Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Road Trip to Road Show

Road Show
When the cast recording of Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman's musical Road Show became available, I wrote extensively about its improvement on Bounce, an earlier version of the show that I'd seen in Chicago.  See my reflection here.

Having now seen a production directed by Gary Griffin set in a smokey saloon at Washington / Arlington's Signature Theatre, I can say that the show is a delight from beginning almost to the end.

One pleasure is just what we expect from the Sondheim brand, the polished rhymes, always pointing up something funny, something heartbreaking, something true.  But Sondheim and his collaborators "rhyme" in ways beyond words. At any given moment, a line of dialogue or song resonates with something that we perceive later, and Gary Griffin's staging emphasizes parallels between one decisive moment and another.  There's pleasure simply in perceiving the ingenuity behind the seamless integration of elements.  That was true of Bounce, as well.  

But Road Show gets at the heart, too. The very first song builds to a strong emotional confrontation.  as the ensemble pronounces snide judgement on Addison Mizner's life at the moment of his death: "Waste" of Addison's talent, waste of "the one that [he] loved."  As the Mizner brothers, Josh Lamon (Addison) and Noah Racey (Wilson Mizner), set up the theme of "Brotherly Love" in a charming, believable sung dialogue about a moment when Willy took care of Addie.  Racey made "Wilson" so charming that he seduces us with his personal credo in a song called "The Game," never to settle for what one has but to stake everything on the turn of the next card.  

Much of the joy in this show comes from sharing in Addison's discoveries, first of art, then of love.  These are expressed through music, dialogue, and staging.  The ensemble wordlessly encourages him to envision the kind of wildly eclectic architecture that could encompass a stage full of souvenirs from his failed ventures abroad.  He finds a kindred spirit in young Hollis Bessemer (Matthew Schleigh), and there's joy in the song "You" as admiration and love for each other builds with their business of building mansions for millionaires at Palm Beach.  (Weidman's invention stands out, here, in Addie's exuberantly wacky history behind his eclectic creation, along these lines: "Then the Moors invaded and added a breakfast nook by the pool....")  The song "Best Thing that Ever Happened" is remarkable for many reasons, not least of which is Sondheim's brazen use of just one tone, one rhythmic pattern, and lyrical variations on the title to take the characters through a range of thoughts and feelings.  It builds to a tender moment, very satisfying.  When Hollis joins with Wilson to tempt Addison to give up all they've achieved for an outrageous new venture, "Addison City," we're caught up in the excitement.  

What follows is inevitable, given the true life story of the Mizner brothers, and the pattern set up from the start. It's also a downer.   Sondheim and Weidman couldn't avoid the business fiasco at Boca Raton, but I did feel bafflement at the sudden turn in Addison's relationship with Hollis. I could write an essay to justify it, but nothing about it felt right. 

Road Trip
I'm not big on traveling anymore, but I'm glad I made this exception.  I've been to Washington many times, usually with a busload of middle schoolers, ever since I myself was in 7th grade.  This time, friend Susan and I Ubered past the monuments and toured instead a place that felt like home to us, the NPR national headquarters.  We even exchanged words with critic Bob Mondello about Road Show.  We saw reporter Melissa Block in her office, the "tiny desk" of the eponymous concerts, and the cubicles where reporters prepare those news updates every hour.  

We had a simple lunch at a vast French bistro, empty but for a hundred white-clothed tables, an attentive staff, and us.  We decided it must be a front for the CIA.  At the National Portrait Gallery, we paid homage to old friends whom we know through their words more than through images.

We also ate a lot of fast food.   I was glad to get back to the routine.

[First Photo: Stefan Alexander Kempski (Ensemble), Angela Miller (Ensemble), Noah Racey (Wilson Mizner), Jacob Kidder (Pianist), Bobby Smith (Ensemble), Matthew Schleigh (Ensemble) and Erin Driscoll (Ensemble) in Road Show at Signature Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman.]

[Second Photo: Matthew Schleigh (Hollis Bessemer) and Josh Lamon (Addison Mizner) in ROAD SHOW at Signature Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman.] 
[Third photo: Yours truly with Henry James, National Portrait Gallery.]

[Fourth photo:  Friend Susan and yours truly in North Carolina, birthplace of Hardee's.]

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Deep Parody: Coen Brothers' Hail, Caesar

Here's a cheesy metaphor for the wonderful film  Hail Caesar:  It's like lasagna, layer on layer of parodies, personalities, and cultural history, all warmed with faith, hope, and charity melted on top.

Part of the pleasure lies in seeing the layers.  We can imagine Joel and Ethan Coen with buds brainstorming around a table.  So, it's Hollywood, 1951:  What was in the zeitgeist, then?  Gene Kelly musicals, H-Bomb, Esther Williams water ballets, pastel-colored kitchen dramas, Gene Autrey's singing cowboy films, films noir, Red Scare, Biblical epics in Technicolor, actors with fruity accents in highbrow scripts, theologians who were household names, and the H-Bomb.  What if, they must have laughed their heads off, asking,  What if Communists kidnapped the Charlton Heston conservative and brainwashed him?  What if a Priest, a Preacher, an Orthodox Patriarch, and a Rabbi walk into a movie studio?  What if the studio head decides to fill the role of blase blueblood in a highbrow drama with a drawling musical cowboy?  

Holding all these elements together is studio executive "Eddie Mannix," played by Josh Brolin.  He's like the hard-boiled detective with the pure heart.  His unstinting efforts to contain crises bubbling up among the stars of a half-dozen films constitute the action of the movie.  But the story is just one simple choice he has to make, put to him at a lovingly recreated tiki bar by a rep from Lockheed:  Will Mannix take a job that will allow him time to see his wife and children, doing something "serious" for mankind?  "Seriousness" is signified by a photo of an H-Bomb blasting the Bikini Islands to smithereens.  Or will he continue to give heart, soul, and all his days and nights to the frivolous Hollywood film industry, already in decline as TV rises?

For every temptation to join the military-industrial complex,  there's a scene in a confessional booth with an exhausted Priest.  My friend Susan and I have puzzled over the way religious faith and socio-polical idealism emerge as themes in the movie.  The true believers are all comical, and the Biblical epic is ridiculous. Yet Brolin's character takes his faith seriously, the communist stooges make sacrifice for their cause, and we're led to see a speech about "faith" as a sincere moment in the epic (even while we snicker at the "tasteful" presentation of Jesus on the cross).  We don't conclude with some writers that this is some kind of statement about religion, except in the broadest sense of What Really Matters in Life, and that turns out not to be building H-Bombs.

The long-standing rap on the Coens is that they know everything about movies, and nothing about real life.   I feared this movie would leave a sour taste like the last of theirs I saw, another Hollywood parody called Barton Fink.  Instead, Hail, Caesar is relentlessly joyous, exuberant, and sweet.