Wednesday, November 24, 2021

21. TROUBLE IN MIND (seen November 22, 2021)

 




When Alice Childress’s Trouble in Mind was produced at Off Broadway’s Greenwich Mews Theatre in November 1955, it received a brief but positive review in the New York Times. The critic (a stringer signed A.G.) noted that it was “A fresh, lively and cutting satire” about “the foibles and crotches, the humor and pathos of backstage life in the type of Broadway production that utilizes a predominantly Negro cast.” 

LaChanze, Simon Jones, Michael Zegen. (Photos: Joan Marcus.)

Whether because of this simple review or for other reasons, the show was being considered for a move to Broadway when it was cancelled, allegedly because the white producers wanted the playwright to tone down its racial anger, which Ms. Childress refused to do. Now, after six and a half decades, the play is finally receiving its Broadway debut in a Roundabout Theatre production featuring a glowing performance by LaChanze in the role of Wiletta Mayer, originated by Clarice Taylor.

Danielle Campbell, Michael Zegen.

 Wiletta, a veteran actress, will be making her Broadway bow in the play’s play-within-a play, titled “Chaos in Belleville,” a white playwright’s melodrama set among “tenant farmers” (a.k.a. sharecroppers, as someone notes) down South. In it, a young African American man, seeking to exercise his voting rights, is lynched. The actors who assemble for the first rehearsal are John Nevins (Brandon Micheal Hall, effective), who plays the juvenile, Wiletta’s son; Millie Davis (Jessica Francis Dukes, smart and sassy), a flashily dressed, middle-aged actress cast as yet another shuffling servant; Sheldon Forrester (Chuck Cooper, as usual, superb), a veteran who, like Wiletta, has acted in movies made by the show’s director, and struggles—despite being called an “Uncle Tom”—to keep the peace when racial issues intervene; Judy Sears (Danielle Campbell, sweetly innocuous), the pretty, white ingénue who studied in the “Yale drama course,” taking on her first professional role; and another white actor, the middle-aged soap opera regular Bill O’Wray (Don Stephenson, nicely confused), playing Judy’s father, a local landowner running for office.

Brandon Micheal Hall, LaChanze, Chuck Cooper.

The pompously self-involved young director, Al Manners (Michael Zegen, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”), is in a custody fight with his wife (dropped, like a number of other potential plot lines, once introduced). You can see why when you watch his interactions not only with the cast but with his put-upon stage manager, Eddie Fenton (Alex Mickiewicz, appropriately frazzled) and the 78-year-old doorman, Henry (Simon Jones, fine), whose stories of the battles over Ireland’s Home Rule serve as a corollary to the struggles of Black Americans.

LaChanze.

Trouble in Mind is a curious curio. It’s a rather uneven play, the dialogue can sometimes be clumsy or clichéd, and Charles Randolph-Wright’s sometimes overwrought direction is not a sine qua non of the art. Nevertheless, it holds a compelling socio-political-historical place as a prescient work reminding us of how many of today’s hot-button issues were just as disturbing then as they are now.

La Chanze, Simon Jones.

Childress sends poisoned darts at the theatre’s stereotyping of Black characters; the lack of plays about Black people (unlike the present season, it should be noted); the need for people to think about the words they use (albeit without reference to the yet unborn “political correctness”); the existence of white privilege, although those words, too, weren’t on people’s tongues; and even sexual predation by men in power, hinted at in a bit between Al and Judy.

Company of Trouble in Mind.

There’s also a good deal of satire aimed at Method acting (unnamed), then the major focus of actor talk, when Manners is unwilling to accept even the most honest performance, based on instinctive talent, unless it’s been intellectually justified or motivated. These scenes go too far, at times, and then are completely belied by those in which the actors rehearse their script. Here, Manners has them go to such ridiculous lengths to overact—like an SNL sketch or Spike Lee parody—that the contradiction between his theories and what he’s willing to accept make it impossible to believe in anything we’re seeing.


Much of the blame for this, it would seem, belongs to the actual director, Mr. Randolph-Wright, whose goals seems more to get laughs than anything else. O’Wray’s big political speech, timed to a recording of audience reaction, is also rehearsed more for farce than reality, even a somewhat heightened reality.

 

Larger-than-life theatricality in the interest of making a socio-political point works only when the fiery Wiletta offers a tour-de-force performance of the demeaning behavior and accents Black actresses, largely relegated to mammies and maids, had to provide if they wanted to work. The exaggerated behavior of the rehearsal scenes not only makes no sense in terms of what any professional director would accept (especially a movie director), it doesn’t jibe with what these actors, especially Wiletta, would approve; one can’t help wondering about what’s going on the minds of the real actors doing this stuff.

 

This relates to another hard-to-buy feature, one used to create much of the show’s needed tension. It happens when Wiletta refuses to say the words the play-within-the-play’s writer provides for her in reaction to the danger her character’s son is facing. On the one hand, there’s the question of a little-known, highly ambitious, actress holding up a production because she disagrees with what her character must say (the playwright isn’t around), when she could so easily be fired for a clear infraction of Broadway protocol. (“Artistic differences,” the newspapers would report.)  On the other, it’s simply not credible that she would object to the writing of her role and say not a word when asked to do the ridiculous things Manners requires of her.

 

Throughout, we’re constantly reminded of these contradictions among the relative levels of reality made even more obvious when a character demands attention. For instance, Mr. Randolph-Wright stages several scenes by having someone standing downstage center, talking to the cast upstage, and forced to twist awkwardly to address them when necessary. And in the biggest example of such a scene, Mr. Cooper’s Sheldon, sitting at center, delivers a moving speech about a lynching he witnessed as a child; he steps forward, the lights go down so he’s in a spotlight with the others upstage of him, and then, just like that, he steps upstage and the lights come on again. It would have been even more effective if he had just sat there and said the words without all the smoke and mirrors.

Company of Trouble in Mind.

The lighting is the work of Kathy Perkins, some of whose touches, when they don’t interfere so obviously with the onstage reality, are lovely, as when she shifts the colors on an isolated prop door. Arnulfo Maldonado’s set replicates the look of a bare stage with the usual odd tables and chairs, although, as laid out, it doesn’t invite the most interesting arrangements of the ensemble. Emilio Sosa’s costumes look sufficiently mid-1950s to pass muster, including the spectacular fur coat worn by Millie.

 

Most of the performances similarly pass muster, none more so than that of LaChanze, who wrings the part for every ounce of comedy and drama in it, and also gets to show off her Broadway-level singing chops on a spiritual. Least effective is Mr. Zegen, the ostensible villain, who only now and then seems authentic—as in his big speech about how hard it is to be white; most of the time he’s an unappealing caricature of a martinet director.

Michael Zegen, Alex Mickiewicz.

The two main reasons to see Trouble in Mind: its path-breaking revelation of still-burning issues rarely addressed so frankly onstage when it was written; its outstanding performance by LaChanze. 

LaChanze.

Trouble in Mind

American Airlines Theatre

227 W. 42nd Street, NYC

Through January 9


Sunday, November 21, 2021

18. TREVOR: THE MUSICAL (seen November 20, 2021)




A few blocks away from where Broadway’s recently opened Diana, the Musical, about the British princess, is playing is a new Off-Broadway musical, Trevor: The Musical, in which another real-life Diana, Diana Ross, that is, the one-time queen of Motown, sparkles. This Diana, beautifully incarnated by Yasmeen Suleiman in a series of brightly colored sequined gowns (designed by Mara Blumenfeld) and giant afros (created by Tom Watson), is only a secondary (and imaginary) character. She is, however, one of the few reasons to spend an overlong two hours and 15 minutes watching the socially relevant, but exceedingly familiar, Trevor,  a show that premiered four years ago at the Writers Theatre, Glencoe, Illinois.

Holden William Hagelberger, Yasmeen Suleiman. (Photos: Joan Marcus.)

The Visitor, another socially meaningful current musical, began as a 2007 dramatic movie. It was probably musicalized because one of its leading charactersis an immigrant drummer, a device that offered opportunities for a percussive score. Trevor (book and lyrics, Dan Collins; music, Julianne Wick Davis) is also based on a nonmusical movie, a 1995 Oscar-winning short film, Trevor, based on "Dear Diary," an original story by Celeste Lecesne that formed part of James Lecesne's one-man show, Word of Mouth. It, too, has a character inviting musicalization:  a gay, 13-year-old, junior high theatre nerd with a fetishistic love of Diana Ross.

Company of Trevor: The Musical.

Trevor, set in 1981, tells the story of how Trevor (Holden William Hagelberger) becomes increasingly aware that his sexual interests don’t jibe with those of his schoolmates. He’s made even more uncomfortable by the attitudes of his well-intentioned, in-denial, theatrically stock-in-trade parents (Sally Wilfert and Jarrod Zimmerman, who also play the other adults). Trevor, unable to share his secrets, keeps a notebook detailing his growing affection for Pinky (Sammy Dell), the school’s star athlete. Pinky’s own sexuality itself can seem ambiguous, but the writers choose not to go down that rabbit hole.

Despite suspicions regarding his orientation, Trevor earns some measure of respect when he employs his talents to stage an all-male number (including Pinky) for the school’s annual talent show. The discovery of his journal, though, leads to cruel bullying, including the hard-to-buy subversion of the number Trevor tried staging with them. (Why do kids in musicals like these always strive to prove William Golding’s point?) Faced with universal ostracism, Trevor sees no option but to open a vial of aspirins. Fortunately, a gay Candy Striper (Aaron Alcaraz) at the hospital offers worthwhile advice from his own experience that helps Trevor face the future. Yes, just like that.

Holden William Hagelberger, Sammy Dell. 

Trevor, briskly directed by Marc Bruni, and brightly choreographed by Josh Prince, leans more toward musical comedy than musical drama, although the subjects of homophobic bullying, or just plain bullying, and teen suicide are urgently important. The film even inspired the Trevor Project, a now huge 24/7 suicide prevention hotline for LGBTQ young people. But social significance doesn’t automatically make a show successful. This thought seems to have reached the general public, since the show, which I didn’t see until ten days after it opened, was around one-fourth full at the matinee I visited.

Donyale Werle has provided a rather dullish setting of sliding units that show either Trevor’s bedroom or the school's bi-level interior, with the ensemble choreographed to bring on or strike furnishings as needed. Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting and Ms. Blumenfeld’s costumes brighten things now and then, as in the Saturday Night Fever-like dream routine in which Pinky and his fellow jocks dance in white suits, fedoras, and canes, or when Diana Ross appears, usually through shiny curtain strips. But most of the kids (who look more like adolescents than typical for such shows), including Trevor, are dressed rather plainly.

The mop-haired, likeable Mr. Hagelberger, only thirteen himself, resembling a member of the audience more than the lead in an expensive musical, displays precocious acting, dancing, and singing talents. He holds the stage with expertise (watch, for example, as he replicates Ms. Ross’s mannerisms) and his acting is perfectly fine. At the moment, though, his still developing voice—for all its strength—is more musically satisfactory than impressive; “pitchy,” as they used to say on “American Idol.”

Holden William Hagelberger and company.

The score only fitfully embraces anything like the pop sound of the early 80s, too much of it sounding unoriginally generic. Introducing Diana Ross’s songs (like “Do You Know?” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”)—presented as words of wisdom for the struggling Trevor—only sharpens the contrast between the memorable and the forgettable.

Despite being occasionally reminiscent of other recent popular school-themed musicals, from Spring Awakening to Mean Girls to Dear Evan Hansen to The Prom to Be More Chill to England’s Everybody’s Talking about Jamie, very little about Trevor puts it on their level. While there are some decent laughs, as during a scene when a priest, Father Joe (Mr. Zimmerman), offers Trevor meaningless counsel, the funniest moments come when a schoolgirl reaches into her mouth to remove her rubber band braces.

Stretching the tightly packed movie version of Trevor into an over two-hour show only thins its impact. This makes the songs, no matter how well sung, and dances, no matter how cleverly arranged, into little more than time-filling stuffing. When Act One ended, I felt I’d seen enough. After Act Two, not even a Candy Striper could have changed my mind. 

Trevor

Stage 42

422 W. 42nd St., NYC

Open run

 

 

 

 

Sunday, November 14, 2021

THEATREGOING IN THE TIME OF COVID: A CAUTIONARY TALE

Sunday, November 14:

Theatre has returned to New York, of course, but only under certain restrictions necessitated by the Covid pandemic. Over the past two months it’s been encouraging to see the number of people in the Times Square district increase exponentially, although still not to the level of pre-Covid days, when you could barely walk down Eighth Avenue without being forced into the gutter.

I’ve seen seventeen shows, on and Off Broadway, since September. For a reviewer, that’s not as many as it might seem. I’ve actually been more selective this season, given some of the discomforts necessitated by the theatregoing process and the wish to expose myself to the virus as little as possible, both in theatres and on public transportation (I subway in from South Queens).

Since most—not all—shows provide critics with two seats, many of us have plus-one lists of people we invite to accompany us. Mine includes over twenty people; however, over half of those have decided not to accept my invitations until they feel safer about going to the theatre. Mind you, these are all sophisticated theatregoers who ordinarily would be reluctant to turn down offers to see theatre for free, and to simultaneously enjoy my iridescent presence.

And even offers made to my reduced list have rarely gotten more than one bite; several people who asked to remain on the list still have not responded to my invitations. Clearly, there’s a great deal of hesitancy about returning under the present circumstances, not least the need to show vaccination proof and wear a mask. And while more and more people, tourists and locals, have been filling theatre seats, notable gaps can be seen in the auditoriums of shows that aren’t hit musicals.

Many people ask me, and, I’m sure, my fellow reviewers, what’s it like to go to the theatre these days? Well, speaking only for myself, I can say it ain’t thrilling. I am, after all, in my early 80s and, though still spry, am faced by the usual geriatric obstacles. This means one must get to the theatre early so as to have time for passing through the gauntlet of safety and personal needs obstacles.

On Broadway (and, in some cases, Off) you must line up outside and wait for the processing of theatregoers to begin. This means you must show some proof of your having had two shots (on a card or phone app) along with a photo ID to prove it’s actually you who’s been jabbed. Oldsters, of course, especially those unprepared for the experience, may struggle as they manipulate their phones, purses, and wallets, causing delays for others on the line. The weather has been mostly mild so far, but when it’s not, doing this outdoors can make the experience that much more uncomfortable. I foresee this being something the coming months hold in store.

Next, you must pass through a metal detector or have a security person poke through your bag with a long flashlight wand. Naturally, everyone’s wearing a mask, which can muffle spoken instructions from the staff. If you’re flustered on a muggy day, expect the sweat to flow and your glasses to fog up.

Once inside, if you’re like me, you may wish to visit the restroom before taking your seat. Social distancing, I assure you, is paid no more than lip service at the facilities, with so many people needing to take care of business. And, since many theatres have insufficient stalls for women, some men’s rooms are seeing women using them when their own lines are too long. Modesty be damned. Off Broadway, by the way, has seen a proliferation of gender-neutral bathrooms over the last few years, so the person washing their hands next to you will likely not share your particular gender.

Senior citizens, like me, will often want to use the free assistive listening devices available at many theatres. In the past, most users simply handed over their driver’s license as surety for the safe return of the devices. Now, a number of Broadway theatres (not all) have the person providing the devices enter your contact info on an IPad, making it unnecessary to leave your license or photo ID. While this makes it easier to depart by simply dropping off your device, it can seriously clog up the pre-curtain time available as you wait on line for others to complete the process.

Finally, you take your seat, remove your outer wear, wipe the steam off your glasses, mop the sweat off your brow, and get ready for the show to start. When the show ends you race for the exits (try racing out of a crowded Broadway theatre) so you can get to the street and rip the mask off your face for the few minutes of fresh air before you descend into the subway.

On the other hand, as happened to me at Saturday's matinee, you may never get this far.

As I said, I’ve seen my fair share of shows since September, and got through the gauntlet with flying colors each time—until this past weekend. I was booked to pick up a pair of ducats to a major Broadway show and, as on multiple recent occasions, brought along a plus-one regular. Naturally, she had a card proving that she had her second shot. However, while the CVS pharmacy clearly recorded it as her second shot, they didn’t list her first. That’s because she’d lost her first card and, when she got the second shot, they listed only that one. You’d think that since it says “second shot” or something similar that would be sufficient.

But this theatre’s Covid supervisor, sympathetic but firm, said his bosses were very strict. So my plus-one searched and searched her emails for the CVS confirmation of her two-shot status. She didn’t have an Excelsior pass because she’d had technical problems downloading one and hadn’t bothered calling their help line for assistance. Besides, none of the other theatres we’d been to had made a fuss. But now it was beginning to rain, curtain time was approaching, and we were getting nervous.

Seeing no alternative, I approached the box office, canceled the seats, and left on the subway with my plus-one for Queens. She kept rifling through her old emails on the train. Several stops away, there it was: bingo! In the best of all subway systems, we might have turned around and made it back in time, but New York isn’t Tokyo.

The lesson, of course, is that, if you're in a situation like my plus-one's, you shouldn't assume your vaccination card will get you in, even if it says you've had both shots. 

Later on Sunday she visited CVS and got a proper statement of her vaccination status. For some technical reason, however, the Excelsior pass remains a hill she's still trying to climb.