Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Les Miserables- film trailer!

The trailer for the film of Les Miserables has just been released - and it looks pretty amazing to me.  Can't wait for December to get here!

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

movie review THE IRON LADY

Is there anything that Meryl Streep can't do?   After showing us what she is capable of in dramas, comedies and even musicals I was about to think the only thing left for her to take on would be to play a man.  But then I realized she already did that when she played a male rabbi in the tv version of Angels in America.  She recently took on the role of Margaret Thatcher in the film The Iron Lady which earned her a third Oscar and her 17th Academy Award nomination. 

The Iron Lady is a pretty good film that shows Thatcher's rise to fame and all of the controversy she created with the decisions she made while she was in power.  While the film touches upon the key points in Thatcher's career, it really isn't a typical docu-drama but is really more like a memory play with the older Thatcher looking back upon her past and the various decisions she made.   The fact that this is all surrounded and continually interrupted by the older Thatcher having what appear to be dementia based hallucinations that include her dead husband being present and his comments on her memories, her past decisions and their children, makes The Iron Lady rise above many other linear driven biographic films.

Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher
Jim Broadbent provides another quirky character to his long list of work as Margaret's husband.  Streep and Broadbent together are simply splendid in their ability to make you feel the love the two of there characters have, warts and all, and in this relationship and everything they went through, it seems there were plenty of warts. 

Director Phyllida Lloyd provides a steady hand to the events and expertly manages the flashbacks, confusion and her direction of Streep, though I'm sure Steep needs little direction.  She and Streep previously worked together on the film of Mamma Mia, which was Lloyd's film directorial debut, she also directed the London, Broadway and National tour productions of that show.  The Iron Lady is a completely different film and thus makes a fine follow-up to the popcorn fun of Mamma Mia and should provide plenty of future feature directing opportunities for Lloyd.

I really like how the film shows how powerful people can become powerless as they get older.  This brought up comparisons to Ronald Regan's later years as he fought Alzheimer's.  While the film does focus on the key moments in Thatcher's career including the miners strike, the Falkland Islands war, the Irish National Liberation Army assassination of her campaign manager and the hotel bombing where she and her husband were almost killed, the film is really the story of how dementia and old age impacts a person.  And when the person was formerly in a powerful position like Thatcher the downfall of dementia can be an all encompassing sense of powerlessness.

Broadbent and Streep
The film doesn't really take a stand on Thatcher and her politics, instead showing the good parts and bad of her 11 year run as Prime Minister.  In fact, someone who knew nothing about Thatcher would basically see a story of a woman and the personal, political and public obstacles that got in her way.  I was fine with how it showed the personal impact of a public life and the impact it has on your family and less concerned that the filmmakers didn't take a stand about her politics.

I liked how we saw the strained and very distant relationship she has with her children, possibly somewhat due to the poor relationship she had with her own mother as well as her focus on power. I also appreciated the focus on Thatcher's view that being in public office is more about what you can do for the public and less about what you can do for your own career.  A point not shared by many politicians world wide who seem to be more focused on doing and saying what they need to in order to further their own careers.  Of course for Thatcher once she got a taste of the power the drive for more of that continual power seemed to be just as important to her as her belief that she was doing what was right for the public.

I also liked a line of dialogue that the ghost of her husband has when Margaret is watching videos of her young children.  He basically tells her, when she accidentally rewinds the video,  "You can rewind the past but you can't rewrite it."  A comment so true for anyone looking back at their life and even more so for someone in power who might thing some of their decisions were now possibly not the correct ones. 

