Saturday, June 30, 2007

The Trouble with VERIS

Virginia's new statewide voter-registration database is in trouble.

To be truthful, the system (called "VERIS") has been troubled from the start. Despite admonitions from registrars and local election officials who were field-testing VERIS that it was not ready to deploy, the State Board of Elections went live with VERIS in February, abandoning the perfectly useful, workable, and practical system called VVRS that had been used by Virginia for years.

Other states, such as Indiana, had no statewide database of registered voters, which is why the Help America Vote Act of 2002, or HAVA, mandated that every state develop one. VERIS is based on the system created for Indiana by UNISYS, which is one of the roots of the many problems that have occurred with it in Virginia.

Last night, NBC 29's Henry Graff reported a story about VERIS that led that Charlottesville TV station's newscasts at 5:00, 6:00, and 11:00 p.m., as well as the CW29 news at 10:00 p.m.

On the station's web site, Graff writes:

The problem: you show up to cast your ballot, but the polling place has no record of you. It's something local voting officials say could happen because of a flaw in the system.

"Just a couple of keystrokes could make the difference between your name being on the voter registration rolls and not being on them," explained Rick Sincere, member of the Charlottesville Electoral Board.

The system is called VERIS, The Virginia Elections and Registration Information System. The software program was created by UNISYS and in February, the entire Commonwealth began using it to register voters.

But local registrars like Sheri Iachetta say the system was not ready to be used. "It was telling me that some of my city streets were in the county and it wasn't letting me register people who live specifically in the city," shared Iachetta, Charlottesville voter registrar.

But that's not where the problems end. Officials say the system has dropped registered voters from the system all together.
Graff notes in his report that the Electoral Board for the City of Charlottesville sent a letter of concern to the State Board of Elections. Here is the text of that letter (which is just briefly quoted in the NBC29 story):
We are writing to express our concerns that the new statewide voter registration system, known as VERIS, suffers from so many bugs and glitches that it may threaten the integrity of the elections scheduled for 2007.

Fortunately, Charlottesville is one of the localities that will not be holding a June primary election, and we have moved our City Council and School Board elections to November. This means, however, that any Election Day problems we may experience with VERIS will not become apparent until November.

We know, for instance, that in the Town of Vienna, some 15 percent of registered voters failed to appear on the pollbooks prepared from VERIS data for the town council elections on May 2.

We hear frequent and similar reports from across the Commonwealth of voters whose names should be in the system, but are lost and irretrievable. The level of frustration among General Registrars and their staffs is palpable.

The problems in VERIS were identified during the testing phase, but the system went “live” and replaced VVRS (the older voter registration system) even when the State Board of Elections, Registrars, and Electoral Boards were aware that VERIS was not ready for full implementation.

We are worried that problems with VERIS will cause burdensome delays at the polls on Election Day or, far worse, actually disenfranchise some qualified voters.

We have shared our concerns with local elected officials and with the City Attorney in Charlottesville. We will be paying close attention to the experience of other localities during the June 12 primary election. (In fact, we have called a meeting of the Electoral Board in Charlottesville that day so that we can monitor reports about the performance of VERIS from around the Commonwealth.)

We would like assurance from the State Board of Elections that the serious, known problems with VERIS are being addressed. We want to be able to assure voters, candidates, election officials, and the public at large that the election this November will have the same level of fairness, transparency, integrity, and efficiency that previous Virginia elections have enjoyed for decades.
Copies of that letter were sent to Governor Tim Kaine, the state Secretary for Administration Viola Baskerville, Charlottesville Mayor David Brown, all the members of the Charlottesville City Council, and City Attorney Craig Brown.

These concerns have not been raised solely by Charlottesville election officials. The Voter Registrars Association of Virginia (VRAV) has informed the SBE of the problems its members have observed with VERIS, and individual registrars and electoral board members from across the state have done the same.

The SBE's response is simply to paper over the problem and to disregard what it knows to be the truth: That it was told before the February 2007 deployment of VERIS that the system was riddled with flaws and not ready to go live. Ignoring the numerous warnings, the SBE went live with VERIS anyway.

NBC29's state capitol correspondent Loretta Boniti sought a response from the State Board of Elections, interviewing Acting Secretary Valarie Jones. Her report, called "State Says No Need to Worry about VERIS System," also appeared on Friday's news broadcasts.

Since former Secretary Jean Jensen left the State Board of Elections earlier this year, the agency has been essentially rudderless. Governor Kaine has not nominated a successor to head the SBE, though there are rumors that he has narrowed the field of potential candidates to three (Acting Secretary Jones not among them). Let us hope that he acts soon so that the problems of VERIS can be addressed forthrightly and effectively and not whitewashed by the too-typical CYA attitude of government bureaucracies.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Immigration and Identity

Given the vexatious debate about immigration policy that shows no signs of abating in this country, I was fascinated to find an article in the LSE Magazine (a quarterly for alumni) that looks at how immigrants to the United Kingdom view themselves in terms of national identity. The article is based on a longer, scholarly discussion paper.

Both authors are, as one might expect, associated with the London School of Economics and Political Science. Alan Manning is a professor of economics there and he is director of the Labour Markets Programme at the School’s Centre for Economic Performance. Sanchari Roy is a doctoral student in economics and a member of the LSE's Economics of Organisation and Public Policy research group.

In their article, "Culture clash or culture club?" -- also the title of the discussion paper -- Manning and Roy unpack some of their findings about how members different ethnic and religious groups think of themselves after they have immigrated to Britain. Their research was sparked by some of the statements attributed to the July 7 terrorists:

There is widespread belief that a growing fraction of Muslims who live (and in many cases were born) in Britain do not think of themselves as British, have no aspiration to do so and do not want their children to either; that they are subscribing instead to some other identity and creating little enclaves that resemble, as far as is possible, the countries from which they came or a model of the good society very different from what is generally thought of as ‘Britain’.

Such fears tend to be magnified by the statements by some British Muslims, which appear to explicitly reject a British identity and affirm another one. One of the 7 July bombers appeared in a video released after the London bombings and said: ‘Your democratically elected governments continuously perpetuate atrocities against my people and your support of them makes you directly responsible, just as I am directly responsible for protecting and avenging my Muslim brothers and sisters’, with the use of the words ‘my’ and ‘your’ clearly expressing the people with whom he did or did not identify. We wanted to find out how widespread this kind of identification is in the UK.
The researchers were just as surprised by their findings, which were based on a survey of more than one million participants, as their readers might be:
Among those who are born in Britain, over 90 per cent of all groups of whatever religion or ethnicity think of themselves as British. In particular there is no evidence that Muslims are less likely to think of themselves as British than other groups....

Of those describing themselves as Christian 99.1 per cent report themselves as British. But of those describing themselves as Muslim the proportion is a slightly higher 99.2 per cent to report, exceeded only by those who identify as Jewish. Percentages reporting a British identity are lower for Buddhists, Sikhs and Hindus, but are above 95 per cent for all groups. It is hard to look at these figures and see grounds for concern. Of course, this does not mean that Muslims see themselves as British and not Muslim: it is just that they see no conflict in being both.
One striking discovery from the survey is this:
There is, however, one group that stands out as reporting an extremely low level of British identity – Catholics from Northern Ireland. From our research, it appears that any identity conflict among British born Muslims is an order of magnitude smaller than that among Catholics from Northern Ireland.
How about that? People born in the UK feel less "British" than people born elsewhere! But other findings are equally interesting:
This process of assimilation is faster for some immigrant groups than others, but not in the way that might be expected. For example, Muslims are not less likely to feel British than those from other backgrounds, and immigrants from Pakistan and Bangladesh assimilate into a British identity much faster than average, while those from Western Europe and the United States do so more slowly, with Italians standing out as the group which assimilates least into a British identity. We find evidence that immigrants from poorer and less democratic countries assimilate faster into a British identity. Part but not all of this can be explained by a greater tendency among the latter group to take up citizenship.
Manning and Roy find that the process of assimilation applies as much to the holding of political and cultural values as well as an amorphous sense of "identity":
... immigrants are very slightly less likely to have views on rights and responsibilities that are generally held by popular concensus to be ‘desirable’, but the differences are much smaller than the differences among the UK born population of different ages and with different levels of education. It is also true that the immigrant groups who emerge as having different values from the UK born population are not the ones which have become the focus of the most public concern, for example, Muslims do not have significantly different values.

