Thursday, September 22, 2022

Review of "Sunset Boulevard"

 The Music Theatre of Connecticut (MTC) has not been shy in reimagining large shows for their intimate performance space.  Their current offering of Sunset Boulevard fits this mold and is a mostly successful and entertaining rendering of the musical.

The show, with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Don Black and Charles Hampton, is based on the classic 1950 film of the same name.  The plot revolves around faded silent movie star, Norma Desmond, and her involvement with a young, disillusioned screenwriter, Joe Gillis.  Through a chance encounter at her large estate, she recruits him to help forge her comeback to the big screen.  The musical has romance, ruminations on the predatory and emasculating Hollywood environment, and a sad and tragic ending. 

In order for Sunset Boulevard to succeed on stage, there are four key roles that need to be flawlessly cast.  At the top of the list is the character of Norma Desmond and Elizabeth Ward Land is impressive in the role.  The actress imbues the character with pride, self-importance, and despair.  One moment she is a strong, yet deluded, soul, the next a fragile relic of the past.  Ms. Land possesses a glorious singing voice that both delicately and forcefully takes hold of such iconic numbers as “With One Look,” “The Perfect Year,” and “As If We Never Said Goodbye.”

For the other major role of Joe Gillis, MTC has brought in the superb actor, Trevor Martin.  From his first moments on stage, you are taken with his brash attitude and opinionated asides, His desperation is unmistakable as he tries to make it as a screenwriter in Hollywood and straddle the province of Ms Desmond and that of the “real world.”  Both Ms. Land and Mr. Martin infuse their performances with a wide range of facial expressions that enhance their characterizations.  

The two important featured players are filled out by James Patterson as Max Von Mayerling, the mostly silent and loyal servant of Norma Desmond; and Sandra Marante as Betty Schafer, the young studio assistant, who collaborates with Joe Gillis in more ways than one.  The composure and self-assurance they bring to their respective roles adds a crucial balance to the two leads and helps to flesh out the storyline, handily adapted by Don Black and Christopher Hampton from the movie screenplay.

The score by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Don Black, and Charles Hampton is tuneful (see the song list above) and contains bursts of optimism and revelry, but its essence is rooted in the film noir genre of cynicism and darker shadings.  There is the mocking, sarcastic overtones of “Let’s Have Lunch,” where Joe is unceremoniously told by the studio head that his services are not required; “The Greatest Star of All,” where Max solemnly intones the legend of Norma Desmond; to the show’s title number that Joe literally spews forth in a contemptuous diatribe.  All of the songs are brought forth under the capable hands of Musical Director David John Madore.

Director Kevin Connors, an MTC fixture for many years, knows how to make the most of his limited space to give the illusion of a larger production.  He skillfully incorporates the ensemble into a cohesive unit that works to fill out the show.  In the scenes with just Norma Desmond and/or Joe Gillis he sometimes gives the moment an almost cinematic touch.  To paraphrase a famous line from the musical (really, the movie) - “All right, Mr. Connors, I’m ready for my close-up.”  

His judicious use of projections adds a spark of creativity without relying on gimmicky theatrics.  I do wish he worked more with Scenic Designer Lindsay Fuori on the overall set to provide more glamor as well as decrepitude.  A couple of curtains and an unadorned, one-level staircase didn’t provide the necessary ambiance for the production.

Diane Vanderkroef’s Costume Designs are suitable for the era.  The outfits Jimm Halliday created for the Norma Desmond character are glittering, flashy, and elegant.  RJ Romeo’s black and white projections are well-done and help move the story forward though.  His overall Lighting Design lacks the nuance and complexity of the film noir genre, but his shimmering pool effect is quite impressive.  Will Atkin’s Sound Design is well-balanced, from the vocals to the dialogue. 

Sunset Boulevard, a show not often revived on Connecticut stages.  Playing at the Music Theatre of Connecticut through October 2, 2022.  Click here for information on dates, times, and tickets.

Tuesday, September 20, 2022

A Phantom of the Opera Memory

 Last week it was announced that The Phantom of the Opera will close on Broadway on February 18, 2023 after 35 years and 13,925 performances.

In January 1988, I was certain the show was going to be a huge hit before it opened on Broadway and bet a sizeable chunk of my department budget on this hunch.

At the time, I was living in New York City and was employed as the Associate Director of Student Activities at Barnard College (part of Columbia University).  I ran a discount ticket booth for the campus, selling hundreds of tickets via a program through the Theatre Development Fund.  As an avid theater-goer and procurer of theater news, I had read about the soon-to-open juggernaut.  I also discovered that the Schubert Organization was selling half-price orchestra seats for students.  The regular price - $50 (can you believe it?!), but I was able to purchase these seats – the last two rows of the orchestra – for only $25 a ticket.  I bought 500 tickets out of my meager budget and resold them at the discount rate - to undergraduates only - with no mark-up.  When Phantom did open and became the hottest ticket in town, I was soon everyone’s best friend.  High level administrators and faculty, who never gave me the time of day, were suddenly at my office door making indiscreet inquiries about ticket availability (I will admit I did succumb to some of the pleadings).

Soon after the musical opened the Schubert’s realized their blunder by pricing the discounted tickets for last two rows of the orchestra instead of a less desirable location.  Quickly, they moved these seats to the balcony.  I, however, was still sitting on my stash.

Looking back, I like to think I was making a Broadway hit accessible and affordable to hundreds of college students.

Saturday, September 3, 2022

Review of "Mr. Holland's Opus"

The musical Mr. Holland’s Opus, receiving its world premiere at the Ogunquit Playhouse, is problematic at best.  Based on the motion picture of the same name, the production follows the narrative of the film, but needlessly adds an element to the story (not in the movie) of the Vice Principal’s repressed gay feelings.  By incorporating such a plot point throughout the show, as well as a few others, the two main foci of the musical are not as fully developed as they could be.  These are Mr. Holland’s teaching and mentoring of generations of high school students and his relationship with his deaf son.

Photo by Nile Scott Studios.

As the show begins, we are introduced to a young couple, musician Glen Holland (Akron Watson) and his photographer wife, Iris (Anastasia Barzee).  Mr. Holland is working on his “great american symphony,” but with money tight he agrees, for a short time, to teach music at John F. Kennedy High School.  The temporary position eventually becomes an odyssey that ends up lasting 30 years.  

At the beginning of his journey we meet the tough, but fair-minded Principal, Helen Che-Jacobs (Veanne Cox); the prickly Vice Principal, Eugene Wolters (Timothy Gulan); and Bill Meister (Chris Orbach), the gym teacher who becomes Mr. Holland’s lifelong friend. Throughout his years in the public school we witness his tutelage of challenging students as he also inspires and imbues life lessons.  Unfortunately, the demands at school leave little time for his family, which now includes a son Cole (Joshua Castille).  Cole, much to the heartache of Mr. Holland, is deaf.  

Photo by Nile Scott Studios.

As time passes, the plot continually shifts between Mr. Holland’s two worlds.  The high school responsibilities receive more attention, much to the resentment and unhappiness of his growing son and wife.  However, by the show’s conclusion there is an affectionate rapproachement and understanding between father and son.

The musical, as with the film ends with Mr. Holland losing his position due to budget cuts. There is an outpouring of gratitude to the elder statesman of JFK High School from generations of his students and colleagues.  This culminates in a presentation of his finally completed symphony at an overflowing school assembly.

The actor B.D. Wong performs a trifecta with the show.  He wrote its book, the song’s lyrics, and directed the musical.  As librettist, the story comes across as a solid first draft.  The show would be hugely strengthened if a couple of subplots were jettisoned.  These include the ongoing angst over the Vice Principal’s sexual orientation and the recurring ghost-like presence of a childhood friend turned Top 40 artist.  The second act high school musical could also be shortened.  This would allow more time to enhance the various relationships Mr. Holland has with his students, family, and colleagues.  Certain scenes could also have a more satisfying resolution as when Mr. Holland’s wife confronts him about a possible liaison with a student.  After a big build-up it is just matter-of-factly resolved.  

Photo by Nile Scott Studios.
The musical could benefit by Director B.D. Wong infusing the production with more of an impassioned core.  The show should be one of joy and disquietude that tugs at our emotional heart strings.  I didn’t feel much tugging.  Choreographer Darren Lee enlivens the set with a few timely dances numbers, most notably in the production numbers for “Angels Getting Their Winds” and “Cole World.”

The score by Wayne Barker and B.D. Wong is straightforward and occasionally tuneful.  It serves the purpose of exploring the character’s inner feelings and moving the action forward.  The highlight of the production, the song that energies the show, is the Act II opener “Cole World,” where the audience is greeted by the teenage son of the Holland’s as he introduces his view of the world.

The cast is led by Akron Watson as Mr. Holland.  He has a marvelous singing voice and, within the confines of the book, ably expresses the pride, hopefulness and overall elation in working with his high school charges.  The actor also shows his range in the relationship he has with his son, from initial regret to eventual acceptance and celebration.

Anastasia Barzee gives a convincing performance as the harried, worried wife of Glen Holland.   Veanne Cox is superb as Principal Che-Jacobs.  The actress commands the stage with her presence.  She is proper without being priggish, deftly straddling the line between tartness and winsome.  Ms. Cox is also in good comedic form as a femme fatale in the imagination of the Vice Principal’s mind.   Timothy Gulan’s character of VP Wolters needs to be reexamined.  The performer does a very credible job of portraying the second in command as a complete jerk, but there is no nuance or redeeming quality  to the role.  He can be an adversary, but doesn’t need to be so off-putting.

Photo by Nile Scott Studios.

The breakout performance of the show is Joshua Castille as Cole.  He literally bursts onto the stage with exuberance and charism that adds a liveliness to the production.  The deaf performer brings a passion to his character and realism to the musical.  If the show does have an afterlife once its Ogunquit engagement has ended, I would hope he would be part of it.

Lex Liang’s Scenic Design is serviceable, but needs more to signify the passage of time.  B.D. Wong states in the program notes that securing the rights to music of the decades covered in the show were not possible.  However, projections of historic moments in time along with specially composed thematic music of the era would suffice.

Mr. Holland’s Opus, playing at the Ogunquit Playhouse through September 10.  Click here for dates, times, and ticket information.