January 30, 2008

Losing My Head Over "Sweeney Todd"

The Oscar nominations were announced last week and despite winning the Golden Globe award for Best Musical or Comedy, Tim Burton’s film version of Sweeney Todd didn’t make the cut as one of the five nominees for Best Movie. Johnny Depp, however, did get a Best Actor nod for his portrayal of Sweeney.

There was so much to do over the holidays and so many stage shows to see, that I only recently caught up with the film even though Sweeney Todd is my all-time favorite musical. And now having seen it, I think the Oscar folks got it right. Depp’s characteristically idiosyncratic intensity is a perfect match for Sweeney and deserves to be r
ecognized. But while Burton’s trademark creepy aesthetic also fits the show’s macabre subject matter, it lacks the humor that stage versions have used to leaven the horror of a vengeful man who slits people’s throats and an opportunistic woman who bakes their remains into savory meat pies. It’s a good, even spellbinding, movie. But it has been a great, truly sublime, show.

In fact, the best time I ever had in the theater was back in 1979 when I saw the original production just before Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury, as Sweeney
and his cheerfully ghoulish companion Mrs. Lovett, were about to leave the cast. I had never seen or heard a show like it before. And I have never since felt anything like the almost sexual energy that coursed through the entire theater that night. The actors apparently felt it too and began channeling the emotion into their performance. That electrified the audience and its excitement seemed to goad the cast on to even greater intensity. Near frenzy mounted on both sides of the stage lights as the evening went on. I don't know if this happened at every performance but when the final note of “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd,” the song that begins and ends the show, was sung that night, the cast, visibly dripping with sweat, broke into applause for the audience and, at that same moment, the entire audience leapt to its feet and literally roared its gratitude. I was enraptured. And I have remained so about what is certainly Stephen Sondheim’s masterpiece.

When The Kennedy Center presented its Sondheim Celebration in 2002, my husband K and I jumped on the Metroliner and went down to Washington for a weekend-long orgy of thre
e of the Celebration’s six shows. Sondheim happened to be sitting in the same car, right across from us, and K, a pit musician who has played several Sondheim shows, went over and and said hello and they chatted briefly about the Kennedy Center festival. Sondheim said it was going well. That proved to be a total understatement. We saw Company, Merrily We Roll Along and, of course, Sweeney Todd and we had a magnificent time. Brian Stokes Mitchell made a powerful Sweeney and Christine Baranski was terrifically amusing and even touching as Mrs. Lovett. It was a wonderful production and I hoped it would come to New York so that I could see it again. Instead, in 2005, we got the John Doyle production with Michael Cerveris and Patti LuPone and a tiny cast of eight other actors, who also doubled as the orchestra. The Doyle production was widely praised for its innovative approach but although I liked Cerveris and LuPone, I missed the sound of a real orchestra and a full-throated chorus.

The movie cuts some of the songs but the music that remains is full-strength (Sondheim’s frequent Broadway collaborators Jonathan Tunick did the orchestrations and Paul Gemignani conducted the orchestra) but while Depp and Helena Bonham Carter as Mrs. Lovett are terrific actors, they are only so-so singers. So I was delighted when I discovered that the Masterworks Broadway series had released a digitally re-mastered 2-disc set of the 1979 original cast album. It’s done up with over a dozen photos from that production, liner notes that include recollections from Victor Garber who played the young sailor Anthony who befriends Sweeney and later falls in love with his daughter Johanna, and two bonus tracks from the one-night Sondheim celebration at Carnegie Hall in 1992 (click here to learn more about it). It’s the kind of stuff that theater geeks love. But you don’t have to be a geek to love this CD. For the music is thrilling, amusing, intoxicating and damn near addictive. I haven’t been able to stop listening to it since the CD arrived four days ago. Even when I unplug my iPod, I can’t get the songs out of my head. Nor do I really want to.

And so although, there are new shows I’ve seen—a nice revival of Lisa Kron’s 2.5 Minute Ride at Altered Stages, a disappointing retelling of The Trojan Women by the Classical Theatre of Harlem —and that I should be writing about, I simply had to share the passion that this theater lover has for Sweeney Todd with those of you who love theater too.

January 26, 2008

"Come Back, Little Sheba's" Blind Spot

Casting can make or break a show. And back in 1950, nearly everyone agreed that the casting was the best thing about Come Back, Little Sheba, William Inge’s drama about the unhappy marriage between Lola, a childish woman, and her alcoholic husband Doc. The play, Inge’s second and his first to make it to Broadway, was admired for taking on then-taboo subjects like premarital sex, domestic violence and substance abuse. But it also exhibited all the shortcomings of a novice playwright—heavy handed metaphors, long expository speeches and narrative-turning coincidences. “Come Back, Little Sheba for all the true and touching things it has to say is on the whole much less satisfactory than it ought to be,” wrote the New Yorker critic Wolcott Gibbs. But both the critics and the public loved the shattering performances Shirley Booth and Sidney Blackmer gave as the mismatched couple. Both actors won Tonys and Booth went on to win an Oscar for the movie adaptation.

The casting is also what makes the Manhattan Theatre Club’s new revival of Come Back, Little Sheba stand out. Although, alas, not as much as it could have. The play’s symbolism is still obvious, its speeches, particularly in the slow-moving first half, are still too explanatory and nowadays, the subjects it explores aren’t new territory but well-trod ground. The result is that the show comes off as dated. Still, several critics including Ben Brantley in the New York Times and Terry Teachout in the Wall Street Journal have praised the production (click here to see a brief excerpt). But the public response seems less favorable. “I can’t stay awake,” a woman sitting behind my husband K and me confided to her husband during intermission. “They said this was going to be good and fresh but it wasn’t,” a man walking out of the theater in front of us griped to his friends. "It felt like homework," a friend told me the next day.

K and I were disappointed by the old-timey quality too. But what is fresh about the new production is its colorblind casting. S. Epatha Merkerson, who is black and best known for her 14-year run as the tough lieutenant on TV’s “Law & Order,” plays Lola; and the stage stalwart Kevin Anderson, who is white, plays Doc. Merkerson, an expert actor who usually plays strong women, works hard to portray the fragile Lola and almost pulls it off. Anderson doesn’t quite get all of Doc’s sadness but nails his anger. They might have been even more successful if director Michael Pressman had seized the opportunity to explore the tensions that the actors' racial differences would bring to a marriage like Lola and Doc’s. There are one or two nods in that direction. The one person Lola feels she can call for help in an emergency is played by Keith Randolph Smith, the only other black member of the cast. But without changing a word of the play, Pressman might have delved deeper, pushed his actors further and come up with a reinvigorating subtext for a play that never seems to have had one.
Instead, while there are some affecting moments, the evening was, at least for me, largely colorless.

Colorblind casting is great when it opens up opportunities for actors to play parts they might not have been considered for in an earlier time. But it shouldn’t mean that directors and actors are blind to the different shadings that race can bring to those roles. In April, Morgan Freeman and Frances McDormand are scheduled to star as another unhappy couple in the Mike Nichols-directed revival of Clifford Odet’s The Country Girl. Unlike Sheba, which maintained its original 1950s setting, the new production of Country Girl is reported to be set in the present. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that it will also use the incredibly wonderful casting of Freeman and McDormand to explore contemporary attitudes on race.

January 23, 2008

Hear, hear cheers for "Speech and Debate"

Everyone is always talking about the need to get younger people to see more theater. But the folks at the Roundabout Theatre Company have clearly decided to do something about it. Last fall, they introduced Access Roundabout, an audience development program that sets aside about 2,000 tickets for people between the ages of 18 and 35 at just $20 each, and $10 seats for all first preview performances.

But cheap seats work best when there’s something on stage that people really want to see. The Roundabout has an answer for that too: Roundabout Underground, a new series that showcases the works of young playwrights in full-scale productions in the company’s new 60-seat Black Box Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, located in the basement of the Laura Pels Theatre on West 46th Street. Now, the Roundabout’s next challenge will be to find plays equal to the black box’s inaugural production, Speech & Debate, a sassy comedy about free speech, online privacy and sexual identity, written by the 27 year-old playwright Stephen Karam. Speech & Debate is smart and funny and, unlike so many plays that focus on the problems of middle-aged folks, it speaks directly to the concerns of young people. And there were lots of them in the audience the night my husband K and I saw the show.

My friend Bill had seen Speech & Debate right after it first opened, back in October, and told me I shouldn’t miss it. He also told me, which the show doesn’t advertise, that seating is open so it’s best to get there early to get a good spot. Because K and I are the kind of people who tend to arrive everywhere so early that we usually have to walk around the block to burn up some time, there were only two other people sitting in the downstairs lobby when we got there. We bought soft drinks at the lobby bar, sat at one of its round café-style tables and people-watched as our fellow audience members arrived. The early-birds weren’t at all what we expected—mainly the same grey-heads that you see at most theaters. In fact, when the first twentysomething couple arrived, they did a double take they were so surprised to find themselves in the company of what seemed to be an AARP rally. But then just before the doors of the theater opened, the black clad, nose-pierced set began to flow in.

K and I got front row seats, which made us feel almost a part of the show, which takes place largely in high school classrooms. Speech & Debate signaled that it was different even before it started; the customary “Turn off your cell phones” announcement wasn’t spoken but appeared in laser print on the set’s blackboard—line after line of the message, written as though it were a detention room assignment.

But there is nothing punitive about the show. Speech & Debate’s plot involves three high-school misfits who meet over the internet and become involved in one another’s secrets. It’s longer than it needs to be, some speeches are overwritten and some debates just peter out but Karam’s distinctive voice emerges through it all and the performers, particularly Susan Steele, a scene-stealing dynamo who reminded me of a young Stockard Channing, keep you from wriggling restlessly in your seat. And it was really nice to see really young actors (at least one is still in college) playing young people in a play dealing with the concerns of young people. “This is the greatest play I’ve ever seen,” the young woman sitting behind me told her companion with the kind of emphatic passion that is endemic to her age. And that is just the kind of passion that the theater needs more of.

We oldsters liked it too. I’m already looking forward to Karam’s next play. This one is running through Feb. 24. Go see it if you can. Or better yet, if you know some young people between the ages of 16 and 29, buy a ticket and send them.

January 19, 2008

Voting No on "November"

Politics, or at least political satire, makes particularly strange bedfellows as foul-mouthed David Mamet and frolic-making Nathan Lane have teamed up to create November, a comedy about a bumbling White House incumbent trying, by whatever means necessary, to be reelected president. And I made an uneasy voyeur of their goings-on.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a Mamet fan. I even once had “a date” with him. An old boyfriend gave me the phone number of a playwright pal of his when I moved to Chicago for a short time in the early ‘70s. I called and the pal offered to show me around town one evening, introducing me to the Art Institute of Chicago and the deep-dish pleasure of the original Pizzeria Uno on Ohio Street. I never saw him again after that; I was stunned when I later saw Sexual Perversity in Chicago and realized it had been written by my tour guide.

Lane is even more beloved in my household. My pit-musician husband K played in the orchestras of the 1990s’ revivals of Guys and Dolls and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and Lane’s onstage antics in those shows, particularly in Forum, cracked K up almost every night and we have made a point of seeing just about everything that Lane has done since then. But K decided to pass on November. That seemed strange to me at first because K is also something of a political junkie. But, after seeing the show, it occurred to me that may have been why he passed on it.

November tells the story of Charles Smith, a hapless and unpopular president whose poll numbers are “lower than Gandhi's cholesterol.” He and his adviser, a wry Dylan Baker, scheme about how they can stay in office and their plan ropes in Laurie Metcalf’s comically earnest speechwriter Clarice Bernstein, a lesbian with a bad cold and a good cause; a representative of the turkey industry played by Ethan Phillips and a disgruntled Native American played by Michael Nichols. The seemingly ubiquitous director Joe Mantello puts them through their paces nicely and the equally ubiquitous set designer Scott Pask recreates a recognizable, and yet amusing, version of the Oval Office. As one would expect from Mamet, there are lots of undeleted expletives and no political correctness—every group and every political issue gets skewered. And as one would expect from Lane, there are lots and lots of laughs.

And yet the whole thing seemed kind of pointless to me. It wasn’t that the situations were so ridiculously silly; I loved “Wag the Dog,” the equally silly 1997 film satire that Mamet co-wrote about a president who tries to divert attention from a sex scandal by invading Albania. And it wasn’t even that so many of the jokes were predictable in a Borscht Belt kind of way; Mel Brooks was sitting across from me and although he was clearly aware that people were looking at him to gauge his response, I caught him nodding his head a couple of times in apparent "ta-da" recognition of the shtick. I think it was that the show’s underlying messages that politicians can be puerile and that democracy is important seem superfluous coming in the midst of an historic campaign.

Mamet has been campaigning hard for November, giving almost as many interviews as Hillary Clinton, Barak Obama or John McCain and even maintaining a blog in the voice of his presidential character (click here to read it). But for me, there’s no contest: November can’t compete with the drama, the inspiration or even the humor of the real thing.

January 16, 2008

Stumbling on "The 39 Steps"

The funny thing about comedy is that we don’t all laugh at the same things. One person’s guffaw is another’s ho-hum. What makes one person giggle with glee can make another wriggle in discomfort. What got me thinking about all of this is the Roundabout Theatre Company’s production of The 39 Steps, the parody of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic 1935 romantic thriller that opened at the American Airlines Theatre this week.

The conceit of the show is that just four actors recreate all of the movie’s 100 or so speaking parts in its fast-moving story about an innocent man who is swept up in a murderous conspiracy and rushes across England and Scotland trying to clear his name. The movie is considered the greatest of the films that Hitchcock made in England before moving to Hollywood and the stage parody was a great hit in London, even winning an Olivier Award. The New York theater critics seem tickled too. And me? Well, not so much.

My husband K and I are big Hitchcock fans. When we’re at a loss for a DVD to watch, we always know we can count on Hitchcock. We got "The 39 Steps" the weekend before we saw the play and a good thing too. Not only did we thoroughly enjoy the movie but we would have missed out on a bunch of the play’s jokes without it. But even though we got the bits, we didn’t find them as funny as the London fans or the New York critics apparently did.

I certainly can't blame the hard-working cast, particularly Arnie Burton and Cliff Saunders, who play most of the roles. And the way director Maria Aitken uses simple props—a few chairs, some boxes, sheets, a wooden rectangle—to recreate the film’s special effects, including a race across the top of a moving train and a plane crash, is indisputably clever. Still, instead of rolling with laughter, I was just mildly amused.

Maybe the Brits loved it more because they're more familiar with the movie. Maybe if it has been a staged parody of “Casablanca” or “The Godfather,” it would have hit home more with me. Judging by the polite applause at the curtain call, K and I weren’t the only ones who’d expected to have a better time. As people filed out of their seats after the curtain call, the women sitting in front of us turned around and asked what we thought of the show. We told them. They confessed that although they’d seen the movie years ago, they couldn’t remember most of it and so some of the funny bits had gone right over their heads.

