Friday, September 28, 2012

theatre review CHAPLIN, Broadway, Sept. 6

At the center of the new Broadway musical Chaplin is a performance so impressive that it manages to bring the term "star making" to mind.  In front of our eyes we see Rob McClure become not only Chaplin but the famous character "The Tramp" that Chaplin portrayed in numerous films and was known the world over for.  While Chaplin isn't the best musical I've ever seen, McClure's performance as well as a first rate cast, a sweeping story and some impressive songs combine to make Chaplin into a musical that I found both enjoyable and touching.  Sure some of the critics weren't as impressed as I was, but then I don't always agree with the critics.

Telling the story of Chaplin from the age of a young boy to his honorary Oscar in 1972 at the age of 83, Chaplin is your typical musicalized rags to riches story of a man who was in the right place at the right time but one with such talent that he became the leading image of the Silent film era.

Rob McClure
The musical's telling of the story might seem simplistic, with the appropriate flashback scenes to highlight key moments in the otherwise forward trajectory, but the story of Chaplin is a rich one, so the simple telling of it means there is no elaborate theatricality to get in its way.  It is a "by the numbers" musical that works. 

Chaplin's life was full of highs and lows, from his young life on the streets of London and the times he and his mother worked in the music halls there, to his star making years in Hollywood that ended up with him not only being the highest paid film star but also allowed him to own his own studio and produce, write and direct his own films.  The musical also shows his later years when the "talkies" threatened Chaplin's way of work, his success of his portrayal of a comical Hitler in The Great Dictator and how his desire to be something of a political presence made his political views to be questioned and ultimately forced him to leave the country.  And while the show doesn't shy away from Chaplin's desire for teenage girls, it doesn't focus too much attention on it and even turns his first three wives's divorce proceedings into a boxing match. 
Rob McClure, Zachary Unger and
Christianne Noll
Added to all of these moments is Chaplin's relationship with his mother and to a much lesser extent, his forever absent father.   While his mother sets the story in action with the excellent opening musical sequence "Look at All the People" where she shows the young Charlie how to observe people around him.  Those moments come into play later when he uses them to become "The Tramp."  But it is really his mother's later years after she has become ill and no longer recognizes Charlie that provide some of the more dramatic elements to the plot.  There are many scenes throughout the show where Charlie's past and the character of his mother and his younger self come into play to shape not only Charlie but the films he makes.  One of the best of those sequences is when Charlie is filming The Kid and we see how his own childhood influenced what ultimately made it onto the screen.

The cast is first rate with McClure giving a performance of many layers.  Whether he is the young Chaplin trying to make his way in Hollywood or the older Chaplin who realizes that the cinema and the world have passed him by, McClure has the appropriate blend of subtlety and realism to his portrayal.   He is a great physical comedian as well.  The most impressive moments come when he is first in Hollywood, afraid he is about to be fired, and draws upon the many people he remembers seeing on the streets of London to concoct the character of "The Tramp."   Using bits of the characters we saw in the opening sequence, he takes parts from each of those people to build upon each other until "The Tramp" is born.  This scene alone will stick with you for a very long time and is perfectly set up and staged by Director Warren Carlyle.   While McClure doesn't have a lot of songs to sing his second act solo "Where Are All The People?" is one that is quite effective.
Rob McClure and Erin Mackey
The supporting cast is perfectly suited for their roles with Christiane Noll especially touching as Chaplin's mother and Erin Mackey, who is engaging and charming, as his final wife, Oona O'Neill, the daughter of Eugene O'Neill.  I thought Wayne Alan Wilcox was quite moving as Chaplin's brother Sydney who became his business manager.  The two of them had some nice moments together and when their relationship hit a rough patch their scenes together were quite effective.   As Hedda Hopper Jenn Colella provides plenty of sass and drive and also gets one of the best songs in the score "All Falls Down" that she belts the heck out of.  Zachary Unger is also quite effective as the young Charlie and also plays the young Jackie Coogan who Chaplin directed to acclaim, even though in a dubious manner in the film The Kid.

The score by Christopher Curtis is his first for the stage, and while some of the songs are more ho-hum, there are several that are very effective including a rousing ending number "This Man" that builds to an emotional choral finale.  The book is by Curtis and Thomas Meehan and while the various moments in Chaplin's life sometimes come across more on the melodramatic side to a certain extent, they somehow make it all come together and works as a musical.

Jenn Colella
While the set design is fairly simple, the use of film images by Jon Driscoll throughout the show is quite effective.  The costume design is based on muted greys and shades of black and white, which ties directly into the silent black and white films.   There is only one bright color used for the majority of the show and that is the red rose that Charlie/The Tramp holds or has on his lapel.  However, there is a burst of color at the end of the show which I found to be extremely effective.

A few quibbles: the second act focuses mainly on Hopper's attacks against Chaplin's political beliefs, which we are led to believe all stemmed from Chaplin's refusal to give her an interview.  This turns Hopper into the major villain of the musical, and makes one believe she was the driving force to make Chaplin leave the US, both points which I don't think are fully accurate.  Also, there is a weird theatrical framing device of having the entire musical as scenes within a film about Chaplin.  This means the scenes start with an ensemble member saying something like "Chaplin, scene 1, the early days" while holding a film clip board, as if the musical is a movie within the show.  However this disappears about 1/3 of the way in and I don't recall any of these scene openings even existing in act two.

But with McClure's break out performance, a fairly stellar supporting cast and a clear storyline, Chaplin is a show I think any fan of Charlie Chaplin or musical theatre will enjoy.  The sad thing is, I'm sure many people under the age of 30 have no idea who Charlie Chaplin even is.  In a year when so many of the film companies are celebrating their 100th anniversaries it is fitting that this musical is on Broadway to allow us a way to remember one of the people who was there almost at the start of it all.

Official Show Site

Highlights from the musical:

Friday, September 21, 2012

cabaret review MARIN MAZZIE, 54 Below, Sept 5

Marin Mazzie at 54 Below
Marin Mazzie can do no wrong.  She has an amazing wit, a razor like connection with her audience and a clear, forceful voice that she uses to elevate any song she sings to a higher dimension.   While we've seen her perform with her husband Jason Danieley a few times this was our first time seeing her perform solo. 

Her recent cabaret concert at 54 Below was a recollection back to her teen years in the early 70's in Rockford, IL and the songs and personal stories that impacted her at that time and made her into the person she is today.   Her concert reminded me so much of Brian d'Arcy James' recent show at the same club about his growing up in the early 80's.  But while James' show was more pop/rock focused, Mazzie's was a more nostalgic youth focused one with some of the songs we now love to hate ("Midnight at the Oasis" anyone?) delivered by Mazzie in such a way that she made us fall in love with them all over again. Mazzie managed to embody each song with an intensity as well as an element of fun from the first note she sang and in doing so she had us all hooked and taking the journey with her.  The fact she didn't sing a single Broadway showtune didn't matter at all.  The stunning, beaded white cocktail dress Mazzie wore provided an added touch of heat and spark to the evening that perfectly complimented the heat and spark in her voice.

Any of us who grew up around the 70's remembers fondly the stereo in the living room and the turntable that had stacks of lp's mounted on it ready to continuously play.  Mazzie perfectly evoked the feeling of that period that transported the crowded room back to the 70's to relieve the time and music with her.  Starting off with a slowed down and sexy take on the Rosemary Clooney hit "Come On A My House,"  Mazzie talked about her parents dancing in the living room while she mimicked their moves with her Malibu Barbie and Skipper Ken dolls. As she talked about the stacked records changing automatically on the turntable she also moved from one song to another including a touching yet jazzy "Tenderly."  However, a percussion only accompanied "Begin the Beguine" was for me the clear standout of the evening.  Mazzie's voice and percussionist Larry Lelli couldn't have been more in sync for this song, it is still playing in my head weeks after seeing this show. 

The evening followed a basic chronological order as Mazzie grew up and became more interested in music that spoke to her as well as when she got her own record player to play alone in her room.  While Mazzie mentioned how she was in love with Davey Jones and longed to be "the long lost Partridge family member, Marin Partridge" as she grew up the songs that connected to her became more serious.  Her take on the Carly Simon classic "That's the Way I've Always Heard it Should Be" was heartbreaking and breathtaking all at the same time.  She also had such conviction with her delivery of Burt Bacharach and Hal David's "Anyone Who Had a Heart" you couldn't help but be moved.

Mazzie's teen years in Catholic School were highlighted with a very humorous story about singing at the blessing of the class rings.  The song she picked was the Barbra Streisand hit "Evergreen" even though Sister Ann Patrice (or SAP for short) censored a few of the lyrics she thought were too explicit, so Mazzie had to hum them for her classmates.   For the somewhat never ending Barry Manilow song "Weekend in New England" Mazzie managed to make us remember why we were also so drawn to that song so many years ago.

Directed by Scott Burkell, the personal stories that Mazzie told about the songs and that time in her life were both touching and humorous, with some very funny comments and moments as well.  While Mazzie has been known for more serious Broadway and Off Broadway roles, it is very clear that she would excel in a comedy.  Mazzie's humorous tales of the commitment she made to the Columbia record club as well as her realization that her purple hair brush could be used for other purposes only highlighted the sultry and comical evening.

The long lost "Marin Partridge" did get a chance to shine with her sunny, upbeat and firmly committed take on "I Think I Love You" as well as the Davey Jones inspired encore of "I'm a Believer."  Musical direction and piano accompaniment were by Joseph Thalken, with Peter Donovan on bass, Larry Saltzman on guitar and the afore mentioned Larry Lelli on percussion.  All of the musicians were given solo moments to shine throughout the evening and Mazzie's connection with each was more than just a passing one.

54 Below is the best place to see Broadway and cabaret performers break out of their musical theatre mold and show their versatility.  The sound is so amazing that when you have a performer like Mazzie with impeccable phrasing you hear every single word as if you've never heard it before.   So if Mazzie comes back to 54 Below, or a theatre near you, or if one of your favorite performers books a date at 54 Below, make sure you don't miss it.

Official 54 Below Site

clips from the show! -

Les Miserables movie - can't wait!

This is just looking better and better - release date is now Christmas Day- I'm hoping it will be a very nice present for many. many people.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

cabaret review FAITH PRINCE & JASON GRAAE, 54 Below, August 23

Jason Graae and Faith Prince at 54 Below
We journeyed back to the hot new nightclub 54 Below to see Tony winner Faith Prince and Jason Graae in a show jokingly called "The Prince and the Show Boy."   With the high level of comedy these two musical clowns create, and Graae's overachieving humorous delivery and eagerness to please, it could have been just as easily titled "Prince and the Jester."

Both Prince and Graae have appeared in numerous Broadway and Off Broadway shows and while Prince is clearly the more established and well known "name" here, Graae has plenty of credits and recording contributions as well.  While they might seem like a somewhat strange combination for a cabaret concert, the fact that the two of them went to the same school together, CCM in Cincinnati, and have worked together a few times over their careers provides a nice amount of charm and authenticity to their "friendship" that you don't always get when two people come together in a duo show like this.

Starting off with a medley of showtunes that included various versions of the name "Prince" in their lyrics it clearly set the stage for what was about to come.  That medley included songs like "Someday My Prince Will Come" as well as "Put on a Happy Face" with "Face" jokingly changed to "Faith" and another song from Bye Bye, Birdie, "One Boy" changed to "One Showboy," to get the full name of the concert and the theme behind the show clearly out there.   The fact that the medley also included "Liza with a Z" elevated the medley to heights of comical zaniness since even though that song had absolutely nothing to do with the name of the show, it added the appropriate amount of insanity that Prince and Graae excel at.

Prince has recorded a live cd of a previous cabaret show that she's toured around the country, and a few selections as well as some of the patter from that show were carried over to this one.  One of the gems she sung in those earlier shows she repeated here, Mary Rodgers and Stephen Sondheim's "The Boy from ..." from The Mad Show which Prince manages to ring every nuance out of the insane lyrics. 

But the concert wasn't only humorous songs, in fact some of the best moments were the more serious ones.  Both Prince and Graae appeared in various versions of the William Finn show Falsettos, with Prince originating the role of Trina in the Off Broadway production of the one act Falsettoland and Graae a replacement for Mendel in the Broadway production of the later version of the two act show.   For their cabaret, Graae sang an emotionally rich version of "What More Can I Say?" immediately followed by Prince with a heartfelt version of "Holding to the Ground."  Graae also accompanied Prince by playing the oboe on "Smiles" that lead into Faith singing the Charlie Chaplin classic "Smile" with Graae continuing playing in counterpart.  It was a lovely duet in a classy and very different way.  Prince also sung the hell out of "The Ladies Who Lunch" from Sondheim's Company, and I personally didn't detect one comic tick on her face during it, which proves that Prince doesn't need to be funny to achieve greatness.

A Jerry Herman section included Prince talking about her son who is now in his late teens before she sang a touching and personal version of Mame's "If He Walked Into My Life."  The Herman section also included Graae's heartfelt story of his coming out to his mother before he delivered an emotional "I Am What I Am" from La Cage Aux Folles.  A rousing "Before the Parade Passes By" from Hello Dolly provided Prince a chance to show how she'd be as Dolly with Graae throwing out sung snippets from a multitude of other Herman songs in counterpoint to Prince.

While the majority of the songs for the evening were hits, a couple of Graae's selections were a little too forced, including his take on Wicked's "Popular" and the Kooman and Dimond song "To Excess" about a stalker.  Graae's drive to "sell" those songs just made them a little too over the top for my taste.

Musical director Alex Rybeck provided lovely accompaniment as well as contributed to the shenanigans on stage.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

theatre review BRING IT ON, Broadway, Aug 21

After what seems like a slew of Broadway musicals based on movies where the musical is almost a scene by scene replay of the film, it is refreshing that the new musical Bring It On takes little more than the name and theme of the 2000 cheer leading movie it comes from.  With a completely new plot and characters, the musical is an exuberant two plus hours of comedy, music, dance and high flying cheer leading acrobatics.  We enjoyed it so much we are going back in a few weeks with our nieces.

Telling the story of what happens when Campbell, the perky, driven cheer leading team captain of a high school is redistricted to a different school over in the "hood" where she doesn't quite fit in and they don't even have a cheer leading "squad," Bring It On is the perfect "fish out of water" story with a dash of All About Eve thrown in as well.  Will Campbell succeed at her new school?  Can she convince them to start a "squad" to compete against her former school to win the cheer leading championship?  The script doesn't always go where you think it will go, which is nice and refreshing.  There are characters in this show we've seen before but also plenty that we haven't.  Much of the success of this musical can be credited to the witty script by Jeff Whitty.

Taylor Louderman and Adrienne Warren
Campbell is the team captain forced to now go to the new school, leaving her boyfriend, team mates and championship bound cheer leading squad behind.  Taylor Louderman plays Campbell with the appropriate amount of high energy as well as fear for her new surroundings.  She has the perfect fresh faced look of the girl who can easily be the team captain but also the right amount of acting skills to not only pull off the loneliness of suddenly being an outsider but also the Broadway caliber vocal skills to pull off singing about that experience as well.

Ryann Redmond and Taylor Louderman
Ryann Redmond is Bridget who also gets redistricted along with Campbell.  Bridget has been the team mascot for the past few years but longs to be a full fledged cheer leader.  Redmond is sassy, hysterical and the perfect oddball friend that anyone would love to have on their side.  She also has impeccable comic timing.  If this show opened next Spring I would think that Redmond would have a strong chance of getting a Tony nom for her performance but I'm still hoping she'll be remembered next Spring by the Tony nominating committee.

Adrienne Warren is Danielle the leader of the "crew" at the new school who Campbell attempts to befriend.  Warren has the perfect blend of sass and "you think you're better then me but you aren't" attitude but also has a compassionate side as well.  She is the kind of character that is realistically rough around the edges and Warren is up to the challenge of playing this character that could easily come across as one we've seen before, but has plenty of layers to it.

Gregory Haney
I also absolutely loved how the character of La Cienega, who is clearly a gay man who prefers to dress up as a woman, required no explanation, back story or heartbreaking revelation.  He just "was," no excuses required.  Gregory Haney was outstanding in the part as well and got some of the biggest applause at the curtain call.

The majority of the cast is making their Broadway debuts with many of them having had years of college cheer leading experience.   However, with so many professional cheer leaders in the cast, it is nice to see that the majority of the main cast is tasked in the cheer leading routines as well, with a couple of them involved in more of the highly intricate and even some of the high flying routines.

Director / choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler seamlessly weaves together the cheer leading sequences into the story with many of them naturally building from the musical numbers.  But he also includes plenty of modern day dancing as well, with the dancing by the "crew" at Campbell's new school especially effective.  With a score by three different composers you might think that the music wouldn't quite gel together but it does with many effective numbers.  It helps that you have Tony winners Tom Kitt (Next to Normal) and Lin-Manuel Miranda (In the Heights) providing the music with Miranda and Amanda Green the lyrics.

one of the high flying cheer sequences
 This production comes to Broadway for a limited run after a national tour.  While it might have the look and feel of a somewhat bare bones touring production, the minimal set pieces and video screens are effectively used and are almost always moving that you don't miss huge and elaborate set pieces.  The set design by David Korins and the lighting design by Jason Lyons is extremely effective and brings the entire production.

Bring It On is the first musical of the 2012-2013 season and it is a breath of fresh air.  The original limited run has now been extended to the end of January, so make sure to catch it if you're up for a fun filled, high energy, high flying time.

Official Show Site

Highlights from the musical: