All Things Entertaining and Cultural
I need to catch up.
September, for whatever reason, was fast, furious, and busy. To be neurotically complete about some reviews, I concentrated on a few and let others go by.
Therefore, this exercise in brevity, fast takes on a dozen shows that opened in Philadelphia in September and have yet to be reviewed in NealsPaper. Some of these shows will be written about in greater length, but several of them — A Montgomery Theater’s “God of Carnage,” and Media’s “Gypsy” — are too good to keep a secret until then. Especially since it is my commitment to review as much as I can.
Regrettably, one excellent piece, ActorsNET’s “A Raisin in the Sun,” and two interesting pieces, Iron Age’s “A Great War” and Opera Philadelphia and Bearded Ladies Cabaret’s “Andy: A Popera,” have passed into history. Hedgerow’s enjoyable “Bullshot Crummond” has been sorely neglected but has two weeks of performances to go.
So, here goes. An attempt to be an impressionist. Wish me luck. Wish some to yourself while you’re at it.
Still running (In alphabetical order):
BULLSHOT CRUMMOND — Hedgerow Theatre through Sunday, October 11 — Before “The 39 Steps” and various comic version of “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” parodies depended less on physical shtick and sight gags and more on verbal wit and keen ribbing of a genre or character. In 1974, H.C. McNeile’s British pulp hero, Bulldog Drummond, featured in several movies, caught the lampooning eye of San Francisco improv performers Diz White, Ron House, John Neville-Andrews, Alan Shearman, and Derek Cunningham who split a variety of role to make fun of Drummond’s blindly daring style of adventure. They also probably realized the comic value of Drummond’s name, “Bullshot,” being risque for a theater marquee in 1974.
White, House, and company saw the humor possible in Drummond’s foibles as they crafted their script, which has the detective missing clues, coming to conclusions just too late, and being on the receiving end of a roundhouse punch once too often. They also have a deft ear for puns and other verbal jokes that stock “Bullshot Crummond” with a slew of double entendres and literal responses to figurative questions.
Hedgerow Theatre, in a production directed by Mark Tallman, did not miss a moment for comedy in its brisk, amiable production of “Crummond.” Tallman’s staging of the spoof benefits from having Brock D. Vickers, a young man with matinee idol looks, a witty knack for parody, and the litheness of a dancer, as his lead. In addition to being brave and romantic, Vickers knows how to be self-effacing with keeping his character’s dignity intact. His graceful, congenial bumbling combined with a sure talent for showing Crummond’s abundant deductive skills give Hedgerow’s “Crummond” a strong central core and a character for whom you can root.
With Vickers as the lead, Tallman can move easily between farcical comedy and sequences in which Crummond chooses to be suave or has to use his noodle and be intuitive and intelligent. The actor can handle both while leaning decidedly towards the funny. Vickers has a talent for farce. so he can live the writers’ parody of Drummond/Crummond while seeming earnest and serious about cracking his case. Even when Crummond bungles mightily, Vickers can respond ironically while maintaining his character’s dignity and pride.
Aiding both Vickers as a co-star, and Crummond as a sidekick, Mary Beth Shrader shows a lot of range, from seriously worried to seriously intelligent and on to downright ditzy. Shrader really gets the audience’s attention when he lets out one of her character’s blood curdling screams.
I mean it. Shrader’s whoops are loud, shrill, and bound to get attention. It’s a wonder she has a voice after each performance. The best thing is Shrader uses her screams to get laughs and to signal genuine distress, another example of Hedgerow’s “Crummond” working on both comic and thriller levels.
Josh Portera and Allison Bloechl are right out of cartoon is their routine but hilarious parodies of Nazi spies, in this case trying to get the formula for a synthetic diamond that has the strength and industrial importance of a real stone. Portera is all Sergeant Schultz as the German villain. His accent is the classic harsh exaggeration of the German tongue, and he revels in his character’s nastiness, especially when his Otto von Brunno thinks he has Crummond cornered. As usual, the stereotype on which von Brunno is based has trappings of culture and breeding that offsets the streetsmart ingenuity of Crummond as the World War I veteran turned detective in a quest for adventure. Portera plays von Brunno’s pretensions well.
Bloechl is a portrait of a the femme fatale, who blends cool sophistication with total lack of conscience. To mix nationalities and periods, she is a good Natasha to Portera’s Boris and a ready temptress who enjoys evil, which she would construe as good because she’s working for a cause she admires.
Although language and humorously missed opportunities drive most of the comedy in “Bullshot Crummond,” Tallman includes his share of sight gags, Crashing airplanes, and dolls parachuting out of them make for a funny and suspenseful opening scene. Lights and supple movement allow passengers in two cars to do a fast-cutting scene that involves both vehicles alternating on center stage seconds apart in a simultaneous scene. There’s a snazzy stunt involving dynamite, one that shows Crummond;s cunning, war experience with explosions, and an ability to outsmart the odious Gremans. The sudden appearance of carrier pigeons also get laughs. On opening night, when one the pigeons missed its flight path and ended in a no man’s land offstage, an improvising Vickers, using great presence of mind and prodigious gymnastic skill, told Shrader’s character to hold his ankles, as with only his shoe tips supported by the stage, he stretched his body precariously into the void between the stage and the audience and, in an of genuine cunning and spontaneous daring, plucked the errant pigeon from the offstage floor. It was a thrilling addition to the excellent work Vickers was doing in the rehearsed parts of the play.
Bryan Black has the lucky and unenviable task of playing an army of characters and is deft and distinct in each, often to hilarious effect. He makes a great comic foil to Crummond as policemen who resent Crummond being on the case and getting further they do.
White, House, etc. knew their job and provide lots of laughs while spoofing McNeile’s source material. Vickers and his castmates are fun, Vickers keeping the proceeding classy as well as humorous. Tallman keeps all moving smartly.
CLOSER — Eagle Theatre through Sunday, October 11 — Patrick Marber is a master of words. His script to “Closer” is smart, witty, and adult. It treats on love and marriage and on the shifting emotions that often make both so mutable. Characters are forced, in time, to be honest even though they live by a code that includes infidelity, betrayal, rationalization, and spite. Marber tells his story in a manner that is both tough and romantic. It involves four people whose lives and affections intersect in intimate and alienating ways, sometimes simultaneously, “Closer” includes torrid encounters, coolly deft flirtations, thoughtful conversations, candid confessions, and almost pathological deception. One character, a writer, begins a scene by saying, “This will hurt,” a telling opening that denotes a lot of what happens in Marber’s thorny, yet romantic, roundelay in which two men serially change places in the lives of two women, and it’s difficult to tell true love from the fancy of a moment.
Steam and moral confusion drive the better productions of “Closer.” The more a staging can depict adults in actual romantic turmoil, and the more ardent or painful alternating scenes, and alternating partnerships, are, the deeper and more impressively “Closer” will play. The sensibility of the production has to be as grownup and as fearless as Marber’s cunning script. Words, well composed as they are, are not enough.
Yet, words become the crux of Ed Corsi’s production of “Closer” for Hammonton’s Eagle Theatre. By emphasizing the dialogue, Corsi provides a chance for his audience to parse Marber’s play and hear the verbal brilliance and emotional possibilities in the text.
Nothing can mar Marber’s playfulness or insightful directness, but Corsi and his cast do little to enhance it. “Closer” is less enacted than recited while the characters move about in costume and hint at the layers simmering beneath Marber’s provocative language.
“Closer” is a story of deep and sincere lust, love, romance, and emotion, yet none of that comes to fore on the Eagle stage. Corsi has Marber’s complex characters discussing everything on their minds on in their lives in a slow, quiet monotone that lets you admire Marber’s literary skill but gives you nothing theatrical to bring “Closer” home to animate Marber’s excellent text with action or anything that is akin to life.
Corsi’s “Closer” doesn’t bore as much as it disappoints. It makes the taut, tense, tenacious, and potentially sizzling qualities of Marber’s play tedious and even a bit tawdry. By keeping all at one emotional level, the seamier, dubious sides of love and romance, often authentic if often abandoned or sabotaged, grab focus over the exhilarating, sexually charged, happy moments in the play. In Corsi’s reading, all of the characters emerge in a negative light instead of as intelligent, relatively decent people who are enmeshed, together, in the tricky, egotistical, sado-masochistic, nurturing, and wounding maze of desire and love.
At some point, each man in “Closer” is genuinely in love with one of the women in “Closer.” This love comes in turns. Alice, the waif who makes her living stripping in a swanker London gentleman’s bar, has actual affection for Dan, the obit writer who would love to be a novelist. She also has true feelings for Larry, a dermatologist. Dan and Larry return her ardor, Dan accepting and growing into his long affair with Alice, Larry enjoying the fascination of being with someone as unconventional as Alice while getting subtle revenge against Dan, and “Closer’s” second woman, Anna. Anna, the most maturely aloof and most complex of Marber’s characters, relishes her affair with Dan, initiated by him as he continued to live with Alice, but finds as much, if not more satisfaction, with Larry, whom she marries, leaves, and lives with again as “Closer” proceeds. At times, it seems a scorecard would help in sorting out who is with whom at a given moment, but Marber isn’t writing about sexual freedom or musical beds as much as he’s examining the changeable nature of love and relationships and how we become fools, villains, dishcloths, and cavaliers as we negotiate liaisons, linkages, and, yes, love.
it would have been wonderful if, for one second, I could have believed that any character in Corsi’s “Closer” felt anything for another. Given all the possible permutations, you’d think one pair of performers would convey some form of chemistry or some expression to show his or her passion, hurt, disgust, or ardor. Anger comes stage center at times, but even that is muted. The “Closer” cast behaves towards each other as if they are actors at their first rehearsal off-book. Everything is dialogue, with no bonding or emotion to be found. The Eagle stage stays as dry and flat as an arid desert in California, Dan, Anna, Alice, and Larry are vibrant people. They are immersed in life. They embrace it. Even Dan, the obit writer who comes to work each day to one of his colleagues intoning, “Who’s on the slab today?”
