Saturday, July 31, 2010

Summer Broadway Festival

As Charles Isherwood correctly pointed out in his latest Sunday New York Times feature, the summer theater season in New York has been less than joyous in both quality and character. After all, Dostoevsky, Shylock and mathematical equations don’t exactly scream fun. So thank heavens for Town Hall’s Summer Broadway Festival, three back-to-back Monday nights of musical theater concerts. Looking back, the three concerts were marked by innovation and creativity, a tribute to established performers and the promise of new talent, as well as a bit of disappointment and occasional oddities.

Let’s start with the first concert, which was titled “Broadway Winners” and directed by Alexander Gemignani. Just as when I first saw it last year, I’m still scratching my head over the concept. According to host-creator Scott Siegel, it’s meant to highlight award-winning Broadway music. Fair enough, but that’s way too broad a concept. What decent musical hasn’t won at least one award, whether it be a Tony for Best Musical or Best Score, or a Grammy for Best Recording, or an Oscar for the film adaptation, or a Drama Desk or Drama Critics Circle Award, or anything else. And what about awards for revivals? Essentially, almost any song from any musical can qualify to be a part of this concert. Even a song from “Doctor Doolittle” somehow made it into the concert. How? Don’t ask.

But I’m not complaining. “Broadway Winners” was, on the whole, a solid concert of great performers singing great songs. By offering familiar songs, it defined the musical theater concert equivalent of light summertime entertainment. (For a full review of “Broadway Winners,” scroll down to my earlier post.)

“Broadway’s Rising Stars,” which showcases young performers that just graduated from musical theater college programs, was a letdown for me. I’ve attended this concert for the past three years and have been consistently impressed. Last year, I was particularly awed by Scott Coulter’s sensitive direction and how he brought out such well-crafted performances from all the young performers. Coulter directed again this year, but the quality of the performances was extremely mixed. Interestingly enough, the concert begun quite poorly, and slowly managed to get better and better and more and more professional. By the end, the concert was a smash. But in the beginning, it resembled a high school talent show.

How exactly did it begin? Not with a big ensemble number, but with the lamest opening sequence I’ve ever seen at a Town Hall concert. Emcee Scott Siegel introduced the performers one by one as they walked across the stage and made funny faces, making them look amateurish instead of professional. Then Jacob Smith gave a hollow performance of one of the derivative and annoyingly repetitive anthem “This is the Moment.” This was followed by a similarly shallow rendition of “Something’s Coming” from James Erickson. Jennie McGuiness, backed by a quartet of boys, treated “I Got Rhythm” as if it were the talent portion of a beauty contest, trying desperately to wow us.

Things started to change with Jeff Raab performing “There is a Sucker Born Ev’ry Minute,” who possessed real zest and presence. Stephen Lukas made a smart choice in performing not from “Phantom of the Opera” (as Carolyn Amaridio) did, but sang instead from “Love Never Dies.” Not that the song was all too great, but he managed to be the first performer of any kind to my knowledge to perform a song from it on a New York stage. Emmy Raver-Lampman delivered one of the best renditions of “Tomorrow” I’ve ever heard, giving it an adult sensibility. And as an absolutely stunning finisher to Act One, Ellisha Marie Thomas sang “Circle of Life” with the entire cast placed throughout the audience providing backup vocal support.

Act Two was similarly strong. Jessica Wager and the ensemble were wonderful in “Good Morning Baltimore.” Paris Nix gave a deeply felt performance of “Night Song” from “Golden Boy.” Laura Darrell and Danielle Columbo scored with the “Mack and Mabel” solos “Time Heals Everything” and “Wherever He Aint” respectively. The finale was a cute mash-up of “It’s Today” from “Mame” and “All I Need is One Good Break” from “Flora the Red Menace,” followed by an encore of “Stand by Me.” Frankly, the mash-up should have been used as the opening number.

In any case, the audience seemed to truly eat up the concert. It’s worth noting that much, if not most, of the audience consisted of friends and family of the featured young performers. As such, the atmosphere felt less like a typical Town Hall concert and more like a graduation ceremony. It's also worth noting that the featured performers came from many different schools, about half of them were graduates of the American Musical & Dramatic Academy. Why is that? On the whole, they were quite weaker in their performances than the grads of NYU and other schools of the performing arts.

The best of the concert series was saved for last. “All Singin All Dancin,” directed and choreographed by Jeffry Denman, proved to be the most physically ambitious concert I’ve ever seen produced by the Town Hall/Broadway by the Year series. For starters, the band, which is typically located onstage, was pushed backstage in order to give the dancers more room. And Scott Siegel’s podium was also removed. Instead, Siegel came onstage in between musical numbers. (With all due respect to music director Ross Paterson and Scott Siegel, I thought this layout was much more professional than usual, though I’d be willing to compromise with having Paterson and the band onstage and Siegel offstage. It also meant that Siegel couldn’t invite back performers to take additional bows, a well-meant but unnecessary practice that adds on at least five minutes to the length of every concert.)

