Seen and Heard 4/21/11

Seen on Broadway: The “It’s Showtime!” Edition: And indeed at is, as we enter the home stretch of the 2010-2011 season. Expected to cross many a finish line come awards time is The Book of Mormon, and with good reason. The boundary-shattering creators of South Park (Trey Parker and Matt Stone) and Avenue Q (Robert Lopez), with an invaluable assist from Casey Nicholaw (who co-directed with Parker and contributed the lively and inspired choreography) barrage the audience with tasteless humor and scatological songs as a mismatched pair of Mormon missionaries—one (the superb Andrew Rannells) a peppy go-getter, the other (Josh Gad) a relentless fabulist—arrive in poor, AIDS-ridden, war-torn Uganda to convert the locals. Hitting many targets the first act maintains a pace so quick there’s little time for queasiness, though the intermission does leave you wondering if the production will coalesce into something more than a series of abrasively cheerful sketches and potty-mouthed tunes.

The second act really shocks us—not with Good Books stuffed up rectums (though there is that), but with a well-considered and (gulp) optimistic argument for belief systems, even ones wackier than Mormonism. Younger Mormons who’ve seen the show say they’ve enjoyed it, which means that either the South Park guys have failed at satire or that they’ve found a cunning new way to convey uplift, packaged as a bright and bawdy Broadway show that knocks a few sacred cows on their ass before propping them up again. In any case you leave the Eugene O’Neill laughing, and thinking about what number they’ll possibly perform on the Tonys. (To preserve a few surprises the titles, which skirt printability, have been left out of the Playbill.)

Definitely satirical in the way they simultaneously mesh with and demolish Broadway traditions are Scott Pask’s sets, lyrical odes to poverty and strife that would fit right into a Rodgers & Hammerstein show or The Lion King if a Rodgers & Hammerstein show or The Lion King had characters named General Butt-Fucking Naked. (Lyrically and design-wise one number takes a gleeful poke at “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” from The King and I.)

Brian MacDevitt’s lighting adds to the mood of wholesome, Up With People-style unreality. Appearing at the same time as her extraordinarily detailed work on HBO’s Mildred Pierce miniseries this is an unusually down and dirty assignment for costumer Ann Roth, who enters into the spirit of things with National Geographic-type duds for the Africans and a wild set of outfits for a number set in “Mormon hell,” which gives all the designers a chance to get their freak on. Speaking of which sound designer Brian Ronan had me at “hello”—the diorama-set, faux Biblical spectacular openings of both acts are all the funnier due to their intentionally out-of-sync sound, replicating museum shows that have run aground technically.

Catch Me If You Can had the misfortune to open after The Book of Mormon, and was widely dismissed as another by the numbers movie-into-musical. There’s something to that: The music and lyrics, by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, aren’t up to the level of their collaboration on Hairspray, and book writer Terrence McNally more felicitously transposed The Full Monty to the stage. But a glossy, high-energy production disguises the flaws in translation of Steven Spielberg’s 2002 film for at least the first act, and Aaron Tveit is sensational throughout, a Leonardo DiCaprio who sings and dances, too.

The movie has an appealing throughline, with DiCaprio’s troubled teen turning to forgery and impersonation in a muddled attempt to reunite his family and Tom Hanks as the childless, workaholic agent who finds a surrogate son in the youth. The show, however, makes the lawman (the expert Norbert Leo Butz) and his associates more doltish than necessary, and the song and dance, however hard-driving the choreography by Jerry Mitchell, tends to obscure the tender father-and-son emotion at the core of the story.

Director Jack O’Brien has put the early 60s-set story in a suitable frame, with Frank, the forger, recalling his misspent youth on the eve of his capture as a TV variety show. David Rockwell has brought this concept to life with a set-within-the-show that recalls period programming, one that houses the orchestra and allows various vignettes to occupy center stage as required. It’s functional but not as much fun as his work on Hairspray, set in the same era, and that hit casts a long shadow over this reteaming with costume designer William Ivey Long and LD Kenneth Posner, neither of whom have the same extravagant opportunities this time. The lighting is best when it fades to near-nothing, trapping Frank in his uncertainties, and Long has to make do with the leggy chorus girls dressed as nurses, stewardesses, etc., from number to number. The fact-based Catch Me If You Can is not the same kind of production as Hairspray, true, but this one lacks its own bounce. When it does click, however—and the two stars have more than their share of moments—rest assured that a powerhouse sound design by Steve Canyon Kennedy is there at the Neil Simon to put it across.

Set designer Derek McLane “co-stars” in two musical revivals. He puts his best foot forward in director and choreographer Kathleen Marshall’s toe-tapping Anything Goes, at the Stephen Sondheim. His gleaming white ship set all but blinds the audience when it’s revealed (following a first scene that takes place in a beautiful, stylishly lit bar that I wanted for my house) and with its various entrances and exits makes a marvelous location for this screwball musical, which is laced with Cole Porter standards. Popping in and out of doorways and portholes is a seaworthy cast that includes Sutton Foster, Joel Grey, John McMartin, and Jessica Walter, with the gawky Adam Godley stealing what they don’t abscond with as a tweedy Englishman involved in the “De-lovely” daisy chain of shipboard romances.

Great fun, Anything Goes gets a boost from an immaculately integrated design, with Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting playing off the expansive set for shimmery daylight and twilight looks as the story requires. Martin Pakledinaz dresses the ladies in sparkling attire that glistens under the lights and the gentlemen in 30s period wear that travels first class. And Brian Ronan’s crystalline sound design does justice to a timeless and entrancing score. The show has been extended to next January 8.

Less successful is How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, at the Al Hirschfeld. Not a natural song-and-dance man star Daniel Radcliffe tries very hard indeed as the ladder-climbing nobody who through charm and guile becomes a somebody in corporate New York in the early 60s, but that isn’t the same as effortless. Having played the definitive Mr. Bratt in my high school production I know this show backwards and forwards, and was very conscious of the laughs the Pulitzer-winning material wasn’t getting. Director and choreographer Rob Ashford has made some curious choices as well. I liked the addition of the football players to the “Grand Old Ivy” number, which makes it funnier and more rousing (John Larroquette, as Mr. Biggley, is one of the few performers here who makes the most of every opportunity), but having the secretaries bash their heels into a back wall of office file cabinets during another song was an overly aggressive mistake, ending with a mess of crumpled unsightly furniture.

McLane’s tiered set is useful for getting a large cast on and off quickly but it looks more like a revival of another artifact from the 60s, TV’s Hollywood Squares, then anything intrinsically New York. Each box is outfitted with LEDs that change color according to the ensemble costumes designed by Catherine Zuber for each scene, an idea that gets a little wearying over time. Howell Binkley’s lighting and Jon Weston’s sound design follow the lead of its star—unfailingly professional and proficient, just not terribly exciting.

Seen Off Broadway: Laurie Metcalf is shatteringly good in The Other Place, an MCC Theater production at the Lucille Lortel. She plays Julianna, a neurological researcher struggling with her own failing memory and a long-suppressed trauma that is bubbling to the surface in the tempest of her mind. Sharr White’s overly schematic script isn’t quite up to the level of its star but Joe Mantello’s confident direction makes for a reasonably gripping 80 minutes.

This small show has been given an elaborate production, with Eugene Lee’s set, a jumble of wooden frames, an acute representation of the turbulence that Julianna is wrestling with. While costume designer Dane Laffrey’s outfits are grounded in reality (or, rather, realities, as the protagonist shuttles between the present and a painful episode at a Cape Cod vacation home) the rest is abstraction, as Justin Townsend’s lighting slashes through the panels and William Cusick’s projections coat the stage with rainwater. Eerie music and sound by Fitz Patton complete a portrait of inner and outer turmoil. The Other Place runs through May 1.

While musicals merit major revivals Michael Frayn’s Benefactors, a Tony-nominated best play in 1986, has to make do with the intimate Clurman at Theatre Row. Fortunately it’s in the hands of the Keen Company, which did an exemplary job with the playwright’s Alphabetical Order last fall, and has maintained its usual standard of excellence this time around. In the London-set play an architect’s grandiose scheme to revive a low-income neighborhood meets with opposition, some from his wife but mostly from a journalist of his acquaintance—a newspaperman upset with his spouse’s hero worship of the builder.

For the second act Laffrey (this time acting as scenic designer) has cut the stage in half. One part, a spare but homey space, is for the besieged architect and the two women, who have tensions of their own, and the other is for the writer, who has holed up in a squat (represented by a single chair), from which he wages a campaign against the project. The personal and the political percolate to a full boil under Carl Forsman’s direction, and a fine, somewhat neglected, but essential work has been ably designed by Jennifer Paar (costumes), Josh Bradford (lights), and Will Pickens (sound, notably an underscore that thrums throughout the production). Benefactors runs through May 7.

Equipment Vendors

Anything Goes

Scenery Fabrication: Hudson Scenic Studio
Scenic Elements Construction: Global Scenic Services
Lighting Equipment: PRG
Audio Equipment: PRG

The Book of Mormon

Scenery Fabrication: PRG Scenic Technologies
Lighting Equipment: PRG
Audio Equipment: Masque Sound

Catch Me If You Can

Scenery Automation and Show Control: Showmotion
Lighting Equipment: PRG
Audio Equipment: Sound Associates

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying

Scenery Construction, Show Control, and Scenic Motion Control: PRG Scenic Technologies
Scenery Construction: Global Scenic Services
Lighting Equipment: PRG
Audio Equipment: PRG

The Other Place

Scenery Construction: Site Design Fabrication Shop
Lighting Equipment: PRG
Audio Equipment: Masque Sound
Video/Projection Equipment: New City Video

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