June 27, 2014

Why "tick, tick...boom" Knocked Me Over

If you want to see a show that will lift your spirits, then drop what you’re doing right now and get a ticket to tick, tick…boom!, which is playing in the New York City Center Encores! Off Center series only through tomorrow, which is why I’m taking the unusual step of posting a day early.   

The Off Center series, which launched last summer, reprises musicals that were originally done off-Broadway. This production is the best thing I’ve seen at any Encores since I saw the first performance of Chicago that eventually lead to what is now a nearly 18-year run of that Bob Fosse/Kander & Ebb classic.

But this revival of Rent creator Jonathan Larson’s lesser-known work will also break your heart. As every theater lover knows, Larson died from a tear in his aorta on the morning of the first preview of Rent, which would go on to the Tony for Best Musical, a Pulitzer Prize and its own 12-year run. He was just 35 and seeing tick, tick…boom made me mourn all over again the loss of his brilliance and the shows that might have been.

Tick, tick boom is a straight-up autobiographical piece that Larson originally wrote as a one-man cabaret act that he first performed at the Village Gate. He’s the main character and the story recounts his struggle to continue working as a composer as he approaches his 30th birthday.

It's not easy as he watches friends exchange their artistic dreams for the security of steady paychecks and apartments where the bathtub is in the bathroom and not the kitchen. The sound effects of the title are the cautionary vibrations of the time bomb hanging over his head.
Larson stayed the course and Rent, which also borrows liberally from his experiences as a struggling artist, was the result. Five years after his death in 1996, playwright David Auburn, himself a Pulitzer winner for Proof, converted tick, tick…boom into a three-person show that starred Raul Esparza, Jerry Dixon and Amy Spanger.

I didn’t see that production and I don’t know how much Auburn added but the script is rife with lines about how little time there is any life. Knowing the tragic brevity of Larson’s makes them all the more poignant
Which isn’t to say that this show is a downer. Many of the incidents Larson shares—the "are-you-OK" calls from his parents, the encounters with obnoxious customers at the diner where he earns his rent money, the oops-did-he-really-say-that exchange he has during an interview for a straight job—are hilarious.  

Meanwhile, the songs—from funny numbers like "Sugar," a paean to junk food, and "Sunday," a parody of the Stephen Sondheim song from Sunday in the Park With George; to moving ballads like "Come to Your Senses" and "Why"—are delightful. 

Larson wanted to marry the rock music he loved in his youth to the show music, particularly that by Sondheim, that he revered. Rent was the consummation of that but he was already well on his way with tick, tick..boom, and no one has yet to do it better.

The Encores! folks have had the great good sense to cast Lin-Manuel Miranda to play Larson. Miranda is, of course, the composer and lyricist of In the Heights, the 2008 Tony winner for Best Musical that joyfully combined the hip-hop music he loved in his youth with the show music, particularly Larson’s, that he revered (click here to read an incredibly moving tribute he wrote to his role model).

Miranda isn’t a great singer but he is now just a year shy of the age Larson was when he died and his identification with Larson mixed with his own innate charm make his performance a shouldn't-miss-it experience. 

But he’s not the only reason to see this production. Auburn’s version of the story calls for an additional male and female character and here, again, the casting couldn’t be better.

Leslie Odom, Jr., now probably best known for his TV work on “Smash” and “Person of Interest,” is excellent as Larson’s best friend who has given up his dream of being an actor for a career in marketing. He's also amusing in several smaller roles, from Larson's dad to his female agent.

Karen Olivo, the Tony winner for her portrayal of Anita in the 2009 revival of West Side Story publicly quit the business last year for a teaching gig in Wisconsin. But she's returned to play Larson’s girlfriend, a dancer drifting more into teaching and pressuring him to move out of the city. 

The crowd at the Thursday night performance I attended roared its approval after every number but Olivo’s plaintive rendition of “Come to Your Senses” almost brought the house down (click here to read an interview with her).

