August 25, 2018

Gettin' the Band Back Together Falls Apart

Because I’ve always believed there should be shows on Broadway that cater to all kinds of tastes, it’s not easy for me to say this but the new musical Gettin' the Band Back Together doesn't belong on Broadway.

I’m not being snobbish. The show simply isn't good enough. If you like a show with a rock beat, you'd be better off catching SpongeBob SquarePants before it closes next month.  Or if battle-of-the-band narratives are your thing, you'll have much more fun at School of Rock. 

Gettin' the Band Back Together's pop-rock music and lyrics by newcomer Mark Allen are generic. Its book by the show's lead producer Ken Davenport (click here to read a piece about him) and a group of actors who call themselves The Grundleshotz does a piss-pour job of telling the story of some 40 year-old guys trying to revive their high school rock band. And the humor is puerile; "I slept with your mom," goes the refrain of one song.

Even the earnest efforts of director John Rando, who won a Tony for staging the original production of Urinetown; and choreographer Chris Bailey, who put together the entertaining moves for The New Group's recent production of Jerry Springer—The Opera, can't save Gettin' The Band Back Together.

Instead the show emits an air of desperation that has actors dropping their pants, running through the aisles to high-five audience members and, in the case of Marilu Henner, the only name in the cast, handing out Rice Krispies Treats and posing for selfies with audience members during the intermission.

The rest of the cast works hard too. And despite its other failings, there is an audience for this show. People who've seen it have given it an average 74 rating on Show-Score. The guy across the aisle from my sister and me laughed so loudly and rocked out to the music so vigorously that I couldn't help wondering if he were a paid plant or had just mismanaged some medication before coming to the theater.

But that guy and other fans of Gettin' the Band Back Together might be better served if the show were playing off-Broadway in a venue where ticket prices are cheaper and alcoholic beverages widely available to everyone in the room.

Now, it's no fun for me to kick a show when it's so down (the professional critics on Show-Score gave Gettin' The Band Back Together an average 54 rating and the box office is anemic with grosses of just $175,000 last week) so I'm going to cut this short with just one final piece of advice:

If you go to see the show, avoid the first couple of rows at the Belasco Theatre. There's a confetti shower in the middle of the second act and one of the actors cleans the stage by taking a big broom and sweeping the debris into the audience. Which, come to think of it, is a fairly apt metaphor for this entire endeavor.

August 18, 2018

The Yiddish "Fiddler on the Roof" Soars

So many people have been raving about the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene's production of Fiddler on the Roof that I felt I had to see it. At the same time, I feared it wouldn't live up to all the hype. But I finally did and it certainly did. In fact, this is truly a production not to be missed by anyone who loves this show, who loves musicals or who just loves.

I wasn't so sure of that at first. The show is playing at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, which is located in a not-all-that-easy-to-get-to section of Battery Park City. Then, when I did get there with plenty of time to have lunch at the museum's restaurant before my matinee performance, the host at the door dissuaded me from coming in, urging me instead to buy a pre-wrapped sandwich from the cafe and eat it at one of the tables in the hallway outside the restaurant.

But my biggest "oh, no" came when the show began. I knew going in that part of what makes this Fiddler unique is that it's performed entirely (songs included) in Yiddish with supertitles provided for those of us who don't speak the language. Still, it took me awhile to establish the right rhythm of reading and watching. But once that kicked in, I was transported to the tiny Jewish village of Anatevka in a corner of Russia around the turn of the last century. And for the next three hours, I marveled at how perfect a musical Fiddler on the Roof is.

Credit for that obviously begins with the now-classic score by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick and the airtight book that Joseph Stein derived from the stories the Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem wrote about the God-loving milkman Tevye and his independent-minded daughters. But this revival's success is mainly due to the direction of Joel Grey. 

Having his production performed in Yiddish, the language that Fiddler's characters would have spoken, obviously helps. But Grey, himself a legendary performer, also walks the talk and he has brought out every ounce of the underlying melancholy in this story about people forced to reckon with a changing and often cruel world without losing one bit of the show's heart and humor.

The look of the production is spare and simple but Grey has recruited an A-team of collaborators, including Beowulf Boritt for the sets, Ann Hould-Ward for costumes, Peter Kaczorowski for lights and Dan Moses Schreier, who did an outstanding job with the sound design. The auditorium at the museum was filled with octogenarians at my performance and I didn't spot anyone wearing one of those hearing devices that theaters rent out or complaining about not being able to hear the show.

In keeping with the ethos of simple authenticity, there are no names in the cast, with the exception of Jackie Hoffman, who plays Yente, the village matchmaker. Yet, this is the best Fiddler cast I've seen and the other three were on Broadway.

Nearly everyone onstage (there are 26 in the cast, which adds to the feel of a real village) looks and sounds as though they might have actually lived in a place like Anatevka. The fact that the actors reportedly had to learn their lines phonetically makes this all the more impressive.

Unlike others who have been intimidated by Zero Mostel's seminal performance as Tevye in the original production, Steven Skybell doesn't try to imitate Mostel or to invent an updated take. He simply inhabits the character and his Tevye is all the more real for it, a good man seriously torn between the traditions that have defined his life and a desire to give his daughters the chance to make the best of theirs.

Choreographer Staś Kmieć takes a similar approach to the dances, neither slavishly duplicating the steps that Jerome Robbins created for the original 1964 production nor trying to wiggle away from them. The result is that his dances, particularly the big all-male production numbers, are satisfyingly rooted in the verisimilitude that Grey has set as this revival’s baseline.

I'm usually not a demonstrative theatergoer but I swayed to the music played by the show's 12-piece orchestra and I chuckled at the interactions between Tevye and his neighbors. But more than anything I found myself caring what would happen to all of them after they were driven out of their homes at the end of the play and if they'd end up succeeding in America, joining the revolution and helping to overthrow the czar or dying in the Holocaust.

There's been talk that the show might get a commercial run (click here to read about that), perhaps even on Broadway but if you can, make the trek to Battery Park and see this Fiddler on the Roof at the museum before its extended run closes there on Oct. 25. And try to squeeze in a visit to one or two of the museum's exhibits where the ghosts of the residents of this Anatevka are present throughout.

August 11, 2018

Today's Ghost Light is a Birthday Candle

There's no post today because I'm taking time off to celebrate my birthday this weekend. The celebrations include a repeat visit to Harry Potter and the Cursed Child with my theatergoing buddy Bill (click here to read my earlier review) hanging out with my sister and nieces, hearing jazz and enjoying a fancy dinner with my beloved husband K.  But I'll be back next week, a year older but still crazy about theater and eager to share what I've seen and think about it with you guys.

August 4, 2018

"This Ain't No Disco" Ain't Much Fun

Maybe there were too many top chefs in the room when they were cooking up This Ain't No Disco, the rock musical that recently opened at the Atlantic Theater Company's Linda Gross Theater. Cause the show, which purports to tell the potentially juicy stories of a group of fictional and non-fictional people associated with the dance club Studio 54 at the height of its fame in the late '70s, has turned out to be a big bowl of mush.

Few shows started off with more advantages. The rock score is by Stephen Trask, who composed the foot-stomping music and witty lyrics for Hedwig and the Angry Inch; and Peter Yanowitz, the drummer for the Grammy Award-winning rock band The Wallflowers. These guys clearly know their way around rock music and some of This Ain't No Disco's tunes are catchy but the overall score lacks cohesion and there's no great dance anthem, which a show like this one obviously should have.

Similarly, I expected much from Rick Elice, the co-writer of the Tony-nominated book for Jersey Boys, who collaborated with Trask and Yanowitz on the book for this show. But their narrative totally fails to deliver. Its dialog, delivered in rhyming couplets, isn't nearly as clever as it wants to be.

The multiple storylines are convoluted and ultimately make no sense. A scene in which two coatroom staffers fantasize about the lives of the rich and famous who frequent the club is a perfect setup for exploring the obsession with celebrity culture that seems to be the show's underlying message but that plot line abruptly veers in another direction.

And the characters—be they the fictional gay hustler who enjoys 15 minutes of fame as a graffitti artist and the single mom who becomes a coked-up disco diva, or the real-life Steve Rubell who managed Studio 54 and club regular Andy Warhol who is coyly referred to only as The Artist—are so sketchy that it's hard to invest in what happens to any of them.

But most disappointing of all is the direction by Darko Tresnjak, whose pitch-perfect staging of A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder deservedly won him the Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle and Tony Awards four years ago. Tresnjak says he had an unusually short period of time to work on this production (click here to read an interview with him) and more time was clearly needed because this is a lackluster re-creation of the flamboyantly colorful disco era.

The director does have scantily-clad male disco dancers gyrating around the stage but they seem sleazy rather than glamorous or the naughty fun that Studio 54 was famous for. And Tresnjak is even more at a loss when the action briefly shifts to the intentional grittiness of the downtown punk-rock haven the Mudd Club (click here to read more about it).

The attempts at cinematic staging are clunky. The choreography is flatfooted. There's a whiff of desperation as actors run around the stage and into the audience. The jungle-gym style set conveys little of the flavor of either dance club and does no favor to audience members sitting on the sides.

The costumes are OK. But the lighting and sound definitely are not. The diva was almost through her big second-act ballad before I could find where she was onstage, which is what good lighting is supposed to show me.

The Playbill says that the first-time sound designer is a master engineer who has mixed thousands of recordings for everyone from David Bowie to Vampire Weekend. But a show is different from a recording and it's often hard to understand what Disco's actors are saying, crucial in a show that is mostly sung through.

The diverse and largely young cast is energetic but uneven. There's a lot of mugging and Theo Stockman gnaws straight through the scenery as Rubell. However Will Connolly does manage to bring a droll restraint to his portrayal of The Artist (I'm guessing the Warhol estate denied the use of his name but couldn't do anything about the trademark white wig). 

Faring best is Chilina Kennedy, who has spent the last three years appearing as Carole King in Beautiful and brings a sense of professionalism and some much needed humor to the role of a self-promoting publicist.

Steve Rubell, who died in 1989,  and his partner Ian Schrager, still alive and so not mentioned in the show, threw a final party at Studio 54 in 1980 and then went off to serve a year in jail for tax evasion, which is where this staged version of their tale ends.

The real Studio 54 venue went on to become one of the theaters owned by the Roundabout Theater Company. I've seen many great performances there since the company took up residence in 1998 and I'm looking forward to seeing Bobby Cannavale, Cherry Jones and Daniel Radcliffe there in The Lifespan of a Fact this fall and then in the spring the much anticipated revival of Kiss Me Kate with Will Chase and Kelli O'Hara.

I was living in San Francisco during disco's heyday and I only got past the old Studio 54's velvet rope once during a vacation home. I have to confess that I wasn't as impressed as I thought I would be (although I did get a small kick out of seeing Calvin Klein and Liza Minnelli) but even that was more entertaining than This Ain't No Disco, which, alas, simply ain't much fun.