Seen on Broadway: Chita Rivera: The Dancer's Life is a one-woman tour de force performed by the veteran 72 year old “hoofer,” Chita Rivera, with a chorus of 10 dancers and a young girl who represents Chita as a child, then Chita’s daughter. Chita treats the audience to her hit songs from some of Broadway’s best musicals—West Side Story, Bye Bye Birdie, Chicago, and Kiss of the Spider Woman—and pays tribute to the great choreographers she worked with, from Jerome Robbins, Bob Fosse, and Peter Gennaro to Gower Champion, Jack Cole, and Michael Kidd. Written by Terrence McNally, with direction and choreography by Graciela Daniele, the show was created by Chita's longtime music director, Mark Hummel.
The colorful lighting is by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer, and combines moving lights with color changing LED fixtures for an eye-popping array of lighting effects. The palette ranges from yellow in the kitchen table scene (shown in the photo here) to red and blue, as well as bold shafts of white light, with the movement in the lighting adding an extra layer of energy to the show. The pre-show curtains are black and purple with a swirling curlicue design that sets the mood for a lively evening. Set designer Loy Arcenas designed around the fact that the show requires an open stage for dancing much of the time, adding a series of screens and scrims that are used effectively to help change locales or highlight the dancers in silhouette, as at the top of Act II when the talented dancers in the chorus illustrate the dance styles of the various choreographers as Chita pays homage to them. Toni Leslie James created glamorous costumes, from a black dress that moves gracefully as Chita dances and high kicks to an elegant full-length red evening coat for a scene at the White House. Sound Designer Scott Lehrer did a very nice job of balancing Chita’s dialogue with the musicians who are located on a platform above the stage level along the upstage wall. The show was initially produced at the San Diego Globe before opening on Broadway at the Schoenfeld Theatre on December 11, 2005. I may be dating myself terribly here but I think I saw Chita Rivera in almost all of her hit musicals (Can Can at Valley Forge Playhouse, anyone?), and found this “reprise” of her career a wonderful tribute to a great star.--Ellen Lampert-Gréaux
The only time I ever saw the formidable Cherry Jones off her game was in the 2000 revival of Eugene O’Neill’s A Moon for the Misbegotten. True, she was somewhat miscast, but that wasn’t the problem. She was stuck acting, while her co-star, Gabriel Byrne, simply incarnated his role, as if O’Neill had written the piece especially for him. His was one of the finest performances I’ve ever seen onstage, and the Roundabout is be to applauded for returning him to O’Neill for its revival of A Touch of the Poet, now at Studio 54. While not really a cause for celebration—the play, intended to kick off an 11-part series of dramas that never materialized and were indeed destroyed by their frustrated author, is a strange and ungainly work, here let down by a so-so production under the direction of the hard-working Doug Hughes (Doubt, and three other plays this year)—-the chance to see Byrne back in action is reason enough to seek it out.
Set at a “shebeen,” or tavern, a few miles from Boston in 1828, the play is said to have been based on O’Neill’s turbulent relationship with his own daughter, Oona, who married Charlie Chaplin at age 18. Byrne is Con Melody, the nominal saloon keeper, who prefers a life lived in a drunken fantasy of war memories to his present reduced circumstances, with a wife, Nora (Dearbhla Molloy) and a daughter, Sara (Emily Bergl), who are at the center of his existence but alien to it at the same time. Con’s simmering resentments, regrets and pretensions, which the Irish immigrant keeps in check by escaping into the guise of the silver-tongued major he fancies himself to be, boil over furiously when Sara cultivates a romance with a wealthy American suitor, to the disdain of his parents. There is some beautiful writing here, a humorous sequence where Con, bedecked in his military togs and a fine pair of boots, tries to cast a spell over an important visitor to the inn (Kathryn Meisle, as dry-ice in inflection as always), and in the second act a powerful sort of exorcism, where a cornered Con is overwhelmed by his many years of playacting. But there is also a lot of lolling about and blarney (even in what I reckon to be an abridged version), themes that are dropped into the story late in the game and spelled out too explicitly (like Catholic guilt), and a supporting cast that doesn’t rise to the challenge of material that O’Neill would shape more satisfyingly in the great plays to come. Intriguing though it is, A Touch of the Poetis more like an extended draft of something its author didn’t quite know how to express at the time of its writing.
Appropriately, perhaps, the design is also something of a sketch—or perhaps the design team couldn’t quite figure how to fill the Studio 54 stage without overwhelming the play. Santo Loquasto’s set lays out, in broad brushstrokes, the dining room of the tavern, dominated by a large fireplace. It’s a rough-hewn place, sparse in details, given a little color by his period costumes (and further historical texture via the hair and wig design of Tom Watson). Christopher Akerlind adds clarity with his painterly use of light, filling in the corners with dabs of detail. Sound designer David Van Tieghem’s Irish-flavored score, played onstage at the top of each act, sets a properly wistful-to-mournful tone for the proceedings. [Great Lakes Scenic Studios provided the scenery, PRG the lighting, and One Dream Sound the audio.] Given the incandescence of its star, who should be encouraged to work onstage more often, there is greatness to A Touch of the Poet, but this production needed a few more touches of its own to become more than simply worthwhile.--Robert Cashill
Seen Off-Broadway: Caden Manson/Big Art Group (www.bigartgroup.com) is a New York City performance company founded in 1999. Manson has embraced video technology in an unusual way, harnessing it at full tilt boogie in his performances, which use a total integration of video and live action in a way in which the two elements are linked at the hip and one cannot exist without the other. His recent work, House No More, has been characterized as “America's cultural narrative by reenacting a televised soft core Hollywood crime thriller that disintegrates into an existential chase sequence through multiple states of being.”
What is most interesting is Manson’s use of video with a green screen set that allows the live actors to be superimposed against a series of images that are run live via three computers located front-of-house in front of the audience at DTW, for example (where I saw the piece). He also uses off-the-shelf consumer products, rather than high-tech professional gear. But what he does with the cameras and multiple moving screen is fascinating as actors on stage right and stage left have their individual actions combined on the central screen (see photo). They also use box loads of props that are held in front of the camera and integrated into the final video image (a very clever technique). Manson’s work is loud, fast-paced, often violent, and careens all over the place, but what is he doing is definitely work keeping an eye on… it’s quite something to see, and you see it all happening before your very eyes, although you pretty much have to decide If you want to watch the screens or the live action. I found it too frenetic to try and watch both at the same time. ---ELG