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.