It has to have been a confounding week for casual observers of musical theater in D.C.one of those periods when a little knowledge on the part of a ticketbuyer could turn out to be a decidedly dangerous thing.
Anyone believing, say, that musical-comedy smashes of the ’50s were more fun-filled than the less innocent shows that came later, or that by the ’70s musicals had lost their knack for entertaining (always excepting the singular, sensational A Chorus Line), or that Broadway’s only ’80s alternative to empty spectacle was chilly Sondheim, is likely to come home with ducats for precisely the show she or he is least likely to enjoy.
That’s because the latest exhibits from the Broadway museumRodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I (’51) at the Kennedy Center, Kander and Ebb’s Chicago (’75) at the National Theater, and Sondheim and Lapine’s Sunday in the Park with George (’84) at Arena Stagepretty much cross up all those expectations. The crowd-pleasing, showbiz-savvy smash is unquestionably Chicago. Empty, chilly spectacle is the sole attraction of The King and I. And the evening delivering emotional haymakers is Sunday in the Park. Go figure.
This last transformation is in many respects the most surprising, since on the surface, Eric Schaeffer’s Sunday staging hews pretty closely to the Broadway original. Most of the changes he’s wrought occur post-intermission, after the first act’s brilliant 3-D deconstruction of painter Georges Seurat’s pointillist masterpiece, A Sunday on La Grande Jatte. Since this nifty coup de théâtre involves recreating the painting using live actors, and the joint Arena Stage/Signature Theatre production is blessed with the textured, seemingly sculpted-from-pigment costumes Patricia Zipprodt and Ann Hould-Ward created for Broadway, the director’s staging options are understandably limited.
Both Schaeffer and set designer Zack Brown get to stretch more in Act 2, once librettist James Lapine and composer Stephen Sondheim have finished imagining lives for Seurat (Sal Viviano), his girlfriend/model Dot (Liz Larsen), and the various other strolling and languishing figures in his 1884 painting. As the story leaps forward to the present to see what Seurat’s daughter Marie (Larsen, again), and great-grandson George (also an artist and also played by Viviano), are up to, the production makes some creative leaps that help tie the two halves of the evening together.
On Broadway, audiences found the show schizoid, presumably thrown by the abrupt shift from 19th to 20th century and the fact that the modern George’s laser-emitting “Chromolume” sculptures seemed only distantly related to his great-grandfather’s painstakingly applied dots of color. Patrons at the Kreeger Theater should have no such trouble, since Schaeffer has turned the Chromolume display into a snappy lesson in video optics that shreds Seurat’s painting into individual pixels and then digitally reconstructs it.
While the effects designed by West Production Services Inc. for this sequence are decidedly underwhelming (neither sophisticated nor perplexing enough to warrant the libretto’s subsequent ooh!’s and huh?’s), the sequence does clarify the connection between the two Georges and the show’s two acts. It also allows the director to construct a lovely moment during the elderly Marie’s dream-song, “Children and Art,” in which her reveries about her parents’ love affair briefly transform the Chromolume’s distorted rendering of Seurat’s landscape back into the original painting. Seurat’s pointillism, which seemed so technical to his contemporaries and which even looks stiff to the audience when compared with the supple forms of the actors, is thus made to seem natural, soft, and comforting. In other words, Schaeffer has made visual, as befits a show about painters and video artists, the notion that through exposure and understanding people eventually get the hang of art, and that artists must therefore “Move On,” as the lyrics accompanying Sondheim’s most soaring Sunday melody have it.
When Marie signs off with a weary “Goodbye, Mama,” at the end of the song, the squarish pixels reassert themselves, and you realize that Schaeffer has not only made all those connections, but has subtly turned the sequence into an eloquent illustration of a first-act song called “Beautiful,” in which Seurat’s aging mother (lusciously full-voiced Dana Krueger) hallucinated about changes destroying her world, and urged her son (“Quick, draw it all, Georgie”) to use art to preserve it.
After that, anyone who can’t connect the dots between first and second acts just isn’t paying attention. But there’s more. The director emphasizes the kinship of the two Georges through costuming, and he ties together the video graphics of the Chromolume with other staging devicessuch as the video-display terminals that hold George’s place in the sardonic schmoozefest “Putting It Together” (alas, another idea that’s better conceived than executed).
Frankly though, such physical details matter less than the psychological nuances the director teases from the text, most of which make the two Georges seem less obsessive and more human. Dot and Marie are empathetic creatures alreadyparticularly as played by Larsen, who has fine comic sense and a flashy sopranobut Seurat, as written, is a pretty cold fish, and his great-grandson has serious problems with commitment. Or rather, those things seemed true before Viviano got hold of the characters and thawed some of the art-world chill both use as a social buffer. Viviano’s Seurat is anxious and committed when protecting his artistic turf, but not fierce, and in most of his dealings with Dot he seems nearly as caring and vulnerable as she does. This makes a hash of one moment of cruelty involving a painting Dot wants, but it allows the audience to embrace Seurat until then. And if the contemporary George talks like a technofreak, he can still fall apart while staring at a tree or thinking about his grandmother. When authoritatively ferocious Mandy Patinkin played the character on Broadway, the final scene’s chatter concerning “order, design, tension, balance” seemed to be exclusively about art. Viviano’s George (whose clear, sweet tenor sounds uncannily like Patinkin’s) seems also to be thinking of family and relationships, and those added emphases deepen a moment that Sondheim’s gathering chords always made musically powerful. Now, the second act’s conclusion, with its celebration of human as well as artistic “possibilities,” is as breath-catching and emotionally rending as the first act’s concluding hymn to artistry.
The cast is fine and sometimes more than that, with Wallace Acton a beleaguered treat as both a 19th-century servant and a 20th-century tech guy and Donna Migliaccio (who played Dot when Schaeffer staged an amateur production of this show nine years ago for Arlington Stage) delectable as two amusingly different vulgarians. Also a standout is April Harr Blandin, who was Clara in Schaeffer’s Passion, and gets to separate the flirty and down-to-earth qualities she displayed in that part for two separate characters here.
The production isn’t flawless. In the Kreeger’s 500-seat auditorium, the show has a bit of the Broadway-style distance that Signature’s solo productions in its 100-seat warehouse have been able to avoid. The orchestrations, which include synthesizers where once there were strings, sound a bit thin. And at first, during a draggy, colorless opening 20 minutes, it seems the director’s strategy for strengthening the second act must have something to do with deadening the first. Even Allen Lee Hughes’ otherwise gorgeous lighting starts out flat. But by the fourth of some 17 numbers, the tempo has picked up and the show has hit its stride. (I should note that opening-night jitters may have affected the first act of the premiere. It’s hard to imagine that performers as adept as Viviano and Larsen will continue to throw away their staccato duet, “Color and Light,” by performing it quasi-conversationally. Her eyebrow-plucking and his paint-daubing both need to be precise, outsize, and on the beat to achieve tension or comic effect, and definitely weren’t.)
These are quibbles. The show remains a vivid, stimulating, intelligent treat for those who look for such qualities in musical theater. Not everyone does, of course. But if you do, and you’ve not seen Sunday, you should.
The press reported that Bob Fosse died on Sept. 23, 1987, at 7:23 p.m., but I was at the National Theater that night watching Sweet Charity, so I know the press got it wrong. Seven twenty-three was roughly the moment a stagewide railing was rising from the floor, along which 10 bizarrely angular women were about to drape themselves like so much overstarched laundrylimbs protruding in odd directions, bodies hanging from elbows and knees as if held by cosmic clothespins. By the time these chorines reached the railing, the audience was going nuts, cheering the imageone that was specifically, exclusively, deliriously Fosseand fatal heart attacks or no, you just couldn’t count a man out when his stage magic was still casting spells so mesmerizing.
It would have been nice if that production had been a fitting memorial to Fosse, but fate isn’t always kind. Sweet Charity had never been much more than a showcase for its star, and in a revival toplined by sweetly bland Donna McKechnie (one-time muse of the director’s chief competitor, Michael Bennett), there was a void at the center where Charity should have been. Even so, the cast had drilled with Fosse that very afternoon, and at the premiere, the production numbers popped and fizzed as if they were still in the throes of creation. “Perfect or not,” I wrote at the time, “we’ll never see its like again.”
Allow me to eat those words.
Chicago, now at that same National Theater a decade later, is very much its like. So much so, in factwith choreography “in the style of” Fosse by his longtime companion/interpreter Anne Reinkingthat the evening sometimes seems as much resurrection as revival. Framed in gold, attired in basic black, and stripped of all nonessential production values (in a staging devised for City Center’s Encores! concert series), this self-styled “drop dead musical” is at once a spell-binding homage to Broadway’s prince of glitz and proof that his particular brand of glitz had less to do with sequins and neon than is usually supposed.
It’s also hugely entertaining. John Kander’s jazzy riffs and Fred Ebb’s wry lyrics remain brassily sulfurous as they employ vaudeville conventions to celebrate murder, adultery, greed, treachery, “and all those things near and dear to our hearts.” In 1975, when Chicago’s tale of stage-struck murderesses riding scandals to stardom opened on Broadway, that scenario still seemed darkly satirical. Post-O.J. Simpson, it feels more observant than cynical, merely an excuse to take potshots at propriety while having some devious fun with a killer band, stiletto heels, and the occasional ostrich plume.
If Fosse’s corrosive Broadway mounting in 1975 felt seedier, it wasn’t a whit more wicked. And at the National, the cheekiness is compounded by casting Johnnie Cochran look-alike Obba Babatundé as the silver-tongued, platinum-throated defense lawyer who claims he can get acquittals for Velma (sexy, hard-working Jasmine Guy in a dress that, were it half an inch shorter, would be a bathing suit) and Roxie (sweetly smashing understudy Belle Calaway, subbing for an injured Charlotte d’Amboise), if they cough up enough cash and keep themselves in the headlines. All three of the leads are splendid, and they’re backed by the snappiest touring cast to hit town in years. If I’ve ever seen this many undulating washboard stomachs, sinuous sinews, and well-turned ankles in one place, I don’t remember it (and believe me, I would).
Where Fosse used to eliminate every extraneous movement, as if he’d looked at real life and refined it until what was left was dance, Reinking is looser. Fosse’s characters didn’t walk, they strutted, with every snap of every head seeming to focus your eye somewhere. Reinking sometimes lets you sit back and watch the crowd. And what a crowdknees locked, wrists and elbows working at cross-purposes, fingers drumming on hips or wrapping slinkily around thighs. The show would sometimes appear populated entirely by sexy contortionists were it not for the presence of the orchestra onstagea hotter band than one finds at most musicals, led smartly by hometown boy Rob Bowman.
Also terrific is big guy Ron Orbach, who plays Roxie’s nebbishy husband, and scores both with his jokes and with a sad-sack vaudeville number; M.E. Spencer is a hoot as a sob-sister from the dailies, and Carol Woods outblueses the whole cast of Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues in her big solo.
The impact of their predecessors in the roles was a trifle different in 1975, when Chicago was subtitled “a musical vaudeville” and was designed not just to show off the prowess of its cast and director but also to celebrate tawdry, sometimes actively raunchy, ’20s showbiz styles. Seventies Broadway was hungry for a taste of “the ol’ razzle-dazzle” it had somehow let slip away. Chicago served it up sour, with costumes that made its cast look bruised and battered.
A Chorus Line, which opened off-Broadway about a minute and a half earlier, served it up sweet, and audiences, as they generally do, opted for sweet. The sanitized sizzle of Walter Bobbie’s Chicago staging attests that everyone’s learned a lesson. We’re now asked to be nostalgic, not for racy ’20s vaudeville, but for Fosse’s ’70s nostalgia for racy ’20s vaudeville. Twice removed. Cleaned up. Everyone in black tie. No question: This one’s more fun. Fosse’s was sharper, leaner, meaner.
And it had two things going for it that this one, for all its flash and energy, simply can’t: Gwen Verdon and Chita Rivera. They were, respectively, the most celebrated Broadway dancers of the ’50s and ’60s, and their joint appearance in 1975 as Roxie and Velma was a very big Broadway deal. That the plot kept them dancing solos all night, and never let them so much as twirl an ankle in unison until the very last number, provided tension enough to power three such extravaganzas. So when they finally ambled forward with derby hats and canes to perform “Hot Honey Rag,” just before taking their bows, audiences roared their approval.
The effect in the revival (where “Hot Honey Rag” is the only dance that’s duplicated step by step and credited exclusively to Fosse) is tamer. It was never a splashy number, because it didn’t have to be, designed as it was to celebrate the careerlong stardom of two stellar stage personalities. It’s a victory lap, and with Verdon and Rivera, both clearly champions, it was triumphant. Guy and Calaway may someday have wattage enough to make such a number work, but at present they don’t. Give them time and a few more shows. For now, the number is a pleasant little coda rather than a flat-out thrill.
Everything leading up to it, however, is electrifying.CP