Sunday, April 29, 2012

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

A Midsummer Night's Dream may be William Shakespeare's most indestructible play. The plot is so solidly silly, the characters' desires and dreams so clearly etched, that the show is always fun. I have never seen a boring Midsummer Night's Dream; unfortunately, I've also never seen an ideal one. In many cases the weakness has taken the shape of a movie or TV star who simply lacks the chops to do Shakespeare. For example, a production years ago in California featured Malcolm-Jamal Warner and Loretta Divine, both of whom are fine performers, but both of whom just couldn't pull off their roles.

In the current, highly entertaining production at the Classic Stage Company, imaginatively and clearly directed by Tony Speciale and nicely choreographed by George De La Peña, the marquee names are Bebe Neuwirth and Christina Ricci. Both are game, attractive, hard-working, good-humored, and not that good. While they handle the physical demands of their roles beautifully, neither expresses the music of the dialogue--or sometimes even the meaning.

The rest of the cast, however, ranges from good-enough to quite good, with Anthony Heald leading the cast with two distinct and excellent performances, one as Theseus and one as Oberon. Jordan Dean, Nick Gehlfuss, and Halley Wegryn Gross do well as Lysander, Demetrius, and Helena, respectively. Taylor Mac brings much energy and humor--but perhaps too much shtick--to the roles of Egeus and Puck; it's one thing to casually toss off "Lord, what fools these mortals be" and another to dump it in the trash.

In many ways, the true stars of this production are Speciale, De La Peña, set designer Mark Wendland, costume designer Andrea Lauer, lighting designer Tyler Micoleau, and in particular, fight choreographer Carrie Brewer, who has staged as funny and convincing a scene of extended slapstick as I have ever seen (kudos too to Ricci, Dean, Gehlfuss, and Gross for their energy, bravery, and physical skill). The show is visually enchanting, from falling leaves to evening lights to very attractive, albeit gratuitous, semi-nudity. The whole audience gets to experience the dream.

This is not the ideal production I hope someday to see, but it is an extremely pleasurable evening in the theatre.

(tdf ticket; first row, extreme, extreme side)

Saturday, April 28, 2012

A Streetcar Named Desire

In contrast to, for example, Liv Ullman's version of A Streetcar Named Desire (or David Cromer's or Edward Hall's), Emily Mann's version respects and serves the play. It is clear and straightforward and largely well-cast; it allows the beauty and sadness of Tennessee Williams' brilliant piece to come through. In brief, it is excellent. (Note: this review assumes a preexisting knowledge of Streetcar; if you want to avoid spoilers, go no further.)

Nicole Ari Parker, Blair Underwood
Photo: Ken Howard
First, let's get the whole multi-culti casting thing out of the way: the actors' races are pretty much irrelevant. What is relevant is their classes, and here we have one of this production's few flaws. Daphne Rubin-Vega's Stella never lived at Belle Reve, the DuBois estate in the 1940s; this Stella grew up in a small apartment in a not-so-great neighborhood in the 1980s. It doesn't help that Rubin-Vega's accent comes and goes and that her performance is largely awkward and unconvincing.

Blair Underwood brings a level of elegance to Stanley that is also not quite right for the part, but his performance is strong and moving, and it's easy to extend suspension of disbelief his way. I did however have to occasionally remind myself that Stella had supposedly "married down"; in this production Stanley seems, well, classier than Stella.

Wood Harris is unusual casting as Mitch, again for reasons having nothing to do with race. Mitch is traditionally overweight and a bit shleppy. Harris is thin and attractive, but his presentation of Mitch as an awkward, nerdy guy works well. His Mitch is gangly, all arms and legs, and genuinely sweet. It's a nice performance.

Which brings us to Nicole Ari Parker as Blanche. Any Streetcar lives or dies by its Blanche, and Parker is superb. Her Blanche begins confident, with flashes of vulnerability and fear, and loses her bravado bit by painful bit as her last-chance refuge turns perilous. Parker's Blanche is fully realized, worthy of sympathy yet obnoxious and annoying, manipulative yet somehow loving, self-centered but also self-aware.  Her descent into madness is well-calibrated and heart-breaking.

This production is also well-served by the supporting cast and Mann's use of them. The between-scenes' depictions of New Orleans are their own entertaining playlets. The "flowers-for-the-dead" woman is genuinely creepy. Aaron Clifton Moten as the teenager who Blanche semi-seduces offers a perfect combination of awkwardness and willingness to have this adventure.

In addition, Terence Blanchard's music sets the mood perfectly, although I missed having a distinct, rinky-tink piece of period music to represent Blanche's final dance with her young husband. The set by Eugene Lee and costumes by Paul Tazewell are just right. The lighting by Edward Pierce is marvelously evocative, and when Mitch insists on really seeing Blanche, the light from the bare bulb is a devastating flash of lightning.

Another thing that must be discussed is the audience. As has been reported elsewhere, Underwood's truly gorgeous chest is indeed greeted with hooting and hollering. However, by the last fourth of the show the night I saw it, the audience was largely quieted, aware that what was going on was no laughing matter. By the time of the rape, the audience felt appropriately horrified. I wonder if the blocking and/or costuming was changed to make sure that Underwood was not seen topless again.

Any Streetcar cast necessarily has wrestle with ghosts. Marlon Brando's "Stella!" is iconic, and while Blanche's "I have always depended on the kindness of strangers" is not associated with any one performer, it is well know to the point of cliche. A sign of the excellence of this production is that these moments are completely successful. Underwood's "Stella" is less the bellow of a wounded animal and more a genuine regretful neediness; it's even a little sad. And Parker's "kindness of strangers" is a heart-breaking moment of complete surrender.

Because Mann chooses an approach that serves the play, and because the show is largely well-acted, this is a well-balanced Streetcar. The characters make sense, even at their worst. Blanche is snotty and a pain-in-the-ass, but she is also trapped in the wrong time and place and damaged beyond repair. Stanley is violent and mean, but Blanche really does turn his life upside down. Before she arrives, he and Stella are happy together making those "colored lights"; Blanche takes away their privacy, is condescending and rude, and drives a wedge between them. Stanley's rape of Blanche is not about sex; it is about reclaiming his turf. It is awful, it is unacceptable, but it is not incomprehensible. And Stanley's decision to tell Mitch the truth about Blanche is completely fair and reasonable, even while being thoroughly destructive of two people's lives. Oddly enough, though Blanche is completely dishonest with Mitch, I think she might have made him happy. Tennessee Williams wrote a complex play about people's strengths and weaknesses and desires crashing together and causing irreparable damage; Mann's production presents every complexity.

On perusing the reviews, most of them based on performances a week or so earlier than the one I saw, I found myself wondering if perhaps this production took a few extra days to hit its stride. With the exception of comments on Rubin-Vega, who unfortunately remains weak, the other criticisms seemed to be of a different play than I saw. There's no way to ever know, of course. Not only is each performance of a play different and unique--the true glory of theatre--but the performance we each see is also colored by our different seats and beliefs, personalities, and lives.

All I know for sure is that the Streetcar I saw was the real thing.

(third row on the aisle; press ticket)

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Lonely, I'm Not

Lonely, I'm Not; bored, I am. Paul Weitz's new play at Second Stage isn't awful, it's just awfully empty in its exclamatory presentation of Porter (Topher Grace), a once-vicious, work-obsessed man who has spent the last four years recovering from a nervous breakdown, failed marriage, and current depression. Trip Cullman, rarely the most subtle of directors, only adds fuel to this fire by blaring the titles of each abbreviated scene in neon signage that is both behind and a part of Mark Wendland's set. The final product ends up feeling more like the cover of a magazine, flashy and colorfully designed so as to lure the reader in, than it does like a substantive address on the human condition.
[Read full review here]

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Nice Work If You Can Get It

From the sound of it, Nice Work If You Can Get It is setting itself up from failure: classic Gershwin songs harshly bolted onto a Prohibition-era farce that's adapted by Joe DiPietro from work by Guy Bolton and P. G. Wodehouse. Confidence is inspired by director/choreographer Kathleen Marshall, fresh off of Anything Goes, and her leading lady, the do-anything Kelli O'Hara, but there's still that disclaimer-like "if" haunting the title. Rest assured, however, that the result of this "new" musical is nice work -- actually, pretty damn wonderful work. DiPietro has as firm yet playful hand here as he did with Memphis, the songs are more than merely soldered on -- they're actually often comically playing against the original context -- and David Chase's arrangements are terrific (see the dueling "By Strauss" and "Sweet and Lowdown"), and Marshall's direction is quick, lively, and above all, fun, with lots of storytelling stuffed into the extended dance sequences.

The single rough patch rests in this entire affair rests on Matthew Broderick's weary shoulders: he looks bored to be playing yet another variation on Leo Bloom -- he's now a rich simpleton -- and his arms are so stiff that it appears he's trying to bring planking to Broadway, particularly in comparison to full-bodied performers like Michael McGrath, Jennifer Laura Thompson, Robyn Hurder, Chris Sullivan, and Judy Kaye.... I don't ordinarily fall head-over-heels for such airy entertainment -- especially not two-and-half-hours worth -- but Nice Work If You Can Get It has me humming away on cloud nine. Perhaps it's hard to get work these days; at least this musical's making it easy to play.

[Read full review here]

(Press ticket; N105)

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Clybourne Park

It's unprofessional of me, I know, but at a certain point in Clybourne Park, I stopped taking notes. I was just so enjoying Bruce Norris's overlapping dialogue -- lines that would be contentious if the characters bothered to acknowledge one another (they're not supposed to) -- that I allowed myself to get lost. Which winds up, of course, being the sucker-punching point, in that it's necessary to remove oneself from the language to realize just how tangled up we are in the prejudices of the past. Stepping back from the indignation, the thoughtless disrespect, and the ever-present specter of racism, one sees the people who are really at the heart of these issues, how these two irreconcilably different households are actually one and the same, and how "community" is little more than an artificial construct: a fence that we choose to erect among those who are "like" us and those who are not.

[Read full review here]
(Press ticket; L108)

Saturday, April 21, 2012

The Columnist

It's not hard to see what attracted David Auburn (Proof) to a historical subject like Joseph Alsop. The twenty odd years covered by The Columnist (1957-1978) were tumultuous ones for America, and Alsop (played here by a tightly wound, ever-graceful John Lithgow) represents a case study in the transition from one era to another, as ambitious journalists like David Halberstam (an earnest Stephen Kunken) and youthful idealists like his step-daughter Abigail (normally played by Grace Gummer; I caught her fine understudy in the role) begin to contest and supplant his domineering hold on "facts," particularly when it comes to Vietnam.

But the reason for columnists in the first place is that facts alone (sadly, in many cases) do not convey a story, and Daniel Sullivan's staid direction makes The Columnist a rather boring affair -- Good Night and Good Luck as opposed to Frost/Nixon. I suspect audiences who lived through these times may find the historical resonances more compelling, even though they're so artlessly thrown in our faces (unlike, say, the far more thrilling and subtle Mad Men). But I doubt that'll be enough to overcome the dramatic inertia of The Columnist, a play that feels as alive as newsprint and about as timeless.

[Read full review here]
(30 Under 30 ticket; Balcony Seat A9)

Friday, April 20, 2012

Clybourne Park

Really? Clybourne Park? This is the play that won the Pulitzer? That has a good chance at the Tony? That is receiving raves? Really?

Let's take the depiction of the deaf character Betsy to represent the whole play. Betsy is used for all of the usual cheap laughs. People yell and enunciate at her. She misses exactly what author Bruce Norris needs her to miss to set up predictable laugh lines; she is a comic device rather than a character. At one point Betsy's husband is upset that someone has used a curse word in front of her. The other person says, "but she's deaf," and then says "fuck you" to her. Not understanding, she smiles and gives a little wave. And the audience roars.

But it's already been established that she is good at lip-reading. And there are few phrases as easy to lip-read as "fuck you" as anyone who watches sports can tell you. It's a completely cheap joke, feeble, untrue to the character, and lame. And, like I said, it's an apt synecdoche for the whole play. (But the audience did roar.)

The very premise of the first act is unconvincing. It's 1959, and Russ and Bev are unaware that they have sold their house to an African-American family (we know that they are the Younger family from Raisin in the Sun, though it could be any African-American family). Their racist neighbor Karl begs them to stop the sale.  Russ and Bev's African-American maid and her husband are pulled into the fray (based on the dreadful these-people-are-staying-in-a-conversation-they-would-have-left-long-ago trope). There ensues a series of exchanges breath-taking in their lack of subtlety and nuance. The racist neighbor does everything but twirl a mustache. Bev, played as a cartoon by Christina Kirk, flails around and flaps her arms (literally), and her interactions with her maid are ham-fisted in their depiction of white ignorance, entitlement, and neediness. Any ten-second piece of Caroline, or Change reveals more about the race relations of past decades, and with humor, compassion, and complexity.

The second act is less painful to sit through but also less believable. While the Act 1 is far too one-dimensional, it deals with a reality that did exist. The second act features a few characters who come across as actual human beings, but the dialogue and situations are unconvincing and heavy-handed. Norris seems to think that having people make jokes about anal sex and tampons, or call each other cunts, is enough to make a play realistic and hard-hitting (and many critics seem to agree). But without an honest examination of genuine people, Norris's writing comes across as a middle-schooler trying to act cool.

Act 2, which takes place in 2009, reverses the situation of Act 1 as whites are now buying into a black neighborhood. They want to tear down the house from Act 1 and put in its place a building out of proportion to its surroundings. The white couple, their lawyer, a black couple who live nearby, and a mediator are trying to work out a solution that pleases everyone, but they all talk over and around each other (the various characters' ability to go off on tangents is one of the few convincing aspects of the play).

The conversation eventually comes around to race, but Norris seems unwilling to address the actual issues, preferring to fall back on the boring we're-all-savages-underneath trope. Why couldn't they have actually discussed what was going on? Why couldn't the black couple say, "If you gentrify this neighborhood, the people who have lived here for decades will get priced out"? Why couldn't the white couple say, "But we have the right to live wherever we want"? Instead, they tell racist jokes and call each other names and blah, blah, blah.

Another problem is that Clybourne Park has five whites and only two blacks, particularly since the black characters are too similar from act to act: she's the one who's willing to fight, he's the one who wants to make nice. The white people get a variety of personality types--albeit mostly one-dimensional--but the black people get a much smaller palette.

I find it quite sad that Lynn Nottage's excellent play, By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, which dealt with racial issues with subtlety and genuine humor, never made it to Broadway, while this dumb and predictable play is knee deep in kudos. But I'm not surprised. Clybourne Park establishes a white "them" that we white people in the audience can feel superior to and laugh at. It gives us the opportunity to congratulate ourselves that we would never be that stupid, racist, etc. With its cheap writing, it allows us a cheap out.

(tdf ticket, 6th row mezz first act, about 10th row orchesta second act)

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Barb Jungr: The Man in the Long Black Coat

Bob Dylan's songs are so closely meshed with Bob Dylan's voice that the idea of a cabaret chanteuse taking them on is like tomato ice cream, both odd and intriguing. Award-winning British singer Barb Jungr is a big Dylan fan (in the way that the Grand Canyon is a big hole in the ground), but she is also an original artist on her own terms, and she's willing (and able) to take Dylan's songs to places they've never been (and possibly never expected to go).

In her current show at the Metropolitan Room, Jungr covers the famous songs (a slow, thoughtful "It Ain't Me, Babe"; a spirited "The Times They Are a-Changing) and the less well know (a jazzy "Trouble in Mind" from Dylan's gospel period, with an exciting piano solo by the excellent Tracy Stark). She changes tempos, sometimes more than is good for the song (in her too-slow take on "Like a Rolling Stone," her relationship with the beat feels arbitrary at best).

Jungr's voice ranges from simple and sweet to growly, and she's fond of sliding along notes in an effect that works better in some songs than others. She is hammy, but not in a bad way. Rather than it being an insult, hamminess is her genre, and she does it well. The important thing is that she gives each and every song everything she's got to give. (And she plays a mean harmonica.)

Jungr's colorful flowered dress over black tights and her reddish hair framed with blonde give her a nicely quirkly mien that works well with her sometimes very funny patter. (She looks quite different in person than in the picture accompanying this review.) Her discussion of Dylan's "deeply opaque" lyrics is quite interesting and well-expressed. For example, she says that he provides "forensic analysis of the very bowels of the human condition." And she's no sycophant. Her story about Dylan and Joan Baez expresses disappointment in Dylan (albeit with an ultimate unwillingness to judge him).

An odd thing about Jungr's performance is the amount of time she spends not making eye contact with anyone in the room. She stares into the middle distance, over the audience's head, which distances her from her listeners. When she does make eye contact, the connection adds much to her performance.

The bottom line? She is never uninteresting.

(center-ish table; press ticket)

You Better Sit Down: Tales From My Parents' Divorce

In a departure from 2009's This Beautiful City and 2010's In The Footprint, this latest Civilians show, You Better Sit Down: Tales From My Parents' Divorce makes a drastic reduction in scope and, under Anne Kauffman's direction, does away with all flourishes, arriving at a too personal (and diminutive) result. That said, there's much to be said for the what the ensemble bravely bares: a sort of living museum that hints at the origins and ends of love. The (tran)script has been lovingly polished by the cast (blemishes and all), and while it's very specific, it's also very sincere. At worst, Tales from My Parents' Divorce will at least encourage children in the audience to call their own divorced parents for a more accurate history lesson; at best, it's an hour spent in the company of charming, distant relatives, here to remind you that we've all got stuff.

[Read full review here]

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Alice Ripley at the Metropolitan Room

Stars are generally not low-key people. From Bette Davis to Patti LuPone they are often mannered, fascinating, and almost painfully distinct. They are never generic. Love 'em or hate 'em, you can't ignore them.

As she proved once again at the Metropolitan Room, Alice Ripley is a star. Some of her songs were better than others; her voice was occasionally raspy and/or flat; and some of her interpretations could have used a little more subtlety. Okay.

Meanwhile, she was compelling, passionate, and occasionally quite moving.

Ripley sang some of her songs solo and some with her band , along with Nick Cearley on backup. Her solo songs were raw; her songs with the band were smoother. Her voice was perfectly complemented by Cearley's which shared much of her tone but none of its roughness. The set included songs from Tommy, Rocky Horror, and Sideshow. Ripley mentioned that the latter was added because Bill Russell, the Sideshow lyricist, was in the audience. It was a highly emotional version of "Who Will Love Me as I Am," accompanied only by Ripley herself on guitar.

Mostly she sang her own songs. My favorite was her latest single, "Beautiful Eyes," a bluesy piece about which Ripley said on, "The lyrics are mysterious, but one thing’s for sure: it sounds like a really fun party.”  It does indeed. (The video is here.)

However, the "mysteriousness" of her lyrics in "Beautiful Eyes" and her other songs is disappointing. While she can turn a phrase, her songs are often unfocused, and some of her rhymes seem to exist only because they rhyme. An example of the mixed quality of her lyrics occurs in "When I'm Olde," which is an entertaining anthem that is hurt by the randomness of some of its phrases (I couldn't find the lyrics online, so I don't have examples to share).

Overall, however, Ripley delivered. The woman is a star, after all.

(press ticket, center)

Monday, April 16, 2012

Peter and the Starcatcher

The delightful Peter and the Starcatcher, the Story Theatre-esque prequel to Peter Pan,  is now on Broadway at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre (my review of the Off-Broadway production at the New York Theatre Workshop is here). As with any move from a smaller to a larger theatre, the first question is, how did it survive the move?

Pretty well.

On one hand, the show has retained its high spirits, silly jokes, and excellent cast. On the other hand, it has not been restaged sufficiently to reach the sides of the theatre--that is, entire bits (very funny bits!) that occur center stage aren't visible to a chunk of the audience due to some of the cast standing in the way. Also, the Brooks Atkinson has some seats that are just too far to the side to begin with; in addition, Peter and the Starcatcher has added a proscenium to the existing proscenium, further limiting the view from the sides. This is unfortunate because Peter and the Starcatcher is so much fun that you don't want to miss a second of it.

Luckily, Peter and the Starcatcher comes to Broadway retaining its most important asset: the fabulous Christian Borle. (Many thanks to the otherwise-dreadful TV show Smash, on which Borle appears, for making it possible for him to stay with Peter.) As the somewhat-pathetic villain Black Stache, Borle reminds me of Kevin Kline in The Pirates of Penzance, which is serious praise indeed! His slapstick is elegant and perfectly timed, and he raises empty bluster to an art form. Kudos also to Celia Keenan-Bolger for her lovely turn as Molly, the Starcatcher-in-Training. Her heartfelt performance provides the show with the emotional anchor that makes it more than just excellent fluff.

Peter and the Starcatcher is a treat for children (fart jokes) and adults (Ayn Rand jokes), and it uses theatre's unique strengths to provide an experience that could not be equaled on TV or in a movie. (Okay, I would shave about 15 minutes from it, but otherwise . . .)  It's a wonderful starter show if you want to introduce your kids to theatre, and it's a delight for someone who has seen dozens, even hundreds of shows.

(press ticket, 4th row, audience right, three seats from the aisle)

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Peter and the Starcatcher

There's a star being caught in Peter and the Starcatcher, and it ain't the unnamed Boy (Adam Chanler-Berat) who will, by play's end, become Peter Pan. Which is not to say that Chanler-Berat and his cohorts, Carson Elrod and David Rossmer ("We're lost!" "Boys!" runs one of the knowing quips in the show) aren't entertaining. But in this prequel, lovingly and creatively adapted by Rick Elice from the loving and creative novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, the star is, as ever, our delightfully villainous Captain Hook -- or should I say, Black Stache (Christian Borle), since it's not until a remarkable, scene-stealing moment late in Act II that he is "disarmed." Not only does Borle enhance any ensemble he's a part of (there's a delirious mermaid sequence), but he solidifies all of his solo sequences, making quick work of the script's alliterations and even quicker work of his character's own perpetual flubs ("Abandon spleen!" he cries, as the Neverland begins to sink). It takes an expert at physical comedy to appear to be so effortlessly clumsy, be it his attempts to strike a pose or simply to rhyme in verse, and though he jests that iambic pentameter would be box-office poison, I expect that a healthy dose of Mr. Borle is antidote enough to salvage any scene. (That explains why Peter and the Starcatcher is so much honest-to-goodness fun: there are no scenes in need of salvage.)

Peter Pan brags that he'll never grow up; with theater as good as this, audiences will never have to.

[Read full review here]
[Win two free tickets here]

Saturday, April 14, 2012

The Big Meal

The Big Meal shifts across eighty years of dinners, starting with a random pickup between Sam and his waitress, Nicole, and ending with an epically casual goodbye that confronts death as powerfully as anything I've seen on stage since Young Jean-Lee's Lear. He does so with spot-on language as strong as anything from natural contemporaries like Annie Baker, and if some find his characters a bit thin, they're missing the universal appeal of Dan LeFranc's approach. As for Sam Gold, there's simply not enough I can say about this director's ability to stage concept-heavy pieces in a fashion that keeps the emphasis on the characters.

Even if you absolutely abhor structural works, I strongly recommend The Big Meal. Knowing that the last meal is only just around the corner -- but not for whom -- keeps the stakes (or steaks) almost unbearably tense, and watching life find a way to bloom regardless is an interesting affair. Time flies by, but it's hard to register those changes in ourselves: not so in LeFranc's world, where characters go from hating squalling gibbonous brats to monkeying right along with them, where fractures mend in a tragic instant (or fester in fast-forward), and where memories (of, say, Barcelona) revise themselves in real-time. 

Friday, April 13, 2012

Barbara Cook: Let's Fall in Love

It's almost silly for Barbara Cook to sing "Let's Fall in Love" to the audience at Feinstein's; we all fell in love with her years ago--and, as she proves yet again, with good reason.

How do we love her? Let's me count the ways. We love her unparalleled interpretive skills. We love her wry sense of humor. We love the immediacy of her performance, as if every emotion in every song were happening for the first time that moment. We love her anecdotes. We love how she continues to challenge herself (her latest show includes over ten songs she's never sung before). We love how well she wields a mike. We love how well she wields the f-word.

For me, the highlight of her latest show is her largely acapella version of "House of the Rising Sun," which is quietly intense and beautiful. The other highlight is "Here's to Life," which she imbues with 85 years of experience, wisdom, and love. Her unmiked version of "Imagine" has the audience hanging on her every word, barely breathing. Her take on "The Nearness of You" is romantic and sexy. There are no clunkers; seventy minutes with Barbara Cook is seventy minutes in very good hands.

At the performance I saw, Cook seemed a bit under the weather. As a result, the show was only totally superb instead of completely transcendent. Cook on a bad day is what many singers would love to be on the best day of their lives.

Cook is at Feinstein's through April 21. For reviews of her other shows, click here, here, and here.

(press ticket; audience right)

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Come Write for Show Showdown!

Anyone want to join Show Showdown? None of us get paid, but we do often get free tickets, and it's great fun having a forum where you can write as long or short as you like and review the whole show or just focus on a detail that interests you. If you are interested, please send me a writing sample at

Just two requirements: that you can write and that you love theatre. No experience necessary.

I'm looking forward to hearing from you!

The Mikado

Victoria Clark, Kelli O'Hara
Photo: Jennifer Broski
There are (rare) times in life when we get to experience perfection. One of mine was last night--listening to Kelli O'Hara's simple, elegant, gorgeous version of "The suns whose rays are all ablaze." Perfect.

The entire evening was glorious. Who could ask for anything more than The Mikado performed by O'Hara, Christopher Fitzgerald, Victoria Clark, the Collegiate Chorale, and the American Symphony Orchestra (under Ted Sperling's able baton)?

I could: that it turns into a production, rather than a one-nighter, and that it runs for years.

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Don't Talk to the Actors

Tim Moyer, Kristin Wiegand, Lauren Rooney, Ellen Ratner,
Paul Dake, Joel Malazita
On the first day of rehearsal of the Broadway production of his sweet, heart-warming two-character play, neophyte playwright Jerry Przpezniak receives some sage advice from his director, Mike: "Don't talk to the actors." Luckily for the audience of Don't Talk to the Actors, currently playing at the Montgomery Theater in Souderton, Pennsylvania, Jerry doesn't exactly follow this advice. Soon he find himself hilariously in over his head dealing with the outside ego and honed manipulation skills of actor Curt Logan, who wants his role to have "more grit." It doesn't help that Jerry's fiancee Arlene, who is sitting in on rehearsal, has had a huge crush on Curt for years. Or that the other star of the show, the loud and bawdy Beatrice Pomeroy, wants her role to have more laughs, and maybe a song.

Playwright-director Tom Dudzick uses this situation to gently satirize theatre, New York, actors, and, well, humans. His delightful characters, his ability to write both jokes and character humor, and his clean, smooth, well-paced direction add up to an uproarious evening in the theater. One moment in particular stopped the show for, I would think, a full minute, as the theater shook with the audience's laughter.

The excellent cast includes Paul Dake, providing the perfect charm-smarm ratio as Curt; Kristin Wiegand, wonderfully intense as "the most sought-after stage manager on Broadway"; Ellen Ratner, an hysterical force of nature as Beatrice; Lauren Rooney, who gives full dimension to a character who is a bit too naive as written; Joel Malazita as Jerry, who takes a while to hit his stride but unravels beautifully; and Tim Moyer, the calm center amid the insanity.

The show takes a little too long to really get started, and the ending relies too much on what takes place off-stage, but in between is about two hours of solid laughter. What more could you want from a comedy?

(Fourth row center; free tickets. Disclosure: Tom Dudzick is my brother-in-law, but you don't need to take this review with a grain of salt. All those other people in the audience laughing their heads off were not Tom's relatives.) 

Planet Egg

More polished than your average tech-demo/theater-hybrid, Planet Egg takes up the baton from where the delightful Alvin Sputnik: Deep Sea Explorer left it, and crafts a two-man (and one Foley woman) performance of puppet cinema, in which a film is made before your eyes. Looking like a stop-motion short (akin to something you might see at, say, a Spike and Mike festival), Planet Egg is a dialogue-less ballad between a socket-faced, red-ribbon-legged creature who crashes on the titular planet and the lonely white radish-like creature that lives in a fortress made of broccoli. (There are also banana seesaws, carrot benches, and angry mobs of miniature mushroom creatures that like to cry out "Shroom!") It's a whimsical production, less than an hour long, but at the moment, it's a little scrambled.

[Read full review here]

Friday, April 06, 2012

Blast Radius

Amy Lee Pearsall, Becky Byers, Alisha
Spielmann, Nancy Sirianni,
and Felicia Hudson
Photo: Deborah Alexander
Many years ago, a friend of mine was extolling the virtues of ants versus humans, whom she found selfish. "If ants come to water," she said, "the first ones make a bridge out of their bodies so the others can scurry over. And if one or two float away and drown, it's okay, because it's the group that's important." I asked her, "If you were in that situation, and your girlfriend floated away, would you hold onto the bridge or go after her?" She didn't hesitate one second: "I'd go after her." "Oh," I said, "you'd make a lousy ant."

In Mac Rogers' Blast Radius, the entire human race is faced with the choice between sometimes-selfish human individualism and homogenous one-mind unity when a race of giant insects takes over earth and destroys all that humans have achieved, enslaving most people, forbidding books, and generally forcing humanity backward. Ronnie (the fierce Becky Byers), daughter of the astronaut who brought the insects to earth, despises them and never stops fighting for freedom, while her brother Abbie (David Rosenblatt) falls in love with their cozy hive mind. To complicate matters, Abbie is sexually and romantically involved with the insects' ambassador (the ever-amazing Jason Howard), who has taken over a human body. (It's interesting that Rogers gives the siblings ambiguous names; it would be easy to assume that Ronnie is the male and Abbie is the female. This fits, since Ronnie takes on the traditionally male role of leading the resistance, while it is Abbie who wants nothing more than a giant family.)

The plot of Blast Radius is compelling and absorbing, and I don't want to reveal too much here. Suffice to say that Rogers manages to tell a fascinating story; introduce a range of vividly etched characters; provoke thoughts about humanity, bravery, identity, values, relationships, and procreation; elicit some tears; and be quite funny. It's an impressive feat. (Blast Radius is part 2 of the "Honeycomb Trilogy." To read about part 1, Advance Man, go here.)

A few of Rogers' ideas/questions particularly intrigued me. For example, when is it better to compromise and when is it better to fight? Shirley (Nancy Sirianni, wonderful as always) has been active in the resistance for years, but she believes that it might be worth compromising with the insects to lessen the workdays of the human slaves. In contrast,  Ronnie feels that compromise is the same as surrender. During their argument, I found myself thinking of Booker T. Washington versus Martin Luther King, Jr, versus Malcolm X and how they differed on that very point.

And, what makes a good leader? For years movies have taught us that the leader is the tallest and best-looking white guy in the room, and that people will and should follow him automatically. But Rogers gives us Ronnie, a small, young, sometimes-selfish woman who wheedles, cajoles, begs, and whines and who has to earn her leadership over and over again. Why do people keep following her? Because she is smart and passionate--and an expert manipulator.

And, what makes us human? In Blast Radius, the answers include love, sex, and the written word, which seem to me to be excellent answers (Abbie, with his love of the hive mind, disagrees, saying that humans are limited to "extraordinary effort to achieve split-seconds of connection.")

Rogers' clear fascination with the meaning of humanity is superbly well-served by Jason Howard. In Rogers' magnificent Universal Robots, Howard played a robot who gradually grows human; in Advance Man and here, he plays an insect who does the same. On one hand, these are similar ideas; on the other, Rogers' writing and Howard's acting are so exact, so thoughtful, so smart, and so compassionate that the characters stand as unique--and individually brilliant--creations.

The show isn't perfect. It takes a while for it to catch fire, and some of the plotting is hard to follow. Some of the performances are a little weak. The fight scenes aren't particularly effective, and there's a slap that could win a prize for worst stage slap ever. There's a giant insect leg straight out of a bad 1950's sci-fi movie.  But, really, who cares? Blast Radius is an impressive and passionately entertaining evening in the theatre. That's what matters.

(first row center; press ticket)

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Blast Radius (The Story So Far)

If you missed Advance Man, part one of Mac Rogers' "Honeycomb Trilogy," I'm sorry you did! But it's no reason to miss Blast Radius, part two, currently playing at the Secret Theatre (and reviewed here on Show Showdown by Aaron Riccio and here in the New York Times; I'm seeing it tonight and will be adding my review tomorrow).

Here's a brief recap of Advance Man, written by me based on Mac Rogers' summary:

The spaceship Celeste Farrow is sent to Mars to begin a colony for rich and powerful people to escape the tapped-out planet earth. Mars, however, is already inhabited, by an insect-like race with a hive mind. One of the aliens takes over the mind of astronaut Conor. Astronaut Bill is seduced by the aliens' way of life and decides that better than humans' colonizing Mars would be aliens' colonizing earth. The astronauts bring alien honeycombs to earth and nurture them. Bill's family finds out what is going on; his son Abbie supports the idea; his daughter Ronnie is horrified. She almost manages to stop the plan, but when Abbie stands in her way, she cannot kill him to meet her goal.

And here's the longer summary itself:
Ronnie and Abbie Cooke were growing up in Coral Gables, Florida when their father, Bill, led the first manned mission to Mars on a ship called the Celeste Farrow. In the secret briefings he and his team receive leading up to their mission, it becomes clear that the Celeste's mission is intended as the first step toward colonizing Mars, because the remaining years of Earth’s habitability are dwindling and only a the Earth’s wealthiest and most powerful people will be transferred to Mars to survive. Bill and the other astronauts are horrified, but go on the mission anyway.

When they arrive on Mars, they encounter the dying remnants of a powerful, insect-like alien race that communicatea telepathically, sharing a sort of hive mind. In an attempt to communicate with the astronauts, one of the aliens telepathically enters the mind of one of the astronauts, Conor. This results in the death of the alien’s body and of Conor’s mind—leaving the alien’s consciousness trapped in Conor’s body.

The aliens’ bio-technology and communal mode of living strikes Bill as Earth’s best hope, so he and his team make a secret compact with the aliens for their mutual survival by means of the alien race’s takeover of Earth. The astronauts smuggle several larval Honeycombs back to Earth. Under the guise of the ecologically-minded Chinampas Swamp-Farming Initiative, they create several fertile areas around the world in which the Honeycombs can thrive and, when triggered, swiftly grow the aliens to maturity so that they may begin the war against humanity.

Bill’s wife Amelia has been focused on caring for their teenage children, Ronnie and Abbie, and for Conor, who has come to live with them. As Conor is unable to walk or speak—which Bill attributes to trauma he experienced on Mars—Amelia painstakingly and lovingly teaches him how to be human, not knowing who he truly is. Meanwhile, Amelia notices Bill’s increasing secrecy aand slowly pieces together what’s really happening, but she doesn't fully understand or act until it’s too late. Amelia discovers Bill's plan, but is unable to stop him. Ronnie pulls a gun on the astronauts, but Abbie decides he agrees with his father and triggers the hatching. Ronnie is unable to shoot to the brother she loves.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

The Taming of the Shrew

The Taming of the Shrew can be a very funny play -- and probably should be, lest one linger too long on the sexist implications that one either believes are being mocked by Shakespeare or taken to heart -- but Arin Arbus's manic direction for Theatre for a New Audience cannot seem to bear to let well enough alone. Despite having an excellent center in the boisterous -- but ultimately not a buffoon -- Petruchio (Andy Grotelueschen) and his sharp-tongued, iron-jawed would-be-wife Kate (Maggie Siff, who has well-played similar roles on Mad Men and Sons of Anarchy), this production shoots off in a dozen directions at once. Even the program's dramaturgical notes offer only "perspectives" from other scholars, there's no thesis, no backbone.

Petruchio's reverse-psychology and fact-denying wooing are a comic delight, as always, made all the stronger by Groteleuschen's absolute confidence and by Siff's perfect partnering, from gasping double-takes and resolute put-downs to some far-flung spittle and physical comedy. John Keating (who plays Tranio), John Christopher Jones (as old Gremio), and Saxon Palmer (as Hortensio) get in on the more exaggeratedly fun aspects of the wooing, but the rest of the ensemble is a mixed bag, ranging from the diligently expository servant, Biondello (Varin Ayala), to Kate's thanklessly bland father, Baptista (Robert Langdon Lloyd), and simply unbelievable wooers, Lucentio (Denis Butkus) and Kate's sister, Bianca (Kathryn Saffell). You can literally feel the energy draining from the stage when the two leads are absent, which is further evidence that Arbus is not entirely sure what story she aims to communicate with this version of Shrew.

[Read on]

Porgy and Bess

I know that one shouldn't judge a book by its cover, nor a show by its poster, but as soon as I saw the one for Porgy and Bess, I had serious misgivings about this production. For one thing, a vertical Porgy, looking down at Bess, is no more Porgy than a shy Mame is Mame or a cheerful, teetotaling Blanche DuBois is Blanche DuBois. Also, the noir-ish quality of the poster is miles away from Catfish Row.

The poster, however, turns out to be true to the show, which is not true to Porgy and Bess. Oh, there is a sort of Porgy and Bess going on up there, but in changing the book, director Diane Paulus and playwright Suzan-Lori Parks threw out the baby with the bathwater. I agree with Hilton Als that they succeed in "humanizing the depiction of race onstage," and I thank them for it. But other changes work against the show, including some of the mediocre dialogue and the drawn-out rape scene--though none of the other changes do as much damage as Porgy standing up.

I understand that many of the changes were made with the idea of making Porgy and Bess more of a musical than an opera, but too much is lost. The grandeur is gone. With the size and myth so reduced, the opera doesn't become a musical but rather it becomes a soap opera. It doesn't help that the orchestrations are often thin, the set fails to evoke Catfish Row, and Norm Lewis lacks the gravitas and voice for Porgy. (His "I Got Plenty of Nothing" is completely wrong for the show.)

Of course, it's the only Porgy and Bess we have in New York right now, and a thin version is better than none. It's more successful in my eyes than the recent productions of, for example, A Little Night Music and Follies. It has glorious voices. It has Audra McDonald, well on her way, I suspect, to Tony #5. It has that score.

It's Porgy and Bess lite, but I'm glad I saw it.

(Rear mezzanine, first act. Second row orchestra to the side, second act. TDF ticket)

Closed But Not Forgotten

Nellie McKay: Silent Spring--It's Not Nice to Fool Mother Nature: Nellie McKay fits into no category. You can't describe her by saying she's like so-and-so crossed with so-and-so. If you tried to explain her in an elevator pitch, you'd need a roundtrip or two to the top of the Empire State Building to do her justice.

Nellie McKay is Nellie McKay. She combines charm, talent, imagination, determination, theatricality, a desire to make the world a better place, and a touch of nuttiness to provide shows unlike anything else you'll see in a theatre or cabaret. Her latest, which just ended at Feinstein's, is a tribute to/bio of environmentalist Rachel Carson using slightly adjusted standards (eg, "I'm in love with a wonderful sky"), her own music, prerecorded voiceovers, and an extremely game and talented four-man band (Alexi David on bass, Kenneth Salters on percussion, Cary Park on guitar, and Tivon Pennicott on sax and flute) to tell Carson's story. It's an odd piece, often delightful, sometimes sad. The highlights are the songs, which include "What'll I Do," Would You Like to Be the Love of My Life," "Ohio," "Anything You Can Do" (sung as a solo talking to herself!), and "Ten Cents a Dance." 

Keep an eye out for McKay's next appearance; she is well worth seeing.

Nellie McKay's website is here; Feinstein's is here.

Pipe Dream. Pipe Dream's book is dumb almost beyond comprehension. Boy meets girl; boy is separated from girl by a bunch of flimsy, pointless obstacles; boy gets girl in an anticlimactic, unmusicalized moment. I understand that the Encores! production probably utilized an abbreviated book, but it's the plot points that are problematic.

Meanwhile, a dull-witted guy sings about being a dull-witted guy; a bunch of happy prostitutes sing about being happy prostitutes, and the Flophouse Gang sings about being the Flophouse Gang. The melodies sound so much like Richard Rodger's other works that you keep expecting to hear, oh, "Don't Marry Me" from Flower Drum Song or "People Will Say We're in Love" from Oklahoma. Oscar Hammerstein's lyrics only occasionally rise above moon-June-spoon.

But the Encores! production was a pleasant-enough evening in the theatre. Laura Osnes sang beautifully and did what she could with her inconsistent, underwritten character. Leslie Uggams was charming. Will Chase sang well. The chorus was good.

Parade at Nyack High
Photo: Adam Littman
Question: Why did Tom Wopat wear a baseball cap pulled down low for most of the play? Is director Marc Bruni unaware that City Center has a mezzanine and balcony, and that the people up there might want to see Wopat's face?  If I were a Wopat fan in the higher reaches of the theatre, I would feel very ripped off. As it is, as a non-Wopat fan sitting way up, I felt quite disrespected.

Parade. The people at Nyack High School once again reached for the stars and once again grabbed themselves a few. Director Joseph Egan's decision to stage Jason Robert Brown's Parade was almost insanely ambitious for a high school, but Nyack High's production was lucid, well-paced, well-acted (particularly by freshman Evan Rocco in the lead), well-sung, and quite moving. Bravo, all. (Full disclosure: my niece was production stage manager on the show.)