Woman Around Town’s Editor Charlene Giannetti and writers for the website talk with the women and men making news in New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities around the world. Thanks to Ian Herman for his wonderful piano introduction.
Twenty-two years ago, Glenn Close won the best actress Tony Award as silent screen star Norma Desmond. She’s back and better. That’s pretty much all you need to know about this pared down production which comes to us from a successful run in London. The piece itself was never substantial. Unlike Hello Dolly or Gypsy repeated year after year as actresses yearn to execute star turns, both music (Andrew Lloyd Webber) and lyrics (Don Black/Christopher Hampton) here are pedestrian. It should be noted, however, that songs will probably never sound better as performed by a 40! piece orchestra and engineered by Sound Designer Mick Potter.
Glenn Close, Michael Xavier
Transitioning from Billy Wilder’s 1950 film, Sunset Boulevard also lost the pith of the noir aura which, in its initial form, was as morbid as Nathanael West’s 1939 The Day of the Locust. Whereas William Holden’s young screenwriter Joe Gillis was already bitter and cynical, musical theater actors have played him increasingly more innocent and/or compassionate.
The line culminates in Michael Xavier’s portrayal. A good singer and actor (not to mention eye candy), Xavier is made to sympathize with Gillis’s benefactor to such a degree, we lose the repulsion and self loathing, mercenary attitude prevalent in the original. The former is completely defanged by referring to Norma as 50 years old when, in fact, she’s supposed to be 40-50 years his senior. (Kisses should elicit shudders and don’t.) The latter appears as an afterthought. I lay these issues at the feet of Director Lonny Price, though Close may have demanded the age change.
The Company at Schwab’s
With the show’s orchestra taking up most of a sizable stage, Lonny Price must shift his characters around and above with both visual adroitness and attention to story location. He does so. An overlong party scene of youthful movie hopefuls is graphically upbeat, aided and abetted by Choreographer Stephen Mear’s exuberant moves.
For those of you living under a rock, the synopsis: chased by collectors who will shortly repossess his car, Gillis accidentally wanders onto the grounds of once celebrated, silent screen star Norma Desmond. With the conniving and protection of butler Max von Mayerling (Fred Johanson, who seems more like a cardboard Munster than an ominous obsessive), the former toast of Hollywood lives in a gilded fantasy of return to her public.
Michael Xavier, Siobhan Dillon
When Gillis learns Norma’s written a massive script in which she expects to play 16 year-old Salome, he signs on to doctor it and shortly ends up living on premises, coddled, gifted, owned. An inadvertent side romance with attractive wannabe writer, Betty Schaeffer (the very fine, fresh, and credible Siobhan Dillon) comes to naught as Norma finds out and takes violent action.
The role of proud, desperate, unbalanced Norma is less camp than frequent embodiment in Glenn Close’s well practiced hands. Older and perhaps more understanding of the diva’s emotions, Close gives us a terrified woman fighting for life as she knows it. She’s persuasively obtuse, imperious, raging, joyful – oh, the expression on her face watching Norma’s film or dancing with Ellis!, and mentally unmoored. Though vocals can be thin or off key, the performer never loses focus or verisimilitude. The audience, having raised Close to a pantheon of appreciated survivors, greets every big number with extensive applause. Three separate bows evoke cheers and stomping.
James Noone’s imaginative set utilizes metalwork scaffolding, balconies and stairs to great effect, though performers get a taxing workout. A vertical daisy chain of chandeliers is marvelous as is a floating cadaver. To my mind, the Schwab’s (Drugstore) sign is way too small to allot significance. Mark Henderson’s Lighting Design offers far more nuance than mere gridwork might inspire.
Tracy Christensen does an able job with Costumes which live visually well together and appear period apt. Anthony Powell’s Costume Design for Glenn Close is both wonderfully over the top and flattering without seeming high camp – until the last scene when dressing for an early film purposefully reflects madness. Charlotte Hayward has alas toned down Norma’s exaggerated Make-up.
Photos by Joan Marcus Opening: Glenn Close
Glenn Close inSunset Boulevard
Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Book & Lyrics by Don Black & Christopher Hampton
Directed by Lonny Price
47th and Broadway
The show’s title refers, of course, to the ladies having been conjoined at the hip as twins Violet and Daisy Hilton in Broadway’s Sideshow, a state which this evening exploits. Separate careers include Ripley’s appearance in Next to Normal, which garnered her a Tony Award, and Skinner’s most recent starring role in Big Fish. The club is packed for this return engagement – on a Tuesday night- at 9:30. In fact, our table is shared by two devoted women fans here on vacation from Sweden who have tickets for consecutive shows and own all three duet CDs.
Clearly written and directed by its performers, the piece could be tighter and funnier. Gushing about one another goes on too long, pseudo jealousy jokes are mugged. There’s no question these women are talented singers, however. Performance and range are similar making duets balanced. Both project with power and confidence.
An anthem-like “I Will Never Leave You” (Bill Russell/Henry Krieger- Sideshow) is aborted several bars in when the ladies realize they’re “on the wrong side,” i.e. not in the accustomed configuration formerly shared eight shows a week. The four song Friendship Medley that follows has Ripley and Skinner executing dance steps locked at the hip. Awkwardness makes this fun, even recalling the terrific choreography of Sideshow.
“Best Friends” (theme from The Courtship of Eddie’s Father) and “She Needs Me” (both Harry Nilsson) seem as if they can’t work in tandem, but do. Randy Landau’s bass takes very cool rhythmic lead, Jeff Potter’s brushes are smooth and sandy. Vocals veer to pop. Another highlight, “Tonight You Belong To Me” (Billy Rose/Lee David), emerges partly in harmonized a capella buoyed by lilting bass. Back to back and side by side the seated ladies sway until joined by John Fischer, whereupon the three play kazoos.
Skinner imbues “I Don’t Need a Roof” (Andrew Lippa from Big Fish) with history and heart. One can palpably feel the pain of facing her husband’s mortality. Her rendition of “When It Ends” (Michael John La Chuisa) is sheer noir; biting and royally pissed off. Though understated, the artist is an actress at all times. We buy her sentiments.
On the other hand, Ripley’s excerpt from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Memory,” ostensibly proving she should have gotten the role of Grizabella in the upcoming revival of Cats, evidences no history, no despair. This was unfortunately also the case in the vocalist’s rendition of “As If We Never Said Goodbye” (Andrew Lloyd Webber/Christopher Hampton/ Don Black-Sunset Boulevard) which, though it ricocheted off the walls, additionally lacked desperation.
Alice Ripley, Emily Skinner (back-Randy Landau)
The usually delightful “Bosom Buddies” (Jerry Herman from Mame) also lands with a thunk. Every emotion is telegraphed rather than wryly indicated with deadpan brio that should serve the wicked froth.
Shaina Taub’s “Reminder Song” is interesting and effective: Three cheers for agony /A toast to the pain/ Hats off to everything that leaves a scar /For reminding me who my friends are… The artists seem serious and grateful. Carly Simon’s rarely heard “Two Little Sisters”: Two little sisters gazing at the sea,/Imagining what their futures will be….is a sweet way to close.
This is an extremely mixed bag that would benefit by a director.
Photos by Maryann Lopinto Opening: Emily Skinner, Alice Ripley
Alice Ripley and Emily Skinner: Unattached John Fischer-piano, Randy Landau-bass, Jeff Potter-drums Feinstein’s/54 Below 254 West 54th Street Through July 25, 2016 Venue Calendar
Already broadly celebrated in Paris and London, Florian Zeller’s 2012 “tragic Farce” (the playwright’s term) places us squarely in a mind suffering from advanced dementia. That’s an oxymoron. One cannot be squarely inside anything whose parameters are frighteningly mercurial. Intimates are unfamiliar, geography morphs beneath one’s feet, time shifts back and forth, oblivious and cruel. Yet we are there, wherever there is, almost as surely as Zeller’s protagonist, André, The Father (Frank Langella).
An elegant, upper middle class Frenchman who was probably never likeable, André fights the onset of this disease with a long unassailable ego and every ounce of his considerable strength and intelligence. It’s as if Prospero (The Tempest) took on the typhoon called forth by his errant brain. We watch as self-sacrificing daughter, Anne (Kathryn Erbe) futilely tries to get him at-home help who can withstand his anger, confusion, and indignant denial.
The play is a succession of scenes divided by blackouts with painful, flashing, proscenium lights – brain synapses? At first, we’re in André’s tasteful, bourgeois apartment shortly after his latest caregiver has fled in tears. He tells Anne that, among other failings, the woman stole his watch – André’s compass and an ongoing concern throughout. When it’s found in a cupboard behind the microwave where he stashes valuables, her obstinate father declares the only reason it wasn’t purloined is that he hid it. Why is Anne so unsympathetic, he demands, why is she not like the younger daughter he prefers?!
Brian Avers, Frank Langella
Every time the lights go off and on, time and place alter unsequentially. In the first vignette, Anne, who is divorced from Antoine (Charles Borland), says she’s moving to London to be with her lover, Pierre (Brian Avers) and must find a solution to her father’s inability to care for himself. In the next, André is living with Anne and a resentful Pierre to whom she seems to be married; then Antoine appears as her spouse. Both men seem to be current, both are not at first recognized. One of them repeatedly slaps the 80 year-old which is viscerally shocking. André regresses to a whimpering child.
One moment Anne appears to be a completely different woman, a blonde (Kathleen McNenny). In the next, she is ‘herself.’ A newly hired aide, Laura (Hannah Cabell), looks just like André’s absent daughter, who, spoiler alert, turns out to be long dead. The actor who plays Antoine shows up as a doctor; the blonde as his nurse.
Kathryn Erbe, Frank Langella
André is convinced Anne wants his apartment and will put him in a home. In his shaken mind, faces become interchangeable. Unmoored, he remembers only the last scene from which he tries to regain his bearings. We ricochet in time like a character out of a Kurt Vonnegut novel. The only consecutive aspect of the piece is increased incapacity, every incremental change palpably experienced. Charm turns to cruelty, paranoia, panic.
Frank Langella, Hannah Cabell
Keep your eyes on Scott Pask’s excellent Set. Each time the lights come up, things have changed. Artwork, photographs, books, and furniture disappear and return. To say this compounds the disorienting narrative is to minimize its effect. Between Mr. Langella’s inhabitation of this larger than life personality, Donald Holder’s disturbing Lighting Design, Fitz Patton’s evocative Music and Sound, and the map-less script, you may want to pack Dramamine.
Florian Zeller and translator Christopher Hampton have crafted an immensely affecting, immersive play in which we find ourselves sharing, rather than observing the protagonist’s experience.
Frank Langella is simply brilliant. Whatever affectation you may have attributed to the actor during the mid portion of his long career, has, these last years, been jettisoned for newfound authenticity. The portrayal is wrenching; mercurial adjustments in an effort to appear more grounded completely credible. Rather than indulging in an appeal for sympathy, Langella plays André with callous rancor, a man whose formidable pride and then actual self is violently stripped away by an unseen hand.
As Anne, Kathryn Erbe is believably strong, exhausted, frustrated and devoted.
Director Doug Hughes has done a masterful job. The result- powerful, nuanced, clarity of acting in an environment of utter obscurity.
Photos by Joan Marcus Opening: Frank Langella, Kathryn Erbe
Manhattan Theatre Club presents The Father by Florian Zeller Translated by Christopher Hampton Directed by Doug Hughes Samuel J. Friedman Theater 261 West 47th Street