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A CurtainUp Review
Being Alive: A New Musical Celebration

Make me confused.
Mock me with praise.
Let me be used.
Vary my days.

—Being Alive from Stephen Sondheim's Company
From left to right: Vanita Harbour, Patina Miller, Leslie Odom Jr., Chuck Cooper, Rema Webb, Bryan Terrell Clark, and Jesse Nager
(Photo: Mark Garvin)
Being Alive caps the celebration for the opening of Philadelphia Theatre Company's new home on the Avenue of the Arts. Festivities included a ribbon cutting, a star-studded gala, and visits from the governor and the mayor. The Suzanne Roberts Theatre is part of a large multi-storied complex that includes a parking garage and the tall Symphony House condos. From the street the theater appears massive, shiny, and rather impersonal. The surprise is that behind the glass, metal, and neon elements out front, and behind the bright 2-story lobby, is tucked a warm, beautiful, and glowing theater that seems quite small, a delicious little nut in a hard, streetwise shell.

When the planned season opener, a Terrence McNally world premiere, fell through late in the game, Billy Porter was brought in to save the day for PTC with his brand new Being Alive. Singer/actor/playwright-turned director Porter, a gay black man, conceived this entertainment as a different treatment of Sondheim songs with an African American slant and a new emotional approach based in As You Like It's "Seven Ages of Man" speech.

After its very recent world premiere at the Westport Country Playhouse in Connecticut Being Alive was reworked at PTC in preparation for the opening here. New performers were brought in (three original cast members remain), some staff have changed up, and songs have been scrubbed. But ultimately the new show is a mixed blessing, an anomaly for this gala theater opening. It's a fairly dark Sondheim revue, despite its joyful title. And rather than being centered in Shakespeare's seven ages of man, it comes across as a revue tarted up with facile Shakespeare quotes, like post-it messages scribbled out of Cliff Notes.

The theater's seating is intimate, but the stage is large and state-of-the-art. The show opens with a globe concept that doesn't contribute to the overall production, and neither does the opening song— a white-bread performance of "Take Me to the World." The Nixon Youth air and stilted choreography of this number start the show on a dated and off-putting note. An insipid and almost embarrassing childhood sequence follows in which performers regress to infantile behavior. This is shaping up to be a disappointment. The response, even of this fiercely loyal audience, is restrained.

Luckily, things improve, although not to the extent that might be hoped. The Shakespeare theme gets muddied in trajectories. The inclusion of some pieces, like the perky "Everybody Ought to Have a Maid", is hard to fathom. What is this doing here? Was it included because it's a cute little song?

The good news is that the show grows on you, not by simply falling into an easy and predictable groove, but through the work of the seriously talented performers. The audience is won over by the cast, who treat Sondheim's complex, and recently worked over, material with care and grace. They reach an emotional place that seemed highly unlikely at the start. As the revue progresses, good singing direction results in a smooth ensemble sound and amazing solos. Ranging from stylists to big guns to an operatic diva, the cast's remarkable individual abilities shine, leading one to idly wonder why miking was necessary for these voices in this space.

Notable are the rich voices of Chuck Cooper and Rema Webb and the mellow tones of Jesse Nager and Vanita Harbour. Bryan Terrell Clark's working of "No One Is Alone" is memorable. Patina Miller, who knows how to move, adds sparkle as does the smooth stage presence of Leslie Odom Jr. His vocal performance of "Something Just Broke" along with the ensemble, the musical back up and driving beat does wonders for the show. Gender-blind song assignments figure among the productions refreshing qualities, like Clark's rendition of "Losing My Mind". At times the choreography really works— there's a slo-mo wedding and a snappy "More." But sometimes the music and dance mix produces a head scratcher, for instance, an early number's mixing of hip hop with synchronized Drifter's gestures and moments of vocal American Idolization.

The minimalist set principally involves two large, movable metal stairs. Allen Moyer's design keeps a low profile and works together with Kevin Adams' lighting design. It is all about the light. Musicians, raised on scaffolding, are backlit against a changing colorwash that bathes the performers. Very sophisticated. On the other hand, a small built in pop-up podium feature on the stage is used repeatedly like a new toy. Perhaps this is understandable considering that the fine, venerable hosting theatre company has been doing without modern stage features for a long, long time.

With Shakespeare quotes forced into new contexts and a storyline that becomes an uneven mishmash, this is a musical revue with problems. The end, like the beginning, is curious. "Sunday" may be a fine song, but positioned at the close of the show, it is a momentum killer. Thank goodness for the solid and outrageously talented cast who rescued the evening on the strength of their heart and their ability so that everyone could go to the opening night party and honestly say ,"You were great. You were fabulous." And they were.

Being Alive: A New Musical Celebration
Music & Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Conceived & Directed by Billy Porter
Additional text by William Shakespeare

Cast: Bryan Terrell Clark, Chuck Cooper, Vanita Harbour, Patina Miller, Jesse Nager, Leslie Odom, Jr, Nandi Walker, Rema Webb
Scenic Design: Allen Moyer
Costume Design: Anita Yavich, Wig and hair, Erin Kennedy Lunsford
Sound Design: Robert J. Killenberger
Lighting Design: Kevin Adams
Music Director: Ethan Popp
Orchestrations: James Sampliner with Michael McElroy and Joseph Joubert
Arrangements: James Sampliner with Michael McElroy and Billy Porter
Choreography: Ac Ciulla
Running time 90 minutes, no intermission
Suzanne Roberts Theatre, Avenue of the Arts and Lombard St.
October 24- December 2 Opening 10/31/07
Reviewed by Kathryn Osenlund based on 10/31 performance


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