May 29, 2013

A Farewell to—and Final Lament for—"Smash"

“Smash,” which ended its two-season run on NBC this past Sunday night, was like that friend you’re embarrassed by and are always thinking you should drop because she just doesn’t know how to behave herself. And yet, when she packs up and leaves town for good, you can’t help mourning the loss. 
There have already been legions of eulogies for the show (click here to read executive producer Marc Shaiman’s) and about what its failure will mean for any future shows that try to put stories about Broadway on TV. So I hesitated about adding to the pile. But “Smash” was my wayward friend too and so I’ve decided to have my little say. 
I had held back from sounding off about the show after my lukewarm—but hopeful—review of its pilot episode back in February, 2012 (click here to read that). I just didn’t want to join the ranks of the hate watchers who could hardly wait for an episode to end before badmouthing it.  
Even before the second season began with a new head producer brought in from the successful show “Gossip Girl,” new story lines aimed at a younger audience and new stars like Jeremy Jordan to play those parts, naysayers were performing autopsies on the show (click here for a detailed analysis of what went wrong with the first season). 

One week, the popular A.V. Club entertainment site gave the show an F for “The Phenomenon” episode in which the series regulars dealt with the sudden death of the character Kyle, the co-writer of “Hit List," the show’s Rent-like show-within-a-show musical. It was bad but not bad enough to deserve an F.

Even while sighing my way through some of “Smash’s" most exasperating episodes, I got a kick out of seeing familiar Broadway faces (“look, there’s casting director Bernie Telsey”) and places (“they’re sitting right next to the table we had at Bond 45”).  But at the same time, I knew that most viewers wouldn’t have a clue about any of those inside references. 
And I think that may have been the main problem with the show: its creative team never figured out how to please the general viewers who don’t care about Broadway or the world of New York theater while still satisfying us theater geeks who care about it too much. 
The standard soap-opera stuff that might have attracted a wider audience never got fully developed. Flirtations started up and quickly fizzled out. Problems popped up and were instantly resolved. When characters no longer served the shaky plot, they were just tossed aside.

Meanwhile, the process of putting together a musical that we geeks craved to see was etched in such ridiculously broad strokes that those scenes made the old Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney let’s-put-on-a-show movies seem like “Frontline” documentaries.

The handwriting appeared on the wall when news leaked in March, a full six weeks before NBC officially canceled “Smash,” that Debra Messing, who portrayed one-half of the show’s main songwriting team, was doing a pilot for a CBS sitcom. 
Messing, of course, knows from her days on “Will & Grace” what it feels like to be in a hit series. And so her dismay with “Smash” was understandable as it jerked around her character Julia—making her a clueless writer one minute and a brilliant one the next, having her trying to adopt a baby from China while cheating on her husband.

“Smash” was originally conceived as a cable show. But its big fan Bob Greenblatt brought it with him when he moved from Showtime to head up NBC and I can’t help wondering if it wouldn’t have been better to have left it behind. About 11.5 million viewers tuned in to see the first episode of "Smash;" 15 months later, only 2.4 million watched Sunday’s finale.

Shows on broadcast networks need big numbers to survive. Those on cable don’t. During its second season, “Mad Men” drew an average 2 million viewers per episode. Now in its sixth season, the show pulls in around 3 million but remains one of the most buzzed about series on TV.   

“Smash” may never have developed the cult status of “Mad Men” (only a handful of shows in the 70-year history of TV have done that) but, without the pressure to draw a mass audience, it might have had a chance to become the show that those of us who love theater could have loved.  And it’s that lost opportunity that I now mourn the most.

May 25, 2013

"Murder Ballard" and "Bull" Are the Lastest to Get Up Close and Personal with Audiences

For years now, the sociologist Richard Florida has been preaching that young people in what he calls the creative class don’t want to just sit back and be fed their culture, they want to get all up in it.  And now it seems that theater producers are taking heed. For the most buzzed about shows of the past couple of months have, in one way or another, followed this formula:

•Hire a comely cast of young actors (see above)
•Put them in a musical with a rock-inflected score.  
•Stir in a some melodrama and a little bit of sex. 
•Make the audience a part of the action

 •Spike the mixture with booze (optional).
And voilà you’ve got Here Lies Love, the David Byrne-Fatboy Slim disco musical about Imelda Marcos that is packing them in down at the Public Theater  (click here to see my review)  or Natasha, Pierre and The Great Comet of 1812, the electro-pop adaptation of a segment of “War and Peace,” that I talked about on Wednesday (click here for my review of it).

