Seen in Millburn, NJ: I firmly believe that Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahren’s Ragtime is one of the most underrated American musicals of the last several years, right beside Side Show. Both shows are uniquely American and both shows ended their Broadway runs way too soon. Luckily, fans of Ragtime can venture across the river to the Papermill Playhouse in Millburn, NJ to catch the show until July 17th. This version is directed by Stafford Arima and based on his London production that had a limited run in 2003.
The show is decidedly downsized; the magnificent Broadway sets by Eugene Lee are abandoned for Robert Jones’ low key approach that puts more of an emphasis on the characters rather than spectacle, and rightly so considering E.L Doctorow’s source material. That’s all well and good but some of the momentum was lost when Irish hooligans are kicking and beating the area around two straight-back chairs to represent Coalhouse Walker, Jr.’s new Model-T. This vandalism sets the story in motion in the middle of the first act. Speaking of those straight-back chairs; they were the chief set element and became a bit tiresome due to their overuse, most notably in the Henry Ford number. The chairs were thrust forward and turned this way and that by the chorus to represent the workers in Ford’s plant. Unfortunately, it looked more like a riff on the “Stool Boom” number from the faux musical in the Christopher Guest film Waiting for Guffman where the hapless actors did essentially the same thing, but representing a stool factory rather than a Model-T plant.
Mark Stanley’s lighting design was well suited for the lower key version of the show, although some of the color palettes were very reminiscent of Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer’s original Broadway design. Unfortunately, light from some of the fixtures hung above the deck caught pieces of the set and cast a distracting glow that illuminated the set pieces above first and then the actors below, drawing the eye upward. The sound design by Peter Hylenski lent itself well to the show’s gorgeous score. However, during the second act duet “Sarah Brown Eyes”—which is purely superfluous and needs to be ditched—Sarah’s voice was in reverb since she is singing in memory while Coalhouse is in the here and now. The reverb did not blend well with the non-reverb channel and Sarah sounded as if she were singing inside a gymnasium. The costumes, also by Jones, were spot on and the cast looked gorgeous in them. It’s probably unfair to compare this version with the Broadway version, but that’s the risk one faces since the show was just here. That being said, Papermill’s Ragtime is the best excuse to go over to Millburn and see a freshly polished Broadway treasure through new eyes.
Seen at the Movies: Comparing Batman Begins to the original campy TV series is more than apples and oranges, it’s more like comparing apples to elephants; the same source material (nature in the case of apples and elephants; Bob Kane’s comic book in the case of Batman) has spawned something vastly different. And vastly improved. Having seen all of the other Batman movies (yes, including the one starring Adam West), I have no fear in saying that this is the best of the bunch and I am a huge fan of Batman director Tim Burton.
However, director Christopher Nolan takes this Batman down a less worn path without any wacky supervillains (though we were given a teaser at the end that the Joker is lurking about). We get to know the genesis of the “bat man” based on little Brucey’s fear of the flying rats and how he overcame that fear to become the Caped Crusader we know him as. With Michael Caine an inspired choice for Alfred the loyal butler and Gary Oldman as Sgt. Jim Gordon (who will one day be Commissioner Gordon), the rest of the cast—Liam Neeson, Cillian Murphy, Morgan Freeman, Rutger Hauer—is nothing short of stellar. The only weak link is Katie Holmes as “the love interest.” Maybe it’s the oversaturation of her romance with Tom Cruise everywhere you look, but, like many damsels in distress, she often stalled the action a bit. The Gotham City created by Nathan Crowley is at once inviting and scary, much like New York. Heavily influenced by Blade Runner’s dark, futuristic empire, Crowley’s Gotham is as brooding as Christian Bale’s portrayal of Batman/Bruce Wayne. Hopefully this will be the role that will make the Brit a star in this country after so many stellar turns in Velvet Goldmine, American Psycho, and who could forget Newsies? Lindy Hemming’s costumes worked hand-in-hand with Crowley’s sets and easily flowed from elegant tuxes and gowns to grungy rags with the snap of a finger. With director Nolan, stars Bale and Caine, Batman Begins is definitely the start of a beautiful relationship!--Mark A. Newman
Seen on Broadway: Following the false start of After the Night and the Music the 2005-2006 Broadway season is on nimbler footing with the Roundabout revival of W. Somerset Maugham’s The Constant Wife. The 1926 drawing room comedy was last performed on Broadway 30 years ago, and it’s possible to assume that the pages creaked open when the cast sat down for a first reading. Maugham likes to repeat himself, and a writer today could probably get the whole situation down to less than 90 minutes, versus the three acts of the show. What would be lost, however, would be the amusement of the play’s leisurely set-ups, which detonate into something explosively funny—the handkerchief scene, pictured, is a case in point. Kate Burton and Lynn Redgrave have already been giving sprightly performances, but they become truly peerless when Burton, as a wronged wife who takes a resumed interest in an old flame (John Dossett), tries to signal her very proper mother (Redgrave) out of the room by waving a series of handkerchiefs around in the air like flags in a typhoon.
At moments like these, you can feel whatever dust the pages have collected dissipating into the atmosphere, and Maugham’s take on the war between the sexes has some freshness and verve to it that the production also reveals. It helps, too, that the cast is like a series of familiar actor friends come to pay you a visit. Michael Cumpsty, who usually spends summers sweating it out in Shakespeare in the Park productions, responds with a crisply air-conditioned comic performance as Burton’s philandering husband, whose indiscretion with a casually tarty Kathryn Meisle is seemingly encouraged by the gently calculating Burton, and Enid Graham also appears.
The drawing room itself is a major character in a drawing room comedy, and director Mark Brokaw has given it full consideration. After the utilitarian, bureaucratic design of the American Airlines Theatre’s prior tenant, Twelve Angry Men, two of that show’s designers, set designer Allen Moyer and costume designer Michael Krass, have gone to town. Moyer’s is a sumptuous setting, its colors fully brought out by Mary Louise Geiger’s lighting, with hues as carefully coordinated as matching items in a wedding registry, and exquisite wallpapering of birds in flight that I read as indicating Burton’s wilder, freer inner life. (Or they could just be very pretty birds.) Krass’ indelibly period costumes put London’s smart set on parade, and Paul Huntley works his usual magic on hair and wig design—what I could see of Redgrave’s, anyway, under her delightful hats. David Van Tieghem contributes a bright score to accompany an unobtrusive sound design, in conjunction with Jill BC Du Boff. [Showman Fabricators constructed the sets, with PRG supplying the lighting equipment.] Thanks to a concerted exhumation effort, The Constant Wife is as welcome as a gin-and-tonic on a hot summer’s evening.--Robert Cashill