Sunday, August 2, 2015

NYC Theater Reviews—"Shows for Days," "Amazing Grace"

Shows for Days
Written by Douglas Carter Beane; directed by Jerry Zaks
Performances through August 23, 2015
Mitzi E. Newhouse @ Lincoln Center Theater, New York, NY

Amazing Grace
Book, music & lyrics by Christopher Smith; directed by Gabriel Barre
Opened July 16, 2015
Nederlander Theater, 208 West 41st Street, New York, NY

LuPone in Shows for Days (photo: Joan Marcus)
For Douglas Carter Beane, nothing succeeds like excessive zingers. His latest play, the awkwardly titled Shows for Days, is full of them, and they overwhelm this sentimental, sketchy autobiographical memory play about how he began in theater. His teenage alter ego Car hangs around a local Reading, Pennsylvania, theater group, first doing grunt work, then writing lively cast bios and finally penning a full-length play put on by the troupe.

Beane populates his play, narrated by the grownup Car, with a caricatured whiny young actress, aggressive bisexual actor, mincing veteran actor, lesbian jack/jane of all trades and domineering diva. There are scattered amusing moments and one-liners, but Beane is much too concerned with demonstrating theater's sacredness, whether it's in a small town or at Lincoln Center, and with pulling back the curtain on what goes on offstage, with in-joke references that get titters of recognition from a few insiders and crickets from the rest of the audience.

If Shows for Days is a trite exercise in hagiographic autobiography, director Jerry Zaks knows how to smooth over its worst impulses by staging it as zestily as possible, even if most of his game cast is unable to escape the clutches of Beane’s clichĂ©d characters. Only the legendary Patti LuPone is able to transform the diva Irene into a sharply-etched portrait of a hurricane-like life force, not so much bulldozing but tapdancing her way through the play, giving even Beane’s weakest lines a sense of hilarious urgency. Shows for Days would be even more forgettable without LuPone's brilliant artistry.

Young and Foy in Amazing Grace (photo: Joan Marcus)
The story of John Newton—18th century British slave owner turned militant abolitionist who wrote one of the most beloved songs ever—is certainly fascinating, but the musical made from it, Amazing Grace, contents itself with melodrama, unsubtle explications of slavery's evil and songs that never approach Newton's own quiet hymn, which has accumulated heavy baggage over the centuries: most recently, President Obama sang it at the memorial service for nine murdered Charleston churchgoers.

Since the song "Amazing Grace" has been placed at the very end—where it's performed twice, first by the cast then, after curtain calls, by the cast and the audience in a communal celebration—we must endure 2-1/2 hours of mediocre tunes, lyrics, dramatics and dimestore psychology as Newton changes from a man who thought slavery was natural (his father ran a booming slave-trading business) to a fervent abolitionist.

Since Newton also penned some 200 songs, surely a couple could have gotten into the show; instead, Christopher Smith's mainly unmemorable numbers, which comprise pseudo-spirituals and pseudo-big ballads, predominate in director Gabriel Barre's well-paced staging. Most impressive is the first-rate physical production by set designers Eugene Lee and Edward Pierce, costume designer Toni-Leslie James and lightning designers Ken Billington and Paul Miller, whose accomplished work climaxes with a marvelously realized tableau of Newton being saved from drowning by his loyal slave Thomas at the close of the first act.

Josh Young's strong-voiced Newton, Erin Mackey's beguliling Mary (Newton's longtime sweetheart), Chuck Cooper's tough but tender Thomas, Laiona Michelle's sympathetic slave Nanna and Harriett D. Foy's hypnotic Princess Peyai of Sierra Leone (who sold her own people and treated the shipwrecked Newton as a sex slave) are all but drowned out by the heavyhanded mediocrity of the music, lyrics and book. Despite good intentions, Amazing Grace never illuminates its important story for its audience.

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