Saturday, March 3, 2012

Other Desert Cities @ Booth Theatre

Politics, money, and scandal all come to a head in Jon Robin Baitz’s Other Desert Cities.  Taking a look into the lives of wealth, this piece works hard to make the point that no matter where you live, what social groups you join, and how much you hide, every family has secrets and problems all of their own.  Led by a cast full of star power with the likes of Stockard Channing, Rachel Griffiths, and Judith Light, this piece does not fail to entertain; however, it does not make as strong of a statement as one might hope.  With over done direction and a somewhat predictable plot, Other Desert Cities might give a few laughs, but it does not make one leave the theatre in deep thought like a hard hitting drama should.
The Wyeth family owns a house in Palm Springs, California.  From the outside, their life looks normal and perfect - a gorgeous home, wealth, and country club friends.  Living in this house full time is Lyman, a retired actor turned politician, and his wife Polly, a retired Hollywood writer.  Returning home are the children - Trip, a television producer, and Brooke, the author who escaped California to reside in New York.  Together they seem like the typical bantering, loving family; however, not everything is what it seems.  When Brooke announces the topic of her new book that was written with the help of alcoholic Aunt Silda, family secrets are put to the ultimate test.  As drinks and drugs fly high, the Wyeth family is about to learn just how far a family can be pushed to the edge without falling off.
This ensemble of five was brilliant placed together and shines from start to finish!  Each one of them has defining moments on stage that make the audience fall in love with them.  Crating relationships with everyone and everything on stage, Other Desert Cities is truly like watch a master acting cast.  Leading the Wyeth family are Polly and Lyman, portrayed by Stockard Channing (Pal Joey and television’s The West Wing) and Stacy Keach (Indians) respectively.  Channing brings her quick wit and loving charm to the role of family care taker.  With dialogue that can be harsh and border line offensive, Channing works her magic spinning the audience around in circles to the point where Polly’s extremely Republican views almost begin sounding logical.  Commanding attention where ever she stood, Channing delivers a performance that lives up to her incredible work in the past.  Keach takes on the role of loving and protective father with grace and sophistication; his transformation from father to ruler of the family is wonderful to watch.  Together they make the perfect California duo - rich and lush on the outside, but filled with just secrets and pain on the inside.  Returning home for the holidays is no picnic for Brooke and Trip, played by Rachel Griffiths (television’s Brothers and Sisters) and Justin Kirk (television’s Angels in America) respectively.  Griffiths does a lovely job as the troubled daughter in the Wyeth family.  Returning home with a book that sheds light on a secret is not an easy thing to face; Griffith takes on the role and gives this character the heart and humanistic qualities needed for the audience to get on her side.  Trip may be the producer of a cheesy television reality show who smokes his fair share of pot and has his fair share of women, but he is also the smartest member of the family.  Kirk does a fantastic job of pulling the audience into the realities of the real world.  While Brooke might have escaped California, Trip is the only one who escaped the family.  Kirk develops this character with such skill that the audience is left in awe when his big moment comes of telling the family off.  Rounding out the cast of five is the remarkable Judith Light (Lombardi) as the few weeks sober Silda Grauman. Light does a fantastic job of making this character real and truthful.  Even full of flaws, the audience instantly loves Silda - due in part to this wonderful portrayal.  Light and Channing join forces for scenes that leave the audience rolling in their seats, yet deeply moved at the same time.  When two power houses come together, it is amazing how all script and directing faults are wiped away for a few brief moments.  This cast proves that brilliant acting can overcome weakness in book and movement.
Other Desert Cities is a nice piece with a simple plot and minimally complex characters.  While this might not be seen as a problem Off-Broadway, the transfer to the Great White Way might not have been the wisest decision.  While the big names bring in the money at the box office, not many will be leaving the theatre recommending Jon Robin Baitz’s (television’s Brothers and Sisters) latest piece to their friends.  While the dialogue is smart and witty, the overall themes and plot lines are far too predictable and lackluster.  This lack of action might have led to Joe Mantello’s (Wicked and Take Me Out) weak directing.  While the concept might have been to create wonderful pictures that represent a typical happy or distressed family, these images began to feel like too much making the piece almost look over directed.  There were shining moments in the technical field, however, with designers John Lee Beatty (Venus in Fur) on sets and Kenneth Posner (Catch Me If You Can) on lights.  The scenic design was stunning, with an open curtain, the audience had plenty of time to soak in the true beauty of the world that Beatty created.  The lush furniture, stunning alls of rock, and shining glass bar, all added up to one beautiful Palm Springs house.  Posner light the space so elegantly and created times of day that were unmistakable.  The audience actually started to sweat looking at the hot morning in a gorgeous California dream home.  These elements worked hand in hand with the ensemble to make this piece fell like a big time, gripping, Broadway drama.
While the script is weak and the direction is not at its best, the audience still walks out of the theatre not hating themselves for sitting through Other Desert Cities.  While there are other dramas to check out before this one, fans of Channing and Light will be happy to see these incredible women work their magic on stage each night.  While one may might want to spring for the cheep sets, Other Desert Cities features great acting and wonderful design.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Carrie @ The Lucille Lortel Theatre

