July 27, 2011

Shifting into Vacation Mode

The heat over the last few weeks has slowed everything down.  Including me.   And so, as I did around this time last year, I’m going to shift into vacation mode for the rest of the summer.  I’ll try to put down my glass and write something once a week but, alas, not this week.  In the meantime, though, I hope you’re finding a way to keep cool—and, of course, to see some theater. 

July 23, 2011

Joel Grey is Showcased in a Dual Role

Theater is such an integral a part of New York that it often overflows into other parts of city life. The windows of the big Fifth Avenue department store Lord & Taylor have recently paid tribute to How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Meanwhile, further uptown, the Museum of the City of New York is celebrating the life and work of the Broadway favorite Joel Grey.

Tourists may be unaware of these kinds of Broadway treats and those of who live here may take them for granted. But this past week—my first this year without seeing at least one show—I got my theater fix by going to the museum to see “Joel Grey/A New York Life.”  The exhibit is divided into two easily digestible parts. The first is a retrospective of Grey’s nearly 75-year acting career and the second half is a display of his art photography. Both are sensational.

Grey, who is 79, isn’t actually a Broadway baby.  He was born in Cleveland. The son of the comic Mickey Katz, he started his career as a child actor in the Cleveland Playhouse. By the time he was 10, he was enough of a pro to come to New York to audition for a spot to replace one of the kids in Broadway’s long-running Life With Father

He didn’t get the part but when he was 19, he moved here and got hired for a couple of the revues that were popular on Broadway in the ‘50s. In 1961, he caught the industry’s attention when he replaced the lead in Come Blow Your Horn, Neil Simon’s first play about a young innocent who moves in with his playboy older brother. Just five years later, Grey created the role of the emcee in Cabaret and won the first of his two Tonys.

Roles as Amos “Mr. Cellophane” Hart in the revival of Chicago, the Wizard of Oz in Wicked and the gangster Moonface Martin in the current hit revival of Anything Goes (plus his role in bringing the Tony-winning revival of The Normal Heart to Broadway) have all endeared him to a younger generation of theatergoers (click here to read an astute New York magazine profile of him)

Like many actors, Grey is a packrat who seems to have saved everything along the way. And that’s to the benefit of the exhibit which includes props, posters and awards from his various shows as well as more personal items such as a letter from Eddie Cantor, a telegram from Maurice Chevalier, a good luck mezuzah from Beverly Sills, a Life magazine spread on the apartment in the Hotel des Artistes that he shared with his wife the actress Jo Wilder and kids (James, now a chef, and Jennifer of “Dirty Dancing” and “Dancing With the Stars” fame) and photos galore.

But, to my surprise, the real treat are the photos Grey took. These aren’t the expected candid snapshots of famous friends or nicely posed pictures of animals, trees and interesting faces that most hobbyist gravitate towards. Instead, Grey takes close-ups of the city’s buildings, bridges and other infrastructure that through his discerning lens are transformed into powerful Rothko-like abstracts. In recent years, he’s also begun using his cell phone camera to capture images like hookers on the prowl or two young male lovers at a gay pride parade.  They’re all totally arresting. (Click here to see a few.)

You can see all of it for yourself if you get to the museum before the exhibit closes on Aug. 7.  Or you might even consider attending a discussion between Grey and the playwright Jon Robin Baitz that the museum is hosting on Monday, Aug.1.  You can find more out about that by clicking here.

July 20, 2011

"Master Class" Has a Lesson in Grade-A Acting

Some of the people in the audience were as attention-worthy as those onstage the night my theatergoing buddy Bill and I saw Master Class, the revival of Terrence McNally’s love letter to the great opera diva Maria Callas that is now playing at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.  For in attendance were Zoe Caldwell and Audra McDonald, who both won Tonys for the original 1995 production of Master Class; and opera’s current reigning soprano Renée Fleming, who we assumed was there because, according to the Playbill, she has sung with Garrett Sorenson, a real-life Met Opera tenor who plays one in the show. 

McNally based Master Class on a series of classes that Callas taught at Juilliard in the early ‘70s. Critics have always grumbled about the way he tells the story. They say that unlike McNally’s sharp-tongued version, the real Callas was supportive of the students who attended her classes and would never have been catty in public about rivals like Joan Sutherland (“She did her best,” purrs McNally’s Callas).  

Yet the play has always been a real crowd pleaser. The original production won the Tony for Best Play and ran 598 performances.  And playing Callas—which includes two dramatic spoken-word arias—is clearly catnip for actresses over 50 (click here to see a photo gallery of the theater divas who have taken on the role)

But I’m guessing that the supporting roles are hard as hell to cast. Callas doesn't sing in the show but the student parts demand theatrical polymaths who can sound authentic as opera singers but who can act convincingly too. The role that won McDonald her second Tony isn’t that big but I think the voters that year were rightly awed that someone could be so compelling in both areas.

This production doesn’t fair as well. Tyne Daly is—no surprise—terrific as Callas.  But Daly seems to ace everything she tries—from her days as the no-nonsense detective Mary Beth Lacey on the old CBS series “Cagney & Lacey” to her take-no-prisoners portrayal of Mama Rose in the 1989 revival of Gypsy.

If you were casting Mother Courage, Daly would have to be at or near the top of your wish list.  But even she had reservations when McNally called her up and suggested that she play his Callas. As she told Playbill, Daly's specialty has always been playing “blue collar” women (click here to read the entire interview)

But Callas wasn’t born with a silver spoon in her mouth. She clawed her way to the top. And, under the direction of Stephen Wadsworth, a stage and opera vet who is also the head of opera studies at Juilliard, Daly’s portrayal reveals both the indomitable woman and the wounded child in Callas. Plus, she also nails all McNally's punchlines and has even managed to capture the exact intonations of the way Callas spoke (click here to listen to recordings of the real master classes that Callas gave).

But Daly’s co-stars don’t give her the same level of support. The play is built around the encounters between Callas and three students who perform for her. Alexandra Silber comes off best because she is able to channel whatever nervousness she may have about making her Broadway debut—or appearing opposite a powerhouse like Dalyinto the role of the most timid of the students. 

Sorenson isn't as lucky. His character is supposed to go through the biggest transformation under Callas’ tutelage but Sorenson arrives and leaves the same way. He has a lovely voice but while his acting might pass muster on an opera stage, it lacks the nuance and polish we expect on Broadway.

The big disappointment, however, is Sierra Boggess, who takes on McDonald’s old role as a soprano who refuses to buckle under to Callas. Boggess is the perfect stage ingénue and her credits include creating the role of Ariel in The Little Mermaid and playing Christine in both The Phantom of the Opera and its sequel Love Never Dies. But although she has clearly worked hard (click here to read about her preparation for Master Class) Boggess doesn’t wield enough weight—vocally or dramatically—to take on Daly’s Callas. Their showdown seems lopsided, which makes the ending of the play fall a bit flat.

As we walked up Eighth Avenue for a late supper at the restaurant Thalia, Bill and I wondered what Caldwell, McDonald and even Fleming had thought of what we'd all just seen. Both Bill and I thought the original production had been stronger.   

But as much as McNally wrote Master Class to honor Callas, his play also celebrates the determination that every artist needs to succeed. Daly is a living—and inspiring—example of that.  And so we were glad to have had the chance to see her in Master Class. And I suspect you will be too if you can grab a ticket before the show’s limited run, which has already been extended twice, ends on Sept. 4.

July 16, 2011

RSC's "Romeo and Juliet" is a Modern Romance

 Ever since Joe Papp first set up shop in the East River Park Amphitheater to put on a production of Julius Caesar back in 1956, Shakespeare has been synonymous with summer here in New York City. And that’s never been more so than this year. 

At least two dozen productions of the Bard are playing around the city in this month alone.  There's the Public Theater’s All’s Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure in Central Park and The Drilling Company’s The Comedy of Errors in a downtown municipal parking lot. There’s the Manhattan Shakespeare Project's all-female Henry V and The New York Classical Theatre's version of that same play which includes a boat ride to Governor’s Island. There are three versions of Romeo and Juliet, including one set in the World of Witchcraft; and the weird Macbeth of the Punchdrunk Company's Sleep No More 

And, of course, there are the five playsAs You Like It, Julius Caesar, Lear,  Romeo and Juliet and The Winter’s Talethat the Royal Shakespeare Company is presenting in repertory at the Park Avenue Armory as part of this summer’s Lincoln Center Festival.

