CSC's "Front Page": Journalism – Art or Tabloid?

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            The Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, a troupe known for its daring interpretations of Shakespeare and similar classics, has branched out a bit this season to include American classic theatre within its purview.  And to do so is to be applauded; after all, there are a great many classic plays written by Americans - those by Miller, Williams and O'Neill come to mind, not to mention Simon, Wasserstein and Kaufman and Hart.  For their first outing in this area, the company has chosen The Front Page, indeed an American classic, by Hecht and MacArthur.  An early 20th century look at journalism and sensationalism, the play could be a close relative to Chicago (either the play or the musical).  It may not be as biting or sarcastic, but it still has quite a bite to it, not to mention relevance.  One need only turn on CNN for a few moments to see what the newsmen of today are telling us what to think, feel or be afraid of.  In the case of the play, the sensation du jour is an accused killer, who breaks out of jail and shows the city of Chicago just how lame its leaders are.  And while the room full of reporters waits for the hangman's cry, they are combing the city for any bit of gossip and innuendo, ready and willing to spin the tiniest thread of a story into a story worthy of grand opera.  That it was successful in its Broadway debut is no surprise - it is sharp, witty, intelligent and dazzlingly funny.  That and the aforementioned relevance to today make it a wise choice for such a slot in CSC's season.  But is the production worth the newsprint the program is printed on?  Not really.

            Considering the caliber of the large cast - seasoned veterans all, including several of last year's best actors and actresses - it is simply shocking that the quality of the performance I attended was so, well…amateurish.  Out of a cast of 20, exactly two of them seemed to have a full grasp on their lines and/or any real understanding of their characters.  A few others, it should be mentioned, developed very strong, memorable characters, albeit characters wholly unsuited for this play.  That is indicative of the entire production.  As directed by Ian Gallanar, The Front Page is seriously lacking focus, and was on opening night woefully under prepared for an audience. (Note to CSC:  I applaud the "No Boundaries between audience and cast" policy you have, but you might have your company members refrain from announcing loudly, "Man, we each saved each other a few times tonight!", or worse, yet, "Phew! Only 8 more to go!" once the performance is over. Is this the message you want to send?)  Regardless of the price of admission, an audience has a right to expect that at the very least, the cast knows its lines.  The look of panic on most of the cast's faces and the weak delivery of entire passages indicate that that was not the case on opening night.

            Of course, perhaps, had the company been given a clear focus, and thus a better understanding of their characters, the lines would have come easier.  And, that, aside from the actors having some personal responsibility to learn their own lines, is really the fault of the direction.  Mr. Gallanar has, from what I've heard around town, a decent reputation as a director (and a sterling one as Artistic Director).  But if this, and the similarly plagued upon opening King Lear last season are indication of a trend, perhaps he needs to reevaluate.  First and foremost, he must choose a style and stick with it.  Is the play going to be done in a realistic way, as evidenced by the (very) long opening scene where all of the newsmen talked over each other and interrupted each other?  Or is this going to be slapstick, broad comedy a la The Three Stooges, as evidenced by the scenes played between the Mayor of Chicago (Frank Mancino) and the bumbling Sheriff Hartman (Don Edward Black)?  Or is it sitcom style/Neil Simon witty comedy, as played by Charlie Mitchell (as Hildy Johnson) and Steve Beall (as editor Walter Burns)?  Any one of the three would have at least helped clarify the hodgepodge audiences are currently sitting through.

            If it was supposed to be the first - realism - perhaps it is a good thing that most of the play doesn't come across that way, as it is very difficult to follow, particularly when otherwise enormously talented actors are mumbling their way through pages of dialogue. Of the entire crew of newsmen, only BJ Gailey as loudmouth reporter Murphy and Scott Alan Small as germ phobic Bensinger create genuine characters that fit the actual play they are in.  Both are funny and make their points well.  Mr. Small practically steals the show, and is a delight each and every time he is onstage.  The rest of the group makes little or no impression, including Dan O'Brien, playing a banjo (and incorrectly from what I could see) and being a walking advertisement for wasted comic potential.  Sadder still is the self-conscious mugging in place of character done by the otherwise gifted Patrick Kilpatrick, and the sloppy cockiness of Jacob Rothermel, who might have better used his rehearsal time developing a character instead of learning inane card tricks.  The rest of the news guys - Jose de la Mar and John Sadowsky - left no impression at all other than both seem to equate characters with monotone yelling of lines.  At least they could be heard.

           If shtick/slapstick/broad comedy was the order of the day, then Mr. Black and Mr. Mancino were appropriately cast.  They both take "broad" to new heights.  And the audience, hungry for comedy, laughed at their outrageousness.  They were, in fact, quite funny, especially in a bit with a gun.  And then there was Carol Randolph as Mrs. Grant, future mother-in-law to Hildy Johnson.  She has the comic timing of Carol Burnett, and the broad stylings of Lucille Ball.  Again, she was a hoot.  But were they appropriate for The Front Page?  Not really.

           The witty, urbane delivery of leading men Mitchell and Beall, I think is closest to what The Front Page is about.  And when they were in sync on opening night, they were great - everything this Front Page should have been.  Unfortunately, that synchronicity was in short supply, as they painfully steered each other through scene after sloppy scene.

           The rest of the supporting cast ranged from good (Reece Thornberry as the escaped criminal - PLEASE find this great actor a great part!!!) to passable (Joel Ballard, Stephanie Roswell) to downright insulting (Jim Raistrick, Lorraine Imwold and Wayne Willinger, all three of whom never go beyond stock, dangerous ethnic stereotypes).  And Heather Whitpan and Rebecca Ellis, both with potentially interesting characters and characterizations were robbed by horrible direction, as both were apparently told to deliver important lines fully upstage, backs to the audience or hidden by hats and various other props.

           Technically, the show is excellent.  The set, co-designed by Mr. Gallanar and Dan O'Brien is evocative and well-placed.  It is lit well with moody ambiance by Dave Eske.  And as always, the costumes (by Kristina Lambdin) and properties (by Ian Belknap) are thoroughly researched and executed.  Would that as much time had been spent teaching the actors how to handle those props.  The one thing a 20's newspaper man would do as second nature is handle a phone.

           It pains me to report such a grievous misstep by one of the area's best theatre companies.  And from all reports, the show is selling well.  So perhaps I had the misfortune of attending on an "off night".  But this Front Page left me feeling like I had just put down the National Enquirer, not the Chicago Tribune.

PHOTOS: TOP to BOTTOM: Charlie Mitchell and Steve Beall;   Rebecca Ellis, Scott Alan Small and Patrick Kilpatrick.  All photos by Kitty R, courtesy of Chesapeake Shakespeare Company.

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