October 17, 2018

Broadway, Broadway, how great you are.
I’ll leave the farm with all its charm to be a Broadway star…

And off on the second NYC jaunt of the year. It’s always more fun with a theater companion and I did well in that department this time around. If any of you who read these missives might want to do some traveling together in the next few years, let me know. I am always open to suggestions.

Dateline: New York, New York –

And so he’s back, trapped between the moon and New York City or however that song goes… I got up this morning to catch the one and only direct flight from Birmingham to Laguardia which leaves BHM at 6 am. That does mean you get to midtown Manhattan in time for a late breakfast but it also necessitates getting up in the middle of the night in order to make it to the airport on time. Delta airlines was running on time, the weather was cooperative and the flight was uneventful as was most of the rest of the journey, other than getting stuck in the midtown tunnel in a taxi for twenty minutes due to a construction delay.

I am back in my cousin’s Gramercy Park apartment for a couple of days of R and R which he has generously loaned me again. I shall pay him back by restocking paper goods and non perishable snack foods for the next occupants, whomever they may be. I am not alone this trip, I am up to no good with Vickie Rozell, one of my oldest and dearest college friends who has schlepped out here from the west coast for a long theater weekend. We’ve done lots of things together over the years, but this is the first time we’ve done NYC together.

Today was more or less given over to two shows. It is, after all, Wednesday, the traditional midweek matinee day. As I saw most of the musical offerings on my summer trip (with one important exception about which more is to come), this trip is more about plays. I tend to opt for music/theater when given the choice, but I do like a good stage drama or comedy as well.

For the matinee, we went to Roundabout Theater Company’s production of a new play by Theresa Rebeck – Bernhardt Hamlet starring Janet McTeer. Based on a true series of incidents in 1897, it tells the story of the legendary actress, Sarah Bernhardt as she prepares, as a woman, to play the title role in Hamlet. At the same time, she’s having an affair with Edmond Rostand, the married playwright 25 years her junior ,who is trying to complete his new play, which turns out to be Cyrano de Bergerac. She spars with critics, fellow actors, her adult son, and Alphonse Mucha, the artist, cannot figure out how to create an attractive poster in his distinctive art nouveau style.

The cast of Bernhardt/Hamlet

McTeer gives a powerhouse of a performance (and the play is going to become a favorite for actresses of a certain age) and the role of Rostand (Jason Butler Harner) is nearly as good as the lead and the actor acquits himself well. The play feels very French in construction, consisting mainly of two person French scene conversations, most of which are a little long. The play would be improved with some judicious trims. Rebeck has a lot to say about the theater and the role of women in theater but she occasionally hammers the point home with a bludgeon rather than subtlety. I can see a lot of the scenes becoming standard in college acting classes over the next few years as they require a lot of interplay and choices on the part of the performers.

There’s only one really boneheaded move in the whole thing and that’s a design choice. When, in the second act, Bernhardt appears in an evening gown in a party scene in her boudoir, the color, and diamante dazzle are nearly identical to Roger DeBris’ Anastasia drag in the original production of The Producers. I kept expecting the cast to break into Keep It Gay…

We then treated ourselves to Thai food and cocktails before the day’s main event, an evening preview performance of the new musical version of King Kong. We had lucked into fifth row center seats so we got to see the whole thing very up close and personal.

Then something went wrong for Fay Wray and King Kong…

So how was it? A mixed bag. The first question is why musicalize that particular property? What does the addition of music bring? Much of the show is heavily orchestrally underscored and that music has a grandeur that injects higher levels of emotion and involvement in the way a film score does (and it is very reminiscent of a classic movie soundtrack from the opening notes which sound like something Max Steiner would have written for a 1930s jungle epic). Then there are the songs. There’s nothing particularly wrong with their placement or the emotional moment that brings them into being, especially those for the heroine, Ann (Christiani Pitts). The problem is there is no consistent musical idiom holding the score together. There are vaudeville spoofs, numbers that sound like Pasek and Paul, a great 80s power ballad for Ann in the second act, and a bunch of hip hop. Almost none of it helps us understand the characters better.

The ensemble gets a work out (although I was unsure what the 1930s stevedores were doing breakdancing – they should have saved that for King Kong II: Electric Kongaloo) both as singer/dancers and as puppeteers for the true star of the show, the thirty foot King Kong. He takes stage puppeteering to a whole new level and they have worked out body language and facial expressions to give as impressive performance as you will ever see from cast aluminum and foam rubber. He walks, he climbs, he leaps, he roars, he threatens the audience, and he can be tender and gentle. I was very impressed with the puppeteering in the original production of War Horse but this outclasses it by a factor of ten.

The staging, set, and use of technology, especially moving projections to give a cinematic feel and flow are pretty top notch. It is previews so we did get a brief unscheduled intermission late in the first act when a fight between Kong and a giant albino cobra did not go exactly as planned but it didn’t really hurt the experience of the show.

The character of Ann has been modernized from the original to make her an agent of her own destiny and a power broker in her own right. She’s also been cast as African American which, tones down some of the more Mandingoesque racism of the original film. As the real love story is between Ann and Kong, the usual romantic lead part has been eliminated in favor of a piece of comic relief with bad skin known as Lumpy. The actor (Erik Lochtefeld) is fine but the part is underwritten. The antagonist, film maker Carl Denham, is badly miscast. Eric William Norris is simply too boyish and lightweight in the role throwing the piece off balance. He sings well and he’s a decent actor; he’s simply the wrong type.

There are a couple of cringe worthy moments in the second act that have to go. (It’s OK, the second act runs a bit too long anyway) including something that looks like a surprise appearance by the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders in what I think is supposed to be tinsel monkey fur and some bits from the show within a show that seem to have been created for ‘Daddy’s Boy’ from The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.

I’m glad I saw it and I think it will run as the word of mouth on what they do with Kong himself will be fantastic. Is it likely to end up on a list of ‘best musicals’, unlikely.

It’s now late so I’m going to try and grab some sleep before heading off to new adventures tomorrow.

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