Midterm Report Card
Filichia gives high marks to many of the shows that opened in New York during the first half of the 2005-2006 season.
The current productions of Seascape and A Touch of the Poet offer better casts than the respective 1975 and 1978 editions. In the former: George Grizzard brings to his role a gravitas that Barry Nelson just didn't have, while Frances Sternhagen has an insouciance that was lacking in Deborah Kerr. As for the O'Neill play: We've all seen or heard about Gabriel Byrne's terrific performance as Con Melody -- once a hero, now a lush -- who dominates his wife, Nora, and attempts to dominate his daughter, Sara, though she won't be dissuaded from loving a young dreamer named Simon. And how about the casting of Emily Bergl as Sara and Kathryn Meisle as Simon's mother? They look quite alike -- and sons often fall in love with women who resemble their mothers, don't they?
Plenty of shows had ingredients that made them worthwhile. Maybe Hal Holbrook was past his prime in playing Mark Twain, but audiences who weren't around in his heyday at least had a chance to get a flavor of what he'd been. While I didn't like the production of The Constant Wife at the Roundabout -- compared to the sterling 2002 London revival, it was played with too much of a wink -- I was delighted that New York had the opportunity to become acquainted with W. Somerset Maugham's play and welcomed it with open arms.
Patti LuPone has often been criticized for her diction, but she is literally letter-perfect as Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd. And was there anyone not overwhelmed by what Judy Kaye did in Souvenir? On top of that, any season that gives us more Chita Rivera than ever before must automatically be considered a rousing success.
Some people viewed The Odd Couple as a disappointment, but that was probably because their expectations were so high. I say we must be grateful to Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick for doing Oscar and Felix quite well, and also to Neil Simon for letting his 1965 script be presented with virtually no changes. (Recent Simon revivals have seen him kill his babies by eliminating some delicious dialogue.) The Woman in White prompted a great many theatergoers to say, "Well, all that film stuff was really remarkable, but I wouldn't want every musical to look like that." Still, the "set design" was worth seeing once -- and Maria Friedman and Michael Ball were worth seeing many more times than that.
I was very fond of The Color Purple. I do regret that our blue-chip Broadway songwriters didn't do it, for I know it could have had a better score. Still, Marsha Norman -- certainly one of our blue-chip playwrights -- wrote the book, and it was pretty powerful and engrossing. When we first meet a 14-year old Celie, we are aghast to find that she's pregnant. Then we are much more horrified to learn that she's about to deliver the second child of her rapist stepfather. How we feel for her when she says, "Doc say I can't have no more kids, so I think God just wants me to take care of things." How sad we are when her father has to throw in a cow to bribe a man into marrying her, all because she's guilty of the most heinous crime that a woman back then could commit: She's "ugly." In this respect, LaChanze is terribly miscast in the show, for she isn't remotely unattractive. That aside, she gives a magnificent performance -- as always. How we nod in agreement when Shug Avery tells her, "You the grace of God if us ever see it." LaChanze is the one to beat for the Tony, and I'm not sure that anyone will.
One reason why Jersey Boys has succeeded, aside from the terrific performers, who really are Men for Four Seasons: Book writers Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice didn't gloss over the dark elements of the story. Sure, we all could forgive these guys for breaking into a church to practice on the organ; no real harm done there. But hearing about them serving time in jail and their deals with mob money makes us believe that we're getting the whole truth. The show is so well written that we care about the members of the group; we feel their struggles and their success. The look that Bob Gaudio gives Frankie Valli during the performance of "Big Girls Don't Cry" says, "We're doing it; we're really doing it!" -- and we couldn't be more pleased that they are.
As for shows beyond Broadway: How often do we discover impressive new writers who can perform, too? Book writer Hunter Bell and composer-lyricist Jeff Bowen really know their theatrical onions, and their love of musicals was fully displayed in [title of show], their musical about writing a musical. (It had a special, limited engagement at Ars Nova this year after having premiered at the 2004 New York Musical Theatre Festival, and is now slated for production by the Vineyard Theatre.) In the Continuum offers Danai Gurira and Nikkole Salter in one memorable scene after another. For example: Gurira, as a nurse in an AIDS hospice, sternly gives the bad news to a patient and doesn't seem to care what the poor soul must be feeling; yet when the nurse catches the attention of a colleague who' going out for a snack, she smiles and couldn't be more charming in asking the guy to pick up something for her. Salter is astonishing as a young woman in love with a basketball player who's done increasingly well and now expects to be a prime draft pick of the NBA -- so, of course, the bum now wants to be with other girls and forget the person who loved him when he was nothing. How Salter's character copes with this is the stuff of great drama.
Yes, New York's theatrical glass was far more full than empty these past seven months. Welcome 2006!