Tuesday, April 16, 2019

THEATER: QUESTIONING "SOCRATES"

SOCRATES ** out of ****
PUBLIC THEATER

I felt nervous at the start of the new play by actor Tim Blake Nelson. Not because it's a three hour drama about the philosopher  Socrates. Heck, plays tackling big ideas -- plays like Arcadia and Copenhagen and New Jerusalem and Isaac's Eye -- are my idea of a feast. I wasn't nervous  even though, for some reason, the outfits of ancient Greece and Rome distract me as "costumes" in ways that clothes from other eras simply don't.

No, I was nervous because after an awkward and unnecessary framing device, the play begins with a raucous party. Everyone is laughing uproariously and quite drunk and you desperately want to catch up and share their mirth. But it just isn't happening, even as Socrates is lovingly roasted at length by the handsomest and most popular figure in all of Athens. Pair that with Plato's bland assurance that we're about to visit "a world more full of wit, passion and above all ideas than anything you ever imagined possible" and your heart sinks.

That framing device is a hoary one. The great Socrates (Michael Stuhlbarg) has been executed for corrupting the youth of Athens and more to the point offending its high and mighty. Nonetheless, a Boy (Niall Cunningham) has shown up on the doorstep of Plato (Teagle F. Bougere) and in a rather sullen mood demands to be educated. Plato tells the Boy what everyone wants to know. How could this happen? How could the greatest mind of his age be murdered by the proudest democracy in the world, a society that values the free exchange of ideas? And how could the friends of Socrates -- Plato very much among them -- allow it to happen? 

What follows is precisely what one would expect. In this static and un-involving drama, Socrates wanders the city of Athens, probing and asking questions of one and all. He has a devoted band of followers like the quiet and observant Plato, along with an entourage of young men who love learning how to question authority...and thus drive their parents nuts. Socrates begins gently and playfully, but most arguments end with him piercing the intellectual armor of one and all.

That's fine when dealing with friends eager to debate weighty ideas. It's not so fine when Socrates mocks a well-connected poet or questions the very pillars of democracy in a way that the powerful see as traitorous. Socrates makes so many enemies -- notably by opposing the wholesale execution of military generals who failed in combat -- that he himself goes on trial. The charges are voluminous and contradictory. Socrates is condemned both for atheism and for worshipping false gods, for example. Yet, his self-absorbed code of ethics is so stringent that Socrates is unwilling to save himself or simply leave. Death seems inevitable.



Well, of course death is inevitable since -- spoiler alert! -- Socrates drinks the hemlock and dies. That knowledge is no barrier to a good play. But Tim Blake Nelson hasn't begun to dramatize the action. Director Doug Hughes and the fine cast do their best, led nobly by the always intelligent Stuhlbarg, but it never comes close to catching fire.

The biggest problem is that Socrates has no one to challenge him, emotionally or intellectually. His enemies are cardboard villains spitting out their hatred or so vain they don't even realize they're fools. One never doubts for a second his rightness. On the other hand, Socrates clearly allows himself to be executed. A better play might have taken him to task for possible vanity, for wanting a death to raise him to martyrdom. It's not ethics that doom this Socrates; it's ego.

Plato is the most devoted of disciples, but it's a silent form of worship, leaving a black hole of emotion where our narrator should be. And he's talking to a cipher when it comes to his pupil. At one point Plato says the Boy reminds him of Socrates. Really? That character has said virtually nothing, so how in god's name could the kid remind him of the greatest philosopher alive? Worse, the Boy responds that he thought the same thing.

In an attempt to create some drama at the last moment, when execution looms the wife and a son of Socrates show up. They beg him to leave Athens and save his life. Their sense of abandonment might actually matter if they were characters throughout the play, rather than popping in at the end. (The wife also appears earlier for a brief scene.) How can we be upset about the son feeling his father doesn't love him when their goodbye is the first time we see the lad?

Bougere has a thankless role in Plato, but Robert Joy has the livelier, more human part of Crito. The rest fade into the background or have one-note parts they can do little with. That leaves Stuhlbarg, who brings his formidable talent to the part of Socrates and does what he can. While the story is inert emotionally, Stuhlbarg provides the necessary intellect and wit to this shambling questioner. Still, one feels him pushing for drama that simply isn't there when a handful of debates end with Socrates suddenly barking in rage.

Yet one scene works very well indeed. Socrates questions everyone and one day that practice takes him to a smithy who makes armor and weapons. Socrates peers intently as the man works a forge, asking questions. This leads to the idea of war and whether "right" wins or whether the victor simply decides they were right. The smithy (a good Lee Wilkof)  is a bit out of his element and doesn't like it one bit. Is Socrates questioning the greatness of Athens, the shining light of democracy?

His rising temper doesn't deter Socrates, who probes and prods the man some more. Then the man says his own son died in battle. Even that can't stop Socrates. "But does that mean the Assembly is always right? Including sending your only son into battle? And am I right to take it therefore that it was right and just and good that your son was killed?" The man knocks Socrates down and starts beating him savagely and if Socrates felt  he deserved  it, we wouldn't be surprised. 

For a  moment, we see a man in search of truth, a man who will question anything and everything and put himself into grave danger, fully aware of what he's doing, choosing to do it and yet perhaps also  incapable of not choosing to do it. For a moment, Socrates and Socrates both come alive.


THEATER OF 2019

Frankenstein: Under The Radar Fest at the Public ** 1/2
Minor Character: Under The Radar Festival at the Public ***
Ink: Under The Radar  Festival at the Public  ** 1/2
Choir Boy ** 1/2
White Noise ** 1/2
Kiss Me, Kate ***
Ain't No Mo' *** 1/2
Ain't Too Proud **
The Cradle Will Rock * 1/2
Mrs. Murray's Menagerie *** 1/2
Oklahoma! (on Broadway) ** 1/2
Socrates **

Thanks for reading. Michael Giltz is the creator of BookFilter, a book lover’s best friend. It’s a website that lets you browse for books online the way you do in a physical bookstore, provides comprehensive info on new releases every week in every category and offers passionate personal recommendations every step of the way. He’s also the cohost of Showbiz Sandbox, a weekly pop culture podcast that reveals the industry take on entertainment news of the day with top journalists and opinion makers as guests. It’s available for free on iTunes. Visit Michael Giltz at his website. Download his podcast of celebrity interviews and his radio show, also called Popsurfing and also available for free on iTunes.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

The Movies, Books, Theater, Concerts, CDs I've Seen/Read/Heard So Far In 2019

Updated APRIL 12, 2019

KEY: star rating is on the four star scale
          meaning of "/" or "\"
          *** is three stars out of four
          ***/ is three stars leaning towards  3 1/2
          ***\ is three stars leaning towards 2 1/2


BOOKS BOOKS BOOKS BOOKS BOOKS BOOKS BOOKS BOOKS BOOKS BOOKS BOOKS BOOKS BOOKS BOOKS BOOKS BOOKS BOOKS BOOKS BOOKS BOOKS
(Increasingly, I am sampling books, reading 10%, 20% even 40 or 50% before deciding to move on. The books below are only the ones I've read completely. That also explains what looks like generous grading -- more and more, if I sense a book is not going to be among my favorites, I stop reading. Too many books; too little time!)


