While I'm not a die-hard fan of the 2003 Will Ferrell-in-tights holiday film Elf, I enjoyed it enough to notice all the times the stage musical version produced by NC Theatre strained to recreate a big laugh line from the film, or introduced some new element to the plot that didn't click. The musical overall is like a beautifully wrapped gift with a pair of socks inside: It's lovely to look at, but ultimately forgettable.
As the Santa-raised elf-man Buddy, Will Blum from Broadway's The Book of Mormon affects a high, childlike voice that sometimes sounds more like Michael Jackson than a joyous Christmas spirit. It doesn't help that the production depicts the elves in Santa's workshop as full-sized actors walking around on their knees. Obviously, the CGI used in the film to depict tiny humans alongside the immense Ferrell doesn't work on stage, but weren't any actors of appropriate size available? The effect is more unsettling than whimsical.
Elsewhere, the scene from the original with Peter Dinklage's high-strung author is cut for a lame joke about a manuscript and a paper shredder. It's not a matter of the original material being irreplaceable, but the new scenes are so forgettable as to make the difference more glaring.
In the film version of Elf, you have a whimsical character from a Christmas movie wandering into a movie-friendly but still not magical New York City, where his innocence and cheer contrast with the world-wary humans. The problem with adapting this to a musical is that when everyone is singing and dancing all the time, the contrast doesn't stand out as much. What remains is a selection of labored song-and-dance numbers (one brief song involves a DNA test). It's hard to tell whether it was due to technical problems or a lack of vocal range, but few of the musical songs projected much energy; many of the lyrics were drowned out by the orchestra, which was in fine form.
The sets, with scenic design by Christine Peters, upstage most of the actors in Elf. There are constant transitions between a bustling North Pole, a glittering Macy's Christmas display and plenty of New York scenery. The elaborate sets often feel like overcompensation for a thin script, as do the colorful costumes by Gregg Barnes. There's all manner of jokes about iPads, TiVo and even a localized quip about ECU, but there's relatively little wit in the overall book.
The best work comes from bit players such as Kevyn Morrow, who does some fancy footwork as a cynical store manager, and Lanene Charters as a brassy secretary. (She's more memorable than the actual love interest, Jovie, whose drab personality Lindsay Nicole Chambers can't overcome.)
Elf suffers from the same problem as many other film-to-stage adaptations: All the effort to make the live experience seem as spectacular as a big-budget movie often results in such elements as good dialogue and memorable characters being shuttered. It's not without its charm, and younger theatergoers likely will enjoy the scenery. But there's nothing as funny as Will Ferrell recoiling in fear from a jack-in-the-box popping in his face from the original movie. You can build all the giant sets you want, but it's still hard to top the sight of that man in tights.
Now, if someone wanted to do a musical version of Love Actually...
Through Oct. 13
When I was a kid, my parents used to read me T.S. Eliot's poems from Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats; as a teen, I owned a best-of-Andrew Lloyd Webber CD before I got into more Sondheim-y composers.
And yet, I had never seen Cats, Webber's massively long-running staging of Eliot's poems, until NC Theatre's production at Duke Energy Center's Memorial Auditorium.
The reason was simple: By the time I was old enough to go to stage shows myself, I had already experienced countless parodies of Cats on various TV shows (most notably Chris Elliott's immortal "Zoo Animals on Wheels") and had already built up a firm prejudice against Webber's play. It didn't help that it looked like a cross between the trauma-inducing kids' show Zoobilee Zoo and my preferred brand of cat-people, the kind who battled Mumm-Ra the Ever-Living.
But it is one thing to judge by reputation, and another to judge through actual experience. So, I attended opening night determined not just to review Cats, but to understand what has made it both the second-longest-running show on Broadway and a perpetual punch line for theater pundits.
The first thing I noted was that Eliot's wordplay and subtle commentary on the corollaries between human and feline behavior is not exactly an ideal fit for the more-is-more production style of Cameron Mackintosh, the Jerry Bruckheimer of musicals (Les Miserables, Miss Saigon, Phantom of the Opera). The sprawling junkyard set provided by FLCO Music Theatre, and the garish spandex-and-fur costumes from the Kansas City Costume Company, give the sense that whatever you've paid for the ticket, NC Theatre at least sunk every penny back into putting on the show.
There's also a full set of colorful felines constantly in motion, doing all manner of Cirque du Soleil-level flips and fancy footwork, is also a bang for one's buck. And then there's the infamous moments where the cast heads out into the audience, thus ensuring that you get a good look at the cat makeup for yourself.
Assuming you aren't blinded by the Day-Glo spandex and/or traumatized by the visits to the audience, you might start to notice that this show doesn't really have a plot. There's a vague through-line about the elder Old Deuteronomy (Ken Prymus, who was in the "Suicide is Painless" sequence in the original M*A*S*H film) deciding which cat will be reborn into a new life (don't cats have nine already?). Will it be the enfeebled and disliked Grizabella (Jennifer Shrader), who performs the show's most famous piece, the non-Eliot ballad "Memory"?
Ah, "Memory." Lovely when performed by an actress of range and projection; deathly when mutilated by endless aspiring actors, lounge singers and elevator music. This was a part of the show I knew already, and Shrader pulls it off. However, I was a bit puzzled by how little the rebirth plot, and Grizabella herself, figured into the overall show. And I was appalled by how the whole thing ends with a literal stairway to heaven.
I found myself enjoying the numbers that stuck more to the simple narratives of the original poems without adding too much bombast. For example, you can get through the whole opening song and still not understand what the hell a "Jellicle Cat" is (it's a simple mispronunciation of "dear little cat" in the poems). Whatever my perception of the Rum Tum Tugger (Thay Floyd), I didn't expect him to resemble the love child of Marc Bolan and Sun Ra.
Likewise, I never envisioned the criminal cat Macavity (Joe Moeller) in orange spandex painted with hell-flames, but there's always an artistic license that comes with symbolic representation, I think, maybe.
When all the stuff with reincarnation and feline ballet is out of the picture, there's a nice, simple quality that can be quite charming. The Mungojerre and Rumpleteazer number (with Will Porter and Amanda LaMotte as the respective tongue-twisting troublemakers) is a nifty little soft-shoe piece, while the second act gains considerable energy and poignancy from Dirk Lumbard as "Gus, the Theatre Cat," who enacts the pirate tale "Growltiger's Last Stand." It's a goofy bit that still has some of the wit of the original Eliot lines. Likewise, the jazzy "Macavity" is a playful take on a playful poem, but the whole hell-demon symbolism is a bit much.
My feelings on Cats remain conflicted. On one hand, I can see where the spectacle and raw energy captivate audiences—credit the direction and choreography by Richard Stafford and the music direction by Edward Robinson for keeping pace with the intricate sound and movement required by the production. Yet, while I appreciate the elaborateness of the show, I kept wishing that about half of it was on the chopping block, that there was a simpler Cats that just acted out a few of the poems for kids and didn't try to cover up its plot holes with dance numbers and glitter.
There was a nice moment at the end of the evening, though. The couple sitting alongside me expressed their bewilderment at what they'd just seen. They took my advice to check out Eliot's poems, which were conveniently for sale at the lobby's souvenir stand. Perhaps, like many a musical-theater snob, i will never fully comprehend Cats. But it's nice to know I'm not alone, and that for all the spandex and all of the actors' horrific ventures into the audience, it'll at least get some people to experience Eliot's work.
Well, that's one more pop-cultural black hole checked off. I'm still not sure about reading 50 Shades of Grey all the way through, though.
Theatre Raleigh/Hot Summer Nights
Through Aug. 11
Theatre Raleigh’s checkered 2013 season has featured some of the best—and worst—work on regional stages this year. It’s a relief, therefore, to report that Wednesday night’s performance of the acerbic 2001 musical URINETOWN represented a nimble, artistic 180-degree turn back into fair territory.
A couple of student groups have tackled this savvy, self-aware satire which manages to send up corporate corruption and politics as usual—and idealism, populism and a host of sappy musical theater conventions—after Raleigh Little Theatre’s regional premiere of the work in 2007. But no one’s done it better than this sure-footed production which, as one of the company’s two single-week engagements in Fletcher Opera Theater this season, closes far too soon, on Saturday.
No, the phrase "dystopian romp" doesn't come up very often in the critical lexicon. But URINETOWN is one; its deft, self-reflexive touches (and string of unforgivable puns) plumb the depths, as it were, of a world where private toilets have been banned due to water shortages, and people are forced to pay a fee each and every time they have to go number one.
Trust me; it's a lot funnier than it sounds. Director Richard Roland eggs on a canny, top-flight cast to dig into the stockiest of stock characters—including walking expositional devices like Officer Lockstock (a fine David Hess) and budding dramaturg (or theater critic?) Little Sally, played by a rewarding, bug-eyed Rachael Moser—who populate this hard-boiled city without pity. In a plot ripped from The Cradle Will Rock, a monolithic company helmed by the ruthless Caldwell B. Cladwell (Raymond Sage, in a memorable performance) uses its paid stooge in the legislature (Jade Arnold's evangelical Senator Fipp) and the police to drain the downtrodden masses of their last pennies and dimes.
All hope seems lost—go know—until Bobby Strong (Brennan Caldwell), a scrappy assistant janitor in the grimiest public amenity in town, stands up to all of them. Can a single, proverbial clean-cut kid spark a popular revolution, upend the power structure, save the day, and get the girl—Cladwell's beautiful and blindly idealistic daughter, Hope (an accomplished, comic Cameron Caudill)?
Are you kidding?
It actually gives little of the game away to reveal that the answer is: Sort of. Kinda. Call it three out of four—plus or minus change—which isn't a bad way to end up. (Unless, of course, it actually is.)
Officer Lockstock keeps reminding us and Little Sally that this is not a happy musical—though under Julie Bradley's musical direction, Mark Hollmann's score repeatedly lights up like a pinball machine. Bradley's five-piece orchestra and the talented cast are flawless on jazz-inspired numbers like "Snuff That Girl," addled gospel-tinged raves like "Run, Freedom, Run," a first-act rap tribute to advanced law enforcement, "Cop Song," and a romantic stemwinder—which director Roland has supporting characters checking their watches and bemusedly taking five throughout—in the reprise of Caudill's lovely, loopy "Follow Your Heart."
Strong supporting work by Courtney Balan and Maigan Kennedy adds savor to numbers including "What Is Urinetown" and "Why Did I Trust That Man?" And Lauren Kennedy's choreographic big-show quotes and cliches (including a silly synchronized file folder routine in the number "Mr. Cladwell") only increases the mirth. In Denise Schumaker's droll costume designs, tasteful ensembles fairly drip with yellow highlights across stage.
Our obvious recommendation for this knowing pistiche boils down to three little words: You gotta go!
The work will be presented in August at the New York International Fringe Festival, running for five performances Aug. 15—24 at The Robert Moss Theatre in lower Manhattan. A fundraising campaign supporting the production was launched this morning on indiegogo.com.
Set in a Lower East Side Catholic reformatory in 1914, the provocative 90-minute one-act mixes dark humor and social criticism with magical realism as it follows a group of four indigent teenage girls. Through literary contraband smuggled in by a new arrival, the girls learn about the work of Margaret Sanger, one of the founders of the birth control movement. When the quartet adopts her as their secret saint in rituals in their upstairs dorm room, their imaginations are liberated far beyond their dingy quarters, before their faith manifests itself in increasingly mysterious ways.
The play was commissioned by Durham's Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern, which premiered the work in April 2012. The production was cited among the year's best ensembles, direction, original scripts and productions in INDY Week's List for 2012.
In an online video for the indiegogo campaign, Byrne notes, “One of the things I realized as I was writing this play is that the life these girls envisioned for themselves, the life they fantasized about themselves, is the life that I am leading now, one century later. And it’s because of the efforts of people like Margaret Sanger who believed that women should lead a life of their choosing.”
Noting the increase in legislative attacks against women’s health services in recent years, Byrne writes, “We need to understand the physical realities of these threats. My play is about the world that is possible when young women have sovereignty over their bodies, and the reality they face when they don’t.”
The New York production will be directed by Jaki Bradley, who worked in the Triangle theater scene while a drama student at UNC Chapel Hill. The production’s website is saintmargaretsanger.com; the indiegogo campaign is at www.indiegogo.com/projects/what-every-girl-should-know.
One of the closest experiences any of us will have to rival time travel is taking place these nights just after dark in Horton Grove, a verdant section in Stagville, a state historic site several miles out Old Oxford Highway. Prior to the Civil War, Stagville held the dubious distinction of being the largest plantation in North Carolina, and one of the largest in the United States: a spread some 47 square miles in length which stretched to the north and east of Durham.
Back then, Horton Grove was where the slaves lived on whose labor the plantation ran. Now its fields are populated only by deer, cicadas, fireflies and the vocal chorus of frogs off in the distance. Its gray two-story quarters, built in the 1850s out of wood and handmade brick, are quiet.
Until, that is, our host conducts us, by lantern light, over the threshold of the largest of the structures on the green. And in that humble, whitewashed room, a woman now dead for 70 years speaks once again. Her name is Tempie Herndon.
Sometime in 1936 a visiting writer for the Work Projects Administration interviewed her because, even at the age of 103, she vividly recalled the details of life on a plantation not far from here, before the emancipation of 1865. During the 1930s, WPA writers would interview 176 North Carolinians like her about their experiences under slavery. The Slave Narrative Project, as it was ultimately called, filled 17 volumes with the verbatim testimony of some 2,300 former slaves from across the South. (Some of its narratives are available as an ebook and online; a complete hardbound copy of the collection is in the State Library in Raleigh.)
Last year, Bare Theatre’s artistic director Todd Buker adapted seven of the interviews and staged them with an all-star cast under the title LET THEM BE HEARD during Stagville’s Juneteenth Celebration. Though we did not review the show (whose one-weekend run closed before our following issue), we remembered the production last December, when Let Them Be Heard made the INDY’s list of best shows of the year, earning superlatives in ensemble, direction and special achievement in the humanities.
This memorable production’s second season closes this weekend at Stagville. Even with a week of shows added this year, the work clearly deserves a longer run than it will get. After a couple of weather-induced opening night glitches—and a cast member out due to illness—on Friday, Saturday night’s performance fully conveyed the impact of the work’s initial run.
Haskell Fitz-Simons, the longtime artistic director of Raleigh Little Theatre, died last night at UNC Hospitals following a lengthy battle with lymphoma. He was 64. The Chapel Hill native had served as a director at the prominent Raleigh community theater for 30 years, joining the company in 1983. Before that, Fitz-Simons had been a drama and speech instructor at University of Wisconsin at Superior. His theatrical resume included work with the Light Opera of Manhattan, an apprenticeship at the Alley Theatre in Houston, and seasons with the Manteo, N.C., outdoor drama The Lost Colony. Fitz-Simons earned his MFA in theater from UNC Chapel Hill in 1979.
“His death was so sudden and unexpected,” RLT executive director Charles Phaneuf said this morning.
“From the outpouring of support, it's clear that his legacy is not only about the fact that he directed so many shows for us and was here for so many years. People today are talking about the spirit of Haskell, his mentorship, and how many lives he touched.”
Fitz-Simons came to the stage from a theatrical family. As a child, he performed with other family members in summer productions of Unto These Hills, the Cherokee, N.C., outdoor drama. His parents also had a hand in notable early productions by Raleigh Little Theatre. In 1936, his mother, born Marion Tatum, directed RLT's second production, the African-American drama Heaven Bound; Fitz-Simons would later direct her in a 1984 RLT production of Deathtrap. His father, Foster, was a novelist, a dancer who worked with modern dance choreographer Ted Shawn, and an actor who performed at RLT in the 1940s and taught at UNC Chapel Hill’s Department of Dramatic Art.
Fitz-Simons’ last production for the company was a December 2012 restaging of the company's holiday classic, Cinderella. He also directed The Rocky Horror Show in August and The 39 Steps in October.
Funeral and memorial service arrangements are incomplete.
Musical theater fans can be quite rigid in their tastes, and even more so once they’ve reached a certain age. Take this tart little number, whom I encountered the other night in Raleigh Memorial Auditorium. Mere moments from the opening curtain, he was already griping to me about the long-term decline of the American musical—and at a North Carolina Theatre show, no less: They’re too disappointing. Too long. And then there are those productions—you know, the ones where the cast comes out into the audience: “God. I didn’t pay $100,” he snarked, “to have the fourth wall come crashing down around my ears.”
