Thursday, March 28, 2013

Hands on a Hardbody

If the radio in the shiny red pickup onstage at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre had been turned on, we could at least have had some good music to listen to during the two-and-a-half-hour drudgery of Hands on a Hardbody, the new Broadway musical inspired by a 1997 documentary about a bunch of down-on-their-luck Texans competing to win a truck. Instead, everything about this show about an endurance contest proves to be an endurance contest of its own.

I had assumed before I went that choreography could be limited -- it is almost nonexistent -- since the 10 people competing to win the truck (the hardbody of the title. Sorry, I know the word conjures a more interesting image.) must keep one hand on it at all times, but I kept hoping Sergio Trujillo, who did the musical staging, would allow them to step away and dance out their pasts in flashbacks or their dreams of the future. But no, they stand by their truck for six hours, then a 15-minute break and it’s back to the contest, waiting to see who will be the last one standing in the hot Texas sun.

OK, so that takes care of the choreography, one of the most important elements of a Broadway musical. That shortcoming could be overcome with good music but, as I’ve indicated, that won’t be found here either. The songs (lyrics by Amanda Green and music by Trey Anastasio and Green) are bland pop/rock when they should be all-out country. As the Dixie Chicks would say, “Let it rip.” Too bad they didn’t write the music. I love their CDs. Or Kristin Chenoweth who wrote a couple of songs for her country CD, Some Lessons Learned, that are true examples of the genre. One would even be appropriate, the hilarious “What Would Dolly Do?”, with its line: “So . . . Take your truck and shove it/ I know how much you love it/ And it’s a good thing ‘cause that’s where you’re moving to.”

I love country music and expected a lively evening of it, evoking a small town in east Texas, but instead got a country-lite version that took away any feeling specifically of Texas. The location (set design by Christine Jones) could have been any tacky dealership in New Jersey or on Long Island. I wish director Neil Pepe had camped it up, playing up Texas’ redneck image for some fun. 

Transforming a documentary into a Broadway musical takes more imagination than this show offers. Could this musical be saved, without good music or rousing choreography? Maybe, if the characters were interesting, which they are not. (Book by Doug Wright, a Pulitzer Prize winner for I Am My Own Wife.) Rather, they’re one-dimensional stereotypes -- a Bible-toting Christian, a troubled veteran -- the most boring people I can recall encountering onstage. Too bad because the cast includes Keith Carradine and Hunter Foster. They deserve better.

 Hardbody premiered at La Jolla Playhouse, where it received good reviews, prompting its move to Broadway. But at least one veteran of the Great White Way might have felt the way I did. After the show I saw Neil Simon trudging up the aisle and he looked as weary as I felt. It was a long night for us all.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Culture Project Will Rename Its Mainstage Theatre, The Lynn Redgrave Theatre

This article by Andrew Gans appears on today's

Culture Project has announced that it will rename its mainstage theatre, currently known as 45 Bleecker Street, the Lynn Redgrave Theatre this June.

A naming ceremony and commemorative gala in honor of the late Ms. Redgrave will be held June 3 at Stage 48 (605 W. 48th St.). Honorary Chairs for the evening are Vanessa Redgrave, Liam Neeson and Ms. Redgrave’s three children, Annabel Clark, Ben Clark and Pema Clark.

“To be entrusted with the preservation of even a small portion of Lynn's legacy is a glorious honor,” said Culture Project founder and artistic director Allan Buchman in a statement. “We hope to infuse her passions in the area of playwriting, education, and the joy of acting into all of our endeavors. Certainly, the Redgrave name in theater exemplifies the highest commitment to the theatrical arts in conjunction with a bold advocacy to human rights and social justice that is the defining purpose of Culture Project.”

Lynn Redgrave appeared in the original run of Culture Project’s The Exonerated as Sonia “Sunny” Jacobs. Culture Project was also instrumental to the development of Ms. Redgrave’s third play, Nightingale, presenting a number of developmental public readings of the play. Ms. Redgrave was last seen on the Culture Project stage in 2007 with her sister Vanessa and brother Corin in A Question of Impeachment, a series of evenings exploring the case for the impeachment of former President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.

