Seen On Broadway:

Wicked

got a pretty wicked reception from the New York press and it’s not hard to see why. It’s also hard not to be fascinated by this ambitious, clever, stunning-looking near-miss of a musical. The source material, Gregory Maguire’s astonishing novel, which purports to tell the backstory of the Wicked Witch of the West (of Wizard of Oz infamy), is surely unadaptable. It’s witches’ brew of theology, philosophy, and politics tied to a fatalistic narrative marked by sinister wit, creeping paranoia, and any number of sudden deaths. At the Gershwin Theatre, gone are the dueling religions, the ruby mines, the traveling theatre that serves up dark Freudian revelations, the sinister sexual doings at the Philosopher’s Club; instead, librettist Winnie Holzman has concocted a romantic triangle right out of Disney’s Aida: The Wicked Witch (nee Elphaba) is the smart, green-skinned outcast who becomes a spokesperson for the oppressed; Glinda (nee Galinda) is the blonde piece of cake who gets transformed by tragedy, and Fiyero is the young hero torn between both ladies. It’s a not-uninteresting concept, but there are serious tonal problems: Wicked wants to be both a serious political parable and a laugh riot, a duality personified by the two stars. Idina Menzel is torridly powerful presence as Elphaba, while, as Glinda, Kristin Chenoweth camps and cavorts as is her wont. Both give stunningly assured performances, yet they belong in separate universes. The first act has it moments, but there’s real trouble in Act II, when Elphaba rebels against the Oz state. For one thing, the role of the Wizard (Joel Grey, made up like Frank Morgan and performing like an old vaudevillian), here depicted as a kind of gentle Fascist, is so vaguely conceived that it’s hard to understand exactly why Elphaba opposes him. (In the novel, he wreaks havoc on Oz’s economy and environment.) Holzman undermines her cause by making lame jokes about the Bush administration and giggly references to the film of The Wizard of Oz. The last half hour, in which the action dovetails far too neatly with the end of The Wizard of Oz, gets sillier and sillier, until the utterly fake, unearned happy ending. Stephen Schwartz’s score has several appealing items, including Elphaba’s introductory number, “The Wizard and I,” and her first-act finale, “Defying Gravity,” but there are far too many sentimental power ballads that don’t fit the narrative.


Wicked Photo: Joan Marcus

Nevertheless, this is far and away the most exciting design to be seen on Broadway this season. Eugene Lee may be only the designer alive who can deal with the cavernous Gershwin Theatre. Here, he turns a mechanical toy theatre inside-out, exposing the gears and pulleys, adorning the proscenium with stairways, bare branches, and monstrous dragon puppet. It’s a startling, creepy piece of work that, beginning with the show curtain, which depicts the map of Oz, borrows from many different periods and styles to create an all-encompassing fantasy world. Kenneth Posner’s lighting makes bold use of saturated colors coming at the stage from extreme side positions, thus giving the scenery a sinister patina; he uses his moving lights to pace and build the musicals with effortless efficiency. Most interesting is the way that Elaine J. McCarthy’s projections extend and fill out the Posner’s lighting looks created; I’ve never these two design disciplines combined in quite this way. Susan Hilferty’s costumes gives bizarre, surreal twists to Victorian silhouettes; her ideas are well-aided by Tom Watson’s wild wigs and hair. It’s some of the most original costume work seen on Broadway in several seasons. My one reservation has to do with Tony Meola’s sound design, which is, at times, too assertive, creating a somewhat disembodied effect. Then again, is it possible to do a really intimate sound design in the Gershwin Theatre? It’s hard to say what the fate of Wicked will be: David Johnson, of this office, has argued that, with its girl-power theme, it’s a perfect musical for the Lilith Fair set; for that matter, it’s certainly an audience-pleaser. Even if it doesn’t totally succeed, Wicked In London, Anthony Page’s revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof sizzled, thanks to three top stars: Frances O’Connor’s tense, wiry, almost unbearably desperate Maggie was a perfect fit with Brendan Frasers’s voluptuously alcoholic Brick and Ned Beatty’s savage, commanding Big Daddy. On Broadway, at the Music Box, the sizzle is more of a quiet simmer, largely because Ashley Judd is so bland as Maggie. The stunningly beautiful Judd has the right look for the role, but where is the wit, the sensuality, the cunning? Judd has a composed, still quality, which may serve her in other plays, but certainly not here. Jason Patric certainly has his moments as Brick, delving deeply into the character’s drunkenness, and exposing the terror inside. And Beatty is still fascinating as Big Daddy, a man of almost monstrous appetites and equally monstrous insights, who ruthlessly exposes his son’s secrets only to learn some ugly truths about his mortality. Nevertheless, in spite of Margo Martindale’s equally comic and pathetic turn as Big Mama, this production lacks the electric excitement it once had. Still—and some may find this heretical—this is, I submit, Tennessee Williams’ best play, full of blood, money, secrets, sex, and death, with dialogue that is bitchy, hilarious, and savage. It’s may be the best exploration ever of the lies that keep a divided family alive. The set, by the late Maria Bjornson, is dominated by walls that appear to be coming apart, all the better to allow everyone to spy on each other. Howard Harrison’s lighting often has a deeply melancholy undertone. Jane Greenwood’s costumes are attractive for the stars and appropriately grotesque for the grasping, greedy supporting characters. Christopher Cronin’s sound design provides some powerful storm effects, in addition to a variety of offstage noises. Even in a lackluster production, this is one of the best plays of the postwar period.


Cat on a Hot Tin Roof Photo: Joan Marcus

Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks, now at the Belasco (but not for long) asks the question, Can a lonely widow living in a St. Petersburg condominium find happiness taking dances lessons from a self-hating gay man? The answer, according to playwright Richard Alfieri, is yes—if they spend two hours furiously bickering first. Polly Bergen is Lily, still getting over her late, unhappy marriage to a Baptist minister and the tragically early death of her only child. Mark Hamill is Michael, getting over the death of his mother, his lover, and all the men who have used and abused him. Some of the dialogue has to be heard to be believed: When Michael says he doesn’t advertise his sexuality, Lily says, censoriously, “You’re in the….pantry!” Later, describing his affair with a married man, Michael describes the relationship as “like that yogurt—you know, fruit on the bottom.” (It’s moments like these that make me wonder if I shouldn’t get one of those amplification devices that they rent in the lobby; can I really be hearing these things?). And so it goes, with enough bad one-liners for an entire sweeps week of sitcoms. Bergen and Hamill give it everything they’ve got (all night long, I kept wondering, what this was like with Uta Hagen and David Hyde Pierce, who did it originally in California). There is, of course, an audience for this kind of thing, but they’re used to getting drinks and dinner with plays of this sort. Many critics have lambasted the design; I feel compelled to defend Roy Christopher, who has done gorgeously detailed scenic work on such sitcoms as Murphy Brown, and Tom Ruzika, who is a top West-Coast lighting designer working in theatre, themed entertainment, and architecture. Helen Butler’s costumes are a little silly at times, but Philip G. Allen’s sound design, which smoothly bridges each scene with a different kind of pop music, is perfectly fine…


Six Dance Lessons Photo: Carol Rosegg

Seen In Orlando: In mid-October, Walt Disney World in Orlando, FL, launched a raft of new attractions, including the heart-stopping new ride, Mission: SPACE at Epcot. Designed by Walt Disney Imagineering as a trip to the planet Mars, this flight simulator ride blasts off for a four-minute interactive journey based on centrifuge technology (the astronauts on hand for the opening day festivities say its pretty close to some of their training exercises). There are four ride bays, each with ten rocket capsules for 4 guests each (for a total of 160 people per ride cycle). The exterior and interior lighting design is by WDI’s LD Ken Lennon who used a variety of recessed Hydrel fixtures and Thorn CSI fixtures on poles to accent the futuristic curves on the outside of the building. The interior lighting combines everything from color-changing LEDs by Color Kinetics to LSI track lighting, concentric circles of Targetti track, and Strand Lekos, and is run by ETC dimmers and an ETC Unison control system, with Disney’s own show control system. The post-show experience is a giant interactive game with huge video screens in a dark starlit experience where High End Technobeams create the sweep of a comet and MR16 fixtures by Times Square run around the edge of the room.


Mission: SPACE at Epcot

No visit to Disney World would be complete with Mickey Mouse, and his latest adventure is Mickey’s Philharmagic, a new 3-D attraction in the old Legend of The Lion King theatre. Gutted and rebuilt, this theatre now boasts two Pani projectors and some ETC Source Fours used in conjunction with the 3-D film. There are also in-seat effects including water and smells, while Le Maitre foggers and High End Cyberlights add to the environment. Ken Lennon of WDI once again worked on this project, along with projection designer Jim Mulder and Jack Gillette, who designed the 3-D system. Mickey’s Philharmagic marks the first time that classic characters, such as Mickey and his pal Donald Duck have been rendered in 3-D animation. Disney has also opened a new hotel, the 2,880-room Pop Century Resort, designed by Arquitectonica, the Miami-based architecture firm, with architectural lighting by . Celebrating the second half of the 20th century, this budget motel (rooms start at just $79) is divided by decade, from the 50’s through the 90’s, with giant objects as icons for each era. There is also an incredible timeline of 20th century memorabilia in the lobby (not to mention the retro food in the restaurant: tie-dyed cheesecake or Flutternutter sandwich anyone?). With all this, plus the new fireworks show, Wishes, lighting up the skies in the Magic Kingdom every night, Disney World is once again putting its best foot forward in terms of entertainment design and technology – Ellen Lampert-Gréaux


Wishes: fireworks in the Magic Kingdom

Seen at the Movies: Richard Curtis’ Love Actually sells the title commodity so aggressively that you may be tempted to go out and buy a little nastiness in retaliation. To up the hugs-and-cheer ante, the film is set at Christmastime, and pop songs are heaped over the soundtrack like mashed potatoes. Curtis, the writer of The Tall Guy, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, and TV’s Blackadder, makes his directorial debut with this British confection, which benefits from the services of an attractive big-name cast—Hugh Grant, Liam Neeson, Emma Thompson, Laura Linney, Alan Rickman, and Colin Firth are among the more prominent names on display, though the women are, sadly, relegated to somewhat demeaning roles. The most entertaining performer on hand is the hilariously droll Bill Nighy, cast as an over-the-hill rock star attempting a career resurgence with a yuletide cover of “Love Is All Around.” But the movie is overstuffed with characters seemingly injected with love drugs, and the effect is wearying. The blah cinematography is by Michael Coulter, the serviceable production design is by Jim Clay, and the savvy character costumes are by Joanna Johnston.


Love Actually: Universal Pictures

Word’s already gotten around that Robert Benton’s film version of Philip Roth’s novel The Human Stain is weirdly misbegotten, and I have no argument with the assessment. Benton’s careful, classical approach is apparently about as far from Roth’s antic authorial voice as it can be. The director treats the story of Coleman Silk (Anthony Hopkins), a classics professor concealing his African-American heritage, and his relationship with an uneducated younger woman (Nicole Kidman), as sober social drama that might have seemed daring 40 years ago. Nothing in this bizarrely miscast film gels, though flashback scenes featuring Wentworth Miller as a young Coleman are the most effective. The movie is dedicated to cinematographer Jean-Yves Escoffier, who died shortly after production, and who did an admirably atmospheric job with the autumn-into-winter Quebec locations, made to stand in for New England by production designer David Gropman. Costume designer Rita Ryack does her best to make the uncomfortable-seeming actors fit into their roles.


The Human Stain: Abbot Genser/Miramax Films

Charles Busch has no difficulty fitting into his role in the 1960s-set Die Mommie Die!. He plays Angela Arden, a middle-aged, has-been singer saddled with a perennially constipated Stanley Kramer-style producer husband (Philip Baker Hall), a father-fixated daughter (Natasha Lyonne), and a gay son (Stark Sands) who collects Donald O’Connor memorabilia. Jason Priestley is in Tab Hunter mode as Angela’s generously endowed lover. The movie is adapted from Busch’s play, and it only works sporadically on film—director Mark Rucker does a sluggish job, killing much of the material’s humor, and the production looks cheap in a way that is seldom turned to its parodic advantage. DP Kelly Evans’ glum, underlit work seems particularly wrong (garishly overlit would be more like it), and production designer Joseph B. Tintfass is hamstrung by locations that look more appropriate to the cinema of John Cassavetes than that of Lana Turner. Yet Busch confidently sails past all the movie’s flaws, bringing a perfect combination of gallantry and bitchery to the role of Angela. At least the star is beautifully dressed, courtesy of his theatre collaborators Michael Bottari and Ronald Case.--John Calhoun


Die Mommie Die: Sundance Film Series