Capital Rep makes a plucky attempt to pare down a big musical

THEATER REVIEW

My Fair Lady
By Alan J. Lerner and Frederick Loewe, at Capital Repertory Theater, Albany

“Ah-ah-ah-ow-ow-ow-oo!” mocks phoneticist Henry Higgins. He is making it clear why uttering the English language can nail you to your social class faster than head lice or a Rolls Royce.
   If you listen to many American women of the television classes (pitching voices high and whining through their noses in what novelist/pundit Mark Helprin  calls “North American chipmunk”), you may sympathize with Higgins. Where are the language snobs when you really need one?
   Most people are familiar with the path of Lerner & Loewe’s “fair lady” from filthy wretch to filthy rich by way of lovely spoken English. Seldom have class distinctions been so thoroughly defended and so thoroughly skewered as in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, the play from which the musical is filched.  (Shaw did and undid both classes so well that you may even detect a touch of snob in the old socialist.)
   The scenes in My Fair Lady  that are directly lifted from Pygmalion are at the core of the musical’s appeal. It is My Fair George and My Fair Alan J, the word-people, who shine. The score is ordinary. (Oops! Sorry. Big minority opinion there.)
  Capital Rep’s Allison Spratt belongs with some of the best of all the Eliza Doolittles. Her look is perfect. She has exuberant freedom and a physical ease that can only come from discipline and right connection to the script. Savvy direction from Maggie Mancinelli-Cahill probably doesn’t hurt, either. Vocally, Spratt knocks a riveting high C out on to Pearl Street; however, the scrapiness in “Just You Wait” does not serve Eliza’s rage, “Show Me” could be more “sung,” and Spratt’s vibrato is spotty.
  Fred Rose as Henry Higgins makes more of Henry’s bratty boorishness than the show’s creators may have intended.  That, coupled with his high-pitched  speaking voice, robs the character of some of his believability as an advocate of beautiful speaking and educated, upper-class worldly wisdom. He is attractive enough physically, but there needs to be enough character-attractiveness to make us accept the wobbly Shaw/Lerner ending. Much could be said about that ending, for which there is no room here, but why does Eliza return to him?  There is little in her behavior that suggests masochism.  
  Rose is especially effective in a rousing “Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man,” enhanced by brilliant in-the-door-out-the-door staging.  (It would be fun to see Fred Rose in Wilde, Feydeau, or Frayn.)
  Except for setting an occasional “face,” and gluing it determinedly front, Larry Daggett is a spectacular Colonel Pickering, squeezing lots of charm, liveliness, and humor out of a role that often emerges as merely an upper-class British stereotype. In addition, he plays a mean on-stage piano, joins the ensemble for quartet duty, and moves around as if he is on good terms  with  dance studios.  Whew!  Underpaid, no doubt.
  Georga Osborne is an especially appealing Mrs. Higgins, the warm, reasonable, moneyed mother of Higgins. She suggests an upper class devoutly to be desired, though probably non-existent.  David Beditz is a delightful Alfred Doolittle, and Emily Mikesell as Mrs. Pearce can make you long for a calm, intelligent, long-suffering housekeeper. Except for ensemble member Ian Lowe, dancing suffers in this production.
   Thank goodness for Michael Hicks’ Freddie!  As my theater companion said, “‘On the Street Where You Live’ usually lands with a thud!” This Freddie  flies about the street with big-voiced gusto and silly, beaming devotion. He’s a treat.
  However, Hicks’ musical direction leaves a ragged cockney quartet and some occasionally questionable piano-playing by cast members. His overture and entr’acte experiment involves singers standing in for orchestra parts. With the two pianos, they “bum-bum” their way through a kind of vocal orchestration. It seems like a good idea; but it doesn’t quite work, especially when they “bum-bum” some inner harmonies to the foreground.  The two pianos alone are mostly satisfactory in the rest of the show.
  Which brings us to the piano-positioning—up-center in a space-eating, raised half circle—and to the decision to  have actors double as musicians. Placing pianos center stage allows the performers to glide out of their characters, on to a piano bench and back with minimal delay.  Actors doing their own accompaniment is a gimmick made popular by John Doyle in England and used fairly successfully in Broadway revivals of Company and Sweeney Todd. We’ve become accustomed to actors (in addition to saying lines, singing, and dancing) having to push furniture and sets around in the absence of stagehands. Now they have to be the orchestra, as well!  (Which union can cover all this?)  The device minimizes personnel and can sometimes pass as “innovation,” but, in the case of My Fair Lady, it serves the bottom line without serving the musical. This lady needs the whole stage. Many scenes are damaged by lack of performing space. The thrill of Eliza’s famous entrance in her white dress, for example, is totally lost as she squeezes on to the piano platform.
  Big, old-fashioned musicals need specialists: In addition to leading players with star qualities who can sing and act, big musicals need trained  singers who perform in ensemble with no ragged rhythms and no wrong notes. They need very experienced musical directors and  choreographers and trained dancers and instrumentalists whose life’s work it is to play instruments. Specialists. Given enough time, Cap Rep people could exploit their primary gifts and still bring their secondary skills up to standard, but in professional theater, time is money. Specialists are required because they are fast.
  For all the compromises that a small theater company must make to produce a traditional musical, one may wonder why they bother. In the available time, it simply asks too much of each individual.  (Probably they do it of necessity—because audiences often prefer spending  theater dollars on a compromised musical rather than a well-done drama.)
Even though this show needs specialists and more stage space in which to waltz, march and rant, the production has things worthy of your attention. See it for some excellent acting and directing, its new way of looking at certain characters, and for its plucky attempt to pare down a big musical and still preserve its essence. See it once again for My Fair Lady’s iconic status in the history of musical theater, and for its important role in the genre’s effort to grow up.
  The show runs through December 20. Tickets are available at (518) 445-SHOW or www.capitalrep.org.

Eyeball magnet illuminates Wtd production

 I Take Your Hand In Mine
A play suggested by the love letters of Anton Chekhov and Olga Knipper
by Carol Rocamora
 
Directed by Benedicta Bertau
at Space 360, Hudson, NY

The radiant face of Bethany Caputo is an eyeball magnet; it sucks all eyeballs to itself. The face has beauty, but the important quality is its ability to take instantaneous cues from her imaginative brain. It allows the character of Olga Knipper, actress, lover, and wife of Anton Chekhov, to roll out with amazing vividness.
     Caputo is so accomplished that it is probably ungrateful to notice that her inner ingénue sneaks through just often enough to make one question that she could play Arkadina in The Sea Gull  or Masha in The Three Sisters, an appropriateness that Olga’s life and this script demand. It is also probably ungrateful to notice an irritating nasality that creeps into her voice at certain decibels and the few extra pounds that may keep her from being cast in roles she is otherwise right for. But what an actress! I, for one, remain largely grateful.
     For many minutes of this play we are watching Chekhov in his consumptive years, so if a person knew nothing of the playwright’s life, s/he wouldn’t suspect the large amount of quality writing that he packed into his few decades on this earth. We are mostly treated to the playwright’s affection for Olga–his almost uxorious attachment to her, and David Anderson delivers it with humor and warmth. Chekhov’s pet names for her that pour out of the letters could be condescending, but not on Anderson’s tongue.  (The “pet” in pet names is not metaphorical. A number of them are extravagantly borrowed from animal species!)
    It is fun to be told or reminded that Chekhov was often at odds with Stanislavski, his director at the Moscow Art Theater, and that the playwright insisted that The Cherry Orchard  is a comedy. But I Take Your Hand In Mine  is not about literature or theater; it’s about a loving relationship enjoyed by two extraordinary individuals. In the main, it is Olga’s story.
   The set by Katie Jean Wall (red walls with a few velvety, dark-patterned strips, and minimal furniture) takes us quickly to the period. Deena Pewtherer’s lighting transforms the 360 space and subtly underlines the feel of each letter. Transitional music by Jonathan Talbott might appear more frequently, but, as usual, it demonstrates his sensitive ear for the drama.
   Even though I Take Your Hand In Mine could be pruned in some spots, we are surprisingly happy to sit watching the same two people in a single setting for a full hour and a half. The play is well-constructed, and where the language of the letters leaves off and Rocamora’s begins, it is smooth. Director Benedicta Bertau has brought the whole to stage in the typical Walking-the-dog manner. In other words, in a sort of poetic shorthand. A little standing for a lot. Because the lovers are often many miles apart, she divides the stage and allows them to speak to each other facing straight front, vividly “seeing.” This has the effect of making us cherish the times when they address each other directly or touch. The moment in which Olga teasingly pulls Chekhov’s beard says more about their intimacy than an athletic sex scene; the moment in which they grasp arms and take one long unison step toward the audience says all about their decision to marry; and the moments in which he directs her acting and she responds with intuitive accuracy are all a telling shorthand. Walking the dog Theater, particularly when either Bertau or Anderson is directing, makes art of it.
   The show runs through November 29, with two shows on Saturday, November 28. Call 1-800-838-3006 for tickets or visit wtdtheater.org.

