If it’s worth saying, it’s worth singing: “The Right Girl”

In recent months, with Covid-19 restrictions eased in some relatively low-affected areas, I have tracked down three theatrical attractions (all with pandemic protocols). In August it was “Godspell,” the nation’s first outdoor (tent enclosed) Equity-authorized production since the pandemic closings, at Berkshire Theatre Company in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. In September, “The World Goes ‘Round” and “Little Shop of Horrors” ran in rep indoors at Weathervane Theatre in New Hampshire, and on November 1, I attended the first public viewing of “The Right Girl,” a new musical with its sights on Broadway, indoors at Barrington Stage Company, also in Pittsfield MA.

Okay, that last one was not live. Thwarted by the shutdown, “The Right Girl” presented as a Zoom-recorded screening. Labeled a “reading,” the Zoom-film was so artfully produced and performed that it seemed like the cast was right there on the stage. Which, following the screening, several of them were, along with director/choreographer Susan Stroman, whose attachment to the project invigorates it even before the first musical note is sounded.

Susan Stroman

While readings of new works are not subject to reviews, Ms. Stroman gave me leave to write about this one, acknowledging that adjectives might find their way into the piece.

“The Right Girl” is inspired and co-written (book) by Louisette Geiss, a lead plaintiff in a lawsuit against imprisoned former Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, who, she has said, ruined her career following a 2008 sexual harassment incident. The story follows (fictional) movie studio executive Eleanor Stark (Robyn Hurder, current Tony nominee for “Moulin Rouge”), who, while not herself victimized, becomes increasingly aware of pervasive abuse of women by male entertainment industry powerbrokers. A dozen of those executives are represented in the piece by Eleanor’s boss/mentor, a composite serial abuser, played by Tony Yazbeck (2018 “On the Town” revival), whose management technique is summed up by “You are in charge of what I say you are.” The circumstances and after-effects of the abuses are based on interviews with more than twenty victimized women; a substantial portion of the dialogue is, in fact, ver batim. “The Right Girl” is not the easiest show to digest or describe: While the terms “abuse” and “abuser” thread through this account, they must not minimize the extent or severity of the exposed incidents, that range from various degrees of harassment up to and including forcible rape.

Louisette Geiss, whose personal experiences inspired “The Right Girl”

I sense some raised eyebrows: A musical? Really? But this was not a slapdash decision. Besides five-time Tony Award-winner Stroman, the creative team includes producer Howard Kagan (Broadway’s “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812”) and composer Diane Warren, whose resumé includes eleven Oscar nominations for Best Original Song, including “I’ll Fight,” from “RBG,” and thirty-two Billboard Top Ten hits. She put the question to rest in a recent interview: “Live theater,” Ms. Warren said, “allows us to laugh, cry, and examine uncomfortable messages, all while managing to entertain us.” She went on: “I’ve always believed that anything worth saying is worth singing about.” (Quibble with that? Then toss out half of both Verdi and Sondheim.)

Robyn Hurder, center, with cast members. Zoom-separate but in sync. [Credit: Ordinary Sunday]

My wonder at technology is admittedly at a low bar, but this presentation bordered on wizardry. Nineteen actors Zoom-recorded their dialogue and songs separately over two weeks in June, and those tracks were synced with one another and with recorded orchestral tracks. The resulting nearly two-hour film was seamless. Conversational exchanges betrayed no separation; musical numbers, including fast-tempo ensembles, matched up perfectly; and the concept of distance was made clear or not, depending on context. When, for example, separate Zoom boxes best suit the material, they are sharply defined, with matting that complements the virtual setting, as in the screenshot above. In  two-character scenes (Tony Yazbeck and Polly Baird, below), the border is blurred out.

Warren’s songs, with lyrics by her, Geiss and Kagan, are of a piece. The numbers propel the plot and elucidate the characters, whose eventual self-assurance is inspiring. “So many times I played by someone else’s rules…” is an early lament; “Who Says You Can’t Have It All” comes later; and fittingly, “The Right Girl” eleven o’clock number is “You Fucked with the Wrong Girl.”

Composer Diane Warren

There is a lot to learn. You read the papers and hear about lurid deeds on cable TV, but, as one lyric has it, you do not know “till it happens to you.” A victimized woman is advised to forget it and move on: “Forgetting becomes more painful than remembering,” she says. Another asserts that “It’s not closure; it’s like bleeding out.” An actual survivor, speaking at the talkback, has been “paralyzed for twenty years.” And, for those who fault women for agreeing to, for example, hotel-room meetings: “It doesn’t matter how the victim got there.”

There is not (yet) much humor in “The Right Girl,” nor was our audience predisposed to laughter, but sardonic byplay among the women is amusing, and sly humor lurks in some lyrics. An extended ensemble rap is killer-rhymed.

Tony Yazbeck (Not a bad-looking fella’.)

I asked about the casting of Yazbeck instead of a more you-know-who type. “They didn’t all look like Harvey,” Stroman said. And a judge’s remark that “not a bad-looking fella” would not need to use threats or force is lifted from an actual trial transcript.

According to producer Kagan, the show will be dance-heavy. The choreography, not attempted on Zoom, is in the works. “Susan has it in her head already.” As she herself pointed out, it takes a village to put a musical together. I mentioned that the songs, the women’s relationships, and the entertainment-industry setting are begging for her choreography. “Just wait until you see it on stage,” replied the woman who created the human bull fiddles in “Crazy for You.” So we wait. Not like we have a choice, right? Meanwhile, Stro gets my vote for Mayor of “The Right Girl” village.

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“A Five Mile Radius” Hits Its Marks

I have long been aware of the existence of Hudson Guild Theatre Company, but until I was encouraged to watch their virtual world-premiere production of “A Five Mile Radius,” I had never seen their work, nor did I know about their parent organization, the Hudson Guild.

Based in and primarily focused on Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood, the Guild, founded in 1895 as a boxing club for “young, rowdy boys,” seeks “to empower individuals and families to achieve their highest potential.” Programs include Adult, Youth, Children and Early Childhood services, directed toward “those in economic need” among a wide cultural, ethnic and racial constituency.

Hudson Guild Theatre Company was formed in 1994, with the stated aim of providing opportunities for people in the Guild’s community to experience live theater as active participants and as audience members. Guided by professional theater artists, they have presented some 65 productions, including “streamlined adaptations” of classics, Shakespeare among them; modern works by such as Tennessee Williams and August Wilson; and new works such as the one now Zoom-streaming.

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Two Musicals: Theater Is Live And Well In New Hampshire

Having performed years ago in theaters tucked away in tourism towns across the country, my very first sighting of Weathervane Theatre in Whitefield, New Hampshire inspired a déjà vu rush. It is somehow fitting that this picture-book New England venue is the nation’s first authorized by Actors Equity Association since the Covid-closure in March to offer indoor theatrical performances with multiple cast members. They are doing so with three shows in rotating repertory: two musicals, “The World Goes ‘Round” and “Little Shop of Horrors,” and Tom Dudzick’s vintage comedy, “Miracle on South Division Street.” I attended both musicals last weekend.

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It’s Live! A Socially Distant Group Hug: “Godspell”

“Not to put any pressure on you, but the entire American theater is depending on you to be smart.” Thus spoke Kate Shindle, president of Actors Equity, to the cast of “Godspell,” the first live production her union has authorized since the nationwide shutdown in March. And smart they were on opening night last week at Berkshire Theatre Group’s Colonial Under the Tent facility in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

Smart, and smartly prepared to perform the 1971 musical chestnut within the boundaries decreed by the state of Massachusetts and by Equity (eight of twelve cast members and two Stage Managers are members) without dampening the show’s live-ness. In fact, for this audience member at least, the restrictions, including spittle shields, sometime masks and social distancing, became incidental to the performance about ten minutes in. (Massachusetts limits attendance at outdoor events to 100, capped here at 75.)

Each actor has his/her own pod behind a sliding panel six feet from those adjacent. Most of the action and musical numbers are performed at front stage, 25 feet from the first row. During backup singing, the panels protect the downstage singers from saliva-droplet spray. The panels are clear as air (and wiped during intermission), and Nathan Leigh’s marvelous sound design is not affected at all.

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Zoomed “Blues” Still Sweet

Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s “Your Blues Ain’t Sweet Like Mine” premiered at Two River Theater in Red Bank, New Jersey in 2016. The cast (with one replacement) re-assembled last week for a remote Zoom reading of the play, streaming through 7PM on Thursday, July 30 at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PfQBkKxkep0 . The following is culled from my 2016 review with comments on the Zoom reading.    

It is hard to believe that “Your Blues Ain’t Sweet like Mine” is Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s first full length play. (His Obie-winning “Lackawanna Blues” was a solo show.) Line-by-line and scene-by-scene, the play rivals that of many an established playwright. Having previously directed August Wilson’s “Jitney” and “Two Trains Running” at Two River, Santiago-Hudson also assumed that role at Two River, as well as remotely for the Zoom reading.

Dealing with Black resentment of white tone-deafness, “Your Blues Ain’t Sweet like Mine” on stage was as subtle as a thunderstorm. Tweaked in the interim, it is even more unsparing now (despite the excision of the pungent line about white privilege being “the longest ass-whippin’ in the history of civilization.”) Set in 2002, the play begins with an exchange between Zeke (Brandon J. Dirden), a Black pick-up man for a used-clothing charity, and Judith (Merritt Janson), a white donor, in her upscale NYC apartment.

Merritt Janson and Brandon J. Dirden (The painting becomes significant.)

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Zooming Across The Pond: “Lungs” at The Old Vic

How’s this for minimalism: Playwright Duncan Macmillan’s instructions for the staging of “Lungs” specifies a bare stage with no scenery, no furniture, no props, no mime and no costume changes. Nor should light and sound be used to indicate a change in time or place. The absence of a full stop at the end of a line, he informs, indicates “…a trailing off or an interruption of thought.”

Further, other than forward slashes (/) to indicate overlapping dialogue, and a comma (,) on a separate line to indicate “a pause, a rest or a silence, the length of which should be determined by the context,” there are no stage directions or character hints in the “Lungs” text. Not one. (Beckett’s spare “Waiting for Godot” has a couple hundred.)  Zoom-streamed last week from the Old Vic Theatre in London, the Covid-mandated empty auditorium might as well have been an extension of Macmillan’s instructions. Nonetheless, stripped as it is of theatrical contrivance, “Lungs” is as rich and complete a play as any that is dense with descriptive aids.

Over ninety minutes, a couple, identified only as W and M, converse in variously open and guarded intimacy at different stages of their relationship in a dozen or so locations. Some lines of dialogue signal the end of a conversation thread and the start of another simultaneously: “Come straight home…and bring cake.” “Okay.” “…Cake.” “I missed you.” But there is never any doubt about where they are or at what juncture in their relationship or about what is revealed – or obscured – in their assertions or evasions.

Claire Foy and Matt Smith on The Old Vic stage

Claire Foy and Matt Smith are an actor-couple to reckon with. W and M are diametric opposites from Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, whom they played in “The Crown” on Netflix. “Lungs” is contemporary not just in time (It premiered in 2011), but in attitude, tone and distinctly non-Royal language. (Multiple R-rated bombs, but not gratuitous.)

The play opens with an exchange about how having a child might affect their relationship…

“A baby?” “Breathe.” “A baby?” “I was just thinking.” “About the future.” “We’re having a conversation.” “You’re having a conversation.”

That deeply personal conversation occurs, we learn, while they are on the checkout line at Ikea. (“that kid with the panda is staring.”) Offbeat humor like that is sprinkled throughout the otherwise serious piece. It felt a little strange to laugh out loud at my iPad, but only the first couple times.

Later, the environmental impact of adding a new being to the planet is a consideration:

“I could fly to New York and back every day for seven years and still not leave a carbon footprint as big as if I have a child. Ten thousand tons of CO2. That’s the weight of the Eiffel Tower. I’d be giving birth to the Eiffel Tower.”

While there is considerable back-and-forth on the parenting issue, the topic is as much a window into the pair’s overall psyches as it is a plot-point. (It does ultimately factor in. Think Chekhov’s baby.) Foy and Smith find remarkable emotional depth in mostly clipped lines; there are only a few extended speeches. So many quick exchanges make incontrovertible sense:

“Don’t tell me what I need to hear.” “I don’t know what you need to hear.” “Then it shouldn’t be a problem.”

There is also eloquence in Macmillan’s pauses (those separate-line commas). One such, waiting for M to drop a one-word clarification, is a study in hold-your-breath anticipation. Their drawn-out silence speaks volumes, especially when presented in close-up.

Which brings us to the staging and the viewing experience. Overseen by Old Vic artistic director Matthew Warchus (“God of Carnage” and “Matilda” on Broadway), “Lungs” was ideally suited to be the first in The Old Vic’s “In Camera” series of Zoom-streamed performances (more below).

There were three cameras: One, sparsely employed, projected wide shots from the front stalls; the other two were in tight, one on each actor, projected on a split screen. Foy and Smith are on stage together – occasionally one is seen crossing through the other’s space – but in a nod to social distancing, they do not actually embrace – or touch in any way. Marvelously staged by Warchus (and a tech-savvy crew), the actors seemed to be close, even leaning against each other back-to-back across the split. By the time W and M appeared to be romantically intimate, the fact that they were really at least two meters apart never crossed my mind.

Okay, it’s not like actually being there (even with the pre-curtain audience buzz), but with the brilliant Claire Foy and Matt Smith interpreting Duncan Macmillan’s fascinating play in close-up, my iPad was the best seat in the house. More than just drawn in, I was mesmerized – by the play, the performances, the technique. And grateful, under the circumstances, to be back, even virtually, in a theater.

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[ The Old Vic’s “In Camera” initiative will continue with a series of rehearsed play-readings Zoom-streamed live with the empty auditorium as a backdrop. With minimal staging and accessible only via camera, the series is an exciting creative experiment and, based on “Lungs,” one well worth the price of admission. “Lungs” tickets ranged from 20 to 60 British pounds. (I paid 40, about $55US.) For information and to register for timely notifications: https://www.oldvictheatre.com/whats-on ]

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