Thursday, April 11, 2013

Once Matilda

I saw two shows recently!

With Andy, Faye, Ian, Katie, Lara, Alyssa, and Alex I saw Once, which we rushed last week. Even the rushing part was pretty fun, since it was a nice day and there was so much company!

Here's your soundtrack for my review (skip ahead to about 1:30 - he talks a lot at the beginning):

The show was lovely. It opened - well, pre-opened - with an Irish folk jam session, most of it while audience members were onstage milling and drinking. So that was awesome. I mean, really, based on my response to Million Dollar Quartet and to One Man Two Guv’nors, I don’t really want to see musicals at all, I just want to see rockin’ concerts. Which is in keeping with my generally negative attitude toward musical theatre, so, you know, no surprise there.

As for the body of the show, everyone agreed that the music was beautiful. While we saw four understudies that night, one of them – the weakest – in for the lead “Guy,” overall the cast vocals and instrumentals (the cast is the orchestra, which I loved – definitely a better solution to the don’t-have-money-for-band problem than just replacing all the musicians with synths, anyway, and conceptually perfect for this show) were powerful, locked in together, and very moving. The “Guy” understudy was a little noncommittal both vocally and emotionally (of course, the two go hand in hand), particularly in the first act, but in the second act when he was featured in quieter songs and ditched the I’m-trying-but-can’t-quite-wail-like-Glen-Hansard thing, he shined a lot more. [Note: I wrote “shone” instead of “shined” there first, and it took me a while to figure out why it was wrong! No wonder non-native speakers have trouble, if we natives can’t even remember which tense patterns go where.]

Particularly, incredibly beautiful was the a cappella reprise of “Gold” in the second act, with all cast members standing simply singing on stage. It was breathtaking, and it was perfectly together, which is astonishing for a large-group a cappella number with no conductor (I looked and looked for their monitor), no formal music director (listed in the program are a cast music captain, a la the more standard dance captain, and a music supervisor, but no music director – I would love to have a peek into those rehearsals!), and no one even looking at each other on stage. Also brilliant was the more-instruments-than-in-the-movie rendition of “When Your Mind’s Made Up,” the song they record in the recording studio (which is in 5, which I find both distracting and wonderful – talk to me about “alternative” meters sometime).

As for the non-musical elements of the show, I’m afraid I disagreed with everyone I went with. They thought the script was weak, telling rather than showing, that the production didn’t add anything new and better to the story told in the movie, and that the result was on the whole less dramatic than the movie.

I, on the other hand, really liked the new choices they made with the script. I think in a play you have to tell more than you do in a movie, because you don’t get close-ups of faces, and I liked the way they wrote through the dramatic moments rather than letting the actors fall intensely silent (again, something that works a lot better in a movie than on stage; after all, that’s one of the things Alex and I both hated about Billy Elliot, was the laziness of the librettist in substituting dramatic pauses for difficult dialogue). I do think the emotional moments didn’t carry as well as they should have, but to me that was the result of the lack of 100% commitment on the part of the “Guy” understudy, which meant the chemistry between him and the “Girl” wasn’t quite there.  Any script is going to look weak if the actors aren’t pulling it off. I would love to see the show again with the regular “Guy” – although listening to the recording of him, he has the same vocal problem as the understudy, which is that he’s a musical theatre singer trying to sound raw, resulting in a vibrato-free but not particularly emotional belt.

And, you know, whatever they say about the storytelling in the production, I definitely heard some uneven breathing and saw some reddened eyes from the members of my party round about the last number of the show.

The other show I saw recently was Matilda, which I’ve been excited for for a year! While I didn’t utterly love it the way I’ve loved some recent shows,* I really enjoyed it. I’ll start with the flaws, so I can end with the strengths, which carried the show enough to make it easily worth your time and money.
Meanwhile, here’s your Matilda soundtrack!:

Flaws – Uneven pacing. Most of the time I was absorbed, but there were several five or ten minute chunks where I was bored.  The dialogue was a little prosaic and not very strong. Not all the songs flowed seamlessly from the script to heighten emotional moments or to allow characters to communicate openly – they were mostly fairly internal, which sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t. Miss Honey’s song in particular, “Good Enough for Me,” was almost beautiful but ended up not working at all for me. Some of the adults were a little weak – I think maybe they were focusing on their accents harder than on actually being clear. Miss Honey was the weakest I’ve ever seen her, and I wanted her to have more agency. Matilda’s relationship with the librarian was played for laughs without being actually very funny, and without successfully establishing Matilda’s internalized role as a parental figure in a way that justified her later relationship with Miss Honey, as it should have based. And while I respected that they made a strong choice with Trunchbull – casting a man in her role – and followed through on that choice fully, making use of the physical and vocal, and internalized-character-development implications of cross-dressing-man rather than big-strong-woman, I didn’t like the choice to begin with, which I’ll talk about more later.

