PLAYBILL.COM'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, Aug. 6-12: FringeNYC Begins, Catch Me Ends, Porgy Gets Plenty O' Sondheim

News   PLAYBILL.COM'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, Aug. 6-12: FringeNYC Begins, Catch Me Ends, Porgy Gets Plenty O' Sondheim
 
I don't believe a letter to the editor has ever been newsworthy enough to make this column. Certainly, we've never led with such an item.

Stephen Sondheim
Stephen Sondheim Photo by Aubrey Reuben

But a thorough beat-down by Stephen Sondheim of the upcoming Broadway production of Porgy and Bess in the pages of the New York Times is not just any letter to the editor.

Sondheim read a recent feature about the production in the Times and didn't much like what the principals in the venture — director Diane Paulus, playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, who's sprucing up the book by DuBose Heyward, and star Audra McDonald — had to say about the iconic 1935 Gershwin folk opera. The creative team has been very open about their intension to rework the classic so that it might better appeal to a modern, musical-theatregoing audience. But Sondheim was having none of it.

"The article by [Patrick] Healy about the coming revival of Porgy and Bess is dismaying on many levels," wrote the composer. "To begin with, the title of the show is now The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess. I assume that's in case anyone was worried it was the Rodgers and Hart Porgy and Bess that was coming to town. But what happened to DuBose Heyward? Most of the lyrics (and all of the good ones) are his alone ("Summertime," "My Man's Gone Now") or co-written with Ira Gershwin ("Bess, You Is My Woman Now"). If this billing is at the insistence of the Gershwin estate, they should be ashamed of themselves. If it's the producers' idea, it's just dumb. More dismaying is the disdain that Diane Paulus, Audra McDonald and Suzan-Lori Parks feel toward the opera itself."

Diane Paulus
photo by Aubrey Reuben

And there was more. Much more. "Ms. Paulus says that in the opera you don't get to know the characters as people. Putting it kindly, that's willful ignorance. These characters are as vivid as any ever created for the musical theatre, as has been proved over and over in productions that may have cut some dialogue and musical passages but didn't rewrite and distort them. What Ms. Paulus wants, and has ordered, are back stories for the characters. For example she (or, rather, Ms. Parks) is supplying Porgy with dialogue that will explain how he became crippled. She fails to recognize that Porgy, Bess, Crown, Sportin' Life and the rest are archetypes and intended to be larger than life and that filling in 'realistic' details is likely to reduce them to line drawings."

McDonald caught Sondheim's whip, too. "Ms. McDonald goes on to say, 'The opera has the makings of a great love story … that I think we're bringing to life.' Wow, who'd have thought there was a love story hiding in Porgy and Bess that just needed a group of visionaries to bring it out?" (When Sondheim is mad in print, he can be very funny.) There's a lot more I could quote, paragraphs more and I would really love to. Really I would. Because it's great copy. But let's just say it was a bad day in Porgy-ville. No one likes to get dressed down by the most famous and talented man in the American theatre.

Of course, there was a response by Paulus. And of course that was printed in the Times, too. The director is currently in rehearsals in Cambridge, MA, where Porgy and Bess begins previews Aug. 17. Her statement said, "The entire creative team and cast have the most enormous love and respect for Porgy and Bess, and we are grateful for the support and encouragement we have received from the Gershwin and Heyward Estates for this production." Short and sweet, and rather approved-by-legal sounding. Not a defense of the approach, but then what do you say when Sondheim takes you out to the woodshed? Just shut up, keep your head down, and soldier on. And if the box office ticks up because of the feud, you quietly smile.

***

Catch Me If You Can, which officially opened at the Neil Simon Theatre April 10, will play its final performance on Broadway Sept. 4. When it closes, the new musical will have played 32 preview and 170 regular performances, which places it a far distant second to the first musical by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, Hairspray. The first national tour of Catch Me will launch in fall 2012 at the Providence Performing Arts Center in Rhode Island.

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Rent, the famous Broadway rock musical about a group of boho friends, lovers and artists in the age of AIDS which ran on Broadway for years following its 1996 debut, opened anew in Manhattan Aug. 11 in a freshly conceived production Off-Broadway, at New World Stages.

Matt Shingledecker and Arianda Fernandez in Rent.
photo by Joan Marcus

It was again helmed by its original director, Michael Greif, and back by the original producers Jeffrey Seller, Kevin McCollum and Allan S. Gordon Of course, the rhapsodic reviews that greeted the original production of the Jonathan Larson work are what propelled it to Broadway, a trove of awards and a lengthy life. So were the notices good thing time around as well? Well, no. Nobody was altogether negative; the material has proven assets after all. And a few reviews were quite positive. But more critics carped as much as they praised. "No attempt has been made to update the show, and its overall effect is essentially the same," said one. "All that's changed is the people in the audience." Another complained "there's no sense of kinetic energy, just strenuous bustle." Wrote another, "There were moments when the swirling, heart-plucking tunefulness and witty layering of Larson's score struck me anew. But without characters who are credibly grounded by the actors portraying them, the show feels slicker and more contrived than it did." The performances of the new cast were regularly compared unfavorably to those of the original, with one exception. Annaleigh Ashford's interpretation of the bi-sexual performance artist Maureen was applauded as a vibrant creation, one very different from that of Idina Menzel, who created the role.

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Andrew Garfield, who will be seen in the title role of the film "The Amazing Spider-Man," will make his Broadway debut in spring 2012 in the revival of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, it was reported. Mike Nichols will direct the production, which will reportedly open in March at the Barrymore Theatre, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman as Willy Loman and Linda Emond as his wife Linda. Garfield is scheduled to play their son Biff. If true, it's a very Nichols bit a casting; the director has always liked his stars, particularly young ones on their way up.

Andrew Garfield

*** Kevin Spacey will bring his Richard III, directed by Sam Mendes and booked for international engagements in the coming months, to the Curran Theatre in San Francisco Oct. 19-29, producers announced.

Richard III is currently playing to sold-out crowds at London's Old Vic Theatre. The newly announced San Francisco run is among 11 locations around the world that have been chosen to host the production; the schedule includes London, Epidaurus, Hong Kong, Aviles, Spain, Istanbul, Beijing, Singapore, Sydney and New York (Brooklyn Academy of Music). Which means Spacey won't have to bother booking thatround-the-world cruise he's always wanted to take.

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Finally, the 15th annual New York International Fringe Festival officially opens Aug. 12, and, presumedly, people will go. As will, more reluctantly, critics. The pre-press for this anniversary festival has been particularly harsh. Scott Brown's piece in New York magazine pretty much set the tone. "To know the New York International Fringe Festival is to hate it," the article began. "Each August, the New York International Fringe Festival unfurls its nearly 200 offerings, and we in the media throw our arms up in dismay," opined Time Out New York. "Who can cover so many shows? Which are the good ones? Can just anyone put on a Fringe play? (Sometimes it seems like it.)." The days of wonder and delight, when in the late 1990s critics wandered from venue to venue like giddy children with a free pass to the arcade, are distant memories surely.

One bright spot — and the one show that every reviewer in town will attend willingly — is Yeast Nation (the triumph of life), the long-in-coming follow-up to Urinetown from Tony Award-winning musical writers Greg Kotis and Mark Hollmann. Urinetown premiered at the 1999 Fringe Festival — those giddy days I mentioned above — prior to transferring to Off-Broadway and then Broadway in 2001. Yeast Nation (the triumph of life) has already sold out its entire run.

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