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Thou Shalt Not (10/25/2001 - 01/06/2002)


 

New York Daily News: "Thou Shalt Not Write A Harry Connick Musical"

If "Thou Shalt Not" is remembered at all - and little about it is - it will be as the starting point of a remarkable career for Norbert Leo Butz. Few musicals seemed as promising as "Thou Shalt Not." It's directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman and marks the Broadway composing debut of Harry Connick Jr. It is based on Emile Zola's novel "Therese Raquin," which is about a young woman who is married to a sickly mama's boy, Camille. She is seduced by his carnal friend Laurent. When their passion grows uncontrollable, they murder Camille, but they cannot escape his ghost or their own self-destructive guilt. Wisely, Stroman transferred the story from Paris to New Orleans, where coarse sex and voodoo fit right in. She also had the bright idea of having Connick - himself a lusty blend of New Orleans sex and voodoo - do the score. Broadway, however, does not appear to be in Connick's otherwise sensual blood. Sometimes, his lyrics are simply functional. Occasionally, not often enough, they're clever - as when Camille tells us, "God was fully candid/ 'Do what you're commanded/ Play with what you're handed.' "

Most of the time, however, the lyrics have a crudeness that doesn't work at all. In the key scene, where Therese and Laurent plan to toss Camille, who can't swim, off a boat, he sings what ought to be an evocative song, preparing us for the drama we know is coming. Its lyrics begin, "Tugboat, tugboat, push my barge down the mighty river."

Thud goes any sense of poetry or tension. Nor do Connick's melodies add anything to the earthbound words. Largely they are simple and undramatic. Occasionally, as if to show his musical seriousness, he goes for difficult intervals. It only makes matters worse. The score is matched by David Thompson's leaden book. If Stroman's choreography conveyed the sensuousness or gravity of Zola's material, it wouldn't matter, but the dancing seldom has any emotional weight. Which brings us back to Butz as Camille. Early in the first act, when he sings "All Things," he fills the stage with radiance. His smile and his earthy voice have a captivating, Sinatra-like swagger. Camille has way too much charm and presence for someone you're not really supposed to care for. It is hard to feel any anguish for his guilt-ridden murderers because, by comparison, they are just dull. Therese and Laurent are played by two gifted performers - Craig ("The Music Man") Bierko and Kate ("42nd Street") Levering - but they just can't surmount the material. Nor can Debra Monk as Camille's mother. Leo Burmester is beguiling as a crusty New Orleans cop. William Ivey Long's costumes have an intelligent severity, Peter Kaczorowski's lighting is intensely dramatic, and there is something admirable about the fact that, rather than standard Broadway types, the male dancers look like they've eaten their share of po'boy sandwiches, which does not inhibit their grace or nimbleness. There were some good ideas behind "Thou Shalt Not," but they remained largely unfulfilled.


New York Daily News
10/26/2001

New York Post: "'Thou' Shouldn't Have"

You might have thought Emile Zola's "Therese Raquin" - a clinically observed but gritty tale of adultery, murder, guilt and retribution - would be an unlikely inspiration for a splashy Broadway musical.

You would have been right, but perhaps not for the reasons you might have guessed.

The problem with Lincoln Center Theater's production of the new Susan Stroman musical, "Thou Shalt Not," is not the theme, but the treatment.

The collaborators, Susan Stroman (director), David Thompson (book) and Harry Connick, Jr. (music and lyrics), have had their way with Zola's dark 1867 novel.

While keeping quite faithfully to the outline and even the spirit of the original, they have short-changed the essential drama while failing to come up with a memorable musical.

The Zola story has been transposed to "New Orleans, in and around the Ninth Ward, 1946-1947."

I'm not sure where the Big Easy's Ninth Ward is, but it doesn't seem too far from Basin Street.

Laurent LeClair (Craig Bierko), a young piano player, returns from the war, grizzled and with gunpowder on his breath, and turns up by chance at the doorstep of Madame Raquin (Debra Monk), who runs a honky-tonk saloon.

He takes one look at a young girl, Therese (Kate Levering), and decides to hang around, especially when he meets up with Camille (Norbert Leo Butz) who turns out to be Madame Raquin's son and, by chance, a pre-war jazz-club buddy.

Madame has gotten herself a new piano player.

The only snag comes when he discovers that the gorgeous and vibrant Therese has been inconveniently married off to her cousin, the sickly Camille.

You don't have to be a student of either Zola or even James M. Cain to get a film noir sense of postmen ringing bells rather more than twice.

And if you want to complete this particular story, think of Casper the Friendly Ghost and transform him into a song-and-dance man.

Stroman has elected, so she said in interviews, to envision Therese as largely a dance character. But unfortunately neither Levering's dancing nor Stroman's choreography leaves much impression. She fades.

An even worse mistake is Stroman and bookwriter Thompson's slow but sure trivialization of the entire story - most likely in the name of irony - which crumbles before your eyes.

Then there's Connick's so-so music.

Connick's score is on sure ground when he suggests New Orleans jazz, whether in the clubs or funerals.

But his lyrical and dramatic moments sound unexpectedly languid and etiolated.

Notes seem strung out like washing on a line. Connick can do better than this and I hope he will. (He might also think of hiring a lyricist.)

As director and choreographer, Stroman has infused the whole proceedings with a frantic energy suggesting haste rather than speed, and concept rather than style.

What style there is to the show comes from the evocative and fluid settings of Thomas Lynch, the cleverly versatile costumes of William Ivey Long and the always inventive lighting of Peter Kaczorowski. And from the cast.

Bierko is truly impressive as Laurent. This is streets ahead of his superficial playing in "The Music Man," and reveals a real Broadway musical hero.

Butz splendidly kicks everything in sight in a charismatic performance of a character that happens to be misconceived by the creators.

Monk - probably worthily headed for another Tony Award - is terrific as Madame Raquin, and Leo Burmester turns in a nicely modulated performance as an avuncular but eventually suspicious police chief.

Finally, a miscast Levering, direct from the latest incarnation of "42nd Street," does a decent best.

Murders don't necessarily have to be murderous. But I fear this musical is. In its grimmer moments it seems like life without parole.


New York Post
10/26/2001

New York Times: "One Flew Over the Cuckold's Nest"

It takes a singing dead man to bring a spark of life to ''Thou Shalt Not,'' the limp and lugubrious musical tale of lethal passion that opened last night at the Plymouth Theater. Portraying a murder victim who returns to haunt his killers in the show's second act, a young actor named Norbert Leo Butz provides this fascinatingly ill-assembled production with something it has been aching for since its first scene: a shot of showbiz adrenaline.

A sad sack and a whiner while alive, Mr. Butz's character shuffles off this mortal coil -- as well as his shoes and socks -- to turn into a barefoot ghost with cheek, shimmying his way through a sardonic little number called ''Oh! Ain't That Sweet.''

As he sassily stalks the adulterous lovers who did him in, he exudes an impish crooner's confidence, suggesting Sinatra playing Puck, that matches the cocksure, laid-back style of the song's composer, Harry Connick Jr. And I could feel numbed audience members around me suddenly sitting up in their seats again.

The official moral of this dreary adaptation of Emile Zola's ''Therese Raquin,'' directed and choreographed by no less a talent than Susan Stroman, may be that adultery and murder are bad for you. But you leave ''Thou Shalt Not,'' which translates Zola's 19th-century Paris into 1940's New Orleans, with the impression of a different moral altogether: ghosts have more fun. Only in the afterlife it seems can you come upon the old razzle-dazzle that makes Broadway musicals breathe.

Given the pedigree of the chief creators of ''Thou Shalt Not,'' the show should be bursting with panache, even if the novel that inspired it is as bleak as they come. Ms. Stroman of course is Broadway's reigning wonder woman, who reached new heights of imaginative stagecraft in ''Contact'' and ''The Producers.'' Mr. Connick is the charismatic, seriously gifted singer and composer who reinterpreted big band and Dixieland funk sounds for a new generation of listeners.

Yet in tandem these two artists of the limelight feel like the resentful product of a shotgun wedding. If you can separate Ms. Stroman's staging from Mr. Connick's score in your mind while watching ''Thou Shalt Not,'' you'll find evidence of the distinctive talents that made them stars.

But Ms. Stroman, with her upbeat kinetic playfulness, and Mr. Connick, with his wistful minor-key melodies, are like Siamese twins unhappily pulling in different directions. And Mr. Butz aside, none of the cast members have a clue as to how to reconcile the discrepancy.

This is especially true of the evening's attractive but fatally miscast romantic leads, Craig Bierko (of Ms. Stroman's revival of ''The Music Man'') and Kate Levering (late of the current ''42nd Street''), who were clearly intended for more conventional musical fare.

''Therese Raquin'' is admittedly not an easy or obvious choice for the Broadway treatment. Published in 1868 (and first adapted for the stage only a few years later), this grim study of sex, crime and self-punishment was a bridge between Zola's early potboilers and the naturalistic Rougon-Macquart novels that sealed his claim to literary history. It remains a fast and brutal page turner, anticipating James M. Cain's gritty American variations on the same themes.

In a second-edition preface written in answer to disgusted critics, Zola famously declared that his approach to his sensational subject was purely clinical. ''I simply applied to two living bodies the analytical methods that surgeons apply to corpses,'' he wrote.

The book, in which a sickly clerk is murdered by his adulterous wife and best friend, is accordingly dense with unappetizing physical detail. Far more sensory than sensuous, it was Zola's first serious presentation of what he called ''la bete humaine,'' the human animal.

Atavism is not traditionally the stuff of successful musical theater, unless you count the ''primitive man'' number from ''On the Town.'' ''Therese Raquin'' would seem to lend itself more naturally to less literal-minded performance mediums. Tobias Picker's operatic version of the same material coincidentally opens at the Dallas Opera later this fall. And Ms. Stroman had said she initially thought of adapting the novel as a ballet.

Ms. Stroman, however, has a restlessly inventive intelligence, and she no doubt wanted to take the book-musical form, of which she has established herself as a first-rate interpreter, into new, darker frontiers. You can see glimpses of what she was trying for, especially in the second-act choreography. But intention and ambition merge only rarely here. And a show that should throb with urgency moves as sluggishly as a creek in a rain-free August.

The plot is stark and simple. Laurent (Mr. Bierko), a piano player with big biceps, returns to New Orleans from World War II and runs into his old friend Camille Raquin (Mr. Butz), who, true to his name, is a frail, coughing consumptive, cosseted by his overprotective mother (that ever-game pro Debra Monk). Camille is married to his pretty, sex-starved cousin, Therese (Ms. Levering). Laurent can't help loving dat woman, and evil doings follow.

There was a reason Zola set much of his novel in the ''dark, low, shallow'' building in which the Raquins live and tend shop; it intensifies to the point of grotesqueness the claustrophobia that envelopes the characters. In transplanting the story to a lively jazz club and restaurant run by Mme. Raquin, Ms. Stroman and her book writer, David Thompson, automatically change the atmosphere, with unfortunate consequences.

From the show's first scene -- set in another jazz club, in which Laurent unfolds his sorry story to a disapproving crowd of barflies -- the ensemble seems like a frolicsome bunch in William Ivey Long's festive costumes, the antithesis of Zola's downtrodden Parisians. Ms. Stroman establishes the evening's theme with a dance sequence in which lust and jealousy play roles. But there's a peppiness to her choreography here that banishes mortal shadows and recalls the far superior swing dancing in ''Contact.''

Similarly, when we first meet the doomed Therese, she's behaving like Laurey in ''Oklahoma!'' (which Ms. Stroman brilliantly rechoreographed for the Broadway-bound London production), prancing around in a fantasy ballet as she folds the laundry. (You expect a voice-over to intone something like ''New improved Tide: smell the freshness.'') A Mardi Gras sequence, which anticipates Camille's death and is meant to seem spooky, registers as silly instead.

Mr. Connick's music, if not his lyrics, come much closer to a Zolaesque tone. He uses a steady percussive beat to mark a fatalistic current, and his expectation-thwarting melody lines have a ruminative, listless, even joyless quality. Even a New Orleans-style jazz funeral march seems draggy.

You can sense Ms. Monk, who comes off about as Creole as Bella Abzug, and Leo Burmester, as a salty police officer, struggling to turn their solos into showstoppers. When Mme. Raquin is confined to a wheelchair in the second act after a paralyzing stroke, you feel relieved that Ms. Monk can rest now.

Ms. Levering is an elegant and expressive dancer, who does well by a haunting second-act sequence in which Therese goes slumming and is gang-raped. But there's no visceral pull to her singing, and her acting reads as more sullen than possessed.

Those who know Mr. Bierko for his vivacious Robert Preston impersonation in ''The Music Man'' will be shocked by his stolidness here. I kept thinking of Ben Stiller in the title role of ''Zoolander,'' as the model who has only one pseudo-erotic look. Neither performer is helped by Mr. Thompson's mossy film-noir dialogue. (''You wake up hungry,'' says Laurent, massaging Therese's stomach. ''You go to bed hungry.'')

As for sexual chemistry, forget it, despite the deliberate evocation of the steamy kitchen-table scene from the remake of ''The Postman Always Rings Twice,'' and despite that revolving bed on which Ms. Levering does back stretches while Mr. Bierko salivates. (The stage of Thomas Lynch's expressionist-style set does a lot of vertiginous revolving.) And why does poor Ms. Levering have to flash her bare breasts a la Alice Ripley in ''The Rocky Horror Show''?

But let's return to a happier topic: Mr. Butz, who manages to find a persuasive character even when the hapless, hacking Camille is still alive. The only relationship that seems remotely credible is not Therese and Laurent's but Camille's with his mother, a mix of flirtation, affection and resentment.

He brings a haunted, musing quality to ''Tugboat,'' a revamped children's-dittylike song that he delivers just before Camille is drowned, most anticlimactically, at the end of Act I. And once he turns phantom, he is a delightfully engaging ghost who tips you off that in another context Mr. Connick's score might have worked.

You may have heard that in early previews of ''Thou Shalt Not'' there were audience complaints about a morgue scene, which seemed tasteless in the light of the Sept. 11 attacks. The scene remains in a tamer revised version. It really isn't particularly disturbing in itself, although it inevitably evokes tragic associations. By and large, though, this show isn't morbid; it's just morose.


New York Times
10/26/2001

Variety: "Thou Shalt Not"

It is somehow emblematic of the perplexing disappointments of Lincoln Center Theater's new musical "Thou Shalt Not" that the liveliest character onstage, by some measure, is a corpse.

This latest stage adaptation of Emile Zola's feverish novel "Therese Raquin" moves the story to steamy postwar New Orleans. The brainchild of sizzling "Producers" director-choreographer Susan Stroman, with a score by popular crooner-composer Harry Connick Jr., "Thou Shall Not" stars hot young performers Kate Levering (Tony nommed for "42nd Street") and Craig Bierko (ditto a season prior for "The Music Man").

That adds up to a lot of potential heat, so it's all the more peculiar that the temperature of the show scarcely rises to a simmer. Indeed, until the second-act arrival of that suavely crooning corpse, this competent but unexciting musical rarely registers a dramatic pulse.

The corpse -- a ghost, really -- is personified by the talented Norbert Leo Butz. He portrays cuckolded husband Camille Raquin, a sickly but sweet-enough fellow who is done wrong by his dissatisfied wife Therese (Levering) and best pal Laurent (Bierko). Aside from the changes in time and location, the show hews closely to the arc of Zola's plot, in which the lovers bump off Camille and are haunted to the point of suicidal despair by his ghost, a specter of their remorseful consciences.

The novel is grim and intense, and much of it documents events taking place inside the overheated minds of Laurent and Therese. In this respect it seems a natural for music-theater treatment, allowing for the characters' throbbing psychologies to be translated into melody (the novel, coincidentally, is also the basis for a new opera with music by Tobias Picker that preems in Dallas next month).

Unfortunately, Connick's pleasant pastiches of '40s song styles are not up to the demanding task of breathing fiery new life into what is, after all, an archetypal love-triangle story. The funky pop-jazz tunes that establish the show's N'Awlins setting are lively and appealingly performed -- Camille's mother Madame Raquin, a haberdasher in the novel, is now a saloon proprietor played with savvy professionalism by Debra Monk -- but no amount of scene-setting gumbo can take the place of the intense psychodrama that should be the focus of the show.

The songs that do give glimpses into the characters' haunted hearts are a bit wan; they lack excitement and emotional texture. The major love duet, "Sovereign Lover," is a jaunty, lyrical night-on-the-town number -- including a tap interlude -- that hardly paves the dramatic way for the murderous business at hand. (Jubilant tap dancing is not, surely, a common prelude to a vicious murder -- even in New Orleans.)

It doesn't help that Levering and Bierko do not strike a lot of sparks as the adulterous lovers. She is certainly lovely to look at but doesn't come close to conveying the intensity of feeling that could arouse our sympathy for -- or at least understanding of -- her nasty behavior; an amiable ingenue out of her depth, Levering's Therese comes across like a singing, dancing Estee Lauder ad. Bierko is likewise a handsome presence, but scarcely more imposing or emotionally vivid as the brutish Laurent.

Some of the fault for the passive impression the performers make must be placed on the thin book by David Thompson, who has not strongly defined these characters. The oppressive nature of the feelings and circumstances that drive Laurent and Therese to murder is not established in the story's new setting, making their behavior seem arbitrary; after all, a pair of attractive young lovers had many more options in 1940s New Orleans than in the fetid, impoverished corner of 19th century Paris evoked in Zola's novel.

The only character to really set the audience's pulse racing is the aforementioned Camille, and even he is far more entertaining dead than alive. Breathing, he looks greasy and sings a moony love song, "All Thing," and a mildly lilting duet with Therese, "Tug Boat," with minimal flavor; deceased, he raises the roof with a Sinatra-style toe-tapper, "Oh! Ain't That Sweet!," in which he smoothly insinuates his ghostly presence between the desperately disturbed Laurent and Therese.

Butz, who has the only strong voice in the cast, handily stops the show here, as Stroman's inventive imagination finally fires up in what stands out as both the musical's most amusing and most dramatically vivid sequence (even if it is decidedly at odds with the show's dark dramatic tone).

Elsewhere, Stroman's staging is admirably fluid but her choreography falls back too readily on rote boogie-woogie moves, familiar from "Contact," and too much shimmying meant to signify sultriness. (The big Mardi Gras number, "Light the Way," is a particular letdown, and one of a few occasions on which Thomas Lynch's watercolor sets and backdrops, delicately lit by Peter Kaczorowski, seem a bit skimpy.) It's encouraging to see dance woven so thoroughly into the texture of a new musical, but the "ballets" that pepper the musical are not examples of Stroman's best work.

Does Stroman's failure to shape a compelling show from some promising working parts indicate a lack of focus or a talent stretched too thin? Not necessarily. A lot of talent, a lot of love and a lot of hard work can sometimes result in a lot of nothing, as they essentially and sadly do here. Dat's da crap shoot dey call showbiz, as Mr. Bierko's Laurent might put it.


Variety
10/25/2001

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