Peter Gallagher and On the Twentieth Century each made their Broadway debuts during the same 1977 to ’78 season. Since then, the musical has rarely been seen, but the actor has had one of those rare careers in which he’s perpetually popped up in most every performance medium and genre without wearing out his welcome or curdling into type. On Broadway, he’s run the gamut from Hair, in which he made that debut in the love-rock musical’s short-lived first revival, to the tragic Long Day’s Journey Into Night with Jack Lemmon and Kevin Spacey, to the golden-age musical Guys and Dolls with Nathan Lane. He’s played key roles, usually as a slickster, in films that helped define their times, like Sex, Lies, and Videotape and The Player. On television, Gallagher has matured into authority figures—mostly trustworthy, sometimes not—on such series as The O.C. and Togetherness. He’s even put out an album, 7 Days in Memphis, and toured the country with a cabaret act peppered, like his conversation, with spot-on impersonations of the many legends he’s known.
Gallagher’s work has never gone stale because, even when playing hams like impetuous impresario Oscar Jaffee in the current revival of On the Twentieth Century, the actor keeps things both cool and committed. He finds a simple, direct connection to what makes his characters tick, so we relate to them even if we don’t approve. His blend of uncommonly good looks, easy masculinity, and down-to-earth urbanity was shared by many of the greats from the golden age of Hollywood and Broadway, which helps explain why Gallagher was cast alongside stars from that era during their final working years. Robert Altman called the actor his generation’s Cary Grant, “only 40 years too late.” But it makes him especially right for On the Twentieth Century, in which he stars with Kristin Chenoweth. The musical, by Cy Coleman, Betty Comden, and Adolph Green, harkens back to the screwball comedies in which Grant excelled, set to the legit, operetta style popular in its ‘30s time period. Before a performance, I spoke with the actor, who turns 60 next month, primarily about legacies—what he’s learned from his own experience, his parents, and the people who inspired him.
The list of your co-stars and directors is staggering. Who haven’t you worked with?
I’ve been very lucky to work with people who were part of my mythology. I worked with James Cagney on the last thing he did. I would have been happy to play a hat rack. My mother went to college with his sister, Jean. Art Carney was in the movie too. My uncle used to be a janitor’s assistant at the local New Rochelle bank where Art’s dad would bring him in to tap dance at the Christmas parties. I walked into the first day of rehearsal to Cagney’s suite at the Hotel Carlyle and he looked up at me and said, “Black Irish.” At the end of the day he said, “Gallagher, I want you to meet my wife, Billie, but first we’ve got to find her.” I got behind his wheelchair and we went searching the apartment. “Oh, Billie. Billie.” And there she was hiding behind the curtains. This kind of madness and inclusion did my heart good because, if these guys were talking to me, what could be so bad?
Later, I did a movie for Neil Jordan called High Spirits with Peter O’Toole, and he’d been the reason I’d wanted to be an actor, after I saw Lawrence of Arabia. He had a kind of a divine madness, too, and a humor that just made me feel hopeful. We got along great. And Mike Nichols. Just getting notes from Mike or having lunch with Mike or just being in the same room with Mike—that’s something that stays with you forever. Or Bob Altman.
My happiest experiences have been collaborations with people whose vision I embrace and who welcome me into the process. That’s when good things can happen. I remember when we were doing The Player, Tim Robbins and Cynthia Stevenson were doing a scene and I was up next. Altman said, “Gallagher, I need you to go in there and do something.” I said, “Okay. What?” He said, “I don’t know.” I said, “When?” He said, “Next take.” “Oh. All right.” “You ready?” “I don’t know.” “Let’s go.” It’s exciting to work with people who have the technique to take the kind of chances that sometimes pay off.
When you’ve been thrown in situations like that, what have you done to help it pay off?
You just think, “Where have you been, where are you going, what story are we telling?” I’ve had wonderful teachers. I worked with my longtime acting coach, Mira Rostova, for 25 years. I’d still be studying with her, but she died a few years ago at the age of 99. She had an extraordinary life experience. She and her family fled the Bolshevik Revolution, then Nazi Germany. And she ended up in New York in time for the Actors Studio to begin. The people you study with transform how you view yourself and what you think is possible. Sometimes you get new information, but the most reassuring thing is getting permission to believe in what you already believe in. It lets you know you’re not crazy.
There were so many people in the theater, when I started out, that sort of recognized who I was and helped me—not just the big directors and choreographers, but stage managers and assistants who’d come up at the knee of the theater greats. They were passing on that knowledge, but when I came back to do Guys and Dolls in the ‘90s so many of them had died of AIDS. It was like a whole world disappeared. There are still a few from the golden era. I just had lunch with Hal Prince [director of the original ’78 production of On the Twentieth Century]. I worked with him on the next show Comden and Green wrote after that, A Doll’s Life, which was a big flop. I guess the thing I ache for, and the thing I enjoy most, is that sort of family, where you’re united to achieve a common goal and you do it with a kind of mad delight.
You certainly seem to take delight in the extremes of Oscar Jaffee, but still you ground the production as you did in other pieces that go to extremes, whether it’s the noir of The Underneath on film or the farce of Noises Off on stage.
That’s what I’ve been trying to do my whole life. Growing up, I took care of my mother a little bit because she suffered from depression. But she was brilliant. She was first-generation American, like my father, and became a bacteriologist who helped develop a better milieu for penicillin. She had Alzheimer’s for the last 20 years of her life. And when she was in the depths of it, even after she’d let go of most words, if I touched her, if I’d sing to her, or hold her, or dance with her, she would say, “That was real.”
The thing that the theater has given me, among many, many things, is you get to be present when things happen. And you don’t really have all that much to do with them. You’re more or less a vessel for the writing or the moment. No matter how outsized or comedic or diabolical, it usually has to do with something we recognize as true. We’re not alone anymore. The truth underneath things, the truth you find in a moment on stage with an audience, that’s where the magic is and the solace.
Is that why you’ve been so open to playing characters that aren’t necessarily the most loveable? You’re fine as long as it’s true?
I had a lot of preparation for not being dependent on people’s approval. My father’s dad was a coal miner in Pennsylvania and his mom died when he was really young. In a way, he never grew past that 7-year-old boy. Between that and having been a soldier in the war, he never really talked to me. And then I ended up being this pretty boy. Altman once said, “Gallagher, you’re so good-looking it makes me sick.” I thought, “Even this guy who loves me and keeps casting me thinks this way.” And I do too. You see a guy that’s too handsome walking down the street and you think, “That guy’s never worked a day in his life. Fuck him.” So, in a way, I can side with people who don’t think much of me. But it’s never really slowed me down.
I remember when I was doing Sex, Lies, and Videotape, I didn’t really think about whether he was an asshole or not. I thought it was a comedic performance. When [Steven] Soderbergh and I first met, I asked him how he saw it, and he said, “It’s a black comedy,” so I said, “I’m in.” People hated me. Or people who were really dangerous loved me. But for me it was the delight of cracking the puzzle, of portraying a character who would resonate with people either way.
How did you go about cracking the puzzle of playing Oscar Jaffee?
I did a lot of research, studied [legendary theater impresario and alleged theater ghost] David Belasco a lot, because I knew the role required size. Belasco was regarded by some as a genius and others a hack. That gave a wide spectrum to find the funny and find the true. Ultimately he was a passionate theater artist who believed the more real he could make the smell and the sounds and the look of it, the more he’d succeed in transporting the audience. There’s an essential truth to that which was a good kind of architecture to support you when you’re doing all the other stuff.
Part of the other stuff is Oscar’s desperation. He’s determined to “rise again” after a string of flops. Is hitting a wall and trying to bounce back something you can easily identify with?
All the time. I’ve hit the wall in spectacular fashion and will continue to. But it always comes down to the work. It’s like what Coach Belichick says to the Patriots: “Tune out the noise and do the work.” It’s the only place where the black dogs that are nipping at your heels fade into the background. I had a life crisis when I was 29. For a young man, and probably a young woman, 29 or 30 is a chance to become the person you want to be. There’s stuff that’s not working and you have to buckle down and do your homework. I was doing The Real Thing and it was the first time I got to work with an amazing group of people: Mike Nichols, Glenn Close, Jeremy Irons, Tom Stoppard. It was an enormous hit, but then everyone got other great jobs and went off. I stayed and barely got another audition. It started to chip away at my confidence. My agent encouraged me to go do this production of Miss Julie, which was just the worst thing at the worst time. There aren’t a lot of laughs in Strindberg.
