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Early on in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, there’s a bit of dialogue that neatly sums up the main problem with the graceless and insanely overproduced stage version that’ll be camped out at the Kennedy Center until September. When the dimwitted but hunky hunter-gatherer, Gaston, wonders aloud how Belle can stand reading a book that doesn’t have any pictures, she gets in a good-hearted sneer (which, come to think of it, is the sort of thing only Disney heroines can carry off) at his expense: “Some of us prefer to use our imaginations.”
There, as one of our more thoughtful dramatists once remarked, is the rub. Yes, Beauty and the Beast is a spectacular show, and yes, there are genuine pleasures to be found among Alan Menken’s unforgettable tunes. The half-dozen preserved intact from the blockbuster film, with lyrics by the late Howard Ashman, are the best, but at least one of the Broadway additions—a rousing ensemble number called “When We’re Human Again”—is nearly as memorable. It’s surprising, too, how effectively Menken knits the score together by ringing changes on an evocative little seven-note theme that first appears in the overture.
Visually, of course, it’s a stunner. On Broadway, apparently, events unfolded against a backdrop of springtime green, but the powers that be moved the action to autumn for the touring production, allowing designer Stan Meyer to indulge himself in gorgeous scarlets, purples, blues, and golds. And those much-discussed special effects—the Enchantress’ showy conjuring, the Beast’s ultimate midair transfiguration—do provide a few sorely needed moments of wonder (though I, for one, found the sight of a child’s disembodied head on a tea tray slightly unnerving).
What works against all this in the end, though—what strips the stage version of most of the movie’s considerable heart and charm—is that in this particular enchanted kingdom, flights of fancy on the audience’s part are strictly unauthorized. Characters are never content to signify where they can spell out, never willing to drop a pun or double an entendre without a wink and a nudge (and sometimes an explicit explanation). Never mind that creating a “place for the mind to expand,” as Beast costume designer Ann Hould-Ward put it in a radio interview a couple of years back, is what legit theater does best. This production makes it clear that Hould-Ward and her fellow Imagineers, with their lifelike Beast makeup and their extraordinary patented magic-spell effects, wouldn’t dream of taking the audience’s intelligence for granted. They don’t trust us to look at the flashlight beam reflected off the hand mirror and think “Tinkerbell,” so they’ve gone and spent millions of dollars to make it all look real. They’ve done all the work of theater for us.
Neither the playwright nor the players in The Gigli Concert, as presented at Woolly Mammoth, is prepared to let the audience simply come along for the ride. Anyone watching this fiercely intelligent drama has got to think and judge and question and think again. Tom Murphy’s characters are so obsessive, so brilliantly talky, and so deeply screwed up that one theatergoer, after an evening’s reflection, cracked wise about calling it The Dublin Traviata. But that’s not quite fair: Terrence McNally’s decidedly irregular opera queens look blithely happy by comparison.
J.P.W. King, the drunken Englishman who practices the discredited pseudo-psychiatric “science” of Dynamatology, and the prosperous, troubled Irish Man who comes to consult him in The Gigli Concert have little in common except their desperation—and so inevitably, ironically, they form an unlikely friendship based on that bond. Caught between a go-nowhere affair with the affectionate but married Mona (Kim Schraf, effective in a small, sympathetic role) and a hopeless yearning after another, even more unattainable woman, J.P.W. is just intelligent enough to comprehend what a ruin he has become and just English enough to find a kind of grim satisfaction in hating himself for it.
When the play opens, he’s at rock bottom, taking refuge from his crushing failure in rivers of vodka; later, after the Irish Man gives him something else to distract himself with, he keeps despair at bay with breathless torrents of empty verbiage, meaningless philosophical expositions on “existential guilt” that let him deal with the abstract instead of the real, even as he struggles with a growing longing for one genuinely transcendent experience to redeem his sorry life. Love is the adventure he has his sights set on, but Murphy means us to understand that any real, meaningful experience—an act of courage, a chance at kindness—would do as well.
If J.P.W. has the dubious advantage of knowing what he’s missing, the Irish Man, a construction contractor who clawed his way to success from a brutal working-class childhood, isn’t practiced enough at self-awareness to understand the consuming desire that brings him to J.P.W.’s office—a curious and overpowering yearning to sing, specifically to sing just like the Italian tenor Beniamino Gigli. It is both a specific goal and a symbol (if he can teach himself to do this thing, he’ll have transformed himself enough to make anything possible), and it has its roots, as it transpires, in a long-suppressed and never-articulated craving that echoes J.P.W.’s—a desperate hunger for the sublime, a need to escape the ordinary and find some kind of transfiguring experience.
Mona, too, is looking for something, though her needs are at once less complex and more elusive: a child despite her barrenness, a fulfilling relationship despite her affinity for unhappy or selfish men.
Woolly artistic director Howard Shalwitz, in a rare and bracing acting turn, is nothing short of brilliant as J.P.W.; he’s unkempt and unpleasant and so unbearably frantic at times that he actually drools on Anne Gibson’s extravagantly seedy office set, which looks like something out of film noir. His performance is so intense, so close to over-the-top that it could almost be funny; instead, it’s horrifyingly riveting, like a particularly gruesome traffic accident. Mitchell Hébert (the Woolly artist formerly known as Mitchell Patrick) broods menacingly as the Irish Man; the frequency with which the character erupts in anger would tax the resources of any actor, so it’s even more impressive that Hébert is able to keep one spectacularly terrifying explosion in reserve for a crucial scene.
After that cathartic moment, a resolution is inevitable, but Murphy doesn’t take the easy road. J.P.W. and the Irish Man both wrestle their demons into submission, but one finds what looks to be a more permanent peace. The other—well, the other looks happy, but he may have to revisit the issue at another date.
It takes some mental gymnastics to get everything out of The Gigli Concert that Murphy has buried in it; my first reaction, I’m not ashamed to admit, was something along the lines of “Huh?” The light didn’t dawn until I stopped trying to make sense of the characters’ magnificent but utterly nonsensical rants. They’re just smoke screens—dazzlingly written arias for virtuoso actors, designed to help the characters stave off paralyzing fear. When you understand that, you understand why it so often sounds as though J.P.W. and the Irish Man are engaged in two utterly unrelated conversations—even though they’re on the same wavelength from the very beginning.CP