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To hell (and back?) in 'Tootsie' and 'Hadestown'
Plus "A Heated Discussion," "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," "A Doll's House Part 2," "Masao and the Bronze Nightingale," "Jane Austen Unscripted"
Just over a month ago, millions of us witnessed a dramatic descent into chaos onstage at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood. At the Oscar ceremony, the usual back-patting was upstaged by the unscripted cheek-slapping of Chris Rock by Will Smith.
Now fresh drama has returned to the Dolby. Last Tuesday, the stage musical adaptation of “Tootsie” made its first LA appearance there, under the auspices of Broadway in Hollywood, depicting a very different fall from grace. It’s a contemporary take on the beloved 1982 film comedy about a man who enjoys steady employment — and even fame — while posing as a woman, before his ruse is exposed.
The next day, at the Ahmanson Theatre downtown, “Hadestown” — the Tony winner for best musical in 2019 — arrived for its own LA debut, as part of Center Theatre Group’s season. In stark contrast to “Tootsie,” the main characters in “Hadestown” are figures from Greek mythology, with little sign of gender confusion — but they dress and sing and dance in styles somewhat redolent of New Orleans.
Could these two shows possibly have anything in common?
Well, read these lyrics by composer and lyricist David Yazbek, from one of the songs in the first act of “Tootsie”:
“And now I'm in a place I know quite well
I've left the world, and I've entered hell
I'm this far away from a fainting spell
But just before I die
I finish a song
Which I oversell…”
Meanwhile, over in “Hadestown,” the opening song is titled “Road to Hell,” and the characters are introduced while on that road. Later, most of these immortals reach that dreaded destination, and it appears that their best hope might be the completion of a song. But that hope is probably an example of “overselling,” to borrow the phrase from “Tootsie.” Generally speaking, the citizens of Hadestown agree that “it’s a sad song.”
Both shows display the essential element of drama that I mentioned in the headline of my March 18 post — “Things Fall Apart” — just as clearly as the shows that I discussed back then. Both of them also require a leading man who can move back and forth between his own voice and a wicked falsetto (and both have scheduled stops later this year at Segerstrom Center in Costa Mesa, in case you can’t see them in LA).
The Broadway openings of these two musicals were within a week of each other in April 2019. But any subsequent progress along their road to LA was interrupted by the hellish arrival of COVID — speaking of things falling apart. So it’s somewhat encouraging to see them arriving within a day of each other in LA.
In the musical “Tootsie,” the struggling New York actor Michael Dorsey (posing as a somewhat older woman, “Dorothy Michaels”) gets his/her breakthrough role in a bad Broadway musical -- an alternative version of “Romeo and Juliet,” with a very different ending. As you may recall, the breakthrough role for the movie’s Dorothy was in a bad TV soap opera. This change makes sense, of course, as this new version is itself a Broadway musical.
Most of Yazbek’s score is a return to the jittery urban rhythms of his earlier work, as opposed to his more subtle (and Tony-winning) score for “The Band’s Visit,” which was introduced to LA at the Dolby last fall. In fact, occasionally the score is so quick and jumpy that it’s hard to hear some of Yazbek’s remarkably ingenious lyrics — including in the song quoted above.
Yet I laughed out loud frequently, not only at some of the lyrics but at some of the lines in Robert Horn’s Tony-winning book (which was originally adapted from the story by Don McGuire and Larry Gelbart). For example, I guffawed when Michael briefly makes up a backstory about a fictional previous marriage — which immediately reminds his theater-savvy listener (Ashley Alexandra) of “A Doll’s House.” But perhaps this occurred partially because I had just seen and enjoyed “A Doll’s House Part 2” at International City Theatre in Long Beach.
Horn and Yazbek obviously were aware of the different guidelines for discussing gender in a 21st-century setting, as opposed to a 1982 setting, and they nimbly navigated through several potential curves and intersections in the road. The ending is more ambiguous than is the movie’s — which is appropriate for 2022. Oddly enough, it’s somewhat reminiscent of the ending of the touring version of the recent “My Fair Lady” revival, which also played the Dolby recently — and which I discussed at length in a post last fall.
Dave Solomon’s staging is part of a non-Equity tour from Troika Entertainment. Yes, LA’s biggest regularly-used Broadway tour venue is hosting a non-Equity cast (but three backstage-artists unions are acknowledged in the program credits). If you read the program bio of Drew Becker, who plays Michael Dorsey, you’ll find no previous acting credits.
Becker graduated from Shenandoah Conservatory in Virginia, where he acted in student productions, in 2018. His current Backstage.com webpage lists his “age-range” as “16-25,” yet Michael’s first solo in the show is all about how he’s reaching an age when he’s worried that he’ll never make a living as an actor. In fact, Becker is an example of the kind of younger actor that Michael Dorsey would have resented.
The good news is that Becker is nevertheless reasonably convincing as someone who might be approaching 40 — perhaps he’s diligently made up to look older as part of the effort to make him credible as Dorothy. It’s a good-enough performance, but I wonder why the job didn’t go to a seasoned professional who was already older than, say, 35.
At the same Tony ceremony where Horn won for writing the “Tootsie” book, Anais Mitchell won for her score of “Hadestown,” and clearly her music is stronger than her book in this adaptation of several Greek myths. “Hadestown” was a concept album before it was fully staged, and in Rachel Chavkin’s often-mesmerizing staging, it still resembles a thrilling musical performance more than “a musical.”
Mitchell inventively blends components of the Orpheus (Nicholas Barasch) and Eurydice (Morgan Siobhan Green) story with ingredients from the Hades (Kevyn Morrow) and Persephone (Kimberly Marable) saga, using Hermes (Levi Kreis) as the narrator who does much of the explaining.
Like several other critics, I thought the book was somewhat “blurry” or “abstract.” It’s harder for audiences to relate personally to Greek deities than it is to human beings, even if these deities look more American than Olympian. That’s why “Tootsie” might be more accessible than “Hadestown,” especially to Angelenos who personally know struggling actors and other artists who haven’t quite broken through – but who have yet to meet a Greek spirit.
By the way, Yoruba deities appear in Levy Lee Simon’s “A Heated Discussion,” Robey Theatre’s production at LATC. They add excessive length more than anything else to an already long but not always heated discussion about the state of African-Americans in 2022, conducted primarily among actors playing too many luminaries, many of whom are now deceased and speaking from the great beyond.
Who’s afraid of long, realistic plays?
Let’s look at another example of excessive length.
Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” which opened Friday at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood, started at 7:30 and finally ended around 10:50, including two intermissions. I have no complaints about the performances by Calista Flockhart, Zachary Quinto, Graham Phillips and Aimee Carrero, but did director Gordon Greenberg find anything new to say about this 1962 opus? Something that I hadn’t already seen in other productions? No, and it’s not really his fault. This “so sad” but sometimes funny play is grounded in a realistic style that offers few options for creative approaches to revivals.
It’s set over the course of one long night in one location — the New England home of an associate professor, George, and his wife Martha, the college president’s daughter. Because the play was set as well as first produced in 1962, it must have seemed urgent and relevant in its time. But that seems like such a long time ago, and so much has changed. I kept thinking about the play’s only conspicuously unrealistic detail — instead of backbiting and yelling all night long, wouldn’t these characters (all of whom have been imbibing steadily) — have gradually conked out? But of course that might have inspired similar somnolence in the audience.
One way to freshen older realistic plays was on display at Lucas Hnath’s “A Doll’s House, Part 2” at International City Theatre in Long Beach (and mentioned briefly above, in my discussion of “Tootsie”). Instead of reviving the original, present a prequel (“George and Martha —The Early Years,” anyone?) or — in this case, a sequel. I’ve now seen it twice, and Trevor Biship-Gillespie’s staging, with a luminous Jennifer Shelton as Nora, actually interested me more than my first experience of it. I also enjoyed it a lot more than the concurrent production of Hnath’s “A Public Reading of an Unpublished Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney.”
However, here is an example of one long play that’s worth the time: “Masao and the Bronze Nightingale,” by Dan Kwong and Rubén Funkahuatl Guevara, directed by Kwong at Casa 0101 in Boyle Heights, produced in association with the Japanese American National Museum.
This brand-new play is set in an earlier era than 1962 — the post-World War II years, when the Japanese-American Angelenos who were returning from the internment camps found that their Little Tokyo neighborhood had become “Bronzeville,” an African-American enclave, during the war. This milieu also was the setting for one of Robey Theatre’s most memorable productions, “Bronzeville,” in 2009.
The central characters in “Masao and the Bronze Nightingale” are a returning Japanese-American bebop fan and sax player (Michael Sasaki) and the African-American jazz singer (Angela Oliver) for whom he falls.
Mexican-Americans are also present in this ethnic stew; Masao’s best buddy and fellow musician (but in boogie-woogie, not bebop) is L’il Joe Casillas (Isaac Cruz) from nearby Boyle Heights. The parents of the two young men also play important roles in the narrative. Masao is seemingly conversant with all the latest Mexican-American Spanish slang, although his father would prefer him to speak Japanese and play the shamisen.
“Masao” moves a lot more — and a lot faster — to different characters and different locations than, say, “A Heated Discussion” or “Virginia Woolf,” thanks to the use of a screen displaying period photos and some modular cubes that make up just about all of the set pieces, moved in quick precision by stagehands. In fact, “Masao” is so quick on the draw that sometimes it almost feels like a staged movie.
Although it’s not a musical, it has a lot of period music, thanks to its characters’ musical interests — and not all of it pre-recorded. Although “Masao” is a little too long, the time passes swiftly, and with genuine feeling.
Finally, if you want something shorter and lighter, here’s an option. Garry Marshall Theatre in Burbank has turned its parking lot into a second stage on weekends, and Impro Theatre is presenting “Jane Austen Unscripted.” No, it doesn’t feature Austen’s plots or characters. Instead, a talented troupe wearing Regency-style clothes improvises a whole wacky narrative in the Austen style, as we watch, so the lines change at each performance. Cucumber sandwiches and tea are offered to those sitting at the circular tables closest to the action.
And from the light back to the darkness. Rubicon Theatre in Ventura opened a new production of Anna Deavere Smith’s “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992” on Friday — the 30th anniversary of the riots that broke out after the acquittal of the officers who beat Rodney King, which is its subject. It features Chris Butler instead of Smith.
But Center Theatre Group, which produced the original “Twilight” at the Mark Taper Forum, stole a bit of thunder from the Rubicon by announcing — on Thursday — that it would produce a five-actor version of “Twilight” in its upcoming season. I’ll wait to see it again in its new configuration.