Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Happiness

GRADE: C

Music by Scott Frankel, lyrics by Michael Korie, book by John Weidman. Dir./Chor. Susan Stroman. Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater. (CLOSED)

Critics had high expectations from the creative team behind Contact and the songwriting team behind Grey Gardens, and for the most part they're disappointed, with the notable exception of John Simon. This musical about a group of strangers who find themselves stuck on a subway car with a Twilight Zone twist incites dialogue among critics about a current existentialist trend in theatre. Susan Stroman is reportedly pretty stingy with the choreography she's known for, but critics do enjoy the movement of Thomas Lynch's sets. The cast, which includes Hunter Foster and Joanna Gleason, gets positive though hardly glowing notices, with Jenny Powers being a standout.


Bloomberg News A+
(John Simon) “Happiness,” at Lincoln Center Theater’s intimate Mitzi E. Newhouse stage, does more than just offer 110 minutes of flawless, nonstop entertainment. It amazes... Truly marvelous are the imaginatively layered sets by Thomas Lynch (frequent surprises on the upper level), the jaunty costuming by William Ivey Long and dramatic lighting by Donald Holder. Best of all, the painterly uses to which Stroman puts the stage, and her inventive choreography wherein certain fresh steps and holds eloquently convey happiness. The subway car itself dances. The performers include such savvy hands as Ken Page, Joanna Gleason and Hunter Foster (Stanley), as well as relatively lesser known actors of like aplomb. I am all admiration for Jenny Powers’s Gina, equally winning in her glamorous fantasies and her humble reality. Ditto for both Helens, old (Phyllis Somerville) and young (Alessa Neeck, enchanting in several brief parts).

Theatermania A
(Sandy MacDonald) For a sweet little fable about the need to seize the day and savor each moment, the new musical Happiness at Lincoln Center's Mitzi Newhouse Theater sure packs a lot of pizzazz. It's the product of a dream team: book by John Weidman, music by Scott Frankel and lyrics by Michael Korie (of Grey Gardens), and direction and choreography by Tony Award winner Susan Stroman. While the foremost pitfall of an exercise of this sort, beyond miniaturizing major themes, is the tendency to sappiness, the creators and their superb cast skirt both dangers with unceasing snap and polish.

Talkin' Broadway B-
(Matthew Murray) The most shocking discovery is Stroman: This is her best work in years. Her dances are far more original than those in Young Frankenstein and evince few of her typical tricks; her staging is innovative and experimental, utterly unrelated to her usual cartoon realism. Meshed with Thomas Lynch’s dynamic sets (especially the elaborate, stage-filling subway car), William Ivey Long’s crisp costumes, and Donald Holder’s rich lighting, this is one of the most 2009-looking and -behaving shows of the season. But one can’t help wish the authors had set their sights higher. Grey Gardens proved that Frankel and Korie could establish and maintain an unusual musical language across multiple types of characters and plots; that skill would have prevented the score from sounding like a dusty jukebox set on random. Like the songs, Weidman’s book is full of choice morsels that never solidify because they never have to.

Theater News Online C+
(Jessica Branch) Joanna Gleason suffers from the improbably written role of shock jock with a secret past, but manages to make the most of the acid-tongued lines it affords her. But these moments are, in the show - just that, moments. They don't add up to much - let alone to a whole of any significance - but they can entertain and amuse, if not inform and enlighten. So the real secret of Happiness may be to look at it as a revue rather than a revelation.

The New Yorker C
(Unsigned) The songs range from sweet to too sweet, and the repetitive structure only dulls the show’s life-affirming message. Still, Susan Stroman has assembled a skilled group of actors, including Joanna Gleason and Hunter Foster, many of whom find shades of nuance even in banal material.

Time Out New York C
(Diane Snyder) Unlike A Chorus Line, where similar confessional songs capture a character’s idiosyncrasies, many scenarios seem cherry-picked for what they represent from different eras (WWII, the ’60s) instead of their impact on an individual. But the potency here may lie as much in what audiences take away as in what they see onstage.

The Hollywood Reporter C
(Frank Scheck) The characterizations and dialogue frequently are risible, but there are some charming production numbers, including the old woman's memory of falling in love with a young soldier at a USO dance right before he's shipped off to World War II and an older man's (Fred Applegate) recollection of attending a baseball game at the Polo Grounds with his father. But the songs are highly uneven, and too rarely does the show provide emotional depth to its characters. An exception is the number "Gstaad" (performed superbly by Jenny Powers), in which a seemingly upscale young woman reveals the facade of her self-claimed identity. Stroman stages the proceedings with her usual flair, with numbers like "Step Up the Ladder" (performed athletically by Foster) displaying the imaginative choreography for which she is renowned. And the performers, for the most part, are able to overcome the stereotypical nature of their roles. But aside from the occasional moment, this is not a show that delivers pure "Happiness."

Back Stage C
(Erik Haagensen) With a device rather than a character at its center, Happiness has nowhere to go. And its revuelike structure—each passenger gets a number about his or her moment—puts it at the mercy of its songs, which vary in effectiveness. Nevertheless, there are ancillary pleasures. Frankel and Korie's score is attractively eclectic and gratifyingly particular to character. Weidman, forced by the conceit into a predictable structure, adeptly disguises it. He's helped by Stroman's virtuoso staging, which turns an inherently static situation into a kaleidoscope of shifting perspectives, with assistance from Thomas Lynch's motorized set, Donald Holder's acute lighting, and Joshua Frankel's projections.

TheaterScene.net C
(Eugene Paul) Something is seriously wrong with this new century we’re in, judging from the offerings all over Broadway. Almost all of them are set in the recent past or brought back from the recent past or both. And in Happiness, playwright book writer John Weidman, composer Scott Frankel and lyricist Michael Korie make the brave leap of attempting to bridge the connection. They have set their story in the acid etched present day New York City, sketching the lives of eight cases, that is, New Yorkers.

Wall Street Journal C-
(Terry Teachout) The cast is superlative, Fred Applegate, Joanna Gleason and Jenny Powers in particular, and Ms. Stroman's jet-propelled staging and Thomas Lynch's quick-change sets are so pleasing to behold that you sometimes forget how banal the show is -- though never for long.

New York Post C-
(Elisabeth Vincentelli) It says a lot about how embarrassingly inane musical-theater plots have been lately that this premise, cooked up by John Weidman, feels so much fresher than it actually is. But at least Weidman and director/choreographer Susan Stroman -- in their first joint outing since 2000's "Contact" -- strive to engage with our city's very fabric. And the first half-hour largely pays off. Swiftly redeeming herself from "Young Frankenstein," Stroman stages a kinetic number, "Just Not Right Now," in which she simultaneously introduces all the characters and immerses them in the hectic flow of a typical city morning. She nails it again with the swinging 1944 flashback "Flibberty Jibbers and Wobbly Knees." After that, the dancing inexplicably subsides and the show settles into a predictable rhythm as each character strolls down memory lane. And I mean strolls: "Happiness" feels too long at an intermissionless 110 minutes.

Hartford Courant C-
(Malcolm Johnson) As the memories bloom and fade, the two standouts are Foster and Gleason. Foster's cynical, all-knowing Stanley concludes the show with "Blips." Gleason's witty, acerbic, brutally bigoted Arlene excels in "Road to Nirvana," a return to the Fillmore East, including a memory of running into Mick Jagger and buttoning his fly as he exits the men's room. The staging by Stroman contrasts the constrictions of the ever-spinning subway car with the more open space of memories. Some of the flashbacks give the show energy and feeling but not enough to overcome its sense of gimmick. The idea of throwing together a mix of passengers in a cul de sac has sometimes played well, but this is a less happy occasion, even with Stroman at the helm.

CurtainUp C-
(Elyse Sommer) With a less cliche-riddled plot, more dancing, and more memorable tunes, this somewhat surreal musical subway ride might keep you from fretting over the next fare hike and make you think twice before you hold open a closing door rather than wait for another train. Unfortunately, despite a topdrawer creative team — composer Scott Frankel and lyricist Michael Korie who made a big splash with Grey Gardens and the book writer and director/choreographer of Contact, a Lincoln Center super hit— I found Happiness only mildly more entertaining than my ride home on the E train.

NYMag C-
(Scott Brown)Weidman has paired with his old Contact collaborator, director-choreographer Susan Stroman, who’s confected some poppin’ dance numbers to round out this gorgeously realized yet soul-crushingly stupid fable about mortality: A Hummel set of recently deceased New York stereotypes find themselves in a stalled subway car, where a conductor (Hunter Foster, his hepcat-hobbit energy in overdrive) instructs each to pick a “perfect moment” in which to dwell forever.

The New York Times D+
(Ben Brantley) At around the same point its characters register that they can’t escape their underground prison in this Lincoln Center Theater production that opened on Monday evening at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, directed by Susan Stroman, you begin to grasp a similarly uncomfortable realization. You, it seems, have been caught inside an intermission-free, 1 hour 50 minute singing version of one of those whimsical, metaphysical fantasy novels that dominate the best-seller list around Christmastime and tend to have “heaven” in their titles. Well, that or a particularly preachy episode of “The Twilight Zone.” Your suspicions are confirmed when one of the performers jokily intones the four-note vamp of that series’s theme music, then realizes that this is no joke. There is talk of being “trapped in time’s primordial ointment” and human lives as “blips on the cosmic radar.” This show offers 10 — count ’em, 10 — specimens of such blips, and they all have confessions to make, slowly and in song.

Variety D
(David Rooney) The cutesiest of the numbers are the embarrassing "The Tooth Fairy Song," in which a smart-mouthed bike messenger (Miguel Cervantes) shares a goofy bonding moment with the daughter he neglected; and "Family Flashcards," a crash course in which a doting Chinese-Jewish couple (Pearl Sun, Robert Petkoff) brush up on their families' respective cultures. Unlike "Grey Gardens," which interwove witty pastiche numbers with heartbreakers like "Around the World," "Will You?" and "Another Winter in a Summer Town," there's a blandness and a generic '70s sound to Frankel's score here, despite some clever rhymes from Korie. Not one of the meandering melodies lingers in the head. Donald Holder's descriptive lighting creates some intriguing textures and Thomas Lynch's subway car set proves adaptable to the stories that spill out of it -- even spinning around like an amusement park ride during the lovely Powers' Coney Island reverie. But there's no real life onstage, either in the cardboard characters or the surprisingly tentative dance interludes. From the sprawling opening number, "Just Not Right Now," in which the soon-to-be-dead mingle obliviously with their fellow citizens on a hectic Monday morning, it's clear that cohesion is lacking. And try as Stroman might to get some emotional momentum going, it never really gels.

Associated Press D-
(Michael Kuchwara) The Lincoln Center Theater production features a fine collection of actors struggling to overcome John Weidman's contemporary, high-concept story that is awash in squishy, cosmic significance but short on fully developed characters theatregoers could actually care about. It also showcases a spotty score by Scott Frankel (music) and Michael Korie (lyrics), the talented team that gave us "Grey Gardens." Their efforts, too, don't use the performers to their best advantage, particularly the delightfully sardonic Joanna Gleason. She is given a pallid 1960s-style rock that will make audiences wish they were at the current revival of "Hair."

Newsday F+
(Linda Winer) Oh, dear. As if the MTA didn't have enough trouble, here comes "Happiness" - Susan Stroman's disappointing new musical about nine New Yorkers stuck in a subway car. The show, which the Lincoln Center Theater opened last night in the space that launched Stroman's "Contact" in 2000, is beautifully produced. The large cast is fine - including Joanna Gleason as a right-wing radio host and Hunter Foster as the mysterious train conductor. There's even a luxurious orchestra above the stage. But the cardboard characters are either boring or obnoxious or, more often, both.

The Daily News F
(Joe Dziemianowicz) There's no plot, and the characters have no connection to each other. Unless the recollections are extremely strong, it becomes a matter of killing time as each commuter exits. Unfortunately, Weidman's vignettes are mundane, and the songs don't make them any less trivial. It's especially disappointing since Frankel and Korie's score for "Grey Gardens" made the lives of Jackie Kennedy's quirky cousins so poignant and amusing. Stroman, whose last effort was the short-lived "Young Frankenstein," fares better with setting the scenery in motion than with her cast. The train car twirls and lights up like an amusement-park ride, but her performers come off shrill.

Bloomberg News A+ 14; Theatermania A 13; Talkin' Broadway B- 9; Theater News Online C+ 8; The New Yorker C 7; TONY C 7; The Hollywood Reporter C 7; Back Stage C 7; TheaterScene.net C 7; WSJ C- 6; New York Post C- 6; Hartford Courant C- 6; CurtainUp C- 6; NYMag C- 6; The New York Times D+ 5; Variety D 4; Associated Press D- 3; Newsday F+ 2; The Daily News F 1; TOTAL: 124/19 = 6.53 (C)

1 comment:

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