September 27, 2008

The Harry Potter Kid Gallops Into Broadway's Winner's Circle (and Manhood) in "Equus"

Two people could get great seats to a Broadway show for under $50 in the fall of 1974 and my friend Phil and I, both recent college graduates and desperate to be thought sophisticated theatergoers, took turns buying tickets for us to see the hottest shows. None was hotter that season than Equus, Peter Shaffer’s play about a stable boy who blinds six horses and the psychiatrist who struggles to help him see what drove him to commit such a horrendous crime.

A newcomer named Peter Firth played the disturbed youth, Anthony Hopkins was the anguished shrink, and the show was famous for its sextet of strapping young men wearing metal equine-shaped masks to represent the horses, the climatic scene when the young protagonist wore nothing at all, and the questions the play posed about the relationships between madness, passion, creativity, and faith. I was blown away by it.

But I confess that’s not why I was so interested in seeing the revival of Equus that opened at the Broadhurst Theatre this week, following a celebrated run in London last year. Like everyone else, I wanted to see if Daniel Radcliffe, the young Brit who plays the boy wizard Harry Potter in the movies, could work magic on stage.

He does.

People may go to see Harry Potter pull a full monty. But what Radcliffe’s performance reveals is a naked intensity that makes it clear he’s a real actor as well as a movie star. And the grin on his face at the curtain call makes it equally apparent what pleasure he takes in being onstage. (Click here to read a profile of him in Details magazine, complete with a video interview and slide show of photos in his dressing room.)

Yet Radcliffe’s presence in the play may also upend it. In the original production, attention flowed towards the psychiatrist (Hopkins was succeeded by such heavyweights as Richard Burton and Anthony Perkins) but this time around, all eyes veer towards the boy and his story. Part of that is due to Radcliffe’s celebrity, another part to his brave and bravura performance but still another to the way that Richard Griffiths, the Tony Award winner two years ago for his role in The History Boys, plays the doctor.

My old pal Phil, who saw Equus a couple of weeks before I did, told me he missed the sexiness that Hopkins brought to the role. I didn’t mind that. In fact, I think the walrus-shaped Griffiths looks more like a man who has repressed his passions than his more glamorous predecessors did. But the talented Griffiths’ quiet, nuanced interpretation of the doctor’s own awakening lacks the thrill of an “aha” moment for me.

But even without that, I enjoyed this Equus, particularly its theatricality; we get so little of that in straight plays these days. Director Thea Sharrock smartly borrows a good deal of the stagecraft from the original production, even bringing back John Napier to do updated versions of the stylish costumes and sets he did 30 years ago. David Hersey’s lighting and Gregory Clarke’s sound design help create the appropriately unsettling mood.

The buff actors playing the horses are fittingly both scary and sexy. Anna Camp is lovely as the young girl who fancies the boy and unwittingly provokes the disaster. But not everything works. Kate Mulgrew as the judge who persuades the doctor to take the boy’s case delivers a cacophony of “aha” moments. Oskar Eustis, the head of the Public Theater, was sitting in front of me (the audience the night I attended was peppered with theater insiders—Joe Masteroff, the book writer of such classics as Cabaret and She Loves Me, was sitting on my right) and Eustis literally flinched each time Mulgrew spoke.

No matter. It is Radcliffe’s show. I invited my niece Jennifer to see Equus with me. She’s a rabid Harry Potter fan—having read all seven books and seen all five films—and so she went into the theater excited about being able to see the boy who plays him. But she left enchanted by the man he's become. “You know,” she said. “He’s a really good actor.”

September 24, 2008

The Gale Force Behind "The Tempest"

There is a lovely moment in the second act of the Classic Stage Company’s new production of The Tempest when the cast members join together in song. Soaring above the other voices is a distinctive tenor, almost ethereal, irresistibly seductive. Even if his name weren’t in the program or his face on the poster for the show, anyone who knows anything about theater over the last 30 years would recognize it instantly as belonging to Mandy Patinkin, the original Che in Evita and the original George in Sunday in the Park with George. Truly one of a kind, Patinkin has returned to the New York stage for the first time in eight years in the role of the sorcerer Prospero and brought with him a reminder of the unique qualities that define real star power (click here to read a revealing interview with him).

As you may remember from your college lit days, The Tempest, which is believed to be the last play Shakespeare wrote alone, tells the story of Prospero, the magic-loving Duke of Milan who is cheated out of his kingdom by his brother and marooned on a mystical island with his daughter Miranda. Among the isle’s inhabitants are Ariel, a sprite who becomes his right-hand factotum, and Caliban, an ungainly native whom he enslaves. As the play opens, a storm shipwrecks the duplicitous brother, his ally the king of Naples and their courtiers on the island, setting the stage for Prospero to take his revenge.

Like so much of the Bard’s work, The Tempest provides opportunities for lots of different actors to show-off. Elisabeth Waterston, the willowy daughter of Sam Waterston, best known for his 18 seasons on TV’s “Law & Order” but also an accomplished Shakespearean actor, is completely charming as Miranda. Her declaration-of-love scene with Ferdinand, the young prince of Naples, winningly played by Stark Sands, is another one of the production’s highlights.

Meanwhile, Angel Desai makes Ariel a character of appealing substance. And Tony Torn and Steven Rattazzi add much—perhaps too much—comic relief in the roles of the clownish servants Trinculo and Stefano. Only Nyambi Nyambi,
far too handsome to play the grotesque Caliban, seems miscast despite his painted body and attempts to lumber awkwardly and literally froth at the mouth.

In the end, though, The Tempest is Prospero’s show and each production’s success rests heavily on the actor playing him. I’m not a big Patinkin fan (due in part, I suspect, to all the reports about his bad backstage behavior during the short run of Michael John LaChiusa's The Wild Party back in 2000)
but I was enchanted by that musical scene in the second act of The Tempest and by his performance in the rest of the play as well. Patinkin brings the full force of his idiosyncratic self to the role. His Prospero is more robustly philosophical than whimsically vulnerable, speaks with a cadence more Yiddish than Shakespearean. And it all works.

Watching Patinkin made me think about how rare it is to see such a singular performance these days. New York is brimming over with good actors but that’s not what I’m talking about. I mean actors who are literally like no one else—the way Ethel Merman, Mary Martin and Robert Morse were back in the Golden Age of Broadway and the way Patti LuPone, Kristin Chenoweth and Patinkin are now.

But the trend seems to be moving in the opposite direction, towards stars with less wattage. Over the past couple of years, producers here and in London have turned to "American Idol"-style contests to cast their shows. I can’t imagine Patinkin (or, for that matter, LuPone or even Chenoweth) making it past the first round—too intense, not endearing enough, so unpredictable. Which, of course, is what makes him so mesmerizing onstage. And which is why you should see his Prospero. Luckily, the run has been extended through Oct. 19.

September 20, 2008

Of Two Minds About "A Tale of Two Cities"

Critics and theater geeks were sharpening the blades of their guillotines weeks before the new musical A Tale of Two Cities opened at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre on Thursday. The crimes committed by this latest adaptation of the Charles Dickens novel set during the French Revolution were deemed to be legion.

For starters, the book, music and lyrics were all written by one woman no one had ever heard of: Jill Santoriello, a 42-year old Sarah Palinish-upstart who had never been involved in a Broadway production before, who proudly declared that she had taught herself music, and who admitted to having never read any other Dickens novel besides the one she first began muscializing when she was still in high-school. (Click here to read an interview with her).

Then, there was the fact that the show’s leading man had gotten himself involved in a sex scandal earlier this year (click here to read an article about him). And, instead of coming in from one of the prestigious incubators of musicals like London, La Jolla, or Seattle, this production got its start at the Asolo Repertory Theatre in Sarasota, Florida. Meanwhile its novice team of producers—there are 20 of them—were lead by a husband-and-wife pair of former actors who had once been replacements in the original production of Les
Misérables. Oh, the horror of it all. Off with all their heads.

Now, the contrarian in me would love to tell you that the naysayers were all wrong. But while A Tale of Two Cities is far, far from being the worst show I’ve ever seen, it’s an equal distance from being the best. I’m a Dickens fan. My mother gave me a copy of "A Tale of Two Cities," one of her favorites, as a Christmas present when I was eight. It was too early for me to appreciate it then but a few years later, I was swept away by the story of Sydney Carton’s willingness to sacrifice himself for the woman he loved. (And I’m not violating my anti-spoiler rule of not giving away the plot; the novel is on nearly every high school reading list, so if you don’t know the ending, shame on you.)

I’m also one of the few New York theater geeks who got a kick out of The Scarlet Pimpernel, Frank Wildhorn's overblown 1997 musical about a British aristocrat who rescues innocents from the guillotine during the French Reign of Terror that followed the French Revolution. So despite all the pre-opening carping, I was ready to show some mercy towards A Tale of Two Cities. But from the first few notes, I knew that my heart wasn't going to be quite big enough for the task at hand.

The score sounded both familiar and forgettable. It also seemed as though Santoriello and her collaborators had never seen any other show than Les Misérables. The music sounded much the same as in the Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil megamusical, just not as memorable. Richard Pilbrow’s somnolent lighting seemed the same. David Zinn’s period costumes seemed the same. Even Tony Walton’s skeletal mobile set seemed almost the same.

Many of the actors are the same. Greg Edelman, the replacement for the relentless detective Javert in the original Les Miz, plays the honorable Dr. Manette in A Tale of Two Cities. Three actors who played Thénardier, the comedic tavern owner in Les Misérables, also have roles in the new show. And I didn’t have time to read through the bios of the entire 38-member cast to count all the others who had put in time on the barricades in Les Miz.

It’s actually its cast that saves A Tale of Two Cities. I know I keep saying this but the talent pool here in New York is incredible. And even though they were singing only so-so songs, the singers in A Tale of Two Cities are superb. Nearly all of the critics, even those who didn't like the show, swooned for James Barbour, who plays the lead role of Sydney Carton. He's too contemporary for my taste—putting a kind of David Lettermanish-who-gives-a-damn spin on Dickens’ hero— but I have no complaints about his powerful baritone.

Nor do I have anything bad to say about Brandi Burkhardt, a lovely-to-look-at-and-lovely-to-hear soprano, as Lucie Manette, the object of his love. I’ve read that Aaron Lazar is equally good as Lucie’s husband, the reluctant French nobleman Charles Darnay, but Lazar strained a vocal chord during previews and his doctor ordered him to skip the performance I attended. His understudy Michael Halling went on at the last minute and cast members applauded when he came out to take his curtain call bow. The audience that night cheered them all. Fans like these
kept the similarly-themed and equally-panned The Scarlet Pimpernel running for two years and, who knows, they might do the same for A Tale of Two Cities.

In the meantime, if there’s anyone who should be celebrated here, it’s the 20 folks who put up the reportedly $16 million to put on A Tale of Two Cities. It’s easy to make fun of them. They all seem to be Broadway newbies. Instead of listing past credits, their Playbill bios say things like “Nancy is an avid equestrian, golfer and skier who loves travel and Broadway.” And yet, they believed in theater enough to dig into their pockets and come up with the money to support a huge cast and to give a newcomer a shot at the big time. Regardless of what you think about the resulting show, you've got to admit that nowadays those are truly revolutionary acts.

September 17, 2008

"Enter Laughing" May Leave You Smiling

“Write what you know” is the advice teachers used to give beginning writers. No one seems to have taken that more to heart than the wordsmiths who worked in the writers’ room for Sid Caesar’s “Your Show of Shows.” They famously included Mel Brooks, Larry Gelbart, Neil Simon and Carl Reiner, whose 1958 memoir “Enter Laughing” has been turned into the new show Enter Laughing: The Musical that opened at the York Theatre Company last week.

Reiner and his colleagues have told the same coming-of-age story so many times over the years that most of us know it as well as we know the ones about our own kin. In these tales, a gawky but endearing young man yearns for a career in show biz, has obstacles thrown in his way (often by his well-meaning but straitlaced Jewish family,) circumvents them by apprenticing himself to a theatrical blowhard with a heart of gold and in the end, gets his big break and entry into the glorious fraternity of show people.

Even though their TV show was helping to kill it off, the Caesar boys longed for the old Tin Pan Alley-era of entertainment that was already beginning to fade into memory. I have a fondness for that world too. So I didn’t mind at all indulging in Enter Laughing’s smile-inducing double scoop of nostalgia.

The show is the latest in a string of adaptations of Reiner’s fond look back at his star-struck youth. The original book was a bestseller. A 1963 stage version played for 419 performances and made a star of Alan Arkin, who won a Tony for playing Reiner’s fictionalized version of his younger self. But a 1967 movie that featured José Ferrer, Shelley Winters, Elaine May, and Don Rickles in supporting roles fared less well and a 1976 musical, So Long, 174th Street, with a 44-year-old Robert Morse playing the ambitious teen, flopped, lasting just six performances.

Now, a name change and a terrific cast lead by Josh Grisetti, a young newcomer with the appealingly loose-limbed and rubber-faced demeanor of a natural comedian but whose only previous claim to fame had been playing in the Las Vegas company of Spamalot, has rescued the show. Kind of.

This new production of Enter Laughing is funny and it’s fun too. But it helps if you’re of a certain age. The showstopper is performed (marvelously) by the 85-year-old George S. Irving, who made his Broadway debut in the original production of Oklahoma, and its references are to such erstwhile screen hotties as Hedy Lamarr, Joan Crawford and Constance Bennett. The entire score, by Stan Daniels, the late legendary sitcom writer, producer and director who apparently studied at the Mel Brooks School of Songwriting, is filled with witty lyrics set to jaunty but lightweight tunes.

Still, director Stuart Ross, who created Forever Plaid, knows how to keep a crowd-pleaser moving. Music director Matt Castle not only plays the piano and leads the tiny but able band but takes an amusing acting turn as well. The rest of the cast—which includes the husband and wife team of Michael Tucker and Jill Eikenberry from the old “L.A. Law” TV series—is energetic too. Together, they all create the kind of evanescent entertainment that might have made great sketch material for the old Caesar show. And if you’re nostalgic for that kind of an evening then this show could be your show of shows.

September 13, 2008

Buoyed by "The First Breeze of Summer"

As I sat watching the Signature Theatre Company’s wonderful new production of The First Breeze of Summer, it occurred to me that part of what’s so wonderful about it is that the show will help remind a whole generation of theatergoers that Lorraine Hansberry and August Wilson weren’t the only playwrights who wrote significant plays about black people. We old-timers know that during its heyday back in the late 1960s through the mid-‘80s, the Negro Ensemble Company produced a succession of incredible plays that not only presented black stories to mainstream audiences but gave actors like Samuel L. Jackson, Phylicia Rashad, and Denzel Washington the kind of meaty roles that were seldom available to them elsewhere.

One of my closest friends worked for the company and so I got to see a lot of those shows. They ranged from what the director George Wolfe once called “last-mama-on-the-couch” family dramas to what-the-hell-was-that-about experimental works. I didn’t like them all but I loved seeing them and the opportunities they gave black artists. Now, Signature, which usually dedicates an entire season to the works of one playwright, is devoting this one to some of those NEC classics. And judging by
The First Breeze of Summer, the opening production in the series, the plays are still affecting and the acting talent pool is just as deep.

The First Breeze of Summer, set largely in 1977 with flashbacks to the '20s and '30s, weaves together the stories of three generations in a working class family struggling in various ways to get ahead in a white world and to be true to themselves. Leslie Uggams leads the 14-member cast as the family matriarch who has secrets in her past and she’s terrific. But so is everyone else. Times may have changed but good stage roles are still hard to come by for black actors and the cast members, hungry for the chance to show what they can do, sink their teeth into these.

Most impressive may be Yaya DaCosta who plays the grandmother as a young woman in the flashbacks that form nearly half of the play. DaCosta’s previous acting experience is limited to a Lifetime movie, a part of on a soap opera, a couple of pilots for cable channels and a season on the TV show “America’s Next Top Model” but she’s definitely more than a pretty face. The same is true of Brandon and Jason Dirden, the real-life brothers who bring nuanced passion to the roles of the brothers in the show. More familiar faces like Marva Hicks as their mother and Brenda Pressley as their aunt also deliver. And the whole thing is held together by the perceptive direction of Ruben Santiago-Hudson. (Click here to see the “trailer” the company has posted on YouTube.)

I purposefully got tickets for one of the talk back nights. And I, along with the rest of those who stayed for the after-show discussion, was delighted when both Santiago-Hudson and the playwright Leslie Lee walked onstage to share their thoughts about the play. We were even more impressed when 12 of the 14 actors joined them. Lee declared this the definitive production of his semi-autobiographical play and he seemed both sincere and gratified when he said it.

Santiago-Hudson told funny stories about casting the play, including how he had worked with Jason Dirden in a play at the Kennedy Center and knew that he wanted him for the role of the naïve younger brother when he signed on to direct The Last Breeze of Summer. But, he says, Jason told him, “You should meet my brother, he’s the real actor in the family.” Reluctantly, Hudson agreed to see Brandon and then was so knocked out by him that he offered him the part of the older brother before the audition was over. Then, he said, Brandon told him, “You should meet my wife.” Sure enough, Crystal Anne Dickinson got the role of the older brother’s fiancée. “I’m sure glad they didn’t have an acting grandmother,” quipped Uggams.

Audiences seem happy about the whole thing. The theater was so full the night my sister, niece and I saw the show that people were literally sitting in the aisles. “If people are sitting on the steps, then you know the show is in demand,” the man behind me told his wife after they’d had climbed over the squatters to get to their seats.
In the old days, NEC audiences were notorious for being vocal with their enthusiasm and it made me both shudder with annoyance and smile in remembrance when a woman got so wrapped up in one moment in the play that she couldn’t resist shouting out her concern.

The show’s limited run has already been extended to Oct. 19 but it can’t go any longer because the next play in the series, Home, is scheduled to begin previews Nov. 11. I’m already planning to see it. But what I’m also hoping is that I’ll get the chance to see the terrific actors from The Last Breeze of Summer in other parts worthy of their talent.

September 11, 2008

An Idiosyncratic Preview of the Fall Season

Is it me or is it the economy?

When I sat down this past weekend to start my September ritual of figuring out which new shows I most want to see, the pickings seemed paltrier than they did last year. In fact, four big musicals—revivals of Brigadoon, Godspell and for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf , plus the kind-of-new Harry Connick Jr. show, Nice Work if You Can Get It, drawn from the Gershwin songbook—dropped out before the new season even started. The producers of the first three admitted that they couldn’t dig up enough money to bring their shows in.

And that isn’t the only sign that times are tough. When the national mood is down, people—producers included—become less adventurous. New plays queued up to get on the boards last fall but there is only one (To Be Or Not to Be, an adaptation of a 1942 Jack Benny movie) opening on Broadway between now and the end of the year. And only four new musicals. Still, there are some promising shows to see both on Broadway and off. And as I read through the various Fall Previews in the papers, magazines and online, I could feel the buzz of anticipation that always rushes through me at the beginning of a new year of theatergoing.

So below is a list of a few of 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 one idiosyncratic reason or another grab me and that you may not have heard as much about.

FARRAGUT NORTH You’d think that Barak Obama and Sarah Palin would provide enough political drama (and comedy) for me during this election season but I’m intrigued by the Atlantic Theater Company’s new onstage drama about a young hot shot press secretary who gets caught up in a sex scandal during a presidential primary race. It’s written by a former aide to Howard Dean and stars John Gallagher Jr. who won a Tony for his portrayal of Moritz in Spring Awakening. Atlantic’s Linda Gross Theater on West 20th Street is a little off the beaten track but I’ve usually found the journey there to be worthwhile. Previews for this show start on Oct. 22 and the run is scheduled to end on Nov. 29, by which time, of course, we’ll know who the real next President will be.

HOME The Signature Theatre Company is devoting its entire season to plays originally produced by the Negro Ensemble Company but Samm-Art Williams’ funny and wise bildungsroman about a North Carolina farm boy holds a special place in my heart because one of my friends was working for the company at the time of the original production and I remember the excitement and the sense of optimism about the future of black theater everyone there felt when the show became an unexpected hit and moved to Broadway. If the revival is anywhere near as good as the first production in the series, The First Breeze of Summer, then there may be cause for hope again. Previews begin at the Peter Norton Space on Nov. 11 and the show is scheduled to run through Jan. 4.

THE LANGUAGE OF TREES I’ve never heard of this show’s playwright Steven Levenson. And that’s precisely why I want to see his play. It’s part of the Roundabout Underground, the company’s new series that showcases the works of young playwrights at the 60-seat Black Box Theatre located in the basement of the Laura Pels Theatre on West 46th Street. Last year's terrific debut offering Speech & Debate told the stories of a trio of high school misfits. Levenson’s play takes on the gnarlier subject of the nation’s involvement in the Mideast through the story of a family whose husband and father is an American translator stationed in that war zone. Previews begin Oct. 4 and the run is scheduled through Dec. 14. And all tickets are just $20.

A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS Frank Langella, who has won two Tonys in the last five years, can do no wrong as far as I’m concerned. If he decided to read footnotes from the Congressional Quarterly, I’d be there and I'd be prepared to be riveted. The fact that he’s going to star in a stage revival of one of my favorite historical movies—about Thomas More’s fateful refusal to break with the Catholic Church in support of Henry VIII’s decision to divorce his first wife and marry Ann Boleyn—is an extra treat. The Roundabout Theatre Company has scheduled a limited run at the American Airlines Theatre from Sept. 12 through Dec. 7.

PRAYER FOR MY ENEMY The war in Iraq isn’t the first subject that would come to mind when thinking about a new project for the sensational team that put together The Light in the Piazza at Lincoln Center three years ago. But playwright Craig Lucas, director Bartlett Sher and their Tony-winning leading lady Victoria Clark are back together again with a new play at Playwrights Horizon about how the war affects a young soldier and his family. Jonathan Groff, the other breakout star from Spring Awakening, plays the young man. Previews begin Nov. 14 for a run that is scheduled to close on Dec. 21.

ROAD SHOW O.K. So who doesn’t want to see the new Stephen Sondheim musical. But I’ve already put in my dues for this one. I saw this play about two brothers seeking their version of the American dream from the Alaska gold rush at the turn of the last century to the Florida real estate boom in the 1920s back in 1999 at the New York Theatre Workshop when it was called Wise Guys. Even with Nathan Lane and Victor Garber as the leads, it didn’t work. Then my husband K and I went down to the Kennedy Center in Washington in 2003 to see it when it was called Bounce and Richard Kind and Howard McGillin took over the parts. The show, while substantially rewritten, wasn’t much better. Now the latest version has a new name, new leads (Michael Cerveris and Alexander Gemignani) a rejiggered script and director John Doyle at the helm. Previews start at the Public Theater on Oct. 28 and the run is scheduled through Dec. 28. My buddy Bill and I already have our tickets.

ROMANTIC POETRY The provocative drama Doubt won John Patrick Shanley a well-deserved Pulitzer Prize three years ago but it was the delightfully whimsical movie “Moonstruck” that first introduced him to a wide public back in 1987. So I’m eager to see Shanley’s return to romantic comedy. This work, about a newlywed whose former husbands disapprove of her new mate, is a musical and Shanley, who’s done both the book and the lyrics, has hooked up with Henry Krieger who wrote the music for Dreamgirls and Side Show. The Manhattan Theater Club is presenting Romantic Poetry at its Stage I theater in City Center from Sept. 30 thru Dec. 14.

SHOGUN MACBETH One of the most visceral and sensual experiences I ever had in a movie theater was watching Akira Kurosawa’s “Ran,” the master Japanese filmmaker’s interpretation of the Lear story. It swept me away. I know that the Pan Asian Repertory Theater won’t be able to produce the cinematic sumptuousness of the movie but its production of the Macbeth story, set in the Japanese feudal period, does plan to juxtapose the classical Japanese theater techniques of Noh and Kyogen alongside Shakespeare's Elizabethan language. It’s scheduled for a very limited run at the Julia Miles Theater from Nov. 4 through Dec. 7.

September 6, 2008

Saying Yeah, Yeah to "Fela!"

Perhaps the biggest compliment you can pay an actor is to say—and mean it—that you can’t imagine anyone else in the role he or she is playing. Well I’m definitely saying that about Sahr Ngaujah, the charismatic and prodigiously talented star of the new musical Fela! that opened this week at the 37 Arts Theatre.

Ngaujah sings and dances with dervish intensity, nails all the jokes and drives home every dramatic moment. He also narrates the entire show (no one else has any lines) and seems to play almost every instrument in the band. Or if he’s only sidelining (which is what my musician husband K tells me is the term used to describe instrumental lip syncing) then he’s damn good at that too. Good enough that he alone makes Fela! worth the move to Broadway that the musical’s producers, who have reportedly invested some $1 million in the production, are clearly hoping it will make.

Fela! isn’t conventional Broadway material. It tells the complex story of Fela Anikulapo Kuti, the Nigerian pop musician and political activist who challenged his country’s corrupt and repressive leaders. But a show about Fela always had one big thing going for it: the music. For Fela! is the world music equivalent of a jukebox musical and it’s filled with the intoxicating blend of jazz, funk and traditional African rhythms that form Afrobeat, the exuberant musical genre that Fela helped to create. It’s almost impossible to sit still while you’re listening to it. And in this production, you don’t have to. At times during the nearly three-hour show, Ngaujah invites the audience to stand up and dance and even offers instruction in how to do a few movements.

All the movements are created by the acclaimed modern dance choreographer Bill T. Jones, who deservedly won a Tony for his first Broadway show, Spring Awakening. This time out, Jones not only choreographed the hyperkinetic routines in Fela! but directed the show and co-wrote it along with Jim Lewis. And at the performance my sister Joanne and I attended, he also sat in the back row and led the cheers for the show. Jones is a phenomenally talented guy but he may be wearing too many hats here because the book could use a more experienced hand.

Granted, it has to cover a lot of material. Fela! tries to do it by presenting itself as a farewell performance that Fela is giving at his nightclub the Shrine in 1978, shortly after government thugs have killed his mother by throwing the 77-year year old woman (herself an ardent activist and feminist) out of a window. In between numbers, he tells the audience the story of his life—including his middle class upbringing, his student days in London, his discovery of the black power movement in the U.S., and the creation of the new musical form that fused his experiences into a sound that spread across Africa and won fans in Europe and the avant-garde corners of America too. Fela was talented and arrogant, defiantly controversial and ostentatiously sexual (he once married 27 women in one wedding ceremony). Although repeatedly persecuted by the government, he never left Nigeria and died there from AIDS complications in 1997.

The pre-opening publicity seemed eager to compare Fela! to last season’s cult hit Passing Strange, in which a narrator told the story of another young black man (this one a middle-class American) in a musical idiom (this time rock) not often heard on Broadway. But
Fela! reminded me more of Paul Simon’s musical The Capeman, an innovative work by a heavyweight talent, filled with great music and slapdash storytelling.

Fela!, however, is loads more fun than The Capeman ever was. The entire theater at 37 Arts is decorated with folk-art murals evoking the Lagos of the ‘60s and ‘70s when Fela was at the height of his popularity. Video projections help tell his story and provide subtitles for the lyrics to his songs. The Brooklyn-based musical collective Antibalas, which specializes in Afrobeat, fills in for Fela’s band, playing almost non-stop—and terrifically—from the moment the audience enters until it exits. And the ensemble of well-buffed and seeming tireless dancers perform one dazzling—and often gravity-defying—dance number after another. (Click here to see an excerpt.)

It all adds up to an exhilarating and unexpectedly life-affirming experience. The show deserves to transfer to Broadway. But in case it doesn’t and you can’t get a seat to the current run which is scheduled to end on Sept. 21, then you might wander down to the subway stop at 42nd and 8th Avenue after the show. My husband K, who catches the train there after playing in Gypsy, reports that the Fela! cast members literally dance into the station each night and continue the merrymaking as they wait for trains to take them home.

September 3, 2008

The Movie "Hamlet 2" Deserves A Big Zero

No matter how you divide them, there are only 24 hours in a day. And as I’ve spent more and more of mine seeing plays, reading theater books and writing about all of it, something had to go. That something has been movies. Not watching DVDs at home but going to an actual movie theater right after a film has come out or, better yet, to a private screening room right before it’s been released. So it seemed as though the culture gods had smiled on me when I got an invitation to a screening of “Hamlet 2,” the new movie about a failed actor (played by the British comedian Steve Coogan) who pours his frustrated theatrical passion into his job as a high school drama teacher.

Alas, I forgot how much the gods enjoy making fun of us mere mortals. I squirmed all the way through “Hamlet 2.” I knew going in on that it was a satire. But so is “Waiting for Guffman,” one of my favorite movies about the theater. As it turned out, comparing the two is like saying that bologna and beefsteak are both red meat. Where “Guffman’s” humor was gentle and at times poignant, “Hamlet 2’”s jokes are ponderous and unfunny (the title refers to the teacher’s plan to produce a sequel to Hamlet for the school play). Where “Guffman” celebrated the indomitable spirit of theater people, “Hamlet 2” is condescending towards them.

In fact, I disliked “Hamlet 2” so much that I decided to keep my feelings to myself. Until I opened the New York Times’ Arts & Leisure section this past Sunday and saw a full-page ad, emblazoned with blurbs touting the movie as “Scathingly Funny!” “Blissfully Demented!” and The Summer’s Wittiest Hit.” Now, I know that movie companies have to push their product and that the word blurb is virtually synonymous with hyperbole. But I took this ad campaign personally because these blurbs were strategically placed a page away from the Theater Directory and so clearly aimed at my people — that is to say, you people.

That got my dander up and pushed me to take this defensive move. Heed this advice from one theater lover to another: skip this movie. Don’t even rent it. I’m not even putting in one of my usual links so that you click onto online excerpts from it because I don’t want to give this film any kind of support. “Hamlet 2” is a total waste of time and there simply aren’t enough hours in a theater lover’s day for it. Or in anyone else’s for that matter.