There’s no fire in this “Closer.” Not even a spark or ember. And “Closer” is all about fire. It’s about an incendiary as a modern play can get. Marber provides a provocative look at people in the throes of equivocal passion. He shows minds working against hearts, hardness triumphing over sentiment, selfishness at war with doing the right thing, and impulse eclipsing faithfulness.
This is dramatic stuff. About as dramatic as you can get, and none of it appears on the Eagle stage, not even in the potentially thrilling scene is which Larry learns the club in which Alice works and goes there to confront her about her identity and the similarities of feigning sexuality for tips and maintaining a trusting, reliable relationship.
“Closer” depends of all of the possibilities Marber provides coming to life, and Corsi’s production never does.
It’s respectable enough. Jeffrey Coon, Lauren Kerstetter, Samantha Morrone, and especially Tim Rinehart do competent work delivering Marber’s lines and creating a mood for “Closer.” Morrone has promising moments in which she lets you see the unreconstituted rebel in Alice, and Rinehart physicalizes Larry in way that allows you to believe his character actually walks the Earth, exists outside of “Closer,” and is showing you a slice of his life, but in the long run, Corsi has allowed, or instructed, his cast to remain inert and go about business as if their emotions and romantic machinations were just a humdrum part of a humdrum existence.
Come on, gang, let’s raise some smoke! And not only from the fake cigarettes three of the four characters light.
I have seen Jeffrey Coon enough to know that if prompted in the right way, he could convince through action, and not only words, that he is tied somehow to Alice and is attracted beyond his control or discipline to Anna.
Coon and all of his castmates, even the closest-to-the-mark Rinehart, have to deliver more.
When Dan and Alice first encounter each other, on a park bench in a small memorial park near the Barbican in East London, Coon is right to be a little reserved and amused by Alice’s naughty forwardness. Morrone, though, needs to kick it up a notch. Her Alice, at this juncture, needs more street quality, more of a sense she can bring about mayhem and danger. Coon stays reserved when he is wooing Anna, a cool customer in the romance department. You need to see some of the playfulness he’s learned from living three years with Alice.
Morrone improves as the play goes one. She gives important glimmers of Alice’s flightiness. She is also the one actor who takes the time to prove she actually loves someone. In a scene is which Alice and Dan are about to embark on a vacation is aborted when Dan clumsily wants to make a point instead of being satisfied to let matters remain where they happily lay, Morrone comes through with the one honest expression of regard and sincerity in Corsi’s production. Rinehart has been more consistent and more varied within that consistency than his castmates, but Morrone has that one sequence that shows what Corsi’s Closer” could have been if all was played at that level with as much honesty.
That’s the point. Without making egregious mistakes or embarrassing themselves, Coon, Kerstetter, Morrone, and Rinehart have played at doing “Closer” rather than truly realizing it. So much happens in the play, your interest doesn’t wane, but you don’t get involved and see the good points among the bad in each character.
Kerstetter’s Anna remains “Closer’s” most interesting character because Anna has the poise and maturity to make decisions more reasonably and less emotionally than her fellow philanderers, but Kerstatter’s performance never makes the leap from competence to the multi-dimensional woman that makes Anna’s company and high regard so wanted by Dan, Larry, and Alice.
Marber is direct, something that may have led Corsi into thinking the author’s words speak for themselves. Even so, he plants a mystery of sorts in the middle of “Closer,” a mystery that is played out well at the Eagle, only because the clues and the suspense derive from the dialogue.
Corsi and cast are also direct, perhaps too direct. Nuance, unfettered feeling, and expressions of ardor, or even as advanced sense of mischief, as in the computer scene that brings Larry into “Closer’s: world, would have been welcome.
So would letting the play be a play. Corsi deftly used projections to give the audience a sense of London or to see the characters in the kind of focus Anna, a photographer who does portraits and who likes to take candid shots of people on London streets, can place them via close-ups, cropping, a plain old sensitivity. In the midst of these projections, including some wonderful shots that take you the London Aquarium and British Museum reading room, is a mini-movie of sorts. It features Rinehart’s Larry and Morrone’s Alice at the strip club where Alice works. Rinehart is being properly disdainful and brutal as Larry, a paying customer who throws £500 (about $770) at the bewigged, scantily dressed Alice, while trying to ascertain Alice’s true identity and ability to live up to any kind of commitment. The scene is one of the most powerful and effective in Corsi’s staging. You get the sense it was rehearsed more because of its dramatic potential and intensity. In the middle of the scene, action shifts from in front of the audience on stage to a digitally recorded and projected video of the same action. My guess in Corsi thought playing some of the scene as a movie would lend it more variety. Morrone would be able to simulate stripping on film is a way that might have been awkward for her in person. Especially since the video could be suggested and tease the stripping as opposed to exposing Morrone to nudity on stage.
The problem is the video seems like both an interruption and violation of some theatrical contract. I enjoy multi-media when it is done creatively and well. I don’t want it overplayed. Movies are a medium. The theater is not. It is a social place where action is performed sans media, with actors performing live in front of a present audience.
Videos change the dynamic. In “Closer,” the effect was not positive. The video seemed like an intrusion. It also registered as self-consciously clever. The strip club scene remains the single best passage in Corsi’s production, and the movie is part of that scene, but think of all effective the sequence would have been if it was all done as meant, as live-action theater!
Productions that emphasize language often let you see a play more clearly that more theatrically dramatized stagings. It was a pleasure of sorts to hear Marber’s words so clearly, even as I considered how much more could be done with. I stayed with Corsi’s “Closer” throughout, but experience was totally intellectual. The fearlessness, openness, and expressiveness I hoped for never emerged.
Krissy Fraelich is terrific as Mama Rose in the Media’s production of “Gypsy” because she musters all the moxie and bravura necessary for the role while never seeming any way but real and honestly motivated.
Early in the play, Herbie describes Rose as “looking like a pioneer woman” embarking on her next conquest. I don’t know if Fraelich took those words to heart when he considered how to play the opportunity-wary Rose, but it is the image that denotes her performance most accurately.
Fraelich’s Rose is always attuned to the next idea, always thinking about how to maintain and promote the vaudeville act that features her daughters, and never willing to abandon any hope or give up on any of her numerous dreams.
While clinging to ambition and seizing any rope that will keep her in show business, Fraelich’s Rose manages to exude reality. She is never glamorous or sophisticated but always the Seattle woman who plugs away to get everyone working, fed, rehearsed, and houses. There’s a normality about Fraelich’s Rose and makes her pushier, dreamier side more pronounced and frightening. She can comes from any street across America because most of all, she is a woman who wants the best for her daughters and stays a maternal homebody of sorts even as she and the girls troop the length and breadth of America playing various circuits.
This Rose is a worker, a promoter. She has no airs. She doesn’t change as her act becomes more successful and is on the brink of cracking New York. She’s everywoman with a greater yen to be on top or have her daughters be stars.
Because Fraelich combines a plain and unpretentious personality with driving determination, she creates a complete portrait of a complex woman, one who will battle, sew, and even eat dog food to get her children ahead, yet one will sacrifice some of her own happiness and need for attention to reach that objective.
This is a powerful Rose who is more formidable because that American pioneer woman seems to loom behind everything she does and because she enjoys the practical, social, and fulfilling aspects of the theater to its glamor of fame.
Fraelich doesn’t always give a lot of color to her line readings, but she’s clear, sincere, and consistent. There is no mistaking who her Rose is or the measures she will take to achieve what she wants. Like Rose, Fraelich doesn’t have to push a joke or sarcastic comment for it to land in a way that a specific and realistic context. This Rose doesn’t try to say anything funny or clever. She just knows how to let the turns of phrase Arthur Laurents wrote for her do the job. Every minute she’s on the Media stage, Fraelich convinces you she is a dynamic woman living her life as she sees fit, or necessary. There isn’t a jot of falseness or guile about her. Even when Rose flirts so cunningly with Herbie, it’s the practiced skill in talking to men and her truthful way of expressing herself that seals the relationship, not tricks or wiles.
Then there’s Fraelich’s singing — expressive, purposeful, textured, and perfect in diction and pitch. (Well, one verse of “Some People” was reversed on opening night, but “is to shrug!”)
Fraelich’s vocals pack the power of her entire performance. She finds the right mood and tone for each song, and I would be willing to bet she didn’t vary an iota from the score as Jule Styne wrote. Her “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” had the right chill, and her “Rose’s Turn” was every bit the sensational star spot it was meant to be.
Rose is the centerpiece of “Gypsy,” but not its only character or even the lead character. The glory of Jesse Cline’s production for the Media is Fraelich leads an illustrious cast that, with the exception of a couple of small, functionary parts, is performed grandly from start to finish. Krissy Fraelich is lustrous, but there are plenty of fireworks from Jennie Eisenhower, Hillary Parker, and Karen Toto as the Wichita strippers (boy, I wish I had to name a Wichita baseball team right now), Avery Sobczak as a dashing Tulsa, Portia Murphy as Baby June, Elisa Fucich as the sardonic Miss Cratchitt, Megan Rucidlo as Agnes/Amanda, and the sparking Anna Giordano as Miss Gypsy Rose Lee.
Giordano, working in a range far different from the faithful romantic in last season’s “Ghost,” finds first the modesty and then the wit and the boldness of Louise. Her “Little Lamb” calms Cline’s production and adds sweet counterpoint to the show. Her emergence from the rookie stripper on the Wichita stage to a Minsky’s headliner is well paced and has the frisson of excitement Laurents, Styne, and lyricist Stephen Sondheim intended for it.
