Thursday, August 17, 2017

Van Gogh's Ear

Waiting for Van Gogh's Ear to start is a pleasure, since it gives you time to really examine Vanessa Jame's open and elegant set. It's all black and white, with dramatic strips of wide glistening material stretching down walls and across the floor. The upstage center area, arranged for musicians, is dominated by a striking white grand piano. Stage left features a small room, a pared-down version of Van Gogh's famous bedroom.

The Bedroom by Vincent Van Gogh

Soon the show starts, and the black-and-white set swirls with color as the white bands become screens for stunning projections (David Bengali) that envelope the audience in Van Gogh's gorgeous brush strokes.

Chad Johnson, Carter Hudson
Photo: Shirin Tinati

But Van Gogh's Ear is interested in more than showing Van Gogh's world; it also wants us to hear it. For the synesthetic Van Gogh, musical notes were colors, and he perceived painting as parallel to composing. Van Gogh's Ear includes live music by Claude Debussy, Gabriel Fauré, Ernest Chausson and César Franck, beautifully played and sung by Henry Wang (violin), Yuval Herz (violin), Chieh-Fan Yiu (viola), Timotheos Petrin (cello), Max Barros (piano), Renana Gutman (piano), Renée Tatum (soprano), and Chad Johnson (tenor). Van Gogh's dialogue is culled from his letters, which brings yet another dimension to the show.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Groundhog Day

Humorless buzzkill that I am, I've never been a big fan of the 1993 movie Groundhog Day, even though just about everybody else on the planet seems to think that it's one of the most brilliant comedy films ever made. Also, while I appreciated the stage adaptation of Matilda, and found its Tim Minchin score inoffensive, that musical, too, ultimately left me kind of tepid, if not utterly cold. For both of these reasons, I've been a little slow in getting around to seeing the Broadway musical version of Groundhog Day, which is Minchin and director Matthew Warchus's followup collaboration.

Joan Marcus

I can't say I loved every minute of the musical, or that it totally changed my life, or even my opinions about the musical version of Matilda or the film version of Groundhog Day. But I certainly enjoyed it. It has a lot of strengths, and at least one number that I haven't stopped thinking about. Sure, there are weak links: the set and sound are both a little murkier than they should be at various points, and the whole production came off as a little too darkly lit. The first act gets a little bogged down with a lot of exposition and the constant repetition that's part of the fabric of the plot. And many of Minchin's lyrics and melodies just don't stick with me, even after repeated listening (truly, I tried).

But the cast is strong and committed. The car chase, done with little car puppets and black light, made me laugh, and there were some excellent stage tricks during the suicide attempts. And if you have never seen Andy Karl on stage, you're missing out. As Phil, the arrogant and condescending weatherman who learns to be a mensch by the end of the show, he's endlessly appealing. In everything I've seen him do, I'm newly struck by how gifted Karl is both as a verbal and physical comedian. Here, his talents and his charisma are put to excellent use, especially since he walks the same fine line Bill Murray managed so well in the film (and just as a general proposition): Karl's Phil is never enough of a smarmy, insufferable dick that you genuinely hate him, but he's just enough of one that his gradual transformation and self-actualization into a reasonably good guy remain consistently engaging.

Then there's the wonderful "Playing Nancy," which pretty much made the musical for me. Performed at the top of the second act with absolutely no fanfare by a secondary character who previously has been fooled into sleeping with and subsequently dismissed by Phil, the piece is beautiful, delightfully meta, and astoundingly forthright in its commentary. I loved it, I haven't stopped thinking about it, I listen to it often and fondly. Thanks, Tim Minchin. You might not be my alltime favorite Broadway composer, but with this song, you've earned my respect. Hats off to you for considering, even momentarily, the roles women play in the most heralded and blockbustery and revered of mass entertainments, which are ultimately and almost always about men--and for writing a song that doesn't flinch, pander, or condescend. I'd make like Bill Murray and sit through all of your future musicals twice in a row, anytime, as long as you keep writing songs like this.

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Barbara Cook: 1927-2017

I was not a huge Barbara Cook fan. It would never occur to me to play a CD of hers. I certainly didn't consider her the premiere cabaret singer ever or the best interpreter ever.

Yet every time I saw her, she blew me away. (And, obviously, she was one of the best.)

Seth Wenig, File AP Photo

I saw her three times: at the Vivian Beaumont; at Feinstein's when it was still at the Regency; and giving a master class at Cooper Union.

There's nothing I can say about her singing that others haven't said, and better than I could. But I do want to talk about two things: her skills and generosity as a teacher and her grace as she dealt with the changes of aging.

At the master class, Cook was faced with students with gorgeous voices and limited interpretation skills. She told them that they didn't have to show us that their voices were wonderful, because we could hear that. And then she focused on what the songs were about. And little by little, the students would go from making beautiful noises to telling stories (while still, of course, making beautiful noises).

One young man just couldn't loosen up. She gave him all sorts of suggestions and tips, but he couldn't let go of the formality of his singing. Finally, she pulled over two chairs for them, and she faced him and held his hand. "Just sing to me," she said. "Just tell me." It was a lovely, lovely moment. I don't even remember if the young man ever really let go. But I won't forget her generosity, openness, and willingness to put herself on the line.

(I also won't forget that the one student who really impressed her was the one I liked least. Go figure.)

When it came to aging, Cook turned loss into humor. At Lincoln Center, she sang a glorious "Glitter and Be Gay." She didn't have the high notes, and she didn't try to. Instead, when it was time for the pyrotechnics, she put on a tape of herself singing the song years ago, and spent her time donning all of Cunegonde's rings and necklaces. It was funny, touching, silly, and wonderful.

At Feinstein's she was no longer able to navigate the steps to the stage. Her solution? Get two hunky men to basically lift her into place as she joked and laughed. Again: funny, touching, silly, and wonderful.

Somehow, Barbara Cook managed to combine goddess and gal, lady and broad. And, yes, she was a heck of a singer.

Wendy Caster

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Trust the Author!

My latest essay is up at Art Times:
I walked out on a production of the brilliant comedy Cloud Nine the other night. The problem? The performers were trying too hard to be funny.
I recognize that my last sentence may seem counterintuitive. After all, isn’t the actor’s job in a comedy to be funny? Not always. Not even most of the time.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Pity in History

It is telling that the line from which this play's title comes is "No pity in history." It's the 17th Century, during a civil war in Britain, and of course the war is not remotely civil. A cook has been shot--possibly by "friendly fire"--and is dying noisily, full of kvetching and insight. A mason tries to stay outside the fray, working on tombs in a church, but the fray finds him. The army believes that they are the strongest and will win because God is on their side. The opposing army would describe itself in much the same way.

Jonathan Tindle, Christopher Marshall
Photo: Stan Barough
Pity in History runs a packed 65 minutes, and its depth and breadth are remarkable. It has much to say about war, religion, human nature, and art, and it is wise and frequently funny. The production at PTP/NYC, running through August 5, unfortunately does not do it justice. While there is some excellent acting (in particular, Steven Dykes as the mason and Jonathan Tindle as the cook), and some of the direction (Richard Romagnoli) and design is effective, the dialogue is too frequently unintelligible, particularly when the soldiers speak in unison. Pity in History was initially a radio play, with impressively economical writing, and every word counts. Or would count if we could hear them. I read the script this morning and would say that the PTP/NYC production loses at least 20% of the plot, meaning, and wit. (A friend said that, because there was so much she could not understand, she ended up checking out and barely watching the show.)

Steven Dykes, Matt Ball
Photo: Stan Barouh
I regret that this review is ending up to be so harsh, because the play is truly impressive and parts of the production are excellent, but unintelligibility is the fault that can perhaps most completely derail a play.

Wendy Caster
(4th row, press ticket)

Sunday, July 23, 2017


Just twice in four decades of theatre have I bought the show's script during
intermission, and Tom Stoppard's Arcadia in 1995 was one of them (Shadowlands by
William Nicholson was the other). The most emotional play in Stoppard's cannon, it
offers a mystery told through two intertwining stories that touch on many topics
before its solution, including academic jockeying, the making of history, landscape
gardening, Byron, Newtonian physics and nonlinear mathematics.


Andrew William Smith (Septimus Hodge), Caitlin Duffy (Thomasina Coverly)

Photo credit: Stan Barouh

PTP/NYC's (Potomac Theatre Project) flawed, but enjoyable, revival of Arcadia captures its comedic intellectualism but not its visceral core. The play's two time frames -1809 and the present - both take place in the same country estate, Sidley Park, inhabited by two sets of characters and occasionally the same props, including a tortoise named Plautus or Lightning, depending on the century. The beginning scenes alternate the two periods until the second act where the separate sections unfold simultaneously on stage. The historical part focuses on Thomasina Coverly (Caitlin Duffy), a young aristocratic genius, and her clever and randy tutor, Septimus Hodge (Andrew William Smith), with the modern-day segment featuring two combative researchers, historical book author Hannah Jarvis (Stephanie Janssen) and Bernard Nightingale (Alex Draper), a grandstanding academic seeking scholastic fame.

Between those plot lines, Thomasina's mother, also is transforming her garden from classical to gothic; Ezra Chater (Jonathan Tindle) tries to make a name as a poet while many bed his wife ... including a never-seen but oft-spoken about Lord Byron; and a postgrad researcher, Valentine Coverly, (Jackson Prince) unearths Thomasina's surprisingly modern mathematical scribblings. Describing Arcadia's plot is as difficult as deciphering the play, which twists and turns through time and topics, with each reading and viewing bringing some new understanding. In this production, the scene between Thomasina and her tutor discussing the loss of the great library of Alexandria, for instance, resonated brightly as Septimus matter-of-factly tells his student, who mourns the disappearance of Aeschylus and Sophocles' plays:

"We shed as we pick up, like travelers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short. We die on the march. But there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it. The missing plays of Sophocles will turn up piece by piece, or be written again in another language...Mathematical discoveries glimpsed and lost to view will have their time again."

For, ultimately, the unfairness of life's limitations insert a melancholy into Arcadia that characters face mostly with pragmatism and humor.

Stephanie Janssen (Hannah Jarvis), Alex Draper (Bernard Nightingale).

Photo credit: Stan Barouh

Cheryl Faraone's (co-artistic director) direction emphasizes this stoicism and that works well during the 20th century scenes, making the even-tempered Hannah a terrific foil for Bernard. But, in the earlier time, there is a warmth missing between Thomasina and Septimus, and it makes their relationship less intimate and engaging. While Duffy and Smith are capable, neither convey the charisma necessary to enchant. Duffy's Thomasina is also too silly as a girl and her portrayal doesn't change even as the character ages. The simple set (scenic design: Mark Evancho) with its hanging panels looks appropriate for both time periods and the video footage of Thomasina's realized formula showcases the wonder of her genius.

PTP/NYC's 31st repertory season (its 11th consecutive in NYC), runs from July 11 - August 6 in a limited Off-Broadway engagement at The Atlantic Stage 2 (330 West 16 St.). For more info visit

Friday, July 21, 2017


Tom Stoppard always offers scrumptious meals for the head, but not always for the heart. Arcadia, his brilliant play about literature, history, math, science, gardening, and sex, features his best-ever balance between ideas and emotion. When well done, Arcadia is sheer pleasure start to finish (although audience members have been known to daydream during the math parts). PTP/NYC's current production (running through August 6th) is indeed well done, largely thanks to Cheryl Faraone's smart, clear, well-paced, and compassionate direction.

Arcadia exists in two time frames: the early 19th century and the late 20th. Both take place in the same room in an elegant house in Sidley Park, home to the Coverlys. The earlier period focuses on Thomasina Coverly, 13 years old and a genius, and her tutor Septimus Hodge, a smart and charming man who somehow juggles making a living, writing, and a healthy sex life. This time period features affairs, theorems, brilliance, and heartbreak.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

"The World of Broadway Musicals"

I was recently interviewed by the Dean of the Weissman School of Arts and Sciences at Baruch College. Here's the resultant clip. Also, here is a nice picture, which I'd combine with the clip if I were even remotely more technically minded than I am.