The production, directed by Oliver Butler, is simply but effectively staged.  The usual Encores! orchestra has been replaced by a tight five-man band. And most of the action takes place on a stage bare, except for lights, cables and other backstage paraphernalia, as though invoking Larson’s spirit and those of every other theater artist, successful or not, who has stuck it out against the odds. 
It seems unlikely that this show will transfer.  As much as I loved it, tick, tick...boom is probably too slight and dated to draw a mainstream audience.  And if it were somehow to get a longer run, it’s unlikely it would be with this cast.  So, as I said, you should do whatever you can to get a ticket now.

June 25, 2014

"Fly By Night" Smartly Navigates a Quirky Path

Whimsy is not usually my thing. But, what can I say, I was charmed by Fly By Night, the quirky new musical that is playing at Playwrights Horizons through Sunday.
The show was originally created by three Yale Drama School students for the annual Yale Summer Cabaret and its callow earnestness is still apparent as Fly By Night (a less generic title would be nice) unspools a meditation on the cosmic meaning of life. But it also offers a catchy score, an original, if offbeat, story, sly wit and all-around terrific performances. 
Kim Rosenstock, Michael Mitnick and Will Connolly, who worked collaboratively on the book, lyrics and music (click here to read about how they did it), were clearly attentive students at Yale because their show borrows smartly from the canon of much beloved works.
Like Merrily We Roll Along, it centers around a trio of young people and has a fractured narrative, which in this case, moves back and forth over a year’s time. Like The Fantasticks, it has an engaging narrator (a droll Henry Stram) who guides the audience through the tale. And like Craig Lucas’ Prelude to a Kiss, it incorporates supernatural elements, including a mysterious soothsayer (also Stram).
But best of all, like Rodgers & Hammerstein or Kander & Ebb, its songwriters have the good sense to repeat their melodies (here, a genial Jonathan Larson-style mashup of pop-rock and show tunes) until the songs wriggle their way into earworms (the woman next to me started humming some of the tunes during the intermission break). 
Fly By Night’s central character is Harold McClam, a young would-be musician who has a monotonous day job in a sandwich shop. His mother has recently died, he’s unable to cope with his grieving father and afraid he might grow up to be his grouchy boss Crabble, who hasn’t had a happy day in 20 years. Then Harold, played with his usual appealing nerdiness by Adam Chanler-Berat, falls in love. Twice. 
The first time is with Daphne, an ambitious young actress who yearns to be a Broadway star (a perky Patti Murin). The second is with Miriam, an unassuming waitress who is obsessed with celestial stars (a dreamy Allison Case) and who also, unbeknownst to Harold, happens to be Daphne’s sister (click here to read an interview with the three leads). 
Everything—Daphne’s big acting break, Mr. McClam’s grief, Crabble’s unhappiness, the romantic triangle—comes to a head on Nov. 5, 1965, the night of the great blackout that left some 30 million people in the northeast without electricity for up to 13 hours. 
The arrival of those dark, but surprisingly liberating, hours sets off a chain reaction of epiphanies, all deftly woven together by director Carolyn Cantor, although I wish she had persuaded the writers to tell their tale in 90 or 100 minutes instead of its bloated 2 hours and 20 minutes.  
Still, by the end of the second act, people in the row behind me were sobbing, including the frat-boy type who had been guffawing knowingly at all the relationship jokes. 

But that’s the kind of ingratiating show this is, one that can appeal to recent college grads, delighted to see people like themselves on a stage; show queens, thrilled to welcome promising new voices into the musical theater and even whimsy phobes like me.

June 21, 2014

"Arrivals & Departures" is Just a Passable Trip

Intermission had arrived for Arrivals & Departures, the latest Alan Ayckbourn play (reportedly his 77th!) that is running along with two of the master playwright’s earlier works in the annual Brits off Broadway festival at the 59E59 Theaters through June 29, and my theatergoing buddy Bill was feeling restless. Where, he wanted to know, was the gimmick?

Ayckbourn likes to play with time and space and he is famous for such “gimmicks” as having characters enact separate storylines on the same set or dividing a single story into parts that play out in separate theaters. 

But the first act of Arrivals & Departures seemed pretty straightforward: a security team has assembled at a train station to capture a terrorist reported to be on an incoming train.  
Since this is an Ayckbourn play, the agents are a Monty Pythonesque crew and there are a lot of laughs as the group’s supercilious leader conducts dress rehearsals for the agents who are halfheartedly pretending to be regular travelers. 

Their amusing antics are interrupted by two latecomers. One is Barry, a genial civilian who had a previous encounter with the terrorist and so has been brought in to help identify the man once he’s in custody. The other is Ez, a surly female agent who has been assigned to protect Barry.
As Ez and Barry wait for the mission to begin, there are flashbacks that give Ez’s backstory. In deference to the play’s title, they nearly all take place in train stations and airline terminals. But they didn’t seem distinctive enough to qualify as an Ayckbourn-worthy gimmick. And they didn’t seem all that interesting in their own right either. 

Several people left at intermission. Those of us who stayed were rewarded when the gimmick was revealed at the start of the second act. 

[TIME OUT: Now, as regular readers know, I hate spoilers and I really try to avoid spelling out plots in these posts or otherwise ruining any surprises but I haven’t figured out a way to talk about this show without giving away its conceit. So stop reading now if you don’t want to know it.]
What happens in the second act is a repeat of the first, only this time the flashbacks provide Barry’s backstory. I found his tale to be somewhat more affecting than Ez’s, probably because Kim Wall gives such a textured performance as the kind of little guy who's eager to please but well aware that he seldom does. Yet I still found myself restless at the thought of having to go through all the scenes again. 

There is finally a denouement to the terrorist mission but that storyline is just a red herring. What Ayckbourn, who also directed the production, really has on his mind is a cerebration on the different ways in which average people deal with the disappointments that life dishes out.  
Whether you’re disappointed or not by this show, may depend on the deepness of your fondness for Ayckbourn. Bill and I ran into a mutual friend who’s a huge fan and he was delighted even at the intermission break. The New York Times critic Ben Brantley liked it too (click here to read his review.)  Me?  I think I’ll wait for the next gimmick.

June 18, 2014

"The Village Bike" Offers an Adventurous Ride

Sign me up for the Greta Gerwig fan club. A few months ago, I saw—and very much liked—this appealing young actress in “Frances Ha,” the indie movie she and her boyfriend director Noah Baumbach made about a young woman stumbling through the transition between college and adulthood. But I wasn’t sure what to expect when I read that Gerwig, a theater novice, would be starring in The Village Bike, the provocative play by British playwright Penelope Skinner that opened in an MCC Theater production at the Lucille Lortel Theatre last week.  

Now, having seen the play, I can say that Gerwig has made one of the most assured stage debuts I’ve ever seen. That may be, in part, because the role fits the boho personae she's cultivated so well (click here to read an interview with the actress). Gerwig plays Becky, a young pregnant wife whose recent move to a small English village has made her restless and whose shifting hormone levels have made her horny.
Unfortunately for Becky, her husband John is the kind of emo guy who won’t use plastic bags because they damage the environment and won’t sleep with his pregnant wife because he fears that his love thrusts may hurt their unborn child. So she decides to buy a second-hand bike, with the idea that riding it will be a way to sublimate her sexual energy.  

But the play's title is a sneaky double entendre because the phrase “village bike” is also slang for a woman everyone in town has “ridden.” And as it happens, the bike's owner is the village rake Oliver, whose wife is conveniently out of town for the summer, allowing Becky and Oliver to fall into what they agree will be a no-strings fling in which they indulge one another's sexual fantasies and abstain from any emotional involvement.  

It's a perfect set-up for a sex farce. But by the second act, both the fantasies and the emotions are spinning seriously out of control.
Skinner, whose 2008 breakthrough play Fucked was about a woman who gives lap dances for a living, likes to explore the ambivalent attitudes that society—and women themselves—continues to have about female sexual behavior even though five decades have passed since the Pill was supposed to free women to do what they please without worrying about the consequences (click here to read about the writer). 

The roles Skinner writes require an actress who isn't afraid to expose ugly emotions. Gerwig’s guilelessness makes her the right gal for the job. From the panicky look in her eye to the almost unnoticeable tremor in her hands, Gerwig radiates the growing desperation Becky experiences as she realizes that she can’t reconcile the woman she imagines herself to be with the one she actually is.  
The actress gets marvelous support from Jason Butler Harner as the beta-male John, Scott Shepherd who plays Oliver with the kind of bad-boy insouciance that so often spells trouble for women (click here to see a scene between him and her) and the ubiquitous Sam Gold, who directs with a sensitive touch (is it even possible to do a play about contemporary life these days without Gold at the helm?)

But Gold doesn’t get everything right.  A set change takes an army of stagehands to pull off during intermission and still requires the audience to do too much work to keep everything clear.  Gerwig, however, is so totally lucid that I really hope it’s not the last time we see her on a stage.

June 14, 2014

This "Macbeth" is Brawny But It Lacks Magic

You might think that I’d be ready to give Shakespeare a rest after the recent Bard-heavy season on Broadway. But I bought tickets to Kenneth Branagh’s acclaimed production of Macbeth the very morning they went on sale. For this production marks Branagh’s New York stage debut and his first stage production of Shakespeare in nearly a decade.

Branagh made his theatrical bones in 1984 when he was just 24 with the landmark Royal Shakespeare Company production of Henry V that he also turned into a terrific movie. Later, as the actor-manager of the Renaissance Theatre Company, he took on the iconic roles of Romeo, Hamlet, Coriolanus and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing, causing some observers to declare him the thespian heir to Laurence Olivier. 
But the company disbanded in 1992 and Branagh drifted into other ventures, including playing the title character in the film noir TV crime series “Wallander,” directing the superhero film “Thor” and making a cameo appearance in one of the “Harry Potter” movies. 

Then, a couple of years ago, he got a joint commission from the Manchester International Festival and the Park Avenue Armory to do a production of Macbeth, with himself in the title role. 

Branagh recruited Rob Ashford to be his co-director and persuaded the dynamic British actress Alex Kingston to play his Lady Macbeth. The production had a triumphant world premiere at the festival last summer and is now playing at the Armory through June 22.

Although the stage area fills up only a small portion of the Armory’s mammoth drill hall, the entire place has been enlisted for this production. Theatergoers are divided into “clans” named after the warring factions in the play and sent to wait in one of the Armory’s beautiful regiment rooms. Each group gets it own program with a clan-specific tartan cover—my theatergoing buddy Bill and I were in the Angus clan.  

A gong sounds 20 minute before show time and each clan is then escorted into the main hall, which has been transformed into the spooky desolate bog of medieval Scotland. The audience is seated on padded bleachers on both sides of a long dirt-filled trench that is buttressed on one end by a Stonehenge-like pagan structure and on the other by a religious alter underneath a huge Christian cross (click here to read more about the making of the set).
It took about 40 minutes for everyone to get ushered in and seated but once the play gets going, the action whooshes by in a fast-paced two hours with no intermission. This is a high-testosterone production with lots of tall, brawny soldiers (there are over two dozen people in the cast), big muscular sword fights, rainstorms that turn the dirt to mud and lusty encounters between the Macbeths. 

And there are lots of spook-house thrills. Murders that usually occur offstage are gruesomely re-enacted right in front of the audience. The witches who foretell Macbeth's fate, blonde-haired vampire sylphs, seem to hover in the air.

It’s all dazzling and spine-tingly thrilling to watch but less so to hear. The acoustics are difficult in a hall of that size and the accents made it even more of a challenge to understand all of what the actors are saying. People with shaky memories of the play might also have a difficult time sorting out the characters and their alliances.
The quieter moments play best. Scarlett Strallen is a poignant Lady Macduff and Richard Coyle commands attention as the grieving husband who avenges her cruel death. I actually found myself sorry that the evening hadn’t just focused on their story.

Now, that's not to say that Branagh and Kingston, best known in this country for her work on the old TV medical drama “ER,” were bad. He is appropriately courageous and conflicted as any Macbeth should be, although he speaks more quickly than most. She is strong-willed, sexy and, like a good Lady Macbeth, convincingly devoted to her husband’s wicked ambitions (click here to read an interview with her).
But, despite the production’s stated intention to focus on the love between the deadly couple (click here to read more about that) neither brings new colors to the roles in the way that Patrick Stewart and Kate Fleetwood did in the 2007 production that imagined Macbeth as an older husband trying to prove his virility to a childless—and ruthless—younger trophy wife (click here to see clips of that production and some other legendary ones).

There is, as Bill said on our walk to dinner after the show, no clearly delineated yin-yang dynamic. Which means there's no clear explanation for why the Macbeths do what they do. In the end, the clashing sounds and passionate fury of this Macbeth may be impressive but I wanted it all to signify something more.

June 11, 2014

"Just Jim Dale" is Just Fine

If you should ever be invited to a dinner party with the actor Jim Dale, you should go. For Dale has all the qualities anyone would want in a table companion: he's got great stories to tell, a self-deprecating wit with which to tell them and an abiding desire to please his audience. As it happens, those are the same qualities that mark his one-man show Just Jim Dale, which is scheduled to play at the Roundabout Theatre Company’s Lara Pels Theatre through Aug. 10, just five days before Dale’s 79th birthday.

Dale, who won the Tony for Barnum back in 1980 but is probably now best known for voicing over 100 characters on the “Harry Potter” audiobooks, got his start in show business by playing in British music halls when he was still in his teens and going by his birth name Jim Smith. 
Just Jim Dale dances through the rest of his career, with stops along the way for his days in a ‘50s-era boy band, his years as part of London’s National Theatre with Laurence Olivier, his U.S. breakthroughs in the commedia dell’arte comedy Scapino and Barnum, his Oscar win for writing the title song for the movie “Georgy Girl” and his later dramatic turns in Joe Egg and The Road to Mecca (click here for my review of that one).  

The theatrical polymath Richard Maltby, Jr. directs the show and the patter is broken up with songs (the jolly pianist Mark York also serves as a silent comic foil), a couple of soft shoe routines, some artful pratfalls and video projections that show the actor in his younger days. 
But this isn’t one of those warts-and-all affairs like Elaine Stritch’s At Liberty. Dale focuses only on the upbeat times and professes to have liked everyone he’s ever worked with. Still, he’s irrepressibly charming and so is this slight 90-minute show, which has gotten generally welcoming reviews (click here to read a few). And yet I can’t help wishing I’d just had dinner with Dale instead.

June 7, 2014

Flipping Over Being Featured by Flipboard

No new post today since I figure you’re probably still making your way through the mammoth one I did on Wednesday. Besides let’s face it, everyone who cares about theater, including me, is focused on who, in all of this year's unusually tight contests, is going to walk away with a Tony tomorrow night.

But if you are still looking for more to read in the hours between now and then, I hope you’ll check out "Broadway & Me: The Magazine," which you can find on the Flipboard site. And I’m feeling like a winner this Tony weekend because the Flipboard folks have chosen it as one of the magazines they're highlighting this week (click here to see it on their featured page).  
Inspired by that honor, I’ve uploaded a whole bunch of new Tony-related stuff. You can go directly to the magazine by clicking here and I hope you’ll considering subscribing to it too.

See you after the Tonys.

