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Les Misérables and A…My Name Is Alice, both premiered in D.C. in 1987, my first year as Washington City Paper’s theater critic, and they’re both opening revivals here this month. Think that means anything? Nah…but let’s note a couple of parallels, anyway.
Both shows are tune-filled (Les Miz with soaring anthems, Alice with pop ditties). They both have formats (musical theme park, musical revue) that have fallen out of fashion since the mid-’90s. They’ve both been performed in hundreds of theaters in the last 12 years (Alice by tiny troupes, Les Miz by megatours that have sucked up some $2 billion in box-office revenues). And they both regard the language of Victor Hugo as the language of love.
Alice goes further in this last respect than Les Miz, which takes its inspiration merely from the words Hugo actually used to describe the French Revolution. In Alice, when Sally Martin declares that French is the language of love (working the diphthong in “lahn-goowah-dje” for all it’s worth), she means pretty much any old French word that pops into her addled little brain. And she proves it by purring a torchy ballad made up of random gallicisms she apparently picked up from a Berlitz primer”Chauffeur,” she growls sexily, “Champs Elysees…Maurice Chevalier…a la carte….”
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The song is amusing and fairly typical of an evening that, in Horizons Theatre’s revival, takes an oblique, nonthreatening approach to feminism and to other topics that are at least theoretically of interest to women. The show has songs about friendship, about aging, and about sisterhood of the biological sort, as well as about sisterhood in the political sense.
This production (which combines material from the original revue and from a 1992 update called A…My Name Is Still Alice) calls itself A…My Name Will Always Be Alice, and is, as that title’s reiteration suggests, as true as ever to the ’80s sentiments of creators Joan Micklin Silver and Julianne Boyd. They’ve culled sketches and songs by the likes of comedian Anne Meara, Breaking Away author Steve Tesich, theater composer Michael John LaChuisa, and others, and strung them together amiably, without any seeming pattern or design. Each sequence consequently starts from scratch and must build its own momentum. What was slack in Horizons’ Helen Hayes Award-winning production in 1987a sequence, for instance, in which a woman tries to make her real life conform to the conventions of romance novelsis still slack. But what worked then mostly still works, even if it sometimes works in slightly different ways.
Take the sketch by Meara, in which a passing careerwoman decides to confront a construction worker who has just yelled out a sexist crack about her “gazumbas” by giving him a taste of what it’s like to be treated as a sex object. In the mid-’80s, the laborer’s confused embarrassment at having a woman talk back to him seemed likely. Today, as Janine Gulisano forces him to acknowledge what he said and then pushes further to make him feel the aggression she felt, you half expect him to slug her, or worse. A decade of escalating social violence, in other words, has helped a scene that was once simply comic acquire some tension.
Other material seems tamer than it once did, partly because women have made some incremental progress in the intervening years. A scene in which a kindergarten teacher reduces a confident working mom to quivering insecurity about the way she’s raising her child feels, frankly, dated in an age when that working mom would quickly point out the advantages she was providing through the kid’s stock portfolio. But there are still laughs to be had from bad feminist poetry (“I am woman/A neglected plant…/Droop, droop, droop”) and tears to be wrung from a defiant ballad called “Pay Them No Mind” that works equally well as a song about lesbian or interracial love.
Leslie B. Jacobson’s staging is slick and confident, as is Roy Barber’s musical direction. And the company, which boasts three veterans of Horizons’ first production (smoky-voiced Beverly Cosham, Barbara Rappaport at her goofiest, and Terri Allen, who makes a specialty of quiet hysteria) is up to snuff. Designers Lynn Joslin and Jason Mann have been deft in using backlit stained glass and sequential lights around the proscenium to reduce the width of the playing area so that the overbroad Spectrum seems a tad more cozy than usual.
That intimacy works to the benefit of numbers like the one in which a misguided psychoanalyst (Rachel Gardner) tries to convince a blues singer named Honeypot (Cosham) that her songs’ double-entendres (“I want some sweetmeat, daddy”) indicate a neurotic obsession with food. The shrink probes, the singer resists, and the breakthrough proves a hilarious bust. There’s just no way to make “I want extended foreplay, daddy” sing, metaphorically speaking.
But if anyone could swing a lyric like that, it’s Cosham, and it’s undeniably fun to watch her give it her boa-swishing all. CP