Giordano can never look homely, so it’s less of a revelation when her Louise looks in a mirror and discovers she’s beautiful, but she has the savvy and discipline to hide her light under a bushel and act Louise with quiet grace and humility until Gypsy Rose gets her star turn as the world’s classiest and most famous ecdysiast.
Giordano’s showdown with Mama Rose has the feel of a genuine mother-daughter conflict. More, she radiates love and respect for Rose throughout Cline’s production, even when that love is tinged with terror during Rose’s “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” eruption.
Mama Rose spends 90 percent of her time on stage. She needs a respite, and Laurents, Sondheim, and Styne provide her one of the best in musical theater history — Tessie Tura, Miss Mazeppa, and Electra — those proud strip women from Wichita, demonstrating the specialties that hide their lack of talent in “You Gotta Get a Gimmick.”
Jennie Eisenhower gets an advantage among the strip women by Tessie sharing a dressing room with Louise and getting to spar a little with Rose, plea for the protection of Herbie, reprimand Agnes for using her G-string as a necklace, and making choice wisecracks. Eisenhower can get a laugh with simple retorts like, “Weren’t we all?” when Herbie says Louise was booked in a burlesque house by mistake, or “$30,” when she asks if Rose is Louise’s mother while haggling a fee for some sewing. Parker is aces with Mazeppa’s trumpet, and the horn players in Chris Ertelt’s top-notch do some good licks on Parker’s behalf. (Local note: When “Gypsy” was doing a tryout in Philadelphia before its 1959 Broadway opening, Jule Styne went to the Troc Theatre to see some basement-level burlesque. The routines entertained, but what really struck Styne was the shrill licks the trumpeters did. He was so impressed, he added them to “Gypsy’s” score. Kudos to Deann Giles, Ed Jakuboski, and Tony DeSantis in Styne’s memory. Not only for playing the composer’s music so excitingly but because in spite of being a music capital, Philadelphia has lacked good horns in its bands for decades. Given the playing in both “Gypsy” and the Walnut’s “High Society,” it looks as if that deficiency has passed.) Karen Toto adds comic value as Electra, and the stripping trio make a show-stopper out of “You Gotta a Gimmick” with a big boost for Dann Dunn’s choreography, which is excellent throughout the production.
Avery Sobczak is nicely disarming as Tulsa and performs “All I Need Now is The Girl,” with the debonair style with which he is trying to endow the number. Dunn again aids mightily. Portia Murphy presages June’s prodigious talent as Baby June, and Taylor Elise Rector keeps up the good work as June ages. Rector is especially good in the scene in which June assures a skeptical Miss Cratchitt she is only nine-years-old and has a telling heart-to-heart sequence with Louise. Rector and Giordano make a rousing success of “If Mama Was Married.” Elisa Fucich adds comic value to the scene as Cratchitt. Megan Rucidlo evolves nicely as Agnes. Good supporting work is also turned in by J.P. Dunphy and Roger Ricker.
Kelly Briggs is a likeable Herbie. He conveys an affection for Rose and concern for Louise, June, and the various troupes that travel with him. After seeing Briggs in several roles at the Media, I conclude he is happier in character parts. His Thenardier in “Les Misérables” was extraordinary while his performances in “Mame,” “Hello Dolly,” and “Gypsy” were fine but standard. No one could cavil with Briggs’s work, but it doesn’t have the dash, fire, or reality Fraelich gives Rose, and Giordano gives Louise.
Jesse Cline likes to comment and bring some documentary verité to his productions by using slides from the period. His choices for “Gypsy” were about his best. The leering men is the burly-cue were a snide joke, but the view of vaudeville marquees on Broadway and other period shots brought context and texture to “Gypsy.” Cline is also to congratulated for the smooth flow the show. About the only cavil I have is actually a wonder, and that’s why no door or entrance was built upstage right for stage traffic, especially in the boarding house scene. In a realistic production, it seems awkward and illogical for characters to stomp across the width of the downstage apron to effect entrances and exits that needed to be more immediate.
“Gypsy” is an often produced classic for good reason. Arthur Laurents provides a strong story that gives characters from Rose and Herbie to Tulsa and Tessie Tura to play. Styne’s score is one the liveliest in the Broadway canon, and Sondheim’s lyrics are not only brilliant, but they presage the genius and innovation that was to come (and continues to this day).
TAPPIN’ THRU LIFE — through Sunday, October 11 at Delaware Theatre Company, Wilmington — The sentiment I am about to express, snotty as it might sound, is meant benevolently and comeps from a place of empathy.
If I could have one wish for the prodigious entertainer Maurice Hines, it would be that, after years of searching and striving, he find the perfect mode to show off his amazing talent.
For decades, Hines has fared well in book shows, such as “Eubie,” in which his career gets rejuvenated with an adult break, “Sophisticated Ladies,” and “Guys and Dolls.” But Maurice obviously wants more. He obviously wants to wow an audience in a thematic revue. And he’s put together several of them.
They all have the same problem. They overreach. Rather than entertain with the finesse that is part of his being, Maurice wants to amaze, to knock your socks off. In revue after revue, most of them conceived and written by him, the effort is too great. Maurice tries so hard to please, it look as if he’s begging for approval.
Maurice Hines doesn’t know me, although we’ve spoken a few time, and I danced with him and his late brother, Gregory, in the green room of the Walnut Street Theatre while doing an interview for “Eubie,” but if we were closer, I’d want to hug him and say, “Maurice, you have all the goods. You are a total entertainer, and you can summon and elicit emotion, but you have to learn the difference between enough and too much.”
In “Tappin’ Thru Life,” Maurice’s latest opus, doing a twirl at Wilmington’s Delaware Theatre Company, Maurice repeats the mistakes of his past ventures. I thought that with a sharp eye like Jeff Calhoun directing, “Tappin'” might be different, that it might be honed and trimmed so that Maurice doesn’t look so needy.
“Tappin'” is a revue, and review, of Maurice’s life, his childhood in New York, his tap lessons with the phenomenal Henry LeTang, his beginnings in show business, his act with Gregory and their father, conquering segregated, racist Las Vegas, moving on to television and eventually Broadway, working with Gregory, a crise between the brothers that ended in a beautifully sentimental way, and so on through “Guys and Dolls,” and packaged hits to the performer Maurice is today.
That performer is old-school. The basics are all there, but show business savvy, while prevalent in much of what Maurice presents, fails when it comes to Maurice disciplining himself to make a number play just right. He’s always pushing a song or routine one shticky step past schmaltz. Nothing settles in its perfect place. Maurice is hard-wired to overdo.
“Tappin’ Thru Life” is a prime example of what I mean. So much about the show is elementally sound and geared to entertain and entertain stylishly. Then, the need for an audience’s love comes too strongly. Numbers lose their gloss and become Vegas-y in the worst way, a way which makes it seem like there’s a extra layer of fat, a way that turns the assured showy and the true false.
Maurice speaks often about sincerity and doing his entertaining from the heart, yet every minute of “Tappin’ Thru Life” seems self-consciously primed to have to an effect and plays as false. Even the name of the show, with its apostrophe and misspelling of “through” is too precious and massaged.
Maurice is looking for a theater piece and he ends up doing a Las Vegas lounge act from the 1970s.
Believe me, I prefer the style and craft of the nightclub entertainers of the Jack Paar-Johnny Carson era. My fervent wish all through elementary school is that I could do to the Persian Room or Blue Angel and see the great singers and comedians of that day. There is a place for Sinatra-Martin-Davis ring-a-ding-ding, Locally, Jeff Coon and Fran Prisco have found it and do it excellently. Maurice Hines, born to the breed and schooled by geniuses like Ella Fitzgerald and Pearl Bailey, hasn’t developed the knack of taking the audience in the palm of his hand and caressing them to appreciation. He is too intent on breaking a sweat, calling attention to all he is doing, introducing his numbers in an egregiously false manner, and wowing the crowd.
Stop begging, Maurice. Stop yearning. Calm down and be gentler with your native gifts, acquired skills, and natural talent. You can be the entertainer you crave to be if you just get out of your own bleeping way!
Nostalgic photos and stories from Hines’s show business career register well, but when Hines uses tales to introduce a song, as he does constantly in “Tappin’ Thru Life,” the gimmick bombs, and you don’t believe a word of anything that happens next. In the midst of numbers, you can see, hear, and feel Maurice calculating what might get a reaction. He doesn’t sing to the house or to himself. He plans what might thrill or impress and looks to see if it does. For all of his talk about sincerity and honesty, his performance comes off as manipulated and deviously so. Everything is measured to an anal degree, so nothing seems natural, genuine, or effortless.
It’s all an act. And mostly a persona. Every word, every step, and every note is a carefully orchestrated device meant to make you say, “Ah-hah, look at that!” The result may be jazzy and take a lot of work, but it never seems real. The man who wants to tell his story straight and level with you comes across as a phony, a finagler who plays at entertaining you but is just showing off.
For me, it’s not as angering as it is upsetting, because I can read Maurice’s need for approval in all of those computed moves and because I can see the true entertainer behind the saffa-daffa. I keep rooting for Maurice to create the show that will fulfill him and feature him as the fine, secure performer I know he can be.
Please, Maurice, have faith in your ability and give up dying to please and making the truth you’re capable of expressing into Las Vegas confetti. Harness your demons and let your talent soar. Quit the overpolishing, overthinking, and overweening and be as natural and genuine as you purport to be. Do a number, don’t sell it. Especially not to an intimate house that is already on your side. You have an able coach in Jeff Calhoun. Let him guide you. Let him show you the boundary between bravura and schmaltzy. Hey, step over the boundary occasionally, but not as a habit.