1. Love To Everyone by Hilary McKay (ya WW II) *** 1/2
2. The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie (1926) *** 1/2
3. The Winter Of The Witch by Katherine Arden *** 1/2
4. The Music Of What Happens by Bill Konigsberg **
5. DogMan: Brawl of the Wild by Dav Pilkey ** 1/2
6. Cane by Jean Toomer (1923) ** 1/2
7. Underground: A Human History Of The World Beneath Our Feet by Will Hunt *** /
8. Unknown Man #89 by Elmore Leonard (1977) *** 1/2
9. The Falconer by Dana Czapnik (NYC coming of age basketballer) *** 1/2
10. Midnight In Chernobyl by Adam Higginbotham *** 1/2
11. The Hot Kid by Elmore Leonard (2005) ****
12. Pogo: Bona Fide Balderdash -- The Complete Syndicated Comic Strips Vol 2 1951-1952 by Walt Kelly ****
13. Pogo: Evidence To The Contrary -- The Complete Syndicated Comic Strips Vol 3 1953-1954 by Walt Kelly ****
14. The Complete Terry and the Pirates (1937-1938) by Milt Caniff *** 1/2
15. The Swish of the Curtain by Pamela Brown (1941) *** 1/2
16. The Last Samurai by  Helen De Witt (2000) ****
17. There Is No Planet B: A Handbook For The Make Or Break Years by Mike Berners-Lee **
18. Cherokee America by Margaret Verble *** 1/2
19. A Taste For Honey by H.F. Heard (1941) ** 1/2
20. Mama's Last Hug: Animal Emotions And What They Tell Us About Ourselves by Frans De Waal ***
21. The New Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan **
22. The Players Ball by David Kushner ***
23. What Blest Genius: The Jubilee That Made Shakespeare by Andrew McConnell Stott ***
24. The Binding By Bridget Collins ** 1/2
25. Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens (1865) *** 1/2
26. Falter by Bill McKibben ** 1/2
27.





CDS CDS CDS CDS CDS CDS CDS CDS CDS CDS CDS CDS CDS CDS CDS CDS CDS CDS CDS CDS CDS CDS CDS CDS CDS CDS CDS CDS CDS CDS CDS CDS CDS CDS CDS CDS (A strong emphasis on the ones I like, so don't think I love everything I listen to -- I just don't bother really listening to the ones I don't )

1. The Beach Boys -- Smiley Smile (1967) *** (esp side two)
2. The Beach Boys -- Wild Honey (1967) **
3. The Beach Boys -- Friends (1968) ***/
4. The Band -- Stage Fright (1970) ** 1/2
5. The English Beat -- Public Confidential ***
6. The Band -- Cahoots (1971) *** 1/2
7. The Band -- Northern Lights Southern Cross (1975) ***
8. Van Morrison -- The Prophet Speaks *** \
9. Dee White -- Southern Gentleman **
10. Ken Nordine -- Speak With Your Ears (1979) *** 1/2
11. David Gray -- Gold In A Brass Age ** 1/2
12. Van Morrison -- The Healing Game (1997) ***/
13. Various Artists -- Joni 75: A Celebration ** 1/2 /
14. Maren Morris -- Girls ***
15. Elton John -- Captain Fantastic and the Dirt Brown Cowboy (1975) **
16. Joe Jackson -- Fool *** /
17. Trevor Horn -- Reimagines The 80s **
18. India Arie -- Worthy ** 1/2
19. The Everly Brothers -- Roots (1968) ***
20. John Pizzarelli -- For Centennial Reasons: A Salute To Nat King Cole ** 1/2
21. Julio Gutierrez -- Cuban Jam Session Vol 1 (1956) *** 1/2
22. Lone Justice -- This Is Lone Justice: The Vaughn Tapes 1983 ***
23. Nancy Wilson -- Nancy Wilson/Cannonball Adderley (1962) *** 1/2 /
24. Nancy Wilson -- Something Wonderful (1962) *** 1/2
25. Nancy Wilson -- Tender Loving Care (1966) ***\
26. Ella Fitzgerald -- The Complete Decca Singles Vol. 1 *** \
27. Nancy Wilson -- The Swingin's Mutual w George Shearing (1961) ***
28. Antonio Carlos and Jocafi -- 20 Super Succesos ** 1/2
29. Idles -- Joy As An Act Of Resistance (2018) **
30. Mercury Rev -- Bobbie Gentry's The Delta Sweete Revisited ** 1/2
31. Bobby Long -- Sultans **
32. Ramsey Lewis Trio -- Sound Of Christmas (side one solid, side two w strings awful) 1961 **
33. Hozier -- Wasteland, Baby! **
34. Better Oblivion Community Center -- Better Oblivion Community Center (Conor Oberst and Phoebe Bridgers) ***\
35. Chet Baker and Art Pepper -- Playboys aka Pictures of Heath (1956) ***
36. Gilbert O'Sullivan -- Himself (1971) ** 1/2
37. Gilbert O'Sullivan -- Back To Front (1972) ** 1/2
38. Solange -- When I Get Home *** 1/2
39.



MOVIES TV MOVIES TV MOVIES TV MOVIES TV MOVIES TV MOVIES TV MOVIES TV MOVIES TV MOVIES TV MOVIES TV MOVIES TV MOVIES TV MOVIES TV MOVIES TV MOVIES TV MOVIES TV MOVIES TV MOVIES 

(Not TV movies, of course, but movies and TV -- and TV movies if it comes to that. Mostly I only list TV shows when I've tackled an entire season at once or reappraising an entire series after it's over This doesn't really capture my ongoing watching of current TV.)

1. Sweepstakes Winner (1939) no stars
2. Captain Marvel **
3. Giant Little Ones *** (gay swimmers)
4. Leave No Trace (2018) *** 1/2
5. Minding The Gap (2018) *** 1/2
6. Wildlife (2018) *** 1/2
7. Mowgli: Legend Of The Jungle (2018) **\
8. Us (w Luis) **\
9. Border (2018) ***/
10. Sweet Country (2018) *** 1/2
11. The Tale (HBO, 2018) * 1/2
12. Woman's World (at MOMA w Noam) **
13. Running On Empty (1988) ***
14. Shazam (2018) w Zoe * 1/2
15. The Good Fairy (1935 at MOMA w Noam) ***
16. Apollo 11 (doc) ***/



THEATER CONCERTS THEATER CONCERTS THEATER CONCERTS THEATER CONCERTS THEATER CONCERTS THEATER CONCERTS THEATER CONCERTS
(The names after the shows are the people who joined me at the performance.)

1. Frankenstein (at Public) ** 1/2 
2. Minor Character (at Public) ***/ 
3. Ink (at Met) w Noam ** 1/2 
4. Choir Boy (at MTC) ** 1/2 
5. Chambre Noire (at Public) (w Noam) ** 1/2 
6. Weightless (at BRIC) (w Diego) (left early feeling ill, but quite promising)
7. Be More Chill (on Broadway) (w Noam) * 
8. Grease (at UN International School)  w Noam
9. Das Rheingold (at the Met w Noam) ** 1/2 
10.  White Noise (at the Public) ** 1/2 
11. Kiss Me, Kate! (alone) ***
12. Ain't No Mo (at Public w Zoe) *** 1/2 
13. Ain't Too Proud (w Cohen) ** 
14. Die Walkyrie at the Met (w the Machine and Christine Goerke as Brünnhilde, Eva-Maria Westbroek as Sieglinde and Stuart Skelton as Siegmund) *** 1/2 
15. The Cradle Will Rock (at CSC w Noam) * 1/2 
16. Mrs. Murray's Menagerie (at Ars Nova w Noam) *** 1/2 
17. Socrates (at Public w Noam) 
18. Siegfried (Ring Cycle at Met w Noam) 
19. Oklahoma! (at Circle In The Square w Evans) ** 1/2 
20. 


KEY: star rating is on the four star scale
          meaning of "/" or "\"
          *** is three stars out of four
          ***/ is three stars leaning towards  3 1/2
          ***\ is three stars leaning towards 2 1/2

Updated April 12, 2019

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

THEATER: "OKLAHOMA!" IS OK THE SECOND TIME AROUND!

OKLAHOMA! ** 1/2 out of ****
CIRCLE IN THE SQUARE

Few things are as wonderfully indulgent as the chance to go see a new Broadway show...twice! Whether you're comparing casts, looking to deepen your appreciation or giving a show you weren't thrilled with a second chance, returning to a work of theater before it's gone forever (and most theater disappears all too soon, Phantom excepted, of course) is a marvelous luxury.

I saw the dark, daring revival of Oklahoma! at St. Ann's Warehouse last fall and it confounded and confused me. Now I've seen it again on Broadway and pretty much everything I said then holds true now. Since most critics raved, that's a compliment to a show that has moved into a new space but lost none of its edge. Indeed, I think the heady success of that first mounting has allowed everyone involved to breathe a sigh of relief and enjoy themselves a little more. This production will go dark, but it's less afraid now to have fun along the way. My opinion hasn't changed on this take (if anything, it's been cemented) but it's a pleasure to savor the parts that go into director Daniel Fish's vision. Some thoughts:

HELLO TO THE TONY WINNER FOR BEST REVIVAL -- In a rather thin season, only two musical revivals have hit Broadway: Oklahoma! and Kiss Me, Kate! I enjoyed Kate more but there's not a soul on the planet who is excited by it. Everyone has an opinion about Oklahoma! and many of them are passionate in support. It's a riskier project based on a superior show; indeed, few shows are the equal of Oklahoma! much less its superior. Plus, Oklahoma! offers a lot more talent to cheer on in both supporting roles and technical contributions. Passion will always triumph over professionalism so I'll bet Oklahoma! clutches the big prize of Best Musical  Revival. (This assumes they'll keep this category separate from Play Revival and let these two duke it out.)

WHAT A GORGEOUS REIMAGINING OF THE SCORE -- Since we're talking about Tonys, the most deserved one should go to Daniel Kluger for his orchestrations, arrangements and music supervision. The seven member orchestra (along with star Damon Daunno on guitar) has a bluegrass vibe and the orchestrations reveal what a wondrous work the music of Richard Rodgers truly is -- not that we needed reminding. The smaller ensemble would work a treat for community theaters and regional productions around the country, if R&H would allow a classic presentation to include this more intimate approach to the music. The Tony for orchestration hasn't gone to a revival since Sweeney Todd in 2006 but I'll bet Oklahoma! pulls it off.

AND SPEAKING OF TONYS, THEY CAIN'T SAY NO TO ALI STROKER -- Stroker caught my eye in the lovely, 2015 revival of Spring Awakening by Deaf West Theatre. Now she's a ball on fire as the man-loving Ado Annie. By far this show's best element is the love triangle between Ado, her slightly dim but lovable cowpoke Will (James Davis) and the peddler Ali Hakim (Will Brill, picking up right where Mallory Portnoy left off). For all my complaints about the show, what a treat they pull off here. Will becomes more than a joke, the ugly ethnic stereotype that can be Ali is erased entirely and Stroker breaks down barriers because she was the best damn person for the role...and might just deserve a Tony for choreography, given the marvelous way she reveals character just be the way Ado swoops and dips and glides around the stage in her wheelchair. All three should be competing in the supporting actor categories. Here's Stroker and the cast performing her comic highlight "I Cain't Say No" on The Tonight Show.




BLONDE ON BLONDE -- It's not all good news. As is often true at Circle in the Square, there's not a bad seat in the house, though surely the folk seated on stage by the crockpots cooking up some chili had extra fun. This time my seat was right by the ramp where the actors usually entered and exited. It was terrific...but it also gave me a new perspective on the set. The expanse of unvarnished wood melting into a brown backdrop depicting farmland proved especially monotonous. Setting the show in a barn of sorts and serving chili and cornbread during intermission? Perfect! Still, did the overall look of the set have to prove so bland to the eye?