Culture Project is dedicated to "addressing critical human rights issues by shining an artistic spotlight on injustice." For more information visit

Culture Project is currently presenting Shaheed: The Dream and Death of Benazir Bhutto.

Monday, March 18, 2013


 Like most people, I first heard of Ann Richards, the late one-term governor of Texas, when she gave the keynote address at the 1988 Democratic National Convention in Atlanta and referred to Republican presidential candidate George H. W. Bush as having been born with a silver foot in his mouth.

It was a hilarious remark from the salty, white-haired politician and yet it isn’t uttered in Ann, the one-woman biographical play written and performed by Holland Taylor. This is unfortunate because the show, now at the Vivian Beaumont Theater under the direction of Benjamin Endsley Klein, is in serious need of humor.

Richards, who died in 2006, was a colorful character, and certainly, as her stage persona tells us, an unlikely person to win the governorship in good-old-boy Texas in 1990, being that she was a woman, a divorced woman, a recovering alcoholic woman and a Democratic woman.

“I was not on anybody’s list of a public servant,” she says, recounting her start in elective office as a county commissioner.

Taylor had been fascinated by Richards for a long time, enough to spend four years researching, interviewing, writing and developing this two-hour piece. It’s clear she did much work and her portrayal seems real, but I just felt I was stuck in the presence of a colossal bore who didn’t know when to shut up.

As I was walking home I thought of Calvin Trillin’s description of the politicians on the Sunday morning talk shows; he referred to them as “sabbath gas bags.” That’s what I felt I was watching, only I couldn’t change the channel or turn off the TV.

This shouldn’t have surprised me. I’ve been a political reporter and a campaign press secretary and know from those experiences that politicians are rarely pleasant company, being as self-involved as most are. It’s much more fun, though, to cover politics and enjoy witnessing the fools those people make of themselves; it’s much harder to work in politics and have to clean up the foolishness.

Ann begins with Richards at a podium giving a commencement address at an imaginary college in Texas (sets by Michael Fagin). From this devise she is able to share her life’s story -- the only child of hardworking, uneducated parents, growing up during the Depression in rural Texas, marriage at 19 to a man she loved who would become a civil rights lawyer, domestic life as a mother of four, her drinking, divorce, getting sober and public life as a politician.

The podium gives way to the governor’s office as we witness her juggling her harried work life -- phone call from Bill Clinton, steering her children’s lives, keeping her unseen staff hopping. (Julie White is heard as her assistant in voiceovers.)

With her white hair (wig design by Paul Huntley) and white suit (costumes by Julie Weiss), it’s easy to imagine her going to a costume party as a tampon, as she delights in telling us she did. That rather vulgar image stuck in my mind. Not much else has.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Talley's Folly

I went back and forth throughout most of the 97-minute revival of Lanford Wilson’s Talley’s Folly -- first I liked it, then I was bored, then I liked it, until the end when my mind was clearly made up. It proved to be an unexpectedly charming love story that sent me out of the Laura Pels Theatre in high spirits.

What had been pleasing me and alternately annoying me was Danny Burstein’s character, Matt Friedman, a Jewish immigrant who likes to talk -- a lot. Burstein is a gifted actor and the reason I went to see the show. The times in the play when I was restless were the ones where I felt I was seeing a variation on the stock character of the neurotic Jew -- talkative, self-involved, wisecracking. But these moments are relieved by the laugh-out-loud funny ones, complete with the masterful physical comedy of Matt trying to navigate on ice skates across the rotting wooden floorboards of the set, and are fully redeemed at the light-filled ending.

Matt, a 42-year-old never-married accountant, has come on July 4, 1944 to a small town near Lebanon, Missouri, to woo back Sally Talley (Sarah Paulson), a 31-year-old never-married nurse’s aide with whom he had a brief fling the summer before. Matt faces not just the hurtle of an angry Sally who hasn’t heard from him in a year, but the anti-Semitic wrath of her Protestant brother who orders him off the property at gunpoint, something we learn about through Matt. The play features only Matt and Sally, which are all we need.

