July 31, 2010

So You Think You Can Dance Stumbles

The differences between a hit show on Broadway and one on TV are too numerous to count. But one big distinction is that once a Broadway show has opened, it usually stays pretty much the same, except for casting changes. Television producers, on the other hand, are under constant pressure to freshen up their shows and scramble things around each new season.  And this summer, the folks behind one of my TV favorites, the reality dance competition “So You Think You Can Dance,” (click here to read my original take on the show) have gone into change overdrive. Alas, they seem to be driving the show into a ditch.

"SYTYCD"’s executive producer Nigel Lythgoe, a former hoofer himself, takes obvious pride in being a champion of dance. He’s invited professional companies that
rarely get airtime on commercial TV, like American Ballet Theatre and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, to perform on the show. And has done the same for Broadway musicals like In the Heights and Come Fly Away.  

Lythgoe has also set up a foundation to promote dance around the U.S. and initiated National Dance Day, which is being observed today. (Click here to find out how you can get in on the action which will be going on into the evening hours)  This is all very good stuff. But there may be too many demands on Lythgoe’s attention.  In addition to everything else, it’s just been announced that he is again taking over the reigns as executive producer of “American Idol.”

The conceit for "SYTYCD" is similar to “Idol’s”: a group of great-looking young people —ranging from self-taught break dancers to formally-trained ballroom prancers—perform different styles each week and are judged and eliminated by a panel of experts and the phone-in votes from viewers at-home.

In past seasons, the choreographers who put together the routines were just as eclectic and talented as the dancers.  The judges' panel, anchored by Lythgoe and the ballroom specialist Mary Murphy, included a revolving cast of dance pros ranging from Broadway vet Debbie Allen to hip-hop choreographer Shane Sparks and offered as much encouragement as criticism.

But things are different this year. The contestants seem to have arrived with even more dancing ability than those in previous summers but their personalities are blander. It’s been hard for me to root for any of them. A new director has also been brought in and (while I confess to some bias because the old one, Matthew Diamond, is a longtime acquaintance) it now seems more difficult to follow the dancers’ moves.

The most entertaining of the judges, Murphy, who used to literally shriek with delight when the dancers performed well, has been M.I.A this season. Her yelling got on a lot of people’s nerves but she brought enthusiasm and compassion to the show and her absence is notable.  The current judges (choreographers Mia Michaels and Adam Shankman have joined Lythgoe in a permanent triumvirate) have been much tougher—even at times, mean-spirited—and that’s taken out some of the fun too.  

Several of the show’s best choreographers like Wade Robson (click here to see his Emmy-winning routine from a previous season) and Michaels (click here for hers) have cut back on their contributions this season. The newcomers have been straining to prove that they are just as good—but, for the most part, their dances are nowhere near as imaginative.  Instead, they’ve loaded their routines with dangerous acrobatics and other look-at-me tricks, making the show seem less like a dance competition than a gymnastics meet.

The result has been that the dancers have suffered more injuries this season than in any other. The early favorite—Alex Wong, a magnificent dancer who left  the Miami Ballet to be in the competition and aced every style thrown at him—was sidelined a few weeks ago when he strained and had to have an operation on his Achilles tendon.

Maybe the show is taking itself too seriously.  Lythoge and his fellow judges keep telling the dancers to forget that they’re in a contest and to just have fun and dance from the heart. That’s good advice that the entire show should heed. Its old natural cheesiness went down much better than the processed version it now offers.

It’s too late in this season for any changes.  The contestants have been whittled down to the final four and “American’s Favorite Dancer” will be declared on Aug. 12.  So I’m going to extend my congratulations to whomever the winner is  right now.  And then I’m going to hope that when the producers are pondering what changes to make for Season 8 they get back on what the great song-and-dance-man James Brown used to call “the good foot.”

July 28, 2010

Easing into a Vacation Schedule

Call me lazy if you'd like.  But I've got to be honest: there's no way I'm going to keep up my usual twice-a-week posts during the rest of this summer.  I am going to make an effort to put down my glass and write something once a week but, alas, not today. 

July 24, 2010

"The Irish..and How They Got That Way" is a Fitting Epitaph for the Late Frank McCourt

It’s hard to think of anything tackier than showing up at a memorial service and dissing the deceased.  The Irish Repertory Theatre has just revived The Irish…and How They Got That Way, the 1997 revue about Irish history written by the memorist Frank McCourt who died last summer. It’s clearly a labor of love for the company, which had a long association with the author, and so let me say right off the bat that there will be no badmouthing here about its good intentions—or the object of its affection.

McCourt, of course, is best known for writing “Angela’s Ashes,” the bestselling and Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir about his hardscrabble childhood in Ireland.  But his first professional writing success was an autobiographical two-man play called A Couple of Blaguards that he and his actor brother Malachy wrote two decades before the book came out and performed around the country for years.

Spinning yarns about the Irish is something of a McCourt family business. Malachy and another brother Alphie have written memoirs of their own. A nephew made a documentary about the clan. All the tales they tell are simultaneously angry and defensive about the treatment of the Irish over the years and proud and unabashedly sentimental about the accomplishments of their kinsmen.

The Irish…and How They Got That Way falls right in that McCourt tradition. A six-member cast that includes a pianist and string player whips through some three dozen classic Irish songs from “Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ra” to “Danny Boy” with stops along the way for “No Irish Need Apply,” “The Ghost of Molly McGuire” and “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”  

In between the songs, the actors tell stories about the cruelty of the English, the miseries of the 19th century potato famine, the bias Americans first showed against Irish immigrants and the role the Irish later played in the American labor movement, in politics and in the movies—or, as in Ronald Reagan’s case, all three. 

Charlotte Moore, the co-founder of the Irish Rep, doesn’t seem to have done much updating of her original, straightforward (in all senses of the word) direction (a review from the time complained that the audience sitting on one side of the stage was ignored and it still is). 

Moore and designer Jan Hartley have added some video projections but they prove to be only partly successful (at one point a painting of Thomas Jefferson signing the Declaration of Independence flashes on screen while the cast talks about the heyday of Tammany Hall). 

Still the cast members are sincere and hardworking, particularly Gary Troy, who is equally adept at singing, dancing, crafting distinctive characters out of the smallest bits of dialog and even playing the spoons. And it would be hard to find a more dulcet Irish tenor than Ciarán Sheehan, reprising his role from the original production.  All in all, I think Frank McCourt—and his legions of fans—would find this revival a fitting tribute to his memory. 

July 21, 2010

Why "A Disappearing Number" Doesn't Add Up

“So what part of the theater are you involved in?” asked the puppyish young man in the seat next to mine at A Disappearing Number, the challenging British production that made a brief appearance last weekend as part of this month’s Lincoln Center Festival. His question seemed to suggest that only theater insiders (he confirmed my guess that he was an actor) would want to see the show. And I have to confess that it did take me a while to make up my mind about whether I wanted to go.

On the one hand, the play is the creation of Complicite, the experimental British company that is a chief proponent of the highly stylized, multimedia approach to theatermaking that I’ve come to love.  On the other hand, its subject is mathematics, which I haven’t loved since 12th grade calculus and which has never struck me as inherently theatrical.  But on yet another hand, the play won the Critics Circle, London Standard and Olivier awards for the Best New Play of 2007.  That made the final count two hands to one. So I bought the ticket.

I’m not sorry I did.  I’m very seldom sorry whenever I go to the theater.  But I can’t say I had a  good time either.  A Disappearing Number follows two loosely connected storylines.  One involves the scholarly relationship that began in 1914 between the Cambridge mathematician G.H. Hardy and Srinivasa Ramanujan, a brilliant Indian autodidact who made valuable contributions to number theory before he died in 1920 at just 33.

An almost self-consciously parallel plot follows the contemporary love story between a female mathematician and an Indian-American hedge fund manager. The action jumps back and forth between continents and multiple periods in time. There are allusions to chaos theory, the joys of creativity, globalization, immigration and the human need to connect. All heady stuff.  But, as presented, too heady for me.

Complicite, under the direction of its co-founder Simon McBurney, employed its trademark creative stagecraft.  There were dazzling video projections, evocative lighting, an onstage musician playing Indian instruments and actors who performed traditional Indian dance steps. The entire eight-member cast, half of whom took on multiple roles, was excellent. (Click here to hear an NPR interview with McBurney about the genesis of the show.)

But because the underlying world of high-level math is foreign territory for most viewers, a great deal of the 110-minute show (which is performed without intermission) has to be devoted to exposition, which despite the best efforts of the actors and a few self-deprecating jokes quickly lost my interest. The jumping back and forth further undermined my ability to establish empathy with any of the characters. Some critics found the show mesmerizing.  All the talk and the overlapping and repetitive action put me in a trance too, but it was a soporific one.

The young actor in the seat next to me leaned forward when the play began, eagerly laughed at the funny lines and nodded in agreement to the more thought-provoking ones. But as the show went on, he, too, occasionally nodded off. In alert moments, he checked his watch.  Still when the show ended, he leapt out of his seat to lead the applause.

The New York Times critic Charles Isherwood, who I'm certain stayed awake all the way through, liked it even more.  In fact, he seemed to particularly appreciate the way the play “avoids linear storytelling, creating instead more complicated spatial and temporal patterns, refracting the narrative to mirror the complex ideas being discussed.” (Click here to read his entire review.)

I like being mentally challenged too. But I also like to be entertained and A Disappearing Number didn’t add up that way for me.  But you can judge for yourself because the production will be coming to a Cineplex near you as part of next season’s NT Live series that broadcasts stage productions to movie theaters around the world (click here to read my thoughts about those productions). The date for this one is already set for Oct. 14.

July 17, 2010

Turning on the Ghost Light

Yes it’s Saturday but there will be no new post today because (1) Wednesday’s longer-than-usual post covered two plays and (2) there’s been very little else to see and not much more to talk about and (3) that may be a good thing because I’ve succumbed to the sloth of the hot summer weather.  So, as theaters do when they’re temporarily empty, I’m turning on the ghost light. But there are a couple of upcoming shows on my calendar so I’ll be back to talk about them next week.  Until then, stay cool.

July 14, 2010

Scoring A Shakespeare Double-Header

Sometimes it seems that I’ve been seeing The Public Theater’s productions of Shakespeare in the Park since Hamlet was a happy toddler.  In the old days the play was the thing.  It’s not that the actors weren’t great.  They obviously were with folks like James Earl Jones, Colleen Dewhurst and George C. Scott in the casts.  It’s just that those folks weren’t then the names they are now.  In recent years, however, it’s the name casts that have been the thing. The park productions now boast famous movie stars and familiar TV faces as well as Broadway stage stalwarts. Sometimes all in the same person.  

The challenge for directors who put these shows together is finding a way to blend the varied acting styles and stage expertise that come with such a motley crew.  And this year, the task has been made even greater because the Public Theater has decided to present The Merchant of Venice and The Winter’s Tale in repertory with actors appearing in both productions on alternate nights. To up the ante even more, two directors with very different styles were brought in to shape the shows—Michael Greif for Winter’s Tale and Daniel Sullivan for Merchant of Venice.

Perhaps to compensate for Merchant's notorious anti-Semitism, Sullivan has re-imagined the play making it less of a comedy and more of an existential tragedy, which seems to have appealed to most of the critics who liked it far better than they did A Winter’s Tale.  I felt pretty much the opposite way.  Sullivan’s Merchant is darker and edgier, qualities that carry more weight in the current cultural landscape.  But I liked the lighter, more optimistic approach to Greif’s Winter’s Tale, which reminded me of those straight-ahead productions of my youth.

Just about everyone agrees that the acting in the shows is a mixed bag. Of course, most people want to see Al Pacino as Shylock (both Senator Charles Schumer and “Glee”’s Matthew Morrison were in the audience the night my husband K and I saw Merchant).  And Pacino’s fine in the role but the standout in this show is Lily Rabe who makes a fabulous Portia.  On the other hand, alas, the usually dynamic Ruben Santiago-Hudson is far too tepid as Leontes, the jealous King of Sicilia in Winter’s Tale

While the actors playing the male and female leads appear only in those shows, other members of the casts do double duty with roles in both, albeit with only varying degrees of success. The goodies are Jesse L. Martin, charming as Polixenes, the wrongly accused King of Bohemia in Winter’s Tale, and as Gratiano, one of the courtiers in Merchant; the
patrician-looking and sonorous-voiced Byron Jennings, sheer perfection as the noblemen Camillo in Winter’s Tale and Antonio in Merchant; and Marianne Jean-Baptiste, particularly fierce as Paulina, the noblewoman who dares to defy King Leontes in Winter’s Tale.

The not-as-goodies include Francois Battiste, who has been terrific in contemporary roles in The Good Negro and Broke-o-logy but seems far out of his comfort zone as Florizel, the love-struck prince of Bohemia in Winter’s Tale, and Salerio, one of the courtiers in Merchant; and Heather Lind, a recent graduate of NYU, who is lovely to look at as the ingénues Perdita in Winter’s Tale and Jessica in Merchant but hasn’t found a way to make her characters more than mere pretty faces. 

But most egregious for me was Hamish Linklater, who seems to have let the raves he earned for his comedic turn as Sir Andrew Aguecheek in last summer’s all-stars production of Twelfth Night go to his head. This time out, he’s so desperate to maintain his funny-man rep that he resorts to the cheapest of laugh-getters and literally moons the audience as Autolycus, the supposedly lovable rascal in Winter’s Tale. Linklater does do better in Merchant but he still seems miscast as Portia’s suitor-of-choice Bassanio and it’s hard to see what a smart gal like her would see in him. 

Of course desirability—and one’s view of Shakespeare—often rests in the eye of the beholder. My husband K likes to know as much as he can about a Shakespeare play before he sees it and he spends days reading both the text and commentaries about it. We had a good time over a late dinner at a nearby Columbus Avenue restaurant after the show comparing his take on Merchant to Sullivan’s concept of it, even though K didn’t care at all for the latter.

My sister Joanne, who went with me to see The Winter’s Tale, takes the opposite approach to seeing Shakespeare. She won’t even read the notes in the Playbill while waiting for the show to start because she likes being surprised by the play as it happens and her responsive laughs and groans would do a 16th century groundling proud.  She also got a kick out of matching the famous faces on stage to their day jobs on TV series (Jean-Baptiste from the old CBS show "Without a Trace," Linklater and the recently canceled CBS sitcom “The New Adventures of Old Christine,” Santiago-Hudson on the ABC crime series “Castle,” and Martin, who spent nine years as Det. Ed Green on NBC's “Law & Order.”)

What I liked best was simply watching the shows in the middle of Central Park on two beautiful summer nights (I lucked out both times and suffered no stifling heat, no rain showers). And clearly others feel the same way.  People are camping out overnight for the free tickets to the shows.  The man sitting behind K and me at Merchant said he got there at 5 a.m. and was the third from the last to get tickets that day. 

The shows are only running until Aug. 1 but I’ve heard talk that Merchant may transfer for a limited run on Broadway so there’s a chance you can see it without sleeping on a bench or under a tree.  What you won’t get, of course is the magic of seeing Shakespeare in the Park

July 10, 2010

"The Grand Manner" Isn't Quite Grand Enough

Like most theater junkies, I’ve got a jones for backstage plays.  So there was no way I was going to miss The Grand Manner, playwright A.R. Gurney’s autobiographical memory play about meeting the legendary actress Katharine Cornell that is playing at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse theater until Aug. 1. 

Grand dames pretty much ruled the American stage during the first half of the 20th century. At one time or another, Ethel Barrymore, Lynn Fontanne, Helen Hayes, and Eva Le Gallienne  laid claim to the title of “First Lady of the American Theater” but perhaps the grandest of them all—and the one I knew the least about—was Katharine Cornell.

I’d seen the others in the occasional movie, the odd TV show episode and even on PBS documentaries (earlier this year my husband K and I saw a particularly good one about Fontanne and her husband Alfred Lunt). But Cornell only made three filmed appearances and those in cameos that only hint at the stage magic that drew ardent fans when she barnstormed the country performing Chekhov, Ibsen, Shakespeare, Shaw and her signature role as the Victorian poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning in The Barretts of Wimpole Street (click here to see Cornell's brief appearance in the movie “Stage Door Canteen”).

That creates a bit of a problem for Gurney, known to his friends and in the play as Pete. Apparently worried that contemporary audiences won’t know who Cornell is, he spends far too much of his 90-minute play on clunky exposition. But the bigger problem is that Gurney, who says he has waited 60 years to write this play, isn’t sure what his story is. 

In a brief prologue, the Pete character explains that the real meeting in 1948 lasted just about five minutes.  The young fan and the star traded a few niceties about their mutual hometown Buffalo, she signed his Playbill and that was it. So Gurney imagines how the meeting might have gone if he’d been able to stay longer. But, alas, not much happens then either.

That’s too bad because Cornell’s life offers lots of dramatic material and The Grand Manner alludes to several of those possibilities but doesn't flesh them out. There’s Cornell struggle to remain relevant as the genteel manner of acting that made her famous began to lose ground to the rougher naturalism championed by Marlon Brando and other Method actors. There’s the inherent tension in how Cornell and her husband and director Guthrie McClintic managed to maintain a loving marriage despite the fact that they were both gay and sexually attracted to others. I would love to have seen either of those plays.

But this one might have worked better had Kate Burton, who plays Cornell, been able to convey the grand manner that the older actress was known for and that gives the play its title. Burton is a fine actress in her own right but in interviews this daughter of Richard Burton and stepdaughter of Elizabeth Taylor prides herself on being down-to-earth and she chooses to play Cornell that way (click here to read an interview Burton gave Theatermania.) It’s a valid choice but I can’t help thinking that the play might have had more energy had she been more highfalutin' (click here to see an excerpt from the play).

The other cast members come off better.  Bobby Steggert brings his usual boyish charm to young Pete (click here to read an exchange between him and the playwright) and Brenda Wehle is appropriately tart as Cornell’s assistant and lover Gertrude Macy. Boyd Gaines almost saves the day with his deliciously flamboyant portrayal of McClintic.

So, should you see it?  Well, Red (which won the Tony for Best Play and which I enjoyed but never got around to reviewing) closed last week and Fences
(which won the Tony for Best Revival of a Play and which I loved but never got around to reviewing) closes tomorrow so there aren’t a lot of other straight play options.  Plus theater history buffs will enjoy The Grand Manner's inside references, even down to the photos hanging the wall of the set. 

And seeing The Grand Manner provides the chance to pick up The Lincoln Center Theater Review, a terrific but undervalued quarterly about Lincoln Center productions that out does itself this time around with smart articles about Cornell, Burton and the burdens and rewards of being a leading lady of the theater. It’s truly grand.

July 7, 2010

NT Live: It's the Real Thing

One of the big surprises of the last theater season has been the emergence of NT Live as an option for theater lovers who don’t live in cities where top-shelf theater is readily available.  It’s been great for the rest of us too. I’ve now seen three of these simulcasts that beam live performances of plays at London’s National Theatre into movie theaters and other venues around the world. I think they’re swell.  And, apparently, I’m not alone. 

According to the BBC, a recent report by Britain’s National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts found that audiences “watching a live screening of a National Theatre play were more ‘emotionally engaged’ than those watching it in the theatre.” But what really pleases the theater populist in me is that, according to the report, the relatively low-cost screenings (tickets were $25 bucks here in New York, which is just slightly more than it cost to see the IMAX version of  the blockbuster movie “Avatar”) seem to be drawing people who don’t usually go to the theater. 

The Endowment’s survey found that only 41% of the British viewers who saw Phèdre, the inaugural NT Live offering with Helen Mirren in the title role (click here to read my review), had been to the National Theatre in the previous 12 months. That may have been because they couldn’t afford the pricier tickets. One quarter of the cinema audiences had incomes of less than £20,000, or around $30,000, a year. (Click here to read the BBC report on the study.)

The audience didn’t look quite that diverse when my buddy Bill and I saw the NT Live production of Dion Boucicault’s 1841 comedy London Assurance at the NYU Skirball Center last week.  We spotted lots of familiar theatergoing faces including my sister blogger Sarah B of Endless Adventures in the Pursuit of Entertainment and the actress Estelle Parsons. But I think we still got as big a kick out of the show as the folks in the survey.  Or at least Bill and I did. 

London Assurance is a frothy satire about the mores of the British gentry and it’s filled with deliciously eccentric characters including the foppish Sir Harcourt Courtly, the ebullient outdoorswoman Lady Gay Spanker, and the levelheaded young heiress Grace Harkaway, who is wooed by both Sir Harcourt and his son Charles. There are comic disguises, comic duels, and all kinds of other comic merriment.  Hilarity ensues.

The trick with this kind of comedy is to dance right up to the top of ridiculousness and then frolic on the edge without tipping over. This production, a great hit in London and with the New York Post’s Michael Riedel (click here to read his rave), was brilliantly choreographed by the National’s artistic director Nicholas Hytner and a crackerjack cast, lead by Simon Russell Beale as Sir Harcourt and Fiona Shaw as Lady Gay who perform near-perfect pirouettes, pliés and grand jetés.

Of course one of the things I most love about theater is its ephemeral, you-have-to-be-there quality.  But sometimes you just can’t be there.  Which is why I’m so taken with these NT Live performances.  The great thing about them is that they aren’t movies—you see the actual performance that London theatergoers see.  But they aren’t the static filmed stage productions that bore you to death either.  

They are a splendid hybrid and as the series has progressed, the folks behind the cameras have gotten better at knowing when to zoom in for close-ups and pull back for reactions shots (click here to read a TDF story about how they do it).  Of course, you don’t see everything that's happening on stage and you can’t linger on an actor who has caught your eye but you do get the frisson of the live performance.

The U.S. season is over but you can still catch London Assurance if you happen to be in Malta (on July 8th) Australia (on the 24th or 25th) Mexico (on the 29th) or in post-World Cup South Africa (on the 23rd, 24th, 25th & 28th).  Or you can just keep an eye out for the new NT Live season, which will begin on Oct. 14 with the Complicite Theatre Company’s production of A Disappearing Number about the Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan.  The season continues with a Hytner-directed production of Hamlet starring the up-and-coming actor Rory Kinnear, a new version of Frankenstein directed by "Slumdog Millionaire's" Danny Boyle, Fela! and The Cherry Orchard with Zoë Wanamaker as Madame Ranevskaya.

So I’ll see you at the movie theater.  I’ll be the one with the Bon Bons.