And then for the first time I quit a show, Total Eclipse, which ended up giving Michael Cerveris his first job. The director wasn’t quite sure what story he wanted to tell and I wasn’t confident enough to find my way. That was a time I hit the wall. As my mother used to call it, it’s like having a flu of the soul. But you just have to hang in long enough to have it pass. And it led me to Mira Rostova and to a kind of freedom and experience that really nourished me.
The entire experience of doing On the Twentieth Century has been nearly an existential challenge for me. I was sick in the beginning. And then the Tony Award process. I suffer from insecurity at times. It helps you see things differently and do things you might not expect you’d be able to do, but the process can be very painful. For me, it goes back to the little boy who’s desperate to talk to his dad. I would try everything in my little power. My mother finally got him to come in when he’d get home from work. I’d already be in bed and he’d lie down and I’d have these questions saved up and he’d be asleep as soon as he hit the bed because he worked hard. I never blamed him for that.
When I get despairing sometimes, I try to take myself by the hand as a little boy and listen and tell myself, “That’s interesting. How do you feel? Can I help? What do you want to do?” And, of course, I made the error with my son and daughter. My son would ask a question and, man, I would not shut up. One of his eyes would independently drift off and I’d say, “Am I talking too much?” And his little head would nod and I’d say, “Okay. I’m sorry.” You can’t win.
But doing what you love is helpful. And being with people you love is helpful, having a family. If I’d continued to look for love in show business it would’ve been a far different experience. Building a life has been just as scary and challenging—and even more rewarding in some respects.
Speaking of challenges, you’re about to hit a big milestone.
I’ll be 60 in August.
Does it seem fitting that your work is coming full circle? Your first big break was playing a kid being shaped by an idolmaker and now as Oscar you turn Kristin Chenoweth’s character into a star?
Doing The Idolmaker was great. I’d spent a year as Danny Zuko in Grease on Broadway and Hair before that, so I’d been singing and dancing almost in that same period. I’d worked really hard and fought to get the audition and then kept auditioning until they gave me the part. And it felt so right. When we were shooting in Alpine, New Jersey, I had a rare moment for me where I was walking among the C-stands and thought, “Oh my God. I’m finally someplace where I belong. I love this.” But United Artists was about to release Heaven’s Gate and that cut into their war chest just a bit, so it wasn’t the hit it might have been. Still, it’s something I’m very proud of.
You carried your second studio film, Summer Lovers, but after that you started playing character roles. Was that a conscious decision?
That’s exactly it. This was never about what I could get out of it. My only interest was in being the best actor I could become and trying to create the conditions that would help. With my kind of psyche, I couldn’t endure a success that I didn’t feel was earned. Doing the research for The Idolmaker, I could see a lot of the idols were still struggling in adulthood. And my looks have always been a curious thing to me, because I don’t see what other people see. Since I was a kid I always thought the problem with my face was my big fat lips. The thing I love about acting is if you play your cards right, and your body and mind stay in one piece, you can keep getting better.
While I’ve been doing On the Twentieth Century, I also finished the second season of Togetherness for HBO, which was a challenge. I love Mark and Jay Duplass. I love working with people I haven’t worked with before, where you have that feeling of standing shoulder to shoulder looking in the same direction, trying to figure out what they have in mind and doing the difficult thing, which is to tell the story. I love that more than anything.
So we won’t be hearing stories about you going middle-aged crazy?
Well, there’s very little certainty. You know, my father did occasionally talk to me. It was about how difficult it was being married to my mom, but toward the end of their lives they had a kind of grace and deep connection that as a child I couldn’t possibly have seen or understood. Life can hold that in store for you. So 60 isn’t something I’m scared of. If anything, I get scared about Alzheimer’s. My mother got it when she was about 70. So I look at it as I have at least another 10 good years, where I can finally get my big break. I’ll just keep on trying. And as long as my kids are okay, and my wife is okay, then I’ll be okay.
The Roundabout Theatre Company’s production of On the Twentieth Century runs at the American Airlines Theatre through July 19.
Review: The Lightning Thief Struggles to Summon Epic-Scale Spectacle
As the stakes grow increasingly life or death, the production’s campy structure becomes less capable of supporting it.
“Knockoffs don’t come more transparent and slapdash than Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief,” wrote our own Nick Schager back in 2010, before proceeding to outline the countless ways in which Chris Columbus’s wannabe-franchise jumpstarter aped J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter saga “every step of the way to Mount Olympus.” Both series focus on a trio of heroes, most of whom are just discovering their magical gifts, who attend a magical institution where they’re soon embroiled in a banished evil lord’s plans. And maybe because the comparisons between them are so obvious, one gets the sense that the makers of The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical have gone to considerable lengths to distinguish their production from Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.
To begin with, The Lightning Thief is played almost entirely as a comedy. There are a few emotional nods to what Percy Jackson (Chris McCarrell) and his single mother, Sally (Jalynn Steele), have been going through ever since his deadbeat father abandoned them, but for the most part, it’s all talking squirrels, disco-ball sequined ferrywomen, and floods of “water” (toilet paper) spraying out into the audience. It’s also a rock musical, one that shoves malapropisms (“Tartarus? Like the fish sauce?”) into every offbeat it can.
Above all, however, The Lightning Thief is a scrappy production. There are fancy Greek columns all the way into the background of Lee Savage’s minimalist stage design, but your eye is drawn more to the graffiti and scaffolding on and surrounding them. The winged furies and the minotaur are courtesy of AchesonWalsh Studios, a Brooklyn-based creation studio, and everything else is a practical effect, most notably the centaur, Chrion (Ryan Knowles), whose hindquarters are simply left to the imagination, or the leggy costume that Sydney Maresca designed to show off the true satyr form of Grover (Jorrel Javier), Percy’s best friend.
If The Lightning Thief’s low-budget displays soared when the show had its fleet-footed off-Broadway premiere in 2017 at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, they feel smaller than they should on the stage of the Longacre Theatre. A high-stakes game of capture the flag now seems, well, childish, and leaves the menacing Hades (Knowles) as nothing more than a small man in a gold-spangled jacket. There’s only so much that David Lander’s smart lighting choices can do to disguise the fact that the characters are being dwarfed by their surroundings, either by using spotlights to focus on slivers of the stage or by adding pulsating effects to the background to make things look more active than they actually are.
The seven-person ensemble also works overtime to fill the largely empty stage, making you focus more on the way in which they’re chewing the scenery in the hopes that you don’t notice that the scenery itself is missing. Under these circumstances, only Percy and his “dream girl” campmate, Annabeth (Kristen Stokes), are given an opportunity for character growth, as they’re the only two characters whose actors aren’t feverishly changing into additional roles. They’ve got the whole show to leave an impact, but the rest of the cast often has to cram everything into a single scene, which results in them taking up broader and broader characterizations to differentiate between each new part. And the over-the-top acting also clashes with Rod Kinter’s fight choreography. Because the cast moves a mile a minute, both lyrically and physically, the action scenes are comparatively slower, making them feel like the least epic part of The Lightning Thief. As the stakes grow increasingly life or death, the production’s campy structure becomes less capable of supporting it.
All of these conflicting artistic choices really come down to a question of what story the show wants to tell. At its best, The Lightning Thief earnestly and endearingly homes in on its characters as they confront their problems, as when Percy sings through all of his insecurities and misdiagnosed ADHD in “Good Kid,” Annabeth faces down her mother Athena’s legacy in “My Grand Plan,” and all the demigod rejects of Camp Half-Blood discuss their irresponsible godly parents in “The Campfire Song.” Less effective, particularly given the stakes of its plot, is how the show keeps splitting off into superficial, comic tangents, as when Dionysus (Javier) jazzily rattles off the things he hates about his demigod charges in “Another Terrible Day” or Charon (Steele) summarizes the Underworld in “D.O.A.” as she takes the kids to meet Hades.
All this jokiness is so intrusive that it becomes difficult to take Percy’s angst seriously. There are moments of sincerity and hilarity throughout the show, but the handling of the tonal shifts is so whiplash-inducing that the conclusion, perhaps inevitably, falls flat. Percy’s reconciliation with his long-absent father, Poseidon (Knowles), ought to be a dramatic conclusion to everything Percy’s been singing about. But because Poseidon is so cartoonishly depicted as a way-cool surfer dude, one who casually resurrects Percy’s instantly horny mother for good measure, this meeting is about as emotionally satisfying as it could have been.
The Lightning Thief is also hampered by the creators adapting an existing, well-known novel into a stage production, as opposed to building something new from scratch, as was done for Harry Potter. Rob Rokicki’s music and lyrics do their best to save time, compressing the whole cross-country road trip from Long Island to Los Angeles almost entirely into a single song, “Drive,” but that just forces Joe Tracz’s script to do a lot of expositional lifting between songs, leaving little time to develop characters like Luke (Rodriguez), Hermes’s apparently bitter son. Things that may have worked on the page or on the silver screen like the Oracle, feel shoehorned into an overstuffed production already teeming with monsters and motorcycles.
