Also see Tim's review of Molly Sweeney
A few nights ago, I made my first visit to the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, the gorgeous and luxurious new home of the Philadelphia Theatre Company on the Avenue of the Arts. When I settled into my comfortable seat and looked around at the dark, undulating panels that line the walls of the theater, it was a thrilling moment. After decades in an antiquated, decaying hall tucked away on a quaint side street, this progressive and exciting company finally has the high-profile home it has long deserved.
Unfortunately, there's nothing progressive or exciting about PTC's first production at its new home, Being Alive. Sure, this R&B-inflected take on the music of Stephen Sondheim looks progressive and exciting on the surface, but it reminded me of one of Sondheim's own lyrics: "Ah, but underneath ..."
For Being Alive, director Billy Porter has constructed an unusual spin on Sondheim's music: melding it with the words of William Shakespeare, and using the "Seven Ages of Man" speech from As You Like It to give structure to the program. It's an ambitious undertaking, but the execution fails to live up to its lofty goals. Shoehorning Sondheim's songs to fit Shakespeare's words doesn't work well; the meanings of the songs end up being twisted too much. For instance, the second of Shakespeare's ages, the "school-boy" stage, is here celebrated by cutesy, bouncy versions of "Not While I'm Around" and "Anyone Can Whistle" that rob the songs of the haunting beauty they have in the musicals Sondheim originally wrote them for. For the fourth age (man as a soldier), we see a homesick soldier sing "Losing My Mind" - another inappropriate match of song to subject. And "Sunday" works great as a closing number in Sunday In the Park With George, but as a closing number here, it's pretty meaningless.
Some of the songs do work well: there is a relaxed version of "Pretty Women" and a striking take on "No More." Much of the time, though, Porter overplays his hand and adds an unnecessary extra level of drama. "I Wish I Could Forget You" is set at a wedding, as a spurned suitor reflects on the romance that could have been his - but then the wistful scene takes a melodramatic turn that seems too contrived. Later, Vanita Harbour, playing a pregnant war widow, consoles herself by gently humming Sondheim's most famous melody, "Send In the Clowns." It's the most gorgeous moment of the evening, as this word-conscious show leaves the words behind and lets the music speak for itself ... but then director Porter ruins the scene by having Harbour start to cry. Once again, he couldn't leave well enough alone.
Porter's other innovation for Being Alive is to leave traditional Broadway-style arrangements behind in favor of funk. A tight five-piece band plays on a platform at the back of the stage, and the arrangements have an appealing rhythm and blues sheen. At first, the arrangements seem like a nice contemporary take on Sondheim's music that does not trample on memories of the original versions; the gospel-style call-and-response in "Children Will Listen" and the hint of samba in "Not A Day Goes By" are especially nice. But the novelty wears off quickly. For all the modern trappings, there's nothing exhilarating about these arrangements. And the vocal arrangements - with straight tones replaced by lots of vibrato and melisma - begin to seem rote and unemotional after a while.
Being Alive is blessed by an attractive, all-African-American cast, decked out in pretty pastels and led by Tony Award winner Chuck Cooper. Cooper's rich, resonant voice and jovial manner mark him as the authority figure in the company. The three other men in the show (Bryan Terrell Clark, Jesse Nager and Leslie Odom, Jr.) are young hunks with indistinct personalities and nearly identical vocal styles. They sing with lots of soulful but over-indulgent scoops and filigrees that don't add much to the meaning of the songs.
The three women in the cast make stronger impressions. In addition to the aforementioned Harbour, there's Rema Webb, a warm, maternal counterpart to Cooper; and Patina Renea Miller, who exudes tons of joy and sex appeal in her every movement.
A lot of thought clearly went into Being Alive, but I'm not sure what audience PTC was aiming at when they scheduled this show. I do think this show could be a great introduction to Sondheim's music for high school students, but I'm not sure how many of them are buying tickets. As for grownups, well, Sondheim purists are likely to be put off by a show that adds a rap break (!) to "I Know Things Now." Shakespeare scholars will find that the songs don't particularly illuminate the Bard's words. And those who just want a nice musical will find it never reaches the exuberant heights it aims for. It's a warm and fuzzy take on the work of two geniuses that just ends up, well, fuzzy.
Being Alive runs through Sunday, December 2, 2007 at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 South Broad Street, Philadelphia. Ticket prices range from $10 to $63, with discounts available for students, seniors and groups, and are available by calling the PTC Box Office at 215-985-0420, online at www.philadelphiatheatrecompany.org, or by visiting the box office.