Monday, February 12, 2007

And the State of the Art

As I think I mentioned to you when we start started chatting like this, I absolutely adore Musical Theater. When I was back in New York City last April for the first time in five years, I managed to see eight shows in seven days. From Norbert Leo Butz's Tony-winning turn in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels to the heartwarming retro-musical The Drowsy Chaperone to The 25th Annnual Putnam County Spelling Bee (where I was fortunate enough to be chosen as one of the Spellers) to the surprisingly entertaining Hairspray to the catastrophically awful Elton John tuner LeStat to the wonderfully reimagined Sweeney Todd (and, hey, you haven't experienced Broadway until you've watched the incredible Patti LuPone as a tuba-playing Mrs. Lovett) to the ingeniously twisted Avenue Q to Wallace Shawn's off-Broadway opus The Music Teacher (a terrible show improved immensely by the wonderful performance of my niece Kristina Valada-Viers, not that I'm prejudiced or anything), there wasn't one night when my butt wasn't sitting in an aisle seat somewhere in town, happily transported.

The problem with living in the Los Angeles area is that there are far fewer large theaters to house the big shows. After the Pantages and the Ahmansen, the number drops off precipitously. Oh, there are dozens of much smaller theaters, many of them 99-seaters, so shows do get produced, but generally on a far smaller scale. But, joy of joys, somewhere right in the middle, there is Reprise!

The program began a decade ago, calling itself Reprise: Broadway in Concert. The premise was simple. Three times a year, for about two weeks at a time, a talented cast would revive a classic or little-seen Broadway musical. The costumes and sets were almost non-existent, the cast was working on book, which meant they were carrying their scripts with them on stage, but the entertainment value was terrific. The first production was Promises, Promises, based on the film The Apartment, and starring Jason Alexander of Seinfeld fame. The other shows that season were Finian's Rainbow and Wonderful Town. The second season's shows included The Pajama Game, The Three Penny Opera and Of Thee I Sing. And with each new production, Reprise took another step forward. By the start of the third season and their production of Bells Are Ringing, the scripts in hand were completely gone, there were costumes aplenty and even some pretty inventive if still minimal sets. My lovely wife Christine and I became season subscribers with that third season and we've literally been sitting front row center ever since. I won't mention all the other shows we've seen at Reprise, which, by the way, operates out of the Freud Playhouse on the campus of UCLA. You can find that out yourself in you're interested by clicking on the link above.

All of this is by way of prelude to last Friday, when Christine and I went to see the second of this season's Reprise productions, Steven Sondheim's Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece, Sunday in the Park with George. Now I'll admit right up front that I'm a Sondhead. With the single exception of Passion, which I've just never been able to wrap my heart around, there isn't a Sondheim work I'm not crazy about. Company may just be my all-time favorite musical, and I've seen God knows how many different productions of the show, just as I have with Sweeney Todd, Assassins, Into the Woods, Follies, Merrily We Roll Along, Pacific Overtures, and all the rest. Still, while Company is my favorite Sondheim show, Sunday... comes in a close second. The first act is the fictionalized version of artist George Seurat's efforts to paint his pointillist masterpiece, A Sunday on the Island of La Grande Jatte, while the second act focuses on Seurat's neo-artist great-grandson's efforts to bring his own work before the public and how little the business of art has really changed in the past 100 years. If you're a writer, a poet, a painter, an artist of any stripe, it's almost impossible not to know what these men are going through and thus share their pain.

This production was directed by Jason Alexander, coming full circle from his involvement in Reprise's first production, and starred Manoel Felciano (who, coincidentally, I'd seen last April playing Toby in Sweeney Todd) and the lovely Kelli O'Hara (Tony-nominated last year for her role in the Broadway revival of The Pajama Game) in the roles of George and Dot, first assayed on the Great White Way by the astonishing team of Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters. And that, in many ways, was the big problem I had with this production, and I will admit it was a personal one. Once you've seen the characters played by Patinkin and Peters, it's almost impossible to imagine them played by anyone else. Both Felciano and O'Hara have wonderful voices and did commendable jobs, but they lacked the commitment, the heartbreaking passion, the originals brought to the roles.

My wife, who had never seen the original production, enjoyed this one quite a bit, but I'll have to give the show six claws up out of a possible ten.

In May, we see the final Reprise production of the season, Richard Rogers' little-seen No Strings. Expect another report from the aisle then.


kathy said...

I can't wrap my head around Bounce or Passion, but yeah, Sondheim forever. And I adore the commentary track on the DVD of Sunday.

BTW, have you found the American Theatre Wing's podcast, Downstage Center?

And, ala The Drowsy Chaperone and stage things, Bob Martin's Slings & Arrows, is about to start its third season on the Sundance Channel this coming Sunday. (It'll be a good tv week with this, and the start of The Amazing Race All-Stars.)

Christopher Moonlight said...

I must say, I've only heard about "the catastrophically awful Elton John tuner LeStat" but must interject that it's movie companion Queen Of The Damned had to be one of the most wonderful vampire movies ever made. Sure, you have to dig far beneath it's cheesy B movie exterior to get to it, but it is there. Of course, not many would agree with me, but I'd love to hear your comparison of the two. I just might have to go see the play anyway.

M. C. Valada said...

Oh, my darling. I'm the "Ch." My namesake is the "K": Kristina Valada-Viars.

Anonymous said...

Kathy, BLESS YOU for the heads up, I would have been profoundly sad to miss the premiere of the new Slings & Arrows season. I adore that series.

kathy said...

You're welcome, Gillian!

And wasn't that Lestat the one where Dave McKean was production designer? It all comes back to comic books in the end. :)

Len Wein said...

Thanks, honey. I changed the "Ch" to a "K" on the blog.Happy now?