Sunday, June 30, 2013

Burning Bright (Broadway Theatre Archives): DVD Review

If you never had the amazing experience of seeing Colleen Dewhurst perform live, you can get a taste of how wonderful she was through the magic of technology. In 1959, John Steinbeck's Burning Bright was presented as a TV Play of the Week, and the Broadway Theatre Archives released it as a DVD in 2003. The play is overwritten and mediocre. The tape is black-and-white and raspy and very low tech. None of that matters: this is a gift.

In Burning Bright, Dewhurst plays Mordeen, a woman married to, and very much in love with, an older man who is unable to father children. She swears again and again that she would do anything to make him happy, and she's not kidding.

Steinbeck wrote the play in a hyper-lyricism that is short on contractions and has even less to do with how real people talk; his characters would be comfortable in an Odets play. Myron McCormick (as Mordeen's husband Joe Saul), Dana Elcar (as Joe Saul's best friend), and Donald Madden (as the young stud who is, of course, trouble) sound like they are reciting poetry and not that well. Dewhurst, on the other hand, manages to make Steinbeck's turgid and obvious dialogue sound real and meaningful and emotional and true. She plays an actual human with actual human desires and fears, despite the mediocre writing. The play isn't particularly well-directed by Curt Conway, but he is smart enough to focus on Dewhurst's face in long takes while other people talk to/at her. These moments are gems in which her brilliance shines through.

If, like me, you only know Dewhurst's later work, it is a treat to see her at age 35, beautiful, sexy, and, as always, powerful. With her voice not yet deepened by cigarettes, and her face unlined, she is a different Dewhurst than she was in the 1970s and later. She is more accessibly vulnerable, a little less of a force of nature. But she is Dewhurst.

(I will never take technology for granted; it still feels miraculous to press a button and have perhaps my favorite actress appear in my living room 54 years after her performance was taped--and 21 years after her much-too-early death).

(DVD from Netflix)

Thursday, June 27, 2013


About two years ago, I resolved to refuse, on principle, to see any stage musical that was originally a movie. I've decided to back down from this noble (read: foolhardy) boycott in recent months, not only because there are so many musicalized films at this point that it's hard to keep track of what was once a movie and what wasn't (case in point: I saw Kinky Boots having not realized it was a film first, thereby breaking my own rule without even knowing it), but also because many people--colleagues, friends, students--have gently, politely, patiently pointed out that I'm being a real moron about the whole thing. In the first place, the argument went, just because something was once a movie doesn't automatically mean that it is not worth seeing on a stage. And in the second place, I am a scholar who ostensibly specializes in contemporary stage musicals, so refusing to see an increasingly wide swatch of them simply because I am a pill is idiotic. Finally, to be perfectly honest, I can see that I am wasting a lot of energy in swimming against the tide: why rage against poor, suffering, innocent little shows like The Lion King or Newsies when there are so many legitimate causes in the world?

So I relented. I'm in talks with my ten-year-old daughter to see Newsies at some point soon. I will probably suck it up and see Rocky when it lands in New York (though, still, the thought of Bull Durham as a stage musical makes me want to cut somebody).  And yesterday, I finally caught a matinee of Once.

I saw, and very much enjoyed the movie version of Once, which was yet one more reason I was so resistant to seeing it on stage. For the other reasons, I can refer you back to paragraph one: I am unbelievably stubborn, I continue to fret a great deal about how derivative stage musicals can be and what that means for the form, and I thus couldn't justify coughing up over a hundred bucks to see something I knew I'd be judging and bitching about the whole time. But then I got this special offer for cheap(er) tickets right after being told by my musical theater history students that I was a dope, and I took it as a sign and made the purchase. Lo and behold, the show wasn't torture. It was quite pleasant, in fact, and even surprising and revelatory in some ways, Which doesn't mean I found the screen-to-stage transfer flawless, but which also doesn't mean I feel like I wasted my money, either.

The stage version does a nice job of creating a sense of intimacy for the (rather huge) audience, which is one of its great strengths. As spectators find their seats, the cast members, all of whom play their own instruments, are up on the stage jamming away; songs range from strophic Irish ballads and rowdy reels to Eastern European folk tunes with characteristically close, dissonant harmonies and thrillingly steep vocal slides. The set is warm and inviting: the musicians, and by extension, the audience, are in a cozy Irish pub, where rich brown walls are hung with weathered, smoky mirrors, and the barstools look comfortably broken in. The fact that audience members are encouraged to wander around on the stage before the show and buy drinks on it during intermission adds to the sense of pervasive warmth that somehow makes the enormous Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre feel like a friendly, pleasantly divy corner bar knows your name. The show begins quietly, gently: the audience gradually settles in and focuses on the stage as the jam session segues into the story about a Guy who has lost his woman, his music, and his sense of self, and a Girl who sets him on track again.

One of the things I most appreciated about Once when it was a tiny, quiet film was that it had a great sense of humor. Girl was flip and sarcastic; Da was a man of comically few words; the musicians Girl and Guy end up recording with make a big deal about how they really don't like to play anything but Thin Lizzy covers. The marketing for the musical version of Once worried me a lot, because it makes it seem like the show takes itself way too damned seriously. There's reliance, in ads and tv spots, on the music, of course, which in both versions is all sort of humorless (with the exception of "Broken Hearted Hoover Fixer Sucker Guy"); there's also a lot of emphasis on the connection between Guy and Girl, which is all too often expressed through Deep, Meaningful Moments Involving Girl Wandering Slowly Toward Guy as if Under a Deep, Meaningful Spell, While Guy Plays Deep, Meaningful Love Songs on his Deep, Meaningful Guitar and Looks at Her Deeply. And Meaningfully.

But the stage version has kept, and even added to, the quirky lightheartedness that was so pleasurable in the film. Self-aware jokes about the transition from screen to stage are cracked regularly; Girl is as snide and sarcastic as ever. And a whole host of new characters, or ones that have been given larger roles than they had in the film, add an offbeat wackiness to the proceedings. I was relieved by how funny the musical version is. I laughed a lot.

I was also fairly blown away by a few of the musical numbers. Individually, some of the actors are reasonably good, if not brilliant musicians: Joanna Christie, as Girl, is a fine pianist, if not a terribly expressive one; Arthur Darvill, as Guy, held his own, even though his guitar slid gradually out of tune by intermission and his fretwork could be sloppy. With the possible exception of "Falling Slowly," which is the most well-known piece from Once for a reason, I have never been terribly taken by the songs Guy performs through the show. This makes it all the harder for me to suspend reality when the other characters make a big deal out of how talented he is. Yet maybe because of my lowered expectations, the ensemble numbers consistently stunned me. The emphasis on the secondary characters allowed for a particularly moving sequence in act II that emphasized, through song and movement, the soaring ups and crushing downs recent immigrants experience as they find their footing in new lands. And there is no way to properly describe the rich, gorgeous sound the entire cast makes when they play together, except to say that it is as warm and inviting as the set looks. If there is anything that captures the essence of live performance as well as the act I closer "Gold" does, I haven't heard it--and I've seen that number performed in commercials, on television, on the Internet. Nothing does the live rendition justice. It alone is worth the price of admission.    

But this is precisely why it seems so weird that what gets lost in translation in Once's passage from screen to stage is the depiction, more broadly, of the electricity that people feel when they are making music together. The film captured this particularly well: not only did the growing attraction between Guy and Girl make perfect sense in the context of an intense, whirlwind recording session, but so too did the bonds that were quickly formed between the backing musicians they find to work with (the dudes who loved Lynott). The musical version of Once tries to build the same intensity, but fails, I think for a number of reasons: the new emphasis on secondary characters draws away from the trajectory; stage shows cannot rely on things like closeups and cuts and montages; there is more of an effort in the musical to extend the warmth and electricity the characters feel for each other outward to the audience. It's a tradeoff, I know, but as a result, I found the relationship between Guy and Girl much less intimate, meaningful, and believable than it was in the movie.

Then again, I quite enjoyed their company nonetheless. Once was a good reentry into the world of stage musicals that were once films: it is a quiet, sweet little film that has been lovingly, carefully crafted into a quiet, sweet, somewhat different little musical. Curmudgeon though I am as a spectator, it's only fair to acknowledge that in the end, there's no real harm in that.  

Wednesday, June 26, 2013


Even before Geppetto (Carlo Adinolfi) walks into his workshop, the simple set reflects a yearning of years gone past. Its brick walls display lobby cards advertising Geppetto and Donna’s Mythic Puppet Company and its famous performances in classics such as Orpheus and Eurydice and Helen and Menelaus. Only now the puppets hang forlornly on the wall or limply on the table, waiting for their puppetmaster.

Just the presence of Geppetto animates them as he wishes his puppets Buono Sera. Concrete Temple Theatre’s play may focus on the harsh reality of re-building a life after a loved one passes, but it also shows that value in the affection of objects.

Geppetto, a poor Italian immigrant, is rehearsing for a festival—the first one he’ll do after the death of his wife and co-puppeteer. All the old standbys, however, won’t work with just a single participant pulling the strings and manning the sock puppets. Even his hero becomes a double amputee puppet after an accident.

What gives the play its poignancy, though, is Geppetto’s relationship with his wooden and cloth friends. Throughout his railings at God and the anguish of his loss, the puppeteer maintains a sometimes hilarious conversation with his inanimate companions, at one point addressing one puppet, tied in chains for her role in Perseus and Andrometer, with “Jenny, how you suffer for your art.”

Geppetto suffers, too. At one point, he struggles to control seagulls with his head, balmy waves with an apparatus tied to his waist, a sea monster with a flickering tongue with one hand, and Perseus with the other. The show, created by Adinolfi and its director/writer Renee Philippi, (both co-artistic directors of Concrete Temple Theatre), used Pinocchio, Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, and Hugh Herr, a double amputee rock climber, as its inspirations.

Ultimately, the slight story offers no rocks-your-socks-off moments, yet its quiet pull lingers, reminding us of the resiliency of humans. Best of all is the meet-the-puppets segment after the show, where Adinolfi gives a mini-master class on puppetry and the audience gets to become puppeteers for a moment.

Shows are Thursday-Sunday (ending June 30th) at HERE in Soho.

(Press ticket, general seating)


Carlo Adinolfi as Geppetto/Photo credit: Stefan Hagen

Monday, June 24, 2013

Rantoul and Die

Playwright Mark Roberts is not a member of the Amoralists, but his play Rantoul and Die, well-directed by Jay Stull, is Amoralist material right down to its DNA. The characters are working class and money is always an issue; they speak with a lyrical vulgarity that is poetic yet somehow realistic; they are deeply, noisily emotional; and they yell, curse, and hit one another, yet are strangely sympathetic. The plot is straightforward; the pacing is quick, even frenetic, and the mood is almost operatic in its intensity. Overall, the play is creepy, human, and extremely funny. Like I said, Amoralist theatre.

Sarah Lemp
Photo: Russ Rowland
Debbie married Rallis because "the rent will get paid and he probably won't hit me." And while she remains grateful that he did indeed treat her well, she is now tired of his depression, wimpiness, and total lack of bedroom skills. (Debbie tells Rallis, "We have lousy sex, Rallis. Those rare times we do have it. It is the ugliest, clumsiest, unsexiest thing I have ever seen. And I used to work in a nursing home.")

Rallis still adores Debbie so he slits his wrists in despair and/or as a cry for help. Gary, his good friend, responds by pushing Rallis to get off of the couch, leave Debbie behind, and restart his life. However, Gary's idea of helping is to strangle Rallis almost to death to prove that he doesn't actually want to kill himself. And his verbal comfort isn't much better: "Your heart is broke? Boo-fucking-hoo! Everybody's heart is broke. Why don't we all put up a billboard when we get our hearts broke. Wouldn't be able to find a fucking Wendy's."

Rantoul and Die combines one-liners, well-told stories, hysterical (in both forms of the word) nastiness, and monologues about love and sex and destruction that could fairly be called arias. Running through all of this is character-based humor, lives desperately led, and sheer exuberant theatricality.

Here Lies Love

Photo: Sara Krulwich

Immersive theater is hot in New York right now, but that doesn't mean you should always believe the hype. I've seen a bunch of shows that employ immersive techniques over the past two seasons, and some of them really worked for me, while others just...didn't. Murder Ballad was good fun and well directed, and it was sort of thrilling to be so close to the actors that you could tell which ones were wearing contact lenses. Matilda and Pippin were hardly immersive, but both of them worked the relationship between the audience and performer in interesting and creative ways that are atypical for Broadway shows. Last fall, Ivo Van Hove's Roman Tragedies plunged the audience into--and around, and sometimes even directly in the way of--the action, and also actively relied on it to drive home a series of increasingly complex messages about global politics and the media. I haven't seen Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, but I understand you can drink vodka and nibble caviar while watching the performers, who occasionally come and sit at your table with you or steal something off your plate. Then there's Here Lies Love, the critically lauded, immersive collaboration between David Byrne, Fatboy Slim, and Alex Timbers, which is currently at the Public. Oh, reader, I so wanted to like it.

Can you blame me? David Byrne is awesome. Fatboy Slim is awesome. I had something akin to a religious experience when I saw Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, and thus think that Alex Timbers is awesome. And in truth, the concept of Here Lies Love is awesome, the cast was awesome, and the choreography was awesome. The sum of all these parts, however, was not, alas, an overload of awesomeness. For all the adoration of the press, all the ravings about the immersive environment, all the demand for tickets, all the hip innovations, Here Lies Love is a rather conventional show--even a maddeningly apathetic one--that doesn't say much or use its audience in particularly interesting ways.

Here Lies Love has been compared a lot with Evita, for obvious reasons: Both are "poperas" about the wives of famous 20th century dictators. Both women lived in former Spanish colonies and found glamour and prestige on the arms of their powerful husbands. That's a lot of similarity right there. But there's more: both women have been musicalized by creative teams built almost entirely of men, who seem, in both cases, to want spectators to view their depictions with a mix of pity, adulation, and scorn. Which is all well and good, but all I'm seeing in the press is that while the two shows beg comparison, Here Lies Love holds its own (how? I'm not sure), isn't as openly derisive of its central character (which is supposed to be a good thing, I think), and is radically different because it is immersive and Evita is not.

I'm not here to bash Evita, which I certainly have problems with--just not the same ones that I have with Here Lies Love. Sure, fine, no one would argue that Lloyd Webber and Rice depicted Evita Peron accurately, or even in a way that might possibly, on any planet, be considered nuanced. As far as I know, for example, the real Eva Peron was never followed around by a heroic, utterly uncomplicated, deeply soulful (and typically quite hunky) version of Che Guevara. Also, while she might not have been a very nice person, maybe--and I might be going out on a limb, here--she was not quite the conniving, wheedling, money-hungry, social-climbing whore that Rice and Lloyd Webber feverishly envisioned her to be. Then again, their Evita is big. She is meaty, and alluring, and almost cartoonishly emotive--so much so that when she dies at the end of Evita, the show collapses in on itself and dies, too. The Evita of Evita is larger than life. She is the reason for Patti LuPone, for goodness' sakes.

Imelda is played by Ruthie Ann Miles, who is not comparable in style to Patti LuPone, but who is clearly enormously talented in her own right. She does a fine job portraying Marcos from youth on up, in a storyline that's treated awfully conventionally for all the gimmickry: As a child, Imelda wishes her family had more money and status than they do (she is depicted as poor in the musical; she was not in real life). She is very pretty. She wins beauty pageants. She dates Benigno Aquino, and then marries Ferdinand Marcos after a whirlwind courtship. She takes pills. She parties a lot and spends a lot of money. She is sad when her husband has an affair. She is also sad when her country rejects her and Ferdinand after they've kept themselves in power for over twenty years, stolen countless billions, and committed all kinds of corruptions and human rights violations. The US helps the Marcos family evacuate and settle safely in Hawaii when their government falls, peacefully, to Corazon Aquino, wife of the assassinated Benigno.

