Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Blank White Canvas - Art & Million Dollar Quartet - Theatre Reviews

Art - Bluma Appel Theatre at the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts - Toronto, ON - ** (out of 5 stars)
Written by Yasmina Reza, Translated by Christopher Hampton, Directed by Morris Panych
Runs until Apr. 10th 2010

Million Dollar Quartet - Nederlander Theatre - Broadway, New York, NY - ** (out of 5 stars)
Book by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux, Original Concept and Direction by Floyd Mutrux, Directed by Eric Schaeffer
In Previews, Opens Apr. 11th 2010

Boy, the rest of the audiences loved these shows and easily bought into the big hoopla, but I thought both Art (in a new production in Toronto) and Million Dollar Quartet (just opening on Broadway while a successful run in Chicago continues) are both big concept shows with little to show for it.

I saw Art when it first ran in London and remembered being slightly bored, but through the years, have waxed nostalgic and called it an entertaining, if somewhat overrated play. Seeing again only made me realize I've totally given it way more credit than it deserves. It truly is the blank white canvas it's talking about. In case you don't know the story, it's about 3 very different friends, who argue and bicker when one buys a piece of modern art (what looks like a blank white canvas, though claims to be shades of grayness) and it unravels the friendship to its true core. It's a GREAT concept, one that has so much potential for hilarity and deep discussions, but I find Yasmina Reza (or Hampton's translations?) never seems to fulfill the early promise of the play (which is the same problem I had with her current Broadway hit God of Carnage, a great concept play, poorly fulfilled but well acted).

Luckily, the new Canadian production stars Colin Mochrie (Whose Line Is It Anyways), Evan Buliung (Stratford) and Peter Donaldson and while Donaldson overacts a bit, I felt the script sort of forced him to. It's a sitcom script that feigns high intellectualism to the masses of middle class white folks to make them feel so high and smart for going to the "thea-tah". Mochrie does a fine job as the art buyer and Evan Buliung is terrifically funny as the cowardly jello of a friend, but even Panych's taut direction can only paint so much onto what essentially is a blank script.

Million Dollar Quartet is a new musical that's more like an elaborate Vegas revue with a few dramatic scenes in between. It's an excuse to put on a concert with the rockin' songs of the 50's, when Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash met at Sun Records Studio in 1956 Memphis and made some impromptu recordings... and that's the story pretty much right there. Throw in the studio's owner Sam Phillips (Hunter Foster, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Urinetown) and Elvis' girlfriend Dyanne (Elizabeth Stanley, Company) for those dramatic scenes, and you're left with a pretty hollow of an excuse for the concert show.

If it's a show you want, then you'll get it, as the performances recreating some of Presley, Lewis and Cash's best known songs are generally solid, while Perkins, was the original writer of "Blue Suede Shoes". Robert Britton Lyons (above left) sings some of the lesser known songs well, but mostly he just gets to act annoyed and disgruntled that Elvis is more popular from his own song.

Eddie Clendening (above and below centre) does a terrific Elvis that echoes Presley's persona without relying on caricature, and it surprisingly feels real and subtle. Clendening's recreation of Elvis' musical performances are terrific.

Levi Kreis (above left) gets the most to play with as the over-the-top Jerry Lee Lewis and while he doesn't have as many solo songs to perform, his musical talents don't go unnoticed. Both his musical and acting performances are fantastic and Kreis gives the dull book the biggest lift.

Elizabeth Stanley does what she can from a sketched out role. A role that is sort of an excuse to stick a woman into the proceedings to add a female voice, and a romance. Sadly, Stanley still feels underused.

Hunter Foster (above left, with Kreis) on the other hand doesn't even get to sing, a shame considering his talented voice, but he throws some good dramatic weight into the non-singing role.

Lance Guest (above right, with Lyons) is the only major performance disappointment who plays Johnny Cash as a lumbering mumbly wallflower. I barely noticed he was there most of the time and he's on stage almost as much as the other 3 singers.

At the end of the show, they forgo the one room set and Million Dollar Quartet embraces its concert nature with an elaborate finale/encore and for the first time, the show is truly rocking. The audience around me ate it up but the slim book and slow pacing from the intermissionless show just dragged the terrific performances down, and a fun finale is not enough to make up for it. The attempt at a hit parade only reminds me of how slick and smartly made Jersey Boys was, and I enjoyed another 1950's Memphis set new Broadway musical Memphis far more (with it's original musical and cliched but still winning book). Million Dollar Quartet may be a true incident of a special gathering of stars, but I wouldn't spend too much money trying to see it.

Vance at http://tapeworthy.blogspot.com

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