April 27, 2013

Turning on the Ghost Light, Again

I know. I know. This is two Saturdays in a row that I've turned on the ghost light, signaling a temporary pause in these posts. But what can I tell you?  It's a crazy time and I'm seeing so many shows (and juggling so many other things in the non-theater parts of my life) that I can't find the time to write about what I've seen.  But I will.  And I hope you will come back to read about those shows and about all the hoopla of the awards season that will follow the announcement of the Tony nominations this coming Tuesday morning.

April 24, 2013

Hailing "Julius Caesar" in a Contemporary Way

Transposing Shakespeare to a different locale or time period no longer earns a director the automatic cool points it once did. In fact, doing so has become almost as ho-hum as a standing ovation at the end of a show

So I'm thrilled to be able to say that it’s been a long time since I’ve experienced the heat and blood of the Bard’s work as intensely as I did while watching the Royal Shakespeare Company’s all-black production of Julius Caesar, which is ending a two-week (and too short) run at BAM’s Harvey Theater this weekend.

Director Gregory Doran has placed the action in a contemporary, but unspecified, African nation and his staging is so visceral and immediate that it almost seems as though Shakespeare had been clairvoyant and intentionally wrote the play to be set there and now. 
Of course it's easy to see the similarities between Ancient Rome, wrestling with its adoration of a strongman leader and its desire for every man to rule his own destiny, and the many African nations now roiled by that same tension. The parallels emerge in ways large and small in this production. 
Its Caesar, who makes his entrance dressed in a casual safari suit and brandishing a leather scepter, displays the volatile mixture of benevolence and menace that calls to mind charismatic despots ranging from Idi Amin to Muammar Gaddafi.  

Meanwhile, the senators who conspire to assassinate Caesar wear the traditional African robes that resemble togas. And the hoi polloi are appeased not with bread and circuses but with drink and lively Afro-pop music, performed by a terrific seven-member band that is playing as theatergoers take their seats and remains onstage to underscore the action throughout the show.  
Acoustics are always tricky at the Harvey.  And so my friend Mary Anne and I, seated towards the back of the orchestra, did have some trouble understanding all the dialog—a task made even more difficult because the actors assume pronounced African accents. And a couple of the players look so similar that it can be difficult to keep track of who is who.

And yet none of that matters. The intense commitment of the actors, the supple lighting and striking set, dominated by a giant statue of Caesar, get the message across loud and clear: there are few heroes in politics. 

The play’s main characters—Caesar, Brutus, Cassius, Mark Antony—are all motivated, like so many political leaders, by both fear and opportunism. Its familiar lines (“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves, that we are underlings,” “Cry ‘Havoc!” and let slip the dogs of war,” “The evil that men do lives after then; the good is oft interred with their bones.”) resound like dispatches from today's conflict zones.

When all the elements fit together so powerfully, the credit has to go to the director (click hear to listen to his interview with Charlie Rose and to catch a few glimpses of scenes from the show). Doran is in the process of settling in as the new artistic head of the RSC and this production suggests that his tenure could be very cool indeed.

April 20, 2013

Turning on the Ghostlight

It's crazy time on Broadway—six shows opened this past week and five more are due next week before the season officially closes on April 25—and so I should be here writing like a madwoman to keep up with them all.  Alas, it's a crazy time in my non-theater life too (no disasters; just an unusual amount of work) and so I'm forced to turn on the ghost light in imitation of what theaters do when they're temporarily vacant.  I'll try to get back sometime next week and I hope you'll return to because there is so much to talk about!

April 17, 2013

“The Last Five Years” Has Wonderful Moments

People who love musicals really seem to love The Last Five Years. In fact, those who saw the original 2002 production are still singing its praises. And there have reportedly been over 3,500 productions of the show since then (including one now running through April 28 at the Signature Theatre in Arlington, Va.). Plus a movie version is scheduled to begin filming this summer with Jeremy Jordan and Anna Kendrick.

I missed the original production, which starred Sherie Rene Scott and Norbert Leo Butz, so I bought a ticket to the revival currently playing at Second Stage Theatre through May 18, to see what all the fuss has been about.

Now, this is the point in the post where regular readers might expect me to say something like “it’s not about much.”  But I’m not going to say that.  Because it’s easy to understand why this small show (it runs 90 minutes, has just two characters and the original orchestration calls for a six-member orchestra, two of whom are cellist) is so adored.  

For starters, it has a great score by Jason Robert Brown that sits right at the crossroad between the Broadway sound that traditionalists love and the more contemporary pop vibe that can draw in new audiences.

Also, like so many beloved musicals, its sung-through book, also by Brown, has a showbiz setting:  it tracks the five-year relationship of a writer named Jamie and an actress named Cathy as his career soars and hers stagnates. The fact that the story is based on Brown’s own failed first marriage adds an extra frisson.

So what’s not to love?  Well, there is the fact that the story unfolds in a series of scenes that crisscross one another in time. His part starts as he’s getting ready for their first date and ends with his decision to walk out of the marriage. Hers begins with the pain of the relationship’s end and moves back in time to the giddy hopefulness of their first kiss. 

It’s a clever conceit.  But it’s also as confusing as hell. And although Brown’s direction (he’s kind of a one-man band for this production) is elegant, it doesn’t help clarify what’s going on (click here to listen to an interview he did with NPR.)

I kept trying to figure out where in the timeline each song fell and to match up the his and hers moments of elation, frustration and disillusion.  But I failed and simply ended up treating each song as its own little story.  Which somewhat undercuts the emotion of the whole piece.

Luckily, the performances by Adam Kantor and Betsy Wolfe are so strong that the conceit doesn’t undermine the entire evening. He adds self-awareness to the jerk that Jamie can be.  She makes clear the battle between love and envy that is roiling inside Cathy.  And both actors have got great pipes.

Because they interact so little, it’s hard to feel the connection between the characters but I felt a kinship with each of them, as though I were the friend in whom each was confiding his or her version of the marriage.   

In the end, their story evoked memories of the happy and sad moments that defined my own past relationships and allowed me to forgive, at least a bit, the transgressions that those lovers—and I—had committed.   

How can you not love a show that does that?

April 13, 2013

Getting a Kick Out of "Kinky Boots"

It may not be politically correct to say this but I’m getting tired of drag queens. Not the real people but the theatrical versions of them that keep turning up in Broadway musicals in far greater numbers than their true presence in the general population would suggest.

So although I was moved by the love story of Georges and Albin in all three Broadway productions of La Cage aux Folles and amused by the moxie of the cross-dressing trio in last year's Priscilla Queen of the Desert, I have to confess that I couldn't shake a been-there-done-that feeling when I thought abut seeing the new crew of gender benders in Kinky Boots, which opened last week at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre.  But guess what? I had a good time. 

For Kinky Boots, which has a book by Harvey Fierstein and music by the ‘80s pop star Cyndi Lauper, is an old-fashioned musical comedy that wears its heart on it sleeve while it’s kicking up its heels. It's not trying to revolutionize the musical; it's just happy to entertain you.

The story, which is based on the 2005 British movie of the same title, focuses on two guys with father issues. One is Charlie Price, whose family has run a shoe company that has been the main employer of a northern British town for several generations. Charlie has no interest in shoes but when his dad dies unexpectedly, he reluctantly steps in to rescue the business, which is losing the battle against cheaper imports.

The other guy (or gal, if you prefer) is Lola, a drag queen estranged from her disapproving father and in the market for high heels sturdy enough to support the heavier weight of a man. In the spirit of supply (Charlie can make shoes) and demand (Lola and her friends need them) these lost boys team up to design a new line that they call Kinky Boots and, in the process, each achieves a deeper acceptance of who he is.  Plus, there’s a lot of great dancing and some genial humor too.

This is the kind of feel-good show that is right up the alley of director Jerry Mitchell (who helmed Legally Blonde and choreographed the first revival of La Cage, as well as Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and Hairspray) and he pulls out all the stops. There are some terrific production numbers, including one on a conveyor belt.  
There’s also a terrific cast. The Broadway vet Billy Porter is drawing big kudos for his portrayal of Lola.  And he does hit just the right mix of sass and insecurity that drives the boy in Lola who disappointed his dad and has to forge his own definition of manhood (click here to read an interview with him).  

But Stark Sands, who plays Charlie, deserves praise too.  Charlie is—in every sense of the word—the show’s straight man and yet Sands manages to hold his own amidst all the razzle dazzle (click here for a piece on him).  

Meanwhile Annaleigh Ashford, who, in the tradition of Faith Prince and Kristin Chenoweth, combines cheerleader looks with killer comic timing, steals every scene she’s in as the employee who has a crush on the engaged Charlie.

But the true star of the show is Lauper’s score. Unlike so many rockers who come to Broadway, Lauper had the good sense to hook up with people who know how to put a musical together and she has the talent to know just how much she should follow their advice without losing her own distinctive voice.  Her songs, to paraphrase her 1979 hit, wanna have fun and they know just how to do it.

In fact, the whole show (including David Rockwell’s appealingly antiquated factory set and  Gregg Barnes’ appropriately over-the-top costumesand shoes) hits the sweet spot in these times when most right-minded people are pulling for working class folks to get a break and same-sex couples to get their rights. As the showstopping conveyor-belt number advises, “Everybody Say Yeah.”

April 10, 2013

"Hands on a Hard Body" Quickly Loses Its Grip

It’s always sad to hear that a show is closing prematurely. And that’s true whether or not you had a good time when you saw it. Cause I’m feeling badly for the cast and crew of Hands on a Hard Body, which posted its closing notice just 18 days after it opened at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, and I had a really bad time when I saw it.

Now, I have to say that the fault isn’t entirely the show’s. Although its premise, based on a 1997 documentary of the same name, isn’t what you’d call natural material for a musical. 

Here it is in a nutshell: an assortment of down-and-nearly-out Texans enter an endurance contest.  The prize is a red Nissan truck. The winner will be the person who keeps his or her hands on it the longest.  

In the show’s favor, however, seemed to be the fact that it has a book by the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Doug Wright (click here for a Q&A with him); music by Broadway baby Amanda Green and Trey Anastasio, frontman for the cult jam band Phish (click here to read about their collaboration); a talented cast lead by Keith Carradine and Hunter Foster; and choreography by the always inventive Sergio Trujillo. 
Alas, it turns out that Wright’s book is unable to make its 10 contestants more than clichés; they’re barely introduced before we’re supposed to be rooting for them. The songs, with the exception of one syncopated gospel number (click here to read about the staging of it) sound as though they’ve all been ladled out from the same country-pop stewpot. 
So despite the game stagecraft of Trujillo and director Neil Pepe (the car turns, the actors perform emotion-baiting arias) Hands on a Hard Body remains pretty much what its title advertises: a bunch of people standing around with their hands on a truck. 
But, as I said, the show is only partly to blame for my having such a bad time. What really did me in is that about 15 minutes into the first act, a guy sitting in the row behind my theatergoing buddy Bill and me, leaned over and threw up. 

He and his family left immediately but, of course, the problem didn’t go with them. Although those of us sitting nearby had been spared direct damage, we all started looking for an olfactory escape. Bill and I spotted some empty seats and moved into them but about 10 minutes later, their very late-arriving owners turned up and the usher proceeded to chastise Bill and me for taking seats that weren’t ours. 
Somehow, the show went on.  One usher came in and sprinkled some disinfectant.  Another found some other seats for Bill and me but they were right in the midst of a group of rambunctious teens who seemed to be on their high school spring trip and who, judging from the whoops and bouts of uncontrolled laughter, seemed to like the show a lot.  

April 6, 2013

"Buyer & Cellar" Gives Full Value

If you’d asked, I’d have said that one-person shows were my least favorite form of theater. So it’s been truly surprising to find that some of the shows I’ve most enjoyed this season have been solo performances. I had a lovely time when I saw All the Rage, actor and child-abuse survivor Martin Moran’s show about forgiveness and I’ve already sung the praises of Ann, Holland Taylor’s one-woman tribute to the late Texas governor Ann Richards (click here for that review).  But now at the top of my list is Buyer & Cellar, which opened this week at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater.

The buyer in question is Barbra Streisand and the cellar is the “street of shops” the star created in the basement of her Malibu home to store all the things she’s collected over the years.  Seeing the shops featured in Streisand’s book “My Passion for Design,” both amused playwright Jonathan Tolins and inspired him to create a fictional situation in which an out-of-work actor name Alex is hired to tend the shops and, in the process, their sole customer.

It’s a funny premise and Tolins has filled the 90-minute show with one laugh-out-loud moment after another. But tucked in the interstices, are some poignant reflections on celebrity, loneliness and the meaning of friendship that are made even more affective by a brilliant performance by Michael Urie. 
The Julliard-trained actor is best known for his fay-gay roles on TV sitcoms like “Ugly Betty” and “Partners” but he’s also got serious dramatic chops as he showed in The Temperamentals, the moving play about the founding of the first gay rights organization, The Mattachine Society (click here for my review of that). This time out, Urie gets to combine his comedic and dramatic skills and the result is altogether winning.
Buyer & Cellar is presented as a story that Alex tells about the time he spent working in the titular cellar and Urie plays Alex, Alex’s boyfriend, who is an avid Streisand fan, Streisand’s acerbic housekeeper, the star’s husband James Brolin and, best of all, Streisand herself. 
Urie’s Streisand isn’t a full-blown impersonation but with a twist of his shoulders, tilt of his head and the Brooklyn inflections so distinctive to her voice, he manages to capture the keen intelligence, the sharp defensiveness and the underlying neediness that define the woman. It's a bravura performance.  

