Seattle Rep’s World Premiere of Bruce is Underwater

The world premiere of the musical Bruce at the Seattle Rep is drowning in its own excesses, produced by a team seemingly focused on Broadway rather than on the project they are developing here in Seattle. Inspired by the behind-the-cameras-tell-all book The Jaws Log, written by the film’s script doctor Carl Gottleib, and created by superstars of theatrical design Bruce is energetically performed by a generous ensemble of nationally acknowledged musical theatre professionals. Nonetheless, this shark tail suffers from the thinnest of books, generalized dialogue, little musical richness, and an absence of artistry in choreography or movement. Most disappointedly, Bruce sheds little illumination on what Richard Oberacker (Music, Book and Lyrics) and Robert Taylor (Book and Lyrics) insist is the “heroism” of Steven Spielberg.

“Bruce” was the name given by Spielberg to the numerous robotic sharks built, rebuilt, and rebuilt again for Jaws, his first big film and the prototype for what would become summer blockbuster thrillers, read: huge moneymakers. We never see Bruce onstage. The characterization of the shark that caused bloody terror on the shores of Martha’s Vineyard in the 1975 film is practically the only thing left to our imaginations, conjured by actors gazing out over the watery horizon. Oberacker and Taylor explain in the program that Spielberg’s triumph with Jaws was driven by, “Determination, imagination and resilience… about making art out of nothing. Figuring out how to achieve something without the resources promised takes creativity and ingenuity.” Spielberg (lookalike Jarrod Spector is a precision tenor) consults (musically) with Alfred Hitchcock and other directors by whom he is inspired, and discovers the ongoing failures with the robots were opportunities to stress the invisible—the shark we imagine and cannot see. Spielberg had to shoot scenes without Bruce because the shark wouldn’t work. The film crew started calling the movie Flaws. A 55-day shoot stretched to 155 days and millions of dollars over budget, and the studio kept the money flowing. And if you give Jaws a second look (it’s very likely if you don’t care about the film you won’t care about this musical), you will discover those scenes in which the shark was unseen were far more terrifying than when the robot appeared. It was Hitchcock’s mastery of suspense and the “imagined unseen” that allowed him to make thrillers with little blood or violence, small casts and moderate budgets. Oberacker and Taylor might have followed Hitchcock’s lead. If they’d been forced to do more with less, they might have focused on the singularity of each song, raising the stakes for the characters, or crafting a plot rather than a spectacle.

If you strip away all the technology and excessive production values from Bruce, to extend the metaphor, it is swimming in the shallows. We cannot recognize heroism in the young Spielberg. His obstacles are overcome by money and time provided by others, not his own courage or humanity. He is given the privilege of doing more with more. He is not sympathetic, nor does he elicit empathy (well, Spector does fondly remind me of my cousin Ira). We are not able to grasp the beauty of collaborators fusing their art together into a cohesive closeup, as poeticized by Gottlieb in his book. That is the work of film, and this is theatre, where collaborators are seen everywhere, and the moving parts churning into a great story is the thrill we theatregoers seek.

Designers Awash In Resources

Running two hours with no intermission, the splashiest stars of this show are the designers. The first half takes place on a vertical scaffolding with nine tiny stages within it, like a giant Hollywood Squares set. Each of the suspended stages is equipped with rear projection surfaces and so can be transformed through animation and projection design into location after location with the help of computer-generated images. This set gives the director (Donna Feore) the luxury to instantly change the setting for a scene. So, the script can be cinematic (and it is, are you starting to see the problem?), requiring instant transitions from Hollywood offices, to design studio, to busy street, and all can be achieved through computerized technology. None of this rapidity serves the actor/singers however, who must play their rushed scenes in a very tiny space, as much as 25 feet in the air. With rapid pacing and little physicality, it became nearly impossible to keep track of just who is singing what, and when. We lose track of which agent cared about what dollar or time table, where Peter Benchley was, or who was that hiring a 26-year-old Spielberg?  The second half of the play (again, no intermission) transports the world to Martha’s Vineyard. The Hollywood Squares opens up and disappears into the fly system and wings of the theatre, revealing a wooden port that extends into an animated and constantly moving ocean-scape. Scenic designer Jason Sherwood, Lighting Designer Jeff Croiter, Projection Designer Shawn Duan and their associates almost didn’t need a play or players to inhabit their worlds. Another problem. Too much decorative technology in the theatre and things that are actually alive—the actors, the story, the conflicts between humans—become tangential. Director Feore and her sprawling team of assistants fail to stage the play effectively. No song found its unique physicality in choreography or gestural vocabulary, and the larger scenes were flat and hard to read. When the physicality of a show that is nearly all libretto is directed in static and pedestrian staging, there is something seriously amiss. The movement of Bruce is about getting from one thing to another. Bruce becomes about transitions, and not the content.

