Inner Monologue: the Multitasked Critic’s Meandering Thoughts on Billy Elliott, Shrek, picking up the check, hugging artistic directors and marginalizing tall people

By Gwen Orel

I am way behind on this!  Expect another Inner Monologue sooner than later because doing two weeks at once is too cumbersome.  And I’m leaving out my meandering thoughts on the musical events, my own playreading, and the party at the new Forward building– at least for now– to focus on the plays themselves.

Billy Elliott

Friday, May 15

Tip:  Don’t get to the theatre early. Unless you love big crowds of people, standing in the street, and being funneled in as if it’s the six-lanes-to-one on the New Jersey Turnpike.  Pick up your tickets, if you don’t have them, the hour before, then come back at five to.

When is there going to be a separate section for tall people? Just as the show was about to start, two of the over-six-feet set came and sat in front of me and the petite-ish woman next to me. It was like sitting  behind a pillar. With all the craning and side-to-side movements we could have been in a belly dance class.

It has the reverse of the movie’s problems. I was a little disappointed in the Billy in the film because his dancing was less than exhilarating, but it was hard to strain disbelief that 14-year old David Alvarez was just now learning to pirouette– particularly when he was doing fouettes by the end of the act.  Great dancer, though.

Little David Bologna, who plays his young cross-dressing friend, has a face like a teensy Mick Jagger, and an almost frightening ability to work the crowd.

Lots and lots of people who attend musical theatre were not once hurting-inner-child homosexual little boys. The cross-dressing number goes on way too long. I know Ben Brantley (whom I heard opine that 9 to 5 is not gay enough) opened his review with “Your inner dancer is calling.” Huge, flashy oversized dancing dresses in little Michael’s song “Expressing Yourself” were just over the top.

I‘m with Terry Teachout of the Wall Street Journal:

In one of the fanciest numbers, a chorus of winsome miners’ children sings a festive holiday carol whose refrain goes like this: Merry Christmas Maggie Thatcher/We all celebrate today/Cause it’s one day closer to your death.

out-of-work miners apparently quickly learn how to make Jim Henson-esque puppets of all sizes, right? Yeah, right. Production numbers should still be plausible.

Terry concludes:

I’ve seen my share of bad Broadway musicals, but I can’t recall one that was quite so vulgar and bogus as “Billy Elliot.”

I did love Gregory Jbarra as Dad’s maudlin faux folk song at the party (which at least made sense), and his journey from bull-headed dad into physically comic, pratfalling but supportive bear.

Ghost Moms. Yeah, Ok.  The mom next to me wept when Billy said goodbye to Ghost Mommy. We also both got teary earlier when he read by heart the letter from Mom to his dance teacher, Mrs. Wilkinson, luminously jaded Haydn Gwnne. It may be a little cheap, but it works. Unlike the manipulative ghost son (THE SON IS DEAD!  THE SON IS DEAD! See “To Spoil or Not to Spoil” blog post) in “Next to Normal.”

Famous person shout out: I met up with Richard Rauh, a theatre critic and sometime producer from Pittsburgh, at Cafe Un Deux Trois on 44th Street after the show. Janet McTeer, Harriet Walter and others from Mary Stuart sat at a round table in back of us.  See them here:

Harriet in bun, sliver of Janet McTeer left of her, and Richard Rauh

Harriet in bun, sliver of Janet McTeer left of her, and Richard Rauh

At another table were much of the cast from Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, which is playing at the Belasco right next door to the restaurant. I bumped into Isiah Whitlock, Jr., who was in Romulus Linney’s “A Lesson Before Dying” at Alabama Shakespeare Festival when I first went there as Literary Manager in 2000. Small world.  Pics below!

Personal meander and Manners tip: Pick up the check if it’s your invitation. Never ever say anything like, “oh, you expect me to get that.” I did expect my older, wealthier colleague to buy my drink and dessert– he’d been contacting me for upwards of a month to meet up when he was in town (generally, the older, wealthier, or more employed offers; or, it’s my round, your round, if you’re the same age). Of course, rather than being stunned at manners mishap I should have laughed and said of course I do.

There is some old-school male-female stuff informing this, admittedly, but not entirely– my female editors also usually buy if we have lunch, and when I interview a source, I buy– and I don’t even have an expense account! This goes back to the underlying principle of who’s inviting, and whose time is being “bestowed.” Now, famous male interviewees rarely let me buy, but at least I offer.

It never hurts to look old-school.  Honestly, never.

***

Shrek

Saturday, May 16

I forgive DreamWorks and Disney. Staging hit children’s movies (or books)  for Broadway has its origins in big extravagant spectacles earlier this century.  Think The Wizard of Oz , which first appeared on Broadway in 1902 (that’s 37 years before the movie).

What an atmosphere of expectation. Kids like to hear stories over and over again.

The Broadway Theatre, between 51st and 52nd, is comfortable. Most aren’t. Great big lobby downstairs. Decent lobby upstairs. Couldn’t be more different from the Martin Beck, where the in-your-face-love-and-peace “Hair” is playing, where the crush is so bad by the time you make it out to the lobby at intermission, they’re flashing you back in.

Broadway-for-adults shout-outs are fun. Mama Bear echoes Mama Rose from Gypsy at one point.

Christopher Sieber on his knees, with fake legs making him look short,  to play the evil Lord Farquad, lets the audience in on the joke– great bit of theatricality. I hope he has a good chiropractor, though. Very funny when the chorines “lift” him in a dance and he’s actually just half-standing up.

Kids love fart jokes. Elated giggles, especially when Sutton Foster makes them right back to Shrek.

Things that fall from the grid– snowflakes, petals, sparkles– cannot be contained. There will always be a few falling in the first act and at the wrong places. So the big surprise at the end of all of the sparkly things is less than it might be. But fun anyway.

Nobody markets like marketers for kids’ shows on Broadway. The store for Shrek is great. I bought Shrek ears headbands and use them to wash my face. Very tempted to wear them down the street in NY. Picture of me in them here:

Meandering Critic in Shrek Ears

Multitasked Critic in Shrek Ears

***

Reflections:  One Acts by Resonance Theatre

Sunday, May 17

Read my review for Theatermania here.

Pair new works with classics at your peril. Classics are classics because something about them endures. Resonance’s mission is to pair new work with classic plays. This outing was particularly bad.

Don’t leave after your friend’s one-act. If you’re late, don’t sit on a chair that’s empty if it has a coat in it. People were coming and going (including one critic, who arrived at the end of the first one-act, without acknowledging that in his review, bad critic, bad critic– not me!) throughout.

Directors should not hover in the aisle near the audience. Particularly not when there are reviewers in the house. Tacky, tacky, tacky, Eric Parness.

Personal meander: Street fair on Ninth Avenue beforehand only made the dreary offerings seem that much drearier. But I have to say the 70s soul music playing from some of the booths was sounding particularly good. It’s time for a revival of 70s soul.

There should be a moratorium on all plays set in limbo in which characters take ages to figure out that they are dead. At least, nobody over the age of 14 should be allowed to write these plays.

***

33 Variations

Read my review in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette here.

When will Broadway standardize the pick-up-tickets advance-ticket lines? There were two windows, one line– an old woman went up to the one with nobody there and I went up behind her. At “Hair,” I waited for half an hour on the wrong line (advance ticket sales), and also at “West Side Story,” there was nobody at the pick-up line. Well, apparently, there was a sign– that only the people already in line could see, as it faced them– announcing that there was just one line.

Mood nearly spoiled going in by supercilious bitch who smiled smugly when the ticket-seller told us to get in the line, saying “it’s on the sign,” with fake helpfulness.  Supercilious bitch sat next to me. Her companion, maybe a photographer (had a big camera), smiled at me apologetically. He hated her too!

Tip:  Be nice to your fellow audience members.  If you must correct someone, do so when it can help– not after the fact to embarrass them.

Tip for any older actresses:  Know when to stop the plastic surgery. People who are 70 should not look 50. What I did not write, but will write here: Jane Fonda looks great. She also looks like somebody else. When did she get those protruding cheekbones, those slanted eyes? In contrast, Angela Lansbury in Blithe Spirit looks great– younger than 83, but still a senior citizen. The thing is, no matter how many lines are not there, 70 year old skin does not look like 50 year old skin, which does not look like 30 year old skin, which does not look 17. People end up just looking like mannequins.

