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Sunday, December 22, 2013

Fun Home

Joan Marcus
The composer Jeanine Tesori has a knack for capturing, in her scores, the ebbs and flows of complex, imbalanced relationships. Through recurring motifs, overlapping melodic lines, and a flow of orchestral support that frequently allows characters to segue imperceptibly between aria and recitative, she deftly mimics the voices of people who love one another deeply, fight with one another viciously, try desperately to understand one another, erupt in frustration when they fail. Her ensemble harmonies clash with heartbreaking dissonance when crises occur, and melt luxuriously when there is consolation. Her particular talent for capturing the endless nuances of complicated families--which means all families, I guess--struck me during the first few minutes of Fun Home. Like the brilliant Caroline, or Change, Fun Home focuses largely on the strained domestic life of a child. As far as I'm concerned, Caroline was a landmark work--one that took the musical theater genre in new directions and raised its aesthetic stakes. And damn if Fun Home isn't just as beautiful, moving, and nuanced. Since seeing it, I have come to believe that Tesori is not just a wonderful composer, but one of monumental importance. People who dismiss the musical theater outright with a roll of the eyes and a terse "I HATE musicals"--as if the entire genre can be easily boiled down to a late-run performance by a second-rate touring company of Cats--have clearly never encountered the work of Jeanine Tesori.

Yet in raving as blatheringly as I do about Tesori, I hope not to imply that she is on some kind of creative pedestal, towering above the people with whom she has collaborated. Part of brilliance is knowing how to listen to and work with other brilliant people. Tony Kushner's no slouch, after all, and neither is George Wolfe. And like Caroline, or Change, Fun Home doesn't really have any weak links. I've read a few reviews arguing that Michael Cerveris was miscast, which I think is bullshit. And I've read others that place Judy Kuhn in the "thankless" role of the mother, which I think is a slightly smaller bunch of bullshit, but bullshit nonetheless. Sure, the musical explores, even more intensely than the graphic novel does, the relationship between a father and a daughter, and this kind of gives the mother figure short shrift in some respects--and this is the case even more in the musical than it was in the book. That being said, Kuhn's final number brings the whole show home; it (and, in the role, she) is a carefully controlled masterpiece of sorrow, fury, and frustration.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

2013 in Review (The Disappointments)

Disappointing shows, in alphabetical order:
  • The Big Knife: A waste of an excellent cast. And while Richard Kind was fine, I don't know why everyone made such a big deal of his being able to play a mean character. He is an actor, after all.
  • Orphans: I have no idea why anyone would want to revive this show. It was fun, however, to watch Tom Sturridge leap around the stage.
  • Collapse: Ick. I mean, ICK.
  • Macbeth: The Alan Cumming one-man show: full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. (For a different opinion from Liz Wollman, click here.)
  • Far From Heaven: A musical that needs the same advice that Jerome Robbins gave about Forum: define it from the opening song. A serious, heart-felt, traditional "I want" song from the female lead would focus it usefully. And then, I think, they should keep the focus on her. As it was, the show was diffuse and hard to care about.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

2013 in Review (The Best)

Whew! Another year has jetted by with astonishing speed, leaving me some 80 shows in its wake. While reviewing the year as a whole, it strikes me that the lesson of 2013, as of the past few years, is that Off-Off-Broadway and Off-Broadway are the future of New York theatre, while Broadway is largely its past.
The Three Alisons of Fun Home

I saw 15 Broadway shows, all at deeply discounted prices (except for Pippin, for which I paid $69 for the second-to-last row balcony). Once upon a time, I saw nearly everything that opened on Broadway; now I see only a fraction. And yet my theatre life is still full, if not fuller. And that's due to Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway.

I saw 54 Off-Broadway shows. (I'm including Encores! here, and shows at St. Ann's. Sometimes I find the definition of Off-Broadway inexact.) People often write that Off-Broadway is dead, and I suppose that, in the sense of original new commercial productions, it's at least seriously ill. But in terms of nonprofit theatres, it is as vibrant as can be. Playwrights Horizons. New York Theatre Workshop. The Mint. The New Group. The Public. 59e59. The CSC. The low-price small theatres at Roundabout (Roundabout Underground) and Lincoln Center (the Clair Tow). The Pearl. The Signature. Each of these produces work that is sometimes exciting, sometimes challenging, sometimes fascinating, often excellent, and rarely a waste of time. That sounds like good health to me.

The rest of the shows I saw were Off-Off-Broadway. OOB can be a crapshoot, of course, particularly when you stumble onto a vanity production that should only be forced upon loved ones. But that's true of Broadway and Off-Broadway as well. And the best OOB theatre is as good as the best anywhere, with intimate spaces, low prices, and that wonderful sense of discovery that gets harder and harder to experience when you've been going to the theatre for decades. But Flux, Gideon, and HERE surprise and delight me with some regularity, and I love them for it.

THE BEST I SAW THIS YEAR--IN CHRONOLOGICAL ORDER

Intimate Apparel. I missed this show's run a few years back, but I was lucky enough to catch a benefit reading starring the amazing Quincy Tyler Bernstine. The show is everything the reviews had said, and Bernstine gave the sort of performance that touches your heart and causes your head to start muttering, "Why isn't she being given the lead in, well, everything?"

Monday, December 16, 2013

Big Fish


Though Big Fish will be closing on December 29, I figured that it was worth a review because its feel-good quality may be the sort of diversion people are looking for during the holiday season.  

Based on the novel by Daniel Wallace (though people may be more familiar with Tim Burton’s screen adaptation), Big Fish tells the story of Edward and Will Bloom, an estranged father and son.  Edward, played by Norbert Leo Butz, has a penchant for telling autobiographical tall tales - full of mermaids, witches, and giants - that constantly aggravate his more practically minded son Will, played by Bobby Steggert.  The musical follows the grown Will as he tries to figure out the truth behind his father’s fantastical stories, while he himself is expecting his own son and Edward’s health is failing.  Despite my issues with some  aspects of the production, I shed some tears at its heartwarming conclusion.  

Norbert Leo Butz is a formidable star and his performance alone makes this production worth seeing.  His changes in physicality for Edward’s life stages and well as his magnetic stage presence carry most of Act I, though perhaps to the detriment of his costars.  Kate Baldwin, who played his wife, was overshadowed quite a bit.  At the particular performance that I attended, it also took Steggert a while to settle into character. 

The show lacked focus at its start, but tightened up towards the end of Act I and moving into Act II.  I felt that some of the production elements, namely the visual projections, hindered the show rather than helped it.  They were particularly distracting and unnecessary in the Witch’s number; Stroman’s choreography alone would have created the desired visual effect.  The story is ultimately about fathers and sons, and I felt that Big Fish fell into a common Broadway trap - just because you can do [fill-in-the-blank-with-a-fancy-expensive-stage-trick] doesn’t mean you ought to.  

It’ll be interesting to track the life of Big Fish past its Broadway closing date.  A cast album is slated for release in February, but I’m not sure how much it will help the brand as Andrew Lippa’s music and lyrics are pop/rock-y cute but not particularly memorable.  If taken on the road, Big Fish will need to tighten its first act so that it doesn’t rely so much on its lead actor.  National tours do not usually feature stars that can draw crowds like Butz,.  Also, the show needs a bit of pruning to make the musical’s narrative theme - that of familial reconciliation - stand out more.  

In spite of my nitpickings, Big Fish is a sweet musical with a lot of heart.  If you're looking for non-holiday themed, but heartwarming entertainment for this time of year, I recommend it.  

Playing at the Neil Simon Theatre, Friend-of-a-Friend Comp Ticket, Center Orchestra Row R

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Blessed Unrest's A Christmas Carol



The cast of Blessed Unrest's A Christmas Carol. Photo by Alan Roche 
‘Tis the season when perennial favorites, such as A Christmas Carol, come to visit. Just as Scrooge’s three spirits seek to alter the miser’s view of Christmas, Blessed Unrest hopes to leave their own imprint on the Charles Dickens’ classic—one that matches the author’s original intent: to examine an uneven socioeconomic system, which only benefits the wealthy. The nonprofit theatre company only partly succeeds with this light-hearted, but often heavy-handed production.

The show begins with a lovely enchantment—the six actors who will play 37 characters in the 95 minute running time gambol in bare feet as a disco light mimics snowfall and a Dickensian village comes to life: Tiny Tim (Jessi Blue Gormezano) limps across, toes twisted uncomfortably; a couple steals a kiss on tiptoe; and Ebenezer Scrooge (Damen Scranton) stomps sourly into his workplace. All infuriated twitch and baleful glare when discussing topics such as Christmas and charity, this Scrooge softens whenever his dead sister is mentioned. Scranton infuses this underlying sorrow into his version, making the  miser more sympathetic and relatable than other portrayals. Unfortunately, the remainder of the cast is uneven, with the men faring better than the women, who often use off-putting and inconsistent accents.

The creative team’s artistic choices make the production both whimsical and puzzling (Director-Choreographer: Jessica Burr and Production Stage Manager: Jamie Van Dyke).  Making Scrooge climb five flights of stairs—complete with a Bill Irwin-like ascension—allows for delightful laughter at the miser’s expense. The actors also engage in a fascinating choreography of costume changes with lace collars and vests appearing from underneath stacked doors and one woman nonchalantly tying another’s sash in a corner. However, the breakout Lady GaGa dancing session is more anachronistic than humorous, and putting Jacob Marley (Joshua Wynter) on stilts works better as an idea—it intensifies the horror of walking the earth without rest—but the actor sweats so from the exertion you want to dab him off with a towel.  

