Broadway's Hot Ticket: 12/14/98
(The Blue Room)
One of the things I like about New York is that when all the world around us is lurching into economic and political chaos, with the President days away from getting impeached in the House, and major corporations all over the country firing people left and right so their balance-sheet profits can make their stock rise (when they aren't merging with foreign companies, after which they'll start firing people left and right etcetera), papers like the Daily News put everything in perspective. What was their Monday cover page--the top story of the day? NAKED NICOLE TAKES BROADWAY. Yes, a review of The Blue Room, the sold-out Broadway show starring the scientologist wife of Tom Cruise.
Well, Georgia and I saw the show Thursday night from a pair of strategically placed audience left orchestra seats. And naturally I have been trying to come up with the perfect response when people ask me, "What did you think?" Here are my candidates so far:
1. Pure theatrical Viagra, no. Pure acting class in need of Viagra, yes. (The "pure theatrical Viagra" line is an actual quote from Charles Spencer's Daily Telegraph review of the Donmar Warehouse production .)
2. Watching this show is like stepping into a theatre in the middle of Los Angeles. The play is not the point; being seen to attend the play is. In the same vein:
3. What we have here is a limited-run example of Hollywood's Law of Hookers in action. Whenever box office stars "slum"--i.e., presume to act parts that remotely resemble real people with real dirt on them--like hookers, say--the military industrial entertainment complex starts saying things like: "It's daring. It's real." When it isn't either one.
4. The art film production values--basically harsh lighting, bare stage, a lot of bare flesh--seem phony. Like a pose. Like art direction, rather than art.
5. You think with all the money behind this thing, they could have thrown another check at David Hare to get him to do a rewrite which might actually turn the script into something that could be played by non-star actors and still get an audience--instead of something safe and trendily shocking which will never be performed again anywhere at all outside of Los Angeles (where it will undoubtedly star Yasmine Bleeth and David Hasselhoff).
6. You know Huckleberry Finn? You know how they con everybody in town into seeing The Royal Nonesuch? And then rely on all the suckers to pass the word around, so everybody can get rooked equally, because nobody wants to look like a fool for saying that there's no there there? Same thing--except in this case, there's no bare there. Yeah, you get to see Nicole's naked butt for all of three seconds while Iain Glen slides her briefs onto her; and maybe if you're propitiously placed in a down-in-front audience right seat you might even get to see a flash of bosom while Glen uncovers her earlier in the same scene. But the truth is, Mr Glen is more naked than Nicole, and for far longer. We're talking full frontal here. He even does a cartwheel.
7. Overheard during the planning stages: "Let's do a play that's tailor-made for Nicole Kidman--thin and colorless!"
8. Instead of walking out of the theatre saying, "Wow!--that was GREAT!" you walk out of the theatre saying, "Wow! How did they make all of those quick costume changes?"
9. There's more excitement in the crowd waiting outside the stage door to see Nicole dash into her waiting limo than there is in the theatre.
10. Seriously: Nicole Kidman's skin makes Xerox paper look tanned.
The Last Disappointing Musical of the Century: 12/23/98
1. Not only is Ragtime not bad actor proof, it's not even mediocre actor proof. We went last night because we wanted to catch Brian Stokes Mitchell and Audra MacDonald before they left (Marrin Mazzie left last week). Unfortunately Mitchell's future replacement did the show last night, and while he's a decent song and dance man, there was no passion, no life. We spent a great deal of energy imagining what the part of Coalhouse would be in the hands of a really good actor, as opposed to a really adequate one. The only time you could feel anything electric was when Audra was onstage--all I could think of was that if this show was a string of Christmas tree lights, only one of them would be working. And only because she had her own power supply, not because she was plugged in to the show, because the show had little power of its own. Why, you ask?
2. Really (really) (really) bad story construction. A mansion with a lot of rooms but no frame or foundation. Far too much stage time is wasted on characters who exist only as excuses for musical numbers (Evelyn Nesbit; Harry Houdini), musical numbers to justify the choreographer's salary (do we really need a ten minute dance number about Atlantic City?), musical numbers whose only justification is that the over-the-title actor needs a second-act song (Buffalo Nickel Photoplay Inc), and characters who have no business being part of the story in the first place (like the Grandfather, who has one quote unquote laugh line that doesn't even get a laugh). Far too little time is used to flesh out the main characters (Mother and Father). As a result, everything is cartoonish and obvious. (If Evelyn Nesbit squealed "Wheee!" one more time, I was going to shoot her in the head. Not that she would have felt anything.) And once the plot takes over in Act Two, the "atmosphere" characters from Act One (Nesbit, Houdini, Emma Goldman) have nothing to do but reprise their numbers and interrupt the narrative.
3. I got no sense at all that anyone connected with this production realizes that the demands of the stage are different from the demands of the novel. Instead, I saw a corporate decision to "stage" the novel, based on the faulty equation that as many different characters as possible equals a panorama. Which is like saying that a lot of notes equals a tune.
4. Speaking of which, Scott Joplin should get a creative credit, if only to acknowledge the pocket from which this repetitive score was picked. The only reason you walk out of the show humming the title tune is because in true Lloydwebber style, it's been beaten into your head for three hours.
5. Because a good hour of this three hour musical has been lost to inconsequential frippery, there's only time enough to tell the story in broad strokes. The result is a series of set pieces that don't hold together from one scene to the next (a woman abandons her baby in a garden; the next time we see her, she's cooing a love song to the kid? What's THAT all about?), supposedly dramatic choices that sound like parodies (I won't marry you until I get my car back) and scenes that should have resonance and weight but don't. (Father takes his son to the ball game because he thinks it's civilized; but it's not, it's rowdy and profane, and the kid joins right in. Does Father have a moment to take all this in, to process the difference between his expectations and the reality, and choose to either accept it or ignore it? Hell no--that would be good writing.)
