a theatre, film & pop culture review
A challenging category to both predict and to select a favorite within, the four directors here all created admirable work. Two stood out from the rest, however, and both are equally deserving. Michael Grandage’s direction Red is much more musical and flashier than you’d probably imagine a show about an expressionist painter to be, and yet this is an exceedingly smart approach, as very little of that visual artistry occurs onstage (Molina’s Rothko paints onstage but once, in what is by far the most exhilarating and gripping moment in the production). Grandage off-sets this dramaturgical failing by utilizing an exceedingly adept design team: while audiences don’t witness the physical painting onstage, they hear it in Adam Cork’s swirling sounds and Neil Austin’s darkly dramatic lighting. Grandage strikes a fine balance between what could have veered into over-the-top conceptual design and what is a rather static drama, pulling two moving and dedicated performances from his actors.
Gregory Mosher takes a quieter approach to the Arthur Miller tragedy, A View from the Bridge. Unlike Grandage, Mosher needn’t make up for textual shortcomings (View, in this reviewer’s opinion, is Miller’s finest work), but he does have to carefully check emotions that could easily become high-pitched and overwrought (there is, after all, a Greek chorus present). Mosher smartly keeps the tone low, visually and aurally, letting the melancholy design reflect the quiet anguish simmering beneath the surface, allowing the familial tension to gradually imbue the entire production. Mosher’s View comes to a slow boil, and when tragedy finally fells the Carbone family, you feel your very bones ache along with them in despair.
There’s something about Next Fall that doesn’t sit quite right in what is generally a solid and moving production. Sheryl Kaller achieves both hilarious and heartbreaking performances from her terrific ensemble cast, but the story of a young man struggling with his sexuality, faith, and family comes off as slick sitcom when it should be more affecting dramedy. Kenny Leon has a similar difficulty with Fences. Instead of tempering Troy Mason’s bravura with equal parts fear and rage, he allows Denzel Washington to highlight the endearingly brash showman within Troy, causing the final significant scenes to peter off anti-climatically. Fortunately, he has no such problem with the rest of the fantastic cast, all who own their own moments of heartbreak, creating an affective, if not innovative, production.
HUCKADOO! Memphis is the surprise hit musical of the season, largely because it’s the most consistent in its storytelling. Christopher Ashley keeps his production tight: this show wants to sing and dance, and he’s more than happy to let it do so. Ashley offsets the earnest themes (civil rights via music revolution!) with performances both properly jubilant and genuine. He infuses gravitas with a light but careful hand, generously allowing the music and movement to find its natural balance.
Fela! is overambitious, and so is its director/choreographer/co-bookwriter. The musical about the Nigerian revolutionary and pop star is both astonishing and astonishingly disappointing. Bill T. Jones can’t quite find the focus of the show, and that’s likely because he didn’t write one in (is this about Fela’s personal, political, or musical life?), but what he does put on the stage is so invigorating and refreshing that you can almost forgive him the musical’s many shortcomings. In this vein, Jones does accomplish one his biggest aims: to joyfully celebrate that remarkable man, Fela Kuti.
La Cage aux Folles is incandescently light and airy, and Terry Johnson smartly doesn’t get in the way of the inherent hilarity and endearing cast of characters; he simply allows those fabulous Cagelles to be What They Are. Marcia Milgrom Dodge, on the other hand, actually does Ragtime a disservice. In an effort to create “serious” musical theatre, she misguidedly draws attention to Ragtime‘s vague plot and sketched-in characters in a production that is spare on spectacle, but high on pretension.