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Randy Newman's Faust

A rollicking, melodious production.
Saturday May 05, 2001.     By Richard Henzel
Centerstage Chicago Nightlife City Guide Arts

Goodman Theatre Mainstage
Reservations: 312-443-3800
Now open through November 2

The Goodman opened its season with Randy Newman's "Faust," the music and lyrics by Newman and the sometimes satirical, sometimes jokey book by Newman with David Mamet. It is a rollicking, melodious production, fitted out with more than a few stunning voices, several skilled comedians, a lot of off-hand and patchwork choreography, and the latest in stage technology and execution.

Technically gorgeous, with Thomas Lynch's revolving, flying, and sliding panels and Christopher Akerland's complex and dazzling lighting complemented by Jan Hartley's clever projections (they're like cartoon thought bubbles appearing on panels above actors' heads), and with crystal clear sound design by S. Canyon Kennedy, you hardly miss a word. Mark Wendland's bright costumes clarify to the characters, always adding information without being distracting.

The first image one sees upon entering the theatre is a stage divided vertically: on the house left side, deep blue sky with glittering stars, hanging cherubs, and wisps of cloud. On the right, bright red with yellow tongues of flame projected onto the stretched fabric, downstage the top of a golden harp on the apron casts a flame shaped shadow upon the backdrop, echoing the projected flames. At the start of the show, the two sides split, revealing Heaven, with fiber optic stars glittering through blue stretched panels upstage. Angels, cast in a full range of ages and races, sing backup to the Lord (expansive, clear-voiced Ken Page, who like all of the leads, is from the original California cast) in the rollicking opening, "Glory Train." It is a joyous, upbeat gospel number, presented with traditional loose-limbed choreography and shining, smiling angels all dressed in brilliant white.

Then, suddenly, the angel named Lucifer (David Garrison, full of slick energy and guile in a most complex and interesting performance) shouts "Bullshit!" shocking his fellow angels and incurring the Lord's ire. Lucifer continues his ridicule of the Lord's joyful vision, sneering "After all, aren't we only figments of man's imagination?" Ah-hah, I thought--there's Randy Newman! there's the Big Question, that un-pulled punch that makes you sit up and take notice--this wasn't going to be just another slick out-of-town imported musical extravaganza, not "Faust and the Amazing Technicolor Devil," after all.

Unfortunately, the Lord doesn't really answer Satan's question. He mostly gets angry and bans him to Hell. Now, that fits the story and all, but why bring the Question up only to drop it, until the end of the play, where Lucifer asks the same question again, which might have triggered some surprising conclusion or statement, but alas, that fundemental question is still left unanswered, as this ultimately lumbering production grinds to a pat, unsatisfying series of reprises, then abruptly ends.

In between the first time the question is asked and the second, there are a great many laughs, as well as some terrific music. In his office as the CEO of Hell, Lucifer sorts through his morning red tape, stamping various forms: "Burn. (stamp) Bake. (stamp) Fry. (stamp)" As with many of the best laughs in this show, it is the juxtaposition of present day American situations with the Faust legend that are most memorable. An assistant devil tells Lucifer, "Hitler called, says somebody poisoned his dog again." To which the Devil responds, "Fuck'im." When Lucifer longs to return to Heaven, he remarks on how beautiful it all is up there, adding, "You can say what you want about Him--His taste is impeccable." Lucifer meets with the Lord on the heavenly golf course, where God drives a white golf cart and carries golden clubs. God lights his pipe, asking, "Do you mind if I smoke?" to which Lucifer replies, "Go ahead--I'm used to it." You get the idea. Kurt Deutsh also provided a lot of laughs with his stoned dropout of a Faust, dancing on his bed, belting out rousing rock'n'roll solos in a bright tenor. Faust's love interest, Maragaret, is played with sweet simplicity by the beautiful Bellamy Young, a gifted singer who effortlessely pours out Newman's best melodies in the show. Sherie Scott is Martha, Margaret's best friend, a fine comedienne. Zoftig Martha is unfortunately an unnecessary character which slows down the play's progress, especially in the second act, including an unnecessary diversion to Costa Rica, where we see half a full-sized plane back onto the stage and watch Costa Ricans dance the Jewish hora. Funny stuff, but was this trip really necessary? The audience was already getting restless before we even got to Costa Rica. The second act could lose twenty minutes easily. It seemed almost as long as this review.

Finally, I would recommend this play for what it is--a good time, some fine singing and songwriting, and colorful, slick staging. But if you would like to see some powerful, thought-provoking theatre, see "Racing Demon" at Organic Touchstone, and if you really want some serious satire, listen to Randy Newman's records--there you will find troubling, puzzling writing, lyrics you will never forget, where God sings: "I burn down your cities, how blind you must be. I take from you your children, and you say, 'How blessed are we.' You all must be crazy to put your faith in me. That's why I love mankind. You really need me, that's why I love mankind."

 

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