Monday, August 31, 2009


Excursion to California

At the time I left my eleven season stint at the Sacramento Light Opera (home of the Music Circus and then, Broadway Series), a lot of change had occurred to that company.  The organization was started in the ‘50s as one of many outdoor musical theatre stock summer companies.  The shows played in the round under a tent.  As the years went on, the tent was moved to a more spacious portion of the block at 15th and H Streets with a bigger stage and increased seating capacity to about 2400.  I worked in various capacities with the organization from 1989 to 2000 before moving to New York.  At the time I left, plans for a new permanent theatre building were underway and two seasons later the new facility was up and running.  The new building had an improved stage, improved lighting grid, real theatre seats with ample leg room and air conditioning.  The organization’s name was changed to California Musical Theatre with the summer season still known as Music Circus and the winter presentation of tours renamed Broadway Sacramento.  I have been back a few times to check in on the old stomping grounds and in August I caught the production of CATS.  It was more or less the same old CATS, with the Broadway choreography reconfigured for the round.  The costumes are recreations of the original design and the show featured cast members from the Broadway run, most notably, Ken Page, the original Old Deuteronomy.  Also, Jeffrey Denman, who was Broadway’s closing night Munkustrap, was reprising his role here.  The production was definitely entertaining, but it is difficult for me to get too excited about CATS.  Even when I first saw it in San Francisco in 1986, I was a little surprised at how random it was.  Like many, I was trying to work out a story as I was watching the first act.  When you try that, you get very discouraged.  Once I realized it was no more than a revue about different kinds of cats, I was able to enjoy the second half for what it really was.  Even so, there is not enough to the show that really does it for me––save for its one truly great moment when Grisabella sings “Memory.”  Jacquelyn Piro Donovan (famous for being the only actress to play both Cosette and Fantine in Broadway’s LES MIZ) belted the hell out of the hit song, sending the audience into a frenzy of cheers.  The Music Circus remains the greatest cultural jewel of Northern California next to the city of San Francisco.  The following night I volunteered to help work a benefit show staring Carol Channing, but that’s another story.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Notes on the Land of Earthquake and Fire

Three years ago I went to see a reading of Jason Schafer’s “Notes.”  The reading was a final project for his MFA from NYU.  Finally he has personally brought the play to fruition by way of the New York International Fringe Festival, presented in the Players Theatre in Greenwich Village.  Jason spent a few years in Hollywood after the success of his film, TRICK.  His experience dealing with television and movie producers found its way into this small play about an assistant to an important monster of a producer.  The assistant, Chad, played with ideal angst by Ian Scott McGregor, gets a call from the wife of producer Alan Howard (Scott Aiello) that she won’t be returning from a trip in time to pick up their daughter.  Chad can’t find Howard anyplace, so he takes the initiative, picks up daughter Lena (Sarah Grover) and takes her to Howard’s Malibu beach front home. Lena is spoiled beyond control and she and Chad have an antagonistic relationship.  Chad is due at a friend’s birthday party later that evening and is concerned about finding Howard so that he can quit baby-sitting and get going.  Enter Shane (Chad Lindsey), a good-looking hunk who stumbles into the Malibu home higher than a kite.  Turns out he’s one of the producers working with Howard on a new surfer movie.  By reading between the lines we quickly come to the conclusion that Shane is sexually involved with Howard.  This is the set up, and it takes some time to establish it, but once in place, the set up is a sturdy platform to explore the ugly business-meets-personal side of Hollywood.  

Chad would like to graduate from assistant to the development team and can’t understand why a coworker is getting ahead faster.  Shane would like to talk Chad out of pursuing the film business and get out––he’ll be happier.  Howard is maniacal, treats Chad cruelly, and threatens his future career if he doesn’t give up his personal plans to baby-sit his daughter for the weekend.  In battling to be treated fairly, through Chad we get a slice of the unscrupulous side of Hollywood: lies, broken promises, deals, dysfunctional families, power and seeping through the muck––humanity.  Shane, who feels he has lost his soul in Hollywood, shows his true humanity in one selfless gesture of saving a puppy from a burning house.  Chad, who valiantly turned in his resignation to live a happy life far away from show business, is all too quickly lured back by a deal based on the threat of blackmail.  The characters are fun, being that they are safely contained upon a stage, but they emerge as quirky, interesting, problematic people who reveal their true natures when faced with extremities.  The play is a revelation of character and a glimpse at the inner workings of Hollywood distilled into the lives of four lonely characters.  This is a fascinating portrait, handled with good humor and biting commentary from a writer who knows the subject first hand.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

