In the early 1980’s, Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater and others with a similar aesthetic, gave American theater a shot of testosterone it desperately needed at the time. Self-identified as “rock and roll theater”, Steppenwolf’s style was raw and confrontational, its narratives populated by virile, troubled archetypes. The language was rooted in the American lexicon, a poetry of the streets.
The story begins in 1983, when a gala concert is scheduled in honor of Motown’s 25th anniversary. All the big stars will be there, but the very man whose name is synonymous with the legendary label refuses to attend. Embittered and abandoned, Gordy (Brandon Victor Dixon) wants nothing to do with the super-talents he discovered and nurtured, only to watch them seek bigger paydays elsewhere.
Everyone notices Jack’s flamboyant behavior and his sudden preponderance of cash. Jack evades their questions until, finally, he can no longer bear lying to his family. He finally confesses that he and his old-money wife Jenny are splitting up. Oh, and one more thing: Jack has embezzled 27 million dollars from the bank where he works.
All in all, the show is most remarkable for its performances, especially the lead. McClure nimbly captures both Chaplin’s physicality and the contradictory aspects of his personality. He is as cantankerous as he is vulnerable, uncompromising in his pursuit of his own vision even as he aches for approval.
Two of the standouts, Michelle Ramoni’s June and Nancy and Camilla Ammirati’s In the Ebb take place in very different times and places, but they share a common theme. Both stories include searching, imaginative female protagonists who struggle to discover themselves as they question the stability of their marriages.
Broderick gives a generous performance, turning on his patented man-child charm when called upon, but also stepping back and allowing his leading lady and sidemen plenty of space to maneuver. O’Hara makes an apt foil for him, as her persona, even in upbeat scenes, always carries an undertone of fragility.
Today, with The Book of Mormon taking irreverence to new heights and shows like American Idiot cranking up the power chords, any production of Superstar will have to rely on the score’s intrinsic qualities in order to compete for the attention of younger theatergoers. The good news is that the show’s construction holds up well.
This setup abounds with comic potential, and Diamond wrings plenty of laughs out of the awkward dynamics at hand. But there is much more here than just the usual dysfunction junction drollery. The youths, especially Taylor, have a lot to say about the way the world looks now, and much of their criticism is justified.
Luckily, any such anti-Tinseltown prejudices are quickly dispelled within the first few minutes of Private Lives. Cattrall and Gross, who both sport impressive theatrical résumés in addition to their IMDB credits, are perfectly at home with Coward’s pacing, elegance and theatricality. At the same time, they wisely steer clear of old school stiffness or stock deliveries of the play’s well known zingers.
Anyone who has been through the process will recognize the exasperation, drive and excitement of Dancy’s eerily accurate portrayal of a playwright birthing a new piece (although few of us look as good doing it). He is an apt foil for Arianda, who navigates the hairpin turns of the story with ferocious speed and stunning comic imagination.
Most haunting of all is the ballad Beautiful City, in which Christ speaks not of a kingdom of heaven awaiting us after death, but of faith in the possibility of a better world here on earth. The pained relationship between Jesus and Judas Iscariot is played with moving delicacy by Parrish and Smith. The crucifixion scene, which could easily have been cringeworthy, is instead cathartic and powerful, thanks in part to the way David Weiner lights its Rembrandt-like tableau.
In Woody Allen’s Honeymoon Motel, young bride Nina Roth (Ari Graynor) enters a gaudy roadside inn with not-so-young novelist Jerry Spector (Steve Guttenberg). They’re excited to get away from all the wedding hoopla and take pleasure in simple joys like pizza and tacky furniture. Obviously, this is no typical pair of newlyweds. In fact, as it is soon revealed, they aren’t a couple at all. Nina was betrothed to Jerry’s stepson, but has run off with Jerry in an impulsive moment.