“The Administrative State”: Nothing Less Than Our Civilization

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“The Administrative State”: Nothing Less Than Our Civilization

To be published in the Daily Record the week of March 19, 2017

The Trump administration has various names for what it would like to kill inside the existing government.

Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s chief ideologist, told the Conservative Political Action Conference on February 23 that he and his president were working to achieve “the deconstruction of the administrative state.” The Washington Post explained the phrase as “the system of taxes, regulations and trade pacts that the president says have stymied economic growth and infringed upon U.S. sovereignty.” Bannon did not define the phrase himself, but he did indicate the sort of thing that “the administrative state” does: pass regulations to implement policies that “the progressive left” can’t get passed any other way.

Press Secretary Sean Spicer on March 10 called it the “deep state,” which he says is “people who stay in government … and continue to espouse the agenda of the previous administration.”

There Will Be Questions

Whatever the administration spokesmen call it, the administrative or deep state seems like shorthand for earlier policies the administration is trying to reverse. Informing both labels is the notion that the administration is entitled, merely by virtue of the president’s place atop the executive branch, to stop the implementation of any and all national policies in place before January 20. That notion underlay the angry outburst by senior adviser Stephen Miller to the effect that Trump’s authority in national security matters “will not be questioned” when a federal district judge invalidated the first version of Trump’s executive order establishing the travel ban from certain Muslim nations (The Ninth Circuit went ahead and, fully in keeping with precedent, questioned anyway.)

The administration seems to be short of lawyers who can explain these matters to the president. This is unfortunate. He needs to learn that while he has a critical policy-formulating role, his power to act unilaterally is limited, constrained by all the laws that currently exist. Of all sources of law, the president can change only executive orders on his own. By contrast, the Constitution, treaties, statutes, and regulations can be changed only with the cooperation of other government actors.

Subversion From Within

At least dimly aware of this, Trump seems to be trying to undermine existing laws he dislikes that he cannot change, or cannot change yet, by demonizing or firing federal employees trying to do their duty to implement the existing laws, or by defunding or attritting the agencies that implement the laws, or by appointing agency heads dedicated to stymying their own agency’s mission (e.g. CO2 denialist Scott Pruitt as head of EPA).

There is no doubt that the president may legitimately use some of the tools he is employing in this effort, like powers of appointment and dismissal, and some discretionary budget actions, not to mention the government’s prosecutorial discretion, part of which he has the right to control. But there does come a point where these actions render laws unenforced. And this brings him up against the Take Care Clause, in Article II, Section 3 of the Constitution. Presidents are required to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.” The Clause contains no qualifying language; presidents are supposed to take care that all laws be faithfully executed, not just the ones they like.

Now we must be real about this. There have never been resources available to presidents sufficient to allow them to see that each and every law is fully enforced. Choices have always had to be made. Nor is presidential foot-dragging unknown when it comes to disliked laws. The Obama administration, for instance, famously failed to enforce marijuana laws. And several administrations by now have failed to deport millions of undocumented aliens.


It is clear, however, that the scale of the Trump administration’s defiance of the laws Trump swore an oath to execute is of unprecedented scale. He is using these various tools to try to weaken or nullify such programs as civil rights enforcement, environmental protection, wage-and-hour protections, support for the United Nations, Obamacare, the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities, the wall between church and state in education funding, public housing and securities regulation – and those are just the ones that come readily to mind – all at once.

Together, the programs under attack amount to more than a collection of governmental initiatives. Together, they amount to a major set of our civilization’s accomplishments. When we try to monitor the relations between minorities and police, when we protect transgender youth, when we keep acidic coal dust out of our streams or try to slow down the catastrophic rise in the temperature of our air, when we insist that workers be fairly paid, when we reject diversion of public funds to religious purposes, when we try to secure decent housing for our poorest citizens, or keep the investing public safe from fraud, or underwrite the international order by supporting the United Nations, or try to lift public sophistication and discourse through the National Endowments, our actions collectively amount to a summary of many things that define us as a people. We have enshrined these activities in programs that we shield from political interference by making them statutory, or establishing implementing regulations through a notice-and-comment process that then makes them hard to undo. We set our courts to guard these activities through various enforcement mechanisms. And we empower government attorneys and regulators with various degrees of autonomy to prevent interference, including presidential interference, with their actions.

Not Easily Movable

To be sure, nothing can be set in immovable stone. Even the Constitution may be amended. But the administrative state or the deep state if you will is not supposed to be easily movable. It is, after all, our civilization we are protecting. Against that, an electoral college majority that lacks an electoral majority to support it and a dominance in Congress made possible only by gerrymandering has but small legitimacy.

Our president and his advisors had better get used to being questioned. It will happen again and again and again, so long as they try to dismantle a government far more representative of popular consensus than any policy-making authority they claim.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

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Brilliant Fucking A from Iron Crow

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Brilliant Fucking A from Iron Crow


Posted on BroadwayWorld.com February 6, 2017

Fucking A is fucking brilliant. (Decorous diction being pointless with a show titled as this one is.) Suzan-Lori Parks‘ three-ring circus of a play is what might have emerged if Brecht and Weill had been commissioned to write a Jacobean revenge tragedy. The plot drives straight toward a horrific forced abortion that is a dark joke of fate on the abortionist herself, followed by a killing that destroys what the killer held most dear. All of this is brought off with sometimes hilarious song and dance, with comedy of a sort (for instance a courtship carried out via a nervous-making demonstration of how to slit throats), and a deeply sardonic attack on the ways of kleptocratic governments. Also the odd picnic that turns into a rape. You have to be deeply disturbed to write a show like this – and fucking brilliant.

But then life often presents us reasons to be deeply disturbed. Though the show is set in an unnamed place that come across a lot like the Jim Crow-era American South, many of the realities that lead the characters to live such distracted lives can also be found in our own sphere, in our own time. There are still prisons run for profit; there are still peonage arrangements that surround them; prison still turns rambunctious youngsters into monsters; powerful men still marry for money and consort with sex workers; abortionists still operate in a legally uncertain zone and are stigmatized. Most important, the poor mostly stay poor, abused and exploited by the rich.

In production by Iron Crow Theatre, which bills itself as “Baltimore’s only professional queer theatre,” Fucking A is being framed as, in words of Sean Elias, the company’s Artistic Director, “most queer in its form, its construction, and its encounter with the ‘other’.” I’m not sure I see all that in this play by a heterosexual playwright with no overtly gay or transgendered themes, but it scarcely matters; this is a terrific production, and we can only be grateful to Iron Crow for bringing it to us.

The title? The central figure, the abortionist, Hester (Jessica Bennett), has been required by the State to wear, publicly displayed on her breast, a brand of an A, which, it is explained, is both stigmatizing and a license to practice her profession. (Resemblances to a certain Nathaniel Hawthorne protagonist also named Hester are purely intentional.) Hester and her best friend, the self-characterized whore Canary Mary (Deirdre McAllister, who also doubles as the show’s musical arranger and musical director), struggle though their lives trapped between their poverty and their dreams — Hester’s to be reunited with her imprisoned son Boy, Mary’s to wrest the Mayor (Jamil Johnson) from his loveless marriage to The First Lady (Cricket Arrison) and marry him herself. The society in which they live has no plans to fulfill either dream. Like Brecht’s Mother Courage, however, Hester and Mary keep on surviving and keep on pursuing their dreams because they have no alternatives.

The absence of alternatives is indeed the fundamental condition of all the characters’ lives. The society criminalizes a ridiculous range of behavior, from murder down to not picking up one’s room, giving the law near-total discretion to imprison whom it chooses – the better to run an extortion racket on the inmate’s relatives. To be sure, there must have been some trivial bad choices at the root of any imprisonment, but the human condition does not allow anyone to get through life without making some of those. And prison amplifies them. The principal inmate, Hester’s son Boy, who in prison has made some other bad choices and consequently become known as Monster (Javier Ogando), had little choice, it seems, but to have been dehumanized by his incarceration. Another inmate, Jailbait (Kaya Vísìon), has been driven ravenous by the absence of real food in prison, resulting in behavior that ranges from rude to brutal. Most centrally, society’s relentless oppression of Hester leads her to abandon her relentlessly sunny and optimistic dream and opt for revenge with the previously-mentioned unforeseen consequences. Victimization and bad choices are then so intertwined that to speak of individual moral agency seems almost pointless. And this holds true almost as much for the oppressors as for the oppressed.

None of this detracts from the fact that show is frequently quite funny. I particularly liked the low comedy wrung from the roles of three bounty hunters, played as Duck Dynasty-esque males by three nontraditionally-cast female actors (Caitlin Weaver, Martha Robichaud and Kelly Hutchison), who, when occasion demands, could also sing in a tight harmony like latter-day Andrews Sisters; listening to them exult over how they will torture Monster when they catch him was grim humor indeed but it was indeed funny.

