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November 11, 2011

TT: That wild and crazy Messiah

In today's Wall Street Journal I report on three shows, the Broadway revival of Godspell, the Public Theater production of King Lear, and the Broadway transfer of David Ives' Venus in Fur. My thoughts about the first of these shows are--shall we say--countercultural. Here's an excerpt.

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6fea913e0ac7d419fd0e6a70670080a2_0.jpgSkeptics be damned: "Godspell" is a joyously noisy romp that goes off like an extra-long string of firecrackers. It took 34 years for Stephen Schwartz's once-ubiquitous rock musical, in which the gospel according to St. Matthew is enacted as a circus-like vaudeville turn, to make it back to Broadway, and by all rights the results should have been dated beyond hope of resuscitation. But Daniel Goldstein, the director of this revival, has blown all the dust off "Godspell," and the result is not a stale exercise in boomer nostalgia à la "Hair" but a fizzy, family-friendly show that deserves to run...well, forever....

In a way, the most surprising thing about "Godspell" is that Mr. Schwartz's score still sounds so fresh, partly because of Michael Holland's up-to-the-second arrangements (and the high-energy playing of the seven-piece pit band) but mostly because it was so well written in the first place. You'll remember "Day by Day" if you were around in the '70s, but the other songs are, if anything, even catchier. That said, I doubt this revival would be half so effective had Messrs. Schwartz and Goldstein not spruced up the show, inserting pop-culture references that move John-Michael Tebelak's original book into the age of iPads, hip-hop and Occupy Wall Street with little sense of strain. It helps, too, that everyone in the cast is funny, especially George Salazar, and that nearly everyone sings well...

Sam Waterston, the erstwhile star of "Law & Order," is--or can be--an accomplished stage actor. He was impressive as the star of Long Wharf Theatre's 2005 revival of Tom Stoppard's "Travesties," less so as Polonius in the Public Theater's 2008 Shakespeare in the Park "Hamlet." That he should now be taking on one of the theater's most demanding parts, the title role of "King Lear," is an entirely different sort of challenge, and Mr. Waterston's fussy, doddering performance, in which he clearly means to give us a Lear on the verge of senility, is dramatically monochromatic and vocally inadequate. Indeed, he sounded so hoarse on Sunday as to suggest that he was on the verge of succumbing to laryngitis. Could it be that a decade and a half of small-screen acting has dulled Mr. Waterston's ability to fill a theater with the sound of his voice? Whatever the reason, his Lear is a well-meant failure....

25046a.jpgIf it's possible to become a full-fledged stage star in an Off-Broadway show, then Nina Arianda did it in the 2010 premiere of David Ives' "Venus in Fur," a dazzlingly serious two-person comedy about a ditzy actress who auditions for a new play about a masochistic relationship and ends up seducing the self-important author-director (Hugh Dancy). "Venus in Fur" has now transferred to Broadway's Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, where the gleefully sexy Ms. Arianda comes across every bit as powerfully as she did in the Classic Stage Company's smallish performance space....

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Read the whole thing here.

Posted November 11, 2011 12:00 AM

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