September 29, 2007

The Highs and Lows of "Three Mo' Tenors"

It's not a good sign when there are empty seats on the opening night of a show. But that's how it was for Three Mo' Tenors, the staged concert that opened at the Little Shubert Theatre this past Thursday evening. The show, one of the many variations on the lucrative series of concerts that opera's golden-throated boys Luciano Pavarotti, Plácido Domingo, and José Carreras launched in the '90s, features three African-American tenors performing a range of musical genres from operatic arias to Broadway show tunes.

But unlike the original trio, the Mo' tenors are unknowns. And that was the problem for me and my niece Jennifer. There are two alternating casts in this production and the three we saw—Kenneth D. Alston Jr., Phumzile Sojola and
Ramone Diggs—seemed game for anything and good at much of it (click here to see excerpts from the show), but no more so than the scores of other talented singers you can hear in Broadway, off-Broadway and even off-off Broadway shows, not to mention in cabarets and clubs around New York. Shouldn't these tenors, like the ones who inspired their act, be the best around?

Director Marion J. Caffey, who created the concept for the show, has tried to make a virtue of his stars' anonymity, explaining in various interviews that classically trained black singers, as all of his performers are, have fewer opportunities and thus fewer chances to make a name for themselves. "Black tenors are not often used in operas," he has said. "So they have to sing in other styles simply to make a living." In other words, they know how to do more, or mo'. And, indeed, Three Mo’ Tenors prides itself on the number of styles its singers perform.

The evening starts off with Verdi but then quickly veers into Broadway power ballads from shows like Les Misérables, Ragtime and Jekyll & Hyde. The second act is even more pop-oriented with tributes to performers including rhythm and bluesman Ray Charles, the '70s rock band Queen and even Gladys Knight's soulful Pips, plus a round of spirituals and gospel tunes. The opening night audience loved all of it—respectfully admiring of the opera, clapping and swaying in time to the R&B numbers, waving arms in the air to Queen's stadium anthems. Even Jennifer, who can be fussy about her theater and was making it clear that she wasn't happy about the first act, got into it by the end and was taking up the singers' invitation to sing along with some of the more familiar tunes.

I love a '60s-era soul song as much as the next Baby Boomer. And I appreciate the hard work of the tenors who made quick off-stage costume changes in between their often-choreographed solo, duet and group numbers. I particularly liked Diggs, a lanky, rubber-faced charmer with quick comedic timing and a compelling stage presence. He handled every genre with a light ease and yet there was an underlying melancholy that made me wish someone would write a musical about the vaudevillian Bert Williams, the first black headliner in the Ziegfeld Follies whom W.C. Fields called "the funniest man I ever saw—and the saddest man I ever knew," and cast Diggs in the role (If you’re interested, Caryl Phillips recounts Williams' life in his wonderful novel "Dancing in the Dark").

Still, I think I might have enjoyed Three Mo' Tenors more if I lived somewhere besides New York. I'm spoiled by the incredibly high level of talent in this city and the ability to see it whenever I'd like. Other places aren't as lucky. Three Mo' Tenors has spent the last six years successfully traveling around the country and abroad. An earlier version of the show—with different tenors—was even filmed for PBS. But there's a small town feel about the show and I don't know if it can survive the big-city competition here in New York. Which may explain those empty seats on opening night.

September 26, 2007

Volumes of Memories in the "Best Plays"

My copy of "The Best Plays Theater Yearbook, 2005-2006" arrived a couple of weeks ago and I've been happily reading bits and pieces of it ever since. If you're not familiar with the book, and you love theater, you should be. For the past 87 years, the "Best Plays" editors and their advisory boards have selected the 10 best shows of the season. And about 50 years ago, they started cramming everything else they could think of about theater in the U.S. into this one handy book. The latest volume sells for a whopping $49.95 but hell, that's just 1/9 the price of a premium ticket to Young Frankenstein and the book is discounted on .

Each volume begins with a recap of the season including news events and major trends. Incisive essays on each of the 10 anointed plays, written by some of the country’s leading critics and dramaturges, follow. (This year's honor roll of plays includes: Grey Gardens, The History Boys, In the Continuum, The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow, The Lieutenant of Inishmore, Rabbit Hole, Red Light Winter, Shining City, Stuff Happens, and Third). Then there are complete credits for every new show that opened on Broadway or off-Broadway, listings of major off-off Broadway productions and those for the major regional theaters as well. There's also a review of holdover productions from previous seasons and a really nifty list of every replacement for every role of every Broadway show that played during the season, including the casts of first national tours. The winners of all the year's major theatrical awards are noted and other goodies include a rundown of every Broadway or off-Broadway show that ever played 500 performances or more, plus an index of all the best plays from 1894 to the present. In other words, it's a theater lover's wet dream.

Even better, though, is reading through old volumes of the series. The Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center has all 86 of the earlier ones and spending a rainy morning going through them, as I did this past weekend, is like taking a time machine back to the days when the shows we now consider classics and the writers we revere as icons were simply fresh and promising. It amused me to discover that the people who loved theater back then were just as cranky as many of us who love it now. "The theater season of 1927-1928 will probably be remembered in New York, should occasion arise to remember it, as one that started promisingly and faded hopelessly," wrote Burns Mantle (is that a great name or what?) who created the series in 1919.
"You can count its outstanding successes on the fingers of two hands. It would require the seeds of a watermelon to tally its failures." After the book's initial success, Mantle went back and chose the best plays from 1894-1918 and then edited the annuals until his death in 1948.

Mantle was succeeded briefly by his longtime assistant John Chapman but it was Louis Kronenberger, the esteemed Time magazine theater critic, who, when he took over in 1952, re-created the book as it now is. Kronenberger shortened the excerpts from the plays that had taken up so much space in the earlier volumes to make room for information on off-Broadway shows, Variety's hits and flops list, photos of the productions and drawings by Al Hirschfeld (which the artist continued to contribute until his death in 2003.) But Kronenberger could be just as entertainingly acerbic as Burns had been. "All in all, however, it was a depressingly bad season" he wrote in the 1956-57 recap, after making an exception for Eugene O'Neill’s A Long Day’s Journey Into Night. And, he continued, "It would be no less foolish than fraudulent to claim real merit for all the best plays." The shows he was badmouthing included Terence Rattigan's Separate Tables, Robert Alan Arthur's A Very Special Baby, Lillian Hellman's adaptation of Voltaire for Leonard Bernstein's Candide, Arthur Laurent's A Clearing in the Woods, Jean Anouilh's The Waltz of the Toreadors, Graham Greene's The Potting Shed, Gore Vidal's Visit to A Small Planet, Tennessee William's Orpheus Descending, and O'Neill's A Moon for the Misbegotten.

There are some titles on the complete "Best Plays" roster that I'd never heard of. And the list isn't infallible. Neither the groundbreaking West Side Story nor South Pacific, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1950 and is being revived in the spring with Kelli O'Hara, made the cut. But it's amazing to see how many of the shows I'd still put on the list and even more amazing to have the whole history of Broadway within such easy reach.

September 22, 2007

"Scarcity" is Inadequate

There was a time, back in the '80s and early '90s, when blue collar life was a pervasive theme in American popular culture. TV shows like "Roseanne," "Grace Under Fire" and "Roc" drew huge audiences. Bruce Springsteen and John Cougar Mellencamp topped the music charts with albums like "Born in the U.S.A." and "American Fool". And the fiction of writers like Russell Banks and Bobbie Ann Mason captivated both readers and filmmakers. But, with very few exceptions, poor people have all but disappeared from the cultural landscape in recent years. That's why I was so excited about seeing Scarcity, Lucy Thurber's new play at the Atlantic Theater Company. And it's also why I was so disappointed when I saw it.

Scarcity tells the story of two intellectually precocious youngsters growing up in a poor and seriously dysfunctional home in rural Massachusetts and details what happens when one of them has a chance to leave. The pathologies on display run from alcoholism to pedophilia. But little of it rings true. I'm not sure if that's the fault of a script that needed a couple of more drafts or a director who needed a clearer vision. But it isn't the acting. The cast boasts recognizable names and faces from TV (Kristen Johnson, who won two Emmys for her role in the sitcom "3rd Rock from the Sun", is the mom; and Michael T. Weiss, who played the lead in the cult adventure drama "The Pretender", is the dad) and the movies (Jesse Eisenberg, who made a splash in the indie film "The Squid and the Whale" is the son) but all of them are at home on stage. Especially Johnson who has a magnetic presence, the ability to glide from comedy to drama within just a few lines and one of the best voices in the business.

Eisenberg brings a restless energy to his role but I still felt he was miscast. The mother repeatedly refers to the son as her "beautiful boy." Eisenberg is good-looking but not beautiful. If he were, it might better explain why the son's female teacher seems sexually attracted to the boy. It might also have worked better if the teacher, referred to in the play as "ugly", had been played by an actor less pretty than Atlantic company member Maggie Kiley. Meredith Brandt, the young actor who is making her off-Broadway debut as the 11-year-old sister, does have some trouble projecting but her character is the emotional anchor of both the family and the play and she brings all the necessary weight to the role.

I went to the show with my friend Ellie, the former actress, who was more forgiving of the play than I was. But we ran into someone she knew —a frequent theatergoer seeing her second show of the week —who shrugged Scarcity off as just a "sitcom." I couldn't shrug it off. There are some 37 million people living in poverty in the U.S., almost 20% more than there were in 2000. Too many of the rest of us only see these people as the one-dimensional characters behaving badly on "The Jerry Springer Show". But as I watched Scarcity, I kept flashing on "Country Boys," the remarkable PBS documentary that followed three years in the lives of two boys growing up in poor rural homes like the one Scarcity purports to show. There were pathologies in the documentary (click here to learn more about it or, if you have a media player on your computer, to see it) but there was also an honesty and a respect for the complexities of these lives. Scarcity had a similar opportunity to portray these people who are too often dismissed as "white trash" (a term as odious as the n-word in my book) but it doesn't have enough true grit to show them as they really are.

September 19, 2007

iBroadway: Podcasts for Theater Lovers

You can tell if someone is a true wine geek by whether they have a special refrigerator for wine in their small New York City apartment. Serious movie geeks collect Criterion Collection DVDs the way Soviet bloc dissidents used to exchange samizdat literature—obsessively, possessively and with deep reverence. And now, I think to earn stripes as the geekiest of theater lovers there has to be at least one theater podcast on your iPod playlists. If you type the word "Broadway" into the iTunes search box, you get 124 choices. Not all of them have to do with the Broadway we love—for some reason, a few churches show up—but there are still plenty of options, from slick professional productions to painfully amateurish ones. Here are four of the best:

American Theater Wing’s Downstage Center. These recordings from the XM Satellite Radio show, most of them running about an hour, are like dispatches from an alternate universe where Charlie Rose interviews only theater people and doesn't hog the conversation so that you can actually hear what the guests have to say. The hosts, XM Program Director John Von Soosten and the Wing's Executive Director Howard Sherman, do their homework and actually ask the questions you want to know. Their recent guests have ranged from Xanadu's peppy Kerry Butler to Frost/Nixon's always-eloquent Frank Langella. Among my favorites are Actor Jeff Daniels on coming of age as an actor at Circle Rep and the Wall Street Journal critic (and my fellow blogger and friend) Terry Teachout on why he prefers blogs to newspaper reviews. New episodes are posted weekly but a whole year's worth of interviews are available on iTunes. But be careful because they're addictive.

Manhattan Theatre Club. I'm the kind of person who always heads straight for the audio tour desk at museums. And when I'm lucky enough to catch one, I also stay for the audience talks that off-Broadway theater companies sometimes give after performances. MTC has had the good sense to record theirs and upload them on iTunes. Unfortunately, their good sense seems to have run out when it came to hiring technical talent. Some of the podcasts wouldn't play on my new-model iPod and there are long stretches of silences on others when unmiked audience members get to ask questions. During one session, the moderator chided a questioner for asking an inappropriate question while the actors were on stage; what I wouldn't give to know what that question was. Hasn't anybody on the MTC crew heard of editing and splicing? Kvetching aside, this podcast is on my list because when you can hear what's going on, it's terrific. I wasn't a fan of last season's production of Brian Friel's Translations, primarily because the Irish brogues were so thick neither I nor my friend Bill could understand what the actors were saying and, after a while, gave up trying. But listening to the actors and a professor brought in to set the play in historical context made me wish I'd tried harder and eager to see another production. No new episodes have been posted since July but MTC has a great new season coming up (starting with Theresa Rebeck's eagerly anticipated Mauritius, which opens Oct. 4) and I'm hoping that will revive its podcast offerings.

Masterworks Broadway. Let me say right off the bat, that these podcasts are advertorials from Sony designed to lure you into purchasing the CDs of the artists featured. But that doesn't mean the interviews aren't good. Damn good in the case of the "Legends Series" which gets stage musical celestials like Angela Lansbury and Barbara Cook to reminisce about their careers, accompanied by tantalizing snippets of their show-stopping moments on original cast recordings. Lansbury packs more information and emotion into her 16 minute and 53 second session than a shelf full of liner notes could. The schedule for new entries is irregular, timed to the release of special recordings and boxed sets, but there are about 20 episodes now available, including four Legends. Whether you go, as instructed, to the Sony website and buy the albums is optional but downloading these gems shouldn't be. In some ways, this is my favorite podcast. And it's updated weekly. The theme is making a living on Broadway and journeymen actors James Chip Leonard and Roger Seyer put the spotlight on folks who don't normally get a chance to shine—swings who have to cover all the parts in the chorus, stagehands who move the sets, dressers who help the stars change their costumes and tend their secrets. They tell stories about what brought them to Broadway and what makes them stay. They all clearly love what they do and you end up loving them too.

But the best thing about these podcasts is that if you have an iPod or some other kind of MP3 player, the cost of admission to them is free. So click on, kick back and enjoy.

September 15, 2007

A Runaway Success for "Margaret Garner"

The last time I went to a musical written by a Nobel Prize laureate, it was a disaster. The show was The Capeman and the book and lyrics were co-written by the Caribbean poet and playwright Derek Walcott and the American singer-songwriter Paul Simon, who also composed the score. I loved the music for that show and I so wanted it to work but Walcott's lumpish book was a mess. So I was a little unsure of what I was letting myself in for when I went to see Margaret Garner, the opening production of the new season at the New York City Opera. The libretto and lyrics are by Toni Morrison, who won the Nobel in 1993, just one year after Walcott, and are a reworking of the real-life story she told in her novel "Beloved" about a slave woman who tried to run away and killed her young daughter when they were captured rather than have the child grow up in bondage. The music is by the Grammy Award-winning classical composer Richard Danielpour. To my surprise and delight, their opera is terrifically satisfying in almost every way.

I don't do it often but I love going to the opera, the founding mother of musical theater. Its lush emotions appeal to the theater romantic in me. And I'm crazy about all the rituals that go with attending. I like dressing up as dramatically as my wardrobe will allow, reading the erudite notes in the program, and taking out my opera glasses and peering around at the audience before the lights dim and the curtain rises. And, although I usually stay in my seat during intermissions when I go to the theater, I get a big kick out of going to the bar for a glass of champagne between acts at the opera and, when I'm at City Opera, taking a walk on the veranda of the New York State Theater if the weather permits as it did this past Friday night. But this time, the best treat was where it should have been—on the stage.

Morrison's "Beloved" was published 20 years ago this month and almost immediately entered the canon of great American novels and the reading lists of college and high school AP lit classes around the country. Earlier, this year when the New York Times Book Review surveyed a few hundred "prominent writers, critics, editors and other literary sages," "Beloved" was named "the single best work of American fiction published in the last 25 years." Now, Margaret Garner seems poised to become the first work centered around African-Americans to enter the repertory of the growing number of opera companies around the U.S. since the Houston Grand Opera's landmark production of George and Ira Gershwin's Porgy and Bess put it there in 1976.

Opera companies, eager to woo younger audiences, have been commissioning and presenting works on American subjects from John Adams and Alice Goodman's Nixon in China to Jake Heggie and Terrence McNally's Dead Man Walking. But many of those works were modernist, atonal and narrow in appeal. Danielpour's score which, mixes classical, gospel and even Broadway rhythms, is determinedly inclusive: accessibly melodic and dramatically involving. Some moments had me swooning with pleasure.

The mezzo-soprano Tracie Luck was lovely in the title role, both to hear and to look at. Soprano Lisa Daltirus was a crowd-pleaser as her forbearing mother-in-law Cilla. Baritone Timothy Mix handled well the difficult role of her villainous owner Edward Gaines. And baritone Gregg Baker was brilliant as Margaret’s husband Robert. His aria, "Go Cry Girl" in which Robert acknowledges that his wife has had to sleep with their master was the high point for me, hitting all the appropriate notes of anger, love, compassion and forgiving.

Morrison's libretto differs slightly from both her novel and the historical accounts of the Garner case, which was a cause célèbre before the Civil War, but the storytelling is clear and compelling and though the lyrics are simple, they still carry the imprint of Morrison's trademark lyricism. And Tazewell Thompson has directed the production with a spare but moving elegance. The choral numbers—split between the black slaves and the white slave owners—are particularly good. It's always wonderful to hear a full orchestra and it's lovely to be able to see them, although, given the theme of this opera, I was sad to note that there are no black players. (Click here to see a terrific New York Times video essay on the making of the show)

Margaret Garner was originally commissioned by Michigan Opera Theatre, Cincinnati Opera, and Opera Company of Philadelphia and had its world premiere at the Detroit Opera House in May 2005 with Denyce Graves singing the title role. City Opera's production plays only five more performances through Sept. 29. But I have a feeling that it will be back.

September 12, 2007

Nurturing the Theater Lovers of Tomorrow

P.S. 212, also known as Midtown West, is an elementary school that sits right on the edge of the Broadway theater district and the theater community has adopted it as its own. Some showbiz folks send their kids there. Others attend the school shows. And a few years ago when the first grade teachers, both big theater lovers, built an entire curriculum around putting on a play, Stephen Sondheim came in and gave the six-year olds a master class. I'm willing to bet those kids are going to grow up to be theater lovers.

Of course, only a few children are lucky enough to go to a school within walking distance of Times Square and that's why I was so delighted when The League of American Theatres and Producers announced the recipients of its 12th annual National Education Grants this week. Each year, the League gives $5,000 each to 10 regional presenters of touring Broadway shows across the U.S. to support programs that will get youngsters in their areas involved with theater. The kids get instruction in some aspect of putting on a show and they also get to see a touring production.

The winners this year include:
• a "Broadway Boot Camp" in Greenville, S.C. that will provide dance, music and theater classes for 50 kids recruited largely from nearby urban high schools and it will also treat them to a performance of My Fair Lady when its national touring company stops at the local performing arts center

•a behind the scenes technical training workshop for 40 youngsters in Indianapolis who will also catch a My Fair Lady performance when the show hits their town

•a course in Tempe, Arizona that will teach kids how complex social issues can be transformed into drama for the stage and then show them how well it can be done by taking them to a performance of the touring production of Twelve Angry Men.

Sure it's a self-interested investment. But who cares. Youngsters who might never have seen a professionally mounted play or a musical are going to be exposed to the magic of live theater. And I'm willing to bet that these kids will grow up to be theater lovers too.

September 8, 2007

An Eclectic Preview of Theater This Fall

The calendar may say that the year starts in January and officials who oversee the Tony Awards may try to persuade us that it begins in May but for me, unable to shake the ingrained habits of the school-year regimen and eager to see what the fall season will bring, it starts in September. I usually mark the occasion by buying as many Fall Previews as I can find, spreading them out on my bed, reading each one in minute detail and making obsessive notes on the shows that most intrigue me—not the ones I should see, or the ones that everyone else wants to see but just the ones that for some reason or another grab me. This year, I thought I'd share some of the choices on my wish list with you:

The Cherry Orchard and The Coffee Trees: The Resonance Ensemble is doing two versions of Chekhov's classic play in repertory. The new interpretation of The Cherry Orchard, adapted and directed by Eric Parnes, is set in the late 1940s in the American South. The Coffee Trees, by Arthur Giron, takes place on a Guatemalan coffee plantation following the country's 35-year civil war between communist rebels and conservative landowners. I don't know any of the actors involved but I like the idea of being able to compare how this universal story about the passing of a way of life will play out when filtered through these two different cultures. The shows are scheduled for a limited run at Theatre Row's Beckett Theatre from Sept. 28 thru Oct. 21.

Cymbeline: I have a love-hate thing going with Shakespeare. My earliest exposure to professional theater came from watching Joe Papp's truck productions in the local park when I was kid. I can still hear my mother and our neighbors asking one another, "You going to the Shakespeare tonight?" Over the years, I've seen as many boring productions of the Bard as I have good ones but I've never seen or even read Cymbeline and I don't know a thing about it, so I'm looking forward to discovering it. Plus the cast alone—Michael Cerveris, John Cullum, Martha Plimpton and Phylicia Rashad—is worth the price of the ticket. It is scheduled to run at Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theater from Nov. 1 to Jan. 6.

The Farnsworth Invention: Stage or screen biographies aren't my favorite form of entertainment but I've been fascinated by Philo Farnsworth, the inventor of the television, ever since I first heard about him. His idealistic battle over the role his invention should play in society is inherently dramatic and it doesn't hurt that it's been turned into a play by Aaron Sorkin, making his return to Broadway 18 years after first making his name there with A Few Good Men. The show stars newcomer (at least to me) Jimmi Simpson as Farnsworth and Hank Azaria as his nemesis RCA chief David Sarnoff. Des McAnuff, who had success bringing the story of the Four Seasons to the stage with Jersey Boys, is directing. It opens at the Music Box Theater on Nov. 14 and previews start on Oct. 15.

The Glorious Ones: To my surprise, this is the only musical on my list. It's not here because I read the Francine Prose novel on which it's based. Or even because I'm such a big fan of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty's musicals. It's that the show is about a troupe of 16th century commedia dell'arte actors. I spent a wonderful semester doing commedia when I was in college and I can't wait to get back into that world and to see what they do with it. The cast is lead by the always-entertaining Marc Kudisch and directed by Graciela Daniele, who I assume will be working hard to make up for last season's waterlogged The Pirate Queen. It is scheduled to run at Lincoln Center's Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater from Oct. 11 to Jan. 6.

Mauritius: I missed Theresa Rebeck's Pulitzer Prize-nominated Omnium Gatherum when it played a few seasons back so I'm curious to see her new play about two sisters battling over the legacy of a rare stamp collection. But what really landed this show on the list is its cast: Katie Finneran and Alison Pill (sensational in last season's Blackbird) as the sisters with the scene-stealing F. Murray Abraham, Dylan Baker, Bobby Cannavale as the dealers eager to get their hands on the collection. Doug Hughes, whose Doubt and Frozen I loved and whose Inherit the Wind and A Naked Girl On the Appian Way I didn’t, is directing. It is scheduled to run at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Biltmore Theater from Sept. 13 to Nov. 25.

Ohio State Murders: The African-American playwright Adrienne Kennedy has written a semi-biographical play about a black professor confronting racism at a university in the 1950s. It's the kind of fresh subject matter that we don't often get in the theater and it's starring Lisa Gay Hamilton, who amazes me each time I see her with how good she is. It opens for a very-limited run at The Duke on 42nd Street from Oct. 27 to Nov. 18.

Pygmalion: This is the fifth time that Shaw's classic has been revived on Broadway since it first production in 1914 with its original British star Mrs. Patrick Campbell as Eliza Doolittle; the last was 20 years ago with Peter O'Toole as Henry Higgins and Amanda Plummer as Eliza. I don't know how I missed that one but I'm almost as eager to see the Roundabout Theatre Company's new production with Jefferson Mays as the professor and Claire Danes, making her Broadway debut, as his Cockney Galatea. The extra treat for me is that Boyd Gaines, one of my favorite stage actors, is playing Colonel Pickering. David Grindley, who did such a brilliant job with last season’s revival of another early 20th century work, Journey's End, directs. It is scheduled to run at the American Airlines Theatre from Sept. 21 to Dec. 9.

Rock ‘n’ Roll: I know. I know. Everyone wants to see this one. Tom Stoppard's The Coast of Utopia trilogy was last season's highbrow hit, the London critics have raved about this new play and its top-shelf British cast lead by Brian Cox, Sinead Cusack, Rufus Sewell is coming to New York. But the subject matter—the travails of a Czech band during the two-decade long Soviet occupation of their country—is the draw for me. The ill-fated Prague Spring happened when I was in my teens and has always seemed the most romantic chapter in the Cold War. And the idea that art—in this case, rock music—can change the world is pure catnip for me. It is scheduled to run at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater from Oct. 19 to March 2.

Scarcity: Class is still something of a taboo subject in the U.S. and so I'm really curious about the Atlantic Theater Company's production of a new play by Lucy Thurber that tells the story of what happens when a wealthy benefactor tries to give a kid growing up in a poor family the chance to escape to a better school in another town. It is currently in previews at the Linda Gross Theater and is scheduled to run thru Oct. 14.

Yellow Face: David Henry Hwang has written a play about the controversy over the decision to cast Jonathan Pryce in the original Broadway production of Miss Saigon back in 1991 and the playwright has made himself the main character in this retelling. Hwang has spent most of the last few years writing books for Disney musicals like Aida and Tarzan but he is one of the most trenchant observers about the role race and ethnicity plays in American society and I'm curious to see if he's still got the chops that made his M. Butterfly such a standout 19 years ago. Also I just love backstage shows. It is scheduled to run at the Public Theater Nov. 19 thru Dec. 23.

And finally…
King Lear: I saved this for last because seeing
Ian McKellen in the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of Shakespeare’s grand tragedy is entirely a fantasy for me. I forgot to order tickets and now the entire run, which began last week and is playing through Sept. 30 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, is totally sold-out. I thought about posting a “ticket wanted” notice on craigslist but there are already a bunch of pathetic pleas there. And I thought about bidding for a ticket on eBay but the last pair went for $860, somewhat above my budget. So I’ll just have to read about this one.

These aren’t, of course, the only shows I want to see. I want to see everything. I'd also love to know what's on your list. And if you’re one of the lucky ones who gets to see King Lear, let me know what I’ve missed.

September 5, 2007

In Harmony With the "Opus" Quintet

There was a line of people waiting for cancellations inside the lobby at the 59E59 Theaters when my husband K and I arrived for the final performance of Primary Stages’ Opus. Outside, others waylaid ticket holders, asking if anyone had an extra ticket for the show. I was surprised by it all, thinking that most people would have been away for the Labor Day weekend. But maybe I shouldn't have been surprised. There hasn't been much new adult fare on New York stages this summer and Opus, playwright Michael Hollinger's backstage drama about the travails of a famous chamber music quartet in the eventful week before a White House performance, is definitely a play for grown-ups.

And the AARP-ready audience on Saturday night showed its appreciation. No one grumbled when the curtain was held for almost 15 minutes so that some of the lucky ticket seekers could be ushered to the few vacant seats. People laughed heartily at the jokes (particularly at the ones aimed at President Bush) and some of the most over zealous clapped at the end of each scene (except, interestingly, for one in which two of the men kissed). Opus isn't a masterwork but there was much to appreciate—James Kronzer's concert-hall like set was elegant; the music, even though recorded and just mimed by the actors, was lovely, although I would have liked to have heard more of it; and the cast was superb.

Casting a play is like cooking (another of my passions): if you get the right ingredients, you're more than three quarters of the way to a great meal. And as any halfway decent cook knows, just any old tomato won’t do. I had some problems with director Terrence J. Nolen's staging of Opus (the scene changes were a little clunky; some time shifts could have been made clearer) but the casting choices he and casting director Stephanie Klapper made were all right on-key.

I almost believed the actors really were the characters they were playing and had somehow just wandered on stage. David Beach was nicely officious as Elliot, the bossy leader of the group; Michael Laurence captured the unpredictable narcissism of Dorian, Elliot's lover and the most talented of the four; Richard Topol brought an intelligent wit to Alan, the quartet's literal second fiddle; and Douglas Rees embodied the appealing sturdiness of Carl, the cancer surviving cellist who is the anchor for the other three. But best of all was Mahira Kakkar, the lovely actress who played Grace, a young violist brought into replace Dorian when he mysteriously disappears; in her hands, Grace's endearing naïveté was leavened with just the right bite of the natural arrogance of someone who knows how superior her talent is.

Kakkar is talented too; I just hope that this young actress, a native of Kolkata, India, and the first Indian actor to graduated from Julliard, gets enough opportunities to show all that she can do. Hell, I hope to see all five of them again. Each one was pitch perfect in Opus and they played well together.

September 1, 2007

A Labor's Day Ovation for the Job of Acting

What actors do is alchemy of the highest order. They take a few printed words on a page, a dab of makeup and a few bits of clothing and transform themselves into completely different people. Using their emotions and imaginations, they transport us into other times, places and lives. We in the audience are not supposed to see the effort they put into any of this, and with the best of them we never do. So it's small wonder that we theater lovers so rarely think of acting as a job. But that, of course, is what it is and despite all the stories we read about the tens of millions some movie stars are paid or even the hundreds of thousands a few rare stage stars have made (hello, Nathan and Matthew), it's not a particularly high paying one for most of the folks who do it. The median salary for an actor is under $30,000 a year. So, with Labor Day coming on Monday, I want to recommend the excellent piece on five journeymen actors that ran in the New York Times last Sunday (click here to read it). The actors writer Campbell Robertson profiles range in age from 34 to 67 and have a combined 121 years in the business. They have all been hailed for their work and they are all struggling to pay the rent and put food on their tables.

None of these folks are well known but the worry and insecurities they confess are also familiar to more famous actors, as Frank Langella wrote in a 1989 essay that is one of the most moving things I've ever read on the actor's life. "Married, single, divorced, rich, broke, breaking in or holding on, the morning after Oscar, Tony or Emmy, or struggling along without recognition; whether we are newcomers, superstars, an enduring light, a flash in the pan, a has-been or a comeback king, from low self-esteem to insufferable arrogance—we are the seesaw kids," he says in one part. And for most actors the exhilarating swoop up into the air is short-lived, while the butt-scraping time on the ground is the norm.

There's been a lot of debate recently over whether the audience should applaud when a recognized actor makes his or her entrance on stage. Critics of the practice say it's disruptive to the flow of the play and that just as concertgoers hold their applause between movements so as not to ruin the mood the composer has set and instead give their ovations at the end of a piece, theater audiences should wait until the curtain falls (or in the case of a musical, a song ends) to show their appreciation. I haven't made up my mind how I feel about that but no matter how I feel about a play or production I've seen, I always clap as loudly as I can at the end when the actors appear for their curtain call. All of us—actors included—like to think of acting as a calling. It certainly demands devotion and craftsmanship. And it can be inspirational. But it is also work, very hard work. And on this Labor Day weekend, the theater lover in me wants to take some time out to applaud all the sweat that they almost never let us see.