As my theatergoing buddy Bill and I made our way across Sixth Avenue for dinner at the nearby restaurant Morandi, I couldn’t help wondering what the famously prickly star might think of this portrayal of her or even if she might sue (even though the play actually begins with the disclaimer: “What I'm going to tell you could not possibly have happened with a person as famous, talented, and litigious as Barbra Streisand.”)

The odd thing is that I suspect Streisand might like it. I sure did. And I’m pretty sure you would too.

April 3, 2013

The New "Cinderella" Still Has Old-Style Charm

Fairy tales ain’t what they used to be. Books like “Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister” and “Glass Slippers & Jeweled Masques” have brought an edgier, and even erotic, vibe to the old stories. Meanwhile, movies now portray characters like Hansel, Gretel and Snow White as crossbow-wielding vigilantes. 

So it's a nice surprise to find that the musical now called Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella is a more or less traditional spin on the old beloved fable about the neglected girl who gets to marry the charming prince.  It may not be a great show but it is a pleasant one.

This Cinderella is the latest update—and the stage debut—of the TV musical that Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote for Julie Andrews back in 1957 (click here to see it on YouTube). It was revised for Lesley Ann Warren eight years later (click here for a 10-minute excerpt) and given a multi-racial makeover starring  Brandy in 1997 (click here for see all of it)

The master revisionist for this new version is Douglas Carter Beane, who, while keeping the fairy godmother and the glass slipper, has also tucked in some contemporary elements.
Among the additions are Carter’s trademark campy one-liners. They sometimes clang on the ear but they aren’t really all that different from the anachronistic wisecracks now common in animated fairy stories ranging from “Shrek” to “Tangled.”   

A more significant change is Carter’s decision to beef up the role of the prince to the point that an alternate new title for the show might have been “Cinderella’s Fella.” Borrowing from the now-popular rom-com trope that reverses the old fairytale scenario, it’s the guy who really needs rescuing in this tale.   

The prince, who gets the opening number in the show, is a well-meaning guy (he’s been given the hip-dude name of Topher) but he hasn’t quite grown up and what he needs is a smart gal to show him how to do it. Enter Cinderella who has the kind of you-go-girl spunk that now seems to be requisite for all young heroines.
Topher could have been a generic airhead but Santino Fontana, the ever resourceful actor who was equally terrific as the stoic lead character in Sons of the Prophet and as the firebrand brother in Billy Elliot, brings an appealing earnestness to the role that makes this prince truly charming (click here for an interview with him)
Meanwhile, Laura Osnes, starring in her fifth Broadway show in just six years, is petite and pretty and posses a crystalline soprano that is perfect for Cinderella. I’ve occasionally found Osnes to be bland in the past but here she gives a spirited performance and confirms her status as Broadway's reigning ingenue. 

This made-for-each-other couple is surrounded by an incredible supporting cast that includes the ever-droll Peter Bartlett as the prince’s duplicitous prime minister, the wry Harriet Harris as Cinderella's evil stepmother, a hilarious Ann Harada as one of the evil stepsisters and Victoria Clark in glorious voice as the fairy godmother (click here to read an interview with her).
And, of course, there are the vintage songs. This is a B-grade Rodgers & Hammerstein score but it does include such can’t-stop-humming-them tunes as “In My Own Little Corner, “Impossible,” and "Do I Love You Because You’re Beautiful.”  A few additional songs have been recruited from other R&H shows but they fit in nicely with the originals.
The creative team does its part too. Anna Louizos' enchanted forest makes an idyllic setting for the show but it’s William Ivey Long’s costumes that provide the real magic, transforming Cinderella’s shabby dress into a beautiful ball gown while she's in full view of the audience. 
There are some missteps. Director Mark Brokaw has Cinderella sitting outside, instead of by the chimney, when she sings about being in her own little corner. A scene in which the stepsisters fantasize about what life with the prince might be strains much too hard to be funny.  
The show is also too long. What was originally a 90-minute TV special now clocks in at nearly two-and-a-half hours. 

 But none of that seemed to matter to the little girls in sparkly dresses who dotted the audience on the school night that my sister Joanne and I saw the show. Most of them got their parents to buy the $15 tiaras on sale in the lobby. 

Fairy tales may be fractured and rewritten to fit the vagaries or gender norms of the day.  But the one thing that never seems to change is the yearning to be a princess, even if it's just for one enchanted evening.