Exclusive video footage from the world premiere of choreographer Shen Wei's Collective Measures at the 2013 American Dance Festival. The company performs at the Durham Performing Arts Center, Thursday, June 13 and Friday, June 14, 2013.
Video preview produced by Byron Woods.
Its characters may or may not be the kind of folks they used to warn some of us about back on the farm.
But PRISCILLA, QUEEN OF THE DESERT is most definitely the kind of show they warned me about in grad school.
“Beware of spectacle,” one theater teacher said. “Sure, it’s flashy. And it’s undeniably effective—in the short term.
"But as the audience acclimates to it, it takes greater and greater dosages just to have the same effect.”
The professor paused. “Ultimately, it’s unsustainable—and the crash is something wicked.”
That’s precisely the case for this 2006 musical, adapted from the 1994 Stephan Elliott film starring Terrence Stamp, Hugo Weaving (a half-decade before he became Agent Smith in The Matrix), and a pre-Memento Guy Pearce. It took five years for Priscilla to make it to New York—a clear sign of early difficulties. Once it got there, it ran for a little over a year on Broadway, in 2011. Ultimately though, it turns out to be significant that, during that run, Priscilla took only one Tony Award—for costumes.
It all starts so innocently, as ensemble and designers simultaneously embody and poke fun at the campy excesses of the golden age of disco and big city drag shows in the mid-1980s. But by the middle of the first act, Priscilla begins to look and feel as if it’s been hijacked at gunpoint by costume designers Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner.
“Times have changed,” croons dazzling nightclub star Reno Sweeney in the title song of Anything Goes. “The world has gone mad today and good’s bad today.”
Maybe so, but the touring production of this Broadway revival shows that some good things have staying power. This comic tale of romance and madcap hijinks aboard a luxury liner originally opened on Broadway in 1934, starring the legendary Ethel Merman as Sweeney. Nearly 80 years later, Cole Porter’s delicious songs set against an updated book by Timothy Crouse and John Weidman still add up to an escapist delight.
Do take the term “updated book” with a grain of salt. The show remains old-fashioned, featuring groan-worthy one-liners and a mostly nonsensical plot about Billy Crocker (Josh Franklin), a young financier who sneaks aboard a London-bound cruiser to pursue a lovely but betrothed debutante, Hope Harcourt (Alex Finke).
Also on board are Moonface Martin (Fred Applegate, who played The Producers’ Max Bialystock on Broadway), a charismatic gangster disguised as a priest; his tarty sidekick, Erma (Joyce Chittick); Hope’s very British and very wealthy fiancé, Lord Evelyn Oakleigh (a hysterical Edward Staudenmayer); and the brassy, big-voiced evangelist-turned-showgirl Reno (a show-stealing Rachel York).
Sir Andrew’s work may be found in three of the seven new shows announced at DPAC’s SunTrust Broadway Preview Event on Friday, specifically the touring version of the recently-closed revival of Evita, the 2011 West End musical version of The Wizard of Oz film with new songs by Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, and a whole concert featuring songs from Lloyd Webber’s extensive oeuvre, including The Phantom of the Opera and Cats.
If you’re not a Lloyd Webber fan and you hold season tickets for DPAC’s Broadway series, you might be in trouble.
The other new shows are a strange mix. I’m most excited about the touring productions of two recent Tony winners, The Book of Mormon and the minimalist stage adaptation of the film Once. I’m less enthused by a musical of the Patrick Swayze film Ghost that flopped after 136 performances on Broadway last year, or by a new musical of Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas, though the Grinch costume shown to us is less trauma-inducing than the Jim Carrey film from a decade back.
Mind you, my cynicism wasn't shared by the DPAC members who swarmed the auditorium on Friday for the announcement (at least 1,200 were present, based on the number of raffle tickets submitted to the event organizers), who cheered loudly at the announcements. One patron told me that he was pleased that the lineup features shows with more “broad appeal,” claiming DPAC’s recent showing of Jekyll and Hyde with American Idol’s Constantine Maroulis was “too dark.")
If you’re not a Deborah Cox fan, you’ll probably become one if you see Jekyll and Hyde: The Musical at the Durham Performing Arts Center this week. The Grammy-nominated R&B star pushes the rest of the cast out of the way with her round, rich voice and nuanced singing. It’s too bad this show doesn’t keep her onstage enough.
Cox, as hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold Lucy Harris, belts bawdy brothel songs like “Bring On the Men” as well as she croons moony ballads “Such as Someone Like You” and “A New Life.” The same can’t be said for co-star Constantine Maroulis, who’s only up to the Hyde half of his dual role of innovative, headstrong Doctor Jekyll and lunatic murderer Edward Hyde.
Maroulis moves comfortably in Hyde’s muscular stalk, and Hyde’s vocal turns fit the Rock of Ages star’s skills perfectly. But his Jekyll is stiff and hesitantly voiced, suffering from the restraint he applies in order to contrast the character with Hyde. It’s a little silly, also, that director Jeff Calhoun makes Maroulis take his glasses on and off and put his flowing black hair in and out of a ponytail with each of his character’s transformations. We get it.
Calhoun’s choreography doesn’t help Maroulis either. The stagehands, in the process of shuttling various set pieces on and off, exhibited more interesting movement than the stars. Featuring almost constant video projection onto parts of the set, Tobin Ost’s scenic design was busy but effective. In the song “Confrontation” in one of the play’s last scenes, Jekyll argues with a gigantic video Hyde who’s periodically distorted and washed by waves of fire as if a pop metal show had broken out.
The image has come to symbolize the chaos and carnage of war: A panic-stricken horse, impaled by a spear, whose death-dance dominates the center of Pablo Picasso’s Guernica. Man’s inhumanity to man is a fundamental trope in the discourse of war—and one we can grow all too quickly numb to. But evidence of the widespread suffering of animals—in World War I accounts of biological agent testing, or the massacre at Tokyo’s Ueno Zoo in 1943—provides a different, and necessary, kind of shock, and a reminder that the damage inflicted by war is not limited to humans.
The National Theatre of Great Britain's production of WAR HORSE valiantly attempts to make a wartime epic out of a 1982 children's novel of the same name, in which novelist Michael Morpungo sought to view the First World War through the eyes of a horse and those closest to him.
To do this, it embraces spectacle. And Christopher Shutt and John Owens' sudden sound effects, Paule Constable and Karen Spahn's piercing lights, Adrian Sutton's alarm-filled score and Rae Smith's affecting illustrations, animated by 59 Productions and projected along what appears to be a stage-long piece of torn manuscript above the actors, all effectively convey the horrors of the battlefield.
Meanwhile, the cunningly engineered and remarkably animated two- and three-person puppets devised by South Africa's Handspring Puppet Company convey the strain and the terror of the title character, a hunter thoroughbred named Joey, and another horse named Topthorn, as they try to drag a field gun through a battlefield's mud.
But when this production focuses on humans, and not animals, the script's weaknesses start to show.
The Paul Taylor Dance Company took the stage at the Durham Performing Arts Center last night for their annual visit to the American Dance Festival, which concludes this evening. The mainstay company brought out a crowd expecting to see virtuosic performances from the principal dancers, and Michael Trusnovec, Amy Young and Michelle Fleet didn’t disappoint them.
The real star, however, was the flawed program.
A bit long with four pieces and two intermissions—and lengthened more by a curtain mishap that required repairs—the program spanned a half-century of Taylor’s choreography; from the 1962 frolic Aureole to this year’s insectoid fantasy Gossamer Gallants. It could have cohered, though, woven together by interrogations, illustrations and blissful avoidances of the sexual codes and morays of each dance’s particular era. Except for one catastrophic piece, that is.
The balletic Aureole, a piece revived from ADF’s Connecticut College era, opened the evening. Costumed as though they’d stepped out of a Maxfield Parrish painting, two women in white flanked Trusnovec cradling Young in his arms. After dancing the brief equivalent of an unfurling banner, the pair of women scampered off, indicating their decorative role in the piece. In Aureole, only the two male dancers have agency.
