The dramatic question at the heart of this politically pointed musical comedy is, Which playwright would you bring back from hell to save mankind, George Bernard Shaw or William Shakespeare? The answer is Bertolt Brecht (or George S. Kaufman, or whomever you please). And that’s the problem with this sweet, earnest appeal to the gods of musical theater to bring a breath of hope to a civilization on the skids. The show doesn’t really believe the theater can save mankind, because it hasn’t the imagination to look beyond the obvious for playwrights and poets who might actually pull it off.
That the collaborators didn’t go deeper into the theatrical vaults is more a pity than a tragedy. But what the creatives do bring to the cause should cheer up theatergoers who have long despaired of seeing anything remotely political from indigenous scribes on stages north of Soho.
Gleefully raiding from the bulging grab-bag of American musical-comedy tradition, Nathan Lane, Stephen Sondheim and Susan Stroman concoct a brash and breezy style covering everything from burlesque and vaudeville to Broadway extravaganza.
While contributing six new songs to this version, Sondheim has wisely retained and smartly updated his hilarious “Instructions to the Audience,” warming up the crowd with cheeky lyrics like “When there’s a pause, please/Lots of applause, please./And we’d appreciate/Your turning off your cell phones while we wait.”
And once the principals make it to the underworld where the Frogs await (in William Ivey Long’s gloriously gaudy Day-Glo costumes), helmer Stroman pulls out the stops and delivers a production with so much manic energy and cheerful vulgarity that it should be obvious why the theater crowd is always dying to get into hell.
As the star of his own party piece, Lane makes an endearing top banana. Baggy eyes drooping from the troubles he’s seen, corners of his mouth turned up in wistful pursuit of a smile, his eternally optimistic sad-sack clown proves the ideal persona for Dionysos. With his laurel-winning perf of the life-affirming Greek god of theater and wine, Lane skips ahead with what appears to be his master plan to push legit theater into a comic renaissance.
As scribe, Lane gives Dionysos good reason to embark on a trip to the underworld — to bring back to a world “starved of food for thought” a writer “who can speak to the problems of our society and give us comfort, wit and wisdom — and also challenge our complacencies.” Athens, the heart of the civilized world, is staggering from years of war with Sparta. It’s “a war we may not be able to win, a war we shouldn’t even be in,” he reminds Xanthias, the slave he has recruited to shlep his huge bag of togas and toiletries.
Xanthias, in a shrewd second-banana performance by rubber-faced funnyman Roger Bart (who took over the role from “SNL” veteran Chris Kattan only days before opening night) has the well-honed survival instincts of a canny slave. Although he’s too politically unengaged to make much of a foil for Dionysos, he knows enough to wonder what the government might have to say about this unauthorized trip they’re taking.
“Have you listened to our leaders?” Dionysos replies. “Words seem to fail them — even the simplest words.”
At this early point, the show is already miles ahead of Burt Shevelove’s 1974 farcical treatment of the material, which focused on the theatrical wars of the period (between scrappy nonprofit experimentalists and moribund Broadway) and tried its damnedest to argue that theater was still relevant in an age infatuated with movies and television.
In one key respect, Lane’s version also has it all over the antic parody written by Aristophanes himself. When Dionysos is presented with a choice between the great, thundering Aeschylus and the more humane and compassionate Euripides, the Aristophanic choice was the militaristic Aeschylus — who could fire up the Athenian populace’s flagging belief in heroes. (Lane would be flayed alive if he tried that one on the Lincoln Center aud.)
But in keeping Shevelove’s updated choice — between the cerebral pacifist George Bernard Shaw and everyone’s favorite poet of the heart, William Shakespeare — Lane misses his golden opportunity to offer contemporary auds a broader, more provocative field of candidates.
In Daniel Davis’ robust and superbly focused perf, Shaw makes an eloquent case for himself, scoring big with Joan of Arc’s heart-stopping speech before she is dragged off to the bonfire. But though Will Shakespeare wins passage home with the gorgeous “Fear No More” from “Cymbeline,” it’s not the palpable hit it should be, in Michael Siberry’s perf.
And let’s face it, it’s a woefully narrow field (even when Pluto, god of the underworld, offers to throw in Ibsen if Dionysos would only take the talky Shaw off his hands). Visionary playwrights like J.M. Synge, Karel Capek and Joan Littlewood certainly would have something to say for themselves, if given the chance.
For his part, Sondheim takes his larky assignment with laudable commitment to its political (if not always singable) intentions. In addition to composing witty (“Dress Big”) and romantic (“Ariadne”) songs that are appealing in context, he gets off some sharp lyric lines that could play just as strong at a political convention. “Don’t just shrug/Content to be a conscientious slug,” he urges aud at the end of the show. “Speak up! Get sore!/Do something more than just deplore.”
The soggy parts of the show don’t really have anything to do with the burlesque style of the comedy, either. There are no flies (or frogs) on John Byner’s cackling Charon, who arrives in an airborne boat with a hefty supply of strong weed to escort Dionysos and Xanthias across the River Styx. Peter Bartlett is the perfect host as Pluto, who has turned Hades into a fun spot with gracious dinner parties and endless orgies. Even the muscle-bound and humorless Herakles, who thoughtfully provides his half-brother Dionysos with practical travel tips and a more imposing wardrobe, is a hoot in Burke Moses’ straight-faced perf.
This is all funny stuff, but it can’t make up for the fact that, once established, the political throughline never becomes integral to the book. There’s no pressing need (no time-clock plot device ticking and no villain trying to stop him) for Dionysos’ mission and therefore no real urgency to his trip. Consequently, Lane and Bart are under the constraint of being funny just for the sake of being funny.
Once Dionysos gets to Hades, the happy denizens of this Las Vegasy resort have no stake in his quest and no interest in what the idiots back on earth are up to. Lane further neglects to give the playwright contestants a vivid sense of what they will be up against should they care to accept the mission of saving this sorry civilization from ruin. Even the menacing Frogs, who represent the political status quo, are underwritten, their arguments, like those of the Chorus, overwhelmed by the circus antics of the fun-loving hedonists in Hades.
Exhorting auds to speak up and “get sore,” as Sondheim puts it, is all very well and good. But a satirist with genuinely subversive intentions (and sharper teeth) — like Aristophanes — would put more bite into it.