Sunday, November 12, 2017

Illyria - Offering Much, But Not Telling Enough


Reviewed by Judd Hollander

The birth pangs of the New York Shakespeare Festival, particularly its conflicts with the New York City Parks Department and city planner Robert Moses are the stuff of theatre legend. Playwright Richard Nelson using those events as the source material for his rather meandering play Illyria, at the Public Theater.

Taking place between April and August of 1958, the story centers around Joe Papp (John Magaro), founder of the Festival, and a man who expects and demands loyalty from those around him. He's also not above using his position to get what he wants. Case in point, his insistence on casting his actress wife Peggy (Kristen Connolly) in the company's upcoming production of Twelfth Night. This despite objections from the group's director Stuart Vaughn (John Sanders), who thinks she's clearly wrong for the role. Stuart is also still chafing over his having to cast Peggy in a previous production, despite his protests.

Adding to the tension between the two men is Stuart 's acceptance of a directing offer at the Phoenix Theatre, something Joe is not happy about. Though Stuart insists he can do both jobs without sacrificing the quality of his work at either - the productions being on different schedules - Joe wants him to pick one career path or the other. Matters coming to a head during a luncheon gathering which quickly turns into a verbal battle over art and commerce. Festival press agent Merle Debuskey (Fran Krantz) delivering the most powerful line of the play at that encounter, telling Joe that, while he would do anything for free Shakespeare, he refuses to be associated with cheap Shakespeare. This in regard to a discussion on charging audiences a nominal fee for Festival productions rather than keeping them free for all, as was originally envisioned.

While certainly a subject worth discussing, things start to become repetitive rather quickly. Matters not being helped by the fact that, other than Joe, none of the characters feel in any way three-dimensional, and thus, not all that interesting. Rather ironic, since just about all of those depicted are real people, several of whom became major forces in theatre. This detached feeling becomes even more exacerbated in an extended final scene which goes on and on, and on. Nelson, also doing double duty here as the show's director, seeming to have had no idea of when to end his story.

Nelson does try to keep things the audience engaged by dropping in some interesting tidbits from time to time. These include the group having to deal with a temperamental George C. Scott during one of their productions; various union issues the company faced in order to get their shows put on; and mention of what would eventually become Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts being built on New York's West Side. An institution, Joe and his friends believe, the city authorities are much more in favor of than the Festival.

It should be pointed out that Illyria is not presenting things as they actually happened. As Nelson explains in the program notes, he's taken some liberties with the timeline of events, and has given one particular incident a new outcome for dramatic effect. Yet that doesn't explain the feeling one has of being dropped into the narrative midway through and thus continually forced to play catch-up in order to understand what's going on. Joe's being called before the House Un-American Activities Committee being an example of this.

Nelson must also share the blame, along with sound designer Scott Lehrer, for the continued inability of the audience to hear much of what was being said during the production. The actors apparently being neither miked nor projecting their voices. To be fair, The Public Theater staff did tell the audience before the show began that Illyria was going to be an intimate affair, and that listening devices were available for anybody who wanted one. However there’s a difference between such devices being available and their use being mandatory; something which definitely needed to be the case here.

Despite the work's various shortcomings, the cast give it their all. Particularly Magaro in the Joseph Papp role as he presents a portrait of someone who, while not that likeable, leaves no doubt as to where he stands on every issue. Kranz is nicely stalwart as Merle; while Sanders’ character offers a strong counterpoint to Joe throughout. Stuart also bringing up issues no one wants to talk about. Like asking what's wrong with working on projects that make you money and advance your career?

The set by Susan Hilferty & Jason Ardizzone-West is serviceable, while the lighting design by Jennifer Tipton works well.

The story of Joseph Papp, Robert Moses (who strangely isn't mentioned until more than an hour into the play) and the beginnings of the New York Shakespeare Festival is a fascinating tale and one that certainly deserves to be told. Illyria, however, is not the vehicle with which to tell it.

