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


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. 

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.

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:

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

broadway birthday - MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG opened on Broadway 30 years ago today!

The enormously unfortunate flop Stephen Sondheim musical Merrily We Roll Along opened on Broadway 30 years ago today and ran for only 16 performances.  It was Sondheim's follow up show to his successful 1979 musical Sweeney Todd.

It was a somewhat daring show in that it told the story of three close friends but told the story in reverse starting in 1976 and ending in 1957.  It was an interesting idea but one that proved somewhat confusing to the audience.  That, along with the fact that the show seemed slightly on the low budget, less professional Broadway side, with the characters in the show almost all played by young college aged actors who wore basic t-shirts that said things like "best friend" to identify their relationship to one of the main characters, seem to be why it didn't run longer than 16 performances.  

Walton, Morrison and Price - note the t-shirt Walton
is wearing that says "Frank" on it and Price's that
says "Best Friend."
 It was also the last Sondheim show that Sondheim's long term director Hal Prince directed after many hits together.  They wouldn't collaborate on a show together for over 20 years after the failure of Merrily.

Fortunately the Sondheim score is rich with some of his most memorable songs. The fact that the score was preserved in a cast album made right after the show closed, by its completely energetic cast, was a godsend and a huge reason why the show has been revised and revived several times.

The story revolves around Frank, Charlie and Mary. They are three friends who met in college and over the years became successful in their own ways. When the show begins only two of them are speaking to each other and as the show unfolds, and we go back in time, we see what happened to fracture their relationships. We also see at the end of the show, which is when they first met, how young and hopeful they all were before fame and fortune took them on an alternate path sometimes far away from their original goals. The end of the show is especially heartbreaking, seeing how passionate, idealistic and hopeful they all are after we know what will ultimately happen to each of them once fame and ambition consume them.

The original Broadway cast starred Jim Walton as Frank, Lonny Price as Charlie and Ann Morrison as Mary. The cast also included Jason Alexander and in the ensemble Liz Callaway in her first Broadway show. The book was written by George Furth based on the 1934 play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart of the same name.  Famous songs from the show include "Not a Day Goes By," "Good Thing Going," "Old Friends," "Franklin Shepherd Inc," ""Like It Was," and "Our Time."  There isn't a single song in the score that doesn't add something to the understanding of the characters or the plot.  It is one of my favorite Sondheim scores.

Playbill for the 1994 Off Broadway production

In 1985 a revised version of the show opened at the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego with older actors playing the characters.  That production also eliminated and revised some of the original book and starred John Rubenstein as Frank, Chip Zien as Charlie and Heather MacRae as Mary.  This production also included a new song, "Growing Up," that further fleshed out the character of Frank.  Another revised version happened in DC in 1991 with Victor Garber as Frank, David Garrison as Charlie and Becky Ann Baker as Mary.  Marin Mazzie was Beth, Frank's wife, in both of those productions.

In 1994 an Off Broadway production of the show opened with Malcom Gets as Frank.  It was a well received production that also resulted in a cast recording of the revised version of the show, including the song "Growing Up."   In the Summer of 2002, the Kennedy Center in D.C. produced it's "Sondheim Celebration" which included six fully staged Sondheim shows produced in repertoire over a few months.  That production starred Raul Esparza as Charlie with Emily Skinner in one of the supporting parts.  Other productions have also happened in the UK (a 1992 production there also produced a cast recording) and around the world as the Sondheim score is simply one that people can't stay away from even with the fact of its short Broadway run.

Poster for the 2002 D.C. production

Two interesting upcoming productions are planned for early next year.  In February, John Doyle who directed the recent Broadway revivals of Company and Sweeney Todd is directing a production of Merrily at the same place where his version of Company started, the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park.  But before that production, New York's City Center Encore's is producing their semi staged concert version of the show in February for a two week run, which is longer than the usual runs for its other concert productions. That production will star Colin Donnell as Frank, Celia Keenan-Bolger as Mary and Lin-Manuel Miranda as Charlie.  James Lapine, who directed the 1985 La Jolla production of the show, will direct the Encore's production.
Merrily We Roll Along is a show like many others where people will keep producing it in hopes to figure out and fix what was wrong or missing in other productions to make it into the hit show that so many know it deserves to be.

