Thursday, November 28, 2013

One Night

Charles Fuller's drama One Night, the story of a veteran suffering from PTSD, presents the audience with a bizarrely conflicted experience. The inarguable horrors of rape, war, and institutionalized sexism, combined with Fuller's event-heavy, overwrought writing, leave the audience feeling devastated while trying to stifle giggles. Less definitely would have been more. With fewer plot points and themes, less acting, and a simpler, streamlined approach, One Night might have given us its heart and caring without becoming a satire of itself.

(sixth row, press ticket)

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Hello! My name is...

Hello, gentle readers,

My name is Aya, and I am honored to be joining Show Showdown as a contributor/reviewer.  Thought I would write a few introductory words...

Who am I? (24601)  I am a recently minted Ph.D. candidate in Musicology at the Graduate Center, CUNY, and hoping to successfully navigate the edges of the black hole called the dissertation within three years or so.  My main area of research involves musics created by participatory science fiction fans.  My secondary research area is musical theatre.  Strangely enough, these two areas have a surprising amount of overlap.

I have always been a huge musical nerd.  Often, I break out into song and dance in public places, to the chagrin of my friends.  You remember when Facebook used to have that bumper sticker app?  I think I received the "I wish life were a musical" sticker eight different times from FB friends who did not know each other.

For a long time though, I did not know that musical theatre studies was a legit area of research inquiry until I took a grad seminar on the rock musical by my now mentor and Show Showdown writer Liz Wollman.  It opened up a whole new world.  I'm particularly fascinated by how musicals function as vehicles for the performance of personal identity.  My main work-in-progress is an article on Bill T. Jones' FELA!; I'm also interested in recent new media musicals like Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, Smash, and Nashville.  (Sorry, Glee jumped the shark for me midway through season three.)

While I mainly channel my nerdy energy into academic pursuits, I am lucky enough to live, work, and hang out with several people who are involved in the theatre industry.  My two roommates - one of whom is a professional stage manager and the other an actress, general manager, and producer - keep my head from getting too inflated with academic pondering.  I also volunteer with a community theatre on Roosevelt Island and have had the opportunity to work with some crazily talented teens and children, some of whom are currently starring in film, Broadway, off-Broadway, and web serial productions.

I am so looking forward to writing for you all.  Bonus points if you caught all my musical references...Till next time!

Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Jacksonian

After Beth Henley's interminable and unpleasant new play, The Jacksonian, finally ended, an audience member turned to me and said, "What was that?"

Excellent question.

The story of a divorcing couple, a neglected child, a lonely waitress, and a bartender with a past brushing up against one another at the titular rundown motel, The Jacksonian fails to evoke sympathy, laughs, or interest. Robert Falls' direction doesn't help; he has led his superb cast (Ed Harris! Amy Madigan! Bill Pullman! Glenne Headly!) to puzzling, unconvincing, awkward performances. The supposedly humorous parts are embarrassing; the supposedly poignant parts are embarrassing; the whole thing is embarrassing.

Ben Brantley gave the show a good review, which baffles me. I was far from alone in disliking the show the night I saw it. The applause was perfunctory, and the after-show mood was glum. Perhaps Brantley saw a much better performance? It's hard to imagine.

(aisle, fifth row, press ticket)

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Frances Tannehill, 90, Broadway Actress

Frances Tannehill, actress and lifelong Manhattan resident, died after a brief illness in Upper Manhattan on August 5th.

Known for her stunning looks in addition to her talents as a dramatic and comedic actress, Ms. Tannehill started her Broadway career at the age of eight in the play “Purity,” produced by Lee Shubert and starring Florence Reed. She attended Professional Children’s School in Manhattan, which enabled her to keep up with her studies as she worked on Broadway and toured nationally.

In 1938, Ms. Tannehill was cast in Cole Porter’s musical “Leave it to Me”, starring Mary Martin, Sophie Tucker and Gene Kelly in his first Broadway show. In 1940, she appeared on Broadway in “Keep off the Grass.” Although short-lived, the musical was choreographed by George Balanchine and starred Jimmy Durante, Ray Bolger, Jane Froman and Jackie Gleason. Jerome Robbins and José Limon were featured dancers. Ms. Tannehill joined the Broadway cast of “Othello” starring Paul Robeson, Uta Hagen and José Ferrer, in 1943 for the last six months of the run.

At the age of 19, appearing in a Broadway revival of “Counsellor-at-Law “starring Paul Muni, Ms. Tannehill met her future husband, actor Alexander Clark. They were married in 1945 and spenttheir honeymoon in France and Germany on a six-month tour with the USO. The play was “The Night of January 16th” by Ayn Rand; it was a courtroom drama that used the GIs as jurors.  The company was the first to play for the U.S. troops in Berlin after VE Day. The couple remained married for fifty years until Alec Clark’s death in 1995.

  In the early 1950’s, Alexander Clark and Frances Tannehill went on a year-long national tour of “Call Me Madam” starring Elaine Stritch. On a tour stop in Washington, D.C., Ms. Tannehill, as Frances Clark, testified in Congress with Oscar Hammerstein II and Howard Lindsay to help pass a bill making it legal for child actors under the age of 14, but not below age 7,  to perform in Washington as they did elsewhere in the nation. The bill was signed by President Truman in 1952.  

Other national tours included “Ladies in Retirement” with Dame Flora Robson, and “The Philadelphia Story” with Sarah Churchill. Ms. Tannehill also performed featured and supporting roles with Helen Hayes, Dorothy Loudon, Jessica Tandy, Cyril Ritchard, Lillian Gish and Michael Redgrave. Television and radio performances included episodes on The Alcoa Hour, Philco Goodyear Television Playhouse, Kraft Theatre and Theatre Guild on the Air.
Ms. Tannehill was the third generation performer from an American theatrical family dating back to the 1850’s. Her father, Frank Tannehill Jr. was an actor, playwright and lyricist. Her grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. Frank Tannehill, worked in theatres throughout the U.S. in plays ranging from drama to farce.  In 1857, they were part of the ensemble company at the Arch Street Theatre in Philadelphia. John Wilkes Booth, using the pseudonym J.B. Wilkes, joined the company that year.
Nicole Clark, Helen Hayes,
Frances Tannehill

Ms. Tannehill created and performed one-woman shows for the past 20 years recounting her own theatrical experiences and those of other notable people in the arts. From 1995 until her death, she was President of Twelfth Night Club, Inc. which is the oldest extant club for women of the theatre in the U.S.

She will be remembered with love and admiration for her bright mind, her vibrant charm, her beautiful voice, and her wonderful recollections about the theatre that shaped her life.

Frances Tannehill is survived by her daughter Nicole Clark, of Manhattan.

Memorial contributions may be made to The Actor’s Fund.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013


Bottom line: If you love to laugh and have silly fun; if you enjoy being entertained by top-notch performers with excellent timing and beautiful voices; if you've even heard of such movies as The Poseidon Adventure and such songs as "Alone Again, Naturally," you have to go see Seth Rudetsky and Jack Plotnick's Disaster!

Jennifer Simard, Mary Testa
Photo: Jeremy Daniel
In my review of an earlier incarnation of Disaster! I wrote,
The premise is simple: Disaster! is a musical spoof of disaster films, using songs from the 1970s. It features a lot of the jokes you might predict, but with twists that make them funnier, plus jokes and situations and visuals that are surprising and wonderful. Under Denis Jones's insanely creative direction, the small space bursts with action and fun and inspired silliness. And the helicopter rescue is a delight.

Impressively, the songs aren't shoehorned in. As a matter of fact, one or two are weaved in so well that they seem written for the show. As just one example, Donna Summer's "Hot Stuff" becomes an effective opening number with a surprising range of interpretations.
Some things have changed in this new production. The director is now Plotnick (though the choreography is still by Denis Jones), and Rudetsky is the only performer remaining from the earlier cast. But more important is what stayed the same: Disaster! is still surprising and wonderful; it's still insanely creative; it still has an amazingly talented, energetic, somewhat insane cast, including Mary Testa, Matt Farcher, Haven Burton, and Jennifer Simard.

Seeing Disaster! a second time allowed me to examine the structure and writing more closely. This is a smart piece of silliness. Rudetsky and Plotnick set up the plot and characters with great economy, use the songs brilliantly, gracefully combine complete silliness with higher-level silliness, and, perhaps most importantly, know when to pull back. Every time it feels like the show is losing steam or going on too long, Rudetsky and Plotnick throw in a surprise or go in a different direction or come up with just the right mash-up of song, satire, and panache. And even when the show seems to be reaching too low, it isn't. (I wish I could give examples, but you really don't want me to spoil anything.)

It takes a certain meticulousness to make a show seem this crazed, this spontaneous, this gorgeously giddy. I tip my hat to everyone who worked on Disaster! and I urge you to go see it.

(row G, press ticket)

Sunday, November 03, 2013

A Midsummer Night's Dream

Julie Taymor's new production of A Midsummer Night's Dream is full of wonders, yet it is not quite wonderful. Actually, there are two shows here. The first, the one by Taymor and her creative colleagues, is a glorious pageant, full of color and light, undulating shapes, magical appearances (and disappearances), fascinating costumes, and kaleidoscopic orgasms. This show offers a candy store's worth of eye candy, and proves once again--not that it needs proving--that Taymor has one of the most fecund imaginations around today, or possibly ever. This show is a thrilling treat. (The scenic designer is Es Devlin; the costume designer is Constance Hoffman; the lighting designer is Donald Holder; the sound designer is Matt Tierney; the projection designer is Sven Ortel; the choreographer is Brian Brooks. All contribute brilliantly.)

Tina Benko, David Harewood
Photo: Es Devlin
And then there's that other show, the one that Shakespeare wrote, the one that Taymor treats as an afterthought. It's the least interesting Midsummer I've ever seen. The cast is uneven and the book scenes are directed haphazardly. Of the four young lovers, only Mandi Masden as Helena provides a full performance with real emotion. It's easy to see why Taymor cast the others, since they are beautiful and look good in their underwear, but their performances lack dimension and emotion. In this show, it rarely feels like anything matters.

And sometimes the design elements get in the way. For example, when the Rude Mechanicals perform Pyramus and Thisbe, the excellent Max Casella is overwhelmed by his wig, makeup, and costume. It doesn't make sense that he seems more real as an ass than as a human. (I also wish that Taymor had used her prodigious imagination to come up with something better--and less annoying--than the gay and fat stereotypes among the Rude Mechanicals.)