New York City Theater
"27 Rue de Fleurus"
Urban Stages, Manhattan
Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas may have passed into literary history, but they are very much alive in an engaging—though limited--new mini-musical (with book and lyrics by Ted Sod, music and lyrics by Lisa Koch). Urban Stages is now offering their bittersweet tale on the company’s pocket-size stage. (“27 Rue de Fleurus,” the show’s title, happened to have been their Parisian address for many years.)
The story is seen from the Toklas point of view. It is Alice looking down from Heaven, or wherever she might be. She shares with the audience her recollections. It was the tumultuous Parisian years (before and after World War I) when Stein reigned supreme, with Alice kneeling adoringly at Stein’s feet—when she was not cooking, cleaning, serving guests or typing manuscripts. Exploitation? Yes. She was willing to play that role in their lop-sided relationship.
Why do these two continue to hold our interest? Not only are we drawn by the pair, but by the milieu in which they moved--an era of great creative output. Stein, in the very heart of it all, counted among her confreres the writers and artists who would define our cultural climate for generations to come--Pablo Picasso, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, among them.
Barbara Rosenblat, who plays Gertrude Stein, is mesmerizing—and no wonder, for she has a juicy role into which to sink her teeth. Gertrude, by all accounts, was self-centered, demanding, stimulating, brilliant—and committed to the idea of her own greatness. With her monstrous ego, she trampled upon Alice, an arrangement which seemed to suit them both. Cheryl Stern, who plays the wistful Alice, holds her own as the tale unfolds, providing a nice contrast to Rosenblat’s Gertrude. Less satisfying, and decidedly uneven, are the three remaining cast members (Emily Zacharias, Sarah Chalfy, and Susan Haefner) who play an assortment of Stein colleagues. Performances are weakest when they are called upon to be male characters, turning the show into an amateurish effort. The one exception is Haefner’s subtly-nuanced portrayal of F. Scott Fitzgerald.
But all are in good voice, and do justice to the fifteen musical numbers, from the rousing “Salon” to the softer love songs which depict the Stein-Toklas love affair. Director Francis Hill (Urban Stages’ Artistic Director) keeps the 90-minute non-stop show going at a lively clip. Admirable, too, is the slide show which serves as backdrop—a collage of paintings which defined the era.
But, alas, it is the mise en scene itself which gets short shrift. How much more in-depth characterizations the writers could have shaped to depict Gertrude’s buddies and how much more colorful details they could have offered to recreate that unforgettable era!
Mar. 10, 2008