Saturday, December 29, 2012

Late 2012 Quick Bite Reviews

As much as I love to see theater and write about it, the last few months have been really challenging to do either.  My day job (which funds this hobby) has been very busy.  From time to time, I have managed to get out to the theater but I have not had a chance to write about many of the shows I saw.  People have been asking my opinion of some of these shows so I thought I would do a very brief write-up just to give you a sense of where I stood with these productions--several of which have already closed.

This is not me at my most artful or articulate.  Down and dirty quick bites...here we go.

Broadway


Glengarry Glen Ross:  After the first act of the play, I started to think this was the most experimental and Spartan reading of Mamet I had ever seen.  The actors seemed to be playing against the meter and so the words got more attention--too much attention.  Treating them like scripture seemed like the wrong approach.  The words are the emptiest part of this play.  What people are saying is largely irrelevant.  This play is about these men, their personalities and how they sell.  What they are saying is less important than what those words accomplish.  Saying what you need to say to make the sale is what drives them and feeds them.  It really could be called What Makes Salesman Run (come on I love Budd Schulberg--and if you have not ready What Makes Sammy Run you are missing out).  Al Pacino's Shelly Levene makes it clear that he's a salesman who cannot hold an audience any longer.  He is not feared.  He is not respected.  He is practically invisible.  Pacino's tic of constantly touching his hair made me think that this is a man who has to keep checking if he is still there.  A reminder that he is alive, present and accounted for.  Bobby Cannavale's Ricky Roma is there to show us how it is done--slick, fast, shiny, convincing.  When Lingk (played with subtly by Jeremy Shamos--who ends up again in parentheses) apologizes to Roma for letting him down by backing out of a sale,  Lingk is wishing he could be the man that Roma has sold him on being.   In Act Two, in Shelly's undoing you actually see Al Pacino become a wisp of a man.  It happens in an instant.  For he was puffed up, renewed, alive again, and then deflates before your eyes.  It is a moment of great theater.  Putting aside ego, reputation, our knowledge of this actor in so many iconic films, Pacino is Levene in that moment and he is physically diminished.  I might not have loved the production overall but for me that moment was worth seeing.

Grace:  Sometimes small scale intimate drama gets lost on Broadway and sometimes it was never very good to start with.  Craig Wright's Grace seems like the kernel of an idea that never quite blossoms.  Questions of faith, changing your life, fate, coincidence and God all ping around the surface of this play, but they never quite get plumbed to their depths.  Despite a cast of well-known actors who attempt to do their best, the characters are left to wander around these mammoth issues.  Michael Shannon, as per usual, is the best thing about this show.  Unfortunately saddled with a Phantom of the Opera style mask and the attendant deformity, he only gets to perform with half of his face for most of the show.  But half his face is definitely worth more than the whole face of some performers.  Paul Rudd's technical stage work is to be commended.  There are some scenes ostensibly rewound and he must act them forward and then backwards--which he does, brilliantly.  But he seemed overall ill-suited to the role. He was fine at times when he was a moony Jesus-freak but less effective as someone more menacing.  It was a delight to see Ed Asner on stage as well in a small supporting role here.  

The Mystery of Edwin Drood:  I was looking forward to this show because of the cast and the unusual premise where the audience picks the ending.  The cast did not disappoint.  Will Chase and Betsy Wolfe are both a delight.  The cast is having a lot of fun so I think much of the show's appeal is the infectiousness of that bonhomie.  I was less comfortable with the brown-face happening in the show than others have been.  But overall I found the show dragged for me.  I'm glad I stuck around for the Act Two voting because that was the most lively part of the show.  It's a harmless diversion and I think most people would enjoy themselves.   

Off-Broadway

Giant: A big beautiful mess. This three hour show may sprawl like the landscape of Texas but in all that time I lost sight of the characters, any emotional engagement and the reason we were there.   I've never read the book but having seen the film I know there is a lot of story in the story but this musical could not wrap it's arms around the story it wanted to tell.  Was this about a family?  Was this about love? Was this about ranch? Was this about Texas? Was this about America? It's all those things and none of those things.  There were some gorgeous songs and noble performances from Brian D'Arcy James and Kate Baldwin.  Bobby Steggert is underutilized sadly.  I enjoyed Katie Thompson's ballsy, fun performance as Vashti. She burns the stage down a few times.  As with the source material, this show still does not know how to handle questions of interracial couples and bigotry.  Sadly because of the limited time devoted to it the Mexican characters get little to say and do.  Adapting this material now seems questionable if no one was going to address the period questions with any modern perspective. 

Murder Ballad: What happens when teen angst gets inappropriately rendered as adult entertainment... You get a rock music musical such as Murder Ballad where emotions run high but the stakes are so generally absurd it's hard to care about anyone or anything in it. Worse yet here the music can only speak to a shrill level of emotional expression without any variation thus dulling actual emotional development. I'm afraid I had a "get off my lawn" moment but the joke is the creative team IS my age here.  Murder Ballad feels like the type of work that might have felt meaningful or powerful to me when I was younger but now it has none of the impact.  I was really curious about this rock musical and intrigued by the unusual staging where the audience is seated (in part) on the stage which is the set and the performances happen all around you.  An interesting directorial approach and a top-flight cast are wasted on material that just doesn't sing but it sure skulks around a lot like a moody teenager.   When an 80 minute show cannot sustain a story, I think it is time for someone to reconsider what exactly they are trying to say.

The Old Man and the Old Moon:  Despite predictions that I would run out of this whimsy-fest screaming I did not.  I did not even try to beat anyone to death with a banjo.  I grew up in New England on folk music and I frickin' love a sea shanty so walking into the Judson Gymnasium as the Pig Pen Theatre company played folk music I was easily sold on this production.  The music is the strongest aspect because it transports you to this time and place and sets the atmospheric tone for the folk tale adventure being told.  As a lover of cinema, I enjoyed the shadow puppet work (which reminded me of Kara Walker's art a bit).  The simplicity of the tools used were a good reminder that this show is about storytelling and a good story does not need bells and whistles.  Could Daniel Kitson have told the story better?  Yes.  Without shadow puppets? Yes.  (I thought of him during the amusing debate over the word dirigible).  But these young performers do a great job.  The story drags, especially in Act One.  But they had me in Act Two and maybe I started to rethink my own career when the Old Man starts to rethink his.  Damn you cute boys and your storytelling.  Now I'm crying.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Twelfth Night: Love is the Answer

"Ungird thy strangeness" and prepare yourself for a feast of joy. The Globe Theatre's West End transfer of Twelfth Night is a true celebration of Shakespeare and the comedic ensemble. Even though Twelfth Night shares a cast and stylistic traits with the Globe's recent Richard III, it is its own special show.

It opens with the all male cast on stage putting on their make-up and costumes. Besides enhancing the feel of equity among the cast, this choice foregrounds the layers of artifice within the play.  As here men are playing women who are also sometimes pretending to be men. We see the "women" putting on pasty white make-up, stepping into bodices, and we see the men in their stockings getting into their pantaloons. It was an unexpected choice that was more in the spirit of a farcical, backstage comedy than Shakespeare but it sets the stage well for what was to follow.

Duke Orsino begins the actual play by calling for the muse of love.  From then on a multitude of star crossed lovers stumble through their comic turns and like all rom-coms our pleasure is in the adventure that befalls them and a happy ending.   Here Mark Rylance is Olivia who falls for Viola. Viola survived a shipwreck only to believe her twin brother Sebastian has drown. Viola decides to pretend to be a boy, Cesario, so she can go into service for the local Duke. Viola (Johnny Flynn) falls for Duke Orsino (Liam Brennan) even though he has sent Viola to help him woo Olivia for himself. Later Viola's twin brother Sebastian (Samuel Barnett) finds himself in the court of the Duke and Olivia mistakes him for Cesario/Viola.  Complicating the complicated plot, Olivia's uncle Sir Toby Belch along with her faithful servant Maria (Paul Chahidi) decide to play a trick on Olivia's sour steward Malvolio (Stephen Fry) and convince him that Olivia is in love with him. Malvolio throws himself into wooing Olivia and makes himself quite the fool.

But this show is not really about the plot as much as it is about how this cast mines the material for comic gold.  Rylance and Chahidi seem to move as if they were hovercraft--hardly touching the ground as they sashay across the stage. It accentuates their delicacy as ladies of the court but is a fantastic physical gag. Even with men playing female characters, no one is "acting" feminine as much as they are acting their characters. I applaud the cast for laying the comedy on heavy but the gender dynamics more gingerly.  The comedy comes from the situations, characters and play and not from the use of an all male cast. 

Rylance finds his inner Carole Lombard as he gets more and more desperate for Cesario's attention. Whether "losing a shoe" which she hurls at Cesario as a ruse to stick around or defending her love with whatever weaponry is at hand, Olivia is relentless in her pursuit.  Here men and women have been bitten by love and the desperation goes in both directions.  Once mistaken for Cesario, Sebastian gets a "taste" of Olivia and Barnett (who I loved in Richard III) gives another great performance as Sebastian (albeit in a smaller role).  His stunned double-take moment after his kiss with Olivia is almost as good as his venomous curtsy in Richard III. I liked Chahidi's gleeful turn as Maria.  It was wonderful to see Stephen Fry on the stage after his long absence. 

Following upon the same style as Richard III, there are musicians playing Renaissance instruments throughout the show--though here the cast starts the second half of the show with a song and ends the play with a song and dance.  The lightness and joy was infectious and you'd be hard-pressed not to leave this show with a giant smile on your face.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Golden Boy: Beautiful Burnout

Despite a few moments when the florid language of Odets' play comes together well with some strong performances, this revival of Golden Boy* directed by Bartlett Sher does not land its punches.  A robust and admirable production of a dated play that just cannot find the spark it needs to be relevant or emotionally gripping today.

Boxing is a visual and dramatic sport that lends itself to change of fortune stories.  Budd Schulberg's book The Harder They Fall came out ten years after Golden Boy premiered in 1937 and has always been a favorite of mine (and manages to be a lot less black and white in its thinking--I highly recommend it).  It shows the gritty corruption of the entire boxing system.  Odets gives us pieces of this but it is not really his focus.  He's more interested in this young man chasing his dream, while running from his ghosts. But this noble production fails to find a way to cast off the shackles of Odets' polemical language.  It might not be so hard to swallow if the character development was richer.  But even that ends up in caricature.

Odets' story is the tale of Joe Bonaparte (Seth Numrich), a cockeyed, runt who is teased and taunted and wants nothing more than to show the world he is more than they think he is.  And he's angry.  His father (Tony Shalhoub), an Italian immigrant, has always encouraged him to be a violinist and he is torn between the beauty and comfort that music gives him and this seething anger that cannot be stamped out which boxing feeds. He gives into the anger and becomes a boxer with his eye on a championship bout. He convinces Tom (Danny Mastrogiorgio) to be his manager and makes eyes at Joe's secretary and mistress, Lorna (Yvonne Strahovski).  Lorna's feelings are less clear.  She's used as a pawn with Joe but she's tempted by his affections.  Joe gets taken under the wing of trainer Tokio (Danny Burstein) and his contract gets bought by gangster Eddie Fuseli (Anthony Crivello). 

This is a story of a lot of broken people.  And that should appeal to me.  There were times I felt for Joe in his struggle.  I wished the pivotal moment where he plays the violin was played on stage and not off stage (I don't know if that is a dictate of the author or directorial choice to stage it so the actor doesn't need to be a violin virtuoso).  But in a three hour play the delicate moments for Joe and Lorna should have had the room they needed to breathe, but instead more time seems spent on set transitions when location mattered a loss less to me than sentiment here.  Those sets (by Michael Yeargan) are gorgeous and the rich, lustrous lighting (by Donald Holder) seems inspired by Edward Hopper.  They thought of everything including adding a naked man to the showers in the boxing gym.  The period music that plays over the transitions gives a sense of place but none of this enlivens material that is for all intents and purposes a flat, shadow play about, greed, ambition, and hubris.

