Saturday, June 23, 2012

theatre review DON'T DRESS FOR DINNER, Broadway, June 16

Farce can be a hard thing to pull off.  You need the right pacing, proper comic timing and the ability to not veer too far into the extreme otherwise it could come across as blatant mugging and scenery chewing. 

Last Saturday we saw one of the final Broadway performances of the French farce Don't Dress For Dinner and based on the reviews the show received I went in with low expectations.  I don't know if the cast has had more performances to work on those things I mentioned above or if it was just my low expectations but I have to say I was pleasantly surprised with the outcome and the casts ability to pull off this play that included many hilarious moments. 

Adam James and Ben Daniels
Don't Dress For Dinner is a French play that was written by Marc Camoletti in 1987 and translated into English by Robin Hawdon.  It is actually a sequel of sorts to Carmoletti's earlier play Boeing, Boeing which just happened to be presented earlier this season at the Paper Mill Playhouse.  The play is your typical farce with plenty of misdirection, mistaken identities and many double entendres but with a minimal amount of door slamming when compared to other current farces like Noises Off and Lend Me a Tenor

Spencer Hayden, Ben Daniels and Patricia Kalember
Featuring the same two male characters from his earlier play, Don't Dress For Dinner is actually a better constructed play than Boeing Boeing due to the fact that the comical action starts within just minutes of the plays opening.    In Boeing, Boeing the craziness didn't really hit its stride until about twenty minutes in. 

Bernard and Jacqueline are a middle aged married couple who are both having affairs on the side. Jacqueline is supposed to be going out of town to see her mother so Bernard had arranged for his mistress Suzanne to visit for the weekend along with his friend Robert.  When Jacqueline learns that Robert is coming for the weekend she changes her plans as Robert is actually her lover and she figures that if she stays she and Robert can find some time to be together.  Bernard has also arranged a cook to come for the weekend to help out with things. So, when Jacqueline tells Bernard that she is not going to see her mother he tells her that Robert is bringing his girlfriend and convinces Robert to pretend that Suzanne is his girlfriend.  When Robert confuses the cook Suzette for Bernard's mistress Suzanne hilarity begins.  Things really get interesting when the cook begins to understand exactly what is going on and how to continually monopolize on the ever changing situation as the stakes get higher and higher.   The craziness doesn't stop for the next two hours. 

Spencer Hayden and Ben Daniels
This production is fortunate that Spencer Hayden is playing the cook. Not only is she great with the comic timing required but she delivers a humorous French accent as well as a lithe body that bends and flows around the furniture and the bodies of several cast members.  She so expertly handles everything required of her that it is easy to see why she received a Tony nom for her performance.  As Bernard and Robert, Adam James and Ben Daniels deliver on the requirements and Daniels, who is on stage more then anyone in the rest of the cast, provides some very funny bits including a fast and funny and very speedy monologue, but neither of them really sizzle in the sexuality of the roles.  The same could be said of Patricia Kalember who is playing Bernard's wife.  She is sensual and perfectly charming but this is a sex farce so a little more heat would have been nice from the three leads. 

The same can't be said about Jennifer Tilly.  Sure, she may come across as performing in a different version of the play then the rest of the cast due to her roughness and lack of any form of European accent but damn if she doesn't grow on you.  She provides a huge shot of sexuality as well to the otherwise prim and proper cast.   She has no problem letting it all hang out and her curves and flash of flesh add a nice bawdy element.  David Aron Damane has the right combination of fear and sweetness as Suzette's jealous husband and when he shows up late in act two he has no problem jumping right in with the rest of the cast and actually brings the zaniness to an even higher level.

Jennifer Tilly, Ben Daniels and Spencer Hayden
Director John Tillinger keeps the pace moving fast and the cast hitting the appropriate marks.  He has also contributed several clever and humorous comic bits like one including a phone cord as well as a lovely but still funny tango for a slightly drunken Suzette and Bernard.  Design elements are perfectly splendid with a lovely country house set design by John Lee Beatty, some gorgeous costumes by William Ivey Long that include formal wear as well as some of the most gorgeous pajamas I've ever seen and seemingly simple yet effective lighting by Ken Billington.  Overall Don't Dress For Dinner is a fun show with many hilarious moments, expert design elements, solid direction and a more than competent cast led by the bawdy Jennifer Tilly and the extremely talented Spencer Hayden. 

Video segment featuring the cast talking about the show and some clips of the production:

Monday, June 18, 2012

theatre review OLIVER! Irish Repertory Theatre Benefit, June 11

Most benefit concert performances aren't fortunate enough to have fully fleshed out production values, completely rehearsed casts and huge ensembles.  Fortunately, even with some of those shortcomings, the Irish Repertory Theatre's benefit concert of Oliver! this past Monday managed to deliver some really nice performances and pull off a fairly good production of this well known and well loved musical.

Based on the classic novel Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens, the musical Oliver! with Music, Lyrics and Book by Lionel Bart, had a hugely successful run in London and a fairly decent one on Broadway in the early 60's.  In 1968 the film version of the musical won six Oscars including one for Best Picture.

The plot of the musical and novel follows young orphan Oliver Twist from his miserable workhouse life to being pulled unwillingly by a young teen "The Artful Dodger" into a life of crime, living and working with a group of juvenile delinquent pick pockets.  That group is led by an older thief, Fagin, but Oliver eventually escapes and fortunately ends up reunited with his dead mother's family.  

While the original musical was an abbreviated version of the Dickens' novel, the benefit concert was even more abbreviated, running just under two hours.  Fortunately the concert included the majority of the Tony winning score and the wonderful performances of Brian Stokes Mitchell and Melissa Errico.  Stokes was Fagin, the leader of the gang and Errico was Nancy, the older female member of the gang who serves as a surrogate mother figure for Oliver.

The score of Oliver! has several well known songs and hearing Errico's glorious soprano wrapped around the music and lyrics of "As Long As He Needs Me," "I'd Do Anything," and "It's A Fine Life" and the rich baritone of Stokes singing Fagin's songs more than made up for some of the shortcomings of the evening.  Those shortcomings included numerous audio issues due to microphones not working correctly, strange costume choices and the use of spare narration to replace the huge chunks of book that were cut.  Ciaran O'Reilly, the Producing Director of Irish Rep provided the narration, and while I understand that cuts in the book were needed, but with no set to speak of, the narration should have been a little more descriptive.  I know there were some people in the audience who weren't familiar with the show or story and I'm sure they were somewhat lost during parts of the performance.

The use of actual period costumes for the main adult cast was effective but all of the children in the cast wore modern street clothes, most in logo t-shirts that was jarring against the period costumes.  The use of a boy choir was effective, and they were at least dressed in more standard consistent clothing, but they weren't very well directed as to what to do between the songs or even while they were singing their parts, some swaying as they sang, others remaining motionless.

Still, Errico, Stokes and the rest of the cast more than made up for those fall backs.  As Oliver, Zachary Maitlin was effective and able to hit most of the notes required.  Lance Chantiles-Wertz as Dodger was also charming and had a nice voice.  It should be noted that the two boys were the only members of the cast not carrying their scripts around to refer to, which is not usually the case at a benefit concert.  It's nice to see the two of them being so professional.  The cast also included James Barbour as Nancy's evil boyfriend Bill,  John Treacy Egan as Bumble, Nancy Anderson as Nancy's friend Bet, Kathy Fitzgerald as the Widow Corey, Malcolm Gets and Ann Harada as the Sowerberry's and Jim Broucho as Mr. Brownlowe.  The Keystone State Boychoir added a lovely youthfulness and rich sound to the boy ensemble numbers.

Barbour was extremely effective at getting the fear and danger of Bill Sykes across and his deep baritone voice was especially nice on his one solo song.  Treacy Egan's rich voice was simply lovely, especially during "Boy For Sale."  Anderson, Gets, Harada and Kitzgerald provided some nice comic bits and Broucho added a lovely emotional touch of caring and tenderness.  Also, Donna Kane provided an extremely lovely solo during the "Who Will Buy?" sequence.

As I said above, even with the shortcomings of this concert, the score of Oliver! has so many well known and well loved songs that hearing an A list Broadway cast sing the score more then made up for any of the drawbacks of the night.

Behind the scenes at rehearsals for the benefit:

Friday, June 15, 2012

theatre review ONCE ON THIS ISLAND, Paper Mill, June 9

The Paper Mill Playhouse is known for presenting big splashy productions of Broadway hit shows. So I was very excited to hear that their final show of the season would be a little seen musical that played on Broadway over twenty years ago. Once On This Island ran for over a year on Broadway after a successful Off Broadway stint but it hasn't been revived on Broadway and I don't recall any productions in the NY area of the show happening since the original Broadway run.  Having seen the show on Broadway and now at Paper Mill, I was reminded how great of a show it is and how tuneful the score is.  Wth a small cast, this is a show that should be easily produced by regional and community theatres.   

The show is based on the novel My Love, My Love by Rosa Guy and has a book and score by that prolific team of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, who are most well known for writing the score to Ragtime.  Set on an island in the French Antilles, Once On This Island is a musical told as a story to a small girl who is frightened during a thunderstorm.  The story they tell her concerns a young girl, Ti Moune, a poor adopted girl who falls in love with a rich boy from the other side of the island.  With elements from Romeo and Juliet, the battle between the upper and lower classes and even a hint of the fairy tale The Little Mermaid, Once On This Island is a joyful musical with a Caribbean beat and a big heart.   

Ti Moune is a young girl who the Gods saved after the God of Water unleashed a flood upon the island. Found by an older peasant couple, Ti Moune grows up to be an active girl yearning for adventure, and as one song says "waiting for life to begin."   When she sees the rich boy Daniel driving by one day in his fancy car, the Gods who rule the island hear her plea and arrange a bet.  They want to see which is stronger, love or death, so one of the gods makes Daniel's car crash so Ti Moune can rescue him and fall in love with him. What happens next isn't exactly your typical Romeo and Juliet story but instead a musical fairy tale of hope, faith, love and yes, even sorrow. 

Syesha Mercado and Adam Jacobs
The star of the show is Syesha Mercado, best known as a semi finalist on American Idol.  She has a big powerful voice and brings a lovely realness and urgency to Ti Moune.  The entire cast is very good with standout performances from Kenita R. Miller and Kevin R. Free as Ti Moune's parents.  They both provided lovely and touching moments and both have voices that were more then effective in providing the right element of emotion to their songs.  Alan Mingo, Jr. as the god of death was extremely effective in adding the required element of fear to the show.  His singing and facial expressions were especially dark and deliciously scary.  Adam Jacobs as Daniel was a little wooden in his acting but has a rich and powerful voice that more then made up for his acting shortcomings.  Aurelia Williams as the Mother of the Earth, Darius de Haas and Saycon Sengbloh as the Gods of Water and Love all had nice solo moments to shine.

The score is simply excellent with many stand out songs.  Flaherty and Ahrens have written so many effective scores, with each one being in a unique style, that hearing this score, one of their earliest, only reminded me again how accomplished of a song writing team they are.  Ahrens also wrote the book, and while the majority of the 90 minute show is sung, there are many memorable and extremely effective and touching lines of dialogue as well.

Director Thomas Kail keeps the show moving along at a fast pace but also provides several appropriate times for the more quiet and emotional moments of the show to shine through.  Imaginative yet seemingly authentic choreography by Bradley Rapier only adds to the enthusiasm and joy of the show.  The highly creative sets from recent Tony winner Donyale Werle provide plenty of imaginative ways for the stage to become the various locales and props needed to tell the story.  While Werle's work here is very reminiscent to her Tony winning work for Peter and The Starcatcher, it isn't repetitive.  I especially liked the fluffy clouds, the use of masks and puppets as well as the lighting design from Kenneth Posner who created some effective storm sequences and the multi use costumes from Jessica Jahn.

Overall this is a joyful and exuberant show with a great cast.  For a rarely seen musical it is definitely a must see.   This production runs at the Paper Mill through June 24th.

Official Paper Mill site

Highlights from the Paper Mill production:

The Original Broadway Cast performs at the Tony Awards:

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

concert review BERNADETTE PETERS, NJPAC, June 2

We had the pleasure of seeing two time Tony winner Bernadette Peters perform with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra at NJPAC in Newark a week ago.

The concert was split into two acts, with the first act featuring the NJSO conducted by Gerald Steichen playing various orchestral selections associated with Peters.  We saw the NJSO last year with Steichen conducting an evening of John Williams music and his conducting and comments between the songs was just as good here as it was for the Williams concert.  He added personal insight into the selections as well as interesting comments about Peters' career.  A rousing Mack and Mabel Overture started off the act followed by Selections from Annie Get Your Gun.  A lovely Suite of selections from A Little Night Music was followed by two songs associated with Bernadette from her movie days.  “Tonight You Belong to Me,” which Bernadette sang with Steve Martin in the film The Jerk was followed by “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” from Monte Carlo Ballet which Peters and Martin sang in the movie Pennies from Heaven.  The playing by the Symphony throughout both acts was as excellent as it has always been with lovely solos and stirring group work, especially by the violin and violas. 
The second act began with a lovely Overture comprised of songs associated with Peters.  An abbreviated and fast version of "Let Me Entertain You" from Gypsy had Peters sashaying around the stage and set up the point of the evening- Peters was here to entertain us.  Her between song banter was humorous, though the running joke about the real estate market being flat and her need to sell her vacation house was a little strange especially when she sometimes talked too fast or too far from the mic for the punch lines to land.  Fortunately her voice was in perfect shape.

Peters has a long association with composer Stephen Sondheim and the majority of the selections Peters sang were Sondheim songs, including her opening number which Sondheim wrote the lyrics for.  Her second selection was a slowed down "No One is Alone" from Into The Woods that focused on the lyrics and found Peters in fine form. "Nothing like a Dame" from South Pacific had a rousing orchestration that also slowed down the song and made it into a humorous event that included Peters coming out into the orchestra and singing to a make audience member. 

Bernadette's take on the Peggy Lee classic "Fever" was the highlight of the evening, maybe because I was impressed on she was able to fully deliver this song not just in her vocal delivery but also in her body movements as well.   She began the song sitting on top of the piano and the entire song included choreographed movement with at one point Bernadette lying on the piano.  The accompaniment for the song was simple and stylish.  "Some Enchanted Evening" also from South Pacific was almost spine tingling.  For a song that is usually delivered by a deep voiced man, Bernadette had no problem making the song her own and again, making sure the meaning of the lyrics wasn't lost. 

Peters association with Sondheim was highlighted with two songs she sang in the recent Broadway revival of Follies.   "In Buddy's Eyes" and "Losing My Mind" actually sounded better in concert than when she sang them on Broadway.  I'm not sure if this was because Bernadette was just more rested and her voice wasn't strained from having to perform eight shows a week or if it is due to the incredibly lush orchestrations played by an orchestra that is many times larger than on Broadway. No matter what, both songs and Bernadette sounded amazing.  Marvin Laird, Bernadette's long time conductor and friend, who not only conducted the second act but also several of Peters' Broadway shows expertly handled the orchestra.

Another Sondheim selection, “Johanna,” from Sweeney Todd, followed and while Peters delivery of the song was good the orchestrations were loud and somewhat overpowering.  Bernadette mentioned that she performed at Disney Hall in L.A. a few years ago where she premiered a medley of "dream" songs from Disney films.  That medley included “When You Wish Upon a Star from Pinocchio and  "A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes” from Cinderella.  It was a lovely medley with Bernadette in fine form.

Sondheim's “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” from Company was a little too forced and fast but the coupling of two more Sondheim songs “With So Little to Be Sure Of” from Anyone Can Whistle and “Children Will Listen” from Into the Woods was lovely.  Peters ended the concert with another Sondheim song from Company, “Being Alive,” which she nailed.

Bernadette did come back for an encore.  After speaking about her work for shelter animals with her "Broadway Barks" organization, she mentioned the book she wrote of the same name and then sang the song she wrote that is included on a cd with that book. “Kramer’s Song” is a lovely lullaby for a pet and was a perfect way to end a perfect evening.

Bernadette's Official Web Site

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

cd review ALFIE BOE, "Alfie"

It's been awhile since there's been an artist who's successfully made the crossover from Classical music to Musical Theatre and Pop Stardom.  English Tenor Alfie Boe might just be the next performer to make that leap.  Though it is far too early to see if he will have the success that other crossover artists like The Three Tenors had, Boe, who doesn't have as extensive an opera background as those other famous three tenors had, does already have some impressive credits. 

Boe has appeared in several operas as well as alternated as "Rodolfo" in Baz Luhrmanns' 2002 Broadway production of La Boheme.  He and his fellow cast mates received a special Tony award for their appearance in that production and thousands of people saw his performance as Jean Valjean in the 25th Anniversary concert performance of Les Miserables.  That concert was released on dvd and cd as well as broadcast on PBS stations across the US.  His performance of Valjean received high marks and Boe also played the role for a stint in the London run of the show. 

His latest solo cd "Alfie" is making it's US debut today after premiering in the UK last Fall in a slightly different version.  This month also sees a concert dvd release from Boe that will also be aired on PBS Stations throughout June.

The cd features 14 tracks.  It is an interesting yet eclectic mix of songs featuring some standards, several show tunes and a couple of soft pop hits from the 70's.  Overall it is an enjoyable mix that will appeal to his Les Mis fans as well as those who've seen him in his opera, concert and tv appearances.  Some downsides of the cd relate to Boe's diction and wording. You would sometimes think that Boe wasn't English born with the way that some of the words sound.  In fact, many times he sounds as if he's Italian and English is his second language.  I'm not certain if that is due to his opera training or what.   And while it never detracts from the overall outcome of the cd, it is something that Boe should focus on to gain more mass acclaim.

The cd starts off with "When I Fall in Love" which features a softly stated delivery of this well known song.  Boe's "Maria" from West Side Story is a stirring rendition of the song with Boe hitting and holding the high notes to great effect.  He perfectly gets the joy and excitement of the lyrics and music of the song as well as lovingly finds the quiet, serious moments as well.

"When You Wish Upon a Star" from the movie Pinocchio starts off a little rocky but Boe manages to sell the song and delivers a lovely ending as well.  "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" is a song that will forever be associated with Roberta Flack but Boe manages to hold his own and the arrangement for the song adds a nice element of emotion that compliments Boe's delivery of the lyrics.

Boe's forceful rendition of "It Was A Very Good Year" makes this song one of the highlights of the recording. It also has an excellent arrangement that soars in the right places but is also soft and quiet exactly when needed.  The use of strings is lovely. Boe perfectly gets across the message of the song, especially the last verse when he's in "the autumn" of his years, which is interesting considering he isn't even 40. 

Stephen Sondheim's "Being Alive" from Company receives a different arrangement than we've usually heard on the many other recordings this song has received.  Boe excels at hitting the emotional moments of the song and delivers an excellent ending note as well.  Martina McBride's "In My Daughter's Eyes" is the most recent song on this recording.  Boe delivers a touching version of the song, no doubt due to the fact that Boe has a young daughter. 

The next track is "Music of the Night" from Phantom Of The Opera and for a song that has been recorded many times it is nice to hear a different arrangement from what we're used to hearing with the excellent addition of a choir at the end.  It is also nice to hear an "operatic" voice on this song which works perfectly since the musical is set in an opera house.  Based on this version of the song I can safely say that Boe would make an excellent "Phantom" and be a welcome addition to either the Broadway or London productions of the show.

The Gershwin classic "Someone to Watch Over Me" is the only song that Boe doesn't seem to quite get the meaning of.  It might just be that an operatic voice doesn't easily fit with the simple lyric structure and light romantic yearning touch required.  Boe seems to be hitting every beat and note exactly as required in the sheet music which is what detracts from the song. It is more of a "scripted" delivery of the song instead of a real and personable one.  Fortunately it is the only song like that on the cd. 

"Who Am I" from Les Miserables is a song that Boe has sung many times and he perfectly delivers the meaning of the lyrics a well as hitting the correct emotional notes required.  On "Wheels of a Dream" from Ragtime, Boe's voice fits perfectly with the lyrics and soars throughout.  It is nice that for this song the arrangement is very close to the original Broadway one.  Though this version features the perfect addition of a choir at the end.  "Bring Him Home" from Les Miserables is probably the one song that more people have heard Boe sing than any other song.  He nails it.

The recording also features two duets.  Rock legend Robert Plant joins Alfie on Tim Buckley's 70's hit "Song to the Siren" and Plant's voice is a nice compliment to Boe's.  When the two of them sing together it truly compliments the lyrics and message of the song.  "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables" from Les Miserables features Boe with his Les Mis concert mate Nick Jonas on a lovely duet of the song.  Though Jonas is just a little stiff on the song, Boe's voice soars and when the two of them join together it is simply stirring.  On the UK release of the cd original "Marius" Michael Ball joined Boe on the duet.  I'm assuming the change to Jonas was to hopefully add an American name to the recording to stir some additional interest on this side of the Atlantic.

The UK release of the cd has a slightly different track order and also includes Boe singing "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" as well as "Over the Hills and Far Away."  However the UK release doesn't include "Bring Him Home."  The cd features top notch technical skills throughout including some beautifully lush arrangements.  In fact, there isn't one arrangement that doesn't add to the song it is accompanying.

Boe may not be a household name just yet, but with this cd, his PBS concert set to air throughout June and an upcoming US tour in the Fall, he is doing what he needs to get his name and his voice out there.   This cd is a perfect addition to your cd library.

"Bring Him Home" from the 25th Anniversary Concert of Les Miserables :

"First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" -

"Music of the Night"