Thursday, April 29, 2010

Everyday Rapture

Sherie Rene Scott's "Everyday Rapture" qualifies as the most unexpected and unusual success story of the Broadway season. In fact, her breezy, offbeat musical, which briefly played Off-Broadway one year ago, was confirmed for a Broadway run just four weeks ago.

Roundabout Theatre Company had originally planned to end its season with a revival of Terrence McNally's "Lips Together Teeth Apart" starring Megan Mullally, who unceremoniously quit after two weeks of rehearsal.

With few options available, Roundabout recruited "Everyday Rapture," which consists of only Ms. Scott, two back-up gals, a hyper male teen and five-piece band, as a last-minute replacement.

Scott, who is best known for playing secondary lead roles in musicals like "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" and "Aida," possesses a killer voice, sexy looks and amazing comedy skills.

"Everyday Rapture" is structured as a sincere memoir of growing up in "half-Mennonite" Topeka, Kansas, encountering prejudiced anti-gay ministers, finding empowerment through song and obsessing over a variety of icons including Judy Garland, Jesus and, weirdly enough, Mr. Rogers. One surprisingly sultry medley strings together familiar Fred Rogers songs like "It's You I Like" and "I Like to Be Told."

At the same time, Scott's show is a relentlessly silly deconstruction of childhood innocence and egotistical diva tell-alls. Scott is not playing herself so much as parodying herself through excessive exaggeration.

In one absolutely fabulous sequence, Scott engages in a heated email conversation with a young male (Eamon Foley) who lip-synches to Scott's vocal track of "Strongest Suit" from "Aida" on YouTube. When Scott tries to compliment the lad, he accuses her of being an imposter of the real Sherie Rene Scott.

Michael Mayer's 90-minute production, which incorporates a bizarrely diverse songbook ranging from "Get Happy" to "Killing Me Softly with His Song," makes for delicious entertainment.

Collected Stories

Compared with the razzle dazzle and star power surrounding so many of this week's Broadway openings, Donald Margulies' two-character comic drama "Collected Stories" looks relatively quiet and quaint. It's a nice little play. Not much more, not much else. That is, till you reach its explosive final scene.

Manhattan Theatre Club presented the original Off-Broadway production of "Collected Stories" in 1996, which starred Maria Tucci and an unknown Debra Messing, and is now reviving it on Broadway.

Set in a cluttered Greenwich Village apartment, the play observes the evolving relationship between Ruth Steiner (an excellent Linda Lavin), an aging, acerbic, accomplished short story writer and professor, and her grad student Lisa Morrison (Sarah Paulson, a worthy scene partner).

During their first meeting, Lisa, jittery and eager to please, acts as if she is meeting a celebrity. As Ruth and Lisa become friends, Lisa gains recognition as a writer in her own right.

As a follow-up to her collection of short stories, Lisa pens a novel based on Ruth's long-term affair with poet Delmore Schwartz without Ruth's permission.

For the most part, the play comes alive only in the confrontational last scene, where the characters debate the ethical and legal consequences of Lisa's action. While Ruth accuses Lisa of plagiarism and betrayal, Lisa argues that it was her right as an artist to write about Ruth's life. After all, Ruth never bothered to turn her past into a story.

By the end of Lynne Meadow's effective production, you've gotten hooked. But for the most part, "Collected Stories" feels too polite, underwhelming and small.

Linda Lavin gives a knockout performance as Ruth, marked by much humor and genuine emotion. Sarah Paulson looks too poised to play a student in her 20s, but becomes convincing as her character grows confident.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010


It's absolutely shocking that no major American playwrights have stepped up to the plate to examine our country's recent financial woes. Lucy Prebble, a 29-year-old English writer best known for the television series "Secret Diary of a Call Girl," has finally filled that hole.

"Enron," her dense docudrama, explores the rise and fall of the Enron Corporation, the Texas energy company hailed as an innovative pioneer in the 1990s that collapsed into catastrophic bankruptcy by 2001, when it was revealed that the company had engaged in massive accounting fraud.

Prebble frames her case study as a classical tragedy, where unethical behavior goes unchecked and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Jeffrey Skilling, the Harvard grad who seized power under the careless watch of Enron founder Kenneth Lay, is portrayed as a tragic figure along the lines of Macbeth.

The play often strains as it attempts to condense an overwhelming amount of exposition and introduce complicated financial models. But for the most part, Prebble cuts a clear narrative through this unwieldy terrain.

Rupert Goold's slick, aggressive production maintains a chaotic energy level mixed with playful theatricality: Enron's shell companies are symblized as hungry raptors with glowing red eyes that literally eat the company's debt, and stock traders perform as a barbership quartet. Wait till you see how Lehman Brothers and Arthur Anderson are portrayed.

But truly best of all is the science fiction-flavored lighting design, in which traders carry Jedi swords and set pieces glow in the dark.

Norbert Leo Butz portrays Skilling as a twitchy, tortured artist so obsessive that he has lost all connection to reality.

Gregory Itzin, who played the president on the television series "24," plays Kenneth Lay with a carefree but guilty spirit, turning a blind eye to the dubious backroom dealings.

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Denzel Washington's fans don't just applaud when he makes his entrance in the Broadway revival of August Wilson's "Fences." They roar as if they are overlooking the red carpet at a movie premiere, and they loudly make their presence known throughout the performance.

Although their zealous appreciation is well-intended, it throws the dramatic weight of the play out of balance. The fans don't want to see Washington portray anyone besides himself, and he obliges them.

Five years ago, Washington regrettably opted to portray Brutus in a dull Broadway production of Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar." Now, in a much smarter move, he is playing Troy Maxson, the role originated by James Earl Jones, in Wilson's Pulitzer-winning 1983 domestic drama.

Part six of Wilson's epic Pittsburgh Cycle and set in 1957, it centers on a former baseball player with a troubled past who has been reduced to working as a trash collector.

The flawed character is self-centered, resentful and cruel. Throughout the play, Troy continues to ignore and mistreat those who care about him, including his supportive wife and youngest son.

Kenny Leon's lightweight production captures the intricate rhythms of Wilson's language, but never moves beyond the play's surface. Though enjoyable, this "Fences" feels less like a substantial drama than a broad sitcom comedy stuffed with melodramatic shocks and awes.

Washington comes off not as Troy, but a charismatic movie star wearing an unglamorous sanitation jumpsuit as a lark.

Still, Washington has an energetic presence and highlights Troy's shameless behavior. When his character announces to his wife that he fathered a child with another woman, Washington is so direct and oblivious to her feelings that it is heartbreaking.

Viola Davis, playing Troy's strong-willed wife Rose, soars in Act 2 and brings the play back to its dramatic center. The supporting cast is uniformly excellent and also emphasizes the rich texture.

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Sunday, April 25, 2010

Promises, Promises

Two very different shows are now playing at the Broadway Theatre: a mostly enjoyable revival of "Promises, Promises" and a Kristin Chenoweth solo concert.

Chenoweth, though wildly talented, is so obviously miscast in "Promises, Promises" that her presence nearly brings down the entire show. (Industry insiders originally expected Anne Hathaway to play Fran Kubelick in this production instead of Chenoweth.)

Similar to the television series "Mad Men," "Promises, Promises" depicts lecherous business execs in early 1960s Manhattan.

Based on Billy Wilder's Oscar-winning 1960 film "The Apartment," the musical observes Chuck Baxter, a nice guy working his way up the corporate ladder by lending his bachelor pad to execs for their sexual trysts.

Things get complicated when Chuck learns that hotshot director J.D. Sheldrake is having a fling with his longtime crush Fran Kubelik.

Director-choreographer Rob Ashford's stylish production is marked by choreography so athletic that you can sense an ecstatic freedom in the movement. Still, the book scenes look too stretched out on the noticeably large Broadway Theatre stage.

Neil Simon's book is endlessly funny, while Burt Bacharach and Hal David's pop score, which uses background vocals in most songs, is catchy and tuneful. Thank heavens that Jonathan Tunick's original orchestrations are being used as well.

The Bacharach hits "A House is Not a Home" and "Say a Little Prayer" have been awkwardly interpolated into the score to beef up Chenoweth's role. They make no sense within the plot and undermine the show's solid construction.

Chenoweth looks two decades too old to play a young ingenue like Fran. She comes off as self-assured and peppy instead of vulnerable and fragile. You never believe her character is so attached to Sheldrake that she would attempt suicide when abandoned by him.

On the other hand, Sean Hayes is thoroughly adorable as Chuck Baxter, displaying great rapport with the audience and genuine comedic charm. He gives 110 percent and successfully takes charge of the production.

Katie Finneran, playing a hopelessly horny and inebriated drunk, manages to briefly walk away with the show for ten ridiculously giddy minutes at the start of act two.

Tony Goldwyn handles the difficult role of Sheldrake with convincing sincerity. As in past productions, the audience hisses Sheldrake when he gives Fran a hundred dollars as her Christmas gift. Dick Latessa provides an amiable presence as the next door doctor who nurses Fran back to health after her suicide attempt.

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"Promises, Promises" plays at the Broadway Theatre.
1681 Broadway, 212-239-6200,

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Sondheim on Sondheim

Do you believe in Stephen Sondheim? Not as a composer-lyricist, but as God Almighty?

I'm going to plead the Fifth on this question. But I'll admit that when I was 17 years old and auditioning for a theater camp production of "Follies" performed by teenagers, I jokingly referred to Sondheim as "Messiah."

In "God," a cute new song written by Sondheim for the occassion, the composer-lyricist pokes fun at the rabid adoration he often receives. But all the same, "Sondheim on Sondheim" is as close to idol worship as it gets.

If you are similar to me, then you are probably an ideal audience member for this multimedia-driven docu-revue exploring Sondheim's musicals. But by the same token, you and I are more likely than average theatergoers to be disappointed with it.

In "Sondheim on Sondheim," a revue directed and conceived by longtime Sondheim collaborator James Lapine, a cast of eight performs a wide range of Sondheim selections, ranging from greatest hits to discarded rarities, in a disorganized and nonlinear context. Simultaneously, video interviews of Sondheim are projected in the background. Often, the cast watches the video clips like obedient children at a house of worship.

The documentary footage offers an introspective and intimate glance into the notoriously cryptic Sondheim, who turned 80 last month. He candidly discusses his mother and sexual identity issues, and is even able to comment on his songs while they are being performed live. At one point, while while the title song of "Do I Hear a Waltz?" is being performed, Sondheim admits that the musical is uninspired, workmanlike and inferior to his other musicals.

There is also a merciless YouTube montage where "Send in the Clowns" is used and abused by celebs and amateurs alike. Suddenly, I was extremely grateful for the fact I never learned how to post YouTube clips.

Does it truly feel like you are personally meeting Sondheim himself at his Turtle Bay home? Not really. And most Sondheim fans already know about his mother's hand-delivered, heartbreaking letter to Sondheim prior to surgery and his adoration of surrogate father Oscar Hammerstein II. But it's far more fun than watching a PBS documentary. And since most of us will never meet Sondheim face to face, this is the closest we will probably get to personal contact with the master.

The unavoidable irony of any Sondheim revue is that his songs lose power and punch when performed out of context. "Sondheim on Sondheim" is polished and well-intentioned, but it leaves you hungry for something more substantial and involving. Watching "Follies" in its entirety is a lot better than sampling two or three of its ballads. But it's worth noting that "Sondheim on Sondheim" is far, far better than "Putting It Together," which awkwardly imagined rich people singing Sondheim songs in a Manhattan penthouse. After all, isn't that what all rich people do?

The cast resembles a random group of actors auditioning in street clothes for a Sondheim revival. Barbara Cook, who has built a career out of singing Sondheim ballads at fancy nightclubs, looks noticeably uncomfortable and out of place. She's not even at her best vocally. I suspect she is holding back vocally due to the demands of performing eight shows a week. Still, she is the undisputed expert of interpreting a musical theater song. Watching her perform is a master class in and of itself.

Tom Wopat is an amiable performer, but is unable to handle his difficult solos. But he is a hoot in the "Opening Doors" sequence, playing the producer who wants "a tune you can hum."

Vanessa Williams and Norm Lewis come off strongest, while Leslie Kritzer and Euan Morton are criminally underused.

Finally, what's up with that awful title? How about "Stephen on Sondheim" instead? I even thought "iSondheim," the original title, was intriguing and referenced the revue's multimedia style.

Roundabout Theatre Company is expected to produce a revival of Sondheim's "Merrily We Roll Along" next season or at least sometime in the near future. Now that's something I'd like to see.

"Sondheim on Sondheim" plays at Studio 54.
254 W. 54th St., 212-719-1300,

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

American Idiot

The moral behind “American Idiot,” the Broadway adaptation of Green Day’s best-selling 2004 album, is that life sucks. Better yet, it really sucks. While the message doesn't sound much fun, the "American Idiot" album has sold over 14 million copies worldwide.

Whereas “Spring Awakening” and “Rent” are coherent rock musicals with fully developed characters and story arcs, “American Idiot” is closer in structure to rock operas like “Tommy” and “Jesus Christ Superstar” that have little dialogue or dramatic development. You might even think of it as simply an elaborate 90-minute punk concert.

It's worth noting that Green Day lead vocalist Billy Joe Armstrong was heavily involved in the creation of the musical, just as Peter Townshend was involved with "Tommy."

The weak storyline observes a trio of bored young males from the suburbs lacking purpose in life. They proceed to shoot up heroin, go off to war or mindlessly watch television. By the end, they cry a bit, hug it out and stay slackers. The hit song "Time of Your Life" is even offered as a feel-good finale.

On purely musical and visual levels, “American Idiot” reaches some exhilarating heights. The song cycle, which includes tunes like "Wake Me Up When September Ends," "21 Guns" and "Boulevard of Broken Dreams," is melodically catchy and undeniably passionate.

With George W. Bush and "American Idol" sound bites in the background, the curtain rises to reveal steep walls covered in bright lights, flat-screen televisions, newspaper clippings and industrial scaffolding. It effectively conveys how mass media outlets have numbed the senses of today's disaffected youth.

Michael Mayer, who also directed “Spring Awakening,” has assembled a strong 19-person cast that attacks the material with extreme energy. As if pumped up on caffeine and Ritalin, they rage with violent emotion and thrash wildly about the stage.

John Gallagher Jr., who played the suicidal Moritz in "Spring Awakening," is similarly intense as the protagonist of "American Idiot," but his character's journey remains too muddled to make much sense. Other excellent members of the ensemble include Mary Faber, Stark Sands and Michael Esper.

I suspect that I may grow to appreciate "American Idiot" over time, which is essentially what happened to me with "Passing Strange." At first, I was thrown off by the lack of coherent storytelling in "Passing Strange." But after listening to the album several times and then watching the filmed performance on DVD, I became able to appreciate the musical on its own terms. I even listened to the original album today on my IPOD.

It's also worth pointing out that the Green Day fanbase, by already knowing the lyrics by heart, will be better able to follow the "Jesus of Suburbia" plotline in spite of its sketchiness and fill in (or ignore entirely) all the gaps.

Nevertheless, I need to be true to my gut instincts; and for the time being, will proudly air my initial grievances over the lack of character and story development in "American Idiot."

"American Idiot" plays at the St. James Theatre.
246 W. 44th St., 212-239-6200,

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Sunday, April 18, 2010

La Cage aux Folles

Let me start by confessing that I really enjoyed the 2004 Broadway revival of "La Cage Aux Folles." That being said, I know I am going to be in the minority on this new revival.

For me, sitting through the new Broadway revival of "La Cage" feels rather like watching an old friend getting beat up. It's proof that even in a recession economy, not every musical should be downsized or deconstructed.

"La Cage," Jerry Herman and Harvey Fierstein's old-fashioned musical comedy about a middle-aged gay male couple that runs a notorious drag club, is not strong enough on its own terms to survive this low-budget, slowly-paced and unevenly-acted production. I love much of the score, including the anthems "I Am What I Am" and "The Best of Times is Now," the romantic ballad "Song on the Sand," and the hauntingly poignant "Look Over There." But some of the score admittedly consists of second- or even third-rate showtunes. And much of Fierstein's book is irritatingly slow and even amateurish.

The farcical story, which was later adapted into the 1996 film comedy "The Birdcage," involves an attempt by the couple's son to convince his future wife's ultra-conservative father that he comes from a respectable home with heterosexual parents.The original 1983 Broadway production of "La Cage aux Folles" ran 1,761 performances and is recognized as the first Broadway musical about a same-sex couple to receive mainstream success.

The scaled-down revival arrives courtesy of London's Menier Chocolate Factory, which also originated the current Broadway revival of "A Little Night Music."

Terry Johnson's production portrays the St. Tropez nightclub as trashy and cheap. Without a large ensemble or orchestra, there's not much fun remaining. By taking away all the spectacle and replacing it with kitchen sink realism, the revival attacks the show's original strengths.

Rather like the long-running 1990s Broadway revival of "Cabaret," where the orchestra seating was replaced with nightclub tables, the front row of the orchestra consists of such small tables. I believe such seating is twice as expensive as a regular orchestra seat.

Some of the changes are totally nonsensical. During "Song on the Sand," as Georges tries to express his continuing affection for Albin, a creepy fisherman looks on like a Peeping Tom. Why does this simple, pure love song need a cheap laugh? Later on, while trying to cheer up Albin, Georges reminds him how he almost got that tour of "Dolly." (This is rather like Mrs. Lovett reminding Sweeney Todd how he appeared as Pseudalus in the Botany Bay production of "Forum.")

As the nightclub's star performer Albin, Douglas Hodge is too over the top even for a campy musical. His irritating shtick includes clownish impressions of Marilyn Monroe, Edith Piaf and Marlene Dietrich. Unlike everyone else in the cast, Hodge uses a thick cockney accent.

Maybe it's just me, but his clownish performance was just too much to stomach. I just don't see what makes Hodge's performance such a big deal. I found Gary Beach far more affecting, humorous and humane in the 2004 production. Still, Hodge's performance burns with emotional intensity during the famous anthem "I Am What I Am," and he shines in simple, quiet moments.

Robin de Jesus follows in Hodge's pattern of being destructively loud and silly. He also looks far too young to realistically be employed as the family's butler. Christine Andreas, Fred Applegate, Elena Shaddow and Veanne Cox are more than fine in their small roles.

On the other hand, Kelsey Grammer is soft spoken and romantic as Georges, Albin's longtime partner. Grammer's combination of fussiness and charm recalls his work on the television series "Frasier." (Kelsey Grammer is supposed to take over the role of Albin in six months.)

Though the Cagelles strut and flex more than dance, they are truly the best part of the show. Since there are only a handful of them, they are given more individual personality and masculine character than ever before.

Bottom line: this production of "La Cage" is probably meant for those who never liked the musical to begin with.

(Small note: I have previously appeared in amateur musical theatre productions with "La Cage" cast members Sean Patrick Doyle and David Nathan Perlow. Doyle is absolutely sensational as one of the Cagelles, while Perlow is constantly in the background while showing off lots of chest hair.)

"La Cage aux Folles" plays an open run at the Longacre Theatre.
220 W. 48th St., 212-239-6200,

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Saturday, April 17, 2010

New York Pops: The Best of Lerner and Loewe

The New York Pops ought to hire a fact-checker. On Friday night, Steven Reineke, music director for the New York Pops, told the audience that "My Fair Lady" premiered in 1965 and that "Brigadoon" takes place in a "Scottage" village. Actually, "My Fair Lady" opened in 1956 (he mixed up the 5 and the 6) and "Brigadoon" take place in a Scottish village. Reineke also said that Anges De Mille directed "Brigadoon" (Robert Lewis directed, De Mille only choreographed).

But it hardly matters. Those small misstatements aside, the Pops' tribute to the golden age musicals of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe starring former "South Pacific" co-stars Kelli O'Hara and Paulo Szot as well as tenor Michael Slattery was a truly satisfying musical theater concert.

Exactly three years ago, I attended an excellent New York Pops event starring Kelli O'Hara and Brian d'Arcy James which featured a wide range of Broadway material involving Sondheim, Bernstein, Rodgers & Hammerstein, Lerner & Loewe and so on. But then since, I've been admittedly less than crazy about its programming. I've found its annual galas to be overproduced and awkward, particularly a tribute to George Steinbrenner two years ago that Steinbrenner didn't even show up to, and last year's concert featuring the songs of Charles Strouse was an unrehearsed disaster.

Yet Friday night marked the first Pops show I've seen under its new music director Steve Reineke. I don't know if he should get credit, or what has happened to the orchestra over the past year, but it sounded pretty perfect on Friday. Moreover, the concert was a well-executed choice of programming. Lerner and Loewe's lush scores require a large orchestra, and none of their musicals have received a full Broadway revival in a surprisingly long period of time. (The New York Philharmonic has recently produced a stellar concert of "My Fair Lady" starring Ms. O'Hara and a dreafully miscast "Camelot.")

I'd also point out how well the concert was cast, conceived and staged. O'Hara and Szot make a sparkly pair and their voices are well suited to golden age musicals by the likes of Rodgers & Hammerstein or Lerner & Loewe. (Szot's Brazilian accent made an awkward addition at times, particularly when he sang the material of King Arthur in "Camelot," but still not a big deal.) Rather than mix up Lerner & Loewe songs from different musicals throughout the evening, it was instead divided into five separate sections: "Camelot," "Paint Your Wagon," "Gigi," "Brigadoon" and finally "My Fair Lady." This made the individual songs feel more complete and substantial. However, this organization did prevent the Pops from including one or two rare songs from Lerner & Loewe's early score "The Day Before Spring" or their film score for "The Little Prince." But again, not a big deal and I'm certainly not complaining.

In one gorgeous touch, while Michael Slattery sang "Come to Me, Bend to Me" from "Brigadoon," dancers from the New York Theatre Ballet performed the original Agnes de Mille choreography. It looked spectacular. The dancers also made another entrance at the end during a reprise of "I Could Have Danced All Night."

The orchestral arrangements, by Johnny Green, were mostly fine, though I would have preferred a more subtle, less cheesy romantic-pop versions of "If Ever I Would Leave You" and "Almost Like Being in Love."

I think the chemistry between O'Hara and Szot was best shown in "I Remember It Well" from "Gigi." Usually, this song is performed by two old geezers looking back wistfully at their younger dating days. But here, O'Hara didn't really overact the female's lyrics in which she contradicts the male's memories of their date from way back when, but simply smiled with a know-it-all comfort and confidence. Come to think of it, I've never seen the song performed in that way. It was a truly convincing and lovely reinterpretation. Meanwhile, the duo hammed it up with merriment in "What Do the Simple Folks Do" and "The Rain in Spain." In the dialogue preceding "The Rain in Spain," Szot was performing Eliza and O'Hara was Higgins, but somehow they managed to switch back just before the singing started.

I really appreciated the chance to hear selections from "Paint Your Wagon," which is desperately in need of a City Center Encores! concert revival, and "Brigadoon," which I long to see performed live for the first time. It was supposed to be revived on Broadway last season and that failed to actually happen.

The program for the evening follows:

Lerner and Loewe Overture
Camelot (1960)
“Camelot” (Paulo Szot / The Clurman Singers)
“What Do the Simple Folk Do?” (Kelli O’Hara / Paulo Szot)
“If Ever I Would Leave You” (Paulo Szot)

Paint Your Wagon (1951)
“I Talk to the Trees” (Kelli O’Hara / Michael Slattery)
“They Call the Wind Maria” (Paulo Szot / The Clurman Singers)
“How Can I Wait?” (Kelli O’Hara)
“There's a Coach Comin' In” (Paulo Szot / The Clurman Singers)

Gigi (1958)
“Say a Prayer for Me Tonight” (Kelli O’Hara)
“The Night They Invented Champagne” (The Clurman Singers)
“I Remember It Well” (Kelli O’Hara / Paulo Szot)
“Gigi” (Paulo Szot / The Clurman Singers)

Brigadoon (1947)
Orchestral Prelude
“Come to Me, Bend to Me” (Michael Slattery)
“The Heather on the Hill” (Kelli O’Hara / Paulo Szot)
“I’ll Go Home with Bonnie Jean” (Michael Slattery / The Clurman Singers)
“Almost Like Being in Love” (Kelli O’Hara / Paulo Szot)

My Fair Lady (1956)
Orchestral Prelude
“Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?” (Kelli O’Hara / The Clurman Singers)
“The Rain in Spain” (Kelli O’Hara / Paulo Szot / Michael Slattery)
“Get Me to the Church on Time” (Paulo Szot / The Clurman Singers)
“I Could Have Danced All Night” (Kelli O’Hara)
“On the Street Where You Live” (Michael Slattery)
“Show Me” (Kelli O’Hara)
“I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” (Paulo Szot)
“I Could Have Danced All Night” (Kelli O’Hara / Paulo Szot / Michael Slattery / The Clurman Singers)

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Thursday, April 15, 2010

Bloodsong of Love: The Rock 'n' Roll Spaghetti Western

Be careful when choosing what clothes to wear to "Bloodsong of Love: The Rock 'n' Roll Spaghetti Western," especially if you sit in the so-called "splatter zone" in the front row.

Joe Iconis' new musical, described as "the wildest funeral in town," draws its inspiration from shoot 'em up Italo-western flicks. It features so much blood, guts and gore that it occasionally spills onto audience members. At one point, an actress cuts open a fish and erotically spreads its innards all over her white dress.

The musical's silly plot concerns a guitarist-singer-drifter who, along with an idiotic sidekick, seeks revenge upon a kazoo-wielding villain for kidnapping his wife. On their journey, they meet a giraffe-shaped prostitute whose feet were cut off and a one-eyed bartender who keeps spilling whiskey.

In John Simpkins' low-budget but lively production, the cast delves into the material with attitude, skewers every accent available and frequently roams through the aisle of the tiny theater.

The broadly comic Lance Rubin, portraying the sidekick as a clueless, tambourine-shaking Spaniard, can turn pretty much any line into a laugh. Eric William Morris, on the other hand, tries his best to maintain a blank, serious face as the cool, downbeat drifter.

Iconis' musical score is fresh and tuneful, but pales in comparison to the quirky, memorable songs featured at his frequent "jamboree" concerts, clips of which can be easily found on YouTube. The show, which runs over two hours, would also benefit from substantial cutting.

Even so, "Bloodsong" compares favorably with other silly musicals like "Rock of Ages" and "Spamalot." And just like at "Rock of Ages," audience members are encouraged to get drunk and stay drunk. After all, this is not exactly a show that demands serious critical thought.

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"Bloodsong of Love: The Rock 'n' Roll Spaghetti Western" plays at Ars Nova through May 9.
511 W. 54th St., 212-352-3101,

Did you know?

Joe Iconis has performed in concert at Ars Nova, Joe's Pub and the Laurie Beechman Theater.

The spaghetti western subgenre reached its peak in the early 1960s with Sergio Leone's "Man with No Name" trilogy starring Clint Eastwood.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Million Dollar Quartet

What exactly is it that makes the new musical "Million Dollar Quartet" so damn enjoyable and invigorating? Is it the pure simplicity and rapid-fire energy of four rock 'n' roll legends performing their signature tunes for 100 blissful minutes? Is it the charisma and talent of the actors who portray these legendary figures Whatever the case, it's one hell of a winner.

As a "jukebox musical," "Million Dollar Quartet" is closer in style to "Jersey Boys," which is styled as a documentary about The Four Seasons, than to "Mamma Mia!," where ABBA songs are integrated into a new plot with fictional characters.

It dramatizes a legendary 1956 jam session between Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash at a Memphis recording studio. The setup offers a good excuse to showcase hits like "Walk the Line," "Hound Dog," "Blue Suede Shoes," "Fever," Folsom Prison Blues," "Sixteen Tons," "Great Balls of Fire," "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin On," and many more.

At the time, all four musicians were in their early-to-mid-twenties and had yet to achieve major fame or suffer personal tragedy. Among the depicted personalities, Presley is good-natured and gentle, Perkins is frustrated and on edge, Cash is sober and downbeat, and Lewis is cocky and flamboyant.

There are just a few hints of dramatic conflict. Perkins is upset that Presley performed "Blue Suede Shoes" on television, robbing Perkins of his hit song. Meanwhile, Cash must break the news to producer Sam Phillips that he has signed with a bigger label.

Eddie Clendening (Presley), Levi Kreis (Lewis), Rob Lyons (Perkins), and Lance Guest (Cash) provide not just impersonations, but fully-developed and vigorous portrayals. They also perform double duty on guitar and piano.

Hunter Foster, in a non-singing role, is similarly spirited as Phillips. Elizabeth Stanley, as the gal who walks in with Elvis, holds her own among the men and delivers some fierce vocal renditions herself.

"Million Dollar Quartet" plays at the Nederlander Theatre.
208 W. 41st St., 212-307-4100,

Did you know?

Eddie Clendening, Levi Kreis, Rob Lyons, and Lance Guest originated their roles in the hit Chicago production of "Million Dollar Quartet," which is still running to this day

Recordings of the December 4, 1956 recording session were not widely released until 1981.

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Saturday, April 10, 2010

Anyone Can Whistle

Everybody says don't...revive "Anyone Can Whistle." The book isn't right. The concept isn't nice. Don't disturb the has in the musical theater history books like Ken Mandelbaum's "Not Since Carrie."

I can't think of a better reason for City Center Encores! to exist than to perform Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents's flawed, frustrating, but intermittantly fantastic and absolutely fascinating 1964 flop musical.
The fact that no other theater company would or could present the show with the same production values is what makes Encores! truly essential.

Compared with the other two productions of this season - a dreadfully miscast "Girl Crazy" and a respectable but lackluster "Fanny" - Casey Nicholaw's production of "Anyone Can Whistle" shines like a golden rainbow. (Good timing for Nicholaw too, who I suspect would like everyone to forget about his involvement with the recently shuttered two-diva travesty "All About Me.")

Am I saying that I think "Anyone Can Whistle" should transfer to Broadway. To be honest, at first I did, but for only about ten minutes. The orchestra opened the show on such a strong and jarring note with the "Prelude," followed by not one but two smashing numbers from Donna Murphy ("Me and My Town," "Miracle Song"). Murphy's ebullient performance as the shameless egotist Cora Hoover Hooper reminded me of the comedic brilliance she displayed in "Wonderful Town." Murphy's Cora is a power-hungry, ruthless viper on the level of Sarah Palin.

Once Sutton Foster, playing goodie-goodie nurse Fay Apple, entered the stage with her troupe of "cookies" (mental patients) demanding to take part in the mayoress's sham miracle of water coming out of a rock, I could see trouble on the horizon. From that point on, Laurents's book keeps spinning in new directions and taking on new targets for satire. By the end of Act One, after which Dr. Hapgood (Raul Esparza) has divided the crowd into Group 1 and Group A while making comments on nuclear war, the nature of reality, women's equality and racial assumptions, you feel dizzy and overwhelmed.

Unlike any past Encores! show I can think of, "Anyone Can Whistle" uses narrators in order to guide the audience through the dense plot. (Am I correct in assuming that no such narration took place in the 1964 production?) Further, Nicholaw stresses the weird, Pirandello-esque motif of the cast pretending that it is the audience and that the audience is the cast throughout the show, rather than just at the end of Act One, when the cast, sitting in rows of orchestra seats, suddenly applauds the audience.

To quote a far superior Sondheim show, I'm "sorry grateful" for the chance to see "Anyone Can Whistle" at Encores! Not having known the unnecessarily complicated libretto at all (just the basic plot), I had no idea how the songs fit into the story. Why does Fay break into "There Won't Be Trumpets"? Why does Hapgood sing "Everybody Says Don't"? But "Anyone Can Whistle" is only enjoyable when Laurents' dialogue stops and Sondheim's score takes over.

I can't of how "Anyone Can Whistle" could have been done any better short of completely rehauling and rewriting the book, which still probably wouldn't solve matters. The cast is absolutely first rate. In addition to the unstoppable, irreplaceable Donna Murphy, Sutton Foster gives a tender performance as Fay in which she gives shaded, nuanced interpretations of "There Won't Be Trumpets" and "Anyone Can Whistle." Meanwhile, the ever so intense Raul Esparza is perfectly suited to portray Hapgood's psychotic edge. But together, Foster and Esparza provide some authentically warm and pretty moments. Jeff Blumencrantz and Edward Hibbert provide additional laughs as two of the mayoress's cronies.

Another great delight involves Casey Nicholaw's elaborate staging of Act Two's long ballet sequence in which the "cookies" are locked up the town officials and then freed by Fay into the streets. And as always at Encores!, the orchestra, conducted by Rob Berman, couldn't be better.

Finally, let me stress that "Anyone Can Whistle" is probably the most significant birthday gift that Stephen Sondheim is going to receive. Sure, having a Broadway theater renamed in his honor is nice. But if it's only going to host Roundabout productions, is that really a good thing? And while all the benefit concerts and revues are enjoyable and well-intended, they just reinforce more of the same. Producing "Anyone Can Whistle" was a risky decision to delve into sticky, difficult material. (Would Encores! perhaps like to take a shot at "Merrily We Roll Along" next?)

Five years from now, no one will be listening to Andrew Lippa's score of "The Addams Family." 50 years from now, people will still be listening to "Anyone Can Whistle," marveling at its ballads, and wondering what went wrong. If you're around this weekend, go and see for yourself!

Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Addams Family

On the road to Broadway, gossip columnists have written extensively about the backstage drama going on at "The Addams Family":

-After receiving mixed reviews in Chicago, the producers brought in Jerry Zaks, the Tony-winning director who previously worked with Nathan Lane on "Guys and Dolls" and "Forum," to unofficially take over as the show's director. Zaks is now credited as "Creative Consultant" while designers Phelim McDermott & Julian Crouch remain the official directors of record.

-Composer Andrew Lippa composed five new songs following the Chicago tryout in order to focus more intently on the family itself and not on outside characters.

-Though Bebe Neuwirth takes the final bow at the end of the show, she is rumored to be upset that her role was significantly cut down in size. Though rumors also suggest that her and Nathan Lane been at each others' throats backstage, they have repeatedly denied that any such feuds ever took place.

-Industry insiders have been comparing "The Addams Family" with "Young Frankenstein," another gothic muscial comedy which quickly flopped on Broadway two years ago after lots of hype.

Just as in the popular 1960s television show and 1990s film remakes, the musical begins with the orchestra pounding out the much familiar “Da-da-da-DUM” refrain. The audience, no stranger to pop cluture, quickly answers back with a “snap, snap” or “clap, clap."

All the eccentric characters based on Charles Addams' original cartoons are back: Gomez, Morticia, Pugsley, Wednesday, Lurch, Fester, Grandmama. Even Thing and Cousin It make cameo appearances. But on Broadway, merely being creepy and kooky, mysterious and spooky, doesn't amount to very much.

In spite of a lavish set of twisting staircases and elaborate puppetry (including a giant squid and venus flytrap), this misconceived musical is slow, sappy, stupid, self-conscious and simply not funny.

The flimsy plot revolves around Wednesday (Krysta Rodriguez), who has invited her normal boyfriend and his conservative parents (Carolee Carmello and Terrence Mann in dreadful roles) to the Addams Family's gothic mansion for dinner. It’s sort of like watching a cheesy adaptation of “La Cage Aux Folles.”

Meanwhile, a hopelessly romantic Fester (Kevin Chamberlin) serves as narrator and informs a chorus of Addams Family ancestors (who serve no purpose whatsoever) that he is in love with the moon.

Andrew Lippa’s lackluster score dips into many musical genres, but fails to capture the creative spirit that made the cartoons so successful.

Nathan Lane, playing Gomez, could use a bit more pep in his step. Sporting an odd Spanish accent, he gives a broadly comic but oddly restrained performance.

Bebe Neuwirth, as Morticia, delivers solid some sex appeal even though her character is undeveloped.

Jackie Hoffman brings in some in some gross humor as Grandmama, while Carolee Carmello and Terrence Mann are wasted in pointless roles.

Considering the insane amount of hype this show has received, "The Addams Family" would appear to be the biggest disappointment of the theater season.

"The Addams Family" plays an open run at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre
205 W. 46th St., 212-307-4100,

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Did you know?

Charles Addams' "Addams Family" cartoons appeared in "The New Yorker" between 1938 and 1888.

Tim Burton plans to direct 3-D stop-motion animated film of "The Addams Family" based on the original cartoons.

There's a Parade in Town: Anyone Can Whistle

"Anyone Can Whistle," Stephen Sondheim's 1964 musical about a small town gone hysterically mad, satirizes almost every part of American culture. Its weird plot involves a corrupt mayoress who fakes a miracle in order to bring business back to her small town, an emotionally restrained nurse who can't whistle, and a group of mental asylum inmates who suddenly break free.

Although it closed after just nine performances, it is cited as an important turning point point in Sondheim's career that was followed by classics like "Company" and "Follies." Its score is quite strong, including ballads like "There Won't Be Trumpets" and the title song.

This weekend's highly anticipated City Center Encores! revival, directed by Casey Nicholaw, stars Donna Murphy, Sutton Foster, Raul Esparza and Edward Hibbert.

Quite frankly, this is a far better way to celebrate Sondheim's 80th birthday than those countless tribute concerts, and the early buzz is quite strong. Those concerts are fun, but they serve to repeat the same hit songs we've heard before from the same performers we've seen before. They offer no new insights into Sondheim's material, but just offer another pat on the back to the master at premium prices. If not much else, what the concerts offer is the chance to hear the songs with full orchestrations. Luckily, Encores! provides the best of both worlds by reviving a full Sondheim show and doing it with full orchestrations and quality production values.

While Encores! remains my favorite theater company, this season so far has been less than exciting. Originally, one year ago, I thought the planned season looked great ("Girl Crazy," "Fanny," "Anyone Can Whistle"). But "Girl Crazy" was marred by terrible miscasting and the poor quality of its original book; and while "Fanny" was respectable, it simply failed to fully take off.

"Anyone Can Whistle," while historically a flop, is exactly the kind of show that Encores! was designed to showcase. It is a worthy show that will probably never be revived on Broadway, but that deserves another listen. When Encores! staged "Follies" three years ago, which was revived on Broadway about five years earlier, it did so under the reasoning that the full orchestrations had not been heard in Manhattan for 20 years.

I now anxiously await the lineup for the upcoming Encores! season (though I understand there will be no Summer Stars production due to the upcoming renovation of City Center) and hope it contains shows as artistically challenging and exciting as "Anyone Can Whistle."

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City Center, 130 W. 55th St., 212-581-1212, Thurs-Fri 8 PM, Sat 2 & 8 PM, Sun 6:30 PM. Through Sun.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson

Andrew Jackson, the seventh President of the United States, is portrayed as an angry, adolescent rock star in the hilariously satirical and relentlessly silly "emo" musical "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson," which has returned to the Public Theater following a short developmental run last year. Since then, its narrative and framework have been considerably improved.

Jackson, described as “the man who put the man in manifest destiny,” maintains a mixed critical record in the history books. While he nearly doubled the size of the country and formed the modern Democratic Party, he supported slavery and is responsible for the “Trail of Tears,” in which thousands of Native Americans died on a forced march west of the Mississippi. He also practiced bigamy and bloodletting.

As portrayed by the charismatic and energetic Benjamin Walker, this is a president who wears tight jeans, whines about how his life sucks and offers to show female audience members his "stimulus package."

The Wild West-themed production is set in the 19th century, but uses colloquial language and maintains a modern sensibility that resembles a hybrid of "South Park" and "Spring Awakening." The entire theater is excessively covered with animal heads, chandeliers, portraitures and red drapes.

Playwright-director Alex Timbers' sense of humor is quite strange. Within the first twenty minutes, a wheelchair-confined narrator is shot in the neck and a cobbler's face is thrust into a pot of hot soup.

But besides the festive irreverence and countless laughs, the show examines the origins of the populist or "people's president" appeal that still haunts modern presidential elections. It is also both admiring and critical of Jackson as a leader.

Michael Friedman's upbeat score has a raw, youthful quality that is meant to seem amateurish but sounds enjoyable. In the opening number, Jackson's appeal is summed up simply as “Populism Yea Yea.” Rock on, Mr. President!

"Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson plays through April 25 at The Public Theater.
425 Lafayette St., 212-967-7555,

Did you know?

Les Freres Corbusier, the inventive theater company behind "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson," also staged "A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant," "Dance Dance Revolution" and "Hell House."

In the election of 1824, Andrew Jackson won the popular vote over John Quincy Adams but lost the electoral vote.

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Sunday, April 4, 2010

Lend Me a Tenor

Oh, the joys of light farcical comedy: doors slamming, mistaken identities, frantic pace, frenzied chaos, shameless personalities, double entendres, sexual innuendos. It's all in "Lend Me a Tenor," Ken Ludwig's recreation of a 1930s screwball comedy of errors.

Stanley Tucci, who is making debut as a stage director, has not reinterpreted the popular comedy so much as meticulously rebuilt it as a crowd pleasing farce. The ensemble cast includes Anthony LaPaglia, Tony Shalhoub, Justin Bartha and Jan Maxwell.

"Lend Me a Tenor" takes place in a hotel suite on the gala opening night of the Cleveland Opera Company's production of Verdi's "Otello." Saunders, the opera's general manager (Shalhoub), mistakenly believes that famed Italian tenor Tito Merelli (LaPaglia) has fallen dead. In actuality, Merelli took a heavy dose of sleep tranquilizers after fighting with his wife (Maxwell).

In order to fool the sold-out crowd, Saunders tries to pass off his meek assistant (Bartha) as Merelli, dressing him in Merelli's costume and blackface makeup. This leads to two guys dressed identically as Othello causing chaos around town.

Perfecting the comic timing and broad style required to stage the play is no easy task, and it shows that Tucci may have a future as a director ahead.

Shalhoub delivers an extraordinary performance marked by wild exaggeration, total desperation and manic physical energy that brings back memories of Nathan Lane in "The Producers" and Mark Rylance in "Boeing Boeing."

Bartha still needs to develop stronger stage presence, but is convincing as a nebbish, confused weakling. One minor problem is the fact that Bartha is a poor singer. How could he have possibly convinced an audience that he was an established opera star?

While LaPaglia underplays his role to an oddly casual degree, Maxwell is up in arms and fiery as LaPaglia's wife.

"Lend Me a Tenor" is playing an open-run at the Music Box Theater.
239 W. 45th St., 212-239-6200,

Did you know?

Justin Bartha is best known as the newlywed who got trapped on a Las Vegas hotel roof in last summer's film comedy "The Hangover."

The original Broadway cast of "Lend Me a Tenor" included Philip Bosco, Victor G
arber and Tovah Feldshuh.

Friday, April 2, 2010


"Red" could have easily turned into another lame and forgettable biodrama. But in the capable hands of playwright John Logan, director Michael Grandage and actor Alfred Molina, it turns out to be an engrossing look at Abstract Expressionist painter Mark Rothko and a spirited debate on the purpose and power of contemporary art.

Rather like Sondheim's "Sunday in the Park with George," "Red" is an unsentimental study of an artist's work habits, personality flaws and self-imposed suffering that requires no prior familiarity with art history.

The 90-minute play is set in Rothko's darkly lit studio in 1958, where Rothko and his young, fresh-faced assistant Ken are working on a series of red and black murals intended for The Four Seasons Restaurant in the Seagram Building. Together, they stretch, prepare and even ferociously splatter red paint all over Rothko's canvases.

The egotistical Rothko takes his art extremely seriously, often invoking Nietzsche and Aeschylus for inspiration. But as the play develops, he starts to feel threatened by the pop art movement symbolized by Andy Warhol. Meanwhile, Ken becomes more critical of his employer's hypocritical opinions and selfish behavior.

Logan's play is intellectually stimulating and nicely condensed, overtly theoretical but not necessarily didactic.

Molina, who shaved his head for the role, convincingly presents Rothko as a disciplined, difficult and depressed artist who whines about rich buyers but eagerly takes their money, and who takes pride in having defeated the cubists but is scared to fall out of fashion himself.

On the other hand, Eddie Redmayne brings unexpected punch to the somewhat awkward role of Ken, slowly gaining the confidence to tackle his employer.