Sunday, February 24, 2008


How ironic it is that two of the potentially richest Sondheim events happened in the same week, with unexpected twists (at least for this viewer)!

On Tuesday evening, I viewed Roundabout's revival of SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE at Studio 54. Having just seen THE JAZZ AGE (see previous blog entry), the sufferings of the artist and the price paid for one's art were already in my head. SUNDAY, of course, won the 1985 Pulitzer for Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine (who also staged the original). Inspired by Georges Seurat's famed painting, "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte", it supposes the torment of the ill-fated man who created a series of shimmering, pointillist canvases and then died in his early 30s. (The second act depicts his possible grandson, generations later, struggling to find his own sense of artistry in a world where art is just another commodity to be bought and sold versus serving as a window to the human soul.) While I've always found the piece imperfect, with extraordinary parts (the score) being greater than the sum of the whole, it is a score of wonderful passion, pain and love: "Finishing the Hat" remains one of the great explanations of the pain and pleasure of the artistic process; "Children and Art," a meaningful rumination on the true things of value we leave behind; and "Move On," an exhortation to forgiveness and acceptance of one's mission in life. The original production, brilliantly designed, truly shimmered with possibility, as did the mesmerizing, career-defining performances of Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters. Whatever didn't work, you nonetheless came away moved. (A video version, created for PBS, captures beautifully this once-in-a-lifetime production, and it is still available on DVD.)

Ironically--and contrary to the rave reviews that came out this past Friday--the current production directed by Sam Buntrock solves many problems with technological aplomb and is well thought out--and yet for me remained strangely unmoving. Jenna Russell gives a smart, intelligent reading as Dot, but she doesn't shimmer or catch the light as Bernadette did--Ms. Russell is life-sized, not larger than life, and so the passion to capture her on canvas, the rapture of her spirit that Georges loves to the detriment of her all-too-human flesh, is missing. Not that this Georges would notice--this almost feels like SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITHOUT GEORGE. Daniel Evans is talented, intense and detailed . . . but keeps his needs in check, private. We do not sense an inner war, but rather a tantrum contained successfully. For those who have found Mandy Patinkin the model for unrestrained indulgence, it needs to be pointed out that the sacrifices to artistic discipline Georges makes are only more painful when you realize the personal longing, the personal passion he sacrifices for his art. Patinkin's longing (thick enough to cut with a knife) nonetheless paid off, because you knew he was suffering for his art--and the art was great. And when the second act George felt he had lost his way, you knew the greatness of that loss--which is why he needed to go back to the Island to rediscover what great art does for the senses, the soul, and why it is worth sacrifices to keep that lovely, shimmering passion alive. Daniel Evans' 20th century George is bored and whiny, and the encounter with Dot (in his imagination) makes him get back on the horse, but it is not the re-ignition of love and artistic inspiration. It further doesn't help that there is a lack of chemistry between Evans and Ms. Russell--at least in comparison with the red-hot desire that seemed to flow between Patinkin and Peters. And while the production is visually clever, it's requires no imagination on OUR part. It remains projected onto rather grand, corniced studio walls and small canvases versus being abstract and floating--this Georges never convincingly reaches outside his own studio, and with all the animated sketches that come before in varying shades of charcoal and color, the ultimate recreation of the painting in real life loses it magic. (Likewise, cardboard cutouts during "Putting It Together" in the original production captured a trapped, constrained 2-D George losing his battle for integrity, while the current version presents clever, animated versions of George that seem to have no problems fooling anyone that they are the real thing.)

It remains a remarkable piece . . . but strangely astringent, emotionally.

Having been disappointed by this revival, I then waited with trepidation to watch PBS' recording of the COMPANY revival last season, directed by John Doyle (who did a similar reinvention of SWEENEY TODD, with actors doing double-duty as musicians as well as their characters). I had missed the live production, unable to get tickets during that last week, and it was ultimately not a box office success as SWEENEY had been. Raul Esparza had been acclaimed to the high heavens for his Bobby (but lost the Tony to David Hyde Pierce in CURTAINS), and the supporting ensemble was praised but not necessarily singled out. COMPANY had spawned its own share of hits ("Being Alive," "Another Hundred People,""You Could Drive a Person Crazy," and "The Ladies Who Lunch" among others.) And COMPANY had always been thought of as a time capsule with its slick, somewhat cynical view of modern marriage, wherein individual longing for something more could all too easily be lost. It had been daring on many levels in its day but now was presumed dated in its tale of the swinging bachelor and the loneliness that could be his ultimate reward.

