News Column

A report from Broadway on Tony-nominated shows

June 7, 2013

YellowBrix

June 07--Never seen a play -- or a performance -- quite like it.

Douglas Carter Beane's "The Nance," showcasing a bravura turn by the inimitable Nathan Lane, was by far the most memorable work encountered in a recent week of show-going in Manhattan.

Beane's play, directed by Jack O'Brien, is an unorthodox mix of ribald humor, serious drama and social commentary. It shines a spotlight on a distant era of showbiz and an important chapter in gay history. And it reverberates with contemporary relevance even as it functions as a sort of time machine, taking us back to New York in 1937 during the waning days of burlesque.

A "nance" was a broadly effeminate stock character in routines built on double entendres and rim shots.

But under former New York mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, who detested the smirking sexuality that characterized burlesque, a crackdown effectively ended a form of entertainment that was cheap to produce and affordable to working-class audiences. Performers could be arrested for onstage "deviance," and Paul Moss, LaGuardia's commissioner of licenses, had the power to stop burlesque in its tracks simply by refusing to renew a theater's license.

This is the backdrop for a sad love story between a veteran burlesque performer, Chauncey Miles (Lane), and a young drifter named Ned (Jonny Orsini), whom Chauncey picks up one night at an automat. What was supposed to be a one-night stand turns into a serious relationship, and Ned is soon drawn into the alternative reality of show business.

Chauncey is a complicated character. He's a Republican who hates Franklin Roosevelt and "socialism." He's a gay man who performs as a gay stereotype. He loves Ned but doesn't have it in him to be monogamous.

The looming threat of a crackdown, he repeatedly tells his colleagues, is just a political stunt to help LaGuardia win re-election. Soon everything will be back to normal.

Woven into the dramatic narrative are actual burlesque numbers that in execution and flavor feel utterly authentic. Lewis J. Stadlen as a crusty stage veteran named Efram is marvelous, performing with the mechanical haminess and shrewd timing that audiences later saw in the films of the Three Stooges and Abbott & Costello.

At one point Stadlen and Lane perform the classic "Slowly I Turn" routine in which two strangers meet and one goes berserk each time he hears the words "Niagara Falls." The dancers in the troupe include Sylvie (Cady Huffman), who wears her liberal politics on her sleeve, the gum-smacking Joan (Jenni Barber) and Carmen (Andrea Burns), whose Spanish accent comes and goes depending on the circumstances. The music is performed live by a pit band.

Beane explores Chauncey's self-loathing as well as the hypocrisy of the moral crusaders. Moss, Chauncey notes, is "a confirmed bachelor" known for his flashy outfits. Do the math.

Ultimately the play tells us where we've been and, by so doing, shows us where we are.

Nothing but good performances in this show, but it all belongs to Lane. Here he gets to demonstrate his comedic gifts and channel vaudeville, but he generates sobering dramatic weight as a man who has no choice but to live with himself.

Tony nominations: Best actor (Lane) and scenic, costume, lighting and sound design.

Homeward bound

Two plays on Broadway -- one a sentimental semi-classic, the other a new intellectual farce -- deal with something eternal in the human psyche. It's the longing for home, or at least something we can call home.

A star-studded revival of Horton Foote's "The Trip to Bountiful," first written for television and then adapted for the stage in 1953 (and made into an Oscar-winning film in 1985), brings to life his folksy valentine about the angst of country people trapped in the city. But this production views the material through a new lens: The principal characters are played by African-American stars.

This cultural recalibration works seamlessly, without much evident tinkering with the script. Being cut off from their rural roots was an experience shared by both blacks and whites in places like East Texas, where this play is set.

Foote's gentle tale of an old woman desperate to see her childhood home one more time becomes a showcase for the legendary Cicely Tyson, returning to the Broadway stage for the first time in three decades. Some sources give her age as 79, others as 88, but either way she's delivering another signature performance as Carrie Watts that inevitably brings to mind her Emmy-winning star turn in "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman."

