Notes on The Color Purple, Rope, and the Young Artist Vocal Competition at the Oak Room.
In this earnest but paper-thin version, The Color Purple's greatest asset is its cast, which is matchless in two respects: (1) the talent could hardly be improved upon, and (2) the tepid quality of the score does not match the excellence of the performances. This is not to say that the show doesn't tug at the heartstrings; you'd have to have balsamic vinegar in your veins not to be moved by the journey that these characters make. But we were moved by the plot and the players, not by the artfulness of the storytelling. Book writer Marsha Norman has tried to include too much of Alice Walker's sprawling story in her libretto. By the same token, the score by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray have done very little to help move the plot forward with economy and grace.
Nonetheless, this is a handsome production with impressive sets by John Lee Beatty and bare-knuckles direction by Gary Griffin. LaChanze builds upon her performance in last season's Dessa Rose to provide a sense of the central character Celie's growth from young girl to mature woman. One wishes that she had more (and better) to sing, but she is still gripping whenever she gets to wail. Other standouts -- and there are many -- include Renée Elise Goldsberry as her sister Nettie, Kingsley Leggs as Mister, Felicia P. Fields as Sofia (the meaty role that Oprah played in the movie), and Elisabeth Withers-Mendes as Shug Avery.
In a nice touch throughout the show, a chorus of three women (Kimberly Ann Harris, Virginia Ann Woodruff, and Maia Nkenge Wilson) smartly deliver musical commentary on the action. The funniest bit in the show is their transformation from three Southern church ladies to three African villagers who continue to gossip, only this time in a different musical idiom. If only the rest of the show were so inspired!
You can always count on the Drama Dept. to come up with a fascinating piece of theater. The 1929 play Rope was the source material for Alfred Hitchcock's unique 1948 movie of the same title, which was filmed in one continuous shot from start to finish without any visible cuts or edits. (Of course, there actually are a few edits in the movie because the film in the camera had to be changed during the shoot, but Hitch skillfully hid those edits in darkness by bringing the camera behind someone's back or behind a piece of furniture.)
The script of the original play by Patrick Hamilton was considerably changed by Hitchcock, but the essential elements of plot and character remain the same; the play was inspired by the infamous "thrill killing" of little Bobby Franks by Leopold and Loeb in 1924. In the Drama Dept. production, the killers are well played by Sam Trammell and Chandler Williams, but the real driving force of the piece is Zak Orth's mannered yet masterful portrait of a deeply scarred intellectual who suspects that the younger men may have committed a foul deed. The play's layered, cat-and-mouse banter, particularly between Orth and Trammell's characters, provides both its tension and its wit.
David Warren directs the piece with affection but misses some important opportunities, his most flagrant error being the retention of the orignal three-act structure. The action of Rope takes place in real time, just the way Hitchcock filmed it. Had Warren eliminated both intermissions, this production would have brought us closer to what the Master of Suspense rightly perceived as one of the play's most compelling strengths.
The Oak Room Invests in the Future
One of New York's most prestigious nightspots, the Algonquin Hotel's Oak Room has made an admirable effort to develop and support new talent. The room's booker, Barbara McGurn, and the Algonquin's general manager, Anthony Melchiorri, were the driving forces behind the venue's recent Young Artist Vocal Competition. The prize was an up-and-coming cabaret artist's dream-come-true: a two week engagement at the Oak Room.
After sifting through scores of applicants, all of whom had to be less than 30 years of age, nine semi-finalists were chosen. They all performed last Monday in front of a distinguished panel of judges comprised of critics, Oak Room artists, and important industry executives. In this alone, all nine participants received a huge boost by virtue of being seen by so many influential people in the cabaret community.
The judges met from 10am on Monday morning till 10:30pm that night. During that time, they heard all nine nominees perform, chose three finalists, and then those three performed yet again. The winner is a Boston college student named Samantha Sidley, who in 2003 was chosen as Downbeat magazine's Top Performing Arts High School Jazz Vocalist. The first runner-up is Sheer Ben-David and the second runner-up is jazz pianist-vocalist David Guidance. The six semi-finalists are Brandon Cutrell, Kristin Knutson, Jeremy Scott Ragsdale, Jennifer Sheehan, Julie Stirman, and Jennifer Vaughn. Barbara Siegel was one of the judges, and she hereby salutes all nine performers for their professionalism and courage.
The Algonquin plans to continue the Young Artist Vocal Competition next year -- and, one hopes, for years to come.