Seen in Las Vegas:

In a daring move, Cirque du Soleil has opened Zumanity at the Las Vegas hotel/casino known as New York New York. This is the company’s third permanent show in town (after Mystere and O); billed as “another side of Cirque du Soleil,” it’s a zesty entertainment about bodies of all shapes and sizes, about eroticism, seduction, and love, aimed at an audience of 18 and older. The show is located in a totally renovated theatre (with Auerbach-Pollock-Friedlander as theatre consultants, PMK as acousticians, and a lighting system by Strand) that once housed Madhattan and touring shows like Lord of the Dance. But the venue is unrecognizable now that Cirque du Soleil has worked its magic. The overall feeling is sexy Art Nouveau, with a lobby undulating in waves of red and gold, a carpet that looks like rippling muscles, a wall that suggests laced bodices, and a ceiling of petticoat frills. Another wall is tufted red velvet, with some of the buttons replaced by peepholes. When you peek inside you see naughty little images and hear sexy sounds from small speakers, with just one degree of dispersion, from American Technology Corporation.


Zumanity. Photo: Jerry Metellus

The creative team includes Cirque du Soleil veterans--scenic designer Stephane Roy, lighting designer Luc Lafortune, sound designer Jonathan Deans--and two newcomers: fashion designer Thierry Mugler, making his Cirque du Soleil debut, and projection designer Natacha Merritt. The costumes are pretty wild, from cross-dressing to topless looks for some dancers--even the ushers are clad in suggestive Mugler originals (T-shirts with washboard abs for the men, little black dresses for the women--but I don’t want to give it all away!).


Zumanity. Photo: Jerry Metellus

The interior of the theatre has a thrust stage--in every sense of the word--and the seating is intimate, with no one further than 66’ feet from the action. The carpet is based on a painting of nudes, and the seating includes love seats and cabaret stools as well as traditional theatre seats, all upholstered in warm shades of red, gold, burgundy, and rust. Lafortune’s rig includes 26 moving lights (a mix of Vari-Lite VL2000s, Martin Professional Mac 2000s, and Clay Paky Stage Profiles) as well as 5kW Skylights by Mole Richardson, all creating what Lafortune calls “sensory overload.” Roy created scenic “waves” or multi-sided panels that glide about the stage, turn to reveal interior stairs, and serve as a projection surface in certain numbers. The musicians in the show are primarily perched on a bridge that moves up and down, and the room is outfitted with a VRAS variable room acoustic system so that the sound can vary from an intimate lounge act to a rave party. This is all just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the lighting, audio, and projection technology used in this show to create an adult environment that is sexy yet tasteful. But buyer beware: there are a few loveseats in the first row whose occupants might just get dragged up on stage to take part in Cirque du Soleil’s lovefest. It’s a fun show, and, as it heads towards its September 20 premiere, Zumanity will be fine-tuned to perfection. --Ellen Lampert-Greaux

Seen Off Broadway: Lypsinka! As I Lay Lip-Synching brings back Off Broadway’s most amusing identity crisis in one of her uniquely neurotic musical soirees. As embodied by drag artist John Epperson, Lypsinka is every glamorous, hard-bitten, self-destructive dame who ever commanded a Broadway or nightclub stage against all odds. Epperson creates astonishingly complex soundtracks drawn from hundreds of sources, blending them to wildly surreal effect: A Connie Francis specialty number morphs into Ethel Merman’s disco spin on “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” Phyllis Diller’s barking laughter turns into Lauren Bacall’s raspy sprechstimme. We get Bette Davis and Bette Davis imitators, Joan Crawford and Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford. (You could say John Epperson is a woman trapped in a man’s body, but you’d be wrong; he’s thousands of women trapped in a man’s body) As I Lay Lyp-Synching is his darkest, weirdest effort, conceived as a series of nervous breakdowns and personality splits, spiked by Bernard Herrman’s slashing Psycho score. (Not for nothing does Lypsinka make her first entrance in a strait-jacket). There are many bizarre, baroque moments: Epperson layers one of Faye Dunaway’s mad scenes from Mommie Dearest over the overture to Promises, Promises. He juxtaposes Judy and Jennifer Holliday doing their signature eleven o’clock numbers “I’m Going Back” (from Bells Are Ringing) and “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” (From Dreamgirls). Through it all, Lypsinka is her ineffable self, whether executing a series of Dying Swan ballet moves, twitching into a nervous collapse, rousing applause with a sweep of her arms, or, with the movement of a single facial musical, shifting her face into a Cubist collage of rage.


Lypsinka. Photo: Courtesy of TWEED.

The production is staged in a Midtown nightclub, Show, which looks like a seedy leftover from the 1940s. Mark T. Simpson’s setting resembles the front of a carnival attraction, and his lighting features a series of bluntly executed cues that echo Lypsinka’s psychic torment. (These include split-second color wash changes, a spinning spiral pattern meant to suggest emotional vertigo, and gobos that turn the set into a blood-spattered mess; there are also some lovely mirrorball effects. Overall, the lighting evokes the world of 1960s diva horror thrillers (think Joan Crawford in Berserk!, or Bette Davis in Dead Ringer), with their shrill shock effects. Bryant Hoven’s costumes are eye-poppers, and, thanks to wig stylist Mitch Ely and makeup designer Louis Braun, Lypsinka has never looked better. Soundtrack engineering is credited to Alex Noyes of Mercer Media, who must have labored long into the wee hours to get it so right. Having seen Lipsynka perform many times over the last 15 years, I now longer find her as explosively funny as I once did, but Epperson’s command over the audience remains undimmed. The show closes this weekend, but surely Lypsinka will return.

Nathan Lane has become so identified as a musical comedy clown that one forgets about his finely honed dramatic skills; you can see them for yourself in Trumbo, now at the Westside Theatre. Author Christopher Trumbo hasn’t written a play so much as a readers'-theatre memoir of his father, the blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. Culled mostly from his letters, as well as some speeches and his testimony in front of the HUAC, this is a portrait of Dalton Trumbo during his years of exile from Hollywood, enduring prison, living in poverty, railing against false friends and pious hypocrites. Trumbo clearly had a rare talent for epistolary invective, and several choice examples are reproduced here; there's also a moving account of friendship with a fellow war reporter and an uproarious defense of the art of masturbation that, in my book, should have earned him the title Father of the Year. Funnily enough, for someone who mostly churned out B pictures, Trumbo’s prose style was elegant, complex, with each sentence constructed out of several interlocking clauses building to towering rhetorical climaxes. They require a bravura actor and Lane is more than up to the task. Of course he can be hilarious, pursuing the fierce, denunciatory logic of the letters with gusto, dismissing a former friend as “a political hermaphrodite,” with “your last kiss hot upon my cheek.” Feeling overcharged, he informs a local businessman, “When we Reds come into power, we are going to shoot merchants in the following order.” But what’s really notable is the ease with which Lane evokes a feeling of deep sadness, or the delicacy with which he delivers a letter of condolence to the mother of a late friend who “fronted” screenplays for him. As Christopher Trumbo, Gordon MacDonald is an adept narrator, but this is really a one-man show. Lane is booked for four weeks; it’s hard to image who will follow in his footsteps.


Trumbo. Photo: Joan Marcus.

As befits this type of production, Loy Arcenas has provided a sleek, simple set, with a rear wall that at times represents Trumbo’s book-lined study. Jeff Croiter’s elegant lighting design carves both actors out of the space, provides a cinematic flow of action, and also creates from striking stage pictures. Dennis Diamond’s video projections include newsreels of the HUAC hearings, family photographs, and a scrolling list naming the hundreds of blacklist victims. John Gromada’s relatively discreet sound design includes some effects (applause, the sound of a gavel) and some effectively melancholic incidental music. Trumbo succeeds as a son’s fond tribute to his gifted, troubled, heroic, and highly eccentric father.


The Threepenny Opera. Photo: Gerry Goodstein

The Jean Cocteau Repertory kicks off its season with The Threepenny Opera, a decision that, I’m sorry to say, has proven to be a mistake. By their very nature, repertory companies require actors to tackle many different styles in a single season, but musical theatre skills are another thing altogether, and the Cocteau cast is woefully underpowered in the singing department. Futhermore, director David Fuller hasn’t managed to impose any cohesive style on his cast. The result is a long haul, during which one can occasionally glimpse the coruscating brilliance of the Bertolt Brecht--Kurt Weill numbers. Set designer Roman Tatarowicz’s clever concept features an elegant Victorian archway that opens up to reveal a hellish slum made up of distressed timber. Joanne Haas’ costumes have the shilouette, if not the detail, of early Victorian wear; it’s an approach that works in this context. Giles Hogya’s lighting moves smoothly from general stage washes to deliberately theatrical looks using two spotlights placed high in front of the proscenium. Looking at the rest of the Cocteau season, which includes Lysistrata, Dona Rosita the Spinster, The Wild Duck, and The Bourgeois Gentleman, it’s very easy to believe that there are happier nights to come at the Bouwerie Lane Theatre.--David Barbour

Seen at the Movies: Primed by the subtlety and elegance of Ronald Harwood’s Oscar-winning script for The Pianist, I was looking forward to Istvan Szabo’s film version of Harwood’s play Taking Sides. It tells the story of Berlin Philharmonic conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler (Stellan Skarsgard), who remained in Germany during the Third Reich as an honored luminary, though never a member of the Nazi party. Harwood’s script centers on the post-World War II American Denazification Committee’s investigation of Furtwangler, who argues that he helped many Jews escape during Hitler’s 12-year rule, that he never gave the Nazi salute, and that he provided solace to the German people with his music during the war. His American interrogator, Major Steve Arnold (Harvey Keitel), isn’t having any of it—his basic position is, you stayed in Germany, so you’re bad.

I have no idea how closely Taking Sides represents the reality of Furtwangler’s postwar experience, but I was surprised by the crudity of Harwood’s drama. As written and played by Keitel, Arnold is such a one-note, haranguing, unyielding character that there is no possibility for sympathy with his point of view. He seems to be simply bullying the already bowed Furtwangler, who is movingly played by Skarsgard as a proud artist brought low. One can only conclude that Szabo, who also labored under a repressive regime in Communist Hungary, is in total identification mode with Furtwangler, because he doesn’t provide much in the way of shading. Most of the movie takes place in an interrogation room, and doesn’t escape a stagy feeling. Nevertheless, production designer Ken Adam provides some evocative glimpses of Berlin’s devastation, and the film is carefully composed and lit by Szabo’s constant collaborator, DP Lajos Koltai.--John Calhoun