Thursday, November 19, 2009

Theater reviews: Brice, greed, and graphic novels

Marya Grandy as Fanny Brice.

By Hap Erstein

The Maltz Jupiter Theatre opens its subscription season with a world premiere musical biography of Ziegfeld Follies comedy star, Fanny Brice. Of course, there already is a perfectly good show about Brice, 1964’s Funny Girl, but it is rarely revived, in part because of its elaborate production numbers and in part because of the hard-to-top original leading performer, Barbra Streisand.

Commissioned by the Maltz, writer-director David H. Bell (of last season’s Noises Off!) calls his musical Fanny Brice: The Real Funny Girl. That leads one to expect it to debunk the exaggerations or fabrications of the earlier show. Oddly enough, however, Bell’s musical sticks closely to the narrative of Funny Girl throughout his first act, without any differences of substance. The second act is mainly about Brice’s third marriage, to blowhard impresario and shorthand expert Billy Rose, but it only serves to underline the fact that she had no skill at choosing husbands.

The score consists of existing songs from Brice’s time, either numbers that she sang or could have. Surely the fact that they are almost all in the public domain cannot be a coincidence.

The best thing about the production is Marya Grandy, who sings well and clowns even better. She gets to show off the latter skill on a dance spoof called Becky Is Back in the Ballet, in which she cavorts deftly. The rest of the underpopulated cast numbers only three, another decision that seems more about keeping costs down than artistic vision.

In any event, this Fanny Brice show leaves one wanting to see Grandy in the real Funny Girl.

FANNY BRICE: THE REAL FUNNY GIRL, Maltz Jupiter Theatre, 1001 E. Indiantown Road, Jupiter. Through Nov. 24. Tickets: $36-$52. Call: (561) 575-2223 or (800) 445-1666.

Terry Hardcastle and Peter Haig
in The Voysey Inheritance.

As odd as it sounds, the main reason the Caldwell Theatre chose to produce British playwright Harley Granville Barker’s 1905 drama The Voysey Inheritance is its topicality. Yes, there is Victorian stiffness to its style, but you would have to have avoided all news media over the past 18 months not to think of Palm Beach-based financial flim-flam man Bernie Madoff as you watch this tale of the Voysey family’s investment business, built on a Ponzi scheme.

It collapses on Edward Voysey (Terry Hardcastle), the conscientious son of the scam’s architect. When he brings the discrepancies in the ledger books to his father’s attention, the old man not only acknowledges it, but tries to convince Edward to play along. After Voysey dies, Edward announces to the rest of the family how their wealth was made, but they shrug off any share of responsibility.

The script that Caldwell artistic director Clive Cholerton has chosen is a streamlined adaptation by David Mamet, who has staked much of his career on the machinations of con men. Sticking to the formal verbal style of the period, his characters speak in complete, articulate sentences, rather than the conversational fragments for which he is known. That has a way of making the situation seem less urgent, diminishing the emotional stakes, turning the play into too much of a cerebral exercise, though still intriguing.

Like Madoff’s victims, Cholerton threw financial caution to the wind in selecting a play that calls for 12 actors, but at least he was able to attract some of South Florida’s best. In addition to Hardcastle as priggish Edward, standouts in the not-a-weak-link company include Peter Haig as pragmatic, wily Mr. Voysey, Jim Ballard as Edward’s hotheaded, militaristic brother Booth and Dennis Creaghan as a longtime client who learns his holdings have disappeared.

THE VOYSEY INHERITANCE, Caldwell Theatre Co., 7901 N. Federal Highway, Boca Raton. Through Sunday, Dec. 13. Tickets: $34-$55. Call: (561) 241-7432 or (877) 245-7432.

While we wait for Julie Taymor’s Spider-Man musical to arrive or implode on Broadway and its budget spirals past $50 million, head to Naked Stage’s postage stamp-sized stage on the Barry University campus, where it is premiering Macon City: A Comic Book Play, in a surprisingly involving production that looks like it costs about $1.17.

If you want to be reminded that the best theater can be distilled down to “a plank and a passion,” the Pelican Theatre in Miami Shores is where you want to be.

The script is by Miami’s Marco Ramirez, a young emerging playwright with a fixation on graphic novels, currently enrolled in the dramatic writing program at Juilliard. He knows the vocabulary of the comics -- probably learned firsthand as a youngster -- and he blends it with classic mythology of good-versus-evil.

The story in the sketchy, 55-minute-short evening feels cobbled together from any superhero crime-fighter lore you would care to name. It’s something about a once-flourishing urban landscape now under the thumb of corrupt politicians and mere bad guys. But this is anything but a plot-driven exercise.

Like graphic novels, Ramirez writes dialogue in capital letters, where subtlety is not a consideration. But he has able collaborators in set designer Antonio Amadeo and especially director Jon Manzelli, who transform his skeletal words into dazzling images. The effect is like a trailer for a summer movie that you are drawn to see.

As usual, the villains have the best roles, as Hugh Murphy and Alan Darnay demonstrate. The former is dealt two parts, that crooked mayor and an out-of-control killer whose face resembles the mayor’s, thanks to a deft skin graft. The latter is a standard issue mad scientist, elevated to rock star.

No, Macon City is not for the Eugene O’Neill crowd, but if you want to see something with brawn that attracts that South Florida Holy Grail -- a young, eager audience -- check out what Naked Stage is up to.

MACON CITY: A COMIC BOOK PLAY, Barry University Pelican Theatre, 11300 N.E. 2nd Ave., Miami Shores. Through Nov. 29. Tickets: $25. Call; (866) 811-4111.

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