Herringbone by Tom Cone, Skip Kennon and Ellen Fitzhugh. Directed by Roger Rees.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"One of those years..."
When you go to a two-act, one-man musical and the show ends abruptly 38 minutes into the first act you cannot review the show. What you can review is the man at the center of the performance. B.D. Wong is the star here. Wong is the victim of an unfortunate accident. He is also the hero of the evening.
During the fourth number in the play, "God Said" he was executing a difficult piece of Darren Lee’s choreography when an unsecured stage unit shifted its position. Instead of sliding effortlessly along an elongated piano bench, Wong hit the corner of the bench with his right leg and and punctured his skin and muscle. He continued with the number, finishing it brilliantly, then called for a moment to check his wound, asked for the audience to wait and limped offstage. Ten minutes later Roger Rees, the director at Williamstown and the director of this play, announced that Wong’s wound was serious and that he was being taken to the hospital for treatment, stitches and whatever was needed.
Two days later, Sunday, the show is back on with Wong performing ten of the eleven roles (one part is taken by the piano player Thumbs Dubois - played by Dan Lipton). There is a difference in the work from what was seen on Friday. He is less involved with the audience at the start of the show. He is more concerned with energy than he had been. The choreography has been changed to safeguard the leg that was injured. Beyond those minor alterations, however, the performance is as it was: very well-defined characters in rapid-fire dialogue, songs and dances. Wong’s ability to create and maintain, through more than two hours, the dual aspects of his main character in particular is fabulous. Eight year old George is possessed by a 37 year old midget tap-dancer known as Lou, or Frog. The battle between them is the highlight of the show as George Nukin become Herringbone the Vaudeville star. George’s own sweetness is underscored by the relentless ambition and highly charged sexual nature of Lou.Even vengeance becomes a significant emotion for this dual-personality performer.
The play is sometimes shocking. Infant George become L’Enfante Terrible. It is the whole idea of child stars that comes under the musical microscope in this show. George has no real stage mother, although his father might qualify. Instead he has Lou, the drive within. Are the authors here trying to tell us something new about the phenomenon of talented children thrust upon the unsuspecting audiences? Are we to believe that more than one memorable, underage talent is really possessed by the spirit of unsuccessful adult performers who died young and angry? Perhaps.
One thing that the authors do manage to show us, is that talent will out. Wong certainly displays all of his, even in precarious poses on stage, one of them perched high above the stage floor in a final scene that is staggering to watch and hear. This is a show not to be missed, for the show itself which is fascinating and for Wong who manages to be even better than the material he is performing.