THE WHY OF ALL THINGS
There are “smashes” in the theater and then there are “flops.” Audiences can usually tell one from the other.
Everything in between is a mystery, theatrically — productions that work to some degree, and fail, to an often-greater degree. Or the other way round. It can be hard to say why.
I am endlessly fascinated by “Why?”
Two such mysteries, plus one potential smash with a question mark, that I recently caught, offer a range of Whys. The first is an entirely new musical: Only Gold, which closed this weekend off-Broadway at MCC Theater; the second is a revival of the uber-American drama, Death of a Salesman, on Broadway; the third is a new musical I saw (and loved) just a year ago, when it opened off-Broadway, Kimberly Akimbo — newly-reopened on Broadway.
In order of conflicted transcendence, Only Gold was as good as it was bad, a dance musical directed and choreographed by the marvelous Andy Blankenbuehler (yes, Hamilton’s choreographer), that thrillingly teemed with dance — some of the most eloquent and tactile dancing I’ve ever seen in a musical (yes, ever). It also plodded beneath the burden of a book (also by Mr. Blankenbuehler, writing with Ted Malawer) that was so stultifying and intrusive it almost undermined all the high-flying it was meant to support.
Well, that seems pretty clear. Mr. Blankenbuehler, the book writer, was ill-served by Mr. Blankenbuehler, the director, who did not do what he had to do: cut his wordy, cliché-laced libretto to the bone, if not eliminate it altogether. Because Only Gold said absolutely everything it needed to say with movement.
The music, by the British pop singer-songwriter Kate Nash, was catchy at times, adequate (at best), but Mr. Blankenbuehler, the choreographer, leaned into the rhythmic pulses of her tunes to spectacular effect.
The plot was almost beside the point: A royal family from a fanciful land, estranged from one another at heart, descends upon a chic Parisian hotel, nursing the poetic hope that Paris will somehow rekindle their love — Queen to King; Daughter to Father and Mother. The setting was said to be 1920s Paris, which provided scenic designer David Korins and costume designer Anita Yavich with a glamorous launch point for their fantastical creations, but otherwise registered not upon the proceedings. The songs tended to repeat lyrically what the script had already declaimed with purpleish spews of verbosity; platitudes about love, death, family, copulation.
But, boy, when the large cast launched itself into motion, watch out. Not a syllable more was needed.
Gaby Diaz. Of all the many superb dancers, I must mention — on all their behalf — Gaby Diaz, who, as “Princess Tooba” (the royal Daughter), floated, stung, stomped, soared and simply kicked out the jams.
Kate Nash herself was onstage too, by the way, nearly nonstop — meandering through the action delivering a redundant narration (as: “The Narrator”), ever unnecessarily underfoot; a hazard in motion. Not her fault, really.
I confess I saw Only Gold in previews. I was certain everything dreary and superfluous that I have just described would be gone by opening night. The flaws were so obvious and the pleasures so clear and abundant. Surely, Mr. Blankenbuehler would fix it all. The reviews, sadly, were in accord with what I first saw, unchanged. Which is not just a Why, but a therefore. And a shame.
My two teenaged daughters have detested Death of a Salesman since first being assigned to read it in middle school. For them, it is a play about an abused wife trampled by her self-absorbed lout of a husband. For them, Linda Loman deserves her own play.
I understand their loathing but I don’t fully share it. Death of a Salesman has become a period piece, I guess, but it still has the power to move me profoundly. I don’t love Willy, but I do feel for him. In the current revival, conversely, I loved the invariably lovable Wendell Pierce, who plays Willy, but I barely felt for him at all. Same goes for Sharon D Clarke — loved the actress, felt little for her as Linda.
Trickier question. The production itself distracts from them, deploying unnecessary modernistic projections and live music interludes that yank you away from the protagonists. The Loman sons, so central to Willy’s redemptive unraveling, have been directed to tiresomely over-emote as their youthful selves in flashback, denuding them of emotional power when they finally confront Willy as adults; the moment when their love and their hate should make Willy transcendent.
Then there is the ineluctable André De Shields, who has been encouraged to play the ghost of Willy’s recently-deceased brother, Ben Loman, as… André De Shields — all slinky in a shiny suit, upstaging Mr. Pierce’s Willy every time he sashays across the stage. I found myself imagining Mr. De Shields (who has long been wonderful in the appropriate setting) gratuitously sashaying into shows all over Times Square — a sashay into Hamilton and “The Room Where it Happens,” a sashay around the corner to haunt Beetlejuice, a “Rain on My Parade” sashay through Funny Girl (LOVE to see that), before returning to Hadestown — Hello, I’m back, same suit, yeah… and on into the night.
It is certainly worth mentioning that this is a significantly African-American Death of a Salesman, cast with a fine company of predominantly African American actors, who proffer the opportunity to refract Salesman’s blasted all-American dream through the all-American lens of racism. Outside of an ersatz “spiritual” (composed by Femi Temowo) sung gorgeously by Ms. Clarke, and one terrifically excruciating scene in which Willy’s new boss, the son of his old white boss, offhandedly debases him, these depths are not excavated at all, so far as I could tell.
The director of record for Death of a Salesman is Miranda Cromwell – who, according to the show’s website: “won an Olivier Award alongside co-director Marianne Elliott for the West End and Young Vic productions.” A bit convoluted that. Still and all, this production’s many distracting (and/or distracted) choices seem all directorial (as if you didn’t know). When the director is the Why (once again), not even Death of a Salesman with Sharon D Clarke and Wendell Pierce stands much of a chance.
The best for last: I’ve written at length about Kimberly Akimbo (you can read that: HERE ), so I won’t even summarize, save to say that this is a very special, very original new musical, wherein virtually every Why is answered resoundingly in the affirmative. From the score — irresistibly 70s pop-inflected — composed by Jeanine Tesori (music) and David Lindsay-Abaire (lyrics and libretto, adapted from his Pulitzer Prize-winning 2001 play); to the choice of the 60-ish Victoria Clarke to play (and spectacularly sing) the title character, Kimberly Levaco — a sweet suburban New Jersey 16-year-old, who, because of a rare genetic affliction, is aging four times more quickly than the rest of us — Kimberly Akimbo’s Why? answers are all impeccable. The cast is a delight, especially Ms. Clarke in a performance for the ages, and the titanic Bonnie Milligan as Kimberly’s daffily treacherous Aunt Debra. The direction, by Jessica Stone, is deft and appreciably un-intrusive. The transfer to Broadway has retained the show’s delightfully off-kilter dollhouse spirit and scale, adding some well-intended background choreography that, while uninspired, is in no way unhelpful.
The question mark Why I referred to at the top is simply this: Why can’t Kimberly Akimbo be a smash on Broadway? How do you sell this mordant musical tragicomedy about acceptance and mortality to the tourist trade? And why would you even try?
The answer is: Because they might just love it.