Monday, May 14, 2012

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes: Groan and Grumble

Gentlemen may prefer blondes but as usual I prefer something substantial to hold onto in my theater-going.  For me, there was little to like in this Encores! production.  Directed by John Rando with choreography by Randy Skinner, this production is driven by dance numbers with a plot that smacks of the usual frothy, wacky romance caper (akin to Anything Goes or a number of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies).  The audience really seemed to enjoy the talented dancers and mindless ditties.  But I was bored and annoyed by what I saw.

Megan Hilty starred as Lorelei Lee who along with gal pal Dorothy Shaw (Rachel York) set sail for Paris.  Romantic shenanigans ensue.  There is singing, dancing, a tiara and buttons!  The cast included Aaron Lazar, Deborah Rush, Clarke Thorell, and Stephen Buntrock.

Hilty did a fine job trying to carve out a role made famous by two quite famous women (Carol Channing and Marilyn Monroe).  Her take on Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend was unique.  Her interpretation had nothing to do with the rest of the show or her character but nevertheless was a lovely rendition.

But overall, there was something leaden about the whole affair for me.  Even without dwelling on the ditzy, gold-digging leading lady, I think the material itself (book by Anita Loos and Joseph Fields) was creaky.  Maybe if I liked the music (by Jules Style) or the cast more I would not have minded.  I will forgive weaker material if I am distracted by great performances or beautiful songs.  But here there was nothing to distract me from my boredom.  The supporting cast felt uncomfortably generic.  I kept wishing that the cast was more adept at comedy or just brought something unique to the proceedings.  All in the all the material came off like an empty shell of a B quality Hollywood musical.  I may have in fact openly wished dead Danny Kaye or dead Bob Hope was in the show because they would have brought more life to the production than the living cast did.  Yeah.  I had no fun at a show that was all about fun.

But as often reported, I am dead inside.

And to add insult to injury...there was the tap number in the second Act.  I know older material can be sexist, racist or downright offensive at times and revivals often struggle with how to address this.  But for me, it is in how the revival deals with the issue that matters.  Here, there is a big tap number set in the opening of a Paris club.  Historically I could see how in the 1920's or even in the 1950's (this musical was written in 1949 but is set in 1920's) this kind of event would lend itself to using black male tap dancers for this number.  I'm not ignoring history and the famous black tap dancing acts (of course pause to think of what that history means or why we have that history).  But what I struggled with here was that the Encores! production ONLY used these dancers for this scene.  In a show, full of dance numbers (including some athletic ones by male dancers) these two talented dancers (Jared Grimes and Phillip Attmore) were not used otherwise.  Some might argue it is because they were the specialty act.  Ok.  Sure.  That's an answer.  Maybe that was the production's reasoning but think about how that choice presents itself to the audience.  And maybe someone in the production should have reflected upon this choice.  Most people were cheering the skillful dance performance and I don't want to take away from the talented hoofers who are at the top of their game.  But I sure as hell was thinking about it and I'd like to think that is something we are supposed to do when we go to the theater--think.  Think about what a work means.  What it means to us today.  What works and what doesn't.  How it reflects our culture and our times back to us.  I know.  This is not a show about thinking (or feeling).  It's about entertainment. <jazz hands>  Sad to say I was not entertained.

All in all I preferred Pipe Dream for its ridiculous plot over Gentlemen Prefer Blondes for its boredom and offensive choices.

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