Sunday, April 28, 2013

broadway birthday CHESS opened on Broadway 25 years ago today on April 28, 1988

Almost fifteen years before Abba front men Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus had a smash hit Broadway show that was based on their Abba hits, Mamma Mia, they tried unsuccessfully with an original musical Chess that unfortunately only managed a run of two months on Broadway.  Chess is yet another show that found success in London but when moved to the U.S. failed miserably.  Even with a successful and still running production of the show in London, the creative team decided to make drastic changes to the show for Broadway.  The changes included adding dialogue to what was previously an almost entirely sung through show, reordering the song order, changing one of the main characters to now be an American and completely re-designing the show's set.  The changes were either unnecessary or detracted from the show, all of which is a shame as the score of Chess includes some excellent songs.

Focusing on two chess players, a Russian and an American and a love triangle with the woman who manages one of them, Chess began in 1984 like most UK musicals at that time as a concept album.  With music by Andersson and Ulvaeus and lyrics by Time Rice, the recording featured Murray Head as Freddie the American player, Tommy Körberg as Anatoly the Russian and Elaine Paige as Florence, the manager and girlfriend of Freddie who falls in love with Anatoly.  Barbara Dickson played the part of Anatoly's wife Sveltana.  The album was extremely successful which even included one hit song from the show "One Night in Bangkok" reaching number 3 on the US Billboard charts in May of 1985.

Judy Kuhn and David Caroll
The London production of the show premiered in May of 1986 with Head, Körberg and Paige all reprising their roles from the concept album.  Dickson wasn't available so her part was played by Siobhán McCarthy.  Trevor Nunn who was just coming off of directing the smash hit Les Misérables was chosen to direct after original director Michael Bennett was no longer able to continue due to his poor health.  While the show was a success, it also happened to open in the same season as The Phantom of the Opera, which would go on to sweep all of the major awards for that year, leaving Chess basically empty handed.

For Broadway, besides the many changes I mentioned above, playwright Richard Nelson (who's latest, and excellent, play Nikolai and the Others is about to open at Lincoln Center) was asked to write a new book for the show.  The Broadway cast included David Carroll as Anatoly, Philip Casnoff as Freddie and Judy Kuhn as Florence.  The three leads couldn't have been better suited for their roles but even with all of the changes it was actually the rock music of the show that received most of the criticism and the show closed on June 25th.

The Original Broadway Cast did receive a cast recording from RCA Records and I believe due to that recording, the star making performances of the three leads, and a lot of the more Broadway style songs, the show has had continued interest.  Many revisions of the show have happened, combining elements of both the original London production and the Broadway version, but none seem to have been able to crack the issues at hand in order to make Chess into the masterpiece many people believe it should be. 

Several concert productions of the show have happened as well including a star studded one at Royal Albert Hall in 2008 that featured Adam Pascal as Freddie, Josh Groban as Anatoly and Idina Menzel as Florence.  Pascal and Groban had played those same parts in an Actor's Fund Benefit in New York in 2003.

I believe this is yet another show like Merrily We Roll Along that have superb scores and books that don't quite live up to them.  And while I don't believe the score of Chess is on par with Merrily, I do believe there are some great songs in the Chess score including "Nobody's Side," "Where I Want to Be," "I Know Him So Well," "Pity the Child," and "Anthem."   And while "One Night in Bangkok" was a commercial pop success I find it to be too pop heavy for the rest of the score.

Will Chess every be the successful musical that many people believe it will be?  I don't know the answer to that, but with an excellent score, I think people will continue trying to attempt it.

David Carroll sings "Anthem":

Judy Kuhn sings "Someone Else's Story" from a concert she gave:

Idina Menzel sings "Nobody's Side" from the Royal Albert Hall concert:

Elaine Paige and Tommy Körberg sing 'You and I":

Adam Pascal sings "Pity the Child":

"One Night in Bangkok"- music video from 1984:


Saturday, April 27, 2013

concert review NJSO - "'S Wonderful!, 'S Marvelous!, Gershwin" State Theatre, April 19

George Gershwin composed some of the most memorable songs of the 20th century.  The fact that he died so early at the age of 38, in 1937, only adds to the huge contribution that he made to the American Songbook in such a short period of time.  Classic songs like "I've Got Rhythm," "Someone to Watch Over Me," the score to Porgy and Bess and the orchestral piece "An American in Paris" are just a few of his best known pieces.  Last Friday we had the pleasure and joy of hearing an evening of Gershwin music performed by the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra.

Under the skilled baton of conductor Gerald Steichen, the NJSO expertly played an evening filled with some of Gershwin's best known songs as well as a few of his lesser known ones. Adding to the terrific playing were soprano Katrina Thurman and baritone Jim Weitzer (who is currently playing one of the opera owners on Broadway in The Phantom of the Opera.). Both Thurman and Weitzer were up to the task at hand, though Thurman came off best, especially in the second act when her voice soared when she sang "Summertime" during a Porgy and Bess medley.

The evening got off to a rousing start with a spirited overture that included several of Gershwin's best songs expertly woven together into an orchestral piece.  Weitzer and Thurman each had several solos they performed as well as a few duos.  They had a nice chemistry together and even included a few dance moves during the more upbeat songs that they managed to navigate on the small amount of stage space they had in front of the full orchestra. 

In the first act Weitzer delivered a forecful "Swanee" and Thurman sang a charming "'S Wonderful" from Funny Face and Weitzer joined her on a lovely performance of that show's "He Loves and She Loves."   Her take on "Looking for a Boy" was simply lovely.  Their duet of "Embraceable You" was romantic and stirring.  The act ended with an expert take on "An American in Paris." Hearing this separated from the Gene Kelly film that people most know the piece from really allows you to focus on how Gershwin wrote it and how playful it is.  Gershwin flirts a little with us in how the piece moves from one style to another and even toys with us in how the ending builds and builds and then ends with a powerful flourish. 

The second act began with the Porgy and Bess medley that was just astounding.  That was followed by the humorous "By Strauss" performed by Weitzer where she got to show off her operatic skills.  Thurman charmed on "Lady Be Good" and then Weitzer gave a lovely yet forceful "Someone to Watch Over Me."  The "Cuban Overture" was perfectly played by the orchestra in a rousing, jazzy and simply amazing way.  Steichen then played the piano on a couple of selections including when Thurman sang a short but sweet take on "They All Laughed" and Weitzer delivered a torchy version of "Do It Again."  The concert ended with a rousing duet of "I Got Rhythm" and an encore of "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off."
The NJSO is such a great orchestra and I never tire of listening to them play. This is the third or fourth time we've had Stiechen leading the NJSO and I absolutely love how he provides important bits of information about the composer and pieces before or after each selection.  You can tell how much he enjoys the material, the orchestra and just conducting in general. 

Thursday, April 25, 2013

broadway birthday - BLOOD BROTHERS opened on Broadway 20 years ago today on April 25, 1993

The smash hit British musical Blood Brothers opened on Broadway twenty years ago today. With a book and score by Willy Russell, what started out as a school play in 1982 would go on to with the Olivier Award for Best Musical in 1983.  After its initial London run, a 1987 UK tour was so successful that the show ended up back in London in a revival that began in 1988, though it would still take another five years before the show made its way to Broadway.  And while the Broadway run of the show was somewhat short, running just two years, the London revival production played over 10,000 performances and ran for over twenty years, where it closed last Fall on November 10, 2012.

Telling the story of a woman and her two fraternal twin sons who were separated at birth, Blood Brothers is an interesting musical in that it not only shows how the impact the decision to split them up has on their mother but it uses the class system in Britain as a way to show how it can affect the outcome of each twin, since one is raised in a rich household where the child becomes a well off council member and the other twin is raised in a poor one where he ends up out of work, depressed and spends time in prison due to his involvement in a robbery gone wrong.   The show also uses a Narrator to comment on the story, which is stepped in superstition, and he also plays several humorous parts in the show.

Single mother Mrs. Johnstone works for Mrs. Lyon as a house cleaner.  When Mrs. Johnstone finds out she is pregnant with twins she tells Mrs. Lyons that she can't afford to keep them both so Mrs. Lyons, who is desperate for a child but unable to have any, suggests that she give one of the children to her.  Mrs. Johnstone agrees though she later regrets it and even lies to her other children saying that only one of the twins, Mickey, survived.  When Mrs. Lyons fires Mrs. Johnstone as she feels she is paying too much attention to the child she gave away, Edward, she tries to give her money but also tells her that if children that were separated at birth learn they have a twin they will both die the same day.   This superstition and talk of the "bogeyman" are threaded throughout the show.  The twins grow up and become "blood brothers" when they learn they have the same birthday.

Mrs. Lyons then discovers that her son Edward's "friend" that he always talks about is actually Mickey and so she forces her husband to move the family away.  However the first act ends with Mrs. Johnstone's family being rehoused from the inner city to an outlying town that just happens to be where Mrs. Lyons and Eddie have moved to.   The second act finds the boys in their teen years meeting up again as they both fall in love with the same girl, Linda.  Eventually Mickey gets Linda pregnant and they get married but then Mickey gets fired from his job and then becomes depressed and addicted to anti-depressants due to time spent in prison as an accessory to murder.  When Mickey believes Eddie is having an affair with Linda he shows up with a gun to confront him and the show ends with the superstition coming true or is it "class" and not the superstition that is to be blamed?

Carole King as "Mrs. Johnstone"
The score is a somewhat simple, pop-rock themed one but also has some lovely ballads including "Easy Terms," "That Guy," "I'm Not Saying a Word," and "Tell Me It's Not True" as well as the rousing act one closer "Bright New Day."  And while the production used a fairly simple set and a small cast, a nice directorial touch was that the twins are played by the same two actors throughout the show, from about age 7 to their mid 20's.  And while this might seem a bad decision, having adults play children, I must say that the three times I've seen the show, twice on Broadway and once in London, the cast was extremely talented and completely pulled this off and found humor in playing young lads as well as pain and sorrow in their older selves.

The Broadway production ran for two years, closing on April 30, 1995.  It initially starred Stephanie Lawrence as Mrs. Johnstone with Con O'Neill and Mark Michael Hutchinson as Mickey and Eddie and Warwick Evans as the narrator.  All four played those roles in London with O'Neill winning the Olivier Award for his performance.  The original Mrs. Lyons on Broadway was Barbara Walsh.  Future Broadway star Kerry Butler made her Broadway debut as a member of the ensemble and an understudy for the role of Linda. 

Petula Clark made her Broadway debut when she replaced Lawrence and was joined with half brothers David and Shaun Cassidy as Mickey and Eddie.  The three of them would also record an "International" cast recording of the show with creator/composer Willy Russell as the Narrator.  Barbara Dickson was the original "Mrs. Johnstone" in the UK, with Kiki Dee playing the part in the London revival.  Other notable Broadway replacements included iconic 1960's pop singers Carole King and Helen Reddy.  I saw both Lawrence and King in the show and have to say that while Lawrence was excellent King was also exceptional.

"Did you ever hear the story of the Johnstone twins? As like each other as two new pins. How one was kept and one give away. How they were born and they died on the self same day."

Barbara Dickson, the original "Mrs. Johnstone" in 1983 sings "Easy Terms":

The Original Broadway cast peforms on the Tony Awards:

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

broadway birthday SHE LOVES ME opened on Broadway 50 years ago today, August 23, 1963

The sweet, charming and romantic musical She Loves Me celebrates it's 50th birthday today.  Based on the Hungarian play Parfumerie, written by Miklos Lazlos, the work had already been turned into two successful Hollywood films before it was musicalized for Broadway.  Those films were the 1940 The Shop Around the Corner that starred James Steward and Magaret Sullavan and the 1949 musical version In the Good Old Summertime that starred Judy Garland and Van Johnson.  The story would also be the basis for the hit 1998 film written by Nora Ephron, You've Got Mail, that starred Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan.

The story is a simple love story, so simple that it is easy to see why it has been used for the basis of three films and a Broadway musical.  Two co-workers who despise each other don't realize that they are actually pen pals who met through a "personals" ad in the paper and who are in love with the person they are exchanging letters with.

Daniel Massey and Barbara Cook in the Broadway production
 The musical starred Barbara Cook as Amalia Balash and Daniel Massey as Georg Nowack, the two co-workers who don't realize they are actually in love with each other through their letters.  The musical also featured Barbara Baxely and Jack Cassidy who also played co-workers at the shop Ilona Ritter and Stephen Kodaly but who had an unsuccessful romance.  The musical which was directed by Hal Prince would run on Broadway for 302 performances and close on January 11, 1964.  A London production that featured Rita Moreno as Ilona premiered in April 1964 but only managed a run of 189 shows.  A Broadway revival in 1993 that featured Boyd Gaines, Judy Kuhn, Sally Mayes and Howard McGillin would run for a year.  That revival production which featured a lovely set design by Tony Walton would also be mounted in the West End the next year, featuring Ruthie Henshall as Illona, where it would also have a year long run.
Barbara Baxley and Barbara Cook

With a score by Jerry Bock and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, She Loves Me was the fourth show the duo collaborated on and was their biggest hit after the team's very successful 1959 show Fiorello and would premiere just one year before their 1964 smash Fiddler on the Roof.   The score is rich with jewels of songs including "Vanilla Ice Cream," "She Loves Me," "A Trip to the Library," and "Will He Like Me?." And even though both the Broadway and London original productions and revivals didn't run that long all four would receive cast recordings.  The book of She Loves Me was by Joe Masteroff who would go on to work with Kander and Ebb when he wrote the book for Cabaret.

She Loves Me is a simple yet sweet and romantic musical and I never tire of the score and recommend anyone who enjoys musical theatre and romance to not pass up the change to see a production of this show if one happens to be presented in a city near you.

Diane Fratantoni, Sally Mayes and Boyd Gaines Tony Award performance:

the 1978 BBC tv version of the musical:

Monday, April 22, 2013

broadway birthday TOMMY opened on Broadway 20 years ago today, April 22, 1993

What started out as a double album from the rock group The Who, which the group would also later perform in concert, Tommy was turned into the ingenious Broadway musical that opened twenty years ago today.  It was one of the most creative Broadway shows and one of the first to incorporate video elements into its production. 

The musical is the story of Tommy who is traumatized by an experience in his youth and becomes a "deaf, dumb and blind boy."  After going from doctor to doctor searching for a cure and nothing seeming to work, he eventually becomes a "pinball wizard" playing by sense rather than sight which turns him into something of an oddity.  Tommy becomes fascinated with the mirror, as if he can see himself inside of it, and when his mother smashes the mirror in frustration it manages to break Tommy free.  He becomes something of a "pseudo" Christ like figure which only draws more people to him but he realizes that he doesn't want people to follow him but instead to be themselves, which only makes his followers turn against him since they believe him to be some type of higher power.

The Who had always said they had planned for their rock opera to become a theatrical show, so under director Dec McAnuff the show first premiered at the La Jolla theatre in California in the summer of 1992.  The production then moved to Broadway in the Spring of 1993 and opened at the St. James Theatre on April 22nd.

The original Broadway cast starred Michael Cerveris as Tommy with Marcia Mitzman as his mom and Jonathan Dokuchitz as his father.  Also in the ensemble were future Broadway stars Alice Ripley, Norm Lewis, Christian Hoff and Sherie Rene Scott.  The musical was nominated for 10 Tony Awards, winning five including ones for Best Director and won for Best Score (which it shared with Kiss of the Spider Woman.)  The energetic choreography by Wayne Cilento also received an award as well as the high performance rock concert style lighting from Chris Parry.  John Arnone also won a Tony for his ingenious set design that not only incorporated video elements as I mentioned above but also used several large moving panels that swiftly glided across the stage and quickly changed not only the scenes but the actors as well.

While the majority of the excellent score of the musical, which includes many classic rock songs, comes from the 1969 rock album and the 1975 film, the Broadway production did include an excellent new song that Tommy's parents sing entitled "I Believe My Own Eyes."  The 1975 film is most famous for Elton John's "Pinball Wizard" and Tina Turner's "Acid Queen" and the psychedelic film style of director Ken Russell.   The Who singer Roger Daltrey played Tommy in the film with Ann-Margaret as his mother. 

Clip of the Original Broadway Cast:

The Original London cast of the show performs "Pinball Wizard" -

London cast - "Smash the Mirror"

Press reel for the First National Tour:

The Who peform Tommy in concert:

Elton John sings "Pinball Wizard" in the 1975 movie:

theatre review MACBETH, Broadway, April 16

Alan Cumming is giving a tour de force performance on Broadway in Shakespeare's Macbeth.  This production is an abridged version of the play that is basically Cumming in a one man performance where he inhibits more than a dozen characters in this tale of murder and terror as Macbeth makes his power play to become King.  It officially opened last night and while it is an ambitious production it doesn't quite all come together in the end.

Speaking almost entirely in his native Scottish language that provides a rich and emotional connection to the Scotland setting of the play, Cumming never leaves the stage for the 100 minute one act version of Shakespeare's tragedy.  When the play begins we find Cumming on an examination table in a psychiatric facility with a doctor and attendant administering medication while removing his clothing and placing them in large bags that say "Evidence" on them.  Many questions come to mind: why is he here?  He has blood splattered on his neck and torso so what exactly is up with those large "Evidence" bags?  But did he kill someone or was he the victim?  Why is he in an insane asylum and not a prison?   These are many questions that remain unanswered throughout the play.  While it might be that directors John Tiffany and Andrew Goldberg were hoping to inspire conversations by audience members for them to make their own decisions about what exactly is going on, they don't give us enough information to even begin to have a dialogue.

The surroundings are creepy and atmospheric as if out of a psychological horror film from the 1960's. Merle Hensel's stark and sterile green tiled set, the creepy music from Max Richter, atmospheric lighting by Natasha Chivers and moody sound design by Fergus O'Hare all combine to give anyone a chilling sense of the willies.  The set alone could be used on off nights to film any number of classic horror films.

There are also some nice creative elements used to bring the characters of the play to life including the use of a wheelchair to become the throne of King Duncan, a doll left behind from a former patient becomes Duncan's son and heir to the throne and a small child's sweater is used most effectively to portray a young victim.  A bathtub and sink are also most effectively used to provide various prop pieces and a towel and mirror are ingeniously used as a way for Cumming to not only easily move from one character to another, with the simple movement of the towel, but via the mirror it gives him a way to have a conversation between two characters.

But the most creative element is the use of three large tv screens over the stage to provide black and white images from the security cameras in the room.  This is an excellent way for Cumming to become the various characters in Shakespeare's classic tragedy, most effectively the three witches, as each camera is from a different angle and thereby gives us a different angle to view Cumming and with the twist of his body and the use of the screens he can literally be all three witches right in front of us on the three screens.  Those tv screens also provide some of the most chilling elements of this production.  Videographer Ian William Galloway has effectively incorporated pre-filmed footage into the production so watch closely when they are on and you will sometimes see other characters on the screens that aren't in front of you on the stage.  It is reminiscent of the Paranormal Activity series of films where found video footage contains ghosts and other spooky happenings, but when it takes place right in front of you it is especially eerie.

But this production all comes down to Cumming.  And while his performance is technically stellar we are still left with so many questions that the total is much less than the sum of the parts.  Is Cumming's character possessed by the characters in the play?  Is he schizophrenic?  Does he have multiple personality disorder and each character is a part of him? Or did he just see a bad version of Macbeth in his past and what ever traumatic thing happened to him has now made him reenact the play out in his own way?  The edited down version of the Shakespeare text also doesn't fully give anyone who isn't that familiar with the play a true understanding of the plot.  The inclusion of a synopsis of the play in the Playbill is a good thing. But since they've already edited down the play and changed the setting, why they thought there was no need to add a few additional lines of dialogue to help the audience better understand what the point of this production is is beyond me.  It is a missed opportunity that would have elevated Cumming's impressive bravura performance into an even grander night at the theatre.  As is, it's an interesting character study and acting challenge with a few spooky and shocking moments and not much more.

Official Site

Friday, April 19, 2013

theatre review THE NANCE, Broadway, April 13

Nathan Lane has established himself as one of the leading Broadway actors of our time.  Making himself at home in both dramas, comedies and musicals he has now found a new play that combines all of those into one, Douglas Carter Beane's latest play The Nance.  The play, which Beane wrote with Lane in mind, officially opened on Monday and we caught one of the final previews this past Saturday.

The Nance is set in 1937 Manhattan during the time that Burlesque was on the wane, homosexuals had to be as inconspicuous as possible or risk arrest and Mayor LaGuardia was cracking down on indecency.  Beane sets out to tackle several topics in his play, the end of burlesque and it's impact on those involved, gay life in 1930's New York City and how older gay men and younger gay men perceived relationships differently during those changing years.

Lewis J. Stadlen. Cady Huffman, Nathan Lane and Jonny Orsini
 Nathan Lane is Chauncey Miles, an actor in the burlesque theatre who plays the "nance," a stock vaudeville character, short for "pansy," an effeminate male that was a prominent fixture in burlesque comic scenes featuring plenty of bawdy double entendre and stereotypical homosexual behavior.  While these parts were often played by heterosexual men, Beane wisely has Chauncey be gay, which adds a dramatic and ironic dimension to the play.   The irony comes in two ways- how Chauncey can play an openly gay, swishy character on the stage but be persecuted in his daily life for being gay even though he exhibits none of the stereotypical traits of a gay man and how once the crackdown happens it is alright for him to be in drag on stage but not appear as an effeminate character.

Jonny Orsini and Nathan Lane

Surrounding Chauncey are the people that he works with and the boy he meets at the automat, takes home and eventually asks to move in with him until he can find his own place.  That relationship is especially memorable as it is set in the secretive world of gay men of the 1930's with the signals they would give to each other to identify themselves as gay all while fearing being caught for just being in a restaurant or on the street.  That Chauncey and Ned actually love each other and want to be together is something alien to Chauncey at first and something that ultimately will bring the two men to a crossroads.  But in getting them to that place Beane has crafted a realistic portrayal of what gay dating must have been like at a time when it was almost virtually illegal for a man to love another man and monogamy was almost an unknown word to a gay man.   When viewed in 2013, with all the news reports about the Supreme Court hearings around same sex marriage it is especially meaningful to see how far the nation has come.

While the play portrays a changing world, Chauncey wants to live in the past, a past filled with afternoon trips to the automat to pick up straight men and evenings filled with being on stage at the theatre.  However, all of that is about to change and the heartbreak of The Nance isn't just about the trouble in the sweet and passionate relationship between Chauncy and Ned but also how everything that Chauncey can't let go of in his past and the things he is used to in order to embrace and tackle and overcome the changing world around him.  Add in the fear that Chauncey has about emotional commitment, his almost unwillingness to believe someone could actually love him and the self hatred and self contempt that Chauncey can't get over, even with the love of Ned, with the backstage and onstage antics at the burlesque theatre and you have a play rich with passion, drama, comedy and music.

Nathan Lane, Cady Huffman, Andrea Burns, Jonny Orsini
Jenni Barber and Lewis J. Stadlen

Beane and director Jack O'Brien have lovingly created this production in such a way that it seems like we're in a time machine that has taken us back seventy five years.  The cast has no problem in grounding us in 1937 as well with Lane giving a heartbreaking performance.  The fact that he is playing three different "characters" in a way, the "at home" Chauncey who is funny, passionate and outgoing yet still has some self loathing , the guarded, secretive and discreet "public" Chauncey and the hysterical "nance" Chauncey and that Lane manages to flip between these "roles" in a second shows Lane's abilities as an actor.  Anyone that is familiar with Lane knows his master ability to use a look or facial expression to get a laugh but I can't recall Lane ever being as passionate in a role before, sure he was warm (and hilarious) in The Producers, but this is really Lane's debut in a romantic lead of sorts.  Also, his monologue in drag toward the end of the show is priceless in Lane's ability to combine a serious, confessional of sorts with some hilarious one liners.  Lane doesn't miss a beat no matter what he's asked to do and because of that I truly hope he wins the Tony for this part.

Jonny Orsini is making his Broadway debut as Ned and he not only manages to completely hold his own in his scenes with Lane, but you honestly believe that he loves Chauncey, the new life that Chauncey has helped him create and the new friends he has come to call his own.  He is sweet, charming, passionate and looks great in the bathtub as well.   Lewis J. Stadlen is Chauncey's performing partner Efram and while he looks down on Chauncey's homosexuality he does realize what Chauncey is up against and finds himself willing to help him even though Chauncey finds it difficult to adhere to what Efram requests of him.  That difficulty is what ends up getting Chauncey arrested.  Like Lane, Stadlen is given several comic and serious moments to play, especially around the difficulties in trying to perform their burlesque routines together when the crackdown happens to not do anything that could be perceived as being indecent. Stadlen more than succeeds in the task he's been given and while there isn't exactly a "villain" of the piece, Stadlen sometimes has to portray that part in order to make Chauncey realize what the results of his action might be. Stadlen and Lane performed together on Broadway before and the two of them have a great rapport together so it is especially nice to see them together again and portraying such rich and complicated characters.  
Nathan Lane
Cady Huffman, Andrea Burns and Jenni Barber are the three ladies who work at the theatre and all of them get a moment or two to shine with Huffman especially memorable as the bawdy and sassy Sylvie. 

The period touches to the set by John Lee Beatty and costumes by Ann Roth really take you back to a gritty time in seedy theatres and basement apartments.  The revolving set by Beatty even gets a curtain call of its own in a way.   There is also nice period burlesque numbers written by Glen Kelly that all of the cast has fun performing.  Kelly's humorous strip numbers for the three ladies are especially memorable in the tacky way they are portrayed.

Burlesque would be gone by the early 1940's and I don't know if Chauncey would have been able to survive the changes to his world.  The ending of the play signifies the changes and a warning as such to Chauncey but we are left to make our own decision as to what happens next to Chauncey.

Beane has painted Chauncey as a conservative Republican, always restrained in his actions so when Chauncey has to testify in court, his speech, while thrilling and heroic, is also a bit out of character when compared to the events that happen before and after this scene.  Chauncey has lived his life avoiding conflict, always flying under the radar and struggling with monogamy but now it's as if Beane wants Chauney to be the hero of the times but wants to show the self-hatred he has as well, which don't necessarily jell.    But that is really the only flaw in this piece as while the play doesn't exactly deliver on all that it sets out to accomplish, it is still an interesting story, beautifully told, with a top notch cast and direction and Lane is such a gem that I have to believe he is the front runner for the Tony this year, as his only Tony wins previously have come for musicals. 

The Nance runs through June 16th

Official Site

Rehearsal interviews with the cast:

Brief interview with Nathan Lane:

one of the most famous "nance's" Gene Malin, performs "I'd Rather Be Spanish":

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

theatre review MATILDA, Broadway, April 9

The Royal Shakespeare Company has only produced two musicals on Broadway before, the hugely successful Les Miserables in 1987 and the huge flop Carrie in 1988.  After a disaster like Carrie, you can imagine why it has taken them almost exactly 25 years after their last attempt before bringing their latest musical Matilda to Broadway.  Fortunately for the RSC, even though this show doesn't quite have the universal emotional appeal of Les Mis it is a hugely entertaining family musical that should have a healthy run on Broadway and on tour.

Based on the children's novel of the same name by Roald Dahl and with a book by Dennis Kelly and a score from Tim Minchin, Matilda tells the familiar story of a young girl who is misunderstood and unloved but who finds love in books and through her school teacher.  While Matilda isn't an orphan she certainly has a lot in common with other famous musical children like Annie and Oliver in that they are all children looking for love from adults but forced to use their intelligence to get ahead in the world, find love and to be truly understood. 

Oona Laurence and Gabriel Ebert
Young Matilda's parents don't love or understand her, her father often calls her a boy and can't understand why she would want to read books and her mother didn't even know she was pregnant with her, thinking that her large stomach could be cured with penicillin.  So Matilda does want a young child in this situation can only do, she escapes from her rotten parents into the world of books and storytelling and through this escape finds a friend in the librarian at her local library.  That librarian, Mrs. Phelps, is always excited to see Matilda in order to hear the latest installment in a story Matilda has to tell her and to give her some new books to read.  But things get worse when Matilda is sent to school where the dreaded, sadistic Miss Trunchbull, who thinks all kids are "maggots," is the headmistress.   Fortunately Matilda's sweet but mousy teacher Miss Honey sees the gifts that Matilda has and together they help each other overcome their obstacles and demons.
Bertie Carvel and Lauren Ward

The cast of the show includes four girls who rotate in the part of Matilda, with each of them playing two shows a week.  At the preview performance we saw last week Oona Laurence was Matilda and she was perfectly lovely in the part, smart, fearless and sassy yet heartbreaking as well.  Reprising his Olivier Award winning performance of Miss Trunchbull is Bertie Carvel and while the role is more on the supporting side, lengthwise, Carvel has a ball in playing the sadistic, enormous character and is somewhat missed when he's not on stage.  The voice he has created for the character will be ringing in your ears for weeks after seeing the show, it is that original and memorable.  While I wish there was more of Trunchbull in the show I understand that this is Matilda's story and not Trunchbull's, but I only wish she had a better send off then she does.  And while little is done to hide the fact that it is a man playing this female part it doesn't really detract from the overall enjoyment of the show.

Trunchbull and the ensemble
Other notable parts include Lauren Ward as Miss Honey, Matilda's school teacher who takes Matilda under her wing.  While Ward is married to director Matthew Warchus, this isn't a case of nepotism as Ward has numerous Broadway and West End credits and she more than holds her own against Carvel and Laurence and actually creates a touching and effective character that you root for, just like you do for Matilda.  Ward is also extremely lovely not only with Laurence but also with the children in the ensemble as well and has a lovely voice that she gets to show off on several songs.  Gabriel Ebert is hilarious and even a bit touching as Matilda's father.  It is hard to believe this is the same actor that played the college aged lost boy in last year's 4,000 Miles.  I hope he finds a Tony nomination in his future for this part as he really managed to create a character that you'll remember a long time after the curtain comes down. 

The ensemble and a great shot of the Scrabble type letter set design.

The ensemble is quite effective as well especially the children in the cast.  They are used throughout the show in very effective ways and manage to create individual characters that you can clearly identify with.  Like Carvel and the rest of the cast, they seem to be having a ball being in this show.

The score by Tim Minchin includes many memorable songs including Matilda's first act solo "Naughty" and the second act opener "When I Grow Up" that you'll be humming for days after you come out of the theatre.  However, most of the songs for Miss Honey and Miss Trunchbull lack memorable music but most of the lyrics are clever and effective.

Warchus has conjured up a fantastic, almost imaginary world for us to visit and Dahl's characters, while a bit cartoonish and very over the top, manage to get across the message that love can conquer all in the end.  I have to believe he's the front runner for the Tony for Direction not only due to the energetic nature of the show but also due to the effective use of the children in the cast and the way he is able to incorporate the storytelling aspect of the book with the energetic choreography by Peter Darling.

Carvel and Ward
Set designer Rob Howell has created a magical set that at first glance looks like colorful cartoon style Scrabble tiles have exploded all over the set walls and proscenium and cover every possible nook and cranny.  However, there is much more to the design as even though there are random letters all over the place there are many letter tiles that spell out words.  One of the first joys you'll have with this show is trying to find the hidden words scattered all over even before the show begins.  Howell continues this theme throughout the various set pieces and random parts of almost every set include more spelled out items.  The set pieces look like pages of a pop up book and the stage floor also carries this forward with desks and other set pieces hidden in the floor that pop up when needed.  It is definitely one of the most clever set designs I've seen in a long time.
Just a few quibbles- there are several times when the ensemble is singing together and you can't really make out the lyrics to the songs, the same could be said of about 10% of the dialogue, where either the thick English accents the cast are using, or the sound design basically makes the dialogue unintelligible.  Also, as I mentioned above, Trunchbull doesn't really get the grand exist she deserves.  Also while Miss Honey is lovely, we spend a little too much time with her character than we should, and do we really need confetti canons and laser beams?  The confetti canons really served no purpose and made it more of a "look, we have confetti canons as well" moment that really wasn't necessary.

But, there is much to like including the frenzied choreography and frantic pace of the show and the loving touches throughout in both costumes, set and direction.   And, spoilers ahead, I clearly appreciated the unsentimental ending with Matilda and her father, so happy they didn't decide to sugar coat that part and left it exactly the way it should have been.

While Matilda may not be the greatest musical ever created it does hit many high notes including colorful, over the top characters that are easily identifiable, an amazingly creative set, a cast that throws themselves into the material, a score and book that have many memorable moments and direction that manages to hold everything together while delivering many laughs and a few tears.  It took them 25 years but I think the Royal Shakespeare Company has another Broadway musical hit on their hands.

Matilda Website

Friday, April 12, 2013

theatre review THE WINTER'S TALE, McCarter Theatre, April 7

The plays of William Shakespeare almost all fall into two categories, the comedies and the tragedies.  So it is interesting that one of his lesser produced plays The Winter's Tale is actually a hybrid of both tragedy and comedy.  The McCarter Theatre is currently presenting a slightly edited down version of the play in a beautifully staged production directed by Rebecca Taichman.

Jealously is the central plot element that kicks off the action of the play when the King of Sicila, Leontes, believes his friend King Polixenes, the King of Bohemia, is involved romantically with his pregnant wife Hermione.  After Polixenes learns of Leontes' plan to poison him, he flees back to his home country which only makes Leontes believe his fears were correct.  He imprisons his wife for infidelity and orders the new born child to be abandoned to a far away place, thinking that the child is not his.  His son, his only child, dies of an illness that is brought on by the accusations against his mother and then news comes that Hermione has died as well.  Leontes is heartbroken and vows to morn the loss of his wife and son.  Pretty dramatic stuff, right?  And that's just the first half of the play which is dark and dramatic.   However the second half has a much lighter and comical tone where the action shifts to Bohemia and we find out what happened to the abandoned child.  It also includes several musical moments.  And while it might be a bit jarring for the change of tone the fact that the intermission is placed between the shift makes it less of a jolt.
The dark, brooding world of Sicilia with Hanna Yelland,
Mark Harelik and Sean Arbuckle
 Taichman has assembled a very capable cast headlined by Mark Harelik as Leontes.  Harelik throws himself into the part of the jealous king and Taichman stages the action in such a way that we too can see why his beliefs might have merit.  But Taichman also wisely has her cast playing multiple parts, so while Harelik is dark and brooding as the King he is also comically a buffoon as the peddler Autolycus. Other standouts in the cast include Hannah Yelland as Hermione and Ted van Griethuysen as the Old Shepherd who takes in the abandoned newborn and raises it as his daughter.  The rest of the cast is effective in the multiple parts they play but it's just too bad that the extremely talented Tony winner Brent Carver is playing a supporting part with minimal stage time.

The colorful world of Bohemia
Taichman uses lighting, sets and costumes most effectively to demonstrate not only the shift in tone between the two halves of the play but also to portray the two different lands of Sicilia and Bohemia.  In Sicilia the costumes are all dark with the men all wearing modern formal wear and the set design is all sleek and shadows.  But in Bohemia there is a burst of color not only in the costumes but also in the use of large cut out prop pieces to portray colorful butterflies and woodland creatures. 

While The Winter's Tale may not be one of Shakespeare's more well known plays like Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet it is an effective piece of drama with well written characters and identifiable themes of jealousy, betrayal and revenge.  There is also a magical last scene that brings everything together and in the McCarter production Taichman stages this scene beautifully.  It also requires Yelland to display some amazing technical skills. 

The Winter's Tale runs at the McCarter through April 21st before moving to the Shakespeare Theatre Company in D.C. for a run from May 9th to June 23rd.

McCarter website
Shakespeare Theatre of D.C. website

Thursday, April 11, 2013

theatre review IT'S A BIRD, IT'S A PLANE, IT'S SUPERMAN, City Center Encores!, March 24

The City Center Encores! series of staged concerts of musicals provides an excellent way for older musicals that rarely get produced to be seen by those who might not get a chance to see them.  And while some of the previous picks over the past twenty years in the Encores annual offering of four shows have included more well known musicals like Follies, Merrily We Roll Along and Promises, Promises it is nice when a show like It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's Superman is selected to be included.  And Superman is a show, unlike the three I mentioned, that will probably never see a commercial Broadway revival production.  The show might be dated and the story a bit un-pc, but the score has many stand out songs so getting to see this concert production with Broadway stars giving knock-out performances brought a big smile to my face.   The fact that I've never seen a production of this show was also another major reason I didn't want to miss this production.

Jenny Powers and Edward Watts
The original Broadway production of the show opened on March 29, 1966.  With music by Charles Strouse, Lyrics by Lee Adams, a book from David Newman and Robert Benton and directed by Hal Prince, Superman unfortunately opened shortly after the tv show Batman had become a hit series.  It is possible that the campy nature of the Batman series and the fact that it was available to be seen for free twice a week turned audiences off from paying to see a musical version of another superhero as the show only managed a short run of 129 performances.  However the score by Strouse and Adams has many gems including one song that would become somewhat of a hit, "You've Got Possibilities."   And while Newman and Benton would never write another Broadway musical, the two of them did co-write the 1978 non-musical big screen version of Superman that starred Christopher Reeve and Marlon Brando.  The year after they co-wrote the musical Superman, Newman and Benton would co-write the screenplay and get Oscar nominations for Bonnie and Clyde and Benton would go on to win three Academy Awards for his writing of Places in the Heart and his screenplay and direction of Kramer vs Kramer.

Edward Watts and the ensemble
It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's Superman avoids portraying any part of the evolution of Superman and starts instead with Clark Kent already working as a reporter at The Daily Planet and Superman already a hero for the city of Metropolis.  Lois Lane is already in love with Superman, though she questions his feelings for her and upon meeting ten time Nobel Prize "loser" Dr. Sedgwick begins dating one of Sedgwick's co-workers, which makes Superman jealous.  But Superman's got bigger problems with Sedgwick being an evil scientist with plans to destroy Superman as a way to get back at the world for not awarding him anything for his efforts.  Add to the mix Kent's co-worker the slimy gossip columnist Max Mencken who has plans of his own to take Superman down.  Mencken is tired of being bumped off the front page by yet another Superman story so he becomes partners with Sedgwick to get rid of the super hero.  Max's assistant, the sex pot Sydney Sharp has plans of her own, but ones with romantic overtones.  Added all together and you have a big cartoon of a musical with action and romance aplenty.

David Pitty and Will Swenson

The cast for the Encores production had a complete ball in not only bringing these cartoon characters to life but also in just having a fun time playing off each other and the joy and humor they brought to the show definitely flowed out into the audience.   Edward Watts is appropriately both square and heroic in the alternate roles of Kent and Superman.  His muscular frame and clear strong voice perfectly align with the Superman image.  Jenny Powers had the right touch in her portrayal of Lois Lane in the sense that you understood her mixed feelings for Superman.  Her soprano voice is so rich and clear and brought out lovely notes and moments in her songs.  Watts and Powers also had no problem in their portrayal of a disfunctional relationship, something not so hard to get across with just a few weeks of rehearsal.

Alli Mauzey and Will Swenson
 Will Swenson was slimy and sublime as Max and David Pittu was absolutely hilarious as Dr. Sedgwick.  The two of them had a grand time in their second act duet together. Alli Mauzey was a hoot as Sydney and delivered the hit song "You've Got Possibilities" in a fun and upbeat fashion. 
With a slightly edited down book, John Rando directed the Encores concert production and achieved a near excellent cotton candy confection.  The comical moments were hilarious, the musical ones delicious and the choreography by Joshua Bergasse played upon the 1960's style of the original in a crazy way.  The set design by John Lee Beatty was an homage to the comic book and comic strips of the period and included colorful pop-up set pieces.

While It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's Superman may not be the best musical ever created it has a fun and infectious jazzy score by Charles Strouse and Lee Adams and a book full of cultural satire.  The Encores concert more than delivered on showing the possibilities that this under rated gem of a show has.

Behind the scenes at the rehearsals for the concert performance:

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

cabaret review MARIN MAZZIE & JASON DANIELEY, "He Said, She Said" NJPAC, March 23

Married couple and Broadway stars Marin Mazzie and Jason Danieley have been together for around twenty years now.  The story of how they met and how their relationship came together is the theme that weaves together their latest cabaret show entitled "He Said / She Said." 

While the show could also be entitled "He Sings / She Sings" due to the fact that the majority of the songs are solos, there is enough high calibre solo material here sung by two very capable singers to get over the fact that the couple does very little singing together during the show.  Mazzie and Danieley have two of the clearest and strongest voices out there so while I would have preferred to have them sing more songs together many of the songs choices were inspired and fit in perfectly with the theme of the evening.

The duo's opening number is an up beat and bouncy take on the Johnny Mercer standard "Something's Gotta Give" which perfectly sets up the evening and the idea of love being more of a push me/pull me type of relationship.   Two solos that really hit home are Mazzie's take on "A Cockeyed Optimist" from South Pacific which receives a cha-cha type of arrangement and Danieley singing The Wizard of Oz's "If I Only Had a Brain" in a slowed down lounge type delivery.  Both hit home runs. Other highlights include a pull out the stops delivery of "Cry Me a River" from Mazzie and Danieley delivering "One For My Baby" with perfect emotions as if he's been at that bar in the song many, many times.

While the stories the couple tells give us a little insight into how they met, at an outdoor production of a show entitled The Trojan Woman where they prayed for the show to be rained out so they could spend more time together, there isn't a lot more of the details we learn about their romance except from the lyrics of the songs they choose to portray it.  And while most of the song choices fit well in displaying their growing attraction some of the choices were odd (Cole Porter's "The Physician") or seemingly out of place in the forward trajectory of their romantic arc.  There was more than one time when the patter between songs had one of the couple remind us where we last left off in their romantic courtship, something that wouldn't have been necessary if the patter leading in to the songs was clearer and more accurately set up the song in relation to their budding relationship.

But when you have songs like "Smile," "From This Moment On," "Our Love is Here to Stay" and "Blues in the Night" delivered by two powerhouse performers I guess it doesn't matter.

Marin and Jason in concert singing a Sondheim suite:

"The Natural Order of Things" -

a brief interview with Marin and Jason about this concert:

Jason and Will Chase sing "Lily's Eyes" from The Secret Garden:

Marin performs "Back to Before" from Ragtime: