Regional Reviews: Los Angeles
Also see Sharon's review of Twist
It starts off well enough: a Civil War musical, set in Georgia. Before battle, the company offers a prayer. The song sounds a bit folk and a lot southern, but still very theatrical. Indeed, the score has a good deal of original music by Nashville songwriter Marcus Hummon, and much of it (particularly in the first act) is terrific - theatre music that's true to its Bluegrass roots. (Hummon needs to be careful about returning to the same well; a technique that's cute in act one has diminishing returns when done again in the second act. And, unfortunately, the final song has some painfully clunky lyrics. Sad to leave an audience remembering what is clearly the weakest song in the bunch.)
As the plot develops, our hero Paul is a Union solider who finds himself alone on a field where Confederate soldiers have won the day. To save his life, he steals the uniform from a man he has killed, and poses as one of the enemy.
The scene abruptly changes to two Black women singing a rousing "Somethin's Fishy in Denmark." They're setting up Hamlet, but singing it to the tune of "Dixie." This bizarre circumstance is the apparent result of a Confederate Colonel, one Medraut, deciding to take along with his troops three slaves who entertain him by performing Shakespearean scenes during the downtime between battles and interminable slogs through unforgiving terrain. The leader of the little performing troupe is Medraut's "manservant," (conveniently) named Hamlet. The script is a bit unclear on whether Hamlet is actually a slave or simply a servant (at one point, the text indicates he's free, but Medraut beats him like a slave), but it is definite on the fact that he studies the Bard and is quite good at dramatic interpretation.
Paul, who was found wandering on the battlefield, is brought to Medraut as a possible deserter. Medraut intends to hang the man, but is convinced to keep him alive because Hamlet needs a fourth to properly play Romeo and Juliet. Paul passes the "audition for his life," and ends up attached to Medraut's unit, preparing to perform Shakespeare alongside Hamlet, and the two women, Cleo and Puck.
Cleo, who is beautifully sung by Merle Dandridge, plays a role somewhere in the intersection of prostitute, slave and angel. At one point, Medraut requests a song during a battle. Cleo walks in front of the lines, and sings a mournful "Oh Suzannah" that is apparently so powerful, it convinces the Yankees to stop firing. Moe Daniels, who was so brilliant as Nala in L.A.'s The Lion King, plays Puck. Her powerful voice is largely wasted here, as Puck (who, when not acting, doubles as the cook) is relegated to comic relief. Puck dresses and talks like a man, despite the fact that biology made her a woman.
But Puck's presence in the play serves to emphasize, and perhaps universalize, the message of Atlanta. For we are here dealing with many situations in which a person's outward appearance does not reflect the truth beneath - and be it uniform, skin color, or gender identity, Atlanta tries to teach us to ignore the outward trappings and focus on the person within.
The real problem here is that a strong cast, good music and a decent message do not a good musical make. Besides asking its audience to accept battlefield troubadours, slaves who studied Shakespeare in the antebellum South, and singing the enemy into submission, Atlanta throws in a plot where Paul finds some love letters in his stolen jacket and proceeds to fall in love with the letters' author. This storyline depends on love-at-first-read, astonishingly good mail service to soldiers in the field (more than that, soldiers in the field who are not with their original units), and the woman on the other end being completely oblivious to a change in penmanship (she sings something about his "voice" being different, though, as if he'd been sending her cassette tapes). The show also includes several plot "twists" which are either so heavily foreshadowed they surprise no one, or completely unexpected because they depend on information the audience has not been given.
Moreover, the show's book, by Hummon and Adrian Pasdar, has no true opportunities for character development. The play could very easily be the story of Paul overcoming racial prejudice as he gets to know Hamlet and the others - but we never really know who Paul is. We don't see the man who Paul was before his battlefield deception, other than knowing he is from the North. And when he is first alone with Hamlet, he asks the other man for advice on how to play Shakespeare - something he wouldn't easily do if he believed Hamlet to be inferior because of his race. Much later in the play, it is revealed that Paul was not, in fact, sympathetic to the slaves' cause. But knowing after the fact that Paul is making some progress is of no use; we need to see the man's starting point in order to follow his evolution. (In this respect, the play might be better served by having Paul be a Confederate soldier who masquerades as a Yankee, rather than the reverse.) Other characters are similarly deprived of a logical through line. For example, Hamlet's position in Medraut's eyes seems to change from scene to scene for no apparent reason; and Puck has a random monologue about being raised by the spirits of the woods, which never goes anywhere.
Without character development, scenes that should evoke an emotional response lack tension. And, what's worse, the play is resolved in a way that deprives the audience of the single dramatic moment the whole thing seemed to be reaching toward. Ultimately, Atlanta is just a mess - an expertly-sung, great-sounding mess, to be sure, but still a mess.
Atlanta runs at the Geffen Playhouse through January 6, 2008. For information and tickets, see www.geffenplayhouse.com.
The Geffen Playhouse -- Gilbert Cates, Producing Director; Randall Arney, Artistic Director; Stephen Eich, Managing Director -- presents Atlanta. Book by Marcus Hummon and Adrian Pasdar; Music & Lyrics by Marcus Hummon. Set Designer John Arnone; Costume Designer Debra McGuire; Lighting Designer Daniel Ionazzi; Sound Design Brian Hsieh; Musical Director Kevin Toney; Musical Staging Kay Cole; Dramaturge Amy Levinson Millàn; Production Stage Manager Jill Gold; Casting Bruce H. Newberg, C.S.A. Directed by Randall Arney and Adrian Pasdar.