The New York Musical Theatre Festival 2011
If a musical's biggest problem is that it's really two shows working at cross purposes, it's heartening when each is strong enough to stand alone. That's the case with the delightful but muddled Madame X, which Gerard Alessandrini (of Forbidden Broadway fame) and Robert Hetzel have written and is appearing at the 47th Street Theatre as part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival. Based on the 1905 Alexandre Bisson play of the same title, this show has everything going for it except a single narrative point of view.
On one hand, this a parody of Douglas Sirk–style movie melodrama, with the hard-bitten, cast-aside woman (the title character, deliciously played by Donna English), the cheating senator–slash–love of her life (Michael West), and his mother Evelyn (Janet Dickinson, ruthlessly funny), who feasts on coming between them. Over some 20 years we see how Madame X, actually named Bunny Bixby, evolves from man-chasing pageant winner to political consort to alcoholic singer desperate for redemption her own insatiable appetites have denied her.
Alessandrini (also the detail-oriented director) and Hetzel get top comic mileage out of this material, particularly in the earlier scenes that find the unprepared Bunny increasingly spinning within the social whirl. In songs like the It-girl-loving "Picture Perfect" and the infectious "Everything's Green in Greenwich," they scale the light-headed highs that always precipitate a calamitous fall; when that happens, with Evelyn orchestrating Bunny's defeat and subsequent disappearance, her cackling "The Biggest Mother of Them All" registers as a full-blown triumph.
But the second act goes literal, with the earlier grin-inducing fun evaporating into a deadly serious treatment of the story's conclusion. For the most part set 20 years later, with everyone facing the results of their actions, it contains in Bunny's "There's Always a Man (But Never a Name)" a torch song classic in the making and in the sprawling musical courtroom scene "Never Let Them Know" the most intricate and arresting composition so far this year — and strong competition for the last several, as well.
Unfortunately, getting there from the spoof-strewn first act is extremely jarring, blocking your easy transition into the scenes that ultimately identify this as a powerful story of destruction and redemption. Alessandrini and Hetzel might want to solicit some advice from Charles Busch in this regard; his juicy genre-satire plays morph much more naturally from laughs to chills, without ever losing the distinguishing and enlivening characteristics of either.
That's about the extent of the work needed, however. In every other respect it's an expert and entertainment-packed outing well deserving of a long life after NYMF. Whether that's as a drama, a comedy, or a smoother combination of both remains to be seen. But it's nice that Madame X is so good it doesn't matter which of those roads its creators eventually drive down.
Whatever else may be said about Matthew Martin and Tim Realbuto, they're undeniably ambitious. The librettists, lyricists, composers, and directors of Ghostlight (at Peter Norton Space) have penned a truly epic biography of one of the most enigmatic entertainment figures of the early 20th century: Olive Thomas, affair to Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr., wife to Jack Pickford, and an early star snuffed out by the limelight she so craved. With the colorful and glamorous backdrop of 1910s and '20s New York theatre and even Irving Berlin and Fanny Brice appearing as characters, this is a stuffed-to-the-gills concept that should create a thrilling musical.
But clocking in at two hours and 45 minutes, including a 100-minute first act, without remotely enough emotional content to sustain an evening half as long, Ghostlight plays like a first draft, with every idea the authors ever imagined uncritically offered up as sacrosanct. This includes a flavorless supporting chorus-girl character who exists only to fail in the Follies, a series of lifeless diegetic numbers that the ultra-discriminating real Ziegfeld would have cut in rehearsal, and a fantasy-choked second act that's aiming for the significance accorded a certain James Goldman–Stephen Sondheim musical (currently in revival on Broadway) but without a fraction of its clarity or razor-sharp precision. (There are even a couple of songs, most notably a droning one for Ziegfeld called "Pictures and Numbers," that recalls Sondheim minus the dramatic inspiration.)
So despite all its promise, the resulting show is endless and boring, glorifying neither the art form of the revue or the people who made it happen. Superlative performances help tremendously, with the brightest standouts being Michael Hayden as Ziegfeld (though he reads too young), Rachel York as his suffering but headstrong wife Billie Burke, Daisy Eagan as the show-biz also-ran, and the lovely-of-face-and-voice Rachael Fogle as the doomed Olive. Choreographer Michael Kidney has delivered some lively dancing, and David S. Goldstein (sets and lights) and Michelle Eden Humphrey (costumes) have given this developmental production a finished, sumptuous look.
That's one of the things that defined Ziegfeld, of course, but what's consistently lived beyond him is his rigorous pursuit of quality in everything from the music he chose to the sets he ordered to the girls he hired. One doesn't achieve a reputation that exacting and lasting without a firm understanding of what to cut and what to keep. Martin and Realbuto don't currently have a clue, alas, but if they can figure it out, a shimmering success with Ghostlight would seem to be well within their adventurous grasp.