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2017-2018 Season To Date — Wrestling Jersusalem, TouchTones, Lights Out: Nat “King” Cole

Time keeps on skipping, skipping, skipping (or is it “tripping?) into the future. Either way, time has been used well and profitably, but other matters delayed voluminous writing. So did good old procrastination.

Now It’s time to do some catching up. Oodles of it. What better than to accelerate a challenge from my friend, Phindie editor Chris Munden, to give myself a word limit by confining that limit to a few sentences?

Of course they can be elaborated on at a later date.

The task here is to take the season to date and comment briefly on every show seen. Different from my usual habit of listing in alphabetic order, and getting stuck in 1,000-word tomes around “G,” I am writing in reverse order from when I saw each show. That will at least keep the currently running on top.

Here goes. Wish me luck. Brevity has never been my metier.

 

WRESTLING JERUSALEM Philadelphia Theatre Company at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, Broad and Lombard, Philadelphia, through Sunday, November 5 — Aaron Davidman interestingly and intelligently attacks a thorny subject that has been a matter of discussion for hours, years, and more than a half a century, Israel’s place on the map and the issues and emotions it engenders. Though you my glean Davidman’s stance on the issue during a sequence when he, taking his own character, has a heated discussion with a fellow American Jew while both are guests at a home on the Palestinian West Bank, the actor/writer generally succeeds in maintaining an objective picture by taking an Anna Deavere Smith-type approach and giving various characters on all sides of the debate a voice that seems accurately quoted. In doing so, Davidman captures the complexity and scope of his topic. As he says in his opening line, “It’s complicated.” Historic promises and political gerrymandering such as the Old Testament granting of Judea and Samaria to the Hebrews and the Balfour Declaration, never mentioned by name, are cited along with events that fomented the Zionist movement, the Holocaust, notable occasions from the 1947 war of liberation to the more recent Oslo accords, Intifadas, Hamas, Hezbollah, Apartheid, and the various players, but it’s Davidman’s conversations and experiences that grab the ear and activate the mind. “Wrestling Jerusalem,” wittily named because of the all-night tussle Jewish forefather Jacob, has with God in early Genesis, a struggle that earns Jacob the name Israel, lays out arguments and stirs one to listen, think, and decide. Possibly even to confirm or challenge held opinions. This is a good show because it remains dramatic instead of wandering into the polemic as Lucas Hnath’s plays do (including his current “A Doll’s House, Part II). In addition to acquainting his audience with a troubled political and cultural landscape, Davidman entertains, infusing his piece with humor to leaven its seriousness, music to set scenes and to illustrate Middle Eastern taste, Israeli and Arab, and dances, goofy and traditional. In the 70’s, Susan Sontag made an important documentary called “Promised Lands.” Davidman’s “Wrestling Jerusalem” is a sharp and well-honed update to it. Grade: A-

 

TOUCHTONES Arden Theatre, Arcadia Stage, 40 N. 2nd Street, Philadelphia, through Sunday, December 3, 2017 — Amiable but lightweight to point of theatrical emaciation, “TouchTones” to give it its preferred spelling and layout, squanders acres of possible dramatic, comic, and commentary ground to stay blandly mild and practically inert as its plot moves from A to B to B 1/2 and never develops further. It involves romance, relations, and telephone sex of a professional nature, but is as sexy as an Arctic shower and as insightful as an opaque block. Of course, innocent fun and lack of salaciousness might be what writer-lyricist Michael Hollinger and composer Robert Maggio were aiming for, but what they’ve produced brings up words like neuter and sterile even as two avowed virgins till marriage burn for consummation. The joke, revealed early enough, is one of the committed abstainers is sublimating his discipline by calling TouchTones, a sex line that lets him pour out his frustration to a fictional Mercedes, while the other takes a job there. It’s all watchable enough. Emmanuelle Delpech’s direction is bright enough not to bore, and performances by Darick Pead and April Ortiz, neither one leads, keep you going somewhat, but “Touchtones” seems more suited to family-oriented community theater or social club musicales than to a major urban theater. It plays like a 1950s sitcom.

Hollinger deserves credit for some truly smart one-liners and well-crafted lyrics, but I wonder what happened to the edge the writer shows in his earlier work at the Arden, “An Empty Plate at the Café du Boeuf” and “Incorruptible,” both of which the Arden reprised. “TouchTones” doesn’t have enough going for it. Every wrinkle can be seen forming three scenes ahead, and the payoff isn’t slick or clever enough to make it worthwhile to learn if you’re expectation is correct. This is a play that involves sex but in a way that seems to seek approval from nuns about how far it can go. Robert Maggio’s music matches the general tone of the show. It too is amiable while remaining 21st century formulaic in structure and range. Michael Doherty is a strong and likeable lead, but the places he can take his character are limited by the cutesy dootsy nature of Hollinger and Maggio’s musical. Alex Keiper, strong lately in many roles, can’t find a handle for this one. Joilet Harris entertains as always, and there’s yeoman work from Kevin R. Free and Jess Conda. Ortiz and Pead stand out because they finds ways to provide depth that elevate their characters beyond cardboard. Tim Mackabee has provided a versatile set. Alison Roberts did well with costumes. Grade: D+

 

LIGHTS OUT: NAT “KING” COLE People’s Light & Theatre Company, Steinbright Stage, 39 Conestoga Road (Route 401), Malvern, Pa., through Sunday, December 3 — Facts can land strongly, and anger, if not outrage, at injustices may be warranted, but a play needs more than uproar, rant, and a beleaguered person at wit’s end from dealing with negative powers or realities that be. A play needs to draw you in, make you feel the wrong visited on the person receiving it, and enlist you as an ally railing against his or her fury and indignation. That takes subtlety. It means presenting situations, especially slights and flagrant bias, in ways that elicit empathy and foment support. In relating an episode in which even a popular highly-regarded performer like singer and musician Nat “King” Cole is subject to prejudice and cowardly judgment that robs him of a major platform on which to share and display his copious talent, writers Colman Domingo and Patricia McGregor come at their subject with a hammer, an extra-weighted sledge hammer and makes all Mr. Cole endures blatantly obvious, to the point it doesn’t seem new and appears, though true, to be applied to him to take advantage of his celebrity. It comes across not as unfairness and disappointment but as bald complaint. McGregor’s direction, even though cast as a fantasy of sorts, reinforces this heavy-handed approach to the point it makes the world premiere “Lights Out: Nat “King” Cole” redolent of same old, same old , destroys the fodder inherent in the material, and wastes some wonderful performances, especially that by Dulé Hill in the role of Mr. Cole.

“Lights Out; Nat “King” Cole” is set on December 17, 1957, a day when a disheartened Mr. Cole is ab out to do the final show in a weekly variety series that has been carried nationally on NBC, in the days of three-channel world, for a year. No one questions the quality of Mr. Cole’s program, the first of its kind to feature a minority host. (If memory serves, Flip Wilson would headline the first ongoing variety series with a black host while Diahann Carroll broke sitcom barriers set by “Amos and Andy” and “Beulah” and Bill Cosby blasted through in the drama department.) Mr. Cole’s show compares well with other shows its ilk, series helmed by Dinah Shore and Perry Como for instance. Its finale includes appearances by Sammy Davis, Jr., Peggy Lee, Eartha Kitt, and Betty Hutton. A 15-year-old Natalie Cole also appears and does a duet of “Unforgettable” with her Dad. Quite a lineup, and all working for scale (an important factor that harkens back to something Milton Berle once told me, something for the elaborated version of this review). No one challenges Mr. Cole’s ratings. He and his song stylings attract viewers. The problem is advertising. NBC is unable to attract a sustaining national sponsor for Mr. Cole’s show because Madison Avenue is frightened of backlash from Southern viewers against a product that supports a black entertainer. Mr. Cole is losing his show because no one can afford to keep it in production with local sponsors who offer no long-term commitment to the program.

The situation is sad and real. Mr. Cole is understandably angry and distraught about the circumstances. There’s a play to be made from this, and some remarkable moments promised by Hill’s wonderful presentation of Mr. Cole’s voice and vocal style, as well as Gisela Adisa’s delicious Eartha Kitt and Zonya Love’s rousing “Orange Colored Sky” as Mr. Cole’s mother.

Domingo and McGregor depict Mr. Cole in escalating physical and emotional breakdown. Petty squabbles on the line producers on his live program’s set, and a makeup woman who is constantly trying to improve the tone of his complexion do not help. Either Mr. Cole’s demeanor or “Lights Out.”

The trouble is, even with all the foolishness and discrimination going on around him, Domingo and McGregor have created a character who reacts out of proportion with the immediate situation and who doesn’t invite sympathy. This Nat “King” Cole is too out of control. Making matters worse is McGregor, as director, making Mr. Cole’s last show into a nightmare rehearsal that includes him missing cues, staring at his studio audience in a vacuum, and botching his songs. She and Domingo needed to divide time and place better. On camera, Mr. Cole has to muster full discipline and show his professional instincts, The fantasy McGregor creates becomes annoying and makes an antic-driven juvenile delinquent of the character alleged to be Sammy Davis, Jr.

So many things about this production shout waning to knock socks off when the material provided is so overdone, it doesn’t get past your shoes. Scene after scene is constructed by the number. Songs are ruined in the process, such as when Hill delivers “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down an d Write Myself a Letter” while composing a poison pen tome the authors have Mr. Cole recite later. I’m sure they meant the contents to be heartfelt, and some sentiment comes through, but when we hear the tome, it’s more ham-handed overkill. Frankly, I’d rather hear the music. That would give the People’s Light audience a sense of what TV audiences of 1957 are missing by NBC expelling Nat “King” Cole from its regular schedule.

The typewriter scene has one dividend. While Hill types as Cole, unendingly ebullient Daniel J. Watts, as Davis, begins a tap number to which Hill starts to keep contrapuntal rhythm on the keys. Soon Hill is joining Watts on stage. Remember, Hill made his first splash in the tour of “The Tap Dance Kid.” He and Watts tear up that floor. It’s second only to Love’s “Orange Colored Sky” as the high point of “Lights Out.”

That’s what people want from a show about Nat “King” Cole, the chance to see an actor perform at Mr. Cole’s colossal level. Hill can do that. He is marvelous at mimicking Mr. Cole’s famous pronunciation and tone. Give him a chance to do that. Give Watts a chance to entertain without being a spoiler. The Davis character becomes so annoying, you don’t want him on stage. And Watts is so good in his performance, he deserves welcome, not “oh, brother, him again.” “Lights Out” needs more moments like the tap dance, Hill singing with Adisa’s Kitt or Rachael Duddy’s Hutton. I’m not saying to forgo the original purpose of “Lights Out” and to subjugate the substance of racism and its repercussions Domingo and McGregor were looking to address. They are important contexts, the reason for making a show that is not another jukebox tribute. The writers fail by not shouting their material instead of finding a deft way to incorporate it. They need to return to the drawing board and conceive how they can convey their message in a way that leads to empathy while they display the amazing talent of Mr. Cole, Mr. Davis, Miss Kitt, and others.

“The Nat “King” Cole Show” should be letter perfect and be a contrast, as opposed to a continuation, of Mr. Cole’s anger and angst. The scenes off-camera are too contrived to be dramatic for drama’s sake to have effect. Rather than empathizing, you stop caring.

Domingo and McGregor really go off the rails when they posit that a national sponsor has been found after all. The catch here is the motives of that sponsor is meant to be poignantly trenchant as commentary, satire of the most penetrating degree, but it plays as one more gambit sacrificed to the authors’ penchant to go too far. It pulverizes its point rather than making it. Such is the ongoing tragedy of “Lights Out: Nat “King” Cole.

Luckily, in between the general mayhem, there are chances for the cast’s talent to shine through. In addition to the actors mentions, this includes Jo Twiss, Owen Pelesh, Marc D. Donovan, and Dayshawn Jacobs. Grade: C-

 

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One comment on “2017-2018 Season To Date — Wrestling Jersusalem, TouchTones, Lights Out: Nat “King” Cole

  1. Toby Zinman
    November 1, 2017

    Hi, Neal–good to hear from you (I’d been wondering why I hadn’t seen you in ages)! Of course your definition of a “few sentences” is very much your own–but I’m glad you’re back in business. Maybe I’ll see you tonight at the Wilma? Toby

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This entry was posted on November 1, 2017 by in Uncategorized.

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