Babes in Arms
42nd Street Moon's latest staged concert may have the best song score (by Rodgers & Hart) of any musical ever, yet it's considerably less famous than many of its numbers, which include “Where or When,” “My Funny Valentine,” and “The Lady Is a Tramp.” The book (here presented in the Rodgers & Hart 1937 version, not the more familiar 1959 George Oppenheimer rewrite) began the hey-kids-let's-put-on-a-show musical genre, yet contains comic discussions of Communist ideals (one of the “babes” plans a three-hour ballet titled Sweetheart of the Soviet), philosophy, and personal freedom. There's a less successful racial strife subplot, and the second act is marred by devoting much time to the deus ex machina of a French aviator who grants the troupe's wishes. However, it's a treat to hear these songs in their original context, especially when presented by 42nd Street Moon and a director of Greg MacKellan's talent. With the music break in “My Funny Valentine,” MacKellan and star Lianne Marie Dobbs (as Billie) do something any sensible (and less gifted) director and actress would avoid — Billie just sits there. But Dobbs gazes outward, and her face expresses joy, melancholy, contentment, and regret — in short, love. When she sings, there's brilliance in the air; Dobbs transforms “The Lady Is a Tramp” into a call to experience the real world. And she provides a minihistory of Broadway when, as the group wonders where to hold the show, she says, “I know! What about the barn?”
MacKellan marshals the rest of his huge young cast beautifully. For the “Peter's Journey” ballet, he and choreographer Jayne Zaban (also a formidable talent) arrange the players to create comic tableaux of New York, Paris, Spain, and Hollywood that are far more successful than those in Best of Broadway productions with vast quantities of expensive scenery. Amy Cole and Don Brake, as the flirty Dolores and hotheaded Gus, quarrel and make up about 20 times during the delightful “I Wish I Were in Love.” (Zaban's choreography has them tussling and ending up collapsed in a romantic tangle.) Nick Dothée as Valentine shows great promise and his duets with Dobbs evince romance in all its complexity. And ringer Marsha Ward (no kid she) blows the house away with her brassy pixie voice, perfect for the child-actor has-been she portrays. Lianne Marie Dobbs and company provide some of the most sublime theater moments of the year in this sweet, comic valentine.
–By Joe Mader
Arthur Miller's relatively new play paints a stateside portrait of Kristallnacht by showing a Brooklyn woman, Sylvia, who gets physically upset over the sudden and violent raids in Germany on Jewish homes and shops. It's November 1938, and Sylvia, all of a sudden, can't walk. Her doctor finds no physical paralysis, but the mystery of her sympathetic-hysterical condition pulls him into a subtle and complicated love triangle with Sylvia and her self-hating Jewish husband. Whatever subtleties the script might have, though, are lost in this Actors Theater production — watching the show on opening night was like stumbling into an early rehearsal. Bruce Mackey, as Gellberg (the husband), seems to be the only actor in command of his lines, but listening to him try to affect an Old World accent is distracting. Robert Elross does a humorous but strangely tentative Dr. Hyman; Norma De La Fuente has no life at all as Sylvia. Elross directed this show, and working double duty seems to have taxed his normally reliable talents.
–By Michael Scott Moore
Under Western Eyes
Thick Description theater company and playwright Karen Amano reduce Joseph Conrad's feverish novel of the seeming obliteration of self-identity that occurred under Russian pre-revolutionary autocracy (and the possibilities of remorse and love in such a culture) into a politically correct tale of vengeance. They set the story in a future in which the Asian-American populace (now choosing to be identified as “Mongol-Americans”) is chafing under a set of restrictive (and patently unconstitutional) laws enacted after a destructive riot and uprising. (It could happen.) Stripped of atmosphere (both domestic and expatriate), the book's literal Western eyes (the unnamed English teacher/narrator), and any capacity for hope or forgiveness, the play reads like an Illustrated Classics version of the original, with a dollop of late-20th-century racial politics thrown in. The scattered, slapdash direction (under Tony Kelly) mangles a flashback scene so that it's only recognizable as such if you've read the book. Lead actor Harold Byun walks through his role and the bare stage that serves as a set, and Kelvin Han Yee affects a hipster's jiveyness for some reason as the betrayed assassin Victor Honda. Only Bonnie Akimoto manages a semblance of life in her roles (an overeager grad student and a well-known revolutionary), but she too is undone by the ludicrous concept that gives her too many out-of-context Conrad lines verbatim. The horror, the horror, indeed.