By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
South Pacific is the first full-scale musical Richard Hamburger has ever directed, and he will be cut much slack because of the love audiences bring to an oft-hummed Rodgers and Hammerstein "classic." That's the thing about so many musicals that bugs the hell out of me: So often they are cocky, self-satisfied, and assured of my affection from the first note sung. Although I was familiar with much of the music, I had never seen South Pacific before, on film or stage; that will make me either an undereducated theater critic or a fresh witness, depending on how much you revere Rodgers and Hammerstein. I don't, although Hamburger and the singers he brought together make a smashing case for the cleverness and buoyancy of Rodgers' music and Hammerstein's lyrics. If only the scattered, disparate performances in this expensive show had formed a similarly coherent defense for the legendary musical partners' dramatic skills.
South Pacific runs through May 2. Call (214) 522-TIXX
Here's a scandalous confession: The longer I stay a theater critic, the more it dawns on me what the role of a theater director is. A rather outspoken Houston stage director sent me an angry letter about a year ago, declaring that because I'd failed to credit a show's director in a rave I gave to a Dallas performance (the actor was Terry Martin in The Only Thing Worse You Could Have Told Me, and the director was Mark Fleischer), my review was "unprintable."
I will never know who, between Martin and Fleischer, should take more responsibility for that dazzling one-man show, but I think I've begun to detect some Dallas directors' particular influence on a given play: It's not so much in the individual performances, but in the way the performers interact. Bruce Coleman of New Theater Company and Theatre Three was the first to divert my attention toward his invisible self in a play--even during an inferior show, the characters in his plays seem to know one another, to be speaking to rather than at each other. After just two plays, I'm beginning to feel the same about William Peyton, who achieves another improbable success with Lean Theater's The Road to Nirvana. Theater is rumored to be an actor's medium, but when a director can help actors understand and enliven their lines, you are forced to question who deserves the salute for an enjoyable evening.
Peyton coached Nance Watkins to give a strong performance as a monosyllabic raccoon girl in Lean's last show, Lloyd's Prayer, and here he midwifes a far different--but just as pleasurable--job from Watkins. She plays a stiff-backed, spoiled, self-aggrandizing rock star who has two movie producers--veteran Al (Thurman Moss) and greenhorn Jerry (Marc Hebert)--doing whatever she asks to option her screenplay of Moby Dick (it's her life story, and it's also about the search for a giant white phallus instead of a giant white whale).
In fact, Watkins seems more natural and comfortable within her role than either Moss or Hebert, whom we never honestly believe in their respective parts. At the same time, they spend a good part of the long first act firing one-liners back and forth at each other in a most satisfying way. If it's up to actors to play virtuoso guitar solos, directors are often delegated to play rhythm guitar: Peyton seems to provide this backbone, because Moss and Hebert quickly master their material to the extent that I had to either surrender my doubt or risk not having nearly as good a time as the other ticket-buyers had during Arthur Kopit's scatological comedy. And if you are as hungry as I am for satire on the not-satirized-enough macho genre of David Mamet, then you don't want to waive the chance to laugh this hard. Most of the audience succumbed on opening night.
Think "sitcom," not theater, and you should be just fine for the tartly funny if rather plastic performances of The Road to Nirvana. Really, that's not intended as an insult to director William Peyton and the actors; this show lacerates the cult of celebrity, and in doing so must use methods as suitably shallow and shocking as the subject. And the Lean Theater doesn't disappoint in its methodology. If you want to hear a two-hour dirty joke that doesn't get boring, take a stroll downstairs into Theatre Three's basement.
The Road to Nirvana runs through May 8. Call (214) 871-3300.
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