Performance diary: SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM, A COOL DIP IN THE BARREN SAHARAN CRICK, and THE BOOK OF GRACE

April 6, 2010


March 31 –
Somehow I thought Sondheim on Sondheim was going to be just a concert, a variation on Side by Side by Sondheim with a somewhat bizarre array of Broadway singers: veteran Barbara Cook, TV star turned trouper Tom Wopat, pop star Vanessa Williams, Taboo star Euan Morton, industry favorite Norm Lewis, and up-and-comers Leslie Kritzer, Erin Mackey, and Matthew Scott. I was shocked when suddenly there was video of Sondheim himself (beautifully shot in high-def) talking about his life, the shows, songwriting, theater, and his collaborators – a cross between a documentary and a master class. It’s a little slow and flat at first. The first act is basically and-then-he-wrote, somewhat generic, a lot of the information pretty familiar to Sondheim fanatics. The second act feels a little less predictable and more substantial. And there are revelations along the way – personal revelations, most notably the composer talking with astonishing intimacy about his relationship with his toxic narcissistic mother Foxy and how Oscar Hammerstein provided the parenting he needed to survive; but also revealing commentary about the shows and his retrospective thoughts about them. Merrily We Roll Along’s Franklin Shepard points directly to Hal Prince (I didn’t realize until intermission that it was a bespectacled and somewhat chubbed-up Euan Morton singing “Franklin Shepard, Inc.” – very well, by the way), and Sondheim says the only song he’s ever written that he would consider strictly autobiographical is “Opening Doors,” which is about his relationship with Mary Rodgers and a composite of Arthur Laurents and Burt Shevelove. He also says that Assassins is the only show of his he can look back on and not find anything he would change – the rendition of “Something Just Broke” delivered by this ensemble is one of several high points. This revue (conceived and directed by James Lapine, whom Sondheim obviously trusts to the nth degree) makes a good case for the underrated Passion in a long sequence featuring Cook as Fosca. She’s ever-so-slightly shaky at times – she is, after all, 82 years old! – but another high point of the evening is Sondheim’s succinct disquisition on the difference between a poem and a song lyric, followed by Cook singing “In Buddy’s Eyes,” which illustrates his points precisely. Vanessa Williams impressively understates “Losing My Mind” (and has the guts to sing it sitting a few feet away from Cook, who’s owned it for years) and does a great job with the song Sondheim wrote for Diana Rigg to sing in the London production of Follies, “Ah, But Underneath.” Andy and I both responded to its fiendishly clever lyric, especially this verse:

In the depths of her interior
Were fears she was inferior.
And something even eerier.
But no one dared to query her superior exterior.

The most emotionally involving portion of the show had to do with the creation of Company, an opportunity for Sondheim to talk about his own experience of relationships, briefly alluding to his conflicted experience of being gay and revealing that he sat Mary Rodgers down and took notes on a yellow legal pad while he interviewed her about her two marriages to collect ideas for the show. And then we get to hear the three different finales he wrote for Company (“Marry Me a Little,” “Happy Ever After,” and “Being Alive”) – something that numerous Sondheim revues have done but never more effectively. I was in tears by the end. For all the zillion times I’ve heard singers belt their way through “Being Alive,” no one has ever sung it better than Norm Lewis (a handsome, super-talented actor-singer who is just one key role away from being a superstar). The climax of the song almost always come across a little screechy, but not in this show – Lewis delivers it so creamily as if the high notes are right in the middle of his range.

April 2 – Kia Corthron takes on one big sociopolitical issue with each of her plays, and with A Cool Dip in the Barren Saharan Crick it’s water, considered from 19 different points of view. A young theology student from a Ethiopian village with no indoor plumbing can’t stop flushing the toilet even though his host family in suburban West Virginia is trying to be super-conscientious during drought season….dams being built to siphon off and sell electricity after flooding towns and relocating whole populations…bottled water and its implications (the fallacy of safety, empties going to landfill rather than recycling, bottling plants creating jobs but also noise and air pollution)…the commodifying of natural resources…baptism and other spiritual uses for water…Dr. Emoto’s experiments with the impact of positive and negative statements on water samples…all this and more is crammed into the two and a half hour play. Not one of Corthron’s finer moments, sorry to say. The dialogue and exposition are unusually clunky, not helped by playwright-director Chay Yew’s clumsy staging. Cool Dip comes across as a somewhat tedious term paper – not scintillating theater, but I will say I got something out of the term paper. I’m definitely on the same page as Corthron about bottled water and have long been on the same campaign against it. New York City tap water is extraordinarily drinkable, and free! Corthron inevitably asserts influence on everybody’s conscience in her vicinity – the concession stand at Playwrights Horizons sells no bottled water but provides free drinking water and paper cups with a bin for not just recycling but composting the used cups. (see below) Who knows how long that system will continue, but I applaud the effort. I went with Marta, the Norwegian sex therapist, who is gratifyingly game to attend serious drama, even when it’s not great, like tonight. We met Andy afterwards at Marseille and polished off two bottles of a delicious white Bordeaux.

April 3 – Suzan-Lori Parks is another playwright I’m always interested to follow, to see what her quirky poetic theatrical mind is cooking up these days. In recent years she’s veered away from her early Gertrude-Stein-meets-Adrienne-Kennedy explosions toward more conventional drama. She won a Pulitzer for Topdog/Underdog, her most straightforward play, and with The Book of Grace at the Public Theater (formerly titled Snake) she’s strayed into pulpy B-movie territory, fiddling around with clichéd characters in soap-operatic situations with an overlay of less-than-convincing political commentary. I found the play pretty ludicrous and felt sorry for the actors playing Mean White Military Guy (John Doman), Perky Abused-in-Denial Sex-Starved Waitress Wife (Elizabeth Marvel, no less), and Angry Abused Sneaky Criminal Black Guy (Amari Cheatom).

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