The Collyer Brothers at Home & Period Piece by Mark St. Germain
Opening their first full season in Pittsfield with an early Second Stage production of two one-act plays by Mark St. Germain, Barrington Stage Company has constructed an evening of whimsical theater that has less substance than the 136 tons of personal possessions owned by the subjects of the evening's first play and less authenticity than the arguments of the two men in their second play.
With two actors who know their way around the rubbish of The Collyer Brothers At Home, Brian Smiar and Robert Zukerman as Homer and Langley Collyer, the evening comes off as a tour-de-force showcasing their skills well. However, those very acting abilities manage to make the play's holes and tunnels what the audience remembers.
Period Piece, the thirty-two minute second piece is a much richer piece of writing, funny and touching and sad. In it, two actors are waiting to audition for a new play. Smiar and Zukerman play two men, half rivals-half friends, who wait and talk and discuss their lives. With a real sense of humor this time, the author has them auditioning for the play we've just watched about the Collyer brothers. While considerably more intriguing than the play it accompanies, it is somehow just as unsatisfying as the first play.
Christopher Innvar has done a lovely job directing both works. Brian Prather has managed to design a set that turns into props. Guy Lee Bailey's costumes seem to be just what the characters call for in both plays. D. Benjamin Courtney has found some unique ways to trick the eye with lights.
Barrington Stage Company's formal introduction to the City of Pittsfield may leave a little bit of work to be done, but its a healthy and risk-taking first step. Talent helps the evening, but doesn't save it, but it doesn't matter because the City of Pittsfield finally has a professional acting troupe all its own.
◊ 05-25-2006 ◊
The Burnt Part Boys book by Mariana Elder, music by Chris Miller, lyrics by Nathan Tysen
It's hard to say nasty things, rude things, mean things about an evening of theater that actually makes men cry. I'm talking about men in the audience, not men on the stage. That's what happened to men all around me on opening night of The Burnt Part Boys at Barrington Stage's Musical Theater Lab in the basement of the Berkshire Athenaeum. Men wept. Not once, but twice.
They weren't crying because the score was second-rate, although with lovely harmonics but not one take-home tune... They were crying because the writing moved them, the performances moved them and the actors made moments so real that all they could do, those men in the audience, was to react like men and cry. Even if the score is second-rate. A few of the songs are genuinely interesting, though musically cloying: In the first act there's "Empty Saddles" for Pete and his Dad disguised as an old West outlaw and in the second act "Lost" for the heroine and a trio for dead fathers, "I Made That." Three songs that touch your mind and heart is nothing to sneeze at in this day and age.
Pete and Jake are brothers, sons of a man lost in a major mining accident ten years earlier. Jake is an 18 year old high school dropout, working in the mines to support his mother and brother. Pete is 14, lives in his movie-inspired fantasies and is devoted to his minimal memories of his father. When it's announced that the old mine, in the burnt part of the mountain, will be reopened the next day, Pete determines on a strong, adult course of action. He steals dynamite intending to permanently shut the mine down, protecting the last resting place of his father. His brother decides to stop him. Leaving aside the other teenage characters, that's the story in a nutshell.
Pete, played beautifully by Daniel Zaitchik and Jake, a character whose sensitivity is slowly revealed, played by Charlie Brady, are wonderfully matched. They look and feel like a family unit. As their friends we have fat old Dusty, played by Robert Krecklow with all the enthusiasm of a teenager and Chet, whose anger and sarcasm are finely realized by Brandon Ellis. There are two girls in the show, Halle Petro who plays Jake's girlfriend Annie and Katherine McClain, a "Nobody's" sort of tom-boy named Frances. Tim Ewing plays the long-lost father remembered by his youngest son in many romantic guises. He handles them all with ease. As the miners lost with "dad" there is a quartet of players including Joseph Breen, Robert Dalton, Drew Davidson and Brian Litscher. They sang well and moved well and provided mood and presence. They were aided in the latter by the lighting of Chris Lee, the set designed by Brian Prather and the fine direction of Joe Calarco.
A prize-winning musical, rumored to be moving on to New York after its just extended run here, it is a special sort of evening, not memorable for its tunes, but rather for its emotional impact. It takes you to places you don't usually go in a musical and it takes you home again. That's entertainment, for sure.
Ā 6-28-06 Ā
The Human Comedy Music by Galt MacDermot, Libretto by William Dumaresq from the novel by William Saroyan.
Do With Less So They'll Have Enough!
William Saroyan's 1943 novel about a family in California during the early days of World War II was written with the intent of giving Americans hope for the future, a hope based on simple values: family, home, honesty, hard work and clean living. This was in a period in our history when slogans such as "Do with less so they'll have enough" primed the American public for a responsibility to those who serve. Published in February of that year the book was instantly grabbed up by MGM and made into a film, released later the same year which won an Academy Award for its story. Mickey Rooney, playing the second son of the family - Homer, also received an Academy Award nomination. Both book and film were big hits in their day. I read and watched them both. I liked them even though they didn't exactly speak to my own experiences.
William Saroyan's 1943 novel about a family in California during the early days of World War II was written with the intent of giving Americans hope for the future, a hope based on simple values: family, home, honesty, hard work and clean living. This was in a period in our history when slogans such as primed the American public for a responsibility to those who serve. Published in February of that year the book was instantly grabbed up by MGM and made into a film, released later the same year which won an Academy Award for its story. Mickey Rooney, playing the second son of the family - Homer, also received an Academy Award nomination. Both book and film were big hits in their day. I read and watched them both. I liked them even though they didn't exactly speak to my own experiences.
Forty-one years later Galt MacDermot and his collaborator William Dumaresq collaborated on a musical adaptation of the movie which opened and closed in ten days. It was a through-composed work, with barely six lines of spoken dialogue. Everything else was sung. Like an opera. The American public wasn't quite prepared for the form just yet. MacDermot's earlier hit HAIR, notwithstanding, this was a difficult pill to swallow. I saw that 1984 production. I didn't like it.
Sometimes our baggage travels with us. I came to the new Barrington Stage Company production of MacDermot's American saga with as open a mind on the subject as I could muster. I watched it, listened to it, and I still didn't like it. It's not the form...It's not the talent. There was a great deal of talent evident on the stage at Berkshire Community College that is serving as temporary Pittsfield home Number 1 for this company. I just didn't like the work itself. Where it should have engaged me it left me flat. Where it could have amused me, the feeling was wrong. Where it might have moved me it left me in deepest apathy.
The writing of the show is the problem... few connections, little heart, troubled syntax. Two soldiers at the War Front are talking, or intoning on a note or three, about home and mother and sister. One of them uses a phrase like "I'm in fine fetter.." because fetter rhymes with better which happens in the next line. The actual phrase ought to be "..in fine fettle," which means a good mood or good place rather than "in excellent chains", but fettle doesn't rhyme with better, not even in the world of rock or pop music, MacDermot's special theatrical place...It's too bad because there are some very good beginnings, but they don't ever develop into what the story needs.
Julianne Boyd, artistic director of Barrington Stage, has been devoted to this script and has done everything she possibly could do to make it work. Some valiant experiments pay off but this one falls short of its goal. She paints beautiful physical pictures with her cast on the large stage at BCC but pictures here fall well short of the thousand words needed to make her audience respond. It's a shame that her experiment wasn't more successful, for she has pulled rabbits out of hats in the past and made us aware of hidden treasures. For this first effort in a new town, an "A" for the effort, but no passing grade on the final.
◊ 6-29-06 ◊
WONDER OF THE WORLD by David Lindsay-Abaire, directed by Rob Ruggiero.
Death by Peanut Butter!
Absurdist comedy/melodrama...is the case for Barrington Stage Companyís second traveling mainstage production, David Lindsay-Abaireís third play, "Wonder of the world." Seven talented players bounce around the wide, but not deep, stage of the Duffin Theater at the Lenox Memorial Middle and High School on East Road. As this company moves from one temporary space to another it also moves it vision and its point of view. The choice of this play as its central season piece is odd, but telling. The author has just enjoyed a major success with a serious play on Broadway, "Rabbit Hole," nominated for a Helen Hayes Award, five Tony Awards, including best play and winning an award for actress Cynthia Nixon.
Under Rob Ruggieroís excellent direction the company in this production of the play that followed the authorís off-Broadway hit, Fuddy Mears, does the most possible to make this play more than merely a laughable riot. They strive to give it an impact it cannot achieve. The reason, sadly, is in the writing, a malady that seems to be stalking this company so far this season. Individually the lines are hilarious. The audience laughs pretty much all the way through, even after a major character, and one of the few sympathetic characters at that, is accidentally murdered (details withheld for the sake of those of you who will see the play). The lines are funny, but the people are not. The people are needy, desperate, frightened and just about as shallow as any characters could possibly be written. Cass (played by Keira Naughton) has decided to leave her husband Kip (Brian Hutchison) for the simple reason that she doesnít believe, any longer, that they were ever fated to be a couple (there is an additional, sexual reason but to discuss it, except to say that the name Vivian is involved, would be giving away the plot again). As she departs, with a gift-lunch aspic in her hands, she meets Lois, a wife whose husband has deserted her, clutching a large barrel to her bosom (Finnerty Stevens). At their joint point of destination - Niagara Falls - the two women meet Captain Mike (Dan Cantor), Glen and Karla (William Bogert and Libby George) and a sextet of crazy women, all played by Susan Louise OíConnor. By the end of this two hour and twelve minute play there are secrets revealed that are too odd, or too ugly to mention - also why take away the fun of discovery when you might just see the play yourself.
There are elements of the plot that I am sure Iíve seen on television this year, including husband Kipís sexual secret and the toys involved (a Greyís Anatomy episode had a man with the same fetish with serious internal damage). There are predictable twists and turns in the principal storyline. There is an ending I could have foreseen easily if I had cared enough to anticipate it. There are also the funny lines, human and funny and smart, that keep the play going and keep it fun to watch. But weighing one element against the others only reveals a flawed piece with an "I donít care" attitude that, of all the ingredients of the play that are shallow, communicates best. The final result of all this is there are no characters with whom to truly empathize, a flaw I keep pointing out in new and revived works this season. There needs to be a character we want to cheer for. There needs to be a character whose plight is so real that we can feel sympathy, cry for or with, reach out to from the depths of our own hearts. There really is no one like that in this play.
Technically the show looks great. Luke Hegel-Cantarella does a fine job with the set squeezed on to the Duffin stage. Costume Design issues have fallen to Anne Kenney who delivers a wet and wooly look to the participants and Scott Pinkney gives atmospheric lighting to the proceedings.
So, if your idea of a fun time is watching a marriage counselor dressed as a circus clown play the Newlywed Game with a psychotic group of tourists and a yarn salesman from Buffalo holding a gun (and whose isnít?) hurry on down to the Duffin Theater on East Road in Lenox and see the traveling main stage production of Wonder of the World. Like Mike and Lois, youíll wonder why you came.
◊ 07-24-06 ◊
Ring Round the Moon by Jean Anouilh, adapted by Christopher Fry; directed by Julianne Boyd
"Like a little yeasty bun in a hot oven..."
Julianne Boyd finally has her own theater up and running in Pittsfield. It's taken longer than anticipated and cost more than it might have and there are still modifications to come, but it's here, its open and it has a hit play running within its walls. Julianne is smiling and the smile is real and not forced. Just as it should be.
The play is Jean Anouilh's comedy Ring Round the Moon, a farcical human comedy with a trap built right into it; the leading man is a twin and so his brother, the other leading man. I had the privilege of seeing this show on the first night it was performed by Barrington Stage Company, so my review can only be based on what I saw and heard that night almost two weeks ago.What I saw was a very, very good production, pretty to look at, filled with talented actors and actresses and led by a man who had both feet caught in that "trap," the roles of twins.
Isabelle's mother is played to the outrageous hilt by Debra Jo Rupp, who also shares star billing in the program with Innvar and Carole Shelley. It is a billing well deserved. She is the proverbial laugh-riot. Word, or deed, action or pose, she is funny. She can also be touching and sweet and still get us laughing at her thought processes.
Shelley is Madame Desmermortes, the maiden aunt in the wheelchair who oversees all the family functions - even personal ones. No one alive today and working in the field can snap off the end of a sentence and spit it out with equal measures of humor and humous like Carole Shelley. One example: she informs her maidservant, a woman of a certain age who has attended Madame for years, that she is plain. She reiterates this claim about half a dozen times and each time she says it the words are more clipped, more precise, more hurtful and more hilarious. Especially when the lovely and talented Tandy Cronyn, made up to resemble her father more than her mother, is playing Capulat, the object of Madame's scorn. Any play with these two ladies of the stage holding forth would be worthwhile; one can almost imagine them tackling Mame and Vera in the forthcoming BSC production in the Fall.
The rest of the cast do admirably with Rebecca Watson especially notable for her perfect 1920s playing pitch and Ginifer King as the sweetheart who cannot help but fall in love with a man who would destroy her. Jordan Charney, Robert Zukerman, Christa Scott-Reed, John C. Vennema, and Mark H. Dold are perfection under Boyd's superb direction.
Frederic, played by Christopher Innvar, was not - at the performance I attended - well defined as yet, although I have been told by others that he has the two brothers nicely differentiated. Several of the people I took to the theater with me needed explanations about who he played and why his behavior was so erratic. Ring Round the Moon is an elegant and charming choice of a play with which to open a new venue. Certainly everyone on stage, backstage and elsewhere in this company will have a rich and beautiful memory of this first experience in a new home.
◊ 08-19-06 ◊
Mame by Jerome Lawrence & Robert E. Lee; Music and Lyrics by Jerry Herman. Directed by Julianne Boyd.
"With My chin resolutely set, Mrs. Burnside..."
Mame is forty. So is the musical of the same name...For ten years longer than this - a fifty year history - people have been quoting the most memorable line written by the playwrighting team of Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee - "Life is a banquet and most poor sons of bitches are starving to death - Live, Live, Live!" It is the credo of Mame Dennis Burnside and it underscores the musical as well as the play. Therein lies the problem of the musical, the play. The play is a work of genius and the film version of that play, starring Rosalind Russell, still haunts us all. It is character-rich, comedy-fast, heart string-tough and in technicolor. It effervesces, bubbles over with joy, with glee. It is also rather true to Patrick Dennisí original novel, something the musical is not.
Lawrence and Lee adapted the book for this show from their own stage play and its changes and alterations are never quite as good as the original. The book suffers from musical insertions and even the characters, drawn by the same hands, donít seem to have the same quality of life instilled in them, with one or two exceptions: Vera Charles, for example and, of course, Mame herself. For this performance series... Vera is all piss and vinegar and double dimples; Mame is a gamine dancerís dream of the role. The combination works neatly, but it doesnít stop the show.
Sandy Duncan has been cast as Mame, forty, single and vibrantly alive. She moves beautifully, looks the part, sings as best she can (she has a tendency to sing flat and the break in her voice, from chest to head has never been her best asset and the music is a bit too rangy for her). She also, somehow, misses the two moments in Act Two where her heart, and ours, should be breaking. Perhaps itís the problem of the major musical cut in the show, the removal of the exuberant "Thatís How Young I Feel." Without that song Mame never has a chance to become as young as her nephew and ward. Itís the turnabout from that moment to her realization that she may have gone too far in the "ten oíclock" number "If He Walked Into My Life," that makes us totally empathize with Mame and her ultimate decisions to destroy Patrickís dream of the future. Her rendition of the bluesy ballad is fine, but thatís all it is. It has no opposite to play against. It exists as it must, but not as it can.
Diane J. Findlay makes the most of every moment she has on stage and sheís divine... The two work well together in this play and would probably be just as good in anything they did together; thereís a chemistry there.
The true scene stealer, however, and the only person to stop the show on opening night, is Joyce Chittick in the role of Agnes Gooch, a composite of the playís Gooch and Nora. Every song, every line, every movement of that body got the laugh, got the sympathy, got the empathy and the applause. Equally good, but not in quite the same sensational way were the two Patricks. Eric Ulloa as the young man was beautiful to see and hear, singing very sweetly. Johnny Schaffer as the boy was lovely to watch and hear as well. Mark Jacoby, however, is a revelation in the small but important and pivotal role of Beauregard Jackson Pickett Burnside, the man Mame Dennis marries. There is a sincerity in his acting that continues into his one song - the title tune which celebrates Mameís greatness. Boyd has done a beautiful job of staging this "semi-staged reading" of the show. Her company works well together and Tony Pariseís choreography works wonders as the two stage dynamics join together to create the semblance of a big Broadway musical on the budget of an off-Broadway revue.
◊ 10-09-2006 ◊
Travels With My Discontent: A New Musical Revue; Music by Deborah Abramson Lyrics by Deborah Abramson, William Finn, Peter Mills, Rachel Sheinkin and Amanda Yesnowitz. Testimonials by Chip Zien
The second show in Barrington Stage Company's Stage II: Musical Theatre Lab series is not specifically open for reviewing, so this is... a short, serious piece about what you will see when you see this show. And make no mistake about it, you shouldsee this show. You owe it to yourself to see what is being developed by regional companies like Barrington Stage. Four talented performers, Charlie Brady, Katie Clarke, Megan Lawrence and Chip Zien, with the assistance of musical director J. Oconer-Navarro and Assistant Stage Manager Donald Butchko present approximately 18 songs by Abramson (I'm told they, and their order, change frequently). This is a revue, so there is no plot, no characters. In fact, as the opening number so clearly states, everyone is playing some aspect of Deborah Abramson.
I enjoyed many of the songs immensely. I think you will also. Even the more difficult and intricate pieces are worth listening to, just to catch the cleverness and diversity of the work by her lyricists. William Finn's "How to Make Delicious Chocolate Pudding," Peter Mills' "Far and Wide", Rachel Sheinkin's "Independence Day in Pittsfield," and Abramson's own "Children of the Heavenly Father" all stand out in my memory. But the ballads had beauty and strength and the memory of Megan Lawrence, in ballet mode, singing "From the Top" (lyrics by Peter Mills) is equally stirring.