Monday, August 29, 2011

Side Show

One of the best things about seeing a musical Off-Off-Broadway is hearing unmiked voices--when you can hear them. Unfortunately, only some of the cast members in the Sweet&Tart-Art of War production of Side Show (currently playing at the Secret Theatre in Long Island City) are consistently audible. It doesn't help that the band is behind the audience and often conflicts with, rather than works with, the performers. No matter how well a show is directed and how talented the people involved are, if you can't hear, it's all wasted.

Side Show is the fictionalized story of the Hilton sisters, conjoined twins who went from side shows to vaudeville to movies to working in a market as a cashier-bagger team. This is the third Side Show I've seen; the first two were the Broadway and  the Gallery Players versions. I've never liked the recitative, but this time around it struck me how much it damages the show by slowing down all conversations and limiting the performers' ability to act their lines. Someone I know always says, "Don't sing 'Pass the butter,'" and I have to agree. On the other hand, I was also struck by the show's many strengths, including frequently excellent music and lyrics and the compelling nature of the Hilton sisters' situation.

Director Brad Caswell made some excellent and interesting choices, particularly in the scenes where the sisters are still working in the side show. I think he made a mistake casting the twins, however: Nikki Van Cassele would have made a better Daisy and Erin Krom would have made a better Violet. Krom manages to rise above the miscasting with a heartfelt performance, while Cassele seems always to be straining to hold her energy in. Their voices also could have been better matched. I can't say much about Joshua Dixon's performance, as I could only hear about 10% of it, but it seemed like he might have been reasonably good as Terry, the man who gets the sisters into vaudeville. Alex Herrara has an interesting energy as Buddy, the man who teaches the sisters to sing and dance, and he looks right for the period, but he too was difficult to understand. Ken Bolander perhaps overacts as the creepy owner of the side show, but his presence and voice fill the space, for which I was grateful.

Costume designer Gary Lizardo did a good job on what must have been a small budget, but I wish he had given the rest of the side show denizens more character-driven clothing as he did with the Bearded Lady.  I'm not sure how much of Jenn Gartner's lighting design I saw, as it was an early performance and I suspect many cues were mishandled. Venita McLemore's choreography was enjoyable. The exhibit on the Hilton sisters in the lobby, created by Alyssa Van Gorder, did a good job of setting the mood and was fascinating to boot.

(I must mention that I only saw the first act. If I had been able to hear, I would have gladly stayed, but under the circumstances it seemed wiser to go home and buy water and canned food for the hurricane.) 

(press tix; 4th row center--right in front of the band, which was probably part of the problem)

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

FRINGE: Whale Song, or: Learning to Live With Mobyphobia

There are plenty of theater companies out there that produce plays about women who have lost their fathers: grief is a popular topic. But there are few that are willing to risk pursuing such a story from a different angle -- through, say, a whale-sized metaphor -- and it's a genuine pleasure to see Dreamscape Theatre (as they did for The Burning Cities Project) and artistic director Brad Raimondo behind the wheel of Claire Kiechel's Whale Song, or: Learning to Live with Mobyphobia. Maya (Hollis Witherspoon) reacts to the possible suicide of her father, James (Gavin Starr Kendall), by summoning a whale into the Hudson River; unable to confront it, she spends her days teaching her first-grade students all about the etymology of "orca" and the inevitability of death, and her nights sheltered in her apartment, listening to an increasingly surreal reporter (Rosie Sowa) who begins to address her directly.

The script's a bit unpolished, particularly with the inclusion of Shep, the "motherfucking" drummer (Jordan Douglas Smith), though that's to be expected, given that Maya hires him as a literal distraction. Maya's boyfriend, Mark (Ryan Feyk), also needs to be less of a pushover -- similar to the way Maya's sister, Sarah (Siri Hellerman), is the voice of reason; Witherspoon's a solid actress, but she's forced to self-generate much her angst. That said, Kiechel nails the ending, as we learn exactly why Maya hates whales so much -- it involves another death in the family -- and why she's so obsessed with stories and significance. In addition, Raimondo's direction is spot on, from the way Maya's thoughts are manifested in shipping boxes that gradually overflow throughout her apartment to the staging of the news segments, which is done behind Maya, so that it looks as if we are seeing her thoughts, rather than what's actually on TV. Credit's also due to Sam Kusnetz's sound design: given that the theme of the play is about finding meaning where you look for it, it helps to have some genuine whale songs echoing through the La MaMa space.

FRINGE: Paper Cut

At one point, however long ago, you were a kid, and when you were, you probably spent some time playing with toys, making up intricate stories with which the various characters might interact. (If you were never a child, pick up Toy Story and see what you missed out on.) That's very much the sort of theater that Yael Rasooly's interested in making, a semi-solipsistic art that she calls "paper and object theater," a large part of which involves her manipulation of photographs, cut-out paper figures, pop-up books, and various other "flat" puppetry, all while providing the sort of exaggerated voice-over that was all the rage in black-and-white "classic" dramas. The paper-thin plot's beside the point -- Ms. Dolores is a stressed-out, solitary secretary who pines for her boss, even as he obliviously asks her to transcribe love letters to other women -- but it justifies Rasooly's flights of fantasy: creative homages to both over-the-top romances and, as her paranoia invades, Hitchcock. (In terms of inventiveness, it's a bit like a one-woman version of The 39 Steps.) Boiled down to its most simple elements, Paper Cut is a bit one-dimensional, but when she folds together a series of fast-paced accents and title cards to simulate a whirlwind honeymoon, or when she gamely attempt to sing through a bundle of quick-cut love songs (needle skips and all), one can only marvel at her theatrical origami.


Ryan Worsing, Charlotte d'Amboise,
and Michael Cusumano
Jeremy Daniel)

With its 6138th performance on August 22, Chicago became the fourth longest running show in Broadway history.  I saw it the previous week at performance number 6132 (estimated). And you know what? It's in great shape.

I have seen Chicago a dozen times or so, thanks mostly to the rush tickets that were available when it was still at the Shubert. I have seen Bebe Neuwirth, Ute Lemper, Deidre Goodwin, Caroline O'Connor, Jasmine Guy, Ruthie Henshall, and Nancy Hess as Velma. I have seen Charlotte d'Amboise, Belle Callaway, Sandy Duncan, Nana Visitor, and Marilu Henner as Roxie. I have seen a slew of Billy Flynns and Mama Mortons and Little Mary Sunshines. (If you want to see the IBDB list of replacements, click here.) And with all of these viewings and all of these performers, the show was never less than entertaining. Frequently, it was superb.

In some ways, there are two versions of Chicago: the star-powered version and the Broadway-stalwart version. Each has its charms, and when you get both (e.g., when Bebe Neuwirth was in it), it's damn close to theatrical nirvana.

The current Chicago is a Broadway-stalwart incarnation. The names Charlotte d'Amboise (Roxie) and Nikka Graff Lanzarone (Velma) may not sell tickets, but the people attached to them are first class performers, able to dance, sing, act, and nail their laugh lines. Lanzarone, not yet 30, is a stalwart-in-training. As Velma, she battles the ghosts of Neuwirth and Lemper et al, and she lacks their individuality and focus. But she's solid, and her unique looks and accomplished dancing do well by the part.

d'Amboise is flat-out wonderful. This was probably the fourth time I've seen her, and she's better than ever. Although it was a one-third-empty matinee, she brought her full performance. You would think it was the first time that Roxie had ever realized that she might be hanged, even though d'Amboise has played the part thousands (!) of times. d'Amboise's acting has actually improved over the years, and she has tightened her version of the "Roxie" number beautifully. Her dancing remains astonishing. In "Me and My Baby" she seems barely to skim the stage, and in "We Both Reached for the Gun" she is so puppet-like that you could easily believe that she has no joints. (That she does this all eight times a week at the age of 47 is truly impressive.)

Carol Woods is a kick-ass Mama Morton (of course!), and Christopher Sieber makes a charming Billy. (His long note on "We Both Reached for the Gun" was so astonishing that my friend suggested that it was supplemented with a recording. I suppose that is possible, perhaps even likely, but it would be disappointing.) The supporting performers--all those staggeringly attractive dancers with their staggeringly perfect bodies--remain energetic and engaged. The (somewhat-diminished) orchestra is also still giving the show their all, and as the audience leaves they become quite playful.

The biggest compliment I can pay Chicago is this: every time I have seen it, my heart has sunk when Roxie sings, "It's good--isn't it?" because I know the show is coming to its end. And every time it ends, I'd gladly sit there and see the whole thing again.

(free tickets; 4th row mezz first act; 1st row extreme side orchestra second act)

Monday, August 22, 2011

Judy Gold takes Avenue Q to Jerusalem for a Holiday

Okay, not really. Having been on a work-schedule imposed hiatus from the theatre, I managed to get to a few things in a cluster. 

The Judy Show: My Life as a Sitcom

Judy Gold is a big old lesbian who wants a sitcom. That isn't disparaging. She reminds you of these obvious facts repeatedly over the course of an hour and a half. These facts are obvious because I'm sighted. The show itself is equally obvious: sing-along theme songs, occasionally rewritten to mirror Judy's life as resume, an obsessive knowledge of the form, fantasies of growing up Brady/Partridge/fill-in-the-blank. Sadly, the only cliche she doesn't use is wrapping the damn thing up in 22 minutes. Judy is a solid joke-teller and has enough ugly faces to stop a wall of clocks, all funny. The show is part biography, part audition. Her biography, as honestly told as it no doubt is, is farily generic outside the Bible Belt. The audition is cute but possibly indicative of why The Judy Show is off Broadway and not on Bravo. I would recommend it only for the die-hard Judy fan or those for whom any 6'3" lesbian will do.

Avenue Q

Avenue Q is one of my favorite Broadway musicals of all time. I won't go into the reasons why beyond the fact that it is well-written, witty, skewering, delightful fun. I hadn't seen it in the smaller New World Stages but wasn't worried about how it would transfer. I was more worried about the cast. Adam Kantor, as Princeton/Rod, doesn't have the aw-shucks charm I've enjoyed previously. He's a fine vocalist, though thin and timid in the upper range. He was completely likeable and charming, better as Princeton than Rod. Veronica Kuehn, as Kate Monster/Lucy/Others, was a delight--fine voiced and the kind of underdog spirit that makes you root for her, but versatile enough to handle Lucy's looseness. The quibble with both actors is that they are simply actors holding puppets whereas previous casts have used the puppets as extensions of themselves, charming mirrors--none more powerfully than originals, John Tartaglia and Stephanie D'Abruzzo. Rob Morrison as Nicky/Trekkie Monster/Bear/Others has a completely different creepy, child-molester vibe than Rick Lyon did, but he is equally effective. The thing that prevented this production from being great was Gary Coleman. In six outings every actor I've seen play Gary, save the original, the brilliant Natalie Venetia-Belcon, has sucked and dragged the show down. How hard is it to find an African-American actress in New York City who can blow the roof off with her voice and say "What you talkin 'bout"? Apparently, they can't get taxis either because, somehow, they're missing the auditions. The show is so strong, though, that it is worth a visit. Even the role of Gary Coleman is so well-written that a talent vaccuum can merely deflate it, not destroy it completely.


Jerusalem has come and gone and I don't get it. The fuss that is. To be fair, part of the reason I may not have gotten it is because I only understood about 30 percent of what came out of their mouths. Apparently, they can't afford consonants in this trailer park. Mark Rylance was great, give him a Tony, no complaints here; but I appreciated his performance in La Bete more. Oddly enough, I found him more believable in a farce. I've spent some time around trailers (murdering cousins on welfare--you know the sort) and am amazed how similar the trash looks in the UK. Maybe it's my trailered history that makes me unsympathetic to lazy, drug dealing/taking malcontents regardless of their story-telling spell-bindery. Maybe growing up around similar ilks, who live their dreams only in chemically-induced paralysis and live their lives in chemically-induced violence, makes me unmoveable when the drama of art imitating life is so comparatively undramatic. Regardless, I couldn't for the life of me tell you what the difference between scene one and scene two were from a theatrical standpoint--same lukewarm mush, different spoon. It was incredibly disappointing not to love the show. I so wanted to.

Death Takes a Holiday

Death Takes a Holiday should probably be called Maury Yeston Takes a Holiday. He wrote two original melodies and reworked two from other shows (Love Can't Happen from Grand Hotel and Unusual Way from Nine) then repeated them over and over and called it a score. He wrote the lyrics using Boggle, children's edition. Every song was exposition that exposed nothing. A song about the death of a son spent 64 bars describing a rose (okay, maybe only 32). Not that it mattered because this could-have-been-heart-breaking idea of a song was entrusted to Rebecca Luker. She was so wooden and stiff that she would have cried splinters had she bothered to show a single emotion. The director did no one any favors. Doug Hughes ended nearly every song down front, facing forward, arms raised, cheesy smile, button on the last note implied. The rest of the cast was solid enough, although I wouldn't have minded if Max von Essen had shown a second emotion--borrow one from Duchess Lamberti, she's not using any. Jill Paice, as Grazia, and Kevin Earley, as Death, are superb. She gets the unfortunate chore of making love at first sight believable and sustainable and he gets the unfortunate chore of being the cause. I felt fortunate to watch them work. I almost wanted to die. (When they weren't on stage, I really wanted to die.) I wish I could have visited them at a more entertaining vacation spot.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011


Gershwin Hotel

After watching the Amoralist production of HotelMotel, a pair of one-acts on site at the Gershwin Hotel, I was left with two questions. For Pink Knees on Pale Skin, written and directed by Amoralist Derek Ahonen, the question was: When does theatre tip over into voyeurism and porn? For Animals and Plants, written and directed by Adam Rapp, the question was: Will male playwrights ever get bored of writing about stupid men doing stupid things? 

[spoilers abound] 

Pink Knees is the story of two couples seeking "orgy therapy" to save their marriages. The Wyatts' problem is the husband's infidelity. The Williams' problem is the wife's anorgasmia. The therapist's problem is, "Thereʼs this huge empty part of me that I donʼt know how to fill." The play's problem is that neither the characters nor the situation nor the denouement are convincing.

James Kautz, Sarah Lemp
(photo: Monica Simoes)

I assume that Pink Knees is at least partially satire, but Ahonen doesn't understand sexuality sufficiently to pull it off. For example, the therapist provides the anorgasmic woman with an instant cure, and all the characters are unaware that there are other forms of foreplay than oral sex. The show raises all sorts of issues and then drops them: homosexuality, homophobia, racism, sadomasochism, incest, etc. Many lines are awkward requests for laughs--for example, "I don't teach chimps to have orgies, that's Jane Goodall's job," which is wrong in so many ways that I wouldn't know where to begin.

Perhaps the most surprising fault of the show is that it cops out. For all its bluster, it is ultimately conservative in its values. The promised orgy never occurs, and the happy endings are all monogamous. When one couple does make love, there is an odd combination of purience--in the small hotel-room setting, the audience is practically in bed with them--and modesty, as the therapist circles the bed, making sure the sheet always completely covers them. And it's weird that the only character who is completely nude in the show is the black man--while I'm sure Ahonen et al had no intention of being racist, there is an uncomfortable history of black men being used as beefcake.

This being an Amoralist production, it is not without its strong points. The acting is excellent, and there are funny and even wise lines. I particularly liked this exchange:
Robert (who has been cheating on his wife for a long time):  Iʼll never make the same mistake twice.
Dr. Sarah: You did make the same mistake twice, Robert. You made it hundreds of times over three years.
Robert: I meant… with someone else.
William Apps
(photo: Monica Simoes)

For Animals and Plants, the hotel room of Pink Knees becomes a cheap motel room decorated with taxidermied animals and strewn with empty pizza boxes. Our two main characters are Dantly, who sits quietly on the bed, almost unmoving, almost unblinking, and tries to puzzle out life, and his partner-in-crime-of-ten-years, Burris, who is frenetic, constantly exercising and jumping around, and full of answers. They are in Boone, NC, for a drug deal. We know that things will not go well.

Unfortunately, the way in which things do not go well is undeveloped. The characters are partners and friends, but they're not. Burris has a great vocabularly (some of his definitions are pretty wonderful) until the play needs him not to. And the magic realism moments seem grafted on to add significance to a story that is ultimately a little too familiar and a little too underwritten. When the ending comes, it tries to claim a significance it hasn't earned.

On the other hand, Animals and Plants is frequently entertaining. The conversations about Tiger Lily vs Wendy and the advantages of putting Right Guard on your balls are funny, Dantly has a charming woebegone air, and Burris's hyperactivity amuses. The contrast between the characters works, and Dantly's identification with plants is well supported by his almost total lack of movement.  And William Apps (Dantly) and Matthew Pilleci (Burris) are both wonderful.

For both shows, sitting in such a small audience in such a small performance space was fun, and it certainly afforded a deep (if not always welcome) sense of intimacy. It is not every day that you have to hold your breath in a theatre because the Right Guard that someone is spraying on his balls is coming right at you. But the setting, like both of the plays, ultimately comes across as arbitrary.

I remain a fan of the Amoralists. I still plan to see all of their shows. But HotelMotel is not their shining hour.

(press ticket, in the hotel/motel room with the characters)

Thursday, August 04, 2011

One Night Stand (Movie Review)

Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Cheyenne Jackson
Photo: Kerry Long

If you are at all interested in musical theatre you must see One Night Stand, a documentary about four short musicals that are written, rehearsed, and performed in 24 hours. Both a record of an insane challenge and a microcosm of the creative process, One Night Stand is fascinating, elucidating, suspenseful, and very very funny.

The movie starts with the creative teams being assembled. Composers, lyricists, and book writers who have never worked together (or even met) go from saying hi straight into deadline hell (or deadline heck; while some people take the pressure hard, others seem unruffled). We get to watch each team struggle to come up with a plot and three songs in a matter of hours. Then the shows are handed over to the casts, who also have only hours to learn dialogue and songs and maybe even make sense of what they are doing. The directors help as much as they can, but the goal isn't art--it's survival. All too soon, it's curtain time, and damned if these amazingly talented people haven't come up with four amusing, clever shows!

The writers of these musicals include Brian Crawley, Gina Gionfriddo, Rinne Groff, and Jonathan Marc Sherman. The composers include Robin Goldwasser and Julia Greenberg, Lance Horne, Gabe Kahane, and Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. The directors include Trip Cullman, Sam Gold, Maria Mileaf, and Ted Sperling. And the performers include Roger Bart, Rachel Dratch, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Mandy Gonzalez, Cheyenne Jackson, Capathia Jenkins, Richard Kind, Michael Longoria, Theresa McCarthy, Nellie McKay, Scarlet Strallen, Marnie Schulenburg, Tracie Thoms, Tamara Tunie, and Alicia Witt.

As for the documentary itself, directors Elisabeth Sperling and Trish Dalton do a nice job of showing us the process and its results, and they allow us to get a sense of the different participants' characters. I wish the movie were longer (how often does one say that?) and that all four musicals were shown in their entirety (DVD extras, maybe? Pretty please?). But all in all, this movie is a gift to anyone who loves musical theatre.

(DVD screener.)

The Pretty Trap

Katharine Houghton, Loren Dunn, Robert Eli
Photo: Ben Hider

On YouTube you can find faux coming attractions that morph famous films into different genres. The Dark Knight becomes a Pixar cartoon and the Shining becomes a romantic comedy. Watching these recuts is entertaining and disorienting and an excellent reminder of the importance of context and point-of-view. Watching Tennessee Williams' short play the Pretty Trap has a similar effect.

The Pretty Trap is an early version of what would turn out to be the Glass Menagerie. Amanda, Tom, and Laura are there; the Gentleman Caller comes to visit; and familiar lines whiz by--but the one-act is just different enough to be, strangely enough, a comedy.

Amanda is somewhat likeable instead of soul-stealing, though she still sells those magazine subscriptions. Laura has no limp and is merely painfully shy, though she still drops out of business school. Tom has a relatively small role to play, though he is still a writer with the nickname "Shakespeare." Most importantly, the Gentleman Caller is not engaged to be married, leaving room for a happy ending. And, yes, there is a glass unicorn.

The Pretty Trap is not a great work of art, but it's a must-see for any Williams fan. And it is entertaining in its own right, particularly as directed by Antony Marsellis and acted by Katherine Houghton, Robert Eli, Loren Dunn, and Nisi Sturgis.

How odd and wonderful that this lightweight one-act could grow into the brilliant Glass Menagerie.

(Press tickets, 3rd row center)