Hats off, in particular, to Bennett and McAllister, and to Jared Swain, who turns in a nicely understated speaking and singing performance as the Butcher who would be Hester’s love interest, if she had any love left to give. Hats also off to director Stephen Nunns, whose control of the tone of this wildly varying production was always assured.

Not everything about the production was perfect. Sometimes the downstage characters would be speaking in circumlocutions or an incomprehensible language while upstage characters would speak “translations” into microphones; my understanding is that the play as written calls for projected surtitles instead, which if employed would have kept anything being said from becoming unintelligible – as everything being said under these conditions usually was. In fact, even when there were not competing voices, there were sometimes issues with intelligibility – without which the other aspects of good acting are insufficient. And Theatre Project, where this show is staged, is not known for bad acoustics. Still, these were minor flaws overall.

This show will not be here long. Catch it while you can.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for advertising poster

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Pantheistic Consolations

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Pantheistic Consolations

Spring Awakening

The Song of Purple Summer, Lyrics by Steven Sater, Music by Duncan Sheik, Sung by the Original Broadway Cast of Spring Awakening (2006), encountered 2007

Available on Spotify | Buy it here | See it here | Lyrics here | Sheet music here

The loss of my mother in 2006 tore me loose from my religious moorings.

I’d not seen it coming.

Mother’s death – yes, that I’d foreseen, of course. And I’d anticipated it as a blessing; Mother had been ill, demented and lost. But I’d expected to feel better afterwards. I realized after the fact that I’d been operating on a barely articulated conviction that I would somehow feel her presence, and that I would also be comforted by my faith. But nothing of the kind occurred. It proved to work the other way around. I did not feel her presence, and that lack of feeling challenged my faith.

Made Me Wretched

After you lose your equilibrium, you naturally try hard to regain it. But because you know how badly you want it back, you suspect any sign of its return you think you see. And that was my situation. Every time I thought I might be hearing either Mother’s voice or God’s in my mind, I was driven to consider rigorously the likelihood I was just talking to myself.[1] So I veered back and forth. Enough of that will make you wretched.

I also thought that going back to my roots, back to my childhood church and the schools I’d attended in my home town of Ann Arbor, might help. As it happened, I did actually have to go back, once, to inter Mother’s ashes there next to Father’s. Over the next 18 months, though, I paid not one but three visits to the town, and wrote a book (one I never tried very hard to publish) about the experience. The exercise, a full immersion in memories of my childhood, did help with the grief, but did not restore my faith that all was right with the world, or that God was in charge of my history or the world’s.

Sometime not too long after Mother died, I had a lunch with my older son, who spoke, not disrespectfully but quite definitively, about his view that there was nothing to religion or its consolations. And I realized that he was speaking for the majority of educated opinion – that somewhere between my youth, when probably the majority of serious grownups held sincere religious beliefs, and now, the balance had shifted. Somehow I had gotten quite out of step.

Looking to Art

Confidence is always easier when you’re in step than when you’re out. And I had lost mine. I regrew some of it eventually, after much struggle, a struggle which of course is still ongoing.

This was the synthesis the struggle has left me with: I could never again deny the substantial possibility that my faith was completely in vain – and I have to acknowledge that, if so, there could be little reliable basis for an equanimity based on faith or on anything else. On the other hand I still feel that I’m on the right track going to church, and I plan to keep on, holding fast to my perception that some things, like human decency and the existence of existence, still seemed more plausibly explained in a universe with a God in it than in one without.[2] My certainties have fled, but I have at least decided on my course.

Big questions, to be sure. I’ve always looked to art to help me tackle big questions. This time was no different.

In January 2007, in Manhattan on an overnight before a court appearance, I attended a performance of the previous year’s Tony winner for Best Musical, Spring Awakening. As many readers will know, this adaptation of a scandalous Expressionist 1890s play about the difficult sexual and social maturing of adolescents also takes up the existential challenge of death in a putatively God-less environment. Melchior, the youthful hero, confronts that challenge after the losses of his love Wendla (victim of a botched abortion) and of his close friend Moritz (hounded to suicide by the small-minded martinets who run the village school). What good is Melchior’s life under these new circumstances?

Two Answers

The musical at the end proposes two answers to the problem. First, in the number Those You’ve Known, Melchior is visited by “ghosts” of Wendla and Moritz, although these are evidently metaphors, not actual beings. The point is, he has internalized them through his intimacy with them, and they will remain inspiring presences in his life even though they cannot actually talk to him directly. Secondly, in the inspiring closing number, The Song of Purple Summer, a kind of pantheistic solution is suggested. Though the lyrics of the show that I and most audiences have heard differ from those on the CD (recorded before the show was “locked” in previews), the CD’s lyrics were the ones I learned by heart, and they state the issue plainly:

And all shall fade –

The flowers of spring,

The world and all the sorrow

At the heart of everything…

But still, it stays –

The butterfly sings,

And opens purple summer

With a flutter of its wings…

The earth will wave with corn,

The grey-fly choir will mourn,

And mares will neigh with

Stallions that they mate, foals they’ve borne…

And all shall know the wonder

Of purple summer…

The message, it seems, is that there may not be any Wendla or Moritz now, and there may be a permanent “sorrow at the heart of everything,” but there is still the eternal, unconquerable beauty of summer. That beauty can give meaning to life, to everyone’s but also to Melchior’s specifically. The meaning with which God was once thought to have imbued Creation, and, succeeding Him, Wendla and Melchior symbolized, is now to be found all around, in the butterfly, the corn, the “grey-fly choir,” and the mares and the stallions and the foals. These things amount to a pantheistic replacement of the Lutheran God whom the youngsters had been brought up to look to. And the power of the message is driven home by the heart-rending harmony with which the cast always delivers it.[3]

Still Going On

Even with the softened lyrics, I was sent out of the theater reeling, a freshly-purchased copy of the CD in my bag. I played that song several times on my laptop when I got back to the hotel, before dropping off to sleep eventually.

Yet I soon realized that that kind of consolation was not for me. The lyrics (the original ones, the ones on the CD) did not promise that nature’s beauty could wipe away every tear or fill the God-shaped hole. All they promised was that it would help.

I appreciated help, but I was still looking for a cure. I would go on to see the show several times in several productions, but I always recognized the correct limits of the consolations it offered. Accurate or not, the Christian promise at least identifies the one thing that actually would constitute a cure: a world in which the Wendlas and Moritzes survive death, in which the Melchiors can actually be reunited with them. I wish I were more confident that that promise is accurate, but I know it’s the only thing that would truly make me feel better.

And so, though I flirted with pantheistic consolations and was grateful for them, I went on past them. I am still getting further away from them. I keep revisiting my beliefs constantly, and time has blunted grief over my mother (though as I age, the toll of deaths among those I love keeps adding fresh causes to grieve). I am sufficiently worldly to take pleasure in many things, but, however worldly I may be, I am no pantheist, and I do not confuse the things that give me pleasure with the things that impart meaning or value. There may be a God and there may be meaning; I believe these things are true. But if they exist, they do not reside in the world around us.


[1] For instance, there was the realization that in thinking of God I might be doing what in my private mental shorthand I called “drawing my own eye.”

Thank humorist James Thurber for the comparison. In an amusing memoir of his undergraduate experiences at Ohio State University, Thurber, who had severe eye problems, recounted how he never could see anything through the microscope in botany class, greatly upsetting his instructor, until the day he finally manipulated the lens and saw a cell, and drew it. I have to quote Thurber on what happened next:

He looked at my cell drawing. “What’s that?” he demanded, with a hint of a squeal in his voice. “That’s what I saw,” I said. “You didn’t, you didn’t, you didn’t!” he screamed, losing control of his temper instantly, and he bent over and squinted into the microscope. His head snapped up. “That’s your eye!” he shouted. “You’ve fixed the lens so that it reflects! You’ve drawn your eye!” From University Days, in My Life and Hard Times (1933).

As applied here, I had formed a picture of God in my mind that conformed very closely with my own ideas of righteousness – which in turn reinforced my belief. And then, after Mother departed, it occurred to me that perhaps God’s perceived minute correspondence with what I wanted was potentially nothing more than my projection of my own ideals rather than an encounter with or perception of something truly out there. Which was more likely: that I had perceived God’s nature or that I was projecting my own?

Again, I should emphasize a point I’ve made elsewhere in these pages: that merely wanting something to be true does not make it false. This is not a philosophical disproof of God’s existence or nature. It is, however, a sign that one must be quite cautious if one does not wish to end up deceiving oneself, a sign I was for the first time in my life able to appreciate fully.

[2] If you believe that the value of anything is intrinsic and not merely a matter of social convention, you have to posit some source of value outside our experience. As C.S. Lewis (I think) put it, following David Hume: you cannot reason from “is” to “ought.” At least you can’t do it within our natural sphere. I think of God in this connection as being the pole that draws all moral needles to point in the same general direction. I do believe in intrinsic values, and reject what I have elsewhere called the Psychopath’s Challenge. (I find I cannot make myself unbelieve in intrinsic values, even as a somewhat attractive hypothesis.) And God seems to be a necessary implication of that belief. I acknowledge that a philosopher would not accept this reasoning as nearly so airtight as I feel it to be. But I’m not a philosopher.

Likewise, I understand the Aristotelian/Thomistic doctrine of the uncreated creator as being based on the experience of causation, an experience which, however universal it seems to us, is formed within time — and I understand as well that physicists seem to have established that time is a  local condition that exists in our universe, but that there is an “outside” in which time does not apply. All the same, I can conceive of causation even without time; that is in fact what I’ve been told about the Trinity, that the love which establishes the relation between Father and Son and brings forth the Spirit exists “from all time.” Be that as it may, I’m far from certain that causation is a local phenomenon like and dependent upon time. Assuming that causation exists outside our universe, then, Aristotle’s “prime mover” and Aquinas’ uncreated Creator seem almost unavoidable alternatives to the problem which would otherwise exist: an infinite chain of causes.

And a corollary of these principles is that a creation without a Creator seems equally inconceivable to me. Again, I know this is not a philosophical nor yet a physicist’s proof. Elsewhere, I have taken issue with the notion floated by Stephen Hawking, our most eminent contemporary physicist that we know it is possible for our universe to have created itself, not on the grounds that he is provably wrong but on the grounds that his certainty is unearned, as his own admissions establish. But if we really have started with nothing, as Hawking proclaims, then even the jittery quanta upon which he built his theory must have arisen somehow from nothing. And that just seems logically a bridge too far.

We are still a long way from Yahweh and/or Jesus of Nazareth. As to them, though, I find myself going along willy-nilly with another point of Lewis’s: that Jesus just sounds as if he knows what he’s talking about. What he says sounds authoritative and makes sense to me most of the time.

That said, even if one responds to the authority in Jesus’ voice, he doesn’t address some issues. With his words we are still far from solving the problems of evil and death in a universe created by a putatively benevolent deity — problems to which I have never been able to conceive of a solution. But, given all these other premises, I’m willing to take some matters, quite literally, on faith.

Think enough thoughts like these, even in a tentative way, and after a while you find yourself back in a belief system.

[3] After the CD was cut, the lyric was watered down. The song subsequently started:

A summer’s day
A mother sings
A song of purple summer
Through the heart of everything
And heaven waits
So close it seems
To show her child the wonders
Of a world beyond her dreams

Though it is preceded by a reference to “The sadness the doubt/ All the loss, the grief,” we are assured that they “will belong to some play from the past.” Now, unlike in the original lyric, the cure that nature offers is so complete that anyone who has felt grief knows the reassurance is being way oversold. I think the original is stronger and truer.

There seem not to be any live-action videos of the song out on YouTube that carry the original lyrics. This is a shame. (At the top of this piece, I have, however, hyperlinked a version featuring the original recording.)

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for cover art

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A Most Telling Consent Decree

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A Most Telling Consent Decree

Published in the Daily Record January 27, 2017

At this writing, we don’t know whether the proposed consent decree between the City of Baltimore and the U.S. Department of Justice will ever be approved and go into force. But its 215 pages are worth a read, if for nothing more than insight into the kinds of things that have gone on between minorities and police in Baltimore and probably across our country.

What It Presupposes

Sometimes it’s not so much what a document says as what it presupposes that is most telling.

The decree disclaims liability, of course, and proceeds to be very inexplicit about the crisis in Baltimore’s policing that set the stage for it. But it ordains a huge training effort, promises to rewrite major portions of a departmental website, commits to generating a large number of periodic reports, agrees to buy tons of equipment, restructures its officer discipline program, and installs a court-appointed monitor, none of them things you would do unless there was something – actually a lot of somethings – to fix.

Buried in passing phrases of the document are some pretty direct indications of what those somethings are.

Field Interviews

Example: “Officers conducting a Field Interview shall do the following: a. Introduce themselves by name and rank as soon as reasonable and practicable…”[1] No need for that unless it doesn’t always happen. And what would it be like to have an unidentified cop asking you questions? If you’re reading this paper, it may not have happened to you, but you know the answer.

Or: “Officers engaged in … a Field Interview may not use a person’s failure to stop, failure to answer questions, decision to end the encounter, or attempt or decision to walk away to establish reasonable suspicion to justify an Investigatory Stop or Detention, Search, Citation, or Arrest of the person.”[2] Imagine how powerless the subject of a “Field Interview” must feel when he knows that just walking away may get him arrested.

How about this? “BPD will ensure that officers understand that there is no routine or automatic ‘officer safety’ justification for a Frisk or Pat Down during an Investigatory Stop.”[3] That is not to say there may not be circumstances that justify it, as the Decree spells out. But no boilerplate presumptions that justify frisking someone. Again, why would anyone insist upon this, unless it were a problem? And it’s not hard to guess what kind of problem it is.


Here’s a beaut: “BPD officers shall not conduct Frisks or searches of LGBT individuals for the purpose of viewing or assigning gender based on the person’s anatomy or genitalia.”[4] Who would even have thought this went on? But provisions like this must have a context: they don’t come out of thin air.

And what reason could there be for a provision like this?: “BPD will ensure that officers issue a Citation or make a custodial Arrest only where they have probable cause to believe a person has committed, is committing, or is about to commit a criminal infraction or citable offense.”[5] In my neighborhood, that principle probably goes without saying 99.9% of the time. A few blocks away, though, it could be another story, partly because of Quality of Life Offenses (all caps in the original). These include things like gambling, disorderly conduct, and that perennial favorite: failure to obey an officer. The decree would require a senior officer to sign off before the arrest, and that officer is supposed to check both for the discretion of the act (arrest as opposed to warning or citation) and for probable cause. You don’t build checks and balances into the system unless it’s producing arrests without cause or exhibiting some other abuse of discretion.


Police will now also need to document the demographics of each stop and each frisk.[6] As this column has noted before, similar statistics maintained by the New York PD revealed marked patterns of stop and frisk aimed at minorities – and also that frisks of white folks were more likely to turn up contraband than frisks of citizens of color, suggesting that police were underpolicing the (slightly) more contraband-carrying class, i.e. white people. It’s not hard to guess that the Justice Department thinks similar demographics would turn up here.

I could quote lots more. But the point is, the document suggests a world in which the police interact with parts of the public in an impolite, intimidating, and discriminatory fashion, enforcing the law with highly discretionary and unpredictable rigor, more intent upon exerting control than being fair, and predictably behaving far worse in racial and sexual minority communities than in white ones.

I do wonder whether the apparent hostility of the new administration to attempts to use DOJ consent agreements to ameliorate urban policing problems will ultimately lead to the decree’s withdrawal or, if approved, lack of enforcement. I also wonder whether, assuming it goes into force, the enormous cost compliance with this agreement would impose upon the City in staffing, training, and reporting would be tolerable. Drastic understaffing in the Baltimore police would also create its own problems even if the money were there.

Rough Rides

To choose but a single example, taken straight from the Freddie Gray debacle: there are, as one might expect, multiple provisions specifically forbidding “rough rides,” the practice of letting unsecured suspects slide around inside paddy wagons being deliberately driven erratically.[7] There are companion provisions requiring cameras in the backs of the wagons,[8] and requiring medical monitoring and the providing of medical attention to transported arrestees as needed.[9] But the retrofits to wagons take money and time; the problem the Freddie Gray defendants complained of (how an officer secures a suspect without exposing a gun to its possible seizure) is not addressed; and the exigencies of driving a wagon directly to a lockup or a hospital amidst moment-by-moment fresh demands for its presence elsewhere have not been solved.


Whatever comes of the decree, though, the half-articulated realities glimpsed in it underline the urgency for a real response.


[1] ¶ 34.

[2] ¶ 36.

[3] ¶ 47.

[4] ¶ 53.

[5] ¶ 60.

[6] ¶ 88.

[7] ¶ 223, 226-28, 231.

[8] ¶ 224.

[9] ¶ 233.


Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

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Destination Wedding in ABBA-Land: Mamma Mia! at the Hippodrome

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Destination Wedding in ABBA-Land: Mamma Mia! at the Hippodrome

Sarah Smith, Betsy Padamonsky and Cashelle Butler

Sarah Smith, Betsy Padamonsky and Cashelle Butler

Posted on BroadwayWorld.com January 14, 2017

That MAMMA MIA! is a hit of unbelievable proportions is beyond cavil. There have been 50 productions; the show was the among the ten longest-running Broadway shows ever (2001 to 2015). The current national tour (spoken of as a “farewell tour” though it appears to be more the last six months of a three-year excursion) is in the midst of a four-performance stand at Baltimore’s Hippodrome. On opening night, you could certainly take in the reasons for all that success: the catchy ABBA songs, the comedy verging at times on slapstick, the slightly naughty plot setup (a mother whose wild-child youth has presented her daughter with three plausible candidates for a father) – but not so risqué that it discouraged the attendance of a host of teen and pre-teen girls with their parents, and of course the curtain calls which have become something of a cult event. These features will probably float anyone’s boat – and they did mine.

All the same, let’s be honest: from a formal point of view, this show is kind of a mess. There are essentially three ways of doing a jukebox musical (a show that uses a pre-existing songbook, typically, as here, the oeuvre of a particular pop performer or group). You can embed the songs in the history of the performer who originated them (Jersey Boys or Beautiful), you can present a revue which pretty much eschews a dramatic framework (Smokey Joe’s Café or Rain), or you can create a new story which somehow incorporates the music (We Will Rock You or Rock of Ages). The third course of action, adopted here, is the most difficult because the lyrics which support a pop song are seldom well-adapted to the stage. There’s a well-known taxonomy and progression of song types in most musicals (the I Am/I Want Song, the Conditional Love Song, the Eleven O’Clock Song, etc.) which are frequently tough to dig out of a songbook – and many of which aren’t found here. Add to that that the stories told in existing songs may not match up with a consistent plot, and that even if they do, they are unlikely to be written in a way to advance the plot the way songs in musicals naturally do.

MAMMA MIA! deals with this problem, essentially, by not dealing with it. The nominal story, about what amounts to a destination wedding on a Greek isle, is hardly taken seriously much of the time. Many of the songs are barely congruent with the plot at all. Thus the song SOS puts lines in the mouths of both the previously naughty mom, Donna (Betsy Padamonsky) and Sam, one of her three former lovers whom she hasn’t seen in 20 years (Shai Yammanee), that relate the stresses in a current relationship, not one that hasn’t existed for two decades (“When you’re gone, how can I even try to go on?”), and Knowing Me, Knowing You, a breakup song, is awkwardly jimmied into a slot where Sam is giving marital advice to his putative daughter Sophia (Lizzie Markson) on the verge of her wedding. And then there is the issue with the basic sonic palette ABBA used, a tight choral sound surrounding solos; in order to capitalize on that sound, the chorus, frequently offstage, is called on to participate in almost every song, militating against the more typical musical comedy strategy of varying between choral numbers and solos, duets, trios, etc. The plot is just there to assemble a series of excuses for the songs, plus some comic bits and some dancing.

In short, MAMMA MIA! is actually more of a revue than a story-driven show, despite sporting the accouterments of the latter. And none of that mattered a damn to the faithful gathered at the Hippodrome last night. They got what they came for, especially in the curtain call segment where the mask of a story dropped altogether, and the cast just performed three ABBA songs including the inevitable one, Waterloo, which did not feature in the show that had preceded it, and so did not even qualify as a reprise. But no one left the auditorium; everyone was on their feet, clapping and singing along.

If this is your thing, and you can still score tickets (a big if), and if you really hurry, you can catch the fun too. You can always find something more dramatically nutritious next time.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for production photograph

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Beyond Big Steel: A Search for Purpose

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Beyond Big Steel, A Search For Purpose


Published in the Daily Record January 5, 2017

I happened to spend the weekend before the election in Donora, Pennsylvania. My wife and some cousins she hadn’t seen in decades had scheduled a small family reunion then, and I was fortunate enough to come along. What I saw might be a backstory to what happened the following Tuesday.

By and For Big Steel

In all respects, right down to its very name, Donora was a town designed by and for the steel industry. The name is an amalgam of the last and first names, respectively, of William Donner, founder of American Steel and Wire, and Nora Mellon, the wife of Andrew Mellon, a financier deeply involved in the industrialization of the Monongahela Valley below Pittsburgh. American Steel and Wire laid a production line along the Monongahela at the bottom of Donora, from blast furnace to wire mill, followed by the Donora Zinc Works – since you need zinc to finish nails.

The Zinc Works were where my wife’s grandfather worked. A skilled laborer from Ukraine, Nicholas Uhriniak was employed throughout his career at the Works. His was an archetypal American success. He and his Ukrainian-born wife, Mary, raised eight children, four of whom, among them my mother-in-law, wore the American uniform in the Second World War; their names are among those memorialized in an impressive veterans’ memorial near the main street. All by varied routes became middle-class successes in their own right. And Mr. Uhriniak built his own house, right at the top of the steep rise of hills above the Zinc Works. He must have walked or driven a mile nearly straight downhill to get to work and gone the same distance uphill to get home.

Above the Blight

Up top was a good idea. If you look down at the Works and its surroundings in a Defense Department aerial photograph taken in 1941, the era of the town’s greatest prosperity, you see blight in the vegetation radiating in all directions from the Works’ nine huge smokestacks. You did not want to breathe the air emanating from the place.

However, for a hellish week in October 1948, not breathing that air was not an option. An atmospheric inversion had trapped the emissions from the steel plant and the zinc works in this little pocket of the Monongahela valley, and people started to get sick and die, especially downhill from Mr. Uhriniak’s house. A contemporary map that plots nurse visits tells the story: higher up and further away was safer.

The Donora Smog, which directly or indirectly killed 70, including the father of baseball great Stan Musial, and left many with lifelong respiratory damage, became an international scandal (you can hear it referenced in the recent British TV series The Crown, as a yardstick for the killing London Fog of 1952). It was also a key inspiration for the movement to clean up industrial air pollution.

The mills at the bottom of the hill may have taken life, but they gave it too. When you visit Donora today, you can see the long main street and the churches, and all the houses nestled on the hillside. Perhaps it was hard to breathe sometimes, but the mills gave a living and a community to thousands.

The Fate of the Downtowns

The mills are all gone now, up and down the Monongahela. Donora was one of the first towns in the Pittsburgh area to stop making steel. Where Donora’s plants stood, other factories now stand, but they are making other things and obviously not employing the numbers that the mills did. The main street is clean and orderly, but there are at least as many empty storefronts as active ones. Not all of the churches are open now.

It would not be fair to blame the decline entirely on the loss of manufacturing. You can observe cityscapes like these from Newburgh, New York to Duluth, Minnesota, to Burlington, Iowa, and everywhere in between. Walmart and Amazon and McDonald’s have as much to do with the state of our downtowns as does deindustrialization. Nor is it fair to ignore the upside of the changes. You can breathe Donora’s air without fear now, for example.

New Life

Nicholas is still perched up on a high hillside, albeit a different one, alongside Mary, under a headstone in the cemetery for Orthodox-rite Catholics. And the house he built is getting ready for a new life.

After his death in 1970, it passed to a son, who himself died a decade ago. It’s a peculiar, homemade place where, for instance, your shoulders touch both walls as you go down the stairs to the basement. But it certainly achieved its own purpose: a large family was fostered there. And now the family from the house next door is about to continue its history. The neighbors’ daughter and her boyfriend wanted the place to raise their own family, and the price was right.

The day we visited, the young man and his prospective father-in-law were hard at work renovating it, and the work was good. The young man, obviously a craftsman, was in charge; the dad was his help. There was happiness in the air, especially when the daughter dropped by.

I don’t know where the young man’s day job may be, but the demise of the mills hasn’t killed all economic activity in the region. Fracking is bringing some natural gas prosperity to the area, and ammonia and plastics are among the town’s products. Many young people have left, but this couple will be living next door to the wife’s parents.

Still Value

Big Steel has abandoned its creations. Nostalgia for the smokestacks Big Steel bestowed will do no good. The stacks can’t come back, and shouldn’t. The mill towns may never find an equivalent replacement, but there is still value in the Donoras, in the housing and the main streets, and the network of family and community ties. There remains a life there and a will to survive. We as a society need to side with the Donoras in their search for new purpose. It is the right policy and the right politics.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for archive photo

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Women’s Work(s)

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Women’s Work(s)

Published in the Hopkins Review, New Series 9.4, Fall 2016

Broadway appears to be focusing more on women these days: female authors, directors, composers and subjects. And as I’m hardly the first to comment, female protagonists, particularly ones for whom a happy ending is untethered to a love plot and hence a man, are definitely receiving a heightened emphasis.

Female Protagonist, Female Creators

In a recent swoop down to the vicinity of Times Square to sample this trend, I had plenty to choose from. My criterion of selection on this visit was that the productions be musicals focused on a female protagonist, adapted in whole or in part by women from women’s works. I chose musicals, because if there are broad tendencies in the larger society and in the theatrical ecosystem, they will surface strongly there. And sure enough, despite differences in tone and in subgenre, my choices turned out to be remarkably similar to each other and significantly dissimilar to what might have been commonplace even a decade ago.

To mention the most obvious commonalities, in each the female protagonist is supposed to be of interest to the audience for her art, be it cartoons or pastry or songs, and her love life is incidental or an actual hindrance to her pursuit of that art. Not one of the heroines ends up with a romantic partner in sight. Triumph for each of these characters may be personal as well as professional, but it does not consist of what is traditionally meant by having it all.

Consider Fun Home, the winner of the 2015 Tony for Best Musical. Fun Home adapts to the stage cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s 2006 graphic memoir of the same title. In the book and in the show, Bechdel confronts and tries to make sense of the strangeness of her family of origin, led by a father (portrayed by Michael Cerveris) who is a) a high school English teacher; b) a funeral director; c) a passionate restorer of old homes; d) very uncomfortably in the closet; and e) an incipient suicide. Her mother Helen (Judy Kuhn) takes refuge from the difficulties of being married to such a man by looking the other way from Bruce’s increasingly impossible life and burying herself in her three children and her music, wasting the “days and days and days” of her own life in the process. Alison and her two sibs must try to thrive in this not-terribly-promising environment. In her adult phase (portrayed by Beth Malone) as “a lesbian cartoonist,” Alison attempts to make sense of what befell her, and to determine what if any role her emergence into homosexuality at the beginning of her college years may have played in the death that brings the drama to its close.

That said, depending on the source, describing Alison’s father Bruce as an incipient suicide may be overstating it. His intent to kill himself is a definite fact only in the musical. In the book, though it seems likely Bruce deliberately stepped backwards into the path of a truck, Bechdel acknowledges the possibility that her father’s death could have been an accident, albeit if so, one perhaps contributed to by anxiety over the very issues that could also have led him to a more conscious choice to take his own life.

One of These Things Is/Is Not Like the Other

This is not by any means the only respect in which Lisa Kron, author of the book and lyrics, has sculpted the original material. Another example: to the Alison of the book, it is powerful evidence in favor of Bruce having deliberately killed himself that Helen had just told him she wanted a divorce. That development is missing from the show, and leaves Alison’s coming out as potentially the biggest new stressor on Bruce, sharpening the question for Alison whether that announcement (followed by Bruce’s fumbling failure to communicate adequately with Alison about it) was what drove him over the edge. What renders the question even sharper for her, both on the page and on the stage, was the feeling that her father never really looked at her or considered her  – with the almost equally frightening consequence that her coming out might have had no impact upon his decision (if it was a decision) to end his life.

The show’s simplification and omission of such detail certainly has the effect of making the story more accessible, maybe a bit too much so. Bechdel’s book is intentionally tangled and obscure and recursive, not to mention literarily recondite. That is a strength. By contrast, even when the show admits ambiguity, it usually resolves it. Take for example the adult Alison’s signature remark that: “My dad and I were exactly alike. My dad and I were nothing alike.” It is spelled out exactly how both statements are true.

Right at the beginning of the show, the most important way in which they were alike is stated; rummaging through a box of odds and ends donated by a friend, Bruce happens upon an antique silver teapot bearing the craftsman’s hallmark. This is a clue that will help Bruce learn the piece’s provenance and history, which he is determined to do. He sings to Alison: “I can’t abide romantic notions/ of some vague long ago./ I must know what’s true,/ dig into who/ and what/ and why/ and when/ until now gives way to then.” That of course sums up Alison’s compulsion as well, only the object of that compulsion in Alison’s case is Bruce himself and his wife and their family.

Conversely, Bruce has started with the same fundamental datum of personality that Alison must work from, homosexuality. By failing to acknowledge it, he has taken his whole family on a long trip of lies and at least intermittent misery. Alison by contrast has embraced and been open about her orientation as it has become clear to her, and the truth seems to have set her free. To be fair, we learn next to nothing about her life after her coming out and her father’s suicide. Still, it can be safely concluded that she has emerged whole, and (q.e.d.) wholly different from her father.

Perhaps it is a little pat. But then the truth is not always subtle.

All Hail Tesori

In any case it would be wrong to dismiss what Lisa Kron and her colleague, composer Jeanine Tesori, have achieved as a mere filing-down and diminution of the original text to meet the practical necessities of a commercial entertainment medium. Not only is the book’s grand arc of character and causation sufficiently honored, but some of the best new stuff is conjured up from tiny hints in the book. For instance, there is Come to the Fun Home, a hilarious Jackson 5 pastiche performed by the three children in the form of an imaginary television commercial for the family funeral home, during which they cavort manically around a coffin and show off the funerary accouterments. This bit of macabre hilarity, useful to dispel the heaviness of the subject for awhile, seems to have been inspired by little observations in the book illustrating how casually the real Bechdel children came to take death’s accoutrements. The change in tone is more than a matter of pacing; it also exemplifies the prevailing uncertain mood Bechdel refers to again and again in trying to explain how confusing it was to grow up with such parents.

Tesori’s score contains far more than pastiche, of course. This is a close to a chamber musical in scale, staged in one of Broadway’s more intimate spaces, the Circle in the Square, and the seven-piece orchestra (no horns, one reed, heavy emphasis on cello) has an intimate sound. Song after song emits a lushly brooding tone that elegantly fits the subject matter. Most impressive is some startlingly good polyphonic voice writing, which is surprisingly rare in musicals. But in the finale Flying Away, the three Alisons (Ms. Malone, plus the junior version, currently portrayed by Gabriella Pizzolo plus the college-age Alison, Emily Skeggs) sing contrapuntally, swapping each other’s lines and melodies from earlier in the show, as their personalities gradually merge, leaving only the 43-year-old Alison there, remembering “a rare moment of perfect balance,” the very moment at the beginning of the show (and book), when her father held her up by his feet so she could “play airplane.” It is the music that makes that fadeout so devastatingly lovely. The bittersweet satisfaction of the moment, on the other hand, owes nothing to a union of two hearts; there is no girlfriend in the picture as Alison stands alone.

Polyphonic Perfection, Altered Casting

Ending polyphonically is great. Beginning polyphonically isn’t so bad either. Waitress, which might have had a legitimate shot at this year’s Best Musical Tony were it not for Hamilton, starts out with that unusual musical treat, as star Jessie Mueller, with various voices from the ensemble chipping in little bits of counterpoint, sings What’s Inside, which amounts to a hymn to the main ingredients of pie: sugar, butter, and flour. I can state with considerable confidence that no one has ever before limned these humble staples in such a winsome way. This brief tour de force segues into a showpiece of a different sort, a big, intricately choreographed production number designed introducing most of the cast Opening Up the diner in which the eponymous waitress Jenna (Ms. Mueller) works. It gives the chorus the opportunity to hit some unearthly chords we’ve probably never heard before. By the time these two songs are done, there will be no doubt that composer Sara Bareilles, whom many of us knew only as a pop singer-songwriter, is a serious artist, capable of serving up the most original harmonies. She may not sustain that high level at every turn, but too much of it would overwhelm the audience, so it’s just as well.

Waitress, like Fun Home, is not only presented by a female creative team (in addition to Bareilles, there’s a book by Jessie Nelson and direction by Diane Paulus), but is based on a work by a female artist, the movie of the same name written and directed and co-starred in by the late Adrienne Shelly. It is uncanny how the musical is both like and unlike the much-beloved movie. Most of the plot points are identical, and the characters have the same names. But the casting makes it feel different.

Jenna may not end up with a man, but she certainly ends up with a sisterhood, and the casting of the sisterhood lends a very different feel to the piece. In these days of unconventional casting the ethnicity of actors is supposed to be ignored. Sometimes that is a realistic expectation, sometimes not. In the movie, the unbreakable sorority of three waitresses was portrayed by three white women: Keri Russell as protagonist Jenna, Cheryl Hines as Becky, and Shelly as Dawn. Some of the humor of the original was based on the deep Southern rural setting, accents, sociology, and attitudes, poking fun, in other words, at a definitely and solidly white milieu.

