Seen at the Theatre

: The triumphant Royal National Theatre production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! has arrived on Broadway, and I’m betting that you will never see a better production of this classic musical. Trevor Nunn’s direction reveals the essential seriousness at the show’s core, as it depicts a frontier society struggling its way to maturity. Choreographer Susan Stroman’s work has sometimes been too busy and filled with gimmicks--here, it is sublime, and her staging of the Act I dream ballet is the best work of her career. The solid cast is led by three first-rate performances, by Patrick Wilson, Josefina Gabrielle, and Andrea Martin. And need I point out that the score is simply stunning? Anthony Ward’s set design emphasizes the emptiness and desolation of the Oklahoma territory, and plays some tricks of visual perspective that will remind you of the work of Bob Crowley. Ward’s costumes are fine, unfussy, and meticulously detailed. The real story here is David Hersey’s lighting, which uses a huge range of color tones and subtle cues to underscore the action--his lighting of the ballet should be studied by aspiring designers. The only minus part of the design is Paul Groothius’ sound design, which is rather boxy on the reinforcement side, although he does add some evocative sound effects. This long-delayed production has arrived in New York at the perfect time. For one thing, this is Richard Rodgers’ centennial year; for another, terror-scarred audiences will never be more receptive to Oklahoma!’s surprisingly mature and tender consideration of the American pioneer past.--David Barbour

Seen Elsewhere in This Dirty Town: One need only look to the new Broadway musical Sweet Smell of Success to see evidence of the current identity crisis of the form codified by Rodgers and Hammerstein. Based on the 1957 film, a box-office dud that has grown in stature year by year, Sweet Smell features a book by John Guare that preserves movie writers Ernest Lehman and Clifford Odets' most pungent dialogue ("The cat's in the bag and the bag's in the river") while adding surprisingly little to match it. The first act is essentially back story: lowly, grasping press agent Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis in the movie, Brian d'Arcy James here) is taken under the wing of powerful Walter Winchell-style columnist J. J. Hunsecker (John Lithgow, in for Burt Lancaster), while Hunsecker's much younger sister is romanced by a poor but honorable jazz musician. The second act closely follows the action of the film, as Hunsecker enlists Falco to break up the lovers, or suffer a press agent's worst fate—the column blackout.

If you're in New York, you can go to the Film Forum and see a beautiful new print of Sweet Smell of Success, which was directed by Alexander Mackendrick, through March 28. (If you live elsewhere, you can readily find the film on VHS or DVD.) You can be enthralled by the great James Wong Howe's cinematography in shades of silver and charcoal, and at the time-capsule tour of 1950s Times Square and '21', the Brill Building and the Flatiron, the dives and the swankier nightspots. You can appreciate Lancaster's air of polished menace, and marvel at how good an actor—how smarmy and yet somehow sympathetic--Curtis could be.


Avidly, avidly...

Or you could go see the Broadway version, which features generally bland if occasionally catchy music by Marvin Hamlisch and lyrics by Craig Carnelia, often delivered by a Greek-by-way-of-Stork Club chorus that swarms around Falco ("Whatcha gonna do, Sidney, whatcha gonna do?"). The initial stage picture is certainly striking: Bob Crowley has designed a towering city skyline that wraps oppressively around the action on three sides. The dark building cutouts are backed by a perpetually stormy cyc lit by Natasha Katz in tones ranging from chiaroscuro to angry red. The designer's work leans dramatically to the hard-edged side, with performers caught in smoky shafts of light; the nastier things get, the more lurid greens and purples Katz introduces. It's obviously a matter of taste, but Sweet Smell is one of the ugliest looking things I've seen on a Broadway stage. And lacking the movie's organic grounding in time and place (and, one could say, smell), the story is robbed of a point. Lithgow and d'Arcy James do their best, but they obviously don't know and love "this dirty town" the way Lancaster and Curtis so obviously did. The show's muted costumes are also by Crowley, and the unobtrusive sound design is by Tony Meola.--John Calhoun

Seen in a Slightly Different Light:I too went to the Martin Beck Theatre to see Sweet Smell, but was more impressed with the production than John Calhoun. Katz's lighting was, in my opinion, garish where it should have been, dizzyingly vertical in keeping with Crowley's steep building sets, and menacing and sharp when needed. While my companion found the lighting "too rock-and-roll," primarily due to color choices on Katz's part (acid greens and purples, an almost UV look at times), I found it vivid. Crowley's sets fit the bill, but his costumes lacked a certain pizzazz. There were some pieces that stood out--a Chinese red ensemble on a chorus member and a simple black 50s evening gown on Kelli O'Hara as Susan, J. J.'s sister--but mostly the palette was drab, and the fit, especially on Jack Noseworthy as Dallas, Susan's love interest, and Stacey Logan as Rita, Sidney's put-upon girlfriend, was unfortunate. A slightly higher point wardrobe-wise was a sharkskin suit, gift of J. J., that Sidney wears after his rise to the top of the slime heap. The program notes that Lithgow, James, and Noseworthy all wore suits custom-designed by Oxford Clothes, "the American brand of tailored clothing headquartered in Chicago since 1916." So two out of three (Lithgow and James) looked good in their bespoke threads.

I also found the choreography, by Christopher Wheeldon, inventive and striking. A scene that combines Dallas' beatdown by corrupt cops with a lame vaudeville number executed by Hunsecker and chorus, was deft. So I didn't hate Sweet Smell on Broadway, but now it's time to head to Film Forum and savor the film version. Match me, Sidney.--Liz French

Heard on the Strip: It's been pretty quiet in Las Vegas since the last round of hotels, casinos, and shows opened a few years ago. But not to fear, the entire town seems to be ramping up for the next wave of projects, all set to open in 2003 and 2004. In fact, now that the city has redefined itself (again!), word is that family fun is out and sex and sin are back in. Two new shows, Les Femmes and Tease, certainly confirm that trend. Steve Wynn is also back in action, with a new building recently opened to house the Wynn art collection while his new hotel, Le Reve, revs up. Looks like entertainment is high on his radar screen again, with Franco Dragone of Cirque du Soleil fame reportedly on board to create a new water show at Le Reve, and Rick Gray, another Cirque veteran, handling the technical aspects. Sceno Plus, the Montreal-based architectural and theatre consulting firm, is designing the 2,000-seat in-the-round theatre, complete with swimming pool. ProSound and Spurgeon Design Group are also involved in Le Reve.

Busy as beavers, the French Canadians from Sceno Plus are also designing the 4,075-seat theatre at Caesar's Palace for Park Place Entertainment and Celine Dion. Word on the street says that the singer has signed a 10-year contract to join the Las Vegas galaxy of long-running star acts (how long did you say Siegfried and Roy have been in town?) Vegas-based ProTech is providing what may be the world's largest fire curtain for Celine's theatre, as well as LinkLift stage machinery. At Bally's Jubilee Theatre (where show girls and feathers have never gone out of style), the old Kliegl dimmers were finally taken out and replaced with 25 racks of ETC dimmers with DMX and Ethernet networks, a Pathfinder system, and an ETC Obsession console. The system was installed by Four Wall.

Four Wall's Bill Larrimore and Buddy Pope are also involved in the lighting system for the new convention center at Mandalay Bay; Keith Bennett is project manager. Kent Corbell is the project manager for phase two of the Fashion Show Mall, which will feature a retractable runway for fashion shows. Things also seem to be hopping over at Production Resource Group (PRG), with lights just coming back from the Olympics (where Vegas-based Bill Brennan and sister Barbara Brennan lit curling and ice skating events), and Mike Long's Sin City Grips hard at work.


Fashion Show Mall

With all these new projects on the drawing boards, it looks like we'll be in for a wild Backstage Las Vegas tour in 2004. In the meantime, next time you are in Las Vegas, don't miss Rain, the incredible new club at The Palm, a beautiful new hotel. Rain has a large rig of Martin automated luminaires (in fact, all moving lights; no dimmers), two round Tomcat trusses with articulated wings on the outer truss, a rain curtain, and flame effects using natural gas. If you stop by, ask Adam Wuertz, the technical director, for an inside look. I met him last week on a Vegas club crawl led by Adam Steyh of Fourth Phase: from Sheena Easton at the Las Vegas Hilton, to Studio 54 at the MGM Grand, and drinks at Rum Jungle at Mandalay Bay, we did it all!--Ellen Lampert-Greaux

Heard in New York: The New York City-based architectural firm of Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates (HHPA) has announced that Douglas Moss, AIA, has become a principal of the firm. Since HHPA plays an important role in the design and restoration of performing arts facilities, it stands to reason that Moss, who has been with the firm since 1990, would do so as well. Some of his theatrical credits include the Southern Kentucky Performing Arts Center, the Charlotte Learing Center, which includes the Charlotte Children's Theatre, a master plan for Long Wharf Theatre, and the new RiverCenter, a performing arts center in Columbus, GA. HHPA has also named a new crop of appointments including senior associate John Fontillas, AIA, and associates Gregory Baker, Brad Carpenter, Michael Connolly, Stephen Epstein, Mahasti Fakourbayat, Nina Freedman, Arthur P. Kipel, Bradley Lukanic, Juan Minaya, Phillip Templeton, and Debra Waters.


BAM's new facade

HHPA has also just announced that it as been selected to restore the historic exterior of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, aka BAM. Slated for completion in 2004, the project includes restoration of the terra-cotta ornamentation on the façade and reconstruction of the parapet and cornice (which were removed almost 50 years ago; the building itself is almost 100 years old). Perhaps the most controversial, albeit exciting, element is a 130' undulating glass entrance canopy which was not part of the original design, but will add a nice flourish. A look at the architects and their other projects can be found at www.hhpa.com.

Heard in the Wings: Auerbach + Associates, the San Francisco-based theatre consulting firm, will be working on the new 2,000-seat Atlanta Symphony Center (new home for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra) in Atlanta, GA, in collaboration with acoustical consultants Kirkegaard Associates of Chicago, IL. The Auerbach-Kirkegaard team just finished the $11 million renovation of the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, home of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra…Elsewhere in the acoustics world, Victor Gotesman has been appointed managing director of the Norwalk, CT-based Jaffe Holden Acoustics. Gotesman had been with Theatre Projects Consultants since 1997…New York City-based Fisher Dachs Associates have been named theatre consultants for some interesting clients in Boston, MA, including the MIT Media Lab/Experimental Theatre, Harvard University's Hasty Pudding Theatre, and the Boston Institute of Contemporary Art…Across the pond in London, England, the Unicorn Theatre Company has announced that it will build a new children's theatre on the south bank of the Thames.--Ellen Lampert-Greaux

Seen on New York Screens: Tonight the New Directors/New Films Series, co-sponsored by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art, opens at MOMA with Real Women Have Curves. This very likable first feature by Patricia Cardoso centers on Ana, a smart, amply figured 18-year-old Mexican-American girl (Amerca Ferrara) in East Los Angeles who is torn between enrolling on a full scholarship at Columbia University and working in her sister's sweatshop. Not much of a choice, you say? Just ask Ana's mother (the wonderful Lupe Ontiveros), who has her own ideas. The film gets a huge boost from DP Jim Denault, who shot last year's Our Song with a similar sensitivity to non-movie-star faces and settings that are vivid but not necessarily pretty. Unfortunately, Real Women Have Curves is not scheduled for a theatrical release, but will go straight to HBO in the fall.

The fraught relations of mothers and daughters is also one of the subjects of Kissing Jessica Stein. Co-writer Jennifer Westfeldt plays the title character, whose mother (Tovah Feldshuh) just wants her to find the right (preferably Jewish) man. Instead, Jessica finds Helen (co-writer Heather Juergensen), the right woman. The movie, which is directed by Charles Herman-Wurmfeld, starts out too broadly, but after Jessica and Helen meet it develops considerable charm. The New York locations are attractively photographed by Lawrence Sher. Kissing Jessica Stein is no groundbreaker, but you couldn't find anything better right now in the romantic comedy department. --John Calhoun