May 31, 2014

"The Anthem" Marches to An Oddball Beat

Cheesy musicals aren’t my thing. Unless, of course, they’re good cheesy musicals. Which is an apt description for The Anthem, the new Culture Project production that opened at the Lynn Redgrave Theater on Wednesday night.

It’s based, improbably enough, on Ayn Rand’s 1937 novella about a dystopian future in which nearly all individualism—including the right to choose an occupation or a lover—has been squashed by the state. The only holdouts are a band of renegades who live in the woods and a restless freethinker named Prometheus (get it?) who breaks with the collective and hooks up with the rebels to bring down the regime.  
In other words, the plot is standard Rand. I think. For unlike just about everyone else who grew up as a bookish teen in midcentury America, I never read Rand’s novels “The Fountainhead” or “Atlas Shrugged.” I think I was too busy reading Sophocles since Antigone was my iconoclast of choice and, to be honest, the plays were shorter.

But I Googled Rand and the novella when I got home. The libretto for the musical, written by Gary Morgenstein, identified in the playbill as the director of communications for the Syfy Channel, seems to hew pretty close to the original plot, which fits right in with the world-has-gone-to-hell meme that now motivates 90% of the movies that come out of Hollywood. 
That’s the cheesy part. The good part is everything added by Rachel Klein, who’s responsible for the direction, choreography and design of the production. It’s easy to spoof a story like this one, particularly given the evil-lady rep that Rand has in liberal bastions. But Klein keeps you guessing about where her political affinities lie and puts her energy into whipping up a diverting evening in the theater. 

Except for the black-clad rulers of the society (one of them played by the guy who was the original Cowboy in The Village People) all the collective members are dressed in shiny silver outfits that make them look like hipster versions of the Tin Man from “The Wizard of Oz.”  Meanwhile the free spirits in the woods are channeling Cirque du Soleil.  And in more than just a sartorial way.  
One of the best features of the production is that a sleek and nimble trio performs aerial acrobatics that are awe inducing. At times maybe too much so because I caught myself mesmerized by them when I probably should have been watching the main players. Although the entire cast is so incredibly toned and great looking that I found myself wondering what the casting notice must have read like.
Now, because this is a musical, I suppose I should talk about the music before I sign off. The score by Jonnie Rockwell (the playbill identifies her as the grandchild of the Czech composer Leoš Janáček) is standard pop-rock that defies you to distinguish one melody from the next.  Some of the lyrics by Erik Ransom made me smile. And the performers seem to be having a good time belting out the requisite “American Idol-style” anthems.

You’ll probably have a good time too if you go before the limited run ends on July 6.

May 28, 2014

Some Help in Handicapping the Tony Race

We’re 10 days away from the Tonys and the campaign is in full stride, with nominees in several categories running neck and neck. Which is great for us theater junkies because it means that Broadway folks are turning up everywhere.

They’re lobbying for themselves and their shows in newspaper and magazine articles and they're making live appearances outside their theaters (Neil Patrick Harris just did a Times Talks to tout Hedwig and The Angry Inch, the cast of the now-closed The Bridges of Madison County promoted their score with a recent performance at an uptown Barnes & Noble and Tyne Daly and Terrence McNally are scheduled to talk up Mothers and Sons at the 92nd Street Y on June 2). 

Nominees are also doing TV and radio interviews and popping up on blogs, video clips (check out the official Tony clips here) and Twitter feeds posted by fans, friends and the stars themselves, including @idinamenzel, @AudraEqualityMc and @sfosternyc.  

In fact, there’s so much stuff swirling around that I’ve decided to devote today’s post to a round-up of a few favorites that you can access online:

•The Associated Press offers a vivid glimpse of what the madness of awards season is like with its day-in-the-life profile of Joshua Henry, who’s nominated in the Best Supporting Actor in a Musical category for his show-stopping performance in VioletYou can read it by clicking here.
Bryan Cranston, who made his Broadway debut (and earned a deserved Best Actor in a Play nomination) with his portrayal of Lyndon Johnson in the political drama All the Way, was as folksy and savvy as the 36th president he plays when he appeared on a recent episode of “Charlie Rose,” which you can see by clicking here.

When Audra McDonald, up for a record-breaking sixth Tony for her uncanny portrayal of the legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill, hasn't been tweeting, she's been giving revealing interviews. None is more so than the one she did with Budd Mishkin, the ace interviewer for the local cable channel NY1. You can watch it here.
The public TV show "Theater Talk" has been packing in so many interviews with nominees over the past few weeks that it’s had to limit its chats to 15-minute segments instead of the full half hour it usually gives its guests. Among the best of the recent exchanges has been the get-together with LaTanya Richardson Jackson, Sophie Okonedo and Anika Noni Rose, all nominated for their performances in the current revival of A Raisin in the Sun and all so fascinatingly different from the women they portray onstage. Click here to watch them and then stick around for the also-entertaining encounter with Aladdin director Casey Nicholaw and that show's show-stopping genie James Monroe Iglehart.

My pals at the "This Week on Broadway" podcast have been busy too. And soon after the nominations were announced they did a terrific show that featured interviews with Hedwig’s Lena Hall; Nick Cordero, who plays the gangster-turned-auteur Cheech in Bullets Over Broadway; and Andy Karl, the star of Rocky.  All three come off as hardworking, humble and, regardless of what happens on June 8, totally winning. You can hear them by clicking here.  

You’ve probably already seen the roundtable discussion that New York Times’ theater writer Patrick Healy did with the five nominees for Best Actress in a Musical—Mary Bridget Davies, Sutton Foster, Idina Menzel, Jessie Mueller and Kelli O’Hara–but their talk is so honest and so good that I can’t resist linking to it. You read it by clicking here.  

Finally, I’ve saved my absolute favorite for last. It’s a quirky piece that The Wall Street Journal did on Violet's Sutton Foster and her weekend home. There are lots of details about how Foster found and decorated the place but the piece also provides an intimate portrait of her very distinctive personality.  You can find it here.

And if any of this helps you in your office pool (assuming you work in an office cool enough to have a pool on the Tonys) you can email me later about splitting the winnings.

May 24, 2014

"Heathers The Musical" Is Mistimed Mayhem

Some people (the Tea Party, the Republicans in the House) don’t mind being scolds but I find no pleasure in it, which is why I’ve taken so long to say anything about Heathers The Musical, which opened at New World Stages around the end of March. 

In fact, reluctant to be a party pooper, I'd planned to just keep my mouth shut on this one. But when a couple of friends recently talked excitedly about getting tickets for it, I felt I had to speak out.

Now I should say that lots of people are getting a kick out of this show. The audience at the performance I attended lapped it up, although it was a Friday night and many of them were taking advantage of the theater’s service of delivering booze to people right in their seats. Still several critics, whom I’m assuming were sober, liked it too (click here for the New York Post rave).  
Heathers is based on the 1988 cult film of the same name, which starred Winona Ryder as a girl named Veronica who wangles her way into the popular crowd at high school (a trio of pretty rich girls all named Heather) but then falls for Christian Slater’s J.D., an iconoclastic outsider who wants to take down the cool kids. Literally. 

Fans of the movie loved its nihilism (click here for an oral history of the film) and fans of the new musical like the fact that it has preserved the movie’s dark undercurrent. 

But in the quarter century since "Heathers" came out, there have been the massacres at Columbine, Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook Elementary School. And so I squirmed in my seat, when, between the goofy jokes and gyrating dance numbers, J.D. knocked off kid after kid. 

The creative team wasn’t blind to the problem and they give Veronica and J.D. back stories to make them more sympathetic (click here to read more about the changes). But there’s not much they can do with the central revenge premise and it’s still unsettling to see a guy in a long dark trench coat like the ones the Columbine killers wore point a gun at a group of teens in the middle of what’s presented as a feel-good musical. 

Still, there is talent involved in this show. Kevin Murphy and Laurence O’Keefe may fall back on the usual high school stereotypes (bitchy queen bees, dumb jocks, dweebie smart kids, a Goth girl who just wanders around the stage with nothing to do) but they’ve written some appealing songs with clever lyrics. 
Meanwhile, working with an apparently tiny budget that didn’t allow for much of a set and a big multicultural cast of 19, most of whom are making their New York debuts, director Andy Fickman has created some flashy, audience-pleasing production numbers. 

But best of all is Barrett Wilbert Weed, who plays Veronica with the kind of spunky charm that calls to mind a younger Sutton Foster. I’d love to see Weed in something else, maybe as Little Sally in a revival of Urinetown, whose dystopian fantasy is still something that one doesn’t need to feel queasy for laughing at.

May 21, 2014

How "The City of Conversation" Spoke to Me

The City of Conversation, now at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse theater through July 6, is the kind of show I love: a well- made drama about big issues and ideas that isn’t afraid to get a little schmaltzy. But, of course, love is almost never perfect.

Playwright Anthony Giardina has set his political drama in the Georgetown home of Hester Ferris, a celebrated Washington hostess who over the course of 30 years (from the waning days of the Carter administration to the optimistic evening of the Obama inauguration) witnesses—and experiences—the breakdown of civility between the parties that has created the stasis currently crippling our political affairs.
Hester is an unabashed liberal but, to her chagrin, her only child Colin falls in love with a diehard young Reaganite named Anna. The three establish a shaky détente held together by their shared love for the son Colin and Anna eventually have. It’s shattered by the 1987 battle to confirm Robert Bork for a seat on the Supreme Court which forces each of them to decide how much of a personal price he or she is willing to pay for political beliefs.

There’s inevitable soapboxing as the characters lay out their philosophical differences and there are some narrative glitches as Giardina struggles to cram in some familial subplots, including the dynamics between a power-player mother and a weaker-willed son who isn’t as clever or ambitious as she’d hoped he’d be and the symbiotic relationship between Hester and her meeker sister Jean. 

But the acting is top-notch. Michael Simpson is appropriately milquetoasty as Colin and Beth Dixon is nicely nuanced in the underwritten role of Jean. But Hester is the juiciest role and Jan Maxwell is magnificent, squeezing every delectable drop from it (click here to read an interview with her). 

Maxwell is particularly good at capturing the deceptive flightiness that women who came of age before the women’s movement often used to mask the flintiness of their ambitions. Those of you with memories stretching back to the last midcentury should think of political fundraiser Pamela Harriman or newspaper publisher Katharine Graham.
Alas, Kristen Bush has a more difficult job as Anna. A generation younger than Hester, Anna clearly is ready to break up the old boy’s club, speak for herself and realize her own ambitions. Her real-world cognate seems to be Ann Coulter but I wish Anna had been less of a one-note stereotype. But, perhaps wearing their own politics on their sleeves, Giardina and director Doug Hughes are content to use her primarily as a villain.

It may be fun, particularly for the liberals who make up the bulk of the Lincoln Center audience, to silently boo Anna’s stridency but doing so weakens this otherwise fine play and, here is where my love lessens, turns its arguments into the kind of black-and-white debate that The City of Conversation purports to speaks be speaking out against.

May 17, 2014

"An Octoroon" Transforms an Old Melodrama into a Postmodern Meditation On Race

The first time I saw An Octoroon it was a hot mess. Its director had quit the show, then called The Octoroon: An Adaptation Of The Octoroon Based On The Octoroon, two weeks before it was scheduled to open in 2010. Its playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins took over even though he had never directed before and, in the process, cut his two-and-a-half-hour play down to a confusing 90 minutes. The result was that embarrassed-looking actors wandered aimlessly around their P.S. 122 performing space and one cast member even sent out an email blast, leaked to The Village Voice, in which he declared the show “a piece of crap" (click here to read the whole thing).  

So it took balls, even for an adventurous company like Soho Rep., to mount this new production, which is scheduled to end an extended month-long run on June 8.  Sarah Benson, Soho Rep.’s artistic director, staged it herself. And what a difference a clever and experienced director has made. This production, restored to 2 hours and 20 minutes, is brazenly provocative and totally engaging.  
An Octoroon is a mash-up that mixes the 19th century Irish playwright Dion Boucicault’s sentimental melodrama about the forbidden romance between a slave girl who is 1/8 black (hence, the title) and the white man who loves her with the antic, postmodern sensibility of Jacobs-Jenkins. 
As he did with Neighbors whose characters include Sambo and Topsy (click here for my review of it) and the more recent Appropriate about a white family that inherits lynching memorabilia (click here for my review of that one), this young African-American playwright takes great delight in pushing his audiences outside their comfort zone and dares them to think in fresh ways about race. 

His version of the tragic mulatto story features a black actor who starts off the show pretending to be the playwright (called BJJ in the playbill) and then dons white face to portray both the title character’s noble white lover and the moustache-twirling villain who also desires her. 

There's also a disquieting slave auction and a mysterious figure who is silent, wears a Br’er Rabbit mask (he's rumored to be Jacobs-Jenkins, whom I spotted slipping backstage a few moments before the performance my theatergoing buddy Bill and I saw) and serves as the stagehand who cleans up between scenes. Kudos to Mimi Lien’s deceptively simple set.

Mewanwhile, the cast is superb, with black actors performing in white face, white actors wearing blackface and red face to portray Native Americans and a few actors appearing with their own faces. 

Chris Myers, who reminded me of a young Jeffrey Wright both in appearance and acting prowess, is a marvel, particularly in one scene in which two of his characters amusingly, and yet convincingly, have a fight with one another. 
Jocelyn Bioh and Marsha Stephanie Blake provide much of the sly humor as two female slaves who use contemporary argot to complain about their lives (“girl, you are not your job,” one tells the other) and provide Greek-chorus-style commentary on the plot.
The only hold over from the original production is Amber Gray, who plays the titular octoroon (click here to read an interview with her). Gray’s pointedly sincere interpretation of the character wouldn’t have been out of place in Boucicault’s original production back in 1859, except that back then all the black parts were played by white actors wearing black face.

Like the artists Kara Walker and Fred Wilson, Jacobs-Jenkins takes stereotypes about black people and spins them into perceptive parables on how and why these tales have been told. This is the second of his plays I’ve seen this spring and I'm hoping that he's a fast writer because I can hardly wait for the next one.

May 14, 2014

Time Out for Spring Fever…and Spring Reading

After my marathon of non-stop play going over the past few weeks, I’ve developed a serious case of spring fever. So I played hooky over the last couple of days: took long walks, took naps, went to a museum, went shopping and bought new shoes.

 What I haven’t done is write a post for today. But I’m not turning on the ghost light as I usually do when I come up empty here because I’ve got some other things that I think you might enjoy reading.
The first is the list of winners of the awards chosen by the Outer Critics Circle, of which I’m a proud member.  Click here to read it.

I’m also proud (so proud that I’ve already tweeted about it) that Playbill asked me to interview Norm Lewis about becoming the first African American to play the Phantom on Broadway.  Click here to read that.
I’ve also tried my hand at something new, my first Culturalist, a 1 to 10 rundown of some of the most notable trends of this past theater season. Click here to read it.

And if you’ve still got some time on your hands, I hope you’ll check out my Flipboard magazine, an ongoing collection of interesting reads I’ve discovered, enjoyed and thought you might like too.  You can find it by clicking here:

May 10, 2014

"The Few" Doesn't Fully Add Up to Much

The Whale, a play about a 600 lb. man eating himself to death, won Samuel D. Hunter a spot high on the leaderboard of hot young playwrights. But I was so simultaneously fascinated and repulsed when I saw it at Playwrights Horizons two seasons ago that I asked my theatergoing buddy Bill to write the post about it (click here to read what he wrote).

Still, I was really curious about what Hunter would do next. The answer for New York theatergoers is The Few, which opened this week at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater.

Hunter has all the hip credentials, including degrees from NYU, The Iowa Playwrights Workshop and Juilliard. But he grew up in northern Idaho, went to fundamentalist Christian schools and is interested in the kinds of outside-the-mainstream folks that many other playwrights overlook (click here to read an interview with him). 

Like The Whale, The Few aims to treat its characters and their story without condescension or sentimentality. But, alas, this time out, Hunter is less successful.
His central figure is Bryan, an ex-trucker who gave up the road, started a magazine filled with soulful essays about the long-distance life and then abandoned it and his girlfriend QZ to take off for parts unknown. During his four-year absence, QZ has kept the magazine going by downsizing the poetry and depending instead on personals ads and on Matthew, a gay teen who's become an all-around gofer and defacto little brother. 
When the lights come up (they stalled at the opening night performance my friend Priscilla and I attended) Bryan has suddenly reappeared in the crummy trailer that serves as the publication’s office and over the next 95 minutes the three of them struggle with integrating him back into their lives in a succession of scenes that each ends with a blackout.
The theme of small people with big dreams and an aching need to connect to someone else is underscored repeatedly, especially in a series of phone calls that are supposed to be coming from people wanting to place ads seeking companionship. 
The first two or three calls, all heard over the answering machine speaker, are mildly amusing but the device quickly loses its charm. I wanted to rip the phone cord out of the wall long before Bryan eventually tries to do it during one of those drunk scenes that playwrights seem to throw in whenever they’re looking for easy laughs or a convenient way for a character to expose exposition-required secrets. 
Still, the actors commit fully. Michael Laurence is appropriately intense as Bryan. Tasha Lawrence combines just the right mix of wounded pride and wary desire that defines women like QZ. Meanwhile, Gideon Glick, a master of the offbeat line reading, is appealingly quirky as Matthew. 
And, given the limited space and budget that the Rattlestick can provide, director Davis McCallum does what he can to keep the action moving along. The problem is that the play doesn’t seem to know where it wants to go. Hunter clearly feels for his characters but too many decisions are made for the sake of the plot, instead of for the sake of the people within the plot.
Nevertheless, the opening night audience, filled with family and friends (including the hip composer Nico Muhly who was also at another downtown show I saw the previous night) was noisily supportive. I’m not so sure, though, that a less connected audience would be.   

As for me, I may have been underwhelmed by The Few but nobody bats 1000 and even this misfire displays enough of Hunter's empathetic gifts that I'm again looking forward to seeing what he does next

May 7, 2014

"Casa Valentina" Houses a Superb Production

The last time I tried to rally support for an underappreciated show, I failed miserably. Despite my appeal for The Bridges of Madison County (click here to read what I wrote) the show failed to grab a spot on the list of Best Musicals when the Tony nominations were announced last week. Two days later, its producers announced that it will close May 18.

Undaunted, I’m going to wave the flag for another show: Casa Valentina, the new play by Harvey Fierstein that is playing at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. For it is one of the most thought-provoking and beautifully rendered productions of this past season.
Casa Valentina tells the stories of a group of men who like to dress as women. Now Broadway has had more than its share of shows with men in drag and Fierstein has been involved with a good number of them (breaking through with Torch Song Trilogy back in 1982, appearing as Edna Turnblad in Hairspray, writing the books for La Cage Aux Folles and Kinky Boots). But his Casa Valentina is different from those others.

Fierstein was inspired by the real-life story of a community of men in the uptight "Mad Men" era who identified as straight and yet found comfort in getting together at a Catskills retreat where they could dress openly in pointy bras, high heels and shirtwaist dresses (click here to read more about the place). 
There are laughs (Fierstein is a congenital quipster) but this is a very serious show. Fierstein sets up a number of challenges to the men’s haven: the resort's owners George and Rita, a cross-dressing husband (his female alter ego is the titular Valentina) and his accepting wife, are almost bankrupt; a postal inspector has called George in for questioning about a package filled with illicit photos; and a crusading activist is urging the couple’s guests to come out of the closet.

Before the evening is over, George and Rita’s marriage will be threatened, the guests will be pushed to draw a line between being girly and being gay and the outer, less understanding, world will force its way in. 
That's a lot of stuff and, unfortunately, Fierstein isn’t able to juggle all of it as well as one would wish he could and he occasionally resorts to speechifying. A couple more drafts through the word processor might have made for a stronger play. But it’s hard to imagine a better production. 

I don’t know how it is possible that none of the awards groups have recognized Joe Mantello for his brilliant direction. From the sensitively choreographed opening sequence in which the men silently put on their makeup and don their wigs and dresses to his steadfast refusal throughout to play anything for just a campy laugh, his work is deft and incisive.
He’s also cast the show impeccably. Reed Birney has deservedly picked up a Tony nomination for playing against the mild-mannered roles in which he usually specializes to portray the ruthless activist who believes that rooting out gays will make it easier for the wider society to accept heterosexual cross dressers. 

But I don’t know how the committee overlooked Patrick Page’s portrayal of a man quietly torn between being George and being Valentina (click here to read how the actor shaped his performance). Or Tom McGowan’s wry turn as a rotund, wisecracking military hero with a fondness for housedresses. Or Larry Pine’s poignant rendering of a gun-totting judge with secrets. Or Gabriel Ebert’s as the group’s high-strung newbie (click here to see how they all assumed their dual personae). 
And I don’t know how I almost left out Mare Winningham who beautifully portrays a plain woman grateful to be loved by a handsome man and frightened of losing him to a world that she struggles to understand. Thankfully, both the Tony and Outer Critics Circle nominating committees have recognized her work.

Another Tony nomination has gone, also most deservedly, to costume designer Rita Ryack, whose outfits show off each man as the kind of woman he yearns to be without making fun of any of them. 
Still, like The Bridges of Madison County, Casa Valentina has been doing only so-so at the box office. Unlike Bridges, it has been nominated for a top-prize Tony and that has goosed ticket sales a bit. 
And yet when my theater-savvy college roommate wrote to say she was coming in from California to see some plays, Casa Valentina wasn’t on her list. I wrote back and told her she should see it. I’ve written this post to say you should too.

May 3, 2014

Turning on the Ghost Light

This is one of those crazy times when I find that I can either see shows or write about them but not both (cause as much as I love myself some theater—and sharing it with you all—there are also other demands on my time). And since I take my awards voting duties very seriously and the deadline for filling out the ballot for the Outer Critics Circle awards is fast approaching, I’m opting to see shows (six this week) which means no post today. Instead, I’m turning on the ghost light, the traditional signal that a theater is temporarily vacant. But I’ll be back soon and I hope you will be too.