Thursday, October 17, 2013

Lady Day

The songs are there, but the singer who made them famous isn’t. Billie Holiday is long dead, of course, but I didn’t encounter much of her spirit in Lady Day, starring Tony and multiple Grammy Award winner Dee Dee Bridgewater as the late, legendary jazz artist in the newly revised biographical play at the Little Shubert Theatre.

This isn’t what I expected. Before this New York debut, Lady Day, written and directed by Stephen Stahl, was produced at the Theatre de Boulogne-Billancourt and Theatre du Gymnase Marie Bell in Paris, as well as The Donmar Warehouse and The Piccadilly Theatre in London, where it received critical praise and earned an Olivier nomination for Bridgewater. (She won a Tony in 1975 for her role as Glinda in The Wiz.) But the show wasn’t believable to me or my friend Colleen, in spite of the fact that Bridgewater won the 2011 Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Album for "Eleanora Fagan (1915-1959): To Billie With Love From Dee Dee." (Eleanora Fagan was Billie’s birth name.)

With that background, Billie’s soul should have ruled the stage. Could it have been an off night for Bridgewater? I had been scheduled to see the the show last week but was reassigned because she was out suffering from exhaustion. From what I saw this week, the play -- or at least the spoken parts -- seemed to be suffering from exhaustion. It had the feel of one of those shows that’s been around for years, through multiple cast replacements, that limps along on its former reputation. The theatre was at least a third empty, adding to that feeling.

The biggest problems are with Stahl’s direction and script. He follows a typical biographical play form in which the character talks about her life, either to other characters or the audience -- in this case both -- to give background, then sings, then talks some more, with flashbacks thrown in. Unfortunately, Lady Day’s flashbacks don’t work. Stahl has Bridgewater reenact them, which is awkward at best, especially in the case of her being raped at 10. Seeing an adult woman trying to portray this horrible episode reminded me of someone trying to give a clue during a game of charades. These scenes, in the first act as Billie is rehearsing in a London theatre in 1954, rob the show of the emotional impact it should have in Act Two when a drunk Billie takes the stage for that night’s concert. I wasn’t involved with Billie as I should have been.

The evening would have been far better had the play been scrapped and Bridgewater allowed to just sing Billie Holiday’s songs, which she does nicely. The show includes more than two dozen of the standards Holiday made famous, including "Don't Explain," "Good Morning Heartache," "A Foggy Day (In London Town)," "Them There Eyes," "Strange Fruit," "My Man," "God Bless the Child" and "Mean to Me."

Bridgewater looks the part in Act Two in a shimmery gown, white mink stole and Holiday's signature gardenias in her hair (costumes by Patricia A. Hibbert). But too often in between numbers she addresses her audience to tell stories of her life; the one about being arrested in Philadelphia rambled on far too long. When she wasn’t singing, I was quite often bored.

A concert rather than a play also would be far better for the musicians -- Jim Cammack on bass, Neil Johnson saxophone, Jerome Jennings drums and Bill Jolly piano (he is also the musical director) who are onstage with speaking roles. As musicians they are fabulous, as actors, not so. But then the script leaves them little to work with. They are “cats” and sound like a 1940s wholesome, flat movie version of band members.

David Ayers plays Robert, Billie's manager, and in the role usually played by Rafael Poueriet, Jorge Cordova was the assistant stage manager the night I was there.

For more information visit

Friday, October 11, 2013

The Glass Menagerie

Celia Keenan-Bolger isn’t alone on stage in director John Tiffany’s Broadway revival of The Glass Menagerie. The great two-time Tony winner Cherry Jones is also up there with her at the Booth Theatre. But no matter what drama was transpiring in this Tennessee Williams classic, my eyes never strayed far from Keenan-Bolger. Even when she knelt or sat silently in the shadows, her Laura dominated the stage for me.

I’ve never viewed The Glass Menagerie this way before. It was always Amanda’s play, and it would seem that has long been the experience of critics and audiences, since discussions of the play always center on who played Amanda and how was she, starting with the first, Laurette Taylor, and continuing through the years with Jessica Tandy, Julie Harris and Jessica Lange, to name a few. But I don't recall much discussion or commentary about great Lauras.

I mentioned how drawn to Laura I was to my friend Mary when we were leaving the theatre and she said she had the same reaction and that it reminded her of the first time she read the play and Laura had been the center of it for her. When she said that I remembered having the same response when I first read it as a sophomore in high school. It was Laura’s play to me then, but in my viewings since, Amanda always dominated.

Keenan-Bolger allowed me to see the play as I first had fallen in love with it. Her Laura is so fragile I felt she could shatter at any moment. I instinctively kept an eye on her because I wanted to protect her. With a childlike voice, frightened expression and cowering gestures, she seems ready to disintegrate, like some delicate plant that cannot last long in the harshness of the world.

The ghostlike quality that Keenan-Bolger captures so perfectly is the heart of Williams’s “memory play,” and is supported fully by Natasha Katz’s brooding lighting, which is like a fifth character in the play. The entrances and exits choreographed for Laura by Steven Hoggett are pure genius, making her all the more the haunting dream figure she is for her brother, Tom (Zachary Quinto), the play’s narrator. When he delivered his final lines, “Blow out your candles, Laura -- and so goodbye,” my eyes filled with tears.

This production, largely thanks to Keenan-Bolger, is just so heart-achingly sad and theatrically beautiful. I was completely transported, so much so that when the theatre doors opened after the matinee performance and the sun shone in, I was startled. I was fully engrossed, even though I know the play so well I can recite line after line in my mind with the actors. This was a new play for me, and I heartily thank Ms. Keenan-Bolger for that.

I imagine Williams would like this interpretation too, since it was his timid sister -- and domineering mother -- who inspired the play.

