February 28, 2007

Working

It's never a good idea to raise your expectations too high.

I suppose that serves as a sort of apology for what reads like a relatively negative review; I admit I was a little disappointed with the performance of Working that I saw last Friday, even though when I look at it objectively it was actually pretty good.

It's just that I was hoping for it to be great.

I've been involved in musical theatre for, oh, pretty much ever, and since I was little I remember seeing and being in parish plays, community musical theatre productions that involved dozens of people who liked to sing, some of whom were good dancers and some of whom were good actors. And every one of them enjoying participating in productions that involved all three.

What we have here at Knox is dozens of people who like to act, some of whom are good singers and a couple of whom are good dancers; theatre kids who wanted to be in Rep Term, rather than necessarily wanting to be in a musical or this show particularly. Which is too darn bad. I do think that every one of them gave it the good old college try,* but in retrospect I kind of think that musicals are not such a great fit for the Knox theatre group (excellent though it is).

To start with, there were not nearly enough singers in the group. Only one (Annie Ford, who I knew through ballroom, but had no idea she could sing like that!) stood out as sounding like she knew what she was doing on a musical theatre stage, bringing me along with her sadness and frustration (and kind of making me feel a little guilty for assumptions and prejudices I know I've subconsciously made before) when she sang "Just a housewife". A few others (I'm not going to try to name them, I'll forget someone) had singing voices ranging from basically good to excellent, and were given solos, but tended to come across variously as lounge singers, show choir performers, or just performers in a solo recital, rather than as actors who happened to be singing their monologues rather than saying them. Even so, it looked like several of the songs were shuffled, one being spoken over the music and at least one converted to third person and given to someone else. Which, again, was probably a good choice under the circumstances; but, well, it's too bad.

Although, I should also mention Saras Gil: she singlehandedly pulled off the only real dance number in the show, while singing a solo, displaying more-or-less decent breath control** and significant aplomb when she tipped over the wobbly chair she was about to stand on, stepping down and righting the chair, all quite literally without missing a beat. She, too, had some nice emotive moments, and she gets big bonus points for bringing a bit more of the musical theatre (namely, dancing) into this musical.

Because that's another thing that any decent musical has: dancing. Not in every number, of course, but other than Saras's effort, the actors were basically just moving through their blocking, which sometimes included things like swaying back and forth or snapping or jazz hands*** but never really rose to the level of anything you would usually call dancing. Too bad.

The tech work generally did its usual good job of being so good that you wouldn't notice it; there were a few minor kinks (like when the actors were in front of the area actually illuminated by the lights, or when the lights faded before an actor finished her line), but it was generally fine. The makeup was bimodal: some had great makeup that was just heavy enough to counteract the bright lights perfectly; others had bright red cheeks and too-dark eyeliner and various other forms of too-heavy makeup. (That's historically been a big problem I've seen on this stage, especially in its thrust configuration, so this bimodality is actually an improvement---they used to be pretty much all in the latter group.) The sound was the most intrusively problematic thing, with some people miked that didn't need it, some people miked but apparently with the mic turned off, some people that probably should have had a mic, and a lot of popping and breathing sounds from the people with those tacky headset-mounted mics. I don't ever remember this being an issue before, so maybe it's because it was a musical that they brought them out; I do know that even with microphones there were a lot of times when the "pit" band drowned out the lyrics. (Especially when the actor was facing away from the audience---didn't that used to be an acting no-no? It should be, at least when the actor is singing....)

I was even disappointed with the program: I've gotten spoiled, I guess, but there's usually a bunch of stuff researched about the play itself and the circumstances surrounding its writing and its setting (i.e. dramaturgical analysis), but not here. And what kind of a musical production doesn't include a list of musical numbers in the program?

Not wanting to end on a sour note, I've saved the positive stuff for the end. We have a great drama department, and pretty much as usual, the acting was good. Having a large cast of featured players (rather than leads with a supporting cast) makes this difficult, and ability levels did vary some, but I can't think of a single monologue that was a bust.

There were a couple of weird moments, like when Pam Schuller's character starts going on about "us people of the South, we clean your cities", and this "people of the South" business makes no sense until you realise it's code for "black", because Pam (like everyone else in the show) was white and it would probably sound even odder for her to be saying "us black people". And nearly everyone who had to swear onstage sounded a little awkward with it, losing character for the briefest moment when they had to say "shit" or "fuck" in such a public circumstance. (Brian Conley, at least, managed to quite overcome this by the second half of his fireman monologue, though.) Accents tended to drift in and out a bit, although happily not in a distracting way.

But here I am being negative again. The oddnesses were just moments in the overall wash of great monologues. Matt Allis's Cuban-accented story of growing up in a migrant farm worker family was touching. Nick Perry as the oblivious golfing upper-middle-class manager could have turned into a straw man so easily, but the vapid sincerity was a little unnerving: it's not that the character was two-dimensional so much as that he was hollow. Meghan Reardon topped the bunch with her portrayal, where a lawyer walked out on the stage and told us about co-ops and how she spent her time and talent on the underprivileged, and how rewarding that was. Beyond a mere monologue, her scene really felt more than any other (except maybe Annie's sung monologue) like a character interacting with the audience. Nice.

I think if I hadn't let myself get all worked up about this being The Legendary Rep Term, and especially about our awesome theatre department putting on a musical (great actors + great medium = Totally! Awesome! Show! Squee!---right?), I'd've been better off. Certainly a lot of the things I was being picky about are things that a lot of other people might not pick up on (or not care about). Now, on to the Madwoman....

* Or as my cousin Patricia sometimes says, "the college try? No, we really tried." I certainly don't intend to doubt anyone's effort here.

** Certainly a lot better than I'd've done. Even assuming I could dance like that.

*** And let me tell you, jazz hands definitely separated the people who had ever done this before from the people who hadn't.

"While there's obviously priority involved, I'm prety damn sure that pileups are closer to LIFO than FIFO." --Neal Groothuis

Posted by blahedo at 12:39am on 28 Feb 2007
Comments
Mics? no kidding. I unfourtunately will be unable to attend this year, but I'm really suprised that they would even attempt to mic people. Especially (and I hope I can say this without offending anyone) knowing how absolutley crappy that sound system is and that there really isn't anyone there right now who knows a lick about doing it right. In that space, if you're voices can't be heard over the music, then you need to be a lot louder and tranqualize the band. It's too imtimate for mics. You just can't get away with it IMHO. Posted by Chelsea at 12:38pm on 28 Feb 2007
I have to disagree with the last comment about mics. Singers, even professionals (look at Broadway) use mics for musicals. A singer's voice is not meant to sing over a band. When you try, you may very easily over-sing and hurt yourself. Mics are almost always needed for musicals, especially in a place like Harbach where the acoustics are not meant for singing. On another note, I know that the students who worked on the sound did a fine job and worked very hard at it. We did have some struggles with it, yes, but it was a great learning experience for everyone. Isn't that what Rep Term is all about anyway? Posted by Eric Feltes at 10:49pm on 5 Mar 2007
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