Seen on Broadway: Even by the high standards of design set by musicals that appear at Lincoln Center, The Light in the Piazza, at the Vivian Beaumont, is a gorgeous, glorious production that students and aficionados of theatrical design should see during its run, which is scheduled to end in early June. With seeming effortlessness the show whisks us to postwar Florence in 1953, with a brief sojourn to Rome in Act II. Every one of Michael Yeargan's sets is simply breathtaking; the photo, of the church scene, gives just a taste of their understated opulence, and I was in constant awe of how elegantly, and quietly, Scenic Technologies' show control moved the columns and other pieces into place. Dazzling. Catherine Zuber, as always, responds with a procession of beautiful period clothes, from the buttoned-down look of a summer visitor, a distressed American mother (the stunning Victoria Clark), and the more casual, sunshine-fresh outfits worn by her innocent daughter (Kelli O' Hara, radiant), to the more courtly wear of the Italians. And the "light in the piazza," courtesy of Christopher Akerlind, could not be better realized in its painterly essence, nor could Acme Sound Partners have devised a more voluptuous soundscape, rich with ambient noises. The director, Bartlett Sher, takes advantage of these masterly design contributions to add bicyclists and the hustle and bustle of other Florentines to the stage where appropriate, giving a fully realized portrait of life in the most entrancing of old world cities. This is not just a replication of Florence; it isFlorence, the city of your memories, or your dreams.
For all that, the show, adapted from Elizabeth Spencer's 1959 novella (which became a film in 1962, sensitively acted by Olivia de Havilland and Yvette Mimieux), is somewhat disappointing. Composer and lyricist Adam Guettel, long absent from the stage after the haunting Floyd Collins, has written some searching numbers, particularly for Clark, whose character, Margaret, weighs whether or not to tell her Italian suitor's family about her daughter Clara's mental disability. I figure "Dividing Day," about her own troubled marriage, and her final number, "Fable," will become standards, however show songs become standards anymore. But not all of the music is up to this level, particularly one crucial number involving Clara's breakdown in front of her prospective in-laws, nor is Craig Lucas' book, which errs terribly at the top of Act II (by having an Italian character break the fourth wall by suddenly speaking in English) before righting itself again. When everything else is flowing so smoothly, you really notice these hiccoughs, which surely should have been corrected in prior productions before its Broadway debut. Nevertheless, in a so-so season for musicals that too often found lazier inspiration in the jukebox and past Broadway hits, I applaud its deeply felt effort and forgive its lapses-which is easy to do given the ravishing design. [For which PRG Scenic Technologies fabricated the sets, PRG supplied the lights, and Sound Associates the audio equipment.]
Back on Broadway: The best thing about the Roundabout's revival of A Streetcar Named Desire is that the company has finally installed real seats, with comfy legroom, in Studio 54, an upgrade that propels the venue from zero to hero in my book. Sadly, most everything else about the production is pedestrian. Taller than ever in the highest of heels, Natasha Richardson makes for an initially indomitable Blanche, who could conceivably enter her sister Stella's decrepit New Orleans tenement apartment singing Sondheim's "I'm Still Here," so forceful even given her neuroses and illusions. It would take a strong Stanley to knock her off her forlorn perch-and John C. Reilly, a fine character actor, just doesn't have it in him to do so. More Ernest Borgnine than Marlon Brando, Reilly (who has starred in a musical of Borgnine's Marty, which should have told the director, Edward Hall, right away that he was more of a Mitch than a Stanley) is simply unconvincing as a threat to Blanche, and, more importantly, as a sexual magnet for her smitten Stella (Amy Ryan, in the show's one fully rounded performance). Stuck with an inadequate Stanley and a barely adequate Mitch (Chris Bauer), there's not much for a gal to do except act her way through a vacuum, which Richardson does, but the sparks and heat she occasionally summon are largely for naught. As with the current dud of The Glass Menagerie and last season's passable Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, it's worth a ride on this Streetcar simply to experience Tennessee Williams' play in its natural habitat-but I hope that when these three return in the next 10-15 years, "the kindness of strangers" will be more respectful of their still-undiminished quality.
Except for Paul Huntley's impeccable wig and hair design and William Ivey Long's sweltering hothouse clothes (if only Reilly could have been persuaded to leave his undershirts on, though), I had problems with the design. Robert Brill's exposed split-level set, in full New Orleans Gothic mode, fills a difficult space handsomely, and I liked the bare brick wall in the back, which, not inappropriately, suggests a cave dwelling, not that the passions ever rise to a primal level. It struck me as a little too much of a wow, however, trying to give the audience something that the actors were not. The same goes for Jon Gromada's original music (more than enough for my taste) and sound design, and Donald Holder's nourish lights, which explode in a riot of ceiling fan shadows toward Blanche's bitter end. [Showman Fabricators and Atlas Scenic Studios supplied the set, PRG the lights, and Sound Associates the audio gear.] Though not the disaster of last summer's After the Fall, this Roundabout revival, too, looks more like a theme park, with style placed well ahead of substance and embalming a lively American classic.--Robert Cashill
Seen at the Movies: If you’ve been missing your daily after school fix of vintage Bugs Bunny cartoons then get thee to a multiplex to check out Stephen Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle. The story is a simple gangster-wannabe tale that takes place in 1940s China: Sing (writer, director Stephen Chow) wants to be a member of the notorious Axe Gang that terrorizes the locals. He tries to show his mettle to the denizens of Pig Sty Alley, a housing project that would have Robert Moses spinning in his grave. However, some of the residents don’t care for such antics, especially the landlady (Yuen Qiu), her hapless husband (Yuen Wah), Donut, the local baker (Dong Zhi Hua), the ghetto’s tailor (Chu Chi Ling), and Coolie (Xing Yu) who all have their own remarkable powers. The result is a member of the Axe Gang in a garbage can with a broken back which of course raises the ire of Brother Sum (Chan Kwok Kwan) who recruits Sing only to use him to break a notorious killer, The Beast (Leung Siu Lung), out of an asylum. Since Sing is the protagonist he finds redemption in the end but not after a lot of kicks, jumps, smashed feet, stabbings, broken bones, and a beheading. And, yes, it is a comedy!
Production designer Oliver Wong makes Pig Sty Alley live up—or down—to its name, creating an unappealing environment in an almost “spaghetti western” approach—the compound is rundown, desolate, and dusty which makes high-flying action much more surprising. His designs for the Axe Gang’s headquarters and casino have the feel of sleaze attempting to get into high society. Shirley Chan’s costumes are unassuming and fit the time and place well. Keeping regular street clothes looking normal while also allowing for the acrobatic high kicks and chops is a gift unto itself. Director of cinematography Poon Hang Sang keeps the light levels high for the Pig Sty scenes, again echoing classic westerns. But his moody touches for the interiors certainly convey the desolation of the neighborhood, as well as the garishness of the casino.
Kung Fu Hustle doesn’t contain a single frame that is remotely boring and many critics have said that it needs to be viewed more than once to catch everything. I actually may do just that. ---Mark A. Newman