Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Minor Successes are Not the Stuff of Which History is Made

"Frankenstein" at 37 Arts, October 27, 2007

And the challenger, weighing in at 98 lbs, with a "faithful" adaptation of Mary Shelley's classic story.

He swings.

He misses.

He swings again - and knocks himself out. The crowd is in an uproar. They shout, "Throw in the towel! Throw in the towel!"

I agree.

Miscast, melodramatically staged, weakly scored, it's a sad event. There's really not enough here to provide fodder for campy remarks. Although those leather pants on the Creature...

Hunter Foster's Victor reminds me of Robert Preston. I kept waiting for him to break into "Trouble, Right Here In Geneva City."

Steve Blanchard's Creature is a hottie - until he sings. He has a nice vocal tone, but I can't tell what the source of his pitch problems are between the horrid sound design and the mediocre score.

Christiane Noll fares slightly better as Elizabeth - she gets to wear pretty costumes.

The abstract set by Kevin Judge is serviceable, but Thom Weaver's lighting design calls for 3.4 million instruments to light an off-Broadway venue. The result is blocked view for any audience member on the right side of the house. The worst of this offense is that the lighting was poor, even with all that money and equipment thrown at it. This is a brand new facility. Doesn't anyone designing theatre space ever think of the visual distraction caused by these huge life-threatening grids suspended over the audience? With that, why is it that lighting designers are the only ones on the technical team who doesn't have to mask his/her work? It's theatre, not a rock concert.

Ok, ok. I'll get off my soapbox now.

Thanks for letting me vent.

Back to Frankenstein (if I must).

They might do well to take out about 15-20 minutes and cut their intermission. That could reduce the empty seats in Act II. I mentioned this to my brother who attended with me (and who doesn't see a lot of theatre, btw). His response? "You can't polish a turd."

Well . . . ok!

Transylvanian Catskills

"Young Frankenstein" at the Hilton Theatre, October 25, 2007

Mel Brooks returns to Broadway with another stage adaptation from his film collection. Based on James Whale's 1930s adaptation of Mary Shelley's book, the Brooks tongue almost splits the zipper in the monster's cheek.

The show is relatively faithful to the 1974 film, with a few understandable modifications for a live stage production. What disappointed me was one of two things:

  • Either I never realized that Brooks wrote from a formula, or
  • Mr. Meehan has, unwittingly, imposed one onto Mr. Brooks' material
As the show progressed, I kept thinking, "Hmm, that reminds me of 'The Producers'." Let's review the similarities, shall we?
  • Two featured male roles - Leo/Max, Frederick/Igor
  • Blond sex kitten - Ulla, Inga
  • Old Ladies: Old ladies, Frau Blucher (s/f/x horse whinny)
  • Featured oaf: Franz, The Monster
  • Featured supporting role which grew into a lead in a swell gown: Roger Debris, Elizabeth
  • Busby Berkeley-style production number: Springtime For Hitler, Puttin' On The Ritz
Brook's melodies don't hold up when compared with his efforts on "Producers" either. As another blogger put it (paraphrasing here), "everything ends up sounding like Hava Nagila." I'll add that Mr. Brooks seems to have pulled out Kander and Ebb's "Guide to Recreating a Kurt Weill Score" but only read the first three chapters.

With his same creative team in place for this second Broadway effort, some similarities were bound to occur. It's unfortunate that one missing piece from this group is Mike Ockrent, who was the original director of "Producers" and died while that show was under development. I've always wondered how much he contributed to that show's success, and I think this "YF" confirms that the contribution was significant. The very-talented Ms. Stroman (a/k/a the Widow Ockrent) makes a noble effort here, but with this material there's only so much the choreographer-cum-director can fix. Speaking of, the choreography is up to her delightful standards.

By now, most of you have heard about Roger Bart's slipped disc which pulled him from the show last week. I saw his understudy, Matthew LaBanca giving it everything he has to fill the shoes, but he's just not there yet. It's a competent performance, but this role requires a star turn. There aren't many Ruby Keelers out there who can walk on as an understudy and walk off a star. Keep an eye on him, however. He's a talented young man with strong potential.

It's Christopher Fitzgerald's Igor whose scenery chewing is only outdone by Megan Mullally's Elizabeth. There are many ghosts around this show, some living, some dead. Of the cast, these are the only two who really manage to make their roles their own. Mr. Fitzgerald hops, bounces, mopes and twitters about such that I never stopped to think about Marty Feldman. While I liked Madeline Kahn's interpretation of Elizabeth better, Ms. Mullally is to be commended for stalking her petulant way through and leaving her own mark on the part, even if that mark is a la Charles Busch.

Then there's Andrea Martin. After last year's workshop included Cloris Leachman reprising her role, the decision was made to use someone else, prompting some Page Six style jabs and retorts. In the end I think the right decision was made. Ms. Martin's Frau Blucher (s/f/x horse whinny) separates herself from the cast, rising above the material for a truly hysterical performance. (By the way, did everyone see the explanation in the press as to why the horses always react when her name is mentioned? Leave a comment if you want the world to know. I'll post it in a week or so if no one's beat me to it.)

Struggling is poor Sutton Foster, but I don't think she knows that. She strolls through the blonde role, and does have a bit of a "How did I get Cady Huffman's part? (Did she die?)" about her. She's got the look, and thanks to William Ivey Long's usual fabulous costumes, the parts. Still, it's as if she doesn't know how to be sexy without turning into a vamp. Ms. Stroman hasn't managed to get that out of Ms. Foster yet, despite all the struts and poses. Ms. Foster's other roles haven't been quite so sexy, so this does end up as a bit of a stretch for her. She needs to leave Millie Dillmount and Jo March behind.

Shuler Hensley's Monster spends most of the show moaning and groaning, but he does get to show off his years of dance class in "Putting on the Ritz."

Robin Wagner's sets are up to his usual high standard, and are amazingly enhanced by Peter Kaczorowski's lights and Mac Brickman's special effects. The dream sequence in Act I is one of the best uses of projections I've seen on stage yet. As I mentioned, William Ivey Long's costumes are just delicious, from the Transylvanian peasants to Elizabeth's swank gowns.

I don't see this show sweeping the Tony's like last time, but it's a good solid piece even with its predictability factor.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Animal Tendencies

"Edward Albee's Peter and Jerry" at Second Stage Theatre, October 21, 2007

Expanding on his 1958 success "The Zoo Story," Mr. Albee has written something of a prequel to provide a full view of Peter from the earlier play. "Homelife" according to Mr. Albee, "...will flesh Peter fully and make the subsequent balance better."

I think he is quite successful in this. Peter (Bill Pullman) and his wife Ann, (Johanna Day) struggle through a compelling, if oddly dysfunctional act revealing things about their marriage that it seems neither really wanted to ever say. At the end of the act, Peter announces he is going to the park to read, setting up the the odd and disconcerting (to say the least) encounter with Jerry.

As Peter, Mr. Pullman maintains a palpable detachment and personal discomfort that made me wonder if he and his wife had ever talked about anything beyond superficial things like the weather or how dull the textbook is that is being published by his firm.

Ms. Day's Ann attempts to struggle the role of a housewife in some sense of timelessness. In 1958, a full-time home-maker was the standard in the American nuclear family. Fifty years later, such a profile is much less common, requiring a bit more of a stretch in imagination by the audience than might be credible. Yet, she is not willing to go so far as we see in Lifetime movies, thank goodness. But her desire for a sense of passion and fire in their relationship is extinguished when Peter shares a disturbing tale from a fraternity incident and an unnamed co-ed.

Peter's recovery from his revelation seems a bit expedient by the time he leaves for the park. When Jerry (Dallas Roberts) happens along, it's apparent that things are about to get uncomfortable.

Mr. Roberts' Jerry, manic and quirky, never quites breathes the real danger that lurks within. When the violence does occur, it feels more an accident rather than the manipulation of a sociopath. His rambling stories did lose a bit of steam and edge in the (almost endless) tale of his landlady's dog.

Mr. Albee explores the nature of duality on several levels in these two related one-acts: husband/wife, parents/children, people/pets, cats/birds, love/lust, sane/crazy, indoor/outdoor, and ultimately, life/death. Neil Patel echoes this duality in his two-window interior and two-bench exterior sets, all gently surrounded by a curved grass-green scrim.

