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Hello Again

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Elizabeth Stanley and Max von Essen.
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Sex has been vital to musicals for as long as musicals have existed, but few shows have embraced it as openly and as daringly as Hello Again. Michael John LaChiusa's reinvigoration of Arthur Schnitzler's La Ronde, which premiered at Lincoln Center in 1994, doesn't shy from the deepest and most forbidden acts of carnality in deconstructing the evolution of American feeling in the 20th century. But what it chiefly highlights, and what you're most reminded of in Jack Cummings III's excellent new revival for Transport Group at 52 Mercer, is that darkest and most dangerous sensual element of all: love.

Everyone wants it, no one has it, and—even worse—almost no one can recognize it when they see it. Yet the need for it courses through the blood of all the ten characters writhing within the show's confines. The resulting acts of betrayal, despondency, and especially lust manifest themselves in a smoldering catalog of everything that's wrong (and right) with human interaction. These people leap across states, social strata, and most intriguingly decades in search of their ideal mates, and typically find only chilling loneliness. Yet so steamy, so immediate, and so arresting is Hello Again, one cannot watch it today without wondering how LaChiusa's career could have been dogged with accusations of coldness and inaccessibility.

LaChiusa captures in his writing for each new year both that decade's specific sound—Big Band for the 40s, undulating pop for the 60s, a light dredging in disco for the 70s, and so on—and feel, without collapsing into wholly derivative and predictable pastiche. You may hear echoes of his works yet to come (The Wild Party's jazz, See What I Wanna See's blues, Giant's epic Southern sweep), as well as a light cynicism about relationships that's often informed his work. What emerges above all, however, especially through the searching, dialogue-like compositions that (memorably) constitute most of the songs, is the voice of the most distinctive and adventurous post-Sondheim composer coming to its most exciting early fruition.

Even today, "exciting" remains the most accurate adjective for describing the theatrical impact of these scenes and these characters. From the first scene, when a whore (Nikka Graff Lanzarone) and a soldier (Max von Essen) cavort in turn-of-the-century New York, the writing defies convention. A standard pickup pauses on the threshold of becoming something more, with the lady appealing to the gentleman's honor by offering to give it up for free and even cooing, incredulously, "I wish / You could be my boyfriend." But any hopes of love are dashed moments later, when the whore is left broken and both she and the soldier have moved on to their next conquests.

Alan Campbell and Nikka Graff Lanzarone.
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

We follow him, in this case, as he leaps ahead 40 years to woo a wartime nurse (Elizabeth Stanley), who 20 years later goes on to vamp a spoiled Vietnam-era college boy (Robert Lenzi). He pursues his own affair with a young wife (Alexandra Silber) in the 1930s, who resists the diminishing charms of her business-minded husband (Bob Stillman) in the 1950s by recalling a dalliance with a younger and more interesting man. The husband boards the Titanic, meeting a young steerage boy (Blake Daniel), who "survives" the crash only to become a screen muse six decades later for a failing writer (Jonathan Hammond). The writer then pens an unexpected 1920s hit for a troublesome actress (Rachel Bay Jones), who's destined to become the 1980s plaything of a powerful senator (Alan Campbell) until she's dumped in favor of the whore, who still hasn't realized her dreams.

What a rollicking roundelay it all is, laced with humor and tragedy in roughly equal measure, and pulsing with passion that no one can channel into something lasting. Cummings highlights the messy, makeshift nature of these people's lives with his production, which is set in a hollowed-out gallery, long but narrow: Scenic designer Sandra Goldmark has lined the walls with mirrors, which allow ample opportunities for both literal and figurative reflection, and surrounded the most crucial set piece, the bed, on all sides with tables that serve as both audience seating and platforms for bits of the most diabolical action. Lighting designer R. Lee Kennedy sets the mood in each scene to suffocating perfection; costume designer Kathryn Rohe never leaves any doubt as to where and when you are, and knows just how to maximize and minimize flesh to fullest effect.

If anything is lacking, and only a little, it's in the casting. The original Hello Again is perhaps recalled best today for supercharging the careers of now-ubiquitous performers like Judith Blazer, Carolee Carmello, John Dossett, Malcolm Gets, Donna Murphy, and Michele Pawk, and provides stunning vocal and dramatic showpieces in which nearly everyone can shine. The brightest of the actors here are among the best known: Stanley (April in John Doyle's Company) morphs from demure to saucy in the amount of time it takes her to redo her hair, providing jaw-dropping contrast between two of the first women we meet. Stillman adopts a magnetic stuffed-shirt repression that's as two husbands separated by a half century's worth of unstated desires, and Alan Campbell convinces as the stone-faced, conflicted lawmaker caught between the wants of now and the needs of then.

No one else quite matches their wattage, but all satisfy. Hammond and Jones are electric, with other partners but particularly together in one of the briefest but highest-impact scenes (and a light-hearted one, at that). Silber is a persuasive pillar of dark ache as the left-behind wife for two very different men, and sings the show's best-known song (popularly called "Tom") with a pained, pointed fervor befitting its subject about opportunities taken and squandered. Von Essen's easy attitude is just right for a sleazy love-and-leave military man, and Lanzarone is all haunting smokiness as the body peddler who is herself crippled by illusions. Daniel and Lenzi give the most ordinary performances in their mostly traditional naïf roles, but deliver on their demands with no faults.

They all succeed in weaving a tapestry of want and need that entangles them in the highs, lows, screams, and moans of the agony and ecstasy that romance arouses, whether it's a success or failure. "You don't have to remember / A face, a place, or when," the whore sings, first to the soldier and then to the senator, "We may die tomorrow," she tells the former; "Come find me tomorrow," she demands on the latter. It only took 90 years for her attitude to change, for her to find the promise within all the empty promises she ever heard. The whispers and shouts of those promises, are the true music that LaChiusa has tamed and trained in Hello Again—and no small part of the reason why it remains an erotic, heartbreaking triumph.

Hello Again
Through April 3
Transport Group, 52 Mercer Street, 4th Floor
Hello Again contains sexually explicit subject matter. No one under the age of 16 will be admitted.
Tickets online and current performance schedule: Transport Group

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