Friday, July 09, 2010

Lots of Territory to Cover

Have you heard about this show currently playing in NYC called “The Grand Manner?” If not, here’s some interesting background on the show and its playwright. I mention it because the whole play is organized around a production of “Antony and Cleopatra,” which Richmond Shakespeare opens this weekend. Take advantage of the tiny break in the heat wave to go check it out.

I’ve been wondering whether I should just leave my review of “Rent” go without further commentary. It seems like I get into trouble when I try to be more forthcoming about my opinions about some shows if everything I say is not 100% positive. I guess that’s the nature of the business. But I should say that I probably thought longer and harder about this review than I have about any other one in a long time. Part of that had to do with timing. I usually write my reviews within 24 hours of having seen a show. But because of having to drive to Kentucky and back over the weekend, I didn’t sit down to write until Sunday, nearly three days after opening night. Luckily (or not, I guess, depending on your point of view), I had plenty of hours looking at the open road to try and figure out what didn’t sit right with me about the show.

There is no question that the performances were fantastic. I’ve already gushed a little about Durron Tyre’s powerhouse version of “I’ll Cover You” and Jaci Camden and Joy Newsome on “Take Me or Leave Me.” I also need to give credit to a couple of fresh faces in the cast that I hadn’t seen before – Terence Sullivan as Roger and Nadia Harika as Mimi. Though costumed a little oddly, Sullivan brings an appropriate amount of angst to his portrayal. Narika is adorable and, in the end, heartbreaking in her inability to break free either from drugs or Benny. My only complaint would be that she is maybe too adorable – I had a little bit of a hard time believing in her as an exotic dancer. But both Sullivan’s and Narika’s voices are grand and they have a distinct and compelling on-stage chemistry (see post below on Chemistry for background).

In fact, that esoteric quality of chemistry is found in abundance here. All of the couples have it and it’s ultimately what makes the show work. One of the most delightful aspects of the production is the somewhat antagonistic / somewhat empathetic chemistry between Nick Aliff’s Mark and Joy Newsome’s JoAnn. Their “Tango Maureen” was a first-act highlight for me.

Other random positivities: I loved Jaci Camden’s rendition of the performance art protest, with a mixture of defiance and absurdity and outrage and that little moment of self-reassurance when the reverb works, etc. Joy Newsome excels in her conflicted role, providing many great laughs – but also revealing a honest-to-goodness soul struggling with her love for Maureen. It took me a minute to warm up to Antonio Tillman as Angel but, when I did, I fell hard for him/her. The Tom Collins/Angel relationship really is the anchor of this show, at least in this production.

So as I was trying to figure out the aspects of the show that didn’t work for me, I reflected on some of the comments my companion for the night made. She had never seen the show before and, as I talked to her, I realized she was very confused about what was happening during much of the show. And when I thought of things in that light, I realized some of the challenges in staging “Rent” that I probably hadn’t thought about before. It’s essentially a one-set show that has to evoke many locations. There are so many ways to make this kind of thing work and not many of them were employed here. The lighting can help a lot with this -- I still remember fondly the Science Museum show about Charles Darwin where Lynn Hartman’s lights transformed a staid study full of books into a wild South American jungle. Instead, here the lights were generally too-dark with occasional flashes of brightness that I think were supposed to enhance the drama but ended up just adding confusion (IMHO).

It’s also a pretty big show that can feel pretty cramped on such a little stage. There are a lot of transitions in the show from one location to another and large influxes and outfluxes of cast members. I know this kind of thing is a challenge to stage but I didn’t notice a whole lot of order or logic in it. The sound engineering ended up being frustrating – for much of the show it was amazing: crystal clear voices with volume pumped high enough to stand clear of the band, some of the best sound I’ve heard in Richmond. But then there were interludes of feedback – always like nails on a chalkboard – and a couple key songs that got fuzzy in parts so that I missed lyrics.

A couple of random questions having nothing to do with the actual performance: no bios in the program? Maybe this was an environmental concern but I missed them. No song list in the program? Can’t think of an excuse for that one. And why does the Firehouse have “JoAnn” but on Broadway and everywhere else the character is “Joanne”?