Most of the locally-grown productions are free or for a nominal fee. The top ticket to see the RSC's costs $200 and so I had planned to skip them. But then I got invited to a press preview at which the company showed off the theater it has set up inside the Armory and I fell in love with the space. It’s a replica of the RSC’s home theater back in Stratford-on-Avon, which, in turn, was built to re-create the theaters of Shakespeare’s day—only with modern lighting, air conditioning and seats for the groundlings.

So, I came home, logged on, checked out the reviews that the British critics had written about each of the five productions and decided to see Romeo and Juliet, which, according to the Guardian newspaper’s longtime critic Michael Billington, is the best production of the play in the past 50 years.  Besides, I knew R&J was a favorite of my sister Joanne’s.

The choice seats—both the cheapest and the costliest ones with the best sight lines—were all taken so I settled for ones with a partial view. They cost $90 each.  But that was before the obligatory contribution to Lincoln Center that adds 25% of the ticket price to the final tab. 

I grit my teeth and typed in my credit card numbers but I really do hope this practice (a kind of perverse theatrical equivalent of the service-included tip that often dismays Americans when they dine abroad) doesn’t catch on.

I got to the theater early and so managed to nab a seat on one of the benches that have been placed outside the Armory. It’s fun to sit there on a pleasant summer evening and look at the different kinds of people who turn up to see the Brits do the Bard. 

A few RSC members also sneak out for a quick smoke before the performance, muttering their lines to themselves as they pace back and forth. The guy puffing on a cigarette next to me looked vaguely familiar but it wasn’t until he’d gone back inside that I realized he was the company’s artistic director Michael Boyd.

As a Tony voter and a member of the Outer Critics Circle, I usually get press seats, which are the best seats in every theater.  But I was on my own dime this time. And, as Joanne and I settled into seats at the far left side of the house, I was reminded that the shows those of us who write about theater see aren’t always exactly the same as “regular” theatergoers get to see. (Click here to read Billington's defense of why critics should get the best seats.)

The Armory audience is seated on three sides of a thrust stage and although Rupert Goold, who directed Romeo and Juliet, keeps the action moving, most of the scenes are played directly out front, a disadvantage for those of us off on the far sides. I’ve read that there were video projections but I couldn't see any. And since the RSC doesn’t use body mics, what I heard of the dialog depended on the actor speaking it.

But Joanne and I were still happy to be there.  Goold’s productions tend to be cerebral, physical and imaginatively theatrical.  He has envisioned Romeo and Juliet as modern-day kids, a bit spoiled, smugly proud of their impetuousness and almost bursting with adolescent hormones. Designer Tom Scutt has dressed them in contemporary clothes—Romeo wears a hoodie and skinny jeans, Juliet, an H&M-style shift and high-top sneakers.

The adults are dressed in Elizabethan wear but they’re not the genteel nobles who usually populate Shakespeare productions. Instead, the feuding Capulets and Montagues look as though they’re heading out to a steam-punk convention or a rave. They act that way too.

The dances choreographer Georgina Lamb has created for the Capulets’ ball are atavistic, as if to underscore that civilized behavior is a new and tenuous thing for these folks. The swordplay that fight director Terry King has devised looks really dangerous for the actors and the fire that’s constantly being brandished about looks really scary for everyone in the theater.

Much is often made of how Americans don’t know how to speak Shakespeare the way that British actors do. But Goold has allowed his actors to trade the traditional BBC received pronunciation for the various accents, brogues and burrs that reflect the multi-ethnic modern-day England: the nurse has a light West Indian lilt to her voice, Juliet’s dad sounds vaguely Scottish, Mercutio affects a cockneyish attitude.

Mariah Gale’s Juliet has drawn the most critical praise but she played mostly to the front of the house and so I don’t think I got the full impact of her performance. But  Sam Troughton was more generous with his portrayal of Romeo and those of us on the sidelines were able to see and so appreciate more of what he did. He also enunciates beautifully and reminded me, in manner and intensity, of a young Kenneth Branagh. 

As usually happens in repertory, the actors take on different roles in the various plays and I liked Troughton so much that I actually considered shelling out more money (including the god-awful “contribution”) to see him as Brutus in Julius Caesar. Unfortunately, Troughton injured his knee while leaping from Juliet’s balcony the day after we saw him. 

