Berlin, Paris, Verona, Worcester County

Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Belasco Theatre, May 21; An American in Paris, Palace Theatre, May 22; The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Polonsky Shakespeare Centre, Brooklyn, May 23 (matinee); The Flick, Barrow Street Theatre, May 24

IS there a more gallant, a more scintillating, a more lovable character on Broadway right now than Hedwig, in the person of Darren Criss, lately of Glee? Well, perhaps Jerry Mulligan, as brought to life by New York City Ballet heartthrob Robert Fairchild in An American in Paris, could give Hedwig a run for her money, albeit for a different demographic. And if we extend the search to Off-Broadway, in Fiasco Theater’s The Two Gentlemen of Verona we have the generous, upstanding, truly honourable (and handsome) Valentine played by Zachary Fine, who also doubles felicitously as the naughty but terribly charming dog Crab.

Zachary Fine as Crab in Fiasco Theater's The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Photo: Gerry Goldstein

Zachary Fine as Crab in Fiasco Theater’s The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Photo: Gerry Goodstein

Also Off-Broadway are the three most affecting people you could encounter anywhere – the beaten-down-but-not-out trio of Annie Baker’s miraculous play The Flick. One couldn’t say they are scintillating personalities, but they are gallant in their own ways, and heart-breaking.

Robert Fairchild in flight during rehearsals for An American in Paris. Photo: Matt Trent

Robert Fairchild in flight and Leanne Cope held aloft during rehearsals for An American in Paris. Photo: Matt Trent

The Broadway revival of John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch is wildly entertaining, for the most part, although not without its oddities. To explain the unlikelihood of the “internationally ignored song stylist” appearing on Broadway, the conceit is that a new musical has just closed – at interval on its premiere – and the Belasco Theatre’s stage has been freed up for a one-night-only performance by Hedwig. And the musical that bombed, if you will excuse my language? It was Hurt Locker: The Musical, discarded Playbills for which litter the floor of the Belasco (they are very amusing). The Hurt Locker set – all exploded bits and bobs plus a derelict car – is now Hedwig’s to play with and she uses it with manic energy. The sight of Darren Criss in his high heels bounding on and off the car and bouncing up and down the walls will not soon be forgotten.

Being on Broadway gives Hedwig the opportunity to delve into a bit of Belasco theatrical history and to muse on the Great White Way’s current crappy shows and various performers who don’t come up to Hedwig’s pitiless standards. Kinky Boots, for instance, does not get a good mark from Hedwig (I’m kinda with her on that). It’s all very meta-theatrical, given that Hedwig was born in East Germany in 1961 and the Berlin Wall plays an important part in proceedings. No way is she anywhere near mid-50s now, not with hot young Mr Criss in the sequins! No, the dates don’t exactly work, but who cares? Hedwig and the Angry Inch is a fabulous, glam-rock hallucination about a singular, genderqueer soul who is prepared to expose everything about his/her life and desires.

Criss is an impish, rather sweet Hedwig despite the torrents of trash talk and inventive vulgarities. At 28 Criss is far too tender for world-weariness; what he has instead is youthful excess, electrifying physicality and exuberance to burn. He’s an unstoppable whirlwind in lavish wigs, glittery outfits and make-up enough for all of Broadway’s chorines.

If Criss was perhaps working just the tiniest bit too hard the night I saw the show, I would have to point the finger at the audience, bless it. A lot of the show’s references, both current and historical, clearly went through to the keeper. Fans of Glee, where much of Criss’s renown resides, are not necessarily fully up on glam rock, mid-20th century European history or indeed the history of Broadway. And that’s the dilemma: we have here a truly Broadway-worthy show (it won last year’s Tony Award for best revival of a musical) in the sense that it deserves attention, status and big audiences, but it’s a show with an Off-Broadway heart.

So it was that the audience I was in seemed somewhat flummoxed by much of Hedwig. It was a bit sad that one of the filthiest, funniest quips didn’t really register. At one point Criss licks the floor and claims to pick up the taste of John Cameron Mitchell, not only Hedwig’s author but one of the roster of stars who has taken on the role in the show’s current incarnation. The name didn’t seem to ring a bell. But everyone was absolutely delighted to be in Darren Criss’s orbit, as they should have been. He is wonderful.

The show itself, however, did feel a little bit baggy and over-extended. It’s billed as running for 90 minutes. The night I went it was a good 20 minutes longer than that, what with all the extra schtick.

Sometimes a gamble pays off spectacularly well. Who would have thought choreographer Christopher Wheeldon could take on the direction of a new Broadway musical as well as provide the dances? Well, as we now know, An American in Paris is a huge, huge hit (12 Tony Award nominations!). Blitzing Broadway after its premiere in Paris, it is packing them in and is fifth in the list of New York’s top-grossing shows, after The Lion King (of course), Wicked (naturally), The Book of Mormon (ditto) and Aladdin (the only show of these five I haven’t seen, but obviously there is family appeal).

The plot is not much more than serviceable: it’s just after World War II and while everyone just wants to get on with life there are still some lurking shadows. The dark side of things feels a little contrived (Craig Lucas wrote the book) but is there to provide a bit of ballast for the main attraction: the pursuit of love in Paris. Bob Crowley’s sets and costumes are divinely elegant and it goes without saying that the music, courtesy George Gershwin, s’wonderful.

A sketch by Andrea Selby of costumes for An American in Paris

A sketch by Andrea Selby of costumes for An American in Paris

Another enormous gamble was the casting of ballet dancers in the lead roles of Jerry Mulligan (Robert Fairchild) and Lise Dassin (Leanne Cope, soloist with the Royal Ballet). We all know ballet dancers can’t speak, let alone sing, right? Wrong. Fairchild and Cope are delightfully natural on stage and sing with ease and grace. That settled, their dancing can shine without opening up a huge gulf between it and the acting side of things. The centrepiece ballet in the second act is exhilarating – Fairchild is phenomenal – but Wheeldon makes the whole show dance and allows himself a lot of fun with show’s brief gala ballet naughtily entitled The Eclipse of Uranus and a big fantasy number for Jerry’s friend Henri (Max von Essen) involving showgirls, feathers, a glamorous kick-line and I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise. I don’t think I’ve seen another musical where the transitions from everyday movement to dance seemed so right.

An American in Paris should have a very long and happy life. It’s also a very, very strong advertisement for ballet. S’wonderful.

The small theatre company Fiasco is a shining jewel in the Shakesphere. A couple of years ago I saw its persuasive production of Cymbeline – who knew it could be so entertaining? – and just now its The Two Gentlemen of Verona, another Shakespeare (possibly his first play) not exactly everyone’s must-see list. This production is changing minds about that as we speak.

The plot involves bosom buddies, ardent love affairs, a change of heart, friendship betrayed, banishment, brigands and, finally, reconciliation. There are funny characters made actually funny by Fiasco, which is no small thing, and – this is where Geoffrey Rush’s theatre owner Philip Henslowe in Shakespeare in Love would have been thrilled – the blissful business with the dog.

It’s not Hamlet, to be sure and comes to its happy ending rather abruptly, but, when performed as radiantly as it is here, Two Gentlemen nevertheless has useful things to impart about self-knowledge, steadfastness and coming to maturity.

The cast of The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Photo: Gerry Goldstein

The cast of The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Photo: Gerry Goodstein

Fiasco gets the job done with just six actors and a surfeit of wit, elegance and imagination. The lightness of spirit is evident everywhere. Derek McLane’s set is a sylvan glade, riotous with white blooms that are actually crumpled letters, there are two columns to left and right sprouting branches at their upper reaches to continue the theme of growth and renewal (and handy for concealing a few props), and benches to either side where the actors sit when not required. Costume designer Whitney Locher gives the men a preppy look suitable for the Sirs this and that in the play, dressing them in pale shirts and trousers redolent of a warm, lazy afternoon, and she makes the women look just luscious in the prettiest pastel-coloured knee-length frocks. A few adjustments to attire – a rolled-up trouser leg here, the addition of a scarf or hat there – is sufficient to signal a change of character and the occasional line or two will be thrown in from the side. The six actors – Jessie Austrian (who co-directed with Ben Steinfeld), Noah Brody, Paul L. Coffery, Zachary Fine, Andy Grotelueschen and Emily Young – sing a little in sweet close harmony, play a few instruments, engage directly with the audience and are altogether incredibly charming. The apparent simplicity is disarming and so is the lack of pretension.

There is no concept imposed on the play. There is just nimble, fresh, vivid and highly alert acting that makes everything abundantly clear, telling and engrossing. Shakespeare was quite a dab hand at theatrical language and Fiasco serves it transcendently well.

I can’t remember when I have been so moved by a play as by Annie Baker’s The Flick. (Unfortunately I wasn’t able to see Red Stitch’s production in Melbourne last year.) It is in revival at the downtown Barrow Street Theatre with the original cast from 2013 – Matthew Maher as Sam, Aaron Clifton Moten as Avery, Louisa Krause as Rose and Alex Hanna in two small roles. This isn’t a play that sits up on its hind legs and begs for attention and approbation. Quite the reverse. It makes strong demands on its audience, or at least today’s audience. It deliberately, defiantly lacks spectacle of any kind. It makes no large gestures, much of its meaning is discovered in silences or underneath what is being said, and it takes its time. On Sunday night we were in the theatre for close to three and a half hours. This makes some people impatient. Well, so be it.

It is summer, 2012, in Worcester County, Massachusetts. Rose and Sam have been working at a crappy one-screen cinema for some time; Avery is a withdrawn college dropout with a vast store of knowledge about film. And he does mean film: this cinema still shows movies on 35-millimetre, more because the (unseen) owner is a poor businessman than a cineaste, but still. Avery can find a place here. Perhaps.

When the film is over and the patrons are gone, Sam and Avery have to clean up their mess, including, to Sam’s great disgust, the detritus of food brought in from outside. Sweeping up popcorn, picking up garbage and mopping the floor are, indeed, the only things one might call action in The Flick. The rest is the business of getting on with life with various degrees of hope and anxiety as the three employees dance gingerly around one another. Avery’s closed-in caution, Sam’s disappointments and Rose’s truculence preclude any real closeness, although there are moments when their impulses align, or almost do. The three have the false intimacy of the workplace along with the inherent tensions – Sam is crushed that Rose was trained as the projectionist even though he’d worked there longer – and yet there is something very delicate, true and sweet about their connection.

Photographs of the original production at Playwrights Horizons suggest that David Zinn’s cinema-seating set has been made a touch more grungy for Barrow Street. Perhaps not, but it is certainly effective, with the rows of empty seats an eloquent image of loneliness. And film may be beautiful and a repository of much genius, but its day is over. Unlike Avery, Rose and Sam can’t afford to be too romantic about that. They need work, poorly paid and dead-end though it may be.

Baker writes with great insight and compassion about these people and she takes all the time she needs to make us understand them. It is a remarkable piece.

Darren Criss stars as Hedwig until July 19, after which Taye Diggs takes over the role. The Two Gentlemen of Verona has been extended until June 20. The Flick runs until August 30.

King Kong, Robot Vs Art

King Kong, Regent Theatre, Melbourne, June 19; Robot Vs Art, Bondi Pavilion, Sydney, June 20

WHAT’S wrong with this picture? It’s late in Act II of King Kong and Queenie van de Zandt, as Cassandra, is singing the show’s most stirring number, Rise. As she sings, a chorus swelling behind her – and van de Zandt was in tremendous voice on Wednesday evening – we are to envisage King Kong climbing to the top of the Empire State Building where, we know, he will be destroyed. The climax of King Kong, the extravagantly scaled new musical, is at hand.

But who is Cassandra that she gets the night’s prime position? She’s a character – a device, really – the show really, truly doesn’t need. This is no disrespect to van de Zandt, who is as accomplished a music theatre performer as you’ll ever meet. It’s a structural thing. Cassandra – the name is the giveaway – is there to be the voice of foreboding at the beginning of the piece when film producer Carl Denham (newcomer Adam Lyon) is embarking on his grandiose plans to go to Skull Island, home to Kong.  Cassandra is there to predict this will all come to a bad end. You don’t say …

Cassandra is given relatively little stage time, so at this late crucial point in King Kong the big anthemic number is sung by a character in whom there is absolutely no audience investment. Obviously she’s covering the set change that places Kong on the top of the Empire State Building. Obviously there should be more than that.

King Kong

Esther Hannaford and King Kong

King Kong is, should be, about nothing but the highest stakes, something the show’s one unequivocal success proves. King Kong – the beast, not the show – is utterly, extraordinarily, splendiferously magnificent. King Kong producer Global Creatures has given audiences a creature to inspire awe and pity; to marvel at and to weep over – or at least potentially. As operated by a group of puppeteers called the King’s men, Kong expresses feelings unmatched by any living thing on stage.

The body of Kong contains the key themes writ extremely large: colonisation, oppression, exploitation, migration, the outsider and, above all, devotion. The show touches on all this, albeit  too many times with an unnecessarily heavy hand, but hasn’t yet managed an effective balance between the characters the audience needs to care about and those it doesn’t. I longed for a scene on the boat back from Skull Island that would show Kong in captivity and starlet Ann Darrow (Esther Hannaford) developing her compassion for him; without it Act II gets underway with the audience having to connect an awful lot of dots. On the other hand, I longed for savage cuts to be made to scenes featuring Carl Denham. The character is deeply unpleasant and Lyon lacks the adamantine charisma that can give an awful but seductive charm to such men.

Since King Kong’s premiere in Melbourne last Saturday night there has been interesting and fruitful discussion about whether it really is a musical, or a spectacular, or a new direction in theatre that takes the book musical, adds elements unknown in the golden era of the 1950s, and creates something new. That’s all good to talk about, but is a separate issue from the nitty-gritty of King Kong’s weaknesses. The flaws have nothing to do with genre. They have to do with logic, shape, rhythm, tone and character development.

And some of the dialogue is execrable, as if it’s what has remained after the scissors have been wielded over-enthusiastically to fit in more spectacle. (Craig Lucas, who is credited with the book, is a highly experienced and successful writer.) “I must be dreaming,” says Hannaford helpfully as scantily clad dancing girls emerge from nowhere on the Skull Island-bound ship for a fantasy scene. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. Surely there’s a better way to signal this if you doubt the audience’s ability to get what’s happening. Such dead language, and there are many other examples, is entirely at odds with the originality of the piece’s visual and musical aspirations.

I loved the way the music mixed original songs (not all entirely memorable) with existing material, particularly when it included 1920s and 1930s references. There are brief snatches of Brother Can you Spare a Dime, I Wanna be Loved by You and the Lutheran hymn carol Joy to the World, the Lord is Come. There is stunning use made of Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler’s Get Happy, given surreal treatment with traces of Weimar Republic-era desperate wit. As the escaping Kong starts his rampage, a line of platinum-blonde chorines keeps the show going: “Get ready for the judgment day,” they sing. Quite.

An eclectic approach is also taken to the show’s tone. There are traces of cheesy Saturday morning adventure flick, 1930s romantic comedy, futuristic sci-fi, camp send-up and early Dr Who – a hugely ambitious position that, I think, can only work if anchored by the strongest emotional through-line.

Hannaford and Chris Ryan, as Ann’s love interest Jack Driscoll, do their best with the insufficient time they have to connect deeply – and they’d be helped by a more dramatic setting for their falling-in-love dance scene. In a show so ear- and eye-poppingly decked out with son et lumiere they look quite lost and dull here. And Jack appeared to be singing about men killed while building the San Francisco bridge (que?), or did I get that wrong?

(On another matter relating to lyrics, does Cassandra really sing about people falling at the top of Act II? It was in a context that made me immediately think of September 11, 2001. Not sure that will be right for Broadway, should that be in the offing.)

King Kong needs a lot more work to achieve its goal of being the “timeless love story” it bills itself as, but gee, I hope it gets there. The big fella at its centre deserves it. All hail to Kong’s creators, who have given the huge creature expression, character and eloquent articulation. The puppeteers who animate Kong are involved in an intricate choreography that is entrancing in and of itself, but more pertinently they and the great wires that support Kong so visibly get right to the heart of the story. As men swarm over, around and under Kong there’s not only the excitement of his moving presence but a premonition of his subjugation. From the moment we first see Kong he’s already captive.

King Kong shows in Melbourne only. It is currently taking bookings through to October 13 for groups and August 18 for the general public.

Robot Vs Art, presented by Tamarama Rock Surfers

NOT in Melbourne, but from Melbourne, comes Travis Cotton’s surreally comic sci-fi morality tale Robot Vs Art. A bit like King Kong in some respects, at about a millionth of the budget. There’s even a bit of the early Dr Who vibe about it.

In a not-too-distant dystopian future, robots rule the earth of which humans have made such a hash. After some wholesale slaughter the men and women who remain are put to work as underground miners while the robots set about creating a weird kind of Eden. But then Executive Bot (Simon Maiden) has a mind to investigate this puzzling art stuff; stuff that apparently has some emotional value, whatever that is. Giles (Daniel Frederiksen) is a human who has done a bit of playwriting – cue many hilarious theatre in-jokes – and is charged with finding a way of getting art, and thus feeling, across to robots. This involves him working with unlikely thespians Claw Bot (Paul David Goddard) and Fembot (Natasha Jacobs).

Some of the message-making is pretty heavy-handed (honestly, the similarities to King Kong keep piling up) but the show is a delight. Rough and ready to the nth degree, packed with great jokes, performed with tremendous elan and with a nice twist at the end. Much recommended.

 Bondi Pavilion until July 6.