Saturday, April 27, 2013

Christian Baines: Letter From New York City

Letter From New York
Vanya and Spike and Cinderella and thoughts on Kink
by Christian Baines
This past weekend marked my fourth trip to New York, and it’s kind of true. The most interesting theatrical experiences you can have there are often those that are impossible to find elsewhere. Take critical darling and hip-kids favourite Sleep No More, now entering its third year at Chelsea’s ‘McKittrick Hotel’. This immersive, interactive take on the concepts of Macbeth (I’m hesitant to say ‘story’ in this case) only grows more intriguing with repeat visits – in my experience at least.  Sure, maybe it’s the Lynch/Hitchcock/Kubrick freaks among us who’ll get the most from it. But honestly, if you’ve not yet freaked out down the halls of the asylum with Lady McB, or if you are still able to read the witch scenes in Shakespeare’s play without shuddering a little, I urge you to get down to Chelsea post haste and don one of the now infamous white masks. Still, that was two seasons ago, and for all the originality bubbling on downtown, the call of Broadway is strong. 
Too strong for this visitor. 

Kristine Nielsen will be the name to watch come Tony time.

So for this trip at least, on Broadway I remain. And let me be abundantly clear on this. The future of post-modern theatre has arrived, and it’s currently playing at the Golden. Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike is packed with cleverly used references that are strong enough to satisfy the Chekhov faithful, yet subtle enough to fly over the heads of the uninitiated – without leaving those heads in a state of perplexed scratching. The story of three siblings (ding!), Vanya, Sonya, and... Masha, a successful actor contemplating selling the family’s house (ding!). She’s dropped in for the weekend with her new toyboy Spike, a – ahem – ‘rising star’ who seems to have an aversion to clothes (DING!). Sigourney Weaver proves a surprisingly gifted comedy actor, while David Hyde Pierce adds another superb performance to his Broadway record – complete with a blistering Act 2 monologue in which, fed up with Spike’s youthful boorishness, he yearns for the simpler entertainments of yesteryear. But Kristine Nielsen will be the name to watch come Tony time. There’s such an astonishing range within the role of Sonya, who’s essentially a wallflower. Nielsen works her subtle wonders for most of the performance. But when her moment comes... oh, these are the character developments we live for, and Nielsen uses the scene to lift the entire work to a new level of absurd brilliance.
so much for avoiding shrieking kids

The big news in musicals this season is Matilda – right down the hoards of hyperactive children currently swarming the Schubert night after night. By all accounts, this Tim Minchin adaptation of Dahl’s iconic book is a triumph, but as it looks set for a long run, I opted to follow a friend’s recommendation and instead chose a show that Vanya, in his nostalgia, might have approved of. 
Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella (okay, so much for avoiding shrieking kids, but stay with me), once a staple on television, has landed on a Broadway stage for the first time. I’ll be honest. This show was little more than a curiosity for me, but it’s genuinely one of the sweetest, freshest revisits (Revisit? Revival? Is it a revival if it’s never before been on Broadway?) I’ve seen. There’s just a touch of biting sass on display – enough to give the book an irreverent kick, but never so much that it seems to be desperately groping for relevance. The score is quite recognizably RandH, but the real star here is Mark Brokaw’s direction. Brokaw has crafted a production so light on its feet that it in fact seems to lift the inescapably retro score to fully connect with Douglas Carter Beane’s new book and the sumptuous visuals. On that note, be ready for costume changes that will blow you away. This is musical theatre comfort food. Empty calories, perhaps. Nostalgic, for sure. But certainly never stale and simply delicious from start to finish.
And not a single shriek from a child – the sure fire sign of a great family show, just as squirming children is a sign of one that’s missed the mark (Lookin’ at you, Mary Poppins). 
Might as well hang a big sign outside the Al Hirschfield Theatre screaming – BRING US YOUR GAYS!!!!!

Second to Matilda, the other big hit this season has been Kinky Boots. While I didn’t revisit the show on Broadway, I did catch it in Chicago last year. What’s unusual about this show is that its main selling feature has been its writing team, composed of evergreen book writer Harvey Fierstein and original girl having fun, Cyndi Lauper. Indeed, they may be the only writing team on Broadway right now to have their pictures all over the promotional material.
Might as well hang a big sign outside the Al Hirschfield Theatre screaming – BRING US YOUR GAYS!!!!!
I can’t speak for what revisions the show may have had since its Chicago run, but at that time, I felt the work showed promise, but was definitely not Broadway-ready, and this was down to two main problems. One was Lauper’s apparent inability to integrate her signature sound into a musical theatre score, rather than usurping it. Very off-putting to watch a big, butch Midlander deliver a number that sounds like it should be coming from Miss Cyndi, I assure you! Might as well have gone to 80s karaoke night at some pub in Manchester and been done with it. 
I don’t mind a show that can disarm my own cynicism and wrap me up in its upbeat tone, provided that show can do so organically

The second issue was the show’s earnestness. And yes, I get that we’re probably entering a much less cynical era now on Broadway, particularly in musicals. The embittered snark and irony of Wicked, Avenue Q, Spring Awakening, Next to Normal, American Idiot, and countless others is gradually making way for more uplifting shows like Once, Newsies, Bring it On and now, Kinky Boots. And I don’t mind a show that can disarm my own cynicism and wrap me up in its upbeat tone, provided that show can do so organically, through a strong book and charming songs (Newsies, Once... or indeed, Cinderella).  Kinky Boots required me to make a conscious choice to lower those defences in order to enjoy the show. And a good deal of it is enjoyable, don’t get me wrong.  Billy Porter in particular, is a scream as Lola. But it never finds a way to finesse its moral lessons into its book, meaning at times, it’s just insufferably preachy. Also, many of the best lines are lifted directly from the film’s screenplay with little of Fierstein’s own wit or originality on show. The result seems awfully throwaway for a man who’s given us some of the funniest, most touching books in musical theatre.
But, as I said, these thoughts are based on the Chicago engagement, so some of these misgivings may have been addressed for Broadway. Good luck to it, in any case! Hell, many of the word of mouth reports I’ve heard from New York have been unadulterated love-letters, though critics have been a little more reserved. It seems set to be this season’s Priscilla, destined to run a good 18 months, but perhaps with little chance of going beyond that. Unless it cleans up on Tony night, which is unlikely, given the competition it faces from the telekinetic little girl with the monstrous, dragged-up school principal.
So regretfully, no arty, experimental adventures for me downtown on this trip, though I’m intrigued by the Public Theatre’s Here Lies Love, a new rock opera from David Byrne about the life of Imelda Marcos. At least one reviewer has called it Evita for our times, but if you’re making the trip between now and June 2, you can decide for yourself.
A dance floor stage, where actors mingle with the audience. Haze. Gunshots. Imelda Marcos. David Byrne. What could possibly go wrong?

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