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by Lucy Komisar

Photo from 'The Music Man'
Craig Bierko is "The Music Man." (Photo: Joan Marcus)
Contents: May 5, 2000:
(1) Meredith Willson's "The Music Man"
(2) Julie Taymor's "The Green Bird"
(3) "The Wild Party" at the Manhattan Theatre Club
(4) "The Wild Party" at the Public Theater
(5) Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Jesus Christ Superstar"
(6) Elton John's "Aida"

"The Music Man"
book, music and lyrics by Meredith Willson, directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman
Produced by Dodger Theatricals, John F. Kennedity Center for the Performing Arts, Elizabeth Williams/ Anita Waxman, Kardana-Swinsky Productions, Lorie Cowen Levy/Dede Harris.
250 West 52 Street
Opened April 27, 2000
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar April 28, 2000
From the opening trombone players tooting in jazz time on a railroad car to the final red uniformed marching band parade, Susan Stroman's creative revival of "The Music Man" is pure delight. She has infused the slightly syrupy play with an infectious, lively, joyfully bursting charm. And her jazzy dance numbers are more like good ballet than the lackluster movements in many Broadway shows.

Craig Bierko as the devilishly charming con-man has a boyish innocence, accentuated by his perpetually down-turned lower lip. Rebecca Luker brings a thrilling soprano to Marian the Librarian, who is suffocating in River City for want of a man who cares about Shakespeare and Beethoven. Her mother has been pestering her about not being married.

Who doesn't know the story or can't hum the tunes from this 1957 play? Harold Hill (his latest pseudonym) has ridden in on the rails to talk the townsfolk into hiring him to set up a boys' band. Except, as this is 2000, this boys' band has girls.

He warns them, "Ya got trouble, folks!/ Right here in River City!/ Trouble, with a capital T,/And that rhymes with P,/And that stands for pool!" He'll sell them instruments and the uniforms and be on his way before they figure out he can't teach music -- or even read it. Fearing that the town's piano teacher might pierce his ruse, he determines to disable that threat with charm.Some of the aspects of this small town are pretty narrow. The citizens admit in "Iowa Stubborn" that they're not very nice to strangers, or sometimes even to each other. The mayor thinks the son of a laborer is not good enough for his daughter. And they're all ready to ignore due process and do violence to Hill when they think he's swindled them.

But the plot is just the skeleton upon which to hang a plethora of memorable songs and dance numbers: "Goodnight, My Someone," "Marian The Librarian," "Gary, Indiana," "Till There Was You," and of course the signature "Seventy Six Trombones."

Ruth Williamson is a riotous comedienne as Eulalie, the mayor's larger-than-life wife.

And Clyde Alves brings exuberance and skilled dancing to the role of Tommy Djilas, the son of day laborer. The Hawkeye Four barbershop quartet enchant with nostalgic favorites.

Thomas Lynch's pleasing sets move from the railroad car (with spinning wheels), to a cornfield, the colorful pastel shops at the town square, Marian's two-story clapboard house, and various green country walks.

The show is innocent, schmaltzy, and lacks edge, but you still go out humming those tunes.

"Seventy six trombones led the big parade,/ With a hundred & ten cornets close at hand./ They were followed by rows and rows,/ Of the finest virtuosos,/ The cream of every famous band......" Sometimes, innocence is okay.

"The Green Bird"
by Carlo Gozzi, translated by Albert Bermel and Ted Emergy, music by Elliot Goldenthal, directed by Julie Taymor
Produced by Ostar Enterprises, Theatre for a New Audience, and Nina Lannan
Cort Theatre, 138 West 48 Street
Opened April 18, 2000
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar April 26, 2000
Derek Smith is a hoot as Tartaglia, the wimpy king in Julie Taymor's wildly imaginative production of "The Green Bird." Even from behind a white mask, his voice and body language are so expressive, that you hardly realize his features don't move. Ned Eisenberg and Didi Conn turn their own real faces into commedia dell'arte visages as a sausage- making couple whose accents place them far from the Italian countryside and rather in the heart of Brooklyn. In fact, the talents of these and other actors in the play compete for star billing with Taymor's famous puppets and masks. The result is delightful and artistically inspired, albeit it can't altogether carry a lagging second act.

