Friday, October 30, 2009

Finian's Rainbow Video Highlights

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Finian's Rainbow


Last season, no one expected that the lauded City Center Encores! production of "Finian's Rainbow" would have the potential to transfer to Broadway. This unconventional 1947 musical has a complicated plot involving poor sharecroppers facing eviction, a quirky Irishman and his brash daughter looking to strike it rich, a leprechaun searching for his gold and a racist white senator who is magically turned into a black man.

But even if the musical is dated, dusty and politically incorrect, director-choreographer Warren Carlyle's vibrant revival is too romantic, funny, melodious, and well-cast to ignore. And unlike most Broadway transfers of Encores! shows, it has been physically altered to look like a full Broadway production and not a semi-staged concert. John Lee Beatty's simple set design is a gorgeous mix of green and yellow shades. Luckily, Ken Billington's spectacular lighting effect of framing the stage with a rainbow is carried over.

Its once edgy elements of political satire maintain some relevance here and there, especially when satirizing the fad of buying merchandise on credit. Yet the heart and soul of "Finian's Rainbow" still lies in Burt Lane and Yip Harburg's glorious score. Best of all, 24 musicians are on hand to play the original orchestrations of "How Are Things in Glocca Morra," "Old Devil Moon" and "Look to the Rainbow."

Jim Norton is sprightly and sneaky as Finian McLonergan, mixing the character's childlike excitement and willingness to dream with hints ofmelancholy. It's also nice to have an authentic Irishman playing the role.

As Sharon, Kate Baldwin proves herself to be a genuine leading lady. In addition to her shining soprano voice, she brings real conviction and a tough sense of character. Baldwin also displays perfect romantic chemistry with Cheyenne Jackson, who continues to be Broadway's most dependable matinee idol, as the grinning, romantic farmer Woody.

Christopher Fitzgerald is perfectly cast as the comic leprechaun Og,who is dismayed to discover that he is turning mortal. Other standouts include Terri White, who croons the showstopper "Necessity," Chuck Cooper, who makes leaps from haughtiness to crisis to gradual ease as the transformed Senator Bill Rawkins, and ballerina Alina Faye as the mute but twirling Susan.

I can't help but think that had the show's book been substantially revised instead of slightly edited, much of its magic and allure would have been lost in translation. So in spite of all its creakiness and political baggage, it's truly wonderful to have "Finian's Rainbow" back on Broadway. It feels rather like finding a "terrifish, magnifish, delish" crock of gold in the middle of Times Square.

St. James Theater, 246 W. 44th St., 212-239-6200, finiansonbroadway.com. Open run.

WNBC Review of The Royal Family

View more news videos at: http://www.nbcnewyork.com/video.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Chance & Chemistry: A Centennial Celebration of Frank Loesser


"Chance & Chemistry: A Centennial Celebration of Frank Loesser," a lavish concert benefiting the Actors' Fund that showcased an eclectic variety of songs penned by Frank Loesser, was not formerly open for review. But for the sake of posterity, below is the full set list. As you'd probably expect, there was no mention of Broadway's most recent revival of "Guys & Dolls." 

Act One

Overture – “How to Succeed…”
Opening remarks from Chita Rivera
“I’ll Know” (“Guys and Dolls”)/Somebody, Somewhere” (“Most Happy Fella”) – Liz Callaway
“Some Like It Hot” (from 1939 film “Some Like It Hot”) – ensemble
“I Wish I Didn’t Love You So” (from 1947 film “The Perils of Pauline”) – Ashley Brown
“Can’t Stop Talking” (from 1950 film “Let’s Dance”) – Audra McDonald
“I Don’t Want to Walk without You” – (from 1942 film “Sweater Girl”) – Judy Kuhn
“Once in Love with Amy” (“Where’s Charley?”) – Noah Racey
“Murder, He Says” (from 1943 film “Happy Go Lucky”) – Nia Vardalos
“Never Will I Marry” (“Greenwillow”) – Stephen Pasquale
“In Your Eyes” (from “Pleasures and Palaces”) – Laura Benanti
“The Inch Worm” (“Hans Christian Andersen”) – Phyllis Newman, John McMartin, and “Sesame Street” characters
Remarks – Maury Yeston
“A Story You Understood Me” (“Senor Discretion Himself”) – Emily Loesser & Jo Sullivan Loesser
“Two Sleepy People” (from 1938 film “Two Sleepy People”) – Art Garfunkel
“Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat” (“Guys and Dolls”) – Mario Cantone and Company

Act Two

“Big D” (“Most Happy Fella”) – Liz Larsen, John Bolton & Company
“Joey, Joey, Joey” (“Most Happy Fella”) – Patrick Wilson
“Rumble, Rumble, Rumble” (from 1947 film “The Perils of Pauline”) – Brynn Williams & Tom Kitt
“What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” – Julia Murney
“Baby, It’s Cold Outside” – Lauren Kennedy & Alan Campbell
“The Crapshooters Dance/Luck Be a Lady” – Brian Stokes Mitchell & Company (choreography based on Donna McKechnie’s staging for the Hollywood Bowl concert)
“Standing on the Corner” (“Most Happy Fella”) – male ensemble
“Junk Men” – Debbie Gravitte
“the Boys in the Bathroom” (from 1939 film “Destry Rides Again”) – Charles Busch
“I Believe in You” (“H2$”) – Michele Lee
“Adelaide’s Lament” (“Guys and Dolls”) – Ana Gasteyer
“My Heart is So Full of You” (“Most Happy Fella”) – Audra McDonald & Marc Kudisch
“On a Slow Boat to China” (from 1949 film “Neptune’s Daughter”) – Paul McCartney
“Spring Will Be a Little Late This Year” (from 1944 film “Christmas Holiday”) – Jo Sullivan Loesser
“Brotherhood of Man” (“H2$”) – John Stamos, Gerry Vichi, Ramona Keller & Company (choreography by Wayne Cliento)

Monday, October 26, 2009

WNBC Review of Wishful Drinking

View more news videos at: http://www.nbcnewyork.com/video.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Brighton Beach Memoirs


There's no compelling reason to bring back "Brighton Beach Memoirs," Neil Simon's pleasant autobiographical comedy about a young boy growing up in Brooklyn during the Depression within an extended Jewish family. This newly-opened Broadway revival will soon be performed in repertory with "Broadway Bound," one of the play's two sequels, on the same set and with much of the same cast.

