Thursday, February 28, 2013

theatre review CINDERELLA, Broadway, Feb 21

It is hard to believe that Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein's musical Cinderella has never actually appeared on Broadway until now.  After three different tv versions of the musical and numerous regional, community and high school productions, the closest Cinderella has ever made it to Broadway has been a couple of productions at New York City Opera and the National Tour that stopped at the Theatre at Madison Square Garden.  So after first premiering on TV back in 1957 it is nice to see Cinderella finally making it to Broadway.

The interesting thing about this production of Cinderella is that it is very different from the tv versions and all of those productions that have been performed before.  While the main story is still intact, this production includes an updated book by Douglas Carter Beane as well as including songs that Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote for but that were cut from other musicals and movies.  This updated book provides multiple layers to almost all of the characters in the show, turning them from what were previously fairly one dimensional and almost stereotypical characters into more realistic ones.  Beane's book also includes a good amount of humor as well.

Santino Fontana and Laura Osnes
While the main focus of the story is still on the budding relationship between Cinderella and the Prince, there is now a larger focus on the other members of the fairy tale land.  Cinderella shows the Prince the injustice that is happening to those around him and introduces him to the less fortunate members of his kingdom.  In doing so, Beane has interestingly crafted a story that transforms this somewhat simple fairy tale into one of social injustice as well as the battle of cruelty verses kindness.  Several new or beefed up characters add a new dimension not only to the story but also help us see, along with the Prince, what is happening around him. 

As Cinderella, Laura Osnes once again proves her keen ability to tackle a Broadway leading role.  After turns as the female lead in both Bonnie and Clyde and in the replacement cast of the recent revival of South Pacific, Osnes has found another role that she easily makes her own.  I believe this is the role that will allow her to have a spectacular Broadway career and I wouldn't be surprised to see another Tony nomination come her way for her performance.  Her natural ease at handling the part and not come across as too saccharine or sweet is as much a tribute to her abilities as it is to Beane's updated book.

Victoria Clark
In the part of the Prince, Santino Fontana easily tackles the task at hand, portraying someone who at first seems to have no care in the world but also someone who becomes a man more in touch to the reality that is happening around him.  This is the fourth or fifth Broadway or Off Broadway show we've seen Fontana in, and like Osnes, he is clearly at the top of his game, not only in his ability to make this at first very one dimensional character into something much more than he first appears, but also to belt out some of the most romantic songs in the Rodgers and Hammerstein catalog.  His performance of 'Ten Minutes Ago" and "Loneliness of Evening" are simply stunning.

Beane has beefed up the part of Cinderella's fairy god mother into a more commanding role, one which provides Victoria Clark two very different characters to play, both of which she expertly handles.  Her connection with Osnes is also lovely and her soaring ballad in act two, "There's Music in You" is a nice touch that really rounds out the part.  As Cinderella's wicked step mother, Harriet Harris once again shows why she is the perfect comic foil, venomous when necessary, adept at tackling and landing any joke she's given but also perfectly suited to deliver a song when required. 

Ann Harada, center, and the female ensemble
In smaller parts both Ann Harada and Marla Mindelle were perfect as Cinderella's two step sisters, with Harada hilarious and Mindelle sympathetic to Cinderella, which was a really nice change that Beane made to the book of the show.  Greg Hildreth as the new character Jean-Michel added a nice amount of depth to the story, and I also liked how both Hildreth and Fontana both don't either have your typical leading man looks or builds but are both playing them on Broadway.  Peter Bartlett and Phumzile Sojola portray the Prince's closet members of his staff and Bartlett is the male equivalent of Harris in his ability to get across any joke he is given.  Sojola has a soaring voice which he is able to show off several times during the show.

Direction by Mark Brokaw is perfect, with the show moving along at a fast paced but also with plenty of times that it slows down when required.  Josh Rhodes provides a nice and varied amount of choreography including some spectacular dance sequences at the ball where he also ensures that Fontana and Osnes are front and center, including several moments of Fontana lifting and twirling Osnes in tune with the ensemble.

I also really liked Beane's updated book and how he managed to tweak a few things that we all take for granted in this fairly tale especially with how Cinderella leaves behind the glass slipper.  As far as the songs that have been added to this production, "Loneliness of Evening" and "Now is the Time" were both cut from South Pacific and "There's Music in You" was written for the film Main Street to Broadway and also included in the 1997 tv version of Cinderella that starred Brandy and Whitney Houston.

