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Romeo And Juliet – Review

R&J

Within the first five minutes of Romeo and Juliet the audience is treated to; a pyrotechnics show, a flying live bird, amplified kettledrums and a movie star arriving on a motorcycle. It isn’t until the arrival of the Capulets, all played to beautiful perfection, that we realize that this is a show that has something for everyone.

Under David Leveaux’s direction this Romeo and Juliet is in essence two plays. The Montagues all appear to be Caucasian and far paler in most respects to the Capulets. The Montagues all seem to be British while the Capulets are American. This blatant use of differing accents might be apt if the setting was the Revolutionary War. But the setting is undefined. There is a bit of sand and an enormous faded fresco wall with graffiti that intentionally or not evokes the opening credits of West Side Story. The costumes are mostly subdued hued flowing Eileen Fisher type garments, and some people don’t wear shoes. In short, we’re not sure exactly where and when this is taking place, but we do know that shiny modern (and loud) motorcycles have been invented already.

The duality at play goes far beyond skin tone and accents however. The actors surrounding Romeo (Orlando Bloom) seem subdued. The fight scenes are hesitant and involve little touching (as if the actors were marking the scene.) Mr. Bloom is the most physically timid and we can almost hear him count out his moves. It doesn’t make for very interesting fight scenes, and it is a bit difficult to discern who is supposed to be injured. The physical hesitation becomes even more jarring when Romeo is paired with the fluid Juliet (Condola Rashad). Her lithe youthful movements in contrast to the (significantly older) Bloom’s rigid timidity make the age difference all the more glaring. Their scenes together often shift into consecutive monologues as it’s impossible to see what’s between them. We are certain that Juliet is smitten, but are never quite sure what Romeo feels. Several times, when Mr. Bloom could be heard and understood, I found myself wondering; is he sad is he happy? The restraint of all of the Montague players is in such contrast to the bold performances of the Capulet clan. When Juliet, the nurse (Jane Houdyshell) and either parent; (Chuck Cooper) and (Roslyn Ruff) are on stage, we’re watching a different play entirely. The theatre comes alive with their modern and passionate interpretation. They are subtle and fierce and funny and wonderful.

The fresco wall moves in several ways throughout the play and makes for a simple unobtrusive backdrop. It’s a reprieve from the frequently used blasts of fire. There is a large bell hanging from the fly throughout most of the play. It’s purpose and/or symbolism is not entirely clear. The music (when not being used to demand the audience’s attention) is a lovely addition. The cellist (Tahirah Whittington) took to the stage to play during the party scene and helped to create the most dramatic and delicious moments of the production. Luckily there are enough of these exquisite scenes to satisfy those who enjoy such things. There is also plenty to make special effects fans happy. And the people who come to see a movie star stand on a stage and speak will be satisfied as well. It is an interesting balance Mr. Leveaux has achieved.

 
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Posted by on September 12, 2013 in Theatre

 

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Words and Music

The Yale School of Drama has just announced an $18 million gift.  A gift that substantial (to an arts program!) is newsworthy enough, but this gift is not for a building or other monument to immortality.  The gift is for the creation of new plays and musicals.  Musicals.

Knowing nothing of the details of the gift or of the business dealings that led to such largess (the gift was bequeathed by the late alumnus James Binger) I can only shout “Hurrah!”  Lots of universities, philanthropists and celebrities love to talk about supporting the arts.  (And why not? Who in the world would argue with that sentiment?  It’s right up there with; “children are our future.”)

Financing the development of new works in a university theoretically fosters a purely artistic basis that may not exist in a theatre company.  Even not-for-profit theatre companies have to sell tickets.  The theatre laboratory in a university setting is not entirely novel.  But when is the last time you heard of an Ivy League university investing in musical theatre?  I have nothing but respect for musical theatre.  I am a 100% Sit Down You’re Rockin The Boat, Nothing’s Gonna Harm You, 7 1/2 Cents, If You Could See Me Now, kinda gal.  But in some circles musical theatre is often a punch line.  It’s seen as the goofy cut-up sitting at the grown-up’s table.  Yet, creating an excellent musical is exceedingly difficult and involves collaborations that can only be categorized as alchemic.

During the past decade some truly magical new musical works have made their way to the New York stage.  Spring Awakening and Passing Strange reinvented the concept of book and score to great results.  The Light in the Piazza was a fresh, delicate and beautiful new work in the most traditional of formats.  It is these musicals we must remember when we think of all the movie-to-musical or comic book-to-musical shows dotting the great white way.  (Note: The Light in the Piazza was technically a movie-to-musical but the movie was 50 years old and the musical so self-contained and lovely that aside from the royalty issue, its origins were immaterial.)

Creating a great musical takes a great book, great lyrics, a great score and great choreography.  Collaborations must be created and fostered.  It has been at least a generation since we’ve had a notable musical team.  We still swoon over photos of the creators of West Side Story at work, for that very reason.  Universities (the places that bring us friends for life by virtue of the randomness of roommate assignments or drunken evenings) are the very place to foster these relationships.

Recently we’ve been hearing less than glowing tales of how higher education is serving students.  We know that funds to the arts have been decreasing for some time and we need only take a walk through Times Square to see where innovation in musical theatre stands.  This ($18 million) gift Yale, may in fact be a gift to theatre lovers everywhere.

*Photo: (left to right) Stephen Sondheim, Arthur Laurents, Hal Prince and Robert Griffith (seated), Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Robbins

 
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Posted by on April 26, 2012 in Education, Theatre

 

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Pow, Poo, Ooblee-pooh*

If you have waited in line to make a purchase in a chain store lately, I’m pretty certain you have been called forward by the nonsensical phrase; “the following customer.”  I admit, the first few times I actually waited to hear what came next.  The befuddling phrase does get my attention, I’ll give them that.  “The following customer will receive all of her items free.  Come on down Brenda!”  “The following customer really shouldn’t be buying those leather pants.  Sorry Brenda.”  What’s even more curious than the incomplete phrase is the fact that it has caught on like wildfire.  Is there some sort of chain store customer service standard of practice national convention.  Was there a vote?  How else do we begin to explain how so many salesclerks (not working for the same parent company) are spouting the same gibberish?  The trouble maker in me sees a wonderful opportunity for foul play.  We could sneak into the next (c.s.c.s.s.o.p) national conference and persuade them to beckon the customer forward with Ubbi Dubbi or Pig Latin.

I’m all in favor of creating or adjusting words.  Language should stay current to fulfill its mission.  But used incorrectly (which no doubt I’ve done several times already) just makes me nuts.  When did Americans decide that the word “anyway” needed an “s” on the end?  (Twenty years ago or so, if memory serves.)  Why?  What purpose does it serve?  It’s not just teenagers who add the letter, NPR commentators do it as well.  I can (mostly) ignore words such as “ironic” and “awkward” being thrown into the conversation willy nilly.  (Just so we’re all clear though, “ironic” is not synonymous with “coincidence.”)  Misuse is not the same as flat out cuckoo.  When I thank someone, what does it mean when the thanked replies “no problem?”  Who exactly has the problem?  I don’t even understand the origin of that reply.

I find myself starting to navigate my world as if I was in France.  I have mastered French at the level of a 4 year old slow learner.  Most of my request for directions, food and shoes in my size are pretty much dependent on gist.  As I go through my day in these United States, I must use all my senses.  Luckily, I know a smattering of sign language too.

My personal daily Nell ministrations aside, I worry about the apparent unconsciousness of this bastardization of language.  Like anything, if you’re going to do something, do it with intent.  My assertion of unconsciousness is egged on by the recent spate of “period” television.  I personally do not have memories of the Mad Men or PanAm time period.  But I will bet the farm that no one was slapping on an extraneous “s” to “anyway” in the 1960s.  I also don’t think people tossed around phrases like “workaholic” or “postpartum depression.”  It’s just a hunch.  Maybe I’m too binary, but what this says to me is that there isn’t anyone working on these shows who was alive during the portrayed period.  Not surprising by the way, is the fact that the British do a far better job at avoiding anachronism on the The Hour.  They did invent the language after all.

*Arthur Laurents’ slang for West Side Story (1956)

 
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Posted by on October 22, 2011 in Cultural Critique

 

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Finding My Corner Of The Sky

Last night, for the third consecutive year, I visited with Betty Buckley at Feinsteins  The year’s show, billed as “Ah Men! The Boys of Broadway” is a collection of Ms. Buckley favorite show tunes (from film and stage) sung by male characters.  She opens, aptly, with ‘Tonight’, and goes on to explain her discovery of Riff (Russ Tamblyn) at the impressionable age of 14.  Having also experienced West Side Story at the age of 14, I can attest to the imprint it leaves.  Add to that the discovery of both Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly (as Ms Buckley and I both did) and well, can real life really ever compare?

It did last night.

