Partway to Paradise


Looking back on the theatrical year—an almost compulsive habit at this point in May—often reveals a hidden theme, an unspoken convergence of ideas, moods, or approaches that one production seems to have picked up from another, as if notions of how to put on a play could be caught unconsciously, like colds, and passed from one creative team to another. This year seems to have offered a theme that might be summed up as “not quite.” Not only have we seen a great many plays, new and old, in which people almost succeed at something, but the plays themselves, and particularly the musicals, have often just missed achieving what they aimed at. It’s as if some virus of diffidence were going around, making artists overly cautious on the grounds that going all the way with things, or getting them exactly right, were inappropriate to our worrisome time. Uncertainty is in the air, somehow, making simple truths feel less simple and less true than ever.

This poses no problem for playwrights, to whom uncertainty can provide both dramatic action and complexity of character, but it gives the makers of musicals a rough time. Even when enriched with all our modern doubts, the musical is the art of the absolute statement; for an artist like Sondheim, doubt itself can take on the force of an absolute. But making an absolute statement to the effect that you doubt (like “Being Alive”) doesn’t mean doubting the effect of your statement. As this season scuttled to its end, three musicals opened—an old one uptown, a new one downtown, and a newly assembled one in an intermediate position—all of which seemed to hang back a little from asserting their identity. None of them supplied an unpleasant experience, but they were all not quite the joy they could have been.

The old musical in question is Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt’s 1963 Broadway hit,
110 in the Shade
, with a book by N. Richard Nash based on his then-familiar play
The Rainmaker
. Though its serious tone, very much in the Rodgers & Hammerstein spirit of its day, demands a complex, nuanced approach, the delights it proffers are all simple ones. A woman too smart, unconventionally pretty, and self-reliant to be viewed by the locals as marriage material finally snags her optimal local mate thanks to the intervention of a traveling flimflam artist. Opera fans will understand when I say it’s basically a Texas version of L’elisir d’amore in which Belcore and Dr. Dulcamara are the same person. The songs Jones and Schmidt wrote for it make simple but firm demands: big, secure voices; an assertive theatricality; a canny and subtle skill at phrasing. Add an ability to bring the dialogue scenes something approaching Actors Studio depth (Geraldine Page created the lead role in Nash’s original play), and a director would face no problems except the limits of his own talent, his designers’, and his choreographer’s.

In the Roundabout version, things don’t turn out quite that well, though enough of the
show’s substance remains for both its story and its lushly varied score to work a modest version of their potential magic. Casting the sumptuously gifted Audra McDonald as the lovelorn heroine, Lizzie, gives all the vocal security, subtlety, and depth of feeling the role could want, with one minor flaw: No frumpy wig or ungainly posture can conceal McDonald’s innate beauty. Add the grace, warmth, and vivacity that seem to bubble up spontaneously from her, and the notion of her impending spinsterhood seems idiotic; even if she lacked all those other assets, a man would want her around just to sing to him.

Still, she would probably get away with all the laments about her alleged plainness if the actor playing the seductive con man Starbuck could match her (no easy task, granted) in the looks, charisma, or flamboyance department. Steve Kazee, the Roundabout’s Starbuck, is a skillful performer with a strong, pleasant voice, but he trundles the role along like a wheelbarrow on a construction site, grasping it professionally but without much inspiration. That last clause applies, overall, to Lonny Price’s production. He has some first-quality materials to work with: Christopher Innvar’s good looks and fine acting (though not his erratic vocal production) as Lizzie’s love-bruised local heartthrob; John Cullum’s earthy, tender sagacity as her crusty father; young Bobby Steggert—the only cast member other than Cullum and McDonald who ignites that old showbiz fire—as the inevitably obstreperous teenage kid brother. But when Audra’s offstage, the show often seems as flat and dry as the Texas plains; it rarely feels “hot” in either the Fahrenheit or the Broadway sense.

The indeterminate item on the week’s list was Stairway to Paradise, the Encores! series’ attempt to compile a revue from a century’s worth of Broadway ventures in that form. The show’s makers chose wonderful material, albeit mostly familiar to musical-theater fans, and gave it over to some almost equally wonderful young talents: A brilliant, hitherto unknown tap dancer, Kendrick Jones, evoked Bill Robinson; the virtuosic young comic Christopher Fitzgerald, in a top-speed Eddie Cantor number, evoked gasps as well as giggles. Appealing Jenn Gambatese displayed a sweet legit voice and a knack for Rodgers & Hart. But the show, under Jerry Zaks’s direction, too often felt either tentative or uninspired; Warren Carlyle’s choreography almost always fell into the latter category. Admittedly, Encores! has short rehearsal periods. But often basic points were missed. Revues need material tailored to their casts; here, endearing performers like Kevin Chamberlin and Capathia Jenkins often seemed inattentively fitted. And the evening was lumbered with the city’s two most overhyped musical performers: Ruthie Henshall, who keeps a firm distance from every song she sings, as if waiting to be formally introduced to it; and Kristin Chenoweth. Chenoweth’s vigorous cult following is understandable: She has a gorgeous coloratura voice, a gorgeous body, and an extremely pretty (just short of gorgeous) face. If there’s a personality at home inside these wondrous elements, it hasn’t yet revealed itself to my observation. Technical facility is a beautiful thing, but art is supposed to be a human experience. And particularly the art
of the musical revue: Walk along the apron of the New Amsterdam stage, where Ziegfeld presented most of his Follies, and your ability to make instant eye contact with every section of the house will show you what I mean.

Plenty of personality is being revealed downtown in Passing Strange, a pleasantly laconic rock musical by the West Coast artist Stew, which tells a familiar story—a budding artist with wanderlust has to come home to find out what he’s lacking—in skillfully crafted, listenable songs that never quite seize you as you hope they will. (The best one, a sardonic honky-tonk number about being black in Berlin, is ironically the score’s most conventional “show tune.”) But Daniel Breaker and Eisa Davis, as the budding artist and sorrowfully patient mother of this musical bildungsroman,
invest their sketchy roles with all the power and variety that two strong personalities can muster, and Stew himself makes an engaging, though not always necessary, narrator.

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