Saturday, December 11, 2010

Hanukkah Harried

Phew! Life just seemed to get overwhelming there for a while right after Thanksgiving. Team Timberline went out west to meet up with the 2 stragglers currently travelling with the Rockettes and all spent the holiday together in Salt Lake City. Brief recap: Beautiful city, picturesque snow, bitter cold (my Cleveland-raised bones were delighted!) and general good times getting briefly integrated into the road show circus that Radio City is putting on.

There are all sorts of intriguing aspects of the big touring experience that I could expound on but Holly’s doing that (very sporadically) on her blog so I won’t delve into it here. I will say that one of the best nights I spent there was playing Texas Hold ‘em with several members of the company, including both the actor that plays Santa Claus and the “back-up Santa” in the cast. If you think they could access any of that “Sees you when you’re sleeping” magic to help their poker game, well, not so much: Santa was the first one knocked out of the game.

Anyway since then, for me it’s been keeping up with the year-end crunch at work, grading papers and exams at school, and trying to put on some semblance of a Hanukkah celebration over the past week for my family. It’s been quite a whirlwind and therefore it’s been a long time since blogging has bubbled up to the top of my priority list.

But last week I had a few reviews in Style (links at the bottom of this post), specifically reviews of the two Christmas oriented musicals in town, and that seems worthy of some commentary. I’ve had several conversations about both of these shows since they opened and I’ve also read with great interest the review of “White Christmas” and Emily Cole’s spirited rebuttal (it's so nice to see that someone out there is still blogging...).

Now, I don’t want to get into rebutting a rebuttal or anything; everyone is entitled to their opinion and, as far as I'm concerned, encouraged to express it. But I guess I will say that I understand where the reviewer, Ms. Jewitt, was coming from in terms of her review. Both “White Christmas” and “Wondrettes” are great shows in their own way: fun and entertaining and each using the medium of live theater to bring something special to Richmond-area audiences. I wouldn’t want to lessen the importance of that. But still…

This may just be where I’m coming from but one of the things I like most about theater – about any art form, really – is its ability to capture something that’s real, possibly even universal, and convey that to an audience. That’s why, of all of the shows I’ve been to over the past month, the staged reading of “Phoenix” was my favorite. It was a two-hander, just two people talking, but it was also intelligent and funny and complicated and thought-provoking. And even though the production was just two actors obviously reading, my emotions got tweaked, I cared about the characters and I was thoroughly engrossed. These may not have been ‘real’ people, so to speak, but the tension and attraction and aggravation and everything that passed between them on stage felt real.

As much as I enjoyed “White Christmas,” the dye was cast as soon as the two leading men meet the two leading women. You know who is going to end up together and that takes most of the tension out of it. The central complication involving misunderstanding based on an overheard phone call feels really old and tired to me. Relationships don’t work that way. Or when they do, they aren’t real relationships. Even in a big-fun, razzle-dazzle musical one character can ask another character an actual question in order to clarify their relationship rather than throwing it away based on hearsay. And if the relationships don’t feel real, I simply don’t care as much about the story. And if I don’t care about the story, then I may still be entertained, but the show is not going to have an emotional impact. And it’s that emotional impact that keeps me remembering certain shows days, weeks, or months after the curtain has come down.

With “Wonderettes,” my review hints at a little bit of annoyance that a show set in 1968 has characters in it who mostly act like it’s still the 1950s. I watched a snippet of “Hairspray” the other day, a show set in 1962, that has that great song “Welcome to the 60s.” Even in middle America (or for Hairspray, Baltimore), there was change going on during those years. Significant, fundamental change. But “Wonderettes” is set in some world apart from that, a major reason that it didn’t feel real to me. And while there were some definite heart-tugging moments, I’m also a little tired of characters working out major life issues in front of an audience during a 90 minute performance. I know this has become a staple of many musicals – particularly the juke-box kind – and that it has been done pretty effectively at times. But usually it doesn’t feel even remotely real to me. So while I enjoyed the hell out of the songs during “Wonderettes” and I left the theater smiling, I really couldn’t have cared less about the characters. So it will not be a show that I remember next month or next year.

I guess some people might call me a Grinch for this kind of attitude. “Why can’t people just go to the theater and be entertained and have that be enough?” you might say. And I can understand that attitude, too. There are plenty of times that I’m not looking for much more than a fun two hours when I enter the theater (usually it’s a movie theater in that case but still…) And certainly, the holidays are a time when people are looking for a good time, something celebratory, spectacular and maybe even a little cheesy. But personally, I’m also looking for something that affirms something deeper, that reminds me of the connection between people – the real and powerful and personal connection between people. A show doesn’t have to go to the heart of darkness (or in search of Private Ryan) to evoke that. But there is a reason that “A Christmas Carol” is such a perennial holiday fave. Scrooge has to go to a dark place before he is reminded of and embraces his humanity. I don’t think looking for – hoping for and in some ways, expecting – that kind of depth and a modicum of that kind of transformation in a holiday show makes someone Grinch-like.

People are bolstered and enlightened by all sorts of things and there are certainly hundreds, maybe even thousands, of people who got great big doses of cheer, warmth and inspiration from this year’s Christmas musicals. But for me I’m finding it kind of ironic that, in this season full of evocation of things snowy and sleigh-bound, the blazingly sunny streets of “Phoenix” – not even minimally crafted, just wholly imagined on a blank stage – will persist in my memory as the clearest example of the spirit of the holidays.

Here are some links to all sorts of reviews (I heard Mr. Porter’s take on “The Winter’s Tale” on the radio but he hasn’t posted it on his site. When he does, I’ll post a link).

Christmas Carol for 2 Actors in the T-D

The Winter’s Tale in the T-D

White Christmas in Style

Winter Wondrettes in Style

The Velveteen Rabbit in Style

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Just have time for links

Lots of news and reviews out there.

In honor of the first night of Hanukkah: there was a story last week on the theater schedule at the JCC.

More recently there have been reviews of:

Style also ran previews of:

If you've been following -- or are vaguely interested -- in the tales and travails of the Broadway production of "Turn Off the Dark," there are stories on: