Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Reverend's Reviews: Bouviers & Con Men in the Spotlight


Popular movies have been serving as inspiration for Broadway musicals for at least the past two decades. The Producers, Hairspray, The Lion King and Kinky Boots all originated on the silver screen. The much-admired 1975 documentary Grey Gardens and 1988 comedy Dirty Rotten Scoundrels are additional, somewhat more surprising picks for musicalization but both were well-received during their original New York runs.

Grey Gardens is finally making its Los Angeles premiere at the Ahmanson Theatre through August 14th. Broadway divas Rachel York and Betty Buckley are headlining as "Little" Edie Beale and her dominating mother, Edith Bouvier Beale. Real-life relations of Jacqueline "Jackie" Bouvier, who famously married John F. Kennedy and served as First Lady, the Beale women fell from high society and were later discovered living impoverished lives in the run-down mansion after which the documentary and musical are named.

York plays Edith Bouvier Beale in the musical's first act, then takes on the role of "Little" Edie in act two while Buckley plays the aged Edith. York makes the transition fine and craftily "channels" Buckley at times during act one. Unfortunately, York wasn't in the best singing voice during Grey Gardens' opening night performance on July 13th. Whether the result of illness or this production's presumably intensive rehearsal process, she sounded raspy at times and had difficulty hitting some high notes. She was fine in terms of characterization, though, especially as irascible, tragic "Little" Edie. Buckley was predictably superb as "Big" Edie in act two.

Out actor Bryan Batt also has a featured role in act one as George Gould Strong, Edith's accompanist and confidante. He is fine but Doug Wright's book for the musical hits audience members over the head with George's homosexuality. It seemed like the character's orientation is mentioned or referenced with nearly every line of dialogue involving George. This is definitely excessive.

Jeff Cowie's stunning set design includes both "before" and "after" views of the Beales' homestead. Since the documentary film noted the 52 feral cats (plus a raccoon family) that called Grey Gardens home at the time, the scenic design incorporates occasional, amusing projections of cats prowling across the window panes. Ilona Somogyi's costume designs are also eye-catching.

Having long been a fan of the documentary as well as of the original Broadway cast recording of the musical, I was prepared to like the LA production of Grey Gardens a bit more than I ultimately did. The book's flaws and Michael Wilson's direction proved distracting (especially whenever the actors had to narrowly navigate around openings in the stage over the orchestra). Still, it is an entertaining depiction of two enduringly fascinating characters.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, starring Michael Caine and Steve Martin as dueling con men in the French Riviera, was a modest hit upon its release nearly three decades ago but is not particularly well-remembered. Long Beach's Musical Theatre West is currently presenting the musical's local premiere at the Carpenter Center through July 24th. Buoyed by a host of catchy, funny songs by David Yazbek (The Full Monty), it turns out to be one of the few stage adaptations to date that actually improves upon its source material while retaining several of the film's funniest moments. The musical's original, 2005 New York production ended up nabbing 11 Tony Award nominations including Best Musical and Best Score.

Making MTW's staging even more of a must-see (though for adults only due to some risque material and crude language) are the bonafide Broadway stars heading its cast. Davis Gaines, who has the distinction of being the longest-running Phantom of the Opera in over 2,000 performances of Andrew Lloyd Webber's blockbuster, plays the elegant Lawrence Jamison. Jamison has made quite a living out of seducing wealthy women visiting the local casinos, aided and abetted by police chief Andre Thibault (Kyle Nudo). Gaines employs here the commanding presence and full-throated baritone that made him such a success as the Phantom, if in a less-threatening manner.

Benjamin Schrader, Gaines' fellow Great White Way import with credits in The Book of Mormon and Avenue Q, is hilarious as the decidedly less-refined Freddy Benson. Yearning to live at the same level as Jamison's extravagance, Benson convinces Jamison to take him under his wing. The pair pull off a few cons together and Freddy is about to go his separate way when a new target, the sweet natured American "soap queen" Christina Colgate (MTW regular Rebecca Ann Johnson), arrives. They make a wager on which of them can swindle $50,000 from her first. Things get complicated when both men end up falling in love with her.

These lead cast members as well as the musical's high-stepping ensemble members raise the bar in terms of local performance. I would also be remiss if I failed to mention Cynthia Ferrer's sparkling turn as Muriel, a wealthy matron who doesn't necessarily mind being taken advantage of financially. She stops the show several times with the songs "What Was a Woman to Do?" and "Like Zis/Like Zat" and their reprises.

The MTW orchestra sounded great on opening night under the direction of John Glaudini, who also happens to be serving as music director of the new stage adaptation of Frozen at Disney's California Adventure. I only detected a couple of singing glitches and some sloppy lighting, chiefly a lazy or wandering spotlight, during the premiere performance. For tickets, call 562-856-1999 extension 4 or visit the Musical Theatre West website.

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film and stage critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.

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