Enough!  Director John Doyle needs to stop his intrusive, gimmicky destruction of good material.  Currently, his production of Ten Cents a Dance is on stage at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre. His conceit is that performers who play a variety of instruments while performing on stage in some way enhance the performance.  How? The instruments and the necessity to pick-up, carry, play, and put them down again, generally has nothing to do with the material.  To many, this intrusion of instruments just appears to be a cheap way of doing a musical without an orchestra.  In this piece especially, those instruments get in the way of the performance, and the result is that the proceedings appear aimless and unfocused and the integrity of the material is severely diminished if not destroyed.  What he has done to some of the most iconic music of the theatre by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart is criminal.

Doyle won a Tony Award for his misdirection of Sweeney Todd on Broadway, but for some, it was a case of being dazzled by the “emperor’s new clothes.”  In London, where this production of Todd began its life, it was ridiculous that Mrs. Lovett would pick up a trumpet and play as Toby sang “Not While I’m Around,” and it was equally disturbing for Anthony and Johanna to sing sweetly to each other while seated on either side of the stage with celli in their crotches.   This gave new meaning to the concept of “safe sex.”  Many people in the audience lost the plot, literally, as the minimal staging did nothing to support Sondheim’s often superbly dense language.

He is also guilty of a splendidly inept production of Mack and Mabel in London.   Once again, a down-sized cast running around with various instruments got in the way of the staging.  The action that drives the show came in second to the necessity to get somewhere else on stage to grab something to pluck, bang, or blow.  There are musicals where this works, but these are shows about bands of some sort.  The excellent Pump Boys and DinettesCowgirlsOil City Symphony, andSmoke on the Mountain need the instruments because they are based on stories about people playing them.  They are written in as part of the script; they are not imposed where they do not belong.

This is the case with Ten Cents a Dance.  Supposedly, the setting is an empty bar.  It looks more like a musical instrument storeroom or the bargain basement of a large music shop.  Dreary lighting by Jane Cox does not add to the necessary clutter of the set by Scott Pask.  The program relates that Doyle is a story teller.  It would help if the audience could possibly figure out what that story might be.

Before I go further, please let me assure you that I felt the cast was excellent, and they were committed to the material – which is superb.  Malcolm Getz shows that he fully understands these songs, and he presents them well even with awkward orchestrations and unfounded thematic concepts are thrust upon them.  From what I can gather, five women play “Miss Jones,” the woman he has loved and lost – maybe?  I was told that they represent the “women” in his life, but they are all named Miss Jones, and they are all versions of the same woman which does not support this claim.  I was also wondering, at points, if he might have been a musical mass murderer, and these were the women he had killed and hidden in a variety of double bass cases or something.  If this were the case, one of the songs in the evening, the lovely “Dancing on the Ceiling” from a long forgotten musical entitled Evergreen, may have served the cause better by changing the lyrics to “She dangles overhead from the ceiling by my bed…”

In essence, the evening can be summed up as:  Man plays piano, progressively aging women in rather ugly dresses descend a spiral staircase, play a variety of instruments, sing some songs, and climb back up the staircase.  You fill in the story.

Joining Getz as Miss Jones 5, and I considered her to be the lead Miss Jones, is Donna McKechnie.  I must say, it was a thrill to see her on stage again.  She can “sparkle” just as brightly here in this train wreck as she did when I saw her in London in Can-Can or back in A Chorus Line.  She is one of those people whose personality draws attention for all of the right reasons.

None of this is to diminish the other Miss Joneses as they all show good presence and talent, but it seemed obvious that some of them may have been hired because they could play a variety of instruments and not because they sang well.  Some of the voices are not bad; they are just not strong or full enough to do justice to the wonderful songs here.  The respective Miss Jones, from Miss Jones 1 through 4 (if this helps in any way) are: Elisa Winter, Jane Pfitsch, Jessica Tyler Wright, and Diana DiMarzio.

Since the program does not give a song list with credits as to who sings what, it is a bit difficult to give credit where it is due.  All five women wear variations on the same dress by costumer Ann Hould-Ward with variations on the same red hairstyles created by Paul Huntley, so the middle three Miss Jones blended together at times.  Also, why the dresses and hairstyles seemed purposefully based on 1940’s designs and are made from a fabric whose ugliness defies description begs questioning.  The busy floral pattern of the material and brown/blue coloring does not read well from the back two-thirds of the house.  They just look like messy blobs as several of the dresses have intricate pleating and draping which further contorts the patter.  For variety, wouldn’t it have been better if it was more of a similar dress pattern but with a progressive color change that would indicate the station in life of each Miss Jones?  This too would give the audience some visual variety.  As it is, these dresses are just more clutter in an already cluttered set.

The songs that work the best in this scant 80 minute one-act are the songs that Doyle has allowed to simply be sung.  Most of the time, the Miss Joneses wander aimlessly around stage, the piano spins for no apparent reason, or Mr. Getz takes off his coat, vest, shirt, for no apparent reason – actually, it almost appeared at one point that he was rolling up his sleeves as if to exorcise these demonic women who have come back from the grave to attack him.

I honestly believe that I had more fun making up my own storyline which, like the proceedings on stage, also had nothing to do with these thirty-plus wonderful songs than I did trying to figure out what was happening on stage…but I digress.

The songs that work best are “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” from Pal Joey and “Sing for Your Supper” from The Boys from Syracuse.  Because the ladies did not have to move quickly from one side of the set to another or climb the stairs to play in some half-lit area or drape themselves over the piano to play instruments from positions that are too awkward to describe, the songs retained their integrity and were joyous reminders about just how good Rodgers and Hart were/are.  Doyle has imposed his bizarre vision on these songs and no one has won.  What should have been an uplifting reminder of the glory of one of America’s true original art forms is a blurry, enigmatic mess.

The movement of the women on stage also destroys the opportunity to fully appreciate Hart’s often biting and always clever lyrics.  The lyrics to one of Hart’s most inspired songs in particular, “To Keep My Love Alive” from A Connecticut Yankee are almost totally lost, and the delightful “Little Girl Blue” from Jumbo is turned into a game of musical freeze-tag here.  It’s all too aggravating.

All of this saddens me as I was very much looking forward to seeing this show.  I have enjoyed Getz in his other shows and films, and the chance to see Donna McKechnie again is one I would not miss.  I was happy to have seen them; I just wish they had been allowed to do the material as it was meant to be performed: straightforward and from the hip.  There is no pretense in a Rodgers and Hart song.  In this production by the misguided John Doyle, there is nothing but pretense and the resounding thud of pretentiousness masquerading as thoughtful art.

mk

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Ted Writes a Letter to God

September 18, 2011

Dear God,

I need a favor – again. This time it’s not for me; it’s for someone named John Doyle. Please, please inspire him to do something with his life that does not include directing musicals. He’s the director of McCarter Theatre’s season opener, Ten Cents a Dance. I’ve seen three other musicals he directed, and all of them have left me feeling disappointed . No, that word isn’t strong enough. Let’s try outraged.

I know that you’ve already blessed him with supreme self-confidence and a monumental ego. He’d need those to put himself and his concepts ahead of the obvious and established talents of Stephen Sondheim, Jerry Herman, and now Rodgers and Hart.

I wonder if he’s ever really listened to the wondrous creations that Rodgers and Hart offered us, sometimes as long ago as eight decades. So many of those lovely ballads, like the title song, look into the human heart and see regret, resignation, hope and joy in the most simple and direct ways imaginable. Those songs have stood the test of time and, hopefully, will survive the disrespect and trivialization his concept and this show have subjected them to. He squandered or misused the talents of six fine performers who wandered the stage aimlessly, rushing about to pick up and discard various musical instruments to no purpose I could fathom.

I know that some people see novelty as automatically better than tradition. I sometimes do, and I have the feeling that You do as well.  Mr. Doyle has awards and a sheaf of good reviews, so it must be a matter of taste. You could give him some of that too as long as it’s closer to mine. Or Sondheim’s. Or Herman’s.  Or, especially and regretfully, Rodgers and Hart’s.