October 31, 2007

Dancin’… But With Wade Robson

Word came earlier this month that a revival of Dancin', the Bob Fosse revue that opened in 1978, is coming to Broadway in the spring of 2009, following a run in Toronto. I'm crazy about Fosse's work but I'm also conflicted about this new production. The original ran for four years. Then in 1999, a posthumous tribute revue—Fosse—opened and ran for 18 months. And, of course, the now-and-forever revival of Fosse's Chicago is in its 11th year. So do we really need another Fosse fest? I imagine the producers want to trade in on the new surge of interest in dance generated by TV shows like "So You Think You Can Dance," "Dancing with the Stars" and "High School Musical." But if that's the case, why not go to some of the young choreographers who are helping to make those shows so popular? Why not draft Wade Robson to do a Broadway show?

Robson is a 25 year-old Australian who has been dancing professionally since he was five. He's earned his pop cultural street cred by having danced with Michael Jackson as a kid (in fact, he was one of the boys questioned about sharing a bed with Jackson during the Gloved One's pedophilia trial), dated Britney Spears (it's rumored that he broke up the pop singer's relationship with Justin Timberlake) and hosted "The Wade Robson Project," a hip-hop dance competition show on MTV. He's directed a bunch of music videos and even markets his own line of hip dance shoes. None of this would matter if it weren't for the fact that he's such a terrifically exciting dancemaker.

You might not think so if you only see his early work which borrows heavily from Jackson's "Thriller"-era moves and the booty-shaking gyrations of most music videos. But in the last couple of years, Robson has found his own movement vocabulary, one almost as distinctive as Fosse's: you can tell a Robson dance after the first few moves. One of the numbers he created for "So You Think You Can Dance" won an Emmy last month (click here to see it). And a couple of weeks ago he performed a splashy cameo on "Dancing With the Stars" that mixed contemporary hip hop sensibility with old school showmanship. I would have been happy to see it on a Broadway stage.

From Agnes de Mille and Jerome Robbins to Bob Fosse and Michael Bennett, choreographers have helped to make the Broadway musical the great art form that is. Dancing fell out of favor during the reign of the British megamusicals in the 1980s but Savion Glover's Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk, Twyla Tharp's Movin' Out and Susan Stroman's Contact were the most viscerally enjoyable shows of the last 10 years. One of the things that helped make Spring Awakening so special for me was Bill T. Jones' dynamic choreography for which he deservedly won a Tony. Broadway needs more of that kind of kinetic energy and innovation. Wade Robson just might bring it, and he might even bring along some new fans too.

October 27, 2007

"A Bronx Tale" Well Told

In the tortoise and the hare nostalgia derby between the 1950s and the 1960s, the '50s is pulling ahead. At least on Broadway. Memories of the '60s may be flashier but for the past two years, Jersey Boys has been packing in audiences willing to pay up to $350 for a premium ticket to relive the behind-the-music story of the hit '50s group The Four Seasons. Grease, despite so-so reviews, is playing to nearly full houses of people joyously cheering on Danny, Sandy and the rest of the ducktailed and bobby-soxed gang at Rydell High. And now comes A Bronx Tale, Chazz Palminteri’s one-man memory play about growing up under the dual protection, and competing loyalties, of his bus driver father and a local Mafiosi in the outer-borough neighborhood made famous by another boy group, Dion and the Belmonts. To my great surprise, A Bronx Tale turns out to be my favorite.

I say surprise because one-man shows can be tricky. I knew better than to even mention seeing this one to my husband K, who is unabashedly biased against them. My frequent theatergoing buddy Bill agreed to go with me but I wasn't so excited about seeing A Bronx Tale myself. I had seen, and liked well enough, the 1993 movie starring Robert De Niro as the dad and Palminteri as the mobster but I hadn't seen the off-Broadway stage production when it played in 1989 and I couldn't imagine how Palminteri was going to reduce the movie’s 20-plus characters to a cast of one. The answer: with an engaging vivacity that fills the stage.

Palminteri is a gifted raconteur and he switches from character to character with the natural ease of everyone's favorite storyteller at the family reunion confident that he can make his listeners enjoy his tale as much as he does. And he gets just the right amount of support from Jerry Zak's subtle direction and James Noone’s simple but evocative set. The show reminded me at times of Billy Crystal's one-man memoir about his boyhood covering roughly the same time period. During both shows, I could almost hear the audience purring with pleasure. Which made me think about why we've fallen so under the spell of a decade once considered uptight and colorless when compared to the Technicolor pyrotechnics of the next one.

In recent years works like Phillip Roth's "American Pastoral" and Twyla Tharp's Movin' Out have cast a rueful eye on the turbulence of the post-Kennedy assassination era of the1960s and that seems to have deepened our affection for the tortoise-like calm of the earlier decade. We know that the fifties weren't as placid as we now fantasize—there was McCarthyism and racial segregation and blatant sexism and homophobia—but we find some undefined comfort in thinking of it as an idyllic time. A Bronx Tale profits from that longing for the innocence and ignorance of our childhood years. Sure, the jokes are old-fashioned and the storyline familiar but in Palminteri's hands, it's a tale well told and one that I was happy to listen to.

October 24, 2007

Underwhelmed by "The Overwhelming"

Africa is hot. And I'm not talking about its climate. Movies like "The Last King of Scotland," "Blood Diamond" and "Hotel Rwanda" take gimlet-eyed looks at the continent and end up multi-Oscar nominees. Books like Ishmael Beah's memoir "A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier," and Russell Bank's "The Darling," a novel that deals with the 1980 coup in Liberia, land on the bestsellers' list. Bono and George Clooney speak out for the poorest and most war-ravaged in Africa. Angelina Jolie and Madonna take in African children. And now New York theater is taking up the cause.

In August, Tings Dey Happen, Dan Hoyle's one-man show about oil politics in Nigeria, opened at the Culture Project. This week, The Overwhelming, J.T. Rogers' musings about genocide in Rwanda, opened at the Roundabout Theatre Company's Laura Pels Theatre. What all of these stories, with the exception of "Hotel Rwanda" and "A Long Way Gone," have in common is that their tales are told from the perspective of white protagonists, as though the people who are offering them don't trust that their audiences will be sufficiently interested in people who are foreign and black.

Still, I had been looking forward to seeing The Overwhelming and I was excited about seeing it with my friend Lisa who has been studying conflict resolution in war-torn regions and has even traveled to Ethiopia to work with young people there. Lisa, a former Hollywood exec who started off in the theater, was also excited about the fact that Max Stafford-Clark, who has worked with such politically savvy British playwrights as David Hare and Caryl Churchill, was directing the show. But Americans, it seems, aren't as adept at putting politics on stage. Both Lisa and I were disappointed. While it's clear Rogers is well meaning, this production comes across as more didactic than dramatic and Stafford-Clark's spell-it-out-for-the-yanks direction doesn't help.

It wasn't always thus. Lillian Hellman wrote Watch on the Rhine in 1940 to urge Americans to get into the war in Europe and it played for a respectable 378 performances ("Miss Hellman has brought the awful truth close to home," Brooks Atkinson wrote in his New York Times review. "She has translated the death struggle behind ideas in familiar terms we are bound to respect and understand"). It later got made into a Bette Davis movie. When Arthur Miller's The Crucible opened in 1953, everyone knew it was more an allegory about McCarthyism than a history about the Salem witch trials (Said Atkinson, "Since The Crucible is a play about bigotry, it has certain current significance….But Mr. Miller is not delivering a polemic"). It ran for only 197 performances but has been revived on Broadway four times and made into two TV movies and a feature film.

The problem with this production of The Overwhelming is that it conveys no real urgency or passion. Rogers tries to sidestep the white protagonist problem by making his central character a white American political science professor married to an African-American writer. But as played by Sam Robards (son of Jason Robards and Lauren Bacall), the professor is the least interesting person on stage and the way Linda Powell (daughter of Colin Powell) plays his wife, she comes across as silly and annoying. Neither is believable. The African characters are ciphers too. The most intriguing character is the professor's son, genuinely interested in the people he encounters in Africa, openly confused by their situation and sensitively played by Michael Stahl-David. I wish the play had been about him.

