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Thursday, February 1, 2018

Theater diaries: Farinelli and the King; Return Trips to the Diner and Price&Son

King Philip's court, photo @ Sara Krulwich

In general I go to theater to enjoy it. I don't like to think that I spent my hard-earned money and time to see total "shite," as the Brits might say. Therefore I always am in a state of denial when I realize that I'm watching a total turkey. And so it was with Farinelli and the King.

Claire van Kampen's play that happens to star her husband Mark Rylance is one of those creations that takes an interesting premise (the real-life bizarre relationship between the famous castrato Farinelli and the depressed, mentally unstable King Philip V of Spain), and proceeds to drain the premise of any vitality and authenticity. Instead, we get cheap joke after cheap joke, and one self-indulgent soliloquy after another for Rylance, who plays Philip V so broadly and with so much artifice that it ends up reading like a bad SNL skit.

I knew things were not going to be good when the first 15 minutes or so of the play involve Rylance trying to fish ... out of a fishbowl that has a goldfish in it that he's named "Alfonso." Basically it's a one-note joke that doesn't have many places to go, and so it goes nowhere, but not before 15 minutes of this nonsense has elapsed. Obviously King Philip is "mad" and needs some therapy, and his enterprising wife Isabella (Melody Grove) thinks she's found the answer during a trip to London. She hears the of London's latest operatic sensation Farinelli and is convinced his voice can cure the king's ills. And that is what happens -- she brings Farinelli to the Spanish court, and the king is shaken from his melancholy and even builds an outdoors woodsy retreat where with the help of Farinelli's voice he  hears the "stars sing to each other."

Davies and Crane
It's one of the plays conceits that Farinelli is played by two men: the actor Sam Crane and the countertenor Iestyn Davies who shows up whenever Farinelli has to sing. This arrangement has two fatal flaws. One is that Sam Crane is very stiff and wooden as an actor, and his Farinelli remains a cipher. The other is that Iestyn Davies has a very nice countertenor voice (with a vocal technique that is completely different from the castrati of the baroque era) and sings a pleasing selection of Handel arias but this is not a voice that will set a whole city on fire or shake a mad king out of the depths of despair. You could imagine Maria Callas's voice changing someone's life. Iestyn Davies? He's like easy-listening classical music and nothing more. The Farinelli singing segments make a static play have even more static moments. The musical selections don't enhance the storyline in any way.

But as you might expect, after Farinelli shakes Philip out of his funk, the story arc is stuck with few avenues for development. So the second act is an overlong, excruciating attempt to make a story where there is none -- there's a cutesy "forest concert" where the actors act really surprised that there's such a huge "audience" (us in the theater) who have followed them to the woods to sing. There's horrible jokes -- when Farinelli talks about his brother Riccardo who had him castrated Philip gives the brother the nickname "Rick the Knife." In another moment he says a "casserole" is like "French paella." There's a love story so hackneyed I'm surprised the actors could even say the lines with a straight face. And the play chugs along to its prolonged, unexciting ending. By the time we make our way to the inevitable "Lascia ch'io pianga" I could barely care about the lovely Handel melody. I just wanted to get the hell out of there.

The sets by Jonathan Fensome are great -- it evokes an 18th century royal court. There is on-stage seating and a charming band that plays before the show. Actors like Jonathan Peel as the King's wily minister and Melody Grove as the king's loving but unhappy wife do the best they can with flimsy material. But in the end this is a pure vanity project for Mark Rylance. It's all dressed up with nowhere to go.

New Cast of Kinky Boots
These days a show that has been running for two years is considered a "long-running" show. By that definition, Kinky Boots (running since 2013) is practically a dinosaur and Waitress (running since March 2016) is well on its way to being a veteran show. In fact, Kinky Boots recently just celebrated its 2000th performance. I recently revisited Price&Son and Joe's Diner to see what it was about these shows that has allowed them to be successful long after the initial buzz has worn off.

The two shows have some things in common: both feature strong scores written by two talented female songwriters (Cyndi Lauper for Kinky Boots and Sara Bareilles for Waitress). Both shows have an appealing message of empowerment. Both have 11 o'clock numbers that have become classics of modern musical theater: Kinky Boots' "Hold Me In Your Heart" and Waitress's "She Used to Be Mine" have the sort of heart-on-sleeve emotionalism that gets to audiences every time.

Most of all, both of these shows are still doing well because the producers have done an amazing job keeping the show fresh even with the usual cast turnover. They've resorted to some stunt casting (Brendon Urie sang Charlie for a few months, Jason Mraz is doing a stint as Dr. Pomatter) but they've kept the integrity of the show. For Kinky Boots, the original leads of Stark Sand and Billy Porter returned to the show for a few months. I saw them twice, including their final performance on January 7, 2018. There was nothing stale about their routine, no phoning it in. The tender rapport between Sands and Porter was evident throughout the show. But after Sands/Porter left, the show brought in the Scissor Sisters' Jake Shears to play Charlie and had J. Harrison Ghee return as Lola.

I saw Shears and Ghee recently. I didn't think anyone could top Billy Porter's Lola, but Ghee gave a very different but equally valid interpretation. Porter's Lola is petite, vulnerable and wears her heart on her sleeve. Ghee is a giant -- he towers over the cast and is built like a football linebacker. His Lola is flashier, with a glow of self-confidence that makes the perfect foil for Shears' pocket-sized, insecure Charlie. Shears does not make as strong of an impression as Ghee -- the British accent comes and goes and then just sort of disappears, and he interpolates some high notes to the end of "Step One" and "Soul of a Man" but doesn't seem to have made a real connection to the character yet.

The energy of the theatre however was incredible -- you would have thought this was an early preview audience with the way the crowd applauded and sang along and just had a grand rollicking time. Ghee's powerhouse vocals in "Lola's World," "Sex in the Heel," and "Hold Me In Your Heart" delighted the audience, but his Lola wasn't just flash. He was also wonderful in the quieter moments like "Not My Father's Son." I have a feeling that Price&Son and Lola's World will be running for a long time.

Here is the video I took of the final curtain call for Stark Sands and Billy Porter:


I also made a return trip to the diner today to see Sara Bareilles and Jason Mraz in their four week only (!!!) overlap. I last saw Waitress in July with Betsy Wolfe and thought she had an incredible voice but was sorely lacking the humor and personality that makes or breaks Jenna.

Well Sara's back in those white sneakers and she's even more incredible this time. She's gained confidence as an actress, and improved her comedic timing. It's amazing what a natural she is onstage -- she has a radiant stage face that catches the light in the best ways. She has a voice that sounds  so real and earthy, like the girl next door.  Her Jenna was full of sass, humor and heart, and of course she sings the s__t out of the score. The musical is best-known for the 11 o'clock number "She Used to Be Mine" but IMO Sara's best moment is "What Baking Can Do." She sings that I Want song with the hunger, drive and determination that foretells her future.

Pop singer Jason Mraz as Dr. Pomatter could be called stunt casting. Mraz is not as natural onstage as Sara. He plays Dr. Pomatter differently from Drew Gehling -- he's not so much awkward and nerdy so much as awkward and goofy. His hair is a little too perfectly spiked to be believable as the square OB-GYN. But his singing voice is lovely, and he's also fairly funny and he and Bareilles have a nice if overly cozy rapport. I think the show works better when Dr. Pomatter and Jenna are from two completely different spheres. Sara and Jason are too obviously old friends from from the indie-pop/rock sphere. With Jason and Sara their duets "It Only Takes a Taste" and "You Matter to Me" sound too much like a music video with the perfect harmonics.

There's been some turnover in the supporting roles -- Benny Elledge is now Cal, and Natasha Yvette Williams Becky. They're both fine although I miss the sarcasm and bite that Charity Angel Dawson brought to Becky. Props have to go to the cast veterans Christopher Fitzgerald (Ogie), Caitlin Houlihan (Dawn), Dakin Matthews (Joe), and Joe Tippett (returning to the role of Earl, which he originated at A.R.T.) These actors know this show inside out and their experience and enthusiasm anchor the show. Fitzgerald continually acts to his schtick as Ogie and gets more and more laughs each time.

The show obviously casts with care and Sara Bareilles (who wrote both the music and lyrics) remains heavily involved in the production. I have a feeling that Joe's Diner will be staying open for a long time to come.


4 comments:

  1. I think you do better when you discuss opera. We walked out on Waitress

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    1. That's rude. Just bc you didnt like Waitress ...

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  2. Thank you for this review of Farinelli and the King. I also was extremely disappointed. If you take a topic as ambitious as the healing and life-changing power of music, that's the best you can come up with - cheap jokes, undeveloped characters, no arch and no ending? Countertenor also didn't help one bit as his voice and interpretive skills are nowhere close to what a great singer possesses. And all people around me, it seems, were leaving with the feeling that attended an event of a great artistic value and now know all there is to know about opera singers, etc. I was ready to yell - go see any performance at the Met, you cab buy a rush ticket at the fraction of the price you've paid for F&K, and it will be gazillion times better.

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    1. Sorry I didn't see this comment but I agree. Such an interesting premise but wasted. Also disappointed that the play didn't use any of Farinelli's actual music.

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