Tuesday, October 9, 2012
Theater review: Uptown Players say Hello Again to 20th century sexuality
In Hello Again, sex is a character in its own right.
DALLAS “Sex: the thing that takes up the least amount of time and causes the most amount of trouble.”
This quote by the famous actor John Barrymore best sums up the theme of the gorgeously produced and quite adult musical Hello Again presented by Uptown Players at the Kalita Humphreys Theater in Dallas.
The musical’s genesis is the German play La Ronde by Arthur Schnitzler written back in 1897. It was printed and distributed amongst his friends in 1900. It later got published in 1903, was subsequently banned in 1904 by censors, and after languishing for 16 years, it received its first staging in 1920. It was deemed immoral by the authorities and Schnitzler went to court. The case was dismissed in 1921. Because of the enormous controversy, Schnitzler prohibited productions of his play in any German speaking countries until the day he died. This said, he did allow it to be produced in other countries. Two film adaptations were produced in France, first in 1950 and the second one in 1964. It wasn’t until after his death that his heirs allowed the play to be performed in Germany once again. The year was 1982, nearly a century later.
Michael John LaChiusa took the play and musicalized it in 1993. He kept some of the original dialogue and added his own. It played off-Broadway to great critical acclaim and it went on to receive eight Drama Desk awards. Donna Murphy originated the role of The Whore and was also nominated along with Jon Cameron Mitchell and Judy Blazer. It received a revival off-Broadway in 2011, though that production received mixed reviews.
What was it that made La Ronde and this musical version of the play so controversial? Both contain graphic narratives of various sexual relations and the emotional aftermaths of such liaisons. They also have a non-conventional structure.
In the first scene we meet The Whore and A Soldier and they have a tryst. The second scene, The Soldier meets The Nurse and they have a tryst. The third scene, the Nurse meets The College Boy and they have a tryst, etc. It is literally a musical daisy chain. We eventually come back full circle when The Senator meets the Whore.
What the musical adds to the play is that each scene happens in a different decade. For example, Scene 5 deals with the sexual coupling between The Young Wife and The Husband during the 1950s, but the following scene between The Husband and the Young Thing happens on the Titanic in the 1910s. It isn’t that the Husband is suddenly younger. In fact he is the same man, just placed in a different era and location, and in a different emotional state as a result of the sexual encounter.
By having the character play two scenes back to back, we can see the transformation that sex brings about within the person. In the first, there is the illusion of the want of love and sex, and in the second there is a level of bitterness or emptiness to the character. This musical pointedly demonstrates that the most people’s innate desire is to be loved and how frequently it commingles with sexual desire, thus leaving the person unfulfilled. By having the musical jump decades, it also mingles the different views and morals of sex throughout the 20th century. This musical encapsulates how the perception of sex has changed and evolved in the last 100 years.
If there is a flaw in this musical it is that we are now in the 21st century, and whereas it would have seemed groundbreaking in 1993 with its frank discussions and representations of sex, the last twenty years have brought about such a great openness and acceptance of sex in all its variations, that the shock value is lost. Almost every scene in Hello Again has some degree of nudity and sex but it seems almost tame in comparison to some of the most popular entertainment in the last decade. True Blood, Sex and the City, and Queer as Folk have been highly successful and are much more graphic than Hello Again. This musical depends on the shock value to engender a reaction from the audience, and since it no longer shocks, it now comes across as an interesting but dated study on sexual behavior and moirés.
It is very much a pre-Clinton-Lewinski-affair musical. The presidential scandal kicked open the door on the subject and forced the country to talk about sex openly. The subject matter stopped being taboo. This said, the musical feels dated but there is still an inherent emotional truth to all the scenes. But there are no new revelations to be found. The musical remains good, but it has lost the impact that it would have had back in 1993.
Uptown Players does a marvelous job in staging Hello Again. Every actor is tops. There are no weak links in this cast of ten. Some bring to the stage an added haunting presence that reverberates.
Linda Leonard’s portrayal of The Whore is heartbreaking and transcendental. It is simply perfect. From the moment she first walks on the stage to the last moment in bed, she captivates. Her performance in this role reverberates long after the musical has ended. As the performer that opens and closes the show, it was imperative to cast a performer that has the capacity to stun the audience with her talent and Leonard rises to this task and succeeds.
John Campione plays The Soldier with an amazing dynamism. He is also a terrific dancer. The role requires him to be so sexually desirable that women will give in to him easily. His transition from naiveté to being a player is convincing.
Laura Lites as The Nurse requires a performer with enough confidence to expose her breasts and her loins repeatedly and never be self-conscious on stage. Not many performers would have the chutzpah to pull off such a role, and she does it quite well. She also brings a great degree of humor to her tawdry fling with The College Boy, making the somewhat sadomasochistic scene comical.
Adam Garst plays the young College Boy. His innocence is shattered by The Nurse and then he finds himself trying to have an affair with The Young Wife only to discover that he’s impotent. His excited expectation with The Nurse, and his embarrassment with The Young Wife are spot on. He manages to have a believable chemistry with both women.
Beth Albright plays The Young Wife. In her first scene with the College Boy her role is comical. With The Husband, the scene is dramatic. She demonstrates a talent for playing both genres convincingly.
The Husband is played by Mark Hawkins. Like Linda Leonard, the moment he steps on stage, he commands it. His singing voice is the best of the men in the show, which is a high compliment since all the male singers are top notch. He imbues his performance with such gorgeous subtleties that his character becomes very three dimensional. Since the show is really a series of vignettes, it’s hard to make the characters fully formed, yet he manages to do so.
The Young Thing is played by Peter DiCesare. I am fascinated by his ability to transform physically from the first scene in the 1910s to his second scene in the 1970s. Though in essence he is the same character emotionally, he carries his body in such a way that by his posture and cadence he expresses the changes in mannerisms between these two eras. He too is able to bring a fuller portrayal to the role given the constraints of the material. Vocally he is also a superb singer who knows how to use his instrument to convey his characters emotions not just with his tone but with his phrasing.
The Writer is played by Chad Peterson. He is perfectly arrogant and full of himself. He is a very recognizable archetype, and while many actors would overplay such a role, he gives the role balance.
The Actress is portrayed by Stephanie Riggs. She captures the charm of a flapper girl and wannabe actress in the 1920s and the stalker qualities of a woman who uses sex as a weapon. She too physicalizes her role in such a way that we recognize the archetype immediately.
The Senator is played by G. Shane Peterman. In his second scene he mostly stands down center stage and sings out towards the audience. This requires him to bare his soul. His performance is raw and palpable. He is captivating.
All of this exuding talent is directed with brilliance by John de los Santos. With such seasoned performers on stage it can be daunting to a director. But his vision is so strong in his staging that he was able to get the performers to share that vision and bring it to life. He composes beautiful stage pictures that help carry the emotions. He understands that each era has its own inherent body language and movement. It is one of the best directed shows I’ve seen all year.
The only quibble I have with his choice is that he chose for no black outs after each scene. The stage immediately goes to a dark blue so as to make the scene change. Since each scene builds to such a definitive climax this transitional light lessened the impact because we saw the characters go off stage in half-light to prepare for the next scene.
As far as his choreography goes, he does a wonderful job of creating moods. In fact, the musical doesn’t have many dance sequences but feels as if every stage cross, movement and gesture was choreographed. Though stylistically different then Bob Fosse, there is a precision to his direction that is reminiscent of the great master.
Suzy Cranford is a consummate costumer. Almost every costume element is decade perfect. Besides the scenes between the two characters, there are numerous transition scenes with the other cast members and they wear costumes of the era. Part of the enjoyment of the show is seeing the iconic costume parade and Cranford delivers on all but one. Unfortunately, that costume is quite prominent otherwise as a critic I would overlook it. The Actress’ gold lame suit from the 1980s is not quite right. While gold lame clothing was popular, the silhouette was not typical from that era. But considering the vast amount of costuming needed for this show, to only have one out of dozens of costumes not be quite right, it is forgivable. She really deserves an award for costuming this musical.
Coy Covington’s wig and makeup designs are superb. Every wig is truly representative of the era. His makeup design alone deserves a standing ovation. Because the characters jump from one decade to another, there is no time to redo the makeup between the scenes. He had to design makeup that looks sufficiently appropriate and believable for the disparate decades. An example is The Nurse’s makeup as she jumps from the 1940s to the 1960s. These two decades differ stylistically. Yet he was able to find enough commonality so that it looked appropriate.
The rotating set design by Andy Redmon is very effective. Because of all the scene changes it is imperative to have a set that can move quickly on and off the stage so as not to lose any momentum in the show. It is also important to make sure it looks like the correct decade. It is very apparent that Redmon coordinated with Amy Hughes, the Properties Designer, to capture each era perfectly and the set dressing by Kevin Brown and Alan McAngus helped tie their designs together beautifully.
The only major flaw in the design elements of the show is the lighting design. The high contrast lighting and the use of red and blue is overdone. Such intense coloration and sharp angles can be visually straining. While I understand the desire to have such dramatic lighting to emphasize each scene, as an audience member sitting in the center section I found it a strain. This said, he does create a stunning visual effect with his lights at the climax of the play that leaves a lasting impression.
Adam C. Wright does a superb job as the music director. The score by LaChuisa is difficult and not very melodious. Almost the entire musical is sung. There isn’t a single hummable tune in the show; nor one that lingers after the musical ends. This doesn’t mean that the music isn’t good. But it feels more like a play with music then a musical. Wright conducts the small orchestra with a dexterity that supports the singers and helps the music move the story along. It also helps that Sound Designer Virgil Justice makes sure the singers are never overwhelmed by the instrumentation.
Hello Again is a well-produced musical that Uptown Players should be very proud of. While the musical isn’t as relevant or as ground breaking as it once was, it is definitely an enjoyable evening of theatre and worth recommending.
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