Sunday, April 10, 2011

Vic and Will for the masses

(Michael Redgrave as Jack and Margaret Rutherford as Miss Prism  in the 1952 film version of "The Importance of Being Earnest.")

If we defer to the dictates of Oscar Wilde's inimitable governess and authoress manque, Miss Prism, concerning the nature of literature, "The good ended happily and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means," then we must regard Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg's bombastic, anthem-laden 1985 musicalization of Victor Hugo's "Les Miserables" - at PlayhouseSquare through April 17 - as a worthy endeavor. For its larger-than-life tenor hero, Jean Valjean, peddles nobility, kindness and redemption with the fervor that the Marlboro Man once endorsed smokes. His interminable goodness drives his sanctimonious nemesis, Javert, to suicide, enables him to hit ungodly high notes and causes him to spread enough sunshine to give all of Paris sunstroke.

Just around the corner at the Hanna Theatre, Great Lakes Theater Festival, for some esoteric reason, is presenting Shakespeare's "Two Gentlemen of Verona." This is one of those frustrating early works that shows us the messy, nascent stirrings of what would develop into genius. Parading as a comedy, it is as dark and vicious as any ABC mini-series and demonstrates that the shallow machinations of yuppies is as eternal as halitosis. And it fails to live up to Miss Prism's standards, for the bad or eternally insipid end up in what we assume to be wedded bliss.

(The touring production of "Les Miserables" is at PlayhouseSquare.)
 The latest tour of "Les Miz" proclaims itself as a reinterpretation, but for those of you energized by the original's blend of kitsch, pseudo-opera aspirations and "Masterpiece Theatre" grandiosity need have no fear. The only significant alteration is the removal of the turntable so poetically immortalized in "Forbidden Broadway's" peerless spoof. Those with a keen ear might detect a slightly leaner and more classical orchestration, which reduces the sonic thickness. However, this audience member had the misfortune of being in dangerous proximity to the speakers, which made everything sound more shrill than it needs to be. The cast, loaded with understudies the night I attended, ranged from piercing to ineptly earnest, with the exception of Andrew Varela's vigorous Javert and Ron Sharpe's affecting Valjean. However, even with the slight remixing of ingredients, "Les Miz" still brings to mind the cheap, but overpowering tang of Old Spice.

(David Anthony Smith as Launce and his canine companion Mojo in Great Lakes Theater Festival’s production of “The Two Gentlemen of Verona” at the Hanna Theatre. Photo by Roger Mastroianni.)
Someone with a long memory at Great Lakes has noted that back in the 1970s, the rarely performed "Two Gentlemen of Verona" achieved surprising success as a do-your-own-thing ode to free love and Afros. With an infectious score by Galt McDermot (of "Hair" fame) and John Guare, this almost forgotten work took on a new reason for being. Trading on this idea, Great Lakes has taken the original script, add some jazz numbers and directed it to seem like another Friday night of swinging singles at Nighttown. The most optimistic thing you can say about a Charles Fee production of a Shakespeare comedy is the absence of bilious Three Stooges chicanery. The cast is proficient enough to make every line ring true and clear. But only two members of the cast give performances that can possibly endure past curtain calls. One of them is a homosapien, namely David Anthony Smith, as Launce, a trouble-making Shakespearean servant. The other, a glorious newcomer with an obvious pedigree, happens to be a purebred Newfoundland named Mojo in Shakespeare's only canine role. Together, Smith and Mojo have that chemistry you see in such enduring human-animal teams as Liz Taylor and Lassie and Wilbur and Mr. Ed. However, for those parched Bard-a-thons, even Shakespeare Lite makes for a nourishing brew.

"Les Miserables" runs through Sunday, April 17 at the Palace Theatre at PlayhouseSquare. For tickets, call 216-241-6000.

"Two Gentlemen of Verona" runs through Saturday, April 23 at the Hanna Theatre. For tickets, call 216-241-6000.

No comments:

Post a Comment