May 24, 2017

The Misfortunes of "The Lucky One"

Most people know A.A. Milne as the creator of the Winnie-the-Pooh children's stories but in the two decades before he published the first Pooh book in 1926, Milne was best known as a humorist who wrote for the British satirical magazine "Punch" and as the author of 18 plays, most of which also had runs on Broadway. But those works rarely get done now, making them a great choice for the Mint Theatre Company which specializes in revivals of forgotten plays and is now presenting Milne's The Lucky One at the Beckett Theatre on Theatre Row through June 25.

Like so many plays of its time, The Lucky One focuses on an upper-class family and is set mainly in their drawing room. At its center are two brothers. The eldest is Bob, or poor Bob as everyone calls him. He's the kind of guy who's earnest and works hard but appears to everyone, himself included, as being one of life's also-rans.

That's especially so when he's compared to his younger brother Gerald, who excels at sports, at a job in the Foreign Office, when it comes to wooing women of all ages and even at being nice to Bob. But the real problem is that both brothers are in love with the same woman.

Bob met Pamela first but she was soon swept away by the more charismatic Gerald. As the play opens, Pamela and Gerald are engaged, while poor Bob is struggling to resolve a financial scandal at work that could send him to jail.

It's obvious who the lucky one is supposed to be but Milne, himself a favored son, slyly subverts that title, the tropes of the drawing room comedy and the themes of the Cain versus Abel matchup as well. In the process, he explores the nature of goodness and the burdens of the roles we're all assigned to play in our families.

If only the production were as astute. But, alas, the play seems to have overwhelmed its director Jesse Marchese, who is alternately too-heavy handed in some places and too light in others, leaving the actors shakily struggling to find the right balance for their performances.

Ari Brand, who has been nuanced in other shows I've seen him in, is totally one note as poor Bob and could have used some help in showing more than the character's petulance. Robert David Grant fares better as Gerald but still fails to convey the layered complexities that can come with being the chosen one.

Even the scenery, usually a treat at the Mint, is off-kilter. The set, dominated by an art deco staircase with a dual set of partially banistered stairs, is totally wrong for the country home of a tradition-bound aristocratic family of that period (not to mention dangerous for the actors). I suppose the staircase might have been meant to be expressionistic but I'll be damned if I can figure out what it's meant to be expressing.

The cop out would be to say that The Lucky One is just an old-fashioned play that has seen its day.  But Milne created something more emotionally enduring than that and I suspect we'd all be feeling differently if we—and Milne—had been lucky enough to get a more percipient production.

May 20, 2017

Tony Talk Podcast-Episode 8: The Campaign

The race is on. It may be done more politely than it was during our last presidential campaign (thank goodness), but the Tony nominees are beginning to elbow one another out of the way as they try to win voters—and that gold-plated statuette. 

That means placing expensive ads in both trade publications like Playbill and general-interest ones like The New York Times, where a full-page ad can reportedly costs $250,000. A Doll's House, Part 2, which was nominated for eight awards, including Best Play, took out four full pages in last Sunday's paper and another full one in Friday's.

Campaigning also means that the shows and their publicists are competing to get as much press coverage as possible for their nominated actors, playwrights, directors and designers. They're also trying to persuade those folks to attend the dozens of other awards ceremonies and events that happen at this time of year. 

And as though, that weren't enough, shows try to woo voters by sending them swag that includes cast recordings of the nominated musicals, special editions of the plays, inscribed book marks, beautiful coffee table books and, of course, free tickets to see the shows.

But as the New York Post theater columnist Michael Riedel noted this week, even more attention is being lavished on the so-called road voters, the tour operators and theater owners in other parts of the country who make up about 10 percent of the Tony voters. They were in town this past week for their annual conference and were wined, dined and schmoozed throughout their stay (click here to read more about that).

All of this soliciting adds up to a lot of money and that's even before the $250,000 to $300,000 producers are estimated to spend on the musical numbers that will appear on the Tony broadcast on June 11.

This week my pals Patrick Pacheco, Bill Tynan and I talk about how likely these expensive—and exhausting—campaigns are to sway voters. You can hear what we had to say by clicking the orange button below, listening to our conversation on SoundCloud by clicking here or checking out all of our discussions on the Tony Talk homepage, which you can find here.

May 17, 2017

"Seven Spots on the Sun" Sheds Light on the Darkness a Repressive Regime Can Inflict

Getting a show in front of a mainstream audience ain't easy and it can be even tougher when you're a playwright of color. Which is why I'm happy to have seen Martín Zimmerman's Seven Spots on the Sun, which is running at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater through June 4—and to be able to celebrate The Sol Project, which helped get it there.

The Sol Project, which officially launched just a year ago, is a collective that arranges for an off-Broadway company and a regional theater to give a full production to a play by a Latinx author, guaranteeing that playwright the much-desired chance to see his or her work done in New York and to get at least one more professional production elsewhere in the country (click here to read more about the initiative).

Like many young playwrights, Zimmerman has had plenty of readings and workshop productions at theaters ranging from the La Jolla Playhouse in California to The Roundabout Theatre's Underground space here in New York, which recently featured Marin Ireland in his On the Exhale, a searing monolog in which a mother grieves for a child killed in a school massacre and which made it clear that Zimmerman's work deserves to be seen by a wider audience (click here to read my review of it).

Seven Spots on the Sun is one of Zimmerman's earlier plays and its callowness shows in its occasional slips into melodrama, an overambitious use of flashbacks and an almost obligatory inclusion of the magical realism often associated with Latin American literature.

And yet, it is still an effective piece of work. That's in part because the language, some of it spoken in Spanish, is so beautifully lyrical. But it's mainly because Zimmerman, whose mother is Argentinian, forces the audience to confront the differing ways that people respond to oppression under a totalitarian regime. And, aware that heroes tend to be rare in situations like these, he refuses to castigate the choices taken.

My friend June, a journalist who has spent most of her career covering Latin America, quietly wept at moments. And she wasn't the only one I saw wiping away tears at the performance we attended. Even the spouse of a critic who would later give the play a lukewarm review appeared moved.

In the play, Luis, a low-paid miner eager to make a better life for his beloved wife Mónica, enlists in the military and is soon assigned to crack down mercilessly on anyone who challenges the government. A local doctor Moisés tries to stay neutral but is pulled into the conflict when his wife Belén insists that it's their moral duty to treat a wounded rebel left to die in the village plaza as a warning to other residents.

Meanwhile, the town priest tries to drown his timorousness in alcohol and a three-member chorus of townspeople comment on all these tragic comings and goings. The storylines come together when Luis' unit arrests Belén and, after the civil war has ended, Luis and Mónica's child is afflicted by a mysterious plague that only Moisés has a mystical power to cure.

The all-Latinx cast, as eager as Project Sol's playwrights are to show what they can do, gives strong performances, particularly Sean Carvajal as Luis and Flor De Liz Perez as Mónica. Director Weyni Mengesha has a tougher time wrangling the fractured narrative but ultimately gets the job done.

Some critics have complained that because Zimmerman sets the action in an unnamed country, the play lacks specificity. But, of course, that's precisely the point Zimmerman is making. These situations, and their hard choices and harsh consequences, have happened in many countries, both inside and outside Latin America. Seven Spots on the Sun is a reminder that they could even happen here.

May 13, 2017

Tony Talk Podcast-Episode 7: The Other Awards

The theater awards season is like a presidential campaign. Everyone has their eyes on the ultimate prize but there are lots of other contests along the way that offer trophies and with them, the chance to improve a show or a performer's odds of ending on top. This week both the Outer Critics Circle, which honors both Broadway and off-Broadway productions; and the Lucille Lortel Awards, which celebrate only off-Broadway, announced their selections for the best of the 2016-2017 theater season. Both chose Oslo for Best Play, just as the New York Drama Critics' Circle did earlier.

That would seem to clinch it for Oslo, J.T. Rogers surprisingly entertaining look at the backstory behind the Oslo Peace Accord. Lending validity to that conclusion is the fact that OCC and Tony voters have disagreed on the Best Play only once in the past 15 years when the OCC went with One Man, Two Guvnors in 2012, and the Tonys chose Clybourne Park.

Even so, the competition this year remains fierce. All the contenders are by first-time playwrights with compelling backstories of their own. And each has devoted partisans.

A Doll's House Part 2 earned raves from nearly all the major critics and features an all-star (and all-Tony-nominated) four-person cast headed by Laurie Metcalf, who's the frontrunner in the race for Best Actress in a Play.

Indecent by the deservedly beloved Paula Vogel is not only imaginatively directed by Rebecca Taichman but deals with subjects—the suppression of art, the love between two women, the plight of immigrants—that strike a particularly resonant chord with the people who vote for the Tonys.

And equally relevant is Sweat, Lynn Nottage's moving meditation on the effect that the deindustrialization of America is having on the people who once worked in the nation's mills and factories and the winner of this year's Pulitzer for Best Drama. 

The stakes go beyond bragging rights.  With the exception of Oslo, none of the other three is doing well at the box office. A Tony would give its winner a chance for a longer run and to recoup its investment.  

In this week's episode, my theatergoing buddy Bill and I speculate about what effect the wins thus far may have on the big one on June 11. Click the orange button below to hear what we have to say or check out all the Tony Talk podcasts on our show page by clicking here. 

May 10, 2017

Cheering The Outer Critics Circle's Awards

I promise to get back to talking about shows I've seen soon but as a card-carrying member of the Outer Critics Circle, I feel honor-bound to tout the awards we announced on Monday. The OCC recognizes both Broadway and off-Broadway productions and so, as often happens, a show that's played in both places is disqualified from consideration for its Broadway run if it was previously honored. That's why Dear Evan Hansen, last year's OCC winner and this year's frontrunner for the Tony for Best Musical doesn't appear on the list below. Only about half of this year's winners matched up with the choices I voted for but, again, it was such a terrific year filled with so many good shows and performances that I'm content with the results:

Outstanding New Broadway Play
A Doll's House, Part2

Outstanding New Broadway Musical
A Bronx Tale — The Musical
Come From Away
Groundhog Day
Holiday Inn

Outstanding New Off-Broadway Play
If I Forget
A Life
Love, Love, Love

John Gassner Award
(presented to honor an American play, preferably by a new playwright)
Men on Boats
Small Mouth Sounds 
Tell Hector I Miss Him
The Wolves

Outstanding New Off-Broadway Musical
The Band's Visit 
Himself & Nora
Kid Victory

Outstanding Revival of a Play
(Broadway or off-Broadway)
The Front Page
The Little Foxes
The Price

Outstanding Revival of a Musical
(Broadway or off-Broadway)
Finian's Rainbow
Hello, Dolly!
Miss Saigon
Sunset Boulevard
Sweeney Todd

Outstanding Actor in a Play
Michael Emerson, Wakey, Wakey
Daniel Craig, Othello
Kevin Kline, Present Laughter
David Oyelowo, Othello
David Hyde Pierce, A Life

Outstanding Featured Actor in a Play
Michael Aronov, Oslo
Danny DeVito, The Price
Nathan Lane, The Front Page
Richard Thomas, The Little Foxes
Richard Topol, Indecent

Outstanding Actress in a Play
Janie Dee, Linda
Sally Field, The Glass Menagerie 
Allison Janney, Six Degrees of Separation
Laura Linney, The Little Foxes 
Laurie Metcalf, A Doll's House, Part 2 

Outstanding Featured Actress in a Play
Johanna Day, Sweat
Jayne Houdyshell, A Doll's House, Part 2  
Katrina Lenk, Indecent
Nana Mensah,  Man From Nebraska
Cynthia Nixon, The Little Foxes 

Outstanding Actor in a Musical
Christian Borle, Falsettos
Nick Cordero, A Bronx Tale — The Musical 
Andy Karl, Groundhog Day 
David Hyde Pierce, Hello, Dolly!  
Tony Shalhoub, The Band's Visit

Outstanding Featured Actor in a Musical
John Bolton, Anastasia  
Gavin Creel, Hello, Dolly!   
Jeffry Denman, Kid Victory
Shuler Hensley, Sweet Charity
Andrew Rannells, Falsettos

Outstanding Actress in a Musical
Christy Altomare, Anastasia  
Christine Ebersole, War Paint 
Katrina Lenk, The Band's Visit
Patti LuPone War Paint 
Bette Midler, Hello, Dolly!   
Outstanding Featured Actress in a Musical
Kate Baldwin, Hello, Dolly!
Stephanie J. Block, Falsettos
Jenn Colella, Come From Away 
Caroline O'Connor, Anastasia  
Mary Beth Peil, Anastasia 
Outstanding Solo Performance
Ed Dixon, Georgie: My Adventures With George Rose
Marin Ireland, On the Exhale
Sarah Jones, Sell/Buy/Date
Judith Light, All the Ways to Say I Love You
Simon McBurney, The Encounter

Outstanding Book of a Musical
(Broadway or off-Broadway)
Terrence McNally, Anastasia  
Itamar Moses, The Band's Visit
Chazz Palminteri, A Bronx Tale — The Musical  
Danny Rubin, Groundhog Day 
Irene Sankoff and David Hein, Come From Away 

Outstanding New Score
(Broadway or off-Broadway)
Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, Anastasia   
Alan Menken and Glenn Slater, A Bronx Tale — The Musical
Tim Minchin, Groundhog Day  
Irene Sankoff and David Hein, Come From Away  
David Yazbek, The Band's Visit

Outstanding Director of a Play
Lila Neugebauer, The Wolves
Jack O'Brien, The Front Page
Daniel Sullivan, The Little Foxes 
Rebecca Taichman, Indecent 
Kate Whoriskey, Sweat  

Outstanding Director of a Musical
Christopher Ashley, Come From Away 
David Cromer, The Band's Visit
Darko Tresnjak, Anastasia  
Matthew Warchus, Groundhog Day
Jerry Zaks, Hello, Dolly!  

Outstanding Choreographer
Andy Blankenbuehler,  Bandstand 
Kelly Devine, Come From Away  
Warren Carlyle, Hello, Dolly!  
Savion Glover, Shuffle Along
Denis Jones, Holiday Inn

Outstanding Scenic Design
(Play or Musical)
Alexander Dodge, Anastasia 
Nigel Hook, The Play That Goes Wrong  
Mimi Lien, Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812
Scott Pask, The Little Foxes  
Douglas W. Schmidt, The Front Page

Outstanding Costume Design
(Play or Musical)
Linda Cho, Anastasia
Susan Hilferty, Present Laughter  
Santo Loquasto, Hello, Dolly!
Ann Roth, Shuffle Along
Catherine Zuber, War Paint  

Outstanding Lighting Design
(Play or Musical)
Christopher Akerlind, Indecent  
Donald Holder, Anastasia  
Natasha Katz, Hello, Dolly!
Bradley King, Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 
Kenneth Posner, War Paint 

Outstanding Projection Design
(Play or Musical)
Duncan McLean, Privacy
Jared Mezzochi, Vietgone
Benjamin Pearcy for 59 Productions, Oslo
Aaron Rhyne, Anastasia  
Tal Yarden, Indecent

Outstanding Sound Design
(Play or Musical)
Gareth Fry and Pete Malkin, The Encounter
Gareth Owen, Come From Away  
Nicholas Pope, Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812
Nevin Steinberg, Bandstand  
Matt Stine, Sweeney Todd 

Outstanding Orchestrations
(Broadway or off-Broadway)
Doug Besterman, Anastasia
Larry Blank, Holiday Inn
Bill Elliott and Greg Anthony Rassen, Bandstand
Larry Hochman, Hello, Dolly!  
Jamshied Sharifi, The Band's Visit

May 6, 2017

Is There Life After the Tony Nominations for "Anastasia," Bandstand" and "Charlie & the Chocolate Factory"?

All Tony awards are coveted but the awards for Best Musical tend to be the most coveted of all. And because 13 new musicals debuted during the 2016-2017 season, the odds of getting one this year were slimmer than usual. They became even leaner on Tuesday when the nominators concentrated their affections on just four shows—Come From Away, Dear Evan Hansen, Groundhog Day The Musical and Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812. The remaining nine shows got a total of just nine nominations combined, three less than the dozen The Great Comet got all by itself.

Amélie, the stage version of the whimsical 2001 movie about a French woman who can manage everyone's love life but her own, didn't score any nominations at all. The show, which stars Hamilton's Phillipa Soo in the title role, had already been flailing at the box office and in the wake of the nominations, its producers announced that it will close May 21.

But that doesn't mean all the non-nominated shows will be sending posters over to Joe Allen to be hung on the restaurant's infamous wall of Broadway's biggest flops. In fact, some of them are doing really well financially and have avid fans too. Here's a little rundown on three of those also-rans:

The Show: According to romantic legend, the youngest daughter of Czar Nicholas II escaped the brutal execution of the royal family during the Russian Revolution and made her way to Paris where she tried to convince the grieving Dowager Empress that she was truly her granddaughter. Terrence McNally wrote the book for this stage version and Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty did the score.

Tony Nominations: 2 Mary Beth Piel was nominated for Best Featured Actress in a Musical for her elegant portrayal of the Dowager Empress and Linda Cho earned one for her sumptuous period costumes. And that seems about right to me. Some of the music was pretty but not one tune remained in my head after I left the theater. The other performances were pleasant enough but Darko Tresnjak's direction lacked the wit that made his A Gentlemen's Guide to Love & Murder such a delight—and the 2014 Tony winner for Best Musical. But I was most disappointed by the waste of the talented Ramin Karimloo in the small role of a Soviet apparatchik who tries to thwart the would-be princess.

Survival Prospects: Many of the little girls who grew up on the animated film are now in their late 20s and early 30s and, still devoted to it, are bringing their young daughters to see this new incarnation or just coming to relive their own youth. At least the latter seemed to be the case with the two women sitting in the row behind me who not only giggled and sighed their way through the entire show but rushed out to buy some merch during the intermission. There apparently are a lot of others like them because the show is not only selling out the Broadhurst Theatre but its producers have already announced that they are planning both U.S. and international tours.

The Show: Newcomers Rob Taylor and Richard Oberacker have written an original musical about a group of World War II vets trying to put together a swing band so that they can enter a radio contest while, at the same time, struggling with the guilt of having survived the war when so many of their buddies died. Corey Cott plays the band leader and Laura Osnes is the widow of his best friend and the band's vocalist.

Tony Nominations: 2 Andy Blankenbuehler, who also directed the show, got a nod for his vigorous lindy-hopping choreography. And Bill Elliott and Greg Anthony Rassen were recognized for their orchestrations of the score, which revives the sounds of '40's big bands. I think the show might have done better if Taylor and Oberacker's book and Blankenbuehler's direction had more sharply underscored the parallels the show clearly wants to draw between its characters and soldiers who've recently returned home from Iraq and Afghanistan. There is a lovely scene in which the ghosts of their dead comrades haunt the band's members but too often the show pulls it punches, inching up to the pain returning vets experience and then retreating to the safety of yet another exuberant song and dance number. 

Survival Prospects: Like Amélie, this show has been struggling at the box office and it's hard to see who might fill its seats. Members of the Greatest Generation who are most likely to identify with this tale and its music are now in their 90s and the Vietnam-era Baby Boomers who make up the bulk of the ticket-buying audience tend to want their nostalgia set to a score of rock or soul instead of swing music. Meanwhile, the retro interests of Millennials don't seem to stretch that far back at all. I'll be surprised if this makes it through the summer.

The Story: Roald Dahl's classic children's book about an eccentric candy maker named Willie Wonka and a poor boy named Charlie who enters a contest to inherit Wonka's confectionary empire has been turned into two movies, a 1971 version with Gene Wilder and a 2005 one with Johnny Depp. This time out, Christian Borle dons Wonka's stovepipe hat and purple tailcoat. Hairspray's Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman supply the music and Jack O'Brien the direction.

Tony Nominations: Zero And the critics, including me, don't think much more of it. David Grieg's book is clunky and uninspired. Most of the plot involves introducing and then getting rid of Charlie's rivals for the candy factory, all of whom are more annoying than amusing. And the best songs in the show—"Pure Imagination" and "The Candy Man"—come from the 1971 film instead of Shaiman and Wittman's score. O'Brien has staged one delightfully inventive scene that features the factory's elf-like workers the Oompa Loompas but mindless reprises of it wore out even those charms for me.

Survival Prospects: Still, the title is well-known, the production is big, brassy and colorful and the show seems to be appealing to family audiences and to foreign tourists like the family that filled a full row behind my theatergoing buddy Bill and me. So the show has been selling out and this week its producers announced a national tour that will begin in September.