At 9 she dances a timeless role

TAGHKANIC–More than any other ballet, Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, a 19th century tale of Christmas fantasy and intrigue, seems to capture the hearts of ballet’s youngest dancers. These children, mostly female, begin to study the art form at an early age after becoming captivated by the Nutcracker’s magic, and for a lucky few who rise to star in local productions, it’s a dream come true.

Nine year old Grace Howard of Churchtown saw her first ballet performance at the age of three at SPAC, the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, and lobbied her parents for ballet lessons until they consented. This Saturday, November 21, she will dance the in the starring role of Clara in the Albany Berkshire Ballet’s production of the Nutcracker in the 1 p.m. performance at Taconic Hills School in Craryville. A girl from Albany will perform the role at 4 p.m.

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Playhouse showcases over-30 actresses in Belles

Belles; a play in two acts or 45 phone calls
by Mark Dunn
at the Ghent Playhouse,
Ghent.
 
Belles is likely to supply lifetime income for playwright Mark Dunn as long as community theaters must search for plays that offer juicy monologues to their best over-30 actresses. There are some good ones in this production—monologues and actresses.
   However, this story involving six sisters sharing by telephone their frequent woes and occasional wins has a familiar, old aroma about it, rather like the pictures on one of their walls. (Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan and two pen-sketched children who appear to be opening their pants to inspect their own genitals.)
   This play is too young to be a period piece and too old for sharp, contemporary realities. In other words, dated—in spite of the fact that narratives involving siblings damaged by damaged parents will not go out of style entirely until parents stop damaging children, which is never.
   Each sister has chosen/succumbed to a radically different maladjustment.  We have the dutiful stay-home-to-care-for-mama sister, Peggy, played with convincing simplicity by Sally Dodge; and Paige, a college student with dating issues, played unconvincingly by Leanne Wilensky; and the handsome, loner, alcoholic Aneece (who unfortunately must deliver her touching emotional breakdown to a photograph), well-played by Jackie DeGiorgis; and the round, sweet-faced Eileen Johnson as Audrey, who is extremely distressed by the loss of “her boy,” a wooden puppet! Denise Rubio offers a delightfully outrageous, promiscuous, Sherry/Dust, a not-so-free spirit. (Her frequent name changes have lately turned to “Dust.” Maybe because she so frequently gets swept away.) The most nuanced character is Cathy Lee-Visscher’s Roseanne, a minister’s wife whose husband has flown the sanctuary as well as the coop. (It is a pleasure to watch Lee-Visscher over the years bringing more and more understanding and imagination to each new role.)
   The emotional malfunctions of these sisters are so deliberately contrasting that they verge on cartoon. It is a difficulty inherent in the play, though director Nancy Wilder has done what she can with it. Wilder must keep every actress attached to her phone and thus in one area of the stage; but she has given them all such a variety of physicalities (sitting, stretching, lying, lounging, dancing, sitting on the floor, with both movement and stillness) that the piece always seems fluid and alive. For example, Lee-Visscher/Roseanne is standing–just standing serenely in her kitchen, having matured before our eyes; and it tells all about the life-place she has reached.
   Tom Detwiler’s sets are nearly always marvels of realistic good taste, even beauty. This time he was required to create six separate spaces, one for each sister, and though the levels and side-stage spaces work well, they feel a bit overstuffed.
   If, early in the play, the transition music and regional accents make you wish to see Texas returned with apologies to Mexico, be patient. Later sounds become more northerly.
   Is it a coincidence that one sister intones “Adieu…to yieu!” just as Judy Holliday intoned it many years ago in Bells Are Ringing?
Belles plays Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays through October 25. Web site: www.ghentplayhouse.org; Telephone (518) 392-6264.

Play by Play Crossroads is a terrific evening

Play by Play Crossroads

Stageworks

Hudson

 

 

It won’t rescue your soul, change the course of your life, or awaken your sleeping genius, but Play by Play Crossroads at Stageworks is a terrific evening of intelligent, lively theater.

The poverty of regional theater companies is often obvious in their productions; but here everything seems scrubbed down to what is truly expressive for clarity and art’s sake rather than for budget’s sake.

Each of the seven mini-plays is introduced with a lovely, spare image on a huge screen at the back of the stage. Besides being visually delightful, the screen is a fast, useful shorthand for “where,” and it leaves a nice actor-centered stage.

 “Spare” is one of the many virtues of this production, thanks to directors Abby Lee and Laura Margolis and their actors and designers. The space is clean, the lines cleanly delivered (if occasionally pointedly besmirched in content), the shape of actors’ movements is etched cleanly. Did I say that nothing is extraneous?

The plays follow a pattern of leaking out significant information in satisfying sequences that usually build toward a final smack in the style of O. Henry or theater-song buttons.  The subjects range from Peter I. Tchaikovsky’s coming suicide (he faces disgrace due to his predilection for sex with young boys) to marketing discussions about a virus invention that can be implanted in brains–in order to tune in to other people’s experiences. (Ooo, sex with movie stars!) The sexual foursome in Swing Factor may make your stomach queasy at the start, but you are soon sucked in (sorry!) by author Rich Orloff, who gathers you to his bosom with snappy dialogue and hilarious humanity. The delicious tantrums delivered by Ryan R. Katzer and Angela Rauscher are a particular joy.

Sometimes at Stageworks one may feel lobbied by apologists for tired 1960s sexual mores; but fortunately the plays almost always offer good writing and good acting. (You are unlikely ever to see a bad actor at Stageworks. Margolis knows actors.)

It is icky, during Sweethearts (by Rebekah Lopata,) when a middle-aged woman announces that she really wanted to become a lawyer. That she gave up everything for her son, who has had the bad taste to commit suicide. But good actors can rescue a spate of unfortunate dialogue, and dialogue spoken by Linda Roper and Richard Vernon is in good hands. (Good throats? Good brains?)

Watching Roper morph from an attractive, upscale lady in Sweethearts, to the shuffling, mordant-tongued crone in William Borden’s Gunning for Life is by itself worth the price of admission to Play by Play. At her husband’s approaching death, she fires shots of black rancor and black, “what-should-we-do-cry-in-our-beer?” humor.Yet, at the end, morphine appears to counter the bravado.

This Is What I Wanted could be even shorter without damage to its impact and its charm, but it is fun to watch Angela Rauscher (of the shapely legs and  Betty Grable poses) tell us and her soldier boy friend what lives she does not want. What she does not want flashes in efficient (clean) shorthand on the screen.

The soldier desperately longs for connection. At the end of this play, the eyes of the two characters meet for the first time along with the guns of war—a possible cure for home-front narcissism.

Costumes by Adrienne Westmore are excellent throughout, but, for the red polka dot sundress Rauscher wears in This Is What I Wanted, Westmore deserves a raise!

Like everything else in this production, the sound is rich, crisp and yes, clean.

All in all, Play by Play Crossroads has got to be the best night out in the county. With a nod to the recession, Stageworks is now offering super-duper admission prices, so buy a ticket and be prepared to get much more than you deserve. There are performances through October 11 at Stageworks in Hudson, after which it transfers to Proctors Theater in Schenectady.