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November 27, 2010

Holiday Gifts for Theater Lovers-The 2010 List

They say it’s not the gift but the thought that counts.  Still, the gifts that tend to be the most fun to get—and give—are the ones that are mindful of what will most please the recipient. If you’ve got theater lovers on your list, you already know you can’t lose if you give them tickets to a show.  And, as usual, the folks at Telecharge  and TKTS are offering special holiday gift cards.  But there are other treats that will also delight your favorite show queen (or king) and so here are a few of them on my annual list of 12 gift ideas ( you can find other still goodies on last year's list and the one for 2008). As usual, there's one idea for each day of Christmas, although I suspect that those who prefer to celebrate Chanukah, Kwanzaa, Ashura or just the Winter Solstice would be happy to get them too:


“GLEE STUFF:  Know a Gleek? That's what fans of the hit TV series about a high school glee club call themselves. The show has become must-see TV for theater lovers because it showcases show tunes and star turns from stage folks like series’ regulars Matthew Morrison and Lea Michele as well as guest appearances by such Broadway faves as Kristin Chenoweth, Jonathan Groff, Cheyenne Jackson and Idina Menzel.  So either a “Glee” wall calendar or the show’s Christmas album (12 songs from “We Need A Little Christmas” to “O Holy Night”) are sure to make welcome stocking stuffers. Both are just $9.99 at Amazon.com

SHOW MASKS JEWELRY: The ancient symbols of comedy and tragedy date back to the Greeks but over the millennia, designers have never seemed to tire of coming up with new ways to portray them. The folks at Showbits, an online gift shop for theater lovers, have collected over two dozen masks in the form of cuff links, earrings, lapel pins, key chains, and money clips. None is priced higher than $20 at  http://www.showbits.com

SHAKESPEARE COASTERS.  The Royal Shakespeare Company is offering a clever set of drink coasters, engraved with appropriate sayings from the Bard.  There is, as you might expect, "If music be the food of love play on" from Twelfth Night but also "The Tartness of his face sours ripe grapes" from Coriolanus. The set of six costs £5.45, or about $8.50 at the current exchange rate, although that doesn’t include the shipping. http://www.rsc.org.uk/shop

BE A BROADWAY STAR BOARDGAME. Who wants to just acquire property and land on Boardwalk in "Monopoly," when they can acquire fans and maybe end up in the Broadway Hall of Fame with the new board game created by the industrious producer Ken Davenport? "Be A Broadway Star" is an interactive game that recreates each step of the actor’s journey from training in acting school to winning a Tony and, along the way, players have to actually perform songs and dialog. The winner is the one who ends up with the most fan cards.  It's $35 at http://www.beabroadwaystar.com

WII'S DANCE ON BRAODWAY:  Rock fans have "Guitar Hero" and now people who love musical theater have our own music video game too. You need a video console like Microsoft’s Xbox 360 or Sony's PlayStation 3 if you want to indulge your fantasy of being a Broadway showgirl or guy. But the game offers a fun workout as players dance along to choreographed routines for 20 Broadway numbers including "Let The Sunshine In" from Hair, "You Can't Stop the Beat" from Hairspray, and “Roxie” from Chicago. Plus it’s great to see Broadway tipping its toe back into mainstream pop culture. The games are available at big box stores like Wal-Mart and Best Buy and at amazon.com, where it cost about $21 at  http://www.amazon.com/Dance-Broadway-Nintendo-Wii

THE BROADWAY MUSICAL QUIZ BOOK  Serious theater lovers can’t help boasting about how much they know about old shows.  And so the ones on your list are bound to be delighted—and challenged—by this terrific collection of quizzes on every aspect of the Broadway musical from the name of the island that provided the setting for Sunday in the Park with George to the name of the only musical inspired by a work of Anton Chekhov. It’s like the Sunday Times crossword puzzle for theater geeks and for only $11.55 at Amazon.com www.amazon.com/Broadway-Musical-Quiz-Applause-Books

FINISHING THE HAT BY STEPHEN SONDHEIM.  There are shelf loads of theater books that would make great holiday presents. But it will be hard this year to beat this compilation of lyrics that Sondheim wrote between 1954 and 1981 (that’s West Side Story through Merrily We Roll Along, with stops along the way for Gypsy, Company, Follies and Sweeney Todd, among others).  Just the chance to read the lyrics is a treat but Broadway’s resident genius has sweetened the experience by annotating them with his memories about making the shows, anecdotes about his collaborators and some pointed remarks about his peers, all for just $23. http://www.amazon.com/Finishing-Hat

MICHAEL FEINSTEIN'S AMERICAN SONGBOOK DVD. Feinstein has been a tireless advocate for the songs, many of them written for Broadway musicals from the ‘20s through the ‘60s, that form the Great American Songbook but never more so than in this three-part documentary that ran on PBS.  The two-DVD set includes not only Feinstein’s performance of tunes by Cole Porter, Frank Loesser and the Gershwins but rare archival footage of Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Lena Horne, Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, and Nat King Cole that he’s collected over the years. It's $39.95 from the PBS shop at http://www.shoppbs.org

BROADWAY CARES/EQUITY FIGHTS AIDS SNOW GLOBE:  The folks at the theater community’s leading service organization come up with a new goodie each Christmas and this year’s is a collectible snow globe designed by the Tony-winning set designer David Gallo. It features an imaginative cityscape of the Theater District complete with logoed posters, taxi cabs and dancing chorus girls.  $80 at http://www.broadwaycares.org/store

BROADWAY LEGENDS CHRISTMAS ORNAMENTS:  These special-edition figurines of Carol Channing in her signature role from Hello, Dolly! and Chita Rivera as Anita in West Side Story, will look good both on and under the tree. Chita (Item# OR750) cost $50 and Carol (Item# OR751) $55 but the money goes to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. http://www.broadwaycares.org/store

PLAYBILL WRAPPING PAPER  I realize that I’m running the risk of coming off as a shill for Broadway Cares by including this third item from its store.  But I can’t resist the idea of wrapping paper (Item# GW423) decorated with the Playbills of classic shows ranging from Annie Get Your Gun and the Music Man to Jersey Boys and Mamma Mia!  It’s $10 a roll (26 inches wide by 10 feet long) at http://www.broadwaycares.org/store

VINTAGE PLAYBILLS:  In an act of incredible generosity, my friend Joy gave me a birthday gift of the complete set of Playbills from my birth year. It’s a wonderful treat because you not only get to see who appeared in the show, which you can do on ibdb.com, but the ads, the prices that restaurants were charging for dinner and the feature articles, which are full of information and insight about the theater of the time.  You needn’t be as munificent as Joy, just one carefully chosen Playbill can delight the fan of that show.  Prices start for as little as 99 cents on eBay http://shop.ebay.com/broadway+playbills

 Finally, I hope you’ll forgive me for making this a baker’s dozen by tooting my own horn but I can't help reminding you that there are also some really fun (and affordable) gifts at the Broadway & Me store at http://www.broadwayandmestore

So, happy shopping.  Happy holidays. And, of course, happy theatergoing.

November 25, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving


Turkey can  be a tricky word in the theater, even on Thanksgiving Day. So, I’m just going to wish you and yours a day, a season, a year full of things to be thankful for—including lots of good shows to see.

November 24, 2010

"The Pee-Wee Herman Show" is Big Fun

“When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”  So says the Bible.   

But that’s not the way we do things anymore.  We cling to our childish things. Fiercely.  Fans who grew up with the Harry Potter series haven’t abandoned their hero just because they’re now old enough to have kids of their own. The New York Times reports that 25% of the people who saw the latest film installment of the boy wizard’s saga this past weekend were between the ages of 18 and 34. 

And judging by the ovation that greets Paul Reubens when he walks onto the stage of the newly named Stephen Sondheim Theatre, his fans are still crazy about him too.  For most of the people clapping madly, stomping their feet and whistling with delight grew up with Reubens’ signature character Pee-Wee Herman and they were giddy about being there to see his new live version of The Pee-Wee Herman Show (click here to read a droll New York Magazine Q&A with Reubens). 

Producers are always wondering how to get people who aren’t collecting Social Security into the theater, well this show seems to have cracked the secret: put something on that people under 50 relate to.

In fact, the last time I heard an ovation like the one that Reubens got was when I went to see Spamalot and the Monty Python fans started laughing at skits before they’d even begun. The folks at the Sondheim knew their gags too. They cheered when the curtain rose to reveal Dave Korins’ faithful reproduction of the set from the old 1980s TV show and they welcomed each of the show’s iconic characters with screams of delight.

The loudest noise—after the din for Reubens—was reserved for the old series regulars Lynne Marie Stewart, who reprised her role as Pee-Wee’s neighbor Miss Yvonne, and John Paragon as the blue-faced genie-in-a-box Jambi.  The non-human characters like Chairry, a plush and affectionate armchair; Globey, a spinning globe; and Conky, the resident robot, are back too but wittily animated this time by the inventive puppeteer Basil Twist. 

The new stage show, directed by Alex Timbers (who, having helmed Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and this, is emerging as Broadway’s go-to-guy for hip fare) doesn’t have much of a plot.  Pee-Wee, the eternal manchild, wants to fly and has to decide whether to use the magic wishes he’s been given to fulfill his dream or help-out his friends. In a nod to contemporary times, he also tries to buy and hook up a new computer.

It’s thin stuff. But sturdy enough for the fans, who come to revel in the old bits, including Pee-Wee’s herky-jerky jitterbug and the required screaming at each utterance of the secret word of the day.  Spoiler alert: the word is “fun.”

But the audience also chuckled heartily at the new double entendres including a couple of sly references to the 1991 arrest for indecent exposure inside a porno movie theater that almost ruined Reuben’s career.  “I’m glad he mentioned it,” said my friend Jessie, a longtime Pee-Wee fan who feels that Reubens was unfairly hounded and a victim of homophobia.

There’s always been a subversive not-just-for-the-kids quality to the Pee-Wee character that plays both to youngsters and hipsters. The perennially cool Anne Meara and Jerry Stiller were in the audience at the performance Jessie and I attended. 

Such broad appeal probably reflects Reubens’ training with the Groundlings, the legendary L.A.-based improv troupe where Will Ferrell, Kathy Griffin, and the late Phil Hartman also cut their comedy teeth.  Hartman actually appeared on the TV show as did Laurence Fishburne and S. Epatha Merkerson.

Watching the 90-minute show at the Sondheim can feel like being at someone else’s school reunion. But newcomers aren’t entirely shut out.  A little girl in the row behind me who looked to be about seven shrieked with laughter. And even I smiled more than a few times.  I guess The Pee-Wee Herman Show brought out the child in me.

November 20, 2010

"Elf" is a Sugarplum-Sweet Christmas Treat

It probably won’t come as a surprise to you that a semi-professional grouch like me is not the target audience for Elf, the new musical version of the 2003 Will Ferrell movie about a man who believes he’s a Christmas elf.  But my sister Joanne sits right in the bullseye of that demographic. She has a huge soft spot for holiday shows. And she’s not alone.

Joanne and I ran into an old colleague of mine and her 14 year-old daughter Melissa at the performance we attended. Melissa was so excited about the show that she was snapping pictures of everything—the marquee outside the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, the curtain inside, the ushers—with her cell phone camera and instant mailing the photos to her envious friends.   

In fact, cameras were popping all over the place and the anticipation in the air was as rich and thick as an eggnog. A quartet of Russian speakers sitting next to me chatted excitedly—Miss Daisy and Mamma Mia! were the only words I recognized—but they kept looking at their watches, obviously impatient for Elf to begin.

Two hours and 15 minutes later, Joanne, Melissa and the Russian ladies all left with big smiles on their faces. And I hadn’t had a bad time either. Sebastian Arcelus, who plays Buddy the Elf, is no Will Ferrell but he’s tall and hardworking and once his nerves settle down quite appealing in a relentlessly cheery way that’s totally appropriate for the title role.

The rest of the 26-member cast, which includes Broadway stalwarts like Beth Leavel, Amy Spanger and Michael McCormick, is out to please too. And director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw keeps them bouncing along with the kind of song-and-dance numbers that don’t break any new ground but are fun to watch.

The show is produced by Warner Bros., which made sack loads of money off the movie and clearly hopes that it can extend the brand with this stage version (click here to read an article about its strategy), and so the book sticks close to the film script.  But you can still make out the handprints of the writers Thomas Meehan (a triple Tony winner for Annie, The Producers and Hairspray) and Bob Martin (who took home his own statue for The Drowsy Chaperone).

The show starts right off with a sly homage to Drowsy Chaperone’s Man in Chair: the first thing you see in Elf is a joke-cracking Santa who’s seated in an armchair and talking directly to the audience.  The fact that he’s played by George Wendt (forever beloved as Norm from the old sitcom “Cheers”) only adds to the audience's delight.

This Elf goes all out to please kids of all ages. There are sight gags and topical jokes about Charlie Sheen and iPads, right in step with the pop cultural references that have made recent movie cartoons like "Shrek" such moneymakers. 

David Rockwell’s sets intentionally echo Christmas pop-up books, Gregg Barnes’ costumes are seasonably jolly and the music by Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin, the duo behind the stage version of The Wedding Singer, is so Christmasy that people in the audience started to sing along as though they already knew the songs.  

Now, it probably won’t surprise you that most of the critics, who get paid for being grouches, are crying “Humbug.”  Grinches to the bone, they find Elf “helplessly corny,” “sappy,” “too sweet” and “sentimental.”  They’re right. Elf is not hip.  Or ironic. It’s an unabashedly schmaltzy show. But hell, if you can't be corny, sentimental and sweet at Christmas, when can you be?

November 17, 2010

"La Bête" Draws Another Losing Hand

It’s a dog- eat-dog season on Broadway this fall.  And having big names in the cast doesn’t seem to be enough to guarantee survival. Last week, A Life in the Theatre, which has movie and TV stars Patrick Stewart and T.R. Knight, announced that it was going to close five weeks ahead of schedule. And now has come word that La Bête, which stars David Hyde Pierce, still beloved for his years on the old hit sitcom “Frasier,” and the less-well known but also Tony-winning British actor Mark Rylance, will end its run on Jan. 9, a month earlier than originally planned. 

I think the culprit is too many shows. Over a dozen new productions have opened on Broadway in just the past two months. And that’s been alongside an equal number of high-profile off-Broadway shows, like the Signature Theatre Company’s sensational revival of Angels in America. So it’s taking more than a well-known face to stand out in the crowd.

 La Bête was probably an iffy proposition right from the start. The critics panned the original production back in 1991 and it ran just 40 performances, including previews.  I managed to see one of those performances and I came away beguiled by the show. The image of its startling white and slightly askew set is as vivid in my mind’s eye as it was when I saw it at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre nearly 20 years ago.  But this time around, my feelings are mixed.

It’s not just that I no longer get the satisfaction of being one of the few who’s seen the show on a Broadway stage but that this production isn’t entirely satisfying. I'm not blaming the play itself.  La Bête is as ambitious a show as has appeared on Broadway this season. Playwright David Hirson takes on the age-old battle between art and commerce—and he does it in rhymed couplets. 

The plot centers around two 17th century men of the theater. Elomire (the name is an anagram for the great French playwright Molière) is the highbrow head of a court-sponsored theater troupe. Valere is a lowbrow street entertainer (he’s the beast of the title). They’re thrust together when the royal patron who supports both men (a prince in the original production but here a princess played by “Absolutely Fabulous” co-diva Joanna Lumley) orders them to collaborate on a new production. What ensues is an amusing but thought-provoking clash between class and crass.

Ironically, that same struggle is reflected in this production. And it isn’t a spoiler to say that this time out, crass wins.  You can tell that by the cover of the Playbill on which a wary-eyed Hyde Pierce, who plays Elomire, has been assigned a Snidely Whiplash mustache, while Rylance, the show’s Valere, sports a cheerful clown’s nose. 

But the production’s true colors are on their most vivid display in the 30-minute monologue that Rylance gives near the start of the show. The speech, a tour-de-force for any actor, is intended to underscore how pretentious Valere is but, with the complicity of director Matthew Warchus, Rylance resorts to the kind of gross-out humor (belches, farts, food spitting) that would be at home in the crudest Farrelly brothers movie (click here to read a piece about he put his schtick together). It’s an audacious performance but that doesn’t mean it’s an apt one.

Still, the audience the night my friend Ann and I saw the show couldn’t get enough of it. The twentysomething couple sitting next to me guffawed delightedly at all of Rylance’s antics. I grimaced.  In the days of Shakespeare and even Molière, the choice presented here between high and low art was a false dichotomy: they brilliantly embraced both.  We may live in less ecumenical theatrical times but the deck in this production seems unfairly stacked. 

The set may have been off-kilter in the original production but the values were in balance; a theater lover could appreciate the tension between art’s often conflicting desires to enlighten, entertain and earn a living for its practitioners. This time however, Hyde Pierce’s elegant performance doesn’t stand a chance next to Rylance’s beastly shenanigans. That means that in the end, everybody, even my amused seatmates, loses. Taking the higher road, La Bête still might have closed early but at least it would have done so with its dignity intact.

November 13, 2010

"Spirit Control" Spins Too Far Out of Control

It usually takes no more than the first 15 minutes of a play for me to tell if I’m going to be in for something special or for one of those evenings when I’m sneaking peeks at my watch. Spirit Control, the new drama currently playing at the Manhattan Theatre Club through Dec. 5, proved to be an exception to that rule.

I was totally riveted during the play’s first 15 minutes as an air traffic controller tries to talk down a small plane flown by a terrified woman whose boyfriend has suffered a heart attack while he was flying.  I was totally bored by the rest of the play, as it tracks the lives of the incident’s survivors over the next 25 years.

I’d had higher hopes for this show. Playwright Beau Willimon has won a slew of awards, been playwright-in-residence at London’s famed Donmar Warehouse and previously wrote Farragut North, a much-praised political drama inspired by Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign that is being made into a movie by George Clooney. But neither Willimon nor director Henry Wishcamper has figured out how to make us care about Spirit Control’s characters or about what happens to them after those first gut-wrenching moments.

In fact, they seem confused about what kind of play this is. It unfolds at times like an existential thriller; at others like a domestic melodrama—sometimes within the same scene. Two women sitting behind my buddy Bill and me apparently decided that it was a comedy.  They kept barking out laughs at inappropriate moments while the rest of the audience sat dazed and confused.  “What’s the point?,” I finally whispered to Bill.

The acting almost rescues it. Jeremy Sisto, who has made a name for himself on TV in HBO’s “Six Feet Under” and as one of the detectives on the recently departed “Law & Order,” has the stage chops to make the air controller a compelling character and Mia Barron brings an appropriately unsettling seductiveness to the role of a mysterious woman he meets. But Willimon gives them and the rest of the able cast too little to work with. 

Sisto told the New York Post that he asked the playwright for help with his character (click here to read the article). Willimon says he complied with a letter explaining why he’d written the play. I wish he’d send a copy to me.

November 10, 2010

"A Life in the Theatre" Suffers an Early Death

Who would have thought that a play starring “Star Trek”s Capt. Jean-Luc Picard and “Grey’s Anatomy”s  Dr. George O’ Malley would be playing to a half-full house on a Friday night?  But that was the case when my husband K and I saw Patrick Stewart and T.R. Knight in the current revival of A Life in the Theatre, which opened at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre on Oct. 12. And it's what made it less of a surprise when the word came yesterday that the play has shortened its limited run and will close at the end of this month, five week’s ahead of schedule.

A Life in the Theatre, which has been called playwright David Mamet’s love letter to the theater, charts the travails of two actors in a middling repertory company.  One is older and trying to hang on to a career that hasn’t turned out quite as he’d dreamed it would.  The other is an up-and-comer whose future is still full of possibilities. They’re played here—and winningly—by Stewart and Knight, who not only have their movie and TV followings but the stage chops to bring off the parts.

The high star wattage and the low overhead of just a two-man cast would seem to be a producer’s dream.  But there were early signs that the production might not have been destined for a long life: it took 20 producers to bring the 90-minute show to Broadway.  And maybe it shouldn’t have come.

A Life in the Theatre is a small show and Santo Loquasto’s nimble set, which places the actors onstage, in the wings, and at their dressing tables, is almost too grand, as though it has to justify ticket prices that go up as high as $121.50. 

I remember being both amused and moved when I saw the original, and considerably more modest, production back in the late ‘70s. But this time, I was only slightly amused and found myself wondering what’s the point?  What’s the story here? Some of the blame for that has to go to director Neil Pepe. 

Pepe, the artistic director of the Atlantic Theater Company, which Mamet co-founded, is an old hand at helming Mamet plays but this one is something of an anomaly in the Mamet canon and requires a different touch than the playwright’s usual macho slugfests. 

Pepe hits the laughs in A Life in the Theatre hard as the characters withstand all kinds of mishaps—from scenery malfunctions to missed cues—during the play’s 26 quick-fire scenes and as many costume changes. Kudos are due to costume designer Laura Bauer and to the unsung dressers Moira Conrad and Julien Havard who get Stewart and Knight in and out of a series of hilarious outfits and wigs within seconds (click here to read Stewart’s account of the fast changes).

But Pepe’s direction falls short when it comes to showing how the relationship between the two men evolves over time and how, in essence, they represent the continuum in the life of most actors.  Without that,  A Life in the Theatre comes off as little more than an acting exercise.  Which, in light of the show’s premature closing, apparently isn’t enough.

November 6, 2010

Turning on the Ghost Light

This is one of the busiest fall theater seasons in years and I’m way behind in writing about many of the shows I’ve already seen.  But this is my husband K’s birthday weekend and we take these kinds of celebrations very seriously in our family.  So there will be no post today and instead, just as theaters do when they're temporarily vacant, I’m turning on the ghost light. But I’ll be back as usual on Wednesday and I hope you will be too.  In the meantime, go see a play!

November 3, 2010

"In the Wake" Has a Bad Case of ADD


Plays dealing with current events and major political issues come few and far between these days and so I’m usually delighted to see one.  But Lisa Kron’s new play In the Wake pissed me off.  

The Bush-Gore election mess (complete with its infamous hanging chads), the 9/11 attacks, the Iraq War, Hurricane Katrina and the debate over same-six marriage all show up in this play which opened at the Public Theater on Monday night (and I mean "show up" literally as well as figuratively; Alexander V. Nichols' video projections self-consciously flash images of those events on a screen that borders the proscenium).  But In the Wake's politics are little more than window dressing for a relationship drama about a woman who finds herself in love with two people.  

The really funny thing is that the love stories, stripped of all the folderol, might have made a damn good play. As is, Kron, who has previously written autobiographical works in which she’s taken on the main role, devotes so much time to writing numbing political speeches for In the Wake that she apparently ran out of energy before she could create characters who feel like real people or to make what they do seem dramatic.  Like a kid with attention-deficit  disorder, her play hops all over the place but can't focus on what's important.

What further annoyed me is that director Leigh Silverman has assembled—but misused—a cast that includes some of the best actors working in the city.  I’m holding both her and Kron responsible for the fact that none of them perform up to their usual stellar standard.

Marin Ireland is a certified New York theater MVP who could play a paper bag and make it seem interesting but even her considerable talents are challenged here. She plays Ellen, a motor-mouth writer and activist who lives in cozy domesticity with her laid-back schoolteacher boyfriend Danny until she meets and falls for a filmmaker named Amy.  Both lovers adore Ellen and she doesn't want to give up either of them.  There’s inherent drama in that situation but it gets lost in all the superfluous rhetoric about what a bad guy George Bush is.

Ireland usually plays dour types and so she probably welcomed the chance to play the voluble Ellen (click here to read a piece about her in the Arts section of the Wall Street Journal).  But the character is so shallow and self-absorbed that I never got why either Amy or Danny would want to spend more than five minutes in the same room with her.

Michael Chernus, on whom I confess I have an inexplicable crush that grows each time I see him on stage, manages to bring a few moments of emotional truth to Danny. But Deidre O’Connell, the buoyant heart of one of last season’s best plays, circle mirror transformation, is condemned to one-note grimness as an even more ardent activist. 

I get that Kron is attempting to draw an analogy between Ellen’s myopia and that of the country as a whole (click here to read an interview she gave Time Out New York). It’s hard to miss that point since in one soliloquy after another, Ellen stands center stage and tells the audience that she has blind spots. That's obvous.  But I would have preferred a little less tell and a lot more show.