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LETTERS TO EDITOR
Thou Shalt Not
This latest dramatization of the Emile Zola novel Thérèse Raquin is certainly not a four-star musical. However, considering the many other novelists, film makers and stage directors who have been inspired by Zola's guilt-riddled lovers, Thérèse and Laurent, you can't really say that Broadway's hit maker Susan Stroman had a terrible idea in wanting to modernize and musicalize the story.
The title of the flawed but still interesting to see show was used as the subtitle of the first of numerous film versions. The latest filmed version is one still-in-the-works vehicle for Kate Winslet and Judy Dench. A fine surreal staging off-Broadway starred Elizabeth Marvel (see link below). Add to that a whole genre of crime-of-passion spinoffs, some classics in their own right ( like James Cain's sizzler, The Postman Always Rings Twice a scene from which is recreated in Thou Shalt Not) and it's obvious that Thérèse Raquin is a tale that holds continuing fascination.
As for the walk-outs, they miss the second and definitely better act. The first act, despite a vivid opening, is the most flawed -- mediocre songs that don't transition well into the script, a steamy sex scene that brings unintended titters instead of titillation. I could go on but Thou Shalt Not is more a case of stumbling in several wrong directions than a theatrical train wreck, and the evidence that it deserves respect is found mostly in the show's last half.
It is after the intermission, when the sickly, cuckolded Camille (Norbert Leo Butz), whose touch makes Thérèse (Kate Levering) feel as if she is "being erased" is dead, that the show really comes alive. Camille has been pushed over the side of a rowboat by his wife's lover Laurent (Craig Bierko -- David New substituting), with the wife the silent accessory to the dastardly deed. When Butz springs free from his whimpy cocoon into a dancing and singing ghost, he transcends the otherwise jarring jauntiness of the show. You forget about the poorly integrated songs, dances and dialogue and see how this musical could have soared. When Butz sings "Oh! Ain't She Sweet?" you experience the thrill of watching a performer running away with the show leaving a lasting marker in your memory book. You can also see that Harry Connick Jr. might just have a future in the musical theater.
The ghost concept is also reminiscent of the terrific fantasy trial scene in the unfairly maligned Parade (also an original musical under the auspices of Lincoln Center -- see link below) when the doomed Leo Frank breaks into a song and dance routine. If everything worked as well as this whole ghostly business, Thou Shalt Not would be the Thou Must See that it promised to be.
The second act also features two striking scenes, one Camille's funeral the other a powerful gang rape. There's also Stroman's beautiful "Thou Shalt Not " Ballet and a reprise of one of Connick's catchier ditties "Tug Boat." That's not to say that Connick has just two numbers up his sleeve. As a musician nurtured in the Big Easy he's fully up to providing the musical flavor of place and period. The problem is that the scenes like the jazz club opening seem more like musical revue acts or incidental music better suited to another show. The songs, besides not flowing naturally from the dialogue, simply aren't wonderful and beg for a lyricist with a theatrical background.
Perhaps the absence of strong songs with moving lyrics, compounded by David Thompson's awkward and often wrong-headed book and the fact that Kate Levering is a fine dancer but a ho-hum actress and singer is why Stroman leans heavily on the choreography which is fine and occasionally better than that. Her turntable dances -- here turntables within turntables -- are always fun and impressive to watch.
Having seen Craig Bierko as the charismatic, more perky than sexy Harold Hill in The Music Man, I was curious about his performance as Laurent the drifter who makes Thérèse libidnous dreams come true. However, since he was out at the matinee I saw, I can only tell you that reader comments have ranged from "wooden" to "wonderful." What I can say with certainty is that the well-credentialed David New, who is the standby for both Bierko and Butz, is excellent. Being slighter of stature than Bierko he brings a nice Marlon Brando-John Garfield-Paul Newman drifter quality to the role.
While Debra Monk is a much more seasoned actress than Kate Levering, as the jolly proprietor of a jazz joint into which Mr. Thompson's book has transformed Zola's dour Madame Raquin, she is as authentically Creole as a Campbell's or Progresso canned gumbo. She does bring her usual warmth and charm to the stage and is to be admired for soldiering through one of Connick's worst songs, "My Little World" and then coping with being made mute by a stroke for most of the second act.
Clearly the men fare better than the women, with Leo Burmester performing well and with an authentic New Orleans accent, as Officer Michaud , and Ted L. Levy adding fleet footed panache to some of the ensemble numbers.
The stagecraft is supplied by Ms. Stroman's frequent collaborators -- set designer Thomas Lynch, costume designer William Ivey Long and and lighting designer Peter Kaczorowski. While Lynch's set looks a little as if the budget ran short, Mr. Long's costumes are colorful and snappy and Mr. Kaczorowski's lighting drips atmosphere.
If you're on a tight budget and have money for only one or two Broadway shows, I wouldn't tell you to put Thou Shalt Not at the top of your must-see list. However, if you're interested in musical theater, this show is a revealing example of all the things that can and do go right and wrong from the time an idea is conceived to the day the theatrical baby is born.
Susan Stroman still has three hits going strong (The Producers, The Music Man, Contact) and her scheduled revival of Oklahoma has also established itself as a proven success in London. Harry Connick Jr. is young and talented enough to use this show as a first step towards becoming a player in the musical theater. If he wants to do double duty, maybe he should consider switching from composing and lyric writing to composing and acting.
LINKS TO OTHER SHOWS MENTIONED
The Music Man
6,500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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