The Other Paper
Wednesday, April 4, 2012

THEATER: Stage 2 takes two

by Richard Ades

Think of Torch Songs as a do-over.

When Shadowbox's latest Stage 2 production opened at the end of February, it apparently underwhelmed viewers and critics alike. In response, according to media relations director Nikki Fagin, the troupe restructured the show.

Fagin didn't go into specifics except to note that a monologue from Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire was divided into bite-size chunks separated by snippets of well-known ballads.

Not having seen the original show, I can't say how much of an improvement the new version is. I can say that when it's good, it's a fitting successor to 2Co's Cabaret, the long-gone inspiration for the Wednesday night series.

Outside of a few musical moments, Torch Songs is at its best during Lewis J. Carlino's Snow Angel, which makes up most of the show's first half. The one-act is set in an aging prostitute's room at 4 a.m., when she's awakened by a john determined to make sex better by forcing her to act like a woman he once loved.

The prostitute's insulted response is a stretch, but the two actors play the scene so well under Stev Guyer's direction that we almost believe it.

David Whitehouse is particularly good as the john (who's actually named John), a man so single-minded in his pursuit of the past that he fails to see how insensitive he's being in the present. As Connie, the prostitute, Mary Randle excels during the quieter moments but is less convincing when showing her vulnerable side. But that's partly the script's fault for trying to pretend a woman who's been selling her body for years would leave herself that vulnerable to a client in the first place.

Ironically, the weakest part of the theme show is the reworked Streetcar monologue, which has Betsy Shortt's Blanche talking about her cursed marriage. The narrative reflects such a dated view of sexuality that it falls flat outside the milieu of the Williams play.

As part of the show's revamp, the monologue has been set in a bar and periodically interrupted with such ballads as "Crazy" (well sung by Amy Lay) and "Still Crazy After All These Years" (made equally notable by Guyer). This does nothing to sharpen Blanche's tale of woe, but it does make it a painless ordeal.

The night's other major theatrical piece fares no better. Jeff Goode's Murder by Midnight is a film-noir spoof starring JT Walker III as a trigger-happy hotel dick (who's actually named Dick) and Edelyn Parker as a self-proclaimed murder victim. It gets a few chuckles, but let's face it: Noir spoofs have been done to death, and this piece is too lightweight to revive the genre.

In addition to the songs already mentioned, several musical numbers are great. "The Way You Look Tonight" is an exception, with the usually fine Walker failing to pull off Michael Buble's brand of suave. But Brandon Anderson and Jennifer Hahn turn "Nothing Compares 2 U" into a gorgeous duet, and Noelle Grandison delivers an artfully understated rendition of "Come Away With Me."

The original 2Co's took months to find its groove, and this reworked show suggests that Stage 2 is still trying to find a formula that works. Fans of the old cabaret can only hope it succeeds-and that enough people turn out on Wednesday nights to make the effort financially worthwhile.

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