SAN DIEGO—When an actor wins a Tony for Best Actor, its no accident. BD Wong is just that actor. But there’s more. For his performance in the Broadway production of M. Butterfly by David Henry Hwang (who also garnered a Tony, among others), he won the coveted Tony, a Drama Desk Award, an Outer Critics Circle Award, a Clarence Derwent Award and a Theatre World Award all for his singular performance as Song, a Chinese actor and opera singer posing as a woman who became the lover of a French Government diplomat (Rene Gallimard) who, for years thought he was a woman.
So when it was announced by the La Jolla Playhouse that BD Wong would be appearing in the one-man musical show Herringbone by Tom Cone (book), Skip Kennon (music), Ellen Fitzhugh (lyrics) and based on the play by Tom Cone, I raised my hand to be the first to respond in the affirmative. On opening night, the SRO line was as long as the steps leading to the top rows of the Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre where Wong performs his magic.
(With the naming of the Potiker Theatre at the Playhouse our Jewish community can also boast of the Garfield Theatre at the JCC La Jolla Campus as well as the Mandell Weiss Theater and Forum also at the Playhouse. This is just the tip of the iceberg involving our local and most generous patrons of the arts.)
Wong IS the show. He plays eleven characters including the narrator, a vaudeville song and dance man who recounts an eventful tale about when he was but eight years old. He blends into each distinct personality effortlessly as he tells a story of a poverty stricken Southern family during the great depression, a young boy's entry into the adult world of entertainment, the trials of show business, child abuse, family matters, identity crisis, untapped talent and murder. If it all sounds a little like pushing the envelope, you might call it that.
The play is set in 1929 Demopolis, Alabama and is directed by Roger Reese, choreographed by Daren Lee with musical direction by Dan Lipton. The revolving stage is bare save for a trunk, a chair, a doorframe and door and the musicians. (Eugene Lee) It is illuminated beautifully by Christopher Akerlind. We meet the eight-year-old George, (dressed simply in pinstriped trousers and vest over a white shirt and thin tie William Ivy Long), first as he is practicing a speech to give in front of his class. He is shy, not very confident and soft spoken.
From there we meet his refined, whisper soft and sweet mother Louise, his not so gentle father Arthur; Nathan ‘Chicken’ Mosley one half of the famous vaudeville team “The Chicken and The Frog”; Lou The Frog whose spirit inhabits the boy George (later to be known as Herringbone); and Dot a desk clerk at a seedy motel used by George (Herringbone) and Frog.
The tale he weaves traces his experiences from the time his ‘rich’ uncle who dies without leaving a single penny to the family and their anguish over not getting any of his estate, to the young George winning first place for his speech on patriotism, to his father using his first place prize money, twenty five dollars, to pay for tap dancing lessons by a local old vaudevillian dancer. Before that vaudevillian dies, he is able to will the spirit of the twisted body of his partner Frog a 36 inch, 37 year old ‘best midget hoofer in the business’ into the little boy, George.
Convinced and buoyed by the fact that George can now dance like a pro, (Lou was a pro) they hit the road with Hollywood as their destination and a singing and dancing act starring young George now one of the best (“How To Build a Man”) little dancer around. (“Little Mister Tippy Toes”) Wong had seen the piece done when "
he was barely out of high school." He became fascinated with the piece almost obsessed by it. He performed it for the first time in at the Philadelphia Music Theatre Festival in the early ‘90’s.
While the piece holds so much for the actor including how those we come in contact with over the course of our lives influence and at times embody us, (He talks about it in an
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interview with Shirley Fishman, director of Play Development/Dramaturge in the program) he sees this as an opportunity for an actor and as a theatrical event to show the conflicts within all of us through this process.
No one can deny that if anyone can pull off an event or evening like this and make it work Wong is the person to do it. He is simply outstanding in every aspect of his performance using every trick of the trade known to actors especially his subtle body movements as he shifts from one character to the next up to and including his singing and dancing. There should have been much more of that singing and dancing, it was so good.
There are about ten musical numbers in the show all accompanied by Dan Lipton (piano), Benjamin Campbell (Bass) and Brad Briscoe (drums and percussion). On opening night Wong’s voice seemed strained as if he were pushing too hard. That the show goes on for two hours might be tje reaspm. It may be written that way, but 90 minutes without intermission might serve it well.
That said the show in its entirety doesn’t equal the sum of all its parts. Tom Cone’s book just doesn’t cook until the second act when they all head for Hollywood hoping to make it to the big time. By now we’ve gone through the tediousness of meeting all the characters and have a pretty good idea of what’s to follow. Furthermore, the bizarre story doesn’t measure up to the larger than life performance of a master like Wong.
He’s better than all the parts put together and they just aren’t that riveting, rather they are more rambling and disturbing especially when Frog’s spirit (now in the boy) wants to have sex with the desk clerk Dot. We’re talking about an eight-year-old boy here! There’s something radically wrong with that and it puts the piece at odds with itself. That it doesn’t happen because George finally frees himself from Frog is anti climactic.
I’m sure I’m missing some deeper meaning to this whole event. I wish I knew what it was that left me with a flat feeling because after the show I felt disappointed and cheated. I wanted to love it. I pictured a different kind off musical story, one with lots of dancing. (Every press release shows Wong in a dance pose.)
I would urge you to see for yourself and draw your own conclusions and take advantage of an unusual evening with BD Wong.
Herringbone continues through Aug. 30th at the Potiker Theatre at the La Jolla Playhouse.
For more information see lajollaplayhouse.org
See you at the theatre.