The wittily quipped premise of The Lightning Thief is that “normal is a myth,” but the truth is that this little-production-that-could makes the book’s myths seem normal. No matter how hard the cast tries to spice things up—or perhaps because of all that visible effort—it’s just a glass of watered-down ambrosia, slightly amusing, but never fully entertaining.
The Lightning Thief is now playing at the Longacre Theatre.
Review: The Wrong Man Suggests a Concept Album Propped Up on Two Legs
Ultimately, it’s the wrong man who animates the stage.
There’s nothing so unusual about the conversion of a concept album into a fully staged musical. Evita, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Chess all began as studio recordings before making the leap to the theater. Ross Golan’s The Wrong Man, however, is a somewhat different story. Though he’s been performing the songs live for nearly 15 years, Golan’s story of an innocent man on death row wasn’t available for purchase or streaming until this year: It’s now been released by Interscope Records, along with an animated movie version that debuted at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, just as the stage adaptation opens.
Golan has penned some appealing acoustic jams, which he performs on the album with disarming ease as he navigates his knotty, often rapped lyrics. But transformations are tricky, and unlike its eminently theatrical vinyl-to-stage ancestors, the show, playing at the Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space, just feels like a concept album propped up on two legs.
Down on his luck, Duran (Joshua Henry) picks up Mariana (Ciara Renée) in a Reno bar. Duran envisions a future with Mariana, but she has a psycho ex who’s been busted by the cops for his stash of child pornography. Fresh out of jail, this wicked Man in Black (Ryan Vasquez) goes on a murderous, jealous rampage, then calls the cops after leaving Duran in possession of the literal smoking gun. Unsurprisingly, things go downhill quickly for Duran from there.
Only Golan, best known as a songwriter for the likes of Selena Gomez and Ariana Grande, appears on the album, performing what is essentially a musical monologue. The stage show features nine performers, and even the hyper-capable director Thomas Kail doesn’t seem quite sure what to do with all those extra people up there. The ensemble mainly looks on, moves benches around the otherwise bare set, and executes Travis Wall’s convulsive choreography, which is sometimes sexy but usually superfluous. There’s also some nice backup singing: The show’s arrangements and orchestrations are by Alex Lacamoire (In the Heights, Hamilton, Dear Evan Hansen), who works his usual crafty magic for a small rock band, animating Golan’s sometimes static harmonies with piano-centric hip-hop licks and Latin percussion grooves.
Not much of substance has changed from album lyrics to sung-through script, but there’s now a sweet but could-be-anyone pillow-talk duet for Duran and Mariana (and did I detect a theater nerd’s reference to Company’s post-coital “Barcelona,” when Duran croons that he’d like to travel to “Paris, New York, Barcelon’”?). Mainly, though, the show is still all Duran, as he sinks into greater and great despondency at his plight from arrest to trial to sentencing.
Golan, who’s white, envisioned himself as the sole performer; original lyrics on the concept album even explicitly reference the narrator as Caucasian. Transposing this story of a corrupt justice system and the execution of an innocent man for Henry, who’s African American, isn’t as simple as altering a few words here and there. Because Golan gives only the faintest outline of who Duran is, or has been, prior to this nightmare scenario, it seems like the character is meant to represent the legions of men, most of them brown and black, who’ve been the victims of the legal system’s injustice. But how many of them have been framed for a double murder (with two weapons in two locations!) by a conniving psychopath (with a clichéd nickname) who planned the setup in meticulous detail? This is no wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time tragedy. And, in a musical otherwise devoid of specifics, this particular eyebrow-raising plot point prevents The Wrong Man from being recognizable as a far-too-familiar story. It’s hard to feel too much empathy when Duran’s experience is both thinly sketched and ludicrous.
Henry does all he possibly can to fill out that sketch. It’s a passionate, powerfully sung, and heart-broken performance that leaves him drenched with sweat and twitching, as if he has patches of electricity coursing through his body, as Duran prepares for his execution. If only he had a more complex character to work with, as he did for his riveting star turn in Carousel last year. Even with the material in its current shape, Henry would probably be better served performing an un-reimagined version of The Wrong Man as a solo show, free from distractions—even including the splendid, sizzling singing of Reneé as doomed Mariana.
Ultimately, though, it’s the wrong man who animates the stage. A pair of raucous numbers for the maniacal Man in Black as he parties in prison and details his villainy arrive as a welcome relief from Duran’s deluge of angsty ballads. When Vasquez jubilantly crows, “I’m a cold, cold man with little to no pity/I killed my pregnant ex-wife and left for Mexico City” and “I stabbed her in the front cause she stabbed me in the back,” it’s a totally inappropriate betrayal of the show’s serious subject matter and tone. Much worse, it’s completely delightful.
The only other really riveting scene also comes in a rare moment without Duran on stage. As Mariana and the Man in Black survey each other from opposite sides of the stage, two dancers, Tilly Evans-Krueger and Kyle Robinson, fiercely and balletically enact the couple’s last terrifying, violent moments together in a wordless, writhing pas de deux. Fleetingly, The Wrong Man finally feels like it belongs in the theater.
The Wrong Man is now playing at the Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space.
Review: As Anatomy of a Presidency, The Great Society Is No Revelation
The play is too overstuffed and too easily distracted to say anything profound or potent about its subject matter.
“The real hero of this struggle is the American Negro,” President Lyndon B. Johnson declared before Congress in March 1965. And it’s a crucial line in Robert Schenkkan’s The Great Society, especially as delivered by Brian Cox at the Vivian Beaumont Theater. So, if Johnson himself knew that to be true, why doesn’t the playwright? Schenkkan’s second drama about LBJ—following All the Way—devotes most of its nearly three-hour running time to the civil rights movement in the mid-1960s but barely any of its attention to the impact of national events on the lives of the people fighting for their freedom.
All the Way, which starred Brian Cranston, kept its focus tight, covering only the first year of Johnson’s presidency. That play zeroed in on the politically expedient and morally pressing tightrope that LBJ walked in pushing the Civil Rights Act through Congress while securing his own presidential future in the wake of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. The sprawling sequel, meanwhile, with its 19 actors playing nearly 40 characters, hurtles through the next four years (1965 to 1968) at an exhausting speed that never lets up. The Great Society is about pre-Nixonian politics and Johnson’s jumbled judgment in Vietnam and the Voting Rights Act and the core years of the civil rights movement, but it’s ultimately too overstuffed and too easily distracted to say anything profound or potent about any of those topics.
Schenkkan recognizes that the civil rights movement and the formation of the Black Power movement were—along with Bloody Sunday, the Watts riots in Los Angeles, and the March Without Fear—among the formative events of the mid-‘60s. Director Bill Rauch dutifully reenacts each of them on stage, complete with projected historical footage. But the players in each of these scenes, especially the inciting incident in Watts which ends the play’s first act, are usually anonymous, except for the few Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) leaders whose personhoods are gestured at but never developed. Luckily, there are particularly strong performances from Grantham Coleman as Martin Luther King Jr. and Marchánt Davis as Stokely Carmichael (as well as John Lewis). It’s not their fault that The Great Society contributes little that’s new or different in its dutifully dignified depictions of these political figureheads.
Not that Johnson and his circle of allies, foes, and frenemies are well fleshed out either. In the central role, Cox, while compellingly vigorous and foul-mouthed throughout the play, never quite transcends Schenkkan’s assemblage of free-floating traits associated with LBJ. In trying to illustrate the ultimate incompatibility between Johnson’s behind-the-scenes legislative work and King’s massively public demonstrations, The Great Society leaves the president doing an awful lot of reacting, a commentator on the real action.
All the Way managed to capture Johnson before he became crippled by compromise, and The Great Society blanches at coming down too hard on the president, even when he turns against King and then the American anti-war efforts, raging, “You need to kill more Vietcong!” David Korins’s courtroom-like set slowly crumbles across the course of the play to symbolize, well, what exactly? Is it Johnson’s presidency? The trust between Johnson and the era’s civil rights leaders? The nation’s war economy? Neither Schenkkan nor Cox illustrate clearly enough Johnson’s descent from committed candidate to surprise abdicator.
