Thursday, December 25, 2008


After a month-long siege of sinus problems, colds, holidays, deadlines & whatnot, I'm finally feeling (semi) normal enough to post!

Many random thoughts and topics . . . here are both philosophical moments and more earth-bound reflections . . .

From the realm of the more concrete . . . it has taken years for WISE GUYS to become BOUNCE and finally ROAD SHOW, the new Stephen Sondheim-John Weidman musical currently playing at NYC's Public Theatre. It has been through numerous casts (Victor Garber-Nathan Lane, Howard McGillin-Richard Kind) and numerous directors (Sam Mendes, Hal Prince) before arriving in its current 105-minute off-Broadway version, featuring splendid performances from Michael Cerveris and Alexander Gemignani under the direction and design of the ubiquitous John Doyle (SWEENEY TODD, COMPANY, A CATERED AFFAIR). While some have expressed disappointment at this first new NY Sondheim since PASSION being, well, small . . . I can only counter--why is one of our greatest musical theater artists not allowed to sketch, to meditate, to do smaller, ideological pieces? ROAD SHOW ultimately is about how hype has overtaken the American dream--if you APPEAR to work hard and do the biggest and the best, then the world is your oyster (until reality crashes in). Certainly in the time of Bernard Madoff and bailouts and gold parachutes gone horribly awry, it is a timely piece (even though its creation started almost 20 years ago). Wilson and Addison Mizner (pronounced M'eye-z-ner) were con men-cum-entrepreneurs who, in the early 20th century, made and lost fortunes, most notably in the Florida real estate boom and bust (the first time round of a seemingly unending cycle). Addison, the sensitive gay younger brother, became a talented and creative architect who designed some of the homes still extant in Miami Beach but who also, under his huckster brother's influence, wasted his talents, with the ultimate initial plan for Boca Raton becoming just an over-hyped memory. (Obviously, Boca Raton DID become, well, Boca Raton, despite its name literally translating to "mouth of the rat.") Wilson, was more into spinning and promoting, everything from boxers to Broadway, along the way becoming a coke-snorting wastrel while charming a wide-swath of marks out of millions. Actually, Wilson's behavior is not all that different from many of the financiers begging Congress for blank checks today. And certainly the American Dream has always represented a hard work ethic, but remember that at least half of it was still "the Dream." Yes, America has always championed hard workers publicly but secretly idolized the get-rich-quick adventurers. (in ROAD SHOW, Mama Mizner on her deathbed rhapsodizes about her rapscallion adventurer son, while the good boy stays behind to hold her hand.) This is not a highly-plotted, conflicted drama--rather, it is a meditation on how America buys and sells and the human cost that grinds up everyone in the machine. Just as Japan was really the central character in their PACIFIC OVERTURES, it is American society and its economy that is the central character here. Not the stuff of most people's musical comedies, and this one IS more dark comedy than drama.

But why can't one of the most revered talents do an essay piece, as it were? And why not off-Broadway, a perfect setting for this piece? John Doyle's "box set" is appropriate--actually, they're crates and file cabinets that look rustic and become many locations effectively against the brick backdrop of the theater. (It still can't be cheap--how many desk drawers do you know that can withstand the standing and sitting weights of large men?) Ann Hould-Ward, a veteran of other Sondheim musicals, does wonderfully evocative costumes with her signature patterning that gradually etches its way into your cognition, and trusty orchestrator Jonathan Tunick has done his signature job of providing an evocative sound for a small ensemble under the direction of Mary-Mitchell Campbell ( Doyle's frequent collaborator in musical crime). It is not the most soaring of Sondheim's scores, but when your range and talent is that vast, any exploration is miles ahead of everyone else's. ROAD SHOW ultimately is more compelling as a story and think piece than it is for its musicality. Michael Cerveris, of course, has become the leading Sondheim interpreter, able to catch the brilliant and chiling dark edge in everything from PASSION to SWEENEY TODD to ASSASSINS, and he does not disappoint as the charming bad-penny Wilson. But Alexander Gemignani is extraordinary as Addison, the Mama's boy who, in turns, tries to become his own man while succumbing to the insistent Wilson's nefarious ways. His gay love affair with his patron. wealthy would-be artist Hollis Bessemer (an appealing Claybourne Elder), is all the more tragic for its duality of deception and genuine tenderness. Fine support is provided by a talented top-drawer ensemble, and one must mention the strong contributions of Alma Cuervo as Mama (playing a role Jane Powell played in the previous BOUNCE incarnation) and frequent Sondheim vet William Parry as the ghost of Papa. There is wit and wisdom in this tale, but rather than transport us, ROAD SHOW peels back a chapter in history that shows just where we were heading-- and just what it is in the American nature that we are sadly harvesting right now. ROAD SHOW is scheduled to close December 28th--but it is my hope that this show (with a lot to say) has a future around the country.

How strange that in attempting to celebrate the talent and staying power of David Mamet, his gifts have also been rather punishing. (Ah, well, that's what we do to our talents--see Sondheim above). AMERICAN BUFFALO with the combined gifts of Robert Falls, John Leguizamo, Cedric the Entertainer and Haley Joel Osment didn't last a week in this financial climate. And now the acclaimed revival of SPEED-THE-PLOW will have to survive the departure of the mercurial Jeremy Piven. Piven's reputation is prickly to begin with (and his last NY stage adventure, Neil LaBute's FAT PIG, was also rife with rumors despite excellent reviews), so in some ways it is not surprising that he would depart ten weeks early--and as he is a talented and soulful gent, we do hope his health is restored and that he is not as gravely ill as was reported. The news that first gifted Norbert Leo Butz and then William Macy will succeed him for the rest of the run was indeed a sign of creative casting and loyalty from friends. One can only hope that the production will last to regain its footing and recoup at the box office.

Well, 2008 will indeed be remembered as a rough one, historically and personally. Lows will of course include unemployment (especially my own), illnesses, a family member passing, fluctuating health, and periods of depression and frustration. Highs will include some artistic joys, love of friends and, well, loved ones, and at least a ray of hope in the form of a new regime finally coming in, perhaps a bit too late, in 2009.

I will not be sorry to see 2008 go, even as I try to learn whatever lessons I can. Sometimes, when a bubble bursts, all that's left is escaped air and some wet soap.

But in the spirit of the Great White (House) Hope, one has to pick oneself up and say we can do this. Things will get better. I have to believe that creative, determined, imaginative people will survive and grow stronger. Life isn't about a constant level of joy--it is about the striving for those moments that make it all worth while, and the lows come along with the highs. Sometimes, these extended spells make it seem like the abyss is right around the corner and, hell, maybe it is. We choose, not to be noble, but to survive, hopefully discovering our inner strengths and growing as we go.

May this holiday season find you healthy and whole. May the new year bring you peace--and a new honesty, a new admiration, a new strength and a reaffirmation of purpose.