Thursday, April 29, 2010

Next Fall

Photo: Carol Rosegg

I wish we had more plays like Geoffrey Nauffts's flawed but solid Next Fall: thoughtful, well-developed, largely aware of and sympathetic to its characters' faults and strengths, well-directed (by Sheryl Kaller), and well-acted (particularly by Cotter Smith, who fully inhabits his character in a way the others don't achieve). The story of a gay couple, one a religious Christian who believes that gay sex is a sin, the other an atheist who cannot accept his lover's beliefs, Next Fall explores the meaning of love, faith, and family in a funny, touching, and heart-breaking manner. The show is a tad doctrinaire on second viewing and some of the characters could be more three-dimensional, but it is a solid B+ evening in the theatre. I do wish, however, that Next Fall had been able to have a successful run Off-Broadway, where it felt more at home: small cast, no stars, solid but not great writing. This is in no way an insult--I consider the withering away of for-profit Off-Broadway to be a tremendous loss to New York City.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Alan Cumming at Feinstein's

Ten Things I Learned at Alan Cumming's Cabaret Show at Feinstein's

1. "Taylor, The Latte Boy" (what, you don't know it?) works just as well sung by a man as by a woman. At least if the man is Alan Cumming.

2. He's not just a good actor. The star of stage (Cabaret), movies (X-Men United, GoldenEye) and TV (Tin Man, The Good Wife) is quite charming, engaging, and funny as just himself...

Read the rest at

Monday, April 26, 2010


Enron is a tale told by intelligent people, full of sound and fury, and signifying not as much as it should. A somewhat-interesting rehash of the rise and fall of the energy company Enron, the show fails to find an unusual or particularly insightful point of view, nor does it plumb the psychology of the people involved or say anything new about their hubris. What Enron does have is shtick: colored lights, chorus numbers, flashing video, and guys with dinosaur masks. The shtick is entertaining, although it does not disguise the thinness of the play itself. The cast strives valiantly, and successfully, to put on a good show; Norbert Leo Butz is particularly good as Jeffrey Skilling. Marin Mazzie is sinfully underutilized.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

American Idiot

photo: Paul Kolnik

Green Day's niche and the secret to their cross-generational appeal is that their songs combine the brash anger of long-passe punk rock with insanely catchy pop melodies: their righteous anger is radio-ready enough for the bubble gum set to sing along with it. The distinction of their smash hit album American Idiot was in its timing: the band was raising a fist at knee-jerk post 9/11 patriotism just as mainstream youth were ready to brave a turn to the left. It's a huge disappointment then that the same-named musical based on the album doesn't honor this and lacks, except in the most generic way, political content. More like Movin' Out than Hair, but far less satisfying than either, the show amounts to a numbing 90 minute music video on stage. The cast is uniformly sensational, and the show's mix of performance and high-tech imagery brings to Broadway a brand of razzle-dazzle that concertgoers have been used to for decades. (The staging for "Wake Me Up When September Ends", in which the ensemble move while on their backs as if falling, reminded me of one of the dance ensemble pieces in David Bowie's Glass Spider tour, circa 1987). But since the story (of three buds - one who goes to war, one who stays home glued to the TV, and one who goes to the city and promptly gets hooked on heroin) is a well-worn cliche, and the show doesn't rally around any great theme besides "everything sucks", American Idiot succeeds only as spectacle.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Lend Me a Tenor

photo: Joan Marcus

Stanley Tucci's uproarious new production of Ken Ludwig's 1989 farce manages to do the impossible: it turns a stuffy, mildly funny period piece into a laugh-a-minute romp. Credit the cast, which is top-to-bottom brilliant: it's hard to imagine how an ensemble who universally perfect was assembled in one production. Justin Bartha proves that his on-screen comedic skills translate perfectly onto the stage; his mealy-mouthed Max is a perfect nebbish, simultaneously lovable and embarrassing. Tony Shaloub's Saunders is an ulcer in a tux--as it should be--and Anthony Lapaglia turns the not particularly well-written role of star tenor Tito Merilli into a master class. The stage is owned, however, by the incomparable Jan Maxwell, who milks every laugh out of the minute role of Merilli's wife. It's hard to imagine a more hilarious ten minutes in New York than she and Lapaglia's glottal attack on each other. Highly recommended.

Sondheim on Sondheim

Photo: Joan Marcus

I wouldn't have thought that a show called Sondheim on Sondheim could be boring, but despite its generous selection of songs, this exploration of the great man's music is remarkably bland. The main problem is that two of the three people listed over the title don't have the interpretive skills to do justice to the songs they sing (hint: neither of them is Barbara Cook). The five other performers range from blah to excellent, but even the better ones are often stymied by overdone direction and uncomfortable staging. For example, the fluid "Opening Doors" is here completely fractured as the performers are made to repeatedly, pointlessly, march up and down a revolving set of slippery stairs. (One performer, wearing heels, looked scared for her life--or at least her ankles--every time she had to take those stairs.) Sondheim on Sondheim comes across as a not-particularly-good evening of one of the variety shows that used to be on TV a million years ago, with some nice singing but often painful "witty banter." Other than occasional moments of excellence (mostly when Cook is on stage), the show's one redeeming feature is the extensive footage of Sondheim talking about his life and his work. Note: I saw this at a preview and it's possible that the show has been improved since then. (I certainly hope so.)

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Short Takes: The Full-Disclosure Edition

The very funny Miracle on South Division Street, currently playing at the Seven Angels Theatre in Waterbury, Conn, focuses on the Nowaks, a mother and three adult child who believe that their family has been specially blessed. When certain information comes to light, the Nowaks must reconsider their definitions of family, identity, and miracles. This entertaining, touching, thought-provoking show was written by Tom Dudzick, author of Over the Tavern, Don't Talk to the Actors, and other wonderful plays. (Full disclosure: Tom is my brother-in-law.)

Last weekend, In the Light Theatre presented Adam Bock's relationship comedy, Swimming in the Shallows, in which Bock democratically demonstrates that gay, lesbian, and heterosexual couples all have their challenges and insanities and that most people are all just looking for meaning and love. Swimming in the Shallows is wry and much more surprising than my description would make you think (a shark figures prominently). As smoothly directed by Douglas Hall and well-performed by Laura DiCerto, Michael Edmund, Kathryn Gerhardt, Thomas Gibbons, Lisa Riegel, and Tony Travostino, Swimming in the Shallows was a delightful 90 or so minutes, and I wish the run had been longer than one week. This was the second In the Light Theatre production I've seen, and I look forward to the third. (Full disclosure: Kathy Gerhardt is my friend and Doug Hall directed the short film Second Glance, for which I wrote the screenplay.)

The Light in the Piazza

The excellent student production of The Light in the Piazza put on by the NYU Program in Vocal Performance ran just four performances, so too few people were able to experience it. I am grateful to have been one of them. Directed by William Wesbrooks, with music direction by Grant Wenaus, this production of The Light in the Piazza missed a lot of the humor of the show but was well-acted, smoothly directed, and beautifully sung. As Margaret, Melanie Field caught the character's fears and hopes for her unusual daughter, and her version of "Fable" was an exciting cap to a lovely evening. If you are in New York or plan to visit, I strongly suggest that you keep track of shows done at NYU, which are regularly worth seeing. The theatres are comfortable, the tickets are inexpensive, and the performers and musicians are wonderful. (Past productions include Assassins and Parade).

Langston in Harlem

Photo: Melinda Hall

When I read that Langston in Harlem features Langston Hughes's poetry set to music, I imagined a staid, respectful, good but quiet evening in the theatre. Boy, was I wrong! Langston in Harlem throbs, stomps, cries, and explodes--and still manages to honor the words of a great American poet. Often thrilling (though too long), Langston in Harlem takes us on an emotional tour of Hughes's life, including his writing, family, and friends, his love of his people, his slow acceptance of his homosexuality, his interest in communism, and his ambivalence about his success and the price paid for it. The jazz score by Walter Marks is flat-out wonderful, and the superb choreography by Byron Easley runs an amazing gamut from joy to anger. The cast is filled with prodigiously talented actors, singers, and dancers, including Jordan Barbour, Jonathan Burke, Francesca Harper, LaTrisa Harper, Dell Howlett, Krisha Marcano, Kenita Miller, Okieriete Onaodowan, Josh Tower, Gayle Turner, Glenn Turner, and C. Kelly Wright. Most importantly, Langston in Harlem transmits a strong sense of Hughes's talent, importance, and heart.

Some small criticisms: the mikes are obtrusive, especially in a small space where they aren't needed at all; many cigarettes are smoked and the smoke just hangs in the theatre; and late in the show the music takes a startling and distracting turn into a Broadway-type sound, as though John Kander had dropped in (I love Broadway musicals, and the song is question is good, but its sound just doesn't fit).

The Subject Was Roses

Reviewed for Theatermania.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Langston In Harlem

photo: Ben Hider

When I saw a workshop of this vibrant, original musical two years ago at The Public, it was clear that the show was special and that there would be a full production sooner rather than later. A loosely-shaped biography of Langston Hughes (Josh Tower) that sets his writings to a rich, original jazz-heavy score (by Walter Marks), the musical is formally unconventional and often spellbinding. It's a portrait of the poet etched mostly by his own words, with sophisticated, evocative music that honors rather than disturbs the rhythms of his poems. The book scenes (by Marks, along with director Kent Gash) are kept at a bare minimum - there's just enough dialogue to set the backdrop of the Harlem Renaissance (shout out to Kenita Miller, memorable as Zora Neale Hurston) and to move us through some of the events in Hughes' life that inspired his writings. If the book scenes and musicalized poems - among them "The Negro Mother", "Genius Child", and "Troubled Water" - form a biography of Hughes' artistic life more than his personal one, it's a small price to pay for the musical's multitude of pleasures.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Addams Family

photo: Matt Hoyle

Near the top of the second act of The Addams Family, Uncle Fester (Kevin Chamberlain) turns to the audience to ask if we think that the story will all work out in the end, or if we think we'll go home in an hour vaguely depressed. The story works out of course, insofar as there is a story, but we're likely to leave vaguely depressed anyhow. Impeccably designed and blessed with the enormous good will of the audience (whose affection for the characters is so strong that most snap along with the TV theme song in the overture) the ill-conceived musical comedy would be forgiven a lot - including its bungled storyline - if it was funny. But even Nathan Lane, committing completely with the full force of his clowning genius as Gomez, can't make it so. He works his ass off - mugging here, spinning a line there - but since he hasn't been given even one single genuinely funny line, his determination starts to reek like flop sweat. For a show about endearingly macabre, outside-the-box characters, the musical is awfully square, from Andrew Lippa's show tune score (which lacks cohesion - one number has a bossa nova beat while another sounds like a Kander-Ebb trunk song) to the love-conquers-all theme that doesn't suit the characters. There are moments - for instance, Fester's number in the second act, in which he seems to swim through a sky of chorus-girl-faced stars up to the moon, has a quirky, magical charm that shames the rest of the show's boulevard coarseness. And the sight of Bebe Neuwirth as Morticia, dancing with Death's sickle around her waist and leading a chorus line of ghosts, is more amusing than what passes for jokes in the show. Jackie Hoffman scores some laughs - I'm not sure that depicting Grandmama as an aged Woodtsock hippie with a peyote stash in the attic was the best way to go, but at least a decision was made that translates the character to the real world.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Million Dollar Quartet

photo: Joan Marcus

In order to dramatize the one-time, impromptu 1956 jam session between Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash, writers Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux have constructed the thinnest of books while playing fast and loose with the facts. (As they have our narrator Sam Phillips (Hunter Foster) tell it, the session was also the occasion when 3 of the 4 music legends ditched Phillips' Sun Records label.) But why argue with the false, formulaic excuse to showcase the music, when the music is the main attraction and it rocks the roof off the place? Foster commits to his narrator role with skill, in earnest, and Elizabeth Stanley delights in her minor functionary role (I adored her rendition of "Fever"; she's done her homework) but the show is all about the quartet. As you watch the 4 actor-musicians tear into some vintage rock in character, you are reminded of the icons' musicianship and get a sense of what it must have been like to see these men perform way back when rock was the world's brand new, dirty fascination. Apart from Eddie Clendening, whose acting is often tentative as Elvis, the performers do more than impersonate the icons - they seem to connect to them as fellow musicians, and find their personalities through the legends' performance styles. Levi Kreis attacking the piano with jackhammer force as Lewis; Robert Britton Lyons rolling his shoulders as Perkins as if his guitar riffs are expressing his body; Lance Guest as Cash demonstratively staring down the crowd as if in challenge: these are pleasures that will make any vintage rock fan ecstatic.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Anyone Can Whistle

A legendary flop, Anyone Can Whistle ran for nine days in 1964. Did it fail because it was ahead of its time? Were the critics and audiences blinds to its brilliance? Uh, no. As the excellent production at Encores! reveals, it's just not a particularly good show. Could it have been saved by a better book than Arthur Laurents'? Possibly. The score is glorious, full of show stoppers ("Me and My Town," "Everybody Says Don't") and heartbreaking emotion ("Anyone Can Whistle," "With So Little to Be Sure Of"). The basic idea is an engaging old standby: crazy people being saner than sane people. The theme--live your life to the fullest--is vintage Broadway. But that book is a clunker, with weak jokes, badly delineated relationships, and unmotivated changes of heart. (In all fairness, Encores! did not present the entire book, so perhaps it is better than it seems in this production. However, reviews of the orginal production suggest that it is not). In addition to providing the mediocre book, Arthur Laurents directed the original production; if his work on West Side Story and Gypsy is any indication, his direction probably was no gift to the production. Luckily, the Encores! production is directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw, who maximizes the show's gifts and provides choreography that ranges from tongue-in-cheek hysterical to gorgeously emotional. The cast is superb. Raul Esparza plays Dr. Hapgood with complete commitment and the ability to renew songs that have been sung a thousand times by a thousand people. Sutton Foster delivers "There Won't Be Trumpets" with perfect fervor and "Anyone Can Whistle" with perfect simplicity. Donna Murphy, all knees and elbows, raises sheer unmitigated hamminess to an art form.

Friday, April 09, 2010

The Scottboro Boys

Despite a compelling story, an excellent cast, and some lovely songs, Kander and Ebb's musical, The Scottsboro Boys, fails to pay off. Kander and Ebb have already told us that life is a cabaret, as well as a steel pier, full of razzle dazzle and corruption. Here, along with book writer David Thompson and director-choreographer Susan Stroman, they make the claim that life, at least for the real-life African-American men unjustly arrested for a rape they did not commit, is a minstrel show. Or their trials were a minstrel show. Or other people saw them as a minstrel show. Or something. As an overarching metaphor, the minstrel show fails in many ways, not just in its lack of clarity. It takes focus off of the story, it tries to make the audience complicit for something the audience did not do, and it's painful to watch. As just one example, Stroman's decision to combine energetic tap-dancing with nightmare scenarios manages to dilute both the dancing and the nightmares. In addition, the minstrel humor is mostly flat-out bad and the whole concept is ultimately a distraction. Some reviewers have called this show provocative and daring. I found it flat and disappointing.

Thursday, April 08, 2010


photo: Johan Persson

With its pronounced lack of subtext and its relentlessly unimaginative seriousness, John Logan's two-hander about painter Mark Rothko and his fresh-faced assistant is certainly of a piece. Due to high production values, chief among them Neil Austin's purposeful lighting, it's also visually compelling. It isn't, unfortunately, especially believable: despite the actors' efforts these are two opposed sides of an argument, not flesh and blood characters. The 90-minute one-act casts Rothko (a committed, focused Alfred Molina) as the self-absorbed last gasp of "serious" art, holding the gates closed against the Pop Art barbarians who are making his work increasingly irrelevant, circa 1958. His speeches, which sound like interview quotes researched and cobbled together, are spat at the generally passive assistant (Eddie Redmayne) for 2/3rd's of the play's 90 minutes. It's like a somber Devil Wears Prada for middlebrow snobs. The teacher/student device is as dramaturgically limp as it sounds, more so once the assistant reveals a backstory that scores a perfect zero for believability. The play eventually gets going in its last half hour, when the assistant finally stands up to the bullying boss and calls him a sell out for making pictures to adorn the new Four Seasons restaurant. It isn't the old art vs. commerce conflict that gives late life to the play but the overdue deeper depiction of Rothko - he's suddenly exposed to us as an old man who sees that the times have moved beyond him and who worries how time will judge him. It isn't hard to be moved by that, even in a contrivance such as this.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson

photo: Joan Marcus

A smart bad-ass show that illustrates the 7th U.S. President's celebrity and maverick status by anachronistically depicting him as an Emo rock god, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson pokes snarky fun at rock musicals (Spring Awakening, especially) while putting over some provocative ideas about Andrew Jackson’s legacy. Was he a hero or an American Hitler? Was the populism he preached a recipe for pure democracy or for chaos? The often snarky pop musical (songs by Michael Friedman) isn’t out to make a definitive statement and it steadfastly refuses to get too serious until the very end, but that’s part of its infectious appeal. As written and staged by Alex Timbers, it’s silly and smartypants at the same time. (Has any other show, ever, made jokes about both Cher and Susan Sontag?) Benjamin Walker is right on target as Jackson, simultaneously no-nonsense and whiny adolescent, heading a cast that is well-attuned to the jokey spirit that guides most of the material.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Lend Me A Tenor

photo: Joan Marcus

Ken Ludwig's screwball farce, in which a milquetoast has to pass for a world-famous opera star, may take too long to get going to be counted as a truly top-drawer example of the genre, but its opportunites for physical comedy make it a stitch anyhow. I doubt it could be shown off to more hilarious, fast-paced advantage than in the current Broadway revival, which packs in more laughs than minutes. Under Stanley Tucci's direction just about everyone in the cast, from Justin Bartha (as the milquetoast) to Anthony LaPaglia (as the opera star) to Jan Maxwell (as the opera star's wife), plays with the zest of a seasoned farceur. Actors can easily push this kind of slamming doors comedy too hard - aggressive mugging is an occupational hazard of the genre - but the exaggeration here isn't out of scale with the stakes the material demands. Perhaps the finest example of this is Tony Shalhoub's central performance as the Opera company's increasingly unhinged executive director: he could bellow his way through the character and score himself easy laughs, but instead he simmers just below the boiling point. The play is ultimately funnier for it. Special hats-off to the curtain call, a zany fast forward through the whole play in 3 minutes.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Come Fly Away

photo: Ruven Afanador

Twyla Tharp's evening set to Frank Sinatra songs doesn't add up to a musical in the way that her Billy Joel show Movin' Out did, partly because Joel's catalog came pre-equipped for the stage with characters and a narrative specificity that Sinatra songs lack. While each of the principal dancers is playing a character and expressing a distinct personality, the show isn't organized by a plot as much as by a general theme (of romantic love). However that's more than enough, thanks to Tharp's artistry and to the phenomenal abilities of her dancers, to hold Come Fly Away together as a transporting, often spellbinding show. By any standard I know, the dancing is spectacular. Tharp's choreography is highly expressive and individuated to her performers, whether pitched for comedy (Charlie Neshyba and Laura Mead, depicting a clumsy courtship) or for drama (Karine Plantadit and Keith Roberts, depicting a bruising love affair). Except for a curtain call that borders on the Vegas brand of tacky (in which the stars in the sky form a constellation to honor Ol' Blue Eyes), the show is artful and intelligent, the aesthetic opposite of this season's other Broadway dance show Burn The Floor.