Runyonland West

In today’s Wall Street Journal I file the second of three reports on my recent visit to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where I saw Mary Zimmerman’s revival of Guys and Dolls. I also review a Pennsylvania production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Here’s an excerpt.

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Broadway musicals have long lured audiences by overwhelming them. Even now, the hottest new musicals (“An American in Paris”) and revivals (“The King and I”) typically operate on the bigger-is-better principle. Yet most of the best regional musical-comedy productions of the past decade have been small-scale stagings, and the recent success of “Fun Home” and “Hamilton,” neither of which is operatically lavish, suggests that new ideas about an old genre are percolating upward into the commercial arena.

-e2b6ee027751cc24All this was on my mind as I flew out to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to see Mary Zimmerman’s pared-down “Guys and Dolls.” The OSF has emerged of late as a font of fresh thinking about musical comedy, and Ms. Zimmerman, who hit big on Broadway in 2002 with “Metamorphoses,” her riotously creative visualization of Ovid’s ancient tales of love, struck me—in theory, at least—as the ideal director to put her own spin on a musical that’s been around long enough to profit from a makeover. On the other hand, her 2010 Goodman Theatre staging of “Candide” was hectic and over-stuffed, which made me wonder what she’d do with a show that is, unlike the famously flawed “Candide,” so close to perfect that it resists retouching.

Well, hang onto your snap-brim fedora: Ms. Zimmerman’s fetching revival is as good as any production I’ve ever seen of the greatest of all the golden-age musicals. No small part of its excellence is rooted in the work of Daniel Ostling, the set designer, who places the action in front of a tin-ceiling backdrop on a mostly bare stage, with a couple of miniature skyline set pieces rolling on and off from time to time to remind us that we’re in Damon Runyon’s New York, a Depression-era town where there’s never quite enough cash to go around….

All this accords well with the overall tone of Ms. Zimmerman’s production, which underlines the romanticism of Frank Loesser’s score without stiffing the well-honed punch lines of the Abe Burrows-Jo Swerling book….

l_bcp_spellingbeecast_smallTen years ago, “The Light in the Piazza” and “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” opened on Broadway in close succession, and all at once it looked as though there was hope for the future of the musical. No such luck: Not until “Hamilton” did another new musical of comparable excellence ring the box-office bell on Broadway, though “Piazza” and “Putnam County” were promptly taken up by regional theaters and continue to be revived there to fine effect. So when the Bucks County Playhouse announced that it would be putting on “Putnam County” this summer, I decided to see what that promising company would do with a show whose New York production, superlatively well-directed by James Lapine, remains bright in my memory. Fear not: Jessica Stone’s staging is very nearly as strong as the breathtaking “Company” that Hunter Foster directed for Bucks County earlier this year.

The original “Putnam County” was cast so well that anyone lucky enough to have seen it will find it hard not to think of its stars, especially Celia Keenan-Bolger, when watching any subsequent version. It’s a special pleasure, then, to report that Caitlin Houlahan’s fragile, waif-like Olive Ostrovsky owes nothing to Ms. Keenan-Bolger’s example: She tugs at your heart in her own individual way….

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To read my review of Guys and Dolls, go here.

To read my review of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, go here.

The trailer for Guys and Dolls:

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The man who invented psychopathy

be744e8b8a56406ff77eb5050813c318In today’s Wall Street Journal “Sightings” column I talk about a new government program designed to support works of serious scholarship that are aimed at a popular audience—and show how such scholarship, when done well, can change a culture. Here’s an example.

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The National Endowment for the Humanities recently announced a $1.7 million block of grants in its new “Public Scholar” program, whose purpose is to support the publication of “nonfiction books that will bring important humanities scholarship into book clubs and onto best-seller lists.”

Stop laughing! The NEH might—just might—be onto something.

According to the news release, the Public Scholar Program will support “books that use deep research to open up important or appealing subjects for wider audiences by presenting significant humanities topics in a way that is accessible to general readers.” In theory, that’s a great idea. As everyone knows who’s dipped so much as a toe into the murky stream of academic prose, much of what gets written by the professoriate these days is clotted with quasi-scientific jargon that renders it unintelligible….

Whether the initial recipients of the NEH’s bounty (most of whom received grants of about $50,000 apiece) will write anything that ordinary people would care to read is, of course, another matter altogether. I confess to wondering whether such project titles as “Bartolomeo Vanzetti and the Culture of Early 20th-Century Anarchism” and “Everybody Comes to Rick’s: How ‘Casablanca’ Taught Us to Love Movies” are likely to result in books that will be the better for being written in English instead of High Educanto. Still, we don’t need the NEH to tell us that genuinely humane scholars who choose to write in a manner comprehensible to the general public—and who have something worthwhile to say—can leave a permanent mark on society.

Consider Hervey M. Cleckley’s “The Mask of Sanity: An Attempt to Clarify Some Issues About the So-Called Psychopathic Personality.” You’ve probably never heard of Dr. Cleckley, a professor at the Medical College of Georgia who died in 1984, or “The Mask of Sanity,” which was published in 1941 and is now largely forgotten save by historians of psychiatry. But if you’ve turned on your TV at any time in the last decade, you’ve felt his invisible pull, for he is the man who introduced the concept of what we now call “psychopathy” into general discourse—and who did so by writing a scholarly treatise that was as readable as a popular novel….

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Read the whole thing here.

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Almanac: Vladimir Nabokov on philistinism

INK BOTTLE“Philistinism implies not only a collection of stock ideas but also the use of set phrases, clichés, banalities expressed in faded words. A true philistine has nothing but these trivial ideas of which he entirely consists.”

Vladimir Nabokov, Lectures on Russian Literature

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Dreams so real

SATCHMO FINISHED COPIESFour years ago next month, Satchmo at the Waldorf, my first play, was premiered in Orlando, Florida. Since then it’s been produced in Lenox, Los Angeles, New Haven, Philadelphia, and off Broadway, and it’ll be staged later this season in Chicago, Colorado Springs, San Francisco, and West Palm Beach. Now I’ve received word that a package containing the very first printed copies of Dramatists Play Service’s acting edition of Satchmo has just been shipped to my New York apartment. Alas, I’m not there and won’t be until next week, but my agent e-mailed me this photo to tide me over.

In case you’ve ever wondered whether dreams come true…well, they do. And sometimes the reality is even better than the dream.

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Louis Armstrong and the All Stars perform “A Kiss to Build a Dream On” in Stockholm in 1962:

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So you want to see a show?

Here’s my list of recommended Broadway, off-Broadway, and out-of-town shows, updated weekly. In all cases, I gave these shows favorable reviews (if sometimes qualifiedly so) in The Wall Street Journal when they opened. For more information, click on the title.

An American in Paris (musical, G, too complex for small children, some performances sold out last week, reviewed here)
Fun Home (serious musical, PG-13, all performances sold out last week, reviewed here)
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder (musical, PG-13, some performances sold out last week, reviewed here)
Hamilton (musical, PG-13, all performances sold out last week, reviewed here)
Hand to God (black comedy, X, absolutely not for children or prudish adults, reviewed here)
The King and I (musical, G, perfect for children with well-developed attention spans, nearly all performances sold out last week, reviewed here)
Matilda (musical, G, nearly all performances sold out last week, reviewed here)
Les Misérables (musical, G, too long and complicated for young children, some performances sold out last week, reviewed here)

Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps (comedy, G, ideal for bright children, remounting of Broadway production, original production reviewed here)
The Fantasticks (musical, G, suitable for children capable of enjoying a love story, reviewed here)
The Flick (serious comedy, PG-13, too long for young people with limited attention spans, reviewed here)

2015_Sweat_1_jg_0088-h_yqkojfIN ASHLAND, OREGON:
Sweat (drama, PG-13, closes Oct. 31, reviewed here)

Sweet Charity (musical, PG-13, closes Oct. 31, reviewed here)
You Never Can Tell (Shaw, PG-13, closes Oct. 25, reviewed here)

An Iliad (drama, PG-13, closes Oct. 18, reviewed here)
The Island (drama, PG-13, closes Sept. 26, reviewed here)
The Merry Wives of Windsor (Shakespeare, PG-13, closes Oct. 4, reviewed here)

The Twelve-Pound Look (one-act comedy, G, not suitable for children, closes Sept. 12, reviewed here)

Mother of the Maid (drama, PG-13, closing Sept. 6, reviewed here)

A Streetcar Named Desire (drama, PG-13, closes Sept. 5, reviewed here)

The Weir (drama, PG-13, remounting of original off-Broadway production, closes Sept. 6, original production reviewed here)

On the Town (musical, G, contains double entendres that will not be intelligible to children, closing Sept. 6, reviewed here)

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Shakespeare, PG-13, closes Friday, reviewed here)
The Winter’s Tale (Shakespeare, PG-13, closes Saturday, reviewed here)

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Almanac: Vladimir Nabokov on nostalgia

INK BOTTLE“A sense of security, of well-being, of summer warmth pervades my memory. That robust reality makes a ghost of the present. The mirror brims with brightness; a bumblebee has entered the room and bumps against the ceiling. Everything is as it should be, nothing will ever change, nobody will ever die.”

Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory

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Snapshot: Bette Davis and Bert Lahr on The Hollywood Palace

TV CAMERABette Davis and Bert Lahr perform “Jealousy,” a sketch by Billy Friedberg from the 1952 Broadway revue Two’s Company. (Lahr’s role was played on Broadway by David Burns.) This performance was telecast on The Hollywood Palace on February 20, 1965:

(This is the latest in a series of arts-related videos that appear in this space each Monday and Wednesday.)

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Lookback: a hot day in August

LOOKBACKFrom 2005:

You have to live in Manhattan to know how hot it gets here in the middle of August. The only film I can think of that conveys the sheer awfulness of the kind of heat wave that now has us in a tight, slimy stranglehold is Rear Window, whose noirish subject matter puts me in mind of one of my favorite Raymond Chandler quotes: “It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks.” Alas, there was nothing dry about the heat in New York this weekend. No sooner did you step outside than it smacked you in the face like a steamy towel wielded by a sadistic barber. (See? Heat waves make everyone Chandleresque, or at least me.)….

Read the whole thing here.

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