Rain Drips With Beatles Nostalgia, While Freakshow and Misanthrope Make for Hard Day's Nights at the Theater
Something funny, sad but a little bit wonderful happens between audience and players in Rain: The Beatles Experience, the musical tribute show winding up a nearly sold-out run at the Music Hall at Fair Park. Not for a second do the four singer-musicians portraying the John, Paul, George and Ringo of the 1960s ever look like the originals. They're too old, for a start. A couple of Rain's stars have been touring together since the early 1980s, putting them near or over 50. When they're decked out in the cigarette pants and winkle-picker boots for the opening The Ed Sullivan Show sequence—a flashback to February 1964 when the Beatles were in their early 20s—the huge close-ups of the Rain guys on the stage-side video screens reveal fleshy jowls, droopy chins and thickened waistlines. This Flab Four looks more like the paunchy Osmonds of today than the whippet-slim Moptops of yesteryear.
More important is whether they sing and play anything like the Fab Four. They do sound closer than they look. Joey Curatolo approximates Paul McCartney's flat Liverpudlian accent, and he hits the high "woos" on "I Saw Her Standing There." He's a keen guitar player too, even though he's holding a right-handed instrument (Paul's a leftie). Ralph Castelli bobs his head as he drums with Ringo's trademark precision moves, and he gets the right nasally, slightly off-key tone singing "With a Little Help from My Friends." With the other two—Steve Landes as John and Joe Bithorn as George in most performances, with others subbing at matinees—it's strictly make-believe.
Donning various wigs, mustaches and Nehru coats as they evolve into Sgt. Pepper land and then embark on the Magical Mystery Tour, the Rain band daytrips through 26 of the group's hits, from "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" to "Let It Be." They may be faking the English vowels, but they play and sing live, with only a little boost from recorded musical effects now and then.
As big jukebox shows go, Rain benefits from a sold lineup of familiar tunes and the built-in nostalgia factor. This is the music of our lives—if you're old enough to remember Sputnik and Maypo—and hearing it, even performed by a Fab Faux, can bring back some of the tender blush of youth.
If only Rain's arrangements weren't so sluggish and the performers captured more of the Beatles' madcap comic sparkle. On those early Sullivan shows (now stored for posterity on YouTube), the boys exuded a sexy-funny-flirty vibe that came right through the camera lens. That's what made the little girls scream, not John, Paul and George's perfect three-part harmony on "This Boy." It was lightning in a bottle.
The Rain guys don't have that special "it," but here's the weird and wondrous part: The audience accepts that they're seeing less-than-perfect facsimiles, and they love them anyway. By the third or fourth song, people sing along (at the band's urging) at the top of their lungs. "You guys rock!" yelled a guy in Row Q at the Sunday matinee. "Dallas rocks!" answered fake Paul.
A few times, again at the band's prompting, the ladies in the near-capacity crowd let out with the shrieks, just like they probably did in front of their black-and-white TVs when Sullivan introduced the Beatles as "fine youngsters." Now both the audience and the band onstage are oldsters. But it doesn't matter. Or hardly matters. Instead of rocking out, these Beatle-less fans rock back into the cushy seats at the Music Hall and are a little hesitant when "Paul" tells everyone to jump up and dance on "Twist and Shout." Yeah, yeah, yeah, it just takes a little effort to get the hips in gear.
There were middle-aged women in tears at Rain, some heaving the same sloppy sobs you see those teenage girls racked with on the old Ed Sullivan footage. Maybe they cry at the music—the simple miracle that is "Yesterday," nicely sung by Curatolo, still packs powerful juju—or maybe it's a blubbery reaction to the memory of how they felt when they first heard the songs way back then. Actors often talk about muscle memory. Beatles music, played this closely to the real thing, stirs something deep inside.
At the end of Rain, the band does an extended "Hey Jude." When they get to the "na-na-na," the video cameras turn to the audience. At the Sunday matinee, the screen showed lots of arms in the air, all waving in rhythm over gray heads. And get this: There were canes waving too. Canes.
The music of "Hey Jude" swelled, and the singing got louder. "Take a sad song and make it better," everyone sang. Up on that stage were four guys playing chords that somehow could make time disappear. And up on the screens, in shots of the crowd, every face looked really, really happy.
Sometimes I wonder why theaters choose plays that dwell on the ugliest aspects of humanity. Don't we go to the theater to escape? And then I see something such as Freakshow, the new production at the Bath House by Core Performance Manufactory, and I am convinced that companies do these scripts to test the patience of both audience and actors.
Carson Kreitzer's decade-old play, directed here by Elizabeth Ware, begins with this statement from Amalia, a sideshow attraction missing her arms and legs: "You are wondering if I've ever had sexual intercourse."
Um, no, I was wondering how you zipped up your dress.
Amalia goes on to describe in gritty detail how she does the dirty deed and with whom. To paraphrase: She may not have hands, but she has a strong grip where it counts, and she uses it on plenty of men.
Morgana Shaw plays the tarty torso perched on a table with her limbs camouflaged behind and below. The actress stays that way for 105 minutes (no intermish), telling her tales of life on the carny circuit. She gets one good laugh: "I'd gladly commit murder to be able to scratch my nose." Just staying still like that for so long must be murder for the actress.
Behind Amalia sits Pinhead (M. Shane Hurst), a mentally disabled man-child who sings beautifully from his filthy cage. Aquaboy, the Human Salamander (Sachin Patel), has spent so much of his life in a tank he's grown gills and is afraid to breathe air. Judith the Dog-Faced Girl (Lulu Ward) came to circus life as an abandoned child with a cleft lip. The only "normal" characters are sideshow owner Mr. Flip (Kent Williams), who's always on the lookout for a new freak act, and Matthew (Daniel R. States), who sweeps up after the animals and spends his nights with Amalia.
Nothing much happens in Freakshow. Under murky lighting (by Kellene Linnenburger), these creepy characters speak and move excruciatingly slow, telling long, sad stories about their lives. Whole caravans could pass during the pauses. I kept hoping one would, rolling over torso girl, Aquaboy and the other geeks and putting them out of their and our misery.
Dallas Theater Center ends its current season with a 342-year-old comedy about a man who hates other people and disdains happiness. Molière's The Misanthrope looks fancy and sounds fruity-snooty, what with its dialogue composed of hundreds of "alexandrines"—rhyming couplets of 12-syllable phrases. But like its title character, the production is fun-challenged.
Directed by David Kennedy, soon to depart as associate artistic director at DTC, this Misanthrope is a hopeless mishmash of acting styles and silly visual jokes. Scattered around the gorgeous period drawing room set by Lee Savage are intentional anachronisms. Chanel shopping bags. Piñatas. Plexiglas chairs. As a statement on consumer indulgence or as easy sight gags, the props end up as distracting clutter.
In the title role, out-of-town hire-in Adrian LaTourelle has the tough task of playing an unlikable man. He's good at that, but his perpetually grumpy Alceste should also gin up some sympathy for himself. What shattered his spirit? Lawsuits filed by the poet he offended with his too-honest critique? The lavish attention his girlfriend (the squeaky Kelly Mares) pays other men? LaTourelle just makes him a big jerk for no reason.
Nice work by local actors Regan Adair and Matthew Gray, playing varying degrees of fops. Jessica D. Turner is, as always, lovely to look at and careful with her diction. Matt Lyles stumbles on as a harried messenger. He gets more laughs in two minutes onstage than LaTourelle gets in two hours.
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