Thursday, April 29, 2010

Bulletin from Broadway No. 5: 'Sondheim' and 'A Behanding'

Tom Wopat in‭ ‬Sondheim on Sondheim.

By Hap Erstein

It is the rare New York season that does not see a production of an existing Stephen Sondheim musical,‭ ‬but the brilliant composer-lyricist has not had a new show on Broadway since‭ ‬1994‭’‬s‭ ‬Passion.

So those of us who remain in awe of his abilities to push the boundaries of the musical theater have had to content ourselves with revivals,‭ ‬such as the current‭ ‬A Little Night Music starring Catherine Zeta-Jones and Angela Lansbury‭ ‬--‭ ‬which I did not see,‭ ‬being advised to content myself with the memory of the original‭ ‬1973‭ ‬production‭ ‬--‭ ‬and with retrospective revues‭ ‬such as the recently opened‭ ‬Sondheim on Sondheim.

Conceived and directed by one of Sondheim’s collaborators,‭ ‬James Lapine‭ (‬Sunday in the Park with George,‭ ‬Into the Woods,‭ ‬Passion‭)‬,‭ ‬it attempts to do something that Sondheim discourages,‭ ‬blend his songwriting and his autobiography.‭ ‬When sets the show apart from past revues of his work are the frequent videotaped interviews with the man about his life and creative impulse.

Avid Sondheim fans may not learn much new,‭ ‬but the juxtaposition of his views and his craft is often instructive.‭ ‬It is taking nothing away from the revue’s entertainment quotient to note that the cumulative effect of‭ ‬Sondheim on Sondheim is that of a television variety show as conjured up by‭ ‬public‭ ‬television.

Singers on the order of Barbara Cook,‭ ‬Tom Wopat and Vanessa Williams are drawn to the challenges Sondheim’s music and lyrics,‭ ‬and here they get plenty of rewarding material to perform.‭ ‬Even those who know his musicals well may not be familiar with some of the outtakes and cut songs included here from‭ ‬Gypsy,‭ ‬Forum and‭ ‬Company.‭ ‬The show’s order of presentation seems haphazard,‭ ‬but on balance‭ ‬Sondheim on Sondheim is a satisfying way to celebrate his‭ ‬80th birthday this season.‭

‭ * * *

Christopher Walken in‭ ‬A Behanding in Spokane.
‭ (‬Photo by Joan Marcus‭)

If Sondheim changes chameleon-like from show to show,‭ ‬British playwright Martin McDonagh is reliably constant with his signature dark,‭ ‬grisly comedies‭ (‬The Beauty Queen of Leenane,‭ ‬The Pillowman,‭ ‬The Lieutenant of Inishmore.‭) ‬His newest work,‭ ‬the loopy,‭ ‬macabre‭ ‬A Behanding in Spokane‭ ‬is more of the same,‭ ‬it is a pleasure to report,‭ ‬except that it represents his first-ever play set in the United States.

When the tacky,‭ ‬torn curtain is drawn aside,‭ ‬we are in a fleabag Spokane hotel where a one-handed soul named Carmichael is holed up,‭ ‬continuing his‭ ‬47-year quest to find his missing left hand,‭ ‬severed when his arm was held down by blackguards on railroad tracks as a train approached.‭ ‬If that image does not sit well with you,‭ ‬pass on‭ ‬A Behanding,‭ ‬for that is only the beginning of this raucously comic,‭ ‬if insubstantial,‭ ‬romp.

Christopher Walken heads a dandy four-member cast as Carmichael,‭ ‬spouting the most unconventional line readings,‭ ‬with Anthony Mackie and Zoe Kazan as a couple of pot purveyors who try to peddle a hand of unknown origin to him,‭ ‬and Sam Rockwell as the philosophical desk clerk.

At a little over‭ ‬90‭ ‬minutes without an intermission,‭ ‬A Behanding in Spokane will probably always be thought of as minor McDonagh,‭ ‬but that does not make it any less entertaining.

Next:‭ ‬The Twyla Tharp dance musical,‭ ‬Come Fly Away

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