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.