Sunday, March 18, 2007

Contest the Will

"Inherit The Wind" at the Lyceum Theatre, March 17, 2007

Another revival of the Jerome Lawrence/Robert E. Lee play begins previews on Monday March 19, 2007 for a 16-week engagement. I was fortunate to be invited to one of the final dress rehearsals for what should have been a momentous evening of theatre. Two-time Tony winners each, Brian Dennehy and Christopher Plummer take up the roles of Matthew Harrison Brady and Henry Drummond, respectively. (Spoiler Alert)

I think that was director Doug Hughes' first mistake. We saw this kind of thing last year with "The Odd Couple" where the two leads were in the wrong roles. It's no wonder that Mr. Plummer preferred the role of Drummond. There's much more there to work with as an actor. Mr. Dennehy, some 10 years junior to Mr. Plummer, exudes a lasting strength and power in a role of a man who is losing exactly that long before he arrives on the scene.

As Drummond, Mr. Plummer reminds us why he has earned his reputation as one of the finest actors of our time. Even with the trembling hands and unsteadiness on his feet, his talent and skill distract us from the fact that Drummond is the younger man without detriment to the character. His presence is magnetic and his Drummond is nuanced and thoughtful.

As Brady, Mr. Dennehy gives us the beginnings of the shuffling steps of an old man, but never really reveals his inner weakness. There were a couple of exchanges with Mr. Plummer that appeared to be missed cues during the Act II courtroom scene, but I couldn't tell who had dropped the line. (According to an unsubstantiated and unverifiable grape vine, one of the two actors apparently showed up at the first rehearsal already off-book, causing a bit of tension early on in this production.) Ultimately it is Mr. Dennehy's own physical strength and bearing that undercuts his performance. His breakdown on the witness stand lacked the crumpling that foreshadows his final disintegration after the verdict is given.

Others in the cast included Denis O'Hare as E. K. Hornbeck, the journalist from Baltimore. Mr. O'Hare's Hornbeck is merely annoying in this production. He winks, he clicks, he snaps, he points, he nudges, but in the end he throws away his chance to give us a fully formed character. I don't think it helps much that Mr. Hughes has given him a man in a gorilla suit to play off instead of the organ grinder's monkey. His first entrance, embellished by his suit and straw hat by Santo Loquasto, made me wonder if he weren't supposed to be Harold Hill (which might be an interesting career choice for Mr. O'Hare).

Miscast as well is Byron Jennings as Reverend Brown. He cuts a fine figure in his white linen suit, but never seems to believe what he's saying. If this production does manage to extend, I'd love to see him take on the role of Henry Drummond. That could be some exciting theatre.

Bertram Cates, the accused is played by Ben Walker, looking a bit buff in his henley t-shirt for a schoolteacher in the 20s. His Bert is fresh-faced but not quite as callow as I'd think he could be.

As Rachel Brown, Maggie Lacey (thanks, Cameron) is blandly pretty and blandly portrayed. She manages some nice waterworks during her cross-examination scene, but that's a skill any good actor should have. Her expression is fairly blank across the rest of her performance. I never got a sense of chemistry between Rachel and Bert, so I didn't get where her concern for him came from. Was it the injustice she was witnessing? Was it love? (Turns out it was the latter, but we don't really know this until the end of the show.)

Santo Loquasto seems to have taken a note from Christine Jones on how to increase your audience size. 60-70 lucky audience members will get to sit on the stage during every performance. I can't imagine that to be enjoyable. You'll have your coats and bags checked and won't get a playbill until after the show is over. All this and your view of the actors' backs is occasionally blocked by scenery. Mr. Loquasto has done a nice job with the costumes, lots of linen and cotton to help suffer the heat of the summertime setting.

Mr. Hughes seems in search of a new concept for presenting this play, but hasn't yet found it. There was a bit of "operafication," a term I use to describe how some directors feel the need to fill unscripted moments with business, music or other odds and ends. (A recent and particularly bad example of this was NYC Opera's "Pirates of Penzance.") Pre-curtain, a gospel quartet enters and begins a series of hymns and songs, presumably to set the mood. The quartet returns from time to time, as well as inciting the entire cast to sing in a scene or two. While it did help set the mood and period, I didn't find it terribly successful in the end. It was pretty obvious to me that Mr. Hughes (nor anyone on stage, for that matter) had never been to a southern tent meeting. The prayer vigil scene lacked the kind of passion only a southern Baptist closed mind can produce.

Speaking of southern, where were the accents? Mr. Jennings sounded like a Presbyterian from Massachusetts.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Dancing With Scissors

"Edward Scissorhands" at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Howard Gilman Opera House, March 14, 2007

Matthew Bourne's stage adaptation of the Tim Burton movie has arrived at BAM for a limited run. (Spoiler Alert)

As you enter the theatre, there is a recording of glass breaking that continues until the lights dim and the overture begins. (Not sure why they used breaking glass - I would have thought something more like cracking ice, or the sound of scissors would set the story.) It felt a bit like standing in line for the Haunted Mansion at Disney.

The basic story remains, with a few variations here and there, most of which made sense for a stage adaptation. An old woman story teller enters in snow to set the scene. As the story transitions into the redundant suburbs, Mr. Bourne has expanded each household represented in the movie into a family of four. There is some clever staging setting the routine of daily life, from rising each morning to drive to work/school to the return home each evening, with careful attention to show the individual characters of the families, as well as within them. Edward (Richard Winsor) is lost and wandering the streets below his castle upon the death of his inventor following a Halloween prank by the neighborhood teens. After creating his first topiary, he stumbles upon Peg Boggs (Madelaine Brennan). Their first meeting is quite tender, once she realizes his hands are not meant as weapons and that they have the same potential of injury to him as to anyone else. Once he meets Peg's daughter Kim (Hannah Vassallo) he is smitten, even though he doesn't really know what it means. He dreams of her and they dance among the topiaries (some of the very clever costuming by Lex Brotherston). It's a sweet pas de deux as Edward dreams of loving Kim with human hands.

Kim's boyfriend Jim Upton (James Leece) is a standard bully. He sees the threat that Edward represents to his tiny little world of power and takes every opportunity to cast him unfavorably. Joyce Monroe (Michela Meazza), the unfaithful wife of the neighborhood, lures Edward to her home for a tryst. The innocent Edward doesn't quite understand what she wants, but does realize that whatever it is, it's wrong. Her seduction is very nicely danced.

Edward starts to feel accepted once his hair salon opens and the leads the company in a clever tango. As his fame grows, so does his disenchantment realizing that he's no more than a novelty.

His feelings for Kim are about to be returned in a lovely recreation of the ice-carving scene creating snow. They dance briefly (a bit too briefly, I thought) before Jim arrives to take Kim to the Christmas dance. At the dance, forces combine against Edward. Joyce, affections spurned and Jim's jealousy play out as Jim gets Edward drunk. Out of control, he ruins the evening and trying to regain control and defend himself, he slashes Kim's little brother Kevin (Gavin Eden) across the cheek. Edward flees to the cemetery for refuge.

Kim has found Edward first and expresses her love for him. Too soon, Jim and the rest of the neighbors arrive. Jim and Edward fight, until Jim thinks Edward has been beaten. As Edward reaches for Peg for consolation, Jim stumbles onto his blades and is killed. Edward disappears, never to be seen again. All Kim finds left is a pair of scissors. In a bit of a "West Side Story" moment, she challenges the crowd for their complicity in what has happened, then exits the stage alone. The story teller woman (Old Kim) returns, producing the scissors as snow begins to fall - Edward's annual reminder of his love for her.

As Edward, Mr. Winsor captures the same innocence and dances splendidly. Ms. Vassallo's Kim is a bit more assertive. Ms. Brennan's Peg is true to form, sweet and loving. Mr. Leece's Jim is the bully most of us knew in school who actually did the terrible things he was expected to have done. Ms. Meazza's Joyce, long, lean and limber, vamps and slinks with the best of them.

Musically, it's a lovely score, but certain sections had an "Irish" feel to me in the newer pieces by Terry Davies. Other sections reminded me a bit of underscoring by Richard Rodgers. His arrangements and orchestrations of original music by Danny Elfman felt much more successful. Under the baton of Andrew Bryan, the orchestra was terrific.

Mr. Brotherston's sets and costumes were splendid. From the myriad topiary bush creations to the costume topiary creations to the 1950s era attire of the cast, he has a marvelous touch. Even his interpretation of Edward, in brown leather with black accents was a nice variation from the severe black ensemble from the original movie. Mr. Brotherston also used to very nice effect, a series of blade shadows in almost every setting - symbolizing the dangerous edge to Edward's story. From one perspective, it might look like blades of grass, but from another, the knife-like blades of Edward's hands. Howard Harrison's lights achieved particularly nice effects.

Choreographically, Mr. Bourne is in good form here, but I felt the dancing was just a little "spare" in certain scenes. During those times it felt like the exposition was taking focus when it should have been dancing that related that part of the story. One example was Edward's first night at the Boggs'. Getting him settled in to Kim's room felt a bit fussy and more about the plot point than the choreography.

(Starwatch: Alan Cumming (BAM Board Member) sitting in the third row)

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Somewhere In Time

"Mary Rose" at the Vineyard Theatre, March 13, 2007

J. M. Barrie's final play, first performed in 1920 arrives at the Vineyard in a lovely production directed by Tina Landau. Several analyses have been published about relationship of this play to Mr. Barrie's first stage effort, "Peter Pan" pondering the child-like nature of the title character and how it relates to the experiences in Mr. Barrie's life. It's a tender and delicate ghost story.

In brief, the play centers on Mary Rose, a young English woman who makes two fateful visits to a mysterious island in the Hebrides, first as a child and again ten years later having recently married and borne her first child. Ms. Landau has taken a further step to bring Mr. Barrie's stage directions and other character descriptions into the play with a narrator, played by Keir Dullea, tracking along as a handsome John McMartin doppelganger.

As the title character, Paige Howard delights in the child-like qualities of Mary Rose. She hops and skips every time she crosses the stage. Her performance in Mary's happy moments are where she shines. When Mary is confused or feeling lost, Ms. Howard tends to get a little lost herself and fails to bring the empathy needed in these scenes.

As her husband Simon Blake, Darren Goldstein is at first a perfect ninny, quite proud to have make a sudden bit of growth into solemnity and maturity on the day he proposes to Mary. He enjoys a nice bit of banter with Mr. Cameron (Ian Brennan), the Scottish guide who brings them for Mary's second visit to the island. Mr. Brennan gets a bit of deadpan fun here with a poke or two at Simon's expense. "I admire you, Mr. Blake. Not so much for your learning - - the English have always done without that."

As Mary's parents, Betsy Aidem and Michael Countryman create a warm and loving pair who would protect their child at all costs. Mr. Morland has a couple of nice moments with Mr. Amy, the local parson (Tom Riis Farrell) in the first and third acts, repeating what seems to be a weekly bit of one-upmanship leading into a brief spat followed by heartfelt apologies on both parts for such poor behavior.

Richard Short plays Harry, the grown child of Mary Rose and Simon. He's returned to the family property after spending most of his life in Australia. Mr. Short appeared a bit young to be a man of 30 with a couple of years of warfare behind him. Beyond that and an inconsistent Aussie accent, he makes an earnest attempt to bring believability to his role.

James Schuette settings give the flavor of rural England, as well as the island. Kevin Adams' lighting provide just the right bit of mystery when it is called for. Michael Krass' costumes also bring the air of the period.

Director Tina Landau has done a lovely job with this revival. It's sweet, tender, and at times unsettling.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Side Effects May Include...

"Dying City" at the Mitzi Newhouse Theatre, Lincoln Center, March 6, 2007

Craig died in Iraq. Gay twin brother, Peter, has just dropped in on Kelly, the widow. Angst, pain, miscommunication (or lack thereof) ensues and precedes the rest of the evening.

Christopher Shinn has created an interesting premise for his play about learning how to move on after devastating moments in our lives. Interesting dramatically in his construction to have the same actor play twins with action and exposition in flashbacks.

Pablo Schreiber (I hadn't realized that he is Liev's brother until now) takes on the dual roles. He's buffed up quite a bit, which works for both roles. His Craig, the soldier, is quite believable as an over-protective bear of a man with a quick temper. His Peter, however, falls more into the category of stereotype. Even though Peter is gay, he's become a successful actor both on stage and in film. It seemed a little much to me for Peter to be such a sissy. I think the writing may have pushed Mr. Schrieber to his choices. Peter is continually apologizing, for showing up unannounced, for wanting to maintain a relationship with Kelly, for wanting to talk about Craig, for everything it seems.

As Kelly, Rebecca Brooksher comes across as Calista Flockhart with a Jennifer Grey nose-job - blandly pretty but with a voice that is so familiar. I had heard (or read) someone else make a similar observation, but it didn't really strike me until she was speaking with her back to me. Ms. Brooksher pouts and cries, but never quite matches Mr. Schrieber's intensity.

Anthony Ward's rotating set makes a nice-sized 1BR with minimal furnishings. Pat Collins' lighting does well to help establish whether the scene is present or previous without being intrusive.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

"We Owe Barbra Streisand So Much"

"Some Men" at the Second Stage, March 4, 2007

Terrance McNally's newest play about gay men and where their lives lead them has premiered at the Second Stage Theatre Company.

A series of vignettes and scenes relating to nine men attending the wedding of two of their friends covers a veritable history of gay men from the 1920s to the present. Like his "Love, Valour, Compassion" Mr. McNally has compiled a cross-section of gay characters, from military man to married man to circuit boy to aging queen to gay activist to early drag queen and beyond. He shows all this, not so much to either justify or sabotage the concept of same sex marriage. I think he does a clever job without taking one side or the other.

The cast is solid, with each actor finding at least one moment to shine. Frederick Weller as Paul, attending the funeral of his fellow soldier and lover who was killed in Iraq makes a painfully constricted confession to the dead man's father, also military. Don Amendolia as Aaron, gets one of the funnier opening lines, "When did I become the oldest everywhere I go?" He also gives a funny turn in the internet chat sequence as "Buffed in Chelsea."

Bernie is the married man into whose life we see the most. To him, Kevin AuCoin brings a fresh vulnerability to every scene, from his first encounter with a hustler, to meeting Carl (Romain Fruge) who would become his life partner, to the argument he has with his gay son Perry (Jesse Hooker) who has hired a surrogate mother to bear a child for him and his lover Marcus (Michael McElroy).

As the Stonewall Riots rage outside, David Greenspan appears in a quiet gay bar as Roxie. Roxie isn't quite the typical drag queen, and is abused a bit by the clientele and bartender since cross-dressing was one thing that drew the police to raid gay bars at the time. Judy is a topic of
discussion in this scene - one of the patrons observes that Judy should have done the film version of "Gypsy" (a casting choice I've always thought would have been unbeatable). He wins his place in the bar with the statement, "When I look in the mirror, I see an ugly woman, but a fabulous drag queen. We owe Barbra Streisand so much!" End the scene, he sings a very tender "Over the Rainbow" as both tribute and confession.

Michael McElroy travels back in time to Harlem in the 20's as Angel Eyes, the emcee. He shares his story of the men who have loved and treated him well, nicely capturing the style and flair of the period. Pedro Pascal gets the "hottie" roles with turns as Bernie's hustler and internet RandyHunk. Randy Redd rounds out the cast, providing piano accompaniment and other supporting roles.

DirectorTrip Cullman moves the scenes along well and allows just enough time to ponder moments before moving on. Mark Wendland's set is particularly flexible with excellent lighting by Kevin Adams.

I'm glad to see Mr. McNally back with a solid theatre work. I thought his book for "Chita Rivera: A Dancer's Life" was a bit thin and glossy. Even less impressive was the scenario he created for the NYC Gay Men's Chorus a couple of years ago.

How to Mess Up Your Own Gilbert and Sullivan Operetta

"The Pirates of Penzance" presented by the New York City Opera at the New York State Theatre, Lincoln Center

Of all the G and S productions, I always thought this one was as close to bullet-proof as any of them. NYC Opera has cast a number of well-established stage performers to round out some of the "lighter" presentations in their season. In this production are the very talented Marc Kudisch (Apple Tree, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Assassins, Thoroughly Modern Millie) and Mark Jacoby (Sweeney Todd, Ragtime, Man of La Mancha), but even their depth of skill can't raise this floundering mess.

Mr. Kudisch, singing the Pirate King, appears left to his own devices which works on when the action is between him and one or two other characters. Once the chorus sweeps in, he's lost in the crowd. Fortunately, his was one of the better voices in this performance. Mr. Jacoby, as Major General Stanley, also does well with the snippets of dialogue, but struggles a bit in his songs. To his defense, however, I think it's the responsibility of Conductor Gerald Steichen for so many weak and shaky musical moments.

I'm now a little more sympathetic to NYCO's complaints of poor acoustics in the NY State Theatre. Even with amplification, the orchestra, sitting in an open pit, sounded like they were playing in a room next door. Inconsistent miking helped none of the singers, either.

As Mabel, Sarah Jane McMahon is about the only one who manages to rise above the squalor. She allows Mabel to float through her music, resulting in a lovely and delicate performance.

As Ruth, Myrna Paris doesn't fare so well. She seems to be playing her own version of opera buffa, with only occasional appearances from correct pitch and tempi.

Matt Morgan's Frederic, callow, but not quite innocent also suffers from lack of directorial guidance. In his first meeting with Mabel, this shy and demure lad is suddenly a leering ape, all hands and sidelong glances.

Kevin Burdette, making his NYC Opera debut in the role of the Police Sergeant, does seem to fare rather well, borrowing heavily from Tony Azito's camped-up performance from Joseph Papp's 1981 production - all rubber legs and faces.

Director Lillian Groag appears to have spent much too much time staging a lot of fussy business with costumed stagehands moving about superfluous props and set pieces, and not enough time providing a vision and flow for her singers. Her bio is impressive. I can only wonder where she was for this show.

I had been really excited about NYCO's announcement of "Ragtime" for next season. Having seen what they did with "Pirates..." I'm not so excited anymore.

Friday, March 02, 2007

An Inspector Calls: "...5, 6, 7, 8!"

"Curtains" at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, March 3, 2007

How many shows can Kander and Ebb reference at one time? At a minimum, 3 - but I'm sure that number is much larger than what I could recognize in this, their last joint and particularly frothy production.

The plot is well-traveled ground covering backstage shows and movies from "42nd Street" and "Bandwagon" deliciously, if not over-embroidered with time-worn classics like "An Inspector Calls," "Oklahoma!," and "Ten Little Indians" plus any number of other shows that have ever been produced onstage.

Plot summary: Seasoned producers are in Boston with a tryout of a western version of Robin Hood, starring a faded movie star who can neither sing, dance or act. When she's murdered opening night, a detective shows up and holds the entire cast in the theatre until he can solve the crime. BTW, he's got a bit of his own theatre-bug from doing community shows and becomes as eager to fix the show as he is to solve the murder. Multiple murders follow as the show is restaged, with fingers pointed at about everyone in the company. Toss in a couple of love triangles, stir well with puns and penis jokes and it's an evening of fun and frivolity.

I should add, there was one song in particular that struck a touching moment for me. Aaron (Jason Daniely), the composer and Georgia (Karen Ziemba), the lyricist are recently divorced. Still with the production, Aaron confesses that he's still in love with Georgia and only took the job to get a chance to win her back. He sings the very tender "I Miss the Music" telling of how he misses the time and work and love he shared with Georgia. The program doesn't specify, but I can't help but wonder if this song was written after Mr. Ebb's death - a song of farewell from Mr. Kander, maybe?

(April 5, 2007 - Note: Click here to read a article about "I Miss the Music.")

As Detective Cioffi, David Hyde Pierce returns to Broadway since his turn as Sir John (the not-so-brave-as-Sir-Lancelot) in "Spamalot." With a Boston accent that visits on occasion, he gives us a Columbo anxious for a life on the boards. He does acquit himself nicely in a fantasy number in the style of Fred Astaire, "Tough Act to Follow." Rob Ashford's choreography is certainly the reason for this success - I liked the "Thumperish" foot tapping during the kiss at the end of the number, somewhat reminiscent of his days from Niles and Daphne.

Debra Monk, as Carmen Bernstein the producer, grabs every moment she's given and a few she wasn't and wrings every laugh to be found. Most of her jokes come from her husband Sidney's (Ernie Sabella) "lack of endowment." When someone complains of the disappointment that the show might close out of town, she responds, "My first disappointment was in the honeymoon suite of the Hotel Taft on my wedding night." She also gets a number of pokes at her daughter (also a company member), Elaine (Megan Sikora) who has renamed herself Bambi Bernet. She gets a chance to really shine when she explains to Elaine why she (Elaine) shouldn't count on any support in advancing her performance career in "It's a Business."

Also returning to Broadway is Karen Ziemba as Georgia. When the movie star is murdered, Georgia is called upon to return to the boards and take over the role. Ms. Ziemba is one of my favorite Broadway performers and I'm thrilled to see her back on the boards. Last seen (to me) in "Never Gonna Dance" Ms. Ziemba is in fine form.

Returning with her is Noah Racey as Bobby Pepper, the lead in the show-within-the-show. He's also in fine form, though I wish choreographer had gone ahead and put tap shows on him. A couple of other nice character turns from Ernie Sabella as Sidney Bernstein and Michael McCormick as Oscar Shapiro. Also worth note is Patty Goble as the quickly-murdered star, Jessica Cranshaw. She has a grand time missing cues, blowing lines and screwing up choreography.

Rob Ashford's choreography is spot on, particularly in the dream ballet (after a fashion) in the Kansas Square Dance number taking a pot shot or two at Agnes DeMille's work in Oklahoma. He also sends up a bit of Hermes Pan, Busby Berkely and Jack Coles, all with great affection.

With more sets than "Gypsy" designed by Anna Louizos, she captures the old style of drops very nicely. Peter Kaczorowski's lighting enhances these nicely. And, with costumes by William Ivey Long, who could ask for more?

Director Scott Ellis keeps the action moving, letting these talented actors enjoy their ride. I'm not sure they've got enough to pull off the Tony, but it's great fun.