Streep as the 80 year old Thatcher
And while Thatcher is portrayed as an uncompromising person, she is often referred to several times as a grocery store owner's daughter.   She herself says that she would never be a wife who stays in the kitchen doing the dishes.  Both of these references come into play in the scenes that bookend the film.  In the opening scene, we are in a modern day corner grocery store and, ironically, when Margaret goes to buy a pint of milk no one recognizes her.  I particularly liked this portrayal of a well known person who used to have all of the power now not being recognized anymore.  But I especially liked the ironic ending of the film that refers back to the person she said she would never be.
Much has been written about the uncanny resemblance of Streep to Thatcher that the Academy Award winning make up designers Mark Coulier and J. Roy Helland created.  But what amazed me most wasn't the makeup, hair or accent but actually Streep's body movement as both the younger and especially the older Thatcher.  Just watch the opening sequence when she is walking down the street or when she is getting dressed for the dinner party and you don't see a 60 year old Streep but an 80 year old Thatcher.  And even when she is sitting still so much is said through Meryl's eye movements. It is a towering performance and one well deserving of the Oscar.

trailer for the film:

Streep talking about her portrayal of Thatcher:

Monday, May 28, 2012

100,000 pageviews!

In almost exactly 14 months since I launched this site I've just hit 100,000 pageviews of my blog. 

I'll keep writing my reviews of shows, cds and movies as long as people keep reading what I have to say.

thank you, thank you, thank you to everyone who's stopped by, commented or emailed me.


Saturday, May 26, 2012

cabaret review CHITA RIVERA, NJPAC, May 19

Chita Rivera can't stand still.  Though she may claim "I Won't Dance, Don't Ask Me," the fact that the two time Tony winner is constantly moving around the stage throughout her cabaret show makes it hard to believe she will be turning 80 early next year.  She has been touring her show "Chita Rivera, My Broadway" around the country and we caught her stop at NJPAC's Chase Room in Newark this past Saturday.

While her voice may be just a little rough around the edges and she might not be able to hold the notes as long as she used to, she still has so much power in her voice that when combined with her acting skills she still manages to completely deliver every song she sings.  She also has such charm and personality that carries throughout the theatre and in telling her stories about her life she adds so much humor to them that she comes across as such a down to earth person, well a down to earth person who just happens to have won two Tony's and starred in about fifteen Broadway shows.

She says she's from "the golden age" and while she says she's scared of what comes after that, she loves that she is from that era, a period when every theatre had a show in it and there were only new shows on Broadway.  She says that today there are so many revivals but that a few years ago she had a wonderful experience when she was walking through the Times Square area and passed posters for the revival of Bye, Bye Birdie and Chicago and then had a bus pass her that had a huge sign for the revival of West Side Story on it.  Chita talks about how much of an honor it is to having appeared in the original casts of all of those shows and how happy she was to see all of them on Broadway at the same time.  She said that after seeing those three posters and billboards "I thought, wait, am I supposed to be somewhere at 8:00 tonight?"

After her opening number that combined the afore mentioned "I Won't Dance" with the Irving Berlin classic "Let Me Sing," it was chilling to hear her sing a pairing of "A Boy Like That" and "America" from West Side Story.  If you shut your eyes you'd swear you were listening to the cast album that was made over fifty years ago.  And of course, during "America" she kicked up her heels across the small stage in the Chase cabaret room.

"Sweet Happy Life" has a nice message about making sure you live each day to the fullest with plenty of laughter and love.  It also has a rousing beat that found Chita moving across the stage to connect with the audiences on all three sides of the stage. 

In the many stories Chita told throughout the show she mentioned about being so lucky and fortunate to have lived such a great life as well as having had so many good friends in her life.  Two of those friends were the songwriting duo of John Kander and Fred Ebb.  "I Don't Remember You" is one of the earliest songs that Kander and Ebb wrote from the show The Happy Time.  Chita appeared in numerous Kander and Ebb shows, almost all of which have been recorded, so it is nice to hear her sing a Kander and Ebb song from a show she didn't appear in.  The message of the song is about aging and the inability to not always remember certain things and it included an amazing guitar accompaniment from Michael Croiter, who is also the music director for the show.   She commented that with all of the recent talk about the behind the scenes issues of the Spiderman musical that people forget that she was there first as the "Spiderwoman" in the Kander and Ebb show Kiss of the Spider Woman.  She won her second Tony for her role in that production. She sang a pairing of two songs from that show "Where You Are" and the title song and, like her take on those two songs from West Side Story, didn't sound any different than her performance on the cast recording.

