Lincoln Center Gives Us the Blues

Is the Earth flat? It is, actually. You’ve only to glance at the Tony Award nominations to see that the Earth is flat as a mad pancake.

Take the peculiar case of It Ain’t Nothin’ but the Blues at the Vivian Beaumont Theater in Lincoln Center. The show has been nominated for best musical, but it ain’t a musical, and for best book of a musical, though–of course–it has no book.

Whatever happened to the Trade Descriptions Act? It Ain’t Nothin’ but the Blues is a recital, concert or compilation of 50 blues songs, a number of which aren’t even blues songs at all. Five writers–no less!–are credited with having written the book that doesn’t exist. One song follows another in the show with a few introductory words during the proceedings about the history of the blues. Five writers, or 50 more, would make no difference. Slide projections do not a book make.

Take Parade , the other Tony-nominated musical from Lincoln Center (which closed some time ago). That I didn’t rate it highly as some is beside the point here. It has a story, characters, dialogue, plot (and a new score). It’s a musical! With a book! Then again, Lincoln Center Theater is pleased to bill the blues show as new–”A New Musical.” The show has been on the road for years (and looks it). It isn’t new.

Exactly what it’s doing on the stage of the Vivian Beaumont is another question. It’s troubling that the nonprofit Lincoln Center Theater should, in effect, be a theater for commercial hire. The Vivian Beaumont qualifies as a Broadway house and therefore for the Tony Awards. But it has an important duty not to function like commercial Broadway. Why is this commercially produced show on the stage of the Vivian Beaumont? Why isn’t Lincoln Center creating its own productions?

I would raise the question even if It Ain’t Nothin’ but the Blues were the sparkling, hot show some find it to be. The line between the nonprofit and commercial theater may become blurred, but it ought to be sacrosanct. If not, the artistic independence of the nonprofit theaters of America lose all sense of purpose and meaning.

It Ain’t Nothin’ but the Blues is not a good show; it is more a touring company’s mall version of the blues. It actually achieves the impossible, transforming vibrant blues funk into white bread.

The seven stars–including the superior Gretha Boston–don’t excite or move us. Delta blues, born out of black yearning and cotton field hollers, enduring testament to stories told of despair and booze and women and desire, shouldn’t come over like a bland civic culture for the white middle class in a self-conscious clap-in.

It’s a mostly dull, cut-price, safe little show, except when it’s “naughty” (cute versions of the raunchy “Now I’m Gonna Be Bad” and “Wang Dang Doodle”). There’s a pallid sense of good clean fun, not the essential, vital sweat of bluesy riffs and soul.

It’s been a while since I attended the annual Mississippi Delta Blues Festival in Greenville, which is also home to President Clinton’s favorite steak house, Doe’s Eat Place, whose souvenir red baseball cap I now proudly possess with its felicitous logo: “You may beat our prices but you can’t beat our meat.” The Mississippi pilgrimage made me no blues expert, but I know a great belter when I hear one. I still remember “The Queen of the Blues,” Koko Taylor, raising the roof with “You can have my husband/ but pleeeeeeeze don’t mess with my man!” And the roar from the crowd–particularly from the ecstatic, laughing women–was something to behold.

Clapping forlornly on the wrong beat to an utterly unsexy version of “Fever” isn’t as good, I can tell you. It isn’t the real thing (just as It Ain’t Nothin’ but the Blues isn’t a real musical). What’s “Fever” doing there? It’s a curiously sedate concert, too. The performers are seated for most of it, as if resting. The tempo is flat, the stage picture static. Then again, it pretends to be a history of the blues from African chants and spirituals to Chicago blues. But even this potted history is shaky.

We know that the blues crossed over to–or was ripped off by–many white musicians and rockers, including the Rolling Stones and Elvis. (The version of “I Can’t Stop Lovin’ You” in the show can’t even compete with Elvis’.) But to put the honky-tonk folksiness of Patsy Cline in a history of the blues is to reduce a proud heritage to the watered-down level of Grand Ole Opry.

This is the first example of P.C. in reverse that I’ve seen. So anxious is everyone to dutifully do the right thing (while, of course, “having a ball”), it’s a strange premise of the show to claim that historically dirt-poor white folks in the South suffered, too. They did, and still do. But they were never slaves, and all the solemnity of the two white members of the cast don’t make it bluesily otherwise.

I’m afraid the new Lincoln Center production of Jean Anouilh’s Ring Round the Moon , at the Belasco Theater on Broadway, is a misfire. Director Gerald Gutierrez is a chef to cook up solid, dependable stews rather than divine soufflés–assuming the 1947 French play was ever divinely satisfying in the first place.

It’s hard to tell. You would have to be Inspector Clouseau to make sense of all the farcical twists and turns of the convoluted plot with any triumphant brevity. Let’s just say the piece is Anouilh’s wry fairy tale about class, money, innocence and true love, involving identical twins, an aristocratic old bag in a wheelchair, and, by today’s standards–or any standards–a near parody of a neurotic Jewish financier.

I guess the financier is meant to be amusing (or a dark reference to anti-Semitism). But lightness should be all in this minor Anouilh frolic adapted by Christopher Fry who, like all good Englishmen, makes the French sound frightfully English. What we see onstage, however, is as earthbound as set designer John Lee Beatty’s heavily architectural winter garden weighing down a delightful chateau. The comedy has its moments, but the production is as ponderous as a well-meaning bore taking great care to get a lengthy, overcomplicated joke right. (In this case, three acts.)

It is all overstylized, as middlebrow period costume dramas invariably are, while possessing no style. The accents of the ensemble wobble from American to New Yorkese to archly faux British to authentic British. Toby Stephens and the always excellent Simon Jones speak the latter perfectly. (They are British.) Marian Seldes, up for a Tony as leading actress in a play, is more restrained than she can be, with a mad glint in her eye. Her dowager duchess impersonation of Lady Bracknell gave us a lift. Toby Stephens, playing the twins Hugo and Frederic, is the matinee idol de nos jours , and he’s doing a fair impersonation of the young Laurence Olivier.

We like Mr. Stephens (the son, he must be sick of hearing, of Robert Stephens and Maggie Smith). He poses in profile, as John Barrymore did. He looks dashing in white tie and tails; he knows how to bound and stride about the place, and loll like an indolent aristocrat in a John Singer Sargent portrait. He can speak terribly, terribly fast, so that what he’s actually saying is left behind in the gallop, which is probably a frightfully good idea when you consider it’s all a lot of silly nonsense really and there we are.

He is better as Hugo, the rotter and man about town, than he is as his twin brother, Frederic, the poor hangdog sap. Everyone in the play keeps confusing Hugo with Frederic, or Frederic with Hugo, but we don’t. Never mind, eh? Mr. Stephens, exiting speedily at a most debonair thousand miles an hour as Hugo to re-emerge from the other side of the stage within a breathless moment, or two, as Frederic, is always fun. We wish there had been more of it.