Jones and Dino Nicandros deliver superb acting and singing performances which build from simple beginnings to more complicated characters in a organically developing story arc.  Dozens of gorgeous songs, both solos and duets, keep their relationship evolving despite the fact that most of the interaction is through letter writing.  Credit has to be given to the director Mary Jo DuPrey who keeps this period piece flowing gently, melodically and emotionally to its satisfying finale.

Perhaps the most outstanding song was titled, “The Secret of Happiness.”  Seeing this production of Daddy Long Legs was one of those such secrets.  So was the fact that I beat my friends – for the first time ever – in the card game of Oh Hell.  And I did it twice this weekend!  So let’s update the New York Times formula from 1914:  If you take your pencil and write down, one below the other, the words Daddy Long Legs, International City Theatre and two card victories then draw a line and add them up, the answer would be bliss.

Bunny Bunny: Gilda Radner, a (sort of) Love Story (Mercury Theater, Chicago)

A text I sent during the intermission of Bunny Bunny: Gilda Radner, a (sort of) Love Story:  “Act I of the Gilda Radner thing.  A hot mess minus the hot.  A bad play.  A pretty sizable house.  No one is here.  Attendance is less than 10% of the house.  Maybe less than 5%.  Crickets baby, crickets.  Oh… I missed seeing the balcony.  Less than 2% for sure.  And, oddly, nearly all of us are seated in the third row.  I’m moving for more fidgeting capacity.”

First let’s fix the unwieldy title.  A Bunny Bunny Lady perhaps?  Everyone who was around for the launch of Saturday Night Live knows how funny Ms. Radner was.  The titular bunny x2 reference is from a poignant memory of her father.  Emmy Award winning Alan Zweibel wrote this play.  The plot revolves around their relationship from meeting and working together at SNL through their separate marriages until her untimely death from ovarian cancer.  Very little of Gilda’s actual work is contained in this piece which is one of several problems.  Act II does start off with the song “Let’s Talk Dirty to the Animals” from her 1979 Broadway outing, Gilda Radner – Live From New York.

Dana Tretta plays Gilda and does a fine job conveying her spirit without mimicry or caricature.  I also enjoyed the antics of Jason Grimm who played “Everyone Else” such as waiters, cameraman, a taxi driver, Andy Warhol, etc.  He provided needed comic relief and distraction from the main storyline.  Since this seems to be a very personal memory play, perhaps all of this material is emotionally and factually very real.  If a fan who attended her show in 1979 cannot be pulled into the material, then we know why it’s mostly crickets.

A tall fake plant has a sizable supporting role here.  It is significant as the location where Gilda and Alan first meet.  A stagehand moves the plant from place to place around the stage between the frequent scene changes.  The plant gets a curtain call.  Channeling my best Emily Latella here: “never mind.”

Plantation! (Lookingglass Theatre, Chicago)

Upon entering the theater, the living room is outfitted to showcase the grandeur of a plantation home.   A large portrait of a man is prominently displayed.  The time is now.  The matriarch of the family, Lillian (Janet Ulrich Brooks), is finally coming to terms with the passing of her husband two years earlier.  She has invited all three of her daughters to the Plantation! for a meeting.  So why the exclamation point in the title?  Well, where playwright Kevin Douglas plans to take us has not one degree of subtlety.  That is meant as a compliment.

When finally going through her husband’s possessions, Lillian finds a log of all the slaves bought and sold which had built her family’s fortune.  Did I neglect to mention that this is wholly and entirely a comedy?  As it happens, one of the longest tenured slaves in the log had a last name entered.  Thanks to the magic of social media, Lillian is able to track her descendants down.  Guess who’s coming to dinner!  Exclamation point is intentional here.

Lillian has three daughters who we quickly learn are a spoiled bitch, an off-kilter middle child who now runs the family business and a troubled youth.  In this play, stereotypes are not hinted at.  They are aggressively utilized to wring out every laugh possible.  When Lillian’s new Facebook friend London (Lily Mojekwu) arrives with her sisters, sit back in your seats and get ready for the fireworks display.  Mr. Douglas is embracing farce to confront the combustible tinder of slavery; its profitability, its disgrace and its import today.  And did I mention all of this is outrageously hilarious and not politically correct at all?

The powerhouse ensemble here is astonishing good and fully committed to the tone which is essential for this piece.  As the middle child Kara, Linsey Page Morton has become my new standard bearer for a depiction of middle child angst.  Tamberla Perry’s performance of visiting Madison is deftly imagined and her physicality is icing on the cake.  Lookingglass co-founder David Schwimmer’s direction is sure-footed, building to a steady pitch of hilarity and sustaining it for the length of this play.  Plantation! is a reckoning with America’s history of slavery packaged as grand entertainment.  Improbably brilliant!