With Budd Schulberg’s On the Waterfront, The Stage in San Jose has done the near impossible: delivered a fresh, wildly entertaining take on a classic. And the team on South First Street has done it with such rip-roaring, hold-no-bars style that if you’re not in on it, I might just need to dig up some brass knuckles.
This production has everything going for it, most notably the performances.
It’s tough to step into legendary shoes. Imagine trying to play the lead in Terry Malloy, the iconic role immortalized by Marlon Brando! Or Edie Doyle, the sweetheart played by Eva Marie Saint in her 1954 big screen debut. It’s heady stuff. Yet the actors here don’t fall into the trap of awakening ghosts of the past, and instead make each of these characters their own.
The show opens with the house lights up, which reminded me of U2’s thrilling Elevation Tour entrance. As the fellas go about their business on the New York docks — an expansive swath of corrugated metal lining the back of the set — it felt immediately right, just like the start of a good concert. Likewise the lighting (Michael Palumbo) and sound (Cliff Caruthers) deserve top marks too for transforming a fairly basic open space into a convincing set.
Johnny Moreno as the has-been, could-a been contender Terry Malloy and artistic director Randall King as crooked union boss Johnny Friendly anchor the production with remarkable confidence and conviction. Each deliver charismatic performances, and at times even dial back the throttle to good effect. For instance, during the “It’s you Charley” scene, perhaps the most famous of all, sitting in the back of the car Moreno delivers the classic lines quite matter-of-factly, “I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody.” I’m guessing many a young actor overplays this dialog, over-reaching for drama and getting shallow melodrama in return. Not here. King is also superb, and chews up his scenes. Let’s just say his Keith Richards demeanor and flinty eyed stare are not the kind you’d like to run into after midnight on San Carlos — oh, yes, that baseball bat has a tendency to keep the boys in line too.
There are several standout performances, and I could choose any number of the actors and be equal in my praise. But one scene in particular is memorable, and received raucous applause on opening night this past Saturday. Kalli Johnsson as Father Barry is pitch perfect in channeling ethical spirituality in hopes of convincing that longshoreman that “Jesus is there” and that Malloy should, as is the right of man, testify against the mob.
Fedoras, trench coats, and swagger takes us into the macho, and adrenaline-stoked world of the docks, where innocence doesn’t fare well. There’s dice games, Irish whiskey, talk of dames… and the pigeons. Ah, yes, the pigeons. What a neat little trick or two The Stage has here when it comes to the birds. Let’s just say the actors are fully committed in this regard. It is one of many highlights. And if you think you’ve seen creativity when it comes to the use of chairs, you’re in for yet another clever treat in this new adaptation.
I’m not sure if it was scripted as such, but either way, director Kenneth Kelleher pulls off some inspired blocking (or maybe there’s a proper term for the technique?) by having the actors occasionally not speak to each other directly. It’s almost as if we’re watching multiple camera angles at work. The action is swift, and at just under two hours (with fifteen minute intermission) I never felt for a moment a lag in the pace. To top it all off there’s a thrilling and well choreographed fight scene that puts an exclamation point on the evening.
How fortunate are we to have The Stage downtown San Jose. I recall seeing the Pillowman last season. It’s a dark, horrific piece by up-start Irishman Martin McDonagh. It was fabulous. And now, here we have something completely different in this equally stirring, successful adaptation of a classic. What a night!
On the Waterfront
4.5 out of 5 stars
by Budd Schulberg with Stan Silverman
Directed by Kenneth Kelleher
Starring Johnny Moreno*, Randall King*, John Flanagan*, Kalli Jonsson*, Summer Serafin*, David Arrow*, Michael Bellino, William J. Brown III, Tim Hart, Carl Holvick-Thomas, Matt Lai, Michael Moerman
Feb 16 – Mar 13, 2011
Photo credit: Dave Lepori.
- The 1995 Broadway production was marred with one disaster after another (sound familiar?) and closed after only 8 performances.
- This new adaptation was written by Schulberg with the help of Stan Silverman. They sought to “dramatically” change the script including fixing what he saw was a “flaw with the rousing final scene.”
- On the Waterfront (1954) is the only movie in which we can see the Andrea Doria, the Italian liner that sank in 1956 after a collision in the Atlantic Ocean.
- The film version received eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Director