Although every artform intends to show us different eras, theatre is unique in that it can make us believe we’re really immersed in a different time and place. This was evident when I arrived at DeWitt Clinton Park for Playing Hot. Assuming that once all patrons checked in we would be shown to our seats, I sat on a bench looking at dogs and their humans, a baseball game happening in a nearby field, and a sunset that warmed the afternoon. Then came the first notes, so unexpected yet joyful, that they made a small white pug freeze in midair as he ran after a stick.
Then came the golden light reflected on the brass instruments beyond the trees. As the Louisiana-style jazz band made its way to us, the tuba looked like the funnel of a cruise ship coming to take us on the ultimate musical journey. And as we followed the band for a couple of blocks towards 511 Theatre, it was clear that this wasn’t merely an anxiety-inducing experience for those of us who don’t like calling attention to ourselves, it was also traveling back in time.
Playing Hot is equal parts seance, block party, sociological study, and revisionist history lesson. We take part in a guided walking tour through the French Quarter and meet characters from different eras (a modern day TV news crew, slaves, Flavor Flav) who tell us about Buddy Bolden, the elusive cornetist who many claim invented jazz. The book by Kevin Armento and C.A. Johnson takes an impressionistic, Citizen Kane-like approach to put together a portrait of a figure we should know more about.
The ensemble members deftly portray a myriad characters, Monique St. Cyr, who can transform into a different person with a mere enunciation switch, is a revelation. But what’s most exciting about Playing Hot (besides the incredible band of course) is how much director Jaki Bradley does with the available space. By setting up four stations in each corner of the room where scenes set in different eras are sometimes in conversation with each other, Bradley (with the help of set designer Jason Sherwood) creates a sense of time as a whole. With everything that’s ever happened and everything that ever will be coexisting.
Never is this more efficient than during a number when the band goes from playing Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love,” (or was it The Chi-Lite’s “Are You My Woman (Tell MeSo)” from which Queen Bey took a sample?), to Diana Ross’ “I’m Coming Out,” to The Notorious B.I.G.’s “Mo Money Mo Problems.” At this moment the show’s purpose seems to manifest itself, its point isn’t to establish a factual account of Bolden’s life, but to celebrate and revere black culture in the United States precisely because so much of it has been erased by the establishment.
How did people who arrive in America against their will to be forced into slavery, end up creating the most famous artistic movement to come out of the US? By tracing a straight line from slave ships to Ms. Ross, Billie Holiday, and Beyoncé, Playing Hot makes us confront America’s violent past, while we’re tapping our feet. Death and dance linked forever as one.
A different kind of deadly dance happened at the City Center production of Lady in the Dark, in which Victoria Clark played Liza Elliott, the successful editor of Allure magazine who finds herself needing the help of a psychoanalyst for the very first time. Liza can’t make up her mind about anything. Should she quit the job she loves and try something new? Should she quit her married lover and find a man who wants to be only with her? Should she try to be more “feminine”? And why on Earth does she keep humming the same song over and over?
Not only did it help that the therapist was played by a stoic but enchanting Amy Irving, but that Liza’s memories came to life in music by Kurt Weill, lyrics by Ira Gershwin, and a book by Moss Hart (talk about an Avengers-type project!). The original production of Lady in the Dark premiered in 1941 and showed audiences at the time that musical theatre could be about the mind of a person as much as it could be about plot.
As Liza reclined in the elegant couch (by set designer Doug Fitch) to look deep inside her unconscious, her innermost dreams and secrets manifested in lavish musical numbers anchored by the delicious Clark. Her voice has rarely sounded as pristine and evocative as when she sang “The Saga of Jenny,” her conviction and firm notes a joyous counterpoint to the song’s lyrics about the wishy-washy title girl.
Directed and conducted by Ted Sperling, Lady in the Dark featured sweeping orchestrations and the special participation of MasterVoices, Doug Varone and Dancers and the Orchestra of St. Luke’s. The musical’s gender dynamics and its facile approach to psychoanalysis are indeed of a different time (the piece would make a perfect companion piece to Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound) but even then, the magic of theatre allowed us to come back to our time and either be grateful for the advances we have made, or to ask ourselves: have we really made much progress?