Much of the thrill of big-ticket theater comes from the simple truth of presence: You in the audience are watching the best in the world do what they do right there in front of you, in real time. In an intimate moment, you can sense or even share their metabolism, the physical fact that they’re taking in the same air you’re breathing but making so much more of it.
So, of course, the new film version of Michael John LaChiusa’s celebrated 1994 hookup musical Hello Again loses something in its translation from the stage. (LaChiusa’s despairing-erotic roundelays were inspired by Arthur Schnitzler’s 1897 play La Ronde.) Yes, the film features some of the best there are, including six-time Tony winner Audra McDonald, but don’t expect any of that urgent live intimacy, even in this most intimate of shows. Built around a series of 10 couplings, admirably varied and each set in a different decade of the 20th century, Hello Again tasks its cast with impassioned miming of a panoply of sex acts, the singers conjugating one another like verbs in foreign-language class. But rather than bring us closer, the techniques of moviemaking distance us, no matter how the camera presses in. The cutting here is quick, the singing prerecorded, the performers’ metabolism shut off from ours. We don’t share the moments.
Also not helping: That everything that can be said about the vital primacy of live performance can be said about sex, which also depends upon the union of selves in time. Tom Gustafson, the director, stages arresting sexual tableaux and finds in each of the anthologized pairings a persuasive rhythm, the lovemaking crescendoing with LaChiusa’s music. But that’s no singular skill, and the intense têtê-à-têtês of the stage show often play here as clever, stronger-than-average music videos, the vignettes convincing as they rise into passionate fantasy but much less so when depicting the workaday lives of the characters — the bartenders, senators, soldiers and pop stars. Sometimes it dips into distracting parody of properties like Titanic and Rent, which came after the stage show’s debut.
What Gustafson has achieved is certainly artful, and sometimes, through montage and smart camerawork, suggests correspondences between these century-crossing assignations that the stage show could not. But even at its best, this Hello Again struck me as an uncertain, even ancillary work, something more like a dream revival’s dramatized cast recording than a recording of an actual production or a movie that stands fully on its own.
On those terms, though, as a sort of keepsake or introduction to LaChiusa’s show, Gustafson’s film has its value. The cast (featuring Martha Plimpton, Cheyenne Jackson and the superb Jenna Ushkowitz) is strong, and LaChiusa’s score — its stirring evocations of lust and loneliness and fleeting connection — is well played and sung. But the film seems to illustrate it rather than to give it life.