Creative aspects of the show are simply amazing with truly magical costumes by William Ivey Long, including several that transform into other costumes and an inventive and creative set design by Anna Louizos that includes a multitude of trees that move and set pieces that rotate.  The lighting design by Ken Posner is extremely effective in seamlessly moving us from one locale to another as well as in perfectly portraying various times of day.   The magical moments, of which there are many, are masterly handled and result in many gasps and rounds of applause from the audience. 

I believe this show is gonna be a big hit, not only with families and young theatre goers but with those of us that appreciate a fresh and updated take on an old favorite and anyone who is thrilled by the magic that can happen in the theatre.  Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella officially opens next week on March 3rd.

Official Show Site

Macy's Thanksgiving Parade 2012 Performance:

"Ten Minutes Ago" performance on Fox News: behind the scenes:

Thursday, February 21, 2013

cabaret review BEN VEREEN, McCarter Theatre, Feb 11

Ben Vereen is so grateful for what he's been allowed to do on stage and screen and that joy he feels pours out from him in his concerts.  Now in his mid sixties, Vereen has been through a lot, including a pretty horrific accident where he was walking on a street and hit by a car.  And while his voice may has lost some of the luster it once had, Vereen has such a nice personable connection with the audience that it outweighs any vocal issues he has to deal with.   His recent concert at the McCarter Theatre was a magical evening of story and song.

While the majority of his concert was included in the live cd he released in the Spring of 2011 (which I reviewed here) there were plenty of other material that wasn't on that cd, so I'll focus on talking about the material that I already didn't speak of in that review.

His connection with two composers, Stephen Schwartz and Andrew Lloyd Webber goes back to his early days on Broadway when he appeared in the original casts of Schwartz's Pippin and Lloyd Webber's Jesus Christ Superstar.  His medley of songs from those shows was nice but what I thought was even better were two songs from Wicked that he performed in slightly slower versions to really focus on the lyrics "Defying Gravity" and "For Good."   Both became personal stories for him much like Lloyd Webber's "Memory" from Cats set up the entire section about his past.

His connection to Bob Fosse, in both Pippin and the film All That Jazz was also brought center stage with Vereen talking about how electric Fosse was and how honored he was to have been included in not only Pippin but the film that basically was an autobiographical detail of Fosse's life.  Other highlights include a lovely Frank Sinatra medley and a section devoted to Sammy Davis Jr. where Vereen mentions how he was his understudy when the musical Golden Boy went to London and how connected he felt to Sammy and how Sinatra broke down racial barriers for him.

While the majority of the Sinatra and Davis, Jr material is on the cd I mentioned above, there was still plenty more that wasn't.  Vereen had a top notch trio playing with him and he did a lovely job in spotlighting them that included solos for each of them including a smashing "Misty" and a lovely "Your Song." 

The song "Here's To Us" has become something of a staple for performers in the AARP demographic with both Barbra Streisand singing it during her recent concert tour and Barbara Cook performing it at the concert we saw her perform last Fall.  Vereen somehow manages to make the song his own due to the stories he tells throughout his show and the ups and downs he documents for us.  It was a lovely end to a lovely evening.

"Simple Joys" from Pippin -

"Pure Imagination" from The Muppet Show:

Thursday, February 14, 2013

theatre review GOOD PEOPLE, George St. Playhouse, Feb. 10

David Lindsay-Abaire's Tony nominated play Good People is a contemporary play that portrays a slice of life that touches upon the modern day class cycle and how the loss of a job can force someone to do some things that they might not have done otherwise.  It is also the story of a life that none of us would hope to ever live.

Ellen McLaughlin, Zakiya Young and John Bolger
 The play is set in South Boston or "Southie," a working class neighborhood where Margie, a single mother in her late 40's, is about to be fired from her cashier job at the local dollar store.  She's a minimum waged employee who's been fired because she has been late too many times.  But she has an adult daughter at home who's caretaker was late getting to her, so Margie has a good reason for why she's been late to work.  But it doesn't matter, she is let go anyway.  You like Margie, she's had a tough life and has tried to make the best of it, living within the lines and rules she's been given.  She barely complains and is desperately trying to find a job, any job, that will help her pay her rent and care for her daughter.  A chance meeting with Mike, a former high school boyfriend who is now a well off Doctor, sets in motion the plot of the play which focuses not only on Margie hopefully finding a job but to also get some answers about what would have happened if she and Mike hadn't broken up. 