Back in the 1960's, Chita starred in the National Tour of Sweet Charity as well as appeared in the 1969 film version.  Her take on "Where Am I Going?" from that show was a bit out of the ordinary .  Usually the number is sung in a more subdued quiet way, but Chita delivered it with an emotional rawness that I'd never heard before.  She talked about her leading men and how lucky she's been, including how much fun she had dancing a tango with Antonio Banderas in the revival of Nine.  In Seventh Heaven her co-star was Ricardo Montalban and she sang the humorous song "Camille, Collette, Fifi" in which she originally played the part of Fifi.  She expertly played all three parts when she sang the song, providing different characterizations to the three different parts.   Talking about her male co-stars was a perfect segue to her talking about the couple of guys she has loved over her years.  Her take on "Not Exactly Paris" was a lush and romantic story about remembering the one love of your life.

She talked about when she was first asked to star in The Rink and that she was so happy to learn that her co-star was going to be Liza Minnelli.  She said she'd always wanted to play sisters with Liza and was silent when she was told that she wasn't going to play Liza's sister but her mother.  "Chief Cook and Bottle Washer" is a fun character driven song and, once again, Chita sounded exactly the same as she did almost thirty years ago when that show first premiered and when she won her first Tony for her performance in that show.

"Carousel" from Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris is a song that when delivered right can be an absolute showstopper.  Chita starred in a production of the show with Theodore Bikel.  "Carousel" is a song about how we are all on a crazy carousel that is turning round and round that starts off slow and the accompaniment begins going faster and faster just like a carousel spinning out of control.   Chita managed to turn the song into a theatrical event that ended with a rousing ovation from the audience. 

"Nowadays" and "All that Jazz" are two songs closely associated with Chita and her performance in the original Broadway production of Chicago.  Both begin with vamps that are closely identified with each song and Chita mentioned that whenever she hears the one for "Nowadays" she always sees Gwen Verdon standing next to her as that song is a duo for the two female leads in the show.  Verdon died in 2000, so Chita's performance of the song, now as a solo, was touching in the way she delivers it as somewhat of a tribute to her friend and co-star.  In talking about the vamp that introduces "All That Jazz," Chita talked about how happy she was with the film version of the show.  She said that she told Catherine Zeta Jones, who played the part of Velma that Chita did originally on Broadway and who won the Oscar for her perfomance "you can keep the Oscar, but I get to keep the vamp."  Chita then delivered a rousing performance of the song that found her once again dancing all over the stage.

Chita ended her show with an encore of "Circle of Friends" by Carol Hall.  With all of Chita's talk about the many friends she's had over the years it was a perfect way to end the show.

Chita Rivera is a true living legend.  And she isn't stopping anytime soon as she'll be back on Broadway this Fall in a revival of The Mystery of Edwin Drood.  If Chita comes to your town don't miss the chance to see her.

Most of the songs Chita performed in her cabaret show can be heard on her latest cd "And Now I Swing"

Chita's official Website

Chita sings "Where You Are" from Kiss of the Spider Woman -

Chita and Gwen Verdon perform "Nowadays" from Chicago on The Mike Douglas Show - also includes an interview with both of them

Monday, May 21, 2012

theatre review ARE YOU THERE, MCPHEE?, McCarter Theatre, May 18

The McCarter theatre is ending its season with the world premiere of a new play by John Guare, Are You There McPhee?  Best known for writing The House of Blue Leaves and Six Degrees of Separation, Guare has delivered an overstuffed play of crazy proportions that while never boring unfortunately is too long, unfocused and gets lost along the way. 

McPhee is crazy and wacky with too many strange subplots to mention.   With a strange sense of "what will happen next?" the play centers on a playwright, Edmund Gowery, telling the story of what happened to him in 1975 when he took the money he made from his one hit play and invested it in a rental house in Nantucket, though he had actually never visited that island before.  The house was formerly owned by the daughter of a famous children's book author, and children or more so the theme of "lost children," factor importantly into the play. 

Paul Gross and John Behlmann
When the tenants who are renting the Nantucket apartment are accused of running a mail order child pornography ring, Gowery must go to Nantucket to prove he had no knowledge of what was happening in his house. There he finds that everyone he encounters played a part in a production of his one hit play that he was invited to attend but declined to do so.  Many of these individuals hold it against him that he didn't see their production which they claim many say was better than the original .  While every one of these Nantucket residents are somewhat crazy characters the wackiest are McPhee, a love struck man with a giant lobster in a cooler who sends Gowery to a house with the lobster to wait for McPhee's girlfriend, and Peter and Wendy (that lost children theme again) who Gowery finds in the house he is sent to and who are watching two children there who's parents are away.  The parents of those two kids include the children's book author's daughter that Gowery bought the house from and who are off in California hoping to sell the rights of the children's books to Walt Disney.  Gowery soon finds himself watching the two kids when Peter and Wendy disappear.  With the many plot points and characters in constant motion, Gowery and the audience is continually trying to figure out what is happening around him, what will happen next and how this will all come together. 

Add to the mix that this is the summer of Jaws, which plays endlessly at the movie theatre in town and Gowery finds everyone he encounters is reading the book the movie was based on.  Also, Gowery has been asked to write the screenplay for a remake of Hitchcock's Suspicion, a film whose plot centers on whether or not a husband is out to kill his wife which is a theme also mirrored in McPhee. The remake is to be directed by Roman Polanski and star Jane Fonda and Robert Redford.  Everything that he encounters in Nantucket makes him question if he can use it in either a way to have the Fonda and Redford characters meet each other or if he can incorporate it into a future play. 

Gross and the craziness around him,
puppets included.
Like I said above, a lot is jammed into the plot of this play and it mostly resembles a nightmare of crazy and I've only mentioned about 1/2 of the various plot elements.  Oh, did I mention there are also several puppets in the production as well?

Now Guare did visit Nantucket in 1975 and marry a girl he met there and he has declined seeing productions of his play including one a few years back at Princeton.  He has also written the screenplay for Atlantic City which earned him an Oscar nomination.  So one wonders how much if any of McPhee is autobiographical. 

Paul Gross who hardly ever leaves the stage is delivering a fascinating and solid performance as Gowery.  He is smartly dressed, looks great and provides a grounded center for the lunacy that happens around him. John Behlmann as McPhee plays an almost mirror image of Gowery with his shaggy dog look including his scraggly beard and cut off jeans. He is a man crazy in love and prepared to let nothing get in his way. The rest of the cast achieves the appropriate level of zaniness to make the play never seem outright silly or pretentious, which is a rare feet with everything that happens in this play.

McPhee is a roller coaster of a play and director Sam Buntrock delivers expertly in his direction of ensuring the cast is always achieving the sense of heightened zaniness the play requires.  I also appreciated the sense of surrealism in the play especially in the sets by David Farley that are extremely inspired, especially the Magritte themed room in the Nantucket home Gowery bought. 

While there are a few moments of inspired madness especially in the scenes between McPhee and Gowery, at over 2 1/2 hours the play runs a little long and doesn't exactly find a way for the many themes of the show and multiple plots to come together into a message or meaning.  I'm not sure if this is simply a play by an established playwright that needs considerable trimming and a better focus and McCarter was blinded by the fact that it was a new world premiere of a play by John Guare or if I simply missed the point Guare was trying to make.   I did like the crazy plot and characters and I'm hoping that with some editing as well as a more refined ending that better wraps everything up that McPhee will find its way in a future production of the play.

Are You There, McPhee? runs through Juned 3rd.

Official McCarter Theatre Site

A brief preview of this production -

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

theatre review THE 39 STEPS, George Street Playhouse, May 12

I am a huge fan of the films of Alfred Hitchcock.  And since Hitchcock himself was known for his sense of humor it is only natural that one of his earliest films has been whipped into a comic gem of a theatrical soufflĂ©.   

Hitchcock's film The 39 Steps was based on the novel by John Buchan and was such a successful film that the 1935 film has been remade several times.  While some of those remakes have stayed closer to the Buchan novel then Hitchcock did, the play of The 39 Steps sticks close to the film and throws in references to other Hitchcock films as well.  Written by Patrick Barlow, the play first premiered in the UK in 2005, followed by a three year run in New York.  The UK production even won the Olivier Award for Best Comedy.  The production at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, NJ runs through this coming Sunday, May 20th.

Stacie Morgan Lewis and Howard
McGillin getting ready to "check in" at
the Bates Motel.
The plot of the film, play and novel centers on a man falsely accused of a murder and what he does to prove his innocence as he flees across the English countryside.  This theme would be one that Hitchcock revisited many times over his illustrious career such as in North by Northwest and Saboteur.  It is also a theme that many other books, plays and movies have focused on.

John Hannay is a single man who after a night out at the music hall finds himself taking home a frightened woman after shots are fired at the theatre.  He later learns that she is a spy and the one who fired the shots as she is being followed by assassins who know that she has uncovered a plot where others are planning to smuggle British military secrets out of the country.  The man overseeing this plot runs an espionage organization called "the 39 steps." 

The woman spends the night at his flat, and the next morning, when Hannay finds her stabbed and dying, she gives him a few last details as to how he can help her stop the secrets from getting out of the country.   Hannay, on the run from the police who suspect him of the murder must stop the secrets from getting out as well as attempt to prove his innocence without getting killed by the assassins himself.

McGillin -it is amazing how a scarf with
a wire in it, a bicycle handle and some
lighting and music can come
together to portray a getaway
on a bicycle

Now while the details of the plot and all of the films based on the novel and original film are as serious as possible, the play is played for laughs and one of the ways it achieves this is to have all of the parts played by a cast of only four people.  And since the character of John Hannay is on stage for almost the entire time, it means that the three other actors must play all of the other 100 plus parts in the show.  The cast is so adept at playing multiple characters as well as so in sync with the split second costume changes that there were many times when I believed there where other actors off stage waiting to come on when all four of the actors were on stage.

Howard McGillin plays "Hannay" with the perfect touch of a proper English gentlemen (by way of Canada, no less) and he throws himself into the part.  I've seen McGillin in numerous Broadway musicals and I don't remember seeing him have so much fun in a part as in this one.  His performance did remind me somewhat of his role in the Broadway musical The Mystery of Edwin Drood where he also played an Englishman. 

Stacie Morgan Lewis only has three parts to play, those of the three women Hannay comes in contact with, but she so brilliantly plays each one, that you really can't imagine it is the same actress playing all three parts.  The accents alone, especially the one she uses for Annabella Schmidt, the German woman whom Hannay is accused of killing, are not only legitimate accents but also hilarious ones as well.

Every other part in the play is played by Mark Price and Michael Thomas Holmes and they are both amazing in their abilities to play so many different roles, some of them within seconds of each other.  The use of various wigs, mustaches and hats partnered with Price's and Holmes' rubber like features and skills at accents is a theatrical delight as well as pure insanity at many times.

Mark Price and Michael Thomas Holmes
Also, every chase scene and escape from the film, including ones on trains and in cars takes place on stage using a combination of theatrical magic and only a few set pieces.  It is amazing how a few trunks and some lighting can come together with your imagination to portray a chase on top of a train.  We saw the play on Broadway and enjoyed that and seeing another production of this play reminds me again how simple things can come together to provide theatrical magic.  It reminded me a lot of the current Broadway play Peter and the Starcatchers that also uses a small cast to play many parts and minimal sets to portray various locations.
The play includes references to other Hitchcock films and also uses music from his films as well.  The music works perfectly as a theatrical score for the action on the stage.  There is even a cameo by Hitchcock himself.

Mark Shanahan, who was an understudy in the Broadway production directs the George Street production.  He has also directed other productions of the play before and while he sticks close to what worked brilliantly on Broadway he appears to throw in a few of his own comical bits as well.  The play does get a little tired toward the end, but is still a fun treat for fans of theatrical imagination, spoofs and comedies. 

The play of The 39 Steps is a homage to the master of suspense himself, and any fan of Hitchcock, suspense, comedy and the theatre is bound to have a good time.

Official George Street Playhouse Website

Sunday, May 13, 2012

theatre review, COCK, Off Broadway, May 8

This past year has seen a plethora of new plays that have been received very well by both critics and audiences.  Other Desert Cities, Venus in Fur, Peter and the Starcatcher, Clybourne Park and The Lyons are at the top of that well received new play heep with many of these plays having transferred from off Broadway to Broadway with the first four in the running for the Tony for Best Play this year. 

Now comes a somewhat controversial play, Cock, who's title alone elicits both nervous laughter as well as intrigue.  Interestingly enough of all of the new plays I saw this year, including many in that illustrious list above, Cock is the one that is still playing in my mind days after seeing it.  It is not only that good of a play but one of the most ingeniously directed plays I've seen in a long time. 

Jason Butler Harner and Cory Michael Smith

The premise of the play is simple and when stated in two sentences actually sounds a little like a plot in a soap opera as well as somewhat hokey - John decides it is time to take a break in his relationship with his boyfriend and when he does he unexpectedly falls for a woman even though he had never had those kind of feelings before.  He must then choose which one he wants to be with.  Like I said, a bit hokey and simple. 

However playwright Mike Bartlett has crafted a 90 minute play with such depth that it is unlike anything I've seen in a long time.  Simple it isn't.   

Jason Butler Harner, Amanda Quaid and Cory Michael Smith
John, played by Cory Michael Smith is the younger member of the gay couple at the center of the play.  Jason Butler Harner is "M" the older and more controlling half.  He exudes control but also a strong need to have John in his life.  We've seen Harner in several plays before and this is a truly breakout role for him.  Smith is also doing great work here in a part that requires many quiet moments.

While it is easy to see why these two should take a break in their relationship, Bartlett has written such smart dialogue for both of them, and the other two characters as well, that one can also see how connected the two are.  Bartlett doesn't need to add extraneous material in order for us to completely understand exactly what is going on between these two, while they should be together as well as why they shouldn't.  The play might sound intense but it also contains smartly written dialogue that adds a considerable amount of humor to the intense situations. 

Amanda Quaid is "W," the woman whom John meets and falls in love with.  She is perfect in the part with the right balance, like Harner, of control and need.  The interesting irony is the only difference between "M" and "W" is their sex, as they are both extremely controlling people who aren't really that nice to John as both of them want what they want.  When the three come together that is when the real fighting begins as both "M" and "W" make their moves to sway John to pick them as the victor in the ultimate "cock fight."  And, while John seems like a nice, young and attractive guy, so we can easily see why both "M" and "W" desire him, he also is a very indecisive person and obviously sexually confused.  So all three main characters have their pros and cons, just like real people, and are likable enough to see why John is drawn to them and vise versa, but at the same time they are all somewhat unlikable as well - again, all naturally realistic characters.

The fourth character in the play is "F," "M's" father.  Cotter Smith plays the part with the requisite amount of charm and love toward his son.  He is fighting for his son's relationship as well, something any gay kid would love to have his father do for him.  Interestingly enough Smith recently played the father of a gay character in the play Next Fall, but in that play he played the father a gay person would never want to have.

Bartlett has crafted a very intriguing character in John, one who can't quite figure out how he fits in the various "labels" that the modern world puts on people, as "gay" and "bi" and even "straight" don't seem to help him find his way.  It is an interesting point of view and opened my eyes to how society "rewards" or acknowledges people for certain things like "coming out" as well as how sometimes what might seem like the easy way might not be that easy at all - ie: living a straight lifestyle.  As a gay man I always thought that a "bi" man who lived a "straight" life was really gay but just couldn't admit it and I never imagined a character like "John" who starts out living a gay life but then finds himself drawn toward women really existed, but after seeing Cock I now find myself having a different understanding for people who say they are "bi" as well as for those who feel they don't quite fit in.   Like I said before, this play has really opened my eyes to many things.

Cory Michael Smith, Cotter Smith,
Jason Butler Harner and Amanda Quaid
Smith perfectly plays the confusing and sexual intrigue that the role of "John" requires and I'm looking forward to seeing what other roles the future holds for him.

Besides the smart dialogue, what elevates the play into something out of the ordinary has to do with the way the play is staged.  The entire action of the play takes place on a circular stage that is surrounded on all sides by five rows of seats inside a large walled wooden auditorium.   The setting is reminiscent of where one imagines an actual cock fight would take place.  Not only are we as the audience no more than twenty or so feet from the actors but we can see every audience member throughout the play as there is no theatrical lighting here with the audience lit as fully as the actors.  We are watching the "fight" unfold in front of us as well as everyone's reaction to it just like we would at a prize fight.  The picture above gives you an idea as to the stage setup, you just have to imagine an audience filling in the bleachers behind the actors. 

We are witnesses to every fight and plee that each character undertakes, and this is a play filled with many loud arguments and emotional outbursts.  Director James Macdonald, who also staged the London run of the play, has not only drawn perfect performances from his four actors, he has also created some scenes that will forever be etched in my memory.  Two of them that quickly come to mind- the scene where John and "W" have sex for the first time which is staged as a dance between two people moving around in a semi-circle as they come closer and closer to each other, reminiscent in some ways of two fighters dancing around their target, and the final scene where what John doesn't say tells us exactly what he is thinking.  And, back to that sex scene for a moment - there is such a rawness and nakedness to the character's in the play but since this is a minimalistic approach even in that sex scene the actors remain completely clothed even though the characters are obviously not.  I can't think of a sex scene in a play that is more real and more emotional only in the words that are spoken since nothing sexual is seen during it.   The same can be said about the rest of the play, it is emotional and raw without the trappings of sets and costumes that most plays feel they need to have.  

For the majority of the play between each scene is a simple bell tone as if to indicate the end of one round and the beginning of another just like you'd hear at a fight. The only thing missing was a spit bucket for each character and a towel to wipe off the sweat.  As much as I liked that correlation to an actual fight, the end of the round bell sound virtually disappears toward the last half of the play as the scenes got longer. I think the bell needed to keep ringing as the stakes got higher and the outcome kept switching, especially since during those last longer scenes there were natural breaks when characters move from one "room" in an apartment to another, so the bell sound could still have worked as a scene break.  But that is a small quibble when compared to the sheer brilliance of this place and how it is staged.   

The only problems with this production have to do with the somewhat pretentious use of "M" "W" and "F" as character's names - I'm assuming Bartlett means "man" "woman" and "father" but why not just give them names like he did for John?  Also, the somewhat uncomfortable nature of the bleachers is a major deterrent. Though, I don't know if maybe that was the intent as when you're eavesdropping on all of these private moments maybe you shouldn't be so comfortable in doing so. 

Still, Cock is one of the most original, intelligent and thought provoking plays I've seen in a very long time- highly recommended.

all photos credit: Joan Marcus

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

theatre review, WEST SIDE STORY, National Tour, NJPAC, May 6

If you were to make a list of quintessential American musicals, West Side Story would have to be toward the top of that list.  With the perfect combination of drama, music and dance and containing some of the most well known theatre songs, West Side Story is a true classic with a message that still rings true sixty years after it first premiered. 

Written by Arthur Laurents with music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics from Stephen Sondheim and directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, West Side Story is a modern updating of Romeo and Juliet.  Set in 1950's New York City but instead of two feuding families we now have two gangs, one white and one Puerto Rican fighting for their home turf and the star crossed lovers caught in the middle. 

Evy Ortiz and Ross Lekites
There isn't one bad song in the score of this show.  With ballads like "Somewhere" and "Something's Coming," comical numbers like "I Feel Pretty" and "Officer Krumpke" combined with the heavy dance sequences "Cool" and "America" along with the lovely duets "A Boy Like That" and "Tonight," these songs are classics in the truest sense of the word.  Each song adds to the character development and plot and even the dream ballet of "Somewhere" is perfectly placed at the height of the tension and contributes some beauty into the ugliness we've just experienced.  Bernstein and Sondheim's music and lyrics so perfectly compliment each other with each at the top of their game.

The national tour of the show just ended a week long engagement at NJPAC in Newark before moving to Toronto for a month long run.  Based on the recent Broadway revival directed by Laurents, this production features a recreation of Robbins' original choreography by Joey McKneely and direction from David Saint.   When the recent Broadway revival premiered there was much talk of how many of the scenes and songs for the Puerto Rican characters were now in Spanish.   Now this touring production is a slightly different version then when the Broadway revival first premiered as some of the Spanish has been reverted back to English much as it was slightly scaled back during the almost two year long Broadway revival run.  I guess they thought there was too much Spanish for those viewers who weren't completely familiar with the show.  I think there is now a happy mix of the two languages that provide the correct ethnic felling but still keeping some of the most well known and most important lyrics in English. 
Michelle Aravena and Evy Ortiz
The cast for this tour is top notch. Ross Lekites as Tony has a clear and strong voice that serves his soaring ballads perfectly.  His "Maria" was stunning.  Evy Ortiz as Maria has the young innocent looks required but she correctly shows the yearning underneath.  She also has a lovely voice that is put to great use during "Somewhere."  The character of Anita is always the highlight of this show, and Michelle Aravena is smashing in the part.  She not only is a great dancer, with her "America" a major highlight of this production but her acting is so natural and raw and her voice easily wraps around the Spanish lyrics.  Her duet of "A Boy Like That" with Ortiz was perfect. 

In the supporting parts, German Santiago as Bernardo and Drew Foster as Riff are both effective in delivering the raw energy required for the leaders of the two rival gangs.  They are both gifted dancers who, along with the entire ensemble, make the many dance numbers in the show extremely energetic.  In fact, McKneely must have spent many hours in drilling his dancers as they are so in sync and the opening number and the Dance at the Gym sequence are red hot.  Bernstein's music and Robbins' choreography so elegantly portray the emotion and complexity of  the characters and the dancers in this show couldn't be better.   Alexandra Frohlinger brought a nice uniqueness to Anybody's,  the girl who wants to be a member of the Jets.   It's just too bad her voice isn't stronger since she is given the opening part of "Somewhere" to sing.

James Youmans provided the scenic design as he did for the recent Broadway revival.  His designs seamlessly and effectively portray the many locations in 1957 Manhattan. I really liked how effective the forced perspective on the simple drops and flats was in portraying various places especially the underside of the freeway during the rumple scene.  Lighting by Howell Bickley was nicely done and costumes by David C. Woolard provided a brilliant color palate.  Sound design by Dan Moses Schreier was extremely effective especially considering the large space of the NJPAC Prudential Hall.  All four of these men recreated their designs from the recent Broadway revival.

It's been awhile since I saw a production of West Side Story and seeing a top notch production like this reminds me again how brilliant of a show this is.  Sure, maybe our young lovers fall in love a little too quickly and when one character dies their sibling doesn't seem to mourn them for too long.  But those slightly unrealistic moments don't detract much at all from the intelligent and thought provoking simple message of acceptance and tolerance at the core of Arthur Laurent's book.  I don't know what else I can say about the score except that it has to be one of the most entirely effective and significant scores in musical theatre history.  It is amazing that this show is sixty years old and still has a message that is timely.  If this tour comes to your town or if a production of West Side Story pops up close by you, don't miss a chance to see a performance. 

Official Show Site

A montage of scenes from this production:

Karen Olivo and the Broadway revival cast perform "America" on the Dave Letterman Show:

The Broadway revival cast perform "The Dance at the Gym" on the Tony Awards: