Monday, August 24, 2015

New play explores the ambiguity of war

As a junior at Bucknell University, Ken Urban was only vaguely aware of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, but that horror happening a world away would have a strong impact on his future. The trigger came years later, when Urban read Philip Gourevitch's We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda
The book haunted him and prompted him to read more. Implications of the Roman Catholic church's involvement especially drew him in: Urban was raised in the tradition, with 12 years of Catholic education. The playwright in him saw dramatic possibilities, but it took many years and many drafts to bring him to where he is now, sitting on a stool at the closed bar in Manhattan's 59E59 Theaters, where his play "Sense of an Ending" will have its U.S. premiere Aug. 20 and will run through Sept. 6. 
"It feels like the right time to tell this story," he said. "It's not about race in America, but it's a story of race in the world."
At the center of the play are two Hutu Benedictine nuns, Sister Justina and Sister Alice, who have been in prison for five years, suspected of complicity with Hutu extremists in the massacre of thousands of Tutsis, burned to death in a church where they had taken refuge.  As the play opens, the sisters prepare to be send to Belgium for trial for war crimes committed during the genocide in Rwanda, a colony of Belgium’s at the time.
Sister Justina and Sister Alice were inspired by two real-life sisters, Sister Gertrude and Sister Maria Kisito, who in 2001 were sentenced to 15 and 12 years in prison, respectively. Urban said their story needed some tweaking.  
"They were so clearly guilty that it didn't give me many places to go as a writer," he said.
He found that the key to dramatizing all the tragedy he was researching was to release his adherence to the facts and blend them with fiction. "Then it crystalized."
"It was more dramatically satisfying to let go of the facts and make the truth more ambiguous."
Truth and its illusiveness are the dominant themes of the play, carried out through the main character, Charles, a New York Times reporter who has lost his credibility with his editors because of plagiarism. He needs to redeem himself and thinks a story proving that the sisters are actually innocent would do that. He arrives in Rwanda for an exclusive interview and sets about to write the story he wants rather than searching for the truth until a survivor comes forth to challenge his quest.
"Americans are really frustrated with moral ambiguity," Urban said.
In crafting his characters, Urban didn't consult any nuns, trusting instead in his Catholic background. Although he is no longer practicing, much of his family is, and his mother recently retired after teaching third-grade religion for more than 25 years at St. Mary of the Lakes School in Medford, N.J.
"The material kind of spoke to me," he said. "I felt I had been educated enough by nuns that I had a good feeling for them."
He said he also didn't consult experts on the genocide and didn't visit the country because airfare was too expensive.
"It was me alone doing lots of research," Urban said.
Part of that research included becoming intimately acquainted with a video interview of a survivor of the church massacre. "I would watch it over and over until I made myself physically sick."
He compared it to the way he remembers experiencing the Stations of the Cross as a child, putting himself in Jesus' shoes.
"I was walking through their steps. That's what theater does," he said. "It was a radical act of empathizing."
But it had its consequences.
"I found myself having terrible nightmares, waking up screaming. I felt I was being murdered by the Hutu militia," he said.
The play received good reviews in its London premiere in the spring, often drawing waiting lists of as many as 45 people for the 60-seat Theatre503. Some survivors told him he had truthfully captured their experience.
"That was gratifying because I haven't lived through it," he said.
As the play explores the role of faith and responsibility in the face of violence, no character is either completely full of blame or blameless.
"They're all deeply human," Urban said. "We would hope that faith makes you responsible to try to stop violence. Is killing people the same thing as not trying to stop killings? Are both morally culpable? It's because I didn't have the answers that I wrote the play."
In addition to writing plays, Urban, who holds a doctorate in English literature from Rutgers University, also teaches the subject, formerly at Harvard and now at Princeton. The London production of "Sense of an Ending" was the result of connections he made in 2011 as a fellow at one of the city's prestigious theatres, the Donmar Warehouse.
As a storyteller, he relates to protagonist Charles, who, as a journalist, is supposed to be a seeker after truth. But in the play, as in life, finding it is not easy.
"It's hard for someone to believe in the truth," Urban said. "The more he goes into it, the more it seems an illusion. The truth is not ever going to be clear. If truth is not possible, what does that mean about forgiveness?"
Charles, who moves from certainty to uncertainty as the play progresses, sums up the quandary well: "What do I do? Tell truths, tell lies, tell what I know, or what I think I know. Tell the readers, our bosses, what they want to know to save my own skin. Maybe the problem is these categories -- truth, lies -- they just don't make sense anymore. Maybe they never did."

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Joni Mitchell song inspired Edinburgh-bound play

     More than a decade ago, the lyrics of a Joni Mitchell song called “Magdalen Laundries” struck a cord with Erin Layton. 

These bloodless brides of Jesus/If they had just once glimpsed their groom/Then they’d know, and they’d drop the stones/concealed behind their rosaries.

  Wondering what a Magdalen Laundry was, Layton did some research and found out about the Catholic convents in Ireland where unwed mothers, orphans, disabled girls, prostitutes and even merely high-spirited young women were sent to live and work in servitude to, as it was thought, atone for their sins. The commercial laundries operated from 1830 until 1996.

Layton was shocked by what she read, both by the treatment of the women from the nuns and that she had never heard of the laundries. The images stayed with her as she pursued her acting career. Then, in 2010, as Layton was hoping to develop a one-woman project, she thought of the dramatic possibilities of portraying the lives of those women. She booked a trip to Dublin, her first to the land of her father’s forbearers, to visit what was left of the laundries and try to find people with memories of those days.

Now, five years after that visit, she will be heading back across the Atlantic. This time she will be the one educating people about this black mark in Irish Catholic history with her one-woman play, Magdalen, at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in Scotland, the world’s largest arts festival. In August, she will join more than 3,300 performers, presenting her show 27 times. 

“My hope is to be a voice,” she said. “I want to put it on to the best of my ability and get people to wake up and listen.”

Layton, 37, talked about her journey from hearing a Joni Mitchell song — she jokingly calls Mitchell her co-writer — to preparing for the famous arts festival while sitting in the second floor lobby of 59E59 Theaters. She had been chosen as one of 19 performers to be part of this year’s East to Edinburgh series. Hosted each year by the Off-Broadway theatre as a way to help shows get on their feet before flying off to Scotland, East to Edinburgh simulates the same production constraints that all shows experience during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, while giving them a nurturing space to fine-tune their productions. New Yorkers also get the opportunity to see some of the most adventurous theater from around the city and across the United States.

“As an actress, the voice of the outcast has always been of interest to me,” Layton said. “I’m interested in people who don’t have anything. We can learn from them.”

An estimated 30,000 women were confined in these institutions in Ireland over the years. In 1993, a mass grave containing 155 corpses was uncovered in the convent grounds of one of the laundries. A decade later, following an 18-month inquiry that found significant state collusion in admitting women to the institutions, a formal state apology was issued, with a plan to compensate survivors. The Catholic church has not contributed to this fund nor apologized. 

For her play, which runs “a fast 60 minutes,” Layton drew from Frances Finnegan’s Do Penance or Perish: Magdalen Asylums in Ireland to help her create the 10 characters. She collaborated with director Julie Kline to develop a script. She also worked with Justice for the Magdalens, which has an office in Philadelphia, to get a listing of the sites in Ireland and listened to recordings of different Irish dialects so she could differentiate her characters as being from various parts of the country.

“Between 2011 and the present I’ve written at least 15 drafts,” she says. 

The play is set in a Magdalen laundry in North Dublin, transitioning in time between 1948 and 1998. It has been published by Indie Theater Now in its Best of Fringe 2012 (from the New York Fringe where her play premiered that year) and its Plays by Women collection.

Layton, who grew up Catholic and is now a Presbyterian, estimates she has performed the show nearly 40 times in the last three years.  She says audience response has been overwhelmingly positive.

“People are stunned, shocked. A lot of people had no sense this had happened,” she said.

“The play could be about any oppression of women. We see it all the time. This is a universal issue, women incarcerated for being weak. The material sells itself.”

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Traveling Papers

     I traveled extensively last week, and I didn’t have to pack a bag, juggle reservations or wait at customs.  I journeyed with my imagination, which was fueled by the enthusiasm and talent of the seven cast members of Traveling Papers, a charming evening of storytelling that recently ended a run at the Lion Theatre.

     Like most people, I have enjoyed being told stories since I was a child, which is why it was so delightful to sit in the theatre and listen as the cast, under the direction of Barbara Bosch, presented writings that have explored our connections to travel through selections from novels, poetry, short stories, personal letters and other literary works by Mark Twain, Edith Wharton, Anthony Bourdain, W. Somerset Maugham, Michael Clinton, Paul Theroux, Edna Ferber, Robert Frost, Rosemary Mahoney, Walt Whitman, Charles Dickens, Rudyard Kipling, Alice Steinbach and Peter Mayle, among many others.  

     Using little more in the way of props than an occasional exaggerated mustache to transform women into men, Gwen Arment, John Camera, Kyle Doherty, Gwen Eyster, Peter Husovsky (in photo), Macy Idzakovich (in photo) and Jillian Stevens are the audience’s passport to the joys and frustrations of traveling. 

    “The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.”  This thought from St. Augustine was one of the many short quotes woven throughout the longer, acted out passages.  Others quoted in this way are as diverse as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Yogi Berra. 

     The longest selection was Somerset Maugham’s Winter Cruise, in which a spinster tea shop owner (Arment) drives her fellow passengers and crew crazy with her boring, endless talking until they fix upon the notion that what she needs is a lover, and they set about to get her one.  This is presented in three segments interspersed throughout the show, a nice way to build the suspense. 

     In another offering, Arment’s presentation of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s A Letter from Venice is atmospheric and descriptive, as is the whole company’s recitation of Walt Whitman’s Song of the Open Road.  

     Traveling Papers was conceived and adapted by Bosch and Martin Tackel, with lighting by Edward R.F. Matthews, sound by Brian Hurley, costumes by Lui Konno and graphic design by Maria T. Card. 

     The show’s 90 minutes with no intermission are just right for transporting an audience of 21st century New Yorkers to worlds far away in time and distance.  As another of the show’s authors, Lao Tzu, said: “A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving.”  Traveling Papers is just such a journey, and perfect for an early summer evening. 

Monday, June 1, 2015

The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek

     Playwright Athol Fugard has once again brought the pain and beauty of South Africa to life with his latest play, The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek, which is having its world premiere under his direction at the Signature Theatre through June 14.

     As in his 1985 play The Road to Mecca, Fugard celebrates the healing power of artistic expression, a subject dear to him as a white South African writing about the injustices of apartheid in his country. When he spoke at Baltimore’s CenterStage many years ago, he said laws can change governments but only the arts can change hearts.

     The hearts that are changed in Painted Rocks belong to Nukain (Leon Addison Brown, in photo), an elderly farmworker, and Bokkie (Caleb McLaughlin), the 11-year-old boy who looks to him for love and guidance. Nukain’s creative outlet has been painting colorful designs, which he calls his “flowers,” on the rocks on the estate of his employer, but now he is weary.  The first act is set in 1981 at Revolver Creek, Mpumalanga Province, where Nukain and Bokkie are the visible examples of apartheid’s evils — poor, black, uneducated and treated practically as slaves.

     One big unpainted rock, larger than Nukain, sits at the center of the stage, surrounded by smaller ones he has decorated over the years, amounting to more than 100, although this multitude is not seen. He tells Bokkie he is afraid of that one, that it has no eyes and is like the white rulers of the country.  

     “They got eyes but do not see us,” he says.

     But something in him clicks and he decides to give that rock eyes, instructing Bokkie to hand him his paintbrush with first white, then black and finally yellow paints. In creating the eyes, his passion grows and soon he is telling his life story to Bokkie in words while portraying it in symbols on the rock.  

     When he is finished, he stands back and proudly assesses what he has done.  He has expressed his manhood.  He feels heard.

     But his triumph is short-lived when the Mrs. arrives, his employer’s wife, Elmarie (Bianca Amato).  She looks at the rock with disgust at first but then horror after Bokkie tells her it is Nukain’s life story.  She instructs Nukain to return the following Sunday and paint over it.  

     With that, Nukain’s shoulders slump and, with bowed head, he assures her he will. Bokkie objects strongly until she silences him with her scolding, ending Act One.

     Act Two is set in 2003.  Bokkie has returned with paint to restore the rock and thus Nukain’s story as well. He is Jonathan now and a teacher; Bokkie is an Afrikaans term of endearment meaning little buck. He is met by a terrified Elmarie who points a pistol at him, not recognizing her former worker.  In this post-apartheid world she is now the one who is afraid.  A neighbor has been murdered by having a pitchfork driven into his throat and his wife was badly beaten and is on the verge of death. Elmarie’s land is now surrounded by a fence, but Jonathan had gotten in through a hole.

     Jonathan (Kevin Mambo) assures her he means no harm, that he is only there to repaint the rock.  At first she objects, but as they talk her fear gives way to weary resignation, the kind that had marked Nukain’s life.

     In a program note, Fugard said the play was suggested by the life of outsider artist Nukain Mabusa but that it is a work of fiction.

     All of the cast members are excellent and transported me  into that world.  Mambo deserves a special shoutout because he had to step in at the last minute for Sahr Ngaujah who was injured in a car accident and is unable to return. He was on-book but was totally in character anyway, especially in the highly emotional moments.  And McLaughlin is one talented young man, capturing Bokkie’s exuberance and what to me sounded like a spot-on South African idiom. 

   Christopher H. Barreca’s set portrays a sandy, hilly countryside, with that big rock dominating. Stephen Strawbridge’s lighting bakes it in African sunlight. Susan Hilferty’s costumes portray the poverty and ruggedness of the land and its time. 

     It was interesting for me to see this play, which has been extended twice,  in the same week I saw the Jacob Lawrence exhibit at MoMA. In 60 paintings, Lawrence portrays the northern migration of southern blacks in the early part of the 20th century, and the reason for it.  Like Nukain, Lawrence used art to tell a story.  I would go back to either of these shows in a heartbeat. 

Friday, May 29, 2015


     Billed as “a new musical about Hollywood’s tough guy in tap shoes,” Cagney, which opened last night at the York Theatre Company, is another refreshing show from a company that specializes in producing uplifting new musicals.

     Broadway veteran Robert Creighton is the powerhouse of talent behind the show, making its New York premiere through June 21. A triple threat — actor, singer and dancer — he also wrote the music and lyrics for several of the songs.  Christopher McGovern wrote the rest. 

     Short and stocky, Creighton would not normally be thought of as a leading man, unless that leading man happens to be the similarly built James Cagney, in which case Creighton seemed almost destine for the role.

     “When I was a student at The American Academy of Dramatic Arts, an acting teacher, Jack Melanos, told me I reminded him of Jimmy Cagney.  Thank you, Jack,” he writes in a program message. “At the time, my only knowledge of Cagney’s film work was having seen ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’ as a kid. I went and rented several Cagney films and thus began the obsession.”

     Unlike Creighton, I have never seen any of his films and knew nothing about his life.  Thanks to this musical, with its book by playwright Peter Colley and direction by Bill Castellino, I now know a good deal about Cagney’s biography, although his character is portrayed too one-sidedly sweet and wholesome to be the entire story.

   After an opening number about the ups and downs of Hollywood, “Black and White,” the story is framed by Cagney’s appearance in 1978 at the Screen Actors Guild awards to receive one for Lifetime Achievement. He’s talking with Jack Warner (Bruce Sabath), the head of Warner Brothers Studios who gave Cagney his first movie role and wants to take credit for finding “a tough guy to give the Depression-era public what it wanted.”

   But Cagney, who had broken with and rejoined the studio several times, has an answer for his former boss.  “You didn’t create that.  The streets of New York did.”

    In between that frame we see Cagney, born of Irish ancestry on the Lower East Side, stumble into show business in 1922 after losing his job as a laborer. Checking out the Help Wanteds with his brother, Bill (Josh Walden), he finds one for a dancer at Keith’s Musical Theatre and goes to check it out. Proving to be surprisingly light on his feet, he dances his way into the chorus, where he is dressed as a woman, and also performs standup comedy, thus beginning his life in vaudeville.

     In a nutshell, the stage and Hollywood follow, along with a happy marriage to Willie (Ellen Zolezzi), his first dancing partner at Keith’s.   He is called before a House of Representatives committee to answer charges that he is a Communist sympathizer because he contributes to labor organizations and sent money for the Scottsboro Boys defense.  This contributes to one of his splits from Warner Brothers, but also after portraying “dumb women-slapping Micks” in 28 movies, he wants to play different roles, so he forms his own production company. 

     “I long to bring some light, to make art that feeds the soul,” he says. “I want to make movies that inspire people.” He expresses this longing in “How Will I Be Remembered?”    

     “How will I be remembered when they roll my final reel — a gangster, a villain a bum?”

     Unfortunately Cagney Productions is a failure, but the actor does achieve success apart from the bad guy roles, namely for his Oscar-winning portrayal of George M. Cohan in the musical “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” In addition to Creighton’s and McGovern’s original songs, Cagney also includes three Cohan songs, “Grand Old Flag,” "Over There" and “Yankee Doodle Dandy”, sung rousingly by the company, which also includes Jeremy Benton as Bob Hope (and others) and Danette Holden as Ma Cagney (and others). 

     Mark Pirolo’s projections enhance James Morgan’s minimalist sets.  Amy Clark creates nice period costumes and Brian Nason provides the lighting. All of this is understated, which is just fine because the show needs little more than a stage and its talented cast.

     All of the actors are good tappers, but Benton really shines in his solo to “Harrigan,” played by the onstage band, and he and Creighton bring down the house together dancing to “Crazy ‘Bout You.”  Joshua Bergasse does a great job choreographing on that tiny stage. (He is currently represented on Broadway as choreographer for On the Town, for which he received a Tony nomination).

     All sing well, too, especially Zolezzi.   And the acting is good, even if the characters are a bit one-dimensional.  The scenes with Cagney are the best.  The two-hours, 15-minutes running time could be trimmed by cutting some of the others, which slow the story.   Not the tapping, though.  Leave in all of that.  It’s a joy!

(Photo by Carol Rosegg: Danette Holden, Jeremy Benton, Robert Creighton, Ellen Zolezzi and Josh Walden.)

Friday, May 15, 2015

'Divinely Inspired' Godspell

     Many people talk about theatre as a transformative experience, but few experience that transformation quite as drastically as Carol de Giere did when she discovered Godspell.

     Growing up in Madison, WI, she mostly saw movie musicals or what was being done at school.  Somehow one of the most widely produced musicals of all time never crossed her path until she was in her late 40s and living in Fairfield, Iowa, a town of about 10,000 residents.  Artistic offerings were limited in Fairfield, so when the local community theatre presented Godspell, de Giere was there.  And that was the beginning of the end of her days in Fairfield.

    “I felt myself being emotionally expanded,” said de Giere, 63, during a phone interview from her home in Bethel, CT.  “The score and the performances were so joyful.  It was just exhilarating to watch.  I felt like it had a spirt to it that was different from other musicals.  It lifted me out of the boundaries of the moment.”

     It also lifted her out to the midwest.  She quit her job as a librarian and with her husband, who had been laid off, moved to Connecticut to explore the musical theatre work of Godspell’s composer. 

     “I felt I needed to be near Broadway.  I wanted to be close to the creative pot to see what the chefs were brewing.”

    “I like writing behind the scenes,” she said. “Rather than write about a musical, I like to recreate the experience of being present at the creation.”

     She found Schwartz and cast members willing to talk about their experiences with Godspell, a show that began as a master’s thesis for John-Michael Tebelak at Carnegie Mellon University, a thesis that was initially rejected by his advisor.  It then had a stint Off, Off-Broadway where its potential was spotted by producers who brought on Schwarz, giving him five weeks to compose new music.  Godspell as we know it now opened Off-Broadway on May 17, 1971, then moved to Broadway for a total New York run of six years.  It has been translated into more than a half dozen languages, made into a movie and is still produced a couple hundred times each year somewhere in the world. 

     It all started with Tebelak, whose affection for religious material dated back to his childhood. His sister told de Giere that John-Michael loved the religious pageantry he experienced at the Episcopal Cathedral in Cleveland and would “redo the church service” when he got home, creating an altar, burning candles and offering a communion, “all the dramatic parts.”

     Years later when searching for a thesis topic, Tebelak considered several miracle and passion plays, but determined they were too heavy.  He started reading the gospels and discovered their joy. 

     “Tebebak resolved to attend a church service, and it was there that a spiritual experience, or lack thereof, completed the inspiration for the new musical,” de Giere writes.  

     On a snowy Easter morning in 1970, Tebelak attended the Anglican Cathedral in Pittsburgh and later told Dramatics Magazine about his experience: “An old priest came out and mumbled into a microphone, and people mumbled things back, and then everyone got up and left.  Instead of ‘healing’ the burden, or resurrecting the Christ, it seems those people had pushed Him back into the tomb.  They had refused to let Him come out that day.”

     As he was leaving the service, a policeman tried to frisk him, suspecting him of carrying drugs because of his hippie appearance.  “At that moment — I think because of the absurd situation — it angered me so much that I went home and realized what I wanted to do with the gospels: I wanted to make it the simple, joyful message that I felt the first time I read them and re-create the sense of community, which I did not share when I went to that service.”

     And so the roots of Godspell were grounded in Tebelak’s positive and negative experiences in the Anglican tradition.  

     Considering how many lives the show has touched, de Giere felt called to do a second book just on Godspell while the original cast members were still available to share their stories. The Godspell Experience: Inside a Transformative Musical, for which de Giere conducted nearly 40 interviews, features engaging anecdotes, exhaustive research and an analysis of the show’s songs, several of which come from the Episcopal hymnal.

     “I thought, ‘I’m probably the only person who’s going to do this.’  This is a time when people will remember.  They’re all in their 60s or deceased.  I’m writing for future generations.”

     Cast members tell lively stories about the creative process with Tebelak, who was the original director as well as the creator of this show drawn from the gospels. What made the musical so different was that it didn’t start with a script.  Tebelak, who died in 1985, had the actors improvise Jesus’ parables. What worked became part of the show.  It was confusing for the actors at first, but Tebelak had tapped into what was to become big time entertainment — improvisation, which later would be wildly successful in shows like “Saturday Night Live.”

     When Godspell was headed for Off-Broadway, the producers hired Schwartz to set the Episcopal lyrics to livelier music.  He drew from the artists he was listening to — James Taylor, the Mamas and the Papas, The Supremes, Elton John — to create a pastiche of his favorite pop styles. When additional lyrics were required, he turned to Biblical passages.   

     “Stephen was one of the first people to integrate popular music into the style of musical theatre,” de Giere says.  “It was innovative and it spoke to people musically.”

     Schwartz had rich material to work with in the Episcopal hymns.  Most of the lyrics for “Day by Day,” which was a breakout hit, were penned by Richard of Chichester (1197-1253), a bishop of Chichester in the United Kingdom who was canonized by Pope Urban IV in 1262. He wrote it in Latin without the beginning and ending words “day by day,” and it became hymn 429 in the 1940 hymnal. Schwartz simplified Chichester’s lyrics slightly and added some repetition.    

     The beautiful “All Good Gifts” was a harvest song from the hymnal that Tebelak remembered from Thanksgiving services, hymn 138, “We Plow the Fields, and Scatter.”  

     “Turn Back, O Man,” was inspired by hymn writer Clifford Bax, who wrote the piece in response to World War I.  Bax’s hymn was published in 1919.

     When Schwartz was looking for an uptempo number, the song often referred to in musical theatre as the “Eleven O’clock” number, Tebelak suggested hymn 229, with lyrics attributed to Thomas Benson Pollock, a graduate of Trinity College in Dublin who was ordained in 1870. The following year Pollock wrote “Father Hear Thy Children’s Call,” which, with Schwartz’s adaptation, became the lively “We Beseech Thee.”  
     Godspell’s score is one of the reasons for the show’s enduring popularity, de Giere says. Another is the non-didactic way the parables are presented. In clowning around, the actors draw out the humor, but not in a satirical way. When done properly, the show leaves the audience with a strong appreciation for Jesus’ message of compassion and fellowship.  

