Monday, November 29, 2010
I don't know why the folks at Encores! felt a need to produce Bells Are Ringing, since the show had a Broadway revival less than ten years ago. But I'm glad they did, since their production was head-and-shoulders above that revival, being a delight from start to finish. Bells Are Ringing is not a masterpiece. In fact, it is deeply silly. But it is vintage, brilliant silliness, courtesy of Comden and Green and Jule Styne, with such wonderful songs as "The Party's Over" and "Just in Time." Kelli O'Hara may have lacked a level of zaniness, but she was lovely, and Will Chase did nicely as the leading man. Katherine Marshall's choreography and the wonderful dancers brought energy and excitement to the stage, and David Pittu and Judy Kaye provided first-class support. It was a treat to see the charming Encores! stalwart J.D. Webster do a solo turn.
I saw Stephen Sondheim interviewed twice in a week--once by Frank Rich (part of the Times Talk series) and once by Tony Kushner (part of the Public Forum). The Rich interview covered familiar ground, but Rich's questions were smart and insightful. The Kushner interview went hither and yon, to the great delight of the audience. Sondheim, in addition to his other talents, is a great raconteur and a fair mimic. His stories in the interviews included an imitation of Elaine Stritch calling for her lines when she had a prompter in A Little Night Music ("in the villa of the Baron . . . MARY!"); a riff on how Ethel Merman might have "danced" in the finale to Gypsy if Jerome Robbins had stuck to his original plan to end the show with a summation ballet; a tale of being (literally!) hissed in England because he had criticized Noel Coward's and W.S. Gilbert's lyric writing; and a paean to the joys of collaboration and rewriting. With Rich, Sondheim was laid-back and comfortable, and their friendship was evident. With Kushner, he was more playful and bantering, even a little competitive in a friendly way. Both evenings were wonderful, but I wish I could have joined them for drinks or dinner afterward and heard the stories Sondheim doesn't tell in public.
Saturday, November 27, 2010
photo: T. Charles Erickson
No one can fault John Guare for being ambitious. His play A Free Man of Color, which has been in gestation for over twenty years, represents not only two decades of work, but a sweeping amalgamation of 200 years of Euro-American history. In doing so, however--and especially in choosing to use restoration comedy as his framing device--Guare has offered his audience moments of beautiful clarity buried within an everest of pomp and circumstance. The main action is centered around the life of Jacques Cornet (Jeffrey Wright, brilliant as usual), the titular emancipated mulatto; unfortunately, the playwright seems unclear as to how the other aspects of the drama--which includes Thomas Jefferson and Touissant L'Ouverture, Napoleon and Josephine Bonaparte, and the melding of racial impropriety--fit into Cornet's journey towards self-discovery and a realization of the changing times. Wright gives a mammoth, herculean performance (I spent much of the performance imagining which Shakespearean heroes I'd love to see him play), and the supporting cast (featuring Mos Def, John McMartin, Paul Dano, and the wonderful newcomer Nicole Beharie) do uniformly fine work. Unfortunately, though, there is nothing that can be done to make Guare's divergent strands of plot coalesce. Like the world of opulence it portrays, the play is alluring but ultimately hollow.
(Seen at the matinee on November 26. TDF tickets; Orchestra Row F)
Friday, November 19, 2010
First, of course, there is the ugly anti-Semitism. Shylock, more frequently known as "The Jew," has spent his life being called "Jew cur" and other such lovely epithets. His anger has been simmering for years, and why shouldn't he require of Antonio a pound of flesh? Antonio has no problem taking a metaphysical, emotional pound or two from Shylock; even in the role of financial supplicant, Antonio harangues and criticizes Shylock. (If Antonio possessed even the most basic of good manners, the plot would not be set in motion.)
Then Shakespeare depicts Shylock as more upset at the loss of his ducats than of his daughter (though Shylock is arguably hiding the loss he cannot face by focusing on the loss he can). By the end of the play, Shakespeare has stripped Shylock of everything he loves and believes in. The bigoted, self-satisfied Antonio, on the other hand, gets a happy ending.
Continuing his choleric mood, Shakespeare has little use for love in this play. Portia, the brilliant, emotional Portia (who somehow manages to become a knowledgeable lawyer on the trip from Belmont to Venice), responds to her true love Bassanio by tricking him into betraying her. Even though she has seen him totally devastated, even though he has just almost lost his best friend Antonio to a gruesome death (for which he is at least somewhat responsible!), she uses her disguise to pressure and deceive him. Is she jealous of his love for his best friend? Possibly. Is she just upset and angry? Possibly. Is she merely manipulative by nature? Possibly. None of the options is anything but ugly.
And why would Nerissa then trick her great love as well? To show that true love is impossible? Or that men can't be trusted? Perhaps. And what of Jessica and Lorenzo? Did they ever love each other, really, for even a moment? The only true love in this play is that between the ne'er-do-well Bassanio and the arrogant Antonio.
The Merchant of Venice was initially termed a comedy, I guess because the romantic leads end up together and the non-Jews get to live happily ever after. At the performance I saw, the European gentleman standing next to me (three hours is a long time to stand, by the way), chortled uproariously as Shylock was forced to his knees to be baptized as a Christian. It was only self-control and theatre etiquette that stopped me from turning to him and demanding, "Just what exactly is funny?"
The current production, smoothly directed by Daniel Sullivan and extremely well-acted by Al Pacino, Lily Rabe, and the rest of the company, gives The Merchant of Venice as good a showing as I could imagine it receiving.
One last thing: as I looked at the orchestra section in front of me, I was astonished to realize that everyone there, every single person, had spend a minimum of $131.50 per ticket. Some probably spent over $200. Isn't that kind of . . . insane? And isn't it kind of disgusting that dinner and a Broadway show for a couple costs as much as the average yearly income in India? And who are the usurers when credit cards charge as much as 30% interest, legally? Who are the villains when banks push ridiculous mortgages and then take people's homes when the poor fools fall for the banks' dishonest sales pitches? What would Shakespeare think of today's attitudes toward money? What would Shylock?
Dostoevsky's grim novella is here blasted to unexpectedly brilliant life in a stage adaptation by Robert Woodruff and the amazing actor Bill Camp. The unnamed Man poses a test: "Is it possible to be perfectly candid with oneself?" Camp uses movement like a dancer, speaking chapter and verse with a raised arm or a tumble down the stairs. And he talks, and he talks, twistedly and unlikeably yet with massive force, for close to two hours. It's a stunning performance, fitted into a masterfully conceived staging enlivened by Peter Nigrini's projections. No, you don't need to have read the book. Yes, come prepared to be moved, even shaken. Like Büchner with the even-earlier Woyzeck, Dostoevsky thrusts a proto-modernist fist from the deep past into our modern-day world of freedom and relative plenty. Has the human condition fundamentally changed? Signs point to no.
Excerpted from Theater Review (NYC): Notes from Underground on Blogcritics. Also be sure to see Wendy Caster's review below.
Wednesday, November 17, 2010
Last March a few thousand people were lucky enough to experience the truly staggering Sondheim birthday celebration at the New York Philharmonic. Many who saw it (most?) judged it one of the most thrilling evenings they had ever spent in a theatre (I was one of those fortunate people). And now, through the miracle of modern technology, that amazing event can be revisited, over and over again, forever.
I was a tad nervous putting the disc in the DVD player. Could the recording possibly live up to my memory of the event? No. But yes. No, because live is live, and there is nothing like it. But yes, because the pictures and sound are clear and vivid, because the beauty of the performances has been captured, and because I am so grateful that this wonderful record of this wonderful evening exists! I am old enough to remember life before DVDs, before video recordings, before cable. I remember setting my alarm clock for two in the morning to catch a show or movie that might never be on again. I remember trying to memorize live performances, knowing that there might not even be an album. I do not take this DVD for granted.
If forced at gunpoint to identify my favorite performances, I might be able to get it down to a handful:
- Marin Mazzie: "Losing My Mind."
- John McMartin: "The Road You Didn't Take."
- Bernadette Peters: "Not a Day Goes By."
- Mandy Patinkin: "Finishing the Hat."
- Scores of Broadway performers: "Sunday."
Of course, the event wasn't, and the DVD isn't, perfect. Producer-director-writer Lonnie Price, as he always does, littered the show with juvenile, downright-painful gags and running "jokes." And some of his editing choices are flat-out annoying, as when he cuts to the orchestra during "Losing My Mind," a delicate song of subtle build during which Mazzie's nonsinging moments are as important as her singing ones. Or when he interrupts the flow of the dancing in "America" with odd and awkward and all-too-frequent cuts. But if Price's weaknesses are the price (pun unintended?) of getting to enjoy an event and a DVD this wonderful, they are a small enough price (hmm) to pay.
Thanks are owed to producers Ellen M. Krass Productions and Thirteen, in association with WNET.org, for giving us this precious DVD. It would be nice if there were some extras, but, really, it's a treasure.
Oh, and I did I mention that that Sondheim guy is brilliant?
Joan Collins is a force to be reckoned with. She turned down Darryl Zanuck's (staggeringly coarse) sexual advances, even though she knew she might be risking her career. She responded to a Joan Crawford snub by mentioning that Collins' mother was such a Crawford fan that she named Joan after her. When her then-husband lost his job, she went back to performing to support the family (they had a total of six children), starring in such classics as The Stud and The Bitch. She wore her hair with bangs and did so many nude scenes that Oscar Levant commented that the only part of her he hadn't seen was her forehead. Oh, and her first husband tried to sell her to a sheik.
These are only some of the many stories that the effervescent Collins shares in her night of reminiscences at Feinstein's at the Regency. Still glamorous in her late 70s (and married to a man in his 40s), she is entertaining and in her own way a role model: she began fashioning her life to her own design in the days when women were supposed to force themselves into society's pre-assigned template, and she still lives life on her own terms.
On Tuesday Collins clearly had opening night jitters, and she would do well to tell her stories rather than act them. She also might get more laughs by underplaying rather than overplaying her punch lines. But, hey, she's Joan Collins. And if you're a fan, you'll have a great time.
Tuesday, November 16, 2010
Stephen Jeffreys' comedy-drama is a delicious throwback to Restoration times. With Cromwellian Puritanism a thing of the past, the return of the monarchy was an optimal time for an omnisexual, charismatic, downright outrageous character like John Wilmot, Second Earl of Rochester, to barrel into the history books. Eric Tucker fleetly directs a nimble cast of well-drawn characters, vividly evoking the scramble that goes on backstage at a theater, the clash of wits at the public house, and carefree rutting in a dark prostitutes' alley.
Patricia Duran is wonderful as a proto-feminist Mrs. Barry; Tom O'Keefe is superbly in-the-moment in the dual roles of Rochester's wry friend Charles Sackville and the smug star actor Harry Harris; and the fine Libby Arnold as the prostitute Jane has a lovely scene battling an annoying inclination to actually care about her client the Earl. The production's flaw arises from the Earl's complexity. Not having seen the play before—not even the movie version with Johnny Depp—I can't say how others have approached the lead role, but Joseph W. Rodriguez fails to entirely convince, because his Rochester lacks the charm the real Earl must have oozed.
The same cannot be said of the overall production. Rambunctious and clever, it has many virtues. Above all, the play transports us to a lofty realm of wit and ribaldry very few modern playwrights even attempt,
Excerpted from Theater Review (NYC): The Libertine on Blogcritics.
Sunday, November 14, 2010
As The Amoralists' production of Ghosts in the Cottonwoods begins, we see Bean Scully sucking venom out of her son Pointer's leech bites. He is 18 years old and nude, and author-director Adam Rapp has served us vivid notice that this is no ordinary mother-son relationship. Bean's treatment of Pointer occupies an uncomfortable area somewhere between seduction and abuse, and she disparages any chance of romance or improving himself that Pointer may aspire to.
Living in the backwoods, the Scullys have no TV set and no phone, and they supply their own electricity thru a hand-cranked generator. Their one-room house is rickety and cobbled together. It contains a large noose to anchor the building to a tree stump during mud slides.
Tonight Bean and Pointer are waiting for Bean's older son Jeff to come home; Jeff has broken out of prison after six years. But before he arrives, the Scullys receive two unexpected visitors: a repo man with a bullet wound and a young woman with a suitcase. While Ghosts in the Cottonwoods has some funny moments, it is generally a story of loss, violence, grudges, and revenge. The characters cannot communicate, although they try everything from attempting to learn how to read to rapping to clicking to book-writing to literally eating their words. The three Scullys are deeply damaged, and they share a willingness to kill if they feel it is necessary.
Ghosts in the Cottonwoods is deeply disturbing. However, it is extremely well-written, -directed, and -acted; consistently interesting; and sometimes fascinating. The always-brilliant Sarah Lemp shines as Bean, and the other actors (Nick Lawson, William Apps, Mandy Nicole Moore, James Kautz, and Matthew Pilieci) are also excellent. (Lawson, however, is frequently difficult to understand.)
It is a theatre season of prodigious feats of memory. Mark Rylance in La Bete. Belle Caplis is Balm in Gilead. Bill Camp in Notes From Underground. And now Michael Shannon in Craig Wright's Mistakes Were Made (directed by Dexter Bullard). Shannon plays a theatrical producer who is juggling a moody movie star, a stubborn playwright, an unraveling business venture, and deep personal problems, all via an office phone that never stops ringing. Shannon is onstage alone for virtually the entire 90 minutes, yelling, cajoling, and pleading into the phone; chatting with his obese fish; and periodically melting down. Mistakes Were Made is generally lightweight, with occasional moments of extreme tone-deafness, as when a distant tragedy only matters to the extent that it affects the producer. However, there is much that is funny here, and Shannon's multifaceted, beautifully timed performance is well worth seeing. (Designer Tom Burch's set is a treat--make sure to check out the posters of the producer's previous shows, including one for Roseanne Barr and Erik Estrada in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.)
"I am a sick man. I am a wicked man. An unattractive man. I think my liver hurts." With these classic opening lines of Dostoevsky's Notes From Underground, actor and co-adapter Bill Camp invites us into the rotting psyche of a character known only as "the man," who has decided to share with us his deepest thoughts and even the secrets he keeps from himself. The man has not always lived underground. In his twenties he was in the civil service, but already his paranoia, hunger for humiliation, hopelessness, and cynicism had set in. At his office, he would wonder, "Why does no one except me think that people look at him with loathing?"
The man explains that he isn't even good at being wicked; he is merely possessed by a compulsive desire to ruin anything that might be beautiful, lofty, or loving. It's not a disease, he thinks, but his "normal condition." It's interesting to spend time with Doestoevsky's man in an era of psychiatry and psychoactive medications. Would Prozac help him? Lithium? Or is he genuinely hateful and ugly just because he is genuinely hateful and ugly? The man is in some ways emblematic of torturers and rapists, yet in other ways, he is merely a pathetic--and dangerous--loser. Does he have free will? Does anyone?
Watching the play was a disjointed experience for this particular playgoer. On one hand, it was unpleasant and grueling, including scenes of almost unbearable violence. On the other, it was thrilling to watch Bill Camp's tour de force as the man, talking to the audience for close to two hours with few breaks. Even at the man's worst, Camp is never less than compelling. And, as a deeply unfortunate prostitute, Merritt Janson is excellent, heartbreaking, and brave/foolish. (I am not sure how she does her performance without needing medical care.) The adaptation by Camp and director Robert Woodruff ranges from fascinating to boring and back again; the direction is clear and imaginative. I deeply disliked this show while I was watching it, but my respect for it grows and grows the more I think about it. And I do think about it.
Thursday, November 11, 2010
In the Wake. I only saw the first act of In the Wake so I can't actually review it. However, I am astonished that a quite a few critics found the characters compelling and the storyline enthralling. I found the characters annoying and the storyline unconvincing. I guess this is a classic case of "to each her own."
Lucky to Be Me: The Music of Leonard Bernstein. This tribute to Leonard Bernstein was wildly uneven, with highlights provided by Donna Murphy, Victoria Clark, and Kelli O'Hara. The lowlight? The sound was terrible. Sitting first-row-center orchestra, I could barely hear many of the singers, even when they were miked.
Middletown. I saw this at an early preview and had a mixed response to it. Author Will Eno seems to be going for an Our Town sort of vibe, but more complex, and the play only works sometimes. However, while I never felt completely involved, the show has stayed with me.
I've read the reviews, and it's hard to argue with them. Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown is indeed sloppy, uneven, and unfocused. The score by David Yazbek is only amiable. The book by Jeffrey Lane is a pale copy of the movie. The production adds up to much ado about . . . not much.
Just I thing: I really enjoyed it.
Women on the Verge zips from scene to scene and song to song, the wind in its metaphysical hair. Most of the songs entertain at least a little, and some quite a lot. Director Bartlett Sher, as always, brings every inch of the stage to life, and with the ever-changing projections, Women on the Verge feels like a unusual and invigorating amusement park ride. Patti LuPone shines in a supporting role, bringing humor and pathos to the poor, abandoned, crazy wife she plays, and she nails her solo, "Invisible." Laura Benanti is adorable, running on the balls of her feet from scene to scene, not too bright but completely good-hearted. Brian Stokes Mitchell is underutilized, but it's always a pleasure to hear his voice--and looking at him doesn't hurt either. Justin Guarini plays the befuddled son with the perfect amount of befuddlement. On the other hand, Sherie Rene Scott, in the lead role, doesn't register--rather than coming across as the calm eye of the storm, she seems disengaged, bringing little energy to her songs and less to her acting.
Overall, Women on the Verge is so uneven, and shows so much promise, that it's surprising opening night wasn't delayed a couple of weeks. There is a solid show in there, and I believe that Sher, Lane, and Yazbek would have found it. Instead, the Women on the Verge that did open is a mess.
I hope I get to see it again.
Wednesday, November 10, 2010
The people at the T. Schreiber Theatre are doing something amazing over on 26th Street. In their production of Lanford Wilson's Balm in Gilead, on the seventh floor of a nondescript office building, they are vividly recreating a dive diner from the 1960s, with its sad and striving denizens. The production is so intimate and accurate that being in the audience feels like sitting in a booth in the corner, watching the world go by. The direction by Peter Jenson is smart, and the ensemble acting is excellent. Among the standouts, Belle Caplis, full of sad astonishment at how her life has turned out, nails her long (15 minutes?) monologue. And Jill Bianchini, as the smart hooker with more of a heart than she wants to have, gives a master class in brilliant listening.
But the play is a bit of a problem. In providing this slice of life, Wilson opts for conversations that trail off, people wandering in and out, overlapping dialogue, and a minimal plot. There are times that the show works brilliantly, but it also has many frustrating and boring moments (kind of like life, huh?). Overall, however, it's an impressive, sometimes heartbreaking piece of work, and seeing it in a small theatre, with its cast of 30 or so performers, is a real treat.
Sunday, November 07, 2010
The great thing about art is that it stays with us long after its creators are gone. Through the great characters of Saint Joan—among them the Inquisitor, the warrior Dunois (the Bastard of Orléans), and above all the Maid herself—George Bernard Shaw, like a time-hopping Dr. Who, speaks through the centuries backwards and forwards about nationalism, church and state, the place of women, and so on, all issues that continue to galvanize cultures around the world.
Excerpted from Theater Review (NYC): Saint Joan on Blogcritics.
Tuesday, November 02, 2010
Sing-along Sound of Music: There were about 20 of us in the movie theatre. Richard Rodgers’ music is a pleasure to sing. Oscar Hammerstein II lyrics are uneven and repetitive (didn’t Maria have any other favorite things?). Julie Andrews is lovely and can almost act. Christopher Plummer can definitely act, but doesn’t always bother to. The Baroness is given a bum deal, with even her own hairdo against her. I love this movie. A good time was had by all.
Off-Broadway Close Up: If you’re not aware of the wonderful theatre-oriented evenings at Merkin Hall, it’s time to check them out. (Coming up next is All The Things You Are, a tribute to Jerome Kern with Rebecca Luker and Kate Baldwin.) The most recent evening, Off-Broadway Close Up, included songs from Forbidden Broadway, performed by their originators; “Die, Vampire, Die,” from [tos], with the original cast; Carol Demas doing a sad and lovely version of “Best Friend” from Getting My Act Together; and the insanely energetic, generously talented Jason Robinson doing a medley of Off-Broadway songs.
Nothing Like a Dame: The yearly benefits for the Phyllis Newman Women’s Health Initiative always have much to offer, and this year—a tribute to Comden and Green—was no exception. For me the highlights were Polly Bergen singing “The Party’s Over,” Victoria Clark singing a song from A Doll’s Life, Nancy Opel’s manic “If You Haven't But You Did,” everything Marc Kudish did, Mario Cantone, and Jessica Molaskey and John Pizzarelli. A major problem: the show was grossly overmiked in a small theatre in which the bulk of the performers didn’t need mikes at all.