Thursday, March 25, 2010

Come Fly Away


"Come Fly Away," Twyla Tharp's new dance musical inspired by the vocal recordings and nightclub style of Frank Sinatra, would probably make ideal cruise ship entertainment. But if you are looking for an engaging story and not simply an overproduced, two-hour dance recital, you had better look elsewhere.

Tharp is best known on Broadway for staging the hit Billy Joel musical "Movin' Out," which was quickly followed by the disastrous Bob Dylan flop "The Times They Are A-Changin'."

"Come Fly Away" expands upon Tharp's earlier ballets like "Sinatra Suite" and "Nine Sinatra Songs" by adding a live 19-person band to compliment Sinatra's recorded singing voice.

The featured hit parade of Sinatra classics includes "Fly Me to the Moon," "My Way," "Witchcraft" and "That's Life." A female jazz vocalist occasionally performs too, and even duets with the absent Sinatra.

The wordless spectacle is set in a glitzy but fancy ballroom where four nameless couples meet and greet and make romantic overtures. While Act 1 introduces the character relationships in a series of vignettes, Act 2 forgoes storytelling altogether and goes for an after hours, openly erotic tone.

By using Sinatra merely for decorative mood music, "Come Fly Away" lacks the raw passion and youthful energy that made "Movin' Out' so stunning.

Tharp's intense choreography seamlessly combines ballet, ballroom and modern dance, but feels repetitive within such a loosely-constructed concept.

The 15 dancers who make up the cast emit a strong sexual fire. Holley Farmer stands out as a seductive, man-hungry diva, while Charlie Neshyba-Hodges and Laura Mead are cute together as the slapstick comedy couple. John Selya and Keith Roberts, who appeared in "Movin' Out," are also impressive.

"Come Fly Away" plays an open-run at the Marquis Theatre.
1535 Broadway, 212-307-4100, comeflyaway.com.

The Broadway Musicals of 1948


It wasn't quite Dolly Levi returning to the Harmonia Gardens, but it felt that way. You see, I hadn't attended a Town Hall/Broadway By the Year concert since October, having unfortunately missed out on the "Broadway Unplugged" and "Broadway By the Year 1927" concerts, the latter of which was unanimously praised last month.

The "Broadway By the Year" series, hosted by Scott Siegel, has been consistently excellent in recent years. And unlike last season, this year's lineup of featured years is quite strong. And while I am still regretful at having missed out on "BBTY 1927," which featured "Show Boat" and "Good News," "BBTY 1948" was a pretty strong year too. Three words: "Kiss Me, Kate."

No less than seven songs from "Kiss Me, Kate" were included in "BBTY 1927," which was staged by no less than Stuart Ross, director of last season's hit Off-Broadway revival of "Enter Laughing" and the creator of "Forever Plaid." But the irony is that even seven songs from "Kiss Me, Kate," Cole Porter perential backstage musical comedy, isn't quite enough. Sure, they got in "Another Op'nin, Another Show," "Where Is the Life That Late I Led?," "So in Love," "Brush Up Your Shakespeare," "Were Thine That Special Face," and "Too Darn Hat." But what about "Why Can't You Behave?," "Tom, Dick or Harry," and "Always True to You"?

Even if we were served only half of "Kiss Me Kate," every bit of it tasted like filet mignon. It's a bit cliche to open a show with the ensemlbe immediately blaring into "Another Op'nin, Another Show," but how could you not? Jeffry Denman choregraphed and performed in absolutely smashing versions of "Brush Up Your Shakespeare" (with his excellent "Yank!" co-star Bobby Steggert, both in comedic film noir gangster mode) and "Too Darn Hot" (with his similarly talented wife Erin Denman). William Michals, who is currently playing Emilie de Becque in "South Pacific," switched from Enzio Pinza into Alfred Drake mode and delivered golden baritone renditions of "Where Is the Life That Late I Led?," "So in Love," and "Were Thine That Special Face."

In addition to indulging in "Kiss Me, Kate," "BBTY 1948" offered an opportunity to take a new look at Frank Loesser's "Where's Charley?" and Kurt Weill's "Love Life," which is still considered one of the first concept musicals (a married couple never ages and moves through 150 years of American history).

"Where's Charley?," originally a star vehicle for Ray Bolger, is now kind of stodgy as a show, but its three best songs were performed. Noah Racey (who performed in the Goodspeed revival) gave a full song-and-dance-and-cain performance of the audience favorite "Once in Love With Amy." Josh Grisetti, who was a laugh riot in "Enter Laughing" (but recently robbed of his Broadway debut in "Broadway Bound," though not according to his program bio), performed "Make a Miracle" with Farah Alvin and "The New Ashmolean Marching Society and Students' Conservatory Band" with Bobby Steggert, during which kazoos were passed out amongst the audience. (And I got one too! Hooray for me!)

Kristin Dausch, who previously appeared in the Broadway's Rising Stars series at Town Hall and recently played Fanny Brice in "Funny Girl" regionally at Lyric Stage, was like a bundle of musical theater dynamite igniting in "Economics" and "Mr. Right." Other selections from "Love Life" included "I Remember It Well" (an earlier version of the "Gigi" classic, peformed by Steggert and Alvin) and "Is It Him Or Is It Me?" (Alvin).

The remainder of the evening came from long forgotten musicals such as "Lend Me an Ear" (though "Neurotic You and Psychopathic Me" inspired Jeffry Denman to play Sigmund Freud with a paper beard), "Inside U.S.A." (Josh Grisetti performed the nightclub comedy classic "Rhode Island is Famous For You"), "As the Girls Go," and "Magdalena."

Singer-songwriter Melissa Manchester, a rather unusual addition to the ensemble cast, gave hippy-happy renditions of "Haunted Heart" from "Inside U.S.A." and "From This Moment On" from "Kiss Me, Kate." As Scott Siegel surely knows, "From This Moment On" was not written for "Kiss Me, Kate," though it was interpolated into the 1950s film version and 1990s Broadway revival. Still, not a big deal.

The next concert in the series will be "BBTY 1966," featuring songs from "Sweet Charity," "Mame," "Cabaret," "The Apple Tree," and "I Do! I Do!." Now that's a lineup. I'll see you there.

Below is a full song list from "BBTY 1948":

Act I
Another Op'nin', Another Show (Kiss Me, Kate) Farah Alvin, Josh Grisetti, William Michals, John Easterlin, Kristen Dausch, Erin Denman, Jeffry Denman, Bobby Steggert
Where Is The Life That Late I Led? (Kiss Me, Kate) William Michals
Neurotic You And Psychopathic Me (Lend An Ear) Erin Denman & Jeffry Denman
Economics (Love Life) Kristin Dausch
Make A Miracle (Where's Charley?) Josh Grisetti & Farah Alvin
Pernambuco (Where's Charley?) John Easterlin
It Takes A Woman To Take A Man (As The Girls Go) Kristen Dausch, Farah Alvin, Erin Denman
Nobody's Heart But Mine (As The Girls Go) Bobby Steggert
Rhode Island Is Famous For You (Inside U.S.A.) Josh Grisetti
Haunted Heart (Inside U.S.A.) Melissa Manchester
So In Love (Kiss Me, Kate) William Michals
Once In Love With Amy (Where's Charley?) Noah Racey

Act II
The New Ashmolean Marching Society And Students' Conservatory Band (Where's Charley?) Josh Grisetti & Bobby Steggert
Give Your Heart A Chance To Sing (Lend An Ear) Erin Denman, Kristin Dausch, Farah Ivin
The Emerald (Magdalena) John Easterlin
I Remember It Well (Love Life) Bobby Steggert & Farah Alvin
Mr. Right (Love Life) Kristin Dausch
Is It Him Or Is It Me? (Love Life) Farah Alvin
Brush Up Your Shakespeare (Kiss Me, Kate) Jeffry Denman & Bobby Steggert, Choreography By Jeffry Denman
From This Moment On (Kiss Me, Kate) Melissa Manchester
Schraffts (Make Mine Manhattan) John Easterlin
Were Thine That Special Face (Kiss Me, Kate) William Michalls
Too Darn Hot (Kiss Me, Kate) Jeffry Denman & Erin Denman, Choreography By Erin & Jeffry Denman
Another Op'nin', Another Show (Kiss Me, Kate) Company

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Glass Menagerie


Unconventional staging concepts, no matter how clever or cute, can easily get lost in translation. Such is the case with Gordon Edelstein's flawed Off-Broadway revival of "The Glass Menagerie," Tennessee Williams' 1944 autobiographical memory play.

Tom Wingfield, an obvious stand-in for Williams himself, directly addresses the audience and recollects living in a cramped apartment with his domineering mother Amanda and painfully shy, slightly crippled sister Laura. Unexpected drama occurs when Tom, at his mother's urging, brings a co-worker to dinner as a potential suitor for Laura.

In Edelstein's production, the play is set not in the family's St. Louis apartment, but a dark, lonely motel room where Tom, now an alcoholic author, is in the midst of writing "The Glass Menagerie."

We proceed to watch the play through Tom's eyes as his mother and sister suddenly materialize out of his memories. He alternates between pounding away on a typewriter and carrying on dialogue with other characters.

While Edelstein's concept builds upon the play's structure as a flashback, it is inherently problematic and unnecessarily distracting. When Tom is supposed to exit, he awkwardly remains onstage while his mother and sister pretend that he is gone. Tom's motel room is also missing a fire escape and alleyway, where several scenes are supposed to take place.

The pace is painfully slow due to excessive pausing, making the play run three hours in length. The production only comes alive in an intimate scene between Laura and her "gentleman caller," which is gorgeously presented with candlelight.

As the family matriarch, Judith Ivey has a natural southern touch. She portrays portrays Amanda as a pragmatic, painfully optimistic cheerleader instead of a ridiculous, faded belle of the ball.

Keira Keeley is believably fragile as Laura, but a high-pitched Patch Darragh overaccentuates Tom's repressed homosexuality with excessive flamboyance.

"The Glass Menagerie" plays at the Laura Pels Theatre through May 20.
111 W. 46th St., 212-719-1300, roundabouttheatre.org.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

All About Me


It originally sounded like such a cute and kooky idea: pairing posh singer-pianist Michael Feinstein with Dame Edna Everage, the outrageous drag creation of Australian comedian Barry Humphries. But even the best performers can get sidetracked by terrible execution.

"All About Me," the duo's mindless, dysfunctional 90-minute cabaret act, has turned out to be the biggest disaster of the Broadway season. It makes a typical Vegas act look like "Oklahoma!" by comparison.

In a lame PR stunt a few months ago, each performer announced a solo show under a similar title and then supposedly agreed to mount one show together due a shortage of theaters. Similarly, "All About Me" begins under the lame and labored premise that Feinstein and Everage were each unaware that they were going to perform together.

After Feinstein bores the audience with a medley classic songs and awkward chitchat, Everage makes a big entrance and has her beefy backup dancers eject Feinstein from the theater. Until he returns 15 minutes later, Everage offers topical jokes and her trademark act of making fun of audience members. This turns out to be the only enjoyable part of the show.

Under a truce worked out by a butch female stage manager, Feinstein and Edna take turns entertaining the audience. While Feinstein offers ramdom bits of Great American Songbook trivia, Everage delivers ridiculous, off-key renditions of Beyoncé's "Single Ladies" and Sondheim's "The Ladies Who Lunch."

Unlike at his cabaret shows, Feinstein looks tense and uncomfortable throughout "All About Me," as if strained by the bad concept. Compared with Everage's clownish spirit, Feinstein is like a soggy blanket.

Under a different set of circumstances, this unique combination might have sparked something special. Instead, "All About Me" feels like a misconceived blunder of painful proportions.

"All About Me" plays at Henry Miller's Theatre.
124 W. 43rd St., 212-239-6200, allaboutmebroadway.com. Open run.

The Book of Grace



Susan-Lori Parks, the experimental playwright best known
for her gritty, Pulitzer-winning drama "Topdog/Underdog," is finally back at the Public Theater with "The Book of Grace," her first Off-Broadway play in eight years. Though occasionally intriguing and proudly unconventional, the 90-minute, three-actor drama feels like an unfinished and incoherent mess.

"The Book of Grace," examines a dysfunctional family in South Texas consisting of Vet (John Doman), an abusive father and an obsessive border patrol agent; Grace (Elizabeth Marvel), his bravely optimistic wife, who alternates between working as a waitress and writing in a hidden scrapbook that recalls "good things"; and Vet's son Buddy (Amari Cheatom), who just returned from the army and refers to himself as "Snake."

While Buddy makes a video journal revealing his intent to kill Vet in a suicide bombing, Grace suspects that Vet intends to murder her and bury her in a hole on the lawn. We won't spoil the ending, but it's so arbitrary that it almost feels as if Parks simply decided to stop writing at that point.

The play consists mainly of creepy moments alongside rough verse, video projections and voiceovers. For instance, when Buddy first returns, he and his stepmother immediately start having sex. But according to the story, Grace has not seen Buddy since he was 10 years old. How do you explain that?

James Macdonald's intimate production is visually attractive, and Marvel gives a characteristically intense performance, but "The Book of Grace" remains too unconvincing and undercooked.

"The Book of Grace" plays at The Public Theater.
425 Lafayette St., 212-967-7555.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

How will the City Center renovation affect the Encores! series?

The original press release and New York Times article regarding the extensive renovations at City Center did not explain how the Encores! series will be affected, so I wrote back to a City Center press agent to ask. I received the following answer:

"Because the renovation work is scheduled over two extended summer periods, City Center’s regular Encores! season will continue without interruption; however, we will not have a summer show during the summer of 2010 or 2011."

I'm glad the renovation will finally happen. I love the space. But as anyone who has sat in the grand tier or balcony knows, the place desperately needs improved sightlines and an overall fixer-upper. And I don't think the loss of the Encores! Summer Stars series is a big deal, which fizzled out last summer with "The Wiz" starring Ashanti. Perhaps in 2012 the series will return with Patti LuPone as Dolly.

Speaking of Encores!, it was announced today that Raul Esparza will join Sutton Foster and Donna Murphy in "Anyone Can Whistle" next month. Can't wait!!

Monday, March 15, 2010

God of Carnage

It didn't take too long for "God of Carnage" to get its groove back. The play's third cast has managed to bring Matthew Warchus' production back to the original level of relentless hilarity and nonstop entertainment it had when the play premiered exactly one year ago.

In Yasmina Reza's 90-minute comedy of bad manners, two sets of local parents unexpectedly explode into rage and childish behavior after unsuccessfully trying to politely discuss a schoolyard fight that arose between their 11-year-old sons. In other words, all hell breaks loose. Though the play itself is sharp and very funny, it is highly physical and difficult to perform.

When Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis, James Gandolfini and Marcia Gay Harden premiered in the show about a year ago, "God of Carnage" was the hottest ticket in town. But when Christine Lahti, Annie Potts, Jimmy Smits and Ken Stott briefly took over, it stopped working. The production was certainly not bad, but far more tame and less believable. The actors were individually competent, but never came together as an ensemble.

The new cast is a mix of alumni and newcomers. Daniels, who originated the role of self-absorbed lawyer Allen, has switched over to playing wholesale dealer Michael. His character's sudden transformation from polite, meek mouse into roaring, unapologetic neanderthal is a bit rushed, but the role fits him like a glove.

Janet McTeer, who originated the role of liberal, Darfur-obsessed writer Veronica in the London production, is wide-eyed, wonderfully expressive and unexpectedly ferocious.

Joining them are Lucy Liu and Dylan Baker. As housewife Annette, the modelesque Liu comes across as a trophy wife who turns dangerous once she can no longer tolerate her husband's constant cell phone usage. Baker, meanwhile, is convincingly snarky and condescending.

"God of Carnage" plays at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre. 242 W. 45th St., 212-239-6200, godofcarnage.com.

Sondheim: The Birthday Concert

It feels like it was only yesterday that theater celebs like Patti LuPone, George Hearn, Michael Cerveris, Laura Benanti and Elaine Stritch were gathering to pay tribute to Stephen Sondheim's 75th birthday at Symphony Space and the New Amsterdam Theatre. Well, actually that was five years ago. So now it's time for another batch of "Happy BirthCheck Spellingday, Steve!" events, with great singers performing alongside a big orchestra. Hey, no complaints from me or from any other Sondheim junkies.

In the five years in between the 75th and 80th birthday concerts, Broadway has received revivals of "Sweeney Todd," "Company," Sunday in the Park with George" and "A Little Night Music" with extremely pared down orchestras. I happened to like all these revivals, but I do really miss hearing Sondheim's scores with a full orchestra. And perhaps that's why these opportunities to hear songs like "A Little Priest," "The Ladies Who Lunch" and "Move On" with a full orchestra have become even more rare and important.

"Sondheim: The Birthday Concert" premiered tonight, Monday, March 15, at the New York Philharmonic, and will be repeated tomorrow night too. Tonight's performance was filmed for PBS, to be broadcast at a later date. (I'm guessing it'll be part of the next pledge drive.) Except for a few minor glitches, the concert (directed by Lonny Price and conducted by Paul Gemignani) was truly wonderful, musically rich and consistently entertaining. Among the scores highlighted, "Follies" received an unusually large amount of attention, while "Assassins," "Pacific Overtures," "Passion," "Road Show/Bounce," "Anyone Can Whistle" and "Gyspy" were neglected entirely.

After Paul Gemignani took the stage, the orchestra jumped into the "Swing your razor" motif from "Sweeney Todd," only to have David Hyde Pierce leap onstage to beg Gemignani to start with something more festive. As the overture continued, the cast arrived onstage one by one, acting as if they were arriving for a birthday party. (The stage was marked by a giant red birthday present ribbon.) The title of the overture, which combined pieces of many different songs, was apparently titled "Happy Birthday Steve, now I don't need to give you a present."

Pierce, acting as host, was more annoying than affable. I don't know who came up with the idea of him constantly suggesting that Sondheim's songs should be sung in different languages (a la "West Side Story"), but it got less and less funny as the evening went along. (Perhaps that would have actually been in the case if Arthur Laurents directed the concert. Let's be very glad he didn't.) At while he was a fine singer in "Curtains," he should not be allowed to sing "Beautiful Girls."

Karen Olivo and the Shark Girls from the "West Side Story" revival performed "America" in costume, with a slightly reconfigured version of the choreography to suit the Philharmonic stage.

Then, as if by necessity, rare Sondheim songs were performed from "Do I Hear a Waltz?" and "Hot Spot." Not too much fun.

Jonathan Tunick then announced that the next few songs would highlight Sondheim's 1970s shows. He claimed their quality is "unsurpassed." Nathan Gunn gave an operatic rendition of "Johanna," to be followed by him joining Audra McDonald in "Too Many Mornings. Matt Cavenaugh, Jenn Collela, Bobby Steggert and Laura Osnes came together for "You're Gonna Love Tomorrow." John McMartin reprised his "Follies" performance with "The Road You Didn't Take."

The theme of original cast members returning continued with Chip Zien and Joanna Gleason reprising their roles as Baker and Baker's Wife with the delightful duet "It Takes Two." Mandy Patinkin, clad entirely in black, performed "Finishing the Hat" with more vibrato and louder projection than he did in the original Broadway production. In a glorious moment, Bernadette Peters joined him in "Move On."

In one of the evening's most amusing moments, George Hearn, Michael Cerveris and Patti LuPone all arrived onstage at once with the opening of "The Worst Pies in London" playing in the background. LuPone, seeing both, left them to duke it out. Hearn took a seat, learning Cerveris to shave him in "Pretty Women," with Cerveris as Sweeney and Hearn as Judge Turpin. LuPone, returning, performed "A Little Priest" with both men. It was great, but where was Angie??

Act Two began with two dancers performing with music Sondheim wrote for Warren Beatty's film "Reds" in the background. (Waste of time? Eh.) Laura Benanti delivers a gentle, piano-only "So Many People in the World" from "Saturday Night."

While Pierce butchers "Beautiful Girls," six of Sondheim's women enter, all in red: Patti LuPone, Elaine Stritch, Marin Mazzie, Donna Murphy, Audra McDonald and Bernadette Peters. They all sit down and then take turns singing a solo.

LuPone begins with a conversational rendition of "The Ladies Who Lunch," which ended with Stritch giving her a tight hug. Precious, heartwarming stuff. Mazzie then gave one of the fiercest performances of "Losing My Mind" I've ever seen. She's certainly the most beautiful woman I've ever seen perform it, giving the song a real 1940s femme fatale feel. (Is she doing anything in May 2011? Will she be in Washington, DC? I hope so...) Audra followed with the solo version of "The Glamorous Life" from the film version of "A Little Night Music," nailing this hard soprano song that was meant for a little girl. Donna Murphy reprised her lauded Encores! performance in "Follies" with "Could I Leave you?."

And then the mini-series ended with a thud: Elaine Stritch making a mess of "I'm Still Here," performing about five to ten seconds behind the orchestra, getting totally lost at one point, forgetting lyrics, ad-libbing, and barking up a storm. But hey, the audience ate it up and gave her a standing ovation.

Finally, a giant chorus made up of actors littered not just the stage but the entire theater (on every level) with "Sunday." Sondheim, who was sitting on the aisle at the front of the orchestra, finally took the stage to the tune of "Happy Birthday." Noticeably crying, he offered not a speech but a single quote: "First you are young, then you are middle-aged, then you are wonderful."


Here is the full song list:

ACT ONE

Overture (bits of "Sweeney Todd," "Comedy Tonight," "Rich and Happy," "Old Friends," "Company," "Side by Side")

"America" - Karen Olivo and the Shark Girls
"We're Gonna Be Alright (from "Do I Hear a Waltz") - Marin Mazzie and Jason Danieley
"Don't Laugh" (from "Hot Spot") - Victoria Clark
"Johanna" (from "Sweeney Todd") - Nathan Gunn
"You're Gonna Love Tomorrow" (from "Follies") - Bobby Steggert, Laura Osnes, Matt Cavenaugh, Jenn Colella
"Too Many Mornings" (from "Follies") - Nathan Gunn and Audra McDonald
"The Road You Didn't Take" (from "Follies") - John McMartin
"It Takes Two" (from "Into the Woods") - Chip Zien and Joanna Gleason
"Finishing the Hat" (from "Sunday") - Mandy Patinkin
"Move On" (from "Sunday) - Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters
"Pretty Women" (from "Sweeney Todd") - Michael Cerveris and George Hearn
"A Little Priest" (from "Sweeney Todd") - Patti LuPone, Michael Cerveris, George Hearn

ACT TWO

"Goodbye for Now" (from the film "Reds") - performed by dancers Blaine Hoven and Maria Riccetto
"So Many People in the World" (from "Saturday Night") - Laura Benanti
"Beautiful Girls" (from "Follies") - David Hyde Pierce
"The Ladies Who Lunch" (from "Company") - Patti LuPone
"Losing My Mind" (from "Follies") - Marin Mazzie
"The Glamorous Life" (from film version of "A Little Night Music") - Audra McDonald
"Could I Leave You?" (from "Follies") - Donna Murphy
"Not a Day Goes By" (from "Merrily") - Bernadette Peters
"I'm Still Here" (from "Follies") - Elaine Stritch
"Sunday" (from "Sunday") - huge chorus

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Jason Robert Brown and Anika Noni Rose at Birdland

Being the Jason Robert Brown junkie that I am, I've attended countless concerts of his at Birdland over the past four years. (Jim Caruso joked that tonight marked JRB's 163rd performance there. Or at least I assumed he was joking.) While JRB's onstage energy is always outstanding, and he uses a rotating roster of different female guest stars, his songlist has remained fairly consistent and predictable. It's mainly been based on his solo album "Wearing Someone Else's Clothes," with additions from "The Last Five Years" and "Songs from a New World." He hardly ever performs anything from "Parade," which has songs that really don't make sense out of context. There have also been a few additions from his musicals "Thirteen" (usually "Being a Geek") and "Honeymoon in Vegas" (apparently still in development).


But that changed Sunday night, at the first of four new concerts at Birdland. For starters, he is joined by (for the first time to my knowledge) Anika Noni Rose, who brought a strong rhythm and blues sound and sexy edge to familiar songs like "Stars and the Moon" and "I Can Do Better Than That." Plus, JRB and his band, the Causcasian Rhythm Kings, were joined by the Caucasian Rhythm Section, two brass players who brought a richer sound than usual.

Yet that's not all. For the first time in years, JRB introduced a substantially new repertoire of songs, many of which he expects to record in his second, still untitled album. The songs contained the same catchy rhythms and personal lyrics of his earlier work, but I need a second listen before I can really assess them.

"Low Moral and High Prices," a musical suite containing no lyrics, opened the show. He mentioned that it is from an orchestra piece he is writing with Marsha Norman called "The Trumpet and the Swan." He described his next new song, "No Way Out," as his "(Bernie) Madoff dance hit." "Caravan of Angels" was said to be a "mushy and sentimental" song dedicated to his wife.

Since it's St. Patrick's Day time, "I Could Be in Love With Someone Like You" was performed. And "Someone to Fall Back On" closed the concert, as is usually the case.

Again, let me stress that Anika Noni Rose was stunning and ferocious, deliving incredibly high belting on many of the songs, including "Brand New You" from "Thirteen." Tonight really ranked among the best JRB concerts I've seen, including his performances at Le Jazz Au Bar in summer 2005 and Jazz at Lincoln Center in winter 2007.

Looped

The Broadway comedy "Looped" is technically not a one-woman show, but it may as well be. Matthew Lombardo's play is essentially a star-vehicle for Valerie Harper, who who played Rhoda on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and the spin-off "Rhoda." While Harper's performance is impressive, the play is just a collection of one-liners and innuendos constructed around a flimsy plot.


Harper plays notorious Hollywood legend Tallulah Bankhead, who is better remembered for her boozy, drugged-up personality and open bisexuality than her acting skills. The parallels between Bankhead and modern celebs like Lindsay Lohan are obvious.

The play is inspired by a true incident where it took the 63-year-old Bankhead eight hours to redub a single line of dialogue for the 1965 cult film "Die! Die! My Darling!" Bankhead is joined in the recording studio by the film's editor and sound engineer, who are less than happy with Bankhead's campy theatrics.

Bankhead's numerous zingers are dirty and delicious: “Cocaine isn’t habit-forming. I should know, I’ve been using it for years." "Of course I have a drinking problem. Whenever I'm not drinking? Oh, honey, it's a problem."

While Act 1 is full of lightweight humor, Act 2 turns into a confessional therapy session where the conservative film editor spills his repressed secrets and Bankhead admits she is terminally ill. It comes across as a contrived, failed attempt to make the play into something other than a stand-up comedy act.

Even so, Harper delivers a detailed performance that goes beyond a campy impersonation. In addition to Bankhead's husky voice and bombastic style, she captures a lurking sadness that keeps the character credibly grounded. Her co-star, Brian Hutchison, is pretty awful as the film editor, and Michael Mulheren is trapped behind a glass wall in the thankless role of the sound engineer.


Playing at the Lyceum Theatre.
149 W. 45th St., 212-239-6200, loopedtheplay.com.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Next Fall

One could easily mistake "Next Fall" for a new show written by or starring Elton John, whose name his splattered across the marquee. But look closer and you'll see that he and his life partner, David Furnish, are just part of its producing team.

In actuality, Geoffrey Naufft’s play is a relatively modest and sobering character study that received positive reviews when it premiered Off-Broadway last summer.

At first glance, the plot sounds like a gay update of Neil Simon's "The Odd Couple." Luke, an upbeat 30-year-old actor and devout Christian, forms a committed relationship with Adam, an older pessimist and atheist. The play takes place at Beth Israel Hospital, where Luke is in a coma following a car accident. His friends and family wait for updates on his condition.

In flashbacks, it is revealed that Adam is deeply uncomfortable with Luke's religious faith and that Luke has not confessed his sexual identity to his homophobic father. At the hospital, Adam is denied the right to even see Luke since he is technically not family.

While "Next Fall" is a rather quiet and modestly-scaled play, it reaches a dramatic peak when confronting the uncomfortable tension between religious faith, sexuality and family. At one point, Adam confronts Luke with the brutal observation that, "if Matthew Shepard hadn't accepted Jesus Christ before he died, he's in hell, and his killers who, say, have, are going to heaven."

Sheryl Kaller's production showcases sensitive performances that capture the heart and sadness inherent in the play.

"Next Fall" is playing an open-ended run at the Helen Hayes Theatre. 240 W. 44th St., 212-239-6200, nextfallbroadway.com.

The Scottsboro Boys

"The Scottsboro Boys," a brilliant and dangerous new musical by the legendary team of composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb, recounts the true story of nine black young men who were falsely accused of raping two white women in 1930s Alabama.


Instead of presenting the musical as a straightforward narrative, it is ominously framed as a burlesque minstrel show. It is similar in structure to other Kander & Ebb musicals like "Cabaret," which contrasts Hitler's rise to power with nightclub acts, and "Chicago," which presents a murder trial as a vaudeville. But unlike "Chicago," in "The Scottsboro Boys" the accused are innocent and Billy Flynn never comes to the rescue.

Except for John Cullum, who plays the minstrel ringleader, the cast consists entirely of black performers. Colman Domingo and Forrest McClendon portray a large number of roles including prison guards, attorneys and even the two white women who accuse the boys of rape.

The minstrel show concept is justified by the ironic notion that the only way these characters can share their story is through an inherently prejudiced form of entertainment. The legal system is being parodied as a cruel joke. Even the electric chair is turned into a tap number. Contrasting the wisecracks, slapstick, ragtime music and cakewalk dance steps with the gravity of the plot is extremely chilling.

While the book hits awkward patches in its attempt to connect the trial with the Civil Rights Movement, Susan Stroman's production is well-staged, her choreography is inventive, and the score is first-rate. John Cullum displays incredible presence and southern authenticity, and Brandon Victor Dixon stands out among the boys for his heartfelt performance.

Here's hoping "The Scottsboro Boys" receives the Broadway transfer it deserves.


"The Scottsboro Boys" plays at the Vineyard Theatre through April 18. 108 E. 15th St., 212-353-0303, vineyardtheatre.org.

Monday, March 8, 2010

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged)

A great production of "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged)" is almost as worthy of praise as that of a Shakespeare play. The Reduced Shakespeare Company, which first premiered the popular show in 1987, is back with a slightly revised version. Playing to a packed house of young kids, this irreverent, slapstick parody of the Bard has never felt so damn funny.

The fast-paced show observes the ambitious and ridiculous efforts of three guys to perform all 37 Shakespeare plays in 100 minutes. After offering a mangled biography of Shakespeare that confuses him with Adolph Hitler, the troupe condenses the comedies into a single plot about shipwrecked twins, the histories as a football game, "Othello" as a rap and "Titus Andronicus" as a cooking show.

Act 2 is devoted to tackling "Hamlet." The ghost of Hamlet's father is portrayed as a sock puppet, and the audience is invited to portray Ophelia's subconscious. When it is all over, the troupe offers encores that further reduce "Hamlet" to one minute and finally ten seconds.

Performing this difficult show demands extreme precision. Matt Rippy, the youngest of the trio, plays female roles such as Juliet and Ophelia with childlike energy. He also pretends to vomit onto the audience. Austin Techenor is wonderfully hammy as Hamlet, while Reed Martin offers physical contortions and fire eating.

Since the troupe is currently performing for a young audience, the physical humor is being played up even more than usual. While the kids are probably unfamiliar with the original plays, they are incredibly responsive to the silliness.

At the New Victory Theater.
209 W. 42nd St., 646-223-3010, newvictory.org. Through Sun.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Candida

George Bernard Shaw's 1898 comedy "Candida" holds up remarkably well compared to many of his more difficult, dense and didactic plays. The Irish Repertory Theatre's thoroughly engaging and perfectly cast revival, as directed by Broadway set designer Tony Walton, is truly as good as it gets.

"Candida" observes how well-meaning, affable Reverend James Morell's life is thrown into turmoil by the arrival of the youthful poet Eugene Marchbanks, who is hopelessly in love with Morell's gorgeous wife Candida. When the men agree to let Candida decide which one is more desperately in need of her love, or rather the "weaker of the two," she responds with one of the most surprising and brilliant monologues in the history of English drama.

Like nearly all Shaw plays, "Candida" also involves political issues such as the woman's role in Victorian society and contrasts socialist and capitalist viewpoints.

The richly detailed set (the rocking horse was a particularly nice touch) reduces the stage to a very intimate space, and is complimented by a very careful lighting design.

Ciaran O'Reilly, who directed the Irish Rep's hit staging of Eugene O'Neill's "The Emperor Jones," starts off playing Reverend James Morell as a warm, affable fella. But as the play evolves and his character suddenly finds himself on the torture rack, he turns into a pouting, self-pitying cry-baby. There is a real innocence to O'Reilly's performance.

Musical theater diva Melissa Errico is has propulsive, self-assured presence as Candida. You can believe that she is a superwoman who can command a crowd of men without breaking a sweat. But Errico also brings real complexity and a sense of hurt when she is forced to make a choice between the two men vying for her affection.

Sam Underwood is effective as the youth Eugene Marchbanks, playing him like an overdramatic, zealous and sensitive teen and sort of a mama's boy. The round and red cheeked Brian Murray brings great exaggeration and a sense of shameless sleeze to the role of Candida's ruthlessly capitalistic father. Josh Grisetti, who made a splash last season in "Enter Laughing," is doned to the background as Morell's assistant, sporting a cheesy accent and smile, but remains a source of fun.

The Irish Repertory Theatre is certainly having a terrific season: Eugene O'Neill's "The Emperor Jones," the neglected musical "Earnest in Love," and now "Candida." In its way, this small theater company dedicated to an Irish angle is becoming one of Off-Broadway's truly best classical theater companies.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

A Behanding in Spokane

In Martin McDonagh's twisted black comedy "A Behanding in Spokane," Christopher Walken plays a man who has spent the last 47 years searching for his missing hand, which was mercilessly chopped off by hillbillies when he was a child. "Do you know what it's like to be waved goodbye with your own hand?" he asks.

Set in a dingy motel room, Walken's character has trapped two local youths (played by Anthony Mackie and Zoe Kazan) who falsely claimed to possess the hand and tried to sell him a different one. Before Walken wanders off, he handcuffs them to a radiator and lights a candle on top of a tank of gasoline.

"Behanding" marks the Anglo-Irish playwright's first play set in America. Though it offers many laughs and even a suitcase full of severed hands, "Behanding" is surprisingly undeveloped, unedited and lacking in dramatic tension. Think of a five-minute sketch extended over 90 minutes.

Once the gory premise is set up, Mackie and Kazan wait in panic to be rescued. Not much else happens besides a pointless monologue from a hotel receptionist (played by Sam Rockwell) about his monkey fantasy. But the play's worst quality is its inexplicably unrestrained use of racist language in the dialogue.

Walken is perfectly in synch with McDonagh's disturbed universe, but gives the same kind of ghoulish, monotonic performance that has become his defining trademark. Rockwell makes a lasting impression as a cocky and creepy clerk with nothing to lose or gain. Meanwhile, Mackie and Kazan merely engage in a shouting match and act hysterically.

Bottom line: While John Crowley's atmospheric production is well-staged and Walken has chilling stage presence, this slight play feels like a missed opportunity.

"A Behanding in Spokane" is at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 W. 45th St., 212-239-6200, behandinginspokane.com.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Miracle Worker

The famous final scene of William Gibson's "The Miracle Worker," where Annie Sullivan finally breaks through to Helen Keller at the water pump, is an admittedly effective tearjerker moment. But you might not be able to see the emotionally charged finale at the play's first-ever Broadway revival, where pretty much every seat has an obstructed view of the stage.


The 50-year-old drama, which is still required middle school reading, recounts the true story of brash, 20-year-old Annie Sullivan teaching the blind, deaf, mute and undisciplined six-year-old Helen Keller a form of sign language in 1880s Alabama.

Director Kate Whoriskey brings no new angle or insight to the play, but manages to wreck it with a bizarre in-the-round staging concept. Set designer Derek McLane has attached large wires to pieces of household furniture so that they fly up and down, allowing for quick scene transitions. Door frames also suddenly pop out of the floor. It's dizzying and distracting to watch, and you never have a full view of the cast.

13-year-old Oscar nominee Abigail Breslin tries to tackle Helen's wild side, but looks merely dazed and confused instead of psychologically lost. She remains too tentative in a role that demands total physical commitment.

Alison Pill, who looks young enough to be Breslin's sister, displays an unpredictable spark as Annie. Her scenes with Breslin resemble an unruly power struggle. Lost among the supporting cast is Matthew Modine, who overemphasizes the patriarchal, southern nature of Helen's father to the point of buffoonery.

Kids may still get a kick out of this famous story of overcoming physical obstacles. But with such painfully obstructed views, this revival is a poor way to celebrate the play's 50th anniversary.

"The Miracle Worker" is at Circle in the Square, W. 50th St. between Broadway and Eighth Ave., 212-239-6200, miracleworkeronbroadway.com.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Equivocation

Imagine Dick Cheney forcing Steven Spielberg to direct a pro-Republican propaganda film that vilified the Democrats. Bill Cain probably had a similar scenario in mind when he penned "Equivocation," a work of historical fiction with a contemporary vibe that depicts Robert Cecil, a devious advisor to King James I, forcing William Shakespeare to write a pro-Protestant drama that vilified the Catholic conspirators who attempted to blow up Parliament in The Gunpowder Plot of 1605. And throw in some witches too.


Shakespeare, referred to as "Shag," can't seem to find real drama in the story. When he interviews the jailed rebels behind the scheme, he finds that the facts are dubious and the truth is elusive. With no other option, he somehow pulls "Macbeth" out of a hat, which has enough murder and witchraft to satisfy the king.

"Equivocation," which resembles a loveless "Shakespeare in Love," is too ambitious for its own good. The dense play overflows with subplots, insider jokes and philosophic themes such as the power of language and the difficulty of portraying truth in art. After Cain's intriguing premise is set up, the play turns into a puzzling mess that constantly cuts back and forth.

Garry Hynes' production fails to make sense of the play. Some of her directorial touches, like combining modern and period clothing, actually do more harm than good.
The cast of six actors, most of whom perform multiple roles, are overextended. John Pankow, who portrays Shakespeare as meek and downbeat, gives a lifeless performance. Meanwhile, David Pittu is too over the top as the vindictive, tortured Robert Cecil.

Bottom line: While academics may appreciate Cain's ambitious mix of English history, conspiracy theory, classical drama and pure fiction, "Equivocation" is a disappointing bore.

"Equivocation" plays at City Center,
131 W. 55th St., 212-581-1212, manhattantheatreclub. Through Mar. 28.