Saturday, March 31, 2007

Face the Music

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

Exits and Entrances

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

Andrea Chenier

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

La Donna Del Lago

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

Die Agyptische Helena

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

The Broadway Musicals of 1938

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

Essential Self-Defense

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

Inherit the Wind

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

Les Miserables

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 Bound

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

Our Leading Lady

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

The Pirate Queen

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.

Journey's End

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

The Year of Magical Thinking

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

Tall Grass

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.

Monday, March 5, 2007

The Sisters Rosensweig

I often forget how wonderful Wendy Wasserstein's plays are. The way she juxtaposed Simonesque comedy and deeply affecting drama is stunning. Lincoln Center's all-star benefit reading of my favorite Wasserstein play, The Sisters Rosensweig, perfectly captured the humor and the beauty of Wasserstein's language. Stockard Channing and Edie Falco were wonderfully poignant as Sara and Pfeni, and Christine Baranski was born to rattle of Dr. Gorgeous' biting one liners. In smaller roles, John Michael Higgins, Ari Graynor and original cast member Robert Klein truly shone. At intermission, I began to think about Broadway in the early nineties, when a new American play could successfully run on Broadway for a year and a half. It's time for a revival.

Sunday, March 4, 2007

Some Men

Terrence McNally's Some Men is a completely mixed bag. A gay history play spanning from Stonewall to civil unions and everything in between, it reaches for too much and regrettably falls short. There are moments that exhibit McNally's brilliance, but they are few and far between. His circular storytelling hurts his narrative; once the audience becomes genuinely interested in a character, they are relegated to the sidelines while yet another plot point is introduced. The actors are all very fine, though, with several standouts: Don Amendolia is touching as both a gay doctor during the AIDS epidemic and the father of a dead soldier who couldn't come to terms with his son's lifestyle; and Kelly AuCoin and Romain Fruge are both phenomenal as a long-time gay couple, the former having left a wife and family to discover his true self. So, while I was never bored, I was also never enthralled, and that's a problem.

Saturday, March 3, 2007

The Pirates of Penzance

New York City Opera has always been prided for their striking new productions of musical theatre and opera chesnuts. So imagine my surprise when they open their spring season with a conventional and bland production of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance. The uninspired cardboard sets scream community theatre, and the choreography is like everything you've ever seen before. Some positive performances improve the evening: Marc Kudisch truly is a glorious Pirate King; Myrna Paris' Ruth is delectable and hilarious; and Mark Jacoby is brilliant as the befuddled Major General. However, the two most crucial roles are painfully miscast, with Matt Morgan mistakenly underperforming Frederic and Sarah Jane McMahon rushing through Mabel's big aria, "Poor Wandering One," as if she had a train to catch. Take my advice: stay home and rent the vastly superior Shakespeare in the Park production.

Thursday, March 1, 2007


I can't remember the last time I could wholeheartedly say that I loved a new musical on Broadway. The Light in the Piazza, perhaps? Either way, I'm now stopping people on the street and telling them how amazing Curtains is. A true old-school spectacle, it features a totally lovable Kander and Ebb score, a book by Rupert Holmes that will leave you howling, and an ensemble with nary a weak link. David Hyde Pierce is divine as a Boston detective in love with Broadway musicals; give me Lt. Frank Cioffi over Man in Chair any day. Karen Ziemba and Jason Danieley sing and act beautifully as a pair of formerly married songwriters, and Edward Hibbert had me screaming with laughter as the effete, angry British director. Of course, the showstopper is Debra Monk as the ruthless, Weissler-esque producer; her big Act Two number "It's a Business" is the perfect proof as to why she's one of the theatre's reigning Grande Dames.