The Duke of Hazard

John Pankow's Lucio, lounging lewdly and jabbering a blue streak as he snuffles coke from a silver spoon, is the greatest success among them, a raucously funny and glitteringly varied reading of what can be the play's most tiresome role. Nearly as droll is the Pompey of Christopher Evan Welch, an actor not normally cast as a low-class pimp: Amish-bearded and bug-eyed, he flaps about in his shapeless raincoat and fire-engine red fisherman's hat as if he'd worn them for decades on the burlesque circuit. Tom Aulino's Elbow, a yelping Chihuahua in NYPD blue, is goofily right, and even Daniel Pearce's fog-brained Froth gets a laugh. On the serious side, Zimmerman gets two strong, graceful supporting performances from Felicity Jones (Mariana) and Christopher Donahue (Provost).

All in all, low vice wins the day, though it's hard to guess how Zimmerman's test would have worked on the public with high virtue better cast. Not that she could have solved the problem either way: The Duke may behave like Lucio and Pompey, but he agrees with Angelo; his only objection is that the latter's practice doesn't measure up to his own principles. Could Shakespeare really have believed that vice required suppression, so long as the suppressors were tempered by mercy and policed against hypocrisy? It's hard to imagine him crusading for john squads, antiporn legislation, decency commissions, the death penalty. But if that isn't what he believed, trying to parse out his actual views is what keeps Measure for Measure, that obstinately misbehaving play, a problem.


Billy Crudup and Joe Morton in Measure for Measure: Elizabethan infomercial
photo: Michal Daniel
Billy Crudup and Joe Morton in Measure for Measure: Elizabethan infomercial

Details

Measure for Measure
By William Shakespeare
Delacorte Theatre, Central Park
212-539-8655

Watch Your Step!
By Harry B. Smith, music and lyrics
by Irving Berlin
Musicals Tonight!
14th Street Y
344 East 14th Street
212-362-0713

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Harry B. Smith, master hack of over 300 operetta scripts, left us innumerable dramaturgical problems, few of which matter today because the composers who animated them have mostly faded from our collective memory. But Smith was there at the pivotal moment when operetta became musical comedy, in 1914, providing a nonsensical plot and a cracker barrel's worth of now decrepit topical jokes for a young composer-lyricist named Irving Berlin, fresh from a decade of success in Tin Pan Alley. Because the show starred a chic dance team, Vernon and Irene Castle, they titled it Watch Your Step!—though Berlin typically displayed his puckish attitude by making the title song a paean to streetcar conductors (and "the children that they bring up/on the nickel they forget to ring up").

The period's loosely built, performer-driven shows tended to have their scores doctored by the stars' pet songwriters. Berlin was powerful enough to modify but not transform this system; over its run, the show accrued a pile of additional Berlin songs. The result leaves restorers a plethora of riches, including, in a vaudeville-house sequence, parodies of all the era's pop genres, plus a giant opera spoof that puts Gounod and Verdi hilariously through the ragtime mill. Under Mark Hartman's snappy musical direction, the work's concert staging by Musicals Tonight! uses 22 of these Berlin gems, most virtually unknown. The performance, staged by Thomas Mills, is brisk and acceptable—a step up from the organization's usual just-getting-through-it-alive mode. And the songs—spunky, sparkling, and sophisticatedly self-aware—seem fresher and brasher than anything Broadway's offered in the 87 years since they were first sung.

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