Friday, August 31, 2012

The Newsroom (TV Review)

Good theatre makes you feel something. It makes you laugh. It makes you angry. It makes you love. Great theatre, much like great television, takes it a step further. It teaches you something as it moves you to those emotions. It charges you to action, or at very least, a new way of thinking.

HBO's 'The Newsroom' is great television. This may seem off topic - talking about a television show on a theatre blog, but bear with me for a moment. 

The most talked about theatrical influence, perhaps, is the creator of the show, Aaron Sorkin, beloved playwright (A Few Good Men) and movie scriptwriter. He is known for his poignant work, and does not disappoint here. Then there's the adorable and endearing Jim Harper, played by John Gallagher Jr. of Broadway's Spring Awakening and American Idiot fame. Plus, the main character, Will McAvoy, is played by Jeff Daniels who has seen his share of stage time and founded The Purple Rose Theatre Company in Michigan. And then there's Sam Waterston who is...well, Sam Waterston.

The list goes on and on, but the most obvious theatrical influence comes from the script. As a friend and fellow stage manager put it as he was trying to convince me the show was worth my time, "There's at least 574,839 musical references per episode." Halfway through the 10 episode run this season, and I've caught allusions to Man of La ManchaWest Side StoryGypsyOklahomaAnnie Get Your GunLittle Shop of HorrorsBrigadoon, and Evita

But even more than that, it is a brilliant, important look at how the news is distributed and a call to the public to think about what 'facts' they are being fed from a myriad of sources. I was initially intrigued at Sorkin's use of actual news stories, but I was hooked because of the quality and relevance of what he's put together. Plus, it's always fun to hear a mainstream, non-theatre based show reference Sardi's. 

There's probably more to say, but I'm anxious to get to episode six. Track down 'The Newsroom' if you get a chance. At very least, the musical theatre enthusiast inside of you will be thrilled.

Friday, August 24, 2012

The Queen of the Mist (CD Review)

The Original Cast Recording of The Queen of the Mist, Michael John LaChiusa's tale of the stubborn Anna Edson Taylor and her trip over Niagara Falls in a barrel in 1901, is a well-done representation of the musical, with Mary Testa's vivid performance almost as alive and three-dimensional on CD as it was in the show itself (review here). The CD features a seven-person band and a handsome booklet, and I thank Ghostlight Records for producing it and the Shen Family Foundation for providing support.

While there is much to recommend this recording, the show itself is uneven, and therefore the CD is as well. The only attempt at anything resembling suspense is the question of whether Edson Taylor will ever reveal how it felt to face death in that unique manner, but that's not compelling enough to propel a plot. More importantly, just as the show ultimately lacks emotional punch, so does the CD. It's difficult to care about the sorta, kinda relationship between Edson Taylor and her manager; in fact, it's difficult to care about Edson Taylor at all. On the other hand, the relationship between Edson Taylor and her sister is presented effectively and movingly and shows us a more sympathetic side to her character.

The music itself is some of LaChiusa's most accessible, but also some of his least interesting. At times it sounds as though he set himself the task of writing an "American musical" that splits the difference between the sentimentality of Ragtime and the cynicism of Assassins. But LaChiusa on a bad day is still better than many composer-lyricists on a good day, and there are some wonderful songs here, such as "On the Other Side" and "Letter to Jane." The CD's main asset is that it exists-- a piece of theatre history saved for present and future generations.

(press copy)

Friday, August 10, 2012

Ballet NY

I once saw a demonstration of second-tier gymnasts, people who were just below Olympic level. Watching their strengths and weaknesses made me understand and appreciate gymnastics more deeply and realistically than did watching the near perfection of gold medalists. Ballet NY offers a similar experience. The dancers aren't the best of the best, but some are quite good, and watching their work offers a different insight into dance than offered by the brilliant dancers who make it look easy.
Nadezhda Vostrikov

The evening starts with the company premiere of "Triptych," choreographed by John-Mark Owen to music by H.F. Biber and Sergei Rachmaninoff. (More accurately, it's "Diptych," since only two movements are performed.) Owen explains in a choreographer's note that the piece is about "a couple that can neither live with, or without, one another." The dancers certainly spend a lot of time clinging to each other; in each of the pas de deux, the male dancers lift, twirl, and, frankly, shlep the women around. Some of the lifts are lovely, and some moments connect emotionally, but the piece comes across more as an exercise than a fully realized piece. It is largely well danced by Kelsey Coventry, Michael Eaton, Nadezhda Vostrikov, and Fidel Garcia. However, in the first movement, Eaton and Coventry lack both chemistry and acting skills. Eaton in particular always looks like he is working hard--which he is!--but never like he is emotionally involved. (This movement is also hurt by the decision to have the other two dancers stand downstage throughout, blocking many audience member's views and pulling focus in general.) Garcia and Vostrikov have much more chemistry and emotional connection, which brings their pas de deux to a higher level, but by the end Garcia is clearly tired. I would be too, after all of those lifts, but it does take away from the performance. Timothy Church's costumes for the women have a distracting tendency toward camel toe, and the men's bare chests are distracting in different way.

The second piece, "Duet from The Other," choreographed by Agnes DeMille, is a delight. It is supposed to depict "vitality, light and shadow," and it does so with great panache and humor. Dancers Jennifer Goodman and Luke Manley bring elegance and charm to the proceedings, and it is sheer pleasure to see extended periods of actual dance after the incessant lifts and grabs and slithers of "Triptych." The costumes are traditional and effective: white dress for her, tights and vest for him. The lighting design by David Grill is exactly as it should be.

Next comes "The Garden of Souls," choreographed by Medhi Bahiri and nicely danced by Goodman and Jason Jordan. Here again there is too much reliance on lifts and what I can only call voguing. There are a handful of great moments, such as some lifts that snap together perfectly, providing both pleasure and emotion. The actual dancing is sloppy, however; Goodman and Jordan are so out of sync that it's hard to tell if they're even supposed to be doing the same movements. Every once in a while, however, they achieve unison, and it is possible to see the beauty of Bahiri's work. (Like Garcia, Jordan also seems tired by the end of the piece; a lesson of this evening may be that there is a limit to how many lifts even a toned person with a gorgeous chest can do in a short period of time.) "The Garden of Souls" is a work in progress, and I hope that Bahiri hones his vision and that the dancers have more rehearsal time before it's performed again.

The evening ends with the quite enjoyable "Trois Mouvements," also choreographed by Bahiri. A fairly traditional piece utilizing eight dancers, it featurs various duets and solos and, yay!, no overdependence on lifts. The dancing ranges from good enough to quite good, with Nadezhda Vostrikov standing out for her elegance and graceful line.

Please note that the program does not specify which dancers dance which movements, nor are there pictures of the dancers in the program or the lobby. As a result, it is possible that I have some of the names wrong in this review. Corrections gratefully accepted.

(fifth row center; press ticket)

Friday, August 03, 2012


Slowgirl is a lovely piece of theatre, small, quiet, simple-yet-complex, and real.

Photo: Erin Baiano

A 17-year-old goes to visit her uncle in the jungles of Costa Rica. She hasn't seen him since she was eight, and she's completely unprepared for dealing with nature. Why is she there? That's the story that unfolds over the smart and involving 90 minutes of Greg Pierce's excellent play, well-directed by Anne Kauffman.

The cast is a playwright's dream come true. Sarah Steele plays the girl, and her evolution from obnoxious to vulnerable (while still pretty obnoxious) is beautifully done. The uncle is the always-brilliant Ċ½eljko Ivanek, who is one of the best actors working today. Actually, he has been for decades (his award-winning performance in Cloud Nine remains among my all-time favorites). Ivanek is a subtle, unshowy actor who totally inhabits each character he plays, never displaying even a hint of acting machinery.

The set by Rachel Hauck, costumes by Emily Rebholz, lighting by Japhy Weideman, and sound by Leah Gelpe are all evocative and impressive. And the new Claire Tow Theatre is a treat, intimate and comfortable. I suppose it's too much to hope that all its shows turn out to be this good, but one can always hope!

(Row G--the last row--for $23. All seats at the Clair Tow are $20; the rest is fees.)

The Last Smoker in America

When it comes to making theatre--or any sort of art--sometimes "no" is even more important than "yes." Take The Last Smoker in America, an amiable, mediocre musical that opened last night at the Westside Theatre. Peter Melnick's music and Bill Russell's book and lyrics have much to recommend them, but there are so many songs--more than a few completely unnecessary to the story--that they begin to feel relentless. (At one point the impressively talented John Bolton comes on stage with a guitar, and, even though I enjoyed his work a great deal, my gut-level response was, "Please don't sing another song. Please." Never a good sign at a musical.)

The Last Smoker in America is the story of, well, guess. It includes some nice satire of the "nanny state" but it also includes jokes and songs that were outdated years ago. I suppose their datedness may be related to how long it takes to get a show on nowadays, and perhaps the songs were more timely in their youth. But they are no longer in their youth, and that's where the word "no" would have come in handy. For example, should they have kept the painfully annoying song about the white teen who wishes that he were a black gangsta? No.

Belcon, Alvin, Boyd, Bolton
Photo: Joan Marcus
Then there's all the shtick and costume changes that make up much of the show. Why does the anti-smoking robot only respond sometimes when the last smoker tries to light up? Is it because consistency would have been inconvenient to the book writer? Why do the father and son wear Osmond-family-esque costumes at one point? Did the writers, along with director Andy Sandberg, really think it was a good idea? Why?

In all fairness, some of the shtick is genuinely funny. But the mood of the show is never established, and as it goes hither and yon, I kept thinking, what is this? And why should I care?

I then found myself thinking of Little Shop of Horrors, which establishes its tone from the first note and honors it throughout (I'm referring to the original Off-Broadway production). We know immediately that Little Shop is offering silliness with an emotional undercurrent. With Last Smoker, all we know is that some talented people threw in pretty much everything they could think of, without keeping track of the big picture.

To the extent that he keeps things moving and helps the cast calibrate their various incarnations, director Sandberg does an excellent job. But shouldn't/couldn't he have offered an objective eye and some guidance to Russell and Melnick? Or does he genuinely like the show as is? I wonder.

The four-person cast brings great commitment and energy to the proceedings. Farah Alvin, in the lead, is likeable and funny. Natalie Venetia Belcon switches moods on a dime, and her voices, from hypersweet squeaky to scary deep, add much humor to the show. I liked Jake Boyd, which is quite a compliment, since his role is deeply obnoxious and poorly written. And Bolton is consistently entertaining.

A playwright friend of mine once told me that she doesn't get real actors to do early readings of her plays, because "They can't help but make even bad writing sound good." The cast of The Last Smoker of America almost succeeds in hiding most of its flaws, and if the show were 75 minutes with a third fewer songs, it might have worked. But it's over 90 minutes and relentless. More "no" was definitely needed.

(third row, press ticket)

Thursday, August 02, 2012

Nice Work If You Can Get It

If you're interested in watching a middle-aged woman bring the house down merely by glancing up at a chandelier, then Nice Work If You Can Get It is the show for you. The production received mixed reviews, largely because of the miscasting of Matthew Broderick as the romantic lead, but the slapstick-heavy luncheon scene that takes place in act II--and specifically the energy and dedication of Judy Kaye and Michael McGrath in it--is just one of many reasons to see the show, anyway.

It's sort of bizarre to think of "The Gershwins" and "jukebox musical" in the same flash, but Nice Work if You Can Get It really fits the bill. Which kind of makes sense, the more you chew on it. Lots of Gershwin shows--and those by their contemporaries--were pastiches in the first place. Songs that worked well in one show were often inserted into others; books were often secondary to a string of good songs, and thus utterly ridiculous; sight gags, slapstick, and quick, hilarious verbal exchanges glued the whole thing together. That Nice Work is being billed as a "new" Gershwin musical is perfectly apt, in this respect: the Gershwins, after all, were doing jukebox musicals before jukebox musicals had any idea what they were.

But then again, Nice Work would never have existed back in the Gershwin days--its nod to gender politics and its winking, self-referential humor are both just too contemporary. Its plot, while rooted firmly in the traditionally madcap, is just tight enough to resolve nicely, neatly, and without too many gaping holes. Some of its numbers are almost Berkeleyesque in their weird, carefully constructed randomness--the bathtub scene in the first act comes to mind--but, at the same time, winkingly conscious of their links to the past. So too is the whole show, which works nicely for the most part, if not all the time. Some of the numbers seem particularly shoehorned into specific scenes--and yes, I know this was the practice once, but it's not, now, so certain greatest-hits numbers (like "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" and the act I closer, "Fascinating Rhythm") seem to have been inserted primarily because--well, because they're greatest hits, and thus they HAVE to be shoved in there, somewhere.

And Broderick? Whatever, he's certainly watchable, if sort of stuck in a kind of Leo Bloom persona. He doesn't quite cut it as the romantic lead, here, but then again, the character he's playing is something of a sniveling cypher, overly coddled by his endlessly disapproving but enormously wealthy mother, and fully aware of how a schmuck like himself is fine as long as he has access to his family's ludicrous amounts of cash. Still, paired with the absolutely luminous Kelli O'Hara--as well as a remarkably strong supporting cast of wacky, high-energy men and women--he really seems to be phoning it in sometimes. Then again, really, who cares? He looks like he's having fun. Who wouldn't?

Also, again, he's playing an opportunistic schmuck who treats women poorly, is morally and ethically weak, and doesn't much think about the rest of the world or how it works. How else to treat him in the modern era? Especially in a show cast with exceptionally strong female roles, directed and choreographed by Kathleen-effing-Marshall, and produced in part by a number of individual women and all-female producing teams? Broderick seems perfectly fine to stand aside and let 'em run the show. Nice work, indeed.