Monday, May 28, 2007

"Let This Be Known As The Year Inspiration Left The Arts"

"Xanadu" at the Helen Hayes Theatre, May 25, 2007

A large circular mirror overhangs the stage as you enter the theatre, hopefully foretelling of Busby Berkely-like singing and dancing to come. Will hopes be fulfilled or dashed??

Actually, a little of both, courtesy of 1980.

The latest in a string of movie to stage adaptations, Xanadu arrives with no pretense as to what it is and what it is not. If you're ever unsure as you watch, just wait a few minutes and someone in the cast will remind you with a line like, "Even though I was suicidal seven minutes ago, I think I can create the apex of the arts!"

The creative team has insisted that all they took from the 1980 movie with Olivia Newton-John, Gene Kelly, and Michael Beck was just the premise and the songs. As miserable a film as it was, they seem to have kept quite a lot from the thin and poorly designed plot. Still in 1980, Sonny Malone (James Carpinello) is a failing artist, stopped from suicide by the Greek Muse, Clio (Kerri Butler) who renames herself Kira-from-Australia. Sonny discovers an empty theatre called Xanadu, which was built 40 years earlier (but never used) by Danny Maguire (Tony Roberts) when Clio visited him under the name of Tangerine (a missed musical opportunity, by the way). Since the Muses' purpose is only to inspire artists, they are forbidden to create art themselves or fall in love with a mortal, punishment for which is death. Naturally, Clio/Kira does both during the course of the evening. Her evil and older sisters, Melpomene (Mary Testa) and Calliope (Jackie Hoffman) are bitter about their younger sister being head Muse and plot against Clio using a love potion (think Cinderella, and yes, she does lose a skate at one point when she realizes she's fallen in love with Sonny and runs away from him). Of course, it's still a musical comedy and everyone lives happily ever after.

As Clio/Kira, Kerri Butler delivers a delightful knock-off of Olivia Newton-John's breathless singing, with a nice Australian accent to boot. Given what's playing around the corner at the Palace, they might have called this show "Heavenly Blonde" but for the confusion it might cause. She's almost comfortable performing the entire show on roller skates, which should not be an issue by the time opening night rolls around (as it were!). Her Clio/Kira ("call me Kira, 'cause that's my name!") is just a little on the ditsy side, making it easier to pull off as the anachronisms and camp are doled out by the handful.

James Carpinello's Sonny seems to have spent a LOT of time in Queens instead of Los Angeles. More than once, I heard line deliveries a la disco-boy Tony Manero, rather than artist-boy Sonny Malone. He gives an earnest performance, but doesn't quite manage the polish that Ms. Butler delivers opposite him.

There's one scene when Clio has returned to Mt Olympus to face her father Zeus for her actions (making art and falling in love with a mortal) that points up whyTony Roberts must have taken the role of Danny Maguire. Sonny shows up, having followed Clio, and points out that the scene looks just like one from "Clash of the Titans" with Lawrence Olivier as Zeus, Maggie Smith as Thetis, Ursula Andress as Aphrodite and Claire Bloom as Hera. (In this go-round, Mr. Roberts is Zeus - didn't get any Olivier from him, and Jackie Hoffman's Ursula Andress-Aphrodite sounded a bit like the Governator - funny though. Only Anika Larsen's Thetis came close to Miss Smith.) He asks them (paraphrasing) "What were you guys thinking? In a crap movie like that - just playing it for the paycheck?" Wasted in this role of Danny Maguire, I can't help wondering the same thing for Mr. Roberts. He doesn't have much to do, and that which he does isn't written very well.

The evil Muses: Mary Testa as Melpomene (who was mother of the Sirens - "My daughters, the sirens? They never call!") and Jackie Hoffman as Calliope ("I'm not wearing a bra.") camp it up and have a grand time, particularly during their rendition of "Evil Woman" backed up by the sirens with black ostrich-plume fans (Chicago, anyone?).

Musically, the show is firmly entrenched in the world of the Electric Light Orchestra from the movie soundtrack. Some songs have been added (the afore-mentioned "Evil Woman") along with "Strange Magic," "Fool," and "Have You Never Been Mellow." I was a bit disappointed in the "Dancin' " segment. Of the songs from the original movie, this was one that would seem to have offered an opportunity for a really impressive number with the mix of the 1940's style from Danny's memory, to Sonny's vision for the 1980's "Apex of the Arts" roller disco. Curtis Holbrook, dancing as a Young Danny in a flashback with Clio/Tangerine shows some superior tap skill, which could have been called on again for the "Dancin' " number that followed.

Douglas Carter Beane has beaten my fellow blogger Gil at Broadway Abridged to the punch with his book. Just check out his latest abridged show to see what I mean. Dan Knechtges' choreography drags the audience back to the days of "Solid Gold" from the outset. Some performers are more comfortable than others on roller skates, but repetition in previews will iron out any remaining wrinkles there. David Gallo's rink set evokes both a LA setting as well as lending itself to the Greek themes that periodically arise. Howell Binkley's lights complement nicely. I did wonder why the projection (using the circular mirror) of Sonny's chalk drawing of the Muses in the opening was upside down to the audience, though - difficult to recognize and connect the Muses to the actors when they enter in the opening number. David Zinn seems to have had a grand time creating the melange of Greek and 1980s revival costumes.

In the end, it's great fun and camp, but it still seems like it would be better suited in an Off-Broadway setting.

Monday, May 21, 2007

From A Dark, Dark Mind

"In A Dark, Dark House" presented by MCC Theatre at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, May 19, 2007

Neil LaBute, resident playwright for MCC Theatre presents his latest effort, "In A Dark, Dark House." From the MCC Theatre's website is this synopsis (Spoiler Alert):
On the grounds of a private psychiatric facility, two family members find themselves brought face to face with each other's involvement in their traumatic past. In court-ordered rehab, Drew calls on his brother, Terry, to corroborate his story of abuse. Drew's request releases barely-hidden animosities between the two; is he using these repressed memories to save himself while smearing the name of his brother's friend and mentor? In Neil LaBute's powerful new play, these siblings must struggle to come to grips with their troubled legacy, both inside and outside their dark family home.
Dark situations, family conflict - not really new ground for Mr. LaBute in this work, but his language feels more wordy than usual. Mr. Labute seems to want a Mamet-like dialogue, but never manages to find the rythm. The result is incomfortable to hear and must be a nightmare for an actor to perform. There's also a what seems to be final revelation which I found very unclear. If I figure out exactly what it was, I'll update this review.

As Drew, Ron Livingston (better known as Berger of the break-up Post-It from "Sex and the City") feels particularly wooden. The character of Drew is practically a train-wreck and Mr. Livingston plays him in a two-dimensional daze. He musters up a bit more emotion late in the play, but at that point it's hardly believable without having seen a bit more vulnerability in earlier interactions.

Louisa Krause's Jennifer comes off as overly precocious, to me, for a 16 year old girl running her father's miniature golf course. (Maybe I need to go back and watch "Pretty Baby" or "Taxi Driver" again to see just what young girls are thought to be capable of.) Even though she's matching wits with a fully grown man, she comes off as more than just wise for her years. Perhaps it's a result of uneven writing, but the result is not totally successful.

It is Frederick Weller who carries the weigh of this play. His Terry (who, by the way, neither looks, nor sounds, nor carries himself in any way that would support the notion that he and Drew are actually brothers) is a spring wound so tightly that the audience is always on the edge of their seats wondering what will set him off and what the fallout will be. From his first entrance, followed shortly by a bit of wrestling with Drew on the hospital grounds, to his seduction (although I'm not sure who really ends up seducing whom) of Jennifer, to his mini explosions in the final scene with Drew, Mr. Weller gives us a man tortured into becoming the facade of a creepy bully.

Director Carolyn Cantor does what she can with a mostly-talented cast and a script that's not quite up to its potential. Right now, it's a long, intermissionless 90 minutes. Maybe a bit of work in the final scene can tighten things up, or at least keep one from noticing the time.

Beowulf Boritt's outdoor multi-level sets show grass sod sliced away that reveal long roots, perhaps indicative of how deep the issues go. I think his interpretation may imply more success in communicating that than Mr. LaBute's script. Ben Stanton's lighting is an appropriate complement.

Friday, May 11, 2007

The Tables Are Turned

Updated 05/22/07: Three reviews of "In The Schoolyard"

Go Brooklyn's
Review of "In The Schoolyard" at Theater for the New City, published May 12, 2007

Lost in Brooklyn!

By Christopher Murray

for The Brooklyn Paper

If there is any doubt about the cultural milieu of the charming new musical “In the Schoolyard” being presented this month at Manhattan’s Theater for the New City, the opening lyrics make things crystal clear: “Run, block, make a pass. Come on, Eddie, move your ass!”

Yeah, we’re deep in the heart of Brooklyn, guys. Both the storyline and the genesis of this musical are firmly set in the land of Spaldeens and eggcreams. Here’s the background: in 1998, writer Paulanne Simmons wrote a story for The Brooklyn Paper about a group of grown-up Brooklyn Heights street urchins who return every year to the ‘hood to play basketball and reminisce over a few beers. The story tugged on all those Brooklyn heartstrings: friendship, sports and nostalgia for the good ol’ days.

“I grew up in Brooklyn,” Simmons said recently. “I felt like I knew these guys.” Living in the Heights with her family, but having grown in East New York, Simmons was sure there was drama in the story and in 2001 her play, “Basketball Lessons,” was brought to the stage. Now, with her collaborator, composer Margaret Hetherman, the story that became a play becomes a feisty and warm-hearted musical.

“It happened years ago and yet,” goes one of the songs, “these are the things you don’t forget.” Certainly the fictional characters Simmons has created haven’t forgotten. They are all drawn back to Brooklyn like the swallows to Capistrano, but this year will prove to be a very special reunion of the gang.

Larry (the soulful and sardonic Jimmy Moon), also know as “Killer Dog,” was the golden boy of the nabe and is now a workaholic venture capitalist in California. “Jumping” Jerry (James Martinelli, also the show’s choreographer whose loose joints and full heart reminded me of the Tin Man of Oz), is a family man with small law practice on Long Island. Eddie (the affable Arthur Brown), a high school principal, acts as reunion convener and the show’s chorus. Manny (the solid Richard Bryson), made a mint out of his Tex-Mex restaurant chain. And lastly, Dave (the energetic Mickey Corporon) helped ensure all the guys got through school in the old days, but a succession of failed get-rich-quick schemes have left him broke, with a failing marriage and more-than-a-little desperate.

“But most of us turned out OK,” Larry mused. “I think it’s because we were so close.”

The guys represent the full diversity of Kings County’s Latino, Jewish and Irish sons of immigrants, and are lauded in the song “Protestants, Atheists and Jews.” Most of the show’s tunes are short and slower-tempoed, although Manny (“Best Latin Lover, Dartmouth ‘71”) and his mother — local grocery owner — Mrs. Rivera (“Rice and Beans”), played by Jackie Savage, both add zest with their numbers.

The wives of the fellows (Theresa Marinelli, Barbara Czerner, Jody Bell and Heather Meagher), perhaps predictably, get somewhat short shrift. While the men’s characters, which the show is ultimately most concerned with, are all crispy delineated and well beyond stereotype, the wives all grumble about the reunions and make fun of their husbands for being a little past their prime, with spare tires and balding pates. In a group number, “Our Guys,” however, their love for their tubby hubbies shines through.

The show takes a serious turn in the second act, moving the script beyond just a re-examination of the past with rose-colored glasses. A personal crisis for one of the characters causes all the friends to reflect on what’s truly important to them and how precious the time spent with dear friends and family is.

Although the play’s rudimentary scenic elements — backlit lighting, cardboard sets — convey a community theater-style production, with a few botched sound cues and a flubbed line here and there, these foibles are made up for by the spirit of theater about community that is in harmony with the play’s message. In fact, members of Simmons’s family pitched in with various tasks for the presentation and the Heights Players offered support, too.

The homespun truths captured by “In the Schoolyard,” and the message about your old friends being the truest, was summed up in a comment overhead from an audience member at intermission: “There’s a certain thing in Brooklyn. Those guys, I might not have seen them in years, but I’ll be going to their funeral, or they’ll be going to mine.”

A somber note, perhaps, for a musical with a slightly bittersweet ending, but a shared past has many consolations, as Larry said, “That’s the great thing about coming back to Brooklyn — nothing changes.”

“In the Schoolyard,” will run at Theater for the New City (155 First Ave., between Ninth and 10th streets in Manhattan) through May 20. Tickets are $15. For information, visit www.theaterforthenew....'s review of "In The Schoolyard" at Theatre for the New City published May 5, 2007

Michael Criscuolo · May 5, 2007

Paulanne Simmons and Margaret Hetherman's new musical, In the Schoolyard, follows several old high school friends from Brooklyn who reunite in the old neighborhood once a year for a weekend of socializing, reminiscing, and schoolyard basketball. It's a great idea for a show that, unfortunately, falls flat here. Plagued by inconsistency on all fronts, In the Schoolyard undoes its creators at every turn.

Eddie, a middle-aged high school principal in New Jersey, organizes the reunion every year. Among the usual attendees are Larry, a white collar California businessman; Jerry, a Long Island attorney; Dave, a wayward entrepreneur looking to make a quick and easy buck; and Manny, owner of a national Tex-Mex restaurant chain. They all grew up together, and rarely miss an opportunity to hang together no matter how geographically far away they may be from each other. Some of these men are workaholics, others have lost numerous jobs, while others have married and divorced, but their collective friendship has remained constant throughout the years.

On a purely structural level, Simmons's book lets In the Schoolyard down in a crucial way: there's no conflict. Act I takes its time (perhaps a little too much) introducing all the characters. Then, in Act II, the show jumps straight into a slow, gradual resolution, bypassing any and all complications. There's some potential discomfort regarding a risky investment deal Dave wants to get Larry in on, and a life-threatening disease for one of the men late in the show, but they both feel almost like afterthoughts. Simmons never positions In the Schoolyard for any kind of circumstance that might jeopardize the men's reunion or their friendships (or anything else).

Even if she did, we might not necessarily see it. The two places the guys talk most about—the basketball court and the local bar where they hang out afterwards—are the two locations where we never get to see them. In the Schoolyard shows us plenty of who they are individually, but we see very little of who they are together. Without this dynamic, the show feels imbalanced.

Simmons and Hetherman's score has some nice moments, but on the whole sounds too somber and minor-key for this story. The exuberance that the characters keep aiming for is absent from the songs. There are also some dubious choices made concerning which parts of the story get musicalized. "Our Guys," a trio for the tried-and-true wives, and "Rice and Beans," in which one of the guys' mothers rhapsodizes about her signature dish, feel like filler. Simmons and Hetherman fare better in other places, most notably with Manny's introduction, "Best Latin Lover, Dartmouth '71," but, for the most part, I had a hard time understanding why In the Schoolyard is a musical and not a straight play.

The production itself is shaky, and feels severely under-rehearsed. The actors look uncertain much of the time, and there's a mental and emotional disconnect that happens whenever most of them sing. Director Simmons doesn't unify any of the show's various elements, and the result is a production that comes off looking like a first run-through at the halfway point in the rehearsal schedule. Sadly, under such conditions, almost none of the actors comes off looking good. Only James Martinelli makes a positive impression as Jerry. Imagine Tom Sizemore as a song-and-dance man, and you'll understand how disarmingly charming Martinelli is.

As I said at the beginning, there's a good show lurking in here somewhere, but this isn't it.

Update: May 22, 2007

A third opinion from Cait Weiss at New Theater Corps Blog:

Link here

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Spacey From Across The Sea

" A Moon for the Misbegotten" at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, May 8, 2007

As the artistic director at London's Old Vic Theatre, Kevin Spacey has found himself a permanent performance venue for the duration of his contract. His first transfer to Broadway is Eugene O'Neill's A Moon for the Misbegotten. Well-received in London, it's a solid production with a very talented cast.

The premise of the play surrounds Phil Hogan, an Irish immigrant farmer working rocky fields he rents from sometime Broadway actor Jim Tyrone in rural Connecticut in 1923. Having already run off his three sons, he's left with only his daughter Josie for help running the place. Jim has promised to sell the farm to Phil when his father's estate, of which the farm is a part, is finally settled. Josie has few prospects for anything that might lead to a husband and a life away from her father. She claims to be satisfied with her lot, having already found affection in the arms of many. Sadly, her true love is the tortured and alcoholic landlord, Jim Tyrone. She is described in Amazonian proportions to the point of horse-like. During the youngest brother's escape, he encourages her to entrap Tyrone into marriage as her last hope. Her father supports the concept and they work on a scheme to make it happen.

As Josie, Eve Best doesn't carry the physical proportions, but manages a gawky and uncultured demeanor that portrays the bovine specimen she should be. Her portrayal is an earnest performance of a fiery woman with plenty of rough edges. Her success is in that she doesn't sacrifice Josie's underlying vulnerability.

Colm Meaney gives a solid turn as Phil Hogan, a struggling immigrant who has chased off his three sons, perhaps intentionally so that they might have a better life than his.

Billy Carter, as T. Stedman Harder, blusters embarrassedly, to the point of not being understood on occasion.

Mr. Spacey's Jim Tyrone is a man who drops by his tenants' farm to get his ego stroked, his drinking problem enabled and enjoy the show. It seemed as though he was only there to watch the excellent performances of Mr. Meaney and Ms. Best during Act I, occasionally interjecting his lines in a non-sequitur style of delivery. It is Act II that Mr. Spacey "takes the stage." He runs the actor's gauntlet, but only becomes credible in Tyrone's drunken breakdown. At that point, it's almost too little, too late.

Bob Crowley's dirt floor and racked cabin sets give the appropriate air of desperation, with Mark Henderson's lighting almost a perfect companion.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

"Shot Who?"

"Our Leading Lady" presented by Manhattan Theatre Club at City Center Stage II, April 25, 2007

Charles Busch's latest offering, "Our Leading Lady" tells the presumably fictional back story of Laura Keen, a 19th century actress-manager, whose production of "Our American Cousin" was playing the night Abraham Lincoln was assassinated at Ford's Theatre.

I couldn't help thinking that this would be great fodder for a musical. Mr. Busch has assembled the stock characters one might have found in the acting company of Ford's Theatre at the time, the dotty older actress, the leading man with a drinking problem, the character actor of questionable sexual orientation married to a former ingenue, etc.

(Spoiler Alert) In the first act, he has created a period melodrama, telling the story of how Ms. Keen has left New York after her acting company there went under. She is now touring her production of "Our American Cousin" across the country, playing the lead and supported by local actors at each stop. On this stop, she is also in secret negotiations to take over the running of Ford's Theatre and staff it with members from her New York company. Needless to say, the local actors are suspicious and unhappy. Egos run from testy to maniacal. When Laura learns that the President has decided not to attend her play, she writes to him immediately, and is able to change his mind. We all know what happens next.

Things take a dark shift in the second act. Laura's efforts of kindness toward her long-time dresser/maid, Wu-Chan (now revealed as a once-runaway slave) are not received as she would have expected. The relationship, founded on a mutual disregard and denial for what was obvious in order to serve each one's purposes, struggles through an attempted switch in roles of care giver and receiver. Wu Chan wants to find her brother and claim six acres promised to her by her former owner. Laura sees this as unlikely, if not impossible, given the war and despite emancipation, begging Wu Chan to stay and travel with her to her next tour stop in Ohio. Laura and the cast are questioned by the authorities about possible involvement with Mr. Booth's actions, since several company members might have a motive to help the assassination plot. The former ingenue is held overnight because of her Southern family ties and previous public statements against the war.

All is resolved, ever-so-theatrically, in a grand monologue delivered by Laura which thoroughly impresses the company, but only befuddles the investigator who writes them all off as not mentally stable enough to formulate, let alone participate in the assassination. Laura's plan to take over the theatre falls through, and her tour is cancelled.

As Laura Keen, Kate Mulgrew gives her best William Shatner version of a pompous and self-important actor. Maxwell Caulfield, as the aging leading man with a teeny-tiny drinking problem is just about unintelligible, but still quite handsome. As the dotty Mrs. Bentley, Barbara Byrne is steadfast and probably the most consistent performer in this production.

Santo Loquasto's versatile set uses a rotating proscenium arch, turning periodically as the scenes shift. In the second act, the proscenium is tilted against the back wall, a metaphor for the collapse in the aftermath of the assassination. Brian McDevitt's lighting gives the appropriate period feel to the proceedings. Jane Greenwood's period costumes were spot on.

Mr. Busch has written some very nice and clever moments into his script. Late in the first act, while railing against the Booths for prior offenses to her career (which may or may not have led to the failure of her New York company) she says, "At least there's nothing the Booths can do to me now." There are plenty of other laughs as well, but the evening still feels a bit unsatisfying. Is the play meant to be just a broad comedy with some dark moments? Is it meant as a commentary on the artificiality of politics? Is it meant to comment on how women survived in the 19th Century? We get these questions, but the answers remain unclear.

(Star-watch: Conrad John Schuck in the audience - I saw a fellow audience member speak to him as someone recognizable but unidentified.)