August 27, 2011

"Rent" Needs More of a Renovation

 Michael Greif is a master conjurer of new musicals. He helped to create Grey Gardens and Next to Normal. And, of course, he did the original production of Rent.  But I wish he hadn’t directed the revival of Rent that has set up shop for an open-ended run at New World Stages.  For there is both too much and too little that is the same about the old and new Rents. And I’m not just talking about the fact that the lead character Mark now wears a plaid shirt instead of the old trademark striped sweater.

I suppose I understand the impulse not to mess with Rent.  It's a classic beloved by theatergoers and its back story is as dramatic and tragic as its retelling of the opera La Bohème. Jonathan Larson, who wrote Rent’s book, music and lyrics, worked on Rent for nearly eight years but died when his aorta ruptured on the night before the show’s first performance at New York Theatre Workshop in 1996. 

But the show went on, selling out at NYTW, winning a Pulitzer and later a Tony and playing on Broadway for 12 years.  Now it’s moved into New World Stages, which has become a kind of Elysian Fields for old shows with nostalgic appeal—the former movie Cineplex is now also home to Avenue Q and Million Dollar Quartet. 

Larson set the show in his own neighborhood of the Lower East Side and it captures the moment when gentrification was replacing artists, cheap apartments and AIDS clinics with ad execs, condos and gourmet health food stores. Some critics have said that Rent is now dated because AIDS is no longer a death sentence and the image of starving and crusading artists has lost its allure. 

That’s silly. The Normal Heart, which won this year’s Tony for Best Revival, was set in the same time period and deals with similar themes. The real problem with the current production of Rent is Greif’s decision to recreate so much of his original staging.  

Like everyone else, I was charmed when I first saw Rent down at NYTW but all these years later fresh thinking from someone like Alex Timbers, who did Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and the staged version of The Pee-Wee Herman Show, might have done a better job of capturing the excitement most of us experienced when we saw the original.

Indeed the things that work best in the revival are two performances that put entirely different spins on two of the show’s iconic roles.  Analeigh Ashford, a gifted comedian, is more playful than Idina Menzel was as the bisexual performance artist Maureen. Ashford makes the character simultaneously irritating and irresistible; you understand why her ex-lover Mark and her current one Joanne are both so besotted with her.

MJ Rodriguez is still in college but his performance is just as imaginative. While Wilson Jermaine Heredia won a Tony for portraying the drag queen Angel as a fragile seraph trying to survive in a bruising world, Rodriguez makes the character tougher, edgier but no less endearing.  

I wish more of the cast had taken similar risks.  But even so, I’m still glad Rent is back.  I once thought that the show’s initial success was largely due to the sympathy people felt about Larson’s death. But I was wrong. Rent earns its own stripes. It has a wonderful score, filled with glorious songs: real hummable tunes and lyrics that aren’t afraid of metaphors. 

“I forgot how much I like these songs,” my sister Joanne leaned over and whispered and then continued to silently sing along. Other people in the audience were more vocal, cheering loudly after each number. I wish Larson were here to hear them—and to write more.

"Olive and the Bitter Herbs" isn't Tart Enough

Is there a perfect time to see a show?  Professional critics go to special press nights before a show opens so that they can tell the rest of us if it’s worth checking out. Those of us who write blogs try to do the same.  But it can take time for even the best actors to absorb a role. As my theatergoing buddy Bill says, they need a while to feel the part in their bones.  That’s especially true of comedy, which requires a deft sense of timing and a sensitivity to the audience that can’t be refined in the rehearsal room. 

So the show one sees during previews or even during the early weeks after an opening can be very different from what other theatergoers see later in the run. At least that’s what I was hoping might be the case with the Primary Stages production of Olive and The Bitter Herbs, which Bill and I saw two weeks before it opened at the 59E59 Theaters on Aug. 16.

The play is the latest from Charles Busch, one of the smartest and funniest showmakers working today.  But Olive and The Bitter Herbs doesn't have his usual piquancy. It centers around an older actress named Olive whose greatest claim to fame is her starring role in a TV commercial that was popular 30 years before the play begins. 

The lack of success in her professional—and personal—life has left Olive bitter and biting.  She can’t muster up a nice word to say to anyone—not the friend who regularly looks in on her, the gay couple who live next door or the lonely widower who attempts to flirt with her.

Olive’s only solace is a mysterious—and seemingly mystical—mirror that hangs in her hangdog apartment. The first act of the play centers around an impromptu Seder that she holds there. The second around a "Law & Order"-style show that she hopes will give her career a boost. 