I’m going to say the one thing you, Maurice, don’t want to hear. You’re not Gregory. And you know what? He wasn’t you. You can fly on your own and give up competing with a ghost. Gregory has transitioned. You’re here. Be you. You have everything you need to please. Don’t beg for approval. Grab it by doing what you can do better than most entertainers. Remember what Henry LeTang taught you about building from simplicity. You need tough love, and here it is. Because I ache when I see you working so hard and sabotaging yourself by letting your neuroses influence your gifts.
“Tappin’ Thru Life” has the potential to be a marvelous show, a good example of the Vegas fare of the ’70s instead of an exaggerated parody of one. Even as he tries too hard, you recognize the talent Maurice Hines has. I am in a minority by not praising “Tappin’ Thru Life” and the energy Maurice expends to the hilt. But I saw two shows, the one that could have been and the one that was overlarded to the point it seemed scheming and desperate. Regrettably, it was the latter show that registered the strongest.
Maurice has an eye for talent. He was accompanied on stage, too briefly and too selfishly, by a lively, attractive pair of tap dancing brothers, John and Leo Manzari. Both dance with gusto and savoir faire. Hines used them more as a foil than as an act he meant to showcase, but the clean-cut John and trendily styled Leo knew how to grab the spotlight when they had the chance. The guys’ individual style of dancing match their appearance. John has a lot of discipline and makes crisp, clean moves. Leo is more rangy and expansive while keeping within the beat and pattern prescribed for a dancing duo. It was fun to see the Manzari Brothers.
Also delightful on opening night in Wilmington was nine-year-old Jake Sweeney, who performed his animated tap routine with confidence and style.
Hines loosened up occasionally to have fun with his all-woman band, The Diva Jazz Orchestra, some of which were assigned shtick, most of which played better than Hine’s own gimmicks. Trombonist Jennifer Krupa (now there’s a name brimming with legacy) and bassist Amy Shook provided a lot of fun.
[Ed. Note: I am posting the dozen as I go, dividing shows between those open and those that have regrettably closed. Next up: Bygone goodies…and otherwise]
For the record: Closed Shows (in alphabetical order):
GOD OF CARNAGE — Montgomery Theater through Sunday, October 4 — Civilization is not easy to maintain. One knock and the lapse of a moment can set it off kilter. So Veronica Novak finds out when, in an pure paean to the modern way of doing things in our would-be Puritan world, she invites another couple, the Raleighs, to her home to discuss the aftermath of a fight between their nine-year-olds sons in a Cobble Hill park.
Veronica is trying to sort out what drove the Raleighs’ child to approach her son with a stick made from a tree’s broken branch and proceed to hit the boy in the cheek with said branch, dislodging two of his teeth and causing damage to another. She wants specifically to know if the Raleigh boy told his parents of the incident, explained why he did it, and is willing to come in person to apologize to her son. She also wants to know what the Raleighs intend to do to discipline their son and prevent such a violent incident from happening again.
The scene Yazmina Reza depicts in her play, “God of Carnage,” hits on so many of the niceties now imposed on daily life. The discussion, the intervention, the civilized way of doing things are certainly in vogue. We look to be a world that speaks calmly to settle matters that disturb the peace and the general world order.
There may be dozen of reasons why the Raleigh brat assaulted the Novak monster. Bullying and the Novak kid denying the Raleigh kid a chance to join his gang are two, Boys being boys is also mentioned.
Reza, as translated from French by Christopher Hampton, is astute in the way she plots Veronica’s best of intentions. Even if the Novak mother seems to be laying things on thick in her presentation, there’s a sense of purpose in how she goes about it, and in “God of Carnage,” you appreciate her effort even while realizing Reza is making fun of it.
That double-handed reaction is among the joys of “God of Carnage,” a comedy that is bound reveal the crux of human nature and do so hilariously, particularly at Souderton’s Montgomery Theater, where Damon Bonetti, Nathan Foley, Sarah Fraunfelder, and a a marvelous Charlotte Northeast are conducting one of the great comic rows of all time.
Reza uses the ploy of civilization to lure us to a bigger picture. We are interested in the Novak-Raleigh squabble, the one between the boys and the subsequent one between the parents, and want to hear details. Northeast’s Veronica has turned us into judges, and we, the audience, want to listen and determine who is right and where some gray areas might be.
The boys’ tussle soon fades into the background, as the Novaks become irritated with some of the responses and behaviors of the Raleighs, the Raleigh wife gets furious at the Raleigh husband, and the Novak husband and wife show the strain in their marriage.
In most productions of “God of Carnage,” matters unravel unstopping so what starts as a peaceful discussion snowballs into a temperamental, assaultive affair in which accusations get hurled, nerves get frayed, insults abound, and clothes get ripped.
It’s a blood sport by the time the Novaks and Raleighs are stopped mid-pitched battle by a telephone call from the Novaks’ other child , a daughter just reporting in as good children do. (Although it’s none of my business, and far from my purview, I always wanted that action-ending telephone call to be from the Novak son to say he’s fine and playing with the Raleigh boy at the Raleigh house. It must the Martin McDonagh sense of irony in me.)
Jessica Bedford’s “God of Carnage” for Montgomery Theater is no ordinary productions, and its differences surprisingly illuminate Reza’s play to make it richer, if less rollicking, than when it becomes a knockdown-dragout event.
Bedford lets “God of Carnage” breathe. She doesn’t take it at a breakneck pace or escalate it to a point fisticuffs and shots to the rib take focus from Reza/Hampton’s dialogue.
Matters percolate, all right, but Bedford keeps them on a verbal keel. Yes, a face gets slapped, and Northeast’s Veronica will get so angry at her husband, Foley’s Michael, she’ll jump on his back in a rage, but in general, Bedford lets words do the work, and by taking that approach, you see more depth, more shadings in “God of Carnage” than usually appear.
Certainly in this less action-adventure atmosphere, more truths about the Novak and Raleigh marriages come enlighteningly to the fore. You can see the fault lines more clearly and see how differing attitudes and well maintained tolerances that suppressed rancor have been festering for years in both households.
Reza shows you the anatomy of two marriages, and various ideas about child rearing, and Bedford lets you take in all of them.
Usually, the entertainment in “God of Carnage” is the full-blown romp that puts the physical ahead of the verbal. Bedford’s production might not be as much fun as some of the more rock-em, sock-em stagings, but it’s richer and more rewarding. It reveals a sensitivity that goes beyond shrill voices and raised fists. You really understand all four characters in compact depth and to develop sympathies and allegiances. Veronica, for example, originally seems the most extreme with her insistence on talking everything out, doing the appropriate thing, and staying within the boundaries of political correctness. She looks like she’s going to be the goat, the one whose seriousness causes all the mayhem.
Her effort to find resolution is the catalyst for all that follows, but with Bedford’s pace and emphasis on the verbal over the physical, and Northeast’s portrayal, you come to see Veronica as the most sensible, dignified, and peace-minded of the group. That doesn’t happen in a productions where weapons and fists grab center ring.
You understand all of the characters as well as you do Veronica, and roles that seem minor in big productions take on an equal status, so that Foley’s Michael, and Fraunfelder’s Annette Raleigh, often shunted to the background, make cases as strong as the more noticeable personalities of Northeast’s Veronica and Bonetti’s Alan Raleigh.
The single drawback is the verbal approach wears out its welcome faster. While pandemonium is escalating, “God of Carnage” constantly gives you something to watch. When the arguments and accusations are the focus, you get the point faster and want things to come to a quicker close. Especially when events on stage become a matter of more of the same.
Luckily, “God of Carnage” lasts a breezy but satisfying 75 minutes, so just as you are thinking, “OK, enough,” the telephone rings and Bedford’s production is saved by the bell.
The Montgomery’s “God of Carnage is a rewarding show. People who have seen Reza’s play at other theaters might enjoy seeing it in a different, well-presented light.
The cast is terrific. Northeast is a tyro who can careen between trying to do the right thing, righteous indignation, and empathy-evoking revelations. She gives Veronica dimension that makes her a woman who strives for the better, even if at time it makes her look inflexible and pontificating. Northeast always gives Veronica a core of reality. I especially liked her mixed reaction when Annette, who has been experiencing nausea, gets sick on one of her collectors’ item art books. Hail Kokoschka!
Damon Bonetti perfectly embodies a high=powered attorney whose business, the one that makes Cobble Hill affordable, comes first. Bonetti beautifully signals Alan’s contempt for what he considers to be Veronica’s mountain-making regarding their sons. He also unapologetically excuses himself from her session whenever he gets a call about a client whose pharmaceuticals might be killing some of the patients they are meant to save, a gambit that will mesh well with a plot line involving Foley’s Michael and Michael’s mother.
Bonetti is a great physical comedian, but his best comic moment comes when Alan, exasperated because Annette has deadened his attached-at-the ear cell phone by immersing it in a vase of flowers, sinks to the Novaks’s floor in a helpless, inconsolable heap while maintaining the idea of Alan’s in-command crispness.
Nathan Foley finally get a role that could earn his attention he’s been deserving for years. As Michael, he is the most natural and recognizable character on stage, a regular guy who thinks his wife is going too far with her “peace talks” but indulges her while delighting in sharing the excellent 10-year-old rum and first-rate Cuban cigars he has been able to procure because of his connections as a wholesaler. Foley’s reaction are never extreme but they mirror the way you’d expect most men to react when put in the situations Reza assigned his character.
Sarah Fraunfelder completes the high-quality troupe. As she settles into Annette, she becomes more natural in going through the character’s paces. In the beginning, Fraunfelder needs to relax a little. She has Annette listening too intently and reacting too broadly to all Veronica is saying. She’d be better off taking the natural tone Northeast, Bonetti, and Foley assume.
Felix Pinschey’s set is right for Veronica’s taste. On a personal note, I like that he chose the same mauve for the walls that I just selected