Both actors are perfect from start to finish, handling the humor, the anger and their revealed painful pasts with exquisite timing and emotion. They portray two wounded souls who have given up on any expectation of love. Or at least Sally has. Matt, the pursuer, has to convince Sally they are meant for each other.

Director Michael Wilson keeps the pace fast, but in terms of movement a little too hyper for me. Since it’s a play about how the past affects a relationship, with no particular action, Wilson seems to be trying to make up for it by having Burstein and Paulson walk up and down the boathouse steps and across the stage almost continually. It is distracting and unrealistic. Less movement would have been appreciated because the story proves to be rich enough.

The folly of the title refers to Sally’s ancestor who wanted a gazebo, but his family objected to having one on the estate so he built a boathouse to look like a gazebo. It is here in this now broken-down and neglected spot that the action takes place. (Nice set by Jeff Cowie.)

 Talley’s Folly was first staged Off-Broadway in 1997 before moving to Broadway the following year, earning Lanford Wilson, who was known as the voice of the American outsider, the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and a Tony Award nomination for Best Play. It is part of Wilson's "Talley Trilogy," which also includes The Fifth of July and Talley and Son.

The revival is produced by Roundabout Theatre Company. Its run has been extended one week, now until May 12. For tickets and information, call (212) 719-1300 or visit

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

I Want to Hear the Invisible: The Collegiate Chorale Sings Glass and Golijov


By Mary Sheeran            

Melody that begins, soars, and resolves has become hard to find. Relentless, driving rhythms pound at us in restaurants and gyms. And in the world of (so-called) contemporary classical music, melody has given way to explorations of tonality and rhythm, of non-western music, and other journeys where, if the word “melodic” should appear, it is usually preceded by the word “unabashedly,” as if one should be abashed.

Minimalism emerged in music (notably by Steve Reich, John Adams, and Philip Glass) almost by necessity, as if composers were trying to find out where they were in all this, a search within a search. Although many feel that minimalist music merely adds to the noise and the driving rhythm, or think it is a boring reduction, it is rather a quest for the essential, or rather, the removal of anything that is not essential. Like moving from a three-story house to a New York apartment and figuring what to keep and what to toss.  Such tossing can hurt and unsettle.

In terms of spirituality (and music belongs in that realm), the process is a much more potent journey – an attempt to eliminate all but the very basics of flesh and spirit to discover a spiritual wholeness and a new way to see. This is one aim of chant, which one might call minimalist, or rather, minimalizing. Philip Glass’s work relies on chant, even if on the surface it seems that he only contributes to the noise of the world. Actually, he is working to get beyond it, and like chant, that can provide a spiritual experience. It means work, though.            

That was evident during a concert at Carnegie Hall last week with the Collegiate Chorale, which, under the capable direction of James Bagwell, presented Philip Glass’s Symphony No. 7 – A Toltec Symphony and Osvaldo Golijov’s Oceana. Both pieces are strong, dramatic, and feature interesting combinations of instruments and voices. Both were inspired by Latin American themes.            

The National Symphony Orchestra commissioned the piece to honor conductor Leonard Slatkin on his 60th birthday. In fact, Slatkin did the inviting, noting mischievously that he was happy to offer the commission to “someone who, at one time, I really hated.” He had earlier found Glass’s music boring.             Glass was inspired early on by the late Indian musician Ravi Shankar’s use of rhythm as structure, and his music is, well, unabashedly rhythmic. It often requires another human layer beyond instrumentality to deepen its dimensions and bring its richness to the forefront. This is best exemplified by Jerome Robbins’ brilliant ballet, Glass Pieces, where Robbins not only brings the music’s rhythm and phrasing to an exciting level, but deepens it with dancers’ soaring arcs and then, when the music becomes profoundly intimate, expands it by bringing in a haunting rhythm with dancers in shadow. Robbins’ choreography brings out the spiritual qualities of Glass’s music that, superficially heard, could irritate the listener (as it obviously had irritated Slatkin at first).            

Glass claims that, for his seventh symphony, he drew on Mesoamerican themes from the Toltec culture, which reached its height between the years 700 and 1100, but is still in some ways alive today. The work is divided into three movements: The Corn, The Sacred Earth, and The Blue Deer (outlining a progression from the gifts of Mother Earth to the doorway to the Spirit and then to the human visions of the spiritual world).

His first movement is richly textured, starts slowly and haltingly, then builds in intensity and texture until the signature Glass rhythm appears. The movement ends quietly, but it has taken us to an expectant place.

As if the orchestra were no longer enough, the second movement brings in another dimension: Glass incorporates a wordless chant (rather words that have no sense) and uses the chorus to add to the urgency of the musical pulse that intensifies it even more. Program notes tell us this was a chant Glass had transcribed from “a 90-year-old Mexican man chanting in the desert, singing to a plant or something.” Glass’s second movement is mesmerizing, but it is the words that are not words, combined with the music, combined with the singers, and combined with whatever level of spiritual maturity listeners can bring to it that make this a beautiful piece and not irritating noise. (You can listen to the second movement here:

The third movement begins quietly with more stopping and starting over than one would want to feel after the first two. We westerners, after we’ve explored something, we expect to get somewhere! In fact, we arrive at another place of tension. Glass signals that clearly. If the third movement sounds like movie music in spots, that’s because it is. It’s a reworking of Glass’ music for "Powaggatsi," a Hopi word meaning a life in transition. That film focused on the conflict in underdeveloped countries between tradition and industrialization. The peace of the movement contains an underlying tension, and the journey ends like most: Did you find what you wanted to find or do we have to start out again?

I don’t know exactly how the Toltecs figure into this. One could probably make a case for each of the movements in the Toltec terms outlined in the program notes, but the whole idea could be an affectation, or perhaps it’s a hook Glass uses to illustrate the journey his music must inevitably generate for the listener. Glass’s music cannot exist with just Glass alone. It needs you.

The opening of Golijov’s Oceana led to a place that will not come back, at least, that’s what I wrote in my notes. The harp took center stage, and the work also featured guitars, rainsticks, a small chorus of women, the larger choir, the full orchestra – and oh, yes, a jazz singer. 

Golijov, who draws on a background that combines Argentina, Israel, and the United States, wrote this sprawling piece for the Oregon Bach Festival in 1996.  For it, he selected a poem from Cantos Ceremonial by the Nobel Prize winner Pablo Neruda of Chile. Golijov called Neruda the Latin American Bach – and the argument goes that both Golijov and Neruda transform passion into geometry. I’m not sure that’s right, about Bach anyway, but it’s an idea. Golijov took a deconstructing poetic text and deconstructed it further, passing sentence fragments, words, syllables, and sounds from chorus, chamber choir, and soloist. This could have led to a dizzying experience, but what holds it together and keeps us from getting lost, is the commanding authority of the jazz soloist, in this case, Bella da Costa. She took all those partials and threaded them together, transforming the geometry back into passion and accomplishing what Neruda (translated here) wrote: “I want to hear the invisible…Give me the secret wine contained in each syllable." Another spiritual search, brought intensively and beautifully, home.

“I want to hear the invisible.” That probably sums up the intent of this concert and these pieces. James Bagwell kept all these disparate elements under control, and the chorus even in its wordless chanting, performed precisely and accurately, not that easy with the ever-changing time signatures. One could have wished for one more short piece to have linked these two, letting the audience sit back a bit, but even without that, it was a most successful evening for the Collegiate Chorale.

The Collegiate Chorale, James Bagwell, Music Director, presenting Symphony No. 7 – A Toltec Symphony by Philip Glass and Oceana by Osvaldo Golijov. With Bella da Costa, Vocalist; Manhattan Girls Chorus; The Collegiate Chorale; and the American Symphony Orchestra. James Bagwell, Conductor. At Carnegie Hall, Feb. 27.

Mary Sheeran is a singer, editor, and the author of the novels Quest of the Sleeping Princess and Who Have the Power. Her CD, Through the Years, is available on CD Baby.