Tuesday, June 28, 2011

"The Broadway Spin" Kelli O'Hara- Always

Kelli O'Hara's latest cd, Always, is a gem.  With the inclusion of more musical theatre songs than her previous cd, Wonder in the World, it is sure to be one that gets a lot of play from Broadway lovers.

O'Hara has been nominated for three Tony Awards, for Pajama Game, The Light in the Piazza and South Pacific.  She has appeared in seven Broadway shows including the flop shows Sweet Smell of Success and Dracula but also in Jekyll and Hyde and the revival of Follies.

Kelli starts her new cd off with a rousing "What More Do I Need?" from Sondheim's Saturday Night that has a pulse pounding beat and a beautiful jazzy arrangement. She follows this with a slowed down take on "Something Wonderful" from The King and I.  It is a nice version of the song, but unfortunately has a somewhat abrupt ending.  Floyd Collin's "When Glory Goes" is a soaring song that has been included in many contemporary musical theatre solo cd's.  Kelli doesn't push the song, but let's her voice simply allow the song to soar.  "He Loves Me" from She Loves Me gives O'Hara a chance to let her voice portray pure joy and excitement, something she is easily capable of doing.  The title track "Always" has a jazzy, slow and simple arrangement but effectively gets across the eternal love message of this Irving Berlin classic song.  "Finishing the Hat" from Sunday in the Park with George is one of my most favorite Sondheim songs.  This version is, I think, the first one I've heard with a small arrangement instead of the usual lush one you hear on the cast recording or the various concerts where this has been performed and recorded.  I have to say that the smaller arrangement takes nothing away from the song, and actually allows O'Hara's voice to effectively get the message behind the words across extremely well.  The song becomes more of an inner monologue then the somewhat loud and forced version It also gives her a nice way to show x and xx.  In the recent revival of South Pacific, Kelli played the role of Nelli but on her cd she gives us a beautiful version of a song she didn't get to sing in that show, "This Nearly Was Mine."  It has a nice waltzy arrangement with some beautiful violin work that gains speed along the way but ends in a simple and effective quiet way.  O'Hara really shows off her range on this selection.

O'Hara includes some contemporary songs as well including "Once I Was" which is a song by Ricky Ian Gordon.  While some of Gordon's songs I've heard before are disjointed poems, this one has a nice melody and lyric and Kelli sounds great on it.  "Another Life" is a new song by Jason Robert Brown from his musical version of The Bridges of Madison County.  It is a beautiful character song with a lovely arrangement.   "They Don't Let You in the Opera (If You're a Country Star)" is a very humorous cabaret song that perfectly plays into O'Hara's actual story where she was an aspiring opera singer from the south and was actually a student of the same famed Oklahoma City University voice teacher who had previously taught Kristin Chenoweth. This song was co-written by Dan Lipton who also serves as the music director of the cd and the song gives Kelli plenty of opportunities to show off her wide vocal range as well as opera and county song styles. "You're Always Here" has a lovely contemporary lyric with a driving arrangement that perfectly builds and compliments O'Hara and the point of the song.  

Kelli ends the cd with two showtunes, first she delivers a heartfelt version of "The Party's Over" from Bells are Ringing and closes out the cd with "I Could Have Danced All Night" from My Fair Lady which she expertly delivers with her rich and full soprano voice.   It is nice to hear her sing a song from this show since she got great notices for her performance in the concert staging of this show that she did with Kelsey Grammer at the NY Philharmonic four years ago.

Highly recommended

Kelli's official website

Thursday, June 23, 2011

theatre review BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, National Tour, NJPAC, June 22

Emily Behny and Dane Agostinis
Beauty and the Beast ran for over 13 years on Broadway, so to say it was a blockbuster show is pretty much an understatement.  Based on the beloved Disney animated film, which received an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, the Broadway production used the film's original composer Alan Menken and author, Linda Woolverston to expand the film for the Broadway stage.   Helping them was lyricist Tim Rice, director Robert Jess Roth, costume designer Ann Hould-Ward and set designer Stan Meyer.  Together they were able to fully create the imaginary world of the film on stage, including the colorful and creative costumes as well as supplement it with some beautiful new songs.

We saw the Broadway production a few times, and I was always struck at how they fully delivered on the message in the film, that beauty is really found from within.   The production was magical as well, with beautiful sets, including a huge and elaborate one to portray the Beast's castle and (Spoiler alert) a spellbinding transformation at the end of the show when the Beast becomes the Prince after he finds true love.  The direction of the cast on Broadway was always never heavy handed and never on the verge of being cartoonish, except for the characters of Gaston and Lefou who are written that way.  I think I cried every time I saw the show.

Where did the "cheese grater" go?
So, with much dread I am here to report that the current National Touring company of this show isn't very good.  Though it still lists Roth and Meyer as the director and set designer, the production is directed and designed completely different than the Broadway production.   The direction of many of the characters makes them out to be complete cartoons with many of the actors mugging and chewing as much scenery as they can get their hands on.  Which, in the case of this production, isn't that much, as while there are some lovely and colorful scrims and backdrops, there is basically only the minimalist of set pieces.  The ones that represent the Beast's castle are small interlocking ones that made me not once believe that I was in an elaborate castle.  There wasn't even a detailed backdrop to portray one.  Only the Beast's chair and the fireplace were anything imaginative.   I know that these tours move all over the country, so sets need to be small enough to be put in a truck and moved and reset all in a day, but some nice colorful drops don't replace what on Broadway was a truly magical production.   While the "Be Our Guest" number was fairly in line with what was staged on Broadway, hardly any of the imaginative and comical "enchanted object" costumes seen on Broadway in that number appear on the tour.  What happened to the Cheese Grater Man?  We only get napkins, utensils, plates and salt and pepper shakers!

Now, I won't mention the specific actors who are playing their parts so over the top that they literally are in a different show, but I will say that Belle and the Beast aren't two of them.   I know that Roth directed this, and I'm not sure how long this tour has been running, so it's possible he hasn't seen it in a while and the actors are now doing whatever they want to do, so I hope if that's the case he sees this soon and gets them back in line.

Still, many of the people around us enjoyed the show, but considering many of the audience members could have seen this show just 15 miles away on Broadway a few years back, it is a shame that they are getting such a lack luster production.   At least the transformation for this tour uses the same magic effect used on Broadway, so that almost saved the show for me.   If someone can get a few of the actors to play the parts the way they were written, and they add a backdrop for the castle interior, then I'd recommend this production, but as it is now, I'd say skip it if it comes to your town.

Official Show Site

Highlights from this production

Sunday, June 19, 2011

theatre review THE PEOPLE IN THE PICTURE- Broadway, June 17

The People in the Picture is a new musical that didn't fare well with the critics.  It ends its limited three month Broadway run today and we caught it this past Friday.  I don't know if it is because we went in with low expectations due to those not so good reviews, or what, but we both thought it was a good musical with an interesting story line, a serviceable score and some excellent performances, including Donna Murphy giving yet another amazing performance.

Murphy with Resheff, and Innvar in the background
The plot of the musical is set in l977 with many flashbacks to the 30's and 40's.   At the center of the story is Murphy.  She lives with her daughter and granddaughter and is starting to forget things.  Her granddaughter Jenny (a very effective Rachel Resheff) has been tape recording "Bubbie's" memories of her days when she was a star in the Yiddish Theatre.  Bubbie knows it is important for the stories to be preserved so they can be passed down to the next generation, but there are some secrets in Bubbie's past which she prefers not be remembered.   Her daughter, Red (Nicole Parker, giving a strong and effective performance), is often at odds with her mother and thinks it might be best for her mother to move to an assisted living building, but Jenny wants her grandmother around. 

From left- Gemignani, Zien, Murphy, Van Patten and Stadlen
Also always present are the various people in the theatre troop that Raisel (Bubbie) worked with who have already passed away, but are there, waiting for Raisel to join them as well as to help Raisel remember her past. 

Director Leonard Foglia has assembled a nice group of actors to portray the Yiddish theatre troop.  Chip Zien and Lewis J. Stadlen are the comic duo, Christopher Innvar is the troop's director and Murphy's love interest, Joyce Van Patten is the older actress who always mentions her days when she was the ingenue and Alexander Gemignani is the troop's romantic lead who has some secrets of his own.   They all are used effectively in both the flashback scenes as well as the modern ones and all have nice solo moments to shine.  The ensemble plays various smaller roles and I really liked seeing Louis Hobson, who played the Doctor in the Original Broadway cast of Next to Normal, playing Bubbie's doctor in this show.  He once again gives an effective and nuanced performance.

Resheff and Parker - note the large picture frame set pieces
 in the background.
The use of the various characters, and the various time periods, might seem like a confusing one, but Foglia effectively stages the production with transitional elements that don't make the production clunky when it shifts periods.  Murphy, who is the only actor to have to portray the same character at two different ages, is simply astounding in her portrayal.   There are many times when she shifts between the ages of her character in just a few seconds and you always believe she is either about 30 or about 70, simply with the way she carries herself, her voice and her actions.   Sure, a pair of glasses and a grey wig help, but Murphy pulls this difficult task off in yet another example of her skills as an actress.  She did receive a Tony nomination for her efforts.

The libretto and lyrics for The People in the Picture are by Iris Rainer Dart, best known as the author of the novel "Beaches" with and music by Mike Stoller (of Leiber and Stoller fame, who's music is the basis of the musical revue Smokey Joe's CafĂ©) and Artie Butler.

I liked how set designer Riccardo Hernandez used large picture frames and frame pieces to literally "frame" the action and scenes, after all the show is about the people in the picture.   The costumes by Ann Hould-Wald perfectly evoked the various periods of the show.  Choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler was a little too stylized for my taste and some of the dance movements for the act two opening portion didn't seem to fit with the time period.

Sure, the book might be a little melodramatic or schmaltzy in parts, but the dialogue never rang false.  Both the modern dilemma of what to do with a parent who is starting to forget things, or the actions of a theatre troop trying to put their best foot forward when they have Nazism breathing down their necks are effectively dramatized.   And while I may not remember that much of the score a couple of days after seeing the production, I do remember the moving performance that Murphy gave as well as the character in her character's life and the struggles she had to go through to service the horrible events that happened to her.   Even though this musical didn't fare well with NY critics, I do believe this show with see a healthy life in regional theatres for years to come.

Highlights from this production -

Murphy talks about the show -

Friday, June 17, 2011

theatre review SPIDER-MAN: TURN OFF THE DARK, Broadway, June 16

Even the Playbill was changed-
"Turn Off the Dark" used to be in a
larger font than "Spider-Man"
We took the journey back to see Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark last night.  This was our third time seeing the show, the first being the night when Chris Tierney fell into the pit beneath the stage, which was a horrific evening.  The second time was when we received free tickets to see the show again since we didn't get to see the whole show the first time.  So, was the third time the charm?

By now everyone knows that the original Director Julie Taymor was let go from the production a few months back with a new director, choreographer and book writer brought in to make changes to the script and direction.  Have all of the changes improved and clarified what was a vastly muddled show before?  The answers are actually both yes and no.  The show is much clearer now, with actual character development and an understandable plot, two very important things that were vastly missing in the original version of the show.  But with the added dialogue, the show actually now plays slower and with the virtual elimination of the character Arachne there is actually less plot now then before, so even though the show is much clearer and cleaner now it actually somehow feels less of a show, a better show but a lesser one at the same time

Patrick Page and Reeve Carney
And, with the exception of one entirely new song, the score by Bono and The Edge is virtually the same.   And the new song, "Freak Like Me," isn't that good, it has a catchy beat that I'm still humming, but not much else.  Now there are three very good ballads in the show, and that's about the extent of the positive comments on the music.  Three slow ballads with a now more dialogue heavy show do not make for a moving production.  As the 4 year old boy in front of us said to his father about 45 minutes into act one, "I'm bored."  And while I wasn't as restless as this youngster and I did appreciate the changes that were made to the show, I still feel that what the show desperately needed was for Bono and The Edge to have written a few really great upbeat songs for this new version.  New, good songs plus the cleaner book is what this show desperately needed and for it only to get half of what it required, means the show ends up about where it was before.

The set design is some of the most elaborate ever
 seen on Broadway
Most of Taymor's imaginative stage images remain in the new production and there have been some new touches added by the new director, Philip Wm. McKinley as well.  This production has some of the most elaborate sets on Broadway.  Some are a homage to comic books, with pop-up pieces while others are huge video screens that display animated sequences while moving across the vast stage.  Much has been made about the high cost of this production, but a lot of that expense is clearly evident on the stage.

The use of video screens, mainly in the second act, adds
an added modern theatricality to the production.
With the reduction in Arachne's part, the role of the Green Goblin has been vastly increased.  Fortunately Patrick Page is one of the best things the show has going for it and his performance as both Norman Osborn and the outlandish Goblin puts a spark in the show and nicely balances the many slower dialogue scenes and ballads between Spidey's alter ego Peter Parker and his girlfriend MJ.  Reeve Carney and Jennifer Damiano are much stronger now than before since they now actually have characters to play and I really liked how many of the smaller parts have been beefed up as well.  Peter's Aunt Mae (Isabel Keating) has much more to do as does his Uncle Ben.  Osborn's wife is also used more and I really like how Mary Beth Wells portrays her.

Carney and Damiano
New choreography by Chase Brock has been added as well and fortunately it is all much better than some of the ridiculous dances that were in the previous version.  The sound mix which was very muddy in early previews has been cleaned p as well, with the vocals now more pronounced.  Many of the songs have new lyrics as well, and some songs that were previously more solo in nature have been fleshed out to include the ensemble members.  These are all welcome changes and mean that the ensemble cast is no longer just playing one dimensional characters.    So even though there is only one new song, there have been changes made to almost the entire score.

Carney takes flight
The flying is still thrilling and the movement of the aerial fight between Spider-Man and the Green Goblin that used to end act one to now being the finale of the show makes the ending much stronger.  With the exception of Arachne's flying solo number "Think Again" which has been cut, there is more flying than in the previous version which is a wise improvement.

But something strange about all of these changes is that even though they have all improved the show, what was once a risky, daring and artistic show before seems much more tame and safe now.  And the end result, with the exception of a few theatrical moments here and there, is of a show that is fairly bland throughout.  Sure it is technically better than what came before, but it is still bland.

The best sequence- the aerial battle looking down at NYC from
the top of the Chrysler building now wisely ends the show.
 There is a really great show still buried within what is being presented at the Foxwood's Theatre and it is too bad that after running for over six months the creators of this show still haven't figured out how to get that show out.  I appreciated being able to see this show three times over a six month period while they have made many changes to it and the show now is no longer the train wreck it once was.  I also wonder if after getting mixed to negative reviews at their official opening early this week if they will look into making even more changes to try to make this show into the crowd pleaser it desperately wants to be.

Official Show Site

MP3 clips from the cast recording-

Highlights from the new version -

An ABC Nightline story about the new version with plenty of show and backstage footage as well as interviews -

Tony Awards performance of "If the World Should End"

a portion of "Rise Above" - the best song in the show

Thursday, June 16, 2011

theatre review COMPANY, the Film of the NY Philharmonic concert

In April 2011, the New York Philharmonic presented a staged concert production of Company.  With Neil Patrick Harris in the lead role of  Bobby, the Lonny Price directed concert was filmed and is now being shown for a few performances in movie theatres around the country.   The first performance was last night.  Check this link for future performances.

Christina Hendricks and Neil Patrick Harris
I didn't get a chance to see the concert live during one of the four sold out performances last April, and I had heard some very mixed reviews about the production, even in the NY Times, that mainly spoke about how under rehearsed the show was.  So, I was a little concerned with how the filmed version of the concert would be, fortunately the movie that I saw last night was of a completely polished production.  I do know that the Times saw the concert at the first of it's weekend long performances, so perhaps the cast pulled it together before they were filmed, or possibly the film used the best moments from the performances that were shot.  No matter what, the end result is of a great show with an almost perfect cast and if it was edited from several of the performances, it doesn't show it, instead coming across as a seamless film of the full show.  And, the concert presented the complete book of the show, not a truncated one, and even includes the second act dance sequence "Tick Tock" that has often been eliminated from recent productions of the show.

Patti LuPone making "The Ladies Who Lunch" her own.
The plot of the show focuses on the 35 year old single man Bobby who, unable to commit to marriage or even a relationship, reaccesses his life by looking at his relationships with his five married couples and his various girlfriends.   With a book by George Furth and a score by Stephen Sondheim, the musical features some hilarious vignettes with the married couples as well as such Sondheim gems as "The Ladies Who Lunch," "Being Alive," and "Another Hundred People."

The cast for this concert includes several knockouts including Katie Finneran as Amy the nervous bride, Martha Plimpton as Sarah, the wife who gets into verbal and physical assaults with her husband, even though she loves him dearly, Christina Hendricks as April, the ditsy flight attendant and Patti LuPone as Joanne, the older woman who's been married several times and has no problem commenting on the people she encounters until she realizes that she is just like all of the ladies she despises.   Company is a show that allows the female characters to shine more than the male ones, even in the dialogue scenes, so it is nice to see that Price has assembled a nice calibre of actresses to play these parts.

Katie Finneran as "Amy"
And while Company is a show that focuses on Bobby, and even though he is always on the stage, he is more of an observer of the situations he encounters with his married friends.   Harris manages to make Bobby multi layered with a range of personal understanding and growth as he witnesses the events that happen around him.  The fact that the filmed version of the concert allows for multiple close-ups makes this version a much more intimate one than seeing it "live" in the theatre, even if you are in one of the first few rows.  I think this is a huge advantage as I've seen many productions of this show before and this is really the first one where I think the scenes with the couples seemed to flow better and the various songs really got their points across, all due to the ability to really see the emotions displayed on each of the actor's faces.  Price directs the film of the concert with much clarity too, allowing him to focus on various points of the action that might be missed in a theatre, especially in the large Avery Fisher Hall at NY's Lincoln Center where the concerts took place.

Plimpton and Colbert
If this production and cast were on Broadway last year I'm sure that both Finneran and LuPone would have received Tony nominations, maybe even Plimpton and Hendricks as well.   They all nail their characters, their songs and I'm truly hoping this concert will be released on dvd so their performances will live on forever.

As far as the men in the cast, the addition of Jon Cryer and Stephen Colbert adds some familiar tv names, and they are both fine in their performances.  Colbert has more to sing than Cryer, but they both manage fine with the material.   Craig Bierko, Aaron Lazar and Jim Walton add some Broadway clot to the supporting male cast and while Bierko and Lazar are perfect in the small amount of material they have to deliver, Walton really stands out in both his featured parts in the songs he is included in as well as how he perfectly holds his own with LuPone as his wife in the final book scene.

The cast also includes Jill Paice and Jennifer Laura Thompson as two of the wives, and they are perfectly fine and comical with how they deliver the material.  Anika Noni Rose is one of the girlfriends who gets to sing "Another Hundred People" which is unfortunately only delivered in a servicable way, though she is very good with the dialogue scenes.  Chryssie Whitehead is the other girlfriend who gets some solo moments in the "Tick Tock" dance sequence, though unfortunately the choreography is minimal at best.   My only other complaint is that the lighting for the concert is done in such a way that the orchestra is always visible behind the actors even during the dialogue scenes.  This is somewhat dsictracting as with the many close-ups used in the film you not only get to see the emotions on the actor's faces but the members of the orchestra as well.  I wish Price had lite the concert in such a way that the lighting could be lowered on the orchestra during these moments as to not possibly distract from the material.

Paul Gemignani conducts the 35-piece Philharmonic orchestra, using the original orchestrations from the original Broadway production.    Get yourself to the movie theatre this weekend to catch one of the performances of this well directed and cast film of Company.

Christina Hendricks as April, Craig Bierko as Peter, Jill Paice as Susan, Jon Cryer as David, Jennifer Laura Thompson as Jenny, Jim Walton as Larry, Neil Patrick Harris as Bobby, Patti LuPone as Joanne, Stephen Colbert as Harry,  Martha Plimpton as Sarah, Aaron Lazar as Paul, Katie Finneran as Amy, Anika Noni Rose as Marta and Chryssie Whitehead as Kathy.
Highlights from the production -

The cast performing "Side by Side" -

LuPone singing "The Ladies Who Lunch" from the Sondheim 80th Birthday concert at the NY Philharmonic one year before she starred in the Company concert there -

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

theatre review- MASTER CLASS, Broadway, June 14

Terrence McNally's Master Class won the Tony and Drama Desk Awards for Best Play in 1996. The first Broadway revival of the show began performances last night, officially opens on July 7th and runs into August.  

The play is based on the series of infamous master classes that world famous opera star Maria Callas gave in the early 1970's at Julliard several years after she stopped performing.  At these classes, Callas would listen to and critique aspiring artists.  McNally came up with the brilliant theatrical conceit for his play to have the audience be the audience at the master class, thus allowing Callas to interact with us and to share her thoughts, feelings and stories in a very direct way.  McNally also uses the arias that the "victims," as Callas humorously calls the students, sing to bring back memories to Callas, thus allowing flashbacks into Callas' past that impacted her life and career.   The music also allows Callas to become the characters in the songs in order to show the student's how they should be connecting to the music.  The combination of these elements elevates Master Class into an excellent play about the human spirit, sheer determination and the craft and nature of art.  Fifteen years after first being on Broadway, the play still holds up beautifully today.

The original Broadway cast won Tony's for Zoe Caldwell as Callas and Audra McDonald as one of the students.   The Broadway revival has Tyne Daly as Callas with Sierra Boggess in the part McDonald played.  They and the rest of the cast are excellent in their parts and this revival is one that can stand head and shoulders with the original production.   As I mentioned above, last night's performance was the first preview and with only one slight hiccup you would think that this cast has been performing this play for a long time. 

Daly is the draw of course and she effortlessly becomes not only the characters in the arias but also the characters in her past.  In the play, Callas constantly says that everything is all about the work and Daly has definitely done her work.  She becomes Callas more so than any of the other ladies I've seen in this part before.  Sure, the expensive clothes, scarf and long brown wig she wears help her look like Callas but it is the same determination and ferocity that Callas speaks of having that you know Daly has as well.   Daly also brings a certain warmth to the part that I haven't seen before, and while it somewhat downplays the explosive take on the part that others have portrayed, it also allows Callas to have a better connection to the students, and thus a better connection to the audience.  Just as Callas says to her students that when they sing an aria they should find a line to connect them to the character, the composer and the actual person that the character is based on, you can easily see the connection that Daly brings not onto to Callas but also to the several opera characters that she portrays when instructing her students.  I have to believe that if this play opened in April that Daly would have given Frances McDormand a run for the Best Actress Tony.  Her performance is multi-layered with shades of every emotion imaginable and she makes Callas' connection to the students and to the audience so complete that you feel her pain and joy and completely understand why she became the star that she did.   After seeing this production, you can easily see the same thing about Daly.  I hope that the Tony committee remembers Daly when the Tony nominations come out in 11 months.

McNally has written the part of Callas to be one of many emotions and traits, many of them somewhat contradictory which actually makes the character more realistic.  She can be mean with her criticism, or is she just being upfront and direct?   She is a tiger with her ferocity but can also be reduced to a delicate flower with the pain of her memories.  McNally has wisely chosen to portray Callas as one with a witty sense of humor, with lines like "People are forgetting how to listen. If you can't hear me, it's your fault."  The humor makes Callas seem real and allows us to easily connect with her.  Thus when she says things like "how can you have rivals when no one can do what you can do?" or when she reduces a student to tears, it isn't as off putting as if you hadn't seen her lighter side before.  Callas is a person who is impatient with anything that is less than brilliant and she lets her students know it but with Daly's portrayal it isn't as harsh as has been portrayed before.
From left: Sorenson, Cohen, Daly, Boggess,
Silber and Brandhagen

Stephen Wadsworth has directed the production beautifully, his staging not only allows Daly to move about the space just as you'd imagine that Callas did when listening and instructing the students but also shifts expertly between the class room scenes and the flashbacks.  He has also assembled a great cast to support Daly.  Alexandra Silber is the first "victim" and she perfectly demonstrates the student who is in awe of Callas and seeks her advice but isn't as prepared as she should be.  She is completely flustered as well but listens to everything Callas tells her and her performance perfectly demonstrates how someone who listens can grow from what they've been told.  Garrett Sorenson is the tenor who even though he is a little too cocky for Callas manages to stir emotions in her she had forgotten she had.  He also has an excellent voice.  Sierra Boggess is the final student who, even though her first encounter with Callas made her run off the stage to throw up, returns with a ferocity that matches Callas' and is a firecracker that challenges and completely holds her own with Callas.  She is also given some of the best dialogue and has a more fleshed out character then the other students and she can sing beautifully as well, something that might just raise a possible hint of jealousy in Callas .  While Sorenson is a trained opera singer, Silber and Boggess aren't, but they completely hold their own with the opera arias, not only singing but speaking in Italian as well.

Jeremy Cohen is Manny the accompanist, and he perfectly plays the part of someone who is honored to be in the presence of someone as great as Callas.   He also plays beautifully.  Clinton Brandhagen is the stagehand who couldn't care less about Callas being in the room, he has a job to do and her requirements only get in the way of him finishing his job.  He has very few lines to say and is the only person who Callas can't control or scare.  Daly, Silber, Cohen and Brandhagen all appeared in the Spring of 2010 in a production of the play that Wadsworth directed at the Kennedy Center in D.C.

The only hiccup in last night's first preview was when Daly asked for a line about 5 minutes into the first act.  I thought we might be in trouble for the rest of the show after this happened but once she was given the line she dove right back into the part and never let up for the next two hours.

This is the fourth production of the show I've seen and the fifth actress I've seen play the role of Callas. I saw Zoe Caldwell and Patti LuPone in the Broadway production, Maria Tucci at the George Street Playhouse and Barbara Walsh at Paper Mill.  All of these productions were, naturally, somewhat different in their sets and costumes, but the part of Callas was delivered by all five of these ladies expertly.  But, as much as I loved Caldwell in the original cast, there is just something about Daly in not only her delivery, but her presence and combination of warmth and directness that have put her at the top of my list of Maria Callas's.

The 2011-2012 season is off to a very good start!

Official Show Site

Monday, June 13, 2011

theatre review - BORN YESTERDAY, Broadway, June 9

Sometimes when you see a revival of a show that was a big hit several decades ago it makes you wonder "why was this so successful?"   Either the subject matter doesn't hold up or the production or cast isn't that great.  I'm sure in 40 years when there is a revival of The Book of Mormon, theatre goers might wonder what people were smoking in 2011 for that show to garner such praise.  However, with the case of Born Yesterday, there is no reason as to why this show ran on Broadway for over 4 years in it's original run, why there have been two movies based on the play and why this is the second Broadway revival of the show.  Written by Garson Kanin, it has a well crafted plot with three great lead roles, several nice supporting parts, some witty dialogue and a perfect ugly ducking story at the center.

The story centers on shady scrap metal millionaire, Harry Brock, who comes to Washington D.C. with his ditsy girlfriend in tow and his plans to bribe a congressman to pass legislature to help his business.  Billie, the girlfriend, is a former chorus girl, and Brock realizes that, even though he loves her, her ignorance might get in the way of him succeeding in his plans.   He hires a reporter to help educate Billie and by doing so, Billie begins to understand exactly how corrupt and uneducated Brock actually is and how she can get in the way of what he is trying to achieve in D.C.

Nina Arianda
For the current Broadway revival, Nina Arianda is making a smashing Broadway debut as Billie.  Not only did she get a Tony nomination for her work but she also received nominations from all of the other major theatre awards and won (in a tie) the Outer Critics Circle Award for her performance.  Now I've never seen a production of this show before or any of the films, and I know that Judy Holliday who played the part in the original 1946 production as well as the 1950 movie won the Oscar for her performance (beating out not only Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard but also both Bette Davis and Anne Baxter who both were nominated for All About Eve) so she must have been great in the part.  But Arianda so effortlessly makes this part her own, you truly believe she once was a chorus girl (in Anything Goes no less) and once she got associated with Brock stayed with him, even though he was mainly using her, because it was the best thing that ever happened to her, or at least she thought it was.  When she starts to expand her mind, she realizes what she is missing, and Arianda perfectly captures this thirst for knowledge and eagerness to grow.  You literally see her character change between act one and act two in not only the way she speaks about things, but the way she carries herself as well.   It's almost like My Fair Lady without the diction classes and English accents.

Jim Belushi is Brock and he manages to play the lovable teddy bear who can also be abusive and nasty extremely well.   He is harsh and strong when talking about his business dealings but melts when professing his love for Billie. Robert Sean Leonard as the reporter who educates Billie, is both low key and direct in his dealings with both Billie and Brock and the way he underplays this is in perfect contrast to the loud Brock.

Robert Sean Leonard, Nina Arianda and Jim Belushi
The hotel suite set by John Lee Beatty is both stylish and period perfect while Catherine Zuber's costumes, especially those for Billie, are gorgeous and beautiful as well as help in showing Billie's transformation.   In act one they are all bright and sexy but in act two they are more business like and smart.  I don't think I've ever seen a pair of glasses more effectively used to show how someone is intelligent, than in this production.

Director Doug Hughes should be congratulated for making an old chestnut seem fresh and for getting such great performances out of this cast.  I can't wait to see what Nina Arianda does next.

Official show site

Highlights from this production -

Trailer for the 1950 movie -

Thursday, June 9, 2011

theatre review - THE BEST IS YET TO COME, THE MUSIC OF CY COLEMAN- Off Broadway, June 8

Stritch, White, McGillin, Mayes, Burnham and York
Cy Coleman had a prolific career, not just in musical theatre but also with an extremely successful career in jazz and song writing.  He wrote the scores to eleven Broadway shows including the smash hits Sweet Charity, Barnum, City of Angels and The Will Rogers Follies and his pop hits include "Witchcraft" and "The Best is Yet to Come."  All of this happened after he was an extremely successful jazz musician, performing and recording with his own jazz trio.

With a vast catalog of material it is hard to believe that a revue of Coleman's music hasn't happened until now.   But as the director of this revue, David Zippel, mentions in the Director's notes for the show, when asked about a revue of his music Coleman commented "that's for after I'm gone, let's write something new."  Coleman died in 2004 so I guess the more important question is, what took so long?

Zippel, who wrote the lyrics to City of Angels, has assembled a nice ensemble of Broadway performers for this Off Broadway revue, many of whom have some prior associations with Coleman.  Lilies White won a Tony for her performance in Coleman's last original Broadway show, The Life, Rachel York appeared in the original Broadway cast of City of Angels and Sally Mayes was in the original cast of one of the few Coleman Broadway shows that flopped, Welcome to the Club.  Add to this list two time Tony nominee Howard McGillin and the fairly young David Burnham and you have a small but effective group of performers who are more than able to deliver the more than 30 songs in this production.  Heading up the eight piece orchestra as well as providing vocals on a few songs and musical direction for the show is Billy Stritch.

Now this show doesn't attempt to do anything more than present Coleman's songs, there is no story or dialogue to bridge the material.  Fortunately Coleman had many successful lyricists he collaborated with so with Coleman's rich music you really don't need anything else as his songs pretty much can easily stand on their own.  If there is an overall theme to the show, I'd have to say it is about love and romance, both the good and bad as so many of Coleman's songs deal with relationships.

All of the performers are given many moments to shine- but here are just a few of my favorites: Lilias White gets to deliver the song "The Oldest Profession" that won her a Tony from The Life, which is creatively joined with a slowed down version of "Never Met a Man I Didn't Like" from The Will Rogers Follies.   Mayes' delivery of the torch song from City Of Angels "With Every Breath I Take" as well as Seesaw's "Nobody Does It Like Me" are both showstoppers and really made me realize how Mayes should have had a much stronger Broadway career then she has had.  York shines on both the ballad "Come Summer" and the upbeat "Hey Look Me Over" from Wildcat.  McGillin delivers a touching "I'd Give the World" from an unproduced Napoleon musical and David Burnham's take on "Witchcraft" is not just a homage to Sinatra who made the song famous but also comes across with a nice theatrical touch and warmth as well.  The ladies are given a little bit more to do then the men with all three of them delivering a rousing "You Can Always Count on Me" and York and Mayes dueting on the comical gem from City of Angels "What You Don't Know About Women."  The entire cast has a few moments when they all sing together including one of the final songs in the show "It Started With a Dream" a song with a Zippel lyric from Pamela's First Musical that is both heartfelt and inspiring.

I liked how several songs were presented in different ways them you are used to seeing them as well as having some lesser known Coleman songs presented just as strongly as some of his more popular songs.   There are also a few songs from the as yet unproduced Coleman/Zippel comical musical N, based on Napoleon.

My only quibbles are that nothing from Barnum is heard in the show and only short songs from Will Rogers Follies and On the 20th Century.  Also, even with only a five person ensemble the stage can feel very cramped when all of them are on it.   As nice as it is to have performers of this calibre literally performing only a few feet away from you, a larger space would most likely fit this show better.

This production runs through July 3rd.  

Official Show Site

Cy Coleman singing "The Best is Yet To Come" -

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

theatre review TENNESSEE WILLIAMS' ONE ARM, Off Broadway, June 7

Tennessee Williams' name alone conjures up images of sexual tension and steamy nights in the South.   His unproduced screenplay based on his 1948 short story One Arm has been adapted into a one act play by Moises Kaufman full of everything you'd imagine from a Williams tale.  The play opens Off Broadway tomorrow night and runs through July 2nd.  Though the short story is set in the late 30's,  Kaufman has updated the play to 1967.  The plot follows a young man, Ollie, who had once been a light heavyweight champion boxer, but who lost an arm in an auto accident.  To him, losing his arm is basically losing his manhood, and unable to find anyone to hire a man with one arm, he turns to street hustling to make money.

The play is told in flashback, beginning with Ollie in prison, on death row, for a murder he committed, but we don't know exactly what transpired to get him to where he is now.  He starts receiving letters, many with no return addresses on them, from people he barely remembers but who remember him.  These people saw his picture in the paper and the letters all say they hope he is innocent.  The flashback scenes take us to his encounters with many of these letter writers as well as to the events that got him in prison.  The play is narrated by someone whom I believe we are supposed to assume is a character based on a young Tennessee Williams.   He begins by saying "One Arm, an unproduced screenplay by Tennessee Williams" to set the tone.  But I'm on the fence for the use of a narrator, as while it is effective to give us clarification into what Ollie is feeling or thinking, the way the narrator also spoke in film language, like "close-up" and "dissolve" since he is carrying around the screenplay, doesn't really jive with the staging, and sometimes the writing of the narration seems a bit clunky.

Claybourne Elder
I did like how the play unfolded, slowly giving you more information about Ollie's life as well as how sometimes the past and present blended together.  But while we quickly understand that Ollie is basically unable to have an emotional connection with anyone, we never really understand why that is.  We never get Ollie's back story before he lost his arm, except a brief boxing scene and the scene before the car crash.  He keeps reminding everyone he meets that he only has one arm, but he also knows, or believes at least, that the "John's" that hire him are hiring him for this "oddity," so in some way he has found a way to work his handicap to his advantage.  We see many instances of the same type of scene, with Ollie reading one of the letters he received and having a flashback to him being unemotionally attached to the man who hired him who wrote the letter.  Ollie then reminding them he only has one arm and telling them that he knows that is why they hired him and then Ollie sitting in his prison cell realizing he was simply remembering this encounter.  Now I know that repetition is a good way to memorize things, but we don't need to be hit over the head so many times to get the fact that Ollie is a "straight" man having sex with men for money who find themselves emotionally attached to Ollie even though he has no feelings for them.  And while Claybourne Elder was extremely effective in portraying the various emotions Ollie is confronted with, the play's two dimensional writing of the lead character gives us only a small understanding why he meant so much to the men he had sex with.  Elder is a nice looking man, with the lean body of a boxer, so we can understand the physical connection the men had with him, but since the play is all about emotion, Kaufman needs to figure out a way to more effectively work that into the play to truly make this into the moving piece that it is trying desperately to be.

There is still much to like in this play, including the encounter that Ollie has with an older wealthy man played by Steven Hauck as well as the last 10 or 15 minutes of the 80 minute piece where everything comes together.  This last sequence, when a divinity student visits Ollie in prison after seeing his picture in the paper, provides the catalyst for Ollie to understand what he's been missing.  Todd Lawson is spot on as the sexually confused student and the connection he and Elder have is fairly intense at times.  In this short sequence, Ollie realizes why the men he slept with had such a strong connection with him and how he has never had the same type of feeling for anyone.

Kaufman, who also directed this production, has assembled a fairly effective group of actors to bring the play to life, with many of them playing multiple roles.  I especially liked Larisa Polonsky, who, as the only female in the cast gets to play a wide range of characters.   Kaufman's direction seamlessly blends the past with the present and he effectively uses the stark and industrial setting to imagine various locales throughout Ollie's journey.

Kaufman has been working on his adaption for several years now and I think he needs to spend a little more time working out the kinks and fleshing out the lead character.

Official Site for the show

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

10,000 pageviews!

I'm in complete shock that my blog just went over the 10,000 pageview mark.   It's been just over 11 weeks since I officially launched the site and I've had people finding my site from all over the world, so I know it isn't just me who increased the "hit" count to 10,000!   Thanks to everyone for reading what I have to write.

Here is a list of the Top 10 pageviews by country:

United States - 5,965
United Kingdom  - 655
Argentina - 465
Germany  - 336
Canada  - 264
Australia  - 208
Denmark  - 187
Netherlands  - 102
Hungary  - 82
Brazil - 79


theatre review - HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING, Broadway, Second visit, June 6

Radcliffe and Larroquette
We took a trip back to How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying last night, and I'm happy to report that the show is even in better shape than it was when we saw it in previews. Daniel Radcliffe and the rest of the cast are having such a blast performing this material that the entire evening becomes an infectious comical love fest for musical theatre, this show and especially Radcliffe and his cast mates.   The whole audience walked out of the theatre on a cloud last night, with big smiles on their faces.

To give a brief recap of the plot of the show- Radcliffe is J. Pierrepont Finch, a former window washer who upon reading a book entitled "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying," finds himself quickly on the way up the corporate ladder at the World Wide Wicket company.    John Larroquette is the President of the company and a very determined Radcliffe figures out how to be in the right place at the right time to overhear important information that can help him as he ascends the ladder. 

I am still in complete shock that Radcliffe was overlooked for a Tony nomination.  I've seen all of the other nominees and Radcliffe is head and shoulders above all of them in his performance.   His dedication to the material, the show and his fellow cast mates are all perfect.   He is even better now than he was when we saw this show back in March.  Radcliffe's charm, charisma and dedication are front and center and the rest of the cast meets him in his challenge to make this show a truly joyous night in the theatre.  His singing is especially stronger now, which is really saying something considering they added a Monday night performance this week since they aren't performing Sunday since it is the day of the Tony Awards, which meant this was their 9th straight performance without a day off.   Come Saturday night they will have performed this show 16 times over 12 days without a break. 

Radcliffe and Blanchard
Tony nominees Larroquette and Tammy Blanchard are also having a grand time together with each finding even more comical bits to chew on.  A second visit also gave me the opportunity to notice many little elements that I missed on my first visit.  Like the way the secretaries bang the file cabinets in their "Cinderella Darling" tap number with their feet to show their frustration or how the World Wide Wicket company building is prominently featured in the beautiful New York City painting that is on the stage curtain.  A second viewing also gave me more reason to praise Director/Choreographer Rob Ashford.  He has amazingly created a unique and original look and style to the production and his dances are not only period specific but comical and completely creative, with many of the sequences exploding into sheer comical madness.  A throw away number like "Grand Old Ivy" has now become one of the highlights of act one.

Radcliffe in the "Grand Old Ivy" number
The cast recording is being released today and the entire cast sounds amazing.  The recording includes a lot of extra material, like the curtain call and exit music as well as several bits of introductory dialogue into some of the songs.  

This show is toward the top of my list for this Broadway season as well as one of the best nights I've had in the theatre in the past several years.   Just go and get tickets now.

Official Site

Cast recording clips -

Amazon link for the MP3 download of the cast recording -

Amazon link for the cd of the cast recording -

"Brotherhood of Men" from Letterman -

Friday, June 3, 2011


I previously posted my reviews and thoughts on recordings by members of the original Broadway cast of The Secret Garden (Alison Fraser and Rebecca Luker) and now I'd like to comment on Howard McGillin's solo recording, Where Time Stands Still.  Now while McGillin wasn't in the original cast of The Secret Garden, he did replace Mandy Patinkin in the role of Archibald, the male lead and Uncle of the young female lead Mary and played the part for about half of the Broadway run.  McGillin has received two Tony Nominations (for The Mystery of Edwin Drood and Anything Goes) and holds the record for the longest running Phantom in The Phantom of the Opera having performed that part over 2,500 times.  He is currently co-starring in the Off Broadway revue of Cy Coleman music entitled The Best is Yet To Come which I will be seeing next week.

McGillin's recording is in the traditional adult contemporary style with lush orchestrations and the cd includes many American standards as well as several show tunes.  He has a strong, clear tenor voice that is romantic and lush and he has nice control as well, being able to let his voice soar as well as sing in a whisper.  This is a very romantic cd that I think you will like a lot.  

Some comments on some of the tracks on this recording:

The first track is a paring of "My Romance" from Jumbo and the Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein song "The Folks Who Live on the Hill" which perfectly ties into the "time" theme that is present throughout this recording.   Another beautiful pairing comes with the two Sondheim songs "Not While I'm Around" and "Good Thing Going" from Sweeney Todd and Merrily We Roll Along respectively, that McGillin delivers in a touching way.  Irving Berlin's "Isn't This a Lovely Day?" from the film Top Hat has a great arrangement that starts with a solo piano that blossoms into a full out jazz fest with McGillin having a swinging time with the lyrics.

The Indigo Girls' "Power of Two" is a more current song then the previous tracks and McGillin delivers the upbeat song in an arrangement that includes him providing backup vocals as well and the end result is pretty special.  "Why Did I Choose You?"  from the flop musical The Yearling is also nicely delivered in a touching way.  He expertly pairs two Andrew Lloyd Webber songs that work so perfectly together, "Music of the Night" from Phantom and "Unexpected Song" from Song and Dance.  The Rodgers and Hart song "I'll Tell the Man in the Street" from I Married An Angel is given the full romantic and lush treatment with an arrangement that swells and is in perfect harmony to McGillin's soaring vocals.  McGillin's version of "I Have Dreamed" is a quiet and direct version of the romantic ballad from The King and I.

"Time" is a fairly unknown song from the musical Was, which is based on the novel of the same name.  McGillin was involved in an early demo recording of the score of that show, which has been produced but hasn't made it to a New York engagement just yet.  There are some beautiful songs in that score and this is one of them, so it is nice to see McGillin including it on this recording.  James Taylor's "The Secret of Life" obviously has no ties to musical theatre and though McGillin does a nice job with the material, the arrangement isn't quite up to the standard of the rest of the songs on this cd.  However, McGillin does have a great time with the swinging, upbeat arrangement for "Lucky To Be Me" from On The Town.  This is followed by a beautifully quiet take on the Henry Mancini/Leslie Bricusse movie song "Two For the Road" and the cd concludes with a touching version of  Mary Chapin Carpenter's "Where Time Stands Still" that includes a beautiful arrangement with a violin focus.

If you like romantic themed recordings with lush orchestrations definitely check this cd out.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

"Classic Film Flashback" - Desk Set (1957)

Desk Set, the classic 1957 film starring Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, is a humorous and well crafted romantic comedy about what happens when the computer is introduced to corporate America.  The film is a nice way to look back at the way things used to be, before computers took over the world and work depended on a group of knowledgeable individuals who knew how to get the answer to a question without doing a google search.

The film is set in the New York offices of the fictional Federal Broadcasting Network where Hepburn is in charge of the research department and Tracy is an implementation and efficiency expert who, it seems, is brought in to replace everyone with an "electronic brain".  With Hepburn and Tracy at the center, you know you're in for a witty couple of hours, and the screenplay and direction give our two leads plenty of time and situations for the banter and wit to flow.  They are both strong determined characters who think they have the other figured out, but aren't always correct in their assumptions.  The plot is the same way as well, as you might think you know where it's going but there are a couple of surprises in store so your assumptions aren't always correct.

Blondell, Hepburn and Tracy
The supporting cast is pretty good too.  Joan Blondell is Hepburn's close friend and co-worker and Gig Young is Hepburn's romantic involvement, a romance that has been going on for 7 years with no engagement in site.  Blondell plays another one of her usual wise cracking characters and she is given a few moments to shine, but always has plenty of warmth behind the delivery of the lines.  The same can be said about Hepburn, who is not only warm, but smart, loving, concerned about her co-workers and sexy as well.  I don't think Hepburn has ever given a bad or even just slightly less than great performance in any of her films.  In Desk Set, she continues that trend of playing another determined, strong, but fragile character and she also gets to play tipsy, and manages to completely capture that state of being in an honest, sincere, realistic and very funny way.  Tracy, as usual, is more of the straight man to Hepburn, and in the case of Desk Set, he serves that role for Blondell as well to a degree.  He perfectly plays the role with just the right balance of low stated humor in his delivery and extreme intellect but with the added touch of his words giving fuel to the fire of the situation without necessarily knowing that he is feeding the flames.

Based on the 1955 play by William Marchant that had a nine month run on Broadway and starred Shirley Booth in the role that Hepburn would play on film.   The 1957 film was directed by Walter Lang with a screenplay by Henry and Phoebe Ephron, Nora Ephron's parents, who the previous year wrote the screenplay for the film of Carousel.  Lang directed many other stage to film transfers including The King and I, Call Me Madam and Can Can as well as the original film musicals State Fair and There's No Business Like Show Business and the classic family films Cheaper By The Dozen, The Little Princess and The Blue Bird.

Hepburn and Tracy had an amazing connection on screen and in their personal lives.  They made nine films together and Desk Set was the first of the films they starred in made in color.   If you're looking for a fun night at the movies, with well written dialogue and a top notch cast, then put Desk Set in your Netflix queue now.

Click below to buy the film from Amazon- also included the nine film Hepburn/Tracy dvd collection as well.

Trailer for the film -