By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
The impending arrival of Rachel Chavkin and her creative team at the Citadel next season, to prepare a Broadway version of the original musical Hadestown is exciting news.
Judging by her dazzling production of Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 currently dancing and singing its way through the Imperial Theatre in New York, there is nothing conventional in the storytelling proposed by this boldly inventive young director.
So this is what I saw last month. For the Dave Malloy musical excavated from a chunk of War and Peace, Chavkin has sacked a Broadway theatre, and turned it into something very like a Russian cabaret, all red velvet and overhung with twinkling lights. The production finds new and creative ways of being intimate with the audience. We sit in small groups separated by cabaret tables. The “stage” extends with graceful catwalks up into the mezzanine, and encircles clusters of musicians, as the cast, always on the move through the theatre, infiltrate the audience.
I’d seen the show on a winter’s night a couple of years ago in a spiegel tent on 45th Street; we were all handed glasses of vodka and plates of blinis. Somehow, amazingly, magically, this ongoing Broadway incarnation I saw last month captures the same feeling of inclusion in the story.
Dave Malloy’s offbeat score, with its strange and wonderful blend of contemporary and soulful Russian folk music flavours, is something to savour. The book has much the same blend; the characters often refer to themselves in the third person.
The Natasha, Denée Benton, is new. And who knew pop star Josh Groban as the melancholy Pierre would be so affecting? Most of the idiosyncratic the cast from the Off-Broadway incarnation are back. And so is that magical feeling of occupying a galaxy where comets are a sign.
The print media are teetering on the brink of the Great Beyond. Slutty media sensationalism is getting everyone down. So what could be more therapeutic than watching a screwball/ black-hearted satire sink its teeth into the newspaper industry?
The Front Page does it, with venomous comic zest. And here’s the kicker: Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s riotously blood-thirsty comedy is from 1928.
I sought it out — not least because the great Nathan Lane was burning up the stage, in what the New York Times called a 72-point headline of a comic performance. And he was leading an extraordinary ensemble of heavy-hitters that included John Slattery, John Goodman, Jefferson Mays, Sherie Rene Scott, Robert Morse….
We’re in the vintage press room of the Chicago Courts, where the competitively adrenalized ink-stained wretches are getting snarly on an over-nighter. They’re having to wait for an early morning hanging: an anarchist has killed a policeman. And their high-speed cynicism as they sniff out stories and jockey for angles, is matched by the corruption on the part of the sheriff and the mayor, who are making political hay being commie-baiters.
The Front Page captures the way the sensationalist squalor is fuelled by an addiction to the thrills of the deadline chase. Mad Men star Slattery plays a top-drawer reporter who, pushed by his fiancée, has promised to leave the biz and take up a respectable life in advertising (which got a major laugh from the audience).
Amazingly, Lane’s Walter Burns, the managing editor, doesn’t even appear onstage till late in the second of the three acts — a build-up of character mythology via everyone’s commentary and bellowing phone calls that would have felled a lesser performance. How could any actor live up to the hype? Walter Burns is an irresistible maniac, a monster of awfulness, topping one explosion with another. You can’t take your eyes off him.
And speaking as we are of monsters, the mother who redefines maternal feeling for all time — mainly by its absence — was back in New York. In honour of the 20th anniversary of Martin McDonagh’s break-out black comedy The Beauty Queen of Leenane, the storied Druid Theatre of Galway brought its revival to the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theatre, a clever re-invention of a blasted once-grand vaudeville house.
Marie Mullen, who had played the daughter two decades ago, was back this time as the infinitely vicious mother, a duplicitous spreader of misery and chaos, with Aisling O’Sullivan as the daughter, on the slow-simmer of resentment.
It’s impossible to imagine a tenser, more appallingly funny production than this one from Garry Hynes. The feeling of dread you acquire near the outset never abates; you laugh, and cringe at yourself for laughing. The production, poised to tour the world this year, reeks of absolute authenticity.
Funny thing about authenticity. You just feel it in your bones; you never quite recover from the lack of it. A Bronx Tale, a mediocre Chazz Palminteri/Alan Menken musical with a leaden morality tale and generic pop songs, is a poster child for that absence. Honourable exception to Nick Cordero as a Bronx thug who mentors the young protagonist as he comes of age.