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New York, New York: Part 2

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We encounter Jan, a Czech native (like Stoppard himself) with a fervent belief in pop culture's relevance in shaping political history. Wisely, Stoppard engages us in Jan's passion for rock, his struggles with the repressive pre-Havel Czech regime, and his abiding friendship with Esme, a young woman he meets during his student days at Cambridge.

Esme's father, Max, is Jan's intellectual sparring partner, one of the last true believers in the original tenets of Communism. While Rufus Sewell makes us love Jan for his brilliance and naivete, Brian Coxe may be achieving a far more Herculean task in rousing our affection for the stubborn, eccentric, and wrongheaded Max, though Stoppard texturizes him nicely with loves and trials of his own. Quite a coup here also for Sinead Cusack, who plays both their true loves!

What critics fail to realize in comparing Stoppard with Frayn on our historical odyssey from 1967 to 1990 -- when the Rolling Stones perform in Prague -- is the kinship of Rock 'n' Roll with Wendy Wasserstein's equally intellectual and domestic Heidi Chronicles. Regrettably, we don't see any of the free-spirited rock musicians nor the jackboots who torment them. While we listen to Stoppard's playlist between scenes, from Syd Barrett and Bob Dylan to the Beach Boys and the Stones, slides showing us the discographical data fill a screen that drops over the stage. All too often, we're watching index cards instead of drama.

Broadway Musicals

Curtains (***1/2) -- Besprinkled with all the snarky smarts and wicked savvy of Kander and Ebb, Curtains is about the joys of putting together a Broadway musical and the thrills of solving a mystery while tracking down a serial killer. Teamed with the duo who gave us Chicago is nonpareil musical mystery writer Rupert Holmes (The Mystery of Edwin Drood and Thumbs), so we deftly zigzag between genres. In the theater realm, we get the inevitable cliches of backstage romance and creating a musical comedy. Abruptly, shifting to murder mystery mode, cue in shock and surprise.

Why would any of this be hilarious? Because the murdered leading lady sang excruciatingly off-key! David Hyde Pierce stars as Lieutenant Frank Cioffi, a Boston shamus who attempts to turn Robbin' Hood, a fourth-rate rip-off of Oklahoma, into a Broadway smash while catching the killer -- and getting the girl.

Amid a blizzard of puns and quips, Kander and Ebb do some prodigious ripping off of their own, shamelessly plundering Guys and Dolls, Cabaret, 42nd Street and (inevitably) their own Chicago. The showstopper is Debra Monk as producer's wife Carmen Bernstein, giving her artsy daughter the lowdown in "It's a Business." Jason Danielly unsheathes a sensational singing voice as the lovelorn composer of Robbin', while Edward Hibbert is a comic delight as its effeminate British director.

Curtains may get even better when Broadway's go-to ingenue, Erin Davie, replaces Jill Paice on Feb. 17 as the girl Frank gets. The magical stagecraft of their duet, "A Tough Act to Follow," already lives up to its title.

Xanadu (***1/4) -- The 1980 movie, starring Olivia Newton-John, was a flashy nuclear disaster, so why would anybody want to turn Xanadu into a Broadway musical? To create a travesty equally colossal, of course, and to trample joyously on the meager remnants of Newton-John's credibility as an actress.

Kerry Butler does a merciless imitation of N-J for starters, portraying the goddess Clio, preeminent among the nine ancient Greek muses, as she floats down to earth, disguised as Kira (with a bad Australian accent), to aid sidewalk artist Sonny in his quest for roller-disco glory. Yes, it's that stupid a premise, and Cheyenne Jackson makes Sonny a perfect match for Kira's vapidity.

It gets better. Or stupider -- take your pick. Tony Roberts is implicated in this fat turkey, first as the comprised impresario who can bankroll Sonny's dumb dream and later as Zeus, the god who will punish Clio for her transgressions. These transgressions, chiefly falling for a stupid (albeit hunky) human, are engineered by the greatest comedy team since Adam and Eve, namely muses Melpomene and Calliope.

I'm not sure that even the 2008 Tony Award ceremonies will decisively determine whether Mary Testa as Mel or Jackie Hoffman as Cal is funnier. Between them, they have a stranglehold on whatever award they compete for. The stakes really rise when the nine muses desecrate Olivia's trademark "Have You Never Been Mellow?" -- joined by Medusa, Polyphemus and a rather swishy centaur. Hilarious.

Legally Blonde (**1/2) -- If you can latch onto truly fine, deeply discounted tickets, my verdict on this immaculately executed adaptation of the 2001 Reece Witherspoon comedy is guilty. As in guilty pleasure. Nearly everything works in this feel-good show that speaks up for fashionable blondes who adore pink with the same principled eloquence that Hairspray lavished upon minorities and tubby teens. The comedy in Heather Hach's book works nicely, and I found my buttons effectively pressed when Elle Woods succeeded against the odds at Harvard Law School; showing up her predatory prof in the process. I admired how the theme of women's solidarity perked slowly, smartly, and unpredictably to the surface.


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