The only thing worse than saying Mac_ _ _ _ in a theatre, is saying the word Carrie.  That is until now!  The updated version of the classic Broadway flop is back, and has a score to settle with all those who ever doubted her!  With some new revisions in the writing and score, the creative team of Michael Gore, Dean Pitchford, and Lawrence D. Cohen prove that a story about a girl with special powers who eventually blows up a whole town is a great idea for a musical.  Based off of the book by Stephen King, Carrie is back and out to kill the memories of so many years ago.
It begins as your classic high school tale - different girl in different clothes gets picked on.  Her name in this story is Carrie White.  Like all odd balls, Carrie has a family history that is less than normal; her mother Margaret believe fully in the word of the Bible.  Living in a holy house means that parts of the anatomy and changes in form are never discussed; therefore, when Carrie gets her first period in the locker room after gym class, it is the perfect time for Chris, Sue, and the rest of the class to attack a very frightened Carrie.  Miss Gardner runs to the aid of her student and makes sure that the other girls apologize for their actions; however, when Chris refuses, she is banned from prom.  This punishment sets a rage in Chris that is not to be messed with.  Soon Carrie will be humiliated and the whole town will be sorry.  Why one might ask - well, Carrie has just learned that she has telekinetic powers.
The mother-daughter relationship from hell is back and better than ever with two new star powers taking the spotlight.  Molly Ranson (Jerusalem) takes on the title character and not only blows away the school, but audience’s minds as well.  While Carrie White might be small, Ranson is larger than life.  Her ability to capture the essence and moods of this character is impeccable.  Carrie might get picked on and bullied at home and school, but on the inside she is a force to be reckoned with; Ranson brings this energy to the stage showing how truly human this special girl is.  The pain at home can be a bit much when your Bible loving mother is so brilliantly portrayed by Marin Mazzie (Next to Normal).  Approaching the role of Margaret White must be a daunting task - how can one keep a woman so crazed in reality?  Mazzie does it with ease and beauty, belting out some of the original scores most famous songs, including “And Eve Was Weak.”  Separate these two women are incredible, and together they literally make the stage burn to the ground.  The chemistry and passion behind the performances was so truthful and amazing to watch.  Around the White family is an ensemble that nicely pulls the story forward, and leaves time for a few others to shine.  Christy Altomare (Spring Awakening national tour) does a lovely job bringing the iconic character of Sue Snell, the lone survivor of the attack, back to the stage; along side with Derek Klena (off-Broadway debut) has her boyfriend, and soon to be prom date to Carrie, Tommy Ross.  Altomare and Klena worked really nicely together bringing this dark piece the light hearted air that it needs to stay connected to reality.  Also in the spotlight is Jeanna De Waal (American Idiot) as Chris Hargensen, the ‘it girl.’  While De Waal’s voice a bit too pop-like for the score, she did a great job keeping the teenage drama queen fresh and realistic, a role that is too often made cartoony.  The rest of the ensemble did wonderful work driving the piece forward, and bring this cult classic back into the New York scene.
While the book by Lawrence D. Cohen (TNT’s Nightmares & Dreamscapes) has been re-worked and the music and lyrics by writing team Michael Gore and Dean Pitchford (team behind the hit film Fame) has been re-mastered with new material, Carrie is still not perfect.  The dialogue and lyrics can still feel cheesy and forced at times; however, the design and direction of the show swoop in to save the day, and make Carrie a fresh, new, and exciting piece of theatre.  Led by director Stafford Arima (Altar Boyz), this recreation is dark, twisted, and a visual feast for the eyes.  Scenic designer David Zinn (Seminar) creates the perfect dreary high school - appearing to almost be ripped out of a black-and-white horror film.  This blank canvas allows the masters of lighting and projections to create a world unlike anything scene on stage before.  Kevin Adams (American Idiot) uses skillful lighting to create a world of color in a town that is all black-and-white.  Sven Ortel (Woman on the Verge…) brings the world of this piece into full realization using projections that appear to have been ripped right out of a black-and-white picture book from hell.  Together these artists join forces for the final scene of destruction that literally leaves the audience in shock!  This production team is exactly what this musical needed in order to be taken off of the ‘disaster list’ and onto the ‘must see list.’
There is nothing to fear when it comes to this ‘king’ sized revival of Carrie!  Keeping the piece completely camp free, MCC Theatre has made this piece feel vibrant, fresh, and, most importantly, human.  Deep down, Carrie is the tale of a girl who is different and the conditions that made her that way - a story that almost anyone can relate too - standing out because of that good Stephen King twist!  With a recent extension, Carrie is finally getting the run that it deserves - she is back, and this time means business!