Category Archives: Theatre/Dance

Follies tonight at New York’s Marquis Theater

Marquis TheaterLife is too short for the eternity of emotions, wrote Alexander Doeblin. And faced with a flashing cursor, it seems impossible to start explaining why certain works of art both wound me and sustain me.

I have never been able to leave my dreams behind: I was to write, to act, to sing, to dance, to do all these things, and I did briefly. My wife looks at me in bewilderment (pity or disgust?) and asks why I hang on to those tired rags. Why I want to try them on again, like an old man trying to put on his wedding tux. I played music too, she says. Okay, but unlike her, I thought that those toys were uniquely mine, and that I would be allowed to play with them to my last day. Because I could have. Perhaps. Perhaps.

But how can you say you wanted those things when you left them so long untouched? Now they fill a museum of carelessness. I embraced others, and I dropped all I held to open my arms to them.

Seeing Follies tonight, there is no way that with my particular history I would not be stung with regret. I knew that going in; I was eager anyway. I discovered the musical the summer of my college freshman year; someone I knew was connected to someone else who was going to direct a version and I was told to leave town, forget college and go audition for it. Nothing of the sort happened; I was collecting what dollars I could to head to school, and a theater company at my college had made a few (somewhat empty, it turned out) promises. I wasn’t going to cash it in just yet.

I never really did. But I studied that musical like it was a map to the road I missed taking, and it was. It’s not even important to consider how little my life would have been changed by that audition; it might have been unsuccessful and once the run was finished, what then? Probably back to school.

But Follies is a musical filled with regrets: some are banished with humor and spit, just ask Carlotta who sings the showstopper, I’m Still Here. But for the foursome who anchor the play, the regrets are debilitating: four crumpled, twisted lives. Saddest of all, two of them decide to act against those regrets, they try to alter their trajectories back to their dreams, and those two are crushed at the end of the play. Their dreams were, as Springsteen famously sang, “a lie that don’t come true, or is it something worse.”

Bernadette Peters portrays Sally, the mousy little thing who turns out to have some grandiose ambitions, and I had misgivings about the casting. But I forgot that Peters is a tremendous actress, and she has proven fearless at such roles; her emotions are as raw and present as any Sally we will ever see. Maybe it’s too much for some; I drank it in as if it could answer the questions I have always had about my regrets, my choices, because for Sally, this one moment is taken as her very last chance. I know in advance that it’s a hopeless gamble; we usually call that tragedy. Maybe that statement’s too much for some too; I don’t give a damn. Four figures are portrayed as misguided, hopeful, shaken, destroyed, and all against a background of a theater reunion, the last night before the theater itself is to be demolished. These four people are shadowed by their earlier, more hopeful selves; both present and past will commingle as we watch the younger four commit the mistakes that will guarantee such unhappiness later.

Frankly, it probably sounds a bit trite like a lot of musical theater, unless you’ve seen it fulfilled by brilliant performers like Peters, Jan Maxwell and Danny Burstein. Musical theater is celebrated contrivance; Sondheim’s genius was that by providing ironic back stories to each musical number, the better the characters perform their numbers, the greater their delusions.  We know these contrivances are empty forms, choreographed steps under klieg lights, but the more the characters believe in the songs they are singing, the less in touch with reality they show themselves to be. It’s not a pretty picture of performers, though maybe that’s just how I take the message. I’ve got my issues, as I’ve noted.

This conceit has led to some critical resistance to Follies; the characters are performing song and dance numbers that ostensibly could be part of a “Follies” variety show, and with unusual wit and lacerating irony. The Follies of another time were filled with beautiful girls, smart and sassy characters and all ended well, just like in the movies. For these four, nothing of the sort will happen. In the original production, fantasy won over reality, everyone was made young, confused and hopeful again because regrets so bitter were too much to face.

The new production allows the four to pick up what’s left and stumble out the door. Is it crueler than the original? Perhaps so, their fantasies are sundered along with their lives; the door to the theater slams shut. And that image was one more to add to my own collection of regrets; once again, I walk up the aisle like the rest and away from the theater, nothing more than a paying visitor who once dreamed of partaking in the fantasy on that stage.

Owen/Cox Dance Group

Okay, let’s start with the premise that I have no free time. NO FREAKING FREE TIME, whatsoever. So, when I take the time to go to a dance performance (and this is coming from a former modern dancer, however brief was my career) and I don’t know anything about any of the dancers, no reviews, nothing, well, something’s up.

What’s up? Brad Cox, one of Kansas City’s greatest assets, one of the more exciting young musicians in the da U. S. of A. (imho) is married to the woman who is dancing and choreographing, and Brad is playing, along with some of the most brilliant musicians I am lucky enough to know, and yeah I’m there. Okay?

But two nights in a row? Yeah, I did that. I saw the Owen/Cox Dance Group on Thursday night — dragging my wife, who is dragging her ass, she’s the mother of two teenagers, works and is grad school and, hell, she’s married to ME for chrissakes, so like she’s already done for the day, and I drag her out to this show.

The next night I bring my mom and my eldest daughter, just so someone can sit there next to me as I grin from ear to ear or nearly start sobbing midway through various dances.

Jennifer Owen has some wonderful things to show us. For one, she’s a wonderful dancer, as are many in her troupe of nine. For another, she is an inspired choreographer, at least at times, and every time she is at least intelligent and imaginative. How many dances have you seen that make you laugh? In a good way.

Brad and some of the brilliant musicians he is fortunate enough to assemble have offered me, without question, some of the most engaging musical moments I have experienced in the last decade.

And, at the risk of seeming to ignore other moments, there are two dances back to back to I must regard as simply diabolical. The first is terrifying: “When Jesus Wept”, a rather typical Brad Cox haunt comprised of two songs intertwined, threads woven together like the rope that forms the device of “Strange Fruit”, the heart-stopping Billie Holliday tale of torture and lynching.

Brad, as I said, has great musicians in tow. Nathan Granner and Valery Price handle “When Jesus Wept” with heart and soul. When Krystle Warren adds her warm, almost other-worldly voice to Strange Fruit in the midst of it all, and as Jerome Stigler demonstrates suffering and death, I defy any person with eyes and ears to save their own heart from bursting.

“When Jesus Wept” is followed by a solo, Jennifer dancing to another song with gospel roots, The River is Wide, and it seems that the song and dance will act to heal the wound exposed by the trauma preceding it. No such.

The song’s opening affirmation of love winds to its inevitable loss, the song and lights fading as love dies away. No solace here but plenty of truth. If art can rip away the curtains by which the quotidian hides reality, then these two dances are still changing the way I look around me days later.

Btw, to those annoying snobs who somehow believe that I’m speaking from a relative position, that is to say, that I’m saying these musicians are exciting for Kansas City, I’d look forward to a brief conversation about what is good and great around the world. I travel a lot and I see a lot of music and dance. This is the real shit, people.

Count yourselves unlucky to live elsewhere.