Featuring: John Magaro (Joseph Papp), Kristen Connolly (Peggy Papp), Fran Kranz (Merle Debuskey), John Sanders (Stuart Vaughan), Emma Duncan (Gladys Vaughn), David Amram (Blake Delong), Max Woertendyke (John Robertson), Rosie Benton (Colleen Dewhurst), Will Brill (Bernie Gersten), Naian González Norvind (Mary Bennett)

Illryia

Written and directed by Richard Nelson
Scenic Designers: Susan Hilferty & Jason Ardizzone-West
Costume Designer: Susan Hilferty
Lighting Designer: Jennifer Tipton
Sound Designer: Scott Lehrer
Production Stage Manager: Theresa Flanagan
Stage Manager: Jared Oberholtzer

Presented by The Public Theater
425 Lafayette Street
Tickets: 212-967-7555 or www.publictheater.org
Running Time: 1 Hour, 45 minutes, no intermission

Closes: December 10, 2017

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Of Thee I Sing - It's Message Still Soars


Reviewed by Judd Hollander

Satire may be what closes on Saturday night, as playwright George S. Kaufman once said, but that was certainly not the case for the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Of Thee I Sing. Gleefully skewering the American political process and written by Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, with music and lyrics by George and Ira Gershwin, the show opened on Broadway in 1931, running for 441 performances.

Considering what’s going on in the world today, it’s not surprising the musical is now getting another look. MasterVoices having recently presented a concert version of the show at Carnegie Hall. Though while certainly enjoyable at points, the production was not nearly as strong as it had the potential to be.

As a presidential campaign begins in earnest, the party's major power brokers, Matthew Fulton (Chuck Cooper), Louis Lippman (Brad Oscar) and Francis X. Gilhooley (Fred Applegate), must convince the voters that their candidate, John P. Wintergreen (Bryce Pinkham) has what it takes be Commander-in-Chief. A totally unexpected pick, Wintergreen was chosen simply because his name sounds presidential.

Searching for a platform for him to run on, and one which won’t cost the party anything, the group settles on “love”. They deciding to find the most beautiful girl in the country who Wintergreen will then marry, but only if he wins the election.

Though Wintergreen, who is not above using dirty tricks to get elected, goes along with the idea initially, he upsets the party’s plans at the last minute by falling in love with Fulton's assistant, Mary Turner (Denée Benton). Mary’s hidden talent being that she can bake corn muffins, which are absolutely delicious. It’s not long before the party, and indeed the entire country, are solidly behind the couple as the campaign takes the lovers to every state in union. Wintergreen proposing to Mary at each stop along the way.

Not surprisingly, Wintergreen wins the election. However, just as the combined inauguration/wedding ceremony is concluding, Diana Devereaux (Elizabeth Stanley), the woman selected to marry Wintergreen before he threw her over for Mary, arrives and accuses him of breach of promise. Though the Supreme Court quickly rules in Wintergreen and Mary’s favor, Diana's presence continues to be felt in the new administration. The media continually coming back to the issue, with Diana herself making sure she is not forgotten by the people. Things come to a head when it’s discovered Diana has certain connections to Napoleon. Seeing this now as a matter of his country’s honor, the Ambassador of France (David Pittu) demands Wintergreen divorce Mary and marry Diana, or face an international incident.

Of Thee I Sing pulls no punches when it comes to politics. The show calling out know-nothing politicians and backroom dealings, where the matter of the public good is simply a random afterthought. Also examined are the appeal of what would now be considered reality shows - beauty contests in this case - as well as the sometimes much-too-close relationship journalistic outlets have with politicians; and a world where style means a lot more than substance. While some parts of the book are quite dated, such as when Wintergreen lists the important attributes he’d look for in a wife, the underlying messages of the show are still as powerful as when they were first written.

Just as pivotal to the production is the wonderful Gershwin music, and the often pointed lyrics. Some of the musical highlights include the heartwarming “Love is Sweeping the Country” and the show’s title tune. Also a lot of fun are “The Senator from Minnesota” and “Posterity is Just Around the Corner”. The latter number a swipe at President Herbert Hoover and a statement he made in regards to the Great Depression. It's also a great treat to hear the score performed by a full orchestra. The MasterVoices orchestra performing under the very skilled baton of conductor Ted Sperling.

A chief problem with the show is its execution. Many of the gags landing not nearly as sharply as they should. Sperling, who also handled the directing chores, seeming unsure of his choices throughout. As a result, a good part of the action feels flat and uninspired.

In addition, a number of the performers are unable to get a proper handle on their characters. This is particularly evident in Pink ham's portrayal of Wintergreen. He not playing it naïve enough to come off as an everyman and not cynical enough to be believable as a political power player. He also fails to have any chemistry with Benton, thus blunting the impact of their scenes together.

Benton conversely, is able to ably convey the aura of a relative political newcomer turned practiced old hand as the show unfolds. Cooper, Oscar and Applegate feel rather interchangeable as three political hacks, with none of them really resonating in the roles they’ve taken on here. Coming off better is actor Kevin Chamberlin, who gives a winning performance as vice presidential candidate Alexander Throttlebottom. A person no one remembers and who doesn’t even know his own duties as the VP. Until they’re explained to him by a White House tour guide (Marnee Hollis).

The show is also beset by serious sound issues. A good number of the lyrics being swallowed up in the gigantic auditorium and unable to be heard. This is a critical error, as how strongly the show's messages resonate depends on the audience being able to hear what's being said.

A nice touch was having actor/humorist Mo Rocca take on the part of the narrator. Which he does in a pleasant and genial manner. Rocca also taking the opportunity to drop in some interesting trivia about the production and its history. Such as the creative team's previous effort in satire, Strike Up The Band, and George Gershwin’s penchant for publicly playing songs from Of Thee I Sing before the musical’s book had even been written.

That Of Thee I Sing still has a lot to say is without doubt. However it can't be denied that, satirical lessons and wry understandings aside, much of the show now seems quite corny. Especially when it comes to the ending. For corny to work, it needs to feel both real and involving. In the recent MasterVoices’ production of Of Thee I Sing, it doesn’t. At least not often enough.

 Of Thee I Sing

Music and Lyrics by George and Ira Gershwin
Book by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind
Concert Adaptation by Tony Krasker
Orchestrations by Robert Russell Bennett, William Daly and George Gershwin
Narrative Written by Joe Keenan

Featuring: Bryce Pinkham (John P. Wintergreen), Denée Benton (Mary Turner), Kevin Chamberlin (Alexander Throttlebottom), Elizabeth Stanley (Diana Devereaux), Chuck Cooper (Matthew Fulton), Brad Oscar (Louis Lippman), Fred Applegate (Francis X. Gilhooley), David Pittu (French Ambassador), Rhett Gutter (Jenkins), Anna Landy (Miss Benson) Mo Rocca (Narrator), Ellen Richter (Tourist #1), Marnee Hollis (Tour Guide)

Susan H. Drannm, Stephen Eisdorfer, John Koski, Ken Moore, Vivianne Potter, Robert R. Rainier, Gerald Richman, Lisa Rubin (Supreme Court Judges)

Ghalahad Abella, Nicholas Cunha, Robert James, Vincent Machacek, Edsel Romero, Edward Yim (French Soldiers)

Presented by MasterVoices
MasterVoices Orchestra

Conductor and Director: Ted Sperling

Musical Staging: Andrew Palermo
Sound Designer: Patrick Pummill
Stage Manager: Lisa Ann Chernoff

Presented at Carnegie Hall on November 2, 2017

Isaac Stern Auditorium / Ronald O. Perelman Stage