High and Low Cs

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Despite what Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland might have said, you can’t just put up a musical in a barn. Musicals are tricky stage business.  The composer and book writer should convince the audience that it makes sense for their subject matter to be sung, rather than talked about, or narrated, or demonstrated.  The director of a musical, on the other hand, should have the ability to make the audience truly believe that it makes sense for people to suddenly break out into song in the middle of a conversation, or a jaunt along the park, or amongst the remnants of a clambake, and not interrupt the narrative flow of the piece as well.  I have a lot of friends who like going to the theater, but who just happen to not like going to musicals, because the latter requires a lot more unnerving suspension of their disbelief.   And musicals have taken somewhat of a bad rap among people of my generation and younger simply because there have been so many poorly-produced productions of great musicals which look and sound like they’ve indeed been produced inside a barn, or worse, a karaoke joint.  So I’m somewhat thrilled, and also quite apprehensive, that there is a preponderance of musical theater in the Chicago fall arts and culture season, especially since many of our theater companies seem to be more comfortable chewing into Stoppard or Mamet, instead of Rodgers and Hart. The centerpiece musical theater production of the season is arguably Tony-winning director Mary Zimmerman’s new version of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide at the Goodman Theater – a lush though somewhat chaotic production, most memorable for musical director Doug Peck’s rendering of that gorgeous, unsurpassable Bernstein score.  Surprisingly (well, for me, at least), Griffin Theatre and the much-acclaimed young director Jonathan Berry have also unveiled a minimalist version of Stephen Sondheim’s Company, one of my favorite musicals of all time.  I’m not going to talk about Griffin’s Company at length (more on that later), but I do want to say that I firmly believe that just because you want to sing Sondheim doesn’t mean you should.

I love, love Bernstein’s score for Candide, and I truly think it is one of the top five best musical theater scores of all time.  I liked, with reservations, Porchlight Theatre’s production a couple of years ago.  And I like as well, but with greater reservations, this Goodman production.  The score is gorgeously showcased by Doug Peck’s orchestrations and the terrific, energetic, cohesive playing of the twelve-person orchestra.  But Bernstein’s score is so beautiful, and so perfect, that, I think, all you have to do is make sure you don’t screw it up.  Everything is already there, and no tinkering is necessary.  On the other hand, the book is, admittedly, quite problematic.  How do you make a truly engaging, believable musical production out of Voltaire’s philosophical, satirical novel about an ever-optimistic young man who experiences the most catastrophic, the most character-shattering natural and man-made disasters possible, but still soldiers on with his positive outlook on life? I don’t really know, but I don’t really think Zimmerman’s at times perplexing production gives the answer as well.  First, I’m confused about her decision to use multiple, indistinct narrators.  For many of the scenes, I’m not sure who the narrators are and why they are introducing the scenes they’re introducing. They pop-up and then they disappear. This device makes the narration choppy, and doesn’t really, in my opinion, effectively establish a sense of time, place, and incident.  Second, I’m not convinced that she should have restrained the bawdy, outrageous nature of the piece (the Porchlight production, for one, staged the execution number “Auto da Fe” as a tailgate party for the Grand Inquisitor).  I think part of making us root for Candide and his kinda annoying cluelessness is to make his disasters truly unmitigated, incredulous ones.  Zimmerman exercises a lot of restraint and displays a lot of good taste in this production, which I’m not sure really makes this piece a better one than others that have come before it. 

And then there’s the whole Zimmerman trademark stage business.  I’ve been a big admirer of hers since Metamorphoses but I’m not sure that her signature ethereally whimsical, fantastical style clarifies the book.  There’s a lot of stuff on that Goodman stage:  people milling around and darting about, Project Runaway-sized blue cloths, red stuffed sheep, gigantic maps, miniature boats, rain forest backdrops.  It’s a visual assault (courtesy of designer Dan Ostling) that I thought was more effective in and more complementary to, say, Arabian Nights or Mirror of the Invisible World, than it is to Candide.  Thank goodness Bernstein’s score and Richard Wilbur’s lyrics are distraction-proof. 

There are a lot of terrific actors in this production, who, for the most part, overcome these distracting directorial touches.  Lauren Molina’s Cunegonde is sharp, sexy, and fabulously (although sometimes strenuously) effective in her key number, “Glitter and Be Gay”, one of my favorite Broadway songs of all time, despite the fact that she has to make her entrance encased in a bubble bath. Although I wanted more earthiness in Hollis Resnik’s Old Lady, and a little bit more oomph and raunch in “I Am Easily Assimilated” (Patti LuPone sold that song like the world was going to end tomorrow in the New York Philharmonic’s concert staging, available for download on YouTube) , she’s funny, confident, and priceless.  And the outrageousness of Eric Lochtefeld’s flamboyant, cross-dressing Maximilian is endearing. Rebecca Finnegan, in a variety of roles, is just plain wonderful as always. Geoff Packard is so cute and clean-cut, I wanted to bottle him up, take him home, and keep him on my bedstand.  He also leads a marvelous rendition of the eleven o’ clock number (which because of the lengthiness of this production actually happened at close to eleven at night) “Make Our Garden Grow”.  However, unfortunately, he is also probably the one cast member who is overwhelmed by Zimmerman’s directorial scene-stealing. 

There is no directorial scene-stealing in Griffin Theatre’s barebones production of Steven Sondheim’s Company.  Jonathan Berry wisely, generously, lets the music speak for itself, and speak to us, the audience.  I’m not going to give a detailed commentary about the production since I inadvertently saw it during its first preview (and I had to grit my teeth when I saw that the set was half finished – come on, Griffin Theatre, we paid for our tickets even if that was a preview, the least you could have done was get the set completed on time!).  Suffice it to say that I commend Berry’s decision to emphasize the emotion and the storytelling in the book scenes.  Otherwise, why would he have cast some really good actors who can sing, but who don’t seem to be up to the rigorous demands of Sondheim’s score?  As a rabid Sondheim aficionado, I’m really not sold on versions of his musicals where the actors look like they’re running a steeplechase while belting “Being Alive” or “Getting Married Today” or “Another Hundred People” instead of singing some of the most exquisite, heartbreaking songs in contemporary musical theater. 

Candide is at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, until October 31, after which it travels to Washington DC for a stint at the Shakespeare Theatre Company.  Company is at Stage 773,  1225 W. Belmont Ave., until November 14.

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5 Responses to “High and Low Cs”

  1. Jonathan Berry Says:

    As you pointed out, you came to the very first preview of COMPANY – and you have to understand that, coming to a preview of an off loop show, particularly a complex musical, you will be seeing a work very much in progress.

    When you rent at Stage 773 – you take possession of the space when the departing company exits on Sunday night. The Griffin production model leaves Monday for building, and then Tuesday – Friday for teching and running the show, before previews begin Saturday night. Rehearsal time is limited to the evenings, as you can’t ask the actors, who aren’t really getting paid, to give up their day jobs for tech – and you can’t keep them working past 11, since that is inhuman.

    Tuesday – Friday nights from 6:30 – 11, we teched the show as quickly as possible – with the hope that we would be done in time for a run on Friday.
    In a musical with over 500 hundred sound and light cues, we did not finish teching the show until 10:30pm Friday night. We ran COMPANY and SIDE BY SIDE and called it a night, knowing that we had to put it in front of people the next night.

    We have never had a preview audience the size that we had that evening, and all of the actors were extraordinarily nervous, since we’d only been working in the space for 4 days, and only with the second level 3 days. (I certainly looked into canceling the preview, but with so many people on the books, that became impossible.)

    I was remarkably proud of those actors, who fearlessly stepped out in front of a huge audience before they felt truly ready to – And I applaud them for getting through the show as cleanly as they did. Had you come back, even the night after, you would have seen a wildly different production – one that I’m incredibly proud of. But to see a first preview, and then to post negative comments – well, to say the least, it lacks generosity.

    We are, one would like to believe, a community here. And I’m not at all afraid of criticism when you are seeing the product that we, as a group, intended to share with the public. Previews are our rehearsals, and you should understand that coming in. If you are coming to a preview, with a discounted price, I would hope that you’d have the decency not to cast judgement on the work. (You say you won’t talk about it at length – but then the final paragraph looks suspiciously like a review of the production.)

    On opening, they sang the heck out of that score – but that first Saturday night, it was all we could do to remember where to stand, what changes we’d made in moving to the new space, and try to get back in touch with the work we’d done in the rehearsal room. It was a remarkable amount of information for the company to handle, and considering that it was their first run through of the piece since tech, I was proud of how well they did.

    And any time you want to come in to a Griffin build and offer a hand, we’d be thrilled to have you – but as it is, the Company for the most part builds the set, and we were ambitious this time with an 8 X 16 free standing platform with a spiral staircase and a straight staircase leading down – so were we running a little behind? Yes – but the basics of the idea were up there, and polishing happened throughout the week.

    Reviews of the set (for those folks who came to opening) seem pretty strong…

    Glad you are a supporter and I hope, in the future, you’ll come see the finished product if you want to write about it.

    Jonathan Berry

  2. francis Says:

    Jonathan, thank you for your comments. I just wanted to clarify some of the points you raised.

    My comments on “Company” are not intended to form a “review”, they were specific observations from my experience with the first preview which I mention right off the bat. As you can see from this blog entry, if I intended to review “Company”, then I would have devoted as much “web ink” to it as I did to “Candide”. Your 10 paragraph comments is 9 paragraphs longer than the space I devoted to “Company”. So this was not in any way shape or form intended as a review.

    Since some people may misconstrue it as a review, which you seemed to have done so, I actually waited to post my comments after your show had officially opened last Sunday, October 3. In case it is misconstrued as a review, when it is not, then people who read my blog will have other places to go to for “positive” reviews such as Timeout Chicago. As a rule, I never mention anything about a show on this blog until they have opened, and that’s a rule I’ve followed over the past three years.

