Catching Up (again): ARMS AND THE MAN, HELL'S KITCHEN, HARMONY
Posted by: sergius 07:07 pm EST 11/19/23

War is not a romance. It seems strange to say these days, but Shaw understood that history routinely mythologizes bloodshed as idyllic passion. ARMS AND THE MAN is an early play and, while it’s charming, it doesn’t have the polemical force of his later plays. Nonetheless, this is a tidy, brisk production in a style—mannered satire if not precisely a satire of manners—that’s hard to get right. The surprise here is how deft the presentation is, especially given the very modest production values. Staller, something of a Shavian authority apparently, gets everyone on the same parodic page. Ziemba, in particular, is surprisingly daft and Ben Davis (as Sergius!) is perfectly swollen-headed. I somehow knew nothing about the Gingold Theatrical Group (so named after Staller’s godmother, Hermione Gingold), but I’m happy to have them on my radar now.

HELL’S KITCHEN is a good example of the aesthetics of banality; it’s a sedative of ordinariness. The considerable performing talent here is regrettably tethered to a book that’s wincingly bad and generic pop lyrics with no narrative impetus. A 17 yo girl crushes on a boy and fights with her single mom about it. In between she gets piano lessons—life lessons, too!—from a dying ancestral mother figure in the basement of Manhattan Plaza (a prospectively more accurate, if equally blank, show title but apparently with less street cred). Amidst this torrent of cliches, there’s lots (and lots and lots) of occasionally interesting, mostly distracting choreography that’s apropos of nothing discernible. Dancers slide in from the wings routinely in the middle of songs to further dull the senses. The show moves and gets nowhere not so fast. But much of the music is catchy, of course, and all of the performers are appealing and fully committed. Pity they’re trapped in what’s basically a slick moon/June vanity project that’s far beneath what they seem capable of. Ho-hum/and then some.

It’s good to see a new musical—I know this has been kicking around for years but still—that’s not assembled, not cobbled or patched together, but composed. Manilow and Sussman have written—underscore written—a creditable, often quite lovely, musical theatre score. It’s a work of intelligence and craft. In the strictest sense, and in many ways, HARMONY is careful; it’s attentively presented (Carlyle’s work is refined) and ideally performed throughout. And though it sometimes, and perhaps unavoidably, evokes other, better musicals, CABARET especially, it stands on its own as a pretenseless, effective reminder of what we must apparently always be reminded of: freedom from harm is never assured for those who are branded other. Timing is everything of course. It remains to be seen if our present, latest bad time will be an opportune one for HARMONY. But I hope so.
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