Monday, May 31, 2010

The PIT is a decent little space devoted to sketch comedy in many forms and keeps a schedule of a great variety of performances that rotate and change from day to day. Among the recent offerings (and likely to return) was DYSTOPIA GARDENS, a sketch-play send-up of the future. This future is in the spirit of the genre of dystopian films like BRAZIL and LOGAN’S RUN with a little help from George Orwell. Creators Jerry Miller and Will Nunziata have produced, costumed, written, directed and performed twenty characters in this very funny hour long entertainment about a mythical future in a bubble protected city on a scorched earth. The series of vignettes, held together with original music, crazy sounds and video interludes of a Big Brother inspired host, cover topics of future living such as waiting in line for services, ordering fast food, brainwashing and human waste disposal (i.e. toilet humor). By hook or by crook the team has ingeniously assembled humorous and effective costumes made out of supplies from what looks to be the 99 cent store. They play kids, women and the various male characters of the world in a “Kids in the Hall” kind of way, which adds a layer of laughs over the clever sketches infused with an insightful humor in situations ripe for parody. Multileveled humor is the key to this inspired work, for it is both low burlesque and high minded satire. The show is self-described as “sex in a pool of funny” and that just about says it all. Moreover, the two actors are fearless and shameless in a “can’t believe they went there” kind of way. When they bring their version of the future back to The PIT, it is more than worth the $10 ticket price to spend an hour in DYSTOPIA GARDENS.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Sondheim On Sondheim

This Stephen Sondheim revue was as much a master class as an entertainment, with some great entertainers illustrating Mr. Sondheim’s lecture. He came in the form of video footage from past TV interviews and contemporary interviews recorded especially for this production. These were displayed on amazing floating TV screens, which moved in a variety of directions like the pieces of a Scrabble game. Behind the menagerie of screens was a small but full sounding orchestra silhouetted like the orchestra from FANTASIA above a rotating maze of stairs and platforms that seemed to create an infinent variety of settings for the lengthy list of musical numbers. Designed by Beowulf Boritt, all of this was beautiful and showcased the talent and the event perfectly. Mr. Sondheim's descriptions of his work, his stories, his shared memories, were all lovely to hear––he is an enjoyable speaker, displaying an intimacy and ease as if we were in his home chatting with him about the history of Broadway––his remarkable experience of Broadway. His experience with Broadway starts with a mentorship from Oscar Hammerstein, writing lyrics for WEST SIDE STORY and GYPSY, then on through his wide variety of musicals for which he composed the music as well as the lyrics: COMPANY, FOLLIES, SWEENEY TODD and A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC, which is enjoying a revival this season as well. All this and Barbara Cook too! After all the other very fine performers made their entrances, Barbara Cook walked on to an extra round of thunderous applause. There she stood, taking it all in for a moment, a woman who represents the history of Broadway herself. She is the original star of MUSIC MAN, PLAIN AND FANCY and SHE LOVES ME among other things. The past twenty years she has been a busy cabaret and concert star, quite often devoting programs to Stephen Sondheim’s music. I caught one of these at Carnegie Hall some years ago and also saw her in the more intimate Cafe Carlyle. Yes, there she stood, resplendent, now in her early 80s, singing with that clean clear soprano that made “‘Till There Was You”, “My White Knight” and “Ice Cream” so stunning once upon a time. At this performance she gave us brilliantly executed solos of “Take Me to the World”, “In Buddy’s Eyes” and “Send in the Clowns.” We are all so lucky that there is a show for Barbara Cook in 2010.

Of course there are other people in the show too and they are delightful. The other two big stars are Tom Wopat, who has been a Broadway regular for the past decade or so and Vanessa Williams, who had played the Witch in the revival of INTO THE WOODS. As a kind of supporting ensemble, but shining through with solo work as well we were given the powerhouse known as Leslie Kritzer, Norm Lewis who sang a killer “Being Alive,” Euan Morton, who got a lot of comedy material, but who was under used and two fine young singers new to me––Erin Mackey and Matthew Scott. All of these people were charming and sang their material with excellence, both as individuals and as a tight chorus.

James Lapine conceived and directed the production, introducing the audience to quite a bit of rare material. One great use of this idea was hearing the various versions of Bobby’s final song for COMPANY, leading up the the final choice, “Being Alive.” Inbetween hearing these versions, Mr. Sondheim appeared on screen to explain why each version was discarded. This technique was also used to show the evolution of the opening number for FUNNY THING...FORUM––the winner finally being, “Comedy Tonight.” Although I’ve heard Mr. Sondheim tell the story at different times, his telling of the time Oscar Hammerstein signed a picture to him that said, “To Stevie, My friend and teacher,”* was very moving and preceded an emotional “Anyone Can Whistle” being played on the piano by Mr. Sondheim on screen while the cast sang to it on stage. For students of the musical theater, there just isn’t a better classroom to be in than SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM and by the end of June it will saddly all be over.

*Sondheim fans, I have quoted this from memory, so if I didn’t get it world for word please forgive me.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Billy Bell's LUNGE

Remember Billy Bell from SO YOU THINK YOU CAN DANCE last season? He was the kid that got elbowed in the nose and gushed blood, then after an amazing comeback left the show due to illness. Meanwhile he’s been dancing up a storm, attending Juilliard and forming his own dance company, LUNGE, which made its debut this week at the Alvin Ailey Citigroup Theater on 9th Avenue and 55th Street. The 20 year old choreographer created a program of diverse pieces danced by a company of young dancers most likely born between 1990 and 1993––why its enough to make one feel ancient! This company came in many shapes, sizes and colors, but worked as a unified whole. Occasionally the ensemble broke up to show off individual dancers, but their mass effort was the most impressive. The amazing soloist of the evening was Mr. Bell himself, who didn’t dance nearly enough, but we’ll give him a break since he choreographed the entire five piece program. Mr. Bell’s ability is astounding––it is more than mere technical know-how––no, this dancer is somehow magical. He is like a mythical being: part Puck and part Peter Pan, with an evident joy and happiness that emanates from him even though he constantly tries to explore more serious emotions. His body contorts and bends into unlikely shapes with a light and fluid motion––then sharp, angular as if his joints were popping in and out of place. It is a cliché to say that he is poetry in motion, but that might be the closest and most accurate description of this person, who undoubtedly will emerge as one of the foremost talents this country will come to prize.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Barrier Island

Off Off Broadway the Maieutic Theatre Works produced David Stalling’s new play BARRIER ISLAND. Set in a small town bar in Texas, we meet the regulars. There is Susie and Nate who run the bar and Bob and Carol who seem to half live there. Carol is a single mom with a teenage daughter having an affair with another regular much too old for her, Carl. Trey has returned home from the war to find his home town unchanged––he has seen too much of the world to be satisfied by a small town existence. Just at this moment, Laura returns to the home town with her son Daniel to help deal with the affairs of her aging parents, who happen to own the bar. The story concerns the two lost souls, Trey and Laura, meeting and forging a potential future together. However, Laura must stay to clean up her parents’ financial crisis while Trey wants nothing more than to get out of town––especially since a hurricane is on its way. Regardless of the trials and tribulations of a narrow small town existence, the citizens of Barrier Island are going to weather the storm––figuritively and literally.

The first act of this play wove together the various little plot lines nicely, but the second act leaped illogically to wrap up each character’s journey. The last fifteen minutes was particularly tedious and unfathomable. Also, after a very good start and careful building of the relationship between Trey and Laura, the two did not find a way to meet in the middle on common ground to enable a successful relationship. Why has Stalling lead us on this journey of two lovers only to rob us of the pay off? He might feel that he is showing us the reality of life, but there is merit in giving the audience a satisfying ending. It is assumed that we are supposed to find hope in this community’s devotion to their town that is about to be ruined by the worst hurricane in generations, but it is little solace. Besides, every other little story line is wrapped up with an unrealistic ribbon, so the end result was an unsatisfying drama that failed to meet its potential.

The performances were one and all solid. David L. Carson as Nate the bartender was particularly natural in his role and handled his dramatic material beautifully. Mark Emerson as Carl was believable as a hick looser with a screw loose and commanded empathy at his dangerous circumstances dealing with a teenage girl. Anthony Crep as Trey and Jennifer Laine Williams as Laura had a great energy and sparked a believable romance, which made it all the more disappointing to not get to see the follow through. The supporting players, including young Frankie Scratch as son Daniel, were all well cast, sturdy players and Cristina Alicea did well directing the play in a space a tad too small for it.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Coming across the pond from the Donmar Warehouse was director Alan Rickman’s production of August Strindberg’s CREDITORS in a very short run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. There were no understudies for this economical three person show and so when actress Anna Chancellor took ill and couldn’t go on, two performances of this limited run were canceled. I was due to attend just such a performance, but my party was able to transfer into one of the final performances the following weekend. This version was adapted by David Greig in a swift ninety minute intermissionless presentation on a stark white set by Ben Stones. The interior of a seaside studio was the barren, open, exposed playing area for a jealous ex husband to poison his former wife’s new husband’s mind against the wife and destroy their marriage. This sounds like a soap opera plot, and in a way it is the 19th Century equivalent, but it has been done with humor where ever possible and three ferocious performances by Tom Burke, Owen Teale and Chancellor, which made the production to be the great thing it is––far greater than the play itself. There is talk of a Broadway production with movie stars for next season. This play is ideal for such a concept. Many very good people would succeed in it, for they all get a lot of stage time and will satisfy their fans as well as appearing in an intelligent and entertaining play of quality by a master. This is a good idea.

Thursday, May 13, 2010


Alban Berg’s opera, presented this season by the Metropolitan Opera, is based on two of Frank Wedekind’s three plays surrounding the character “Lulu.” The opera is a combination of the best stuff from EARTH SPIRIT and PANDORA’S BOX, the latter known best to the world as the infamous silent film staring the iconic Louise Brooks. The plays are rarely produced (I say rarely rather than never just in case somewhere in the world someone has actually produced one of the plays in the past twenty years, but I can’t find any evidence), though I saw a new musical comedy adaptation that never progressed past the Fringe Theatre Festival several years ago. My first encounter with the opera was in 1989 in a spectacular new production at the San Francisco Opera––Bob Mackie did the costumes, which caused me to gasp in awe and wonder a few times. I forget who directed that production, but it was filled with visually interesting images. The stunning oddity of the movie shown in the middle of the second act to depict Lulu going to court and then to jail underscored by the orchestra thrilled me. The racy subject matter, the Art Deco designs, the looming painting of Lulu as Pierrot appearing in every scene, the way Lulu kills everyone she has an affair with, the lesbian Countess, Jack the Ripper showing up in the third act to bring Lulu to her doom––all of it fascinated me. So, twenty years later I was excited to revisit LULU again and besides, The New York Times gave it a good review. However, I found this LULU to be sparse. They didn’t do the film, just played the film underscore and gave us a synopsis in the program to read instead of giving us something to see. The setting was turn-of-the-century and everything was exaggerated Art Nouveau. Lulu had read curly hair rather than the dark ‘20s Louise Brooks bob, which to me makes Lulu look like Lulu. Start hunting around the internet for photos of Lulu and you will see an awful lot of actresses sporting the Louise Brooks bob. There is something vampirish about it––something black widow. After all, Lulu is the walking devil, entrapping men into her web and doing them in. Red curly hair sort of softens the character. There was nothing as striking in this production as Bob Mackie’s red evening gown, slicked to Lulu’s body, with the back cut low and that black bobbed hair, coming down a grand Deco staircase. The gown here was white with beading. White is bridal and chaste. Was costume designer Jocelyn Herbert trying to be ironic or just trying to be pretty? Anyway, although the original story is of the 19th Century (the opera is 1936 and didn’t make its NYC debut until 1977), I prefer my LULU to be in the 1920s, where decadence is known to be running ramped, the clothes are sexier and lesbians are recognizable characters

Louise Brooks

Saturday, May 1, 2010

The Glass Menagerie

It wasn’t so long ago that THE GLASS MENAGERIE was on Broadway (2005 to be exact) with Jessica Lang. I was mesmerized by that production, as imperfect as it was. Something about Jessica Lang was magical and the poetry of the play really shined. This time, in a new Roundabout production Off Broadway, the casting of the kids was preferable and the durable Judith Ivey was perfectly admirable as Amanda, but the extra something magical was missing. Director Gordon Edelstein made his mark on the production by having “Tom” typing and reading out his speeches as if he were composing the play before us. Now he was “Tom” as in Tennessee Williams. He was also gay. Actually, this production showed me for the first time how much of what Tom says indicates that he is gay––it wasn’t just Patch Darragh’s line readings, though he clearly played the role as if the character were harboring the dark secret. Knowing the playwright’s history, this seems like a no-brainer, but I promise you that no Tom before now that I have seen explored this character as troubled by his homosexuality. Usually Tom is simply burdened by his duty to take care of his mother and disabled sister since the father figure left home and this has seemed problematic enough. Now there was an extra layer and Tom’s lines have never made more sense. Keira Keeley, a frail looking girl, played Laura beautifully with a quirky vocal tick that enhanced her peculiarity. Michael Mosely was the “Gentleman Caller,” Jim, and lived up to the description given by the other characters before he shows up. He bounced with the energy of a go-getter, his own biggest fan, but the only character of the play who is not delusional. Mr. Mosely’s gusto and genuine charm made the revelation of his impending marriage all the more heartbreaking for Laura when her dreams are dashed. I usually love set designer Michael Yeargan, but the simplicity of his set made it seem like he was under too much of a budget crunch rather than looking like something executed with completion. Any community theater could have managed it. Although, the back wall of the tenement flat was actually a scrim, so that Judith Ivey could suddenly appear as if a ghost from the past. This play is over sixty years old now and it has lost none of its power. If in another five years we get another New York revival of this classic, it will be equally as welcome