June 4, 2014

Hi's and Lo's of Some Tony-Nominated Shows

As usual, I haven’t gotten around to weighing in on all the shows that opened during the run up to the Tony nominations. Although I have managed to have my say in these posts on all four of the Best Musical hopefuls—After Midnight (click here to read my review of that), Aladdin (click here)  Beautiful (click) and A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder (here)—I’m no where near as caught up in the other categories. So, now that we’re in the final days before the awards will be given out, I’m going to do another of my quick rundowns of the highlights and lowlights of some of the remaining contenders. There are an even dozen of them and so you may want to spread your reading out over the next few days:

ACT ONE. Everyone knows that Moss Hart’s “Act One” is more a romantic fable than a factual account of his life but it’s hard to think of a book more beloved by people who love theater than Hart’s memoir about his early days in show business including his big break collaborating with George S. Kaufman on the 1936 hit You Can’t Take It With You. And now James Lapine has turned that tale into a play that perhaps only true theater lovers will love. 
Highlight: Lapine, who also directed, has remained faithful to the book, to the relief of those of us who consider it almost a sacred text. 
Lowlight:  Lapine has remained faithful to the book and as a friend less enraptured with the theater said to me, “who wants to sit around for two hours watching two guys write?” 

Tony Spotlight: The show has been nominated for Best Play and both Tony Shalhoub (who does triple duty as Kaufman, Hart’s immigrant father Barnett and Hart as an older man) and Andrea Martin (who does the same as Kaufman’s wife Beatrice, Hart’s agent Freida Fishbein and his Aunt Kate, who first introduced the young Moss to the theater) have been nominated too but the production’s best hope for a win seems to be for Beowulf Boritt’s revolving Erector set which fills the huge stage at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont theater.

ALL THE WAY.  Playwright Robert Schenkkan’s dramatized history lesson uses two-dozen actors and three hours to chronicle the take-no-prisoners campaign Lyndon Johnson waged to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964. 
Highlight:  It’s great to see the theater dealing with such an important subject, particularly at a time when the 50 year-old law is coming under pressure from conservatives, including those on the Supreme Court. 
Lowlight: Because Schenkkan tries to cover so much territory—the self-interested maneuvering of politicians like the liberal Hubert Humphrey and the segregationist Richard Russell, the political infighting among black leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Stokely Carmichael—and director Bill Rauch drives through it in such a straightforward manner, much of the drama gets lost and what’s left is the kind of historical pageant that you find at a history museum. 
Tony Spotlight: Despite my carping, this seems to be the frontrunner in the Best Play category and even I agree that Bryan Cranston, who’s making his Broadway debut, is as good as everyone says he was on the TV series “Breaking Bad” and turns in a powerhouse performance as Johnson that’s deserving of the Best Actor in a Play nod he got.

BULLETS OVER BROADWAY THE MUSICAL. There were high hopes for this musical adaptation of Woody Allen’s 1994 movie about an idealistic playwright who gets involved with a mobster who agrees to finance his show, the mobster’s no-talented girlfriend who wants to be an actress and the mobster’s henchman who turns out to have a surprising talent for dramaturgy.  
Highlight: The TV and movie star Zach Braff is charming in his Broadway debut as the playwright and Nick Cordero brings an appealing tough-guy charisma to the role of the henchman Cheech.

Lowlight: Almost everything else—Allen’s jokes, Susan Stroman’s dance numbers and even some of the actors—pushes too hard. Plus there’s no original music and no one has figured out how to interpolate the period songs from the 1920s that are pinch hitting for the score. 
Tony Spotlight: Although shut out of the Best Musical category, the show picked up six nominations including for Cordero as Best Featured Actor in a Musical, for the ever-popular costume designer William Ivey Long and, inexplicably, for Allen’s book.

CABARET. Back in 1998, director Sam Mendes turned Studio 54 into the Kit Kat Klub, the titular seedy nightclub that provides the backdrop for the Kander and Ebb classic about Germany during the Weimar period when the Nazis came to power. Now Mendes has brought nearly the same production back to Studio 54, with Alan Cumming again playing the club’s sexually ambiguous emcee and the film actress Michelle Williams stepping into the shoes of the late Natasha Richardson as the free-spirited cabaret singer Sally Bowles.
Highlight: The great Kander and Ebb score, Joe Masteroff’s masterful book and moving performances by Linda Emond and Danny Burstein as Fräulein Schneider, the German owner of a boarding house, and Herr Schultz, the Jewish butcher who loves her. 
Lowlight: It’s hard to shake the been-there-seen-that feeling. 
Tony Spotlight: Cumming was disqualified because he won the Tony for his performance back in ’98 and although the production was somehow still eligible in the Best Revival of a Musical category, the folks on the nominating committee snubbed it but they did give nods to Williams, Emond and Burstein.

THE CRIPPLE OF INISHMAAN. Martin McDonagh’s dark comedy about a close-knit community of Irish eccentrics whose lives are disrupted when a film company arrives in a nearby town has its fans. But most of the people lining up outside the Cort Theatre are there because Daniel Radcliffe is playing the title character.  
Highlights: This is the erstwhile Harry Potter's third time on Broadway (after Equus and How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying) and Radcliffe keeps getting better and better as an actor, this time painfully contorting his body to more accurately simulate the deformity that shapes his character’s life. 
Lowlight: The play has always been a bit twee for me and the affected Irish brogues make some of the dialog difficult to follow. 
Tony Spotlight: Radcliffe’s was one of several worthy performances that got left out of the running in this year’s particularly strong derby for Best Actor in a Play but the production is still up for six awards including Best Revival of a Play and Michael Grandage for Best Director of a Play.

HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH. The most popular new show of the season stars the ever-popular Neil Patrick Harris as the titular German chanteuse who recounts the droll tale of how she got a sex change so that she could follow her American G.I. lover to the U.S., only to get jilted by him and left with some unwanted genitalia as the result of a botched operation.  
Highlight: NPH, slimmed down to waif-size but rocking it heavy in eye glitter and high heels. 
Lowlight:  Not any that I can think of right now. Even the sound design is noticeably good. 
Tony Spotlight: Both Harris and the show are widely considered to be shoo-ins for Best Actor in a Musical and Best Revival of a Musical and there’s also the possibility that Lena Hall, who does some impressive gender bending of her own, could end up with the Best Featured Actress in a Musical prize as well.

IF/THEN.  The creative team behind Next to Normal—composer Tom Kitt, book writer and lyricist Brian Yorkey, director Michael Greif—has reunited for another musical about a woman at a crossroads in her life. This time, she's a fortysomething divorcee played by Idina Menzel and the musical explores how a simple decision about how to spend a Saturday afternoon might lead her into two radically different life stories.  
Highlight:  It’s nice to see African-American and Asian-American actors cast in non-race specific roles and nice, too, to see same-sex couples treated just as matter-of-factly. Plus people who love Menzel will love all the power ballads she gets to belt. 
Lowlight: The bouncing back and forth between story lines gets confusing and makes it difficult to develop a real rooting interest in the characters in either of her lives. Also, while the melodies are lovely, the lyrics too often fall back on profanity; one song is actually called "What the Fuck."  
Tony Spotlight: Kitt and Yorkey are nominated for the score and Menzel for Best Actress in a Musical but I don’t think any of them should be clearing off space on their mantels.  

LADY DAY AT EMERSON’S BAR & GRILL. Legend has it that a few months before she died in 1959, the great jazz singer Billie Holiday, accompanied by a small combo, her Chihuahua Pepi and the demons created by a tragic girlhood marked by rape and prostitution and years of drug and alcohol abuse, performed for just seven people at the small Philadelphia night club that gives this show its name. But audiences have been packing into Circle in the Square to see Audra McDonald recreate that evening as imagined by playwright Lanie Robertson.  
Highlight: McDonald’s impersonation of Holiday’s look, mannerisms and distinctive raspy sound is uncanny. 
Lowlight: Despsite director Lonny Price's attempts to, well, jazz things up, this isn’t a play so much as a 90-minute concert with dramatic interludes. 
Tony Spotlight: Already a five-time Tony winner, McDonald just might take home a sixth. 

MOTHERS AND SONS.  A sequel to the 1990 TV movie “Andre’s Mothers” about a mother whose son has died of AIDS, Terrence McNally’s new play picks up the story 20 years later when the still-grieving mother makes a surprising and disquieting visit to her son’s former lover who is now married to a younger man with whom he is raising a son. 
Highlight: No other playwright has so assiduously explored the changes in gay men's lives over the last four decades and there were moments in this play that really brought home what a thankfully better world we live in now. 
Lowlight: But while McNally gets points for having so many meaningful things to say, he racks up demerits for being so intent on getting his message across that he forgets, at least in this staging by Sheryl Kaller, to dramatize it. 
Tony Spotlight:  Mothers and Sons is a contender for Best Play and the-can't-help-but-be-dynamic Tyne Daly, for whom McNally says he wrote the mother’s role, is up for Best Actress in a Play.

A RAISIN IN THE SUN. Even in the age of Obama, Lorraine Hansberry’s classic play about a black family aching to have a piece of the American dream in an America that refuses to recognize their right to have it still resonates.  
Highlight: Denzel Washington’s name may be above the title on the marquee but he doesn’t approach his role as a star turn but as a member of an ensemble that works so well together it actually seems as though they really are related. 
Lowlight: Director Kenny Leon hits the comedy a little too much and the audience at the performance I attended broke into laughter at inappropriate moments. 
Tony Spotlight: LaTanya Richardson Jackson is just five years older than Washington and she stepped into the role of the family matriarch Lena after Diahann Carroll dropped out, giving Richardson Jackson just a few weeks to get up to speed before previews began. Yet she has crafted a beautiful performance that anchors the production and has deservedly earned a Tony nomination for Best Actress in a Play. This is one of the strongest categories filled with several other commanding performances but it would be lovely to see her rewarded for such valiant work.

ROCKY. Sylvester Stallone won the Oscar in 1976 for his movie about a palooka who yearns to just go the distance with the champ and to win the shy girl who considers herself to be as much a loser as he is. But just about everyone, including me, laughed at the idea of "Rocky" as a musical. And yet, this show, with a book by Stallone and three-time Tony winner Thomas Meehan, music by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, packs an affective punch.  
Highlight: Nearly all the talk has been about the last 20 minutes of the show when a full-sized boxing ring is rolled right into the middle of the audience but I think I got an even bigger kick out of watching how director Alex Timbers and set designer Christopher Barreca found theatrical ways to recreate iconic scenes from the film, like Rocky’s workout in the meat locker and his run up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. 
Lowlight: I can’t remember any song from the show, except the iconic Rocky anthem from the movie. 
Tony Spotlight: The role of Rocky is so identified with Stallone that Karl deserves his nomination for Best Actor in a Musical for remaining true to the character Stallone created and played in umpteen sequels, while still finding a way to make it distinctively his own.

VIOLET. Jeanine Tesori and Brian Crawley’s adaptation of a short story about a young woman disfigured in girlhood by an accident with an ax, her journey to find a faith healer she believes can remove the scar and the life-changing encounters she has with two soldiers she meets along the way has been a cult favorite ever since its inaugural one-month run at Playwrights Horizons back in 1997.  
Highlight: The score is a cornucopia of American roots music and the singers, lead by Sutton Foster, Colin Donnell, Alexander Gemignani and the show-stopping Joshua Henry, are all terrific. 
Lowlight: The production is so modest—straight-back chairs filling in for the bus the characters travel on, jeans and military uniforms for costumes, and not only no scar but no makeup of any kind on Foster—that it’s hard to justify the $142 ticket price. 
Tony Spotlight:  The show has picked up nominations in most of the major categories in which it was eligible—Best Actress in a Musical for Foster, Best Featured Actor in a Musical for Henry, Best Director of a Musical for Leigh Silverman, the only female director to get a nod this year, and Best Revival of a Musical—but I think it may take a miracle for it to take any prize home.