Saturday, June 11, 2022

Theatre: The Bigger Boat

Bruce, Music by Richard Oberacker, Book & Lyrics by Robert Taylor and Richard Oberacker, Based on the book The Jaws Log by Carl Gottlieb, Directed and Choreographed by Donna Feore. 

Spoilers: I loved this, and strongly recommend that others go see it. Fair warning: The Lovely Bride did not, but we will get to that.

Long ago, musicals would show up on Broadway, then turn into films in Hollywood. Now the opposite is true - Intellectual Properties arrive from films and TV shows and are turned into comfortable songfests in NYC, then tour the nation in road companies. And this particular project goes even further - it is a musical based on a book about a movie about a book. So I will admit I was a little cautious going into this one.

And I enjoyed myself tremendously. I thought it was great. This is one of those performances I want to heartily recommend to others. Five years ago, I got to see Come From Away at the REP before it got big and was floored by the production. Bruce had the same effect on me. It a musical about the making of one of the first big modern Hollywood blockbusters. And you should go see it.

It is about the making of Jaws, and Bruce is the name for the infamous, problematic, mechanical shark that almost sunk the entire production. A young film-maker off his first modest success gets the nod to bring a best-seller about a killer shark to the big screen. At that time the best-seller was not yet published, and did not even have a final title. This was the first of many hurdles in the process.

And the show is all about the process. Putting together the initial team, casting, planning to record in a real ocean, finding the set location. The first chunk of the musical is laid out on a three-by three vertical grid, where the various component parts are spinning and people are contacted, recruited, convinced to come together. Like Jake and Elwood Blues, they are going to put the band together. Like Judy Garland and Micky Rooney, they're going to put on a show. About a shark.

And then they go to the island itself - Martha's Vineyard, and as with every plan, it disintegrates upon first contact with the greater reality. Problems with locals. Problems with scripts. Problems with the weather.  Problems with the actors. And most of all, problems with the mechanical shark that fails spectacularly and repeatedly, forcing the team to shoot around it. In the process, they succeeded with the shadow of the knife as opposed to the knife itself.

The cast is fantastic here - strong-voiced and solid, top to bottom. Jarrod Spector is an idealized Steven Spielberg at the start of his career. Ramzi Khalaf is a pugnaceous, insecure Richard (Ricky) Dreyfus. Hans Alwies is a drunken veteran Robert Shaw who acts the diva right up to the Indianapolis scene, where he disappears into Quint's character. Beth Devries is Lorraine Gary, whose character in the movie gets sidelined by the three male stars but here is a supportive foundation. Geoff Packard is the production company's Dad-figure as Roy Scheider. But it is the people behind the scenes, Alexandria J Henderson (as talent director Shari Rhodes) and E. Faye Butler (as film editor Verna Fields) that are fantastic, even if their real-life counterparts of that era were much paler. Top to bottom, everyone was brilliant. Heck, they even have you rooting for the producers (Eric Ankrim as Richard Zanuck and Timothy McCuen Piggee as David Brown).

How much of the story is ultimately true? Don't care. This musical actually hit me where I live and work. I have spend much of career as a corporate creative, working with teams of talented people, sometimes but not always in a leadership position, and the things found here ring true to me. I have done casting, I have been in the room where the deals are made, I know the chaos that often results in looking like we had it all planned. In many ways, this play gave me the reverse of PTSD - it was joyous and my eyes were wet by the end of it (It might have been the smoke, but hey, its Hollywood). And to honest (and a little cynical), while the actually making of the film involved a lot of plucky young professions working against long odds and nasty conditions, the original book got a huge promotion from Doubleday and the movie itself had a major ton of promotion, licenses, and distribution.  Don't care. It really hit me.

I even marveled at the set design. I have an allergy to "gizmo plays" that have flying sets and sliding furnishings and multiple levels of production to fill vertical space. But the Hollywood Squares initial set-up actually WORKED, and when everyone decamps to the island, that set splits apart to reveal a wider, more open world, and I was completely taken in. It was Dorothy stepping into Oz. 

The Lovely Bride did not care for it. In fact, she used the word "deplorable". And the big reason was that for her is did not work as a musical. I think that's a fair cop. A lot of the tropes you get from a Broadway Musical are missing = There is the "Statement of Purpose" song at the beginning, but there is not a lot of toe-tapping memorable melodies here. There is no catchy little comedy number or showstopper solo or big production number right before the intermission (heck, there isn't even an intermission). She felt it was closer to opera, and she doesn't care much for opera. But I liked it. I would buy the CD (Do they still do CDs?)

And, to be fair, would it have the same effect as it had on someone my age as on someone who had never seen the movie it was based on, or knew anything about the stories that have grown up around it? I dunno, go find someone who doesn't know about the film that traumatized a generation about swimming in the ocean. I can wait.

Summary on Bruce? Let me oversell it. I think it is great. I think this was a tonic for everyone who is involved in creating things in the real world. It made me want to return to projects that have been abeyance for a while, and return to my daily creative task with new vigor. 

So yeah, I think you should go see it. 

More later,