   In her epilogue, de Giere offers a reflection from former cast member Don Scardino: “I got letters from people who had quit drugs (including heroin), or gone back to their Bible, or patched up relationships with their mother or father after seeing Godspell.  They would say it’s the power of the show and you playing Jesus, and I knew it had nothing to do with me.  I would always write back and say it is the show.  The show is divinely inspired.”

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Renée Fleming makes her Broadway debut in Living on Love

     Opera superstar Renée Fleming looks as if she is having a ball with her Broadway debut in Living on Love, Joe DiPietro’s charming new comedy at the Longacre Theatre.  Actually the entire cast appears to be enjoying themselves, hamming it up in this show that seems modeled after a 1930s screwball comedy.

     Like those earlier shows, the outcome of this one, set in 1957 and based on the play Peccadillo by Garson Kanin, will never be in doubt.  It’s the getting to the end that is fun.  Director Kathleen Marshall keeps the action hopping for two hours.

     The plot centers around two fading luminaries of the music world, Fleming as Raquel De Angelis, an opera singer who has played the world’s great stages and now must settle for upstate New York and Fort Lauderdale — “Do they sing in Fort Lauderdale,” she asks — and her husband, Vito De Angelis (Douglas Sills), a once renowned conductor who spends his days mostly in bed or drinking wine.  

     Trying not to acknowledge their changing circumstances, they insist on being referred to as The Diva and The Maestro.  And don’t dare mention the name Maria Callas to her or Leonard Bernstein to him, not to these raging egos.  

     In keeping with this style of comedy, their rage is often directed at each other.  I thought of the 1937 Rodgers and Hart song “I Wish I Were in Love Again” with its line “the conversation with the flying plates,” only in their case it’s snow globes, given to each other from locations on their concert tours, that go flying. 

     Of course this mix is going to need a younger, on-their-way-up couple to balance The Diva and The Maestro and these parts are filled quite nicely by Robert Samson (Jerry O’Connell), a would-be novelist, and Iris Peabody (Anna Chlumsky), a publishing house assistant who dreams of being an editor.  

     Robert is the latest in a long line of ghostwriters — “spooky helper,” as the Italian-born Maestro says — hired by the publisher to help the great conductor write his memoir.  After Robert quits in frustration, Iris — “Irish” in The Maestro’s pronunciation — arrives to push for the manuscript’s completion or the return of the company’s $50,000 advance, which has already been spent, along with an additional $20,000.

     Realizing he has to finish the book, The Maestro asks “Irish” to help him. Seeing this as a way to fulfill her desire to be an editor, she readily agrees. When The Diva finds out, she wants a memoir of her own, to come out first, and brings Robert back to write it.

     So now two couples are rushing to finish competing books in the living room of the De Angelises’ lush penthouse (gorgeous set by Derek McLane, enhanced by Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting). And, you guessed it, not getting too far with that but young love is blooming. One of my favorite lines is when Iris says to the shy Robert, it’s so refreshing to meet a man lacking in self-confidence.  When I mentioned that comment to my friend Mary after the show she agreed it was great, adding, “isn’t it a shame you could never use it?”

     But that’s contemporary thinking, so let’s get back to our screwball world. We have two more stock characters and they are hilarious, the joined-at-the-hip butlers played by Blake Hammond and Scott Robertson, who also happen to sing opera and play the Steinway when their employers aren’t around.

     Everyone plays their parts to the hilt, just as they should with a show like this.  Fleming, wearing gorgeous dresses (costumes by Michael Krass), breaks into song from time to time, which is wonderful. She has seen enough divas in her day and she knows just how to satirize one, complete with her little dog, Puccini (Trixie) on her arm.  She has great comic timing and such an expressive face.  I hope she returns often to Broadway.

     Before opening here, Living on Love was seen in Williamstown, MA, but it fits nicely as well on Broadway, where it is scheduled to play until Aug. 2. More than 100 seats are set aside to be sold for $25 at every performance.