Brown paper holds 'Panic' together

With money-spinning productions all over the world, “Wicked” is the tuner that put the green into greenbacks. But few of the show’s predominantly youthful audience has seen the pre-existing sequel onstage. That appears to be the thinking behind Andrew Lloyd Webber’s proposed new legit production of “The Wizard of Oz.”

Reportedly, Lloyd Webber will write additional songs with lyrics by Glenn Slater, the scribe entrusted with the same duties on Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” and the forthcoming “Phantom of the Opera” sequel “Love Never Dies.” Rumor was that Lloyd Webber favored the London Palladium as a berth — it’s owned by his Really Useful Group — were it not for the fact “Sister Act” previews there starting next month.

Yet little of this talk derives from anything substantial. Nothing has been inked, and there will be minimal movement on the project until 2010. While no director has been assigned, Jeremy Sams — helmer of Lloyd Webber’s hit revival of “The Sound of Music” — will write a new book for “Oz” the show. He may then go on to stage the production and, if so, his “Sound of Music” designer Robert Jones will step aboard.

Favorite things

“Brown paper packages tied up with strings” are clearly one of the favorite things not just of Maria von Trapp but also of Julian Crouch (“Shockheaded Peter,” “Satyagraha” and upcoming Broadway tuner “The Addams Family”). “Panic,” the new show from the inventive designer and the gleeful iconoclasts at theater company Improbable, does for plain brown paper what Carmen Miranda did for the banana.

Whether wrapping the actors, crumpled up to form a vertical bed, or rolled out as a projection screen, this paradoxically fragile substance holds the disparate 90-minute show together.

At its best, “Panic” is somewhat akin to a kaleidoscope. Abandoning linear narrative, it’s a succession of tangentially linked sections arising from improvisations about the Great God Pan, embodied in mostly whimsical fashion by actor and joint Improbable a.d. Phelim McDermott, with three other actors as his nymphs.

Yet despite beautiful imagery — a baleful face projected onto the paper appears to weep giant paper tears; the sly humor of a man almost drowning in self-help books — the disappointingly meandering show sinks beneath energies not fully sustained.

Healing touch

Brian Friel’s “Faith Healer” is a ghost story about the falsehoods of memory and the terrors of hope. But it, too, can meander without a strong director. Fortunately, the play’s latest revival is directed and designed by the meticulous Philip Wilson, a.d. of regional theater Salisbury Playhouse.

Of the four productions of this quietly shocking drama that I have seen, Wilson’s has the richest emotional range. Most revivals overly portend the incipient tragedy from the first of the play’s four consecutive monologues. Wilson and his actors build tension by letting the darkening mood slowly unfurl.

As the titular faith healer “fantastic” Francis Hardy, Connor Byrne doesn’t, as is traditional, begin as the wreck of a man he eventually becomes. The neatness of his physicality, the glint in his eye and his self-delighting humor allow us to see the showman as well as the qualities his two companions — tenderly played by Maggie O’Brien and Patrick Driver — fell so terribly in love with.

Wilson’s design is a masterstroke. With ranks of folding chairs facing upstage in the theater’s small studio space, he places everyone in exactly the sort of village hall the faith healer himself would have played. 

Together with his recent, heartbreaking productions of J.L. Carr’s WWI novel “A Month in the Country” and Terence Rattigan’s “The Winslow Boy,” this exquisite production proves Wilson has a Midas touch with emotionally sophisticated drama. Salisbury audiences are lucky to have him.

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