There are some marvelously staged musical comedy gems in this two-hour-plus ode to the 30-year collaboration of composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb, but the total impact doesn’t live up to its more glittering moments.
Director Scott Ellis and choreographer Susan Stroman, along with co-creator David Thompson, have eschewed narration or text in favor of a non-stop song-and-dance revue of 31 songs.
Stroman has wisely and inventively staged the numbers around the talents and limitations of her ensemble, but director Ellis has not solved the problem of sustaining the thrust of what is in reality an extended cabaret revue.
The responsibility for making this marathon medley work rests primarily on the five-member ensemble of Joel Blum, Shelley Dickinson, Marin Mazzie, John Ruess and Karen Ziemba (the 1991 Drama Desk Award winner for her performance in the New York production of the show).
When they’re working together, this quintet manages to create a few scintillating showstoppers, including the caffeine-frenzied “Coffee in a Cardboard Cup” (from “70, Girls, 70”), a Chaplinesque “The Rink” on roller skates, an intricately inventive “Money, Money” (from the film version of “Cabaret”) and a harmonically sophisticated Manhattan Transfer-like vocal rendering of the title song from “Cabaret.”
Individually, results are mixed. Ziemba (with able assistance from Ruess) commands the stage in the sexy tour-de-force “Arthur in the Afternoon” (“The Act”) but is not up to the vocal demands of the haunting ballad “Quiet Thing” (“Flora, the Red Menace”).
In solo spots, Ruess’ beautifully modulated tenor voiceis put on excellent display with the title song from “Kiss of the Spider Woman” but his talents are defeated by such lackluster ballads as the title song from “The Happy Time” and “We Can Make It” (“The Rink”).
Dickinson, who opens the show with a shaky solo turn on “The World Goes ‘Round” (from the film “New York, New York”), is at her best when teamed with Mazzie in the ironically comical “Class” (“Chicago”) and the delicious “The Grass Is Always Greener” (“Woman of the Year”).
Blum and Mazzie delight whenever they are on stage. Blum stands out with dance/vocal virtuoso performances of the hilarious “Sara Lee” and the sadly funny “Mr. Cellophane” (“Chicago”).
Mazzie’s vibrant mezzo voice fills every corner of the theater with her solo turns on the wistful “Colored Lights” (“The Rink”) and the potent “Isn’t This Better” (“Funny Lady”).
The economical scenic and lighting designs by Bill Hoffman and Phil Monat, respectively, highlight the evening well; and aside from a few minor glitches, Gary Stocker’s sound design is unobtrusively efficient.
Special credit should go to musical director David Loud and his mini show-band for providing a powerful undercurrent to the show and marvelous backing for the performers.
Two-act musical drama by George C. Wolfe based on stories by Zora Neale Hurston, produced by San Diego Repertory Theater. Director: Thomas W. Jones; musical director and arrangements: Kevin Moore; scenic design: Victoria Petrovich; costume design: Mary Larson; lighting: Ashley York Kennedy; sound: Jeff Ladman. Reviewed Oct. 14
Cast: Tom Byrd, Osayande Baruti, Brian Chandler, April Grace, Kevin Moore, Ren Woods.
SAN DIEGO–Adapting short stories to the stage can get sticky, especially when–as in Zora Neale Hurston’s works–they depend on richly colorful narrative. George C. Wolfe and director Thomas W. Jones, however, have hurdled that obstacle and wrapped three Hurston tales into one engaging creation.
Their technique relies greatly on recitation, using one or more background characters to fill in details while foreground action continues, often in pantomime and in a stylized, theatrical pace.
The show isn’t officially choreographed, but it’s like dance theater. Jones moves the six-person cast around with a fluid, sensuous grace, adding an apt once-upon-a-time quality to Hurston’s folkloric snippets from the African-American experience in the early to mid-20th century. For years, Hurston’s writings fell into disfavor because many blacks considered them demeaning. Now, thanks to recognition from Alice Walker and other writers, Hurston is justly celebrated for her keen and perceptive capturing of the rich language as well as her portrayals of ordinary people, flawed but ever so human.
Wolfe’s program here comprises “Sweat,””Story in Harlem Slang” and “The Gilded Six-Bits.” In the first, set in rural Florida, a wife gains ironic revenge against a sadistic husband; the second hilariously re-creates a verbal confrontation between two slick and zoot-suited gigolos; and the finale focuses on a poor but loving couple who run into serious trouble over the wife’s misguided effort to get a gold piece for her man to wear. It’s a well-chosen combination, providing a good balance of laughs and cries, spiced with musical bridges featuring Guitar Man (Kevin Moore) and Blues Speak Woman (Ren Woods). Moore’s lively guitar and harmonica and Woods’ powerful gospel-operatic voice repeatedly enhance the spirit, with special verve in the uplifting title number.
Also notable in the cast, uniformly rangy and versatile, are Osayande Baruti, full of braggadocio as one of the Harlemites and quietly strong as the wronged husband, and April Grace, who plays both wives as well as a streetwise target of the dueling dandies.
That trading of insults, laden with ’40s lingo and delivered as rapid-fire jive, requires concentration–and a study of the program’s helpful glossary–but it’s well worth the effort.
Mary Larson’s costumes instantly define the characters and show to great effect in the right-on zoot suits. Victoria Petrovich’s spare set basically consists of wooden planks, both in the floor and in the geometric assemblages suggesting locales. Ashley York Kennedy’s lighting and Jeff Ladman’s sound serve unobtrusively.