Wednesday, May 06, 2009

A Tour of the High Notes On The Lows Of American History in Washington DC: The Musical

Ragtime - Eisenhower Theater - The Kennedy Center - Washington, D.C. - ***** (out of 5)
Music by Stephen Flaherty, Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, Book by Terrence McNally, Based on the novel by E.L. Doctorow
Directed and Choreographed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge
Runs until May 17th 2009. UPDATE: Transfers to Broadway in Fall 2009

Giant - Signature's Max Theatre - Washington, D.C. - ***** (out of 5)
Music and Lyrics by Michael John LaChiusa, Book by Sybille Pearson, Based on the novel by Edna Ferber, Directed by Jonathan Butterell

See What I Wanna See - Signature's Ark Theatre - Washington, D.C. - *** (out of 5)
Words and Music by Michael John LaChiusa, Based on Short Stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, As translated by Takashi Kojima, Directed by Matthew Gardiner

The Civil War - Ford's Theatre - Washington D.C. - **1/2 (out of 5)
Book and Lyrics by Frank Wildhorn, Gregory Boyd, and Jack Murphy, Music by Frank Wildhorn, Directed by Jeff Calhoun

I'm still recovering from my whirlwind theatrical tour of the history of America while I was in Washington D.C. this past weekend. So it's going to take some time to get some proper reviews out (UPDATE: This will be it for now. I will re-review Ragtime on Broadway), but if you haven't already noticed my twitter the other day, and you're near the D.C. area, I highly recommend Ragtime (below) at the Eisenhower Theater at the Kennedy Center AND Giant at the Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia (within the greater DC area). (Ragtime has been extended to May 17th, Giant runs until May 31st only). Actually, not just highly recommend. YOU MUST GO RUN AND DO ANYTHING TO GET TICKETS TO BOTH THESE PRODUCTIONS. I'm giving both ***** (out of 5 stars), which is so rare.

I didn't mean to book so many epic musicals into one weekend, but it somehow ended that way. I also saw an emotionally epic See What I Wanna See also at the Signature, and the epically bad musical song cycle The Civil War at Ford's Theatre (yes, where Lincoln got shot! The main reason I went).

So in 2 days, I went from the brutality of The Civil War in 1861, to the convergence of Whites, Blacks and immigrant Jews at turn of the century in Ragtime. As the ragtime music played from 1906 to the advent of the first world war around New York City, I moved on to Texas during the 1940's when a Texan rancher marries an eastern girl that begins the unravelling of the Benedict family on the flatlands of the Giant state.

And if I had anything to learn in D.C., it was that the Star Spangled Banner hadn't coveted all the stars. There were still more STARS ready to be born. While I didn't love The Civil War, the performers were outstanding, with voices that soared beyond the prosaic rock music score (which totally felt incongruous to the harsh subject matter).

Meanwhile, Ragtime is one of my favorite musicals of all time (based on the novel by E.L. Doctorow). It's the lone massive epic amongst my favorites that usually consists of more modern, less literal, less linear books (like Spring Awakening, Rent, Company, A Chorus Line, Hair), but Ragtime is truly outstanding, and I was lucky enough to see the world premiere in Toronto a few times back in the day, and at the time, we didn't know how lucky we were to have Audra McDonald (Private Practice), Brian Stokes Mitchell, Marin Mazzie, Steven Sutcliffe, Lea Michelle (Glee, Spring Awakening), Peter Friedman, Heather Headley, all amongst the cast. So I went into this new starless revival at the Kennedy Center a little underwhelmed with the lack of marquee names.

Well, Christiane Noll, Bobby Steggert (probably the most famous of the bunch, last seen with Audra in 110 in the Shade), Jennlee Shallow (above), Quentin Earl Darrington (above) and Manoel Felciano may not be marquee names now, but they will be! By golly sweet mother, this Kennedy Center cast was OUTSTANDING and managed to erase the memories of the already perfect original cast.

The staging is much more pared down from the extravagant original (which practically bankrupted Drabinsky which basically got him to fudge the books that landed him jail recently) and literal staging, but this new modern simplicity works surprisingly well, at least once you get used to the stylistic shell of the piano, or the wire framed Ford vehicle (that becomes a major plotpoint in case you've never seen the show). The art nouveau iron wrought 5 leveled set hovers over the entire stage, utilizing the whole stage space three-dimensionally and truly brings out the epic nature of the already epic musical that tells the tales of three cultures colliding at the beginning of the 20th century.

And if Ragtime is epic in every possible way, Giant is epic with a large cast, and epic in scope, but intimate and emotionally lush with a dense story told along a sprawling narrative. Based on the Edna Ferber novel, it tells the tale of Bick Benedict and his family, but it also draws from the social nature of Texas during the 1940's, as well as the mix of the Whites that live on the ranges, and the Mexicans that help run them.

While the music is by Michael LaChiusa (The Wild Party, one of those newer generation musical writers that tend to be more artsy than populist that I don't always love) and isn't particularly catchy, I thought it beautifully evoked the sounds and atmosphere of old time Texas. The beautifully lighted set was wide and simple (just a hardwood rectangular platform with a ladder to a smaller square hovering above and a canvas band above changing colours, moods and scenery throughout the show).

And the cast of 21 is simply magnificent, with Lewis Cleale (above right, Spamalot), Betsy Morgan (above centre, The Little Mermaid) and Ashley Robinson (above left) leading one of the best ensemble casts I've seen (and one that includes Nick Spangler (The Fantasticks, winner from The Amazing Race 13)).

Seriously, Betsy Morgan is a revelation. She's been in what seems like every workshop of a new musical opening soon on Broadway (including The Addams Family, Prairie (dir. Francesca Zambello), Leap of Faith (dir. Taylor Hackford), First Wives Club (dir. Francesca Zambello), and Memphis (dir. Christopher Ashley)) but hopefully this will bring her into the proper spotlight she deserves.

Ashley Robinson, with his creepy googly eyes, swaggers with a sexual vibe that draws you even though you know he spells bad news. And with his gruff voice and scruffy looks, comes out a beautiful country twang that's crystal clear, and that draws you further into his dark emotional abyss.

I could go on but I'll save it for a post of it's own, but Giant had everything in it that usually bores me to tears in musicals. A difficult score without any catchy poppy tunes, a 4 hour running time (YES, it's FOUR hours long (2 intermissions included)), and generally no showy musical moments (don't expect jazz hands here), but I found it utterly engrossing and simply LOVED IT. It's getting ***** 5 stars from me, and that is actually quite rare. I've only ever given 5 stars to 11 other musical productions I've seen live on stage (they were Spring Awakening, Ragtime, Rent, Hair, A Chorus Line, Company, The Who's Tommy, Cabaret, Chicago, Urinetown, Parade).

Meanwhile, while Giant flew by its 4 hour running time, The Civil War's 95 minute intermissionless running time felt FAR longer, with it's only real redeeming quality in it's superb roster of singers (below), many who I've seen before in Signature productions in the DC area.

Vance at http://tapeworthy.blogspot.com


Dame James Henry said...

They turned Giant into a musical?! That is all sorts of amazing. I can't wait for the new film version if/when that eventually happens. Here's hoping they cast Hugh Jackman, Leighton Meester and Zac Efron!

Vance said...

I don't know if Zac Efron could pull off the James Dean role but he could play the son of Hugh. That could actually work. (You would probably like the Jr in this production. Jordan Nichols. Adorable).

Dame James Henry said...

Oh yeah! How could I forget about him? Zac would be perfect for that role.

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