The title of the show is apparently what Imelda Marcos wants on her gravestone when she dies: "Here Lies Love." Really? On a gravestone? That's pretty arrogant, huh? And also pretty trite, no? Yes. Exactly. And herein lies the problem: The Imelda Marcos that is central to Here Lies Love is never much more interesting than this gravestone platitude is. There's no real character, here--just a sort of two-dimensional list of events that Byrne, Timbers and--um---Slim don't seem entirely comfortable with or even clear on. Is this woman a self-aggrandizing asshole? A victim of circumstances? A materialistic narcissist? Or is she just astoundingly shallow and not very bright or interesting? I wish they had made up their minds and run with whatever Imelda they wanted to develop. But as it was, I never felt any spark of--well, of anything for this flimsy stage version of the fallen first lady: No pity, no hatred, no attraction, no repulsion. There is scant mention of shoes in Here Lies Love. Everyone who has written about the musical thus far feels compelled to mention this fact. I am starting to wonder if it's because no one is quite certain what else there is to say about Imelda Marcos' depiction without them.

And yes, I get it, the show was about her, not about him. But the fact that Ferdinand is--like all the other characters, really--even more frustratingly, thinly developed than Imelda is makes Here Lies Love seem more sexist than I would have expected and that I am sure its (almost entirely male) creative team would have liked. I don't fling the term around lightly. But the fact that a famous, affluent woman who likes to party and wear nice shoes is held up for scrutiny and easy passing judgment when it is, after all, her husband who was the person in power--greedy, grossly mishandled, dangerously corrupt power--irked me. So too did the decision to make Imelda poor in Here Lies Love, which somehow strikes me as a cheap ploy for some kind of sympathy she didn't deserve, and a plot device that doesn't jibe with her later assertions that it's poor peoples' fault that they are poor.

The ending, too, fell flat for me, especially since it traded on some old rock and roll cliches that I've come to loathe at this point in my life. The People Power Revolution was depicted in song, the lyrics of which were drawn from transcripts of interviews with people involved in the event. Nice touch. But the piece was initially performed by a single guy on acoustic guitar, which I suppose was meant to resonate after an hour and a half of electronic, bootie-shaking disco, but which just reeked to me of folkie old-guard Bob Dylan worship, whether it was meant to or not. The single guitar-playing guy was slowly joined by another guy on snare and then, in the last stanza, a woman on bass drum. It was nice of them to put a woman up there for some of the protest, I guess; I suspect there were plenty of women who were involved during the original uprising, too.

But the end was doubly irksome in how it used the audience in its reenactment of the PPR: it didn't. Not at all. And here's the thing: Here Lies Love has been touted as immersive. I think I've used the term about three-hundred times here, and it's one of the most applied adjectives I've seen when it comes to writing about this show. It's what has helped sell it--its immersiveness.

Which is all well and good, except that the show ultimately doesn't actually do anything interesting with the audience. Spectators are, in fact, kept on a very short leash. Dancing ushers in bright orange jumpsuits keep people moving one way or the other so that the large platforms can be moved all over the floor. There are a few moments during which the audience is directed to do a line dance or form a conga line or shout "yeah" when the DJ asks them to. But otherwise, spectators are instructed to stand around watching the action, or move a little to the left, or a little to the right, out of the way of a passing actor, some moving scenery, or a rotating platform. Until the end, that is, when all spectators are instructed to clear the floor and sit on bleachers, thereby allowing the imagined fourth wall to lower during what might otherwise have been a truly immersive restaging of the PPR.
Why the choice to drive a wedge between the audience and spectator at this point? Why not involve the audience in the reenactment of a mass movement? Come to think of it, why was this piece immersive at all? Why are we all in a disco? Are we all supposed to be Imelda Marcos? Are we all Filipinos? Are we all Americans? And if so, are we being judged for dancing and having fun while the Marcos's abuse their power and then get escorted out of their country by our military and taken safely to ours? We are in some way complicit, right? And if so, couldn't that be made more clear, somehow? Or is the audience genuinely meant to feel absolutely nothing at all, except that it was cool to boogie down with Imelda Marcos? And if so, what is the point of any of this?

I don't think all theater has to say something deep and meaningful, but a show about the Marcos regime--at the Public, no less--that seems so hesitant to say anything at all confuses me. So too do all the accolades. Believe me when I say that it feels unpleasant to be the sourpuss off in the corner, wondering what the fuss is all about, and ruining the party for everyone else.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

A Picture of Autumn

You have through July 14th to catch N.C. Hunter's A Picture of Autumn at the Mint, and you really should. This 1951 drama/comedy features a huge house and characters that would fit right in on Downton Abbey, yet its themes, relationships, and conflicts remain completely contemporary.

Helen Cespedes, George Morfogen
Photo: Richard Termine
In brief: Sir Charles and Lady Margaret Denham and Charles' brother Harry are getting on in years and find themselves less and less able to deal with their home, Union Manor, which has fallen into serious disrepair. Once upon a time, there were dozens of servants; now there is only the ancient "Nurse," who needs at least as much care as she offers. Most of the day-to-day chores fall to Lady Margaret, who feels more tired every day--and no wonder, when even getting from the kitchen to the sitting room is such a long walk. Still, Margaret, Charles, and Harry are happy at Union Manor and content with the prospect of someday dying there. Enter older son Robert, who believes--with much reason--that the three senior citizens should sell the manor and move to a more manageable home, perhaps a hotel for the elderly. After all, hasn't he received frequent letters from Margaret complaining of how difficult her life has become?

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Turnabout Is Fair Play: On Reviewing and Being Reviewed

Here's the basic formula of reviewing: a bunch of people, frequently talented, sometimes brilliant, strive for weeks, months, or years, often at great sacrifice, and then I show up and judge them. It doesn't seem fair.

And yet I don't plan to stop. I believe that reviewers can make a contribution. Minimally, we offer publicity; maximally, we add something valuable to the conversation. At least we try (many of us, anyway).

The thing is, I know what it feels like to get bad reviews. I know how easy it is to remember the negatives and forget the positives. So, in the interest of full disclosure, I think it's time to share some of the bad reviews my book, The Lesbian Sex Book (later updated as The New Lesbian Sex Book) received.
"Necessary but dull."
"The humor is somewhat simplistic, even embarrassing at times."
"If you have ever had lesbian sex, there will be little for you to learn from Wendy Caster's book."
"Unintentionally funny in places [with] a distinct lack of irony."
"Full of . . . useless quirky hints to spice up your love life. It's American--need I say more." (From Dublin.)
(I love that last one--not only can't I write, but I disgraced my entire country.)

The book also received some good reviews and sold pretty well. Yet it's the bad reviews I remember, nearly 20 years later. (And, sigh, I don't think the bad reviews are particularly unfair.)

I would love to hear what other people have to say about the role of reviewers. Comments welcome!

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Frankenstein Upstairs

In Frankenstein Upstairs, Mac Rogers once again uses science fiction as his delivery system to present us with his unique combination of insight, humor, wisdom, and compassion. The plot is seemingly simple: Sophie and Marisol, a young couple, become friends with their neighbor upstairs, Dr. Victoria Frankenstein. In their slightly alternate universe, the Frankenstein novel/legend does not exist, so the name has no resonance for them; for the audience, however, the name promises death, rebirth, and all sorts of deliciously dreadful complications.

Kristen Vaughan
Photo: Deborah Alexander
One of Rogers' main themes in Frankenstein Upstairs is "can you choose your family?," and his answer is clearly "yes." In addition to Sophie, Marisol has chosen Taylor, a man she met in a domestic-violence-recovery group, as kin. Taylor loves Marisol deeply and also admires her because she's "the biggest hit in group, right? She’s the only one who tells stories about hitting back."

And Dr. Frankenstein ("Please call me Vic"), clearly isolated and terribly lonely, is touched, thrilled, grateful, and somehow defrosted when Sophie simply invites her to dinner. When Marisol later touches her face, in a moment of easy (for Marisol) intimacy (unprecedented for Vic), Vic falls in love with both women, but not romantically. She chooses them for her family. Whether they will choose her back is another story.

Rogers has a wonderful ability to make the mundane magical and the magical mundane. On one hand, Vic is Dr. Frankenstein, crazy, brilliant, able to change the world--and also charming and funny. On the other, she is the neighbor-friend-relative who doesn't understand boundaries, who doesn't recognize when she's overstayed her welcome, who thinks that the amount she (genuinely!) loves someone means that they have to love her back. This Dr. Frankenstein is easy to sympathize with--it's not her fault she's a mad genius.

Friday, June 14, 2013


Sometimes more is less, as clearly shown by the revival of Pippin currently on Broadway. Or perhaps I should write "sometimes more is less for me," since Pippin's multitude of Tony Awards (revival, director, lead actress, featured actress) and SRO audiences prove that my opinion is not a majority one. But:
Andrea Martin
Photo: Joan Marcus
  • Pattina Miller as the Leading Player is all muscles and edges, often looking more like she's working out than she's dancing. 
  • Chet Walker's choreography, though based on Fosse's more sinuous work, is full of busy-ness and edges and angles. (I'm not sure why shows have choreography "in the style of Fosse"; is there some reason that they can't just use Fosse's choreography in the first place?)
  • Most importantly, while the circus acts are amazing, superb, and magical, they too often pull focus from the choreography and the rest of the show--or perhaps the choreography and the rest of the show pull focus from the circus acts--but either way the audience is faced with visual noise and a production that is less than the sum of its parts. As just one example, the brilliant Manson Trio, an oasis of quiet, is not allowed to finish without some of the circus performers back on stage and, yes, pulling focus. (This links to the Manson Trio from the televised Pippin with Ben Vereen--the trio starts around 3:57. Unfortunately, here too they are unwilling to leave the dance alone, throwing in other images, but, man, what choreography!)
There are some lovely moments amid all this stuff.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

3 Kinds of Exile

Everyone has the occasional bad bad at work; 3 Kinds of Exile offers us a few of John Guare's.

The first exile, Karel, has a few advantages: (1) his story is genuinely interesting; (2) he is played by the wonderful Martin Moran, who knows the alchemy involved in turning a monologue into a living piece of theatre; and (3) it comes first in the evening, while the audience is still perky. (Note: all of the exiles are real people.)

Martin Moran
Photo: Kevin Thomas Garcia
The second exile, actress Elzbieta Czyzewska, has a tougher time of it. Although her story is fascinating, with everything but the bloodhounds snapping at her rear end, Guare has turned it into a dualogue, which is painfully different from a dialogue. Guare, making his "acting" debut, and Omar Sangare, who had a featured role in Czyzewska's life, take turns telling us about her and what happened to her. Omar occasionally plays one of the people in Czyzewska's life, to little profit. The "play" is a recited essay.

For the third play, Guare gives us an absurdist version of an absurdist's life. Writer Witold Gombrowicz is the exile. Luckily for the audience he is played by David Pittu, who single-handedly improves the piece from tortuous to only extremely painful.

I go to theatre to see people interact--people, not one person. I like to see characters spar and bill and coo and lie and manipulate and give and take. Mostly, I like to see them talk to one another. However, even though two of the 3 Kinds of Exile feature more than one person, they do not rise above the ambiance and disadvantages of the thinnest of one-person shows. (Of course, there are writers and performers who ace one-person shows--see, for example, Moran's brilliant All the Rage.)

On a whole, 3 Kinds of Exile left this reviewer eager to see Six Degrees of Separation.

(midway back, orchestra, press ticket)

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Potted Potter

Potted Potter promises to present all seven Harry Potter books in 70 minutes, a promise it only kinda sorta keeps. Its talented, energetic cast of two--Dan Clarkson and Jeff Turner, who are also the playwrights--run around, throw on hats and wigs, and talk very fast. They are frequently quite funny.

Unfortunately, many of the precious 70 minutes aren't actually about Harry Potter. Too much time is given to Dan and Jeff's making fun of each other and themselves, and discussing whether Dan ever did read book 7, and talking about Dan's supposed misuse of their budget. This silliness is sometimes fun, but it's familiar stuff, and we're there because of Harry Potter, not because of Dan and Jeff.

Still, it would be a crabbier person than I who could ultimately resist the frenetic insanity on display, and I did end up having a lot of fun.

And the Quiddich match is pretty wonderful.

(row N, press ticket)

Tony Awards: PS

I was glad to see Cyndi Lauper win best score for a musical, because I love Cyndi Lauper.

But then I happened to turn on the radio and catch the tail end of this interview. Specifically, I caught composer-lyricist Tim Minchin singing "Quiet" from Matilda.

And I'd have to say that he was robbed. There's more brilliance in that one song than in all of Kinky Boots.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Welcome Back, Tony Awards

For the first time in years, I felt that the Tonys were ours again, that the show and the awards focused on theatre and existed to entertain people for whom theatre is so primary that their web passwords are amalgams of Sondheim titles (uh, not anyone I know personally). Even the movie, TV, and music people who were there, were there as theatre people. It was our night.

How nice to see the big stars be Bernadette Peters and Patti LuPone. How nice to see the theatre actor Tracey Letts beat movie actor Tom Hanks (no offense, Tom). How nice to see stalwart Billy Porter up there, and Christopher Durang. How nice to see Neal Patrick Harris at his very best.

And two female best directors! (Bringing the Tony total to seven.) And Cyndi Lauper (definitely one of us with her beat-up musical theatre LPs) being the first woman to win for both music and lyrics!

And genuinely good original numbers, from the thrilling opening assembly of everyone (here) to Michael John LaChiusa's wry and smart "I Want to Be in A TV Show" (video and lyrics here) to the impressively-quickly-put-together-and-performed closing summary by Harris and Audra McDonald (here).

And what a lovely, genuinely moving memorial segment, with Cyndi Lauper's moving rendition of her evocative "True Colors."

Things I Learned While Watching the 2013 Tonys

1) The Tonys are the honeybadger of awards shows. They don't give a shit, they have loose skin, and they are absolutely, completely, and totally badass.

2) Neil Patrick Harris should host every awards ceremony, ever, and if he did so, he would somehow manage to end all of the problems in the world.

3) Women are amazing, excellent creatures who work hard, gets things done, and sometimes manage to sweep every major category in the most wonderful and extraordinary of ways.

4) Little Steven has something to do with Broadway, or once did, and it involved the Rascals.

5) Little Steven digs the Rascals so much that they got a montage last night.

6) I realize I still have no fucking idea what the Rascals or Little Steven were doing there, but whatever, the song is certainly a classic. And Little Steven got to make some passing reference to The Sopranos, which is nice, I guess.

7) I really am genuinely concerned for Kenneth Posner and hope he's not too broken up about it all.

8) After Neil Patrick Harris, Alan Cumming is my hero.

9) Motown the Musical is either awesome or absolutely atrocious, and if it's possible, maybe both at once.

10) Cicely Tyson is bionic.

11) Audra McDonald is bionic.

12) The opening number was bionic.

13) The awards were, almost to a one, deserving, thrilling, and well-received. And bionic.

14) Phantom of the Opera is the opposite of bionic, and it needs to join Cats on the Heaviside Layer at this point. Please?

15) The Academy Awards could learn a lot from the Tonys. 

Friday, June 07, 2013

Murder Ballad(s)

Murder Ballad, which is currently running at the Union Square Theater after a critically and commercially successful stint at MTC earlier this fall, is everything everyone says it is: paper thin when it comes to plot and character, but high in energy, trendily immersive, with a catchy enough score and a small but beautiful cast of almost ridiculously sexy people. There; that's my review: it was enormous fun, like everyone says it is. Go check it out.

Meanwhile, know that it's rooted in a larger history, and comes out of a genre that is very old, totally lurid, and really fucking awesome. And also just as paper-thin as the plot of Murder Ballad, which is pretty up-front about the fact that audiences dig sex, blood, and lurid details, but don't necessarily give a shit about nuanced character development. The opening number makes that all clear, really, but just in case you miss what the cast is singing about because you are too distracted by their ridiculous sexiness, Murder Ballad is a musical-length murder ballad.

Thursday, June 06, 2013

The Tonys are Coming! The Tonys are Coming!

Howdy, people:

Some of you might know this, and some of you could probably not care less, but anyway, sometimes I write for the Oxford University Press blog, since OUP published Hard Times and has been so kind and wonderful to me. They asked me to write about the Tony Awards, which--I am sure every person reading this blog knows--is to be broadcast this coming Sunday evening.

I promise to post here about my impressions of the Tonys once they are broadcast, but in the meantime, here's the link to the OUP blog, and to my piece for them. I don't mean to toot my own horn or anything, but I think you'll enjoy the post--especially if you are a fan of the old TV series "Sliders."