May 30, 2007

The Special Effects of "Frost/Nixon"

When you think of special effects you usually think of movies like “Spider-Man” and “Pirates of the Caribbean”. But Broadway has been experimenting with special effects too. Leading the way these past few seasons have been the video artists who work alongside set designers to bring new kinds of visual images to the stage, from the poignant memory book photo of a once happy family in The Year of Magical Thinking to the amusing simulation of a crowd doing the wave at a tennis match in Deuce.

The Brits have been particularly enterprising with this new imagery. The first time I really noticed how projections could transform the Broadway experience was two years ago when my artist friend Lesley and I saw Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Woman in White. The critics weren't crazy about William Dudley’s computer-animated projections and
strategically placed screens, which, replacing conventional sets, transported the audience through Victorian-era train tunnels and into the rooms and passageways of ghost-ridden mansions. But I found myself entranced. Maybe too much so since I actually enjoyed those virtual “sets” more than I did the rest of the show. Lesley, who enjoys teasing the boundaries of people’s expectations with her paintings, sculptures and installations and who was once married to a set designer, was also intrigued by the artistic possibilities of this high tech toolbox. We both thought that it might be a way to attract a younger generation of theatergoers who are accustomed not to the static three-camera TV sitcoms of their parents’ youths but to the kinetic energy of video games and streaming computer images. The next season, I loved it when The History Boys incorporated video into its highly theatrical production. Still, the most effective special effect I've seen is in the current production of Frost/Nixon.

I first saw the show a month ago with my friend Ann but I went back this past weekend with my husband K. The show, of course, details the behind-the-scenes drama leading up to the famous interviews in which TV journalist David Frost got Richard Nixon to apologize for his role in the Watergate cover up that brought down his presidency. Frank Langella, the deserved front runner for the Best Actor Tony, doesn't need any special effects to convey the complexities and subtleties of Nixon. But the large freeze-frame close-up his face as his Nixon finally accepts the hell to which his hubris has brought him illuminates the exquisite tragedy Langella creates at each performance. Film director Ron Howard and his producing partner Brian Grazer have bought the movie rights to the play and there was much speculation that they would hire a big name star to play Nixon. They have smartly given the role to Langella. That close-up may have helped clinch the deal. But their decision also proves that even in Hollywood, there's an appreciation for the old-fashion special effect of an actor at the top of his game.

May 26, 2007

Requiem for the Writer of "Radio Golf"

In 1901, Theodore Roosevelt asked Booker T. Washington to dinner and it made headlines because a black person had never been invited to eat at the White House before. Now, of course, Barack Obama has a real chance of moving into the White House. And that is one way you can measure the progress that black people have made in this country over the last century. Another way is through August Wilson’s remarkable 10 plays, each set in a different decade of the 20th century and together creating an emotional epic of the African American experience over the past 100 years. All but one of them (Jitney) opened on Broadway, two won Pulitzers, eight earned Tony nominations for Best Play and all of them have created more opportunities for black actors to do dramatic work on Broadway than anything else in the history of theater in this country. James Earl Jones, Laurence Fishburne, and Viola Davis won Tonys for their performances in Wilson plays; twice as many of their colleagues have been nominated.

Wilson was still revising Radio Golf, the final installment of his cycle, when he died from liver cancer two years ago at just 60. But this month the play opened at the Cort Theatre and it has won generally favorable reviews and four Tony nominations, including Best Play. I’ve been a fan of Wilson’s work ever since I saw his first Broadway show, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, also at the Cort, back in 1985. I love the lush poetry of his language, the humorous way his characters spin their yarns, his compassion for their struggles to hold on to their dreams and their dignity, and the fact that I can see people on stage who look like me. But I can’t say that Radio Golf will go on the list of my favorites alongside Fences and the majestic Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. I felt as though much of what he says in this new play he’s said before and said it better in the past.

It was hard for me to write that last sentence and, in fact, it’s been hard to write this entry because Wilson was a great, great talent. And I feel indebted to him for the many wonderful nights he’s given me in the theater. I mourn his passing, as I do those of Lloyd Richards, who directed Wilson's first six plays and died last year; and Ben Mordecai, who produced them and died in 2005. The theater community has already honored Wilson by naming a Broadway theater after him. The Signature Theater Company devoted its past season to his work. But I think the tribute he—and I know I—would most appreciate would be for producers to invite other gifted black, Asian and Hispanic playwrights into the white house that Broadway still too often is.

May 23, 2007

It's True, "Legally Blonde" Has More Fun

It's become commonplace for the theaterati to bemoan the fact that many musicals these days are based on popular movies. But hey, even in Broadway's Golden Age, musicals piggybacked on crowd-pleasing works from other art forms: Peter Pan and My Fair Lady started out as popular straight plays; South Pacific and Wonderful Town were taken from celebrated books; Kiss Me, Kate and West Side Story have roots in two of Shakespeare's most produced plays; Li'l Abner was even adapted from a beloved comic strip. So what's wrong with having Broadway turn to popular movies? Or even to popular TV shows, like the recently announced musical based on "The Addams Family"? The so-called movie musicals have had the same success rate as any other musicals: sometimes they work (The Lion King, The Producers, Hairspray) and sometimes they don't (Nick & Nora, Urban Cowboy, High Fidelity).

You can see why producers would be attracted to the movie Legally Blonde. The 2001 comedy about Elle Woods, a pink-clad California sorority girl who follows her former boyfriend to Harvard Law School after he dumps her because he thinks she's not serious enough, grossed $140 million, provided a breakout role for Reese Witherspoon and almost single-handedly revived pink as a force to be reckoned with in fashion. Moreover, its girl power message that young women can be smart and wear cute outfits at the same time is perfectly calibrated for the teens, tweens and their parents who have turned Wicked into a cult hit and who Broadway producers are desperate to hold on to (click here to read Richard Zoglin’s smart take on the quest for girl shows on

The response to Legally Blonde has been mixed. The show is playing to 95% capacity and it has earned seven Tony nominations, although it was shut out of the Best Musical category. The New York Post columnist Michael Riedel speculates that the nominating committee feared the out-of-town promoters would vote for it over the more difficult-to-market but critical favorite Spring Awakening. And according to Variety, CBS, which is airing the awards show, made an unsuccessful attempt to get a number from Legally Blonde included in the telecast even though those spots have traditionally been reserved for the Best Musical nominees. Several critics did turn their noses up at Legally Blonde; “Legally Bland” has appeared in quite a few of their reviews. Most of the folks on my bloglist, all of whom I respect, chose less kind words than that. And as we left the theater, even my usually forgiving buddy Bill chided the show for trying too hard to please and failing to take enough artistic chances. But I had a good time.

Yes, Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin's music is generic Broadway pop but their lyrics are often witty, as is Heather Hach's book, although I wish she had avoided the stereotypical gay characters. Jerry Mitchell, the high-energy choreographer of Hairspray and The Full Monty, makes his directorial debut with appropriately exuberant staging and dancing (click here for a multimedia reflection on his career and the making of this musical he did for the New York Times). David Rockwell's sets and Gregg Barnes' costumes are amusingly entertaining all on their own. And the cast is delightful. Particularly Bundy. She may lack the distinctive sparkle that Witherspoon brought to the role but Witherspoon didn't have to maintain her smile while dancing in high heels and changing costumes virtually on stage.

After the show, Bill and I walked from the Palace Theater over to the restaurant Thalia on 8th Avenue. When Bill ordered a hamburger, the waiter told us burgers were only available in the restaurant’s lounge area and not in the formal dining section. There are a lot of tempting things on the Thalia menu but Bill and I got up and moved to the lounge. Sometimes, you don't want seared duck breast or even a steak with all the trimmings. You just want a juicy bacon cheeseburger, with some crispy fries on the side. And that sums up how I feel about Legally Blonde: you wouldn't want a steady diet of a show like this but it's OK to indulge every once in a while in some fun that goes down easily.

May 19, 2007

Sympathy for "Coram Boy"

Coram Boy would seem to have had everything going for it to become one of those must-sees for every highbrow theatergoer. It's based on an award winning British novel, albeit one for teens. It is directed by a wildly inventive director who taps into the story theater techniques that combine drama, music, dance and narrative recitations that were the rage when I was in school and many of today's theater critics were also coming of age. It is infused with Handel's majestic music, most notably "The Messiah". It was a huge hit in London. And my former actress friend Ellie, who would rather run naked through Times Square than sit through even half an hour of a show like Legally Blonde, loved it so much that she began calling and emailing friends as soon as she got home from the Imperial Theater where the show is playing and urging all of us to see it.

Yet about a third of the way into the first act, I noticed that my 26 year-old stepdaughter Anika, a trained dancer who now promotes music concerts and would rather run naked through Times Square than sit through even half an hour of a show like Legally Blonde, had her head in her hands and her shoulders were heaving up and down. I thought she was overcome with emotion. And she was, but not the emotion I had assumed. “I'm sorry,” she whispered. “ I just can't take any more” and then she subsided back into silent laughter.

The critics are as divided in their opinions of Coram Boy as Ellie and Anika are. And me? I fall somewhere in the middle. The ghost of Charles Dickens stalks this play. Jamila Gavin’s young adult novel is the story of orphaned boys in 18th century England (click here to read about the real-life Coram boys and girls) who encounter an assortment of colorful highborn and lowborn characters who challenge their innocence and ultimately reinforce their humanity. The production, adapted by Helen Edmundson and directed by Melly Still, evokes the celebrated stagecraft of Trevor Nunn's 1981 epic version of Nicholas Nickelby. I couldn’t afford the $100 ticket for Nickelby back then and so have no comparison but, like Ellie, I was dazzled by moments of Still's staging; I hope I don't spoil it for anyone who is going to see it by saying that a drowning sequence is one of the most stunning images I've ever seen on a stage. I did read "David Copperfield" when I was 12 and although Dickens isn't fashionable these days, I have remained a Dickens fan and so Coram Boy's melodramatic plot and one-dimensional characters didn't bother me the way they did Anika. But I can't say Coram Boy ever really touched me either.

Still, I admire big ambition, even when if falls short. And the creators of Coram Boy aimed high. The cast includes a 20-member chorus. The themes range from the plight of unwanted children and the cruelty of the slave trade to the glories of music and the redemptive powers of love. I can imagine my 12 year-old self seeing this show and swooning with all kinds of emotions. And so if you know a bright, sensitive tween or teen this just might be the show for him or her. The producers seem to think so too. They've initiated "The Under 18 Project," which offers half price tickets for kids. If there's one you want to take, click and type in the code, CBFAMPK.

May 16, 2007

Time Out For Talk About Tony Nominations

I had originally intended to post an entry on another of the shows that opened in the final weeks of the season but, like every other theater nut, I'm now obsessed with the Tony nominations that were announced yesterday. There's plenty of commentary around on who got one, who didn't, who should win and who shouldn't. Much of it is fairly routine but I've come across a few things that add something extra to the conversation and so thought I'd share them with you.

Much of the talk is about Spring Awakening, which got 11 nominations. This musical about group of young people and their sexual angst in 19th century Germany has been a critical favorite since it opened in December and has already won the New York Drama Critics' Circle and Outer Critics Circle awards. It's my favorite show of the season too but I still enjoyed reading the argument that Theatermania's Peter Filichia makes for why it shouldn't win the Tony for Best Musical. Proudly calling himself a traditionalist, Filichia criticizes Duncan Sheik's score ("anachronistic") Steven Sater's lyrics ("incorrect rhymes") and Michael Mayer's staging ("non-essential use of hand-mikes"). I don't agree with him at all (I found the staging inventive and engaging and I listen to the cast album all the time) but he still has some interesting things to say (click here to read his article). My feelings about Spring Awakening are more in keeping with those of MTV's John Norris (click here to read his piece) who praises the show for its relevance to contemporary teen life and urges the network's teen and twentysomething viewers to see it (click here to get a sneak peek at the show in a MTV video clip).

And if you're just looking for an unabashedly opinionated—and quite entertaining—take on the nominations, check out Chris Caggiano's blog, "Everything I know I Learned from Musicals" (click here to read it).

May 12, 2007

"Stairway to Paradise" Approaches Nirvana

Let me say right off the bat that my husband K is a member of the Encores orchestra. But even people whose household incomes are not affected by the Encores production of Stairway to Paradise are going to rave about this show. Of course, it's almost a tradition for musicals fans to rave about the Encores shows. For the past 13 years, the productions, which run for just five or six performances, attract the best talents in the business to put on concert versions of old Broadway musicals. But it's the music that's the true star of these shows and hearing a full 30-piece orchestra play those scores with the lush full sound they were intended to produce is always heavenly.

But this time, the Encores team, lead by artistic director Jack Viertel, has done something different—for the first time in its history, Encores has mounted an original work. Kind of. Stairway to Paradise is both an homage to the grand revues made most famous by the Ziegfeld Follies and a history of musical stage entertainment from the turn of the 20th century up to the 1950s when these kind of variety shows migrated to television on programs like “The Ed Sullivan Show,” “The Kraft Music Hall” and “The Carol Burnett Show,” which ran until 1978. Stairway to Paradise consists of 30 numbers—torch songs and comic patter tunes, sweet boy meets girl duets and brassy chorus numbers—written by Victor Herbert, Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, Eubie Blake and Andy Razaf, George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, among others. The original revues were filled with one-of-a-kind talents whose names still bring nods of recognition: Fanny Brice, Bert Williams, Helen Morgan, and Will Rogers. You may not instantly recognize all their names but Stairway to Paradise's top-knotch cast includes such legends-in-the-making as Kevin Chamberlin, Christopher Fitzgerald, Capathia Jenkins, Ruthie Henshall, a young tap dance wiz named Kendrick Jones, plus the always endearing and ambundantly talented Kristin Chenoweth. She is the heart and soul of the show. K says she’s also a really nice person.

The great treat of being married to someone in the Encores family is that you get to go to the invited dress rehearsal on the Wednesday night before the show opens. In the old days, before Encores tickets became harder to get than a table at a Thomas Keller restaurant, seating at the dress was open—first come, first serve and the amiable Judith Daykin, the executive director of City Center where the shows play, would stand in front of the curtain and read the Playbill listing of musical numbers to the audience since programs weren't given out at the rehearsal performance. Daykin retired four years ago, seats have long been assigned and you now get a little printed list of the numbers being performed but the rehearsal is still great fun and the anticipation literally crackles in the room when the tuxedoed orchestra, always seated on stage, strikes up the overture. I invited my friend Alan, a singer and a theatrical history buff, because I figured he'd know and appreciate the show. He did and he could barely restrain himself from singing along. But you don't need to know the songs or anything about Broadway's past to have a good time. The eight-year-old sitting next to us bounced along to the music and literally doubled over with laughter at jokes that were first told when her grandma’s grandma was a girl. I thought the show was the best I'd seen at Encores since I saw Chicago there in 1996.

As always happens when an Encores show is this terrific, speculation immediately begins about whether it will transfer to Broadway as Chicago and Wonderful Town eventually did. There are signs that it might. The music was completely reorchestrated by Broadway’s preeminent orchestrator Jonathan Tunick. Others on the top-shelf creative team include director Jerry Zaks, set designer John Lee Beatty and costume consultant William Ivey Long, who produced more—and more lavish—costumes than I can remember in any previous Encores show. In other words, someone thinks it’s worth investing a lot of money in this show. But over the next couple of weeks, the television networks will announce their new fall seasons and one of the pilots picking up positive buzz is called “Pushing Daisies”; one of its co-stars is Kristin Chenoweth. So, history may repeat itself and the revue may again see its talent migrate to TV.

May 10, 2007

Sunny Skies for "110 in the Shade"

The big hit of the 1963-1964 Broadway season was a musical about a single woman who is getting on in marriageable years and sets her eye on a local guy. It was called Hello, Dolly! and it nearly swept the Tonys that season, went on for a seven year run, and was then revived on Broadway three times. Louis Armstrong turned its title song into an anthem and a top 10 record. A few months earlier, another musical with a similar theme but an altogether different style opened, it was called 110 in the Shade; it ran for 330 performances and I confess I'd never heard of it until the Roundabout Theatre Company's current revival starring Audra McDonald.

That may be because 110 in the Shade, written by Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones, who had previously done The Fantasticks, didn't produce any anthems or even any standards. But, as I discovered, Shade has a lovely score that calls to mind the open prairie lyricism of Aaron Copland. The show's boo
k, which N. Richard Nash adapted from "The Rainmaker", his play about a lovelorn woman in a drought stricken town, is well crafted. Director Lonny Price's production is thoroughly winning. Santo Loquasto's sets are gorgeous. And the supporting performances, especially those by John Cullum as McDonald's dad and, Chris Butler and Bobby Steggert as her brothers, are endearing. I've been seeing a lot of shows lately and this was the first time in a couple of weeks that I didn't sneak a peek at my watch to see how much longer it was going to go on.

Although she told the New York Times, that she hesitated about doing the show because of its old-timey quality (click here to read the article), it's no surprise that McDonald, a four time Tony winner who could have her pick of any show she wants to do, would find herself in this one. McDonald has made a career of lending her luminous talent to under-appreciated works. Her CDs are as likely to feature songs by Jason Robert Brown (Parade), Adam Guettel (Light in the Piazza) and her frequent collaborator Michael John La Chiusa (Marie Christine, Bernarda Alba) as those by Gershwin, Rodgers or Sondheim. And she brings an appealing earthiness to the role of the socially awkward Lizzie in Shade: letting loose her Juilliard-trained soprano on the show's big arias, nailing its comedic moments and infusing both passion and vulnerability into its dramatic ones.

As you probably know, McDonald's 62 year-old father Stanley died in a plane accident last week and she took just a couple of days off from previews to go home to California for the funeral. McDonald and my musician husband K share a mutual friend who said he thought the work would help her get through her grief. I don't know how many people in the audience at the performance K and I attended were familiar with the 110 in the Shade; many it, was clear had come primarily because they were willing to take a chance on anything McDonald wants to do (“I'd listen to her sing the phonebook,” I actually overhead one woman telling a friend.) And in the aftermath of her personal tragedy, they had come not only to be supportive but, if necessary, forgiving of any shortcomings in her performance. I couldn't detect any. It was a total triumph. And it's heart-wrenchingly sad that her dad can’t be here to share it with her.

May 6, 2007

Only Two Reasons to See "Deuce"

The display case outside a theater usually shows photos of the production that's currently inside. But the case outside the Music Box Theater doesn't have pictures of Deuce, the new Terrence McNally play about the reunion of a pair of former tennis doubles partners. Instead, it offers a photographic retrospective of the careers of the show's two stars, Angela Lansbury and Marian Seldes. And that's fitting. Because there really isn't much else going for this slight play. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't go see it. Lansbury, who over nearly seven decades has triumphed in, as they used to say, stage (four Tony Awards), screen (three Oscar nominations) and television (18 Emmy nominations, 12 of them for her iconic portrayal of Jessica Fletcher in "Murder She Wrote"), hasn't been on Broadway in 26 years and, as she says in a lovely interview with the New York Times' Jesse Green (click here to read it), this is also her first time before a live audience since the death in 2003 of her beloved husband of 38 years, producer Peter Shaw. Seldes, daughter of the influential cultural critic Gilbert Seldes and widow of the writer Garson Kanin, has been a constant pleasure for both Broadway and off-Broadway audiences (5 Tony nominations, including a win for the original production of A Delicate Balance, and 6 Drama Desk nominations) for 60 years. Both are still playing at the top of their games and it's a treat just to watch them volley back and forth during the play's 90 intermissionless minutes.

I went to Deuce with my friend Ellie, the one-time actress whom I've known since we were stage-struck teenagers. Like the characters Lansbury and Seldes play we've experienced our share of double faults and missed balls over the course of our relationship. And like those characters, we find neutral territory in something we both love—in our case it isn't running around on a tennis court but sitting in a darkened theater. After seeing Deuce, Ellie and I walked over to the Paramount Hotel for a drink. One of the great things about one act shows is that you get out early enough to get a good seat at a bar or restaurant. Ellie and I first went to the Paramount a decade ago with a mutual friend to celebrate the opening of The Who's Tommy, which the friend had helped bring to New York. The hotel is not as “in” as it was back then but we still felt grand and daring walking up its dramatic, banister-less staircase and we got a great table overlooking its delightfully eccentric lobby. There is something about old friendships, even when they fray a bit. That's what Deuce is about. It's not a revelation. But with actors like Lansbury and Seldes delivering the message you don't mind so much hearing it again.

May 3, 2007

No Love for "LoveMusik"

One of the things that mystifies his friends at work about my husband K, a Broadway pit musician, is why he would spend his time-off sitting in a theater watching a musical. Some of them figure he's just an indulgent spouse with a theater-mad wife. Both of these things are true. But even before we met, K would take off from a paid performance and buy a ticket to see that very same show if he thought it was good enough, and he looks forward to a great show almost as much as I do. So we were both anticipating LoveMusik.

And who wouldn't look forward to it? It’s an original musical instead of a revival and the chance to see something brand new is always welcomed. It's also based on the life and music of Kurt Weill, whom many consider to be a father of the concept musical. Its book is by Alfred Uhry, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his play Driving Miss Daisy and a Tony for the book of the musical Parade. It stars Michael Cerveris and Donna Murphy, two of the best talents working in musicals today, as Weill and his wife, the singer Lotte Lenya. And it is directed by the great Hal Prince, whose 40-year resume includes the groundbreaking original productions of Cabaret, Company, Sweeney Todd, Evita, The Phantom of the Opera and Kiss of the Spiderwoman. And yet, the show doesn't work. As soon as the lights went up at intermission, the man sitting next to me stood up. “Going out?” I asked. “Leaving,” he said and turned to his wife to ask if she were coming.

So what went wrong? Cerveris and Murphy do their best—which is pretty damn good—but despite its high-toned pedigree, LoveMusik is really just a jukebox musical. And finding a way to weave a musician’s well-known songs into a compelling plot has proven to be tougher than it sounds. For every pitch perfect hit like Jersey Boys or Movin' Out, there are totally tone deaf misses like Good Vibrations, All Shook Up, Lennon or The Times They Are A-Changin'. And at least The Beach Boys, Elvis Presley, the Beatles and Bob Dylan have big songbooks that can summon up happy thoughts about when you first heard a song or what your favorite version of it is. Weill simply doesn't have that many tunes that evoke those kinds of memories.

A good book would have helped, as the rags-to-riches-and-back-
down again story of the Four Seasons did for Jersey Boys but Uhry's story of Weill and Lenya's love life unfolds with the narrative drive of a tour through a stranger’s album of wedding photos—and then they did this, and then they did that. Artful staging or a smart concept, as Twyla Tharp pulled off with her all-dance tribute to Billy Joel in Movin' Out, might still have saved the day but Prince seems to have been just going through the motions this time out. Even the sets and costumes look bargain-rate. And where the show should have stinted, it didn't; LoveMusik runs around 2 hours and 45 very long minutes.