Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Taking the Doll Off the Shelf

When I told friends I was seeing A Doll's Life, a musical sequel of Ibsen's famous A Doll's House, I got many confused looks. "How does that work?" they all asked. And the truth is that after only 18 previews and 5 performances on Broadway, it seems like a lot of people didn't really know.

The Beautiful Soup Theater Collective has resurrected A Doll's Life in repertory with Ibsen's original, and it's an interesting study to see both a canonical and a flop-ful play taking one another in stride. A Doll's Life has only appeared at The York prior to this current production (which plays through this Sunday), and there is much to glean from seeing this show in an economical production that makes much its resources.

The work itself is flawed -- the book is scattered and the premise itself is problematic. The show opens with Nora leaving Torvald and follows her on misadventures with loves gone wrong as she hops a train to Christiana and tries to make her own way. Much of the ambiguity of A Doll's House's original themes are sacrificed, and many of the heavy-handed comments on gender roles and women's power are often undermined by some of Nora's misguided choices. Still, there is a dizzying fascination that comes with the collection of fun characters that populate Nora's travels in the first act in an Odyssey-like adventure. It's not until the second act, however, that the characters' desires start to take any concrete shape, and by then some revelations seem to come rather belatedly. One of the biggest burdens on this show is just the connection to A Doll's House in the first place, as it could easily be its own narrative without the baggage (no pun intended) of the original play.

Even with a problematic premise, one thing I appreciated about The Beautiful Soup Theater Collective's current production is that it found small moments of beauty and truth that gave insight into what this show could be. Larry Grossman's music is beautiful and memorable in many instances with some powerful lyrics from Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and I particularly enjoyed some of the group numbers with "There She Is" being a standout in this production.

One interesting discussion I overheard in the audience tonight was a bunch of fans of the Broadway cast recording talking about how the performance stacked up against their expectations. Someone pointed out how interesting it was to finally get context to the songs they had been listening to devotedly, and I realized what a gift it is to be able to see what would otherwise be a somewhat 'lost' show in full. Because theatre is often so timely, we tend to overlook works that weren't necessarily commercial successes, but with companies like Beautiful Soup (or even MCC's Carrie), there are still opportunities to experience these shows. And as a piece of theatre history, there definitely was still life left in this doll.

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