Monday, June 27, 2011

All's Well That Ends Well

This summer in Central Park the Public Theatre is tackling two of Shakespeare’s “problem” plays. The first to open, All’s Well That Ends Well,” is officially one of the comedies, but although there are laughs and mix-ups between lovers the happy ending of this play has always been debatable. Directed with an eye on this problem, Daniel Sullivan does his best to make sense of the ludicrous plot and turns out a very handsome production whether he solves the problems or not. It certainly helps to have an excellent cast headed by the dignified Annie Parisse as Helena, Tonya Pinkins as the Countess and John Cullum as the King to make the mayhem believable. André Holland is sturdy as Count Bertram, but cannot invoke the sympathy necessary to make the ending believably happy. The play may be more at fault, but just the right personality in the role could assuredly help matters considerably for it is too easy to mark Bertram as a cad and leave it at that.

Because of the class system, Helena has no hope of attracting nobleman Count Bertram. However, after cleverly applying her father’s healing arts, she cures the King of France from fistula. As a thank you gift the King offers Helena her choice of husband from a number of men of the court. She picks Bertram, but he is not enthused. When Bertram skips out on Helena to go to war without consummating the marriage, the plot kicks into gear as Helena sets out to win her husband back. Ridiculous plot points ensue until in the end, “all’s well that ends well.” Through trickery Bertram is forced to marry Helena and although this is her wish, it is made crystal clear that it is not his wish. Yet, the final dialogue illogically makes us understand that this “comedy” has a proper happy ending––the couple is finally brought together. To a modern audience it is a great suspension of disbelief to accept the forced marriage as a happy one.

Sullivan attempts to solve this problem by allowing Bertram to find a kind of happy surprise in his feelings upon his one and only kiss with Helena before running off to war. This glimmer that some special thing connects the pair is the one and only link to the notion that the marriage is meant to be despite his philandering. This careful touch helped a lot, but the rest of the proceedings are too ridiculous to completely support it. However, put the obvious problems of the text aside and there is a handsome, entertaining production, coupled with the always enjoyable outdoor setting of the Delacorte Theater. The production is well worth the arduous wait in line to pick up those free tickets.

Unnatural Acts

Only for approximately the past twenty years has gay history been seriously brought to light. For most of the twentieth century the subject has been kept hidden in the great hope that by not talking about homosexuality it would disappear. However, recent historians have unearthed hidden boxes of files, letters and diaries that give a surprisingly modern picture of gay life before the gay liberation movement sparked by the Stonewall riots in 1969. There were, in certain circles, such as the male dominated universities, big cities, and war time events, underground communities of gay men who were open with each other and able to express their true selves to a point. Such files regarding Harvard University were explored as recently as 2002 with the result of a very interesting play now running at the Classic Stage Company called Unnatural Acts. The play was written by the members of the Plastic Theatre and was conceived and directed by Tony Speciale. Several members are also cast in the play.

Staged in the three quarter thrust with a large fireplace and bookshelves as a collegiate backdrop, the various places of Harvard are handled with the simple shifting of lights and select pieces of furniture. The all male cast of the play are dressed in the dapper fashion of 1920 and play both the key student characters as well as faculty and officials as needed. Occasionally, documentary style narration is delivered to lend the scenes of historical fiction a context and provide transitions, but most of the material is handled in the form of dramatic scenes establishing the nature of the gay subculture and the events leading up to their discovery by officials due to an investigation of one sudent’s suicide.

All the characters are nicely drawn with a clear individuality. They each exist in various levels of comfort regarding the acting out of their nature. All seem able to camp it up at a party among friends, but intimacy takes on different degrees of courage and guilt. The result of Harvard’s discovery that a hotbed of homosexuality existed among the student body caused the eviction of the men involved not only from the college, but from the town of Cambridge. For the most part their lives were a struggle from that point on and two others committed suicide as a result. As easy as it is to view these events as long ago and far away, especially in light of New York having just passed a same sex marriage law, it is important to note that a good portion of America would still like to see homosexuality suppressed and outlawed as if it could be extinguished. Even as a three part article about the Harvard secret files was featured in the college’s own newspaper, a student of Harvard wrote a letter to the editor saying that the school should take a stronger position on the preservation of morality. It seems that even some intelligent students of Harvard today do not have a fundamental understanding of the phenomenon of homosexuality and fear it enough to feel that it ought to be regulated. We have come a long way and yet there is a long way to go. This play can only help in furthering that education.

The pity of a small play like this, regardless of its excellence, is that only so many people will see it in this Off Broadway run. It will need many more productions in many more cities and particularly a film version for it to do any good politically. The play does have the feel of Clifford Odets’ Waiting For Lefty about it, though that play actually played to its Depression era audience right at the time the message needed to be voiced. Had Unnatural Acts appeared on the New York stage in 1920 the final speech calling out for justice and tolerance would have really been revolutionary. Still, the message is not lost on today’s audience. On the basis of simply being told a story, the play succeeds in setting up good sympathetic characters, balancing natural comedy with a serious situation and creating genuine suspense.

The play contains a generous eleven characters for Off Broadway and the cast is terrific––one and all. Brad Koed plays Eugene Cummings, the chief narrator of the crowd and is able to layer his expository speeches with emotion. Roe Hartrampf as Kenneth Day, the athlete of the group, must work though a slightly gratuitous nude scene, but has the physique for the job and handles his several serious and delicate scenes articulately. Max Jenkins as Stanley Gilkey is particularly entertaining as the boisterous one of the group and handles his scene of questioning by the court with a clever balance of humor and pathos. Frank De Julio is particularly good as Keith Smerage, an aspiring actor rehearsing for a part in the Dramatic Society’s production of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra and delivers a key speech about betrayal beautifully in counterpoint to a moment in the story dealing with the same subject. The balance of the cast is uniformly excellent, with Nick Westrate, Jess Burkle, Will Rogers, Jerry Marsini, Roderick Hill, Devin Norit and Joe Curnutte making up the best ensemble of actors going right now.

Now through July 10th.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Importance of Being Earnest

Brian Bedford as Lady Bracknell

The currently celebrated Roundabout Theatre Company production of The Importance of Being Earnest directed by and starring Brian Bedford as Lady Bracknell, which will shortly come to a close, was the first Broadway production of the Oscar Wilde chestnut since 1977 at Circle in the Square. Then it was Elizabeth Wilson as Lady Bracknell, Mary Louise Wilson as Miss Prism, John Glover as Algernon and James Valentine as John. That production was something of an event as the play hadn’t been seen on Broadway since 1947 with John Gielgud as John––a production that ended a long era of regular revivals. There were seven of them between the US debut in 1895 at the Empire Theater and 1947. Two of the more notable actors playing John were Henry Miller in 1902 (more famous now as the former name of the Stephen Sondheim Theater) and Clifton Webb in 1939. The many others filling out those long ago casts are names that have faded away, but for those who caught the current production it will be difficult to ever forget Brian Bedford’s transformation into Lady Bracknell. This casting was, in a way, a kind of stunt, but it was not treated as camp (even if this is Oscar Wilde). Mr. Bedford’s performance was pure character acting and utterly believable. If you didn’t know Lady Bracknell was being played by a man you would swear the person was a woman. Even when knowing the facts, the character was instantly believable from the moment Lady Bracknell made her entrance.

The top rate cast included David Furr as John, Jayne Houdyshell as Miss Prisim, Jessie Austrian as Gwendolen, Charlotte Parry as Cecily and Santino Fontana as Algernon. However, on the night I caught the show it was old friend Richard Gallagher going on for Algernon. He has been covering both John and Algernon and even has had to go on for both characters in the same week. When I mentioned to my house manager friends Steve Ryan and Zipporah Agusvivas that I was there especially to see Richard go on as Algernon they lit up and expressed how impressed they had been to watch him through the run jumping back and forth between the two characters. This was Richard’s Broadway debut and although he was an understudy, he had plenty of opportunity to trod the boards as both leading male characters. His friends, who sat in the audience in happy support, had known his past decade in New York forging a career playing odd out of town dates, Fringe theater productions, readings and a lot of office temp work inbetween it all, so it was a great joy to see him finally on a Broadway stage. In fact, during the run of “Earnest,” Richard kept going in to his long term temp job to insure that it would still be there for him when the show closed. He knows as well as anyone that there may not be a next Broadway show and then again the world can turn on a dime.

Adding to the whimsy of the delightful production was Desmond Heeley’s Victorian pop-up book sets and colorful detailed costumes. The flat painted look of the 19th Century was augmented with aspects of dimension and all three settings were full of interesting detail, yet subdued in a pallet that allowed the more vibrant costumes to pop and visually fuel the characters with an energy the cast more than matched in person. This production will come to a close on June 26th, but it was filmed and shown in movie theaters this past month, so here’s hoping a DVD release or TV showing is in the future. Although the play is produced continuously all over the world, it is rare on Broadway and you would be hard-pressed to see it done so beautifully all the way around.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, Revisited

After disastrous early reviews and constant postponements, the Julie Taymor musical Spiderman closed down to revamp the material without Julie Taymor. Reports that her schedule didn’t allow for her to continue daily attention to the show was supposedly the reason she was replaced. Although Taymor maintains a credit as “Original Director,” Philip Wm. McKinley, a circus as well as a theatre man, was brought in to take over the direction. His contribution has improved the production tremendously. Young Chase Brock, leader of the small Brooklyn based dance company, “The Chase Brock Experience” and expert in the history and traditions of musical theatre, took over the choreography duties, though Daniel Ezralo retains his credit as dance and arial choreographer. Also, comic book writer and playwright Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa was brought in to revamp the book, originally written by Taymor and Glen Berger. This is the area where the most work was done, for the majority of the book is brand new and all for the better. Now the building of the relationship between Mary Jane (Jennifer Damiano) and Peter Parker (Reeve Carney) is realized, now Aunt May (Isabel Keating) is a full through-line character rather than a cameo, now the Green Goblin (Patrick Page) is fleshed out and spans the whole of the story. In the old version, Act II. had a villainess, Arachne (T.V. Carpio), take over the plot in a confusing and senseless episode that didn’t relate much to the first act. Now the character is a kind of guardian angel for Peter Parker. Keeping the character allowed some of the production’s most stunning images to remain, even though the character has been changed and diminished. No problem there, for what we really want to see is how a lonely teenage boy suddenly finds himself with extraordinary powers and how he will use those powers for the greater good. The over all scope of the story now matches, more or less, what we know from the film, though it is told through high concept and immense spectacle. The book has structure, intelligence, character development and holds a bland, rock soundscape of a score together.

Bono and the Edge have significantly reworked their score to accommodate the story changes––especially in Act II. Songs have been moved around to new places, new lyrics added, new titles applied and it all makes sense now. However, the score is an ocean of rock ballads, is entirely uninventive, lacks variety and is over amplified to the point of drowning the singers half of the time. It is impossible to judge the lyrics, but thanks to the crystal clear book, it is easy to follow the story without understanding the lyrics. Even Peter Parker’s big power ballad, “The Boy Falls From the Sky,” which is given the power ballad treatment with the orchestrations, lighting and the actor’s final gesture of fist in air, is bland and without a thrill. Yet, a good portion of the audience reacted to it the way those Frank Wildhorn fans react to his power ballads in Jekyll and Hyde and other shows. But, there was no high belted note, no American Idol vocal pyrotechnics––just a middle of the road easily held long note in a comfortable placement. Reeve Carney’s singing voice is not shown to the greatest potential. Nor is Jennifer Damiano showcased well, for Mary Jane is a character that demands a great song and is given what amounts to leftovers. The authors have not utilized the talents of the leading couple to the best effect. The score fails the show more than any other element at this point.

The sets and costumes from the first version are retained with slight modifications and a lot more video projections to help in the transitions formerly handled by an irritating group of teenagers who used to narrate the show. Those narrators are thankfully gone, but this change didn’t help give the show a better pace. The show still plods along at times, especially during the first half hour as we lead up to the moment Peter discovers his powers in one of the more inventive numbers, “Bouncing Off the Walls,” where he literally springs and dances from ceiling to wall to wall. Chase Brock has added plenty of interesting moves to compliment the spirit and style of the street dancing and acrobatics that have always dominated the show’s musical staging, but he has added some quieter moments––giving the staging a poetry that elevates the experience above the level of an elaborate amusement park show.

All said and done, the production does play like an amusement park show, but at least now it all makes sense. Those who saw the first version will notice the good in the changes, but ultimately this does not make Spiderman a good musical. For the teenagers and kids in the audience it was obviously an amazing experience and visually it is wonderful. A 14 year old boy seeing Spiderman as his first Broadway experience is bound to think that Broadway is pretty cool. For a seasoned theatre goer, this show may be a curiosity, but more so it is bound to be a disappointment.

The Sphinx Winks

Rebecca Riker and Bret Shuford

No less than five authors are responsible for this 90 minute Burlesque throwback of a musical: book and lyrics by Philip Capice, Anne Hitchner, Kenneth Hitchner, Jr., Robert Keuch and music by Kenneth Hitchner, Jr. According to the program notes this musical was conceived in the 1950s and was formerly three hours long. Now that it finally sees the light of day a half century later it is a blessing that the material has been chopped down to 90 minutes. However, even that is too long, for this trite, unoriginal, unfunny show with a mediocre cast to put it over is a dismal failure. Director Matthew Hamel found some charm in the idea of bringing back this style of show. It has been done much better with FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM and several of the Rodgers and Hart musicals such as THE BOYS FROM SYRACUSE. THE SPHINX WINKS uses the story of Caesar and Cleopatra as a setting for the fun, but there is not one single attempted joke that lands and not one musical number that can inspire more than dutiful applause for the sake of being polite to a hard working cast that couldn’t possibly save the show. Even if Cleopatra had been played by Donna Murphy, Marc Antony played by Hugh Jackman and Caesar played by Nathan Lane, the material could not be salvaged. To be kind, it should be said that handsome Bret Shuford does well as Marc Antony and multiple roles where he must become ridiculous cartoon characters. He dances well in the only choreographed moment of note with Rebecca Riker as Crecia. Riker partners with Shuford beautifully and both have attractive singing voices. Bruce Sabath as a character man (read lead comedian in Burlesque terms) version of Julius Caesar is proficient, but has little he can do to elevate the part or the show. Erika Amato wears the label of Cleopatra to little effect, though she sings her mundane songs with plenty of spirit and tries her best to adopt a comic persona. Beth Cheryl Tarnow is forced to spend the proceedings performing an irritating gag of singing off key, while Ryan Williams as the host and narrator of the evening fails at delivering one bad joke after another. The high school production level set by Robert Andrew Kovach was all that the material deserved and Gail Baldoni’s rudimentary costumes got the idea across economically. Not one dime should have been put into bringing this show to life, for in the end it was a complete waste of time.

Tifft Productions at The Beckett Theatre through July 24th.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

FOLLIES in Washington DC

Bernadette Peters is losing her mind

At the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C., a rare production of FOLLIES is drawing a New York crowd. Lovers of this Sondheim/Goldman musical can not pass up such a grand opportunity. Eric Schaeffer directed and Warren Carlyle choreographed as good a production as I have ever seen and this was production number four for me. FOLLIES is the kind of show that continues to fascinate, but rarely satisfies everyone on every level––too much can go wrong, or if not go wrong exactly––too much can fail to live up to one’s expectations. The big four this time were pretty darn good with Bernadette Peters heading the troupe as Sally, Jan Maxwell as Phyllis, Danny Bernstein as Buddy and Ron Raines as Ben.

The physical production gave us a properly singed and crumbling empty theatre setting––a shroud lifting to reveal the ghosts of the theater at the top of the show. Set Designer Derek McLane added a mylar curtain for “Who’s that Woman” and a beautiful textured archway of flowers for the “Loveland” sequence. This was all fairly simple, but add to that Gregg Barnes’ fantastic period “Ziegfeld” inspired costumes for the ghosts––absolutely stunning and as haunting as a faded photograph from “The Ziegfeld Follies of 1919.”

Just in case the reader has no idea what this show is about, the concept is a reunion of the “Weisman Follies” cast members––all fifty plus years old––on the evening before the old theater that housed the annual revue is to be torn down to be replaced by a parking lot. The guests all reminisce about the old days and perform numbers that they used to do––albeit with lyrics that say a lot more about their true lives. The two main couples recount their history and we find out that two of them married the wrong person. Their lives are falling a part and the reunion brings up a lot of unfinished business. The show switches back and forth between honoring a faded type of show business that flourished between World War I. and World War II. and the trials and tribulations of the main two couples.

Most of the fun is had from the performances of the many elderly ladies who step forward to entertain again. There is always a double layer to this aspect of the show when people like Linda Lavin, Florence Lacey, Terri White, Susan Watson and Elaine Paige are involved. There is the nostalgia of the actual star performing for us layered on top of their character’s story. With unknown actresses, these roles would lose several degrees of potency. Terri White stopped the show with “Who’s that Woman” in an exciting tap dance staging involving the young ghost version of each lady dancing in reflection and White’s big booming voice filling the Edision Theatre. Elaine Paige as Carlotta got plenty of mileage out of “I’m Still Here” and her high belt is still pretty spectacular. Linda Lavin was cute with “Broadway Baby” and still knows how to sell a number. Opera star Rosalind Elias gave a moving rendition of “One More Kiss,” which in a way, is the theme song for the show. Singing in counterpoint, Leah Horowitz helped make the number truly beautiful with her delicate and clean soprano. The only big disappointment of the evening was Régine as Solange. She might actually be French, but her rendition of “Ah, Paris!” was a bore. Where was Leslie Caron? Sadly, no one applauded for the entrance of Susan Watson as Emily Whitman. But then, she’s been out of the scene since the days of No, No, Nannette and she was the original Kim in Bye, Bye Birdie. Her duet with Terrence Currier, “Rain on the Roof,” was very sweet.

As for the big four: Peters seems at home with Sondheim and delivered a very moving “Losing My Mind.” I have not been a fan of hers based on her past three Broadway outings, but here her particular quirks and bag of tricks did well for the character. Jan Maxwell turns out to be a surprisingly good singer and survived the rigorous choreography in her “The Story of Lucy and Jessie” number, keeping up with a group of well trained chorus boys. Her performance of “Could I Leave You” was a ferocious show stopper. Danny Bernstein was as perfect a Buddy as I have seen and summoned up a little Bert Lahr in his rambunctious delivery of “Buddy’s Blues.” Ron Raines retains his expert musicality and strong baritone, serving the material best with “The Road You Didn’t Take” and “Too Many Mornings” in the first act.

This Kennedy Center production is quite an event, with the full orchestration sounding better than ever as directed by James Moore. Yes there are mutterings about it moving to Broadway, but don’t get excited until you see the marquee go up, because it is a big endeavor. Also, save for the sets and costumes, it is likely that a somewhat new group of ladies will have to be assembled at the point when a production could actually open in New York. For now, a half day bus or train trip to Washington D.C. will bring you a healthy dose of Broadway magic.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

A Minister's Wife

Lincoln Center Theater presents an odd delight based on George Bernard Shaw’s Candida called A Minister’s Wife. Shaw’s play first appeared in New York in 1903, produced as a special matinee by Arnold Daily who played Marchbanks opposite Dorothy Donnelly as Candida. The reception was so good that additional matinees were added. According to Gerald Bordman in his Oxford Companion to American Theatre, good word of mouth primarily lead to a full run of four months in spite of the critics who largely ignored the play. The love story element has kept the play eternally popular as one of the most often revived of Shaw’s plays. Katherine Cornell stared in the play’s longest New York run of five months in 1924 and she returned to the role often. Some notable names playing opposite Cornell through the years were Orson Wells, Burges Meredith and Marlon Brando.

The play and musical about a woman who must choose between a young visionary and a practical socialist minister is in essence more of a love story than a political statement. In fact the political aspect adds no more than texture to the story, while the passions of love dominate and makes possible the justification for bursting into song. The only truly successful musical adaptation of a Shaw play must be considered My Fair Lady, with Oscar Straus’ The Chocolate Soldier, based on Arms and the Man, coming in a distant second. Now, here is A Minister’s Wife, which will not challenge My Fair Lady for first place, but it should take over second place, though it is a chamber musical and will most likely be produced by small theaters.

As the minister James Mavor Marell, Marc Kudish stands tall––dominating the stage by merely existing. He sings with a strong, but uninteresting voice, yet manages a nice balance between a potentially unlikeable and distant husband with a charming and friendly manner. Eternally youthful Bobby Steggert, who now at age 30 is still able to get away with playing age 20, gives the production its greatest quality of delight as Eugene Marchbanks the poet. Steggert is graced with the best music in the score, and delivers his songs with heartfelt passion. In fact, Steggert has always surged forth to an elevated level of raw, naked emotion in his performances. This is the reason he has been nominated for all the major theatre honors for his past work in 110 in the Shade, Ragtime and Yank. As the title character, Kate Fry, who hails from the Chicago theatre scene, from where this musical originated, is pleasantly durable in the role and sings with grace. She is strong and appealing, but does not imbue Candida with an underlying vulnerability that would make her truly sympathetic. Partially, this is the fault of the adaptation, for in the pairing down of Shaw’s play to accommodate musical numbers (also, the running time is only 95 minutes), some of the complexity of the character is lost. In the supporting roles, Liz Bates as Miss Prosperpine Garnett adds pep and good humor, while Drew Gehling is comically enjoyable as the nebbish Reverend Mills.

Conceived and Directed by Michael Halberstam, the show is economically staged in the three-quarter Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater. Allen Moyers’ simple setting lets us view the small ensemble band through an interior painted scrim. Moyers adorns the smallish space with enough books, nicknacks and select pieces of ideal furniture to make the Minister’s home look well lived in without overwhelming the actors ability to move about. David Zinn’s period costumes are rich with details easily appreciated in the small theater. Keith Parhan’s lighting, though mostly just giving illumination, adds a few haunting touches for the select moments that deserve a bit of magic.

Austin Pendleton has adapted Shaw for Joshua Schmidt’s music and Jan Levy Traven’s lyrics. The songs nicely develop right out of the dialogue, making Marchbanks truly a poet. These are Art Songs with pretty motifs and harmonies, but no discernible tunes. There is nothing here that equals the resplendent melodies found in My Fair Lady and because of that, the score will never become an honored classic or enter the cannon of fifty or so most produced titles of musical theatre. This kind of show will not be everyone’s cup of tea and might even disgruntle fans of Shaw, but on the other hand it is a sturdy, solid, well conceived work and should be able to find its own niche for future productions.

Friday, June 3, 2011

I Married Wyatt Earp

This original musical with a book by Thomas Edward West and Sheilah Rae, lyrics also by Rae and music composed by Michele Brourman, took an all lady look at the Wild West. Cara Reichel had the difficult task of staging eleven actresses on an all too small stage at 59 East 59 Theaters. Worse, Joe Barros was required to supply choreography for several spirited numbers with nowhere to go. Circles became the most useful pattern. Although the songs were appropriate and even had variety, they were woven into a meandering book that didn’t find its focus until the end of the first act. The main action concerned the future Mrs. Earp (Mishaela Faucher) who, being an unconventional teen for her time, runs off with an all lady western tour of H.M.S. Pinafore. The troupe ends up in the town of Tombstone to play an ailing hotel and saloon run by the ladies of the Earp family. The story is told in flashback as an older Josie Earp (Carolyn Mignini) narrates, connects the scenes and argues about the facts and fiction with older Allie Earp (Heather MacRae). The flashback technique, as well as the older versions of the main characters, were unnecessary and the key scenes could have played well enough alone. However, this wouldn’t improve the overall rambling of the plot, which seemed to have as little to do with history as Doris Day’s Calamity Jane––though that would be fine if the material was as entertaining and delightful as that film musical. Structurally poor, musically mundane and only serviceably acted, this new Off Broadway musical was a major miss-fire.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Best is Yet to Come: The Music of Cy Coleman

At the 59 East 59th Street Theaters, presented by the Rubicon Theatre Company, a new revue of Cy Coleman songs brings back a taste of a bygone era of showroom and supper club entertainments. Directed by David Zippel with choreography by Lorin Latarro, the production is the kind that today might be more suited to Casino entertainment than Off Broadway, but Cy Coleman was a Broadway tune smith and so it is appropriate that we should have him back for a short time, if not on Broadway, then very close by. Billy Stritch has created the music arrangements and leads a wonderful eight piece band. He sings a little himself, but the majority of the singing is handled by a stellar ensemble featuring David Burnham, Sally Mayes, Howard McGillin, Lillias White and Rachel York. If Mr. Burnham’s name escapes the memory, he has appeared as Fiyero in Wicked, in the original cast of Light in the Piazza, as well as several national tours. He is the youngster among well known veterans and holds his own singing “I’ve Got Your Number” and “Witchcraft.” Lillias White stops the show with “The Oldest Profession,” which she introduced on Broadway in The Life. Rachel York gives a sultry “Come Summer” the torch treatment sitting upon the baby grand piano and later tears up the stage belting out “Hey Look Me Over.” Howard McGillian, who for the past so many years has been masked as “The Phantom” is looking like an older Cary Grant now, but still sings with that same golden tenor we remember from his Anything Goes and Edwin Drood days. His voice was particularly charming with “I’ll Give the World.” This nightclub entertainment would sit better if it were actually playing one of those elegant rooms of yesteryear, but it is a nice 85 minutes for those who long to hear Cy Coleman sung live by the kind of performers that equal the quality of the compositions. Now through July 3rd.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Lucky Guy

A sparkling new musical comedy, rich with camp, color and plenty of bedazzle by the name of LUCKY GUY, has opened at the Little Shubert. The production is not only directed by, but book, lyrics and music have been written by Willard Beckham. Along with A.C. Ciulla’s spirited choreography, Mr. Beckham has perfectly filled out the Off Broadway stage with a little musical that plays like big Broadway. There is drag performer Varla Jean Merman as a country western star and Leslie Jordan as a show biz used car salesman to gay up an otherwise heterosexual story, handsome Kyle Dean Massey to put over the leading man’s portion of the score, and the ample support of Jenn Colella, Jim Newman and Savanah Wise, but William Ivey Long’s costume design is the real star of the show. The show that boasts such a thing is a vapid show indeed, but fluffy as LUCKY GUY may be, it is thoroughly entertaining, filled with comic surprises and a peppy score.

For what it’s worth, the story centers around Billy Ray Jackson (Dean) who has won a song writing contest advertised on a matchbook, moved to scenic designer, Rob Bissinger’s beautifully ballooned Nashville, to make a hit record with a start up record company. Big Al Wright (Jordan), is promoting his used car lot with a televised show at the Grand Old Opry, featuring the country western star Jeannie Jeannine (Merman). Jeannine hasn’t had a hit record in years and could use a great new song, so the two conspire to steal Billy Ray’s “Lucky Guy” to do the trick. Along the way, Billy Ray falls for the record label’s secretary, Wanda Clark (Wise) even as he is being seduced by Jeannine. Needless to say, the wrongs are righted and everything is tied up in a hasty bow in the last few minutes. The story is flatly insignificant, but it is good enough to support the fun and plenty of William Ivey Long’s inventive costumes.

A great deal of the fun comes from a quartet called The Buckaroos––a group of talented singing and dancing chorus boys (Callan Bergmann, Xavier Cano, Wes Hart, Joshua Woodie) who show up as cowboys, Hawaiian dancers and tap dancing native Americans. As singing hopeful Chicky Lay, Jenn Colella is comic gold, delivering her material like a country western Lucille Ball. As her husband to be, Jim Newman is delightful as a warmhearted record producer on the rise. This second couple might have been used far more, for their talents are immense, but they are lost in the story after the first few scenes. Past incarnations of this show have had an actual female cast as Miss Jeannie Jeannine, but it is difficult to imagine the role being as wonderful without Varla Jean Merman (AKA Jeffrey Roberson) filling the very large pumps, wigs and gowns.

This type of entertainment is the kind of camp-fest that appeals only to certain tastes and will not win over the theater goer who demands a little substance in their musicals, but after a few drinks at dinner, with a group of fun friends out for a diverting evening of mindless musical madness, LUCKY ME is throwing a pretty good party.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Addams Family

It took me a year to get to THE ADDAMS FAMILY and I can’t say the wait was worth it. What is astonishing is that this was a musical that was flat out panned and yet, it is still running a year later. I am convinced that it’s the title. America has had a love affair with these characters ever since Charles Addams first brought them to life in the New Yorker. The cult classic TV series insured their place in pop culture––in reruns it was one of my favorite shows next to THE MUNSTERS. In the 1990s we got the big screen version and a brilliant sequel, ADDAMS FAMILY VALUES with a screenplay by Paul Rudnick. Perhaps Paul Rudnick should have been brought on board to do the book instead of Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, for he proved that a story could be told that harnessed all the one frame jokes that are typical of the original cartoons. What we get on Broadway is a second rate LA CAGE AUX FOLLES, but instead of the unconventional family being gay, they are the Addams family. Instead of the other family being conservative politicians, they are simply “normal.” The boy and the girl wanting to get married in this scenario are Wednesday Addams (Rachel Potter making her Broadway debut) and the normal boy she met in the park, Lucas (Jesse Swenson from SPRING AWAKENING). Wednesday tries to make the family create a “normal” dinner party for her boyfriend’s family. Of course it all goes wrong, but everyone learns (all too quickly) to accept each other’s differences.

There are many half funny lines, a few really good ones, but mostly the book is trite. Puppet master, Basil Twist, creates most of the magic with Cousin It, an octopus and effects surrounding Uncle Fester flying to the moon. The overall design is a delight thanks to Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch, but it is a wonder that this creative team also directed the production. Not that the staging is poor, but it is generally the case that the directors and choreographer (Sergio Trujillo) are as instrumental in the creation of the final material of a musical as the book writers and Andrew Lippa the composer would be. The authors are not the only ones too blame for this bland and pointless entertainment.

Now as Gomez, Roger Rees makes a fine head of the haunted household and he seems to be having a grand time. Bebe Neuwirth continues on as Morticia and she looks magnificent, dances well, though she hasn’t been challenged, and she has begun to sing with a vibrato that sounds like a Model T Ford starting up. Rachel Potter sings Mr. Lippa’s songs with pleasing power, while Adam Riegler as Pugsley sings with such unpleasant swallowed tones that it is a wonder he was cast. There are many boys on Broadway right now that could have made Mr. Lippa’s music sound much better. Brad Oscar is perfect as Uncle Fester, giving it a strong dose of Jackie Coogan, which is just as well. Heidi Blickenstaff shines as Alice Beineke with the best voice in the show, while Adam Grupper is merely sufficient as Mal Beineke, though this has as much to do with the shallowness of the role. It is difficult for any actor, no matter how good they usually are, to make Broadway magic out of mediocre material and that is the best you can say for THE ADDAMS FAMILY––mediocre.

On the other hand, in secondary licensing, the show will sell well. The high school market will eat this up. They’ll take a look at it based on the title alone and it just may be the show to entice reticent boys to join the drama clubs of America. The large group of teenagers sitting behind me seemed to love the production, while the “adults” sitting around me barely cracked a chuckle. Obviously there is an audience for this show as is, but it is just too bad that such a good idea turned out to be so disappointing.

Saturday, April 16, 2011


A special light snaps on before a backdrop of stars and there stands Kathleen Turner and the audience gives her due applause. I love Kathleen Turner for being one of those movie stars that regularly returns to Broadway and now Matthew Lombardo has written a great play and a great role for her. She is aged, grizzled, throaty––like an elderly Lauren Bacall. Her deep smoky voice fills the house, but she slurs a bit and seems to take in deep breaths of air to get through slices of her many speeches. Yet, a few minutes in, especially when she begins to engage with Stephen Kunken as Father Michael and Evan Jonigkeit as teenager Cody, she becomes transcendent. Directed by Rob Ruggiero, this small play quickly becomes riveting. The story is about Sister Jamison Connelly (Turner) who is given the task of trying to rehabilitate the drug addicted nephew of Father Michael. After a first trying consultation, Sister Jamison Connelly insists that she won’t be able to handle such a severe case––that the boy should be turned over to the state. Father Michael, feeling guilty about his distant relationship with his now diseased sister, feels he must protect and help Cody and insists that Sister Jamison Connelly try to work with the teen. What follows is a series of both comical and harrowing episodes between the nun and the boy. Faith is a strong theme in the play and each character has their own version of God’s place in their lives––each prays for the best outcome and it is left open as to whether the ending represents what was best for the boy or simply what was inevitable. This is a serious and tragic story, though the author finds numerous ways of inserting humor and Ms. Turner is particularly adept at landing a punch line. A number of stars of a certain age could succeed in this great role of Sister Jamison Connelly, but right now it is Kathleen Turner and she triumphs. Holding his own to this monster performance is Evan Jonigkeit who is bound to be honored with a Tony nomination, for he can match Ms. Turner round for round. Kunken is likable, but somehow insignificant by comparison and I didn’t believe he believed what he had to say in his important speeches. He needed to have the voice of conviction that perhaps this actor simply isn’t able to bring to the role. That is a small missed step in an otherwise terrific production.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo

The tiger of the title in Jajiv Joseph’s play (his Braodway debut) is embodied by Robin Williams. This isn’t figurative––he is a tiger. As far as plot points go, BENGAL TIGER AT THE BAGHDAD ZOO is about the war in Iraq and is set in Baghdad in 2003. Two American soldiers, Kev (Brad Fleischer) and Tom (Glenn Davis) are on guard at the zoo. When Tom provokes a caged tiger with a stick, the tiger instinctively bites off his hand. To save his friend, Kev shoots the tiger. The tiger instantly becomes a ghost and is doomed to wander around the war zone trying to figure out how life went so wrong that he was pulled out of his natural habitat to end up in Baghdad haunting humans. After rehabilitation, Tom returns to Baghdad, mainly because he wants to reclaim two souvenirs he left behind: a gold semiautomatic gun and a gold toilet seat taken when he killed Suddam Hussein’s son Uday. He now has the limitation of one hand and thinks the gold items will secure his future. Meanwhile, Kev has been going crazy because he keeps seeing the ghost of the talking tiger. Mixed up in this story is an Iraqi man, Musa (Arian Moayed), who is working for the US military as an interpreter. Turns out his sister was raped by Uday Hussein and now Uday haunts Musa, leading him toward a day when he will be compelled to kill Tom with his own golden gun. Revenge from the great beyond. There are many ghosts walking around Baghdad––the land of death. All of them become very intelligent about the world they once lived in, but all of them are perplexed that they can find no answers about the mysteries of life and death. The tiger has determined that God isn’t listening because not even in death does he answer prayers. Or perhaps, like in the land of Narnia, the tiger is God. He seems to be the only one hearing anyone’s prayers.

Although one tends to follow these fantastic plot points as a linear story, the world of Mr. Joseph’s play is really a place to explore the ramifications of war, religion and the clash of cultures. Will we humans ever understand each other or will we continue to obliterate each other until we are all ghosts wandering aimlessly? In the scheme of things, the tiger has little to do with the story, but this fantasy figure, who has no business being wrapped up in a war in Iraq, pokes and prods us into asking questions. Where is God? As intelligent as we are, are we basically not much different than the tiger––an animal? Even Musa, who allowed himself to kill another man, rejects Uday’s power hungry philosophy to proclaim that his is better than that––he is an artist who makes the world beautiful. Yet he has been driven to senseless killing under the conditions of desperate times. Mr. Joseph paints the war as senseless, misguided and sadly inevitable. Musa thinks that God actually has spoken and the war is His statement. The tiger finds this notion appalling, but if it’s true then God belongs in the cage like an animal.

Mr. Joseph raises plenty of questions, but he offers no possible answers, for it seems he just wants to get us thinking and talking. This aspect of the play will certainly be its legacy. The fact that it is set during current world strife matters very little, for this could be any war. War isn’t the real exploration here, but rather the play is an exploration of human behavior––what drives people to be their worst? Strangely, this grim topic has been handled in a way that makes for a lot of humor. This isn’t because of the presence of Robin Williams, though he certainly helps to lighten the experience. In fact, the play doesn’t depend on Robin Williams at all, for any star of the right age, comedian or otherwise, would do very well in it. But, if Mr. Williams can draw an audience to a play that might seem to be a downer, then all the better, for what the audience will find is not only an entertaining time at the theatre, but they will be provoked to step back and consider much more.

Moisés Kaufman has directed the play with a swift pace, though he is far less theatrical here then in past productions. This is strange when one considers how strong the fantasy element is in this work, but Mr. Kaufman has staged the play with simple economy. Derek McLane’s unit set has a middle-eastern look and serves the purpose for all scenes with simple additions and subtractions. His one big flourish is the larger than life animal shaped topiaries that decorate the zoo. These sculptures are in decay and silently represent the death of the best of man––his ability to make the world beautiful. However, the war is greatly diminishing what is beautiful. David Zinn’s costumes are straight forward, even with the tiger, who is dressed as a man in worn out clothes. David Lander’s lighting does most of the work at defining spaces and times of day. He does very little with enhancing the idea of the ghosts, though his overall design achieves a haunting mood. The cast, which includes a small ensemble doubling roles, are uniformly wonderful. Mr. Williams doesn’t necessarily put a stamp of definition on his role, but he is a kind of added benefit to what is an excellent play all by itself.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Book of Mormon

Trey Parker and Matt Stone, famous as the creators of “South Park” for TV, along with Robert Lopez of AVENUE Q fame, have created a hilarious new musical that is so wrong that it’s right. Full of crude humor that gets laughs simply by being shocking and covering topics not usually discussed on the Broadway musical theatre stage, this show is as smart as it is base. The howls of laughter that greeted THE PRODUCERS were in response to the audacity of Mel Brooks to “go there” with jokes that lacked all sense of the politically correct. The jokes in THE BOOK OF MORMON spring from a similar place, which illicit screams of “I can’t believe they said that” laughter throughout the evening.

The story concerns a pair of Mormon missionaries, Elder Price and Elder Cunningham (Andrew Rannells and Josh Gad) who are assigned to Uganda, Africa. They join a group of boys already established there, but who have had little success in converting the local population. Elder Cunningham, the least likely to succeed of the leading pair, finds a way to get the locals to listen to his message by basically making up his own version of the religion, interpolating elements of STAR WARS, LORD OF THE RINGS and other mythologies into the Joseph Smith story. The locals take his wacky new version of the Mormon religion to heart and view Elder Cunningham as their new prophet. To explain any more of the story is to give away the abundance of surprises collected in this show, but the premise is a mere springboard for more hilarity than you can imagine.

Andrew Rannells displays a well-scrubbed golden-boy Mormon convinced of his dynamic ability to follow his mission with great success. As with all of the characters, Rannells’ cheery cartoon of a person is likeable and he sings with clean tones and a direct delivery. Josh Gad is rather reminiscent of his character, “Barfee,” from SPELLING BEE, but his particular shtick is just as perfect for this show. There is something of “Abbot and Costello” about this pair and they make a solid comedy team. The rest of the ensemble, lead by the familiar Lewis Cleale as older adult characters, play multiple roles in whimsical costumes by the legendary Ann Roth who does more work than even the cast in defining characters. Nikki M. James is the main character, Nabulungi, of the African population, displaying a comical innocence within the lunacy of the story and a terrific singing voice. The African ensemble is equally funny in individual ways as well as a group when they put on their own version of Cunningham’s revised religion in the style of “Small House of Uncle Thomas” from THE KING AND I­­—one of the most inspired scenes of comedy ever to be conceived for the Broadway stage.

Casey Nicholaw has choreographed and shared the directing duties with Trey Parker. Together they have sharpened this entertainment into a fast paced frolic. If there is any serious criticism of the Mormon religion, it is handled by simply pointing out the facts, which are difficult to dispute. However, in the same breath there is a criticism of all religions, for they all have their illogical and fantastic stories that must be taken in faith without any proof. This musical doesn’t instruct the audience to believe or not to believe, but by having the locals take so easily to Elder Cunningham’s imaginative twist on the “Book of Mormon,” the creators of this musical are pointing out how equally fanciful the stories of the established religions can be.

Underneath the delight of Ann Roth’s costumes sits the clever and detailed sets by Scott Pask. He has added numerous sight gags, from his view of Salt Lake City showing the cathedral surrounded by fast food chains, a drop depicting the amusement parks of Orlando, the fire pits of Hell, to a rather elaborately detailed village in Uganda. All departments have done their part to add comedy at every turn and the result is the most outlandish and hysterical show on Broadway.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Catch Me if You Can

If you took HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS and WILL ROGERS FOLLIES and smashed them together you might get CATCH ME IF YOU CAN. Although, the show biz framing isn’t the ZIEGFELD FOLLIES, but the TV variety show of the 1960s, which is the setting of the story about teenager Frank Abagnale, Jr., who ran away from home, brilliantly passed bad checks, successfully posed as an airline pilot and doctor before getting caught when he made the mistake of falling in love and telling the truth for once. The crazy thing is that it’s all based on a true story, but now it is musical comedy done in the most traditional way with an economically solid book by Terrence McNally and songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman. Jack O’Brien has directed the fun and Jerry Mitchell has choreographed it to suit the concept. The combination of these smart people have brought us THE FULL MONTY, DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS and HAIRSPRAY in the recent past and now they have delivered a bright and entertaining show that should prove to be one of great durability.

It is not so very often that the musical theatre gives us a breakout star turn role in a new musical, but here is one now and Aaron Tveit is the star. He leaves the stage only long enough to change costumes, which is when his costars, Norbert Leo Butz or Kerry Butler get to take stage alone to sing. There is some very nice intermingling with Tom Wopat and Rachel De Benedet as his parents, but this is Aaron Tveit’s show all the way. Mr. Tveit is well known to Broadway as Gabe from NEXT TO NORMAL and he was a dandy Link Larkin for a while in HAIRSPRAY. Here he dances up a storm and the score shows off is gigantic vocal range. He is of course rather handsome and athletic, which makes this scoundrel of a character all the more appealing. Like J. Pierrpont Finch, we should really not be rooting for this devious devil to succeed, but he is so appealing that we want to see him win and take delight in his every illegal achievement. Mr. Tveit’s talents are so unusually broad, that because the role was written to show off his talents, it may be very difficult to satisfactorily replace him when the time comes.

Norbert Leo Butz has turned into one of our prime Broadway personalities and as Agent Carl Hanratty he has stamped his signature on a role in permanent ink and he too will be difficult to replace. His first big number, “Don’t Break the Rules,” with the chorus dancing behind him, shows a style of movement that may have started with steps by Jerry Mitchell, but it will never be danced again as it was danced by Mr. Butz. His rubber band limbs stretch and slide around in a comical abandon that hasn’t been seen since the days of Ray Bolger.

The female characters of the show have very little to do. The female chorus has quite a lot to do. As showgirls, they are in constant use as airline attendants, nurses and back up dancers to frame Mr. Tveit. As the girlfriend Brenda, Kerry Butler was just right, but it is only too bad that she has been given the lesser of songs, “Fly, Fly Away.” Even in this show biz conceptual world, the ability of her character to sing a song of support a second after finding out that her husband to be has lied to her about absolutely every aspect of his life is hardly plausible. This is the one moment when I lost faith in the show and then the song was mundane and didn’t really show off Ms. Butler’s vocal gifts. This will be a disappointment to any Broadway fan who knows just how magnificent Ms. Butler’s powerhouse voice really is. The mother is winningly played by Rachel de Benedet, who has somehow only made small contributions to the Broadway stage over the past twenty years and it’s a shame because she is a wonderful talent. Her beauty and grace, her small dances and her duet with Tom Wopat, “Don’t Be a Stranger,” were all just right. However, knowing this actress from my years at the California Musical Theatre in much more demanding roles, it is too bad that she wasn’t given something to better show her off. The other female principal is practically a cameo as Brenda’s mother, but Linda Hart, who has been popping in and out of Broadway shows for the past twenty years turns in a delightful character again.

It is always nice to see Tom Wopat on Broadway and we have had the pleasure of his company the past decade in ANNIE GET YOUR GUN, 42ND STREET, CHICAGO, A CATERED AFFAIR, SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM and now a very good turn in this. He has a few nice things to sing and handles the most serious moments of the show as a down on his luck drunk with a kind of sober reality not seen in any other part of the show. One might say that the character of Frank’s father leaves the style of the production to a degree, but the seriousness of this character’s downfall helped to ground the story with a bit of the harshness of life.

The great William Ivey Long, who has been called upon to costume so many sparkling showgirl costumes in the past, has done it again, but he is strangely understated here. He could have gone much bigger and got away with it, but he has accurately evoked the types of costumes seen in the great variety shows that once dominated the airwaves. David Rockwell has designed the simplest set––also accurate to the concept (I think I saw it on the “Judy Garland Show” once). The orchestra is seated within the set up stage and the musicians are all handsomely dressed in white dinner jackets. Stairs cascade down from an upper level and the necessary furniture lifts from below stage when needed. Added elements of design appropriate for each scene fly in and out to complete a look for a sequence. This elaborate unit set is all the show really needed and so, in an unlikely Broadway choice, the show has been restrained from what could easily have gone into design overload. Light Designer Kenneth Posner has given the show just the right pizzaz for the concept and nicely defines areas to create more intimate moments. His flashiest trick is a moving cloud effect across the act curtain, but after that he has simply served the demands of the show.

This is a happy new musical, rather clean in a PG kind of way, completely delightful at every turn and most importantly it propels Aaron Tveit into a new level of Broadway stardom. This musical breaks no new ground, it does not reinvent anything and it might have been written in 1960. There is nothing wrong with any of that, for it unabashedly serves its purpose to purely entertain. The show should be good for at least three to five years on Broadway and a popular national tour, after which the high schools of America will happily take it on and keep it alive for years to come.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Where's Charley?

The way Cy Feuer and Ernie Martin, a pair of green Broadway producers, launched their illustrious career was this concept: A musical of CHARLEY’S AUNT staring Ray Bolger. That did it. That got everyone necessary on board––especially after Ray Bolger heard the idea. And on this idea without a single note of music written the enterprise was launched, an opening date chosen, and everyone went to work on what would become Frank Loesser’s introduction to Broadway, WHERE’S CHARLEY. The show ran two years, which equaled a hit in those days, despite mixed reviews and got a rather faithful movie treatment. Two things have kept WHERE’S CHARLEY from entering the cannon of the thirty or so most often revived titles from musical theatre history. The first is because there was a strike in the recording industry and so WHERE’S CHARLEY wasn’t given a cast album. Why it wasn’t made when the strike was over we’ll never know, but there it is. The second reason is that the movie never went to video and hasn’t been released on DVD. It doesn’t even show up on TV anymore, though it used to and so it is possible to hunt down a copy of it from some musical comedy lover or other who happened to record it on their VCR once upon a time. The film features most of the Broadway cast, including Ray Bolger, so we have a fair idea of what those performances were like. Seeing it now at City Center Encores, it seems antique, even for a 1940s show. It seems like a valentine to the Jerome Kern Princess Theater musicals era the way THE BOY FRIEND is a valentine to 1920s musicals. The score, though appropriate to the material, does not yet sound like the Frank Loesser that would follow, so to my ear now it sounds undistinguished. My friend Jim pointed out to me that this may have everything to do with the fact that we don’t have a recording and we didn’t grow up with the movie like we have with so many others of the classic shows. Had we lived with WHERE’S CHARLEY as we have THE SOUND OF MUSIC or so many others, maybe there would be more revivals in the world and maybe I would think more of a mostly unfamiliar score. On the other hand, I have discovered plenty of old shows––even rare ones––and have been enchanted by those scores on a first listen. Recording or no recording, video or no video, maybe WHERE’S CHARLEY isn’t the greatest score in the world. The book by GEORGE ABBOTT isn’t so hot either––one joke over two acts of Charley dressing up as his aunt to play a proper chaperone to he and his roommate’s girlfriends. Complications ensue. Think of it as a Victorian SOME LIKE IT HOT or TOOTSIE, but without any contemporary social commentary to give it substance. When it comes down to it the main attributes of WHERE’S CHARLEY were Ray Bolger and a little number called “Once in Love With Amy.” It’s still the stand out of the show.

John Doyle directs and Alex Sanchez choreographs with Rob Berman heading the usual great Encores full orchestra. Charley is played by a delightful person new to just about anyone, Rob McClure. He made a splash in the press last fall in a new musical about Charlie Chaplin called LIMELIGHT at the La Jolla Playhouse. So, he is brand new to the New York audience and he is a delight. He makes the old boy-in-dress routine work wonders. His girl Amy is the perky Lauren Worsham with a wonderfully expressive soprano voice that made “The Woman in His Room” a show-stopper. Roommate Jack is handled nicely by Sebastian Arcelus and makes the sappy, “My Darling, My Darling,” very lovely with the help of Jill Paice as Kitty. The older couple is elevated by the talents of Broadway stalwarts Rebecca Luker and Howard McGillin with a charming delivery of “Lovelier Than Ever.” Jeff Brooks, Dan Callaway and Dakin Matthews are well cast in supporting character roles. Ann Hould-Ward has given the production nearly the full period treatment with the costumes, which was necessary to properly put us in the period mood. John Lee Beatty’s single garden patio set served its basic purpose. This is a concert staging, so nothing more should be expected and actually, the costumes were rather elaborate for a concert production. There is a strange, but enjoyable, ballet at the end of act one called “Pernambuco,” where Charlie as his Aunt describes her home town in Brazil (where the nuts come from). It’s got a south of the boarder theme to it, which pegs the show as a 1940s entertainment because thanks to FDR’s “good neighbor” policy, south of the boarder subjects were everywhere in show business and a trend was created. The ballet has no business being in the show, but the shenanigans are so implausible that one can shrug and say, “why not?” It is alarming how little happens during the course of this musical and by the end of the two acts how quickly everything is wrapped up. WHERE’S CHARLEY doesn’t really hold up, but it has its charms and it was nice to have the chance to see it at the City Center with the full orchestra and a first class cast.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Anything Goes

Four times has New York seen Cole Porter’s ANYTHING GOES: the original production in 1934, Off Broadway in 1962, at Lincoln Center in 1987 and now at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre. In a way, ANYTHING GOES has been a work in progress, getting tweaked every time it gets a major production. P.G. Wodehouse is often given the most credit for the book, although the truth is that he wrote a scenario that Guy Bolton was to flesh out, that is to say, generally add the jokes. Porter would insert the songs into this mix. However, the show was about a shipwreck and in the middle of writing it the headlines were full of a real shipwreck off the coast of New Jersey and it was rightly felt that this event would render the book inappropriate for a musical comedy. So, P.G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton being in London and unavailable for immediate assistance made necessary the inclusion of two new book collaborators, Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, who turned the show into ANYTHING GOES as we basically know it. Then, over the years, Cole Porters songs were added and subtracted until we have what emerged by 1987 at Lincoln Center––a tightened up version of what basically happened in 1934, but with modern know how (this revision was penned by Timothy Crouse––the son of Russel––and John Weidman). In other words, the clunkiness of 1930s book musicals was refined without taking the period spirit out of it. Tinkering has occurred again under the direction of director/choreographer Kathleen Marshall with new dance arrangements to accommodate her own original vision for the dances and a general de-Mermanizing of the Reno Sweeney numbers. Sutton Foster is a dancing Reno Sweeney this time, with less emphasis on the Merman belt. In fact, all of those big long held Merman notes that composers inserted into her numbers ever since she exploded onto Broadway with “I Got Rhythm” in GIRL CRAZY were excised, saving big belted notes only for the ends of “Anything Goes” and “Blow Gabriel Blow.” There is a little disappointment in this, for one of the things that makes ANYTHING GOES what it is, is that Merman influence. Patti LuPone didn’t disappoint us in 1987, for her Reno Sweeney was the modern age equivalent of Ethel Merman, as was also displayed in her turn as Rose in GYPSY. Still, Foster is a delight and it is smart to underline her talents as a dancer while allowing her to make the signature Merman numbers her own. Foster actually comes off a little too sweet, when the character is really a brassy broad. Her blonde wig doesn’t help her image either, but she is gorgeous in her Martin Pakledinaz gowns and sort of blends in as an ensemble member in a show actually dominated by the romantic leading man (the new talent, Colin Donnell as Billy), the ingenue girl (Laura Osnes as Hope), the British caricature (Adam Goodley as Evelyn) and the gangster in the form of a Broadway Legend (Joel Grey as Moonface).

Derek McLane has designed the ship setting lengthwise, rather than Lincoln Center’s frontal view. The pieces of this tri-level set open and close to aid in the illusion of changing locals. Wagons track in to supply the staterooms, jail cell and opening scene’s Manhattan bar. The set is more of a surprise than in 1987, for it has a greater variety of changes and yet it has an economical usefulness to it. It all looks properly art deco and functions just as required without being overly designed. The show is a pretty package.

“Your the Top” includes an extra verse of perviously unheard lyrics as a surprise and retains the old school use of the encore to everyone’s delight. Musicals in the 1930s were about clever lyrics rather than character or plot––that’s the point of the enjoyment of this kind of show. ANYTHING GOES could only be turned into an integrated “Rodgers and Hammerstien” style show to a point. In 1962, the changes were all made to try and transform the show into a more integrated and balanced one. That version, until 1987, was the only version that could be licensed. Two key song interpolations from that production have therefore become a part of the fabric of ANYTHING GOES: “Friendship” and “It’s De-lovely.” We would miss them if we simply went back to 1934, so they were kept in the Lincoln Center edition and they are in now as well.

Colin Donnell should be a delightful surprise to all. Several Broadway stalwarts might have played Billy, but we get the unknown Mr. Donnel in this key role. He is like Gene Kelly, dancing quite a lot more than the usual Billy would, but singing better than Gene Kelly ever could. He was seen in JERSEY BOYS, but otherwise has been out of town on various tours. ANYTHING GOES is bound to make a true Broadway star out of him. His “Easy to Love” and “It’s De-Lovely” with Ms. Osnes, both turn into charming “Fred and Ginger” numbers very effectively. Ms. Osnes sings her “Goodbye, Little Dream, Goodbye” beautifully (a song added for the character in 1987) and makes an underwritten character quite easy to love (as the lyric goes).

Adam Godley comes to Broadway from London and is ideal as Lord Evelyn. He has the voice of a character singer and has some trouble with higher held notes, but his perfection in the role triumphs. Joel Grey is adorable as Moonface Martin and is given a little extra time in “Blue Bird” to dance a soft shoe with a blue spot of light. This is a nice gesture to a legendary theatre man who deserves to have a special moment to shine. The other featured roles are all handled expertly by the likes of John McMartin, Jessica Walter, Jessica Stone, Walter Charles and Robert Creighton. The chorus is made up of pretty girls and the most uniform collection of sturdy straight seeming men to be seen in a single Broadway chorus. That is not a plus or a negative, but the uniformity of the type of male dancer cast was interesting and at the moment, unique.

For all the excellence of the cast, design, and choreography, the show comes off as only durable. There is a lack of precision in the book scenes with regards to the execution of all the walk across jokes and gags, but the show is in previews now and this could all tighten up and elevate the production to the level of pop and fizz it should rightly obtain. I may not be able to get over the loss of the Merman-esque arrangements, but that’s my problem. Ms. Foster should not have to be compared to Merman or LuPone, but she will be all the same. Still, after dancing up a storm with the entire cast for the title song, she somehow squares off with the audience and Mermanates her final note to the back of the theater! Where’s the air coming from? There is plenty of delight in this ANYTHING GOES, but it isn’t the exciting blast of old time musical comedy delight I was wishing for. I was hoping to be thrilled to pieces the way I was with recent revivals of 42ND STREET, SOUTH PACIFIC and FINIAN’S RAINBOW. ANYTHING GOES is still worth it, for there is no better place to hear some of the greatest Cole Porter songs sung beautifully with a live orchestra.