by Thomas Burns Scully, OnStage New York Douglas Carter Beane is, doubtless, a name you’ve heard a dozen times but can’t quite place. It sounds familiar, warm, possibly British, and rings all sorts of bells. And so the name should, because Mr. Beane is an responsible for some of the more enjoyable fare that has graced Broadway and the West End in the past decade and a bit. His 1998 off-Broadway work ‘As Bees in Honey Drown’ was a critical hit and won an Outer Critics Circle award. His play ‘The Little Dog Laughed’ has run in London and New York, earning rave reviews and nominations for Tonys and Oliviers. ‘The Nance’, was on Broadway a little over a year ago, won five Tony nominations, and earned it’s star, Nathan Lane, a Drama Desk award and an Outer Critics award. Beane is also, apparently, Broadway’s current go-to book-man. The book of ‘Cinderella’s current on Broadway was lovingly doctored by him, as were the books for ‘Xanadu’, ‘Sister Act’ and ‘Lysistrata Jones’. It’s fair to say that the man gets around.
What you won’t read about on DCB’s Wikipedia entry, however (Unless it has been updated since the time of writing) is the work that he has done in workshopping new plays in the Lester Martin Theatre on Madison Avenue. Last year saw the world premiere of his verse-play ‘Fairycakes’, which went on to ecstatic audiences and drooling critics at the Scranton Shakespeare Festival. In what is fast becoming an annual tradition, he has returned again this year, and will be workshopping another new work. This time, the offering is a musical take on ‘Robin Hood’.
Familiar territory to anyone who has accidentally wandered near a sample of print or digital media, Robin Hood seems like ideal fodder for a musical. It makes one wonder why this hasn’t been done before. After a little Googling, one will realize that this is because it has been done before. At a quick count there are more than half a dozen musical adaptations of the Robin Hood tale, including, but not limited to: an RSC adaptation, a comic-opera, four musicals designed specifically for High Schools, and a Disney film. Add that to everything Robin Hood from Errol Flynn, through Kevin Costner, all the way to Mel Brooks, and it makes you wonder if this a potential case of cash taken in exchange for second-hand lynching equipment. What makes this adaptation so special? The answer is glaring at you in the subject line: Douglas Carter Beane.
Now, if you haven’t already been won over by the resume, then please allow the proceeding light of knowledge to cleanse your soul of imperfection. As a wise man once paraphrased, the only true prophet of the future is the past. I was lucky enough to see ‘Fairycakes’ last year before it went off to Scranton, and it was quite the sight to behold. It’s subject matter can simply be described as Tom Stoppard for the ‘Food-Porn’ generation. Beane applies the ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead’ formula to ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, then adds a little ‘Into the Woods’ and Mel Brooks for good measure. The plot follows around the faeries Moth, Mustardseed, Cobweb, and Peaseblossom, as they go around fulfilling their fairy duties. As they do so we realize that they are also the faeries in every other story that has ever been told: Pinocchio, the tooth fairy, Cinderella etc. As such, we see them interact with much of the Disney canon. We also see the ongoing tribulations of the burgeoning relationship between Puck and Peaseblossom. It was all very silly and fun, but with a wonderfully vulnerable emotional core underneath it all. It’s a fantastic story.
I loved ‘Fairycakes’. Like everything Beane writes, the writing is sharp as a bee-sting dipped in lemon. The whole play, with a few exceptions, is written in iambic pentameter, which gives every line of speech a comforting familiarity. Add to that constant rhyming couplets, and you’d think the speech would get monotonous, but, like all good Shakespeare, the lines are clever enough that, although you catch a few, you never see every punchline coming. The production was wonderfully designed and staged, with picturesque backdrops, crazy set-pieces, and costumes so stunning that one member of the audience, taken so much aback by their beauty, melted into his chair, never to be seen again. Finally, but not leastly, we come to the cast. And what a cast. Playing the fairy lovers of the piece were Grant Chamberlain as Puck, and Megan Stewart as Peaseblossom. Chamberlain hit his marks as Puck with all the endearing teenage angst and coolly delivered dialogue of the best John Hughes protagonists. Stewart, a vision in lilac fairy-wings, twinkled gently, as all the best stellar formations do. Good as they were as a couple, the rest of the cast were just as much fun. James Physick was the quintessential 21st Century Prince. Emma Gelat played the Disney princess she is clearly born to play. Jonathan Stephens as Pinocchio tap-danced and spoke in verse at the same time, a feat of feet that I have yet to see equalled. A powder-keg of effortless talent.
The whole cast are far too numerous to all highlight in detail, unfortunately. Suffice to say that they were excellent, but I will take the time to say a few kind words about Daniel Redfern. The audience spends a lot of time with him and his character, and his central role gives the play its soul. I had seen him a few months previously in Coward’s ‘Present Laughter’, where he brought the house down, exhibiting a masterful command of classic British Comedy. Here we saw him as the laughably tragic Gepetto, navigating probably the strangest reinterpretation of Pinocchio that there has ever been. In ‘Fairycakes’ Gepetto gets his wooden boy brought to life, said boy immediately crushes his Jiminy Cricket, and runs away, tap-dance all the while. Ever the harrowed single-parent, Gepetto runs after his charge, only to have Prince Charming fall in love with him due to the misapplication of a love potion. Now running after his child, and away from the Prince and his latent homosexuality, he meets a pirate (Conor Ling), who he eventually falls in love with of his own accord, and together they agree to raise the now-human Pinocchio as man and boyfriend. I go in to this amount of detail, simply to demonstrate Redfern’s spectacular skill as an actor. Throughout this ridiculous tale he is likable, gentle, and hilariously put upon. Every cross the poor carpenter is handed to bear just makes you love him all the more, and the actor’s portrayal of tragedy so effortlessly turning in to beautiful self-discovery is so charming and moving that it almost makes you feel sorry for laughing at him for two acts. Almost. Redfern marked himself out as a talent to be reckoned with.
So what does all this tell you? It tells you that ‘Fairycakes’ was excellent. It delivered roaring laughs, and gentle heartbreak all the way to Scranton, Pennsylvania. It tells you that Douglas Carter Beane is excellent at what he does. As a writer, he is easily a successor to the likes of Noel Coward and Mel Brooks. It tells you that he knows how to put a show together, and further more, he knows how to cast a group of damn fine actors. With all that in mind, I am most definitely excited about the prospect of seeing what he does with a fresh rasp of talented performers, and the world’s most famous folk-tale. If you have the time, I recommend a visit to the Lester Martin Theatre for the short run of ‘Robin Hood’, where lightning is scheduled will strike twice from February 2nd - 7th.
‘Robin Hood’ will be performed: Monday Feb 2 - Saturday Feb 7 at the Lester Martin Theatre at 120 Madison Avenue. Tickets are free, reservations are recommended. A link will be posted when reservations open.
Images courtesy of The Academy, Scranton Shakespeare Festival and Getty Images