Direct address works well as narration– less so as motivation. It’s fine when Dr. Brandt, the dying musicologist, addresses us as if she’s giving a speech, but when it’s just, well, an “inner monologue,” it’s boring.

Can playwrights stop with the cutesy stuff, already? Having the pilot of a plane announce that the plane is landing and then continue “if you’re reading a biography of Beethoven, put it down” gets a laugh– a cheap laugh.

Scenes about sex and older people get laughs and are nearly always cheap. Dr. Brandt’s daughter and German friend speculate about hiring her a gigolo, to the discomfort of the daughter’s boyfriend,. It has nothing to do with anything. If it doesn’t move the story forward, let it go.

Plays that take their shape from other genres are often arch. Here, the conceit is that the play is like the Beethoven variations the protagonist wants to investigate. That’s why it gets to tell its story through fugues that take place in two different times, why it sometimes folds in on itself, why it parallels scenes between Beethoven and Dr. Brandt just because it can.  A comparison of genres is no excuse for a play that rambles, folds in on itself, and shows off rather than telling its story. I feel the same way about plays inspired by paintings, or books, or films.

***

The Rivalry at Irish Repertory Theatre

Famous Person shout-out: New York Times critic and overall cool person Neil Genzlinger and New York Times editorial staff Suzanne O’Conner were there as well. In fact, we had drinks afterwards. Drinks and carpaccio. My brother Stephen cited the movie “Wall Street” and the line “Bring on the carpaccio.”

Read my review of The Rivalry in Back Stage here.

Tip:  Bring your lawyer friend to this show. Stephen likes theatre but he did particularly enjoy ruminating over when he studied this or that speech in Law School.

A show doesn’t need a great plot to be great. The enacted scenes primarily strained and I could have lived without the direct address by Douglas’ wife Adele (the show depicts the Lincoln-Douglas senatorial race debates of 1858, before the Civil War)– but the speeches have drama in them.

And I guess, great speeches imply great characters, even if we don’t dwell on the characters’ arcs. This is interesting and proves that it’s not just that 33 Variations has stock characters that the play is so forgettable.

Question: Why is someone always, always rustling something (a bag, wrapping paper, cellophane) for the first ten minutes of any show at Irish Rep?

Personal meander:  Artistic Director Ciaran O’Reilly gave me a candy bar from Dublin, and I gave him a hug. I think that’s OK because this is a jobbed-in show, not one he personally was involved in artistically. The artistic directors of Irish Rep are always around on press nights– heck, Charlotte Moore was in the box office (she liked my ring). Many critics are chummy with press agents (I tend to be cordial and task-oriented).

Critics are part of the theatrical world. I defend my decision to have playwrights and other critics and actors as Facebook Friends. My music editor at Time Out, Steve Smith, feels differently, but at least looking at the FB friends of fellow critics, he’s in the minority.

My definition: if I only see them when interviewing, reviewing or building a story, or if we bump into each other at events, we are cordial colleagues– not friends (even if we like each other a lot). Not, “did I ever see them socially– five, six, seven years ago.” Not “did I ever do a show with this person” (if it’s more than three years). If all of our emails are show-related and they’ve never heard me mope about my romantic life, they aren’t friends.

This only applies to theatre people, not fellow critics, though– I rarely see critics when not reviewing because critics have so little life outside of reviewing.  That doesn’t count.

***

Coming soon:  what is theatrical genius?  Reflections on Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, The Brother/Sister Plays, The Success of Failure

(Inner Monologue comments on attending these shows will be posted separately, and, I hope, briefly!  Have a great weekend!)

Last 5 posts by Gwen Orel

Posted on 30 May 2009 at 7:28pm
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1 Comment

  1. T. Cat said on May 30, 2009 at 8:32 pm

    I think Ms. Orel should perhaps save her notes for a theatre etiquette book for the 21st century. We need one now! Also love the musings on 33 Variations and the cute traps modern playwrights fall into.

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