– 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. –
Follies was extraordinarily good. I would have loved to get to see the New York incarnation, since there were a few cast changes. But the Follies I saw here was superb. One of the best productions of a Sondheim play I’ve seen. I saw Signature do Follies in 2003 in their old space, which was constrained for some practical reasons. But this Follies at The Kennedy Center was exceptionally well thought out. It’s a difficult piece. It has a lot of nostalgia, in the troubled marriages of two couples contrasted with their hopeful, younger selves. It has cameos throughout. By nature, it’s not an easy play to put on. But it was done so well, and it was so engaging on an emotional level.
Some shows you watch just admiring the construct — the fact that the machine is running so well. But with Sondheim plays, there’s always something more. Sondheim wrote this one as he was turning forty, in 1971. That was the start to a decade that would give us some of his best works. And Follies is a show in which people realize they’ve already spent enough of their life to be able to look back. It was a stand-out show, with a great feeling of surprise and style. That’s why it’s on my short-list from this past year. Follies asks a lot of the audience — it confronts us with issues like the pain of looking back, and soured expectations in life.
Side By Side By Sondheim at Signature taps into the same thing. We all love Sondheim. We’ve had practically nobody since who has composed not just at his level of technical ability, but with an ability to evoke such deep emotions in us. It’s amazing how he does it. It’s magic. This one is a sort of hybrid piece — it’s a revue, not really a straight musical in that it doesn’t have a singular story in which the characters make discoveries about themselves and others. And yet there’s a thread that runs through it. There is some real character development by the three performers in their songs. And all three actors had multiple moments to shine.
Actor Matthew Scott is the husband of Kristen Scott, who played Young Phyllis in Follies, so husband and wife were right across the river from each other during that time last year. He mentioned to me how happy they were to be able to see each other each night after having each just sung Sondheim. How lovely.
POP! at Studio Theatre I loved. Everything the play was about — and everything about how the production worked, the rules it made for itself — grew out of this notion that when Warhol created the Factory art space in New York he was essentially establishing a small town. What the show did beautifully was explore what happens when you have a sort of “dear leader,” or a guru — a person around whom everyone else orbits — who builds a sort of hothouse environment that requires warm bodies in order to operate. The superstars in the Factory are like a huge litter of puppies all tumbled together. Or, maybe, like a hyperactive kindergarten class. How do they relate to each other? How does the Factory space determine what happens to all of them?
Warhol was kind of like the old woman who lived in a shoe — he had too many children! But he deliberately fostered this notion that he was at the center, so that everyone revolving around him was constantly competing for his attention. The show did a wonderful job of exploring that world.
Hairspray at Signature was incredible. The score is a marvel, and the energy of the actors was so high that the audience really picked up on the energy every time I saw it. It was buzzing in the air. There were times when I went to that show and saw people literally dancing in their seats. It was great that they decided to build that stage as a thrust. Partly because the action gets right out in front, right up to you. But also because the audience becomes aware of itself during the performance. You can see your fellow audience members across the way. For this show, and this story, that became hugely important.
In the case of Liberty Smith, there are a lot of great things to be said about the work everyone put into the show. There were a lot of talented actors involved, and in some cases they absolutely shone through.
I have to be honest, though… Recently I’ve seen a number of productions at some of the best theatres in town that made me wish someone involved had been able to take a step back and say no. Or, “not ready.” Molly Smith over at Arena Stage hasn’t been afraid to do that when necessary. In fact I can remember her doing it more than once in the recent past, even last year. She doesn’t hesitate to declare that a show’s not ready for primetime, as they say. She’ll say that if a show’s not working, or it’s just not there yet, they’re gonna yank it.
This past season at Arena it was the new musical version of Like Water For Chocolate they’ve been working on. So, it happens. But at some other theatres around town — in this case Ford’s with Liberty Smith — I’ve got to wonder: What were they thinking? I guess you get caught up in the momentum, putting so much in that you can’t pull away. But someone needs to be able to pull the plug if a show really isn’t turning into all it should be.
The Sound of Music at Olney worked well for the most part. I don’t think it’s the best of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, but there’s much in it to love. However, it felt constrained to me. Set design can have so much impact on the effectiveness of a production. I don’t know whether I’d have any better suggestions, necessarily, but I thought in this case everything felt pushed way up to the front, with a lot of narrow back-and-forth. It was almost like the actors were walking on runways from left to right. Sort of like a pop-up book.
But the feeling of depth, of space, is so crucial to The Sound of Music. I mean, come on, the hills are alive! But even though things felt cramped, the cast did beautifully with it. I was impressed by a lot of the performances. I just didn’t get the sense of wonder that I felt coming out of Follies or Hairspray, or the feeling that I’d been taken on an imagination-enlarging fantasy tour like I felt after POP! Maybe The Sound of Music is just one of those curious musicals that exist primarily to be done as a really well-done movie.