Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Most Deserving

Catherine Trieschmann's new play, The Most Deserving, aspires to be both entertaining and significant. It is completely successful in the former regard, and not so much in the latter.

Kristin Griffith, Veanne Cox
A small arts council in Kansas has a $20,000 grant to bestow to an artist who "must demonstrate both artistic excellence and financial need and should preferably be an underrepresented American voice." Jolene, the founder and fierce protector of the arts council, wants the grant to go to a local artist who is one eighth Native American--or is it one sixteenth? Liz, an assistant professor of art, wants the grant to go to Everett, a paraplegic African-American who makes art out of garbage--but Everett hasn't applied, and the deadline has passed. Edie, who funded the grant from her late husband's fortune, turns out to be surprisingly slippery as Jolene and Liz vie for her vote. Ted, Jolene's husband, is mostly interested in getting Liz's attention. Dwayne, unemployed and in desperate need of cash, wants to receive the grant himself, despite fitting none of the requirements.

The show's lively 90 minutes are stuffed with broken allegiances, revealed secrets, and bad behavior. Is the play trying to show us the parochialism of the Mid West? Perhaps, but the setup is a bit by the numbers, and the characters aren't convincing as actual people. The one point the show does make brilliantly, however, is never to think that grants (or jobs, for that matter) are bestowed to "the most deserving"--or that the logic behind the ultimate decision has anything to do with, well, logic.

Trieschmann is well-served by efficient direction by Shelley Butler and a talented and game cast, led by the wonderful Veanne Cox, who gives the best massage you are ever likely to see in a play. The cast navigates the play's twists and turns with aplomb and makes the most of Trieschmann's genuinely funny situations and dialogue. Whatever its flaws, The Most Deserving is a great deal of fun.

(8th row, press ticket)

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

The Ted & Lo Show – This May Hurt a Bit

You can credit Ted and Lo for truth in advertising; their show does hurt a bit. It also entertains, charms, and delights. I'm not sure that it gels overall, but what can you expect from a song list that covers love, insecurity, evil, mass murder, suicide, the media, and a boy who only says, "I Don't Care"?

Ted (Tad Stafford) plays guitar and sings. His musicianship is unquestionable, and he can be quite charming. (There was general consensus among my friends, however, that his curtain of gray hair blocks his communication with the audience.)

Lo (Lorinda Lisitza) is amazing. (For an earlier, equally enthusiastic review of her work, click here.) She's the real deal, singing and acting brilliantly in a wide range of styles and moods. Her voice is gorgeous when she wants it to be and rough when that's her goal. She also plays a mean harmonica.

Lisitza has the talent and charisma of a star, and I would gladly, gratefully, go to see her in, oh, Next to Normal, Happy End, Beautiful, 42nd Street, the Addams Family, Chicago, Anyone Can Whistle, Sweeney Todd, Gypsy--well, you get the idea. Until producers wise up and cast her, I'll make sure to see whatever it is she does do.

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

National Theatre Live @ Symphony Space: War Horse

True confession: I love Joey.  The horse, that is.  Well...the puppet horse.

Thanks to the National Theatre Live's encore screening at Symphony Space on Monday night, I got to see the play for the fifth time.  Yes, I saw it four times in New York.  No, I didn't pay full price because of TDF, LincTix (for theatre patrons ages 21 to 35), and Student Rush.

The story itself is a mix between a romance and a period piece, just with a boy and horse instead of a boy and girl.  Sixteen year old Albert falls in love with Joey the horse.  Albert loses Joey to the war effort.  Albert joins army in order to find Joey.  It's a sweet and heartwarming story, but pretty predictable. 

So why go see it so many times?  Why not just watch the Spielberg film?  The puppets.  They are the heart and soul and magic of this piece.  The amazing thing about the puppets is that the puppeteers are in plain sight.  Yet, no matter how hard you try to focus on the puppeteers (and believe me, I have), they bring Joey and Topthorn, Joey's army horse friend, to life in such a way that you just stop seeing them.  There are several moments where the puppets' choreography takes my breath away. 

The National Theatre production is slightly different from the Broadway one.  The text is altered for one.  Captain Nichols has a heroic and nationalistic speech before the first cavalry charge in Act I that was cut from the Broadway production, probably because it wouldn't resonate in the same way.  In addition, this production has several small parts spoken in French and German.  In the Broadway production, these were spoken in English with exaggerated accents.  I personally think the comedy worked better in French and German, especially during the No Man's Land scene.  I think the assumption is that British audiences are more likely to know some conversational German and French, whereas American audiences aren't.  Things like this make me think that Brits are just naturally smarter.  

The performances were quite good.  Sion Young's (Albert) performance was adorable in the first act but really took off in the second act.  Ian Shaw (Friedrich) was also quite good once he decided to stop shouting so much.  The ensemble member singing lead in the folk songs had a particularly poignant and beautiful voice.  All three of the horse teams were brilliant, but I loved the team performing Topthorn.  Their performance was wonderfully spirited.

I think NTLive might need to readjust lighting design for these live streamed productions though.  Several scenes were quite dark on film, which makes me think that they didn't adjust anything for the live stream.  That's a small quibble, however.   

There are three more encore performances this month at Symphony Space on April 3, 11, and 16.  I highly recommend that you see this if you didn't see it when it was in New York.  General admission tickets are $23 (regular), $21 (students and seniors), and $19 (Symphony Space members).  If you're not in New York, performances near you can be found here.

And if you need some convincing first, see the videos below.

TED Talk featuring Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones (Handspring Puppet Company).

Joey in action at Sandown Park, Esher Park.

But seriously...go see the show.  You won't regret it. 

Sunday, March 30, 2014


If/Then, an original musical by the Next to Normal writer/composer team of Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt, has a great deal going for it: a dynamite cast headed up by the bona-fide Broadway star Idina Menzel; a strong supporting cast featuring talents like LaChanze, Anthony Rapp, and Jerry Dixon; the Rent and Next to Normal director Michael Greif at the helm. The score, which bears some strong similarities to that for Normal, reflects real growth by Kitt--whose bouncy, contemporary melodies are perfectly suited to Menzel's distinctive brass--and especially by Yorkey, whose lyrics for Normal felt a titch too obvious a titch too often, and whose lyrics here are, for the most part, sharper, savvier, and more organic. And the musical's "road not taken" concept is, if not entirely original (Robert Frost, Frank Capra, and Gwyneth Paltrow got to it before Yorkey and Kitt did), certainly fresher and more challenging than, say, taking a classic movie about a boxer who slurps raw eggs and punches meat and plunking it onto the stage. If/Then has a lot of imagination and a lot of talent behind it. It thus pains me to say that I found it to be an overcooked, ponderous, frustrating musical. 

If/Then has two simultaneous plot-lines, both of which feature the same characters doing slightly different things, so it's easy enough to lose track of what's going on sometimes, especially in the long, overstuffed second act. The gist: A brilliant urban planner named Elizabeth, pushing 40 and recently divorced, returns to New York City after a decade of unhappy marriage in Phoenix. During the musical's first scene, Elizabeth goes to Central Park to meet up with two of her old friends, who do not know one another: Kate (LaChanze) is a kindergarten teacher; Lucas (Anthony Rapp) is a community organizer and activist. When they meet and the introductions are made, Kate announces that Elizabeth should start referring to herself as "Liz" in celebration of her new life, and then suggests that they spend the rest of the afternoon in the park. Lucas, on the other hand, calls Elizabeth "Beth,"which is how he knew her back when they were in college together. He suggests that they leave the park and attend a fair housing rally in Brooklyn.

The rest of the show follows Liz, who remains in the park with Kate and meets a man who becomes her husband, and Beth, who leaves the park with Lucas, runs into another college friend who gives her a job in the city planner's office, and becomes a respected career woman. While the two paths Elizabeth takes have significant overlaps, there are divergent outcomes: Liz and Beth both get pregnant, but by different men, to different ends and with different consequences. Liz and Beth both make compromises--the former chooses work over family, the latter marries and has kids, and demeans herself professionally by taking what we all know is a fate worse than death: an academic job. I like to think that in New York City in 2014, a woman like Elizabeth could have a successful, satisfying career and a fulfilling family life, but I guess if this were the case, there'd be no point to If/Then at all.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Is It Too Much to Ask?

Okay, they were both previews. Okay, maybe they'll fix the problems (if they even perceive them as problems). But in one week I have experienced not being able to see and not being able to hear in high-profile professional productions.

(I'm not reviewing these because that would be premature. I'm only discussing problems that seriously compromised the enjoyment of each show.)

Sutton Foster (who was the most
intelligible person on stage)
Thursday night, very early preview of The Library. Perhaps it was director Steven Soderbergh's decision; perhaps it was lighting designer David Lander's; perhaps they made the decision together. Whoever is responsible, it's a bad idea to light a show so darkly that people's faces are barely visible--or not visible at all. It wasn't until well into the play that I could even see that Michael O'Keefe was Michael O'Keefe. Obviously, previews are the time to try out ideas, and I hope they realize that this one has a negative cost (clarity)/benefit (atmosphere) ratio. (I also don't understand why they didn't sneak in more light after establishing the mood. Isn't that Lighting 101?)

Friday night, first preview of Violet, and the band frequently overpowered the singers. This is fixable, and I hope they realize it's a problem and fix it. (I was in the back of the balcony, and I don't know if the sound people ever pop up there to listen.) But even if they do fix it, there are still some serious enunciation issues. Violet is a wonderful show; it deserves to be heard.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Sir Patient Fancy

Sir Patient Fancy is a humorous yet serious look at the effect money--or lack of money!--has on romantic relationships. Written in 1678 by Aphra Behn, England's first female professional playwright, Sir Patient Fancy uses farce to make serious points--points that are, unfortunately, still relevant today.

Cast of the Queen's Company production of Sir Patient Fancy
Photo: Bob Pileggi
The Queen's Company uses all-female casts to give women more opportunity to do the classics. This is carried out straightforwardly; the women play men without compromising the characters or play or winking at the audience. (They do occasionally compromise the play in other ways, however, as in the unnecessary and flat-out dumb use of a cell phone in the production.)

The plot line of Sir Patient Fancy is Farce 101. This person loves that person but is supposed to marry a third person. The third person loves a fourth person who loves her back but is betrothed to a fifth person. Add mistaken identities, tricks and deceit, and much frantic coming and going. It is familiar territory. But Behn mines it well, and the play is entertaining.

The Queen's Company production of Sir Patient Fancy is a mixed bag, however. On one hand, there are some excellent performances, and most of the actors are able to speak 17th-century English comfortably and clearly. On the other hand, the modern touches--in particular the lip-synched contemporary songs at the beginning and end of the show--are intrusive, annoying, and time-consuming. When a show  runs 2:40, it's important to justify every minute, but the lip-synching comes across as a cutesy in-joke, adding nothing and taking away much. Sir Patient Fancy can stand on its own, without schtick, and should be given that opportunity.

Luckily, the good outweighs the bad, and this production is a welcome opportunity to experience Behn's work.

(4th row on the aisle)

And the Winner Is . . .

Kyle Nesbit. Congratulations, Kyle. You have won the copy of Nothing Like a Dame.

Here are the correct answers:

Angela Lansbury: 4
Audra McDonald: 2
Bebe Neuwirth: 10
Betty Buckley: 3
Carol Channing: 18
Chita Rivera: 14
Debra Monk: 8
Donna McKechnie: 16
Donna Murphy:21
Elaine Stritch: 5
Idina Menzel: 6
Judy Kaye: 1
Karen Ziemba: 15
Kristin Chenoweth: 7
Laura Benanti: 11
Leslie Uggams: 17
Lillias White: 9
Patti LuPone: 13
Sutton Foster: 19
Tonya Pinkins: 20
Victoria Clark: 12

Sunday, March 09, 2014

Win a Copy of Nothing Like a Dame!

To win a copy of the very enjoyable Nothing Like a Dame (review here), just match up the quote and the dame and send your answers to A winner will be picked at random from all of the correct entries. The deadline is 11:59 pm on Sunday March 16.

Angela Lansbury ___
Audra McDonald ___
Bebe Neuwirth ___
Betty Buckley ___
Carol Channing ___
Chita Rivera ___
Debra Monk ___
Donna McKechnie ___
Donna Murphy ___
Elaine Stritch ___
Idina Menzel ___
Judy Kaye ___
Karen Ziemba ___
Kristin Chenoweth ___
Laura Benanti ___
Leslie Uggams ___
Lillias White ___
Patti LuPone ___
Sutton Foster ___
Tonya Pinkins ___
Victoria Clark ___

1. Actually, my introduction to regional theater was Souvenir because Arizona Theater Company wanted to do it after we closed way too quickly on Broadway. With that one I was really licking my wounds. That one I had a personal and emotional investment in and still do. 
2. But at the Tonys people were saying, “Oh, well, you finally lost.” And I was ecstatic: “Hooray! I finally lost!” It happened, it’s no big deal, the world didn’t come to an end, I don’t think my career was in the toilet because I have now not won a Tony.
3. Grizabella is one of my great teachers. It took me so long to find her. I feel like she’s one of my life companions or a soul mate. She’s not me; she’s herself, and I get to lend my soul to her, to bring life to her song. It’s a beautiful, beautiful piece and it keeps evolving for me every time I do it. 
4. I admired Lucille Ball tremendously. She had also come backstage several times to see me, so I knew she had her eye on it. I can never forgive Warner Brothers for not letting me do it because I think it could have been a huge movie. 
5. I liked [Noel Coward] right away and I loved his talent. I heard his records after that. I didn’t know anything about [him]. You don’t think “now I have to investigate this playwright.” 
6. I remember Taye and I read a review and it was really scathing about both of us. Ben Brantley wrote something like, “They should each take a little of whatever the other has. He’s too subdued and she’s too shrill and hyper.”
7. I thought, “Some tall showgirl is going to get that part. They get everything, the tall people!” But I got it and that was the first time in my life that I felt, “I’m gonna make it. My way.” John Kander wrote a whole new aria for me.
8. I was at the opening of God of Carnage and a reporter comes up to me . . . and Marcia Gay Harden, who was up against me when I won the Tony, is right behind me. It’s her opening night. And he says, “So you won Marcia Gay’s Tony?” I looked at him and I said, “No, I won my Tony.”
9. I went back and they had me sing every note that Effie sings. Everything. Michael Bennett puts his arm around me and says, “Ok, when you go to LA, you’ll stand by for Jennifer Holiday. You’ll go on because she’s out a lot.”
10. I would crouch in the wings and watch Patti LuPone stop the show dead cold. It was really joyful. I walked walked by her dressing room once and she was vocalizing or humming. I go, “Hey Patti, would you teach me how to sing.” And she says “Sure doll, you teach me how to dance.” Fabulous. 
11. I would look directly into the audience and I learned to open my heart to that and take it in. Somebody loves me. And all I have to do is take my clothes off.
12. In the musical, I played Alice Beane, second-class passenger. I found the woman that my character was based on. Her name was actually Ethel, not Alice. And I found her family outside of Rochester. I called and learned a lot of things. In the show Edgar, Alice’s husband, dies, but in real life, her husband lived. He was one of the people picked up in the lifeboats.
13. No, it took years to put Sunset in the past. Years. Because it was an assault, it was napalm. Agent Orange.
14. Now I know why I’ve got this new hip! But it’s like war wounds. It’s medals. It’s great. It’s a sign of working hard. It’s a Michael Kidd hip or a Jack Cole thing in the neck. 
15. She’s still my favorite Velma to play opposite. She shares the scenes with you—singing with you as one, dancing with you as one, the way Bob Fosse meant for it to be when he created the roles with Gwen Verdon and Chita Rivera. Bebe and I were a great team.
16. Thank God for Michael Bennett in my life. He really liked my style and he really liked the way his work looked on my body.
17. The cue card guy is walking ahead of me with the cards. He hit a thing of mud, he slipped and he was gone. I can’t find him. The camera’s still going, I have no idea what the hell I’m singing but I got to keep going. You can’t stop the show. So whatever came out of my mouth is what came out of my mouth. . . . I just remembered “Because it’s June!”  
18. The year that she did Funny Girl, she was fabulous! We used to be good friends. We would eat dinner between shows at Sardi’s with Bea Lillie who was doing High Spirits. But we were friends. And we’d say “You’re gonna get the Tony Award.” “No you’re gonna get it.” I got the award.
19. Tony day I was really, really freaked out. We were going to do “Forget About the Boy” and I was so excited to do that. I remember right before the performance, Gregory Hines came by and tapped our desks and wished us luck.
20. We never did the same show twice and that largely had to do with the fact there were things that Toni [Collette] just wouldn’t do. Like conflict. So here we have a poem that doesn’t have any conflict, and every time they try to impose it, Toni says things like, “Well, if she did that to me, I’d just leave,” and she would leave.
21. Yeah, exactly. I remember thinking when I was nominated, “This is going to be so much fun because I know that Julie Andrews is going to win. No pressure.”

Saturday, March 08, 2014

The Architecture of Being

What happens when you assemble five writers (Kara Lee Corthron, Sarah Gancher, Virginia Grise, Dipika Guha, and Lauren Yee) and three directors (Elena Araoz, Lydia Fort, and Lauren Keating) and set them loose on the topic of the history of New York City Center? 

Unfortunately, in the Women's Project's latest production, The Architecture of Being, you get 90 minutes of ideas, concepts, stories, and attitudes that just don't gel. Rather than coming across as a play, or even a thematic series of one acts, The Architecture of Being resembles nothing so closely as a high school sing, full of in jokes and attempted significance, and much more fun and meaningful for the creators and performers than for the audience.

Vanessa Kai, Danielle Skraastad
Photo: Carol Rosegg

Take Me Back

The not-quite-accurate publicity synopsis for Emily Schwend's new play Take Me Back goes as follows:
James Kautz
Photo: Russ Rowland
After a four-year stint in federal prison, Bill is back at home, living with his diabetic Mom and looking for a way out of Oklahoma. But today's America doesn't give a guy like Bill many options. How far is he willing to go to change his fortune? With a dose of melancholic nostalgia infused with dark humor, Take Me Back examines the impossibility of the American dream when surrounded by nothing but minimum wage Big Box stores and chain restaurants.
I would have liked to see that play. Instead, Take Me Back is another story about a jerky guy who is so committed to being a jerky guy that he cannot resist the opportunity to be, well, a jerky guy.

Thursday, March 06, 2014

Nothing on Earth (Can Hold Houdini)

Axis Company's Nothing on Earth (Can Hold Houdini), written and directed by artistic director Randy Sharp, has all the ingredients of a fascinating and thought-provoking thriller. Harry Houdini! Arthur Conan Doyle! Seances! Con artists! Yet the show is remarkably uninteresting, with 75 minutes of confusing build-up and 10 minutes of cop-out denouement.

Harry Houdini
Houdini, in addition to being an accomplished magician and the world's foremost escape artist, was devoted to exposing the tricks behind ostensible supernatural abilities. In contrast, Doyle, who was desperate to communicate with his late son, believed in spiritualism, fairies, automatic writing, and ectoplasm. Doyle was even convinced that Houdini himself had supernatural powers, despite Houdini's insistence that his tricks were just that: tricks. Their differences eventually destroyed their friendship. (It helps if you go in knowing this--and more--since the exposition is unfocused and unclear.)

Nothing on Earth begins in total darkness. (No exit signs? Is that even legal?) We see a ghostly figure float by. We hear spirits signaling their presence by pressing buzzers. And then the seance is cut short as Houdini turns on the lights and proceeds to explain how each effect was created: no spirits here.

By the time we get to the climactic seance. led by then-famous medium Mina (Margery) Crandon, we have heard many letters from Houdini to his wife, seen debates between Houdini and Doyle, and gotten a peek behind the scenes at the Crandons, all presented badly, with missing information, unsuccessful overlapping of dialogue, and a generally boring sloppiness.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Love and Information

Part sketch comedy, part minimalist drama(s), Caryl Churchill's Love and Information is unlike any show I've seen. Consisting of dozens of playlets, some barely a minute long, Love and Information amasses emotion, insight, and yearning bit by bit, line by line.

Top row: Irene Sofia Lucio, Noah Galvin
Bottom row: Karen Kandel, Adante Power, Zoë Winters,
James Waterston, Lucas Caleb Rooney
Photo: Joan Marcus

Take, for example, this section, called "Grief."
Are you sleeping?

I wake up early but that’s all right in the summer.


Oh enough. Dont fuss.

I’ve never had someone die.

I’m sorry, I’ve nothing to say. Nothing seems very interesting.

He must have meant everything to you.

Maybe. We’ll see.

That's it. That's the whole thing, verbatim. In the New York Theatre Workshop production (at the Minetta Lane), which is beautifully directed by James MacDonald, it's performed by a young woman sitting in a chair and an older women on the floor, folding and putting away sweaters. It is a masterpiece of concision--one of many!

Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Correspondent

A door opens and closes, and two people walk into an expensive but messy apartment. The man, Philip (Thomas Jay Ryan), is in his 50s, white, well-off--the owner of the apartment. The woman, Mirabel (Heather Alicia Simms), is African-American, much younger, wearing an old jacket and carrying a backpack. They clearly do not know each other well. It is hard to guess what their relationship might be. And it's even harder to accept what it is.

Thomas Jay Ryan
Photo: Joan Marcus
Mirable is dying, and she has agreed to take a message from Philip to his late wife, Charlotte, killed just a couple of weeks ago in an accident. Philip has unfinished business with Charlotte: he's desperate to know if she forgives him for the awful fight they had just before she died.

Philip pays Mirable. She leaves. And the next night a letter appears in his hallway. A letter from Charlotte, full of things only she could know.

The Correspondent, slyly written by Ken Urban and smartly directed by Stephen Brackett, proceeds to take Philip and the audience on an intriguing and twisted journey, full of unanswerable questions. For the audience, the questions come in two categories. First, what are the characters up to? Who, if anyone, is telling the truth? Second, what is Urban up to? Is he trying to be thought-provoking or to thrill--or both? Do these goals get in each other's way?

I suspect that the answers to these questions will differ from viewer to viewer.

For this viewer, The Correspondent, at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, doesn't hold up to much next-day analysis, but that's okay. It's a well-constructed, largely entertaining, and mostly satisfying 90 minutes, and I enjoyed taking the twisted journey.

(third row, press ticket)

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Book review: Song of Spider-Man: The Inside Story of the Most Controversial Musical in Broadway History.

No Broadway show in recent memory elicited a more potent blend of scapegoating and Schadenfreude than Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, which was conceived in 2002 by producer Tony Adams, scored by U2's Bono and The Edge, written by Glen Berger and Julie Taymor (and, later, sort of, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa), directed by Taymor (and, later, sort of, William Philip McKinley), and which opened at the Foxwoods Theater on 14 June 2011. Between its conception and its opening night, the show went through enough trials and tribulations to make Job look like a dude who just hit a brief bad patch.

The efforts it took to get Spider-Man to the stage are the stuff of Broadway legend. It took three years to work out the creative team's contracts, and just as they were finally all being signed in The Edge's New York apartment, Tony Adams suffered a massive stroke and died. No joke. While Edge was looking around for a pen. Seriously. Rather than reading this as an omen and running, screaming, from the project, Adams' producing partner, Alan Garfinkle, took over as lead producer, but he had no Broadway experience, and the production soon ran out of money. Bono's friend, the rock impresario Michael Cohl, also chose not to run screaming from the project; instead, he came in as lead producer in 2009, just in time for the economy to tank. More money for Spider-Man was nevertheless eventually raised, and rehearsals started up again.