And at the slightest hint of the president approaching something like intimacy with the audience, a moment of soliloquized earnestness or a smidgeon of soul-bearing with the faintly present Lady Bird (Barbara Garrick), we’re off to the next rest stop on the history highway. There’s a sense that if the president can’t be fully formed here, then no one can. VP Hubert Humphrey (Richard Thomas) comes across as ideologically pure early on but barely registers as the play chugs forward. David Garrison plays Richard Nixon with a refreshingly charismatic sleaziness (the Married with Children actor also turns up as Governor George Wallace, Sheriff Jim Clark, and the Quaker minister Norman Morrison), but Tricky Dick is mainly there for exposition, as it’s through Nixon that we learn of the deaths of MLK and Robert F. Kennedy.
The red-hot hostility between RFK (Bryce Pinkham) and his brother’s successor provides some comic relief early on, as the pair masks their disgust on a sort of split-screen phone call, but, except for some blaring headlines, Kennedy also fades into the background. There’s lots more, including Marc Kudisch as Chicago’s Mayor Daley, but to list them all would be to substitute quantity for dramatic clarity in the same way The Great Society Does does.
Despite how much is crammed in, and despite the daunting cast of characters listed in the program with biographical identifiers, the play’s events are seldom hard to follow, which is, in itself, an achievement. There’s some crackling momentum in a few Oval Office scenes in which LBJ juggles a revolving door of senators, advisors, and lobbyists jockeying for his attention. And Rauch’s ample use of the courtroom pews that surround three sides of the stage allows simultaneous action to play out in occasionally clever ways (like the perpetually postponed appointment forever waiting outside the Oval Office) that keep things moving along.
Elsewhere, The Great Society’s breakneck pace comes with loaded consequences. A dramaturgical drive-by of the 1966 March Against Fear, during which Stokely Carmichael delivered his divisive “Black Power” speech, doesn’t get enough time or background context. Since only the perspectives of Dr. King and President Johnson receive real consideration, and both of those men, for different reasons, opposed what Carmichael stood for, Schenkkan’s play appears tacitly to denigrate the Black Power movement from all directions.
The Great Society perks up when it enters factoid territory, bite-sized encounters or vignettes that may have you rushing to Wikipedia to see how true to life they are. Did Carmichael really storm the stage at an MLK rally at the March Against Fear, dividing the crowd against civil disobedience? (Sort of, but MLK himself wasn’t present that day.) Did LBJ really dismiss his African-American assistant (Nikkole Salter) after her son lost his life in Vietnam, a pivotal-seeming plot point? (Uh, no. The real “Sally Childress,” Gerri Whittington, was actually the first black presidential secretary, and she was neither fired nor bereaved.) And did LBJ really spring a surprise press conference on the head of the American Medical Association (AMA), forcing him to endorse Medicare? (That one’s pretty much accurate, and it’s also the scene where Cox is at his best, showing off the president’s ebullient cunning.)
But so what if I learned something when I felt nothing at all? The Great Society premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2014, as All the Way was going all the way to Broadway, so any resonances with 2019—the Nixonian ones come to mind—are just coincidence. But the origins of the pair of plays as a would-be Shakespearean duology throw into relief the hollow crown at The Great Society’s center. If this is Lyndon the First: Part II, there’s never enough sense of the paralyzing, overwhelming weight of the White House to elevate the play from robust synopsis to fresh take, let alone revelatory anatomization of a presidency.
The Great Society is now playing at the Vivian Beaumont Theater.
Review: Freestyle Love Supreme Pumps You Up with Rhyme and Rhythm
The production gets out of the way and lets its stars do what they do best.
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s majestic shadow lingers over the proceedings at Freestyle Love Supreme, the improv comedy freestyle rap show that’s currently taking Broadway by storm. Miranda co-created the show’s earliest iteration way back in 2003 alongside two Wesleyan classmates, Hamilton director Thomas Kail and improvisor-educator Anthony Veneziale. Miranda’s a lead producer here, and he’s also one of a cadre of guest artists who are liable to show up unannounced at any given performance. That list includes Hamilton alumni Daveed Diggs, Christopher Jackson, James Monroe Iglehart, and Wayne Brady.
Miranda turned up in the final minutes of Monday’s 10 p.m. performance, but it wasn’t the Miranda we were expecting. The real Miranda had, according to Twitter, already appeared as a guest in the 7 p.m. show, and, as the end of the evening neared, it became increasingly clear that he’d gone home long ago. But you never know what you’re going to get at Freestyle Love Supreme. So, when a volunteer audience member told a story about meeting Miranda outside the Booth Theatre earlier in the day, the tale inspired host Andrew Bancroft, a.k.a. Jelly Donut, to trot out a spot-on impression of the Hamilton creator. As he freestyled a la Miranda, the rest of the show’s cast backed him up with a spontaneous parody of Hamilton’s “My Shot.”
If it’s the promise of one of these big names—and let’s face it, Miranda is the main attraction—that helps sell out a Broadway house at 10 p.m. on a Monday night, it’s the new faces running Freestyle Love Supreme who will leave audience members eager to return. The performance I attended was decidedly celebrity-free (the special guest was actress Ashley Pérez Flanagan, a.k.a. Reina Fire, funniest in imitating Christine Daaé’s high notes in a fleeting Phantom of the Opera send-up). But, with no superstar stealing the spotlight, the four lead performers had ample opportunity to stake their claims to a Broadway debut.
Holding down the beat at this performance was two-time World Beatbox Champion Kaila Mulladay, a.k.a. Kaiser Rözé, a one-woman percussion section and sound-effects catalog. A request for a verb from the audience (the cast went with “vomit”) yielded a gurglingly explosive soundstorm from Mulladay. Aneesa Folds, a.k.a. Young Nees, who got her start as a rapper in Freestyle Love Supreme’s academy program, delivered some sizzling R&B vocals and an amusing rant about the disastrous impact of humidity on her hair. Bancroft’s quick-thinking banter with the audience made him a winning MC, and he showed a nifty knack for inserting references to earlier sketches and discarded audience suggestions into each scene.
But the star-is-born moment—or a whole lot of moments, really—belonged to Utkarsh Ambudkar, a.k.a. UTK the INC, an actor whose dexterous control over rhyme and rhythm is dazzling. After that Mulladay vomit impression, Ambudkar spat out some deliciously site-specific commentary: “Kaiser Rözé, it’s just not fair/I think she just ate somewhere in Times Square.” Ambudkar registers, not unlike Miranda, as simultaneously goofy and brilliant: He’s equally at home caricaturing imagined characters and rocking out in his own skin.
Some audience ideas yield more fabulous fruit than others. Freestyle Love Supreme’s “Second Chance” routine, in which a lucky volunteer gets to see their worst mistake in life acted out and then rewound and repaired, proved particularly meaty fodder: A young woman named Meg recounted how, in her Minnesotan adolescence, she lost control of her vehicle while driving over black ice, careened into a barn, and crushed a very unlucky pig. That’s just the sort of ridiculous premise that Freestyle Love Supreme’s cast members can sink their teeth into. Ambudkar was delightful as designated-driver Meg, while Bancroft gleefully portrayed the shocked farmer, and Mulladay the ill-fated squealer.
A sketch featuring an audience’s member’s tutoring session with a young man with autism and an overlong tribute to the Muppets benefitted less from the utter unpredictability of the format. Luckily, Ambudkar again rescued the latter section, this time by coincidental virtue of his own real-life experience as a performer on The Muppet Show, which he shared movingly. And whether routines go south or catch fire, they’re gone for good in the instant that they’re over. (To make sure of that, the ushers seal all cellphones in magnetic Yondr pouches as the audience enters. Don’t worry: Your phone still never leaves your hands.)
“I can’t believe these dummies let us on Broadway,” Folds rapped at one point early on, but bringing these rap-scallions all the way doesn’t seem like a dumb idea at all. (How many other outstanding acts might make the leap if only for an omnipotent benefactor and collaborator like Miranda?) Freestyle Love Supreme, staged by Kail and lit snappily by Jeff Croiter, does its performers an extraordinary service: The production gets out of the way and lets its stars (from the freestylers to the beatboxers to co-music supervisor Arthur Lewis, leading the small band on keys) do what they do best. They may be young, scrappy, and hungry, but there’s no way, whatever performance you attend, that they’re throwing away their shot.
Freestyle Love Supreme is now playing at the Booth Theatre.
Review: American Moor Richly Illuminates the Experience of Acting While Black
Keith Hamilton Cobb’s play offers a promising avenue into the future of Shakespeare performance.
Keith Hamilton Cobb’s American Moor dramatizes an audition for the role of Othello, where a seasoned black actor endures patronizing comments and questions from a white director younger than himself. The play will interest Shakespeare fans, but also anyone interested in the life of an actor, the dynamic between actor and director, the dark side of creative collaboration, and the racial dimension of all these things.