6. Did I say writing? Puh-lease. And the bonus Ragtime Jeopardy round answer is: Because Ragtime won the Tony Award for Best Book. The correct question: Why is musical theatre dead as an art form?
7. Instead of real drama and confrontation, we have pseudo drama. The show is staged so that we're seeing what a little boy is seeing--he's constantly observing the action--but it's not a normal little boy, oh no, it's a Stephen King little boy who sees into the future, predicts explosions, and cries out "Warn the Duke!" every now and then until Houdini tells him he's performing in Sarajevo, at which point we all grab our heads and go "Ouch!" This is what passes for dramatic tension in the evening--waiting for the little boy's predictions to come true. It's the stuff of timeless drama, I mean I can't THINK of anything more exciting.
8. Oh yeah--no sarcasm to speak of, no humor, nothing to relieve the unrelieved earnestness, except Judy Kaye as Emma Goldman trying to light up her inflammable lines with a blowtorch. Didn't anybody have a sense of humor in 1902? Why not put Mark Twain on the stage, he was alive then, right?--oh--sorry--he wasn't in the novel--and God forbid we should do something that wasn't in the novel. Y'know, like, something "creative"?
9. The songs didn't propel the story--they interrupted it. In the clearest example of a missed opportunity, when Coalhouse goes to the courts and the law for justice, it should not be over in less than thirty seconds because then we don't feel any of his frustration with the system. It should be a separate musical number (call it "The Justice Rag") where we see the man get bounced around so inhumanely that when he picks up a gun, we want to hand him the bullets.
10. Let's say you're in a writing class, and your final exam is to adapt Ragtime to the stage. Here's what you do. First, you structure the Coalhouse/Sarah/car plot so that it can stand on its own no matter how many times it's interrupted by songs. Then you double-plot the Family stuff so that everything they do parallels the Coalhouse plot. Then you pick from the book only those characters and events that will resonate with your two plots, and you throw them into the mix and make them help you tell the story. If you have Evelyn Nesbit and Emma Goldman on stage, they need to have a scene with each other--they need to have a scene with the mother. Who cares if it isn't in the book? Doctorow played with history; what's stopping you from playing with Doctorow? Besides, y'know, lack of imagination.
11. I say, let's give Bill Clinton bad reviews and impeach Terrence McNally. And David Hare, while you're at it. (Yeah, I'm still bitching about Blue Room. But Hare made it such an easy target.)
Moses Supposes His Showses Good Grosses: 1/4/99
(Prince Of Egypt)
1. Sarcastic Review #1: "It puts the dead in dead serious."
2. It's a buddy movie with religion. It's Blood Brothers meets the Bible. It's Lethal Weapon meets Yahweh. ("I'm getting too Jewish for this." "Okay--plagues on the count of three. One, three!") ("For three is the number that thou shall countest. And the number of thy counting shalt be three. Neither shalt thou count to four, nor shalt thou count to two, unless proceeding directly to three. Five is right out.")
3. As a piece of serious animation, it's actually a step back from frivolous animation. Instead of speed and sweep, it's directed like a live action film, with facial close-ups and dramatic pauses and a lot of sighing, just as if there were real flesh and blood Method actors on the screen. (I have never heard so much sighing from cartoon characters in over 40 years of watching animation.) The problem being that facial close-ups don't work with line drawings--when you crosscut between Pharaoh's face and Moses' face and then back to Pharaoh's face, where we see him lower his eyes and sigh, it can't convey one-fiftieth of the emotional impact of watching Hurd Hatfield as Dorian Gray (possibly the blankest human face in film history). And it certainly can't compare with seeing Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner glower at each other.
4. Sarcastic Review #2: "This movie makes The Ten Commandments look like Citizen Kane."
5. The figure animation is serviceable. The background animation and the special affects sequences are superb. The story is strictly paint-by-numbers. It's like spending a million dollars on set and costumes just to stage DICK AND JANE.
6. After seeing it, I came up with Wells' First Law of Film: "No matter what the plot, the subtext is always about Hollywood." See, this isn't about the Bible, this isn't about Moses versus Pharaoh, it's about Jeffrey Katzenberg versus Michael Eisner. And the God of Abraham Isaac and Jacob is just a mask for the real God here, the God of Mickey and Goofy and Donald. Eisner builds monuments to himself, trying to surpass the monuments of his father figure Walt. Eisner wants Katzenberg to rule his kingdom with him, and have actors like Michelle Pfeiffer roped into voicing sanctily-clad Pocahontas-type characters. But Katzenberg helps Pfeiffer escape, and in doing so he discovers his true identity. He will deliver his animators out of bondage. He will lead his Chosen People out of the Eisner-dominated desert and into the Promised Land because he and he alone can hear the secret voice of Disney, the One True God. Poor Eisner. He still worships false gods with animal heads. So he must lose his son and his brother. He must watch his armies get destroyed by state of the art CGI animation. And then he will fall to his knees and cry out the name of his brother, but his brother will not hear him. For his brother is on the mountaintop, and that is where the movie ends, with Katzenberg coming down from on high and standing there, his back to us, his unseen face looking out at the employees of his new studio, and in his arms are two big paychecks signed by Steven Spielberg.
7. Sarcastic Review #3: "It puts the "gypped" in "Egypt."