December 30, 2009

A Little Belated Praise for "Altar Boyz"

Some shows—like The Phantom of the Opera, the megamusical that celebrates its 22nd year on Broadway next month; and Altar Boyz, the vest-pocket musical that’s been playing at New World Stages for almost five years—have been around so long that it’s easy to take them for granted.  At least I’m certainly guilty of that. I’ve seen about 100 shows in just the past year alone and yet I’d never seen Phantom or the Boyz.  But earlier this month the producers of Altar Boyz announced that the show is going to close on Jan. 10. And, in a generous gesture, they invited a bunch of us theater bloggers to see the show before its final amen. I asked my old theatergoing buddy Bill if he had any interest in being my date and he jumped at the chance.  Like me, he’d never seen the show either.

As the legions of smarter theatergoers than Bill and me know, Altar Boyz purports to be a concert on the final night of a tour by a musical group with a decidedly Biblical bent—the five band members are named Matthew, Mark, Luke, and in a winking nod to demographic diversity, Juan and Abraham. The show is a send-up of both boy bands (all the requisite types are there—from the cute one to the cute-in-the-closet one) and contemporary evangelists who mix their religious messages with pop cultural references.  But the jibes are so amiable that Altar Boyz can be enjoyed by disciples of both and by hipsters who like to consider themselves in on any deadpan joke. The theater was only half full the night we went but all kinds of people
gray-haired grannies, giggling sorority types and spiky-haired Brooklynites—were there and they all seemed to be having a great time.

The show was conceived by Marc Kessler, a member of the Manhattan Rhythm Kings, and Ken Davenport, its lead producer.  The book by Kevin del Aguila centers on the group’s efforts to save the souls of the audience and is only communion-wafer-thin but the score by Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker, both of whom have worked as Broadway conductors, is devilishly droll, as are the direction by Stafford Arima and the choreography by Christopher Gattelli.

Scores of actors have flowed into and out of the cast over the years, including a few contestants from TV's "American Idol" and Cheyenne Jackson, who played the lead singer Matthew when Altar Boyz debuted at The New York Musical Theatre Festival back in 2004. The guys Bill and I saw—who included an understudy—were all super. Each one made the most of his shot in the spotlight and they’re all terrific in the group numbers.

Everyone involved works hard to make the 90-minute show a fun experience, both in and out of the theater. The top ticket price is just $75 and there are loads of discounts. In addition to the requisite show website, there’s another dedicated to the fans who are called Altarholics (click here to take a look at it).  The show regularly hosts pizza parties, called Altarholic Appreciation Days, and because Altar Boyz is running at the do-anything-to-make-the-audience-happy New World Stages, you can take a drink to your seat. The result isn’t the kind of show that will change your life, reinvent theater or even save souls but it is one that will send you out with a smile on your face.  And although I may be late joining the choir, I say amen to that.

December 26, 2009

New Respect for "The Emperor Jones"

The Emperor Jones has long posed a dilemma for me. On the one hand, the 1920 drama is written in stereotypical Negro dialect, makes liberal use of the N-word and portrays its protagonist, a black murder named Brutus Jones who finds refuge on a Caribbean island, as an exploiter of other black people.  On the other hand, it’s written by Eugene O’Neill, introduced expressionism into the American theater with a work that stares hard in the face at the legacy of slavery and provided the first opportunity for a black actor to play the lead role in an integrated cast. 

In the past, the minuses won out and I avoided seeing the play, including the now-legendary Wooster Group production in which the white actress Kate Valk played the lead in black face.  But the notices for the recent revival at The Irish Repertory Theatre were so glowing that I overcame my reluctance and tried to buy a ticket.  By that time, though, they were all sold out.  So I wasted no time in getting tickets when I heard that the production was coming back for a five-week run, which ends Jan. 31, at the Soho Playhouse and my husband K and I went to see the show last week.

K had his own mixed feelings about seeing The Emperor Jones.  His first job out of music school had been a six month-tour through Europe in which a revue choreographed by Donald McKayle alternated in repertory with a production of The Emperor Jones, starring a young James Earl Jones just a year before his grand breakthrough in The Great White Hope.  K hadn’t seen the show since then but, no surprise, he thought James Earl Jones was unsurpassable.

The success of The Emperor Jones has always rested on the shoulders of the actor playing Brutus Jones. Charles S. Gilpin was the first to play the part and was so impressive that he became the first African-American to win a Drama League Award (although League officials refused to invite him to the Awards dinner until O’Neill organized a potential boycott of the event).  But Gilpin and O’Neill clashed over the play’s repeated use of the N-word: Gilpin kept trying to substitute less-offensive epithets, while O’Neill, as most any playwright would, fumed at the assault on his words.  When the play was invited to tour Europe, O’Neill insisted that Gilpin be dropped.  The replacement was a guy named Paul Robeson.

John Douglas Thompson, who plays the role in the current revival, may not yet be in that august league but most of the praise for this Emperor Jones has centered on his performance and he drew similar hosannas for his Othello earlier this year
(click here to read a New York Magazine paean to him). Thompson posses an imposing physique, a deep baritone, a commanding presence, and intense focus. K and I were impressed too.  We were also taken with Ciarán O’Reilly’s stylized direction, which included the use of puppets and masks to create the spirits that Jones imagines are haunting him as he flees through the jungle after his oppressed native subjects revolt.

The budget was clearly tight but the entire production team—set designer Charlie Corcoran, costume designer Antonia Ford-Roberts, puppet and mask designer Bob Flanagan, lighting designer Brian Nason and sound designers Ryan Rumery and Christian Frederickson—stepped up and created a mood that was appropriately unsettling as Jones descends from unbridled arrogance into quivering madness.  In the process, they,
O’Reilly and especially Thompson have rendered a version of the play that has finally resolved my dilemma and makes it easy for me to say, you should see this.

December 23, 2009

At Home with "The Orphan's Home Cycle"

Movie fans have sequels and prequels, TV viewers have long had mini-series and now, we theater lovers have marathons. The Coast of Utopia, Tom Stoppard’s grand trilogy about 19th century Russian intellectuals, was the must-see event of the 2006-2007 season and set off the current hunger for interconnected plays that can be seen over several nights or all in one day. Since then, it seems, each season has had to have one.  Or two. I’m as greedy as the next theatergoer so I lapped up, in one sitting, both the delicious The Norman Conquests last season and the wonderful The Brother/Sister Plays that just closed at the Public on Sunday. Now, I’ve sampled the latest epic, The Orphan’s Home Cycle, nine short plays by Horton Foote that the Signature Theatre Company is offering in three parts over its entire season. 

This past Saturday, while the big snow storm blanketed New York and much of the eastern seaboard, my friend Joy and I spent six hours in Signature’s Peter Norton Space, watching the first two parts, The Story of a Childhood and The Story of a Marriage, were moved by what we saw and are already looking forward to the third installment, which is scheduled to begin on Jan. 7.  That last part, The Story of a Family, will play in repertory with the others through March 28, with all-day (11 a.m. to 11 p.m.) marathons scheduled for Feb. 6, Feb. 27 and March 6. 

Foote, who died earlier this year at the age of 92, based the plays on the life of his father, from the elder Foote's hardscrabble boyhood at the start of the 20th century to his days as a young father on the eve of the Great Depression. People tend to say that Foote’s plays are Chekhovian because they’re usually set in country towns (in Foote's case, the fictional Harrison, Texas) involve genteel families grappling with a changing world and don’t have much action.  This time, however, there’s a Dickensian quality to Foote's tales.

In the first two parts of The Orphan’s Home Cycle, Horace Robedaux, the stand-in for Foote’s father, is abandoned as a 10 year-old after his father dies from drink and his mother remarries a man who doesn't care for the boy and so leaves him to fend for himself. Along the way to manhood, Horace works for a crazed plantation owner who works his land with black convicts, courts a widow with small children and eventually elopes with a wealthy man’s daughter. And I’m leaving out lots of other stuff.