Marianne Owen, Ellen McLaughlin
 and Cynthia Lauren Tewes
It is a play about the choices that people make and how they ultimately effect the people around them as well as the friends who become our family and life support system when times get bad.  It is extremely funny and moving as well.  I don't want to say much more about the plot as there are plenty of twists and revelations in it, but Lindsay-Abaire has written an interesting story that while it may come across as a bit like a soap opera, it has such rich characters and realistic dialogue and situations that you can imagine that there really are people like Margie and Mike out there who are living through similar situations. 

The title refers to how we often say that someone is "good people" to say that they have good character and upbringing.  But by the end of the play we realize that even people who we might think are "good people" may not be and that has to do with the way that Lindsay-Abaire has made almost all of the characters into both villains and heroes.  It is a fascinating choice but correct in dealing with a modern story as it accurately shows how everyone of us has a good side as well as a bad one.  I especially liked how even the smaller role of Stevie, the young man who has to fire Margie, that we don't really like, comes back in the play in an important and positive way at the end.

Lindsay-Abaire also has his characters accurately portray the constantly changing roles that people assume in the various scenes including one where Margie comes to visit Mike at his office.  She is desperately hoping he has a job for her, even willing to do janitorial work in his office, but the tables turn with Margie using her wit and words in getting the upper hand in the conversation and an invitation to his upcoming birthday party where there might be job opportunities from his friends that will be there.  The scene ends with Margie assuming control, even sitting in Mike's office chair.  It is an effective scene like every other one in this production that is well directed by David Saint. 

Ellen McLaughlin and Eric Reidmann
 The cast for this production is top-notch with Ellen McLaughlin simply amazing as Margie.  She breaks your heart with her desperation.  Her ability to get across Margie's way of using non-stop talking to get out of any situation is perfectly played as well as her sense of pride.  Margie is "good people" for sure.  McLaughlin also has a perfect use of comic timing for Margie's sense of humor that Margie never loses through it all and she also pulls off an impressive Boston accent.

John Bolger as Mike is the villain of the story, or is he?  Bolger first comes across as the cocky guy who got out of the neighborhood to make something of himself and we believe he doesn't really want anything to do with Margie or really try to help her get a job.  But we soon realize we may not exactly be correct in the way we think about Mike, though once Margie pushes him his sense of fear and anger comes forth.  Bolger does a good job in balancing the various layers of the character with his controlled sense of anger especially effective.  Zakiya Young as Mike's younger wife also is excellent in getting across this woman who is very interested to talk to Margie and learn more about Mike's past, a past she seems that he has kept much of it from her.  She welcomes Margie into her home with open arms, including forcing wine and cheese on her but she quickly defends her family once Margie starts to reveal some truths about Mike's past in the hard Southie neighborhood.  Again, Young gets across the hero and villain aspects of every character.

Three members of the cast are from the Seattle area, due to this being a co-production with the Seattle Repertory Theatre.  All three are excellent, which goes to show the calibre of actors working in regional theatres.  Marianne Owen is Margie's friend who gets Margie thinking about how she can use Mike to her advantage and Cynthia Lauren Tewes is Margie's landlady and caretaker of her daughter.  Both have great comic timing and have no problem navigating the quick witted dialogue while maintaining perfect Boston accents.  Eric Reidmann is the Dollar Store manager who fires Margie, and his soft spoken delivery is perfect for this character who seems almost as lost as everyone else in the play.

James Youman's set design is extremely effective, not only with a fairly elaborate set for Mike's house but also through the effective use of sliding panels and moving projections that give us a sense of traveling to the various locations within the Boston area.  David Murin's costume design couldn't be better, with Margie's party attire that includes an outdated leather skirt and a tear in her stockings pretty much summing up Margie to a t.

This is another excellent production from the George Street and Artistic Director David Saint.

This production of Good People runs at The George Street through February 24th before moving to Seattle for a March 8th to March 31st run.

George Street Playhouse Site

Seattle Repertory Site

Monday, February 11, 2013

theatre review A DELICATE BALANCE, McCarter Theatre, February 2

Much like the movie The Queen of Versailles that I just reviewed, Edward Albee's Pulitzer Prize winning play A Delicate Balance, which is receiving a lovely production at the McCarter Theatre this month, has at its center a wealthy family that isn't immune to the fates of those less well off.  But unlike the Siegel family in the Versailles film, this family isn't impacted by financial issues but by the sheer terror that waits in the darkness of every one's life.  A terror that affects even an Upper Class family.

The fact that the "terror" that is mentioned in the play is never actually specified makes this drama into something even greater then if it was spelled out.  You see, there is just something out there that forces the best friends of the main couple of the play to show up on their doorstep one night, declare that they are "frightened" and move in as if their friend's house was their own.

On the surface this may seem like a somewhat forced and ludicrous plot point, but in the skilled hands of Albie he turns the entire element of the unknown terror as well as the other things that haunt and trouble us all into an interesting study of the modern family.   This study includes the notion that we all have various "rights" in our relationships with each other and "roles" that we all must live within.  Various other themes are present including the idea that we will all eventually start to lose our minds, how the death of a child can affect the parents in completely different ways, how siblings and children take a toll on a family and how the events of the past never go away but combine with other things to make every day an uneasy existence for those involved.  When combined with the element of the unknown terror and an ongoing consumption of alcohol by all of the characters, Albie creates a play that is both unsettling and thought provoking.

Kathleen Chalfant and John Glover
Agnes and Toby are an upper middle class married couple in their late fifties who try to maintain the balance in their home.  A home where they are always dressed up as if they are ready to host a cocktail party at any time but also prepared for the arrival of unexpected guests.  Agnes' sister Clare lives with them, and the two sisters are polar opposites with Agnes preferring order and control and Clare basically saying whatever she wants to and someone who couldn't be bothered with social moors.  Clare is also a self stated "drunk" not an alcoholic but a drunk.  Harry and Edna are the friends of Agnes and Toby who show up on their doorstep, declare they are scared and terrified and move in with them at the same time that their daughter Julia is coming back home to stay after the end of her fourth marriage.  The unexpected house guests upset the balance of Agnes and Toby's house and the already strained relationship between Agnes, Toby and Clare.

Direction by Emily Mann is perfect with a lovely balance between drama and comedy that this play requires.  Mann also gets an impressively nuanced and layered performance from John Glover that includes a riveting story about his childhood cat who stopped liking him and what he does to the cat because of that as well as a third act performance where he not only puts his cards on the table about the way he feels about his relationship with his friends but also the pain from when he gets the truth about how Harry really feels about him.   Kathleen Chalfant at Agnes is also perfect in her delivery of the woman who is trying desperately to keep the balance within her household and her life even while confronted with her ever present sister and the un-invited visitors.  Agnes is a hard part to play since it requires an almost constant sternness but Chalfant pulls it off easily.

The part of Clare is definitely the livelier of the parts in the play and Penny Fuller is having a grand time playing it.  She easily gets across the part of a lady who has seen it all but has nothing to show for her experiences since she is living with her sister and brother in law now.  While she has good relationships with her family she also is always at odds with her sister and has a secret about her brother in law that she seems ready to reveal at any time.  Fuller perfectly captures the drunken lady who is quick witted, always ready to fight, speaks her mind but is also extremely lonely and desperately needs the people in her life to keep her balanced.

The rest of the cast is fine with Roberta Maxwell especially good as Edna.  Maxwell walks the balance between the frightened lady and the woman with "rights" in her friend's house perfectly.  James A. Stephens is Harry and Francesca Faridany is Julia and they are both fine in the parts.

Some other interesting observations about this play:  The way that Harry and Edna just assume they have rights in the house, even more so than Julia due to the fact that they are her godparents, and the way that Edna speaks to Julia easily portrays the element of rude behavior that happens when one claims a perceived role that has rights that come with it.  While Clare is the so called "drunk" of the group, just about everyone else drinks just as much if not more then Clare does.  Also, the fact that the play ends with a similar conversation between Agnes and Toby that we heard in the beginning of the play makes you believe that the events of the play aren't over, that they will be repeated again and again and that the "terror" that is out there will never go away.

John Glover, Penny Fuller, Kathleen Chalfant,
Roberta Maxwell and James A. Stephens
This production is top-notch all around, from the performances, the direction from Mann and the creative elements including a perfectly designed set by Daniel Ostling where everything is balanced and in its place. And while it might not match the unforgettable Broadway revival in 1996 with Rosemary Harris and George Grizzard as Agnes and Toby and Elaine Stritch as Clare, it comes pretty close.

Is the terror of the play the fear when a couple realizes after being together for so many years that they have nothing left but an emptiness between them?  An emptiness that Agnes and Toby fill up with the constant presence of Clare, their friends, their daughter and the never absent alcohol?  Is this what Harry and Edna saw before them one evening that forced them to pack up and come to live with Agnes and Toby?  Albie isn't exactly clear, and I like that he isn't clear as there are plenty of themes and situations happening in A Delicate Balance to make you think.  And as much as we all want to believe that we will never end up like any of the characters in this play, we all also know that deep down we just might, and that is the scariest part of all.

A Delicate Balance runs through this coming weekend, February 17th.

McCarter Website

Scenes from this production

Thursday, February 7, 2013


In 2008 David and Jacquie Siegel were at the top of the world.  David made millions from starting one of the largest timeshare businesses in the US and with his second wife Jaqueline they were in the middle of building the largest single family house in America.  Modeled on Versailles in France, this dream house was a 90,000 square foot mansion in Orlando with over 30 bathrooms, 10 kitchens and a view from the top balcony of the nightly fireworks over nearby Disney World.  Filmmaker Lauren Greenfield began a film to document the Siegel's, their life and the building of their mansion when the financial collapse of 2008 happened.  That event, and it's impact on the Siegels, their business and their "Versailles" turned Greenfield's film and the Siegel's lives into something different all together from what they'd originally planned.

David Siegel made millions with his Westgate Resorts, a group of time share properties across the US.  He married Jacquie and while she may seem like a "trophy" wife since she is thirty years younger than the 74 year old David, they had seven children together and on the surface, at least in the beginning of the film, it seems like they have a stable relationship.
Over two years of filming, Greenfield manages to first show how the Siegel's dream of building their "Versailles" is almost coming to fruition.  Jacquie takes us on a tour of the half completed house and is almost giddy with excitement about showing us around the place.   But then the floor droops out and the film becomes a document of the personal impact of the real estate bubble and the impact it has on the time share mortgage game.   That game, where the monthly payments from timeshare owners fund the entire sales operation and how when those payments stop coming in, as more and more people are impacted by the economic downturn, the Westgate business starts to crumble. 

Jacquie and her kids
However since David seems to always be working, even before the economic downturn, the cameras mainly focus on Jacquie and life around their current Florida mansion, hence why the film is called the "Queen" of Versailles.  David is featured, with a couple of his scenes that are both shocking and sad as well as focuses on David's son from his first wife who runs the Vegas Westgate office, an office that quickly turns upside down after the market drops.

David's credit dries up and when you've mortgaged just about everything for your future it means even the rich billionaires like David have huge set backs.  It is one of the best "riches to rags" stories you will ever see, especially because you feel that everyone in the film is being up front and honest about what they are going through.  It is also a cautionary tale of how money problems can possibly affect a marriage.

And while Jacquie may at first appear to be your stereotypical dumb blond, she isn't.  She is smart, just uneducated in the ways of the world and her heart is in the right place.  She cares for her children and her husband and has faith that he will be able to turn things around.  Jacquie says that when she met David "he said 'trust me' and I put my trust in him" and you see how David knows how many people are holding on to the hope that he can figure out a way to turn things around. 

an aerial view of the 90,000 square foot "Versailles" outside
of Orlando about half way through construction
There are many moments that you'll remember for a long time after the film ends, these include the elaborate Christmas party where David tells his fellow party goers how he was able to buy back his outstanding $18 million dollar loan, that the bank wasn't willing to write down for him, via a third party for $3.5 million.  This shows not only how skilled David believes he is at business deals but also how the banks, the economy and the entire financial system were so far upside down they were willing to make deals just not a deal with the original owner of the loan.  Ironically, things don't go as well after Jacquie's trip back home to the small town in New York where she grew up.  That trip affords her the opportunity to reconnect with one of her best friend's from her teenage years.  That friend's house is going into foreclosure and even a $5,000 check from Jacquie that more than covers the amount owed on the mortgage isn't enough to reverse the foreclosure.

And David's frustration over the door to the house being left open and the number of lights that are left on in the house is something anyone can relate to where there was an argument over a high electricity bill.   The fact that none of the people in the house wants to step up and say that they will make sure the door is shut or that the lights are turned off if not needed, says a lot about the way these people live in an alternate world even when faced with the hard truth about their finances.  Jacquie's spending at first seems to be out of control as well, including buying Christmas gifts for her kids that include new bikes, when they already have a garage full of them, but the film also shows Jacquie's attempt to sell off some of her possessions at low prices to families who are really in need to give back to the community.

 Lessons learned include: don't take anything for granted and live within your means.  Don't mortgage everything you have and most definitely, always plan for your future.

The film was nominated by the DGA for outstanding directorial achievement and is definitely worth a Redbox rental or adding to your Netflix queue.

Trailer for the film:

Interview with Director Lauren Greenfield as well as clips from the film:

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

concert review, ALFIE BOE, Bergen Arts Center, January 31

Who knew that inside opera singer turned musical theatre/recording artist and PBS pledge drive star Alfie Boe was a budding rock star?  Boe is the "crossover" sensation that came to fame due to his performance as Jean Valjean in the 25th Anniversary concert production of Les Miserables that was seen on PBS in the US during many pledge break weeks.

Backed by his five piece band, Boe rocked out at the Bergen Arts Center last Thursday night on classic pop rock hits including ones by The Doobie Brothers, Elvis and the Allman Brothers as well as some traditional folk songs and musical theatre hits.  And while it might have been a little bit of a shock to those in the audience who came to see Boe sing familiar songs from Les Miserables or Phantom of the Opera, or even an opera selection or two since that is where he got his start, Boe pretty much made every song work with his powerful, soaring tenor voice.  He did include a couple of musical theatre songs as well but it definitely wasn't the focus of the evening.

Featuring many songs from his recording "Alfie" (which I reviewed here when it was released last Summer) and a few tunes from his latest release "Storyteller" (review coming soon) the concert was an eclectic mix of pop, rock, blues, classical and Broadway.  And while Alfie's powerful voice wasn't always a perfect fit for every song, the joy he brings to each tune was evident throughout.  You can tell these songs are some of his favorite ones as well and when combined with a powerful band they made the whole evening into a rocking event.

Alfie performing in Les Miserables in London
A somewhat meandering "Song of the Siren" got the concert off to a little bit of a rocky start but Boe quickly turned things around with performances of several songs off his "Alfie" cd.  These included a touching and personal performance of "In My Daughter's Eyes," a smooth, slow and sexy "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" as well as three musical theatre songs, a fast and jazzy "Being Alive," a soaring "Bring Him Home" and a rousing "Wheels of A Dream" that ended the first act.  
The second act featured several traditional Italian and Spanish folk songs that included a pairing of "O Sole Mio" and the Elvis classic "It's Now or Never."   It was an interesting combination that on paper would seem very odd but Alfie managed to combine the two songs into something greater than you'd expect.  Another Elvis hit "That's All Right" got the audience moving in their seats.  He also included several pop/rock classics including The Doobie Brother's "Listen to the Music" as well as The Allman Brother's Band "Midnight Rider" where he got about twenty young kids from the audience up on the stage with him to dance along to the music. 

As well presented and performed as these songs were it was three story songs that I believe fared best.  All three of these are emotional and spiritual and have an uplifting theme even though they are fairly depressing songs on the surface.  Two of these songs are very old songs as well.  The first, "Wayfaring Stranger" is an early American folk song telling the story of a man's journey to the promised land and "Rank Strangers to Me" which tells the story of a man returning from fighting in the Civil War and not knowing how to fit back into society.   Both of these songs had stirring arrangements with Alfie's voice soaring to the rafters throughout.  He ended the concert with an extended version of "Angel From Montgomery," a song from the early 1970's by John Prine that many folk and country singers have covered, including Bonnie Raitt.  This song tells the story of a woman who is tired of her life and wants an angel to come and take her away so she can be free.  Alfe's voice pierced through the lyrics of the chorus, "Just give me one thing that I can hold on to, to believe in this living is just a hard way to go" that are repeated throughout and perfectly capture the image of this woman who just wants a better life.

Throughout the concert Alfie had a lovely connection with the audience, including several moments when he came out into the crowd to either jokingly harass latecomers or to find a man who was singing along on "O Sole Mio" to let him have a few seconds in the spotlight.  He obviously enjoys singing these songs and sharing his love for these songs with an audience.  I also especially liked how Alfie didn't seem to want the concert to end and how when he took his final bow he pulled his band mates close to him and took a bow with all of them instead of just a solo one by himself.

