Little did Puccini suspect that his La Bohème, adapted from the play Henri Murger adapted from his novel circa 1850, would continue to be readapted ad infinitum, if not ad nauseam. Joe Papp produced an English version starring Linda Ronstadt, Jonathan Larson slapped Rent on us, and Baz Luhrmann has now revived his 1990 Australian Opera mounting on Broadway.
Those of us subjected to Baz’s Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge had reason to fear the worst; what we get is merely quirky and unremarkable. Performed in Italian with combined sur- and subtitles in an uncredited 1957 English vernacular updating, it sports references to an MG, a Rolls-Royce, and Marlon Brando. That the opera’s third act, with its customs office, had to be relocated to the Franco-Belgian border, whither the tubercular and penniless Mimi could hardly have dragged herself, is the least of its problems. More problematic, in this computerized age, is the old-fashioned décor (by Mrs. Luhrmann, a.k.a. Catherine Martin), relying on wagons moved slowly by stagehands in full audience view. The orchestra, to fit into a Broadway pit, was reduced by Nicholas Kitsopoulos’s orchestration; the conductor, Constantine Kitsopoulos, provides the requisite musical-comedy background.
So we get an array of young singers (nice idea), who presumably compensate with youth and acting for less powerful voices. The buzzword, or Bazword, is accessibility, for luring young nonoperatic audiences to opera, dumbing-down not excluded. Thus the preface to the text informs us that to avoid anachronism, “the entomology [sic] of the slang” was carefully checked. Unchecked, however, were things like rendering “Addio senza rancor” in the titles as “Goodbye without regret,” which may be more accessible than rancor, but makes no sense.
Visual innovations include a Café Momus and environs as neon-lit as Times Square; an exaggeratedly cramped bohemian attic fronted by a huge red sign that reads l’amour, presumably to explicate what the show is about; handheld spotlights for, say, the firelight from the stove; a building with edgily exposed girders; an onstage balcony featuring scantily clad female and male whores; a vintage bemedaled military overcoat for Schaunard; and the British sugar daddy Alcindoro singing, for added verismo, in English.
The music still sounds seductive, and the alternating cast I caught sang almost as well as it looked. Ekaterina Solovyeva was an accomplished Mimi, and David Miller a personable Rodolfo. Chloe Wright was a full-throated and full-bodied Musetta, and Ben Davis, aside from some stiffness, satisfied as Marcello. The rest coped respectably enough. For the seasoned operagoer, here is a modest curiosity; for the rock-bound neophyte, a challenge to see if the show, like Musetta’s shoe, really fits.
Dance of the Vampires is based on a film by Roman Polanski and a German book and lyrics by Michael Kunze, but with English lyrics and music by Jim Steinman, and an English book by Kunze, Steinman, and David Ives. If you want to know how many cooks it takes to spoil a brew, this is it, although here the very recipe was sickening. Camp needs to be truly funny and flawlessly executed. Not so with this clumsily contrived claptrap, which does not even relish what it is parodying – another missing prerequisite. There is something bloodless about these bloodsuckers, toothless about these fangs.
To give you some idea of how low the show stoops, its Transylvanian village is called Lower Belabartòkovitch. Professor Abronsius, the chief, albeit clumsy, vampire killer, travels with a transfusion apparatus but doesn’t administer to the neediest – the show – which flickers forlornly, like a dying Sylvania lightbulb in search of a Trans.Perhaps the biggest disappointment is Michael Crawford, who feebly rehashes his Phantom of the Opera performance and can’t even muster a convincing Lower Belalugosian accent. As Sarah, the heroine, Mandy Gonzalez fails in acting, singing, and looks. Wasted are the acting talents of René Auberjonois and Mark Price, and the fine singing of Max von Essen.The gifted David Gallo has devised scenery that, more expensive than impressive, shuttles between the ghoulish and the garish. Costumes and lighting do what they can, but neither John Carrafa’s haphazard choreography nor John Rando’s hit-or-miss direction – to say nothing of Steinman’s music, mere vamping – can make what’s dead undead.
Nora Ephron’s Imaginary Friends is a very clever play, and her dazzling director, Jack O’Brien, has made it even cleverer. It tells the vaudevillized story of two very different woman writers, Lillian Hellman and Mary McCarthy, who barely met in life but, being so different, heartily disliked each other. Near the end of their lives, Mary said in a TV interview that Lillian was a terrible writer whose every word was a lie, even and and the. Litigious Lillian, infuriated, sued Mary for millions she did not have, but died before it came to trial. Mary, frustrated, died soon afterward.Ephron perceives Hellman as a woman who as a child saw her father adulterously kiss a neighbor; instructed never to tell about it, she grew up a writer whose plays were fibbing fictions, whose memoirs were self-aggrandizing lies. Ephron’s McCarthy, on the other hand, was told that her parents were alive when, in fact, they were dead. Disgusted, she grew into a writer whose writings, if not strictly nonfictional, were based on often hurtful truth.
This is slick oversimplification, though it serves Ephron as the infrastructure for a burlesque full of catty repartee, musical skits (by Marvin Hamlisch and Craig Carnelia), bits of actual documentaries in projection or reenactment, fantasy sequences. In the end, the grown Lillian and Mary become favorite adversaries and, as Ephron would have it, indispensable to each other’s life stories and thus, in a sense, imaginary friends. It is a pretty conceit ingeniously helped along by the inventive director, the skillful choreographer (Jerry Mitchell), the amusing songs and dances, and the savvy design (Michael Levine’s sets, Robert Morgan’s costumes, Kenneth Posner’s lighting). It makes for a sophisticated evening of cheeky merriment.But there is something wrong with it. It trivializes too many things, elides too many complexities, flattens real sadness into a kissipoo ending. It gets glossed over not least by the fine, funny (though insufficiently evil) Lillian of Swoosie Kurtz, and the sublime Mary of Cherry Jones. And glossed over even more by the smart-ass infighting and frivolous music-hall format. Whatever flaws these two fascinating women had, they themselves were larger, and better, than this jolly jape allows.
While not as clever as Ephron’s play, Elaine May’s Adult Entertainment is funnier. It is a true, generous-hearted comedy, perhaps a bit overlong, but generally hilarious and, at its peaks, uproarious. A group of four late-night cable-sex performers, three women and a man, along with their bumbling writer-director, decide to make a hard-core but also high-class movie. The women are the amiably blowsy and dim-witted Frosty Moons, the chipperly enterprising Heidi-the-Ho, and the poised Vixen Fox, along with the sweet, troubled gay man, Jimbo (sometimes Jumbo). Guy Akens, the writer-director, is a dignified but total no-talent.
After some scrumptious contretemps and fiascoes, they bring in as writer-director a young cameraman, Gerry DiMarco, a Yale Drama School graduate, marginally more capable and fiercely intellectual, who promptly has the five ignoramuses reading everything from Arthur Miller to Kafka and Yeats, not to mention teaching them such esoterica as what is a metaphor. Our innocents’ turning into half-baked literati yields some wonderful jests.Stanley Donen, the eminent film director, has staged this as an old-fashioned but uncensored movie farce, with lots of interpolated TV-camera trickery, and even bits of film. The late-night sex-TV sequences, complete with viewer call-ins, are riotous, but there is also some touching human interaction. Danny Aiello, Jeannie Berlin, Mary Birdsong, Brandon Demery, Erik Elice, and Linda Halaska are as deft with the clownish as with the sentimental, and the tongue-in-cheek production values match them all the way.
Read Peter G. Davis’s dueling review…
The puccini opera, staged by Baz Luhrmann and designed by Catherine Matrin. Broadway Theatre, Broadway at 53rd St., 212-239-6200.
Dance of the Vampires
New musical starring Michael Crawford.
Play with music by Nora Ephron, staged by Jack O’Brien, and starring Cherry Jones and Swoosie Kurtz.
Comedy by Elaine May, staged by Stanley Donen.