These findings strongly suggest that the UK is not riven by large scale culture clash, contrary to what many people seem to believe. This is not to deny the existence of some people who are prepared to use violence to further their agenda but our evidence suggests that these are a tiny minority. For example, the 2003 British Social Attitudes Survey asked the respondents to say whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement ‘Muslims are more loyal to Muslims than to Britain’. Of the non-Muslim respondents only 9 per cent disagreed, with a further 25 per cent neither agreeing nor disagreeing. But, among the Muslim respondents (who we might expect to be better-informed on the subject) 45 per cent disagreed, a significant difference even though the survey only contained 20 Muslim respondents. And 62 per cent of non-Muslim respondents thought there was a fairly or very serious conflict between Muslims and non-Muslims in Britain, compared to 27 per cent of Muslims. Another question about conflicts in the world as a whole between Muslims and non-Muslims had 85 per cent of non-Muslims saying they thought there was a fairly or very serious conflict, but only 67 per cent of Muslims saying so.
Considering that the process of assimilation in the United States tends to be swifter and more complete than that in Britain or in Europe -- or so we have assumed for a long, long time, since American society is less socially stratified and more mobile than European and British societies are -- the research of Manning and Roy could have applications here at home. It is certainly something worth pondering during the legislative and cultural debates taking place about immigrants and immigration policy in the United States.

I recommend visiting the original articles in order to examine the illuminating charts and graphs that the authors have included with their text.

Scenes from a Debate Season

This past Sunday's Washington Post included an Outlook section article about the relatively new debate program in District of Columbia schools. Its author, Phil Kerpen, quoted President John F. Kennedy as saying:

"I think debating in high school and college is most valuable training, whether for politics, the law, business, or for service on community committees such as the PTA and the League of Women Voters. . . . The give and take of debating, the testing of ideas, is essential to democracy. I wish we had a good deal more debating in our institutions than we do now."
Kerpen also pointed out some of the benefits earned by student debaters, benefits that are often overlooked or undervalued:

Like athletics, debate teaches the value of teamwork and healthy competition. Unlike athletics, debate channels the competitive spirit of students into rigorous academic work.

Preparation for debate requires extensive research, including critical thinking to formulate arguments and anticipate responses, as well reading comprehension and writing skills. Debate also teaches presentation skills and builds confidence. It teaches listening and note-taking skills. Competition drives these benefits in a virtuous cycle. Students continually improve their skills not because they are told to but because they want to win.

National studies have found that participation in debate can substantially and quickly increase reading scores, reduce disciplinary referrals and increase critical-thinking ability.

Kerpen's piece reminded me of something I wrote years ago, based on my own experience as a high school debater and later as a debate judge and coach. But before I get to that, let me take you back to October 1988, when Mike McGough, then editorial page editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, contributed a piece to The New Republic called "Pull It Across Your Flow" (unfortunately available online only in the pay-per-view TNR archives).

McGough, who had debated at Pittsburgh Central Catholic High School in the 1960s (around the time that school was considered a debate powerhouse), was disappointed by some of the changes that had occurred in the debate world in the two decades since he had been active on the circuit, and his TNR article -- which was cited in Gary Alan Fine's 2001 book, Gifted Tongues: High School Debate and Adolescent Culture -- was consequently critical, as well as observant:
If the meaningless sound bites traded at today's presidential debates represent one regrettable oratorical extreme, then the current condition of high school debates represents the other. Let me take you to a typical high school debate tournament, at which two-member teams from around the country square off on the "public policy" proposition that they will wrestle with all year. High school debate topics are worthy and boring enough to come from the MacNeil-Lehrer playbook; this year's question is whether the federal government should maintain a program of retirement security for the elderly.

The debate is already in progress, so you let yourself in quietly, fearful of interrupting one of the speeches. But no one is speaking. Instead, the two pairs of debaters, hedged in by prodigious file drawers and briefcases, sit at desks scratching on legal pads as the "audience" — a single judge — inclines scribelike over her own notepad.

Time passes until one of the debaters at last rises from his desk, legal pad and sheaf of index cards balanced on his arm. You brace yourself for a burst of eloquence — certainly the boy has had plenty of time to prepare — but when he speaks it is sotto voce with eyes cast downward. "I'll start with the D.A.s," he says, "then go back to the P.M.N. and finish with solvency." A pause follows, during which the other debaters and the judge nod knowingly and consult their legal pads. Then, suddenly, our speaker shifts into drill-instructor mode and shouts: "REALIZE that the Affirmative has dropped all of our D.A.s, therefore they lose. Now go to the B(l) subpoint." That's the last sentence you can make out; as he presses on, the boy increases his speed until he sounds like the motormouth in the Federal Express commercials. Adding to the robotic effect is his habit of constantly raising and lowering his right arm in order to scoop up his index cards.

I EXAGGERATE—but only a little. Some debaters manage to make themselves understood despite the machine-gun delivery. And such is the effervescence of youth that even the most jargon-clogged debate can suddenly turn frisky and familiar, as when one of the debaters I recently heard warned that if a certain policy were implemented, "the Soviet Union will freak out of their minds!"

Overall, however, the effect of a high school debate on the unwary spectator is usually one of bewilderment. Today's budding Buckleys traffic more in bizarre jargon than the telling bon mot. A "D.A.," for example, refers to "disadvantage," a term of art for a negative consequence of the adoption of the Affirmative resolution. "P.M.N." stands for Plan Meets Need. "Solvency" is a reference not to financial security but to the ability of the Affirmative plan to "solve" a problem. But don't expect a contestant to translate these terms for you. In today's high school debates, the object of the exercise is to beat your opponent, not win over an audience.
Oddly enough, this article from TNR's October 10, 1988, edition features the only appearance in the entire archives of The New Republic -- going back to 1914 -- of the phrase "high school debate."

McGough's article prompted replies from readers, including me. My letter to the editor -- which defended "modern" debate styles against the article's critique -- was not published in the magazine, but it did lead to a telephone call from Mike McGough, who invited me to lunch. We have seen each other periodically since then, most recently when he was in Charlottesville for an April 2006 performance of a one-act play, Baggage, written by his nephew, Walt McGough, a UVa student.

But this is a digression.

Although my letter was not printed in The New Republic, I expanded it to a full op-ed piece, which found a few placements in newspapers around the country. I confess to recycling the article in subsequent years, since the high-school debate topic changes annually and that gave me a chance to give the article a new "hook" related to current affairs. The most recent iteration of my debate piece appeared in the Forum section of the Sunday Washington Times on October 12, 2003, almost precisely 15 years since Mike McGough's original TNR article that inspired it. This is how it appeared:

High school debate: road to success

It's easy to make fun of ignorant, uninformed Americans, especially American teenagers, through comic lenses like the Tonight Show's "Jaywalking" segments. Cynicism aside, however, one group of teens eagerly buys newspapers and diligently watches Fox News and C-SPAN. Who? High school debaters. Their topic this year is: "Resolved: That the United States federal government should establish an ocean policy substantially increasing protection of marine natural resources."