Some people left during the intermission, including the sister of a colleague from work I ran into, both of them theater junkies —but exacting ones. Lisa and I stayed. Afterwards, we walked over to the Algonquin Hotel and tried to analyze our discontent over a drink in its cozy sitting-room bar. As we talked, we remembered that the play had been a hit when it was produced in London last year. Which suggests that the fault in this iteration may not be entirely Rogers'. But then, the Brits, unlike their American cousins, don't shy away from the inherent messiness of really wrestling with political theater.

October 20, 2007

Outside the Comfort Zone With "Krum"

It's only a slight exaggeration to say that there are two kinds of theater lovers in New York: uptown theater people who prefer Broadway shows and those produced by established off-Broadway companies like the Manhattan Theater Club, Lincoln Center Theater, Playwrights Horizons and the Roundabout Theatre Company; and downtown theater people whose tastes run towards The Wooster Group, La MaMa and the Next Wave festival at BAM. In this cultural cold war, the Public Theater is the old Berlin, claimed by both. At one time, I shuttled back and forth but in recent years, I've been primarily an uptown gal. So, I had reservations when my friend Lesley emailed to invite me to see Krum, a nearly three-hour experimental work co-produced by TR Warszawa and Cracow's Stary Teatr and performed entirely in Polish. "Well that's not usually my kind of thing," I typed back. "I think it's good for us to keep up with what the Europeans are doing," replied Lesley, who is a visual artist, a BAM subscriber and someone I've known since high school when her mom, who was Colleen Dewhurst's roommate in drama school, directed us in school plays. So on Friday night, I tiptoed outside my comfort zone and met Lesley at the BAM Harvey Theater to see the third of Krum's four performances.

As the ushers checked our tickets, they told us the show was scheduled to run for 2 hours and 45 minutes and that there would be no intermission. Lesley darted off for the ladies' room; I braced myself for an even longer than expected evening. But to my surprise, after I got used to reading the subtitles projected on a big screen hanging over the stage, I found the show strangely compelling. The play, written in 1975 by the Israeli playwright Hanoch Levin, tells the story of Krum, a man who returns to his home country after an unsuccessful attempt to make good in the U.S. and then tries to pick up life with his old and equally disillusioned friends. That sounds simple but director Krzysztof Warlikowski's production is a cavalcade of theatricality. There are film and video projections, dance numbers, and audience participation segments. At one point, I thought "They've got everything in here but juggling" and a minute later, someone started to juggle a ball. The tone runs from farce to melodrama, with large does of existential angst throughout. The acting is terrific; the smart lighting, almost a character in itself, appealed to Lesley’s artistic eye; and I'm having trouble getting the Europop sound score out of my head. The whole thing reminded me of a 3-D version of a Pedro Almodóvar movie. I didn't understand all of it but I was constantly engaged. (Click here to see some excerpts.)

Seeing the show was a reminder that it can be good to get outside one's comfort zone. It was also yet another reminder of how small a comfort zone there is for the arts in this country. My Krum playbill keeps flipping open to an ad from Altria, the company that has been the primary sponsor of the Next Wave Festival for all of its 25-year existence. But, as the New York Times reported last week, Altria, the alias adopted by the old Philip Morris Companies, is moving its corporate headquarters out of New York and taking its arts funding with it (click here to read the article.) It’s been no secret that the company has used its patronage to temper its bad image as a purveyor of cigarettes, a tactic used by other unpopular corporate bad guys like oil companies and liquor distillers. And there’s been much debate about whether arts groups should take the dirty money. Now, that issue is moot, unless arms dealers, HMOs or Blackwater USA are looking to polish up their reputations. If not, it'll be up to the rest of us who care about art for arts sake to put up by buying tickets and making out-of-our-comfort-zone contributions or some arts organizations around the city, particularly the small theaters that often nurture the most innovative ideas, may have to shut up.

October 17, 2007

A King's Ransom

Besides the looming stagehands' strike, the hottest topic in theater circles over the past few months has been the $450 that Mel Brooks and his co-producer have decided to charge for premium tickets to see Young Frankenstein. My fellow bloggers Steve on Broadway and Everything I Know I Learned From Musicals were among the first to rail against it. Last month, John Heilpern wrote a witty and trenchant jeremiad in The New York Observer (click here to read it). And just about everybody else who has anything to do with theater has also had something to say about it. Everybody except me. Until now.

I'm not sure what’s taken me so long. Part of it I suppose is that I felt that it's Brooks' show and he has the right to charge whatever he wants and if people feel it's too much, they just won’t go see it. And, of course, I know that not all of the tickets are priced that high. But I still couldn't get that $450 figure out of my head and watching John Heilpern denounce it on Theater Talk this past weekend got me thinking about it even harder. And the more I thought about it, the sadder I got. It's not so much the money that bothers me, although (1) it's a lot of money, (2) it's inevitable that other producers will start charging equally ridiculous prices for their "premium" seats and (3) it means that eventually all seats, even the "cheap" ones, will become more expensive. It's the message that depresses me. The mere existence of a $450 ticket, over four times the cost of the already expensive average price of seeing a musical, says, and says loudly, that Broadway is only for rich people—trust fund babies, hedge fund honchos and other fat cats.

And it's part of an alarming trend that is turning the cultural world of New York into a gated community. As a kid, poor but culture-crazed, I used to stroll into the Met or MOMA on Sunday afternoons and wander their corridors without paying a cent. Those museums now say that you only have to pay what you wish but the big signs over their ticket booths say you should pay $20 and I can't imagine my younger self daring to walk by them. During one spring college break back in the '70s, I saw seven Broadway shows for $100 bucks. If the price of a single ticket back then had been $100, I wouldn't even have thought of going to one show. And that's the problem. Those of us who love theater want everyone, maybe especially poor theater-crazed kids, to think of theater and art and music as something that is for them.

Broadway folks work hard and they deserve to be paid for it. (Hey, I'm the wife of a pit musician so I'm definitely for people getting paid.) But it's also hard to find a less money-conscious group of people than Broadway folk, always performing free for this benefit or that cause, always taking jobs for the love of the work and not the size of the paycheck, always caring about Broadway. And that may be what makes me saddest about that $450 ticket. In his column last week, New York Post columnist Michael Riedel wrote about how Brooks had resigned from the Dramatists Guild rather than pay the 3% of his royalties that all members are assessed (click here to read it). When Brooks brought The Producers to Broadway in 2001, he was hailed as its savior, someone who was leading the musical comedy into a new golden era, who was, as a lyric from the show put it, The King of Old Broadway. As my grandma used to say, you've got to be careful what you wish for.

October 13, 2007

Reminiscing with "The Ritz"

I moved from New York to San Francisco in 1975, the same week that the original production of The Ritz opened on Broadway. It was a wild and wonderful time to be in that city, particularly if you were a young gay man (which I was not) or had friends who were (which I did). Legions of guys in plaid shirts and tight jeans (and fellow travelers like me) roamed the Castro district and danced and hooked up at bars and discos into the wee hours of every night. Many offices throughout the city actually closed early on Halloween so that employees could get ready for the night's big gay parade; one of my most vivid memories is of watching a guy dressed as a bag of McDonald’s french fries, Styrofoam fries stitched to his shoulder pads and a little red beret on his head serving as the ketchup, rollerblade down my block on his way to the staging area. In my memories, it was a sweet and innocent time.

1975 was also just the right moment—post-Stonewall and pre-AIDS—for a farce about a gay bathhouse to strut its stuff on Broadway and find a wide audience—recently liberated gays and increasingly liberal-minded straights—to revel in its good-hearted lunacy. Eight years later, a 1983 revival, opening in the darkest days of the crisis, closed after just one night. But on Thursday night a new Roundabout revival opened, appropriately, at Studio 54, and, with AIDS now a treatable disease, the timing seems right—even if just for the sake of nostalgia.

Director Joe Mantello's new production isn't perfect—nostalgia seldom is—but it's still good fun. The plot, if you don't know it, revolves around a straight nebbish who, fleeing from the mob-connected brother-in-law who wants to kill him, hides out in what he thinks is a Jack LaLanne-style health club but is actually a gay bathhouse called The Ritz. There he runs into a variety of gay archetypes and a ditzy Latina chanteuse named Googie Gomez, who is looking for her big break in show biz despite her small talent. Misunderstandings, misidentifications, and general hysteria ensue.

Brooks Ashmanskas is warm and funny as Chris, the queeniest of the Ritz patrons, a role originally created by—of all people—F. Murray Abraham, now playing a macho tough-guy in Mauritius. Rosie Perez steps into the high heels of Rita Moreno, for whom Terrence McNally wrote the role of Googie, and proves herself an equally delightful comedienne. Only Kevin Chamberlin disappoints, not quite able to capture the bewilderment and pathos that Jack Weston brought to the role of the nebbish, both on stage and in the 1976 movie, and not fulfilling his promise as the heir apparent to Zero Mostel and Nathan Lane as Broadway’s next great fat funnyman.

But looking at Scott Pask's witty set and listening to the savvy "soundtrack" that musical director Seth Rudetsky and sound designer Tony Meola put together transported me back to that sweet time 30 years ago, including my one pre-San Francisco visit to the Continental Baths to attend a performance by Morgana King, the jazz singer who also played Marlon Brando's wife in "The Godfather." During the Ritz intermission, my friend Ann and I traded stories about our disco days and we laughed at the antics on stage. But watching the show also reminded me of the scores of talented young gay men that Broadway lost to AIDS in the years that would come after. Not just the big names like Michael Bennett and Howard Ashman, but those whose names we never got to know, whose shows we never got to see.

October 10, 2007

"Dividing The Estate" is Wholly Entertaining

If Leo Tolstoy were alive today and going to theater in New York this season, he might rethink his famous edict that "every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." I don't know if it's a reflection of the shaky stock market or the fact that the parents of baby boomers are dying but in play after play over the past few weeks, families have been unhappy about one thing: their patrimony. There are the sisters squabbling over the rare stamps their mother left behind in Mauritius. And there are the Russian aristocrats in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard and the coffee-growing clan in The Coffee Trees, Arthur Giron's Guatemala-based homage to Chekhov, all lamenting the fates of their once-grand legacies in the Resonance Ensemble productions currently playing in repertory at the Beckett Theatre. But, without a doubt, the best of these battling broods are the Gordons in Horton Foote's thoroughly entertaining Dividing the Estate.

Part of what makes the misery of the Gordons such a delight is the show's impeccable cast. Elizabeth Ashley, scarcely older than the actors who play her children, makes a marvelous matriarch and underplays her trademark smoldering sensuality just enough to make you realize what a vital force this woman was, and is. Hallie Foote, the playwright's daughter and renowned as one of his best interpreters, is a hoot as the youngest and greediest of the three adult children, all dependent on handouts from their cash-poor but land-rich mother. Gerald McRaney, best known for his work in several TV series, is totally comfortable on stage and totally believable as the middle-aged ne'er do well who as the only son will always be the apple of his doting mama's eye. And Arthur French as the family's ancient servant was so laugh-out-loud funny that my husband K started chuckling each time he just walked on stage.

But as wonderful as the performances are, it is the rich verisimilitude of the characters and the well crafted play in which they exist that make the evening at Primary Stages' 59E59 Theater such an enjoyable one. Horton Foote, now 91, had his first full-length play produced in 1941, was one of the founding fathers of TV drama in the Golden Age of Television in the '50s, and had his first hit screenplay, the Oscar-winning adaptation of "To Kill a Mockingbird," in 1962. Over the years he has won a Pulitzer Prize, two Academy Awards, a couple of Emmys and the National Medal of Arts. So it would be ridiculous to call him unsung as a writer. And yet, I confess that until the last few years, his name only rang a vague bell with me. But it wasn't just me. Foote has written some 60 plays over his career and only five of them have been produced on Broadway; the longest run was the 10 weeks for the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Young Man From Atlanta back in 1997. The Signature Theatre Company offered some recompense when it dedicated its 2005-2006 season to his work but, of course, that happened when he was 90.

I don't know why more attention has not been properly paid to Foote here in the capital of the theater world. Maybe we city folks just don't appreciate that so much of his work has revolved around the fictional Texas town of Harrison (the stand-in for the small town where he grew up). Or maybe it's that we like our playwrights to be as dramatic offstage as on—like Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Lillian Hellman and William Inge— while Foote stayed married to the same woman for nearly 50 years and kept his politics largely to himself. Whatever the reason, this production, which is scheduled to play just until Oct. 27, is reason alone to show me the error of my ways.

