Almanac: Stefan Zweig on happiness

INK BOTTLE“States of profound happiness, like all other forms of intoxication, are apt to befuddle the wits; intense enjoyment of the present always makes one forget the past.”

Stefan Zweig, Beware of Pity

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For the price of one

In the second of my three Wall Street Journal drama columns for this week, I review the Broadway premieres of the revised version of Side Show and Jez Butterworth’s The River, starring Hugh Jackman. Here’s an excerpt.

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It isn’t usual for musical-comedy flops to get a second crack at Broadway, but “Side Show,” a 1997 bomb that closed after 91 performances and thereafter became a cult classic, has now been radically revised and brought back to New York in the wake of well-received runs at California’s La Jolla Playhouse and Washington’s Kennedy Center. While I didn’t see the original production, it’s obvious why it tanked: “Side Show” tells the story of Daisy and Violet Hilton, the conjoined twins who became Depression-era vaudeville headliners, then starred in “Freaks,” Tod Browning’s 1932 horror film about a carnival sideshow. No matter how good such a musical may be, the tourist trade is more likely to prefer something a trifle less dark. So does the new “Side Show” have a shot at the brass ring of box-office success? I think so—though it’s still flawed.

side-show-kennedy-centerFirst, the good news: This production, directed by Bill Condon, who also rewrote the book, packs a thermonuclear wallop….

Erin Davie and Emily Padgett are very, very fine as the Hilton twins, though I wish they’d take a few more chances when they sing. Sometimes they sound like first-class choristers who are trying to match each other’s tones rather than a pair of sisterly but dissimilar rivals (one is shy, the other brassily extroverted) who just happen to be joined at the hip….

While the first act now works impressively well, the second act gets gooey, and the show ends with such unconvincing abruptness that you feel as though a guillotine has been used to amputate what by all rights should have been an unhappy ending…

“Side Show” is a rare example of a musical whose words are significantly more expressive than its music. Henry Krieger’s pop tunes are effective enough in their power-ballady way, but they lack the touch of acid that the plot leads you to expect….

Jez Butterworth is hot in England, vastly less so in the U.S. The only reason why “The River” has made it to Broadway is the onstage presence of Hugh Jackman, who could move tickets merely by standing in the lobby and smiling. He’s good—he always is—but the play is pretentious beyond belief, a three-hander about a fisherman-artist-hunk (Mr. Jackman) who brings his new girl (Cush Jumbo) to an isolated cabin, where he lectures her on the spiritual significance of fishing in between tumbles in the sleeping bag…

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Read the whole thing here.

The real-life Hilton sisters sing “Every Hour of Every Day”:

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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.

BROADWAY:
Cabaret (musical, PG-13/R, closes Jan. 4, reviewed here)
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder (musical, PG-13, virtually all performances sold out last week, reviewed here)
Love Letters (drama, PG-13, closes Feb. 1, reviewed here)
Matilda (musical, G, reviewed here)
Les Misérables (musical, G, too long and complicated for young children, reviewed here)
On the Town (musical, G, contains double entendres that will not be intelligible to children, reviewed here)
Once (musical, G/PG-13, closes Jan. 4, reviewed here)
This Is Our Youth (drama, PG-13, closes Jan. 4, reviewed here)

OFF BROADWAY:
The Fantasticks (musical, G, suitable for children capable of enjoying a love story, reviewed here)
002211A259The Seagull and Sense and Sensibility (drama, PG-13, playing in alternating repertory, closes Dec. 21, reviewed here)

CLOSING NEXT WEEK OFF BROADWAY:
Indian Ink (drama, PG-13, closes Nov. 30, reviewed here)

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Almanac: Stefan Zweig on betrayal

INK BOTTLE“When one does another person an injustice, in some mysterious way it does one good to discover (or to persuade oneself) that the injured party has also behaved badly or unfairly in some little matter or other; it is always a relief to the conscience if one can apportion some measure of guilt to the person one has betrayed.”

Stefan Zweig, Beware of Pity

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Visit from a missing person

This is an unusually busy week for mid-season theatrical openings on and off Broadway, so The Wall Street Journal has given me an unprecedented two extra columns to cover them. In today’s paper I report on Katori Hall’s Our Lady of Kibeho. Here’s an excerpt.

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Christianity is the great blind spot of American theater. Most Americans believe in the resurrection of Jesus and the existence of heaven and hell—but in most American plays, these beliefs are treated either as proofs of invincible ignorance or as signs of black-hearted villainy. It says everything about the gap between who we are in life and how we look onstage that the best-known shows of the past decade in which religious believers of any sort figured prominently were “The Book of Mormon” and “Doubt.” So it is stop-press news that the most important new play of the year to date, Katori Hall’s “Our Lady of Kibeho,” not only tells the story of a modern miracle but dares to suggest that it might really have happened.

1.171481Actually, it’s not quite right to say that “Our Lady of Kibeho” is about a miracle. Rather, its subject is what is known to theologians as an “apparition.” In 1981 and 1982, three Rwandan schoolgirls, all of them devout Catholics, claimed to have seen and heard the Virgin Mary. Their last apparition was a terrible vision of apocalyptic violence that was later interpreted as a prophecy of the genocidal convulsion in which, a decade later, as many as a million Rwandans died at the hands of their fellow countrymen. The Catholic Church subsequently investigated these apparitions and declared them in 2001 to be “authentic.”

This is the stuff of high drama, and Ms. Hall has used it thrillingly well, shaping the real-life story of the girls of Kibeho (one of whom was later killed in the war) into a tightly written play that places a chokehold on your attention right from the opening line. It’s tempting to say that you can’t go wrong with material like this, but part of what makes “Our Lady of Kibeho” so impressive is that Ms. Hall circumvents all kinds of possible dramaturgical pitfalls along the way….

Ms. Hall and Michael Greif, the director, have opted to show the girls’ visions onstage, leaving it to you to decide whether they were fantasies. No spoilers here: I’ll say only that it’s been a long time since any playwright rang down her first-act curtain with a louder bang….

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Read the whole thing here.

The trailer for Our Lady of Kibeho:

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Lookback: on the inability of politicians to appreciate art

LOOKBACKFrom 2004:

I know of very few American men of affairs (to exhume a wonderfully musty old phrase) who have much of anything to do with art other than as collectors, in which capacity they not infrequently develop considerable sophistication over time. But ask them to talk about the art they own and they have a way of coming up short. This doesn’t necessarily mean they get no aesthetic pleasure out of their art—intellectuals have a nasty habit of regarding verbal dexterity as a virtue, invariably to their cost—but it does make you wonder….

Read the whole thing here.

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