Saturday, November 24, 2012

theatre review CYRANO DE BERGERAC, Broadway, November 18

Edmond Rostand's most famous play Cyrano de Bergerac is one of the most produced plays on Broadway.  The classic love story of big nosed Cyrano, handsome yet inarticulate Christian and the beautiful Roxane who they are both in love with has received numerous translations from Rostand's original 1897 French version.  The latest translation by Ranjit Bolt written in 2007 is receiving it's Broadway debut in this production that ends its limited run tomorrow. 

With over a dozen productions on and off Broadway over the years, including at least two musicalized ones, and many film versions, Rostand's story is so timeless that even now, well over 100 years since it first premiered, the stirring and simple love triangle and the theme of honor at the center of the story still registers today. 

Clémence Poésy, Kyle Soller and Douglas Hodge
For anyone who hasn't seen a production of this story, here is the basic plot overview.  Cyrano is a cadet in the French army and he is in love with his cousin Roxane, but thinks she could never love him because of his very large nose. He discovers that Roxane is in love with the new recruit Christian and when she asks Cyrano to protect him, the two men form a friendship that includes Cyrano helping Christian woo Roxane with the words he can't quite seem to come up with to proclaim his love for her.  Over the course of many years, Cyrano continues to love Roxane from afar, and even during the war where Cyrano and Christian are sent to fight, he still writes love letters to her but signs them as if Christian wrote them.  The story ends many years later with the truth finally being revealed.

Douglas Hodge and Clémence Poésy
I believe the reason this play has been produced so many times is because Cyrano is such a likable character and deep down each one of us has our own version of a large nose that gives us our own self doubts, so we can easily identify with him.  The fact that he is also very lovable, intelligent, so well with words and still somewhat brash to those who are against him makes you root for him as well.  Also, the use of rhyming verse and the style of the language provide an air of romance with a sense of humor that make you pay attention.  Plus you just have to root for a guy with a big nose as the romantic lead!

Kyle Soller and Douglas Hodge
The trio of actors that lead this production are more than up to the challenge of not only honoring the tradition of this famous story but also to the task of the rhyming couplets that provide the foundation of the play.  Douglas Hodge is coming off his Tony winning turn in La Cage aux Folles last year and has the correct balance of strength, brashness, romance and self-doubt that elevate any Cyrano to the person that anyone with any physical short coming can relate to.  It is a winning and stirring performance and I hope Hodge will be remembered come Tony nomination time for his performance.

Clémence Poésy is a luminous Roxane and it is easy to see why Cyrano is in love with her.  Kyle Soller is a dashing yet youthful Christian and the scenes he has with Hodge and Poésy are lovely.  Patrick Page has the appropriate menace as De Guiche but also shows great empathy toward Cyrano at the end of the play. Seeing this toward the end of the run probably added to the layers that all of the actors are bringing to their parts as well as the relationships they've managed to build with each other throughout the run. 

Patrick Page and Douglas Hodge
Jamie Lloyd's direction is nicely centered with the appropriate tone and attention to ensuring the rhymes land correctly.  The use of the theatre for Cyrano's entrance was especially theatrical and magical and tied directly into the play since his entrance takes place in a theatre.  Bolt's translation is more on the grittier side and includes the use of some profanity that makes the more romantic and poetic moments really stand out.  The previous productions that I've seen have been more on the glamorous side so the combination of Bolt's language and Soutra Gilmour's barren set and costume design was quite effective.

Cyrano de Bergerac is one of those plays that when presented in a good translation, with good direction and a cast up to the task of the material never fails to register with an audience clamoring for a good piece of drama.  This latest production and translation is a touching and lovely production with a cast more than capable of delivering the goods.

highlights from this production:

Friday, November 23, 2012

theatre review A CHRISTMAS STORY, THE MUSICAL, Broadway, Nov 15

The 1983 quirky film A Christmas Story is the latest holiday "classic" movie to get a musical adaptation.  Based on radio humorist Jean Shepherd's stories of being a boy in Indiana in the 1940's, the film and musical follow young Ralphie's quest to get a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas.  The movie can be seen in heavy rotation during the holiday season on TBS and like the film, the musical captures just about every humorous, odd ball and touching moment of Ralphie and his families Christmas story in a whimsical and heart warming style.

It is a well done adaptation with a nice theatrical score, winning performances, fun choreography and a well used ensemble.  After having performances in several cities last year, the show is making it's Broadway debut this season and while I'm sure this musical will have return engagements on Broadway in the future I definitely believe this show will have a huge life in regional and community theatres for years to come.

Dan Lauria and Johnny Rabe
 Centering around a traditional middle class family who is trying to do what needs to be done not only to survive in the 1940's but also to make it through another Christmas season, the musical sticks fairly close to the film and brings to life many of the iconic scenes from the movie as well.  With a book by Joseph Robinette and Music and Lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, all of whom are making their Broadway debuts, the musical brings to theatrical life not only the infamous leg shaped lamp but also the scene with a boy licking a frozen lamp pole, Ralphie in a pink bunny suit, the crazy dogs next door and Ralphie's little brother stuffed into a child's snow suit, along with such phrases as "triple dog dare ya," "oh fudge," "fra-gie-leh" and of course "you'll shoot your eye out."  These humorous moments and phrases when combined with the touching story at the core are what have made the movie a classic.  Fortunately the creative team along with Director John Rando and Choreographer Warren Carlyle have managed to not dumb down or sanitize the kooky and edgier moments in the story and in fact have actually made it a more joyous affair with the addition of the top notch songs and very inventive choreography.  I seriously appreciated that the couple of PG-13 moments in the film are still present in the musical version.

John Bolton, Johnny Rabe, Erin Dilly and Zac Ballard
While it helps to have seen the film, even if you have never seen the movie you will find much to like about A Christmas Story, the Musical.  It helps that Dan Lauria is playing the older "Ralphie" who is telling the story of what happened to him and his family during this one Christmas season.  Lauria has the right amount of balance not only in the fondness he has at looking back but also at the memory of all of the things that went wrong in the process of his attempt to get that BB gun.  Lauria provided the same balance in his most famous role as the father in the tv show The Wonder Years so it is fairly a natural transition for Lauria.  And while Lauria is basically only used as the narrator of the story, just like Jean Shepherd was in the movie version, it is a bit of a downside that while he is weaved throughout the show, they really haven't found a way to more seamlessly incorporate him into the show -he still seems more like an outsider to the events happening in front of him.  But that is about the only downside I found in the show.

the very effective kids in the cast
Johnny Rabe is Ralphie and he has the perfect blend of fear, determination and desperation that any child has when they want something but see many obstacles in the way of achieving their goal.  Rabe has a very good singing voice and dances nicely too.  He is the epitome of the nice kid who isn't the most famous or the smartest and has his share of bullies, and so represents just about every one of us at that age.  Rabe has no problem balancing all of his responsibilities in portraying this "every man" kid.  He also has a wonderful relationship not only with John Bolton and Erin Dilly who play his parents but also with Zac Ballard who plays his younger brother Randy. 

Erin Dilly, Zac Ballard, John Bolton and Johnny Rabe
Bolton is also giving a very good performance as the father who desperately wants to win a newspaper contest, even though he has no idea what the "major award" is that he'd win.  It is a nice parallel to Ralphie's quest for the B.B. gun.  And when Bolton wins the prize, the aforementioned "leg lamp" it turns into a very inventive dance number.   Dilly as Ralphie's mom has the frantic 1940's housewife and mother down perfectly.  She manages to keep everything moving along swimmingly even when confronted with a child who gets into fights, a turkey eaten by the dogs next door and that hideous leg lamp.  She also delivers a touching ballad "Just Like That" about how quickly childhood passes.  There is not much to say about Ballard except that he is hilarious and just about steals every scene he is in.  I credit director Rando at having all four of these actors come across so naturally as a family and at how effective Rabe and Ballard are in their roles.

Caroline O'Connor
Rando and Carlyle also exhibit an excellent use of the children in the ensemble, especially during the "You'll Shoot Your Eye Out" tap number in the second act that is led by a terrific Caroline O'Connor and featuring tiny nine year old Luke Spring in a winning solo tap.  That number is just one of the very inventive fantasy sequences, similar to what was done for the movie, that also includes the hilarious "Ralphie to the Rescue" Wild West sequence.

Benj Pasek and Justin Paul's score has a nice blend of big splashy numbers, humorous tunes and touching ballads.  Pasek and Paul also composed the score for Dog Fight that ran Off Broadway this last Summer and I expect many more shows from them in the future.  The creative elements for the show are top notch as well with a lovely house set and other colorful set pieces by Walt Spangler, colorful period costumes by Elizabeth Hope Clancy and effective lighting by Howell Binkley.  Because the music and choreography are exceptionally special I think it is important to note that James Gray is the Associate Choreography, Larry Blank provided the orchestrations and Glen Kelly the dance arrangements.

A Christmas Story, the Musical is running on Broadway through December 30th.  I don't need to triple dog dare you to go, just go and have a wonderful time with this crazy and touching family.

Official Show Site

Highlights from the World Premiere production:

Interviews with the cast and creative team:

Press rehearsal footage and interviews with the Original Broadway Cast:

trailer for the movie:

Sunday, November 18, 2012

theatre review SCANDALOUS, Broadway, November 13

Creating a musical must be hard work, especially one that isn't based on a movie or book where all of the plot points and characters already exist.  Kathie Lee Gifford has spent the past ten years honing the new musical Scandalous.   She's steered the show through various regional productions, with different directors, cast members, changing songs and even a changing title along the way.  The musical, which opened this past Thursday has had one consistent all along in addition to Gifford, and that is Carolee Carmello in the lead role.  Carmello is excellent in the role and Gifford deserves an "A" for her efforts and her tenacity to get this show to Broadway.  However Gifford is wearing many hats with this show and her ability as the book writer, lyricist, additional composer and all around press agent through her chatting up the show during her Today Show co-host duties don't fare as well.  Like it's fellow religious based show from last season, Leap of Faith, it is a show that I believe most likely won't be running for more then a few weeks after it's opening night.

Carolee Carmello
The musical is based on the life of Aimee Semple McPherson, the first "celebrity preacher" who saw her own share of highs and lows and the actual title of the show is Scandalous: The Life and Trials of Aimee Semple McPherson.   McPherson was a Pentecostal evangelist who had a passion for religion, theatre and life after being exposed to religion at a very young age by her mother and the theatre through her schooling.  Once she met the Irish Pentecostal preacher Robert Semple her journey had begun leaving her boring Canadian farm life behind and with a man that she not only loved but truly admired.  However, after Semple died of malaria while they were missionaries in China, Aimee found herself back in the states and now with a young child.  After a second husband and second child she found herself suffering from depression and near death but she then heard a voice, a voice that in her mind brought her back from near death and having received her "calling" she traveled the country saving souls as a revival preacher.  Her revival meetings included elaborately staged scenes from the bible and her fame which was fueled by the famous people Aimee encountered while in Hollywood like Charlie Chaplin and William Randolph Hearst, all gave her a huge following that helped in her building the over 5,000 seat Angelus Temple in Los Angeles.  She also started one of the first radio religious programs that helped make her known across the U.S.   It is a passionate story with a driven, powerful woman at the center and one understands why Gifford has been drawn to the life of McPherson and getting her story told.   However, it is the series of scandalous events in Aimee's life including romantic affairs, drug addiction, a mysterious month long disappearance and her use of faith healing and those somewhat provocative biblical pageants that give the musical it's title and the majority of the musical's interesting points, points that are at odds with the faith that drove Aimee.

Carmello and the fairly elaborate main set of the show
Framed by the 1927 court case where Aimee was on trial for faking her own kidnapping, Scandalous tells Aimee's story in flashback and while the musical is never preachy it does a very good job of showing the passion that Aimee had for life and religious and her connection to the people she came in contact with. 

Carmello is nothing short of brilliant in the part.  With one of the most powerful voices on Broadway, and a dozen Broadway shows on her resume, Carmello has unfortunately never found a lead role in a show to originate that has matched her talents and allowed her to become the Broadway leading lady she deserves to be.  While Scandalous has provided her with a great part to play, the creative elements of the show have unfortunately let her down once again.

Candy Buckley, Edward Watts and Carmello
Carmello plays Aimee from the age of 17 to her 40's and provides enough shading in her characterization to come across as both the naive teenager in the first part of act one as well as the woman who has seen many things in her life by the end of the second act.  She clearly gets across the drive that Aimee had to get the power and meaning of religion out to the masses and while there was the celebrity that came along with it, especially once she got to L.A. we never think from Carmello's performance that the fame was what was driving her.  And while I think this show won't have much of a run, I do think that Carmello's performance is one that might be remembered come Tony time next May and this show might end up with a nomination for Carmello's performance.

George Hearn and Roz Ryan
The rest of the cast is quite good with George Hearn playing two parts, first as Aimee's father, who provided Aimee with not only a good upbringing but also with the approval of what she wanted to do with her life.  Hearn also plays an L.A. preacher who is at odds with Aimee, mainly around the draw of her church and fame and how it is competing with his church.  Hearn is quite good in both parts, especially in his touching portrayal of Aimee's father.  Candy Buckley is Aimee's mother, and while the role is basically a one note part, Buckley gives the character the appropriate drive and convection that allows us to see where Aimee gets her drive from. 

The Adam and Eve biblical pageant
Roz Ryan is the woman who Aimee meets in a brothel who quickly leaves her Madame days behind to help Aimee on her journey.  Ryan is good in the part, but unfortunately the book gives her the majority of the jokes and while Ryan is up to the challenge, it still sorta turns her into the "big black funny lady" with the big voice who can get the punch line.  Edward Watts plays two key parts in the show, missionary Robert Semple in the first act and one of Aimee's lovers in the second.  He has a lovely voice, and a great torso that he gets to show off in those biblical tableaus.  In fact, he does such a good job in playing both parts that you barely realize it is the same actor playing both roles.  Andrew Samonsky is effective in the small part of the married man who helps Aimee get on the radio and who may or may not have been with Aimee, hold up in a California hotel, when Aimee was allegedly kidnapped in Mexico.   

Andrew Samonsky and Carmello
With music by David Pomeranz and David Friedman and additional music by Gifford, the score has a wide range of songs, but unfortunately none that really register.  David Armstrong directed the show and he manages to keep the show moving along through Aimee's elaborate story.  There is fairly basic choreography by Lorin Latarro   And while some of the creative cast have Broadway credits as performers this is the first time for all of them in these creative roles.

While there are a number of things that are good about this show, there are also many that aren't and sometimes there are things that are good and bad all at the same time.  For example, Gifford's book keeps the action moving along fairly quickly but there are far too many times when Carolee speaks to the audience with a "and then I did this" or "and then I did that" type of narration that is a sign of a weak writer trying to take shortcuts in explaining the action of their story.  The book is also never really clear on the actual events behind the trial.  While I understand that maybe no one really knows where Aimee was during those five weeks, the fact that the trial frames the show and so much of the second act is spent around it, for Gifford not to offer some facts or at least her thought behind the case make the whole point and the entire thrust of the show just fizzle out. 

Carmello and Watts
The score has many different styles of music which is a good thing - this isn't one of those shows where every song sounds exactly the same.  There are many nice songs in the show, with plenty of solos for Carmello as well as varied degrees of duets and ensemble songs.  However, many of Carmello's numbers have the phrasing at odds with the lyrics and music.  In fact the best song in the show is one where Aimee's two suitors are singing a duet and not one for Aimee.  Also most of the songs end with a large booming crescendo.  The sound design doesn't help with the amplification being extremely loud.

Also, the set design by Walt Spangler is fairly elaborate with the main set resembling the pulpit of the church that Aimee built in California.  However, while the side stairs of the set move toward the sides of the stage, they never move all the way off, thus leaving a strange playing space for the action of just the center half of the stage.  And Spangler's set pieces for the biblical tableau's in the second act are inventive and colorful but if you missed the line about Chaplin giving Aimee ideas about her sets you would think they were garish and completely at odds with what would normally be scene in a church. 

While Scandalous isn't the train wreck that many Gifford haters thought it would be, it just doesn't manage to provide an appropriate score and book in line with the passion and life that Aimee had. 

Official Show Site

Highlights from the show:

Thursday, November 15, 2012

theatre review VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE, Off Broadway, November 12

Christopher Durang's latest play Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike just opened Off Broadway a few days ago and we caught a late preview of the show this past Sunday.  This was actually our second time seeing the show since we saw it's premiere at the McCarter theatre in September (review here.)

While the show hasn't changed since seeing it at the McCarter, the show plays much better at the Mitzi Newhouse Theatre then it did at McCarter.  And while the theatre at the McCarter is very intimate, the Newhouse is even more so, with the expansive set filling up the space and the action seemingly taking place just inches in front of you.  The action is so close to you that with the show set on the back porch of a house in the country of Bucks County, PA, audience members in the front row of the theatre had the "grass" of the house's backyard underneath their feet.

Kristine Nielsen, Sigourney Weaver and David Hyde Piece,
The show is just as funny as it was at the McCarter and the trio of leads is even more well tuned to their parts.  Kristine Nielsen still steals the show out from her A list co-stars Sigourney Weaver and David Hyde Piece, but Weaver and Pierce get plenty of moments to shine throughout the piece. Nielsen's insanely comical impression of Maggie Smith and her heart breaking performance during the phone call she gets in the second act are just two of the reasons to see this show.

Durang has crafted his most accessible play and like I said before, one that I think will have a healthy life after it's New York run.  I wouldn't be surprised with this starry cast if there is a movement to move the show to Broadway.  However, if that move were to happen the experience wouldn't be as good as it is now with the intimacy of the Newhouse Theatre.

Nothing much more to add from what I wrote in my previous review except to say that if you're looking for a night out where you will laugh a lot don't miss Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike playing at Lincoln Center's Mitzi Newhouse Theatre currently running through January 13th.

Official Show Site

Excerpts from the show:

cabaret review BETTY BUCKLEY, NJPAC, November 10

Betty Buckley performed her "Ah Men, the Boys of Broadway" cabaret show at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center's Chase Room this past Saturday.  This concert as I mentioned in my review of the one she gave at the McCarter theatre a few weeks back (reviewed here) contains various musical theatre songs that were all sung by men in the shows the songs come from.

While the show was almost identical to the one she did at the McCarter there was one addition to the evening that stood out.  That was the inclusion of a song that Betty sang in her latest cabaret show she introduced at Feinstein's at the Regency this past October, "The Other Woman, The Vixens of Broadway."  Her new show celebrates songs performed by the second female leads in musicals and the song she sang from this show in her concert at NJPAC was "Another Suitcase in Another Hall" from Evita.  With another beautiful arrangement by musical director/pianist Christian Jacob, Betty delivered a stirring and touching solo take on this song that is performed in Evita by a woman accompanied by two men.   This solo version was extremely effective with Betty completely getting across the ache and pain in the lyrics while also delivering an emotional and yet complete understanding that the affair the women just had who is singing the song is over and it is time for her to move on.  I'm hoping that Betty is able to record this song as well as the other songs from her new show on a forthcoming cd.

Betty is touring her "Ah Men" show around the country, so check out her website for information on upcoming performance dates.

Betty's Official Site 

Betty talks about her "Ah Men" show last year when she premiered it at Feinstein's at the Regency in New York:

cabaret review BARBARA COOK, McCarter, November 7

Barbara Cook is arguably the Queen of the American Songbook.  I don't know any other performer who is able to master every nuance of every lyric in the songs they sing like Cook can.  Having just celebrated her 85th birthday, the only thing slowing Cook down now is the slight toll that age is starting to take on her body as her voice is just about as clear and perfect as it has ever been.  In fact if you shut your eyes during her concert you would have no idea the person singing was 85.  However, the cane she is using to get on and off stage and the fact that she sat down during almost the entire concert only makes you realize how lucky we are that she is still performing and that her voice is not only holding out but still very clear, pure and strong and exceedingly beautiful.

There is pure joy in her singing that shows that she truly loves to do what she does.  That that joy spills over into the audience throughout her shows and she says she has no plans to stop doing what she loves to do.  For the past decade or so Cook has performed a lot of Stephen Sondheim and Irving Berlin songs in her concerts so it was interesting and somewhat refreshing that Cook has now turned to highlighting some other composers.  Hoagy Carmichael and Cole Porter were all represented with Carmichael getting special attention.   The majority of the songs she sang at her McCarter concert can be found on Cook's latest recording "Loverman."

A jazzy and upbeat "Let's Fall in Love" started off the evening that showed the simple joy that she brings to a song.  A lovely pairing of "I Hadn't Anyone But You" and "It Had To Be You" showed two ways to sing about finding your true love with the ache and yearning for love on display in the first song and the upbeat declaration of it in the second.

Hoagy Carmichael's "The Nearness of You" received a lush interpretation from Cook that was followed by a fun and bouncy "Making Whoopee."  Carmichael's "Georgia, On My Mind" received an exemplary and very personal rendition from Cook considering she's from Atlanta.  The arrangement was rich and driving in parts but never got in the way of Cook's vocals that soared in several places.  Though she did say that singing the song is a little bit of a lie "as I couldn't wait to get out of there!"  Humor was actually present thought the show with Barbara telling stories of how her former musical arranger Wally Harper would always say "I love it when you talk dirty."  She also told about the time she was asked to replace Elaine Stitch that included a few blue words with her saying "now don't hate me for saying this" as well as a funny Bette Midler joke, both of which had the audience laughing out loud and Cook replying "I've become a sit down comic!"

A stunning pairing of "House of the Rising Sun" and "Bye, Bye Blackbird" showed two different sides to stories of "ladies of the night."  A very humorous collection of Country song titles that Cook found while searching You Tube one night like "If I Shot You When I Wanted, I'd Be Out By Now" introduced the funny song called "I Don't Want Love."  "When Sunny Gets Blue" received an exemplary rendition with Cook evoking a sultry, smokey jazz chanteuse and underscored with a stunning arrangement with a driving piano part.

The Billy Holiday hit "Lover Man" was given a lovely delivery by Cook and Cole Porter's "Let's Do It (Let's Fall in Love)" received another upbeat jazzed up rendition by Cook and her band.  A simply stunning "Here's To Life" had Cook making every lyric of this song about a person looking back at their life but not giving up just yet completely personal and relevant.  The concert ended with a rousing "I've Got Rhythm" that gave each member of Cook's quartet a chance to solo. This was followed by an un-miked Cook encoring with John Lennon's "Imagine" that was the perfect end to a lovely evening.

Musical Director/Pianist Ted Rosenthal provided appropriate but not overbearing arrangements and accompaniment along with Cello, Reeds and Percussion.

If you get a chance to see Cook in concert don't miss it.

Cook in concert singing "Why Did I Choose You?"

Cook and Vanessa Williams perform from Sondheim on Sondheim on The View:

Thursday, November 8, 2012

theatre review THE SELECT, McCarter Theatre, October 28

The simple story of The Emperor's New Clothes was front and center while I was watching the latest play by the theatre group Elevator Repair Service The Select (The Sun Also Rises) at the McCarter Theatre.  You see, the Elevator Repair Service is the hit theatre group of the moment.  They created the six hour production of Gatz which consisted of the group saying every single word of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby in a dramatic setting.  Having missed that well reviewed production, I was looking forward to seeing The Select and their take on the novel The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway.  But during the show I kept thinking of The Emperor's New Clothes and am wondering if many people are just so caught up in the buzz that this group is getting that they aren't really seeing how mediocre, plodding and fairly amateurish this production is.  I have no idea if the other plays in their trilogy of American novels that include Gatz and The Sound and The Fury are also like this, but it clearly gives me no interest to see anything else they are producing.  And we were clearly not alone in our view as even though we stuck it out for the over three hour running time of the show, there were many people who left at intermission.

Lucy Taylor, Mike Iveson and Susie Sokol
Telling the story of a group of American and British people and their travels across Europe, the novel and play focus on two characters, journalist Jake Barnes and Lady Brett Ashley, a divorced English Women.  Over three hours we watch as Jake declares his love for Brett, but while Brett loves him they both know that they can never truly be together since Jake is impotent from a war injury.  Many other characters come in and out of their lives including Brett's finance and Jake's college friend Robert Cohn both of whom Brett has had affairs with.  The play culminates in Pamplona Spain with Brett's infatuation with the 19 year old bull fighter Romero and ends with Brett and Jake having an intimate conversation about how their lives might have been but Brett deciding to go back to her fiance.  

Most of the dialogue in the play is taken directly from the novel and that clearly helps.   The character of Brett was well played by Lucy Taylor.  Brett is an interesting character in the fact that she is basically a bitch and a slut but has four men who are all in love with her and would basically follow her anywhere.  Taylor perfectly gets the right balance of sexuality, vulnerability and sadness.  She is constantly relying on Jake to help her out in tight situations and Jake always complies.   Mike Iveson as Jake does a good in showing us a man in love who slowly realizes he is basically being used.   The use of a woman, Susie Sokol, to play Romero was the only truly original idea that I thought worked very effectively, especially since Sokol was very good in portraying a hot blooded 19 year old Spanish boy.

The anti-Semitic part of the novel in the way the characters talk of Cohn is never pushed aside in the play, and in this day and age it was actually somewhat jarring that they didn't try to make this less prominent.  There are many reasons the characters don't like Cohn but why they have to keep talking about him being Jewish as one of them was very off putting to me.

The play sets the story in a bar, which is appropriate since every character in the play drinks heavily throughout.  And while I thought the walls of the bar were appropriately in sync with the play in how there was a shelf around the entire set lined with alcohol bottles, only the use of tables to represent various locales was very simple and ineffective, especially for a play that takes place in many locations.

Sure the acting is good and there were a few moments here and there that were truly inspired, like the bull fighting sequence and the ending scene with Brett and Jake in a taxi, but I found many parts of the staging of the Hemingway story to be almost amateurish .  Elaborate sound effects that highlight the popping of corks and the pouring of alcohol and bizarre choreography and music did nothing but add to an already long night at the theatre.  The choreography, which I can only say was insanely stupid, was something you'd see on a skit on Saturday Night Live that was mocking choreography.  I won't even mention the need to show the "manhood" of the bull fighter in his tight matador costume to highlight Brett's attraction to him except to say it made me say "really?" to myself.  There is also a truly bizarre moment toward the end of the play when the bar set piece toward the back is moved off stage so we can see the sound effects guy working his computer.  I have no idea why they did this since it was clear to me how the two guys who were working the machine kept going back and forth to that spot throughout the play.  Why they even needed this to be on stage is also confusing.   It was as if they were saying "look how clever we are, we are actually doing the sound effects on stage during the show!"  Seriously.

Others may have taken the journey and bought in to what ERS is doing with this famous piece of literature but I did not.   Three hours of my life I will never get back.

Brief highlights from the production when it played New York Theatre Workshop last year:

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

cabaret review BETTY BUCKLEY, McCarter Theatre, Oct. 21

To say I'm a huge Betty Buckley fan is an understatement.  I've seen Betty perform on Broadway, London and in concert dozens of times over the past 20 or so years and while her concerts have always included various personal stories and themed elements Betty has never really given a "theme" to her concerts until just a few years ago. 

Starting with her "Broadway By Request" concerts that she performed at Feinstein's at The Regency here in New York and then in various cities across the U.S., she followed that show with another well received themed concert entitled "Ah Men, the Boys of Broadway."  In this concert, Betty performs musical songs that were all performed by male characters in the various shows they come from.   And while Betty performed a few selections from this show in her cabaret show at B.B. Kings last Spring (review here) she also performed the entire concert last Winter in L.A. and also brought the show to the McCarter Theatre two weeks ago.   She will be performing this same concert at the NJPAC Chase Room this coming Saturday.   The concert also received a studio recording that was released a few months ago.

As is always Betty's style, she puts her own stamp on each song in this collection.  And with many inspired arrangements by pianist Christian Jacob combined with the personal stories Betty tells about her connection to many of the songs, it elevates the entire set to a lovely confection of musical material.   Looking back at the songs Betty performs in this show I realized that there is only one song, "Not While I'm Around" from Sweeney Todd that Betty ever performed in concert before.  This is saying a lot about Betty since her concerts in the past, like many other performers, were always a combination of about 90% material she'd performed before with some new songs that she just recently added to her repertoire.

While there are many upbeat songs in the evening including "Luck Be a Lady Tonight" from Guys and Dolls and "Corner of the Sky" from Pippin, it is the addition of the lovely ballads like "Maria" from West Side Story, "Venice" from Elegies and "More I Cannot Wish You" from Guys and Dolls that cement Betty's style with the theme of the show.  The trio of songs from Sweeney Todd is a lovely grouping of three very different songs that all have passion in common with each other that also adds a nice dramatic element to the concert.

The songs in this concert also include two that have amazing arrangements, that she also performed at her B.B. King's concert last Spring that I previously wrote about.  Those songs are "Hey There" from The Pajama Game and "Come Back To Me" from On a Clear Day You Can See Forever.  The arrangement for "Hey There" is one of my favorites as it turns the song into a statement of longing with a dreamy underscore.

And while I have enjoyed listening to the studio recording of this concert it is Betty's stories that she tells in the concert version of the show that make the material have even more of a connection to her past.   The story she told about how she wanted to be a member of the "Jets" from West Side Story when she was young and how she would often be dancing the Jerome Robbins choreography from the show in the driveway on a Sunday morning only to be interrupted by her father who would say "Betty Lynn, get in the car now, the Jets are going to church" was especially humorous.  It also provided the perfect introduction to Betty's take on "The Jet Song" from that show.

She also has some interesting stories about her appearance as the "male impersonator" character who plays the lead role in The Mystery of Edwin Drood in the original Broadway run of that show and the research that she did to prepare for the part.  The research gave her insight into this group of women who played male parts in early British Musical Hall shows and the strength and cleverness they had in finding parts that fit their voices, which just happened to be the male ones.  This story perfectly leads into the original song written specifically for Betty called "A Hymn to Him" which is a take off of the song from My Fair Lady that shows what Betty would be able to do if she played the male parts in various shows.  The song also includes some very funny lyrics like "They do write strong women, I've played them both" as well as give us Betty's takes on Jean Valjean from Les Miserables, Harold Hill from The Music Man and Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof.  It is a truly inspired song and while Betty recorded the song on the cd of the show, the addition of the personal story that leads in to the song and the audience reaction to it make it even better live than on the cd.

My only downsides to the concert at McCarter have to do with the fact that Betty performed this show on a Sunday during the middle of her month long Feinstein's run.  While she was in fine voice there were a few moments when her voice was a little strained. And her McCarter concert only included piano accompaniment by Jacob and not Betty's usual quartet of bass, drums, reeds and piano, which with only a piano provides a slightly less full sound than her usual concerts.  Also, while Betty sang the songs from the show in the exact order they appear on the cd, she didn't perform "Song on the Sand" from La Cage aux Folles and I'm not sure why she didn't perform that song when she sang every other one.

Still, in mind any Betty Buckley concert is a good one as long as Betty keeps delivering and her voice still excels.  We are going back to see Betty at NJPAC this Saturday and Betty's success with this show inspired her latest show "The Other Woman, The Vixens Of Broadway" which offers her take on various female musical songs that she's never performed and that she also debuted at Feinstein's at the Regency last month.

Monday, November 5, 2012

theatre review, ONE SLIGHT HITCH, George St. Playhouse, October 7

Mark Linn-Baker and Lizbeth Mackay
We've all seen our share of movies and plays that revolve around a wedding where the main plot point involves the former boyfriend/girlfriend of the person soon to be married coming to the wedding and breaking up the nuptials.  The new play One Slight Hitch, by comedian Lewis Black, takes that all too familiar plot and tries to change it up a bit.  The play just concluded a run at the George Street Playhouse yesterday and while it is a fairly humorous play, with several laugh out loud moments, it isn't that successful in its attempt to add anything new to something we've seen many times before.

Set in 1981 Cincinnati, the play really focuses on the parents of the bride, Doc and Delia Coleman, on the day their oldest daughter is to be married.  You see Doc and Delilah never had an elaborate wedding, so they plan to make sure their daughter Courtney gets the wedding they never had.  Of course the intense planning for the wedding turns Delia into a "Mom of Bridezilla" and with the arrival of Courtney's former boyfriend Ryan it throws that "one slight hitch" into the day that forces Doc to become a crazy man.  Add in their two other daughters who only add more insanity to the mix and Courtney's stoic fiance Harper and you end up with a comedy of errors, but one with an old-fashioned and warm center.

Mark Linn-Baker and Lizbeth Mackay are Doc and Delia and the two of them provide the required amount of zaniness to the parts.  Linn-Baker contributes a nice controlled craziness to the show that allows Mackay room to become even more humorous and zany as the play progresses.  But at the center of the play you always feel the required amount of warmth and love that a tight knit family exudes.  

Rosie Benton, Clea Alsip and Lauren Ashley Carter
 While the supporting cast is fine, only Lauren Ashley Carter as the youngest daughter, P.B. provided more then the requisite amount of depth to her character, in turn creating a touching portrayal of a teenager who isn't quite yet a woman but has left her childhood well behind.  Rosie Benton and Clea Alsip as the two older daughters Courtney and Melanie are well suited in their roles as are Christopher Tocco and Scott Drummond as Courtney's two suitors Ryan and Harper.

Black has created very different characters with their own distinct languages, something he should be praised for.  I also liked several running gags throughout the play, like how Doc and Delia are constantly mistakenly referring to Courtney's fiance by the name of her ex.  Doc's playing with the bride and groom cake toppers also adds a funny sight gag.  Delia's continual obsession with the shrimp boats for the reception and the on-going whereabouts of the florist only add to the smart and creative writing.  But it is Delia's second act monologue that is so lovingly written that completely makes you understand Delia's continual focus on making this wedding so special.  And while the ending of the play may not be exactly the way that so many similar plots like this end, it is also one that I saw coming about 10 or 15 minutes into the first act.  I'm not sure if Black should be commended for foreshadowing the ending so clearly, or if he should try to hide it a little better so it is a little more of a surprise.

Mark Linn-Baker and Christopher Tocco 
The play has a nice look and sound to it that ground us in that period, including the use of some funny early 80's pop tunes that the character of P.B. quotes and dances along to on her giant sized Walk Man, but other than that, the time period doesn't really add much to the play, so I'm not sure what the point was for Black to use 1981 as the setting.  And while set designer Bob Dahlstrom has created a nice and large playing space, including an open living room and large staircase, the overall design is more on the low end of regional theatre productions.  However, the use of an on-set bar also provides the characters with ample humorous opportunities to add a cocktail or three into the mix to try to make things seem just a little clearer.  Actor turned director Joe Grifasi keeps the action moving at a fast clip and uses the staircase and door to the bathroom for some funny bits, though the play never approaches out and out farce, which I believe was a wise choice on Grifasi and Black's parts since the warm center of the play might haven't shined through so nicely if it was played too much for over the top laughs. 

One Slight Hitch is the type of play that with the right leads provides a fun night out at the theatre, and while Black is adept at playwrighting the overall show comes across more as a live sitcom with a heart, then a thought provoking or game changing piece of drama.  While I believe the play will have a decent run in regional theatres based on Black's name alone, it comes across to me more like an average, run of the mill wedding, something that won't be remembered after a few days after the bride and groom say "I do."

Clips for the play with Mark Linn-Baker and Lewis Black talking about it:

broadway birthday INTO THE WOODS 25th Birthday

Into the Woods opened on Broadway 25 years ago today on November 5, 1987