Seen on Broadway: Overheard cellphone conversation following Legally Blonde, the latest screen-to-stage adaptation, playing at the Palace Theatre.
Girl 1: Omigod! I’m just leaving Legally Blonde.
Girl 2: Omigod! How was it?
Girl 1: Like, it was really, like, not bad. Like, good, even. Maybe even awesome. The new Elle, Laura Bell Bundy, well, she wasn’t Reese, but, omigod, Reese didn’t have to sing and dance like totally the whole show. And, omigod, Bruiser the dog, and the other dog in the show, they were like so cute!
Girl 2: Awesome. Like, what was Elle wearing?
Girl 1: Like, pink. Like, everything in the show was, like, pink. Not just regular pink, but like pink like in all shades of pink. I mean, the costumes were like, I want them, and they should like do a collection. I would totally buy them!
Girl 2: Like, that is like, awesome.
Girl 1: I mean, it wasn’t all pink. The guys, except the cute kind of rebel one that Elle eventually goes out with, they wear like lawyer suits. The UPS guy wears UPS and that is like totally not my look. The hair salon is like totally dressed down. And like not all the sets—and there are a lot of sets, on and off and on and off and over and under the stage, like, omigod—they weren’t all pink. Like Harvard was kind of brown, like Harvard probably is. And the prison was, like, these way cool stencils. Paris would like a prison like that.
Girl 2: Did the music, like, totally rock?
Girl 1: Like, the songs were kind of brunette, with blonde highlights. But they were cranked up high so you wouldn’t like notice, and the director, whose name is Jerry Mitchell, used to do dance, so everyone is moving all over the place like all of the time. And, like, omigod, there was like so much lighting—it took two guys, Ken Posner and Paul Miller, to light the whole thing!
Girl 2: Awesome!
Girl 1: Totally awesome. Like the scenic designer, David Rockwell; he is like the god of this kind of show. I mean, like, if a movie is going to Broadway, like, omigod, nobody does it better. I want Gregg Barnes’ like cell number so I can call him and get those outfits that Elle and the other cool girls wear. Let’s see, David Brian Brown could do my hair and I bet Justen M. Brosnan has plenty of makeup tips. And, omigod, it would totally rule if Acme Sound Partners would DJ my Sweet 16 party!
Girl 2: Awesome!
Girl 1: Like, omigod, it was. Totally. And like besides UPS and Apple and all the other product pluggers involved I would like to thank Showmotion (who made and automated the scenery), Scenic Arts Studio (scenic drops painting), PRG (lighting), and Sound Associates (audio) for making Legally Blonde maybe the most exciting experience of my whole 15-year-old life so far. And I like totally mean that.
It’s a British thing. As much as I would like to see more new American work produced on Broadway I’m happy to see what’s going on across the pond without actually having to pay air fare, and so it is with Coram Boy, a great big chip butty of a play dripping with Gothic and Dickensian excesses. The National Theatre import, which is flying the Union Jack over the Imperial Theatre in New York, is based on a popular young adult novel by Jamila Gavin. It’s centered on the travails of “Coram boys,” 18th century orphans who, if they survive the baby killers and white slavers who hang around the institution, get to sing before one of its more upstanding patrons, the composer Handel. A lot goes on. The boys, some of them with parents, some without, and all played by girls (who are more able to “handel” the vocal requirements) split up, take separate paths through life, reunite, and along the way confront one melodramatic menace after another: poverty, unloving fathers, inconvenient childbirth, and the dread tinker Otis Gardiner (Bill Camp), who is the root of all evil. The source material keeps the pot boiling. Alas, the performances lack much variation or intensity, making if difficult to tell one Coram boy from another in the 40-person cast, and as the actors are largely unable to summon the simple, heart-tugging emotions called for by Helen Edmundson’s adaptation I felt at a remove from the production.
That said, Coram Boy is still something to see, as it purely theatrical in execution. The two-tiered set, the work of director and co-designer Melly Still, is marvelously adaptable. Above are an organ and a red-robed choir, representing the exaltation the boys feel, and aspire to, when they sing. Below is the muck and mire of their everyday existence, which aside from a few stately settings positioned on the turntable is given over to a barebones grimness that only the power of song can dispel. Gardiner’s callous dispatch of the babies, who are later disinterred as tiny skeletons, is about as bone-chilling a spectacle as I have seen on the stage, and a hanging is similarly well, umm, executed. With the use of a plastic scrim and some deft choreography a ship-at-sea sequence, including a dramatic rescue effort from the churning waters, is brought to stunning theatrical life. Ti Green is the co-designer; Ed McCarthy recreated Paule Constable’s constantly evocative lighting, while Acme Sound Partners brought Christopher Shutt’s clarion audio design to Broadway. (Hudson Scenic provided the scenery and automation; Hudson Sound & Light the lighting, and Sound Associates the audio.) I appreciated the design of Coram Boy enough to wish that I enjoyed the actual show more.
Seen Off Broadway: Scott Pask’s tellingly detailed office set is very much a character in David Harrower’s harrowing indeed Blackbird, a British import scrupulously Americanized by director Joe Mantello for the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Stage 1 at City Center. The worn white space, under lifeless fluorescent lights, is drably institutional, with only a vending machine far on stage left to break up the monotony. As the show begins one of its rooms, positioned on a turntable, opens up before as us as the side walls close in. It is the lunch room, and it is an end-of-the-day heap, with junk food litter on the table and floor, and close to overflowing from the garbage can. Ray (Jeff Daniels), a worker, urgently ushers Una (Alison Pill), an unwanted visitor, in, keeping the door slightly ajar so as not to betray his panic to his co-workers, who from time to time peek in curiously through its windows. Una, age 27, could be Ray’s daughter—but 15 years earlier, she was sexually abused by him, an experience that shattered both their lives, and she has now sought him out. Having changed his name and found new employment and a new life, Ray continues to pick up the pieces after a stretch in prison. What Una wants is unclear; once revenge is ruled out as a possibility, her provocative high heels and bright dress (the designer is Laura Bauer) insinuate something even more disturbing. Things are about to get a lot messier in
this frayed-at-the-edges environment.
Reminiscent of David Mamet’s harassment drama Oleanna, Blackbird is perfectly acted by its two leads, both baring troubling scars from an experience that neither has fully come to terms with. The sadly stunted Una is played with great empathy by Pill, who understands her sometimes inexplicable-seeming actions, and there is no better performer for this type of suspect, but frail and embattled, character, than Daniels, whose Ray insists that he is something more than a pedophile without quite managing to define what that might be. Their agonized confrontation is underscored by Paul Gallo’s flickering lighting, as the office’s power generator threatens to give out; Pill has her most childlike scene when it finally does. The mechanical hum heard between scenes is another fittingly ominous design touch, supplied by sound designer Darron L. West. (Daedalus Design and Production supplied the set, Hayden Production Services and Wybron the lights, and One Dream Sound the audio.) The deft physical production lends Blackbird its distinct emotional chill.—Robert Cashill