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See What I Wanna See
by Rob Kendt

©2005 Michal Daniel
Idina Menzel & Marc Kudisch in See What I Wanna See
The title is the first sign of trouble. The phrase See What I Wanna See isn't just inelegant; it's reductive. Is this really composer/librettist Michael John LaChiusa's shorthand for the so-called "Rashomon" effect? That our subjective perceptions of the world are a matter of choice—of simply selecting the truth that suits us?

Admittedly, this is one aspect of the philosophical quandary posed by Ryunosuke Akutagawa's short stories, which inspired both LaChiusa's new musical and the classic Japanese film Rashomon, in which characters witness or participate in the same events but tell radically different versions of the "truth" about them. Deliberately selective manipulation of memory is also a factor; I guess we should be grateful the show isn't called Make Stuff Up.

But there are deeper implications in the dilemma of subjectivity than mere pique or willfulness. To LaChiusa's credit, some of them do emerge here, in director Ted Sperling's spare staging at the Public. The second act, "Gloryday," turns Akutagawa's story "The Dragon" into a post-Sept. 11 meditation on the mysterious, fitful traffic between faith and revelation, as an unbelieving priest (Henry Stram) publicizes a hoax Second Coming in Central Park, only to be struck anew by his capacity for faith in the face of indifference.

And though none of See What I Wanna See has the buzzing sensuality of The Wild Party or the searching intensity of Hello Again, there are a few distinctly LaChiusan moments of piercing transcendence—moments when we're transported to a place we know but don't recognize, at least not from the well-worn conventions of musical theater. Near the end of the show's first half, in which LaChiusa awkwardly recasts the tale "In the Grove" as a 1950s noir psychodrama, a murdered businessman (Marc Kudisch) in a pin-striped suit relives his death with the help of a coaxing medium (Mary Testa). The immediacy of the imagery, and the soaring, unresolved harmonies of their duet, are unaccountably gripping. So is the final dubious epiphany of the priest in "Gloryday," who's been thrust with a jolt back to his cumbersome, unshakeable faith.

But most of what's onstage in See What I Wanna See is either stubbornly uninvolving or over-reaching. Both acts open with iterations of "Kesa & Morito," in which lovers meet for a final, fatal assignation. To a pulsing backbeat, Kudisch and Idina Menzel play these Japanese-drag scenes with a severity that verges close to camp, except we're clearly supposed to brood, not smirk, about lines like, "My God, it's hell to be God."

Story continues below

In the first half, "R Shomon," each character takes turns telling unseen police interrogators a distinctly different rendition of events on the night of an apparent rape and murder. A kingpin (Kudisch) and his brittle chorine wife (Menzel, an unconvincing femme fatale) are walking home from a showing of Rashomon—where the "A" has oh-so-symbolically fallen off the theater marquee—when they're accosted by a punky thief with a spiky 'fro (Aaron Lohr). None of the diverging versions of the subsequent events makes a lick of dramatic sense, except in the most esoteric, fable-like way. Worse, this stupefying story circle doesn't elucidate the tricks of memory and perception that are the show's ostensible subject. It's narrative noodling that fails the "who cares" test with flying colors.

"Gloryday" is more successful only in that it's more coherent, as Stram's priest goes from beatific faith to coruscating cynicism, partly nudged by his socialist aunt (Testa, in a marvelously sure-footed performance). But the lost souls he encounters in Central Park—a homeless former CPA in shredded clothes (Kudisch),
©2005 Michal Daniel
Henry Stram & Mary Testa in
See What I Wanna See
a coke-addled L.A. actress (Menzel), a slick newscaster (Lohr)—are straw figures for the piece's teaching lesson. This may be the first musical to reference the World Trade Center attacks and name-check Eminem, but it feels less present-tense timely than faux-fairy-tale timeless.

As always, LaChiusa's music is a percolating wonder, with prickly, fragrant orchestrations by Bruce Coughlin that supply emotional textures missing from the show and crisp, sensitive music direction by Chris Fenwick. Jonathan Butterell's musical staging dutifully reflects rather than clarifies the play's muddle, while Christopher Akerlind's lighting supplies a sharp layout on Thomas Lynch's minimal set.

The performers sweat to meet LaChiusa's musical and textual ambitions. Kudisch again shows his compelling mix of hulking presence and vocal tenderness. Stram is achingly effective as the priest. And Testa is always in masterful control of her moments, particularly the comic ones. On the debit side: Lohr makes a callow, unappealing rake, and the braying Menzel strikes gratingly inauthentic notes, even with a well-crafted kiss-off number, "No More."

LaChiusa's brand of erudite, insistent risk-taking is all too rare in musical theater. But See What I Wanna See feels less like an exciting experiment than a stillborn laboratory trial.

See What I Wanna See
By Michael John LaChiusa
Directed by Ted Sperling
Public Theater

Print This Story / Send the Story to a Friend / 10/30/2005 6:00:00 PM