Theater Review - Missing the picture

Times story doesn’t do justice to Atlanta theater

The good news is that the New York Times recently put the national spotlight on local theater with its story “Atlanta Theater Auditions for Fame.” The bad news is that the Times article provides a seriously inadequate portrait.

The story, which appeared in the newspaper’s Nov. 6 issue, gets the big-picture details right about Atlanta’s artistic institutions, while providing no sense of the city’s theater as a living, breathing community. Chicago-based writer Stephen Kinzer isn’t a theater critic but a cultural reporter — who attended no actual performances during his visit — and he goes for a quantitative assessment rather than a textured slice of life.

Its most significant error has Horizon artistic director Lisa Adler remarking, “We don’t have universities with good theater programs” — which would come as a surprise to Theater Emory. Adler asserts that she said Atlanta universities have no M.F.A. programs in drama.

The piece also contains the factual goof that Max Leventhal is the Alliance Theatre’s managing director, when he’s the general manager. And where it rightly identifies the $1 million Loridans-Trammell Theater Initiative as a tremendous boost to five of Atlanta’s mid-sized playhouses, it fails to identify the recipients: Actor’s Express, Horizon Theatre, Theatrical Outfit, 7 Stages and the Shakespeare Tavern.

Kinzer plays up Kenny Leon’s new project, the national African-American theater company True Colors, which should prove to be a major cultural endeavor when it starts producing shows — next year. The Times seems to find it significant because True Colors’ shows will run in New York as well as Atlanta, and may feature such celebrity actors as Angela Bassett. It’s the sort of circular logic that, unless something has a New York connection, it’s not worthy of New York attention.

Nowhere does the piece mention 7 Stages’ international reputation for working with groundbreaking artists from around the globe, or the relationships Atlanta companies have with the likes of Naomi Wallace, Arthur Kopit, director Joseph Chaikin and even the estate of Graham Chapman. “Atlanta Theatre Auditions for Fame” does point out — in the very first line — that the Shakespeare Tavern is next door to a pornography store.

The blanket assertion that “Atlanta is not considered a city with a vibrant theatrical community” may be the most outrageous. You can call the Atlanta theater scene many things, including “small,” “cash-strapped,” and even “raw” or “immature” in some cases — but not vibrant? Chris Kayser, Rebekah Baty, Brad Sherrill, Carol Mitchell-Leon — these are not vibrant artists? Actor’s Express and the Center for Puppetry Arts are not vibrant venues? Atlanta’s cultural audience may not be as large or as appreciative as those of bigger cities — but that merely testifies to the energy and dedication of the working theatrical professionals we have.

The New York Times story may be incomplete, but its central thesis holds up. Atlanta falls short of the standard set by America’s major theater cities, and not just New York and Chicago. Such cities as Philadelphia, Seattle and Washington, D.C., exceed Atlanta less for their longer-established cultural traditions than by having plenty of mid-sized theaters with budgets of more than $2 million, which Atlanta lacks.

If nothing else, the Times story rightly notes that Atlanta theater may be on the brink of a national breakthrough. But it’s ultimately more interested in discussing what we’re not, rather than revealing who we are.

Return Engagement

In 1998, Atlanta theater received national attention when the Alliance staged the world premiere of the Disney musical Elaborate Lives: The Legend of Aida. The Elton John/Tim Rice version of the Verdi opera evolved considerably en route to Broadway, and now it’s come full circle by playing the Fox Theatre, where the decor nicely suits the play’s ancient Egyptian setting.

Aida, which runs through Nov. 23, is unquestionably improved. Some of the lamer songs have been edited out, the production design has been simplified and the modern-day history museum provides an effective new framing device.

But Aida still sucks. Even by the slim standards of rock operas, it’s a piece of elephantine kitsch. Mildly stirring Nubian anthems like “Dance of the Robe” feel like knock-offs from Evita or Les Miserables. The unintentionally laughable choreography of the “sinister” song “Another Pyramid” looks like a shotgun wedding of Madonna’s “Vogue” and Steve Martin’s “King Tut.”

Aida’s best number sums up what’s wrong with it. In “My Strongest Suit,” now arranged to evoke Tina Turner’s pep, Egyptian princess Amneris celebrates her obsession with clothes, culminating with an over-the-top runway fashion show. It’s the only time Aida cuts loose, and it has nothing to do with ancient Egypt or the show’s star-crossed lovers.

It may be a financial success, but creatively Aida feels like a casualty of the trend for blockbuster historical musicals. As is, if Aida puts Atlanta on the map, we’re better off working in obscurity.

Off-Script is a biweekly column on the Atlanta theater scene.??