As must be clear by now, I spent last weekend in New York, both to attend some business meetings and to appear on The Joey Reynolds Show -- as well as to imbibe the theatre district in my off hours on Saturday.
I was also there precisely a month earlier, to join a group of Georgetown theatre alumni eager to celebrate the off-Broadway directorial debut of one of our number, Rick Lombardo, who is the artistic director of the New Repertory Theatre in Watertown, Massachusetts. Rick is the director of Bill W. and Dr. Bob, the story of the founders of AA, which is now playing at New World Stages on West 50th Street.
The mini-reunion was great fun, with classmates coming from all over the country to see the show and raise a toast after the curtain fell. It took such an event for me to see Mask & Bauble alumna Carolyn Patterson and her husband, Bob Goss, the proprietors of the Inn at Monticello just outside of Charlottesville. (Really, I promise to visit someday soon!) Others came from as far away as Minnesota, Missouri, and New Jersey.
The cocktail reception afterwards also gave me a chance to chat with Elizabethan scholar Scott Pilarz about Clare Asquith's book, Shadowplay, which I was just finishing at the time. Asquith's book (subtitled "The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare") posits that Shakespeare's plays are "coded" documents designed to support Catholic dissidents in an age of political and religious turmoil. Whatever the merits of Asquith's arguments -- and there is a sense that she overreaches -- I don't think I will ever take a Shakespeare play at face value ever again. Now that I have been introduced to the code, I will alway see multiple layers at work. (I have also realized that, for fun, the code can be applied to almost any piece of drama. Read Asquith's glossary and try it out yourself the next time you're at the theatre.)
Altogether, there were about 35 five of us. Thanks to the organizational skills of Trish Sullivan Vanni, we got a block of tickets to the show, and a vague suggestion of "let's all get together in New York when Rick's show opens" turned into reality.
My review of Bill W. and Dr. Bob is included in the essay below, which I submitted to The Metro Herald late last night.
And to all those M&Bers across the country -- let's do it again soon!
Report from New York 1:
The Big Voice – Company – Altar Boyz – Bill W. and Dr. Bob
Metro Herald Entertainment Editor
(NEW YORK) --- Flying blind sometimes leads to interesting and delightful, if previously unimagined, destinations.
Such can be the case when buying a show ticket at New York’s TKTS both based on odd criteria, like the theatre’s location or the play’s running time, rather than on what critics have written or how long the show has been selling out its seats.
In this situation, I discovered The Big Voice: God or Merman? at the (off-Broadway) Actors Temple Theatre on West 47th Street. A bijou of a musical, this two-man show is made up not with precious gems but instead with semi-precious stones that make for a divertingly entertaining and touching evening.
Written by Jim Brochu (book) and Steve Schalchlin (music and lyrics), who originally played themselves (“Jim” and “Steve”), the cast now consists of Dale Radunz as Jim and Carl Danielsen as Steve.
The capsule summary of the show says a lot about New York, if nothing else. A Baptist boy from Arkansas and a Catholic boy from Brooklyn grow up, meet, and find spiritual fulfillment through musical theatre – and this on a stage in a theatre owned and operated by a synagogue. (Now that’s New York!)
Brochu’s book is strongest in the play’s first half, when it tells the separate stories of the protagonists’ youth and early adulthood, before they met and fell in love. As one might expect from a plot that cleaves closely to real life, the last third tapers off somewhat, as it pursues the middle of the “boy meets boy, boy loses boy, boy gets boy back” formula.
Schalchlin’s music and lyrics are workmanlike but not especially memorable. The melodies bear echoes of the music of Steve’s Baptist upbringing. (Like a disproportionate number of gay men of his age cohort, Steve is the son of a preacher-father and a piano-teacher-mother.) Still, the songs do what they must to flesh out the characters and advance the plot.
Some of the play’s most amusing moments revolve around Jim’s lifelong devotion to Ethel Merman, whom he met at age 12 on the stage of the Broadway Theatre after a performance of Gypsy. His story of epiphany and transformation could be lifted from the adolescent diary pages of countless musical theatre queens.
What is perhaps most striking about Jim and Steve’s shared story is that it is not one about youthful romance, but rather about mature love and marriage, and about the perseverance of older gay men through rocky times that include sickness, separation, loneliness, and anger.
The low-budget, off-Broadway intimacy of The Big Voice offers a fitting counterpoint to the big-budget, Broadway revival of Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s Company at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, just a block away on 47th Street.
Company, a breakthrough “concept musical” in 1970, has been tweaked and transfigured several times in the years since. This latest incarnation, directed by Tony-winner John Doyle, combines orchestra and cast so that each actor plays one or more instruments to accompany themselves on stage.
This conceit, also employed in Doyle’s 2005 production of Sweeney Todd, is somewhat distracting, at least at first, and one can come away with the impression that it is used throughout merely to achieve a particularly visceral and emotional payoff in the last five minutes of the show.
That said, this new production of Company is filled with excellent performances, especially from Raúl Esparza as Robert and Barbara Walsh as Joanne. (Esparza is being widely touted as the most likely winner of the Tony Award for leading actor in a musical – even by other contenders for the prize.)
Esparza, who made a splash in Merrily We Roll Along and in the title role of Sunday in the Park with George at the Kennedy Center’s Sondheim Celebration five years ago, shines here as well. His Robert is detached and cold, manifestly in pain. Through most of the play he delivers his lines with the flatness of David Sedaris reading one of his essays, as if compelled to hide from everyone – friends, lovers, himself – any human feelings he might have.
As the cynical Joanne, Walsh also is detached. (That the only instruments she plays are the triangle and orchestra bells – using a single hammer for each – speaks volumes.) While the other characters play whole phrases on melodic instruments – sax, clarinet, trumpet – Joanne just punctuates. She delivers her 11 o’clock number, “The Ladies Who Lunch,” with viciousness unequalled in previous Broadway productions, easily in the same class as the ur-Joanne, Elaine Stritch.
One quibble I have with this and other recent productions of Company (including the one the Four County Players recently mounted in Barboursville, Virginia) is the new scene in which Peter asks Robert about “homosexual experiences” in a clear attempt to make a pass at him. The scene seems hopelessly tacked on and adds little to either character’s back story. It almost seems like Furth’s answer to the persistent question of Sondheimophiles, “Is Bobby gay?” The answer is, as it ever was, no.
Company and The Big Voice complement each other in their reflections on relationships and marriage, although there is little question that Company is and will remain a classic piece of musical theatre while The Big Voice will merely be a pleasant addition to the community-theatre repertoire (except, perhaps, in small towns like Mammoth, Arkansas, where it could, alas, do the most good.)* * * * * *
New World Stages on West 50th Street is an off-Broadway venue that has the architectural feel of a suburban cineplex. In fact, it once was the home of a multiple-screen movie theatre, which – now converted to showcase live performances – serves legitimate-theatre audiences well. Each auditorium, ranging in size from 199 to 499 seats – has stadium seating, meaning there is not a bad seat in the house – no obstructions, not even the beehive hairdos of the ladies who lunch sitting at the matinee in front of you.
Two shows currently at New World Stages – the musical comedy, Altar Boyz, and the drama Bill W. and Dr. Bob – make good use of the environment the theatre complex provides.
Altar Boyz, written by Kevin Del Aguila (book) and Gary Adler & Michael Patrick Walker (music and lyrics), pretends to be the final stop of a concert tour for a Christian boy band made up of Matthew, Mark, Luke, Juan, and Abraham. (Abraham is the one Jewish member among the four Catholic boys.)
Through a series of flashbacks and musical numbers, Altar Boyz reveals how the boys met, formed the band, and advanced through their careers.
Simultaneously a satirical look at the boy-band phenomenon – think N’Sync or Backstreet Boys – and Christian pop-rock, Altar Boyz scores on both counts. (It slips a bit in consistency when it makes some cracks about Catholic belief that are actually better targeted at Evangelical Protestants.)
The music and lyrics have wit and panache. The music offers pastiches of rock, pop, country and western, and Broadway show tunes. The lyrics have unexpected turns that unfailingly evoke laughter (sometimes giggles, sometimes guffaws).
The current cast members of Altar Boyz are all replacements for those who can be heard on the original cast CD. That does not reflect on their quality, for all five “boyz” turn in fine performances. Particularly noteworthy is Zach Hanna as Mark, the band’s closeted gay member. (Every boy band has at least one, right?) Hanna creates his character through subtle glances and gestures without a word to define what he makes apparent to the audience. (Apropos of The Big Voice, Mark’s object of affection, Kyle Dean Massey – who plays Matthew -- comes from a small town in Arkansas, where he once sang in the same church choir as Metro Herald contributor Tim Hulsey.)
Landon Beard (Luke) and Eric Schneider (Abraham) also offer well-tuned performances, as did Carlos L. Encinias, the understudy who played Juan on the night I saw Altar Boyz. Remarkably – and for this equal credit goes to the playwright as well as the actors – the characters are not homogenized. Instead, each of the five has a distinct personality and purpose, so that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
While Altar Boyz is playing in Stage 4 at New World Stages, Stage 2 hosts Bill W. and Dr. Bob (written by Stephen Bergman and Janet Surrey), a show as close to critic-proof as one might find. That is to say, even if the reviews are tepid or negative, audiences flock to see Bill W. and Dr. Bob, which tells the story of the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous. Given that New York critics, as a class, tend to disparage the uplifting and inspiring and to prefer the cynical and inhumane – not that there’s anything wrong with that! -- negative reviews of Bill W. and Dr. Bob have been expected. (Note, however, that this reviewer has read none of the notices for this show and is, therefore, open to correction.)
Director Rick Lombardo (full disclosure: he is a college classmate and onetime theatre colleague of mine) explains how word of mouth led to an extended run for Bill W. and Dr. Bob when it premiered at the New Repertory Theatre near Boston, prior to its being optioned for New York.
The cast and crew knew they had an unexpected success on their hands when, a few performances into the run, audience members spontaneously called out “Hi Bill” when Robert Krakovski (as Bill Wilson) stepped to the front of the stage and announced, “My name is Bill, and I’m an alcoholic.”
The formulaic AA call-and-response repeated itself night after night.
“After a while,” related Lombardo to The Metro Herald (over drinks at Victor’s Café, a Cuban restaurant near the theatre), “we could predict what the overall audience reaction to the show would be by how many voices we heard say ‘Hi, Bill!’ We learned that alcoholics react very differently from non-alcoholics to certain scenes in the play.” As an example, he said, alcoholics would laugh uproariously at painful scenes in which the characters are dead drunk – a laughter of recognition absent from audiences with fewer AA members in them. The higher the ratio of alcoholics to non-alcoholics, the livelier and more vocal the audience could be expected to be.
The extended run at New Rep was supported by AA members coming back to see the show multiple times, bringing their friends with them, who in turn would bring their friends along when they came back a second or third time. It is no wonder that Bill W. and Dr. Bob has had the highest advance ticket sale of any show in the history of New World Stages.
One knows one is entering a different universe immediately upon seeing the set designed by Anita Fuchs. She has created a disorienting atmosphere by placing a sharply raked stage in juxtaposition to oddly-angled, movable panels that do not meet our usual expectations regarding spatial perspective. The set tends to make one queasy.
Bill W. and Dr. Bob is a six-actor, multi-character play. Four actors – Krakovski as Bill, Patrick Husted as Dr. Bob Smith, Rachel Harker as Lois Wilson, and Kathleen Doyle as Anne Smith – play single roles throughout, while Marc Carver as Man and Deanna Dunmyer as Woman play multiple roles, as the story is told through flashbacks and encounters.
While it may appear easy to play drunk, it requires a high degree of discipline, as well as nuance, to make it feel authentic. Krakovski and Husted can’t get away with simply imitating Foster Brooks. We have to see them sweat – and we do.
Harder than playing drunk, perhaps, is playing the drunk’s wife. The reactions of Harker and Doyle, who play (respectively) Bill and Bob’s wives, are measured and subtle. Either woman could choose to pick up and move away. Instead, they meet their marital challenges with fortitude and, in the process, create the forerunner to Al-Anon.
Word has it that director Lombardo had to cut 25 minutes from the play, which seemed bloated during its Boston run. It still has some problems in that, as the play draws to a close, audience members tend to check their watches. It drags a bit and could use some additional tightening. This, however, is a mere quibble in comparison to the satisfaction so many audience members obtain from the show.
The actors now performing in Bill W. and Dr. Bob are signed to six-month contracts, but we can expect the show to go on long after that August deadline comes around.
Bill W. and Dr. Bob continues at New World Stages, 340 West 50th Street, New York, between 8th and 9th Avenues. For tickets, call Telecharge at (212) 239-6200 or purchase online at www.telecharge.com. For group sales, call (212) 933-0263. For further information, visit http://www.billwanddrbob.com.
Altar Boyz continues at New World Stages, 340 West 50th Street, New York, between 8th and 9th Avenues. For tickets, call Telecharge at (212) 239-6200 or order online at www.telecharge.com. For further information, visit http://www.altarboyz.com.
Company continues at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 West 47th Street, New York, between Broadway and 8th Avenue. For tickets, call Telecharge.com at 212-239-6200 or 800-432-7250 or purchase online at www.telecharge.com. For group sales, call (212) 302-7000. For further information, visit http://www.companyonbroadway.com/index.htm.
The Big Voice: God or Merman? continues at the Actors Temple Theatre, 339 West 47th Street, New York, between 8th and 9th Avenues. For tickets, call 212-947-8844 or visit BroadwayOffers.com and mention code BVBBX72. For further information, visit http://www.thebigvoice.com.
(Photo and logo from The Big Voice courtesy of Keith Sherman & Associates.)
(Photo of Company and the Barrymore by Rick Sincere.)
(Photo of Robert Krakovski and Patrick Husted from Bill W. and Dr. Bob by Carol Rosegg; courtesy of Sam Rudy Media Relations.)