Sunday, December 31, 2006

Into the Words

"Shipwreck" Part 2 of "Coast of Utopia" at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre at Lincoln Center, December 30, 2006

I probably should have waited until I'd seen Part 1 of this massive endeavor by Tom Stoppard, but I came across a very good and affordable ticket and couldn't turn it down. (Spoiler alert)

This play picks up the story of Alexander Herzen (Brian O'Byrne), his family and friends in Russia and Paris. I won't attempt a plot summary. LCT has been thoughtful enough to do that for the audience as an insert to the playbill, including a reading list for those so inclined. The plot is as epic, intricate and heavily charactered as anything by Tolstoy. Check out the website for the show here:

Coast of Utopia

Individually, performances were solid with a few standouts. This is to be expected with a cast that includes Mr. O'Byrne, Billy Crudup, Jennifer Ehle, Martha Plimpton, Ethan Hawke, Amy Irving and Richard Easton. Mr. O'Byrne and Ms. Ehle (as Natalie Herzen) do most of the heavy lifting in the show, carrying the time from 1846 in Russia to 1852 heading for London and back to 1846 Russia with stops along the way in Paris, Germany, and Nice.

Mr. O'Byrne brings his usual intensity to Alexander, struggling with the idealism of bringing Russia into the modern world while trying to balance it with raising his family and maintain those relationships. He did seem to have some minor line difficulty at a couple of points, but the sheer volume of words he's tasked with learning deserves commendation in and of itself. To then be able to perform both plays currently running (not to mention the third which begins a the end of January) is a feat of true talent. He sums himself up, "...half Russian, half German, in the end I'm Polish at heart...".

Ms. Ehle's Natalie is also struggling (seems to be a running theme for most Russian theatre characters). Her younger son Kolya (August Gladstone) was born deaf.

David Harbour is George Herwegh, a German poet who meets the Herzen's in Paris, moans and wails as he thinks a 19th century poet should. I found this weakness disguised in the emotions of an artist makes him a rather unlikeable character, yet Mr. Stoppard has written that two women are in love with him at the same time. Given his use of "tits" and "ass" in another scene, I was left unsure how to deal with such anachronisms.

Mr. Crudup's Belinsky, suffering from consumption, is fragile and weak. Weakness becomes another running fatal flaw for characters in this play.

But ultimately, all this weakness seems to be each character's excuse for passion and inaction. They write plays and pamphlets and books, but each looks to the other to actually start the revolution they all agree is due and forthcoming. Michael Bakunin (Mr. Hawke) does join a real revolution, albeit a small one in Saxony, and finds himself returned to Russia in shackles.

Everyone spends a lot of time talking, but the real action is going on around them.

Mr. Stoppard also points up some political parallels to the world today. When discussing that nine million newly enfranchised French voters returned a monarchist in Napoleon, Herzen observes, "In a free vote, the French public renounced freedom." The response (from Bakunin, I believe) "More poor people have the vote today than rich people who have the vote. How did it turn out that nothing would change?" Napoleon staged a coup within three years, naming himself emperor.

Bodies litter the stage by the end of the play, figuratively at least as Herzen heads for London.

Jack O'Brien has directed this massive cast with a fine eye and hand. He moves what little story there is along well. I liked the use of parallel tableaux opening Acts I and II, even though events to follow were very different. We also get a glimpse of Kolya's silent life as the adults around him fade to pantomime.

Supported by a terrific design team, sets by Bob Crowley and Scott Pask, costumes by Catherine Zuber and lighting by Kenneth Posner. I've always been impressed by the quality of sets in the Beaumont Theatre. It's one of the few major houses with thrust stage, once fashionable, but not anymore. Messrs. Crowley and Pask have done some excellent work, from Herzen's first appearance floating in a chair above a billowing silk sea that drains into a trap door, to the torn and tattered edge of the scrim, communicating the age of a society, the wear of a revolution and evoking a distant countryside treeline, to the Place de la Concorde in Paris with some clever perspective work on a shallow stage.

I think this is one I'll have to see again, but only after I've seen Part 1 first.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

In the Tradition of Russian Ballet, There Are Changes to Tonight's Program

Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo at the Joyce Theatre, December 29, 2006

I first saw the Trocks in Greenville, SC several years ago and have loved them ever since. This season's biennal NYC stop on their tour was the same treat it always is.

A heavily Russian-accented voice begins the show as the house lights dim with announcements including this post's title above along with the request to refrain from flash photography as "sudden boorsts of light remind fragile ballerinas of terrible Bolshevik gunfire."

The program opened with "Swan Lake, Act I Scene 2." The principals were Pepe Dufka (Raffaele Morra) as Benno, friend and confidante to Prince Siegfried, Ashley Romanoff-Titwillow (Joshua Grant), who falls in love with Odette, Svetlana Lofatkina (Fernando Medina Gallego), Queen of the Swans, who got this way because of Von Rothbart, Yuri Smirnoff (Robert Carter). This is classic Trock material, and is a signature of the company. The choreography is after Ivanov's 1894 version that followed Tchaikovsky's death the year before. I felt there were fewer moments of quality dancing, sacrificed at the cost of more over-the-top shenanigans than I remembered from the first time I saw them perform this piece. Some favorite items of this production are the romantic tutus and opera glove worn by the Swan Corps, although it's the chest and armpit hair that really complete the ensemble. As Odette, Mr. Gallego did manage to hold some lovely balances during the pas de deux (which somehow had become a pas de trois, with Mr. Morra assisting Mr. Grant in the dips, much to Mr. Gallego's dismay). He also showed some fine technique in his entrechats and remarkably quiet toes. Mr. Gallego did capture the heart of this tender role with all the bravura he could muster. Imagine Charles Busch in a tutu, en pointe, and you'll understand what I'm trying to say. Mr. Grant fills one of the requisite company spots of a freakishly tall and long-limbed dancer. His Siegfried was true to the blondewig he sported, but he did redeem himself with beautiful jete's during his variation. As Von Rothbart, Mr. Carter played it for every laugh he could find. The pas de quatre, Le PetitsCygnettes, was also a highlight of the scene, but cast with the Trock's usual mismatch in the sizes of the dancers. Having seen a dreadful "Swan Lake" while traveling in Russia last October, this performance oddly restored my faith in the work.

One of the additions to the evening's program was the Pas de Deux from "Flames of Paris." This is a bravura dance with flashy choreography. I was unable to capture the names of the dancers for the pas, but their performance was quite good. Being a Trock presentation, there were some campy moments, ones best appreciated by dancers familiar with the music and choreography. The dancer performing the female role should be commended for the fouette' segment, cleanly landing four single-single-single-doubles, followed by another 24 singles during the coda.

The other addition was "La Cacuchka," a Spanish character dance performed by Svetlana Lofatkina (Mr. Gallego) and Lariska Dumbchenko (Mr. Morra). Each in Spanish dresses more ugly than the other somehow, Mssrs Gallego and Morra took turns in bravura one-upsmanship offering some very competent use of castanets. It gave me a bit of an insight to what one might expect from the Trocks' "Grand Pas de Quatre" which is part of the other program on their tour this season. I'm tempted to come back, just for that piece.

Following this was the Pas de Six from "Esmerelda" featuring Gert Tord (Bernd Burgmaier) as Esmerelda, and Mikail Mypansorov (Damian Diaz) as Pierre Grengiore. Here the Trocks are back to their old game of mismatched partners. Mr. Burgmaier is thirteen feet tall if he's an inch, and Mr. Diaz seems to still reach for five feet high. In the pas, the moments of Mr. Tord supporting himself by holding on to Mr. Diaz' head during a supported promenade, was only topped by Mr. Diaz supporting Mr. Tord by holding his armpits (the highest he could reach) for another supported promenade. For a man of his size, Mr. Burgmaier does have impressive extension. There aren't many dancers who can kick a tambourine they are holding over their own heads, particularly of Mr. Burgmaier's lofty reaches.

Closing the program was a new production of Massine's "Gaite' Parisienne." I was hopeful for a fine dancing with a bit of camp thrown in. Instead, it was lots of camp, with very little fine dancing thrown in. Even the costumes appeared to be a mishmash of old pieces tossed together with some badly sewn new dresses. Poor Mr. Burgmaier looked dreadful in that sack of a dress. Mr. Morra, as the Proprietress, tried to maintain some order, but was unsuccessful. Mr. Carter, in the role originated by Danilova, was reduced to a stumbling drunk. I had hoped to see him demonstrate some of the magnificent turns I've seen in prior performances.

There are glimmers of hope in the program, but it looks like the Trocks are making the trade-off of laughs for technique more often than not. In the end, it was an evening of great fun, if not of great dancing.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Broadway Awakens!

"Spring Awakening" at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre, December 16, 2006

Another feather in the cap of the Atlantic Theatre from last season, "Spring Awakening" has opened on Broadway to significant critical acclaim. I saw the show last spring and liked it, but at the time didn't get the hype about it. I returned tonight and now I can say, "I get it."

My initial reaction to the show earlier this year was, "...yeah, yeah. Teenagers with angst about sex and growing up - been there, done that." It just didn't resonate with me at the time. The original play, "Spring Awakenings" by Franz Wedekind, was written in 1891. At the time, the play was considered revolutionary with its references and discussion of puberty, masturbation, wet dreams and homosexuality. Originally banned, it was not actually produced until 15 years or so later and even then was heavily censored.

Duncan Sheik has picked up the mantle of the rock musical, crossing out of the 19th century into the 21st. Granted, it's been more than six months since I saw the show at the Atlantic, but the piece seems to have come together in a way I didn't remember. Steven Sater's book keeps the setting in 1890s provincial Germany.

Plot Summary (Spoiler Alert):
Wendla (16 going on 17, as it were) can't get Mama to tell her where babies come from. Moritz (the geek) is distraught over the frequency and distractions of his wet dreams. Other boys are having wet dreams about piano teachers, their mothers and each other. Melchior (the coolest kid in school) knows all about sex because of his forward-thinking mother. Melchior writes down everything-Moritz-wants-to-know-about-sex-and-can-barely-ask. This essay only drives Moritz to further distraction and sabotages his studies. He doesn't get promoted to further education or get laid when the opportunity presents itself, then commits suicide (the disapproving and unsympathetic father is heartbroken). All the girls love Melchior, but he only notices Wendla in the woods one day, leading to an ambiguous sexual encounter (consensual?) that leaves her pregnant. When Mama calls the doctor about the fatigue and nausea, she ends up being the one to have to tell Wendla that she's pregnant. Woe, suffering, embarrassment, etc., ensue. Wendla dies during the attempted abortion. Melchior's essay and pending fatherhood are revealed. He's then sent off to a reformatory where he gets beaten up and almost sexually assaulted. He escapes, hoping to meet Wendla to run away together, but when he plans to meet her at the cemetery, he doesn't know she's already there until he stumbles across her grave. Ghosts of Moritz and Wendla appear to stop Melchior from joining them and he runs away to find a new life. Other subplots include the girl whose father beats and molests her, and a boy's seduction of another boy.

I bought in during Melchior's (Jonathan Groff) first number "All That's Known" which overlays the first true "rock" number of the show over the recitation of Aeneas chanted in Latin. Director Michael Mayer started an interesting motif using cordless microphones for the musical numbers to emphasize the juxtaposition of the rock music as the teens' inner thoughts against the staid, period language of the play's setting. This works pretty well until later in the show when he seems to have forgotten that he started that way. Bill T. Jones' choreography adds to this juxtapositioning of periods.

As Melchior, Mr. Groff is well on his way to heart-throb status. Pretty, with curls, he plays the late 19th James Dean, but a little smarter and more cunning. When all ends badly, he's still just a boy and weeps with the abandon of a child. The only area needing attention is an occasional pitch problem in a couple of songs.

As Moritz, John Gallagher, Jr. confirms the talent so well-displayed in last season's "Rabbit Hole" at the Manhattan Theatre Club. Moritz's awkward discomfort and lack of self-confidence is palpable in Mr. Gallagher's performance. His fear of authority from his teachers and parents paralyzes him as a boy cornered and trapped in the torment of his own body.

Lea Michele's Wendla seems to have either lost a little weight since last spring, or has gotten more flattering costumes. Lovely and tender, her fleeting innocence is heart-breaking to watch. When her mother abandons her at the abortionist, her scream is that of a little girl captured by a monster.

The rest of the young cast, which has been filled out with some onstage chorus members who sit on the stage along with part of the audience are solid. Playing all of the adult roles, Stephen Spinella and Christine Estabrook bounce quickly and effectively from role to role as various parents and teachers. Ms. Estabrook is a significant addition in this role. Mr. Spinella has replaced Frank Wood from the earlier production. I was unsure about this choice, but Mr. Spinella performs admirably, bringing a bit more individuality to each of the roles he effects. Most touching was his reaction as Moritz's father at the boy's funeral. Stoic and unmoved, he crumbles in agonizing grief when Melchior touches his chest as if looking for a heart.

Christine Jones has recreated original set along with the complete former-church interior of the Atlantic Theatre's facility on W 20th St. in Chelsea, buoyed by a few hydraulics here and there. It is Kevin Adams lighting that adds significant magic to this production. He crosses back and forth seamlessly between theatrical and rock concert-style effects. Susan Hilferty's costumes are also basically unchanged and effective.

It's an excellent show and a consistent product of the fine work being created at the Atlantic Theatre Company. I look forward to their next offering.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

He Wouldn't Be Here, If Only He'd Saved More

"Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me" at the Jacobs Theatre, December 13, 2006

I've paraphrased the working title of this show for the title of this entry. Originally, the title was to have been "Martin Short: I Wouldn't Be Here If I'd Saved More."

I was hesitant to see this, but I must say I'm glad I went. It's been the most fun I've had in a Broadway theatre in weeks!

Mr. Short, supposedly following in the line of actors who have appeared in solo Broadway shows (Billy Crystal, Whoopi Goldberg, Dame Edna, etc.) has brought a fun parody of that kind of show. With an original score (more on that later) by Mark Shaiman and directed by Scott Wittman, it's just the kind of entertainment, (almost a burlesque, if you will) to suit a holiday season.

I won't go through Mr. Short's resume here, but his previous Broadway outings have been recognized and quite respectable, including a Tony for "Little Me" and a nomination for the musical version of "The Goodbye Girl."

"Fame Becomes Me" however, is not quite that structured. It's a great nightclub act that should make for a killer tour - small cast of 6, simple sets, and could probably work with a truly minimal orchestra. Even though he's just announced that the show will close on January 7, 2007 and will be followed by the tour later in the year.

If you've watched Mr. Short on any of his TV outings, SCTV, SNL, Jiminy Glick, you already know what he does. There are no new surprises here. I would like to have seen a little more of Ed Grimley (I must say, of course!) than just the , but all is presented in great fun.

The real star of this show, however, is Mark Shaiman's score. He manages to evoke song styles from Judy Garland (Farmer's Daughter), to Wicked (The Lights Have Dimmed on Broadway), to Stephen Sondheim (Ba-Ba-Ba-Bu-Duh Broadway), and does it all with a loving touch. If he doesn't get a nomination for this score, something's very wrong. Mr. Shaiman also spends a good bit of time performing onstage, although he does reveal a bit more of himself than you might have asked for.

The supporting performers, "Comedy All Stars" include Brooks Ashmanskas, Mary Birdsong, Capathia Jenkins and Donna Vivino. Each of these performers display quite a range of talents. Notable moments were Ms. Birdsong as a Judy Garland-esque character and as Joan Rivers. Ms. Vivino was spot on in her moment as Sarah Jessica Parker. Mr. Ashmanskas had great fun as Mr. Short's brother, who appeared from time to time to dispute the life story that was being told in the show. And as you've probably already heard, Ms. Jenkins brings down the house in a number entitled "Stop the Show." (A great line she delivers to the rest of the cast, "You can clap along alright, but not on one and three!")

Tickets and discounts should be plentiful. I got mine through TDF and sat on the front row of the mezzanine. If you're in town over Christmas and have the time - go see it.

Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree With Anyone Else But Kristin

"The Apple Tree" presented by The Roundabout Theatre Company at Studio 54, December 12, 2006

Ben Brantley gushes like a schoolgirl whenever Patti LuPone or Kristin Chenoweth are onstage. I understand his admiration and share it, but not quite to the point of gushing like a schoolgirl. (Have you picked up on the fact that I like the phrase "gush like a schoolgirl" yet?)

Ms. Chenoweth is back on the Broadway boards in the Roundabout's latest revival of Bock and Harnick's "The Apple Tree," three one-act musicals about the power of love. For those of you who may not know the show (both of you), the first act is a retelling of the Bible, "The Diary of Adam and Eve," based on Mark Twain's short story. Act II, "The Lady or the Tiger" is based on Frank Stockton's story of the same name and Act III is "Passionella, A Romance of the '60s" based on Jules Feiffer's story.

This production is basically a restaging of the City Center Encores! production from last season. There have been some casting changes, thankfully. Gone are Malcom Gets and Michael Cerveris, replaced by Brian D'Arcy James and Mark Kudisch. I enjoyed that performance for what it was and was puzzled to see it get a Broadway run.

With Mark Twain flavor, Adam (Mr. James) and Eve (Ms. Chenoweth) set about naming the animals and plants of the world. Adam: flyers, crawlers, swimmers, growlers, hoppers. Eve: horse, goat, bear, lion, parrot, mackeral. Eventually they figure out what each other is for and with a push from the Snake (Mr. Kudisch) the apple falls from the tree, as it were. But, love conquers all, despite the unfortunate proceedings with sons Cain and Abel. As Adam, Mr. James brings a sweet earnestness to the role, immaturely bothered by the intrusion of the new creature, but his sadness is heartfelt when Eve dies at the end of the act. Ms. Chenoweth's song "What Makes Me Love Him" which just precedes that moment lets you know full well why.

A couple of questions:
  • Alan Alda is the voice of God - are you kidding?
  • Is Ms. Chenoweth's Eve a lot like Sally Brown, or is Sally Brown a lot like Eve?

As for "The Lady or The Tiger" I didn't get it at the Encores! production and it's not much improved here. A military hero, a commoner, is in love with the king's daughter, who loves him as well. His trial for this sin is to choose one of two doors. Behind the first is a tiger that will kill him. Behind the other is a beautiful maiden, whom he will marry (whether he wants to or not). Since the accused makes the choice, he is responsible for his own fate. She learns from the tiger trainer which door will hold the tiger for his trial, then learns that her own handmaiden will be the lady behind the other. To see him killed would be torture. To see him marry another would be torment. Which door will she send him to?

Who knows?

Who cares?

This act is not a great bit of theatre, nor is this part of the production. Costumes improve dramatically from Act I, but the set still looks cheap - like an Encores! set does. It's one thing to create a minimalist set because you're either at:

a) a performance by a company with an interesting artistic vision and interpretation of the material, or
b) a performance with a clever creative team who manages to make the results of a small budget look intentional.

This just looks cheap, which is pretty disappointing from John Lee Beatty. He's done some of the most amazing interior sets I've seen on Broadway, from the shiplike residence in Heartbreak House, to the Hamptons home in Naked Girl on the Appian Way and many, many in between. Mr. James as the soldier gives a nice Kirk Douglas imitation during his trial, but otherwise is just satisfactory.

The other weakness is revealed here with the poor vocals from the dancing chorus. They are a pretty chorus, but can hardly sing a note. Choreography also appears to have been phoned in for this act.

The last act, "Passionella..." is a Cinderella tale of a lady chimney sweep who wants to be a movie star. Ms. Chenoweth really shines, as does the rest of the cast in this part of the show. Her frumpy, awkward and shy Ella sings with an endearing weakness. Once she's transformed by her Fairy Godmother (Mr. Kudisch doing double duty along with narrating this act), she's a movie star from the Huntley Brinkley Report until the Late Late Show every night. She meets her Prince Charming, Flip Prince Charming (Mr. James) and is smitten. Mr. James does a nice British 60's rocker bit with this role.

The sets are more interesting, relatively speaking (mylar rain curtains for everyone!), as costumes and choreography seem to step up a bit as well.

Having only seen "The Apple Tree" in these two performances, I have to wonder if much of the weakness comes from the material. Act I is basically just for the two leads. Act II is a throw-away. Act III finally starts to really feel like musical theatre. It looks like this was Gary Griffin's take on the show as well. Lighting was a little conspicuous, but the sound was masterfully executed by Production Sound Engineer, Pitsch Karrer.

I was surprised to see so many empty seats for a subscription musical. On the other hand, if you're not a fan of Ms. Chenoweth (and I am) what's the draw?

Monday, December 11, 2006

High F******G Fidelity

"High Fidelity" at the Imperial Theatre, December 10, 2006

I'm pretty sure I saw the movie when it came out. It was cute. I didn't really get the hype around it at the time, but then again, I hadn't read the Nick Hornby book, on which it was based.

For some reason, those with the cash and energy have created a musical version for Broadway, painfully continuing one of the two less creative source trends for stage entertainment that has been trying to smother Broadway for the last couple of years - Hollywood films from the '80's and '90's. The other source - song collections of a given artist or group - has hopefully reared its ugly head for the last time with the merciful closing of the Tharp/Dylan vehicle "The Times They Are A-Changin'." (Don't forget, I subscribe fully to the [title of show] theory that you don't have to actually see a show to criticize it.)

So, we're presented a possible book-end to (also soon to close) "The Wedding Singer." And, don't let your guard down yet, "Legally Blonde" is scheduled to open at The Palace early next year.



I had heard much of the buzz about this show - lukewarm notices out of town, changes and adjustments going in from time to time, all with the hopes of finding the formula for a cash-cow style Broadway hit. (BTW, there is no such formula - duh!)


I broke down and bought a ticket. The cast did include some people I believe to be talented, including my fellow former-Columbia, SC-resident, Jenn Colella. Will Chase also brings a strong performing reputation to the proceedings.

Imagine my disappointment when I open my playbill to find a half-page of substitutions, the most disheartening of which was that Mr. Chase would not be performing. Had I paid full price for the ticket, I might have tried for a refund (which probably would not have happened, since Mr. Chase's name does not appear above the title). I'm a good boy scout, so I'll stick it out. Ms. Colella was performing so all was not lost. (Another aside, the Asian chorus-boys who sat behind me thoroughly enjoyed every single moment of the evening.)

For the two of you who might not know the premise of the story, Rob owns an old-style record store in Brooklyn. His girlfriend Laura has just broken up with him and he's not really sure why. His employees at the record store demand the kind of museum-like worship of vinyl from their customers that they practice themselves, meaning they spend most of their time running people off because they want to buy something by Celine Dion.

When the book of High Fidelity was released, vinyl albums had been long-replaced by compact discs and MP3 players were just starting to find an audience. David Lindsay-Abaire's book places the time of this musical in "the recent past." This allows for anachronisms and cheesy references from "fall into the Gap" to John Tesh's recording career, to "Titanic." It also takes quite a suspension of disbelief that this unsuccessful business hadn't closed already.

Rob, who quantifies his life in a series of "Top 5" lists eventually has a moment of true introspection and recognizes the jerk he really is, so boy gets girl back at the end of the story. Toss in a couple of bizarre characters, Barry, who's been trying to start a progressive rock band for 7 years and never got a response from his poster for it in the store. Dick, the painfully introverted geek with no personality and fewer friends. Liz, the friend of both Rob and Laura who introduced them. Ian, Rob and Laura's former neighbor, an overaged hippie, massuer, and interventionist whose greatest achievement seems to have been the intervention of Kurt Cobain. And, the most pathetic man in the world (TMPMITW) who visits the store once a week, just to look at the truly valuable and collectible 45's that Rob has accumulated over the years.

Filling in for the role of Rob was John Patrick Walker. Mr. Walker certainly looked the part and made a concerted and noble effort to rise to the occasion. His vocal style did not, however, accompany him. The pastiche mish-mash of a pop-rock score by Tom Kitt required a rocker, if not, at least a rocker-wannabe to sing this role. Mr. Walker was likeable in the part, if not accomplished.

As Laura, Ms. Colella came across as a grown-up Amy Sedaris, responding to most things with a cock of the head as she spoke. She seemed to have much more fun when her character was part of Rob's imagination than when she was just Laura. It's too bad she didn't have more to do in this show.

In the "Jack Black" role of Barry, Jay Klaitz brings a similar irreverence without aping Mr. Black's performance. As Dick, Christian Anderson has just the right sweetness and innocence about him. He does have a nice song in Act I that reprises in Act II, "No Problem." The only problem I found is that the first time around, it lasts entirely too long.

I won't spend any more time on the "Springsteen" number other than to say I couldn't understand a word that was sung, let alone why it was part of the show. Rob never makes any other reference to The Boss in the show, so why is this number here?

Jeb Brown does what he can with the two-dimensional role he's been given. He's quite the trooper in Act II during scene when he comes to talk to Rob about leaving Laura alone. We see three or four musicalized versions of Rob's reaction to Ian, from Eminem to Gangsta Rap, all of which end up with Ian dead on the floor of the store. It's one of the more clever moments of staging in the show.

The show still feels long. I can't help but wonder that they would do well to cut another 30 minutes out of the show, cancel the intermission and hope for the best.

When all was said and done, I kept asking myself why this was onstage. For a play to be effective, its premise should include concepts that are inherently theatrical. This means that a live stage performance is the ideal and most effective way to tell the story. I don't see where that fits here.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

He Wrote Some Other Good Things

"Echoes" presented by Doubtless Dreamers at the 440 Studios, December 7, 2006

N. Richard Nash wrote a couple of good plays and films during his long career, from "The Rainmaker" to its musical version "110 in the Shade," working with Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt of "The Fantasticks" as well as collaborating with Kander and Ebb on "The Happy Time." A new revival of "110 in the Shade has been announced for the 2007 Broadway season presented by the Roundabout Theatre at Studio 54. It was also the Roundabout that last revived "The Rainmaker" starring Woody Harrelson, in 1999.

He also wrote "Echoes" in 1973, a cryptic sketch about two patients in a mental hospital. My conjecture is that he going for something like "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest" from 10 years before, but didn't find a very good twist on the concept. It does not appear to have ever been given a major production. Having seen it, I understand why. The premise of two mentally ill patients who communicate well with each other, but cannot do so successfully with reality is a great idea for an acting exercise, one scene, maybe even a one-act. There's not enough here to justify a two-act evening. The imaginary world of these two require visualization of imaginary props and set pieces and makes the play much more affordable for a young company to produce. Again, a great acting exercise to hone up one's pantomime skills, but not 2 hours of great entertainment for an audience. There are a couple of other questions that I have about the premise that never get explained. First, is it customary in a mental ward to mix genders in a shared room? Particularly when we learn that he is married and has a child? Character reactions to major events also seem to be taken as a foregone conclusion - doesn't really gel with how I would expect a mentally ill person to respond. Things like that gnaw at me sometimes.

Craig Jessen and April Lowe have produced "Echoes" for themselves in a blackbox space also used during the annual NY Fringe Festival. The space works very well, with only two cots required on an otherwise empty stage. Mr. Jessen and Ms. Lowe are talented young actors. One can easily see the amount of effort and work that went into the staging of this production. As Tilda, Ms. Lowe carries the bulk of the heavy lifting since Mr. Jessen begins both acts while Sam is asleep. Paranoid and insecure, she spends her energy trying to make Sam (Mr. Jessen) happy in their cell. They go through their rituals of distraction and avoidance, but still run into their respective demons.

Fearing "The Person" their doctor (Kelly Morris) they withdraw and curl up every time he enters their cell. Mr. Morris has an equally difficult task of pantomiming speech. In the world Mr. Nash has created, the insane can only hear each other. It's a thankless role.

Mr. Jessen's Sam is a likeable guy, comforting and accomodating Tilda's insecurities. They've made a pact to NOT talk or listen to "The Person." They think they'll only be safe in their imaginary world of baseball and Christmas. Sam turns out to be either not as strong (or not as crazy) as Tilda and succumbs to the unheard words of his doctor. He clears his problems in a single (also pantomimed) conversation while Tilda rants and begs him not to. After promising to never leave Tilda, he does. She only whimpers and withdraws further.

From the program:
About Doubtless Dreamers

Our mission is to entertain audiences while also promoting compassion. By exploring stories and characters that run the gamut of the human experience, we hope to create more empathy in the world.
I wish them well on their journey.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Prime Perhaps, But Not Ideal

"The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" presented by the New Group at the Acorn Theatre, Theatre Row, December 6, 2006

I love Cynthia Nixon. I always have since one of her earliest film roles, that of a maid in "Amadeus." I can still see her sobbing at the end. Add to that her run in "Sex and the City" with my good friend Kristin Davis and it's like we're BFF (sort of).

Anyway, she's back onstage in NYC, this time as Jean Brodie, the Scottish teacher "in her prime." Much has already been written about the script and her performance. I won't spend so much time on the play itself, but will focus more on the production.

Scott Elliott, a founder of the New Group, has given what is probably a faithful restoration of the play, with a couple of nice touches, though the pacing felt a little indulgent. Act I ran about 10 minutes longer than the one hour sign posted in the theatre lobby. Placing the students in front of the proscenium in desks facing the stage provide a nice opportunity for Ms. Nixon to deliver her classroom lectures. He moves the story along pretty well making nice use of Derek McLane's single set. Jason Lyons integrated lighting is a key to that success.

The costumes were quite effective, although it appeared that Eric Becker had used up his budget by the time he got to the nun's habit. That only added to the flashback concept looking like an afterthought in this staging.

Ms. Nixon's Miss Brodie is manipulative from the outset. She presents a woman who fancies herself a modern Plato, when she's really more just a pied piper. This woman is one who worships form over function, heaping praise on Mussolini for the cleanliness of his city streets. (He's also established a nature conservancy program. Such vision and virtues can't possibly make a fascist a bad thing, can it?) Her results with the men in her life are not quite as successful. There were several mentions of her accent being difficult to understand. Perhaps because I attended late in the run, this issue had worked itself out. When Miss Brodie should sparkle, Ms. Nixon only glimmers. She does not struggle like Julianne Moore did in "The Vertical Hour," but she doesn't quite sweep you off your feet like Miss Brodie should. She is an accomplished actor, but there are times when skill can't overcome an ill-fitting role.

As the two men, Gordon Lowther (John Pankow) and Teddy Lloyd (Ritchie Coster) fall for her manipulations as well. Mr. Coster's Teddy gets the better material to work with and plays it well. Mr. Pankow's Gordon is somewhat of a departure from his obnoxious baseball fan "Twelve Angry Men." I'll echo other notices that have described his performance as "sweet."

Her girls, of an impressionable age, latch on to her for approval and guidance. Jenny (Halley Wegryn Gross) is the pretty one. Mary MacGregor (Betsy Hogg), who seems to have the only last name of the four girls, is the awkward one. Monica (Sarah Steele) is the emotional one. Sandy (Zoe Kazan) is the dependable one. Of the four, Ms. Kazan gives the standout performance. I did think her nude scene dragged on a little longer than necessary. Her inner struggle as to whether or not she should betray her teacher was thoughtful and effective. Ms. Gross' accent was completely unintelligible. Ms. Steele and Ms. Hogg were both appropriate to their respective roles.

Though not groundbreaking, this was a solid and respectable production. I look forward to Ms. Nixon's next stage outing. I hear that she's been studying voice - maybe a musical next time?

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

The Politics of a Broken Heart

"Heartbreak House" presented by the Roundabout Theatre at the American Airlines Theatre, December 5, 2006

George Bernard Shaw's tale of bohemians in disregard for the real world around them has taken up on 42nd St. in the Roundabout's latest revival. It's a star-studded cast of quite talented performers, including Broadway veterans Swoosie Kurtz, Philip Bosco and Byron Jennings.

I attended a pre-show discussion, during which I learned that the play has a subtitle "A Chekovian Fantasia in the Russian Style." It's too bad that the Roundabout left that line out of the playbill - it certainly helped me understand the evening's proceedings. Another bit I learned - that Shaw believed, like Brecht (Mother Courage), that was was primarily a capitalist movement - that only the rich benefit from a war.

(Another Shavian quote I hadn't heard before: "Games are for people who neither think, nor read.")

The play takes place at the residence of Captain Shotover (Philip Bosco), retired from the Royal Navy, where he discovers that his daughter Hezione Hushabye (Swoosie Kurtz) has invited a young woman, Ellie Dunn (Lily Rabe) to visit. After a bit of what seems like Wildean confusion (or is it that Wilde appeared to present Shavian confusion in his plays?), the captain's other daugher, Ariadne Utterword (Laila Robins) also arrives to visit for the first time in 23 years. Though time has been kind to Ariadne, no one seems to recognize her at first. Quickly resolved, Hezione's motives are soon revealed that she plans to stop the impending marriage of the young Miss Dunn to the industrious capitalist, Boss Mangan (Bill Camp), a peer and perceived salvation of Miss Dunn's father, Mazzini Dunn. Both Mr. Dunn and Lady Utterword's brother-in-law Randall (Gareth Saxe) arrive in short order to get things underway.

Everywhere one turns, a heart is broken, either already, or soon-to-be. Ellie has been wooed by another man who has stirred her passions (who turns out to be Hezione's husband, Hector Hushabye). Randall pines for his sister-in-law, following wherever she travels. Ariadne and Hector also strike a fire in each other, which of course, cannot be consummated. From all of this Ellie dubs the residence "Heartbreak House."

Hezione, known for her beautiful red hair and dressed in a greek-interpretive sheath of red, quickly appeals to Miss Dunn to give up her plans to wed and to find a younger, more suitable love match. Miss Dunn feels a debt of gratitude to Mr. Mangan for bailing her father's failed business, and thus her family, out of bankruptcy. Marrying him would provide her a life of comfort, free of the money worries she's always known. Besides, she says, "My mother married a very good man. She did not want me to do the same." As Hezione, Ms. Kurtz comes out with both barrels blasting. Her Hezione seems patterned after Roz Russell, with a little Mae West tossed in to give some edge. I'm not sure the role is suited for this kind of edge. She does look exquisite, with the fat, red sausage curls a-flying.

Lily Rabe, fresh from last season's revival of "Steel Magnolias" makes a lovely Ellie. An archetypical ingenue, Ms. Rabe carefully reveals that there is more to her Miss Dunn than meets anyones' eye.

Laila Robins nails the society flirtations and insecurities of a wife of a traveling government official. She demonstrates the art of politics being able to appear one way to some and another way to others. This paradox is carried through nicely in both of her asymmetrically designed costumes.

As for the gentlemen, Mr. Bosco makes his second visit to Heartbreak House with this production. In the last revival, he played the role of Boss Mangan, casting that can be easily underst00d and supported. His Captain Shotover, comes across like Henry Higgins minus the elocution lessons. Delivering his lines in small bursts of rapid-fire, he dashes on and offstage without acknowledgement. This is later explained in the play. He does have a couple of excellent lines:
  • A man's interest in the world is only the excess of his interest in himself.
  • Any man can rule with a stick in his hands.
In the second line above, Shaw leaves no opportunity to make his political theories known. How interesting that such a statement is still so relevant today.

As Hector Hushabye, Hezione's handsome husband, Byron Jenning delivers another solid and thoughtful performance. Hector has been courting Miss Dunn under a false name, and has roused her passion, though not enough to break her engagement. Hector is also a kept man, serving only to please Hezione, as she encourages him to raise passions wherever he goes. (She's quite the modern woman, no?)

As Ellie's father, John Christopher Jones presents a mild-mannered milquetoast of a man, even moreso than the story seems to support. Mr. Dunn, a "soldier of freedom," has been in love only once - with his wife. He's a poor businessman, having started one with an excellent potential, but didn't have the foresight to work through the ups and downs of its early phases. As a result, he's always lived from check to check, barely getting by and raising his family. Mr. Jones seemed to miss a couple of opportunities to sparkle a bit, first during Hezione's attempted seduction in Act I and again in his pajamas and robe in Act II.

As Boss Mangan, Bill Camp has the unfortunate task of having to appear as hypnotized during a long stretch. His Mangan is obtuse and forward, thinking that his forwardness is perceived as cleverness. During some of the more physical moments of humor, I was reminded of Alec Baldwin's self-concious acting from SNL.

Robin Lefevre, on his second Broadway outing has taken quite a broad stroke with this revival. Sets by John Lee Beatty invoke a ship, quite suitable to Capt. Shotover. Jane Greenwood's costumes are spot-on, from Hector's sheik's robes to the dinner attire of white tie and tails. Peter Kaczorowski has achieved a lighting designer's goal of being effective while not being noticeable.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Horizontal for 2.5 Hours

"The Vertical Hour" at the Music Box Theatre, November 29, 2006

Sam Mendes has brought David Hare's new play to New York. With it is an impressive performance by an actor who has demonstrated quite an impressive range of skills in many varying film roles over the past few years.

It's unfortunate that the sentence above does not describe Julianna Moore.

Mr. Hare's diatribe on US activities from Bosnia (basically none) to Iraq (overthrowing a sitting government) is the plot contrivance employed for what little plot he presents. Nadia Blye (Ms. Moore) is an instructor at Yale on the topic of political studies, following an early career as a war correspondent during the events in Bosnia following the fall of Yugoslavia. She is now engaged to Phillip (Andrew Scott), a physical therapist and British ex-pat, who has taken her to Wales to meet his father, Oliver (Bill Nighy). Oliver, a doctor, who has a cordial but strained relationship with his son, is intrigued by Nadia, but finds it necessary to challenge her belief structure.

The play opens with Ms. Moore counseling Dennis (Dan Bittner), a student who has turned in a less than acceptable essay, which evolves into his confession of love for her. He uses his three weeks of studying Freud to justify his behavior and his belief that "underneath" she has encouraged this from him. She quickly discounts any value in psychology, to which he replies "...[people of the world] know that reality is real, that it exists, but what they think of it is more important." Her response "are you talking about Americans?" Mr. Hare accurately points out that news is no longer the reporting of events, but of the reactions by those involved or not.

This topic surfaces again during a discussion with Mr. Nighy in the next scene. She had been summoned to visit the White House over circumstances in Irag. A proud American, she reported for duty and shared her opinions with the president. Mr. Nighy's Oliver responds "If the Prime Minister called me, I'd let the phone ring." Another pithy observation from Oliver when Nadia talks about America's responsibility to the rest of the world, "Don't forget. You're building an empire, we (Great Britain) just dismantled one."

The other plot in play is the competition between Phillip and Oliver. Phillip felt torn in his parents' loveless marriage, playing the peacekeeper until events finally drove them to separate. He sees Oliver as an unrepentant philanderer and a phony. He suspects Oliver will attempt to seduce Nadia, but despite these faults he goes through the motions in hopes of healing his emotional wounds.

Mr. Nighy's Oliver is an awkwardly charming man, smoothly uncomfortable in his own skin. His presence and performance are organic and real. It is this reality that brings the audience to care for him in spite of his faults and past misdeeds. He is the doctor Oliver defines as "someone who tells you the truth and stays till the end."

Mr. Scott is warm and needy as the son who has spent most of his life trying to differentiate himself from his father. His Phillip loves the silence that so unnerves Oliver, leaves Britain to live in the US and chooses a career as a physical therapist with multiple locations of wellness centers which include massage and personal training. He feels most successful when his father learns that his patients " someone to send them out for a jog," a most ignoble use of one's time as a health professional. He wants to be calm, warm and safe. This is the man Nadia thinks she's looking for.

Alas, it is Ms. Moore who is out of her element here. She has proven herself a talented film actress, having moved from daytime television serials playing twin sisters (or was it half? cousins?) separated at birth and being kidnapped by a fiance who was secretly in love with her aunt on As the World Turns (unmentioned in her bio, BTW) to moving portrayals in the films Safe, The Hours, and End of the Affair. I had high hopes for her skills on stage. Her technical ability to merely project her lines seems to be her biggest weakness. Beyond that, when she says at a critical moment, "I've seen the results of western indifference" describing the genocide that went on in Bosnia, she's not believable. She speaks with neither the passion nor the numbed indifference of one emotionally beaten down by the events she describes. I won't blubber like Ben Brantley did over Ms. Roberts earlier this year, but she is quite beautiful onstage.

It appears that Mr. Mendes is the one who let her down here. There seems to be no assistance provided to her in interpreting her role with a spectrum of how real people speak, how painful memories can choke, how tension can stifle one's speech pattern. Though not to that extreme, some of her deliveries sounded reminded me of the porn film scenes from Boogie Nights. She does give an emotional outpouring during a cathartic moment with Mr. Nighy, but by then it's too little too late. Waterworks are an easy skill to summon from an actor's bag of tricks.

Mr. Hare, too, may share some of the blame. Nadia's character arc is telegraphed pretty openly from the first scene, and ends with no surprise in her "surprise" announcement in the final line of the play. Her references to psychological motives in the final scene don't ring true having discounted them so specifically in the opening scene. Nadia's issues are many, but none are really resolved during the course of the play, only exposed.

Scott Pask's sets, using a cinematic black aperture to reveal first Nadia's jewel-box, paneled, ivy-league office open to reveal a stoic oak on the lawn of Oliver's self-imposed, lonely residence of exile. The mismatch of tables and chairs on this lawn evoked the edwardian eclecticism of rural Wales, although it appeared a bit forced.

When Ms. Moore appeared in the first scene in a brown dress that faded her (and her red hair , believe it or not) into the wookwork of her office, I was hoping for some interesting costuming choices. I wish that Ann Roth had provided some.

It's an interesting play and Mr. Nighy is certainly well-worth seeing. I hope that Ms. Moore will try Broadway again in a role that suits her skills better.

Here's what Ben Brantley had to say in the NY Times. I'm unsure what show Clive Barnes saw, as reported here in the NY Post.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Maybe a Little More Evolution is in Order

"Jay Johnson: The Two and Only!" at the Helen Hayes Theatre, November 14, 2006

He seems like such a nice man, but I kept asking myself, "Why is this on Broadway?"

Jay Johnson, most notable for the roles of Chuck and Bob on the groundbreaking 1970's TV show "Soap," has evolved this performance over the past couple of years, its most recent installment at the Atlantic Theatre Company in 2004. Apparently the 10+ producers whose names appear above the title thought the show was worthy of Broadway.

The structure of the show is mechanical. He begins with some obscure history about ventriloquism, taking the audience back into ancient history with claims that the Oracles were ventriloquists. Fast forward to a book written a couple of hundred years ago by a Frenchman who concluded that ventriloquism was a mental disorder.

Once the actual ventriloquism starts, Mr. Johnson shows his significant talent for his art, (a bottle, a severed head). It's too bad he doesn't have more to say beyond the description of it as a difficult career choice. Certainly, the high points are when the dummies land the jokes, and there are several funny moments. When he speaks of his mentor, there is real emotion in his voice, but it's not really moving to the audience.

He parades a series of vehicles:
  • a speaking snake who's afraid of snakes (1-joke)
  • a vulture who feels a sense of death on the stage (more profound than was intended)
  • a telephone conversation with imaginary friends (no jokes, despite the effort)
  • his first custom-made partner, Squeaky (another almost-touching moment)
  • Bob, from "Soap"
  • Darwin, a monkey (the name? it just evolved)
Of these characters, we either don't get a chance to really know them or they stay beyond their welcome before they are folded up and packed away. I would have liked more time with Squeaky and Bob, given what we're told about how they entered and impacted Mr. Johnson's life.

The set, by Beowulf Boritt foreshadows a tale of a man on the road, living out of the numerous trunks and suitcases that litter the stage. We don't really get a "road story" in spite of this. Clifton Taylor's lighting is effective, but anticlimactic.

It is the direction by Murphy Cross and Paul Kreppel that is the most puzzling. One would expect much more visual interest from a dancer/choreographer like Ms. Murphy. Mr. Kreppel's resume is much more eclectic which should have provided a more interesting evening with such experience, as well.

In the end, what could have been a very entertaining evening was more like listening to someone look through his photo album.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

To See Such a Sight

"The Little Dog Laughed" at the Cort Theatre, October 28, 2006

Second Stages has had pretty decent luck with transferring shows to Broadway, most recently "25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" which is still running at the Circle in the Square Theatre after picking up a couple of Tony Awards.

Now we have the transfer of "The Little Dog Laughed," a dull poke in the eye of Hollywood by Douglas Carter Beane. The premise is that Mitchell (Tom Everett Scott) an actor just on the verge of Hollywood mega-stardom is debating coming out of the closet. His agent Diane (Julie White), a lesbian herself, is totally and adamantly against it, seeing it as total career suicide. A new play has just opened off-Broadway that is catching lots and lots of buzz and interest from Hollywood as a new movie vehicle. She has come to NY to see it and has brought Mitchell along to see it as well, if it meets up to her expectations. It does and the chase is on. (Spoiler Alert!)

Mitchell, however, has hired a young hustler Alex (Johnny Galecki) to spend a little time while Diane is at the theatre. He stumbles through the whole "businessman-traveling, not-really-gay-just-curious" schtick. Alex responds in kind with the "only-in-it-for-the-money, have-a-girlfriend" reply that makes both closted men feel better about themselves. Alex almost makes a clean escape. Mitchell passes out drunk before the "deed" and just as Alex has emptied Mitchell's wallet, Mitchell stirs in his sleep and stirs something in Alex. They wake the next morning, hung over and uncomfortable, respectively. As they stumble through good-byes, a real passion ignites. Diane enters just as they've gotten naked and brings the proceedings to a halt. She dismisses Alex and chews out Mitchell over the indiscretion.

Alex meets up with his girlfriend Ellen (Ari Graynor), who has recently been dumped by her own sugar daddy, but she's retained custody of his AMEX gold card. They tumble into bed after making a pact that they won't let the other end up alone.

In an hilarious lunch scene with the playwright (unseen) Diane and Mitchell snare the movie rights. Mitchell and Alex continue to see each other after Diane returns to Hollywood to sell the picture. Ellen suspects that Alex and Mitchell have paired up and all seems relatively wrapped up until she discovers that she's pregnant with Alex's baby. Diane arrives back to NYC with a deal that will make everyone happy - it's a brilliant scene of manipulation.

Scott Ellis has directed this comedy with an economy of motion and scale. There haven't been significant changes in the production from the off-Broadway run, but it has tightened up in a couple of scenes.

Sets by Allen Moyer are also basically unchanged from the original production. Jeff Mahshie's costumes have also streamlined somewhat. Most of the cast spend their time wearing black and white, but Diane gets an early flash of color (red soles on some great high heels) and resolves the show in a striking red dress.

As Ellen, Ms. Graynor joins the cast as the only member who's appeared on Broadway. Her Ellen is a tiring party girl who's more ready to settle down that anyone might have realized, especially her. In a pretty good blond wig, she makes a nice contrast to the two dark-headed actors and Ms. White's red mane.

TomEverett Scott is also a new member to this production, making his Broadway debut. His Mitchell is a contradiction as he struggles with wanting happiness as well as a career that has no interest in supporting his sexual orientation. I really wanted to like him in this role, but had trouble doing so. He stumbled on a line or two, which is not a major sin, but he also seems to have lost that youthful optimism he has demonstrated in his film and TV roles. Mitchell is a brash young man. Mr. Scott looked just a little too tired and jaded for me. Maybe if he lost the facial stubble, he might appear more youthful. I also wonder if perhaps the way his character is written adds to this. The first scene with Alex has him already drunk with a cigarette when Alex arrives.

As Alex, Mr. Galecki nails the awkward, unsure and hesitating profile of a wandering young man. His Alex knows what he knows, but absolutely has no idea what he doesn't know. He finds in Mitchell someone he thinks he can help, or help fix. It's a classic dynamic that can draw two people together, but rarely will it keep them so. This debut is one to be proud of.

It's Julie White that walks away with this show, however. From her first moment as she describes an awards banquet where Mitchell gets his first major industry recognition, she grabs the audience by whatever appendage is available and doesn't let go until the curtain call. Her Diane is the composite of every agent/manager/producer you can imagine - cold, calculating, charming and ruthless, she plays the game because she's rewriting the rules and she goes along. There is not a line, moment or gesture that is wasted in this performance. She's been long overdue for a starring role on Broadway - let's hope there will be many more to follow this one.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Not so Black and White, Anymore

"Grey Gardens" at the Walter Kerr Theatre, October 24, 2006

After a four-month, sold out run off Broadway at Playwright's Horizon, "Grey Gardens" has transferred to Broadway, giving Christine Ebersole the exposure she deserves in her tour-de-force performance as both Edith Bouvier Beales, the mother and daughter.

Based on and extrapolating from the documentary of the same name by David and Albert Maysles in the early 1970's, Doug Wright has taken the tale of Edith and Little Edie Beale, relatives of Jackie Kennedy, who were found living in squalor, on their family estate - Grey Gardens in Easthampton, NY.

Act I finds Edith preparing to perform at the engagement party of daughter Little Edie to Joseph Kennedy, Jr. Edith's father, the Major is along to balance the presence of little cousins, Lee and Jackie Bouvier. Also present is the resident fop, George Gould Strong, Edith's accompanist, bon vivante, and ever so fey confidante. By the end of the act, the Beale women have been dealt major blows. Mr. Beale has wired to say that not only is he not attending the engagement party, but that he is divorcing Edith in Mexico. Edith's response is to sabotage the engagement, driving Mr. Kennedy out of Little Edie's life. The act ends as Little Edie packs a suitcase and flees the house as Edith greets the party guests with one of the songs she has prepared to perform.

Act II picks up in 1972, the period during which the documentary was filmed. Little Edie, now 56, lives with Edith in the house which is overrun with cats, raccoons and garbage. A neighbor boy, Jerry, has taken an interest in the two and shows up regularly to help out, and enjoy the fun of watching these two eccentric and bizarre women.

Mr. Wright has used artistic license to create the events in Act I. It is known that efforts to join the Bouviers and the Kennedys had been underway long before Jackie and Jack got together. Both families saw the advantages that would be afforded to both sides, so a proposed union between Little Edie and Joseph, Jr. might have been considered.

To turn this story into a musical seems the bigger challenge, in my view. The Maysles' documentary presents a pitiful scenario of two women on and near the end of a downward spiral, caught between pride and poverty on the edge of insanity. Scott Frankel has done an masterful job of capturing the diverse moods and feelings in the two acts. I had the fortune to crash the cast talk-back after the performance and asked Mr. Frankel about the first act score. As I watched the show, the overall sense I got was a Kern/Porter/Gershwin/Rodgers feeling, which would suit Edith's musical tastes. Edith was famous (infamous?) for performing extensively at her own high-society parties, and did make several records in the 30's and 40's. I asked Mr. Frankel if he had a single composer of the era in mind. He confirmed the Porter/Gershwin/Kern flavor was his intent. Michael Korie's lyrics match the styles and integrate song into story beautifully.

The opening number "The Girl Who Has Everything" evokes the Kern/Lehar era as it reveals Edith in rehearsal for the engagement party. A quick segue way into "The Five Fifteen" gives just the right level of exposition and sets the excitement for the evening's party.

Joe appears after Edith and Little Edie have had their first go-round about the musical plans for the party in "Mother Darling." They escape to the terrace where he shares his family's ambitions, "Going Places."

The Major enters next and takes young Lee and Jackie outdoors for a little golf lesson and grandfatherly advice, "Marry Well." It is here that his influence becomes apparent as a driving force among these Bouvier women.

As Little Edie in Act 1, Erin Davie softens the role originated by Sara Guettelfinger, and instills sympathy with her fragile performance. Her Edie sees spinsterhood looming in her future and is desparate to avoid it, as well as escape from the passive/aggressive destructive treatment she gets from her mother. Her "Mother Darling" is much more of a plea than a demand for Edith to allow the party to occur naturally, without Edith's usual "impromptu" vocal performance that has become standard fare at a Grey Gardens event. She has her own ambitions for a performing career, sharing it with Joe during their duet "Going Places." Unfortunately, Joe's (or the Kennedys') plans do not include a working wife, particularly working in show business.

Matt Cavenaugh has grown nicely in his role as Joe Kennedy, Jr. He has managed to nail down the flat and nasal Massachussetts drawl so strongly identified with that clan. His role has been modified, but to the advantage of the story. Off-Broadway, Joe was used more as a stock juvenile role. Now his character has some depth and helps bring the story along. In Act II, Mr. Cavenaugh plays Jerry, the neighbor boy who stops by to lend a hand. He transitions between roles nicely.

John McMartin as Major Bouvier also benefits from the changes to Act I. His Major may have retired to enjoy his family and free time, but he still wields a firm hand with daughter Edith. When Little Edie finds her opportunity to let him know that Edith plans to sing at the party, he puts his foot down and as he speaks to Edith, we get a taste of how Mr. Beale speaks to Little Edie. His number "Marry Well" sung to little Jackie and Lee foreshadows the profitable unions those two will achieve as adults. When Little Edie joins the number late, you already get the sense that for all her efforts, she will not have the same fortune.

As George Gould Strong, Bob Stillman fulfills the role of Edith's accompanist, best friend and confidante. His Gould is another stock character, the dandy, but he keeps from suffering the stereotype. He knows his position in the household is tenuous and since he truly cares about Edith, he is quick to offer to leave Grey Gardens to return to NYC and make his own way. She won't hear of it.

It is Christine Ebersole who is the heart and soul of this production. As Edith, she coos, cajoles, threatens, berates and pleads her way through the party preparations. She demonstrates in "The Five Fifteen" that she has entertained enough to let the minor details of flowers, food and chairs take care of themselves while she rehearses her songs. Her dysfunctional relationship with Little Edie appears early in their duet, "Mother Darling." It is when Mr. Beale's telegram arrives for Little Edie that she sees just how desperate her situation is. She betrays Little Edie to Joe with the tale of an embarrassing swimsuit accident which Little Edie suffered through, sabotaging the engagement. Knowing Little Edie will have no other option but to stay, Edith's final song of the act, "Will You?" becomes a plea for forgiveness.

Mary Louise Wilson reappears in Act II as Edith, after the very brief Prologue that began the show. You quickly sense the how the years have worn on her. Her first song “The Cake I Had” is both proud and rueful, as she explains why she did some of the things she did which have landed her in her present state. Her Edith is still just as competitive with Little Edie as ever. When they talk about Jerry, she is quick to squelch Little Edie’s misplaced ideas that he is sexually interested in the younger Beale woman. While her concept may be right, it is only partially so. She sings “Jerry Likes My Corn” and you think she feels Jerry is more interested in her.

With all the style and confidence displayed in Act I, Ms. Ebersole's Little Edie in Act II has become a shell of what she might have been. Unconfident, no self-esteem and bordering on lunacy, Little Edie can only focus on things she knows - working with what few clothes she has left, trying to carry any sense of style her poverty will afford. The stress of the intervening years has made her bald and she has taken to wearing cardigan sweaters on her head, buttoned under her chin and tied with a brooch to serve as "hair." The verge of paranoia hangs over her Edie, but one can still see the trapped young woman desperate to escape this twisted jail her life has become. Opening Act II with “The Revolutionary Costume for Today,” is the first of many quotes from the documentary that are expanded upon in this act. When Edie works up the courage to actually leave Grey Gardens, she sings longingly of what she’s missed in “Around the World.” Suitcase in hand at the edge of the property, it is Edith’s call to Edie that she is compelled to answer, and seals her own fate to remain there. A reprise of “Will You?” is now again a plea for forgiveness, but from each woman to the other.

Director Michael Grief has refined his efforts with the streamlining of both acts. Three new songs were added to Act I, with a new reprise in Act II. The changes to both book and score have cleared up both motivations and reactions to the pivotal events instigated by Mr. Beale's telegram. Having now seen the original documentary between these two productions, He has really captured not only the reality of the events in Act II, but also has managed to look into the minds of the two women as well. He has lifted events from the documentary and translated them to the stage with grace and truth. When Little Edie shows Jerry her marching song, the soldiers she sees in her mind appear and dance along with her.

Sets by Allen Moyer are unchanged from the earlier production, but sitting in the mezzanine for this show, I now understood the intentions behind the design. The main stage area slides forward and back to make room for various changes downstage, such as a lovers’ bench for Joe and Little Edie, or the terrace steps for Edith’s number which closes Act I. During Act II, as Little Edie stands frozen with her suitcase contemplating her departure, she is below a gap in the stage that separates her from the house. As Edith calls to her, her voice closes the gap and Edie crosses back to her old life.

I saw the Playwright's production last spring and enjoyed it, but felt it was more an evening of two one-act musicals, only connected by common character names.

When I learned that the show was going to transfer, I was hopeful that the creative team would have (and take) the opportunity to make the changes necessary to give the audience a more cohesive evening at the theatre.

I'm so happy they have - and beautifully so!

Friday, October 20, 2006

Resist the Temptation

"Ascension" Red Light District production at The Lion Theatre on Theatre Row, Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Look at the picture. Isn't he pretty?

That was the highlight of this overwraught and poorly written knockoff of "Doubt" with a twist in the wrong direction. (Spoiler Alert)

Father Cal (Stephen Hope) is accused by Agnes (Lucy McMichael) of molesting her son Lorenzo (Brandon Ruckdashel) when he was an adolescent. Shortly after she leaves her blackmail terms, Lorenzo, now a young adult, shows up. His story is slightly different from Mom's and leaves poor Father Cal equally threatened. Seems Father Cal is about to leapfrog from pastor to bishop, and a sex scandal is the last thing he needs in his life.

Seems each character has their own agenda, murky as those agendas may be. Agnes turns out to be schizophrenic, Lorenzo a sociopath, and Father Cal is just overly ambitious.

Edmund De Santis' script has some interesting potential, playing off the not-so-current wave of sexual abuse scandals that have rocked the Catholic Church over the past few years. It turns out that Father Cal is indeed physically innocent of Agnes' charges. Lorenzo has been carrying a torch for the padre since he was an altar boy. Father Cal thought he'd dodged the bullet of Lorenzo when he turned away from the boy before anything could happen between them.

Now that Lorenzo has returned in the flesh, quite literally, he seduces Father Cal, fulfilling Agnes' accusations, but now with much less weight. Even after the seduction is complete and Lorenzo has left, the plot twists continue with Father Cal pulling a few rabbits out of his own hat.

Mr. De Santis has created a complicated series of plot twists that I suppose were meant to be clever, but the result is a convoluted and confusing story line, which I'm not sure I understand even now. Just about everything presented gets contradicted. I don't know which were true in the end, and I'm not sure I care.

Marc Geller has directed this piece with only one eye open. If he had opened the other, he might have seen a way to instill a little more reality in the production.

As Father Cal, Mr. Hope is the hardest working man in NY theatre. He's giving everything he has and then some to try to instill some level of realism or credibility into this play. His physicalization: quivers, shakes, fumes, and even a pretty believable asthma attack on more than one occasion shows an actor who knows his craft.

Ms. McMichael seems to have much less to work with, both from her material and her skill. Her only expression throughout the show is like she smells rotten fish. Even when her character switches from one personality to the other, it's only her words that give any signal of the shift. And for all the anger in her lines, there's rarely any of it in her voice.

Mr. Ruckdashel is surely pretty, though. His diction isn't bad, but most of his lines sound like he's reading from his script. His Lorenzo doesn't give us the kind of calculating, scheming, desperate young man that his lines would portray.

Aaron Mastin's set, with its red walls and floor and cross-shaped mullions in the skylight strive to evoke the spirit intended, but the large, somewhat eroticized painting of Christ on the cross seems out of place for Father Cal's office in his private quarters. There were several references to the attractive physique portrayed in the painting, but I think a small three-dimensional crucifix would have served the proceedings better.

Costumes by Dennis Ballard are perfectly serviceable. Of course, we get to see both Father Cal and Lorenzo in and out of costume, so we know exactly what he was given to work with.

Other reviewers seemed to have found much more depth in this production. I didn't see it.

A Dead Bird

"Swan Lake" Conservatory Theatre, St. Petersburg, Russia, October 2, 2006

The Conservatory Theatre is part of the school where Tchaikovsky studied and taught. Imagine how many of his compositions debuted in that hall! We arrived to find the entrance and lobby in well-preserved condition. To our horror, the interior of the house had been butchered in what looked like a mid-twentieth century Soviet renovation. Just dreadful!!

The act curtain seemed based on an older more classic design with fringe and other passementerie - very much at odds with the severe and bland appearance of the house.

Hopes for a true Russian ballet in the best sense were dashed as the curtain went up to reveal one of the ugliest Swan Lake sets I've ever seen. Programs were not included with admission, so I will not be able to accuse identify either designers or dancers by name.

Act I brought out the cast in a mish-mash of costumes. Blue was the apparent theme, however, no two garments managed to share the same shade - anywhere! Our guide on the bus had prepared us for the choreography originally set by Marius Petipa. (On occasion a ballet director will have the artistic need to make some modifications to original choreography to suit either a particular dancer, or perhaps make new interpretive choices. This is typically noted in a program as "Choreography after..." ) Not recognizing a single move in Act I, I commented that the evening's choreography was "after Petipa and Ivanov were dead and spinning in their respective graves."

Prince Sigfried's only connection to his character was his age. Incapable of acting and merely acquainted with the steps, he created a vaccuum of performance energy every moment he spent on stage.

Our Odette/Odile, performed without an iota of emotion. Technically weak, she did manage one or two very nice penche' arabesques.

Von Rothbart was one of the largest dancers I've seen on a stage. Credit him for at least trying to bring some interest to this tired and under-rehearsed prduction. Only the female corps de ballet offered any visual interest and they were spotty at best. When the swans entered wearing romantic tutus, I immediately longed for the opera gloves and chest hair sported by Ballet Trockadero De Monte Carlo. Say what you will about the Trocks, their Swan Lake Act I, Scene 2 was far superior to what we were forced to endure - those boys can dance!

Adding final insult to final injury, this production chose the "happy ending" instead of the traditional tragic end. I had to look around to make sure I was really in Russia!

If this performance is representative of the quality of dance instruction at the Conservatory, their administration needs to find new artistic direction.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Cirque Du Kit-Kat-Klub

"Absinthe" at the Spiegeltent at Pier 17. September 20, 2006

With a very European sensibility, "Absinthe" is a cabaret-style variety show featuring a bizarre range of acts. Here's some info about the venue:

Saunter through the gently lit, European style beer garden. Drift on through the beautifully crafted art deco doors and discover a place filled with flirtatious laughter, exhilarating live performances, swirling lighting, and lush billowing velvet.

These gleaming mirrors have reflected loves, laughter, entertainment and spectacles from all over Europe for the last 100 years.

From their beginnings in Belgium at the turn of the last century, these iconic tents have been traveling the world as part of arts festivals and fairs. The famous and the infamous have performed in these haloed halls. Made from finest teak and beveled mirrors, and looked after
lovingly by a small band of owners, these exceptional venues have never failed to enthrall, delight, surprise and seduce.

For more information on the venue, click here.

On with the show...

The pre-show music consists of recorded military marches, which oddly adds to the retro ambience of the tented space. A round platform in the middle of the circular arrangement of folding chairs serves as the stage. Before the houselights dim, a striking and zaftig young woman in a black bustier and skirt enters and seat herself on top of the piano beside the stage. A man enters in a dark suit and bowler hat, begins to play the piano and she sings. Clearly not American, it's difficult to determine whether she's German, S. American, Italian, who knows what? (She's later introduced as Irish.) She is Camille. Earthy and unapologetically sensual, she whirls round and round in a carousel song (Jacques Brel, I think) - and almost makes you feel as if the round tent in which you sit is also spinning.

Following is an acrobatic pair of Englishmen (in dark suits and bowler hats) who go through an amazing series of presses and balances. They are a mismatched pair, size-wise, one taller, one shorter. The pair have a certain Laurel and Hardy quality, the tall one serious and dead-pan, the smaller one all child-like smiles. The suits come off during the act revealing sculpted forms in Union Jack briefs - I think we have a hit!

Next is a scantily clad woman swinging on a trapeze bar. She had some nice moves and was much stronger than one might have guessed from her appearance.

Soon we are introduced to Miss Behave, another Euro curiosity who seems to have neither a uvula nor a gag-reflex. Wearing a 1940's cut dress with a hobble skirt - in red latex, no less - she explains her act during her second appearance describing it as "...not so much 'wow!' but 'why?'..." Her feats include a cute bit with a pair of scissors, a rose stem dropped through her pierced tongue then putting out a lit cigar with same said tongue. Maximum shock effect comes with a bizarre finaletto involving a table leg.

The next act was an inexplicable sound effects guy, whose only note from the director appeared to be "make it a little more creepily sexual from time to time." Skilled - yes, attractive - no. The act had no narrative to justify its presence, nor did it add anything to the proceedings.

Continuing on the creepy track, Rubberman - Captain Frodo! From Norway (I believe) this is the evening's contortionist. Forcing his body through not one, but two, tennis rackets (unstrung, of course and one 2" smaller in diameter than the other), he was quite funny and engaging. Full of pratfalls, at one point he has one foot on the ground, the other leg is pinned to his torso with the larger racket and the smaller racket is just past his head with one arm through and the other just above the shoulder. As he then bends over to pick up the microphone he's just dropped, he gives a leer to the crowd and says "I know what you're wondering. And, yes, I can!" I'm not sure that his spill all the way off the platform was intended.

After the intermission, Camille returns in an hilarious number "In These Shoes?" followed by Capt Frodo. This time, he stacks successively smaller cans while standing atop them, and ends by sitting on a vegetable-size can with both ankles behind his head. It is during this pose that he challenges the audience with "If you think there's something strange that you'd like to try, you'd be amazed at how you can make a living at it."

A Russian hula hoop performer is next, followed by a final song from Camille "Falling In Love Again" sung a capella in German - lovely!

The grand finale - and grand indeed! Well, how to describe it? In one of the more "Cirque-like" acts of the evening, a bathtub full of water is brought onto the stage. Two ropes/straps are lowered from above. David, wearing only blue jeans, gets in the tub, then wraps, lifts and swings himself around for 5-10 minutes. It's a clinical description, I know, but was it HOT! David is German, dark and smooth. The front row did receive some protection from the spray with some plastic sheeting.

In all, it was a most engaging evening - one I'm glad I didn't miss!

Monday, September 18, 2006

Don't Say Things Like That, or They'll Lock You in an Attic in Amsterdam"

"The Tragic and Horrible Life of the Singing Nun" Theatre at St. Clement's, part of the 2006 New York Musical Theatre Festival. September 17, 2006

Loosely based on the known facts of the life of Sister Smile, "The Tragic and Horrible Life of the Singing Nun" interjects the back story of the Belgian nun who recorded "Dominique" and rose to pop fame in the 1960's. Others have charted this path before, such as the 1960's Hollywood whitewash with Debbie Reynolds and Chad Everett, along with an Italian film in 2001 that took a much darker route.

Author Blair Fell penned this story first in a play of the same name in 1996. Paired with Andy Monroe as composer and lyricist, the story is now presented in a musical format, pulling no punches at any target that may willingly present itself, or even mistakenly wander near.

This energetic production, flagrantly directed by Michael Schiralli, is a high energy show and presents the bones of some good work underway.

The premise is that Mr. Berman (Stephen Michael Rondel), a psychiatric patient in an asylum, believes that he was a friend and confidante to Sister Smile during and after her time in the convent of Our Lady of Pernicious and Postulant Wounds. Mr. Berman was also in residence at the convent after ending his career as a cross-dressing Catholic fashion model, still a cross-dresser and nun under the name Sister Coco Callmeismael. The story opens in the asylum with a very well-integrated musical introduction as Mr. Berman begins his flashback in the middle of a showing of the 1966 "Singing Nun" with Debbie Reynolds (film clip and all).

We are quickly taken back in time to meet Jeanine Fou, the soon-to-be Sister Smile (Laura Daniel) on her way home from school. Unattractive and with an unhealthy religious fervor, Jeanine (with her guitar which she's named Sister Adele) sings of life's possibilities - like being a nun and a pop singing star!(Don't Be Afraid, Adele) Magically, Saint Dominique appears and inspires Jeanine to join a Dominican convent to find this happiness. (You Got to Sing, Girl!) Upon arrival at the convent Sister Coco takes her under wing and introduces her to the Reverend Mother Helen Lawson (Kristine Zbornik). When Mother Helen learns of Jeanine's (now Sister Luke Gabriel) goals of singing and pop stardom, she quickly establishes her dominance in the order (Superior).

Jeanine starts to doubt her decision and reflects back to when she told her best friend Annie (Tracey Gilbert) that she was leaving for the convent. Annie, feeling that they were "more" than friends is crushed by Jeanine's decision, but because she loves Jeanine, she accepts it. (I'll Follow You). Annie has her own dream to open a school for unattractive girls with an unhealthy religious fervor. As she looks forward (Welcome to the Rest of Your Life), Annie writes a love letter to Jeanine (Dear Jeanine).

Naturally, the convent is about to hit the financial skids, so Mother Helen calls up Father Lyon (Michael Hunsaker) to help figure out how to raise money. He arrives and discovers Jeanine has written "Dominique" which he knows will be a big hit. Father Lyon was also a Catholic Fashion model's agent before taking his vows and was romantically involved with Sister Coco. As they revive their affair, they work to find a more marketable name for the record than Sister Luke Gabriel (Think!). Unhappy about Jeanine getting too much attention, Mother Helen at first wants to cancel the record, but Father Lyon appeals to her more earthly and material desires. (Loot) The album is released and is a smash hit, money rolling in faster than anyone can count it.

Jeanine is overwhelmed by the success of the album and following performance tour. Mother Helen comes to her aid with pills and liquor to keep her going. (Mother's Here). While drunk and high, Jeanine signs a contract assigning all the profits from the album to the convent. Feeling hemmed in by the convent, Jeanine and Annie reunite. Jeanine wants the freedom to sing on her own terms. Annie hopes that now Jeanine has left the convent, the two of them can consummate their relationship, but Jeanine refuses, offering just a spiritual love. (Welcome to the Rest of Your Life) She's got a new song based on the new birth control pill that will be the center of her new album. With the money from that, she and Annie can open a school for unattractive girls with an unhealthy religious fervor.

When the Pope declares that no Catholic woman should take the Pill, Jeanine (who is still on drugs and drinking)sees her world begin to fall apart. (Jeanine Meets the Media) Coco, who has left the convent as well to be the girl's field hockey coach at Annie's school, shares the news that the Tax Collector has arrived for the income from the first album. (Things Couldn't Get Much Worse) Annie, the optimist, tells Jeanine that whatever happens, they're still together. Jeanine returns to the convent to ask Mother Helen if the convent could pay the taxes, but Mother Helen refuses. (Superior). Jeanine arrives back home and learns that Annie has sold the school to pay the taxes. With nothing left for them, Annie pulls out six bottle of barbiturates and offers to share them with Jeanine, so they can finally be together in the next life. (I'll Follow You)

As Sister Coco, Stephen Michael Rondel carries a large portion of the story-telling in the show. He is experienced in gender travesty, but his Coco comes off a little less than three-dimensional. Some of this may come from the writing because it seemed, at times, there wasn't much for his character to do other than come on and milk a laugh.

Laura Daniel as Jeanine gives a strong performance. Not very tall, and more attractive than the role calls for, she effectively carries Jeanine's arc from dreams to suicide. As Annie, Tracey Gilbert has the strongest connection to her character. When she writes to Jeanine, not knowing where Jeanine has gone, you get a good idea of the love that the real Annie might have felt for the real Jeanine.

As Mother Helen, Kristine Zbornik channels her best Ethel Merman. It's an apt characterization but sometimes borders on caricature. Her first song, "Superior" is terrific. Michael Hunsaker, as Father Lyon and other roles brings a great voice (and a nicely sculpted torso) to the proceedings. Randy Blair, Kristen Beil and Eileen F. Stevens complete the cast, all making excellent contributions in their many supporting roles.

Mr. Fell's book, starts out cleverly and holds up pretty well during a somewhat long first act. He spares no feelings and takes a comic jab wherever he can find it. Jeanine has a fellow nun, Sister Maria who's preparing to be the governess for a widowed naval captain with seven children. Father Lyon has just come from the Monastery of Saint Stephen Edie. Jeanine gets a few of her own quips in "Belgian endive is like life, well-shaped but bitter" and "a an all-girl hotel." When Jeanine tells her mother "I think all people are basically good." Mother replies, "Don't say things like that, or they'll lock you in an attic in Amsterdam." And, it is not without its anachronisms. As Jeanine accepts her Grammy award, we get the Sally Field "you like me, you really like me."

Mr. Monroe's music and lyrics also keep that strong first act going. It's in the second act when the "tragic and horrible" part begins that the story loses steam. The nice touches of integrating music and story that worked so well in Act 1 all but disappear in Act 2. The scenes get longer, and the songs are fewer and farther between. Having heard Annie's letter song in Act 1, I had expected to hear the suicide note in the form of a reprise. It's quite a challenge to try to balance camp/musical comedy with the tragedy of Jeanine's real life. I think had they left the story and returned to the asylum just after the suicide note, it wouldn't have been such a task to bring the energy and humor back up to end the show.

For more information on the show including cast notes and song clips, click here.