Whether it is her chosen repertoire, or her Feinstein alumni status, Ms. Buckley has never seemed more at home.  Radiant in a silk shantung jacket, flowing silk pants, and leopard pumps devilishly peeking out from time to time, Ms Buckley communicates accessibility.  As a Broadway leading lady, with few if any equals, this Texas gal exudes a warmth and approachability that defies any (rightfully earned) diva-ship.  Also counter to diva-hood, is that Ms. Buckley, for all her Tony winning, has the soul of a folk singer.  She is a singer (and actress) adept at navigating all range of human emotion.  Her natural velvety voice can ache (reminding me of Jane Olivor) and then easily soar to heights of joy, making all the necessary stops along the way.  I wonder which comes first?  A delicate actress with a powerful core, or the singer?  I suspect that there is no separating the two in Betty Buckley.  She is so unique, that if your first exposure to a song is delivered by Ms. Buckley, it never really sounds “right” sung by anyone else (e.g., Meadowlark, Memory, score of Sunset Boulevard, etc.)

I have maintained that so many of the best songs written have been done so for male characters.  So it is no coincidence that I simply loved last night’s song list.  ‘I Won’t Dance,’ ‘Younger Than Springtime,’ ‘Something’s Coming,’ ‘Corner of the Sky,’ ‘More I Cannot Wish You,’ and an exquisite medley from ‘Sweeney Todd’ were just some of the selections.  Her smooth, strong and subtle voice, paired with her utter ease on stage, created the most intimate experience.  Making strong eye contact with the audience, she created a space that was more ‘living room’ than ‘cabaret.’  Which, truly is the mark of great cabaret.  I was also struck by her very enjoyable sense of humor.  I found myself thinking (please don’t hate me Ms. Buckley): “Wow, she would really be a great Miss Hannigan.”

This personal, moving, absolutely fabulous show will be playing for the month of October.  It truly is not to be missed.

 
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Posted by on October 6, 2011 in Theatre

 

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Romeo and Juliet – Review

I just love a theatre festival, a wonderful alchemy of “theatre” and of “festival.”  The most fabulous of these happenings occur somewhere that is lovely all on its own (ex.: Niagra on the Lake, the Berkshires, etc.)  Add to this an actual company of creative artists and a laid back simulated outdoor performance (note: I do not enjoy theatre in the actual outdoors as I find it inconducive to subtlety) and you have the making of a very special experience.  I have seen wonderful new works premiered at festivals as well as unique interpretations of traditional works.  Directors have more artistic leeway off of the great white way, and the audience is often the beneficiary of this freedom of expression.

Last night I was mesmerized by Daniela Varon’s (dir.) interpretation of Rome and Juliet at Shakespeare & Co. (Lenox, MA.)  I don’t know if I’ve every seen a fully staged professional live production of this work.  This would explain why, for the first 30 minutes or so, I kept thinking; “This Shakespeare fellow does a wonderful interpretation of West Side Story.”

A thrust stage and a balcony (not for what you would think) were used within an inch of their life.  Many of the younger characters wove in and around the audience at times.  This device was used lightly and brilliantly and never felt contrived or desperate (in that “stand-up comic using the audience for material way.”)  Set in a non-specific time, with no video, and very minimal audio, the audience was free to project their own framework onto the story.  The costumes aided in that they were predominately all white.  The white cotton costuming provided a perfect canvas for all of the bleeding as well.  There was a colossal burst of color and extraordinary costuming for the dance at the gym masquerade ball scene.

I am hesitant to single out any of the performances as there were so many riveting and enjoyable actors.  I do feel compelled to mention that I simply could not take my eyes off of Riff Mercutio.  He was very funny and physical and flat out magnetic.  Ms. Varon directed this R&J in such a fresh and exciting manner.  I had no idea this play could be so funny.  Yes, of course it’s tragic, but some of the dialogue is extremely amusing.  I particularly enjoyed directing Juliet (Susanna Millonzi) to periodically act just like a 14 year old!

Now dear reader, if you will permit me to get meta for a moment.  I have always been schooled to understand R&J as a tale of the ultimate tragedy of warring families.  Minimally, the play is a cautionary tale of why we should not try to keep our teenagers from dating those we find undesirable.  Well call me practical penguin, but I’m now thinking it is a cautionary tale about mis-communication.  Those kids didn’t die because their families didn’t get along.  They died because Doc the friar did not get the message to Romeo in time.

Oh, and in Romeo and Juliet?  Chino dies.

Note: I found it telling that there were at least a dozen children in the audience, some barely at the multiplication table age, who sat silent and spellbound throughout the three hours.

 
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Posted by on August 25, 2011 in Theatre

 

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