“You know,” he groused, “there was a time when people sat in darkened theatres and thought to themselves, ‘What have George and Ira got for me tonight?’ Or ‘Can Cole Porter pull it off again?’”
“Can you imagine? Now, it’s ‘Please, Elton John, must we continue this charade?’”
(What can I say? People have always felt that they can just open up to me.)
But this little-too-lonesome character wasn’t some crank on a night pass from assisted living in North Raleigh. The man in the chair was actually our host. (His name? Man in Chair.) And as the central figure in the musical THE DROWSY CHAPERONE, he not only ushered us into his all-time favorite night at the theater, dropping the needle on a phonograph to share the soundtrack by its original cast with us. He then proceeded to lead us on a guided personal tour of it as well, repeatedly interrupting the playback with his annotations on the careers of the performers, the mechanics of the show—and almost anything else that came to mind as the record spun. As obsessive musical theater fans will sometimes do.
And, as also sometimes happens, that musical, which becomes the play within this play, takes over and remakes his rather gray little flat into the dynamic stage of an all-singing, all-dancing (and definitely all-mugging) spectacular which supposedly bowled them over on Broadway in 1928.
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.
Universes, the Bronx-based performance troupe that fuses spoken word, song, rhythm and theater, epitomizes the concept of arts-as-multidisciplinary. The performers who comprise Universes—all of whom are persons of color—serve as storytellers and poets and music-makers. They're also social critics who aim to give voice to the silenced. And, for the most part, they succeed in doing so without being too heavy-handed. That’s no easy feat.
Their newest piece, Spring Training, currently has its world premiere at PRC2 in Chapel Hill. Commissioned by Carolina Performing Arts and PlayMakers Repertory Company as part of their Rite of Spring at 100 project, a centennial celebration of Stravinsky’s revolutionary composition, the members of Universes were given free rein to adapt The Rite of Spring in any manner they chose. The result is less an adaptation or a recreation of Rite than an entirely new piece incorporating Rite as one thematic ingredient. In culinary terms, Universes uses Stravinsky to season Spring Training, but doesn't let Stravinsky be the dominant flavor.
That’s not to say you can't taste Rite in the work, which features Universes’ company members Mildred Ruiz-Sapp, William “Ninja” Ruiz, Steven Sapp and Gamal Chasten under direction by Chay Yew. The opening and closing song of Spring Training, a soulful evocation of the struggles of everyday life, melodically mirrors the familiar, haunting bassoon at the beginning of Stravinsky’s composition. But here, the music gives way to Bobby McFerrin-esque rhythmic beatboxing and shadows of James Brown and Marvin Gaye.
Then begin the stories: poignant, heartbreaking and sometimes funny tales of suffering and, yes, the rites of passage young people must go through—the spring training of our lives we endure before confronting the even greater challenges of adulthood.
Duke Theater Studies
Sheafer Lab Theater
closed April 14
Young Jean Lee’s LEAR has a similar feel to it, with one marked exception: In this case, the parents are never coming home—not after King Lear and Gloucester, the fathers of the quintet we ultimately see on stage, have both been stripped of all power and banished to the storm, presumably to their deaths in this interpretation.
In the absence of such gods, the children in this bizarre redraft have already turned quite feral. The varying mixtures of mania, malice—and panic—in their eyes suggest kids who’ve gotten permanently lost while playing hide and seek in grownup’s bodies. Their impulsivity and increasingly radical swings in mood and focus speak to characters who’ve only just discovered that their games now have no frontiers, no exit—and no end.
So far, so interesting. In Young’s vision, the refinements of a ruling class have gradually crossed over into opulence and psychosis, if not mutation. Those dynamics are fully realized in a trio of performances director Jody McAuliffe has crafted with actors Jazmine Noble as Goneril, Madeleine Roberts as Regan, and particularly Faye Goodwin as Cordelia. In Sonya Drum’s costumes and the equally skillful (but uncredited) wigs and makeup, the daughters’ almost—but not quite—flawless skin and hair recalls the exquisite porcelain horrors of painter Ray Caesar, and more than hints at the madness and corruption underneath.