Seen And Heard

Seen Off Broadway: It takes a while, maybe half the 100-minute running time, for The Glorious Ones to start living up to its title. Lynn Ahrens and StephenFlaherty, whose musicalizations of Ragtime, A Man of No Importance, and My Favorite Year all originated at Lincoln Center Theatre, have adapted Francine Prose’s novel about the origins of commedia dell’arte in 16th century Venice for the Mitzi E. Newhouse, and devised a show of numerous small charms that showcase a major one: its lead, Marc Kudisch. As the dashingly egocentric Flaminio Scala, who gathers up a rag-tag collection of quacks, prostitutes, and misfits and transforms them into a company of impudent improvisers, Kudisch is pretty much the reincarnation of MGM musicals star Howard Keel, and made me wonder how he might fare as Cyrano De Bergerac (currently getting a somewhat sedentary reading by Kevin Kline on Broadway, to be seen again once the strike subsides).

This I can say for sure: He looks splendid in Mara Blumenfeld’s cheeky and colorful period costumes, invigorates every number he applies his deep voice to, then lands a knockout with his final, piercing solo, “I Was Here.” The show is on shakier ground when the knockabout antics of the players, all of them archetypes for comedy to come, are showcased, though John Kassir, as the Dottore, is an expert bumbler. But by the time Natalie Venetia Belcon, as Scala’s courtesan co-star and lover Columbina, sings the moving “My Body Wasn’t Why” The Glorious Ones is on surer footing, and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house when the production takes off for its celestial close. Sludgy slapstick aside director and choreographer Graciela Daniele paces the show at a brisk clip, and as the actors (including the winsome Julyana Soelistyo) are good company this slender show proves diverting.

With the costumes supplying much of the color, Dan Ostling’s theatre-within-a-theatre set (with room for the orchestra) provides a strong and simple foundation, backed by a sky cyc that takes center stage at the sentimental climax. Stephen Strawbridge takes the rough edge off its wooden construction with gentle jewel-box lighting, the better to add sparkle to Blumenfeld’s outfits. Scott Stauffer’s sound is suitably mellifluous accompaniment for the performers. (Great Lakes Scenic Studios provided the set, PRG the lighting, and Masque Sound the audio.) Not a major work, The Glorious Ones, which runs through Jan. 6, is nonetheless a minor pleasure.

Having exhausted the possibilities for vampires in New York musicals, tunesmiths have turned to that other scion of the undead, the Frankenstein monster. The song-filled staging of Mel Brooks’Young Frankenstein has taken up residence at the Hilton Theatre on Broadway, while a more earnest telling of the tale, Frankenstein, is haunting the 37 Arts Off. Dull in the same way as Dracula The Musical and Jekyll & Hyde, so much so that it might be mistaken for the work of composer Frank Wildhorn, Frankenstein has been stitched together by composer Mark Baron and first-time book writer and lyricist Jeffrey Jackson, who between them have failed to come up with one memorable song, and Gary B. Cohen, whose original story adaptation streamlines Mary Shelley to its skeletal essentials. What’s left is Steve Blanchard as a Creature who seems to have come from the Crunch gym rather than bioelectrical experimentation and a slight and petulant Hunter Foster (the recent star of another musical monster mash, Little Shop of Horrors) as the morose Victor Frankenstein, the stringy opposite of the more Romantic-era versions of Colin Clive, Peter Cushing, and Kenneth Branagh. Outside of a number where two characters killed off previously return for a pointless “charm song” about the birds and the bees sung in a flashback, this Frankenstein is free of camp—but it’s also free of distinction, and lumbers tiresomely around the stage for two hours.

I’m one of the few to have seen, in previews, a legendary non-musical version of the story that was a one-night catastrophe in 1981. That production, which starred the much more agreeable David Dukes, John Glover, Dianne Wiest, and John Carradine (retained from the classic Universal Frankenstein films in the 1930s and 1940s) had an extravagant set and effects that broke down twice when my family saw it. Mindful, perhaps, of this disaster, director Bill Fennelly has gone minimal, with a severe, industrial look that is more Rent than period, despite a stab in the direction of the early 19th century by costumer Emily Pepper. Peppered with occasional setpieces that roll on and off, Kevin Judge’s scenic design suggests a long-abandoned school gym, a utilitarian setting accentuated by Thom Weaver’s blasts of cold lighting. It’s not unfitting, but it is rather lifeless, and with uninspired music to work with sound designers Dominic Sack and Carl Casella can’t bring much energy to the proceedings. Michael Clark’s projections, crisply showcased on two screens, set the scenes efficiently but lack variety, and before long seem to repeat themselves. (CCT Inc. built the set, GSD Productions supplied the lights, Sound Associates the audio, and Scharff Weisberg the video equipment.) Frankenstein may have undying appeal as a mythic creation but as a subject for musicals it’s already a terminal case—anyone for werewolves?

I haven’t had much luck with Hamlet at the Public Theater, and the Wooster Group’s latest exercise in deconstruction (which closes Dec. 2) continues my losing streak. But make that reconstruction: Taking the sicklied o’er remains of a recording of Richard Burton’s Tony-nominated turn as the great Dane made specially for movie theaters in 1964, the company reenacts portions of it live, jerking their bodies to and fro when the projected image on the back screen becomes unstable (which it does, frequently). Gaps in the narrative are filled in with clips from other Hamlet films, scattered musical numbers, and their own performances of the missing scenes, which are filmed by cameras and displayed on other smaller screens on the set. This playfulness is tolerably amusing for an act, as when the actors (including Scott Shepherd as Hamlet and Kate Valk as Gertrude and Ophelia) “fast-forward” themselves through the skipped “boring parts” in the tape and the set pieces, on casters, follow suit.

You wonder, though, what the group, under the direction of Elizabeth LeCompte, will have new in store for the second act, and the answer, disappointingly, is, not much. The Wooster performers are good at some things but are not apt Shakespeareans, and the show drags whenever the decayed transmission fades away entirely. Reid Farrington’s marshalling of the various video elements is impressive but otherwise the design contributions, like the acting, are largely well-done mimicry: Ruud Van Den Akker’s spare set, Jennifer Tipton and Gabe Maxson’s lighting, Claudia Hill’s rehearsal clothes, and the sound (by Geoff Abbas, Joby Emmons, Matt Schloss, and Omar Zubair) all faithfully recreate, then complete, what’s up on the screen. I’d look upon this more affectionately if the ensemble hadn’t itself digitally edited the film (a serviceable version of which is on DVD) to make the passage of time visited upon the original enterprise even more cruel and ridiculous than it has been, virtually erasing the actors in some sequences. There’s a Mystery Science Theater 3000-level of mockery here that I found difficult to reconcile with the other, loftier aims of the production, which seems to want to say something about the collision of theater, film, and video, but so it goes with the Woosters, who exist to keep us off-guard on the high and low ends of the cultural scale. (PRG provided the lighting and Masque Sound the audio.) For all the craft that has gone into this presentation, however, I wanted more of Hamlet and less of the Wooster hamming. —Robert Cashill

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