Monday, October 18, 2010

I Wish to Go to the Festival: My Brief Encounters at NYMF

If you blinked, you missed the latest installment of the New York Musical Theatre Festival, which since its founding has given birth to musicals such as “Next to Normal” (then under its original gaudier title “Feelin’ Electric”), “Altar Boyz” and “[title of show].” Scheduling has always been an issue for the festival, which has traditionally been presented in September around the High Holidays and right after the Fringe Festival. True, marathon theatergoers may be exhausted following Fringe, but no Broadway or even major Off-Broadway shows had yet to open.

This year, NYMF moved to late September through mid-October, making it compete against an onslaught of Broadway and Off-Broadway openings. For me, as a reviewer, finding time to catch even a handful of NYMF shows became a challenge – and a pain. Further, due to the fact that NYMF will only give a single ticket (as opposed to the customary pair of tickets) to any reviewer, I had little incentive to catch any more NYMF shows than I absolutely needed to. I saw shows that my friends were in, and the only show at NYMF this year that otherwise piqued my interest. Perhaps I am being too harsh on NYMF. I probably am. Regardless of when and how the shows are performed and how many tickets I receive, it remains an incredible asset for musical theater writers and those who love attending new musicals that can’t get produced elsewhere.

Anyhow, I limited myself to the following: Anthony Rapp’s one-man bio musical “Without You”; Nighttime Traffic,” an original three-person musical penned by my friend Alex Wyse; “The Great Unknown,” a country musical that two of my friends had small roles in; and the latest edition of “If It Only Even Runs a Minute,” which my friend Jen Tepper created.

Of course I had to see “Without You.” When I was 14 years old, seeing “Rent” for the first time with a replacement cast, Anthony Rapp had already moved on but I could still hear his voice in my head from having listened to the original cast album so many countless times. It wasn’t for almost another decade that I finally saw him in the role upon his return to the show alongside Adam Pascal. Simply put, it was great to see Rapp relive his audition for “Rent,” describing the show’s development, promoting the show alongside Jonathan Larson to operagoers and the tragic circumstances surrounding Jonathan’s untimely death. But Rapp’s attempt to wed the “Rent” story to his mother’s illness from cancer and his own sexual awakening was less captivating. And his own original songs were not so great, especially when tied together with those from “Rent.”

Alex Wyse deserves major credit for having penned the music, lyrics AND book for “Nighttime Traffic,” which depicts a gay couple in their early 20s in a hospital room as one prepares to undergo surgery following a heart attack. The nurse, played by Liz Larsen, offers a pill that will slow down time and allow them to longer enjoy each other’s company. The show’s seamless, economical, emotional and intimate atmosphere demonstrates how Wyse is truly someone who knows and loves musical theater. I have no doubt that he has a big future ahead as a writer. That being said, “Nighttime Traffic” did not feel quite finished to me. I thought its pattern of dramatic development stymied towards the end and ran out of places to go. Perhaps that was a result of only having three actors and a single set on a small stage.

“The Great Unknown,” a folk/country musical about a one-armed Civil War veteran leading a group of men down the Colorado River to the Grand Canyon, might make more sense if it had the necessary amount of scenery to turn it into an adventure spectacular. Otherwise, it played out quite awkwardly on a bare stage. As directed by Don Stephenson, its most interest element occurred when chorus girls personified the river rapids.

Finally, I was able to catch the latest edition of “If It Only Even Runs a Minute,” which I’ve continually enjoyed in its previous mountings at nightclub spaces. At NYMF, it had two back-to-back concerts (editions four and five) on a single night, each offering completely different bills. The big attraction of the late show was a reunion of the long-lost musical “Truckload,” which closed after six previews at the Lyceum Theatre in 1975. Composer Louis St. Louis spoke of his memories of the show, director Patricia Birch was in attendance, and Marty Thomas belted out the title song. Perhaps the series should consider changing its title to “If It Only Even Runs Six Previews.” If your show ran even that long, Jen Tepper and Kevin Michael Murphy will rescue your show from the shadows and bring it back to life for one brief shining moment.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Mrs. Warren's Profession

“Mrs. Warren’s Profession,” George Bernard Shaw’s 1894 drama that reexamines the pros and cons of prostitution, contains no violence or obscenities. Yet when it was first performed in New York in 1905, the police considered it so incendiary that they shut down the production and arrested the cast and crew.

While its shock value has worn off over the past hundred years, the play remains an exquisite exploration of moral hypocrisy and economic disparity in Victorian society.

It revolves around the tense relationship between Vivie, an educated young woman, and her mother Kitty, who rose out of poverty by running a prostitution ring.

In spite of the fact that Vivie has benefited from Kitty’s money, she refuses to condone her mother’s line of business and decides to leave her behind forever, forgo several marriage opportunities and ultimately work as a low-paid clerk.

The Roundabout Theatre Company’s production, which reunites the “Doubt” team of director Doug Hughes and actress Cherry Jones, is a traditionally straightforward but uninspired and stale staging.

Jones, awkwardly sporting a working-class cockney accent, tries to bring a rough edge to the steely title character. However, it is an unfocused and excessive performance that undermines the credibility of the character.

British actress Sally Hawkins convincingly portrays Vivie as nonsexual and down to business, but becomes too over-the-top and whiny in the play’s final confrontation scene.

The rest of the cast is wildly uneven their acting styles. Edward Hibbert, in a small role, retains his humorous bent but is too restrained to make much of a difference.

If you go – “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” plays at the American Airlines Theater through Nov. 21.
227 W. 42nd St., 212-719-1300, roundabouttheatre.org.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

The Pitmen Painters

Perhaps Lee Hall intended his new play “The Pitmen Painters” to be an unofficial prequel to his popular musical “Billy Elliot.” Both are powerful, humorous and warm-hearted studies in the power of the arts to transform lives in the working class cultures of British mining communities.

Based on William Feaver’s novel, “The Pitmen Painters” dramatizes the famous story of the Ashington Group, a collective of miners in the mid-1930s whose lives are forever changed by participating in an art appreciation class.

Rather than study the classics, the miners are assigned to paint their own canvases, which are projected on large screens for the audience to view. From the very start, they bring a distinctive energy and perspective to their art. Pretty soon, the men receive attention from the critics for their work.

The motley cast of characters includes an academic tutor, a radical socialist, an uptight union official, an injured dental mechanic, and a rich female art patron who offers one of the miners the rare chance to leave the mines and focus entirely on his art.

Throughout the play, the characters debate the meaning, purpose and politics of art and question how it affects their individual and group identities.

It is truly our good fortune that the entire original English cast has traveled with the Max Roberts’ detailed production to Broadway. They are all individually excellent and make for a fiery and passionate ensemble.

If you go – “The Pitmen Painters” plays at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre through December 12. 261 W. 47th St., 212-239-6200, mtc-nyc.org.