American Stage recently announced its 2006-2007 season, and it looks like a good one. There's Richard Greenberg's solid Three Days of Rain, Tennessee Williams' provocative Suddenly Last Summer, Shakespeare's Othello, Jonathan Larson and David Auburn's Tick ... Tick ... Boom!, Neil Simon's autobiographical Chapter Two, and even the literary satire All The Great Books (Abridged) by Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor.
If there's nothing terribly daring here, this is still respectable programming worthy of an important regional theater. Add the summer offering Casa Blue, a world premiere about the painter Frida Kahlo, and you've got reason to feel glad that American Stage is in our neighborhood.
But this season's selections weren't nearly as impressive. Yes, it was good to see The Drawer Boy, at least to find out why it was so nationally popular (only a few actors to pay and a middle-brow script), but the rest of the year was unusually lightweight. War of the Worlds was engaging for about 10 minutes; Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol was tediously overfamiliar, and Dial M for Murder had all the pizzazz of a 1950s TV show.
And more of the same is coming: Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks is formulaic and shallow, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Dinner With Friends must be the closest thing to a soap opera that's ever won that coveted award. Only Crowns, the musical opening at Demens Landing next month, looks like it might be a winner.
For whatever reason, '05-'06 has been an off year for American Stage (I'm talking about programming, not ticket-buying). Call it the Year of the Meatless Meal.
And now our most precious regional theater is offering more empty calories with Jed Feuer and Boyd Graham's musical The Big Bang. True, there's cleverness in this confection, but beyond that, there's precisely nothing -- nothing to think about, nothing to feel, nothing to explain why this cabaret ever made it to the main stage.
The premise of the play is that the two writers of a musical about the history of the world are holding a backer's audition. We in the audience are the potential investors; and Jed and Boyd, the composer and librettist, are going to sing and dance their way into our wallets and pocketbooks. Problem is, the finished product needs 318 actors, 6,248 costumes and a running time of 12 hours, while Boyd and Jed only have 90 minutes and a borrowed Park Avenue apartment.
Still, they're talented singers, and infinitely resourceful at using just about anything -- lampshades, curtains, a telephone, umbrellas -- as makeshift costumes for everyone from Nefertiti to Napoleon.
So that's the play: a whirlwind tour through world history (Adam and Eve, Julius Caesar, Attila the Hun, Christopher Columbus) and a series of witty songs and ingenious costumes. It's always good for a smile, and on occasion a hearty laugh, but it belongs more in dinner theater than on an important regional stage. Or maybe, like Dial M, it belongs on the television of yore, performed by Carol Burnett, Red Skelton or Milton Berle.
What's best are the lyrics. Here's the opening song about the Big Bang: "Long before the Greeks and Holy Romans/ Long before there was a living soul/ Long before the dress sales down at Loehmann's/ All there was, was this big black hole."
Concerning Adam and Eve after the fall: "Free food and frontal nudity/ Lost to us in perpetuity/ Free food and frontal nudity/ Too bad we got the boot/ Now we're destitute/ All for a lousy/ Piece of fruit."
The Israelites leave Egypt: "We're Jews/ God has promised us land/ We sing the blues/ Because it's covered with sand."
Caesar is warned to beware the Ides of March: "Wake up Caesar/ Guess who they want to screw/ Not Cassius, not Cicero/ Oh no, it's you." And so on, all the way to the rise of the East: "Japan is beauty of silk kimono/ Japan is singing of Yoko Ono/ China gave the world rice and tea/ Not to mention MSG."
Matthew McGee and Candler Budd are fine singers and comedians, and Michael Dayton and Amy J. Cianci's set, of an upscale New York apartment (belonging to the "Lipbalms") is beautifully detailed, all the way to its faux Andy Warhol silkscreens. Steven Flaa's direction emphasizes the appearance of spontaneity, and allows the actors occasional contact with the audience. The Big Bang is fluff, but it's well-produced fluff. Not a vitamin in sight, but hey, it's great cotton candy.
Still, American Stage is a key resource in our community, and it's a pity to see it wasting opportunities. We theatergoers depend on local stages to challenge and enlighten us, to feed our hunger for art (or at least for peak experiences). This season, American Stage didn't come close.
Fortunately, other local companies -- Stageworks and Jobsite Theatre in particular -- took up the slack. But where was the Jewel of Third Street S.?
There's a French saying: One takes a step back in order to jump forward better.
In other words: Wait till next year.
Make Up Your Mind. Is Professor Zack Davis straight or gay? That's the question posed by Llywelyn Jones' Blackout, currently showing at the Suncoast Resort. This Gypsy Productions premiere shows us an academic who by day is preparing to marry a sharp businesswoman named Sarah, and who by night cruises computer chat rooms in search of male companionship.
When Daniel, one of his Internet amours, actually shows up at Zack's apartment, the ambivalent professor has to choose: Sarah or Dan. The answer, of course, will forever alter his life.
Fortunately, the acting in this drama is generally solid, and the script, though without literary merit, is usually engaging. Naomi Welsh as assertive Sarah is particularly persuasive, and Lawrence Buzzeo as Zack and Steve Garland as Daniel turn in creditable performances.
Trevor Keller's direction is fine, except when Zack is alone with his computer -- then the fellow seems to take forever to overcome his anguish. The living room set, by Keller and Tony Buglio, is nicely realistic, and Donald W. Roeseke Jr.'s costumes are just right for everyone. I've worried in the past about Gypsy's standards, but this show, even with a few flaws, feels nicely professional. I wasn't overwhelmed, but I was entertained.
Can Gypsy be coming of age? Are there even better productions to come?
Time will tell whether Blackout is a fluke -- or an important step in this young company's evolution.
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