Monday, March 14, 2011

Last Weekends

I’m mostly trafficking in old news today, playing catch up after several days being fairly staggered throughout the weekend by events in Japan. But the T-D review of “A Thousand Clowns” came out this weekend and Mr. Porter posted a review of “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot,” so there are plenty of other theater opinions to read out there.

For a myriad of reasons, I’ve seen several recent productions on their final weekend of performances. It has me pondering the tradition of critics going to a show’s opening night. There’s no denying the excitement and energy of opening night. But I’ve also seen productions gel as they go along, getting more relaxed and/or natural and/or fun from week to week (that was my impression of “BFG”). Of course, others get a little too loose as a run proceeds past its third or fourth week (I wondered if the “Jitney” cast was feeling a little fatigue going into their sixth week of performances this past weekend).

If a critics is supposed to give a sense of what the average patron will see, maybe the first Sunday matinee would be the best performance to see. Or maybe, since part of the joy of live theater is that every performance is a little different, it doesn’t really matter what show a critic sees?

Anyway, lest anyone think my question about “Jitney” is meant as a slight, it certainly is not. The production I saw at Sycamore Rouge last Friday was top-notch, great performances all around, and an entertaining night of theater. Toney Cobb is always solid, and his portrayal of Becker was spot-on, a real lived-in characterization of a proud man facing some hard life challenges. J. Ron Fleming was a hoot as Fielding and Delvin Young did amazing things with the smallish but pivotal part of Booster. I always love to see young talent like Justin Delaney (who was Youngblood) emerge. I only vaguely remember him from “Charcoal Street” and “Black Nativity” but he made a real impression with “Jitney.”

But my real favorite of the production was Ray Taalib-Deen and not just because his customer-service-pleasant refrain of “Car Service” always got a laugh. Turnbo is a character who somehow means well, even though his meddling in everyone’s business is the main source of dramatic tension during the play. Taalib-Deen’s soft voice lent a “gentle giant” vibe to the character and was a great asset when risen in outrage against Youngblood.

The show was a long one and there was a few spots that dragged. But in general Derome Scott Smith did an exceptional job of pacing the drama to balance the alternating ensemble scenes with the more syllologuy-like scenes. It’s definitely the best work I’ve seen from AART.

At this point, “Once on this Island” seems like really old news having closed two weekends ago, but my experience at the closing night performance was the best time I’ve had at a musical so far this year. Even with its tragic elements, it is such an exuberant show and, like the best of musicals, leaves you with several strong melodies that echo in your mind for weeks (“Waiting for Life” is playing in my head even as I write this).

There are numerous aspects of the Mill’s production that deserve recognition. Most all of the acting and singing was very strong, with particular kudos to Kris Roberts as TiMoune and Durron Tyre as Daniel. Both the lighting by Joe Doran and Leslie Owens-Harrington’s choreography were exceptional and director Tom Width brought it all together with flare. But the real, perhaps unappreciated star of this production was musical director Paul Deiss who led a rock-solid orchestra in keeping that lively, infectious Caribbean-tinged music flowing throughout the show. If there was a moment without music or sound of some sort I don’t remember it, so infused with melody is my memory of the show.

For those who are still following the ongoing saga of “Spider-man” on Broadway, there’s an interesting perspective offered by one journalist in Newsweek this week in response to Julie Taymor’s dismissal and the push of an official opening to the summer. I don’t know the show’s score but if it’s the antithesis of something like “Once on this Island” – that is, free of memorable melodies and engaging songs – then placing at a hearty chunk of blame for this massive fail in the laps of Bono and the Edge certainly seems warranted.

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