Gee, It’s Jane! Better Than J. Lo

Jane Fonda makes her first movie in 15 years and gets second billing under Jennifer Lopez? This is how low we’ve sunk. Still, she turns sour grapes into tasty merlot. The movie is forgettable fluff-a thing called Monster-in-Law-but not to worry: There is nothing forgettable about Jane Fonda’s fizzy performance. She walks away with every scene she’s in-and luckily, she’s in almost every shot in the picture. In fact, she steals the whole thing right out from under J. Lo with such power and finesse that she even upstages the tiresomely overpublicized booty. Beautiful and elegant as she approaches 70, Ms. Fonda has lost none of her looks, talent, intelligence or sense of humor. This is evident in her brave, funny, candid and searingly honest new autobiography, My Life So Far, and it is thrillingly on view as she single-handedly elevates a nothing movie like Monster-in-Law several notches beyond the predictable second-rate status it deserves. Actress, activist, feminist, entrepreneur, philanthropist, author and rescuer of bad movies, Jane Fonda is now a national treasure.

Monster-in-Law is not exactly deserving of that mantle. After turning down dozens of important roles in the past decade, nobody knows why she bothered with it at all. It doesn’t explore the rivalries between brides and mothers-in-law from hell with much originality or freshness. You could write the plot on the head of a bobby pin. J. Lo is Charlie, a yoga instructor/dog walker/caterer/receptionist who meets the man of her dreams, a handsome doctor named Kevin (Michael Vartan), who hands her an engagement ring. Jane is her fiancé’s mother, Viola, a rich, successful, no-nonsense news anchor/personality from the Barbara Walters–Diane Sawyer School of Take No Prisoners TV Blabber who has won five Emmys but considers her son Kevin the biggest trophy in her possession. Kevin has moved back home from San Francisco to be near his mother, whose career has suddenly plummeted after taking her talent for not suffering fools too far. (There’s a very funny bit at the top when she has a “live” on-camera breakdown after attacking a teenage Britney Spears–cum–Paris Hilton clone for thinking that Roe v. Wade was a boxing match.) Viola is under doctor’s orders to avoid all stress.

Then she meets J. Lo, who “looks like cheap upholstery,” and fakes two phony attacks-heart and mental-that force the mother from hell and the daughter-in-law from hunger to move in together. Demanding that Charlie share her bed and serve Evian with ice at all hours of the day and night, Viola disrupts her life, her sleep and her eating patterns. Ms. Fonda is hilarious modeling bizarre clothes presented as gifts from Chairman Mao and the Dalai Lama and boring everyone to death with riotous bouts of pomposity (“So there I was, sitting with the Sultan of Brunei, Maureen Dowd, Carrie Fisher and Snoop Dogg … “). Charlie is almost tortured to the point of calling off the wedding, until she discovers that Viola’s meds are fake.

Then she turns the tables and wreaks double jeopardy on her future mother-in-law, slapping spaghetti sauce on Viola’s white Gucci wardrobe and watching her pass out facedown in a plate of tripe. From this point forward, the movie is nothing more than a series of contrived bitch fights in which both stars prove they’re also good sports, poking fun at each other and getting laughs at their own expense. The other ladies in the film, like Elaine Stritch and standup comic Wanda Sykes, are just window dressing, and I still don’t understand why the pumped but painfully thin Michael Vartan never shaves, even for his own wedding. Is this a new trend? Emaciated blond hunks with black Skid Row stubble?

Most of Monster-in-Law is nothing to blog about. A good script doctor like Robert ( Steel Magnolias, The First Wives Club) Harling might have given the two women some edge and some oomph, but the pedestrian screenplay by Anya Kochoff rarely rises above the level of a mediocre sitcom, while the lame direction by Australian Robert Luketic pretty much leaves the actors to their own devices. This is probably a good thing, since it gave me great pleasure watching Ms. Fonda conduct a class in how to play comedy from the Stanislavsky point of view, with believable results. She’s real in the truest sense, and her skill and polish-even in the most humiliating scenes-seem to have rubbed off on J. Lo, who does her best and most natural work on film to date. Class rubs off. Ms. Fonda says in interviews that this movie was a fluke. She has no interest in returning to films on a full-time basis. I hope she’s kidding. At a time when moviegoing has become the visual equivalent of wading barefoot through garbage, a class act like Jane Fonda isn’t easy to come by. We must not lose our grip on this one any time soon.

Ciao, Bella!

If you’ve lost all hope in stage musicals, get ready for an epiphany. Like a unicorn’s birthday, a great new musical that can really be called an event comes to town once in a fairytale lifetime. Such an event has now arrived. It is The Light in the Piazza, based on the wise and moving novel by Elizabeth Spencer, with a book by Craig Lucas that touches the heart and a score by the supremely gifted Adam Guettel that lifts the soul. It is awesome. I have seen it twice, and I am open-mouthed with respect and admiration. It is one of the most beautiful shows I have ever seen on a New York stage, and the New York stage is the only place where I can envision the delicacy and depth of feeling it has been given in every single detail.

This is the acclaimed literary work about a doting middle-aged American mother from Winston-Salem, N.C., named Margaret Johnson (acted and sung to the stratosphere by Victoria Clark), who returns as a tourist in the summer of 1953 to Florence, the magical Renaissance city where she spent her honeymoon, accompanied by her lovely daughter Clara (the magnificent soprano Kelli O’Hara), whom she smothers with doting, concerned overprotection for reasons that are not immediately clear. The girl seems as fresh and radiant as spring. But a childhood riding accident left her secretly retarded, unable to surpass the mental age of a child. Tender coddling gives way to painful reality when Mrs. Johnson finds herself powerless to stop Clara from falling in love with an Italian boy named Fabrizio, who proposes marriage. Fabrizio’s family is overjoyed until the defining moment in Act II when the truth comes out and everyone is forced to confront fate’s most rending challenges.

Passions and feelings and character-driven personal talismans to live by are articulated, scene by scene, to the most gorgeous score I have heard in many seasons, until the final heart-throbbing strength of Ms. Spencer’s novel and Mr. Lucas’ play is revealed in the wisdom and humanity that Mrs. Johnson finds in herself, and in the message that nobody should be denied happiness or be asked to expect less from life just because they’re different from everyone else. It’s the unselfish love she discovers in herself and the generosity of spirit to let her daughter grow up on her own that makes Mrs. Johnson such a noble heroine. When she sees how Clara is transformed by love, she feels guilty for wanting her to live a more cloistered life, and opens up to the possibility that she’s only been looking at her daughter’s disabilities, not the strengths that made her special and worth cherishing all along.

Some people have attached the dreaded “soap opera” label to the original novel, the popular 1962 MGM movie with Olivia de Havilland, and now the musical on view at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater, but when so many audiences through the years have been reduced to tears of joy and compassion by this work, “sentimental” just becomes a wimpy and meaningless pastel word, and there is nothing pallid about The Light in the Piazza.

The lights come up and there is a rapid rise and fall of the pulse. A luscious melodic overture begins, like the film music from Vittorio De Sica’s masterpiece The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. When was the last time you heard the overture of a Broadway musical played with strings? The music reaches out and takes you as a square in Florence slowly comes to life to the shimmering sweetness of Adam Guettel’s music. A warmth reaches over your heart like the heated hand of a Reiki masseur until you think the sun is full upon you. Sliding arches the color of burnt sienna move about the stage, forming basilicas, a flower market, the Michelangelo room in the Uffizi, an ornate iron fence beyond which you can see red votives blazing in a cathedral apse. Michael Yeargan’s exquisite sets and the incandescent lighting by Christopher Akerlind are creative illustrations to enhance the sweep of Mr. Guettel’s elegant, rhapsodic score. From the period bicycles and baby carriages in the central square of Florence to the porticoes and columns of the Roman Forum, Bartlett Sher’s flawless direction captures the space and the light of Italy. You see the burnished slashes of sun filtering through the columns, share the details of humor and fury flashing from the large cast of diverse characters, assembled at a dinner party where complex emotions rise to the surface in a line or a phrase that stuns.

There is something in every scene in The Light in the Piazza to take your breath away when you least expect it. The cast is uniformly triumphant. Victoria Clark deserves all the praise lavished upon her victorious head already. Kelli O’Hara and Matthew Morrison as the young lovers have voices like angels. Special mention must be made of Michael Berresse, whose acrobatic twirls in the recent revival of Kiss Me, Kate stopped the show nightly. He doesn’t dance here, but as Fabrizio’s irresponsible, happy-go-lucky but childless married brother Giuseppe, he turns a small role into a lovable, three-dimensional pillar of charisma and importance.

Nothing lags, but even if you find the mood and message less fulfilling than I did, it is doubtful that you will go away from The Light in the Piazza unmoved by Adam Guettel’s marvelous score. The songs are rangy but harmonic. The singers possess perfect intonation and clarity of tone, and oodles of charm. For years, Mr. Guettel has skirmished in the trenches of musical warfare, cowering from the responsibility and fear of failure that must inescapably be his inheritance. (Richard Rodgers was his grandfather, and his mother, Mary Rodgers, wrote Once Upon a Mattress.) When all that atonal, New Wave crap ruined theater music and made real show tunes obsolete, he wrote like the other tone-deaf Young Turks clogging the scene in an attempt to avoid family comparisons. I liked what he wrote for Floyd Collins, but nothing he composed for that show prepared me for the vision, insight and maturity of what he’s done here. The vibrant, surging modernism laced with entrancing romanticism that distinguishes the score for The Light in the Piazza proves that you can have it both ways. A Sondheim influence is occasionally detectable, but Mr. Guettel’s style and sound are uniquely his own. The songs are the kind you don’t hear anymore-melodies that soar and swing and smile and sigh, carried aloft by voices that float and dance and glide through the lyrics like harp strings. It’s a work of such consummate beauty, truth, energy and accomplishment that you leave the theater filled with joy and revived by hope for the future. Adam Guettel is a major part of that future-a composer worth watching and encouraging, and The Light in the Piazza is a grand place to start.

No-Frills Fun

A bracing brew of brooding baritone, broken heart and Buster Brown bangs, Karen Akers is at the Algonquin Hotel’s Oak Room through May 28 with her best show yet. Eschewing the pretentious Brel and the pickled Piaf, she sticks to the standards, and the rewards are numerous. When a Lady Loves is what she calls the new act, and songs by Kern, Rodgers and Hart, and the Gershwins are the tools by which she illustrates the title. With veteran musicians Don Rebic on piano and Chip Jackson on bass, she runs the gamut from Charles Strouse’s “You’ve Got Possibilities,” the jaunty come-on Lois Lane sang to Clark Kent in the musical It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Superman, to an emphatic yet hopeful reading of Dorothy Fields’ lyrics on “Remind Me.” Every shifting mood of a woman’s libido is incorporated here, from positive thinking (Hoagy Carmichael’s “I Get Along Without You Very Well”) to cynicism (Harold Arlen’s “Down with Love”) to resignation (Irving Berlin’s “I Got Lost in His Arms”). The kind of Cole Porter sophistication that is born of experience is very much in evidence, from “Most Gentlemen Don’t Like Love (They Just Like to Kick It Around)” to “The Laziest Gal in Town.” Best surprise: “I Wish I Were in Love Again” as a ballad can reveal old wounds and fresh insights, but Sylvia Syms got there first. All of which boils down to little more than a convenient umbrella for stringing together an easy, friendly collection of songs from the Great American Song Book. The premise is often a stretch, but all that matters is the songs. This time, they’re all classics. And in this relaxed, chummy and no-frills ambiance, so is Karen Akers.