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|A CurtainUp Review
Mounting a new show on this grand a scale in a theater that seats an audience that's not much larger than the cast might strike some as a case of tilting at windmills but then the Transport Group's artistic director Jack Cummings III is not someone afraid to pursue risky projects. His vision for marrying drama and music and his penchant for large scale productions has attracted top of the line theater people eager to help him realize his concepts -- not to mention, viewers, including this writer, who've come to appreciate the Transport's transporting spirit of adventure.
The concept dreamed up by Cummings (with developmental assists from Adam Bock, Mark Campbell and David Pittu) is to explore the relationship between those who create a musical and the audience that determines whether it will have a life through a night at Broadway musical. Set designer John Story, a Transport regular, has therefore transformed the Connelly Theater's generously proportioned stage into a theater within the theater so that the ticket buying audiences finds itself face to face with five rows of red deco theater seats donated by a real Broadway Theater, the Palace. Since it wouldn't be a theater without one, there's also an aisle from which a black and white clad usher (Tina Johnson as the main usher Teddie; also Monica Russell) can direct the the arriving mock audience until all the seats are filled.
The main conceit is to focus not on the musical that has brought people to the theater, but on the audience -- which on this evening includes the playwright (Jack Donahue) who's still reeling from a round of negative reviews which have led to an early closing notice. This assemblage of almost four dozen people to represent a typical Broadway audience, serves as the multi-plot springboard. We (the audience watching the pretend audience) become privy to their inner thoughts and whispered conversations which are interspersed with songs.
All in all, it's exhilarating to see so much talent gathered on stage and the concept makes for an entertaining and original theatrical outing with lots of fun insider show biz references. Naturally, the behavior we witness is more often than not appalling so that it's small wonder that the playwright finally explodes. Just as naturally, a piece involving such a large talent pool and so many story lines is bound to have some characters and songs that stand out, while others miss the mark.
If there was an exit poll, the vote for the funniest performances and dialogue would most likely go to John Braden, Marta Curro, Mary Ellen Anthony and Tracy Rosten who are hilarious as the know-it-all Four Old Jews. Those who like darker, more serious stories, will cast their vote for the dysfunctional Out-of-Town Parents and Their Manhattan Daughter. Choosing the best singing solo is a tossup between daughter Rosemary Loar's searing "This Thing That Is Happening." and 11-year-old Eamon Foley's delightful rendition of " I Like What I See." with its smart pre-teen view of the show ("The family on stage is like us/except they think out loud and sing/they yell and kick and scream and cuss/they don't hold back on anything/ I wanna be like them. . .").
It's not easy to create a sense of movement in a show which has the cast sitting in rows most of the time. R. Lee Kennedy's expert lighting go a long way towards meeting this challenge. All those seats also don't leave much room for dancing but then this is a dialogue rather than a dance driven musical. That said, there is Gerry McIntyre's show stopping "Little White Lies." which is a production number of sorts thanks to an amusing Japanese backup chorus (Yuka Takara, Mary Ann Hu, Mika Saburi).
In its attempt to squeeze so many protraits into one canvas, The Audience ends up being too much of a good thing. The hour and 45 minutes without intermission would play much better if trimmed down to 85 or 90 minutes. While Rita Gardner, the original girl in The Fantasticks is delightful as a Westchester widow, we could do with less business about her husband's ashes to commemorate their anniversary celebrations. There are other sketches, especially those involving the lesser musical numbers, that would benefit from trimming. Another disappointment is that several of the outstanding musical theater performers like Dee Hoty and Donna Lynne Champlin (one of the stars of Transport's superb 2004 revival of First Lady Suite) don't get to sing except as part of the company numbers. Speaking of the full cast pieces, Michael John Lachiusa, whose music and lyrics framed Transport's Requiem for William, aptly summarizes the show's theme with his "Two Joins Three."
The cast size and occasional work-in-progress feel of The Audience make a commercial transfer or even other off-Broadway or regional productions unlikely. Unless there's an extension or move to another off-off-Broadway theater able to accommodate the over-sized cast, anyone interested in a fresh approach to musical theater would be well advised to reserve a seat. The performance I attended had an overflow crowd, with a few folding chairs at the side of the orchestra section stretching the 99-seat capacity to its limits. And in fairness to that real audience, their behavior, unlike that of the mock audience, was quite exemplary right to the appreciative and well deserved applause.
LINKS TO OTHER TRANSPORT PLAY REVIEWS
Requiem for William
First Lady Suite
Easy-on-the budget super gift for yourself and your musical loving friends. Tons of gorgeous pictures.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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At This Theater
Leonard Maltin's 2005 Movie Guide
Ridiculous!The Theatrical Life & Times of Charles Ludlam
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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