The finale and centerpiece of Denman’s ambitious efforts was a new staging of Richard Rodgers’ 1930s noir “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue.” It was a stunner. But my favorite spot had to be the Act One finale, a revision of “The Cell Block Tango” with new lyrics from “Chicago” that focused on the five men who were shot and killed by those five merry murderesses. It was an absolute hoot and I hope it lives on beyond this initial concert as a permanent cabaret piece. Denman and Noah Racey delivered a tap-happy new version of “Necessity” from “Finian’s Rainbow” that I originally saw two and a half years ago at a “Broadway by the Year” concert. Denman was also smashing in “Two Lost Souls” from “Damn Yankees,” which he performed with his wife Erin Denman, and in “Someone is Waiting” from “Company,” in which a quintet of women surrounded him gracefully.

Karen Akers, the original Luisa from “Nine,” gave wonderful performances of “Be on Your Own” and “Only with You” from that terrific musical (that recently received a less-than-wonderful film adaptation). And Ron Raines, though vocally ailing, was absolutely tremendous with “September Song” and “I Won’t Send Roses.” Quite frankly, I’ve never seen “I Won’t Send Roses” sung with such incredible feeling and melancholy. And a special shout-out to Scott Coulter, who joined the cast at the very, very last minute to sing “Promises, Promises” in place of Raines.

In sum, overall, I’d like to thank Town Hall and Siegel for continuing to offer such extensive and ambitious entertainment in what has otherwise been an empty summer for musical theater in New York. So long as they keep pumping out these concerts, I’ll be there.

Bachelorette

Rest assured that "Bachelorette" has absolutely nothing in common with ABC's "The Bachelorette." Whereas "The Bachelorette" is a dumb and pointless television reality show, Leslye Headland's new play about a bachelorette party gone to hell manages to be sharp, shocking and very, very funny.

29-year-old Headland penned "Bachelorette" as part of her ongoing series of plays exploring the Seven Deadly Sins. Although "Bachelorette" was dedicated to the sin of gluttony, there's also plenty of wrath, greed, sloth, lust and envy going on.

Set in a luxurious and pristine bridal suite, Regan, the bride's jealous and vindictive maid of honor, sends for former college pals Katie and Gena to crash and burn the bachelorette party. Katie and Gena were purposely not invited to the wedding due to their drug and alcohol abuse problems.

After an extremely extended discussion about how each gal approaches oral sex, they become increasingly reckless and mean-spirited. While indulging in champagne, cocaine, pot and pills, they make out with random strangers, deride the bride for being overweight, and, while performing a cruel joke, accidentally tear the wedding dress.

Except for a few isolated patches where the play suddenly feels like a bloated soap opera, it makes for an engrossing character study marked by black humor, emotional desperation and brutal honesty. In a way, it feels like the unofficial sequel of the film comedy "Mean Girls" that takes place a decade after high school.

Trip Cullman's production features excellent performances from Celia Keenan-Bolger, Tracee Chimo and Eddie Kaye Thomas.

If you go? "Bachelorette" plays at the McGinn/Cazale Theatre through August 14.
2162 Broadway, 212-246-4422, 2st.com.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Henry VI, Part 3

"Henry VI Part 3," one of Shakespeare's earliest history plays, is not exactly his finest. The final part of the War of the Roses history cycle prior to "Richard III," it is essentially stuffed with two key ingredients: ridiculous family melodrama and bloody battle scenes.

It begins right after the Yorks have won a key battle against the Lancasters. From then on, a constantly shifting power struggle persists between the two factions. While Henry VI could care less about the crown, his power-hungry wife Margaret views things differently. And on the York side, hunchback Richard III is already planning his corrupt rise to power.

In 1970, Shakespeare in the Park performed all three parts of "Henry VI" in a now legendary all-night marathon, and once every blue moon all three parts are condensed into a single theater piece. So Wide Eyed Productions and Columbia University's ambitious Off-Off-Broadway of an uncut and unadulterated Part 3 should be of great interest to Shakespeare fanatics.

Director Adam Marple, who views the unwieldy play through the lens of a medieval morality drama, provides a mostly accessible, entertaining and well-acted production.

Some of Marple's directorial touches are a bit overstated. A giant image of the late Henry V in his prime looms over the set, and one particular actor, Jarrod Bogard, onstage the entire show to change the set, stare weirdly at the actors and deliver all the messenger lines.

Nat Cassidy stands out as a contemplative King Henry, and Candace Thompson makes for a cunning and power-hungry Margaret.

If you attend, we advise you to review your English history. Otherwise you find yourself hopelessly lost within the first ten minutes.

(If you go) "Henry VI Part 3" plays at the East Thirteenth Street Theatre through July 24.
136 E. 13th St., 212-352-3101, wideeyedproductions.com.

War of the Roses timeline:

1450 - Return of Richard, Duke of York, from Ireland
1453 - Henry VI of England's first bout of mental illness
1455 - War of the Roses begins with the Battle of First St. Albans
1460 - Richard, Duke of York, killed at the battle of Wakefield
1471 - Henry VI dies in Tower of London
1485 - Richard III killed at the Battle of Bosworth, Henry VII crowned

Summer Broadway Festival, Part 1: Broadway Winners

I'm still scratching my head as to the concept behind "Broadway Winners," the first of three musical theater concerts comprising this year's Summer Broadway Festival at Town Hall, an off-shoot of its much beloved Broadway by the Year series. According to producer and host Scott Siegel, the concert is meant to highlight "the award-winning music of Broadway." Fair enough. But what awards? Must the song itself have won an award, or the entire score, or the entire show? Can a revival have won the award, or must it be the original production? It's one of the broadest concepts of all time. Essentially, any show that is not an all-out flop can probably qualify.

But I'm not complaining. Seriously. Just like last year, "Broadway Winners," as directed by Alexander Gemignani, turned out a solid concert of great performers singing quality, well-known songs. After all, if the show won an award (Grammy, Tony, ect.), how bad can it be?

The weirdest moment of the night - which had almost nothing to do with the rest of the program - was comedienne Christina Bianco performing "If I Could Talk to the Animals" from "Doctor Dolittle." Even with a concept so broad as "the award-winning music of Broadway," this is a song not even from a Broadway show. And even weirder, Bianco sang it while impersonating Celine Dion. This is how Siegel justified its inclusion: If Celine Dion wanted to play Doctor Dolittle, it would probably come to Broadway. Whatever, it was funny. And Bianco, on a parody-less note, also gave a great rendition of "What Did I Have That I Don't Have" from "On a Clear Day."

Marc Kudisch, ever so hammy, went so far as to do a (painful) split during "Where is the Life That Late I Led?." Now that's choreography! He also gave a deeply felt rendition of Jud Fry's dramatic lament "Lonely Room," less threatening and sinister and more sincere than we're used to with that particular song.

I was in no mood to hear "Send in the Clowns" just a month after seeing and hearing Catherine Zeta-Jones butcher it on the Tony Awards. But Christine Andreas gave a nuanced, well-acted and well-sung performance. Afterwards, Siegel commented "And that's the way it SHOULD be sung." Yeah, we all got his drift.

Michele Lee, a special guest, was in poor vocal health, but still managed to shine thanks to her effervescent stage presence and energy in "Nobody Does it Like Me" from "Seesaw" and in a jazzy version of "I Believe in You" from "H2$."

Terri White, who stood out in Broadway's all too short-lived revival of "Finian's Rainbow" and recently ended her engagement in Broadway's "Chicago" as Matron Mama Morton, performed the absolute best version of "When You're Good to Mama" I've ever seen. And in Act Two, explaining that she once understudied Nell Carter in "Ain't Misbehavin'," she parodied Carter singing "Mean to Me."

William Michals, who continues to serve as Paolo Szot's standby in "South Pacific," gave a confident, vocally majestic rendition of "Some Enchanted Evening." I have seen him in "South Pacific" and personally prefer him over Szot in the role.

I must note that pianist David Hahn was not the best I've seen on the Town Hall stage. He was often unable to follow the performers, especially when poor Farah Alvin was singing "Unusual Way." Still, not a big deal.

Below is a full set list, which I must confess I am copying and pasting from Curtainup.com:

Act One
Before the Parade Passes By (Hello, Dolly!)-Bill Daugherty
Ice Cream Sextet (Street Scene)-John Easterlin (unplugged)
Unusual Way (Nine)-Farah Alvin
It Takes Two (Into the Woods)-Kate Baldwin and Alexander Gemignani
All I Care About Is Love (Chicago)-William Michals
When You're Good to Mama (Chicago)-Terri White (unplugged)
Lonely Room (Oklahoma!)-Marc Kudisch (unplugged)
What Did I Have That I Don't Have? (On a Clear Day)-Christina Bianco
Send In the Clowns (A Little Night Music)-Christine Andreas
Sometimes A Day Goes By (Woman of the Year)-Alexander Gemignani
Nobody Does It Like Me (SeeSaw)-Michele Lee Where Is the Life That Late I Led (Kiss Me Kate)-Marc Kudisch

Act Two
The Best of Times (La Cage Aux Folles)-Christine Andreas
If I Could Talk To the Animals (Dr. Doolittle)-Christina Bianco
The Only Home I Know (Shenandoah)-Bill Daugherty
The Music That Makes Me Dance (Funny Girl)-Farah Alvin
Mean to Me (Ain't Misbehavin')-Terri White (unplugged)
It Would Have Been Wonderful (A Little Night Music)-Alexander Gemignani and Marc Kudisch (unplugged)
I Believe in You (How to Succeed in Business)-Michele Lee
Some Enchanted Evening (South Pacific)-William Michals (unplugged)
Vanilla Ice Cream (She Loves Me)-Kate Baldwin
And This is My Beloved (Kismet)- John Easterlin (unplugged)
Heart (Damn Yankees)-Company

Friday, July 9, 2010

New Cast of Race

Half a year since opening on Broadway to harshly negative reviews, David Mamet's new play "Race" remains one of the most one-dimensional and broadly sketched plays of his established career. And with a mostly fresh cast on hand, it hasn't gotten much better. Just slower.

So slow, in fact, that the show is now runs about twenty minutes longer than before. But worst of all, the "Mamet speak" - the fast-paced, overlapping, rat-a-tat delivery of dialogue that is essential to any Mamet play - is now sorely lacking.

The drama concerns two criminal lawyers (Eddie Izzard and Dennis Haysbert) and a young female clerk (Afton C. Williamson) with a hidden agenda. The sudden opportunity to defend a rich and famous white man (Richard Thomas) accused of raping a black girl leads to an extended debate about how everyone thinks in terms of race.

While James Spader, who originated the role of Jack Lawson, did not exactly give a deep performance, he exhuded the same confrontational intensity of his "Boston Legal" character Alan Shore. British comedian Eddie Izzard, surprisingly, goes for a more tentative and subdued approach that is far less exciting to watch.

Dennis Haysbert, best known as President David Palmer on TV's "24," similarly tries a different approach than David Alan Grier as fellow attorney Henry Brown. Whereas Grier was combative and restless in the role, Haysbert tries to do more with less by relying mainly on his deep voice and large presence.

Afton C. Williamson, who was Kerry Washington's understudy, is a vast improvement over her predecessor, whose performance was a wooden as the set design.

If not much else, "Race" is a sincere attempt at creating a cultural dialogue, though it is undermined by Mamet's fondness for shallow plots and unwillingness to create complex characters.

(If You Go) "Race" plays at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre through August 23.
243 W. 47th St., 212-239-6200, raceonbroadway.com.

Timeline of recent David Mamet productions on Broadway

2005 - Revival of "Glengarry Glen Ross" with Alan Alda and Liev Schrieber
2007 - Premiere of "November" starring Nathan Lane
2008 - Revival of "Speed-the-Plow" with Jeremy Piven, who is later replaced by William H. Macy due to alleged "mercury poisoning"
2008 - Flop revival of "American Buffalo" with John Leguizamo and Cedric the Entertainer
2009 - Flop revival of "Oleanna" with Julia Stiles and Bill Pullman
2010 - Revival of "A Life in the Theater" with Patrick Stewart and T.R. Knight


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Monday, July 5, 2010

The Winter's Tale

Take pity on Shakespeare in the Park's overshadowed production of "The Winter's Tale," which is running in repertory with "The Merchant of Venice" with a mostly identical cast. "Merchant," which stars Al Pacino as Shylock, is drawing far more attention and is expected to transfer to Broadway.

While "Merchant" is criticized for its anti-semitic content, "The Winter's Tale" is notorious for its unbelievable and outrageous plot. It is, after all, the play with the most bizarre stage direction of all time: "Exit, pursued by a bear."

The beginning resembles "Othello": Leontes, the aging monarch of Sicilia, rashly accuses his wife Hermoine of sleeping around with his best pal Polixenes without proof, causing Hermoine and their son to die in grief.

After intermission, a schizophrenic shift in tone and timing occurs and the play suddenly resembles "A Midsummer Night's Dream": in sunny and frothy Bohemia, Leontes' long-lost daughter Perdita falls in loves with Polixenes' son.

Michael Greif's production is decent enough and Tom Kitt's original score is lovely, but it never fully comes together. The acting is uneven, the scenic effects are awkward, and the pace is so slow that it runs over three hours in length.

Ruben Santiago-Hudson is more perplexing than convincing as Leontes and displays no chemistry with Linda Emond, who looks rather old to be playing Hermoine. During their scenes, it is Marianne Jean-Baptiste who stands out as the fiery Paulina.

Hamish Linklater, as the proud thief Autolycus, tries so hard to be outlandish that he practically molests a sheep. Jesse Tyler Ferguson is more successful as a young sheperd, but his talent is wasted in such a small role.

An up-and-comer worthy of note is Heather Lind, a recent NYU grad who is wonderful as Perdita in "Winter's Tale" and Jessica in "Merchant."

(If You Go) "The Winter's Tale" plays through July 31 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 free Shakespeare in the Park tickets:

1. Try your luck on line. 2 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.

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