23 July 2016

Two Looks Back

(Play Reports from Rick’s Archives)


[In my recent report on Shuffle Along, Or, The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed (posted on 28 June as “Shuffle Along (Redux)), I mentioned in passing that I’d recently watched Audra McDonald, who stars in Shuffle Along: The Making, in a televised performance of Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill and compared her work as Billie Holiday with her portrayal of Lottie Gee in Shuffle Along: The Making.  I decided to post my brief comments on an earlier production of Lady Day at Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage.  Interestingly, I found the opinion I formed of the 2006 stage presentation pretty much unchanged by the HBO cable-cast of March 2016.]

On 26 April 2006, my mother and I went to the Arena Stage to see their revival of Lanie Robertson’s Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill with Lynn Sterling (The Life) as Billie HolidaySome folks may remember that this musical bio piece played Off-Broadway in ’86-’87 with Lonette McKee in the title role (briefly—she left for medical reasons) and has been floating around the country for almost 20 years now.  (Coincidentally, Mom saw another revival at Washington’s Studio Theatre back in ’88-’89.)  I’m afraid the only reason for its popularity that I can see is the chance, depending on fortuitous casting, to see a simulation of Billie Holiday singing some of her signature songs (“God Bless the Child,” “Strange Fruit,” “Taint Nobody’s Biz-ness”); it’s really a jukebox musical—though that term hadn’t really become current yet.  

The theater is often set up like a nightclub—the Arena’s Kreeger, the proscenium space, had several cafe tables set up on what would have been the apron and some spectators were seated there—and the only other cast member with lines is the piano player.  Lady Day gives her concert, gets progressively drunker/higher, and recounts the ups and downs of her life from childhood in Baltimore, to her failed and abusive marriage/relationships, her arrest and imprisonment for drug possession, and the final years before her death.  (She died in 1959, the year the play is set in Philadelphia, of cardiac arrest at the age of 44).  

Now, from what I know of Lady Day’s singing (my dad was a fan and a jazzophile), Sterling does a credible job channeling her in the songs, but the monologues are predictable, obvious, and both undramatic and untheatrical.  Maybe a superb actress (or cleverer director than Kenneth Lee Robertson) could do something to enliven the talk, but I doubt it.  There’s nothing there that wouldn’t work better in an A&E Biography or an MTV Behind the Music—or in a biographical book.  Just ‘cause someone dressed like Billie Holiday is saying the words don’t make it theater!  It doesn’t help, I suppose, that Holiday’s story is downbeat and sad—poverty, prejudice, Jim Crow segregation, drugs and alcohol, abuse and violence.  (None of this is entirely unfamiliar, of course.  Aside from the general commonality of the experience with many black performers and other African Americans whose stories have been told in books and film and on TV, Holiday’s story has been available in her own 1956 autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues, and the 1972 film of the same name starring Diana Ross.)  Both for her and for us, the music is the only relief.  I’d rather have listened to a record.

[What I determined after watching the HBO cable broadcast of Lady Day, directed by Lonny Price (who staged the live version at the Circle in the Square Theater on Broadway, where it ran from 13 April through 5 October 2014), was that the problems I identified with the monologue parts of the performance were as substantial as they had been at the Arena—as I predicted.  I can’t imagine a better actress to embody Billie Holiday than Audra McDonald, who won her record sixth Tony for the role, because she’s an actress of peerless talent both in dramas and musicals.  (Among her six Tonys, McDonald has also won an award in all four of the categories for which an actress can be considered; her other three are: Leading Actress in a Musical for the Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, Featured Actress in a Musical for Ragtime and Carousel, and Featured Actress in a Play for Master Class and Raisin in the Sun.)  

[Yet, even this monumentally accomplished performer, whose renditions of Holiday’s music is spot-on from what I could judge, could do nothing to enliven the long sections of patter between the songs.  It was still just as untheatrical in her hands as it was when assayed by Lynn Sterling.  Just as clearly, director Price didn’t bring anything more to those moments than did Kenneth Lee Robertson at Arena.  The only benefit, and it was slight, was that in the TV version, which allowed the opening-up of the setting because a camera could follow McDonald around the set, Holiday could move about the bar/cabaret while she talked.  I can’t say it helped much with the real problem—it was just eyewash.]

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[On 30 June, the Roundabout Theatre Company live-streamed its current production of the musical She Loves Me at Manhattan’s Studio 54.  Nine-and-a-half years ago, I saw a live stage production of the musical, based on the same Hungarian play that was the basis of the 1940 Jimmy Stewart-Margaret Sullavan film, Shop Around the Corner at Arena Stage on New Year’s Eve 2007.  I wrote up my brief remarks about the performance, part of a longer report like the Lady Day comments, and I’m posting them now as a look back at this charmingly old-fashioned theater piece.  (As I mention in the report below, I also saw the Broadway revival that starred Boyd Gaines and Diane Fratantoni when I caught it in May 1994.  That performance, produced like the current one by the Roundabout Theatre Company, predated my practice of writing up my play-going experiences, however.)]

When I’m with my mom on New Years, it’s our custom to try to find a play on the 31st and then go home and toast in the New Year—sometimes with friends and sometimes just en famille—as we watch the ball drop in Times Square.  This year, the Arena Stage was doing She Loves Me, the 1963 Jerry Bock-Sheldon Harnick-Joe Masteroff musical adaptation of the 1937 Hungarian play on which the 1940 Jimmy Stewart-Margaret Sullavan movie Shop Around the Corner is based.  (By some coincidence, one of the cable channels ran both that movie and then the 1949 film musical adaptation—In the Good Old Summertime with Judy Garland and Van Johnson—the week before we saw the stage musical.  That was kind of fun.  The same material is also the basis for 1998’s You’ve Got Mail, the Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan romantic comedy, but the cable station didn’t run that one.  All of these are based on Miklós László’s Parfumerie, which, as far as I can tell, has never been performed either on or off Broadway.  I’m not sure the script is even available in English.)  

She Loves Me is an old-fashioned musical in the vein of My Fair Lady and Damn Yankees, though a lesser effort.  (Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, of course, had been previously responsible for Fiorello!—my very first Broadway play—and would ultimately create Fiddler on the Roof.  Joe Masteroff would go on to write the book for Cabaret three years later.)  Still, it is charming and fun, even if the songs are not especially memorable, and it made a perfect entertainment for the New Year’s Eve hours leading up to the propitious moment.  

Arena’s production, which included no stars or actors whom I knew, was even, solid, and much more than just competent, though no performance stood out in the ensemble.  Director Kyle Donnelly made good use of the Fichandler’s arena platform—I always feel that staging a musical in the round is particularly hard—and everyone’s voice was strong (they were miked, as usual these days) and vibrant.  I especially liked Arpad’s one solo number, “Try Me,” his self-promotion.  Clifton Guterman, the young actor playing the delivery boy-who-would-be-a-clerk, may look a tad older than a teenager, but his tenor is youthful and his enthusiasm in selling himself (and the song) was delightful.  But in the end, this was an ensemble production (though its past includes stars: Barbara Cook as Amalia Balash in the original Broadway run along with Jack Cassidy, who won a Tony as the self-serving Steven Kodaly; and near-stars: Boyd Gaines, who won a Tony as Georg Nowack in the 1993 Roundabout/Broadway revival, and Louis Zorich, “Mr. Olympia Dukakis,” as Mr. Maraczek); the cast as a whole did a very nice job in what I had actually forgotten (until I watched the movie again the week before) is really a Christmas story. 

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