Saturday, December 31, 2011

theatre review THE NUTCRACKER AND I - George Street Playhouse, December 29

New musicals are always hard to get right.  But finding a way to perfectly combine music, lyrics and story into a seamless whole is something that will be tried again and again by newcomers as well as by those who have been making musicals for many years.  The new musical The Nutcracker and I, which is ending it's month long run today at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, NJ, had a bit of an easy start to the whole new musical process in that the entire musical score is taken from Tchaikovsky's ballet The Nutcracker.   

Haley Carlucci and AJ Shively
Setting lyrics to Tchaikovsky's music was something of a lifelong dream for lyricist Gerard Alessandrini.  Along with book writer Peter Brash, Alessandrini has crafted a comic take off of the story of The Nutcracker where a young dancer, after breaking her leg at a rehearsal of the local high school production of The Nutcracker and taking a combination of painkillers and holistic remedies, imagines a chaotic Christmas adventure with a life size nutcracker that has come to life.

While overall The Nutcracker and I is a funny show, the idea of setting lyrics to Tchaikovsky's music doesn't always come off so well.  Alessandrini is good at writing comical lyrics, as the over 20 year run of his Forbidden Broadway shows Off Broadway and across the country attests to, but not all of Tchaikovsky's score is prone to having lyrics added to them.   The opening sequence, especially, doesn't quite gel into what a good opening number for a musical should be and a lot of that has to do with the music that isn't exactly crying out to have lyrics set to it.  Fortunately the cast, set, direction and the majority of the rest of the musical moments help offset a few of the more clunkier moments to make the evening into a fun show.  It is just too bad that Alessandrini and Brash didn't let some of the music play as an underscore and substitute simple dialogue for some of the more mediocre lyrics or the sequences where the music doesn't need lyrics, as Brash's book and dialogue are not only humorous and modern but in some scenes are quite touching as well.

Peter Scolari and the cast
The cast is led by Haley Carlucci as the dancer who breaks her leg and AJ Shively as the Nutcracker who comes to life.  They are both lovely in their roles and sing and dance beautifully.  Joseph Simeone has provided some nice choreography for both of them. The rest of the cast plays multiple parts with Peter Scolari, Annie Golden and Ed Staudenmayer especially capable of the various roles they play.  Golden is a hoot as the Sugar Rush Fairy and Scolari does a fine job as a Toy Policeman.  Both of them also get some of the best known pieces of the Tchaikovsky ballet as solo songs.  Nick Dalton is the high school hunk who's after Carlucci and while he does a good job at playing the airhead jock, some of his acting was a little too broad and over the top. 

Annie Golden
The set and staging are nicely done and include a knock out of an act one closer when Carlucci and Shively magically travel to Snow Globe City and end up inside an actual working snowglobe.  Act two includes a lovely three sided rotating set piece that shows various locales in Snow Globe City.  Set designer James Youmans has delivered the goods as his sets perfectly match the zany actions of the show.  Director David Saint not only moves the action along swiftly but provides touching moments with Carlucci and Shively as well as Carlucci and her "parents" Golden and Staudenmayer.   The three piece band, let by musical director David Caldwell provide a rich, full sound with many comical touches.  The modern orchestrations are nice as well.

With just a few tweaks from the writers, The Nutcracker and I could easily turn into a nice annual humorous alternate to the traditional Christmas Carol and Nutcracker productions that most theatres provide at the holidays.

Highlights from the show:

Saturday, December 24, 2011

theatre review WHITE CHRISTMAS - Papermill Playhouse, December 22

The Paper Mill Playhouse production of White Christmas ends its limited run today.  We caught one of the last performances and it was a joyous addition to the holiday season.  This show, which is based on the 1954 film and has had two recent holiday season runs on Broadway as well as numerous productions across the country, is a top notch production with wonderful Irving Berlin songs, a fun "let's put on a show" plot and an engaging and extremely talented cast.


Jill Paice, James Clow, Tony Yazbeck and Meredith Patterson
 The show starts in 1944 where Army buddies Bob Wallace (James Clow) and Phil Davis (Tony Yazbeck) are entertaining their fellow troops on Christmas Eve.  Flash forward 10 years and Wallace and Davis are now a famous song and dance team performing on the Ed Sullivan Show.  Upon meeting sister act Betty and Judy Haynes (Jill Paice and Meredith Patterson) Phil, instantly smitten with Judy, decides to change their Christmas plans of rehearsing their new show in Florida to follow the girls to the Vermont Inn where they will be performing.  He does this without letting Bob or Betty know of the plans which causes some problems since Bob and Betty aren't exactly impressed with each other.  When they get to the inn they find that it is run by their former Army General, but due to the lack of snow and his unfamiliarity with running an inn, business isn't doing so good.  So Bob and Phil hatch a plan to rehearse their show at the Inn and get all of their old Army buddies to come up for the holidays to support the General.   As I said above, it's the tried and true "let's put on a show" formula that has worked in so many ways before, but with the added bonus of some top notch Irving Berlin tunes.

Clow and the ensemble perform "Blue Skies"
Clow, Yazbeck and Patterson have all performed their parts on Broadway (Patterson is also on the cd of the show) and with the addition of Paice I can't imagine another foursome to more perfectly portray these characters.  Yazbeck throws himself into the many dance numbers and the joy on his face while he is performing is infectious.  His performance of "I Love a Piano" with Patterson and the ensemble was really special.  Clow has a lovely singing voice and leads the ensemble in the big act one finale of "Blue Skies" as well as performs a touching version of "Count Your Blessings."  Paice shines on her solo "Love You Didn't Do Right By Me" as well as the duets she has with Clow.  Lorna Luft is playing the part of Martha, who is helping to run the Inn with the General.  Luft gets to sing "Let Me Sing and I'm Happy" which her mother, Judy Garland, also performed and Loft does a knock out job with the song. 

Yazbeck (center) and Patterson (left) perform "I Love a Piano"
Directed by Marc Bruni with choreography by Randy Skinner, the show moves swiftly along with the appropriate touches of humor and genuineness. Anna Louizos' set design and Carrie Robbins costume designs are some of the best we've seen at Paper Mill, but I'm guessing they are all the Broadway sets and costumes pulled out of storage for this run since Louizon and Robbins did the designs for Broadway.  If that's the case, they look fresh and new.  Louizos' sets don't stop, moving swiftly from dressing rooms to a train, several rooms at the Vermont Inn, including a lovely barn set that takes up the whole stage, an elegant New York supper club to a knockout of a set for the finale that looks like a snowy Christmas card.  Robbins' costumes are just as good with the finale costumes especially capturing the joy of the holiday season.

Lorna Luft
White Christmas at the Paper Mill is the perfect blend of top notch cast, excellent sets, costumes, direction and choreography and a fun, though simple story all wrapped up with some of the best loved Irving Berlin songs.   I wouldn't be surprised to see this come back to the Paper Mill in a couple of years for another holiday season run.

As an added bonus at the performance we attended, Liza Minnelli was seated in the row directly in front of us.  She was obviously there to support her half-sister Luft but she couldn't have been more generous to the entire cast as well and she was in fact the first person to jump to her feet at the end of the show.  Her infectious laugh added an additional element of joy to the evening.

Highlights from the Paper Mill production:





theatre review SONS OF THE PROPHET, Off Broadway December 17th

The new play Sons of the Prophet is coming to the end of it's three month Off Broadway run on January 1st.  Telling the story of two brothers, their uncle and a few other people in their lives, it is an interesting slice of life set in the small town of Nazareth, Pennsylvania.   It is a well written play that also features a tight ensemble cast with great acting and direction from Peter DuBois.

Written by Stephen Karam, Sons of the Prophet focuses on the pain and comical moments that are the result of suffering.  Joseph Douaihy and his 18 year old brother Charles are members of a Lebanese family who live in rural Pennsylvania.   Joseph is suffering from some unexplained health issues when his father is involved in a car accident that he later dies from.  That accident, caused by a prank a high school student pulled, is the latest tragedy to come to the Douaihy family, as their mother has also passed away and their uncle Bill isn't doing so good either. 

Santino Fontana and Joanna Gleason

Joseph works for Gloria, a book editor who also has tragic issues of her own to deal with.  He works for her mainly for the insurance that comes with the job, even though the coverage doesn't seem to help in providing any answers to his medical questions.  Added to the mix is the high school student who caused the accident, who has been moved from one foster home to another but since he is a star football player the school board has postponed his punishment for the prank until after football season.  There is also the young reporter who was a former rival of Joseph's cross country team from another high school who is trying to get close to the family to get their reaction to the events of the tragedy in order to prove himself as a journalist.  And then there is the fact that the Douaihy family are distant relatives to Kahlil Gibran, the best selling author of The Prophet which Gloria thinks that connection will make a best selling book.

This is a play about coping when answers are hard to come by and accurately shows the humor and comic moments that are prevalent even in tragic times.  Sons of the Prophet also features some of the most realistic dialogue and moments of any contemporary play I can remember.

Jonathan Louis Dent, Chris Perfetti,
Santino Fontana and Yusef Bulos
The first rate cast is led by Santino Fontana as Joseph, and he couldn't be any better in the part.  He perfectly plays the older brother and caretaker to his Uncle with the requisite strength required, but he is also completely at sea, confused and concerned when it comes to his unknown medical issues.   His Uncle Bill is played by Yusef Bulos who expertly captures the older member of the family who believes he now must be the caretaker of the family since that his brother has died, but realizes too soon that he is actually the one who needs taking care of.  Chris Perfetti is Charles, the younger brother and Perfetti is making an auspicious New York theatre debut with the play, as he elegantly captures the yearnings of a young adult who has seen a lot of tragedy in his young life but also realizes that living your life is the most important part of dealing with tragedy.

Santino Fontana and Charles Socarides
Joanna Gleason is Gloria and she is as perfect as always in the role, adding the requisite amount of upper middle class New York City angst to the small town Pennsylvania blue collar atmosphere.  I absolutely loved the moments when she would pick up her blackberry to take an imaginary call as a way to get herself out of a difficult situation.  I also loved how her character was written in that since she is a loner suffering from depression she tries to latch on to Joseph and his family almost to fill the gap and as a replacement for her estranged family.  Gleason had no problems portraying the hard as nails book editor who underneath is suffering from the pain of these past experiences.

Jonathan Louis Dent is the football player who pulled the prank and he nicely plays the part of the outsider who knows he did something wrong but learns from his mistake.  Charles Socarides is the reporter who has issues of his own and Socarides has the appropriate mix of pushiness and empathy to make the character more than just a caricature.  Lizbeth Mackay and Dee Nelson play several supporting characters with several moments of humor.

The set design by Anna Louizos captures various settings including a perfectly represented living room and bedroom for Joseph and Charles' house.  DuBois makes effective use of the small stage in his direction, which swiftly moves from one locale to the next.  But he also doesn't let the heavy moments of the show weigh it down too much, which is as much a result of the direction as well as the writing by Karam.
Sons of the Prophet is a play that doesn't answer all of the questions that it poses, but that is just like life so I appreciated that it didn't attempt to tie everything up at the end.  Karam is a young playwright who also wrote the well received play Speech & Debate that played New York a few years back.  So he has many years and plays ahead of him, but he is off to an extremely impressive start.

Official Show Site

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

theatre review ON A CLEAR DAY YOU CAN SEE FOREVER, Broadway, December 15

The Broadway revival of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever is an updated version of the original 1965 production.  That original version told the story of a psychiatrist with a female patient, Daisy, who wanted to be hypnotized to stop smoking, but while under hypnosis she exhibits having lived a former life.  That life, lived by a lady named Melinda and set many years ago, is a more glamorous one and the psychiatrist finds himself falling in love with Melinda.

For the revival, which is directed by Michael Mayer and has a new book by Peter Parnell, the story, while similar to the original has been revised and updated and is now set in 1974.   Harry Connick Jr. stars as the recently widowed Dr. Mark Bruckner, but "Daisy" is now "David" a gay flower shop assistant who is not only having trouble to stop smoking but also in committing to his boyfriend Warren.  While David is under hypnosis his former life comes roaring out in the form of Melinda Wells, a big band singer from the 40's.  Dr. Bruckner is mesmerized by Melinda and schedules almost daily sessions with David in order to see Melinda more, as he finds himself connecting with her like he hasn't been able to connect with any of the other women he has dated since his wife died.  David starts to think that Mark is falling for him due to all of the meetings he wants to have with him which impacts even more on his relationship with his boyfriend.  It is the ultimate in love triangles where there is basically no resolution possible for any of them.

Harry Connick, Jr.
I enjoyed this twist on the original story and even though the show is set almost 40 years ago, it has a nice modern sensibility.  The cast includes Jessie Mueller as Melinda and David Turner as David Gamble and they are both perfect in their parts.  Mueller is making her Broadway debut and I can only expect many more starring roles in her future.  By splitting the original part of Daisy and Melinda across two actors it does give both of them less to do, and since the story is now focused more on the part of Dr. Bruckner, that part now takes center stage, but I was fine with this change from the original.  Fortunately Connick is up to the challenge of leading the charge and he is on stage for the majority of the show.  He is slightly stiff in the part, though that might just be how he is being directed as a somewhat unemotional psychiatrist, as he wasn't like this when he was in the Broadway revival of Pajama Game.  But he does have fun with the role and sings the score in his trademark style, and pretty much wins the audience over right from the beginning.

David Turner, Jessie Mueller and Harry Connick, Jr.
The score by Burton Lane and Alan Jay Lerner features several well known songs and for this revised version they've also incorporated several songs from their score to the film Royal Wedding which are perfect for the 1940's jazz set scenes.   A couple of songs from the film version of On a Clear Day have also been included.  I especially liked how the song "Open Your Eyes" from Royal Wedding was seamlessly incorporated into the previously solo song "Melinda" to become a beautiful act one finale for all three leads.

Now since the show is set in 1974 it means the set and costumes are in that post hippie, pre disco era where, when looking back at that time now, everything just seems wrong.  So be prepared for plenty of loud costumes and geometrically designed sets.  The production is swiftly directed by Mayer and includes nicely staged scenes including some fun moments when all three lead actors are on stage together, including the number "You're All The World To Me" which features an interesting bit of choreography by Joann M. Hunter where all three leads are dancing together.

David Turner and Drew Gehling
The cast also features Kerry O'Malley as Brucker's co-worker who is in love with him, Drew Gehling as Warren, David's boyfriend and Sarah Stiles as David's best friend.   Gehling has some very nice moments including playing and singing a guitar driven solo of "Love With All the Trimmings," one of the songs which was added in from the movie score.

On a Clear Day You Can See Forever isn't the greatest show, but it is a fun night at the theatre, and with three great actors in the leads, a humorous, modern book, a nice supporting cast and a fine score I definitely recommend this production.

Official Show Site

Harry and Jessie sing a medley of songs on The View:


Opening Night footage including some clips from the show:


The Original Broadway Cast performs selections from the show on The Bell Telephone Hour:


Barbra Streisand sings "What Did I Have That I Don't Have?" from the movie adaptation of the show:

Friday, December 16, 2011

concert review "Home For the Holidays", Brian Stokes Mitchell and the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, Dec. 10

Brian Stokes Mitchell
Holiday concerts from Broadway performers can be really good or just so so.  They are either well thought out evenings that encompass the spirit of the holiday season with a few of the performer's more well known Broadway songs expertly added in or they can also be a performer's regular cabaret show with a few holiday carols unceremoniously shoved in.  Fortunately when you combine the talents of Brian Stokes Mitchell and the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra for a holiday concert you end up with a joyous and emotional evening.

Under the superb direction of Constantine Kitsopoulos, the orchestra provided a well played selection of songs that started out with a lovely overture that combined several well known holidays carols.  Brian Stokes Mitchell was then introduced and his joyous, emotional and genuine personality shown through not only the material but the introductions he gave to each song.  His first song, "Some Enchanted Evening " from South Pacific, was one that he expertly wrapped his baritone voice around and sung to the rafters of the NJPAC Prudential Hall.

He followed this with a jazzed up version of "The Christmas Song," a joyous "Sleigh Ride," a touching medley of Hanukkah songs and a lovely version of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas."  He told a beautiful story about his late mother saying that while she wasn't the greatest singer, she had such passion and joy when she sang that it didn't matter if she didn't hit all the right notes.

His performance of "Wheels of a Dream," from Ragtime, which he originated on Broadway, was also superb.  The first act ended with an impressive version of "The Impossible Dream" from Man of La Mancha.  Stokes starred in the 2002 Broadway revival of the show and this has quickly become one of his signature songs.  We've heard him sing this song several times now and have to say this was the most impressive, which is partly due to the large orchestra accompanying him as well as how he tied the song not only into the evening but also the entire season with one simple sentence when he said that "the holiday season has always been one about dreams."

The second act featured more songs from Stokes and the Symphony Orchestra and the evening also included the Masterwork Chorus who performed "This Christmastide," and the New Jersey Youth Chorus with an emotional version of "Angel Carol."  An extremely touching version of "Little Drummer Boy" featured an emotional drum solo that Stokes played off of as well as partnered with.   After a audience sing along of popular Christmas Carols the evening ended with a special encore that Stokes has done in his previous concerts.  He begins to play and sing the song "Grateful" alone at the piano and then is slowly joined in by his fellow band members.  However, when those band members not only include a full orchestra but an entire choir, it becomes something extra special.  And like his comment that tied "Impossible Dream" to a holiday themed concert, his comment before he sang this song was just as simple and just as touching.  He said that during the holiday season we all have to remember the true meaning of the season and to really remember its about how grateful we are about the simplest of things.

Brian Stokes Mitchell and the NJSO are class acts.   If you get the chance to see them either alone or together, don't pass it by.

Stokes performed a Christmas concert with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir a couple of years ago that featured some of the same songs he sang at the concert with the NJSO.  It was released on cd and dvd- check below for video clips and the Amazon links to order the cd or dvd. 

Stokes singing "The Impossible Dream" -


Stokes and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir perform "Sleigh Ride" -


and "Grateful" -

"Some Enchanted Evening" with Reba McEntire from the South Pacific concert-







Friday, December 2, 2011

theatre review MEMPHIS, November 29

The musical Memphis just celebrated its second anniversary on Broadway.  We saw the show a little over two years ago, right before it opened, and thought it a pretty good show with an intelligent book and characters, a good score and an impressive set design.  It also featured two actors, Chad Kimball and Montego Glover, in the lead roles, who created memorable characters and who both got Tony nominations for their efforts.   So, when they announced Adam Pascal would be assuming the lead male role we thought we'd check the show out again to see how it had held up and how Pascal was as the lead male.

The good news is that the show and cast are just as impressive as before.  And how was Pascal?  I have no idea, as he was out the night we went.  I think I jinxed it based on my review of Rent last week where I commented that pretty much every time we went to see that show on Broadway there was always several understudies on, even though the few times we saw the show when Pascal was in the cast he was always there.  We also saw Aida on Broadway a couple of times, and again, he was always in the show when we went.  So, I was a little disappointed that Adam was out.  However understudy Kevin Massey was excellent in the lead male part of Huey, and he is so different physically from Pascal (as is Kimball) and the part is such an under dog role, and not your typical romantic leading man role, which is pretty much the types of parts that Pascal has played, that I now can't imagine Pascal in the role.  We may have to go back again just to see if Pascal is able to pull the part off.

Kevin Massey
Memphis in set in the early 1950's and focuses on a young white DJ who makes it his mission to get "race" music played on the radio and on tv while also falling in love with the young black singer Felicia and battling racial prejudice and bigotry.   Montego Glover is still starring as Felicia and she is still doing an amazing job in the role.  She and Massey had plenty of passion together as well, so I have to believe this wasn't Massey's first time going on in the part as he has been the understudy for awhile now, even before Pascal joined the show a few weeks ago.  While Massey played the part much like Kimball did, he didn't affect the somewhat strange southern accent that Kimball used, pretty much sticking with a standard accent which I think worked a little better.  He also had an amazing amount of energy, had a great singing voice and danced perfectly in character.   His Huey had just as much warmth as Kimball's did, not only with the people closest to him, like Felicia and his Mama, but also with just about every other actor on the stage.

Montego Glover and the ensemble
Also still in the show from the original cast are Derrick Baskin and James Monroe Iglehart as two of Felicia's friends and they are both still doing wonderful work especially Iglehart who sings and dances extremely well.  We had understudies for Felicia's brother and Huey's mama.  Antonie L. Smith and Elizabeth Ward Land had no problem in assuming those parts.  Land was especially memorable as Huey's very prejudice, feisty mother.  The ensemble for this show is especially hard working with plenty of dancing and most of them playing multiple characters throughout.

Memphis is a fun show with an impressive score by Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan and book and lyrics by Joe DiPietro.  Direction by Christopher Ashley keeps the show moving along at a brisk pace but also focusing appropriately on the issues at hand.  Sergio Trujillo's choreography couldn't be better.

The show's ending, when I first saw it, seemed a bit rushed and a little bit of a let down.  However after having seen the show a second time I believe that the ending is pretty much the only way the show could have ended with still being real to the characters and time period.  So, I'm glad we went back to see the show a second time and happy to report that the show is still in fine shape and if you happen to see Massey on for Huey the night you go you have absolutely noting to worry about.

The Original Broadway Cast of the show was filmed for a limited theatrical release and that filmed version of the show is currently on sale at the theatre as well as the various theatres where the National Tour is now playing.  It is also currently available on Netflix Instant Streaming and is set to be released commercially in January on both dvd and blu-ray.  So, if you can't make it to Broadway to see Memphis or aren't in one of the cities where the Tour is coming, then you have many other ways to check out this engaging show with a talented cast, memorable characters and book, an impressive set and direction and a rocking score.

Official Show Site

Show highlights with the Original Broadway Cast:








movie review THE TREE OF LIFE

The movie The Tree of Life is either one of the most amazing movies ever made or one of the worst.  After sitting thought the 2 hour and 19 minute film I believe it is one of the worst and over 2 hours of my life that I will never get back.

Now, don't get me wrong, the film has some of the best cinematography and special effects you'll ever see, very good performances from Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain as a husband and wife in the 50's as well as a low key performance from Sean Penn as the grown up son of Pitt and Chastain in current times.  It has an interesting central story about a young son who does what his father tells him to do but is always troubled by the actions of his father as well as the death of his brother.  Something that both Hunter McCracken as the young Jack and Penn as the older both are very good at portraying.  However, it is one of those films that is so pretentious that it just comes across as being a film that makes a lot of wrong choices.   The plot goes pretty much nowhere over the two hours and while director Terrence Malick gets good performances out of his cast he should have spent a little more time in editing both the script and the film so it didn't come across as such a sprawling mess that basically skips over plot elements and just ends.

I mean, there are even dinosaurs in it -during the creation of the universe section of the movie, yes there is about a 10 minute part of the movie all about that. (see the clip below)  When did you think you could ever say there were dinosaurs in a Brad Pitt movie?  Is this a documentary or a film about family dynamics in the 50's?

Avoid at all costs unless you have nothing better to do for 2 hours and 19 minutes.

Trailer:


Part of the "Creation of the Universe" section -

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

theatre review MAN AND BOY, Broadway, November 26

This past Saturday we caught one of the final performances of the Broadway revival of Terence Rattigan's play Man and Boy.  It was first performed in both London and New York in 1963 and this is the first Broadway revival of the play.

Set in 1934 and covering about 2 1/2 hours one evening in New York City, Frank Langella is Gregor Antonescu, a European financier who finds his world on the brink of financial ruin and scandal.  He is a man who will do anything he can to get away with something, and we soon discover that what he has gotten away with is bilking millions out of companies and robbing many innocent people in doing so.  Antonescu is a magnetic man but also one who is both appalling yet somewhat sympathetic who basically uses anything he can, including his estranged son, to help him get what he wants.  He is basically a soulless businessman.  The events of the play are especially timely today as Antonescu is in line with Bernie Madoff and the men of Enron.

Frank Langella
The play is set in the Greenwich Village apartment of Antonescu's son who has completely distanced himself from his father, even changing his name to Basil Anthony and working as a piano player in a bar.  We've seen Langella in about a half dozen plays now and he is definitely one of the best actors alive today.  It is as if every one of his performances is a master class in acting and his performance in Man and Boy is no different.  he draws you into each character he plays, even the ones you might not especially like.  If Langella is in the cast of a show you're seeing you pretty much know you're going to have an exciting evening in the theatre.

Adam Driver is Basil and he nicely plays the son of a man who he both hates and loves even when he is disgusted when he realizes his father is using him.  That scene, when the audience first realizes exactly what the father is doing, is perfectly directed by Maria Aitken as to how it is sad, humorous, shocking and disgusting all at the same time.

Driver, Langella, Siberry and Grenier

Zach Grenier is the head of the company that Antonescu is trying to swindle and Grenier couldn't be better in the part.  This role is one who has a big secret, and he acts completely different when he realizes that Antonescu knows what his secret is.  Grenier and Langella acted together three years ago in the Broadway revival of A Man of No Importance, and they were great together in that so it is nice to see them together again in this play.

The rest of the cast is also very good with Michael Siberry as Antonescu's long co-partner in the scandals and Francesca Faridany as Antonescu's wife who is using him just as much as she is being used.  Virginia Kull is Basil's girlfriend and I loved how feisty and no nonsence she played the part.  Brian Hutchison is the accountant at Grenier's company who uncovers the wrong doing by Antonescu and the verbal fights they have are electric.

The play is an interesting one in that it tries to tackle many issues around greed, power and family relations as well as right and wrong and truths and lies.  I can understand why the play was not successful when it first premiered or why it hasn't been revived much, and I think that is more to do with the subject matter as well as some of the more shocking incidents that happen in it and less to do with if it is a good play or not.  I found myself intrigued by the characters and the plot and the urgency of the situations and think that with all of the financial swindles the world has now had to deal with that perhaps Man and Boy will now see more productions happening as it seems likely that it might have been way ahead of it's time back in the early 60's.

Highlights from the show:

Monday, November 28, 2011

theatre review AN EVENING WITH PATTI LUPONE AND MANDY PATINKIN, November 25

Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin are legends in the eyes of Broadway.  Both have found some success on tv and in movies, with Patinkin winning an Emmy for his work on the tv show Chicago Hope, but it is Broadway where the two are most at home.   While both have performed in numerous plays it is their musical roles that have brought them the most acclaim, with both of them winning Tony Awards very early in their careers for their work in the Original Broadway cast of Evita.  However, it is their attention to detail that they learned from all of the dramatic parts they played that is the key element to their show An Evening with Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin that is having a limited run through January 13th on Broadway.

This is actually a concert that the two of them have been performing for the past several years.   We saw the show about two years ago when it played NJPAC in Newark and I have to say that I enjoyed seeing the show a second time much more than I did the first time.  And the reason I did is because I knew what I would be seeing, or should I say what I wouldn't be seeing.  You see, Patti and Mandy have both done many concert tours over the past 15 or so years and the two of them are huge proponents of talking to the audience during their shows, offering comments about their lives as well as personal stories about their careers.  They are both very funny too which adds to the enjoyment.  Their concerts have always been the perfect balance of their hits songs, new material plus personal stories.  So, considering that this show is called "An Evening With Patti and Mandy," for anyone who has ever seen them in concert before you would think that you're in for a double header of what the two of them have usually done in the past.  Well, if you thought that, you'd be very wrong. 

Mandy Patinkin and Patti LuPone
When we saw the show in Newark there wasn't a single time that either Mandy or Patti spoke to the audience, which made the whole evening somewhat of a huge letdown after the many enjoyable times we've spent at their concerts before.  But seeing the show a second time, and in the much more intimate Barrymore theatre, was an amazing experience.  There is also now one very personal moment when Mandy speaks to the audience in the second act that makes the evening much more intimate and touching.

Covering over thirty songs in the two hour evening, the show was conceived by Patinkin and pianist Paul Ford as a theatrical event, not a concert.   Representing various stages in a relationship between two people, the choice of music covers some of the best theatre songs from Rodgers and Hammerstein, Sondheim and a few others as well. 

LuPone
Major portions of each of the two acts are set aside for songs and dramatic scenes from South Pacific in act one and Carousel in the second act.  These mini-musicals are perfect vehicles to show the dramatic capabilities of both Patinkin and LuPone.  And after seeing the show a second time it is now very clear how the two of them must have been completely drawn to the ability to demonstrate what they are capable of, especially as to how they would have played the parts in these two classic, dramatic musicals.  

The evening has some very funny moments as well including LuPone doing a very good version of "Getting Married Today" from Sondheim's Company and Patinkin playing all three parts in "Buddy's Blues" from Follies.   That Sondheim show also provides LuPone with a chance to show what she could have done as "Sally" in that show as her "In Buddy's Eyes" is a simply touching and beautiful moment.  There is also a nice group of songs from Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along in the second act.

LuPone also gets to reprise her Tony winning role as "Rose" in Gypsy with "Everything's Coming Up Roses" and the second act does give both Mandy and Patti a chance to sing their main solo songs from Evita.  I have to say that both of them sound almost exactly the same today as they do on the cast recording that was made over 30 years ago.

Patinkin
I personally think that if they had came up with a name for the show instead of the very lame "An Evening with..." it would prepare theatre goers for what they are about to experience.  I have to imagine many others were expecting another "concert" from these two legendary performers with the name of the show as it is.   But no matter what they call it, this is simply an evening with two theatre legends not to be missed.

Highly recommended

Official Show Site

Sunday, November 27, 2011

theatre review RENT, Off Broadway, November 21

The musical Rent was a cultural phenomenon when it first opened in 1996, running over 12 years and 5,000 performances on Broadway and winning the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.  It also had several successful National Tours, was performed around the world, had a somewhat less successful film version and is even available in a slightly edited version for High Schools to perform.

For those who don't know the story behind the show, composer Jonathan Larson died the night before the first performance Off Broadway.  While that alone was enough news to make headlines, the story, characters and score of the show are what have turned it into a much loved musical.

Matt Shingledecker and Adam Chanler-Berat
The current Off Broadway production is a revival of sorts, opening a little shy of three years after the Broadway production closed.  And even though this production, like the original Broadway one, were both directed by Michael Greif, this production is very different in style and somewhat different in tone from the original.  Though I think the tone has much more to do with the cast then the direction.
Rent tells the story of a group of struggling young artists and musicians set in Manhattan's Alphabet City on the Lower East Side around 1990 and based somewhat on the Puccini opera La Boheme.  For Rent, the tragedy of AIDS replaces  tuberculosis in the Puccini opera and the grungy Lower East Side of Manhattan replaces Paris.






MJ (Michael) Rodriguez
For this Off Broadway revival Greif has stuck mostly to his original direction, staging key scenes pretty much the same as he did back in 1998, however he has added a few extra elements here and there to make them somewhat different as well as staging other scenes in fresh and different ways.  The biggest difference between the original production and this one is the set.  Originally a very minimalistic design with very few moving parts, this production uses multiple fire escape stair pieces as well as other metal elements and a few video screen backdrops scattered about the space to provide a more elaborate and chaotic element to the production.  While this mostly worked in favor of the chaos on stage at several times, it also sometimes worked against the piece in that with less space now available for the actors to move it provided a more cramped atmosphere.   The small band, which on Broadway was just off to the side of the stage has now been moved up to a balcony over the stage.

Matt Shingledecker and Arianda Fernandez
The cast for the revival is young and eager and some of them actually are quite effective in their portrayals of these young starving artists from 1990.  However, there is an urgency to much of the delivery of the material that is more simply rushed performances and not in the urgent nature of the show that doesn't quite connect with the material.  I especially liked Adam Chanler-Berat as Mark, the somewhat narrator of the piece, he was genuine, sincere and sang beautifully.  I also liked the raw emotionality of Arianda Fernandez as Mimi and Michael Rodriguez as Angel played the drag parts more in line with how I imagine a real drag queen would.  In the original Broadway production many people didn't know for certain if Angel was really a man in drag, but for this production you never question that, which I think it more realistic and preferable.  I also liked Corbin Reid's take on Joanne, she was feisty, sexy and romantic, all at the same time.  However, Matt Shingledecker as Roger just didn't quite gel with me.  He looked the part of an ex-rocker drug addict who is trying to deal with living with HIV, but didn't quite have the appropriate roughness in his voice to pull off the part.  He was more of an ex boy-band member then the urban rocker that the part requires.

Also, in the many times I saw Rent on Broadway there were always some understudies on for one or a couple of the key characters.  Our trip Off Broadway didn't stop that trend in that we had understudies on for both Maureen and Tom Collins.  However both were more than capable of getting to the nuances of the characters so the fact they were understudies didn't bother me at all.  Though, this was the first time I've ever seen a white actor on for the part of Collins, and I have to say it was a refreshing change.  The understudies we saw were Morgan Weed for Maureen and Ben Thompson for Collins.  Weed was simply amazing as Maureen and Thompson provided a perfectly emotional weight to his relationship with Angel.

After seeing this show about a dozen times, Rent is still an enjoyable piece of theatre with an energetic and timeless score.  Though I don't know if the many times I've seen the show have now made it have less of an impact on me, or if that has more to do with the somewhat chaotic and at times rushed performances on display in the Off Broadway production.  


Highlights from this revival:








Monday, November 21, 2011

theatre review BLOOD AND GIFTS, Off Broadway, November 20

I'll be the first to admit that the intricacies of foreign politics is something where I'm not that knowledgeable.  Sure, I know the basics of what's going on in the world, but all of the details behind political unrest and turmoil in overseas countries is just something where I lack understanding and knowledge.

So I went into JT Rogers' Blood and Gifts, a play about the US involvement in the Afghanistan war with Russia with a little hesitation.  I'm happy to report that the play is an excellent piece of theatre and for those of us less politically inclined it isn't too much over our heads and doesn't require much prior knowledge of the events to have a rich and full evening.  After a previous run last year at London's National Theatre, it officially opens Off Broadway at Lincoln Center tonight.

Set during the Russian occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, and with a CIA agent as our main entry into the intricate jockeying for power on all sides and from all countries, Blood and Gifts is an extremely rich, entertaining and suspenseful thriller of a play.  The play begins when the agent arrives in Pakistan in 1981 to provide secret funding and ammunition to Afghan freedom fighters and ending 10 years later with the outcome of what those actions causes.  Rogers has crafted a well written and easy to follow play and director Bartlett Sher has created an intense production yet one with extremely personal connections to the characters and actions of the play.

Bernard White and Jeremy Davidson
Over the ten year period, the play basically shows how US support of the mujahideen, that mainly involved supplying weapons to stop the Russians from winning the cold war, basically contributed to the rise of Islamist extremism.  It is a play all about trust and relationships but one that ultimately shows something we already know, that we pretty much paid and supplied weapons to those we trusted and thought of as our allies that were then used to arm our future enemies.

Jeremy Davidson, Jefferson Mays and Michael Aronov
Moving swiftly and fluidly over the 10 years across  Pakistan, Afghanistan and the US, the play stars Jeremy Davidson as haunted CIA operative Jim Warnock who believes he is doing what is right by trusting the Afghanistan fighters and trading political favors to arm them to fight against the Russians.  Davidson is spot on in this part and is truly believable as an agent who is conflicted in wanting to do what is right even though at times he knows he is in danger and that he might actually be doing something wrong.  His performance and the character of Warnock, and many others in the play, reminded me of the portrayal of soldiers in the films The Hurt Locker and Brothers.  These officers, soldiers and agents know they are in danger but when they come home find themselves numb from the lack of adrenaline and excitement that putting themselves in harm's way as well as the belief and feeling of doing something right for the country they love which makes them go right back into the dangers of war.

Jeremy Davidson, Gabriel Ruiz and Jefferson Mays
It is a play all about influence and as I said before, trust.  The relationship formed between Warnock and an Afghan warlord played superbly by Bernard White is so well written that you feel the bound between them but also aren't quite sure if they can truly trust each other.   Even over the entire 10 year period of the play you still feel that way, something that I have to believe is true about many of the relationships that US agents, soldiers and politicians have formed with their overseas allies. 

While the play only hints at and never shows the true blood shed that our actions cost, the play is at times intense but also one with many moments of humor, mostly supplied by Jefferson Mays as a British secret service agent who befriends Davidson. 

Robert Hogan, Jeremy Davidson and Bernard White
There isn't one bad performance in this cast of 14.  Other notable cast members include Pej Vahdat as an American loving Afghan freedom fighter, Gabriel Ruiz as a Pakistan ISI Colonel, Michael Aronov as a KGB agent who you never know exactly what side he's on, John Procaccino as Davidson's supervisor and Robert Hogan as Senator Jefferson Birch.  They are all perfect in bringing their parts to life.

The rest of the ensemble plays multiple parts with Andres Munar especially effective as both an Afghan soldier and a CIA agent.
.
Pej Vahdat
Not only is Sher effective in the way he stages the action but I especially liked the use of benches on three sides of the stage as a way for the characters in the play to sit and watch the action that is going on in front of them.  The set design by Michael Yeargan is simple yet effective.  Costumes by Catherine Zuber are perfect at showing the cultural differences between the countries and lighting by Donald Holder is extremely effective and some of the best lighting I've seen in a play in a long time.  The Mitzi Newhouse theatre is a perfect space for this play as it allows you to get close to the action and to have a personal connection to the events that are unfolding in front of you.

Blood and Gifts is an extremely well written play that perfectly shows how political savvy, trust, fear and the constantly changing and shifting alliances between multiple countries is a huge struggle for not only a single country but also one man to deal with.  It is personal, political and not to be missed.

Highly recommended

Official Show Site

Interview with JT Rogers, author of the play:

Friday, November 18, 2011

theatre review PRIVATE LIVES, Broadway, November 17

If you're looking for a play with wit and sophistication you can't go wrong with anything written by Noël Coward.  The 7th Broadway revival of his hit 1930 play Private Lives opened on Broadway last night and we were there.  Starring Kim Cattrall and Paul Gross along with a perfect supporting cast, it is a smashing revival and one that I think you'll have a simply swell time at.

Private Lives is a perfectly structured play that lays out over three acts the feisty yet loving relationship between Amanda and Elyot.  Cattrall is Amanda and Gross is Elyot.  Divorced from each other for five years, they unexpectedly meet up again at the start of the play when they discover that each other is on their second honeymoon in the South of France and they just happen to have adjoining balconies at the same hotel.  Their three year marriage was a stormy one of fights, feuds, trust issues and all out passion, with passion being the key.  It is no wonder that when each of them sees each other again, and realizes that there is still something between them and that the individuals they just got married to are poor examples of their first spouse, that they decide to run away together.  They are the ultimate example of a couple that can't live without each other and also can't live with each other.

Paul Gross and Kim Cattrall
Cattrall is simply sublime as Amanda, hitting all of the right notes in the role from the zany ones to the more dark, shadowy ones.  She perfectly captures the woman who knows what she is doing is probably wrong, but knows that Elyot is the only man for her even with his weaknesses.  I especially liked how she played the scene when she first realizes that it is Elyot who is on the balcony next to her, with the fear in her eyes as well as the way she showed sincere compassion several times for the two spouses they both just left behind on their honeymoons.  Cattrall is obviously best known for playing Samantha in the Sex and the City tv series and films but there is no trace of that oversexed, fearless character on stage, which is a huge example of Cattrall's abilities.

Kim Cattrall and Simon Paisley Day
Gross nicely plays the somewhat pompous Elyot in a extremely casual and somewhat flippant way.  He is more Cary Grant suave then Noël Coward sophisticate (Coward played the part in both the original 1930 London production and the 1931 Broadway premiere.)   With his good looks, charm and way with words, you clearly see why Amanda is in love with him.  The part has less breadth than Amanda's so Gross isn't quite given the range of emotions to play that Cattrall is.

The two new spouses, Victor (Simon Paisley Day) and Sybil (Anna Madeley) are interesting in that for this version it is clear that they aren't exactly equals to Amanda and Elyot.  Sybil is portrayed as a silly young woman and Victor as a stern Englishmen.  While it does seem that Amanda could possibly be in love with Victor, I never once felt that Elyot was actually in love with Sybil.   This is no fault to either Day or Madeley, as they are obviously performing the parts as directed.  However it would have been nice to see these parts portrayed as almost equals to the leads so that there was not only an actual rationale in who Amanda and Elyot picked for their second spouses but also more of a sense of loss for running away and leaving them behind.  For example, in the original UK and Broadway productions, Laurence Olivier played Victor.  No matter what, Day and Madeley are absolutely perfect in the parts, and are each given plenty to show off what they are capable of.

Paul Gross and Anna Madeley
Coward's play provides perfect well written parts that allow it's actors to show just about every possible emotion from high comedy to drama.  Now director Richard Eyre has provided more comedy than I remember being present in past versions of this show, which provides a nice touch to the evening as well as more balance to what could be a very dry affair.  The humor also perfectly plays into the madcap and spontaneous parts of both Amanda and Elyot.  The cast is up to the challenge of this and manages to play the comic moments effortlessly.

Coward's song "Someday I'll Find You," which he wrote for the play, is nicely used throughout to add a nice element to the show.  I especially liked how it is one of the first things that draws Amanda and Elyot back together on the balcony when they hear a band playing it off in the distance and also a way for them to reconnect with Gross playing it on the piano and Cattrall singing the lyrics, once they've run away to Paris.

The sets and costumes by Rob Howell are gorgeous with the Paris apartment set a beautiful art deco extravaganza including a very inventive fish tank.  David Howe's lighting provides beautiful moonlight in the first act balcony scene as well as both romantic evening lighting in act two and the stark reality brightness of the morning in the third act after everyone meets up again and has to face the cost of their actions.

Don't miss this revival of Private Lives!

Official Show Site

Thursday, November 17, 2011

theatre review LYSISTRATA JONES, Broadway November 16

The new Broadway musical Lysistrata Jones had a successful run Off Broadway earlier this year as well as a regional try out production in Texas in 2010.    The musical is based on the ancient Greek play by Aristophanes which was first performed in 411 BC.  We are reminded in the opening number that this puts it in the public domain so the creators are free to take any liberties with it they choose, and they choose to take many.  Set at modern day Athens University with a basketball team that hasn't won a game in 30 years, Lysistrata Jones attempts to bring social commentary and activist action to the modern pop musical comedy in a fun, modern and relevant way.

Now the overall theme of the original play of one woman convincing the women around her to withhold sexual activities to spur their men on to greatness is still at the core of the musical.  But the fact that the greatness they are attempting to achieve from the men is for them to finally win a basketball game and not to bring peace to the war as in the original play is the first of several reasons why I don't think this musical will be running come Spring time.

Katie Boren, Lindsay Chambers, Patti Murin, LaQuet Sharnell
and Kat Nejat from the Off Broadway production
Douglas Carter Beane has contributed an amusing book to the show.  There are several humorous moments including a couple that are laugh out loud funny, but the many references to modern news items make it so much less original then his other plays.  You can also pretty much predict everything that will happen in the show.  The score by Lewis Flinn is mostly pedestrian, serviceable at best with only a couple of memorable songs.  The whole show is amusing but nothing that I'd go out of my way to recommend when there are many other more original or humorous shows one could see instead.

Now I know this show is in previews and doesn't open until December 14th, so anything is still possible, but with the run they already had Off Broadway as well as in Dallas before that, I can't imagine much will change by opening night.

Josh Segarra and Patti Murin
from the Off Broadway production
Patti Murin and Liz Mikel are the the leads in the show.  Murin is Lysistrata and Mikel is Hetaira, who serves as both the narrator and a character within the play.   They are both well suited to their roles, though Murin's voice was a little weak on the higher notes and Mikel isn't given quite the right song to show what it appears she is capable of.  The same can be said of Josh Segarra as the male lead, his solo song is a little too wrong for his voice or just isn't written in such a way to show off his skills.  Lindsay Nicole Chambers scores well as Robin, the smart girl who sets Lysistrata's plan into motion.  And Jason Tam is charming as Xander, the school geek.

Jason Tam from the
Off Broadway production
The rest of the ensemble is especially strong and all have several moments to show their vocal chops or comedic skills but the overall lack of character development is what really sets this show behind so many others that have had years of development before reaching Broadway.  For example, Lysistrata is an exchange student new to Athens University who somehow already has the basketball star as her boyfriend and immediately gets all the girls to not only form a cheerleading team but also follow her to the path of chastity.  If there was any plot explanation why the girls would look up to someone new so quickly, and how this all happened in the first few minutes of the show, it was lost on me in the very unfocused opening number.  I think how you can predict everything that will happen is because almost all of the characters are stereotypes that with little or no background to their characters and just a few lines of dialogue make you know exactly where they will end up by the curtain call.


Liz Mikel and the cast from the Off Broadway run
 Also there is no immediate or compassionate basis behind the idea of placing the sex strike on wanting the basketball team to finally win a game, in fact the other girls on the cheerleading squad seem they could care less if their boyfriends win a game or not.  They all are more then ready to give up their plan after the boys purposely lose the first game after they are told of the no sex plan.   Because of that lack of compassion, the audience has no real connection to the characters or the main plot of the show.  Now the second act is much better than the first, so don't leave at intermission.

Direction and choreography by Dan Knechtges are fun and upbeat with some impressive dribbling added into the mix and some great breakdancing provided by Alexander Aguilar.

Don't get me wrong, Lysistrata Jones isn't a horrible show.  It does have it's good parts including a very energetic cast who give some fine performances and a couple of touching or comedic moments, especially in the second act.  It's an interesting, fun show with a game cast, but nothing much more than that.  While it does have a sexual component at it's center and there are a few PG-13 rated moments where it tries to be edgy, it isn't as risque as The Book of Mormon, and lacks the heart that that show has as well.

With all of the basketball choreography and college scenes led by a blond with a mission it at times seems like the bastard offspring of High School Musical and Legally Blond but somehow lacks the originality and freshness that those shows had.  I actually wonder if it would have been better as a play instead of a musical.

Official Show Site

TV Commercial featuring Patti Murin and Josh Segarra:


Behind the scenes of the Off Broadway production from earlier this year: