ACTING ONSTAGE, DIRECTING FOR THE STAGE, FAITH, FAMILY and FUN, THE HIGH SCHOOL THEATRE CLASSROOM with tags bible, Christianity, Christianity in Sweeney Todd, Dracula, Grease, High School Theatre, Hugh Wheeler, Into the Woods, Jacob Marley, Job, joseph, Joseph and the amazing technicolor dreamcoat, Les Miserables, Lutheran high School, Phantom of the Opera, Romeo & Juliet, Sondheim, Stephen Sondheim, Sweeney Todd, white christmas on December 9, 2014 by erikball123
I believe the role of a Lutheran teacher is to foster a relationship of trust and mutual respect with a student so that they (collectively) can take advantage of academic, social and religious information, skill sets and opportunities to the fullest. It is then the Lutheran teacher’s job to provide an opportunity for the student to demonstrate their understanding of the topic through practical application or performance.
Enter drama teacher, stage left.
The school where I teach and direct will offer SWEENEY TODD as part of next year’s season. The musical by Stephen Sondheim (American theatrical composer, and arguably one of the most influential composers of the last three decades) and Hugh Wheeler (book writer) is one of the most celebrated musicals of all time, garnishing a veritable trunkful of top honors including the Tony Award – Best Musical, the Drama Desk Award – Best Musical, and the Olivier Award – Best Musical (a feat that not even the likes of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA or LES MISERABLES could accomplish.) It is a tale of a Victorian-era, London barber, Benjamin Barker, who is incarcerated for life under a false charge, so that a tyrannical judge may covet his wife. Barker, now 15 years later and a pale fragment of the man he once was, escapes back to London hoping to find a loving wife and child, but finds, that the city has changed, in much the same way he has. Finding out through an accomplice Mrs. Lovett, who owns a meat pie shop under his old barber shop, he finds that his wife is now dead and his daughter is being held as a ward in the same Judge’s care. Focused on revenge, Barker, who adopts the alias Sweeney Todd, seeks revenge, and cooks his victims in Lovett’s meat pies…and through a course of sub-plot twists and turns, finds that in the end, love and the cruelties of this world have blinded him. It is a poignant, humorous (oddly enough), telling and relatable tale that audiences love to be a part of. (Much in the same way 13 year-old boys root for the bad guy during a WWE wrestling match. Macho Man Randy Savage was always my favorite.) There is a savageness to the elements of the story….but we all know that wrestling is fake.
It’s a ghost story, make no mistake about that. This generation probably won’t be so anxious to sit down to the George Hearn and Angela Lansbury broadway version, because a much more accessible Johnny Depp version (with 3D blood effects) is much more attractive. That particular version is a box-office wonder, no doubt…and I enjoyed it. But Hollywood is not the stage, and movies are not theatre. They can be theatrical…but the human element of creating a stage production is ever present that in order for Sweeney Todd to work, it absolutely must have an audience….like a courtroom full of jurors ready to put to trial this man who will plead for a second chance throughout two acts. I hope the audience judges this show. This is a “musical thriller” that invites audiences to “attend” the tale of Sweeney Todd. Not listen, not observe….”attend.” Become a part of the story. The story itself is masterfully written. I regard it as living, breathing poetry for the stage. It controls, with masterful precision, dark humor and caricatures which would appear to be as superficial as Dicken’s Ghost of Jacob Marley, and yet as real as any neglectful, self-serving icon of today’s media world. Sondheim’s music, which any theatrical scholar or theatre-lover might argue, is nothing short of genius with four-part harmonies (and a one-point, overlapping four-parts of melodies) interweaving themselves into a tapestry of a time we’ve only ever thought about. It’s twisted in the same way our perception of that particular time might be.
So, why, then? Why SWEENEY TODD?
I would argue that the ugliness of this secular world and human nature in general is quite evident in nearly every musical. It’s essential to the conflict and plot resolution. When we presented INTO THE WOODS (another Sondheim classic) we presented questions regarding infidelity, sacrifice, death and greed. In ROMEO & JULIET (another show, well-received by audiences at my school) we examined suicide, betrayal and nearly every other character died a bloody death. In DRACULA (yet another thrilling offering) found us identifying with a monster, who sucks blood and turns into a bat at night. These offerings are not unlike Irving Berlin’s WHITE CHRISTMAS where one theatre patron was moved to comment that the “I Love a Piano” song was all about sexual innuendo. (?!?!?!) I reeled for a bit in disbelief, as I thought WHITE CHRISTMAS to be as innocent as the driven-snow (or in this show’s case, lack of snow) and then remembered that every patron has the right to an opinion.
How theatre is perceived is very interesting to me. There are those that won’t bat an eye at a production of GREASE. (Heck, a year deosn’t go by when our 8th graders don’t perform a lip sync competition to “Greased Lightning!”) One might argue that this seemingly innocent story is a stereotype of a “rebel without a cause” era and therefore “good clean dirt.” I argue, any story “without a cause”, even one that goes against morality, is bad storytelling. Even those hardened atheists out there would have a very hard argument against the fact that the Bible contains brilliant parables about morality.
Perception is often based on an individuals’ relationship to this world. But, you see that’s what’s so glorious about the theatre: people bring their own feelings, relationships and personal insights to the venue. It’s what works within them as they contemplate the story and character’s dilemma. It’s what motivates them to come to conclusions at the end of the show as to whether or not they enjoyed the production. I’m sure there will be some people that won’t categorize Sweeney Todd in their top ten. But it’s this same personal insight that also influences them to choose Fruit Loops over Bran Flakes in the cereal aisle. Fruit Loops are better…and that’s their choice and opinion…and they’re not wrong for feeling that way.
These offerings are essential to the Christian high school student looking to learn more from or make a career in the theatrical arts. I would argue that in the secular works of this Darwinistic world, these are stories worth telling, as they challenge our sensibilities, asking us to decipher good from evil, truth from fallacies and right from wrong. As artists (in design offstage and as performers onstage) it is essential that we find God in our work. As a theatre teacher and director, it is my privilege to put in front of the students productions that I believe will be well-generated examples that would serve this purpose well. Shows like JOSEPH AND THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT, while a wonderful, engaging (and successful) theatrical offering, guaranteed to put a smile on the face of even those who sit in the back pew on Sunday, on the flip side, from a content structure standpoint, it’s a flawed show (in my opinion), as it doesn’t reflect on God’s saving grace, and leaves those who are unchurched little connection to the ultimate goal, which I would assume is to invite an audience to attend the tale of a lost man who is wronged. In that particular story, all ends happily with bright-sparkly jazz hands. Does this make it a show “not worth doing?” Not necessarily. Rather I might argue it is worth the investment, as it provides an opportunity to learn more. As a teacher, it’s a win-win opportunity.
The value of a ghost story about another wronged man that ends tragically and with the villain (which we find ourselves strangely a bit sympathetic with) meeting his end due to his naivety, is equally important. It’s the same reason the Bible story of Job is valuable. (He maintains his love for the Lord regardless of all that happens to him.) In the case of SWEENEY TODD, we challenge the audience to think about what would happen should “Job-y Todd” lose his faith…and instead run from the deliverance of evil in hot pursuit of a revenge he believes he needs.
The world of theatre is an escape from reality and will always be presented as a means by which to discover anew the value of one’s mind, heart, soul and faith. It interrupts the artificial sensibilities we possess, that of a hot-bed media conglomerate, wrought with agenda that interrupts our perception of how and who we should be according to our faith. In the end moments of Sweeney Todd, the ensemble sings “To seek revenge may lead to hell, but everyone does it and seldom as well.”
SWEENEY TODD is not unlike any other theatrical production. It’s a love story about a man who was wronged and hopes only to return to a reality he once new in the comforts of the only love he had. He’s a killer yes. (So is Dexter, Dorothy Gail from Kansas, nearly every Shakespearean protagonist, David, Sampson, Cain, etc.) These wonderfully relatable characters serve as foils for deeper meaning. In Sweeney’s feverish pursuit, he forgets that sometimes the blessings we so richly are afforded by a loving God, are right in front of our faces. (“Don’t I…know you…mister…?”) *For those of you who know the show…you know what I mean. For those of you who don’t…you’ll see what I mean.
I look forward to producing this musical. But, more importantly, I look forward to providing an opportunity for my students to practice (through their own skill-sets and sensibilities) delivering a thrilling story that will charge an audience to think about the world around them and their station in it. I will ask them to find God within the work and demonstrate an understanding of why there might just be a little bit of Sweeney in all of us. (“Isn’t that Sweeney there beside you?”) It is my hope that the audience might be able to relate to elements in the story, much like I hoped that we might relate with two estranged ogres last year (more fictitious characters). The brandishing of a razor…the flouring of a meat pie….the trapped song bird….that’s all beautiful, symbolic elements of a love story set to the stage and served up with a bit of a jolt. (Like the feeling one gets when they ALMOST has a fender-bender in the afternoon traffic.) I hope patrons leave thinking “Thank God.” We should be so lucky to have a loving God that we can trust in when we are awoken to the dangers of the world.
I appreciate, more than words, that I have an administration that trusts that our production of SWEENEY TODD will be presented with artistic and creative integrity and a clear vision that would challenge students to look beyond the opportunity to merely “play a bad guy”. I hope you’ll attend.
PLEASE EMAIL MR. BALL at ErikBall123@Gmail.com to accept your role.
Please email MRS. BALL to accept your Technical Crew position at BallE@FLHSEmail.org.
As always, we are so proud of all of you. The talent represented at auditions was staggering. Everyone did so well. We wish we could have awarded roles to all who auditioned. To those who did not get cast, we hope you’ll consider auditioning again for a role down the road. Blessing to you all. -Mr. Ball
REVIEWS with tags broadway, broadway reviews, frozen, idina menzel, if then, if then musical, if/then, if/then broadway, let it go, musical, next to normal, richard rodgers theatre on July 10, 2014 by erikball123
IF / THEN
I didn’t know much about IF/THEN, even after the Idina Menzel post-“Let It Go” media blitz at its incarnation. I had tickets to the show, and I purposely didn’t do any research on the show, avoided over-exposure to photos, clips, news, etc. so that my first impression of the story offered a relatively fresh perspective. With big-time names (and expectations, I would argue) comes big-time opinions. I suppose I didn’t want someone else’s opinion to be my own before I even saw it.
Allow me to try to explain the story. And I do mean, “try.” Frankly, I’m not positive I can after just one viewing.
We meet Elizabeth, a 39 year old transfer to New York from Arizona who has just divorced her husband and is hoping to surround herself in a new life in the bustling city. She’s driven, determined and pissed that she’s wasted the last 15 or so years of her life. A pissed off character is one Menzel plays best, I guess….because from the first snarky comment, which was indeed funny, the entire theatre exploded in laughter, wrapping Menzel in a welcoming embrace. Have you ever heard a fashion designer say that the model “isn’t wearing the dress” but rather the “dress is wearing the model?” Well, it’s something like that. The story doesn’t feature Idina Menzel….it’s “Idina Menzel” who happens to be doing a show for us tonight. (Make sense?)
Anyway…back to the story. She meets up an old college friend Lucas a bi-sexual one-man army of a zoning and housing activist and outspoken terrier of a man. (Played by Anthony Rapp originally..but he went in for emergency knee surgery the night before. I’m sure there is a “break a leg” joke here somewhere….but I’ll spare you. So we got the understudy Curtis Holbrook who was very good in the role.) Elizabeth befriends Kate, an outspoken, lesbian, kindergarten teacher who lives across the hall (played by Tony winner LaChanze who is the most likable character in the whole show. Perhaps it’s because she the only one I could ever realistically seeing myself having a conversation with, should this truly be a real world.)
Once we establish the basis for these relationships in the exposition, we are introduced to the first in a multitude of “shifts” from one reality to another. Elizabeth is asked to go to a protest with Lucas (who calls her “Beth” because it’s a more sensible name), but she kinda wants to go to an impromptu street concert with her new, crazy buddy (who calls her “Liz” because every sexy, driven New Yorker would be a “Liz” not a “Beth.) Add the addition of a pair of hipster glasses to the “Liz” character and you can see how this whole concept is going to work….flip-flopping the story back and forth, in and out of “Liz” and “Beth’s” worlds, like some grown-up, contemporary Choose Your Own Adventure novel, alternating between what IS and what COULD’VE BEEN. (Although we’re never privy to what reality is the true one. A bummer of a detail that I thought for sure would flesh out in the end…and, unless I missed it, never did.)
The two plots unfold (neither taking a back seat to the other, there is no secondary-plot…so it demands a LOT of the audience’s attention. It’s like watching two mini-series play out by the same actors at the same time.) Liz/Beth meets Josh by chance (or not by chance?) and the one story line finds her marrying, having children and accepting a reasonable but expected outcome to what one might deem a considerate life. The other story finds her thwarting the tug of her heart….choosing to invest in her career as a city planner (with the help of another old college friend who leverages her into a position of authority, whom she’s attracted to. But of course he’s married.) Twists, turns, complications and decisions that come home to roost all flesh out in front of us while Menzel snaps in and out of the opposing “Liz” and “Beth” storylines. I have to admit…I gave this whole musical my undivided attention, and I was a bit confused at parts. By the time my brain caught up (“oh, this is the ‘Beth’ storyline now”) it was halfway thought he scene and I was having to reorganize myself to regain the information that I had lost while in limbo.
You see, that’s the thing…the story is not a bad one. It’s a strong concept…with equally strong performers who communicate in clever ways. (The book is clever and crisp.) There are three problems with the show:
- PROBLEM #1: There is not a single song I can put in my pocket and take with me. (And strangely enough…the musical numbers are NOT listed in the playbill. Very odd.) The music is empowering and drives us from moment to moment flawlessly….there’s barely a seam or break to even take an extra breath in the whole show. (And on a funny side note…I was like “dang this sounds like ‘Next to Normal’” before knowing it with the composer and lyricist to “Next to Normal.”) But, unlike NEXT TO NORMAL, it doesn’t bind the story together, like some recognizable hard-cover book that we’ll be able to find on the shelf later. It’s presented and serves the story like long, laborious footnotes on the bottom of every page of this story.
- PROBLEM #2: The central character (our supposed “hero”) is carved out of sharp marble, with little finesse. Menzel is brilliant with a very distinct personality and voice, that’s why we love her. But, I felt that at every turn, and in every intention, I was hit on the head with the Idina Menzel rubber mallet and “gently” reminded…*BONK*….”you AGREE with this.” *BONK*….”you like this.”….*BONK*….”you are upset about this.” As an audience (an engaged part of the action, but traditionally as a voyeur) I don’t like being pigeon-holed, especially when the show impresses demands upon you. Perhaps they should have employed a device that would give the audience the choice to see what story line they want to see next? (Like a Choose Your Own Adventure novel.) It’s a gimmick…for sure…but they applied all the demand on the audience without relinquishing any of the creative control. That’s not risk in my book. I felt held hostage at times.
- PROBLEM #3: I’m not sure this show would be as well-received if it lost one of two (or both!) things:
- If Idina Menzel left the show…would people still feel passionate about this Elizabeth character? I doubt it…the character seems to be written to portray the actress herself (down to her barefooted moments, which we all know is Menzel’s “thing.”)
- If it played anywhere else but New York, I don’t think the setting would be welcomed in the same way. I wouldn’t say it’s a love letter to New York, as it sure does call to attention ALL the problem with development in the city, but it beckons you to relate to New York “stuff” at EVERY TURN. (And I mean every turn, poking fun at subway woes, rival cities, sports teams, etc.) I wonder if plays in Las Vegas, for instance, if anyone would care about such things.
With that said…I cannot express how beautiful the show looks. The set design by Mark Wendland successfully creates other worlds in unique ways with a poise and gloss like an upper west side, art deco coffee table. Of this, most impressive is a giant, tipping mirror that reflects the shiny floor. (It sometimes giving us a fun bird’s eye view, sometimes reflecting lights in the floor creating “stars”…even a roadmap of New York, etched out in LEDs on the floor makes for a fun moment.) The turntable set, multi-functional boxes and chairs offer up many locations in New York. (I stopped counting how many scenes we visited after I reached a dozen.) The staging is gorgeous and fluid. The choreography is contemporary and at some points takes itself SO seriously, that it comes across as a bit pretentious, and not “from the heart” as I think they were going for.
The play touches on every relevant buzz topic of today. You may find that hilarious and personal (catching on thorns lodged firmly in your own personal paws) or you may find that really annoying. It depends on your view….but one thing I admired about the show is that the message and it’s champion makes a very loud noise and does so in a practically perfect way. There is no doubt that there is no one in the whole world like Idina Menzel. The one “major tragedy” the authors enlisted…we saw coming a mile away.
The story has tremendous arch and both realities tied things up very neatly in the end…and again, I would have loved to find out which reality was the TRUE reality. (Or maybe they didn’t want us to know?)
I wonder IF my opinion of this show would have been different, had I read up on the plot structures, reviews and anticipated the production value more? I didn’t take that path….so, I guess we’ll never know.
REVIEWS with tags adrienne, andy karl, apollo creed, boxing, broadway, italian stallion, musical, musicals, review, Rocky, rocky the musical, sylvester stallone, winter garden theatre on July 8, 2014 by erikball123
*NOTE: These are just a few thoughts from a theatre lover, not necessarily a theatre critic.
ROCKY – THE MUSICAL
After watching ROCKY-THE MUSICAL, I felt like I truly went 15 rounds with Apollo Creed. I was exhausted, tense, and a bit overwhelmed. Mostly in very good ways. Mostly.
But, I cannot express enough, that where this musical made unbelievable strides as a theatrical spectacle and as an offering of a beloved brand that millions love (Rocky is undoubtable the true underdog story of the ages) I cannot help but wonder if it would be less of a spectacle and more of an impactful wonder if it had been reworked for the stage as a simple play.
The story (as if you don’t know. If you haven’t seen the movie, shame on you. It’s a cinematic masterpiece as the making of the film was an underdog story in itself) finds Rocky Balboa, a beat-up, boxer with a heart of gold. We get a quick shot of who his is with the charming and fun “My Nose Ain’t Broken” in the close confines of his seedy apartment (complete with Cuff and Link his two turtles…who got their own bronx-cheer when introduced. Fun!)
He’s in love with pet store worker Adrienne who is Pauly’s (Rocky’s friend) sister. We find that she’s got a lot in common with her admirer (and Margo Seibert is wonderful as the shy Adrienne) but her ballad “Raining” is very heavy-handed for an exposition song. We don’t know her quite yet…and we have yet to see the quirky charm that is our hero’s love…before hearing a draggy lament about her strife. I don’t know…maybe I’m being too harsh…but I thought “okay, I get it” at least twice during the song.
Rocky is facing hard times, boxing for pennies, barely making ends meat and even acting as a part-time “ruffian,” collecting debts in a shady side-job. (Of course, he’s too good of a guy to actually break thumbs or rough people up.) What is brilliant about this iconic character is how Andy Karl brings him to life without giving us a Stallone impersonation. Many actors turn in stellar performances…but Karl is simply a genius as the down-and-out boxer. Simple gesturing and unbelievably grounded attention to details throughout are engaging. You find yourself laughing when he laughs, breathing heavier when he runs, and you almost feels the blows he takes in every match. Rarely do I see such touching portrayals…and the fact that he didn’t get the Tony for the role is a crime. (If you struck ALL of the razzamatazz and the technical amusement park that is the set….more on that later….and left Andy Karl onstage all by himself….I would still pay full price.)
Back to the story. Close-up on Apollo Creed, the story’s immediate antagonist and the Heavyweight Boxing Champion. He’s a flashy and rich mover and shaker, who is just as much a promoter as he is an athlete. He doesn’t have a championship match for New Year’s Day because his opponent breaks his wrist in training. So, insert the Italian Stallion, who is perceived by Creed as the perfect “American Dream” promotion opportunity. Think of the publicity! Terence Archie (who plays Creed) is a stoic, chiseled bad guy. He’s as poised and scripted as a WWE wrestler and is so much fun to watch. His number “Patriotic” is fun. Too bad that this is truly his only musical vehicle in the show.
While Creed thinks about the theatrics of the boxing match….Rocky is busy trying to woo Adrianne, make “good” decisions, and train for this once in a lifetime opportunity. Of course we have grizzly Mickey, the curmudgeon boxing gym owner who winds up training Rocky…but this character never really gets a fair shot. TV and movie character actor, Dakin Matthews is SO GOOD in everything he does…but in this, I thought, “eh.” (And frankly….I a little upset that I didn’t hear my favorite Mikey line “you’re gonna eat lightning, and you’re gonna crap thunder!”) And his lone musical moment “In the Ring” is disinteresting and long.
Now lets talk about the technical wonder that is ROCKY. The Winter Garden Theatre has been turned into a playground of discovery, and at EVERY single turn of this show, we are wowed with giant, towering set pieces that fly-in, fly-out, transform before our eyes, and offer giant visuals that will remain with you for a long time. The boxing ring itself is flown in and out, tipped sideways and serves as a movie screen and provides breath-taking, symbolic subtext opportunities. The meat locker where Pauly works consists of rows of GIANT slabs of beef in a cooler that drop from the ceiling on giant meat hooks. So cool! It created an audible gasp from the audience.
The lighting design is unreal, and the projections are taken to an interactive level that is pure genius, and makes the iconic movie moments such as Rocky’s training montages or the Philadelphia Museum of Art moment come to life. Details like rain projected on the entire set, carefully digitally generated so as to look like it’s actually hitting the set pieces are WONDERFUL!
The second act is the real treat however. We eagerly anticipate the big fight…and when it comes time to deliver, the whole room transforms into a giant boxing arena. Ceiling monitors drop and the first 15 rows of the orchestra are redirected to the stage to sit in bleachers behind the ring which rumbles forward and covers the seating area to create a true “theatre in the round” ring-side experience. How they executed the change-over, complete with actors’ entrances, video commentary, and audience participation was something I enjoyed watching as it was choreographed as strategically as the fight scenes. Add some brilliant lighting nuances, and I tell you…I felt like I was at a boxing match. It was unreal.
Of course, the play, our hero and the audience “go the distance” and we all cheer in wild excitement as Rocky screams “ADRIANNE!” at the end of the fight.
You see…the show has the right formula and a willing and able (and I might even say EAGER) audience in waiting. They cast the right people…the spectacle is superb….it’s just the music. (And I hate to say it, because with music and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, one might figure “how can you go wrong.”) I think the problem is the same problem I had with Spider-Man….it’s too ballad-y with not enough songs you can tap your toes to.
But, my question is this…should ROCKY be a musical you tap your toes to? I argue that without canceling out ANY of the special effects, technical hoopla and stellar performances, you could make this a theatrical PLAY that would garnish the same type of hype, in my opinion. (I still think WAR HORSE is one of the most amazing spectacles I’ve ever seen and they had musical elements…but I would argue it would suck as a musical.)
I hate to say it…because I love sparkly things….but perhaps the technical elements aren’t needed.
I liked this musical…a lot….but…..what if this story were told….as a beat-up, worn-down, underdog of a story…with underdog set elements…perhaps holding a mirror up to Balboa’s world?
Perhaps that’s why I’m struggling with this one….it’s a BRILLIANT “Rocky” story with a brilliant “Rocky” leading man….but it’s an APOLLO CREED-type of a musical.
Too gussied up.
REVIEWS with tags broadway, charissa hogeland, christian slater, clueless, dave thomas brown, heathers, heathers the musical, katie lander, kevin murphy, laurence o'keefe, legally blonde, musical, new world stages, off-broadway, review, veronica sawyer, wynona ryder on July 7, 2014 by erikball123
*NOTE: These are merely the thoughts of a theatre lover, not necessarily a theatre critic.
HEATHERS – THE MUSICAL
Book, music and lyric authors Kevin Murphy and Laurence O’Keefe know how to write a musical following a tried and true formula. An opening number like “Beautiful” grabs you by the shirt collar and draws you it….and follow-up numbers like “Candy Store” firmly establishes our antagonists and offers a kick of dark comedy. By the unbelievably catchy “Dead Girl Walking”, halfway through Act One, I found myself thinking…..”CRAP! I think this is a musical I’m going to really like.” Which is weird, because before I even walked into the theatre, I was mulling through my mixed emotions about this late 80’s cult movie turned musical.
HEATHERS, (which is widely recognized as Hollywood vehicles for then-freshman Christian Slater and Wynona Ryder) seems to be perfect fodder for a stage adaption. It offers murder, bullying, love, lust, danger and high school stereotypes, cliques and strife….not necessarily in that order. HEATHERS in the end left me thinking “well…it’s not a PERFECT musical, but it’s not a bad musical either.” I found myself whistling a song in the taxi on the ride back…that speaks to its likability. They’re doing something right.
It’s 1989 and we’re blinded at first glance with the neon world of Veronica Sawyer (played this evening by Charissa Hogeland…a first-rate performer in her own right) who’s life is ritualistic in that it sucks pretty bad. Her and her only friend, Martha “Dumptruck” Dunnstock (another brilliant performer Katie Lander) are routinely picked on, humiliated and for the most part treated as nonentities by the elite, the popular and the more athletic. You know, typical high school stuff. We meet “the Heathers” a waxy trio of Barbie-doll like, big-banged divas who rule the school. (The parallels to the popular Lindsay Lohan MEAN GIRLS movie are uncanny. But remember, HEATHERS came first!) Of course they are terrible to Veronica until she saves them from detention by forging a hall pass launching herself into the Heathers’ world as their handy resource. (Like some sort of dressed-up, decked-out human Trapper Keeper.) She’s all too willing to oblige as she is now respected. Of course her friendship to Martha suffers, because while Veronica dresses up nicely, everyone is always mean to the fat girl.
Enter J.D., played by Christian Slater look-alike Dave Thomas Brown. He’s the black trench coat-wearing, hair-tossing hunk of a bad boy that wrestles with authority, breaks the rules, quotes controversial novels and everything else ideal dreamboats do. Veronica and J.D. wind up together (including a fully-clothed but suggestive sex scene, I’m reminded of Avenue Q. Why?) and seem to be poised to answer each other’s life questions. The problem is Veronica has stepped in to defend the loveable but naive Martha one too many times and now socially banished by the Heathers and nearly everyone in school. What does one do in a black musical comedy when they are wronged? That’s right….kill the accuser. Rather predictable, but we are then turned on our heels when the now-dead Heather soliloquies over the shoulder of Veronica as she forges her suicide note. (A clever devise…and good fun. But, much like the “Dear Diary” narration in the beginning of Act One…is quickly disregarded when the plot device is inconvenient and becomes the show’s “wallpaper”…it’s there in the background…but does anyone really care about wallpaper?)
At the risk of giving too much away…let’s just say that the plot thickens and becomes more and more dangerous. J.D. slow-burns into a complete enigma and we wonder at the turning point who is the real villain here. We have a new enemy as one of the remaining Heathers steps up to don the “lead Heather” position of authority (by putting on the infamous red scrunchy….a prop that was terribly ill-used, in my opinion. I know it is a staple of the movie…but the authors could have given it more significance or it’s own moment / song…make it a magical scrunchy, or something….but it serves as a mere after thought and doesn’t carry any gravity).
Iconic lines are delivered (and in some cases given their own musical numbers…”My Dead Gay Son” squeezed every drop of funny you could possibly imagine out of a single one-liner) and we reach a cross-roads when J.D. proves to be way more dangerous that Veronica ever imagines.
We watch Veronica struggle with wanting to be good and do what’s right as she discovers that it’s not necessarily the individual that makes a situation “bad”…and by eliminating that “bad” person…one only creates another “bad” situation. Not a “bad” message, actually. But the problem is the show kinda holds us hostage in the second act when the forward momentum should propel us into even further madness, requiring us to demand a sane outcome (much like Veronica.) Unfortunately…and allow me to point out the problem, like every good bully should….the second act is a veritable see-saw of unbelievable poignant moments (like cheerleader Heather’s “Lifeboat” ballad…one of the highlights of the entire show) and big idea moments like secondary character Ms. Fleming’s flashlight clad dance number “Shine a Light” which is very catchy…but completely out of place and leaves you wondering “what was that all about?” (Who really cares about Ms. Fleming? Leave her as a device.)
The momentum of the second act made me tired…as we hiccuped our way to the final moments. The finale seemed to be well-received by the audience…but I still challenge patrons to consider that it seems a tad unlikely that people “return” after being shot and fall to the ground seemingly dead (ala every corny horror movie)….Martha’s failed suicide attempt and follow-up appearance on a motorized hospital scooter garnishes the absolute wrong reaction to this very likable and tortured character…..and am I REALLY supposed to be believe the final bad-girl Heather has turned-around completely simply because it’s the end of the show and she turns to an awkward ensemble member and smiles? Too convenient. (I had the same reaction after Hairspray. Really? The VonTussels are good guys now? Please.) Everything seems rushed, which is too bad, because the ballad-y closing number, “Seventeen” is quite good. (Although the improvised, super long-winded post curtain call dance party onstage was nothing short of awkward. I just stood there, like an out-of-place high school stereotype at a popular girl’s party.
The show wreaks of LEGALLY BLONDE influences and the costuming, while simple and effective (there are hardly ANY costume changes…they wear the same thing the whole show…but we buy into it) is completely ripped off from the movie CLUELESS. The unit set is minimal (and a smart choice) and while the choreography is perfect for each moment….it certainly wasn’t the cleanest dancing I’ve seen. (Someone behind me actually said “you can tell it’s an Off-Broadway show. Ouch.)
In pontificating about the show, my wife said to me, “yeah…but you haven’t seen the movie. If you had, it would make more sense.” But I see that as yet another problem of the stage adaption…you shouldn’t HAVE to see the movie in order to “buy into” every choice. Theatrical momentum should be presented so as to serve the story on its own.
Overall…I enjoyed it. I’ll get the soundtrack. I do predict, however, that one-by-one theatre patrons will start to die off…and pretty soon the show will close. I do think however, it’ll be reborn again and have a brilliant and much sought-after amateur theatre afterlife.
REVIEWS with tags a gentleman's guide to love and murder, andrew lloyd webber, broadway, bryce pinkham, by jeeves, D'ysquith, gentleman's guide, jefferson mays, murder, musical, review, the drowsy chaperone on July 7, 2014 by erikball123
*NOTE: These are merely thoughts by a theatre lover, not necessarily a theatre critic.
A GENTLEMAN’S GUIDE TO LOVE AND MURDER
The perfect poison? Add three ounces of THE DROWSY CHAPERONE’S style/grace and two dashes of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s BY JEEVES…shake rigorously until laughing and then add dynamic character actor Jefferson Mays and a whirlwind of costume changes, cheeky sight gags and a story that could be a castaway from a “write your own British murder mystery” contest…and you have one of the most entertaining musicals in a long time: A GENTLEMAN’S GUIDE TO LOVE AND MURDER. And it’s potent.
It’s sad that so many musicals are considered “unknown.” Take gems like 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE or the wickedly clever play THE EXPLORER’S CLUB at the Manhattan Theatre Club, that are both very successful and yet aren’t considered proverbial powerhouses in their own right. Shame.