While this might seem a dreary topic, it offers much potential. If ocean policy is not the first question posed at a Democratic presidential candidates' debate, it has myriad components. According to America's Living Oceans, a report issued by the Pew Oceans Commission: "The oceans are our largest public domain. America's oceans span nearly 4.5 million square miles, an area 23 percent larger than the nation's land area. Their biological riches surpass those of our national forests and wilderness areas. The genetic species, habitat and ecosystem diversity of the oceans is believed to exceed that of any Earth system."

Yet how we husband those resources can engender serious disputes. The Heartland Institute's Dr. Jay Lehr, for instance, criticizes the Pew report as "anti-capitalist, anti-individual freedom, pro-government" in its approach.

Lots to chew on there, for any policymaker - or for any high school debater.

Most debaters are normal, active girls and boys, if somewhat more competitive and inclined toward books and ideas rather than beer bashes, PS2 games, cars, or sports.

Non-debaters ("laymen"), and even veterans of debate seasons long past, encountering today's debaters in action tend to be simultaneously fascinated and a bit repelled by the state of debate in our high schools today.

Often, they find an arcane world dominated by jargon and fast talking that bears little relation to reality. Some older observers lament the decline of debate from their day, when persuasive oratory was the norm, to the present, when oratory is shrugged off and the emphasis is on the number and complexity of arguments.

All this is true. Yet I am afraid observers who fail to dig a bit deeper might be left with the misconception that high school debate is unreal, unintelligible, or useless. Far from it.

Despite a style incomprehensible to the layman, high school debaters still acquire considerable rhetorical skills. Even in the 1970s, it was said the average debater on the national high school circuit did as much research in one year as a person does for a master's thesis in graduate school. In cross-examination debate, teenagers who might otherwise discuss the relative merits of Britney vs. Christina (or 50 Cent vs. Eminem) discover the most effective means to penetrate a complex public policy argument, cutting across empty quotations and slicing an opponent's logic. Good debate rounds are characterized by humor and intelligence.

Fundamentally, debate teaches its participants to think. Debaters must be able to respond to arguments they have never heard before - at a moment's notice. To prepare, they must spend hours in the library and more hours writing briefs that anticipate and pre-empt opponents' arguments.

Yes, debate is esoteric and unlike the real world. Like any art or profession, it relies on a specialized language to communicate, and it generates theories about reality that may not hold much water in corporate offices, courtrooms, Washington think tanks, or city council chambers. Its benefits nonetheless remain substantial. Debaters are generally better prepared for college than their non-debate peers because they know how to pursue research and how to construct an effective argument. They adapt more easily to stressful academic situations. (My own college admissions essay was about, remarkably, ocean policy, based on research I had done pursuing trophies during the 1975-76 debate season.)

After college, too, the debaters to succeed. Debaters from highly regarded programs like Georgetown, the University of Vermont, and Northwestern are rarely, if ever, denied admission to top law schools and graduate programs.

Competitive debate requires sacrifice. Long hours of research and practice overlap with even longer hours of bake sales and car washes to help finance debate programs. Parents who rise each Saturday at 5 a.m. to drive their kids to a tournament deserve our respect; they also have the satisfaction of knowing their children are engaged in an intellectually invigorating, disciplined activity.

Our schools merit praise and encouragement for including debate programs (which, compared to sports, are substantially less costly) among their extracurricular offerings.

Whatever its flaws, debate continues to stimulate. As this year's ocean policy topic shows, it keeps kids informed on the major issues of the day. With the start of 2003-04 debate season, we can be proud and hopeful that today's high school debaters are tomorrow's community leaders.

RICHARD SINCERE
Mr. Sincere a former high school debater and debate coach, is author of "The Politics of Sentiment" and "Sowing the Seeds of Free Enterprise," among other works.

Seeing Phil Kerpen's piece, "Undebatably, A Useful Tool for D.C. Schools," in the Washington Post last weekend made me a bit nostalgic for my own years as a high school debater. I found some rare video footage of the 1975-76 debate season at Marquette University High School in Milwaukee, which I posted to YouTube on Wednesday. It features members of the Webster Club at various tournaments, on and off the MUHS campus, during the course of the year. (Law professors John Q. Barrett and James P. Fleissner may not be too keen to have their students see them in this context. Forgive them; it was the 1970s.)

Of course, videos like this will make for a great conversation-starter at the upcoming 150th anniversary celebration of Marquette High.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Bob Fosse at 80

Today would have been Bob Fosse's 80th birthday. The legendary Broadway and film director was born in Chicago on June 23, 1927, he died nearly 20 years ago, on September 23, 1987, while directing a revival of Sweet Charity at Washington's National Theatre. Fosse is the only director to receive an Oscar, Emmy, and Tony in the same year (in 1973 for, respectively, Cabaret, Liza with a 'Z," and Pippin).

In tribute to the great choreographer, here is a review of the Broadway revue, Fosse, from eight years ago (along with two other, unrelated shows).

The following article appeared in The Metro Herald (Alexandria, Virginia) on April 30, 1999:

REPORT FROM BROADWAY: FOSSE, RAGTIME, AND THE LION IN WINTER
Rick Sincere
Metro Herald Entertainment Editor

No matter how much time one spends in New York, as in London, there is never enough time available to see all the theatrical offerings there. If only every show were presented three times a day! If only human beings were able to bilocate! Alas, neither is possible. So we settle for what we can get, and sometimes we get less, sometimes we get more than we bargained for.

In a recent three-day trip to New York, I was able to see a musical revue, a musical play, and a straight play. One was new, one was a revival of a three-decade old work, and one was about sixteen months into what promisesto be a long run.

Fosse
The new show is Fosse, at the Broadhurst Theatre, a three-act revue featuring the dances of legendary choreographer and director Bob Fosse, who died in Washington in 1987 shortly after the opening of a revival of his Sweet Charity at the National Theatre. The show includes both singing and dancing, but the focus is, naturally, on the dancing itself.

Nearly every one of Fosse's significant works is included, from his movie days at MGM (Kiss Me, Kate) through his huge hits Damn Yankees, The Pajama Game, and Pippin, through his flop of a swan song, Big Deal. Whether the best numbers were chosen is hard to say—I would have added "Magic to Do" from Pippin, for instance—but overall, the spirit and energy of Bob Fosse comes through.

For much of the performance, the dancers are garbed in Fosse's signature costume—slinky black leotards, black bowler hats, and fabrics that dance as much as they cling to the dancers who wear them. Fosse created a unique style of theatrical choreography, although it was clearly influenced by predecessors such as Michael Kidd and Gene Kelly, and he was able to pay tribute to others (like Gower Champion or Hermes Pan) with aplomb.

It is not easy to dance to Fosse's choreography. It requires the use of muscles that don't get much use in the average ballet class. Even someone with years of ballet, jazz, and tap training needs to retrain almost every part of the body to successfully do what Fosse wants done. That makes this show all the more remarkable, and explains why two intermissions are necessary in less than two hours—the material is simply exhausting!

Fortunately for the dancers and for the audiences, this show has the very best at the helm. The co-director and co-choreographer is Ann Reinking, Fosse's one-time girlfriend who starred in his semi-autobiographical movie, All That Jazz, and re-created his Chicago on Broadway to great acclaim two seasons ago. The artistic advisor is Gwen Verdon, Fosse's ex-wife and muse, who won Tony awards under Fosse's direction in Damn Yankees, New Girl in Town, and Redhead, and who starred in the original cast of Chicago (the year it lost all the Tonys for which it was nominated to A Chorus Line, ironically a musical about dancers and dancing). The production is directed by Broadway veteran Richard Maltby, Jr., and choreographer Chet Walker, who conceived the idea of Fosse with Fosse in 1986, recreates the original choreography here.

Special mention should be made of Andrew Bridge's lighting design, which is best seen from the balcony. He plays wonderful games with the floor of the stage. And his design for the "Mr. Bojangles" number is irreplaceable. That song-and-dance combination is the emotional highlight of the evening.

The cast is uniformly excellent. (Bob Fosse would not have accepted anything less.) Valarie Pettiford can really belt any number handed to her. Jane Lanier carries on the Gwen Verdon legacy—and that of Shirley MacLaine and Carol Haney in "Steam Heat." Scott Wise and Alex Sanchez stand out on the male side, but that does not discount any of the others, who can be athletic, seductive, impish, and energetic.

For pure energy, nothing can match the final number of the show, a recreation of Benny Goodman's "Sing, Sing, Sing," from the 1978 show, Dancin'. "Sing, Sing, Sing" leaves the audience breathless—what does it do to the cast?

Fosse is in an unlimited run at the Broadhurst Theatre, 44th Street west of Broadway. Performances are Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8:00PM; Wednesdays and Saturdays, 2:00PM; and Sundays, 3:00PM. For ticket information: Tele-charge, 212/239-6200 or 1-800-432-7250.

Ragtime
Like a fine wine, Ragtime gets better with age. Already reviewed favorably in The Metro Herald last July, Ragtime proves itself to be a multilayered musical play that offers more and more on each viewing.

The Tony®-winning story, adapted by Terrence McNally from E.L. Doctorow's novel of the same name, is about three families—one WASP, one black, one immigrant—shortly after the turn of the twentieth century. They interact with each other in unexpected ways. They encounter real historical figures, such as Booker T. Washington, Emma Goldman, J.P Morgan, Harry Houdini, and vaudeville sweetheart Evelyn Nesbit (mistress of architect Stanford White and wife of eccentric millionaire Harry Thaw).

To summarize like this is to reduce to almost nothing a profound work about the human condition, about human identity, about pride and respect and our place in the world around us.

The Tony-winning musical score, by composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens, is moving and sparkling and fun and tuneful. The direction by Frank Galati makes excellent use of the space created in the new Ford Center for the Performing Arts, which was built with Ragtime in mind. (The stage at National Theatre last year did not have, for instance, the twisting staircases on either side that the Ford Center features.) And Graciela Daniele's musical staging is impeccable.

One interesting bit of trivia: In the touring company of Ragtime that came to Washington last year, the role of Tateh was played by Michael Rupert, who in the 1970s played the title role in Pippin on tour. In the New York production of Ragtime, Tateh is currently being played by John Rubinstein, who originated the title role in Pippin in 1972.

The current cast also includes Alton Fitzgerald White in the lead role of Coalhouse Walker, Jr., who played in Washington and was interviewed by The Metro Herald last summer. He has grown into the role and controls his character and dominates the stage much better than he did in Washington—and he was no slacker on tour, either. Other carryovers from the national company that played here are Erick Devine as J. P. Morgan, and Rosena M. Hill in the ensemble. Go see Ragtime, even if it means you have to wait several weeks to see Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. You won't regret it.

Ragtime is in an unlimited run at the Ford Center for the Performing Arts, 43rd Street between 7th and 8th Avenues. Performances are Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8:00PM; Wednesdays and Saturdays, 2:00PM; and Sundays, 3:00PM. For ticket information: Ticketmaster, 212/307-4550 or 1-800/755-4000.

The Lion in Winter
Just a quiet Christmas in the country with mom and dad and the kids. And dad's mistress, who is engaged to his eldest son. Mom, of course, is visiting from her own home, a dungeon where dad has kept her for the past ten years. What could be more typical?

Thus begins The Lion in Winter, James Goldman's 1966 play about the family of King Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, later made into an Oscar®-winning movie starring Peter O'Toole and Katharine Hepburn and featuring Sir Anthony Hopkins' film debut. (Another bit of trivia: O'Toole played Henry II twice on film; the earlier portrayal was as a younger Henry in Jean Anouilh's Becket with Richard Burton in the title role. Have any other actors played two different characters based on the same historical figure?)

In this revival at the Roundabout Theatre Company, Tony winners Laurence Fishburne and Stockard Channing play the royal spouses at each other's throats. Both deliver powerful performances with the support of a generally strong supporting cast. (Two weak, but not debilitating, links are Emily Bergl as Alais, the mistress, and Roger Howarth as Philip, the King of France.)

The Lion in Winter is considered a drama, but it has genuine comic moments as well, some springing from otherwise jarring anachronisms. For instance, when son John is startled by his brother Richard's wielding of a knife, Eleanor retorts: "Of course he has a knife. We all have knives. It's 1183 and we're barbarians!"

The story is this: Henry is 50 years old, older than any man he knows. He has conquered half of France as well as Scotland and Ireland. He wants assurance that his kingdom will remain intact after he dies. He does not want to see it split up among his three sons. (Another son, Henry the King, the Young King, was crowned while his father was still alive, but died before reaching maturity.) Henry favors the youngest, John (Keith Nobbs), while Eleanor—who besides being Henry's wife was once the wife of the King of France and is also Europe's richest woman—favors the eldest, Richard (Chuma Hunter-Gault). Forgotten in this mess—as in so many other family dramas—is the middle child, Geoffrey. Historically, of course, both Richard and John went on to become King of England, making Eleanor of Aquitaine unique in European history as the wife of two kings and the mother of two others.

Complicating the situation is Alais, who was betrothed to Richard at an early age by her father, King Louis of France (Eleanor's ex-husband), but who since the age of 16 has been Henry's mistress. Henry, meanwhile, wants to abrogate the betrothal so that Alais can marry John and become his queen. Alais's brother, King Philip — visiting for Christmas — insists that breaking the engagement must incur the return of Alais's dowry, a strategic county near Paris that Henry treasures.

Just a typical family Christmas, right? Aaron Spelling, call your office.

Laurence Fishburne is magnificent as Henry. He carries himself regally and confidently. He dominates the stage even if he cannot dominate his wife. One weakness in his performance is that he does not seem like the "old man" he is supposed to be—he is simply too vigorous. Still, this explains his randiness as well as his impetuousness. What is not explained—and this is the fault of the playwright, not the actor—is why a strong king like Henry would favor the weakling John as his heir, instead of the strongminded warrior Richard, who not for nothing was called "the Lionheart."

Stockard Channing is Fishburne's equal in every way, except one. While Fishburne makes Henry's character his own, with no echoes of Robert Preston (who originated the role on Broadway) or O'Toole, Channing too often seems to be imitating Hepburn. Her voice quavers like Hepburn's; even her intonation and inflection are similar.

Nonetheless, Channing is strongwilled and amusing as the tempestuous Eleanor. She is particularly on target in a private meeting with Alais, which might serve as a model for a rendezvous between Hillary and Monica. Channing gives us a winning portrayal.

Hunter-Gault makes a brooding, proud Richard, and Nobbs is a simpering, greasy, revolting John — exactly as he should be. Meanwhile, Neal Huff shows Geoffrey to be a conniving middle son, willing to play each side off against the other. His plainness, which might explain why he has been ignored by his parents for so many years, also allows a cover for his cunning.

The Lion in Winter is a great drama in a terrific revival. The direction by Michael Mayer is meticulous, and the set design by David Gallo—featuring a curtain made of chain mail—is darkly striking, complemented boldly by Kenneth Posner's lighting design. Expect this play to reap many awards.

The Lion in Winter continues through May 30 at the Stage Right Theatre at the Criterion Center, 1530 Broadway at 45th Street. Performances are Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8:00PM; Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays, 2:00PM; with special Sunday performances on May 2 and May 9, 7:30PM; and special 7:00PM performances May 11-14. For ticket information: Ticket Services, 212/719-1300.

Some additional comments on New York theatre: Ticket prices are high. I paid $60 for a Saturday matinee performance of The Lion in Winter (although because the Stage Right Theatre is so small, there is not a bad seat in the house, and I was in the fourth row). For Ragtime, orchestra seats were $80, and for Fosse, the face value of the mezzanine tickets was also $80.

Unfortunately, I bought the Fosse tickets through a ticket broker in my hotel, so the total per ticket was $128 with the broker's markup. For the casual customer, it is best to go to TKTS, north of Times Square, behind the statues of George M. Cohan and Father Duffy. Half-price, day-of-performance tickets are available there, but the hottest shows in town are not likely to be there.

What are the hot tickets now? The answer is easy — Death of a Salesman with Brian Dennehy, which plays through May 30 at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre; Cabaret, playing at Studio 54 through September 26; and The Iceman Cometh with Kevin Spacey, transferred from London to the Brooks Atkinson Theatre. (If you can get tickets for any of those shows, let me know, and I'll be there.)

As expensive as Broadway tickets are, it is important for us to recognize how truly wonderful the Washington theatre scene is. We have excellent local professional theatre at the Arena Stage, Shakespeare Theatre, Signature Theatre, and Studio Theatre. Two of Broadway's current hit musicals — Annie Get Your Gun and Footloose — recently played Washington on their way to New York. Consistently high quality can also be found at the Woolly Mammoth, Source Theatre, and numerous smaller theatres throughout the metropolitan area. We should appreciate what we have. Not only do we have high quality, we have low prices, too. Be grateful.

For historical accuracy, I should note that the "unlimited" run of Fosse closed on August 25, 2001, after 1,093 performances, and that of Ragtime closed on January 16, 2000, after 834 performances. Fosse went on to win Tony awards for best musical, best lighting design, and best orchestrations.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Judy Garland and Homosexual Identity

At the Green Valley Book Fair a few weeks ago, I picked up a darling coffee table book called When I Knew, edited by Robert Trachtenberg and illustrated by Tom Bachtell.

When I Knew is a compilation of memories from gay men and lesbians from all walks of life (though a disproportionate number of them, it seems, are somehow connected to the entertainment industry), with a specific reference to the identifiable moment of their discoveries of being gay. It's a quick read, with only a handful of entries longer than a page. Many of the authors are well-known as adults and their childhood memories are sweet, bittersweet, sometime campy, sometimes wry, and always illustrative of what it is like to grow up gay in a straight world.

My favorite entry -- perhaps because it emphasizes the value of words and how artifice affects one's reality -- comes from playwright Arthur Laurents, who writes on page 50 about growing up in the 1930s:

When I was twelve, I had sex with one of the kids on the block. We also went to the movies together and one day saw the picture called, Let Us Be Gay. Back then "gay" merely meant bright, lively, merry, but for some unfathomable reason, whenever one of us wanted sex, we used the code phrase "Let Us Be Gay." I think we may have pioneered the use of "gay" to mean homosexual sex. More meaningful than a Tony or Oscar, but not quite worthy of the Nobel.
Arthur Laurents -- librettist and neologist.

My reason for bringing up this two-year-old book now, however, lies in today's most remembered anniversary: On June 22, 1969, Judy Garland died in London. A few days later, shattered by her death and funeral, gay New Yorkers at the Stonewall Inn fought back against a police raid, sparking what would come to be known as the modern gay rights movement. (We should never forget, however, the pioneering efforts of those who came before Stonewall.)

The first entry in When I Knew is so brief, it borders on haiku. It comes from Andrew Freedman, now a marketing and public relations consultant:
1969
My father was watching the
evening news. The announcer
said that Judy Garland had died.
I fainted. I was nine.
This evening in dining rooms and bars, nightclubs and restaurants, in front of our TV sets or in the lobbies of theaters, let us raise a glass to toast the memory of Miss Judy Garland.

(P.S.: Doesn't the title of this blogpost sound like that of a paper delivered at an MLA convention?)


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Thursday, June 21, 2007

Ron Paul Performs Despite Disrespect

In each of the GOP 2008 presidential debates that have so far taken place, U.S. Representative Ron Paul (R-Texas) has more than held his own. While some dismissed Congressman Paul's entry into the race when so many better-known hats had already been tossed into the ring (and other well-known chapeaux belonging to, among others, Fred Thompson and Newt Gingrich, are hovering at the ring's fringes), his clear articulation of the importance of adhering to the Constitution has kept him in the spotlight.

It recently came to light that two influential Iowa political organizations have chosen to exclude Congressman Paul from an upcoming candidates forum under their sponsorship. As reported by NewsMax.com:

GOP presidential hopeful Ron Paul has been excluded from an upcoming political forum in Iowa on the grounds that he is not a "credible” candidate.

The event, sponsored by Iowans for Tax Relief and the Iowa Christian Alliance, is set for June 30 in Des Moines.

GOP candidates who will speak at the forum include Mitt Romney, Sam Brownback, Duncan Hunter, Mike Huckabee, Tommy Thompson and Tom Tancredo.

But Paul, a Texas congressman, was left out because the invitation went only to those candidates who are "credible,” said Ed Failor Jr., vice president of Iowans for Tax Relief.

John Fund of the Wall Street Journal finds this explanation curious, as do I. Why claim that Ron Paul is incredible and not claim the same for Tommy Thompson or Tom Tancredo? (Those two candidates have their own problems in breaking the fractional digits in public-opinion surveys.)

In the daily, by-subscription-only "Political Diary" column, Fund says:
Despite his controversial views, Mr. Paul was tied for sixth place in the Republican field in last week's Wall Street Journal/NBC national poll (he had 2%), and was ahead of several other candidates who've been invited to the June 30 forum. What makes his exclusion all the stranger is that Mr. Paul just placed second behind Fred Thompson in a straw poll of National Taxpayers Union members at the group's annual convention in Washington. One of the key organizers of the NTU event was none other than Iowans for Tax Relief, the co-sponsor of the forum that is excluding Mr. Paul.
Considering that Ron Paul is on record in favor of abolishing the Internal Revenue Service and repealing the 16th Amendment, his support among tax-reformers should be easy to explain.

It may also be easy to explain why, to the contrary, Iowans for Tax Relief wants to keep Dr. Paul's voice out of its forum. It doesn't take much digging to find out that its spokesman, Ed Failor, Jr., is a senior advisor to John McCain's presidential campaign.

So much for a "non-partisan" forum.

On the plus side, however, Ron Paul continues to give great performances on television, where he is receiving an excellent response. I have already noted his appearances on The Daily Show on Comedy Central and on Tucker Carlson's MSNBC chat show.

Dr. Paul has also recently been a guest on The Colbert Report (which follows The Daily Show on Comedy Central at 11:30 p.m.). A number of Ron Paul supporters had posted the YouTube video of the interview, but unfortunately -- no doubt because Comedy Central had asserted its intellectual property rights -- YouTube pulled the video and those links are dead.

Fortunately, Comedy Central itself provides code for folks like us to post that video, which implies a license to use it. So here is Ron Paul on the Colbert Report. Note when and how enthusiastically the audience applauds. (I think, however, contrary to Stephen Colbert's introduction, that Ron Paul is more than "the Republican Mike Gravel.")



