Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Nine (the movie)

When I heard that the tale of Guido Contini was coming back to film, I was excited.  Having seen the revival of Nine on Broadway in 2003 (even with the replacement cast), I had high hopes.  With Rob Marshall at the helm, following his great success with "Chicago" in 2002, the potential was great.

Casting announcements were also pretty exciting - - Penelope Cruz, Nicole Kidman, Judi Dench, Marion Cotillard, Kate Hudson, Sophia Loren, even Fergie - - quite a starry production.  I was skeptical at first when Daniel Day-Lewis was announced as Guido, but knowing his work in such a wide variety of characters, I thought he would be a pleasant surprise.

Then I went to see it last weekend.

(Spoiler alert)

Mr. Marshall has once again proven that there is not a formula for creating a successful movie (or stage, for that matter) musical.  Each is unique, and must be approached as such to maximize its potential.  Mel Brooks proved it recently with his adaptation of Young Frankenstein forced into the mold of The Producers.

Here, Mr. Marshall has crammed Fellini's story of a man in a mid-life crisis through his "Chicago" mold.  The musical numbers are all in Guido's head, instead of Roxie's this time around.  Plus, Mr. Marshall has reverted to a proscenium staging for the mounting of the numbers, rather than really making use of the flexibility that film offers.  There are some cuts back and forth, both in time and setting of the songs, but it's ultimately his "Chicago" film with music by Maury Yeston.  The parallel of "Cell Block Tango" to "Be Italian" was particularly prominent.

Bigger than that, however, was the total misconception of the central character.  Guido Contini (now turning 50 instead of 40) seems muddled and unfocused, but it's never really clear why. 

I never saw Fellini's "Eight and a Half" on which the stage version was based, but the main issue on stage was a flamboyant, wildly talented and sometimes manic man facing his mortality for the first time as he is about to turn 40. With several critical and popular successes from earlier in his career, Guido's last two films have flopped.  He has dived headlong into this new project, without a script or concept, and pulls from all the women in his life (of which there are many) for inspiration.

On screen, Guido is turning 50, to no concern of his, other than he's blocked to finding a new inspiration for his next project.  Fellini's film was titled "8 1/2" because that was the number of times he directed a film.  Cleverly, Mr. Yeston and Mario Fratti titled the stage version Nine, with Guido remembering himself as a boy about to turn 9, told by his mother that it's time to grow up a little, come out of his shell - a perfect parallel for a man facing and fearing 40.  All this is gone from the movie, leaving little motivation other than ego to drive Guido.

Most of the characters return, but some are inexplicably changed, undercutting the power of the source (the stage version).  Liliane Le Fleur (Miss Dench) has been rewritten as Guido's costumier and confidante, rather than his producer and mentor.  Miss Dench does as much as she can with it, but the simple notion that she's already designing clothes for a movie with no script or story is silly, carried so far as to justify the use of the "Folies Bergere" number. 

Kate Hudson's plot line and musical number are new to the story.  She's a reporter for Vogue, following Guido for an interview ("Who's your favorite designer?")  How do you spell anachronism?  Ms Hudson is excellent in her song, however, a runway number with lots of handsome skinny Italian man in skinny Italian suits, but it adds nothing to the film or the plot (other than about 10 minutes).

As Claudia, Guido's muse, Nicole Kidman gets to float in and out on her own terms, appropriately so.  Her song, "Unusual Way" is a lovely and tender farewell, pushing Guido away and ending their long professional relationship.  Miss Loren is given little to do in a role reduced to a cameo, other than appear pulled from formaldehyde and look glorious.

Penelop Cruz' Carla is obsessive to the point of pitiful.  This Carla doesn't seem strong enough to have attracted Guido in the first place.  Her number, "A Call From the Vatican" plays, as others have written, like a Victoria's Secret commercial.  I was impressed with her music and dance skills, never having really experienced either in her film work.  (Come to Broadway, Penelope - revive Irma La Douce if you want to play fallen virtue with a heart of gold.)

Marion Cotillard fares very nicely as Luisa, Guido's put-upon wife.  She also gets a new number, played as a strip tease that Guido imagines filming, in which she vents her anger toward him.

Mr. Day-Lewis' Guido just doesn't work for me.  He manages the physicality of it, with the whole Euro-skinny look of the early 1960s, but he never showed me the passionate Lothario that is Guido.  Guido is caught up in his head, but he's never unaware of his body, let alone any woman's around him.  Mr. Day-Lewis looks on occasion, but never leers, missing the passion within.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Jew of Malta

"The Jew of Malta" presented by The York Shakespeare Company at the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan, December 17, 2009.

(Photo by Michelle Sims)

Christopher Marlowe's sixteenth century tragedy is presented as a farce in this barebones production by The York Shakespeare Company, running in repertory with Shakespeare's later "Merchant of Venice."

It's an interesting concept, but questionably executed by the large and attractive, yet minimally skilled cast in this production directed by artistic director Seth Duerr.  The plot, almost Byzantine in its twists, turns and reversals is summarized here. More interesting is the premise and attitude towards Jews afforded by Mr. Marlowe.  The titular Jew, Barabas (Paul Rubin) is presented as a scheming, godless villain, quick to deception and murder in the name of greed and revenge.  His only daughter Abigail (Emily Rose Prats) only gets sympathy for her repentant conversion to Christianity as she learns of her father's evil deeds.  In what was apparently the style at the time, bodies litter the stage both on and off in ever-increasing numbers as the villain-Jew is vanquished.

Mr. Rubin's Barabas suffers under the burden of the period language leaving us with a stiff and stilted performance.  Faring far better is Matthew Foster as the Maltese Governor, Ferneze.  His command of the character and the language are commendable in an energetic performance.  One or two other exceptions raise themselves from the rest of the cast, including Brian Morvant's Don Mathias and Nate Washburn's Don Lodowick, in excellent swordplay as they murder each other over the hand of the fair Abigail.  My old friend David Dewitt, returning to the NY stage after an extended absence shows his own core skills as Father Barnardine.

As I mentioned above, the concept of tragedy as farce is an interesting approach, but only occasionally successful.  Playing upon a bare stage, Mr. Duerr does little to differentiate scene locations other than the filing in of the various characters and their supporting entourages.  The traffic is directed pretty well, but it feels that a little more time might have been spent on character development.

A Christmas Carol: Scrooge & Marley

"A Christmas Carol: Scrooge & Marley" Barefoot Theatre Company presented by Horse Trade Theater Group at The Kraine Theater, December 16, 2009

As part of their 70/70 Horovits Project, celebrating playwright Israel Horovitz' 70th birthday with 70 of his plays presented around the world, Barefoot Theatre company presents his adaptation of the Dicken's short story.

The 85 minute piece, performed without intermission is a faithful retelling of the greed and redemption of Ebenezer Scrooge (John Gazzale).  Here, the story is narrated by the ghost of Jacob Marley (Ken Glickfield) and directed in an eclectic mixture of styles by Robert Bruce McIntosh.  I'm sure many of his choices, such as mixing in a bit of kabuki,  were directed by budget (or lack thereof), with some more successful than others, but resulting in a uneven performance with sometimes jarring transitions.  Also uneven were the performances among the cast.

Carrying the majority of the burden, and successfully so to our fortune is Mr. Gazzale.  Whether written or directed as such, his Scrooge is quite the teary and regretful soul, with the waterworks beginning during the visit from the Ghost of Christmas Past (Caitlin Davies), and flowing freely until the final curtain.  Still, he commands the stage and delivers with conviction, head and shoulders above his castmates.  Almost as successful is Mr. Glickfield's Jacob Marley. While his makeup looked more canine than rotted, his delivery stumbled and stammered from time to time.  Sadly, the rest of the cast, for the most part, were rather amateurish despite their energy and intent.  Despite that, the play's excellent writing does manage to shine through.

Altar Boyz

"Altar Boyz" at New World Stages, December 10, 2010

After an almost 5 year run, "Altar Boyz" is closing January 10, 2010, having played over 2,000 performances.  I've seen the show on two other occasions during its run, as it evolved from a full two-act production, to a 90 minute one-act.  Hatched from a successful premiere at the New York Musical Theater Festival in September, 2004, it moved quickly to its current home in February of 2005.

The first two visits were to a tightly-run performance, with some nuance and detail in the story of the Christian boy band of Matthew, Mark, Luke, Juan and Abraham.  In this last visit, the age is showing with character performances reduced to mere stereotypes.  Guiltiest of this was Travis Nesbitt's Mark, played more like a 15 year old girl, rather than the twink of questionable sexual orientation that Mr. Nesbitt's predecessor's accomplished more credibly.  Michael Kadin Craig's Matthew is also missing some of the pretty boy glamour of those who came before him.

Still it's a high energy evening, with plenty of heavy-handed laughs.

Noel Coward's Brief Encounter

"Noel Coward's Brief Encounter" presented by Kneehigh Theatre at St. Ann's Warehouse, December 8, 2009

(photo by Pavel Antonov)

In a lovely production mixing film, theatre and British music hall style numbers, the tale of two noble lovers comes to life in Brooklyn.  Director Emma Rice has adapted the classic 1945 film, which actually began as part of Noel Coward's cycle of ten one-acts, "Tonight at 8:30" entitled "Still Life" from 1936.

The event begins in the lobby as the ensemble, dressed as uniformed movie ushers, entertain the waiting audience with musical numbers from the 1930s and 1940s, accompanied by a snare drum, ukelele, and trumpet. 

Ms. Rice's staging makes great use of simple stage elements, which reminded me a bit of the staging technique used by Maria Aitken in another British film adaptation of "Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps" in 2008.  She does take a slightly different approach, using black and white film sequences which the actors appear to jump in and from for various transitions.  The film relies heavily on Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2, though Ms. Rice makes quite judicious use of its lush music, at one point using a choral vocalise of one section when emotion runs high.  The impact is breathtaking.

Leading the cast is a truly lovely and touching performance by  Hannah Yelland as Laura.  There's a bit of Dorothy McGuire about her, which adds a sweet layer of vulnerability.  Tristan Sturrock's Alec, dashing and handsome, matches Ms. Yelland's intensity, but edges near melodrama from time to time.  Their story is cleverly supported by an eclectic ensemble chorus playing all of the supporting roles to often hilarious effect. Special mention goes to Dorothy Atkinson, small in stature, but bringing in some of the biggest laughs of the evening.

The show has been extended to run through January 17, 2010.

Didn't I say this was a good idea?


Let's hope it happens!

Friday, December 18, 2009


"Ragtime" at the Neil Simon Theatre, December 6, 2009

In its first Broadway revival, Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty's epic tale of three very different American families makes a triumphant return, focusing on their excellent score.

I count myself fortunate for having seen the original production, at what is now the Hilton Theatre, even if it was late in the run (none of the original leads remained).  It was an overwhelming experience - a three story set on which they drove and destroyed a Model T Ford eight times a week.

The focus here, as I mentioned, is now on the score, not a mammoth theatrical installation, although you can't describe Derek McLane's cast iron set small. It's a nice tribute to the old Pennsylvania Station designed by Stanford White, whose personal demise is featured early in the show as Evelyn Nesbitt (Savannah Wise) is introduced.

But I digress.

This revival, while not perfect, is attentive and careful.  There have been some judicious cuts here and there and I couldn't help but feel that the book has been "massaged" a bit as well.  Director Marcia Milgrom Dodge interweaves the staging to match the interweaving of the plot lines surrounding the rich white folks from New Rochelle, the Jewish immigrants on the Lower East Side and the black folks up in Harlem in the first decade of the twentieth century from E. L. Doctorow's book.  Her general staging is thoughtful, though the choreography begs for more attention.

Performances are generally good, but some stand out more than others.  Christiane Noll's Mother takes charge, not only of Father's business while he travels to the North Pole with Admiral Perry, but of her family's story line.  She's in lovely voice and makes the role her own.  Ron Bohmer is at first a stuffed shirt, but ultimately is the only character to say "I love you" in the show. He watches puzzled and lost as the world he thought he knew and ruled falls apart in front of him.  As Younger Brother, I had high hopes for Bobby Steggart, but he seems miscast and misdirected.  This Younger Brother lacks a boiling passion within, missing the energy and restlessness needed for the role.  He seems to nearly sleepwalk through the first act. By the time he works up the courage to join Coalhouse's crusade, it seems to come from nowhere.

Robert Petkoff's Tateh, starts and finishes pretty well, but gets a bit lost along the way.  It doesn't help that the slicing of the scene prior to "Gliding" undercuts the power of the lullaby.  Stephanie Umoh is a breathtakingly beautiful Sarah.  She acts it well, but doesn't seem quite up to the vocal demands of the role.  Much the same, Quentin Earl Darrington is a linebacker-sized Coalhouse Walker, Jr. His acting is also strong, but suffers pitch problems, most severely in "Coalhouse's Soliloquy" at the beginning of Act II.

I was surprised to find that this production had not really addressed the flashback to the night Coalhouse and Sarah met which is plopped rather awkwardly in the middle of Act II.  Still, the Act I moment when Sarah and Coalhouse reconcile was beautiful and heartbreaking.

Looking back over what I've just written, you'd think I didn't like it very much.  Not true - it's a lovely and moving production - not to be missed!

Monday, December 14, 2009

In the Next Room (or the vibrator play)

"In The Next Room or the vibrator play" presented by Lincoln Center Theatre at the Lyceum Theatre, December 5, 2009

(photo: uncredited from Theatremania.com)

Sarah Ruhl's first play on the Great White Way
Is a story of people, not so long ago.
Dr. Givings' new treatments are the talk of the day.
(He treats ladies' "hysteria," you know.)

The treatment releases congestion, you see,
not the head but the womb, with electricity
through a smooth knob that vibrates, applied for three minutes,
she gets her release, then sings like the linnets.

Mrs. G, with inadequate milk for her child
Seeks a wet nurse to help the babe thrive.
Maid Elizabeth, mourning the loss of her own
Needs the cash and a way to survive.

She works for the Daldry's, Mrs. D. suffers so
And her Mr. has brought her to give it a go.
"Such an anguish for me" blindly moans Mr. D.
Then he finally adds, "And for her, of course, too."

Hearing moans from her husband's professional room,
Mrs. G. wants to know how it works.
Mrs. D. sneaks her in for a try and "kaboom!"
A new sensory world starts to perk.

Mr. Irving arrives, having just been jilted
With his own hysteria, raging in throes.
Dr. G. has an implement, sadness is tilted
And Irving feels better, (He's "artistic" you know).

Laura Benanti continues to show a lovely range of acting skill.  This is her first non-singing lead on Broadway and she carries it nicely. Her Mrs. Givings is eager and unsophisticated, guileless and unfiltered, with a tendency to speak of less than appropriate subjects in the height of the Victorian era.  Michael Cerveris is consistently stiff as the ever-proper Dr. Givings, careful to shield his wife from everything a proper lady of the era should not see.  Maria Dizzia's Mrs. Daldry is a woman whose treatments awaken more than just sexual pleasure.  Her responses to the treatments are quite funny.  She shares a lovely moment with Dr. Givings' assistant Annie (Wendy Rich Stetson) after an intimate "manual" treatment when the machine is insufficient.

Quincy Tyler Bernstine's Elizabeth is appropriately shy, demurring from the attention afforded by both Mrs. Givings and the artist Leo Irving (Chandler Williams) who wants to paint her while she is nursing the baby. Her second act monologue about losing her own child is quite touching.  Mr. Williams' Irving struts like a rooster, attempting to regain his composure after his first treatment.  Dr. Givings explains, "Hysteria is rare in a man." He adds, "But then again, he is an artist."

Director Les Waters smooths over the occasional anachronism with a gentle hand, eliciting some very nice moments as mentioned above.  He truly rises to the occasion with the revelations in the lovely final scene between Dr. and Mrs. Givings.

Annie Smart's period set captures the candy store colors of the period, perfectly tufted and tasseled. David Zinn's gorgeous costumes transport delightfully.

I was charmed and thoroughly entertained by this play.  I found it a marked improvement over Ms. Ruhl's previous efforts in NY in the last couple of years, Eurydice and Clean House.  There is a natural feminist angle, a usual feature of Ms. Ruhl's work, but delivered with more ease this time.  She enlightens Dr. Givings with a marked self-awareness of his gender, "What men do not observe because their intellect would prevent the seeing would fill many books."

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Private Lives Revealed: The Letters of Noel Coward

"Private Lives Revealed: The Letters of Noel Coward" at St. Ann's Warehouse, December 7, 2009

(photo from Library of Congress collection)

An evening of highlights from his book The Letters of Noel Coward, Barry Day (looking a bit like a Springer Spaniel with his Dickensian sideburns brushing his collar) narrates as Anna Bergman, Patricia Conolly, Edward Hibbert, and Dana Ivey read as Mr. Coward and his correspondents, accompanied by Steve Ross on piano.

Mr. Day opened the evening with a quote from Mr. Coward's dear friend, Lord Mountbatten on the event of Coward's seventieth birthday:
"There are probably greater painters than Noël, greater novelists than Noël, greater librettists, greater composers of music, greater singers, greater dancers, greater comedians, greater tragedians, greater stage producers, greater film directors, greater cabaret artists, greater TV stars. If there are, they are fourteen different people. Only one man combined all fourteen different labels – The Master."

Mr. Day did not dive particularly deeply for this presentation, compared to the depths he explored in his book.  It's very much a theatrical focus, starting with letters to and from Mr. Coward and his beloved mother, Viola. Things move quickly as his career advances, to his relationship with the Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne.  Gertrude Lawrence is up next, followed by a quick dish on Mary Martin, who clashed with Noel over his "Pacific 1860."  A word of advice to her followed on what NOT to say to Princess Margaret.

There's a hop and a skip on to "Stritchie" with a bon mot or two about Dietrich and Garbo.  A couple of drive-by barbs take aim at David Niven, Clifton Webb and Ian Fleming as his life shifted to Jamaica.  I was sorry that they spent so little time on Mr. Coward's intelligence activities during WWII, since that makes up a major portion of the book.  Only a mere mention of his time in Paris felt like such a discount of the years he spent traveling the world on behalf of his country and the war effort.  When I read it last summer, I was really surprised and touched over his affection and devotion to "Mother England."

Mr. Hibbert managed nicely, reading as Mr. Coward.  Ms. Ivey fared better as Viola than Ms. Stritch and Ms. Conolly's Gertie was lovely.  The songs were interspersed effectively, but I thought they should have ended with the more upbeat "I Went To A Marvelous Party" instead of  "The Party's Over," though the sentimentality of the latter may have been truer to what Mr. Coward may have done himself.

Friday, December 04, 2009


"Loaded" at the Lion Theatre at Theatre Row, December 3, 2009

This is at least the third time I've seen this story - two men, supposedly very different from each other, hooking up and then trying to take the time to get to know each other.  The result is a series of miscommunications, competitions, disagreements, potential violence, all with a bit of nudity tossed in to keep the audiences' interest. The first two on my list are Together Alone and Two Boys in Bed on a Cold Winter's Night.

This time around, 47 year old Patrick (Kevin Spirtas) has invited adorable 24 year old Jude (Scott Kerns) to spend the night for the first time following several previous hookups.  The short-lived nudity opens this one-act, followed quickly by a series of arguments in which each finds and repeatedly pushes the other's buttons on topics ranging from HIV and safe sex, to lesbians to gay marriage. Both Mr. Spirtas and Mr. Kerns find a nice moment or two when each is able to rise above their two dimensional characters, but it's a difficult task given the weak script by Elliot Ramon Potts.

Even with all the arguing between the two, Mr. Potts brings little enlightenment to the varying subjects. The dialog is frequently trite, despite the best efforts of the two handsome actors.  Director Michael Unger attempts to keep things moving, but the poor transitions keep the flow bogged down.

Adam Koch's NYC apartment set manages well under Herrick Goldman's unremarkable lighting.

Sadly, there's little to recommend here beyond watching two handsome actors for 90 minutes.

Orpheus X

"Orpheus X" presented by Theatre for a New Audience at The Duke, December 3, 2009

I was fascinated by Greek Mythology as a child and couldn't get enough of the stories of gods and mortals, all courtesy of the Scholastic Book Club at school.  It would be much later in life when I realized just how homogenized and sterilized were the tales I pored over in those slim paperbacks.  Mythology is a ripe source with innumerable versions in plays and music.  The tale of Orpheus and Eurydice is among the most popular stretching from the Greeks to the Romans, through the Renaissance into and beyond the twentieth century.

Rinde Eckert's Orpheus X, is the latest entry to receive a significant NY mounting, following Sara Ruhl's eurydice at 2econd Stage in 2007.  As Ryan McKittrick shares in the program notes for Orpheus X, using Eurydice as the focus in the story is a bit more recent, following the centuries of Orpheus as the suffering lover, lost without his love.  Ms. Ruhl's version took a similar Eurydicean approach by leaving Orpheus completely out of the title, reducing him to merely a featured player.

Mr. Eckert has taken steps in this direction as well.  In this post-modern, rock-operetta interpretation, Orpheus (Mr. Ecker) and Eurydice (Suzan Hanson) are unknown lovers in an apocalyptic world where "...half-formed creatures [rise] from the sea."  He is a rock star, she a poet.  They meet when she is struck by the taxi he occupied on the way to an event, stepping off the curb to retrieve her dropped glasses case.  She dies in his arms - her first and last words to him, "Oh it's you, how strange."  It's very much a "New York" story in this way.  Eurydice is continuously questioned by Persephone (John Kelly), wife of Hades and therefore, queen of the dead.  Persephone is fascinated that Eurydice is a writer, particularly a poet. After reading a selection of Eurydice's work Persephone says, "Like a list, you accpet its terms and let it run until it stops.  You'll do well here. Poets generally do...poets come closest to what I'd call thriving...all the narrative junkies feel perpetually unsatisfied."  Eurydice, twitching with a chalk in her hand, is compelled to continue writing, scribbling across glass panels what appears to evolve from gibberish into Greek.

In true rock star fashion, Orpheus is obsessed with her and withdraws from the world trying to resolve how she came into and left his life so quickly.  The thought of her overtakes his mind.   He can picture her image, but it's not real enough.  He spends hours just sitting at the impromptu shrine where she died surrounded by candles, copies of her book of poems and dried flowers.  He convinces his manager John (also Mr. Kelly) to find a way to bring her back so he can see her as "A woman displacing volume as she enters or leaves the room."

Blindfolded, Orpheus casts the spell and follows the instructions from John, meeting Persephone and convincing her to release Eurydice back to him.   Dragged away from her writing, Eurydice recognizes him and tears off the blindfold. This action sends herself back for eternity, to bathe away her memory and pain.

Ms. Hanson's Eurydice is a mature woman, lost and confused in the underworld.  She seems to have known of Orpheus, but had never met him.  She sings the difficult score well, nicely managing its demands. Mr. Eckert's Orpheus is less than a protagonist but more than a plot contrivance.  Generally deadpan, this Orpheus relies more on the content of his words and lyrics.  Mr. Kelly's androgynous dual roles of John and Persephone becomes almost an on-stage stage manager, John fueling Orpheus to resolve his grief and return to life, and Persephone convincing Eurydice to let go of her own life and memories.

Mr. Eckert and director Robert Woodruff have created quite a unique evening of theatre, unusual in the way Mr. Eckert's Horizon was unusual in 2007 - thoughtful and thought-provoking.  Mr. Eckert's score is operatic and hard rock all at the same time.  The cacophony created as he sings the spell to take himself into the underworld is ear shattering and effective (if about 16 bars too long).  Mr. Woodruff presents a nude and oblivious Eurydice scribbling on the floor beneath the seating risers as the audience enters, stripped both literally and figuratively of everything - her life, her possessions - except her need to write.  Scenic Designers David Zinn & Denise Marika have created a set of patinated steel floors, panels and I-beams, surrounded by glass walls.  Ms. Marika's video projections get a clever and interesting display throughout the performance, sometimes flowing water, dripping honey (another homage to the Eurydice myth), Eurydice scribbling, Eurydice dropping her glasses case.  The impact is powerful.  The ending, when Eurydice snatches Orpheus' blindfold and challenges him "Did you think I would welcome a rescue? Did you think you were saving me from something?" is a variation I hadn't expected.  "I'm done with the world." she says, "I won't remember anything but my name. I'll hear my words without their pain."  The two stand close in silence, almost kissing, almost daring the other to respond until Eurydice turns away. 

As the lights went black, the audience sat in perfect silence, each of us entranced by the moment.