Friday, April 30, 2010

Lend Me a Tenor

Directed by Stanley Tucci, this revival of the popular farce, revived continually in regional and community theatres, is an enjoyable romp. The cast is headed by Justin Bartha who is making his Broadway debut and what a debut it is! Bartha is charming, possessed of a comic sense that would make Lucy proud. He is supported by Anthony LaPaglia and Tony Shalhoub as the the tenor Tito Merelli and the opera producer Saunders. The comically brilliant Jan Maxwell plays Tito’s wife Maria and the cast is rounded out by Mary Catherine Garrison as Maggie, Jay Klaitz as Bellhop, Jennifer Laura Thompson as Diana and the strangely inept Brooke Adams as Julia. With all the good actresses in New York, how the amateurish Brooke Adams can be allowed to bumble her way through this pay is a wonder. She has a resume, yes, and she most assuredly has an agent, but she isn’t funny and she can't read lines, so fire her. Otherwise the very good cast delivers a funny and entertaining farce, even if the pace slows at times, making some of the business seem to be over killed. There is a lovely luxury hotel set by John Lee Beatty and attractive period costumes by Martin Pakledinaz to put the finishing touches on the production with class.

Closer Than Ever

Out at Queens Theatre in the Park a handsome revival of Richard Maltby and David Shire’s CLOSER THAN EVER gave fan’s of the revered revue a chance to finally see it instead of only hearing it. The popularity of the original cast album has inspired a generation of music theatre writers, but opportunities to see the song cycle live are hard to come by. This new production featured two original cast members, Sally Mayes and Lynne Wintersteller. The supporting men are new to the piece and were ably played by George Dvorsky and Sal Viviano. This middle-aged group is now a little old to sing some of the lyrics pertaining to issues of the thirty-something set, but never the less, the group sold the show with expert performances. A few new songs were added to the program and they were equally welcome along with the good old ones such as, “Doors”, “She Loves Me Not”, “You Want to Be My Friend” and “Miss Byrd.” In the end a song cycle becomes a bit tiresome without a story or regular characters to follow, but for fans of this music, such as the man in the third row who mouthed every lyric right along with the cast, this production made for a fine showcase of Maltby and Shire’s songs. The production was directed by Richard Maltby himself, music directed by Patrick Brady and choreographed by Kurt Stamm. It was co-produced by Bristol Riverside Theatre in Pennsylvania where the show plays after the Queens run.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson

At the Public Theatre, a new play with music called BLOODY BLOODY ANDREW JACKSON, which is not a musical by text book definition, is an unusually grand time. This satirical play by Alex Timbers, which is adorned with music and lyrics by Michael Friedman strings together a series of “Saturday Night Live” style sketches to sort of tell the story of president Andrew Jackson. Benjamin Walker is the attractive modern day incarnation of Jackson and gets the bulk of the singing as well as the bulk of the play. He is comic, strong, outrageous and beguiling and is reason enough to see the show even if there weren’t so much more to love. Musical theatre fans beware: this is not a musical. I repeat: this is not a musical. Songs do not reveal character or push the story forward. These songs are thematic and add to the variety and enjoyment of the overall show, but if you dropped them you could still play the scenes and not know the difference. However, I am grateful for the songs, for without them the scenes would not completely satisfy either. This production is just an unusual mix of things which make up a fascinating whole that does not fit into any one box. As a historical drama (or comedy really), this hardly takes the place of real history, but it does present a look at our nation’s past that shows us how much things have changed, but also how much hasn’t changed. Is Jackson one of our greatest presidents or is he one of our most horrifying? Under his watch, the American Indians were nearly destroyed and he can be likened to an American Hitler. He also ushered in the greatest expansion of the territories. The show made me want to hit the library for a good biography on the man because I don’t trust the show to tell me the whole truth, but it was darn entertaining and for all the fun of it, it does raise questions and inspire discussion.

Alex Timber has directed the show with a great sense of fun––obviously letting his cast loose to develop the comedy of the piece as far as it could go. Donyale Werle’s set is a combination small indy rock bar venue splashed with wild west fixtures that evoke a saloon music hall. Emily Rebholz’s costumes are downtown rock band with enough touches to suggest an indian versus a cowboy. The whole thing is an appealingly trendy, non conformist, jovial entertainment that plays by its own rules and that’s refreshing.

Return to South Pacific

After two years I took an opportunity to return to SOUTH PACIFIC. I was elevated and entranced the first time around. Sometimes the show was thrilling. The cast was nearly ideal. The orchestra was big and beautiful. The collaboration between the director and the set designer was a brilliant fusion of creativity and storytelling. Now, I am sorry to say, the production is diminished. Some of the original cast members of the chorus and namely Danny Burstein as Billis remain, but in combination with the new cast members the show has the quality of a regional summer stock production. This wouldn’t be bad if the show weren’t on Broadway where the greatest talent in the world should be on hand to easily take over roles in a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. The current cast of SOUTH PACIFIC proves that casting this clasic show is never a snap. Although Loretta Ables Sayre is still in the show as Bloody Mary, she was out the night I was there and Liz McCartney was in the role. McCartney was just weird––in a kind of Kabuki character version. Sayre was authentic, McCartney is a minstrel show and charmless. When the show opened it had an exuberance to it that is missing now. The whole thing now feels like it is on a low wattage. Laura Osnes as Nellie Forbush was sweet and appropriate with a lovely voice and William Michals as de Becque looked right and sang it like we want to hear it, but there was no spark––no thrill. Andrew Samonsky is unusual as Lt. Cable, playing a “character” rather than seeming natural. He sings beautifully and acts his sickness with malaria with authentic detail, but he comes off as a bit of a comic book hero rather than a real person. The entire company sounds distant in the Vivian Beaumont Theater and I don’t know if the house has pocket area’s where the sound is lost or if the sound operator is asleep, but I felt the voices were being swallowed by the orchestra. This is not to say that the orchestra was too loud, it was not. In fact, I was surprised that the overture didn’t overwhelm me with sound as I felt it did the first time. It is strange to have to say this, but I think the show was under amplified. It isn’t just the sound operator though, it is very much the cast, which underplays the show and cannot fill the house. Only Danny Burstein is big enough to register really well. He has even expanded the comic aspect of the character and his humor plays better than it did two years ago. And now that I’ve complained about the demise of SOUTH PACIFIC I have to turn around and champion the overall show as being unmatched for the beauty of its design by Michael Yeargan as it melds with Bartlett Sher’s direction. I kept staring at that beautiful painted sky––it is one drop, but it transforms so much during the course of the show that it looks like it could be five drops. The balcony was mostly empty, so SOUTH PACIFIC might be on its last legs, and that’s fine for I am ready to see a new show on one of my favorite stages. Still, I walked out of the show wondering why no one can write a show that matches the combination of entertainment, social commentary, dramatic impact and beauty of a Rodgers and Hammerstein show. Those two men took their particular talents with them when they parted this world––so rarely are they matched. It was nice to have SOUTH PACIFIC back for a while.

Monday, April 12, 2010

The Irish Curse

A few projects emerge from the NYC International Fringe Theatre Festival for a commercial run and Martin Casella’s comedy THE IRISH CURSE is one of those lucky few. Director Matt Lenz continues from the Fringe as director along with several members of the Fringe cast. Fringe no longer, the little show about group therapy for men who are less than endowed, pops and crackles with some very funny jokes, inciting guffaws from the audience. However, there are only so many jokes about the male member that can keep you laughing before they wear out their welcome. The other main source of humor is the idea that this group is being run by a priest, Father Kevin Shaunessy (Scott Jaeck), in a meeting room of a Catholic church. So, there are the jokes of saying inappropriate things in front of a priest and these too, get old. The second half of this 90 minute intermissionless play takes a more serious turn, so we do get some drama, but the main thrust is the character study of five very different men with one thing in common.

The first guy in the door is Joseph Flaherty, usually played by Dan Butler, but it was Bill Timoney at the performance I caught and he seemed perfect for the role of a middle-aged divorced business man. Right away he is joined by 22 year old Rick (Brian Leahy), who stuffs a sock in his jock strap to win second glances from women. Austen Peck of the TV soap opera world plays Stephen, the ultra-handsome studly cop, who also happens to be gay. Finally, there is an Irishman actually from Ireland named Kieran, played beautifully by Roderick Hill with expert timing and emotional realism. All the performances are excellent, the cast seemingly ideal, the direction swift and sure, but what does it amount to? This is a situation comedy that topically warranted one 30 minute episode and was stretched into three. I would have liked to spend time with this collection of diverse characters and their complicated package of issues, but this would mean a setting of a broader scope that allowed for it. Mr. Casella has developed a fine batch of characters that are very interesting to see work with and against each other. They might not have been friends outside of the support group, but their common issue creates a kind of brotherhood that is touching and transcends all of their differences, which causes an entertaining friction. When the play comes to an end, a definite warmhearted feeling prevails, but the limited story feels contrived and too much is accomplished in the one session to feel believable. In the end, the play is not much more than a harness for phallic humor with a little Catholic ribbing on the side.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Anyone Can Whistle

The seemingly impossible happened in 1964 when two genius writers, namely Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim, wrote a most random and bazaar failure of a musical called ANYONE CAN WHISTLE. The New York City Center, Encores! has revived the oddity, but rather than thinking, “This is great! Why don’t people revive this lost gem more often,” there is a swift recognition of exactly why the show only ran nine performances. If it weren’t for the super talents of the current cast, there would be very little to recommend. To start with there was Donna Murphy in the role originated by Angela Lansbury, Cora Hoover Hooper the Mayor. Murphy got the show going with a bang as she belted out “Me and My Town” supported by four male dancers. For some reason she looked like Debbie Reynolds in the first act with her pink early sixties suit and blonde hair. In the second act she morphed into Lucille Ball during the “Here’s Lucy” period (either of those ladies might have worked in the role). Murphy also scored with an effective singing of “A Parade in Town” and kept the show buzzing with a manic comic energy. Next there was Sutton Foster as Fay Apple. She stopped the show with her vocal trumpeting of “There Won’t Be Trumpets” and was delightful during her impersonation of a French soubrette. Foster sang the title song with a charming sweetness and reprised it later on in an exciting up tempo version that was exhilarating. Finally there was Raúl Esparza as J. Bowden Hapgood, the impostor of a doctor. His quirky dancing character, with a willowy Dick Van Dyke quality was immediately ingratiating and he triumphed with his singing of “Everybody Says Don’t.” An ensemble dance, “The Cookie Chase,” showed the crazy people escaping from the funny farm and thanks to Casey Nicholaw’s inspired direction and choreography the number was the biggest success of the production. Yes the score contains, “There Won’t Be Trumpets”, “Everybody Says Don’t” and “Anyone Can Whistle,” but that ends the greatness of the material. The story is silly and outlandish and none of the characters are believable as actual people. The real success of the show is the current cast and creative team and even these top talents of the business can’t save ANYONE CAN WHISTLE.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

The Illusion in Chicago

Tony Kushner adapted Pierre Corneille's play, THE ILLUSION, before he burst forth with ANGELS IN AMERICA. The adaptation of this French play is revisited by The Court Theatre of Chicago in an entertaining production directed by Charles Newell. The aristocrat, Pridamant (John Reeger), has come to the cave abode of a magician, Alcandre (Chris Sulllivan), asking to be shown what has become of his estranged son. Alcandre agrees, as the ensemble appears on a crude stage, surrounded by rudimentary theatrical trappings to depict the evidence of the son's life. Thus, the story unfolds. There is a twisted joke of an ending that cannot be revealed here, but the pay off is worth the wait. The play is described as "freely adapted" by Tony Kushner, so I imagine the original 17th Century work is quite different and probably not nearly as crisp and funny to us today as Mr. Kushner's variation.


The Chicago Billys

The Chicago production of BILLY ELLIOT at the Oriental Theatre launches the first national tour version and the last production to be personally staged by the original creators. From here on out, this version will be the version, recreated by associates and assistants as the creators move on after a decade of living with BILLY ELLIOT from film to London to Australia to Broadway and now the road. There will be many Billys on the road. The original Broadway boys are already gone and replaced, though Tommy Batchelor has joined the Chicago show after being established as the fourth Broadway Billy. The other Chicago Billys are Giuseppe Bausilio, J. P. Vernes and the actor I saw, Cesar Corrales. Little Mr. Corrales is incredibly charming, a good actor, an adequate singer and a spectacular dancer. He has incredible little dance tricks mixed in to the choreography that are jaw dropping. His tap dancing is ferocious and he is especially fast in his tapping while jump roping moment. As usual for any Billy, his “Electricity” number is a show stopper in the literal sense: the show cannot continue because the audience is too busy cheering and shouting bravos. Cesar Corrales is magnificent.

The anchor of the production is the one Broadway name, Emily Skinner, who is just about perfect as Mrs. Wilkinson. She handles her big numbers with great showmanship, belting out her big notes in signature style and finds several very touching moments when she connects emotionally with Billy. Her reading of Billy’s letter from his mother is particularly beautiful and her good-bye to him at the end is heartbreaking. Armand Schultz is perfectly sound as “Dad,” and he is far less hammy than Greg Jbara on Broadway, though he still manages to get the laughs in the usual places. Cynthia Darlow as “Grandma” is able to move a lot more than Carole Shelley and so her song, “We’d Go Dancing,” has an added exuberance. At the performance I saw, Gabriel Rush played Michael (Keean Johnson from the Broadway show alternates performances), and the character pleases the crowd as usual. Rush has his own version of the usual comic bits and the scene and song, “Expressing Yourself,” just works––as outlandish as it is. Blake Hammond is particularly greasy and eccentric as Mr. Braithwate, which makes him all the more enjoyable a character.

The set, which is more or less the same in all ways, has some key differences. Billy’s stairway to his cage-like bedroom sides out from the side, but the top deck is able to revolve to match the effect during the “Angry Dance” just as it plays on Broadway. The miners aren’t able to descend at the end of the show, and the large union drape simply lowers to fade them out of the picture, though a rear drop of added spot lights mimic the lights on the miners’ helmets, creating the effect of double the people. The metal box that Billy climbs into during the “Angry Dance” is assembled on stage rather than rising from the ground, but otherwise that dance and all the others are exact to the original staging.

This new production is as thrilling as the Broadway and no one is getting anything second rate on the road. Some shows can be diminished on tour, but BILLY ELLIOT plays with equal success and is positioned to astonish the cities of the nation.