by David Fuller · October 24, 2013
The first collaboration for composer John Kander since the passing of his long time partner Fred Ebb is the musical The Landing now at the Vineyard Theatre featuring the book and lyrics of Greg Pierce. Kander and Pierce are joined by the impressive team of director Walter Bobbie, choreographer Josh Rhodes, set designer John Lee Beatty, lighting designer Ken Billington, costume designer Michael Krass, and the marvelous cast of Julia Murney, David Hyde Pierce, Frankie Seratch and Paul Anthony Stewart. What this team has wrought is an interesting yet somewhat confusing evening of three one act mini-musicals, connected loosely by themes of love, presented in different theatrical styles.
First off is “Andra,” short for the constellation Andromeda, about a star gazing carpenter (Stewart) remodeling the kitchen of an uptight housewife (Murney) while befriending her precocious son (Seratch) while the unseen father makes financial deals away in his den. With narration by Pierce (is he the unseen father recalling the piece as a memory play?), this is a naturalistic piece with a bit of a plot twist, somewhat predictable, that is engaging more for the acting of the ensemble than any dramaturgical nuance. Still, the appealing honesty of Stewart and the engaging presence of young Seratch make “Andra” worth watching. Not to say that Murney and Pierce aren’t also fine, because they are. In a way, “Andra” seems like the beginning of something unrealized. Four very good actors flesh out their characters with nice emotional depth, but the plot goes one way, takes a turn, and ends. This, of all three pieces, feels like it ought to be fleshed out. Yet even as it stands it could be more of a musical. Kander has underscored it beautifully, but it could use more songs!
The second piece, “The Brick,” stands alone and needs no additional material. The style is absurdism and the result is pure fun! Darius, a 12 year old boy (Seratch) tells the story of a summer vacation spent with his aunt and uncle. Aunt Charl (Murney) is obsessed with old gangster movies. Uncle Cliff (Stewart) is obsessed with seeing a moose from the back porch (he has a moose call which he bleats periodically). Cliff generally goes to bed early leaving Charl and Darius up to watch the late show. On one occasion, a late night commercial huckster (also Stewart, who plays a number of supporting roles here wonderfully) hocks bricks from the supposed wall before which the gangland Valentine’s Day massacre occurred: “Just $99.99. Bring the murder and mayhem right into your very own living room.” Well, Aunt Charl is hooked! She buys the brick, it gets delivered, and … it is… well, David Hyde Pierce in a Chicago gangster outfit with vestiges of “brick” in his costume. Of course, to everyone but Aunt Charl, he (it) is just a plain ol’ red brick. It is love at first sight and what entails is a marvelous little strange musical vignette complete with Fred Astaire – Ginger Rodgers dancing (Murney and Hyde) and fun though slightly weird songs. Ultimately, poor Aunt Charl is sent to the looney bin. But it was one helluva summer for Darius and one absurdly good time for us!
The last offering, The Landing,” is a musical dramedy about a gay couple Jake and Denny (Pierce and Stewart) who have just adopted 12 year old Collin (Seratch). Murney narrates this tale while playing Jake’s sister. On the surface it appears to be a gentle story about two men deeply in love who must share that love with the boy who comes in to make them a family. However, about half way through it takes a turn to the metaphysical and ends up being an existential riff on life and death. This dramaturgical reverse is a bit too predictable and requires some heavy suspension of disbelief. Yet the acting is so good, you really want to go with it. But in retrospect it is all really just too pat.
It is not easy to see the thematic through line to these pieces, except that they are loosely all about love. Calling the evening by the title of the last play really seems arbitrary, as “The Landing” does not resonate at all to the first two. Much better to call the show “Andra, the Brick and the Landing,” then the audience will expect three separate pieces. Though not thematic, there is one structural through line: the marvelous music of John Kander. Please give us more singing!
Enough cannot be said about this talented cast, who are all so wonderful to watch. The three older veterans, Julia Murney, David Hyde Pierce and Paul Anthony Stewart have created a variety of believable engaging characters who sing well, who move with grace and who plum emotional depths as needed. And the youngest of the quartet, Frankie Seratch holds his own as well, giving as good as he gets.
Beatty’s simple set shows why he is a master of his craft. The setting is just three pairs of wings and a back wall, with some incidental furniture appropriate to each play. But the brilliant touch of having the rear wall not go to the floor, but leaving some inches of air and darkness, gives the whole a certain unified ethereality when charged with Billington’s evocative lights.
In sum, The Landing is an interesting exploration of material by John Kander and his new partner Greg Pierce. It is at once entertaining and confusing, with an overall feel of being incomplete, though the performances are wonderful.