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Review: ‘Fade’ and ‘Big River’ Off-Broadway; Broadway Directors At The Metropolitan Opera

Deadline logo Deadline 2/10/2017 Jeremy Gerard
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The tradition of New York playwrights biting the Hollywood hand that feeds them is as tried as the fizzy comedies of Kaufman & Hart (Light Up The Sky, Once In A Lifetime) and true as the biting satires of Theresa Rebeck (The Family Of Mann) and Douglas Carter Beane (The Little Dog Laughed). Add to that list Tanya Saracho, whose funny, sharply written new play Fade (at off-Broadway’s estimable Primary Stages, in residence at the Cherry Lane Theater) is set at a Hollywood studio and probably bears a close resemblance to her experience as a writer on such shows as Lifetime’s Devious Maids, HBO’s Looking and Girls, and ABC’s How To Get Away With Murder. A Chicago-based playwright, Saracho also has developments projects at Fox and Starz.

Like Saracho, young Lucia (Annie Dow), the heroine of Fade, was born in Mexico and reared in the US with middle-class virtues, a good education and an appreciation of the difference between Northern and Southen Mexican cuisine. After achieving some acclaim for her first novel, she’s been hired as a junior-level writer on a sitcom whose central figure is Latina. Lucia’s fellow writers, a back-biting, ladder-climbing lot, never let her forget that she’s the diversity hire, and when her boss call her upstairs to the big office, it’s not for a meeting but to act as translator for  the maid at home, who just can’t get the knack of his precise instructions for fanning his “periodicals” each morning.

Lucia finds a sounding board in Abel (Eddie Martinez, of Netflix’s Sense8), who is seen most often wielding a vacuum cleaner hose. He’s the night janitor, American-born of Mexican descent, raised in a tough L.A. neighborhood. Finding Lucia’s attempts at connection disingenuous – she starts speaking to him in Spanish right off the bat and suggests they have more in common than they in fact have – Abel is at first stand-offish. But she’s smart, funny and angry, and eventually he comes around, listening to her rants and giving her advice. They share one late-night smooch.

Lucia however has begun her ascent to the top floor, and like many of Rebeck’s heroines, she quickly sees the advantage of emulating the ruthless ambition of those above her, which is to say, of men. This one-act two-hander begins in flash-card scenes that seem sitcom-ready, but Lucia and Eddie’s later duets have real punch and sting. The crisp staging by Jerry Ruiz rolls with the jagged pacing deftly. Dow and Martinez are terrific, his long, slow burn a foil to her staccato chatter and mixed-message body language. The ironically titled Fade ends on a predictably bitter note that leaves unexplored the questions raised earlier about class versus genetics — but it’s Saracho’s play, after all, and not mine.

The Encores! production of Big River is, in a word, perfect. And, in a few other words, moving, powerful and exhilarating. This 1985 musical adaptation of The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn marked the Broadway triumph of the great songwriter Roger Miller, teamed here with fellow Texan William Hauptman, who wrote the book. A fine, gorgeously designed show, it won a boatload of Tonys, including Best Musical. Miller, who died in 1992, won for a score suffused with his wicked pop-country sensibility while stretching his talent with Broadway-worthy ballads, choral numbers and roof-raisers. It was followed by a memorable 2003 Roundabout Theatre Company revival originated by Deaf West Theatre.

Big River shorthands Mark Twain while honoring the spirit of the novel, especially in developing the complicated relationship between Huck and the runaway slave, Jim. This superb version, adapted by Rocco Landesman (a producer of the original), is staged by Lear deBessonet, who has done miraculous work at the Public Theater. It’s spirited and lively and the cast couldn’t be better: up-and-comer Nicholas Barasch as the game but sometimes conflicted Huck; Kyle Scatliffe resonant and powerful as Jim; and a supporting cast of veterans that makes meals of every role. It also was nice to be reminded that Broadway scores come in many forms, and one that calls for slide guitar, harmonica and mouth harp can be irresistible. The show runs only through this weekend.

And speaking of music: Lassoing Broadway directors into service has been a controversial hallmark of Peter Gelb’s tenure at the Metropolitan Opera, yielding, year-to-year, mixed results, But this season is looking like payoff time for the effort. Bartlett Sher (Fiddler On The Roof, The King And I) is now a veteran of the company (with a triumphant Otello as a benchmark), and his new production of Gounod’s Romeo Et Juliette, conducted by a very animated Gianandrea Noseda, is captivating. Sher was blessed with Vittoria Grigolo and Diana Damrau in the title roles, between whom real sparks flew, abetted by powerful performances from Laurent Naouri, as Capulet, Diego Silva as Tybalt and especially David Crawford as Paris.

The opera frankly makes a hash of Shakespeare but the music is beautiful and while Michael Yeargan’s brooding single set is atypically stolid, the lighting by Jennifer Tipton and Catherine Zuber’s costumes add much needed variety. Most important, Sher’s contribution is evident in the detail work between the two leads, and fine filigree that makes the crowd scenes, notably the ball and brawl of the first and third acts respectively, movingly organic.

Mary Zimmerman (Broadway’s Metamorphosis) is also by now a Met vet, and her new production of Dvořák’s Rusalka is her best work yet. Zimmerman is a highly visual artist, which makes her and this dark version of the Hans Christian Andersen tale of The Little Mermaid a great match. Once again, a fine pairing – of Kristine Opolais in the title role of a water nymph who trades her voice for human mortality, and Brandon Jovanovich as the fickle Prince she’s in love with – made the evening dreamy in romanticism. Jovanovich in particular was magnificent, navigating the Prince’s journey from infatuation through deception and finally to doomed love, with real power. And if Opolais won’t replace the memory of Renée Fleming in the title role, that may be an impossible standard. Nevertheless, Opolais came through with the goods when needed. Mention also must be made of bass-baritone Eric Owens, superb as Rusalka’s heartbroken father.

The production is exquisite, designed by Daniel Ostling, lit by T.J. Gerckens and, best of all, costumed by Mara Blumenfeld with elegance and, in the case of Rusalka’s fellow creatures, sexy wit. The conductor is Sir Mark Elder.

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