In his Broadway down time, actor/singer James Barbour (Tale of Two Cities, Carousel, Jane Eyre) has discovered a user-friendly venue at Sardi's. His current show at Sardi's, which ends Feb. 28, then resumes March 7-28, takes a distinctly romantic turn. Love Songs relies on Barbour's easygoing manner and melodious pipes to seduce his audience. The selections are classic; "Our Love Is Here to Stay," "Embraceable You" and "If Ever I Would Leave You" are potent reminders of how wonderful key musical numbers can be. And Barbour pours heart and soul into his delivery. Each show, he's joined by different musical pros, such as Jenny Powers and Lee Roy Reams, proving there is no shortage of musical talent in America.
The only sour note is the audience participation. Songs like "Some Enchanted Evening" are too moving to be shared in a choppy sing-along. We come to hear Barbour - not the tourists. Stars can share the spotlight - but only with other stars. The rest can sit back and bask in the artistry.
And artistry can take many turns.
For instance: Shakespeare by way of The Simpsons. Leave it to Rick Miller, a talented solo actor and the mastermind behind MacHomer - a multimedia Macbeth meets The Simpsons show, playing at The Highline Ballroom March 1 and 2. This pared-down romp retains much of Shakespeare, while boasting more than 50 voices from America's most beloved animated family.
Miller, who earned rave reviews for the show the LA Times called "hilariously funny," takes great liberties with the text. The play is 72 minutes long, which means it's half the length of Macbeth. "However, most of the words are Shakespeare's. That's the main hook of the show, and what makes it a blast, even for Shakespearian scholars," Miller says. "The Simpsons aren't just paraphrasing, they're actually speaking Shakespeare." Remember: 400 years ago, Shakespeare was pop culture, and Miller is convinced the Bard of Avon "would have liked the satirical side of The Simpsons."
Of course, MacHomer is "much, much sillier than Macbeth, although there are some nice moments when the tragic story does shine through. The point of the show is to try and fuse highbrow and lowbrow culture in an entertaining mix," he explains. "I enjoy taking things out of their initial context, and slamming seemingly dissonant themes together. Often, it gives a new spin on things we take for granted. Macbeth is actually a simple story that we find every night on TV; The Simpsons are substantial enough to carry a Shakespeare play."
Miller's interpretation is a crash between 2DTV and a live play. He performs in front of a giant screen, and the images alternate between a slick DVD and a live-feed video camera, featuring The Simpsons in Scottish garb. There is some puppetry, some singing, lots of smoke and lights. Come April, the man behind the successful Bigger Than Jesus, will debut a new show, Hardsell, about marketing and biology in Toronto. In October, fans can catch him at BAM in "Lipsynch," eight actors who perform a nine-hour epic theater piece about the human voice. For now, enjoy the much-shorter, wildly inventive MacHomer. It's Miller time. For more info: www.machomer.com/ or www.rickmiller.ca/.
Finally, Uncle Vanya at the CSC offers an all-star cast, but an off-kilter production. In this revival, Chekov gets short-changed. The play is powerful: Vanya (Denis O'Hare) suddenly realizes that his life has been futile, wasted in the service of ingrates who neither know nor care about his sacrifice. Chekov, a master of destroyed dreams and eternal longing, has set his story at an estate populated by a sterile, controlling academic, fawning mother-in-law, disappointed young wife and spirited idealist.
The costumes are right, but the tone is wrong. And the production isn't helped by Santo Loquasto's bizarre set, which blocks one-third of the audience's view, and wildly uneven performances. Maggie Gyllenhall as Yelena, the second wife, and Peter Sarsgaard as Astrov, the embryonic ecologist, are badly miscast. He mumbles dreadfully; she throws herself about the stage looking futilely for direction. It's left to Mamie Gummer's Sonya and O'Hare's Vanya to capture an authentic Chekovian spirit. Gummer, who also appeared in Broadway's Les Liasons Dangerueses, is an amazingly versatile actress; like her mother, Meryl Streep, she has the capacity to inhabit any role credibly.
Chekov is a challenge to any troupe, but as all the cast members, save Sarsgaard, proved in last fall's The Seagull, it's doable. (Sarsgaard should avoid Chekov in future; they are not compatible.) This Vanya, alongside the current Hedda Gabler at the American Airlines Theater, vies for the most ill-conceived production of the season.