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Spamalot

Susan Granger’s review of “Spamalot” (Shubert Theater, 2004-2005 season)

You don’t have to be a Monty Python fan to devour “Spamalot” – but it helps! With an absurd book, puns and bawdy lyrics by Monty Python veteran Eric Idle, music by John Du Prez and Mike Nichols’ smart, screwball direction, it’s laugh-a-lot lunacy.
The lunatic opening number sets the zany, non-linear tone. A historian appears with a map, intoning, “England 932 A.D., a kingdom divided. To the West, the Anglo-Saxons. To the East, the French. Above, nothing but Celts and some people from Scotland. Legend tells us of an extraordinary leader who arose from the chaos to unite a troubled kingdom…Arthur, King of the Britons.” The scene then erroneously cuts to Finland, where Scandinavian peasants are singing, dancing and schlapping each other with dead fish in a mock musical. Oops!
“I said, ‘England!'” the historian corrects…as droll King Arthur (Tim Curry) rides in on an imaginary horse, accompanied by his lowly vassal Patsy (Michael McGrath). His merry medieval cohorts soon appear: most memorably, cowardly Sir Robin (David Hyde Pierce) and gay Sir Lancelot (Hank Azaria). Parody reigns as Sir Galahad (Christopher Sieber) duets with the Lady of the Lake (Sara Ramirez) in “The Song That Goes Like This,” sending up Andrew Lloyd Webber romantic arias, complete with chandelier, and a knight chorus line apes “Fiddler on the Roof” with goblets on their heads, culminating with “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,”
Credit Casey Nicholaw’s choreography, Tim Hatley’s crazy sets and costumes, Hugh Vanstone’s lighting and a superb ensemble cast. So if you’re in the mood for a stupendously silly, banal, merry old time, head for a feudal farce known on Broadway as “Spamalot.”

Steel Magnolias

Susan Granger’s review of “Steel Magnolias” (Lyceum Theater – 2004/2005 season)

Robert Harling’s sweetly sentimental saga that chronicles several years in the lives of the sisterly Southern women who congregate at Truvys’ beauty salon stands the test of time. Originally staged off-Broadway, it transitioned to Hollywood and is now revived on Broadway.
Set in Chinquapin, a small Louisiana town, the melodramatic story begins as a new assistant, Annelle (Lily Rabe, daughter of playwright David Rabe and actress Jill Clayburgh), comes to work for genial Truvy (Delta Burke). Soon Annelle meets the “regulars.” There’s M’Lynn (Christine Ebersole), a protective mother who’s worried about her diabetic daughter Shelby (Rebecca Gayheart), and Ouiser (Marsha Mason), an irascible curmudgeon with a heart of gold. Plus acid-tongued Clairee (scene-stealing Frances Sternhagen), the football-crazed, wealthy widow of the town’s recently deceased mayor. Clairee not only lifts Alice Roosevelt Longworth’s memorable quip, “If you don’t have anything nice to say about anybody, come sit by me,” but also murmurs, “The only thing that separates us from the animals is our ability to accessorize.”
Director Jason Moore (“Avenue Q”) transitions from puppets to people quite well, moving the six ladies smoothly through this lightweight comedy/drama on Anna Louizos’ tacky set, clad in David Marin’s aptly stereotypical costumes. But somehow there’s a odd feeling this intimate production belongs in a dinner theater, not on Broadway.
The primary problem with this revival is that you can rent Herb Ross’ 1989 screen adaptation with Sally Field, Julia Roberts, Dolly Parton, Shirley MacLaine, Daryl Hannah, Olympia Dukakis, Tom Skerritt, Sam Shepard and Dylan McDermot. And, frankly, the movie’s better.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

Susan Granger’s review of “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” (Imperial Theater 2004-2005 season)

The Con Men of the Riviera have hit Broadway! Based on the 1988 movie about a pair of scam artists, it’s got deliciously unsavory characters and an antic plot with a tantalizing twist.
The glittering opening number, “Give Them What They Want,” sets the stage, as suave, sophisticated Lawrence Jameson (John Lithgow), along with his droll aide-de-camp Andre (Gregory Jbara), specializes in charming lonely women out of their fortunes from his impeccable chateau on the French Riviera. Then along comes brash Freddy Benson (Norbert Leo Butz), an American upstart who is eager to learn the tricks of the trade. Blackmailed into teaching him, the roguish Jameson takes the vulgar Benson along as he brazenly swindles two willing marks (ditzy Joanna Gleason, pushy Sara Gettelfinger), until the two men become competitive and bet who can wheedle $50,000 out of the newly arrived “American Soap Queen,” bubbly Christine Colgate (Sherie Rene Scott). But then, as another number illustrates, “Love Sneaks In.”
Once again, the collaborators of “The Full Monty,” Jeffrey Lane and David Yazbek, show their knack for adapting screenplays to the Broadway stage with finesse and fun, not to mention relentlessly clever lyrics. John Lithgow and Norbert Leo Butz inhabit the Michael Caine/Steve Martin characters so completely that they recreate them in their own campy image. Lithgow’s preening, lighthearted persona and debonair banter dominate, while Butz relies more on old-fashioned, scene-stealing slapstick. Jack O’Brien’s imaginative direction, Jerry Mitchell’s lively choreography, David Rockwell’s enticing set design and Gregg Barnes’ glamorous costumes enhance the frivolous tone. This stunning Broadway musical is worth the price of admission.

Pacific Overtures

Susan Granger’s review of “Pacific Overtures” (Studio 54, 2004-2005 season)

In its continuing quest to revive problematic theatrical works, the Roundabout Theater brings Stephen Sondheim’s highly intellectual and complex 1976 musical to Broadway this season.
Utilizing on a multi-layered book by John Weidman with additional material by Hugh Wheeler, the show consists of a fluid series of vignettes depicting the peaceful arrival in Imperial Japan in 1853 of the American Navy fleet in an attempt to open East-West trade relations with this isolated, feudal nation. As the Recitor (B.D. Wong of TV’s “Law & Order: SUV”) mediates the story, as well as revealing bits of Japanese history, it becomes a kind of political parable within an authentic dramatic context, considering our contemporary involvement in Iraq.
The plot involves a timid Samurai-turned-Governor and a feisty fisherman who are delegated to confront Japan’s would-be Western “invaders,” the Americans under Commodore Matthew C. Perry, who are depicted as comical caricatures with curly wigs and grotesquely deformed faces.
Directed and choreographed by Amon Miyamoto, utilizing sliding shoji screens, it’s an unconventional, stylized, episodic musical, influenced by ritualistic Asian musical forms, like Noh theater, and European operetta. Jonathan Tunick’s new orchestrations make the subtlety of Sondheim’s score soar. “Someone in a Tree” captures how the eye-of-the-beholder shapes what is seen, “A Bowler Hat” explores loss of identity and “Chrysanthemum Tea” cleverly masks poison.
The Asian-American cast is superb, particularly Michael K. Lee, Paolo Montalban, Alvin Y.F. Ing, Sab Shimono and Francis Jue as the amusing “chief welcomer” to Kanagawa. Still, the audacious concept of “Pacific Overtures” seems far better than its execution.

The Frogs

Susan Granger’s review of “The Frogs” (Vivian Beaumont Theater – July-Aug., 2004)

Back in 1974, I saw “The Frogs” performed at the Yale University pool. While teaching there, Burt Shevelove wrote his irreverent, free-wheeling adaptation to which Stephen Sondheim contributed six songs, including the title number that inspired a water ballet. Back then, Meryl Streep, Sigourney Weaver and Christopher Durang – as Yale grad students – were in the chorus.

It’s 30 years later on a dry stage and, while Aristophanes “The Frogs” is still croaking exuberantly, it hasn’t improved with age. This time, the ancient Greek satire stars Nathan Lane as Dionysos, the god of wine and drama. He journeys down the River Styx to Hades to get at great playwright in hopes that a play with big ideas might set a moral example and  illuminate our muddled world, one where corrupt and inarticulate leaders have entered “a war we shouldn’t even be in”. This leads to a debate between George Bernard Shaw (Daniel Davis) and William Shakespeare (Michael Silbery) with Dionysos as judge as to whom is the greater playwright.

As a comic Dionysos, Nathan Lane as no comic peer but, as a co-writer, he’s saddled with a soggy story that becomes an anti-Bush allegory. Roger Bart, as his slave Xanthias (a last-minute replacement for SNL’s Chris Kattan) suffers the same fate. The only role that succeeds in being truly funny is Pluto, played by Peter Bartlett, particularly when he’s warbling “Hades.”

But even director/choreographer Susan Stroman and costumer William Ivey Long are unable to overcome the confines of the satirical, yet stagnant, contemporary libretto which also traces its demented origins to the Shevelove/Sondheim “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” Somehow its sophomoric silliness and schtick seems better suited to college audiences.

Shakespeare’s Women

Susan Granger’s review of “Shakespeare’s Women” (Blue Heron Arts Center 2004-2005)

The one-man – or, in this case, one-woman – show has always seemed to me to be the height of theatricality. It’s a unique genre that cannot be adapted to the screen. So it was with a special delight that I viewed Susannah York’s “Shakespeare’s Women.”
This one-woman show, conceived, written and performed by the veteran British thespian, introduces and explains Shakespeare’s most memorable female characters. Above all, Ms. York links these disparate women together with the general theme of love in its many permutations: maternal, passionate and filial.
There’s Juliet, Cleopatra, Lady Macbeth and Hamlet’s mother. Those are the best-known. But there’s also Emilia from “Othello,” Constance from “King John,” Queen Margaret from “Henry VI, Part III” and Cressida of “Troilus and Cressida.” While Ms. York obviously takes special pleasure in romping through Mistress Page and Mistress Ford of “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” her interpretation of the cross-dressing Rosalind of “As You Like It” borders on campy.
For 80 minutes, Susannah York weaves her own personal magic spell over the bare stage, adorned only with set designer Krishan Khana’s tapestries, a candelabra and end tables, and illuminated by lighting designer Christopher Bailey. At 63 years, Ms. York is eternally blithe and lithe with her spiky blond hair and ultra-blue eyes.
Whether you catch “Shakespeare’s Women” off-Broadway at the Blue Heron Arts Center or at other venues around the country, it’s an indelible lesson about the minds and motivations of the Bard’s top female characters.

Democracy

Susan Granger’s review of “Democracy” (Brooks Atkinson Theater 2004-2005 season)

It was improbable that Michael Frayn’s historical play about post-war Germany and German politics would become a major Broadway success – but it has. Perhaps because the artful drama is based on a notorious spy scandal that contributed to the fall of Chancellor Willy Brandt.
Willy Brandt (James Naughton) won a Nobel Peace Prize for his overtures to Eastern Europe, but during the four years that he was negotiating with East Berlin, Warsaw and Moscow, he was careless, leaving him vulnerable to close surveillance and betrayal by his unctuous assistant, Gunther Guillaume (Richard Thomas), who was actually a spy for the East German secret police.
Peter J. Davidson’s duplex set is based on the real office in which Guillaume worked in the Palais Shaumburg. The upper tier doubles as Guillaume’s cubicle as well as Brandt’s political platform for delivering speeches, while the lower tier is where the gray-suited politicians meet and converse. It’s a highpoint of drama that, as the Berlin Wall comes down, the shelves of color-coded files collapse and tumble as well, adding depth to the theme of conflicting duality. .
Director Michael Blakemore is considered the playwright’s alter ego, having directed eight of Frayn’s 16 plays, including “Copenhagen,” and credit Blakemore for simplifying Frayn’s often complicated literary concepts. Yet it was also Blakemore who cast James Naughton who, unfortunately, evidences little of the charisma for which Willy Brandt was renown. This is a major flaw since there is little or no conventional physical action on-stage. In short, the continual talk becomes quite tedious, punctuated only by the actors’ entrances and exits. It’s too bad the original British cast from the U.K.’s National Theater couldn’t have crossed the pond instead.

After the Fall

Susan Granger’s review of “After the Fall” (American Airlines Theater, 2004-2005 season)

Arthur Miller’s obviously autobiographical play which exorcises leftover demons from his marriage to Marilyn Monroe is not one of his best. It premiered at Lincoln Center in 1964 and was revived, unsuccessfully, once before in New York. Now it’s back again – and still unrealized.
Quentin (Peter Krause) is a prominent lawyer who is afraid to commit to a new Viennese love (Vivienne Benesch) because he’s still coping with his guilt over the suicide of his previous wife, Maggie (Carla Gugino), a breathless, sweet-natured if dim-witted singer-superstar who worshipped him. “I would do anything for you,” Maggie says to him. “You’re like a god!”
But she’s not the only personal demon from his past who torments Quentin during his introspective, stream-of-consciousness reverie of guilt and redemption. There’s his domineering mother (Carol Buckley), an embittered ex-wife (Jessica Hecht) and a morally adaptable attorney (Jonathan Walker), obviously based on director Elia Kazan, evoking the Hollywood blacklist.
Best known as Nate on TV’s “Six Feet Under,” suave Krause seems a bit reserved for the role, so the evening belongs to Gugino (TV’s “Karen Sisco”) whose astute performance embodies the voluptuous Maggie’s pathological self-destructiveness along with her desperate need to be loved.
Michael Mayer’s direction, utilizing set designer Richard Hoover’s airport terminal – like Eero Saarinen’s defunct TWA building at JFK – as the backdrop for Quentin’s psychological conflict, evokes an abstract emotional distance, augmented by the 40 years that have passed since Monroe’s death. So in this Roundabout Theater revival, “After the Fall” once again fails because it is unable to unravel the unfocused emotional labyrinths created by Arthur Miller.

Dracula: The Musical

Susan Granger’s review of “Dracula: The Musical” (Belasco Theater, 2004-2005 season)

It’s debatable whether this incarnation of the vampire from Transylvania is the worst musical I’ve ever seen on Broadway, but it certainly comes close.
Frank Wildhorn, composer of “Jekyll & Hyde” and “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” once again relies on the appeal a virtuous, hapless heroine who is seduced by a menacing stranger. So did Andrew Lloyd Webber in “Phantom of the Opera.” But there are no soaring arias in this syrupy score. Based on the familiar Bram Stoker 1897 novel, the book by Christopher Hampton (“Les Liaisons Dangereuses”) and lyrics by Don Black (“Sunset Boulevard”) are confusing and illogical. The heroine, Mina, is supposed to try to resist Count Dracula; instead, she welcomes him with open arms, discarding the garlic and crucifixes that are supposed to ward him off.
Nevertheless, actors Melissa Errico, Tom Hewitt, Kelli O’Hara, Don Stephenson and Stephen McKinley Henderson do their best with the creepy, insipid drivel that they’re given. In fact, it’s a credit to their own obsessive professionalism that they even show up night-after-night.
Director Des McAnuff (“The Who’s Tommy”) keeps Count Dracula and his blood-thirsty acolytes continually soaring through the air, as if a distraction from what’s earthbound will help. Michael Clark’s dark, glossy design and Heidi Ettinger’s inspired pre-Raphaelite sets are commendable, as are Catherine Zuber’s Victorian costumes and Howell Binkley’s evocative lighting. But even the best production values – and glimpse of nudity – don’t keep the majority of the audience awake and interested in this seemingly aimless gothic tale that drones on deep into the night. This “Dracula” is a total disaster. It sucks!

Twentieth Century

Susan Granger’s review of “Twentieth Century” (Roundabout Theater Company ’04)

Revivals are always tricky propositions but, with the current furor over Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” there’s an unexpected timeliness and relevance to this Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur battle-of-the-sexes parody, edited and adapted by Ken Ludwig.
Set in the Art-Deco era of the 1930s on a sleek, luxurious train that’s traveling between Chicago and New York, Alec Baldwin stars as the irascible, flamboyant Broadway producer Oscar Jaffe with Anne Heche as Lily Garland (a.k.a. shopgirl Mildred Plotka), his former leading-lady who is currently basking in her fame as a silver-screen goddess. Desperate to get her name on a contract, Oscar seizes upon the presence of a German troupe of “Passion play” actors who are aboard and entices Lily with the role of Mary Magdalene, which he embellishes to a hilarious degree, much to the chagrin of his religious fanatic “backer,” played by Tom Aldredge. Under the direction of Walter Bobbie, Anne Heche evokes memories of the irrepressible Carole Lombard, who created the role on film but, physically, she’s a poster-girl for anorexia, never approaching the glamour of a genuine star. In contrast, the now-portly Alec Baldwin works too laboriously on his comic timing, particularly when you contrast it with his earthy Stanley Kowalski in “Streetcar Named Desire” back in 1992. Julie Halston captures the essence of the farce as Oscar’s manager, as does Dan Butler as his alcoholic press agent. Stephen De Rosa doubles as the German actor and Oscar’s producing rival, Max Jacobs. John Lee Beatty’s streamlined 20th-century train sets are stunning, as are William Ivey Long’s costumes. While the pacing chugs a bit at times, on the whole, “The Twentieth Century” offers retro, nostalgic fun.