Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Merchant of Venice

The intense debate over whether Shakespeare's portrayal of the Jewish moneylender Shylock in "The Merchant of Venice" is anti-semitic or sympathetic is unlikely to be resolved anytime soon.

Though the bulk of “Merchant” focuses on Bassanio, a young Venetian who woos and wins the wealthy heiress Portia, it remains most famous for Shylock, who makes a loan to the merchant Antonio while using a pound of Antonio’s flesh as collateral. When Antonio defaults on the loan, Shylock seeks both justice and revenge.

But as played by Al Pacino in Dan Sullivan's excellent production at Shakespeare in the Park, Shylock comes off not as a villain, but as both a wildly theatrical and complex tragic figure reacting to religious oppression.

This summer's Shakespeare in the Park season features a single company of actors performing both "The Merchant of Venice" and "The Winter's Tale" together, though Pacino appears only in "Merchant." This is the first time since the 1970s that the Public Theater has used a repertory company, which was once the bread and butter of acting troupes.

The costumes evoke an Edwardian motif, with a minimalistic set design consisting of revolving black iron gates. In an unusual move, Sullivan also adds a powerful, wordless scene depicting the forced Baptism of Shylock near the end of the play, in which he is violently dunked into a pool of water.

Pacino is joined by an unusually strong ensemble cast. Lily Rabe makes for an intelligent, fierce and very funny Portia. Bryon Jennings is completely believable as Antonio, mixing paternal affection for young Bassanio with unrequited homosexual attraction. As Bassanio, Hamish Linklater comes off as fragile, idiotic and impetuous, which helps drive the audience's sympathy away from him and toward Shylock.

Jesse L. Martin, Bill Heck, Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Jessica Lind, all of whom appear in both "Merchant" and "The Winter's Tale," manage to bring spice and spark to smaller, often forgettable roles.

"The Merchant of Venice" plays through August 1 at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park. Enter the park at 81st Street and Central Park West or 79th Street and Fifth Avenue.

How to get Shakespeare in the Park tickets:

1. Try your luck on line. 2 free tickets per person are distributed outside the Delacorte Theatre at 1 PM on the date of performance. Better wake up early.

2. Try your luck online. There is a virtual lottery at publictheater.org that you can enter. It's pretty difficult to win.

3. Pay up. You can purchase expensive Summer Supporter tickets, but we advise against purchasing tix on Craig's List.

Monday, June 28, 2010

June Leftovers: Musical Theatre Concerts and Regional Productions

About a year ago, Theatermania columnist Peter Filichia instituted a monthly "leftovers" column in which he provided brief reviews from productions still in need of mention. It's the end of June and I now find myself in the same situation. So, in tipping my hat to the inestimable and incomparable Mr. Filichia, I'd like to present my own leftovers column.

My first item actually comes from before June, way back to Memorial Day Weekend: "If It Only Even Runs a Minute 2" at the Laurie Beechman Theatre. Created, produced and co-hosted by my friend Jennifer Ashley Tepper, the series is an eclectic hybrid of songs, anecdotes and slideshow montages from flop musicals of all flavors, shapes and sizes. Having attended the first "If It Only Even Runs a Minute" concert earlier this year, let me say that the second edition marked a significant improvement on what was already a savvy and well-produced series.

It featured songs from "A Man Of No Importance," "All American," "Annie Warbucks," "The Baker's Wife," "Debbie Does Dallas," "Diamonds," "Drat The Cat," "Mack and Mabel," "Marlowe," "My Favorite Year," "Personals," "Slut," "Starmites," and "Via Galactica." Standout performances included Lance Rubin's spirited "I Wanna Do Debbie" and Annie Golden's recreation of her "Leader of the Pack" showstopper "Baby I Love You." But the finest moment of all occurred when Evan Pappas spoke about "My Favorite Year" and then sang the title song. Knowing that "My Favorite Year" is one of Jennifer Tepper's all-time favorite shows, I can only imagine what that moment felt like for her.

Continuing with the theme of musical theater folklore, I also attended "Broadway By the Year 1990-2010," a tenth anniversary celebration of Town Hall's invaluable series of musical theater concerts. I started attending back in 2004 but only began attending with great regularity in 2007. Some have the concerts have been extraordinary, some mediocre, but always enjoyable with a homegrown, authentic feel and a generous helping of strong vocal performances. I am in awe of the great contributions of host Scott Siegel, pianist-conductor Ross Patterson, as well as regular directors of the series such as Jeffry Denman, Marc Kudisch and Scott Coulter.

Whereas most "Broadway by the Year" concerts delve into the musicals of a single year, offering both well-known selections from major hits and rarities from flops and forgotten titles, spanning years from roughly the early 1920s through the late 1970s, "Broadway by the Year 1990-2010" did something entirely different. It offered a single song from a single musical for each year from 1990 through 2010, plus a few bonus tracks for good measure. There was no real logic behind which musicals were represented, other than perhaps what the cast wished to perform.

As is always the case, it was a well-polished and enjoyable concert that offered numerous highlights - but I think it was wrong for this particular occasion. A major part of what has made the "Broadway by the Year" series so successful is the meticulous and detailed manner in which an individual year is delved into. "Broadway by the Year 1990-2010," in offering just a single song from a musical picked at random, was by comparison completely superficial. And in highlighting only recent shows, it ignored the musical theater songbook upon which the "BBTY" series has been built (1920-1979). I would have suggested marking the occasion by performing a "Best of Broadway by the Year" concert in which performers returned to reprise their favorite songs from past concerts over the past 10 years. But I'll admit that I'm being rather silly in my complaint. I'm very glad the series exists and I look forward to attending more such concerts in the future.

About a week ago, I took my first trip into Philadelphia for the purpose of theatergoing, where I was able to catch a matinee of "Fiddler on the Roof" at the Walnut Street Theatre and an evening performance of "Sunday in the Park with George" at the Arden Theatre. Both were strong regional productions that I highly enjoyed, though I wouldn't call either definitive. Before going into both one by one, I must say how impressed I was that both casts were comprised primarily of local Philadelphia-based actors. By comparison, the casts of Washington D.C. productions are bulked up considerably by New York actors.

I must confess that one of the primary reasons I ended up attending "Fiddler" was the fact that my friend, Alex Sovronsky, was playing the fiddler. In addition to being a fine actor, Sovronsky is also a classically-trained musician. His musical abilities have previously allowed him to score roles in "Romeo and Juliet" at Shakespeare in the Park" and "Cyrano" on Broadway. But little did I know that Sovronsky, as the fiddler, would get as much attention as Tevye!

In Bruce Lumpkin's production, the fiddler almost never leaves the stage. The fiddler also starts the show sitting on a roof that is suspended above the stage on wires. I think Lumpkin was trying to create a connection between the fiddler and Tevye in which the fiddler represented Tevye's alter ego or conscience. At the very end, instead of following Tevye out of Anatevka as the stage directions demand, the fiddler turned down Tevye's offer and chose to stay behind in Anatevka. Sovronsky successfully handled the fiddler's enlarged stage time, adding a mysterious, authentic presence to the nonspeaking role, and often directly channeling or mirroring Tevye's emotions.


Another interesting touch involved the pogrom scene, where the Cossacks appeared to be unusually giddy as they wrecked the family's wedding, as if high on a power rush. They resembled a pack of punk teens desperate to spark trouble. Mark Jacoby gave an unusually warm and sympathetic as Tevye that was entirely different from the hammy, overplayed performance I saw Topol give last year on the national tour. Most of the original choreography was used, and the medium-sized orchestra sounded strong if annoyingly synthesized on strings.

The Arden's production of "Sunday" made headlines before it even opened with its announcement that it would use the original 15-piece orchestrations. The 2008 Broadway revival, though stunning, regrettably used a weak, scaled-down version of the original orchestrations. Jeffrey Coon sang well as Georges/George, but his acting did not impress me. He come off as merely whiny and overly sensitive. Kristine Fraelich had wonderful stage presence as Dot/Marie, but similarly did not give a deep performance. But let me stress again that musically, it was extraordinary. As in the Broadway revival, Terrence J. Nolen's production utilized computer-video technology, though far less aggressively in Act One. But in Act Two, the production gave the strongest use of the chromolume scene I've ever seen. Starting first by focusing on Dot in the painting, it suddenly became a violent storm of paint pigments. It was a glorious moment.

I also caught the last performance of Bonnie J. Monte's production of "The Taming of the Shrew" at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey. This marked the first time I've seen a production of "Shrew" in three years, not since acclaimed all-male production at BAM in 2007. Monte's lighthearted take emphasized slapstick overall, and an attractive turn of the century Italy setting, but it also gave an unusual take on the dynamic between Petruchio and Kate. Petruchio, as played by Steve Wilson, is not an extreme eccentric but a desperate and determined businessman who will stop at nothing to gain his dowry and outwit Katherina. Further, by having Victoria Mack deliver her final "I am ashamed that women are so simple" speech with complete sincerity, rather than in defeat or in sarcasm. Monte treats the central relationship of "Shrew" not as a diatribe or a parody, but as an unorthodox love story.

The Grand Manner

Stop what you're doing right now and search "Katherine Cornell" on YouTube. There's a famous clip from the World War II propaganda film "Stagedoor Canteen" of Cornell reciting Shakespeare with an adolescent soldier.

Besides that clip, practically nothing remains of Cornell, who was considered the "First Lady of the Theatre" in the mid-20th century. She performed Shakespeare and Shaw on Broadway and throughout the country with a glamorous, larger-than-life acting style that is now all but extinct.

A.R. Gurney's new play "The Grand Manner" draws its inspiration from a chance meeting that the 79-year-old playwright once shared with Cornell. Back in 1948, when Gurney was an 18-year-old student, Gurney waited backstage to get Cornell's autograph after seeing her in "Anthony and Cleopatra" on Broadway.

Pete, played by the up-and-coming Bobby Steggert, is an obvious stand-in for Gurney himself. After reenacting his five-minute backstage encounter with Cornell, Pete confesses to the audience that he is now going to completely reimagine it as a full-bodied comic drama, complete with dramatic revelations, sexual tensions and loads of name dropping.

"The Grand Manner" nostalgically recreates a bygone world of Broadway glamour and classical theater at its peak of popularity. It might not have much conflict or plot, but it's so warm-hearted and overflowing with historic detail that you hardly care at all.

It also emphasizes the sexual mores of the time. Cornell, her husband, and even her personal assistant were closeted homosexuals, which they all end up confessing to their youthful visitor.

As directed by Mark Lamos, the four-member cast is superb. While Steggert supplies the impressionable innocence, Kate Burton perfectly embodies Cornell's diva theatricality and Boyd Gaines is lively as her whiny husband and director Guthrie McClintic.

"The Grand Manner" plays at the Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center Theater.
West 66th St., 212-239-6200, lct.org.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Nunsense

Sitting through the 25th anniversary production of "Nunsense" is rather like watching a rerun of a sitcom you once thought was hilarious and now find stupid and boring. The fun is gone and you can't remember why you liked it in the first place.

In 1985, an unapologetically silly, tiny and old-fashioned revue about a quintet of nuns staging a variety show opened at the Cherry Lane Theatre in the West Village. Though the original reviews were mixed, it ended up running Off-Broadway for an entire decade.

Collectively, "Nunsense" and its five sequels have grossed over $500 million worldwide, spawned 8,000 productions and six sequels and employed more than 25,000 actresses including Rue McClanahan, Phyllis Diller, Pat Carroll and Sally Struthers.

To celebrate its 25th anniversary, creator-writer Dan Goggin is bringing "Nunsense" back to its original stomping grounds. Except for a few slight updates, this is essentially the original version intact, complete with tap dancing, ballet, puppetry, gospel jamboree and solo vaudeville spots for each nun.

While "Nunsense" is not exactly a classic of musical theater, it's consistently managed to provide lightweight entertainment to a wide range of audiences. But more than two decades since its premiere, it's hard to still find any real humor in it. After all, the plot is razor thin, the jokes are hoary and the songs are forgettable.

Moreover, the current cast is lacking in spirit and lackluster in quality. Here, the five females playing the madcap Little Sisters of Hoboken are merely adequate and lack star presence.

Of course, this is not to say that this staging of "Nunsense" offers no fun at all. As Reverend Mother Mary Regina, Bonnie Lee is a hoot when she accidentally gets stoned, and Jeanne M. Tinker is wonderful as the mentally slow Sister Mary Amnesia.

"Nunsense" plays through July 18 at the Cherry Lane Theatre.
38 Commerce St., 212-239-6200, www.cherrylanetheatre.org.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

When We Go Upon the Sea

George W. Bush is unlikely to be targeted by the International Criminal Court in the Hague for his wartime activities as president, especially since the U.S. government doesn't even recognize the court's authority. But that didn't stop playwright Lee Blessing from imagining what might happen.

"When We Go Upon the Sea," Blessing's new 90-minute play, depicts Bush in a five-star hotel suite on the night before his war crimes trial is to commence. Accompanied only by a perfectly polite Dutch manservant and a sensual high class hooker, Bush alternates between drinking Bourbon, snorting cocaine and desperately trying to defend his actions as president.

Bush feeds off the support of the his companions, sinks deeper into denial and eventually regains his power-hungry confidence. By the end, looking out to sea, he remarks how he'd like to walk on the water.

While Blessing is clearly not a fan of Bush, his play tries to do more than simply ridicule or criticize the former president. "When We Go Upon the Sea" is really about the complicated, emotionally charged relationship between a powerful ruler and his subjects. It raises questions about why so many Americans supported Bush and how it is tempting to remain in a subservient position.

Conan McCarty's provides a dead-on Bush impersonation, highlighting the Texan accent, facial mannerisms and cocky attitude. Kim Carson brings an alluring presence and mysterious touch as the temptress Anna-Lisa, who reveals herself to be a victim of war crimes in an intriguing monologue.

The amount of theater exploring the Bush presidency is surprisingly limited, marked mainly by David Hare's ensemble docudrama "Stuff Happens" and Will Ferrell's monologue "You're Welcome America." "When We Go Upon the Sea" is a small but mighty step forward.

“When We Go Upon the Sea” plays at 59E59 through July 3. 59 E. 59th St., 212-279-4200, 59E59.org

Friday, June 11, 2010

Tony Award Predictions and Analysis: Who Will Win and Who Deserves to Win and Why

The sad irony of any Broadway season is that when there isn't a big musical hit, as is the case this year, the Tony Awards become far more unpredictable and exciting. I happen to be a consistent winner of Tony prediction polls, but almost every category this year is debatable. Let's review the most intriguing case scenarios.

Best Musical:

What Will Win: "Memphis"
What Should Win: "Memphis" (at least I think so, unlike other critics rooting for the vastly overrated "Fela!")

The race is between "Fela!" and "Memphis." Both are doing alright financially, but neither is a big hit. While "Fela!" is a mix of an African concert and political diatribe with no real story, "Memphis" is a traditionally constructed musical that is more likely to appeal to tourists. Though there is a small possibility of "Fela!" pulling an upset, expect "Memphis" to win. "American Idiot," which was once thought to be the clear favorite, has received far less enthusiasm than expected. "Million Dollar Quartet" is lucky to have been nominated at all over "Come Fly Away" and "The Addams Family."

Best Play:

What Will Win: "Red"
What Should Win: "Red"

"Red," the two-hander about moody painter Mark Rothko and his pupil, will easily win over "Next Fall," a hospital room drama that has yet to find an audience. "In the Next Room" has already closed. And while "Time Stands Still" is in fact coming back to Broadway, its current lack of visibility hurts its chance of winning.

Best Musical Revival:

What Will Win: "La Cage Aux Folles"
What Should Win: "Finian's Rainbow"

Best Revival of a Musical: The gritty and spare revision of "La Cage Aux Folles" has the most momentum, though an upset from "A Little Night Music" is not impossible. "Ragtime" and "Finian's Rainbow" were bigger and stronger revivals, but they flopped and shuttered back in January.

Best Play Revival:

What Will Win: "Fences"
What Deserves to Win: "A View from the Bridge"

"A View from the Bridge" was the most well-directed and acted production I saw this entire season. From start to finish, it was absolutely masterful and gripping. But "Fences" moved into its theater and is now the hit ticket in town.

Best Actor in a Play

Who Will Win: Alfred Molina or Denzel Washington, totally unpredictable. If I had to guess, I'd say Washington.
Who Deserves to Win: Alfred Molina or Liev Schrieber

When the audience enters "Red," the now-bald Molina is already onstage staring deeply into his painting. From then on, his performance is uniformly intense. Schrieber was hauntingly real and believable as Eddie in "A View from the Bridge." But then there's Washington, who returned from his panned performance in "Julius Caesar" five years ago to deliver a damn impressive performance in "Fences." It's up in the air.

Best Actress in a Play:

Who Will Win: Viola Davis
Who Deserves to Win: Viola Davis

Unlike the competition faced by her male co-star, Viola Davis, who plays Denzel Washington's mistreated wife in "Fences," has it in the bag.

Best Actor in a Musical:

Who Will Win: Douglas Hodge
Who Deserves to Win: Sean Hayes

Douglas Hodge will win for his cross-dressing flamboyance in "La Cage Aux Folles" over the fiery Sahr Ngaujah in "Fela!." But so far as I'm concerned, Hayes deserves the award. He makes an incredibly difficult role work, having to narrate to the audience, win its support, and deal with a totally miscast co-star. He certainly has my sympathy.

Best Actress in a Musical:

Who Will Win: Catherine Zeta-Jones or Montego Glover, again unpredictable. If I had to guess, I'd say Jones.
Who Deserves to Win: Montego Glover or Sherie Rene Scott

A toss-up between Catherine Zeta-Jones, who glows with star presence in "A Little Night Music," and Montego Glover, the hard-working lead of "Memphis." A coin toss.

Best Featured Actor in a Play:

Who Will Win: Stephen McKinley Henderson or Eddie Redmayne. Difficult to predict, probably Henderson.
Who Deserves to Win: Jon Michael Hill

As good as Eddie Redmayne is, his character is really just a device for Alfred Molina to play off with. Henderson manages to stand out among both Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, and has the "Fences" momentum in his favor.

Best Featured Actress in a Play:

Who Will Win: Scarlett Johansson or Jan Maxwell, probably Johansson
Who Deserves to Win: Scarlett Johansson or Jan Maxwell

Scarlett Johansson was surprisingly brilliant in "A View from the Bridge," but Broadway trooper Jan Maxwell made headlines by receiving two nominations at once and deserves some recognition. Still, while Maxwell is simply having fun in a zany role, Johansson fully inhabitted a dramatic and difficult role.

Best Featured Actor in a Musical:

Who Will Win: Seriously, it's anybody's game, but I foresee Levi Kreis
Who Deserves to Win: Bobby Steggert or Christopher Fitzgerald

This is the hardest category of all to predict. Bobby Steggert and Christopher Fitzgerald gave stellar performances in "Ragtime" and "Finian's Rainbow" respectively, but their shows closed months ago. Robin de Jesus is a hoot in "La Cage," but has such a minor role. Kevin Chamberlin is fine as Uncle Fester, but "Addams Family" is so awful. Levi Kreis, an unknown Chicago-based actor who stands out as Jerry Lee Lewis in "Million Dollar Quartet," could pull ahead of the crowd.

Best Featured Actress in a Musical:

Who Will Win: Katie Finneran
Who Deserves to Win: Katie Finneran or Angela Lansbury

Katie Finneran makes just a cameo in "Promises, Promises," but its the show's best ten minutes. Not even Angela Lansbury outshines her, who could conceivably make history by winning six Tony Awards.

Best Direction of a Musical:

Who Will Win: Terry Johnson
Who Deserves to Win: Christopher Ashley

Bill T. Jones is the undisputed force behind "Fela!," but Terry Johnson impressively reimagined "La Cage." As much as I'd like to see Christopher Ashley win for his stellar work bringing together the production elements and strong performances of "Memphis," his directorial imprint is more subtle and therefore less easily noticeable. Ashley let his show speak for itself.

Best Direction of a Play:

Who Will Win: Michael Grandage or Kenny Leon, probably Leon
Who Deserves to Win: Gregory Mosher

It's between Michael Grandage ("Red") and Kenny Leon ("Fences"). Grandage's polish over "Red" is more clearly evident, but everyone seems to be so happy with how "Fences" turned out. Too bad "A View from the Bridge" isn't still running, which was exceptionally well-directed by Mosher.

Best Choreography:

Who Will Win: Twyla Tharp or Bill T. Jones, probably Tharp
Who Deserves to Win: Rob Ashford

Twyla Tharp's suave ballroom dancing is more memorable than Bill T. Jones' wild African moves. But as for me, Ashford managed to restage "Promises, Promises" with 1960s panache, consistent style and wildly athletic segments. He even found a way to convincingly rework "Turkey Lurkey."

Best Score:

What Will Win: Memphis
What Deserves to Win: Memphis

"Memphis" is a really solid score, incorporating the feel-good finale "Steal Your Rock 'n' Roll" and showstopper "Radio" with the 11 o'clock anthem "Memphis Lives in Me" and other emotional spots. "The Addams Family" is a disappointment, and neither of the two nominated plays could possibly win. Let's hope and pray that this category isn't such an absolute embarassment this time next year.

Best Book of a Musical:

What Will Win: Memphis
What Deserves to Win: Memphis

"Memphis" is a genuine book musical, unlike the other shows nominated for Best Musical. It's not a hokey revue, political diatribe or plotless rock concert. "Memphis" is a well-developed story with two complex characters. "Everyday Rapture" is well-done as a solo show, but nowhere near as compelling as the work in "Memphis."

Best Orchestrations:

What Will Win: Memphis or Fela!, Memphis
What Deserves to Win: Promises, Promises

I don't really understand why "Promises, Promises" is nominated for orchestrations. Jonathan Tunick wrote the original orchestrations, and they weren't much changed, though perhaps reduced a bit, for this revival. But in any case, the "Promises, Promises" orchestrations remain fabulous and the best of the lot. But between "Memphis" and "Fela!," it's a tossup, but I'd have to imagine "Memphis" mainly because the winner for Best Score usually will also win Best Orchestrations. Then again,
"Fela!" has an edge because it has such a louder sound and the band is onstage the entire show and has more of a constant presence. It's already even playing music as the audience enters.

Best Set Design of a Play:

What Will Win: Red
What Deserves to Win: Red

It's not a huge set, for the design of Mark Rothko's studio, with its many canvases, is haunting, detailed and perfectly intimate.

Best Set Design of a Musical:

What Will Win: La Cage aux Folles or American Idiot, probably American Idiot

I think the voters will throw "American Idiot" a bone for its unique set design of industrial scaffolding and television screens. Then again, the sparse, intimate and gritty "La Cage" set is pretty impressive too.

Best Costume Design of a Musical:

What Will Win: "La Cage aux Folles"
What Deserves to Win: "La Cage aux Folles"

Come on. Drag queens looking as outrageous as can be, particularly those thoroughly fabulous Les Cagelles.

Best Lighting Design of a Play:

What Will Win: Red
What Deserves to Win: Red

Michael Grandage's direction of "Red" uses every available production element - lighting, sound, set - to maximum effect. The lighting in particular emphasizes the dark and dank atmosphere of the artist studio.

Best Lighting Design of a Musical:

What Will Win: Fela! or American Idiot, probably Fela!
What Deserves to Win: Fela! or American Idiot

I'm not a fan of "Fela!," but its invasive and eclectic lighting scheme is pretty extraordinary. But the same could be said of "American Idiot."

Best Sound Design of a Play:

What Will Win: Fences or Red, probably Fences
What Deserves to Win: Red

"Fences" has a strong jazz score, but the score is different from the sound design. The scene where Rothko and his assistant furiously cover a canvas in "Red" with musical accompaniment is one of the truly great moments of the Broadway season. Still, I suspect the momentum for "Fences" will simply carry over.

Best Sound Design of a Musical:

What Will Win: Sondheim on Sondheim or Fela!, probably Fela!
What Deserves to Win: Sondheim on Sondheim or Fela!

While "Sondheim on Sondheim" was a disappointment artistically, it's best element was its incorporation of video and audio by Stephen Sondheim featured alongside the live performers. Fela!, on the other hand, does also mixes a hot band, loud chanting and some multimedia. Tough call.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Speaking with Brian d'Arcy James about "Next to Normal"

We spoke with Brian d'Arcy James about the unique experience of joining the Broadway cast of "Next to Normal" more than two years since appearing in the show's Off-Broadway premiere.

Q: Before the Second Stage production, had you done any other readings of “Next to Normal”?

A: Yeah. I did one reading prior to the production at Second Stage. I can’t recall if they already had a production set with Second Stage at the time. That was my first introduction to it. And it was quite an experience for me. It was so audacious, the story they were telling. And it was so well done at that point.

Q: Was Alice Ripley a part of that reading too?

A: She was. In fact, I believe she flew in from California for that reading. And she had done prior readings. And certainly she has been such a net block in the evolution of this show. And her dedication to it is only rivaled by her brilliance in the show.

Q: What’s it like for you now to enter the Broadway production two years since appearing in the Off-Broadway premiere?

A: As an actor, you don’t really get a chance to return to a show, especially when the life of the show has continued. Usually you come back for the revival. This is unique. So in looking back at the Off-Broadway production, clearly there are a lot of memories of the show’s evolution even during the Second Stage production. A lot of attention was paid to making some radical changes even after the production opened, which was unusual in my experience. Even after that, more changes in the D.C. production strengthened it and changed it to make it even more potent. I wasn’t a part of it. But my experience now is half new territory in that I know how the cogs turn, but I can see how all the changes have come to fruition.

Q: You landed the role of Shrek during the Off-Broadway production, correct?

A: That is correct. At the time I got “Shrek,” they were pursuing it as a possible regional production and I think D.C. was on the docket. But they hadn’t determined what would take place in that capacity. While I know David Stone was set to make show continue, at that point I knew I wouldn’t. I had an ogre in the hand, if you will. And I had to make that decision based on a possibility of a regional production.

Q: What was it like to exit “Next to Normal” knowing the show would be going forward?

A: It was a bittersweet thing. It was a big opportunity and a great one for me to take on the title role of such a big enterprise. And the excitement and potential of that. And leaving something that was completely different in terms of its subject matter and the manner in which the story was conveyed, not to mention all the emotional investment that I had put into it and the care and appreciation and love for it. Actors do that all the time when a show closes. Clearly I wouldn’t’ be able to continue with.

Q: Did you see the original Broadway cast of “Next to Normal”?

A: I did. I was invited to the opening night of the Broadway production. So I was able to see it first-hand, which was such an out of body experience. Everyone was so extremely brilliant. Bobby and Alice had created this wonderful relationship onstage and everyone else I had known and worked with. Watching it from the outside was a completely diff experience.

Q: How has the character of Dan changed since the Off-Broadway production?

A: I think they had some interesting adjustments to the character by providing a window into the complexity of Dan’s struggle. His struggle is different than Diana’s obviously. He wasn’t suffering from the actual mental illness, but he’s the caretaker. A couple of songs they’ve written provide a key into the complexity of what it means to be on the outside of that. His sense of duty and responsibility to this person who he loves. You get a sense of the depth of his willingness to take the roller coaster and the cost of that. The toll that it takes on him and the family. I think it’s really important to have an outsider’s point of view, of the audience imagining themselves on peering in on this debilitating thing and asking themselves how would I deal with that situation. I think that’s a huge part of the story. And necessary in the equation to be told.

Q: Like perhaps the addition of the song “I’ve Been”?

A: Absolutely. That song has to do with the aftermath of one of the most dramatic incidents of their relationship. Even more so , there are even small lines, small exchanges with Diana in their memory and what Dan is capable of remembering and what he is burying because he doesn’t’ want to deal with. There are small exchanges that explore his ability to deal with his emotional struggle. Again I don’t want to give anything away, but what I think is interesting is Brian and Tom’s ability to try and create a small nexus of conversation in terms of why he behaves in certain ways.

Q: When did the idea of going back into the show first come up?

A: Not too long ago. It was definitely something that came out of left field. It really took me by surprise. It wasn’t too long before I started. The great and unusual thing was the window was wide open to do it. I had nothing else conflicting with it. It worked out perfectly.

Q: When you agreed to come back into “Next to Normal,” did you know for sure that “Time Stands Still” was coming back to Broadway?

A: “Time Stands Still” was a conversation and there was a strong chance it would come back. They made the announcement right when Tony nominations came out. So I think I had a strong feeling it would come back. It wasn’t 100 percent with the Ts crossed and the Is dotted.

Q: Did you always plan on only joining the Broadway production of “Next to Normal” for a short run, or is your return being shortened due to the return of “Time Stands Still”?

A: July 18 was always going to be my last performance. That’s what they offered. It seemed like the perfectly natural thing to do. The timeline was set for “Time Stands Still,” so I knew the fall was the time to be thinking about. But it had no bearing on “Next to Normal.”

Q: What’s it like to be able to return to both “Next to Normal” and “Time Stands Still”?

A: It’s really an embarrassment of riches. They’ll be similarities in that I’m working with new people in roles I associate with colleagues. Like Kyle now in Aaron’s role, and now with Christina in Alicia’s role. That shifts the dynamic. And I think there’s nothing more exciting than getting an infusion of something new into something you love. I get to do the elevator audition. After you go in for an audition, I go down the elevator and think I should have done this or that. This time I get to do the things I didn’t get to do. What I didn’t get to do before after I had left the show. I get to test those out and see if the elevator audition is better.

Q: Is there anything in particular you are now trying to emphasize in your portrayal of Dan?

A: I think what I’m trying to emphasize, probably in my mind, with the relationship between Dan and Diana is this idea of fatigue. And how in the text there are many references to the physical toll it takes. Being conscious of little layers like that and how it affects my inner changes. And also the idea of watching, knowing acutely, how the relationship dissolves. It seems like you think you kind of know why you’re doing it. But with a little time away, you can see objectively how a particular moment or scene is a signal of something that is happening in the relationship, but you can’t see while you’re doing it. With a little bit of hindsight, I can say I’d like to sharpen those contrasts of Dan’s awareness of what’s going on in the relationship and how the relationship affects his behavior. It may sound like psychobabble. It’s what David Warren calls “Actor Plumbing.” I can turn the knob a bit and change the plumbing.

Q: Has the onstage dynamic between you and Alice Ripley changed much?

A: I think the change is inevitable and I’d say yes in a great sense. I’m constantly amazed by the time she’s put in to the show and inhabiting this character. How very similar it seems in some sense. But in other senses how much it’s expanded and deepened in terms of how she feels Diana and how she inhabits the character in a much deeper way. So I feel there’s more of an authenticity there. Again, this is just me with the novelty of coming back to a river that’s been flowing for a while. So I can see the depths getting deeper in her performance. She’s very inspiring for me.

Q: Two years ago, could you have imagined the show now having achieved so much success?

A: I can’t speak to what I saw coming or not. I think the fact that it is an untold story in terms of musical conceit and context. I think the communion of the subject matter is unique. It really says something about courage. That if you have a story to tell, it has every chance of being as wildly successful as everything else. As to how it happens, I’m pretty vague. But about this show, I think it says something that people are realizing. It’s taking away the taboo of what it means to have a mental illness. And I realized that, let me say this. A great analogy I heard that I think is very apt is that alcoholism in the 1950s is what mental illness is these days, in that there are people who weren’t able to discuss it and it was something of a weakness. Now I think the same can be said about mental illness. I’m not an expert. This is my own uneducated analogy. There is that taboo of realizing you don’t have to reach very far into your own family or community to find mental illness being very prevalent. That’s what I love about this story. A musical version of a topic that needs to be discussed.

Q: What kind of emotional response do you think the show draws from its viewers?

A: Well, I can only speak to mine. In preparing for the show, your job is to basically watch the show to see what’s going on. I was very emotionally affected by it. And I was not expecting that at all. The day I was in the audience, you can really hear people having an emotional response. Crying or nervous laughter or a collected participation that is very palpable and unlike any show I’ve experienced, especially for a musical. I guess I was mostly surprised by the story, which I think speaks to the universality of how it’s told. Even if you know how it’s going to end, you’re still affected by it. Like how you reread books. You want to have that response again.

Q: And what do you think made “Time Stands Still” such a success that it’s being brought back?

A: I think again it goes back to the story. And the success of that story to be something that is based on the ideas that are communicated. It’s a love story with a political context that is timely in that we’re all very aware of the dangerous world we live in. It doesn’t take too many pages into reading a newspaper to realize how precarious the world is these days. And to tell that story, to combine the awareness of what’s happening in our world with a political angle. In this case, the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. And marry that with the old-fashioned story of two people trying to understand a love relationship and whether it’s working or not. Ultimately, you’re only going to be as good as the story being told. That’s the one thing that can’t be denied.

Q: What other projects have you been working on lately?

A: I’ve been working on a project of my own. I shot a pilot last summer called “Shiny People” which is about world of corporate entertainment. It’s a completely improv-based comedy based on my experience with corporate entities trying to entertain regional sales forces with Broadway shows. It’s pretty ridiculous. That’s something I’m trying to sell right now. I produced it along with my co-creator. I learned so much about process of selling a TV show. We’re hopeful that the BBC will perhaps look at it.

Q: Would you appear on the show yourself?

A: Yeah, I would be one of the struggling if not inept producers of that entertainment.

Q: Who else would be in the cast?

A: David Constabile, a great actor. We were in “Titanic” together. My sister Kate.
David Hyde Pierce was a guest star on the pilot. David Rossmer. Steve Rosen.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Musicals Outside Manhattan: City of Angels, Children of Eden, Porgy & Bess, Take Flight

Let's play catch up with four musicals I've seen over the past two weeks, none of which took place within the borough of Manhattan. Two were in New Jersey, one was in Brooklyn, and one took place - gasp - in Queens. Frankly, I think it was the first show I've ever seen in Queens. Three were revivals, all of shows that are hardly ever done, and one was a new musical yet to be performed in New York.

Let's start with "Porgy & Bess," performed by the New Jersey State Opera at Newark's Symphony Hall for just two performances on May 21 and 23. This was the first time I've seen "Porgy & Bess" live, though I know the score well and have previously watched tapes of the "Live from Lincoln Center" performance by New York City Opera in 2002 and the commercially released Trevor Nunn production. I attended with my dad, who used to visit Symphony Hall quite frequently when he was younger. It was an extremely vast space. And to perform an opera there without microphones - and without supertitles - was pretty daunting and admittedly problematic. Jonathan Eaton's production, conducted by Jason Tramm, was mostly compelling though obviously under rehearsed. Gregg Baker, playing Porgy, sang beautifully, but looked far too handsome, tall and buff to be convincing as the lowly and disabled Porgy, whereas Lester Lynch exerted no sex appeal and looked like a slob as Crown. But these minor complaints aside, this was a mighty effort by the New Jersey State Opera, which hadn't presented a fully-staged production since 2006.

Next up is "City of Angels," produced by the Gallery Players in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. I performed in the show exactly ten years ago at French Woods Festival of the Arts (playing the super small role of Luther Kingsley, who is confined to an iron lung). Why is it that this show, a respectable hit from 1989, is hardly revived at all? Is it too expensive to mount, with its costly demands on costumes and lighting due to the black-and-white versus color motif? Is film noir suddenly out of fashion? Who knows. It might make a decent Roundabout revival in the near future. The Gallery Players' production was not one of the best productions I've seen there (such as say "The Wild Party," "Tommy" or "Caroline, or Change"), but the company did manage to pull off the difficult show. Danny Rothman and Jared Troilo looked rather play to play Stone and Stine respectively, but the cast was mostly convincing. Thanks to black lighting, Trey Compton's production was able to differentiate the film scenes (in black and white) from the real life segments (in color), though it was obviously less atmospheric and detailed than the Broadway production. The biggest problem was that the small band simply couldn't do justice to the jazz-style orchestrations. But again, I give the company much credit for mounting the show.

Over in Queens, the Astoria Performing Arts Center revived "Children of Eden," which has never received a major New York production, though it received a one-night-only benefit concert performance in 2003. Director Tom Wojtunik (whose work I've previously admired at Gallery Players) thoroughly transformed a space within the Good Shepherd Methodist Church to create a visually stunning yet pared down in-the-round staging, emphasizing much puppetry. The cast was of a mixed quality vocally, but the acting was uniformly strong. And the small band did a wonderful job with Schwartz's score, which is probably his best. My favorite moment of the night occurred at the very end of the finale song "In the Beginning," when the Tree of Knowledge was suddenly recreated as Noah's family parted. Truly gorgeous effect. If it was still running, I'd gladly sit through this three-hour production again. Come to think of it, it still surprises me that "Children of Eden" hasn't been brought to Broadway. Isn't it about time? It's a great score with popular appeal, two extremely familiar Bible stories with a liberalist spin, and opportunities for Julie Taymor-esque puppetry.

Finally, I also hit up "Take Flight" at the McCarter Theatre in New Jersey. I've wanted to see Sam Buntrock's production ever since I first listened to the P.S. Classics recording of the Menier Chocolate Factory staging two years ago. The Maltby & Shire score contains many fine moments, as does John Weidman's book, which mixes together the stories of the Wright Brothers, Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart. But too much of the show is static, and the Earhart portions (about the relationship between Earhart and her husband George Putnam) are pretty bad. It also marked the weakest performance I've ever seen from Michael Cumpsty, though he had very little to work with as Putnam. I wouldn't expect the production to transfer to New York anytime soon, but it was interesting to take a look at.

New Broadway Musicals Consumer Guide

This season's new crop of Broadway musicals is devoid of a must-see blockbuster hit like "Billy Elliot," and many are likely to appeal to only a specific audience group. To figure out which musical is best for you, we've dissected their plots, pros, and cons along with our recommendations.

Everyday Rapture

Background - Last minute replacement for scuttled revival of "Lips Together, Teeth Apartment."
Plot - Sherie Rene Scott reminisces about growing up in Kansas and moving to Manhattan.
Pros - Scott's superby voice, relentlessly silly, diverse songbook
Cons - More of a glorified cabaret act than a musical.
Verdict - Delicious and flamboyant entertainment.

Promises, Promises

Background - Sean Hayes and Kristin Chenoweth co-star in a revival of 1960s hit.
Plot - A nice guy works his way up the corporate ladder by lending his spartment to execs for their sexual escapades.
Pros - Sean Hayes is pretty good, Kattie Finneran is a riot in a small cameo, funny dialogue, great pop songs, athletic choreography.
Cons - Chenoweth is miscast, dated story.
Verdict - Mostly enjoyable.

Sondheim on Sondheim

Background - Barbara Cook and Vanessa Williams headline this new revue exploring Sondheim's musicals alongside videos of Sondheim.
Plot - None. Just Sondheim's songs plus biographical info.
Pros - Strong cast, unforgettable documentary footage of Sondheim.
Cons - Sondheim's songs lose their power when performed out of context.
Verdict - Disappointing.

American Idiot

Background - Stage adaptation of Green Day's album.
Plot - Minimal and confusing. Bored surburban males shoot heroin, join the army or watch television.
Pros - Visually brilliant, wild energy, great rock songs.
Cons - No character or story development, awfully loud
Verdict - Lame sequel to "Spring Awakening."

La Cage aux Folles

Background - Classic musical comedy returns in a scaled-down revival.
Plot - Son of a gay middle-aged couple that runs a drag club brings his girlfriend's conservative parents over for dinner.
Pros - Wonderful songs and story, Kelsey Grammer is great, fierce male dancers.
Cons - Douglas Hodge is over the top and irritating, production looks cheap and tacky.
Verdict - Production attacks the show's original strengths.

Million Dollar Quartet

Background - Based on a 1956 jam session between Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash.
Plot - None. The musicians just sing and chat a bit.
Pros - Rapid-fire energy, charismatic cast, classic rock songs.
Cons - Little story.
Verdict - Lightweight entertainment.

The Addams Family

Background -Charles Addams' cartoon characters return yet again.
Plot - Lame rehash of "La Cage aux Folles."
Pros - Great puppetry, star presence of Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth.
Cons - Too many to list.
Verdict - Worst musical of the season.

Come Fly Away

Background - Twyla Tharp choreography alongside Frank Sinatra recordings.
Plot - None. Couples simply dance.
Pros - Intense dancing, raw passion, Sinatra hits.
Cons - No story or characters.
Verdict - Boring dance recital.

A Little Night Music

Background - Catherine Zeta-Jones and Angela Lansbury star in a scaled-down revival of Sondheim's waltz musical.
Plot - Couples break in and out of relationships.
Pros - Incredible songs, exquisite performances, strong direction.
Cons - Needs larger orchestra, slow pace.
Verdict - Worthy revival of a great musical.

Fela!

Background - Tribute to the politics and music of Nigerian rebel Fela Anikulapo Kuti.
Plot - None. Essentially a monologue about Fela alongside backup dancers.
Pros - Explosive energy, vibrant choreography, Afrobeat score.
Cons - Repetitive and didactic.
Verdict - Overpraised by the critics.

Memphis

Background - Depicts the birth of rock and roll in an underground nightclub.
Plot - Uneducated redneck falls in love with rock and roll and a stunning black singer.
Pros - Well-developed story and characters, original score mixing blues and rock, strong performances, athletic choreography
Cons - Too few to mention.
Verdict - Best musical of the season.

Year Zero

Let's start by carefully distinguishing three current Off-Broadway shows with extremely similar titles: "Zero Hour," "The Zero Hour" and "Year Zero."

"Zero Hour" is a one-man show about comic Zero Mostel. "The Zero Hour" is a strange drama about a lesbian couple, ghosts and Nazis. "Year Zero," which just opened as part of Second Stage Uptown, is a comedic drama about a second generation Cambodian-American family.

Playwright Michael Golamco has combined elements of the traditional American immigrant saga and contemporary television sitcom humor to create an enjoyable character study about two Cambodian-American siblings dealing with the death of their mother and facing an identity crisis.

As the play begins, Ra is about to leave her teenage brother Vuthy behind in Long Beach, California and move to Berkeley for school. Ra is a socially awkward Dungeons and Dragons-playing geek who shares his secrets with a skull he purchased on the internet and is regularly beat up by bullies.

Twenty-something Vuthy is caught in a love triangle between Glenn, her perky and annoying Chinese boyfriend who works as a doctor, and Han, a Cambodian gang member recently released from prison. She also starts to realize that she knows little about her mother, who escaped the horrors of the Khmer Rouge totalitarian regime in 1970s Cambodia.

While the plot is static and the setup is familiar, Golamco has created strong characters undergoing real emotional changes. The result is a genuinely moving and smart play. Will Frears' intimate production is marked by nuanced performances and creative use of a small theater.

McGinn/Cazale Theatre, 2162 Broadway, 212-246-4422, 2st.org. Through June 13.

The Burnt Part Boys

Last season, "Billy Elliot," a musical about the son of a coal miner, became the biggest hit on Broadway. The Off-Broadway musical "The Burnt Part Boys" is also about the son of a coal miner, but don't expect it to achieve the same success. In fact, there's no compelling reason for it to be a musical to begin with.

"The Burnt Part Boys" is an odd combination of the coming of age flick "Stand By Me," Mark Twain literature, country-bluegrass music and family trauma. In spite of lofty ambitions to create a serious, mood-driven musical, it's a real snooze marked by a lack of action and songs that sound repetitive.

It's written by former students of William Finn, the composer of "Falsettos" and "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," who shepherded the musical through its early stages of development.


Set during the early 1960s in West Virginia, 14-year-old Pete learns that "The Burnt Part," the mine where a dozen minors including his father died a decade ago when it collapsed, will be reopened for business. Pete, unduly influenced by John Wayne films, sets out to blow up the mine with dynamite, leaving his brother trailing in his path to try and stop him.

Though an intense dramatic situation occurs at the end, "The Burnt Part Boys" mainly follows Pete's journey through the wilderness and explores the mining family's inability to move on.

There is an unfortunate timeliness to the show. Recent mining accidents occurred on April 5 in West Virginia, causing the deaths of 29 miners, and on April 28 in Kentucky, causing two deaths.

The nine-person cast is not bad, and the sparse set design consists of ladders and chairs that are moved around to represent different settings. But for the most part, the 90-minute musical is about as exciting as a long nature hike.

"The Burnt Part Boys" plays at Playwrights Horizons through June 13.
416 W. 42nd St., 212-279-4200, playwrightshorizons.org.