As for Amanda, Jones avoids making her the intentionally cruel mother sometimes portrayed, for which I am grateful. She captures Amanda’s gallantry, which I liked, yet I didn’t sense Amanda’s vulnerability. A faded southern belle deserted long ago by her husband -- that “telephone man who fell in love with long distances” -- she has plenty to be regretful about and catalogues these complaints readily, but Jones has such a carry-on type force that I didn’t see the weakness and pain underneath. She might have an accent, but her spirit is pure Yankee.

Quinto’s Tom is a nice balance of a young man trapped between his sense of obligation and his overpowering desire to escape. He loves his severely shy and “crippled” sister and his nagging mother too, but he wants to be a writer and have a life of his own. Quinto never allows Tom’s anger to go over the top, though, which is a relief because I’ve seen some explosive Toms before. I’m sure Williams would appreciate this too since Tom is the Williams character in the play.

The three actors connect and fail to connect just as they are supposed to in this sad family. They are people who love each other, just not in the way each needs to be loved.

Last to appear is the would-be savior, the Gentleman Caller Amanda has prodded Tom into bringing home from work to meet Laura, whom Amanda desperately wants to marry off. Brian J. Smith (in photo with Keenan-Bolger) is the most likable of the Gentleman Callers, whose name is Jim, I’ve seen. He and Keenan-Bolger have a natural chemistry that makes their time together seem real as he helps Laura emerge briefly from her shell.

Set designer Bob Crowley (who also did the Depression-era costumes) has taken a counterintuitive approach to creating the claustrophobic St. Louis tenement that is so depressing for Amanda, a trap for Tom and a refuge for Laura where she can escape into the world of her glass animal collection. Rather than show the walls that hem the characters in, he offers an open stage with a few pieces of furniture to indicate the living room and the dining room. The oppressiveness is conveyed by a fire escape rising out of sight that dominates the stage, and by Katz’s lighting and Nico Muhly’s haunting original music.

Haunting is the word that best describes this production in general, all the haunting, painful memories that are what this play is about. One scene in particular will stay with me forever, or at least I hope it will. Laura kneels on the living room floor with the horn from the unicorn figurine, her favorite, that was knocked off of the table while she and Jim were dancing. Jim has gone, having disillusioned Laura and Amanda by declaring he had a fiancĂ©. (He hadn’t known his invitation to dinner was a setup for Laura.) Keenan-Bolger, alone in the living room, holds the horn before her eyes and stares long and intensely at it, as if she can see the future in it. Then in one decisive gesture, she tosses it away and I felt I could see a door shut in her mind, as if she were purposefully closing down to all joy and possibility. It was a quiet moment, one that with a gesture and a look rocked with emotion and power. I felt I was watching someone die. It was one of the most painfully beautiful scenes I’ve experienced in the theatre.

This production of The Glass Menagerie, first produced at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, MA last winter, has extended its Broadway run until February 23, 2014, having originally been scheduled to end Jan. 5.  For information, visit

Thursday, October 3, 2013

A Man's World

Frank Ware is a young novelist in the New York of 1909 who is gaining a reputation for writing about the city’s underclass. When word gets out that Frank is a woman, the general assumption is that she must be getting help from a man. Frank laughs off that slight, but the sexism she will face later is much more personal, forcing her to choose between her long-held beliefs and love in A Man’s World, the engaging revival of Rachel Crothers’s 1910 drama directed by Michael Hardart at the Metropolitan Playhouse.

Living in a Greenwich Village walkup with Kiddie (Michael Fader), a 7-year-old boy she has adopted, Frank (Kathleen Dobbs) is independent and upbeat, and quite sure of her place in the world. The equality of women is a given to her.

“I’m a natural woman -- because I’m a free one,” she says, explaining that her father had told her stories and taken her everywhere with him to give her a broad education. “I began to balance men and women very early -- and the more I knew -- the more I tho’t the women had the worst of it.”

An assortment of artistic friends and neighbors make themselves at home in her apartment and she seems content with her life, which besides writing also includes working with disadvantaged women. When Frank is not around, the friends speculate about Kiddie’s parentage, most assuming that he is her child.

The issue is forced when Frank falls in love with Malcolm Gaskell (Kelly Dean Cooper) who loves her too and wants to marry her, provided Kiddie isn’t hers.  A woman with an illegitimate child is completely unacceptable to him.

A miniature portrait of Kiddie that a neighbor, Clara (Kendall Rileigh), has painted exposes the hypocrisy of his stance. As the friends study it, they become convinced they see a resemblance to Malcolm. Frank learns of their suspicions and confronts Malcolm, who is shocked at the idea, but doesn’t see a man with an illegitimate child as any kind of obstacle in a relationship.

“A man wants the mother of his children to be the purest woman in the world,” he says.

Frank understands all too well.

“Yes, and a man expects the purest woman in the world to forgive him anything -- everything,” she says. “It’s wrong. It’s hideously wrong.”

It is wrong, but women still live with inequality, mostly now it terms of income, so the play doesn’t feel dated. The assumptions Frank challenges are still out there and it in many ways it continues to be a man’s world.

Crothers (1878-1958) didn’t live to see this sexual double standard overturned. Interestingly, she wrote A Man’s World early in her career, one of the 23 plays she would pen. I was happy to discover her at the Mint Theater, first with Susan and God in 2006 and then with A Little Journey in 2011. I like her courageous female characters who struggle to live life on their own terms.

Metropolitan Playhouse has done an splendid job of giving this work new life. All parts of the production come together well. I especially liked Dobbs’s portrayal of Frank as strong, intelligent and extremely likable. And artistic director Alex Roe has created sets that are part Victorian, part bohemian and fit just right in the limited space the theatre has for a stage.

The production runs through Oct. 13. For information and tickets, visit