So Happy 30th Birthday Merrily We Roll Along, I know you'll keep "rolling along"!

Jim Walton performs "Growing Up" a song written for his character to sing that was written for the La Jolla Production four years after he appeared in the Original Broadway Cast.

Bernadette Peters sings 'Not a Day Goes By":

Raul Esparza performs "Franklin Shephard, Inc" from the 2002 Kennedy Center production:

the beautiful and heartbreaking end of the show "Our Time" from a foreign production of the show:

"Opening Doors" from a recent student production of the show:

Monday, November 14, 2011

theatre review WILD ANIMALS YOU SHOULD KNOW, Off Broadway, November 13

"Don’t you ever want to do something just because you can?” is the key line of dialogue in the new play by Thomas Higgins, Wild Animals You Should Know.  When spoken by a restless, bored, beautiful and extremely nihilistic teenage boy with a mean streak, you know you're in for trouble.

Matthew and Jacob are best friends.  Matthew is the boy mentioned above and Jacob is his gay best friend and boy scout partner.  When the play begins it is Jacob's birthday and Matthew is giving him his birthday wish, to undress down to his underpants for him via skype.  The straight but completely nihilistic Matthew is more than happy to comply and in doing so he notices someone across the street looking out his window at him as he undressed.  This sets the play in motion as when Matthew looks through his binoculars he sees the person that is watching him from the other window just happens to be their boy scout troop leader.

Behlmann, Johnson and Glick
As the two teenage boys, Gideon Glick as Jacob and Jay Armstrong Johnson as Matthew couldn't be more realistic and natural in their parts.  The dialogue for both of them is legitimate and real, well as real as one would expect between an "anything goes" teen and his gay friend who definitely has feelings for him.  Their many scenes together range from being sweet to violent, especially when Jacob is upset with what Matthew plans to do.   Even though the two boys are completely different, Higgins uses his dialogue to set up scenes that make you see how and why they are the best of friends.

John Behlmann is the troop leader and he has the look and actions of someone who loves nature and what he can teach the boys.  He also has no idea that it was Matthew he saw undressing.   The quiet way Behlmann shows his emotions and reactions when he finds out what Matthew has planned for him, as well as the way he speaks about his former boyfriend who died, is nicely done and meaningful and completely in character.

Breen and Ripley
An overnight boy scout camping trip is where half of the play's action takes place.   Matthew's father Walter, played smartly by Patrick Breen, has recently lost his job and feels restless like his son does but he also feels lost in his life.  He spent many years dedicated to his job and was a mostly absent father for Matthew and so his wife volunteers him to chaperon the camping trip, feeling that it will help both father and son.   While I liked how Breen portrayed the part, the scenes between him and fellow scout father Daniel Stewart Sherman didn't really go anywhere.  The same can be said for most of the scenes with Breen and his wife, played by an underused Alice Ripley.

Matthew clearly wants to destroy someone, but it isn't exactly clear why he does.  Just because he can, as that line of dialogue above mentions, isn't a good enough reason and that is my biggest problem with the play. While the scenes with the two boys seem polished, the rest of the play still feels underwritten and lacking a focused meaning even after having a couple of workshops and readings.  While the scenes between Matthew's parents are underwritten as well as most of the ones between the adults in the show, there is one touching scene between Breen and Glick toward the end of the play that is very effective.

Direction by Trip Cullman is well suited to the small space and cast.  I also liked the use of what I assumed were Boy Scout Guide chapter titles that were projected above the set to set the  message of each scene.  With phrases like "how to start a fire" and the title of the play "wild animals you should know" they were very effective in the double meaning of these titles in relation to the events of the play.

Sexual tension is appropriately apparent and the play leaves one with many questions for debate, which can be a good thing.  There is an interesting point somewhere in this play but Higgins needs to take another crack at his play to figure out exactly what he wants it to say.

Official Show Site

Saturday, November 12, 2011

broadway birthday PAINT YOUR WAGON opened on Broadway 60 years ago today

When one thinks of classic Lerner and Loewe musicals they think of My Fair Lady, Brigadoon and Camelot, Paint Your Wagon doesn't necessarily make the list. Paint Your Wagon was their followup show after collaborating on Brigadoon, but unfortunately it didn't quite fair as well as that musical which ran for over 500 performances on Broadway.

Paint Your Wagon opened on Broadway sixty years ago today and managed a run of just over 8 months or 289 performances.  Set in the Gold Rush California years of the 1850's, I'm not exactly sure why it didn't run longer than it did as it has an interesting  plot and the Lerner and Loewe score does have several nice songs.  Now, the story is set in a town with only one woman who happens to be a 16 year old girl who doesn't quite understand why she is getting so much attention from the hundreds of men in town.  The men basically tell her father that if he doesn't get her to leave town they can't be responsible for their actions. She falls in love with a young Mexican man which of course her father doesn't approve of so he sends her away.  Add to this a Mormon man with two wives who basically auctions one of his wives off to the highest bidder and a bevy of women "entertainers" who show up at the end of act one to "entertain" the men and you can see how you don't exactly have a kind of show that would seem to appeal to the tourist crowd, especially in 1951.  Maybe that is why it didn't run longer than it did.

 Olga San Juan, James Barton and Tony Bavaar
The plot of the show centers on a man Ben Rumson and his teenage daughter Jennifer who discover gold on the land, stake their claim, call their new town Rumson and before they know it their town is overrun by hundreds of gold prospectors, all of them men.  When the daughter falls for a young Mexican man Julio, and her father disapproves, he sends her out East.  Jennifer tells Julio she will be back in a year and to wait for her.  Ben wins Elizabeth, the younger of the two Mormon wives, for $800, which makes Jennifer unhappy at the way her father is behaving so she runs away, but does end up going out East to learn proper etiquette.  However, after awhile a broke Julio decides to leave Rumson as well looking for gold and when the gold mines in Rumson run dry, most of the prospectors leave town too.  Jennifer returns to Rumson a more mature woman and her father tells her that he needs to move on as well, that he wasn't meant to stay in one place.  News of gold a short distance from Rumson comes and almost everyone but Jennifer and Ben leave town.  However, when Julio returns and Ben tells him that Jennifer never gave up waiting for him, Julio is amazed with how lucky he is.  Ben decides that Rumson is his place and that he will stay put and the show ends with Ben approving of the relationship between Jennifer and Julio with hundreds of people and wagons in the background as the California Gold Rush continues on.

Songs that came from the Paint Your Wagon score include "I Talk to the Trees," "They Call the Wind Maria," and "Wandrin' Star."   The show starred James Barton as Ben, Olga San Juan as Jennifer and Tony Bavaar as Julio.  Alan Jay Lerner supplied the book and lyrics and Frederick Loewe the music, Agnes De Mille supplied some rousing dances (something she also did for the team's Brigadoon) and the show was directed by Daniel Mann.

Burl Ives and Nola Fairbanks as Ben
and Jenniger in the National Tour of the show
Burl Ives also played the part of Ben on Broadway as well as in a National tour of the show and the musical also had a London run in 1953 that actually ran longer than it did on Broadway.

18 years later the show was turned into a movie musical that starred Lee Marvin and Cint Eastwood.  For the film Marvin played Ben but the plot was changed drastically with the elimination of the part of Jennifer and the Mexican character of Julio becoming a white man who was a partner of Marvin's and played by Eastwood.  The female character of Elizabeth, the Mormon wife who is auctioned off to Ben is the same in the movie but she is now also in love with the Eastwood character.

Paint Your Wagon has never been revived on Broadway and is one of those shows that will most likely rest quietly in the background to only be heard from every now and then, most likely in regional theatre or local community theatre productions.  It's too bad as the score has some really nice songs.

Happy 60th Birthday Paint Your Wagon!

Harve Presnell sings "They Call the Wind Maria" - from the movie:

Clint Eastwood - "I Talk to the Trees" - from the movie:

Lee Marvin- "Wandrin' Star" - from the movie:

Opening sequence of the show from the Arizona Light Opera Company's production:

Simpson's spoof of the movie:

Friday, November 11, 2011

theatre review BONNIE AND CLYDE, Broadway, November 10

The new Broadway musical Bonnie and Clyde is a throwback to original musicals of the past. It isn't based on a movie, not a revival and doesn't feature a Hollywood name in the lead. It is simply a new musical, based on real people, with a pretty good score, a clear book with period perfect dialogue and well crafted book scenes that naturally dissolve into and out of the songs. It also features two star turns in its two lead roles. The show is currently in previews and opens on December 1.

For those who don't know who Bonnie and Clyde were, they were two outlaws, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, who started out in 1930's Texas and along with a few others became famous for robbing many stores and banks across several states. This was the time of the Great Depression and they both came from poor families and became minor celebrities due to the robberies and the fact that they were unmarried 20 year olds on the run. Several men, including some police officers, were killed during the robberies and those murders along with their new found fame and notoriety, made them a focus of a manhunt which ended in them being ambushed and killed. The musical covers all of that and more, wisely starting with the ambush, then going back to when they were both about 12 and showing how they met and what started them on their life of crime.

Laura Osnes and Jeremy Jordan
Laura Osnes and Jeremy Jordan are Bonnie and Clyde and they are both simply perfect for the parts. While both have had lead roles on Broadway before this is the first time for both of them to originate a lead role in New York. They both portray their roles naturally and are absolutely believable as these two famous people. Jordan is especially great in the several dialogue heavy moments he has, completely throwing himself into the part. You clearly see the desperation he feels and how he gets off on the life he has chosen, but when he kills his first person you also see the feelings going through his mind and how that completely impacts him especially when he realizes things will never be the same from then on in. Osnes portrays Bonnie as the perfect gun moll, but also has the same passion and desire for something different and exciting that Jordan also has. She is conflicted in her love for bad boy Clyde and like Jordan excels with the smartly written dialogue. You never once doubt the heat, passion and connection that the two of them have for each other. They both also have amazing voices and are given some great songs to sing.

Elder and Van der Schyff with Osnes and Jordan in the background
The show also features Claybourne Elder as Clyde's brother Buck and Melissa van der Schyff as Buck's wife Blanche. Van der Schyff is a standout, and might see a Tony nomination come May. She perfectly captures the God loving woman who also loves her man, even when he is doing wrong. She has been given a fully fleshed out character to play as well, more so than Elder, who's Buck could be more layered, though that isn't a fault of Elder's. Louis Hobson as Ted the policeman who has a thing for Bonnie has a nice duet with Jordan where they both profess their love for her and is used effectively throughout the show to form a version of a love triangle with our two leads.  As far as the ensemble goes, Michael Lanning is given some nice moments and solo parts as the preacher and his folk inspired voice works perfectly with the score.  The rest of the small ensemble plays multiple parts effectively and pretty much everyone is given an important character to play in the progress of the plot, even if it is just one with a few lines.

One of the many photos of actual people
that are projected throughout the show
and mirror the characters on stage
Composer Frank Wildhorn hasn't had a big Broadway hit in a long time. I'm not sure if this show will be the hit he's been hoping for, but I think it just might be. He has wisely collaborated with lyricist Don Black and book writer Ivan Menchell instead of the past Broadway collaborators for his shows Wonderland and Civil War that barely ran beyond their opening nights.

Wildhorn's score features elements of country, bluegrass, gospel and blues as well as more traditional musical theatre ballads. They all fit perfectly with the time period of the story and feature some beautiful orchestrations by John McDaniel that have some lovely period perfect banjo moments. It is Wildhorn's best musical score since The Scarlet Pimpernel and is one that I think will grow on people on repeated listenings, so they'd be wise to get a cast album recorded and released soon. There are many catchy tunes, much more so then last season's Wonderland. I'm not sure if Wildhorn has wisely chosen not to include any power ballads like were present in his previous shows or if they got cut along the way over the development period of this show. But I'm glad there aren't any as the character driven ballads that are present are natural fits to the characters and the time and place of the story and aren't just generic pop rock ballads like Wildhorn has sometimes been accused of writing for his other shows.

Michael Lanning and the ensemble combine with actual pictures to form
a realistic "breadline" from the Great Depression
The book by Ivan Menchell doesn't feature any moment or scene that doesn't add to the overall plot and thrust of the show, every scene is important. There also aren't any unnecessary characters to get in the way of the story. A lot happens in the 2 1/2 hours. Director Jeff Calhoun keeps the action moving forward swiftly and stages the show with a clear purpose. The book scenes are especially well done and the actors portraying Young Bonnie and Young Clyde (Kelsey Fowler and Talon Ackerman) are never cloying or annoying, which Calhoun has to take credit for. The expert staging of various songs, including some knock out duets, a shootout that stops midway for a very dramatic moment and the touching scenes with our main characters and their family members are testament to Calhoun's abilities.

Jordan and Elder, front right - note the newspaper article text
projected on the wooden scrim
Now I'm not sure how much liberty has been taken with the plot details in the show from the actual events but a note in the playbill does make mention to the research that the author has done. The show portrays the poverty and desperation both lead characters feel that are the basis for why they have the dreams they do. The show wisely uses the 12 year old versions of the characters in the very beginning of the musical to set those dreams in motion.  Bonnie wants to be a movie star just like Clara Bow and Clyde wants to be just like Billy the Kid.  She is the small town girl who dreams of getting her picture in a magazine and a life on the silver screen in Hollywood and he is a boy who wants to escape from the poor life he has.  I did like how Bonnie's poems are part of the show, even leading into some song lyrics and when a newspaper publishes one of her poems it echos her dream of being in a magazine.

While the musical wisely never attempts to lay blame on anyone else but themselves as to why Bonnie and Clyde did what they did, the beatings that Clyde got in prison from both other prisoners and the guards and the mentions of Clyde and Buck being arrested or questioned by police various times for no reason at all does flesh out why Clyde and his brother have a violent streak in them. Combine this with the many views of poverty and depression and you see why Clyde decides to rob a few stores for some quick cash. However, I wish the book was just a little more focused around the world around our main characters. Sure, there is much talk about the Depression and we see bread lines and hear of how people are starving and out of work, but we rarely get a sense as to how the politicians were doing nothing to help which also contributed to many people feeling restless and desperate, which is a big reason why Bonnie and Clyde and countless others turned to a life of crime.  By focusing on the tragic love story at the center, the show tries to get us to be able to connect more with the leads, but without clearly showing the impact of the world around them we lose the emotional connection to our characters that would elevate the show even more.

Osnes and Jordan
The one big obstacle that Bonnie and Clyde has is that its two main characters are ones who you don't naturally want to root for.  I mean, they are cold blooded killers after all.  But because pretty much anyone seeing the show knows how the story will end, and if you didn't know you find out in the first 30 seconds of the show, the musical wisely focuses on how the characters got to be who they are and their relationships with their families.  In doing so we are given the opportunity to see what draws Bonnie and Clyde to each other as well as how most of the main characters struggle somewhat with the decisions they made. The musical doesn't excuse them for what they did or try to explain why they did what they did, and by not doing that it makes a good attempt to get you to feel for them much the way Chicago makes you connect to it's two main females, who are also both murderers. You may not want to like them but with the charisma of the characters and understanding somewhat of the desperation they feel, you end up feeling for them. Unlike Chicago, Bonnie and Clyde is a dark story based on real characters with plenty of stage blood and gunshots to remind us of how bloody and real it is, but there are also many moments of humor and humanity too.

The set design by Tobin Ost features a wood stage with ramps, steps and wood scrims which expertly sets us in the America Dust Bowl of the Depression period. Projections by Aaron Rhyne combine real photos of Bonnie and Clyde and the other real characters in the show as well as photos and newspaper articles from the period to draw you in to the desolate time and place the musical is set. The projections work perfectly on the light wood scrim walls.  Ost also did the costumes and there are several times when the costumes are almost perfect matches to the images we see in the projections.  Lighting by Michael Gilliam is appropriately atmospheric, whether it be a dark prison scene or lights in the forest from a car or a manhunt.

I'm not sure how much will change during the preview process, but with just a few tweaks Bonnie and Clyde could be a big hit.

On a side note, Calhoun, Jordan, and Ost were all involved in the recent smash hit production of Newsies at Paper Mill Playhouse that just ended a few weeks back.  If that show comes in to Broadway next Spring like rumours have it, and they somehow get Jordan to appear in it, they all could find themselves with multiple Tony Nom's come May.

Official Show Site

TV ad - Behind the Scenes video -

A song from the show- "This World Will Remember Us" -

Rehearsal footage -