A Christmas Carol runs through December 22 at The Interart Theatre (500 W. 52nd Street in New York City). Tickets are $18. For more information: http://www.BlessedUnrest.org.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Beautiful

Beautiful, the Carole King biomusical, is stuffed with one incredible song after another. The result is an entertaining and enjoyable evening. Would it be too much to wish it were also good?

Jeb Brown, Jake Epstein, Jessie Mueller,
Jarrod Spector, Anika Larsen
Photo: Joan Marcus
The usual problem with biomusicals is that most people's lives don't provide a satisfying dramatic arc; however, Carole King's life does. The show starts with King (the superb Jessie Mueller) triumphantly performing at Carnegie Hall. We then go into a flashback, of course, and over the next two and a half hours or so, we see King grow from a preternaturally gifted 16-year-old to a harried and still preternaturally gifted mother and wife to an independent and, yes, preternaturally gifted singer-songwriter. The potential drama occurs in her challenging relationship with her writing partner and husband, Gerry Goffin (Jake Epstein), whose demons destroy their marriage and take a bite out of his sanity as well. Unfortunately, Douglas McGrath's disappointing book fails to capitalize on these dramatic opportunities and instead gives us thinly drawn characters and undeveloped relationships. Beautiful aims to be musical comedy rather than musical drama.

The show's humor comes in two flavors. The first is setup, setup, lame punchline; setup, setup, lame punchline; and so on. Most of the punchlines rely on the audience's knowledge of the songs, and they are obvious from a mile away. With your eyes closed. And ear plugs in.

The other flavor of humor, people bantering with one another, is much more successful. The relationship between King's good friends Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann (whose musical output is almost as impressive as King's) includes much warm teasing that is genuinely funny. It helps a great deal that Jarrod Spector is playing Mann and the amazing Anika Larsen is playing Weil. (Larsen shares Eve Arden's ease, presence, and comfort with a laugh line. And if you don't know Eve Arden's work, let me assure you that that is a serious compliment.)

Of course the show is largely about the wonderful, wonderful songs, one right after another. Take Good Care of my Baby. Will You Love Me Tomorrow. Up on the Roof. On Broadway. You've Lost That Loving Feeling. Pleasant Valley Sunday. We Gotta Get out of This Place. (You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman. Treat after treat after treat. And each and every one is well-sung.

Director Marc Bruni, Music Supervisor and Arranger Jason Howland, and Orchestrator/Arranger Steve Sidwell, along with the performers, have found a sweet spot where the songs are not slavish recreations of the hit versions but also are not overly changed. Instead, the songs are just different enough to make them distinct and new while retaining the flavor of the period and the originals. It's a nice job.


Sunday, December 08, 2013

The Pigeoning

The Pigeoning is 70 minutes of pure delight. This brilliant piece of puppet theatre is the story of Frank, an office worker who cannot function unless everything on his desk is aligned perfectly (I relate). When a pigeon starts tapping on his office window, Frank begins a hilarious descent into paranoia. And, no, hilarious paranoia is not an oxymoron in this cartoon-like yet heartfelt and even touching kaleidoscope of creativity, where a tattered umbrella can simultaneously be funny and menacing, with a bit of social commentary thrown in.

Frank
Photo: Richard Termine

Frank is brought to life by a team of black-clad puppeteers who work with the collaborative grace of the best of dancers. Moments when you forget the puppeteers are there and moments when you are mesmerized by them are equally beautiful. Frank's wide-eyed expression somehow manages to be quizzical, annoyed, heartbroken, angry, and amazed in turn. (I could not help but compare his performance to Carrie Underwood's in the TV version of The Sound of Music. She has been criticized by many people as being "wooden," but Frank shows that ostensibly inanimate materials can morph into vivid emotional life in the right hands. Underwood could learn something from him!)

The Pigeoning was created and directed by Robin Frohardt, who also designed the puppets, props, and set with Jesse "Roadkill" Wilson. The show features live music composed and performed by Freddi Price and lighting design by Heather Sparling.  The puppeteers are Daniel Burnam, Lillie Jayne, Nick Lehane, Rowan Magee, and Andy Manjuck. Clearly, puppet theatre takes a village, and this village is populated by amazingly talented people.

The Pigeoning runs at HERE through December 22nd. Do yourself a favor and go.

(second row center, press ticket)

Friday, December 06, 2013

The Sound of Music....LIVE!


Hi, all. It's been a very long semester and I've seen very little theater, and I've missed blogging a bunch. I plan to rectify that starting....now:

Last night, along with, um, everyone, I got to watch the live broadcast of The Sound of Music, starring Carrie Underwood and a lot of other people. It wasn't great--just ask the entire population of the planet, which was busily hate-tweeting the broadcast at about forty million tweets per nanosecond. Then again, there were some sublime moments: Laura Benanti making dramatic entrances or exits; Carrie Underwood dropping her wooden facade as an actor to snuggle into her happy place as a singer; that shrieking Nazi who kept wandering in and out and giving orders to everyone near the end. And regardless of what you thought of the show as a whole, I think we have, all of us, to a musical-theater-loving (wo)man, concluded that we can now all die happily having heard a habit-draped Audra McDonald sing this to a clearly moved Carrie Underwood:


The Sound of Music (TV Review)

Kudos to Craig Zadan and Neil Meron for producing a live TV version of The Sound of Music. There's something incomparably sparkling, vivid, and delightful about live performances.

In the actual event, however, this Sound of Music was notably sparkle-free, absent, and kind of dreary.

Carrie Underwood was in over her head much of the time. She spoke every line in the same monotone, whether talking about God, love, lightning, or Nazis. Her comic timing was nonexistent; potentially funny moments just slipped by, totally wasted. Her singing was fine, but far from thrilling. As the evening wore on, she did occasionally show a spark of personality or actual acting. She may have some potential, but probably not more than your above-average high-school Maria. (And are we really supposed to believe that someone would choose this Maria over Laura Benanti's Elsa?) It seems likely, however, that Underwood's fame was one of the reasons that this production was green-lighted, so good for her for trying.

The acting in general was not impressive. Stephen Moyer was beyond wooden as the Captain, Christian Borle pushed too much as Max, and Laura Benanti, while lovely as always, never quite inhabited her character.


Audra MacDonald was in gorgeous voice as the Reverend Mother (though I didn't love her acting), and it was fun to see Jessica Molasky and Christiane Noll as two other nuns. (Is it rude to point out that any of them would have been a million times better than Carrie Underwood as Maria, even though decades too old for the role?) The kids were reasonably good but not distinctive, and Michael Campayno as Rolf came across as a 27-going-on-28 child molester.

I enjoyed the music; I enjoyed that the singing was live; I enjoyed the use of multiple stages so that they could open a door and walk into a totally new location. I enjoyed that this production existed, so I watched the whole damned thing.

I watch little commercial television, so I rarely have to deal with commercials, for which I am quite grateful. The commercial breaks were annoying and frequent, eliminating any chance the show had of gaining momentum and audience involvement. And the incessant hawking of the sing-along CD was downright funny, since it was a reminder that while the singing was live, the music wasn't. They should have been honest and said, "Sing along to the same exact track used by Carrie Underwood!"

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Romeo and Juliet

I’m always late to the party—so it is predictable for me to see a show days before it's closing. But Romeo and Juliet, which ends on Sunday, deserves an audience. The first Broadway revival of Shakespeare’s tragedy in 36 years features Orlando Bloom (of The Lord of the Rings and Pirates of the Caribbean fame) and Condola Rashad (Tony nominations for A Trip to Bountiful and Stick Fly) as the star-crossed lovers. While the costumes and scenery often mimic a modern-day West Side Story theme—with Romeo and his cohorts clad in ripped dungarees and high-tops, and Roman heads as part of the graffiti scrawled on cement walls—the classic words continue to haunt in a edited version that lasts two hours and 20 minutes.

Rashad sparkles as Juliet and aptly depicts the luminescence of the young in love, while Bloom underlines Romeo’s idealistic romanticism with the very real awkwardness and uncertainty first meetings and the initial flickers of love face. Rashad is especially enchanting and plays Juliet not as a simple girl but one who is frank and honest—and full of courage in the pursuit of something of her own. The casting of an African American Juliet with a Caucasian Romeo helps explain the animosity between the families, but doesn’t register as part of their romance. Supporting characters offer spirited turns—with Christian Camargo infusing Mercutio with the badassnes of Johnny Rotten and Justin Guarini (who survived his American Idol notoriety) a well-mannered but boring Paris, the epitome of a parent’s idea of the perfect fiancĂ©.


David Leveaux’s production is full of rich details—the release of a bird, like an uneasy premonition, that flies out over an abandoned beach, where chairs lie discarded on their sides; a dispirited Romeo who recklessly drives his motorcycle on the stage; a lavish masked bacchanal of fire and spirited dancing where Romeo and Juliet catch each other’s eye with half-smiles. Despite a second act that seems to yield into tragedy too quickly, this Romeo and Juliet is parting too soon.