Seen on Broadway: Seeing the new musical Spamalot last night left me with sore facial muscles because I spent the entire 2+ hours with a smile on my face when I wasn't laughing out loud. Luckily I am a student of Monty Python and it was must-see TV during my college years. Therefore the jokes were not entirely new but there is comfort in familiarity. And the new jokes—mostly wink, wink and nudge, nudges at Broadway staples—were just as funny and made the whole production seem fresh rather than "lovingly ripped off" from the 30-year-old Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
Plot is strictly incidental in a book by Python alum Eric Idle, who also wrote the lyrics and co-wrote the music with John Du Prez, but it has its share of belly laughs. Python fans will appreciate the old jokes while newbies will appreciate the new jokes at Broadway's expense. The cast, headed by Tim Curry, David Hyde Pierce, and Hank Azaria, is top notch, but the real find of the night is the busty, belty diva, Sara Ramirez who is not only beautiful and funny, but has one of the most powerful voices I've heard on the Broadway stage in many a season. Her performance was skillful and self-deprecating at the same time, and has Tony Award written all over it.
Tim Hatley does double duty, as British designers tend to do, designing both the costumes and the sets and they are, in a word, perfect. From the Las Vegas pizzazz that Camelot has become to the child-like appointments of the cave of the Killer Rabbit, the sets are fun and, like the rest of the show, and should not be taken too seriously. Likewise, the costumes are accurate when needed and flashy and silly when called upon, but that has more to do with the source material, i.e., the Knights Who Say Nih.
Lighting designer Hugh Vanstone uses his rig to great effect whether he's illuminating the splashy, new-fangled showgirls in Camelot or subtly etching out King Arthur, Sir Robin, et al. as they traipse through a darkened (and expensive, so says the book) forest. The sound design by Acme Sound Partners fills the Shubert Theatre like a grand castle. The voice of God—courtesy of another Python, John Cleese—in a pre-recorded track, is as crystal clear as the rest of the show; not an easy task considering the swordplay, coconut horse hooves, and prancing going on. Special mention must be paid to Elaine J. McCarthy for her projections which play an important role in pushing the show along. Just as the entire show is lovingly ripped off, so are McCarthy's projections from Terry Gilliam's original animation and they work splendidly, especially considering the backdrop of clouds, trees, and in an unforgettable scene fleeing the French taunters before intermission, on the portcullis that serves as a prominent set piece (Scenery and scenic automation is by Hudson Scenic Studios, with additional scenery by Scenic Art Studios and Hawkeye Scenic Studios. Lighting equipment is from PRG Lighting with audio from PRG Audio).
Mike Nichols' deft direction guarantees that Spamalot will be one of those shows that people attend over and over again with friends from out of town. I'll certainly be going back for another helping, know what I mean? Say no more! --Mark A. Newman
Back On Broadway: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Thanks in part to the famed 1966 film version (the only movie ever to be nominated in every single Academy Award category, and winning five of the 13 Oscars then possible), Edward Albee’s ground-breaking play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, a Tony-winning sensation in 1962, has become a pop culture standard. [Last week’s episode of The Simpsons had a George-and-Martha joke.] But it’s easy to lose sight of the play itself, particularly on Broadway, which hasn’t visited the poisonous New England college town of "New Carthage" since 1976. So steel yourself and book a ticket to the Longacre Theatre, where the play has been smashingly revived. Shrugging off last season’s only mildly absorbing remounting of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, director Anthony Page has come back swinging, and with Kathleen Turner in his corner as the monstrous Martha, the punches in Albee’s take-no-prisoners battle of the sexes connect (a sample: "If you existed, I’d divorce you!" Martha howls at the docile, seemingly invisible George). While her thick and curious accent does create some diction problems, Turner otherwise slugs her way through the part, then pulls back for what can only be called stringent pathos in the final act. After several hugely awkward years once her incandescent film stardom faded in the late 1980s, a new and fascinating Turner has emerged, and that alone makes the trip worthwhile.
But she’s not alone up there. Cast as George, Bill Irwin, the master clown, subtly integrates some of his physicality to the role, and gives him considerable substance that catches you by surprise once he makes the second act his own. The other, younger couple, Nick and Honey, who function as George and Martha’s confidantes, enemies, lovers, and doppelgangers during the three alcohol-fueled acts of the show, are skillfully played by David Harbour and Mireille Enos. A word, here, about the costumes, created by Jane Greenwood, a veteran of the 1976 production. Enos’ characterization can be summed up by the barely muted hysteria of the print on her outfit, a contrast to the cool bombast of Martha’s overflowing attire. Harbour is perfectly put together in his ensemble, while George struggles to go against the grain of his gray clothing. And there is another beauty of a set to savor, from the master of naturalism, John Lee Beatty. "What a dump!" screams Martha at the outset, in imitation of Bette Davis, but it’s not—untidy, yes, with one uncared-for plant shriveling in a window, books and records akimbo on the shelves, and not much thought put into anything except the contents of the liquor tray. It’s a potentially beautiful old house, whose inhabitants, physically and emotionally, live to their limited means, and no further.
Given the high-decibel tragicomedy unfolding onstage I’m not sure what role sound designer Mark Bennett had to play, but Albee’s words were surely ringing in my ears. LD Peter Kaczorowski maintains the living room lighting as the night sky darkens over an endless evening of recrimination. [PRG Lighting and Audio handled those supplies; Showman Fabricators built the scenery; and Eric Winterling, Inc. fabricated the costumes.] An impeccable production of a thrilling text, this is one Woolf anyone would be happy to have at their door. --Robert Cashill
Seen At Lincoln Center: I went to the Lincoln Center Theatre production of Dessa Rose, a new musical by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, with great expectations. After all, these are the composer and lyricist from the award-winning musical, Ragtime. The show has a good cast (headed by LaChanze in the title role, and Rachel York as a southern society belle who marries the really wrong man!), and is directed by the talented director/choreographer Graziela Daniele. The design team are all winners as well, with sets by Loy Arcenas, costumes by Toni-Leslie James, and sensitive lighting by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer, a design team that holds 10 Tony Awards.
Yet Dessa Rose did not live up to my expectations. And while there is nothing wrong with any of the parts, I just don’t feel they added up to an interesting-enough evening in the theatre. Some of the critics have described the show as dreary, or inert, and I think that has to do with the material that inspired Dessa Rose. The musical is based on a novel by Sherley Anne Williams and weaves an imaginary story based on two historical people: a 16 year-old slave girl (LaChanze) who was sentenced to death for killing white people in a slave rebellion, and Ruth (Rachel York), a southern belle abandoned on her husband’s farm where she offered a safe harbor to runaway slaves (and even has a brief love affair with one of them). The plot of the musical is based on the "what if" these two women had actually met, and much of it is done in flashback, told by the women in their 80s. And that for me was one of the main problems: you know in the very first scene that the character of Dessa Rose lives to a ripe old age. That removes any dramatic tension or suspense from the action. You know nothing bad is going to happen to her. I also think the creators treated the subject matter with too much reverence, making the production seem educational rather than entertaining. I would have liked a larger dose of lively song and dance from the talented cast.
On the design side, the show fares very well. Arcenas is a master at using a minimum of furniture and props to tell the story, even in a story that moves rapidly from location to location (I have loved him for this talent ever since Once On This Island —also by Ahrens and Flaherty). This time he has effectively used the stage at the Mitzi Newhouse theatre, creating an environment that serves for both interiors and exteriors, with slatted wooden fencing, horizontal for the walls, and vertical as it moves into the sky above. The lighting by Fisher and Eisenhauer moves the action from scene to scene, from inside southern mansions to rude slave encampments. The workhorse of their rig is the Vari*Lite VL1000 automated luminaires, with two dozen of them hung on three concentric circular pipes over the stage and part of the audience. For the costumes, James used a restrained palette, with muted and natural earth tones for the slaves, adding brighter color only in the dresses for Ruth and her mother, and remaining true to the styles of 1847, the year in which the action is set.
The scenery for Dessa Rose was built by Showman Fabricators; Lighting equipment was provided by PRG Lighting, and sound equipment by Masque Sound. At the end of the day, Dessa Rose is a very valiant, earnest effort to right the wrongs of humankind in the era of slavery, and parallels can certainly be drawn to other human rights issues that persist today, over 150 years later. But the message overwhelms the medium in this case.--Ellen Lampert-Gréaux