Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Hot and Bothered - The Arsonists & Murder Ballad - Theatre Reviews

The Arsonists - Canadian Stage at the Bluma Appel Theatre in the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts - Toronto, ON - **** (out of 5 stars)
Written by Max Frisch, In a New Translation by Alistair Beaton, Original Music by Jason Rutledge
Directed by Morris Panych
Runs until Dec. 9th 2012

Murder Ballad - Manhattan Theatre Club in the Studio at Stage II in New York City Center - Off-Broadway - New York City, NY - *** (out of 5 stars)
Music and Lyrics by Juliana Nash, Conceived, Book, and Lyrics by Julia Jordan
Directed by Trip Cullman
Runs until Dec. 16th 2012

Other than Tyler Perry shows, Pantomimes and the current production of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, is it ever proper to yell at the characters on stage? Because The Arsonists and Murder Ballad certainly make a case for it. In both shows, symbolic characters do stupid things and you want to yell at them like you would want to at a horror film.

Two cautionary tales, both told with the simplest of plots, using music to add a level of excitement in productions staged on cool-looking sets. The effectiveness of the shows seem to only match the levels of absurdity and clarity in the satire in two new productions, one, a revised revival at Canadian Stage Company, and another, a new musical from the Manhattan Theatre Club in the small Studio space at New York City Centre.

The Arsonists is an absurd little piece that is so simple in concept that it could easily burn up in the wrong hands. While it is labeled as a farce, this is not a laugh-out-loud type of piece, with the humour only pointing to more chilling facts, and beautifully underlying the allegorical nature of the piece. Written after the Nazi's rise and Switzerland's neutral stance, the play is about a man named Biederman who takes in two strangers who are obviously arsonists who have been burning down the town. All while Biederman tries to keep his wife calm, while remaining polite, despite the eye-rolling warnings from his maid.

On a beautifully imposing set by Ken MacDonald, with lighting by Jason Hand, director Morris Panych keeps the impending doom at bay while Biederman deludes himself that things are all fine. With new added music by Jason Rutledge (who performs it himself with his band), a new added layer of the narrative commentary (and ironic humour) is added to the already twisted tale, a cautionary tale about recognizing and speaking up in times of danger.

Sheila McCarthy is perfectly sly and exhaustively annoyed as the maid. A seemingly smaller role for the accomplished actress but her sharp performance only underlines the importance of that character.

Wonderfully befuddled, Michael Ball's Biederman, "everyman", is a strong anchor as the centre of the absurdist piece. Fiona Reid works perfectly as the thorn in his side as he tries to deal with the outside interlopers.

As the titled arsonists, Shawn Wright's calming demeanor and wily moustache makes for the perfect sinister culprit, just staying on the right side of the fine line from being a cartoon villain. Dan Chameroy is a little less convincing, but probably only because of all my wonderful memories of him playing the protagonists, so I'm less convinced he can be that evil.

From the bold set, to the dynamic music, this new production of The Arsonists manages to turn the predictable story into a chilling warning, and while there are moments that wane, and the laughs are muddled from the impending doom of the story, the show works wonderfully as an absurd allegory.

Over in New York, a less successful, but boldly told story is rocking out the Studio at City Centre. Murder Ballad can be seen as an exciting, refreshing new musical, but the actual show misses the mark despite a talented cast that throws themselves (sometimes literally) into their performances, while glimmers of clever commentary shows itself in the lyrics, albeit mostly too late in a great final song.

The story is simple. A hot and heavy couple in the East Village break-up, and the woman moves on by meeting a loving nerd, marries, moves to Upper Manhattan, has a child, and lives the upper-middle class dream. As ennui sets in, she's rekindled with her old lover. Jealousy rages and someone is murdered. Unfortunately, most of the show is played so straight and serious that when the moment of wit and the cautionary allegory comes to light near the end, it is too late to care about these characters. There's too much time spent on certain spans of the story, which in itself has little surprise.

Despite the best efforts from Rebecca Naomi Jones (always excellent, Passing Strange, American Idiot) as the sumptuous narrator, the show tries to ooze sex appeal but comes off with very little passion and a certain coldness, partly because the story seems at odds with its bar setting that puts some of its audience members in the middle of a realistic looking (and working) low Rent bar. It doesn't help that the story is basically the tale if Mimi decided to go with Mark instead of Roger, and jealousy and revenged ensued. The story spends way too much time in certain set ups and life in yuppie domestic bliss, all while we see the characters dancing on a grungy pool table in a dingy bar.

Karen Olivo (Tony winner from West Side Story) is terrific and believable as the woman who moves from the cool hip life to a far calmer lifestyle with a man who wears glasses and reads books, but the framework and lyrics don't allow for much more depth, though Olivo tries hard.

Will Swenson and John Ellison Conlee sound great and do what they can with their etched out characters but poor Swenson has to make do with a character whose motivations are thinner than his character in Priscilla Queen of the Desert.

The music by Juliana Nash has a thrilling beat and ease of melody at first, until it starts getting into a monotonous ennui (much like the yuppie couple) and only comes alive again in the final song that throws the entire musical into a different satirical spin, an inspiration missing from the previous 80 min. proceedings.

Vance at http://tapeworthy.blogspot.com

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