The statement Alfie made at the end of the concert pretty much sums up the message he is trying to get out there - "We've tried to show you there is no division between music, from classical to blues to rock to soul to musical theatre to country.  It's just one big happy world."

Alfie's official site

Alfie performs "Angel from Montgomery":

"Wayfaring Stranger"

"Bring Him Home" with the Mormom Tabernacle Choir:

"O Sole Mio" and "It's Now Or Never"

 and the song that put him on the map..."Bring Him Home" from the 25th Anniversary Les Mis concert:

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

cd review THE MIDTOWN MEN - "Sixties Hits"

As cover albums go you could do a lot worse than the one The Midtown Men recently released that is entirely composed of hit songs from the sixties.  It helps that the "men" are former co-stars from the original cast of Broadway's Jersey Boys, the smash hit musical that covers the rise and turbulent times behind Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons and that every song has the same harmony inspired arrangements that the best of the Four Seasons songs had.  It also helps that the four men who make up the group spent plenty of time together originating their roles in that Broadway show and re-creating the harmonies that made The Four Season so successful.

The four men who make up The Midtown Men are Christian Hoff, J. Robert Spencer and Daniel Reichard, three of the original leads in Jersey Boys along with Michael Longoria who was in the original cast in a smaller role and in the ensemble and later took over in the Frankie Valli role.  These four guys have spent a lot of time together ensuring that their harmonies are perfectly in tune and this recording shows off their polished voices in fine form. 

The songs selected for this cd are ones that are well suited to the vocal abilities of the four men.  While none of the songs will replace the original songs from the original artists, which include The Beatles, The Mamas and the Papas, Marvin Gaye, The Drifters, The Turtles and The Zombies, each one is a chance to re-visit the songs either you or your parents grew up listening to.

The joy the four have in singing these songs, songs that I can't imagine any of the four guys are old enough to have heard when they were first released, comes across very clearly on this cd.  I also like the fact that they trade off on who sings the melody, without one of them also singing lead on each of the songs, unlike most of the Four Seasons hits where Frankie Valli would sing the melody.  Some highlights: "Can't Buy Me Love" receives a lovely jazzy rendition with lilting harmonies that is a fresh update on The Beatles classic tune; "Happy Together" with its great arrangement and the guys expertly harmonizing and "Up on the Roof" with its lush yet gentle and driving arrangement.  I also like the guys take on "California Dreamin" though the harmonies for this song most closely match the ones on the original Mamas and Papas hit, instead of being created specifically for the Men like it seems most of the other tracks on the cd receive.  "Time of the Season" also more closely matches the original Zombies arrangement but is still perfectly matched for the harmonies these guys are capable of. 

While the upbeat songs are given a highly polished production there are still some quibbles, including that about half of the songs included here, beyond the ones I mentoned above, are Four Seaons hits that these guys performed in Jersey Boys and which you can hear three of the four "men" sing on the original cast recording of that show.  And, running just over 30 minutes, it would seem like the "Men" could have included other songs that they perform in their concerts to make the run time more in line with other vocal recordings.

The Midtown Men are currently in the middle of a national tour with dates in just about every city and state you can imagine.  A complete list of dates can be found on their website.

Official website of The Midtown Men

"Time of the Season"

"Happy Together"

Monday, February 4, 2013

theatre review PICNIC, Broadway, Jan 26

A revival of a classic Pulitzer Prize winning play would seemingly be something easy to pull off.  However, when dealing with a play like William Inge's Picnic, that centers on a couple of key events over a 24 hour period in 1950's Kansas, the casting is central to ensure that the somewhat nostalgic and ordinary goings on are handled expertly and that the turn of events don't come across as too melodramatic for a 21st century audience.  The good news is the casting of the three main females, who are all strong willed women determined to make it on their own, couldn't be better, the somewhat bad news is in the casting of the male lead, the muscular drifter who stirs things up, which doesn't exactly hit a home run.

Set on Labor Day in the shared backyard of two houses in a small town in Kansas and taking place mainly on the back porches of those two houses, Picnic centers on normal, simple characters.  Set in a more simple time, these are the kind of people who go about their normal daily activities and get excited about a new dress or the Labor Day picnic.  So, basically characters that are just like the average theatre goer and situations we can all identify with, so the characters and events of the play are easily relatable.

