27 September 2016

Now, Live, The Non-Beatles

by Kirk Woodward

[As veteran ROTters know by now, Kirk Woodward is a longtime friend and a major contributor to this blog.  I can’t even begin to count the number of articles of his authorship I’ve posted here in the 7½ years since I launched Rick On Theater—which, in truth, was largely Kirk’s idea to start with.  But Kirk’s not only an excellent writer (he’s a playwright as well, and a composer-lyricist, too), but he’s very knowledgeable about topics in which I’m deficient.  (That’s a fancy way of saying ‘ignorant’!)  That means he can cover subjects ROT would never treat if it weren’t for him, so I’m damn lucky he’s so generous with his writing.

[One of those topics, as readers of ROT will be able to attest, is the greatest rock band ever conceived: The Beatles.  (You cannot argue with that, so don’t even try.)  I’ve published four Fab Four articles by Kirk already; this will be his fifth—and I daresay not his last.  (The Beatles are forever.)  Now, clearly, I’m a big fan—I was living in Europe when the Boys from Liverpool made their appearance on the rock ’n’ roll scene in the early ’60s, so I heard them before their music made it across the pond as the advance guard of the British Invasion—but Kirk is way more knowledgeable about them and has a background in music that I lack, so he’s much more qualified to write about them from a critical standpoint than am I. 

[So pay heed to “Now, Live, The Non-Beatles,” Kirk’s take on Beatles cover bands.  You don’t have to love the Beatles to find this examination interesting—after all, there are cover bands for many other groups and much of what Kirk says here applies to them as well.  You also don’t have to agree with Kirk’s conclusions about cover bands; you’ll still find his thoughts provocative and informative.] 

Scholars like Richard Schechner (b. 1934) in the last half century have developed the field of Performance Studies, examining the dynamics of the relationship between performers, performances, audiences, and communities both in this country and in locations in South America, Asia, Africa, and elsewhere. These studies have added to our understanding of theater, and also have brought attention to the cultures of peoples otherwise obscure to us.

This is all well and good, but where, I ask, are the scholarly studies of the issues raised by the performances of Beatles cover bands?

I’m not talking about bands that play Beatles songs among others – I’ve been in some of those myself – but about bands that dedicate themselves entirely to the music of the Beatles, and sometimes to their appearance and personalities as well. I’ve heard four of these bands, as well as I can remember. One, at a BeatleFest, played only Beatle songs and wasn’t very good. One, the Fab Faux, is highly regarded by musicians and audiences alike. Its membersmake no attempt to look or act like the Beatles; they just play highly skilled versions of Beatle songs, and the result is a delight.

And then… I have seen two bands that do their best to be the Beatles. I will not name them, because that doesn’t feel right, but trust me, I’ve been there, and both times I’ve found the experience extremely confusing. I don’t think it adds to my confusion that I actually saw the Beatles twice, in Chicago and Cincinnati, on their last tour in 1966. (I have written about those experiences, and others involving the Beatles, on this blog.) The real Beatles were who they were. But these bands . . . who are they?

Imitation bands are by no means unusual in the music field. A number of “big bands” from the thirties and forties are still active although their leaders and members have long since gone to their reward. The Glenn Miller, Duke Ellington, and Count Basie Orchestras, for example, are still, so to speak, in full swing. Similarly, in rock, the Coasters have no original members performing; the Drifters became several groups with variations of that name; and so on.

But the Beatles are different. We recognize and enjoy the songs of any number of singers and groups, but many of us know by heart every note the Beatles played and sang on record. We saw their films, watched their interviews, and followed their lives and careers. By actual count I have eighteen books about the Beatles on my shelves, including a complete collection of their scores and at least four books that record their day to day experiences. My enthusiasm may or may not be extreme, but it is safe to assume that many in the audience of a band imitating the Beatles know the originals well.

So what does the audience for a recreation, like, say, Beatlemania (which I did not see, on Broadway in 1977-1979) come to see? To tell the truth, I’m not sure, and can only provide my own impressions, to be taken for what they’re worth.

On the positive side, the music of the Beatles remains an extraordinary achievement and hearing it performed, even badly, brings their accomplishments back to mind. An ordinary concert can play up to perhaps a quarter of the songs they recorded (Beatlemania included about fifty songs), all of them great, with any number of masterpieces remaining unplayed. A cover band of skilled musicians, abetted by a synthesizer, can reproduce the instrumental side of the recordings pretty faithfully, and that means a full helping of delights.

But at this point the problems start. The voices of the Beatles, both singing and speaking, were and are distinctive; the more distinctive, the harder to reproduce. (The Fab Faux don’t try.) And why should they be reproduced? Do we really need to hear a lot of unsteady Liverpool accents spoken by Americans? But if not, the group can’t really be said to be reproducing the Beatles.

And that leads to the central question: who are these people? We know perfectly well that they’re not really the Beatles. One group I saw carefully never claimed that they were, referring now and then to those “other people.” Another pretended that they actually were the Beatles,but in some sort of time warp, wearing costumes from the Summer of Love but occasionally referring to events that happened much later, after the original group had broken up.

In either case, I sense deep audience confusion. Who is our applause for? The Beatles earned the applause, since it’s both their music and their personalities; but they can’t hear it, no matter how loudly we cheer; they’re not there. Certainly the cover band deserves credit for whatever it achieves in musicianship; but ovations aren’t made from such, and besides, it’s really someone else’s musicianship they’ve borrowed for the occasion. Are the band members proxies for the Beatles? Well, no; it’s pretty clear that there’s no particular support for these enterprises from the principals of Apple Corps, Paul, Ringo, Yoko, and Olivia.

And looming even larger is the problem of imitating any great artist: the imitation can’t possibly be as good as the original was. Otherwise the impersonators too would be great artists, and they’re not – they’re imitators. Someone, I can’t remember who, wrote about Elvis impressionists that there aren’t any great ones, because to be great, you’d have to be as great as Elvis, and if you were, why would you spend your time imitating him? Nobody can be that great, and anyway you certainly would never be if all you did was pretend you were someone else. Ray Charles tried to sound like Charles Brown (1922-1999) for years; he didn’t become the great singer we know until he decided to sound like himself.

A result of this dilemma is that the performers seem to experience an energy leak in performance. The Beatles were exciting live artists – I saw this for myself. They were exploring new territory, feeding off each other’s enthusiasm, breaking down walls. When this experience became routine, they stopped doing it. The imitation groups are picking up where the Beatles left off – after the thrill has gone. Trying to reproduce the excitement the Beatles felt has got to be hollow. Excitement can’t be reproduced; it has to be created anew.

I have a horrible feeling that the only way to make sense of a Beatles imitation concert is to pretend that it really is the Beatles we’re seeing, fifty years or so later, not as popular as they used to be and now spending their time appearing at state fairs, city parks, and baseball stadiums. They’ve put on weight, they wear wigs to conceal their receding hairlines, they look like imitations of themselves, but we still love them, so we cheer them on as they go through their old paces. That kind of mental exercise is the only way I can think of to account for the weird experience of seeing a group of impersonators . . . but, good Lord, what a bleak way of looking at it.

The Beatles, of course, had much better sense. They stopped touring in 1966. (A new documentary about their concerts, Eight Days a Week: The Touring Years, directed by Ron Howard, will open in September 2016.) They always had a strong distaste for repeating themselves; they had no interest in doing what they’d already done. When touring became a slog, they moved into the recording studio fulltime, in an outburst of creativity that’s seldom been matched (Sgt. Pepper, The Beatles, Abbey Road, and more). Creativity is exciting. Imitation is not, and perhaps the problem with these recreation performances is as simple as that.

But there is also a tribal dimension to such shows. We like to gather around commonalities, and the Beatles bring us together. Everybody knows the Beatles! Audiences at these shows don’t expect surprises; they expect familiar sights and sounds. There’s a feeling of reassurance there. So events like the recreation acts will probably continue for some time to come, and I suppose there are worse things.

[For those who want to look back at Kirk’s past Beatles articles, before “Now, Live, The Non-Beatles,” I posted “The Beatles and Me,” 7 October 2010 (which gets a mention in the article above); “The Beatles Box,” 30 September 2012; “The Beatles Diary” (by Kirk with his late wife, Pat Woodward), 8 January 2013; and “The Beatles’ Influence,” 13 July 2015

[Kirk has other passions as well, many displayed on ROT.  One of those is the films of Woody Allen.  My friend’s next post on this blog will be “Woody Allen’s Recent Movies,” which I plan to publish next month.]

22 September 2016

'School of Rock – The Musical'

[As has occasionally happened on ROT, the coverage of the press response has swelled my report on School of Rock – The Musical beyond my customary limit.  (As you’ll see, the review round-up accounts for more than half the post’s length.)  I’ll make the same explanation I’ve made before for this circumstance: rather than stinting on the review quotations or reducing the selection of press outlets I’ve consulted, I’m letting the report go long.  The discussion and my assessment of the performance of the movical, however, is no longer than more typical posts of this kind.  I hope you’ll at last sample the press response I summarize, but that decision’s up to the reader.  (For discussions of movicals in general, see my posts “Movicals,” 20 September 2013, and “More on Movicals,” 21 February 2014.)]

What’s the matter with kids today? That’s the musical question asked 56 years ago when rock ’n’ roll was still a baby—even younger than the fifth-graders in School of Rock – The Musical.  Back then, the answer, as far as the adults of Sweet Apple, Ohio, were concerned at least, was pretty much everything: their music, their clothes, their language, their dances.  School of Rock’s answer?  Not a thing—as long as they can be in a rock band!

School of Rock is a show I never thought I’d go see, to be honest.  I watched the 2003 Paramount Pictures movie directed by Richard Linklater and starring Jack Black, and it was cute but not really my cuppa.  (I’m not a big fan of Jack Black.  I find him more irritating than funny.)  I figured it was aimed at ’tweens about the age of the kids in the story.  Besides, way back in 1981, when I saw Evita, I decided that I wasn’t going to spend money to see any more Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals.  But my cousin and her husband called me and said they’d be coming up from Maryland for a birthday party and they’d like me to join them for a show—and believe it or not, the only one, play or musical, neither of us had seen or were already planning to see that was even remotely acceptable was . . . that’s right: School of Rock.  It had gotten pretty decent reviews, as far as I’d read, and I really didn’t want to say no to my cousins again, having turned them down in January when they went to Something Rotten! (which I saw later and absolutely loved; see my report posted on ROT on 11 May), so I said yes.  And off the three of us baby-boomers went to catch the one o’clock matinee at the Winter Garden Theatre on Sunday, 21 August.

With a book by Julian Fellowes (Broadway’s Mary Poppins, PBS’s Downton Abbey), music by Andrew Lloyd Webber (Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita, Cats, Starlight Express . . . oh, hell, and a passel more everyone already knows!), and lyrics by Glenn Slater (The Little Mermaid, Sister Act, Leap of Faith), School of Rock – The Musical, based on Mike White’s screenplay, began previews on Broadway on 9 November 2015 and opened on 6 December.  (After the mat on the 21st, School of Rock  had played 31 previews and 295 regular performances.)  The production, directed by Laurence Connor (the current Broadway revival of Les Miz) and choreographed by JoAnn M. Hunter, received nominations for four Tonys (Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical, Best Original Score, Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role) and five Drama Desk Awards (Outstanding Musical, Outstanding Orchestrations, Outstanding Lyrics, Outstanding Sound Design, Outstanding Music) but won none.  It was also nominated unsuccessfully for Outer Critics Circle, Broadway.com Audience, and Drama League Awards.  

The Broadway production is the show’s world première, but Lloyd Webber (who’s also a producer of the show) staged a concert version at the Gramercy Theatre (on 23rd Street near Gramercy Park) in Manhattan in June 2015.  Lloyd Webber has announced that School of Rock will make its London début at the New London Theatre this fall with previews starting on 24 October and an opening on 14 November.  (A U.S. national tour will go out in 2017.)  The original cast recording of School of Rock – The Musical was released by Warner Bros. Records on 4 December 2015.  Also before the play’s opening, Lloyd Webber and R&H Theatricals, a division of the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization, announced in October 2015 that the amateur rights for the musical would be available immediately for productions starting rehearsals after opening night; there have already been school productions of School of Rock staged around the country.  (The movie also spun off a half-hour cable series on Nickelodeon which débuted last March and started its second season earlier this month.)

The story of School of Rock – The Musical (which runs two hours and 20 minutes with one intermission) follows the film’s plot pretty closely.  Aside from the exchange of original songs for covers, the stage musical changes a few characters’ names, mostly among the kid musicians.  Dewey Finn, played by Black in the movie and Will Blum (the alternate for Alex Brightman) at the matinee performance I saw, is still the central figure in the plot.  He’s still a slacker rock guitarist; he’s still booted out of the band he helped start; and he still impersonates a substitute teacher at the prestigious Horace Green prep school in his anonymous city.  (One other small change: in the movie, the class Dewey turns into a rock band is fourth grade; in the play, the kids are fifth-graders.  That only means the 11- to 13-year-old actors playing the students are supposed to be 10 instead of 9.)

Dewey Finn (Blum) is a wannabe rock guitarist who’s kicked out of his own band, No Vacancy (think Metallica rip-off), for constantly up-staging the lead singer, Theo (John Arthur Greene), with his on-stage antics (“I’m Too Hot for You”).  The band’s moving up, the other musicians think, and Dewey no longer fits in; for one thing, they’re all good-looking (they say) and Dewey’s . . . well, a zhlub.  Then he’s also fired from his day job at a record store (“When I Climb to the Top of Mount Rock”).  Constantly broke, Dewey shares an apartment with his friend and former Maggotdeath bandmate, Ned Schneebly (Spencer Moses), who’s now a substitute teacher with a domineering girlfriend, Patty Di Marco (Mamie Parris).  Dewey’s months behind in his share of the rent, and Patty demands that Ned kick him out.  Patty goes off to work and Ned’s out, too, when Dewey answers a phone call for Ned.  It’s the exclusive Horace Green school in need of a substitute teacher for the rest of the term.  Needing money and a job, Dewey pretends to be Ned and accepts a job as a fifth-grade teacher at the snobbish private school.  

Of course, Dewey arrives late (and hung-over) and finds Principal Rosalie Mullins (Jenn Gambatese) anxiously waiting for him (“Here at Horace Green”).  Uptight Ms. Mullins hardly notices Dewey’s unpreparedness, slovenly attire, or physical state as she ushers him into his classroom.  He promptly declares permanent recess, much to the disbelief and consternation of the over-achieving pupils, as he stretches out on the desk for a bit of recovery time.  When he happens on the students’ music class and recognizes their talent, he forms a plan to realize his dreams of rock stardom.  The sub forms a rock band with his 10-year-olds in an effort to win the prize money (and spotlight) offered by the Battle of the Bands competition—out of which he was cheated when his old combo dumped him.  

Obviously, Dewey has to do this in secret because Ms. Mullins and the children’s parents, who all have expectations for and demands on their offspring, would clearly disapprove and shut him down.  Needless to say, though, the students, after some hesitation, take to the idea wholeheartedly—though Dewey has to convince one or two that forming a rock band is an educational benefit, or even a good idea.  He hands out band assignments to musicians (Zack on electric guitar – Brandon Niederauer, Katie on bass – Evie Dolan, Lawrence on keyboard – Diego Lucano, and Freddy on drums – Raghav Mehrotra), singers (Shonelle – Gianna Harris, Marcy – Carly Gendell), back-up dancers/roadies (Madison – Ava Della Pietra, Sophie – Gabby Gutierrez), a manager (bossy, gold star-craving Summer – Isabella Russo), a lighting techie (Mason – Gavin Kim). a stylist (the Streisand-adoring, Vogue-reading Billy – Luca Padovan), and a security chief (James – Jersey Sullivan) who’s job it is to warn the class when Ms. Mullins or one of the teachers heads their way.  (In an amusing—and serendipitous—bit, Summer, who’s a terrible singer, auditions as a back-up vocalist by croaking her way through Lloyd Webber’s “Memory” from Cats, which originally ran for 18 years at the Winter Garden and is now in revival at the Neil Simon.  The song was used in the same moment in the movie, but takes on special significance in the adaptation.)

When Tomika (Bobbi MacKenzie), the shy new girl who’d been silent and isolated till now, reveals that she’s a talented singer (with a spectacular rendition of “Amazing Grace” worthy of Vy Higginsen’s Gospel for Teens Choir), she, too, joins the combo; “You’re in the Band” iterates the class’s—and the play’s—point and becomes a catch phrase for acceptance and belonging.  (As in the movie, the young band members really play their instruments, sing, and dance as well as act—as a pre-curtain announcement recorded by none other than Lloyd Webber himself assures us.  There’s also a pit orchestra of eight that supplements the on-stage combo for the non-band numbers.)  Dewey and his anti-establishment anarchism (“Stick It to the Man” is a signature song for Dewey and the new band) soon have a noticeable effect on the fifth-graders’ self-assurance.  (Many reviewers noted the irony of this theme in a play written and composed by two millionaire life peers—Lord Lloyd-Webber of Sydmonton and Lord Fellowes of West Stafford are both barons—who sit in the House of Lords as Tories, the very embodiments of “The Man”!)  The Horace Green faculty is jealous of Dewey’s unconventional success (“Faculty Quadrille”).

At home after school, each of the young band members shows us the difficulties each has relating to his or her parents, none of whom really listens to their children (“If Only You Would Listen”).  (This is the one area of the plot that’s been expanded from the movie: we learn more of the pupils’ family lives.)  In order to secure permission to take the students on a “field trip,” Dewey, having learned that Ms. Mullins was once a Stevie Nicks fan, asks her for a drink at a road house where she reveals what’s under her tight-ass exterior (“Where Did the Rock Go?”).  Back at Dewey’s apartment, Ned and Patty have opened the mail and found a check from Horace Green made out to Ned.  After Patty leaves, Dewey comes clean but makes Ned promise not to tell his girlfriend. 

At school the next day, Zack plays the class a song he’s written (“School of Rock”) and Dewey is so impressed with Zack’s talent, he asks Zack to teach it to the band.  There’s a near-crisis on Parents’ Night when the pupils’ parents discover what the kids have been spending their time on, but Dewey charms them—with a lie, to be sure, but they buy it (“Math Is a Wonderful Thing”).  But just as Dewey navigates this predicament, Ned and Patty burst in and, Patty having gotten the truth out of pussy-whipped Ned, expose Dewey.  In the ensuing chaos, the students and Dewey escape Horace Green, but Dewey’s so dismayed he retreats to his darkened room until the students explain how much he’s meant to them (reprise of “If Only You Would Listen”).  In the end, of course, the School of Rock, the name the fifth-graders chose for their group, manages to make it to the theater. 

In a slight twist, they don’t actually win the competition—No Vacancy, Dewey’s old band, does—but School of Rock does win the hearts of the spectators—including the previously skeptical parents—who demand an encore from the mini-rockers (significantly, a reprise of “Stick It to the Man”).  Dewey explains to the kids that winning isn’t the important thing because together they accomplished something more significant.  They beat “The Man”—the one who makes and enforces all the rules.

Back at Horace Green, following the Battle of the Bands (which is really the dramatic conclusion of the play), Ms. Mullins, who’s the children’s actual music teacher, combines some heavy rock licks with her classical singing (“Queen of the Night” from Mozart’s Magic Flute), signaling that things are in for a change at the school—all due to the School of Rock and Dewey’s influence.

School of Rock is fun—the little kid musicians are fantastic!—but I have some significant quibbles.  One is with the sound system, which muddled the singing so badly neither my cousin nor I could decipher Slater’s lyrics.  Even the non-rock numbers—more-or-less regular theater songs—were blurred.  I’ll get to the other issues in a bit, when I cover the show in more detail, but the music is significant because one of the major differences between Linklater and White’s movie and the Fellowes-Lloyd Webber-Slater stage musical is in the score.  Where the movie used mostly covers of rock songs, the play has original songs whose lyrics impact the plot and characters.  (Four songs are reprised from the film: “Edge of Seventeen” by Stevie Nicks; “School of Rock,” aka “Teacher’s Pet,” by Mike White and Sammy James, Jr.; “In the End of Time” by Jack Black and Warren Fitzgerald; and “Math Is a Wonderful Thing” by Black and White.  James is a member of Mooney Suzuki, a  garage rock band featured in the film; Fitzgerald is a punk guitarist.)

In case no one else spots it, if Harold Hill played an instrument instead of just selling them, and if he were a would-be musician instead of a huckster salesman, School of Rock would be The Music Man—as long as the music’s rock and not Sousa marches.  (Principal Mullins would be Marian the Librarian and Lawrence, the unconfident keyboardist, would be young Winthrop with the lisp.)  I don’t know if screenwriter White, filmmaker Linklater, or stage adapter Lloyd Webber considered this or if its just a universal tale, but the parallels are pretty hard to overlook.  And that’s where my second quibble comes in.  The apparent point of the show seems to be that if you let your kids be rock musicians, they’ll be great, even of they never learn anything else in school.  Of course, that’s bogus—but if you take the play seriously, that’s what it says.  (Dewey delivers a very heartfelt speech to the parents making that point, and it’s not treated as a joke.  In fact, the play turns on this scene.  You have to believe that the whole play takes place in an alternate universe to overlook that and just see it as a charming fantasy.)
Oh, well, as some great philosopher once said: We don’t need no education!  (He also said: Teachers leave them kids alone, another aspect of the play’s philosophy.)

There are other essential problems here as well.  While Blum is a worthy stand-in for Brightman, his Dewey isn’t really loveable the way the character should be to make the play soar.  In fact, he’s pitiful—and that’s the way the character’s written and directed, not just the way Blum comes off.  Now, as I said, I’m not a fan of Black’s, so the movie didn’t work for me in that way, either, but I’m enough of a dramaturg to be able to analyze the performance text to see that that’s what’s supposed to—or what needs to—occur for this story to take off.  The result of the lack of this quality in the anarchic, slovenly, loud-mouthed Dewey is that his message begins to seem potentially dangerous.  He comes close to the Pied Piper luring Hamelin’s children into the cave.  (Indeed, David Rooney of the Hollywood Reporter dubbed him “the renegade pied piper of bad-assery.”)  He’s teaching the kids to be sneaky, dishonest, disrespectful, and defiant (for example, one lyric from “Time to Play,” a song Summer and the fifth-graders sing, is “Look rebellious, act more crude / Bring your best bad attitude”), which is only good if the authority figures like Ms. Mullins and the parents are actually venal (think Nazi prison guards and authoritarian dictators).  But they’re not.  Horace Green may be snobbish and hidebound, but it’s not Animal Farm (it’s also not Matilda or Annie).  The parents don’t listen, but the family lives aren’t The Great Santini or Mommie Dearest.  What’s Dewey up to?  Starting a cult? 

(By the way, the parents are another small thing that bothers me.  In an entire fifth-grade class, every single parent suffers from the same shortsightedness and inattentiveness to his or her child?  Not one ’rent pays attention?  And while I’m at it, this is a whole class of musical prodigies?  Really?  What are the chances of that?  I guess we are in that alternate universe.)

And if we presume that somehow Dewey is redeemed in the end by his encounter with the kids or maybe the reborn Ms. Mullins, that doesn’t happen, either.  (Actually, he goes into this gig for his own selfish purposes.  Like Professor Hill, Dewey only pretends to care about the children—until he sort of comes around near the end.)  When Dewey’s exposed for a fraud and an imposter, he escapes punishment because Mullins tells a lie to cover for him.  (And Patty—who, granted, is a harridan—is the one who’s threatened with legal consequences.  Even though she’s actually right about Dewey, she’s made to be the heavy of School of Rock )  Why does he deserve this outcome?  Because the band kids capture everyone’s heart—not by saving a baby from drowning, the theater from burning down, or the school from closing, but by being good at playing rock music.  Wait, let me amend that: by being 10-year-olds who are good at playing rock music.  In School’s Brigadoon universe, this is apparently the highest of human aspirations.

(I think you’re getting an idea why I didn’t figure I’d buy a ticket for School of Rock.  I have the wrong temperament for it.)

Let me repeat, however, what I said at the start of my assessment: School of Rock is fun.  Despite what may seem harsh criticism, I did enjoy the performance overall.  It’ll never go down on my list of best-ever theater experiences, but it was far from one the worst.  Blum’s performance was fine, but what really puts School of Rock – The Musical over the top as a piece of musical theater are the 13 band members.  No matter how well Dewey’s performed, no matter how good Fellowes book is, and even no matter how tuneful Lloyd Webber and Slater’s score is, it’s the performances, both the acting and the playing, provided by the pre-teen members of the cast that sets this movical above the run-of-the-mill.  (I haven’t seen Matilda, but I’ve heard those youngsters are even more astounding—but I can’t make a comparison.) 

The members of Dewey’s fifth-grade School of Rock are a mixed group now, some from the opening cast and some replacements; at the mat I saw, there were even a couple of understudy/standbys on stage.  Nonetheless, they're by far the best things in the whole show, both as characters (Isabella Russo’s Summer is deliciously bossy,  Diego Lucano is touchingly insecure as Lawrence, and despite the stereotypicality of the character as written, Billy is compellingly determined in Luca Padovan’s hands) and rockers.  (I’d like to think that in the real world, in an ironic reversal, School of Rock would have beaten No Vacancy in the Battle of the Bands.  Lloyd Webber’s music and Slater’s words are pretty derivative—it’s one of the problems that turned me off Lloyd Webber years ago—but “School of Rock” and “Stick It to the Man” are both more interesting pieces of music than “I’m Too Hot for You” and the kids’ musical staging was more fun than No Vacancy’s been-there-done-that posing!  I’m just sayin’.)

The acting of the adults is a different matter.  With children, I think, it doesn’t matter if the roles are written as clichés and stereotypes because I don’t think that registers with really young actors.  They just commit to what the playwright and director give them and go for it.  As Matthew Murray of the website Talkin’ Broadway explained it, they do “exactly what all great musical theatre actors do: transcending the falseness of their surroundings to create a new and better reality through nothing more than their impeccably honed and applied talents.”  It’s part of the childlike quality actors try to retain—believing fully in what they’re doing in the moment.  It’s acting as playacting, and the closer the actor is to childhood, the stronger that impulse is.  But adult pros lose more and more of that the more experienced they get and they have to work at getting it back.  They’ve been around long enough to recognize stereotypes and stock characters and it’s harder for them to play them truthfully without signaling what they feel.  In School of Rock, the adult characters are in such a category and for the most part, the actors don’t or can’t disguise that or play though it.  The parents and teachers (played by the same corps with doubling: Steven Booth, Natalie Charle Ellis, Josh Tower, Michael Hartney, John Hemphill, Merritt David Janes, Jaygee Macapugay, et al.) certainly don’t add anything to their characterizations beyond the caricatures Fellowes wrote for them.  They follow their graphs faithfully, but never rise above cartoons—sort of like the grown-ups in a Peanuts animation. 

I’ve had my say about Blum’s Dewey (and, from the opening-night reviews I read, the same holds true for Alex Brightman, so it’s apparently not entirely the actor’s responsibility): he doesn’t turn Dewey from an unlikeable slob into a charming and child-like rebel.  But Jenn Gambatese manages to make the transition with Rosalie Mullins.  In the opening scenes, she’s the classic tight-ass, even costumed with glasses and a hair-bun.  In the bar scene with Dewey, however, when she almost literally lets her hair down (now, that would be a cliché) and lets her inner Stevie Nicks loose, we get a peek at a Roz that’s genuine and personable.  Her little speech about how she hates the social and academic politics of Horace Green that’s the foundation of her job may be a little too on-the-nose dramatically, but it apparently gives Gambatese enough fuel to take her into a more human characterization and it’s even possible to see her fall a little under Dewey’s spell at that moment.  (It’s a tad incredible, but that’s because Blum doesn’t make the concomitant shift in Dewey that makes him loveable—but that’s hardly Gambatese’s fault.)  When it comes time for Ms. Mullins to release the fifth-graders for their “field trip” and then, more momentously, for her to lie to save Dewey, it’s almost justified by her left dogleg after her Fleetwood Mac turn. 

Director Connor seems to have worked better (or perhaps just more) with the children than with the adults, and he achieves more with them as a result.  Most of School of Rock is staged perfunctorily, but the young wannabe rockers get the best moves.  Hunter’s dances, too, are less than sparkling except for the children, though their numbers tend to be repetitive (and even perhaps derivative) in their pogo-stick jumping movements that look a lot like the kids in Matilda in that show’s commercials.  Anna Louizos’s sets and costumes are fine (her get-ups for Dewey’s grunge-wear couldn’t be . . . well, grungier), with mostly minimal scenery to allow room for movement (except Dewey’s classroom where shifting desks and furniture around to disguise what he’s up to is part of the play’s performance text).  The three rows of sliding panels that make up the detailed back walls of various rooms work well here, and re-jiggering the pupils’ school uniforms for their band costumes (and giving Dewey an adult version for the Battle of the Bands bit) is, if not inspired, then just this side of kinky.  (Blum, in his knee socks and high-tops, looks like an off-kilter scout leader in his maroon plaid shorts and Horace Green blazer.  There should be a prize for the most disturbing costume at the contest.  I wonder what stylist Billy was thinking . . . .)

Natasha Katz’s lighting is well-conceived, from the under-lit atmosphere of Dewey’s bedroom, where the curtains are probably never opened, to the institutional blandness of the prep school hallways, to the rock-concert LED glare of the Battle of the Bands (which caught me right in the eye—but never mind).  The musical direction of Darren Ledbetter works perfectly well for Lloyd Webber’s orchestrations, especially in the faux-rock numbers, but I’ve already said my piece about the sound design of Mick Potter (which is why I have nothing to say about Slater’s lyrics).  Since I feel the musical is a showcase for the ’tween band, all the production elements are really just eyewash for those moments anyway, so as long as they don’t get in the way, they’re perfect for this production.

The press coverage of School of Rock – The Musical was immense.  Show-Score tallied 60 reviews, including out-of-town papers (Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune) and even abroad (London’s Telegraph), giving the movical an average score of 74.  The site reported that School of Rock got 75% positive notices against 3% negative ones and 22% mixed reviews.   (My round-up will cover 33 press outlets, some different from Show-Score’s.)  The one aspect of the show which united almost all the reviews was the nearly unanimous praise for and delight in the performances of the 13 children who play the members of the School of Rock combo.  From the highest scoring to the lowest rated notice, not one reviewer dissed those kids. (As it happens, I saw then-12-year-old Niederauer, who plays lead-guitarist Zack, on Stephen Colbert’s Late Show last November and his musicianship was indeed remarkable.)

Among the dailies, the highest Show-Score rating (85) went to Matt Windman’s am New York review, in which the review-writer called School of Rock “highly enjoyable and heartwarming” with music that’s “occasionally serviceable and sappy” but “contains [Lloyd Webber’s] best music in a very long time, bursting with excitement more often than not.”  Windman made a special point of stating, “The dozen or so children are wildly talented and absolutely adorable.  I dare you not to smile as they stomp around and chant that they will ‘stick it to the man.’”  In the shadow of the blockbuster of last season, Hamilton, School isn’t “a game-changer,” the amNY writer offered, “but . . . it is a solid, well-structured musical comedy.”  (Windman also caught that School of Rock is “a modern version of ‘The Music Man.’”)  With a “Bottom Line” of “The kids are definitely all right in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s enjoyable show,” Linda Winer’s Newsday review labeled the movical “high-energy, enjoyable, [and] unrelentingly eager-to-please.”  The production, Winer asserted, “is as slick and sure of itself as if it had been running at the Winter Garden Theatre since Lloyd Webber’s ‘Cats’ closed 15 years ago.”  The pre-teen musicians are “all terrific,” declared Winer, and Slater’s “easygoing lyrics” are set to a “hard-rocking and comfortable” score by Lloyd Webber. 

In the New York Times, Ben Brantley described School of Rock as Lloyd Webber’s “friskiest [show] in decades” and “is about as easygoing as a show can be that threatens to break your eardrums.”  Brantley reported that “for its first half, at least, [School of Rock] charmingly walks the line between the cute and the precious, the sentimental and the saccharine.”  Brantley cautioned, however, that “in the more lazily formulaic second act . . ., you can taste glucose in the air.”  The adaptation’s creative team “translates [the film’s] sensibility into Broadway-ese with surprising fluency.”  In sum, the Timesman declared that “‘Rock’ is surprisingly easy to swallow, in large part because everyone involved seems to be having such a fine time,” adding that “family audiences should be grateful for a Lloyd Webber show that only wants to have fun and hopes that you do, too.”  The New York Post’s Elisabeth Vincentelli  pointed out that every part of the show except one is “on the plot’s outskirts” because “the story is centered on the relationship between the children and Dewey.”  Vincentelli, though, did complain of the play’s sexism since the “adult women are either straight-laced or shrewish, while the little girls are stuck in rock’s traditional parts.”  The musical’s “whole heap of new tunes by Andrew Lloyd Webber,” says the Post reviewer, are his “catchiest tunes in years.” 

The unsigned Daily News review (which Show-Score identifies as Joe Dziemianowicz’s) described School of Rock as a “wildly energetic but uneven show” made up of “the great and fantastical stuff” of Broadway musicals.  The News review-writer named a few songs that “jolts [sic] the show awake,” then complained that “they’re exceptions.  Most of the new songs tend to be just okay at best.”  The songs, Dziemianowicz said, feel “generic” and at many points, “the music is just too loud for its own good, suppressing what may be decent lyrics under amplified purple haze.”  Overall, the Newsman complained, “The show wants to rock your socks off, but it just moves in fits and starts and feels labored” and director Connor’s “staging is inconsistent.”   Still, the “young actors/musicians all kick axe,” but it’s “a show that can’t get out of its own way—or add much to the classic movie.”  In the U.S. edition of London’s Guardian, Alexis Soloski labeled the movical a “perfectly pleasant, perfectly innocuous new musical,” though she warned that early scenes “are wholly predictable” and “musical numbers are unhappily anodyne.”  Then Soloski added, “But things perk up when the younger cast members finally get a chance to sing and play.”  She explained: “The children are universally adorable and several of them are staggeringly accomplished musicians.  It is an absolute treat to hear them.”  Soloski complained, however, that Lloyd Webber’s songs don’t really rock: “any hard electric edges have been sanded away.”  School of Rock – The Musical, the Guardian reviewer concluded, “wants to please and please it does.  But rock it doesn’t.”

Robert Feldberg of the Bergen County, New Jersey, Record called School “old-fashioned and predictable” in a review entitled “Remember when people thought rock-and-roll would save the world?”  He responded to his own question by asserting, “That mantra is the ringingly dated message of ‘School of Rock,’ a throwback musical in more ways than one.”  Then, however, Feldberg added, “But it’s also fun, demonstrating how entertaining a formulaic evening, smartly executed, can be.”  “Directed . . . at a rapid pace,” School of Rock has “a strong, if simple, story . . ., apt songs . . ., [and] lively performances.”  With “all-around theater know-how, the show is a tribute to professionalism,” affirmed the Record review-writer.  Feldberg concluded that School of Rock “is meant to be a feel-good musical, and, despite its manipulativeness and cartoonish characters, it largely succeeds.”  

On NJ.com, Christopher Kelly of the Newark ­Star-Ledger predicted that the “faithful-bordering-on-slavish adaptation of the” movie “will win no prizes for originality.”  Labeling the movical a “big, noisy musical,” Kelly asserted that it “transposes virtually every scene from the film onto the stage.”  The Star-Ledger reviewer found that the music and  lyrics “are a forgettable pastiche of contemporary Top 40 pop-rock,” then reported that School of Rock “nevertheless keeps a smile plastered on your face” because “there can be no denying the verve and indomitable energy of the young cast.”  Connor and Fellowes “do a fine job moving the story along at a pleasant clip”; however, “the real stars of this show are the thirteen children who play the members of Dewey’s class, pint-sized forces of nature who sing, dance and play instruments.”  Kelly’s last thought was that spectators

could wish that choreographer JoAnn M. Hunter had come up with something more inventive than the stomp-heavy moves so reminiscent of the dance numbers in “Matilda.”  You could also complain that the two main female parts . . . are such tired, rhymes-with-witch clichés.  Or you could sit back and enjoy a musical that reminds us that “family-f[riend]ly entertainment” need not also be an insult to a grown-up’s intelligence and good taste.  “School of Rock” may not be one for the history books, but it nonetheless has plenty of valuable lessons to teach. 

The Wall Street Journal’s Terry Teachout opened his notice with a declaration:

The commodity musical, that parasitical genre in which Hollywood hits of the relatively recent past are repurposed for profit by turning them into paint-by-the-numbers big-budget Broadway shows, is the worst thing to happen to American musical comedy since maybe ever. 

Then he conceded that “there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be theoretically possible to write a good commodity musical,” and grudgingly allowed, “Turning ‘School of Rock’ into a musical isn’t the worst idea in the world.”  In fact, he affirmed that “if you need a safe, undemanding show to take your baby-boom parents to see over the holidays, it’ll do perfectly fine—but if that sounds like lukewarm praise, it is.”  Teachout reported that “Fellowes’s version isn’t funny” and the Lloyd Webber-Slater songs, except “Stick It to the Man,” which “is catchy, fun and extremely well staged by” choreographer Hunter, “are filler, synthetic and innocuous.” The WSJ reviewer also complained, “The music is loud but not ear-shreddingly so, though it’s impossible to hear the lyrics when the pit band cranks up.”  As for the “good stuff,” Teachout said only: “The kids are absolutely wonderful.”  His final comment?

I’ve seen worse and so have you, and if that’s enough to get you to spring for a pair of $145 tickets to “School of Rock,” go for it.  Just be forewarned: This is the kind of musical that sends you home wanting to rent the movie.  I don’t know about you, but that’s not why I go to the theater.

Brendan Lemon of the U.S. edition of the Financial Times, another wag on the theater beat, mused:

“Are you not entertained?” bellows Russell Crowe at the arena in the 2000 movie Gladiator.  All during School of Rock, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Colisseum-loud [sic] musical . . ., I kept asking myself the same question.  Like the victims of those enslaved warriors, I felt pummelled [sic] by the experience.

He, too, conceded that “the tremendously talented children in this cast perform with an intensity that only a churl could deny”; this is where the “show’s chief pleasures reside.”  Still, Lemon observed, “None of the new songs created by Lloyd Webber and Glenn Slater, his lyricist, do much to enhance the existing tunes from the source material” even if the show “has been energetically directed.”  Fellowes’s book “honours the movie’s storyline with a Dowager’s dutifulness,” though “the transitions are abrupt and the characters’ backgrounds a little sketchy.”   

Elysa Gardner started right in by asking in USA Today: “How could you possibly resist them, these fresh, sunny faces and sweet pre-pubescent voices that dominate the cast of School of Rock – The Musical?”  Gardner reported that Lloyd Webber “happily, has approached the project with a healthy sense of humor, though he and lyricist Glenn Slater also provide a few earnest ballads.”  Repeating that “it’s the younger cast members who engage us most,” Gardner concluded that “you’ll root for all of them, and have a grand time doing so.”

The New Yorker’s “Goings On About Town” column declared that School of Rock “goes straight for the pleasure center” and that the Lloyd Webber-Slater songs “really do rock.”  (The New Yorker reviewer was another who saw “a latter-day Harold Hill” in Dewey Finn.)  The columnist concluded by pointing out, “But the chief triumph of Laurence Connor’s production is the child actors, who give winning, distinctive performances.”  Also making comparisons with Meredith Willson’s classic Music Man, Jesse Green remarked in New York magazine, “If you are willing to overlook trite sentiments like” those expressed in the lyric “Wreck your room and rip your jeans / and show ’em what rebellion means” (from “Stick It to the Man”), School of Rock “has a fair amount to offer: . . . a clean, swift staging by Laurence Connor; and, for those who like it, temporary deafness.”  Green confirmed, though, “The big gimmick is of course the kids,” whom he labeled “terrific” (and, the man from New York assured us, “not overly adorable”) even if each “has a predictable arc and a backstory full of clichés” that’s “completely pro forma and signboarded like crazy.”  The adults, said Green, are saddled with the need to “turn salesmanship into character,” but “Fellowes’s book doesn’t allow it, offering no psychology, only traits.”  Comparing the score to that of “the best musical comedies,” Green asserted, “But School of Rock, like many rock musicals, has a problem availing itself of the genre’s full power, because reasonably authentic rock of the type imitated here, circa 1975, has such a limited vocabulary.”  Slater’s lyrics,” when they can be heard, are clean and on point,” but Lloyd Webber “is not, in any case, a real rock composer” and his music “grabs whatever tropes seem handy” for the moment at hand.  But, Green proclaimed, “The problem is what the point is”:

If Dewey represents the anarchic spirit of rock, and we are meant to cheer when he gets the kids to share that spirit, do we suddenly not notice that he’s, well, a loser? . . . .  Looked at squarely, this is a show about a poseur, not just liberating but undermining everyone around him.  (The musical’s villain is his roommate’s girlfriend, who is punished for the crime of wanting him to pay his rent by being turned into a hideous nightmare bitch.) 

“There is [a] tremendous amount of talent . . . behind School of Rock," asserted Jesse Oxfeld in Entertainment Weekly

And yet, without a doubt and by a long shot, the best things on the stage of the Winter Garden Theatre are the dozen or so unknown kids who steal the show . . . .  They bring to what might otherwise be a dutiful screen-to-stage retread an inspiring jolt of energy, joy, whimsy, and—do the kids still say this?—mad skillz.

School of Rock isn’t perfect,” the EW reviewer observed, but Lloyd Webber “has written a fun, catchy, rock-ish score,” reported Oxfeld, continuing that “when those kids . . . take the stage, School of Rock is a delight.”  Time Out New York’s David Cote said the adaptation from film to stage by the “unlikely creative team” of School “successfully execute such a smart transfer,” even if those who saw the movie will know what to expect.  “It worked for the movie, and wow, does it work on Broadway,” declared Cote.  School of Rock is “one tight, well-built show,” according to the man from TONY; having “absorbed the diverse lessons of Rent, Spring Awakening and Matilda,” it “passes them on to a new generation.”  He asserted, “You’d have to have zero sense of humor about pop to not enjoy Webber’s jaunty pastiche score.” 

In the Hollywood Reporter, David Rooney, labeling School of Rock “disarming,” asserted that “the show knows full well that its prime asset is the cast of ridiculously talented kids.”  Still, Rooney reported, “In terms of screen-to-stage remakes, this is neither the most imaginative nor the most pedestrian of them.”  The HR reviewer said that “the musical is funny and endearing for much the same reasons as the movie,” but went on, “Where it distinguishes itself is in providing the sheer unalloyed pleasure of being in the same physical space as the baker’s dozen preteen stars.”  While extolling Lloyd Webber’s “commercial instincts,” Rooney found that “his songs are ersatz rock at best, and more often efficient than inspired, while Slater’s lyrics tend to express feelings rather than advance the action.”  Connor’s direction, the review-writer felt, “is not always the most elegant,” but the production design is “first-rate.”  In conclusion, Rooney stated, “Ultimately, what makes this show a crowd-pleaser is the generosity of spirit.”  Variety’s Marilyn Stasio, describing School of Rock as “an exuberant feel-good musical,” declared, “Andrew Lloyd Webber unleashed his inner child to write” the movical, as he and his creative colleagues “are clearly child-friendly.”  The only change Stasio found between the Lloyd Webber-Fellowes-Slater stage adaptation and the film was that the creators managed “to lay on the energetic rock songs” of the new score. 

David Roberts called School of Rock a “powerhouse musical” on Theatre Reviews Limited and said it “reflects significantly ‘what and how we are now’ and moves forward in creative ways to address significant cultural and—perhaps surprisingly—political issues,” referencing the late Elizabeth Swados.  Roberts added that Dewey’s “antics in the classroom are over-the-top joy to watch and hear” and the four musicians at the center of the band “will make the audience fall back into their seats in awe at the craft of these young musicians.”  The TRL blogger continued, “The electrifying twenty-eight (some reprised) songs literally rock the walls of the iconic Winter Garden Theatre.”  Connor’s direction is “galvanizing,” the cast is “uniformly excellent,” and Fellowes’s book “is refreshing.”  Roberts concluded, “‘School of Rock – The Musical’ succeeds because audience members can so easily identify with its characters and connect to their conflicts.” 

On Theater Pizzazz, Sandi Durell stated, like so many of her peers, that School is “all about the fabulous talented kids and louder than loud music.”  She warned, though, “You may not be able to make out all the lyrics, and may find some of the tunes repetitive but that’s okay, it’s all about the hot, high energy.”  Nonetheless, “Anna Louizos’ fine eye designs the detailed sets and costumes; Natasha Katz’[s] first rate lighting adds the rock stadium quality, while choreographer JoAnn M. Hunter moves [the cast] all around like supple chess pieces.”  The TP reviewer also felt that director Laurence Connor “stirs ‘em up and voila . . . you’ve got a hot ‘School of Rock’ blend of audience pleasers.”  Calling much of Lloyd Webber’s hard-rock score “uninspired” on Theatre’s Leiter Side, Samuel L. Leiter acknowledged that under the “enthusiastic” direction of Connor, the stage musical, with a plot “offering some additional material” by Fellowes, has “its success . . . practically guaranteed.”  Leiter pronounced the story “a fairy tale,” but asserted that “you believe and you accept [it] because it’s presented with a just enough skill and charm to make it irresistible.  In fact, you’ll probably even wipe away a happy tear or two.”  While he praised the work of the design team, Leiter concluded that it’s the “extraordinarily talented kids” who make “a B-minus show into an A-minus one.”  CurtainUp’s Elyse Sommer dismissed School as “not . . . big on originality, depth or high art” but acknowledged (like so many others) that the “kids are irresistible.”  The production, centering on the “super talented” ‘tween band members, is “smoothly directed,” but Sommer warned, “Forget about looking for any especially deep or controversial themes” since “this really isn’t a message musical.”  In the final analysis, “School of Rock [remains] strictly what it is—a not to be taken seriously hard rocking, feel good romp.”

On NY Theatre Guide, Marc Miller, while acknowledging the connection to The Music Man like some of his colleagues, also compared School with other recent musicals centering on children and observed, “You’ve seen a lot of it already”—although “School of Rock has its share of fun.”  Miller asserted that the movical’s creative team “are out only to entertain, logic and character development be damned.  On a ground-floor level, they succeed.”  Fellowes, this cyber reviewer complained, “knows how to land a laugh and where to introduce sentiment and conflict,” but doesn’t “probe beneath the surface.”  The tease of the musical scene in which the children sing about the inattentiveness of their parents made Miller want “to know more about these parent-kid conflicts and how they’d be resolved.  But they’re resolved in the most pat way imaginable.”  There’s “not much depth,” but the “surface-skimming along the way” is “enjoyable.”  The score, he reported, is Lloyd Webber’s “friskiest in years” and the “lyrics are well crafted and clever, when you can hear them.”  Miller found that “more than half the words are distorted beyond intelligibility or drowned out by the ear-splitting kid rockers.”  He lauded the designers, but Connnor’s “direction is more efficient than inspired.”  Despite its assets, however, “there’s an unadventurous carefulness to School of Rock’s approach that somewhat undercuts what little it’s trying to say.”