It’s 1909 and we find Lord Montague D’Ysquith Navarro, (a wide-eyed and perfected Bryce Pinkham, who is romantic, perky, and a right stinker! Wonderful portrayal) in prison writing his memoirs, a confession really about the murders he’s recently committed, eight in fact, all his relatives and heirs to become the next Earl of Highhurst. The stage upon a stage (a clever and altogether beautiful esthetic, I took notes for future reference….the devil is in the details!) then unmasks his flashback to when he first discovered his life’s turn-around point at the death of his mother. His D’Ysquith bloodline will surely advance his social and financial status enough to capture the heart of Miss Sibella Halward, surely. But, as so many musical comedies flesh out, we find a torrid journey ahead of us and a twisted plot as Navarro executes a plan to one-by-one eliminate the descendants, some by “accident” and some with cunning villainy. All with many laughs.
There’s a fall from a dreadful high place, a swarm of bees, a decapitation via barbell, a heart-attack, a poisoning, and one is thought to be eaten by cannibals. All before intermission. We shouldn’t be surprised, the ensemble (in a comedic nod to perhaps Sweeney Todd) warned us that this tale is grim and if we are weak of heart…we should leave. We were warned! The second act begins with a marked suspicion that Navarro is up to something. Without giving away details…I will just say that I fought to try and decide WHO I wanted to root for in Act Two. (Reserving a small part of my rascal of a heart for Navarro…who was SO charming.)
Of course we flesh out a love triangle, and throughout we meet a menagerie of colorful and sometime caricature-like personalities….lots of musicals have that. That’s not what’s compelling about GENTLEMAN’S GUIDE. What is unlike any murder-mystery comedy I’ve see is simply: Jefferson Mays (who plays all of the D’Ysquith family members, and offers moments with lightning fast costume changes. Surely, there HAD to be doubling…wasn’t there?) It’s part comedy of errors and part magic show. It’s all wonderful! Mays is a captain of this vessel and his and Pinkham’s timing (with all the quirks that make British aristocrats so much fun to impersonate!) are spot on. There was one time that I laughed out loud (one of those annoying “explosion guffaws” that you absolutely hate when people set free) at a time that no one else laughed…and Pinkham was simply reacting to something. It was so funny though! I couldn’t help it. My apologies to the lady sitting in front of me who I scared. (Which, of course elicited even more laughter which I fought hard to suppress.) It’s one of those types of shows….you find what YOU want to find funny…and there is a whirlwind of “funny” to choose from.
Standout numbers include “I Don’t Understand the Poor”, the extraordinarily insinuative “Better With a Man” and “Looking Down the Barrel of a Gun” and the accompanying spit takes…which the afore-mentioned THE DROWSY CHAPERONE taught us, is always necessary. (Who says musical plot devices aren’t direct descendants of other musicals?)
The comedy is thoughtfully writing with an old-world Agatha Christie charm and an Importance of Being Earnest flare…it makes you pine to be born in that era so in which you didn’t feel so unsophisticated. I drank tea when I got back to my hotel room.
I can see why Tony voters liked this show so much. It’s a relaxing break from the eye-popping mega musicals and teeters on the cusp of Monty Python-like foolishness and laugh-out-loud situational comedy, wrapped tightly in a very very talented ensemble. (Special pops to Eddie Korbich, who is brilliant in EVERYTHING he does.) The show is kinda in a school of it’s own, as it cannot be defined as anything you’ve every seen. The book is well-written and often wafer-thin, so as to see right through it which is well-received at every turn. (Just so long as we’re in on the joke and we KNOW that’s a false mustache on Mays’ lips…then we’re okay.)
The show cannot be truly defined as a murder MYSTERY, as we see nearly every plot device and subtext nuance drop dead before our eyes. There’s nothing mysterious about it. Yet, we root for the heavy veil of plot (woven in dramatic irony) to drop at the characters feet. And when it does…often as a result of Mays unbelievable changing-in and changing-out of characters….we applaud. (And I applaud those backstage changers as well.) The show is matter-of-fact, tongue-in-cheek, and slap-stick all at the same time…and yet I feel somewhat refined after having watched it. It’s weird.
Overall…if you pine to see a killer musical…one with every ingredient that it takes to offer a fun and certainly unique story (with surprises in the ending as well!) then purchase your tickets now. Orchestra…not balcony. The Walter Kerr Theatre has very little leg room in the balcony. My left leg was as dead as Reverend Lord Ezekial D’Ysquith halfway through Act One.