Settlement about more than labor relations

THEATER

Essence of musical becomes lost with virtual orchestras

March 13, 2003|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

What was at stake in the just-settled Broadway musicians' strike wasn't simply preserving jobs, it was preserving the sound of Broadway musicals. There's a reason, after all, that these shows are called "music-als," and the danger of diluting the way they sound is real.

In Florida earlier this year, I attended a production of the 1998 Alfred Uhry-Jason Robert Brown musical Parade, which was performed to prerecorded accompaniment. The oddity of the experience began as soon as I entered the theater and wondered where the orchestra was. At first, I thought it might have been out of sight - not an unreasonable assumption since nowadays it's not unusual for the orchestra to be under the stage, over the stage or stuffed onto the sides of the stage.

But this time, it wasn't there at all, and though the actors sang with passion and conviction, their efforts were undercut by the blandness of the recorded music. I realize that this particular canned accompaniment may hardly have provided the state-of-the-art simulation that so-called "virtual orchestras" strive for, but it was unsettling nonetheless.

The truth is, audiences on the road often hear electronically enhanced, or "sweetened," pit orchestras. And if we can hardly tell the difference, it may be less the fault of synthesizers than over-amplification.

I'm not sure when the louder-is-better mentality came into vogue. But I distinctly recall having difficulty distinguishing who was singing in the 1994 Broadway revival of Show Boat, a production in which everyone on stage was miked to the same homogenous level.

However, if you listen to the cast album of that production, or to just about any Broadway cast album, you hear what musicals can and should sound like. The orchestras on these recordings are routinely enhanced as well, but they're enhanced with additional instruments. Anyone hearing a recording before seeing the show may wonder where the subtlety went when they finally get to the theater.

Of course, the crucial distinction between theater and movies or TV is that theater is live. At a musical, audiences share the space with the actors and musicians, and out of that shared experience comes a unique, one-time-only, living, breathing performance. The settlement reached Tuesday between musicians and producers is a compromise on both sides, but it preserves the core of Broadway orchestras, and in that sense, it's a victory for audiences as well as musicians. Now, if only someone would turn down the mikes. ...

Vagabonds and Simon

The first half of the Vagabond Players' production of The Prisoner of Second Avenue takes place back in the rollicking world of Neil Simon. This is the old-fashioned Simon, the master of urban angst and that most Simon-esque of characters: the New York neurotic.

By the time intermission rolls around, you're comfortably ensconced in this funny, familiar world. Then the second act begins, and the play takes a sharp turn toward the serious and ponderous. The change is due partly to the material and partly to a lackluster supporting cast, whose timing is no match for the comic hysteria of lead actor Tony Colavito.

Colavito plays the title character - a middle-aged advertising executive named Mel Edison, who's just been laid off after 22 years on the job. Mel is suffering from a severe case of the down-sizing blues - an ailment that sounds much more timely than the play's 1971 setting.

Yet Mel's attitude is anything but modern. To the contrary, there's a touch of the 1950s, and more specifically, of The Honeymooners' Ralph Kramden, in the way Colavito plays the constantly railing Mel. Convinced the world is out to get him, Colavito's Mel takes out his frustrations on his upstairs neighbors, his next-door neighbors, a barking dog and, most of all, his good-natured, loving and extremely patient wife, Edna (sweetly played by Joan Crooks).

Like Ralph Kramden, Mel firmly believes husbands should be breadwinners and wives should be homemakers. When that order is overturned, Mel's nerves fray completely. He's so distraught over his wife's return to the workforce, it's difficult to tell what upsets him more - his being out of work or his wife being back in.

Off-putting as such thinking may be, Colavito is adept at finding the low comedy in his character's high dudgeon. But after intermission, when Mel is offstage and his four concerned siblings show up, the pace of director Mike Moran's production slows to a crawl.

The siblings are portrayed with reactions so muted, they're nearly funereal. Granted, some of this lugubriousness is built into the script, but it is magnified by performances so inconsistent, the production loses its footing and never regains it. In the end, neither Colavito's reappearance, nor a bit of role reversal or even the comic fillip Simon tacks on is enough to free this Prisoner.

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