Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

It's Hot Up Here

April 01, 2008

Jenna Russell as Dot and Daniel Evans as George
Photo : Joan Marcus 2008

Probably the most heartening thing about the Broadway shows I took in last week was how much, and simultaneously how little, technological advancement has reshaped the face of the American theater. Examples given: two major revivals that opened this season, the Roundabout Theater Company’s imported production of Sunday in the Park with George and the arguably evergreen Gypsy starring Patti LuPone.

Sunday in the Park with George arrives at Studio 54 in the midst of the most recent wave of Sondheim revivals. It is another British import, but notably does not involve the cast playing its own instruments. Directed by Sam Buntrock, this amazingly acted and sung production may be as far from the proto-minimalist John Doyle excursions of recent years as one can imagine. It is a testament to how effective high-end visual effects can add to a staging without it involving fire-breathing dragons or earth-shattering explosions. Instead, in a subtle but clever way, the entire set for this Sunday consists of a white canvas, or more appropriately projection screen, for video that provides both set elements and at times, additional cast. Imagery is painted and wiped away as quickly as George changes his mind but never to the point that it overwhelms the action or the incredible performances. Daniel Evans (George) and Jenna Russell (Dot/Marie) have no trouble demonstrating exactly why they won Olivier awards last year for these performances in a magnificent and often quite touching revival of an arguably thorny work.

Ms. LuPone's big moment
Photo : Joan Marcus 2008

But gee whiz, technology has its limits and cannot substitute for the bare bones writing, acting, singing and directing on a stage. While there are plenty of bad examples that make this point all over Broadway right now, let me turn to the latest revival of Gypsy which makes the case in the exact opposite way at the St. James Theater. This production, mounted almost exclusively for Patti LuPone, is traditional and old-fashioned almost to a fault. It is hard to believe that Arthur Laurents, the original author and now director of this piece, could have fashioned a performance more respectful of the original. Yet, despite this, the whole thing is so winning and well-acted, it is impossible to not be sucked in by its charms. Of course, much of the success must be laid at the feet of LuPone, whose Momma Rose is one for the ages. Without a hint of cheese, she hammers through this part, taking no prisoners and creating a totally believable stage moment. I, for one, forgot it was LuPone throughout the evening and that is a huge accomplishment for a star of this magnitude. The supporting cast is no less impressive with Boyd Gaines as Herbie and Laura Benanti as Gyspy Rose Lee. The "Gotta have a Gimmick" number is sheer perfection. These are well-worn paths to be trodden these days, but it is still an unforgettable three or so hours not to be missed. Plus all this is done with little more than costumes and some great lighting. Go figure.


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