Thursday, April 28, 2011

Baby, It's You

You can't swing a cat in the middle of Times Square without knocking down four women who could sing the Shirelle out of 60's, girl-group harmonies. How, then, did the producers of Baby, It's You audition every African American woman in New York City with an Equity card and not manage to fill a foursome? Who decided to scrape together a few random morsels of historical trivia, vomit them up a calorie at a time, and call it a meal? What, pray tell, were the folks over at the Broadhurst thinking?

I have no problem with the juke box musical, and I didn't have a problem with the concept or conceivers behind Baby, It's You. I loved their previous effort, Million Dollar Quartet. Not a great show. Anorexic script. Bare thread of fact stringing together an entire evening of brilliant performances. The formula worked, so there was every reason to believe lightning could strike twice. After all, they had the force of nature that is Beth Leavel at the heart of the show. But this ain't no Million Dollar Quartet. It's a buck fifty bootleg from the bad idea bin.

Neither the rise and reprise of the Shirelles nor the disproportionately hyped tale of Florence Greenberg do much to carry this show--neither can even pick it up and get it off the ground. The evening is all about the star of the show, not the character but the actress. Beth Leavel takes the stage, takes it away from anyone who dares to share, and leaves you wishing you could follow her off with every exit, just so you don't have to watch the live K-Tel commercial of historical and musical highlights that bridge her appearances. She does her best to add heart and relevance to the scenes, but it is hard to Lady Macbeth a bumper sticker. However, the woman can sing. She wraps her voice around a note, swaddling it gently as the baby Jesus in the manger, and blankets it with warmth and welcome. You could almost climb inside and lose yourself were you not engulfed in the relentless parade of hits--right between the eyes.

The men are more brick layers than artisans. Allan Louis lays a nice foundation for the The-More-You-Know lessons on fobidden love, creative pressure, and emasculation--not to mention the dangers of bangin the boss. Barry Pearl grounds the story from the start. Thirty seconds in and you want to cheat on him too (with another show); but he brings solid work to both acts, by which I mean that he acts twice. Geno Henderson and Brandon Uranowitz play multiple characters, such a shame Mr. Henderson seems to only have two characterizations in him. He's the equivalent of theatrical herpes--constantly threatening to appear, and you can't wait for him to just go away.

The Faux-relles (Erica Ash, Kyra Da Costa, Crystal Starr Knighton, and Christina Sajous), as I've mentioned, are simply unfathomable. Bad enough they can't handle the frog-ass tight harmonies that should be cost of entry, but there's not a triple threat among them--or between them. One, who shall not be named, couldn't stay on pitch if she were standing in it on the steps of the palace. Two of them would require transplants for a second left foot. Kelli Barrett, as All White Women Not Named Florence, was a fine daughter, but she wasn't the only one crying at the party during her Lesley Gore assassination.

The band was good.

Carole King must have known something I didn't. Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow was nowhere to be heard or found. She apparently said, "Keep your hands off my baby." Lesson learned, Carole.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Sister Act

How refreshing would it be to see a movie, a good movie at that, translated for the stage and not simply transferred to the stage? I might just drop to my knees and yell, "Whoopi!" Instead, I rose to my feet. To be fair, I stood, in part, because I was sitting in the first row (rush tickets, $23.50) and would have felt like an a-hole were I the only one sitting, staring up at a stage full of hard-working actors who just sweated through their wimples on my behalf. I am not a stander, usually, unless it is earned but neither am I so principled I won't rise to an occasion, occasionally.

I stand for different reasons. Sometimes to applaud a spectacular production, like The Book of Mormon. Sometimes to applaud a spectacular performance, like any number of Velmas during the first decade of Chicago's revival run. Sometimes to applaud a life's work, like Elaine Stritch in At Liberty, although it qualified on all three fronts. And sometimes I applaud because I appreciate the effort, especially when the effort is to create actual theatre.
Sister Act could have Priscilla'd its way on stage and probably would have been completely successful. It is a fun movie, a fun idea, and funny. This is no facsimile, although the Kathy Najimy chracter is more Najimy than character in this production, right down to the giggle and mannerisms. But Sarah Bolt doesn't just stand behind a mask and pantomime, a la Lion King. She mines the new jokes and earns the laughs.

Patina Miller is no Whoopi Goldberg. She's a singer, first of all. And a fine dancer. She has a swagger that is in no way reminiscent of Whoopi's nebbishy, George Jefferson on estrogen. That is not to say Miller is better or worse. She lack's Whoopi's it. Lacks her comic sediment. But Miller works her tail off, makes the role her own, guides you on a toe-tapping journey with very little off-stage time, connects some occasionally disconnected dots (no doubt the handiwork of accountants, creative committee, and forest-for-the-trees decisions), and does it all with a mega-watt smile and a triple threat.

Audrie Neenan is no Mary Wickes. It would be unfair to hold her to that standard; but she is charming, funny, grouchy, gruff, and hilarious. She does for the stage production exactly what Ms. Wickes did for the movie, without mimicry or acquisition.

The men are generally weaker than the women, but they have less to do. It is, after all, a show about nuns. (And how nice it is to see a show with a large group of women, all shapes and sizes, looking like real women--beautifully real.) Back to the men. Fred Applegate is just about perfect in a small and stereotypical role. Demond Green is charmingly stereotypical as the comedic half-wit. Caeser Samayoa, Kinglsey Leggs, and John Treacy Egan provide adequate ado for their stereotypical roles as the Hispanic thug, the black thug, and the delusional lothario. . .thug. Chester Gregory underwhelms and never elevates his function beyond the functional.

That the script could be torn from the pages of any How to Make a Musical handbook is almost irrelevant. The show isn't trying to take on social issues or make revolutionary changes in the musical form or the human spirit. The writers, most celebrated in the sitcom format, don't fall back on television habits thankfully. They may not be creating deeply thoughtful drama, but they thoughtfully created the script for its medium--no doubt helped considerably by the contributions of theatre veteran, Douglas Carter Beane. The sets were inspired but the directing and choreography were not. Jerry Zaks merely directs traffic, and Anthony Van Laast seems to think he is choreographing a marching band.

The score, too, is formulaic; but fortunately the formula is Alan Menken's. He actually circumnavigates a fairly dangerous obstacle. Much of the fun of the movie comes from the brilliant Mark Shaiman arrangements of popular songs twisted for divine measure. With no help from ASCAP, Menken and lyricist, Glenn Slater, create songs with popular themes and sounds that sound devilish--and Massively innappropriate. The songs are catchy, hummable, and engrossing at their best moments; but the whirlwind of fun is sometimes reduced to a pffft. The greatest sufferer is the Victoria Clark fan. Why on Earth you would cast that voice and give her such forgettable, unsingable nonsense is beyond me. It seems almost maliciously written for the least navigable parts of her voice. She is solid in the role but shoulders the burden of the worst songs in the show.

Marla Mindelle seems to have been cast more for the look than the goods in the role of the postulant who finds her voice. There is a look the actress in the movie makes when she sings her first note at a decibel heard by humans. Mindelle co-0pted the look and repeats it every time she opens her mouth. It's like a one-note Groundhog Day, literally. She needs more punch and more power, but her solo of epiphany and empowerment is strong enough to do her penance.

The show commits a couple of sins. For reasons unknown and unnecessary it is set in 1976-77, so the gratuitous moon walking and granny rapping are completely out of place--but they get their laugh. Not the first time virtue has been traded for a tickle. Those transgressions aside, the show is a gift from the theatre goods--not perfect, not brilliant but perfectly fun and funny--equal parts intelligent design and big bang.

Monday, April 25, 2011


Photo credit: Peter James Zielinski

You know you’re in trouble when the most endearing, magical moments of a musical occur before the curtain ever rises. Much like the looped entertainment news that precedes a movie, Wonderland features a preshow: an invisible hand that slowly sketches the original Tenniel illustrations of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland onto a curtain colored like an antique book’s faded page. The soft, swirling movements etch the iconic black and white drawings, allowing the viewer a brief glimpse before the image evaporates in a smoke like wisp. Unfortunately, the effort only reminds you how much more enchanting the original version of Alice’s adventures are.

In this rendition, Alice (Janet Dacal from In the Heights) becomes an overworked inner city schoolteacher and frustrated wannabe children’s book author. Oh, and she’s also on the verge of divorce. As she falls asleep on her daughter’s bed after receiving another publisher’s rejection, she follows a white rabbit into Wonderland and her journey to self-realization begins. She meets the usual characters: the caterpillar (The Scottsboro Boys’ E. Clayton Cornelious), the Cheshire Cat (Jose Llana, portraying a Spanish version as El Gato) and The White Knight (Darren Ritchie). Her initial interactions with Wonderland’s population seem almost like cabaret banter—fluffy and light, and good for a laugh, but not really memorable. For instance, the White Rabbit mutters, “I was not punctual… I was not punctual,” instead of the usual “I’m late” because Disney owns the rights. Quite fun, though, is the nostalgia-infused “One Knight” number that casts The White Knight and his fellow knights as a boy band, clad in tight white pants and appropriating the moves of ’N Sync, BSB, and NKOTB.

The virtuous White Knight becomes Alice’s protector, following her to the infamous tea table where she meets a dominatrix version of the Mad Hatter (a menacing Kate Shindle) who states airily that Alice is not what she expected. “I’m a disappointment to myself, too,” Alice replies. And here’s the crux of the problem: Alice as a self-defeatist (and a bit of a whiner to boot) isn’t exactly an endearing character. Does the audience really care if Alice finds her way? Not really. Even when she snaps out of her melancholy to venture through the looking glass when the Mad Hatter and her henchrabbit, Morris the March Hare, kidnap daughter Chloe, Alice never seems maternal; her rescue mission feels like one more thing an overtaxed working mother should do.

Ultimately, Alice’s evolution into someone who will fight for her dreams, as well as for her daughter, seems too pat. Rather than learning something from her adventures, her epiphany comes from a meeting with The Victorian Gentleman (a thinly veiled Lewis Carroll), who urges her to “always believe in your dreams.” This makes her eventual transformation feel more like a Lifetime movie than offering any real resonance.

The music by Frank Wildhorn (lyrics by Jack Murphy, who also writes the book with Director Gregory Boyd) is serviceable. Although Wildhorn’s past shows Jekyll & Hyde and The Scarlet Pimpernel produced some power ballads still on the cabaret circuit today, overall the songs in Wonderland don’t linger after the show finishes—although, perhaps, Alice’s solo, “Home,” (later reprised in the second act) might someday join that cabaret rotation. The cast makes the most of the treacly material, though. Karen Mason manages to make you look past the ridiculous Princess Leia like hair braids and heart-shaped wardrobe of the Queen of Hearts to appreciate her underused crystalline voice. Especially good is Carly Rose Sonenclar, as Chloe, who provides the heartfelt vulnerability of a child discovering that the world is not a fairytale.


Hello. I'm Sandra Mardenfeld and I'm excited to be writing for Show Showdown! I'm currently working on my PhD in Communication and Information at Rutgers University, specializing in media studies. Writing for this blog is a welcome diversion--anyone who has written a dissertation will tell you how grueling it is. Previously, I was the managing editor for several national magazines, the Broadway editor of Playbill, and an editor/writer on many websites. Currently, I am the director of the journalism program at C.W. Post University and a freelance writer/editor.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Seance on a Wet Afternoon

Photo: Carol Rosegg

In writing Seance on a Wet Afternoon, was Stephen Schwartz hoping to create his Sweeney Todd? There are definite similarities: grim subject matter, a middle-aged couple full of manipulation and evil-doing, a large chorus commenting on the goings-on, even a two-story set that turns to present different rooms of a house. Unfortunately, however, Seance on Wet Afternoon is not the masterpiece that Sweeney Todd is. But this tale of a medium who has her husband kidnap a child, in order to then "find" her and receive acclaim, has some definite strengths.

First, and most importantly, Schwartz manages to sustain a continuous level of tension throughout the piece, despite its too-slow first act. The entire opera is satisfyingly unsettling. Second, Schwartz provides moments of real beauty, though they are not as frequent as one would want. The high point for me (and, judging by applause, for the rest of the audience) was when the mother of the kidnapped child expresses her anguish in an aria gorgeously sung by Melody Moore. The third strength is that the libretto, based on a novel written by Mark McShane and a movie directed by Bryan Forbes, has an intriguing story to tell. Last but certainly not least, the design elements and orchestra are excellent. A curtain of long glittering chains evokes both a sense of constant rain and a creepy feeling of claustrophobia.

[spoilers below]

The weaknesses include the following: The show is too long and too slow. The supratitles are annoying and hard to ignore, and they are mostly unnecessary. Schwartz's lyrics, while deserving high points for intelligibility, are often silly and/or lame and rarely more than adequate. Lauren Flanigan plays the humor well but falls down on the pathos. (In another parallel with Sweeney Todd, she has a scene in which she realizes that she will have to kill a child. A number of the Mrs. Lovetts I have seen, in particular Christine Baranski, played that realization with a chilling combination of sadness and nonchalance. Flanigan's realization was considerably less textured.) The crowd scenes of reporters and photographers add little to the opera, and they are awkwardly staged. (Not meaning to beat a dead horse, but director Scott Schwartz is no Harold Prince.)

Overall, Seance on a Wet Afternoon provides an interesting evening in the opera house but, considering the source material, might have provided a thrilling one.

(Press ticket, 6th row slightly to the side.)

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Priscilla, Queen of the Desert

A Little Dessert in the Desert

I love the movie, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. The performances are nearly flawless, the costumes spectacularly original, and the script and direction fresh and thrilling. And the score is inspired. Translating movies to Broadway seems to be a dicey affair, especially when transfusing in the literal vein. As a matter of course, adding no original music rarely honors either medium.

From that standpoint, Priscilla the Musical isn't "good." Compared to the movie, the script is lesser, the costumes are copies, and the brilliance of the song selection (as necessary as some of the changes were) is debateable. Despite any of that, the show is fun and entertaining. It isn't trying to reinvent the musical form. It isn't trying to out-do the movie. It exists for commercial and not creative reasons. And, quite frankly, it does more to give you your money's worth than many shows with better books and scores. Personally, I am happy the show exists.

As staged camp, they know better than to take themselves too seriously, with the exception of the terminally pensive Will Swenson (who I loved in Hair with a stalker's devotion--a stalker that was, alas, too lazy to pose an ounce of a threat, so no need to alert Mr. Swenson's security team). It is tough to make interesting a dramatic arc that journeys from ache to hurt for 2 hours. It makes the audience a little numb to the moments that are actually intended to be painful--and the movie has those moments. Beneath the wigs, wardrobe, and wackiness, the movie was about real people with real issues that exist in the real world. It revealed devastation at every stage, literally and figuratively.

All of the leads are shadows of the original, although Tony Sheldon is genuinely touching and funny. The actors tell the story with heart (and heels), and they mount the bus and invite you along for a joy ride. I was pleased as punch to climb aboard, but most in the audience on the night I attended displayed a raucous enthusiasm and nearly jumped on board. They were into it from the first spin of the disco ball.

Keala Settle as Shirley shines in a brief appearance that capitalizes on every moment. The 3 divas, big voiced one and all, offer a nice but ultimately unnecessary addition that serves more as vocal set dressing than Greek chorus. Much of the remainder of the supporting cast were attractive--all over. The buffet of bare flesh was endless and extensive, a slip of the tucking tape away from revealing their didgeridoos.
I won lottery tickets in the first row. My general opinion is that closer is better. That just works for me. At the Palace, though, the height of the stage is a bit too high for my comfort (and at 6'2" I've got more stretch than most people). You'll spend the money you save on $40 tickets on a chiropractor after the show.

I understand that they couldn't get the rights to the Abba songs that were so essential to the movie--you'll have to walk up the block to catch those. If you don't know the movie, you won't necessarily miss the songs, but what they represented is missing too. They were the payoff for a movie-long buildup. There's no climax here. As a matter of fact, there's very little huffing and puffing either. It is actually disappointing theatrically and politically. That this female impersonator's showstopping characterization is reduced to an off-handed, poorly-executed Elvis redux is silly, unnecessary, and borderline offensive. It makes one wonder why they didn't cut it entirely, as they did the ending of the movie. It felt like they had to get everyone out of their gaffs and girdles before the clock struck twelve or overtime kicked in. Interesting that the script was the clumsiest thing about the show given the height of the heels.

The show has the elements to have a nice run--flash, fun, familiar songs, and a negligible script. Safe for tourists who don't travel with a Bible, a baseball bat, or a translator.

If you are looking for a silly night in the theatre that allows you to escape for a couple of hours, this is a perfectly enjoyable show. If you are a huge fan of the movie, you've probably already seen the show. If you haven't, spend the time on the couch cuddled up with the originals.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Anything Goes

A Cole Day in Hell 

Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

I work in the theater. No, I no longer perform; but I am an enthusiastic audience member who believes that once the curtain goes up, I have a job. I don't sit back and wait to get caught up in a show. I throw myself at it. In the spirit of full disclosure, I will also pick myself up and remove myself at the first black out if I decide the job's not up to much. As a passionate audience member, my responses tend toward the extreme. I am bitter, resentful, and venomous when I hate something and am an effusive, cheering, unpaid-spokesperson when I love something. Occasionally, I am merely whelmed.

I went into The Stephen Sondheim Theater with a dubious heart and a ten dollar ticket for Anything Goes. I also went in with a history, starring alongside a first-class Reno Sweeney in community theater and witnessing the pint-sized genius of Elaine Paige from the third balcony in the West End. Upon hearing the announcement of Sutton Foster's casting, I was more perplexed than when splitting the check after an all-you-can-drink brunch. To me, she was a Hope at most and a Bonnie/Irma at best.

A reconfigured opening, establishing her dating relationship with Billy, gave me hope. . .that lasted until the first belt. As feared, she just wasn't up to the role. Her singing was sweet not Sweeney, her vibrato was under control, and her dancing (what little there was in what is traditionally a tap show) was accurate, although the choreography transported me back to community theater--more arms than toes and heels. Her delivery, requiring zing and star quality, was more US Postal Service than Fed Ex. The jokes showed up, just not always on time. And when she wasn't speaking or singing, her attention span jumped ship.

The show, as written, is fun. I came to have fun. It was, instead, functional. It was super-undersized--fewer actors than a hillbilly has teeth (I grew up in hillbilly country, I know). Billy was beige, Hope was off-white, Irma was egg shell. All well and good for a Sherwin Williams paint chip strip, less dazzling in a Broadway show. The three lead women had nearly identical voices, nearly identical ranges--I was wearing a more impressive belt. John McMartin, Jessica Walter, and Adam Godley shone like eco-friendly bulbs--sustained brilliance, dialed back so as not to outshine the leads. The only person who stood out was Joel Grey, but mostly because he was doing a completely different show, with a comedic tempo that worked better for his performance than the production.

The greatest disappointment of the night was the dancing. It's a dance show. More specifically, it is a tap show. In short supply, the tapping felt more perfunctory than integrated or inspired. Rarely thrilling. And that sums up the show--rarely thrilling.

For a person who doesn't know the show or has never seen a beloved production, Roundabout could easily satisfy. I attended with two first-timers who were perfectly entertained. I love the show too much and worked too hard (all through the night's performance as a matter-of-fact) to love this production. It was not De-Lovely. De-Likely at best.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Born Bad

Photo: Carol Rosegg

The lights come up. A woman demands of an older man, "Say it!" Before we can fully consider what she wants him to say, the lights go down. When they come up again, the same woman is calling an older woman a bitch. But not just calling her a bitch. Instead, she spews forth a spoken aria on bitch-ness. After the lights go down and come up again, the woman's sister has joined them, dodging the woman's needy questions about their childhood as skillfully as a toreador dodges a charging bull. This pattern of lights down-lights up-new character continues until we have a whole family: mother, father, three daughters, one son.  By the end of the hour we spend with them, we have experienced their lies, their pain, their denial, their betrayals, and even their love as they try to understand just what happened many years earlier.

Playwright debbie tucker green's elegant, pared-down Olivier Award-winning play Born Bad is a formidable achievement. The language is poetic and revealing, and green's acute understanding of family psychology allows her to parse the intricate relationships among the six complex characters. Director Leah C. Gardiner supports the play's elegance with her focused, stylized staging, using the juxtaposition of chairs to let the audience know just where the characters stand (or sit). Mimi Lien's simple, handsome set smartly reflects the mood and tone of the play, as does Michael Chybowski's lighting.

And then there is the cast. All six performers are superb. As Sister #1, Quincy Tyler Bernstine finds the comedy in the play without losing the tragedy. Crystal A. Dickinson (pictured) speaks with a mania that underlines Sister #2's deep desire not to listen.  Elain Graham works hard to retain the mother's dignity even as it is stripped away, LeRoy James McClain (pictured) says few words as the father yet maintains a vivid presence, Michael Rogers' physicality as the brother says more than words ever could. And Heather Alicia Simms, as the sister who catalyzes the play, goes through a tornado of changing emotions without ever losing her way.  

(Press ticket, fourth row on the aisle)

Marie and Bruce

Photo: Monique Carboni

My friend Dennis was an usher at the Public Theater when Wallace Shawn's Marie and Bruce opened there in 1980. He despised the show. He said it was hateful and ugly. Dennis and I often disagreed, so when I had a chance to see the revival of Marie and Bruce, I decided to give it a try. That Marissa Tomei (pictured) was cast as Marie made it an easy decision.

Dennis was being kind. From its stupidly coarse opening sentence, Marie and Bruce is a crass and juvenile--and unsuccessful--attempt at being shockingly funny.

The story, such as it is: Marie is planning to leave Bruce. She berates him with strings of expletives. He largely shrugs her off. They go to a party. They drink too much. He calls her a cunt. They go to a cafe. A guy at the next table tells an endless story of digestive troubles, in vivid detail. Bruce asks the guy to shut up but backs down when the guy's friend threatens him. Bruce and Marie fight some more.

This takes about 140 painfully boring minutes.

Other problems: Scott Elliott's direction is sluggish at best. There is no reason for Marie and Bruce to be together in the first place--and less reason to care. Marissa Tomei provides an unusually weak performance. Frank Whaley as Bruce is little more than a stick figure. There isn't a genuine moment in the whole show.

This is a tedious production of an execrable play. The overall effect is of being forced to spend nearly two hours with a creepy 13-year-old boy who thinks it is cool to curse and make sexually inappropriate comments while he pulls the wings off flies.

(Press tickets, unfortunately in the theatre.)

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Anything Goes

In the past few years, the Roundabout Theatre Company has had a lot of trouble delivering the goods when it comes to musical revivals. Their productions, last year, of Pal Joey and Bye Bye Birdie both suffered as a result of poor casting and odd directorial choices. But their current revival of Anything Goes, directed by Kathleen Marshall, more than makes up for past mistakes. The cast is anchored by a particularly strong Sutton Foster, who makes everything, from singing “You’re the Top” to breaking into wild tap sequences, seem easy as pie. But the entire cast looks like it’s having a blast with the madcap plot, goofy ensemble numbers, nutty scenarios, and rapid-fire corny jokes. Their collective embrace of the material is infectious.

Perhaps most importantly, this production uses its bodies beautifully: the costumes are exceptional (kudos to you, Martin Pakledinaz), and Marshall’s direction is consistently sharp. But her choreography is what takes the cake. Many of the duets and smaller ensemble numbers pay direct homage to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. And the big dance numbers—especially the title song, which closes Act I, and “Blow, Gabriel, Blow,” which opens Act II—are particularly well-executed. These also serve as humbling reminders that back in the 1930s, “spectacle” referred not so much to moving scenery or to stage mechanics, but to bodies in motion. This is a respectful revival, but one that is also beautiful to look at—and giddy as hell.

Monday, April 11, 2011


Arcadia is one of my three all-time favorite plays (the other two are Cloud Nine and A Streetcar Named Desire), and all I can say to David Leveaux, director of the current Broadway production, is shame on you. Arcadia is by Tom Stoppard and it's all about the language--except that in this production, it's hard to hear what people are saying. Arcadia is Stoppard's most emotionally realized play--except that in this production, it's impossible to care about anyone, including Thomasina,  the heart of the play. Arcadia is extremely funny--except that in this production, many of the actors don't know how to phrase a laugh line (and half the time you can't hear them anyway). Arcadia is thought-provoking--except that in this production, it provokes the wrong thoughts, things like "will the first act ever end" and "what did he say?" and "why did Wendy tell us to see this?" (That last thought was indeed thought by the people to whom I recommended Arcadia. In a just world, we'd all get our money back, not to mention the three hours of our lives.)

My niece's high school recently did The Drowsy Chaperone. If you saw their production, you genuinely saw The Drowsy Chaperone. In contrast, if you saw this production of Arcadia, you did not genuinely see Arcadia. (And the poster is lame.)

(Saw this twice with tdf tickets, in the mezz. Didn't use the third, more-expensive ticket I had bought before the show opened, in what turned out to be an excess of optimism.) 


Short Takes

Victoria Clark Master Class. This is the second master class I've seen given by Victoria Clark. I've also seen Barbara Cook give one. All three were wonderful and occasionally awe-inspiring experiences. Both Clark and Cook are kind and smart and funny. Clark is a physical teacher. She'll have students sing a song while running, doing pushups, or trying to get through a wall of people, getting them to break out of their preconceived ideas. Cook, in contrast, will hold a student's hand and say, "Sing it to me," to get him or her in touch with a more natural, communicative way of singing. In both cases, most of the students were excellent to start with, and watching how much they grew in an hour or so was fascinating. (Master classes are sometimes free to watch. The most recent Victoria Clark one was $20 and well worth it. You can find out about them at websites such as

Photo: Joan Marcus

Good People. I saw this in an early preview with a tdf ticket, sitting upstairs. It struck me as a solid B-level play--nothing earth-shattering, but consistently interesting. Its reliance on people doing things they'd never do is one of the things that keeps it from being an A-level play. Frances McDormand is wonderful as Frances McDormand always is.

Drowsy Chaperone. Nyack High School hit a home run yet again with a funny, well-performed, attractive production of The Drowsy Chaperone.

Motherf**cker With the Hat. I saw this in an early preview with a tdf ticket, and it lacked luster. The main weakness was Chris Rock, who gave a one-dimensional performance of a complex character. Annabella Sciorra was underutilized, and the blocking had her with her back to audience left for much of the play. Bobby Cannavale was wonderful as Bobby Cannavale always is. (Hey, why doesn't someone produce a show with him and Frances McDormand?) Perhaps the show has improved since early previews, but it is far from a must-see.

Thursday, April 07, 2011


If Michael Fray had written nothing but the delightfully hysterical Noises Off, he would still rate a place in the heart of all theatre lovers. However, Frayn has written a great deal more than that, and the rest of his prodigious output is also impressive. A prime example is Benefactors, currently on the boards in a fine production by the Keen Company.

Benefactors is the story of two couples, longtime friends who may not be sure exactly why they are longtime friends. Jane and David are happy together and enjoy his work as an architect (Jane works as his assistant). Colin and Sheila have a more problematic relationship, with Colin blustery and critical and Sheila lost and manipulative. All four live lives of careful balance, ignoring emotions that might tip the scales, until one of David's architectural projects undoes their balancing acts.

Using a combination of straight-to-the-audience speeches and intercharacter conversation, Benefactors explores the meaning of giving and of friendship and examines the lies we tell each other, and ourselves. Frayn has a fascinating ability to write lyrical dialogue that still sounds like actual people speaking, and the beauty of the language is one of the many strengths of this excellent play. The direction by Carl Forsman and the performances by Vivienne Benesch, Daniel Jenkins, Deanne Lorette, and Stephen Barker Turner are all top-notch, with extra kudos going to Benesch for being such a compelling listener.

It is amazing enough that Frayn is so prolific. That he is so prolific and so good is breathtaking.

(Press ticket, fourth row on the aisle. Audience included about 50 high school girls, who were engaged and even gasped now and again.)

Sunday, April 03, 2011

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying

Photo: Ari Mintz

Star power comes in two varieties. In the first, a person is born with enough charisma to mesmerize everyone in the vicinity. Hugh Jackman flirted with a thousand people a night, individually, in The Boy From Oz. Ann Reinking glowed in the chorus in Pippin, even when the audience was supposed to be looking elsewhere. Christine Baranski seems to carry a personal spotlight wherever she goes.

In the other form of star power, the performer brings fame and its attendant glories from a completely different arena. Theatre is full of examples, some of whom were actually good, some of whom weren't: Julie Roberts, Hammer, Melanie Griffith, Ashley Judd, Katie Holmes, George Hamilton. Some turn out to be true theatre people, Neil Patrick Harris being a prime example.

Daniel Radcliffe falls into the second category, subcategory "true theatre person." He has brought his huge, enthusiastic audience with him to the theatre, and he has worked his butt off to be the best performer he can be. His choices of roles are interesting and varied (from Equus to How to Succeed is quite a journey!), and he clearly cares.

Unfortunately, however, he is low on star power, category one. If you're not already a fan, he comes across as an amiable, not-too-bad performer. He is cute, and he uses that well. When his J. Pierrepont Finch grins at his series of triumphs, it's a cute grin. But without his Harry Potter juice, there would be no reason to cast him in a singing-and-dancing role requiring tons of charisma and personality.

However, he does have that Harry Potter juice, and the audience was thrilled by his every move, while muggle-me sat there unimpressed and unmoved (with the exception of the "Brotherhood of Man" finale, in which he finally showed some oomph). However, God bless him. He's bringing in young audiences, and I respect his commitment and hard work.

What about the rest of the show? This production is like a drum machine--lots of energy but little humanity. The scenery is aggressively ugly. As the head of the company where Finch works, John Larroquette does his John Larroquette thing, which is quite effective if you like him (I do). A handful of other cast members rise above a general blandness, including Michael Park, Rob Bartlett, and Ellen Harvey. The romantic female lead, Rose Hemingway, is unimpressive.

And then there is (drum roll, trumpets) Tammy Blanchard (see star power, definition one). As she has shown on stage and on TV and in movies, she has it. No, she has IT. Simply walking onstage, she brings a blast of energy, excitement, and three-dimensionality. Her performance as the not-so-dumb dumb mistress is wry and sexy, and her decision to never quite stand still, like a thoroughbred waiting to race, brings a palpable reality to her silly character.

I wonder if Blanchard can bottle whatever it is she has. She'd make a fortune.

(Press ticket, row P, center. Many thanks to How to Succeed and the Hartman Group for including the blogosphere.)