Review: With Glee

First of all, this has nothing to do with the hit TV show Glee; there isn’t a glee club in this show, or even the mention of one. With Glee instead seems to be the spirit in which composer John Gregor wrote this show, which, at its best, is good corny fun. This musical follows five teenage boys from various points in the American Northeast, all sent to a boarding school in Maine, or a “Bad Kid School” as the boys themselves call it in the opening number.

With Glee doesn’t go very deep, relying more on types than fully drawn characters. There’s the anti-social weirdo, the rich kid, the poor kid, the show queen and our hero, the needy nerd. Gregor, who also wrote the book, adeptly wrings plenty of comedy and a soupcon of poignancy out of our expectations of those types. He sends the boys on a series of increasingly risky and over-the-top adventures, which have all the predictability and playfulness of your favorite amusement park ride.

Director Igor Goldin has framed Gregor’s funride with a very well-crafted, handsome production, featuring a cast of very game actors. A quite cute cast, too – all clearly at least five years older than the characters they play, so if you develop a stagedoor crush on one of them it isn’t that pervy. Gregor’s score is definitely the show’s strong point, very tuneful, with whiffs of Alan Menken and even Gilbert and Sullivan. Even if it does have a little too much cutesy, tinkly glockenspiel, which is quickly becoming my musical theatre pet peeve.

Sometimes, though, the corniness threatens to overpower the fun. I can’t help but wonder if Gregor shouldn’t have left the book to someone else, or at least collaborated with someone on it. He’s a better writer than you expect a composer to be, but that’s not high praise. The shallowness is fine for about three-quarters of the show, but I think it would actually be funnier and more touching if the characters were just a touch more dimensional.

For example, the actual sexuality of “show queen” Kip is hinted at but never fully addressed. He’s used more for (admittedly funny) musical theatre jokes than for actual plot development. The end result, though, is “spraying a little gay” on the show, without really dealing with it. This “spraying gay” is a growing trend I’ve noticed reading scripts in my other life as a director. I don’t find it offensive, just really annoying.

But it ain’t just a gay thing; the whole show is that “on-the-surface”, entertaining at first but wearing as the evening draws to a close. This is really a minor carp though – With Glee is a diverting musical, not a bad way to spend an hour and a half.

For tickets, click here.

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Review: The Grand Manner

 

The phrase “love letter to the theatre” gets bandied around a lot in reviews of backstage dramas. So let’s be more specific about The Grand Manner. The play is based on a brief encounter that playwright A. R. Gurney had with great American actress Katherine Cornell in 1948, when she was playing Cleopatra on Broadway in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. At the top of the show, Gurney shows the backstage program-signing moment as it actually happened: briskly, casually, with a few pearls of wisdom from the great actress, but nothing terribly dramatic, and taking no more than 5 minutes.

Gurney then starts over again, imagining a more extended meeting with Cornell, her manager (and sometime lesbian lover) Gertrude Macy, and her director/husband Guthrie McClintic (every bit as gay as Katherine was lesbian). This reimagining – a very satisfying set of point-counterpoint character studies – makes up the balance of the evening.

Gurney has done his research on his boyhood idol, and has richly imagined an actress of a certain age who keenly feels time and changing tastes passing her by, who wonders aloud whether she’s even right for the role of Cleopatra. Its these anxieties that provides the dramatic tension of the play; to a woman for whom acting is everything, these stakes are as high as can be.

Kate Burton is magificent as Cornell, conveying with great charm and sensitivity Katherine’s essential optimism, shaded by a sophisticated understanding of her own limitations. Seriously hard-working actor (and cutie pie) Bobby Steggart delicately underplays Pete (a fictionalized version of Gurney himself), who might just be more canny – and less shockable – than his more worldy elders initially think. Brenda Wehle is similarly (and appropriately) understated as the intellectual and unavoidably butch Gertude. And Boyd Gaines gets perhaps the most truly “grand” role as the flamboyant but still quite masculine McClintic, and he plays it to the hilt.

If The Grand Manner has a notable flaw, it would be that it’s a bit “insider-y” – the issues of the play matter greatly to people in the theatre, but may not even make sense to people outside of it. The play’s target audience: gay theatre people with a taste for history. Needless to say, I adored it!

For tickets, click here.