Bright lights, Big Apple

LARRY BLACK December 7 1987

Bright lights, Big Apple

LARRY BLACK December 7 1987

Bright lights, Big Apple


Defying the stock market slump and predictions of an economic downturn, New York theatre is off to its best start in more than five years. The loss of a half-trillion dollars on the New York Stock Exchange this fall has done little to dampen audience enthusiasm for the glitter of the Great White Way and its off-Broadway tributaries. Theatregoers are flocking to emotional and gritty dramas—including the Canadian production of Tamara. And in even greater numbers, they are going to revivals of Cabaret and Cole Porter’s Anything Goes—and to the imported London musicals Me and My Girl, Les Miserables and Starlight Express. Theatre attendance is up 16 per cent over last year, and musicals account for more than three-quarters of box office receipts. The trend seems almost certain to ensure the success of another musical opening in New York this week: Serious Money, a biting black satire of stock market trading by Caryl Churchill, which continues to draw sellout, pinstriped crowds in London’s West End.

Churchill began writing Serious Money long before last year’s major trading scandal hit the front pages. But her script has many of the elements of the current stock market drama: ruthless corporate raiders, frantic commod-

ity traders and dishonest stock salesmen. And although the action is set in London’s financial district, its cynical message about greed travels well. As one broker predicts “five more glorious years,” Serious Money ends on a note of unintentionally wicked irony.

Another hot new ticket on Broadway is Cole Porter’s Depression-era musical Anything Goes, the merry tale of heiresses, gangsters, sailors and fun-lovers on a London-bound transatlantic

ocean liner. Director Jerry Zaks guides an able cast through their songand-dance paces aboard the gorgeous art-deco ship deck designed by Tony Walton. And Patti LuPone {Evita) as Reno Sweeney, the singerturned-evangelist who manages a group of dancing girls, the Angels, thrills audiences with her rendition of Porter’s much-loved You're the Top and I Get a Kick Out of You.

The revival of Cabaret, 21 years after its debut, is also a hit. The musical is set in the decadent world of Berlin, just before the Nazis came to power. The current production owes its strength to Joel Grey’s mesmerizing performance as the sleazy emcee

at the Kit Kat Klub. Grey, who starred in Bob Fosse’s 1972 movie version and in the Broadway original, makes the musical worth reviving.

Composer Stephen Sondheim once said that all successful musicals are fairy tales that peddle comforting fantasies. But his latest collaborative work, Into the Woods, contradicts that statement. Binding several traditional fables, Sondheim and librettist-director James Lapine have invented a disturbing adult fantasy about the loss of innocence. After the first act’s happy ending, the musical turns darkly sinister. First, a wicked witch (Bernadette Peters) screams at the heroes and heroines, “You’re not good; you’re just nice.'' As if to prove her right, romantic princes turn out to be philanderers, and widow giantesses thunder

through the magical forests demanding vengeance. Although occasionally lacking coherence, Into the Woods succeeds through virtuoso storytelling— and Sondheim’s lean and moving music.

The weakest of the new musicals is Teddy and Alice, a flag-waving extravaganza based on the relationship between President Theodore Roosevelt and his difficult daughter. The show manages to make audiences thrill to the days of American innocence, but the script is simplistic. It is saved ultimately

by the jaunty performance of Canadian Len Cariou, who won a Tony Award in 1979 for his starring role in Sweeney Todd.

Other Canadian actors and shows are also prominent in New York. The most talked-about production from north of the border is John Krizanc’s Tamara, which has been playing to preview audiences at the converted Seventh Regiment Armory for three weeks but has its official opening night this week. Originally staged as part of the Toronto Theatre Festival in 1981, the play has been transplanted from Los Angeles, where it is still playing to capacity crowds after three years.

A tale of lust and intrigue in Mussolini’s Italy, Tamara—whose New York production has a largely Canadian castis also an elaborate whodunit. A Fascist guard (August Schellenberg) greets playgoers in the grand lobby and warns them not to get caught wandering the halls alone. Then, spectators are free to follow one of several characters, including poet Gabriele d’Annunzio (Frederick Rolf) and glamorous Polish painter Tamara de Lempicka (Sara Botsford) through the lavish recreation of a villa—past fistfights, sumptuous meals and steamy love scenes. As in Los Angeles, many New Yorkers are already making return visits—despite ticket prices that range from $111 to $177.

But the most impressive Canadian performance so far in the 1987 season has been in Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, a play about over-40s single people struggling with romance and intimacy. Edmonton’s Kenneth Welsh (Loyalties) plays Johnny, a short-order cook who makes love one night with a waitress named Frankie (Kathy Bates)—and immediately begins to discount the possibility of falling in love with her. But suddenly, Johnny stops himself and decides that this night, with this woman, he is going to make a stand against loneliness and resignation. As a man who has decided to change his life radically, Welsh displays often frightening intensity.

The foreign invasion of Broadway, led by the blockbuster London musicals, has been strengthened this season by Hugh Whitemore’s drama Breaking the Code. Yet the English play—based on the story of Alan Turing, who deciphered the Nazi “enigma” code and helped the Al-

lies to win the war—is impenetrable. Whitemore fails to make the story of Turing, a homosexual who committed suicide when he was 41, dramatically compelling.

English director Peter Brook’s marathon production of the East Indian epic The Mahabharata is easily the most de-

manding and ambitious work now playing in New York. Running for more than 10 hours and featuring 30 performers from 18 countries, it is a dramatization of the world’s longest poem—a Sanskrit compilation of folk legends, history and ancient religious texts. But The Mahabharata still manages to achieve Shakespearean intensity with its tangled saga of love and war—in which elephant-headed gods rub elbows with mortals, and two sets of royal cousins engage in a feud that leads to Armageddon.

On a simpler level, Lanford Wilson’s Bum This succeeds because it bares the souls of its characters. A story of relationships in the era of AIDS—although the disease itself is never mentioned— the play focuses on modern urbanites who have fortified their emotional immune systems so well that true passion cannot penetrate. Anna Mann (Joan Allen) is an aspiring New York choreographer. When Pale (John Malkovich), the abrasive, painfully honest older brother of her recently deceased gay roommate shows up, he challenges the other characters’ defences. He forces Anna, her writer-boyfriend and her remaining roommate to confront their buried emotions. As a man who keeps shaking his fist at smugness and deceit, Malkovich leads a superb cast with a bravura performance.

Three of Broadway’s most successful plays deal with the black experience in America and Africa. August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1986 play, Fences—starring the magisterial James Earl Jones as a Pittsburgh sanitation worker—deals affectingly with a man who hides his feelings from his wife (Mary Alice) and son (Courtney Vance). Driving Miss Daisy, set in Atlanta from 1948 to 1973, explores how a crusty old Jewish woman (Dana Ivey) and her black chauffeur (Morgan Freeman) surmount the barriers of race, class and sex.

By contrast, Sarajina! deals with the stark reality of modern-day South Africa. Set at the Soweto high school that was the scene of the infamous 1976 riots in which white police killed more than 100 students, the show compellingly takes g audiences into the young § people’s daily lives. Dark ^ and painful, Sarajina! ¿ still has a largely hopeful S message. Unlike escapist performance musicals for troubled times, it looks squarely at human suffering—but still manages to buoy audiences with a life-affirming song and a dance.