Regional Dishes

Ageless: Rosalind Brown and Vernel Bagneris One Mo' Time.Photo: Carol Rosegg

It is hardly surprising that the spunky Off Broadway musical One Mo’ Time, given its title, should reappear, this time on Broadway. More surprising is that Vernel Bagneris – its writer, director, and male star – should not have aged a whit in 23 years. As ageless as the show, he still has the same rubber legs, serpentine body, conspiratorial grin, and laid-way-back delivery. He plays Papa Du, beleaguered manager of a tiny traveling troupe of entertainers appearing in 1926 at New Orleans’s Lyric Theatre, home of black vaudeville.

The plot is pretty makeshift, but it allows Papa Du and three singing actresses – young and frisky Thelma; middle-aged and savvy Ma Reed; oldish, tubby, and supremely sassy Bertha – to trade wisecracks and insults, sometimes involving the despotic white theater owner (Wally Dunn). But it is mostly about performance by a blissfully explosive five-piece band, and four canny actor-vocalists – Rosalind Brown, B. J. Crosby, Roz Ryan, and the ever-nimble Bagneris. They all delight.

The show was created by Bagneris and the Norwegian jazz expert Lars Edegran, who together chose and arranged the funny, wistful, sexy, or rousing musical numbers, ranging from the justly famous to the deservedly rediscovered. It now has further expert input from Orange Kellin, clarinetist and band leader, for musical arrangements; Topsy Chapman for vocal arrangements; Eddie D. Robinson for choreography; Toni Leslie-James for costumes; and several no-less-deft others. Simply put, this is the most engaging new-old musical on Broadway. Its ecstatic audience participation can be matched only by Mamma Mia!, but there with much less justifiable material.

As long as it is taken as historical melodrama, The Crucible strikes me as Arthur Miller’s best play. But when viewed, as intended, as an allegory of McCarthyism and exaltation of the author’s heroic alter ego, it is on shakier ground. As many have noted, communists, unlike witches, did exist; and Miller, who refused to name names, was in no danger of hanging. Language, never a Miller forte, is particularly troubling here: modern, but with a light dusting of archaism, which rings artificial.

Though the play moves inexorably forward, it has just enough shrewd twists, and it gets here a generally cogent revival, with imposing sets and persuasive costumes by Tim Hatley, and stark lighting by Paul Gallo. Liam Neeson gives one of his dependably rock-solid performances (can this actor play anything but rock-solid?) as John Proctor, and Laura Linney is fine as his tormented wife. As the screaming Abigail, Angela Bettis scores for nastiness, but not for the also required sexiness. Tom Aldredge is the essence of New England crustiness as Giles Corey, Christopher Evan Welch is exemplarily spineless as Reverend Parris, and Helen Stenborg is an idiomatic Rebecca Nurse. Jennifer Carpenter dithers aptly as the tergiversating Mary Warren.

John Benjamin Hickey might make Reverend Hale’s transformation a bit less sudden, and Brian Murray is a trifle too British as Deputy Governor Danforth. The rest of the large cast stand their ground. There is a final coup de théâtre that strikes me as needlessly flashy; otherwise, Richard Eyre has directed tautly. Why, then, was the highly imperfect 1996 movie version nevertheless more moving?

Admitting that he knows “almost nothing” about the Collyer brothers, Richard Greenberg has in The Dazzle reinvented the lives of these legendary pack rats in a way that sheds no light on their bizarre story. The few known facts are far more dramatic than this spurious dramatization. Nothing here explains why the brothers Langley and Homer Collyer, eccentric but not truly crazy, should end up drowning in bric-a-brac and litter.

Langley, here a gifted pianist, throws away his career and bride, the socialite Milly Ashmore, for no clear reason; much later, she rejoins the Collyers in their monstrous lair, gets engaged to Homer, but dies of TB. The dialogue is arch but only rarely clever; the atmosphere is rife with unavowed incestuous homosexuality. David Warren has misdirected Peter Frechette and Reg Rogers to act as fey and brittle as possible, and Francie Swift to be both imperiously manipulative and pathetically fragile. This play outs its author better than Michelangelo Signorile could have done. Allen Moyer’s décor, gradually raising clutter to unprecedented heights, is frighteningly spectacular.

In Jason Robert Brown’s thinly disguised autobiographical two-person musical The Last Five Years, ambitious aspiring novelist Jamie marries ambitious aspiring actress Cathy. The Jewish Jamie is thrilled to capture a “shiksa goddess”; the moderately (or less) talented Cathy is enchanted with her gifted spouse, whose fledgling novel earns a rave from John Updike. But something is wrong with the marriage.

Exactly what is wrong is uninvolvingly suggested by Brown’s shadowy characters, who are both hard to care about. Further draining is the theoretically ingenious but actually confusing way of telling the story backward from Cathy’s point of view, forward from Jamie’s. The through-composed piece unfolds chiefly in solo numbers, sidestepping much-needed duets. The music is monochromatic, essentially background stuff uncomfortably pressed into the foreground. The lyrics are replete with repetition, prosaism, and smugness.

Daisy Prince, the director, tried hard: Beowulf Boritt’s Bob Crowley-inspired bird’s-eye-view setting grabs attention, as do manuscript pages and flower petals raining from above, and miniature red cars rotating on a turntable. None of this helps, what with the able Norbert Leo Butz not finding variety in Jamie, and Sherie René Scott’s hard-edged voice and bulldozing smile unsuited to the vulnerable Cathy. A further strategic error is having Jamie read from his novel: Updike would not be amused.

One Mo’ Time
Staged by Vernel Bagneris.
The Crucible
Revival of the play by Arthur Miller, starring Liam Neeson and Laura Linney.
The Dazzle
New play by Richard Greenberg.
The Last Five Years
Musical by Jason Robert Brown, staged by Daisy Prince.

Regional Dishes