Review of Encores! Off-Center's Promenade at New York City Center

  • Our critic's rating:
    Date:
    July 12, 2019
    Review by:
    Constance Rodgers

    Encores! Off-Center's production of Promenade, music by Al Carmines, book and lyrics by María Irene Fornés, tries to turn a charming urchin into a sophisticated prince. Why? I imagine for the censors and for an audience more familiar with plot, character development and virtuosity than with theatre created by improvisation, relationship and heart. Promenade was originally produced in 1965 for Judson Poet's Theatre at Judson Memorial Church (JMC). JMC had and has an art ministry whose credo was and is “no censorship.” JMC was a leader and a beacon for the counter-culture of the 1960's, particularly for experimental, avant-garde theatre performers. It still believes artists are our modern day prophets and presents everything from the sublime to the ridiculous at their Judson Arts Wednesdays.

    The Reverend Al Carmines was hired by JMC as both a minister and a creator of theatre for their newly conceived Judson Poet's Theatre. Promenade was its first production. Carmines was a consummate musician. His many Off-Off Broadway musicals of the 1960's and 70's range in genre from sacred, to American musical to experimental to vaudeville and opera. Promenade contains quite a few of these modes in one piece. With wall to wall music, 32 numbers with only 2 reprises, Promenade is a vaudevillian opera. Greg Jarrett's music direction is exciting and the best part of the show. I found myself watching the orchestra several times.

    Encores! Off-Center's re-staging of Promenade does not conform with the credo or ethos of the original production or of the times it was created in. Al Carmines' music is complex and beautiful, worthy of the classically trained singers that are cast, who are all astounding, but I missed the pathos felt in a less technical, more personal rendition. In the number, “Four”, about four naked ladies, no one was naked. I guarantee they were in 1965 and even in 1969 when the play was revived. The camp in this production is fake, indicated and slight, not coming from a longing of any actor to be crazy, center stage, shocking or fabulous.

    To credit Fornés with writing the book of Promenade is a stretch because there is no book. However, Fornés' lyrics are funny and whimsical, sometimes bawdy and often contain the philosophy of the 1960's counter-culture. The important precept of joy inherent in the counter-culture's views on how to live life is often interpreted as hedonism by the status quo. Fornés, being one of us, gets it, and she states proudly, “There is no wisdom without joy.” The essence of Promenade, its sadly still relevant theme, is summed up in, “Poor Boy/When I was Born”, that a poor person is almost certainly doomed,

    A poor man has fifty problems everyday.

    Fifty problems upon opening his eyes.

    Fifty problems every minute of the day.

    and that a rich person will never see the world clearly, never recognize the pain of poverty, the pain and inequities their riches create,

    I know what madness is. It's not knowing how another man feels.

    A madman's never been in another man's shoes.

    Madness is lack of compassion. And there's little compassion in the world.

    Encores! Off Center's production of Promenade is not experimental or counter-culture but it is respectful of the piece and its creators, and if you have a young person in your life that missed out on the golden age of Off-Off Broadway and America's theatrical avant-garde take them, and fill in the gaps at dinner after the play.

    (Photo by Joan Marcus)

    "Grasping for a plot will not help you, because there isn’t much of one. And for all their fabulous looks, the characters don’t exactly have three dimensions. Promenade, the bizarre and sneakily thrilling 1960s musical with a book and lyrics by the then-fledgling playwright María Irene Fornés, is by no means a conventional piece of theater. Emerging Wednesday night from New York City Center, where the show’s splendidly cast, two-performance run is part of the Encores! Off-Center summer season, was like waking refreshed from a glittering, nearly sung-through fever dream — something about two comical, dewy-eyed prisoners on the lam, searching Manhattan for “the appearance of sin” and hanging out with a bunch of swells."
    Laura Collins-Hughes for New York Times