The main incident in American Moor is a debate between the actor, Keith (Cobb), and the director (Josh Tyson) over the delivery of his audition text: Othello’s speech before the senators of Venice. Keith prefers a reserved delivery, while the director wants him to be more obsequious. This disagreement, with all it implies about the director’s discomfort with Keith’s own self-possession and his preconceptions about black performance, provides the occasion for the speeches and asides that make up most of the play: glimpses into Keith’s fraught history as a working black actor who loves Shakespeare and his increasingly furious internal monologue as he weighs the incompatible possibilities of, on one hand, standing up for himself and his reading of the passage and, on the other, getting the part.
These musings, Keith’s dispatches from “the corner of Me Street and Shakespeare,” amount to an indispensable work of creative criticism. In addition to the debate over the scene with the senators, American Moor allows us to see what it means to a black actor, who hasn’t had the opportunities he deserved, to have to bend to a white reading of Othello just to have a shot at getting the only big role in Shakespeare that he’s traditionally seen as fit to take on.
The director barks out Keith’s name like he knows him well and feels free to make comments about his body. He asks if Keith has any questions, as though his academic ideas about the play outweigh Keith’s lived experience of blackness and the sense of Shakespeare’s lines that comes from taking them into his body and memory. He “plays devil’s advocate” to Keith’s ideas in order to dismiss them and accuses him of playing the race card as though unaware that, as Keith puts it in one of the play’s best lines, by taking on Othello in the first place, he “picked up the race deck.” The play’s audition conceit creates a compelling analog to Othello’s audience with the Venetian senate; as Othello must placate white authority as he answers for his secret marriage to Desdemona, Keith makes his own stand in a creative context.
Race is at the heart of American Moor, but it’s also a pleasure to see Cobb dream his way into Shakespeare’s female roles as Keith recalls a past experience with an acting teacher. When first asked what role from the canon he would like to play—an inauthentic question, as it turns out, since the only acceptable answers are black characters—Keith went, not for Hamlet or Macbeth, but for Titania, the fairy queen from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. (The teacher scoffed at this choice and gratuitously corrected his pronunciation of her name.)
While the main analogy in Shakespeare to the situation between Keith and his would-be director is Othello’s speech in front of the senators, Cobb expands the range of association by channeling Cordelia before Lear as well, her refusal, in her integrity, to misrepresent herself in deference to her father’s authority. In this vein, we get to hear Keith recite, not only Romeo’s “teach the torches,” but also Juliet’s “Gallop apace.” If it’s familiar to imagine a black actor who dreams of playing Hamlet pigeon-holed into the role of Othello, it’s more striking to watch Cobb claim all of the Bard as his terrain and indulge his fantasy of playing Shakespeare’s women in love. Movingly, American Moor’s female dimension is also alive in Keith’s admiration for Desdemona, a character sometimes dismissed as one-dimensional, who in this show becomes a heroic figure, brighter than those around her, fiercely devoted and brave.
In addition to a compelling account of black performers’ ambivalence toward Othello, the burden that the play and its title role can be for them, American Moor also offers a promising avenue into the future of Shakespeare performance, a conversation with the text, in a modern idiom, as opposed to a translation of it, that brings us closer to Shakespeare’s language, not further away. With the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s recent foray into modern-English “translations” of Shakespeare and the release of strange, unsatisfying film adaptations like Claire McCarthy’s Ophelia, not to mention David Michôd’s upcoming quasi-Shakespearean The King, the future of Shakespearean adaptation, how the old material will be reheated and served to 21st-century audiences, for better or worse, is up for grabs. It’s heartening, then, to see a rich, composite performance that incorporates Shakespeare’s language, thinks hard about it, and brings it into conversation with contemporary themes and concerns.
To take just one example, after delivering his version of Titania’s “forgeries of jealousy” speech, Keith teaches the audience that he learned from the OED that in Shakespeare’s day jealousy meant not only what it means to us but suspicion too. Later in the play, he applies the same phrase—the forgeries of jealousy, now with the added association of suspicion—to the microaggressions coming at him from the young director. In this way, the audience is guided deeper into Shakespeare’s words while, at the same time, those words are given new meaning, as they are applied to a situation we recognize, and recognize as morally serious.
American Moor is full of the love of Shakespeare’s language. In fact, Keith tells us that it was the power of Shakespeare’s words that impelled him to act and taught him how, not “the method” or any other technique. It’s this close relationship with Shakespeare’s language that makes the creative criticism of American Moor so powerful, and its rich, composite form so promising for the future of Shakespeare performance.
American Moore is now playing at the Cherry Lane Theatre.
Review: The Actors Are the Thing in Betrayal, the Stage-Craft Not So Much
Jamie Lloyd’s gauzy new production of Harold Pinter’s play aims for the abstractly lyrical.
There’s no possibility of poetry in Harold Pinter’s Betrayal. Best known through its four Broadway productions in as many decades for its clipped exchanges and rewinding timeline, this anatomy of an affair strives to present life and conversations as they really are. (Walter Kerr’s original Broadway review shrewdly called the dialogue “vodka-dry.”)
But Jamie Lloyd’s gauzy new production—like the original, a West End transfer—aims for the abstractly lyrical. The mundane locales—a pub where former lovers reconnect, the cheap flat where infidelity blossoms, a bedroom where the dalliance sparks—all dissolve in the largely empty space, designed by Soutra Gilmour and featuring little more than a pair of chairs. Tom Hiddleston, Zawe Ashton, and Charlie Cox, all directed to take 10-second pauses between most of their lines, float on turntables in counter-clockwise patterns around each other as the play moves them back and back and back in time. The underscoring—including a Vivaldi aria, a cover of “Enjoy the Silence,” and, bizarrely, three instrumentals from the Gone Girl soundtrack—similarly unmoors the play from any practical sense of time and space.
That disorientation is offset, though, by the whip-smart and sometimes bitterly funny performances of Hiddleston and Cox as, respectively, the wronged husband and his backstabbing best friend. Hiddleston’s Robert follows his most biting lines with a half-grimace, half-smile that becomes a toothier, more playful grin as the timeline moves backward. Robert’s furious when the play begins, but he’s also bemused at his friend Jerry’s total lack of self-awareness: The ultimate betrayal, Jerry suggests, is Robert keeping his knowledge of the affair to himself. Cox captures Jerry’s confused self-interest convincingly.
There’s an unvarying rhythm to Lloyd’s production, and treating every moment with the same dynamic and tempo—a mezzo-piano adagio, perhaps—makes Betrayal feel ever so slightly like a rehearsal-room exercise. Moments of brilliance do emerge from this elongation, like the electric spaces in one critical conversation between Robert and Emma in which Ashton’s eyes, so darting, shimmering, and wincing, work a mile a minute to convey rich, unspoken monologues. But that halting pacing starts to become monotonous, especially as Pinter pushes further back in time. The early scenes, as characters contemplate years of memories, get room to breathe, but those later ones, which take place before the trio considers the consequences of their actions, lack much sense of impulsive urgency.
Lloyd traffics, too, in bold-lettered symbols that tend to underestimate the psychological clarity of the characters’ sparse lines and the audience’s capacity for reading between them. We know the walls are closing in without needing to see the actual walls closing in. If the heavy-handed stagecraft (they’re drifting apart, literally!) isn’t an out-and-out betrayal of the actors’ self-sufficient performances, it’s not a great show of trust either.
Most of Pinter’s scenes play out as duets, but Lloyd keeps the absent figure in the emotional triangle always on stage, lurking, sometimes very close by, as a constant reminder of the third vertex of that triangle. Highlighting Emma as the odd one out during the tensely buddy-buddy scenes between Robert and Jerry emphasizes the possibility of an unspoken attraction between the two men. It’s not necessarily just a play about two friends competing for the same woman, and Lloyd even seems to hint at times that Robert knowingly allows Emma’s dalliance to develop as a sort of proxy for his own longing. Usually, though, Hiddleston and Cox seem to resist Lloyd’s choices that lean in that direction. There’s probably more depths to be plumbed from Robert’s sour jibe at his wife: “To be honest I’ve always liked him rather more than I’ve liked you. Maybe I should have had an affair with him myself.”
There’s something vaporous, too, in Ashton’s performance, except for that one riveting scene with Hiddleston. Pinter told the New York Times back in 1979, when Betrayal was first opening on Broadway, that “the play is about a nine-year relationship between two men who are best friends” and the character of Emma still hasn’t fully recovered from that authorial oversight. Ashton seems more of the fuzzy, airy world of Lloyd’s imagination, at least when up against the grounded, affably quotidian men created by Hiddleston and Cox.
From the way she positions herself, legs splayed over her chair almost at 180 degrees like a praying mantis, to the carefully maintained indifference in her voice, Ashton’s Emma anxiously constructs the version of herself she wants to show the world, or, at least, the two men who seem to take up so much of it. In the final scene, we see her surveying herself in the mirror, perfecting that image, but Ashton never totally transcends Emma’s pawn-like purpose in the play or conveys what she’s hiding behind the veneer.
It’s that kind of fogginess that finally makes this production only intermittently memorable and rarely revelatory. The extraordinary acting moments tend to arrive in spite of Lloyd’s vision for the play rather than because of it. But when they do—in Hiddleston’s smile or Cox’s lazy swig of beer or Ashton’s pulsating eyes—they form a set of memories worth rewinding.
Betrayal is now playing at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre.
Review: Hercules Wrestles More with Heroism Than with Female Liberation
If we’re going to update Hercules for 2019, let’s take Meg’s dreams of independence seriously.
It has been an extraordinary summer at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. First, director Kenny Leon’s Much Ado About Nothing gave us an unforgettable new Beatrice in Danielle Brooks, as well as a new way to imagine the war in the background of the play, replacing Shakespeare’s soldiers of fortune with soldiers for racial justice. Then, Daniel Sullivan set the Bard’s Coriolanus in a dystopian future where climate disaster has brought about a water crisis and exacerbated economic inequality. With stirring performances by Jonathan Cake and Kate Burton and a set design redolent of Mad Max, Sullivan transformed one one of Shakespeare’s least likable plays into a compelling and enjoyable one.
Even more special is Public Works’s new musical adaptation of Disney’s 1997 animated film Hercules. With its simple story, Greek chorus of gospel singers, and iconic songs like “Go the Distance,” Hercules was asking to be adapted into a stage musical. The book for the show, by Kristoffer Diaz, stays close to the plot of the film while streamlining it a bit (bye, Pegasus) and updating its references. The lead actors—Jelani Alladin as Hercules, Roger Bart as Hades, and Krysta Rodriguez, a standout as Megara—are all winning in their roles, as is James Monroe Iglehart as Philoctetes (Phil for short), who delivers “One Last Hope” while an all-male workout troupe gets physical all over the stage. As Phil, Iglehart delivers the line that gets the loudest gasp of recognition from the audience: “Experience,” he says, “is what you get when you don’t get what you want.” The savvy-cynical edge of that line surfaces now and again in Hercules the musical, elevating the at times simplistic, go-the-distance source material.
But however charming they are throughout Hercules, the actors in the main roles can’t keep up vocally with the Muses, a chorus of five thrilling gospel singers: Ramona Keller, Brianna Cabrera, Rema Webb, Tamika Lawrence, and Tieisha Thomas. The highlights of this production are those moments when all five women are on stage: in “The Gospel Truth,” “Zero to Hero,” and the strongest of the new songs, “Great Bolts of Thunder.” The Muses also get the best costumes in the musical, ranging from the sparkling white of their first entrance, when they sweep away a more conservative choir in standard black robes (“We’ll take it from here!”), to the glam camouflage coveralls they sport in a later scene.
In addition to the Muses’s vocal prowess, it’s a joy to be reminded, in a lighter strain, of another late-summer production at the Delacorte in which American gospel music was woven into an ancient Greek story and themes: last summer’s glorious Gospel at Colonus. While the two shows would not seem to have much in common, in both, gospel bridges the divide between the ancient material and our modern sensibilities.
Director Lear DeBessonet, the founder of Public Works as well as the director of a memorable Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Delacorte in 2017, directs traffic as masterfully as always, arraying the stage with a vast number of ensemble members in ways that never feel intrusive. But the creatures she and puppet designer James Ortiz summon to the stage are a mixed success. Nessus the River Centaur becomes a lovely, loping ogre, the features of his blue body responding to an expressive physical performance by Joel Frost, who wears them like a huge suit. The Hydra, however, so thrilling in the film with its multiplying jaws—it takes a mountain to bring it down—is reduced here to a few heads, like those in a Chinese dragon dance that don’t put up much of a fight. The gods, Zeus and Hera, appear on high behind enormous, wonderful masks when they are in their glory and in sparkling, colorful suits when they are in human form; the terrors that Hades summons to destroy the world make an impression, particularly Gluttony, looking like Slimer from Ghostbusters.
It’s especially gratifying to see Hercules after seeing Coriolanus. There’s a tradition in scholarship of understanding Coriolanus as a Herculean, as opposed to an Aristotelian, tragic hero—a volcanic, out-of-place presence, rather than a flawed, mistaken one, tormented by fate—so the two plays complement each other well. Where in Shakespeare’s play the hero is destroyed by his inability to reconcile himself with the people he serves, in this version of Hercules, the people—of Greece, of New York City—band together to take their hero, who cannot make it on his own, across the finish line. This moment in the show is a little corny and probably less powerful than intended, but I felt an added resonance against the memory, from earlier in the summer, on the same stage, of Shakespeare’s wretched plebeians.
The set, just a few Greek columns and a little grotto for the band, doesn’t deliver that rush you get when you walk into the Delacorte and get your first look at what they’ve done with the stage. But this spare presentation turns out to be an advantage: With little to no set design, the action is framed, as is proper, by the great swaying trees beyond the stage and, farther off, by a clear view of Belvedere Castle. Throughout the performance, teenagers would bravely (and dangerously) creep out onto the rock face leading down from the castle to the lake below, briefly enjoying unobstructed rearview seats until police lights—but no impolite sirens—would flash them away. This, too, seemed a natural part of the show, one in keeping with the production’s desire to get all of New York City into the theater and onto the stage.
While, as always with Public Works, I was moved by the heart and humanity of the show, as we filed out of the theater, I felt dissatisfied with the handling of the original source material. Between the chorus’s promise to explore “What it is to be a hero” and Meg wondering, “What would I do in a world without men?,” the latter question seems more urgent and radical, but the former gets all the attention. This is particularly frustrating when the show’s answer to “What makes a hero?” is so familiar—that is, more than just strength. (The play does countenance the idea that real heroism would involve economic justice, but only passingly.)
If Hercules has a future beyond the Delacorte Theater’s stage, and I hope that it does, it would be great to see the independence that Meg sings about early in the show explored in a meaningful way. While she may be more than, as Phil says in the film, “your basic D.I.D.” (read: damsel in distress), Meg gets rescued in the show’s climax—the too-brief descent into the underworld—and ends up in the arms of the male hero. If we’re going to update Hercules for 2019, let’s take Meg’s dreams of independence seriously.
Hercules runs through September 8.
Review: Moulin Rouge! Is a Great American Musical for the TikTok Generation
This production’s pacing is more deliberate than that of the film, leaving the characters with more room to breathe.
With an updated set of musical mash-ups and medleys courtesy of arranger and orchestrator Justin Levine, Broadway’s Moulin Rouge! makes a good case for itself as the Great American Musical for the TikTok generation. Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 film, at least in terms of plot, plays much the same on the stage. It still tells the familiar tale of a performer, Satine (Karen Olivo), who’s dragged herself out of poverty only to find herself torn between true love with a poor musician, Christian (Aaron Tveit), and financial security with a cruelly possessive aristo, the Duke of Monroth (Tam Mutu). This production’s pacing is more deliberate than that of the film, leaving the characters with more room to breathe.
This isn’t to say that the show, directed by Alex Timbers, shifts away from the extravagance of Luhrmann’s film. Here, Christian doesn’t merely establish his bona fides to his bohemian partners, director Toulouse-Lautrec (Sahr Ngaujah) and Argentinian dancer Santiago (Ricky Rojas), by singing a few stirring lines from “The Hills Are Alive.” The talented musician also whips out lyrics from Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up” and Paula Cole’s “I Don’t Want to Wait.” And Satine’s big entrance is no longer heralded simply by “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” as it now also incorporates “Diamonds Are Forever,” Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It),” and even the Commodores’s “Brick House.”
This production approximates the film’s opulent depiction of the Moulin Rouge with the tiniest of details, on and off the stage. It’s in the letters “M” and “R” dotting the doors of the Al Hirschfeld Theatre and the gilded railings featuring figures of cherubs and windmills. And set designer Derek McLane transforms the stage itself into a sort of amusement park, beginning with the Tunnel-of-Love archways and extending to the miniature versions of the Eiffel Tower, Satine’s elephant-shaped dressing room, and, of course, the Moulin Rouge’s trademark red windmill façade. All the while, Catherine Zuber’s colorful period costuming helps to vibrantly fill the void left by the stage version’s necessarily reduced ensemble, a sort of illusory insinuation that’s fitting for a bunch of can-can dancers.
The show also makes effective use of the immediacy of its space. The first few rows of the audience are pocketed between the E-shaped stage, which dramatically extends into the auditorium. There’s much to look at on stage at any given moment, but Timbers knows how to direct our attention. Two sword-swallowing seductresses open this Moulin Rouge! with a performance made more riveting by the knowledge that something could go terribly wrong at any moment. And the show’s ferocious mix of danger and eroticism is amplified by Sonya Tayeh’s muscular choreography, which is bawdy yet precise but also violently sexy, insistent that you ogle every move. Big medleys like the one thematically clustered around Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” ooze the artistic ideals of the bohemians: “Truth! Beauty! Freedom! Love!”
Throughout, the performers sell the riskiest of choices. The Duke is meant to represent the antithesis of art, having funded the Moulin Rouge not because he enjoys the music that plays there, but because it gives him access to Satine. But the conventions of a Broadway musical now require him to sing, which is at odds with his character. Mutu gets around this by playing the role with a blistering self-awareness. He sings, sure, but in a way that subverts the lyrics to every rearranged pop song. When he sings the Rolling Stones’s “Sympathy for the Devil,” we’re very much aware of how un-Jagger-like he is, plodding as opposed to strutting across the stage, without a seductive, rebellious bone in his body. His performance of Rihanna’s “Only Girl (In the World)” comes across as nasty and possessive, and his version of Madonna’s “Material Girl” is rearranged with an industrial timber so as to sound absolutely chilling.
There is, though, no way for the show to get around Tveit’s emotionally disconnected performance. His goofy charms and top-notch singing work well enough early on for the scenes in which Christian’s lightly wooing Satine with silly love songs. Elsewhere, though, he glides over the weighted words that the other actors intentionally struggle with, especially the standout Olivo, who has to find a way to sing through her character’s consumptive fit. Christian comes to believes that Satine has abandoned him in favor of the Duke, and is meant to rage at the thought of his lover sleeping with another man. This revelation is designed for maximum effect, set to “Roxanne” and accompanied by a brutal Argentinian tango, yet Tveit’s recitation lacks emotional range. Likewise, when Christian’s thoughts turn to suicide—he loads a gun while singing “Crazy”—there’s not even a hint of despair in his tone.
Moulin Rouge! is already a commercially appealing juggernaut of a musical, with an upbeat, lovestruck first act that sublimely distills the rich essences of all your favorite love songs into a heady, artistically satisfying experience. Sadly, one actor’s disconnect is enough to make the second act feel emotionally off-key. As a result, the show ultimately fails to uphold the bohemian ideal of love and art being fused in truthful fashion.
Moulin Rouge! is now playing at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre.
Interview: Kate Burton on Coriolanus in Central Park and Her Path to Success
The actress discusses her connection to New York, working with director Daniel Sullivan, and more.
Kate Burton is no diva. Despite her illustrious theatrical lineage, the actress is warm and down to earth. Daughter of international movie star Richard Burton, she certainly had a fabled childhood, surrounded constantly by showbiz luminaries. Growing up, if she wasn’t spending summers with her famously tempestuous Welsh actor father and glamorous stepmother, Elizabeth Taylor, she was mixing with celebrities at Arthur, the popular 1960s New York disco hangout owned by her mother, Sybil Christopher.
However, avoiding the pitfalls of inherited celebrity, Burton, a three-time Tony and Emmy nominee, has carefully forged her own path, balancing her lauded acting career with a stable family life for more than three decades. She’s currently playing the role of Volumnia in Coriolanus in the Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park production at Central Park’s Delacorte Theater. I recently chatted with Burton about the production, her connection to New York, working with director Daniel Sullivan, and her path to success.
What is Coriolanus about to you?
It’s the story of an extraordinary warrior, a soldier who’s thrust into a highly political and governance-related situation—areas where he isn’t comfortable being. He loves war, combat, and the military world. He doesn’t love what a leader has to do in order to get the people to love him. And, of course, the juxtaposition of this with the fascinating time that we are living in—it does give you pause. That’s what makes Shakespeare so unbelievably enduring and so relevant, no matter which play you do and when you do it.
And what’s Volumnia’s function within the play?
She’s definitely the most powerful influence on her son. She’s the woman behind the throne. She saves Rome. Coriolanus is such a complicated character. He doesn’t respond like a normal son would in a lot of ways. It takes quite a lot of coaxing and pleading to get him to do what she wants him to do. It’s true that Jonathan Cake, who plays Coriolanus, and I are only 10 years apart in age, so I said to him that my interpretation is that he’s about five years younger, and I’m a little older. Volumnia was a single mother—no father is mentioned in the play—and she had him when she was young. So, she’s a lioness, a tigress, about her child. I’ve heard that Denzel Washington has a great quote about mothers and sons, something about the son being the last great love of a mother’s life, and the mother being the first great love of his.
So, what’s at the core of the relationship between this mother and son in the play?
There’s a fascinating dynamic between them. Shakespeare didn’t have tons of mothers and sons in his plays. Gertrude and Hamlet come to mind—another fascinating, very complicated relationship. With fathers and daughters it’s different because, of course, Shakespeare was so devoted to one of his own daughters. In the plays written in the Jacobean period—like Coriolanus—there’s a different dynamic than in [the plays written] in the Elizabethan period. I happen to have done a lot of Shakespeare plays from this same Jacobean period: Cymbeline, The Tempest, and The Winter’s Tale. You know, the monarch on the throne in that period was James and his mother was Mary Queen of Scots—kind of a fascinating mother! Doing this role is great for me because in my real life as a mother I’ve raised two wonderful children and I totally get it. Although I’m very cherishing, nurturing, I always play these kind of growling women. These are the characters I’m comfortable playing because it takes something completely different from me. For instance, my character in Grey’s Anatomy is a very hard woman, tough on her child, exacting, incredibly ambitions. Also, quite honestly, this is a perfect role for an older actress. It’s taxing but it doesn’t wipe you out. It is just six scenes.
I understand you also have some family history with Coriolanus.
My father had been a very famous Coriolanus, before I was born. And now that I know the play, I can totally see it: complicated, driving everybody nuts, yeah! We’re so lucky to have Jonathan playing the role. Not only is he such a talented actor, he has also played the part before. And, you know, with these big Shakespeare roles, it’s great if you can get a couple under your belt, because it takes time to digest it and get it into your bones. Kevin Kline played Hamlet twice, my father played Hamlet twice. And I’m looking to do the The Tempest again.
Speaking of which, what was it like to play Prospero, the lead male character in The Tempest? How did that come about?
It happened very organically four years ago when I did Cymbeline. Daniel Sullivan said he wanted me to play the Queen, and then he said he also wanted me to play the role of Belarius. I thought it was some spear carrier—two scenes, funny hat. But it was a huge role, and he wanted me to play it as a man. That was my first time playing a male role. Then I was all set to do something else last summer when I got an email with the subject line “Prospero.” It was from my great friend [director] Joe Dowling. I just replied, “Yes!” We talked about whether I should play it as a man, but this is one of those Shakespearean roles than can translate to a female playing the part as female. And, of course, Helen Mirren and Vanessa Redgrave have done it. When I worked on it [at the Old Globe in San Diego] I realized that this role can really work naturally as a woman—the relationships with Miranda and Ariel and Caliban. So, now playing Prospero is something I would like to have another go at. I’m actually talking to a few people about it right now. Volumnia, to be honest, is a very masculine woman—just in the way she approaches things. She’s not some sweet little mom. The first thing that Shakespeare has her say in Corolianus is how pleased she is to send her son into war. I wanted him to seek danger because it created more spine, gave him more honor. So, I’m glad I’ve played a couple of male Shakespearean roles because it really helps me with Volumnia.
Is it true that acting wasn’t your first choice of profession?
I went to the United Nations International School here in New York City, and I was planning to be a diplomat. It wasn’t until my senior year at Brown University that I took an acting class. I had a professor who just loved the arts and he saw me in the plays that I did as extracurricular activity and he said that I have this gift and that I was squashing it down. My father at that time was so incredibly well known, but it wasn’t just that. It’s that I didn’t know that I wanted to pursue this mad life. It can be fantastic, but it can also be really challenging, because, you know, you’re an itinerant worker. I’d seen everything—my father, my step-mother, my step-father were all in show business. My mother had been an actress when she married my father, when she was extremely young. But she just didn’t love performing, although she loved rehearsing and she loved being backstage. Then she became an artistic director [founder of Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor]. So, I came into acting with my eyes wide open. I’m also married to Michael Ritchie, who’s the artistic director of the Ahmanson Theatre and the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, but he’s not an actor. We have a son who’s an actor, who also loves writing, but our daughter is interested in other things.
And your mother supported your choice to become an actress?
Oh, yes, she saw me in everything. She almost never said anything negative. I think if you have a child who’s an actor, you just have to be unconditionally supportive. It’s going to be their journey no matter what. The only disagreement that my dad and I had about any of it was that he wanted me to train. He never trained, by the way. I just want to point that out! He wanted me to train in England because I was offered an opportunity to go to Central School of Speech and Drama in London. I chose instead to go to the Yale School of Drama because I was American. I said to him, “I’m your daughter so let me find my own path.” I’ve met a few children of luminary types who are now graduating from school and I just say to them it’s all about you finding your own voice, you don’t want to be just considered the daughter of blah blah blah. So, as long as you find your own voice, that’s the most important thing.
How do you feel about the time it took for you to establish a name for yourself?
You know, I kind of had the right trajectory. I first worked in the theater. I did tons of plays in New York and a few out of town. I started in TV when I was a bit into my 20s and moved into more TV and film in my 30s. Then everything sort of happened with Hedda Gabler and The Elephant Man, and that was in my early 40s. And then in my mid-40s, on TV, I got Grey’s Anatomy and then, five years later, Scandal. So, Hedda Gabler put me on the map in one way and Grey’s Anatomy in a completely different way. It all worked out nicely and then I moved to Los Angeles. I love L.A. and I get to do theater there as well. I’ve done two projects for my husband at the Taper and also The Tempest at the Old Globe.
So, here you are back in New York, doing theater in Central Park. What are you looking forward to this time?
I love coming back to New York, it’s my hometown. And this worked out perfectly. I like to do a play once a year and to be in New York ideally every couple of years. So, two years ago I did Present Laughter on Broadway and The Dead 1904 off-Broadway. This is my second time in the Park. I did Cymbeline there in 2015. That production was fantastic and challenging because it was multiple characters, as I was involved in all the fight scenes. And let us remember that we are outside and it’s hot and steamy. Now I’m playing a single character and I’m not in any of the fight scenes so I’m very happy! What I’m excited about is that the audience is going to discover this play that hasn’t been done in the Park since 1979. It’s so virulent and so vital. There’s a primal aspect to it. And, then, I mean, free Shakespeare in the Park. New York on a summer night! It doesn’t get any better than that.
Coriolanus runs through August 11.
Review: In Mojada, Immigration Is an Ill-Fitting Costume for a Modern-Day Medea
The play reduces Medea’s decisions to an act of madness, adding little to our understanding of the Medea mythos.
Luis Alfaro’s Mojada, a modern-day adaptation of Euripedes’s Medea, begins and ends with scenes of Medea’s (Sabina Zúñiga Varela) life in a foreign country, prior to the woman murdering her own child. An argument can be made that, in this context, Medea’s actions are a direct result of the trauma she sustained while making the arduous crossing from Zamora, in the Mexican state of Michoacan, to Corona, Queens. But Alfaro, who once found success mirroring ancient tragedy in a contemporary Latinx moment with Oedipus El Rey, doesn’t convincingly make that connection. The contextual changes he makes to the circumstances of and relationship between Medea and Jason (Alex Hernandez) reduce Medea’s decisions to an act of madness, adding little to our understanding of the Medea mythos.
In Mojada, Medea and Jason, who aren’t technically married, must live in hiding. America’s a far less welcoming country than ancient Corinth, which also gives a new context to Jason’s decision to marry an American citizen. He expresses shame over trading sex with Pilar (Ada Maris), his wealthy developer boss, for the right to stay in one of her many properties and, eventually, for citizenship through marriage. He’s protecting himself and his son, Acan (Benjamin Luis McCracken), not to mention gaining legal employment for Tita (Socorro Santiago), the loyal servant who followed the family from Mexico. His entire “crime”—sleeping with another woman—is contextualized as a necessary transaction, and the play backs him up, both in its depiction of the family’s precarious situation, and in the fact that Pilar herself, a Cuban immigrant, achieved her wealth and success by once marrying a rich American.
In Greek mythology, Medea enabled Jason and his crew of Argonauts to recover the Golden Fleece. He owed his success to her, and she rejected her father’s kingdom to relocate to a new country with him. Mojada’s version of Medea is far less empowered and helpful; in truth, it’s hard to see why she and Jason are together at all, since they seem to want entirely different things for themselves and their son. Jason embraces America, taking Acan to Coney Island and encouraging him to use American words like “dad” instead of “papi.” Conversely, Medea, who’s shown on multiple occasions clearing her mind with sewing and ritual prayer, not only stubbornly refuses any sort of cultural assimilation, but bristles at others’ show of it.
Throughout Mojada, Alfaro provides reasons for why Medea is closed off from Jason and the world: When she tries to be intimate with him, she’s reminded of her rape, and when she attempts to leave their home, she’s overwhelmed by the cacophony of sounds emanating from her bustling section of Corona. These traumas are real, and a tragic result of the price she continues to pay for having crossed into America, but Alfaro so briefly addresses them that they come across as thin excuses with which to make the agoraphobic Medea so reliant on others. In the end, neither her suffering nor her unauthorized status hold her back as much as the plot of Medea: She has to kill Pilar and Acan because that’s how the story goes.
Arnulfo Maldonado’s set—the backyard of a rundown two-story house—suggests both shelter and a place of danger, as if this family’s American dream might collapse at any moment. And Haydee Zelideth’s costuming points to an insidious erasure at work in the characters’ lives. Medea is a talented seamstress, but because she has no papers, she must standardize her work and cheaply sell it to middlemen. It’s further frustrating to her that while she proudly wears a plain white dress, her family begins to cast off the clothing they brought to America, with Acan trading in a Mexican jersey for an American one, and Jason happily upgrading to a pair of expensive boots offered to him by Pilar. Medea tries to foreground her culture, adding a colorful flourish to her attire before Jason introduces her to Pilar, but she never commands the focus of the room, and the rest of the cast’s clothing only grows more casual and everyday. These subtle elements do far more to give weight to Medea’s fears of being culturally erased than does blunt declamatory dialogue like: “That’s the problem with this country, you can get everything you want, but then you spend the rest of your life fighting to keep it.”
That Medea feels like a costume worn by Mojada to justify its existence becomes apparent with how easily the Medea-related content is cast off midway through the play. Twice, Alfaro shifts from active dialogue to passive monologues in which Medea recounts how her family crossed the American border. Instead of showing the ugly realities of death, dehydration, rape, and ICE that they encountered along the way, Alfaro uses terse poetry (“I can’t move. I can’t breathe. I am dead inside.”) and stale metaphor (“She makes a concoction. I drink it. It kills the soldier inside me.”) that keeps these things at a comfortable distance.
Mojada, under Chay Yew’s direction, attempts to make this recitation more direct by projecting images of Medea’s family’s journey onto the wall of their home. But these well-intended images of a nighttime desert, stretches of highway, Port Authority, could be snapshots from any family’s memories of travel; they’re so generic that they don’t specifically speak to the arduousness, the horror, of Medea and Jason’s journey to the States.
Mojada is at its most specific and resonant when it isn’t focusing on Medea, but on Luisa (Vanessa Aspillaga), a garrulous Puerto Rican who’s returned to America in the wake of Hurricane Maria, driven to succeed at any cost. In her case, this means entrepreneurially operating a churro cart (“Cops eat free”), despite the cultural scorn from her neighbors, and secondarily by adopting a new name, Lulu, so that she might be more appealing to hipsters. A character with no corollary in Euripedes’s play, she’s free to simply exist and tell her story, which she does, and in such a comic, rapid-fire fashion that when she abruptly starts to sob over her husband’s work-related back ailments and their lack of energy to have a kid, it may catch you off-guard. There’s a spark of humanity here that the rest of Mojada, beholden both to Medea and the Big Idea of immigration, is otherwise unable to ignite.
Luisa is actively hustling, and she details the steps and compromises she’s going to take to get the future she wants. Medea is more passive, making no effort to break out of her one-woman sweatshop. Alfaro is so fixated on having her make political pronouncements—“They can never build a wall big enough. But they will always try”—that she becomes nothing more than a mouthpiece, which is why her sudden and violent pivot feels so disproportionate. Medea, both the character and the play, create unearned drama for Mojada, moments that wrongly wrest focus away from thoughts of immigration. For a more effective classical tragedy, simply watch the news, with its raw images, wailing interviews, and chorus of pundits.
Mojada is now playing through Sunday, August 11 at the Public’s LuEsther Hall.
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