October 30, 2013

Yeah, Another Giveaway…But A Really Big One

First things first:  it looks like I owe you guys an apology. Because either you all really don’t want to see Disaster! (which I don’t believe) or I made the giveaway question too cumbersome (which is probably the case.) Whatever the reason, no one wrote in for the last giveaway so I’ve got no winner to announce. 
But I’m betting that it will be different with this week’s giveaway because up for grabs is a copy of the eagerly anticipated new book “Song of Spider-Man: The Inside Story of the Most Controversial Musical in Broadway History” by Glen Berger.  

As most theater lovers know, Berger was Julie Taymor’s co-writer on Spider-Man: Turn off The Dark, which, as his book title suggests, may be the most notorious musical of all time. Luckily, he kept notes during the show’s long and troubled gestation and now his 384-page tell-all is touted to reveal all the behind-the-scenes dirt about the battles between Taymor and her erstwhile collaborators the big rock musicians—but total musicals novices—Bono and the Edge.

The book is due out Nov. 5 but the New York Post columnist Michael Riedel has already had a sneak peek and you can see some of the advanced dish he been sharing by clicking here

Even better, you can get a chance to have your own free copy of the book (plus a bonus prize of the tickets to Disaster!) by emailing me the name of the actor who was originally supposed to play the show’s villainous Green Goblin at jan@broadwayandme.com by midnight this Sunday, Nov. 3.

And speaking of green, let me join the chorus of congratulations to Wicked, the Wizard of Oz prequel that tells the story of the defiantly green witch Elphaba, cause it celebrates its 10th year on Broadway today. 

October 26, 2013

"Bad Jews" and "The Model Apartment" Revisit the Still Harrowing Legacy of the Holocaust

“Never forget” was the rallying cry adopted by those who survived the Holocaust. But that generation is dying out and feelings about what it means to be a Jew, particularly what it means to be an American Jew, have evolved over the last seven decades. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center found that the intermarriage rate for non-Orthodox Jews in the U.S. is now 71 percent and two-thirds of the Jews in this country are raising their children with only passing regard for Jewish traditions.

So it’s been fascinating to see the recent productions of two plays—Joshua Harmon’s Bad Jews and Donald Margulies’ The Model Apartment—that deal in very different ways with that old identity question and its corollary of how young Jews should deal with the legacy of the horrors committed 70 years ago and the memories of those who lived through them.
I didn’t see Bad Jews when it played at the Roundabout Underground last year but Harmon’s dark comedy and its lead performance by Tracee Chimo drew such raves that I was delighted to get the chance to see its return engagement, which has been extended through Dec. 29 at the Roundabout’s larger Laura Pels Theatre.
And all the fuss proves to have been deserving. The play centers around three young Jews—two brothers and their female cousin—who are forced to share a small studio apartment when their families gather to mourn the death of the cousin’s adored grandfather, a survivor of the death camps who immigrated to America where he enjoyed a long and full life.  
The emblem of his survival and success is a small gold medallion in the shape of the Hebrew letters for the word life. It is the only keepsake from his childhood that the grandfather managed to hold onto and he so valued it that he later used the medallion instead of an engagement ring when he proposed to his wife.
Two of the grandchildren are desperate to inherit it. Daphna, a Vassar senior who has become zealously Orthodox after a trip to Israel, believes she should get it because she is the one most devoted to their Jewish heritage. Her secular cousin Liam sees the ornament as a symbol of familial love and wants to give it to his own intended, a blonde shiksa named Melody.  
Chimo throws vanity aside and plays Daphna as an almost insufferable whirlwind of anger, condescension and resentment towards her more affluent cousins. Both she and the lines that Harmon has concocted for her are screamingly funny. 

Michael Zegen is almost as deliciously vicious as Daphna’s secular rival for the heirloom.  And Molly Ranson is equally winning as the tougher-than-she-looks gentile girlfriend.