KEEP MESSING WITH IT -- I may not agree with director Daniel Fish's vision here, but I'll defend to the death his right to vision it. As my guest said, mess with it all you want --  Oklahoma! will survive. This production mildly hints at a gay angle by having Curly and Jud talk so close to one another in one scene they seem ready to kiss, yet that idea isn't taken seriously. But why not an Oklahoma! where the tension between the two men arises from attraction? (The nominal love interest Laurey would have all the more reason to be annoyed with both of them.) Or why not the idea I considered at length in my original review: cast Jud as black or Native American and suddenly the outcast nature of that character makes perfect sense.

This is Oklahoma! after allone of the seminal works of musical theater. It deserves to be done in a reverent, classic style; it also deserves to have the darker shadows explored (as they were in the tremendous 1998 West End revival that turned Hugh Jackman into a star); and it deserves to be torn down and reimagined completely as it is here. (And stop saying they didn't change a word of the dialogue, as if staging and action and orchestration and everything else don't matter too. The words may be the same but the action at the climax is dramatically, substantially new.) No matter what you do to it, Oklahoma! will be perfectly OK, so boring old purists can just shush. I can't wait to see the next revival.


THEATER OF 2019

Frankenstein: Under The Radar Fest at the Public ** 1/2
Minor Character: Under The Radar Festival at the Public ***
Ink: Under The Radar  Festival at the Public  ** 1/2
Choir Boy ** 1/2
White Noise ** 1/2
Kiss Me, Kate ***
Ain't No Mo' *** 1/2
Ain't Too Proud **
The Cradle Will Rock * 1/2
Mrs. Murray's Menagerie *** 1/2
Oklahoma (on Broadway) ** 1/2

Thanks for reading. Michael Giltz is the creator of BookFilter, a book lover’s best friend. It’s a website that lets you browse for books online the way you do in a physical bookstore, provides comprehensive info on new releases every week in every category and offers passionate personal recommendations every step of the way. He’s also the cohost of Showbiz Sandbox, a weekly pop culture podcast that reveals the industry take on entertainment news of the day with top journalists and opinion makers as guests. It’s available for free on iTunes. Visit Michael Giltz at his website. Download his podcast of celebrity interviews and his radio show, also called Popsurfing and also available for free on iTunes.

Monday, April 08, 2019

THEATER: LESS IS MORE AT "MRS. MURRAY'S MENAGERIE"

MRS. MURRAY'S MENAGERIE *** 1/2 out of ****
ARS NOVA 

I love the epic. The Inheritance just won the Olivier for Best Play and I can't wait for this six hour AIDS drama to come to New York. I admire the manic. A stream of new shows are as influenced by In Living Color and Monty Python as Oscar Wilde, with Ain't No Mo' at the Public as the latest, thrilling example. But let's hear it for restraint, for not going overboard, for stopping far short of the kitchen sink and being all the more powerful for it.

That's my reaction to the subtle, very funny, absorbing and spot-on new play Mrs. Murray's Menagerie. Directed and acted to quiet perfection, it's a pitch perfect execution of a simple idea. The setting is the 1970s and we watch as six varied adults take part in a test group. They're all parents and all fans of the children's TV show, Mrs. Murray's Menagerie. That beloved series combines live actors with puppets a la Mr. Roger's Neighborhood and after a long run, it's coming to an end.

The adults sit around a table and are led in a discussion of the show they love and two potential spin-offs. Mrs. Murray is played by a black woman and the focus group is notably diverse, featuring three men and three women that amount to a nifty microcosm of society. Race, needless to say, rears its head. So does gender and class and child rearing and a dozen other ideas, all of them embedded in the story so simply and naturally that you never really feel they're being raised at all. They're just...there, as in life.