New Musicals Take Time

It takes a long time to develop a new musical. It is a complex and tender task, involving many collaborators, and requiring precious resources to test book, music, orchestrations, lyrics, arc of story, dance and motion, character development, and to build the ensemble necessary to achieve performance standards for a unified work. This is often before designers enter the picture. Consortiums of art supporters, nonprofits and arts commissions (and theatres like the Village and the Fifth), have committed to develop new works of musical theatre. Sometimes projects breakthrough because of developing audiences in fringe festivals (Avenue Q), others due to devoted artists spending hours of uncompensated time to nurture their visions. Sometimes artists have special relationships with mid-sized institutions that take risks on new material. Consider Jonathan Larson’s relationship with the New York Theater Workshop and the development of Rent—all of which happened before it moved uptown. With the production of Bruce, the Rep and associates seem to have skipped any of the above processes in favor of a commercial product. Despite the gallons of talent and seemingly endless resources, Bruce is a colossal, spectacular, and expensive failure. Bruce fails because the makers were far more concerned with how it looks than the story it tells. That is a problem Spielberg did not have.

Casting

Some of the casting relied on impersonation—where a faithful imitation (or arguably, embodiment) of well-known humans—living or dead—is the task of the actor. Hans Altwies (playing the gnarly Robert Shaw) and Beth DeVries (playing the only leading role for a woman in the film, Lorraine Gary) do a bewitching job “channeling” these iconic figures in detailed imitations. Feore cast to type for the famous (notably, Caucasian) figures—and yet chose to use a racially diverse ensemble to represent real people audiences might not know so well. Why this strict discipline to look-alike impersonations for Spielberg, Gary, Shaw, Darryl Zanuck and Richard Dreyfuss, yet open, supposedly “color blind” casting for the rest of the ensemble? If the director, producers and bevy of casting agents were concerned with presenting a multi-racial universe despite the historic reality, then why didn’t  that extend to all the figures?

MJ Jurgenson (a gender non-conforming actor demonstrating enormous comic range) and Napoleon M Douglas (an African American performer of electric energy and versatile physical dexterity) had fabulous panache for the multiple characters they played…drawing with broad clear strokes, their “types” transformed through their craft. Why didn’t Jurgenson play Spielberg? Or Douglas play Roy Scheider (though strongly performed by Geoff Packard)? E. Faye Butler played film editor Verna Fields, a true hero known as the “mother cutter” who was a courageous, pioneering woman in her male-dominated field. Verna Fields was a Jewish, white woman, Ms. Butler is African American. How glorious to see Verna Fields embodied across race, the character driven by artistic imperative, and not (only) identity. And yet…in this casting, is Verna Fields’ herstory and/or Ms. Butler’s identity erased? I say all power to the performer in this case. In fact, Ms. Butler did heroic work trying to raise the stakes for her underwritten character and bring vitality to her weakly written songs. Verna Fields, twice Spielberg’s age and editing his “flaws” left and right with innovations she created, was the likely the real hero of Jaws. Let me be clear: the company of moviemakers who worked on Jaws were overwhelmingly Caucasian and cis-gendered men. It’s powerful to conceive theatricalizations of history through the imperatives of an anti-racist present; Hamilton and the newly-staged 1776 are testaments to that. But which histories? I would suggest it was not helpful or even interesting here to erase the entrenched exclusionary tactics of Hollywood that persisted for nearly all of the twentieth century. Norms which categorized and/or excluded women and people of diverse nationalities, genders, and racial identities from all kinds of employment were omnipresent, racist, sexist and cruel. Somehow, in this rendition of The Jaws Log, we are presented with a world that is none of those things.

The conceivers emphasize Bruce is, “NOT a satire or a parody.”  It is meant to be a history. I’m trying to accept that, putting aside snarky one liners about Robert Shaw’s drinking, stereotyped dialect of an unnamed Vineyard local, or suggesting in a song that, “The World Could Use a Superhero that’s a Jew.”  Oy vey, are we checking another box here?

The Rep mission states,  “Seattle Rep collaborates with extraordinary artists to create productions and programs that reflect and elevate the diverse cultures, perspectives, and life experiences of our region.”  The actors and designers were indeed excellent artists; the rest of mission is not served. The Rep is one of Seattle’s flagship producing institutions and with this project, chose to pour considerable resources into a malfunctioning shark that is swimming out of town. “Enhancement funds” from Dale Chihuly and others may keep it afloat, but that doesn’t make it good theatre.

The World Premiere of Bruce runs through July 3 at the Seattle Repertory Theatre. Music by Richard Oberacker, Book and Lyrics by Robert Taylor and Richard Oberacker, based on the book The Jaws Log by Carl Gottlieb. Directed and Choreographed by Donna Feore, Music Supervisor, Orchestrator and Arranger, Greg Anthony Rassen; Lily Ling, Music Director; Jason Sherwood, Scenic Design; Tina McCartney, Costume Design; Jeff Croiter, Lighting Design; Brian Hsieh, Sound Design; Shawn Duan, Projection Design; Liz Printz, Wig and Hair Design. Stage Managed by Jessica C. Bomball. With Hans Altwies, Kyle Nicholas Anderson, Eric Ankrim, David Benoit, Preston Truman Boyd, E. Faye Butler, Sarah Rose Davis, Beth DeVries, Candice Song Donehoo, Jay Donnell, Napoleon M Douglas, Alexandria J. Henderson, MJ Jurgensen, Justin Keyes, Ramzi Khalaf, Brian Lange, Corinna Lapid Munter, Geoff Packard, Timothy McCuen Piggee, Jarrod Spector, Cullen R. Titmas, Brenna Mikale Wagner, Matt Wolfe.  All actors and stage managers are members of Actors’ Equity.  Contact seattlerep.org for ticket info, pay-what-you-will options and lots of cute, sharky merchandise.

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