note: entire contents copyright 2002 by Carl A. Rossi
Kipps … Neil A. Casey
Actor … Robert Pemberton
The Woman in Black … ???
An experienced shopper will warn you against buying lavishly frosted, overly-decorated cakes: what lies beneath may not live up to one’s expectations. The Stoneham production of Stephen Mallatratt’s THE WOMAN IN BLACK is such a cake: this ghost story contains some of the most stunning visuals and sounds you’ll ever encounter on a stage --- sadly, the play itself is tepid at best.
Arthur Kipps, a young solicitor, is ordered by his firm's senior partner to travel up from London to a desolate coastal town to attend the funeral of Alice Drablow, an elderly recluse, and to sort out her papers. Mrs. Drablow has lived and died at Eel Marsh House out in the marshes; when the tide comes in, the house is cut off from the mainland. Mr. Kipps spies an eerie young woman in black at Mrs. Drablow’s funeral and on the grounds of her estate --- who is she? The locals refuse to talk about her and deny her very existence. In time, Mr. Kipps comes to learn the woman’s identity, her history at Eel Marsh House and her reason for remaining there. Mr. Mallatratt has adapted his play from a celebrated thriller by Susan Hill and I’ve read it has played over 5,000 performances in London thus far, which you, should you choose to read on, may also find amazing.
Even if you know Ms. Hill’s book --- I do not --- you may puzzle over what’s happening onstage: there’s no house, no fog, no marshes; instead, we’re confronted by a stage in a deserted theatre filled with props, pieces of furniture and a bit of wall and door. A man enters unannounced (the house lights remain on) and reads aloud a passage from what I assume is Ms. Hill’s book. He is interrupted by a second man who strolls about the auditorium, offering suggestions as a director would with an actor. Is the man onstage auditioning for a part in an adaptation of THE WOMAN IN BLACK? Or is THE WOMAN IN BLACK itself about people trapped in a haunted theatre? (I refer to the characters, not the audience.) Gradually --- very, VERY gradually --- we are made aware that the man onstage is Mr. Kipps himself; not the Mr. Kipps of Ms. Hill’s book, mind you, but Mr. Kipps as alive as you and me and the prose he has been declaiming is what he --- not Ms. Hill --- has written down. The man in the audience turns out to be “Actor”, whom Mr. Kipps has hired to play “Mr. Kipps” for the benefit of his family. As a play within the play of a book within the book continues, “Actor” becomes “Mr. Kipps”, Mr. Kipps takes on all of the other characters in Ms. Hill’s story save the title character, the house lights dim, THE WOMAN IN BLACK finally begins, and --- to quote a Bette Davis line --- everybody goes to sleep. This is not the fault of Craig A. Foley (the director), Neil A. Casey (Mr. Kipps) and Robert Pemberton (Actor) who work like the Devil to pull it off --- and they would, too, if it weren’t for what they’ve been handed. No, the problem lies in Mr. Mallatratt’s adaptation, a good example of and a warning against what happens when a playwright creates with one eye on the ledger.
While watching THE WOMAN IN BLACK, I formed two theories: (1) Mr. Mallatratt had written a screenplay of Ms. Hill’s book, couldn’t get it filmed and reworked it as a theatre piece; or (2) realizing that his adaptation might require a lavish production, special effects and a good-sized cast, which would require many a coin, Mr. Mallatratt revised Ms. Hill’s book to be played by only two actors with the emphasis on narration rather than action (a little web surfing on my part proved my second theory is close to the mark). While such thriftiness will please many a producer nowadays, it didn’t --- and doesn’t --- work for me. I’ve already grown weary of today’s anthem-heavy musicals; now I’m tiring of tour de forces using casts of two, one, or less in order to save a few pennies. (I’m aware that the arts are always having their funds cut, but at the same time a playwright mustn’t trim his vision THAT much!) Having settled on two actors and two actors only, Mr. Mallatratt had to justify his decision and so he borrows from Pirandello and has Mr. Kipps and the Actor act out the story for us. Having thrice seen the late Charles Ludlum and Everett Quinton triumph in their LEGEND OF IRMA VEP, I know that two actors can take on an army of characters and give us a good romp as well, provided they show a love of acting and a zest for characterization --- you really need to be a bit of a hambone here (Stoneham’s Mr. Casey is a good actor but not a protean one; his multiple characters all look and sound alike; Mr. Pemberton, however, could make a most dastardly villain with the right vehicle). As any horror fan knows, the genre plays on emotions and fears, not intellects and reason, and demands the suspension of disbelief. But Mr. Mallatratt over-intellectualizes everything; we’re never allowed to forget how clever he is when all we want is the occasional “Boo!” to keep us happy (and interested); And, finally, Ms. Hill’s story --- at least as presented here --- is a letdown; her ghost, easily dismissed with a shrug --- and the tacked-on surprise ending is Mr. Mallatratt’s own. If any “Boos!” are to be heard, they will come from the audience. (Two years ago, I saw Jeffrey Hatcher’s dreary adaptation of THE TURN OF THE SCREW at The New Repertory Theatre --- that, too, was a ghost story reduced to two actors acting out all of the parts and that, too, went all for nothing.)
I return to where I started, praising the production’s lights (Mark O’Maley), projections (Geoff Burns) and sound (J. Hagenbuckle) --- all of them, stunning. Stunning! I marvel at the cinematic depth that can now be brought to a stage production; how Mr. O’Maley’s skies glow somewhere in between tempest and nightmare, how Mr. Burns’ lightning-quick images burn into your brain and Mr.(?) Hagenbuckles’ sounds of thundering hooves echo in your ribs. But, again, who wants to buy a cake that is mostly frosting? Even the two restless children who sat in front of me would have declared this confection a triumph of quantity over quality.
And, finally, the Woman in Black herself. Whoever she is, she moves like a dancer (is she?), drifting like a poisoned mist up and down the aisles of the auditorium, clutching some type of illumination in her fists to light her hollowed face from below. And Toni Bratton Elliott has designed a deathly quiet costume for her --- wrapped up in mourning crepe, not a rustle comes from the Woman in Black as she passes by, slipping away as effortlessly as her namesake will once you’re out in the cool autumn air.
Marty … Chip Phillips
Jack … Peter Edmund Haydu
Georgie / Vince Amati … Paul Farwell
Aaron … Brian De Lorenzo
Gil … Peter A. Carey
Arthur … Benjamin DiScipio
Marshall Wilson … Brian Robinson
Abe Mitgang … John Davin
Donna / Miss Ricki Valentine … Kathy St. George
Lucy … Elizabeth Asti
When it comes to suspending an audience’s disbelief, the horror genre and the musical go hand in hand: the former must convince us that monsters really do exist; the latter, that people sing and dance as naturally as talking and walking. Though a letdown, THE WOMAN IN BLACK succeeds in its suspension; THE GIG, on the other hand, has a gimmick that needs the complete cooperation of its audience in order to work. I tried, really I did, but within minutes the child within felt like crying out, “The King ain’t wearing no clothes!”
Douglas J. Cohen bases his musical on a 1985 film written and directed by Frank D. Gilroy, which I haven’t seen --- it quietly came and went, though it has now achieved sleeper status --- but I know enough of Mr. Gilroy’s plays to sense that it must be a warm, rumpled comedy-drama of lived-in people (his three-character THE ONLY GAME IN TOWN is a forgotten gem; someone should revive it HINT!). THE GIG tells of six middle-aged men who get together once a week to play jazz. When they are offered a gig at a Catskills resort, off they go to pursue their dream of playing as professional musicians. One of the men bows out due to illness and is replaced by a real professional, the gig turns out to be less than ideal, and the limits of friendship, talent and commitment are all tested before the men pack up and head for home. On paper, it’s a sweet story of small victories and big truths; with a good jazz ensemble, THE GIG could have been dynamite. Instead, it’s another loud, tuneless musical --- not as youth-oriented as BATBOY: THE MUSICAL (SpeakEasy Stage Company), but loud and tuneless nonetheless. And the gimmick? There are no instruments played onstage --- the six men sing them instead. I repeat --- THERE ARE NO INSTRUMENTS PLAYED ONSTAGE; THE SIX MEN SING THEM INSTEAD. If you choose not to read on, I don’t blame you. I was disappointed, too.
Playwright John Van Druten once wrote, “Your audience knows perfectly well that it is in a theatre, but it came there to forget it. It wants, it needs to believe that what is going on on the stage is real. If it did not, how could it ever cry? You must not remind them that the whole thing is a game except by making conditions, apparent from the very start, of the terms of that game. The audience will accept any terms so long as they know what those terms are. They are very like children who will play any game, who will impersonate any people, animals or things so long as they know what those things are and so long as you playing with them do not violate those rules.” In THE WOMAN IN BLACK, there are several scenes which involve a horse and a dog. Rather than bringing in real animals, Mr. Mallatratt has his characters mime their presence which the audience accepts without a murmur: they’ve already been shown that the story will be constructed out of words and imagination, animals included. THE GIG, on the other hand, has an uphill courtship with an audience that has come to hear some jazz. Imaginary animals are one thing; imaginary instruments are another, and many people will ask, “Why didn’t they get REAL jazz musicians?” Indeed: there’s something ludicrous about six men singing pseudo-scat while fingering the air about them --- even more so when there’s a real orchestra playing along from behind the scrim. If the men mimed playing on real instruments while the orchestra behind them filled in the sound, the audience may have accepted the gimmick with a wink, but then Mr. Cohen’s score would have come into clearer focus, and Strike Two. Watching and listening, a friend muttered to me, “Whatever it is, it’s not jazz.” And he’s right. At best, Mr. Cohen’s music arrives by way of swing or Dixieland; at worst, it’s from the House of Sondheim. And, finally, THE GIG, like many a modern musical, does a disservice to its singers --- not only must they all belt and strain to within an inch of their vocal chords, but the score has them all sounding alike; no one in THE GIG is given his own personal sound and thus his own personality --- whether they be tenor or baritone, close your eyes and you can’t tell one man from the other. There are no star turns here; merely noisy ensembles. What will the CD sound like --- if and when? [Imagine GYPSY being re-scored so that everyone is made to belt like Ethel Merman. Everybody: children, strippers, chorus. Enough said. But….at least the revised GYPSY would still have its tunes and its characters you grow to care about….]
THE GIG’s cast are composed of good-enough singers --- if I don't say “great” singers, it’s only because they’re never allowed to become great (pray, how does one inflect a shout?). Ironically, the show warms up considerably when the cast is NOT singing and the sweetness of Mr. Gilroy’s original story is allowed to shine through here and there. We learn more about these characters in one minute of talk than in five minutes of ensembles --- and many of these numbers don’t advance the plot all that much (if I must see one more tap hat and cane kick line --- here, a dream sequence (in boxer shorts) about Benny Goodman --- I may want to do a bit of shouting myself).
A few of the singers do break through this Wall of Sound. Paul Farwell, who plays the indisposed musician, doubles most amusingly as shyster agent Vince Amati (is he meant to be a parody of the Lyric’s own Artistic Director?) and John Davin as the resort owner/emcee is so good at his shtick that I hoped for a Yiddish patter song, but…no. (In the number “Play Nice”, Mr. Davin, too, mimes playing an instrument --- but in his case it’s meant to be imaginary.) Kathy St. George comes close to stealing what little there is as Miss Ricki Valentine, a has-been lounge singer --- in the film, the character is male (“Rick Valentine”) --- she unintentionally sends up Becky Barta’s recent portrayal of Patsy Cline at The Stoneham Theatre; and Brian Robinson, who I last saw in the excellent WILD PARTY at SpeakEasy Stage, takes over with his eleven o’clock anthem, “Choices”; it’s a pity that much of the preceding music robs him of his thunder. (By the way, you can tell an anthem when you see one if the singer starts off relating to other characters on stage but ends up finishing downstage, head thrown back, arms flung open, feet spread and planted, lungs working overtime, and pouring forth with variations on the theme of “ME! ME! ME!”. And to think, a generation ago, characters sang to us of “harmony and understanding / sympathy and trust abounding”.)
Robert M. Russo has come up with one of the cheesiest sets imaginable: a giant white turntable with two rows of BYE BYE BIRDIE cubicles for the opening and closing numbers; to go from Mr. Russo’s witty design for the Lyric’s LEND ME A TENOR to this? Wha’ happened?
But these scribbles for THE WOMAN IN BLACK and THE GIG are, of course, my own opinions --- you may find these shows enchanting. I’ll take BEE-LUTHER-HATCHEE any day --- judging by its box office, I was one of the few who did. People prefer what they prefer; when it comes to musicals, I’d rather let the sunshine in than hug my Batboy.