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A CurtainUp New Jersey Review

I'd like you to go away, Mr. Lou — George
Oh, George! That's impossible! It's the only thing I can't give ya! — Lou
BD Wong in Herringbone
BD Wong in Herringbone
A trio of musicians warms up on the left of the stage. On the right, a performer does his warm-up exercises in a back-stage dressing room. Lights frame the proscenium. Otherwise, the stage is uncluttered except for a steamer trunk containing a few props and a free-standing door on a turntable. Subsequently the door will be used as a portal to various places, all of which designer Eugene Lee has evoked with minimalist dispatch. After the pianist reminds us to turn off all our electrical equipment, the show begins to take shape or something like that.

Happy or sad, musicals come in all shapes, sizes, styles, formats and genres. Musicals also presume that life should be envisioned and experienced through motifs, songs, and underscoring, all of which is provided by performers and musicians. What makes the very bizarre, but oddly compelling Herringbone stand apart from any preconceived notions we have about musicals, is that it is both horrific and light-hearted. What's more, mot only get all the components of a musical rolled into one miniature package but it is also performed by one very versatile actor (B.D. Wong) assisted by three sidemen musicians.

An accomplished actor, most famous for originating the role of M. Butterfly on Broadway and for his recurring role on the TV series Law & Order: SVU, Wong uses his many talents, including vocal dexterity, gender-bending, and age-spanning to impersonate 10 different characters — including a 36-inch tall, 37 year-old midget. He is also no slouch as a singer and dancer. To his relief I'm sure, he has the support of the musicians, each of whom has been assigned a character name. While primarily seated at the piano, Dan Lipton gets the moniker Thumbs DuBois, although he is also called upon to screw up his face when he is playing Howard, a rather eerie-looking man-servant.

With a vaguely comprehensible book by Tom Cone and more easily accessible music by Skip Kennon and lyrics by Ellen Fitzhugh, Herringbone has been around a while. It premiered in 1982 at Playwrights Horizons and was seen most recently at the Williamstown Theater Festival (Elyse Sommer's review) where Wong was able to hone his transformations, under the direction of Roger Rees, who is repeating his assignment for the McCarter. It takes place, in the present (Princeton, to be program-specific), as well as in Demopolis, Alabama (and elsewhere) and on vaudeville stages during the Depression Era. For his act, Wong looks spiffy in stripped pants and a similarly stripped double breasted vest over a white short sleeve shirt and tie (the work of costume designer William Ivey Long).

It seems that George, the entertainer, is formerly part of an act that called itself "The Chicken and the Frog" and has a strange story to tell. George's parents, Arthur and Louise, presumed they were in line as beneficiaries of Uncle Bill's will. When that falls through, they come up with a desperate plan for their 8 year-old son George to break into show business and take them out of their small Southern town. They invest in George's training to become a Hollywood star. Although the only talent George has ever displayed was making a wacky, but award-winning, speech on the theme "I Am an American," he is sent to learn the profession from Nathan ("Chicken") Mosley, , a seasoned vaudevillian. A fatal mishap (or was it?) that caused "Chicken," to let Lou, "the Frog," fall to his death ("splat") apparently results in a very weird phenomenon. George, possessed by the spirit of Lou "the Frog," is suddenly able to perform beautifully, execute dances, routines, and tricks that his mentor never showed him. How about a musical that asks the following questions? Why does George suddenly turn on the chicken and wring his neck? Are we meant to see how a defenseless child might react to a parent's abuse, be it physical or psychological? And finally (or, maybe not): Can a performer's own identity be compromised by the roles he assumes and subconsciously allow the roles he plays to consume him?

One very disturbing scene finds the young George in a cheap hotel room where he is unwittingly seduced by a trollop who believes she is getting it on with Lou, "the Frog." Figure that one out.

Whatever permutations he takes, Wong makes all the characters' voices distinct and their body language evocative. His performance also builds on the musical's dramatic tension. To the actor's credit, there is never any doubt as to which character he is playing, even if it seems on occasion like two at the same time.

The musical's title is derived from a plot point that I won't spoil. Herringbone is a tour-de-force for Wong and, whether you like it or not, manages to create its own special genre: The nightmare as divertissement.

Book by Tom Cone, Music by Skip Kennon, lyrics by Ellen Fitzhugh
Directed by Roger Rees

Cast: B.D. Wong
Musicians: Dan Lipton, Benjamin Campbell, Richard Huntley
Set Design: Eugene Lee
Costume Design: William Ivey Long
Lighting Design: Kenneth Posner
Sound Design: Scott Lehrer & Leon Rothenberg
Choreography by Darren Lee
Running time: 2 hours including intermission
Berlind Theatre at the McCarter Theatre Center, 91 University Place, Princeton, N.J. (609) 258 ARTS (2787
Prices: ($15 to $49)
Opened: 09/12/08. Ends: 10/12/08
Performances Tues - Thurs at 7:30; Friday at 8 PM; Saturday at 3 and 8 PM; Sunday at 2 and 7:30 PM.
Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 09/12/08

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