Cabaret

January 29, 2007

cabaret.jpg

The idea of the “reboot” has gotten pretty popular lately.  The idea is to take a tired, old story and breath new life into it by “re-imagining” the story in a new setting.  Batman Begins and Battlestar Galactica are probably two of the best examples.  But, can the idea work on stage?

Enter the latest incarnation of Cabaret; not so much of a reboot as a remix. See, the problem with attempting a “new” interpretation of Cabaret is that the show has been around for so long, performed so many times, by so many struggling theatre companies and Pop Idol contestants that, well, there’s really nowhere else to go.  It’s a bit like when some d-list songtress sings the “Star Spangled Banner” at a baseball game.  It’s boring to sing it traditionally, but it’s a horrible cliche to insert gratuitous key and octave changes which only serve to show off how self-deluded you are about your own vocal range.

The other problem with “reinventing” Cabaret is that there is already an ultimate version of the show out there: Bob Fosse’s 1972 film version starring Liza Minnelli.  True, the film takes liberties with the stage script, but isn’t a mark of the film’s influence that songs written specifically for the film (like “Money, Money”) have weaseled their way on stage?  And isn’t it odd that even in a British production, Sally Bowles is portrayed as an American (not as a Brit as the part was originally written before it was changed for Liza in the film version).  In fact, the film (and especially Liza’s Oscar-winning performance) loom so large over any production of Cabaret that trying something different will probably only serve to let down the audience.

The audience I saw it with in London wasn’t let down.  All the actors hit their marks; the singers all hit their notes.  It was enjoyable, sure.  Almost as fun as watching the movie.  Almost… which isn’t saying much for the supposed “electricity” of live theatre.

Nevertheless, having said all that, I do give them credit for trying.  However, despite the provocative posters and ads, most of the changes are superficial: replace the fishnet stockings with leather harnesses, replace some of the sexy girls with hunky guys… in effect, replace the Cabaret Bob Fosse with the All That Jazz Bob Fosse.  But, when all is said and done, it’s still Fosse, and it’s still Liza.  And, that’s just the way it is.


The Mousetrap

January 23, 2007

l1000265.jpg

Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap has been running continuously in London since the year 50 BC, or so it seems.  This is the murder mystery against which all other sterotypically British murder mysteries are judged (and from which most have copied, borrowed or stolen).  All the elements are here: the random assortment of suspicious weekend guests, the remote country house, the washed out bridge, the cut telephone lines, the Scotland Yard inspector.  All that’s missing is the butler, and I’m convinced he’s absent only because in a play this archtypal, there’s no way the butler couldn’t have done it, had he existed in the script.

So, what do you get for the price of your ticket to London’s oldest show?  Well, at the weekday matinee I attended, you got an audience of about a dozen old-age pensioners (that’s British for “senior citizens”) and me.  Still, even with a mostly empty, mostly hard-of-hearing audience, the actors gave it their all, emotng through the type of British accents you only hear in Agatha Christie plays these days. 

One thing that struk me was how the social dynamics of the play have changed over the years.  One of the first characters we’re introduced to is a somewhat spastic gay-acting (they never state explicity in the play, but you get the idea) young man named (amusingly enough) Christopher Wren.  In 1952, when the play debuted, you can bet that this character immediately came under suspicion from a sizable chunk of the audience, long before a murder was even committed.  This was a time when homosexuality was still classified as a mental illness, and an illegal one at that.

If I might pause here for a little background and perspective… Also in 1952, Alan Turing was arrested and prosecuted for homosexuality.  He was forced to choose between going to jail, and a probation with hormonal treatments (injections of estrogen, working off the junk-science theory that homosexuality was caused by an excess of testoterone) which caused side-effects including growing breasts.  Humiliated and degraded beyond all belief, he took his own life two years later.  If the name Alan Turing is unknown to you, it shouldn’t be.  This man (along with Charles Babbage) is the father of modern computing.  His early computers and methods were used to break German codes including the Enigma code in World War II.  It has been said by many historians that without the work of Alan Turing, World War II would have been lost.

Flash forward to today.  How many military translators has the United States fired (not only fired, but sometimes dishonorably discharged, meaning after years of service to the country, often in the most dangerous front-line units, they don’t get any veterans’ benefits) because they were gay?  (The answer, by the way, is 58 and counting.) Last year alone, 742 service members were discharged for being gay.  In 2001, the number was 1,273.  In the past 10 years since the American “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy went into effect, well over 11,000 gay men and women have been discharged.  At least we’re no longer using hormone “therepies” worthy of Josef Mengele.  So, as George W. Bush is so fond of saying about Iraq, we’re making progress.

Back to the play… So, “Christopher Wren” is mincing aroung the stage.  The actor portraying him is doing a dead-on perfect impersonation of the late actor Kenneth Williams, who found an outlet for his personal struggle with sexuality by playing flamboyant sterotypical gay men on stage and in film.  I’m taking it that the “Kenneth Williams-type” is merely British shorthand for “gay” on stage.  It’s a character everyone in the audience is old enough to remember from the Carry On films.  And, unlike Agatha Christie’s original intentions in including this caracter, it’s a character most people remember fondly as a campy clown.  As I noted, we’re making progress.

The rest of the play is “bog-standard“, as the British would say.  Shots are fired in the dark, bodies are discovered, everyone has a motive, and the ending… well, I’m not supposed to tell you the ending, though it’s easy to figure out.  I guess that’s another thing that’s changed since 1952.  Just as we’re no longer quick to label the gay man a homocidal maniac, we’re also quick to suspect the “least suspected”.  It’s become a cliche, of course, and mystery authors have had to circle around the problem so many times that now it’s something of a surprise to discover that the butler is the murderer after all (though obviously not in this play).

Seeing The Mousetrap in London’s West End is one of those things you have to do once in your lifetime, if only just to check it off the list.  The play is fun, the cast (which obviously has rotated a bit in the past 50 years) keeps the material fresh, and the famous admonition from the stage to keep the ending a secret is one of those collective experiences that makes you feel like you’ve just been inducted into an exclusive private club.  In short, go see it.

More info: The Mousetrap


Frost/Nixon

January 22, 2007

fn0.jpg

As the title suggests, Frost/Nixon dramatizes the encounter between two larger-than-life historical figures, David Frost and Richard Nixon, played respectively by two larger-than-life actors, Michael Sheen and Frank Langella.

Of course, back when Watergate was originally unfolding, I was barely a few months old.  I was three years old by the time Nixon sat down for Frost’s questions.  I’ve never lived in a world without Watergate, so it’s hard for me to think of a time when the president was assumed to be “pure”.  Or at least, not a crook.  In my mind, all politicians are a little dirty, and the only differences are in how dirty they get and over which issues.

George W. Bush falsified evidence for the Iraq War.  Bill Clinton lied about having oral sex in the Oval Office.  Ronald Reagan illegally sold weapons to Iran.  Richard Nixon ordered break-ins and the bugging of his opponents’ offices. 

Certainly other presidents back as far as Thomas Jefferson have been touched by scandal.  But, Watergate was different because it marked the first time a president was not only participating, but directing a crime.  And, the crime itself wasn’t political favoritism or siphoning money, but the decidedly grimier category of burglary and wiretapping.

Stripping all the politics away however, the most damning thing about Watergate — the aspect that caused the public to react with shock and disbelief — wasn’t the crime itself or even the cover-up.  It was the irrational motivation of fear.  When you boil it down, Watergate was really about one man’s unimaginable personal insecurity.  Everything else was just a consequence.

Similarly, the Frost/Nixon interviews are important not so much because David Frost sort-of succeeded in getting Richard Nixon to sort-of admit he sort-of had something to do with Watergate, sort-of.  No, Frost’s real achievement was getting Nixon to reveal his true nature.  He was not a political giant.  He was a essentially a frightened little boy.

At the time, the interview was a coup for Frost.  He was perviously regarded as no more a serious “journalist” than Barbara Walters or Regis Philbin, specializing in cocktail chatter and softball questions.  The playwright of Frost/Nixon suggests it as exactly this fluffy reputation that led Nixon to agree to the interview in the first place, and which allowed him to be “ambushed” by letting his guard down.

Unfortunately, the legacy of the Frost/Nixon interviews is that politicians are now pretty uniformly presumed guilty of something.  (You can blame Nixon for that.) And, journalists are now honor-bound to get the dirt on their subjects, no matter what the cost.  (You can blame Frost here.)  More than anything, Frost/Nixon is about this shift in the dynamic between intervewer and interviewee, between the president and the press.

The play is simple; the writing clear and efficient.  One blank set, two chairs, a bank of video monitors.  That’s it.  But with a play as heavy as this (and with two absolutely pitch-perfect actors in the leads) that’s all you really need.


Wicked

January 18, 2007

wicked.jpg

Every year on Broadway, there seems to be a show that gets the annointed title of “next big thing”.  This is nothing new.  Oklahoma! was probably the first, back in 1943.  Wicked is the latest.  “Next big things” have a lot of anticipation to live up to.  Sometimes they succeed, sometimes they don’t.  I walked away from Wicked feeling a little let down.

As most folks know, this is the story of how the Wicked Witch of the West got her start — a sort of prequel to The Wizard of Oz — based on the novel by Gregory Maguire.  The music and lyrics for the stage show were written by Stephen Schwartz, who’s still best known for Godspell and Pippin, from back in 1972.  Okay, I’ll say it: 30-plus years is quite a career break (granted, he did some intermediary work, including a few movies for Disney).

Overall, I liked the show, but I felt it was a tad over-produced.  Yes, it was a beautiful looking show, but “More! Bigger! Flashier!” seemed to be the overarching style.  The numbers ranged from bombastic opera pieces to forgettable teen-angsty pop tunes that will no doubt be covered on the next Raven-Symone album. 

On the one hand, it felt like a clear case of style over substance, with the flashy sets, costumes and special effects over-compensating for an otherwise dull show.  On the other hand, there was a lot of substance.  In fact, the plot is surprisingly heavy and complex.  But, I kept scratching my head wondering why we should care about any of this.  I mean, take away the Wizard of Oz connection, the Emerald City, the Munchkins, and you have… well, a two-hour episode of My So-Called Life (which isn’t surprising since the book for the musical was written by the creator of that TV show, Winnie Holzman).

What I saw on stage was a spashy, beautifully produced show, elaborate staging, and some brilliant acting and singing from the entire cast, especially Idina Menzel, who originated the lead role on Broadway.  But, the songs and book didn’t seem to match the rest of the talent in the production.

More info: Wicked (London production)