Mare Winningham, Madeleine Martin and Maggie Grace
Flo Owens is a single mother raising her two teenage daughters, Madge and Millie.  Flo lives next door to Helen Potts who cares for her home bound elderly mother.  Flo also rents a room in her house out to Rosemary, a schoolteacher in town who often refers to herself as "an old maid."   Flo, Helen and Rosemary are women who have to make it on their own with no men around in their lives.  However, one Labor Day Helen hires a young man named Hal to do some work around her house in exchange for breakfast.  Hal is an old college friend of Madge's boyfriend Alan and has the physique and charisma to turn the heads of all of the women who live in the two houses.  The impact of Hal's arrival on these two houses and the women who reside in them and what transpires over the next 24 hours is the entire context of Picnic

Sebastian Stan
While it may seem like not much really happens during the majority of the play, except for the arrival of Hal and the growing attraction between him and Madge and how that plays out, there is actually a lot that happens in this 24 hour period.  Almost all of the characters go through major changes over the course of this one single day, which is a major compliment to Inge and his ability to not only write complex characters but also to have them all end up in a different place then when they began. 

Flo, Rosemary and Helen are all strong and dominant women, forced it seems into taking on these typical male characteristics of the 1950's since all three of them don't have husbands to shoulder the burdens of raising children or dealing with the male oriented daily chores that were generally set aside for the man of the house to handle.

As those three strong and determined women,  Mare Winningham, Ellen Burstyn and Elizabeth Marvel are nothing short of spectacular.  They are three very different women but each of the actresses has found a way to clearly not only get across the strength that each of them has but also their weaknesses as well.  Winningham has the more simple role, that of a mother who rarely raises her voice and only wants the best for her two daughters.  Winningham exhibits such strength and determination, and yes even fear, in her portrayal of a woman forced to deal with the changing times while trying to hold things together.

Reed Birney and Elizabeth Marvel

Elizabeth Marvel as Rosemary is the woman who at first glance has it all, she has no responsibilities beyond her job and frequently talks about being able to do whatever she wants because she is an "old maid."   Marvel originated the role of the daughter of Stockard Channing and Stacey Keach off Broadway in Other Desert Cities and I thought she was just ok in that part, always being too intense and not having the right amount of balance for a woman who had suffered from depression.  However, as Rosemary she is astonishing and is completely in control of a character who is also at a crossroads in her life.  When it quickly becomes apparent that she isn't getting any younger she finds herself to be a very desperate woman.  Marvel expertly gets across the nuance of this woman and the fear and desperation that is slowly burning under the facade she puts on.

Ellen Burstyn, Ben Rappaport and Maggie Grace
While Burstyn has the least to do of these three characters, she has still found a way  to portray the feistiness of the role, the pain of dealing with an elderly parent and also as well as the simple joy she has for life.  Sebastian Stan is Hal, and while he has the physique and stamina for the part, I'm not certain if it is the direction from Sam Gold or a lack of natural charisma from Stan, but there is something missing from his performance.  I'm not sure if it is that he is just too soft instead of simply having a softer side or if it is that he isn't as confident as his character should be.

Maggie Grace and Madeleine Martin are winning as Flo's two daughters Madge and Millie.  While they are basically complete opposites with Grace's Madge being beautiful and Martin's Millie being tom-boy handsome, the two come across as sisters who get on each other's nerves but also look out for each other's best interests.  Grace is quiet and reserved, and quiet effectively shows us the somewhat naive pretty girl who just wants to be loved, but not sure who is the right person for her.  Martin joyously gets across the rambunctious and carefree spirit of Mille but also clearly shows how concerned she is about what other's think of her.  Reed Birney is Howard, Rosemary's boyfriend and the scenes the two of them have together are pretty special.

Technical credits are sublime for the production with a lovely set design by Andrew Lieberman and perfect period specific costumes from David Zinn.  While Jane Cox's lighting is fairly bright and constant throughout she does manage to compose some lovely set pictures with her lighting for both the evening of the picnic and the early morning the day after.

It is interesting in seeing a play like Picnic that is set in the same year that it first appeared on Broadway, as today there is an added nostalgic element in viewing the play and not only seeing the way people lived sixty years ago but also having a clearer understanding of what obstacles they were faced with.  With such a wonderful cast and lovely technical designs, this production of Picnic just misses being as sublime as it could be.

Picnic runs through February 24th.

Official Show Site

Clips from this production: