November 29, 2014

An Unanticipated Surrender to "Tamburlaine"

It’s embarrassing to say this but, Shakespeare aside, I know virtually nothing about Elizabethan theater. So I was going to skip Tamburlaine, Parts I and II, the double bill of two late 16th century plays that Theatre for a New Audience is presenting at its Polonsky Shakespeare Center in downtown Brooklyn. 
But my theatergoing buddy Bill thought it would be good for us to broaden our theatrical knowledge, so we went—and we had a bang-up good time.

The plays were written by Christopher Marlowe, whom many scholars believe heavily influenced Shakespeare. And these two plays are widely considered to have been the first shows to hit it big with the London groundlings (even back then, producers tried to cash in on popular demand with sequels). 
Marlowe based his story on the rise and fall of the 14th century Mongolian conqueror Timur, whose armies were reportedly feared throughout Africa, Asia and Europe. Timur was the son of a minor nobleman but, taking dramatic license, Marlowe made his Tamburlaine a low-born shepherd whose prowess as a warrior allows him to slash his way to the top.  

Within the first half hour of Part I, Tamburlaine captures and seduces the daughter of the Egyptian king, persuades the vassals of the Persian king to cross over to his side and sets out to defeat the emperor of the Turks. In Part II, he consolidates his empire, prepares his sons to succeed him and proves as ruthless in family affairs as he is on the battlefield. 
All of it is done in blank verse so it’s reminiscent of Shakespeare, even if falling short of the Bard's subtle psychology and mastery of metaphor. But because everything about the plays was new to me, they seemed just as thrilling as the first time I heard Henry V's St. Crispin's Day speech.

Michael Boyd, who recently retired as artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, has smushed the two plays into one long evening and staged them with wit, vigor and buckets and buckets of stage blood.
And Boyd has filled his 19-member cast with brawny men who stride into and around the audience. You can almost smell the testosterone in the air. The title role is played by John Douglas Thompson, who in less than a decade has emerged as one of the country's leading classical actors. 

Thompson handles the language beautifully and has a majestic stage presence. It’s easy to see why men would follow his Tamburlaine and why even kidnapped princesses would fall for him. The actor is somewhat less successful at conveying the character’s craftiness but his performance still commands attention (click here to read a Q&A with him). 
Equally compelling is the British actor Chukwudi Iwuji who plays Tamburlaine’s chief rival Bajazeth with an imperiousness intensity that sears through the humiliations Tamburlaine eventually makes him suffer.  

The whole saga, which is playing through Dec. 21, runs about three and a half hours, interrupted by a half-hour dinner break. You can order a light supper from the theater’s café before the show begins and pick it up during the break—my grilled ham and cheese sandwich was pretty tasty and Bill’s mushroom soup looked good too.

But the play itself is the yummiest part of the evening and I'm now on the prowl for more productions of Marlowe, Ben Jonson and other contemporaenous playwrights who, back in the day, gave old Will a run for his money.

November 26, 2014

Hey, It's A Broadway & Me CD Giveaway

This past weekend's medical emergency is over and my hand is better 
but I’m still going to take it a bit easy (I’ve even canceled cooking Thanksgiving dinner; my always-wonderful husband K is taking me out instead). And so in lieu of pecking out a full post, I’m going to do a giveaway of a CD that might make a great stocking stuffer for the theater lover on your holiday gift list.

It's the album “Sing You to Sleep” by Anika Larsen, who is currently appearing as songwriter Cynthia Weil in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical.  Jessie Mueller has gotten deserved praise (plus a Tony) for portraying King but Larsen is equally terrific as the feistier Weil, who with her husband Barry Mann wrote a string of memorable songs from the Righteous Brothers' “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” to Dolly Parton’s “Here You Come Again.”  
The songs on Larsen’s debut album, which include a duet by Larsen and Mueller, range from George Gershwin to Bruno Mars with all kinds of interesting stops along the way. You can win a personally autographed copy by naming the show biz anthem that Larsen’s character Cynthia Weil and her husband wrote (hint: it’s sung in the show) and sending the answer to me (click the following blurry blue link for the address: by midnight on Monday, Dec. 1.

As usual,  I’ll put all the right answers in a hat and have K pluck one out. Then I’ll announce the lucky winner next Wednesday

In the meantime, Happy Thanksgiving.

November 22, 2014

An Unwelcomed—But Hopefully Brief—Pause

No post today because I've developed a condition with my left hand that makes it difficult to type (I've pecked this message out with my right hand, which has been no fun). This is particularly a bummer cause I had planned to tell you about seeing Tambourlaine, which was great fun. But I'm hoping to be back in shape soon but, in the meantime, hope you'll check out the B&Me magazine, which you can find here:

November 19, 2014

The Hi’s and Lo’s of “Grand Concourse,” “The Oldest Boy” and “Our Lady of Kibeho”

The rush of see-worthy shows continues. 
So I’m resorting to another highlights-and-lowlights summary, focusing this time on three intriguing works that deal in varying ways with the limits of faith:

GRAND CONCOURSE. Like all good morality plays, Heidi Schreck’s drama about four people whose lives intersect at a soup kitchen deals with faith, hope, charity and the forgiveness of sins. But Grand Concourse, which is running at Playwrights Horizons through Nov. 30, is also a grand meditation on how some people today have become so obsessed with their own needs that they will undermine even the best efforts of the rest of us as we struggle to come together and help one another.
Highlight: Quincy Tyler Bernstein is the best she’s ever been (which is saying something) as Shelley, the non-habit-wearing nun who runs the kitchen, worries about her lost ability to pray, but still recognizes evil when she sees it.
 Lowlight: Only nitpicks not really worth mentioning. 

THE OLDEST BOY. The Buddhist belief in reincarnation provides the backdrop for Sarah Ruhl’s family drama about a couple—he’s Tibetan and a devout Buddhist, she a white American and a lapsed Catholic—who are told that their small son is the latest incarnation of a revered spiritual teacher and are asked to give him up to monks who want to raise the boy in their monastery. Playing at Lincoln Center Theater’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater through Dec. 28, the play combines elements of both western and eastern theatrical storytelling, from the presence of a Greek chorus to the casting of a Japanese Bunraku puppet as the boy.
 Highlight: Director Rebecca Taichman’s gorgeous staging, which uses music, dance and artful lighting, knits together the natural and the metaphysical strands of the play into an almost transcendent whole.
 Lowlight: Ruhl raises all kinds of provocative questions about the sanctity of the mother-child bond, the struggle between the individual versus the greater good and the belief in divinity but refuses to develop any of them enough to create dramatic tension, which saps the energy right out of the play.

OUR LADY OF KIBEHO. Inspired by a true story, Katori Hall tells the story of three Rwandan school girls who claimed to see visions of the Virgin Mary and the subsequent turmoil that draws in nearby villagers and even a representative from the Vatican who arrives to determine if the girls are blessed, demon-struck or perpetuating a hoax.
Highlight: The acting, especially from the lead actresses—Nneka Okafor, Mandi Masden, and Joaquina Kalukango—is so achingly authentic that it haunted me for days.
 Lowlight: Although director Michael Greif has created some unforgettable moments, including one coup d’theatre that shouldn’t be spoiled, his decision to move several scenes into the audience made it difficult to see and hear everything that was going on.

November 15, 2014

"The Last Ship" Finds Itself a Bit Adrift

The rock star Sting has done everything he could to make his first Broadway musical a hit: writing a wonderfully melodious score and allying himself with experienced and award-winning pros like the director Joe Mantello (Wicked) and the book writers John Logan (Red) and Brian Yorkey (Next to Normal). He's also gone all out to promote the show with a song cycle CD, a PBS concert and appearances on every talk show with a couch. (Update: Sting will actually appear in a key role in the show from Dec. 9 to Jan. 10).

But all that hard work has only partially paid off: The Last Ship is an entertaining musical but it’s not a really good one. While the score does everything good show music should—defines character and advances the plot, gives the performers material that shows off their vocal skills and creates earworms that allow the audience to leave the theater humming its tunes—the book leaves most audience members, including me, just scratching their heads.  

Inspired by Sting’s memories of growing up in the shipbuilding towns in the northeast of England, The Last Ship sails into familiar waters as it tells the story of a working-class community whose economic survival and sense of identity is threatened by global forces and Margaret Thatcher. You know, like the coal miners in Billy Elliott or the shoemakers in Kinky Boots.

But where the people in those other shows try to fight back with strikes, anti-Thatcher demonstrations and new business models, the out-of-work shipbuilders decide to break into their old factory and build a final vessel. Why? Well, the musical never truly makes that clear. What are they going to do with the boat once it’s finished?  It’s murky about that too.

 At the center of the story is Gideon, who rejects the idea of spending his life in the shipyards like generations of men before him, including his hard-to-love dad who was crippled in a work accident. So in a prologue, the lad runs away at 15, leaving behind his sweetheart Meg.

When Gideon returns home 15 years later, his father has died, the shipyard has been sold to a scrap metal company and Meg is the single mom of a teen boy and the fiancée of another local guy who is now managing the scavenging operation. But after a few big production numbers and a couple of ballads, Gideon has joined the renegade shipbuilders and is wooing Meg again.
The reunited lovers are played with winning authenticity by Michael Esper and Rachel Tucker. And the hunky Aaron Lazar makes a worthy rival in the romantic triangle. But since the central plot makes so little sense, it’s hard to root for the characters even when the actors performing them are as good as these folks are. 

Still, there are pleasures to be had. Everyone is in fine voice singing Sting’s rousing anthems and plaintive laments. David Zinn’s stripped down set and Christopher Akerlind’s moody lighting establish just the right melancholy mood. Meanwhile, Fred Applegate manages to add a bit of tart nuance to the clichéd role of the profane and whiskey drinking Irish priest whom everyone loves. 
And as I said in a tweet right after I saw the show, the choral numbers are terrific. The brawny guys who play the ship makers are not your typical chorus boys but it’s thrilling to hear them sing Sting’s defiant anthems and to watch them perform the swaggering movements choreographed by Steven Hoggett.

The audience the night my friend Jessie and I saw The Last Ship seemed very happy to be there, especially the woman sitting behind me who laughed at even the lamest jokes. But the show is only selling two-thirds of its nightly tickets and rumors are circulating that the producers are considering putting Sting in the show in the hope that will draw more of his fans to the theater.
The track record for rock star composers on Broadway has been a spotty one with thumbs up for Elton John (The Lion King, Billy Elliott)  and Cyndi Lauper (Kinky Boots) but thumbs way down for Paul Simon (The Capeman) and the U2 guys Bono and The Edge (Spider-Man). 

Sting was aware of the odds when he signed on to make The Last Ship (click here to read about his thoughts on that) now he just has to hope that the tide begins to turn in his favor.

November 12, 2014

"The Belle of Amherst" is Far Too Modest

The playwright William Luce has made a career out of writing one-person shows about famous literary women from Isak Dinesen to Lillian Hellman but his most famous creation is certainly The Belle of Amherst, a play about the poet Emily Dickinson that he wrote back in 1976 for Julie Harris and for which she famously won her fifth Tony Award.

Harris toured the play for years and even did it for PBS but I somehow never saw it and so I was intrigued when I heard that Joely Richardson was going to brave the first major New York revival in 38 years. But my theatergoing buddy Bill begged off on the grounds that he didn’t want to mess with the memory of having seen Harris in the role. 

I’m afraid I have to say that even though I didn’t seen Harris, neither I nor this current incarnation of the play, which is running at the Westside Theatre through Nov. 23, could shake the presence of that singular actress who died last year at the age of 87.
This is not to say that Richardson embarrasses herself. A scion of the famous Redgrave acting dynasty (Vanessa is her mom) she acquits herself gracefully and she looks beautiful in the lovely 19th century dresses that William Ivey Long has designed for her (click here to read a Q&A with her). 

But perhaps that’s the problem. I was never convinced that Richardson was the outwardly mousy and inwardly passionate woman that legend—and her worksuggests that Dickinson was.

The conceit of Luce’s play is that the members of the audience are visiting the home in Amherst, Mass. that the 53-year-old Dickinson, who would die three years later, shared with her sister Lavinia.

Luce's Emily not only welcomes the audience, brandishing a cake she’s baked and sharing her special recipe, but takes it into her confidences, explaining that the eccentricities for which she’s known (dressing all in white, seldom leaving the house) are deliberately cultivated, sharing the pains of her unconsummated loves and reciting lines from some of the more famous of the1,800 poems she wrote, only a handful of which were published before her death.

The Belle of Amherst, which runs nearly two hours, hits most of the major events of Dickinson’s not-all-that-eventful life but not much happens. So its success depends entirely on the actor’s ability to draw you in with her charm and then to alarm you with the ferocity of Dickinson’s thoughts about life, death and the afterlife.

Richardson is better at the charm than the alarm.  I think I might have enjoyed her more in a show about a less ethereal woman, maybe someone like Edna St. Vincent Millay.

November 8, 2014

Turning on a Different Kind of Ghost Light

Today is my husband K's birthday.  It's a big one and we're celebrating big time.  So this is all you're going to hear from me today.

November 5, 2014

The Hi's and Lo's of "Billy & Ray," "Lift" and "Lips Together, Teeth Apart"

So many shows, so little time.  There’s no way I can write in full about each of the shows I'm scheduled to see this month—not and have a life too. My solution: at least one post each week, starting with this one, will be a highlights-and-lowlights summary of the shows I’ve seen recently: 

BILLY & RAY. Who doesn’t love the old movie “Double Indemnity” in which a scheming Barbara Stanwyck and a seduced Fred MacMurray plot to kill her husband for the insurance money? So you’d think a play about how the odd-couple team of director Billy Wilder and novelist Raymond Chandler created the film might be a hoot. But, alas, this flat-footed comedy, directed by the sitcom and romcom director Garry Marshall and playing at the Vineyard Theatre through Nov. 23, isn’t much fun at all.
Highlight: It is, however, fun to see how much Sophie von Haselberg, done up in ‘40s hairdos and dresses to play Wilder’s secretary, resembles her mom Bette Midler.
Lowlight: But it’s painful to see Vincent Kartheiser, so right as the peevish Pete Campbell of TV’s "Mad Men," be so wrong so as the mischievous Wilder.

LIFT. Walter Mosley made his name as the author of the mystery series about Easy Rawlins, a black detective solving crimes and trying to salvage his dignity in midcentury L.A. But over the last few years Mosley has been branching out, writing sci-fi novels, children’s books, erotica and plays, including this one, now at the 59E59 Theaters, about a man and a woman who get stuck in an elevator after a terrorist attack and, in what may be their final hours alive, decide to share shameful secrets about the lengths each has gone to make it as a successful black person in a white world.
Highlight: The idea of a play centered around well-educated African-American professionals.
Lowlight: The execution of it.

LIPS TOGETHER, TEETH APART. Some people have been griping that Terrence McNally’s 1991 play about two couples who spend a July 4th weekend at a Fire Island home that one of them has inherited from a brother who was an early victim of AIDS is dated. But that’s kind of like saying there’s no need to read “Moby Dick” because people don’t go whale hunting anymore. McNally’s play certainly isn’t the masterpiece that Herman Melville’s novel is but it still offers a poignant look at a painful time, even in Second Stage’s uneven production, which runs through Nov. 23.  
Highlight: Tracee Chimo is irrepressible as a busybody houseguest.
Lowlight: America Ferrera works hard but can't convey the pervasive sorrow of the grieving sister or of the play as a whole.

November 1, 2014

Turning on the Ghost Light

I’m reeling from the usual fall cocktail of show openings (even heavier than usual this year) some freelance assignments they've engendered (grateful to get them) other work commitments and birthday celebrations (nearly all my nearest and dearest, including my inestimable husband K, are October and November babies) and so I just can't get a post together today. 

Instead, I’m putting up the ghost light that theaters turn on when they're temporarily empty.  I’ll try to get back to posting as soon as I can cause I’m seeing a lot of stuff and some of it is really worth talking about so I hope you’ll return too.