Wednesday, July 11, 2007
The dictionary defines xanadu as, "a place of great beauty, luxury and contentment." Xanadu, currently playing at the Helen Hayes and based upon the famously horrible 1980 movie musical starring Olivia Newton-John, is none of these things. It is far too garish to be beautiful, too threadbare to be luxurious, and too loud to give anyone a feeling of contentment. Still, you're bound to have a damn good time at this bright, boisterous and mercifully short confection, which seems to have overcome the odds and is quickly becoming the surprise hit of the summer. (The crowd at the stage door was already three rows deep by the time I made it out of the theatre.) While half of the piece's success is due to its off the charts kitsch factor--the legwarmers and rollerblades, the memorably cringeworthy ELO score, the tacky scenery (by David Gallo) just screaming to be chewed--one would be remiss not to credit the extremely talented and incredibly hardworking cast. It's no shock that Mary Testa and Jackie Hoffman are delicious as evil muses, or that Cheyenne Jackson plays a lovable dope par excellence. The pleasant surprise here comes courtesy of Kerry Butler as the irresistable muse Clio, who comes to earth to inspire Jackson's starving artist. Her vocal features--both her rollicking belt and her send-up of Newton-John's crystalline soprano--are note perfect and her flourishes of humor are simply uproarious. Could she be Broadway's next bonafide musical comedy star? I think so.
Tuesday, July 10, 2007
As far as pastiche revivals are concerned, Roundabout's current staging of John Van Druten's Old Acquaintance is nowhere near as entertaining as The Constant Wife, which the company presented perfectly two seasons ago. Both comedies are of a similar fach--headstrong dames front and center, living, loving and letting the feathers fly--but the latter, set on the cusp of the Twentieth Century, featured crackling dialogue brought to life by an extraordiarily gifted cast. The cast of the former certainly has gifts to spare (it's headed by two of New York's most valuable performers, Margaret Colin and Harriet Harris), but as far as material goes, there just isn't much there. The story, which centers around two protofeminist novelists who have engaged in a friendly rivalry since girlhood, is solid and resonates somewhat, but Van Druten's stilted, dry text leaves the players with very little to work with. (I can't imagine that most of the lines, which Colin and Harris try very hard to sell, were ever that funny, even when the play premiered in 1940.) Still, this play is, if nothing else, a piece for two formidable divas, and I'm hard pressed to think of any better ones. For two hours, these often underappreciated ladies reign supreme. That's nothing to complain about.
Monday, July 9, 2007
There really aren't signs big enough or lights bright enough to trumpet the arrival of Patti Lupone's Mama Rose. She tears through the iconic role with a kind of focused ferocity that I've never seen anyone bring to this role before. Ably supported by a terrific onstage orchestra, the reigning Grande Dame of musical theatre landed one classic number after another--a subtle but forceful "Some People," a delightfully erotic "You'll Never Get Away From Me," opposite Boyd Gaines' winning Herbie--causing near pandemonium at City Center. In addition to Lupone and Gaines, a fine supporting cast has been assembled: Leigh Ann Larkin's June is well-sung, if a bit abrasive; Tony Yazbeck's Tulsa is adorable and expertly danced; the strippers--Alison Fraser, Nancy Opel and Marilyn Caskey--are the best I've ever seen. Laura Benanti defied the odds and turned in a surprisingly youthful and glowing Louise. The dark colors of her voice made her rendition of "Little Lamb" the most appropriately mournful I've ever heard. (Her reading of the song's final line, "I wonder how old I am," accentuated with a single tear, was flawless.) I could quibble about a few aspects of Arthur Laurents' new production, but I don't think that I will. The handful of flaws here aren't important. Patti Lupone's soon-to-be-legendary performance is. See it.
Wednesday, June 6, 2007
This is the most deceptively simple Shakespeare work: it's perfect just as it is, and yet every director who tackles the play thinks that they have to do something cutting edge with it. Michael Greif can now add his name to that list; his new production for the New York Shakespeare Festival fails on nearly every level. It tries to be both ethereal and industrial--the set is a giant steel bridge atop a shallow lake--but ends up nothing but pretentious, and the revolving turntable stage by Mark Wendland is only a big, loud distraction. I can't imagine a more mismatched a miscast pair of star-crossed lovers than Oscar Isaac and Lauren Ambrose. The former is projects the attitude of a passive thumbsucker, while the latter plays the lovestruck heroine with a Lucia-like madness as early as the balcony scene. This attitude served her well as the play progressed--her Act One closing speech was terrific--but it didn't amount to much overall. Of the entire cast, only Camryn Manheim's Nurse was successful. Dressed in a skin-tight peasant frock and smoking cloves, she was as motherly as Mary and as womanly as Carmen, everything the character should be.
Sarah Ruhl is the embodiment of everything that is wrong with modern American playwrighting. Her chief offense, which is rather common today but which she takes to extremes, is valuing aesthetic pleasurability over genuine organic storytelling. It's almost remarkable that she could take one of the most fullproof love stories of all time--that of Eurydice, whose beloved husband travels to the deepest regions of Hell to recover her--and turn it into the equivalent of an art house chick flick, complete with moments of weepy melodrama and post-mortem familial reconcilation. But she seems to say that it doesn't matter, because there are so many pretty things to look at: running water...illuminated letters...a chorus of cranky stones! It doesn't help that Ruhl's writing style alternates between extremely heightened language and almost unintelligible gawkings, or that the underwhelming cast has no clue how to perform it. After The Clean House, which I also loathed, I was told by many that it was the Lincoln Center production that was at fault and not the playwright's text. After Eurydice, I know better. Ruhl may have hoodwinked the MacArthur Foundation and some of New York's best companies, but never again me.
Thursday, May 17, 2007
Well, I left New York today and am going to be gone for the better part of the next three months. In that time, I'll probably only manage to get into the city rarely, so reviews this summer are going to be few and far between. I do have some shows lined up already: In June, I'll be seeing a preview of Eurydice and Romeo and Juliet in the Park; July brings about Gypsy with Patti Lupone and Old Acquaintance on Broadway; and August has Beyond Glory and the other Shakespeare in the Park offering, A Midsummer Night's Dream, in store. I'm also going to try to fit in Xanadu somewhere down the line (mama loves cheese), and possibly make a return visit to Forbidden Broadway to sample their new material.
I'll keep reading you, and I hope that you keep reading me. I will be back full-force come September.
I'll keep reading you, and I hope that you keep reading me. I will be back full-force come September.
Wednesday, May 16, 2007
Anyone who has seen a play by the ultra-prolific Neil Labute knows the basic setup of all of his works: introduce characters, mix in some tension and then throw in a (usually predictable) eleventh hour twist. His newest misanthropic dramady, In a Dark Dark House, deviates from this familiar pattern, introducing a shocker rather quickly and letting it lay there for far too long. The audience knows that something else is coming around the corner, and spends the rest of the evening trying to figure out what the playwright has up his sleeve. Fortunately, it gives us something to do other than pay attention to the baffling action that's happening on stage. I'm often a defender of Labute's style, but there is very little that anybody could positively spin here; it feels like something that was thrown together in a few hours, with little conflict and even less resolution. One bright spot, though: Frederick Weller turns in an intensely vivid performance as a man out to right a wrong committed against his brother (a disappointing Ron Livingston) when they were children. His surly and often glib line readings (both good things, in this case) fit right in with Labute's elan.
Patrick Hamilton's Gaslight--formerly called Angel Street, and the basis for George Cukor's 1944 film of the same name--is one of those plays where the style and tone of the piece is so integral that any diversion from it causes the entire piece to fall flat. Sadly, it is clear from the opening moments of the Irish Repertory's current revival that this mounting, while handsome to look at, is going to be a long affair. Most of the performances are far too modern for the decidedly period story, and also much too manic for the essential elements of suspense to seem genuine. Laura Odeh has the unenviable task of essaying a role made famous on screen by Ingrid Bergman, and often suffers the most; in an attempt to project her character's descent into insanity at the hands of her husband (David Staller, also unconvincing), she overexaggerates every gesture she makes, sacrificing any semblance of actual human emotion. Irish Rep stalwart Brian Murray fares the best as a hardboiled detective with a score to settle, but it's not quite enough. By the time that the show starts to really cook--mostly in the last fifteen minutes--you're already mentally checked out.
Sunday, May 13, 2007
The title character in A.R. Gurney's new play is the (somewhat disputed) scion of a formerly wealthy Buffalo family who has been interned in a tony sanatorium for the rich since the early 1970s. No one from the family has visited her in years, and she rarely speaks; she prefers to spend her days listening to classical music and opera on the radio in her room. Her solitude ends when her last living relative--a distant cousin who recently became her legal guardian--pops onto the scene to investigate the mysterious life that Mary has led since being committed. I had worried that in the hands of A.R. Gurney this scenario would come off as far too schematic and situational, but it turned out to be a lovely surprise; it's easily his best play in years. Unlike other recent works by the author, which have seemed promising but undercooked, Crazy Mary boasts fully-formed ideas and a drum tight dramatic arc that is both hilarious and harrowing. A few pieces fall flat (especially some tired and unnecessary shots at President Bush that have become unavoidable in Gurney's work of late), but a majority of the script is solid, and director Jim Simpson keeps the action moving at a steady pace. Sigourney Weaver makes a welcome return to the stage as the newly reconnected kin with ulterior motives, but the play belongs to the wonderful Kristine Nielsen, who is deeply affecting as a woman that time left behind. New York would be a much grimmer place without her sizable talents.
Saturday, May 12, 2007
The musical revue is alive and well and living at City Center (through Monday, at least). Stairway to Paradise, conceived by Jack Viertel and directed with vigor by Jerry Zaks, charts the progression of this uniquely American phenomenon that took Broadway by storm in the first half of the last century. In true revue form, there's almost no book to speak of (other than two comic scenes that are adeptly performed), and each number flows beautifully into the next. The creative team smartly culled both fanciful slapstick numbers ("Triplets", "Pack Up Your Sins and Go to the Devil") and social commentary ("Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?", "Supper Time"), giving the audience a full view of the genre's spectrum. The ebullient cast makes sure that the material never feels mothbitten, with Kristin Chenoweth tearing through what little scenery there is and Christopher Fitzgerald raising the adorable factor to 11. The star of the evening, though, was Ruthie Henshall, whose sultry alto voice is perfect for torch songs like "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye". Frankly, this is the closest I've been to theatrical paradise in quite some time.
For those of you who suffered through Floyd and Clea Under the Western Sky earlier this season, you can now subject yourself to its sequel of sorts. 10 Million Miles, currently playing at the Atlantic, is another intermissionless, ninety minute road trip to hell. The musical has a few tuneful numbers (written by Grammy winning country singer Patty Griffin), but they are usually stuck between long strings of unimaginative music and bland, boring dialogue. It would help if the two central drifters--a compulsive liar and a bad girl on the mend, both with a heart of gold of course--were at all compelling, but in the hands of Matthew Morrison and Irene Molloy, they barely register. Both have pleasant voices, but neither manages to convey even a soupcon of theatricality or emotion. The heavy lifting is left to Skipp Sudduth and Mare Winningham, who are excellent in a myriad of supporting roles. Sadly, they don't get enough time in the spotlight to make this often tedious journey worth the trip.
Wednesday, May 9, 2007
Sunday, May 6, 2007
It would be easy to write off Gino Dilorio's Apostasy, a comedy-drama about death and salvation that just finished up a run at Urban Stages, as a bad play and call it a day. In many respects, it's an apt description; nearly everything that the play tries to do falters. It's glib when it tries to be heartfelt and cliched when it tries to be profound, and conveys as much emotional depth as a standard television movie. Still, the basic idea of the play is somewhat interesting--an agnostic woman, Jewish by birth, falls under the spell of a black televangelist, much to the chagrin of her abortionist daughter--and in the hands of a better playwright, it could have sizzled. The acting is what made the play watchable, with Harold Surratt particularly arresting as the preacher, but it wasn't quite enough. I lost my faith in the play early on, and unlike the central character, it never came back.
Saturday, May 5, 2007
I'm not a huge fan of The Barber of Seville (or the bel canto repetoire in general, for that matter), but Bartlett Sher's brisk and stylish new production for the Met had me grinning ear to ear for three hours. Anyone with Sher's brilliant Broadway productions of Awake and Sing and The Light in the Piazza know that he always does a masterful job of blending savoir-fare and substance, which is something that is usually lacking in modern opera interpretations. His usual collaborators--set designer Michael Yeargan and costumer Catherine Zuber--work hard to cover every inch of the Met's giant stage and deck the dramatis personae in chic period attire, while Christopher Ackerlind's ultrabright lighting matches the sunny mood of the light opera perfectly. In his company debut, Lawrence Brownlee makes for a smashing Almaviva, and while I will always prefer a coloratura voice for Rosina, mezzo wunderkind Joyce DiDonato is pretty darn special.
Everything about Mark Morris' production of Orfeo ed Euridice for the Met reeks of high concept: An onstage chorus dressed as deceased celebrities (I noticed Abe Lincoln, Gandhi and Marie Antoinette, just to name a few), stylized costumes by none other than Isaac Mizrahi and lots of modern dance. All of these elements eclipse the simple and fantastic love story at the center of Gluck's masterpiece. Morris has fallen into the trap that most dancers face when directing in another medium, and the production suffers because of it. With the focus squarely on the movement aspects, the heart of the piece is replaced by hurlyburly. Frankly, I'm surprised that he didn't just stick the singers in the pit, as George Balanchine did with his 1935 production of this opera. The production is notable for the fine performances of its soloists--Maija Kovalevska's Euridice is especially radiant--and the glorious orchestra under James Levine's baton. However, I left feeling that Morris had mistakenly arrived early for the ABT season.
Friday, May 4, 2007
Twenty minutes into Lovemusik, Lotte Lenya tells her lover, Kurt Weill, that "people don't change, certainly not me". Twenty minutes later, Weill tells Lenya--now his wife--that she is "the most important thing in [his] life, after the music". If you're fine with the fact that the entire arc of the show is expressed in those two utterances that come long before the curtain falls on Act I, then you're in for a tolerable, if less than kinetic, evening of theatre. However, those who have relished the fascinating correspondence that serve as the musical's source material (myself included) will leave hungry for much more than what is presented at the Biltmore. The action is much smoother now than when I saw it in previews last month, but the show itself is still too heavily driven by concept rather than actual storytelling. One cannot blame Michael Cerveris or Donna Murphy, brilliant as Kurt and Lotte, or the fine ensemble that includes the likes of David Pittu, who is delectably slimy as Bertolt Brecht. Still, anyone who goes in expecting the play to be the thing will be sorely disappointed.
Tuesday, May 1, 2007
Only Jack O'Brien, a peerless director in the world of theatre, would choose such a mammoth undertaking for his Metropolitan Opera debut: staging Puccini's Il Trittico, a collection of three gorgeous one acts. And only Mr. O'Brien could have created the magic currently on display. Each opera stands on its own quite well (and they are often split apart or paired with other short operas), but the overwhelming feeling that you get watching them all together, one right after the other, cannot be replaced. O'Brien--along with adept designers Jules Fischer and Peggy Eisenhauer--create three separate worlds, all strung together by a common theme of death. Gianni Schicchi is delightfully buoyant, while Suor Angelica resonates long after the curtain falls on the image of an illuminated Virgin Mary. However, it is the show's opening piece, Il Tabarro, that is the most satisfyingly rendered; the story of jealousy and adultery on the Seine absolutely galvanizes the Met's stage. There was nary a weak link in any of the casts, but special shout-outs are in order for Stephanie Blythe, brilliantly tearing through all three mezzo roles, and Maria Guleghina, who gave her finest performance to date as the unfaithful wife in Tabarro. Brava, ladies, and I'll see you at the final performance next week.
Sunday, April 29, 2007
Theater Ten Ten, a company previously unknown to me, is offering up a terrific production of Brecht and Weill's Happy End through May 27. Director David Fuller utilizes the staples of Brecht's Epic Theatre adeptly, and the piece comes off feeling as fresh and fascinating as ever. A fine ensemble cast has been assembled, with the brilliant Lorinda Lisitza tearing through Hallelujah Lil with fiery resolve; a completely magnetic performer, she made even the simplest gesture feel urgently thrilling. She's completely at home with Brechtian language, and it didn't surprise me to see Jenny Diver and Mother Courage listed as past credits in her bio. I left much more entertained by this threadbare mounting than I was by that other current Kurt Weill offering. Shame on me for not discovering this wonderful little company sooner.
Wednesday, April 25, 2007
There's only one way to describe the New York premiere of Edward Bond's 1973 play: A complete washout. To steal (and modify) a line from Pauline Kael, director Scott Alan Evans directs this production--which could have been a very promising endeavor--as if he had never seen a play before. Rather than mining an intriguing plot (the aftermath of a deadly shipwreck and its effect on the locals in 1907 coastal England) for any real kinetic spark, he has the actors aimlessly wander around the stage, occasionally breaking to rearrange a few chairs and dressers that act as the scenery. Bond's language is very particular--it is heightened to the point of farce, even during the play's more serious moments--and only a handful of the people in the large cast seem to understand how it should be executed. The general cluelessness of the rest caused an uncomfortable silence to permeate throughout the evening. Highest praise goes to Gregory Salata, terrifically playing the stock role of a wise and misunderstood outsider, and lighting designers Mary Louise Geiger and Lucrezia Briceno, who kept it bright enough so that those who remained after intermission didn't fall asleep.
Monday, April 23, 2007
Radio Golf, the final installment of August Wilson's ten play cycle about African American life throughout the Twentieth Century, is not the author's best play. However, it is the most pleasing and engrossing work in the playwright's canon since Seven Guitars. Completed and first produced shortly before Wilson's death in 2005, it deals with urban renewal in Pittsburgh's Hill District in 1997, offering a compelling discussion of the ramifications that come with rebuilding a broken community. Not having Wilson around to do rewrites could have been detrimental to the success of the work, but the long gestation period it has had--at least half a dozen productions before reaching Broadway--definitely seems to have helped: even at tonight's very early preview, it was running as smooth as any play in New York. While Harry Lennix's line readings were often stiff, his easy physical rapport more than compensated; he was an utterly believable candidate. Tonya Pinkins is pitch-perfect as his supportive wife, and James A. Williams hits all the right notes in the stereotypical role of his bourgeois business partner, a black man just itching to be accepted by the white male hierarchy. In the end, though, the play belongs to the great Wilson interpreter Anthony Chisholm. Alternately hilarious and heartbreaking, he commands the stage from his first entrance, imbuing his character with touching, tough as nails pathos. His performance, and Kenny Leon's exemplary staging (his best work to date), are the ultimate tribute to Mr. Wilson's legacy.
Saturday, April 21, 2007
It's best not to even consider the plot of Handel's Flavio. Even by operatic standards it is flimsy and frustrating, and giving it any amount of thought can impede your enjoyment of the music. New York City Opera's pleasant but bland revival of Chas Rader-Shieber's 2003 staging does it's best to distract the audience from the story, relying heavily on garish sets (the stage, at times, looks like one giant petit fours) and over the top commedia dell'arte antics, not all of which are entirely successful. The proceedings weren't helped by the uneven singing of most of the principles, especially soprano Marguerite Krull (flat and forgettable as Emilia) and countertenor Gerald Thompson as her lover, Guido, who sacrificed the main line tones of his performance in order to give his arias a giant finish. (In his case, however, the ends did not justify the means.) David Walker was much more fulfilling in the title role, singing and acting with gusto to spare. The star of the evening, though, was conductor William Lacey, leading the tightest orchestra I've heard at City Opera in years and playing a mean harpsichord himself. However, in the end, I left this sugary confection longing for some real meat.
As the child of two rabid Fiestaware collectors, I can appreciate the urgency Steven Tomlinson brings to his search for the perfect mixing bowl or water pitcher. American Fiesta, his one person show currently at the Vineyard, tries to explain how his obsession grew: after his parents voiced their disapproval over his decision to marry his partner in Canada, Tomlinson wanted to escape to the world of his childhood; specifically, he remembered being enamored with one of his mother's Fiesta bowls when he was six years old. The author and star affectingly blends talk of his renewed interest in the items with discussions about the 2004 Presidential election, the phenomenon and promise surrounding gay marriage, and the cerebral reaction to certain cultural ideas into a very satisfying 80 minute monologue. The questions asked here are potent ones, addressing whether it is better to retreat into your old world or forge forward into your new one. In the end, the stories told are as vivid and colorful as the crockery on display.
Friday, April 20, 2007
The National Theatre's transplanted production of Coram Boy, Helen Edmundson's heavy-handed adaptation of Jamila Gavin's novel of the same name, feels like two separate plays connected by an intermission. A common thread is there--the story of the second act picks up on the intertwining plotpoints of the first--but the moods completely change after the brief interval. The starkness and bleakness of Act I, which was toleable if not ideal, turns into an unforgivable schmaltzfest the likes of which would make a writer of Lifetime original movies blush. And while the show's message that there really was no difference between the British upper class in the 18th Century and devious black market white slave traders comes off loud and clear, the shift in tone seems to betray the story that is being told. Kudos are in order to the remarkable Jan Maxwell and Bill Camp, brilliantly diabolical as the underlings who prey on the good name of Mr. Coram--who ran a tony orphanage for underprivileged and abandoned children--to trick desperate mothers into selling away their babies. They infuse the proceedings with a seedy undercurrent that is much more appropriate than the sweet-natured action that's often center stage. Still, it's not enough; even with the abundance of dead babies, I left the theatre with a sugar-induced toothache.
Tuesday, April 17, 2007
Handel at the Met is often problematic, since the size of the cavernous house doesn't easily lend itself to the intimacy and immediacy of the music. However, the current revival of Giulio Cesare often soars, largely due to the rich vocal talents of the cast. David Daniels meets the challenging title role head on with his stunning countertenor voice; it makes up for his lack of stage presence. Watching him awkwardly move about the stage with little poise was not aesthetically pleasing, but the sound of his voice is like medicine for the ears. In her company debut, mezzo Patricia Bardon brought a beautiful dark tone to Cornelia, wife of the slain Pompey, and Alice Coote was electrifying as the vengeful Sesto. But the evening belonged to colortura wunderkind Ruth Ann Swenson, who sang Cleopatra like I've never heard before. The beauty of her voice is beguiling, and it's even more incredible when you add in the fact that she just finished a round of chemotherapy less than two months ago. (For the record, she got the loudest and most rapturous curtain call applause I've heard all season, including big names like Netrebko, Fleming and Gheorghiu). John Copley's production is stunning but silly, and reminded me of a soundstage for a 1940s studio epic. I didn't really care, though: the transfixing vocal harmony is what grabbed my attention and never let go.
Monday, April 16, 2007
Turandot has never been my favorite opera, and Franco Zeffirelli's colossal production has never been my favorite either. It is visually stunning, but the dwarfing sets and enormous chorus pull focus away from the already thin story and less than pleasing music. This is an opera that always seems to come off as static unless there are captivating performers in the lead roles, and neither of this evening's singers delivered the goods. In the title role, Andrea Gruber was all over the place. She sang broadly and was able to fill the house with her sound, but she was really straining herself. What started out as a promising interpretation quickly became stagnant. Add Richard Margison's serviceable but bland Calaf (his "Nessun dorma" is the weakest I've ever heard), and you've got a recipe for disappointment. Only Hei-Kyung Hong's shimmering Liu enthralled; it was her finest performance this season, topping even her stunning Violetta. I cried buckets during her suicide scene, but I cried even more when I realized she would be off-stage for the remainder of the show. Can we please retire this production once and for all?
Sunday, April 15, 2007
What I saw this afternoon was most definitely a work in progress, and it showed enough promise that I've decided to withhold critiquing it until I see the finished product in three weeks. For now, I'll simply say that the story that Hal Prince and Alfred Uhry want to tell is all there; what they have to do now is get rid of the extraneous material that surrounds it.
Saturday, April 14, 2007
Christine Ebersole finally has some competition in the form of Audra McDonald, currently performing the second female musical theatre miracle of the season as Lizzie Curry in Jones and Schmidt's 110 in the Shade. If you had asked me last month--hell, last week--if the lithe, Juilliard trained soprano could pull of the role of a quick-witted and plainspoken Southern schoolteacher longing for love, I would have emphatically said no. But McDonald does it, and flawlessly so. From her first entrance, she commands the stage in a manner that is both wistful and tough, with every number shimmering out of her mouth and hanging in midair. Other aspects of the production still need work, especially Steve Kazee's Starbuck: Despite singing beautifully, he does not seem to understand the character. He's not playing Starbuck as a man that you love even though he's a con man; here, he is the guy you love just because he's so darn nice. Still, I'm sure he will get better with time, and his performance as it stands now is not enough to keep me from recommending the show. After a disappointing season, musical theatre lovers can now treat themselves to a lovely palate cleanser.
Wednesday, April 11, 2007
Had anyone other than an established playwright such as Terrence McNally written a play like Deuce, they would be laughed out of town. The show, one of the slightest and most baffling offerings I've seen on Broadway in years, is not really about anything--and yet it tries to be about so much. Not much happens: two legendary former tennis partners (Angela Lansbury and Marian Seldes), invited to watch the US Open from a prime box, sit around and talk about their lives, struggles to be taken seriously, and their enduring friendship and rivalry. There is something inherently compelling there, but McNally's writing is so sophomoric and inane that any level of profundity becomes unattainable. While it was a thrill to see a grande dame such as Lansbury on stage for the first time, I felt that she wasn't quite right for the role of a brash, in-your-face trailblazer; even when she's dropping four-letter words left and right, she still comes off like your grandmother. Seldes was ill-at-ease, too, and there was no spark in their back-to-back patter (which, I would assume, McNally intends to sound like a tennis ball being volleyed). In all fairness, I did see the first preview, but I cannot imagine anything substantial coming from this; it hits the net early on and never recovers.
Tuesday, April 10, 2007
After a decade on Broadway, Walter Bobbie's production of Kander and Ebb's tale of sex, jazz and murder in the Windy City is starting to blow. All of the wonderfully venomous cynicism that used to seep through the show is gone; the formerly biting social commentary about a country where the judicial system is one big floor show and freedom can be bought (for a price) is now played with quaint antiquity by an ensemble that seem to be bored out of their ever-loving minds (and they're not the only ones). Formerly full-proof numbers like "Cell Block Tango" and "We Both Reached for the Gun" just lay there on stage, as flat as Dakota Fanning's chest. It doesn't help that a number of the current principles are unevenly cast, including the usually wonderful Bebe Neuwirth as Roxie. She gives the role 110%, but she's still completely miscast; she doesn't possess any of the wide-eyed giddiness that distinguishes Roxie from cold, glib Velma. Add to that Philip Casnoff's cloying Billy Flynn and Rob Bartlett rushing through Amos as if he had a train to catch and you don't end up with much. However, there are two bright spots in the current company: Roz Ryan is a scream as Mama Morton, and the ever-astounding Brenda Braxton is the best Velma since, well...Bebe. They shine even when everything around them is falling flat.
Thursday, April 5, 2007
As most of you probably know, A Moon for the Misbegotten is not one of Eugene O'Neill's funnier plays. It's a dark study of the struggle to live, and a meditation on what it is like to love someone so inherently broken that the chances of personal redemption are non-existant. But don't expect to get any of this from the production currently playing at the Brooks Atkinson, which receives more laughs than a drawing room farce by Kaufman and Hart. Most of the problem lies in one of the most deadly cases of miscasting I've encountered in years: Kevin Spacey, considered by many as a primo O'Neill interpreter, is lost at sea in the role of Jim Tyrone. He approaches the character from an unlikely standpoint, making him more of a silly, slapstick jokester than a tragic figure with a ravaged soul. His performance is physically awkward: he flails around the stage as if he were in a Marx Brothers movie, and his histrionics distract from the wrenching story at hand. On a positive note, the production is graced by two remarkable character studies: Colm Meaney is pleasingly sly as Tyrone's tenant, Phil Hogan, and the celebrated British actress Eve Best is nothing short of a revelation as Josie. Watching Best emote, I truly believed that Josie thought she could redeem Jim with her love. It's the performance of the season, and will quite possibly go down as the definitive interpretation of the role. If only she had a capable co-star to match her step for step.
Wednesday, April 4, 2007
Maureen Moore is one of the go-to understudies in New York, having stood by for everyone from Glenn Close (Sunset Boulevard) to Bernadette Peters (Gypsy) to Cyndi Lauper (The Threepenny Opera). She's also a semi-name in her own right, having played Charlotte in NYCO's much-lauded A Little Night Music and teenage June in the Angela Lansbury Gypsy. I was expecting a lot from her when I bought a ticket to see her go on for Christine Ebersole as Little Edie in Grey Gardens, and I was very much let down. Act One was a nightmare; Moore is a belter, not a soprano, and she strained to reach many notes (when Edith storms off trilling the opening phrases of O mio babbino caro, it sounded as if Moore was in pain). Act Two was better, and Moore's rendition of "Around the World" was haunting; she brought to that delicate, beautiful song a mixture of childlike woundedness and bitterness that gave me chills. But that was the only time I got chills from her rather cold performance, and Mme. Ebersole was sorely missed. Grey Gardens is still a wonderful evening of theatre, with Mary Louise Wilson, John McMartin and especially Bob Stillman continuing to turn in top-notch work. However, I left tonight realizing, now more than ever, how much the star makes the show in certain cases.
Tuesday, April 3, 2007
In 2006, Peter Morgan guided both Helen Mirren and Forrest Whitaker to Academy Awards with his screenplays for The Queen and The Last King of Scotland, respectively. And, to be perfectly honest, I really didn't like either film. While I feel that Morgan would make a superb beat journalist, there really was nothing inherently cinematic in those two movies. There's also nothing overly theatrical about Frost/Nixon, his debut play, which is currently on Broadway after a successful London run. Morgan seems to fall into the trap of many novice playwrights: When you have nothing for your characters to say, have them say it in direct address. Far too often do the secondary characters--Nixon's chief of staff, Frost's research assistant--come center stage to reiterate what we already know already, and the result is static. The play doesn't really start to cook until nearly an hour in, when the actual battle of the titans occurs. While Frank Langella looks absolutely nothing like Nixon (he actually bears a striking resemblance to Ronald Reagan), he brings a kind of rare, kinetic energy to the role that often left the audience in stunned silence. His able counterpart, Michael Sheen, is pitch-perfect as David Frost; he has every facet of his personality down pat, and compellingly makes the case for a playboy itching to be taken seriously. Still, I left feeling like I'd seen a solid documentary, not a fully realized drama.
Monday, April 2, 2007
I'm having a hard time thinking of one negative comment I can make about Bernard Weinraub's The Accomplices, currently at Theatre Row in a production by The New Group. It's not a great play, but I left feeling that I had seen one of the most interesting and fascinating political dramas in a long while. Weinraub, a journalist by profession who is making his theatrical debut, tells the story of a fringe group in the early 1940s who tried to shine a light on Hitler's regime at a time when the Roosevelt administration was turning a blind eye to it. The performances are universally excellent: Daniel Sauli plays the protagonist (the son of a Palestinian rabbi) perfectly, while Zoe Lister-Jones hits all the right notes as the woman who loves him, and who has spent much of her life running from her Jewish heritage. Veteran David Margulies is superb as the Rabbi Stephen Wise, who chooses to scorn the radical movement in favor of blind support for FDR, and Jon DeVries offers great comic relief (and social commentary) as both the President of the United States and one of the movement's famous supporters, playwright Ben Hecht. Sign yourself up for this exemplary history listen.
Sunday, April 1, 2007
Those who saw the 2001 Broadway production of August Wilson's King Hedley II know the potential it had that was squandered. Yes, it's a minor work in the Wilson canon, but a minor Wilson is usually better than most people's best play. The former production was mired with the miscasting of two crucial lead roles and the fact that it was placed in the cavernous Virginia Theatre, which now bears Mr. Wilson's name. All of the intimacy that the play required was gone if you were sitting past the fifth row of the orchestra. Not so now, in the Signature's sharp revival of the play at the Peter Norton Space. The dramatic energy is palpable, and while the production is nowhere near the quality of the company's two previous Wilson offerings this season--Seven Guitars and Two Trains Running--it's still pretty special. Russell Hornsby is commanding and engrossing in the title role, a man trying to put his life back together after a lengthy prison term, but the production belongs to Lynda Gravett and Stephen McKinley Henderson. Both holdovers from the original Broadway incarnation (Gravett understudied Leslie Uggams in the role she is playing now and Henderson played Stool Pidgeon), whenever they were on stage they owned it. My attention always gravitated back to them, and it's their performances that have stuck in my mind since the performance came down.
The wooden desk is there, and the wooden chair, too. The composition notebooks abound. The only thing that's missing is Spalding Gray, the incomparable monologist who killed himself three years ago. The thing is, though, that he is there, on stage at the Minetta Lane Theatre, where Spalding Gray: Stories Left to Tell is currently running. Directed by Lucy Sexton with help from Gray's widow, Kathleen Russo, five wonderful actors are inhabiting both Gray's words and his life. They each embody a different emotion that he wrote about: Kathleen Chalfant is Love; Hazelle Goodman is Adventure; Frank Wood is Family; and Ain Gordon is the designated journal reader. A fifth actor--exceptionally play at the performance I attended by Josh Lucas, who's in the show until April 8--represents Gray career. The regular quarter is also wonderful. Chalfant started out shaky, but quickly overcame her actory mannerisms to deliver stories of Gray's relationships; Goodman is magnetic, sliding around the stage like a snake; Wood, who resembles Gray both physically and vocally, is moving and affecting, telling of Gray's clinging relationship to his mother and her suicide at age 52; and Gordon, a monologist himself, wisely approaches the journals not as Spalding Gray, but as an outside interpreter. I went in with trepidation, but I left with an open heart knowing that I had seen a beautiful tribute to a man, his life, his work and his memory.
Saturday, March 31, 2007
City Center Encores, the popular series that presents three concert readings a season, was originally created to shine a light on neglected and forgotten American musicals. No disrespect to Jack Viertel, but quite a few of their recent productions (Follies, Bye Bye Birdie, Purlie) hardly fit the bill. That's why I'm glad to report that they've returned to their original concept with the current reconstruction of Moss Hart and Irving Berlin's Face the Music, which plays through tomorrow evening. A mindless and utterly delightful trifle of a show, it has a plot that will seem familiar to today's theatre audiences: a down-and-out producer (Walter Bobbie) promises a dirty cop rolling in money (Lee Wilkof) a gigantic flop so that he won't have to pay taxes on the cash he makes from his shady operations. Both men are superb; Bobbie should spend less time directing and more time under the spotlight. Also divine are Jeffry Denman and Merideth Patterson, playing the leading man and ingenue par excellence and beautifully delivering the one standard that the show yielded, "Let's Have Another Cup of Coffee." But the show belongs to Judy Kaye, doing her best Merman (and who does Merman better than her?) and stopping the show about every 30 seconds. Do yourself a favor this weekend and pencil in some Face time.
Friday, March 30, 2007
The main problem with Athol Fugard's Exits and Entrances, receiving its New York premiere at 59E59 in a Primary Stages production after a myriad of stagings around the country, is that it wants to be too much in too little time. In the spare 85 minutes that the play runs, Fugard has tried to encompass at least a dozen different ideologies: the work is a love letter to and a cautionary tale about a life in the theatre, a buddy comedy, a Chekhovian melodrama, a drawing room farce and a redemption tale. If he had chosen one conceit and stuck to it, he could have written a salvageable chamber piece; however, as it currently stands, the play is a heavy-handed amalgamation with no dramatic center. The play is anchored by superb performances from William Dennis Hurley and Morlan Higgins, as, respectively, a struggling South African playwright (based on Fugard) and a rapidly deteriorating Afrikaans actor. Higgins is particularly arresting--his early monologue about how his life changed after seeing Anna Pavlova dance The Dying Swan as a boy is especially moving--but it's not enough. By the half-hour mark, my mind had exited the drama onstage and entered a state of lulled boredom.
Thursday, March 29, 2007
Ben Heppner? Yes, please! The uber-talented tenor is currently taking on the mammoth title role of Andrea Chenier in Giordano's verismo masterpiece, and meeting the challenge head on. When he opens his mouth to sing, the world seems to stop turning and you are rapt by the fiery emotion he exhibits. He is ideally matched with Violeta Urmana, whose dark tone and stratospheric high notes aided her in stopping the show dead cold with Maddelena's Act III showpiece, "La mamma morta." Mark Delavan skillfully rounds out the group of principles as the lovestruck revolutionary Gerard, and wunderkind conducter Marco Armiliato led one of the tighest orchestras I've heard all season. The opera ends with Andrea and Maddelena standing downstage center, proclaiming "Long Live Death! Together!". The lovers may die, but my fond memories of them never will.
Wednesday, March 28, 2007
I rarely ever find myself going "across the plaza" for opera; in my experience, City Opera productions have almost always paled in comparison to their Met counterparts. However, when the opportunity to see one of my favorite works--Rossini's rarely produced La Donna Del Lago--came around, I jumped, and I sure am glad that I did. Nearly everything about Chas Rader-Shieber's new production works, and the energy coming off the stage at the State Theatre is palpable. Three of the four central roles are ideally cast, with the glorious Bulgarian soprano Alexandrina Pendatchanska triumphing as the title Lady of the Lake. British tenor Barry Banks, a brilliant Rossini interpreter, does incredible (and jaw-dropping) vocal acrobatics as Uberto, the King of Scotland; and in the pants role of Malcolm, La Donna's beloved, mezzo Laura Vlasak Nolen steals every scene she's in and received some of the evening's loudest applause. Only Robert McPherson as the chieftan Rodrigo was underwhelming. Still, this production is a feast for the eyes and the ears, and all opera lovers should flock to it.
Tuesday, March 27, 2007
I purposely avoided listening to any recordings of Die Agyptische Helena before seeing the Met's new production, their first in eighty years. David Fielding's staging recalls a David Lynch fever dream, with tilted sets, ensemble members painted different colors, and lots of cheeky brightness. I spent much of the performance trying to figure out what he was going for, and concluded that the piece is set here on a sinking ship. Apt, since most of Fielding's theatrics are ridiculous, and take away from the beauty of the score. And there is a ton of beauty there, and in Deborah Voigt's singing of the title role. Voigt has never been a favorite of mine, but she has found the role she was born to play. I was on cloud nine when she tore through the Act Two opening showpiece, "Zweite Brautnacht". (Peter Gelb announced from the stage that she has been under the weather, but I never noticed any semblance of it in her singing.) She is matched with the thrilling Diana Damrau, who stole the show as the gorgeous enchantress Aithra. Brava to both. The evening's only low point was Torsten Kerl, making a less than stellar Met debut as Menalas. He was underpowering, and could rarely sing over the orchestra. Luckily, the focus was never really on him; I pity the man that has to stand next to these two divas on stage.
Monday, March 26, 2007
Scott Siegel and the team at Town Hall gave New York yet another wonderful evening of old-time Broadway showtunes, sung by today's brightest stars. There really weren't any poor performances, as the singers beautifully interpreted tunes from classics like The Boys From Syracuse and The Cradle Will Rock, as well as more obscure musicals like The Girl From Wyoming and Right This Way. Director Emily Skinner perfectly matched artist and number with almost every song, and the energy was palpable on stage. Among the highlights were Shannon Lewis' electrifyingly sung and danced "My Heart Belongs To Daddy"; Martin Vidnovic's mournful and glorious "September Song"; and Christiane Noll, who stopped the show cold with an achingly beautifully (and sparklingly unamplified) "Falling in Love With Love". Bartlett Sher, here's your Nellie Forbush. The night was wonderfully capped with Ms. Skinner herself taking the stage and delivering one of the most gorgeous renditions of "I'll Be Seeing You" that I've ever heard. Next up, the gang will tackle 1959, with Skinner and Marc Kudisch, among others, starring. I'm hoping they'll do a Herbie/Rose number together.
Sunday, March 25, 2007
There's plenty of stuff that's wrong in Adam Rapp's new play, currently at the Playwrights Horizons complex in a co-production with Edge Theatre Company: it's far too long, all characters other than the main pair are underwritten, and most of the metaphors Rapp employs are hardly subtle. However, there's quite a lot to write home about. Certainly, no one could be unhappy watching Paul Sparks and Heather Goldenhersh embody a goofy, socially-challenged almost-couple. The way that the author has written it calls for two performers steeped in eccentricity and awkwardness, and this duo deliver the goods in spades: Sparks' price-of-admission worthy vocal inflections recall a cross between Professor Frink from The Simpsons and Jerry Lewis on acid, while Goldenhersh is eerily reminiscent of a young and disturbed Amanda Plummer. They fascinate even when the play doesn't. My friend Patrick compared Rapp's style here to Dennis Potter, which I think is most adept; I can almost hear Bob Hoskins crooning "Pennies From Heaven" on the playwright's TV while he sat at his laptop. Still, as far as original American plays go, this is one of the better ones in New York at present. While I cannot wholeheartedly give it an unequivocal rave, I can certainly tell my readers to give it a prominent position on their "to see" lists.
I'm happy to report that unlike other recent London transports (Festen, Democracy), David Harrower's sharp and intensely satisfying Blackbird has lost none of its punch and power in translation. The drama is quite reminiscent of early David Mamet (due to the subject matter and style of the play, I would assume comparisons to Oleanna are in store when the reviews are published), with quick-phrased dialogue that absolutely crackles. The play will fly or fall on whether or not the two stars are able to produce the almost operatic rhythm the language requires, but Manhattan Theatre Club has assembled a completely adroit pair. Jeff Daniels triumphantly returns to the theatre, and performs an almost miracle: he manages to humanize a man most would write off as a predator and cast away, something even the highly lauded Richard Griffiths couldn't pull off. His bravura mannerisms and line readings make up for the fact that he's a bit too young for the role (those who have read the script know that his character, Ray, is supposed to be nearly sixty, while the spry Daniels doesn't look a day over 45). His sparring partner is Alison Pill, one of the most utterly fascinating young stage actresses working today, who sinks her teeth into Una, a woman who can't seem to come to terms with her arrested development. Pill plays her as a direct descendant of Lolita, and almost all of the audience was stunned by her frank and honest delivery of the play's heightened sexual language. In the hands of these two pros, Blackbird soars.
Thursday, March 22, 2007
For most people, Inherit the Wind will always be that stodgy little play they read in their junior year of high school. Those who hold this opinion have obviously never seen it on stage. In its current Broadway mounting, capably directed by Doug Hughes, it proved to be one of the most enthralling and captivating evenings of theatre I've ever had. I'm sure it helps that this production is headed by two of the greatest dramatic lions alive, Christopher Plummer and Brian Dennehy, who are truly offering a master class in the true technique of acting. Dennehy's fiery and self-righteous Matthew Harrison Brady is matched toe-to-toe by Plummer's riveting Henry Drummond (I see another Tony on his mantle come June). Their courtroom scene, including a blistering interrogation of Dennehy by Plummer, are the kind of edge-of-your-seat moments that are largely missing on Broadway today. Sharing the stage are Denis O'Hare, whose eternal schtick is finally appropriate as yellow journalist E.K. Hornbeck, and the invaluable Byron Jennings, rousingly channeling Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell as the holier-than-thou Reverand Brown. The other star of the evening is Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee's truly marvelous text, which simply dances out of the mouths of these actors. Quite a feat for a play now largely relegated to high school classrooms and drama club presentations.
Wednesday, March 14, 2007
Remember when Les Miserables was thrilling? Remember when the opening swells of the orchestra sent chills down your spine, and "I Dreamed a Dream" and "Bring Him Home" left a lump in your throat? Those days are long gone, dear readers. They've been replaced by screaming synthesizers and screeching singers, all of whom practically surge through the show as if they have a train to catch. You couldn't find two people more miscast than Alexander Gemignani and Norm Lewis; the former couldn't find the right key to sing in with both hands and a flashlight, and the latter is just too damn friendly as the evil Javert. I half expected him to sing "Stars" cradling a puppy. Even Lea Salonga, the one person I'd have counted on to be a sure thing before the performance, is all wrong as Fantine. Say what you will about Daphne Rubin-Vega, but at least she had the character's grittiness and broken spirit down, which is something that Salonga just cannot grasp. After "One Day More," the thought of one minute more left me pulverized, so my friend and I fled at intermission.
Tuesday, March 13, 2007
Prometheus had it easy. Changed to a giant rock, screaming and writhing, he still has it better than the audience watching James Kerr's static and heavy-handed production of the play that bears his name. The production's Prometheus, however, is a thing of wonder; David Oyelowo is easily one of the most competent classical actors working today. At thirty, his voice boasts a stentorian lilt common in actors twice his age, and his commanding presence almost manages to take your mind off of the evening's plodding proceedings. Sadly, he is surrounded by a weak ensemble, with each performer coming off as less graceful and more histrionic then the last. It makes this Prometheus Bound, a play where the central characters are gods, as earthbound as ever.
Monday, March 12, 2007
BFF offers a compelling thesis on adolescent friendships and how they effect people in later life, but I left feeling that the play isn't quite fully fleshed out. At a brisk ninety minutes, it asks many questions and leaves most of them unanswered, focusing more on the play's conceit of jumping back and forth in time than the actual topic at hand. Another problem is that we end up more interested in the story of the past (set in the early nineties) than the present day narrative, which finds the play's central character (a terrific Sasha Eden) still suffering from the mistakes of her youth. In a perfect play, we'd care equally about both the catalyst and the aftermath; here, I kept waiting for the flashbacks and dreading the modern day solipsism. Eden and her two castmates, Jeremy Webb and Laura Heisler, are both exceedingly good; the latter is perfectly cast as a gawky pre-teen with no interest in growing up. I would really love to see the playwright, Anna Ziegler, expand on what she already has and make the play more compelling and smooth. Through clarifications and rewrites, this play could have a long life.
Sunday, March 11, 2007
Charles Busch has never been my favorite playwright. His over-the-top absurdist works and homages to pastiche have never entertained or enthralled me before, and I've often wondered where all of his acclaim generates from. After seeing his new play, Our Leading Lady, I now understand why he's been around so long and has such a devoted base. A perfect amalgamation of history play and overwrought melodrama, this work hits all the right notes and leaves you both laughing and thinking. The ideal cast is led by Kate Mulgrew, pitch-perfect in the title role; an actress with a past who is starring in the fateful production of Our American Cousin, just as the Civil War has drawn to a close. Also wonderful are Maxwell Caulfield as her co-star and clandestine lover; Ann Duquesnay as her Chinese handmaiden with a secret; and Barbara Byrne, a former grande dame now barely hanging on. Best of all, though, is the indispensable Kristine Nielsen as a local actress with Southern sympathies. She and Mulgrew are splendid sparring partners, and whenever they were center stage, City Center seemed to crackle and glow.
Saturday, March 10, 2007
I was tricked by The Pirate Queen. The first act of Boublil and Schonberg's overblown new musical was boring, but it wasn't bad. Based on this, I stayed for the second act, where everything turned to shit. Nothing about this show juxtaposes: the music is wildly unbalanced, the characters leave you unsympathetic, and Graciela Daniele's signature stomps-though wonderful-are not right here. It comes off seeming like Riverdance with a book. Unlike Les Miserables, which I personally love, I never once got chills from the music, and I was never moved. One thing this production does have going for it, though, is Stephanie J. Block in the title role. A performer with a fierce belt and a credible actress, Block turns triteness into treasure, and makes the show feel semi-watchable, even at its most ludicrous. She should jump ship to a better show.
A new review of this show really isn't necessary; it's still as blisteringly wonderful as it was when I saw it last month. This is more of a plea. See this show. I was distressed to find today's matinee less crowded than when I first saw the show in early previews. It's incredibly sad that a show this good, after receiving a string of glowing reviews, is playing at a weekly capacity of 32%. So, dear theatregoers, please keep this show alive. Discounts abound, and it will be an experience you will never forget. Marvel at Hugh Dancy, making the theatrical debut of the season, and Boyd Gaines, well on his way to Tony #4. Take my word and go now, while you still can.
Wednesday, March 7, 2007
Vanessa Redgrave is the greatest actress alive, and I don't mean that as hyperbole. She is the greatest actress alive. Watching her embody Joan Didion (my favorite author) was thrilling, mesmerizing and every other superlative you can think of. Redgrave's wrenching work made up for the some of the script's weaknesses and lack of dramatic intensity. It's obvious that Didion is no playwright; her work here sounds like an extended New Yorker article. Still, when coupled with an actress of Redgrave's caliber, the proverbial phonebook would come off sounding like Shakespeare. It's only the second preview, so I have faith that director David Hare will provide able dramaturgy between now and the show's official opening. I will be back again soon, to marvel at Ms. Redgrave's master class once again.
Tuesday, March 6, 2007
So, I've got to stop seeing shows just because Marla Schaffel is in them. While New York's Tony-nominated best kept secret is always wonderful to watch, I've had to endure seeing her in the worst kinds of dreck over the past few year (save Carmelina, of course). The new play she's appearing in, Tall Grass, is quite possibly the most mind-numbing crap I've seen in quite some time. An evening of three one-acts written by a Manhattan stock analyst, each plays is seemingly worse than the one preceeding it. Schaffel shows that she's quite able to execute straight comedy, but her two co-stars are horribly actory and verge on unwatchable. When I wasn't nodding off, I was checking my watch. And when I wasn't checking my watch, I was wondering why Marla Schaffel isn't going to be playing Lizzie Curry in the upcoming 110 in the Shade revival.