Strahovski's performance as Lorna made me long for the days of wonderful onscreen actresses of the 1930's.  Even with the sexism of the era, there is still something about some of those performances that made me think these were strong and interesting women living in a society where their role was severely limited (I kept thinking of Jean Arthur who's one of my favorites).  I wished Strahovski showed that kind of strength but instead she played her character as cold for strength and lukewarm for her weaker moments.  Neither of which seemed appropriate for the scenes and leaving me to wonder what her character's inner motivations were.  I never felt we saw the real character of Lorna and her vulnerability.  In contrast, Seth Numrich is all vulnerability but is covering that with  overcompensating anger and bravado.  But far too much of his character's inner plight is scripted so even if his performance achieves nuance in his battle between softness and toughness the lumbering dialogue of the play lets him down.

I had hoped the actors could find the authenticity to their characters so that even if the dialogue was heavy-footed the performances could rise above it.  One of the things I was impressed with with the recent revival of Look Back in Anger was how performers took material that was problematic and used it, but conveyed a lot more than what was written.  In the silence, the pauses and how they dealt with the material, you felt a level of commentary, understanding, and perspective.  I would have liked to have seen the same thing here.

Instead I had to watch a bunch of actors over-gesticulate their way through caricatures of Italian and Jewish immigrants.  Somehow Joe's father comes across as a simpleton when that is far from the case as he has a massive capacity for music, art, philosophy and politics.  I struggle with dated works that deal in stereotypes when they are revived because I think the revival has the obligation to deal with that.  Recontexualize it or try to move away from stereotypes in the staging and performance if the play has locked you into it. If this production tried to do so, it failed in my estimation. 

It's too bad because at the core of Odets plays is an interesting story of a boy whose life has been full of pain and he has two paths before him.  One of quiet, artistic ambition and one of raw, violent anger.  All the taunts, teasing and slights he has withstood over the years have not been dealt with.  His need to show people, on their terms, that he is more than they think he is.  He gives into the anger and well, I've seen Star Wars, I know where that gets you.  Giving in to the dark side is not the balm he needs.  He can fight.  He can hit.  He can live on anger alone but it is empty.  The hole in his heart will not be filled by it.  But in three hours somehow that emotional, compelling story is actually rendered as overt symbolic gestures and blunt dialogue about hands.

Golden Boy is worth seeing because it is a rare, professional, big-budget production of a play that you are unlikely to see again.  But then again maybe there is a reason it has been kept in mothballs for so long. 

*I received a complementary ticket.

The River: Borne Back Ceaselessly Into The Past

"I will be out there looking for you."-- The Man, The River

Maybe it's the fact that I had just traveled to London and travel always stirs up so many of my emotions.  Or maybe I've had longing and desire on the brain lately.  But that ephemeral sense of wanting something that is beyond your reach really resonates with me.

Jez Butterworth's new play The River fit nicely into my existential musings and the sensuous, intimacy of the small-scale work was a dramatic departure from the epic nature of his last play Jerusalem.  Set in a fishing cabin in the woods an avid fisherman wants to share his passion with a new girlfriend.  And maybe today is the day he has said "I love you."  And maybe not everyone in the room is being honest with each other. The play starts with an open door, daylight pouring through it, and a woman singing off stage. 

Directed by Ian Rickson with design by Ultz (the same creative team as Jerusalem), the play was well-suited to the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs space at the Royal Court which provided for a small stage and an audience in close proximity to the action.  From the natural soundscape, to the dim lighting, to the creaking of the floorboards, the audience cannot help but be taken in by the sensations the space creates. The writing and performances created a sense of anticipation and ultimately unease as the entire play seems to be structured around what you will and will not be shown.  What takes place off-stage being equally important, at least to the characters, to the on-stage action.  It's like trying to watch the conversation between a couple on a subway platform across from you--maybe passing trains keep interrupting and you can hear pieces of the conversation--you know something pivotal is happening but you cannot know for sure exactly what.


It's impossible to talk about the play without some bit of spoiling the discoveries it has to offer and they are discoveries I enjoyed not knowing until after so...STOP IF YOU DON'T WANT TO READ SPOILERS.  STOP READING. Did you stop.  Ok.

Occasionally the fisherman is speaking to his girlfriend who is off-stage.  When she returns, it is an entirely different actress and becomes clear an entirely different girlfriend. Passages we have heard between one iteration of the man and the woman are repeated by the other iteration of the man and the other woman.  Suddenly the repetition creates tension.  Which relationship is in the present? Which relationship is in the past?  There are few temporal landmarks.

Unexpectedly my trip to London was full of plays and musicals that use repetition to enhance and change your emotional reaction to something you have heard before.  Constellations by Nick Payne is an entire play of repeated text (with slightly nuanced variations).  The repetitive lines there are about expressing the possibility of parallel universes and how one couple might fare through the fractured lens of immeasurable other realities.  Merrily We Roll Along, which is structured in reverse chronological order, uses repetitive musical threads to great effect.  For instance, Not a Day Goes By is sung both at the character's divorce as well as her wedding.  Hearing it first for the divorce and then later for the wedding colors the meaning of the reprise because you already know that this hopeful, happy moment will come to a broken end.  What could have been a sweet moment on its own and just a beautiful song becomes trenchant and bittersweet because of the repetition and the juxtaposition. 

Here, in The River, all this replication is blended with a great deal of silence. With sparse language, and a great deal unspoken, you palpably feel the space between the characters.  They are exploring where exactly they are in this relationship and where things are going with it.  But much of what they are feeling and thinking is unexpressed and we feel the emotional distance.  I loved the space that the play took.  Sometimes silence can be more effective at expressing a relationship than a constant stream of dialogue.  Using the small stage and the rustic enclosure of the cabin, the staging gave the right amount of space to the words, emotions and performances.

Dominic West, who I thought was revelatory as Iago last year, was magnetic again in the role of The Man.  He's believably rugged as he guts a fish and cooks it, yet intensely romantic as he expresses his love to The Woman (Miranda Raison) and The Other Woman (Laura Donnelly).

What was spoken, was often repeated but did not become tiresome.  Craving information or clues to this mysterious story, I found myself very attuned to what was being said, what was being withheld and how the results of the repeated conversations sometimes varied.  In contrast to Constellations, where I struggled with the writer's intent, here I felt like Butterworth had a keen sense of where the play was going and what he was writing, even if the audience was not to be let in on all the plans.  His confidence in his skill and his vision makes the play work.

The "mysteries" of the play are not neatly wrapped up.  Like the aforementioned subway conversation, Butterworth leaves you to fill in the holes.  You bring to this play your own relationships and your experiences.  There was something luxurious and freeing about that.  That freedom coupled with the lack of signposts in the play gave me a feeling of being suspended in the air.  Butterworth holds that tension like a beautiful note of music and it was enough to sustain me. 

I'm not much of an outdoorsy person, but I happen to like birdwatching.  What is always so incredible about birdwatching is when you are paying attention to the woods or fields around you, you hear every sound.  You become attuned to even the smallest movement around you.  Your senses become heightened and re-directed at things you might otherwise tune out in your day-to-day life. 

I found The River had the same effect on me.  Dealing in the ephemeral sights and sounds of nature, love, and relationships, The River transports the audience to another place, time, and world.  But you are left to find your own way home and you must listen, you must look around you, you must become aware.  Like nature itself, that journey can be beautiful, terrifying, mysterious, and intoxicating.  But to truly experience nature you must give in to all those sensations even if it means only understanding an infinitesimal amount of what you are actually feeling. 

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Merrily We Roll Along: A Good Thing Going

"Nothing's the way that it was. I want it the way that it was."

Merrily We Roll Along has been revived several times in the United Kingdom since its ill-fated initial Broadway run which closed after 16 performances in 1981. Maria Friedman, a former Merrily Mary herself (Leicester Haymarket 1992), makes her directorial debut at the Menier Chocolate Factory with the most recent revival. Friedman uses the Leicester version of the show despite there being a newer version which debuted in February at Encores! in New York.  I happened to really like the Encores production and even after several months the performances are still quite vivid in my mind (note: they were selling the cast album at the Menier) so was curious how I would feel about another revival so soon after that one. 

Maybe it is the subterranean space, the intimate venue, or the directing choices, but the Menier production offers a very different feel than the bright, shiny, bittersweet Encores concert staging.  Our story begins in 1976 in California at the fashionable pad of Franklin Shepard (Mark Umbers).  He's hosting a party for his new movie which has just opened to great success.  He's clearly having a fling with his leading lady Meg (Zizi Strallen) while his wife Gussie (Josefina Gabrielle) a former Broadway star seethes in the wings.  Frank has flown his oldest friend Mary (Jenna Russell) out for the movie premiere.  Mary has nothing but vitriol for Frank who never talks to his son anymore, who has turned his back on his old friends, and who is not writing music anymore which is what he had always set out to do.  Time then moves backwards as we see how Frank got here after a major falling out with his creative partner Charley Kringas (Damian Humbley) on national television, a messy divorce from his first wife Beth (Clare Foster) who took custody of his son, and how he stole Gussie away from her husband who gave Frank his first big break on Broadway.  As the characters get younger we see Frank, Charley and Mary as young, hopeful dreamers expecting to spend a life pursuing their creative dreams while remaining friends.  Life in 1976 shows us that did not come to fruition. 

Friedman uses an image of 1976 Frank, our hero-antihero, as a motif throughout the play as time rolls backwards and we see how Frank came to be he unhappily married, wildly successful but artistically compromised producer he is in the 70's.  Starting from the opening scene, and then throughout various moments in the show, Frank holds a copy of a script (not sure if it was Take a Left the show he was supposed to do with Charley or his terrible movie) and without the help of the ghosts of Christmas past and future he wanders through his own life story.  This image gives us our perspective to reflect.  It's a helpful device and focuses us a bit more on Frank's own cogitation of his choices. It is particularly heartbreaking when 1976 Frank is confronted with his young son who sings his verse of one of the Transitions (I saw Joseph West play Frank Jr. and he was adorable). 


In contrast to the casting in Encores (where the leads were in their 30's--in fact Donnell only turned 30 later in the year) Friedman casts actors who are a bit older in the main roles so that again that point of reflection on their youth becomes a bit more palpable (Umbers is 39, Russell is 45, Humbley is 33).  Donnell and Co. were aged well to "play" older and younger but Friedman's choice puts the focus on older Frank and his regrets. 
One of the things I noticed about Frank in the Encores production was that things seemed to "happen" to that Frank.  Maybe because it was a younger actor there, or maybe because it was an older actor here I felt Umbers taking charge of Frank and his life.  Here, I found the frequent return to 1976 Frank made it a bit more obvious that Frank made his own future.  Frank's self-loathing was also a lot stronger here.  The conclusion I came to in the Encores version was that Frank took a different path--maybe not the artistic path, maybe not the noble path, but he could live his life even with the disappointments and lost friends.  Whereas in this version Frank feels like he is at the end of his rope.  This life he lives is almost foreign to him.  He's more disillusioned and disgusted with the way things have turned out.  When Mary leaves Frank in this version I never questioned that this was the last time they would see each other.  I never quite felt that finality in the Encores production. Those differences made the opening of this version immediately more engaging but I felt this production lost it's way as time went on--connecting more to the bitter than the bittersweet part of the show. 

One of the strengths of the Encores production was that the trio was so chummy and effervescent (and seeing the cast tweet the photos from the production in the weeks leading up to it made you feel like these actors were becoming the inseparable friends they would play on stage) .  Here, I felt the darker 70's scenes worked better than Encores (and by using the Leicester version things are a bit darker in that opening scene with the blinding of Meg by Gussie), but that breath of hopeful energy that is supposed to take over in the second Act was not as strong here.  What should be more bittersweet in the second Act doesn't feel as connected to the earlier scenes.  The emotional wallop later was not as strong as I wanted it to be.


Overall I enjoyed the Menier's terrific main trio.  Mark Umbers as Frank is a charismatic performer. He is masterful and solid as the older Frank whose sunny, handsome exterior hides his self-doubt and self-disgust. His voice seemed to go up a bit as he becomes younger and more enthusiastic.  But he has a glow about him and you can see why everyone would be drawn to him.  He plays Frank a bit more slick than Donnell and he feels more opportunistic. When he is propositioned by Gussie and she plans to leave her husband, you feel like he comes around willingly to this decision and it is even what he wants.  Abandoning his friends comes a lot easier to this Frank. I feel like I knew this Frank in my real life in Hollywood. 

Damian Humbley plays up the neuroses of Charley Kringas and nails the always difficult song Franklin Shepard Inc. playing it with less pain than Miranda but with more desperation and comedy.  Humbley is made to look schlubbier than Lin-Manuel Miranda was.  I liked the particular bit over him stuffing food into his pockets at the ritzy party.

Rounding out the trio, as the broken heart of any Merrily production, is Jenna Russell as Mary, who has been in love with Frank since she first met him and has never told him her feelings. Russell who was an incredible Dot in the Menier's production of Sunday in the Park with George is no less emotionally cutting here.  They play up Mary as a fat, washed-up drunk.  Maybe it was the costuming but something about the older Mary that made me think of Sue Mengers (I'm not sure that is fair having never met Mengers but I imagined her as sort of the one fat lady in a room full of starlets and starlet wannabes).  To some degree I found Mary's ill fitted costumes distracting, but I was happy to make the trip just for another dose of Russell singing Sondheim.

The remainder of the ensemble was fine but after Elizabeth Stanley tore up the stage as Gussie in New York, Josefina Gabrielle here paled in comparison for me.  Gabrielle did not quite feel like she had that manic, desperate energy that Gussie will stop at nothing to get what she wants.  It's an unfair comparison but Gabrielle could not erase Stanley from my mind.  Clare Foster did not hold a candle to Betsy Wolfe's Beth.  I saw Foster last year in Crazy for You and felt kind of meh about her then.  She just does not have the stage presence to really capture my attention.  An unexpected stand-out was the very handsome Ashley Robinson as Tyler (turns out he originated the role of Jett Rink in Giant).  He caught my eye in his small role as a pal of Frank's.  A few more stand-outs in small roles were Amy Ellen Richardson as KT and Joanna Woodward as the TV anchorwoman.

This production did suffer from some low budget woes.  I noticed it most in the costumes.  Gussie's Broadway production number looked like it cost about $12 to put together (what is that 8 pounds sterling).  Something about the design of the show was really distracting to me.  The set design seemed to work for the earlier scenes but then as the play moved on it became less clear where we were and what time period we were in. (I joked about this on twitter but I swear at some point in the early 1960's Gussie is wearing pajama jeans!?).  That said, I definitely enjoyed The Blob choreography by Tim Jackson and I liked that the ensemble would slowly creep onto the stage for the Transition numbers and in the end they came out dressed in their most indelible roles (making it a lot clearer that this was Frank's reverie of his past).

The space at the Menier is very small and I had not seen a musical there before.  It is shallow and long so the action gets staged horizontally rather than vertically. It enhances the intimacy but for me it felt a bit cramped.  The active space to perform seemed shallow and when the full ensemble was on stage it felt claustrophobic to me. 

All in all I could overlook the production elements I was not a fan of and enjoy Friedman's directorial choices and Russell, Umbers and Humbley singing their hearts out. Despite my quibbles Merrily is a show I would cross an ocean to see (and I might be in the minority with quibbles as the Guardian critic Michael Billington gave it a rave review).  In fact, I wished I had had a chance to see it a second time because the things I liked outweighed the things I didn't like and I just love to hear wonderful performers sing that gorgeous score.