Sunday, February 28, 2010

Nine (Westchester Broadway Theatre)

When the Westchester Broadway Theatre announced a few months ago that it would present the musical "Nine," it proudly noted that it would be the first professional revival to add one or two of the new songs that Maury Yeston had written for Rob Marshall's "Nine" film. (Coincidentally, Marshall directed a production of "A Chorus Line" at Westchester Broadway Theatre in 1991.)


But keep in mind that the song announcement was made shortly before the film became a universally panned, reviled box-office disaster. I can't help but think that associating the production with the movie would now be more of a dangerous liability than a smart marketing angle.

So it's a great relief to report that the production is actually not using any of the three songs written specifically for the movie, none of which were very good. (When I first heard that news bit, I really feared that songs like "Nine" or "Be On Your Own" would be cut, just as in the film version. It's really refreshing to hear the entire original score intact.)

Jonathan Stahl's production looks extremely similar to the original 1982 Broadway production. Set in a pristine, white-tiled spa, the theater's large thrust stage is covered with pedestals reserved for the many women who crowd Guido Contini's mind.

Truth be told, the show is still in the process of finding its footing and is likely to get stronger. At my performance, the pace was rather slow, the humor too downplayed, and the cast occasionally out of synch with the small orchestra. Act 2, which is more emotional and also easier to stage, is more successful than the mostly disjointed and somewhat leaden Act 1. But the production is very well-sung throughout and thoroughly well-cast.

Robert Cuccioli, who is best known for the Broadway musical "Jekyll & Hyde," would appear to be an ideal choice for Guido. Not only can he sing the vocally demanding role with relative ease, he's even Italian! True, he now looks a bit older than 39, but he definitely still has matinee idol presence. (I'll never forget seeing an adult woman have what appeared to be an actual orgasm in a Broadway theater when he sang "This is the Moment" 12 years ago.) Yet in emphasizing Guido's emotional and mental paralysis, the blank-faced Cuccioli is too downbeat and passive. But his performance does grow considerably as the musical itself continues. (Coincidentally, Westchester Broadway Theatre will be staging "Jekyll & Hyde" later this season, but I'm guessing Cuccioli doesn't want to bark up that tree again.)

The women who make up the supporting cast are sensational. Julie Tolivar, playing Guido's mistress Carla in a revealing lace bodystocking, is particularly excellent. Rather than descend from above, like Jane Krakowski in the Broadway revival, Tolivar ascends from below for "A Call From The Vatican." Glory Crampton, as Guido's much ignored wife Luisa, looks on with restraint and skepticism for most of the show, but finally explodes in the climactic song "Be On Your Own." (Growing up in NJ, I saw Crampton perform in many musicals at Paper Mill Playhouse such as "Carousel," "My Fair Lady" and "Camelot," and really enjoyed the chance to see her again onstage.)

This revival serves as a strong reminder of just how brilliant the stage version of "Nine" is in comparison to its dreary film version. It's also refreshing to see such a somber and sexual musical produced in a traditional dinner theater environment.

This marked my first time attending a show at the Westchester Broadway Theatre. It's really quite a large space, with a three-quarter thrust stage that worked quite well for the staging of "Nine." The food was more than decent, and I was relieved that patrons eat before and not throughout the performance itself. If time permits, I'm really interested in attending their upcoming production of "Sugar," which is hardly ever staged.

Playing at Westchester Broadway Theatre in Elmsford
One Broadway Plaza, 914-592-2222, broadwaytheatre.com. Through April 24.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Tempest

Sam Mendes' production of Shakespeare's pastoral comedy "As You Like It," which premiered last month at Brooklyn Academy of Music as part of the 2010 Bridge Project, is so unnecessarily chilly that the Forest of Arden practically freezes over.


But his dark, melancholy vision is a natural fit for "The Tempest," now running in repertory with "As You Like It" with the same mixed cast of American and English actors. Shakespeare's drama, about an exiled duke who uses his magical powers to cause a shipwreck that finally brings his enemies to justice, has stronger characters and allows for an imaginative reinterpretation.

Mendes presents the play without intermission and integrates a score of gentle, percussive music. The set design consists of a simple circle of sand at center stage, representing Prospero's island. The creature Caliban makes an incredible entrance by breaking through its center from down below. Behind it is a shallow pool of water, where half of the cast sits in a weird state of solitary confinement.

Stephen Dillane's Prospero is a natural extension of his performance as the melancholy Jacques in "As You Like It." Dillane portrays him as a weary, lonely drifter with a sarcastic edge. His costume consists of a roughed-up, ripped-apart black suit, referencing the fact that Prospero has been castaway on a deserted island for years.

Christian Camargo, whose performance as the innocent Orlando in "As You Like It" resembles Hamlet, is far more convincing as the ethereal spirit Ariel. Like Dillane, Camargo downplays the role and brings a mysterious quality. He also looks rather like a model in his clean suit revealing a bare chest.

The rest of the cast is quite strong, making this "Tempest" a seamless, totally focused fusion of stage design, directorial tone and performance.

"The Tempest" plays in repertory with "As You Like It" at the BAM Harvey Theater
651 Fulton St., Brooklyn, 718-636-4100, bam.org.

In the Heights with Corbin Bleu

Just like the "American Idol" contestants that have trickled onto Broadway, the cast of "High School Musical" was bound to eventually follow suit. 21-year-old Corbin Bleu, who played Zac Efron's buddy Chad Danforth in the popular Disney film franchise, has joined the cast of the popular hip-hop musical "In the Heights" as Dominican bodega owner and narrator Usnavi, the role originated by Lin-Manuel Miranda, the show's creator and composer.


Bleu stresses Usnavi's geeky bashfulness and handles his character's rapping with impressive ease. The fact that Bleu is not actually Latino hardly matters, but he is clearly too young for the role. Even with the addition of a goatee and cap, Bleu resembles a young teen performing in a high school musical production of "In the Heights." As a result, Usnavi and his younger cousin Sonny now look like twin brothers.

While Bleu is openly affectionate towards Olga Merediz, who plays his aunt Abuela Claudia, he has little sexual chemistry with Marcy Harriell, who replaced Karen Olivo as neighborhood hottie Vanessa. Harriell is sweet and mopey but altogether unconvincing as Vanessa, who desperately wants to leave the neighborhood, and lacks the rough edge that Olivo brought to the role.

Janet Dacal, who originated the role of Carla, has graduated to playing Nina, who has just returned home following her freshman year at Stanford. Dascal, a gorgeous actress with an incredible voice, gives a powerfully subtle performance that comes off as too mature for the teenage character.

Overall, this musical valentine to the Washington Heights community remains an incredible showstopper thanks to its high-energy choreography, catchy hip-hop musical score, and cheery spirit. Here's hoping the "High School Musical" crowd will want to see Bleu in a far better musical.

"In the Heights" is playing an open run at the Richard Rodgers Theatre.
226 W. 46th St., 212-307-4100, intheheightsthemusical.com.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Broadway Backwards 5

God bless Robert Bartley, the director-choreographer of "Broadway Backwards," the annual fundraiser for NYC's GLBT Community Center and Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. This marked the concert-extravaganza's first time playing Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theatre instead of Roundabout's somewhat smaller American Airlines Theatre. The event actually bears more in common with other variety shows that benefit BC/EFA such as Gypsy By the Year and the Easter Bonnett Competition than with most other Broadway-themed concert fundraisers.

Its ingenious concept involves having male Broadway performers sing songs written originally for women, and vice versa. But that's not what makes the concert so damn impressive. Nearly every production number is aided by a large chorus, all clad in elaborate costumes and performing inventive and athletic choreography. And every song is treated as if it is a one-act play, complete with new characters and a new plot from a same-sex angle. The revue even had an overall story arc about Florence Henderson, who served as its host, being arrested, sent to prison, and then on trial. Silly, yet so amazing.

True, many of the production numbers looked a bit underrehearsed, and some of the vocal work was shaky since female singers were performing songs written for male voices and vice versa. But on the whole, it was a marvelously produced, extremely passionate concert that I would not miss out on next year. Weirdly, my favorite moment was also one of its most smallest: a warm Len Cariou and a cool Lee Roy Reams performing the duet "I Remember It Well" from "Gigi." It was just beautiful. And I loved the Lauren Bacall ad-lib. And Douglas Sills' "I Could Have Danced All Night" was wonderful too.

Below is the full set list, which I have copied and pasted from Jesse21's post on All That Chat.

The Program:

Host: Florence Henderson

"Paris Original" (How to Succeed) - Robert Cuccioli with Anthony & Will Nunziata, Ann Harada & Full Ensemble

"Shipoopi" (The Music Man) - Florence Henderson, Richard Kind and chorus

"Marian the Librarian" (The Music Man) - Becki Newton with Barbara Angeline & chorus

"What Is It About Her?" (The Wild Party) - Julia Murney

"Come Up To My Place" (On the Town) - Dan Butler & Hunter Ryan Herdlicka

"I'm Not At All in Love" (The Pajama Game) - Gary Beach and male chorus

"I Remember It Well" (Gigi) - Len Cariou & Lee Roy Reams

"Too Many Mornings" (Follies) - Tonya Pinkins

"Conga" (Wonderful Town) - Tony Goldwyn & male chorus

"As Long As He Needs Me" (Oliver!) - Aaron Lazar

"My Gentle Young Johnny" (Tenderloin) - male chorus

"There's Gotta Be Something Better Than This" (Sweet Charity) - Nick Adams, Timothy W. Bish & Adam Perry

INTERMISSION

"Waltz" - chorus

"I Could Have Danced All Night" (My Fair Lady) - Douglas Sills & male chorus

"Johanna" (Sweeney Todd) - Martine Allard

"Tom, Dick or Harry" (Kiss Me Kate) - Bruce Vilanch with Ward Billeisen, Patrick O'Neill & Antuan Raimone

"Secret Love" / "The Girl Next Door" (Calamity Jane / Meet Me in St. Louis) - Michele Lee

"The Man That Got Away" (A Star is Born) - Raúl Esparza

"Out There" (The Hunchback of Notre Dame) - Lea Salonga

"Where You Are" (Kiss of the Spider Woman) - Mario Cantone & male chorus

"Luck Be A Lady" (Guys and Dolls) - Florence Henderson & female chorus

"Children Will Listen" (Into the Woods) - Titus Burgess with Youth Pride Chorus & Full Ensemble

Mr. & Mrs. Fitch

Compared to Twitter and blogging, print newspaper gossip now has a certain old-fashioned charm attached to it. In Douglas Carter Beane's new comedy "Mr. & Mrs. Fitch," John Lithgow and Jennifer Ehle play a married team of Manhattan gossip columnists whose desperate need to score scandalous news lands them in muddy waters. But besides some cute one-liners, this tedious play is as forgettable and insubstantial as the latest celeb rumors.


Set in an upscale, high ceiling penthouse apartment littered with evidence of high culture, the two-character play begins with the couple stumbling back home after a late-night benefit event. It seems they still don't have enough gossip to fill their daily column. Out of desperation, they decide to invent their own celebrity involved in a sex scandal.

As you've probably already guessed, act two reveals the disastrous consequences of this decision. Finally fed up with their lives, they randomly decide to quit gossip and write the Great American Novel. Seriously, that's how it ends.

Beane has fun imbuing his characters with literary wit and sassy social commentary. At one point, they even speak in "imaginary Maya Angelou titles." He even raises some legitimate questions about journalism ethics.

Yet this is the kind of play that thinks it's far funnier than it actually is. The concept is undercooked, the characters are undeveloped, and the strained storytelling drags aimlessly alongside the one-liners.

Lithgow and Ehle have strong chemistry and make the best of their weak mateiral. Lithgow, in particular, delivers an unapologetically silly and haughty performance that recalls his childlike behavior on the television series "3rd Rock from the Sun."

"Mr. & Mrs. Fitch" is at Second Stage Theatre through March 21.
305 W. 43rd St., 212-246-4422, 2st.com.

Monday, February 22, 2010

The Boys in the Band

"The Boys in the Band," Mart Crowley's 1968 Off-Broadway drama about a group of sassy and self-loathing gay men at a birthday party gone terribly wrong, marked the first American play about openly gay individuals to achieve major commercial success.


But today, with its shock value long gone and its creaky playwriting more apparent, "The Boys in the Band" feels more like a cultural artifact than a classic play. Nevertheless, the Transport Group has produced a decent revival that stands out mainly for its unique environmental staging concept.

The play is set in Michael's Upper East Side apartment, where he and several gay men have gathered to celebrate the 32nd birthday of their friend Harold. They trade witty remarks, imitate their favorite movie actresses and dance along to music records.

But an awkward tension enters the room when Michael's straight-laced college roommate Alan unexpectedly shows up, who reacts violently to the group's exaggerated flamboyance. In a lame and contrived plot device, the men play a naughty "telephone game" in which each calls whomever they love and admits it.

The production is staged in an empty office space that has been redecorated to resemble a posh 1960s studio apartment. Audience members sit among the cast and are made to feel as if they are flies on the wall, eavesdropping on the intimate party. Removing the intermission also helps to make the action feel more spontaneous and realistic.

As Michael, Jonathan Hammond gives the most multidimensional performance, though his hysterical breakdown at the end appears random and forced. Among the friends, John Wellmann displays the most free-flowing flamboyance as Emory, even putting a rose in his teeth and snapping like Carmen.

But on the whole, the revival fails to make a case for the continuing relevance of the play, which is so full of self-pity and spite that it is more depressing and dated than enlightening.

Penthouse, 37 W. 26th St., 212-352-3101, transportgroup.org. Through Mar. 14.

Clybourne Park


Clydebourne Park might sound a little familiar to theater buffs. In "A Raisin in the Sun," it's the middle-class white community where the Younger family sets out to move by the end of the play. Without that knowledge, it's a little difficult to tell what exactly is going on during the first ten minutes of Act One in Bruce Norris' play "Clybourne Park" at Playwrights Horizons. In fact, the same goes for Act Two. Both acts begin so politely, so slowly, with such seemingly bland dialogue.

But soon enough, the beans are spilled, tensions flare, arguments start up, and all goes to hell. By then, "Clybourne Park" has proved itself to be a well-devised, smartl y plotted play dealing with two interrelated racial issues: white families fleeing newly mixed-race suburban neighborhoods in the late 1950s, and the current gentrification of those same neighborhoods as white families reenter and the property values rise. The play also has its fair share of humor, especially during a riotous stretch of Act Two.

Act One takes place in 1959. Moving crates cover the living room of a suburban home. Bev (Christina Kirk), ever so playful and cutesy, tries to engage her nonresponsive husband Russ (Frank Wood) in chatchat, who looks down, reads quietly, and gives off a cryptic, creepy vibe. Francine (Crystal A. Dickinson), their maid, politely turns down Bev's offer of some random serving dish. Soon, Karl (Jeremy Shamos) and his deaf wife Betsy (Annie Parisse) enter the scene. Karl, it turns out, is the character from "A Raisin in the Sun" who tries to convince the Younger family to not move to Clybourne Park by making a counteroffer on the home, courtesy of the "neighborhood association," out of concern for property values and obvious racism.

Bev becomes uncomfortable, entering what you might call a suburban housewife meltdown. Albert (Damon Gupton), Francine's husband, who was merely waiting for his wife, soon reveals how offended he is. Karl wonders why Bev and Russ offered their home at such a low below-market price. It turns out their army veteran son, accused of war crimes and personally tortured, committed suicide recently in the house and they are eager to leave, allieve their pain, and somehow restart their lives. Shamos is hilariously shamless and uptight, while Wood suddenly becomes emotional.

In Act Two, it's 2009 and the same house has become deteriorated and is now on the verge of demolition. The cast, now playing different roles, sit around in a semi-circle with sheets of paper. They use legal terminology to discuss the house's architecture. Again, it's not clear what's going on for a bit. You fear that Act Two will be a letdown. But once again, soon enough, Norris' set up leads somewhere substantial: Steve (Shamos) and Lindsey (Parisse), a married couple, are tearing down the house entirely prior to constructing a bigger home. Lena (Dickinson) and Kevin (Gupton), once again married, filed a petition to the city planning board claiming that the new home would disrupt the architectural integrity of the neighborhood. But is that the real reason?

It turns out that Lena is related to the Younger family. She even used to play in the backyard as a child. Steve, out of frustration, accuses Lena and Kevin of being opposed to the gentrification of their neighborhood. Just as in Act One, the arguments rise and the hilarity often ensues. Norris' dialogue debates whether the community has been changed for the better, whose economic interests are best served from the changes, and who is responsible for these changes. In this act, Christina Kirk plays Steve and Lindsey's airheaded, princessy lawyer.

Pam MacKinnon delivers a first-rate production with wonderful ensemble performances. It's hard not to compare "Clybourne Park" with David Mamet's "Race," a far inferior attempt to discuss similar racial tensions. Unlike "Race," "Clybourne Park" manages to both build three-dimensional characters and debate current cultural issues.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

A Lie of the Mind


"Ages of the Moon," Sam Shepard's new play that just opened Off-Broadway, is the total opposite of his well-known 1985 drama "A Lie of the Mind," which is now receiving an emotionally intense revival directed by Ethan Hawke. Its large ensemble cast includes Keith Carradine, Josh Hamilton, Marin Ireland, Laurie Metcalf, Alessandro Nivola and Maggie Siff.

Whereas "Ages of the Moon" is a short, small, tightly-constructed takeoff of "Waiting for Godot," "A Lie of the Mind" is overwritten, ambitiously large and rambling - notwithstanding the fact that Shepard cut about an hour's worth of the original text for this revival. But for the most part, it is a far more substantial and gripping piece of theater.

The play begins immediately after Jake (Alessandro), in a burst of sudden anger, beats his wife Beth (Ireland) so badly that she winds up in the hospital with brain damage. While Jake and Beth recuperate at their respective childhood homes, their families react to the incident with varying degrees of sympathy, disgust and apathy.

What follows is a disturbing character study of two dysfunctional Midwestern families. Those who saw the recent Broadway drama "August: Osage County" will no doubt see similarities.

In his directing debut, Hawke accentuates the play's dark humor, raw violence and feelings of pent-up rage and all-consuming helplessness. Particularly fascinating is Hawke's use of eerie live music and a weird set design made up of random found objects.

The cast is uniformly excellent, but Marin Ireland is particularly thrilling as Beth, who struggles desperately to express herself following her physical trauma, while Alessandro Nivola is believably psychotic and distressed as Jake. Meanwhile, Carradine and Metcalf provide pitch-perfect comic relief as Beth's bizarre parents.

They have all succeeded in bringing a problematic but important play back to life with electrifying detail.

"A Lie of the Mind" is at Theater Row through Mar. 20. 410 W. 42nd St., 212-279-4200, newgroup.org.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Pride

While society's attitude toward gay men has undoubtedly changed over the past fifty years, pre-Stonewall sexual repression still looks like an ominous shadow with the potential to affect important life choices. In Alexi Kaye Campbell's intelligent new play "The Pride," two gay men from 1958 England are contrasted with how the same characters might have lived in 2008, and what new dilemmas they would now face. Hugh Dancy and Ben Whishaw play both versions of their characters.

The play seamlessly mixes scenes from the past and present. Its first scene observes an awkward meeting between Philip (Dancy), a gay man in denial, Sylvia (Andrea Riseborough), Philip's wife, and Oliver (Whishaw), a sensitive lost soul looking to understand rather than oppress his sexual desires. Eventually both men engage in a secret affair. In 2008, Oliver's addiction to anonymous sex has ruined his monogamous relationship with Philip. Sylvia, who is now their artsy best friend, looks on with a critical eye.

While much of the play is slow and didactic, and the overall concept is familiar, it remains an engaging study of how gay identity has evolved and the frustrations associated with finally gaining sexual freedom.

Six years ago, Joe Mantello was the most sought after director in New York, renowned for his productions of "Take Me Out," "Wicked" and "Assassins." But more recently, his stagings of "9 to 5," "Pal Joey," "November" and "Three Days of Rain" have been roundly panned. His elegant production of "The Pride" represents an attempt to regain his credibility as a director.

Ben Whishaw has a boyish, innocent presence that contrasts strongly with Hugh Dancy, who switches from an aggressive, self-loathing real estate broker in 1958 into a calm, collected ex-boyfriend eager to put his life in order. Andrea Riseborough too makes a striking transformation from melancholy wife to eccentric pal.

"The Pride," while not quite perfect, remains an intricate and inspired exploration of sexual repression and liberation marked by great performances from an all-English cast. Other plays exploring gay identity that are about to open include the new musical "Yank!," the 1960s confessional drama "The Boys in the Band," and the new plays "Next Fall" and "The Temperamentals."

"The Pride" is at the Lucille Lortel Theatre through Mar. 20.
121 Christopher St., 212-279-4200, mcctheater.org.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Measure for Measure

"Measure for Measure," Shakespeare's dark drama and so-called "problem-play" dealing with political hypocrisy and the dangers of an ultra-conservative stance against sex, is usually considered his most modern play. Theatre for a New Audience, which is now staging it for the third time in its history, is offering a contemporary and accessible production headed by a thoroughly excellent ensemble.


The play opens with a mysterious decision from the Duke to leave Vienna and entrust his power to the morally strict Angelo, who insists on enforcing a long-relaxed law against pre-marital sex. Isabella, on the verge of joining the sisterhood, is enlisted to beg Angelo to not kill her brother Claudio for impregnating his fiancee. Angelo agrees to spare Claudio, providing that Isabella will have sex with him. The Duke, who is still in town disguised as a priest, attempts to save Claudio's life and Isabella's chastity through elaborate plotting.

Director Arin Arbus scored a major victory last year with her acclaimed production of "Othello," which may be revived next year. Her staging of "Measure for Measure," which is set on a bare thrust stage with steel prison doors, is deceptively simple, always gripping and powerfully acted. She really deserves credit for stressing the ambiguities inherent in the play's ending, which other directors tend to lighten up or altogether ignore.

Jefferson Mays, best known for his Tony-winning performance in "I Am My Own Wife," portrays the Duke as not so much kind-hearted but rather reckless, meek and depressed. This new subtext actually helps explain the Duke's unpredictable actions.

As the devout Isabella, Elisabeth Waterston looks sad but maintains a self-assertive poise. This production's most crucial moment occurs when Isabella agrees to show compassion for Angelo, finally breaking her steely complex. At the end, when the Duke proposes to her, she looks more likely to strike him than marry him.

Rocco Sisto, with his deep voice and tall presence, makes for a thoroughly villainous, chilling Angelo. You might recall that he was the only highlight of the lambasted Shakespeare in the Park production of "The Bacchae."

Bottom line: Theatre for a New Audience has scored once again. Here's hoping it keeps Ms. Arbus around for a while.

'Measure for Measure' is at The Duke on 42nd Street through Mar. 14. 229 W. 42nd St., 646-223-3010, www.tfana.org.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Caroline, or Change (Gallery Players)

Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori's "Caroline, or Change," which briefly played Broadway in 2004 after premiering at the Public Theater, is one of the most difficult but compelling musicals of the past decade. So the mere fact that the Gallery Players, one of Brooklyn's strongest Off-Off-Broadway theater companies, agreed to stage its first New York City revival is pretty impressive.

Set in 1963 in Louisiana, the somber, sung-through musical begins in an underground basement where Caroline, a middle-aged single mother and maid, is doing the laundry. Though she is technically alone, the washer, dryer and the radio are portrayed by actors and try to engage her in conversation. Later on, a city bus and the moon are also given human personifications.

The plot focuses on the fragile friendship between Caroline and Noah, the nine-year-old son of her employers. Their relationship reaches a crisis point after Noah's stepmother encourages Caroline to keep any spare change that she finds in Noah's pants pockets. Simultaneously, the emotionally-paralyzed Caroline attempts to ignore the sweeping social changes taking place around her, which are being embraced by her assertive and idealistic young daughter.

Jeremy Gold Kronenberg's elegant, solidly acted revival captures the characters' emotional insecurities in full detail. The production serves the score quite well, which represents an eclectic mix of rhythm and blues, spirituals, folk and Jewish Kletzmer. The intimacy of the Gallery Players' tiny theater also helps the audience feel more connected to the story.

Teisha Duncan gives a ferocious, thoroughly physical performance of Caroline that manages to wipe out any lingering memories of Tonya Pinkins' acclaimed performance in the original production. She treats "Lot's Wife," Caroline's 11 o'clock number, as a convincing aria of anger and pain, with a faint hope of redemption.
Many others in the strong cast have already performed in prior regional productions of the musical, which perhaps partially explains how the theater company was able to pull together such a demanding show in so little time.

Gallery Players, 199 14th St., 718-832-0617, galleryplayers.com. Through Feb. 21.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Happy Now?

Prospective parents ought to be very careful before attending "Happy Now?." The same advice goes for any overachiever. Lucinda Coxon's dark comedy, where the highlight of the day is quietly watching a "Will & Grace" rerun prior to bed, makes a strong argument that working so hard for so little personal satisfaction no longer seems to be worth it.


In the play's first scene, Kitty, a middle-class English businesswoman and mother, laughs off a shameless sexual overture from a slimy colleague at a hotel convention. She rebuts his attempts to size her up psychologically, insisting that she is a happily successful and satisfied woman.

But rather like Macbeth being possessed by the witches' curse, Kitty starts to see her stressful life from a much more grim point of view. After all, she already deals with incredible pressure from her depressed schoolteacher husband, dying father, ailing boss, unhelpful mother, irritating house guest, critical gay best friend and warring married friends on the verge of divorce. She's so consumed with these matters that she hardly even notices her children, portrayed only as offstage voices.

"Is this it?" she wonders. If so, enjoying a sexual tryst with an out-of-shape clown no longer seems like such a bad idea.

The post-feminist woman's inability to "have it all" theme is pretty familiar territory, but "Happy Now?" still stands out thanks to the Coxon's humor, compassion and honesty. Unfortunately, the play itself is only half good. After a very promising start with engrossing dialogue, its unfocused second act twists and turns and ultimately leads nowhere.

Liz Diamond's production, which features American actors sporting solid British accents, is marked by great comic timing and strong performances all around. Mary Bacon, who plays Kitty as if she were a rocket ready to explode, is so animated that you can actually feel the character's dizzying heights of anxiety and uncertainty behind a mask of calm.

Primary Stages, 59 E. 59th St., 212-279-4200, primarystages.org. Through Mar. 6.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Can You Guess Paper Mill's 2010-11 Season?


Just like last year, New Jersey's Paper Mill Playhouse, prior to officially announcing its new season, is providing five images providing clues that correspondend to the five shows they will produce in 2010-11. Paper Mill used to do 6 shows - 4 musicals and 2 plays - prior to the recession. So I am assuming that of the 5 shows, there will be 4 musicals and 1 play, just like its current season.

Can I personally figure out the images? I've been trying and it's driving me nuts.

A few months ago, Paper Mill sent out a questionnaire to its subscribers asking whether they'd be interested in any of the following shows for its coming season: "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas," "Singin' in the Rain," "Curtains," "Once on This Island," "Emma," "Dracula" (the play, not musical), and "Boeing-Boeing."

To figure out the first image, you need to know which city is being depicted. After debating which city it was, an anonymous poster below said the image was of Baltimore. And low and behind, it is! In fact, I found the image on the following Baltimore website: http://www.kilduffs.com/Buildings.html. So it's "Good Morning Baltimore," and Hello "Hairspray." Good choice!

Who's that big guy in the second image? A hobo? Tevye? Fagin? No, it's Jean Valjean, as someone below pointed out. Once I read the comment, I went online and found that the image is indeed the original illustration of Jean Valjean in Victor Hugo's 1862 novel. So it looks like "Les Miz" will live on one day more! But isn't there a moratorium on regional productions of "Les Miz" this year to make way for a new national tour? True, but chances are that the national tour itself will be playing Paper Mill.

The third image, a trophy, is a dead giveaway for "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee." Can you think of any other musical that involves a trophy?

The fourth image, of the happy-sad drama faces, is obviously "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum." (Paper Mill was originally going to produce "Forum" this season, but that slot was later replaced by the less costly revue "Smokey Joe's Cafe.")

My guess on the fifth image would be either "City of Angels" or "Curtains." Probably the latter, though I'd prefer the former. Look at how it brings together the noir hat (the detective character) and the files of papers (Stine the writer? the composers of "Curtains"?). Paper Mill has already indicated interest in producing "Curtains."

Let's assume the lineup is "Hairspray," "Les Miz," "Spelling Bee," "Forum" and "Curtains." For the first time in memory, the Paper Mill season will be totally devoid of a non-musical. But is that really a bad thing? The place is so large that it's difficult to produce anything but a really large-scale drama. (I remember seeing adaptations of "Wuthering Heights" and "Great Expectations" when I was young.) Plus, the non-musicals apparently do not sell well. So Paper Mill is probably better off adding a small musical like "Spelling Bee" instead of a play.

The lineup is only 5 shows instead of 6. Prior to the recession, the theater produced 6 shows annually. But I don't really consider this a big deal. I'd rather see a series of 5 shows that includes big musicals like "Hairspray" and "Les Miz" than 6 shows made up primarily of less costly titles (i.e. Paper Mill producing "Romance, Romance" in 2007.)

I'd also point out that with the sole exception of "Forum," it is a season made up of contemporary musicals. Exactly two years ago, "Hairspray," "Les Miz," "Spelling Bee" and "Curtains" were all running on Broadway. Is it too soon to bring them back? I don't think so. "Hairspray," "Les Miz" and "Spelling Bee" are all superb musicals that I'd be glad to see again, especially in entirely new stagings. And while I found "Curtains" kind of lackluster when I reviewed it three years ago, it is the most unusual choice among the five shows. And perhaps the musical will shine if given a better staging than the tepid one it received from Scott Ellis. Can they get Elaine Stritch to play the Debra Monk role? Gregg Edelman for the David Hyde Pierce detective role?

And "Forum" will represent the first Sondheim show to play the Paper Mill in a very long time. Richard Kind as Pseudalus perhaps?

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Sleep with Me Tonight, Go to Sea Tomorrow: The Abundance of Sex in "Fanny"

City Center's respectful staging of the 1954 musical "Fanny" left me thinking about two things in particular. One was Harold Rome's under appreciated melodic score; the other was the overabundance of sex in the show. This is not to say that there is any lewdness or graphic content in the show. Not at all. It's a polite, lighthearted 1950s musical comedy. It's so family friendly as to include a multitude of children's birthday parties and a totally unnecessary circus scene. But the sex is there too. But what really intrigues me is how the sex is treated in such a totally guiltless way. Perhaps the book, often criticized as overstuffed with plot, was actually ahead of its time for its carefree sexual politics. Perhaps it's the French setting. (And to think that so many critics complained that the concert revival didn't feel French enough!)

Let's start with Fanny's mother. At first, she believes that Panisse wants to marry her, and not her young daughter. When she learns the truth from Panisse, she's perhaps a bit disappointed, but she's not completely turned off from the idea. If Fanny approves, she'll go along with it too. I find this kind of disturbing. Perhaps she's thinking that she'll still get her hands on some of Panisse's money by being his mother-in-law in lieu of his wife.

Then there's Fanny. She is desperately head over heels for Marius. Everyone apparently knows it. During a dance scene, she grabs him and kisses him, no longer able to contain herself. A few hours later, she confesses her love (in song, of course) in as straightforward and direct a manner as possible. She is shot down by Marius, with him explaining that he's more attracted to the open sea than to her virgin arms. But Fanny won't take no for an answer. She'll even compromise. She asks him to sleep with her that night before he takes off. No guilt. No responsibility. Take me now, and then go off and have fun on the high sea.

Is Fanny's pregnancy a punishment for her promiscuity? Not really. She can't have Marius, but she now gets a sort of souvenir, in the form of his child. Further, she gets totally saved by Panisse, who is thrilled as can be to take care of her forthcoming child, just so long as he can take credit for it. He won't let the neighborhood know that she lost her virginity to Marius. She's not getting punished, but rather rewarded for having sex with Marius. Sure, she's still dreaming of Marius at her wedding. But things could be a lot worse.

And then there are the old men. In Act One, it's revealed that Cesar is off to have a sexual tryst with a Spanish gal. His friends look dumbfounded. Not so much that he is off to do the gal, but that she happens to be Spanish. Is that a bad thing? In any case, even he's getting laid. Good for him. It even inspires him to sing a clever song about the small joys of returning home.

But the most interesting sex scenario occurs at the ending. With Panisse suddenly dead, Fanny is now getting everything on a silver platter. Panisse is literally asking Marius to marry Fanny, knowing that they are in love. No guilt! Plus she, her son and Marius will get to keep all of Panisse's money. But just in case we feel bad for poor Panisse, in a completely unnecessary and random confession, he reveals to a priest that while he has not pressured Fanny into having sex with him, he has been cheating on her with a cute redhead. He committed adultery! Even if Fanny was in love with Marius, even if she momentarily embraced Marius on her son's first birthday, they managed to restrain themselves from going any further. She's a good girl. And now she'll be rewarded with lots of money and sex. It's one hell of a happy ending.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Fanny

Years ago, before I ever heard the score of the largely neglected 1954 Harold Rome musical "Fanny," it was described to me by an aging theater director as a show that would "make the entire (expletive) audience cry." Truth be told, I didn't notice too many Encores! subscribers bringing out tissues to wipe away their tears, but that is not to say that Rome's frequently sweeping melodies didn't manage to tug at our heartstrings. The romantic and repetitive title song, so direct and simple in its emotional appeal, so melodically lush, is difficult to ignore.

David Merrick's fearless determination to produce a musical based on Marcel Pagnol's trilogy is well chronicled in "The Abominable Showman," Howard Kissel's excellent bio on Merrick, including how he showed up at Pagnol's doorstep in France to beg for the stage rights. Once acquired, Rodgers & Hammerstein would only agree to write the score of Merrick did not receive lead producing credit. Merrick, always the egotist and eager to make a name for himself, didn't acquiesce. (Hammerstein was said to later regret not writing "Fanny.")

Rome, whose handful of musicals also includes the popular Depression revue "Pins and Needles," "I Can Get It For You Wholesale," "Destry Rides Again," "Call Me Mister," and "Wish You Were Here," is largely forgotten today since none of these shows ever achieved "classic" (i.e. revivable) status. Still, his music is charismatic and easily likable, and his lyrics are character-specific, sometimes effectively simplistic (title song of "Fanny"), and just as often quite surprising ("Welcome Home" in "Fanny"). "Fanny" is probably his strongest score, and I don't foresee Encores! performing any of his other shows anytime soon.

I'd describe the musical as "Carousel" meets "Grumpy Old Men" with a circus scene randomly thrown in somewhere. Set in Marseille, Fanny is a sweet young girl hopelessly in love with Marius, who is more attracted to the wide open sea than the opposite sex. The Admirable, a devilish, super creepy sailor with a habit of suddenly materializing out of thin air, tries to egg Marius into joining him on a nearby ship that is set for a five-year voyage. So rather than lose Marius entirely, Fanny essentially agrees to let Marius take her virginity and then sail away and achieve his dream the very next morning. Fanny's saucy mother, understandably less than thrilled to learn of her daughter's pregnancy, eggs her to marry Panisse, a newly-widowed, extremely rich older man who has already been proposing to the young girl on a daily basis. Panisse has a long-term, love-hate friendship with Marius' father Cesar, who had wanted Marius to marry Fanny, and practically disowns Marius after he abandons his family.

Act Two, which is set on several birthdays of Fanny and Panisse's son, observes surprise encounters between affluent but passionless Fanny and hard-luck, frustrated Marius. The solution? Kill off Panisse, which allows Fanny to marry Marius and get laid again while being able to keep her son and all of Panisse's money. Panisse even suggests this fate. But just to make sure the audience doesn't feel too bad for him, he reveals to a priest on his deathbed that he's been cheating on Fanny with another woman. Bastard!

Marc Bruni, a longtime associate director on Broadway musicals such as "Legally Blonde" and "Grease," finally stands on his own with his staging of "Fanny," which is sincerely romantic and vocally powerful, if not quite dramatically effective or representative of the beloved Encores! series at its very best. (It is, of course, incredibly better than the recent Encores! staging of "Girl Crazy," which was a total misfire.) The musical's book, by S.N. Behrman and original director Joshua Logan, adapted from Pagnol, is so jam-packed with plot that it feels even more superficial in David Ives' somewhat condensed revision. And while the original book is admittedly lighthearted, Bruni's cast plays it up for laughs a bit too often and aggressively. But the story itself is still moving, and the score is certainly a treat.

I think the production's biggest problem is the (mis)casting of Elena Shaddow as Fanny, who is not believable as an 18-year-old girl, and overplays the desperacy of Fanny's emotions. Still, she has a golden soprano voice that is perfectly suited to the score. (For a far better performance, watch Leslie Caron in the 1961 film version, which kept the musical's book intact but deleted all the songs.) On the other hand, the ultra-handsome James Snyder, who played the Johnny Depp character in the flop musical version of the film "Cry-Baby," gives a simplistic but admittedly effective performance as the eternally longing, immature Marius.

And what of the adults? Priscilla Lopez, who entered the cast late in the game to replace an ill Rondi Reed as Fanny's mother, is a bit too attractive for the role. (We are supposed to think that she is foolish for initially thinking that Panisse would want to propose to her, and not Fanny.) George Hearn, who is making his first appearance in an Encores! show, projects a frailty as Cesar that one would not have expected of the man who went to emotional extremes in "Sweeney Todd" and wardrobe extremes in "La Cage Aux Folles." Hearn is in excellent voice, though he relied a bit too much on his script, even for his character's solo songs.

The best performance in the cast comes from Fred Applegate, who played Inspector Kemp and the Blind Hermit in "Young Frankenstein," but is better known as one of the many replacements for Nathan Lane in "The Producers." His songs, which are not exactly the best in the score ("Panisse and Son," "To My Wife"), unexpectedly turn into showstoppers thanks to his liveliness and generous spirit.

In a behind-the-scenes video interview with BroadwayWorld.com, James Snyder suggested turning the title song of "Fanny" into a drinking game: take a drink every time that Marius says "Fanny." Call me crazy, but I actually think this would be a wonderful way to increase the musical's popularity. In fact, I'm playing it now.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Betty Buckley and Christine Ebersole


Though virtually nothing opened on or Off-Broadway this week, Broadway divas Betty Buckley and Christine Ebersole braced the cold weather and premiered smashing new nightclub acts at Feinstein's and the Carlyle, respectively. Both shows make you feel as if you are watching a master class in vocal performance.

In the past, Buckley has devoted her cabaret shows to rarities from jazz and country singer-songwriters, which apparently drew complaints from irate fans who expected her to perform more familiar Broadway material. Her new show, "For the Love of Broadway!," is a wide collection of musical theater songs that she has not previously performed in public, ranging from Rodgers & Hammerstein to more modern fare like "Avenue Q" and "The Wiz."

Buckley's full-powered belting is on full display, but so is her sensitive delivery of lyrics and passionate acting. Her burning interpretation of "Come to Me," Bend to Me" from "Brigadoon" is nothing short of breathtaking. And she manages to bring new humor to "There's a Fine, Fine Line," the only serious song in "Avenue Q."

Christine Ebersole, now making her third engagement at the Carlyle, presents an eclectic program designed to cover "sex, politics, religion and the weather," including classics like "Too Darn Hot," "Stormy Weather" and "On the Sunny Side of the Street."

Directed by songwriter Scott Wittman, it is a consistently entertaining show that is noticeably well-paced. Just as in the recent Broadway musical "Grey Gardens," it's thrilling to watch how Ebersole quickly moves from giddy clowning to heartbroken emotionality with consistently excellent voice.

Betty Buckley performs as Feinstein's at Loews Regency, 540 Park Ave., 212-339-4095, through Feb. 27. Christine Ebersole performs at the Café Carlyle, 35 E. 76th St., 212-744-1600, through Feb. 20.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

If It Only Even Runs a Minute


"If It Only Even Runs a Minute," the premiere of what is intended to be a series of concerts dedicated to songs from flop musicals (not unlike Jamie McGonnigal's "Flopz" series at Joe's Pub), took place at the Laurie Beechman Theatre on Sunday night, January 31. It featured a large cast cast mixed with unknown and well-known performers, in addition to composers and original cast members, roaming through their favorite selections from notorious flop musicals - in addition to one extremely notorious flop movie musical (i.e. "Grease 2").

The event was created and produced by my friend Jennifer Ashley Tepper and Kevin Michael Murphy, who also acted as hosts. Sitting to the side of the stage, they provided historical commentary on the featured shows in a manner quite similar to Scott Siegel at Broadway By the Year. But unlike BBTY, their show also utilized slide show projections of original Playbill covers and production photos in the background. Pauses were frequently taken in between songs for reminiscing from the likes of Nancy Anderson, who remembered playing a sexual harassment prank on the late Patrick Quinn while in rehearsals for "A Class Act," Mana Allen, who recalled how the final callback for the musical "Smile" was staged as an all-day beauty pageant, and composer Craig Carnelia, who spoke about "The Sweet Smell of Success" and "Is There Life After High School?."

At a length of over two hours, the concert went on a bit too long for a cabaret show with no intermission break. At future concerts, I'd recommend performing 12 instead of 16 songs, or at least making sure that the guest speakers keep it short and sweet. But then again, for an audience composed mainly of musical theater geeks obsessed with flop musicals, the concert could have probably lasted all night without complaint. I would have gladly stuck around longer to hear something from "Dance of the Vampires" or "Carrie."

The highlights of the concert were vibrant and plentiful: Megan Sikora performing "Cool Rider" from "Grease 2," with what appeared to be the original choreography of the film, Nancy Anderson reprising the sexually-laced song "Mona" from "A Class Act," Heidi Blickenstaff's superb "Sing Happy" from "Flora the Red Menace," and Nick Blaemire's laid-back, sincere "I Chose Right" from "Baby." A quartet of contemporary musical theater songwriters - Joe Iconis, Benj Pasek, Adam Gwon, Brian Lowdermilk- came together to sing "Good Old Glory Type Days" from "Glory Days." And in a surprise appearance, Jennifer Tepper's little sister Jessica Kent, who is supposedly in town to audition for NYU's musical theater program, filled in as a last-minute replacement for Jaclyn Huberman and sang "Disneyland" from "Smile."

I look forward to the series' next offering. The entire program is below.

1. Jay Armstrong Johnson- You Are So Beyond, Marilyn An American Fable
2. Autumn Hurlbert-Lila Tremaine, Fade Out-Fade In
3. Nancy Anderson-Mona, A Class Act
4. Michael Kadin Craig- At the Fountain, Sweet Smell of Success
5. Jessica Kent-Disneyland, Smile
6. Jason Williams, MK Lawson- Paula (An Improvised Love Song), The Goodbye Girl
7. Lisa Brescia- Nothing Really Happened, is there life after high school?
8. Melanie Field- I’ve Never Said I Love You, Dear World
9. Kevin Michael Murphy- An Ordinary Guy, Amour
10. Katrina Rose Dideriksen- So Long Dude, Dude
11. Megan Sikora- Cool Rider, Grease 2
12. Jay Aubrey Jones- There’s A Room In My House, A Family Affair
13. Mary Jo Mecca & Marcy McGuigan- Grass Is Always Greener, Woman of the Year
14. Nick Blaemire- I Chose Right, Baby
15. Joe Iconis, Benj Pasek, Adam Gwon, Brian Lowdermilk- Good Old Glory Type Days, Glory Days
16. Heidi Blickenstaff- Sing Happy, Flora The Red Menace