June 30, 2007

An "Old Acquaintance" Too Easy to Forget

Why? That's the first thing I want to know when I hear a play or a musical is being revived. And that question seems particularly apt when it comes to the Roundabout Theatre Company's current revival of Old Acquaintance. This is the first time John van Druten’s comedy about the personal and professional rivalries between two women writer friends has been performed on Broadway since its original production in 1940. I imagine one reason it drifted to the top of the Roundabout's "to-do" list is that meaty parts for women over 40 are hard to come by once you rule out Shakespeare and the Greeks. Both Margaret Colin and Harriet Harris are women of a certain age and considerable talent and so I imagine someone thought Old Acquaintance would provide a great opportunity for them to strut their stuff. Harris, in the showier role of Millie, the play's self-centered commercial fiction writer, stomps right in, goes all out for the laughs, and gets most of them. Colin, a longtime favorite of mine, tries to bring more nuance to her portrayal of Kit, the self-sacrificing literary novelist who is Millie's lifelong best friend, but she can't quite find her footing and seems ill at ease with the odd bits of business, like sucking on lollipops, that director Michael Wilson has given her to perform. David C. Woolard's '40s-style costumes are swell to look at, Alexander Dodge's imposing sets aim to impress and do, and John Gromada's original music sets a jaunty tone for what turns out to be a mildly amusing evening.

Still, you might enjoy yourself just as much, if not more, if you stay home and rent the 1943 movie version starring Bette Davis as Kit and Miriam Hopkins as Millie. The DVD includes a smart mini-doc on the women's movie genre that was a Warner Bros. specialty and commentary by the film's director Vincent Sherman and the Davis biographer Boze Hadleigh; they dish deliciously about how the off-screen drama mirrored what was going on in front of the camera as Hopkins repeatedly tried to upstage Davis and how Sherman succumbed to Davis's advances and became her lover. But it's the movie itself that most entertains you. On the surface, Old Acquaintance seems a fluffy trifle, one of those drawing room comedies where swanky people are always clinking cocktail glasses or slamming doors. But unlike the Roundabout production, the movie takes quite seriously the challenges many women face as they struggle to balance the demands of work and family, and the solace they often find in friendship, even difficult ones. I've noticed that many male critics have been enchanted with the silly way the women are treated in the current stage production; but this gal misses the more serious message. It's one that rings as true today as it did in the '40s and, apparently, it hits home with women of all ages; in March it was announced that Drew Barrymore and Cameron Diaz are going to star in a new screen version.

June 27, 2007

A Refuge for Today's Neo-Gypsies

You couldn't be any more surprised than I am that one of the most enjoyable theatrical experiences I've been having over the past few weeks has been watching a reality TV show. It's called "So You Think You Can Dance." The show, produced by some of the same people behind "American Idol," is a competition featuring a group of young people who perform different styles of dance each week and are eliminated by a panel of judges and the phone-in votes from viewers at-home. But where the winners and even the runners-up of "American Idol" can expect recording contracts and concert bookings (or in the case of Jennifer Hudson, an Oscar-winning movie role; or Fantasia, a critically acclaimed star turn on Broadway), there isn't a lot for the dancers to look forward to. One of the prizes for this year's "So You Think You Can Dance" winner is a job in Celine Dion's Las Vegas show.

In the old days, they would have become Broadway gypsies of the kind celebrated in A Chorus Line. And there would have been enough singing and dancing shows for the very best of them to hone their talent and maybe even to emerge as stars like Gwen Verdon, Chita Rivera and Tommy Tune or choreographers and directors like Bob Fosse, Michael Bennett and Graciela Daniele. But Broadway doesn't dance the way it used to. The next to last sentence in the New York Time's obituary on the premature death, at 57, of Thommie Walsh, the original Bobby in A Chorus Line who went on to win two Tonys for his collaborations with Tune on A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine and My One and Only,
was a sad reminder of that. It read: "In recent years Mr. Walsh worked as a real estate agent in Manhattan, where he lived."

And yet, the kids on “So You Think You Can Dance” have a serious case of happy feet. They range from self-taught break dancers to formally-trained ballroom dancers but all of them are gung-ho to learn different ways to strut their stuff and they dance their hearts out to entertain you. There’s a sprinkling of hard luck back stories to add some drama
in each episode but its their passion for dance that keeps me coming back. And it’s not just me. The show, now in its third season as a summer replacement on the Fox network, regularly makes it into Nielsen's Top 10. Many of the viewers are young and in my fantasy, the show's neo-gypsies turn so many of their fans on to the sheer joy of dancing—and of watching dancing—that producers of TV shows, movies and, most especially, Broadway musicals start mixing more dance into what they turn out. But in the meantime, you can tune in on Wednesday and Thursday nights for the next eight weeks.

June 23, 2007

How Fantasia Deepens "The Color Purple"

Shortly after the country star Reba McEntire completely reinvigorated Annie Get Your Gun back in 2001, the Tony committee considered creating an award for replacements. They ended up not doing it. But if they had, Fantasia, the third season winner on TV’s "American Idol," would surely have won this year's for her knockout performance in The Color Purple. I knew she was good even before the critics started throwing roses at her because my husband K plays in the orchestra and came home impressed with the way she handled the musical numbers, or to say it as he did, "The girl can sing." She can also sell tickets. As the New York Post's Michael Riedel wrote this week (click here to read his article), the show has been pulling in about $1 million a week since Fantasia took over as its star and now has advance sales of almost $10 million.

I finally got around to seeing Fantasia myself this past week. It's been a long time since I've been in an audience so excited to be seeing a show. People actually dressed up as though it were a special occasion; I haven't seen this many men wearing ties since my friend Joy's black-tie wedding three summers ago. The audience was about 85% black, including two rows of elderly church ladies, resplendent in their bright Sunday hats and thankfully seated at the back so that no one had to look over them.
I hadn't seen The Color Purple since its opening night in 2005. In many ways, it's better now. K says they continued to work on it after the opening and the storytelling seems smoother. I do miss some members of the original cast, particularly the three actors who played the church ladies who make up the show's Greek chorus; the new trio isn't quite as funny. But Elisabeth Withers-Mendes, who plays the sultry singer Shug Avery, is still there and still terrific, albeit a bit raunchier. And Alton Fitzgerald White makes a more nuanced Mister, the semi-villain of the show. But it's Fantasia who has transformed and, yes, deepened The Color Purple.

Fantasia doesn't have anywhere near the acting range that the Tony-winning LaChanze (the show seems to favor one-named leading ladies) had but what Fantasia has perfectly suits the role of Celie, the downtrodden black woman who has to endure a lifetime of rapes, beatings, overwork and, famously, being called ugly before she learns to stand up for and love herself. As she recounts in her memoir, "Life Is Not a Fairy Tale," Fantasia, who turns 23 on June 30, was also a rape victim, dropped out of high school and became an unwed mother at 17. An accomplished method actor couldn't have put those experiences to better use than she does. And all of it comes bursting out in Celie’s final aria, "I'm Here" (click here to see the version Fantasia performed on the Tonys). The white couple sitting next to me had seemed a little restless during the first act and I thought the husband, a guy who looked as though a Rangers' game would be more his natural habitat, might bolt during intermission. But at the end of that song, he sprang out of his seat to lead the standing ovation. I teared up too.

Before the show and during the intermission, the ushers walked the aisles cautioning people that photographs were not permitted but at the curtain call a blaze of flashes greeted Fantasia. She grinned, looking happy and genuinely grateful. She blew kisses up to the cheering folks in the cheap seats, where just a few years ago she might have been sitting. I walked around to the stage door to meet K. “So, what did you think?” he asked. “You’re right,” I told him. “The girl can sing.”

June 20, 2007

Broadway Goes Technoculture

If you're reading this blog, I know two things about you: (1) you're interested in Broadway and (2) you feel at least some comfort online. What I wondered was how comfortable Broadway felt not only online but with all the new technology from cellphones to social networking websites that are defining modern life. The big challenge for all the old traditional art forms and institutions—books, museums, opera, theater—is to find new ways to connect to media-savvy audiences, particularly the tweens, teens and twentysomethings who can give them the infusion of fresh blood they'll need to thrive in the 21st century. So I poked around, asked some friends, trolled some sites and found to my delight that Broadway is beginning to get its high-tech act together.

Just this week, the New York Times ran an article on how the folks over at Spring Awakening are inviting audience members to compete for the prize of a backstage tour by sending text messages via their cellphones (click here to read the article). I know some of my fellow bloggers hate this idea because they worry it will lead to more phones going off during the show but I say let's get the kids into the theater and then teach them how to behave once they're there. Avenue Q is trying to lure them in with a series of podcasts that will be downloadable at iTunes. Legally Blonde and the recently departed The Pirate Queen launched extravagant multi-media websites. Rent and other shows offer ringtone versions of their songs. It's all good.

Broadway producers in the past embraced the new technology of their day too—from the first cast album of Oklahoma in 1943 to scores of cast performances on the old Ed Sullivan TV show to D. A. Pennebaker’s now-classic documentary on the cast recording of Company. So I applaud Curtains for joining more obviously youth-friendly shows like Spring Awakening and Legally Blonde and
setting up its own page on MySpace. More producers should put video clips on YouTube too. There are already a few, placed there mainly by fans who seem to have sneaked cameras into theaters and made bootleg videos but productions ought to be uploading their own highlights. It's free advertising and costly production values like those for TV spots aren't necessary since the rough, homemade quality of the videos is consider cool on YouTube. But more than anything a MySpace page or a YouTube clip signals that Broadway is up to date and makes the shows seem as though they want the people who are interested in these sites to be interested in them too.

I think it would be really great if Broadway annexed some space on Second Life, the online site that simulates the real world. Companies like Nike have set up shop there. Politicians like Barack Obama are campaigning there (click here to see him in action and to get a sense of how 2nd Life works). The Louvre has opened a virtual branch. Heck, even the country of Sweden set up a virtual embassy "to promote its image and culture." Now doesn't that sound like exactly what Broadway should be doing?

June 16, 2007

No Longer "Forbidden Broadway"

No matter who wins, there's usually a kind of post-partum depression that follows the Tony Awards. Inevitably, some shows post their closing notices. This year, Journey's End, the winner for Best Revival of a Play, actually closed the day of the awards ceremony. The next day, Company, which won for Best Revival of a Musical but failed to get a statuette for its star Raul Esparza, announced that it would shut down on July 1. Radio Golf, the final installment in August Wilson's 10-part cycle about the African American experience, plays its final performance on July 1 too. And the also Tony-neglected LoveMusik and Talk Radio will end on June 24.

With the exception of Journey’s End, I wasn't a big fan of the closing productions but I'm always sad to see a show close. And so, hoping to chase the blues away, I took myself to see Forbidden Broadway: The Roast of Utopia, the new "Special Summer Edition" of the 25 year-old revue that lovingly parodies Broadway shows. It's been years since I've seen Forbidden Broadway but my friend Bill, my co-enabler in all matters theater, had seen a show earlier this year and told me it was a hoot. For Roast of Utopia, which opened on June 13 and is scheduled to run through August, Forbidden Broadway creator Gerard Alessandrini and his director Phillip George have, as usual, assembled a cast of four hardworking and incredibly versatile performers. They are terrific and the fact that their Playbill bios are heavy on road company tours and regional productions is a reminder of just how awesomely deep the talent bench is in New York. The veteran costume designer Alvin Colt, who is currently being honored with a retrospective of his six-decade career
at the Museum of the City of New York (click here to see a design sketch he did for the original production of Guys and Dolls), has done wonders on a small budget.

Despite the current title, there is no Coast of Utopia number but Curtains, Company, Grey Gardens, Legally Blonde, LoveMusik, Mary Poppins, and Spring Awakening all get their turn on the show's skewer, including up-to-the-minute references to Tony winners and losers. Some of the songs had me laughing out loud but not as much as I used to. Part of what I loved about Forbidden Broadway was the transgressive pleasure of watching it send up Broadway shows and Broadway stars in a way that you had to be Broadway savvy to get. Being at a Forbidden Broadway show made me feel like a member of a very smart club. But in recent years, Broadway musicals like The Producers, Urinetown and currently Spamalot have poked fun at Broadway themselves. It's not that Forbidden Broadway is no longer funny, it's just that everyone is now in on the joke, which Alessandrini acknowledges in one of his numbers. In fact, in our pop culturally conscious era, this style of entertainment is so pervasive and people so used to laughing at in-joke references that you apparently can have a good time at Forbidden Broadway even if you don't know anything about the shows being parodied. The couple behind me, in from San Antonio, seemed to be thoroughly enjoying themselves, even though I overhead them confusing 42nd Street with A Chorus Line. As Roast of Utopia moved into a spoof of the opening number from Company, the husband leaned over to the wife and whispered, “Who’s this Bobby they’re talking about?” “Oh, I think it’s Bobby Kennedy,” she whispered back.

It made even a culture populist like me nostalgic for the old days.

June 13, 2007

Tweaking the Tonys

O.K. So, the ratings for Sunday night's Tony Awards broadcast, which faced-off against both the finale of "The Sopranos" and the NBA finals, were down 20%. And it's true there were only a few surprises when the awards were announced because, as predicted, The Coast of Utopia and Spring Awakening took most of the prizes. But it was still a terrific celebration of Broadway.

I loved the wacky way Julie White burbled on when she accepted the Best Actress award (which was a surprise) for the long closed The Little Dog Laughed; and the exultant little jig Bill T. Jones did when he literally danced down the aisle to collect his award for the cathartic choreography he created for Spring Awakening; and the defiant passion of Bill Haber's explanation about why he decided to produce the WWI drama Journey's End despite the fact that no production of the 78 year old play has ever made money; and Frank Langella's eloquent tribute to his fellow actors when he claimed the Best Actor award for his performance in Frost/Nixon [click here to read all the speeches]; and the movie trailer-style film clips of all 35 shows from the past season—the hits and the misses. I just wish there had been more award categories.

I'm not suggesting that the Tonys go the way of the Grammys with 3,917 different categories or the Olympics which is so eager to appear hip that it seems ready to declare a competition for one-handed fry pan sautéing. But as Broadway adds new elements to make itself more relevant to 21st century audiences, I think the people who create those parts of its magic should be recognized along with their peers. I'm speaking primarily of the projection designers and the sound designers, particularly those who compose scores for straight plays. This isn't a radical proposal; the Tonys have a history of creating awards—and abolishing them (Best Conductor got pushed off the podium after 1964). There are currently 25 categories and there were only 11 when the prizes were first given out in 1947. A Best Play award wasn't included until the next year and one for Best Musical wasn't introduced until 1949 (Kiss Me, Kate got that one). The award for lighting was added in 1970, one for orchestrations in 1997 and the Special Theatrical Event, won this year by ventriloquist show Jay Johnson: My Two and Only, was established just in 2001.

If the Lighting Designer deserves a nod, and I totally agree that Kevin Adams contributed to the gestalt of Spring Awakening, then why shouldn't the Sound Designer be eligible for one? And it's not just because my husband K is a pit musician that I think the guys who write what's called the "original music" for straight plays should be recognized. The swirling overture Mark Bennett wrote for The Coast of Utopia played when each of the show’s record 7 awards was announced on Sunday night and hearing it transported me instantly back to the experience of that remarkable trilogy. In movies, they call it a soundtrack. The people at Ghostlight Records are calling Bennett's score "music from the play." Whatever. They released an album of it yesterday. Like me, you probably missed the launch party at the Lincoln Square Barnes and Noble in Manhattan but all of us, even the people who determine Tony categories, can get the CD at a local B&N or at Amazon.com.

June 9, 2007

The Harrowing Flight of "Blackbird"

There are some people who just have to see a new movie on its opening weekend. And that's kind of the way I am about shows. I like to go during previews or in the first week or so after a show has opened before there's been so much talk about it that the chance to discover its pleasures for myself has been ruined. But there's so much to see in New York, especially in the spring when at least one show a week opens on Broadway alone, that I can't always see every one of them as soon as I'd like. Which is why my friend Ellie, the one-time actress, and I didn't get to the Manhattan Theater Club's sold-out production of Blackbird, until the show's closing weekend.

When I arrived at the theater, Ellie was standing outside talking about the show with Tony Kushner, the author of Angels in America. I stepped away, not wanting to know too much of what he thought about Blackbird but I couldn't help hearing him say that he'd seen the show before and found it so devastating that he'd come back. Blackbird, the story of what happens when a middle-aged man and the 12-year old girl he sexually abused meet 15 years later, seems to have that kind of effect on people. It was a hit at the Edinburgh International Festival in 2005; won the Laurence Olivier Award for best new play in London last year, and this production, starring Jeff Daniels and Alison Pill, pleased most of the New York critics as well.

Everything seemed right about it. Director Joe Mantello coaxed out all the notes of ambiguity in the appropriately-named David Harrower's script. Set designer Scott Pask, who had five new shows on Broadway this past season, including his collaboration with Bob Crowley on The Coast of Utopia, created a pitch perfect environment for the uneasy pair. As did Laura Bauer's understated costumes. Paul Gallo's lighting and Darron L. West's audio design leant particular support. And yet none of it would have worked without the raw and vulnerable performances given by Daniels and Pill, an angular-limbed, baby-faced 21 year-old star in the making who last year won a Tony nomination for The Lieutenant of Inishmore and has already signed-on to star with Bobby Cannavale in Mauritius, a black comedy scheduled to open on Broadway in October.

At the end of Blackbird, my fellow audience members, seemingly as devastated as Kushner had been, sat in silence and only started to applaud when the actors stumbled onto the stage for their bows. I say "stumbled" because I can't remember seeing actors more drained by the emotional journey they had just taken. Daniels and Pill had stripped themselves naked and there simply hadn't been enough time between the final fade out and the curtain call for them to cover their exposed nerve endings. They starred at us with dazed expressions. They bowed, but they didn't touch hands as actors often do. And then, struggling to summon up the last of their strength, they almost staggered off stage. I don't know if their response was the same at every performance, or if it would have been the same if we'd seen them earlier in the run or if it was the accumulation of the emotional toll of the last three months but I do know that the fearlessness of their performances left me devastated.

June 6, 2007

Requiem for "The Pirate Queen"

With the exception of The Producers' rascally Max Bialystock, no one sets out to put on a bad show. And so for that reason alone it was sad when the news came yesterday that The Pirate Queen, the Les Miz duo Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg's step-dancing musical about a 16th century female pirate, has posted the notice that it will play its final performance on June 17. It's different when a movie disappears from the local cineplex because you know you can catch it later on DVD or pay-per-view. But once a Broadway show is gone, it's gone. Not even a revival can recreate the ephemeral pleasures, or agonies, of the original, although this season's slavishly copycat revivals of A Chorus Line and Les Miserables have certainly tried. That's why I wish more Broadway shows were recorded on DVD.

I know that archival copies are made but unless you’re an academic or have some connection to the business, it’s hard to get access to them. I suppose producers would argue that people might be less likely to shell out $100 bucks for a seat if they thought they could rent the same show from Blockbuster or Netflix and watch it at home just a few months later. So here's my compromise: there ought to be a special exemption for flops. The moment the closing notice goes up for a show that has played fewer than, say, 100 performances, the production should be taped and then sold to the public. It might be a way for the investors to recoup some cash and it would delight people like me. Because if you love Broadway musicals, then there's a special place in your heart for the ones that failed, especially the big, ambitious duds. That’s why every serious musical lover has read—and maybe reread—Ken Mandelbaum’s “Not Since Carrie: Forty Years of Broadway Musical Flops” and Steven Suskin’s “Second Act Trouble: Behind the Scenes at Broadway's Big Musical Bombs.” And who amongst us wouldn't now jump at the chance to see the original Carrie? Or Big Deal? Or Breakfast at Tiffany's? Or maybe a few years from now, The Pirate Queen?

June 2, 2007

A Sip of "Tea"

Anyone who loves theater will make an effort to see a show like The Coast of Utopia or Spring Awakening but it takes a special kind of theater lover to venture up to 86th Street and climb up (or ride the creaky elevator) one flight to see a show in a makeshift theater with no proscenium and old church pews for seats. But there, in the United Methodist Church of St. Paul & St. Andrew, is where the Pan Asian Repertory Theatre is presenting its current production of Tea, Velina Hasu Houston's drama about four Japanese war brides marooned in the alien landscape of the American midwest after marrying husbands who occupied their homeland during World War II and now, nearly 20 years later, mourning the death of a friend who has recently committed suicide.

I confess that I am an inconstant lover when it comes to seeing shows that play too far away from Broadway or Theatre Row, Lincoln Center or the Public Theater. But when I read a piece in the New York Times about the 30th anniversary of the Pan Asian Rep (click here to read it), I realized that it had been nearly that long since I'd seen one of their productions and I felt like such a hypocrite for bragging about my passion for theater while neglecting shows and companies that really need to be loved that I sneaked off alone to see the show. Luckily for the Rep, there are more steadfast theatergoers in the city than I am and about 50 of them turned out to see Tea the night I went. The play, which was written 20 years ago and premiered back then at the Manhattan Theatre Club, is one of those identity dramas in which each character represents a certain aspect of a minority community’s experience, from the resolutely assimilated to the tragically marginalized—think of it as a kind of “The Boys in the Band Wear Kimonos”.

Only about a quarter of my fellow audience members were Asian and while that diversity was heartening it also at times seemed to work to the detriment of the show; the laughter was uncertain when Houston poked gentle fun at her characters, as though people weren't sure it was politically correct to enjoy the jokes. Or maybe they were reticent because the play tries too hard to cover every conceivable issue these women might have faced. Or it could have been because the production was flatly directed. Or that the acting was uneven, although Momo Yashima was nicely wry as the most Americanized of the women. And yet the show offered a glimpse of lives that too few of us know about. Walking out of the theater, I overhead a man say to his friend, “I can't say that it was a great dramatic experience but I did learn some things.” Over the next few weeks, there will be other opportunities to learn, and maybe even to have a great dramatic experience, as the inaugural National Asian American Theater Festival runs from June 11 to June 24 at venues in every borough of the city. The 32 productions will range from the National Asian American Theatre Company’s presentation of the William Finn musical Falsettoland to a one-man show called Korean Badass.