Strengths – The lyrics! The lyrics were brilliant. The lyrics were clever and on point; the rhymes were smart, the phrasing was repetitive in a way that clarified and emphasized, the lyric content phrased over the meter (one of my favorite songwriting devices and one that I have yet to master) – basically, it was how I wish I wrote lyrics. Also, the set – equally clever and creative. The floor was in miscellaneously-sized squares that raised horizontally up and down to form platforms and desks or rose vertically to form 2-D facades; the alphabet/reading them was prevalent but unobtrusive; the whole concept was well-synced with the show concept and very well executed. The choreography! Basically, the trifecta of extremely clever, well-synced creativity in this show was the lyrics, the set, and the choreo. The choreography was detailed, precise, and new; well-tuned to the songs; and developed over the course of the show. Loved it! The addition and development of the acrobat/escapologist storyline worked really well – my trust in where they were going with it, when it initially looked tacked-in, was warranted.

Performer-wise, Miss Honey had a lovely soprano although her character was a big nothing aside from her first (great) song (“Knock on the Door”); the Wormwoods were effective and creative; the Latin number, “Loud,” with Mrs. Wormwood and her salsa partner was hysterical; Matilda was great, great, great, carried the show exactly the way she needed to despite being exhaustingly onstage almost nonstop and having a substantial amount of singing to do. But, more important, the children – oh my god, the kids were incredible. The kid choreography was specific, high-energy, and extremely extensive, and they nailed it, better than I’ve ever seen kids on Broadway before and better than a lot of adult dance choruses on Broadway. Plus, their British accents were so good that I assumed the kids were imported before I checked out the program and found them to home-grown! Seriously, if the lyrics/set/choreo don’t convince you, go see this show just for the children’s chorus.

[I was going to insert the link to "Miracle," the opening number, here, but it's giving me trouble, so you should just click through! -]

Cross-gender casting – I am all for cross-gender casting. But what bothers me is that the cross-gender casting trend on Broadway applies only to casting men in the roles of large or powerful or scary or over-the-top women. To me, it suggests that largeness/power/scariness/over-the-top-iness (haha) are traits that belong to men, that women who have them are therefore manly – are not like women. While I don’t want to accidentally reinforce the “strong but feminine” trope (which Katie and I got into extensively one night in a bar, and which I will happily talk about with you in person) with that last sentence, what I’m trying to say is that this kind of cross-gender casting actually reinforces the gender binary, by saying that some traits are womanly and some are manly, and that a woman with certain traits is appropriately played a man, particularly when other incidences of cross-gender casting are almost completely nonexistent on a professional stage. If we saw more women playing men, or men playing more “feminine” women; if we saw more gender-play in general; even better (in my feminist utopia), if we saw gender as not relevant to characters, such that we took ability to perform the role vocally and in terms of personality/acting ability as the only precursors for being cast in a role, not taking gender into account at all, I would be way more down with the cross-gender casting!

Back to this specific case, I actually thought that casting an man as Trunchbull and emphasizing effeminate gestures and mincing around actually make the character into a parody of womanhood, made her funny because she is someone who is trying to perform femininity and not doing it well rather than because she is just over-the-top scary, made her less actually scary-due-to-being-intimidating and made her more unstable/“crazy,” only scary because we’re told she’s scary through narrative, lights, music, etc. I don’t want to fall into comparing the musical to the movie – particularly since they’re both based on a book and a spectacular one at that – but the Trunchbull in the movie is perfect, and is also a great role for a woman who doesn’t look like the usual women who get cast, and while I liked a lot of the different approaches the musical took, they should have just left that one alone.

I guess those sound like pretty mixed reviews, but the point is, I liked these two shows a lot, and you should go see them!

*Peter and the Starcatcher is the most absolutely beautiful show I’ve seen in the last two years (topped only by Scottsboro Boys, which I saw neither off-Broadway nor on Broadway but managed to catch during its brief San Francisco run, but I was also head over heels for Newsies, Book of Mormon, Venus in Fur, One Man Two Guv’nors, and Million Dollar Quartet; in the quite-liked category are American Idiot, Finian’s Rainbowl, Memphis, and the silly but delightful Lysistrata Jones, in the meh category is Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo and Everyday Rapture, and in the wasted-my-money-and-my-time category are Anything Goes and Billy Elliot, and there you have every Broadway show I can remember seeing since I moved to New York, and now I feel like I haven’t been taking advantage of my city of residence nearly enough.

If you're feeling like being transported... here's the "Gold" reprise:

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