Friday, March 30, 2012

theatre review GHOST, Broadway, March 26

The new Broadway musical Ghost is not the worst musical I've ever seen but for one based on a hugely successful movie and with a book by the original film's screenwriter and a musical score by Dave Stewart of Eurythmics fame you would think that the most memorable elements of the show wouldn't be the sets and special effects. The show, which comes to Broadway after a successful run in London, and was directed by Matthew Warchus, is currently in previews and opens on April 23rd.

For those not familiar with the Oscar winning film, the plot of the musical is pretty much exactly the same as the movie.  Ghost tells the tale of Sam and Molly, two twenty somethings in love who have just moved into a new home in Brooklyn.  Sam is a powerful financial analyst and when he is killed toward the beginning of the story he finds himself trapped between this world and the next.  When he discovers who his killer is he stumbles upon a phony psychic who can hear him and together they try to save Molly from being murdered as well.

The two stars of the original London production are recreating their roles in the Broadway run and they are both quite good in both the acting and singing categories, it's just too bad that they aren't given better material.  Richard Fleeshman is Sam and Caissie Levy is Molly.  They both are good singers and realistically appear to be in love. 

Caissie Levy and Richard Fleeshman
My biggest problem with Ghost is that the musical numbers are all very similar, add very little to the show and at some times seem to just go on forever.  I actually can't even remember any of the songs after seeing the show and the co-writer of the score had many hit songs for The Eurythmics!  There are a couple of numbers that are given to the psychic Oda May Brown that stop the show and not in a good way, though Da’Vine Joy Randolph who plays Brown is the best thing in the show. Bruce Joel Rubin who adapted the stage version from his screenplay gives Brown the best lines in the show, and just like Whoopi Goldberg in the film version, Randolph delivers them in spades.   Though I must add that while most of the songs are loud and in the theatre you can't make out a lot of the lyrics, on the London Cast recording they are easy to understand and come off better then they do in the actual theatre.

Another problem with the show is the choreography and the use of the ensemble cast.  Ashley Wallen choreographed the show and it is truly some of the most amateurish work I've ever witnessed.  It is hard to describe but includes a lot of stilted movement with people freezing at various times in the middle of the songs.   The ensemble looks almost embarrassed for what they are having to do.

The musical even includes many film sequences that while somewhat effective are also at many times somewhat laughable.  During one romantic scene between Molly and Sam at the beginning of the show there are film projections showing close-ups of the two of them that are bordering on cheesy soft-core porn.  And worst of all, during the Overture where we get a lovely New York City skyline with moving water in the East River, there is even the name "Ghost" that appears on the screen as if we need to know the name of the show we are about to see.

It is really the special effects and the set design that get raves here.  Cool effects include showing Sam walking through a wall, ghosts rising out of their dead bodies and a ghost who haunts the subway stopping the subway and making the subway riders seem to rise up and be suspended in mid-air.  Paul Kieve provided the illusion design. I also liked the really simple use of blue lighting to highlight Sam at all times and make him seem ghostly.  The set design is also pretty amazing, though a little cluttered at times. Rob Howell designed the sets and his use of three large video walls that move around the stage are able to create the busy city streets of New York that move, a skyline of New York, streaming stock market figures and quickly allows the show to easily move from one location to the next.  It is just too bad that it seems like these walls have to constantly be moving, as if to say "look at what I can do" when by just having them be stationary at times would as easily relay the effect required.

If there was ever a show where the review "you come out humming the sets and not the music" was relevant, Ghost is that show.

Official Show Site

Highlights from the London Production- you can get a really good sense of the use of the video walls as well as see some of the horrible choreography! -

theatre review 4,000 MILES, Off Broadway, March 25

Amy Herzog's play 4,000 Miles is ultimately a drama about death and it's affects on people.  While that might seem like a downer of a show, it is also one of the funniest, freshest and most realistic plays I've seen in a while.  Set in modern Manhattan and with two excellent performances at its core, 4,000 Miles officially opens this coming Monday night.

The play begins late one night at 3am when Vera's grandson Leo arrives on her West Village apartment doorstep.  He has just ended a trek across the country on his bike, hence the title of the play, and after being turned away by his girlfriend, needs a place to stay.  He doesn't know how long he will stay, maybe just a day or two, but Vera takes him in and once Leo sees just how alone his grandmother is and since he has no immediate plans, he decides to stay for awhile. Over the course of the next 100 minutes, we see how these two people, even though they are seventy years apart in age, need each other to survive and how real love and compassion don't need to be overtly stated out loud.

Mary Louise Wilson
Mary Louise Wilson as Vera is giving one of the best performances in a play currently in New York.  She so perfectly captures the feelings, desperation and mundane day to day existence that your typical 90 year old grandmother goes through.   Whether it is her constant talk about the laundry, the bickering phone calls with her neighbor and daughter, the way she is always taking her hearing aid out and putting it back in or how when Leo first shows up she rushes off to put her teeth in, Wilson rings every comic nuance and dramatic moment of reality out of the part.  But where she really excels is in her ability to not over dramatize the dread of death.  Sure she is frustrated when she can't remember the words she wants to say or when her hands shake when taking a teacup to the table, but Vera keeps fighting on.  Almost all of Vera's friends are gone, she even comments that she's the last one in her Octogenarian club left, but Vera is still so concerned about life, and not just her life but Leo's life as well.  You see, Leo is just as haunted by death as Vera due to a recent tragedy that is hinted at throughout the play and that we don't fully learn the specifics about toward the end of the play.  That moment, in a scene so cleanly written and directed shows how precious life is and that death can come when least expected.

Gabriel Ebert and Mary Louise Wilson
Gabriel Ebert is also excellent as Leo.  He is just as much an independent soul as his grandmother but the tenderness he brings to the part and the interactions with Wilson are extremely touching.  Ebert perfectly captures the lost boy who doesn't quite know what to do with his life when tragedy strikes.  And while this is a part we've seen numerous times before, Ebert provides enough nuance to it to make it seem fresh and new.

Also in the cast are Zoe Winters as Leo's girlfriend and Greta Lee as a student he picks up one night and brings back to the apartment.  Both are small roles but serve a purpose in the events of the play.  Winters has two key moments in the play and it is nice to see how she reacts to the changes she sees in Leo over the course of her visits to Vera's apartment.  Lee gets some great comic moments to play and delivers them effortlessly.

This play with this cast had a previous limited run last Summer before Lincoln Center remounted it uptown at its Mitzi Newhouse Theatre.  Daniel Aukin directs this production with a light touch, allowing the words and performances to shine through.  The set design by Lauren Helpern evokes a lovely multi room Manhattan apartment with all of the items a 90 year old person would have accumulated over the years.  I especially liked the use of two filing cabinets as end tables.  Japhy Weideman's lighting design is truly magical.  The effect Weideman creates for various times of the day from early morning to late night is stunning on the Newhouse stage.  And that scene I mentioned before, where Leo tells Vera the specific details of his recent tragedy, are lit in shadows that provide an intimate, almost dreamlike and surreal moment to really make the scene pop.  Like Other Desert Cities when it was at the Mitzi Newhouse last year, with 4,000 Miles you feel like you are sitting on a couch in Vera's apartment as the events unfold before you.   I truly love how intimate the Newhouse stage is.

Now for a one act play there is a lot that goes on in 4,000 Miles including some things that aren't fully fleshed out.  I'm not sure if that was Herzog's intention or not as not everything has to be resolved or serve a purpose to the play's overall plot.  There is much talk about Vera's being a communist that provides some humor and helps flesh out her back story but I didn't quite get if we were to somehow make a connection with Vera's political past and Leo's current views on life.  Also, there is some discussion around Leo's relationship with his sister that is mentioned  in a scene between Leo and Vera and then we see Leo skyping with his sister, but we never really know exactly what to make of that relationship.  The play also has a somewhat mellow ending, focusing more on the simple life of Vera's next door neighbor that while it might somehow be meant to relate back to Vera and Leo it didn't quite connect with me.  But still, with Mary Louise Wilson's performance I highly recommend 4,000 Miles.

Official Show Site

An interview with Wilson and Ebert from last Summer's run of the play:

Thursday, March 29, 2012

theatre review END OF THE RAINBOW, Broadway, March 22

The new Broadway play End of the Rainbow provides a private view into several weeks toward the end of Judy Garland's life.  It also has at it's core one of the best performances I've seen on stage in years.  A performance that has stuck with me for days since seeing the show.

Tracie Bennett may not look exactly like Garland and her singing voice might not be perfectly in line with Garland's pipes but Bennett is giving  a virtual tour de force performance.  While not much private footage of Garland from the mid 1960's is available, there are several concert videos and recordings that show Garland's frenetic behavior.  As I'm sure you are aware, Garland was addicted to pills and alcohol, allegedly stemming from her teen years working in Hollywood and being given doses of drugs by the studio management of uppers in the morning and downers in the afternoon to get through the long days of filming.

Now the play itself is just okay.  It centers on Judy's December 1968 five week engagement at London's "Talk of the Town" nightclub, about six months before Garland's death.  There are three characters, Judy, her fiance Mickey Deans and her piano player Anthony. The play tries to accurately show the irrational behavior of an alcoholic and drug addict after years of abuse and how the two men closest to her have to deal with her and her rollercoaster of emotions.  Her new and much younger fiance Deans at first tries to be her protector and tries to keep her away from the alcohol and drugs but you know eventually he will have to give in to Judy.  Anthony, who doesn't care for Deans, sees himself as the calming influence in Judy's life, a good friend of hers from the past, who has come back to her to help her get through this part of her life.   Both men have a need to have Judy in their lives and they both end up using her and being used by her, but in very different ways.

Tracie Bennett
Garland is portrayed as more of a happy addict, just someone who yearns to live a simple life but also has the burning desire to be the center of the party.  Bennett perfectly portrays the idea of Garland being pulled in these two different directions and was spot-on when it came to the several performance moments throughout the show.  She so perfectly captured the way that Garland owned the stage, the way she would fling the microphone cord around and almost get tripped by it and how she connected with the audience, an audience who never knew if Judy was going to have an emotional melt down on stage or not.  I have no idea how Bennett is able to perform this 8 times a week as she deserves an endurance medal just for getting through a single performance.

I don't know exactly what research playwright Peter Quilter did into Garland's life or what if any of the plays plot is real, but I feel like I've now seen Garland live on stage, spent a couple of hours with her off stage and have much more sympathy for her then I ever had before. So if that was the goal of Quilter then he has succeeded.
Michael Cumpsty, Tracie Bennett and Tom Pelphrey 

Michael Cumpsty as Anthony is giving an excellent performance.  He is the calming person at the center of the Judy/Mickey world and he does so in such a personable way that I really hope he is remembered come Tony nomination time.  Tom Pelphrey as Mickey holds his one with Bennet's Garland, and you really get the sense that he does love her and is trying to help her succeed with her comeback and that he isn't just using her for her fame and fortune, what little fortune there was left at that time.

The show includes about ten musical moments where Bennett performs and it is at those moments when Bennett really comes to life as Garland.  You see the trouper who knows the show must go on but also the scared girl who just wants to be left alone.  A recording of the songs from the show, as well as several other Garland hits has been recorded by Bennett.  And while it would be just as easy to listen to the real Garland sing these songs it is thrilling to hear Bennett's take on them as well.

Now there were a couple of moments in the play that rang false for me.  It is mentioned several times that Judy would hide pills everyone - in her clothes, in the furniture, etc, so it seemed like more of a plot device then reality to have her pull out a bottle of pills in front of Deans that she had hid in the piano.  She did this as if she was showing off what she was capable of doing and to piss Deans off, instead of what we'd been told about how she hid the bottles from others.  This seemed to simply serve the purpose of instigating a fight instead of being based in reality.  Another moment that didn't seem real was when Mickey flips from being her protector to her enabler as it happened so suddenly without much build up.  Again, another moment that simply served to move the plot forward.

But still, this is Bennett's show and a performance you won't forget for a long time after the curtain comes down.   Bennett was nominated for an Olivier award for her work on the show in London last year and I have to believe she is the front runner for the Tony this year.

Official Show Site

Promo spot for the London run of the show.

An interesting inteview with Bennett where she talks about how she prepared for the role:

Bennett performs "Just In Time" at the 8 minute mark on this tv interview show clip:

Judy singing the same song in 1964:

theatre review TRAVESTIES, McCarter Theatre, March 18

Tom Stoppard's play Travesties tells the story of a man in Zurich who remembers three people he came in contact with around 1917.  Those three people just happen to be James Joyce, Lenin and Tristan Tzara, one of the founders of the anti-establishment movement Dada.  The man who tells us the story of his encounters with these famous men is Henry Carr, an English consular officer who is also somewhat of an amateur actor.

Now all four of these men were actually living in Zurich in 1917 but they most likely never actually met.  So while Stoppard has created an interesting memory play based on real people, in typical Stoppard fashion Travesties also has an overabundance of references to politics, philosophy, culture and art.  While I have enjoyed other Stoppard plays I did think that this was one where there was so much in act one that was unnecessary or that I just didn't seem to connect with.  I'm not sure if I'm just not in the core audience for Stoppard, if I'm just too beneath the material or too uneducated to get all of the references he makes.  And while you don't have to get all of the references to understand the main plot of the play, the fact that so much  of the material went over my head made me and I'm sure many others feel like an uninvited guest at a party.  I do believe the version being performed at the McCarter is an edited version from the original but I wish it was edited a little more as the first 30 minutes include many ramblings from the older Carr that didn't do much for me.  The second act is much better as that is where Carr's memory starts fading, replaying events differently and when the play connects better as a memory play of someone who may or not really have witnessed the events on display.  The second act is also much funnier than the first.

James Urbaniak, Everett Quinton and Christian Coulson
I did like how the actions of the play in many ways mirrors the actions of The Importance of Being Earnest, the play that Carr just happens to be appearing in an amateur production of.   There is also much humor in the play.  The direction by Sam Buntrock  is very good, and I also thought the cast was excellent.  James Urbaniak is Carr and does an excellent job in playing the older and younger versions of the character.  Christian Coulson perfectly got Tzara as the crazy, frenetic individual who had major issues with the more traditional Joyce, nicely played by Fred Arsenault.  The set design by David Farley was a lovely two story library with excellent use of the walls to transform it into Carr's home.

If you're looking for an intellectual night out at the theatre that will stretch your brain I'm sure you'll have a good time at Travesties.  However if you often get lost in political conversations like I do or if you have no idea what the Dada movement was then I'd stay clear of Princeton for the next week.

Official McCarter Site

Highlights from the production:

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

cabaret review CHRISTINE EBERSOLE, McCarter Theatre, March 17

An "End of the World" party might not be how most people would want to spend a Saturday night but with Christine Ebersole as your host, you'd better sit back, relax and enjoy what she has in store for you.  Two time Tony winner Ebersole is as equally known for her cabaret career as she is for her Broadway acting and singing.  Her concert in Princeton was another one of her typical, successful multi dimensional fun filled evenings.

Christine was accompanied by a lovely jazz quintet led by her musical director John Oddo.  The evening featured many standards delivered in a lively fashion.  Christine is known for her humor and clear soprano voice and her comic abilities were showcased in not only several funny patter bits between some of the songs but also in a humorous pre show speech.

"Strike Up The Band" was a highly energetic opening that showcased Christine's vocal abilities as well as the talents of her quintet.  "Paper Moon" was another highlight that perfectly blended a lovely jazz arrangement for the band with Christine's voice.  "Get Thee Behind Me Satan" also let Christine's clear vocals shine through but in a nice slowed down delivery.  Kurt Weill's "That's Him" is a funny song that has a touching message and the kind of song that perfectly combines Christine's comic and vocal abilities.

"What's Going To Happen to the Tots?" is a funny Noel Coward song that fits perfectly not only with Christine's voice but also her dry humor.  Her recording of several Noel Coward songs was one of my favorite CDs of last year.  (My review of that cd can be found here.)  "Johnny One Note" provided a chance for Christine to really show off her brassy voice.  A very funny story about Christine's early days in  New York City proceeded a stunning version of "42nd Street".

A lovey story about her three adopted children led into an excellent arrangement of "Right as the Rain" that gave Christine another chance to show off her clear delivery.  This was followed by a story about Christine's husband and a touching take on "I Loves You Porgy" that segued into an intense "Brother Can You Spare a Dime" that ended with an extremely moving take on the gospel standard "I'll Fly Away."  Christine ended her show with a rousing version of the Cole Porter classic "Blow Gabriel Blow" and then came back for a trio of encores that included an updated version of "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" as well as a nicely stated version of "Pennies From Heaven."

As great as Christine is and this show was, the only downside is that maybe having a better introduction as to why Christine decided to make this an "end of the world" celebration would have set the concert off in a better direction.  Instead she seemed to be explaining too late in the show her point of why she had chosen this theme for the evening.  But no matter what, Christine Ebersole is one of the best cabaret performers out there so if you happen to get the chance to see her in concert don't pass it up.

Christine sings "The Sage of Jenny" -

Saturday, March 24, 2012

theatre review DAMN YANKEES, Paper Mill Playhouse, March 17

The revival of Damn Yankees at the Paper Mill Playhouse is a perfect example of the kind of show that Paper Mill manages to always do a good job with.  It's a familiar Broadway show with several well known songs,  a mostly good cast, nice sets, choreography and overall makes an enjoyable night out at the theatre.

Nancy Anderson and the ensemble
The main plot of Damn Yankees focuses on baseball obsessed middle aged Joe Boyd who sells his soul to the devil to be young again and play for his favorite team to help them win the pennant. Of course once he is the younger Joe Hardy he realizes that what is most important to him might just be the life he left behind.  Can Joe win the pennant and take the escape clause he signed with the Devil to return to his old life in time or will the devil do everything he can to keep Joe's soul?  You can kind of guess how the show will end but it doesn't always go exactly the way you think it will.  This show had a major Broadway revival in 1994 where the book was changed somewhat and this production seems to have combined elements of both productions. However, the age of the book is really beginning to show with several plot points basically missing, or glossed over, which makes you wonder why audiences in 1955, when this originally premiered, never questioned some of the finer plot elements of the show.  It is still a fun, enjoyable show with some well known songs but, in my opinion, not one of the best musicals ever written.

Christopher Charles Wood and Chryssie Whitehead
Fortunately the score by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross has some great songs.  "Heart," "Whatever Lola Wants, Lola Gets," "Shoeless Joe from Hannibal Mo," "Goodbye Old Girl" and "Two Lost Souls" are all good musical theatre songs.  Adler and Ross had a big Broadway hit just a year before Damn Yankees with The Pajama Game but then Ross suddenly died shortly after Yankees opened.  He was only 29.  One can only wonder what future scores the two of them would have created if Ross hadn't died at such a young age.

Director Mark S. Hoebee has assembled a pretty good cast for the show.  Howard McGillin is having a devilish time as Applegate, the devil, and Joseph Kalinski and Patti Cohenour are touching as the older Joe and his wife Meg.  Christopher Charles Wood is making a very good Paper Mill debut as Joe Hardy.  He looks exactly like a young ball player, has a rich and pure singing voice and perfectly delivers in the more dramatic acting moments when he is with Cohenour.  The two of them have several touching scenes together.  Nancy Anderson is fun and brassy as the ballsy female reporter Gloria but Chryssie Whitehead as Lola, the femme fatale the devil calls upon to attempt to keep Joe's soul his, is just ok.  Whitehead is a lovely and talented girl but lacks the sexual charisma necessary to make the character what she needs to be.  She is too much of a "good girl" even when she is trying to be bad.  And while she is a very competent dancer she isn't really given a lot of choreography to show off what she is capable of.

Howard McGillin
Fortunately the lovely voices of Wood and Cohenour are well represented on several songs and the male ensemble and Nancy Anderson get a lot of fun choreography to show off their abilities.  Denis Jones provided the choreography and there were lots of different styles represented effectively including a fun vaudeville style turn for McGillin.

Sets by Rob Bissinger, costumes by Alejo Vietti and lighting by Tom Sturge are the usual top notch elements that the Paper Mill is known for and I did like how the ensemble cast looked like they could actually be baseball players instead of being cast with guys with your typical Broadway dancer builds.  Having a short and slightly stocky guy who is the catcher on the team dance and jump in line with his fellow more athletically inclined teammates provides a huge element of fun to the show.

Damn Yankees plays through April 1st.

Official Paper Mill Playhouse Site

Highlights from the production:

Thursday, March 22, 2012

cabaret review BETTY BUCKLEY, BB King's, March 16

I've mentioned before about how I am a huge Betty Buckley fan.  I've seen her dozens of times in concert as well on Broadway in Carrie and Triumph of Love and also saw her numerous times in Sunset Boulevard both in London and New York as well as her Carnegie Hall concert that was released on cd and her Off Broadway performance in Elegies.  I've basically followed her career since seeing her in Carrie in 1988, even though, like many others, I knew her from before she appeared in that show from her role on the tv show Eight is Enough and her Tony winning performance in the original Broadway cast of Cats.

Having seen Betty in concert so many times, I absolutely love how she is constantly updating her concert repertoire while at the same time not forgetting how her fans love to hear her singing some of the songs connected to her.  Usually her concerts are simply a collection of songs but lately she has had more "themed" shows.  A couple of years back she did a "Broadway by Request" series of concerts where she performed songs selected by the audience mainly in chronological order to tell her life story around her Broadway career.  Last Fall she premiered a new themed show "Ah Men!, the Boys of Broadway" where she sang many Broadway songs that were originally sung by men.  Her concert last Friday night at BB King's in New York City featured many songs from that recent concert series.

There really weren't any bad song choices that Betty made, but some of the highlights included a rendition of "Hey There" from The Pajama Game that she turned into a story of yearning love.  It is still haunting me several days later.  A rousing version of "Come Back To Me" from On A Clear Day You Can See Forever had a jazzy arrangement and Betty had a great time with the songs many fun lyric rhymes.

Her take on Sweeney Todd was stellar.  She performed a trio of three songs sung by the male characters in that show, combining "Not While I'm Around," "Johanna," and  "My Friends" into an emotional vortex of theatrical delight.  Betty commented that Sweeney was her favorite of  Stephen Sondheim's shows and it is easy to see her love for this show with the emotional and passionate connection she has to the material.

She similarly provided the same treatment for three Rodgers and Hammerstein songs, combining "We Kiss in a Shadow" and "I Have Dreamed" from The King and I as well as a solo performance of "Younger than Springtime" from South Pacific.  Betty's delivery of all three were simple, yet extremely effective in their portrayal of the passion of lovers both young and old.  "On The Street Where You Live" from My Fair Lady was performed with a jazzy, driving arrangement that with Betty's delivery of the lyrics brought out the yearning and unrequited love of one person for another.

However she didn't just present Broadway songs from the past but also sang one from a show she did a few years back, "Venice" from William Finn's Elegies.   Betty loves story songs and this is one of the best from the past 10 years.  Telling the story of Bill Finn's boyfriend's former lover and how he dreams of having them all go to see the beauty of Venice before he dies.  It is a funny, sometimes angry but extremely touching song about recognizing the passion of others and the beauty that we all strive for.

In Elegies, that song was sung by Betty's former Pippin co-star Michael Rupert.  Betty ended her concert with another song she heard Rupert sing nightly in Pippin, "Corner of the Sky."  Her upbeat arrangement for this song was buoyed by the joy of Stephen Schwartz's lyrics.   Other songs Betty sang included one of her more contemporary favorites "I Am a Town" from Mary Chapin Carpenter.  This story so effectively portrays the many facets of a rural town that anyone can easily relate to the joy and pain in the lyrics and in Betty's delivery of them.  She started the concert with a rousing version of "I Can See It" from The Fantasticks

Betty gave us two encores,  first she sang "More I Cannot Wish You" from Guys and Dolls, which she delivered in a clear, simple arrangement that drove home the pure meaning of the lyrics.  She followed this with "Home" from The Wiz where, about half way through the song, she started singing a later verse too early so she had to stop the song and start it over claiming it as a "senior moment" which brought roars of laughter from the audience.   The trio that accompanied Betty was led by pianist Christian Jacob who also provided many of the arrangements.  The only downside to the concert was that Betty didn't sing either one of the two songs that she almost always sings in her concerts - "Memory" from Cats and "Meadowlark" from The Baker's Wife.

Betty recently signed an agreement with the Palmetto record label and her cd she recorded last year "Ghost Light" is set to be released this Summer with a release of her "Ah Men" songs set to be released on cd sometime in the next year.

Betty has such an emotional intensity and connection to whatever material she sings and her concert last Friday night was another perfect example of her amazing abilities.  I'm looking forward to her upcoming cds, especially the one featuring the selections from "Ah, Men!".  Check out Betty's website for information on her upcoming concerts.

Performance clips and interview with Betty about her "Ah Men!, The Boys of Broadway" show:

Betty sings "Meadowlark"

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

One Year Anniversary!

One year ago today I officially launched my blog. 

I've had a great time writing my thoughts about theatre, movies and cds and appreciate everyone who's written to me, sent me cds to review and to all those people who simply stumble across my blog when they do a google search for various things.

I've got reviews coming over the next few days of Betty Buckley's concert at B.B. King's last Friday, an amazing cd from Robert Creighton, Christine Ebersole's cabaret show last Saturday night in Princeton as well as upcoming theatre reviews of the new Broadway shows End of the Rainbow and Ghost.

Thanks for reading!

Monday, March 12, 2012

broadway birthday -Happy 25th Birthday LES MISERABLES!

Les Miserables is one of those musicals that pretty much everyone around the world has heard of.  It officially opened on Broadway 25 years ago today on March 12, 1987.

The musical, based on the famous novel by Victor Hugo, opened tonight at the Broadway Theatre twenty five years ago after successful runs in France and the UK.

Happy 25th Birthday Les Miserables!

Sunday, March 11, 2012

theatre review ONCE, Broadway, March 6

The new musical Once is now in previews on Broadway after a successful Off Broadway run this past Winter.   It is based on the Oscar winning movie of the same name that tells the story of a guy and a girl in modern Dublin.  He is Irish, she is Czech.  They meet somewhat unexpectedly on the street, where he is performing and over the course of about a week find a connection to each other that brings out feelings in them that they've each long forgotten.  They are both somewhat accomplished, though not professional, musicians and the music they make together and individually adds a dimension to the story unlike any musical that I can think of.  It officially opens this coming Sunday.

The show features music by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova who starred in the film, including all of the original songs from the movie as well as some new ones the two have written.  It is a story of two people from different worlds who are both somewhat lost in their lives.  The characters are simply called Guy and Girl.  The Guy's girlfriend moved away to New York, leaving him heartbroken, lost and feeling worthless.  He lives with his father and repairs vacuum cleaners in his father's shop but it is really only when he sings and plays his original songs that he becomes alive.  The Girl lives with her mother, her daughter and some fellow Czechoslovakians and once she meets the Guy and hears a rough demo tape of some of his original songs, she tells him that he needs to make a professional demo recording and that she will help him make that happen.   They are both somewhat muses for each other and some of the most intimate and touching moments are when they are singing solo songs that we assume is about the other person.

While the plot of the musical basically follows the movie, with a couple of slight changes, the musical actually provides a better platform to showcase the talents of the entire cast, as everyone in the show sings, plays various instruments and appears as the various supporting characters.  While the actors in the movie did the same, having the actors in the musical perform and play their instruments live in front of you really allows everyone to shine and makes the show achieve a certain level of realism rarely seen.  And unlike the recent John Doyle directed musicals where the actors were also the musicians, the fact that in this show the characters in the show are all musicians, having the actors play instruments seems only natural.

Christin Milioti and Steve Kazee

The musical, like the movie, is unlike a lot of other shows and movies out there.  It definitely is a show that not everyone is going to love as not much really happens and the score is extremely ballad heavy. It also has a somewhat abrupt beginning, more on that later, and after the first song, the next 10 or 15 minutes of the show are just the two lead characters talking.

Basically, we get to know the two main characters as they get to know each other, but the music that the two of them make carries you to a place of beauty with a certain charm and sweetness to it.   The Oscar winning song "Falling Slowly" from the film, is featured prominently and the title of that song pretty much describes how I felt about the show as I slowly fell in love with the show and the two leads and found myself completely drawn to the passion they have for each other and to the music they create.

Steve Kazee and Christin Milioti are the main couple and I can't imagine both of them not getting Tony nominations for their work.  While Milioti gets some of the best dialogue in the show it is Kazee who really shines on the majority of the songs.  His voice has the right shades of purity and roughness to get every nuance out of the songs and he has the perfect lost boy look to him that allows Milioti and the audience to fall in love with him while wanting to help him find his way.  He also appears to be a very gifted guitarist.  Milioti has a natural gift for comedy which comes in handy in this show.   She has a charming personality and we can easily see why Kazee falls for her and she plays one mean piano.

Two downsides, Kazee is much better looking than Hansard and since he also comes across as a really nice guy it slightly begs the audience to wander why someone as charming, nice and attractive as him would have his girlfriend leave him.  Also, Milioti's Czech accent is really good but it is also really thick and there were numerous times that you had to strain to catch what she was saying.   I'm hoping that was just a sound design issue since it is in a much larger theatre on Broadway then it was Off Broadway and that they can fix that issue before it officially opens.  It wasn't a major distraction just a minor one.

The set for the show by Bob Crowley is a large run down bar that only uses lighting and minimal other set pieces to portray the various locations in the show.  This minimalistic approach didn't always work but it did allow the characters at the center to be the focus of the piece instead of relying on large moving set pieces to possibly take your attention away from the simple love story that the show is about.  I did really like the use of mirrors of various shapes and sizes all along the walls of the bars as it added another dimension to the simplistic set and provided an interesting image when the stage lights would hit them.

Enda Walsh has written the book, and while some of the lines for Milioti might appear very cliched, Milioti's delivery of them in her thick Czech accent somehow makes them seem more realistic then they are if they were said by someone else in the cast.   I liked how when the Czech characters spoke their native language they spoke in English with the Czech translation in subtitles above the set.   There are a few times when the  Irish characters aren't meant to understand what the Czech ones are saying, and in presenting the language this way it allowed the audience to fully understand what was going on without having to read subtitles.

Director John Tiffany does a good job in combining the simple plot elements with the fact that his entire cast is also his orchestra.  He has created some very memorable stage images as well.  The entire cast is almost always on stage, with the ensemble sitting in chairs on the sides of the "bar" that allows them to perform the music accompaniment.   I'm not sure if we were to assume that they were supposed to be serving as somewhat of a "Greek chorus" or what since they never commented on the action but they were always watching what was happening.   Choreography or "Movement" as they are calling it, is by Steven Hoggett and while some of the ways the ensemble was incorporated was very effective, especially during the song "Gold," there were also a few times when it was too stylized that it was almost on the point of being laughable.  But there were only one or two of those moments.

About the abrupt start to the show I mentioned above: make sure you arrive to the theatre early as the ensemble cast provides about 20 minutes of musical before the show.  While most of them have small roles in the show, this "pre-show" gives them a chance to shine on solo vocals as well as to show off their individual musical abilities on the various instruments they play.  While this pre-show is an extremely effective way to warm the audience up, Kazee starts to sing the first song of the show while the house lights are still up, so many people in the audience are still getting settled in their seats while he sings the first song of the show, thinking that this is still part of the pre-show.  Before this song, David Patrick Kelly, who plays Kazee's father in the show, sings a really nice song and it would seem more effective if at the end of that song the house lights slowly dimmed so when Kazee comes on the stage the audience would know the "show" was starting and would settle down some.   One nice thing about the pre-show, the bar on stage also serves drinks to the audience before the show and at intermission.  So, not only can you get a drink on the actual stage but you can hang out on it while the ensemble is performing the pre-show songs.

Once is really a magical musical, unlike anything out there and one that I think will really connect with many people.  With two extremely talented actors in the leads, an amazingly gifted ensemble cast and simple, yet effective set, direction and choreography, Once is one musical I don't think you should miss.  The cast recording, which comes out this week, is one of the best I've heard in a long time with clear, crisp vocals and some of the most lush arrangements, all in line with what is actually heard in the theatre.  

Official Show Site

A montage from the show: