Sunday, April 25, 2010

Bulletin from Broadway No. 1: 'Red,' 'Promises, Promises'

Alfred Molina in‭ ‬Red.

By Hap Erstein

Oh,‭ ‬the sacrifices I make for you,‭ ‬my readers.

I am currently in New York City,‭ ‬enduring a week of theater,‭ ‬to fill you in on the season here,‭ ‬either as a guide for your future visits to Broadway or to whet your appetites for potential touring editions to South Florida.‭ ‬Or,‭ ‬OK,‭ ‬just because I craved an immersion into good theater for my own sake.

So I will be seeing‭ ‬10‭ ‬shows in seven days and,‭ ‬if the WiFi holds out,‭ ‬posting daily dispatches from Manhattan,‭ ‬with more detailed reviews to come after my trip.

I arrived Saturday,‭ ‬a great sunny day with a crispness in the air that is so rare in Florida.‭ ‬My theatergoing began on a high note with a matinee of the play‭ ‬Red,‭ ‬a portrait of the work process and artistic aesthetic of obsessive,‭ ‬angry abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko.‭ ‬The production is a transfer from London’s Donmar Warehouse,‭ ‬but is written by American John Logan,‭ ‬best known for such screenplays as‭ ‬Gladiator,‭ ‬The Aviator and‭ ‬Sweeney Todd.

The play looks at Rothko in the late‭ ‬1950s,‭ ‬as he is readying a set of huge canvases commissioned by New York’s Seagram’s Building for its then-new Four Seasons restaurant.‭ ‬He mentors,‭ ‬instructs and verbally abuses his new assistant,‭ ‬spewing out his artistic philosophy along with his contempt for some of his fellow artists and his unappreciative clients.

Rothko is played with a fury by Alfred Molina,‭ ‬paired with Eddie Redmayne,‭ ‬who won the Olivier Award for his performance.‭ ‬The production is compact,‭ ‬full of heady ideas and a passion about the art of making art.‭ ‬Expect it to receive several Tony Award nominations.

I attended with Charles Passy,‭ ‬my former colleague on‭ ‬The Palm Beach Post,‭ ‬the restaurant critic who has just begun a new job covering the world of wealth management for‭ ‬The Wall Street Journal.‭ ‬Fortunately,‭ ‬he has kept his eye open for good places to eat and he introduced me to John’s Shanghai,‭ ‬a terrific Chinese place in the theater district.‭ ‬Try the soup-filled buns.

Sean Hayes and Kristin Chenoweth in‭ ‬Promises,‭ ‬Promises.‭
(‬Photo by Joan Marcus‭)

In the evening,‭ ‬I saw the final press preview of‭ ‬Promises,‭ ‬Promises,‭ ‬a musical from‭ ‬1968‭ ‬based on Billy Wilder’s sardonic comedy,‭ ‬The Apartment.‭ ‬It is a show I have always liked and I have held a grudge for the past‭ ‬42‭ ‬years that it lost the Best Musical Tony to‭ ‬1776.‭ ‬It has a very enjoyable score by Burt Bacharach and Hal David,‭ ‬their only foray into the musical theater,‭ ‬reportedly because Bacharach felt unable to control the sound in the theater like he could in a recording studio.‭ ‬He was disgruntled that performances of his songs would change night to night,‭ ‬which is exactly the essence of live theater.

I suppose you could complain that the score sounds dated,‭ ‬having that‭ ‘‬60s sound that typified what Bacharach churned out for his pop songs of the era,‭ ‬but it was a pleasure to hear it again in this first-ever Broadway revival.

Not everything in the production works,‭ ‬including the casting of Kristin Chenoweth as the female lead,‭ ‬stuck in an affair with a married executive at the life insurance company where she toils.‭ ‬The character needs to be vulnerable and a quart low in the self-esteem department,‭ ‬where Chenoweth comes on like her usual force-of-nature self.‭ ‬To bolster her role,‭ ‬two pop songs‭ ‬--‭ ‬I Say a Little Prayer and‭ ‬A House Is Not a Home‭ ‬--‭ ‬have been added for her.‭ ‬Both are terrific songs,‭ ‬but neither one fits her character or the dramatic situation snugly.

Making his Broadway debut is‭ ‬Will and Grace’s Sean Hayes as Chuck Baxter,‭ ‬the likeable,‭ ‬ambitious schnook who lends his apartment out to libidinous executives for extramarital quickies.‭ ‬He suffers by comparison to Jerry Orbach,‭ ‬who originated the role,‭ ‬but I suspect most of today’s theater critics‭ ‬--‭ ‬or audience members‭ ‬--‭ ‬do not go back that far.‭ ‬Hayes has a pleasantly musical singing voice and an amusing way with physical comedy.‭ ‬He is the best thing about the production.

Also looming over the show are memories of the great Michael Bennett’s original choreography,‭ ‬including an explosive dance number at the company’s Christmas party,‭ ‬set to some of David’s dumber lyrics,‭ ‬Turkey Lurkey Time.‭ ‬The original number,‭ ‬danced by a trio that included a young,‭ ‬agile Donna McKechnie,‭ ‬is classic.‭ ‬The new version,‭ ‬with steps by Rob Ashford,‭ ‬barely raises the ambient temperature.‭

Next:‭ ‬Another acclaimed play from London about a U.S.‭ ‬subject:‭ ‬Enron

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