To cut to the chase, the TV production (directed for the camera by Lonny Price) is a masterpiece, unveiling levels and layers of meaning in the piece hitherto undersold. Raul Esparza (who coincidentally did an acclaimed George in a recent Washington revival of SUNDAY) gives an extraordinary performance as Bobby, a life-long bachelor wondering where he missed the turn and fearing that he will never find the connection. (Again, not unlike the character of Georges/George.) Doyle's staging is beautifully captured by the camera, and his pacing and tonality of the piece allow for much darker matters to bubble to the surface without any loss of comedy. The supporting cast is terrific, with particularly exciting performances from Elizabeth Stanley (as April), Barbara Walsh (as Joanne) and Heather Laws as Amy. And damn, even after years of familiarity, the score sounds better than ever! A show that had glibly entertained me before was suddenly moving me in unexpected ways. (This in contrast to being disappointed and unaffected days earlier by a piece that had for years brought me to tears.)

The Roundabout's production of SUNDAY IN THE PARK will no doubt sell out the rest of its run--and if you've never seen the show, then it's worth seeing (although Mandy, Bernadette and company still await you on the well-done video). But this COMPANY, lovingly-preserved, is a must-see. In any event, the legacy of the Sondheim musical is alive and well.

Monday, February 18, 2008


"The Lost Generation," as Gertrude Stein dubbed them, continue to speak to us, even as their art (novels, paintings, poetry) recedes with memory. Their hopes reflect all our of our fondest, flashiest dreams--to live fast and full, leaving behind a beautiful corpse (although hopefully, if improbably, at a ripe old age--hence the advances of plastic surgery!). We all wish to change the world, but doing it in high profile surely has its costs (as Brittany and others will tell you). But all the current wannabes can certainly take a lesson--and a warning--from Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald and their pal, Ernest Hemingway: it may be a glorious life for a while, but you don't get the glory AND to live happily ever after (which these three, despite their disparagement of the concept, so long to achieve).

THE JAZZ AGE, currently on display through March 2nd at 59E59th Theatres, is Allan Knee's evocation of life and dissipation: the celebration of the joy of creation and the sadness of the squandering of talent. Most people know the muse doesn't always perform on cue and inspiration can be fleeting. Still, you have to wonder--if these folks didn't party so hard, hate themselves so much, and drink so DAMNED much, would they have had clearer heads, better discipline and maybe the ability to work (at more reasonable hours)? We celebrate, somewhat morbidly, the time-honored notion that drinking, whoring and promiscous sex lead to greater creativity in the artist. It is one of American society's cherished fantasies, certainly more appealing than achieving one's goals through determination and hard work. But Knee's play isn't arguing that--it's more about those who buy into the lifestyle, the dream, and the price they pay. The waste and the pain they cause themselves because they turn themselves over to their dreams without a lifeline is truly the tragedy here. Knee has been an Off-Broadway fixture for years (MODIGLIANI, among other plays) and the screenwriter of FINDING NEVERLAND, specializing in the intimate private pain of the artist and its effect on his/her output--how the very factors that allow for genius may also set the stage for the ultimate decline and downfall. It is the price Icarus pays for flying too close to the sun with waxen wings.

Chris McElroen, c0-artistic director of Classical Theatre of Harlem, confidently directs a razor-sharp cast of Dana Watkins, Amy Rutberg, and P.J. Sosko (as Scott, Zelda & Hemingway respectively). Beautifully designed and produced on a tight budget, the era is lovingly re-created to help understand the seduction that brings these three down, a Paris created in the mind if not in reality. A tight little combo of live musicians creates an ambiance that canned music would never achieve and scores the evening quite effectively. It's quite an involving evening and, for those who are devotees of this era and these folk, perhaps even a must-see. If it doesn't shed new light on old friends, it at least acts as a cautionary tale for those who live too fast and ultimately die too young.

(Through March 2nd -- or call (212) 279-4200)

(Disclaimer--again, blog rules: I know many of the artists involved in this, so it's not necessarily an objective opinion--but since it IS my blog, it doesn't have to be! But if it weren't worth your time, I just would have left well enough alone!)

Thursday, February 07, 2008


Due to powers beyond our control--and aren't there just too many of those?!--the e-mail address for reservations for this Saturday's PLAYWRIGHTS FOR PETS event has changed. Any e-mail reservations should be sent to:

The phone reservation number -- 718-768-4213 -- remains the same. (I've already changed the address below, just so that no one sends to . . . wait, you didn't even see that link, it doesn't exist . . .!

But we do hope you can come--should be a truly fun afternoon! And as Paul Simon sings, "The animals will love it if you do . . . "