I came to the Roundabout’s revival of A Man for All Seasons late in its run, on November 5th. I was away when it opened on October 7th, and was only vaguely aware of its critical response, but my feeling was it had been moderately received, and was perceived by most to be plodding and dull. My general impression was that even Frank Langella, its Tony winning star, had been dismissed as less than successful in playing Sir Thomas More. The lovely thing about live theatre is that if you enter the building with an open mind and a willing heart, magic is available each and every time. All this to tell you that, though this is a straightforward Douglas Hughes approach to the Robert Bolt take on sixteenth century England in the time of Henry VIII, there is power and passion up there onstage at the American Airlines Theatre on 42nd Street, and the audience at yesterday’s matinee told the naysayers to go fly a kite. Watching and listening to Frank Langella hold center stage for 2 hours and 40 minutes was like attending a master class in stage acting.
And sorry New York press, I found the supporting cast filled with rich delights. To name a few (this is a big play with some 20 speaking parts), I thought Patrick Page had a fresh and intriguing take on Henry VIII, giving him authority, charm and menace all at once. One scene only, but a telling one. Michael Esper brought good looks and dash to the role of More’s son-in-law William Roper. Zach Grenier brought panache to Thomas Cromwell, Henry’s adviser and chief minister, Maryann Plunkett and Hannah Cabell brought fire and ice to More’s wife and daughter. I saw the play the day after Barack Obama won himself a presidency, which might explain why the Mores put me in mind of the Obamas – a supportive family, a man for all seasons.
All right, there were no surprises; it was a straight-on production. It’s been accused of being ‘just another Masterpiece Theatre’ version of a commercial play that’s had few productions since it created a stir in l966, when it offered Paul Scofield a great hit, one he transferred successfully to the big screen. But it’s a sturdy, worthy play and though Robert Bolt has given history a nudge here and a twist there, it gives light to a tale that should be told again and again, for we don’t run into the likes of Thomas More more than once a century or so. He chose death over compromise; one could call him selfish, solipsistic, for he left behind a wife, daughter, friends who cherished him, but the world needs heroes and he certainly was one of them. There aren’t a lot of role models running around these days, and a thousand souls left the theatre yesterday, feeling a little better about the potential of the species called human. Not a bad way to spend an afternoon, especially the day after another unusual fellow won the election that makes him our new leader. We can only pray that his story has a happier ending than did Sir Thomas’.
To watch a great star stretch himself in a worthy production, come on up and visit us.
A Man for All Seasons continues through Dec 14th at the American Airlines Theatre, 227 @ 42nd St, NYC. For tickets, click here.
Where are Rodgers and Hart when you need them? A very zippy little melodyless musical called 13, concerning itself only with the angst and ardor of those tweens about to become teens has bravely, but foolishly, moved from the safer and more accommodating stages of the regionals into the big time of Broadway. Jason Robert Brown has written music and lyrics for it, and he arrives with a background that includes a promising debut with Songs For A New World, a respectable off Broadway run with The Last Five Years and a Tony award for Parade on Broadway. Brown has a following and he’s highly regarded for his abilities as an arranger and conductor as well. Like Stephen Sondheim, he has refused to collaborate on his scores, and to my untrained ear, in his case that is a mistake. I simply cannot hear melody in his writing, and that is particularly damaging to 13, for its story is familiar and its score needs socko tunes as it is limited to the thoughts, concerns and opinions of kids, unrelievedly of kids. Brown’s lyrics are often facile, amusing, even surprising on occasion, but the lack of melody, the orchestrations that make this unmistakably more pop than Broadway, just don’t meet Broadway’s requirements. There are no adults in this show, only 13 middle school youngsters, and though it clocks in at only 90 minutes, that’s a long time to listen to this one viewpoint. What we have here as a result is a musical of tweens and teens which is totally tiny too. It’s a shame, for there is much to admire and to enjoy on the stage of the Jacobs Theatre. The book by two virtual newcomers to theatre, Dan Elish and Robert Horn, is lighthearted and fresh; it reminded me of the books to other teenage musicals, shows like Bye Bye Birdie, Seventeen, Babes In Arms. But those long running hits had scores that sent you home smiling and energized. Not so here. The songs have a sameness to them, even though they are staged by Christopher Gattelli and Jeremy Sams and performed by a marvelous cast of genuine discoveries with great verve and in a couple of cases, with show stopping talent.
Credit has to go to Mark Simon, the casting director, for finding the likes of Graham Phillips for the lead, a Jewish kid from New York who is suddenly transplanted to a small town in Indiana because of the dissolution of his parents’ marriage, just in time for his Bar Mitzvah,. There he runs into girl trouble, peer acceptance problems, bullying, the “nerd meets the jocks” scenario. But the characters he encounters are amusingly drawn, and delightfully played. One other “loser”, a boy with muscular degeneration who must hobble about on crutches, manages to be hilarious, appealing, and show stealing – his name is Aaron Simon Gross and he’s got numbers like “Get Me What I Need”, “Terminal Illness” and “If That’s What It Is”, all fit with fresh and original lyrics, to work with. But even when not center stage, this young actor, whose background is strictly regional, lands with a bang in this, his Broadway debut. Watch him; he’ll be heard from again. But each of these 13 youngsters has something original to offer. None can really sing – though it’s hard to tell when listening to them through the discordant sounds of their little forehead and hair-hidden microphones, which are ok in the quieter numbers, or in the quieter sections of the louder ones, but of course once the big notes come out, the lyrics go flying away, and all the voices, male and female, sound alike – ear piercingly LOUD. I don’t like to single out actors in a company this gifted, but Delaney Moro as the central girl, and Eric M. Nelson as the chief macho man stand out all evening long. Others do too, but it’s an ensemble piece and room does not permit me to give each deserving actor a separate mention. They are a wonderful company though, and Gattelli has melded them into a truly unified ensemble.
If this show comes your way, and it well might as it’s built to tour and be seen in stock and regional productions, have yourselves a look and a listen if tweenies and teens interest you, even if there is no “Have You Met Miss Pratt?”, “Where or When?” or “Put On A Happy Face” in the bouncy but tuneless score. I grow weary of composers who insist that Broadway scores should consist of underscored lyrics, notes under words. Yes, music can be sad or funny, can cause an audience to feel. I can’t remember the last time a new theatre song moved me to laughter or tears with its music only. The most moving moment in this score is when young Phillips sings the prayer in Hebrew at his Bar Mitzvah, and Jason Robert Brown didn’t write that one.
13, a New Musical is at the Jacobs Theatre, 242 W 45th St, NYC. For tickets, call 212 239-6200 or click here.
I’m not going to tell you much about my 10 days on the Columbia River in Oregon, because there’s not much to tell. Once you get east of the Cascade Mountains, there’s no rain, so the river flows on for days with nothing but brown hills to look at. I did see three or four mountain goats, a couple of eagles, and eight or nine people, but no other signs of life. The “Queen of the West” was our ship, but I’m tempted to call it a boat because it was tiny, with a huge paddle wheel twirling behind to keep us moving. I didn’t feel much at home among the 130 other passengers, for they weren’t much on the arts, and I’m not very high on fishing and hunting. One lady, learning that I worked in theatre, said: “I saw a play once. But it was in England.” And another man, when learning that I lived in New York, said “New York? I was there once. Didn’t like it. No offense.” So boy, am I glad to be back.