Francisco Graciano plays a kind of social dandy, thumbing imaginary lapels and cantering around the stage with the trio of women in admiring pursuit. Trusnovec, however, is the statuesque, ideal loner. His solo declares this succinctly. Making straight lines with outstretched arms and pointed legs that recall Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, Trusnovec falters into curvatures only once at the beginning of the solo, betraying his loneliness. But he maintains his stoic poise thereafter.
After he releases her, Trusnovec—who could be mistaken for a weak-side linebacker—executes a breathtaking set of kicks while leaping up and down on one foot. The DPAC is truly a cavernous space but the audience around me leaned back in their seats as, with his fifth and sixth kicks, he neared the front of the stage. And we were in row M.
The full cast celebrates his capital-R Romantic triumph with flying, diagonal entrances and exits to the finale of Handel’s Concerti Grossi.
As the curtain rose for the five dancers to receive their applause, there was a loud thump sound and about half of one side of it vanished, so a pause became an intermission. But the DPAC crew hastily mended the stage’s missing tooth.
Then the curtain rose on Big Bertha, a watershed Taylor work dating to 1970. Set to calliope and band machine music and featuring Robert Kleinendorst as a hermaphroditic dominatrix bandleader made gigantic by red leather high-heeled boots, Big Bertha is hardcore in every sense of the word. And, following Aureole, it viciously rips through the older dance’s lyrical courtship rituals and patriarchal gender roles so that the awful guts of raw animal desire can burst out. This would be David Lynch’s favorite Paul Taylor work.
The set features a huge circus contraption, pipe organs sticking out the top and Barnum and Bailey lettering trumpeting a five-cent charge, all lit with white bulbs like those infesting antique carousels. Big Bertha, the bandleader, stands upon a little spangled dais. To an excruciating metallic scratching noise, she removes a baton from out of her throat with a robotic motion. Yeah, there won’t be a happy ending to this one.
A quintessential 1950s family enters—mom, dad, and bobbysoxer daughter—out for a fun night at the fair. Dad deposits a coin into Big Bertha to activate her, and the daughter does a lively mélange of period dance moves as her parents watch. Mom tries to join in the fun but trips over her own feet and prissily withdraws into her husband’s consolation.
It’s difficult to tell whether the bandleader is merely going through its animatronic sequence or exerting puppeteer control over the family. Before the time allotment of the coin expires, causing the bandleader to slump and prompting Dad to fish in his pocket for another nickel, Big Bertha appears to hypnotize the family into unison movement.
With the second coin, Bertha assumes control. Dad performs a jerky, drunkard’s dance to “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” His baseball swings gradually become aggressive sexual advances toward his daughter and, after he assuages his wife’s anxiety over this, a vicious smack across Mom’s face.
The dance descends into increasingly horrific scenes of incest and abuse during which Bertha wields her baton in a variety of lewd ways, the wife strips to become a burlesque harlot and the husband takes his daughter around back to emerge tattered, dragging her bloody, limp body around. Explosive sparks mark the final tableaux to “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
Judging by the audience’s audible discomfort, this demonstrative degradation of the family unit is as startling today as it was more than 40 years ago. Big Bertha’s exaggeration of the romantic yet rigidly hetero-normative power relationships underlying Aureole erupts toward its logical endpoints. The man, tumescent with power, must possess any woman who presents herself as able. Regardless of whether the daughter’s aware that her fun dance is a mating ritual, she must innocently perform it and forcibly surrender to whomever she attracts. And the mother must play the whore in order to deal with it all, seeing that sexuality is the only agency in this skewed dynamic. It’s Lynch’s “unspeakable horror behind the white picket fence,” sixteen years before Blue Velvet.
Taylor’s self-implication through Big Bertha’s role as choreographer provides the dance’s most fascinating aspect. He turns the critique against himself, pointing out the darkness inherent in his mechanical, controlling position. He frightens himself. Taylor demonstrates that the moment mechanical routines are no longer viewed as such they can become monstrous pantomimes.
Unfortunately the raw, layered messages of Big Bertha were decisively erased by the back half of the program. In a way, the piece that followed the intermission—Gossamer Gallants, which the company premiered this year—takes animal desire literally. The dancers are costumed as black fruit flies (males) and virid lacewings (females).
Those familiar with Ira Glass' wry, quizzical voice as the host of public radio's This American Life will get to experience his unique brand of storytelling in person when he appears at the Durham Performing Arts Center on Saturday, March 23. The appearance comes after a week in which This American Life made headlines when a piece involving monologist Mike Daisey's trip to a factory creating Apple computer products was revealed to be mostly fabricated. We were able to get Glass on the phone in New York to talk about his appearance at DPAC, and while we were told by his representative in advance that he wouldn't go on the record about the Daisey incident, he surprisingly made a short statement at the interview's end—after we'd discussed everything from his new style of presentation to his surprising history with North Carolina and more.
Independent Weekly: Tell us about your appearance at DPAC.
Ira Glass: Basically, I stand onstage with an iPad. With the iPad, I can run music and clips and audio from various things. And I can re-create the sound of the radio show this way. It's basically me talking about how we make the show, what we do in making the show, and just kind of an excuse to play funny, memorable clips from the show.
How has using the iPad changed the way you do these live performances?
I mean, at a gig like this—it used to be any time I was onstage, I had to have CD players and a mixing console, but now I can run all that from the iPad. I have a mixer for all my clips—it's amazing, and it's something I can do onstage. It's much better than just sitting behind a desk, which is very unnatural, for me anyway.
It's sort of like how high schools will do musicals with these devices that can re-create an entire orchestra.
I should steal that! I should get that on my iPad and cue the orchestra and sing songs from The Music Man.
It'd be appropriate for your venue.
I'm always so bad at venues like that, where people are used to seeing Broadway road shows, and there are these massive flies behind the curtain to move scenery, and then it's just me onstage with an iPad. But I do believe I will deliver an evening of entertainment for people.
How did you enjoy your last trip to Durham?
I love North Carolina. When I was reporter based in D.C., I did a bunch of reporting in North Carolina, and vacationed in North Carolina, and I just fell in love with the area. It's like Maryland, where I'm from, only better in every aspect.
My only understanding of Maryland comes from The Wire, so I'll take your word for it.
[Laughs] Yeah, well, I didn't have to grow up in the housing projects or anything. I felt perfectly safe. I mean, seriously, when I was coming up, the only TV or film existence Baltimore had was the films of John Waters, and you could feel good about that.
But I don't know what happened that made Baltimore, you know, the single most fucked-up place in America—like if you have a crime drama, and New York and Los Angeles are just not dangerous enough, then the place you locate it is Baltimore. I don't know when we made that transition.
But while I’m certainly looking forward to several of the touring productions, including the season opener, War Horse, I was left wondering, What does this lineup say about the current state of Broadway?
Eight plays will come through DPAC starting in October: War Horse, Jersey Boys, Million Dollar Quartet, Jekyll & Hyde, Mary Poppins, Anything Goes, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and Sister Act.
On Friday afternoon, the theater and SunTrust previewed the lineup with a special presentation for season ticket holders that consisted of a reception, Durham Mayor Bill Bell praising the lineup and a video segment produced by official media sponsor WTVD-11 (reporting from New York!) that highlighted the shows (good luck finding it on their website, though).
But what got me out of the house for this junket was a live presentation of Joey, the life-sized horse puppet from War Horse. More on that in a minute.
Did I mention that "New York Has Never Been So Close"?
I rarely get up to New York, but based on my last few trips, I concede that this slogan represents an accurate cross-section of Broadway’s current or recent hits. While some, like the latest Mary Poppins, have been around for several years (and in Jersey Boys’ case, have come through the North Carolina Triangle before), others are relatively new, with War Horse premiering on Broadway only about a year ago after its successful run in England.
