Monday, August 20, 2012

theatre review WAR HORSE, Broadway, August 8

A "blogger's night" on Broadway provided the opportunity for us to revisit last year's Tony winner for Best Play, War Horse.  Seeing a show a second time is usually a good way to notice things you might have missed the first time around, which in the case of a show like War Horse, that has a huge cast, a giant stage and is set over many years, is a huge plus.  However, seeing a show more than a year after it opened and with an almost completely new cast can sometimes be a negative if the new cast isn't up to the same level that the original cast was.   And, considering that the plot twists of the play along with the ending are already known when you make a second visit, that alone can make the second viewing less of a rewarding experience than the first.

I won't go into a complete overview of the plot of the show, since I did that already in my original review you can read here, but I'll simply state that this play shows the horrors of war and the effect it has on numerous people.  Focusing on a teenage boy Albert and the horse he loves, Joey and how they both end up in the middle of World War I, War Horse brings to life not only the impact that war has but also through the use of imaginative puppets Joey and several other horses and animals as well.   The play won six Tony Awards including Best Play as well as one for the Handspring Puppet Company who created Joey and Topthorn, the horse Joey befriends in the war.

Andrew Durand and "Joey"
While this is an ensemble show with even many of the supporting actors playing multiple parts it really is the part of Albert that sets the tone for the show.  He is a teenage boy in love with his horse and his country, if played too over the top it could bring down the dramatic thrust of the play, and if played too melodramatic it could threaten the emotional balance of the show.  Fortunately Andrew Durand perfectly plays the part, both the emotional teenage boy in act one, who loves his horse and hates the obstacles that get in his way of being with Joey and the slightly older boy who quickly becomes a man in act two when he is fighting for his country. 

Andy Murray as Albert's father was wonderful as the broken down man who drinks too much and gambles on the wrong things and the scenes that highlight both the struggles and love he has for his wife and his son are the emotional center of the play.  While I enjoyed David Lansbury as the German officer Muller who cares for Joey and Topthorn once they come under German ownership, I didn't think he had quite the stage presence of Peter Hermann who played that part originally.  Sanjit De Silva as the English officer who buys Joey and rides him into the war had the appropriate balance of compassion and power and his scenes with Albert were touching. 

Several original cast members are still with the show including Alyssa Bresnahan as Albert's mother, David Pegram as the soldier Albert becomes friends with and Kate Pfaffl as the Song Woman.   All three are giving richer performances then they did a year ago and the play is even better because of them.  Bresnahan in particular, who as the strong wife and mother who always has to take charge of the situation could become a caricature or stereotypical character but Bresnahan has a firm control of the part and her final moments in the show are especially memorable.

The staging by Tony winners Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris is highly effective and even in the large ensemble scenes is staged appropriately so your eye is drawn to the focus of the scene.  The creative elements of the show are even more memorable on a second viewing including the extremely rich lighting design by Paule Constable, the inventive set design by Rae Smith and clear sound design by Christopher Shutt, all three won Tony Awards for their work.

While the melodramatic moments of the play are slightly more apparent on a second viewing along with the fact that some of the scenes are a little slow going while still other plot points are somewhat brushed over, the magic of the show is still alive.  I once again was completely blown away with how you believe there are horses on the stage, you still see the three puppeteers controlling Joey and Tophorn, but somehow your mind ignores them and focuses instead on the majesty of the horses in front of you. 

So, War Horse is still a powerful, moving play and a rewarding and emotional theatrical experience filled with some of the most imaginative things you'll see on a Broadway stage.

Official Show Site

Montage of scenes from the Lincoln Center production:

Behind the scenes with Stephen James Anthony, one of the original ensemble members who now plays Albert's cousin in the show:

A brief behind the scenes clip of the puppeteers who bring Joey to life:

Saturday, August 11, 2012

cabaret review LIZ CALLAWAY AND FRIENDS- EVEN STEPHEN, Town Hall, July 30

Wow!  I think that pretty much sums up my review of Liz Callaway's concert at Town Hall last week.  Titled "Even Stephen" and featuring four special Broadway co-stars (three of whom are former Tony nominees like Liz no less) the evening featured the songs of three guys named "Steve"- Stephen Flaherty, Stephen Schwartz and Stephen Sondheim.

Now considering that Liz just played Norma Desmond in the musical Sunset Boulevard in Pittsburgh the week before this concert, it is amazing not only how clear and strong her voice was but that she delivered a two hour long concert that included some of the most challenging songs by the three Steve's.  Several of the solo highlights included a perfect "Meadowlark" from The Baker's Wife, a heartbreaking "Losing My Mind" from Follies and a stirring "Back to Before" from Ragtime.

Directed by Liz's husband Dan Foster, the concert was divided into sections.  After a beginning that featured Liz singing one song from each composer, "Company," "Corner of the Sky" from Pippin and a rousing "Waiting For Life to Begin" from Once On This Island, the evening wisely then separated each composer into their own 30 minute set.  While this separation didn't do much to show how each composer is comparable to the others, it did provide a more focused way to allow each to stand alone.  I only wish Liz had given us a coupling or trio of two or three songs by the different men as segues between the sections.

Liz and Norm Lewis
Liz has had a personal connection to each of these men.  In 1981, she made her Broadway debut in Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along, appeared in the legendary 1985 concert of Follies as well as the 1983 concert "A Stephen Sondheim Evening."  For Flaherty, she sang on many demo recordings for him and his lyricist partner Lynn Ahrens as well as sang the lead part of Anastasia on the film of the same name that they provided songs for.  For Schwartz she has toured the country with him for many years in his "Stephen Schwartz and Friends" concerts.  The personal stories she told about each composer is what made this concert even more special and made it more than just a singer singing songs from some of their favorite composers.

Jason Danieley, Norm Lewis and Joshua Henry were the three male Broadway "friends" that joined Liz throughout the show.   Each of the men got two solo spots as well as a duet with Liz.  Danieley was first out of the gate with a roof raising take on "The Streets of Dublin" from Flaherty and Ahrens' A Man of No Importance.  He actually was the only "guest" to appear in all three sections, coming back in the Schwartz section with a forceful "Out There" from the film The Hunchback of Notre Dame and capping off the evening with an absolutely perfect duet with Liz, "Move On" from Sondheim's Sunday in the Park with George.  Norm Lewis got the touching duet with Liz, "Forever Yours" from Once On This Island which he followed with a slightly subdued "Wheels of a Dream" from Ragtime.  I don't know if it was because it was his night off from performing in the Broadway revival of Porgy and Bess or what, but it seemed like he was struggling a bit as well as holding back.  Fortunately later in the evening he gave us a soaring version of "Being Alive" from Sondheim's Company and he didn't disappoint.

On the surface, Joshua Henry's three songs might seem to be all slow and simple but they allowed his clear voice and straightforward delivery of the lyrics to shine through.  He had a fun and charming duet with Liz on "Love Song" from Pippin which he followed with a perfectly delivered "Beautiful City" from Godspell and came back with a simply lovely take on Sondheim's "I Remember" from the tv musical Evening Primrose.  The three men joined together for a lovely yet somewhat under rehearsed "Pretty Lady" from Sondheim's Pacific Overtures.  The "special" guest of the evening was Liz's sister, Ann Hampton Callaway, and their duet of "For Good" from Wicked was stirring, touching, heartbreaking and just about as perfect as you can get. 

Liz was joined by musical director Alex Rybeck on piano, Jered Egan on bass and Ron Tierno on drums.  The arrangements for the songs and their playing of them was always concise, professional and lively. The direction by Foster was exactly as it should be, finding a way to combine Liz's personal stories about these three men with some beautiful songs and four guest stars and letting the stories and songs shine through.  Besides my one quibble about not finding a way to combine songs from any of the composers together, this was just about as good as you can get with a concert from a Broadway leading lady.

Other solo highlights included the beautiful pairing of two Anastasia songs "Once Upon a December" and "Journey to the Past," a quiet and simple "Lion Tamer" from Schwartz's The Magic Show and a straight forward yet forceful "There Won't Be Trumpets" from Sondheim's Anyone Can Whistle.  Liz also sang two Sondheim songs she has sung many times in concert, "What More Do I Need?" from Saturday Night and her encore for the night, "With So Little To Be Sure Of" from Anyone Can Whistle.  Both could not have been delivered any better and they are completely different types of songs, with one a driving, humorous song about living in New York City and the other a perfect and touching statement for the end of a perfect evening.

Liz sings "Meadowlark" -

Liz sings "Journey to the Past" -

Liz sings "Losing My Mind" -

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

theatre review THE COMMON PURSUIT, Off Broadway, July 19

There have been many plays and musicals that attempt to show how the hopes of youth become shattered with age, including one of my favorite musicals Merrily We Roll Along. Simon Gray's 1984 play The Common Pursuit is one whose message of shattered dreams slowly sneaks up on you.   The Off Broadway revival that just ended a three month run was fortunate to have a fairly consistent ensemble of actors playing the group of five men and one woman who meet at Cambridge with the plan to form a literary magazine that will challenge those around them.  The challenges of real life and the impact of society affect everyone but when they touch upon the ideas of youth it is even more shattering. 
The main characters of the play are Stuart and Martin.  It is Stuart's idea to start the magazine and Martin, who desires a career in publishing, becomes the business man for the magazine.  The play follows their two lives, as well as the four other characters who are part of the magazine, over twenty years.   Over the years we see Stuart's struggles with getting funding for the magazine and how he eventually forms a publishing company with Martin's urging. While the other characters also have struggles of their own, mainly to do with career and relationship choices, it is really the relationship between Stuart and Martin who ground the play.  It is their struggles and the fact that Stuart is the more creative one and Martin the more business focused that also adds another layer to the play, the struggles between the creative and the commercial. 

Jacob Fishel, Josh Cooke, Lucas Near-Verbrugghe, Kieran Campion,
Kristen Bush and Tim McGeever

These are characters who think they can change the world much as many college aged individuals believe. And while most of them are ambitious in their own ways with one hoping to be a theatre critic and another a philosophy professor, it is the struggle they all have and the devotion they have to each other that drives home the message of tarnished ideas and broken dreams.  I will admit that for the first act I wasn't taken that much by the play, but by the time the second act was half over I was completely focused on these friends and how life didn't always treat them the way they thought it would.   The final scene, which is a continuation of the first scene from twenty years ago, was extremely moving.  Now, I'm not certain if the reason I was taken by this scene and ultimately the play has something to do with the fact that the new cast recording of the recent concert production of Merrily We Roll Along, which as I stated above is all about broken dreams, just came out and I had just listened to if a few times or if it was the writing of Gray and the acting of this ensemble.  None the less, I ended up liking this play more than I thought I would.
Josh Cooke and Jacob Fishel
Josh Cooke as Stuart and Jacob Fishel as Martin are touching in their portrayals of the two main friends, one more loyal than the other.  Kristen Bush is Marigold, the girlfriend of Stuart who has one shocking scene and a future not exactly easy to see coming.  Tim McGeever as Humphry, the one who wants to be a philosophy professor, perfectly plays the grounding presence of the ensemble. Kieran Campion is the womanizing member, who ends up getting much more than he had originally hoped for and Lucas Near-Verbrugghe, who I'm not sure if he was just playing his part too broad for the rest of the cast or if he was trying to portray a character that he thought his friends would be drawn to.  Take for example his constant cough, which never seems to be real - I'm not sure if he's doing that to get their sympathy, or if he's just a bad actor when coughing on stage.
Directed by Mois├ęs Kaufman, I did appreciate Kaufman's light hand, especially in dealing with all of the somewhat heavy handed literary topics.  This ultimately made the play more accessible and helped with the impact of the outcomes of some of the group.  I especially liked the effective set design by Derek McLane that used a window as one of the main pieces used throughout to join the scenes, years and characters together.
Clips from this production:

Saturday, August 4, 2012

theatre review NEWSIES, Broadway, July 17

The Broadway musical Newsies is a crowd pleaser in the truest sense.  It has an exuberant cast, an engaging David vs Goliath story, several highly effective and tuneful songs and some of the most infectious and thrilling dance numbers to grace a Broadway stage in many years.  Having seen the pre-Broadway run of the show last Fall at the Paper Mill Playhouse we decided to revisit the show to see what was changed and how the show plays on the Great White Way.  It was well worth the second trip.

I won't go into the story of the flop movie that this musical is based on or talk about the real life turn of the century struggle that this show musicalizes, since I already wrote about those things in my earlier review that you can read here.  Instead I thought I would spend a few paragraphs to talk about the changes that have been made for the show, all of which are for the better.

Tony winning composer Alan Menken and lyricist Jack Feldman have replaced a few of the newer songs from last Fall's production with even newer ones.  And while none of the new songs is as good as the ones used from the film, or the one knockout new song "Watch What Happens," they are all better then what was heard at the Paper Mill.

Kara Kindsay and Jeremy Jordan
The recasting of the only supporting female character in the show Medda Larkin with Capathia Jenkins was clearly a good decision. Not that the woman who played the role at Paper Mill wasn't good in the part, it's just since the part is a small one having someone with the high wattage stage presence of Jenkins made the part more than the sum of the small amount of stage time it receives.  She also had a great time with her one solo song.

The Nederlander Theatre is the perfect venue for the dance centric show with the Mezzanine so close to the stage that I'd recommend sitting there instead of in the orchestra.  The three tier set also is more accessible from the mezzanine, especially since several scenes are played out on the second tier of the set.

Jeremy Jordan as the male lead Jack Kelly is now a Tony nominated actor and is still delivering an honest, rousing performance.  Kara Lindsay as the female lead and love interest is also still exhibiting a natural and strong take on this woman who is slightly ahead of her time.  Many of the supporting characters are played by actors carried over from the Paper Mill run with those delivering great work at Paper Mill like Ben Fankhauser, Andrew Keenan-Bolger, Ryan Breslin and Ryan Steele still delivering the goods.

Not much more to add except to say to go see this show if you're looking for a rousing, fun big Broadway show.

Newsies Official Website

Highlights from the show:

2012 Tony Awards performance: