July 28, 2007

Letdown by "My First Time"

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July 25, 2007

In Free Fall with "Surface to Air"

Summer can be a strange time for theater junkies like me and so I got excited when I read that Symphony Space, famous for its Wall to Wall music marathons, Bloomsday celebration, Selected Shorts series of short story readings and the revival of the legendary Thalia art film house, was introducing a new theater series called Summer Stock on Broadway. I particularly loved the fact that the theater, on Broadway and 95th Street, is a short walk from my home. And so I strolled over on Tuesday night to see its inaugural production,
Surface to Air. There are usually crowds of people milling around outside the theater but the street was empty when I walked up to the box office about 10 minutes before curtain time. It was almost as bad inside; fewer than 200 of the 760 seats in the Peter Jay Sharp Theatre were filled. Maybe, I thought, people are home reading “Harry Potter” Or maybe there were so few of them because the show has gotten so little publicity. Or maybe it's that a play about a family gathering to receive the remains of a son and brother killed in Vietnam 30 years earlier isn't what people think of when they think of a light summer stock-style evening of theater.

For whatever the reason people didn't turn out, I can't say they were missing much, for
Surface to Air never really gets off the ground. That's certainly not the fault of the cast. Lois Smith and Larry Bryggman as the still-grieving parents squeeze everything they can out of their roles and throw some extra stuff into them as well. There is also good work from Mark J. Sullivan as the ghost of the slain son, James Colby as the surviving son, Marisa Echeverria as his new Latina bride, and Bruce Altman as the husband of the family's only daughter. Only Cady Huffman, stepping outside the musical comedy roles she usually plays, is slightly off as the Hollywood exec daughter. James Naughton's direction gets the job done, as do the set by James Noone, the costumes by Laurie Churba and the lighting by Clifton Taylor. The dead weight here is the play itself. It wants to be a serious exploration of war and patriotism and race and class but playwright David Epstein has bitten off more than he, or we in the audience, can chew. There are too many issues crashing into one another and then unrealistically resolving themselves at the end of the show's 80 intermissionless minutes.

I walked home feeling sad, not about the death of the son, or the implicit comparisons with the war in Iraq but about the fate of the Summer Stock series. The folks at Symphony Space should be applauded for launching their new series with a new show instead of a revival and for showcasing a relatively unknown playwright. But maybe summer is just too strange a time to do it.

July 21, 2007

Taking Time Out For Harry

I am almost as wild about Harry Potter as I am about Broadway. And so, like millions of people around the world, most of them younger and shorter than me, I am devoting my weekend to the final installment of the boy wizard's seven-volume saga. Which means no theater musings today. Well maybe one: on the basis of what I've heard about
The Lord of the Rings musical, here's hoping that the muggles keep their hands off Harry.

July 17, 2007

"Gypsy", Patti and Me

Even people who don’t know anything about theater know that the theatrical event of the summer is the Encores! production of Gypsy starring Patti LuPone as the archetypal stage mother, Mama Rose. It is a role that Patti was born to play and has been waiting a lifetime to do. And almost everyone who has seen her feels that they have witnessed a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Everyone except me. Maybe it’s the heat.

For the first time ever, the popular Encores! series is doing a summer production and running the show, a complete production and not just its usual staged readings, for three weeks. Even so, tickets aren’t easy to get. But my husband K plays in the Encores! orchestra and so my sister Joanne and I went to the invited dress performance. Arthur Laurents, who wrote the book and directed not only this production and the two previous versions with Angela Lansbury [correction from original post thanks to Mondschein of Third Row, Mezzanine] and Tyne Daly and who is now nearly 90, came out before the curtain rose to greet the audience and got a standing ovation. Joanne and I have loved Gypsy since we were kids and she fell in love with it all over again. We went backstage after the show and ran into our friend Red Press, the longtime musical contractor who has been hiring orchestras for Broadway shows for nearly 40 years. The original production of Gypsy was the second Broadway show he ever played as a young saxophonist and his first hit. There’s a photo of him at a rehearsal with Ethel Merman who, of course, created the role of Mama Rose. He told us he thought Patti was better. People posting on chat rooms have competed to come up with superlatives to describe the show. My very hip stepdaughter Anika went to the opening night and called me as soon as it was over to tell me how great she thought it was. So what’s up with me?

I don’t know. Boyd Gaines, who has become one of my favorite actors, brings touching humanity to Herbie, the sad-sack agent in love with Rose. Laura Benanti is alternately winsome and sexy as the awkward tomboy Louise who grows up to be the superstar stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. The trio who play the strippers who mentor the rookie Gypsy literally stop the show. Patti delivers both of her curtain numbers with her usual Patti panache. And, of course, there is the rest of that marvelous score by Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim. But what can I say, the hair never stood up on the back up my neck. The last time I felt like this way was at a party where everyone else was happily high from drinking great wine and I was stone-cold sober because I was taking medication to cure a foot fungus and the doctor told me not to drink. I skipped the actual opening night party at the Redeye Grill even though K and Anika called and urged me to meet them there. I felt I didn’t deserve the celebration. But you do, so do what you can to see the show. And even if I didn’t, I hope you get drunk on it.

July 14, 2007

Supporting the Troops with "Beyond Glory"

Souvenir shops have become almost as common as Playbills at Broadway and off-Broadway theaters. So much so that I actually know some people who have skipped the show that's playing and just run into the lobby to pick up a CD, a T-shirt, or a keychain. The Roundabout's Laura Pels Theatre doesn't usually host that kind of goodie-bag show. And so as the audience filed out of the performance I attended of Beyond Glory, Stephen Lang's one-man tribute to men who have received the Medal of Honor, we found a young woman standing next to a pile of books simply stacked on the floor. "Buy the book on which the show is based," she called out. "Only $20 and signed by the author." Several men, some of them visibly wiping tears from their eyes, snapped up copies.

Broadway has begun playing the niche market game, targeting different shows to different audiences—Wicked and Legally Blonde for tween and teen girls, Spamalot for their big brothers, The Color Purple for black church ladies and Xanadu for camp-loving show queens—but there's been little aimed at the "Saving Private Ryan" set. In fact, there’s been little entertainment for them period. Even Clint Eastwood is making rueful war movies these days. After four years in Iraq, Americans are fed up with war. But even the most diehard opponents of the war in Iraq, determined not to repeat at least one mistake of the Vietnam War, bookend their harangues with statements of support for the troops. In that, Beyond Glory, which Lang adapted from the oral histories in journalist Larry Smith’s book of the same title, is a play of its time.

I hadn't planned to see it. I've never been a big fan of Lang's (he's always seemed to overpower his roles) and I'm tired of war talk too. But the reviews were so strong that curiosity got the best of me. And I'm glad it did. Director Robert Falls has crafted a production that is elegant in its simplicity. And Lang, in total control of how to best use his natural aggression, is superb. Aided only by assorted pieces of military uniforms that he pulls from an old trunk, he transforms himself into eight very different men, most of them ordinary joes, who showed extraordinary valor under extreme circumstances in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. His co-stars are the show's design team (including lighting designer Dan Covey, sound designer Cecil Averett, projection designer John Boesche, and original music composers Rober Kessler and Ethan Neuberg) each of whom has contributed work that is non-intrusive but powerfully effective.

There was none of the usual coughing and no restless moving in seats at the performance I attended. The only sound was grateful laughter during the 80-minute show's few humorous moments. The New York run, which ends on Aug. 19, is only the latest stop on a tour that has taken the show to American military bases around the world and the floor of the U.S. Congress. Lang has insisted in interviews that the show isn't making a political statement. But it is unabashedly patriotic. Only 3,463 medals have been given the nation's highest award for military service since Abraham Lincoln signed the law establishing the honor in 1861; just two have been granted to soldiers involved in the Iraq War. Beyond Glory honors all of those who are serving.

July 11, 2007

Unamused by "Xanadu"

Nobody loves a jukebox musical more than my sister but when I called to ask her if she wanted to see Xanadu, she turned me down flat. "No way," she said. "I'm not going to see some dumb musical based on some dumb movie." I hope she doesn't regret her decision. For Xanadu, based on the legendary 1980 movie flop in which Olivia Newton-John plays one of the nine Greek Muses who comes to earth to inspire a Venice Beach artist as he fulfills his dream of opening, of all things, a roller disco is shaping up to be the Jersey Boys of this young Broadway season, a show patched together from old pop songs that critics went into the theater with teeth bared and ready to hate but came out with nearly all adoring smiles.

I bribed my niece Jennifer to go with me by treating her to a pre-show dinner at the Broadway hangout Angus McIndoe. She was in a good mood going into the Helen Hayes Theatre after having dined on Angus's terrific version of mussels and frites but about 10 minutes into the show, I caught her giving me the evil eye. "This isn't good," she hissed. But the show has no intermission so she was trapped. To my surprise, and hers, less than 90 minutes later, Xanadu had won her over. In fact, it seems to have won everyone over. The audience at our performance mouthed the words to the songs, laughed uproariously at self-referential lines like "The theater? They'll just take some stinkeroo movie or some songwriter's catalog, throw it on a stage and call it a show" and leapt to its feet almost as one at the end. The critics were seduced too. "Heaven on Wheels" purred the Times; "By Zeus! Xanadu is happy to a-muse" chirped the Daily News. Well, it didn't amuse me.

But I do admire how smart it is. The show seems to have found a way to wed the mass appeal of Mamma Mia! with the insider snob appeal of The Drowsy Chaperone. And who am I to complain about the ability to cater to two such powerful and often disparate revenue streams. Kerry Butler, a peppy, talented and game blonde (she has a way with a joke, belts out a song and rollerblades like she was born on wheels) is terrific as the Muse and as her protégé, Cheyenne Jackson, a last minute replacement for James Carpinello who had a skating accident a few days before the original opening, is not only great eye candy but has a great singing voice and great comic timing. But the true star of this production is its book writer Douglas Carter Beane, hot off the showbiz-savvy satire, The Little Dog Laughed. Beane has not only created a quip-laden, high-camp script for the show ("This is like children's theater for 40-year-old gay people") but a backstage narrative for himself that he's been spinning everywhere and that details how he refused to take the job when he was first approached because he considered the source material tripe but eventually relented once assured that he could remake the stage version in his own image. It's the kind of story that entertainment editors love; in fact, Entertainment Weekly did a whole pre-opening feature on the show and when is the last time that magazine paid such attention to Broadway?

I did laugh and I did appreciate the scenery-chewing antics of Jackie Hoffman and Mary Testa and the deft staging of director Christopher Ashley and choreographer Dan Knechtges. But I also found myself feeling a kinship with some of the audience members who bought the cheap seats that landed them in the onstage pews. This is becoming an increasingly common practice; Inherit the Wind and Spring Awakening have bleachers on their stages too. A couple of the guys on the stage at Xanadu had clearly come to this show only because the movie was a guilty pleasure of their wife's or the tickets were the only ones left when they got to TKTS. The sat with frozen smiles on their faces, knowing they were supposed to be having a good time but not really having it. "We're Muses of inspiration. What are we doing in a theater?,""goes one wink-wink line in the show. Call me an unhappy camper but that's what I want to know.

July 7, 2007

Summer Reading

Summertime and the living is easy and most of us want to spend as much of it as we can relaxing outdoors, if possible with a cold glass of wine in one hand and a good book to read in the other. Or at least that's my idea of a perfect summer afternoon, particularly if the book is about Broadway. If you're making up your summer reading list and you love theater too, then you might want to consider the following for the eight weeks between now and Labor Day:

1. Colored Lights: Forty Years of Words and Music, Show Biz, Collaboration and All that Jazz by John Kander and Fred Ebb, as told to Greg Lawrence.
This oral history, published in 2004, the same year that Ebb died, allows you to eavesdrop on the legendary songwriting duo as they reminisce about their shows from their first collaboration, Flora, the Red Menace, to the Oscar-winning movie version of Chicago. As anyone who has seen a Kander and Ebb musical, or listened to a recording of one, knows, these guys are smart and funny and insightful about show business, and their book is too.

2. On Broadway, Men Still Wear Hats: Unusual Lives Led on the Edges of Broadway by Robert Simonson.
The 18 people profiled in Playbill.com editor Simonson's marvelous 2004 book range from the influential New York Post columnist and TV show host Michael Riedel
to Rozanne Seelen, who owns the rightfully beloved Drama Book Shop, where I have spent more hours and more dollars than I care to tote up. They all love Broadway and it's hard not to share their enthusiasm—or to envy the bit roles they get to play.

3. Ever After: the Last Years of Musical Theater and Beyond by Barry Singer.
Unlike so many books about recent Broadway history that decry the demise of musical theater, this veteran theater journalist's chatty account of the last 30 years of Broadway musicals gives the creative forces behind those shows, from Ira Weitzman, who helped to developed many of them at Playwrights Horizon, to composers Michael John LaChiusa and Adam Guettel, a chance to have their say. The reviewers on Amazon.com have been inexplicably tough on this book, which also came out in 2004, but for me, it was like flipping through a family album and reliving good times and not-so-good ones and treasuring them all.

4. Second Act Trouble: Behind the Scenes of Broadway's Big Musical Bombs by Steven Suskin.
A longtime theatrical manager, producer and chronicler, Suskin has collected and annotated contemporaneous writings about some of Broadway's biggest flops. The schadenfreude when reading through this 2006 book is irresistible but just as affecting is the visible evidence of a time when so many newspapers and magazines considered Broadway a major story.

5. Making It Big: The Diary of a Broadway Musical
by Barbara Isenberg.
Broadway's growing reliance on converting hit movies into musicals makes this book by my arts writer-friend Barbara as relevant as when it first came out a decade ago. Her almost day-by-day account of how the delicate Tom Hanks comedy about a kid trapped in a man’s body grew from a suggestion by composer Richard Maltby Jr.'s wife into a $10 million monster flop may be the closest you can get to the process without putting on a musical yourself.

6. All That Glittered: The Golden Age of Drama on Broadway, 1919-1959 by Ethan Mordden
Until now, Mordden, the dean of theater historians, has written primarily about musicals but his latest book, released in April, brings the same in-depth knowledge to American drama, combing critical analysis, social commentary and a generous dose of backstage gossip.

7. Broadway Babylon: Glamour, Glitz and Gossip on the Great White Way by Boze Hadleigh
Published just last month, this is a grab bag of gossipy stories about the theater filtered through showbiz writer Hadleigh's wry, and occasionally campy, sensibility. Not all of it is as entertaining as it pretends to be but there are pages and pages of quotations and aphorisms from theater people that had me alternately nodding my head in agreement, hooting out loud with laughter, and quoting the choicest ones to my husband K.

8. The Season: A Candid Look at Broadway by William Goldman . No theater reading list is complete without the award-winning playwright and screenwriter's inside account of the 1967-68 Broadway season. It became an immediate classic when it was originally published in 1969, the "Moby Dick" of theater books, although far funnier. If you've never read it, you've got a big treat ahead of you. If you've read it before, it's still a treat.

Happy reading and, as for that cold wine, have a glass for me.

July 4, 2007

The Singular Pleasures of "Passing Strange"

There are shows that you eagerly anticipate seeing and others that sneak up on you, demanding to be seen. Passing Strange, the blazingly original musical that closed at the Public Theater on Sunday, is one of the latter. "Everybody in my set is talking about it," said my twenty-six year old stepdaughter Anika when I asked if she wanted to see it. Anika's set is young, hip and multicultural and lives in the artistic parts of Harlem, the Lower East Side and Brooklyn's Fort Greene and Williamsburg. But it wasn't just young bohemians who were talking about the show. A couple of weeks ago, I was having a late dinner at the Broadway canteen Angus McIndoe and the gifted comediennes Jackie Hoffman and Mary Testa, currently in previews with the Broadway musical Xanadu, were sitting at the next table with friends and they too were talking about Passing Strange. "You gotta see it," I overheard one of them say.

So did the show live up to the hype? Sure did. Anika and I made it to one of the final performances last week and we were both knocked out by it. Part rock concert, part story theater, Passing Strange is a bildungsroman whose protagonist is a young black man coming of age in the 1970s and it refuses to fit neatly into any of the categories set aside for black musicals or any of the stereotypes reserved for describing black life. Instead it explores the experience of the post-Civil Rights generation of suburban black kids, many of whom grew up chanting Buddhist mantras, reading existential writers and listening to both hip-hop and hard rock. Racial identity in Passing Strange isn't political, it's personal. Anika was a city kid but she identified totally.

The show is based on the life of its primary creator, Mark Stewart, a brown-skinned cannonball of a man with explosive talent who goes by the single-name Stew. The music he and his collaborator Heidi Rodewald have written flows from punk and gospel to show tunes and classical, with detours along the way into cabaret, country and Gilbert and Sullivan; the lyrics are the wittiest this side of Sondheim. Stew, who plays electric guitar and narrates the action, was backed up by three jamming onstage musicians and a terrific sextet of actors. Director Annie Dorsen concocted imaginative staging and light designer Kevin Adams used the same style of fluorescent lighting that brilliantly illuminates Spring Awakening to equally good effect in this show (click here to see a YouTube video of highlights from the show). One cast member, Rebecca Naomi Jones, turned out to be a childhood friend Anika hadn't seen in years. But my favorite was Daniel Breaker, who played Stew's teenaged alter-ego with the zany loose-limbered grace of the young Jerry Lewis and the irony-laced, rubber-faced innocence of the young Richard Pryor.

The last time I've seen such a fresh and audacious theatrical debut was when George C. Wolfe's The Colored Museum played at the Public in 1986 and I laughed so hard that I literally fell out of my seat. Wolfe, of course, went on to lead the Public for 11 years and to direct such groundbreaking shows as Jelly's Last Jam; Angels in America; Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk; Topdog/Underdog and Caroline, or Change. I have no idea what Stew will do next but I do know I intend to be there when he does it. And if you missed him this time around and you love theater, then you ought to do everything you can to be there too.