Meltdowns

By CAROLYN CLAY  |  April 18, 2006

Idina Menzel won a Tony for her portrayal of Elphaba. Julia Murney, who plays the part in the national-touring company, sprints impressively across the character’s considerable vocal range, with particularly round low notes. As Glinda, bouncy Kendra Kassebaum, who has great comic timing and a high soprano sometimes rendered shrieky by amplification, is like an adult version of Little Colonel–vintage Shirley Temple. There are also sparky performances by Alma Cuervo as Shiz headmistress Madame Morrible and P.J. Benjamin as a Mr. Cellophane of a Wizard. If only the show didn’t pummel you like a ton of yellow bricks.

THE SWEETEST SWING IN BASEBALL: And the not-so-sweet smell of success.The Wicked Witch gets no joy from her notoriety, and fame’s no fun either in The Sweetest Swing in Baseball, which is at bat in its East Coast premiere by Boston Theatre Works (at the BCA Plaza Theatre through May 6). Rebecca Gilman’s plays — which include that tiptoe through racial quicksand, Spinning into Butter, and The Glory of Living, a foray into the mind of a teenage killer that won the American Theatre Critics Association’s Osborne Award and England’s Evening Standard Award for most promising playwright — are spare, tart, and unafraid of turning a log over. This one, a pointed comedy commissioned in 2004 by London’s Royal Court Theatre (where it starred Gillian Anderson), is coyer and less disarming than Butter, but it is clever. The heroine is successful painter Dana Fielding, who is cracking under the weight of her early promise. When a solo show tanks, her dealer stops calling, and a decaying relationship performs its final crumble, she attempts suicide — which lands her in the safety of a psychiatric hospital but, given the limitations of her insurance, not for long. To draw out her stay, she invents a neat little case of multiple-personality disorder and discovers that only in a new guise, free of the pressures of critics and handlers, can she connect with the delight she took in her art before it became her business. The kick is that the persona in which she takes refuge is that of fallen baseball hero Darryl Strawberry, who wrestled his own demons of fame.

Jason Southerland directs the BTW production with a light hand, and Jenna McFarland provides a white gallery setting that unfolds into the shabby/homy confines of the common room of the mental-health facility. There Dana gets quickly chummy with a nice-guy alcoholic and a blunt sociopath whose meds make him merely belligerent rather than homicidal. Dana/Darryl’s bright comeback paintings of chickens playing baseball don’t look like much, but the way in which they replace the blank, lighted spaces on the gallery walls, where in the first scene Dana’s “purple-black” period is flopping, works. And the actors, doubling as egotistical parasites of the art world and docs and patients, manage to be endearing.

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