– It seems no production opens without longtime arts buff David Tannous sitting front row center. As the recipient of DC Theatre Scene’s 2011 Gary Lee Maker Award for Outstanding Audience Member, Tannous has brought boundless enthusiasm and a smart analytical eye to Washington shows for decades. On the eve of this year’s awards, DC Theatre Scene spoke with Tannous about his responses to 2011 musical theatre in the DC area. What follows is our distillation of his thoughts, culled from extensive conversation. Read his overview of the 2011 musicals here. –
We have excellent actors and actresses nominated this year. So much so that something struck me, looking over the nominations… Some of them got the great good luck to be featured in a wonderful play in a wonderful role, and some of them were working like all get-out to make the most of a lesser play and a less inherently rich role. It was good that in both people of both kinds were recognized in both the Lead Actor and Lead Actress categories.
Some of them were lucky in the dynamite material they had to work with. This was true in POP! for Tom Story. I mean the role itself, the person of Andy Warhol. His performance — and even the production — might have been overlooked simply because the whole point of it is to make something out of nothing. As Andy, Tom nailed it. What he did — which is so hard to do — is to make something out of nothing. When Warhol came onto the scene in New York, he outraged a lot of people by saying, in effect, that anything can be art if we give it attention. If you change the context in which you view something mundane, and think about it as an object that has form, color, composition, and scale, then it can become appreciated as art.
So in the Factory, he came to serve as a sort of unspeaking oracle, constantly being petitioned by everyone around him to give a pronouncement on what was accepted and what wasn’t. But he was always withholding that final judgment, that evaluation. He’d often say, “That’s very interesting,” which was so open-ended it was both a compliment and a refusal.
So that’s “nothing,” and that’s what Tom did. He had the mirror glasses and wiggy hair, but also he spoke without color, without emphasis. It was a bizarre move back then, too — it was unheard of to start a new movement but never declaim, with a flourish, what you believed in. So, Tom’s performance was so great because it was uninflected. It was deliberate and ironic. And it brought us to him, because he was such a set of layered secrets. It was a very different kind of role for Tom Story, and it was a wonderful performance.
Now let’s talk about Liberty Smith. I have to say, Geoff Packard is a wonderful actor. In Mary Zimmerman’s Candide at Shakespeare Theatre in 2010 he really carried the show. And in the case of that Candide, everything was gold. The music and lyrics are great, and the entire cast did amazing work. Many of those same actors appeared together again in Liberty Smith. But, I have to say, Liberty Smith is sort of Candide Lite. It has a so-so score and a story that’s really hard to swallow.
Geoff Packard’s character, like in Candide, is one of life’s optimists, a sort of naif carried along by history. But in Liberty Smith I find the ultimate point of the story inconsequential. So we learn that maybe George Washington and Ben Franklin are nothing without this hitherto-unknown historical character Liberty Smith. So what?
The direction was very good, and everyone was doing their best to make it work. But I was sorry that the play wasn’t worthy of the energy and resources going into it — to say nothing of the strong actresses and actors involved. Now, I subscribe to Ford’s, and almost everything I see there has been tip-top. This was just an exception. Geoff Packard did a great job in a thankless role. Granted, he did great work as a singer and actor — he showed sincerity and commitment. But it felt a bit like asking an opera singer to sing jingles. I admire the effort and intelligence and abilities he brought to bear. It was, however, a role I found hard to keep in my mind a few days after seeing it.
One of the most stand-out performances was Euan Morton in Parade. At first glance you wouldn’t think of him for that role. He’s such a song-and-dance guy, with such enthusiasm and sunniness about him. The role of Leo Frank calls for something different, and he was superb in it. So often, when people in history are victimized, those of us who are looking back on that situation tend to ennoble the victim and canonize them. We say terrible things were done to that person, so therefore that person was a saint. But people are people, and they have real lives.
In the musical, Leo Frank is emotionally constricted, and at the beginning of the play he is unable to reach out to his wife and the other people around him. And his standoffishness was exacerbated by the fact that he was an outsider several times over — he was a northerner in the South, he was a Jew in a Christian community, and on top of that he didn’t have the ease of manner that might have helped people warm to him.
But in Parade there’s a tremendous evolution in his character. I think of him as a sort of Richard II. He starts off self-absorbed, convinced of his own superiority. Then he learns how to empathize with other people, which leads him to discover that his main source of solace lies within himself. Euan did a superb job of showing us that personal journey. It’s not just a song-and-dance role, it’s a true acting challenge. He took us into his anguish so beautifully. During the run of that show, tears were often shed in the audience. Parade is a really thoughful musical that hasn’t received its due. Honestly, I think it should have been nominated for Outstanding Resident Musical.
Now Dr. Dolittle at Imagination Stage, of course, is designed primarily for children. But it created a little stir up there at Imagination because it pushed the envelope a little. I give great credit to Imagination because they pay credit to the intelligence of their audiences. I go there regularly, in part because some of the best actors in town are performing there. Same thing with the children’s shows at Adventure Theatre. These companies are part of the richness of the DC theatre scene.
Dr. Dolittle is a much shorter piece. It has to be, since it’s for young people. And it couldn’t provide the full richness that you might get in a full-evening play about adult themes. But nevertheless, on its own terms it was dynamite. And Rob McQuay, as the lead, did a beautiful turn on many levels. He is a heartbroken man in a theatre of war, missing his wife and son, trying to stay in contact with them through his letters. But not only was he trying to keep his morale up — he was trying to keep up the morale of the people around him. Trench warfare pinned soldiers down for many years at a time. It was a sort of hell as limbo. It was terrible, and in Rob McQuay’s performance, we saw this state of being held in despair. He knew that if he let his despair out too thoroughly, it would demoralize his son and everyone around him.
I admired Alan Wiggins in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at Olney. I don’t feel the show has nearly as much of the strength and depth of shows like POP! or Parade. This is much more like: aren’t we all having a good time! You’d think it could be more compelling since it’s dealing with a rather troubling set of stories from the Bible. But it’s far from nasty. It’s more of an extended cabaret. It’s diverting and pleasant, but doesn’t give scope to any characters. Now, Alan had tremendous energy. And he did find ways to bring subtlety into his character. I just wish the material gave him a bigger canvas to paint on.