Saturday, December 31, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Highlights from the show:

Saturday, December 24, 2011

theatre review WHITE CHRISTMAS - Papermill Playhouse, December 22

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

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

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

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

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

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

Highlights from the Paper Mill production:

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

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

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

Santino Fontana and Joanna Gleason

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

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

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

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

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

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

Official Show Site

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Official Show Site

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

Opening Night footage including some clips from the show:

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

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

Friday, December 16, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stokes singing "The Impossible Dream" -

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

and "Grateful" -

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

Friday, December 2, 2011

theatre review MEMPHIS, November 29

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Official Show Site

Show highlights with the Original Broadway Cast:

movie review THE TREE OF LIFE

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

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

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

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


Part of the "Creation of the Universe" section -