Sunday, March 31, 2013

broadway birthday OKLAHOMA! opened on Broadway 70 years ago today

Seventy years ago today on March 31, 1943 the first musical written by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II opened on Broadway.  That show, Oklahoma! would run for over five years on Broadway, which a run that long was unprecedented at that time when most shows barely ran a year.

The show was based on a 1931 play called Green Grow the Lilacs by Lynn Riggs and was originally called Away We Go! when it premiered pre-Broadway in New Haven, Connecticut in early March 1943.  Focusing on the rivalry between a cowboy and a ranch hand for the hand of a farm girl in the early 1900's, Oklahoma! is a somewhat simple story.  However, it is also set across a sweeping landscape of settlers and the various social events that take place in their simple lives.  Those events included a barn raising and a social dance that provided director Rouben Mammoulian and choreographerr Agnes de Mille plenty of big and elaborate stage moments to counter the more intimate and dramatic romantic ones surrounding the love triangle between Cowboy Curly, farm hand Jud and farm girl Laury.

What was somewhat ground breaking was how Rodgers and Hammerstein used the songs as extensions of the characters and the dialogue and thus a way to further the plot of the show.  Before Oklahoma! the majority of musicals had songs that were stand alone and didn't organically grow out of the story around the music.  This changed musicals forever.  There were also no stars in the show, something that was almost unheard of at the time as well as an elaborate and lengthy act one ending "dream ballet" staged by deMille to portray Laury's idea of the nightmare that might happen if she ends up with Jud.  In a less polished production that long ballet would have stopped the show cold.  But as presented here elevated the show into a groundbreaking success that would run for 2,243 performances in its initial Broadway production.

The Tony Awards did not exist in 1943, but I'm sure if they did Oklahoma! would have swept them.  Rodgers and Hammerstein did receive a special Pulitzer Prize for the show.  Several famous songs came from the score including the opening number "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin,' "The Surrey with the Fringe on Top" the romantic duet "People Will Say We're In Love" and the showstopping title song.  The cast recording was the first to receive a complete recording as up to that time most shows received truncated recordings due to the space limitations of the discs or the recordings featured studio recording artists and not the original cast members.

A successful film version premiered in 1955 starring Gordon MacRae, Shirley Jones and Rod Steiger and winning three Academy Awards.  The show has had three Broadway revivals with the most recent one in 2002 that starred Patrick Wilson as Curly and Andrea Martin as Aunt Eller.  This revival was based on a 1998 production in London that starred Hugh Jackman as Curly.

Four songs from the 1955 Movie version:

"The Surrey with the Fringe on the Top" from the 1979 Broadway revival:

Hugh Jackman sings "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'" from the filmed version of the 1998 West End Revival.

theatre review RICH GIRL, George Street Playhouse, March 17

A new play based on a classic novel is something that rarely succeeds.  If you include the fact that the classic novel was already turned into an extremely famous and popular play then your chances of success would seem slim to none.  However I'm happy to report that Victoria Stewarts's new play Rich Girl which is based on the Henry James novel Washington Square, that was already turned into the classic play The Heiress, is an inventive new play that updates the story and plot of the novel to modern times in a successful fashion.  The play had its world premiere at the George Street Playhouse this month before moving to the Cleveland Playhouse next month.

Dee Hoty
Directed by Michael Bloom and with an excellent cast, Rich Girl tells the story of 26 year old Claudine, a "rich girl" who reconnects with the handsome starving artist Henry from her school days and falls head over heals in love with him.  Claudine's mother Eve is a Suze Orman type of financial guru/ tv celebrity, who has her doubts about Henry.  Is he just using Claudine to get to Eve's money?  Does he really love her?  Does he even find the plain Jane and somewhat klutzy Claudine attractive?  While these questions are ones we've heard before, Stewart has crafted a winning and inventive take on the James novel that includes fine honed dialogue that is not only realistic but meaningful as well.

Liz Larsen and Crystal Finn
The Henry James novel as well as The Heiress, told the story of a New York City doctor who questions the advances of a suitor for his daughter.  While both the novel and that play were more serious and melodramatic, Rich Girl is more of a romantic comedy with serious overtones.  And while I'm a huge fan of The Heiress, Stewart doesn't shy away from the romantic intrigue, plot twists and deceptions that were present in the previous novel and play and therefore the addition of comedy only heightens the more dramatic moments.

It is a story of women and men and the various ways that money screws up those relationships.  It is also extremely clever with the use of modern technology.  I not only liked how Stewart changed the over protective father figure of the James novel into a wealthy overprotective mother, and all the nuances that mother/daughter relationships bring with them, but how she also made the role of Eve into someone not only knowledgable about finances but a specialist on financial security, especially for women.  I also really liked how Stewart changed the part of the Aunt into Eve's assistant Maggie, who also appears to be Eve's only close friend as well as a confident of Claudine.  By making the part of the aunt into someone who isn't a blood relation, but is still treated like a family member, it adds a whole other dimension of relationship analysis into the mix as that character is now someone who is actually getting paid to be there.

Crystal Finn and Tony Roach
The cast couldn't be better.  Dee Hoty and Liz Larsen are the two seasoned professionals here, both with numerous Broadway credits and several Tony nominations between them.  Hoty is Eve and Larsen is Maggie.  Hoty has no problem in getting across the serious nature of her concerns, and while she is very cold and calculated as Eve, we also know that she is only that way due to her being a victim of her own teachings and the fear that someone can easily come along and take away her hard earned money.  Larsen gets most of the jokes in the play, and expertly delivers them.  She also has no problem getting across the serious nature of the play as well.  Crystal Finn is Claudine and perfectly plays the klutzy young girl who grows into a self sufficient young woman.  Tony Roach is Henry and easily wins us over just like he did with Claudine.

Creative elements are sensational with an elaborate set design by Wilson Chin for Eve's expensive Manhattan apartment and costumes by Jennifer Caprio that couldn't be more clear in portraying the characters.  I especially liked the wig designs that changed throughout the show to accurately show the passing of time.

Rich Girl is a play not to be missed.

Rich Girl runs through April 7th at the George Street before moving to Cleveland for a run from April 19th to May 19th.

George Street Playhouse Website

Cleveland Playhouse Website

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

cabaret review JARROD SPECTOR, McCarter Theatre, March 17

Jarrod Spector racked up an impressive run of over 1,500 performances of playing Frankie Valli in Jersey Boys on both Broadway as well as the stop of the National Tour of the show in Chicago.  But for all of his Broadway performances he will be the first to admit that he isn't a big musical theatre buff.  So it is no surprise that his solo cd and concerts that he has performed across the country don't have really any showtunes in them but instead focus on rock and pop hits from the 60's to today.  With a rocking band and two backup singers, Spector proves a hip and modern throwback to the entertainers that he idolizes, especially Bobby Darin.

The majority of songs he performed at the McCarter theatre in Princeton come from his recent solo cd "Major Fall, Minor Lift."  This wasn't Spector's first stop at Princeton as this Philadelphia native actually also went to school there.

The show was highlighted by several rocking medleys of classic pop/rock songs including an opening sequence that included a rousing version of Stevie Wonder's "Sir Duke" and a medley of 60's songs that included a stirring take on Buddy Holly's "Everyday."  There were some nice versions of songs that most people love to hate including the Hall and Oates song that was number 1 on the charts the day Spector was born, "Kiss On My List," and the Barry Manilow hit "Even Now."  Spector sang both with conviction and no apology at his love for the material.

While Spector frames the show around his life story, telling us about his stint on Star Search when he was just a very young kid to the breakdown he had when he was in college, he could use a little bit of firming up the point he is trying to get across and editing the story a bit, in order to better connect with the material and the audience.  But the songs he sings and the voice he has to sing them with more then make up for the lack of theme and how his life story relates to the songs he sings. 

His sequence around his Star Search experience included a fun take on Bobby Darin's "Splish Splash."  Other highlights in the set included a rocked out version of Led Zeppelin's "Rock and Roll" and a stirring take on Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah."   It was a varied evening for sure, but never once did any of the songs seem out of place, which is something to say when you have hits from Led Zeppelin, Hall and Oates and Barry Manilow almost following right after each other.

A pairing of two Billy Joel songs "Lullabye (Good Night My Angel)" and "River of Dreams" brought the concert to an inspired finish.  Two encores followed including a soft but soaring take on "Bring Him Home" from Les Miserables (Spector appeared as Gavrouche in the Broadway production when he was very young) and the only Jersey Boys song in the concert, a lovely version of "Can't Take My Eyes Off Of You."

All in all, Spector knows how to entertain and his soaring voice and excellent band combined for an excellent concert.  Not sure if he's doing any more concerts in the future but if you're a fan of classic pop/rock try not to miss him if he comes to your town.

"Hallelujah" -

"Kiss On My List" -

"Star Search" performance-

"Can't Take My Eyes Off of You" from Jersey Boys:

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

cabaret review ADAM PASCAL, 54 Below, March 10

Adam Pascal rose to prominence due to his break out role as Roger in the original Broadway cast of Rent.  That role earned him a Tony nomination and while he has also starred in the Original Broadway cast of Aida, as the final replacement Emcee in the Cabaret revival and more recently took over in the lead male role in Memphis, Pascal seems to really consider himself a singer/songwriter and not just a musical theatre Broadway star.  After having performed in bands from his teenage years, he was able to use his Rent success to obtain a way to release several solo cds that feature his original songs.  Over the years he has performed at various venues across the country and we caught a solo gig he gave at the 54 Below cabaret club.  It was interesting not only due to Pascal's excellent musicianship but also because just right above us was where he gave one of his most favorite performances when he starred in Cabaret at Studio 54.

And while the evening included only a few show tunes, none of which Adam has ever actually performed in an actual production of the show it comes from, it was the passion that he has with the music and the connection he has to it that really came through.   I can't imagine that anyone who was expecting him to sing his big Rent song "One Song Glory" not at all disappointed in the least that he didn't sing that or any songs that he performed on Broadway.

The concert didn't really have an overall theme or focus but instead was just Adam singing some of his favorite songs and telling us stories of his past, including several humorous ones from his pre-marriage Rent days that included his partner in crime and Rent co-star Jesse L. Martin.  The solo acoustic show included just Adam, center stage, playing his guitar.

Some highlights of the show included a soaring, heartfelt version of "Mama Who Bore Me" from Spring Awakening and a stirring version of "Memory" from Cats that while it got a few laughs when he started singing the song, mainly due to how unexpected it was, turned into an excellent version of this somewhat over performed song with some excellent guitar skills from Pascal.  A touching version of "You Don't Bring Me Flowers" found Adam connecting with this 80's pop classic in an introspective way. 

Adam's own songs comprised about half of the evening with Adam singing songs from his various albums including "Beautiful Song," "Turn The Lights On," "Something of Ours" and a touching version of "I'm With You."  His set also included pairings of two of his own songs that featured a brief bit of the Paul McCartney hit "Let Em In" and one that even featured him segueing into Sondheim's "Johanna" from Sweeney Todd.  An encore of Peter Gabriel's "Solsbury Hill" was a nice end to the evening.

Adam's voice has such strength and passion and when combined with the honesty and directness of his guitar playing make pretty much anything he performs special.  If you're a fan of music and musical theatre don't miss Adam if he comes to a town near you.

Adam Sings "Memory" and "Johanna"

Monday, March 25, 2013

theatre review, ANN, Broadway, March 9

Former Texas governor Ann Richards was a firecracker with a larger than life personality.  Actress Holland Taylor briefly met Ann and was later inspired to create an autobiographical play based on interviews she conducted with people who knew Richards.  After several regional theatre productions of the play, Ann opened on Broadway a few weeks back.

Richards was born in 1933 and worked her way up through local Texas politics to become the state treasurer of Texas in 1982.  She came to national attention due to the famous speech she gave at the 1986 Democratic convention.  Her popularity from that speech led to her narrow victory in the 1990 race for the governor of Texas.  She became only the second woman to ever hold that office.

Holland Taylor is Ann Richards
While the play is an interesting one woman show it is actually more a character study of Richards, presenting her journey to the governor's office framed around a graduation speech she gives, more so then a regular dramatic play.  The speech itself and Ann's interaction with the audience, as if we are in fact the graduating class she is speaking to, are both impressive with Taylor firmly getting across the humor and directness in Richard's delivery as well as her no holds barred approach to politics.  However, it is a bit jarring to go from the opening sequence where Richards is giving the commencement address, full of her wit and wisdom, to the large set piece of Richards' office when she was governor and where she is now interacting with the off stage voice of her secretary as well as watching Richards go about her crazy day to day schedule as the governor.  The momentum that Taylor has created in the well crafted earlier sequence comes almost to a dead halt during the first part of the office scenes.  It might have something to do with the many phone calls Taylor includes in the office scenes to better portray Ann's busy schedule as well as to show the many odds she was up against.  But during those calls we only hear her side of the many phone conversations which after awhile becomes very repetitive with the many silent moments when she is listening to the other side of the conversation.  And while Taylor is great as Richards, never once dropping the Texas accent and we do hear Julie White's pre-recorded voice as her secretary, it is hard to have a one woman play that interacts with so many people when none of them are actually present.

Taylor in the Texas Governor's Office set
The ending is also a bit abrupt, with Taylor talking about her time after she lost her reelection bid, her office she set up in New York City right around the September 11th attacks and her subsequent death from cancer.  This is also all delivered to the audience as if it is the final part of her commencement speech and while it is a nice way to tie up Richards' story it doesn't exactly make sense in relation to the opening part of the commencement speech where it seems that this is one that Richards actually gave.  Are we supposed to beleive that this is a speech that Richards gave from heaven?  I think it would have been a better play if Taylor had a co-writer to help her better frame her ideas and how to get across the points about Richards that she wanted to highlight.  It isn't a horrible play at all, but could have been great if more attention had been paid to better playwrighting.

But Taylor's performance as Richards is really the reason to see this play.  She is simply amazing and while a lot of the illusion of her as Richards has to do with the wardrobe and wig design it is Taylor that has to pull everything together and hold the stage by herself for over two hours.  At that, Ann definitely succeeds.   

Official Show Site

Brief interview with Holland Taylor about the show, including clips:

Thursday, March 21, 2013

theatre review KINKY BOOTS, Broadway, March 7

The new Broadway musical Kinky Boots is an infectious, fun and upbeat crowd pleaser.  And while it is yet another musical based on a movie just like the show we saw the week before, Hands on a Hardbody, Boots is based on a small independent film and not on a well known Hollywood blockbuster.  The fact that it is based on a film that not a lot of people have seen makes it actually come across as completely original which is another asset going for it.

Kinky Boots tells the story of two men in England, Charlie and Simon (aka drag queen Lola), who are from very different backgrounds and who come together for a common cause.  That cause is to save Charlie's family owned shoe making business.  The idea to save it is to stop making traditional shoes, which are forcing the business into bankruptcy and instead make kinky boots, the type of outrageous shoe ware a drag queen extraordinaire like Lola knows intimately.  Can Charlie and Lola put aside their differences to work together and create the right style of kinky boot in time to make it to the big shoe show in Milan and save the business?  While you think you might know the answer to that question, the fun way the show gets to the upbeat and energetic ending is a simple joy to watch and be a part of.

Stark Sands and Billy Porter
It is a show with a fairly simple plot and a fairly contrived chance meeting between the two lead characters who only meet up due to a brief incident on the street.  That moment, when Charlie believes he needs to save Lola from an attacker outside of the club she performs at, is what brings these two men together, however what sets them off on their journey is their realization that they aren't so different and need each other to succeed.  The fact that they are both trying to prove themselves by standing up to their basically non existent fathers might seem somewhat odd, especially considering that Charlie's father passes away right after the opening number.  However, there is plenty of humor and drama along the way to keep the relationship between these new friends fresh and real as they work together to become better men and hopefully save the shoe factory.

Annaleigh Asford and Stark Sands
The creative team behind the show is very impressive with direction and choreography by Tony winner Jerry Mitchell and a book by multi Tony winner Harvey Fierstein.  However the big news here is the score by pop diva icon Cyndi Lauper.  While Mitchell's direction and choreography and Fierstein's book for this show are all in line with what you'd expect from these two award winners, Lauper has written some infectious showtunes, including some stand out ballads, comical songs and toe tapping anthems.  It is hard to believe this is her first attempt at a Broadway score.  Her act one duet for the two men "Not My Father's Son" is an emotional tear jerker on par with some of the best Broadway ballads.  And her "Sex is in the Heal" and "The History of Wrong Guys" are in line with some of the more comical Broadway songs with Lauper providing some truly clever lyrics.

The cast of Kinky Boots is also top notch.  Stark Sands as Charlie and Billy Porter as Lola are a powerhouse couple with Porter delivering a star making performance.  Don't be surprised to see Porter and possibly even Sands with Tony nominations come May with Porter a clear front runner to win the award.  While Sands is given the straight man part to play, in more ways then one, he manages to instill a sense of seriousness, urgency and realness to the part.  And while Porter as Lola is larger than life, it is when he is out of the drag and playing the soft spoken and somewhat shy and nervous Simon that Porter really shows you what he is capable of.  The fact the two men played these parts in the pre-Broadway Chicago tryout last fall has only strengthened the bond between them.  They've created an amazing relationship but one with warts and issues, just like you'd imagine would exist in a relationship with a straight man and the drag queen who he becomes friends with.

Billy Porter and the "angels"
 Annaleigh Ashford is giving a great supporting performance as the factory worker who finds herself falling in love with Charlie.  Her solo turn with "The History of Wrong Guys" affords her the opportunity to not only win over the audience but deliver a comical performance that will hopefully be remembered come Tony time.  Besides these three actors, the majority of the rest of the cast is a well oiled ensemble playing various parts but Daniel Sherman is a stand out as the rugged factory worker who has a problem with Lola and drag queens and gay men in general.  Sherman manages to not come across as the stereotypical bigot and Fierstein's book gives him some nice dramatic as well as comical moments to provide his character with some nice layers.  The rest of the ensemble is extremely hard working with special attention necessary for the hilarious and beautiful six men in the cast who play Lola's "angels" who perform at the club with her.

the cast and the imaginative factory set design
 At the preview performance we saw there were a few odd moments that will hopefully get worked out before opening night.  One of these moments in act one included Lola performing a magic act at her club that is weaved around a scene with Charlie at the factory.  The stopping and starting up of the song and magic act and while Lola is even performing a magic act since before and after we never see her doing anything magical again don't make any sense and only slow down the plot.  It is also a little unclear if Lola owns the nightclub she performs at or what and the character of Nicola, Charlie's girlfriend, seems to have had her part cut down so much that we aren't exactly sure why Charlie loves her and why they stick together.  I think Fierstein made too many cuts in the first fifteen minutes of the show to get Lola introduced that he gave short shrift to the backstory of Charlie as well as some of Lola's past.   Hopefully the preview period will afford Fierstein the time to clarify some of these items.

Creative aspects are superb with an impressive and imaginative set design by David Rockwell that includes a beautiful factory setting, a revolving center set piece that functions as several locations and the use of conveyor belts as a choreographic element.   Costumes by Gregg Barnes are simply amazing with some of the most outlandish dresses for Lola and her Angels as well as some of the most impressive boots you've ever seen.

While Kinky Boots isn't the greatest musical out there it is a well crafted "feel good" show with several break out songs and makes for a very good night out.  The two big stars of this show are Billy Porter and Cyndi Lauper's Broadway song writing debut.  Kinky Boots officially opens on April 4th.
Official Show Site

Rehearsal clips from the show and Cyndi talking about her score:

Scenes from the show -unfortunately some spoilers about the ending are included:

Monday, March 11, 2013

theatre review HANDS ON A HARDBODY, Broadway, Feb 28

In order for a musical to be successful many things have to come together.  At minimum you need a good story, good music and a talented cast.  Creative and appropriate sets, costumes and lighting are also appreciated, though I have seen my share of good shows that had minimal creative aspects.  So, what can I say about the new musical Hands on a Hardbody?  It is a show with an interesting premise, a hard working cast and the creative use of a life sized truck on the stage, but also a show with an only serviceable score, characters that you don't get the chance to identify completely with and a repetitive nature to the proceedings.  But it is a memorable musical due to the characters and plot and the creative use of that truck.

Based on the 1997 documentary of the same name, the musical follows ten down on their luck people as they enter an endurance contest at a Texas auto dealership to see who can keep their hand on a truck the longest, with the last person standing who still has one of their hands on the truck winning the auto.  It is a competition that goes on for several days and focuses on characters that you rarely see on a Broadway stage.  They are all financially strapped Americans, desperate to win the "hardbody" truck in order to change their lives for the better.  It is nice to see a musical based on a movie that is about real people for a change.  This production with the same cast was produced at the La Jolla Playhouse last Summer and with some changes is opening on Broadway on March 21st.

Hands on a Hardbody is the clearest example of an ensemble show all due to the fact that throughout the entire show you always have several people on the stage with their hands firmly planted on that truck.  And while each of the characters gets their moment in the spotlight, the musical wisely focuses more on just a few central characters.  Keith Carradine and Hunter Foster are the two "names" in the cast, and their characters have more to do then the others, though there are plenty of times when the two of them, like the rest of the cast, are standing in the background with their hands on the truck while another member of the cast is the focus of the scene or song.  Both Carradine and Foster are up to the challenge of blending in with the ensemble and not stealing the focus from the other characters and both are given plenty of material to show off their acting chops and vocal abilities.  It is nice to have Carradine back in a Broadway musical after the great job he did in creating the title role over twenty years ago in The Will Rogers Follies.  Foster is playing the only real villain of the piece, the man who won the competition previously and is willing to do what he needs to do in order to win again, even though he has plenty of demons of his own he is having to deal with.  I liked how both men created characters that you were able to identify with very easily.

Keala Settle, Hunter Foster and Keith Carradine
Other highlights in the cast include Keala Settle as the religious lady who believes God is working through her and wants her to win the truck.  Settle gets one of the big showstopping songs that starts off with her uncontrollable laughter, segues into an impromptu drum session where the truck is used by everyone as their personal drum set and ends with some soaring vocals.  I also like Allison Case and Jay Armstrong Johnson as two young kids who find a mutual connection during the contest and who share a extremely well choreographed dance on top of the truck as it moves and spins around the stage.

And the truck itself is pretty spectacular.  It is on casters so the cast is able to easily move it anywhere on the stage they need to, whether by all ten members of the contest in the early stages of the competition up to just a few people as the competitors start dropping out.  The direction by Neil Pepe and musical staging by Sergio Trujillo focuses squarely on not just having the truck sit center stage throughout the show, but to find an effective way to move it around and bring the individual characters into focus.  And while this was very creative for the first half of the show, including several moments when the truck and cast are spinning almost uncontrollably around the stage, after awhile it becomes more of a gimmick and less of an intelligent creative decision.  I guess I wanted to see different ways to bring the characters into focus then just having the truck move around the stage over and over again.

With a book by Doug Wright, music by Trey Anastasio and Amanda Green and lyrics by Green, the show has it's heart in the right place and the dialogue and songs that are in a folk/soft country style fit the Texas characters fairly well.  However, I could have used less focus on the two people who run the car dealership and the issues they are having with their inventory and more focus on the participants in the contest.  As every time the car dealership office set glided on to the stage it seemed to stop the momentum of the story with yet another unnecessary scene or song that wasn't about the people hoping to win the truck.  We are rooting for the participants in the contest, not the people who work at the dealership, but I guess the creators wanted to show that even those who work at the dealership have issues of their own. I just think a "less is more" decision would have worked better for those two characters.

While overall I found this show entertaining and moving in parts, it is also somewhat repetitive with almost every character's big solo immediately preceding their elimination from the contest.  So repetitive that after awhile you know that as soon as someone starts signing a song that gives you a part of their past and allows you to connect with them that they will almost surely be exiting the stage as soon as the applause for their song ends.  And while I had no trouble sympathizing with the majority of the various characters, some of the dialogue and lyrics don't exactly fit the music for the show, and as such, don't exactly fit the characters.

And while the show is somewhat depressing, the final song is uplifting and one that will be playing in your head for days after seeing the show, while almost every other song in the score will be forgotten almost as soon as they end.  So, I'm kinda on the fence with this show- good cast, some creative direction and staging choices, some good songs but not an overall completely great show.

Official Show Site

Commercial for the musical:

Behind the scenes at the La Jolla production:

Trailer for the original documentary the musical is based on: