Andrew Hamm: the Bipolar Express

Ruminations on theatre, music, and just about anything else that crosses my bipolar brain.

Monday, February 20, 2012

"Broadway" comes to town. And there was much rejoicing.

Hallelujah! The Legitimate The-ay-ter has finally come to town. The Lion King is on tour and we poor benighted souls in Central Virginia can finally get some culture. It's "Broadway in Richmond" at the Landmark Theater, and now we can spend a fortune on it just like real big-city folk. All it takes is $80 for each ticket and $15 for parking and you, yes, you can have a real honest-to-goodness theatrical experience!

(Sheldon Cooper alert: The above paragraph was, indeed, sarcasm.)

Every time one of these big shows comes to town I get the same slow, cynical burn of anger. Whether it be not one but two productions of Wicked in an 18-month span or the current tour of The Lion King, the local media behaves as if heavenly choirs have descended from the clouds, singing the praises of the Angel of Theatre, finally come to save us all from our regional culturelessness. "Praise Thespis!" cries the local media, beckoning families to spend Christmaslike sums of money on "Broadway in Richmond."

To put my frustration into perspective: The Times-Dispatch has no fewer than five links to Lion King articles or video on their website right now. But local theatre reviews are often relegated to inner pages of the paper facing obituaries. No wonder we theatre folk feel like our art is dying.

It's so frustrating that I find it difficult to even determine who or what I'm mad at. The fact is, I love The Lion King. I saw it on Broadway in 1998 and wept like a child when the elephant appeared in the aisle. Julie Taymor's direction and design were not only gorgeous and moving, they were something the like of which I had never seen. Then Timon and Pumbaa appeared and engaged my cynicism circuit with their entirely commercial duplication of the movie's character designs, voices, and even line readings. I started the show transported, and then Di$ney callously added the dis- to my enchantment. I certainly enjoyed the show, but was left with a very clear impression of what the production's priorities were, and insane profit was at the very top of the list. In the end, Taymor is a master of spectacle, of mime and mask, but the show is far more flagrantly commercial than we tend to think it is.

We all love spectacle. It's why the awful Star Wars prequels and Transformers movies are among the top-selling films of all time. But you know what's more impressive to me than the multimillion-dollar spectacle of a production with the financial might of Disney behind it? The bear in Richmond Shakespeare / Henley Street's The Winter's Tale. The spiral staircase from Theatre IV / Barksdale's Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. The running water and incredible bravery of Richmond Triangle Players' Take Me Out. The gripping contradictions of This Beautiful City. The hysterical fearlessness of the cast of A Midsummer Night's Dream. The entire worlds created by Jill Bari Steinberg in The Syringa Tree and Scott Wichmann in This Wonderful Life. The lively urgency of Cadence's Kimberly Akimbo and the unapologetic boldness of The Last Days of Judas Iscariot. The Firehouse's consistent commitment to craft. Did you notice when I stopped being impressed by technical aspects and shifted into the ineffable wonders of theatre that no amount of budget can buy? That's because those wonders are, in the end, all that theatre is. What's more, they are the things local theatre does that no other art form can approach.

By all means, go to the Landmosque and see The Lion King. Next to 1988's The Phantom of the Opera in London it's the best spectacle I've ever seen on stage. It's certainly the best thing Disney and Taymor can throw millions of dollars at while requiring their actors to impersonate the voice inflections of a 20-year-old movie cribbed from Hamlet and made for children. (Sarcasm: yes.) But please take this admonition for what it's worth: If you can afford to see The Lion King, you can afford to see many many shows by local arts organizations this year. And the money you spend on local companies is better than money spent on touring shows in a multitude of ways. Here are just a few:
  1. Money spent on touring shows goes largely to out-of-state megacorporations who frankly don't need it. Your $80 ticket is a drop in a drop in a bucket.
  2. Money spent on local arts organizations goes straight into the local economy. Damn near every penny of it. The companies benefit, and their actors, directors, designers, technicians, administrators, and sponsors all benefit. Your $120 season subscription buys an actor's entire wardrobe for a show, or enough gas for a sexual abuse prevention play to drive to Roanoke and back, or a new headset microphone that will be used for the next five years.
  3. Touring Broadway musicals are re-creations of productions that were originally designed to make as much money as possible in New York City for audiences primarily composed of tourists. Irony, that: the show was made in New York for non-New Yorkers, and touring shows are made to seem as much like New York theatre as they can. The result is quite literally the most generic theatre experience possible.
  4. Local theatre is created by local artists for local audiences. That means your neighbors are creating their art for you specifically. The issues on your mind are on their minds, and their work is informed by it. The artistic directors, as well, select their seasons for you and for your community. Local theatre is designed for you, to make you think and feel as much as possible. That shared context is something no big tour can approach.
  5. Touring shows are here and gone. You will likely never see the artists or technicians again.
  6. Local shows feature local talent with deep ties to the community. You can easily end up sitting in an audience with an actor or director or designer whose work you like, and get a chance to talk about it with them. Better still, you get to see artists progress, learn whose work you like and make it an event to always see their shows. Is your favorite actress growing as she works? Is a director you like challenging himself, and you, with his choices? Are that designer's costumes as beautiful as the ones she produced last year?
So The Lion King has come to Richmond. So what? It's a great show, there's no denying it. But if you like The Lion King, if you like "Broadway in Richmond," if you like theatre, I guarantee you're going to absolutely love what your local theatre company has to offer.

Support your local artist!