Tag Archives: Musicals

Queen of the Mist

Queen of the Mist is a new musical by Michael John LaChiusa (Marie Christine, The Wild Party), which the Transport Group produced at the Judson Gym in the West Village last month.  Starring the fiercely charismatic Mary Testa, the musical tells the story of Anna “Annie” Edson Taylor  (1838 – 1921), the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel and survive—and on her 63rdbirthday (in 1901), at that.

The musical is significant for placing a middle-aged woman squarely at the center of its narrative.  In fact, only one other performer has a stable character part—Andrew Samonsky as Annie’s drunken, rough-hewn, opportunistic manager, Frank Russell.  The rest of the cast is a quintet of terrific actor/singers who cycle through a number of subsidiary roles, all written to support the journey of the central character.

Testa more than meets the challenges of a role that requires her to be a stalwart, pragmatic single woman in an age when women were much more often domesticated in heterosexual nuclear families.  Annie is a dreamer, a woman who insists, in one of the show’s best songs, “I have greatness in me.”  How often do we see musicals about older, single women determined to actualize their dreams?

The show’s structure, as well as its story, makes it unique.  This is not a typical “opposites attract,” heterosexual love story that resolves the relationships and the musical world’s metaphorical social divisions by the performance’s end.  Instead, Queen of the Mist keeps Annie alone throughout, and her relationship with Russell one of affection and grudging love, but not romance.  This makes Annie a remarkably original character even by present-day standards, let alone for an actual historical woman who came of age in the 19th century.

Before her idea to ride over the falls coalesces, Annie tries and fails to make economic ends meet through various schemes.  Queen of the Mist’s book cleverly introduces us to her through long monologues of cunning and manipulation meant to distract her landlords and buy her time to pay her rent. In one scene after another, she’s evicted from her lodgings.

Annie tells stories about once having been married, though she never was.  She lies about her age, moving herself nicely (over the course of a scene or a song or two) from 47, through her 50s, to 63, her actual age when she did what she called her “deed.”

Her sister, Jane, who lived with her husband and children in Auburn, New York, provides Annie’s gender foil.  Ensemble-member Theresa McCarthy is wonderful as the pinched, submissive woman, who was happy to be a mother and wife, with no ambitions but to make her home.  Annie wanted much more than that.  Her outsized expectations chafed at her brother-in-law, who insisted Annie leave his house on the one occasion Jane rescued her sister from indigence.

Annie’s single-minded passion to distinguish herself and to make “the green” (as she calls money) keeps her from intimacy with her family or her few friends.  She carefully planned out her ride down the falls, ordering a specially constructed, scientifically designed barrel and attending to the details of the stunt’s public relations as much as to the rudimentary technology that she hoped would save her life.

Annie persuades Russell to be her manager so that he can carry out her plan for how her stunt will appear to the public.  Russell is an alcoholic accustomed to exploiting his clients, but he’s fascinated by Annie’s work ethic.  His surprising affection for this unusual woman is quite moving in Samonsky’s subtle rendition.  He can’t emulate her strict morality; in fact, he steals her barrel after her successful trip down the falls, and employs an impersonator to play Annie in a seedy burlesque about her deed.

The raw space of the Judson Gym was designed for Queen of the Mist to evoke the banks of the river that runs into the rushing waters of Niagara Falls.  The divided audience sat on risers facing each other across the narrow playing space, with two smaller playing spaces at either end.  The intimacy of the stage meant that Testa could easily project Annie’s majesty into the audience.

Testa inhabited fully a role that seems to have been written for her.  Her carriage perfectly erect, her hands quiet at her sides, she used her face and her eyes and her large eloquent voice to command the stage, communicating the power and determination of a woman who had to live by her wits in an age when women had few opportunities for agency.

Queen of the Mist underlines how unseemly it was for women to seek public attention at the turn of the 20th century.  Nevertheless, Annie did go down in history as the first person to survive the plunge down Niagara Falls.

But after she accomplishes her dream, Annie becomes strangely distanced from herself and her adoring but finally impatient public.  Queen of the Mist’s second act quiets her down a bit and the show loses some of its focus and verve.

It’s not quite clear whether Annie is supposed to be disappointed about the reception to her stunt and how quickly she passes from the public eye, or if something else has suddenly drawn the wind from her considerable sails.  She also begins to lose her eyesight.  LaChiusa seems uncertain whether this is meant to be metaphorical or simply factual.

Finally, then, despite its considerable charms, Queen of the Mist seems a bit unsure what it’s about.  Is it a Floyd Collins-style indictment of the press and the way that it did or didn’t make heroes of people?   The press badgers Annie for years to share the specifics of what she felt in that barrel as she moved down the river toward the falls.  But Annie believes the fact that she did the deed should have been enough.  In the show’s 11th hour revelation scene, after much prompting and suspense, Annie finally confesses what she felt during her ride down the falls.  She bares her heart as she describes her terror and her love for all those she feared she might never see again.

But Queen of the Mist doesn’t explain why she was reluctant to share these details all along, and what her hesitancy means for the story’s larger implications.  Does the show mean to suggest that Annie should have been more emotionally available in her life?  That a kind of emotional hubris was her downfall?