Foote was in the audience the night my husband K and I saw Dividing the Estate. Sitting ramrod straight in a seat at the back of the theater, nodding graciously to audience members who, recognizing him, went over to shake his hand and say a few words of thanks. Maybe Tolstoy had it right after all. One way to distinguish an unhappy family is to do what Foote does: treat it with love and respect.

October 6, 2007

"Mauritius" and Women on Broadway

Let me get this part out of the way first: Mauritius didn't work for me.

The chance to see its cast—F. Murray Abraham, Bobby Cannavale, Dylan Baker, Katie Finneran and ingénue-of-the-moment Alison Pill—would have been enough to get me into the Biltmore Theatre. But this time, it was the play itself that was the main lure. For it is the eagerly awaited Broadway debut of playwright Theresa Rebeck, a writer and producer of TV shows like "NYPD Blue" and "Law and Order: Criminal Intent," who over the past decade has laid siege to the stage with a barrage of works that includes Bad Dates, The Scene, The Water's Edge and the Pulitzer-Prize finalist Omnium Gatherum (which she co-wrote with Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros).

Somehow, I didn't see any of them. But I heard enough about them to make me sorry that I hadn't and determined not to miss this one. Mauritius tells a Mamet-like tale about the shady dealings and double-dealings surrounding a rare stamp collection haggled over by two half-sisters and lusted after by a trio of unscrupulous dealers and collectors. The title comes from the island in the Indian Ocean that is the provenance of a pair of exceedingly rare and lucrative stamps. The premise isn't bad and I actually enjoyed learning all the philatelic lore that Rebeck sprinkled throughout the text. But what she didn't do was fully develop the characters, create a plausible plot or make a point that would stick with you longer than it takes to walk to the corner after the show lets out.

This doesn't mean there aren't entertaining moments. The dialogue is often witty; the talented cast brings energy to the piece, particularly the ingratiating Cannavale; and John Lee Beatty's transforming set is almost a show by itself. And it also doesn't mean that I won't be just as eager to see what Rebeck does next. If someone who has done so well in the big-money world of Hollywood is dedicated enough to keep writing for the stage, then it's almost my duty to support her. Besides, as the New York Times has noted repeatedly, Mauritius is the only play by a woman on Broadway this season. And that's a shame. It would be a bigger one if this stumble kept Rebeck or her sister playwrights from getting a larger toehold on the Great White Way. For as quiet as it's kept, Broadway—particularly behind the scenes—remains largely a boy's club.

Over the years, it's been rare for more than one or two women at a time to be invited into the playhouse. Susan Glaspell was the go-to-gal in the 1920s and '30s. Lillian Hellman settled in during the '40s and '50s. Wendy Wasserstein held the spot from the late '80s until her premature death last year.
There were always other women writing and a few—Clare Boothe Luce, Mary Chase, Jean Kerr, Lorraine Hansberry, Beth Henley, Marsha Norman—were produced on Broadway. But most have had to do their thing in the more open-air playgrounds of off-Broadway and regional theater. It's telling that Caryl Churchill's 1982 classic Top Girls will only make its Broadway debut next spring. I know it's been hard for any playwright to get a Broadway production in recent years but you'd think that someone would have given Paula Vogel, Lynn Nottage and Rebecca Gilman a shot by now.

After the show, my husband K and I walked over to Joe Allen, one of our favorite theater hangouts. We had our usual—the chicken sandwich for him, the meatloaf on sourdough for me—and, as always, talked about the posters of famous Broadway flops that decorate its wall. Mauritius won’t end up there. But it wouldn't bother me to see a few more works by women on that wall. After all, sometimes even the best players strike out but at least they got into the game.

October 3, 2007

In Memoriam: George Grizzard

My friend George Grizzard died yesterday. He was a sublime actor. He did movies and TV but never lost his love for the stage, particularly the Edward Albee roles for which he is best known. He was also a lovely man who told great stories and packed more affection into the world “darling” than anyone I've ever known. (Click here to read his full obituary in the New York Times). The world has too few of George’s kind and his passing makes me very sad. He was the partner for nearly 40 years of my theater-going buddy and sometime guest blogger Bill. And my heart particularly aches for him.