Sunday, July 26, 2009

Avenue Q

Close to six years after it opened on Broadway, Avenue Q is in excellent shape. At a recent Saturday matinee, the extremely talented current cast performed with the energy, clarity, and commitment of an original cast in a brand-new musical with critics in the audience. (The current cast includes Robert McClure, Anika Larsen, Christian Anderson, and the ever-delightful Ann Harada.) The show itself holds up very well on repeated viewings: it is clever, heartfelt, and totally enjoyable. The controversy when Avenue Q beat out Wicked for the Tony was odd--it's a better show! Wicked has wonderful moments, and its size is fun, but it also has boring stretches and truly bad songs (particularly the wizard's). In my not-so-humble opinion, the Tony should have gone to Caroline, Or Change, but it makes sense to me that Avenue Q would beat out Wicked. Avenue Q has posted its closing notice for September 13th, which is sad.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

West Side Story

I always thought that I liked West Side Story, Leonard Bernstein's once-revolutionary retelling of Romeo and Juliet amongst the gangs of 1950s lower Manhattan. I relished the highly stylized film adaptation as a child, and understood how jarring the original stage production (which starred Chita Rivera, Carol Lawrence and the late Larry Kert--quite the team) was to Broadway audiences at the time. The new production at the Palace Theatre--directed by the original bookwriter, Arthur Laurents, with Joey McKneely recreating Jerome Robbins' landmark choreography--has a strong sterility to it, and I had the feeling that someone unfamiliar with the history of this musical would view this current staging and not understand why the show has become the classic that it is. Part of the reason has to do with some major pieces of miscasting--Matt Cavenaugh is far too old and vocally wrong for Tony, while Cody Green's Riff is about as threatening as a midwestern Sunday School teacher. Even Karen Olivo, who won the Tony Award for her performance as Anita, failed to convey her character's fiery spirit throughout the performance. Only Josefina Scaglione, an ideal Maria, found the perfect balance of beautiful singing and intense acting that this particular show requires. In her hands, the devastating final scene offered the only semblance of the kind of emotion that should permeate an entire production of this musical.

Saturday, July 18, 2009


Photo: Joan Marcus

What differentiates a period piece from a dated work? At first glance, quality might seem to be the main difference, but it’s not. For example, Getting My Act Together and Taking It on the Road is an excellent show but it is definitely dated. Lack of universality might lend itself to datedness, but the while Moon for the Misbegotten is not universal, it is also not dated. Perhaps being too contemporary is a problem, since some of the most cutting-edge pieces are the most quickly dated, as time blunts their edges. I suspect the answer to the period-vs.-dated question is probably a complex formula along the lines of
“breadth of the moment examined” + “deepness of the examination” - “level of reliance on contemporary signifiers (brands, TV shows, etc)” x “talent and insight of the creator(s)” + "number of years from the present time"
For example, Getting My Act Together examined a particular moment in feminism, and feminism‘s success is one of the main reasons it is now dated, yet A Doll‘s House isn‘t--perhaps because of its underlying themes of loyalty and trust. Also, the Ibsen play is over a hundred years old, allowing the audience distance, while Getting My Act Together is only 30 years old.

The new musical version of Vanities, adapted by Jack Heifner from his 1976 play, is dated. While the ins and outs of friendship and loyalty are universal, this particular story depends on now-cliché tropes that limit its story to a tiny time and place. The new version has nothing new to say, which might be okay if it said the old things better. The three actresses give it their all, and there are moments that work, but mostly it just isn’t particularly interesting. The songs add little to the mix.

Tin Pan Alley Rag

Photo: Joan Marcus

There's not much to say about Tin Pan Alley Rag, written by Mark Saltzman and directed by Stafford Armina. A fictional bio, it suffers from all of the weaknesses of the genre. In particular, there is no plot and no conflict, just Saltzman's idea of what Irving Berlin (Michael Therriault) and Scott Joplin (Michael Boatman) might have said to each other if they had ever met and if they shared the habit of occasionally speaking in blocks of awkward exposition. There are some pleasant moments, particularly when the songs take over, and the highlight is the surprisingly good-sized ensemble performing excerpts from Joplin's opera Treemonisha.

The Europeans

Photo: Stan Barouh

The reliable and important PTP/NYC is currently presenting an excellent production of Howard Barker's The Europeans in rep with Thérèse Raquin. This small epic (not as oxymoronic as it sounds) takes place in Vienna in the late 1600s, following a Turkish invasion and war between Christians and Muslims. Barker practices a "Theatre of Catastrophe" depicting human beings in their most extreme and elemental states following violence, war, and other terrible life-changing events. Well-directed by Richard Romagnoli, The Europeans clearly fits this description, as desperate and deeply damaged people try to find sanity and connection in the ruins of their former lives. (While there is much pain in this play, there is much humor and sexuality as well.) The excellent cast, led by Brent Langdon as the emperor and Aidan Sullivan as a woman who has experienced deep physical and psychological horrors, has only a weak link or two. Mark Evancho's scenery and Hallie Zieselman's evocative lighting manage the miracle of turning a small nondescript performance area into a convent, a palace, and anything else it needs to be, giving the production the sense of space(s) it needs and often delighting the eye.

West Side Story

Photo: Joan Marcus

The production of West Side Story currently playing at The Palace is a mixed bag at best. The concept of having some of the characters speak Spanish some of the time is excellent in theory, but distancing and distracting in practice. (When Light in the Piazza used Italian, it was more or less clear what the people were saying; here, even though I know West Side Story fairly well, it was not.) The casting of Matt Cavenaugh is an astonishing miscalculation; he is wrong for the part in looks, acting chops, and voice (he sounds like he's still playing a Kennedy, as he did in Gray Gardens). When he sings Maria, he seems unaware that Tony is bursting with love and joy. Josefina Scaglione as Maria is much better, but her performance is too small to carry to row T in the orchestra (I can't imagine what people in the sky-high Palace balcony think of her). Director Arthur Laurents' odd choices and sluggish pacing give the audience plenty of time to ponder just how flimsy the storyline is. Boy meets girl, boy kisses girl, boy woos girl, boy kills girl's brother, girl sleeps with boy anyway, boy dies. This supposedly major romance is little more than about a day and a half of hormones, and I don't believe that Anita would agree with Maria that "when love comes so strong, there is no right or wrong"--her boyfriend was just murdered after all. So, what does this West Side Story have going for it? The amazing score, of course, and the choreography, which remains fresh, evocative, and astonishingly beautiful over 50 years after its creation. In clips I've seen on TV, the original dancers come across as more perfectly in sync, but even without Jerome Robbins to abuse them to perfection, the current dancers are still quite good. The scenery (James Youmans) and lighting (Howell Binkley) are beautiful. And Karen Olivo, in her Tony Award-winning turn as Anita, brings energy, charisma, and sheer talent to the show. One final complaint: The sound was uneven, with much of the orchestra coming across indistinct and electronic. Also, remember when you used to be able to tell who was speaking? Well, maybe you don't--you may well be too young.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Tin Pan Alley Rag

photo: Joan Marcus

The situation, which has "The King of Ragtime" Scott Joplin paying an initially desperate but ultimately inspirational visit to songsmith Irving Berlin, is contrived and the dialogue is often clunky. (Here's one groaner: "Maybe you can turn that Tin Pan Alley tin into something greater than gold!") Yet, when he's not heavy-handedly making the case for art over commerce, playwright Mark Saltzman is on to a theme that is hard to resist: art lives longer than the artist. I got a bit misty-eyed at the moment when the play makes clear that Joplin's opera Treemonisha, rejected in the composer's lifetime, finally got its due; I wasn't the only one, judging from the chorus of sniffles all around me. The play's essential argument, that Berlin wasn't a serious artist because he worked within the confines of the marketplace, rings false; it's rather like saying that Hitchcock wasn't a serious filmmaker because he worked in the studio system. Whenever we hear one of Berlin's tunes the man's genius is evident. The play is packed with Joplin rags and Berlin songs, a not inconsiderable pleasure, and the lead actors are hugely engaging. Michael Boatman brings an almost regal dignity to Joplin, as if the strength of the composer's artistic vision has lifted him to a higher consciousness. Michael Therriault brings a gentleness and a likability to flesh out Berlin who, on the page, often comes close to being cold and one-note.


I caught an understudy-heavy performance of the Grease national tour in Philadelphia and was surprised to find it much more enjoyable than the recent Broadway revival, where the actors seemed forbidden to connect to their crotches. I still mourn the fun, slightly raunchy slice of nostalgia that the show used to be before the phenomenon of the movie - the revised, oppressively "family friendly" book wastes time shoehorning in songs from the movie, and the further the 1950's recede the more the characters are typically played like types rather than like people - but at least the guys I saw in the tour (Mark Raumaker as Kenickie, and David Ruffin as Danny) generated some genuine oool. Other cast stand-outs were Bridie Carroll and Will Blum (as Jan and Roger respectively) and Brian Crum who, as Doody, sings flawlessly and dances like it's opening night. Sorry to say that Taylor Hicks, doing not only his one number as Teen Angel but also, after curtain call, something from his new CD (on sale in the lobby, of course) looked bored out of his wits.

Thursday, July 16, 2009


Photo: Kalli Newman
The title character of Lavaman, Casey Wimpee's literally visceral new play, is an animated monster created by Arnie (Michael Mason) for his comic book—or, as he insists, "graphic novel." The live action is interspersed with a number of amusing Lavaman animations, but the one it opens with is the most telling: Lavaman's cartoon bout of painful, multicolored flatulence and diarrhea turns out to presage the play's logorrhea. Told in a series of flashbacks, the story zeroes in on the events leading up to the protracted, violent end of one of the story's three former punk rockers. But unlike the songs the characters listen to and talk about, the play lacks a hook, for all its vehement verbosity and claustrophobic fury. In trying so hard to be provocative, this much too long effort ends up provoking only exhaustion and a mild nausea. Read the full review.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Next Fall

Photo: Francesco Carrrozzini

Writing a play of ideas that features believable characters seems to be one of the more difficult challenges in playwrighting. All too often, the ideas are presented didactically and the characters are reduced to wind-up points of view. In Next Fall, Geoffrey Nauffts manages to avoid these pitfalls, examining a fascinating array of ideas (religion, homophobia, family) through the depiction of authentic complicated people dealing with love, sex, and loss. At the beginning of Next Fall, a few people sit in a hospital waiting room in varying states of stress and fear. As others join them, their relationships to each other--and to the hospitalized person--gradually become clear to us, but not necessarily to each other. Flashbacks introduce us to the central characters--a gay couple composed of a young religious Christian who is not out to his parents and an older atheist who has little patience for closets. Naufft and director Sheryl Kaller are remarkably even-handed in their presentation of the various personalities, allowing each deep humanity and labeling no one as hero or villain. The excellent performances by, in particular, Patrick Breen and Cotter Smith, reveal the characters in all the flawed beauty of real people.


The Kiss

Photo: David Anthony

Twisted is an evening of five short and often funny one-acts. In Matt Hanf's Teddy Knows Too Much, the most substantial and ambitious of the plays, the hefty Peter Aguero hilariously deadpans the role of three-year-old Billy, whose toys—a plush bear, a Dick Cheney mask, a rubber duckie—are his only confidantes. The only way he can fight back against his comically insensitive parents is through ever-intensifying mischief. A garden shears, lots of pastries, and a tragicomically misunderstood Salome (the droll Lindsay Beecher) highlight the skit-like pieces that follow. Unfortunately the evening closes with its weakest entry, but overall it's a diverting anthology. Read the full review.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Thérèse Raquin

Photo: Stan Barouh

A woman sits and stares. She is trying to see the river, she explains. We quickly realize that what she is trying to see is something, anything, other than the unexciting life in which she feels trapped. Her cousin, then husband, Camille is sweet but ineffectual. Her aunt is kind but boring. Thérèse feels buried alive. And then she meets Laurent--dashing and sexy Laurent. Based on Emile Zola's novel, Thérèse Raquin combines the sexuality of a potboiler, the eeriness of an Edgar Allan Poe story, and the morality of an old movie, sometimes movingly and sometimes awkwardly. In the small Atlantic 2 theatre, the audience is intimately involved with the dreams, nightmares, and fervid couplings of Thérèse and Laurent. Sometimes Jim Petosa's staging seems hokey, but often it is vividly evocative and emotional. In the second act in particular, the inventive, almost-over-the-top direction uses simple yet intense theatricality to pull the audience into the story. Lily Balsen as Thérèse is always fascinating if occasionally overwrought, and her amazing looks (Frieda Kahlo meets Lena Olin) bring much to her portrayal. Scott Janes is attractive and smoothly charming. Willie Orbison comes across as being as much in love with Laurent as he is with Therese. This is an interesting approach, but it could have and should have been more subtly handled. Overall, it is wonderful that this production of Thérèse Raquin exists. How lucky we theatre-goers are that incredibly talented people are willing to work their butts off for little or no money and little or no acclaim, giving us intense, exhausting, often exhilarating performances for the sheer love of doing theatre.

Perfect Wedding

Photo: Sun Productions, Inc.

No one does bedroom farce like the British, and a fine example just blustered onto the New York stage with the Vital Theatre Company's sharp new production of Robin Hawdon's Perfect Wedding. Bill (the excellent, elastic-faced Matt Johnson) wakes up on his wedding morning in the hotel's bridal suite with a naked woman he doesn't know. Hilarity ensues, and a touching love story too. The effervescent Dayna Graber threatens to steal the show as the wisecracking, mint-popping hotel housekeeper who gets caught up in the proceedings. But Tom (Fabio Pires in a very promising Off-Broadway debut) distracts us with his finely tuned fury upon discovering that Bill's best man is by no means the only role he's destined to play in this careening plot. Teresa K. Pond's sure-handed direction shapes Hawdon's snappy dialogue, slapstick humor, and blurry maze of plot twists into a cheery evening of laughs and good feeling.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Thérèse Raquin

Photo/Stan Barouh

Neal Bell's brilliant adaptation of Émile Zola's 1867 novel Thérèse Raquin puts a stake through the heart of dry naturalism. With a sense of Ibsen's modernism, he focuses on the stark apathy Raquin feels toward marrying her cousin, Camille ("I can't be frightened to death; I'm already dead and this is hell"), which is all the better for showing her sexual awakening at the hands of the roguish Laurent. Adding to this is Jim Petosa's romantic direction, which finds clever ways to mix such morbidity with dashes of sweetness: ravenous passion, indeed. Much credit to the cast, too: as Raquin, Lily Balsen (like a younger, more innocent Helena Bonham Carter) is haunted by an actual ghost, but what moves us is the way she is haunted by genuine regret. It's a shame that Scott Janes isn't allowed such range, but his Laurent is nonetheless solid, as are the terrific turns of Willie Orbison (Camille) and Helen-Jean Arthur (Camille's mother), both of whom are sharpened by a different sort of passion: rage. It's easy to be poetic, but hard to justify such language, as Thérèse Raquin has done. That's easy to say, but not at all hard to believe for those who have seen it.

[Read on]