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.