Created by The Mad Ones and the ensemble with Ars Nova, the show is directed by Lila Neugebauer so invisibly that you half believe the audience is sitting behind a one-way mirror  and watching an actual focus group. Without histrionics, without a big explosion, without tossed-back chairs or collapsing walls, Mrs. Murray's Menagerie creates a tension and believability and empathy far noisier shows will never know.



Photo copyright by Ben Arons

Like writing a play set in a jury or hospital waiting room or stalled elevator, throwing a disparate group of people together to see what happens is a time-proven dramatic device. Nonetheless, watching these particular people debate the finer points of a kid's show and the behavior of various puppets is fascinating. We come to know them without anyone revealing much of anything about themselves.

Typically, I'd go down the cast list and describe the actors and characters. While it seems silly to discuss spoilers in a show where very little happens, much of the pleasure comes from discovering who these people are and making up your own mind about them, rather than me tipping you off that this person is kind of a jerk or that person has low self-esteem. (Mind you, I do have very strong opinions now on Mrs. Murray's Menagerie. Why the heck isn't the spin-off being built around the human librarian everyone loves?) 

Just trust me that this is an ensemble in every sense of the word and each actor is doing exceptional work. Director Neugebauer works with them and a terrific creative team to create one of the most finely tuned productions I've seen in ages. My guest referenced Clybourne Park and I thought of the Bobby Steggert drama Boy -- not because they have so much in common, but simply because they are all shows that succeeded so well on every level.

Of course, we're trained to expect High Drama. Even though I admired the restraint, I instinctively wondered if -- as good as it is -- the plot might have pushed itself just a little bit further, increased the confrontation that little bit more? No, they hit it right. A hand on a knee creates an uncomfortable moment...but not the #MeToo calling out you want, but which you know almost never happens. Answers to questions from the moderator become passive aggressive taunts, but other than a sidelong glance, no one says anything. At the end, the adults go  their own way and each goodbye feels weighted with meaning. One departure is hilarious, another just as jerk-ish as you'd expect, and a few are heartfelt -- the goodbyes of people who sort of made a connection but know they'll never see each other again. Just like life.

This is miles away in tone from Underground Railroad Game, the Ars Nova hit which returns to NYC for about two weeks from May 30-June 15. But just like that success, this will surely be remembered as one of the best plays of the year. 


THEATER OF 2019

Frankenstein: Under The Radar Fest at the Public ** 1/2
Minor Character: Under The Radar Festival at the Public ***
Ink: Under The Radar  Festival at the Public  ** 1/2
Choir Boy ** 1/2
White Noise ** 1/2
Kiss Me, Kate ***
Ain't No Mo' *** 1/2
Ain't Too Proud **
The Cradle Will Rock * 1/2
Mrs. Murray's Menagerie *** 1/2

Thanks for reading. Michael Giltz is the creator of BookFilter, a book lover’s best friend. It’s a website that lets you browse for books online the way you do in a physical bookstore, provides comprehensive info on new releases every week in every category and offers passionate personal recommendations every step of the way. He’s also the cohost of Showbiz Sandbox, a weekly pop culture podcast that reveals the industry take on entertainment news of the day with top journalists and opinion makers as guests. It’s available for free on iTunes. Visit Michael Giltz at his website. Download his podcast of celebrity interviews and his radio show, also called Popsurfing and also available for free on iTunes.

Wednesday, April 03, 2019

THEATER: "THE CRADLE WILL ROCK" PUTS YOU TO SLEEP

THE CRADLE WILL ROCK * 1/2 out of ****
CLASSIC STAGE COMPANY

Our New Gilded Age is surely the perfect time to resurrect Marc Blitzstein's The Cradle Will Rock. But time is not kind to agitprop in general or this pamphlet of a show in particular.  Like me, you may long to be roused, ready to look for the union label, mount the barricades and get fired up over injustice. But a lack of drama, character or story leaves nothing here but long speeches and short sketches. Worse, the fatal lack of melodies for the handful of songs on hand won't even let you walk out humming a catchy tune. Is harmony too bourgeois?

