THE TAXI CABARET, Book, Music, and Lyrics by Peter Mills, Conceived by Cara Reichel, will be a featured musical in the current e-mail campaign, Ease on Down to the Sunset Strip!, distributed to more than 38,000 Samuel French subscribers. THE TAXI CABARET will be presented alongside ROCK OF AGES, LA CAGE AUX FOLLES, THE WIZ, and a few others.
by Michael Dale
Nine and a half years ago, tucked away in the tiny Connelly Theater at the further reaches of the Lower East Side, The Prospect Theatre Company premiered a dazzling new musical – full of wit, intelligence, cleverly written theatre songs and dynamic staging – suggested by F. Scott Fitzgerald‘s semi-autobiographical debut novel This Side of Paradise.
The Pursuit of Persephone had its flaws, but they were flaws of ambition overshadowed by the evening’s exceptional display of musical theatre craft and freshness; a story set in the years just before this country’s entry into The Great War that stayed true to its era but showed a contemporary understanding of the unique storytelling qualities of the American musical.
Peter Mills (book, music and lyrics) and Cara Reichel (book and direction) have been responsible for high points in several theatre seasons since then (Iron Curtain, The Rockae) but Persephone, and the promise of what it could be, remains their zenith.
Retooled and renamed The Underclassman, their smart and fizzy charmer has reached Times Square’s Duke on 42nd Street in a limited Off-Broadway run that, sadly, ends the day this review is posted. Slightly less daring, but smoother in delivery, The Underclassman has its minor second act quibbles but is still vastly above all but a handful of musicals that have had major New York productions since, well, The Pursuit of Persephone.
Less of a romance than a musical comedy of manners, the narrative begins with Fitzgerald’s sophomore year at Princeton, where his interest in studies takes a back seat to his interest in writing a musical for the college’s all-male traveling theatre troupe, The Triangle Club.
For the sake of artistic inspiration, he takes up the challenge of meeting Ginevra King, considered by Ivy Leaguers to be one of the country’s four most desirable debutantes. (A title she plays for all it’s worth.) Being a relatively poor artist with no financial prospects beyond what talent and luck can provide, he sees himself as the lowly Hades pursuing the goddess Persephone. (Which winds up being the subject of the musical he writes.)
Because of distance and social standards, Scott and Ginevra have spent, as one character points out, less than 24 total hours with each other before becoming a serious item. Their relationship is sustained through regular correspondence but, as explained in one of the many clever musical scenes, letter writing in their social circle is not exactly an expression of honest emotions, but more of a courtship game with its own rules and strategies.
When we see the two together, they are surely falling in love with something; perhaps the youthful urge to feel something as poetic and romantic as described in the literature they read. But while Ginevra is drawn to the rebellious act of taking up with a poor scribe, she’s also wary of giving up her accustomed lifestyle.
Since real life provides the well-known ending, it’s not giving anything away to reveal that all F. Scott Fitzgerald gains from the affair is what he sought out in the first place, artistic inspiration. Who knew at the time that her artistic inspiration would motivate him to write an era-defining novel?
Though Mills’ score contains hat tips to the styles of upcoming composer/lyricists of the day, like Irving Berlin and Cole Porter, and a muscular rag of Scot Joplin’s ilk, the character-driven words and music stress immediacy over nostalgia. He saves the pastiche for the Gilbert and Sullivan and Offenbach salutes performed by The Triangle Club.
Surprising, but oh-so-right rhymes populate his lyrics, but they contain the kind of cleverness that’s appropriate for the people he’s writing for. So when Ginevra rhymes her own name with “clev’ra,” or when Scott improvises a love song where the melody is dictated by the notes mentioned in the lyric (“Improvising in the key of A flat / Thinking how it’s gonna be / When the two of us are sharing a flat / Residents of NYC.”), it’s the characters who are showing off, not the wordsmith.
The multiple musical gems are enhanced by Reichel and choreographer Christine O’Grady’s smart and imaginative staging, highlighted early in Ginevra’s “To Beat The Band,” where she twirls through a dance card full of potential suitors while singing of her carefree lifestyle and a drag can-can by the Triangle boys that’s danced for skill instead of laughs.
Matt Dengler makes for a gutsy, empathetic Scott with a charmingly impish humor. Jessica Grové, repeating the role she played at the Connelly, mixes sophomoric worldliness with giddy girlishness and sings and dances up a storm as Ginevra.
Another Connelly vet, Piper Goodeve, is terrifically wry as Scott’s high school sweetheart who is now Ginevra’s best friend, especially when matched with the droll Billy Hepfinger as Edmund Wilson, Scott’s pal who later becomes the noted literary critic. Fine work is also done by Marrick Smith, who nicely underplays his affection for Scott as poet John Peale Bishop.
The Underclassman is set in an era when people would go to Broadway to enjoy the musical theatre offerings the best emerging artists had to offer. This is no longer the case, as season after season Off-Broadway’s musicals show superior craft, talent and inventiveness. The Underclassman is among the best in all three categories.
He who dies with the most toys wins, or so they say. But what’s the point of having all those playthings if death is going to rip you from them anyway?
In Thomas Gibbons’s futuristic two-hander “Uncanny Valley,” presented by the Contemporary American Theater Festival at 59E59 Theaters, a very wealthy man named Julian hasn’t quite found immortality, but he has bought a means to forestall his demise for at least a couple of centuries.
