The Best of Times
Barbara & Scott on La Cage aux Folles, Gem of the Ocean, and Michael Feinstein at -- where else? -- Feinstein's!
Directed by Jerry Zaks, the revival is a welcome reminder of American musical theater pizzazz. This show has more gloss than Maybelline. But underneath all the makeup, wigs, silks, and satins, it's a very genuine and deeply felt story about traditional family values: respecting your mother and father, patience, compassion, loyalty, and sacrifice. The family in question might be more inclined toward sequins than Sears, but the beauty of the piece is that theatergoers from Hell's Kitchen to Houston will find themselves gladly giving their hearts to Georges (Daniel Davis) and Albin (Gary Beach). They are, of course, the homosexual couple at the center of this musical comedy confection with a book by Harvey Fierstein.
Daniel Davis has a commanding presence and a sterling baritone voice that comfortably, even powerfully, translates to song. Gary Beach acts the part of Albin with panache, though his singing is a little disappointing; if you have George Hearn's voice in your head from the original cast album, you will definitely notice the difference. The production gets a huge lift from Les Cagelles, the dozen male dancers in drop-dead gorgeous drag. Peforming Jerry Mitchell's choreography, they give the show its kick and its kick line.
La Cage is not without its flaws; the second act descends into less than convincing farce. But, to paraphrase one of Herman's lyrics, the show is what it is. And it's sumptuous.
When we look back at the history of drama on Broadway over the last 20 years, the name August Wilson stands out in neon. He has been a poetic force in the theater, writing important, exquisitely crafted plays about African-American life with astonishing consistency. His latest masterpiece, Gem of the Ocean, is a passionate piece of work that combines magical realism, historical drama, political activism, and even a touch of romance.
Directed by Kenny Leon with a graceful simplicity and fiercely performed by its seven-member cast, Gem of the Ocean takes place in 1904 Pittsburgh. The year is important because the memory of slavery was still very much alive just 39 years after the end of the Civil War. (To put it in perspective, consider that the Vietnam War was at its height 36 years ago and its controversies are still very much with us today.)
Wilson's story is about the constant battle for freedom that African-Americans must fight. It's also about the passing of the torch from one generation to the next. Though the action takes place within the confines of one large room in a house owned by Aunt Ester (Phylicia Rashad), Wilson's imagination takes us far outside its walls -- to a river where a man claiming his innocence is drowned, to a fire that burns down a mill, and even to an enchanted place called the City of Bones. Mostly, though, he takes us to that point of commitment where men and women see their destiny and embrace it. Like all great dramatists, Wilson writes about the specific and finds the universal. This may be a story about black people, but it's finally a story about all people.
If You Sing It, They Will Come
It must be the holiday season because Michael Feinstein is performing at his namesake nightclub in Holiday Heart Songs, a show of seasonal favorites ranging from "Hanukkah in Santa Monica" (Tom Lehrer) to "We Need a Little Christmas" (Jerry Herman). He's also performing a non-sectarian service for his audience by giving over the greater portion of the program to such timeless tunes as "I Concentrate on You" (Cole Porter) and "Two for the Road" (Mancini/Bricusse).
Feinstein is one of cabaret's greatest success stories. There are plenty of reasons for his impressive career, chief among them talent, charm, and personality. But one easily overlooked element that helps buoy his reputation and keeps audiences coming back is his ability to not only lead people to good music but, also, to give them the music they want to hear. He may play in one of New York's swankiest and most expensive rooms, but he's no snob. For every obscure song like "Lady Manhattan" (Fred Travalena III), he will sing something very familiar like "The Way We Were" (Marvin Hamlisch/Marilyn and Alan Bergman), and his audience will audibly gasp with surprise and pleasure.
The important point here is that Feinstein croons these old chestnuts with an artful sincerity. And talk about surprises: In his current show, which runs through December 30, he becomes a rocker for one number, playing and singing "Great Balls of Fire" (Jack Hammer/Otis Blackwell). It takes great balls, indeed, for this protégé of Ira Gershwin to bang out a tune made famous by the Killer, Jerry Lee Lewis. But you know what? The audience loved it!