Hang on a minute: Let me take off my earrings and hand âem to my homegirl. âCause thatâs the kind of review The Women of Brewster Place, a scandalously misbegotten muddle of a musical from a theater that ought to have better sense, is about to get.
Where to start? With the characters, reduced from complicated human beings to mere types? With the music, an indifferent pastiche of â70s soul when itâs not a direct rip-off of something memorable? With the dialogue, sparse but still so numbingly expositionalâso thoroughly unlike anything actual people would sayâthat you end up wishing it were sparser? With the staging, which shuffles performers on and off like so many automatons?
How about we start with the Act 2 scene about an abortive meeting of the Brewster Place Tenants Associationâduring which, as God is my witness, one admirably game actress is asked to stop for a slow burn, pointedly remove her earrings, and start a hair-snatching, caterwauling food fight with the neighborhood busybody?
Tim Acito, whoâs responsible for the book, the lyrics, and the music of this adaptation, writes in the Arena Stage playbill that he was inspired by the downright Shakespearean plots and the richly drawn characters of Gloria Naylorâs novel. If the originalâs really that goodâI confess Iâve never read itâthis disastrous mess is all the more regrettable. Because Naylorâs interlocking series of stories, said to be a moving literary depiction of the lives of seven African-American women living in an isolated, decaying housing development, has been watered down, narrowed down, and brought down to the lowest common denominator in the effort to spoon-feed the saga to the audience.
The thing is, thatâs not necessary: Make art, dammit, and audiences will consume it with a ferocious hunger. In fact, thereâs already a musical about seven black women grappling with what it means to be a black woman in a white manâs world; itâs called For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf, and 30-odd years after its Broadway premiere, itâs considered something of a classic, not least because its language is as fierce and hair-raising as the brutal stories it tells. Iâd bet Arenaâs audienceâthe African-American segment of it, the pale-male segment of it, the younger segment of it, the older segment of it, and whateverâs leftâwould rise to the occasion of a world-premiere musical that was anywhere near as ambitious, a musical that didnât condescend, that didnât assume they were too lazy to listen and to think and to feel.
The Women of Brewster Place, Iâm sad to sayâno, Iâm enraged to sayâisnât that musical.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
Music and lyrics by William Finn
Book by Rachel Sheinkin
Conceived by Rebecca Feldman
Directed by James Lapine
At National Theatre to Nov. 4
As if to prove the point, thereâs a one-act tuner about a bunch of dorks playing across town for another few days, a slight but charming comedy thatâs got more of the human spirit about it than Brewster Place does. Itâs called The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Beeâlet me guess, youâve heard of itâand itâs basically adorable.
The plotâs simple: A mixed bag of kids, odd ducks all but each a preternaturally gifted speller, compete for the county title while learning valuable life lessons. Sounds perfectly dreadful, no? But William Finnâs songs and Rachel Sheinkinâs book are charming and witty in equal measure (and even naughty, to a lesser but not insignificant extent).
Best of all, itâs craftsmanâs work, chock-full of tart one-liners and vivid little characterizations and scenes that actually go somewhereâjust when youâd begun to despair that such a thing might still be possible.
As You Like It
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Derek Goldman
At Folger Theatre to Nov. 25
Even certified classics donât always make for guaranteed success in production, of course. Take As You Like It: Itâs one of the more difficult bits of nonsense Shakespeare ever served up, a gender-bent romance that flits from a politics-poisoned ducal court to an all-but-enchanted forest where loveâs palpably in the air. Fanciful is the adjective we use when weâre in a good mood.
And so itâs perfectly within reason that director Derek Goldman has come at it fancifully in his Folger Theatre debut, serving up a WWE-flavored wrestling match, a courtier who mopes to the tropes of a Joe Jackson lyric, and a same-sex romance for his female fool. The playâs world, after all, is one in which unexpected things happen, unexpected truths turn up, unexpected feelings erupt; As You Like It centers on Rosalind, a woman masquerading as a man after a narrow political scrape, and her lovesick swain Orlando, who hangs bad poetry on trees and takes woo-pitching lessons from an oddly androgynous stranger without realizing that itâs his own disguised girlfriend doing the coaching. An idiosyncratic stage picture or two, in service to a story as unlikely as this one, isnât all that much to swallow.
True, the whimsy in this production extends a whit too far now and again, not least when it comes to Carol Baileyâs costumesâIâm thinking particularly of the stilt-walking wrestling-match referees, with their 3-foot-tall, fur-covered conical hats, and of the cowboy duke in the Forest of Arden, with his retinue of gay leprechauns.
Occasionally, too, you canât help wishing that Goldman had spent less time exploring the twee and more time wrangling his players into a dramatic world that, however singular its upholstery might be, had even a marginal consistency about it. Sarah Marshallâs sensible Touchstone doesnât seem like sheâd actually be able to bear Amanda Quaidâs squishy Rosalind for more than a few minutes, court retainer or no, and why a manly man like Noel VĂŠlezâs oft-shirtless Orlando would look for guidance to a camping, vamping sidewinder like Ganymede (as the disguised Rosalind calls herself) is beyond me.
Still, there are moments. Goldman stages the famous âSeven Ages of Manâ speech so that the stage action stops, as if Arden and its inhabitants had suddenly been preserved in amber, but Joseph Marcellâs eloquently melancholy Jacques nonetheless puts the text across with gentle clarity. And Marshall parses the notion that insults come in seven degreesâand that âYour âIfâ is your only peacemakerââso gracefully that the last phrase seems a new-discovered wisdom on her tongue.
And Clint Ramosâ set, all green ladders and lovely leafy projections (lit rapturously by Dan Covey), strikes just the right note of mingled mischief and ache. Itâs a marvelous bit of stagecraftâa pitch-perfect contribution to a whole whose parts, alas, donât always harmonize completely.