Thursday, November 5, 2015

Tops on a Scale of One to Tenor

My Nth cousin Xce removed Bobby Conte-Thornton’s rapidly rising star recently brought him to the illustrious McCarter Theater in Princeton.

I still don’t have much clue about the world of plays. I’m using “illustrious” based on the two Tony’s they have in the lobby, not any personal experience. The only acts I’ve seen there are New Wave A Capella singing group The Bobs (who I’ve also seen in a small church, and an artsy-folksy coffee house type restaurant) and the original line up of juggling legends the Flying Karamazov Brothers. (Sadly, jugglers never make a joint illustrious.)

I’m honestly starting to think that I’m cursed when it comes to attending the legitimate stage. Because the tickets showed that the usual parking lot was closed due to construction, my pre drive research extended well beyond my normal paranoia.

I had the local map on the tickets, a second slightly wider view printed map, plus the GPS maps in my and my wife’s phones working.  I studied the location and printed step by step directions and determined all we needed to do was pass the place, make a right followed by a quick left, and then follow the road through a circle to the next left for the nearby parking garage.

Simple though it was, I went to work crazy early Friday morning to give us an added expanse of time.  The route was direct, no traffic was showing on Rosa’s more highly advanced guidance system and we were on track to arrive with about an hour safety cushion before curtain.

To prevent frantically wandering around an unfamiliar area looking for dinner when we arrived, the cushion allowed us to stop in an area packed with strip malls to grab a fast bite.  It would seem that all Five Guys, and then some, have to do something with the food at the restaurant named after them before they are allowed to think about bringing it to the patrons.  The single occupancy rest room added to the insanely slow service (for insanely average food might I add) destroyed most of our safety cushion. We piled back into the car in haste with the predicted arrival time now hovering near ten minutes before curtain.

Those estimates are always conservative if there isn’t traffic, and I shaved a couple more minutes off without much reckless endangerment of my family or any other motorists.

There should have been no problem as I pulled up towards the garage with time to walk over to the McCarter. 

However, it’s me.

At what I now know is the entrance to the garage appeared to be a “do not enter” sign.  From the angle I had turned in, it looked like instead of telling me not to drive to the restricted part of the train station, it was telling me not to enter the garage.

If my wife is in the area when I mention this unfortunate driving occurrence, she will quickly point out that she knew it was the right way and was telling me to pull in.

What she will not quickly point out is what happened shortly before. I was asking her to confirm my memorized directions as I went through them step by step.  When I asked, “Then I go through the circle, right?” despite having no less than FOUR maps –both electronic and printed- in front of her she said, “There’s no circle.”

I will not bring this up again, as there’s no need to force myself to sleep on the lawn.

With my usual faith in her navigation skills shaken, I asked a passing student if that was the entrance to the garage.

Unfortunately, the Princetonian Poopyhead said, “No, just go around that way,” sending us to the back of the structure, where there was only an exit. (And some newly laid profanity.)  We pulled into the lot behind that garage and were now further away, and later. 

I noticed my phone was being stupid about ignoring the fact we could cut across campus at the same time that Rosa’s phone was telling her to do just that.  We made it to our seats in time to hear the thickly accented Italian mother,  “Turn off your phones,” announcement that would set the tone for an amazing night of comedy.

Ken Ludwig’s A Comedy of Tenors is a classic French farce, and as such is perfectly at home on stage.  Farce can work on television (Fawlty Towers) and film (Oscar) but its best as live theater for two reasons.

1) Comedy is all about timing and farce even more so.  Honing it night after night in front of a live audience gets all the gags’ and reactions’ timing down to split second perfection.

This is why the best Marx Brothers' movies either came from plays, or had a brief live tour of the important scenes.  Brace yourself for more Marx Brothers and similarly themed references; it’s a natural outflow from seeing classic stage comedy and my head being full of useless vaudevillian information.

2) The farce works best in one vast room with a pile of furniture to trip and/ or be hurled over and a boatload of slammable doors going in and out of it. Keeping the entire story in a single room works perfectly in the conventions of a play.  Note the two examples above have that room (Fawlty Towers’ lobby or dining room, and Oscar’s Foyer…or dining room) however because of the nature of those mediums (media?  medians? medio-la-hee-hoos?) the action must go through those doors at times.

On stage, the action stays front and center, without the audience feeling claustrophobic about the narrative remaining in one room, because that’s what plays do. A mess of the humor comes from hidden events unfolding on the other side of the doors.  Much like how Jack Benny’s comedy came from what he didn’t say when the audience imagined what he was thinking, the farce’s comedy comes from what isn’t seen when the audience imagines what is happening off stage.

Since “that’s what it’s supposed to look like” it didn’t truly hit me while I was laughing along that nearly the whole experience took place in one room.  Only Ken Ludwig’s trademark of rerunning all of the action in two minutes before the final curtain drove it home.

Note: I still have no idea what I’m talking about. I only know that’s a Ken Ludwig trademark because my cousin’s mom told me so. I’ve never seen one of his plays before. Although after this one, I’d certainly see one again.

The material and environment are important to the absurd situations of the farce being accepted by the crowd, but the cast is far more vital to engage the audience and insure the timing for maximum comedy. Fortunately, this group was sensational.  It’s a testament to how good the play was that I found myself entering “funny” over and over again into the Word Thesaurus to avoid repeating myself.

I’ll start with Bobby playing Carlo, because it’s my blog, and he’s my cousin.  We’ve always known he could sing, learned rapidly he could act, and were given some inkling in Grease that he could do physical comedy.  However, this performance drove home that the boy knows funny.  Carlo is half of the young, romantic couple in this story.  In that way, one could say he played “the Zeppo role.”  I mean that as a strong compliment, don’t be hating on Zeppo.  Even Zeppo himself didn’t fully appreciate his critical importance to the act.  Note that when he stopped appearing in Marx Brothers’ films to be their agent full time, Alan Jones or someone else was always brought in to fulfill “the Zeppo role.”

As Carlo was in the dark about most of the misunderstandings driving the farce, his humor was predominantly reactive.  While being flabbergasted at his surroundings and trying to determine exactly what just happened, Bobby pulled some double, triple, and extended takes the great animation director Bob Clampett would have been proud of.  His aptitude for physical comedy was also impressive. It ranged from being part of the general running and screaming that goes with this form of theater, combining surprise, confusion and pain at being slapped for reasons he was completely unsure about, and a wonderful bit while he was given a severe, yet severely entertaining, beating by a door in his underwear.

That is…he was in his underwear, and he was battered repeatedly by a door.

He was not accosted by a door built into his underwear.  It wasn’t that kind of show.

Because we’ve heard him sing, we were kind of stunned when we heard he was in a new show that wasn’t a musical.  However, there were a couple musical moments on stage that fit far more seamlessly into the narrative than the way the numbers were wedged into comedies to advertize them in the Golden Age of Hollywood. His and the other Tenors’ (and a Soprano’s) truly remarkable singing ability, and their ability to stay in character while performing, added depth and realism to the play. For example, their talents allowed the plot and their character interactions advance through the musical rehearsal number while still being a breathtaking operatic performance.

One of the other Tenors was Max, the “Tenor in training” and producer’s assistant played by Rob McLure.  Max was constantly pulled in multiple directions by the rest of the characters, and also was the guy on our side of the dramatic irony fence with the closest idea of what was really going on amidst all the confusion, misdirection and replacements.  Mr. McClure carried that burden well while performing outstanding pratfalls and other physical shenanigans the whole time. His skills made me wish I could have seen him play the lead in Chaplin: the Musical.

In case you're wondering- I'm still clueless, my cousin's mom told me about Chaplin too.

I’ve continually voiced how awesome it is that theater performers interact directly with audiences after shows, and I’m going to again.

It is awesome that theater performers interact directly with audiences after shows.

One would think I’d get better at assembling my thoughts into something short and coherent to say at these moments, now that I’m more experienced with them.

Yeah…not so much.

I was hoping to impart the compliment of - after being a fan of vaudeville style comedy my entire life- I found his energy executing and timing of physical comedy on stage to be an outstanding example of the art form.

I sincerely hope he gathered all that as I quickly shouted to him after he signed my daughter’s program and before he was whisked away to other groups, “You fall really well!”

The third tenor, probably the main tenor, and also (because it’s a farce) the fourth tenor was Bradley Dean. If anyone could be said to carry a show where the interaction between all the players was key to it working as a whole it would be him. 

He was the overprotective (of both his family and standing as an operatic star) Tito, and the identical looking, aspiration filled (if easily distracted) Beppo.  In both parts he excelled as portraying both the driving force, and bewildered victim of the multiple waves of confusion that constructively interfered with each other as the chaos grew.

Yup, that was a physics reference I threw into a play review, in case we forget I’m an engineer.

Speaking of driving forces, Antoinette LaVecchia became one of those as Maria for her on stage family, as befitting an Italian mother.  Also as befitting an Italian mother, she became a virtual roman candle of powerful emotions, each one loud, explosive, somewhat random and a pleasure to watch as it lit up the stage.

Linda Brescia had a similar impact on the room as Tatiana, the Russian Soprano. She didn’t enter until the second act, but quickly made up for lost time striding onto the set with all the over the top, Ensign Chekov type accented, fire and expression expected from an operatic diva.

Both she and Antoinette LaVecchia had the amazing ability to be physically and verbally laying into a target man one moment (either violently or romantically), then convincingly and sympathetically fainting the next.  In both cases, the end result was an outright hoot.

The third woman who successfully brought a parade of humorous emotions to the stage was Kristen Martin as daughter Mimi, bringing us back around to the other half of the young lovers.  Similar to Bobby, much of her comedy was expertly done reactions. (And one stellar dive off the balcony.) In addition, since she was portraying an aspiring actress, she also got to display fantastic deliveries of the self-referential comedy.

There really are only a finite number of stories in existence, especially when creating something with rules and expectations like classic French Farce.  Poking fun at those conventions while performing them was a nice addition of meta-humor.

Sorry, went a little “Douglas Hofstadter” there…back to the show.

The cast was completed by Ron Orbach as Saunders, the perpetually frustrated producer battling all of the ridiculous reverses of the narrative to get ANY opera singers on stage on time.  After the performance I heard his wife say something to my cousin’s mother about Frank Ferrante’s (amazing) Groucho show.  That was a perfectly appropriate random reference, as Saunders was highly reminiscent of Sig Ruman’s Mr. Gottlieb role in Night at the Opera. (Or any of his other roles with Minnie’s Boys)  While his frustration was constant, his always laugh inducing expressions of it shifted impressively between red faced, volcanic hysteria, and slow burns rivaling Edgar Kennedy.

There was one major difference between Gottlieb and Saunders.  Underneath the exasperated and demanding exterior of the producer in A Comedy of Tenors was revealed to be the heart of a caring and devoted father.

That aspect was a key to separating this story from much of today’s comedy.

In contrast to the chaos, the yelling, the violence, the running around, the fooling around, and the general farceness; at its core the story was about the importance of family, with all the love, commitment and respect that goes with it.  In some way, that was the central motivation of each and every one of these well portrayed and constantly entertaining characters.

If I properly motivated myself, and more importantly wasn’t busy writing recollections of my own farce like life, I could have rushed this review to inspire people to see the final showing of this play before the run at the McCarter finished.

However, given the experience of the writer, cast and crew, and the quality of the material and performances they’ve put together, I’ve no doubts this play will be reappearing for all of our viewing pleasure before long.


Kim Luer said...

Wonderful and accurate summary. I have to add that although the story content of the play was really suited for older audiences, my three (ages 9, 7 and 3) all loved it. Most of the actual "plot" was over their heads, but the physical comedy was so great it had them laughing along with the rest of the audience. The emotions portrayed by the actors were so genuine and convincing that when they were calling the "fourth tenor" to hurry and get to the stage, Morgan became so worried he jumped up from his seat and started yelling (loudly) along with the rest of the cast "BEPPO!!!!" and was very relieved when Beppo showed up to sing.

Jeff McGinley said...

Thanx for the compliments, and chiming in.

This show really did work on several levels..and all of them were funny.

Yet, at no time, for the expense of a cheap laugh, did any of the characters act untrue to themselves or their families.

Amazing job all around.