A glorious musical and a disastrous one


It was neither the best of years nor the worst of years, but it was a year when area theatergoers were able to see how glorious a grand-scale musical can be when almost everything goes right -- and how disastrous it can be when nearly nothing does.

The glorious musical was Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg's retelling of Victor Hugo's epic novel "Les Miserables," which played the longest run in the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre's history -- nine weeks. Rarely has a touring production looked slicker and never, in my memory, has a show seemed more at home in the concrete confines of the Mechanic. Maybe it was because "Les Mis" takes place partly in a concrete storm drain, but more likely it was because this was a spectacular production based on a darned good yarn.

At the opposite extreme was "Annie 2," a musical based on anything but a darned good yarn. Booked into Washington's Kennedy Center for what intended as a pre-Broadway run, it never made it to New York. Illogical and ill-conceived, the show's problems began with the decision to shift the focus from adorable Annie to her unsympathetic nemesis, Miss Hannigan. Over the summer the musical was reworked at Connecticut's Goodspeed Opera House, where it reportedly acquired a new plot. It needs one if "Annie 2" hopes to have a "Tomorrow" on Broadway.

While we're on the subject of singing-and-dancing cartoon characters, Olney opened its season with a new musical called "Dennis the Menace." In this case, the plot made sense, but it was even flimsier than the funny pages. And there was no menace to Dennis; he could have been a poster child for terminal cuteness. All in all, the show left you thinking that sometimes a comic strip should just be a comic strip.

But if comic books got a raw deal on the musical stage, serious fiction fared considerably better -- at least in the competent hands of those at Center Stage, where, like many regional theaters, the bounds of traditional musicals are being stretched into exciting new forms.

In June, the theater produced Leon Katz's 1972 music-theater adaptation of Gertrude Stein's autobiographical novel "The Making of Americans." With a score by Al Carmines, who held forth at the piano as the personification of Stein, this extraordinary work evoked not only her spirit, but the creative spirit itself.

It also prepared the way for one of Center Stage's crowning achievements, the music-theater rendition of Willa Cather's first novel, "O Pioneers!," adapted by Darrah Cloud with a score by Kim D. Sherman. In a major departure from traditional musicals, the main characters didn't sing. Instead, the score, performed by a chorus of secondary characters, expressed everything from inner thoughts to the expansiveness of the prairie.

Incidentally, both "The Making of Americans" and "O Pioneers!" debuted elsewhere, indicating the significant role regional theaters can play in giving second productions to important works that might otherwise be overlooked.

Not all of the theatrical high points -- and low points -- of 1990 were musical. Indelible images from the dramatic stage include the transformation of song-and-dance man Robert Morse into Truman Capote in "Tru" at the Mechanic; Stacy Keach's eerily effective music-hall comedy take on Richard III at Washington's Shakespeare Theatre at the Folger; and at the same theater, the unlikely but wonderfully ribald performance of Pat Carroll as Falstaff in "The Merry Wives of Windsor."

Casting an actress as Shakespeare's fat knight was an experiment that worked; in the realm of more purely experimental theater, the results were often less successful. Impossible Industrial Action was favored with two opportunities -- at Towson State in February and at the Theatre Project in October -- to hone its futuristic multimedia work, "The Pleasure Raiders." Despite cuts and rewrites, this diatribe against the military-industrial complex got more tedious instead of less.

And how could we forget that throwback to 1960s participatory theater, "Tony 'n' Tina's Wedding"? This re-enactment of a blue-collar Italian-American wedding -- complete with a drunken brawl and food fight -- has a devoted following; it ran for five months at the Fells Point Cabaret Theatre. But from my ladylike perspective, the best thing about it was that it launched a new venue and employed a number of local actors.

Of course, the heart of experimental theater in Baltimore has always been the Theatre Project, which hosted several sparkling productions during 1990. Highlights included one of the most language-oriented pieces seen at this theater in years -- "Anna on Anna," British actress Illona Linthwaite's portrayal of the little-known poet Anna Wickham -- as well as a wordless marvel, Mum Puppettheatre's look at creation, "From the Ashes."

However, the most exciting news to come out of the Theatre Project was the cooperative agreement forged with Towson State University, which not only helps assure the future of the financially troubled downtown theater, but promises to strengthen the university's experimental theater efforts.

In national theater news, or perhaps I should say international, a major fracas resulted over the summer when Actors' Equity refused to allow a white British actor to play a leading Eurasian role in the coming Broadway production of "Miss Saigon." It was a case of two wrongs not making a right. The union's action threatened the laudable practice of colorblind casting. Meanwhile, the producer, who initially canceled the production, seemed to be reacting out of spite. ("Miss Saigon" was reinstated after the union reversed itself; it's scheduled to arrive in New York in March).

While one major musical almost didn't get here, another set a record for longevity. In April, "A Chorus Line" concluded the longest run in Broadway history, closing after 15 years and 6,137 performances, which were attended by more than 6.5 million people.

Finally, on a much smaller scale, Baltimore's little theaters exhibited their share of peaks and valleys. Exemplifying the former was Lanford Wilson's "Burn This" at Fells Point Corner Theatre; representing the latter was Cockpit in Court's unenchanting "South Pacific."

And what could be more encouraging than the start of a promising new troupe? Everyman Theater strutted its stuff this fall with an arresting production of "The Runner Stumbles."

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