All these stories started out as full plays that Foote wrote in the 1960s and ‘70s and many of them have been performed over the years but in 2007, Hartford Stage, perhaps inspired by The Coast of Utopia’s success, commissioned Foote to adapt the plays into the current cycle.  He is said to have  completed drafts of all nine by the time he died in March. But Foote was a meticulous and fully-engaged playwright, who regularly attended rehearsals and even showed up at nightly performances of his plays (my husband K and I spotted him at the back of the audience when we saw Dividing The Estate last year) and I can’t help thinking that he might have done additional work on The Orphan’s Home Cycle.

I haven’t seen any of the full-length versions of the plays but there is an unpolished quality to these shorter ones.  Cuts are noticeable in some cases.  There’s too much exposition in others.  And yet, the power and emotional honesty of Foote’s storytelling comes through. It’s helped in large part by Michael Wilson’s quiet but elegant direction and the pitch-perfect cast he’s assembled, lead by Bill Heck, who plays the grown-up Horace (and his dying father) and Hallie Foote, the playwright’s daughter, who like all of the 20 other actors in the plays, assumes multiple roles and who remains the best interpreter of her father's work (click here to read an excellent New York Times profile about her). No one else speaks Foote's language, as distinctive in its way as David Mamet's is in his, the way she does, although I thought I heard a couple of the actors trying too hard to imitate her.

Watching Horace’s story unfold over six hours, allowed Joy and me to immerse ourselves in the world Foote created and to get to know his characters in an intimate way.  But if marathon's aren't your thing (or you can't get a ticket to this one) and you have to choose just one of the three parts, see The Story of a Childhood.  All three of its plays are devastatingly good.  

It’s unlikely that you had a family life as difficult as young Horace’s but it’s virtually impossible to watch his story in these plays without thinking about stories of your own relatives, their idiosyncrasies and their sometimes unintended cruelties.  “It’s a reminder," Joy said during one of the intermissions between the plays "that all families are crazy.”  That's an oddly comforting thought and one that kept me warm as I made my way home through last weekend's blizzard.

December 19, 2009

Too Little Music in "A Little Night Music"

“Uh-oh,” my husband K said as he looked at the Playbill before the start of the new revival of Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music that opened Sunday at the Walter Kerr Theatre.  “They’re not doing Jonathan’s orchestrations.”  Jonathan is Jonathan Tunick, a friend but also the premier orchestrator on Broadway, a frequent Sondheim collaborator and the man who did the arrangements for the 20-plus musicians who played in the original production that opened in 1973 and won the Tony for that year’s Best Musical.

The current production was created at London’s Menier Chocolate Factory, which seems to love doing American musicals (its production of La Cage aux Folles is coming to Broadway in April).  But the folks at the Menier just don’t seem to care for the idea that you need musicians to play them. Last year they had a five-member orchestra for their production of Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George.  Now they’ve not only jettisoned Jonathan’s arrangements but hired a mere eight musicians to play the new ones by Jason Carr.

Sondheim and book writer Hugh Wheeler based A Little Night Music on “Smiles of a Summer Night,” a rare comedy by Ingmar Bergman that follows the romantic misalliances of a group of upper-class Swedes at the turn-of-the-last century. And Sondheim created a gorgeous score in which the songs are inspired by the three quarter time of the waltz. For a show like this one, that deals with love, passion and rue, you want to be swept away by the music. But no matter how talented the musicians are—and K, a longtime pit musician, knows people in this orchestra—eight players can’t do that. 

Some huge screen panels and a few pillows on the floor can’t recreate the sumptuousness of a rich country villa either. But David Farley, who did both the set and the costumes, has created suitably beautiful dresses for the women and dapper suits for the men. But what really gives director Trevor Nunn’s production its glitter is its star wattage.  Catherine Zeta-Jones plays Desirée Armfeldt, a glamorous actress who is confronting middle age.  And the great Angela Lansbury plays her mother, a retired courtesan who has always been very practical about matters of love. 

The Welsh-born Zeta-Jones, who won an Oscar for her role as Velma Kelly in the 2002 film version of Chicago, got her start in British musicals and she’s totally comfortable on a stage. She looks great there too. But although she turned 40 this year, Zeta-Jones seems almost too young to play Desirée. And she over and under emotes the show’s signature song “Send in the Clowns,” capturing the regret Desirée feels about her lost love and lost youth but not the wry self-awareness that makes her the survivor she is. As the elderly Madame Armfeldt, Lansbury spends almost the entire play in a wheel-chair but manages to radiate more energy than anyone else on stage. She knows how to say more with the raise of an eyebrow than most actors can with a two-page monologue.

The rest of the cast veers too much into the cartoonish for me, particularly Leigh Ann Larkin as the lusty maid Petra and Aaron Lazar as Desirée’s pompous current lover Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm, although Lazar has a magnificent voice. But Alexander Hanson, the sole holdover from the London cast who plays the lawyer Fredrik Egerman who is the true love of Desiree’s life, not only sings well but acts well too.  The main problem for him is that it’s hard to really shine while standing alongside Zeta-Jones’ radiant beauty. 

Don't get me wrong, this is a pleasant production.  But it’s hard to fall in love with it.  Maybe it’s the musical itself.  I didn’t see Hal Prince’s original production but my husband K and I walked out at intermission when we saw the 2003 revival at City Opera. The City Opera orchestra sounded great but that production’s stars Juliet Stevenson and Jeremy Irons, two terrific actors, couldn’t sing a lick. 

Maybe, K suggested as we walked over to Orso for a post-show dinner, the best way to bring A Little Night Music back would be in a concert version. Forget about the sets and costumes. Cast top-notch singers. Bring back Jonathan’s orchestrations. And, of course, hire a full orchestra.

December 16, 2009

A Belated Toast to "Wishful Drinking"

My friend Ann and I saw Wishful Drinking, Carrie Fisher’s one-woman show, weeks ago and so I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to write about it. Watching the show reminded me of the guilty pleasure I experienced reading Jane Fonda’s memoir.  Both are so cozily familiar I felt as though I were reliving my own life.  Not that my father left my mother for Liz Taylor the way Fisher’s did or that I ever had a threesome (or anysome) with the French film director Roger Vadim the way Fonda did. But the struggling-to-be-my-own-woman experiences both have gone through are so emblematic of baby boom women that it’s almost impossible for a woman around my age not to identify with them.

Of course, it is their celebrity that makes Fisher and Fonda different from me. But it is that same celebrity that makes me (and probably you) so intimate with the details of their lives. And it is celebrity—its privileges, pressures and penalties—that is the underlying theme of Fisher’s show. Barefoot and dressed in pajamas she strolls onto the stage at the Roundabout Theatre Company's Studio 54 and for the next two hours and 15 minutes dishes about the ups, downs and deep downs of her life in the public spotlight.  

Fisher, who's now 53, was born in the glare of celebrity as the daughter of Hollywood’s then-reigning sweetheart couple Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds.  And she has stayed there through her parents’ headline-grabbing divorce, her starring role as Princess Leia in the early “Star Wars” movies, her on-and-off-again romance with the singer-songwriter Paul Simon, her sex-drugs-and-rock ‘n roll years during Studio 54’s heyday as a disco, her numerous stays in rehab, her bi-polar disorder diagnosis,
her up-and-down weight, her marriage to the Hollywood agent Bryan Lourd and divorce from him when he left her for another man (click here for a quick recap she gave in a CBS Sunday Morning interview).

Both Ann and I had read Fisher’s memoir and novels, which make use of the same material, and so we were familiar with her stories.  But Fisher knows her way around an amusing anecdote and a punchy one-liner (and she’s equally adept with the fast ad-lib as she demonstrates with an audience Q&A segment in the show).  So Ann and I laughed at things like the "Hollywood Inbreeding 101" tour through her family tree that she’s had mapped out on a blackboard and her riff about how it feels to have the image of her 20-year-old self on all the Princess Leia paraphernalia from tiny action figures to life-size inflatable sex dolls.

There is a therapeutic quality to Wishful Drinking, which Fisher has been touring around the country over the past three years and which is scheduled to end its four-month New York run on Jan. 17.  The show is a textbook case of laughing to keep from crying.  You get the feeling that if Fisher weren’t onstage telling you these stories, she might be out in the real world living even worse ones.  But the support doesn't flow all one way because you also get the feeling that if she can live—and still joke about it
through the mess of her life, then you ought to be able to make it through the mess of yours. 

The show could have been shorter but Fisher still got a standing ovation from an audience filled with middle-aged women the night Ann and I saw it.  Although I didn't see the music impresario Clive Davis, sitting a few rows ahead of us, applaud at all.  But what does he know?  He’s a guy.

December 12, 2009

First Class on "A Streetcar Named Desire"

Marlon Brando famously hijacked A Streetcar Named Desire when the great Tennessee Williams classic first opened in 1947. Now, Cate Blanchett and Liv Ullmann, who star in and directed the production currently playing at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, have taken it back. 

Without resorting to the usual grab bag of high-concept tricks that trip up so many revisionists, they bring a feminist sensibility to the play that turns it into ladies’ night.  And the ladies are fierce. This time around Williams’ tale of the clash between the fragile and self-deluding Blanche Du Bois and her brutish brother-in-law Stanley Kowalski is decidedly Blanche’s play. And the second most arresting character on the stage isn’t Stanley but his wife and Blanche’s younger sister Stella.

There are few plays I know better or have seen more than Streetcar (as regular readers may recall, I did Blanche’s “He was a boy, just a boy” speech for my ill-fated audition for New York’s High School of Performing Arts over 40 years ago) and after having seen so many productions over the years, I liked seeing this new spin on the play, even if I saw it from the last row in the gallery section of BAM’s Harvey Theatre, which is so high and far away from the stage that the seats should come equipped with oxygen tanks and telescopes.

Purists may balk at the way that Ullmann has reenvisioned some key scenes but her interpretation seems totally plausible to me. This Blanche is gutsy.  Like many women who find themselves backed into a corner, she knows how to get out but is just too worn down to do what it takes. In one of the show’s most memorable lines, Blanche says that she has “always depended on the kindness of strangers” but as Ullmann’s production shows, with great effect, the only truly safe place for Blanche is a complete retreat into her fantasies.

It helps, of course, that Blanchett is playing Blanche.  I was sitting too far away to see the expressions on her face but even high up in the rafters, I could feel the power of her emotions. Blanchett is most famous as one of the movie’s most fearless female actors, the main heir to Bette Davis and Meryl Streep.  But Blanchett, who with her husband the writer Andrew Upton, is the co-artistic director of the Sydney Theatre Company where this production began, is also a marvelous stage actor.  She is completely comfortable on stage, thoroughly commanding and able to connect with her fellow actors and with the audience.

Robin McLeavy, who plays Stella, is no slouch either.  So many of the actresses I’ve seen tackle the role in the past have played Stella as mousy and fidgety, desperate to please both Stanley and Blanche.  But McLeavy gives a full-bodied performance. Her Stella is, sexy and smart and, in a way, stronger than either her sister or her husband.

And while the women in this production have been toughed up, Stanley is allowed to be softer.  It works because Joel Edgerton brings a mischievous, bad-boy quality to the part that keeps the character from losing his edge entirely.  Plus (and forgive me for indulging in some sexism here) Edgerton is a hunk and his bare-chested scenes make plain what else Stella sees in the guy.

The play is being touted as the event of the season and all of Manhattan seems to be trekking out to Brooklyn to see it.  My friend Mary Anne and I got there early so that we could grab a bite at the Harvey’s lounge café. While we sat there with our light supper, I spotted the director Stephen Daldry, the producer Liz McCann, the writer and culture omnivore Dan Okrent, and the columnist Stanley Crouch, whom I know slightly and who joined us at our table.  On the subway ride back into Manhattan, the entire car was filled with people debating Ullmann’s changes and Blanchett’s performance. 

It’s thrilling when a 60-year old show can stir up that kind of excitement.  I’d tell you to go see it before the three-week run ends on Dec. 20 but it’s already sold out.  Although there are a pair of tickets available on eBay if you’re willing to put out $3,000. 

December 9, 2009

In a Total Swoon Over "Brief Encounter"

I’ve fallen in love.  The object of my affection is the Kneehigh Theatre, a company based in Cornwall, England and the creator of a wonder-filled show called Brief Encounter that opened at St. Ann’s Warehouse last night.  Kneehigh specializes in theater, that, says the New York Times, is driven by “theatrical rather than narrative imagination.” (Click here to read the Times piece about the company) 

The full expression of that imagination is on display in Brief Encounter, an adaptation of David Lean’s classic 1945 movie about two middle-aged married people who meet and fall in love in a British train station. The movie was based on Noel Coward’s one-act play Still Life and Kneehigh’s co-artistic director Emma Rice, who adapted and directed the stage version, has incorporated bits of it and other Coward work into this staging of Brief Encounter.  

Rice and her superlative design theme also mix in melodrama, musical hall numbers, video imagery, puppetry and some other spectacular coup d’theatre that I refuse to spoil for you (although you can click here to see a video trailer of the show).  It’s a marvelous blend of the old and the new that combines into a distinctively 21st century form of theater.  The scenic designer Neil Murray, lighting designer Malcolm Rippeth, projection designers Jon Driscoll and Gemma Carrington and sound designer Simon Baker all deserve special shoutouts.

Brief Encounter shares elements with The 39 Steps, the parody of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 thriller that is scheduled to close on Jan. 10 after some 750 performances on Broadway.  But The 39 Steps is all fast action and funny gags.  Brief Encounter has them too, thanks to a nimble ensemble of seven actors and musicians who assume multiple roles.  But this show also has heart. In the midst of all the hijinks, Hannah Yelland and Tristan Sturrock create meaningful and believable portrayals of the power of love.   

The audience the night my friend Jesse and I went out to the Dumbo section of Brooklyn to see the show was so enchanted that nearly everyone stayed behind for the talkback, lead by the pixieish Rice but attended by the entire cast.  Rice was so entertaining as she described the company’s method of working and some of the things they’d tried during rehearsals but jettisoned (dressing the ill-fated lovers as cats for one scene!) that I found myself wanting to run away with her.

There’s a new academic field called “Liveness Studies” that frets that live events from theater to football games have “become increasingly invaded, contaminated and eroded” by the technologies of TV, the movies and the computer screen
(click here if you want to know more about it).  Maybe. But this version of Brief Encounter, which runs only through Jan. 3, can’t be replicated in any other medium than on a live stage.  You have to be there to experience it. And this theater lover is deeply grateful that I had the chance to do so because this show set my heart aflutter. 

December 5, 2009

A Counterpoint to "Ragtime"

Longtime theatergoers are always bragging about the legendary shows they saw and that, because of theater’s ephemeral nature, you’ll never get a chance to see: breakout performances like Marlon Brando’s in A Streetcar Named Desire or Audra McDonald’s in the 1994 revival of Carousel, flaming bombs like Moose Murders or Glory Days, and extravagant productions like the original Follies or the 1998 Ragtime.  Well, I saw the latter and I don’t remember a thing about it.  Which has made it difficult for me to take sides in the debate over whether it or the revival currently playing at the Neil Simon Theatre is better.

Some of the critics have fallen hard for the new production.  Variety calls it “big-brain, bold-strokes musical-theater storytelling at its most vibrant.” (Click here to that and other reviews.)  My buddy Bill says he hasn’t been able to stop humming the songs since he saw the show two weeks ago. And even my niece Jennifer, who can be as tough on a show as the acerbic critic John Simon used to be in his heyday, was brought to tears when we saw it last week. All of which makes me feel a little like Scrooge for saying that I’m already beginning to forget what I saw. 

It may say more about me than it does about Ragtime but this is a show that I always feel as though I should like more than I actually do. And there are many reasons that I should. Terrence McNally won a Tony for the musical’s book, which is adapted from E.L. Doctorow’s groundbreaking historical novel set at the turn of the last century.  The novel, which I loved, is an ambitious tale about three families—one black, one white, one Jewish immigrant—and deftly pulls in real-life figures from Harry Houdini to Henry Ford, Emma Goldman to Teddy Roosevelt.  They all pop up in the show too.  And also like the book, the show takes on the serious subjects of class, gender and race that are usually catnip for me
(click here to see a clever guide to all the historical and social references in the show on its website).  Plus Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens also won a Tony for their score, which many people believe to be their finest work.  It has rousing anthems, lovely ballads and some fun character numbers too.

The original Ragtime starred Brian Stokes Mitchell as Coalhouse Walker Jr., a black musician whose insistence on being treated with dignity is the pivot around which the narrative revolves; McDonald as the love of his life Sarah; Marin Mazzie as Mother, the genteel white woman who represents the best of American virtues; and Peter Friedman as Tateh, the immigrant who realizes the American dream. That production is famous (or infamous) for being so lavish (costing by some estimates as much as $20 million) that it helped bankrupt its producer Livent Productions and lead to the charges of fraud that eventually caused the company’s co-founder Garth Drabinsky to be sentenced just this past August to a seven-year prison sentence.

The current version, which started at the Kennedy Center in Washington last summer, has no name stars.  Quentin Earl Darrington’s Coalhouse isn’t commanding enough but the rest of the cast—35 members strong, making Ragtime almost a jobs program unto itself—is fine .  In keeping with these more financially down-scaled times, the new production is so comparatively frugal ($8.5 million) that it skips all but the simplest scenery, although Santo Loquasto, who did the costumes 11 years ago, reprises them now with elegant panache
(click here to see a trailer of the show).

And yet I just can’t work up any enthusiasm for this show.  And it seems I’m not alone.  Ragtime is playing to houses that are nearly half empty. The redoubtable New York Post columnist Michael Riedel recently reported that the show may close as early as Jan. 3 (click here to read his story).  But who knows?  Years from now they may be saying this was one of those production you should have seen.  

December 2, 2009

A 2009 Holiday Gift List for Theater Lovers

Folks give and get presents all year long but, judging by the number of recent searches for last year’s Broadway & Me gift suggestions, the intensity increases during the holiday season.  So here’s my annual list of 12 treats, one for each day of Christmas, that any theater lover would be delighted to find under the tree or Chanukah bush:  

Tickets. You can’t go wrong if you give a theater lover the chance to see more shows and this year Telecharge has introduced a new gift card that can be used to buy tickets online, by phone or in person at the box office.  The cards are available in any amount from $25 to $500 at

Carols for a Cure What’s a holiday season without holiday songs? This album features the casts from 21 Broadway and off-Broadway shows performing a mix of familiar and less so songs from the Altar Boyz company’s "O Chanukah, O Chanukah" and the In the Heights crew’s "Campana Sobre Campana" to Jersey Boys’ "12 Days of a Jersey Christmas" and Rock of Ages’ "O Holy Night." And in the spirit of the season, the proceeds go to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. $20 at

2010 Calendars.  This year’s wall calendar suggestions include something naughty (a Broadway Bares calendar with photos of 13 hunky guys who’ve gone the full monty, or nearly so, to raise money for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS) and something nice (a Wicked calendar that not only features scenes from the blockbuster musical but that’s made entirely with eco-friendly recycled paper and soy-based inks). Broadway Bares is available at Out in America for $21.99 and you can get Wicked at for $13.45.

The American Theatre Wing Presents the Play That Changed My Life: Americas Foremost Playwrights on the Plays That Influenced Them. Every theater lover has a story about the play that first made him or her fall for theater.  In this collection, 19 of America’s best playwrights share the stories about the shows that made that difference for them.  $12.91 at  And for an extra goodie, you might add a ticket to the playwrights reading on Sunday, Jan. 10 at the Times Center in the New York Times building where Beth Henley, Donald Margulies and John Patrick Shanley will read their stories. $30 at

The Alvin Ailey Barbie.  It’s hard to get more theatrical than the Ailey dance company, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.  To mark the occasion, Mattel has created a collectible Barbie Doll dressed in the “Wade in the Water” costume from Ailey’s beloved masterpiece Revelations. $65 at

A Theatergoer’s Journal. Even in this world of blogs and tweets, there’s room for an old-fashioned journal where you can record your thoughts about the plays you’ve seen.  This one even helps you out with a ratings chart where you can grade your favorite actors, composers and designers. $16.95 at

The Playbill Broadway Yearbook. Imagine Broadway as the high school you wish you’d gone to and this as its annual keepsake filled with 6,000 photos and an insider’s view of all 78 shows that opened or ran on Broadway between June 2008 and May 2009, plus all the season’s major theatrical events from the Tony Awards ceremony to the Broadway softball championship. $22.95 at

A Personalized Marquee Print.  Your name (or that of your favorite theater lover) can appear in lights on this custom-made print of a theater marquee.  Prices range from $24.95 for an 8x10 copy mounted on poster board to $159.90 for a framed print on canvas from that’  It takes 2-3 weeks to produce each print so you need to order now if you want to get one before the end of the year.

The Sound of Music Pop-Up Book.  The Rodgers & Hammerstein classic debuted at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre 50 years ago and now this new book commemorates the occasion with an illustrated picture book based on scenes from the musical. Each page includes mini-pops with lyrics from such songs as “Do-Re-Mi” and “Climb Every Mountain.” $17.81 at 

Walkin’ Broadway.  This anecdote-filled audio tour through the Broadway theater district features an all-star group of guest guides who include the too-many-great-shows-to-name-here director and producer Hal Prince and Wicked composer Stephen Schwartz. $7.95 at

Free for All: Joe Papp, The Public, and the Greatest Theater Story Ever Told by Kenneth Turan and Joseph Papp.   I haven’t yet read this oral history of the theater impresario Joe Papp and his founding of the Public Theater, where such landmark shows as Hair and A Chorus Line were incubated.  But I feel confident about recommending the book because I haven’t been able to pry it out of my husband K’s hands since he got a copy for his birthday last month.  $26.37 at

Olivier's Shakespeare, the Criterion Collection. Most theater lovers have heard how great a classic actor Laurence Olivier was but this boxed set gives you the chance to see that for yourself. Just his Richard III alone, as deliciously over-the-top as a double-fudge layer cake with chocolate ice cream à la mode, is worth the price of the set. $71.99 at

Finally, I hope you’ll forgive me if I toot my own horn, but there are also some really fun (and affordable) gifts, such as the tan tote above, at the Broadway & Me store at

Happy shopping.  Happy holidays. And, of course, happy theatergoing. 

November 28, 2009

Why "This" is Not for Me

The term “comedy of manners” doesn’t get used much nowadays.  But that seems the best way to describe, This, the new play by Melissa James Gibson that’s currently in previews at Playwrights Horizons.  Except that This didn’t amuse me at all.  And that’s not just because one of its characters refers to blogs as “a large accumulation of snot.”   I can take that kind of joke.  What I can’t take is pretentious self-indulgence.  And This is full of that.

This (and what’s up with that title?) centers around a group of artsy thirtysomethings who have been friends since college and are finally dragging themselves into adulthood—two have just had a baby, another wants a more meaningful job, the fourth, and central character, is being forced to grow up by recent widowhood. Sure, they’re the hyper self-involved types we used to call yuppies but a good play could be made from such people and situations and several have been, including Gina Gionfriddo’s Becky Shaw and Adam Bock’s The Drunken City. 

But while those works found fresh ways to look at familiar characters, Gibson fills her play with the shallow stereotypes and predictable ready quips of a middling TV sitcom. I had thought the pudgy, wisecracking gay friend who has no sex life of his own and is around solely to lend support to his great-looking and totally randy straight friends had gone out with shoulder pads. But he’s center stage in This and no matter how nicely played by Glenn Fitzgerald, is indicative of how superficial this show is.

Gibson pays so little attention to the plot that the characters lurch from scene to scene without rhyme or reason. The play offers two bi-racial couples and one bisexual guy.  But it doesn’t explore how either of these things affects the people involved. And it isn’t helped by Gibson's frequent collaborator Daniel Aukin, who directs the show in a similarly helter-skelter manner. The last scene has a monologue that is supposed to be an epiphany but instead wallows in totally unearned sentimentality.

Even the set is misguided.  Louisa Thompson has designed an elaborate loft apartment to be the home of a couple in the play.  It’s well appointed with a piano (she’s a musician) a work studio (he’s a carpenter) and floor to ceiling bookshelves (they’re both intellectuals).  Problem is only half of the play takes place there so the actors have to haul furniture around each time the scene changes to simulate other locations even though the loft is always visible.  Which just looks silly when two of the characters are supposed to be sitting on a park bench eating ice cream cones.

I could go on but somehow it seems bad manners to say more.

November 25, 2009

"Dreamgirls" Remains an Audience Favorite

Audiences at the Apollo are almost as famous as the legendary Harlem theater itself. They have helped launch the careers of musicians from Ella Fitzgerald (who won the Apollo’s celebrated amateurs contest in 1934) to Jimi Hendrix (who took home the same honor in 1964). They pride themselves for this role in making dreams come true and so they are notoriously outspoken about what they do and don’t like.  They were cheering even before the curtain went up the night my sister Joanne, her friend Diane and I went to the new revival of Dreamgirls that is kicking off a national tour with a five week stop at the Apollo.

I was excited too.  I’m a longtime Dreamgirls fan.  I was dazzled by it when I saw the original production that opened back in 1981. Tom Eyen’s book about the rise of a girl group similar to The Supremes is behind-the-music melodrama at its most delicious. And Henry Krieger perfectly captures the dynamism of the soul music that formed the soundtrack of my teen years.  The performances—from Jennifer Holliday’s star-making turn as Effie, the most talented of the trio who is cast aside because she isn’t glamorous enough,  to Cleavant Derricks’ high-powered homage to James Brown as the irrepressible R&B pioneer James Thunder Early, whose style is too emotionally raw to crossover into the mainstream—were phenomenal. But the real standout was Michael Bennett’s cinematic direction—with scenes dissolving into one another and jump cutting between perspectives just the way they do in the movies only more magically because Bennett didn’t rely on cameras or special effects.  

I liked the 2006 movie that earned Jennifer Hudson an Oscar for her portrayal of Effie. But for me, Dreamgirls belongs on a stage and I was eager to see it on the stage of the Apollo, where some of the key moments in the show are set.  And I’m happy to say that it looks fine there.  Not great.  But good enough. 

Bennett’s staging is as integral to Dreamgirls as Jerome Robbins’ dances are to West Side Story and Robert Longbottom, who directed and choreographed the revival, is smart enough to know that and to hew close to the original.  He even got Robin Wagner, who created the original sets, to do the new ones, updated with some smart video projections.  Longbottom didn’t tap Theoni Aldredge to do the costumes this time around but William Ivey Long was clearly inspired by Aldredge’s work and, as one theatergoer who spotted him at the back of the theater after the show told him, Long’s costumes—simultaneously sumptuous and witty—were the stars of the current production. They were topped only by the usually unacknowledged dressers, who managed amazing changes.

I don’t say any of this as a slap at the current cast.  They’re hardworking and, buoyed, by the material, they do just fine.  Still, there is a callow quality to this production and at times, it comes across as the work of a very bright high school drama club. Moya Angela has the requisite soulful sound for Effie but she clearly feels the burden of her predecessors' success in the role, particularly in the show’s signature song “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going.”  Her rendition did the job and brought the house down but I thought I detected her sighing with relief once the song was done. 

The audience also loved Chester Gregory in the James Thunder Early role.  Gregory’s a good singer, an incredibly agile dancer and a do-anything-for-a-laugh entertainer. But he was a bit cartoonish at times and too willing to trade the pathos that deepens the character for easy laughs. Chaz Lamar Shepherd does even less well as the ambitious manager who drives the Dreams, as the girl group is called, to success, playing him largely as a one-note villain.  Syesha Mercado, yet another “American Idol” finalist, is pretty but little more as the Diana Ross-character. Adrienne Warren does add some true grit to her character as the third Dream but eventually succumbs to power ballad fever in her big number “Ain’t No Party.”

And yet, I am telling you that I had a good time. So did most of the critics, even while finding some of the very same faults with the production as I did.  My fellow blogger  Parabasis was so stunned by this response that he’s accused everyone of grading the production on a curve (click here to read his review of the reviews.)  Maybe.  But try telling that to the audience at the Apollo.

November 21, 2009

In Love with "The Brother/Sister Plays"

I’m not sure you can call yourself a card-carrying theater lover if you haven’t at least heard of Tarell Alvin McCraney. He’s the wunderkind who won both the exemplary artist award when he attended Miami’s New World School of the Arts High School and the Cole Porter Playwriting Award at the Yale School of Drama; who was named the International Playwright in Residence at the Royal Shakespeare Company this year and the first recipient of the New York Times Outstanding Playwright Award in June; and who can claim as mentors both the late great playwright August Wilson and the great British director Peter Brook. He’s also the creator of the startlingly original The Brother/Sister Plays that opened at The Public Theater this week.

McCraney, who is just 29, mixes classical Greek myths, Yoruba mythology, innercity street culture, 20th century soul music and post-modern sensibilities to create a distinctly 21st century take on the African-American experience. The Brother/Sister Plays is a trilogy of separate but interconnected plays that tell the multigenerational story of people living in a poor largely black Bayou community in Louisiana over the last 30 or so years.  It’s the work of a young man and so it isn’t perfect but it bristles with brilliance.

The plays are divided into two performances that are playing in repertory on alternate evenings or in a marathon on Saturdays.  My friend Jesse, who loves avant garde stuff, and I went to the latter last week and so got to totally immerse ourselves in McCraney’s enthralling world.

The first, and longest of the plays, is In the Red and Brown Water, which centers around a girl named Oya.  (All of the characters have names derived from those of Yoruba deities which makes me wish I had paid more attention in my college comparative religions course.) Oya is a gifted runner who has to choose between a scholarship that will take her away to college and staying at home to care for her ailing mother, and later between two completely different lovers. 

The focus shifts to three men in Oya’s life in the second and most affecting of the plays, The Brothers Size.  And the third, Marcus: or The Secret of Sweet, is a coming-of-age and coming-out story in which the children of people in the earlier plays take center stage.

Nine actors assume multiple roles in the three plays and they are all sensational. Kimberly Hébert Gregory earns the audience’s overt affection as a sassy aunt who pops up in each installment.  But I was most taken with Marc Damon Johnson, who plays the eldest of the Size brothers.  Over the course of the plays he ages from an awkward but optimistic young suitor to the world-weary elder statesman of his community and, without makeup or other artificial devices, he made it seem as though he’s playing his own age each time.  He’s a remarkable actor.

An extra bonus, at least for me, is that the plays are directed by two different people and so you get to see what happens when different approaches interact with McCraney’s idiosyncratic style.  Tina Landau treats In the Red and Brown Water as a fable—the characters, all dressed in white, stay on stage the entire time, serving as a watchful Greek chorus when they’re not speaking. Robert O’Hara gives the other two plays a more naturalistic feel but, particularly in The Brothers Size, still acknowledges their allegorical roots.

Elements of tragedy run through all three but so does a lot of humor. The plays are totally accessible even if you don’t know your Yoruba gods.  Or your theatrical ones.  McCraney, who grew up in a community much like the one in the plays, has said often that he wants to write works that will attract young people and others who don’t think theater is for them.  

It's obvious how deeply he feels about that mission. During a talkback after last Saturday’s matinee performance he recalled performing at a drug rehab center when he was just 14 and how a woman in the audience said the show made her realize for the first time how her drug use had affected her children. Then he broke down as he told the Public audience how he wished something similar had happened for his mother who had been in the same facility a year earlier and who would eventually die from AIDs. (Click here to read about his personal story).

The critics are divided in their opinions of The Brother/Sister Plays. The New York Times’ Ben Brantley found the plays “pumped full of a senses-heightening oxygen that leaves you tingling.”  But the New York Post’s Elisabeth Vincentelli accuses them of “self indulgence” and “heavy-handed staginess.” Naysayers like Vincentelli particularly object to McCraney’s theatrical device of having his characters speak their stage directions. “As precious and redundant, naive and obvious as it is, this affectation is an integral part of McCraney's poetic storytelling style. Too bad it often feels like an MFA writing assignment,” complained Vincentelli.  

But I’m a sucker for theatrical stagecraft and I loved this device, even its way of provoking audience participation, something I usually hate.  I admired it even more after hearing McCraney explain during the talkback how he’d derived the technique from the southern style of storytelling, the sermons his grandfather used to give, and a desire to create an experience that “does what the theater does well—keeping you here with me while I’m telling you this story.” 

It’s a story every theater lover should experience and since the run has just been extended through Dec. 20, you can.

November 18, 2009

It's Hard to Warm Up to "After Miss Julie"

Every theater lover knows that Anton Chekhov, Henrik Ibsen, and August Strindberg are the holy trinity of modern drama.  But I have to confess that it hasn’t always been easy for me to love them. Maybe something gets lost in the translations.  In recent years, some good productions have brought me around on Chekhov. And I’ve begun slowly warming up to Ibsen too.  But Strindberg still leaves me cold.  Alas, seeing After Miss Julie, Patrick Marber’s reworking of Strindberg’s best known play, hasn’t helped.

A quick look at the grosses suggests that I’m not the only one feeling lukewarm about this Roundabout Theatre production which opened at the American Airlines Theatre earlier this month.  It was supposed to be a hot ticket. Strindberg’s Miss Julie tells the story of an aristocrat’s privileged daughter who seduces one of the household servants. The play’s power struggles involving sex and class would seem perfect for Marber who dealt with similar dynamics in his own Closer

Marber hews close to Strindberg's 1888 original, although he sets his version in post-World War II Britain when class lines there are beginning to collapse and he roughens up the language and the sex. What he does makes sense but the way the story unfolds just doesn’t.  And director Mark Brokaw does him no favors by directing the show with endless pauses that make the play seem far longer than its 85-minutes running time.

The casting of Sienna Miller (Jude Law’s former fiancée) as the title character and Jonny Lee Miller (Angelina Jolie’s ex-husband) as the manservant was supposed to add heat too.  Sienna Miller clearly wants to be taken seriously as an actress (click here to read a New York Times piece about her) and she gives it her all. But it’s just not enough.  She’s good at the sexy stuff but gets stuck when she tries to convey the inner turmoil that drives Julie to be so self-destructive. I kept imagining what an actress like the late Natasha Richardson might have done with the part in her younger days. 

Jonny Miller, on the other hand, worked for me, neatly capturing the ambivalence of a man trapped in reverence for the class system that he longs to bring down. Marin Ireland, the only non-Brit in the three-person cast, struggles with her accent but still manages to hold her own as the cook who is Jonny’s sweetheart and the only one of the three able to navigate the old order and the coming one.

Strindberg pioneered naturalism on stage and instead of placing his play in a fashionable drawing room, he purposefully set the action in the mansion’s utilitarian kitchen. Marber keeps it there and Allen Moyer's handsome set is perfect, as is Mark McCullough's subtle but evocative lighting.  David Van Tieghem gets extra credit for the smart sound design, which has to stand in for the off-stage noises of the other servants that this production has dropped, probably for budgetary reasons.

But even the savviest designs can’t save a production.  Or maybe, it’s just that I don’t like Strindberg.  Because I also didn’t care for his other well known work Dance of Death when I saw it back in 2002.  And it starred Ian McKellan and Helen Mirren. If they can’t heat up a show for you, then it's unlikely that anyone can.

November 14, 2009

The Varied Charms of "Finian's Rainbow"

Lines in front of Broadway theaters used to form organically when people queued up to get tickets to the latest hit.  They don’t need to do that now when you can just call Telecharge or click onto SmartTix.  But there’s something about a line winding around a theater that radiates excitement, so producers and theater owners have come up with their own way to replicate it.  They keep the doors closed until literally minutes before the show is scheduled to start and make ticketholders line up while they wait.  Some shows have even started cashing in on this by selling stuff to people while they’re standing outside on the street. 

There was a long line in front of the St. James Theatre and an usher hawking bottled water when my husband K and I arrived to see the new production of Finian’s Rainbow.  We have friends in the orchestra and K went to the first preview back on Oct. 8.  He came home wishing our friends well but wondering if the musical was just too old-fashioned to survive.  Still, he’d been entertained enough to return with me and he had a better time.  I was less enchanted.

There’s no complaining about the lovely music by Burton Lane or the witty lyrics by Yip Harburg that produced such standards as “Old Devil Moon” and “How Are Things in Glocca Morra?”  The problem is the book.  It weaves a ridiculously complicated tale about an Irish man named Finian who steals a leprechaun’s pot of gold and brings it and his comely daughter Sharon to a southern state in the U.S. where a corrupt and bigoted white senator is trying to steal the land of an upstanding young farmer named Woody and the valiant sharecroppers who work for him. Got it?  Through magic, the leprechaun arrives to reclaim his treasure, the white politician is turned black, and Woody’s mute sister, who can only communicate through dance, undergoes two miraculous transformations.  Woody’s farm grows tobacco but it might as well be corn.

I was more won over by the show’s back story.  Finian’s Rainbow opened in 1947 when Jim Crow laws were oppressing black people in the South and McCarthyism was starting to terrify liberal-minded people throughout the country. But Lane, Harburg and co-book writer Fred Saidy created a show that condemned racism and poked fun at politicians.  And their show was the first on Broadway to feature a mixed company of black and white singers and dancers. Cloaking its beliefs under the mantle of fantasy helped Finian’s Rainbow run for a then-healthy 725 performances but its progressive message was still apparent for anyone who cared to look. A courageous act for the time.  And one that deserves to be remembered today.

Ironically, there’s never been a Broadway revival of Finian’s Rainbow until now because the show has been considered racist.  That’s because the actor playing the senator traditionally donned black face makeup after the character’s been turned black, a definite no-no in these more enlightened times. The current production, directed and choreographed by Warren Carlyle with the unself-conscious gusto of a big Fifties musicals, has found a smart way around the problem that actually adds to the merry-making.

It’s also found a terrific cast.  Jim Norton, an authentic Irishman who I only knew from his dramatic roles in Conor McPherson plays, is delightful as Finian and Kate Baldwin makes a radiant Sharon. Christopher Fitzgerald, Chuck Cooper and Terri White are excellent in key parts but my personal favorites were Guy Davis, the son of Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis, as a blues harmonica-playing field hand and Alina Faye, a former member of the American Ballet Theatre, as the dancing sister. I wanted an immediate encore when her solo number ended. Only Cheyenne Jackson’s Woody disappointed me.  As usual, Jackson looks great and sings well but he seems to have attended the Al Gore School of Acting. 

I enjoyed the show despite it corniness but the audience at our performance loved the show.  Although it might have been biased.  At least three rows were filled with friends and family members there to cheer on Christopher Borger, one of the kids in the show (click here to read his story). And after the show ended, White, who had recently been homeless (click here to read her story) was scheduled to have an onstage commitment ceremony with her partner Donna Barnett.  But the critics love the show too (click here for some of their reviews) and they’ve given it the kind of raves that, in the old days, would have created lines around the block. 

November 11, 2009

Jude Law Plays It Smart in "Hamlet"

I’d told myself that I was done with Hamlet. As anyone who paid even the slightest attention in high school English knows, the play tells the tale of the young Danish prince who seeks revenge against an uncle whom he believes has killed his father, married his widowed mother and taken the throne that should have been his. For centuries now, every actor who can pull on a pair of tights has yearned to play the title part. I’ve seen more than my fair share of them and I told myself I didn’t need to see any more.

But that, of course, was before I heard that Jude Law was playing Shakespeare’s moody Dane. I’ve been an unabashed Jude Law fan since seeing him in “The Talented Mr. Ripley” and despite his spotty record in movies since then, I’ve remained convinced that he’s more than just a pretty face.  So I was eager to see what he would bring to Hamlet.

Although not apparently as eager as the woman I spotted in the eighth row of the orchestra who hauled out her binoculars as soon as she sat down.  There was a great deal to see.  Law, although, as movie stars tend to be, smaller than one expects, gives a big performance.  His Hamlet is vigorously nimble—both his body and his mind constantly moving.  And Law delivers his speeches—even the well known soliloquies—with a naturalness that makes the goings on totally accessible. He also finds bits of humor in the prince and he’s terrific in the fencing scene with Laertes. 

No fight director is listed in the Playbill so I suppose director Michael Grandage should get part of the credit for the fine swordplay.  Grandage also gets credit for moving the proceedings along at a nice clip that suffers few languors despite the play’s three hour and 10 minute running time.  As its chic dark modern-dress costumes, stark set and dance-club lighting suggest, this is a Hamlet for contemporary times.  And yet, at least for me, this production, which started out in London last spring and played at the real Kronberg Castle in Elsinore, Denmark before opening at Broadway’s Broadhurst Theatre last month, fails to achieve greatness.

The supporting cast is part of the problem.  No one really stands out. Gugu Mbatha-Raw is pretty but pallid as Ophelia. Ron Cook is too prissy even for the prissy counselor Polonius.  And Kevin R. McNally is far too avuncular for the duplicitous uncle Claudius.  I kind of liked Geraldine James as Hamlet’s mother Gertrude.  But my friend Ellie, the one-time actress-turned professor who’s just finished teaching Hamlet in her class, found James too bland.

But the main problem with the production is that it’s too smart for it’s own good. Law is wonderfully charismatic and he doesn’t set a wrong foot during the time he’s on stage but I could see him thinking the whole time about exactly where he should step.  Still, it’s a treat, with or without binoculars, to watch him figure it out. Which you can do until the limited run ends on Dec. 6.

November 7, 2009

There's True Value in "Broke-ology"

The folks at Lincoln Center aren’t selling a cast album for Broke-ology, the new family drama by Nathan Louis Jackson, but maybe they should.  The show isn’t a musical but disco-era tunes by Stevie Wonder, Kool & the Gang and McFadden & Whitehead are playing when you walk into The Mitzi E. Newhouse theater where the show is running through the end of the month.  The twentysomething woman in the seat next to me mouthed all the lyrics.  “Aren’t you too young to know these songs?” I asked.  She laughed.  “It’s good stuff,” she said. 

And it is.  Disco music often gets dismissed as superficial but hearing those songs took me back to the ‘late ‘70s and early ‘80s when disco anthems like McFadden & Whitehead’s “Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now” expressed an against-the-odds optimism about the future of black people in this country.  The play took me back too.  And not just because the opening scene is set in 1982.  The entire play reminded me of the shows I used to see at the Negro Ensemble Company during those years. Edgier shows by playwrights like Tarell Alvin McCraney and Suzan-Lori Parks are now more popular than the black family dramas that were the NEC’s specialty but there was good stuff in those old shows and there’s some good stuff in Broke-ology too. 

The play tells the story of the working-class King family. The Kings are a loving, not dysfunctional, family but internal fractures and outside pressures strain their bonds. The show’s title is drawn from the eldest son’s joking suggestion that there should be an academic field devoted to “the study of being broke.”

When the play opens, parents-to-be William and Sonia are awaiting the birth of their first child and dreaming about making a better life beyond the Kansas City ghetto where they live. The next scene takes place 27 years later.  Sonia has been dead for 10 years, William is battling multiple sclerosis, the eldest son Ennis is trapped in a dead-end job and expecting his first child, and the youngest son Malcolm is returning home from college with a master’s degree and ambitions of his own.

The conflicts develop quickly and predictably but the show’s 30 year-old playwright, who admits that the play is partly autobiographical (click here to read his story) knows that love and resentment exist in equal measure in most families and that envy and encouragement stand side-by-side in poor families where one member has the chance of making it out but only at the expense of the equally-deserving others.  Broke-ology is at its best when it clicks into those moments. 

It’s also blessed with a fine cast.  Wendell Pierce and Crystal A. Dickinson are wonderfully touching as the parents.  Alano Miller captures the awkward self-consciousness of a young man simultaneously eager and reluctant to enter a middle-class life that means leaving his family behind. And Francois Battiste, who was terrific in last season’s production of The Good Negro at the Public Theater, is just as dynamic as the brother who knows that he will be the collateral damage of his younger sibling’s success.

This isn’t a great play. It veers into melodrama and indulges in some heavy-handed symbolism.  But it also portrays contemporary working-class people with an authenticity and respect too seldom seen on stage.  And, in my book, that makes it good stuff.

November 4, 2009

What's the Play That Changed Your Life?

If you love theater, there’s some play way back at the beginning that sparked your obsession, that really got to you, that changed your life.  That’s why people go to the theater.  That’s why they make it. And that's why the American Theatre Wing is publishing a new book called “The Play That Changed My Life: America’s Foremost Playwrights on the Plays that Influenced Them.” In it, 19 of the best playwrights working today share their stories about the shows that made that all important difference to them.

The book will be out in December but, in the meantime, the Wing is holding an online essay contest that will give other theater lovers a chance to speak up about the shows that changed their lives.  It could have been your grade school play, your first Broadway musical, a magical touring production or a terrific one at a regional theater.  Whatever it is, ATW wants to hear from you about that theatrical experience and why it meant so much. The contest started Monday and closes at midnight on Sunday, Nov. 29. Entries of up to 350 words will be accepted.

The final judging panel includes
Ted Chapin, the president of the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization who is also chairman of ATW's Board of Directors; Carol Flannery, the editorial director of Applause Books; the award-winning playwright David Henry Hwang; and me (really, I’m one of the judges). We’ll be evaluating the entries on creativity, clarity, and most importantly, passion. Prizes include a copy of “The Play That Changed My Life” signed by some of the contributing playwrights and other you-ought-to-have-in-your-library books from Applause Books.  Submissions will be posted online and additional prizes will be given based on voting by the public; you can cast your vote through Dec. 11.

In the meantime, the Wing has asked the same question of other people who make shows on and off-Broadway because, of course, just like the rest of us there was a first time for them too. Here’s the answer Oskar Eustis, the artistic director of the Public Theater, gave: 

“I have to say, Hair had an enormous influence on me.  When I was fourteen years old, I had run away from home, I was in England hitchhiking through- I had been hitchhiking through Europe, and I went to the Shaftesbury Theatre in London to see Hair.  And at the end of the production I got up on stage and I danced with the tribe.  And it had this huge impact on me, because I was a very alienated young man and angry and disaffected, and dancing onstage there with that tribe both gave me the feeling that the theatre was a place where I might find a home and I might belong, but it also gave me a sense that America was a country that might have a place for me, that I might be able to find a home in.”

Now, I’m looking forward to reading yours.  You can enter it at

October 31, 2009

Renewing My Fealty to "The Royal Family"

For some reason I can’t remember, I became obsessed with the Algonquin Round Table during my 20s.  Dorothy Parker—the only woman among the 10 witty journalists and theater folk who lunched, drank and cracked jokes there every day during the 1920s—was, of course, my favorite.  But I read everything I could find about the whole bunch.  Which meant that I kept coming across references to The Royal Family, charter Round Table member George S. Kaufman and frequent guest Edna Ferber’s affectionate satire about the Barrymores, America’s then-leading theatrical dynasty. 

The more I read about it, the more I wanted to see the play. I missed the now-legendary production that opened in 1975 with Rosemary Harris and George Grizzard as siblings Ethel and John Barrymore because I was living in San Francisco at the time. (There's a Broadway Theatre Archives DVD but this show is a love letter to stage life and should be seen there.)  And with three acts, 16 characters, two greyhounds, and a full three-minute fencing scene, this is not the kind of show that gets revived often. So hats off to Manhattan Theatre Club for stepping up and putting on the charming revival of The Royal Family, currently playing at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.

Be warned that the play starts slowly as all the characters are introduced in the first act.  It probably played better when the show first opened in 1927 and the Barrymores were famous enough that theatergoers could pick up on all the inside digs at them.  But stick with it because the plot gets rolling in the second act and there’s lingering resonance in the play’s underlying theme about the choices women have to make between the families they love and the work they love. 

The women in the play’s Cavendish family—matriarch Fanny, daughter Julie and granddaughter Gwen—are all brilliant actresses and each finds her own solution to the problem.  Their men folk—movie-star idol Tony, journeyman actor uncle Bert and various suitors—provide the comic relief. It’s a surprisingly feminist message for the time.

Kaufman and Ferber originally hoped that Ethel Barrymore and her brother John would play the characters based on themselves.  Or at least so says Margot Peters, who wrote “The House of Barrymore,” the gossipy 1990 biography of the clan.  But, according to Peters, Ethel not only turned down the role but tried to sue the playwrights.  (The book is out of print but click here for the download).

The suit fizzled when John refused to cooperate but Ethel took some satisfaction from the difficulty the producer Jed Harris had in finding someone dynamic enough to play her.  Harris finally settled on the journeywoman actress Ann Andrews.  “One can admire Ann Andrew’s conscientious, thorough acting of Julie Cavendish—without considering her supremely well cast in the part,” wrote New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson, damning poor Andrews with faint praise in his otherwise rave review. 

Jan Maxwell, who plays Julie in the current production, isn’t as grand as Ethel herself might have been but she fares far better than “conscientious,” particularly in her show-stopping breakdown in the second act. Reg Rogers is appropriately manic as Tony. Tony Roberts is somewhat halting as the family manager Oscar Wolfe but it’s just good to see him following the minor seizure he suffered on stage a few days before the play opened. And Rosemary Harris now makes an elegant and touching Fanny (click here to red a lovely piece she wrote for Broadway Buzz about appearing in both productions). But best for me was John Glover, sleek and amusingly pompous as the under-talented Bert. 

Doug Hughes clearly had a good time directing them all. Alas, I found Catherine Zuber’s costumes a little too obvious—did all the Cavendish women have to wear the royal color purple?  But John Lee Beatty’s lavish set, nicely lit by Kenneth Posner, seems just the kind of flamboyantly theatrical apartment the Cavendishes would call home. The fight director might have called a few more fencing rehearsals but kudos to the dog wrangler and to Maury Yeston for the jaunty incidental music.

Of course it's unlikely that any production could live up to my long-gestating fantasies about The Royal Family. But both my husband K and I ended up having a good time.  I do, wonder, though, what Dorothy Parker might have said about it. 

October 28, 2009

The Good Old Days of "Brighton Beach Memoirs"

My grandmother was one of nine southern farm kids and the first to move to New York City.  Over the years, three of her siblings and nearly all her nieces and nephews followed her here and although that was during the Great Depression and she was struggling to raise her own three children, Grandma took her relatives in and shared what she had until they could afford to support themselves.

Such Depression-era survival stories and the familial loyalty that helped people get through those days are common to many families, inspiring as we struggle to pull ourselves out of the current economic morass and the reason that the new revival of Brighton Beach Memoirs, Neil Simon’s comedy about coming of age during the ‘30s that opened at the Nederlander Theatre on Sunday night, may win over theatergoers as it did my theatergoing buddy Bill and me.

For over 30 years, starting with Come Blow Your Horn in 1962, a new Simon play opened on Broadway every season but it was Brighton Beach Memoirs, the first of the autobiographical works now known as the Eugene Trilogy, that established Simon as more than just a guy who knew how to write jokey dialog. (Click here to read a New York Magazine appraisal of his career.)  Simon is now 82 and his trademark mix of comedy and sentimentality seemed to have gone out of style.  He hasn’t had a new show on Broadway since 45 Seconds from Broadway closed after just 73 performances in 2002.  And recent revivals of three of his other works—Sweet Charity, The Odd Couple and Barefoot in the Park—performed only slightly better. 

It may prove different for Bright Beach Memoirs.  For starters, David Cromer has been brought in to direct the show.  Cromer, who helmed the brilliantly revisionist production of Our Town that is still playing down at the Barrow Street Theatre, establishes a naturalistic tone that cares less about hitting the punch lines (although there are still plenty of laughs) than mining the emotional bonds that connects the extended Jewish family in the play. The result is that the audience doesn’t so much laugh at the characters as smile with them.  And wistfully wonders why more families today aren’t as loving and forgiving of one another.  Or at least that’s what I found myself thinking.

The play’s household consists of Jack Jerome, who works two jobs to support the six other family members who live in his Brooklyn home and still finds the time and sensitivity to counsel all of them, his world-wary wife Kate, their two sons Stanley and Eugene, Kate’s widowed sister Blanche and her two daughters.  Things in the real Simon household (and in my grandmother’s) probably weren’t as rhapsodic as memory or this play would have it but Dennis Boutsikaris and Laurie Metcalf give the elder Jeromes an unaffected sexiness that undercuts Jack and Kate’s saintliness. Jessica Hecht perfectly captures the passive-aggressiveness of the destitute relative forced to take handouts. And Santino Fontana brings real brio to the role of the eldest son and big brother every kid longs to have (click here to see scenes from the show)

But the central character and narrator is 15-year-old Eugene, the stand-in for Simon’s younger self, and the weight of the show rests on his pubescent shoulders.  Matthew Broderick made his Broadway debut and won a Tony for his portrayal of Eugene in the original 1983 production. Now, the character is brought to vivid life by Noah Robbins, a gifted 19 year-old whose Playbill bio charmingly lists his most recent previous credit as appearing “Off- Off- Off- Off- Off-Broadway as Max Bialystock in his high school’s production of The Producers.” (Click here to read a Washington Post profile of him.)

I’m more ambivalent about the production design.  John Lee Beatty has created a terrific-looking two-story set but it seemed pretty roomy and comfortable for a family struggling to make ends meet. The sound design by Josh Schmidt and Fitz Patton has its problems too. Instead of body mics, they’ve placed 23 mics around the set (click here to read a Wall Street Journal article about how and why they did it) and since actors don’t project the way they once did what you hear is uneven. The entire production is overseen by Simon’s longtime producer Emanuel Azenberg (click here to listen to a Downstage Center interview with him) and at the performance Bill and I attended, he stood at the back of the theater making sure that everything was right. 

And, for the most part, it is.  Starting in December, Brighton Beach Memoirs will play in repertory with Broadway Bound, the final part of the trilogy.  Robbins is too young-looking to play an older Eugene so the part will be taken over by Josh Grisetti who was terrific last year when he played Carl Reiner’s alter-ego in the revival of the coming-of age play based on Reiner’s novel  "Enter Laughing." Advances for the two Simons plays are reportedly low and there’s been some nervousness about whether they will survive but I’m already looking forward to a return visit to the Jerome’s.   

Update: Unable to sell tickets, despite generally good reviews, the producers canceled Broadway Bound and closed Brighton Beach Memoirs a week after it opened.