Thursday, August 5, 2010
Theater review: Sugar the Musical at Irving Arts Center
Sugar is a good evening of musical theater, but cannot overcome the inadequate, hebetudinous score and book.
Two weeks ago I reviewed Theatre Coppell's Pippin, while this past weekend I reviewed ICT Mainstage's current offering, Jule Styne's musical Sugar. I state that because in a unique way both of these productions have something in common. Both musicals had their original debuts on Broadway in 1973. In fact, both were nominated for Best Musical at the 1973 Tony Awards, but lost to Steven Sondheim's A Little Night Music.
Sugar opened on Broadway in April 1972 at the Majestic Theater, playing a pauper's total of only 505 performances, closing in June 1973. Sugar received four Tony award nominations, but not for its book or score. The original was directed and choreographed by the great Gower Champion, while its producer was none other than the legendary egomaniac David Merrick. Merrick was known on Broadway for his tyrannical, explosive behavior and his brazen, no holds attack on producing shows, slaughtering directors, and firing creative team members with relish. His formulas and ideas regarding publicity have been historic and legendary.
For example, in 1961 Merrick produced the musical Subways are for Sleeping, which received horrible reviews. So Merrick actually found New Yorkers who had the same exact names as the leading New York theater critics and allowed them to see the show for free. He then took their positive, glowing comments and used them as quotes for publicity in newspaper ads, billboards, etc. Sugar finally had a West End version in March 1992 (after changing the title to Some Like It Hot, the film on which the musical is based on). For this version there was much retooling on the lethargic book and score. It would last a mere four months.
In 2003 a third version (this time as a national tour) was mounted, starring one of its original film stars, Tony Curtis. The creative team took the original Broadway version and the West End version, meshing the two versions (plus the creative team's own ideas), all rolled into one. They added, cut, edited, and retooled both the book and score. Some songs from the original stayed, others were cut and added a couple of new tunes from the Jules Styne catalogue. They also used new songs by Joel Grey and Leo Wood (lyrics) and A. Harrington Gibbs (music), and even Sammy Cahn (Lyrics).
I saw the national tour of this third version with all its retooling when it came to Dallas Summer Musicals in 2003. I've never seen the original, but I actually enjoyed very much this third reincarnation. However it was Mr. Curtis who crashed and burned in this production. He was flat, forgetting his lines, and did not have a singing voice whatsoever. It didn't help that on either side of the Music Hall stage there were massive Teleprompters set up for Curtis. All night long the star kept looking stage right or left with his head down as he tried to read his lines.
Two years ago ICT Mainstage mounted a stellar production of the musical Nine, earning high critical praise and sweeping the 2009 Column Awards, winning Best Musical. The very next season they went with a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. Now this season, it's Sugar. Sugar is based on Billy Wilder's 1959 classic comedic gem of a film, Some Like It Hot, which starred Curtis, Jack Lemmon and the iconic blonde goddess, Marilyn Monroe. It's a hilarious film about two musicians who witness a murder orchestrated by a mobster, resulting in the two musicians becoming future members of the "swimming with the fishes" fan club so to speak.
To escape they dress up as women and join an all girl Band. From there we have the hijinks laughs of Joe (Curtis) falling in love with Sugar Kane (Monroe), but has to disguise himself for a second time as a millionaire and heir to the Shell Oil corporation in order to woo Sugar. Meanwhile Joe's buddy Jerry (Lemmon) dressed as "Daphne" is being chased all over the Florida resort by a very old millionaire with the libido of a teenager named Osgood.
It is well documented that Curtis has said in past interviews that kissing Monroe was like "kissing Hitler." He later said he was joking, or that he only told the film crew. Monroe had the last laugh though as she won a Golden Globe for her performance, while Curtis went home empty-handed. The film has since become one of the finest comedies that ever flickered on the silver screen.