Foote's easy-to-digest characters invite one-word billboards: The elderly Carrie is Feisty. Her infantilized son Ludie is Weak. Her pushy daughter-in-law is Shallow, and an easygoing county sheriff is Kind.

Tyson's star turn is supported by Cuba Gooding Jr., who finesses Ludie's 11th-hour discovery of his manhood with a fair degree of credibility, and the luminous Vanessa Williams, who reveals a keen sense of comic timing but looks far too glamorous as Jessie May.

Condola Rashad, as a young wife who befriends Carrie on a bus trip, is terrific -- subtle but commanding. And Tom Wopat threatens to steal the second act with an unassuming performance as the sheriff. Wopat inhabits the role with a relaxed authority that makes him an irresistible guardian angel.

The presence of a benign white sheriff helping out black folks in East Texas in 1953 makes this play seem even more sugary and selectively nostalgic than it is. Foote's play is far from perfect, but it remains an admirable work that examines the human desire to get back to the place whence we came. It is, he suggests, a long, long journey.

Tony nominations: Best revival, leading actress (Tyson), featured actress (Rashad), sound.

Christopher Durang's wacky "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" looks at a bizarre family's home through a brainy, farcical lens, earning big laughs that are never cheap.

Caveat: The night I attended, Sigourney Weaver was out and standby Linda Marie Larson ably stepped into a role that Durang wrote specifically for Weaver. When you have a star vehicle without the star, it tends to throw things a little off balance.

Nonetheless, Larson delivered a solid performance. Durang's comedy is giddy and broad, but its foundation is shot through with clever references and allusions to the plays of Anton Chekhov, including "Three Sisters," "The Cherry Orchard" and "The Seagull."

Durang's play focuses on three siblings all named by their parents (community theater actors) for Chekhov characters: Vanya (David Hyde Pierce), Sonia (Kristine Nielsen) and Masha (Weaver/Larson). A young woman who lives next door bears another Chekhovian name, Nina (Liesel Allen Yeager).

There's a running disagreement about whether a grove of cherry trees on the property constitutes an orchard, and in the second act the characters gather to read an unfinished abstract script about molecules that recalls Konstantin's terrible avant-garde play in "The Seagull."

But the inside-baseball Chekhov jokes are only one aspect of the piece. Durang goes for broad comedy, even slapstick. Masha is a movie star whose wealth has supported her siblings and the upkeep on the family home. She arrives with a much younger boyfriend, an aspiring actor named Spike (a hilarious Billy Magnussen) and compels them all to attend a neighbor's costume party. She will be Snow White and expects everyone else to be dwarfs.

Appearing from time to time is the housekeeper, Cassandra (Shalita Grant), who, like her namesake, shares portents of disaster in comic monologues.

Indeed, Durang has written several memorable monologues for this show. When the forever-single Sonia takes a call from a man she met at the costume party who asks for a date, Nielsen's performance becomes a poignant masterpiece. Late in the play Vanya launches into a long rant about the fragmenting of popular culture, and Pierce is wonderful in his articulate rage.

Ultimately the siblings decide to keep the house. Like characters on an old Russian estate in a Chekhov play, they seem suspended in time -- neither dreading or welcoming the future, content to simply exist.

Tony nominations: Best play, lead actor (Pierce), lead actress (Nielsen), featured actor (Magnussen), featured actress (Grant), direction (Nicholas Martin).

Duel of the musicals

Of the nominated musicals, two have generated the most excitement: "Kinky Boots," with 13 nominations, and "Matilda the Musical," nominated in 12 categories.

"Kinky Boots" is based on a 2005 film about a struggling Northhampton shoe factory that turns to making footwear for drag performers to survive. This show's calling card is a score and lyrics by Cindy Lauper, who contributes songs as infectious as any of her best studio recordings. Couple that with a witty book by Harvey Fierstein and you're in business -- literally. Judging by the audience response at a recent matinee, this show is likely to run for years.

