Monday, December 3, 2012

theatre review GOLDEN BOY, Broadway, November 25

Clifford Odets' play Golden Boy is receiving a 75th anniversary production on Broadway.  Produced by Lincoln Center who gave us an excellent production of Odets' Awake and Sing! a few years back, Golden Boy is mainly a story of the struggle between art and power told from the viewpoint of a young man and his desire for fame and the toll it takes on his life and those close to him.   The show officially opens this Thursday at the Belasco Theatre, the same theatre where the original production played in 1937.

It is 1936 and Joe Bonaparte is a 17 year old award winning classical violinist who isn't fulfilled with his life and so he takes to boxing as a way to find fame and fortune and ultimately prove not only his manhood but also to show others what he is capable of.  The fact that boxing is also a much better way to get back at those around him also doesn't hurt.  As Joe says "you can't get even with people by playing the fiddle. If music shot bullets I'd like it better."

When he finds the right opportunity to step into the ring he does so without letting his family know, as if he is unsure of what his outcome of the match will be.  And even though Joe protects his hands when he is boxing, still thinking I guess about the violin career he may need as a back-up plan, he soon discovers, after much urging from his manager about the need to use his hands in the ring, that he has a powerful punch.  The money starts rolling in but Joe finds himself distanced from his father who was more supportive of his music background.  This separation from his father and Joe's realization of the man he has turned into and what the true cost of fame is quickly becomes apparent to Joe.

Tony Shaloub, Seth Numrich, Dagmara Dominczyk
and Michael Aronoz
However, Golden Boy doesn't just represent the plight of Joe the boxer but also the story of every one of us who struggles to become who we think we should be even if that goes against what our parents want for us.  In that respect Odets has crafted a well written and ambitious ensemble piece with multiple layers and themes that anyone can identify with. 

But this is also a play about one's conscience.  Joe finds himself conflicted almost from the start of the play as there are several male role models he meets during his rise that try to guide him along the way and they all have very different points of view concerning Joe's future.  And while Joe and his father only have a couple of scenes together, we still know that Joe is constantly thinking of what his father is thinking of him throughout the show.  I think Odets must have intentionally kept Joe and his father separated as much as possible during the play as this way the scene in the second act that features a fantastic moment with Joe and Tokio, his trainer and surrogate father, as well as one between Joe and his real father has even more of an impact. 

Yvonne Strahovski and Seth Numrich
Odets was a playwright who presented socially conscious themes in his plays.  Golden Boy proves no exception in its presentation of the struggle between commercialism, and the "get rich quick" but brutal world of boxing, and idealism as represented by the monetarily weak but culturally rich world of music.  While this debate is something still alive and well today it is interesting in how Odets' presentation of this theme mirrors not only the immigrant struggle to fulfill the "American Dream" but also in the way the pull between the two worlds is just like a boxing match with two opponents fighting for the knock out.   Of course it is clear which side of the debate Odets is on with the way Joe gets caught up in the downsides that come with choosing commercialism over idealism and how Joe's choices basically destroy everyone around him.  And this is a tragedy not a comedy and so there is a tragic incident in the second act that is the catalyst that drives Joe's ultimate outcome as well as the fate of one other "lost" character in the play. 

It is a vivid revival full of Odets rich and almost rhythmic language.  And while the final scenes may not pack as much of a punch now as they did 75 years ago this production has a top notch cast, sets, costumes and direction.  Seth Numrich is Joe Bonaparte and he throws himself into the part.  Numrich has the right body language in the beginning to make you believe he is 17 and an amateur boxer but as the play moves forward and a year goes by you see him not only grow up but change into a person Joe wouldn't even recognize.  Even though we don't see him actually play the violin (he plays it off stage) the way he holds the instrument and moves with it before going offstage as well as the gym and locker room scenes in the second act where we see him practicing in his boxing gear gives you no doubt in thinking that he could be both a concert violinist and a boxer.

Seth Numrich and Danny Burstein
Tony Shaloub is Joe's father and even though this is a limited run I pray that the Tony committee remembers Shaloub when the Tony nominations come out as this is a performance that will resonant with many people.  Shaloub portrays Joe's father in a quiet way, the way many Immigrant Italians might have preferred to act in the 1930's so as not to make too much trouble.  But like I said above, with Shaloub's portrayal and the one small scene between Joe and his father about 15 minutes into the play, you know that Joe is always thinking about his father's approval of what he is doing, and that is something that I have to attribute to Shaloub's performance.

Yvonne Strahovski as Lorna Moon is the main female character in the play and while she seems at first to be a very secondary character we quickly learn that she is much more than that.  Lorna is the girl from the wrong side of the tracks who has found her way into the American Dream but she is also conflicted in deciding between the easy way to achieve it and the way that will be more difficult.  Strahovski, like Numrich, has the ability to portray much younger then they really are as well as show the journey their character takes throughout the play. 

Danny Burstein is Tokio, Joe's trainer and Burstein is giving another great performance after so many over the past few years.  Tokio is the voice of reason who tries to make Joe understand what he is doing or what he should be doing and like I said above, the scene the two of them have toward the end of the second act is extremely powerful and moving.   Anthony Crivello is the manager who steers Joe toward the dark side and Crivello has the requisite look and feel, all oily and sleazy.  Jonathan Hadary has a small cameo part as the next door neighbor of the Bobaparte's and Hadary gives his typical rich and connected performance.

The play runs almost three hours with two brief intermissions but director Bartlett Sher keeps the action moving but doesn't get in the way of Odets' rich dialogue.  The set design by Michael Yeargan is simple yet effective with several moving platforms, creative backdrops and an impressive gym and locker room setting. Catherine Zuber's costumes are period perfect and Donald Holder's lighting is extremely effective.

Golden Boy officially opens this Thursday night and runs through January 20th.

Official Show Site

Commercial for the show:

Interviews with the cast and creative team:

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