Performance diary: I’LL EAT YOU LAST, HERE LIES LOVE, and MURDER BALLAD

May 14, 2013

One of Broadway's biggest stars is back — as one of Hollywood's biggest star-makers! BETTE MIDLER returns to Broadway as the legendary Hollywood superagent in I'LL EAT YOU LAST: A Chat with Sue Mengers.  For over 20 years, Sue's clients were the talk o
5.10.13
  I’m enough of a diehard Bette Midler fan that I would pretty much pay to see her recite the alphabet. I’ll Eat You Last, the one-woman play by John Logan (subtitled “A Chat with Sue Mengers”), is not nearly that minimal, and yet walking away from the show, which made me laugh and entertained me well enough for 90 minutes, I couldn’t help thinking, “What a strange little nothing of a play.” When the curtain rises, after flurry of name-droppy celebrity voicemails, the first words out of her mouth are “I’m not getting up.” And she doesn’t. Playing the semi-legendary super-agent, she doesn’t do much more than sit on the sofa drinking and smoking and telling stories about her famous clients – the first time she saw Barbra Streisand sing in a crummy nightclub, how she pestered William Friedkin into hiring Gene Hackman for The French Connection, how Steve McQueen ruined Ali McGraw’s life and career. I suppose in Hollywood this might pass for substantial drama, but on Broadway it seems like pretty thin soup. It is reasonably well-staged by Joe Mantello, with an amusing little bit of audience interaction. And when I think back on the final moment of the play, when the star wanders offstage in a marijuana haze, what registers strongest is the sadness the playwright mentions in his program note, and I have some appreciation for the fact that the play does have an emotional core that makes its impact, weirdly, by never being mentioned or addressed. No matter what kind of life you’ve led, it’s over all too soon, close friendships evaporate, and things that were once all-important now seem pretty inconsequential.

5-10 andy bette

5.11.13 Another figure from recent history radiates from the center of Here Lies Love at the Public Theater, the musical about Imelda Marcos that began life as a concept album by David Byrne in collaboration with Fatboy Slim.

here lies love logo

The 2-CD album featured a parade of female pop stars singing the songs: Cyndi Lauper, Tori Amos, Natalie Merchant, Martha Wainwright, Florence Welch, Nellie McKay, Kate Pierson of the B-52s, and Shara Worden from My Brightest Diamond, to name the most famous. The show is staged by Alex Timbers, who blew up the Public Theater with Les Freres Corbusiers’ production of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and works similar magic here, casting the show as a karaoke disco party with the audience on their feet, the singers performing to tracks, and everybody constantly shifting all over the room. It’s a little hectic but a lot of fun for everyone, and an ingenious solution to a show that would never have withstood some kind of stodgy conventional mounting.
Here Lies Love Public Theater/LuEsther Hall
It’s really a series of fairly mundane pop songs running through the basic outline of La Marcos’s rags to riches life. The political history of the Philippines during the Marcos era is pretty crazy and we get a breezy recap with no real depth or analysis. It’s sort of Evita crossed with The Donkey Show but beautifully performed by a knockout cast of mostly young Asian actors, snazzily dressed by Clint Ramos, with choreography by Annie-B Parson that meshes impeccably with Timbers’ multimedia staging. Nothing gets belabored. Ruthie Ann Miles is sublime as Imelda. And the title song, which opens and closes the show, becomes an instant, persistent earworm. I’ve heard worse.

here lies love disco

The show has been extended through June 30, and I overheard an usher saying that it’s likely to be extended again through July.

5-12 tom ben murder ballad

5.12.13 Ben and Tom (above) offered to take me out to dinner-anna-show for my birthday, and I picked Murder Ballad at the Union Square Theatre, because the musical by Julia Jordan and Juliana Nash got such rave reviews when it opened at Manhattan Theatre Club’s City Center space. We all left underwhelmed by Nash’s score, which wants to be Next to Normal, and Jordan’s play, which tries to sustain crime-story suspense and poker-game symbolism but boils down to a generic boy-girl love triangle. Trip Cullman went to great lengths to dress this tiny rock musical up with an environmental staging, plunking the action in the middle of the theater, audience on both sides and seated amidst the action in a barroom setting with cabaret tables that the actors climb all over throughout the show.
murder ballad seating chartThe actors are appealing and hard-working – Will Swenson, John Ellison Conlee, Rebecca Naomi Jones, and (replacing Karen Olivo) Caissie Levy. But despite the fact that they’re singing nonstop (there’s virtually no spoken dialogue) at least half the time I could not make out the words coming out of their mouths. I left with much more appreciation for the simple composition and delivery of the songs in Here Lies Love, which offered the audience the kindness of letting the words be heard. We had a yummy meal afterwards at Craftbar.

murder ballad logo

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