The performance had to be stopped and an understudy brought in to take over.  Troughton had key hole surgery on his knee two days later.  The folks at Lincoln Center say he’s recovering but it’s unclear whether he’ll be able to get back on stage before the troupe’s six-week run ends in August. But, of course, the shows go on.  And if you can finagle a seat, you should see at least one of them.

July 13, 2011

"Silence!" Sings a Funny but Familiar Tune

If you like camp, then you’re probably going to love Silence! The Musical, which just opened at Theatre 80 down in the East Village. The audience the night my theatergoing buddy Bill and I saw the show was apparently chocked full of camp fanatics who couldn’t get enough of the show’s exuberantly smutty humor and arch showbiz references.

And there must be a lot of camp followers among New York critics as well because the show has earned an enviable A- on StageGrade, the site that tallies the opinions of the major New York reviewers. My own tolerance for camp is a lot lower than that but even I enjoyed parts of Silence!

The show, with music by the brothers Jon and Al Kaplan and the book by [title of show] vet Hunter Bell, is an almost scene-for-scene parody of the  movie “The Silence of the Lambs.”  The film, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, picked up five Oscars, including Best Picture and nods for Jodie Foster as the young FBI trainee Clarice Starling and Anthony Hopkins as the psychiatrist-turned-serial killer Hannibal Lecter who becomes her mentor when she tries to track down another psychopathic murderer. 

Silliness has replaced the movie’s creepiness. And the fun hinges on how the musical will transfer some of the film’s most memorable moments to the stage. Just by chance, Bill had caught “The Silence of the Lambs” on a cable movie channel a few days earlier and so all the references were fresh in his mind but the film itself has become such a camp classic that it’s easy enough to get the allusions. 

Silence! got its start as a series of songs that the Kaplans posted on the web. The musical that grew out of the postings debuted at the 2005 New York International Fringe Festival (click here to read a piece on the making of the show) and it shares the smarty-pants sensibility that marks—and often mars—so many Fringe shows.

Poking fun at pop culture, sending up Broadway tropes and being as outrageously vulgar as can be gotten away with were all fresh once. But that was a very long time ago, before Forbidden Broadway went to rehab or Carol Burnett dressed up in a green velvet curtain, complete with gold tassels, to portray Scarlett O’Hara on her old TV variety show. 

Today's showmakers need to come up with some new ways to be funny. And there really needs to be a moratorium on spoofing Bob Fosse’s pelvis-forward, finger-popping choreography. 

Still, Silence! does have some clever touches. A tap-dancing chorus line of actors dressed as lambs—floppy appendages on their ears and plastic hoofs on their hands—opens the show. And there are a few great sight gags too, including a helicopter ride to a crime scene (hats off to director Christopher Gattelli) and the re-creation of the well where the psychopath Buffalo Bill holds his victims (a round of applause for Scott Pask).

And the cast can’t be beat. Each member of the six-person ensemble is wickedly good in multiple roles. Meanwhile, Jenn Harris is a hoot with her deadpan impersonation of Foster’s Clarice, complete with the southern lisp that Foster adopted for the role (click here to read a Q&A with Harris). And Brent Barrett not only has great fun with Lecter but has a great voice that makes the songs he sings better than they actually are.

Which brings us to the song. You’ve probably heard about the number in the show that uses what we’re now euphemistically calling “the c-word.”  Since “fuck” has lost its potency, popping up in show titles like The Motherf**ker with the Hat and song lyrics like “Fuck you, God” in The Book of Mormon, the word “cunt” is increasing being drafted to provoke a gasp.

The ballad Barrett sings is called “If I Could Smell Her Cunt” and to drive home the point, Gattelli, who also choreographs, has staged a dream ballet in which the dancer playing the Dream Clarice spreads her legs wide in move after move.  It’s funny and offensive at the same time.

But I’m being overly critical.  Silence! The Musical may be a one-trick pony but it performs that trick with a joyful exuberance that’s ideal entertainment for a lazy summer night.  Besides, it’s nice to have an excuse to visit Theatre 80, one of the few family-owned theaters in the city. 

One of the Otway sons greeted the audience at the performance Bill and I attended. He thanked us all for coming and joked that his 91 year-old mother was upstairs in the kitchen, lying with her ear to the floor to make sure that everything was running smoothly. I started to worry about what the old lady might overhear but then it struck me that, like the rest of us, she'd no doubt heard it all before. 

July 9, 2011

"Spider-Man" Continues to Dangle in Midair

Regular readers may have noticed that, until now, I’ve barely mentioned the words Spider-Man.  To be honest, what was there left to say?  But I have seen Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark—twice, in fact, once right after it was announced that Julie Taymor had been yanked out of the director’s chair and then more recently after the long-delayed official opening—and so here, finally, is my two cents.

Unless you’ve been in a comma over the past six months, you already know that Taymor and U2's Bono and The Edge planned to combine rock music, circus feats, comic books and classical mythology to create a spectacle the likes of which Broadway had never seen.

And you also probably know that, despite spending $65 million, they failed miserably, becoming the object of front-page news stories, late-night-show punch lines and scathing notices from critics who, tired of waiting for the show to open, bought their own tickets and reviewed it in February. 

After Taymor, who was not only directing but co-writing the book, got the ax, a crew of show doctors was rushed in. They shut down the show for three weeks, jettisoned the most derided parts and tried to refocus the thing on the origin story of the high school nerd who is bitten by a genetically-altered spider and transformed into a reluctant superhero. 

But the newcomers couldn’t really start from scratch and so had to work around the existing design conceits and, alas, the score. While Taymor’s preoccupation with a female spider character she created went overboard, she did give the show some zip. Now, the new book, written by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, who is not only a seasoned playwright but has actually written comic books, comes off as timid, and bland.

Aguirre-Sacasa and Philip William McKinley, who was brought in to direct the show because he’s worked on both Broadway and with real circuses, have even cut back on the aerial sequences, which, of course, are what still draw—and still thrill—most of the people coming to see Spider-Man. Although not me.

I kept worrying that someone might fall, perhaps even on top of my head. And the machinery needed to get the performers aloft is so visible that it further siphons away the magic. Still, if it’s the flying that turns you on, the seats in the center of the first mezzanine seem to be the best place to get your money’s worth.

The rest of the show is a grab bag of hits and misses. For example, two choreographers are listed and it shows. But set designer George Tsypin’s three-dimensional cartoon world and Kyle Cooper’s souped-up video projections are intact and they're clever.

On the other hand, Eiko Ishioka’s costumes are confusing. Many of the supporting characters look as though they stepped out of a 1940s gangster movie but Spider-Man’s alter-ego Peter Parker and his love interest Mary Jane wear contemporary clothes. And the mad scientist who turns into the Green Goblin looks, both before and after his transformation, as though he’s wearing castoffs from Wicked.

The music has problems of its own. The U2 guys were on tour with their band for much of the extended preview period and so weren’t around to make tweaks, write new songs and do all the other things that musical composers usually do as a show is trying to find its footing. They did drop a couple of numbers and added one or two others.  But it hardly matters because very few of the songs are memorable.

The 40-member cast works hard and deserves credit for the long weeks in which they rehearsed during the day and performed at night, all the while dealing with unrelenting media scrutiny and seeing several of their colleagues seriously injured during the complicated flying sequences.

Special props should go to Reeve Carney, who does everything asked of him but, like Aaron Tveit in Catch Me If You Can, somehow gets lost amidst the stagecraft hoopla. Carney is sweet and earnest but he lacks the undercurrent of sadness that made audiences really feel for Toby Maguire’s incarnation of the title character in the movies.

Patrick Page has no trouble standing out as the Goblin, whose climactic battle with Spider-Man has been moved from the first act to the second, and Page seems to be having a great time in his new expanded role.  But as Jack Nicholson and the late Heath Ledger showed in their Batman movies, if you want to be a truly great comic book villain, you need to mix some menace in with the camp. 

The official reviews for Spider-Man are still tepid; StageGrade, the site that aggregates the reviews of the major New York critics, rates the show a C, up from the F+ it got in February. But apparently real people still want to see Spider-Man and it has been selling out these past few summer weeks.

The speculation now is centered around whether enough people will keep turning out for the producers to recoup their investment.  To be honest, I don’t really care if they make their money back or not.  I’ve got other things to think about.  Like—and forgive me if I sound pretentious—what this show might mean for the future of Broadway.

There are already signs that producers, understandably desperate to bring in new audiences, are willing to do whatever it takes to lure them. And so while Mary Martin’s flights as Peter Pan were a novelty 50 years ago, today hoisting actors up in the air has become almost a necessity.  Even Patti LuPone had her feet-off-the-ground moment last fall in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. 

It’s become almost impossible to find a good movie—the indie distributors are bankrupt and the major studios are pushing out one special effects juggernaut after another. I worry that if, despite all its pre-opening woes and critical pans, Spider-Man succeeds, then we theater lovers may find ourselves dangling in the air as well.

July 6, 2011

"Zarkana" is a Delighful Extravaganza

Get there early if you’re going to see Zarkana, the latest Cirque du Soleil production, which recently opened for a summer-long run at Radio City Music Hall. And make sure to take your camera.  For at the performance my sister Joanne, who took the photo on the left, and I attended, male and female clowns all done up in white—not just the usual face make-up, but also ivory-colored costumes and powdered hair—roamed the lobby, silently teasing, flirting and dazzling the audience members waiting to go inside the theater. The result was an air of enchanting weirdness that set just the right mood for the self-proclaimed rock opera that followed.

The Cirque du Soleil folks have been offering up their trademark mix of circus acts, trippy music and eye popping-visuals for the last 27 years, charming audiences around the world but not so much here in The Big Apple. Their holiday-themed show Wintuk limped through its fourth and final season at Madison Square Garden this year (by comparison, seven different Cirque shows are currently thriving in Las Vegas).

Their more recent New York offering Banana Shpeel opened in the spring of 2009 at the Beacon Theatre (where this year’s Tonys were held) and flopped miserably, running barely two months. I remember walking by the theater and seeing clowns in full make-up looking sad as they puffed on cigarettes outside the stage door the day after the reviews came out. 

But Guy Laliberté, the founder of the Montreal-based company,  was determined to conquer us Gothamites (click here to read a New York Times article about his quest) and he commissioned  director François Girard to do it. Girard's solution was to write and direct Zarkana.

Girard has not only made critically acclaimed movies like “The Red Violin,” won a Grammy Award and staged operas, but he also created Zed, the Cirque show that has been playing in Tokyo for the last three years. So he knows how to inject the wow factor. In fact, my sister began to sound like a broken record as she kept repeating that word throughout Zarkana's nearly two-and-a-half-hour extravaganza.

Like most Cirque shows, Zarkana has a nominal plot. This one is supposed to be about a magician named Zark who has lost his love and wanders around an eerie theater looking for her and lamenting about her in Europop ballads.

The songs are sung in English but I quickly gave up trying to figure out the lyrics or even to follow the thin story line. Instead, I just sat back and marveled at the succession of acrobats, jugglers, trapeze artists and other daredevils, recruited from Asia, Eastern Europe and Latin America.

I love the idea that in this age, where almost every entertainment option is laden with technological special effects, what makes this show special is the old-fashioned awesome things that people can do with just their bodies and a few simple props like ropes, balls, rings and, in one case, a bowl of sand. 

Zarkana isn’t technology-free, however. There are digital projections galore, stunningly choreographed and lit numbers and a giant gizmo called The Wheel of Death (click here to see a trailer of the show).

There are also a couple of pointed references to Spider-Man, including one over-the-audience aerial sequence that seems to be saying “this is what really thrilling flying looks like.” Adding to the insult,  Zarkana cost $50 million, compared to Spidey’s estimated $75 million.

The flying sequences work nicely but the 6,000-seat Radio City Music Hall may be too big for other parts of the show, particularly if you’re sitting up in the nosebleed seats. A few of the acts are quite intimate and you need to be up close to appreciate how truly amazing they are. Some incredible feats drew just scattered applause, and I wondered how that affected the performers who had spent zillions of hours to perfect them.

The critics have split on the show (click here to see how it scored on StageGrade, the site that aggregates the reviews of the major NewYork critics) but Radio City Music Hall was packed the night Joanne and I saw Zarkana and everybody seemed genuinely happy to be there (although a couple of the darker acts did seem to creep out the youngest audience members—I saw at least a couple of dads fleeing with crying tots in tow).

Joanne and I were happy too.  Despite the ubiquity of the Cirque shows, this was our first. And so while the acts may have seemed old-hat to some folks like my blogger pal Chris Caggiano, a longtime Cirque fan who was disappointed in this latest edition, I’m going to have to borrow Joanne’s phrase and say I thought it was just “Wow.”

July 2, 2011

Theater Books for Summer Reading 2011

The thermometer has been hitting the 80s for weeks now and the summer solstice came almost a fortnight ago but the lazy days of summer officially begin this Fourth of July weekend.  Workman have been refortifying our terrace, which means I haven’t been able to hang out there as I love to do during hot days and balmy evenings but that hasn’t stopped me from reading lots of books, imbibing lots of summer drinks (my husband K has been mixing up some yummy cocktails made with St-Germain) or putting together my fifth (!) annual list of books for theater lovers to enjoy over the next eight weeks of summer. Like last year, the majority of the suggestions are novels but there are a few nifty nonfiction reads too. So, happy reading and happy summer.

Stagestruck by Peter Lovesey. Few things are more relaxing than curling up with a good old-fashioned British mystery on a summer afternoon. This year’s recommendation is an updated spin on the old familiar tropes: the idiosyncratic detective, the isolated group of suspects—each with a good motive for the murder, and the requisite red herrings are all there but so are cell phones, laptops and social networking. Plus, there's a theater ghost.

The Book of Air and Shadows by Michael Gruber. Imagine "The Da Vinci Code," only the object of the mysterious treasure hunt isn’t the Holy Grail but a long-lost Shakespeare manuscript. There are the usual hidden clues and improbable coincidences typical of the genre but this is still a page turner even if you don’t know your Mercutio from your Malvolio.

The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips. The question of who really wrote Shakespeare is an evergreen in scholarly circles and with mystery writers looking for a good MacGuffin.  But no one has mined the subject to better effect than Phillips, who has not only written a real romp of a novel but included a complete faux Shakespeare play as well.

The Lake Shore Limited by Sue Miller.  Some people will see this as a 9/11 novel but those of us who love theater will cherish this story about a young playwright whose lover died in the attacks and an actor whose wife is terminally ill as a sensitive portrayal of the connection that every great artist draws between art and life.

Ghost Light by Joseph O’Connor.  There are two theater books by this name.  One is a memoir by the former New York Times theater critic Frank Rich. But this one is a lyrical novel based on the real-life but ill-fated romance of the Irish playwright J.M. Synge and Molly Allgood, the actress who was his muse.

Patti LuPone: A Memoir by Patti LuPone.  She is now not only the reigning diva of musical theater but a damn good raconteur too.  LuPone's chatty memoir hits all the highlights of her career—her student days at Juilliard, the itinerant years in John Houseman’s Acting Company, her breakthrough in Evita, her firing from Sunset Boulevard, the later triumphs in Sweeney Todd and Gypsy.  And being Patti, she doesn’t hesitate to name (or call names) the people who’ve gotten on her bad side along the way.  This is a terrific read but the audiobook version, which Patti reads herself, is even more fun.
Must You Go? by Antonia Fraser. The title comes from the question that the playwright Harold Pinter asked the historian Antonia Fraser on the night that they met at a party, fell instantly in love, and later scandalized Britain by divorcing their spouses (she was the mother of six at the time) and setting up house together. Their passion for one another never cooled and over the next three decades, until his death in 2008, they were the most glamorous couple in the theater world and hobnobbed with boldface names around the globe, all of which Fraser details in this moving memoir, drawn from the diary entries she wrote throughout those years.

Theater Geek by Mickey Rapkin.  What’s more summery than summer camp? Rapkin, a writer and self-confessed theater geek, followed three talented kids in their final summer at Stagedoor Manor, probably the most famous theater camp in the country.  Instead of campfire songs, the kids there sing show tunes—and they do it very well. Robert Downey, Jr., Jennifer Jason Leigh and Jon Cryer are among the most famous grads.  Rapkin’s writing is only so-so but the stories he tells are, as Variety might have said in the old days, boffo.

And, just in case you still haven’t gotten round to it, here’s a bonus read: The Season by William Goldman.  Some people are saying that Goldman’s behind-the-scenes account of the 1967-68 Broadway season is outdated. That's a matter of debate but there's no question about the fact that if you haven’t read it, you should.  After all, we don’t harpoon whales anymore and “Moby-Dick” still works.

Finally, here are the links to my previous summer reading lists: