August 18, 2018

The Yiddish "Fiddler on the Roof" Soars

So many people have been raving about the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene's production of Fiddler on the Roof that I felt I had to see it. At the same time, I feared it wouldn't live up to all the hype. But I finally did and it certainly did. In fact, this is truly a production not to be missed by anyone who loves this show, who loves musicals or who just loves.

I wasn't so sure of that at first. The show is playing at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, which is located in a not-all-that-easy-to-get-to section of Battery Park City. Then, when I did get there with plenty of time to have lunch at the museum's restaurant before my matinee performance, the host at the door dissuaded me from coming in, urging me instead to buy a pre-wrapped sandwich from the cafe and eat it at one of the tables in the hallway outside the restaurant.

But my biggest "oh, no" came when the show began. I knew going in that part of what makes this Fiddler unique is that it's performed entirely (songs included) in Yiddish with supertitles provided for those of us who don't speak the language. Still, it took me awhile to establish the right rhythm of reading and watching. But once that kicked in, I was transported to the tiny Jewish village of Anatevka in a corner of Russia around the turn of the last century. And for the next three hours, I marveled at how perfect a musical Fiddler on the Roof is.

Credit for that obviously begins with the now-classic score by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick and the airtight book that Joseph Stein derived from the stories the Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem wrote about the God-loving milkman Tevye and his independent-minded daughters. But this revival's success is mainly due to the direction of Joel Grey. 

Having his production performed in Yiddish, the language that Fiddler's characters would have spoken, obviously helps. But Grey, himself a legendary performer, also walks the talk and he has brought out every ounce of the underlying melancholy in this story about people forced to reckon with a changing and often cruel world without losing one bit of the show's heart and humor.

The look of the production is spare and simple but Grey has recruited an A-team of collaborators, including Beowulf Boritt for the sets, Ann Hould-Ward for costumes, Peter Kaczorowski for lights and Dan Moses Schreier, who did an outstanding job with the sound design. The auditorium at the museum was filled with octogenarians at my performance and I didn't spot anyone wearing one of those hearing devices that theaters rent out or complaining about not being able to hear the show.

In keeping with the ethos of simple authenticity, there are no names in the cast, with the exception of Jackie Hoffman, who plays Yente, the village matchmaker. Yet, this is the best Fiddler cast I've seen and the other three were on Broadway.

Nearly everyone onstage (there are 26 in the cast, which adds to the feel of a real village) looks and sounds as though they might have actually lived in a place like Anatevka. The fact that the actors reportedly had to learn their lines phonetically makes this all the more impressive.

Unlike others who have been intimidated by Zero Mostel's seminal performance as Tevye in the original production, Steven Skybell doesn't try to imitate Mostel or to invent an updated take. He simply inhabits the character and his Tevye is all the more real for it, a good man seriously torn between the traditions that have defined his life and a desire to give his daughters the chance to make the best of theirs.

Choreographer Staś Kmieć takes a similar approach to the dances, neither slavishly duplicating the steps that Jerome Robbins created for the original 1964 production nor trying to wiggle away from them. The result is that his dances, particularly the big all-male production numbers, are satisfyingly rooted in the verisimilitude that Grey has set as this revival’s baseline.

I'm usually not a demonstrative theatergoer but I swayed to the music played by the show's 12-piece orchestra and I chuckled at the interactions between Tevye and his neighbors. But more than anything I found myself caring what would happen to all of them after they were driven out of their homes at the end of the play and if they'd end up succeeding in America, joining the revolution and helping to overthrow the czar or dying in the Holocaust.

There's been talk that the show might get a commercial run (click here to read about that), perhaps even on Broadway but if you can, make the trek to Battery Park and see this Fiddler on the Roof at the museum before its extended run closes there on Oct. 25. And try to squeeze in a visit to one or two of the museum's exhibits where the ghosts of the residents of this Anatevka are present throughout.

August 11, 2018

Today's Ghost Light is a Birthday Candle

There's no post today because I'm taking time off to celebrate my birthday this weekend. The celebrations include a repeat visit to Harry Potter and the Cursed Child with my theatergoing buddy Bill (click here to read my earlier review) hanging out with my sister and nieces, hearing jazz and enjoying a fancy dinner with my beloved husband K.  But I'll be back next week, a year older but still crazy about theater and eager to share what I've seen and think about it with you guys.

August 4, 2018

"This Ain't No Disco" Ain't Much Fun

Maybe there were too many top chefs in the room when they were cooking up This Ain't No Disco, the rock musical that recently opened at the Atlantic Theater Company's Linda Gross Theater. Cause the show, which purports to tell the potentially juicy stories of a group of fictional and non-fictional people associated with the dance club Studio 54 at the height of its fame in the late '70s, has turned out to be a big bowl of mush.

Few shows started off with more advantages. The rock score is by Stephen Trask, who composed the foot-stomping music and witty lyrics for Hedwig and the Angry Inch; and Peter Yanowitz, the drummer for the Grammy Award-winning rock band The Wallflowers. These guys clearly know their way around rock music and some of This Ain't No Disco's tunes are catchy but the overall score lacks cohesion and there's no great dance anthem, which a show like this one obviously should have.

Similarly, I expected much from Rick Elice, the co-writer of the Tony-nominated book for Jersey Boys, who collaborated with Trask and Yanowitz on the book for this show. But their narrative totally fails to deliver. Its dialog, delivered in rhyming couplets, isn't nearly as clever as it wants to be.

The multiple storylines are convoluted and ultimately make no sense. A scene in which two coatroom staffers fantasize about the lives of the rich and famous who frequent the club is a perfect setup for exploring the obsession with celebrity culture that seems to be the show's underlying message but that plot line abruptly veers in another direction.

And the characters—be they the fictional gay hustler who enjoys 15 minutes of fame as a graffitti artist and the single mom who becomes a coked-up disco diva, or the real-life Steve Rubell who managed Studio 54 and club regular Andy Warhol who is coyly referred to only as The Artist—are so sketchy that it's hard to invest in what happens to any of them.

But most disappointing of all is the direction by Darko Tresnjak, whose pitch-perfect staging of A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder deservedly won him the Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle and Tony Awards four years ago. Tresnjak says he had an unusually short period of time to work on this production (click here to read an interview with him) and more time was clearly needed because this is a lackluster re-creation of the flamboyantly colorful disco era.

The director does have scantily-clad male disco dancers gyrating around the stage but they seem sleazy rather than glamorous or the naughty fun that Studio 54 was famous for. And Tresnjak is even more at a loss when the action briefly shifts to the intentional grittiness of the downtown punk-rock haven the Mudd Club (click here to read more about it).

The attempts at cinematic staging are clunky. The choreography is flatfooted. There's a whiff of desperation as actors run around the stage and into the audience. The jungle-gym style set conveys little of the flavor of either dance club and does no favor to audience members sitting on the sides.

The costumes are OK. But the lighting and sound definitely are not. The diva was almost through her big second-act ballad before I could find where she was onstage, which is what good lighting is supposed to show me.

The Playbill says that the first-time sound designer is a master engineer who has mixed thousands of recordings for everyone from David Bowie to Vampire Weekend. But a show is different from a recording and it's often hard to understand what Disco's actors are saying, crucial in a show that is mostly sung through.

The diverse and largely young cast is energetic but uneven. There's a lot of mugging and Theo Stockman gnaws straight through the scenery as Rubell. However Will Connolly does manage to bring a droll restraint to his portrayal of The Artist (I'm guessing the Warhol estate denied the use of his name but couldn't do anything about the trademark white wig). 

Faring best is Chilina Kennedy, who has spent the last three years appearing as Carole King in Beautiful and brings a sense of professionalism and some much needed humor to the role of a self-promoting publicist.

Steve Rubell, who died in 1989,  and his partner Ian Schrager, still alive and so not mentioned in the show, threw a final party at Studio 54 in 1980 and then went off to serve a year in jail for tax evasion, which is where this staged version of their tale ends.

The real Studio 54 venue went on to become one of the theaters owned by the Roundabout Theater Company. I've seen many great performances there since the company took up residence in 1998 and I'm looking forward to seeing Bobby Cannavale, Cherry Jones and Daniel Radcliffe there in The Lifespan of a Fact this fall and then in the spring the much anticipated revival of Kiss Me Kate with Will Chase and Kelli O'Hara.

I was living in San Francisco during disco's heyday and I only got past the old Studio 54's velvet rope once during a vacation home. I have to confess that I wasn't as impressed as I thought I would be (although I did get a small kick out of seeing Calvin Klein and Liza Minnelli) but even that was more entertaining than This Ain't No Disco, which, alas, simply ain't much fun.

July 28, 2018

True Compassion for "Straight White Men"

What a difference a director can make. The first time I saw the dark comedy Straight White Men, it was directed by its playwright Young Jean Lee for a 2014 workshop production at the Public Theater and although Lee is a longtime downtown darling revered for her audaciousness, the result was dour and off-putting. But the new Second Stage production that opened this week at the company's Helen Hayes Theater under the vibrant direction of Anna D. Shapiro gave me an evening in the theater that was both thought-provoking and entertaining.

Lee, who with this production becomes the first Asian-American woman to have a play open on Broadway, is known for her deep dives into questions of race and gender (click here to read a great profile of her). She usually comes at these issues from the perspective of the oppressed. Her breakout piece The Shipment took on contemporary stereotypes about black people. Another one Untitled Feminist Show upended the ways in which women's bodies are stigmatized by featuring six nude performers ranging in size from petite to obese.

So it's clear that Lee is making a provocative statement just by turning her gaze on the hetero cis-gendered white guys who give her play its title. The four in Straight White Men are Ed, a widowed father in his 70s, and his three grown sons Matt, Jake and Drew who have gathered to celebrate Christmas.

The baby of the family Drew is a tenured professor and an award-winning novelist who flits from woman to woman. Middle brother Jake is a high-powered banker and recently divorced. But the eldest Matt has moved back in with their dad, works at a temp job, hasn’t dated in years and, despite his protestations that all is well, breaks into tears as they eat a Christmas Eve dinner of Chinese takeout.

The plot, such as it is, revolves around Matt's siblings’ bungling attempts to understand and cure his sadness. Lee has added a framing device and two new characters for this Broadway production. They are called the Persons in Charge and are played by the gender fluid performers Kate Bornstein and Ty Defoe who roam the audience before the show starts, introduce it with some TED Talk-style patter and then literally position the actors in place before each scene begins.

I think these gender-defying masters of ceremonies are supposed to symbolize the fact that our concept of masculinity is in flux but they seem redundant because when done right, as it's done here, Straight White Men makes that point on its own.

The play goes out of its way to establish that these guys are aware of the privilege that their race and gender give them. Drew solicitously suggests that Matt might be struggling with coming out. Jake's ex-wife is a black woman and his kids are mixed-race. In the first scene the two of them play a modified version of the board game Monopoly called Privilege in which the player who draws a white card has to pay a $200 penalty and go to jail.

And yet, in ways large (Jake mentors only whites at his bank) and small (the brothers communicate best when they manhandle one another) Straight White Men makes it clear that these men find it hard to break out of the roles that society has set for them. Which is why they're so horrified by Matt's feminine behavior: taking care of their dad, working a low-paying job, crying.

In short, it's a hard-eyed look at how men oppress themselves. But Shapiro keeps the play from being tendentious or tedious by emphasizing the genuine affection these men feel for one another and their earnest desire to be better than they are. This choice not to portray them as villains is an audacious act of compassion for liberal theatermakers to make in the current political climate.

Shapiro also doesn't shy away from using the innate charms of her actors. Lots of people are turning out to see the show because Drew is played by the movie star and avatar for today's straight white man Armie Hammer (click here for a very long profile about him) or because they liked the actors playing his siblings, Josh Charles and Paul Schneider, in their roles on the TV shows "The Good Wife" and "Parks and Recreation."

