This musical hodgepodge at the American Repertory Theater could be called ‘Let’s Sing About Me (and Me, and Then More About Me).’
ExtraOrdinary by Dick Scanlan (based on interviews with the company). Directed by Diane Paulus. Music Directed by Lance Horne. Staged by the American Repertory Theater, Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle St., Cambridge, MA, through November 30.
By Robert Israel
ExtraOrdinary should be retitled Song of Myself (with apologies to Walt Whitman). Or, more accurately, it could be called Let’s Sing About Me (and Me, and Then More About Me). Wrapped around the Thanksgiving holiday, this self-congratulatory, self-indulgent evening at the Loeb Drama Center is mainly dedicated to celebrating the American Repertory Theater and its resident Maxi-‘Me’ — artistic director Diane Paulus. It is made up of musical selections drawn from previously produced A.R.T. productions and is structured along the lines of Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade, when casts from Broadway shows strut their stuff before the cameras. The expectation is to “wow” the audience members to the point that they will want to pony-up and buy tickets for extravaganzas to come. Surely a nosh will lead to ordering a full meal.
We’re supposed to be swept away by the high tide of talent and want more, more, and more. Yes, the live onstage orchestra provides rousing accompaniment for a cast of seven (with a special guest the night I attended) who contribute their rapturous singing voices (and, in some cases, commanding hoofer skills). But there’s nothing new here, aside from the sheer nerve of the show’s blatant branding. Like the Macy’s Thanksgiving march of oversized balloons, it’s commercialism, overblown. By dipping into the repertory of previously produced musicals over a ten-year period, what we get is the shellacking of the audience’s collective memory lanes, with a nod to those who — heaven forefend! — haven’t seen the shows so they’ll be encouraged by the evening’s end to plunk down greenbacks to attend a new staging.
This concept might work if there were more there there, perhaps a central thread woven among the numbers. But this is not the case. Instead of, let’s say, the writer weaving a narrative about how the musicals were birthed, we get the personal stories of the performers. The expectation is that we’ll sit with anticipation as one player finishes and the next readies his/her personal history. OK, here’s what we learn: one performer graduated NYU, got married, and is expecting a baby; another performer is a new mom; another sang in the church. Ho hum: nothing very “extraordinary” here at all.
This thin concept is stretched to the snapping point by an awkward introduction in which the performers remind us that A.R.T. has produced “33 musicals in ten years time!” What follows is more grandstanding: a cast member asks the audience if they have seen this or that particular production, gesticulating with his or her hand to elicit applause. There’s an onstage appearance of a dog, gussied up with a holiday ribbon; the animal enters and then exists, stage left. (If there’s an explanation for Fido’s appearance, I missed it). A stage manager, like the aforementioned dog, slinks onstage for several cameos; she becomes the brunt of insider jokes, holds up cue cards to remind us of the shows we may or may not have seen, and at one point reminds us it’s time for an intermission. Thankfully, she (and the dog) are absent during the second act.
Finally, we get to hear some glorious singing, such as the spellbinding moment when Bryonha Marie Parham croons “Summertime” from The Gershwins’ Porgy & Bess. The audience is hushed during her performance. This is followed by a raucous number starring MJ Rodriguez, who shows us how to really bust a move. Alas, a selection from the musical Woody Sez: The Life and Times of Woody Guthrie comes along and the maudlin cast stories return with a vengeance. Each player mawkishly explains what each verse means before singing it. The result: a limp attempt to make the American folk song inspire collective patriotism.
The showstopper moments arrive when Patina Miller, who appeared in the A.R.T.’s 2012 production of Pippin, takes the stage like a Nor’easter, and revs up the house with her powerful talent and flawless musical chops. Most of the evening’s other performers, all of them well intentioned and talented, pale in comparison.
A few moments from a stellar performer does not make for something ExtraOrdinary. Heartfelt stories don’t generate the requisite engagement. What’s really missing here is revealing — a belief in audiences. They should be trusted to experience a song, skit, snippet, or routine without being pumped up to feel an emotion beforehand. They will respond to the extraordinary — when they see it.
Robert Israel writes about theater, travel, and the arts, and is a member of Independent Reviewers of New England (IRNE). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.