    I know exactly how the off-Loop theater works since I have served on a board of one, and have provided volunteer services to many others. I appreciate the hard work and the time and resource constraints that a theater company like Griffin faces. However, I also have gone to preview productions of Mary-Arrchie and TUTA and Strawdog, and any number of other off-Loop or storefront theaters and their sets have always been ready and built. If you’re going to ask audience members to pay for a production, then the least you can do is finish the set. I stand by that statement unflinchingly. Otherwise, the first preview tickets should have been given away to a non-paying audience. Not to a discount-paying audience, but to a non-paying audience. And hopefully you and Griffin Theatre will recognize the decency inherent in that act.

    I am perturbed that you cast aspersions on my character, since I didn’t on yours. Nor on your actors – if I really were the indecent and ungenerous person you have called me out to be on my blog, then I would have singled out exactly the performances that struggled and that didn’t ring true for me. And I didn’t. Because I knew the performance I saw was a work in progress. Because I am a strong champion of our theater scene (if you took the time to read my blog instead of berating me and calling me names, you would have come to that conclusion), and I have advocated in the past, and will continue to, for members of your cast, like Rob McLean, and Trey Maclin, and Allison Cain, invaluable members of our city’s acting community.

    You could have sent me a private note (the means to contact me is in the, well, “Contact Me” tab of this blog) but decided to make this a public discussion. Over one paragraph that summed up my observations of the night I went. It’s disappointing.

    I am going to see “Company” again before the run ends on my full-paying dime, just to let you know. And I would be glad to help Griffin and yourself build sets for your next production, as long as the invitation is extended sincerely and generously.


  3. Jonathan Berry Says:

    Francis -
    You touched a nerve. One of the things that infuriate me about the theater/ musical theater community is this silly divide between the actors and professionals working in the two different divisions. As it turns out, I was brought up by my mother, who is a classically trained singer performing out of the Detroit area, and my initial theatrical work was performing in musicals through college. Regular theater took my primary interest later in life, but I still had a big soft spot for Musical theater, except I felt that too much was being put out there that wasn’t, in my estimation, well acted. It was showy, and well “performed” but I never believed it.

    So with this, I really tried to take actors who could sing and bring, what is a remarkably well written piece for actors, to the public and show that you can, in fact, do both things. SO your initial comment of “not everyone who wants to sing Sondheim, should.” struck me as exactly the elitist attitude I was trying to speak to with this production. I apologize – clearly that was not what was intended.

    And yeah – Saturday was rough. I asked the producers about canceling, but musicals are so much more expensive to produce, Griffin felt like A) we’d lose a lot of money by canceling that show and B) the bad word of mouth that would come from canceling, would be worse than people seeing it a bit before its time.

    And regarding the set – again, a sore subject. I’m a sometimes builder who potentially bit off more than I could chew by both directing and building the set. And actually, the design has a lot of openness to it, and we only added a little bit of masking afterwards on the far edge of the set – so I’m not entirely sure what you are referring to when you say the set wasn’t finished. THe finishing touches, after Saturday, were primarily cosmetic. (I don’t think you were looking at any raw wood on Saturday night – that was a priority before letting folks in. )

    And finally – I’m just really really proud of the work of my cast, and felt like they were being publicly judged for, what was for them, a rehearsal. Their learning curve that week was extraordinary and to say that some of the those songs felt like they were “running a steeple chase” – well that was more panic and nerves from not having a run through than an actual indication of their work/ ability.

    Blogs are tricky – because yes – you have the right to respond in whatever way you want to – but they are public and you clearly have a following of folks who take your opinion seriously. I suppose I’d prefer, if you were going to see a show and write about it, you’d come to a show that had opened. If you want to come to previews, by all means come – theater is expensive and its a good way to see something in its early stage – I’m just trying to look after a production that I really care about and believe in. And while I can take criticism, I felt like most of the elements you took umbrage with were rectified in the following rehearsals.

    So I DO hope you come back, and I’d even be happy to spot you a ticket (that was the deal that I worked out with the producers – they could open it up, but anyone who wanted to come back, feeling like they didn’t receive enough of a performance for their money, need only request a ticket to a later show…)

    I appreciate the dialogue, Francis, and am sorry if it felt like I was attacking you. I suppose I felt like someone was calling my kid ugly on what was just, for them a bad hair day…. Thank you for supporting theater and, next time I have to attache an 8 foot staircase to a freestanding platform by myself, I will certainly give you a call. I could use the help. (Those things are heavier than they look- )

    Best –

  4. Joel Says:

    I did not attend Company. I wanted merely to write that if Jonathan ever asks Francis to come help build a set, could he please post information about when and where that is actually going to happen — I would pay to see that.

  5. Jonathan Berry Says:

    The build for PORT is happening at the Raven Studio on Monday, January 3rd. 9 am – 10pm. Lots of painting and other work to be done.
    Francis, and anyone else who loves theater and wants to be a part, is more than welcome. Let me know if you’re coming. I’ll save you a slice of pizza.

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