It’s Christmas week, so I asked my editor to give the photo space for this column to a small-scale downtown show by a new writer, instead of choosing between the two Broadway-scale shows that’ll inevitably fill most of my space. Not that I rate Joe Iconis’s ReWrite (Urban Stages) higher than Shrek the Musical or the Roundabout revival of Pal Joey; Yuletide generosity has its limits. But Iconis is young and enterprising; the theater producing him does a lot on a shoestring, instead of pathetically little on an enormous budget; and as a point of ethical principle, I tend to support underdogs even in their struggle for publicity.
The problem dampening my holiday mood here is that ReWrite doesn’t seem much like an underdog. Noisy, cheery, and rather empty in its freshness, its faults echo those of its two bigger uptown brothers. And although enjoyment can be had, intermittently, at all three shows, the faults are many and major, leaving me the sorry holiday-time task of enumerating them.
Shrek the Musical is a large, mostly arid event dotted with good things, like a stale Christmas fruitcake improbably decorated with fresh-made chocolate truffles. Even if, like me, you’ve dodged every previous incarnation of William Steig’s cartoon fable, you can’t miss the recycled quality. Steig certainly knew his Grimm and his Wizard of Oz, and his successors in Shrek-ness haven’t failed to notice Wicked‘s enormous success. (Steig may also have known the segment of Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles in which an authoritarian who hates fantasy literature gets, like Shrek‘s Lord Farquaad, a terrible comeuppance.)
But what Steig could do in a short illustrated book, or his cinematic adaptors in a few frames of animated film, turns lumpy and plodding when you try to literalize it onstage. Shrek charmed, apparently, by being a fairy tale with attitude, equally wiseass about other fairy tales and the spoilsports who hate them. But being wiseass with millions of bucks in production values to back you up proves not to be as easy as being green, which only requires patience and a good makeup artist. Shrek the Musical rarely enchants because it’s too busy joshing; its joshes often fall flat because its vast elaborateness signals an earnest effort at enchantment.
The constant jokiness tells you how American culture has shrunk in our time. Traditionally, a hero was a hero and a clown a clown; these days, every hero has to be his own clown and also have a nonhero-clown as his sidekick. Every princess, too, must be a song-and-dance goofball, and every villain must have his villainy explicated by an intensely traumatic backstory.
Much depends on how inventively one writes such piffle. David Lindsay-Abaire, the musical’s librettist, gets scattershot results, though some of the shots strike home; his lyrics occasionally even strike a poetic note—or would, if Jeanine Tesori’s music, strangely unambitious for a composer of her stature, had worked up a poetic mood to support them. But Tesori has simply grabbed a few easy phrases for each number, which she then pounds into the ground with repetition. Surprising, too, is the flatness of Jason Moore’s direction; you’d expect a cast this gifted to tempt a director into choices both deeper and more daring. But the normally wonderful Brian d’Arcy James makes a listlessly wistful Shrek; you barely glimpse Daniel Breaker’s brilliant powers in Donkey’s gibberings; and John Tartaglia, though he makes an excellent Magic Mirror, reduces Pinocchio to an unrelieved off-key whine. Luckily, Sutton Foster’s angular vivacity, as Princess Fiona, does brighten things up occasionally, in a generalized way, and Christopher Sieber invests Lord Farquaad with the show’s only genuine comic reality. Tim Hatley’s hit-or-miss designs are fun when they hit (he gives excellent dragon); Josh Prince’s choreography mostly misses. My inner child went home pacified but sulky.
Nowhere near as sulky, however, as he turned after seeing what the Roundabout has done to Rodgers and Hart’s Pal Joey. Let’s face facts: This is what you get from a nonprofit theater whose artistic director has zero artistic qualifications. Todd Haimes may be fine at raising and managing money, as the Roundabout’s comparative prosperity confirms. Artistically, however, the company’s profile is nil and its results frequently as dismal as Shrek’s swamp. Yes, there have been exceptions: Play bridge long enough, and you’re bound to win a hand or two even if you’re a dummy.
Pal Joey isn’t one of the exceptions. The new book, by Richard Greenberg, does little harm, although nothing was wrong with John O’Hara’s original book that a few minor emendations couldn’t fix. Almost everything else, however, is just plain awful. Don Sebesky’s orchestrations artsify the score into absurdity, compounded by Paul Gemignani’s let’s-get-this-over-with tempi. Granted, Martha Plimpton’s Gladys can put over a song; Stockard Channing’s Vera doesn’t exactly wreck hers; and Matthew Risch, the understudy who replaced Christian Hoff, dances pretty well and gives the role the understudy’s traditional brave try. But if director Joe Mantello and choreographer Graciela Daniele ever asked themselves for one second what life was like in a Chicago nightclub in the 1930s, then I’m a large green ogre. The evening’s marginally more bearable than the Roundabout’s scorched-earth rendering of the team’s Boys From Syracuse a few years back, but that’s the best compliment their holiday gift can extort from me.
These giant thuds make ReWrite‘s triptych of trivialities look like the first violet of spring. Way overamplified for the tiny space, Joe Iconis’s bouncy show-rock score depicts the tiny stories of stock types: the geeky high school boy who can’t get a prom date; the geeky future of the girl who turns him down; the geeky songwriter (named Joe) who invented them. No imaginative reach, no subtlety, everything wildly overdone—but youth, energy, and a hint of better things to come make up for a lot, as do terrific new presences like Badia Farha and A.J. Shively. Will they rescue the Broadway musical when they grow up? Hedge your bets and call it a Christmas wish.