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Minneapolis Scene (goes to Broadway)
by Steven LaVigne
February 2009
Having seen just about every holiday offering in the Twin Cities, I opted for Christmas week in the Big Apple. Four of the shows I saw had queer content, and while all but one has now closed, at least one of them will have life on the road.


Spring Awakening

I wasn’t at all excited about Spring Awakening when I first heard about it. However, I’ve got a “bucket list” that includes seeing the interior of every theater on Broadway, so Christmas night, I saw the show at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre. Had I not had a full schedule, I’d have seen it again! Based on Frank Wedekind’s controversial drama, which was censored in Germany until 1906, this magnificent piece frames the disquiet of surviving adolescence. With a libretto by Steven Sater and music by Duncan Sheik, the show addresses such issues as wet dreams, masturbation, abortion, suicide, and homosexuality.

Melchior (Hunter Parrish) and Wendla (Alexandra Socha), experiment with sex. When Wendla becomes pregnant, her mother refuses to understand her daughter’s feelings, which leads to tragic results. Moritz (Gerard Canonico), learns about sex from Melchior, but because his grades aren’t satisfactory, is expelled and finds himself at a crossroads. He makes the only choice he thinks possible. While the gay relationship between Ernest (Morgan Karr) and Hanschen (Matt Doyle) is underdeveloped, it offers one more crisis teenagers face.

What I liked most about “Spring Awakening” is gay director Michael Mayer’s staging. He managed to capture the essence of both German expressionist theater and rock musicals. I was also impressed with how the play explores similar themes we’ve seen in such American films as “Rebel without a Cause” and “Saturday Night Fever.” “Spring Awakening” sold out during its recent Minneapolis engagement, which means it will have a life beyond Broadway. I hope to see it again in future.


Pal Joey

A surprising collection of gay men were involved in the Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of “Pal Joey” at Studio 54. Based on the original 1941 production of John O’Hara’s story, and featuring Richard Rodgers and gay lyricist Lorenz Hart’s finest score, “Pal Joey” has an outstanding pedigree, but this revival shouldn’t have been as disappointing as this.

To begin with, while there was nothing wrong with the original O’Hara script, gay playwright Richard Greenberg saw fit to fashion a new one, adding a gay relationship that doesn’t really improve the show. He’s also reduced one principal character’s importance, that of Linda English, rendering it almost thankless. For some reason, the production team decided to “enhance” an already brilliant score with songs from Rodgers and Hart’s trunk: “Are You My Love,” a duet for Joey and Linda in the first act, is from “Simple Simon,” while “I Still Believe in You,” intended to develop Linda’s character, is from the movie “The Dancing Pirate.”

The play was decently filmed in 1957 with Rita Hayworth (as Vera Simpson), Frank Sinatra (as Joey Evans), and Kim Novak (as Linda English).

This version of the classic musical follows Joey Evans (played by gay actor Matthew Risch), a third-rate nightclub host, who arrives in Chicago, where he immediately attempts to seduce shop girl Linda English (Jenny Fellner), whom he meets in a cafe. She falls in love with him, but after Joey gets a job, he encounters Vera Simpson (Stockard Channing), and immediately becomes her latest obsession, while aging chorine Gladys Bumps (Martha Plimpton) threatens to blow the whistle on Joey.

Joe Mantello’s production is completely wrongheaded. At 27, Risch (who stepped into the role for an ailing Christian Hoff) is too young for the part. He simply doesn’t have the mileage (not to mention the talent) required to play the character. Joey is a heel and he’s not supposed to have the audience’ sympathies. Fellner’s character also suffers from Greenberg’s rewrite.

Stockard Channing acts the role of a wealthy woman brilliantly, but doesn’t have the pipes to sing these amazing lyrics. Songs like “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,” “I Could Write a Book,” and “Take Him” are underwhelming.

On the other hand, Martha Plimpton is dazzling as Gladys, and never more so than when she delivers the show’s comedy song, “Zip.”

The show has garnered an audience, and the Roundabout has extended the engagement into March.


Equus

There are theatrical experiences that are not to be missed, and the Broadway revival of Equus was one of them. Peter Shaffer’s remarkable psychological drama is one of the most important plays of the last quarter century, not only for its compelling story, but because it features three terrific roles for actors.

In this production, directed by Thea Sharrock (almost a duplicate of John Dexter’s 1975 production) these roles are played by Richard Griffiths as Martin Dysart, Daniel Radcliffe (who played lead role in the Harry Potter film series) as Alan Strang, and Kate Mulgrew as Hester Saloman.

The story focuses on Strang, a teenager who blinded six horses, seemingly for no purpose. Brought to an institution by Magistrate Saloman, it’s up to Dr. Dysart to uncover what possessed this seemingly healthy man to commit such a horrible act. As the layers are stripped away, we learn that the ideals of Strang’s deeply religious mother and atheistic father are the basis for his problems. Alan Strang could easily have been the great grandchild of a character in “Spring Awakening.”

Griffiths, playing the doctor, is one of the finest actors of both the theatre and film. He plays Harry Potter’s uncle in the film series.

Whenever onstage, Mulgrew commands attention, but its Radcliffe whose performance is the driving force here. He has the power to hold our attention, and it’s clear that he listens to those around him. He finds within the character a surprisingly homoerotic attraction to Lorenzo Pisoni, who plays not only the horse Nugget, but the Horseman who meets Alan on a beach when he’s 12. Radcliffe’s orgasmic ride on Nugget renders the audience emotionally drained. His nude recreation of the blinding act wipes the audience out at the play’s extraordinary climax.

While “Equus” was filmed in 1977 with Richard Burton, Peter Firth, Colin Blakely, and Joan Plowright, I hope that Griffith, Mulgrew and Radcliffe's performances will likewise be captured on film.

As staged by Sharrock, this production is deeply absorbing and completely riveting. Unquestionably, this is one of the great theater experiences of my lifetime.


Forbidden Broadway Goes to Rehab

For the past 25 years, Gerard Alessandrini has satirized the New York Theatre scene with his delightful collection of “Forbidden Broadway” revues. Always sharp and on target, I was thrilled to take in his latest, “Forbidden Broadway Goes to Rehab.” Alessandrini has decided to take a break, so it may be a while before we see another revue.

Performed by a talented cast that features Christina Bianco, James Donegan, Gina Kreiezmar and Michael West, the music and lyrics of every composer — living or dead — aren’t safe from witty revisions. Internet blogs get the treatment with "All That Chat," while the Tony Award-winning musical “In the Heights” is described as “West Side Story Lite.”

Should certain productions, such as above-mentioned “Spring Awakening” and “Equus” believe their press hype, the actors quickly put them in their place. Kreiezmar accurately captures both the ego of Patti Lupone and the seemingly monotonous talent of Liza Minnelli, as Bianco gives similar treatment to Kristen Chenoweth.

Among the highlights for gay actor Donegan are his roller-skating as Cheyenne Jackson’s Xanadude, and the monster from “Young Frankenstein,” “Puttin’ on the S**t.” It’s hard to concentrate on gay actor Michael West’s performance when his biceps are on view, as in the “South Pacific” segment, and his Harry Connick, Jr. in “The Pajama Game” is a highlight.

“Forbidden Broadway” appears on occasion around the country, but it’s real home is New York, where local theater goers relish it’s humor. Let’s hope that within the next few years, Gerald Alessandrini gathers actors together again and gives us another terrific edition of this smashing revue.



I’ll be returning to reviewing local productions soon, with the Minneapolis Musical Theatre, The Jungle Theatre and The Guthrie offering shows for local queer audiences.

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