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CurtainUp DC  Report: April 1998
Part 1: A Nice Fixer-Upper

by Les Gutman

April DC Report Topics
NOTE: The April Report is divided into two parts. (The second part will be posted toward the middle of the month.) Click on the links below to go directly to all of the topics once they are posted.

The Fix, by John Dempsey and Dana P. Rowe
Design for Washington Theatre
Man, Woman, Dinosaur, by Regina Porter - in Part 2
Web pages mentioned in this report

British musical theater wizard Cameron Mackintosh selected Signature Theatre and its Artistic Director, Eric Schaeffer, to present the American premiere of the new musical, The Fix. After less-than-glowing reviews in London (see CurtainUp's London Notes, linked at the end of this report, for a review as well as a survey of other reviews), Mackintosh deserves a great deal of credit not only for nurturing the work of The Fix's young writers but also for standing behind a show he believes in. Was his faith warranted? We think so.
Review: The Fix
Above the entrance to the Signature Theater, they have installed a bold-lettered poster with the words "WHATEVER IT TAKES" on it. It expresses director Eric Schaeffer's reduction of this new musical's theme to just three words, and may plausibly serve as his marching orders as well. The sign is this production's equivalent of that now-famous one in the "war room" of the Clinton presidential campaign reminding staffers,  "It's the economy, stupid!".

Schaeffer's efficient condensation of the show to its least common denominator also gives a clue as to why he has become the Mr. Fix-It of musical theater. He knows how to grab an audience's attention and keep it focused on a core notion that reverberates until the curtain call. Behind the flashy facades of many of this play's characters resides a story that is as ugly as it is true. Whatever it took, Schaeffer got it.

The Fix is about the Chandlers, who remind us (less than subtly) of the Kennedys, with doses of the Reagans and the Clintons thrown in for good measure. Senator Reed Chandler (Jim Walton), about to be elected President of the United States, dies in the arms of his mistress (Mary Jayne Raleigh). Before his body has a chance to cool, his widow, Violet (Linda Balgord), declares, "if I can't be the wife of the president, you can bet your ass I'll be his mother." Thus, the future of her less-than-ambitious son, Cal (Stephen Bienskie), is determined. Violet and her political manipulator of a brother-in-law, Grahame (Sal Mistretta), plot Cal's reluctant ascendancy through City Council, the Governor's mansion and the Senate, enroute to the White House. It's a trail frustrated as much as abetted by the family demons, here cleverly, amusingly and hauntingly embodied in Cal's ever-looming dead father. Cal's appetite for sex and drugs is seemingly exceeded only by his lust for the "control" high political office affords.

There is a temptation to dismiss as preposterous much of the Chandler family recklessness as well as the crudity of its political maneuvering. The exaggerated, often cartoonish, staging quite intentionally feeds that temptation, as does the cynicism of Grahame, the family's equivalent of Richard III: a lame, gay, stuttering political tactician. But this is Lewis Carroll, not Dick Tracy, and we are in America, not Britain. (Small wonder the London critics found the plot implausible. "Whatever it takes" is as quintessentially American as apple pie, the Duke of Gloucester notwithstanding.) Bags of cocaine, sex with strippers, mob ties, cover-ups, spin: those who deem this theater of the absurd might want to check out the nightly news.

There is another temptation here, and it is to declare the production better than its material. I'd prefer to say Schaeffer and company have added some much-needed sugar to Dempsey and Rowe's bitter pill. This is not a very pleasant story, and it comes close to lacking a single character for whom you can conjure up an ounce of affection or even sympathy -- the only exception being young Cal, Jr. (Joel Carron), who doesn't make his way to the stage until the finale. It's hard to fault the writers for telling the truth, but it sure is easier to take when it's been taken so far over the top.

The book has its faults. The first act holds together pretty well with only Cal's unnecessary "Don't Blame the Prince" number slowing the momentum, which is quickly redeemed by the terrifically-staged Act One closer, "Dangerous Games." The second act leaps from crisis to resolution and back to crisis with only Schaeffer's showmanship and the cast's exceptionally able work to hold it together.

Although The Fix has been described as a rock score, Dempsey and Rowe seem most comfortable with fairly traditional musical theater forms, virtually all of which have found a place in the show. Except for Cal's disappointing first song, "One, Two, Three," for which rock is the logical choice, rock openings are generally teases, quickly transformed into song-and-dance ("Control"), gospel ("Simple Word"/"Alleluia") and the like. The song most likely to be remembered, "Two Guys at Harvard," is undiluted vaudeville. (Even if audiences don't remember the words, they won't soon forget Sal Mistretta's remarkable dance on crutches.)

Overall, the music and lyrics are appealing if not eye-poppingly inventive. A good song occasionally gets in the way of the story. There's no reason, for example for Cal's mistress, Tina (Natalie Toro), to sing her third solo, "Mistress of Deception" late in the second act. More often, however, -- even in the midst of all of the wild antics Schaeffer has staged -- songs fine-tune our understanding of the characters, providing sophisticated insight often lacking in musicals. (Grahame may look like a cartoon character with his garish, color-coordinated socks and ties, but when he sings in "Mercy Me" that "one man's mercy is another man's shame," we learn a great deal about what makes him tick.

The Fix could be viewed as a framed picture of Cal Chandler: Violet and Grahame at his side, his father Reed above and his mistress Tina below. We view Cal though our own lens and, whatever can be said of the rest,  he is exceedingly believable. Stephen Bienskie, like the best politicians, could charm the brightly-colored socks off even the most skeptical among us - and can sing a lovely ballad too. Balgord's powerfully voiced Violet is a vivid image, bringing to mind equal parts Natasha (from the cartoon Rocky and Bulwinkle), Lady Macbeth and Alexa Vere de Veer (from the current off-Broadway hit, As Bees in Honey Drown, linked below). Her line, "I'm a firm believer in not having to play the hand your dealt," could have been lifted straight out of Alexa's quip book. Sal Mistretta's Grahame is simply perfect, missing none of the cynicism, humor or irony his character affords as he seeks to direct, choreograph and stage manage Cal's life. Walton and Toro acquit themselves with precision as well.

Two creative elements warrant special mention. Charles Augins's choreography walks away from none of the manifold comic opportunities the material provides, and remains somehow agile despite having to herd upwards of twenty bodies around Signature's small, narrow stage. Within the limits of that stage, Lou Stancari has created a set that imaginatively evokes a post-Apocalyptic Romanesque Washington. With fallen arches and skewed lines it looks great. Filled as it is with nooks and crannies, doors and even halls, it also functions well. Stancari has found the needed extra dimension to expand this show's large-stage needs.

Cameron Mackintosh's dollars (or, I suppose, pounds) are spread all over this production. Obviously, he didn't underwrite this production to provide The Fix with a suitable swan song. While it's anybody's guess where it goes from here, an eventual home in New York seems fairly obvious. My own gripes (some of which may yet be addressed) and its rocky start in London notwithstanding, I'd judge The Fix to be one of the more significant additions to the musical theater canon in the last few years. I can't imagine that it won't find an enthusiastic audience.
by John Dempsey and Dana P.  Rowe 
starring Linda Balgord, Stephen Bienskie, Sal Mistretta and Jim Walton 
with Anthony Galde, Jon Garcia, Amy McWilliams, Donna Migliaccio, Lawrence Redmond, Natalie Toro and 14 others 
Directed by Eric D. Schaeffer 
Choreography: Charles Augins 
Set Design: Lou Stancari 
Costumes: Anne Kennedy 
Lighting: Daniel MacLean Wagner 
Signature Theatre, 3806 South Four Mile Run Drive, Arlington (703) 218-6500 
March 17 - April 26, 1998 
Reviewed by Les Gutman
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Design for Washington Theatre
As hard as we try not to, theater criticism invariably gives short shrift to the talented people who design the shows we enjoy so much. This month, there's a great opportunity to appreciate and learn more about these crafts, while re-visiting some of the major DC shows of recent years. Until May 9, the Ellipse Arts Center in Arlington (4350 North Fairfax Drive, one block west of the Ballston Metro Station, Telephone (703) 228-7710) will host an exhibition of scenery and costumes from over 30 shows.
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Links to Web Pages Mentioned in this Report
CurtainUp's London review of The Fix
CurtainUp's review of  As Bees in Honey Drown

©April 1998, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp
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