The Women of Brewster Place Book, music, and lyrics by Tim Acito
Based on the novel by Gloria Naylor
Directed by Molly Smith
At Arena Stage to Dec. 9
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 You Like It By William Shakespeare
Directed by Derek Goldman
At Folger Theatre to Nov. 25
Arenas new musical is sans everything; two other productions are full of modern instances.

Expunge Bath: There’s no washing away the lousiness of Brewster.

Hang on a minute: Let me take off my earrings and hand ’em to my homegirl. ’Cause that’s 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 ’70s soul when it’s not a direct rip-off of something memorable? With the dialogue, sparse but still so numbingly expositional—so thoroughly unlike anything actual people would say—that 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 Association—during 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, who’s 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 Naylor’s novel. If the original’s really that good—I confess I’ve never read it—this disastrous mess is all the more regrettable. Because Naylor’s 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, that’s not necessary: Make art, dammit, and audiences will consume it with a ferocious hunger. In fact, there’s already a musical about seven black women grappling with what it means to be a black woman in a white man’s world; it’s called For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf, and 30-odd years after its Broadway premiere, it’s considered something of a classic, not least because its language is as fierce and hair-raising as the brutal stories it tells. I’d bet Arena’s audience—the African-American segment of it, the pale-male segment of it, the younger segment of it, the older segment of it, and whatever’s left—would rise to the occasion of a world-premiere musical that was anywhere near as ambitious, a musical that didn’t condescend, that didn’t assume they were too lazy to listen and to think and to feel.

The Women of Brewster Place, I’m sad to say—no, I’m enraged to say—isn’t 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, there’s a one-act tuner about a bunch of dorks playing across town for another few days, a slight but charming comedy that’s got more of the human spirit about it than Brewster Place does. It’s called The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee—let me guess, you’ve heard of it—and it’s basically adorable.

The plot’s 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 Finn’s songs and Rachel Sheinkin’s book are charming and witty in equal measure (and even naughty, to a lesser but not insignificant extent).

Best of all, it’s craftsman’s work, chock-full of tart one-liners and vivid little characterizations and scenes that actually go somewhere—just when you’d 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 don’t always make for guaranteed success in production, of course. Take As You Like It: It’s 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 love’s palpably in the air. Fanciful is the adjective we use when we’re in a good mood.

And so it’s 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 play’s 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 it’s his own disguised girlfriend doing the coaching. An idiosyncratic stage picture or two, in service to a story as unlikely as this one, isn’t 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 Bailey’s costumes—I’m 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 can’t 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 Marshall’s sensible Touchstone doesn’t seem like she’d actually be able to bear Amanda Quaid’s squishy Rosalind for more than a few minutes, court retainer or no, and why a manly man like Noel Vélez’s 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 “Seven Ages of Man” speech so that the stage action stops, as if Arden and its inhabitants had suddenly been preserved in amber, but Joseph Marcell’s eloquently melancholy Jacques nonetheless puts the text across with gentle clarity. And Marshall parses the notion that insults come in seven degrees—and that “Your ‘If’ is your only peacemaker”—so gracefully that the last phrase seems a new-discovered wisdom on her tongue.

And Clint Ramos’ set, all green ladders and lovely leafy projections (lit rapturously by Dan Covey), strikes just the right note of mingled mischief and ache. It’s a marvelous bit of stagecraft—a pitch-perfect contribution to a whole whose parts, alas, don’t always harmonize completely.

Leave a Comment

Note: HTML tags are not allowed in comments.
Comments Shown. Turn Comments Off.
...