Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Four Reviews

Reviews of Cabaret, The Music Man, and Hughie and Krapp's Last Tape, by Michael Kuchwara for the Associated Press:

"There's a nice theatrical contrast - all-American wholesomeness versus determined Teutonic debauchery - on display at the 2008 Stratford Shakespeare Festival.

"It's the impossibly innocent, strawberry-phosphate, brass-band world of Meredith Willson's The Music Man up against the sexually aggressive, pills-and-liquor environment of Kander and Ebb's Cabaret. Give a slight edge to licentious behaviour at the Avon Theatre where both shows are running in repertory well into the fall.

"Director Amanda Dehnert is brimming with ideas for her production of Cabaret. Maybe too many. But better overstuffed than undernourished, and Dehnert makes the tale of a young American writer adrift in Berlin during the early 1930s emotionally involving as well as visually arresting. The woman uses film, puppets and even a bit of uncomfortable audience participation, among other things, to keep the action flowing.

"Dehnert - with the considerable help of choreographer Kelly Devine - is equally at home in the musical numbers at the Kit Kat Klub and the personal stories of the two couples whose relationships dominate the musical.

"Her production takes a cue from the 1987 Broadway revival, filling out the character of the writer, Cliff Bradshaw, ably played by the strong-voiced Sean Arbuckle. Cliff is more than a passive observer in this world of collapsing morality as the Nazis come to power and most people are just too preoccupied to care.

"The man is involved with a second-rate chanteuse named Sally Bowles, who makes up in intensity what she lacks in talent. Trish Lindstrom's Sally exudes a narcissistic desperation to have fun, no matter the cost. Don't look for vulnerability here.

"Their relationship is mirrored by the sweetly affecting - and equally doomed - partnership between Cliff's sympathetic Berlin landlady, a personable Nora McLellan, and a Jewish shopkeeper (Frank Moore).

"For the most part, this is an exceptionally well-sung Cabaret, showcasing what is the most satisfying score by John Kander (music) and Fred Ebb (lyrics). Take Bruce Dow, a deliciously different master of a ceremonies. He's more full-figured than the fellows created by either Joel Grey or Alan Cumming. Think the Pillsbury doughboy's naughty twin.

"Dehnert is at her most inventive with this character, seen as a kind of libidinous guardian angel who watches over just about everybody in the show.

"It's quite a distance from pre-Second World War Berlin to River City, Iowa, circa 1912, the territory ripe for the picking by Harold Hill, the memorable charlatan in The Music Man.

"Hill is sandblasted in everyone's memory - from either the original cast recording or the film - as the property of Robert Preston. Here, Jonathan Goad makes a game attempt at making the con man his own, but there's a slight unease to his duplicity as Hill attempts to sell the townsfolk band instruments and uniforms for their children while charming the town's prim librarian (a delightful Leah Oster).

"It's not easy to mess with The Music Man. The musical is one of those perfectly constructed shows that doesn't leave much room for radically different interpretation. Director Susan H. Schulman offers no surprises in her take on Willson's idealized version of his Iowa youth.

"Yet while his vision is nostalgic (captured in the lovely sets and costumes by Patrick Clark), it is never overly sentimental. Willson's memories are tinged with an exuberance that is impossible to resist. Not to mention a tuneful score that ranks as one of the best of Broadway's golden age.

"The supporting cast deserves the highest of praise, but let's give a special shout out to Sara Topham as the piano-playing Ethel Toffelmier. Topham is a giddy delight as the goofy Ethel, dancing her heart out in Shipoopi. Quite a change from her fine, furious emoting in Fuente Ovejuna, Lope de Vega's grim yet glorious revenge tragedy. It's positive proof that playing in rep enhances an actor's skills.

"A transformation of equally extraordinary stature is occurring at the small Studio Theatre, where Brian Dennehy is undergoing a radical makeover - all during one evening. The vehicle? A double bill of Eugene O'Neill's Hughie and Samuel Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape.

"In Hughie, Dennehy portrays Erie Smith, a down-on-his-luck gambler complaining about his losing streak to a passive night clerk (the eminently watchable Joe Grifasi) in a flea bag New York hotel.

"Erie's good fortune deserts him after the previous night clerk (the play's title character) dies. And now the man is looking to find his way back to Lady Luck. With his imposing physicality and wide grin, Dennehy excels at bravado, and Erie, decked out in a dapper cream-coloured suit, is a man of show - but not much tell.

"His inner anxiety seeps out during the rest of his garrulous, nearly one-sided conversation with the mournful little clerk. Director Robert Falls directs with the lightest of touches, allowing the expansive Dennehy to create a memorable portrait of man trying to find a reason to keep on living.

"Desperation of another sort is on display in Krapp's Last Tape, Beckett's bleak memory play in which an older man, at age 69, listens to his taped ruminations of three decades earlier. Dennehy undergoes a stunning physical transformation, trading the bonhomie of O'Neill's big-city gambler for the haunted, hunted, almost feral look of a man hearing his past come back with regret.

"Yet the play, directed with impeccable precision by Jennifer Tarver, is not without humour. Beckett was a big fan of those silent-film greats Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Put a banana peel on stage and you know Krapp will slip on it. Still, it's the pain of what once was that dominates the fierce, furious man in this memorable, unnerving work. "

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