entire contents copyright 1996 by Larry Stark
Sometimes, without the pressure to get a review written quickly, it's easy to let the everyday pressures shove ideas into the background, where they sit half-digested and warring for precedence. It was July 27th, over a week ago now, that I saw the closing-night's performance at The Weston Drama Workshop --- MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG, with Book by George Furth and Music & Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.
To review a show on its closing night would be irrelevant, but I had gone fully expecting to say Something at least, and came away with two or three lead-paragraphs fighting it out. As usual, when there's a lot you can say, nothing gets written.
I knew the music but not the book --- and I had been told it was an interesting, unplayable idea that had failed on Broadway. It was done, though, by a huge cast of school-kids --- high school or younger --- who had been working for only about a month or so to get this and two other shows up for a flurry of repertory-style performances. (That very afternoon had seen the final performace of THE COMEDY OF ERRORS and BABES IN TOYLAND.) The large Curry College auditorium, with an enormous stage and excellent accoustics, was as new to me as the play and the company and the production-schedule and the concept of young theater. Which of them should I talk about?
Well, I must say that the cast was audible and comprehended even from well back in the house, that focus and concentration was everywhere excellent, there were creditably good performances and effective moments, that the worst part of the evening was the clack over-enthusiastically cheering for friends in the cast from behind us --- and that I wish I had had as great a time as the kids on stage and in the audience did.
It took me all this time to figure out the real question: for whose benefit was this evening's performance, anyway?
Obviously not Furth and Sondheim's. Giving a show that paid professionals, even with Hal Prince directing, couldn't make work to a cast so young is loading the dice in the wrong direction. I think I learned enough about the show's flaws that night, but nothing about what a fresh, imaginative new director's eye might see that could give this legendary ugly duckling a fresh professional chance.
And despite the applause and the cheering, despite the bows and the bouquets and the laughs in the right places, this was less a performance for an audience than an audience in service to the performance.
Theater is a dialog between performance and audience. Without an audience, even the best performance is merely a rehearsal, because the object of the game is to move an audience.
Here, however, the audience was present so that a performance and not a rehearsal could take place. The really important work had been the preparation; that huge cast had learned much more about themselves, and about the skills and craft and disciplines and cooperation involved in making theater before the curtain went up than after. The performances had become, in a sense, the final exam for the seminar.
And that, I think accounts for the vaguely unfulfilled feeling I had as audience that night. I was being shown the level of learned proficiencies that, in other shows and under other circumstances, these kids could use on other audiences. And instead of saying "Look what I've learned I can do" they will find themselves saying to that next audience "Let's find out what we can do together."
Next time there may not be so many cheers; but what comes out of the darkness toward them will be, not appreciation, but involvement.
At least, if they learned anything at all about real theater out of their Weston Drama Workshop experiences.