Home / Arts & Life / In the Berkshires, Musicals With Ambitions Not Always Realized

In the Berkshires, Musicals With Ambitions Not Always Realized

I mean that despite a skilled New York cast led by the glossy Aaron Tveit, Barrington’s “Company,” directed by Julianne Boyd, is neither a Broadway tryout nor an attempt to reinvent the wheel. From the ’70s satire inherent in its pungent costumes to the gorgeous singing of the entire cast, it has evidently been packaged as pure entertainment.

How well that approach represents the ambivalence at the show’s core is another matter. Bobby (Mr. Tveit) is a 35-year-old singleton at the height of the sexual revolution; he insists he is enjoying his freedom but his “good and crazy” friends — five married couples — think he is just afraid of commitment. The action consists mostly of Bobby’s watching those couples bicker, and drawing what conclusions he can from the way they make up.

Time has not made the plot less problematic. A 35-year-old in 1970 apparently was more middle-aged than he is today; as played by Mr. Tveit, who is 33, there is no sense that Bobby is late to the marriage gate. And later revisions made by Mr. Furth to foreclose on the possibility that Bobby is gay now seem counterproductive. His denial comes across as more of a devious dodge than his silence ever did.

Could it be that, absent disruptive directorial interventions like those made by John Doyle in the 2006 Broadway revival, the book is becoming untenable? Instead of psychology, it gives most of the wives gimmicks: One’s a first-time marijuana smoker, another a karate enthusiast. The interchangeable husbands barely get that much. And even Mr. Tveit, though ideally cast, can’t find much to do besides taking his safari-style suit jacket on and off. His Bobby is not merely passive but disaffected to the point of depression. It’s a reasonable reaction to a plot that incessantly nudges him from point A to point A.

The good news is that Mr. Sondheim’s score remains thrillingly incisive, dramatizing every issue in its path. Problems of interpretation tend to dissolve when the songs are sung and played as well as they are here, not only by Mr. Tveit but also by Nora Schell as an earthy Marta (“Another Hundred People”) and by Ellen Harvey as a furious Joanne (“The Ladies Who Lunch”). If the result feels like a highlights reel, there are far worse things a musical can be.

One of those is “A Legendary Romance,” which ended its run at Williamstown on Sunday. Timothy Prager’s tortuous book tries to tell the story of a 1950s movie director (Jeff McCarthy) whose affair with his leading lady (Lora Lee Gayer) becomes the subject of a film noir in 1984. The two time periods, as well as complications involving contracts, false identities and the Communist blacklist, defeat the director Lonny Price’s efforts at making the story coherent.


Lora Lee Gayer and Jeff McCarthy in “A Legendary Romance,” at the Williamstown Theater Festival.

Daniel Rader.

Not that coherence would be a boon; there’s no reason for this show. Still, the small cast — also including Roe Hartrampf as, well, I can’t really explain it — sings Geoff Morrow’s turgid Andrew Lloyd Webber-like songs at thrilling throttle. And Ms. Gayer’s many costumes, designed by Tracy Christensen, are spectacular, telling a million little stories that the actual story fails to.

When a lot of money is poured into a Berkshires production, a Broadway transfer is often in the offing; that was the case in recent years with Williamstown’s “The Bridges of Madison County” and Barrington’s “On the Town.” No one who saw the Sharon Playhouse’s shoestring revival of “The Music Man,” which also closed on Sunday, would suspect it of such an ambition. Its ambition lay elsewhere, and brought it close to disaster.


Elizabeth Thomas and Robert J. Johanson in “The Music Man” at the Sharon Playhouse.

Brian Wilcox

Until recently the playhouse followed a modified straw-hat formula. (Last season included a couple of weeks of Karen Ziemba in “Gypsy.”) In January, though, its board hired a young New York producer named Johnson Henshaw to shake things up as artistic director. Mr. Henshaw wanted to create “a downtown theater in the country,” he told me recently. He also wanted to provide the opportunity for promising early-career directors to get their hands dirty with real productions of material they loved.

For his first season, he hired Morgan Green, known in New York for her staging of “Minor Character: Six Translations of Uncle Vanya at the Same Time,” to direct all three shows. The first two — “Minor Character” and Caryl Churchill’s “Far Away” — went off without a hitch. Despite the experimental bent, paid occupancy for the season rose dramatically from last year, to 67 percent from 44 percent. “The Music Man,” which opened on Aug. 4, was selling even better.

But it wasn’t the familiar product. Setting out to see how far the 1957 war horse could go toward examining hucksterism and otherness in an America we might recognize today, Ms. Green eliminated the straw hats, parasols and other signifiers of 1912. A unit set in the form of wooden bleachers, painted to resemble a faded United States flag in the style of Jasper Johns, replaced the quaint Iowa locales; the blue field in the upper left became a screen for video content commenting on or illustrating the action. Wells Fargo packages now bore the familiar Amazon logo. Women played some roles written for men and, perhaps most significantly, the librarian, Marian Paroo, was played by Elizabeth Thomas, a black actor. Naturally, her mother and brother were cast with black actors as well.

Most people seemed to enjoy what was still, after all, “The Music Man,” its text unaltered except for the excision of two songs: “The Sadder-but-Wiser Girl” and “My White Knight.” (“My White Knight” was cut because of the implications of its being sung by Ms. Thomas.) Still, one audience member was upset enough by the nontextual changes, and by the supposed salaciousness of the staging, to report the show to Music Theater International, which licenses “The Music Man” on behalf of its rights holders.

Last Tuesday, Music Theater International contacted the playhouse, threatening to shut down the production if it did not perform the show as the license specifically requires. The theater maintains that this was not only a reference to the period and setting but also to the race of the Paroos, an interpretation that Matt Boethin, director of North American professional licensing for the company, denied. “M.T.I.’s correspondence with the Sharon Playhouse,” he wrote in an email, “never included any reference to the gender or race of the characters in their production.”

In light of recent blowback regarding racial restrictions enforced by the estate of Edward Albee, this was not a good situation for either side. In any case, Music Theater International relented: “Once we received confirmation that the cut songs and the altered period and setting were restored, we were authorized by the rights holders to let performances resume,” Mr. Boethin wrote.

Indeed, when I saw the show on Thursday, the cut songs were shakily sung and the Paroos were still black. But the Amazon boxes and the flag set remained. There was nothing salacious anywhere — nor, Mr. Henshaw asserts, had there ever been.

To my eye, the experimentation was worth it. This was the most amusing and thought-provoking version of “The Music Man” I had seen in ages, often unpretentious despite its pretensions, cleverly costumed and full of new ideas. Some of those ideas made no sense with the story; others, like the color-conscious casting, enhanced it. The book already touches, albeit lightly, on the questions of class and ethnicity that a black Marian underlines.

Which is not to say this unpolished “Music Man” would work in New York; it wasn’t meant to. Only three performers, all in supporting roles, were members of Actors’ Equity. The singing and orchestral playing were patchy, the pacing lurchy. In that sense it was a throwback to the straw-hat ideal, which opened the door for all sorts of audiences — and all sorts of ideas. Playwrights and their estates would do well to keep that in mind when bearing down on the respectful rethinking of works they control. Even war horses die if they’re not exercised. And we’re not in 1957, let alone 1912, anymore.

Continue reading the main story

About admin

Check Also

Hear the Best Albums and Songs of 2023

Dear listeners, In the spirit of holiday excess and end-of-the-year summation, we’re about to make …