Saturday, December 19, 2009

Brief Encounter

Noel Coward’s one act, STILL LIFE, was expanded into the beautiful film, BRIEF ENCOUNTER starring Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard. Now, Director/Adaptor Emma Rice and England’s Kneehigh Theatre have gone back to the stage with the screenplay of BRIEF ENCOUNTER. The result is a 39 STEPS type of stylized comic treatment, except that the pathos is still warm and truthful. Added into the mix are projections by Gemma Carrington and Jon Driscoll and original songs by Stu Baker. This was not a musical per se, but characters did break into songs which revealed character. Other songs were used to serenade the action. The ensemble of actors could all sing and play multiple instruments. The lead singer of the group, Daniel Canham, had a delightful vocal quality and played string instruments as well as the character of Bill. The story follows the accidental meeting and short lived love affair of Laura and Alec. Hannah Yelland as Laura, played the comic style while simultaneously bringing forth the sadness and real dramatic conflict required of the role. Tristan Sturrock, who has been a regular actor with Kneehigh Theatre for the past twenty years made an admirable Alec, managing those 1930s overly romantic lines with passion and credibility––not to mention a humble and sweet singing voice.

Taking place in an English train station refreshment cafe and populated by the variety of workers typical of such a place, the story showed various couplings in the early stages of romance. But, the central couple is misguidedly embarking on a romance for they are each married with young children. They meet on Thursdays over a period of several weeks, falling in love quickly and feeling guilty about their relationship, but unable to let go of it until Alec is offered a job that will take him to Africa. The romance awakens these two people––perhaps jolting them into change that will open up their futures to greater things. The relationship has its place and purpose after all and although it is an adulterous one, it is hard to not sympathize with their situation. One thing that makes it easier to accept is that Coward wisely does not introduce us to Alec’s wife and children, so we have no affection for them. Laura’s family is seen, but here the children are clever puppets and the husband (Joseph Alessi) is depicted as a kindly bore, uninterested in Laura’s life outside the home, unconcerned with how his children are parented and mostly concerned with his crossword puzzles. We sort want her to escape such an unexciting world––at least we can’t blame her when she meets her enthusiastic doctor. However, some of what makes Alec so attractive in the movie is missing from this play––mainly his description of his great dream of promoting preventative medicine. Still, charm comes in other ways––namely through the music and dynamic performances from a multitalented cast.

The production was as much the star as any one actor in it. The projections say that this play was once a movie (rather well known at that) and that although that movie will be lovingly honored, it will also be torn apart, re-imagined, and explored in new ways. Laura and Alec start their first seen from the audience, as if they were at the movies. On a screen there is, we are told, a movie called “Brief Encounter” showing. Laura’s husband walks into the frame, looks out to the audience and calls for Laura to come back. Eventually she leaves Alec in the audience and literally steps into the movie screen, transforming into a projected image. Her world is a black and white movie––she is stuck in the frame. Off screen is the train station cafe, Alec and a bright and colorful world. The story is as compelling in this new stage adaptation as it is a film. The production is innovative, endlessly creative, musically enchanting, sad and quite hilarious all at once. I’m not sure what gets knocked off the list, but BRIEF ENCOUNTER now ranks as one of the top ten best productions I’ve seen in New York in the past ten years––a highlight of the decade.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Royal Family

If it weren’t for the double extension, I might have missed THE ROYAL FAMILY and I’m so happy I caught it. Those reading this are too late, but I am here to report how superb it was. This classic Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman collaboration based on the Barrymore family (names have been changed to protect the guilty) is as delicious and satisfying as it must have been in 1927 when it first opened. Outside of a City Center production in the ‘50s, the play has only been revived one other time in 1975. The 2009 edition produced by the Manhattan Theatre Club at the charming old Biltmore Theatre (they’ve changed the name, but I refuse to acknowledge this) was expertly directed by Doug Hughes with perfect pace. The three act play flew by in a wondrous three hours of joy.

Leading the cast was our own contemporary Helen Hayes, Rosemary Harris, who couldn’t be more perfect as the head of the family, Fanny Cavendish. In the role of Julie Cavendish (obviously young Ethel Barrymore) is the driving force of the play, having to serve as caretaker for the rest of this all-theatre-all-the-time family. She has a daughter Gwen (Kelli Barrett) who is an actress on the rise, but engaged to marry a “civilian” business man, Perry (Freddy Arsenault). One of the main themes of the play is best expressed through this couple. She has greasepaint in her blood, but wants marriage. He loves her, but her career is in conflict with a traditional idea of marriage. However, the problem is real as Perry will come home from work just as Gwen is going off to work. They will rarely see each other and how in the world will they raise a child? They elect to try to make it work, though we suspect this won’t last forever––the family’s obsession with the theatre is a force of nature. This force of nature is also something to be admired, for they are truly devoted to it. “The life” means something to them as a sense of history and tradition in the big sense and also in the family sense as each generation has been successful in it.

Tony Cavendish (obviously the John Barrymore character) has just escaped from “the coast,” breaking his movie contract and up to his neck in a host of other problems. He must flee to Europe for a while, perhaps get out of show business all together (fat chance). Reg Rogers is masterful, giving an exact replica impersonation of John Barrymore. Rogers must have studied every film Barrymore made, for the cadence and phrasing of speech is spot on. The gestures, double-takes, athleticism and line readings are all so precise. The average member of the audience probably had no idea how accurate Rogers’ performance was. They must have simply found him a flamboyantly entertaining character, but I was enjoying at how accurately Rogers nailed the impression of John Barrymore. THE TWENTIETH CENTURY, DINNER AT EIGHT and GRAND HOTEL are favorite films of mine, mainly for the fantastic and unique performances of John Barrymore. I can’t even imagine how this comic genius would fit into his famous portrayal of HAMLET, which took Broadway and London by storm in the ‘20s, but comics can surprise us and play tragedy better than anyone (not always the other way around).

John Glover and Ana Gasteyer played relations, Herbert and Kitty Dean. The Deans are an odd couple, each looking for a new play. They have each grown into the hard to cast category and the parts are not offered to them like they use to be. Tony Roberts played Oscar Wolfe, the family’s manager, who helps them out of scrapes and troubles and stands to lose a lot as each member of the family threatens to leave the biz. Roberts is a good stalwart theatre man, as much like a Barrymore in real life as a contemporary actor can be. He was perfectly good in the role, but didn’t bring anything unique to it.

