Theater archives

Southern Discomfort


Some literary classics just aren’t meant to be musicals. What book writer, for example, could do justice to the ambiguity and indirection of Henry James’s late novels? Imagine a lyricist spinning Vladimir Nabokov’s word wizardry into show tunes—”Lolita, light of my life” as a foot-stomping opening number. The greater the artistic work, the closer the relationship between form and content. Proust wrote prose (as opposed to pop operas) for a reason. Yet the more esteemed the fiction, the more likely it will have a second life swinging on Broadway. Remember the Anna Karenina debacle in 1992 at Circle in the Square? Sorry to bring it up, but the Tolstoy sing-along exemplifies the complete lack of judgment when it comes to these Masterpiece Musicals.

The latest canonical travesty involves Émile Zola’s Thérese Raquin, a novel incessantly dramatized, though not until now as musical comedy. At least that seems to be what director Susan Stroman and composer Harry Connick Jr. intend with their transplanting of Zola’s unrelievedly grim story to gay New Orleans. The Raquins dank little haberdashery on the Pont-Neuf has been converted into a jazz tavern in the French Quarter, where the regulars burst into erotically charged dance routines worthy of Stroman’s Contact. In the typically cloying culinary style of Broadway, the novel’s bleak 19th-century French broth has been brewed into a peppery, late-1940s American gumbo.

Therese (Kate Levering) really has no business sulking in an atmosphere so lively; even her pallid husband, Camille (Norbert Leo Butz), such a stick-in-the-mud in the original, wants to dance all night on the tables. Unlike Zola’s sexually depressed characters, everyone in the Broadway version seems to be getting it in spades. True, Therese has been forced into marriage with a mentholated man who can’t stop pawing at her. But then why doesn’t she simply take off with her strapping lover, Laurent (Craig Bierko), and leave her marriage sickbed behind? Dour economic facts spur the adulterers to kill Camille in Zola’s page-turner, but here the motivation for murder is murky. Therese claims she can’t sacrifice the prospect of one day inheriting the tavern, but Madame Raquin (Debra Monk) doesn’t exactly appear to be at death’s door, and charming Laurent would seem to have little trouble finding cushy work in the booming, postwar economy.

Dramatically, the bubblier context of David Thompson’s book raises more questions that it cares to answer. The stilted dialogue and fuzzy motivations make comparisons with Zola invidious, yet the half-baked adaptation fails to achieve autonomous life. Perhaps the problem harks back to the show’s origins. Stroman’s initial impulse was to construct a modern dance version of the novel, and several scenes—from the couple’s blossoming sexual attraction to Therese’s eventual whorish dissolution—are given a kind of Alvin Ailey-esque treatment. Graceful as these moments are, they don’t help establish a natural rhythm for the production. It’s as if the collaborators each had their own approach to the material and never bothered to align their idiosyncratic visions.

Connick, who seems to have only skimmed the book, has written songs that neither advance the plot nor illuminate the characters’ secret logic. Though his music boasts catchy rhythms, his lyrics are mainly distractions and red herrings. “Tug Boat,” for example, a repetitive ditty that boringly accompanies the drowning of Camille at the end of the first act, makes a reprise in the second with Laurent’s search for the dead body in the morgue. Neither instance, however, has a theatrical (never mind dramatic) payoff. Connick’s more rousing numbers, such as “Oh! Ain’t That Sweet,” are inspired by Camille’s transformation from a specter of guilt darkening the minds of his assassins to the kind of jazzy devil that Connick himself seems typecast to play. Butz colorfully brings these moments to life, though his triumph comes at the expense of the story’s psychological coherence.

Fun as they both are to look at, Bierko and Levering don’t exactly generate smoldering chemistry, and their singing is underwhelming to say the least. (Tellingly, the two aren’t even granted the poetic symmetry of the novel’s simultaneous suicide!) Yet despite all the seemingly fatal liabilities, Stroman’s production proceeds at a jaunty clip, and remains visually attractive, even if only in a superficial way. (Not for nothing is she the reigning queen of Broadway.) Thou Shalt Not works best when you don’t scrutinize it too closely. Of course this is exactly the opposite of what Zola’s story demands. But then the title diagnoses the problem more succinctly than any review.

Eduardo Machado’s Havana Is Waiting is strong on feeling, weak on character development. The subject—a Cuban American writing professor’s return to the homeland from which he was traumatically sent away as a child—obviously touches the author closely, which perhaps accounts for his difficulty in patiently dramatizing it. The piece proceeds like a theatrical essay, one that examines conflicts from a laudable multitude of perspectives. But summary and reporting take precedence over enactment. As a result, the emotion, while doubtlessly authentic, doesn’t always seem earned.

Federico (Bruce MacVittie) hasn’t gotten over his anger at his mother and father for sending him and his brother away as youngsters to America. Though his parents followed a year later, and though he has thrived in the U.S., a “gulf more potent than any Berlin Wall” exists within him. The Peter Pan flights represent for him family betrayal and cultural dislocation. Understandably, his relationship to his own success as a New York gay man is extremely complicated. Fred (Ed Vassallo), his heterosexual tour guide and American namesake, coaxes Federico into confronting his childhood home. The two men bicker, smoke cigars, marvel at the island beauty, and react in different ways to their ideologically confrontational chauffeur, Ernesto (Felix Solis), who routinely takes part in protests to rescue Elián González from his Miami exile.

As Federico tries to reconcile his conflicted feelings, Fred attempts to bridge his masculine and feminine side—a parallelism that’s as sketchy as it sounds. But while the characters’ individual contexts may be only brusquely handled, the actors, under Michael John Garcés’s gentle direction, wholly inhabit their predicaments. Richard Marquez’s lovely percussion underscoring deepens the poetic nature of the journey, which suggests that though we can never really go home again, we can always travel deeper into the alienated past.