Or does the show respect Annie for refusing to pander to sensationalism by describing her emotions and the terrifying sensation of plummeting over the falls, in the dark, with pounding water pummeling the thin wooden membrane between your body and your death?

Hard to say.  In a talk-back after the performance we saw, Testa and director Jack Cummings III said that Annie wanted to “own” her story, and felt that the fact of her deed was enough.  We weren’t quite sure, however, that the show itself made that clear.

Nonetheless, Queen of the Mist has wonderful potential and a terrific cast who spoke eloquently about the project.  Here’s hoping Annie Edson Taylor gets another chance at fame.

The Feminist Spectator

Queen of the Mist, Judson Gym, December 1, 2011.

Link to original post on Blogspot.

Spiderman and Sister Act

After all the press brouhaha about Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark for these many years, and the vituperative reviews from most of the mainstream critics, I was surprised to find the show so benign when I finally saw it.  Thanks to Jenny Slattery, who’s a stalwart assistant stage manager onSpiderman, I wrangled house seats and a backstage tour on which Jenny generously took me and FS2 after a recent Sunday matinee.  We had seats on the aisle, which meant that Spidy landed by us on one of his several second act flying feats, and sat close enough to be able to watch the actors work while still taking in the scenery, which is perhaps the show’s most breathtaking accomplishment.

But watching Spiderman and, a few weeks later, a Wednesday matinee of the musical adaptationSister Act prompted me to think again about the differences between film and theatre, since both shows adapt their stories from cinematic (and, of course, for Spiderman, comic book) source material.  Spiderman goes to great lengths and historic expense to recreate the CGI magic of the movies for a theatre audience.  But inevitably, all the cash spent on all those effects only manages to provide a few moments of theatrical exhilaration.

The flying sequences offer a joyous kind of fun, especially in the climactic battle between Spiderman and the Green Goblin, who fly above and beneath and around one another in a fast, dizzying, carefully choreographed scene of high-flying almost-interaction.  Jenny told us that in addition to the physical prowess required to pull off the moments, the performer playing the flying Spiderman had to demonstrate that he’s having fun in the air.  And it shows.  In an otherwise earthbound production, the flying scenes literally soar, and meet the promise of all the advanced hype.

What exactly is it that’s so much fun about those scenes?  Without green-screen technology to erase the fly lines, what we’re watching is a too human man hooked to a complicated harness.  The apparatus propels him above the audience and lets him land up on the balcony and then fly back to the stage, where he perches on platforms that lead him off into the wings.  Hiding the fly lines is impossible; in fact, it’s what the audience has come to see.

We’re not enticed by the magic of pretending—although in a way, I suppose we are.  We’re more attracted, I think, to the notion that no matter how fleshy our bodies, imagination and stage technology can still make them seem to fly.  Perhaps we’re there to practice the sometimes archaic suspension of disbelief that movies have made too easy for us.  Perhaps we’re there to see something as old-fashioned as an actor flying through an actual theatre to remind ourselves that live performance still relies on a delightfully quotidian sleight of hand to make its claims on our joy.

The rest of Spiderman, however, is mired in an unimaginative, predictable story about power gone awry and the young innocent whose ethics are sullied in his quest to right wrongs.  Since the audience is given little to think about—the dialogue is wooden and the songs, as reported, unmemorable—we just watch instead.  The inventive costumes and the cinematically styled set provide enough eye candy to entertain for the show’s short while.

But until those flying sequences, underneath all that comic book armature, it’s difficult for the actors to engage enough to project any charisma or spark.  Even the inventive, compelling masks designed by Julie Taymor (the show’s original director) don’t integrate into the story well enough to give their wearers anything to act.

That’s what makes the flying so much fun.  The actor might be tethered to those wires, but he looks so free, it’s impossible not to be breathless with pleasure while we watch him.  The flying sequences tease out the limits of theatre while putting them to the test.  After all, we’re not watching Spiderman chase the Green Goblin against a Gotham night sky, but against the backdrop of the Foxwoods Theatre in Manhattan.  And however it’s been retrofitted to seat as many people as possible, and to provide the scaffolding for those acrobatics, it’s still a mundane Broadway theatre.

As we turned our heads to watch Spiderman fly, we could also see our fellow spectators registering their delight.  In our 360 degree views, what we mostly saw was one another, faces lit with expectation and pleasure and a little frisson of fear, half expecting the stunts to stop in mid-stream or mid-air, as they’ve been reported to do so frequently on Spiderman.  At our matinee, the flying worked without a problem.

But the comparison of those few moments with the rest of the show seemed almost sad, as though compared to all that soaring about in the house, what actually happened on stage could only seem clunky and even faker than it already admits to being.  In such a context, even the wig-tape hugging the hair and microphones to the actors’ foreheads seemed quaint and kind of melancholic, the modern-day greasepaint that reminds everyone that the wizard really is just a man, and that some stories are best told in the form in which we’ve grown up loving them.

Likewise, in Sister Act, the only thing flying is the occasional musical note, not because the songs are inspiring, but because the performances sometimes rise above their melodies.  The cast of this movie-cum-musical is terrific, making much ado about nothing, really, except a pale, three-dimensional but rickety adaptation of an already dated 1992 Whoopi Goldberg vehicle.  In fact, Sister Act takes great care with its lead, Patina Miller (who won a 2011 Tony Award for her performance), to steer her physically and emotionally away from Goldberg’s down-to-earth, rather hapless if happily sarcastic impersonation of the nightclub singer, Deloris Van Cartier.

Miller is everything Goldberg isn’t in the original movie.  She’s tall and willowy, and possibly beautiful, although it’s hard to tell underneath the 1970s-style Afro wigs and the impossibly long fake eye lashes that made her look vaguely cross-eyed from where I was sitting.  This production, like Spiderman, seems all about the wig-tape, which for those in the orchestra proves a constant and distracting reminder that the 70s were then and the 2010s are now.

All of which begs the question—why adapt this film to the stage?  And why, as the famed theatre historian Oscar Brockett always asked of any production, why now?  And why set it in the 1970s, except, perhaps to lend credence to its barely nascent sense of race rights?

Sister Act admits to its own anachronisms, with its disco balls and its short skirts and purple suede lace-up boots and gaudy chunky jewelry.  But despite a visual motif that wants to keep the show locked in a comfortable historical remove, the performances—particularly by Miller and Victoria Clark as the world-weary Mother Superior (in the film’s droll Maggie Smith role)—bring a pleasant but jarring up-to-the-momentness to the production.  And that knowingness about the strange historical simultaneity of the project cuts the production down at the knees, as especially Clark seems to be winking at its patented absurdity.

The production begins promisingly, with a cast of mostly African American gangsters and cabaret singers gathering in a local mob-controlled dive bar for Deloris Van Cartier (like the jewelry, as she reminds everyone to whom she’s introduced by wiggling her fingers and her wrist) to sing her audition for her boyfriend/cabaret owner Curtis.  But Curtis refuses to hire her, and belittles her by re-gifting to her one of his wife’s old fur coats.  When she storms into the bar to confront him, Deloris inadvertently witnesses Curtis kill someone.  She goes to the police, where a sweet if sweaty young Black cop named Eddie Souther protects her by housing her in a near-by convent in an economically failing church.  And so begins the plot that’s been a popular culture staple since time immemorial—the fish out of water who makes the locals swim like she does and enjoy it.

In this case, though, there’s something unsettling about watching Deloris leave what seemed an African American community to go underground in a resolutely white nun’s enclave. Although eventually, two of the “choir nuns” are performed by the African American actors who first served as Deloris’s back-up singers, the convent’s whiteness is stark and Deloris’s racial difference not at all funny.

The audience at our Wednesday matinee was mostly women, probably half of them African American. I couldn’t help but wonder what they must be thinking, seeing Deloris become the butt of the joke for the white nuns. Because even though their sad, off-tune, uninspired singing and their innocence in the ways of the world is supposed to provide fodder for Deloris’s worldly ambitions and know-how, the power of dominance twists the image so that Deloris’s exceptionalism becomes uncomfortably tokenized and disempowered.

Whoopi Goldberg, in Sister Act and much of her film work, became a master at a kind of subtly resistant racial commentary, usurping whatever interpretation might have been meant by her casting and using it to her own advantage to call out how her body and face were singular in the scenes in which she appeared. But although Miller’s voice is powerful, her face is surprisingly immobile on stage, which makes the trademark Goldberg double-takes and wry asides, which delivered her resistance, fall flat in Miller’s performance.

Instead, Clark, as Mother Superior, gets all the best facial expressions, and uses them well to raise herself slightly above the proceedings at hand. She conveys fatigue at the ways of the world as well as the ways of her church in “Haven’t Got a Prayer.” And she rolls her eyes not just at Deloris and her un-worshipful behavior, but at the absurdity of the whole shebang. And in the process, she nearly steals the show.

Deloris of course transforms the choir from a bunch of dullards into a glitter-clad, disco-balled, A Chorus Line-inspired bunch of Village People, which brightens the production and makes it irresistibly fun. And the speed with which this adaptation moves means that it takes Deloris very little time to improve the nuns’ performance and to transmute them into a crowd-pleasing, money-raising spectacle.

Sister Act’s jokes are predictable but still amusing, as is the nuns’ newly invigorated singing. Peppered throughout are amusing gay and Jewish jokes (Yiddish, one of the nuns explains to another, is the language of performers; and the couple trying to buy the church are two gay men who decide to save the order when they fall in love with the singing).  Sister Act is a lot like Shrek (the film and the production); it works on two levels at once, offering a different set of laughs for the queer and Jewish cognoscenti (and we knew who we were by who was heard hooting when).

The show’s penultimate number is a female duet to “Sister Act,” sung by Deloris and Mother Superior, which makes it seem slightly queer.  Ultimately, they’re the couple who reconciles by the musical’s end, instead of the straight opposites whom musicals more typically bring together (as Stacy Wolf—FS2—argues so persuasively in Changed for Good:  A Feminist History of the Broadway Musical).

Likewise, Sister Act’s representations of masculinity are savvier than the tired plot and retread film story would lead you to expect.  As Eddie Souther, Chester Gregory plays the self-effacing, aw-shucks Daniel Breaker role (Gregory even looks a bit like Breaker).  Souther, who knew Deloris in high school, always broke out into a sweat around her (hence his “Sweaty Eddie” moniker). Gregory gets some laughs from drenched arm pit sight gags, but his performance is sweet as he both comes to Deloris’s rescue and manages to be rather hapless about his own authority.

Even the erstwhile villain, Curtis (Kingsley Leggs), is defanged by Deloris’s proud resistance to his intimidation.  Only Demond Green, as TJ, does a weird, rather retrograde turn as Curtis’s stupid-but-good-hearted nephew.  Green plays the character as a Tracy Morgan knock-off; given Morgan’s recent homophobic remarks, the performance seems less benign than it’s meant to be.

Sister Act aims to be a crowd-pleaser, and that it did.  Everyone around us was delighted as they stood for the curtain call.  (“I haven’t seen anything this good since Jersey Boys,” one woman told us happily.)  But still, like SpidermanSister Act on stage can only point to its own lumbering liveness.  The triumphal song and dance numbers are great fun, but the production is filled with furniture and things that move on and off with the revolve center stage.  They only serve to remind the audience of how time-inefficient and laden with stuff theatre like this can be.

On the other hand, in one of the show’s best moments, Eddie, in his number “I Could be That Guy,” imagines himself transformed from the schleppy police officer he is into an African American John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever, replete with white suit, high pointed finger, and cocky canted leg.  Walking through a sort of Skid Row, Eddie is surrounded by “bums” who, at the appropriate moment, rip off his police uniform to reveal a version of Tony Manaro’s dancing outfit.  And then as the dream ends, the bums rip off that layer to reveal his old police getup underneath.  His transformations happen so deftly, they really do look like magic.

The exhilarating, old-fashioned kind of stage magic, that is.  The kind that’s the best.

The Feminist Spectator

Link to orignal post on Blogspot.

The FS Saw . . . The Shaggs

I saw The Shaggs Philosophy of the World at Playwrights Horizons on Wednesday (May 25, 2011), in its second preview performance.  Based on a true storyThe Shaggs describes how Dot, Betty, and Helen Wiggins, sisters from Fremont, NH, were coerced into becoming a band by their mercurial, rather psychotic father, Austin, whose plan for his daughters’ musical career came to him as a vision from his dead mother.  The three young women had no musical training or interest before he pulled them out of high school, bought them two electric guitars and a drum set, and ordered them to learn to play.  The musical traces their reluctant artistry and his increasingly crazy designs on their futures.

Austin uses all the family’s money to cut an album that gets no airplay, and tries to book gigs that take them nowhere, essentially because no one but him thinks his daughters are talented.  The musical traces how each of the daughters suffers differently from the way his dreams constrain their own.

With a story by Joy Gregory (who wrote the book and lyrics), Gunnar Madsen (also music and lyrics), and John Langs (who also directed), The Shaggs is a fascinating, affecting show.  The story would be entirely unlikely if it weren’t true.  The frame puts Austin (Peter Friedman) in conversation a bit too often with his deceased mother to deliver the requisite exposition.  But scenes among the sisters are full of nuance and heart, of hope for the potential of what they might become and sadness over what they know they really are.  The family’s interactions with the amateur and professional music world convey the awkwardness of people from a small town in the 1960s trying to achieve stardom, a goal that only Austin truly desires.

Because the girls are teenagers when Austin’s plan begins to take shape, The Shaggs also illustrates how difficult it was for them to maintain normal childhoods.  Betty (Sarah Sokolovic) tries to play up her feminine wiles but her advances are rejected by Kyle (Cory Michael Smith), the young man whose dream is to be, as he describes it, a cosmonaut.  Kyle’s affections run to Helen (Emily Walton), the youngest Wiggin daughter, who’s infatuated with him in return.

Helen can’t quite see anything distinctive in her future.  Even before her father sets them on their wrong-headed musical path, she decides she’ll distinguish herself by refusing to speak.  Dot (Jamey Hood), the oldest, is most determined to please her father and bend to his will.  Her ambivalence about his strange notions conflicts with her loyalty.  (Her one solo is called “Don’t Say Nothing Bad About My Dad.”)

That each of the sisters is so clearly different from one another provides part of the musical’s charm.  Hood, Sokolovic, and Walton do a beautiful job individually and as a trio, finding complicated allegiances and friction among the sisters while they suffer together their father’s sometimes harsh and isolating, utterly ineffectual training regimens.

In a repeated sight gag that describes how desperate Betty and Helen are to free themselves from their father’s tyranny, they leave the family home through a bedroom window, throwing themselves head first over the ledge and being whooshed out into the night.  When Austin realizes their escape route and boards it up, their suffocating imprisonment is horrifying.

The Shaggs is a small show with a very consistent narrative and pop-musical tone.  It evokes the stultifying environment of small town life, with its hierarchies and affectations and its community and camaraderie.  Annie Golden is lovely as the beleaguered mother who wants to help her husband pursue his dreams, but can’t fathom his obsession with making their daughters famous.  Walton brings sweetness to Helen’s silence and makes her mute expressions full of meaning and appeal. Smith is affecting as the earnest Kyle, who suffers his own injustices at Austin’s hands.  Kevin Cahoon and Steve Routman, who rotate through various supporting male roles, bring just the right level of affectionate caricature to each one.

As Austin, Peter Friedman stretches out of his more typical abject characters into that of a forceful patriarch whose madness drives his family over the brink of disaster.  Unfortunately, Austin’s obsession and brutality make him rather one-note; the daughters’ scenes are more compelling than those in which their father stokes his insanity.

Gregory, Madsen, and Langs also creatively solve the challenge of how to create a good musical about talent-poor musicians.  The audience hears The Shaggs rehearsing and understands their unfortunate limitations.  But when the girls enter the recording studio and Austin listens to them cut their demo tape, we hear them as he does, as sparkling, charismatic talents who can sing and play and even dance.

When the scene cuts to the recording engineers, listening to the band through the studio monitor, they hear them as they are—off key, uninspired, and performatively flat.  Maintaining these two spheres of their musicianship throughout The Shaggs—the fantasy and the reality—allows the story to be told through the very idiom the band couldn’t quite master.

Ironically, Lester Bangs, writing for Rolling Stone, rediscovered The Shaggs in 1980, when punk rock created a context in which their atonal, affectless music made sense and even seemed radical.  But in The Shaggs, for the Wiggins sisters, their father’s control over their lives can’t be redeemed.  Even after his early death of a heart attack, they can’t shake loose his damaging legacy and the humiliation they suffered from his misbegotten dreams.

The Feminist Spectator

The Shaggs Philosophy of the World, Playwrights Horizons and New York Theatre Workshop, at Playwrights Horizons.  Opens June 7, 2011.

Link to original post on Blogspot.


Fox TV’s Glee began its formal run two weeks ago, after attracting a great deal of buzz from its summer premiere teaser. And rightly so. Produced by Ryan Murphy, the creator of the much racier but equally off beat and refreshingly bizarre series Nip/Tuck, Glee’s pleasures come from its characters’ slightly insane quirks and the actors’ fully committed, somehow fully tongue-in-cheek performances. The smart writing creates plausible but slightly skewed situations as, for only one instance, when Mercedes Jones (Amber Riley), the African American diva/belter, (“Effie,” as in Dreamgirls, as a snide subsidiary character calls her) yearns to have a boyfriend and actually thinks she can hook up with Kurt Hummel (Chris Colfer), the obviously gay chorus boy. Their cross-purposed relationship quickly fails, but offers the kids (and Murphy) a chance to underline the series’ “I’m okay/you’re okay and it’s good to be different” message.

Somehow, the relatively obvious and insistently repeated moral of each episode so far doesn’t feel heavy-handed or get stale, in part because it, too, is delivered with just the right satirical touch, as though Murphy is poking open fun at all those movies in which the “believe in yourself and your dreams” motto is dragged out for the inspirational ending. Each episode of Glee trades in these platitudes satirically enough that you’re encouraged to respond both cynically and sincerely. Glee’s fun comes from its willingness to find earnestness endearing and necessary, rather than allowing the forces of skepticism and apathy to win out.

The narrative threads that develop these meanings are predictable, but always just wrong enough to point out how absurd they’ve always been, not just here in Glee but in any film or TV show that continues to want us to invest in the “follow your dreams” kind of truth. For instance, Finn Hudson (Cory Monteith) the hunky but soft and vaguely feminine quarterback who sings like a dream and joins glee club despite his teammates’ fear for his masculinity, might easily remind viewers of the Zac Efron character in the High School Musical films.

Finn, though, is taller and has more bulk, which ironically makes his performances that much more fey. He anchors the club, which consists of a Bad News Bears-style assemblage of mis-matched singers and dancers. Along with the African American diva, Mercedes, and Kurt, the drama queen she thinks she can seduce, glee club includes Artie McAdams (Kevin McHale), a young man in a wheelchair, who rolls and does wheelies while others do their steps; Tina (Jenna Ushkowitz), an Asian-American young woman who stutters; and Rachel Berry (Lea Michele), a serious singer who’s in love with Finn and an outsider to the more popular cheerleader crowd that rules McKinley High where the series is set. Rachel, the character’s on-line bio notes, has two fathers.

In fact, Glee flaunts its incipient queerness quite happily. Stephen Tobolowsky performs in a recurring role as Sandy, a proudly swishy teacher who wears pastels and a sweater constantly tied around his shoulders. In the premiere,Sandy was fired for fraternizing with an under-aged male student, but in a recent episode, he returns to McKinley High, since the restraining order requires only that he stay 50 feet away from students. Sandy’s more flamboyant over-the-top middle-aged gayness contrasts nicely with Kurt’s teenage queer style. Although these two are the only explicitly queer characters, Glee addresses in many ways how masculinity is performed and what it means, and each character, happily, stretches the envelope of normativity.

The series’ tone is colored with wistfulness, since the glee club at McKinley High is lead by the tenacious and idealistic Spanish teacher, Will Schuester (Matthew Morrison), who was the club’s star back in his own high school days. Part of the first three episodes’ comedy come from Will’s insistence that his students replicate his early 80s successes by performing disco numbers. Will is clueless but sweet, and his faith in his ragtag band of performers gives them the courage to, of course, pursue their dreams. Will’s wife, Terri (Jessalyn Gilsig), who was his high school sweetheart, desperately wants a child, and concocts a fake pregnancy to pursue her own dream. Will, meanwhile, has an unarticulated crush on his colleague Emma (Jayma Mays), an OCD-plagued, germ-fearing teacher at McKinley who admires Will from not that afar enough for Terri, who notes their mutual affection and uses the fabricated pregnancy to keep Will close.

These adult relationships play out among those of beleaguered high school students fraught with all the typical hormonally-induced crises; among teachers confined by their routines, hoping for something more to grace their lives; and among administrators who suffer funding cuts and a lack of parent confidence that inspires bizarre conciliatory efforts. The school principal plays Moses in each episode, choosing between the conflicting desires of Will and his glee club and the evil Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch) and her cheerleading squad, offering resources to whichever teacher seems most likely to endear him to the school’s parents.

Lynch plays one of her best roles outside of the Christopher Guest movies in which she’s a regular, demented ensemble member. As the scheming, megalomaniacal gym teacher, Lynch is costumed in matching Adidas track suits, which change only in color from episode to episode (or scene to scene). She works out on the elliptical machine behind her desk as she instructs her hench-girls—Quinn (Dianna Argon), who’s Finn’s plastic blond girlfriend, and Quinn’s look-alike sidekick—to infiltrate and destroy the glee club on her behalf. But when she climbs down from the machine with a towel thrown jauntily around her neck, it’s clear Sue hasn’t broken a sweat. She doesn’t want to work hard; she just wants herself and her cheering squad to be the center of the school’s attention.

Sue is jealous of any dollar the principal gives to the glee club, and will go to any lengths possible to see the club fail.Lynch’s dry one-liners are hysterical (“I haven’t seen performing that tasteless since I saw an elementary school performance of Hair,” she scoffs after the glee club students perform a sexually explicit dance to “Push It” for a school assembly to encourage more students to join). Lynch is expert at the droll remark, and at making outlandish characters like Sue seem logical and righteous despite their insanity. (That Sue is clearly a big ole dyke goes without saying.)

In last week’s episode, Victor Garber and Debra Monk, two veterans of the American musical theatre, showed up as Will’s loving parents. Garber plays his father as a schleppy would-be lawyer who never pursued his own dreams, and Monk does a perfect comic turn as Will’s sloppy, alcoholic mother. Terri’s pregnancy, which Will and his parents think is real, inspires some heart-to-heart between Will and his dad, as Garber tells Will that being a good dad is what makes a man a man. The two men’s masculinity couldn’t be more dubious, held up against conventional norms—Garber teaches Will about manhood while wearing a red bow tie, and Will embraces his dad fervently before running off to choreograph a number for the boy-group he’s formed. But under the terms of Glee, masculinity includes a love for music, for dancing, for community, and for family. There might be irony in the script and its delivery, but there’s earnestness in the characters’ interactions that’s sincere and even moving.

In last week’s episode, the glee club kids’ impatience with Will’s anachronistic music choices forces them to hire the director of a rival group to choreograph their numbers. Will, dejected, decides to start his own men’s group, which the four guys decide to call “Acafellas.” Turns out that Will, Finn, the gym teacher, and a maintenance man really know how to rock out when they perform their white boys’ hip-hop number for a school assembly. The fun of Glee is that it assumes even the most macho guys want to get up and sing. For instance, Puck (Mark Salling), Finn’s buff, gruff, and pushy teammate, can’t resist putting on a tux and crooning with the other guys. And his singing and dancing only make him sexier (in a hetero way), even when the flamboyant Sandy joins the act and gets the group a chance to open for Josh Groban. It’s as though the canvas of a musical act is capacious enough to let desire manifest itself along a continuum of sexual options.

Sandy botches the gig with Groban, who arrives backstage (playing himself) with his body guard to serve Sandy with still another restraining order. But Glee doesn’t consider Sandy pathetic—just overly romantic in his mis-directed desires. Groban hooks up with Will’s mom, insisting that although people think he’s got a cabal of teenaged girls following him around, Groban actually prefers blowsy middle-aged alcoholics. Monk’s character giggles wetly as they flirt to the episode’s end.

Meanwhile, the glee club kids realize that hiring a hot new director comes with costs too high to finance. The fascist, little-person director is so mean he makes kids at his home high school vomit with fear and dismay during rehearsals. But when he brings his cutting, derogatory style to McKinley’s glee club, the kids resist his derision. The new guy, of course, wants to kick out all the misfits, and doesn’t waste time before he dismisses Mercedes as an Effie-wannabe, Artie as “crippled,” Kurt as queer, and Rachel as needing a nose job.

But as they turn to leave, Rachel realizes that it’s the new director who should be fired instead, as he’ll never replace the liberal, democratic Will in the kids’ affections. Rachel is a Jewish girl—Lea Michele looks a lot like Idina Menzel—who cites Barbra Streisand’s refusal to get a nose job as her own cri de coeur, insisting that her difference is what will make her a star. In fact, she proclaims, the glee kids’ uniqueness comes from their differences, which she embraces as the source of their talent and their pride.

In the face of her rallying cry, all the kids puff out their chests—Artie in his wheelchair, wearing his ubiquitous driving gloves, Mercedes in her radiant, zaftig, belting divadom, Kurt in his queer elaborateness, which only he thinks is a secret, and Finn in his femme-y football hero straightness. They can all get behind being different as their club’s distinctive reason for being. When Will sheepishly but happily returns as their coach, he sets the best earnest example of what it means to ride that difference to your dreams.

Glee’s actors all boast backgrounds in musical theatre, although some have more professional experience than others. Matthew Morrison, who plays Will, performed on Broadway in Hairspray, was nominated for a Tony for his work in Light in the Piazza, and played Lt. Cable in the recent revival of South Pacific. Lea Michele, Glee’s Rachel, received a Drama Desk Award nomination for her performance in Spring Awakening in 2006. Each of the show’s glee clubbers has performed live somewhere, and bring to their roles the authenticity of awkward young people who find themselves electric and at home when they’re on stage.

Glee’s jokes come fast and furious, but always with affection and never truly at a character’s expense. The show is designed in bright, candy colors that underline its satire, and shot at angles that pointedly indicate who’s the good guy and who’s the villain. But often, the villains turn out to be good guys, transformed by the power of singing to find their glowing inner decency.

That’s a moral for a story I can get behind. And the songs are great, too.

The Feminist Spectator

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The Wiz

City Center’s Encores! series has recently extended its season of staged readings of rarely revived musicals into the summer, outside of its typical three-show run in the spring. Two years ago, a summer remount of Gypsy triumphed with Patti LuPone in the lead, in a production directed by Arthur Laurents that went on to garner multiple Tony Awards during its subsequent Broadway run.

Hopefully, their latest summer production, a revival of The Wiz, will have the pleasure of a similar fate, despite Charles Isherwood’s less than charitable review in the Times. Directed by the talented Thomas Kail, who also directed In the Heights, musical directed by Alex Lacamoire (who also did In the Heights), and choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler (currently represented on Broadway by 9 to 5), the production teems with talent and energy, offering a dazzling evening of great fun from a talented, infectiously delighted cast.

Even though the show was first produced in the 1975, this production didn’t smell a whiff out of date. Some of the language, on closer scrutiny, might seem anachronistic. A few bon mots suspiciously close to “here comes the Judge” are rattled off by an earnest cast that’s fully behind them, never pausing for a moment to be suspicious or snobby about the phrasing’s provenance (this despite the fact that many of the cast probably weren’t alive in the 70s).

Kail, himself a young Wesleyan University graduate, puts his shoulder behind the music and the dialogue, creating a fast-paced romp from Kansas to Oz in a musical retelling of the classic story with an African American spin that stamps the music with an erstwhile Motown idiom.

Perhaps because it was first produced in the 70s, when feminism was very much in the air, women dominate the musical. Ashanti, the Grammy Award-winning pop singer, plays Dorothy, and LaChanze matches her fame in the double role of Auntie Em and Glinda, the Good Witch of the South. The show’s best numbers are sung by these two and the supporting women. Dawnn Lewis plays Addaperle, the Good Witch of the North, the first to meet Dorothy in Oz. She enters decked out in denim dotted with colorful patchwork quilt accents, wearing tall hats stacked on top of each other and horizontal striped stockings that somehow elongate legs that already tower on platform shoes.

Addaperle’s number, “He’s the Wizard,” promises that Dorothy will find her way home with his assistance, which begins her quest. But since we know the story, it’s the song’s delivery, and Lewis’s interpretation of Addaperle as sweet, well-meant, but addled that makes the number such fun. (Like a failed student at Hogworth’s, she can’t get her wand to work.)

Paul Tazewell’s imaginative, campy costume design—along with the hair and wig design by Charles G. Lapointe and makeup design by Cookie Jordan—distinguishes all the characters in this production, and provides much of the evening’s fun.

Evillene, the Wicked Witch of the West (Tichina Arnold) also sings a show-stopping number, for which she dons the fabulously red, richly textured and layered outfit of a modern-day devil, wearing a tight-fitting body suit in a red and black paisley print, over which she pulls a hoop skirt, half covered with a fringey dress, topped by a red and black wig styled in long curly dreads. The whole campy effect gives her a devil-may-care-if-I’m-a-devil attitude thatArnold delivers with energetic panache. Her song, “No Bad News,” forbids anyone in her court to tell her anything she doesn’t want to hear, which eventually means the flunky who announces Dorothy’s arrival meets a comically bad end.

LaChanze has the pleasure of the first and the penultimate number in The Wiz, first as Auntie Em, singing a maternal ode to her niece as she hangs laundry on the clothesline while that foreboding wind kicks up. Even wearing Auntie Em’s shapeless housedress, LaChanze is a riveting presence with the best voice in the cast. When she returns as Glinda, wearing a diaphanous sky-blue gown with a silken turban wrapped around her head, LaChanze is luminous, glowing with the promise that if Dorothy believes in herself (as Glinda’s song goes), she’ll get home to Kansas and control her own destiny. LaChanze puts over the anthem to 1970s-style self-actualization like she’s announcing the one true religion. How can Dorothy not get back to Kansas, given LaChanze’s faith-full notes?

Ashanti is the production’s weakest link, but then, Dorothy isn’t the most interesting character in The Wiz. After she’s displaced by the tornado—which happily, Kail doesn’t try to reconceptualize by referring to Hurricane Katrina or any other available current event—Dorothy arrives in Oz, where she mostly reacts with either wonder or dismay at its marvels.The role is one long reaction, and Ashanti’s expressions shift—or not—accordingly. But her responses seem practiced, rather than spontaneous; her face looks stiff and too carefully arranged.

She’s cute and earnest but bland, and lacks that glowing musical theatre-person presence that her co-stars exude. Ashanti acts like the pop singer she is, a girl who’s accustomed to being technologically mediated and much more amped up than she is here. Ashanti’s voice, though, is gorgeous, and she gets her songs’ tone and spirit just right. She’s also a very game; for some reason, she doesn’t dance, but she’s happily led around the stage by chorus boys and girls, and vamps in place with the other characters.

Ashanti is also the lightest skinned person on stage, whatever that might mean to the politics of race, which this production downplays. Since no white characters appear in The Wiz, the African American characters and cast create a world in which their race is the norm and goes without comment. Ashanti stands out in this context, although perhaps her exceptionalism makes sense for Dorothy, who is indeed different in Oz.

Ashanti never gets in the way, but she never stands up to the sparkle and shine of the other performers. She’s upstaged by each new character Dorothy meets. The Scarecrow, the Tinman, and the Lion each get their own tour-de-force number, which they put over with skillful aplomb. Christian Dante White is all floppy limbs as the Scarecrow, in a wonderfully physical and relaxed performance. Joshua Henry, as the Tinman, taps his heart out for his “Slide Some Oil to Me” solo. James Monroe Iglehart, as the Lion, is a big teddy bear of a performer, who inhabits his furry suit with the appropriate aw-shucks charm. Iglehart manages to wrangle a bit of heart from Ashanti, who seems to enjoy his company. Warmth radiates between them that doesn’t spark between the lead and her other co-stars.

Orlando Jones, as the Wiz himself, is intermittently effective, handsome in his bedazzled emerald coat and fantasy make-up when the wizard deploys shock and awe, and later, unapologetically matter-of-fact about his fall from power. He’s charming at the end as he goes about solving everyone’s problems, making each of the principles happy but Dorothy, whom he leaves on the ground as his hot air balloon takes off (or here, is blown sideways offstage) without her.

Dorothy doesn’t return to Kansas at the end of The Wiz to reveal the real-life identities of all her Oz friends. Instead, she sings “Home,” gesturing toward a happy end to her journey, and the curtain rings down. Perhaps because Ashanti can’t quite fill the moment emotionally, the ending feels a bit inconclusive.

But these minor defects don’t mar what’s otherwise an entertaining evening.Blankenbuehler’s terrific choreography evokes the story’s high drama. The black-clad dancers embody the tornado in a stunning coup-de-theatre. They fly about t he stage, putting their arms through the shirts hanging on Auntie Em’s line and wreaking havoc with her house. The set, designed by David Korins, comes apart creatively; the dancers create the damage of gusting winds by uprooting each piece of the house and planting them in odd parts of the stage, as if the weather explodes Dorothy’s home into its constituent parts.

The dancers’ choreography accomplishes many of the set changes. They create the yellow-brick road by appearing with small suitcases painted in a brick-like pattern that they put together like blocks, passing them under the feet of the actors as they “ease on down the road” to Oz. Dancers comprise the dangerous poppy field, twirling around the principles in form-fitting green sheaths and wearing bright red fright wigs.

As the munchkins, they sit on rolling chairs that halve their height, and wear hoop-skirt costumes that cover their bodies from chin to toe, while extravagant Koosh-ball shower caps adorn their heads. The flying monkeys, who get a kind of Michael Jackson Thrillertreatment, threaten the company with their sinister moves.

And Toto, of course, is adorable.

The audience loved the high energy production the night I attended (a preview performance on 6/13/09). In the Bush years, the failed wizard might have been reminiscent of W., with his empty insistence on missions accomplished, and the sham promises of a few last left-over miracles that never transpire. But by this production’s end, the Wiz sounds more like Obama as he delivers his gentle, yes-you-can moral, the everything-you-need-is-within-yourself boosterism on which The Wiz, like The Wizard of Oz before it, stakes its happy ever after claim.

In a production like this one, though, watching the talented ensemble tell the old story, the moral feels a lot more like yes-WE-can. That works for me.

The Feminist Spectator

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