Here Keala Settle (one parent is Maori) and Kimiko Glenn (one parent is Japanese) discharge the duties of Becky and Dawn. The different faces of these performers, and also those of much of the ensemble, are at odds with the feel of the movie. I theorize that the awareness that this cast is not convincingly rural Southern may be the actual explanation for designer Scott Pask’s choice to display on the backdrop of the set, glimpsed through the diner windows, U.S. route shield signs which seem to place the locus of the action at a busy junction around Richmond, Indiana. If my theory is right, and the notion was to make the setting slightly more cosmopolitan, the execution has failed. From my research (since I cannot recall ever having been there, though I grew up one state over) the accents should be Great Lakes-y. From the way the characters talk, however, they all sound as if they’d been transplanted from much further south. So which is it: regional humor or not? (Fun fact: the movie was shot in California.)

I should hasten to add that, accents aside, one quickly grows comfortable with the reimaged and hence reimagined Becky and Dawn. Glenn’s version of Dawn makes her believably nerdy in a way that Shelly, visibly brainy and outgoing, wrote the character but couldn’t quite pull off. And Settle, a big woman, milks the Becky role for physical humor that the slim Hines could never have tried.

Feminist or Not?

Another potential problem area with the show concerns its feminist bona fides. In May, the New York Times published a discussion between two female drama critics, Laura Collins-Hughes and Alexis Soloski, on how much cheer to draw from this apparent year of the woman on the New York stage. Collins-Hughes was outraged that Jenna becomes so sunnily maternal after giving birth near the end, when what had made her interesting and different up to that point had been how little Jenna had wanted the child. Yet this development looked to be in no way inconsistent with the movie; Collins-Hughes’ quarrel seems to lie more with Shelly’s conception than with that of Shelly’s adapters.

My own take is that the baby-bliss that Collins-Hughes objects to works; it is a venerable plot device appropriate to happy endings. It’s realistic; I don’t know many parents of either sex who aren’t transformed, many for the better and the happier, and many to their own surprise, by the arrival of progeny. And here, both in movie and musical, the childbirth is almost immediately followed by Jenna’s declaration of independence from the abusive husband, surely an act of self-liberation. These developments must be viewed together.

Soloski had what a somewhat more valid point. “I don’t read [Waitress] as empowering. It condemns abusive behavior from Jenna’s husband and then rewards it from a nerdy suitor of [Dawn] and the crotchety diner owner who bankrolls Jenna’s liberation,” she said.

I take issue with part of this. I don’t consider the initial nastiness of Joe, the diner owner (Andy Griffith in the movie, Dakin Matthews on the stage), to be demonstrably specifically sexist. Although we see him being crabby only with female employees, we also see him in conversation only with female employees. And his generous side is more fully fleshed out in his dance song with Jenna, Take It From an Old Man. Crotchety? Yes. But if there is any real evidence he is truly sexist or abusive, it went right over my head.

The character of Ogie (Christopher Fitzgerald), however, really is in some respects almost everything we are supposed to dislike about Jenna’s grasping husband Earl (creepily portrayed by Nick Cordero). Dawn has gone out on a short date with Ogie, and decided she wants no more of him; Ogie responds to the brushoff with what could almost be a stalker’s theme song, Never Ever Getting Rid of Me, which features lyrics like: “I’m not going. If it seems like I did/ I’m probably waiting outside.” Now I admit that this is roughly like Mama Rose in one of her more endearing moments: “Just try/ And you’re gonna see/ How you’re gonna not at all/ Get away from me.” But Rose is a woman, and like it or not, that makes for a different impression than when a man sings such things.

The only reason audiences accept Ogie’s persistence, to the extent they do, is that Ogie is against all odds correct that he is a good match for Dawn. For instance, the show endows him and Dawn with a shared passion for Revolutionary War lore not found in the movie. And while singing about his devotion, he can simultaneously do a step like a Cotton Eye Joe, which ought to cover a multitude of sins. That said, surely you can’t be entirely feminist if you abandon the rule that no means no?

I’d agree that the feminism in Waitress is not doctrinaire, and lacks a hard edge. The production design is in baby colors, pink and light blue, and in keeping therewith the baby is seen as a burden but also a liberation and fulfillment; the art Jenna practices, the invention of and baking of fabulous pies, is a domestic art; and the sisterhood she achieves is of waitresses, which is to say people whose professional role is servitorial. But feminism must be for moms, for the practitioners of domestic arts, and for the professionally servitorial too, and not just for auteurs and CEOs. Nor is it fair to ignore the fact that in pursuit of integrity and happiness Jenna has rejected not only a monster in her husband Earl but also a terrific if flawed guy, her gynecologist Dr. Pomatter (Drew Gehling), whom she sends back to the wife he has cheated on with her, a rejection that is at once emotionally costly, honorable, and smart. Then too, Jenna’s plight is very explicitly drawn as a consequence of her limited financial resources; maybe Joe is a deus ex machina, but it seems a bit captious to demand of the weak that they fight their way out of a hole without a bit of aid from the strong.

Spare Us the Biopic Conventions

A heroine who might perhaps be more to Soloski’s liking would be Carole King, around whom Beautiful: The Carole King Musical revolves. Beautiful accurately depicts singer/songwriter Carole King’s rise to stardom as a songwriter and performer as springing strictly from her talent. And yet from my perspective, there is a big problem with this show. The many falsehoods in its recounting of the history of King and her circle during the 1960s ultimately sap its success presenting either a feminist tale or showcasing the music.

Why should inaccuracies be of concern? A musical is to some degree a work of fiction, after all. But “biopic” jukebox musicals are in a special category when it comes to historicity, as I have written before in these pages. When you show where the songs came from, you should try to get it right, because the audience cares about the details.

Jukebox musicals are about songs that resonate with us because they were part of the soundtracks of our lives (or for some of us, the lives of our parents, though I was ruefully struck by how the audience at Beautiful was mostly of my vintage). Those of us in the parent generation have participated in the music of the early rock era, whether as creators, concertgoers, or just listeners who first experienced those songs coming out of a cheap monaural AM car radio. We made love to those songs, used them to pattern our longings, our triumphs, and our losses. We are in consequence left with a palpable need to build bridges between our lives and (at least when the jukebox musical is of the biopic subgenre) the lives from which the songs sprang.

We’re not fools; we know performers put on masks. But the masks by themselves are of very little interest to those who attend a biopic musical. Simply recreating a concert, allowing the audience to experience the way the artists presented themselves (think Rain, a faux-Beatles concert), may be an interesting exercise, but it really is not a musical. We care about the lives behind the masks. That care is what’s driven us to follow the gossip about the stars, to stitch together all the fragmentary information about them that has come our way over the years through the media. We want to link our truths to the stars’ truths.

For the audiences of musicals about real musicians, then, a conventional biopic storyline is just another mask that we don’t care about.

That’s what’s wrong with Beautiful. It’s a beautifully-constructed tale which makes heavy use of elements of Carole King’s story and her contemporaries. But it does not actually essay to tell those stories, not really. Putting it bluntly, Beautiful frequently makes a hash of the events in the lives of Ms. King, her former husband and continuing creative partner Gerry Goffin, their close friends and rival songwriters Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, publisher/producer Don Kirshner, and the people around them.

It would take too much space here to play fanboy and go over the details (all apparent when one reads King’s autobiography A Natural Woman), but suffice it to say that the departures from the historical record: a) continuously make Ms. King seem weaker as a human being and less technically masterful as a musician; b) underplay the extent to which Goffin’s problematic sanity, as opposed to his moral failings, contributed to the Goffin-King marital breakup; c) fashion Weil and Mann’s relationship into a marriage-plot to contrast with King and Goffin’s divorce-plot, no matter the harm to the real chronology of events; d) badly misstate the circumstances under which Tapestry, King’s all-time monster album, came to be, thereby making of it more the culmination of a personal journey than what it actually was, another stop along the way of a commercially-savvy journeywoman’s deservedly triumphant career. Etc., etc., etc. What comes out of this meat-grinder is “biopic sausage,” the story of a talented performer who had to overcome emotional naivete and betrayal by a loved one, and because of that experience was able to reach new creative heights. Yes, you have seen this story before. We all have. It’s only a shame we weren’t trusted enough with the messier realities which would have brought us to the same upbeat ending.

That may be so, book author Douglas McGrath might respond, and yet the show’s popularity has led to a respectable longevity. (It happened that the performance I attended was its thousandth, attended by none other than Ms. King herself.) Given all that positive audience response, the show can’t be doing everything wrong, right? To which the answer is of course it’s doing some things, many things, right.

To start with the obvious, even a plot that is standard-issue production line merchandise works, however manipulated we may feel as we respond to it. To the biopic sausage is added a cleverly-wrought evocation of the Brill Building era, when mostly Jewish songsmiths teamed up with mostly black performers to galvanize an industry. And when all else fails, as it does from time to time, there is the music, by King, various collaborators, and Weil and Mann, classics like (among many others) Take Good Care of My Baby, Up on the Roof, On Broadway, You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling, and (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman, frequently presented as though by the original recording artists. The combination of elements is irresistible. And as a bonus, Chilina Kennedy, tasked with channeling Carole King when I saw the show, looks and sounds even more like King than did Jessie Mueller, currently the Waitress, but three years ago the performer who originated Carole.

So yes, there’s a lot to be said for this show. But there could have been a lot more.

Artists First and Foremost

In summary, what generalizations emerge from this sample of woman-centered and -created musicals? First, as noted, all of the primary heroines in these pieces have love lives that are significant to the plot, but it is their roles as artists, not lovers, that we principally respond to. None of them ends up the show with a mate, or in need of one. And it matters to their art that they are female.

In the case of Alison, her first effort at cartooning is a gendered act; an early drawing is critiqued and “improved” almost to death by her father, whose persistent mansplaining would turn it into a conventionally correct work that would fail entirely to express what she wants it to. What she wants is important, as she knows from the first, and we watch her art develop into a unique combination of memory and graphic art synthesized. Jenna’s pies are an artistic medium that might not command much critical esteem in a world where domestic (read female) artistry is disregarded, including by her doltish husband, who recalls “I had my six-string,/ and you had your own thing,/ but I don’t remember what it is.” The music and the dialogue each leave no doubt, however, we are discussing something difficult, inspired, and sublime. Both the historical and the theatrical Carole King’s gender have mattered less to the quality of her art than to the quality of her art/life balance, and that balance too is a particularly, though of course not exclusively, female concern. King was blessed with talent in two separate musical disciplines: composition and performance. Beautiful chronicles the half-reluctant emergence of the second kind of practitioner from the first, always with an eye on that elusive balance.

Each of these shows reinforces, then, the regard specifically female art and artists deserve. It might seem elementary and unnecessary (even patronizing) for these points to be made at this late date, but if they are being stated with such repetition on Broadway right now, it tells us something about contemporary audiences. Particularly when the points are being made by largely or exclusively female creative teams who may be pardoned a bit of an agenda, it would seem that a marker is being laid down. Parity of esteem is being freshly claimed. These works demonstrate that we will all be better off as the claim is more consistently honored.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

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Everyone Gets A Present Courtesy of A CHRISTMAS STORY at Hippodrome

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Everyone Gets A Present Courtesy of A CHRISTMAS STORY at Hippodrome


Posted on BroadwayWorld.com December 7, 2016

The key thing to know about A Christmas Story, The Musical, the national tour of which is now briefly commanding the boards at the Hippodrome, is that it will not offend any lover of the movie – a class comprised of pretty much the entire world. All the elements you want to see – the narration by Jean Shepherd, the Major Award, the flagpole (pictured above), the slugfest with Scut Farkas, the dogs in the kitchen, the Chinese dinner, and every repetition of “You’ll shoot your eye out!” are there, none the worse for your expecting them. The musicalization (book by Joseph Robinette, songs by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, choreography by Warren Carlyle) has not diminished any aspect of the movie; the new material does no damage to the original components.

What you get in addition is the kind of stuff that makes a musical a musical: songs, dances, production numbers. The starting point is our young hero Ralphie’s overactive imagination which, even in the movie, made exaggerated fantasies out of every unrealistic scenario he would conjure up in his single-minded quest for the Holy Grail Christmas present: the Red Ryder BB Gun. Since an exaggerated fantasy is just a production number waiting to happen anyway, you get a huge song-and-dance with the Major Award, duplicated many times over, kicking like a row of chorines. You get an extended Wild West number in which Ralphie, resplendent in white chaps and cowboy hat, envisions the outlaws and lowlifes he’ll straighten out when he gets his BB gun. You get a tap-dancing speakeasy number with his teacher Miss Shields in a flaming red dress slit thigh-high as Ralphie’s vision of how his teacher will love his school essay about the importance of being given a BB gun. And so on. It’s all harmless to the original conception, and much of it very good fun.

The leads are all splendid. The role of Ralphie is shared; on press night, it was Austin Molinaro, who brought the right sense of bespectacled imagination to the part. Mother (Susannah Jones) displays a pleasing warmth and wistfulness. The dad who can be a little thick and talk a little blue (if unintelligibly) as he tries to navigate the challenges of the late Depression is played with dogged doofusness by Christopher Swan. Angelica Richie is outstanding as Miss Shields, switching between the kind of propriety to which an excessive respect for margins on writing paper is second nature and the role of vamp in the aforementioned red dress. Chris Carsten does a fine job in channeling the relaxed and reminiscent Jean Shepherd.

And then there are the kids. The squadron of talented moppets is sort of a new thing. I’m not suggesting by any means that choruses of kids haven’t often been a feature of musicals; think back to The King and I and The Sound of Music. But that was all cute, designed to showcase the cuteness of kids as kids. The comic effect of kids doing adult-style dancing and singing is relatively recent. For that, I don’t think you can go back further than Bob Fosse‘s work in Annie. But there’s more of it now. Think School of Rock, where the kids not only play the instruments like rock stars, but scowl like arena rock heroes as they wield guitars conspicuously designed for larger hands and arms. Here the kids show off insanely good tap-dancing skills, and some impressive choral singing while wearing costumes (gangster suits and fedoras, for example) tailored as if for adults. Juveniles rule.

Being a piece designed for an obvious seasonal window only, A Christmas Story is a bit like the town of Brigadoon, coming to life only during that window. This is the third holiday season in which the musical has been on tour. That mayfly (all right, December fly) existence may be an asset. In a lyric from the show, “The moments come, the moments go, and just like that, the moment’s gone.” The verse is sung by Mother about the preciousness of holidays, but also about the preciousness of her boys’ fleeting childhoods, and that of the family’s moments together. Many of the best things gain their best quality from their transitory nature.

This show may also prove the point.

It must be acknowledged, on the way out, that there is perhaps a serious issue hidden by the tinsel. One could argue that the idealization of the white nuclear family in a Norman Rockwell-ish past in the American heartland privileges a sort of white innocence in a way not desirable in a multi-ethnic national present, characterized as well by many kinds of families. (To be sure, there are a sprinkling of non-white performers in this production, but that is either color-blind casting at work or revisionism, set next to the movie, which was definitely a white family’s story.) Such a criticism has in fact been leveled at a similar show, The Music Man, in Warren Hoffman’s recent book, The Great White Way. In my humble view, however, there’s room to celebrate everything and everybody, including white kids from intact nuclear families in 1940s Indiana. Unapologetically. It’s Christmas. Everyone gets a present.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn except for production photo.

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Bravura LES LIAISONS DANGEREUSES at Center Stage: A Welcome Antidote to Seasonal Good Cheer

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Bravura LES LIAISONS DANGEREUSES at Center Stage: A Welcome Antidote to Seasonal Good Cheer

Brent Harris and Paul Deo, Jr.

Brent Harris and Paul Deo, Jr.

Posted on BroadwayWorld.com December 6, 2016

Center Stage is starting its new season with a bravura flourish: Nothing less challenging than a presentation of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos‘ scandalous epistolary novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses. You have to give the company high marks for moxie. The show is both technically and dramatically demanding, and, over two centuries after the novel came out, still bound to be controversial. No resting on laurels for Center Stage, even as it begins the slow reveal of its newly-renovated home (of which more below).

Back to the show for now. The book has made six unrelated trips to the screen and has been crafted into three different plays or musicals. Despite that history, let’s be honest: does anyone really understand the plot? To follow the schemes cooked up by ancien regime decadents the Marquise de Meurteil (portrayed here by SuzzAnne Douglas) and her former lover and frenemy the Vicomte de Valmont (Brent Harris) you need a libretto and a scorecard. All the reader or theatergoer generally ends up grasping or remembering is that Valmont worms his way into various beds he has no business in, that Valmont and Meurteil have occasion to be incredibly unpleasant to the people caught up in their game and to each other, and that, for some reason, the intrigues lead to some swordplay and death towards the end.

And let us add improbability to the incomprehensibility. Without the benefit of modern psychiatry, Laclos capably nailed a type we now call the psychopath. Meurteil and Valmont both have this personality disorder: that seems clear. Yet Laclos would have it that Valmont at least, if not Meurteil, possesses some genuine appreciation of and attraction to morality, and a capacity for moral regret. Laclos (who seems not to have been a libertine like his heroes) may not have grasped that the psychopath with a true conscience is a nonesuch.

So let’s see: we have byzantine complexity and unreal psychology. Doesn’t sound like the sort of thing that would keep readers and theatergoers keep coming back. Yet somehow, almost inexplicably, this slightly pornographic extravaganza of obscurity and nastiness continues to claim our attention. Never mind why; some things just are that way.

Center Stage’s handsome production does well by the nastiness. Every rococo detail works in Michael Carnahan‘s handsome set (complete with a stunning polished floor), and in Fabio Toblini‘s exquisite gowns. The fencing, directed by Rick Sordelet, seems both lethal and elegant. The opulence of the visuals just makes the decadence gleam the brighter.

The palpable pleasure in Merteuil and Valmont take in their respective villainies is also well conveyed. Even if you can’t exactly call to mind exactly why Meurteuil and Valmont are doing whatever they’re doing to whomever they’re doing it to, you grin because of the way Douglas and Harris convey their characters’ sheer evil elan. Most of the other characters are patsies, in one way or another, but very well-performed patsies: including Cécile Volanges (Noelle Franco) a young convent graduate soon flirting hungrily with ruination, her credulous mother, who follows Merteuil’s every dangerous suggestion (Carine Montbertrand), Mme. De Tourvel (Gillian Williams), whose very nobility of spirit becomes a weapon Valmont uses against her, and Danceny (Paul Deo, Jr.), Meurteuil’s boy-toy, pictured above crossing swords with Valmont, ultimately converted in an unlikely way into Valmont’s instrument of revenge. You believe in them all.

The adaptation, by playwright Christopher Hampton, is capable, but makes questionable choices at the end. If you’ve read the book or seen the movies, you’re expecting Meurteil to receive more of a come-uppance than Hampton provides; for retribution Hampton seems to be counting on the doom awaiting the entire nobility and haute bourgeoisie in the form of the French Revolution, just around the corner at the end of the action, a little too heavily foreshadowed in the last minutes. I think that’s a questionable choice, since Merteuil and Valmont are the snakes in this garden; the society as a whole is not portrayed as a nest of vipers, and the structural injustice of pre-Revolutionary France is barely hinted at. The common disaster awaiting the good and bad ruling class characters alike is thus not a readily apparent righting of wrongs.

In the midst of endless revivals of A Christmas Carol (two of which I’ll shortly be reviewing) and other holiday fare, all overflowing with peace on earth and good will toward men, you may be craving something that sounds a more misanthropic note. If so, Center Stage has just what you need, served up with class and spirit. But hurry; this show will disappear before the eggnog does.

Let me end with two miscellaneous observations.

My one big objection first. If you look at the cast bios in the program, you will not see one single cast member who has previously trodden the boards at Center Stage. Not one. Casting has been performed by an agency out of New York, as was the case with all or most of the shows at Center Stage over the last two years. The previous managing director in an interview a couple of years ago assured me there would more emphasis on local performers. In practice, that has most often meant a) borrowing Bruce Randolph Nelson from Everyman several times and b) otherwise using local performers in ensemble roles, not featured ones. I do not count this as more emphasis on local performers. Once upon a time people who in later years gravitated to Everyman were regulars at Center Stage: Carl Schurr and Wil Love and the late Vivienne Shub and Tana Hicken. Performers who went on to national prominence like Terry O’Quinn and Christine Baranski were nurtured there. Now no one gets nurtured at Center Stage: it’s an endless churn reminiscent of W.S. Gilbert‘s lampoon of “The idiot who praises, with enthusiastic tone/ All centuries but this, and every country but his own.” The performers on the conveyor belt are all talented, and I’m not knocking a one of them, but we’ve never heard of them before and never will again. Most of the bios contain no evidence the players have even played in our region before. Local actors apparently need not apply. Believe it or not, Center Stage, we Baltimore theater people do pick up on the New York disrespect.

The beginning of this season is late this year, because of the extensive work being done on the building. But so far, there is still nothing to see. The hallway from front door to the portals of the Pearlstone Theater is a sheetrock waste, without bar or café, without seating, without anything except a narrowed passage to the Pearlstone auditorium which, so far as I can tell, has not been altered. The word I heard is that the renovations will finish up in February. We in the audience are all anxiously agog, but we shall all just have to wait until the next show. My best advice during this show, however, is: Don’t come early: there’s nowhere to sit before they open the doors.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn except for production photo. Photo credit: Richard Anderson

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High School Hunger Games Played for Laughs: SCHOOLGIRL FIGURE at Cohesion

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High School Hunger Games Played for Laughs: SCHOOLGIRL FIGURE at Cohesion

Tatiana Nya Ford and Chara Bauer

Tatiana Nya Ford and Chara Bauer

Posted on BroadwayWorld.com November 21, 2016

Wendy MacLeod‘s play Schoolgirl Figure, gracing the performance space at United Evangelical Church for three weeks, is a natural choice for a fringe troupe. Its subject is sensitive and controversial, the tone is on beyond irreverent, and accordingly no company that produces it need feel bound by any sense of reverence toward the script either. But that is not to say that every approach will work equally well. The version presented by local fringe outfit Cohesion Theatre Company, directed by Jonas David Grey, reflects some of these challenges.

Set in a high school where certain girls, banded together as The Carpenters, are in an anorexia/bulimia competition, where the intermediate prize is to date the hunky The Brad (Flynn Harne) and the longer-term prize is death by malnutrition, the show follows the battle between the utterly unscrupulous uber-bitch Renee (Tatiana Nya Ford) and fierce competitor Jeanine (Emily Sucher) to succeed Monique, the late victor in these hunger games (Jane Jongeward), as The Brad’s choice. Patty (Chara Bauer) is ostensibly a competitor herself, but her real role in life is to serve as Renee’s wingwoman, and the dilemma constantly thrust upon her is whether to let her appetite (which generally wins out over her anorexic aspirations) and her sense of decency (constantly outraged by Renee’s deceptions) overrule what Renee wants her to do. Watching over and commenting upon these goings-on – in rhymed couplets – are the ghosts of Monique and (on the video) the two girls who preceded her in starvation. Along the way, various adults portrayed by Terrance Fleming and Alice Stanley are hoodwinked and coopted to participate in the fun.

Obviously, there are serious things that can be said about eating disorders and their connection to American ideals of the female body image, and some of these statements do eventually get made, more or less directly, at the end. But MacLeod is writing more a black comedy than an issues play. The total insanity of the Carpenters’ activities is handled more as a given than the point of the show. In fact, the play often seems more like a sitcom than a jeremiad.

The resulting strange tone would present problems for any director and cast, and it is hardly a grave criticism to say that the Cohesion folks sometimes seem to wobble. I think partly this is due to what is, in this context, unconventional casting. One of the actresses playing the three living contestants is just skinny enough to be convincing as an anorexic, but the other two are not, despite dialogue that describes them as underweight and flat-chested. I empathize with the director’s likely angst in casting these parts, since the actresses (Ford and Bauer) are otherwise perfect for their roles. Ford has a wonderful trick of slowing down and speaking every word by itself to lengthen the time available for her character’s fertile mind to eke out the next outrageous lie, and Bauer has the knack of conveying a girl torn between loyalty to her friend and fundamental human decency (usually the losing tendency). You want these players in these roles, even though they don’t look the part(s). But this is one of those contexts where if you don’t look the part, the inauthenticity will take some kind of toll. (I saw a production of Harvey in Minneapolis this spring with something similar: an Asian-American actress in a part that was supposed to be a gentle comic sendup of the foibles of the mid-20th Century WASP gentry. She was not believably the daughter of the woman with whom she was having WASP-y mother issues. You got past it, mostly, but the impersonation suffered, unfair though this may have been.)

And even though you applaud when the characters finally band together and speak out at the end about the pervasive body shaming that provides the setting in which eating disorders take shape, there are lines earlier like “Thank God [the media] are upholding standards,” said by a character who apparently means it when she says it. So which is the character’s real outlook? Hard to know.

Do we really need a coherent script? Probably not. Coherence can be overrated. And one of the joys of the try-anything approach of the Cohesion people over the last couple of years has been their willingness to take on projects where the chance of perfect polish is small, but the opportunity for showing you something you haven’t seen before is great. Schoolgirl Figureexemplifies “something you haven’t seen before.” Out there for two decades, it is still a show I hadn’t heard of before, and I’ll bet you, dear reader, had not heard of it either. It’s transgressive, it’s funny, and it provides (to borrow a slogan from a Las Vegas casino) just the right amount of wrong. You cannot also require it to be the kind of well-oiled dramatic machine one sees on Broadway.

So that’s that. Go see it. Your funny bone will thank you.

And let me mention on the way out: Casey Dutt’s hilarious Cinderella/Barbie pink set and the well-selected and humorously topical pop music videos (from acts like Garbage and Pink) that serve as overture, entr’acte, and exit music.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for production photo.

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