After the show, K and I walked two blocks over to the Algonquin, the old hotel made famous by the writers who lunched at its legendary Round Table in the 1920s. I ordered a vodka cocktail called The Parker in honor of Dorothy Parker, the witty writer, screenwriter and one-time theater critic. Parker—the woman, not the cocktail—went out to Hollywood a year before the original "The 39 Steps" was made and worked on dozens of scripts including the 1937 version of “A Star Is Born.” But it’s her Round Table-era quips that still make me chuckle. The most infamous is probably her critique of a Katharine Hepburn performance: “She runs the gamut of emotions from A to B.” Which, alas, more or less sums up how I felt about The 39 Steps.

January 12, 2008

"The Little Mermaid" Fails to Make A Splash

Disney was not a bad word when I was growing up. It meant "The Mickey Mouse Club," which I loved watching. It meant Disney World, which I longed to see. And it meant entering the magical worlds of feature-length cartoons like "Cinderella" and "Sleeping Beauty." So, I'm not really quite sure how Disney became a four letter word on Broadway. Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King and the restoration of the venerable New Amsterdam Theatre helped rescue Broadway and the Times Square area from the drug pushers, pimps and sex shops that dominated the neighborhood in the ‘70s. But sophisticated musical lovers complain that Disney's later shows—Aida, Tarzan, Mary Poppins—have been too bland and too mechanical. Broadway insiders gripe that the Disney corporation refuses to play by the rules, throwing its weight around in contract negotiations and its money around to buy up talent. And now, this week, nearly every major theater critic has joined in, harpooning Disney's latest show, The Little Mermaid. “Loved the shoes. Loathed the show,” wrote the New York Times’ Ben Brantley.

Alas, I have to swim with the tide on this last one. I don't think The Little Mermaid is as terrible as Brantley says but there certainly isn't anything magical about it. And it's magic you want from a fairy tale and from the imagineers of Disney. Raised expectations might be part of the problem. There have been few more magical moments on the stage than the opening of The Lion King. The Disney folks hired the experimental theater director Julie Taymor and she transformed that beloved cartoon into a wondrous theatrical experience that set a high bar for other Disney shows. For Mermaid, Disney hired the internationally acclaimed opera director Francesca Zambello, clearly hoping that she would create a similarly transformative production. I've never seen Zambello's work before but if The Little Mermaid is any indication, I don't get what the fuss is about.

The show still tells the story of the mermaid princess Ariel (the pleasant Sierra Boggess) who falls for a human prince (the equally pleasant Sean Palmer), and then defies her father (the very buff and therefore particularly pleasant-to-look-at Norm Lewis) and almost sacrifices her life for love. But the book by Doug Wright (yes, the same award winning creator of I Am My Own Wife and the book for Grey Gardens) pads the tale so much that what was once a brisk 83-minute movie is now a somewhat bloated 2 ½-hour show. All of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman's songs from the original cartoon are still there and they still delight but the new ones by Menken and Glenn Slater aren't up to the same level. Most of the imagination seems to have gone into creating an underwater world, which set designer George Tsypin and costume designer Tatiana Noginova do primarily with lots of plastic to simulate water and by having actors glide around on sneakers with wheels in their heels to affect the movement of swimming.

I went to the show with my niece Jennifer, who is now 28 but who, like me, grew up on Disney cartoons and still has the DVDs of every show that came out during the company’s second golden era of animation, which began with the release of “The Little Mermaid” in 1989. We tried to get into the mood of the evening by stopping for a quick bite before the show at Blue Fin, the seafood restaurant around the corner from the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre where The Little Mermaid is playing. But the service was spotty and the tab was ridiculously high for the salad and appetizers we ordered. Jennifer wasn't any more pleased with the show, perking up only for familiar songs like "Part of Your World," "Kiss the Girl" and, the always-buoyant "Under the Sea." "Well," she said at the end, damning the show with faint praise, "it was better than Tarzan."

The kids in the audience, and there were oodles of them at the performance we attended, seemed to enjoy the show more than we did. But they didn't display the excitement that I saw in the young theatergoers at Wicked or Legally Blonde. Maybe kids today are too jaded for the PG-attractions of a traditional Disney show. But maybe it’s just time for Disney to move on from adaptations of its old animated hits. The company seems to think so too. It is currently developing musicals based on "The Man in the Ceiling," Jules Feiffer's children's book about a boy who yearns to become a cartoonist; and "Peter and the Starcatchers," a prequel to Peter Pan by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson. Maybe they can help restore Disney's good name.

January 9, 2008

Great Movies for Theater Lovers

Great ideas don't come along every day. But I found one on the blog Gratuitous Violins. Its blogger writes smartly about the whole range of culture —books, movies, TV and, of course, theater (click here to visit her site)—and last week, she pointed her readers to the movie review podcast Filmspotting whose two hosts listed their Top 5 movies about the theater world. They selected "All About Eve" (which made both their lists) "All That Jazz," "Bullets Over Broadway," "Cradle Will Rock," "The Goodbye Girl," "Moon Over Broadway," "Waiting for Guffman" (another dual choice) and "Yankee Doodle Dandy". (Click here to read more about their choices)

I've seen them all. And loved each one. I actually bought copies of "All That Jazz," "Moon Over Broadway" and "All About Eve," which might be my favorite movie of all time. In fact, I've used it as a kind of litmus test. There have been two great loves of my life; both got "All About Eve" and both got me.

I also love lists and seeing the Filmspotting one got me thinking about what other stage movies I’d add. So here are 10 more, listed alphabetically, that I think should be must-sees for every respectable theater geek:

"BEING JULIA" This is not a great movie but Annette Bening’s portrayal of a London actress in the 1930s is and she gloriously, and hilariously, fulfills every stereotype of the fiercely great stage diva.

"THE DRESSER" Both Gratuitous Violins and I chose this wonderful screen version of Ronald Harwood’s play about the relationship between the actor-manager of a touring Shakespeare company (the sensational Albert Finney) and his dresser (the equally superb Tom Courtenay) whose story comes to resemble that of Lear and his Fool.

"FAME" How can you not love this exuberant musical that follows the lives of four talented kids from their first audition straight through their graduation from New York’s famed High School for the Performing Arts?

"FUNNY GIRL" Whatever you may think about Barbra Streisand’s later career or her politics, there can be no question about the fact that her star-making portrayal of the legendary Ziegfeld comedienne Fanny Brice is a tour de force.

"THE GREAT ZIEGFELD" This great Oscar-winning biopic stars William Powell as the master showman, Luise Rainer and Myrna Loy as his wives, Fanny Brice as herself, Busby Berkeley’s spectacular dance numbers and half the Great American Songbook.

"KISS ME KATE" There’s Cole Porter, there’s Shakespeare, there’s even Bob Fosse in a supporting role in this terrific show-within-a-show version of The Taming of the Shrew, plus there are great showbizzy songs and loads of backstage in-jokes.

"SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE" It’s highly unlikely that there’s any truth in this witty romantic comedy about how the Bard came to write Romeo and Juliet but the script, co-written by Tom Stoppard, and the performances, including Oscar-winning turns by Gwyneth Paltrow as a young noblewoman who yearns to be an actress and Judi Dench as Queen Elizabeth I, are all truly entertaining.

"STAGE BEAUTY" If you know this one, then you really are a theater geek. The setting is Restoration-era London and Billy Crudup stars as a fictional version of the real-life actor Ned Kynaston, celebrated for playing female roles when women weren’t allowed on stage; Claire Danes portrays the first woman who breaks the gender barrier; Richard Eyre, the former director of London’s Royal National Theatre, directs and together they create a first-class love letter to the art of acting.

"STAGE DOOR" Who knows how many impressionable young girls over the decades have seen Katharine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers in this still-delightful 1937 classic and then dreamt of coming to New York, moving into a boardinghouse with other stage-struck girls and waiting for their big break on Broadway?

"TOPSY-TURVY" Mike Leigh’s exquisite film about the Gilbert and Sullivan partnership transports you into the world of the theater at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of musical comedy as we know it. The centerpiece of the nearly three-hour film is the making of The Mikado and it alone is worth the DVD rental fee.

O.K. so now, what are your favorites?

January 5, 2008

A Stellar Crew for "The Seafarer"

If there were a Tony Award for Best Ensemble (and why isn't there one?) it would be the most competitive race this Broadway season. The frontrunner probably would be the Steppenwolf gang from August: Osage County. And not far behind would be the merrymakers of Is He Dead? and the lethal quintet in The Homecoming. But I'd cast my vote for the brilliant band of actors in Conor McPherson’s The Seafarer. The cast—Jim Norton, Conleth Hill, Sean Mahon (standing in the photo above), David Morse and Ciarán Hinds—is listed alphabetically in the Playbill, the actors come out together for the curtain call and it's hard to set a hierarchy on their uniformly superb performances. Like the members of a crew team, each man grabs his oars and, working together as a single unit skillfully steered by McPherson who directs his own play, they transport the audience into an engrossing evening of theater.

It's a particularly impressive feat because their vehicle, the play with its fanciful twists, isn't quite as sturdy as one might hope. Like The Weir and last season's Shining City, The Seafarer is another one of McPherson's ghost stories. The Dublin-born playwright has the Irishman's love of a good yarn and he is a great raconteur. But at the end of each of his plays I've seen, I found myself asking, So what was that about? The critics, whose reviews I'd saved and read when I got home, also seemed confused by The Seafarer's meaning and divided on whether or not it was a really good play or just a good time.

At its simplest, The Seafarer is about a ne'er do-well (Morse) who returns home during the Christmas season to take care of his brother (Norton) who was blinded when he got so drunk that he fell into a dumpster. Two local friends (Hill and Mahon) drop by and a mysterious man (Hinds) whom one of them met at a local bar joins the group. There is much drinking, much storytelling some gambling (metaphorical and literal) and inquisitions into the meaning of good and evil, the nature of heaven and hell. Souls are imperiled and salvation is sought. There are also lots and lots of laughs. The great actor Brian Dennehy was sitting in front of my friend Bill and me and he laughed so hard that he doubled over at times, a good thing since he's a huge man who, at times, blocked Bill's view.

You wouldn't know this just from watching the play, unless maybe you were a particularly wonky English major in college, but I learned from the articles and reviews I read afterwards that the title of the play apparently refers to an old English poem of the same name. And even a quick perusal of the poem seems to provide some clues as to what McPherson may be getting at. "Death leaps at the fools who forget their God," goes one line (click here to read the entire poem).

It's odd when you think about it but religious faith isn't often the subject of a Broadway show. A photo of Jesus hangs on the back wall of The Seafarer’s set and right at the start of the play, the returning brother almost absent-mindedly lights a small votive candle in front of it. The flame seemed to flicker on and off throughout the performance Bill and I saw. I don't know if that was intentional or not but right before the final lights dimmed, it glowed.

January 2, 2008

The Best Shows of 2007

The title on this blog entry isn't totally honest. I mean who can really say what's the best? Who even had a chance to see all of the hundreds of productions that played on Broadway, off-Broadway and off-off Broadway last year? Over the last week or so, theater critics for the major New York papers and magazines listed at least 39 different shows as the Top 10 of 2007. As you might expect, the much-celebrated August: Osage County made almost everyone's list. But even the lackluster Grease limped into one lineup. As my mother used to say, "One man's meat is another man's poison." So I'm not going to pretend to tell you what was best last year. Instead, here are a few words about the 10 shows that most amused or moved me, the ones, in other words, that I loved best:

1. Journey's End
Because R.C. Sherriff’s drama, first produced in 1929, about a group of soldiers in a frontline trench during WWI, devastated me and because its terrific cast, lead by the inestimable Boyd Gaines, performed valiantly even when playing to undeservedly half-full houses. The show won the Tony for Best Revival of a Play but closed on the very same day. But you can catch Gaines giving another standout performance as the sad sack Herbie who loves Patti LuPone's Mama Rose when the Encores! production of Gypsy that played an acclaimed three-week run at City Center last summer reopens on Broadway in March.

2. The Coast of Utopia trilogy
Because this three-part epic
— written by Tom Stoppard, brilliantly directed by Jack O’Brien, beautifully designed by Bob Crowley and Scott Pask and superbly acted by an all-star ensemble — on the 19th century Russian intellectuals who set the scene for their country's 1917 Revolution was, as I wrote when I saw it, one of the most thrillingly theatrical experiences I've ever seen, engaging to the mind, the eye, and the imagination. It's just a memory now for those of us fortunate enough to have seen it but Stoppard is already back on Broadway with Rock 'n' Roll and O'Brien is working on a musical adaptation of the movie Catch Me if You Can, with a book by Terrence McNally and music and lyrics by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, that is planning to open later this year.

3. Frost/Nixon
Because Frank Langella's mesmerizing portrayal of Richard Nixon evaded caricature but captured the agonized soul, and surprising wit, of the man in Peter Morgan's docudrama about the landmark interviews between the disgraced former president and the British interviewer David Frost. Luckily for those of us who love great acting, producer Brian Grazer and director Ron Howard have had the good sense to cast Langella (and his equally terrific co-star Michael Sheen as Frost) in the movie version that is currently in production.

4. The Piano Teacher
Because the most amazing performance I saw all year was Elizabeth Franz's searing portrayal of a lonely woman struggling to hold on to the genteel world she's worked hard to create for herself in Julia Cho's delicate drama.

5. Yellow Face
Because after nearly a decade of writing books for Disney musicals, David Henry Hwang returned to his artistic roots and once again dealt with issues of race and identity, this time in a semi-autobiographical play that was simultaneously thought provoking and side-splittingly funny. Its run has been extended through Jan. 13.

6. August: Osage County
Because there's a reason this dysfunctional family drama is on so many lists; the show is smart, wickedly funny and showcases an ensemble from Chicago's rightly famed Steppenwolf Theatre Company. The actors are not only all pitch-perfect but also a reminder of that special alchemy that makes repertory companies so invaluable. Its limited run has been extended through March 9.

7. Passing Strange
Because this innovative show—part rock concert, part memory play — about a young black man coming of age in the 1970s is blazingly original and a welcomed sign that, like the Tony-winning Spring Awakening, talented young people are finding ways to incorporate their experiences and their sound into musical theater. It’s scheduled to open on Broadway on Feb. 28.

8. Blackbird
Because Jeff Daniels and Alison Pill stripped themselves emotionally naked in this harrowing drama about the reunion between a man and the young woman he molested when she was a girl, and showed that you don't need big scenery, a big cast or even big names to make a big show.

9. Rock 'n' Roll
Because although it seems silly to have two Tom Stoppard plays on one list, I left the theater feeling as though I had seen a work that could serve as an emblem for the art, culture, and politics of my generation that came of age in the tumultuous and still controversial 1960s.

10. The Encores! productions of Follies and Stairway to Heaven
Because this series proved yet again that it can bring new luster even to classics like Follies whose stellar cast, lead by Victoria Clark and Donna Murphy, had musical lovers panting for an extended run, and because for the first time the Encores! team showed that it can produce an equally sensational original work as it did with Stairway to Paradise, an homage to the grand revues made most famous by the Ziegfeld Follies. Stairway allowed such distinctive talents as Kevin Chamberlin (who was in The Ritz, which closed on Dec. 9) Christopher Fitzgerald (now in the disappointing Young Frankenstein) and Kristin Chenoweth (alas, on TV’s “Pushing Daisies”) to do what they do best.