Hysterical moments included just about everything Reg Rogers did on stage, but his expertly done sword fight through the two-story east side townhouse (sumptuously designed by John Lee Beatty) with the boxing instructor (Rufus Collins) was plenty of fun and Jan Maxwell’s third act breakdown––a sizable comic monologue––was a tour de force, receiving applause in the middle of it, only for her to pick up and continue on to the finish for another round of applause. After all the fun, the play turns on a dime with that great Edna Ferber way of making a final serious statement about the frailty of life and the preciousness of time. The play would work its magic in the final moments, even if it weren’t the great Rosemary Harris, alone in the room, privately rehearsing for a come back performance she will never give. I had been laughing all night and suddenly I wanted to sob. Shouldn’t we have plays like this on Broadway all the time? We rarely do.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

God of Carnage

Do you remember that I LOVE LUCY episode where Lucy and Carolyn Appleby get into a fight over whether or not little Ricky or little Stevie is more brilliant? Well, at it’s most basic form, GOD OF CARNAGE is very much an episode of I LOVE LUCY. Now, Yasmina Reza can write a good play, but what she has written is a sophisticated sitcom for the Broadway stage and since nothing else on Broadway last season matched it in the new play category, it won the Tony. Still, the play is highly entertaining and very funny, but what elevates it is that it is really so true. The comedy comes from adults, who know better, letting go and finally saying just what they always wanted to say regardless of the consequences.

I missed the original cast from last season and after a summer break, the show reopened with Christine Lahti and Ken Scott as the host couple Veronica and Michael and Annie Potts and Jimmy Smits as Annette and Michael, the visiting couple. It seems that Annette and Michael’s son has knocked two teeth out of the mouth of Veronica and Michael’s son with a stick. Veronica has taken care to be a perfect hostess, with fresh flowers decorating the living room, a cheesecake and coffee. The couples chit chat, but what Veronica suggests is that the other couple’s boy should be brought to their home to apologize to their son. During all this talk, Michael is a busy lawyer who continues to take phone calls. This starts to make Annette angry, setting off a new tension in the room that slowly unravels each person. There is blame hurled at each character for being the true cause of the boys’ violence and we begin to find out what each of these people is really made of. All of this serious stuff is handled in a very comical way, but underneath the fun is a serious deconstruction of our rules of etiquette. Human’s are not animals, they have free will and can choose to rise above violent acts, but perhaps that is too difficult. After all, haven’t we just completed a catastrophic century filled with wars and aren’t we in a war now? Isn’t violence in our bones? Veronica insists, even as she herself explodes with anger, that everyone can conduct themselves in a civilized manner. Reza offers no solutions, but just points out human nature and it is easy for all of us to both laugh and look on in horror.

Matthew Warchus, who also helmed Reza’s hit play ART some years ago, gave the show perfect pace. All four actors deliver terrific seriocomic performances, not only with line readings, but physicality as well. Mark Thompson’s simple set gives the impression of a well to do, modern cosmopolitan apartment with only the most necessary props and furniture to adorn the stage. Once upon a time a one set living room play like this would be handled realistically, but this stylish impression of the world of the play is not only economical, but is really all we need. A red carpet as a pallet for white furniture and a trendy flat rock wall on an angle took care of the physical needs and gave the entire feel of the show a lot of energy.

A four person, one set play with a Best Play Tony Award attached, should do good business in regional theaters from here on out.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Jude Law in HAMLET

Since this country began, HAMLET has been in constant production.  Let’s narrow the history down to the Twentieth Century up to now.  For the first twenty years, Broadway saw HAMLET every season, most often staring an actor by the name of E. H. Sothern, who grew in and out of the role during his career.  It must have been like Carol Channing in HELLO, DOLLY! for thirty years or Yul Breynner  in THE KING AND I for forty years.  Some actors become so famous for a role that the audience wants to see them do it no matter how inappropriately aged they become in the role.  The legendary Hamlets start in the Nineteenth Century with Edwin Booth in and around the 1870s.  Sarah Bernhardt brazenly took on the role in the late 1880s and kept material from HAMLET in her personal appearance show for the rest of her career.  After E. H. Sothern’s twenty year monopoly on the character in New York, Broadway was ready for a revolutionary portrayal and from all accounts they got it from John Barrymore in 1922.  He then took London by storm in 1925.  The performance is legendary and greatly influenced Laurence Olivier, who would later play the role in London, on tour and on film.  John Gielgud’s production starring Richard Burton in 1964 became the longest running HAMLET production in Broadway history (136 performances).  Stephen Long made an ideal Hamlet in 1975.  He was featured in numerous Shakespeare productions on Broadway and was respected as one of the foremost Shakespearian actors in America during the 1970s and 1980s, returning to HAMLET often, including a 1992 Broadway production when he was aging out of the role (He is now co-Artistic Director of the Actor’s Studio).  A decent production in 1995 had a Tony Award winning performance from Ralph Fiennes, which elevated the production to something grand.  This phenomenon has more or less happened again with the current production staring Jude Law.

The production comes from London with most of that cast intact and is directed by Michael Grandage.  The cast as a whole is only adequate, with several members diminishing the production.  The most problematic member is Gugu Mbatha-Raw as a horrible Ophelia––her voice strangely rising into her head when she gets excited.  She seems inept, though she has had a good career in the UK with dozens of impressive TV credits and plenty of theatre in her background.  John MacMillan is a bore of a Rozencrantz, reciting his lines like an earnest high school boy.  Kevin R. McNally as Claudius doesn’t harm the production, but neither does he elevate it.  Here is an opportunity for an actor to really show his muster and the performance is only passable.  Gertrude in uneventfully played by Geraldine James who is known to be a standout actress usually.  On the other hand, Gwilym Lee is excellent as Laertes, giving an intense performance that can match what Jude Law gives us.  Peter Eyre is superb as the Ghost and Player King with a resonant voice and supreme command of the stage.  Likewise, Matt Ryan as Horatio distinguishes the production with a believable, strong performance that fits into the concept of the production perfectly.

Jude Law also fits into the concept of the production perfectly.  His presence elevates the production from just fine to a truly special event.  Without him there would be no compelling reason to see it.  And it isn’t just because he is a movie star, though this fact has enabled the production to make back its investment in a very short time.  No, Jude Law is perhaps the most perfect star actor at this very moment in time to play in a major production of HAMLET.  He should tour the states with it and endear himself even further to the masses, for he would move from a respected film actor to a beloved actor.  The people love nothing more than to see a favorite star triumph in a personal appearance upon the stage and Mr. Law triumphs, making the most of those famous words. He brings frightening intensity to the mad Hamlet, soft heartfelt humanity to the sensitive Hamlet and a comic nature that balances the large dramatic sections of the play.  The performance is intriguing and exciting in an imperfect production.

Although Christopher Oram is credited for the costumes, it looks as though Hugo Boss has donated the wardrobe.  They are modern blacks and grays sitting on top of Oram’s set design of blacks and grays.  The unit set makes for a perfectly useful playing area, unadorned though it may be, with only a few theatrical flourishes of colored drapes and snow at one point.  The most interesting directorial touch is the stabbing of Polonius through the curtain, which is shown from reverse.  What we see is Polonius’s point of view as he hides behind the curtain.  The curtain is diaphanous, so that we see the scene between Hamlet and Gertrude through a slight haze.  When Hamlet stabs Polonius through the curtain we see it all, the curtain tearing down as Polonius falls.  This was the only out of the ordinary and terrific stage moment outside of the authoritative presence of Jude Law.

Surrounding me were a lot of well dressed couples in their late 20s and early 30s, having spent the bucks for a special night out with a movie star.  I suspect that a lot of these people are not always at the theater.  I overheard one fellow talking about how he couldn’t understand anything that was said for the first ten minutes until he was finally able to adapt to the language.  A good number of people in this audience were probably seeing their first HAMLET.  They responded well to anything with the slightest bit of comedy and anything physical in nature.  I literally saw the row in front of me sit up in their seats when the sword fight began.  This HAMLET was a good introduction for the newcomer, even if some of it was less than perfect.

Thursday, November 19, 2009


Joe DiPietro (book and lyrics) and David Bryan (music and lyrics) devised a history based story about the early days of Rock ‘n’ Roll as the music genre was created in Memphis.  This slight and highly condensed history shows how white people appropriated the music from black people.  At the center of this story is Chad Kimbal as Huey, a high school drop out who wrangles his way into a radio DJ job––a white guy who starts to play “black” music on the radio.  The white kids go crazy for it the way they swoon over Conrad Birdie in another musical about the early days and everyone starts dancing to the beat together.  The score is made up of original songs that sound like the music of the era and it was nice to hear an original score in a new musical for a change.  This very same story might have been a harness for hits of the 1950s and we’d have another jukebox musical on our hands.  MEMPHIS distinguishes itself by simply being original.  If we don’t learn very much, or even get an accurate picture of the birth of Rock, we do get some electric numbers filled with energetic dancing and some fantastic vocals––mainly from Montego Glover as singer on the rise Felicia.  For all the very real excitement of this musical, the end result of the story is lackluster, with an ending that doesn’t register as completely satisfying, even if an energized finale in shiny gold costumes attempts to spark fireworks.  

Although the history of Rock ‘n’ Roll is the world of the show, the main focus is on Huey’s growing relationship with Felicia––not only a no-no, but illegal at the time.  Huey’s mom (Cass Morgan) doesn’t approve and Felicia’s brother (J. Bernard Calloway) doesn’t approve, but the lovers are going to defy the odds ala GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER.  

The elaborate unit set by David Gallo uses a brick wall and pillars with warehouse windows as the pallet.  On top of this, bits of scenery are added to depict a radio station, night club, kitchen and other locations.  The design is economical, yet rich enough in detail to seem fully realized.  Paul Tazewell’s costumes add most of the visual color and pizzaz to the show and Howell Binkley’s saturated colors of light helped complete the stage pictures beautifully.  Sergio Trujillo’s choreography was such a workout that the heavier members of the cast might find themselves swimming in their costumes after a few weeks in the show.  Most of the dancing depicts nightclub activity or presentational TV or show-within-the-show choreography.  Nothing about the dancing actually serves to push character, plot or story––it’s all just for fun.  The numbers  keep the energy up in an otherwise troubled story and Christopher Ashley’s direction keeps everything moving along with clean precision.  The first act plays with good pace and a forward thrust, while the second act has the feeling of one continuous downhill spiral to the uneventful end.  

MEMPHIS is lucky to be opening in a fall season with no other new musicals with which to compare it.  Under those ideal conditions, MEMPHIS could make it all the way to June and nab a Tony or two.  In another season, MEMPHIS might flounder.  This is a nice show, entertaining really, but missing that special something that makes all the elements come together for something stunning.  Up town in Harlem, the new national tour of DREAMGIRLS has opened as a reminder that another show about the contributions of black artists in the music industry once did it spectacularly right.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Fall EAT Fest 2009

Lué McWilliams as a Zombie Marilyn Monroe and Matt Stapleton as Eddie, her agent.

Emerging Artists Theatre keeps a tradition of the ten minute play evening––a staple of the Fringe Theatre in New York.  This time the contributing playwrights had to work under the theme “EAT in bed.”  They knew going in that they would have to write a scene in a room with a bed, table and chair.  Writers picked a number from one to five out of a hat, which determined how many characters would be in their play.  Out of this idea came the sixteen short plays that made up the double evening presentation.  I attended program B as it featured friend Matt Boethin.  These kinds of presentations can be a mixed bag and not all of the plays were successful.  Most of the writers took a decidedly gay slant with their work, making the evening one of gay social politics.  “Gay” as a theme was not pre-planned, but it just turned out that way.  For the most part, it seems to be in the Fringe theatre where a gay point of view can be explored.  In the commercial theatre, the gay voice is still very rare.  A commercial play must still address the widest audience and so there is reluctance to produce a gay play on Broadway without certain conditions being met: star player, star author or a transfer from Off Broadway of a critically acclaimed production.  Emerging Artists Theatre requires none of that and the huge cast of writers, directors and actors to populate the sixteen plays insures that enough family and friends will show up to fill a good portion of the seats.  Any attempt to give a message is preaching to the choir, but this edition of EAT Fest was very light on message and heavy on having fun.

Friend Matt appeared as an angel in “Hard Sparkle,” by J. Stephen Brantley and directed by Jonathan Warman.  The multi-lingual angel comes to earth to help free a man from his binds to his boss.  “There’s No Zombies Like Show Zombies” was a crazy idea by Staci Swedeen involving an agent (Matt Stapleton) managing a living dead Marilyn Monroe (Lué McWilliams).  This one included the strange comedy character of a bed bug named Bob (the zany Vinnie Costa).  A serious piece, “Border of Camelot,” by Kevin Brofsky was the only non gay play and concerned JFK making a ghostly visit to Jacqueline.  This play might have been just fine if the characters were not a president and first lady.  Making it about the Kennedys forced the actors to give impressions of well known people.  A fair attempt was made at wigs and dress, but this was not wholly successful and diminished what might have otherwise been a perfectly moving story of a wife having one last visit with the love of her life.  “The Mission” by Joe Godfrey was a comic, but dumb sketch about aliens trying to figure out how to procreate like humans based on misinformation.  

If anything, the mildly amusing evening of theatre gave a number of artists a chance to practice their craft.


Happy Birthday Billy Elliot

Last Christmas, friends Scott and Shane chipped in and bought me a very good seat to see the first anniversary performance of BILLY ELLIOT.  In London they had seen that first anniversary, which was a special presentation featuring all three original Billys performing the show at the same time.  We were hoping something equally fun was planned for New York, but it was not to be.  I had at least hoped to see one of the Billys I had not yet seen, such as Tommy Batchelor or the newest Billy, Alex Ko.  Nope, it was good old Trent Kowalik, who I have now seen three times.  Trent was the opening night Billy, so it was appropriate that he would do the anniversary performance.  He is remarkably older looking.  He is lanky now and his voice pops and cracks a bit.  His days as Billy may be coming to an end.  He has some new costumes that do not match the originals exactly––he obviously is growing.  Trent started out as a wee lad in the London production before his year on Broadway.  He was never in a play or musical before BILLY ELLIOT, so the only show he has ever done in his life––his entire acting and singing training––has been his nearly three years in BILLY ELLIOT.  And he has the Tony Award to prove it.  He now exhibits an even greater precision in his dancing and his angry tap dance at the end of the first act is truly stunning.

New to the cast as Mrs. Wilkinson is the Canadian actress Kate Hennig.  She is not as sure of voice as Hayden Gwynne, but she has her own original take on the character and her own specialized wardrobe of crazy ‘80s fashions.  Will Chase, who in real life much too old to play older brother Tony, looks perfectly fine (and perpetually young) on stage.  He gives a good honest performance.  Many of the ballet girls are new, though they have been cast with replicas of the originals.  A new Michael, played by Trevor Braun, has a dozen original bits worked into his character and he is a delightful surprise.  

Even though this performance was not given special treatment for the occasion, it was notable for a few reasons.  In the middle of the dream ballet, the music stopped and the stage manager's voice came over the speakers to tell us they had to stop due to technical difficulties.  Trent Kolwalik and Stephen Hanna (Older Billy) walked off the stage.  One wall of the set had not rolled off into the wings to make way for the flying sequence of the ballet.  Three minutes later the wall started to move out and the black wings dropped in.  Trent Kowalik and Stephen Hanna walked back on stage and took their places.  The music picked up right where they left off as the dance continued.  Trent was hooked up to his fly wire, Hanna thrust him into the air and the audience broke into cheers and applause. It was all, somehow, more exciting for the mishap.  Then there was “Electricity.”  Trent has always done an exemplary job with this show stopper, but now his longer body flies longer through the air, kicks higher to the sky, flips with more force.   And those final twenty Russian turns felt like an Olympian breaking a world record, inciting a roar of excitement from the crowd and a standing ovation.  The woman beside me uttered a word, “Incredible.”  That is just about the size of it.  

Sitting a few seats away from me was the proud grandmother of Trent Kowalik, who was surrounded by a group of fans all chit-chatting with her.  The guy next to me had seen the show twenty-nine times in New York and another six times in London.  He told me his friend, who was sitting down stairs, was seeing the show for the one hundredth time.  I’ve now only seen it five times. I guess I’m not as obsessed with the show as I thought I was.  There is something compelling about certain shows that drive one to keep going back.  BILLY ELLIOT is one that has that power.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Ragtime is back!

When the curtain goes up on the new Broadway production of RAGTIME, there is a collective gasp from the audience.  The triple story set of trusses and iron stairs, representing an outline of Ellis Island or the old Pen Station (take your pick) is dressed with a tableaux of the cast looking picturesque in Santo Loquasto’s beautiful costumes.  Both set designer Derek McLane and the legendary Mr. Loquasto get a round of applause, but maybe it’s also for the show itself.  The design is new, but the image of those characters is familiar, for only a decade ago, RAGTIME made its Broadway debut, losing the Best Musical Tony to THE LION KING.  That production of THE LION KING is still running, but now RAGTIME is back, running on The Street as if it had never gone away.  We need this monumental show just as much now as we did then, to remind us that we are still working at age old issues of being Americans––a so-called melting pot that never really jells.  The issues may not be in exactly the same forms, but for better or worse the media still influences us, we are still struggling with prejudice towards minorities, and justice can feel just as perilous.  This new cast falls just short of matching the masterfull excellence of the original, but they serve the material well.  Leading the way is Quentin Earl Darrington as Colehouse Walker with an excellent voice and a powerful presence.  Christiane Noll, perhaps the only Broadway name of the ensemble, is stellar as Mother and her  “Back to Before” is tremendous.  Stephanie Umoh plays Sarah to perfection and her duet with Darrington, “Wheels of a Dream,” matches the excitement of our memories of the first time we heard it, whether in the theater or on the original cast recording.  I am personally excited to see Bobby Steggert back on Broadway as Younger Brother after his terrific turn in 110 IN THE SHADE a few seasons back.  His singing is full of passion and his infuriated speech to Father (Ron Bohmer) gets exit applause.  Christopher Cox as little Edgar, the host of the show, is darn cute and typical of the little boys who have always inhabited the character.  Yet, his personality is unique and he injects the show with considerable charm.  Marcia Milgrom Dodge directs and choreographs up and around the unit set with good clean movements and original touches that divorce this production from the memorable original, yet honors the intent of the authors.  The result is a welcome return of one of the great shows of the twentieth century, proving itself to be timeless.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Not Broadway Bound

Neil Simon, Josh Grisetti and Noah Robbins.

The saddest news in New York is that the lovely new revival of BRIGHTEN BEACH MEMOIRS will close on November 1st after only 9 performances.  The reviews were mostly very good––good enough to make bright and exciting full page ads in The New York Times, but the advance is poor and people are not buying tickets.  This also means that BROADWAY BOUND will not open to play in repertory with the first play.  Moreover, the public will be robbed of what would have been an ideal performance from Josh Grisetti as older Jerome in the second play.  Grisetti burst forth on the New York theatre scene in the York Theatre production of ENTER LAUGHING and the announcement that he would be playing older Jerome was welcome indeed.  This news may be the first real example of the recession taking hold of Broadway, for up to now, things seemed to be going along swimmingly.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Our Town

David Cromer in OUR TOWN

After opening in February 2009 to terrific reviews, I finally made it to David Cromer’s production of OUR TOWN, Off Broadway at the black box space known as the Barrow Street Theater.  Mr. Comer himself starred as the Stage Manager, but now he was replaced by Jason Butler Harner.  Some of the older male characters had turned over as well, but most of the original cast was still in place for October 2009.  Mr. Cromer originated this production in Chicago (a lot of great stuff seems to come out of Chicago and move to Broadway––it’s like a closer version of London’s West End in that way), and is now submerged in staging two Neil Simon plays at the same time: BRIGHTEN BEACH and BROADWAY BOUND, which marks his Broadway debut.  This is a busy director who is rising to prominence quickly.  That said, I expected more from this production––at least a top notch cast.  This cast was only passable.  Many of my favorite lines that usually strike an emotional chord in me were passed over or tossed off.  There was an attempt to say the colloquial and musical dialect of New Hampshire in a contemporary way.  Likewise, the early twentieth century costuming was dropped for modern clothing and this jarred with the text.  Modern, suburban looking families were talking like they were in LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE and referencing ways of life, finances and activities that could only be happening in 1906.  So, the concept was to pare down and contemporize the already pared down show to rehearsal level.  The props have always been pantomimed as they were here, but nearly all lighting effects were dropped for a general wash of light throughout the house and all the prerecorded sounds of roosters, horse and buggies and train whistles were dropped––even when the Stage Manager asked us to listen for them.  Yes, we were asked to use our imagination even more than usual and after twenty minutes of being irritated by this novelty, I accepted it and just enjoyed the play.  
The fact remains that OUR TOWN is an American Treasure and one can go back to it over and over again and be moved.  This beautiful play contains stunning observations about the every day life we live, even today, and it doesn’t require modern dress to bring us to that realization.  However, Mr. Cromer’s contemporary, no flourishes concept turned out to be a set up for a very striking final sequence.  When Emily goes back to earth to relive her twelfth birthday, suddenly her childhood home is revealed from behind a curtain to be completely realized.  Mother Webb is cooking real bacon on the stove and real coffee is brewing––the delicious smells wafting through the theater.  The milk man comes by with real milk bottles and the 1906 kitchen is recreated in every detail.  When Emily (Jennifer Grace) really sees life clearly for the first time she says, “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?  ––every, every minute?” she is astounded by how real every detail is.  This is a lovely design flourish and an effective device, but the sad thing is that in the past, a good actress playing Emily was able to paint the clarity of her picture of life with her voice.  A good Emily could make us see everything just by the emotions she feels as she relates her observations.  Jennifer Grace might not have been able to do it without the spectacle of the realistic set.  Thorton Wilder’s words go a long way to taking care of less than stellar performances though.  If you just say the lines as written, and there is an attempt at sincerity in the line readings, the play will work.  I was not as emotional during this particular performance as I have been in the past, but as I rode home on the subway, I kept thinking about the play and I felt a nearly uncontrollable urge to break down and sob come over me.  I took deep breathes and got my mind off the play by pulling out a book to read.  In the end, the darn play effected me all the same and I have seen half a dozen productions.  I never get tired of revisiting OUT TOWN.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Finian's Rainbow

With amazing speed after the critically acclaimed concert at the New York City Center, FINIAN’S RAINBOW was scheduled for Broadway and now it is up and running less than a year later. This is a simply staged, old fashioned musical comedy. The simplicity only adds to the beauty of the production, for it is pure, without any unnecessary adornments. The musical theatre has never really needed more than a beautiful score sung well, with a smart design concept that adds to the beauty, but works to efficiently tell the story. All this is true of FINIAN’S RAINBOW. And as old fashioned as it is, somehow the show remains completely contemporary. Political jokes, issues about consumerism and the credit crises, race relations––all of it registers as right now. Along side what seems contemporary are lyrics like, “If this isn’t love, I’m Carmen Miranda. If this isn’t love, it’s red propaganda.” Also, the plot is looney, considering it is about an Irish man who crosses the ocean to bury a leprechaun's pot of gold in American soil in the hopes of doubling his wealth. The leprechaun, Og, has followed Finian to retrieve his gold and out of his element, he is turning more and more mortal every day. There is an obvious romantic plot between Woody, the local hero and Sharon, Finian’s daughter. There is an unlikely second romance between the leprechaun and Woody’s sister, who only speaks through dance. There is a racist Southern Senator who is threatening the harmony of the integrated community of Rainbow Valley. Each of these plot lines weave together and somehow tie up in an idealistic way––which is how we wish the world could be.

Of course, what really makes the whole thing work is a score that contains one wonderful standard after the next: “How are Things in Glocca Morra”, “Look to the Rainbow”, “Old Devil Moon” and on and on. The show contains innovative ideas, such as Susan the Silent dancing to a harmonica solo played by a character who speaks through his harmonica as Susan speaks through her feet. There is the opportunity to show off the great skills of the musical theatre performer, where song, dance and story all work together––it is entertaining, while revealing the beauty of humanity.

Leading the proceedings is the perfect Jim Norton as Finian, who skips and runs and bounces about the stage spreading his joyous brand of insanity. Kate Baldwin is the find of the year as Sharon. She couldn’t be more prefect, for every ounce of her being is one with the character and her voice is glorious. Cheyenne Jackson breathes life into the wooden Woody, but the character is saved mostly by the fact that the authors gave him wonderful music to sing. Still, Jackson and Baldwin make a sexy couple, infusing the candy confection with a little heated passion. Christopher Fitzgerald was born to play Og and is utterly believable in the shoes of a character that is equal parts audacious ham and sentimental heart. As silly as it is, few moments on the stage are as true and heartfelt as when Og wishes over his pot of gold that Susan should be able to speak––and she does.

Down in the pit, Rob Berman conducts the full original orchestration, perhaps the biggest star of the show. Many small characters emerge to give the production color and texture, such as Terri White belting out “Necessity,” Chuck Cooper’s bewildered Senator Rawkins, Alina Faye’s dancing and the harmonica of Guy Davis. Simple beauty all the way around.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Frankenstein On Stage

In 1981, Victor Gialanella’s adaptation of FRANKENSTEIN ran for one performance at the Palace Theater.  The overblown production featured Diane Wiest, John Glover, John Carradine and David Dukes as Victor Frankenstein.  The show had received rave reviews out of town in a Loretto-Hilton Repertory Theater of St. Louis production.  The powers that be thought that a souped up version to fill the Palace Theater would be a good idea, but the good of the play was lost in the overly ambitious Broadway mounting.  Ever since the publication of Mary Shelley’s novel, stage productions of the story started to pop up.  For a time, a Hamilton Deane stage version, following the success of his DRACULA production in London, was a big success.  Although, the depiction of Dr. Frankenstein bringing his creature to life has always been technically problematic and after the success of the Universal film with Boris Karlof, returning to a stage version has been a challenge for audiences.

I saw a college production of the Gialanella version once and the script seemed sturdy enough, but the production value was half of what it needed to be to make the story believable.  You kind of had to chuckle at the melodrama of it all, but it did seem like, in the right hands, the thing just might work.  Since then I have taken every opportunity to see stage versions of FRANKENSTEIN.  Because the novel is in the public domain, people keep trying to write what they think will be the perfect version.  What follows are my impressions of several seen in New York.


I’m pretty convinced now that you can’t do a stage play of FRANKENSTEIN that works.  The Classic Stage Company tried it with a world premier called MONSTER.  It was penned by Neal Bell.  Mr. Bell gets his plays done in regional theaters and teaches play writing at NYU and Yale.  He tried to make it work, ignoring the classic Universal film trappings and giving us that sort of real person talking monster that Kenneth Branaugh created in his FRANKENSTEIN film.  It had that no set thrust stage treatment with stark lighting that Classic Stage prefers and so the story, which I think of as a horror fantasy, lacked all sense of environment.  Actually, I really do want a FRANKENSTEIN with a castle and chains and big green monster strapped to a table lifted into the lightening storm.  “It’s Alive!” the doctor is supposed to scream.  But how could he scream it without it being comical in all the wrong ways?  The Hollywood version would be camp and the closely adapted after the novel version translates into a long dull evening.  All anyone is waiting for is the monster to come alive and start terrorizing the villagers, but it didn’t happen that way and still the endeavor was dumb.  Jake Weber unceremoniously played Victor Frankenstein.  He was the best thing in the show, and yet his fine film career didn’t gain him special billing as you’d think it would.  Actually, he really isn’t known, but he works constantly and yet he was given seventh billing as the lead.   Mr. Weber must be humble, but the man deserved a little more credit, especially considering his role.

