Monday, December 19, 2011

Once, the musical

The stars and supporting cast on the pub-style stage

When you enter New York Theatre Workshop’s space on E. 4th St. to see Once, the musical adaptation of the 2007 Irish indie film (see my 2007 blog post on the film), the well-worn theatre suddenly feels like a party hall.  The stage has been transformed into a bar, replete with distressed old mirrors and sconce lights, and a low counter that serves double-duty as a place for spectators to get a pint before the play proper starts and as a secondary acting platform for the considerable talents of this musically distinguished and emotionally empathetic cast.

In Irish playwright Enda Walsh’s faithful adaptation, the Dublin community on which the story focuses is bound by its music making.  The cast is small by musical theatre standards, since the "community here," usually represented by dozens of supernumeraries, is the close-knit one of Dublin street buskers and musicians who remain soulfully devoted to music as an expression of their pining spirits.

Steve Kazee plays “the guy,” a recently jilted, emotionally and artistically ambivalent singer/song-writer who at the show’s beginning, after a wrenching solo, has decided to abandon his battered guitar on the street as a kind of remnant of his own lost soul.

But “the girl” (like “the guy,” also nameless, an odd conceit borrowed from the film) overhears his ballad and brings him emphatically back to his music and to his life.  Played by the lovely, energetic Cristin Milioti (last seen at NYTW in Ivo Van Hove’s Little Foxes), she drags him to a music store where she borrows a piano on which to accompany him in her resonant, equally soulful style.  Through sheer will and a bit of artfully withheld romance, she encourages him to resume his music-making in America, where he can reconnect with his departed girlfriend and have a wonderful life.

As in the film, music expresses the duo's personalities and their yearnings.  The musical's loveliest and most haunting number remains the Academy Award-winning “Falling Slowly,” written and performed by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, the original guy and girl who remain credited for the music and lyrics of this adaptation.  The ballad grows as a duet between the two, whose voices blend perfectly as their separate instruments play a kind of syncopated, already sad flirtation.

 Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, the original "guy" and "girl"

Although the pair fall in love as soon as they begin harmonizing together, the musical keeps them apart rather than uniting this typically central heterosexual couple as more conventional musical stories are wont to do.  In fact, one of the pleasures of Once is watching it resist the stereotypical formula.  The community that typically mirrors the central couple's initial opposition—like the cowboys and the farmers who should be friends in Oklahoma—here are already united.

Walsh manufactures some humorous initial conflict between Billy (Paul Whitty), the music store owner, and the bank manager (Andy Taylor) to whom the girl and guy turn for a loan to make their album.  When the banker turns out to be a closeted musician (and a not-so-closeted gay man), he gives the couple the money and joins the band, overcoming Billy’s suspicion of capitalists to become part of the singing and playing ensemble.

In fact, that band of sympathetic brothers and sisters is one of the sweetest things about this very sweet show.  Director John Tiffany (Black Watch) keeps his instrument-playing and singing cast on stage throughout Once, John Doyle-style.  He guides them toward saloon-style chairs that line the wide proscenium stage in between numbers.  From there, they watch the action intently and provide the occasional musical punctuation or undertone.

The several acoustic guitars, an electric bass, a banjo, an accordion, a ukulele, a bass, and two violins, as well as a drum set employed in the climactic studio recording scene, compose the orchestra, all played by members of the cast.  The mournful ballads underscore the fated love story, and the musicians provide pre-show and intermission Irish pub music to persuade the audience into the Dublin world of Once.

And the audience loves it.  They approach the bar on stage willingly before the show and during the intermission, where cast and crew pull pints of Guinness and other beers.  Several spectators the night I attended danced with the musicians who sang together center stage, stomping their feet Riverdance-style and making that particularly Irish sort of merry before the central story got underway.

The pre-show party is a fun theatrical choice, shaking up, as it does, the conventional separation between performer and spectator.  The choice to create a pub-style environment that lets the show be small and intimate, signals from the start that Once is not aspiring to more typical musical spectacle that would mock the more personal commitments at the film’s heart.

 The poster for the original film

The guy lives with his father (David Patrick Kelly), a crusty old Dubliner named “Da,” above the vacuum repair shop they run together.  When the girl finds the guy losing heart on the street, she asks him to fix her Hoover, insisting that he make the machine “suck.”  Because she’s Czech—and Walsh gets a fair amount of mileage from her Eastern European seriousness—she soberly sets about the task of re-inspiring the guy toward his own talents.

He’s grudging at first, floundering on the shoals of lost love and confusion about his own ambitions.  But she’s insistent.  In the first act, in fact, she’s a bit too single-minded in her intention to repair his heart, and appears the stereotypical girl in the service of a guy’s future rather than her own.

But Walsh gives the character more nuances in the second act.  She has a child and a husband who’s on his way back to Dublin from a trial separation.  And although she’s drawn to the guy, she has a stalwart ethic that requires her to try to make her marriage work.  That the guy and the girl clearly love one another but don’t become lovers is a refreshing tactic for a musical.  Their attraction shimmers around the show, and their sad but somehow right failure to consummate their love makes Once wistful and somehow true about those complicated affairs of the heart.

Bob Crowley’s evocative set and costumes are lit beautifully by Natasha Katz, who gilds the actors with the kind of romantic, introspective warmth that seems to deepen their emotional complexity.  Many of the show’s scenes take place in squares of light that mark off the space, carving it into intimate encounters between pairs of characters--the guy and his father; the guy and the girl; Billy and his date.  Once, as a result, is an intimate, surprisingly quiet affair, in which between the numbers, the characters spend time simply talking to one another about their desires, hopes, and dreams.

The Czech background of the girl and her extended family—her mother, daughter, and cousins figure heavily into her Dublin life—is played for laughs.  The cousins, of all the musical’s characters, are cardboard stereotypes meant to elicit the national confusions and language humor that comes from immigrants navigating new worlds.

Walsh and Tiffany handle the film’s international flair with supertitles which, in a creative twist, project the English dialogue into the characters’ native tongues.  That is, the audience sees the girl’s exchanges with her family projected in Czech, and some of the Dubliner’s dialogue projected in Irish.  The actors speak in English with various degrees of Eastern European and Irish accents, none of which are pronounced enough to get in the way of comprehension.

The show’s choreography is light and unobtrusive, but occasionally inspired, as when the girl and the guy, in separate images, seem to sculpt the air with their arms, providing circles of warmth and intimacy into which one of the other performers walks.  For instance, the girl, downstage center, curves her arm out in front of her, and one of the other women moves into her embrace, leaning her back into the girl’s chest and circling her arm around her waist so that the girl can lay her chin on the other woman’s shoulder.

In another light but poignant dance moment, when the girl listens to the guy’s music on a pair of large headphones, the two other young women in the cast (both of whom play the violin) mirror her as she moves about the stage, their hands outstretched into the air with the exhilaration of listening to sounds you love.

Once is a charming production, currently selling out at NYTW and poised to move to Broadway in February.  The show’s investors premiered the production at Diana Paulus’s American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge before the move to NYTW; they apparently have always planned on a Broadway run.

When the show moves to the Bernard Jacobs Theatre, I only hope it finds a way to retain the intimacy of its appeal for a larger audience.  It would be a shame to sacrifice the pub-like atmosphere of the theatre, and the quiet simplicity of the acting and the singing, or to make the show wholly bigger for a Broadway crowd.

The appeal of Once comes from the appropriate scale of its ambitions—to tell a story through lovely ballads, sung from broken, yearning young hearts.

The Feminist Spectator

Once, New York Theatre Workshop, December 16, 2011.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Queen of the Mist

Mary Testa and the ensemble in Queen of the Mist

Queen of the Mist is a new musical by Michael John LaChiusa (Marie Christine, The Wild Party), which the Transport Group produced at the Judson Gym in the West Village last month.  Starring the fiercely charismatic Mary Testa, the musical tells the story of Anna “Annie” Edson Taylor  (1838 – 1921), the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel and survive—and on her 63rd birthday (in 1901), at that.

The musical is significant for placing a middle-aged woman squarely at the center of its narrative.  In fact, only one other performer has a stable character part—Andrew Samonsky as Annie’s drunken, rough-hewn, opportunistic manager, Frank Russell.  The rest of the cast is a quintet of terrific actor/singers who cycle through a number of subsidiary roles, all written to support the journey of the central character.

Testa more than meets the challenges of a role that requires her to be a stalwart, pragmatic single woman in an age when women were much more often domesticated in heterosexual nuclear families.  Annie is a dreamer, a woman who insists, in one of the show’s best songs, “I have greatness in me.”  How often do we see musicals about older, single women determined to actualize their dreams?

The show’s structure, as well as its story, makes it unique.  This is not a typical “opposites attract,” heterosexual love story that resolves the relationships and the musical world’s metaphorical social divisions by the performance’s end.  Instead, Queen of the Mist keeps Annie alone throughout, and her relationship with Russell one of affection and grudging love, but not romance.  This makes Annie a remarkably original character even by present-day standards, let alone for an actual historical woman who came of age in the 19th century.

Before her idea to ride over the falls coalesces, Annie tries and fails to make economic ends meet through various schemes.  Queen of the Mist’s book cleverly introduces us to her through long monologues of cunning and manipulation meant to distract her landlords and buy her time to pay her rent.  In one scene after another, she’s evicted from her lodgings.

Annie tells stories about once having been married, though she never was.  She lies about her age, moving herself nicely (over the course of a scene or a song or two) from 47, through her 50s, to 63, her actual age when she did what she called her “deed.”

Her sister, Jane, who lived with her husband and children in Auburn, New York, provides Annie’s gender foil.  Ensemble-member Theresa McCarthy is wonderful as the pinched, submissive woman, who was happy to be a mother and wife, with no ambitions but to make her home.  Annie wanted much more than that.  Her outsized expectations chafed at her brother-in-law, who insisted Annie leave his house on the one occasion Jane rescued her sister from indigence.

Annie’s single-minded passion to distinguish herself and to make “the green” (as she calls money) keeps her from intimacy with her family or her few friends.  She carefully planned out her ride down the falls, ordering a specially constructed, scientifically designed barrel and attending to the details of the stunt’s public relations as much as to the rudimentary technology that she hoped would save her life.

Annie Edson and her specially designed barrel

Annie persuades Russell to be her manager so that he can carry out her plan for how her stunt will appear to the public.  Russell is an alcoholic accustomed to exploiting his clients, but he’s fascinated by Annie’s work ethic.  His surprising affection for this unusual woman is quite moving in Samonsky's subtle rendition.  He can’t emulate her strict morality; in fact, he steals her barrel after her successful trip down the falls, and employs an impersonator to play Annie in a seedy burlesque about her deed.

The raw space of the Judson Gym was designed for Queen of the Mist to evoke the banks of the river that runs into the rushing waters of Niagara Falls.  The divided audience sat on risers facing each other across the narrow playing space, with two smaller playing spaces at either end.  The intimacy of the stage meant that Testa could easily project Annie’s majesty into the audience.

Testa inhabited fully a role that seems to have been written for her.  Her carriage perfectly erect, her hands quiet at her sides, she used her face and her eyes and her large eloquent voice to command the stage, communicating the power and determination of a woman who had to live by her wits in an age when women had few opportunities for agency.

Queen of the Mist underlines how unseemly it was for women to seek public attention at the turn of the 20th century.  Nevertheless, Annie did go down in history as the first person to survive the plunge down Niagara Falls.

But after she accomplishes her dream, Annie becomes strangely distanced from herself and her adoring but finally impatient public.  Queen of the Mist’s second act quiets her down a bit and the show loses some of its focus and verve.

A quieter Annie after her "deed" is done

It’s not quite clear whether Annie is supposed to be disappointed about the reception to her stunt and how quickly she passes from the public eye, or if something else has suddenly drawn the wind from her considerable sails.  She also begins to lose her eyesight.  LaChiusa seems uncertain whether this is meant to be metaphorical or simply factual.

Finally, then, despite its considerable charms, Queen of the Mist seems a bit unsure what it’s about.  Is it a Floyd Collins-style indictment of the press and the way that it did or didn’t make heroes of people?   The press badgers Annie for years to share the specifics of what she felt in that barrel as she moved down the river toward the falls.  But Annie believes the fact that she did the deed should have been enough.  In the show’s 11th hour revelation scene, after much prompting and suspense, Annie finally confesses what she felt during her ride down the falls.  She bares her heart as she describes her terror and her love for all those she feared she might never see again.

But Queen of the Mist doesn’t explain why she was reluctant to share these details all along, and what her hesitancy means for the story’s larger implications.  Does the show mean to suggest that Annie should have been more emotionally available in her life?  That a kind of emotional hubris was her downfall?

Or does the show respect Annie for refusing to pander to sensationalism by describing her emotions and the terrifying sensation of plummeting over the falls, in the dark, with pounding water pummeling the thin wooden membrane between your body and your death?

Hard to say.  In a talk-back after the performance we saw, Testa and director Jack Cummings III said that Annie wanted to “own” her story, and felt that the fact of her deed was enough.  We weren’t quite sure, however, that the show itself made that clear.

Nonetheless, Queen of the Mist has wonderful potential and a terrific cast who spoke eloquently about the project.  Here’s hoping Annie Edson Taylor gets another chance at fame.

The Feminist Spectator

Queen of the Mist, Judson Gym, December 1, 2011.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

More on Hung . . .

Jane Adams and Thomas Jane as Tanya and Ray on Hung

After I posted on Hung, I watched a few more episodes, catching up with a recent story-line (Episode 27, “What’s Going on Downstairs or Don’t Eat Prince Eric“) about Ray’s encounters with Kyla (Jamie Clayton), the transgender client Lenore introduces to his services without telling Ray that Kyla, who presents as a woman, is “actually” a man.

The debate about Kyla is set in the context of Ray’s apparent aversion to having sex with men, which Tanya’s new worker, the happily omi-sexual Jason, is willing to do.  When Charlie, Tanya's erstwhile lover and fellow pimp, suggests that joining forces with Jason and his wife, Sandy, will allow Tanya and Ray to expand their services, Ray grudgingly agrees to bring the much younger man on board.

Later in the episode, the revelation that Kyla is transgendered turns the tables on Ray and forces him to examine his narrow-mindedness.

The story-line presents a rather lame, liberal excursion into transgendered experience.  Ray’s dismay when he learns that Kyla is trans seems calculated to address mainstream viewers’ presumed discomfort.

But when Ray accompanies Kyla to her high school reunion—and paid handsomely, even though he insists that sex is out of the question—he sees his date through her former classmates’ eyes and realizes his bigotry.

At the affair, Kyla aims to pass as a woman, and successfully mystifies former friends who have no idea who she is.  Then, in a double reveal, just as a table full of men recognizes Ray as a local if faded basketball hero, they also recognize Kyla as Dan, an old classmate they remember with derision and righteous ridicule for his new gender performance.

Kyla is humiliated and plans to flee, but Ray comes to her rescue, chivalrously suggesting that they dance as the others leer.  Kyla is appeased and comforted.  Ray’s voiceover suggests that he’s become too old not to let himself and others be what they are, whatever that may be, securing the liberal message of tolerance for the episode’s end.

Obviously, this isn’t the treatment transgender people deserve from a show that otherwise takes a more progressive view of women’s sexuality.  Given how much the producers seem to know about feminism, I’d expect them to present a more complicated story about the show’s first trans client.  Because the story proceeds from Ray’s perspective, his anxiety about homosex determines his reaction to Kyla, and steers the viewers’ response.

At the same time, the episode is one of the first in the series to underscore that Tanya and Ray are middle-aged.  Charlie reminds Ray that however large his dick, it won’t last forever, startling Ray with this foreshadowing of his inevitable loss of potency.

And when Tanya and Ray try to work with Jason and Sandy, they’re both chagrined that they can’t follow the younger couple’s pop culture references.  The show’s attention to their ages increased my affection for the characters.  After all, how often do explicitly middle-aged characters talk about generational issues on television?

On the next episode (#28, “I, Sandee or This Sex.  Which Is.  Not One.”), Jessica (Anne Heche) continues to find herself excited by Tanya’s instruction at the Wellness Center.  Although her presence there throws Tanya and Ray into fits of anxiety, because they continue to think they can hide Ray’s sexual activities from his former wife, Jessica is taken with the theory and the practice of embracing her own sexuality.

She enters Tanya’s office clutching a book, breathlessly trying to say the author’s name, which Tanya explains is “Irigaray.”  The book is the famous French feminist’s This Sex Which is Not One.  I think this is the first time I’ve seen French feminist theory happily referenced on television (let alone used to suggest how women might sexually empower themselves).  Jessica can’t quite follow Irigaray’s ideas, but Tanya is delighted by her enthusiasm and eagerness.  The two women bond over the book, hugging one another thankfully.

This level of insight into the post-structuralist critique of sexuality and gender should have allowed the producers to handle the trans story-line more gracefully.  But I continue to revel in Tanya’s feminist sex pedagogy and her intellectual savvy, which more than outweighs her dismal business acumen.

Argue with its lapses, but do watch Hung.

The Feminist Spectator