Michael Dale of Broadway World labeled School of Rock an “enthralling, high-energy kickass new hard-rockin’ musical” with a “solid set of lyrics, the funny and sincerely touching book . . . and a top flight cast.”  The result, said Dale, “is a big, beautiful blast of musical comedy from start to finish.”  (Instead of The Music Man, the oldie to which Dale likened School was “basically THE SOUND OF MUSIC without the Nazis.”)  The BWW review-writer acknowledged that the “crisp production is enhanced by Anna Louizos[‘s] fluidly moving set” and, despite some plot moments “that defy logic” and some “clichéd” small roles, “the musical’s exuberant score and meaningful theme . . . glosses over any weak spots.”  Dale’s conclusion was: “School of Rock is a great night out.”  Suggesting that a theatergoer’s expectations for a show with child actors might be “way too high” and that such a show would be “courting disaster,” Talkin’ Broadway’s Matthew Murray assured us that “those expectations arent just met, theyre exceeded—by several orders of magnitude.”  Of course, Murray went on to heap lavish praise on the work of the young musicians and singers of School of Rock and then moved on to state, “Lloyd Webber still knows how to craft and orchestrate a rock melody, his tunes at once ultra-cool and searing hot.”  Then Murray backed off a little: “Unfortunately, whenever [Dewey] and his glittering charges aren’t center stage, School of Rock satisfies considerably less” because, due to Fellowes’s book and Connor’s staging, “all of the supporting characters are bloated and unbelievable”; the TB reviewer characterized them as “brain-dead stereotypes and dramatic one-dimensionality.” The rest of the score, aside from the kids’ numbers, are “a series of lame songs” and Murray demeaned the production design and choreography as “the straightforward, at-face-value variety” that ends the evening as “one big, loud question mark.”  (Murray was another reviewer who complained that “Mick Potters sound design tends to muddy lyrics when lots of people are singing and playing at once.”)  Still, in the end, he insisted, “Seeing [the young performers] unleash all they have and then some is destined to be one of the most scintillating joys of this Broadway season, and worth the price of admission by itself.”

On TheaterScene, Victor Gluck called School “delightful” and “dynamic and exuberant,” and, extolling the “fabulously talented” ‘tweens, Gluck asserted that School of Rock “also makes spectacular use of its musical idioms as well as the tremendous new talent.”  The movical, he reported, “will have [you] rooting for its hero quite soon and send you out at the end feeling good about the underdog coming out on top.”  Gluck’s final assessment is: “One of the most satisfying shows of the season.”  Zachary Stewart of TheaterMania pronounced that “School of Rock is cute and occasionally funny, but not any more than its source material, making its onstage existence something of an extravagant ‘meh.’”  Calling the play a “whimsically implausible romp,” the TM reviewer characterized the Lloyd Webber score as “hit-or-miss music . . ., considering that many of his songs resemble a cell phone ringtone: electronic notes presented in a repetitive sequence.”  Stewart reversed himself slightly, adding, “Still, they’re often catchy and hard to forget.”  Fellowes’s adaption is “efficient,” reported Stewart, and Slater’s “lyrics are adequate yet unremarkable, getting the job done with a minimal amount of wit.”  While he gave faint praise to Connor’s staging, Louizos’s sets and costumes, and Katz’s lighting, he complained about Potter’s sound design in which “lyrics and dialogue are often lost.”  “Luckily,” Stewart added, “School of Rock has a supercharged cast to transform this leaden material into musical-comedy gold,” even if it’s “an undeniably fun musical that is nevertheless not particularly special.”

David Finkle reported on the Huffington Post that the saving grace of School of Rock is its “great finish,” which, “like just about every other of the not abundant high points in this Lloyd Webber-ized School of Rock, it involves the terrific young actors—several of them young actor-musicians—working like cheerful demons.”  “Oh, yes, musical comedy aficionados,” HP’s First Nighter stressed, “it’s the non-voting-age players, including the adorably proficient Isabella Russo as the band manager, who steal this undertaking while the bigger names above and below the title hit wonky notes on their figurative Fender guitars.”  As for Lloyd Webber’s score, Finkle thought that “his newest melodies and riffs, which he orchestrated, conjure only Broadway-rock of the ’70s” and that they “swiftly begin to sound alike”; he had a similar complaint about Hunter's choreography.  The production design is “more than adequate,” said Finkle, but he had many nits to pick with Fellowes’s book.  Like so many of his peers, Finkle asserted that it’s the “knee-high-to-grasshopper” band members who make School worth seeing, and “More power to them,” the HP reviewer declared.

Calling School of Rock a “pop song of a musical” on WNYC, a public radio outlet in New York City, Jennifer Vanasco affirmed, “One thing you can say for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s ‘School of Rock – The Musical,’ now playing at the Winter Garden Theatre: the kids are really, really charming.  And talented.  They play their own instruments and they really rock out.”  Vanasco felt, “It gets off to a slow start, with too much set up, but then there’s a truly great scene” when Dewey assembles the classroom band and the students “take up their instruments with joy and ferocity.”  The WNYC reviewer objected, however, that “the sunny easiness of the story and the cuteness of the kids is marred by two things”: “rampant gay stereotypes” of Luca Padovan’s Billy and Tomika’s gay dads (Steven Booth and Michael Hartney) and Mamie Parris’s Patty, “written as a one-noted witch.”  She concluded: “These flaws—and the very traditional staging and script—make the show feel cynical, like it’s pandering to the audience’s worst tendencies.  If only it had been brave enough to break out of its own musical theater box.”  On NY1, the all-news channel for Time Warner Cable subscribers in New York City, Roma Torre declared “‘School Of Rock’ is a rock solid hit!”  The story “is a fairy tale of course but it’s an irresistible one” with Lloyd Webber’s score “his best in years” and a book that “matches the film’s subversive humor with a human touch.”  Connor’s direction is “flawless,” bringing “all of the pieces . . . together in perfect harmony,” “aided immeasurably” by Louizos’s “terrific scenic design.”  The play’s “secret weapon,” though, is the “[m]agnificent talents” of the ’tween actors.  School of Rock, Torre concluded, “may not be groundbreaking, but as crowd-pleasing entertainment, it doesn’t miss a beat.” 

On WNBC television, the network outlet in New York City, Robert Kahn declared right at the outset, “A dozen pint-sized and pitch-perfect performers bring heart to” the new musical, “an otherwise workaday screen-to-stage adaptation” with a “faithful, if prosaic book.”  Outside of the young actor-musicians, affirmed Kahn, “we tread familiar territory.”  Lloyd Webber’s songs “are a polarizing bunch,” with few that Kahn predicted “will enjoy an afterlife”; the pre-teen characters “sometimes verge on stock depictions” and the adults “fully cross the line”; and Ned and Patty, though acted well, are “cartoons.”  Kahn warned, “You suspend disbelief to appreciate ‘School of Rock,’” which he admitted “doesn’t particularly resonate for me, but I won’t soon forget the feel-good vibe radiating off the talented young performers.”  The Associated Press reviewer, Mark Kennedy (as broadcast on WTOP radio in Washington, D.C.), labeled School of Rock a “sweet, well-constructed musical” with “a wondrously rebellious spirit and a superb cast.”   Kennedy reported, “A heartwarming story and a stage full of pre-pubescent kids who know their way around an amp prove irresistible” and Lloyd Webber, with Slater’s lyrics, “turns in some perfectly solid mainstream rock-ish anthems.”  The AP reviewer noted that Fellowes has been “so faithful” to the screenplay that “you may wonder why he even gets a credit,” but director Connor “leads a crisp, snappy show.”

I don’t usually do this, but because the spread of notices spanned nearly the entire range of Show-Score ratings, I’m going to add some comments from the site’s highest-scoring review (Front Row Center, 100) and its lowest-scoring one (The Wrap, 30).  Both of these are sites I don’t customarily consult.  FRC’s Michael Hillyer encouraged people who enjoyed the 2003 movie or like rock music to rush to the Winter Garden box office because “you’re probably gonna love School Of Rock, The Musical.”  Lloyd Webber, Fellowes, and Slater have “absolutely nailed” the transfer from screen to stage and audiences “will enjoy the over-the-top decibel level afforded by the live stage experience, as well as the face-shredding guitar solos, gut-wrenching drum riffs and electric bass and keyboards wizardry that punctuate this joyously unabashed celebration of heavy rock music.”  Hillyer declared, “This is Lloyd Webber’s best rock score in decades, there isn’t a weak song in the show, and the cast is up to its demanding vocals as well.”  With praise for the young actor-musicians of School of Rock, the reviewer for FRC also mentioned the designers. the adult actors, and the “loving and tight control” of director Connor.  Hillyer concluded that “School Of Rock ought to be in session for a long time to come.” 

Robert Hofler complained that Dewey in the play is “a total slob,” which is “different from being a messy free spirit,” as the film’s main character is.  Instead of the “anarchic edge of comedy” portrayed by Jack Black, Hofler found “just a big boorish thug.”  The Wrapper also found deficiencies in the portrayals of Ms. Mullins and Patty on stage in contrast with the film counterparts.  “Other actors and another director might have made this ‘School’ better,” asserted Hofler.  “But then there’s the material itself.”  He affirmed, “What the musical most needs is a complete overhaul for the stage; instead it gets Julian Fellowes‘ faithful-to-a-fault adaptation.”  He gave Lloyd Webber and Slater wan praise for the score, dismissing the “traditionally Broadway” numbers.  (Hofler cautioned against including “other composers’ music,” referring to some classic pieces Lloyd Webber uses in the show.  “It is nice to go out humming Mozart,” he quipped.)  His final comment was: “In ‘School of Rock,’ the parents eventually embrace their children’s newfound love of very loud and not very good rock music.  Most parents in the audience, however, might wonder if Actors’ Equity has taken up a fund for the many talented young performers on stage who . . . will require hearing devices.”

The stage musical’s appeal is obviously aimed at families with ‘tween kids; there were a lot of them in the Sunday matinee audience I attended.  (As I noted in my press survey, the band kids took nearly all the reviews.)  I presume that accounts for a few things about this production.  One, the play’s less than 2½ hours long, quite short for a Broadway musical (most run from 2½ to 3 hours and even more).  Two, the Sunday matinees are at 1 p.m. and the evening show is at 6, both early by traditional standards, presumably to get the families, especially the ones from the ‘burbs, in and out early; the other mats are at 2, but the evening show on Saturday after the mat is at 7:30, and so is Friday’s evening performance.  Three, the other two evening shows are at 7, really early for Broadway nowadays.  Four, there are three matinee performances a week: aside from the Saturday and Sunday afternoon shows, there’s a 2 o’clock Wednesday mat as well.  Five, there’s an evening performance on Monday, the day theaters are traditionally dark on Broadway (switched for Thursday at the Winter Garden), probably to entice theatergoers to midtown on an evening when the rest of Broadway is quiet—easier parking and dining, not to mention maneuvering around Times Square and catching a cab after the show. 

All this suggests “family friendly” to me, especially if you marry it to the kid-centric cast and plot and faux-rock score.  I should caution would-be parental attendees, however, that there are some aspects of School of Rock for which you might want to be prepared.  The No Vacancy lead singer struts around stage Jagger-like with a bare chest and tight, leather pants—not particularly threatening these days, I suppose—while singing “I’m Too Hot for You.”  There are also some racially and sexually stereotyped references, though mild, that could be seen as insulting in our PC society: the effeminate Billy and Tomika’s gay dads are pretty much clichés and Dewey casually calls an Asian-American character “Lucy Liu.”  Dewey also tosses out some mildly naughty language now and then—“douche bags” and being “pissed”—and no one calls him on it.  (The Guardian’s Soloski even quipped, “The concession stand should really have smelling salts on hand for anyone who believed that Fellowes could never script words like douche bags.”)

[A really interesting—and I’d bet, fascinating—story to come out of School of Rock – The Musical would be the casting of the kid musicians.  The talent search and auditions must have been amazing, seeking out these beyond-talented youngsters with actual rock chops.  There has to be a Making of . . ./Behind the Music documentary about that waiting somewhere in the wings.  Anyone wanna get on that?]

17 September 2016

'A Day by the Sea'

My sense about plays that have been forgotten or neglected has always been—and I’ve seldom been proved wrong—that most have been so for an excellent reason: they’re not very good.  (I wrote about this impression on ROT in “Vanity, Thy Name Is Actor-Director,” posted on 22 September 2011.)  It’s exceedingly rare, I’ve found, that an overlooked gem is discovered.  (I’m thinking of Paul Osborn’s Morning’s at Seven, which was originally produced on Broadway in 1939 and then found a new audience in 1980 and ran in revival for 580 performances, winning three Tonys and five Drama Desk Awards.  A 2002 revival ran another 132 performances.)

Jonathan Bank of the Mint Theater Company, which specializes in reviving old plays, has complained that the “classic plays that are produced all the time in U.S. theaters . . . are always the same dozen or so.”  Leaving aside that Bank is speaking of “classics”—he specifies “Four Chekhovs”—not merely “oldies” (golden or otherwise), I dispute that there are only a “dozen or so.”  To begin with, there are five full-length Chekhov plays (including Ivanov) that are often staged, six if you count The Wood Demon, and a slew of popular one-acts.  Then there are the works of Barrie, Büchner, Gogol, Gorky, Ibsen, Jarry , Maeterlinck, Pinero, Rostand, Shaw, Strindberg, Wedekind, and Wilde—and that’s just the 19th century, like Chekhov, and some of the better-known writers.  Come forward into the 20th century, even just up to the ’50s, and there are scores of standards and modern classics that are popular with both theaters and audiences.  (Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s The Front Page from 1928 is about to get a limited Broadway run; 1939’s The Little Foxes by Lillian Hellman is coming to the Manhattan Theatre Club in the spring.)  So, from my perspective, Bank is wrong to start with.  He’s deliberately understating the truth for the sake of argument.  What I suspect he really means is that the old plays that are commonly produced on American stages aren’t the obscure, forgotten scripts he likes.  As to that, I refer everyone back to my opening assertion.

None of this means I don’t like old plays, because I do.  I have criteria that are apparently higher than Bank’s, however.  So when Diana, my frequent theater companion, suggested we catch the Mint’s revival of N. C. Hunter’s A Day by the Sea (1953) at the end of last month, I had my doubts because of my past experiences with the troupe.  The choice was Diana’s, however, and I deferred to her inclination.  (Neil Genzlinger’s rave review appeared in the New York Times the day before Diana and I saw Day, and that also made me belay my instincts.)  It turns out that my intuition, if not my decision, was right.  I also found that the ability I often have to discern whether a show will be good or bad from a publicity blurb—or, when I was acting, a casting notice—is still intact.

The Mint Theater Company, founded in 1992, declares in its programs and on its  website that its mission is to find and produce “worthwhile plays from the past that have been lost or forgotten.”  Bank, the company’s current artistic director, took over in 1995 and since then, its publicity states, the Mint’s presented “close to 50 neglected plays . . . that might otherwise have been lost forever.”  New York Times theater reviewer Ben Brantley dubbed the company “resurrectionist extraordinaire of forgotten plays” five years ago.  The troupe’s reach has gone back as far as 1852 (George Aikins’s adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, 1997) and 1886 (Leo Tolstoy’s The Power of Darkness, 2007) and as recent as 1957 (J. B. Priestley’s The Glass Cage, 2008).  The Mint’s efforts have been rewarded with not only a string of good reviews, but also an Obie Grant (2001), a special Drama Desk Award (2002), and the New York Theatre Museum’s Theatre Preservation Award (2010), as well as several Drama Desk and Lucille Lortel Award nominations. 

Though the Mint is happy just to “scour the dramaturgical dustbin for worthwhile plays from the past,” the company’s especially pleased when it introduces a writer in a new light.  A. A. Milne was best known as a children’s author, especially on the strength of his Winnie-the-Pooh books, but the Mint presented his Mr. Pim Passes By (1921) in 1997-98 and again in 2004 (in rep with 1922’s The Truth About Blayds); D. H. Lawrence was only seen as a novelist until the Mint staged The Daughter-In-Law (1912) in 2003 and The Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd (1911) in 2009; Ernest Hemingway wrote only one play, the forgotten Fifth Column (1938), which the troupe produced in 2008.  But the company’s proudest achievement is arguably its focus on women dramatists, who “have always been neglected,” points out artistic director Bank, “and women playwrights fifty or sixty years ago wrote some fine drama.”  Over half of the Mint’s productions have been by women playwrights (Zona Gale, Githa Sowerby, Rachel Crothers, Teresa Deevy, among many others); its show just prior to A Day by the Sea was the U.S. première of Hazel Ellis’s Women Without Men (1938) last January through March.

The Mint started in 1992 as an actor-training program.  When Bank become the company’s executive director, he shifted its focus to production.  The Mint began staging historical plays in 1997 with Uncle Tom’s Cabin and now produces three to four old scripts a season.  Bank, who combs through play anthologies and pours over old reviews, has said, “We try to find plays, frankly, that nobody has ever heard of.  People can come here, taking a bit of a gamble.”  And the Mint not only produces old plays, they publish them as well, in a series of Reclaimed collections (now up to five) edited by Bank and distributed free to libraries, theaters, and schools.  The Mint also hosts symposiums about the plays featuring authorities in fields related to the texts or their milieux. 

Beside being a history buff, Bank has a penchant for narratives.  His interest is primarily in “a well-written play with a good story,” he says; indeed, the company’s motto used to be: “Good stories well told.”  Bank compares today’s playwrights with those of yore and finds that past writers “were better storytellers. . . .  I think too many playwrights today think they are writing movie scripts for the theater.  There is a big difference.”  In preparing scripts for production at Mint, the company may trim some excess dialogue that Bank doesn’t think will resonate with today’s audiences, but they never rewrite or adapt the plays. 

N[orman] C[harles] Hunter was born in 1908 in Derbyshire, England, and died in 1971 in London.  He intended to follow his father, a decorated army lieutenant colonel, into a military career and even attended the Royal Military College in Sandhurst, Berkshire.  Commissioned in the Dragoon Guards in 1930, he resigned three years later to become a writer.  (To support himself, Hunter took a job on the staff of the British Broadcasting Corporation.)  Before World War II, Hunter wrote six plays and four novels, although, despite showing great promise, success in either genre eluded him.  All of Hunter’s early plays are comedies with elements of farce, but as his dramaturgy matured, his writing would develop poignancy and poetry. 

The nascent dramatist served in the Royal Artillery during World War II and spent some time convalescing in a Devon military hospital during the war.  In 1947, Hunter returned to writing plays.  His scripts showed a marked change, however, perhaps as a result of Hunter’s wartime experience.  More despairing and realistic, Waters of the Moon in 1951 and A Day by the Sea in 1953 provided Hunter with a reputation as an “English Chekhov.”  (Of course, Hunter wasn’t the only playwright of his era to be given that sobriquet.  Rodney Ackland—The Dark River, 1943—and Wynyard Browne—The Holly and the Ivy, 1950—were others, though, like Hunter, mostly forgotten today.)  In his review of the Broadway production of A Day by the Sea, Brooks Atkinson, calling the characterization “a synonym for preciousness and languor,” wrote in the New York Times: “To call a playwright ‘Chekhovian’ today is to utter opprobrium and to consign him to the doghouse.”  

Time, unfortunately, wasn’t kind to Hunter and his plays fell out of fashion with the arrival of a new breed of writers composing dramas concerning the working classes such as John Osborne (Look Back in Anger, 1956) and the Angry Young Men in the ’50s and then Joe Orton (What the Butler Saw, 1969) and Shelagh Delaney (A Taste of Honey, 1959) in the ’60s.  Hunter wrote four plays in the decade preceding his death at 62 in 1971 (The Tulip Tree, 1962; The Excursion, 1964; Henry of Navarre, 1966; The Adventures of Tom Random, 1967) but compared to the new revolutionary writers whose work dealt with topics and used language far from the drawing-room dramas of N. C. Hunter, these looked quaint and old-fashioned.  

Nonetheless, in their time, Hunter’s plays attracted such notable actors to perform them as John Gielgud (A Day by the Sea), Wendy Hiller (Waters of the Moon, 1975 revival), Sybil Thorndike (Waters of the Moon, 1951; A Day by the Sea), Ralph Richardson (A Day by the Sea), Vanessa Redgrave (A Touch of the Sun, 1958), Michael Redgrave (A Touch of the Sun), and Ingrid Bergman (Waters of the Moon, 1975).  TV films were adapted from several of his plays in the U.K.  The Actors Company Theatre (TACT) presented the New York première of Waters of the Moon in its minimally staged Salon Series in 2009.  Hunter’s 1951 play A Picture of Autumn (which received only a one-night staging in London) was revived Off-Broadway by the Mint Theater Company in 2013 (with a cast that included George Morfogen, Jill Turner, and Katie Firth of the current production). 

A Day by the Sea opened on London’s West End in 1953 and ran for 386 performances in a production that starred Sir John Gielgud (who also directed, as Julian), Dame Sybil Thorndike (Laura), Irene Worth (Frances), and Sir Ralph Richardson (Doctor Farley).  Directed in New York by Sir Cedric Hardwicke, the play opened at the ANTA Playhouse (now the August Wilson Theatre) on Broadway on 26 September 1955 with Jessica Tandy as Frances and Hume Cronyn as Julian and ran only 24 performances until 15 October.  The Mint Theater’s Off-Broadway presentation of A Day by the Sea, the only Hunter play to run on Broadway, is the first New York revival of the 1953 play.  It began previews at the Samuel Beckett Theatre on Theatre Row on 22 July and opened on 25 August; the production’s scheduled closing has been extended to 23 October from 24 September.  (Day, Mint’s inaugural show for the season, is the company’s début production in the Beckett, its new home.)  Diana and I met at the Theatre Row complex on West 42nd Street to see the 7:30 performance on Saturday evening, 27 August. 

Directed for the Mint by Austin Pendleton, the two-intermission Day by the Sea runs two hours and 50 minutes.  The story takes place over 24 hours in May 1953 at the Dorset estate of Laura Anson (Jill Tanner), a 65-year-old widow, on the English Channel 120 miles southwest of London.  Laura is occasionally visited at her home, with its quiet garden terrace by a river and a private beach where the family picnics and strolls by the sea, by her 40-year-old son, Julian (Julian Elfer), a mid-level British diplomat posted to Paris.  Also living with her is her octogenarian brother-in-law David (George Morfogen), who shifts between his memories and the present, and an attendant physician, the alcoholic, embittered Doctor Farley (Philip Goodwin).  It’s an idyllic and privileged location, undisturbed by the outside world which doesn’t seem to dare intrude aside from the daily newspaper and the “wireless radio.”  (Television, which 21% of Britons had by 1953, isn’t even mentioned.  My guess: the Ansons don’t have a set.)

Also returning for a visit this summer is Frances Farrar (Katie Firth), an orphan who was raised by the Ansons and, after a 20-year absence, is seeking refuge after leaving her suicidal second husband, with her daughter, Elinor (Kylie McVey), and son, Toby (Athan Sporek), along with their governess, 35-year-old spinster Matty Mathieson (Polly McKie).  The family solicitor, William Gregson (Curzon Dobell), pays a call during the course of the play, and Julian’s superior in the Foreign Office, Humphrey Caldwell (Sean Gormley), makes an appearance bearing portentous news.

Hunter has given each character an opportunity to take the stage and reveal her or his story, but in act two, the main focus becomes Julian’s situation.  The play is essentially about his personal and professional mid-life crises (an expression I don’t think was current in the 1950s).  His foreign service  career has been middling as younger officers have been promoted ahead of him and Caldwell has come to inform him that he’s being recalled from Paris—principally because he’s not well liked at the embassy, where he’s seen as a humorless workaholic—and he sees that his life of lost opportunities and missed chances has been wasted and unappreciated.

Julian’s biggest failure, which he’d never even recognized until now, is the possibility of marriage to Frances, who’d been in love with him since their shared childhoods.  They went their separate ways two decades ago, but Julian suddenly imagines that he can reignite Frances’s interest.  It’s too late, of course, and the same fate befalls the desperately lonely Miss Mathieson, who makes a proposal to the doctor.  Beyond contemplating Julian’s unfulfilled life, Day is about words unspoken, dreams unattained, feelings unexpressed, and hope unrealized.  The play ends on a note of despondency as no one gets even a glimmer of change for the better.

A Day by the Sea is the third Mint production I’ve seen, but the previous ones (a two-play bill of George Kelly’s The Flattering Word, 1929, and Harley Granville-Barker’s A Farewell to Theater, 1920, and Arthur Schnitzler’s 1911 Far and Wide) were as far back as 2000 and 2003.  I stopped going to the Mint because I had a recurring problem with its repertoire: I questioned the need to revive the old plays they staged.  I’m afraid I had the same problem with Day that I had with the earlier Mint shows.  It doesn’t have much to say to us in the 21st century.  Hunter’s study of “the strains and stresses of middle-age” isn’t a particularly new or under-explored topic, and it’s not terribly dramatic.  Day is all talk—for nearly three hours (one character even dares to ask, “Does something happen soon?  It’s pretty dull, this”)—and the situation and characters are so contrived that what little drama there is, is phony anyway.  (Even the acting, which I’ll get to in more detail shortly, is artificial and I suspect that the play, which isn’t a “style” piece, drove the actors into that mode somehow.)

(Diana, by the way, liked Day.  She seems to like talk plays; I had the same difference of opinion with her over Oslo in July and some years ago over David Ives’s New Jerusalem.  See my reports on, respectively, 13 August 2016 and 20 April 2014.) 

As far as I’m concerned, it’s perfectly understandable that Hunter fell quickly out of fashion as soon as Osborne and the Angry Young Men came on the scene three years after Day went on stage—and why, despite Timesman Genzlinger’s mystification, it ran only 24 performances in New York in 1955.  Furthermore, I see no damn good reason to give him a second life except as a museum curiosity. 

In its statement of the Mint’s mission, the company’s webpage posts: ”We do more than blow the dust off neglected plays; we make vital connections between the past and present.”  It’s an important point  for the troupe, and in a profile of the Mint and Jonathan Bank, the author repeats that the theater is “famous for presenting plays from the recesses of history . . . that connect to the modern world.”  As I said earlier, I don’t see it, especially not in A Day by the Sea.  Oh, yes, there are almost always some parallels and connections between period plays and today—and 1953 wasn’t all that long ago, really.  But central links, substantive associations?  No.  Universal truths about the human condition?  Nothing beyond the banal.

(A personal sidelight: In 1977, I saw Cronyn and Tandy in D. L. Coburn’s The Gin Game, another play in which there’s no real action.  Not only did the acting couple make the play eminently watchable, despite its inactivity, but they kept it running.  Gin Game stayed at the John Golden Theatre for 528 performances, but E. G. Marshall took ove for Cronyn in June 1978 and Maureen Stapleton replaced Tandy around September—and the show closed on 31 December.  Revivals in 1997 and 2025 ran respectively 164 and 115 performances, suggesting to me that the Cronyns were the reason Gin Game did so well at the box office.  Yet they couldn’t manage the same result for A Day by the Sea in 1955.  I posit that even though the Cronyns were already a renowned acting couple, the play was impervious to their appeal.)

The Anson estate is hermetically sealed against the outside world.  Julian makes gestures of involvement in the world of affairs—he carries a newspaper with him everywhere, but hardly actually reads it—but this stance is mostly used as a way to berate Laura for being uninterested in anything beyond the borders of the family estate to which she’s devoted.  In the Ansons’ version of Dorset, momentous events like the 1952 death of King George VI and the succession of Princess Elizabeth to the throne don’t seem to have happened.  Beyond Britain, the United States got a new president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, who had been the supreme commander of the Allied forces in the recent war; Joseph Stalin died in the Soviet Union, which got a new premier; Dag Hammarskjöld became the second United Nations secretary-general; the discovery of DNA was announced; Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay reached the top of Mt. Everest—all before the end of May 1953.  None of it penetrated the time warp of Hunter’s artificial, denatured world.

(By the way, also never raised is the circumstance of Frances’s divorce from her second husband.  My understanding of British divorce laws in the ’50s is that there was only one admissible grounds: infidelity.  Either Frances or her husband had to have committed adultery in order for a divorce to be granted in England at the time.  Now, I’ve heard of couples seeking a legal divorce deliberately setting up a case for infidelity, but in A Day by the Sea, nothing at all is mentioned.  Perhaps this was in the bits Bank and Pendleton cut from the text as irrelevant, but a 1950s London audience would surely have known the requirements.)

This disconnect is part of what impels me to dismiss A Day by the Sea as a viable piece of theater.  Julian is built up as engaged in the global issues of the time, rattling off a few matters his mother doesn’t even acknowledge.  But it’s an imitation of a what we’d call today a “foreign policy wonk”; not only has the accession to the throne of England’s first queen in over a generation not mentioned, but the Cold War doesn’t even get a nod.  That’s just the macrocosm—the big picture.  At the individual character level the play’s no more real.  As I said, Julian’s portrayed as someone concerned with affairs of state, but he does no more than give them lip service.  It’s a construct, not a reality, and all the other characters cleave to the same pattern.  Hunter has limned a set of characteristics for each one—Frances is lost and confused, Laura is devoted to the estate, Doctor Finley is embittered and depressed, Miss Mathieson is lonely and desperate—and the actors toe the line like puppets.  But there’s no humanity in it; it’s all pro forma, not an organic feeling in the lot. 

On top of that, Hunter’s set up each character’s personality and circumstances so that, like a little jigsaw puzzle, all the pieces fit perfectly into the schematic plot.  (Giving each character a moment to shine, however, attenuates the play without always advancing its point.  Each one explaining him- or herself at length and in detail is an anti-Chekhovian technique, spelling out what the great Russian writer made us piece together.  One’s storytelling, the other’s drama.)  Julian’s and Matty’s proposals fail because they have to, not because the characters do.  In fact, they have to make the proposals because the story demands it—Hunter’s seen to that.  Julian’s a workaholic because if he’s not, he can’t be the failure Hunter needs him to be so he can have that career and personal crisis.  Of course, like any good artificial life form, the characters of A Day by the Sea don’t change even after they have their crises; they all go right back to the way they were before the play started, a little worse off for the experience but unchanged fundamentally.  It’s a virtual drama.

I don’t know if Bank or Pendleton acknowledge this—I suspect not—but set designer Charles Morgan might have.  His scenic design suggests he recognized the artificial nature of the play.  First, the opening set, which we see when we take our seats since there’s no front drape, is a little too perfect, like a computer-generated 3-D picture.  (What it reminded me of more than anything is a scene in one of those View-Master slides we used to look at when we were kids.  It looked real, but somehow not quite.)  While the principal scenery—the garden terrace and its concrete wall and planted flower urns, the swing, the patio chairs and table, the wood-framed lounge chair—are all realistic in style, the periphery of trees and foliage isn’t; it’s slightly impressionistic, vague, fuzzy.  Again, not real.

But the first of two give-aways is that on the back wall of the stage isn’t a cyc or a painted backdrop of a receding vista, but a huge, framed painting showing the view of the hills and the river of the nearby countryside.  The painting style was sort of Hudson River School Romanticism (or whatever the British counterpart would have been).  The idealized and romanticized view of the landscape depicted by that art movement is a perfect evocation of the timbre of Hunter’s play.  (In the beach setting of act two, the river painting is switched for one showing a seashore.)  

The second manifestation of this sense of unreality I attribute to Morgan is strikingly unrealistic: the gold-and-ivory frame that demarcates the background painting is repeated around the proscenium opening and then again, halfway back over the center of the playing area above the terrace.  Together, this device calls to mind those infinitely recursive pictures sometimes seen in product packaging.  (I’ve learned that this is called the Droste effect: a picture appearing within itself, the smaller version containing an even smaller version of the picture, and so on, ad infinitum.)  It signifies to me that this is a world that folds in on itself endlessly.  Furthermore, since there’s a second “proscenium arch” within the set, it signifies to me that not only are the actors playing roles, but the characters are also playing parts.

Aside from this scenic interpretation, Morgan’s design seems to have created a directorial dilemma for Pendleton, which he wasn’t able to solve.  It looked like there’s too much distance between the off-stage edges of the set and the main playing areas downstage, where almost all the activity happens.  (Both the terrace furniture and the beach paraphernalia are down front.)  Actors entering during on-going scenes have to come onto the stage several feet, then stand for a minute or two awaiting their cues before speaking and completing their entrances.  It looks as if they’re eavesdropping, but they aren’t; they’re just waiting, and it looks very awkward and telegraphs that a new scene’s about to start.

No other design element makes this statement.  Martha Hally’s costumes are perfectly reflective of the times and class presented by the play.  Aside from lawyer Gregson and Julian, the other summer inhabitants of the Anson estate wear seasonal country or beach attire compatible with the time (the early ’50s) and place (the U.K.—let’s face it, they’re just more formal than we are here in the colonies).  Julian and Gregson, though, never appear without a dark suit; the lawyer’s on the job, so that’s understandable, but Julian probably doesn’t own even the light grey version that his Whitehall superior, Humphrey Caldwell, wears when he pays his visit.  The music of Jane Shaw and the background sounds she employs blend in the same way. 

The performances vary slightly.  I found all of the acting brittle and forced, less than natural, and I attribute that to the nature of Hunter’s script and the inherent requirements of Day: its time, place, and class.  I’ll assume that actors of the quality of this cast don’t have problems putting themselves back in time to the mid-20th century.  Next to learning lines, if they can’t do that, they’re in the wrong business.  But perhaps the upper-middle-class British milieu of Hunter’s world throws them a bit, maybe with the addition of a plummy accent as well.  (Miss Mathieson is a Scot, so Polly McKie has a different task.)  Whatever it is that makes everyone on stage take such care with their speech and behavior, it comes off as if they’re all thinking their way through every moment and each word.  That’s for rehearsal, not performance; by then, an actor should have internalized all that care and effort and I shouldn’t be seeing and hearing it.  Given how I feel about this play, I posit that the actors all sense the artificiality of the script and just can’t commit to it on a visceral level.  Just a guess, of course, but that’s my sense of what’s going on on stage.

Several of the actors, however, seem to go a step further.  As I said earlier, Day isn’t a style show: the acting is supposed to be naturalistic; but some of the cast come very close to doing style, a kind of Restoration drama-manqué.  The clearest example is Julian Elfer as Julian Anson.  (In his black suit and inability to unbend, Elfer reminded me repeatedly of English actor Ben Miller as Detective Inspector Richard Poole on the British police procedural Death in Paradise, the ultimate fish out of water.  Detailed from London to the Caribbean island of St. Marie, Poole also insists on wearing a dark suit at all times.  It doesn’t hurt this resemblance that Elfer, who’s British-born, sounds remarkably like Miller’s uptight DI Poole.)  Also suffering from this excessive artificiality is Katie Firth as Frances.  It’s less pronounced than in Elfer’s performance, but Firth, too, seems always to be on guard.  That’s not Frances being wary, but the actress treading carefully.  As artificial as I found the play on its own, the performance problems I identified added another level of unreality to the production.

Other, more fundamental problems are contingent on the acting and the directing, however.  First, though Ben Miller’s DI Poole was intended as slightly comic and eventually became endearing, Elfer’s Julian isn’t funny and never becomes a figure of sympathy.  He’s a prig with a stick up his butt and doesn’t deserve any better than he gets.  As the focal character in the play, that doesn’t bode well for the whole enterprise.  As for Laura, Tanner and Pendleton never make it clear if she’s somehow responsible for raising her son to be an ineffectual twit or if she did her best but Julian turned out the way he did despite her.  As solid as Tanner’s performance is, Laura’s little more than a catalyst for the plot: if it weren’t for her and her seaside home, the other characters wouldn’t have come together for the play.

Obviously, Pendleton is responsible for these developments, but did he select them, guide the actors to this behavior?  If he did, I can’t see any rationale for it, not artistically or dramatically at any rate.  But if the director didn’t point the actors to these performances, then why didn’t he pull them back from it or ease them out of it?  After all, that’s part of what a director is there to do—serve as the outside eye, the audience’s surrogate before the paying spectators arrive.  To be the performance editor, paring away what doesn’t belong, to shape the production the way a book editor helps the author shape her novel.  So, either Pendleton chose this manner of acting for Day, or he allowed it to remain by default.  As far as I’m concerned, he didn’t serve the play well, either way.  I doubt anything a director could have done would have made A Day by the Sea more than a middling piece of theater, a cultural-history curiosity, but the performance style of the Mint’s production only exacerbates the deficiencies I perceived.  At three hours, even small problems are magnified.

One final note on the actors: George Morfogen as Uncle David received the warmest notices, and the actor does a terrific job embodying the doddering dear old man—but poor David serves almost no purpose except as a repository for the audience’s excess sympathy and fondness.  Along with Miss Mathieson, David’s easily one of the only two truly appealing characters in the play, but what’s he actually there for?  (I might ask the same question about Elinor and Toby Eddison, Frances’s young children.  Like David, their presence adds nothing to the play.  They’re set dressing.)  Morfogen’s excellent performance is just wasted.

Based on a tally of 22 reviews, Show-Score reported that the Mint’s A Day by the Sea received 63% positive reviews, 14% negative, and 23% mixed.  The production accumulated an average rating of 77, in the positive range but moderately low from my observation of the site.  (What’s more, though Day had several 90’s and 95’s and one 100, it also got several of the lowest-scored negative notices I’ve seen so far.)

The high score went to Terry Teachout’s Wall Street Journal review, in which he lauded the company’s “refreshing originality of taste.”  Declaring that the Mint “has outdone itself” with A Day by the Sea, “the finest of the noteworthy plays” the company’s produced, Teachout pronounced the play “that rarest of rarities, a forgotten masterpiece, acted by the best ensemble cast I’ve seen in recent seasons and staged with taut vitality.”  He labeled Day “a quiet character study written in the manner of Anton Chekhov” that’s “trivial only if you think the lives of ordinary middle-class people are trivial.”  Continued Teachout, “Those are the same people about whom Chekhov wrote, and Hunter cared no less for them, portraying their sorrows with a sensitivity—and wit—that are worthy of his master.”  (The WSJ reviewer held British critic Kenneth Tynan, who, Teachout asserted, “favored the Angry Young Men of the British stage and had little use for plays without a political message,” responsible for Hunter’s demise as a successful playwright.)  Singling out Firth and Elfer for special notice, the Jounalist reported that the cast all “give vividly drawn performances” and that Pendleton “knows that the trick to making a play like ‘A Day by the Sea’ work is to winkle out the laughs and let the pathos take care of itself.”  Teachout added that “everything about this staging is as right as the play itself,” noting that the “sets are uncomplicated but utterly right” and the sound design “set just the right mood.”  The Journal review-writer concluded, “Would that Broadway were still a fitting home for plays like ‘A Day by the Sea.’ Like everything the Mint does, it deserves a much wider audience.”

The lowest score in Show-Score’s tally (30) went to north-central Connecticut’s Journal-Inquirer in which Lauren Yarger quips in her opening paragraphs that in Day, the members of a family “gaze out expectantly on the horizon waiting for something to ride in on the tide.”  But “they are disappointed—and so is the audience—because very little happens in the three-hour-with-two-intermissions production.”  In contrast with previous, more successful Mint revivals, Day “has us wondering how this play ever got produced in the first pla[ce], let alone beat out others more deserving of a revival.”  Pendleton’s Day, wrote Yarger, “features good actors, but the slim plot, sketchy character development, and exposition-laden dialogue don’t give them much to work with, unfortunately.”  Yarger also saw a similar meaning in the scenic devices in Morgan’s design to what I described earlier, the “blurry leaves hanging overhead and large impressionistic paintings”: “The blurry art is indicative of the characters[] efforts to bring a sharper focus to the meaning of their lives.”  The reviewer lamented, however, “Not much happens in the way of developing any of [the] plots, however, despite moments of hope for insightful thought.”  Suggesting that “most of Act One could be cut,” she went on to present a list of dramatic deficiencies inherent in Day and the Mint production, including “so laced with explanations of past events to give us background,” “characters sing for reasons that escape me,” and “awkward entrances by the actors throughout” as “actors seems to be walking onto stage, distracting attention, just so they can get to their marks for upcoming lines.” 

In the New York Times, which got a 90 rating from Show-Score, Neil Genzlinger opened his review by declaring, “There’s so much to like about the Mint Theater Company’s revisiting of ‘A Day by the Sea’ that it’s hard to know what to single out for first-paragraph attention.”  The Timesman called A Day by the Sea a “very well made play” about “an economically comfortable family in an anxious age,” and he asserted that director Pendleton “gets the most out of it.”  (Where the Journal’s Teachout wondered “how Hunter . . . could have dropped off the map of English-language theater,” Genzlinger marveled, “How the 1955 Broadway production of this play ran only a few weeks, despite Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy in the roles, is a mystery.”  I believe I’ve made my take on both questions clear.)

Michael Feingold opened his Village Voice notice by recounting one moment: “‘How much longer are we going to sit here?’ grouses an elderly uncle to the country-house clan gathered for a seaside picnic.”  Feingold added, “Many in the 2016 audiences . . . may share his irritation” (and even suggested that this might have explained the short run of the Cronyn-Tandy Broadway mounting). He provided a list of things that don’t happen (Julian doesn’t get promoted and doesn’t marry Frances, Doctor Finley doesn’t get sober or lose his job, and so on) “while Hunter’s inaction winds through its three languid hours, with two intermissions.”  Feingold had mixed feelings about Hunter’s “rhetorical expansiveness,” those long speeches his characters give.  On the one hand, he said, “his characters sometimes rise to quite vivid oratorical passages”; on the other, the “grand speeches . . . make the characters seem like empty allegorical figures, while the touches of quirky individuality turn the rhetoric hollow.”  This dichotomy, averred the Voice reviewer, “gives his plays their peculiarly cloggy quality, heightening the work’s oddity while diluting its intensity.”  As for Hunter’s dramaturgical fate, Feingold observed, “Times had changed; in due course England’s . . . theater changed with them.  Hunter’s playwriting, poised on the cusp of change, did not.”  The “Goings On About Town” column in the New Yorker called Day a “leisurely play” in a “glowing revival” which “does great honor” to the “legendary” London cast of 1953.  “Hunter’s lyrical dialogue,” wrote the New Yorker reviewer, “concerns matters practical and philosophical.”

Time Out New York’s David Cote remarked that Hunter “wears” his Chekhovian influence “slavishly,” and with some of the more obvious echoes of the master playwright, “you’re just begging for unflattering comparisons with the Russian master.”  Complaining of Hunter’s “derivativeness,” the man from TONY quipped that “it’s as if Hunter wrote on tracing paper laid over Uncle Vanya.”  Still, Cote noted, the playwright “is a sensitive observer of English neuroses and resilience” and the “fine cast . . . navigates the quippy, stiff-upper-lipness with vibrant grace.”  The play’s “a melancholy study of middle-age malaise leavened by flashes of wit and humor, good for the Anglophiles and Downton Abbey addicts,” Cote concluded, “even if this tidy revival doesn’t wash the previous criticism away with the tide.”

On Theater Pizzazz, Sandi Durell reported that, despite a ”talented cast” “wisely” directed by Pendleton, A Day by the Sea is “an all too lengthy and tedious 2 hours 55 minutes!”  Nonetheless, the play “does have its many moments of humor and heartfelt sincerity.”  “While the feelings presented in this play are universal,” wrote David Gordon on TheaterMania, “they're strained by the three-act structure, with too little action to justify its length.”  “A Day by the Sea is surprisingly relevant,” noted Gordon, but the “attractive” production, which “moves at a leisurely pace,” “cannot overcome the tediousness of the script.”  Before “any semblance of action occurs,” much of the three-hour performance must pass, and the “enigmatic quality of the moods on display doesn't help.”  The production is “pleasing to look at,” with “breezily picturesque” scenery, “lovely period costumes,” and “authentic seaside lighting.”  With the exception of a few—Gordon named George Morfogen and McKie—“most of the company is too actorly to be truly believable.” 

Samuel L. Leiter warned, “Very little happens” in A Day by the Sea on Theatre’s Leiter Side: “Lengthy monologues expressing cynicism about the state of the world as well as idealistic visions of the future mingle with casual, throwaway trivialities.  After nearly three hours, the play concludes with a tone of bittersweet regret for lost opportunities and the somewhat forced sense that a new and better phase in the lives of all concerned is about to begin.”  But Leiter lamented, “The best one can say of the revival (and of the play itself, for that matter) . . . is that it’s dully respectable.”  The blogger specified:

The staging is uninspired, the casting flawed, and the acting uneven; moreover, the slow-paced, relatively plotless play, although not entirely lifeless nor without moments of dry humor, suffers too many longueurs.  And Hunter’s writing in act one offers a lesson in how not to introduce exposition.

The set, however, is “pretty,” reported Leiter, and “there are generally effective performances from the venerable George Morfogen, . . . Jill Tanner . . ., and Polly McKie.” 

On CurtainUp, Elyse Sommer described the Mint’s Day as a “handsomely staged, splendidly performed production” that “proves that old-fashioned, well-made plays of the 1950s can still entertain and overcome their dated aspects.”  She also reported that it’s “three-acts in which nothing much happens except for a lot of exposition,” yet Sommer labels Day “distinguished.”  The CU reviewer further noted, “It’s a talky play, but for the most part talky in the best sense.”  That talk, Sommer explained, is the play’s chief asset, for though “we can pretty accurately guess what’s going to happen just ten or fifteen minutes into the play,” Hunter “makes it all fresh and, yes, timely” by “a series of revealing and acutely observed conversations.”  Pendleton keeps the traffic flowing “smoothly so that the actors can make the most of their well-developed characters and the witty interchanges.” 

Michael Portantiere complained on Talkin’ Broadway, “The play’s length and its three-act structure seem ill advised, and at least one of the 10 characters seems entirely superfluous.”  (He meant solicitor Gregson, as he later explained.)  He also observed that there are “rather too many” subplots and characters and that those plots and the “interrelationships between the characters are interesting in themselves, but they are not woven together very well by the playwright,” especially under the “flaccid direction” of Austin Pendleton.  The director, Portantiere asserted, “seems to have concentrated more on blocking and stage business than helping the cast connect with the text and with each other.”  Despite these flaws, the TB reviewer found, however, that “the Mint has given A Day by the Sea a typically gorgeous, thoroughly professional production,” with sets and costumes that “couldn’t be lovelier” or lighting “any closer to perfect.” 

In the Huffington Post, David Finkle quoted the theater critic W. A. Darlington of London’s Daily Telegraph on A Day by the Sea in 1953, who thought other critics were “demonstrably wrong” when they “treated disparagingly” the work of N. C. Hunter, whose “sense of character was acute and full of original observation”—and Finkle affirmed, “I won't attempt to put it any better.”  The HP First Nighter asserted, “A Day by the Sea practically runs down a checklist of Chekhovian aspects,” and names several of them, adding, “This is Chekhov territory, all right.”  All the actors (including, Finkle reported, the choldren) “bring infinite subtleties to their assignments” as they perform on Morgan’s “unusually elegant set” in Hally's “flawless period costumes.”  Director Pendleton “is attuned to Hunter's Chekhovian blend of disillusionment, humor and eventual acceptance and . . . brings it all to vibrant, plangent life.” 

[A completely irrelevant comment: There are two children in A Day by the Sea.  Though Hunter seems to have made a point of pinpointing the ages of nearly all his characters, he didn’t specify how old Frances’s daughter and son are, but we do know that they were born during World War II and that they were too young to really know their father, Frances’s first husband, when he was killed in combat.  Remembering that the war in Europe began in 1939, Elinor and Toby Eddison could be as old as 14 and, say, 9—but I imagine they’re about the same ages as the actors who play them at the Mint.  Kylie McVey, who plays Elinor, says she’s about to start eighth grade, which I figure makes her about 13; brother Toby is played by Athan Sporek, who says he’s 8.  During the show, I calculated how old I’d have been in May 1953.  I’d have turned 7 on my next birthday—close to the age of little Toby in the play.  Obviously we’re separated by nationality and, to a large extent, class, but in the broadest sense, I’d have been Toby.  Laura Anson isn’t the children’s grandmother by blood, but they consider her as such; my mother’s  parents didn’t have an estate, but every summer they used to take a house in Deal, New Jersey, a town on the Jersey Shore, and I vaguely remember spending time there with my mom and dad.  (There are lots of photos of me at the Deal house.  One shows my mother’s grandfather, her mother, my mother, and me sitting in a diagonal line down the steps of the house’s front veranda—four generations in chronological order.)  Toby’s and my lives were certainly nowhere near alike, but in the world of Hunter’s play, the character who most closely represents me is Toby.

[As I said: completely irrelevant.  I’m just sayin’.]