Under Shapiro's steady hand, all three actors appear totally comfortable onstage and deliver performances that go far beyond cameo status. But the biggest test to her mettle may have been the cast changes that occurred over the past few weeks when Tom Skerritt bowed out of playing Ed during rehearsals and was replaced by Denis Arndt, who bowed out during previews (click here to read about all of that).

Shapiro finally tapped the show's understudy Stephen Payne to play Ed. Payne isn't a name like his co-stars but he is additional proof that this director really knows what her play needs.

July 21, 2018

What's Missing in the Theater District?

It's summer vacation time and tourists, who account for over 60 percent of Broadway's ticket buyers, have been streaming into the city, eager to see shows ranging from tried-and-true war horses like Wicked and The Phantom of the Opera to newly Tony-minted hits Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and The Band's Visit. I'm happy for those theatergoers but I wish there was something else for them to see, something like a museum dedicated to Broadway.

My wistfulness isn't new. I've been yearning for such a place for years. But that longing intensified with a recent visit to Cooperstown, New York, where my husband K and I spent a full day at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. I'm not much of a sports fan but by the time I made my way through all three floors of memorabilia and over 100 years of the sport's history, I found myself really wanting to see a ballgame and totally envious that a similar place doesn't exist for theater.

Now there are places in New York where you can find exhibits about Broadway history. Both the Museum of the City of New York and the New-York Historical Society have theatrical treasures in their collections and they occasionally display some of them, such as the museum did with its terrific survey of Yiddish theater in 2016 and the Historical Society with its tribute to the legendary theatrical cartoonist Al Hirschfeld in 2015.

The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts offers an even more steady diet of theater-related exhibits. The one it did on Noel Coward in 2012 was one of the most informative and entertaining museum shows of any kind I've ever seen. The Library's currently hosting a small tribute to Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein that will be on view through Sept. 25.

But none of these venues are in the Theater District so only the most determined tourists are likely to seek out their shows. The one geographical exception is the American Theatre Hall of Fame, which makes its home at the Gershwin Theatre, where Wicked has been playing for the past 15 years.

Founded in 1972 to honor the careers of significant theater professionals, the hall's members include actors like Audra McDonald and playwrights like Tina Howe, as well as producers like Daryl Roth and even theater critics like Ernie Schier, a  co-founder and the first chairman of the American Theater Critics Association (of which I'm a proud new member).

All of those folks in the previous paragraph were inducted into the Hall of Fame last fall and their names are now inscribed alongside past honorees on the walls of the Gershwin. I’m told that a collection of memorabilia from past winners is assembled there too. But my guess is that only the most die-hard theater fans even know that any of it is there. And most of them can't see those displays even if they know of their existence because the space is only accessible to people paying to see Wicked.

What the names on the wall and the artifacts on display need is a place of their own where Broadway and its history can be widely appreciated. The space doesn't have to be as big as the one baseball has in Cooperstown but it shouldn't be a cheesy throwaway either. The best museums today are interactive affairs that offer visitors a variety of ways to interact with the subject they're celebrating.

Wouldn't it be great if some of the crowds roaming through Times Square had a nearby place to go where they could see the costumes Patti LuPone and Laura Benanti wore in Gypsy, hear songs that were cut from the original production of In the Heights, see drafts of the script for A Raisin in the Sun or learn about the achievements of the names on that Hall of Fame wall?

A reasonable admission fee could make it enticing for even a casual theatergoer. Docents from all parts of the theater community could share their enthusiasm for live theater. And Broadway performers might even pop in every now and then to add extra excitement. Heads snapped around when the recently-retired outfielder Carlos Beltrán walked through one of the galleries the day K and I were at the Baseball Hall of Fame.

I'm willing to bet that a conveniently located museum that offered a truly visceral sense of Broadway (after all, who can put on a better show than Broadway folks) would have a lot of its attendees leaving the same way I left the baseball museum: dying to see the real thing.