First performed in 1983, "Bright Beach Memoirs" marked a huge step forward for Simon in how it mixed light comedy, family drama and Jewish heritage. It also launched the career of Matthew Broderick, who played its 15-year-old narrator Eugene Morris Jerome. While Eugene's narrations to the audience remain problematic and annoying, the play contains good storytelling and strong characters.

David Cromer, who received praise for his minimalist Off-Broadway production of "Our Town," ignores much of the play's sentimental humor and Jewish character in favor of its drama. He realistically conveys the period's financial crisis, pays close attention to Simon's language and brings out authentic performances from the cast. John Lee Beatty's set of a two-story home in front of a Brooklyn scenescape shows incredible depth and layers.

As Kate, the family's matriarch, Laurie Metcalf displays strong comic timing behind a steely complex with occasional signs of vulnerability.

Noah Robbins, who won the role of Eugene out of hundreds of young actors, is expressive and youthful, especially when discovering the facts of puberty from his older brother, but less than captivating as a narrator.

The rest of the cast is quite good. Santino Fontana delivers a surprisingly intense performance as Eugene's frustrated brother Stanley, even though the actor looks too mature to credibly play an 18 year old. Jessica Hecht plays Blanche, Kate's dependent sister suffering from asthma, with girlish innocence. As Jack Jerome, the family's ailing father, Dennis Boutsikaris portrays the character's helpless, rundown nature.

The production makes a strong case for the show's relevance, especially during our current economic recession, but it's hard to believe that it'll make much of a mark again.

Nederlander Theater, 208 W. 41st St., 212-307-4100. Open run.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

After Miss Julie


"Miss Julie," August Strindberg's 1888 Swedish play about a spoiled upper-class gal who impetuously seduces her manservant on Midsummer's Eve and suffers fatal consequences in return, is considered the world's first naturalistic tragedy. Even today, it stands up well as a compelling drama in which actions are dictated by outside forces.

"After Miss Julie," a slight variation on "Miss Julie" which its playwright, Patrick Marber, describes as "30 percent me, 70 percent Strindberg," resets the play to an English country house immediately before the Labour Party's landslide victory in the 1945 election, as the country's traditional class system was on the verge of change. Perhaps the producers sought to compare that historical moment to the recent election of Barack Obama.

While the plot remains exactly the same, Marber's play is a bit more psychologically driven and sexually explicit. But that is hardly enough for the play to merit a separate title. Frankly, it's a pretty pretentious choice. Are we now to expect productions of "After Hamlet"and "Before Hedda Gabler"?

Mark Brokaw's production features so many pauses that it makes the short play feel too long. Still, it benefits from a very realistic set design depicting a large, cluttered kitchen and a generally impressive three-member cast.

Tabloid starlet Sienna Miller, who is making her Broadway debut as the title character, enters the stage with aggressive sexual authority, enough to melt down any man who enters her path. But as the play progresses, her attempts to convey Julie's fragile emotions and sudden desperation feel forced and artificial.

Marin Ireland, who plays the working-class cook Christine, benefits from the fact that Marber has really fleshed out her character in comparison to the original play. Besides an awkward attempt at pulling off a thick English accent, her hard-hearted, no-nonsense performance works very well.

Johnny Lee Miller, as the male who completes the love triangle, convincingly alters between being a complacent chauffeur who knows his place in society and an aggressive dreamer ready to break free of it.

In any case, "After Miss Julie" is certainly a more respectable offering from the omnipresent Roundabout Theatre Company compared with its panned revival of "Bye Bye Birdie." So nice work, Roundabout, for not premiering such a terrible show this week!
American Airlines Theater, 227 W. 42nd St., 212-719-1300,roundabouttheatre.org. Through Dec. 6.

Avenue Q: For Longer Than Now


"Avenue Q" is alive and well and living Off-Broadway. And there is virtually no difference at all between its current incarnation at New World Stages and its Broadway production.

Six years ago, one knew whether this clever little musical comedy with puppets resetting the feel-good optimism of “Sesame Street” to a post-collegiate atmosphere set in one of New York City’s outer boroughs, would survive on Broadway following its downtown premiere at the not-for-profit Vineyard Theatre.

After quickly receiving acclaim from the critics and slowly gaining afan base, “Avenue Q” won the 2004 Tony Award for Best Musical over “Wicked.” At the time, it felt like David slaying Goliath. In spite of frequent changes to the cast, it stayed in mint condition and played to packed houses.

When it was announced last summer that “Avenue Q” would play its final performance on Broadway on September 13, 2009, its fans were both crushed and angered – especially by the fact that it was being unceremoniously evicted from the Golden Theatre to make way for the current revival of “Oleanna.”

In a post-curtain speech after its final Broadway performance, producer Kevin McCollum made a surprising announcement: in defiance of Broadway politics, “Avenue Q” would reopen the following month in an Off-Broadway theater just five blocks away.

This represents a huge milestone in blurring the increasingly arbitrary boundaries between what is considered Broadway and Off-Broadway. But more importantly, “Avenue Q” has lost absolutely none of its luster. It looks and sounds exactly the same as before. It just happens to be in a more intimate theater with less expensive tickets and more comfy seats.

Every member of the Off-Broadway cast has previously appeared in the show either on Broadway or in the national tour. But it is Anika Larsen who truly stands out, giving a heartfelt and hilarious performance as Kate Monster.

When George W. Bush left office, and the punch line of the show's finale (“George Bush is only for now”) became obsolete, many feared that “Avenue Q” too had become dated. On the contrary, the show remains just as poignant and hilarious as ever. It is truly our good fortune that it is still around.

New World Stages, 340 W. 50th St., 212-239-6200, avenue.com. Open Run.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Memphis


Contrary to popular belief, rock and roll did not start with Elvis Presley. The new Broadway musical "Memphis" depicts its birth among black singers in underground nightclubs on the now fabled Beale Street - and how the art form was soon pirated by white businessmen as a form of mass entertainment.

Huey Calhoun, an illiterate lowlife who successfully markets himself as a promoter of black rhythm & blues music until his unstoppable ego destroys his career, is loosely based on real-life DJs such as Dewey Phillips and Alan Freed that brought "race music" to the mainstream airwaves. He develops an interracial romance with the stunning performer Felicia, who is far smarter and practical than Calhoun.

Under the fast and flashy direction of Christopher Ashley, "Memphis" proves to be a truly entertaining and invigorating musical, benefiting immensely from Sergio Trujillo's athletic choreography, which is like a big bundle of kinetic energy.

Rather than use tried and true hits of the early 1950s, Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan has penned a pulsating new score mixing blues, rock and gospel that feels soulful and authentic to the period.

Except for a tacked-on upbeat ending, Joe DiPietro's book is dramatically sound and surprisingly unsentimental.

Chad Kimball is unapologetically over-the-top as Huey Calhoun, sporting a thick southern accent and a creepy, lowlife personality. It is the kind of committed performance that will completely divide audiences as to its merits. In any case, Kimball captures the character's streak of madness and strange charisma.

As Felicia, Montego Glover is a dynamic and sensual performer with a powerhouse voice that brings down the house.

Occasionally, "Memphis" feels clichéd and reminiscent of storylines already seen in "Hairspray," "Dreamgirls" and "Jersey Boys." But more often than not, its careful balance of pure fun and character drama proves to be irresistible.

Shubert Theatre, 225 W. 44th St., 212-239-6200, memphisthemusical.com. Open run.

Broadway Originals


When Scott Siegel announced that the 5th annual edition of "Broadway Originals," where original cast members return to perform their signature songs, would feature a tribute to "Falsettos" with its original cast, I assumed this meant that a quick medley of songs would be performed at the top of the show. Oh boy, was I wrong. And happily so. Siegel turned Act Two into a mini "Falsettos" reunion concert, featuring a total of 10 songs from "March of the Falsettos" (Act One of "Falsettos" on Broadway) and "Falsettoland" (Act Two).

The entire original Broadway cast was assembled including Michael Rupert, Stephen Bogardus, Chip Zien, Jonathan Kaplan, Barbara Walsh, Heather MacRae, and Janet Metz. Actually, that's not entirely true. Metz was not in the Broadway cast (she was already under contract to do a different show when it transferred to Broadway, and got replaced by Carolee Carmello), but she was in the Off-Broadway cast of "Falsettoland" and can be heard on its original cast album. Jonathan Kaplan, who received a Tony nomination for his performance as the Bar Mitzvah-bound young boy Jason, is now 29-years-old, very tall and handsome, and sports a robust voice. It was noted that he was set to get married the day following the concert.

To say that the reunion concert was emotional would be an understatement. William Finn's score has lost none of its intensity, and the assortment of ballads and group numbers performed sounded absolutely gorgeous. Barbara Walsh, performing "Breaking Down" (written for "In Trousers" and later interpolated into Act One of "Falsettos"), was a riot, falling off a piano bench and then onto the floor. Stephen Bogardus rocked the house with "The Games I Play," as did Michael Rupert in "What More Can I Say." Chip Zien, who has lost none of his comic flavor, was wonderful in "Everyone Hates His Parents." Congrats also to Scott Coulter, director of "Broadway Originals," for the classy and powerful manner in which "Falsettos" was packaged.

Act One was far less powerful emotionally, but still provided some entertainment. Sharon McNight reprised "Hard to Be Diva" from "Starmites" with sass and egotism. Marc Kudisch, the resident clown of the "Broadway By the Year" series, had a ball reprising "Breezing Through the Day" from "The Wild Party" and "Forbidden Fruit" from "Apple Tree," during which he even did a moonwalk in his glittery jacket. Daisy Egan was flown out from Los Angeles to reprise "The Girl I Mean to Be," which she sang in "The Secret Garden" at age 11. Celia Keenan-Bolger received hearty applause for "On My Own" from "Les Miz," but managed to bring tears to my eyes with "My Friend the Dictionary" from "Spelling Bee." (I found it extremely fitting that composer Bill Finn happened to be sitting fourth row on the aisle, where Keenan-Bolger's character has saved a chair for her dad.)

And to close Act One, Stephen J. Block gave a high-powered reprise of "Get Out and Stay Out," her upbeat 11-o-clock song from "9 to 5." Siegel noted that although "9 to 5" had just closed, Block is sure to be singing "Get Out and Stay Out" for the rest of her career. Ugh, was that a threat? "Get Out and Stay Out" is a pretty awful song that sounds as if it was written for an aerobics class. Here's hoping that Block gets to perform better songs in the future.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

A Tribute to David Merrick


The concerts included in this weekend's "Broadway Cabaret Festival" include highlights from musicals produced by the notorious showman David Merrick (among them, "Hello, Dolly!," "42nd Street" and "Oliver!"), a solo performance by "Jekyll & Hyde" vocalist Linda Eder, and a new edition of "Broadway Originals," where original cast members perform their Broadway hits, featuring a tribute to "Falsettos."

Friday night’s concert turned out to provide plentiful entertainment, thanks to many solid vocalists performing songs from a number of very good musicals from the 1950s through 1980s. Dedicating the concert to the musicals produced by Merrick – rather than to a single composer, as in previous years – was a pretty nifty idea. In attendance was theater critic Howard Kissel, who wrote The Abominable Showman, a truly terrific biography about Merrick that I highly recommend checking out.

Emcee Scott Siegel reminded the audience of Merrick’s troublesome personality and his notorious flair for publicity, including his unforgettable “Subways are for Sleeping” stunt, where he found men with the same names as the major theater critics to see the show and rave about it. (The Roundabout Theatre Company might find it necessary to do the same in order to pump up its advertisements for its panned revival of “Bye Bye Birdie.”) And in an unexpected addition, Carleton Carpenter, who acted in David Merrick’s first Broadway play (Bright Boy) in 1944, made an appearance (though he nearly poked poor Stephen Bogardus in the eye while doing the choreography of the concert’s finale).

Lee Roy Reams, who played Billy Lawlor for the majority of the run of “42nd Street,” made a big entrance with his tux and characteristically high voice with “Lullaby of Broadway.” Stephen Bogardus followed with a convincing, vibrato-infused rendition of the title song from “Promises, Promises.” Robert Cuccioli, who has previously played the role of Paul in “Carnival,” gave a full-blooded, dramatically balanced, heartbreaking performance of “Her Face.”

Many of the solo performances were intermixed with appearances by a spirited dance ensemble, performing “Elegance” from “Hello, Dolly!,” “Clap Your Hands” from “Oh, Kay,” and “Tap Your Troubles Away” from “Mack and Mabel.”

Corbin Bleu, who played Zac Efron’s buddy Chad in the “High School Musical” films, was a rather unusual addition to the cast. In Act One, he sang “Who Can I Turn To?” from “The Roar of the Greasepaint, the Smell of the Crowd.” He was pretty believable in terms of acting, showing a face of fear while leaning on the piano, but his pop-infused voice did not do the song justice vocally. In Act Two, he joined “Broadway By the Year” favorite Kendrick Jones in a two-man dance rendition of “Penniless Bums” from “Sugar.” Jones also delivered a big dose of tap-happy magic with the title song from “42nd Street” in authentic 1930s style.

Stephanie J. Block, who was unfairly criticized by Charles Strouse in a feature article on the makings of the new revival of “Bye Bye Birdie” last weekend (she played Rosie in the preliminary workshop of the revival, but opted to do “9 to 5” instead), made a sparkling comedic duo with Jim Caruso in “You’re Getting to Be a Habit with Me” from “42nd Street.” She then returned with a very classy “As Long As He Needs Me” from “Oliver!”

Elizabeth Stanley, who played “April” in the John Doyle “Company” revival and then briefly played the female lead in “Cry-Baby,” made a strong case for her future as a leading lady in three smashing performances of varying material. Her “Is It Really Me” from “110 in the Shade” was deeply felt and beautiful. At the top of Act Two, she led “Clap Your Hands” as a red hot sexpot. She finished with “The People in My Life,” a torch song cut from “Sugar.”

Let’s finish by talking about Marc Kudisch, who did not disappoint with his big, brassy voiceover introducing Scott Siegel. He finished Act One with “Make Someone Happy” from “Do Re Mi.” He immediately blanked on the lyrics, started out, but also asked the audience to re-applaud for him on his re-entrance. He then seemed fine with the ballad, but it went wayward once he signaled for Scott Siegel to join him and sing along. Scott, flabbergasted, didn’t know what to do, understandably so. Much of the audience found the incident to be funny, but he turned the song into a joke. But he redeemed himself with two high-powered performances of Starbuck’s solos from “110 in the Shade,” including “The Rain Song” and “Melisande.”

The guy is ridiculously talented – but also unpredictable. And I got the feeling last night that he was releasing a lot of steam and was not totally invested in his performances. And it made me feel rather uncomfortable. (He can be the same way in real life, as evidenced by the time he randomly lashed out at me at a party many years ago.) In any case, I still credit him and his chest voice as being one of the major forces behind the success of “Broadway by the Year.” And I look forward to a Christmas show that he will apparently be doing with Jeffry Denman.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Bye Bye Birdie

Full disclosure: I acted in no less than three productions of “Bye Bye Birdie” while growing up: at camp, in middle school, and yet again in high school. I know the show by heart – word for word, song for song. At that time, I can’t say that I thought too highly of the show. Why couldn’t we do something darker, or more substantial, or by Sondheim?

It’s only now I can see what a perfectly built musical comedy it is. The way it depicts warring generations reminds me a little of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and the chaos that ensues when different worlds collide. The script is genuinely funny and character-driven. And the score absolutely can’t be beat.

If you’re reading this review, chances are that you’ve already seen – or even performed in – a production of “Bye Bye Birdie” too. And I bet that you too were probably looking forward to the musical’s first Broadway revival. And it breaks my heart to confess that I think my productions, even though they were not top-quality even by amateur standards, were probably just as good if not better than the musical’s Broadway revival.

Though occasionally entertaining, it suffers from weak direction and the catastrophic miscasting of John Stamos, Gina Gershon and Bill Irwin. Robert Longbottom's staging is marked by quick movement, bright colors and a suave, geometric set design.

The show itself, which premiered in 1960, remains virtually unchanged, except for the deletion of the "Shriners' Ballet" and the addition of the 1963 film version's title song as a cheery finale. In a nod to "High School Musical," the kids of Sweet Apple, Ohio are cast with genuinely young teenagers, all of who display infectious energy.

Unlike Ann-Margret's campy sexpot performance in the film version, 14-year-old Allie Trimm is naturally sincere and sweet as Kim MacAfee. As teen idol Conrad Birdie, Gerard Nolan Funk is more Zac Efron than Elvis Presley, lacking the dangerous sex appeal required for the role. Oddly, Funk looks almost the same physically as Matt Doyle, who is pretty charming as Kim’s boyfriend Hugo.

John Stamos, playing the overgrown mamma's boy Albert Peterson, has a pleasant singing voice. But he works so hard to act like a cutesy nerd in the style of Jerry Lewis that his performance quickly grows irritating. He is far more at ease as a romantic heartthrob in ballads like "Baby, Talk to Me" and "Rosie."

Gina Gershon brings real sex appeal to the role of Rose, Albert's long-suffering secretary and love interest. But her failed attempts to sing and dance are pathetic and painful to endure. She even appears self-conscious and embarrassed of her inabilities. (I was particularly troubled by a New York Times feature article from last weekend where Charles Strouse claimed that Stephanie J. Block, who played Rose in the Roundabout's preliminary workshop version of the revival, didn't have what it takes to play Rose. Well, at least the very least, she would have been able to sing and dance the role. I'd rather have an adequate leading lady than a miscast C-list movie actress any day.)

Bill Irwin, though a brilliant clown, is so physically over-the-top as Mr. MacAfee that he is out-of-synch with everyone else. Instead of singing, he makes weird noises, depending on Dee Hoty, who plays his wife, to bail him out. On the other hand, Jayne Houdyshell is a comedic delight as Albert's passive-aggressive mother.

The 16-person orchestra, performing a slightly revised version of Jonathan Tunick's original orchestrations, sounds reasonably strong, if occasionally tinny. Most problematic is the complete lack of violins in its string section. But seeing as the orchestra for the Roundabout's revival of "The Pajama Game" was roughly half this size, I was pretty satisfied. And I was truly glad that the show's gorgeous overture was not cut. When I heard that the film's title song would be added, I feared that it would be used to open the show and replace the overture.

With wonderful songs like "Put on a Happy Face" and “Lot of Livin’ to Do," on top of a brilliant script, "Bye Bye Birdie" deserved much better than this inadequate revival. You leave the theater feeling unsatisfied and angry at the Roundabout Theatre Company for messing up yet another classic musical.

Footnote: Wednesday night’s final preview performance of “Bye Bye Birdie” took an unexpected 15-minute pause when its set broke down, according to several theatergoers who were in attendance. The pause occurred in the middle of act one, about a minute before John Stamos was to sing “Put On a Happy Face” to six sad teens. “Girls, I’ll be out to cheer you up as soon as we fix this mess,” he told them.

While technicians worked to solve the problem, Stamos entertained the audience with improvised comedy. He invited his former “Full House” co-star Bob Saget, who happened to be in the audience, to join him. Saget, who spoke into a body microphone on Stamos’ forehead, remarked, “I’m really glad your crotch is not miked.”

Comedian Don Rickles, also in the audience, asked, “Are they gonna fix it or is this going to be a weekend?” Gina Gershon also pitched in, showing off a poster of John Stamos in his younger years and performing a family-friendly tribute to her film “Showgirls.” When Gershon asked Stamos about “Full House,” he described it as “kind of like ‘Brokeback Mountain’ but a sitcom.”

I can't help but think that this incident sounds more fun than the actual production.

Henry Miller's Theatre, 124 W. 43rd St., 212-719-1300, roundabouttheatre.org. Through Jan. 10.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Circle Mirror Transformation


As Annie Baker's amusing play begins, five people are lying motionless on their backs on a hardwood floor in silence under dim lights. In between long periods of silence, they take turns counting to ten. Next, they walk aimlessly walk around the room at different speeds. They even play a version of tag where each is supposed to "explode" when tagged.

If you have ever taken an introductory acting class, you will no doubt recognize such improvisational theater games. When the youngest member of the class asks the teacher when they will finally do some "real acting," she replies that these games do constitute acting. They are learning to be "physically aware," but it's still acting.

"Circle Mirror Transformation," named after the theater game where actors create variations of gestures and sounds, observes how an adult drama class at a local community center in Vermont affects four students and their teacher. Relationships rise and fall as these games tug at their personal lives and encourage them to reveal secrets. It's rather like an unorthodox force of group therapy.

In addition to highlighting the awkward, repetitive, seemingly pointless nature of most theater games, the play works well as a sincere character study taking place in a quirky context. While theater insiders will surely indentify with its contents, outsiders might find it all absolutely bizarre.

Sam Gold's production is marked by strong performances displaying eccentricity and shared feelings of frustration and loneliness, but without feeling overplayed. One standout is Deidre O'Connell, as a 55-year-old acting teacher who attempts to be enthusiastic in spite of apathy, misunderstanding and betrayal from her students.

You might say that the play feels Chekhovian in its naturalistic mix of comedy and sadness with naturalistic language and pauses. It leaves you thinking about how harmless little games can indirectly wreck havoc on your psychological well-being. Perhaps being an actor is more dangerous than imagined.

Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd St., 212-279-4200, playwrightshorizons.org. Through Nov. 1.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later


A familiar logo was projected onscreen: a road stretches in the horizon, accompanied by a sign informing us of the population and elevation of Laramie, Wyoming. But it wasn’t time for a revival of “The Laramie Project,” though that wouldn’t necessarily be unwelcome. Instead, the play’s creators were ready to unveil their “epilogue” to the play, titled “The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later.” But this was not to be just a bookend or short addition to the play. Though created in the same style of documentary theater with many of the same characters as before, this was another two-act play entirely about the creators’ return to Laramie, Wyoming a decade after their first trip.

Though hundreds of theaters across the country were performing the play in separate productions, about 150 of them were connected by Internet to Lincoln Center to a pre-show hosted by Glenn Close and a post-show talkback, where most of the questions were received by Tweets. (Moises Kaufman informed us that he had never “twitted” before.)

Glenn Close described the event as “an experiment unprecedented in interactivity” that showed how theater can “participate in a national dialogue.” She reminded us that Monday night, October 11, 2009, marked the 11-year anniversary of Matthew Shepard’s death. Judy Shepard, Matthew's mother, received a standing ovation (one of several given throughout the evening) upon entering the stage, noting "I'm just doing what mothers do when you hurt their children."
Once the Internet feed was turned off, Moises Kaufman proceeded to introduce the original eight-member cast of “The Laramie Project,” which would be performing the new work at Lincoln Center that night.

The work began by describing the current economic boom in Laramie, thanks to a revitalized energy industry: new hotels, a Super Walmart, mini malls, even a Chiles restaurant. “My gut is Laramie is a somewhat better place,” one resident says. “They are still teaching their children the same thing,” replies another. It’s noted that the fence where Matthew Shepard was beaten has been taken down, mainly because it had turned into an infamous tourist attraction. In other words, “it’s what we’re famous for.”

Though the play is bookended by the narrative of the team returning to Laramie, it is mainly a cultural dialogue and debate – even more so than the original “Laramie Project.” It questions what change, if any, has occurred in Laramie. What if the fact that no hate crime legislation has been passed, and that professors at the University of Wyoming are still denied health insurance coverage for their domestic partners? Should groups like the Tectonic Theater Project still be exploring the incident or should we just let it slide into the past and move on? “It’s time to let the boy go,” says one interviewee.

Most importantly, the play observes the desire by many in Laramie to clean up and rewrite history through the claim that the Matthew Shepard incident was not a hate crime, but rather “a drug deal gone bad.” It refers to a “20/20” episode that supported this theory through supposedly inaccurate assumptions. What should be done when facts turn into folklore? This has already occurred in our culture with Holocaust deniers.

Unlike the original play, the sequel observes the writers interviewing Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney, the imprisoned murderers of Matthew Shepard. They display completely different reactions to the incident. Henderson is ashamed of himself and claims that McKinney was the driving force behind the brutal crime. “I wanted it to stop, make it go away…Let’s say I tried to stop him, but I didn’t try enough. I’m still trying to figure out why I did what I did.” On the other hand, McKinney says that “as far as Matt is concerned, I don’t have any remorse…Matthew Shepard needed killing.”

On the whole, the new play speaks with just as much urgency, rage and relevance as in the original play. The reading worked particularly well, as the play is inherently in a presentational format. But I would like to see a fully-staged production in the future. Moises Kaufman noted that the current intent is to perform both plays in repertory, though no specific details were given.

The half-hour-long talkback session began immediately following the performance, with not even a pause in between that might have allowed some audience members to sneak out. Topics of discussion included the Matthew Shepard Act, the march for equal rights in Washington, DC that took place on Sunday, and the recent beating of a gay teen in College Point, Queens.
One audience member asked Moises Kaufman whether there will be another “Laramie” sequel in ten years. He replied, “can we finish tonight?”

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Oleanna


Just in case you were wondering, the title of "Oleanna" refers to a Norwegian folk song about a failed attempt to create a utopian society. The play itself, however, is a 75-minute, two-character firecracker about how a seemingly innocent and mundane meeting between a male university professor and his frustrated female student leads to accusations of sexual harassment, leaving his life in ruins.

17 years ago, David Mamet, inspired by the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings and the country's new emphasis on political correctness, created this provocative two-hander that brilliantly explores the ambiguities in everyday language and the swinging pendulum of power dynamics.

Doug Hughes' excellent Broadway revival starring Bill Pullman and Julia Stiles thrives on speed, intensity, and psychological subtlety. Though the play is still likely to divide audience members and make many feel uncomfortable and angry, we can at least now view it with a degree of detachment.

Neil Patel's huge, decorated office set with venetian blinds that move up and down is far too lush and lavish for the play's own good. When Mamet himself directed its premiere, the set consisted of little more than a desk and chair.

One might think that Pullman is too charismatic and likable to play John, the self-absorbed but well-meaning professor. However, his performance represents a full progression from security haughtiness, to anger and weakness, and then finally utter defeat. When Pullman says "I like you" to Carol and puts his arm around her in an attempt to console her, it is both sincere and tragic.

Julia Stiles, on the other hand, is always cold, calculating and assertive. As a result, one gets the impression that Carol planned to accuse John of sexual harassment all along. Still, Stiles brings real passion to Carol's arguments against John, rather like a prosecutor making a weak case shine through careful persuasion.

To prevent audience members from reacting audibly during the play, talkback sessions are offered after every performance. Receiving an immediate opportunity to vent following the play really helps to flesh out the experience.

Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th St., 212-239-6200, OleannaonBroadway.com. Open run.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Royal Family


To the Cavendish family, a dynasty of celebrity stage actors, the American theater isn't merely a profession. It's absolutely everything and anything else must be sacrificed, including romance and sanity.

Alas, no one writes plays anymore like "The Royal Family," George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber's glorious three-act ensemble comedy from 1927 satirizing the Barrymores. John Barrymore, for instance, is portrayed as the womanizing and reckless Tony Cavendish, and diva Ethel Barrymore is now Julie Cavendish.

As soon as the red curtain rises on its upscale two-story living room set, which is overcrowded with show posters, paintings of relatives, armor and flowers, you feel immediately transported into the golden age of Broadway comedy.

Rosemary Harris is perfectly cast as the aging, regal matriarch Fanny, who supposedly hasn't missed a performance in 63 years, bursting with life in spite of her declining health.

Every other member of the Cavendish character is childish, egotistical and insecure, creating a melodious cacophony of overacting.

Jan Maxwell, who plays Fanny's daughter Julie, triumphs in a breakdown scene where she finally responds to pressure from the family by falling to the floor and renouncing the theater, only to panic when she realizes that she is about to miss her evening performance.

John Glover is relentlessly desperate as Fanny's brother Herbert, who pathetically yearns to get back into the spotlight, and Ana Gasteyer is unashamedly silly as his half-witted wife Kitty.

Earlier this week, comedian Tony Roberts, who plays the manipulative but warm-hearted theatrical agent Oscar Wolfe, suffered a minor seizure during a matinee. At my press performance on Wednesday night, his role was played by understudy Anthony Newfield. Reports indicate that Roberts returned to the production on its Thursday night opening performance.

It's worth noting that there's more to "The Royal Family" than just exaggerated comedy. It accurately depicts a period of transition for the American theater, just before the cinema gained power. Luckily, Doug Hughes' production has a firm hold on both the play's humor and heart.

Samuel J. Friedman Theater, 261 W. 47th St., 212-239-6200, mtc-nyc.org. Through Nov. 29.

All's Well That Ends Well (NT Live)


It's a shame that New York hardly ever receives Shakespeare revivals as lush and lavish as the National Theatre of London's exquisite production of "All's Well That Ends Well," which is now being screened as a high definition live taping in movie theaters. (If you enjoyed Mark Lamos' revival of "Cymbeline" at Lincoln Center Theater two seasons ago, then you'll love this too.)
Unlike the NT's screening of "Phedre" over the summer, this one comes off with practically no technical problems. In fact, it's too bad that it won't be available commercially on DVD.

The taping deserved more press coverage. Alas, that didn't happen due to the fact that it premiered in New York during one of the busiest weeks of theater openings I've ever seen - and on top of the Broadway opening of "Hamlet," another acclaimed London production. And in comparison to "Phedre," this one didn't star Helen Mirren.

Marianne Elliot (director of the Broadway-bound musical hit "War Horse") has staged the show with the tone and texture of a gothic fairy tale. And given the strange mix of humor, romance and drama found in this so-called problem play, it actually does feel like a tale from the Brothers Grimm.
I admired many of the cast's character choices. George Rainsford, for instance, portrayed Bertram, who ruthlessly forces poor Helena to quest for his affection, as more immature and innocent than despicable. In the play's opening moment, he is seen playing with toys, just like a child. Perhaps he simply wasn't ready to understand Helena's real affection for him? Accordingly, the play can be viewed as his chance to finally grow up, beginning with his realization that Parolles is an idiot and ending with his realization of how terribly he has treated Helena - and how lucky he is to have her.

Clare Higgins is more warm than haughty as the Countess of Rossillion, which reinforces the bond between her and Helena. Michelle Terry, simply put, is commanding as a Helena, starting out with the vigor and fashion style of Little Red Riding Hood, and later growing up. The rest of the cast is also outstanding.

The final Manhattan screening will take place on Friday at 7 PM at the Skirball Center, 566 LaGuardia Pl. Tix are available at 212-352-3101. The NT Live series will continue next with "Nation" and "The Art of Habit."

Kiss of the Spider Woman at NYU



I don’t know exactly why, but I had made a point of never listening to the cast album of “Kiss of the Spider Woman” before attending John Simpkins’ most accomplished production of the Kander & Ebb musical on Monday night at the Steinhardt School for Education at NYU. Perhaps I was waiting for the opportunity to actually see it, fearing that the cast album might not make much sense out of context of the plot.

Waiting for Mr. Simpkins’ annual production – always of a serious post-Sondheim musical such as "Urinetown," "Floyd Collins," "Parade" or "Violet," has become one of favorite rites of the theater season. Two years ago, his "Floyd Collins" was stunning, and starred Jay Armstrong Johnson, who is now a swing in “Hair” who has gone on for Claude.

“Kiss of the Spider Woman” was no exception, featuring a large orchestra, a vocally exceptional cast, and superior production values. Jordan Stanley, a junior in the school’s program in vocal performance, was exceptional as the gay prisoner Molina, highlighting the character’s fragility and longing. Roy Richardson, a second year masters candidate in vocal performance, was far more subdued dramatically, but vocally outstanding as Valentin, a political prisoner who becomes Molina’s unexpected roommate. Lauren Calhoun, a senior in vocal performance, in spite of her youth, was sexy and imposing as the cinema goddess Aurora.

I can’t help but wonder what will be Simpkins’ next show next year. Just guessing, but I wouldn't be surprised if it's something along the lines of “The Wild Party” (either version is fine), “The Light in the Piazza,” “The Full Monty," "Bat Boy," or “Sunday in the Park with George.” But then again, maybe I’ll be surprised, just as I was with “Spider Woman.” Up next, Steinhardt will be doing several small-scale productions of “Hotel for Criminals,” “First Odd Prime” and “Quilters.” No word yet on its mainstage spring musicals.

Steinhardt should be commended for being the only theater program at NYU that tries to be involved with the New York theater community at large. The Tisch drama program makes absolutely no effort to advertise its productions to the public at large. Even when I attended NYU as an undergrad student, I felt as if Tisch wanted to deliberately exclude non-drama students from attending its shows.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Tommy Tune's "Steps in Time"


Tommy Tune performed his new autobiographical dance show "Steps in Times" September 21 at John Jay College as a benefit for Friends in Deed. Though the show is intended to be taken on the road, I am hoping it will receive an extended run in Manhattan too.

Speaking with him, he described "Steps in Time" as a "biography in song, dance and story" that did not aim to show off the highlights of his career line by line, hit by hit, but instead present a more emotional and surprising collection of lasting memories and impressions.

I should have asked whether "Turn of the Century," the musical he debuted regionally last year with Jeff Daniels and Rachel York, will ever come to New York. Instead, I asked whether he might be interested in directing a musical revival, which led him to repeat the same diatribe against revivals that he gave in Rick McKay's 2004 documentary "Broadway: The Golden Age."

I also asked if he is looking forward to Rob Marshall's film version of "Nine." (Tune directed the original production production of "Nine.") Tune replied enthusiastically that he can't wait to see it and that he loved Marshall's film of "Chicago." I checked whether he had seen the Fringe Festival prodution of "How Now, Dow Jones," since he appeared in the original cast. He said yes, and that he didn't much like the newly revised, more scaled-down version.

Finally, as an end note, I asked Tune about the effect of critics on his career, which I often do now during interviews in hopes of gaining material for the book that I am attempting to write on theater critics. He noted the advice he got out-of-town with "Grand Hotel" on the lack of dramatic tension in the plot. As he left to go party with his pals, he told me that he thought I was a great interviewer. Elated, I exited O'Neill's, turned my IPOD to "Seesaw," and peddled away on my bike.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Hamlet


September was a pretty bad month for William Shakespeare. Peter Sellars' four-hour, ego-driven production of "Othello" had caused audience members to flee at intermission in a state of horror and confusion.

But things are suddenly looking up for the Bard. The National Theatre's exquisite "All's Well That Ends Well" is currently being screened in movie theaters across the city. But more importantly, we've received Michael Grandage's production of "Hamlet," which stars Jude Law as the melancholy Dane.
Thankfully, Grandage does not attempt to rewrite Shakespeare's tragedy. Instead, he provides a lean, mean staging that burns with intensity, urgency and clarity. In other words, it's a much appreciated antidote to the pain and torture of "Othello."

Reflecting Hamlet's description of Denmark as a prison, the empty black set consists of towering walls from which only faint streaks of light emanate from the cellar. A wintry chill is in the air and giant shadows invade the darkness. No wonder Hamlet wants to go back to Wittenberg. But during the "To be or not to be" soliloquy, snow falls and the effect is truly beautiful.

Jude Law doesn't merely perform the role of Hamlet. Without looking back, he aggressively throws his whole body and vocal chords into the role, producing a Hamlet that is expressive, unpredictable, manic, wild, disturbed, depressed, frustrated, youthful, uneasy, dangerous, sarcastic, ridiculous and so much more.

One thing he is not is eloquent. This is a Hamlet who humps Polonius while describing him as a "fishmonger," unceremoniously grabs his best pal Horatio by the shirt collar and giddily waves around his pocket knife.

The rest of the cast, many of whom can match Law's modelesque appearance, is quite good, with the main exception of Gugu Mbatha-Raw's unconvincing Ophelia. But you'll hardly even notice her. You'll be too busy observing the tidal wave of emotions that is Jude Law's performance.

Broadhurst Theatre, 235 W. 44th St., 212-239-6200, hamletbroadway.com. Through Dec. 6.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Wishful Drinking


"There is no underwear in space." So said George Lucas to a 19-year-old Carrie Fisher, attempting to explain why she could not wear a bra under her white Princess Leia dress.

"Wishful Drinking," Fisher's dishy and sassy one-woman memoir, doesn't suffer from a lack of source material. Her many targets include the sex lives her parents Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds (described as the Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston of their day), a marriage to Paul Simon, drug addiction, bipolar disorder, depression, and Princess Leia fame.

She opens the show with an ironic rendition of the Streisand anthem "Happy Days Are Here Again." Then, in graphic detail, she describes waking up next to her gay Republican friend who happened to be dead. She invites audience members to ask her questions regarding the incident, such as how she knew he was dead and how he looked at the time.

This is not so much a play, but a strange cross-section of therapy, stand-up comedy, and a tabloid exposing celeb culture of the late 20th century. In "Hollywood Incest 101," for instance, Fisher uses an illustrated chart to explain how her daughter and Elizabeth Taylor's grandson are "related by scandal." So far as "Star Wars" is concerned, Fisher plays show-and-tell with a Princess Leia wig, doll, Pez dispenser, shampoo, soap, and life-size sex doll.

To satisfy the cravings of every "Star Wars" geek in the theater, she delivers her infamous "Help me, Obi Wan Kenobi. You're my only hope" speech to a R2-D2 doll as an Act Two finale.

Though the show belongs in a more intimate theater, Fisher and Studio 54 are both fondly remembered as 1970s sex icons. Its two-and-a-half hour running time could also be trimmed, perhaps by removing some of the more disturbing details of Act Two.

On the whole, Fisher deserves much credit for her extreme honesty and good humor (i.e. likening her current physical appearance to Elton John). She's laughing at herself, but the audience is definitely laughing with her.

Studio 54, 254 W. 54th St., 212-719-1300, roundabouttheatre.org. Through Jan 3.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Superior Donuts



Try your best not to judge Tracy Letts' new play "Superior Donuts" as a sequel to his Pulitzer-winning hit "August: Osage County," even though both originated at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre and share the same director, producer and even Broadway theater.

This sentimental comedy about the proprietor of a moldy, independent donut shop and his unlikely friendship with a 21-year-old African-American college dropout who takes a minimum wage job there feels like a television sitcom that you probably watched decades ago but remember fondly.

It's not a breakthrough play by any stretch of the imagination, but that's no reason to knock it down. As directed by Tina Landau, "Superior Donuts" is a crowd-pleasing, heartwarming love letter to Chicago's Uptown neighborhood with a few unexpected streaks of gritty realism and melancholy.

Michael McKean delivers an underplayed, very believable performance as Arthur Przybyszewski, a 58-year-old, absent-minded former hippie and draft dodger of Polish descent, now sporting a grizzly beard, ponytail, tie-dye t-shirt and glazed facial expression. As the play begins, Arthur seems to hardly care about the hate crime that was just committed in his shop, choosing instead to smoke a joint in private and recall memories his dead ex-wife and estranged daughter in private monologues.

Jon Michael Hill makes a confident Broadway debut as the self-assertive and playful Franco Wicks, providing a perfect comic contrast for McKean, easily playing off each others' personalities. They make a fine couple - well, couple of friends.

The litany of eccentric stock characters filling out the rest of the cast includes a rowdy Russian video store owner who wants to buy the donut shop, loan sharks, two police officers and a drunken homeless woman.

Bottom line: "Superior Donuts" is enjoyable, but maybe too sincere for its own good. Here's hoping Tracy Letts brings us something more substantial next year.

Music Box Theater, 239 W. 45th St., 212-239-6200, superiordonuts.com. Open run.