But under Daniel Aukin’s astute direction, the cartoonish humor of the first half of the play eventually gives ground to Harmon’s more serious meditation on how to carry on a troubled legacy (click here to read an interview with the playwright). When the quiet cousin Jonah, played with deceptive understatement by Philip Ettinger, finally reveals how far he will go it moved me to tears. 
The burdens of the past are on even more intense display in The Model Apartment, which also features Jewish family members trapped in a small studio apartment with a difficult young woman. 
In this case, the relatives are Lola and Max, Holocaust survivors who have now reached retirement age. The difficult woman is their thirtysomething daughter Debby, who is obese, literally bearing the weight of her mother and father’s tragic past, and so mentally disturbed that her overwhelmed parents have fled from Brooklyn to a retirement community in Florida.

The condo they bought sight unseen isn’t ready for their premature arrival and so the couple has been put up in the development’s titular model apartment. But before they’ve even had a chance to settle in, Debby shows up, bringing with her the years of heartache that Max and Lola have been so desperate to get away from.

Margulies, whose works include Sight Unseen, Time Stands Still and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Dinner With Friends (which the Roundabout is reviving early next year) wrote The Model Apartment in the 1980s when the children of Holocaust survivors were beginning to tell their own stories, most notably in Helen Epstein’s classic book, "Children of the Holocaust."  

But it took Margulies nearly a decade to get The Model Apartment produced and even then the show ran for just 21 performances after it played at Primary Stages in 1995 (click here to read about the history of the play). So it should be gratifying for Margulies to get the almost pitch perfect production that director Evan Cabnet has put together, even if it's only scheduled to run until Nov. 1.
Unlike Margulies' other, more naturalistic, plays, The Model Apartment ventures into the surreal as the mania Debby exhibits during her visit pushes Max and Lola into their own unwanted reveries about the past, from the glory of a possible relationship with Anne Frank to the agony of abandoning a family in order to survive. 
Mark Blum and Kathryn Grody are marvelous as Max and Lola, who make separate but equally uneasy peace with Debby and the past that helped to create her. And Diane Davis is impressively courageous in her performance as the woman-child, irreparably damaged by a past that isn’t even her own (click here to read an interview with the actress).
The result is a powerful evening of theater so raw and unrelentingly honest that at some moments, I pushed back into my chair in an unconscious attempt to get away from the pain emanating from the stage and at others, I leaned forward, grateful for the chance to give witness.

October 23, 2013

One Giveaway Winner...and Another Contest

You B&Me readers are a clever bunch: everyone who wrote in for the chance to win a free digital download of the cast recording for the new musical Charlie and the Chocolate Factory got the right answer (Gene Wilder and Johnny Depp) to my challenge to name “the two famous actors who played Willy Wonka” in the movie version of Roald Dahl’s classic book.

So once again, I printed the names out, put them all in a bag and got my always-supportive husband K to reach in and picked one out. The winner is Myra Wong.  Congratulations to her and thanks to all of you who participated.  
It was fun and since the offers for more giveaways are tumbling in, here’s another chance to win something. This time up, it’s tickets to the new musical Disaster! by Seth Rudetsky and Jack Plotnik. 
Set on a floating nightclub in the summer of 1979, Disaster! is a jukebox musical that mashes up a playlist of Top 40 hits from the ‘70s with a spoof of disaster movies like “Airport,” “The Poseidon Adventure” and “The Towering Inferno,” whose thin plots revolve around a motley crew of characters fighting to survive some natural or man-made calamity.  

Anyone who knows anything about theater today knows that Rudetsky, who is an actor (The Ritz) musician (numerous other Broadway shows), novelist (“Broadway Nights”) producer (the Actors Fund concerts), radio host (Sirius Satellite Radio) Playbill contributor, deconstructor of Broadway show tunes (click here to check them out)  and all-around theater gadfly, loves to make people laugh. Which, judging from the word of mouth, is exactly what he did when Disaster!  ran last year at The Triad theater up on 72nd Street.
Now, the show is moving into St. Luke’s Theatre on West 46th Street with a cast that includes the great Mary Testa. You can find out more about it by clicking here. And you can win two tickets to see it by sending the correct answer to the following challenge:
Airplane’s Lloyd Bridges and Peter Graves, Poseidon Adventure’s Gene Hackman and Ernest Borgnine and Towering Inferno’s Steve McQueen and Paul Newman all appeared on Broadway at one time or another. Name the one who did it first and the one who appeared there most recently.  
Email the answers to me, with the word “Disaster” in the subject box, at  jan@ broadwayandme.com by midnight this Sunday, Oct. 27.

October 20, 2013

Wherefore Art Thou, Poor "Romeo and Juliet"?

Has the art of romance been totally lost?  I ask because three versions of what is arguably the most romantic play of all time, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (you know, the one where the title characters literally die for love) have opened over the last four weeks and not one has managed to win people’s hearts.

I haven’t seen the new movie (which has a screenplay with dialog added by “Downton’s Abbey”’s Julian Fellowes and a piddily 22% favorable rating on the Rotten Tomatoes movie scoring site) but I have seen both the glossy Broadway production now playing at the Richard Rodgers Theatre and the bare-bones interpretation that opened this past week at Classic Stage Company and neither stirred up any passion in me.
I had been rooting for the Broadway version because I’d written a small profile of its Juliet, Condola Rashad, for Essence magazine (click here to read it) and found the actress to be totally charming. The show’s big draw, however, was supposed to be her co-star Orlando Bloom, the heartthrob in “The Lord of the Rings” and “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies who is making his Broadway debut (click here to read a piece about him).
The two look hot and sexy on the cover of the Playbill and on the billboards that have been plastered across the city but the heat between them is missing onstage. They’re both capable actors (Rashad has been nominated for a Tony for each of her two previous Broadway performances) but they’re novices at doing the Bard’s work and clearly needed guidance from their director David Leveaux.
Alas, Leveaux has spent so much time on making the show look cool (hip contemporary costumes, trendy music played by live musicians, floating balloons, bursts of fire) that he seems to have had little energy leftover for anything else. 
Pre-show publicity had trumpeted how all the members of Juliet’s family, the Capulets, would be black, while their arch enemies, Romeo’s parents, the Montagues all white. That may have given the veteran African-American actors Chuck Cooper and Roslyn Ruff a chance to take on classical roles but nothing is made of the racial distinction so why bring it up in the first place?
Similarly little attempt has been made to unify a hodgepodge of acting styles. Ruff brings such fury to her scenes as Lady Capulet that it seems as though she’s actually auditioning for Lady Macbeth. Christian Camargo shamelessly plays to the audience by turning Romeo’s best friend Mercutio into a hipster dude. And Brent Carver comes across more as the mopey lead singer of an emo band than as the lovers’ well-intentioned but hapless confidante Friar Laurence. 
Thankfully, Jayne Houdyshell summons up her formidable skills and makes Juliet’s Nurse appropriately funny and, when she should be, heartrending. But all the performances are overshadowed by the fussy stage business Leveaux has concocted.  
It’s no spoiler to tell you—cause everyone has been talking about it—that he has Bloom make Romeo’s entrance on a motorcycle for no apparent reason at all, except that it gives anyone who wants to a chance to squeal when the actor removes his helmet. 
Working with scenic designer Jesse Poleshuck and lighting designer David Weiner, Leveaux has created some beautiful stage pictures (tater in the show, Juliet is suspended in midair) but that’s not why those of us who revere the tragedy of the star-crossed lovers go to see Romeo and Juliet.
And I’m afraid I can’t give you any good reasons to see the CSC’s version either. Unlike Leveaux, director Tea Alagić has opted for a minimalist approach. There is barely any set to speak of—just a brick wall, a few chairs and a table. The actors also wear as little as possible (at one point, Juliet’s cousin Tybalt is naked). And several affect a strangled style of speech that is often unintelligible. 
To make matters worse, Alagić is so focused on this mumblecore concept that she, too, has neglected to provide the help that her cast so obviously needs. The result is that Elizabeth Olsen, who has done well in some indie movies, makes a pallid Juliet (click here for an interview with her). And Julian Cihi, a recent graduate of New York University’s masters program, is just as wan as Romeo.

 Meanwhile, the stage vets in the cast are allowed to come on way too strong. T.R. Knight may be best known for his role on TV’s “Grey’s Anatomy” but he began appearing on New York stages in 1999. Yet his interpretation of Mercutio consists entirely of shouting and flinging himself around the set. 
Even worse, Daphne Rubin-Vega, a two-time Tony nominee and the original Mimi in Rent, plays the Nurse as though she were channeling the Latina comedienne Charo, complete with outbursts of Spanglish. 
Audiences are showing little love for either production. Attendance at the Broadway version is hovering around just 50 percent. And on the day  my sister Joanne and I saw the CSC production, about 20 percent of the audience left at intermission.

October 16, 2013

The First Broadway & Me Cast Album Giveaway

New Yorkers (and the tourists who come here) have been almost as enchanted with Matilda, the musical based on the classic Roald Dahl story about a very smart girl and her very malevolent schoolmistress, as theatergoers were in London, where the show opened in November 2011 and won seven Olivier Awards, including Best New Musical, the most ever won by a musical there.

The Broadway production, which opened this past April, lost out for the Best Musical Tony to Kinky Boots but it’s been pretty much selling out and now a musical version of another Dahl story is up on the boards in the West End.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, directed by Sam Mendes and starring Douglas Hodge, a Tony-winner for his performance as Albin in the 2010 revival of La Cages aux Folles, opened in June and is eyeing its own move across the pond.  

The reviews for Dahl’s tale about a poor boy and an eccentric candy maker named Willy Wonka haven’t been as rapturous as Matilda’s were (click here to read New York Times critics Ben Brantley’s take on the show) but the cast recording of songs written by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman has just come out and its producers have offered me (and some other bloggers too) the opportunity to give one of you the chance to make up your own mind about the show. 

Here's how you can do it: email the names of the two famous actors who played Willy Wonka in the movies to me at jan@broadwayandme.com by midnight this Sunday, Oct. 20.

I’ll put all the right answers in a hat and pick one out. The winner will get a free digital download of the album. But you’ll have to supply your own chocolates.

October 12, 2013

A "Julius Caesar" Filled with Fierce Women

Female actors didn’t appear on the professional stage until about 50 years after Shakespeare’s death. Which explains, at least in part, why actresses are always lamenting the paucity of great roles for women in his plays as compared to those for men (although that's no excuse for the paucity of strong female roles in plays written over the last five centuries). 

Last year, the director Phyllida Lloyd decided to tackle the no-good roles problem head-on by staging an all-female production of Julius Caesar for London’s Donmar Warehouse. And now, to the great good fortune of New York theater lovers of all genders, that production has come to St. Ann’s Warehouse, where it will play through Nov. 3. [Now extended through Nov. 9.]

Julius Caesar has never been one of my favorites but after seeing a terrific all-black version at BAM last spring (click here for my review of it) I was so curious to see what might be done with all women that I bought my ticket to Lloyd’s production the first hour they were available to the general public. And I'm sure glad I did because Lloyd's interpretation is fresh, ballsy and thrillingly entertaining.
I got to St. Ann’s early the night of my performance and it was a warm enough fall evening for me to be able to sit on a bench outside the theater. Small groups of women dressed in hoodies and sweat pants kept passing by but I didn’t pay them much attention until I recognized that one of them was the great Harriet Walter, who plays Brutus in the production and who, like the others in the 14-member cast, had to get ready in a dressing area a few doors away from the main playing space.  
That’s because the theater has been reconfigured to accommodate the conceit of a show within a show that is being presented at a women’s prison. Audience members pick up their tickets at the coffee bar next door and then are lead in groups by ushers dressed as prison guards into the theater, which has been lit with harsh institutional lighting.
The action starts when Caesar, played with great butch swagger by Frances Barber, makes a too triumphant entrance into the prison’s common area, causing the once loyal  adjutants Cassius and Brutus to begin plotting the top dog’s downfall. Meanwhile, the love between Caesar and Marc Antony is presented as definitely more than platonic or sororal. 
Jenny Jules is appropriately lean and intense as Cassius. And Cush Jumbo delivers Antony’s famous funeral oration with a nimble cunning that both amuses and impassions its listeners. But all the women are terrific and clearly having a good time as they luxuriate in this too rare opportunity to be badass (click here to read an interview with several of them).  
Oddly, the odd one out is Walters.  A doyenne of the Royal Shakespeare Company for over 30 years, Walters has played all the juicy female parts from Helena and Viola to Cleopatra and Lady Macbeth but she appears a bit stiff in this frisky production. She remains, however, a great actress and finds a way to use that awkwardness to inform Brutus’ role as the conspirator least comfortable with the plan to overthrow Caesar. 
The production has a few awkward moments of its own. The line between the show and the show-within-a-show gets blurred and while most of the prison interpolations are entertaining, not all of them make sense.  Why, for instance, is the Soothsayer riding around on a tricycle?
And yet somehow Lloyd has managed to make all the pieces add up. The production runs for over two hours without intermission (the folks at the coffee bar urge audience members to use the restroom before entering the theater) but I was riveted throughout.  And I can’t remember hearing Shakespeare’s words more beautifully—or lucidly—spoken. 
This is such a Shakespeare heavy season (four productions on Broadway; a bunch more off-Broadway, the National Theatre celebration of its 50th anniversary with simulcasts of some of its recent Shakespeare hits and the four-part PBS series “The Hollow Crown") that even the most devoted Bard lovers may be throwing up their hands in surrender. But here’s some advice: get your hands on a ticket for this one. 

October 9, 2013

"The Film Socety" Fails to Enlist Me

--> Word of mouth has not been kind to The Film Society, the Keen Company’s revival of Jon Robin Baitz’s first play, now running at The Clurman Theater on Theater Row through Oct. 26.  And I’m afraid I have to join the chorus of naysayers.
It’s not the play’s fault.  Although it ran for just 33 days when it opened in 1988 with Nathan Lane in the lead role, The Film Society marked its then-26-year-old author as a playwright of great promise. Like Baitz’s later and better-known works The Substance of Fire and Other Desert Cities, it is filled with serious ideas, snappy dialog and passionate speeches. 

Baitz spent part of his boyhood in South Africa when his dad worked there in the ‘70s and, using an all-white private school as a stand-in for the country, The Film Society surveys the various ways in which whites responded to racial inequality during the apartheid era (click here to read an interview with the playwright). 

Nearly two decades have now passed since white rule ended in South Africa but, as the turbulent aftermath of the Arab Spring has shown, the question of what those in privilege do when confronted with the idea of giving up power remains a resonant one.

Or it would if the current production weren’t so lifeless. And it’s hard to figure out why it is because there are talented people involved, including the fine actors Euan Morton and Roberta Maxwell.

Morton, best known for his Tony-nominated portrayal of Boy George in the short-lived musical Taboo, steps into Lane’s old role as Jonathon, an apolitical history teacher whose main passions are old movies and his childhood friend Terry. A fellow teacher at the school, the married Terry is the kind of self-righteous radical who invites a black minister to speak to the students without considering the consequences. 

Both Morton and David Barlow who plays Terry work hard but they clearly need guidance and director Jonathan Silverstein hasn’t given it to them. One pivotal scene in which the fate of the black clergyman is revealed has been staged with less affect than is a debate over the merits of Orson Welles’ “The Third Man.”

The set is equally lackluster. And the costumes are just as ho-hum, except for one chic little black dress worn by Maxwell, who plays Jonathon’s overbearing mother. It looked more like an outfit that Donna Karan might design for her 2013 bridge line than one that a ‘70s-era South African matron would wear but I wanted to snatch it right off Maxwell’s back.

Silverstein greeted the audience at the beginning of the performance my theatergoing buddy Bill and I attended and said he would be in the lobby during intermission and at the end of the show if anyone wanted to chat.  He was there when Bill and I left at the end of the show but, having little kind to say, we looked away.  

October 5, 2013

How "Philip Goes Forth" Left Me Behind

Philip Goes Forth seemed tailor-made for me.  It’s a play about a young man who dreams of a life in the theater. It was written by George Kelly, a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright who, for added glamor, also happened to be the uncle of the movie actress Grace Kelly. It’s being produced by the Mint Theater Company, which usually mounts handsome productions of works by worthy playwrights who have been forgotten. And it’s been getting warm notices from other critics I respect and admire, including my pal Terry Teachout at The Wall Street Journal (click here to read his review).  

And yet I was really disappointed by this revival of Kelly's 1931 comedy. 
The title character is the son of a wealthy businessman who is expected to go into the family business but hightails it to New York to pursue his dream of being a playwright. There, he moves into a boarding house run by a retired actress and populated by other artistic hopefuls who run the talent gamut from an idle poseur to a true artiste. The question is where Philip falls on the spectrum.
But the real conundrum is the production. The Mint simply doesn't deliver this time. Director Jerry Ruiz gets points for attempting non-traditional casting—an Asian woman plays the aunt of an Hispanic man who plays the son of a white guy without it seemingly overly odd. But Ruiz is nowhere near as successful with blending the acting styles of his cast. A few of the actors are too broad, others too stiff and some too one-note.

One exception is Kathryn Kates, who stepped into the role of the landlady just two weeks before the show opened when Jennifer Harmon, still listed in the Playbill, dropped out. Kates conveys both intelligence and empathy as a woman who holds no delusions about what it takes to be an artist. Another standout is Natalie Kuhn, a lovely young ingénue who brings some welcomed tartness to Philip’s hometown sweetheart. 
Meanwhile, the production values, usually a Mint strong point, are wobbly this time out. The elaborate sets—a swank all-white sitting room in the first act, the boarding room’s artsy, Bohemian-style parlor for the second and third—drew oohs and aahs at the performance my husband K and I attended. They do look good but I wondered if they didn't serve the purpose of the designer more than the show:  would a small-town matron really embrace such an art deco aesthetic?

And although the costumes have also drawn praise, they looked to me as though the actors reached into a grab bag of outfits leftover from different shows and put on whatever they plucked out. One pair of women's shoes resembled high-heeled sneakers  I’ve recently seen in a store window on Eighth Avenue and yanked me totally out of the plays 1930s period.  

From his first produced play, which poked fun at amateur theater groups, Kelly was a practicing talent snob and Philip Goes Forth might serve as his manifesto against dilettantes, second-rate talents and all other would-bes. It asks some thought-provoking questions about what it means to be an artist. But this production doesn’t answer them.

October 2, 2013

"The Old Friends" Might Be Best If Forgot

This is the first time that The Old Friends, the Horton Foote melodrama now playing at Signature Theatre’s Irene Diamond Stage through Oct. 20, has been fully staged. And there may be a reason for that.  

Like most of Foote’s work, including his best known play, The Trip to Bountiful (still going at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre) The Old Friends is rooted in Harrison, Texas, the fictional stand-in for the small town where Foote grew up, and it revolves around squabbles over his trademark issues of love, money and real estate. 
The family in question is the Bordens, an affluent clan all of whom are, or were, unhappily married and hankering after someone else. That leads to lots of sexual frustration, heavy drinking and vicious jockeying over who deserved to inherit what. 

It all comes off, at least in this production, as an upmarket version of the Ewing clan from TV’s "Dallas.” Only the interactions between the Bordens and their friends aren’t nearly as much fun. Or as emotionally compelling as Foote’s other plays. Which may be why this one was never produced in his lifetime even though he worked on it for nearly 50 years.
Even so, I’d hoped this production might still offer some pleasure because it's directed by Michael Wilson, who has become the leading explicator of Foote’s work, as demonstrated by his luminous production of The Orphans’ Home Cycle, a nine play chronicle inspired by the playwright’s own family (click here for my review of that). 

Raising my hopes even more was The Old Friends’ cast, which includes Betty Buckley, Veanne Cox, Cotter Smith, Lois Smith and, as almost always, Foote’s daughter and the chief guardian of his legacy Hallie.
They’re all quite good, squeezing as much juice as they can from a crop of thinly-drawn characters. Particularly the women. Leading the pack is Buckley (click here to read an interview with her) long revered as a diva in the world of musicals and now here stealing the show as a sad wealthy widow, aching to buy some happiness. 

 Equally fine is Hallie Foote, who usually opts for the comic busybody roles in her father’s plays but here takes on a poor relation with surprisingly quiet dignity.  And I'm now of the opinion that Lois Smith can do no wrong. 

And yet sometimes even good acting is not enough. “Is that it?’ my friend Mary Anne asked when the lights went out on the final scene. All I could do was nod because, alas, that's all that was there.