Wednesday, April 13, 2022

Theater Reviews: What Defines Theater? The One-Man “The Patsy,” the Collective Voice of “Oratorio for Living Things” or the Huge Cast of Broadway’s “Paradise Square?”

The Patsy (c) Carol Rosegg

Theater Review: The Patsy 
By Transport Group at Abron Arts Center 

It is an understatement to say that David Greenspan is an acquired taste. As a playwright, director and mostly as an actor, Greenspan puts a unique spin on every project he takes. He plays the small role of a butler in a Broadway show, and then creates a one-man mini show about that character. It’s just how his mind works. Here, his brilliant and idiosyncratic mind has adapted “The Patsy,” a three-act play from 1925 (later made into a 1928 film with Marion Davis), into a whirling dervish of a solo play where he plays all the parts. Now the uninitiated, who after ten minutes realizes this, will think: “Is he going to play all the parts for an hour? Oh my God!” While fans (or as we like to call ourselves, the converted) will think: “He’s going to play all the parts for an hour. Oh. My. God!” The Barry Connors play itself is a family drawing room comedy in which two sisters’ rivalry in the pursuit of love threatens to tear their family apart. And, while it’s not a particularly memorable play, in Greenspan’s hands in collaboration with director Jack Cummings III, it becomes hypnotic with all the characters well-delineated through his goofy, exaggerated style. Even the uninitiated will at least admire the bravery of this approach, while the converted will wish he would do a different creaky play from the past every season. (Note, Greenspan’s next project is his take on Gertrude Stein’s “Four Saints in Three Acts” in Brooklyn.) I first saw Greenspan in 1991 in his own play, “Dead Mother, or Shirley Not All in Vain,” in which he played a man who must inhabit the spirit of his dead mother, and I was confused by his approach as much as I was tickled by the audacity of it all. And those who saw his Harold in “The Boys in the Band” or him singing “Over the Rainbow” in Terrance McNally’s “Some Men” will “Shirley” consider Greenspan’s performance style as a sort of rare singularity. He first performed “The Patsy” in 2011, which I saw and liked but not as much as I did this time around in 2022. It feels deeper somehow. I can’t wait to see what he’ll bring to the piece in 2033. 

Oratorio for Living Things (c) Ben Arons 

Theater Review: Oratorio for Living Things 
At Ars Nova 

“Oratorio for Living Things” is a hard piece to categorize. It’s being presented by Ars Nova, a theater group that has a history of redefining what a musical is. But an oratorio, according to Merriam-Webster, is “a lengthy choral work usually religious in nature consisting chiefly of recitatives, arias and choruses without action of scenery.” While an apt description, Heather Christian’s meditative piece about humans and our relation to the universe, especially when dealing with the pointless dramas we create for ourselves, a true oratorio is supposed to be presented without action, and Lee Sunday Evan’s production fudges this by having the super-talented cast and orchestra of 18 try to shape the story theatrically. If you come in thinking this is a musical, you might be hard-pressed to figure out why the cast, singing in Latin, seems to focus so much of their attention on what looks like a glowing cauliflower, all the while feeling like you’re in a religious revival meeting (there’s even an audience participation moment). I thought the two members of the cast with red shoes would turn out to be leaders of the group, but as time went on, it became clear that even though there are individual stories, these personal stories are only there to illuminate the whole, not to give a cast member any kind of personality trait. It’s a presentation of a hive mind embodied by 18 figures, although I was distracted by some of the movements and the intensity of some members’ stares (this is in very tight quarters, so if you’re still set off by Covid triggers, this may not be the show for you). At one point, two stories are sung at the same time and I realized I was listening to an OK story about spaghetti when I could have been listening to someone talking about the movie musical “Annie.” I always pick the wrong lane. I don’t know if I got on Christian’s wavelength or if the majority of pieces were sung in English, but I was soon won over by her message. Just don’t go into “Oratorio” thinking it’s a musical. It’s more like a very soothing but elliptical TED talk. 

Paradise Square (c) Kevin Berne

Theater Review: Paradise Square 
On Broadway at the Barrymore Theatre 

It’s rare I get to see a production of a musical at the beginning of its life and then to see its final incarnation, but I was at a preview of “Paradise Square” at the Berkeley Rep at the start of 2019 and here I am seeing it again three years and a pandemic later on Broadway. I was impressed with what I saw at Berkeley, but it seemed the authors wanted to include everything in the panorama that was the Five Points section of New York in 1863 in the style of “Ragtime,” which Garth Drabinsky, a producer of “Paradise Square,” also produced to great acclaim. This show is no “Ragtime.” The musical’s story of the haves and have-nots focuses on a poor but unique neighborhood in which its residents are a mix of both free blacks and Irish immigrants, living an uneasy but mostly steady peace. They have a common enemy in the Uptown rich who are starting to take notice of the growing political influence of Five Points. The many writers credited with writing the book of “Paradise Square” focus mainly on the denizens who populate the title bar and living establishment run by Nelly O’Brien (a ferocious performance by Joaquina Kalukango), a black woman who is trying to survive these times as her Irish husband fights in the Civil War. Into this bar, we get two young men (a runaway slave and a newly arrived Irish immigrant) and it is their equal but separate stories of dreams made and dashed that is the driving force of the action. But we also get a lot of other characters, including a ruthless mayor, a popular songwriter, a preacher involved in the underground railroad and a wounded soldier who finds no solace or work in New York. The show is more focused now than it was at Berkeley, but it does still have the burden of too many stories. The least interesting one regarding a dance contest the bar sponsors is the most successful because the choreography is led by the brilliant Bill T. Jones (among others) and whenever the story stops (the story should never stop) to let the dancing take over, you can at least see why this show is on Broadway. Director Moisés Kaufman does a good job delineating the many stories, and some of the songs have charm (if a bit too many on-the-nose lyrics), but we only really care about Nelly and that’s because Kalukango owns the stage whenever she’s on. Unfortunately, she gets lost at the start of Act Two. But she makes up for it with her “Let it Burn,” which is a tour de force eleven o’clock number. You won’t regret seeing “Paradise Square” but you will need to endure many extraneous elements to get to the prize.

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