The Green Bird, by 18th century playwright Carlo Gozzi, is a philosophical fable about greed and love. The king's grasping mother, Tartagliona (Edward Hibbert) switches the newborn royal twins for puppies and persuades him that they are proof his wife Ninetta has been unfaithful. The evil lady arranges for the children to be thrown into the river by the king's aide Pantalone (Andrew Weems), a clown in vaudeville suit and bowler hat. But he wraps them in oilcloth, and they float away, to be rescued by the sausage-makers, who bring them up as their own.

Ninetta (a comically distraught Kristine Nielsen) is buried alive beneath the royal toilets, but the Green Bird saves her by flying through the plumbing to bring her food.

The play begins 18 years later.

Gozzi was satirizing current philosophical arguments. The adopted children converse in academic tones about enlightenment philosophy and, looking for ulterior motives in generosity, accuse their mother of "self-love." It's not just her. They declaim against emotion, love, and friendship in general, insisting that all men and women are instinctively greedy and must root out self-love. They wear gowns made of newspapers.

Translators Albert Bermel and Ted Emery have modernized Gozzi's classic text. Forcing Smeraldina (Conn) to admit they are adopted, the twins go off in search of their real parents and encounter a 10-foot high talking stone head that tells Renzo (Sebastian Roche) to "lighten up." If they throw a pebble at the palace, they will be rich.

Meanwhile, the king, in a white suit and red shoes, sits on a yellow velvet armchair throne, suffers mood swings, and complains peevishly that he has "abandonment issues." When he moans, "I would like to have my king thing," he means the crown. From the sewers, Ninetta, the slightly ditzy entombed queen, cries that her "chances of happiness are out the window."

There's no love lost between the king and his mother, Tartagliona, who is attired in black, with a huge bustle as big as the back of a horse. He kicks her cane. She makes Sicilian curses and spits. Tartagliona frequents a soothsayer (a droll Reg E. Cathey) with Rasta hair and an occasional Jamaican accent who talks in ads and old time radio and rap and grumbles, "Oh man, these trances really wear me out!" (He wears a long gown and then a silver tank suit.)

The question that Gozzi poses is what power riches will exert over the two philosophers. Will they become greedy, vain and selfish? Or can they be saved from those baser instincts by love? (Not to mention, will Ninetta be rescued and Tartagliona get her comeuppance?)

It's a fanciful fantasy that provides the opportunity for some magical moments, including making apples bump along a clef made of ropes as they approximate the position of notes for the music playing. (The play's sounds move from jazz to classical to Fellini style circus tunes.)

The production falls down around the peregrinations of the twins, who are rather bland characters and don't spark much interest. They're just overpowered by the fanciful creatures.

"The Wild Party"
book, music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa based on the poem by Joseph Moncure March, directed by Gabriel Barre
Produced by Manhattan Theatre Club
City Center, 131 West 55 Street
Opened February 24, 2000
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar April 8, 2000
There is a mood of desperation, of life on the edge, pulsating in the music and the story of Andrew Lippa's "The Wild Party" at the MTC. It's based on Joseph Moncure March's 1926 poem about a collection of low-lifes who amuse themselves with sex, drugs and occasionally violence. Sometimes the feeling is Kurt Weill, sometimes jazz or blues, but always dark and brooding. You sense that the couple at the center of the story will come to no good. And they are so distasteful, you really don't care. Here's a play with no hero or heroine.

It's the decadent 1920's. Queenie (Julia Murney), who likes to be treated rough, has hooked up with Burrs (Brian d'Arcy James), a brutal clown who knocks women around. When he finally goes too far, in a chilling rape scene, what does she do? She organizes a party -- to humiliate him. The chance arrives in the person of Mr. Black (Taye Diggs), who arrives on the arm of Kate (Idina Menzel), one of their friends.

The play is like an operetta -- it's done almost all in song in a set whose main artifacts consist of a brass bed, spinet piano, and bathtub, all in shades of brown on bits of floor that separate and move and come together again, almost like ice floes on which the characters are marooned, with the gray apartment walls like a surrounding mist. Sometimes the characters make a tableaux in freeze frame.

The guests are all oddballs. The most appealing are Mae (Jennifer Cody) a cute perky blonde with a big screechy voice, who is matched with a husky prize fighter (Raymond Jaramillo McLeod). Their duo, "Two of a Kind," is a show-stopper.

There's also a lively, almost slapstick number by Madelaine True (Alix Korey), a comic lesbian who wants any woman who is alive. When she approaches one "who had an advantage because she's alone," the woman falls on the floor dead drunk.

Mr. Black is black. Kate, a flashy floozy, has picked him up at an uptown club because she thinks he's got money. He's the only one who seems vaguely normal.

The staging is strong, imaginative. The music moves from jazz to vaudeville to revival style. The party-goers take cocaine, fight, strip, have an orgy. In a dance number, men and women in black underwear and top hats suggest a mood of styled degeneracy out of "Cabaret" by way of Fosse . The movements are expertly choreographed. But there's an odd coldness to it. None of the characters seem real. The highly neurotic, Queenie, who proclaims "no limits, no boundaries," suffers without emotion. When she asks, "How did we come to do this?", the answer doesn't concern you.

"The Wild Party"
book by Michael John LaChiusa & George C. Wolfe based on the poem by Joseph Moncure March, music and lyrics by Michael John LaChiusa, directed by George C. Wolfe, choreographed by Joey McKneely
Produced by Joseph Papp Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival, Scott Rudin/Paramount Pictures, Roger Berlind, Williams/Waxman Virginia Theatre, 245 West 52 Street
Opened April 13, 2000
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar April 12, 2000
This "Wild Party" is a campy, comic vaudeville, with cartoonish characters, continuous dancing, and not much of a plot. Based on Joseph Moncure March's 1926 poem about 1920's decadence, George Wolfe's production is big and lavish and Broadway. The music is jazzy. It's funny and satirical, but not very dark. It's not even a very wild party, in spite of some cocaine sniffing and bare breasts. Queenie (Toni Collette) is more tacky than dissolute.

Underlying the narrative is the constant of race. Burrs (Mandy Patinkin, the clown, appears in blackface. Two fey blacks (Nathan Lee Graham and Michael McElroy) sing "Uptown is looking at downtown" in a style like Bobbie Short's: "You young boys with your girls, you coloreds with your whites."

Mandy Patinkin does an Al Jolson soft-shoe style parody about infidelity: "Won't it be grand wont it be nice." The only frightening moment comes when he explodes when he thinks he's its victim.

Eartha Kitt is a funny campy vamp asking two balding middle-aged stereotyped Jews, "Do you know what it's like to kiss such smoldering lips? Would you like to find out?" They are nervous Gold and Goldberg. Gold, who changed his name, is accused of being a Jewless Jew. The Jewish producer shtick, done in high stereotype, teeters on being offensive. There's also a lampoon of a working class Italian. Add a lesbian and a catatonic girl, but no real people.

The rotating set is a large, brown-walled, high-ceiling room lit by candles on walls and an expensive piano, large ottomans and a bar cart. This is a ritzy party.

When the violent denouement comes, it's almost an afterthought, an erratic interruption to the good times. It's often a diverting pastiche, though the whole is less than the sum of its parts.

"Jesus Christ Superstar"
lyrics by Tim Rice, music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, directed by Gale Edwards, choreography by Anthony Van Laast
Produced by The Really Useful Superstar Company and Nederlander Producing Company in association with Terry Allen Kramer
Ford Center for the Performing Arts, 214 West 43 Street
Opened April 16, 2000
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar April 18, 2000
Even for a non-rock fan, this show is entertaining. For one, Gale Edward's colorful staging is appealing, even balletic. The music is the same as in 1971. The difference in one's reaction is that then it was part of the politics and the gap between the generations. Now the rebels seem almost MTVish.

Backdrop pillars are pock-marked by bullets, and a graffiti wall is painted with anti-war slogans, a hammer and cycle, soldiers, and machine guns. Modern cops with Darth Vader leather coats, chest armor and helmets beat up rebels with billy clubs. Street kids in camouflage or jeans and tank tops follow a Jesus dressed in guru-style white flowing pants and tunic.

The temple is profaned by cages of TV sets and military rockets, the "money changers'" flashing stock market ticker, drug syringes, leather-clad prostitutes. "There's nothing you can't buy."

The weakest element is Jesus, portrayed by Glenn Carter as nearly devoid of character; he wanders around almost in a daze. The dominant figure is Judas (a vibrant, pulsating Tony Vincent) with spiky blonde hair, black leather jack and undershirt. Maya Days brings a sweet innocence and charm to Mary Magdalene.

The best number is the jazzy forties musical piece at Herod's palace, performed as if Herod's Palace, like Caesar's Place, were in Las Vegas. Herod (Paul Kandel), attired in white dinner jacket and bow tie, is a show-time hoofer with a glint of the MC in "Cabaret." Sultry dancers in pink glitter complete the floor show.

Some of the lyrics are rather trite, "I must be mad thinking I'd be remembered. Look at your blank faces. I'll be nothing after I'm dead." When Jesus predicts that Judas will betray him, Judas replies, "Cut out the dramatics!" One of his followers wants to be an apostle because, "Then when we retire we can write the gospels so they'll still talk about us when we've died."

The crowd's assault on Jesus seems unnecessarily brutal as they flog and strike him, leaving him and their hands bloodied. It is unsettling. And of course, video cameras transmit the gory details live on a large screen. Those changes from 1971 mark a certain loss of innocence.

music by Elton John, lyrics by Tim Rice, book by Linda Woolverton and Robert Falls & David Henry Hwang, directed by Robert Falls, choreography by Waye Cilento
Produced by Hyperion Theatricals
Palace Theatre, 1564 Broadway at 47 Street
Opened March 23, 2000
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar March 30, 2000
"Aida" seems to be several plays. In one, Heather Headley is Aida, a young woman with a regal presence, an adventurous bent, and a rich soprano.

In another, Sherie Rene Scott gives comic life to Amneris, a very funny, narcissistic Pharaoh's daughter, who'd be very much at home in Bloomingdale's and could give some women's magazines lessons in the aggressive seduction of men.

And in the third, Adam Pascal is a rather silly, flat Radames, the opportunist son of the king's adviser, who decides to ditch Amneris and pursue Aida, though you wonder what, except for his good looks, he has to offer.

As in the Verdi opera, Aida, a Nubian princess, is captured and taken to Egypt by Radames, who has led a successful assault on her country. But Radames falls for the new slave, which complicates his betrothal to the Pharoah's daughter. You never believe the story. The elegant Aida clearly outclasses Radames, who sports a New York accent. (The tones of his father Zoser (John Hickok), for some reason, are Southern.)

The best part of the play is the satire: Princess Amneris in a steam bath with long towel and being hailed as "first in beauty and accessories" or declaiming, in dulcet New York tones, that Aida seems to be "a slave who knows her fabrics. I'm keeping her." She does a show-stopping number calle d "Dress has always been my strongest suit," which becomes a fashion show with garish gowns and outrageous headdresses. Asked if what she's wearing is the latest fashion, she retorts, "It is now!" Even Aida seems impressed, remarking, "I'll say this for you Egyptians, your thread count is amazing."

But clever dialogue doesn't come often, and director Robert Falls seems uncertain whether the play is tragedy or farce. Some of it, in fact, is hokey to the point of being silly. "Your country's at war, and you go walking around the river edge. You must have a burning desire to see Egypt." The servant, Merib: "Master, I'm so glad you're home." Radames to Aida, "I want to make your life easier."

The song lyrics are equally insipid: "Build another pyramid. Put 5,000 slaves on stand-by." Predictably stylized Egyptian dance movements evoke an ancient disco.

Elton John fans will love the music, though to others it will seem repetitious. My favorite number was "The Gods Love Nubia," done as a freedom spiritual by slaves in colorless beige rags. Headley shows off her considerable talents in a jazzy, torchy "Easy As Life."

Bob Crowley has furnished attractive sets: a museum with glass cases out of which Amneris steps, a ship of three large red sales, a landscape of a river and trees against the sky, and a palace pool positioned vertically, the better to show off a spoof of 40's movie syncopated swimmers.

But there's no subtlety. A press report said Elton John was inspired to do the show by the children's-book version of "Aida" by Leontyne Price. He never lost the juvenile tone. [Komisar]

Theater critic Lucy Komisar gives pre-show briefings and post-show discussions for theater parties to enrich playgoers' experiences. She'll also help find an appropriate show and make or advise on arrangements. Interested parties may telephone (212) 929-1610 for information.

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