I recently spent a week in New York attending the American Theatre Critics Association conference. By day, we talked about gender parity in theater, the role of the critic in a changing media world, the development process for new musicals, and more. By night, well, by night I went to as much theater as humanly possible (including, yes, "Hamilton," which I'll get to in a later post).
Here’s the first installment in a series of blogs on what I saw.
An American in Paris
“An American in Paris” is certainly an eyeful (or, should I said, Eiffel?). It’s got stunning visual effects making for the some of the best use of projections and a choreographed set I’ve ever seen (the opening Nazi-to-French flag transformation is particularly gasp-worthy). It embraces ballet in ways that few Broadway musical do. And, at least for now, it offers a chance to see two of the leading ballet dancers in the country, Robert Fairchild and Leanne Cope, as its leads.
For those of you who haven’t seen the Academy Award-winning 1951 film musical, “An American in Paris” concerns a WWII vet, Jerry, who decides to stay in France to focus on art and pursuit of an elusive young woman, Lise. Also enamored with Lise are Jerry’s new pals Henri, a would-be singer, and Adam, a wisecracking composer.
But unlike the recent Broadway revival of “On the Town” (another musical best known for its Gene Kelly-starring film—see my review here), “An American in Paris” doesn’t offer a compelling reason to care about its central character nor do its songs feel essential. Jerry’s interest in Lise seems more stalking than romantic—a restraining order seemed more appropriate than a love connection. And the collection of terrific Gershwin tunes (“The Man I Love,” “I Got Rhythm,” “They Can’t Take That Away from Me,” “But Not for Me” etc.) seem retrofitted rather than organic. There have been a parade of shows picking and choosing from the Gershwin songbook and a number of those included here were put to better use in the admittedly lighter "Crazy for You.
The creative team—including choreographer/director Christopher Wheeldon, set/costume designer Bob Crowley, and playwright Craig Lucas—has tried to solve its lack of narrative drive by darkening the material a bit and toning down the Technicolor. In a city still in the shadow of war, one of Jerry’s sidekicks (far more interesting then the leading man) has suffered a war injury, another is clearly in the closet. The story has been tweaked with what-did-you-do-during-the-war questions. It’s easy to see what they are aiming for, but the target isn’t hit.
Yes, the dancing is first class. And it’s a treat to see that such a ballet-centric show can still find a home on Broadway. But I now have a clearer idea of why the original film version of “An American in Paris” is low on the list of my top musicals and high on my list of overrated Oscar-winners. By the time the title dance number, nothing had convinced me that I should be celebrating this couple coming together.
Like the movie, the theater version of “An American in Paris” has got rhythm. It’s got music. Perhaps I’m being a little selfish for asking for anything more.
It’s a gutsy move putting “fun’ in the title of a musical about a woman wrestling with the apparent suicide of her closeted gay father.
But that’s not the only way that “Fun Home”—which deservedly won last year’s Best Musical Tony Award—is unconventional for a hit Broadway musical.
“Fun Home” is based on a graphic novel. It jumps around in time. There’s no dancing (well, except for a few joyous and refreshing exceptions). It’s got three actresses playing the same character. Oh, and its lead character is a lesbian.
Breaking ground isn’t the same as breaking hearts, of course. But “Fun Home” doesn’t settle for being unconventional—it’s got a strong, character-driven story to tell, one enhance by rather than padded with its score. It dodges easy answers as it takes us into the life of adult Alison (Beth Malone), college-age Medium Alison (Emily Skeggs), and pre-teen Small Alison (Gabriella Pizzolo). Individually, the performances are distinct and rich. But they synergize in ways that reverberate throughout the show and beyond.
Book writer and lyricist Lisa Kron, building from Alison Bechdel’s acclaimed graphic novel, doesn’t seem interested in filling in all the blanks or simplifying a complex life. Instead, she gives breathing room to the actors, playing with memory, embracing awkwardness, and understanding that one of the most difficult realities of the past is that we can’t, in the now, have any impact on it.
I’m not convinced that some of the lyrics fit comfortably in the mouths of these characters—when Alison’s mother, Helen (Judy Kuhn), gets a chance to let out a life of frustration, for instance, her song feels written rather than lived.
But I can’t think of a more perfectly written character song, achingly beautiful in its spot-on, age-appropriate joy and confusion, as “Ring of Keys.” Underlying the lovely tune and its charming performance is the knowledge that a fairly mainstream audience is listening intently to a young woman who, for the first time, sees that “butch” can be beautiful/handsome.
It's a reminder that one of the greatest special effects of theater is its ability to put us in the heart and head of another human being. And it left me in tears.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
While “Fun Home” took the Best Musical Tony last year, “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” won for Best Play, offering another non-traditional-but-very-welcome character to the Broadway pantheon.
Christopher Boone is an autistic lad adept at math, hostile to being touched, steadfastly honest, and not a fan of loose ends. When a neighbor’s dog is killed with a pitchfork, he assigns himself the task of discovering whodunit, something that requires a great deal of bravery for Christopher because he needs to actually talk to people besides his protective father.
Christopher’s amateur CSI work, like his efforts to find a train station without a map, doesn’t involve taking a linear route. But his discoveries go far beyond pet-racide.
Simon Stephens' script—adapted from Mark Haddon’s novel—allows one mystery to be solved by intermission (I wasn’t aware of the break coming and assumed the play was winding down). But there’s still more story to tell in the second act, supplemented by even wilder visual effects. Some are breathtaking, offering unique and very theatrical insight into the way Christopher thinks. Others seem overworked, distracting rather than enlightening.
Would a bit of restraint have made the rest of the effects more powerful? It’s hard to tell in a production where full-immersion is part of its raison-d’être. (Director Marianne Elliott also sired the spectacular-in-a-different-way “War Horse” which, alas, never toured through Indy.) It will be interesting to see what happens when regional theaters, without such high-tech means, get hold of the script.
There are a few distracting moments when obvious laughs get in the way of the truthfulness of the play's characters. And a gimmicky, unnecessary breaking of the fourth wall does minor damage. But the freshness of the story and the very special way it puts us into the head of a boy who can “see everything” is why the ending proves so satisfying. When the wonders of the living graph-paper-like set combine with fully committed performances, the result is magical.
P.S. Make sure to stick around after the curtain calls for a delightful bonus.
Watch for reviews of "Fool for Love," "Hamilton," and more over the next few days at www.ibj.com/arts.