22 April 2016

'Nathan the Wise'

In my last performance report (“Bright Star,” 11 April), I started with a list of things of which I’m not a fan.  (“I think more reviewers should make their predispositions clear the way you do!” declared my friend Kirk.)  This time, I’m going to go in the opposite direction: I’ve been a fan of F. Murray Abraham for a long time—I can’t even remember the first time I saw him on stage (on screen, the first time I noticed him was as Antonio Salieri in the 1984 film version of Amadeus.)  I think he’s one of our best actors, especially on the stage—and I got to tell him I think so once when I met him in a supermarket in the Village.  I also wrote his biographical article in the Cambridge Guide to American Theatre (Cambridge University Press, 1993).  (My only posted play report other than this one that features Abraham is The Merchant of Venice in which he played Shylock at the Theatre for a New Audience in 2007, published here on 28 February 2011.)

So when I saw that the Classic Stage Company was going to mount Nathan the Wise with Abraham in the lead, I made a note in my calendar to try to get seats as soon as non-subscriber tickets went on sale.  I tried to do the same thing a few years ago when CSC staged Bertolt Brecht’s Galileo starring Abraham in the title role, but didn’t get to the box office soon enough and there were no seats left, so this time I went as soon as I could on the first day of availability with happier results.  So on Friday, 15 April, Diana, my usual theater companion, and I met at CSC’s 13th Street theater in the East Village for the evening performance of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s 18th-century German classic.  I couldn’t be happier that we did.

Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-81) was a writer, dramatist, philosopher, and critic of art and theater during the German Enlightenment (Die Aufklärung, ca. 1720-1785).  Born in 1729 in Kamenz, Saxony, the son of a Lutheran minister, he was very interested in theology, which he studied at the University of Leipzig.  This affinity led him to a strong belief in the importance of religious tolerance.  Lessing also worked as a critic, an essayist, and a librarian and later in his life, he received a degree in medicine.  While his most famous work, Nathan the Wise, focuses on religious tolerance, Lessing was known for his wit and his earliest plays were comedies.  Drawing inspiration from Roman comic playwright Plautus and others, Lessing wrote satires addressing human weaknesses such as The Young Scholar, his first produced play (written when he was still 18), The Old Maid, and The Misogynist (all staged in 1748).  (Another early comedy, The Jews, 1749, was a blatant condemnation of “the disgraceful oppression” of German Jews by Christians.  One review of the play rejected it as “improbable because a Jew could not be upright and noble.”  Nathan the Wise was Lessing’s response to this criticism.)  Around this time, young Lessing made the acquaintance of the great French writer Voltaire (1694-1778), a guest of the Prussian court, who employed the nascent German writer to translate some books into French for him.  The association didn’t last long because Lessing found himself disagreeing with Voltaire’s advice about playwriting.

As a result of his rejection of the Frenchman’s counsel, the young writer made great contributions to the development of middle-class German drama with his plays Miss Sara Sampson (1755) and Emilia Galotti (1772).  Lessing is widely considered the father of dramaturgy, the theater profession which serves as a resource for playwrights or directors on such areas as the play’s historical or regional context and the thematic consistency and stageworthiness of the text.  He served as a dramaturg at the Hamburg National Theatre—really the in-house critic, which Lessing called a “dramatic judge,” who gave feedback to the company before a production played before an audience—publishing the seminal work in the field, Hamburg Dramaturgy (1767-69).  He pioneered Ideendrama, the drama of ideas, rejecting Voltaire’s classic French approach of emphasizing the characters’ actions, and placing the main focus on the play’s central themes.  (Voltaire and his literary supporters subsequently slandered Lessing, leaving him an outsider in the world of letters during his lifetime.)  The final decade of Lessing’s life was fraught with personal hardships and tragedies: his health began to fail and he lived a lonely life; he married relatively late, in 1776, and his wife died in 1778 giving birth to their son, who only lived a short while.  He himself died suddenly, alone and poor, on a trip to the city of Braunschweig (Brunswick) at the age of 52.  

Lessing  completed the first draft of Nathan der Weise in 1778.  The firm of C. F. Voss published it in Berlin in 1779.  The Berliner Theater in Berlin presented the first performance of the play on 14 April 1783, two years after Lessing had died; the dramatist never saw Nathan performed.  That performance is estimated to have lasted 4½ hours; in 1801, Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805) made an adaptation that streamlined the discursive original down to under four hours.  (It’s on Schiller’s version that Edward Kemp has based his 2003 adaptation that Brian Kulick, CSC’s artistic director, used for the production I saw.)  Originally written in Shakespearean blank verse (iambic pentameter)—Lessing was an admirer of Shakespeare and urged other writers to imitate the English writer’s format—Kemp’s English version is in prose, some of it approaching contemporary speech.  The play’s a didactic work that preaches harmony and tolerance among adherents of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam—and, implicitly, all religions.  (A great deal of what Schiller trimmed were long passages of philosophical and theological debate.  Kemp followed in Schiller’s footsteps, cutting a few more windy passages and putting the entire script through what he called “a process of ‘compression.’”  He also rearranged some of the scenes, or parts of scenes, in the second half of the play.  The CSC production runs two hours and five minutes with one intermission.)

Shortly before Lessing wrote Nathan the Wise, Johann Melchior Goeze (1717-86), the strict leader of the Lutheran church in Hamburg, wrote against Lessing and other Enlightenment thinkers for their unorthodox theological and moral views.  Lessing responded with a series of pamphlets assailing Goeze for what the playwright considered narrow-mindedness.  After supporters of Goeze persuaded the ruler of the Duchy of Braunschweig, where the dramatist was then librarian of the ducal library in Wolfenbüttel, to prohibit Lessing from writing on religion, he composed Nathan the Wise to continue his argument against intolerance.  (Braunschweig was the name of both a duchy and a city, the seat of the ducal court.  The town of Wolfenbüttel had been the ducal seat until 1753.)  In the play, the Patriarch, the head of the Christian church in Jerusalem, represents Goeze.  (Lessing modeled Nathan on his lifelong friend, the eminent German-Jewish philosopher and writer Moses Mendelssohn, 1729-86.  Mendelssohn, grandfather of the composer Felix Mendelssohn, helped Jews integrate into German society and his reputation as a thinker earned him the sobriquet, the “German Socrates.”) 

Since Nathan the Wise was published in 1779, it has caused controversy with every production.  As an Enlightenment thinker, Lessing aimed to spread humanism and tolerance and the plot of Nathan, popular for over two hundred years, has found relevance through the ages.  The play’s message of equality among Muslims, Jews, and Christians led the Catholic Church to ban it.  (Much of what Schilling excised were explicitly anti-Christian passages.  Nonetheless, the closest thing to a villain in Nathan is the Patriarch.  Saladin, the great enemy of the Christian Crusaders, is depicted as merciful and generous to a fault—generally believed to be historically true.  Except for the Patriarch, anyone else who harbors a prejudice—the Templar, Sittah, Daya—does a reversal by the play’s end.)  Lessing had expected no less, having already faced bans on his writing earlier in his lifetime.  Despite the bans, the play was popular across Europe.  In Nazi Germany, when Jewish artists were forbidden to work before the public, the Kulturbund Deutscher Juden (Culture Association of German Jews) was formed to allow them to perform for exclusively Jewish audiences; Nathan der Weise was the first play presented by this organization, the only time it was performed in Germany until the end of World War II.  (Nathan der Weise was also the first play to be produced in Germany after the war—in 1945, four months after VE Day, at the Deutsches Theater in what would become East Berlin.)

German film director Manfred Nolan made the first and only movie version of Nathan der Weise, released in 1922.  Intended to shed light on how pointless World War I had been, it was a hit except in Bavaria, the birthplace of the National Socialist Party, which labeled it “Jewish propaganda” and threatened theater-owners who tried to show it.  Nolan described the movie as a plea for humanity, but with the rise of Nazi Germany, a Jewish title character and the plot endorsing tolerance for groups including Jews led the German authorities to destroy the  film and ban it from movie theaters.  (Believed lost forever, a copy was rediscovered in Moscow in 1996.) 

English translations have allowed for many productions in the United States and England; the first of these translations was by William Taylor, performed in London in 1805.  For nearly 50 years afterward, though, Nathan was neglected, until 1860 when a well-received revival of the play was mounted in London, sparking a steady flow of productions that continues to this day.  In 1967, director Julius Gellner’s version of the play at the Mermaid Theater in London enjoyed a successful run lasting over a year.  In 2002, a new translation and adaptation by Gisela and Paul D'Andrea was produced at the Theater of the First Amendment in Washington, D.C.; it was nominated for the Charles MacArthur Award (of Washington’s Helen Hayes Awards) for Outstanding New Play.  Kemp made his translation/adaptation in 2003 at the behest of Steven Pimlott, who directed it at the Minerva Theatre for the Chichester Festival Theatre in the U.K.  The version was remounted at the Hempstead Theatre in London in 2005 with Anthony Clark at the helm.  In New York, CSC’s staging is the first Off-Broadway, but there was a short-lived run on Broadway in 1942.  Lasting only 28 performances, the production was produced by Erwin Piscator and directed by James Light, with Herbert Berghof as Nathan.  The CSC production, staged by Brian Kulick (in his last directing gig at CSC after 13 years as artistic director),  began performances on 24 March and opened on 13 April; it’s scheduled to close on 1 May.

The play’s set in Jerusalem in 1192, during a respite in fighting between Muslims and Christian Crusaders.  The Muslim forces under Saladin, the first Sultan of Egypt and Syria (1137-93; reigned from 1174-93), had captured the cities of Acre and Jerusalem in 1187.  Armies under King Richard I of England (Richard the Lionheart, 1157-99; reigned 1189-99) and other Christian leaders recaptured Acre in July 1191 during the Third Crusade (1189-92). After his allies—Leopold V, Duke of Austria (Leopold the Virtuous, 1157-94; reigned 1177-94), and Philip II, King of France (Philip Augustus, 1165-1223; reigned 1180-1223)—left the Holy Land in 1191, Richard continued to advance, defeating Saladin every time they fought and taking key cities along the Mediterranean coast.  But in September 1192, Richard and Saladin signed the Treaty of Ramla that left Jerusalem under Muslim control and Cyprus and the coastal cities under Crusader control.  The treaty granted Christian pilgrims the right to visit holy places.  Nathan the Wise takes place during this uneasy peace, which lasted until the Fourth Crusade (1202-04).

(Mentioned in Nathan are some sites of Crusader battles.  The Templar says he was captured at Tebnin, a city in Syria [now part of Lebanon] held by the Christians until 1187 when Saladin’s forces retook it and took many defenders prisoners.  The knight also reveals that his uncle, also a Templar, was killed in Gaza, the city in Palestine that was captured, also in 1187,  by Saladin, who destroyed the city’s fortifications in 1191.  Later, the lay brother tells Nathan that the knight he served, who’d given him the baby Rachel, died in Ascalon [Ashkelon in modern Israel], on the border between Egypt and the Crusader Kingdom.  The Christian knights took Ascalon in 1099, during the First Crusade [1096-99], and then lost it to Saladin in 1187, but during the years in between, the city was the site of continuous battles and sieges.  The Philistine city Gath—home of biblical Goliath—where Nathan’s family was slaughtered, was already a ruin by Crusader times, but the Christian knights built a fortress on the site as part of a defensive ring around Muslim-held Ascalon.  I found no record of a massacre of Jews there, however.  I also found no appropriate town named Darun, where the lay brother handed Rachel to Nathan, in the Holy Land; villages in Persia and modern-day Bangladesh don’t seem likely.) 

As the play opens, Nathan (F. Murray Abraham), a Jewish merchant, returns home from a trading and debt-collecting journey to learn that his daughter, Rachel (Erin Neufer), was saved from a fire by a young German Knight Templar, a captive whom Saladin spared because he resembles the Sultan’s late brother.  (The Knights Templar were a highly trained Christian military order that protected pilgrims to the Holy Land and fought its Muslim occupiers.  The organization’s members, who didn’t marry, are often called simply Templars.)  Rachel believes that the knight is an angel—illustrated by the cast in the most inventive bit of staging in the production—but Nathan persuades her that he’s mortal.  Nathan finds the Templar (Stark Sands) to thank him, but the knight scorns Jews.  Nathan asks, “Must Jews and Christians be always Jews and Christians and only humans afterwards?  Or like me will you stand here and say it is enough to be a man?”  The Templar takes Nathan’s hand in friendship.

In Kemp’s adaptation, the play isn’t divided into acts, but rather 11 scenes.  At CSC, the intermission comes between scenes five and six.  As the audience returns to our seats, the actors playing the two male Muslim characters Al-Hafi (George Abud) and Saladin (Austin Durant) kneel together center stage on prayer rugs and say their daily prayers in Arabic, a sequence that, like the prologue, also isn’t in Kemp’s text.

On the advice of Al-Hafi, the Sultan’s household treasurer and Nathan’s chess-playing friend, Saladin summons Nathan to ask for a loan, but decides to test the merchant’s vaunted wisdom first.  (The epithet given Nathan in the play’s title, ‘Wise,’ is probably Lessing’s rendition of the honorific Jewish title Reb or Rebbe, used to designate respected and trusted members of the community in the centuries before Rabbi came to mean an ordained clergyman.)  Saladin asks Nathan which is the true faith: Islam, Christianity, or Judaism.  Nathan replies by telling the Sultan the “Ring Parable”:

A magic ring that can render its owner loved by people and God has been passed from father to his favorite son for generations.  When the ring was handed down to a father with three sons whom he loved equally, he promised it to each one.  To keep his promise, the father had two exact replicas of the original ring made and on his deathbed gave one ring to each son.  The brothers “haggle, argue, and fight” over who owned the real ring and then took the quarrel to court.  The judge advised each son to believe that his ring was the original and to live in such a way that his ring’s power could prove true, to love one another as their father had.  

Nathan compares this parable to religion, explaining that we all live by the faith we’ve learned from those we trusted.  Saladin is impressed by the story and calls Nathan his friend.  Meanwhile, the Templar has fallen in love with Rachel.  He asks Nathan if he can marry Rachel but Nathan tells him to wait and the knight thinks Nathan is rejecting him.  He tells Daya (Caroline Lagerfelt), Rachel’s companion who’s Christian, and she reveals a secret that even Rachel doesn’t know: Rachel is only Nathan’s adopted daughter; she is, in fact, a Christian.  The Templar nearly gets Nathan into trouble with the Patriarch of Jerusalem (Lagerfelt, in an odd bit of double-casting) when the knight asks a “hypothetical” question, for raising a Christian as a Jew is a crime for which Nathan could be burned at the stake. 

The Patriarch, guessing about whom the Templar was talking, sends a lay brother (John Christopher Jones) to spy on Nathan.  The brother, however, turns out to be the former soldier who turned the infant Rachel over to Nathan 18 years earlier when the knight he served was killed and his wife had died in childbirth.  What the brother didn’t know, Nathan explains, is that on the day before Rachel was brought to him, his own wife and seven sons had been killed by Crusaders and though Nathan had sworn eternal hatred for Christians, when he held the baby girl, he immediately loved her as the return of one of “the seven.”

In the end, Nathan untangles several twists.  When the Templar told Nathan his name, the merchant had realized something and confirmed his suspicions with the lay brother and a prayer book the brother found in the pocket of Rachel’s dead father.  It turns out that the Templar is really Rachel’s brother and that their father, Nathan’s friend, was actually a Muslim forced to take a German name in order to marry a Christian.  The man was in actuality the Sultan’s lost brother, so the Templar and Rachel are Saladin’s nephew and niece.  In addition to this mélange of faiths and ethnicities with a common bond of family and love, Lessing wove into the story several others to make his point about tolerance and understanding: Nathan’s best friend, Al-Hafi, is a dervish, a Muslim ascetic, and Rachel’s companion, Daya, is Christian.  Saladin also has a sister, Sittah (Shiva Kalaiselvan), who converted in order to marry a Christian—though she’s not especially happy about it.  As contrived and melodramatic as all this sounds, it’s integral to Lessing’s theme: we’re all brothers and sisters—a message that was certainly bold in the 18th century, even during the Enlightenment.  (This ecumenism was one of the notions for which Goeze assailed Lessing.)  It’s certainly lost on many of today’s Jews, Christians, and Muslims (and, I daresay, adherents of several other world faiths).

The show’s scenic design, by Tony Straiges, is very simple, but effective.  CSC’s stage is a thrust with the playing area level with the floor.  As we enter, walking around the periphery of the stage to get to our seats, we can examine the pre-set: the floor is strewn with Persian rugs, one of which is still rolled up; some large pillows for sitting are scattered around; a chess board, set for a game, sits on one rug and a scimitar lies on another nearby.  About a half dozen Near Eastern brass lamps hang from the fly space,  Ten plain wooden chairs are lined up just below the upstage wall.  There’s no other furniture and the basic décor never changes.  On the upstage wall is an enlarged black-and-white photograph of a bombed-out street in some Syrian or Iraqi town, Staiges’s and Kulick’s literal way “to sharpen some of the connections between the Jerusalem of 1192 and the Middle East of” today, as Kemp explained he intended his adaptation to do.  This is greatly aided by Joe Novak’s lighting and Matt Stine’s soundscape.

In the house, at the ends of the front row seats, are one or two folding canvas stools on which we are admonished by the ushers not to put anything.  We’ll soon find out that the cast seldom leaves the theater and when an actor is “off stage,” he or she sits either in a chair on stage or on a stool in the house.  This was an element in Kulick’s conceit that his production of Nathan the Wise is a story being told by a group of enactors.  We aren’t watching life unfold but the reenactment of a fable or parable meant to teach us a moral lesson.  The actors in Kulick’s cast aren’t portraying actual people named Nathan or Saladin or Rachel, but other performers or storytellers who’re representing (or presenting if you want to get technical about it) these characters.  Kemp even says that “the play is a kind of fable” and that Lessing “put a ‘fable-like’ aura around the action” of Nathan the Wise

In a preamble Kulick added to Kemp’s text, the cast enters at the beginning of the performance, dressed in contemporary “street clothes” and begins haranguing one another in three different languages—German, Hebrew, and Arabic—like a miniature Tower of Babel.  An Arabic text is projected over the rear-wall photo.  Then Abraham quiets the cacophony by reminding his companions that they “have a story to tell,” as they help each other don white robes or tunics over their ordinary dress that will be each character’s identifying garb for the story enactment.  These costumes, designed by Anita Yavich, are decorated with writing: the Muslim characters all wear robes with Arabic script, the Jews have Hebrew writing, and the Christians German or Latin (I couldn’t get a clear enough view of them to be sure as it was inscribed in medieval script).  Some of the writing is arranged in a pattern: the Templar’s tabard had the knights’ red cross formed by tiny letters; Nathan and Rachel’s lettering was arranged in what looked to me like a menorah, which is the oldest symbol of Judaism going far back before the well-known Star of David, a very modern device, was adopted.  (Today, the seven-branched candelabrum is the symbol of the city of Jerusalem; the seats in Israel’s Knesset, its parliament, are arranged in the form of the menorah.)  I have to think all this was a deliberate design element, Yavich’s contribution to the storytelling conceit.

This approach, the twice-removed enactment of Lessing’s tale, might have been necessitated by a feature of Kemp’s translation and also might explain a characteristic of the company’s performance.  I said earlier that some of Kemp’s prose approached contemporary speech, clearly not what 12th-century (or even 18th-century) characters would use if they spoke English.  So perhaps to justify this apparent anachronism, Kulick devised this idea of presenting the play as a story being acted out by a group of players, providing them with permission to be a touch more modern than they might if they were doing a straight classic play.  This could also explain why the cast, including Abraham, all seemed to be playing with subdued energy, almost casually sometimes.  If the language is faux-contemporary, then the behavior might fall into that rhythm as well since the performers aren’t trying to be the medieval figures, coping with all the emotion-laden facts of their lives, but actors recounting a fable.  I believe it’s a Brechtian technique devised by Kulick to distance the spectators from the action so that we can make thoughtful comparisons to the current conditions in the Middle East—not just to the bloody fighting and destruction represented by the photo backdrop, but to the status of Arabs in Israel, the conditions in the West Bank and Gaza, the plight of the Kurds in Iraq and Turkey (it’s interesting to note, by the way, that Saladin was a Kurd, not an Arab), and the constant infighting among Muslim sects like the Sunni, Shia, Wahhabis, and Yazidis.  As Abraham continues his admonition about their story: “It happened long ago, but it might be worth hearing today.”

In any case, the acting is less bombastic than I would have imagined for a period classic like Nathan—and I don’t mean that as a complaint.  The most “modern” performance comes from Stark Sands as the Templar.  (His “street” dress, by the way, includes military combat boots with black trousers with the legs bloused as if his first persona were a special-forces warrior—another reference to current conditions in the Middle East, I presume.)  Sands looks very young, about a decade younger than he really is, and his performance comes off as a willful post-adolescent rather than the confused and lovelorn soldier the story makes him.  I haven’t seen any of his previous work, so I don’t know if this is habitual or if he selected this, with Kulick’s guidance, for Nathan, but of all the actors, he’s the least persuasive.  Most of the characters make mercurial changes of attitude, going from animosity (or at least skepticism) to bosom friendship in an instant, and Sands accomplishes this no less believably than any of his castmates, but his other scenes have less depth and truthfulness than the other characters’, and if this is an aspect of the storytelling approach, Sands takes it too far.

Even Abraham’s Nathan is curiously unemotional—especially considering the position he’s in for most of the play.  He arrives in Jerusalem to find that his house burned down and that his beloved Rachel was nearly killed; he soon suspects that his daughter’s savior is not who he presents himself to be, but someone whose existence could upend Nathan’s happy home; he’s threatened with exposure for a transgression the Church has decreed would cost him his life.  Yet Abraham remains calm and rational throughout.  Compared to his Shylock nine years ago, this Nathan is cold-blooded.  (Granted, Merchant is a tragedy and Nathan decidedly isn’t—but the characters can’t know that before it all ends.)  Austin Durant’s Saladin, a benevolent and even jovial characterization, doesn’t face quite the dire fates that Nathan does, but he’s going broke due to his profligate generosity and his financial relief keeps being delayed.  Yet he’s not in the least worried.  Nor is he concerned about the Crusader armies out to drive him from the Holy Land and kill him—after all, that’s how he got hold of the Templar to begin with, and he’s already lost his beloved brother.  Yet he engages in philosophical debates with Nathan and deliberately loses at chess to Sittah so he can give her money he doesn’t have. 

The most emotional performances come from George Abud’s Al-Hafi, who’s played as an excitable fellow, Erin Neufer’s Rachel, a teenager in love, and Lagerfelt’s Daya, who’s anxious to get back home to Switzerland and will do almost anything to make that happen—even betray her kind and generous employer.  The contrast can seem so disparate as to be almost unbelievable.  It’s hard to fault the actors, though, since the problem is so evenly distributed, so I lay the responsibility on Kulick.

All told, the entire cast, with the possible exception of John Christopher Jones’s sincere and honest lay brother, is remarkably cool and unemotional, and I took it that this is the storytelling approach.  (There’s a great deal of storytelling in the play, so the actors are depicting enactors telling a story about people who constantly tell stories.  Do you get that?)  It distances the whole production from the spectators a little too much to engage us—at least it did me.  In a way, I don’t feel as if I actually saw a performance of Nathan the Wise, but rather someone telling me the story of Nathan the Wise.  It wasn’t entirely satisfying—though not completely alienating, either.

Turning to the published reviews, I see that the website Show-Score tallied 24 reviewers and reports that 71% were positive, with only 12% negative.  (17% of the reviews were mixed.)  The average score on Show-Score was 69 (out of 100, I presume).  Newsday’s Linda Winer described Kemp’s translation as “lucid and engrossing” and said that Kulick’s production “combines straightforward storytelling with the otherworldly charm of a fable.”  Winer praised Abraham’s “calm, tender humanism” in contrast to his more usual theatricality, and deemed Neufer’s Rachel “lyrical” and Sands’s Templar “impressively ardent.”  In the end, the Newsday reviewer found CSC’s Nathan “exactly what . . . this theater dedicated to re-imagining classical repertory for modern audiences should do.”  In amNewYork Matt Windman, in contrast, found the production “bare and unexciting” that “doesn’t make a strong case for the German play, which mostly resembles an antiquated comedy full of slow exposition and surprise revelations.”  Of the performances, Windman asserted, “Abraham appears in a jovial mood, full of good humor,” unlike his Salieri or Shylock, and “Sands . . . gives a one-dimensional performance that is far too aggressive in tone.”  Elisabeth Vincentelli pretty much dismissed the revival in a short paragraph in an omnibus column in the New York Post, praising CSC for doing the “obscure” play, but adding, “If only the show were a little more exciting.”  Kulick’s production of “this fable-like” play “moves at a sluggish pace,” Vincentelli asserted; though Abraham’s “thoughtfully sober” performance deserved plaudits, “‘Nathan’ could have used less solemnity and more oomph.”

Lessing’s play has “timeless urgency, but sags under a convoluted plot,” wrote Joe Dziemianowicz in New York’s Daily News, but Kulick’s “spare, well-acted revival plays up the strengths.”  Despite the “uniformly fine” cast, with special kudos for Abraham’s “ wry, fiery and smart” Nathan, the play’s “ending feels dashed off.”  In the New York Times, Christopher Isherwood reported that in the first half of Nathan the Wise, “I found myself listing toward boredom,” but as the second part began, “the play grows increasingly engrossing” and “proves to be a moving story that speaks  . . . to conflicts that roil the world today.”  The Timesman generally praised Kemp’s translation (which the reviewer rightly noted is “more of an adaptation”), but still found, “There is no small measure of pontifical speechifying.”  Of Kulick’s staging, Isherwood complained about the seating of the “off-stage” actors in that upstage row of chairs, which he found “a slightly deadening presence that smacks vaguely of the lecture hall.”  The references to today’s Middle East, most notably the rear-wall photo, the Times review-writer judged were emphasized “a little heavily.”  Isherwood wrote that “the cast is mostly good” (he found that Neufer’s Rachel “strikes a somewhat jarring contemporary note and gets a little shrill”), with praise for Abraham (“quietly intense, persuasive”), Lagerfelt (“fervent but conflicted” as Daya), and Sands (“ardent”).  The reviewer noted that “the almost melodramatic turns of the plot are integral to the play’s central theme,” even as some “can be seen looming in the distance, prominent as a caravan of camels”; however, he still enjoyed “the unfolding of the story,”  which “is both a thoughtful (if sometimes preachy) exploration of mankind’s seeming inability to shed itself of culturally embedded prejudices, and a savory drama.”

The reviewer for the New Yorker’s “Goings On About Town” found Nathan’s second part, beginning with the “Ring Parable,” “more successful” than the first, even with the “flurry of revelations” that “amusingly link” most of the play’s characters.  With a central performance by the “forthright, thoughtful, and immensely clever” Abraham and “a robust, sympathetic” turn by Durant “that provides a pleasing counterpoint to Abraham’s,” Kulick’s revival “is a little bit Shakespeare, a little bit Scheherazade, and a little bit modern allegory, not laid on too thick.”  Time Out New York’s Adam Feldman called CSC’s Nathan the Wise “an elegant and apt parting gift [a reference to Kulick’s departure from the company at the end of the season] that sums up much of his approach to the company over the years:  Thoughtful and sincere, it combines a dramaturg’s love of theater history with a yen to connect today’s headlines to yesterday’s footnotes.”  While Kulick’s tie to the modern Middle East “comes off more as a concept than a vision,” “the play is gently engaging on its own terms.”  The “marvelous” Abraham “brings worldly wit to his early scenes and Biblical fire to his harrowing climactic monologue,” Sands is “mercurial,” and Abud and Jones provide “tasty bits.”  Feldman found the first act “discursive,” but the second is “suspenseful” and the man from TONY thought that Kulick directed with a “judicious highlighter to a worthy text, and the result is a virtuous envoi.”

On the website Stage Buddy, Mark Dundas Wood had trouble with Lessing’s script, feeling that it “might work better as closet drama” since the attraction “is not Lessing’s storytelling prowess.”   Kemp’s translation and Kulick’s staging aim “to make the play accessible to 21st-century audiences,” observed Wood, with assistance from Staiges’s setting and Yavich’s costumes.  “While Lessing’s musings on questions of faith may be of interest to today’s audiences,” felt Wood, “his antique scenario never quite seems to click for us.”  The “plot becomes increasingly convoluted as the play progresses,” the Stage Buddy reviewer asserted, comparing it to “a credulity-stretching Plautian comedy,” even though Kulick’s staging “adds energy.”  Declaring that Abraham is the “chief reason” to see Nathan, Wood also had praise for Abud and Lagerfelt, though he expressed reservations about Sands, who “pushed a bit hard at times.”  Theatre Reviews Limited’s David Roberts called Lessing’s play “complex,” his characters “well-rounded and interesting,” and the plot “engaging and relevant.”  “Under Brian Kulick’s artful and efficient direction,” alongside the “brilliant and the quintessence of exquisite acting” of Abraham, the “accomplished ensemble . . . successfully negotiates” the play’s complexities. 

Charles Wright of CurtainUp dubbed CSC’s Nathan as “splendid looking,” thanks to “top-notch designers”—“an admirable valedictory” for Kulick.  Wright characterized Kemp’s translation as “ear-pleasing prose” with “a contemporary ring throughout without seeming slangy or anachronistic.”  Kulick, the CU reviewer found, assembled a “well-calibrated ensemble” led by Abraham, who “is like the concertmaster of a chamber orchestra, leading without calling undue attention to himself.”  On Theater Pizzazz, Marilyn Lester dubbed Lessing’s Nathan the Wise “a remarkable work” and described Kemp’s translation as “both respectful to the original and perceptively modern and relevant.”  Director Kulick “paced the work briskly and intelligently” and the “ensemble cast is pitch-perfect,” with special praise for Lagerfelt as the Patriarch (“chillingly fierce”) and especially Abraham, who “demonstrates why he’s one of the most talented and brilliant actors of our time.”  Michael Hillyer described the CSC production as “handsome” on New York Theatre Guide, with a “talented company . . . creating a strong sense of ensemble,” “simple but effective” design elements, and direction that “helped to create a simple story-telling framework [and] concentrated upon the narrative.” 

Michael Dale of Broadway World deemed that “NATHAN THE WISE, does play a bit like theatre for young audiences in Classic Stage Company’s new mounting” because “Kulick’s production draws obvious parallels between yesterday and today.”  Of the performances, the BWW reviewer reported that Abraham’s Nathan is “wry-humored and amusingly philosophical,” Sands is  “intense” as the Templar, and Saladin is “gregarious in Durant’s portrayal.  Dale concluded that “while pleasant, sweet and well-acted, there’s little in NATHAN THE WISE to stimulate interest, aside from its value as a theatrical artifact.”  On Talkin’ Broadway, Matthew Murray wrote that Nathan the Wise makes “soberly considered, worth-remembering points about religious tolerance,” but while “Lessing’s work is serious-minded,” Kulick’s staging “too often feels as though it isn’t.”  To be fair to the director, who “instructed the whole cast to tread lightly,” Murray noted that Kemp’s translation “downplays the classical (literal and figurative) poetry.”  All of Kulick’s approaches, “taken all together, . . . rob the work of the weight and the import that might have made it worth doing in the first place,” the TB blogger complained.  Lessing’s story is “dogged” with “unlikeliness” and Kemp’s translation is “a soap-opera tract” with “unmusical dialogue” that Murray felt eliminated the lyricism and poetry of the original.  Kulick and his design team abet these deficiencies “by jolting contemporaneity at every turn”; these  tactics “lower the stakes” so “that the performances only skim the surface.”  The result, said Murray, is that none of the actors, except Durant, hits the true notes for their characters and the audience is unengaged.  The TB reviewer declared that the simple act of Abud’s and Durant’s saying prayers before the second half of the show says “more than all the rest of this production’s modern ministrations put together.”  Zachary Stewart called the CSC revival of Nathan an “excellent and earnest production“ of Kemp’s “zippy” version on TheaterMania.  Though Stewart thought that the reach out to the contemporary Middle East was “somewhat heavy-handed,” he allowed that it “actually complements Lessing's parabolic drama” and that Staiges’s “minimalist yet effective scenic design” enhances this connection because it “suggests both eras.” 

On the cyber journal the Huffington Post there were two notices.  The first, from Michael Giltz, dubbed Nathan the Wise a “warm-hearted story” that “has the shape of a Shakespearean romance, the insight of a Michael Frayn drama and the soul of a fairy tale”; however, “Kulick hasn’t quite woven all these strands into a cohesive evening of theater; the scenic design by Tony Straiges is especially indifferent.”  Nonetheless, “a fine cast and the probing intelligence . . . make it an enjoyable one.”  In Kemp’s translation, the play “has an elemental appeal,” but “the scenic design did the story no help”: Giltz found that the photo mural “with its mixed message distracted throughout.”  The HP blogger deemed that Abraham “dominated . . . by quietly anchoring the performances of everyone around him,” although their acting was “slapdash in style.”  Giltz concluded that “you are never in doubt as to the thrust of the story, even if “a certain clarity was lacking in the ending.”  The following day, Giltz’s HP colleague Fern Siegel found the play “an emotional roller-coaster ride,” while at the same time “a bit contrived.”  “Still,” Siegel continued, “its solid cast, led by a centered Abraham, carries it off.”  Staiges’s scenery “is economical”—except for the photo mural, which she found “confusing”—and Yavich’s costumes “are evocative.” 

21 April 2016

“To Be . . . Performed: Hamlet to Haunt Stages in Every Country in the World”

Reported by Jeffrey Brown

[The most famous words of the most famous play of the most famous playwright of the English language will soon be echoed all over the earth.  In honor of William Shakespeare’s 450th birthday (23 April 1564), Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre initiated a project in 2014 to perform Hamlet in every country in the world in the space of two years. Titled Globe to Globe Hamlet (http://globetoglobe.shakespearesglobe.com/), it began its tour on 23 April 2014.  As of yesterday (20 April), the project had performed in 194 different countries and traveled over 193,000 miles.  (The production is performing today (21 April) at Elsinore Castle, the real-life setting of the play, in Denmark.  On 26 July, the tour will arrive in Washington, D.C., where it will perform in the Folger Theatre, a replica of an Elizabethan stage, in the Folger Shakespeare Library on Capitol Hill.)  PBS NewsHour’s Jeffrey Brown talked to Globe artistic director Dominic Dromgoole about the ambitious project and the timeless text.]

The Globe Theatre of London

JUDY WOODRUFF: Some four centuries after the death of William Shakespeare, London’s Globe Theatre is launching a plan to take the playwright’s tale of a tormented prince around the world.

Jeff is back with more on that.

KENNETH BRANAGH, Actor: To be or not to be.

JEFFREY BROWN: Famous words, famous play, the most famous playwright in the English language.

William Shakespeare wrote “Hamlet” in the early 17th century, shortly after his acting company, Lord Chamberlain’s Men, moved into the Globe playhouse. In 1997, a reconstructed theater opened on the Thames River as Shakespeare’s Globe.

Now the ambitious plan is to take “Hamlet” to every country on Earth over the next two years, a project that began in London on Wednesday, Shakespeare’s 450th birthday.

I talked earlier today to the Globe’s artistic director, Dominic Dromgoole.

Thanks for joining us.

In announcing this, you yourself said it was a — quote — “lunatic idea.” So the first question, of course, why do it?

DOMINIC DROMGOOLE, Artistic Director, Shakespeare’s Globe: Why not?

All of the best ideas are a little bit mad. Two years ago, we did a very, very crazy idea, a festival where we invited 37 countries from all across the world to come and do the complete works of Shakespeare, all in their own languages, as a six-week festival. That was crazy enough.

But we wanted to cap that and we wanted to go a little bit further and to celebrate Shakespeare, celebrate the international reach of Shakespeare, but also to cement a lot of relationships that we had formed when we did that festival and see if we could start a whole lot of new relationships as well.

And when you come up with the idea that, you know, it’s a bold idea, it’s a stupid idea, it’s a happy idea, and they sort of have their own logic, those ideas.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, I think we’re used to the idea of universal themes in Shakespeare, but what specifically in “Hamlet” do you think speaks to everyone? What do you want it to say all over the world?

DOMINIC DROMGOOLE: Well, the great thing about “Hamlet” is that it’s always challenging.

Hamlet says that time is out of joint, and he’s a man who’s got a sensibility that doesn’t fit in his own age. He’s troubled by a sense of modernity in an age that doesn’t particularly understand him. And that makes sense everywhere. That makes sense in England at the moment, where a lot of people, whether they’re young or old or whoever they are, feel a sense of dissatisfaction, a sense of discontent, a sense that they don’t understand the world around them.

This is true in America, I’m sure, and it’s true in a lot of different places that are in a very different historical moment and in a very different political situation.

So “Hamlet” is always challenging, it’s always provoking, it’s always troubling, but it can also inspire, and it can also console. So it’s a sort of gloriously variable, protean play that can cope with a whole collection of different situations. And it’s beautiful and it’s a great story.

JEFFREY BROWN: The themes may be universal, but the language isn’t, the setting of the play isn’t, the politics of these countries are different. Have you thought about how you overcome those challenges?

DOMINIC DROMGOOLE: Yes, it’s challenges that we faced when we did this festival a couple of years ago. We had a lot of hot issues to handle. We had a lot of objections to us bringing a lot of the different countries.

There was one group of people that objected to us bringing Israel. Another group of people objected to us bringing Palestine. And we were determined that we would have both of those countries within our festival.

And it’s that spirit of inclusion, rather than exclusion, that we’re following with this. We don’t want to sort of start saying, you qualify for Shakespeare, you qualify for “Hamlet,” you don’t, because we don’t feel we have the right to do that. I think that every country in the world, every group of people in the world has an equal right to “Hamlet.”

And I think “Hamlet” can be of equal benefit for all of them. So there will be challenges, but, you know, we like challenges. You can’t be put off by those things. You have got to be inspired by those things.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, going to every country means going into some different places, of course, Syria, the Central African Republic, and many others.

What about the physical challenge of performing in such situations?

DOMINIC DROMGOOLE: Well, we have got to be very careful.

We have got to be sensible. And we’re not doing it out of a spirit of recklessness. But I think that, you know, if we can get into every place, if we can find a way, whether it’s through dealing with NGOs, whether it’s through going to refugee camps, or whatever it is, we do want to get in every country, because we want to celebrate the ability of everybody to enjoy this fantastic and beautiful play.

JEFFREY BROWN: I understand you’re going to Ukraine at a particularly important moment. Tell us about that.


No, I think we’re going to be in Kiev in four or five weeks’ time, just the night before the election. We will be playing in a theater, and we’re also going to try and do a short show in Maidan Square, where a lot of the protesting was going on. And it will be thrilling. That’s when theater is at its most exciting and best, when it can talk to a people who are in a very current and very live political moment. So it will be a real privilege.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, this is a two-year project.

DOMINIC DROMGOOLE: Two years, yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: You have got the actors, the crew, the money to pull this off?

DOMINIC DROMGOOLE: Yes. No, we have already started. We have done two shows, one at Middle Temple Hall. We have done one at the Globe itself. On Sunday, we get on a boat and we sail off to Holland, which is our first stop.

No, I mean, we could always do with more money. There’s a Kickstarter campaign that we’re running, if anybody wants to help us along the way, but we’re comfortable we’re going to be able to manage it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Dominic Dromgoole is the artistic director of the Globe Theatre in London.

Thanks so much, and good luck.

DOMINIC DROMGOOLE: Pleasure. Thank you very much.

[This report was originally broadcast on PBS NewsHour on 25 April 2014.]

16 April 2016

"10 Theatres In Weird Places"

[I was checking some U.K. reviews of a British play, one of which was in the London Telegraph.  While I was reading the notice, I spotted a link to a story headlined “10 Theatres in Weird Places,” and it intrigued me.  So I made a note to go back and have a look after I finished reading the four or five reviews I’d found on line, and when I did, I decided it was interesting enough to repost on ROT when I had a slot to fill.  (My favorite weird theater is the one in a men’s “convenience”—that’s the British euphemism for ‘bathroom’!)  The theaters in this collection are all British (eight are English; two are Scottish), but the facts are wonderfully idiosyncratic.  I wish someone had compiled a list of “weird theaters” like this in the U.S.—I’m sure we have plenty.  (The university theater at my alma mater back in the ’60s was in a 19th-century building that had previously served as a shoe factory and a [rumored] brothel, among other purposes.  I’m sure other playhouses in this country can match that pedigree.)  Until someone does put together such a list, however, enjoy this little lagniappe—an unlooked-for gift—from London.

[I’ve taken the liberty of editing the Telegraph’s comments.  I didn’t cut anything, but I added information here and there that I thought would help my fellow Americans follow the descriptions and histories.  Be on your toes, though: I didn’t change any Britishisms in diction or spelling!]


Picture: Cutty Sark Trust
By day, the lower hold of London’s famous tea clipper, the Cutty Sark [built in 1869; located near the centre of Greenwich, in south-east London], is crammed with tea chests, offering visitors a glimpse of how the cargo ship would have looked in its 18th-century heyday. These days, however, the chests contain new spoils: the components of an intimate theatre, which can be set up in the hold – either with a thrust stage or in the round – in just under an hour. The Michael Edwards Studio Theatre (rmg.co.uk/cuttysark/studio-theatre), which opens on January 29, seats up to 110 people and will host a programme of cabaret, comedy, music, special lectures, small scale-drama and even films, which will be projected onto yet more stacks of tea chests. Eventually, the team behind the theatre hopes to extend their programming to use the rest of the ship; two proposed ideas are promenade theatre and a performance of The Tempest on the ship’s deck.  


Picture: Tobacco Factory
In the early 20th century, Bristol [a city in South West England, about 118 miles due west of London] was home to the headquarters of Imperial Tobacco – a vast complex of buildings covering around 1 million square feet. In the Seventies and Eighties, the factory was closed down and quickly became derelict, with a section of it being demolished. But George Ferguson, then head of RIBA [Royal Institute of British Architects] and now mayor of Bristol, bought the remainder of the building, transforming it into a thriving theatre with a proudly diverse programme. In August 2009, the Factory Theatre (tobaccofactorytheatres.com), as it is now called, was joined by the Brewery Theatre, a cosy 90-seat auditorium just down the road in a former tyre garage, which backs onto the Bristol Beer Factory.  


Picture: Alamy
This spectacular open-air theatre began its life in the 1920s when a sparky young woman named Rowena Cade arrived in West Cornwall [a region of England abour 285 miles southwest of London]. Having lost her father during the First World War, Cade bought a piece of rocky headland known as Minack, built a house for herself and her mother and set about making theatre. Performances were initially staged in her garden, but a production of The Tempest prompted Cade to consider using the craggy outcrop at the end of her garden as a stage. With the help of two craftsmen, she built a rough stage and seating from local granite, and, with her audience facing out to sea, the Minack Theatre (www.minack.com) staged its first performance. Today, the theatre’s season runs from April to September, with a mix of concerts and plays, many of which are performed by small theatre companies. It also offers a great range of shows for children.  


Picture: Alamy
Originally a Victorian gentlemen's lavatory, this tiny stone building in Great Malvern [an area of the spa town of Malvern, Worcestershire, 140 miles northwest of London] served as a children’s clothes shop and antique store before Dennis Neale, a keen puppeteer and drama enthusiast, bought it in 1997. Seating only 12 audience members at a time, the theatre holds five-minute puppet shows, performed from behind a façade made up of old furniture and broken musical instruments, which Neale scavenged or bought during the two years it took him to convert the building (wctheatre.co.uk). The puppets, too, are made from assorted bric-a-brac – everything from boxing gloves to sewing machine treadles – and the theatre’s decorative painted walls are the work of Neale’s son. The theatre opens for extra sessions during the school holidays but Neale insists that most of his visitors are adults. “Perhaps they have short attention spans, like me,” he says. 


Picture: Jacksons Lane

The red bricks of this beautiful Grade II listed Edwardian church [a former Wesleyan Methodist church, opened in 1905; Grade II designates buildings that are of special interest] in Highgate [a suburban area of north London] contain not only a RIBA-award winning 160-capacity theatre, complete with original gothic arches, but also a dance and rehearsal studio (nestled in the eaves of the church’s vaulted ceiling), café, bar and four other multi-purpose spaces (jacksonslane.org.uk). The venue specialises in contemporary performance and circus. Expect mime, colourful physical theatre for children and – thanks to the impressive dimensions of the main theatre – aerial acts, German Wheel practitioners and acrobatics.  


Picture: John Husband / Alamy
Founded in 1976, Manchester’s [a city about 210 miles northwest of London] Royal Exchange is housed in the city’s former Cotton Trading Exchange. The main theatre, which holds 760 people in the round, sits within a seven-sided steel and glass module, suspended from four huge columns of the Exchange’s domed Great Hall, but the building also has a small flexible studio space. While it is now thriving, the producing theatre has had a rocky history. In 1996, an IRA bomb exploded nearby, causing such extensive damage to the theatre that it was forced to close for two years and complete a £32 million [$45.2 million] renovation. It reopened in 1998 and has been going strong ever since, gaining a reputation for staging promising new writing (royalexchange.co.uk).


Picture: Jeffrey Blackler / Alamy
One of the lynchpins of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe [world’s largest arts festival, held annually in August], the Underbelly is a cavernous maze of performance spaces, eateries and bars set in the vaults below the central library of Edinburgh [the capital of Scotland, 415 miles north of London]. First opened in 2000, the venue originally operated out of three spaces – the Iron Belly, the White Belly and the Big Belly – but a host of new ‘bellies’ has been added in the last 14 years, and the venue now offers everything from big-name comedians and burlesque acts in the Big Belly to more experimental performances – think one-man ukulele storytelling acts – in the intimate Baby Belly (underbelly.co.uk.  


Picture: Watermill
Arguably one of the UK’s prettiest theatres, the Watermill (watermill.org.uk) in Bagnor, West Berkshire, [a hamlet close to the town of Newbury, 61½ miles west of London] was founded in 1967 in, you've guessed it, a converted mill. Dating back to 1830 (it is even recorded in the Domesday book) the building was used as a corn, fullers [fulling is the cleansing of wool cloth to eliminate impurities], and fine paper mill before falling into disrepair. It was restored, along with its tithe barn [used in the Middle Ages for storing rents and tithes], by theatre enthusiast David Gollins and in 1981 was purchased by Jill and James Sargant, who developed it from a local rep into a renowned producing house, specialising in Shakespeare and musical theatre. Many of its productions now transfer to both the West End and Broadway.  


Picture: Tramway
Glasgow’s [the largest city in Scotland, 412 miles north of London] sprawling contemporary arts centre was founded in 1998 but the history of its home reaches back to 1893. The building originally served as the city’s main tram terminus, depot and factory, before becoming the Museum of Transport in the early 1960s, when the tram system became obsolete. [‘Tram’ is the British word for trolley or streetcar; ‘tramway’ is the streetcar line.] Tramway was eventually launched as a result of the search for a venue to house what would be the only UK performances of Peter Brook’s Indian epic Mahabharata in 1988. Today, the venue specialises in contemporary visual and performing art – hosting its programme in five very different spaces – as well as providing a headquarters for the Scottish Ballet (tramway.org.  


Picture: Will Wintercross
In 2012, acclaimed theatre company Defibrillator took over three rooms in Holborn’s Grange Hotel, squeezing audience members in alongside actors as they performed three short, site-specific works by Tennessee Williams. This year [sorry, this was in 2014] they’re doing it all again. But while they have once more chosen Williams as their subject – they will perform his one-act plays Green Eyes, Sunburst, and The Pink Bedroom – they have upgraded their surroundings somewhat. Audience members will arrive at the Langham [in the district of Marylebone in central London], Europe’s first ‘grand hotel’, and be led on an immersive journey from the decadent lobby to a set of three luxurious suites (thehotelplays.co.uk). 

[Posted on the London Telegraph, 29 January 2014, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/theatre/10603169/10-theatres-in-weird-places.html?frame=2804909; downloaded on 9 April 2016.]

11 April 2016

'Bright Star'

[My play report on the current Broadway première of Bright Star, the initial musical theater venture of comedian-musician-author Steve Martin and singer-songwriter Edie Brickell, is considerably longer than my usual reports.  The extra length—nearly half the post—is attributable to the review survey I always include at the end.  Bright Star attracted so much press attention when it came to New York City, more outlets covered it than I commonly find on the ’Net.  Rather than reduce the selection or trim the quotations, I decided to let the reporting of the critical reception exceed my self-imposed maximum length.  (I have, though, omitted the brief bios of the playwrights that I normally include when I write a report like this on a play composed by a writer I haven’t written about before.  Curious readers will have to look the artists up on their own this time.)  Though I don’t endorse it, ROTters may chose to stop after my performance evaluation.  I recommend you stay with the report, however, and see what the published reviewers had to say about this attention-grabbing musical.  ~Rick]

I probably should admit a few things before launching into my report on the new Broadway musical Bright Star.  You should know a little about where I’m coming from in this instance.  First, I’ve never been a big fan of Steve Martin—not his stand-up routines in the ’60s, nor his “wild-and-crazy” appearances on Saturday Night Live in the ’70s, nor his movies in the ’80s (I could tolerate Roxanne, but that was probably because he cribbed from Edmond Rostand), nor his earlier attempts at playwriting (I thought very little of The Underpants), nor his appearances on talk shows like Letterman and Colbert.

Second, I don’t really like banjo music.  I can take it in small doses, but a whole evening of it drives me bananas.  Music that goes plinkety-plink turns me off—and what else does a banjo do but plink?

Given number two, it probably won’t surprise anyone when I add that, third, I don’t care for bluegrass music.  I don’t like country music in general, but bluegrass leaves me ice cold.  I went to college in the South and spent the first months of my military service in that region, but I never acquired a taste for this music even though it was often hard to find anything else on the radio.  (We listened to the radio back then.  It was a thing.)

Finally, one thing that I really dislike is to feel my emotions have been deliberately manipulated.  If someone wants to tell a story which along the way generates an emotional response, whether fright, sadness, laughter, or wonder, that’s terrific.  That’s the way it’s supposed to happen.  But when I feel that the storyteller has set out from the very start to pluck my heart strings just to show he can do it, I get pissed.  (I do make an exception for horror stories—that’s the function of that genre.)

So, now you have all my pertinent biases.

Now, I also need to confess something else.  In a departure from my customary practice, I read some of the reviews of Bright Star before starting to write this report (but after I’d seen the show).  Having read Christopher Isherwood’s New York Times review, which comes to my home, I wondered if other reviewers had the same high opinion of this musical that he did.  I won’t reveal now what I found—I’ll be doing the usual review round-up at the end of the report—but readers may find that my sneak preview has informed, not my opinion of the performance, but my reportage.  Can’t be helped, I guess: I can’t un-know what I now know.

Let’s go back to my habitual starting point.  Diana, my regular theater companion, called me a few months back with some performances she thought she might like to see.  We had started going to shows together some years ago when Diana asked me to be her sort of Baedeker for theater, particularly the less prominent performances and companies, because I knew more about the New York theater scene than she did.  But that was years ago, and all I do now is occasionally point out productions she should consider and offer an opinion on ones she brings to my attention.  Bright Star was one of the latter, and I expressed some doubts about it, but agreed to give it a try for the novelty of the play (bluegrass music on Broadway and Martin’s maiden voyage on the Great White Way) and because it had been a long time since I’d gone to a Broadway production of an original play (as opposed to a revival like On the Town, on which I reported on 18 July 2015, or an adaptation like An American in Paris, reported on 2 August 2016).  So I didn’t press my reservations.  (Just to be clear: the Broadway musical Bright Star is in no way related to the French-British-Australian film about poet John Keats and his muse Fanny Brawne that was released in 2009 under the same title.)  Diana booked seats for Bright Star at the Cort Theatre on West 48th Street for Friday evening, 1 April.  (That’s right: April Fool’s Day—which turned out to be inauspicious later in the evening!  But I’ll get to that.)

Bright Star, which was workshopped at Vassar & New York Stage and Film’s Powerhouse Theater on the Vassar College campus in Poughkeepsie, New York, from 12 to 14 July 2013, had its world première at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego from 13 September to 2 November 2014 with the same creative and design team that took it to New York City and mostly the same leading performers.  (There was also a staged reading in New York City after the Vassar workshop.)  The performance text was reworked following the San Diego première: some characters were dropped; some songs were removed and others, such as the new opening number (“If You Knew My Story”), added; and the book was adjusted to accommodate these changes.  The show reopened for what was considered its pre-Broadway try-out at the Eisenhower Theater of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., 2 December 2015 to 10 January 2016; the final Broadway cast was put together for the Washington production.  The transfer to Broadway began with previews of the two-hour-and-twenty-minute show at the Cort on 25 February and the new musical opened on 24 March for an open-ended run. 

As I said, this is the first entirely original musical play to come to Broadway in a very long time.  (Even Hamilton is based on a book.)  The story was conceived by Steve Martin and his composing partner Edie Brickell.  The pair met through Brickell’s husband of over 20 years, singer-songwriter Paul Simon (who recently wrote music for John Patrick Shanley’s Prodigal Son, on which I reported on 28 February, and made his own Broadway attempt in 1998 with The Capeman), and first collaborated in 2013 on their début album of bluegrass music, Love Has Come For You.  According to Brickell, a tune Martin had written for the recording reminded her of a train.  This prompted her to research actual southern trains, and she came across one called Iron Mountain (actually the St. Louis, Iron Mountain and Southern Railway line), connected to which, she discovered, was a newspaper story, a true account from 1902 about a man named William Helms (1835-1917), his wife Sarah Jane Helms (1850-1925), and a child called William Moses Gould Helms (1902-53).  (The tale has become known as The Iron Mountain Baby and gave birth to a folk song, “The Ballad of the Iron Mountain Baby,” written by Rev. J. T. Barton in 1902 or ’03.)  Brickell has recounted the story of the play’s origin numerous times, most recently on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert on 15 March; It was also related in a feature in the “Arts & Leisure” section of the New York Times of 20 March and on CBS News’s Sunday Morning on the same date.

The composing team, dubbed Steve and Edie (an allusion to the husband-and-wife singing duo Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gormé, popular in the 1950s and ’60s when they were billed as Steve and Eydie), wrote the story that became the plot of Bright Star.  Martin and Brickell composed a bluegrass-infused score for the play; Martin, an avid and accomplished banjo-player since his teens, wrote the music (which he calls the “tunes”) and the book, Brickell the lyrics (except for two songs for which she wrote both music and lyrics). 

The Southern Gothic story Martin and Brickell wrote and the plot of Bright Star differ almost entirely from the legend of the Iron Mountain Baby.  Just as Peter Shaffer did with the news story he read about a boy who blinded six horses from which he built his 1973 play Equus, Martin and Brickell invented all but the central fact of a baby thrown from a train.  None of the musical’s characters bear the names of the real people in the story and the play is set in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina in 1923 and 1945, not Washington County, Missouri, in 1902.  So we’ll leave the legend behind now and take up the Martin-Brickell narrative as the play recounts it.

In the small town of Hayes Creek, North Carolina, a 23-year-old soldier, Billy Crane (A. J. Shively), is just returning home from World War II.  He arrives at the cabin where he grew up to find his father (Stephen Bogardus) waiting to greet him and his childhood friend, Margo Crawford (Hannah Elless), paying a call.  Margo, who runs the town bookstore, has brought Daddy Cane a book—an obvious excuse to be there when Billy arrives because she has long harbored a crush on him.  Billy asks after his mother, and Daddy Cane has a hard time telling his son that one night, she just passed away (“She’s Gone”); Daddy Cane takes his son to see her grave near the cabin. 

There, addressing his beloved mother who had instilled in her son a love of reading and words, Billy sings the title song, “Bright Star,” and proclaims his intention of being a writer like Thomas Wolfe or William Faulkner.  While overseas, he’d been sending his stories home to Margo who’d encouraged him—and even retyped all his manuscripts on good paper so he could submit them for publication when he was ready.  So caught up in his hopeful future, Billy has no idea how hung up on him Margo is; she’s just a good friend and confidante in his eyes.  He tells her he’s not going to send his stories to  Alice Murphy (Carmen Cusack), the renowned and famously acerbic editor of the Asheville Southern Journal, a prestigious literary journal that resembles Tennessee’s Sewanee Review.  He’s going to travel to Asheville himself and deliver the typescripts by hand and camp outside the journal’s offices until he’s published! 

In Asheville, we meet Alice, a dour 38-year-old spinster, complete with eyeglasses and hair bun, and her assistants Lucy (Emily Padgett) and Daryl (Jeff Blumenkrantz), who admire her, fear her, and look out for her, all at the same time.  In a flashback to 1923 in Zebulon, another small town in the Blue Ridge Mountains (“Way Back in the Day,” one of the songs Brickell wrote on her own), we learn that Alice was an irrepressible and inquisitive 16-year-old who delights in shocking her parents (Stephen Lee Anderson and Dee Hoty) with her modern ways, as they preach the Bible to her to no avail.  We also find that she likes to tease 18-year-old Jimmy Ray Dobbs (Paul Alexander Nolan), who finds excuses to come out to the Murphy cabin. 

Jimmy Ray’s the scion of the rich family in town and the son of Mayor Josiah Dobbs (Michael Mulheren), who’d rather he paid greater attention to the more eligible daughters of North Carolina’s prominent and connected families.  (If you’ve read any of the press on Bright Star or the reviews of the out-of-town productions, you know what’s coming.  A warning: I’m going to include some spoilers if you don’t already know what’s ahead.  The foreshadowing is so obvious, however, that I contend that Martin and Brickell’s intended shocks are really no surprises.)  The relationship between Jimmy Ray and his father is established when the boy says he’s filling out an application for the University of North Carolina because he wants to learn more about the world than he can in Zebulon—and the Mayor quashes his son’s desires by telling him he can learn everything he needs to know to run the family business right at his father’s side, as the Mayor did from his father.  (Have you heard this gambit before?  I can think of at least one play from 1916 that used it.)

Billy arrives at the Asheville office all chipper and enthusiastic, but Lucy and Daryl, two comic figures in this almost unrelentingly melodramatic plot (there’s one other: Margo has an unwelcome suitor, Max, played by Max Chernin, whose advances are childishly inappropriate), warn him that Alice is not kind to young writers; she once even bought Ernest Hemingway to tears.  (Daryl, we learn, has been submitting stories to the journal under a pen name, each of them rejected.)  Billy announces he has a letter of encouragement from Thomas Wolfe, to whom the tyro author says he sent samples of his work while overseas.  Alice is intrigued—even though, she observes, Wolfe died seven years earlier.  When Billy hands Alice his stories, however, something makes her decide to take them home to read.  She seems to feel some kind of connection to the young man.  (Again, the foreshadowing of something momentous to come.  Can you guess yet?  Diana and I did.)  Her general advice: “You need to find a sweeping tale of pain and redemption.”  (Hint, hint.)  She buys a story from him for $10—not to publish, but just to encourage him. 

After returning briefly to Hayes Creek to tell Margo the news—and show her the check (the equivalent today of the munificent sum of $130), Billy moves to Asheville (“Asheville”) to write day and night, taking Alice’s criticism to heart.  (“Which words should I cut, Miss Murphy?” asks Billy.  “The superfluous ones,” Alice replies brusquely.)  She begins to act more like a mentor than the cold-hearted and exacting editor of her reputation.  (Hmmm.

Meanwhile, back in 1923 Zebulon (there are a lot of meanwhiles in Bright Star; the show hops back and forth between 1945-46 and 1923 every few scenes), Jimmy Ray and Alice are at a big town fête and go off together for a stroll by the river.  They soon end up in a passionate kiss, the culmination of which is left to our imaginations (does it take much to guess?).  Eleven weeks later, Alice sees a doctor (Michael X. Martin) who informs her she’s pregnant.  She knows Jimmy Ray will marry her and they’ll raise their baby together, and sure enough, Jimmy Ray steps up (“I Can’t Wait”)—but Mayor Dobbs has a thing or two to say about this (“A Man’s Gotta Do”).  He offers Alice a secluded cabin in the woods where she can be alone (and, unsaid of course, have the baby out of everyone’s view).  Alice gives birth to a son, and her mother and father, who’ve made a rather abrupt shift from their stern disapproval in the face of this situation, tend Alice and Jimmy Ray visits—until his father sends him off on a “business errand.”  Then the big shock comes: Mayor Dobbs and Daddy Murphy have colluded in a plan to take the baby boy to Raleigh for a “private and legal” adoption.  With Alice and Mama Murphy struggling against him, the mayor’s minion (William Youmans) almost literally tears the newborn from Alice’s arms (“Please, Don’t Take Him”) and places him in a leather handbag for the train trip to Raleigh.  (Can everyone guess where this is leading?)

Mayor Dobbs is on the train, which we learn later passes through Hayes Creek on its way to Raleigh (reprise “A Man’s Gotta Do”), with the leather bag and at the close of act one, he leaves his seat and walks to the end of the train and flings the bag off the platform into the river below.  It arcs in slow motion until it hangs just over the front row of the house as act one ends.

At the start of act two, we’re again in Zebulon in 1923 (“Sun Is Gonna Shine”).  Jimmy Ray is about to leave for Chapel Hill (where Alice has gone now on an anonymously-funded scholarship to UNC—Can you guess where that came from?), but Mayor Dobbs confesses to his son that there never had been an adoption and tells him the horror story of the train trip.  Completely undone, Jimmy Ray decides he can never face Alice again, knowing what his father has just told him (“I Had a Vision”). 

Back in 1945, we find that Alice as been traveling to Raleigh regularly for over two decades to look through the county records for documents on the adoption of her son, always to no avail.  She asks the clerk (Alison Briner-Dardenne), who’s staffed the desk for 20 years, if anyone else has ever come asking about the same baby, but the clerk tells her no one ever has.  On her way to the train back to Asheville, she passes by the big house in Raleigh where Jimmy Ray now lives.  He just happens to be coming out the door as she walks by and they greet one another awkwardly.  (The big house is his sister’s; Jimmy Ray tells Alice he never married.)  Alice asks if Jimmy Ray ever tried to find their son, and Jimmy Ray finally tells Alice the awful truth. 

After Alice returns to Asheville, she tells the office that she’s going to make a trip back to Zebulon to see her parents.  Billy arrives at just that moment and suggests that since Hayes Creek is on the way (See how that train line works?  Any guesses what that suggests?), wouldn’t Alice like to stop and meet his father and see where he came from?  Alice agrees, but must go to Zebulon first and will stop in Hayes Creek in the way back.  Alice also announces that she’s buying one of Billy’s new stories for publication in the next issue.

In Zebulon, Alice has a reunion with her father while her mother is off at a neighbors.  He takes advantage of being alone with her to ask her forgiveness for his action the night he and Mayor Dobbs took her baby away from her.  He’s regretted that act ever since; his wife, who’s returned quietly, stops just within earshot and hears her husband’s confession.  Though he’s never forgiven himself, Alice tells him she forgave him long ago.

Billy rushes back to Hayes Creek and Margo to share the great news about his story.  Almost by accident, he finds himself engaged to the woman who’s stood by him for so long (“Always Will”).  Then he goes to his father’s cabin, and Alice shows up as Billy and his father are sipping a little moonshine Daddy Cane keeps under the porch.  As Alice and Daddy Cane get acquainted, Billy goes into the cabin to get some of his old clothes to take to his own home, now that he’s going to be married, and his father offers him an old satchel he’s had put away.  Of course, Alice recognizes the bag at once, and then, to clinch the revelation, Billy comes out onto the porch with an old sweater from his childhood he’d found.  (There were actually gasps in the audience—from those who hadn’t figured this part out already.)  It’s the very sweater Alice made for her son and which he was wearing the night he was taken from her (“At Long Last,” Brickell’s other solo composition).

When Alice tells the Canes that she knows the bag and the sweater, Daddy Cane comes out with the whole story of that night.  He’d gone off to the river to look for good, fat frogs for the night’s supper.  In the evening darkness, he hears the train go by above him and then finds the leather satchel and the crying infant boy inside, a little banged up but otherwise fine.  He and his wife aren’t young and they never had children so he sees this little Moses from the rushes as a gift from heaven.  (That bit’s true, by the way—except that the bag was apparently a cardboard suitcase.)  Well, of course, no one has any doubt that Billy is Alice’s son and that they’ve found each other after 20 years.  (In real life, William Helms never learned who his birth parents were.)

Back in Asheville, Billy brings Margo to the office to introduce everyone to his fiancée.  Who else shows up but Jimmy Ray, who, after greeting his son, promptly proposes to Alice.  The show ends with the prospect of a double wedding of mother and son to their long-enduring loves.  (What an incredibly neat bow!  Pause for handkerchief break.)

Diana and I felt the show was pretty bad overall; most of the rest of the audience—the house was fairly full—seemed to have loved it.  The production was okay (with some reservations, which I’ll get to), but the book and lyrics were mediocre and the music uninteresting and repetitive.  I kept thinking how my friend Kirk, who’s from Kentucky (one state up and one over from North Carolina), would react to the book, which is almost a travesty of Southern life and characters.  (Think Hee-Haw lite.)  If this show goes on tour in the South, I predict picket lines.

In a March New York Times feature article drawn from an interview with the co-creators of Bright Star, Dave Iztkoff reported that Martin and Brickell affirmed that the musical’s “overall sensibility . . . is earnest, unironic and absent of cynicism,” which strikes me as antithetical to humor or even lightness of touch.  Nevertheless, on NPR’s Morning Edition last year, interviewer Vince Pearson, referring to “that Steve Martin sense of humor,” remarked that the comedian-librettist “says he worked really hard to get the funny parts just right.”   Martin’s book is, in fact, relentlessly melodramatic and cliché-ridden.  It’s actually two clichés: the abandoned-baby story and the wannabe-writer tale.  They’re both contrived and set-up, but nevertheless completely predictable, especially if you’ve heard the story of what inspired the play.  (After all, it’s all over the media.)  What little humor there is is forced, brittle, and artificial. 

Furthermore, the narrative bounces back and forth between 1945 and 1923 so much that it’s hard to keep the story straight—which characters belong in ’23 and which in ’45 and which in both.  There are scenes in about four North Carolina towns, but the main stories take place largely in the two small towns of Zebulon and Hayes Creek, one which exists mostly in ’23 (at the end we see it in ’45) and the other in ’45 (with one flashback to ’23).  It’s just as hard to keep the towns straight, too—which one we’re supposed to be in.  

The characters are stereotypes, written as Southern caricatures.  Both Martin and Brickell were born in Texas, though Martin grew up in California.  But the lyricist stated, “I grew up in the country a lot as a little girl so I know all these different characters and it’s easy for me to remember them and let them spark my imagination.”  How did she let them get so stereotypical, then?  They’re so flat and shallow that none really stands out, so even the good performances are wasted.  The reviews seem to be declaring Carmen Cusack a new star (her character is the bridge between ’23 and ’45), but what she has to do so hamstrings the quality of her work that only theater pros would be able to see that she’s more than just competent.  The other cast members who are good don’t even have her platform to shine from.  (Dee Hoty, a three-time Tony-nominee, is totally wasted as Mama Murphy she’s so underused.)

In the NPR interview, Martin revealed that he and his partner “grew up on musicals and . . . we’d loved them.”  Then on CBS-TV’s Sunday Morning last month, the collaborators explained “that they deliberately created a more traditional musical, like the ones they grew up loving,” having earlier identified The Music Man (Martin) and The Sound of Music (Brickell) as favorites.  Unlike those Golden Age classics, however, Martin’s music, arranged by August Eriksmoen and conducted by Rob Berman, seems repetitious to me (some reviewers tried to argue that that’s the reaction of someone who doesn’t understand bluegrass—but I say repetitive is repetitive, no matter the genre) and Brickell’s lyrics are trite and also repeat themselves—not just between songs, but within them as well.  One important song (it even gets a reprise) is called “A Man’s Gotta Do”—a great example of triteness in its own right—and the opening words are: “A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do / When a man’s gotta do what he’s gotta.”  Really?  (That’s the refrain; it comes up at least twice in each rendition of the song.  So the line’s repetitive, and then the repetition is repeated!  Got it?)

There’s a title song, “Bright Star” (which originally was the opening number until director Walter Bobbie got Martin and Brickell to write a new one—which essentially gives away the whole plot!), but I still don’t get why that’s the title of the play—except as some ethereal symbol of hope and inspiration.  That seems a flimsy reason to make it the name of the play.  They had to write a song just to justify the play’s title—it has no connection to anything concrete in the play.  

Many of the notices praised Eugene Lee’s set, which is principally a mobile, open-sided cabin that doubles as the homes of the Murphys and the Canes and the bandstand for the 10-piece bluegrass combo.  It’s rolled (by members of the ensemble) all around the stage at times.  I found it way too busy and giddy.  There’s also other moving scenery, including a sky drop that transforms the brick rear wall of the set into the silhouette of a mountain range and a toy train that runs above the set as a symbol of the central plot element, to add to the whirligig set.  It’s all too much for this slight play to support; something simpler would have suited Bright Star better.

Despite my comments about the characters, I don’t put any of the blame on the actors.  The company of 22 is, like the overdesigned set, more than Bright Star can manage, however.  Director Bobbie seems to like large ensemble numbers and brings out all the chorus members (there are 12, plus the 10 principals) for many of the songs as if they were just waiting in the shadows to pop out and sing and dance up a hootenanny, choreographed by Josh Rhodes.  (There was a sketch on the old Carol Burnett Show, a spoof of a soap opera scene, in which Carol and her lover are in a stall shower having a heavy melodramatic conversation as the background music swells to impossible heights.  The camera pans around to reveal that the musicians are actually in the shower with the two lovers.  Bright Star’s chorus, appearing without rationale, reminded me of this kind of incongruity—except, of course, the Burnett sketch was meant to be silly—and hardly “unironic.”)  Perhaps this, along with the moving scenery, is intended to stand in for the action the play otherwise lacks.

The principals all seem creditable, however, though it’s hard to be more explicit because the roles they have to play are so one-dimensional and hackneyed.  Billy is all puppyish enthusiasm and hope, and Shively pulls it off with sincerity and commitment—but the script gives him nowhere to take it; as Margo, Elless, in a part so underwritten as to seem like an afterthought, is his distaff counterpart.  Jimmy Ray is adolescent earnestness and determination personified, but Nolan, too, has no outlet for his character’s apparent strength.  Martin never reconciled Jimmy Ray’s apparent fortitude as a young stalwart, with the way he’s constantly cowed by his father, and poor Nolan had no way to paper that hole over.  Daddy Murphy has to sublime from stern religiosity to unfeeling hardness to abject self-blame—but Anderson manages to make him seem at least as real as a soap opera character.  Mulheren’s Mayor Dobbs is a dyed-in-the-wool heartless businessman/family patriarch, a predictable villain right out of 19th-century meller-drammer—but there’s nothing the actor can do about that except embody it wholly, and Mulheren does.  Only Alice has any chance to show some dimension, but even she gets only two: the unruly and unrulable precocious teen of 1923 Zebulon and the cold, humorless editor of 1945 Asheville—and Cusack handles both well enough, but it’s like two actors, one for the spirited girl and another for the damaged woman, and they don’t feel connected to one another except that we’re told they are.  Even Alice’s final transformation, at the discovery of Billy’s real identity, is too pat and artificial to be truly plausible despite Cusack’s honest effort to pull it off. 

I have to add a word here about Blumenkrantz’s Daryl.  He plays Alice’s officious editorial assistant so fey (Talkin’ Broadway’s Matthew Murray aptly called Daryl a “Paul Lynde part”), the implication is that he must be gay (not a word, much less a lifestyle, anyone tossed around in 1945, especially in the conservative South).  I presume Bobbie had a hand in this characterization, and also in the rather obvious and cheap double-entendres that adhere to some of the lines in one office scene.  The chuckles from the audience were out of place, and if they were intentionally generated by Martin or Bobbie, someone should be ashamed of himself.

Because this is a Broadway première and the creators are simultaneously known cultural figures and novice musical-theater artists, Bright Star attracted a lot of coverage.  In addition to pre-Broadway interviews and features in newspapers and magazines and on TV and radio, there have been reviews of the New York production in papers from Los Angeles, Chicago, and several other cities.  (This is on top of the published notices for the San Diego début and the Washington outing.)  I won’t include the out-of-town press in my round-up of reviews—it would just be too much to cover; I will include the national papers like USA Today.  Most reviewers liked the play with reservations, but almost all of them praised Martin’s music and Brickell’s lyrics.  The production, including the acting, also received plaudits in most outlets.  Diana and I weren’t alone in our disappointment, but we were decidedly outvoted by both that night’s fellow theatergoers and the press.

No one was higher on Bright Star than the Times’ Christopher Isherwood.  Calling the play “a fresh breeze from the South,” he contrasted it with the more usual fare on Broadway, saying, “The musical is gentle-spirited, not gaudy, and moves with an easygoing grace where others prance and strut.”  The Timesman continued his compliment: “And it tells a sentiment-spritzed story . . . that you might be more likely to encounter in black and white, flickering from your flat-screen on Turner Classic Movies.”  Isherwood posited that Alice’s prescription for what Billy should be writing, “a sweeping tale of pain and redemption,” is “a fitting description . . . of the story the musical proceeds to unfold.”  Bright Star’s plot, he asserted, “involves events more likely to be found in radio serials and movies of yore,” but counted “among the pleasures of ‘Bright Star’ . . . the sheer yarniness of the yarn that unspools.”  While Isherwood warned that “the story certainly skirts (if not embraces) sentimentality and the overripeness of melodrama,” he added that “the production’s soft-hued style—and the sometimes wry tone of Mr. Martin’s book—keeps it from curdling into treacle.”  He found that Martin and Brickell’s songs, “beautifully played” under Rob Berman’s direction, “boast simple but seductive melodies, and lyrics that have a sweet, homespun quality.”   The Times reviewer labeled the performances “superb” and singled out Cusack, Shively, and Nolan for special praise.  Isherwood’s one complaint was that the play “untangles all the knots in its story in something of a rush,” but even the double wedding at the end, while it may “strain credulity,” is a plot conclusion also used by “a celebrated writer.”  “This would be William Shakespeare,” Isherwood made sure we knew.  (Shakespeare also wrote that “comparisons are odorous,” and I don’t think this one’s deserved.)

In amNewYork, Matt Windman, labeling Bright Star “a total anomaly” in comparison to other Broadway musicals because it’s “wholly original,” described the new play as “unashamedly sentimental and romantic.”  Windman found Bright Star  “a heartwarming and crowd-pleasing musical” because of  its “many pleasant country songs . . ., a sunny disposition and a Southern Gothic flavor,” despite a plot that “can be jumbled, improbable and sappy, and the characters [that] are undeveloped.”  The “attractive” production “is marked by vibrant performances, brisk movement . . . and a backwoods visual design” and Windman singled out Cusack, Shively, Nolan, Mulheren, and Blumenkrantz among the “winning cast.”  Newsday’s Linda Winer’s “Bottom Line” was: “Wonderful bluegrass show”; she reported, “It doesn’t shy away from the cornball or the unapologetically sentimental.  And, yes, the plot is implausibly romantic and hinged on coincidence.”  Nonetheless, Bright Star’s “downright wonderful—a multichambered sweetheart of an original.”  The Newsday reviewer added that “all the characters . . . are richly developed without a hint of big-city patronization,” specifying, “There’s not a bumpkin or cardboard villain in the lot.”  “This is a show that creeps up on you,” said Winer, though some of the songs “seem awfully simple and self-explanatory” and the mobile cabin “gets lugged around until we worry about motion sickness.”  But “the relationships deepen and darken” as the plot “grows with the complexity of a juicy short story.”  The cast “is uniformly appealing” and the “choreography . . . brings a haunting moodiness.”  Winer concluded by lauding the score, “which builds with rhythmic surprises, melodic complexity and the deep satisfaction of humming and plucking strings.”

In the Daily News, Joe Dziemianowicz declared that Bright Star’s creators “aim straight for the heart,” even if it “isn’t a bullseye.”  Nevertheless, “it’s sweet and tender and boasts a fine cast.”  The “bluegrassy score is mellow and pretty,” Dziemianowicz felt.  “But it’s also repetitive—melodically and lyrically.”  Like Alice’s advice to Billy about cutting “superfluous words,” the Newsman pointed out, “The show could have cut some too,” and observed, “A big reveal is seen coming a mile away.”  The reviewer wound up by noting that director Bobbie and choreographer Josh Rhodes “keep the show chugging along.”  The New York Post’s Elisabeth Vincentelli characterized Bright Star as “a Broadway oddity” because it “juxtaposes an over-the-top plot with a low-key production and mild-tempered music.”  “The show,” Vincentelli wrote, “ambles along, alternating between lively hootenannies and lovely ditties” and the “show’s droll, earnest tone does have its appeal,” with evidence of Martin’s sense of humor in occasional lines.  The Post review-writer summed up: “As a gentle fable, ‘Bright Star’ has a quirky charm, but its stubborn refusal to face up to its dark side diminishes it.” 

In a brief review in the Wall Street Journal, Terry Teachout noted that Martin is “a good banjo player who writes not-so-great plays,” and added, “Now he’s branched out by writing a really bad bluegrass-pop musical.”  The rest of Teachout’s short notice dismissed the whole enterprise:

In “Bright Star,” directed by Walter Bobbie, Mr. Martin and Edie Brickell, a singer-songwriter with whom he has made two albums, tell the story of a painfully earnest young writer from the hills of North Carolina (A. J. Shively) who comes home from World War II and sells a painfully earnest short story to a prestigious Asheville quarterly edited by an unhappy woman (Carmen Cusack) with a terrible secret—or, rather, a Terrible Secret, this being the kind of show that is constructed exclusively out of uppercase clichés.  The best thing about “Bright Star” is the music, which is bland and undramatic but competently wrought.  The plot is trite, the dialogue humorless and stiff, the lyrics stupefyingly banal (one song actually starts with the line “A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do”).

The cast and onstage band work hard and Mr. Bobbie does his best to breathe life into “Bright Star,” but if Mr. Martin’s name weren’t on the marquee, it wouldn’t have gotten anywhere near Broadway.

Teachout’s WSJ review summed up precisely Diana’s and my opinion; it was the rare notice that did.  In USA Today, Elysa Gardner asserted that Martin and Brickell “have set a high bar for themselves,” aspiring “to the kind of emotional sweep and folksy wit we associate with Golden Age musicals.”  Martin, however, “captures some of that old-school spirit with a book that’s as forthright as it is smart, funny and charming.”  Gardner felt that “Martin and Brickell refuse to condescend to their own characters,” and director Bobbie “culls spirited, endearing performances from the actors.”  The “score poses a few challenges,” noted the USA Today reviewer, “though not to the performers, or the superb bluegrass band accompanying them,” while the “production numbers are exuberantly served by the musicians, and by Josh Rhodes’ vibrant choreography,” though “some of the more delicate ballads seem to strain for theatricality; you sense they’d be more at home in a coffeehouse than driving an ambitious story on a Broadway stage.”  Gardner concluded, “The tone in which that story is delivered can also wobble a bit,” but nevertheless, “this gently shining Star holds its own.” 

“Finally, that all-singing, all-dancing John Keats musical has arrived on Broadway!” quipped Alexis Soloski in the U.S. edition of the Guardian, a joking reference to the 2009 film that shares a title with this musical.  “No.  Wait.  Sorry,” Soloski continued.  This one’s “a bluegrass tuner” that recounts a “sweet and occasionally sugary tale.”  Following several out-of-town try-outs, the review-writer of the Guardian noted, “Bright Star is still suffering some issues of scale.  The story it tells is a small and tender one and the staging and the music, playful and lovely, sometimes struggle to fill the house.”  (As an example, she found the little train “that trundles on a trestle above the stage . . . both charming and chintzy.”)  Soloski had problems with the book, showing only “occasional flashes of Martin’s wit,” which tells a story that “is poignant, yet somehow less than consequential, in part because the great and ostensibly astonishing reveal is telegraphed from the beginning, but mainly because the music never quite rises to the emotive crescendos the tale would seem to demand.”  The song’s lyrics she compared to “Hallmark Card-ish aphorism the chorus often repeats.”  With compliments for the acting of Cusack, Nolan, Shively, and Elless, as well as Eriksmoen’s orchestrations (“appealing”) and Rhodes’s choreography (“spirited and graceful”), Soloski concluded, however, that “Bright Star doesn’t fully shine.”  Like the Wall Street Journal, the Village Voice gave the production short shrift, commenting only in an omnibus article.  Heather Baysa wrote only that Bright Star “is the kind of production Broadway was made for—and also the kind of production that was made for Broadway. That’s not necessarily a bad thing: There’s something charming about soaring ballads, unrestrained emotion, unapologetic spectacle, and aggressively feel-good storytelling.”

In its capsule review in “Goings On About Town,” the New Yorker described Bright Star as a “bighearted musical” whose “two plots converge in a soapy twist you can see coming acres away, with a weepy ending as implausible as one of Shakespeare’s quadruple weddings.”  The anonymous reviewer concluded, “But the show sings and swings to the sound of its lovingly and furiously played fiddle, banjo, and mandolin.”  In New York magazine, Jesse Green acknowledged, “There’s a lot to like in Bright Star and a lot to admire in the way it was made,” specifying its originality.  Green went on, however, to report that of the two intertwined stories, the one about Billy and Margo is “awkwardly sandwiched within” the tale of Alice and Jimmy Ray.  He found “that it doesn’t take a wizard to figure out how these stories eventually intersect,” partly because, he reported that the opening song, “If You Knew My Story,” “does its ‘show the audience what to expect’ job too well.  With banal, self-cancelling, upbeat lyrics like ‘If you knew my story you’d have a good story to tell,’ it mostly shows us that we are going to have . . . a banal, self-cancelling, upbeat musical, the kind that wants to demonstrate a lot of heart without actually having one.”  The man from New York had a problem with how “the stories intersect with the songs”: while the score “sounds great,” it “almost always does exactly the opposite of what a story-based musical requires.”  Green explained: “Instead of deepening and specifying the emotional situations they arise from, the songs repeat, in the most clichéd terms, what we already know from the dialogue.”  He added, “It’s not that the words don’t fit the tune.  Rather, they lack the granularity, the fingerprint, of lived experience” and went on in a little detail:

Pop music rarely works as theater music exactly because it’s rarely so specific: It is most often told in the songwriter’s voice, not a character’s, and is designed to reach everyone, not someone.  [I note here that ROT contributor Kirk Woodward has discussed this very problem in “Theatrical and Popular Songs,” 2 October 2011.]  So the fact that Martin and Brickell, in their songwriting at least, are so broadly unironic—a rare thing in musical theater today—turns out to be not a boon but a boondoggle.  Their sincerity keeps collapsing on itself; in compensation we get plenty of that all-purpose Broadway grout known as charm.

“Charm is what Cusack . . . uses to produce . . . a marvelous, dense performance from obvious, thin information,” applauded Green, though he added that “the rest of the cast, having even less to build from, overdo it.”  He also found Lee’s set “charming” quipping that it “looks like it escaped from his set for Sweeney Todd.”  The direction is “unusually handsome, integrating the choreography . . . into the storytelling more successfully than the songs.”  In the end, Green concluded, “Still, all this charm undermines the tone of what is, au fond, a sad and almost gothic story.”   

Although complaining that there are more than enough bluegrass musicals on Broadway just now (The Robber Bridegroom and Southern Comfort in addition to Bright Star), Variety’s Marilyn Stasio wrote, “‘Bright Star’ is Broadway-slick under Walter Bobbie’s direction, with top-rung creatives involved in the production . . . and an appealing lead performance from Carmen Cusack,” adding the caveat: “But the sheer scale of the package overwhelms this sweet but slender homespun material.”  The production’s “versatile” set is “properly rustic,” and the rolling cabin-bandstand is a “neat trick”; Martin’s music “sounds completely authentic,” however, the songs “also sound repetitive.”  “The big drawback to the chatty lyrics,” reported Stasio, “is that they re-hash the plot’s melodramatic content, but neglect to deepen or explore the characters, who all speak in such exaggerated twangs they sound dimwitted.” 

In the Hollywood Reporter, David Rooney’s “Bottom Line” was simply “Hokey but heartwarming”; he went on to say that “the plot contrivances” of the play “are so fanciful that only Shakespeare could have gotten away with them.  Still,” continued Rooney, “there’s a disarming sweetness and sincerity to this folksy Americana bluegrass musical . . . which makes the tuneful melodrama a pleasurable experience.”  Martin’s book, felt the HR reviewer, “is stuffed with corn and with as many improbable coincidences as plot holes.  But the show’s prime asset is the duo’s lovely score,” and “the pretty ballads and jaunty square-dance tunes generally are easy on the ear, richly evoking a time and place while amplifying the earnest and affecting sentiments of this proudly uncynical musical.”  Brickell’s lyrics, however, “lack imagination and specificity, and can seem awkwardly pasted onto gentle melodies that at times become a little samey.”  Rooney also cautioned that “it’s not intended as a dig to say that the show has the comfort-food appeal of an emotionally uplifting basic-cable movie,” and he predicted, “That means many mainstream audiences will find it satisfying entertainment, though probably more so on tour in the regions than in the crowded marketplace of New York.”  In the end, however, Rooney allowed that when Cusack sings her final number, “it’s easy to overlook the shortcomings of the musical’s craft and go with its sweet-natured optimism.”

Time Out New York’s Adam Feldman dubbed Bright Star a “gawky tall tale” and declared that Martin and Brickell “fall short” in the telling of it.  The show “aspires to be . . . ‘a sweeping tale of pain and redemption,’” instead, Feldman complained, it “trudges inexorably toward a second-act twist that is at once preposterous and head-smackingly predictable.”  What it needs, the man from TONY asserted, is “an editor’s sharp blue pencil.”  The reviewer ticked off some of the production’s faults:

Sweeping?  In lieu of the color that the story seems to call for, Walter Bobbie’s production is often actively plain, as though trying to hide its central bathos in beige.  Painful?  For the audience, perhaps, thanks to shoddy craftsmanship that saddles likable, plucky bluegrass music with lyrics that run from workmanlike to egregious.

With praise for Cusack’s Alice, both in the writing and the playing, Feldman concluded, “If not much else, the musical does right by its star, the bright spot in a sky of murk.”  Stressing that “it’s Martin and Brickell’s music that’s the brightest star in Bright Star,” Jessica Derschowitz declared in Entertainment Weekly that “the heart of this new musical [is] the sweeping songs that elevate the show above the melodramatic pair of Southern love stories that form its plot.”  The play’s narratives conclude, objected the EW reviewer, “with a twist that seems all too convenient and end with a bow that’s perhaps too neat” and it “often verges on corny,” but “Cusack is a revelation” and the rest of the cast “also do fine work.”  In the end, the “story’s fine, sure.  But the music is much better.” 

On NBC television in New York, Robert Kahn said, “There’s much to admire in the final product: The musical is twangy and tightly performed, with a sweeping score,” but he lamented, “My enjoyment was muted only by the mostly modest character development.”  The music, Kahn reported, “is rootsy and most often joyful,” however, of the book, the TV reviewer “felt that too often I was being told what to feel, without being given opportunity to feel it.  Connective tissue between the storylines, probably intended to sneak up on us at the end, seemed obvious halfway through the first act.”  Director Bobbie, Kahn continued, “might’ve tightened the screws on the musical’s climax,” and he had problems with the play’s “borderline-humorous tone” in some scenes as well as some of the attempts at character development.  The WNBC reporter “loved the onstage band,” but summed up with: “It’s not a perfect musical; this ‘Star’ doesn’t always guide the way, but at times it beams brightly enough.” 

AP’s drama reviewer, Mark Kennedy, began his notice, the most negative I found, with: “‘If you knew my story, you’d have a good story to tell,’ the leading lady sings.  But after 2½ hours of this down-home hokum, the answer is clear: No, we don’t.”  Martin and Brickell have written, affirmed Kennedy, “a cliche-ridden, foot-pounding, over-eager Southern Gothic romance that ill serves a wonderful Broadway debut in Carmen Cusack.”  The AP reviewer lambasted Bright Star by asserting that it “never hits an honest note and seems to have been written by two people who adore classic Broadway musicals but who have intentionally decided to make a third-rate version.”  He called the music “weak, with few of the songs fully fleshed out and some having been recycled from the pair’s previous CDs.”  Kennedy went on: “The book and lyrics are even more feeble, with graceless lines like ‘I’m ready for my life to begin!’ and ‘I knew this day would come’ and weird characters,” reporting that director Bobbie “gets everything out of his cast and keeps a frenetic pace going but for no clear payoff.”  The secret at the center of the plot, Kennedy announced, is “obvious”; the act one climax contains “one of the lousiest special effects in Broadway history”; the play’s ending is “a forced happy note”; Cusack, the stand-out of the cast, commits to “an odd role”; the denizens of the bookshop and the journal office are “quirky folk” in a story where “everyone . . . is bookish and smart”; and, finally, the “attempt to make sense of it all is fumbled.”  Even the setting suffers Kennedy’s derision (the rationale for my prediction of pickets at Southern theaters):

This is a weird sort of South that only exists in the daydreams of other musicals.  This is a South with overalls and suspenders, moonshine, stolen kisses by the river and where pretty dresses in boxes are a reason to stop everything and gasp gleefully.  Everyone is white.  Everyone.

On the website Broadway World, Michael Dale declared of Bright Star, “Despite all of its pleasant earnestness and the genuine talent behind its creation, the new Southern Gothic musical . . . shows all the signs of being written by a pair who have not quite grasped some of the basics of the genre’s craft.”  Dale admonished, “It’s never a good idea to have a secondary character with a secret mutter, ‘I knew this day would come,’ near the end of act two, especially when the audience was ready for it to come seven or eight songs ago.”  Furthermore, the BWW reviewer warned that “it’s a crime against the theatre gods to give your star a lot of stage time, but no real chance for her character to connect with the audience.”  Though he found Berman’s musical ensemble “terrific,” Dale felt that some of “the music and lyrics are embarrassingly heavy-handed” and the lyrics lack “specificity.”  Like the AP’s Kennedy, Dale also found the stage effect at the end of act one “such a letdown.”  “For a musical about literary folk,” concluded Dale, “Bright Star’s words never approach the stimulating freshness and intelligence of other current musicals about writers” and the cyber reviewer’s final word was: “Nice music, fine performances, but other than that, barely a twinkle.”

Talkin’ Broadway’s Matthew Murray asked, “Who would have thought that something this fresh could seem so stale?”  Murray asserted that “the overwhelming feeling” generated by Bright Star “is the exhaustion of cliché,” a feeling that the “other, better elements” can’t “fully mask.”  The problem, Murray explained, is that “there's nothing new in either the story or the telling of it,” and however “openhearted” it is, it’s also “empty-headed.”  Fundamentally, the TB blogger insisted, there isn’t “much meat here” and he cautioned, “If you don’t like always being smarter than the characters you’re watching or always keeping eight steps ahead of the plot, Bright Star is not remotely your kind of show.”  The play’s structure is “a genuine organizational mess” and “it’s rarely possible to know which” story to follow “or why.”  The lyrics, Murray affirmed, are “generic” or “trite”; the result is “a musical that never comes alive emotionally.”  Even the “twangy and authentic” sound can’t overcome “the overall meaningless of their words and presentation,” and even as “good” as the “supporting players are . . . their characters don't make firm impressions.”  The one exception Murray singled out is Cusack, “making the kind of thunder-clapping Broadway debut we see too rarely.”  Unfortunately, the TB reviewer lamented, “It's not enough to elevate the evening above the pedestrian.”

Declaring that Bright Star is “chockablock with assets to make for an enjoyable, feel good two hours” on CurtainUp, Elyse Sommer nevertheless predicted that the play “is unlikely to [b]ecome part of the canon of ground breaking musicals.”  Still, the CU reviewer suggested, “So give in to Bright Star’s charms, as [I] did, and let the nitpickers complain.”  Nonetheless, Sommer presented a list of deficiencies to be overlooked: “an inevitably happy ending that relies on some pretty far-fetched contrivances,” a situation “patterned after an eventually flourishing pulp magazine . . .  called I Confess,” and a “Southern gothic twist [that] can be guessed at even before” the start of act two.”  But Cusack’s Alice, Sommer assured theatergoers, “is your chance to see a-star-is-born Broadway debut,” as well as the work of the rest of the ensemble.  She described the work of director Bobbie and the designers as “skillful” and “fluid,” with special mention of Lee’s moving cabin.  The band’s accompaniment “is very much a show highlight” and Rhodes’s choreography is “ superb, often poetic.” 

On New York Theatre Guide, Tulis McCall warned, “There is a lot of yarn being spun in Bright Star,” which she described as “a sprawling tale” and “as hokey a tale as you would find in any black and white movie from the 40’s.”  Predicting a Tony nomination for Cusack, McCall recommended “we let go of the reins and let these folks take us for a ride,” even though “it takes a while for the story to reveal a clear direction.”  “Although the sweet quotient on this production is through the [roof]—diabetics be forewarned,” the NYTG reviewer noted, “—there is still the honest facts of pain and disappointment.”  “There’s more content than [is] needed” and “[s]ongs go on a little long,” and she warned, “You can see the conclusion coming a mile away like a train light in a tunnel, but the show is so exquisite in every way that you don’t mind watching everything unfold.”  McCall dubs the cast “a marvel of ensemble work” and Bobbie’s putting the musicians on stage “was a wonderful choice”; in the end, Bright Star “is an evening that will take you out of the city and off to the mysterious magic of the” Southern mountains. 

On Theatre Reviews Limited, David Roberts, calling Bright Star “an old fashioned Broadway musical” and “a celebration of storytelling,” pronounced it “a welcomed infusion of optimism “ and “a delightful breath of fresh air.”  The play’s characters “are well-rounded and have universal conflicts” and so the story “is also universal and engaging”; what’s more, Roberts said, “Its themes are important and life affirming.”  Furthermore, the Theatre Reviews writer felt that “the stories develop in interesting ways with wonderful surprises.”  He described the cast as “uniformly magnificent” and Bobbie’s direction as “careful”; as did other reviewers, Roberts gave special praise to Cusack and complimented the work of others such as Nolan, Bogardus, Padgett, and all of the principal players.  Rhodes’s choreography is “exquisite . . . with a superb gracefulness and energy,” the review-writer acknowledged, though he found Lee’s moving cabin “sometimes . . . intrusive.”  Roberts felt that “some of the story seems contrived and sometimes predictable,” but the musical was directed “with an intensity and freshness that is remarkable and noteworthy.”  Sandi Durell of Theatre Pizzazz perceived “a feeling of corn” at the start of Bright Star, but “you just learn to accept and truly enjoy much of the music, lyrics and storytelling” of the play.  Rhodes’s choreography is “lively hootenanny, hand and thigh slapping,” Bobbie’s direction “makes magic,” and Lee’s scenery is “simple, yet effective.”  Durell’s bottom line is: “Bright Star has a down home warmth that draws the audience into its glow.”

[Diana and I had a really lousy night after we left the theater as well.  As usual, Diana was running late and then when she got to the theater district, her usual parking area was blocked by some kind of police action.  So she grabbed what she thought was a legal spot near a fire plug, thinking she’d left enough room to make it safe.  Guess what.  When we got to where she left her car after the show, it was gone—towed.  April Fools!  Diana had to call 311 to find out where it was (it turned out to have been taken less than five minutes before we got to the parking spot!) and then catch a cab to the pier that's the police impound lot for Manhattan.  

[I had offered to go with her for moral support, but when we got to the facility, Diana couldn't find her credit card to pay the fare.  (It turned out she’d dropped her wallet at the theater; the Cort house manager called her the next day.)  I ponied up, but I would also have to cover the towing charge as well so Diana could reclaim her car.  Fortunately, the retrieval process is very efficient and the whole mess took about an hour—including the time to walk to where Diana left her car, and then look around because, in her rush to get to the theater on time, she wasn't absolutely certain where she parked.  

[What I said to Diana when we found that the car had been towed  was that it was a good thing the show wasn't good.  If we'd had this experience after a good show, it would have ruined it.  The way it was, there was nothing to detract from!

[Irony may be dead—but cynicism isn’t!]