To reiterate, I've never seen a production of Sugar (playing at the Irving Arts Center through August 14), only the third reworked version that was the 2003 national tour using the film's title, Some Like It Hot. Thus as the musical chugged along on the Dupree stage on Saturday night I kept thinking, "This is so not the version I saw whatsoever."
According to the Playbill for Some Like It Hot, it is represented by Tams-Witmark. I don't know if ICT Mainstage was allowed to use that version or not, but they should have. Because the two versions are so vastly different. I vividly remember laughing my head off at the Music Hall at Fair Park and thoroughly enjoying a lot of the musical numbers. The book had a bounty of great laughs, physical comedy, and side-splitting setups. The new songs and book sewn into the old material actually raised the artistic refinement of the original to much better results.
As for the book and score for this original Sugar ... oy vey. The score. It was such a lifeless, dull, slumbering score that arrived DOA. It did not sound pleasurable or even hummable. There was not one song that contained a memorable melody that you could whistle to yourself as you left the theater. How could this stale score come from the talents of the same man who composed the majestic, history making scores of Gypsy and Funny Girl? The melodies at times sounded disjointed, unpolished, or set to a zombie-like tempo. The overall score made you think that Styne apparently did this for the paycheck and not for artistic merits.
Bob Merrill's lyrics did not elevate Styne's score to better success either. Merrill must have just opened up a dictionary, pointed to a word and tried to find something to make the words rhyme. For example he used "illusion" and "conclusion" and "whammy" and "Miami" in attempting lyric composition. Characters suffered greatly from this pabulum score. It didn't fully develop or help their "inner voice," their characterization, or in plot/storyline progression.
Peter Stone's book was a hodgepodge of various scenes from the movie (including lines from the actual film) thrown into a pile. Various characters got lost or were so paper thin they practically disappeared on stage. We as an audience just did not get the chance to fully grasp the character. Where this original book truly bombs is the relationship between the two male leads. If these two men were supposed to be best friends, it is not there. All night these two men argue, bicker, and confront each other all through the piece. They never let up. Just two hours of two men nagging, fighting and arguing with each other.
In the 2003 retooled version, they saw this and created a better thought-out process and made the book work to help flesh out their friendship so that we actually saw two best friends on the same journey. For the score, they gave several characters much better songs, while some of the worst numbers were cut out, helping the book and score succeed to a much funnier outcome. I so wished ICT had used that version. But in their defense, maybe it's just not available for companies to produce.
Director Bruce R. Coleman is a renaissance artist. He directs, writes, designs, and paints. Coleman is one of the most busiest artists in this theatrical community. His talents are that well respected and admired, and rightfully so. He is that unique talent of not only directing his shows, but designing its sets and costumes. With Sugar he only directed and did the costumes. You easily get the sense that Coleman tried his very best to breathe some fresh, artistic life and vitality into the book and score. There was some very creative staging throughout the piece. He kept the pace being fresh and perky by using the main drape several times to keep the scenery changing. Alas, though, the weakness of the material still seeped through. But you have to give the man major props for working overtime in trying his best to hoist the material into a better artistic light.
Kelly McCain's choreography was refreshing, visually exciting, and NEW! Some choreographers around town use YouTube clips from previous productions, reuse the choreography from the film version, or watch endless times a videotape of the original and simply copy that. McCain used her talents, and it was most welcomed to see McCain's work which was so spirited, unique, and enchanting. Several of the slumbering composed numbers were greatly raised to visual enjoyment primarily thanks to McCain's choreography.
However, it was the execution of the choreography is where some problems crept up. Some ensemble members had the dancing technique and choreography pact down, but others stumbled along. You could see some chorus members look at the feet of the more trained dancers, or had looks of apprehension when it was time to do the choreography. In several numbers you saw on some faces the confusion or memory lapse of what they were supposed to do, which resulted in a few train wrecks on stage. When everyone is in unison and one person is out of step, or has the wrong hand gesture, or in the wrong traffic pattern, it pops up like a red flare and your eyes immediately are drawn to that error. For example in the number "Hey, Why Not" in the middle of the choreography you saw one of those unfortunate train wrecks. I sincerely think that once the company settles into several more performances these errors will vanish.
Vonda Bowling's music direction is flawless and ebbed beautifully above the orchestra pit. Along with her seven piece jazz band, they played with broad strokes of shining musicianship. They sounded robust, slick, and grand.
The design elements were commendable, if somewhat uneven. Rodney Dobbs scenic design is a series of colored flats and stair units that made the stage look, well flat. They lacked depth and screamed for more ornate, fully fleshed-out design. For example the use of stair units for the first scene (the Chicago Theater) with black curtains left the stage look so bare. The Seminole-Ritz Hotel set had stairs and three painted Indian columns. This is supposed to be a ritzy, glamorous hotel. Instead it looked like one of those run-down gambling casinos on some deserted highway.
For Josephine and Daphne's hotel room there was a bed, a tiny plastic white table that you can get at target (which is so not period), a backdrop that was flown in from the fly rail, and this massive, ornate dresser. When I saw this large walk-in dresser (which reminded me of something King Tut would be buried in), I thought, "Oh cool! I see some great comic shtick coming by using that." Sadly it was never used for any physical comedy. All of these set pieces were squeezed together on stage left, which at times made it difficult for the actors to maneuver around.
Then came the perplexing second act. Towards the end of the night, a long wall piece (with doors) flew in, but behind this flat you could very clearly see sticking high above it the flags that were attached to Osgood's yacht. I had to use my cell phone light to read my program because I got so lost. They were just in the hotel nightclub, so are we back on the boat? Is this the boat corridor? Once I read the program, it was actually the hotel corridor.
Bruce Coleman's costumes were festive in design of 1920s flapper dresses, accessories, tuxes, and gangster suits. I particularly liked the all girl band's opening costumes and the finale flapper costumes of black satin. The girls all had matching flapper dresses, gloves, and pearls. It's attention to detail like that which makes costuming shine on stage. Sam Nance's lighting design was clean, concise, and did add a lovely glimmer to the stage.
This leads me to a series of bizarre, unexplained elements in all of the above that had me scratching my head in confusion. I don't know if it was just because it was opening night or that maybe the company did not have enough tech rehearsals to cement or work out these really weird things that kept popping up throughout the evening. At various times in the show, the tech crew came out to change scenes, take out furniture, bringing in step units, fly in backdrops, etc. But in several songs they came out straight into the actor's spotlight or at the wrong moment that completely took your attention away from the actor and instead focus on the stranger who popped out of nowhere.
For example in the song "It's Always Love," Joe is singing in his hotel room, and from behind the flat walks a crew member, but was so close to the actor that I honestly thought another character had come into the scene. In another number you saw a crew member walked straight center (lighting made the crew visible for several scene changes) who starts to motion wildly to the fly rail crew to bring in the backdrops.
There were some strange lighting cues that were not in sync with the action on stage. In the Clark Street Garage scene it got so dark on the card players that you could not see who was talking. In another number on the yacht (second act) the lights were quite dim, then they popped right up very brightly, and then immediately dim again. That's when Sugar suggested to dim the lights to make it more romantic, but the lights already were! Finally for Sue's only solo, she is singing her song, surrounded by lighting of dark hues of purple and blue, but no spotlight. Other soloists had a spotlight, so why not her? I felt for the poor girl as she moved all around the tables in the dark nightclub, not able to fully see her facial expressions.
As if the theater gods were against this opening night, another peculiar thing occurred. It was an evening of dropped hats. Many in the cast wear lovely period hats, but throughout the show a cast member's hat would pop right off and land on the floor. In one musical number Calvin Roberts (Josephine) sees a chorus member's hat on the floor, picks it up and has to hold it for the rest of the number. Hat pins are sorely needed here.
Another perplexing scene was the hotel corridor sequence towards the end of the night. The set piece is a long flat with a series of doors. Thus characters popped in and out through the doors. This scene begged desperately for some musical underscoring. There was just too much dead air and silence when one actor would exit and then pure silence until the next actor entered. For a second you thought with the layout of this set piece it was going to be one of those classic routines of slamming doors with rapid exits and entrances. But it was not. Thus the dead air between doors, entrances, and exits just made the scene weigh down in deafening silence.
Because Sugar is modeled so much after Marilyn Monroe, she is the blonde of the female cast. In the 2003 reworked tour version, all the women on stage were wigged in browns, blacks, and reds. Thus it was very confusing that for ICT's Sugar several of the ensemble girls wore blonde wigs. These wigs were brighter and blonder than the actress who played Sugar, whose natural hair color was a darker blonde. Thus, it made it difficult in some scenes to find Sugar on stage. I think it would have helped Sugar stand out much more if the female ensemble wore no blonde wigs.
The ensemble for this Sugar is one of the hardest working group of chorus members that they become the stars of the show. They are constantly rushing off stage, changing costumes, wigs, etc. and whoosh right back on stage in a total different character. They dance, sing, and act with great determination and attention. They easily earn the audience's admiration. At times they even have to assist on changing the scenery. This was a super group of talented thespians that sparkled as a unified ensemble throughout the show.
My minor quibble here is that show could have benefited in casting at least four more men in the ensemble. Here's why. Several actors in the show have major supporting roles that defined who they are in the show. They exit as this character, but then immediately return to join and become part of the ensemble for one of those big musical numbers. This created befuddlement in that we as the audience thought, "Wait. So he's not 'so and so' anymore? His character really shouldn't be in that number." You at times got lost on just who that actor was supposed to be because of the constant changing from major supporting player to chorus member.
Nonetheless, this talented ensemble greatly aided in creating what I considered the best two musical numbers of the entire evening, "Tear the Town Apart" and "November Song." A HUGE reason why these two numbers are outstanding is due to McCain's fabulous choreography and Coleman's keen staging. For the first number it is a sizzling tap number that involves Spats, his bada-bing Guidos and gun molls. I was most impressed on how the taps were in unison and the choreography was eye-popping thrilling, all perfectly executed by this group of ensemble members.
"November Song" involves Osgood and a mini army of old men in wheelchairs, resulting in a wave of belly laughs. However, the wheelchairs used in this number are way too modern in design (the show is set in 1920s). Those old, wicker wheelchairs would have been much more appropriate here. Regardless, the male ensemble (and Stan Graner as "Osgood") are hysterical in playing these old geezers in this terrific number.
Within the ensemble there are some who continued to catch my attention because their talents illuminated so brightly. Michelle Foard and Alexandra Valle stood out as the best dancers within the company. They never once looked worried and had the choreography pact down, and danced with great facial expressions, executing the dances superbly. Delynda Johnson Moravec generated some delicious laughs as "Olga" with her German (or was it Swedish?) accent. It should be noted that these three girls also had the best make-up worn on stage. They were painted with full lashes, giving all three girls a sultry, sexy, look that paid homage to Louise Brooks.
Gregory Hullett and Chris Edwards provided some festive guffaws as Spats henchmen. Hullett in particular earned one of the best laughs of the night in the second act during a certain mistaken identity scene. Hullett also spoke with the perfect mobster/thug accent that worked like a charm for his gangster characterization. Neeley Jonea portrays "Sweet Sue," the orchestra leader. She informs the audience late in the show that she was in the Army. This explains why she storms into each scene like a battle axe from Hades. She is humorous in the role, but she rushes her lines so fast it was quite difficult to understand her. Jonea speaks and barks her orders all through the night, thus she stays on one level within her characterization. She needed to add variations both in character and volume to round out the character more. Nonetheless, she is quite enjoyable in the production.
I felt so sorry for Ms. Jonea, though, because in the 2003 retooled version Sweet Sue had two outstanding numbers, "We Play in the Band" and "Runnin' Wild." These two numbers showed off the vocals of the actress who played "Sweet Sue" in that tour, resulting in two first-rate numbers. Sadly for this Sugar, Ms. Jonea only had one true solo, "When You Meet A Man in Chicago." She does do a fine job with that song, but I so wished the score and book gave her character more to do. It's not Jonea's fault, the blame lies at the foot of the composer and book writer.
"Spats" is the mobster who rubs out a squealer and some card players at a garage, but now has to hunt down two musicians who saw this murder. The role is played perfectly by Daylon Walton. A tall, dark, swarthy, handsome, well-built actor who can easily be cast in a Francis Ford Coppola gangster flick. Walton commands the stage with his macho bravado, swagger, and posture. But the delightful surprise was how terrific he was in his major tap number "Tear the Town Apart." Walton's performance was so entertaining that you honestly get a sense that the audience wants his character to return back. The role begged for more more scene work and even another musical number. Again, blame the composer and book writer for letting yet another role fall to the wayside.
Many film historians and film critics have written that Marilyn Monroe's best comedic work was in the film Some Like It Hot. I would agree with that. By the time she filmed this in 1959 her stardom was burning brightly. Her historic performance in the film has stood time all these years. Plus she looked so ravishing that she melted the screen with her sensuality and beauty. Having said that, any actress who plays "Sugar" (Monroe's role) in the musical Sugar has a humongous hurdle to overcome. That role in the film is so iconic due to Monroe.
There are some roles in musicals that you just cannot do a complete flip around and change completely. For example, take "Miss Adelaide" in Guys and Dolls. You have to have that high pitch, kewpie doll voice with a hint of Jersey to make it work. Even Faith Prince knew that in the 1992 Broadway revival, winning the Tony in the process. Certain roles just have to stay somewhat in the framework of the original only because that performance was made so historic and iconic thanks to the original performer.
In the 2003 retooled version, Jodi Carmeli portrayed "Sugar", and turned in a star-making performance. She was very smart in that she spoke in Monroe's breathy, sexy voice and molded her body and facial expressions after the blonde screen idol. But she also poured her own character choices as well, balancing it with Monroe's version. It worked superbly. The audience knows Monroe so well that Carmeli's characterization brought the house down every time she uttered a line. You just have to incorporate Monroe into the role if you're portraying that role in Sugar. It's too familiar to audiences and again so iconic in Monroe's film work.
Christine Phelan portrays "Sugar" for ICT's version. Phelan is a physically beautiful girl with blonde hair. She has an incredible body that could easily be on the cover of Maxim magazine. Vocally she sings the role fine, if a little too soft at times. There are times that she seems timid and apprehensive on stage. By the time the second act rolls along, she does relax quite nicely into the role.
But alas Phelan steers completely away from Monroe, which sadly weakens the role and performance quite a bit. There are so many lines that scream out for Monroe's breathy, sexy voice or comic set-ups that beg for Monroe's physical comedic technique from the film. Phelan's portrayal of "Sugar" is too gentle, sweet and innocent. Remember, this is a hot, sexy broad who drinks out of a flask who has a long train of loser boyfriends. She is no Maria Von Trapp!
There was also an odd costume choice for her in the second act. She appeared on stage in a red dress that showed off her gorgeous body, it looked like a second skin on her. But the scene was late evening, and she was about to go out on a big date with the rich millionaire. She badly needed to be dressed in a tight, sequined gown (like Monroe did in the film for that same scene). The red dress she wore instead looked a tad too modern and better suited for daytime wear than evening. She needed a killer look to seduce Junior on that yacht.
It doesn't help Phelan in that when you get your Playbill, well, right there on the cover is the image of Monroe herself! In the 2003 version, Sugar had an incredible 11 o'clock number called "People in my Life." This song really fleshed out Sugar and her arc, plus the song showed off Carmeli's voice with superb results. Thus for a show called Sugar, the original has no major solo for Sugar in the second act. This is just a disgrace. Phelan does a nice job in the role, but it was most unfortunate that she did not embellish and add layers of Monroe into her performance.
Stephen Tyler Howell (Joe/Josephine) and Calvin Roberts (Jerry/Daphne) give satisfactory performances in the two leading male roles. They both deliver laughs as the evening goes on. But they both needed much more comedic attack on the pace, delivery, and timing. Comedy is a very difficult, complex art form in theater. It cannot be taught. Anyone can say a joke line. But it's the subtext, tone, volume, and "hidden" comedy within those lines that separate brilliant comedic actors from others.
Howell and Roberts both are humorous in their roles, but throughout the show both actors overlooked a lot of the comedy that was laid out before them. There were so many lines, physical comedy set-ups, and moments for some hysterical facial expressions and "takes." Sadly both actors let the comedy pass right by them or were not even aware of the vast and possible comedy gold that was laid out right before their eyes.
When both actors had to play the female roles I was quite surprised on how minimal their make-up was. I vividly remembered in the 2003 version how painted the actors playing those roles wore. Howell and Roberts looked nothing whatsoever as girls. Now I'm not saying they had to become drag queens, painted and slathered with gobs of make-up. But both barely had even lipstick on. It didn't help that they also had to wear poorly, disheveled wigs. When Howell and Roberts became the girls, they only raised their voices every so slightly to resemble a female voice. Again, major comedy gold payola overlooked here.
Both could have achieved gut-busting laughs by truly transforming themselves into females, both in voice and body. As the show moved along, both actors then started to even lose these "female" voices and spoke in their normal male voices, thus going in and out of their male/female voices. Howell had a third character to play "Junior," the rich heir to Shell Oil. Tony Curtis famously used Cary Grant's voice as his inspiration for the film. Howell does an uneven, somewhat faint resemblance of this as well. But I don't know if Howell is aware that when he is "Josephine" he sucks in his cheeks, giving his lips and face this puckered look. But then when he was "Junior," this same puckered look returned for that character as well.
Roberts has the better singing voice of the two. But both he and Howell needed much stronger volume, vibrato, and sustaining some notes. I had a difficult time in several songs hearing both actors in what they were singing. In some songs they also strained to reach the notes, in particular Howell. In the second act Howell has a solo titled "It's Always Love." Howell struggled a lot with the tenor notes composed for this solo, and with barely a hint of a vibrato when he sustained a note, it came out sharp or slightly off-key. Let me state though that both actors did do a good job in the production, it was just that there was so, so much more they could have done with the comedy and their characterizations.
The major highlight and easily the best performance in Sugar was Stan Graner as "Osgood." Last season he gave a magnificent performance in Artisan Center Theater's My Fair Lady, earning a Column Award in the process for Best Actor in a Musical. For Sugar he delivers the best comedic work within this production. You can vividly see Graner devouring into the role, and the audience loves every second he's on stage. He also happens to lead one of the best numbers of the entire night, "November Song."
As the elder millionaire, Graner wears a white moustache and glasses. He also speaks in a clipped, upper crust dialect that gives even the simplest lines great laughs. I don't know if this was his idea or not, but I swear I saw within his characterization an homage to the Duke from the film Moulin Rouge. This tall, lanky, handsome actor used his body to grab more laughs, and provided the best facial expressions within the principals. Graner was hilarious, providing a scene-stealing performance in this version of Sugar.
ICT's Sugar is a good evening of musical theater. But tragically, even a brilliant director with an impeccable reputation who is so well-respected, a solid musical director, a splendid choreographer, and a very hard-working, talented cast cannot overcome the inadequate, hebetudinous score and book.
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