It's a landmark show, of course, whose premiere (directed by Orson Welles!)  proved electrifying for how it was performed (rather than the show itself). That story is so famous it inspired a so-so film about it by Tim Robbins. This "play in music" (a musical ain't serious enough, I guess) was the first in Broadway history to garner an original cast recording. And now I know why -- despite all this laudable backstory-- the show itself is rarely performed.

We begin with a desperate woman on the streets, ready to sell herself for half a buck. But the man Mol solicits says that's too much. What's a human's body worth? Not much more than a human's dignity, apparently. A cop breaks up this sad affair, only to pressure Moll (Lara Pulver, who played the woman from Sherlock) into having sex with him. She refuses, he tosses her into the clink and a passel of local dignitaries are  bundled into jail as well. They're anonymous members of the Liberty Committee, middle-class  toadies who do the bidding of Mr. Mister in "Steeltown, U.S.A." This already sounds like more plot than we're given: everyone is a type, a cardboard cutout  for damning or praising and no one is better at both than Larry Foreman (Tony Yazbeck), the man urging workers to unite  so they can stand up for decent wages and safe working conditions.


Foreground Lara Pulver, Tony Yazbeck
Photo by Joan Marcus

A mock trial ensues, with little vignettes depicting doctors, educators, religious leaders, artists and anyone else you can name  knuckling under to Mr. Mister (David Garrison) out of avarice or fear. That manipulator showers the stage with so much cash, you feel half the show is spent with people on their knees scooping up piles of dough. Frankly, times are so hard and the bills on display so realistic looking, I was half tempted to join them.

Speeches can be entertaining and informative. Not The Cradle Will Rock, which states the obvious in as obvious a fashion as possible and then restates it again for good measure. Director John Doyle does exactly what one would expect -- he directs fluidly and simply, with oil drums stacked up or slapped down to serve as seats, while the cast moves about and enacts their various fables. Seemingly everyone can play the piano located near  the back of the stage, so thank god there are no union rules insisting they can't each pitch in when needed.

The actors are mostly capable and do what they can. Rema Webb garners the only applause of the night for a song, thanks to her strong voice; Garrison's icy exterior matches the icy heart of Mister and Eddie Cooper offers about ten shades of conflicted in each scene he inhabits.

Pulver and Yazbeck get the bulk of attention. She proves very appealing, even though her would-be sex worker  is quickly reduced to the sidelines, watching others act out their falls from grace while she looks hopefully towards  the future. Yazbeck however is quite stirring as first a broken man and then the rabble-rousing union organizer  Foreman. Blitzstein gives him nothing but speechifying but that speechifying can be damn persuasive in the right hands. Yazbeck is fiery, funny, moving and shakes up the evening as much as he can. He lights the fuse; unfortunately there's not enough explosive material on hand to make any noise.

THEATER OF 2019

Frankenstein: Under The Radar Fest at the Public ** 1/2
Minor Character: Under The Radar Festival at the Public ***
Ink: Under The Radar  Festival at the Public  ** 1/2
Choir Boy ** 1/2
White Noise ** 1/2
Kiss Me, Kate ***
Ain't No Mo' *** 1/2
Ain't Too Proud **
The Cradle Will Rock * 1/2

Thanks for reading. Michael Giltz is the creator of BookFilter, a book lover’s best friend. It’s a website that lets you browse for books online the way you do in a physical bookstore, provides comprehensive info on new releases every week in every category and offers passionate personal recommendations every step of the way. He’s also the cohost of Showbiz Sandbox, a weekly pop culture podcast that reveals the industry take on entertainment news of the day with top journalists and opinion makers as guests. It’s available for free on iTunes. Visit Michael Giltz at his website. Download his podcast of celebrity interviews and his radio show, also called Popsurfing and also available for free on iTunes.