Saturday, July 16, 2011

Off The Wall's Aspics Of Love

A hearty emotionally nourishing ensemble is formed into a gelatinous mess thanks to uninspired work by Andrew Lloyd Webber.

By Russ Bickerstaff
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Romantic love lies at the heart of nearly all musical theatre (at least, all of the musical theatre I can think of right now . . . ) A piece of musical theatre that focuses entirely on various aspects of romantic love, Aspects Of Love comes across as astonishingly forgettable. People fall in love. People fall out of love . People get hurt. And it only takes Webber two hours to get through the whole thing. Off The Wall Theatre stages a production of the show this month.

In the curtain speech, Director Dale Gutzman spoke about the production with a great deal of pride. He spoke of getting the best review Off The Wall has gotten in a very, very long time-”one from the daily. Good for him, He seems like a nice guy. It'™s nice to see him doing something he feels so good about. But try as I might, I could not bring myself to enjoy Aspects of Love.

The cast here is great--”probably one of the best Off The Wall has put together in a while. The set design looks particularly inspired. By now David Roper and Dale Gutzman have been working with the tiny space on East Wells Street for long enough that they have a really deep understanding of how to move around the action on the stage and how best to make effective use of lighting in the intimate studio theatre. With a cast and set as good as this in a space as intimate as Off The Wall'™s, there'™s going to be a stylish emotionality to the piece. But the piece itself--”the tedious trifle that Andrew Lloyd Webber hacked-up a couple of decades ago--”makes a poor foundation for it all. And it'™s all intolerably boring, but for a few truly endearing moments that feel lost in the formlessness of it all. Without any significant thematic structure beyond the emotions Aspects of Love is a gelatinous emotional aspic.

Gutzman feels the piece is kind of an expressionist piece. As an audience, we see many different angles on romantic love and can relate to them through the show. Fine. And as fantastic as the cast was, Webber's work is less than fantastic. The cast seems profoundly inspired by the weak little stereotypes they're asked to play here in a story with little to offer beyond the basic emotional arc of any common love affair.

Matt Walton plays Alex--”a soldier who repeatedly goes to see an actress perform onstage. The actress in question is Rose, played by Laura Monagle. She's older than he is, but she's charmed by him. The two have a definite chemistry together, but Webber doesn'™t give them much of a reason to fall in love. And as compelling as Walton and Monagle are, the fact that their characters are falling in love doesn'™t mean I have to like them. There really isn'™t that much going on beyond the emotional aspects of the play to make them seem interesting.

Alex and Rose break into the villa of Alex'™s uncle Gerorge to continue exploring the feelings that seem so compelling to both of them when in walks his uncle played by Bob Hirschi. Hirschi manages a particularly charismatic performance, but the script doesn'™t do a terribly good job of establishing why Rose would suddenly be so taken with him. T

There's a standout scene or two between Hirschi and Sharon Rise (who is playing a sculptor/lover of George's.) Rise has a sparkling beauty in the role, particularly as she is playing one of maybe two characters in the whole story who seem even vaguely interesting. We see her sculpting a bust of George--her being the one character who is actually doing something constructive outside of the emotional element of the story. (Rose has a few brief moments acting onstage, but they've fleeting moments and Alex has a few moments outside the romantic spectrum, but as they rather involve shooting things, they'™re not terribly charming.)

The other big stand-out performance here is Alison Pogorelc in the role of the daughter George and Rose inevitably have. Pogorelc is a teenaged actress playing a teenaged girl. The importance of this can not possibly be emphasized enough. Anyone playing a role under twenty in a studio theatre production who isn'™t actually under twenty ends up coming across as WAY too old. (The one exception to this that I can remember was a performance by Amy Geyser in a production of How I Leaned to Drive years ago, so it CAN be done, , , ) In addition to looking and moving authentically in a coming-of-age role, Pogorelc seems to have a sophisticated understanding of the intricacies of a truly deep understanding of the emotional nature of falling in love, which is really impressive.

With so many decent performances, it'™s kind of disappointing that this cast had to be assembled for something as truly pointless as another production of Aspects of Love.  

This is the Milwaukee premiere of the show. It debuted in London in '™89. It hit Broadway in '™90. Off The Wall's website speaks glowingly about the show, stating that it was œ"an enormous hit," in London. Okay, yes, but its Broadway run was a flop by any standard. It lost $8 million and closed only a little less than a year after it opened. New York Times referred to it as "œpossibly the greatest flop in Broadway history." Well . . . not anymore thanks to Spider-Man, but I digress . . .

It's not like I can'™t understand people liking the show . . . they do and they will. This is probably a must-see for die-hard fans of Andrew Lloyd Webber. (For what it is and what it's worth, this is really well-executed.) There certainly are a lot of them out there and I truly hope the show does well, even if it was mostly painful for me to sit through personally. It probably didn't help that I saw Bad Example'™s production of Cannibal! The Musical the night before I saw this one. In large part a spoof of the sweeping emotional intensity found in so much musical theatre, Cannibal does a brilliant job of making fun of exactly what Aspects of Love is going for . . . and it was a great deal of fun. Going to a Webber show the next day was kind of a let-down after that . . .

Off The Wall'™s production of Aspects of Love runs through July 24th. For ticket reservations, call 414-327-3552.

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