Choir transformed as the waif from Les Mis looks on as "Mary" in the background
Wednesday, October 19, 2011
Dangling in front of a balcony at the Foxwoods Theatre
After all the press brouhaha about Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark for these many years, and the vituperative reviews from most of the mainstream critics, I was surprised to find the show so benign when I finally saw it. Thanks to Jenny Slattery, who’s a stalwart assistant stage manager on Spiderman, I wrangled house seats and a backstage tour on which Jenny generously took me and FS2 after a recent Sunday matinee. We had seats on the aisle, which meant that Spidy landed by us on one of his several second act flying feats, and sat close enough to be able to watch the actors work while still taking in the scenery, which is perhaps the show’s most breathtaking accomplishment.
But watching Spiderman and, a few weeks later, a Wednesday matinee of the musical adaptation Sister Act prompted me to think again about the differences between film and theatre, since both shows adapt their stories from cinematic (and, of course, for Spiderman, comic book) source material. Spiderman goes to great lengths and historic expense to recreate the CGI magic of the movies for a theatre audience. But inevitably, all the cash spent on all those effects only manages to provide a few moments of theatrical exhilaration.
The flying sequences offer a joyous kind of fun, especially in the climactic battle between Spiderman and the Green Goblin, who fly above and beneath and around one another in a fast, dizzying, carefully choreographed scene of high-flying almost-interaction. Jenny told us that in addition to the physical prowess required to pull off the moments, the performer playing the flying Spiderman had to demonstrate that he’s having fun in the air. And it shows. In an otherwise earthbound production, the flying scenes literally soar, and meet the promise of all the advanced hype.
What exactly is it that’s so much fun about those scenes? Without green-screen technology to erase the fly lines, what we’re watching is a too human man hooked to a complicated harness. The apparatus propels him above the audience and lets him land up on the balcony and then fly back to the stage, where he perches on platforms that lead him off into the wings. Hiding the fly lines is impossible; in fact, it’s what the audience has come to see.
We’re not enticed by the magic of pretending—although in a way, I suppose we are. We’re more attracted, I think, to the notion that no matter how fleshy our bodies, imagination and stage technology can still make them seem to fly. Perhaps we’re there to practice the sometimes archaic suspension of disbelief that movies have made too easy for us. Perhaps we’re there to see something as old-fashioned as an actor flying through an actual theatre to remind ourselves that live performance still relies on a delightfully quotidian sleight of hand to make its claims on our joy.
The rest of Spiderman, however, is mired in an unimaginative, predictable story about power gone awry and the young innocent whose ethics are sullied in his quest to right wrongs. Since the audience is given little to think about—the dialogue is wooden and the songs, as reported, unmemorable—we just watch instead. The inventive costumes and the cinematically styled set provide enough eye candy to entertain for the show’s short while.
But until those flying sequences, underneath all that comic book armature, it’s difficult for the actors to engage enough to project any charisma or spark. Even the inventive, compelling masks designed by Julie Taymor (the show’s original director) don’t integrate into the story well enough to give their wearers anything to act.
That’s what makes the flying so much fun. The actor might be tethered to those wires, but he looks so free, it’s impossible not to be breathless with pleasure while we watch him. The flying sequences tease out the limits of theatre while putting them to the test. After all, we’re not watching Spiderman chase the Green Goblin against a Gotham night sky, but against the backdrop of the Foxwoods Theatre in Manhattan. And however it’s been retrofitted to seat as many people as possible, and to provide the scaffolding for those acrobatics, it’s still a mundane Broadway theatre.
As we turned our heads to watch Spiderman fly, we could also see our fellow spectators registering their delight. In our 360 degree views, what we mostly saw was one another, faces lit with expectation and pleasure and a little frisson of fear, half expecting the stunts to stop in mid-stream or mid-air, as they’ve been reported to do so frequently on Spiderman. At our matinee, the flying worked without a problem.
But the comparison of those few moments with the rest of the show seemed almost sad, as though compared to all that soaring about in the house, what actually happened on stage could only seem clunky and even faker than it already admits to being. In such a context, even the wig-tape hugging the hair and microphones to the actors’ foreheads seemed quaint and kind of melancholic, the modern-day greasepaint that reminds everyone that the wizard really is just a man, and that some stories are best told in the form in which we’ve grown up loving them.
Likewise, in Sister Act, the only thing flying is the occasional musical note, not because the songs are inspiring, but because the performances sometimes rise above their melodies. The cast of this movie-cum-musical is terrific, making much ado about nothing, really, except a pale, three-dimensional but rickety adaptation of an already dated 1992 Whoopi Goldberg vehicle. In fact, Sister Act takes great care with its lead, Patina Miller (who won a 2011 Tony Award for her performance), to steer her physically and emotionally away from Goldberg’s down-to-earth, rather hapless if happily sarcastic impersonation of the nightclub singer, Deloris Van Cartier.
Miller is everything Goldberg isn’t in the original movie. She’s tall and willowy, and possibly beautiful, although it’s hard to tell underneath the 1970s-style Afro wigs and the impossibly long fake eye lashes that made her look vaguely cross-eyed from where I was sitting. This production, like Spiderman, seems all about the wig-tape, which for those in the orchestra proves a constant and distracting reminder that the 70s were then and the 2010s are now.
All of which begs the question—why adapt this film to the stage? And why, as the famed theatre historian Oscar Brockett always asked of any production, why now? And why set it in the 1970s, except, perhaps to lend credence to its barely nascent sense of race rights?
Sister Act admits to its own anachronisms, with its disco balls and its short skirts and purple suede lace-up boots and gaudy chunky jewelry. But despite a visual motif that wants to keep the show locked in a comfortable historical remove, the performances—particularly by Miller and Victoria Clark as the world-weary Mother Superior (in the film’s droll Maggie Smith role)—bring a pleasant but jarring up-to-the-momentness to the production. And that knowingness about the strange historical simultaneity of the project cuts the production down at the knees, as especially Clark seems to be winking at its patented absurdity.
The production begins promisingly, with a cast of mostly African American gangsters and cabaret singers gathering in a local mob-controlled dive bar for Deloris Van Cartier (like the jewelry, as she reminds everyone to whom she’s introduced by wiggling her fingers and her wrist) to sing her audition for her boyfriend/cabaret owner Curtis. But Curtis refuses to hire her, and belittles her by re-gifting to her one of his wife’s old fur coats. When she storms into the bar to confront him, Deloris inadvertently witnesses Curtis kill someone. She goes to the police, where a sweet if sweaty young Black cop named Eddie Souther protects her by housing her in a near-by convent in an economically failing church. And so begins the plot that’s been a popular culture staple since time immemorial—the fish out of water who makes the locals swim like she does and enjoy it.
Deloris and friends in the cabaret/disco act--check out the purple boots
In this case, though, there’s something unsettling about watching Deloris leave what seemed an African American community to go underground in a resolutely white nun’s enclave. Although eventually, two of the “choir nuns” are performed by the African American actors who first served as Deloris’s back-up singers, the convent’s whiteness is stark and Deloris’s racial difference not at all funny.
The audience at our Wednesday matinee was mostly women, probably half of them African American. I couldn’t help but wonder what they must be thinking, seeing Deloris become the butt of the joke for the white nuns. Because even though their sad, off-tune, uninspired singing and their innocence in the ways of the world is supposed to provide fodder for Deloris’s worldly ambitions and know-how, the power of dominance twists the image so that Deloris’s exceptionalism becomes uncomfortably tokenized and disempowered.
Whoopi Goldberg, in Sister Act and much of her film work, became a master at a kind of subtly resistant racial commentary, usurping whatever interpretation might have been meant by her casting and using it to her own advantage to call out how her body and face were singular in the scenes in which she appeared. But although Miller’s voice is powerful, her face is surprisingly immobile on stage, which makes the trademark Goldberg double-takes and wry asides, which delivered her resistance, fall flat in Miller’s performance.
Instead, Clark, as Mother Superior, gets all the best facial expressions, and uses them well to raise herself slightly above the proceedings at hand. She conveys fatigue at the ways of the world as well as the ways of her church in “Haven’t Got a Prayer.” And she rolls her eyes not just at Deloris and her un-worshipful behavior, but at the absurdity of the whole shebang. And in the process, she nearly steals the show.
Deloris of course transforms the choir from a bunch of dullards into a glitter-clad, disco-balled, A Chorus Line-inspired bunch of Village People, which brightens the production and makes it irresistibly fun. And the speed with which this adaptation moves means that it takes Deloris very little time to improve the nuns’ performance and to transmute them into a crowd-pleasing, money-raising spectacle.
Sister Act’s jokes are predictable but still amusing, as is the nuns’ newly invigorated singing. Peppered throughout are amusing gay and Jewish jokes (Yiddish, one of the nuns explains to another, is the language of performers; and the couple trying to buy the church are two gay men who decide to save the order when they fall in love with the singing). Sister Act is a lot like Shrek (the film and the production); it works on two levels at once, offering a different set of laughs for the queer and Jewish cognoscenti (and we knew who we were by who was heard hooting when).
The show’s penultimate number is a female duet to “Sister Act,” sung by Deloris and Mother Superior, which makes it seem slightly queer. Ultimately, they’re the couple who reconciles by the musical’s end, instead of the straight opposites whom musicals more typically bring together (as Stacy Wolf—FS2—argues so persuasively in Changed for Good: A Feminist History of the Broadway Musical).
Likewise, Sister Act’s representations of masculinity are savvier than the tired plot and retread film story would lead you to expect. As Eddie Souther, Chester Gregory plays the self-effacing, aw-shucks Daniel Breaker role (Gregory even looks a bit like Breaker). Souther, who knew Deloris in high school, always broke out into a sweat around her (hence his “Sweaty Eddie” moniker). Gregory gets some laughs from drenched arm pit sight gags, but his performance is sweet as he both comes to Deloris’s rescue and manages to be rather hapless about his own authority.
Even the erstwhile villain, Curtis (Kingsley Leggs), is defanged by Deloris’s proud resistance to his intimidation. Only Demond Green, as TJ, does a weird, rather retrograde turn as Curtis’s stupid-but-good-hearted nephew. Green plays the character as a Tracy Morgan knock-off; given Morgan’s recent homophobic remarks, the performance seems less benign than it’s meant to be.
Sister Act aims to be a crowd-pleaser, and that it did. Everyone around us was delighted as they stood for the curtain call. (“I haven’t seen anything this good since Jersey Boys,” one woman told us happily.) But still, like Spiderman, Sister Act on stage can only point to its own lumbering liveness. The triumphal song and dance numbers are great fun, but the production is filled with furniture and things that move on and off with the revolve center stage. They only serve to remind the audience of how time-inefficient and laden with stuff theatre like this can be.
On the other hand, in one of the show’s best moments, Eddie, in his number “I Could be That Guy,” imagines himself transformed from the schleppy police officer he is into an African American John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever, replete with white suit, high pointed finger, and cocky canted leg. Walking through a sort of Skid Row, Eddie is surrounded by “bums” who, at the appropriate moment, rip off his police uniform to reveal a version of Tony Manaro’s dancing outfit. And then as the dream ends, the bums rip off that layer to reveal his old police getup underneath. His transformations happen so deftly, they really do look like magic.
The exhilarating, old-fashioned kind of stage magic, that is. The kind that’s the best.
The Feminist Spectator