Someone Up a Tree
Barbara & Scott on Pacific Overtures, Belle Epoque, and two new shows about the life and music of Fred Astaire.
While we're glad to have Pacific Overtures back on the boards, this production has a glaring flaw in the casting of B.D. Wong as the Reciter. He has neither the physical nor the vocal presence for the part. The rest of the cast does well, and most of them play multiple roles: Michael K. Lee is splendid as Kayama, and supporting players Evan D'Angeles and Telly Leung are among the many actor-singers who offer lovely vocal performances. Amon Miyamoto has choreographed the show with delicacy but his direction, while visually interesting, doesn't always have the best interests of the audience in mind. For instance, early in the show, he stations two actors at the lip of the stage in a fishing tableau while an important scene unfolds behind them. As a result, a sizeable chunk of the paying public is blocked from seeing the action that's taking place in the background.
The fact remains that Pacific Overtures is serious musical theater with something to say and some impressive, beautiful ways of saying it. If the finale is disturbing -- and it is, unless you're a visiting Japanese businessman -- it is nonetheless bold. Who else but Sondheim would have the nerve, and the talent, to make us applaud the demise of our nation?
Absinthe of Malice
A mesmerizing mood piece, Belle Epoque at the Mitzi Newhouse is a challenging departure from your mother's musical theater. The book is a series of provocative and/or evocative vignettes dealing with the life and art of painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Despite its fragmentary quality, this is a dark, emotionally honest exploration of the artist; the show's beauty is stark, striking, and haunting.
Mark Povinelli is amazing as Lautrec. A little person, he is a very big presence in this play with music and dance. In the role of the famous painter, he seems to walk as if he's fighting gale force winds -- and isn't he? Despite the lack of a linear story, his pain, his desire, and his rage are vivid and damned near volcanic. The supporting cast is astonishing, particularly Robert Besserer as Valentin, known as "The Boneless." Vivienne Benesch is fearless as Suzanne, Lautrec's great love. The only disappointment in the cast is Joyce Castle as a turn-of-the-century chanteuse; she's rather bland when singing the show's period songs, many of them translated with panache by Michael Feingold.
Created by Martha Clarke and Charles L. Mee, and directed by Clarke, the piece is less an intellectual enterprise than it is a visceral experience. Lautrec's paintings come to life in front of you as part of a vibrant visual dance in which Christopher Akerlind's exquisite lighting is the dance master.
Shall We Dance?
Fred Astaire must be dancing on heaven's ceiling. Currently, there are three major New York shows about the 20th century's greatest song-and-dance man. We already wrote about one of them: Andrea Marcovicci's insightful and sensuous cabaret act at The Oak Room at the Algonquin. The second is a new version of an Astaire show that Steve Ross performed many years ago. This time, he's added a second piano (and pianist) to the adventure, as well as a bass player
Ross is perhaps today's most ideal channeler of Astaire as a singer; he's holding forth through the month of December in the largest of the spiffy new theaters in the 59E59complex. His patter is smart and dryly comic, his piano playing is smooth as silk, and he sings with an honesty and integrity that makes you quickly forget that his voice is nothing special. Of course, that's what a lot of folks said about Astaire, yet the greatest composers of his day -- Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, the Gershwins -- wanted him to introduce their songs because he always sang them with honesty and integrity.
The first act of Ross's show is devoted entirely to standards made famous by Fred Astaire: great material, great arrangements, great interpretations. The second act is an eclectic mix of songs that have served Ross well over the years. A kind of "Best of Steve Ross," it's a delightful set of obscure comic gems, delicate ballads, and so on. Steve Ross is an American cabaret treasure, and this is a wonderful opportunity to see and hear him in a theater setting.
Another show about Astaire's life and music is brought to us by the folks who created and performed Our Sinatra, but one might say that the difference between their show and those of Marcovicci and Ross is like "Night and Day." Singing Astaire stars Eric Comstock, Hilary Kole, and Christopher Gines. We weren't fans of the Sinatra show, so when we say that the Astaire effort is better than the tribute to Ol' Blue Eyes, it shouldn't be taken as too much of a compliment.
The patter is well researched and entertainingly delivered, and all three of the singers have pretty voices -- far prettier than Marcovicci and Ross, in fact. The problem is that only one of the trio -- Comstock -- can act. Gines has a creamy voice but sings without any interpretive acumen. Kole, one of cabaret's most beautiful women and a fine jazz performer, sings the arrangements and not the lyrics. Comstock keeps it simple and, in his solos, hones in on the meaning of each song; however, he gets into trouble when singing duets or joining what becomes an oblivious trio. The show is also marred by way too many medleys. As always in a revue of this sort, it's better to sing fewer songs well than to cover a whole lot of numbers and do them little justice.
Fred Astaire and his legacy can definitely support three different shows playing in New York at the same time, but only two of them deserve that support.