With pancreatic cancer about to kill him, Julian plans to download the contents of his mind into an artificial human that carries his DNA and looks just as he did at 34, more than half a lifetime ago. The machine will assume his identity and his existence.
“I haven’t had enough,” Julian tells Claire, a neuroscientist who has spent her career working on artificial consciousness. “This world, this life! I can’t even imagine having my fill.”
The simulated Julian (Alex Podulke) is at first little more than a talking head in Claire’s office. Soon he gets a torso, then one arm and another, eventually an entire body. Schooling him, before the download, in the ways of our “skittish species,” Claire (Barbara Kingsley) explains the phenomenon of the uncanny valley: People get creeped out when something — such as the android Bina48, which inspired this play — looks almost, but not quite, human.
Mr. Podulke’s alert, sympathetic performance never elicits that shuddery sensation. Instead, he makes Julian a recognizable Mitt Romney type — even in the stiff, mechanical manner Julian has early on. Post-download, endowed with an oligarch’s smooth, entitled confidence, he retains a faint androidal echo in his speech and seems just disconnected enough from the concerns of ordinary humans.
The notion of human consciousness transplanted into machines is in the air right now. In Brooklyn, a different play called “The Uncanny Valley” features two actors and a RoboThespian, which is exactly what it sounds like. In Los Angeles, holograms substitute for dead loved ones in Jordan Harrison’s “Marjorie Prime.”
Mr. Gibbons’s “Uncanny Valley” is set perhaps 40-some years in the future but deliberately, somewhat jarringly, designed to look like now. It’s a techno take on the Pinocchio story: We watch Julian become an almost-real man, with Claire as one of a team of Geppettos. At 70, worried about her ailing, older husband, she’s familiar with the ravages of mortality that the wealthy can now escape.
Yet, as directed by Tom Dugdale, Ms. Kingsley seldom seems truly present, so it is difficult to believe in Claire the way we do in Julian. He is only a simulated human, and there may be a void where his ethical compass ought to be. But we’re sort of rooting for him just the same.
(Best of the Capital Fringe)*****
At last. A show that has taken the Capital Fringe Festival 2014 theme to heart: Move Me.
Breast in Show – the musical, conceived and produced by Eileen Mitchard, is arguably the best titled and best marketed show in this season’s lineup. (Collecting Fringe buttons? Patrons get their own pink Breast in Show button to proudly pin to their chests.) It’s also likely the most aptly named, as it shall prove prophetic when it comes time to clinch the Best of Fringe.
The Times – 4 stars
“Odd couple’s row has comedy off to fine art”
(see full review)
Back in the West End for the first time in eight years, Kathleen Turner reminds us what a genuinely compelling stage star she is in this nimble, rewarding, new art-world comedy about faith, fakes and first impressions.
Yes, at first glance, Stephen Sachs’s one-act play appears amusing but a bit pat. It pits Ian McDiarmid’s prissy English art expert, Lionel, against Turner’s working-class bartender, Maude. Lionel has flown by private jet from New York to a trailer park in Bakersfield, California, to test Maude’s claim that the canvas she bought for three dollars from a local junk shop is an original Jackson Pollock (the show is inspired by a true story).
As he sneers at Maude’s cluttered trailer home — a marvellously intimate, convincing set by Tom Piper — and assures her that he is a connoisseur and she is a nobody, you wonder how much mileage Sachs will get from this odd couple of lonely, ageing abrasive types from opposite ends of the social scale.
Plenty, it turns out. “My first impression of you was completely inaccurate,” says Lionel after what turns into a thoroughly entertaining 85 minutes of quipping, arguing, boozing, opining, fist-fighting and soul-baring. Polly Teale’s well-paced production allows us to see that Lionel’s superciliousness is his barricade against the world, while Maude’s uneducated bluffness — “Well, who else would paint shit like that?” growls Turner, gesturing at the 5ft-high picture she has propped up for McDiarmid to inspect — conceals an intelligent, determined woman looking more for acceptance than money. Like Art before it, this play’s real canvas is not just artistic authenticity but human authenticity.
McDiarmid is a treat. Enthusing about Pollock’s “lariats of colour”, he renders the painter’s style in action, his body swirling around as if wielded by Pollock’s own hand. As Lionel gets blurred by booze, McDiarmid shows us a man whose determination to be a “fake-buster” is inseparable from the way he lost his pre-eminence in New York’s art scene.
Although Turner handles Sachs’s comic dialogue with zest, this American screen star makes a big character feel utterly true as she stalks around in jeans and plaid shirt, glass of bourbon in hand, uttering throaty put-downs and letting us in on her sadness without turning sentimental.
The title is a spin on a Pollock painting, Lavender Mist, that has a bearing on a plot that takes on a thrillerish knottiness as it goes along.
Yes, at this short length it’s impressionistic, finally offering more questions than answers about taste, expertise and artistry. No matter: this pithy, beautifully performed play put a smile on my face and kept my brain buzzing for a good while afterwards.
The Guardian (see front page):
The Daily Mail – 4 stars
“Gravel, wheeze and cigarettes … what a voice Kathleen has”
“an intellectual show full of shadings. Ad you are out in plenty of time for dinner.”
Not online yet
The Daily Telegraph – 3 stars
Turner and McDiarmid are terrific ..
Kathleen Turner and Ian McDiarmid shine in Stephen Sach’s entertaining play about the discovery of a possible Jackson Pollock”
“This odd couple are a work of art”