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.