Now come Murder Ballad, the love-gone-wrong rock musical that opened at Union Square Theatre this week and, to a lesser extent, Bull, the non-singing but still we're-all-in-this-together drama about office politics that’s playing through June 2 as part of the Brits off Broadway series at 59E59 Theaters.

Murder Ballad had an earlier run at Manhattan Theatre Club that drew mixed reviews but struck the right chord with New York Times critic Ben Brantley, which probably played a large part in its move downtown. I think the thing that turned off the other critics is that the show is basically just another riff on the old “Frankie and Johnny” story about cheating lovers. 
The main lovers in this version are the can’t-live-with-‘em-can’t-live-without-‘em couple Sara and Tom. When they break up soon after the show begins, Sara meets, marries and tries to build a life with nice guy Michael. Then, as the character called the Narrator tells us, Sara bumps into and starts an affair with Tom and all hell begins to break loose.

The music for this 80-minute, sung-through melodrama was composed by Juliana Nash, the frontwoman for the '90s band Talking to Animals, who also co-wrote the lyrics with the show’s book writer Julia Jordan. 

I can’t honestly say that I remember any of the songs but I had a good time listening to them while I was there and it is great fun to see women proving that they can write rock music just as hard charging as the next leather-panted guy.
The cast doesn’t hold back either. Will Swenson usually strikes me as a self-conscious performer, never really at ease in the skin of whatever character he's portraying but that quality works perfectly for the insecure Tom. Plus Swenson is dandy eye candy.  Meanwhile, John Ellison Conlee is winningly sympathetic as the cuckolded Michael.
But it’s the women who really rock. Rebecca Naomi Jones’ bad-girl sexiness and powerhouse pipes make the Narrator the most charismatic onstage storyteller since the Master of Ceremonies in Cabaret  (click here to read an interview with her). 

And Caissie Levy brings a leavening touch of innocence to Sara’s wantonness. Levy also deserves kudos for getting up to speed with her cast mates after being called in to take over the role from Karen Olivo who played Sara in the earlier production (click here to read about how Levy pulled it off). 
The real star of the show, though, is director Trip Cullum's hip staging, which turns part of the theater into the dive bar that Tom owns (the rest of the audience sits in a horseshoe around the playing area). Cullum has the actors weaving in and out of the tables, sometimes singing directly to audience members and even jumping up on a table or two. 

Doug Varone’s choreography goes all out too. And special shout-outs must also go to lighting designer Ben Stanton and sound designer Leon Rothenberg for keeping all the goings-on so visible and audible.
Murder Ball may not be a great show but it's not a bad way to spend an evening. There’s even full drinks service at the onstage bar before and after the show. But take my advice and skip the house white wine, which is icky sweet and goes for $8 for a quarter-filled cup.

There are no drinks or love ballads at Bull, playwright Mike Bartlett’s companion piece to Cock, his play about a man torn between his longtime male partner and a woman he meets.  Cock was one of the best shows I saw last year. I can tell you now that Bull won't make this year's list but it, too, makes the audience members a part of the action.

The Bull audience is arrayed around a boxing ring, some, like my theatergoing buddy Bill and me, on bleacher-like seats, the rest standing close enough to touch the transparent barrier that encloses the space. Inside, the action unfolds over 55 fast-paced minutes, as two junior execs relentlessly goad and bully a third.

The four-member British cast (the workers and their late-arriving boss) is superb and director Clare Lizzimore keeps the tension at a high-testosterone level reminiscent of Neil LaBute ‘s early work.
Bull lacks the emotional impact of Cock. But it seems to be scoring with the alpha-male crowd. A quintet of guys good-looking enough to pass for a rock band stood in front of Bill and me.  They shifted around for better views, laughed loudly and punched one another in the arm to signal their appreciation of a good jab at Bull’s victim.  They didn’t climb into the ring but they were all up in its action.

May 22, 2013

Russian Nights with "Natasha" and "Nikolai"

Who knew that Russians would be so hip this spring? The Encores! series just finished its season with a production of Rodgers and Hart’s gangsters-and-Russian ballet musical On Your Toes. And in successive evenings last week, my theatergoing buddy Bill and I saw Natasha, Pierre and The Great Comet of 1812 and Nikolai and The Others, two shows that deal in very different ways with the mad passion for life and the simultaneous melancholy about how it will turn out that define the Russian character.  

My feelings about the shows are similarly mixed and since last Saturday's post was so paltry, I'm going to go on a bit longer than I usually do and wrap two reviews in one so that I can tell you about both of them.

The buzziest of the two is Natasha, Pierre and The Great Comet of 1812, which gained some notoriety this past weekend when a writer for the "National Review" wrote about an altercation with another audience member that resulted in his smashing her cellphone and guards evicting him (click here to read his account of the incident).
But even before that drama, Natasha, Pierre had a noteworthy run last year at Ars Nova and landed on several year-end bests lists. I’d skipped that earlier production, thinking that a technopop opera based on a tiny 70-page segment from Tolstoy’s gargantuan novel  “War and Peace” sounded too precious. 

But, eager to see what all the fuss was about, I bought tickets the moment I heard that Natasha, Pierre was coming back. And the news that the producers would be setting up a tent in the Meatpacking District, outfitting it as a nightclub called Kazino and including a Russian-inspired meal in the $125 price of the ticket (we scored a discount) made the show sound even more enticing. 

The inside of the show's pop-up club turned out to be decorated with 19th century portraits (including a huge one of Napoleon, whose war with the Russians provides the backdrop for the novel and the musical.)  Guests are seated at banquets along the red velvet walls or at tiny circular tables.

The meal—thimble-sized glasses of borscht and vodka, some wilted raw vegetables, a few slices of tasty black bread, small bits of broiled chicken and salmon over a spoonful of pilaf and a plate of pierogi—wasn’t bad but it left me hungry for something more substantial (I raided the frig when I got home.) And I felt the same way about the show.  
It pivots around Natasha, a young noblewoman who is engaged to Andrey, an upstanding prince who is away fighting, and seduced by Anatole, a more profligate prince. The plot also includes the goings-on of a half dozen others, including the titular Pierre, a rich and well-meaning aristocrat who is ill at ease in Russian society. 
Their stories unfold right on the dining room floor, with the actors snaking their way around the tables and clambering up on the small platforms placed around the room. All of them are good but Phillipa Soo is particularly lovely as Natasha and Lucas Steele brings just the right amount of bad-boy sexiness to Anatole.
But most of the praise has been directed at Dave Malloy, who adapted the book, composed the music, wrote the lyrics, orchestrated the score, and plays piano and accordion in addition to portraying Pierre (click here to read a Q&A with him.

An eight-piece orchestra seated around the room provides the rest of the music—a mashup of techno, Russian folk tunes and emo ballads—and the musicians even join in a couple of the dance numbers, choreographed with great brio by Sam Pinkleton.  

The whole thing adds up to another of the immersive theater experiences that are packing in the young audiences producers crave and delighting critics who are equally desperate for something new.
I’ve become a convert to immersion too (click here to read my review of David Byrne’s Here Lies Love) but, despite all the critical acclaim it’s received (click here to read some of the raves), Natasha, Pierre didn’t do it for me. 
With the exception of one haunting ballad—sung by Brittain Ashford as Natasha’s cousin Sonya—none of the music stood out and the rest of the show, including the hyperkinetic staging by Rachel Chavkin, seemed like a project put together by the smart kids at theater camp.  

But the show does seem to be reaching its target audience.  Bill spotted a mother and her teenage daughter looking through the program as we all waited in the subway.  “What did you think?” he asked.  The daughter clutched the Playbill to her chest, “I loved it,” she said.
I had thought I would love Nikolai and the Others. For playwright Richard Nelson’s drama focuses on the interconnecting lives of George Balanchine, Igor Stravinsky and other Russian artists who emigrated to the U.S. right before and after World War II, bringing with them a more cosmopolitan sensibility to American culture.  

And as if that weren't enough, the show is directed by the always-adroit David Cromer and its 18-member cast is lead by such powerhouse performers as Michael Cerveris, John Glover, Stephen Kunken, Blair Brown and the 88 year-old vet Alvin Epstein.

Alas, the whole turns out to be less than the sum of its impressive parts. Nelson places his characters at a farm in Westport, Conn., where a group of Russian émigrés have gathered on a weekend in 1948 to celebrate the “name day” of the set designer Sergey Sudeikin and to preview Orpheus, the Balanchine-Stravinsky collaboration that launched New York City Ballet later that year. 
But, as Nelson explains in a program note, lots and lots of liberties have been taken. In real life, Balanchine first showed Stravinsky the ballet in New York. The real-life Sudeikin died in 1946. And there was no farm. 
None of that might matter if Nelson had been as inventive in coming up with some narrative drive to move his plot along. Instead, he has said that he didn’t want to write a political play. That stance has caused him to bypass a wonderful opportunity that might have produced a more substantial work. 
The titular character is Nikolai Nabokov, a composer and cousin to the celebrated novelist, who worked with the CIA when the fledgling agency was trying to enlist artists in its culture war against the Soviet Union.  
The Nikolai of the play is the most assimilated of the émigrés and caught uncomfortably between the worlds as he serves as a fixer for the problems his countrymen encounter while trying to appease the anxious Americans who want favors in return for the help that is given. 

But Nelson only touches lightly on this dilemma while devoting most of the play's two hours to quotidian gossip (several of the characters were at one time romantically involved) and reminiscences about the old days.
Fortunately for him—and for theatergoers—he’s got a top-shelf cast of actors who know how to work the interstices in the dialog. Kunken wonderfully conveys how Nikolai's sense of responsibility rubs against the resentment he feels for being the least gifted amidst this gaggle of geniuses. And Cerveris so embodies Balanchine that it’s almost eerie (click here to read an interview with the actor).

Meanwhile Cromer orchestrates the actors so deftly that even with all the comings and goings required for 18 characters, nothing seems awkward or hurried. In one delightful bit of stagecraft, the Russians speak unaccented English when they are speaking to one another in Russian and with pronounced Russian accents when they are speaking English to outsiders like Balanchine’s wife, the ballerina Maria Tallchief, or the visiting American diplomat Chip Bohlen.

And there is the extra treat of seeing excerpts from Orpheus, beautifully performed by Natalia Alonso as Tallchief and Michael Rosen as her partner Nicholas Magallanes (click here to see a montage of scenes from the production). 

Later, Bill suggested that it would have been really cool if City Ballet, now in the middle of its spring season, had scheduled complete performances of Orpheus during the run of Nikolai and the Others.  But I guess it just didn't know that Russians were going to be so hip.

May 18, 2013

Applauding A New Trend: Playbill Extras

It’s another can’t-find-time-to-blog weekend for me but rather than turn the ghost light on yet again, I’m going to give a brief shout out to a new trend I've noticed: the fancy inserts producers are tucking into the Playbills for their shows.

The one for The Testament of Mary, which closed after just 16 performances and 27 previews, was written by its playwright Colm Tóibín and reads like a mini dissertation on depictions of the Virgin Mary over the centuries.  It even includes a list of additional readings for those who might have wanted to dig deeper after seeing Tóibín’s controversial portrayal of the mother of Jesus as a grief-stricken but angry woman who, years after the crucifixion, still questions the divinity of her son. Despite a powerful performance by Fiona Shaw, the production, over-directed by Deborah Warner and featuring a self-consciously arty set by Tom Pye, was off-putting. But this author’s note makes an elegant case for the play itself.

The producers for Lucky Guy slipped two glossy inserts into the Playbill I got when my husband K and I saw this bio drama about the late columnist Mike McAlary and the heyday of tabloid journalism in the '80s and ‘90s. One of those cards has a note from director George C. Wolfe on one side and an excerpt from an essay called “Journalism: A Love Story” by the show’s late playwright Nora Ephron on the other.  The second insert contains an illustrated note from set designer David Rockwell, detailing how he put together the collage of subway graffiti and other images from the period that decorate the curtain that greets theatergoers when they enter the Broadhurst Theatre.

Getting these extras is like the theatrical equivalent of the bonus items on a DVD.  They’re a nice treat and I hope the trend continues to catch on.

May 15, 2013

"Lucky Guy" Showcases Good Guy Tom Hanks

Even if Nora Ephron hadn’t written it and Tom Hanks weren’t starring in it, Lucky Guy would probably be a hit.  For the play, now running at the Broadhurst Theatre, tells the story of the late New York Post columnist Mike McAlary and is set in the then-high-flying journalism world of the ‘90s. Every reporter I know (and I know a lot of them) has been going to see the show and to relive, at least for a couple of hours, a time when memories of Woodward and Bernstein’s bringing down a president were still fresh, ad-fat magazines were paying big fees for stories and it was just cool to be in the news business.

Ephron, who died last summer, got a job at the Post straight out of college in the early '60s, later married three journalists and, as she says in a posthumous program note, loved journalism. This is her paean to the profession and it is fun to see her unabasedly rose-tinted version of those old glory days on onstage.
The story she tells is a fairly conventional bio-drama. It unspools as a series of anecdotes (drawn from interviews Ephron did with the real-life people who populate the play) about McAlary’s career.  

The tales about McAlary track his days as a rookie beat reporter right through his success as a columnist who specialized in writing about cops and crime, which culminated in a Pulitzer Prize for his exposing the story of Abner Louima, the Haitian security guard brutalized and sodomized with the handle of a bathroom plunger by Brooklyn cops.

The play both begins and ends with a wake in a bar for McAlary, who died from colon cancer at just 41.  The fact that Ephron wrote those scenes while facing her own imminent death (a fact she kept secret from all but a few family and friends) makes them all the more poignant.
But, alas, there’s no real dramatic tension in Lucky Guy. Some critics have also complained that the show is too insidey and of little interest to people who lack Ephron's (and my) passion for journalism

For the record, my husband K, a non-journalist and a notoriously picky theatergoer, like the show a lot. On the other hand, my college roommate, a one-time actress, and her economist husband in from the coast for a visit, liked it less.  

Ephron might have fixed some of the problems had she lived but now we’ll never know how. Luckily, director George C. Wolfe, a friend of Ephron’s, has staged the show with great energy, imagination and wit. His efforts are ably supported by the mood-enhancing video projections designed by Batwin + Robin Productions.

Wolfe has also put together what is arguably the best ensemble of the season. Even small parts are played by terrific character actors like Peter Gerety, Richard Masur and Peter Scolari.
But the first among equals in the 17-member supporting cast are Christopher McDonald who captures the dapper flamboyance of the master fixer Eddie Hayes, who was McAlary’s close friend; and Courtney B. Vance, whose nuanced performance as McAlary’s frequent editor Hap Hairston has earned him a deserved Tony nomination. 

Of course, I’d expected those experienced stage vets to be good.  I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from the show’s star Tom Hanks.  So I’m delighted to be able to report that Hanks, who is making his Broadway debut and hasn’t appeared on any stage in 30 years, gives a terrific performance that totally merits the Tony nomination he got (Click here to read a piece about his preparation for the role).

Hanks needs none of the grading on a curve that is sometimes used for Hollywood arrivistes. He commands the stage with natural ease.  He is funny (Ephron’s script crackles with her customary humor) and touching and I’m beginning to think that Hanks may be the best actor we’ve got in this country in any medium.
After the show, K and I walked over to our favorite theater district hangout for a late supper. A few minutes later Hanks arrived and joined a table near ours.  Celebrities seem to like the place as much as K and I do and over the years we’ve seen many famous people holding forth there as their companions paid deferential attention.
But Hanks listened just as much as he talked, living up to his rep as one of Hollywood—and now Broadway’s—truly good guys.  He’s truly good in Lucky Guy too and, if you’re lucky (most performances are sold out) you can catch him and the show before its extended run ends on July 3.

May 11, 2013

"The Call" Tries to Say Too Much

Performers who’ve made their name in musicals often jump at the chance to show that they can do straight dramatic roles as well.  In just the past year, Norbert Leo Butz and Nathan Lane have shown how nimble they can be with superb performances in How I Learned to Drive and The Nance. The latest to make that move is Kerry Butler, perhaps best known as the roller-blading muse in Xanadu but now starring in The Call, a new drama about interracial adoption that is playing in a joint production by Playwrights Horizons and Primary Stages through May 26.

The Call tells the story of Annie and Peter, a white couple, who, after many failed attempts to conceive a child, decide to adopt a baby from Africa. Their best friends, an African-American lesbian couple, are equal parts supportive (they want their friends to be happy) and skeptical (they wonder how Annie will deal with a black child’s hair).

The plot, as they say, thickens when the adoption agency makes the titular call to say that it has found a child but she is slightly different from what Annie and Peter had expected. Will they still take her?  Will the experience redefine their feelings about parenthood and even about one another?

Playwright Tanya Barfield is the mother of two children adopted from Ethiopia and she writes with great empathy about people who desperately want to be parents. (Click here to read about how her own experience informed the play).    

But Barfield trips herself up by layering on so many other issues— homosexuality, AIDS, poverty in Africa, relationships between blacks and whites in this country—that the central questions almost get lost.  

Indeed, even Barfield has trouble keeping up with all of it:  the gay couple actually gets married twice but for no apparent reason. And an emotional speech by Annie and Peter’s African neighbor, nicely played by Russell G. Jones, goes on so long that I think I might have dozed off.

What keeps the show on track (and kept me awake) are the performances, particularly Butler’s. The actress is also the mother of two young daughters adopted from Africa (click here to read about that) and she conveys Annie’s hunger to be a mother with heartbreaking clarity. 

Kelly AuCoin is equally affecting as Peter.  Meanwhile, Crystal A. Dickinson provides comic relief as the more outspoken of the two black friends. And, in the play's least flashy role, Eisa Davis is quite good, too, although she and Dickinson display none of the chemistry you'd expect from newlyweds.

Still, the maternal relationship is the primal one here. And despite whatever reservations I may have, Barfield gets points for at least trying to connect the personal preoccupations of upper middle-class folks that dominate so many contemporary plays with the political concerns of the rest of the world, which appear in far too few of them.

May 8, 2013

Why "Here Lies Love" is So Totally Lovable

Let me make two things clear right at the beginning of this post. The first, as regular readers know, is that I hate audience participation. The second is that I absolutely loved Here Lies Love, the new musical at the Public Theater that has the audience on its feet the whole time and taking part in every scene, even at one point doing a line dance.

I don’t know how to explain this contradiction.  Except to say that no other theater happening I’ve encountered has been as much fun—or as inherently theatrical—as this one is.

The show, conceived and co-written by former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne, tells the story of Imelda Marcos, the former First Lady of the Philippines whose husband Ferdinand lead a corrupt and oppressive regime for over two decades. 

During those years, she threw lavish disco parties, hobnobbed with celebrities from the heiress Doris Duke to the B-movie star George Harrison and spent millions on a Jackie Kennedy-style wardrobe (including the notorious 2,700 pairs of shoes that were discovered after the People Power Revolution pushed out the Marcos government in 1986).  

It's a story kind of like Evita's, only with a disco beat. And the club-music score by Byrne and the British musician Fatboy Slim is irresistibly catchy. It was originally released as a concept album in 2010 and there’s no orchestra for the stage show; instead, a dj in a booth spins the recorded instrumentals. But this isn’t just shake your booty music.

Most of the lyrics (and the brief bits of dialog that aren’t sung) are drawn from quotes by the real-life main players who include not only the Marcoses but the opposition leader Benigno Aquino, who, at least in this telling, was also Imelda’s first love.

This is Byrne's first musical but each song advances the story, while remaining true to character. “Why don’t you love me,” Imelda, still determinedly self-involved, laments in her final ballad.  

The performances, lead by Ruthie Ann Miles as Imelda, Jose Llana as Ferdinand and Conrad Ricamora as Aquino, are all terrific.  And the main three not only have great pipes but loads of charisma as well.  

But it’s the staging that makes this show and the credit for that goes to Alex Timbers, who here confirms his position as his generation’s most inventive director of musicals. 

Timbers and his design team, lead by set designer David Korins, have transformed the Public’s LuEsther Mertz theater space into a ‘70s era nightclub, complete with a big shiny disco ball, video screens on which are projected scenes and settings from Imelda’s life and a series of movable platforms that are constantly being reconfigured by a crew of hardworking young stagehands in brightly-colored jumpsuits.

The audience stands around the platforms and moves as they do. Sometimes we were urged to dance, at others to stand-in for adoring Marcos supporters (I’ll admit I did swoon a bit when the hunky Llana—click here to read an interview with him—shook my hand) and later we became the disaffected citizens who mourned Aquino after his assassination and joined in the revolution that ultimately brought down the Marcos regime.

The politics do get a little fuzzy amidst all the activity.  But the total experience, including the terrific choreography of downtown dancemaker Annie-B Parson and the eye-catching projections by Peter Nigrini, works on a visceral level. 

There are a few seats in a balcony area overlooking the playing area but it’s far more fun to be down on the floor.  Byrne, clad in a grey jumpsuit and looking like some really hip garage mechanic, was in the crowd the night my theatergoing buddy Bill and I attended Here Lies Love and it was an extra treat to watch him bogeying to his own music.

The show’s banal title is drawn from words that Imelda, now 83 and, remarkably, a member of the Filipino congress (click here to read about her current reelection campaign)—is said to want on her tombstone. An apt description for the show itself might be, Here Lies Fun.

May 4, 2013

Barbara Cook and a Real New York Evening

Even if you were born and raised in New York, as both my husband K and I were, you've probably had fantasies of living “the real New York life.” Of course the definition of what that is varies from person to person. 

For me, the phrase has always conjured up images of post-War Manhattan and that early Mad Men period when people went to swank nightclubs and hip jazz clubs. And this past week, I got to realize my fantasies: K and I went to 54 Below to see the great Barbara Cook and then afterward, we took a cab over to a little club on the East Side called Somethin Jazz to hear a trio lead by our young friend the pianist Kevin Harris. It was a real New York evening.  

I’d been wanting to go to 54 Below ever since a group of Broadway producers got together last year and converted the space underneath the old Studio 54 disco (now a home for Roundabout Theatre Company productions) into a cabaret and nicknamed it Broadway’s Nightclub.  

It's a Broadway production through and through. Tony winner John Lee Beatty designed the place, Tony winner Ken Billington has done the lighting and Peter Hylenski (nominated just this week  for his work on Motown: The Musical) did the sound design.
And the lineup of headliners reads like a Who’s Who of Broadway.  Patti LuPone was the opening act and has already returned a couple of times.  Ben Vereen, Sherie Rene Scott, Andrea Martin, Donna McKechnie, Victor Garber, Jason Robert Brown and Norbert Leo Butz, to name just a few, have all performed there too.  (Click here to check out the podcast that features interviews with many of them).

Still, it’s hard to think of a better person to see there than Barbara Cook. For she is the last great voice from the Golden Age of Broadway musicals still singing. Cook made her Broadway debut in 1951 and quickly became one of its leading ingenues, later creating the role of Marian the Librarian in the original production of The Music Man.

During the '70s, she hit a bad spell of depression, alcoholism and weight gain but she got through it and made a legendary comeback with a series of concerts and club dates that reestablished her as one of the leading interpreters of the American songbook.  

My husband K and I caught one of the performances she gave at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont back in 2004, shortly before her friend and collaborator, the pianist Wally Harper died.  It remains one of the Top 10 theatrical experiences of my life and so when I saw that she was making her debut at 54 Below, I knew it was really time for me to get there.  
I have to confess that I was a little disappointed at first. The room reminded me of one of those two-drinks-on-the-table clubs they used to have in Las Vegas. The cocktails seemed overly expensive; the waiters too harried.  

But then, Cook, now 85 and leaning heavily on a cane, entered the room and slowly made her way through the audience. By the time she was helped up on the stage and began to sing, the room seemed more elegant, the lighting more romantic. Two men at the table in front of ours moved their seats closer and leaned their heads together as they listened. I reached over for K's hand.

She warned us that she, although a leading Sondheim interpreter, would sing no Sondheim songs.  Instead, she did tunes by Hoagy Carmichael, Eddie Cantor, John Lennon and a few lesser known composers.  

I’ve read that the act is pretty much a reprise of the one she did at the now closed Feinstein's last spring and later at her birthday concert at Carnegie Hall last October.  But I didn’t mind and nor did anyone else in the room. 
Her voice cracked a couple of times during her first number but a couple of sips of water cured that.  “Don’t go home and tell people that Barbra Cook can’t sing,” she joked.  “Cause I can.”   

And while it’s true, that she talks as much as she sings during the 80-minute concert, it’s also true that when she sings, there’s no one like her.  Her engagement at 54 Below ends tonight but, with luck, she’ll be back many more times.
And with luck, more people will get to know and hear Kevin Harris. He’s a friend and so I can’t review his performance (you can find out more about him here).  

However I can say that, like Cook, Kevin tells stories with his music. He told K and me that he's planning to move to New York from his current home base in Boston. I'm looking forward to his interpretation of the real New York life.

May 1, 2013

Taking Time Out for Tony Talk

You don’t even have to be a theater lover to know that the Tony nominations were announced yesterday. There were, as usual, the fairly predictable nods. Hollywood heavyweight Tom Hanks got a nomination for Lucky Guy, the love song to old-school journalism that is itself a frontrunner for Best Play because it’s the final work of the much-beloved writer—and big theater boosterNora Ephron, who died last summer.  

And, of course, there were the somewhat surprising omissions. Neither Alan Cuming nor Bette Midler got recognized for their performances as, respectively, all the characters in Macbeth and the only person onstage in I’ll Eat You Last, the one-woman show about the late Hollywood superagent Sue Mengers.  

After Fiona Shaw failed to get a nod for her controversial portrayal of Jesus' mother in The Testament of  Mary, the producers announced that the show will close this coming Sunday.

Al Pacino also got passed over for his idiosyncratic performance in Glengarry Glen Ross. In fact, large swatches of the disappointing fall season got deservedly passed over. Luckily the shows that opened in the spring brought some razzle dazzle back to Broadway and there’s stiff competition in several categories.

Hank’s competitors for best actor in a play include the perennial favorites Nathan Lane for The Nance and David Hyde Pierce for Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. Not to be counted out are Tracy Letts who gave a revelatory performance in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and the young scene stealer Tom Sturridge from Orphans. 

The best featured actress in a musical category is equally fierce, with every single one of the nominees—Kinky Boots’ Annaleigh Ashford, Cinderella’s Victoria Clark, Pippin’s Andrea Martin, Hands on a Hardbody’s Keala Settle and Lauren Ward from Matilda—having performed a number that stopped her individual show. 

Meanwhile, any one of the guys (the first three of them previous Tony winners) who are up for best choreographer— Andy Blankenbuehler for Bring It On, Peter Darling for Matilda, Jerry Mitchell for Kinky Boots and Chet Walker channeling Bob Fosse for Pippin—could dance away with that prize. The chance to see their numbers will definitely be a win-win for the viewers who tune in to the awards broadcast.

But this year’s biggest showdown will be between the cheery homegrown musical Kinky Boots (which picked up 13 nominations) and its leading rival, the witty British import Matilda (which got 12).  Both are big shows and neither fills the underdog role that made Once a winner when it faced off against Newsies last year but they do represent different wings of the answer to the question “what should a 21st century musical be?" 

The Tonys are unlikely to have a definitive answer for that but all the winners will be announced at the ceremony, back this year at Radio City Music Hall, on Sunday June 9 and broadcast on CBS.

However, the fun has already begun as everyone has started second guessing the choices that the nominators made. And this year, my theatergoing buddy Bill and I decided that we’d chime in too.  So, click the orange button below to hear us sound off on what we thought of the nomination choices and of the 2012-2013 season as a whole: