In this business you never really know what to expect.
A theater critic can root for a show based on the subject matter and the artists involved but walk away disappointed. Or sometimes a show you know little about takes you by surprise, especially if you’ve avoided reading the reams of hype generated by the commercial theater media.
A recent quick theater tour of Tony Award-nominated shows offered versions of both experiences.
“An American in Paris” is an impressive show in most ways that count, but it left me feeling curiously dissatisfied.
Don’t get me wrong: Director/choreographer Christopher Wheeldon and his designers have created a visually intoxicating palette for this adaptation of Vincente Minnelli’s 1951 movie. And the dancing, particularly that of Robert Fairchild, a star of the New York City Ballet, is spectacular.
But the problem of expectations rests in a single name: Gershwin.
The Gershwin brothers — composer George and lyricist Ira — wrote some of the most sophisticated and indelible theater music of the 20th century. But before “Porgy and Bess,” their crowning achievement, the Gershwins contributed their considerable talents to some of the most frivolous musical comedies of the 1920s and ’30s.
Many of the songs from those shows were gems, however. And that rich catalog has been mined endlessly as subsequent generations of writers and directors have created “new” Gershwin shows. Which leads us to “An American in Paris.”
As with Minnelli’s movie, the music for this show is drawn from various sources. But one composition matters more than any other: “An American in Paris,” George Gershwin’s 1928 symphonic poem that becomes the setting for an extended ballet toward the end of the show.
The suite was pillaged for decades by movie composers who wanted to quickly establish an “urban” setting, but on its own terms it stands as a fabulous piece of music. And in this show, it is quite literally the money tune.
Had Wheeldon and his collaborators sought to meet the high aesthetic standards of Gershwin at his best, this might have been the show I hoped it would be. Book-writer Craig Lucas, however, seemed more interested in reviving the tone of those frothy old musical comedies, especially in Act 1.
But his dialogue lacks wit, and the needlessly complicated story (and backstories) left me yearning for the clean simplicity of Alan Jay Lerner’s script for the Gene Kelly movie.
Still, when this show works, it really works. And it plants indelible images circled by scraps of seductive Gershwin melodies.
I had a different set of expectations as I entered the Lyceum Theatre to see “The Visit.” Again, those expectations had to do with a name: John Kander.
The Kansas City-born composer has with his various collaborators made a virtue of unpredictability. His long partnership with the late lyricist Fred Ebb produced work that always seemed the result of a fresh start. Every show demanded a new perspective, a unique approach.
And “The Visit” is unlike any Kander-and-Ebb show I’m familiar with. That it was based on a play by Swiss dramatist Friedrich Durrenmatt inspired a certain level of dread, I admit. He was a cerebral playwright whose work is rarely produced in the U.S., probably because it raises profound questions without easy answers.
And that, it turned out, was what I liked about “The Visit.” Terrence McNally’s book boils the narrative into a single act and presents it as a harshly satirical commentary on human society while at the same time embracing a deeply romantic view of love. These elements — cynicism and sentiment — really shouldn’t go together. But in this show, directed by John Doyle, they coexist seamlessly.
Chita Rivera, playing a wealthy widow who returns to a village where she was wronged in her youth, delivers a star turn in the best sense. As a woman with a calm, justice-seeking agenda, Rivera executes a wry, economical performance. You really don’t want to look at anyone else when she’s onstage, which she is most of the time. In her 80s, Rivera still has charisma to burn.
In its own quiet way, “The Visit” is a startling piece of work. It’s a show I can’t stop thinking about.
A very different sort of musical is onstage at the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center. Here we find a lavish, budget-busting, meticulously designed revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “The King and I.” The production is graced by fine performances throughout and by two magnetic leads: the elegant Kelli O’Hara and the force-of-nature Ken Watanabe.
Oscar Hammerstein’s book, as it always has, wobbles at times, but Richard Rodgers’ score is arguably his best. And this production employs Robert Russell Bennett’s original 1954 orchestrations to create a mesmerizing symphonic sound.
Everything about this show is big. The vast Beaumont thrust stage creates a sense of unlimited depth and towering height. The full orchestra is all-enveloping. And the performances have to fill that space with big emotions. It’s a show worth seeing, even in Lincoln Center’s claustrophobic, legroom-challenged seats.
Drawn into the fringe
I knew little about Lisa D’Amour’s “Airline Highway” other than its Steppenwolf Theatre pedigree and the estimable track record of director Joe Mantello. But I stumbled into a subculture of fringe-dwellers in post-Katrina New Orleans with whom I felt rather comfortable. (Feel free to draw your own conclusions.)
Set on a single day at the run-down Hummingbird Motel, the play depicts a resident population of strippers, dopers, drag queens, would-be poets and crusty losers in a variety of shapes and sizes who are preparing a “living funeral” for Miss Ruby, the former manager of a strip club whose health is in rapid decline.
Mantello and D’Amour attempt a kind of noisy realism in which conversations frequently overlap, and viewers have to choose whom to watch and listen to. A recent Saturday matinee had a curious effect on yours truly. In the early going, I was ready to dismiss the piece as a chaotic, interesting failure.
But as the play chugged along, it found a way to get to me. Ultimately I was drawn into this outrageous, bittersweet, angry, desperate world inhabited by people on the margins. They engaged my affections, although I don’t think I’d ever want to move into the Hummingbird. All I can say is that the journey was worth the effort.
Venom-spitting puppets always engage my attention, and a hand-and-rod puppet named Tyrone that dwells at the center of “Hand to God” is one for the books. Playwright Robert Askins, a native of Texas, presumably taps his small-town roots for what might be described as a savagely satirical comedy.
Most of the action unfolds in a church basement, where a recently widowed mother of a teenage son teaches a puppetry class to kids from the youth ministry. Her boy, Jason, has a serious problem. The puppet he has made and named Tyrone takes on a life of its own, expressing Jason’s secret thoughts as well as, we presume, messages delivered directly from Satan.
Steven Boyer, who plays Jason, has deservedly been nominated for a Tony Award. His performance is extraordinary, both in terms of physical control and emotional range. At times he performs extended dialogue exchanges between Jason and “Tyrone” that are theatrical, disturbing and often very funny.
Trussell on Broadway
▪ Our intrepid theater critic, Robert Trussell, reviewed several of the Tony nominees last week in New York. Read reviews of “Hand to God,” “The King & I” and “An American in Paris” on the entertainment page of KansasCity.com. Look inside for reviews of “The Visit” (D4) and “The Airline Highway” (D5).
▪ The Tony Awards are June 7 and will air live on CBS.