Wednesday, November 21, 2012

NYC Theater Roundup: ‘Scandalous,’ ‘Edwin Drood’ On Broadway; 'Piano Lesson' Off-Broadway

Book and lyrics by Kathie Lee Gifford; music by David Pomerantz and David Friedman
Directed by David Armstrong
Performances began October 13, 2012
Neil Simon Theatre, 250 West 52nd Street, New York, NY

The Mystery of Edwin Drood
Music, lyrics and book by Rupert Holmes; directed by Scott Ellis
Performances through February 10, 2013
Studio 54, 254 West 54th Street, New York, NY

Golden Child
Written by David Henry Hwang; directed by Leigh Silverman
Performances through December 16, 2012
The Piano Lesson
Written by August Wilson; directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson
Performances through December 30, 2012
Emotional Creature
Written by Eve Ensler; directed by Jo Bonney
Performances through January 13, 2013
Signature Theatre, 480 West 42nd Street, New York, NY
Scandalous (photo: Jeremy Daniel)
Aimee Semple McPherson had an incredible life—born to a God-fearing mother in western Canada, she hated religion until seeing the light as a teenager and becoming a famous and influential (if controversial) preacher with her own church in Los Angeles until her death at age 52—but you’d never know it from the formulaic musical Kathie Lee Gifford has fashioned from such rich ore: Scandalous is anything but.

Scandalous has been Gifford’s baby for years, and her book and lyrics show that she’s researched McPherson’s life assiduously: unfortunately, she’s unable to transform that into a compellingly theatrical show. Scenes showing McPherson from naïve teen to high-powered minister flit by chronologically but with little dramatic thrust. The music by two Davids, Pomerantz and Friedman (Gifford and McPherson’s own hymns also contribute), is passable Broadway pastiche, but its fist-pumpingly generic gospel numbers sound suspiciously similar to another lackluster preacher musical, Leap of Faith, which flopped on Broadway last spring.

Another David, Armstrong, provides slick direction that is unable to fit floundering parts into a cohesive whole, but as Aimee, Carolee Carmello is fiercely persuasive both as the young Canadian girl and the rich and infamous preacher. Her powerhouse voice makes the songs, the character and the show itself seem stronger than it is.
The Mystery of Edwin Drood (photo: Joan Marcus)
A new Broadway revival of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Rupert Holmes’ delightful 1986 multi-Tony winner, is one of those sheerly entertaining musicals that come along much too rarely. Based on Charles Dickens’ final—and unfinished—novel about the disappearance of a young man in Victorian England, Drood prominently features a gimmick: audiences choose the criminal, detective in disguise and romantic couple.

Even though that gimmick adds fun—and audience participation—to the proceedings, Drood is a solidly comic and musical trip on its own terms, starting with Holmes’ tuneful score, a loving throwback to British music hall performances (Drood itself is a show within a show, its actors playing performers playing characters in Drood), and his equally clever lyrics and book round out the amusement.

The revival is staged to a frothy fare-thee-well by Scott Ellis, assisted by Anna Louizos’ outlandish sets and William Ivey Long’s perfect costumes. The cast is supremely in on the joke, with standouts grand dame Chita Rivera, TV’s Smash star Will Chase, silvery-voiced Betsy Wolfe and Jim Norton’s beguiling master of ceremonies.
Golden Child (photo: Richard Termine)
Off-Broadway, the Signature Theatre is reviving two plays that were on Broadway in the ‘90s. By far the lesser is Golden Child, which David Henry Hwang (who won the 1988 Tony for M. Butterfly) wrote about his family: the heroine is his grandmother, seen as a feisty old lady at the opening (and in the epilogue) being interviewed by her teenage grandson in 1968 in the Philippines. The bulk of the play, which takes place in China in 1918-19, shows Grandma as a young child whose polygamous father has three wives.

As the wives and their husband trade anachronistic quips, Hwang never finds the right balance between sitcom-like comedy and a serious exploration of how Chinese assimilated western ideas and ideals. Leigh Silverman misdirects her cast to act like hip quipsters on today’s TV shows, further deemphasizing Hwang’s point.
The Piano Lesson (photo: Joan Marcus)
The Piano Lesson, on the other hand, is among the best in August Wilson’s 10-play cycle, set in different decades of the 20th century in Pittsburgh. A widow and her prodigal brother, who’s just returned from down South and up to shady dealings, butt heads over a family heirloom: an ornately-sculpted piano that their father gave his life for. Boy Willie wants to sell it to finance his purchase of farmland; Berniece wants to keep it, despite the family ghosts and blood that hover over it.

For three hours, Boy Willie and Berniece, her young daughter Maretha, their Uncle Doaker, Willie’s partner Lymon, musician friend Wining Boy and Reverend Avery—who’s in love with Berniece—wage a royal family battle in which their pasts literally creep up as ghosts that materialize in an abrupt ending that’s the sole blemish on an exhilarating drama with aspirations to Shakespearean tragedy. The innate musicality in Wilson’s writing—literalized here with sad, joyful songs played on the piano—reaches its apogee in extraordinary monologues that build to dramatic and emotional crescendos.

Ruben Santiago-Hudson, a superb actor who has become a reliable director of Wilson’s work, corals this unwieldy masterwork on Michael Carnahan’s set that stunningly evokes the working-class existence of blacks in Pittsburgh, circa 1936. The director also coaxes grand, gloriously larger-than-life performances by his entire cast, led by Brandon J. Dierden’s charming but dangerous Boy Willie and Roslyn Ruff’s level-headed and deeply wounded Berniece. If there’s such a thing as don’t-miss theater in New York, this is it.
Emotional Creature (photo: Carol Rosegg)
 Also at the Signature is the forgettable Emotional Creature, Eve Ensler’s flimsy 80-minute play that shows today’s complicated world for young women. The problem is that Ensler never settles on a satisfying way of presenting her material: opening with peppy singing and dancing by an energetic sextet of talented actresses, it awkwardly moves through tragic monologues by mistreated girls in Eastern Europe, Africa and Asia, which are interspersed with less-urgent problems of high-strung high-schoolers.

The kitchen-sink approach to this melting pot is further diminished by Charl-Johan Lingenfelder’s generic songs and dance moves, which recall the relentlessly cheery ‘70s TV show, Free to Be You and Me. Director Jo Bonney keeps things perky with videos and photos projected behind the women, but this mess of a show too clearly apes the messy lives of the young women it shows.

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