Frankenstein, The Rock Opera

My coworker, Carrie, was hooked up with a reading of a rock opera version of FRANKENSTEIN.  It was partially written by her long time friend, Justin Perkinson.  For four years, he, along with Jon Greenlee and Ty Morse had been working on this show and now they were getting it up on it’s feet.  Carrie helped to produce a reading with invited guests and some industry people to see it.  A modest cast was engaged to play many parts of this rather ambitious attempt to adapt the famous horror novel.  It was taken after the novel and not the Hollywood classic, but the problem I always find with stage adaptations of the story is that I miss the Hollywood classic.  To me, and countess others, the James Whale film from Universal Pictures is the one and only FRANKENSTEIN, as unfair as that is to Mary Shelley.  However, unlike MONSTER discussed earlier, the music really helped tell the story in a new way that kept my interest.  I wouldn’t say it was particularly tuneful–no songs caught my attention as being interesting on their own, but the score as a whole was interesting and could achieve a popular following if presented just right.

The storytelling is problematic in the first half hour as it leap frogs through what we know of the story from the film.  There is no explanation as to how Victor Frankenstein has figured out how to create life, how he gets the idea to dig up bodies, how he comes to even give the crazy idea a try.  It takes only three songs out of 33 to hear the words, “It’s alive!”  There is no build up to the monster at all.  So, the monster really isn’t the big deal here.  This monster learns how to talk like a human rather quickly, thanks to a narrator speeding us along through time.  The monster finds out that no one likes him and then forces Victor to build him a Bride.  We never get to see the Bride, though it is suggested that Victor makes the attempt. 

I think the creators have something here that could go over, but the storytelling has to improve or it could go the way of the failed Broadway musical of DRACULA quite easily.  One could see a big show in the material, but it’s an awfully risky prospect.  Do you satisfy the film buffs or the champions of the novel?  Do you do both?  Is it going to be a rock concert or a regular musical staging, save for the rock score?  At this point, I would go with rock concert, so as to rid all expectations of seeing the movie on stage.

Frankenstein, the Musical

Every time I go to a new stage version of FRANKENSTEIN, they stress the supposedly unique detail that “this version” is based on the novel by Mary Shelley.  Well, they’re all based on the novel because the novel is in the public domain.  But, the real reason this fact is stressed is so the public won’t expect the Universal film starring Boris Karlof.  Something fascinates people about the idea of doing a stage play of FRANKENSTEIN, but I say what really fascinates them is Boris Karlof and not Mary Shelley, though they may not know it.  I myself am forever missing the iconic moments, which are from the film and not the novel.  I realize now, after this bland adaptation set to music by Mark Baron, Jeffrey Jackson and Gary P. Cohen, that what I really want is a good lightening storm that shocks a giant man made up of body parts to life, complete with Doctor Frankenstein yelling out, “It’s Alive!”

This musical, featuring a miscast Hunter Foster as the good doctor, spends too much time describing the good stuff that has happened off stage.  There is no big moment of the creature coming to life and when he does arrive he looks like a rock star.  The monster  (known as the creature in this version) was played by Steve Blanchard, whose body language has been the same strange wide-stance, pigeon-toed performance that I have seen him do in shows for years.  Finally, he has been given a role where his routine makes sense, but over all it was an unbelievable character.  Foster, who does his level best, is at heart a comedic actor and has comedic features.  He somehow seemed like a muppet trying to be serious and it is a hard sell.  Christian Noll as his true love, sang sweetly and was genuine, but her role amounted to very little.  The angst-ridden ensemble narrated through songs of the pop-opera kind that we were finally finished with when Frank Wildhorn’s musical version of DRACULA closed.  It is amazing that the producers really thought this thing would go over, but try though they did, this FRANKENSTEIN was inactive and dull and could never scare us, much less satisfy as a musical.

Young Frankenstein

After the mixed reviews, I took my time getting to YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN.  However, the thing about me is that I have to see every musical on Broadway no matter what, so I eventually had to see it for myself.  I thought that it was probably going to be mildly entertaining and worth a night out no matter what and that was just about right.  A lot of the show is very entertaining, but the production should have been much funnier.  This big splashy show is made by exactly the same team that made THE PRODUCERS, which was an out of control laugh-riot when I first saw it in the final week of previews.  I went back to THE PRODUCERS to see the first replacement cast and it was still hysterical.  YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN doesn’t begin to match that kind of fun, but it suffers only by comparison.  The more recent Mel Brooks show is still delightful enough, which isn’t the greatest review, but it’s far from the worst.  Brooks has written a score that sounds like the kind written in the 1930s, which is ideal since the show is set in the 1930s world of the Universal horror movies.  Not surprisingly, however, the best number in the show was written by Irving Berlin.  “Puttin’ On the Ritz,” which had to be included because it is such a memorable scene in the film, is a better than good hat and cane number with the entire cast in tuxedoes.  The number was filled with clever little novelty moments and even some innovation of the kind we expect from Susan Stroman choreography.  Nothing else matches it though, and so it is disappointing Susan Stroman and disappointing Mel Brooks.  Even so, I marveled at Robin Wagner’s sets, adored William Ivey Long’s spirited costumes, found Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting design to be spectacular and generally chuckled through the entire evening with a smile on my face. 

Although Roger Bart was the official star as Dr. Frankenstein, the real star of the evening and certainly the most brilliantly funny performance came from Christopher Fitzgerald as Igor.  Every time Igor came on stage the show jumped into a hyper drive of hilarity.  Some of Igor’s jokes come right out of the film, but much of the laughs came from Fitzgerald’s own comic innovation (Marty Feldman who?).  Michele Ragusa did her best Megan Mullally impression as Elizabeth and would come off better if she could manage an original performance.  Beth Leavel (replacing Andrea Martin) made a respectable Frau Blucher (cue horse whinny), but this is Mel Brooks, so she shouldn’t be respectable.  Shuler Hensley as the Monster was marvelous.  He didn’t get to really show off until the last quarter of the show, but he proved to be quite wonderful, especially after the Monster gains his smarts and adopts an English accent and opera singing voice.

  Comparing it to the other musical comedies on Broadway in the last few years, YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN was as good as anything else, but there was just that deep feeling of disappointment that the project didn’t live up to the greatness of the creators’ past efforts. That said, I’m glad that it exists and I’m glad that I saw it.

All said, YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN was probably the most satisfying adaptation of the story I have seen on stage––probably because we weren’t supposed to take it seriously.  There are a dozen other adaptations of the story handled by various licensing houses and I imagine, dozens more, that pop up in little theaters here and there.  No doubt, New York will see several more as the years go on.  If the new production of DRACULA for December 2009 is a hit, it is quite likely that a new production of FRANKENSTEIN will follow.  FRANKENSTEIN always follows closely on the heals of DRACULA, for as horror goes, these two monsters share the crown.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

"I never drink wine"

Dracula of the Stage

1948 touring production

In a succinct three paragraphs, Clare Haworth-Maden in her overview of the film history of the character, Dracula: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About the Man, the Myth, and the Movies, gives us the genesis of Dracula on the stage:

“[Hamilton] Deane’s play Dracula, was first performed at the Grand Theatre, Derby in 1924.  By judiciously cutting many of the difficult elements contained in the book,  Deane avoided the mistakes made in Stoker’s dreadful adaptation.  The play was an instant success and it was still drawing crowds after its opening at the Little Theatre, London, on Valentine’s Day in 1927.  The young Raymond Huntley replaced the play’s original leading man, Edmund Blake, bringing considerable éclat to the role, with the result that, as the Evening News put it, Dracula has gone on drinking blood nightly.

The play had an important influence on our visualization of Dracula.  While Stoker’s Count possessed a ‘black moustache and pointed beard’ and dressed in black, Deane did away with these characteristics and instead gave Dracula the now familiar clean-shaven (green-hued) face, full evening dress, and swirling black opera cape.  It did not pass unnoticed that the revamped Dracula bore a striking resemblance to Deane himself, and it was suspected that, by basing Dracula upon himself, he had intended to play the starring role.

Dracula was a box-office smash and, in 1927, an American producer, Horace Liveright, recognizing its potential for the American market, bought the rights to the play and requested its revision.  Deane enlisted the services of the writer John L. Balderston and the resulting production opened at the Fulton Theater in New York later that year; in the lead an exotically-named Hungarian émigré, Bela Lugosi.”

The play ran for three years and then toured with Bela Lugosi, who played Los Angeles, which helped immeasurably in his getting to do the role in the film version.  The film, in fact, is more or less the play with the added opening sequence of Renfield going to Castle Dracula to make a real-estate deal and falling prey to the Count’s bite.  Written for the film was the famous line, “I never drink wine.”  The line became so repeated as a favorite way of imitating Lugosi’s voice, that it was added to a 1977 Broadway revival of the play starring Frank Langella.

The 1977 production was a big enough hit to inspire a remake movie and Langella got to go along for the ride, repeating history and the line, “I never drink wine.”  The revival was designed in an illustrative style by Edward Gorey, giving the melodrama a cartoon atmosphere, but Langella’s intense and seductive performance gave the entire production credibility.

A musical version in 2005, adapted by Christopher Hampton from the novel, was a messy flop, but it kept Lugosi’s line, “I never drink wine.”

Now Dracula returns in a new revival of the Hamilton Deane play set to open at the Little Shubert in December 2009.  I’m looking forward to it, for the play offers a true theatrical experience and good fun.  We are beyond bats wiggling on strings suspended from fishing poles, so it will be interesting to see how a modern production handles such things.  A few years ago I saw a regional production where it was handled simply and effectively by shadows.  The true test will be the casting of the Count.  The wrong person can ruin the production and the right person will seem, for the moment, irreplaceable.

In all productions, the character, Van Helsing, always holds up his hands to quiet the applause during the bows to give a few final words.  The play toured so often for so many years, that some audiences would recite the speech ala “Rocky Horror.”

“When you get home tonight and the lights have been turned out and you are afraid to look behind the curtains and you dread to see a face appear at the window...why, just pull yourself together and remember that after all there are such things.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Steinway Theaters: History of a Neighborhood

You wouldn’t know it to walk down Steinway Street today, but this main shopping artery of Astoria was once a major entertainment center. After 9/11, the last of the Steinway theaters, The Astoria, shut its doors and the marquee went dark. Now this stalwart of Steinway entertainment is home to a Duane Read and New York Sports Club, but you can still see that the building was once a theater. The ornate archway of the old main entrance, along with a new, but useless marquee advertising the businesses in the building, rather than the latest action film, attempts to honor the building as the great theater it once was. We won’t see the likes of the Astoria Theatre again along Steinway, but once upon a time, the night time scene was aglow with blazing marquees announcing delights of vaudeville and Hollywood.
The crown jewel of the street was Loew’s Triboro Theater, an elaborate movie palace which opened late in the Steinway’s theater history, 1931, located at 2840 Steinway. This classic Mayan Revival theater designed by Thomas Lamb, was one of the last giant Loew's atmospheric theaters to be built. Demolished in 1974, the site is now two family housing with retail on the street level, and there is no evidence that the most stunning theater of Queens was ever gracing the street. The loss of this great building had everything to do with dirty politics. Although nearly 8000 citizens signed petitions to make the Triboro a landmark so that it could not be torn down, the Queens Borough president was anti-preservationist and when voting time came, the Queens Borough board members voted along with the president and very few voices of opposition were present. The street went down hill with the loss of the theater. Strangely, the Queens Borough President became involved with a scandal and committed suicide two years after the theater came down.

Opening day was February 21, 1931, with the film, Reducing, starring Marie Dressler. The presentation included six acts of vaudeville topped by Mitchell and Durante (no relation to Jimmy). This was a big auditorium that could accommodate over 3000 patrons. An unusual feature were two large elevators that could handle 55 people each. Also, the theater had a Wurlitzer organ, which was just for fun, since the days of silent movies were over. The theater had trouble from the beginning, because it was considered too close to Manhattan to receive first run bookings and also the resident population wasn’t big enough during the Depression to keep the huge house filled. Shortly, the theater dropped its vaudeville program for double features and by the end of the decade, business was improving. The theater did fairly well, changing programs twice a week, through the war years and the 1950s. The theater’s demise was typical of the many downtown theaters across America. As the downtown business got older and the resident population moved to the suburbs, the economics of America’s Main Streets fell apart. By the late 1980s a new renaissance of downtown districts started to happen and one by one, surviving theaters have been remodeled and reopened. Some of them have saved facades, but do not function as a theater anymore. Others have become combination film and live music or theater venues. Steinway isn’t so lucky.

At the moment, the old Steinway Theatre, still standing at 31-08, is for sale. Up until recently it contained a Dr. Jay’s clothing store. This was the first theater to be built as such on the main shopping street of Astoria (an earlier theater, Horak’s Opera House, was part of Jackson Hall and converted into a theater), opening it’s doors in 1914 as the Casino Garden Theater. The 900 seat theater featured a regular vaudeville program along with visiting symphony concerts. Like all vaudeville houses, the theater turned to movies and ran a second run, double feature program into the 1950s. If you stand across the street and down the block from the building today, you can see the fly space rising up over what used to be the stage of the theater. Likewise, the Astoria Theater is very recognizable as a former theater. The others have all vanished completely.
Of the vanished variety, the Arcade Theatre (1914-1929) at 30-90 Steinway had an airdome on the roof that opened in spring and summer. The same address was previously the site of Horak’s Opera House (1893) owned by Czech immigrant Rudolph Horak. However, actual opera never played the “Opera House,” but a resident company of actors appeared in plays until Horak sold the building and it became the Arcade. The house had 600 seats, but was never a financial success, serving as a meeting hall in later years. News paper reports at the time of Horak’s death in 1930 said that the Horak Opera house was the first theater built in Queens. The building was demolished in the 1920s to make way for retail development.
Located at the north west corner of Steinway and Astoria Blvd. was the 470 seat Arena Theatre. This was a small wooden building that did not survive past the silent film era. The site vanished in the widening of Astoria Blvd. and the building of the Grand Central Parkway.
The Cameo Theatre, located at 25-15 Steinway Street, opened in 1941. This was a small, cheaply built theater located across the street from the much grander Triboro and Astoria Theaters. Last run movies were the rule, but the addition of this theater gave Steinway it’s temporary reputation as major entertainment and shopping district. Trolly cars clanged up and down the drive making for a busy and lively “downtown” for Astoria. Even in 1941, the Steinway Theatre down the street was still offering a live stage revue, “Stars Over Broadway,” featuring Glenn and Jenkins, Robert Field, the Byrne Sisters, the Gonzales Trio and Elsie the Cow.
The day after 9/11, my roommate and I decided to go to the movies and so we walked up to the Astoria and saw a war film of all things, Captain Corelli's Mandolin. By the end of the year the theater was closed. The grand interior was already long gone as the space was broken up into six screens. Designed by Thomas Lamb with 2,900 seats and opened in 1920, the theater was owned by the vaudeville chain of Ward and Glynne. It was purchased in 1923 by Loew’s. In 1940, Skouras Theaters took over, that company eventually turning into United Artists Theatre Circuit. Since the theater had a proper stage and could handle vaudeville acts, the Marx Brothers appeared live when they were trying out scenes for A Night at the Opera in order to perfect the comedy routines before committing them to film. In the 1960s, high school graduations were held on the stage of the Astoria. So, the theater was an important part of the community, lasting to the bitter end when the Kaufman Astoria Cineplex opened at 35th Avenue and 38th Street, attracted all the business. Truth be told, the Astoria Theatre experience was pretty bad in those last years. The staff was barely friendly, the place was a rambling collection of uncomfortable and plain theater spaces and the best that could be said about it was that it was tawdry. Still, it was sad to read on the marquee one day, “1920-2001.” Had the auditorium not been destroyed to make a multiplex, perhaps the Astoria would have been worth preserving. The entrance has been basically preserved as if to say, “On this spot once stood a great theater, the likes of which we shall never see again.”

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Hand it to Neil Simon

Brighten Beach Memoirs

Outside of the short-lived flop revival of GUYS AND DOLLS, the Nederlander Theatre has been the home of the musical RENT for over a decade.  Shabby and run down after occupation by a church before that, the formerly named National Theater has been beautifully restored.  Not, however, as it originally looked when it first opened in 1921.  The original gold and red decor is gone.  Now it is a handsome sliver sage, wood, and beige, with subtle gold leaf trim.  Inhabiting this treasure of a theater is another American treasure, BRIGHTEN BEACH MEMOIRS. We already know it’s a good play, so it is a safe bet, but the new cast under the direction of David Cromer brings life to Neil Simon’s semi-autobiographical tale beautifully.

Noah Robbins is making his Broadway debut as 15 year old Eugene, the role that made Matthew Broderick a star in the original production.  He is completely winning and lives up to his duties as narrator and host of the production admirably.  Laurie Metcalf is Kate the mother and portrays this monumental woman with all the humor and burden of self-sacrifice with which Neil Simon has drawn her.  Santino Fontana has turned in his Billy Elliot Northern England accent for a Brooklyn one and fits into the family perfectly.  Jessica Hecht as Kate’s sister Blanche is properly frail, indecisive and as with all of the characters, possessed of a natural humanistic kind of humor.  Dennis Boutsikaris as dad Jack makes a world-weary, but loving father, trying to do the best for his large family during the Great Depression, warm and real.

This play is perhaps a sort of cousin of AWAKE AND SING and other family drama’s of the 1930s.  We’ve seen it in THE WALTONS on TV, and numerous other realistically staged living room plays through the years.  Yet, Mr. Simon’s warmhearted sense of humor, makes his contribution to the genre seem brand new.  Special to this production, is that the third play in the trilogy about Eugene Jerome, BROADWAY BOUND, will play in repertory, making this quite a special theatrical event.

John Lee Beatty’s ultra-realistic set shows a two floor interior of the Jerome house, filled with the details of a lived in home.  Outside, there is the front porch, alley, neighbor’s house, street lamps, trees and the elevated train in the distance.  A painted drop representing Eugene’s diary is used for the act curtain.  Jane Greenwood’s costumes are filled with color and texture, though they are appropriately washed over with a sepia warmth.  Brian MacDevit’s lighting must depend on a lot of practical lighting to fill in some of the nooks and crannies of the set.  He warms up areas as needed to draw the focus where it needs to go.  In a way, there are no surprises here, just a good solid production that is as rich as the writing––as it should be.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Kiss of the Spider Woman at NYU

The main thing that one comes away with from the NYU Steinhardt production of KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN is that there is a large group of talented young men who all have a career if they want it.  The female population of the “Program in Vocal Performance” must be a little miffed this semester, for the show only has three roles for women.  The rest of the cast, lead by two powerful singers, Jordan Stanley as Molina the window dresser jailed for “corrupting a minor” and Roy Richardson as Valentin the revolutionary, is all male and collectively amazing.  The choral singing alone gives goose-bumps, especially the spine-tingling rendition of “The Day After That,” a triumphant rally for hope.  Stanley plays the fey stereotype with plenty of dignity and beautiful singing.  His voice is immensely expressive and he rules the production.  Richardson is equally confident of voice, and although the role is less showy, he should match his costar with his own brand of bravado, but does not.  As the title character, Lauren Calhoun, is appropriately South American and exotic. Her voice can capably handle the low keys designed for the original Spider Woman, Chita Rivera, and also lighten up certain areas that bring a new loveliness to the score.  This Spider Woman is less of a dancer than Ms. Rivera’s, but Jennifer Werner’s very original choreography finds effective ways to move her around gracefully and the ensemble men manage some complicated moves with both power and grace on a stage cluttered with scaffolding and moving gates.  The clutter, dominated by a rotating raised platform at center, was designed by Michael Schweikardt and director John Simpkins has some difficulty working around it.  The center platform, however, makes a nice mini-stage to present what is really a very small play about two people from different worlds locked in a cell together.  How they get to know and appreciate each other is the heart of the story, but the Spider Woman and her dancing back up boys give the show it’s musical flash.  The show itself emerges as a kind of lost treasure.  The score by Kander and Ebb is lush and full of melody.  It does not sound anything like CABARET or CHICAGO and maintains its own special flavor, specific and appropriate to the subject matter.  There are stunning images, strong commentary on the cruelty of human beings towards one another, but counterbalanced with a search and discovery of the good will in men.  KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN is one of the great shows of the 1990s, it should be reexamined more often.  NYU took on the challenge with fantastic results.