Sunday, December 16, 2018

Review of "Network"

The stage adaptation of the 1976 film classic Network succeeds solely for the tour-de-force performance of Bryan Cranston as the aged, downtrodden newsman Howard Beale who, on the brink of professional collapse, rises Phoenix-like to become a modern-day prophet railing against corruption, greed, and political ineptitude.  There is a lot of flash and glitz to the production, courtesy of Scenic Designer Jan Versweyved, but it is the performance of Cranston, which sets the stage ablaze with fury and passion.

As with the movie, the focus is on Howard Beale, a venerable TV news anchorman for a second-rate network, who has been fired from his lofty position due to poor ratings, by his best friend, Max Schmacher (Tony Goldwyn), the news division head.  On his last broadcast Beale disregards the text scrolling on the telepromoter and goes on an impromptu, profanity-laden speech where he declares he will commit suicide on-the-air. Aghast, the network executives immediately fire him until his friend convinces them to give him one more chance for a dignified exit.  Once again, Beale starts ranting when the cameras begin rolling and the network looks to immediately cut ties with the seemingly off-hinged newsman.  However, unexpectedly, the ratings soar during the broadcast.  A young, driven producer, Diana Christensen (Tatiana Maslany), with questionable moral and ethical views, sees the potential of a ratings bonanza for a TV program allowing Beale to speak his mind and convinces the network’s higher-ups to keep him on the air.  At first, the Howard Beale show becomes a top-rated, money-making machine, but eventually the appeal wanes.  This triggers a series of cascading events, affecting the lives and careers of all the central protagonists.

In his screenplay for the film, written over 40 years ago, Paddy Chayefsky, was eerily prescient on the evolution of TV news and corporate consolidation.  What he fabricated then is common place today - the all-powerful influence of television, corporate intrusion into the newroom, the blending of news and entertainment (It was only one year after Network’s cinema release that Roone Arledge, President of ABC Sports, was promoted to President of ABC News), and the consolidation of media companies.  Even the birth of reality programming can be traced to the central plot of the movie.  Lee Hall’s adaptation of the screenplay is a faithful rendering, which highlights all the central plot points of the film.

Director Ivo Van Hove keeps the production fast-paced, mirroring the frenetic bustling and energy in a TV newsroom.  He scatters technology about the stage, giving the performance space a real TV studio feel.  The production dazzles when Van Hove has Cranston out front.  Otherwise, the corporate interplay and backstabbing, while intriguing, are not as compelling.  The relationship between Max and Diana is also not too engaging.  One of the central difficulties the director faces is creating cinematic type moments on stage.   He does, at times, succeed as when Arthur Jensen (Nick Wyman), the corporate president, stands high above the stage, preaching the gospel of corporate supremacy to a flummoxed Howard Beale.

As stated previously, the cast is led by the riveting performance of Brian Cranston as Howard Beale.  Superlatives such as triumphant, brilliant, and outstanding can all be used to describe his portrayal.  His “I’m mad as hell” speech is simply mesmerizing.  Tony Goldwyn instills the Max Schmacher character with a tired, defeated, and almost soul-less quality.  He has a foot in both the old and new world of electronic journalism.  The seasoned actor gives a passionate portrayal of a man who’s life, like his friend, is also spiraling out of control.  Tatiana Maslany imbues Diana Christensen with a cold-hearted determination who will do almost anything for a rating point or increased audience share.  But while appropriately callous and uncompassionate in her professional and personal life, she could have been even more icy and calculating.

Jan Versweyved set design is very high tech, the centerpiece being a large screen, which encompasses the back of the entire stage, bringing the action up front and personal.  At certain points, when the projection system is not displaying the activity on stage it can be somewhat distracting as the segmented screen shows multiple commercials from the late 1960’s, early-1970’s.  Remember “Please don’t squeeze the Charmin,” Alka Seltzer’s “That’s a spicey meatball,” and “Hai Karate?”

Network, a solid production with a magnificent performance by Bryan Cranston, now extended through April 28th on Broadway.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Review of "Hamilton"

The long-awaited juggernaut known as Hamilton arrived at the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts this week.  For theater-goers lucky enough to obtain tickets, they will encounter a production that lives up to the pre-arrival hype. 

The brilliance of the musical is not just because of the distinguished score by Lin-Manuel Miranda.  Every element in the show is breathtaking and combines to create a scintillating theatrical experience.

The show is based on the life of one of the founding fathers, Alexander Hamilton.  From my high school American history class, many years ago, I can only remember this historical figure as being the first Secretary of the United States Treasury and his duel with longtime nemesis, Aaron Burr.  That’s it.  In Hamilton, a more vivid picture of this arrogant, brash, patriotic, and talented man is presented.  Miranda, who also wrote the book of the musical, traces Hamilton’s life from the time he arrives in this country as a young immigrant to his appointment as George Washington’s senior aide during the Revolutionary War, his marriage, law practice in New York City, the many treatises he penned, including the majority of The Federalist Papers, his joustings with Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, and his untimely end.

Initially, this may sound like a dull subject for a musical, but Miranda brings his subject matter alive, distilling author Ron Chernow’s 827 page book into a history lesson for the ages.  Act One is more impelling and dynamic then Act Two because Hamilton’s life was more colorful and dramatic, as a theatrical presentation.  The second half of the musical, while gripping and full of backroom deals and politics, is less rousing as it revolves around the machinations of a new nation coming to grips with how to govern itself.

The spirited group of actors brings the material to vigorous life.  This isn’t the staid group of older white males from the musical 1776.  The multi-ethnic performers are young, hip, and full of intensity.  The cast is led by Austin Scott’s splendid, multi-layered portrayal of Alexander Hamilton.  The forefather is full of zeal, brimming with insolence and indignation, but also a cerebral and impassioned man.  Scott, tall and lanky, brings all these attributes to life.  Other notables include Paul Oakley Stovall as a stately and solemn George Washington; Bryson Bruce as a hang loose, chilled out Thomas Jefferson looking to find his groove; Josh Tower as the indecisive and disdained Aaron Burr; and Peter Matthew Smith as a hilarious, though perceptive, King George.

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s score fuses current musical trends, rap, and hip-hop with conventional Broadway melodies.  They meld beautifully into an energetic and electrifying whole that both Broadway purists and younger audiences can embrace.

The choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler, a frequent collaborator with Miranda, is simply dazzling.  He brings the urgency of a blossoming nation to the fore.  His dance arrangements and movements for the actors flow from the action and situations on stage as opposed to developing inorganically.  There are straightforward choreographed numbers, but the strength of his work in how totally ingrained it is within the very structure of the production.

Thomas Kail’s direction is exciting and powerfully framed.  His imagination is boundless and the inventiveness he conveys on stage is thrilling.   His collaboration with Blankenbuehler’s choreography is positively symbiotic.  He has a good feel for the material whether it is the combative events portrayed in the show or the more poignant moments surrounding the statesman.  Even with minimal props and scenery Kail creates a world we want to know more about.

Hamilton, already one of the highlights of this season’s Connecticut theater scene, playing at the Bushell Center for the Performing Arts through December 30th.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Review of "Paradise Blue"

In the early part of the 20th century, the Detroit neighborhood known as Black Bottom, was the center of African American life in the city.  It was one of the only areas where African Americans could legally reside and own businesses.  The Paradise Valley section was the entertainment epicenter where jazz music and nightclubs flourished until federal housing policies allowed prejudiced and intolerant local politicians to literally level the areas in the name of urban renewal.  
The cast of "Paradise Blue."  Photo by T. Charles Erickson. 
In the highly satisfying Paradise Blue, the playwright Dominique Morisseau has taken this little known historical event and crafted a tale that explores ambition, loyalty, and confronting the ghost of one’s past.  The play is the second in her trilogy known as “The Detroit Projects.”  All three shows are earmarked for Connecticut productions this season – Detroit ’67 will be on the boards at Hartford Stage beginning in February 2019 and The Skeleton Crew will be seen at The Westport Country Playhouse in June 2019.
Stephen Tyrone Williams in "Paradise Blue."  Photo by T. Charles Erickson.
The show revolves around Blue (Stephen Tyrone Williams), a struggling jazz club owner/player.  He is no-nonsense in the way he runs the nightclub he inherited from his deceased father and in his temperament in leading his musical quartet.  With the abrupt departure of their bass player, the only two musicians remaining are the pianist, Corn (Leon Addison Brown), an older man who is somewhat of a father figure to Blue and P-Sam (Freddie Fulton), an impetuous young drummer.  Blue’s live-in girlfriend Pumpkin (Margaret Odette), an obedient and passive woman who recites poetry while not cleaning and cooking (the club also functions as a rooming house), rounds out the group until a mysterious, flirtatious female named Silver (Carolyn Michelle Smith), takes a room in the joint.
Leon Addison Brown and Carolyn Michelle Smith in "Paradise Blue." Photo by T. Charles Erickson.
Silver, with her secretive background and motives, is the catalyst for the dramatic arc in the show.  Her interactions with each person causes them to consider anew their standing within the confines of the nightclub as well as their purpose in life.  This reevaluation spills over into direct confrontation as the play comes to its convulsive end.
Freddie Fulton, Leon Addison Brown and Stephen Tyrone Williams in "Paradise Blue." Photo by T. Charles Erickson.
Ms. Morisseau has created five distinct personalities that, through the course of the play, are shaken by life-changing decisions and turmoil.  They come across as fully fleshed out characters that have different motives, which are adeptly broadened as the play develops .  She incorporates soulful jazz music and a bit of other-worldly spirits to tell their story.  She nimbly incorporates societal and interpersonal practices of the time-period, all under the backdrop of political and social upheaval.

Stephen Tyrone Williams‘s Blue is a man buckling under the weight of self-imposed aspirations and a crippling psychosis.  The actor can be playful, stern, and bullheaded.  He gives a deeply layered performance of a man slowly succumbing to his inner demons.  Leon Addison Brown imbues Corn with a touch of old-school wisdom as well as weariness.  It is a deftly shaded portrayal of a man going through the motions of living until his zest for life is reawakened.  Carolyn Michelle Smith is sexy, independent and determined as Silver, a cagey seductress who stirs the pot within the jazz club with unexpected and daring results.  Margaret Odette’s Pumpkin is deferential and dutiful.  The actress is a simmering cauldron of pent-up emotions and fears that are unleashed at the show’s climax.  Freddie Fulton’s P-Sam can be juvenile and irresponsible. While not the most nuanced performance, his characterization does shine light on the loneliness and alienation African Americans felt during these times.
Carolyn Michelle Smith and Margaret Odette in "Paradise Blue." Photo by T. Charles Erickson,
Director Awoye Timpo sets down the parameters of the production from the get go.  Within the first ten minutes the audience knows a lot about each character and their possible motives.  He slowly, even cautiously, ratchets up the tension as the show progresses with once solid alliances becoming frayed and new relationships are created.  The developing friction is balanced with meditative moments and musical interludes that deepen the story.

Daniel Kluger’s sound design - from the melodious trumpet solos to the otherworldly resonances - is enriching and vibrant.  The simple nightclub setting by scenic designer Yu-Hsuan Chen is straightforward, with his upstairs apartment piece skillfully emerging in and out of view.

Paradise Blue, playing through December 16th at Long Wharf Theatre.