Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Russian Transport

Sarah Steele, Janeane Garofalo
Photo: Monique Carboni
At the beginning of Erika Sheffer's intriguing new play Russian Transport, we meet a Russian family who has been living in Brooklyn since the older child, now 18 or so, was a baby. The parents have retained many Russian beliefs and values; the children are totally American. The mother (Janeane Garofalo) is gruff and domineering, even mean, but also quite funny at times. The father (Daniel Oreskes) is gentler, but he is distracted by money problems. The son, Alex (the excellent Raviv Ullman), is impatient, particularly with his sister, Mira, telling her flat-out that he thinks she is ugly. (Mira is played by Sarah Steele, who also plays a handful of other young women; she does an impressive job with all of them.)

In some ways, this could be the beginning of a perverse sitcom, but Sheffer has something a lot more serious in mind. What is the price of loyalty? How far would you go for a family member? Where do you draw the line? These are not sitcom questions.

The plot takes off when the mother's brother, the attractive, sexy, and somewhat menacing Boris, comes for a vist. He is supportive of Mira's desire to go to Florence (her mother is not); he offers Alex (suspiciously) high-paying work. His machinations cause rifts between family members.

The play could fall apart without a good Boris; luckily, Morgan Spector is completely convincing in his ability to charm, manipulate, and frighten people, sometimes switching modes on a dime. (Spector has everything that Chris Rock lacked in The Motherfucker With the Hat. With Spector in Rock's role, the show would have been significantly better.)

Sheffer's writing can be quite funny, and her characters are believable. The plot is compelling, and the story moves right along. I think, however, that the play would be better balanced if a glimmer of affection was shown between the two teenagers and if the mother displayed a bit of real softness.

Scott Elliott's direction could do more to support Sheffer's work. Due to accents and timing, the exposition can be difficult to follow. More importantly, perhaps the most significant scene in the show is a mess. A moment that the audience should feel as a slap in the face instead leads to "Huh, wait a second, does that mean that . . .?" The dialogue is there; the staging gets in the way.

Overall, Russian Transport is quite good. I'm looking forward to seeing more of Sheffer's work.

(press ticket; sixth row, audience right-ish)

Monday, January 30, 2012

Petula Clark at Feinstein's

Let's play a word-association game. I say, "Petula Clark." 

And you say?

My guess is that you say--no, sing--"Downtown." Or perhaps, "Don't Sleep in the Subway, Darling." On the other hand, perhaps you get all Norma Desmond and say or sing, "Just One Look." Or something from Blood Brothers. Whatever your frame of reference, the happier you are to think of Petula Clark, the more you should check her out at Feinstein's at the Regency this week.

Clark's set wanders through her past, from pop to the West End, making sure to hit all the best-known moments. Her voice is pretty much shot, but she uses it judiciously, interspersing stories and even poems to give it a rest from singing, saving the big notes for songs that demand them. (If you can't do Norma Desmond big, why do her at all?) She's no Barbara Cook or Marilyn Maye (who is?), but she's extremely likeable, and while her songs aren't all well-sung or well-interpreted, they are all heart-felt.

While it was clear that dyed-in-the-wool Clark fans were in ecstasy throughout the set, for me it had definite ups and downs. The less successful pieces included "Someone to Watch Over Me," "The Man I Love," and "Miss Otis Regrets," all of which suffered from her reduced vocal range bumping into her not-super-duper interpretative skills. And, u
nfortunately, although Clark works hard to include the entire audience, her band has electric guitars and bass, and drums, and if you sit extreme audience right, it can be impossible to hear her when they start rocking.

There were quite successful moments as well, however.  The highlight in terms of singing was Clark's lovely, simple, in-French version of "La Vie En Rose," accompanied by Clark herself on piano. And the highlight in terms of overall experience was "Downtown." (The part of me that is still 8 years old was thrilled to pieces to be seeing Petula Clark in person! Singing "Downtown"! And asking us to sing along!) And the highlight in terms of Clark's wry humor was her updating of "Downtown" to reflect the loss of the cool clubs and the invasion of the chain stores.

If you're a Petula Clark fan, you'll have a great time.

(press ticket, extreme audience right)

Friday, January 27, 2012


Wit is a difficult play. The lead character isn’t particularly likeable on the page, but the audience can’t merely feel sorry for her. The metaphors and deconstructions of 17th Century poetry are a tricky set up that can take you to places both sentimental and pretentious, simultaneously. The Brecht meets cancer formula flips you two birds and dares you to care.

Playwright, Margaret Edson, litters the page with landmines; but the well-navigated path can lead to a thrilling experience that moves you and makes you think.

I first saw a production at the San Jose Repertory Theatre a few years ago. It was powerful, devastating, personally deconstructing.

The experience of the Lynne Meadow-directed production at Manhattan Theatre Club is too many landmines and the dreaded sandtrap—it’s just plain boring. Cynthia Nixon seemed uncomfortable in the lead role and was all too aware that her character is cold, impersonal, and unpleasant. She works hard to please, begs us to like her, but descends pretty quickly into over-articulated shrieking. She performs. She plays angry, hostile, mean, desperate, and lonely—all with an apologetic tone—even before the character has come to realize she has anything to apologize for. She is actually best (and, yes, she is devastating) in the moments when she has no lines to speak, no sins to confess, and just focuses on the war raging inside her.

I often, admittedly cynically, wonder when so many secondary characters are played ineffectively if they’ve been cast with the intent of helping the star shine. Otherwise, it’s just bad direction. The supporting cast here is mostly mediocre. Suzanne Bertish, however, shines brighter in five minutes on stage than all the lights of Broadway. Her final scene in the play is sublime, gut-twisting, perfection.

If you didn’t see Kathleen Chalfant or Judith Light in the original, you probably owe it to yourself to see the play. While this production doesn’t shine the best light on Wit, there is enough to reflect, to see that none of us can fully deconstruct death, no matter how you punctuate it.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

3 Shows With a Black Thread

I didn’t go looking for shows about people of color, didn’t have an agenda in grouping these three together. I simply happened to see them about the same time and, since all had been running a while, decided to review them at once.

Stick Fly

The message in Stick Fly is pretty simple—rich people can be assholes regardless of race; and just because George and Weezie moved on up doesn’t mean they brought anybody else along for the ride— the have nots have been caste aside, left behind, and without a place at the table. The only way into the dining room is through the bedroom. It suggests race has evolved to a white versus black conversation, but economic disparity gets stuck in your throat.

It is a more intriguing idea than it is a play, mostly because nothing very surprising happens. Dialogue is a lot less riveting when you are able to see it coming, pick a side, and write a rebuttal in your head. The best to be said about Lydia R. Diamond’s play is that it exists. She’s done little more than take the Huxtables on vacation and make them hateful. The plot is more edgy but not much more insightful than a sitcom episode. Kenny Leon doesn’t add much as far as mining between the lines for drama.

The star of the show is David Gallo, the set designer. He has created a world that tells you both who and where these people are. Actually, he tells you more about the fictional inhabitants than those cast to inhabit the fiction.

Ruben Santiago-Hudson as the family patriarch who married into money, carried the burden of head-of-household while feeling a guest who could be disinvited at any moment, plays the role as little more than a philandering asshole. Mikhi Phifer, trying to fill his father’s boxer shorts, is a philandering asshole. Dule Hill, breaking the mold, is a philosophizing asshole. The female cast really mixes it up. Tracie Thoms, poor by divorce and discarded by a rich and noteable father, is shriekingly annoying. Rosie Benton, engaging in helping the poor as emotional porn and cleansing conscience through do-gooding, is annoying at inside-voice decibles. Condola Rashad (the daughter of real-life Mrs. Huxtable), is broodingly annoying for three quarters of the play, then unloads for the pivotal twist that comes a couple of hours too late in the evening. She has the chops, delivers the goods, and it might have made for a stronger play had the maid played a bigger role.

Kudos to Alicia Keys for producing. Putting more African American actors to work and putting more African American characters at the center of that work makes theatre better—moving on up to the front of the stage is only a good thing for all of us, on both sides of the proscenium. I just wish there was a stronger play waiting once we all got there.

The Road to Mecca

Photo by Walter McBride

Athol Fugard gives us an opposite view of the character of color in the apartheid-era play, The Road to Mecca—none make the stage and barely make mention. The story is actually only set in the time of apartheid, it isn’t really about that. It isn’t really about much at all. There may be something in there, but it is too convoluted to care.

There isn’t much story, and there is even less drama. It was a thrill to see Rosemary Harris on stage; but neither the role nor the performance is worthy of her legend. Carla Gugino delivers some spark but not much fire. Jim Dale arrives late and leaves early and neither much matter—not his fault. The play sets him up to be the desperately-needed crux of the story, but this lame drama needs a crutch before it is ready for a crux.

The worst I can say about this play is that it exists. It is just boring. Who cares? There’s ten minutes of drama draped in an evening of blather. I am no better for having met these people. No closer to Mecca having traveled their Road. If you need to have your life shortened by a couple of hours, this is the euthanasia for you.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

Yes, the show has closed for this winter, but it will be back at the end of the year; and it is never too early to make it a priority. I make it a point to see Alvin Ailey at City Center every year. A year without Revelations is no revelation. This year, I caught it twice.

The first time was less than perfect. The seats were far right, and while I like to move around from year to year for perspective, something gets lost at the extremes. My favorite way to see the show is in the first couple of rows. The tickets are $25, the view is thrilling, the intimacy is eye-opening because you can see the incredible work, talent, and control on an individual basis. You trade shape and scale for individual perfection. That perfection is especially clear when watching the solo number, I Wanna Be Ready, which was performed in rotation this year by two guest artists, Clifton Brown and Matthew Rushing, both long-standing, stand-out members of the company. They couldn’t be more different (two master classes, Brown’s in precision and Rushing’s in personality). If these two dancers are not on your list of not-to-be-missed performers, add them, remember them, and see them.

You can never go wrong with an all-Ailey evening. Someone else bought my ticket on the first visit, so it wasn’t all-Ailey and what could go wrong did. The first number, some assault choreographed by Geoffrey Holder, was barely bearable. It was followed by something forgettable, choreographed by Judith Jamison. Even Revelations was diminished by some ill-advised, “special” event that included members of Ailey II and some children from Ailey Elementary or some such. It was too many people adding little. I’m not a big fan of other people’s children to begin with and certainly wouldn’t knowingly attend their annual recital.

I couldn’t let that be my experience for the year, so I returned, this time sitting in the balcony. It couldn’t have been a more different experience. The evening started with Anointed, choreographed by Christopher L. Huggins. What a thrilling beginning. The final movement of the dance is as emotional and moving as anything I have ever seen. The second, a hip-hop number, Home, choreographed by Rennie Harris and inspired by photos and essays submitted for the Fight HIV Your Way campaign was excellent, although I wish I hadn’t known in advance about the supposed subject matter. I expected more of a connection. It turned out to be a lovely hip-hop number. I just missed the inspiration. Finally, Revelations renewed my faith. Fix Me Jesus was absolute perfection.

Revelations is a quintessentially African American story, but it’s emotions and arc and connection are universal and for me, simply essential.

Sunday, January 22, 2012


Raushanah Simmons,
Ingrid Nordstrom
  Photo: Justin Hoche
Something there is that doesn't love a wall. So begins Robert Frost's well-loved poem "Mending Wall," and so also begins Erin Browne's flawed but compelling new play, Menders, currently being presented by the fabulous Flux Theatre Ensemble. Menders takes place in a future world where a giant wall separates safety and "us" from all that is ugly, wrong, and "them." At least that's what Corey and Ames have been brought up to believe.

Corey and Ames are trainee wall menders. Both are just recently out of school. Ames is nervous, but Corey is confident, gung-ho, and absolutely certain that their side of the wall is the right side. Their trainer is the burnt-out and disappointed Drew, who passes the time telling Corey and Ames stories that seem magical to the young trainees. Their world has been so circumscribed that the tale of a winged woman doesn't seem all that much more exotic than a tale of two women falling in love.

But somewhere along the way, Corey is jailed. We--and she--never find out what her crime is, and the play occurs in flashback as she tells the audience--her jury--everything that has happened since she first became a mender.

Playwright Browne cares about the world. She cares about politics and feminism and self-expression and governmental repression. She sees vividly how today's world could turn into tomorrow's dystopia. In an interview with blogger Zach Calhoon, Browne explains that the play grew out of a "melange" of ideas and that "Robert Frost's idyllic and concrete world of everyday things guided all of those ideas into the first draft of Menders." However, her play goes well past Frost's poem--in fact, the frequent use of Frost's words is distracting and misleading. The people on the two sides of Frost's poem are civil neighbors; they are not "us" and "them." Frost's poem is small and neat; Browne's play is large and messy (messy isn't a criticism here--the wealth of ideas is one of the play's greatest strengths). However, this part of the poem does resonate in the play: "Before I built a wall I'd ask to know/What I was walling in or walling out." Corey doesn't mean to ask that question, but she becomes unable not to.

Browne's play doesn't totally work at a plot and detail level. Corey is perhaps a bit too gung-ho. The stories that Drew tells don't offer enough to justify the time they are given. The characters' growth and changing relationships sometimes seem mistimed. What's actually on each side of the wall is not as clear as it might be. But the play's energy, ideas, and big heart more than make up for its weaknesses. 

Heather Cohn's direction is imaginative and clear and well-paced. Asa Wember's sound design is quietly unsettling, providing just the right emotional effect. Some of Trevor James Martin's video projections work better than others. In some cases, they come across as visual noise; in others, they are just right; and in a few, they are (appropriately) chilling.

As always with Flux productions, the cast is excellent. Sol Marina Crespo handles Corey's development and the play's fractured chronology very well. Matt Archambault as Drew provides exactly the right mix of smooth charm, exhaustion, and manipulativeness. Isaiah Tanenbaum does a lovely job depicting Ames' awakening. And Raushanah Simmons and Ingrid Nordstrom are wonderful as wooer and wooee, though Simmons may be a little too beautiful for the part--it's hard to understand why anyone would say no to her.

Overall, Menders is well worth seeing. 

(press ticket; third row on the aisle)

Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Mountaintop

Katori Hall's The Mountaintop, which was a surprise hit in London and which has been running on Broadway since the autumn, hasn't really fallen off my radar since it began previews. The subject interests me, sure, but so too do the performers, both of whom I admire and have not seen perform live before. So when the opportunity to see the show, which is closing tomorrow, arose late last week, I took it. I didn't much like the play, but I'm still glad I saw it.

Jackson and Bassett didn't disappoint--they are both fine actors, and, alone together on the stage for 90 minutes, they work hard, command attention, and look exceptionally fabulous in the process. While I am not entirely sure they meshed as well as they might have, I think that inevitably spoke to flaws in the writing itself, and not so much to their interpretations of the characters. Jackson plays Martin Luther King, Jr., who has just returned to the Lorraine Motel after his "Mountaintop" speech--the last one he gives before being assassinated, and the one which seems to foreshadow his own death. He is tired, has a hacking cough and a lot of work to do, it's pouring rain outside, and Coretta forgot to pack his toothbrush. While awaiting the return of his colleague, the Reverend Ralph Abernathy, with a pack of much-craved Pall Malls, he takes an offstage leak, paces, checks his room for bugs, and nearly jumps out of his skin every time the thunder claps. Soon, he calls down to room service for a pot of coffee, which is delivered by Angela Bassett's character, Camae, a new hotel maid with a foul mouth, irresistible good looks, and way more knowledge about the Civil Rights movement and King's private life than makes much sense. She Is Not Who She Seems, which is a major plot device here, and one that kind of doesn't work at all.

That said, I think some of my negative reaction to the play is what some might argue gives it strength: I am not one who is terribly interested in, comforted by, or intrigued by the teeny trivialities of great figures. We are all flawed, so why should it be such a big deal to learn that our heroes are, too? Thus, the fact that King, at least as depicted by Hall, smoked too much, cheated on his wife, occasionally needed to pee, and had smelly feet doesn't really grab me. On the other hand, I understand the desire to humanize King, as well as to be reassured that he felt no pain at his death and that he has been embraced in Heaven. And whether you care or not about the smelly feet, Jackson's take on King is graceful, understated, and sharp.

Bassett's character is in many ways even more of an uphill battle than Jackson's. We know who King was as a public figure, which I am sure has its own challenges for the actor. But we do not know Camae--she is fictional, and her presence propels the plot forward. I'm still not sure of exactly who she is--the play is clearly more interested in having her play off King than it is in filling its audience in on the finer details of her character. Bassett does well with the part, but then again, if she's filled in the blanks for herself about the character, it's not terribly clear during the play. For all her joking, cursing, flirting, and admonishing, she's sort of a cipher.

I was also disappointed about the show's lack of stance. On anything. Is this play about religion and the divine? Is it about the intricacies of black politics and the Civil Rights movement through the 1960s? Is it about King's legacy? Is it about his private life and his flaws? The show throws a lot of stuff at the audience, who murmers in recognition at all the names, incidents, and references that get flung about. But ultimately the play teaches nothing, and doesn't encourage spectators to ponder anything new.

There were some high points, however. The final sequence, in which the entire set spins up to reveal a swirling black hole of projected images, is pretty damned cool, as is the lightening-fast monologue Camae delivers during it. And a sequence in which Camae dons King's suitjacket and imitates his public persona is hilarious. I imagine The Mountaintop will make the rounds after it closes on Broadway; I would hope Hall revisits it to address at least some of its weaknesses.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012


Steve Kazee and Cristin Milioti
Photo: Joan Marcus
I am very grateful that I saw Once (based on the movie of the same name) at the New York Theatre Workshop rather than on Broadway. (Thank you Mark and Rodney.) I am sure the show will still be lovely in its new home, but it is unlikely to retain all of its small-theatre delicacy, intimacy, and soul. On the other hand, on Broadway, Once can run indefinitely. And that is a very good thing.

The Irish guy (who is never named) is at the end of his rope, deeply depressed and ready to give up his music. The Czech girl (who is a woman, but, hey, called "girl" in the program) also has reason to be depressed, but giving up is seriously against her world view. She convinces him to keep on trying. They fall in love (duh).

But Once is not about plot. It is about belonging and family and faith and miracles and humor. More importantly, it is about music.

To get one of the show's few faults out of the way: The songs (by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova) don't match the plot or characters as well as they might (should?). The lyrics are generic and not really theatrical. But the music is often beautiful and always entertaining and it is played with exuberance by the 13-person cast of actor-musicians and musician-actors.

Steve Kazee plays the guy. He is attractive and charming and sings well. Cristin Milioti is the girl. She takes a potentially annoying, potentially cartoon character and turns her into flesh and blood--and her singing voice is heart-touchingly emotional. The rest of the cast members are more or less wonderful (one or two are much more musicians than actors): David Abeles, Claire Candela, Will Connolly, Elizabeth A. Davis, David Patrick Kelly, Anne L. Nathan, Lucas Papaelias, Andy Taylor, Erikka Walsh, Paul Whitty, and J. Michael Zygo.

The direction by John Tiffany (Black Watch) and movement by Steven Hoggett give the show a physical flow that both reveals the characters' emotions and adds beauty to even the scene changes. The movement reminded me of Bill T. Jones' work on Spring Awakening in that it uses somewhat bizarre gestures to evocatively express people's inner workings and longings.

The thing I loved the most about Once--a facet I fear won't make the trip to Broadway intact--is the sense of being there. Parts feel like the best party you've ever gone to. Other parts invite you right into the characters' hearts.

But don't let me dissuade you from seeing Once on Broadway--it is a wonderful show.

(full-price ticket; first row center)

Monday, January 16, 2012

Follies (CD Review)

There are two components to a review of the recording of a musical: the discussion of the musical itself and the discussion of its presentation on the CD. Since four of us on this blog have reviewed the current production of Follies a total of six times (see links below), this post will focus on the CD itself.

And an excellent CD it is.

Its main claim to fame is that it is two discs, totaling almost 100 minutes (my estimate), with previously unrecorded chunks of dialogue. Producer Tommy Krasker explains in the CD booklet that the aim was "to do an expansive recording that not only conveyed the glories of the score, but captured the experience of the show itself." To the extent that a purely audio version could do so, this CD achieves Krasker's goal. While I suspect the CD will be more evocative for people who are already familiar with Follies, even a newcomer will get some of the flavor of the book. (I don't think that this CD expresses the full flavor of the Follies score, but my complaint is with the production rather than with the recording per se.)

Recreating dialogue for a recording is a particular skill, I think, and not everyone has it. Jan Maxwell, for example, sounds very good: clear and in character and completely believable. Ron Raines sounds stiff and unconvincing. Bernadette Peter's performance is calmer than the weepy one she often gives on stage, but her delivery of some of the lines remains downright embarrassing. Danny Burstein comes across fine. Elaine Paige is so hampered by trying to have an American accent that her dialogue comes out murky and marble-mouthed, and her timing is mediocre. (Polly Bergen's performance in the Roundabout Production was so much richer and funnier and sadder and realer that Paige seems like a cardboard cutout in comparison.)

The CD booklet is beautiful, with the complete lyrics and many pictures. It also includes an interesting essay on the show by Patrick Pacheco, Krasker's "Note From the Album Producer," and a synopsis by Sean Patrick Flahaven, which is somewhat overwritten ("To eyes unfocused by nostalgia and alcohol, it might appear that no time at all has passed . . .") but useful.

If you are a Sondheim completist, you must have this CD. And if you loved this production and its performances, you will find this CD to be a treasure.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Parsons Dance

Ian Spring, and Melissa Ullom in
David Parson's Round My World
Photo: Krista Bonura

Let's cut to the chase: David Parsons' piece Caught is stunning, impressive, and magical. I see it at least once a year, and it never fails to delight me. A thrilling athletic solo, it is far more successful than any CGI in convincing you that a man can fly. It's part of every performance at Parsons Dance; if you haven't seen it, give yourself a treat and go. (Parsons Dance is at the Joyce through January 22.)

And the rest of the evening isn't shabby either.

Parsons Dance is currently premiering Parsons' Round My World, an entertaining, often beautiful piece set to music by Zoe Keating. As you can see from the picture above, Parsons means "round" literally, and the shape is threaded liberally throughout, in formations, poses, and gestures. The first movement pulsates; the second features insane lifts that are sometimes more interesting as mechanical contraptions than dance; the third utilizes arms and pelvises to create a sort of Rube Goldberg cascade of movement; and the forth consists of flowing waves of changing shapes. While Round My World is a pleasure to watch, the whole is not greater than the sum of its parts. It comes across as a very thorough exercise--do everything you can with roundness--rather than a fully realized dance.

This is a complaint I have with Parsons' work not infrequently--and with that of Paul Taylor, for whom Parsons danced for years, and who was definitely a major influence. Both men have endless amounts of creativity. There isn't a part of the body they haven't mined for all its gestural potential. They are never boring. Many of their pieces are visually and emotionally whole, and wonderful--but many others just don't add up.

This problem reappears with Swing Shift, Parsons' 2002 piece to music by Kenji Bunch. Again, Parsons' imagination and skill can't be faulted, and there is much that is lovely, but the choreography is almost semaphoric in its use of the dancers' bodies, with little flow between defined almost-tableaus.

The evening also features Katarzyna Skarpetowska's piece A Stray's Lullaby, to music arranged and performed by Kenji Bunch in a Tom Waits' growl. Skarpetowska's choreography ably presents the challenges and aspirations of a quartet of lost people in a grim city. These characters' tensions and despair resonate in their every muscle, and the choreography offers a unique spastic grace.

Unfortunately, the program update I received did not specify who danced which piece. But since the Parsons Dance dancers are so often amazing, I'm glad to simply list them all: Eric Bourne, Sarah Braverman, Steven Vaughn, Melissa Ullom, Christina Ilisije, Jason MacDonald, Ian Spring, Elena D’Amario, and apprentice Christopher Bloom.

(press ticket; last row orchestra)

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Scott Siegel's Broadway Ballyhoo: A Show Tune Hootenanny!

Nancy Anderson
When it comes to Scott Siegel's Broadway Ballyhoo: A Show Tune Hootenanny, currently playing late Thursday nights at Feinstein's, there's good news and there's bad news. 

The good news is that it exists. The seemingly indefatigable Scott Siegel presents a different handful of Broadway and cabaret performers each Thursday, accompanied by the protean, energetic, and wonderful Jesse Kissel on piano. Appearing thus far have been Alice Ripley, Nancy Anderson, Kevin Early, Kyle Scatliffe, Steve Ross, and many others. Feinstein's is a nice room, the cover and minimum aren't too bad (for more info, click here), and the performers chat and tell stories as well as sing. It's a nice set-up.

The bad news is that the show is highly overmiked. People who regularly perform live should not need mikes in this small-ish, albeit odd-shapped room. Kevin Early certainly doesn't need a mike. Hell, he could be heard a mile away sans mike; with one, particularly as over-amped as he was last Thursday, his singing was ear-injuringly painful. It should have been a pleasure to listen to him; instead, it was an ordeal. 

The "it-depends-on-you" news is that you get to pick evenings that feature performers you love. I went specifically to see Alice Ripley, who unfortunately took ill late that afternoon. Of the other performers, Kevin Early was good but, again, way too loud. Nancy Anderson is a little cutesy for my taste. And Carol J. Buford overacts and over-sings to an impressively awful extent; I didn't believe a word she expressed. (Or, should that be EXPRESSED?) Scott Siegel emceed with his usual rumpled charm. 

Keep an eye out for announcements of each week's performers. It's a great opportunity to see favorites sing two or three songs. And if you find the miking as horrible as I do, please tell Scott. 

(press ticket, audience left)

Sandra's Faves of 2011

My New Year's resolution is to see more theater. I just joined Show Showdown last spring, and, as a result, only saw about 16 shows last year. That does not qualify me to do a "Best of" list, but I do have a few favorites I'd like to gush over.

Favorite Revival: The Normal Heart

The Normal Heart--I never saw the original so I can't compare this year's incarnation with the 1985 version. Still, this remarkable show still resonates 25 years later. Audible crying in the audience is heard throughout the conclusion (yes, I shed tears, too) and feels like a communal mourning to all the lives lost to AIDS. Joe Mantello plays Ned Weeks with magnetic earnestness and caps the performances of a truly wonderful cast, including Ellen Barkin, Lee Pace, John Benjamin Hickey, Mark Harelik and Jim Parsons.

Favorite Play: Tape
I'm cheating here because this was also a revival but Stephen Belber’s Tape moved me like no other show in 2011. This Off-Broadway production showed the after effect of high school through sharp observation and gun-fire paced dialogue. Especially good was Don DiPaolo as the lovable loser, Vince.

Favorite Musical: Follies
Oops...another cheat since this is also a revival (Do you see a pattern here? I never saw the wunderkind Book of Mormon so perhaps that's what should be here. But of all the new musicals I viewed (Catch Me If You Can, Wonderland, etc.) not one surpassed Follies in musicality, compelling characters, or plot. Sondheim's show offers songs infused with insight that betray their character's hopes and fears in such a intimate way that even this flawed production levels a hefty emotional impact that lingers far after the initial viewing.

Favorite Actress: Nina Arianda
The prom queen of last year's theater season has to be Nina Arianda, who played Vanda in Venus in Fur, as a remarkable combination of the ultimate ditz turned cunning avenger. Not every actress could don dominatrix wear, sputter out curse-infused blue streaks of dialogue, and still seem realistic as an upper class Victorian socialite.

Favorite Set: Stick Fly Yes, when everyone talks about Stick Fly they mention the uniqueness of the playwright's characters and some of the stunning performances of the cast, but I want to highlight the scenic design for a moment. What a phenomenal set! Lovingly detailed by David Gallo (who also did The Mountaintop), the stage becomes a weekend getaway that reveals several rooms in the house through a clever bookcase cutaway that exposes the kitchen and a slight porch. The intimacy of the set acts almost like another character, revealing family details with photo magnets on the refrigerator, fine works of art on the walls and whimsical stone animals out in the garden.

Friday, January 06, 2012

Marilyn by Request: Marilyn Maye at the Metropolitan Room

If you have never seen Marilyn Maye, really, what are you waiting for? She's an amazing jazz singer, a brilliant interpreter, and funny to boot. She's a delight to spend an evening with. She's a classic. Timeless. The real thing.

In her most recent show, at the Metropolitan Room, Maye combined her  thematic medleys and standards with requests from the audience. The result was a pot pourri of different forms of bliss. Consider this partial set list: Celebrate Good Times, Hey Old Friend, Too Good to Be True, Start of Something Big, I Love You Today, Too Late Now, I Don't Want to Know, Pennies From Heaven, It Might as Well Be Spring, If I Were a Bell, Bye Bye Country Boy, Take Five, and the Best of Time Is Now. Her wonderful, youthful (she's in her 80s!), throaty voice, her sense of emotional complexity and joy, and her seductive personality made each and every song a winner. Her backup band, led by Billy Stritch (who sang with her on a handful of numbers) provided smart, elegant accompaniment with the wonderful Tom Hubbard on bass and Ray Marchica on drums..

I wish there were a way to truly describe the experience of seeing Maye, but what can be stranger than trying to explain how someone sings, how they express emotion, how they make magic happen? It's kind of impossible.

But I can describe the audience's reactions: Hugh grins. Cheers. Bravas. Ecstasy.

Really, truly, you have to see Marilyn Maye.

(For Maye's schedule of upcoming dates, click here. For the Metropolitan Room's calendar, click here.)

(press ticket, audience left)

Thursday, January 05, 2012

How the World Began

Heidi Schreck and Adam LeFevre
Photo: Carol Rosegg

After her life in New York falls apart, Susan Pierce (Heidi Schreck) ends up in Plainview, KS, teaching science to high schoolers whose town was recently decimated by a tornado. Susan has a tendency to say whatever pops into her head, no matter how inappropriate. She makes jokes to her student Micah Staab (Justin Kruger) about a herd of cows that were killed in the tornado. But the Christian Micah is more put off that she said, in class, "The leap from non-life to life is the greatest gap in scientific theories of the Earth's early history, unless, of course, you believe in all that other gobbledy gook." (At least that's what he claims she said. We do not see the scene.) In fact, he is highly offended and wants Susan to apologize. After Susan refuses to do so, Micah's unofficial guardian, Gene Dinkel (Adam Lefevre)--a Christian who believes in evolution and sees natural selection as "God's hand" at work--also tries to get her to apologize.

This is the basic story of How the World Began, Catherine Trieschmann's new play, currently being presented by the excellent Women's Project at Playwright's Horizon. It goes on to examine belief versus nonbelief, relationships, grief and loss, and standing by one's principles. Parts of it are fascinating; the characters are three-dimensional and occasionally surprising in convincing ways.  Rather than being a pseudo-screenplay like many contemporary plays, How the World Began unfolds in the sort of long, thoughtful scenes that theatre does best of all the art forms.

There's so much I liked about this play that I'm sad about my reservations, but here they are:

[possible spoilers below]

The most important one is that the character of Susan is whiny and dishonest. Since she represents my point of view, I wanted very much to like her, but she won't take responsibility for what she said--in fact, she denies having said it--and then won't take responsibility for what it means. She even claims that she didn't mean religion when she said "all that other gobbledy gook," although clearly she did. I didn't want Susan to be perfect or Joan of Arc. I understood that she feared for her job. But her dishonesty cast a pall over her actions and beliefs. (I suppose it's possible that she genuinely forgot what she said, but that seems highly unlikely.)

Another problem I had was with the structure of the play. Micah's true motivation is not revealed til toward the end of the play. However, the delay felt too much like a plot device. There was no character-driven reason for him not to have explained his thinking earlier.

Susan's interactions with Gene--which I actually found more interesting that her interactions with Micah--are never resolved. She says something horrible to him, and we never see him again.

Some of the humor struck me as easy laughs for the knowing, evolution-savvy theatregoer. (Though on a whole I found Trieschmann to be respectful of the two Christian characters--perhaps more respectful than she was of Susan.) And some moments were heavy-handed. For example, right at the beginning Susan is freaked out by the smell of manure (oh, she's not in New York anymore!).  Even the name of the town--Plainview--is a little too on the nose.

And I wish all playwrights would stop having scenes where the characters are waiting for someone we know will never come because we know how many people are in the cast (exception: Beckett). It just comes across as fake.

[no more spoilers]

The show is well-directed (by Daniella Topol) and largely well-acted. I had some trouble with Schreck as Susan, but I came to think that my problem was actually with the character. Adam Lefevre gives great depth and warmth to Gene, and Justin Kruger wears Micah's emotions on his sleeve.

I recommend How the World Began to people interested in the topic. But I can't help but think that there's a better play in there.

(press ticket; 4th row center)