9 to 5

9 to 5

Poor 9 TO 5––it didn’t deserve to close so early and it didn’t deserve all of the unfavorable reviews.  The truth is that it is a good representation of he kind of musical that will be identified with the first ten years of the new millennium.  This is a new musical, with a new score (at least the score was actually original, save for the title song), by a celebrity recording/song writing star, based on a hit movie (some of them are based on less than a hit movie).  Screenwriter Patricia Resnick, who also handles the book for the musical, had ideal material to harness Dolly Parton’s songs.  Although the score doesn’t emerge as better than serviceable, it has some fine moments and it really does serve the story.  In fact, it works the way all of the elements of this musical work: slick, clean, ever-moving and with plenty of charm.  A great deal of the charm factor comes from the outstanding three leading ladies who elevate the show above its merely serviceable structure.  Allison Janey as Violet is basically perfect.  She doesn’t challenge our vision of the character as established by Lilly Tomlin and so she’s comfortable, but she also commands the stage and makes the part her own.  Megan Hilty is a replica of Dolly Parton as Doralee and this is obviously by design.  It is also clear that Ms. Parton has shown the most affection for this character, giving her the best songs in terms of character development.  It is clear that Parton is writing autobiographically.  Stephanie J. Block as Judy, the role made famous by Jane Fonda, is nothing like Jane Fonda, but is everything Judy should be.  This is the one casting choice that didn’t smack of the movie at first glance.  Parton has also given her a terrific powerhouse number to show off Block’s formidable belt and at the same time, brilliantly musicalize the character’s breakthrough moment of taking charge of her own life.  The song is “Get Out and Stay Out” and it is a show stopper placed in the spot reserved for the traditional “Eleven O’Clock Number.”  

In its own stylized way, the office set by Scott Pask attempts a kind of realism, but other scenes outside the office can be rather suggestive.  What in the era of THE PAJAMA GAME (a second cousin to this show) would be painted drops, is now projected graphics.  Sometimes they are animated, sometimes they complete the setting of the three dimensional elements that travel in on wagons.  The look is contemporary technology through a LIFE magazine ad of 1980. William Ivey Long’s costumes are not the usual glitz and glamor we are used to from him, but then he’s been completely appropriate to the show and the era.  A fantasy sequence allows him to go a little wild, though he takes his cue from the movie.  Amazingly, the hair design by Paul Huntly and Edward J. Wilson is particularly good, evoking the women’s hairstyles exactly, down to each chorus member.  Even the men’s hair was the right length.

Somehow Joe Mantello directed this un-inventive entertainment in the same season where he directed the rather innovative revival of PAL JOEY.  Andy Blankenbuehler choreographed the show within an inch of its life, which is remarkable when you consider how unsuited to dance the story is.  Outside of the fantasy sequences where a little dance is not only expected, but demanded, the rest of the choreography is given to chorus people making crosses in front of set changes.  This idea was a throwback to the 1920s when a line of chorus girls came out before a drop “in one” for no reason but to entertain the crowd while the big set shifted.  

Shortcomings aside, the show was rather delightful on the whole.  The featured players were completely winning, the script was very funny––even the most familiar jokes from the film played to big laughs.  The crowd seemed to enjoy the show for the rollicking romp it was intended to be.  Isn’t this the case for most of the musical theatre through history?  This kind of show not only has its place, it represents the meat and potatoes of the genre.  Only once in a while does SHOW BOAT, MY FAIR LADY, GYPSY, RAGTIME or BILLY ELLIOT spring forward to surprise us and prove that the musical can be one of the most powerful and affecting art forms. Most of the time it’s LEGALLY BLONDE, FULL MONTY and MAMMA MIA.  9 TO 5 fits in and has its place.  One thing is for sure, the title is licensing gold, so you can fully expect this female centric musical to permeate the community theatre, and high school musical market.

The Prince and the Pauper

Excursion to Massachusetts

At MTI we routinely review the scripts and CDs of new musicals.  For the most part, the company only represents a musical that has had a Broadway, Off Broadway or West End run––MTI is not in the business of producing or promoting an unknown property.  However, there is some leeway in the area of children’s theatre.  If the piece is based on a classic children’s story, reads well and has an appealing score, MTI might consider handling it.  The need for quality youth theatre musicals is ever growing.  Through a long time connection with CEO Freddie Gershon, George Fischoff dusted off his musicalized version of Mark Twain’s THE PRINCE AND THE PAUPER from the ‘60s and sent it to MTI for consideration on the eve of a new production in Springfield, MA produced by the Majestic Theater.  The CD, which features a young John Davidson as Miles Hendon, has a great old fashioned Broadway orchestration and sounds like a cousin of ONCE UPON A MATTRESS.  Everyone at MTI who reviewed it thought it was a winner.  Coworker Matt Boethin and myself drove out to Springfield to see the children’s theatre production and get a real sense of the show.  Somewhere through the years the orchestration heard on that CD simply disappeared.  Fischoff’s piano score was quite simple and only offered a very basic accompaniment for a group of kids with limited singing skills.  The combination diminished the material quite a bit, but still, the quality of the piece could be seen.  What is terrific is that the Majestic provides a regular opportunity for kids and teens to be a part of musical theatre.  The activity of working together as a group for the common goal of producing a show is a great education, regardless of whether or not any of the kids actually go into professional acting.  The material registered as concise, simple to produce well and entertaining for the kids, with enough intelligence to satisfy adults too.  The show is not substantial enough for Broadway, but at one hour in length, it is perfect for children’s audiences.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Off The Radar

I am often at numerous readings and short fringe theatre runs.  These things come and go and play to a very small audience, yet make up a rich part of the New York theatre scene.  Here's two interesting things seen recently:


It has been six years since the Summer Play Festival (SPF) began with an ambitious eighteen plays, a number which has been whittled down to eight for 2009.  This number much more manageable, since unlike other New York theatre festivals, SPF produces all the plays from scratch––design work and all.  The past two years SPF has been housed at the Public Theatre and friend Andy Phelan was starring in a very good play by Kevin Christopher Snipes called CHIMES.  The title refers to the name of a club of teens at an all boys school in Massachusetts who love their Shakespeare.  This is a kind of memory play where older actors watch their younger selves and relive cherished experiences––some good, some bad, all worth it.  During the course of a series of flashbacks, the older characters purge themselves of their demons.  It might not have been necessary to even bother with the older characters, for the coming of age story was interesting enough.  Still, the older characters, namely Nick Ross (Richard Bekins as the older version and Andy Phelan as the younger), are withholding something and so as we get each episode from the past, a little more is revealed until we get the full story––adding a level of suspense.  The play is set just before World War II., but in these modern times, the revelation that two of the boys fall in love is almost expected––the play was heading there from the beginning.  The slight surprise is that it is not the coupling one might expect after all.  

However, a much bigger issue was more striking.  One of the professors finds the famous speech from THE MERCHANT OF VENICE (“If you prick us do we not bleed?”), morally objectionable because he is anti-Semitic.  The leader of the boys (played beautifully by Jeff Ward), argues that the speech is the center and purpose of the entire play and that it must be said.  He goes on to give the speech in a heated delivery and it was stirring.  The bigoted egomaniac of a professor firmly orders that the speech will be cut.  So, the boy plots to sneak the speech back in opening night, facing expulsion from the school.  What is really moving about CHIMES is the way the teens are so stuck under the rule of their elders.  These are intelligent young men, being taught by intolerant adults who hold all the power of their existence.  It is nearly impossible for the boys to fight against the institution they are jailed by and so, in the end they do not succeed.  Something is being said here about an older generation’s inability to actually do what is best for their children, which in this case is to not allow them to develop their own humanity.  This all sounds pretty rough, but the play was filled with humor and the joy of camaraderie, which went a long way to balance out the horrible plight of the boys and the negative ramifications it brought to their adult lives.  

Also featured as the teen cast was Brian Charles Johnson as Birdie, who is an original cast member of SPRING AWAKENING, and a gregarious and entertaining performance by Elan Moss-Bachrach as Vivian Porter.  The adults were all perfectly suited to their roles, the older versions of the boys looking quite like their young counterparts, with John O’Creagh as older Birdie and Graeme Malcom and Peter Van Wagner as the faculty. Andy Phelan continues his career as a teenager several years past his own ten year class reunion, but he is perpetually young and astonishingly believable as a seventeen year old to this day.  He was ideal for the role and his maturity as an actor only brought a depth of character that it might not otherwise have had.  Truth be told, Andy has played this character many times and it is like rolling out of bed for him––literally in this case.  Here’s hoping he gets to graduate from high school before he’s forty.  

The photo is of Andy made for a prop in a period play of my creation, A TASTE OF HEAVEN, which played the NYC Fringe Festival in 2003.  He pretty much looks exactly the same today.

999 B.C.

On assignment for MTI, I attended a reading of a new musical at the York Theatre Company based on the bible story of Jonah and the whale.  The York will present up to forty readings a year, choosing a lucky few for their regular season of full productions.  At this beginning stage, it is hard to know what will become of 999 B.C., for it doesn’t spring forth and grab you, yet it is generally entertaining and the score is bouncy and fun.  The show depends on the general humor that comes from an audience knowing they are seeing a biblical tale and then getting a campy send up of the traditional story, full of out of place modernisms and a jazz score that just doesn’t fit into the biblical box.  Bob Larimer has fashioned the book and lyrics using 1940s jazz standards by Neal Hefti, Ernest Wilkins, Charlie Parker and others.  The songs are the best element, with a so-so book, containing only a few really brilliant jokes, but an otherwise tongue-in-cheek diversion of the original tale.  If you aren’t up on your bible stories, this is the one that reminds you of PINOCCHIO, for when Jonah denies God’s instructions, he is fed to a whale.  999 B.C. makes quite a lot out of the surrounding plot of this main event, but the details of the original story are scant.  Mostly, the story of Jonah is a jumping off place for fun, but I’m not sure what we’re supposed to gain by the shenanigans.  A full staging might complete the experience and turn the whole thing into a kind of cousin to SPAMALOT.

The reading was filled with some wonderful performances.  Todd Buonopane as Philo, the narrator and lead comic of the piece, was delightful in his general exuberance and joy.  Cole Burden made Jonah a working class romantic leading man and sang well alongside the naturally funny Keven Reed as his sidekick Joel.  The rest of the cast turned in energetic performances with strong singing, but the youngest of the cast, Jacob Pinion, stood out, playing multiple little roles with a fresh and funny character every time.  He was a hoot and the real comic genius of the production.  It wasn’t that his material was particularly funny––he made it so.  Young Mr. Pinion is only just out of NYU.  Watch for his name, for I bet that he will emerge into a major talent.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Favorite Productions 2000-2005

In my book, NEW YORK STAGES: A JOURNAL OF NEW MILLENNIUM THEATRE, I picked out ten favorite productions between 2000-2005.  It was difficult to pick just ten, but I still stand by this list:

The Laramie Project

“It is an exploration of prejudice against homosexuals and it was astonishingly potent.  Split into three acts, the first two acts ended with speeches so moving that I had to work to keep myself from sobbing.  The first is from the Doctor who has to announce the actual death and through his quivering voice, he delivers a message from Matthew’s mother to all parents: Tell your children you love them every chance you get because you might wake up one morning and not have them anymore.  What is more tragic than parents having to bury their children?  The second is a speech from Matthew’s father, delivered to the murderer and deciding that he will let the young man live so that he will have to think about his horrific act for the rest of his life.  It is a strong thing for the father to allow the murderer of his son to live after the way Matthew was tortured to death, but he hopes that imprisoned life will be worse–a living nightmare.  How can you go on after such an ordeal?  My faith in humanity was rattled.”


“The cast was superb in every way.  The dry delivery of the Officer from Jeff McCarthy; the only surviving cast member from the Fringe production, Spencer Kayden as the innocently blunt Little Sally; Nancy Opel’s knock ‘em dead belting as Pennywise and Hunter Foster’s original take on a leading man with amazing singing versatility.  A sort of star was found in John Cullum as the villain, Cladwell, who regularly received entrance applause thanks to his stint on TV’s NORTHERN EXPOSURE, but a formidable veteran of the Broadway stage a few decades ago as well.  The entire experience just came together, then moved to the Henry Miller Theatre until some nasty real life big business villain bought the property and tore down the theatre.  Good-bye Henry Miller Theatre.”

The Producers

“The songs are by Mel Brooks himself, but this is how it had to be.  The world has been waiting for a Mel Brooks musical.  We all knew he was capable of it and finally here it is.  We would all be happy if he adapted every one of his films for the musical stage.  For now we have the glorious THE PRODUCERS.  It was even fun with other people in it.  The worth of the show does not rest solely on Lane and Broderick’s shoulders, there is as much talent in the supporting players and the inventive staging by Susan Stroman.  And, just for fun, get this:  Cubby O’Brian of the original Mickey Mouse Club plays the drums in the pit.”

Liza’s Back

“The most lovely thing in the show, and the first cry of the evening, was a beautifully done ‘Something Wonderful,’ from THE KING AND I.  She did her signature version of ‘Some People,’ which made the audience go crazy as it always does. Oh why, oh why hasn’t the woman ever played Rose in GYPSY?  It’s the misfortune of us all that the universe is not making it possible for Liza Minnelli to star in GYPSY.  Can you imagine?  It would be unlike anything you’ve ever experienced in a star turn.  It would be pandemonium in the audience if the fevered craze that went on at the Beacon was any indication.”

Henry IV.

“If you’re going to see it, see it with Richard Easton, Ethan Hawke, Michael Hayden, Kevin Kline and Audra McDonald.  This director, Jack O’Brien, made it work for me.  It was the whole darn thing for nearly four hours and I was right with it the whole time.  Poor Ethan sounded like he was blowing his voice.  Perhaps his movie training didn’t prepare him for a two a day schedule of four hours of Shakespeare, but he was still very good in it.  His scenes with Audra McDonald were terrific.  Some of the press didn’t like her, but I’m sure I don’t know what they were talking about–Audra is one of our greatest working theatre stars and there’s a reason she has four Tony Awards.  Everything just came together in the best ways, from design to direction to performance.  How often does this happen?  So rarely that it makes one almost give up hope, but then there you are in the theatre and you are reminded that it is possible for great theatre to happen–even on Broadway where it hardly happens at all anymore.”


“John Neumeier, Artistic Director, is the brilliant choreographer responsible for creating this wonderful and honest tribute to an unsurpassed artist of the 20th Century.  We can still learn from Nijinski, for his world was passionate and possessed depths of understanding the complications of human beings.  There is no better way to showcase the artist’s life than to do it in the form in which he worked.  We were able to learn about the man in all his complexities, sample his own work, and experience the thrill of a fresh ballet, which exhibited all of the technical strengths of great dancers, while keeping focused on the telling of a good story.  This is no small accomplishment in dance, but it was accomplished by the Hamburg Ballet.”

Our Town

“Then there was something truly great.  It has always been great and if it is considered to be ‘over done’, why, there is a good reason–it’s great.  OUR TOWN transferred to the Helen Hayes from the Westport County Playhouse with Paul Newman as the Stage Manager.  It was a limited run, which immediately sold out and those of us lucky enough to see it were reaffirmed, in a Broadway of commercial blandness, that the theatre can be one of the most affecting art forms on earth.”

Gem Of The Ocean

“When one, Citizen Barlow, knocks on the door to have his soul cleaned by Aunt Ester, the cleaning releases Citizen Barlow’s connection to his ancestors.  This moment, not unlike a moment in CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF or Wilson’s own JOE TURNER’S COME AND GONE, brings on the theatrics; surreal lighting depicting the lower depths of a slave ship, the ferocity of an ocean and thunder and lightning crashing through the windows.  It is one of Mr. Wilson’s most effective tricks: a play in a realistic setting that suddenly leaps into the world of nightmares.  GEM OF THE OCEAN was the most exciting play of the season, and perhaps the best play of the new millennium to date.”

Twelve Angry Men

“TWELVE ANGRY MEN is an astonishing work, for it will always speak to us and undoubtedly give anyone who sees it pause to consider that our snap judgments can have major ramifications, possibly adding to the bad in the world before the good.  The play has a simple idea, told in real time in a realistic setting and it has, after all these years since its debut as a television film in 1957, lost none of its profound power.”

The Light In The Piazza

“What Adam Guettel is up to is something extraordinary, for he is not thinking in the language of his grandfather at all.  What he is doing is something else–rich in melody, but also expressing in song how people might also talk; aware of structure, but not conscience of writing what could be a popular song.  There is a feeling about THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA that Mr. Guettel is doing something unusual, if not completely new, but it is refreshing as Broadway swims in a period of uninventive old forms and songbook shows.  What the future of this beautiful little show holds is something only time will tell.  I suspect it will be a cult show, rarely produced and never finding a place among the thirty or so always produced classics.  Too bad, for the world outside of New York deserves to see how beautiful an unconventional musical can be.  This one could open minds, just as the authors purport Italy itself has the power to do.”

Do We Need Another La Cage?

After the last Broadway revival of LA CAGE, how can it be possible that we will have the current London production on Broadway next season? Now, don't get me wrong, I love LA CAGE and I love Jerry Herman, but...really? Although, if it's good, then I'll be the first to champion it. I ended up seeing the last production three times. The first time was previews and I just had to be the first in the door. The second time was to see it up and running without the set breaking down. The third was because Bob Goulet went into the show and how could I miss that historical event!!! Still, isn't it about time we have a revival of MAME instead?