Broadway Bloggin': Day 4

Kind of a lazy Saturday. The hustle and bustle around Manhattan’s theater district subsides somewhat on the weekends, at least on Saturday morning before the tourists wake up. Wandered down to 40th Street to browse in the Drama Book Shop, an historic hangout for actors and writers, but a wonderful store for anyone who loves theater. I bought a script for Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, August Osage County, which is coming to southwestern Ohio in September when it will be co-produced by Dayton’s Human Race Theatre and Wright State University.

Other than that excursion, I had a double-header theater day with a matinee of David Mamet’s new play Race in the afternoon and an evening performance of the ’80s Arena Rock musical Rock of Ages in the evening.—- Talk about a contrast. But it was a good reminder that you really can’t categorize the shows that happen here — there’s something for everyone, from fans of serious drama to people who simply want to reminisce about Rock & Roll that was the soundtrack of their adolescence.

Race:

I didn’t know much about this drama other than the fact that it’s a new script by David Mamet, a playwright I admire, and it has an impressive cast — Richard Thomas (all grown up since The Waltons and today a fine, serious actor), Dennis Haysbert (who played the U.S. President on 24 for several seasons and is an honest face selling insurance in commercials today) and British comedian Eddie Izzard. The fourth cast member, Afton C. Williamson, held her own as Susan, a young African-American attorney, working with two law firm partners Jack Lawson (Izzard) and Henry Brown (Haysbert).

In the rapid-fire first act (hey, that’s the way Mamet writes — words come at you like bullets from an automatic weapon), Charles Strickland (Thomas), an affluent white man, arrives seeking counsel in an imminent case: He’s been charged with raping an African-American woman in a hotel. He claims he’s not guilty of the charge, although he does not deny he was having relations with her. He’s walked away from another firm and seems to have chosen this one because it has a reputation for being aggressive — Izzard’s character is clearly a hot-shot attorney — but also because it has other attorneys who are black. They press him with many questions; he’s evasive and defensive. They move him to another room and continuing discussing the case, but there is a lot of divided opinion, most of it surrounding issues of racial perspective.

They take on the case, but there is still much disagreement. It takes on more facets when Susan challenges Lawson about her own hiring, since she’s learned he had her background thoroughly checked. More issues of the chasm between white and black, the seesaw battle of words and opinions is the fuel that drives this rapid show — it takes about 90 minutes, with a 12-minute intermission. Each act ends rather abruptly, with an opinion hanging in the air, leaving the audience to pass judgment. The performance I attended (perhaps just a half-house, I guess this is not fare that tourists seek out on a Saturday afternoon) was mixed racially and reactions varied significantly: Several men were vociferously debating issues raised in the men’s room during intermission, and I eavesdropped on more conversations while leaving the theater. That’s the kind of provocation that good theater can offer, serving as a catalyst for thought on prickly matters.

My only reservation about Race had to do with the performance itself. Mamet’s dialogue is tough to deliver, meaty but terse, so directors tend to have the actors race through scenes. That certainly happened in this production, but it needed a few beats at key moments so that a point could sink in or we could see the doubt on an actor’s face. As it was, we hurtled through the action so quickly, it was tough to let some of the issues sink in. I was surprised that Izzard, who I enjoy as a wry comedian, was actually the most convincing. Haysbert’s role is somewhat underwritten, so his natural straightforwardness was his best credential, not what he had to say. As the accused, Thomas’ part is more one-note, he’s more of a springboard for the others to debate, but he suffered particularly from hurrying through his speeches. Williamson’s delivery was natural and effective, but her part is a smaller one, although it builds momentum as the play progresses, and she has a slam-dunk at the end.

I’m not sure that this combative piece will make it to a Cincinnati theater anytime soon, but it would be a great piece to stimulate conversation about issues we too often avoid.

Rock of Ages:

Let me admit quickly that I had low expectations of this show. It was at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, directly across the street from the Ethel Barrymore Theatre where I saw Race, but Rock of Ages seemed from another era and continent altogether. I’m not sure what the legendary critic Atkinson (or the highly regarded actress Barrymore, for that matter) would have made of this musical fueled by tunes that were the stock in trade on MTV in the mid-1980s. I was not paying much attention to the likes of Bon Jovi, Pat Benatar, Poison, Journey, Twisted Sister, REO Speedwagon or Whitesnake, although I must say that as their songs roared at me in my fourth-row seat, I recalled hearing those powerful, driving melodies on the radio.

Inspecting the audience at the theater, I could see that lots of other people had paid attention. I was in the midst of a group of fraternity brothers who graduated from the University of Tennessee in 1989. They knew every song (several of them had been in a band, I was told), and while they looked like 40-something businessmen today, they were rocking out at this Broadway show. As was most of the audience. Beer and drinks are sold throughout the show and welcomed wherever you sit; when the show was over, the Barrymore (built in an ornate but conservative style in 1928) was littered with empty cups and cans, glitter from cannons, handbills flung into the audience and more. What would Ethel have thought? I’m not sure. But I can assure you the crowd had a blast.

The term “jukebox musical” covers a lot of territory these days. There is no original music here, and the styles vary widely from blasting Metal to soaring power ballads, but what Rock of Ages has in common with the best of such shows (like the unendingly popular Mamma Mia) is its use of songs to advance a story, often in an unexpected, tongue-in-cheek manner. When Pat Benatar’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” is sung by two geeky characters who suddenly transform into passionate protesters, it’s downright funny. And REO Speedwagon’s “Can’t Fight This Feeling” is a duet for two guys who run a L.A. Metal club that’s been doomed by developers, a goofy paean to their oddball friendship.

The show is not simply a grab-bag of hits from the glory days of Arena Rock. It has a tried-and-true plot that is right out of Broadway storybook history: The L.A. strip is threatened by an evil German developer (and his Twinkie son), so the musicians rise up to have a last-gasp concert by the band, “Arsenal,” that put the club, The Bourbon Room, on the map. Arsenal’s drugged-out lead singer, Stacee Jax (James Carpinello), has left for a solo career, but he’s back to have his way with the women. Drew (American Idol veteran Constantine Maroulis), an aspiring guitarist and singer, is working as a janitor at the club, but he daydreams about musical stardom and gets a shot at being the opener for the big show. He’s infatuated with Sherrie (Emily Padgett), a starry-eyed actress — blending the hair and gleaming smiles of Farrah Fawcett and Olivia Newton-John — who gets a job as a waitress and, eventually, a stripper. They come apart (thanks to Stacee), then back together thanks to advice from Justice (Michele Mais), the goodhearted proprietor of the strip club.

Holding all this foolishness together is Lonny (Mitchell Jarvis), the Bourbon Room’s sound guy — but in reality the crazed narrator of the piece. He sets up the story, then, wearing crazy T-shirts from the period, pops in and out to fill in details or move things along. Jarvis is a high-energy performer who literally flings himself around the stage, talks a mile-a-minute and finds humor in the silliest things, and he is the comic glue that holds together this show that The New York Times described as “seriously silly, absurdly enjoyable.”

That pretty well sums it up: I was caught up in the fun everyone was having, even though the music was only vaguely familiar. I suspect if you have sharper memories of radio Rock tunes from the ’80s, you’ll enjoy this one a lot at the Aronoff Center when Broadway in Cincinnati presents it this fall (Oct. 26-Nov. 7). I hope that the 2,700 seat Aronoff Procter & Gamble auditorium doesn’t sterilize the show (it’s more than twice the size of the Ethel Barrymore), because the raucous — or should I call it “rock-us”? — ambiance is what this show is all about.

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