A stage play, particularly one with many effects, sets and cast members, is something that is seemingly immune to the changes in distribution brought about by the Internet and digital media. Sure, someone will post a camcorder version of a show online once in a while, but the experience of live theater is difficult to translate to, say, a recorded DVD version. Only rarely does a show get broadcast on PBS or other venues, and even then, it’s hardly the same experience.
While music, TV, film and even books are able to become viral in a short period of time, there’s still a much longer wait for a Broadway show to attain the combination of cachet and technical development that allows for people all over the country, and the world, to experience it live through a tour.
It might be a boon to those of us in smaller markets to have hit productions going on tour quickly, but on the other hand, it also highlights just how commercialized Broadway has become in its efforts to keep up with changing times. Without speaking to the quality of the eight shows, most of which I haven’t seen, I can break down that almost all fall into the categories of “Based on a Movie,” “Revival of an Older Show” and of course, “Jukebox.”
These aren’t necessarily bad things. Jersey Boys, for example, is a terrific show that offers real insight into the lives of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, and is more than just an uncanny impersonation. And this is hardly a new trend—read up on Broadway history, and you’ll find virtually any book and/or movie you can imagine has been adapted into a musical at one point or another (the most infamous example, Carrie, was recently revived in a de-camped version, and excoriated by critics again for denying audiences the Grand Guignol spectacle they craved).
But last year’s big hit, The Book of Mormon, was an anomaly on Broadway: a hit show that was written directly for the stage with original songs. The quality of the work clearly speaks for itself, but would The Book of Mormon have even made it to Broadway if it didn’t come from the creators of South Park (and, lest we forget, Avenue Q)?
Book of Mormon aside, It’s starting to seem like the most unrealistic thing about the Broadway-themed TV series Smash is that it purports to depict plans for an original Broadway musical with original songs.
In searching my mind for successful original musicals of the last few years, I keep finding qualifiers. Yes, Wicked has had a long and successful run, but perhaps it was familiarity with Gregory Maguire’s source novel (or more likely, musical mainstay The Wizard of Oz)—that brought in the initial audience?
A visit to the Durham Performing Arts Center for the touring production of Rock of Ages yields a number of odd sights. Audience members, mostly people in their 40s and 50s, are wearing suits and evening wear to a play that’s based, in part, on the fashion excesses of 1980s youth culture. They also sip cups of red wine in front of a set labeled “The Bourbon Room.”
And as they trudge along the red-carpeted floors, the sound system blasts the likes of Warrant’s “Cherry Pie” and Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar on Me.” How did low-rent entertainment become the subject for a top-dollar production?
Understand, that’s not a dis of 1980s music, something I greatly enjoy and often use as a pick-me-up. But with the 30th anniversary of MTV occurring this year and the excellent new oral history I Want My MTV now in bookstores, it’s fascinating how the 1980s rock culture—those songs and videos that were often mocked even by the artists who created them—became such a massive mainstream force. Big hair, androgynous fashions and lyrics that barely qualified as single entendres represented a force of youthful enthusiasm and exuberance.
This actually offers some potential for a musical premise; the strength of most musicals comes from characters articulating in song what they can’t in mere words. But Rock of Ages suffers from letting the silliness just be silliness.
With a jukebox musical, the audience is likely to already know most of the songs, so there’s a moment of groaning when a character headed out on a date breaks into Foreigner’s “Waiting For a Girl Like You,” or the lead-in to a club’s demolition is, yes, Europe’s “The Final Countdown.”
Again, there’s some fun you could have with that, particularly as lyrics are recontextualized in different situations, but Chris D’Arienzo’s book is, frankly, not very good. The story concerns Sherrie (Shannon Mullen) and Drew (Dominique Scott), a couple of dreamers who fall for each other at the 1980s Sunset Strip hangout the Bourbon Room and find their plans deferred by fate, misunderstanding and the spoiled rock god Stacee Jaxx (Matt Nolan). The plot is so thin that narrator Lonny (Justin Colombo, who seems to be channeling Tenacious D-era Jack Black) has to explicate such major points as the fact that the first act coming to an end.