Shrek, The Cripple of Inishmaan, and a visit to the Players Club
by Richard Seff
As the curtain calls were taking place on Dec. 14, the night I saw Shrek, The Musical, I began to cogitate on what I’d liked most about the engaging musical I’d just seen. And it hit me at once: I’d just witnessed two megastar performances in the leading roles; I’d felt the magic of star power at full wattage in the performances of Brian d’Arcy-James and Sutton Foster. But what also struck me was that it was difficult to find their names outside the theatre, on the houseboards, or even in the Playbill. I checked the title page again and yes, they were there. In tiny print under the title, it did say “starring” the two, but also “starring” were three other supporting players and, technically, the rest of the entire company of thirty one. So clearly the management at DreamWorks Theatricals, who produced it, had decided to promote their franchise in the manner of arch rival Disney Theatricals, plugging the title and keeping the leading players as interchangeable in the public’s mind as possible. I mean, do you know who’s playing Mary Poppins, The Little Mermaid or The Lion King at the moment? Of course you don’t. Yet theirs are all starring roles in a big Broadway musical.
The only problem with this approach to promotion is that in the case of Shrek, the Musical, I began to imagine what it would be like were two protean performers playing Shrek and his lady, Princess Fiona. And then I thought, “No, I’d better not go there,” because though I’d enjoyed the evening due to the delightful work of its two stars (and believe me, they are stars, despite their dinky billing), I was fairly certain that we’d not be seeing a revival of this property in 20 or 30 years, in the manner of Gypsy, South Pacific or even Bye Bye Birdie.
David Lindsay-Abaire, who wrote the book, is a gifted playwright, whose Rabbit Hole won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. His four or five other plays have been highly praised as well, and in 2008 he won the Ed Kleban Award as America’s most promising lyricist. But the key word there is “promising.” His lyrics for Shrek The Musical (don’t you hate these descriptions; I suppose it’s so that you won’t confuse the musical with Shrek, the Cartoon or Shrek, the Comic Book) are pleasant indeed, on occasion saucy and fun, but they never come close to the greats. His lighter ditties, songs like “The Goodbye Song”, “What’s Up, Duloc?” are OK. There are two or three it’s hard to evaluate, for Peter Hylenski’s sound design on the ensemble numbers (“Donkey Pot Pie”, “Freak Flag”) is so over the top that the lyrics are simply indiscernible. The stars’ solos are stage worthy, but undistinguished lyrically, except for the occasional phrase. “Morning Person” gives Ms. Foster a chance to show her comic chops well enough, though I’d hate to see a lesser talent take a crack at it. “I Know It’s Today” is another piece of special material with which she can make magic. Mr. James brings a bright light baritone voice and a major talent for acting a song to “Story of My Life” and “Big Bright Wonderful World” but titles like these will not have Lorenz Hart spinning jealously in his grave.
Jeanine Tesori, whose billing along with Mr. Lindsay-Abaire is far bigger than the actors, has been at bat now at least three times, and she’s had three Tony nominations for her work on Thoroughly Modern Millie, Caroline, Or Change and Twelfth Night, but I challenge you to come up with a memorable melody from any one of them. In Shrek, the Musical she offers us some pleasant enough tunes, but again, I don’t think many will be buying the CD so they can wear it out listening to the score. The best adjective I can come up with to describe her work here is “serviceable.”
Jason Moore’s direction keeps things moving at a merry pace. The sets and costumes by Tim Hatley are in the tradition of his Spamalot – they add vivid color and comic touches to the proceedings, and they are welcome. The entrance of the Disney characters (I don’t know what Disney is doing in a DreamWorks production, but I guess the characters are too famous to abandon) is delightful. A stage full of Three Bears, Three Little Piggies, Three Blind Mice, the Ugly Duckling, Humpty Dumpty, Pinocchio, the Wicked Witch, the White Rabbit, Snow White, Grumpy, and a Gingerbread Man among others is a sight for sore eyes, and a treat for the kiddies who make up a good part of the audience. You can hear their squeals of delight as these characters tumble out of the wings as they are banished from Shrek’s Swampland by the evil Lord Farquaad, who wants the real estate for his personal pleasure.
The cast is sprinkled with talented folks from other venues, who’ve made us happy before. Christopher Sieber who has enhanced several Broadway musicals, most recently Spamalot, has sacrificed his legs for us this time, appearing with them tucked beneath him, and flouncing about on teeny tiny mechanical ones that are startling and funny when first seen. He has a robust voice, knows how to deliver a comic line, and does so with panache. He’s got several numbers, but it’s a one-note character and as the Playbill lists titles but not the characters who sing them, I can’t even give you their names, for after a tune or two, each began to sound like the other. John Tartaglia, who came to prominence in Avenue Q, has far less to do as Pinocchio, and though he plays him entirely in falsetto, he manages to land some of Mr. Lindsay-Abaire’s best zingers with aplomb. Daniel Breaker as the Donkey is giving us a stage version of the Eddie Murphy screen characterization, and a good thing too, for there is no way to improve on it.
But when all is said and done, I keep coming back to the two underbilled stars. In olden days they’d have had their names blazing in lights above the theatre marquee. They’d have been Merman and Lahr in DuBarry Was A Lady, they’d have been Gertrude Lawrence in Lady in the Dark, Danny Kaye in Up In Arms, and like that. For they’ve paid their dues. James has lit up such diverse pieces as Titanic, which introduced and established him, Sweet Smell of Success and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, in which as replacement he matched originator Norbert Leo Butz’s hilarious turn as co-star, The Lieutenant of Inishmore which proved him as adept at drama as he is at musical comedy. Ms. Foster arrived at full sail in Thoroughly Modern Millie and followed it with great performances in The Drowsy Chaperone, Little Women and last season in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein (Now there’s a title for you!). But watch him, through the green makeup and plump suit and helmet, still able to offer us nuance. Even in a cartoony musical he listens, he reacts, he finds subtle ways to indicate pain and confusion and hurt and joy and so much more. He makes Shrek the Ogre appealing and understandable, so that you find yourself wishing him well, and taking delight when good things eventually happen for him. Watch Ms. Foster find subtle ways in which to take a simple line and make it funny or surprising. Listen to her use her ample and attractive voice to convey everything from frustration to anger to lust, all with the lightest of touches. So all I can say is I hope the DreamWorks crowd is paying each of these two dynamite stars six figures a week, for they are the most redeeming features of an evening of musical theatre that, because of them, is a treat (OK, a small treat, but well worth seeing if you and your family are in the mood for some spectacular scenic effects, some very game supporting players, and two stars who will knock your socks off). For the rest of the staff, everyone’s along for the ride. I think, and hope, it will be a long and happy one.
Tickets are on sale for Shrek The Musical thru Aug 30th, 2009. Tickets: $41.50 to $121.50. At The Broadway Theatre, 1681 Broadway, NYC. For those over the age of 4. Children 4 and under are not admitted.
We owe a big thank you to the Druid Theatre Company of Galway, and to the Atlantic Theatre Company in New York for bringing us the Galway company of actors in Martin McDonagh’s beautifully written The Cripple of Inishmaan, not seen here since its debut at the Public in 1998. I didn’t see that production, but under the direction of Jerry Zaks and a cast mostly comprised of New York actors, it was not received nearly as well as its contemporary McDonagh masterwork, The Beauty Queen of Leenane. It requires the real McCoy (and O’Connell and Monaghan and Mullen et al) for the McDonagh dialog demands an understanding of the rhythms and rhymes that he uses so beautifully in his dialog. These native Irish actors with two or three Irish-American actors rounding out the company, are to the McDonagh manner born.
Garry Hynes, the artistic director of the Druid, has staged this Atlantic production with the sure hand of a McDonagh specialist. She and her actors give us all the humor and all the sadness in this tale of a deformed young man, orphaned by the suicide of his parents, raised by his “aunts” in a tiny town on an island called Inishmaan, off the west coast of Ireland. Secrets are revealed about the death of his parents, and all of the characters, as inhabited by this cast, are fully alive in all their complexities and contradictions. They include the siblings Bartley and Helen, Johnny PateenMike and his ancient and indestructible Mammy, Kate and Eileen, two spinsters who run the local grocery shop, the town Doctor and Babby-Bobby, who has the final secret for us, just before the final curtain. A plot is woven around the arrival in town of Robert H. Flaherty, the acclaimed film director who has chosen Inishmaan as the setting of his new film. His search for actors to appear in it will change the course of the title character’s life, and cause revelations to be made that will fill the play with drama and comedy as well.
From the opening moments, the set by Francis O’Connor lends authenticity and a sense of the past; we know when and where we are (it all happens in 1934). The cans of peas stacked upon the shelves, the buns and cuts of meat, the boxes of cereal and flour are of a time and place. Marie Mullen, Dearbhla Molloy and Aaron Monaghan (as Cripple Billy) lead us gently into a world of eccentrics, who must get their news from Johnny PateenMike, who arrives in time to give them the day’s 3 bits of news, he insisting on the order of their presentation, saving the biggest item for last. That last one announces the arrival of the film maker who will be using their town as the setting for his movie Man of Aran. He also informs them that some casting will take place in town – and this puts ideas into Cripple Billy’s head. All of these characters, and those that follow, are crippled in one way or another, and the play seems to be telling us that we have to learn to love ourselves as we are in order to achieve any semblance of happiness. If this doesn’t seem like a particularly original thesis, the quality of McDonagh’s writing raises it to something original and gripping. Now and then the authentic dialect can jar, but it’s worth listening very carefully, for there is poetry and wisdom afoot here, and well worth the effort of paying strict attention.
This play and this production accomplish what theatre always aims for – to inform, to educate, to entertain, to take us to places and to meet people we’d never see or meet, and to allow us to get to know them in all their glorious humanity. A welcome gift from the Emerald Isle.
The Cripple of Inishmaan plays at the Linda Gross Theater, 338 W 20th St, NYC until Feb 1, 2009. Tickets: $65.
A luncheon at the Players Club is always a treat, for it was once the home of Edwin Booth, and his bedroom has been left untouched since he died in it in 1893, leaving the beautiful mansion on Gramercy Park to his fellow players. One of its many uses is to house a series called “Food For Thought” which features readings of plays by prominent playwrights with distinguished casts following a buffet lunch. Anyone, for a reasonable price, can attend – many subscribers attend 3 or 4 such events a season.
This week the bill of fare featured a long one-acter by A. R. Gurney called Ancestral Voices. It premiered in New York in l998 at Lincoln Center, where it played on a series of nights when the mainstage Beaumont Theatre was dark. The cast this week featured Jake Robards, Lisa Bostner, Reed Birney, Marian Seldes and Fritz Weaver. Absolutely first rate, the perfect ensemble for Gurney’s saga of a WASP family in Buffalo. It was written as a play to be read, for it’s really unstageable as it is set all over the place – in parks and restaurants and several homes and at a forest cabin and a cemetery and in cars and buses. But it’s amazing how vividly an audience can follow when it’s played by a cast as sterling as this one. A capacity crowd stayed to cheer, and well they might have. I’m certain you have many similar events in your neck of the woods, but this was a very rewarding afternoon for me, and I thought I’d let you know about it.
Small asides in which you might have interest: I’d never seen Jake Robards, who is the son of the late Jason Robards, Jr. When I played with his dad in Dennis McIntyre’s Established Price at the Long Wharf in New Haven, Jake was a young boy, and I never did meet him, but his dad was so clearly enamored of his youngest son, it was fascinating to come upon him at last. And he’s good! He played the central character, a spokesperson for the young Gurney himself, and brought great charm and a lively sense of comedy to the role, which was huge. And Fritz Weaver, always first rate, was so very kind to me when I played opposite him in Lanford Wilson’s Angels Fall on a pre-New York tryout tour, treating me as an equal (I was subbing for Barnard Hughes during the tryout, as Mr. Hughes was unavailable. He later played the part in New York) and helping enormously to ease my burden of responsibility playing a leading role in a new play by a major playwright who kept re-writing every hour. These connections seem to happen a lot to those of us who toil in theatre, and it’s always a joy when they repeat themselves.
I wish you all a Merry Christmas and a New Year full of rewarding theatre going. That pastime is one of the few pleasures left in this nutty 21st Century so go, leave your cell phones and ipods at home, have a good time, and spread the joyous news.