How much longer must we suffer this supremacy of the stage directors over the playwrights?
The latest malfeasance of the play-snatchers appears in Circle in the Square's revival of "The Marriage of Figaro." Having previously directed the Beaumarchais comedy at The Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, it is the more mysterious why Andrei Serban has been chosen to repeat his indignity upon this elegant comedy.
While heaven spared me the Guthrie version, Serban this time has his players on wheels -- skates, automobiles, bicycles, wheelchairs, skateboards, even wheeled platforms. The first half is played in contemporary dress, dominantly white, the second in 18th-century costumes, dominantly black. Meaningful, no doubt.
Clearly Serban doesn't trust the playwright and doesn't want us to attend his words. I found it fitting that the only times the play came to life were when taped splotches of Mozart's subsequent opera were fitted into Richard Peaslee's pallid score; and when a dauntless Anthony Heald came to Figaro's dazzling philosophical monologue, which Serban directs him to speak from a swing, twisting and turning over audience heads. So adept was Heald at keeping his words spinning despite his gyrations, he was rewarded with applause.
Not that the words he speaks boast the wit and elegance of previous translations from the French. Anachronisms fly from adapter Richard Nelson's chestnut barrel, of which perhaps the most illustrative is: "What is this, National Slap Figaro Day?"
What I mainly object to about this and comparable depredations on long-lived scripts by their stagers is a kind of perverse vulgarity, implying that the real thing would be too esoteric for the common man and that it must be made "relevant," yet at the same time insisting that the play is a classic. The first claim is made at the expense of the second. Why don't producers and authoritative voices recognize this absurd inverse snobbery?
Heald, a bouncy, cheerful comedian, surely is to be praised for overcoming all the impediments Serban has thrown in his path and it was marvelous to find him able to capture his soliloquy's words within his athletic assignments. And in Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio's Suzanne, there is a girlish piquancy of pure delight. The usually admirable Dana Ivey manages almost to conceal that the countess is not an ideal part for her.
Tall, handsome and stalwart, Christopher Reeve must be admired for his persistence in taking on New York stage roles while he might be more remuneratively rewarded by devoting his time to films. As Almaviva, he is game if not gamey, but even Laurence Olivier would wear an equally puzzled frown in Serban's jittery landscape. Among the rest of the participants, William Duell's Antonio might be mistaken for a Dead End Kid and James Cahill, as Bazile, has been instructed to depict his wheel-chaired character with a constant slobber.
The ballet world also has been horning in on the Broadway staging game, and the latest of these wanderers is Peter Martins. It is Martins who, in the American variation of Andrew Lloyd Webber's London success "Song and Dance," has inherited responsibility for the second half.
I would not have thought "Song and Dance" would have managed the ever uncertain sea voyage between the Scilly Isles and the Narrows because here the composer of "Evita" and "Cats" is involved with two wholly independent halves. The first is a solo song cycle for a woman, initially titled "Tell Me on a Sunday," and the second is a dance piece inspired by Paganini's A-minor Caprice No. 24.
The songs of a young cockney woman traversing America from New York to Los Angles were wholly unrelated to the pure dance of the second portion. To adapter-codirector Richard Maltby Jr., it occurred that the two might be joined by imagining that the dancer of the second half could be the boy from Nebraska with whom the traveler had a fling in the first.
I don't quarrel with this effort to join the halves, but I do quarrel with Martins' revision of the second half to fit the pale personality of lanky, willing, grinning Christopher d'Amboise. Martins' dances add up to far less than the sum of their parts; Anthony van Laast's choreography for London was all of a piece, building to an exciting finale Martins' doesn't approach.
And so forceful and vivid a performer was its original star, Wayne Sleep, that he made the "Dance" half of the title the evening's triumph. For some reason Sleep was not imported, though I'm glad to note he's presently appearing at London's Palladium in his "Hot Shoe Show."
Now the central figure of "Song and Dance" becomes Bernadette Peters, who handles the first half assigned in London to Marti Webb and then Genna Craven, British pop favorites. This series of songs is far more elaborately staged in New York and Peters uses her combined abilities of song, dramatics and presence to a glorious degree -- a triumphant performance of true Tony quality. Seldom have I left a theater admiring a performer's professionalism so highly.
Another revised London musical has the questionable attraction of "Directed and Choreographed by Twyla Tharp" -- the stage version of MGM's "Singin' in the Rain," which opened to unenthusiastic reviews in early July. Enough blame already has been heaped on the unknown Don Correia in the Kelly part, but I'm inclined to think that a more assured director would have brought him out of himself to connect with the folks out front.
Seeking, I guess, approval from the ballet critics, producers Maurice and Lois Rosenfield replaced their London choice of Peter Gennaro with Tharp, who offers no improvements. The Gene Kelly-Stanley Donen title number is unaltered and as close to the popular movie as a stage can get.
It's intriguing that with the lack of new musicals, this gradually has been catching on, with each week's gross larger than the previous one's.
At the same time directors have been distracting us from the words, sound engineers have been drenching us with noise that drowns subtleties, accents and emphases.
In the vast Gershwin Theater the decibels were in high for "Singin,' "; "Sound by Martin Levan" bounced around excruciatingly for "Song and Dance" in the far smaller Royale. But the worst -- for which read loudest -- sound production is found, uncredited, at the Mark Hellinger, where the otherwise charming "Tango Argentino" so hypes the accomplished bandoneons (accordions) of Argentine experts that one can't tell one of the squeeze boxes from the other. No doubt sound equipment and technicians must cost an appreciable slice of theater ticket prices.