Two plays written by two of Broadway’s greatest playwrights have recently opened, both dealing with AIDS. Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s “Into the Woods” was seen as an allegory for the AIDS crisis when it debuted in 1987. Terrance McNally’s “Love! Valour! Compassion!”, which debuted on Broadway in 1994 deals with AIDS head-on as two of the characters battle the disease.
Love! Valour! Compassion!
Island City Stage
2304 N. Dixie Hwy., Wilton Manors
Running through 11/5
The program for Island City Stage’s production of “Love! Valour! Compassion!” identifies the action as taking place in the present, when in fact, it takes place nearly 30 years ago, leaving one to wonder whether director Michael Leeds and artistic director Andy Rogow just didn’t notice the error in the program, or actually thought it could be presented as is. Certainly, the relationships between the eight characters are timeless, but many of the references are time-specific (especially the one about Queen Elizabeth having a really bad year, which got a laugh for the wrong reason.) However, with the advances in medication, the life of people with AIDS is radically different than it was in 1994.
That aside, the production is well plotted (although at 3½ hours, it does tend to drag). Another change since 1994, audiences aren’t used to sitting through such long plays.
The cast overall is strong, especially Bruce Linser in the dual role of twins John and James. Linser makes each character into a fully realized human being. Christopher Michaels does an excellent job in the role of Buzz, which was originally written expressly for Nathan Lane, who was a close friend of McNally. At times, Michaels seems to be channeling Lane, although it is hard to tell if he is actively influenced by Lane or that the role was written so well that anyone who delivers the lines tends to sound like him.
The rest of the cast is equally strong, except for Matthew Salas. Salas, whose flat affect and monotone were in keeping with the role he played in “Armature,” his last performance at Island City uses that same technique here (if indeed it is a technique) for Bobby the young, blind, lover of choreographer Gregory. He is so bland that one wonders why he is the object of lust for Saul Mendoza’s character, Ramon.
Sets, sound, and lighting are top-notch, as one has come to expect from Island City. I’m certain most of Island City’s patrons will have no trouble remembering the 1990s and the anger that simmered beneath us all in the government’s lack of response to the AIDS crisis, but younger viewers likely won’t relate. Dated or not, I still cried at the end.
“Into the Woods”
Slow Burn Theatre At The Broward Center
201 SW 5th Ave., Fort Lauderdale
Running through 10/29
As Slow Burn’s artistic director, Patrick Fitzwater announced in his pre-show speech. Slow Burn is not a touring company for Broadway shows. Although you might be forgiven for thinking so, given the slate of shows being offered each season, as well as the Broadway-level performances. “Into the Woods” is an ensemble piece and in this jigsaw puzzle of a show, in which numerous Grimm’s fairy tale characters come together in the forest, the pieces fit together perfectly. The full orchestra also adds a richness to this show that defies most regional theaters.
I saw the original Broadway production of this show (with Bernadette Peters) and Slow Burn’s version is every bit as good, with the exception of a few missed lighting cues. Kimmi Johnson Grimes is mesmerizing as Cinderella, and Jenn Hacker’s Witch is delightful, bringing more humor to the role than I have ever seen (and I’ve seen this show 10 times.) Ben Lieber and Melissa Whitworth have real chemistry as the baker and his wife. Giselle Watts is simply radiant as Little Red Riding Hood. Sergi Robles and Ralph Meitzler are absolutely delish as the princes, although I thought they’d be in much less “Agony” with each other.