I hope that anyone looking for "Ron Paul on Colbert Report" avoids the disappointment of attempting to use a broken link to YouTube (such as this one at Reason magazine's blog) and instead finds the live link here.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Front-Page Ron

For a so-called "second tier" (or sometimes, more derisively, "third tier") candidate, Representative Ron Paul of Texas gets some pretty good publicity, as well as serious attention, with regard to his quest for the 2008 GOP presidential nomination.

Take Saturday's Washington Post, which put Ron Paul on the front page -- admittedly below the fold, but next to a big story about how the Jefferson Memorial may be sinking into Washington's primordial ooze, which is open to much symbolic interpretation in itself -- that highlights his campaign's dominance of the Internet:

Rep. Ron Paul is more popular on Facebook than Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). He's got more friends on MySpace than former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. His MeetUp groups, with 11,924 members in 279 cities, are the biggest in the Republican field. And his official YouTube videos, including clips of his three debate appearances, have been viewed nearly 1.1 million times -- more than those of any other candidate, Republican or Democrat, except Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.).
The article, by Jose Antonio Vargas, summarizes Dr. Paul's political philosophy as succinctly as possible:

An obstetrician and gynecologist, Paul is known as "Dr. No" in the House of Representatives. No to big government. No to the Internal Revenue Service. No to the federal ban on same-sex marriage.

"I'm for the individual," Paul said. "I'm not for the government."

Vargas quotes political insiders about the meaning of Dr. Paul's ascendancy in cyberspace:

"At first I was skeptical of his increasing online presence, thinking that it's probably just a small cadre of dedicated Ron Paul fans," said Matt Lewis, a blogger and director of operations at Townhall, a popular conservative site. "But if you think about it, the number one issue in the country today is Iraq. If you're a conservative who supports the president's war, you have nine candidates to choose from. But if you're a conservative who believes that going into Iraq was a mistake, Ron Paul is the only game in town."

Added Terry Jeffrey, the syndicated newspaper columnist who ran Patrick J. Buchanan's failed White House bid in 1996: "On domestic issues like spending and taxation and the role of government, Ron Paul is saying exactly what traditional conservatives have historically thought, and he's pointing out that the Bush administration has walked away from these principles. That's a very attractive argument."

One has to read to the last paragraph of the piece, however, to discover why Ron Paul's support on the Internet is so vociferous and dedicated. One supporter is offered as an example, referring back to the "attractive argument" noted by Terence Jeffrey:

Especially to someone such as Brad Porter, who obsessively writes about Paul on his blog, subscribes to Paul's YouTube channel and attended a Ron Paul MeetUp event in Pittsburgh last week.

The 28-year-old Carnegie Mellon student donated $50 to Paul's coffers after the first debate, and an additional $50 after the third debate.

"For a poor college student, that's a lot," said Porter, a lifelong Republican. "But I'm not supporting him because I think he could get the nomination. I'm supporting him because I think he can influence the national conversation about what the role of government is, how much power should government have over our lives, how much liberty should we give up for security. These are important issues, and frankly, no one's thinking about them as seriously and sincerely as Ron Paul."

In the long run, changing the national conversation is much more important than winning a given election. Just ask anyone who worked on Barry Goldwater's 1964 campaign.

Review of 'The Witches of Eastwick'

On Friday evening, Tim Hulsey and I saw the U.S. premiere of The Witches of Eastwick (book and lyrics by John Dempsey, music by Dana P. Rowe, directed by Eric Schaeffer) at Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia. Here is my review, scheduled to appear in next Friday's edition of The Metro Herald.

Trouble in River Bay City:
The American Premiere of ‘The Witches of Eastwick’
Rick Sincere
Metro Herald Entertainment Editor

(ARLINGTON) --- Fifty years ago, a musical play opened on Broadway that had a curious number of similarities to The Witches of Eastwick, which is now having its American premiere at Signature Theatre in Arlington.

That show, Meredith Willson’s The Music Man, played for 1,375 performances, won seven Tony Awards, led to an Oscar-winning hit film and two Broadway revivals, and generated countless regional and community-theatre productions.

Some of the parallels:

• In The Music Man, a mysterious stranger arrives in a staid Midwestern town and turns the place upside-down through charm, force of personality, and music. In The Witches of Eastwick, a mysterious stranger arrives in a staid New England town and turns the place upside-down through charm, force of personality, and music.

• In The Music Man, the townsfolk introduce themselves and their attitudes through an ensemble number called “Iowa Stubborn.” In The Witches of Eastwick, the comparable song is called “Eastwick Knows.”

The Music Man’s heroine sings a song of longing called “Good Night, My Someone.” The Witches of Eastwick’s heroines sing a song of longing, too: a trio called “Make Him Mine.”

• The stranger in The Music Man, Harold Hill, interjects himself at a community gathering by singing “Seventy-Six Trombones.” The stranger in Witches interjects himself at a community gathering by singing about himself in “Darryl Van Horne.”

• Each play has a pair of teenage lovers in which the girl’s parents disapprove of her relationship with a boy from the wrong side of the tracks. (In The Music Man, the pair are Zaneeta Shinn and Tommy Djilas; in Witches, they are Jennifer Gabriel and Michael Spofford.)

The Music Man has a gossip song called “Pick-a-Little, Talk-a-Little.” Witches has a gossip song called “Dirty Laundry.”

• The Music Man’s protagonist has a sidekick named Marcellus. The Witches of Eastwick’s protagonist has a sidekick named Fidel.

• Harold Hill tries to court the heroine of The Music Man by singing a number aimed to appeal to her deepest values, “Marian the Librarian.” Darryl Van Horne seduces the three heroines of Eastwick by singing three songs that appeal to their deepest secrets: “Waiting for the Music to Begin” to cellist Jane, “Words, Words, Words” to writer Sukie, and “Your Wildest Dreams” to sculptress Alexandra.

• River City, the town in The Music Man, has a busybody (Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn) who aims to protect the town’s values, who is also married to the mayor. Eastwick also has a town busybody (Felicia Gabriel) who aims to protect the town’s values, who is also married to the newspaper publisher.

• The busybody in The Music Man eventually succumbs to the mysterious stranger’s charms. The busybody in The Witches of Eastwick eventually succumbs to a brutal, grisly … OK, perhaps the parallels do not go quite so far as I originally thought.



First staged in London seven years ago, the original Cameron Mackintosh production of The Witches of Eastwick was called “empty but entertaining” in a Metro Herald review. It seemed then that Eric Schaeffer’s direction was much better than the material provided to him by librettist John Dempsey and composer Dana Rowe.

Unfortunately, despite trimming, tightening, and modifying the book and score, the basic material is still weak, but Schaeffer’s direction and vision for the production – including the brilliant scenic design by Walt Spangler and lighting design by Chris Lee – overcomes the shortcomings of the book, lyrics, music, and (most acutely) characters. In short, Schaeffer’s production rises above the problematic material so that the final product is nearly – not quite, but almost – a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

This is true, too, of the performances – particularly Tony nominees Marc Kudisch as Emily Skinner as, respectively, Darryl and Alexandra, as well as Christiane Noll as Jane and Jacquelyn Piro Donovan as Sukie – who take two-dimensional characters and give them some weight, even if we cannot be entirely sympathetic to them. All four principals deserve kudos for excellent vocal performances, demonstrating amazing laryngeal and diaphragmatic gymnastics.

The problems, however, start at the beginning, when we learn that the three principal women dislike town busybody Felicia (Karlah Hamilton). We don’t learn why, exactly – other than that Felicia is rich and haughty and that Sukie is having an affair with Felicia’s husband, Clyde (Harry A. Winter). But Felicia is made-up and coiffed like Leona Helmsley at her bitchiest, so she must be dislikable.

We also fail to learn why the three women feel so out of place and alienated in their hometown. We do know they have “man problems” – they have been divorced, deceived, and discarded by more men than they care to name – but it’s not made clear why this is the fault of the town or why, if it is, they don’t just move someplace else.

Along comes Darryl, the devil himself, who is sexy, seductive, and sarcastic. As written, however, Darryl has at best one-and-a-half dimensions. The devil has come across as far more well-rounded when characterized by Goethe, Milton, and Douglass Wallop (who created Mr. Applegate for Damn Yankees). Dempsey and Rowe – or perhaps John Updike, author of the novel that is the musical’s ultimate source – fail to get below Darryl’s surface, making him not enigmatic but uninteresting.

Under Darryl’s tutelage, the three women discover their inner lusts and heretofore unknown powers, which they find can be used for evil as well as for pleasure (not, it seems, for anything altruistic or kind).

Yet even as he empowers Alexandra, Sukie, and Jane, at bottom Darryl is a bitter misogynist: He even says to Alexandra that she is “worse than nothing. You’re a woman!” Whatever he has done to reshape these women’s personalities, it has ultimately been for his own pleasure.

In other words, this play is undergirded by a twisted, twisted set of values. It may look like musical comedy on the surface; its ending may appear to be redemptive in nature; its darkness may be interpreted as satire; but when all is said and done, The Witches of Eastwick is little more than a celebration of the polymorphously perverse.

Still, there is the nagging fact that Schaeffer’s staging is creatively entertaining. He even gets laughs out of props, immodestly placed. Schaeffer uses a little girl – listed in the program as “Little Girl” (Brittany O’Grady) – to smart effect as a link between scenes while also taking some of the edge off the darker moments of the play. Ensemble numbers like “Dirty Laundry” and “Dance with the Devil” bring out the best of the singers, orchestra, and technical team. (“Dirty Laundry” and the Sondheimesque “Evil” are the best-written numbers in the show.)

It is in “Dance with the Devil,” as an example, that Schaeffer’s current interpretation of Witches shows its evolution from his vision in London. The character of Michael, Alexandra’s son, was played in London by Swedish pop star Peter Jöback; here at Signature, Michael is played by James Gardiner.

Jöback portrayed Michael as shy, unassuming, and unsure of himself; by Darryl’s teaching him how to “Dance with the Devil,” Jöback’s Michael charismatically emerged from his chrysalis as a rock star, ripping off his shirt to the shrieks of teeming Norwegian teenage fans.

Gardiner, too, portrays Michael as shy, unassuming, and unsure of himself; his boy-next-door is goofily self-effacing. By the end of “Dance with the Devil,” however, Gardiner’s Michael is now more sure of himself – still the boy-next-door, but with a lusty veneer that wasn’t there before. Goofy still, but not charismatic, he’s all the more endearing for the change – and at the end of the play, his is the only character who displays common decency that we can respect, but in a gesture so small that it is likely to be missed in the din.

The ultimate problem with The Witches of Eastwick is that the central conflict is never clearly defined. Is it Felicia versus the three women? Is it Darryl’s new values versus the town’s old values? (Considering that all three of his protégés have been sleeping around before his arrival, his seduction of them is not exactly “new,” nor does it contribute to their delinquency.) Is the conflict internal within each of the women as they struggle to come to terms with their own insecurities? Is it all of the above and, if so, why is it so muddled?

With the central conflict unclear, the “resolution” at play’s end seems hapless and arbitrary. We feel neither joy nor pride at the result, and are left to wonder just whose values have triumphed – if anyone’s at all.

As a technical achievement, The Witches of Eastwick is nonpareil. It puts to good use all of the facilities of The Max, the larger stage area of Signature’s new theatre building in Shirlington. The special effects are dazzling, and should not be disregarded. Yet dazzle in this case serves largely to cover up the sadly marginal quality of the play itself.

Should The Witches of Eastwick reach Broadway, will it have the same stellar success as The Music Man before it? To paraphrase one of the songs in the show, “I Wish [It] May” – but I wouldn’t bet on it.

The American premiere of The Witches of Eastwick continues through July 15 at Signature Theatre, 2800 S. Stafford Street in Arlington. Ticket prices are $38 through $63 and are available at Tickets.com (800-955-5566) and on line at www.signature-theatre.org. This production contains strong language and sexual themes and is recommended for mature audiences only (ages 14 and up).

The creative team behind the American premiere of The Witches of Eastwick:


Eric Schaeffer, director



John Dempsey, book and lyrics



Dana P. Rowe, composer


Production photos of The Witches of Eastwick by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Signature Theatre.

Friday, June 15, 2007

History as Drama: Keegan Theatre's '1776'

I'm playing a bit of catch-up now. Here is my review of Keegan Theatre's 1776, now in production at the Church Street Theatre in Washington:

History as Drama:
Keegan Theatre’s ‘1776’
Rick Sincere
Metro Herald Entertainment Editor

Early in his best-selling book about the pivotal year of the American Revolution, 1776, historian David McCullough writes:
It was [the legislature] as theater, and gripping, even if the outcome, like much of theater, was understood all along. For importantly it was also well understood, and deeply felt, that the historic chamber was again the setting for history, that issues of the utmost consequence, truly the fate of nations, were at stake.
McCullough was referring, not (as one might think) to the Continental Congress’ deliberations about the Declaration of Independence, but of the British Parliament’s reaction to King George III’s first major report on the rebellion in the colonies, months before the patriots/traitors in Philadelphia declared that “these united colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states …”

Reflecting retrospectively on historical events, most of us assume that they were inevitable. What we often forget is that the people living through those events had no sense of inevitability. For them – like for us living today – the future was uncertain, however hopeful and optimistic they permitted themselves to be.

Peter Stone and Sherman Edwards’ 1969 musical play, 1776, now in a new Keegan Theatre production at the Church Street Theatre near Dupont Circle in Washington, has that sense of uncertainty at its core. Although we know, 230 years on, the outcome of the debates, discussions, and deliberations through that hot Philadelphia summer, the drama of the situation – Congress as theater, as it were – grips us through two hours, making us want to find out just how this conflict will find satisfactory resolution.

1776 is an odd musical. Its structure is unique in musical theatre; it begins with a 10-minute musical scene that relaxes into a long, 30-minute sequence without music that can stand on its own as a one-act play. Its cast includes 23 men and only two women. A major character appears near the beginning, sings a rousing number, and then disappears for the rest of the play. The central character is, by his own admission and with the musical agreement of others on stage, “obnoxious and disliked.”

On paper, 1776 looks like a sure failure. Yet what doesn’t work in theory works marvelously in practice. In concept, 1776 looks like a bore. On stage, 1776 is lively, intelligent, and scintillating.

This is particularly true under the brilliant direction of Keegan Theatre’s Mark Rhea, who understands the potential pitfalls and shortcomings of 1776 and turns them into assets.

He starts by taking advantage of the full surface of the stage in the narrow and cozy Church Street Theatre. 1776 uses the deepest parts of the Church Street stage; in fact, having seen several productions there in the past, I was never aware that there was so much space available until now.

The spatial depth permits Rhea to arrange and rearrange his cast into tableaux that frame the action. It also allows him to assign each of the supporting actors a personal space that helps define his character – something already supported by Stone’s book and Edwards’ lyrics, which extract from a historical mass individuated personalities of the 20 Founding Fathers portrayed.

1776 was not written with hit songs in mind. There’s not a lot of hummability in the score, aside from Martha Jefferson’s “He Plays the Violin” and the ballad “Mama Look Sharp,” neither of which are essential to advance the action. Most of the score is closer to recitative, designed to establish character, express philosophical (!) points of view, and move the plot forward.

Because of this, the prerecorded, synthesized musical accompaniment (an “innovation” that caused me to wince at a community-theatre production of Camelot a few weeks ago) was barely noticeable and hardly objectionable, especially since the singing (so to speak) took center stage.

A successful production of 1776 rises or falls on the performances of its principals, and in Keegan’s case, it rises. Mick Tinder’s John Adams -- who is, as noted, “obnoxious and disliked” by his fellow statesmen – is solid, focused, stubborn, and discerning. Robert Leembruggen’s Benjamin Franklin is impish, flirtatious, and aware of his own celebrity. James Finley seems a bit wet-behind-the-ears as Jefferson, but then again, so was Jefferson.

Even for Americans who think they know the story of the Declaration of Independence, few are aware of the opposition to it. (It is widely thought that, during the Revolutionary War, one-third of Americans supported independence, one-third were loyal to the Crown, and one-third were indifferent.) Personifying this opposition in 1776 is the character of John Dickinson, a delegate from Pennsylvania, here played by Kevin Adams. Adams nails the part. His Dickinson is erudite, determined, and plainspoken.

One casting error may be found in Edward Rutledge, who was the youngest signer of the Declaration of Independence (at just 26). The Rutledge of 1776 has the closest thing to an eleven o’clock number (“Molasses to Rum to Slaves”) when, as a delegate from South Carolina, he objects to the condemnation of slavery in Jefferson’s draft declaration. Rutledge’s objection looks to be an impassable hurdle until Adams agrees to a compromise. The casting problem is that Dave Jourdan – as good as he is in the role – is at least 20 years older than the historical Rutledge would have been.

That aside, there are so many good performances in 1776 that it seems unfair to single out just a few.

Perhaps it was just fortuosity, perhaps advance planning, but Keegan Theatre’s 1776 closes its run on the Fourth of July. I can’t imagine a better way to celebrate Independence Day – or the days leading up to it – than by strolling over to the Church Street Theatre to see the show.

1776, by Peter Stone and Sherman Edwards, continues through July 4 at the Church Street Theatre, Thurday-Saturday at 8:00 p.m.; Sunday matinee at 2:00 p.m.; added performance Saturday, June 23 at 2:00 p.m.; no performance Sunday, June 24; Special 4th Celebration Performance Wednesday, July 4, at 2:00 p.m. Ticket prices: $30 general admission, $25 students (with ID) and seniors (60+). To reserve tickets: call 703-892-0202, ext 2 or email to boxoffice@keegantheatre.com.

Still Witty After All These Years

It's a busy time for theatre critics. Last week it was Keegan Theatre's 1776. Last night it was Keegan's The Importance of Being Earnest (see below). Tonight it is Signature Theatre's U.S. premiere of The Witches of Eastwick. Sunday it will be the Shakespeare Theatre's Hamlet. Hardly time to breathe, much less compose a review -- especially considering the commute from Charlottesville to D.C. and back.

Here's one for today. Perhaps more to come over the next 72 hours.

The Importance of Being Earnest:
Still Witty After All These Years
Rick Sincere
Metro Herald Entertainment Editor

(ARLINGTON) --- The Importance of Being Earnest is one of those plays that, despite being produced frequently and upon multiple viewings, never grows stale.

The Internet Broadway Data Base (IBDB) lists eight known Broadway productions of Oscar Wilde’s comedy of manners between 1895 and 1977 (though none since). This does not include the Broadway production of Travesties, Tom Stoppard’s 1975 Tony-winning play that uses large portions of Earnest as a play-within-a-play. There have been nine film or TV versions (including one with an all-black cast, directed in 1992 by Kurt Baker), according to IMDB.

Benefiting from being in the public domain (like Shakespeare’s plays), The Importance of Being Earnest lends itself to being kneaded, rolled, snipped, rearranged, reset, recostumed, and even mauled (as in Joe Banno and Jeff Keenan’s hilarious but ultimately unsatisfying all-male version for Source Theatre Company in 2000, relocated to Washington and Rehoboth Beach). The most recent film took the play out of the drawing room and brought it into the wider social world of late-Victorian London and the English countryside, even including a hot-air balloon landing for a dramatic entrance.

Because the flexibility of Earnest lends itself to so much experimentation, it is refreshing to encounter a production that pares the play down to its essence, letting the words and characters shine through without frills.

This is what Keegan Theatre’s New Island Project has to offer at Arlington’s Theatre on the Run, an intimate black box that is perfectly suited for hearing Wilde’s epigrammatic dialogue delivered, generally, with aplomb.

Director Dorothy Neumann has reduced the set to a few wooden benches, a tea cart, a movable doorframe, and a piano (used to great effect). The costumes are full and reflective of late-19th century England, but not so elaborate as to inhibit the actors’ movement.

Neumann has a flair for pulling line readings from her actors that are just-so. With surprising turns of vocal modulation, she and her cast have transformed many of Wilde’s witticisms from the clichés they have become through a century of repetition into surprising and trenchant comments on life and society.

The two pairs of lovers – and by this I mean Mike Innocenti as Algernon and Christopher Dinolfo as Jack, and Suzanne Edgar as Cecily and Erin Buchanan as Gwendolyn – fit together delightfully. Unfortunately – or perhaps this is what Wilde intended – the male-male and female-female pairs have far more chemistry between themselves than the male-female pairs that are the ostensible stimulant for the plot. As an example of this chemical bonding, the set-piece in which Cecily and Gwendolyn share tea on the terrace in near silence evoked guffaws from the audience, even as the two of them did little beside refusing to look at each other.

Barbara Klein, as Lady Bracknell, ostentatiously enjoys one of the meatiest roles for women-of-a-certain-age in the theatrical literature. Wilde gives her the lion’s share of his best epigrams, and Klein revels in them without overdoing it. She says as much by raising an eyebrow as she does by bellowing “Prism!” in the revelatory third act unraveling of Wilde’s thickly-plotted (and nearly Dickensian), interwoven storylines.

Prism, played by Rosemary Regan, and the Reverend Chasuble, played by John F. Degen (returning to the stage after a two-decade absence, long overdue), suggest autumnal romance and affection that drifts dangerously close to lust, but without crossing that line. The tension that results from Prism’s prissiness and Chasuble’s self-effacing shyness is spot on.

One odd choice Neumann makes – perhaps out of necessity – is her casting of a woman as Lane and Merriman (respectively, Algernon’s and Jack’s manservants). Played as a female character (in full Victorian housemaid’s costume), Melissa Hmelnicky’s presence and responses as Lane to Algernon’s commentary on marriage and courtship lends an edgy, if not awkward, aspect to the dialogue, and one that is not entirely believable in the context of the play and its times. (The problem is not so evident in the scenes with Merriman, whose presence is more utilitarian.)

My only quibble with this show is that there were a few moments in the play where the actors stumbled over Wilde’s lines, which require a precise delivery. For the most part, these stumbles were minor and probably unnoticed by the majority of the audience. Perhaps this was due to the actors having had a few days off between the opening weekend and the performance we saw.

Still, as I say, this is a small quibble and should not discourage anyone from heading to Theatre on the Run to enjoy the delights of The Importance of Being Earnest.

The Importance of Being Earnest, by Oscar Wilde, continues through July 7 at Theatre on the Run, 3700 S. Four Mile Run Drive, Arlington. Performances Thursday-Saturday at 8:00 p.m.; Saturday matinees at 2:00 p.m. Tickets $20 general admission, $15 students and seniors. Special group rates for groups of ten or more. To reserve: telephone 703-892-0202 or email newisland@keegantheatre.com.