At the beginning of my summer I was fortunate enough to spend some time in New York City. Whilst there, I saw five Broadway productions: Macbeth, starring Alan Cumming; Lucky Guy, starring Tom Hanks; Pippin, directed by Diane Paulus; I’ll Eat You Last, starring Bette Midler; and, The Book of Mormon, by Trey Parker, Robert Lopez, and Matt Stone. Macbeth and I’ll Eat You Last were fantastic productions – each with one actor that showed a great sense of ingenuity, whereas Lucky Guy and Pippin left me underwhelmed. Both of the latter shows have received positive reviews, and Hanks’ performance in Lucky Guy has been praised by many. However, I could not shake my opinion that all these shows were shackled by their main attractions.
Lucky Guy and Pippin were both high budget productions with large casts and much spectacle. Lucky Guy was a biographical play about the life of American journalist Mike McAlary, played by Hanks, and written by Norah Ephron. Parts of the script were genuinely funny, but, for the most part, the writing seemed to rely on the shock value of swearing before a white collared and highly conservative audience. Hanks was no more impressive. His performance was engaging intermittently but otherwise was weighted down by the value of his name. When a performer receives a minute of applause for simply entering the stage, it is clear that little effort will manage to impress.
Pippin was similarly disappointing. A re-imagining of the classic musical by Stephen Swartz and Robert O. Hirson, the production aimed to shock and amaze but fell notably short of the mark. The performers, though not great actors, were enthralling as acrobats. Physically, the show was wonderful. As a piece of writing, however, it didn’t satisfy.
Macbeth and I’ll Eat You Last, on the other hand, were exemplary pieces of drama that, to me, expressed what is possible to achieve with a limited cast and use of props. In Macbeth, Allen Cumming’s protean performance, constantly switching between characters, was set within the confines of an insane asylum. It was a jarring, often comical, and entirely captivating show that made clear the constant relevance of Shakespeare performed well.
I’ll Eat You Last, like Lucky Guy, was a biographical piece that focused on the life of Hollywood talent agent Sue Menger. Where Lucky Guy attempted to tell the story of McAlary’s entire career, I’ll Eat You Last captured Menger in a moment of crisis, nearing the loss of her best client, Barbra Streisand. Midler was funny, and crude throughout, but also poignant and entirely believable.
What these two shows expressed is that a piece of theatre does not need a large cast or budget to be powerful. Indeed, both Lucky Guy and Pippin had extensive casts and high expense spectacle but, for all their gilding, did not impress. In student theatre, we are forced into the valuable experience of budgeting tightly. Without the power to answer all our problems with money, students are required to find creative solutions. St Andrews theatre is at its best often when at its most bare. This brings me to think of last year’s productions of The Collector, The Physicists, and The Goddess of Walnuts. Each of these shows worked in small venues and with a minimum of stage properties. With a lean budget, performers are given the chance to truly exhibit their talents. Shows become cleaner, and more visceral.
My time in New York stressed again what an incredible place St Andrews is for the theatrical arts. With the coming of the new academic year, I am eager to see what our community will put forth.
Photo credit: Joan Marcus/Boneau/Bryan-Brown