This being a Charles Busch play both acts are filled with zingers but the laugh are hollow and the lines don’t add up to the morality tale that Busch intends about how we shouldn’t cling to the past or fear the future, regardless of how old we are. So the wild coincidences and other silliness that made Busch’s recent The Divine Sister, in which he played a nun, such a hoot seem out of place in this supposedly more naturalistic setting.

Busch has written the play as a gift to older actors; none of the characters is under 50.  And the cast is stocked with vets who have all given theater lovers much pleasure in other shows (click here to read a group Q&A with the five of them).  But nearly everyone stumbled over their lines the night Bill and I saw the show. The split second timing that Busch’s fast banter requires just limped along.

The reviews I’ve read suggest that the extra time hadn’t made that much difference by the time the critics came in. And since the show is only scheduled to run until Sept. 3, it seems unlikely that it will have the steeping time it needs to become more savory.

August 24, 2011

"Chasing Heaven" Falls a Little Short of its Goal

Talent counts in the theater but luck matters too. There are nearly 200 shows in this summer’s 
New York International Fringe Festival and the challenge for their creators is to find a way to stand out in the crowd. So it would seem as though the stars have aligned for Leah Maddrie.  For although the program notes say she began working on her play Chasing Heaven five years ago, Maddrie has written and directed a satirical piece that neatly dovetails with the current debate over the new production of Porgy and Bess now playing at A.R.T. in Boston and headed to Broadway at the end of the year. 

(You’ve no doubt been following all the brouhaha but if somehow not, click here to read the article that set off the uproar, here to read Stephen Sondheim’s now notorious reprimand and here to see the opinions on both sides that keep pouring in).

Chasing Heaven tells the story of "Chasin’ Hebbin," a controversial 1930s musical that is set in a black community in South Carolina but written by a Jewish Tin Pan Alley composer named Joshua Gerwitz. The show-within-a-show’s hero is Troutbait, whom another character describes as “a blind, one-armed man with a limp who’s in love with a hussy.”  All comparisons to George Gershwin, the crippled Porgy and his beloved Bess are aggressively intended.

The plot pivots around a commission to update Gerwitz's old folk opera so that it will be more palatable to contemporary audiences. The job has been given to Kinshasa Tree Morton, a scholar of African-American and feminist studies who believes that Gerwitz stole the idea for his show from a black writer named Lolly Kibbins, who died in obscurity but has since become an icon for both the black and feminist literati. 

A good deal of the fun of watching Chasing Heaven derives from making the connections between the onstage characters and the real-life people who inspired them. Lolly is clearly a stand-in for the Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston. Meanwhile, Morton is a combo of the writers Alice Walker, Maya Angelou (like Angelou, Kinshasa has her own line of greeting cards) and the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, who, as fortune would have it, is the author of the current Porgy and Bess update.

The play moves back and forth between the ‘30s when Gerwitz is writing Chasin’ Hebbin, the ‘50s at the time of his death and the present. The contemporary scenes call to mind the second act of Lynn Nottage’s recent play By the Way, Meet Vera Stark in which scholars squabble over the legacy of a black actress who was a pioneer in Hollywood (click here to read my thoughts about that one). 

There’s a lot of juice to be squeezed from those stories about the images of black people in popular culture and they offer a smart way to examine how we deal—and don’t—with the issue of race in this country.

Chasing Heaven is brimming over with ideas about who has the right to tell certain stories, what responsibility comes with the telling and why we listen to some and not others.  But like Nottage’s play, it has so much to say that it too often forgets to dramatize its thoughts. Maddrie has a game cast but they’re burdened by having to spend more time expositing than acting.

Of course Fringe plays tend to be works in progress. Maddrie’s 70-minute draft shows that she already knows how to write smart and funny. So I hope more work will be done and that Chasing Heaven, which is scheduled for just two more performances, including one at 8:45 tonight, will be given more chances to reach its goal.

August 20, 2011

"Death Takes a Holiday" Isn't Much Fun

Death was indeed on a holiday the first time I tried to see the new chamber musical Death Takes a Holiday that has been playing this summer at the Roundabout Theatre Company’s Laura Pels Theatre.  Well, actually, the show’s star Julian Ovenden who played the title character was out sick.  The box office offered the option of staying and seeing the understudy or coming back another night.  It was a beautiful summer evening and so I came home and sat out on my terrace with a glass of crisp rosé.

But I might just as well have stayed and seen the show because a week or so later came the news that Ovenden, who had also missed opening night, was withdrawing from the show due to severe laryngitis. The understudy Kevin Earley has permanently taken over for the rest of the run, which ends Sept. 4. 

I am sorry to have missed Ovenden. The British actor has a terrific voice (click here to hear his rendition of Company’s “Being Alive”) and is as cute as a Havanese puppy.  But I’m not sure how much a difference his presence would have made. For this is one of those shows that has to be filed under the category of “noble failure.”

Alberto Casella’s moody 1924 play La Morte in Vacanze, which inspired the show, tells the story of how the Grim Reaper, weary after the carnage of World War I, decides to take a few days off, falls for a young Italian noblewoman, masquerades as a Russian prince to spend a weekend at her parents’ villa and discovers what it means to be human. This unsettling mix of metaphysics and romance has proven difficult to get right.

An English translation of the play ran on Broadway for 180 performances in 1929, was revived for a month two years later but doesn’t seem to have been done since. The 1934 movie version with Fredric March in the title role drew critical praise at the time but seldom turns up on AMC or Turner Classic Movies.  And “Meet Joe Black,” the 1998 remake with Brad Pitt, was a hot mess.  Alas, the musical turns out to be almost as tone deaf.

Death Takes a Holiday has been 14 years in the making (click here to read a story about its gestation) and composer Maury Yeston and book writer Thomas Meehan, who took over when Yeston’s friend and Titanic partner Peter Stone died in 2003, have set it on an uneasy fault line between an old-fashioned operetta and a contemporary musical comedy. Unfortunately, director Doug Hughes, a newcomer to musicals, was unable to find the right balance.

Much of Yeston’s music is lush but it feels slightly generic and it’s completely undermined by his lyrics.  It’s no fun when you can hear the rhyme coming before the first word in the second half of the couplet is sung. And some of the lyrics just don’t make sense. He almost lost me right off the bat with the first song in which the young woman Grazia, who has been established as just 21 and on the way home from her engagement party, sings about being in the middle of her life.  Huh?

Meanwhile Meehan, who won Tonys for co-writing The Producers and Hairspray, lards the book with rim-shot jokes. Example: on his first morning as a mortal, Death gets a boner.  It doesn’t help that Earley is a Will Ferrell-look-alike. Earley has a strong voice but he never quite shakes the goofy quality and his big number when Death finally realizes what it means to be human drew only polite applause the night I saw the show.

A few of the other characters—Don Stephenson’s timorous butler and Alexandra Socha’s lovesick houseguest—are off-puttingly cartoonish.  But, thankfully, some of the other performances are more successful. Jill Paice is charming as Grazia, has a crystalline soprano and looks absolutely lovely in Catherine Zuber’s beautiful period gowns.

Rebecca Luker, who might have played Grazia just a few years ago, is also thoroughly winning as her mother and earned grateful “Bravas” from the audience for her moving aria about the death of her son in the war (click here to read a Q&A with Luker)

And Matt Cavenaugh who seemed wan as Tony in the recent revival of West Side Story, is debonair here, delivers a show-stopping number in glorious voice (he got “Bravos!”) and gave every sign that he might have made a more seductive Death and the evening more of a holiday.

August 17, 2011

Why "HotelMotel" May Be Worth A Visit

While I may be an avid theatergoer, I’m not always the most adventurous.   
I prefer narrative-driven pieces to experimental ones. I tend to like my theater on a traditional stage and I can’t stand any kind of audience participation. Still, I was intrigued by the idea of HotelMotel, a double-bill of plays that The Amoralists Theatre Company is presenting through Aug. 29 in a back room of the Gershwin Hotel on East 27th Street.

According to a Wall Street Journal story, it was cheaper for the company to rent a room in the hotel than it would have been to rent a theater space (click here to read the article). The site-specific verisimilitude is part of HotelMotel's odd appeal; at times you can hear the people in the next room. Only 20 seats are available for each performance and the seating process is a show in itself. 

Ticket holders have to wait in the Gershwin’s lobby until their name is called. An usher dressed like a bellhop then escorts them one-by-one (or in couples if two people have come together) inside where a bowler-hatted pianist is playing in a room done up in bordello red and dominated by a king-sized bed. The usher sets up a folding chair around the bed for each audience member and reminds them to turn off their cell phones. Then he goes out to get the next guest.

I was the third person seated and so got to watch as the other 17 came in. No one spoke, except for the hip-looking older couple seated next to me who seemed amused by the whole thing and became progressively so as the evening unfolded. Another more bemused couple across from me kept looking around as though they couldn’t believe they were there.

The Amoralists' resident playwright Derek Ahonen wrote and directed the first play, Pink Knees on Pale Skin.  It’s about a sex therapist who’s treating two couples in troubled marriages. The treatment methods are unconventional. The bed is there for a reason. At one point the therapist’s husband, who is often called on to sleep with her patients, strips naked (there’s no question why the hunky and handsome actor Jordan Tisdale got the part) and hides under the bed. 

At another point, the therapist directs oral sex between one husband and wife (it’s performed under the bedcovers but there’s no question that you feel like a voyeur as you watch the scene and that you’d probably squirm even more if you weren’t aware that, given the intimate setting, your fellow theatergoers are also looking at you).

The themes of the piece (therapists can be even more screwed up than the people they treat, watching other people have sex can be uncomfortable) seem kind of obvious but the actors are fully committed to their roles. It can’t be easy to say and do all that sex stuff with a bunch of strangers sitting just a hand’s length  away and yet they pull it off.

When it was over, the bellhop ushered us guest out of the room to make way for “housecleaning.” Each play runs around 90 minutes, with the set change taking almost 30. The folding seats aren't that comfortable and it felt good to stretch my legs. Plus the playing space was only slightly warmer than the meat locker room at Fairway (take a jacket if you go) and so I was happy for the break. 

There’s a place in the lobby that makes a decent cappuccino and provides a chance to warm up.  While I was sitting there, I saw the actors from Pink Knees leaving for the night; somehow they looked very vulnerable.

Back inside, the seats had been rearranged and we were told we could sit wherever we chose. I ended up next to one of the actors waiting to make his entrance in the second play, Animals & Plants, a semi-mystical mystery by the prolific Adam Rapp (with 18 plays over the past decade, he’s become the theatrical equivalent of Joyce Carol Oates).

Rapp’s play, which was first produced 10 years ago, is set in a horror-movie motel room in North Carolina (taxidermied creatures on the wall, eerie sounds coming from the bathroom) where two guys are waiting to do a drug deal.

There’s less sex but even more full-frontal nudity in Animals & Plants. The men while away the time, discussing—and, as directed by Rapp himself, flauntingtheir private parts and engaging in inane philosophical conversations that rival John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson’s classic “Le Big Mac” exchange in the movie “Pulp Fiction.”  

Eventually, a woman with problems of her own arrives, the deal goes bad, much blood is shed. The play is alternately funny and horrifying. But, again, I found myself wondering what the point was, other than a Sam Shephard-style meditation on men and violence. And, of course, we've been there and done that with Shephard.

It doesn't help that the evening ends with a whimper.  The actors in Animals & Plants don’t even take a curtain call (although they all deserve approbation—particularly William Apps and Matthew Pilieci as the bagmen). Since the lights had never been turned down, they couldn’t come up to signal that the show was over either. Instead, the usher, now flashing some flesh of his own, just opened the door and the 18 of us—the hip couple left at intermissionquietly shuffled out. 

I was standing on the corner of Madison Avenue when I looked over and saw the bemused couple standing next to me.  “Wow, that was intense, wasn’t it?” the man said.  “Yeah,” I agreed.  “It was a real adventure.” And one worth checking out.

August 13, 2011

Tips on the Most Apt Apps for Theater Lovers

Like most new smartphone and tablet users, I’ve been loading up on apps since I got my iPad at the beginning of the summer. And, of course, I downloaded a bunch of theater-related ones.  The time I took off from blogging over the past couple of weeks gave me a chance to put them through their paces and I had planned to use this return post to tell you what I thought of them. Then I saw a similar piece in the New York Times this past Sunday and had second thoughts about doing my reviews. But my husband K, always my biggest booster, urged me to write them anyway. And I’m hoping they will still be useful since I sampled more apps than the Times mentioned and since its writer seemed more interested in the rivalry between two app sponsors than in how much the applications might satisfy the needs of us theater junkies.  So here’s the real lowdown on which to download:

1. I♥NYTheater
It’s hard to beat this app, which is sponsored by The Broadway League, whose members include the major producers, theater owners and operators.  The application is elegant to look at, easy to use and includes everything anyone could possibly want to know—show descriptions, casts, playing schedules, ticket prices, running times, theater locations, video clips and links to Facebook pages, Twitter feeds and YouTube channels—about all the current Broadway productions.  And, of course, you can use the app to buy your tickets. There are also handy links to hotels and restaurants in the Theater District.  And I’m particularly fond of the feature that lists the current week’s curtain times for all the shows; it’s really handy as more producers get creative about when they start their shows.

2. Broadway
Most of the theater-related apps seem to work best on cellphone screens and only pop up as small rectangular boxes on tablets like the iPad. But the biggest theater site on the internet has configured its app to take full advantage of the IPad’s larger screen. And it has all kinds of bells and whistles but, alas, not all of all of them work as well as they should.  It took me a gazillion clicks to get the “Regional News” button to respond and even then I wasn’t able to access the listings for the non-New York locales. But you’ll have no problems if you stick to Broadway fare. In addition to basic info about all the shows on the main stem, there's access to the Broadway World message board and a nifty feature called “Pick a Broadway Show,” which allows you to mix and match descriptions like “Perfect First Show” or “Rock and Roll Score” and then have the app suggest which productions will best fit your bill.

Created as a sibling to the Theatre Development Fund’s discount ticket booth in Times Square, this app gives users a continually updated heads-up on which Broadway and off-Broadway shows are available at the booth and the size of the discount for their tickets.  In addition to the standard details about theater locations, performance schedules and running times, the app also provides useful info on things like wheelchair accessibility and where you can find the restrooms in each theater.  Plus you can read the stories that appear in TDF’s online magazine Stages, which, full disclosure, recently published a story by me.

Although it isn’t strictly a theater app since it covers all kinds of art events in New York, this is the first arts-related app I downloaded and remains one of my favorites.  It’s developed by the Alliance for the Arts to encourage people to sample more of the city’s cultural offerings.  You can browse by category (everything from concerts to walking tours, and, of course, theater)  location (some 50 neighborhoods spread across all five boroughs) or organization (most of the major theater companies are listed, as is the Theater Row complex on 42nd Street). But what I like best is that if you turn on your device’s location services function, the app will list all the events that are within a mile radius of where you are.  It’s a great way to discover off-the-beaten-track options.

5. Theatermania
This app, sponsored by the popular theater news website, only covers the basics—brief synopses of the shows, playing times, ticket prices and the addresses of the theaters where the shows are playing—but it does that for the 11 theater-friendliest cities across the country and for London too. There’s also a Google Maps function that’s supposed to display shows nearest your current location but my experience suggests that only means theaters that are no more than a mile away because my map doesn’t show Lincoln Center Theater although I live just 30 blocks from there. So I’m not sure how useful this app will be in even less compact theater locales like Las Vegas and Seattle.

6. At the Booth
I expected this app to offer more than the others I’ve mention because it cost 99 cents and they're all free.  But you don't always get what you think you're paying for. The information on what the shows are about, where they’re playing and when is pretty much the same here as it is on every other app. As the Times story explains both this app and the one supported by TKTS provide regularly updated info on the discounts at the TKTS booths; the only difference seems to be that At the Booth also tells you how long the ticket buying line is. Its additional features include links to recent headlines about the individual shows and lists of restaurants that are nearby them. But this application is slower to load than the others I sampled, it costs money and, to add insult to injury, its annoying ads kept threatening to freeze my iPad.

7. Broadway Music
Although it sounds like a show queen’s wet dream, there are a lot of dry spots in this guide to scores (no pun intended) of Broadway musicals. On the one hand, the information includes a synopsis of each show’s plot, a list of its musical numbers, a history of notable productions including their cast lists, a tally of nominations and awards the show has gotten, a discography of recordings, and suggestions for further readings for the featured shows. On the downside, there’s no music to listen to and the list of the shows featured, which isn't alphabetized, is really idiosyncratic: to pick one example, Xanadu is listed but Spring Awakening, which won that season's Tony, isn’t. So you may want to think twice before spending the 99 cents it costs to buy this one.

8. iBroadway
Making its debut in June, 2010, this was one of the first apps for theater lovers and it, too, supplies all the standard data. I’d have put it higher up on my list but modesty kept me from doing so.  In addition to offering the standard what-where-when info on Broadway and off-Broadway shows, it also links directly to six theater blogs, including this one. 


August 10, 2011

Broadway & Me on TDF Stages

I know this space has been quiet for a couple of weeks now.  But 
I haven’t been entirely slothful.  And I’m delighted to be able to break my silence with the news that a story I wrote about the Summer Shorts series that opens tonight at the 59E59 Theaters has been published by the online magazine, TDF Stages. You can read the piece by clicking here—and perhaps I’ll see you at the show.