Ultimately, I found the new first act more compelling, but struggled with the stilted language in Peter and Ann's conversation. Director Pam McKinnon has pulled solid performances from Mr. Pullman and Ms. Day, but hasn't managed to get much edge or sense of menace out of Mr. Roberts for Jerry. It is early in previews, however. With a few more performances, all should find the appropriate levels for a strong production.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

That's What The Means Are For

"The Farnsworth Invention" at the Music Box Theatre, October 18, 2007

Aaron Sorkin returns to Broadway (not just Broadway, but back to the Music Box Theatre) after nearly 20 years with his docu-drama of the birth of television. It's oddly appropriate that Mr. Sorkin pays such tribute to the medium which has brought him such well-deserved success.

He positions the story from the perspectives of David Sarnoff, the RCA CEO who saw the potential of television and Philo T. Farnsworth, the man who actually invented it. Mr. Sorkin has done well by enlisting the help of Des McAnuff and most of the artistic team he used in 2005's "Jersey Boys." What we get is a well-paced, slickly-staged and often moving back story of the politics behind the major advancement of the twentieth century. His mastery of tech and plot effectively pound the theory of TV multiple times without the first moment of feeling redundant.

There's a nice page on the show's website that outlines the history. Check it out so I don't have to bore you with the background here.


The show opens with Mr. Sarnoff (Hank Azaria) narrating the story of Mr. Farnsworth's first idea of how to make television work as a 9th grader in Utah. The young Mr. Farnsworth is a highly self-confident young man, quite assured of his intelligence and the validity of his idea. Time skips forward a bit and the now-grown Mr. Farnsworth (Jimmi Simpson) seems to have lost the smooth confidence of his youth, although he remains committed to actualizing his concept.

Farnsworth takes his turn to facilitate Mr. Sarnoff's journey from Russia to America, teaching himself un-accented English along way his way to the top of RCA. This point-counterpoint approach minimizes what might have been some dreary exposition, heightening the drama as the competition to be the first to have a successful prototype for television. In addition to Farnsworth, both RCA and Westinghouse were working on their own ideas to achieve what seemed at times, impossible. RCA bought Westinghouse out of the picture, but still couldn't get a working model. Fast forward through the death of Farnsworth's child amid some corporate espionage to fix the two approaches and the medium is officially born. Also born with it was a series of lawsuits which eventually grant the patent to RCA, leaving Farnsworth in relative ignominy.

Sorkin does give us a fictional account of an encounter between Farnsworth and Sarnoff following the verdict. He provides a moving moment when Sarnoff recognizes Farnsworth's achievement, offering him a job at RCA to continue his work. Bitter and defeated, Farnsworth rejects the offer. As man lands on the moon for the first time in 1969, Farnsworth is shown in a bar, basically drunk, outlining on cocktail napkins his concept to achieve nuclear fusion.

As David Sarnoff, Mr. Azaria confirms his skill and talent as a stage actor. His presence demands your attention in this role of a man born to lead, yet feels the sting of the pain his actions sometimes inflict. This Sarnoff grows slowly into corporate arrogance. As he says, "They say the end justifies the means. That's what the means are for."

Mr. Simpson's Farnsworth is a talented genius, flawed by his focus on his invention. Stumbling drunk, or painfully honest, he is a hero who is never properly recognized for his contribution during his lifetime. I did find the missing self-confidence displayed by his younger portrayal a bit confusing at first. Perhaps it was Mr. Sorkin's writing that effected such a change as the cost of a formal education in the period.

The supporting cast is terrific as well, each actor playing multiple roles. Standouts include Maurice Godin, Bruce McKenzie and Jim Ortleib.

Mr. McAnuff has once again proven his talent, directing this play with taste and restraint, bringing out fine performances from this large cast. I must admit that when he spoke to the audience just before curtain, I was a bit concerned. Only in their fourth preview at the time, he wanted the audience to be aware that the show was still undergoing some changes and there was a chance of a "train wreck" which might stop the show. I didn't see the first moment's hesitation by anyone in the cast.

Klara Zieglerova's sets ring familiar from her efforts on "Jersey Boys" with a two-level set, exposed steel beams in black and red, nicely lit by the efforts of Howell Binkley. David Woolard's period-appropriate costumes are spot-on.

I think we have the first best play contender of the season with this production.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Film Noir...in Technicolor!

"Die Mommie, Die!" at the New World Stages, October 14, 2007

Charles Busch's 1999 homage to "grande guignol" films of the 1960s is finally getting its NYC debut. The prolific playwright of famous (The Tale of the Allergist's Wife) and infamous (Psycho Beach Party, Vampire Lesbians of Sodom) is back on the boards in the title role.

On his website, Mr. Busch describes the play as follows (spoiler alert):

Ex-pop singer, Angela Andrews, is trapped in a hateful marriage with film producer Sol Sussman. Desperate to find happiness with her younger lover, an out of work TV actor, Tony Parker, Angela murders her husband with the aid of a poisoned suppository. In a plot that reflects Greek tragedy as well as Hollywood kitsch, Angela’s Elektra-like daughter, Edith, convinces Angela’s emotionally disturbed son, Lance, that they must avenge their father’s death by killing their mother. Lance, demanding proof of Angela’s crime, slips some LSD into her after-dinner coffee. Angela is plunged into a wild acid trip that reveals that not only did she kill the children’s father but also their mother, for she isn’t their mother at all but rather their Aunt Barbara. A surprising twist ending has all of the Sussman family’s dirty laundry aired out for once and for all. Angela or rather Aunt Barbara realizes that happiness cannot be built upon a foundation of lies and turns herself in to the police.
As Angela, Mr. Busch emotes and trembles, in moods from pensive to petulant with a tribute to all the great actresses who didn't learn how to fade away - Bette, Joan, Lana, Gloria, Merman - they all appear at various points throughout the play. Having finally seen Mr. Busch in a live performance of one of his roles, I couldn't help but wonder just how much more fun "Our Leading Lady" would have been earlier this year with him in that title role (no offense to Ms. Mulgrew, mind you).

Bob Ari as Angela's husband, Sol Sussman, still seemed to be struggling with lines from time to time, detracting a bit from his concentration and focus. Newcomer Ashley Morris, as daughter Edith Sussman brings a nice fire to the girl with a disturbing affection for her father. Van Hansis' Lance Sussman, spends a bit more time blustering than is necessary (are his vocal chords going to be able to withstand 8 performances a week of this run in addition to his work on "As The World Turns?" He gets the lovable goof parts right, but seems a bit lost when it's his character who should appear that way. Kristine Nielsen's Bootsie Carp, does everything she can to compete with Mr. Busch's Angela, but she just doesn't stand a chance. The play is truly a showcase for Mr. Busch and any attempts to play it otherwise would be ill-conceived and foolish. Chris Hoch's bulging pecs (and crotch) precede him on every entrance as the oily actor/tennis pro, Tony Parker.

Technically, I was very impressed with Michael Anania's set design, although the execution revealed a few flaws and seams in the set walls. Working on a stage with absolutely no fly space calls for creative work and Mr. Anania has risen to the occasion. Ben Stanton's cinematic lighting provides just the right moments of melodrama required. Jessica Jahn's 1960s costumes service nicely, though I was a bit surprised at the poor fit of Mr. Busch's gowns by Michael Bottari and Ronald Case despite their inspired design.

Director Carl Andress has taken the concept of camp and run it for a marathon. Believe me, there's no cliche' left unmugged in this hilarious feast of stereotypes.

I'm really glad to see New World Stages putting up a performance of something designed to do more lure than the tourist west of 8th Ave. Theatre Row has established some very nice working relationships (apparently) with producing organizations like The Keen Company and The New Group. I think there are certainly opportunities for similar groups to help provide NWS with quality programming beyond "Naked Boys..." "Altar Boys" and "Gazillion Bubbles." (not to imply that those shows don't have their own merits - I'm just sayin'...)

In Search of Neil Simon

"A feminine ending" at Playwrights Horizons, October 12, 2007

Sarah Treem's new play has made its off-Broadway debut in the Peter Jay Sharp Theatre at Playwrights Horizons. The story is somehow familiar, despite her efforts to thrust a musical concept of gender assignments over it.

Amanda (Gillian Jacobs), a composer has managed to land Jack (Alec Beard), a narcissistic rock singer on the verge of significant fame and fortune. He's really hot (he really is!) and she confuses her thrill that he's even noticed her with love. He's not really that bright, though, so there's a strong "need" factor to seal the attraction and they plan to marry. Amanda's mother Kim (Marsha Mason) won't show any signs of approval or support for the wedding, constantly calling to distract Amanda with her own manic minutiae. She capitalizes on Amanda's insecurity when Jack heads out for a power dinner with his agent and a record producer, dragging her home to help Kim pack up to leave Amanda's father, David (Richard Masur). Of course her first (only?) boyfriend from high school, Billy (Joe Paulik) now lives next door and pops up to throw the plot contrivance into the works. Too bad the plot turn doesn't make more sense.

As Amanda, Gillian Jacobs is pretty in that average sort of way. The show was still in previews the night I saw it, so some of the slight discomfort I felt in many of her line deliveries will hopefully iron themselves out over the next few performances. I was more distracted by her permanent-slightly-bent-at-the-waist posture, which made little sense for a character whose musical background began with the oboe, and proceeded to the piano (good posture is required for both instruments). Plus as a composer, one might presume a bit of conducting along the way would have softened the repeated karate-shop gestures with which she punctuated her lines. Her Amanda was a bit whiny, too, never able to command the attention she desperately sought, and only of late began to ask for.

Marsha Mason, Kim could be any of the Neil Simon women he wrote for her. Her last prominent acting role was that of Martin Crane's girlfriend Sherry in "Frasier." I was disappointed not to see something more specific than this middle-aged Goodbye Girl/Chapter Two/Gingerbread Lady (Only When I Laugh). Her Kim is nothing new to the world of middle aged female characters who finally have "had enough" and want to start new. The revelation that she gave up an art career to raise Amanda comes too little too late to make her more interesting.

Richard Masur's David also struggle to find a third dimension. He's all smiles, nods and uh huhs of agreement without listening to a word. He knows that Kim has been unhappy, but has counted on her inability to act for most of their marriage. Mr. Masur has a nice moment when he explains to Amanda that life isn't fair, but luckily it doesn't really matter in the end.

Joe Paulik seems to be having the most fun in his quirky portrayal of Billy. Now a mail carrier, he gets to reveal some mental instability in his family that seems to have been passed right along. It's not quite Tourette's, but he does have a grand time with outbursts and shouts.

Ms. Treem's writing holds some bizarre twists in language, with the odd expletive and non-sequitur showing up from time to time.

Under the direction of Blair Brown, it feels like this play might have benefited from just one more workshop before this full-scale production. She has elicited some nice moments here and there, but there are still many gaps remaining. Operationally, the choreography of set changes and transitions work nicely, but it's the moments in between that need another look.

Speaking of, it is Cameron Anderson's thoughtful and detailed sets that bring this play to life. From the overscaled piano string backdrop, to the paneled den of Amanda's parents which reminded me of the back of an upright piano, to the Rorschach print orchard flats, the warmth was ever present. Ben Stanton's lighting complimented nicely.

See the post below for ticket discounts.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Playwrights Horizons Discount

Playwrights Horizons is offering the following discount for their next production, "A feminine ending."


A feminine ending

A new play by Sarah Treem


Alec Beard, Gillian Jacobs, Marsha Mason, Richard Masur, Joe Paulik

Directed by Blair Brown

October 4 thru November 11 only

Playwrights Horizons Peter Jay Sharp Theater

416 West 42nd Street between 9th & 10th Avenues

Having recently graduated from a major conservatory, and with her rocker boyfriend on the brink of megastardom, aspiring composer Amanda Blue’s “extraordinary life” seems to be all mapped out.

But when she’s called home to answer a distress call from her mother (four-time Academy Award nominee Marsha Mason, “Chapter Two,” “The Goodbye Girl”) about a marital crisis, Amanda’s grand plan starts to unravel. A Feminine Ending is a bittersweet new comedy about dreams deferred, loves lost and learning to trust a woman's voice in a man's world.

Sarah Treem
makes her off-Broadway debut with A Feminine Ending.

Blair Brown last directed Lovely Day for The Play Company. As an actor, she has appeared in
over fifty plays including Copenhagen (Tony Award), James Joyce’s The Dead, Cabaret, and Arcadia;
on TV’s “The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd” (5 Emmy nominations).


SPECIAL BLOGGER DISCOUNT! Order by Oct 17 and tickets are $35 for performances Oct 4-15 and $40 for performances Oct. 16 – Nov. 11. Reg. price $50. Use code FEBL.


  • Online at www.playwrightshorizons.org

  • By phone with Ticket Central at 212-279-4200 (Noon-8pm daily)

  • In person at the Box Office: (Noon-8pm daily)

Sunday, October 07, 2007

1 in 73,000

(Photo by Susan Wilson)

On her flight to New York, my mother found an ad in a magazine giving that statistic as the odds for a child to perform at Carnegie Hall.

Who'd a thunk it?

My performance last night at Carnegie Hall in Karyn Levitt's "The Age of Romance: From Vienna to Broadway" was one of those magical nights in the theatre that every performer hopes for every time he takes the stage.

There are several people I want to thank for this opportunity. Obviously my thanks to Karyn, and to Terrence Montgomery, our director. He's got such a sharp eye and that amazing skill/talent/intuition to zone right to the heart of a moment. He teaches at a high school here in the city. I hope his school and students know how lucky they are to have him. I also want to thank Tom LaMark, our Pianist, for his attentive and sensitive accompaniment. And great thanks to Greg Schanuel, for making me feel like a real dancer for the first time in quite a while.

Karyn's performance was simply delightful last night. She is a mature singer with a lovely voice and brought out the beauty of many well-known songs that over the years have sometimes fallen victim to camp and derision. The brilliant lyrics of Hammerstein, Young and Harbach have such a timeless quality, matched only by the gorgeous music with which they are paired.

Terry's interpretation of the music for the evening was to encapsulate the life and loves of a woman searching. My role was that of an Everyman, silently presenting several different characters as each appeared in this woman's love life in the various songs.

I began as a waiter serving champagne to her as hostess of a party, then a guest at the party, waltzing her across the stage (Grand Waltz). Her courage and interest piqued, I next appeared as a stagehand (complete with broom, apron and cigar stub), trying to sweep the stage, but instead becoming the object of her unwanted affections (One Kiss/I'm Falling in Love with Someone).

Next I came as a presumptuous dresser who has appropriated her sequined and coined scarves in a frenzied harem dance celebrating my own discovery of love (Rahadlakum/Baubles, Bangles, and Beads/He's in Love).

In Stouthearted Men, I was her dough-boy, headed off to war, then her Latin Lothario seducing her in a tango (Softly, As in a Morning Sunrise).

The stagehand returned as an understudy for the sheik fighting a desert windstorm to get to her, woefully mimicked by a small table fan (Desert Song).

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes brought me a solo dance, kindly, graciously and beautifully choreographed by a very talented Greg Schanuel, evoking the man she loves who is far away.

Then I got to sing.

On the stage.


Hundreds of years ago (shortly after I finished college) I took a voice pedagogy at a local college where I lived in South Carolina from a voice major at the school. One of the songs we worked on during that semester was Jerome Kern's All the Things You Are. I have loved that song ever since and had only ever gotten to sing it for others around a piano bar in the Village.

When Karyn offered to make it a duet in the penultimate number, I couldn't have been more thrilled. Top it off with a magical "Fred and Ginger" dance break (courtesy of sweet Greg) and it was quite the climax for the evening.

Karyn's husband (Paul Nickelsberg) took lots of pictures of the brief rehearsal just before and during the performance, which I'll share when I get them.

07/03/2008 UPDATE: The pics are in. Click here to view.

I was home and in bed before 1:00 am, but hardly slept a wink last night.

(I still can't believe I actually performed at Carnegie Hall.)