This piece is all about love, mutual respect and narcissistic self-regard. And much of the plotting feels overly familiar. The shoemaker who inherits the family business, Charlie (Stark Sands), is torn in his affections between the domineering show-me-the-money Nicola (Celina Carvajal) and the unpretentious factory girl Lauren (Annaleigh Ashford). Can you guess which one he chooses?

Hostile factory workers who can't stand the idea of drag queens eventually see the light. And the drag star Lola (Billy Porter), through sheer flamboyance, shows us that drag queens are people too.

Lola and Charlie have big, soul-baring, show-stopping ballads that boil down to "I'm free to be me!" And the show closes with a preaching-to-the-choir anthem that advises us to "just be who you wanna be."

This is a visually impressive show with solid performances throughout, but the real engine is Porter. His singular performance -- outlandish but precise, flip but soulful -- would win over any theatergoer. And he's a terrific singer.

Tony nominations: Best musical, book, score, leading actor (Porter and Sands), featured actress (Ashford), direction, choreography, orchestrations and scenic, costume, lighting and sound design.

"Matilda the Musical," which originated in England as a holiday show, is a different animal. It's sort of a children's musical, but not really. Its charm is sometimes outweighed by its darkness And its tricky narrative structure requires viewers to sit up and pay attention.

Based on Roald Dahl's novel about an intellectually gifted daughter of impossibly shallow, emotionally abusive parents, Dennis Kelly's book attempts to show us how we can save ourselves in dark circumstances through the art of storytelling.

The songs by Tim Minchin don't have much staying power, but the physical production is impeccable, and Matthew Warchus' direction is precise.

The villains of the piece, Matilda's cartoonish parents and the sadistic Miss Trunchbull (in an over-the-top drag performance by Bertie Carvel), are so extreme that we can never take them seriously as real threats. The one performance grounded in reality comes from Lauren Ward (a Hickman Mills High School graduate) as Miss Honey. Ward is admirably understated in a show filled with shouting billboards.

Tony nominations: Best musical, book, score, leading actor (Carvel), featured actor (Gabriel Ebert), featured actress (Ward), direction, choreography, orchestrations and scenic, costume and lighting design.

A one-man band and a one-woman show

Two productions pulling in enthusiastic audiences were overlooked by the Tonys. One is the remarkable "Macbeth," Alan Cummings' inventive adaptation of Shakespeare's play about murder and revenge among Scottish royalty.

His approach brings to mind one of the play's most famous lines -- "a tale told by an idiot" -- because Cumming performs the piece as a mental patient channeling multiple personalities. Set in an enormous green-walled mental facility equipped with video cameras and a large observation window high above the floor, the show allows Cumming to slip in and out of characters with stunning facility.

This isn't exactly a one-man show -- Jenny Sterlin and Brendan Titley play medical staff who sedate the patient when he gets too out of control -- but it's close. By any measure, Cumming delivers a tour-de-force. At a Friday night performance the audience erupted with rock-concert enthusiasm and brought Cumming out for three curtain calls. Why he wasn't nominated for a Tony is anyone's guess.

Bette Midler does what she does best: playing Bette Midler in John Logan's "I'll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers." Mengers was a powerful, legendary Hollywood agent who threw extravagant deal-making dinner parties.

In the show we meet Mengers as she prepares for another of her dinners while waiting for a phone call from Barbra Streisand, who has just defected to another agency. She drinks, she smokes, she lights up a joint -- and dishes.

It's an amusing 90-minute gossip orgy through which Midler remains seated on a plush sofa. It's good entertainment, but Logan's script never digs very deep. His attempts at pathos are superficial, and ultimately we're left to question what the larger meaning might be. The answer, I'm afraid, is that there isn't any.

To reach theater critic Robert Trussell, call 816-234-4765 or email rtrussell@kcstar.com.

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(c)2013 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)

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