In the end, what I ultimately came back to was the power of the source material – particularly the music – and the excellent voices employed to bring it to life. As I hope the review communicated, though it had its rough spots, this was a production worth experiencing. I have recommended it to friends who haven’t seen the show before and, when my wife goes to check it out, I may tag along again just to hear the songs and to allow Durron and Antonio to rip my heart out again.

Finally, for something completely different, you should consider checking out “Pulp” at Richmond Triangle Players, opening this weekend. This show was a lot of fun even when it was struggling along in the makeshift space at the Gay Community Center the last time RTP staged it. I expect it’ll be a lot spiffier in their new space.


Martin said...

I'm curious if you view yourself as a member of a theater "community," one of the team, whose role is to review the work the ohter team members create; or if you view yourself as outside the "community," whereby it's OK to say things that maynot be flattering and heartwarming.

The world cup is going on now. Are you the goalie for Richmond theater, or a referee?

philcrosby said...

Thanks for the plug for PULP, Dave. Much appreciated. And it IS better in the new space!

Dave T said...

Wish I could get out to see “Pulp.” I’m sure it’s great in the new space.

I didn’t sense any sarcasm in your question so I’m going to assume it is posed with an actual interest in an honest response. There are a lot of ways to answer it and I’m not sure either of the analogies you gave – goalie or referee – totally work for me (as an aside I’ll mention that many people would categorize critics as parasites). The simple answer is that I definitely view myself as a member of the theater community. Many years ago I spent a fair amount of time volunteering backstage for Richmond theaters (well, for Theatre IV). I have family members that have worked in and supported Richmond theater in various ways over nearly 25 years. I have many friends and close acquaintances who are bonafide (i.e., full-time or regularly employed) members of the theater community.

In bigger markets, I think critics might consider themselves referees. In Richmond, the story is different. Oftentimes, I work as a theater advocate. Many of the stories and reviews I’ve written for Style and other publications have been stories/reviews I’ve pitched, ones that wouldn’t have appeared if I hadn’t bothered my editor, sometimes with some persistence. I also consider my work with the Richmond Theatre Critics Circle as theater advocacy. While it’s an evaluative exercise, it’s also a way to celebrate and highlight the quality of Richmond theater.

I know my role as a member of the “community” is one that can be a little fraught with tension. However, I also consider it a useful role. I try to provide a supportive but objective perspective. Anyone is free to dismiss my more critical comments but I hope that they might find them at least a little bit instructive or might take useful insight from them. But, when all is said and done, nothing makes me happier than to have the opportunity to gush positivities about some performance that truly impresses me.

So, getting back to your World Cup reference, part of the problem is that I don’t think there are really competing sides. If there is the theater community on one side, I don’t consider critics on the opposing side. Maybe the audience is on the other side? That’s not exactly right because both sides want the same thing – great shows. And I definitely consider myself an advocate for both sides – I’m writing for an audience that wants to know what shows are worth seeing but also for theaters that want people to see their shows. Still, going with your analogy, I guess I consider myself like a weird variation on a cheerleader. I’m largely on the sidelines but I’m supportive of the “team.” The twist is that sometimes that support comes in the way of criticism, “cheers” that can have a strong “tough love” kind of sentiment. Does that make sense?

Finally, on a more personal level, I care about Richmond theater and want to play some role in it. I can’t act or sing and don’t have time to volunteer. The one thing I can do with at least a modicum of skill is write. So that’s what I do. Whether that makes me a true “team member” or not, I’m not really sure.

Theatre in Battery Park said...

Hell yar Dave ! You are an historian of sorts for the rich legacy of Richmond Theatre ! I advocate you! The most over arching benefit of theatre is the examination and celebration of that which divides and that which unites. With all the division prevalent in the world it's important to have some unifying agents. And while TheatERs may compete for box office, or ink, we are all in this thing together, and work for something larger than names in bright lights, and glowing criticisms from pompous sterling ball point pens. We desire to engage with and see one another, and in doing so see some of ourself in order that we might grow deeper roots in our relationship with one another and our community. She is a cruel mistress, but it's not just the adrenaline of the stage that turns us theatRE artists on, it's the intimate moments sitting backstage, the inside jokes, the strange faces with stranger histories. It's the late nights and impossible dreams what ever they may be.

Rant closed