May 16th, 2011

storyteller doll

Theatre Binge

I didn't particularly intend to go on a theatre binge, but it worked out that way.

Wednesday night I saw Cyrano at the Folger. This was a new translation by Michael Hollinger, who opted for a prose version. It was very funny and I didn't even mind some (intentional) anachronisms. I particularly liked the staging for Cyrano's fight against a hundred men. It's so rare to see good theatrical fencing nowadays and it was quite cleverly done. I suppose the kudos are due to fight director Dale Anthony Girard. My only quibble is that the speech on methods to get to the moon (which Cyrano uses to distract De Guiche by claiming to have fallen from there) was omitted. Overall, this was quite entertaining.

Thursday night was Follies at the Kennedy Center. This is getting a lot of buzz with a big name cast and talk of a possible transfer to Broadway. I have to admit to somewhat mixed feelings about it. Sondheim's score is lovely, with several memorable songs. But the book is not very satisfying, possibly because this is no longer 1971. Nowadays Sally would be on Prozac, Phyllis would be a political figure in her own right, Buddy would be following some self-esteem guru and Ben - well, maybe there isn't much hope for him since people do still suffer his sort of mid-life crisis. Or maybe it's just that I'm about the same age as these characters and I don't feel nearly as old as they seem to. The other problem is that the other former Follies girls aren't very well developed. They get up, sing a song (admittedly, often a great song like "Broadway Baby" or "I'm Still Here" or, surprisingly, "Who's That Woman?" which Terri White stole the show with) and aren't heard from again. Yeah, it's nice to have parts for aging stars like Linda Lavin (as Hattie) and Elaine Page (as Carlotta) but that could be done just as well with a concert.

By the way, both of those performers did well. I can't really say the same for Bernadette Peters as Sally. Supposedly she's been having allergy issues (not surprising here, alas) so maybe that excuses her vocal struggles. And she's never been much of a dancer. Fortunately, Jan Maxwell was right on the mark as a nicely acerbic Phyllis, with exactly the right tone to "Could I Leave You?" But it was the men who really shone. Danny Burstein as Buddy started off slow, but was excellent on "Buddy's Blues." And Ron Raines, who is always in fine voice, was perfect as Ben.

The flaws in Follies as a show were highlighted by Sunday afternoon's theatre-going, as you will see in a minute.

Side by Side by Sondheim:
Signature Theatre is, of course, something of a temple to Sondheim and this production showed that off. It's just a straightforward revue, with very minimal commentary about Sondheim. Did you know that he hated being considered just a lyricist? That tidbit got mentioned before nearly every song. Of course, this is a 1976 revue, so it predates many of Sondheim's musical triumphs. I'd argue, for example, that the music for Sweeney Todd is at least as respected as the lyrics for that show.

Anyway, this was a very enjoyable afternoon, with several of Sondheim's best songs, emphasizing pieces from Follies and Company. There are some songs that were less familiar when this was first put on (e.g. "I Remember" from Evening Primrose) but have been performed a lot since. And it includes an actual song from Pacific Overtures, though I'll admit that "Pretty Lady" is not my favorite piece from that score. (I might as well say it for the 7 millionth time. "A Bowler Hat" is one of the best songs ever written for any musical, a fine distillation of a character's growth and nearly an entire story captured in one musical moment.)

There are a few other things I want to note. First, this reminded me of how fundamentally depressing Company is, despite so many brilliant songs. Second, the funnier songs work better than the more serious ones when they're extracted from their context. Or maybe it's just that a song like "The Boy From ..." (from The Mad Show, with music by Mary Rodgers) didn't really have much context to begin with. Finally, both while Matthew Scott and Sherri L. Edelen are appealing performers, it was Nancy Anderson who really stole the show. That may just be because she got much of the showiest material, including "The Boy From ..." and "Getting Married Today."

Overall, there's not much point in my making a recommendation here. If you're a Sondheim fan, you're going to go and see it and enjoy it. And if you're not a Sondheim fan, you stopped reading at least three paragraphs ago.