Friday, May 31, 2013

cabaret review CHRISTINE EBERSOLE, NJPAC, May 11

Christine Ebersole is a gifted dramatic actress and comedienne and those skills make her cabaret shows into something better than most cabaret shows out there.  She so effortlessly segues from standard ballads to upbeat songs to comedic numbers with well written and delivered patter that is both humorous and related to the song choices, all without missing a beat.  And her connection to the lyrics is almost on par with Barbara Cook, who is the master of connecting to every word in every song she sings.  Ebersole's recent show at the NJPAC was another stellar affair.  

A swinging "Ding, Dong, the Witch is Dead" opened up the show followed by the humorous "You Forgot Your Gloves."   Christine got every nuance, including joy and sorrow out of "Blame It On My Youth."  Ebersole manages to add many personal stories into her shows, including talking about her thoughts about aging which the song "Keep Young and Beautiful" perfectly spoke to, and her journey to Hollywood from Broadway which was capped off by a rousing "On the Atchison Topeka and the Santa Fe."

Her shows often have moments when she speaks about her parents, her husband and three adopted children and this one had some humorous and touching moments including a simply lovely version of "Can't Help Lovin' that Man of Mine" from Show Boat.  A story and song that have become somewhat of a staple in her shows followed where Christine talks about her early days in New York City where 42nd Street wasn't a place that you'd want to visit but would be a street where she'd excel on many years later by winning a Tony award for her role in the revival of 42nd Street that actually played in a theatre on 42nd Street.  That story includes a hysterical reading of a Robert Frost poem read by the character she won her other Tony award for, Edie Beale in Grey Gardens.  Christine then gave a rip roaring take on 42nd Street's showstopping title number.

Christine spoke about the time when she knew she finally "made" it in Hollywood when she appeared in the tabloids when they wrote about the time she adopted two children on the same day.  A "true" story in the tabloids for a change she added.  In one night they went from a family of three to a family of five and she perfectly ended the story by adding that she realized on that night that "although fame in Hollywood had eluded me, my fortunes were asleep in my arms."  A touching pairing of "Tender Shepherd" from Peter Pan and "If I Were a Bell" from Guys and Dolls followed that perfectly got across the joy she must have felt on that evening.

A stunning pairing of songs that included a few verses from "When the World Was Young" that segued into "Another Winter in a Summer Town" from Grey Gardens showed why Christine deserved her Tony for that show.  Her delivery of the lyrics in an emotional way is not just effortless but natural as well. 

Christine now lives with her family in Maplewood, NJ which she lovingly mentioned with the simple statement, "Hollywood? Maplewood?  What a difference a leaf makes!"   She also mentioned her 90 year old mother who recently lived with her family for ten years but is now suffering memory loss.  Her mother would sometimes plays Methodist hymnals at the piano and Christine then delivered a touching take on the hymn "How Can I Keep from Singing"

Christine ended the show with a slowed down but still rousing version of "Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries."  She followed this with an encore of "If You Haven't Got a Lot" that was a tribute to Eartha Kitt that was prefaced by Christine saying "I'm back. It's one of the funny conventions of cabaret, the false exit. I appreciate your warm and generous applause to bring me back on the stage even though I was coming back anyway!"  She ended the show with a second encore of "If You're Young at Heart" that was both simple and a lovely reminder of how classic songs can cap off a perfect evening.

John Oddo led a quartet of skilled musicians who made the evening seem just as effortless as Christine does.

Christine's official website

Christine sings "Ding, Dong the Witch is Dead" :

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

theatre review INTO THE WOODS McCarter Theatre, May 5

Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's Into the Woods is one of the most clever musicals ever written.  Seamlessly weaving together familiar fairy tales that we all grew up with into a musical where the stories of Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood and Rapunzel all interconnect with each other took two very creative people to pull it off.  So I'm happy to say that the production of the show that is running at the McCarter theatre presented by the Fiasco Theatre Company in a scaled down version with only ten actors, minimal sets and just a piano player adds a whole new creative element to this already creative show.
Jessie Austrian, Ben Steinfeld, and Jennifer Mudge as
The Baker's Wife, The Baker and The Witch
This musical gave Sondheim and Lapine the perfect jumping off point by using already familiar fairy tales to include some of Sondheim's most intricate and humorous rhyme schemes and some of Lapine's funniest and most touching dialogue.  It isn't a far stretch to assume that these well known tales all happened in the same place, and since most of them are set either in the woods or have scenes that take place there, it also seems fitting that the setting of the woods would be the way to connect them all.  But what Sondheim and Lapine also did was to create an entirely original fairy tale, the story of the Baker and his wife who are desperate to have a child as the way to truly bring all of these famous stories together. 

Emily Young as Red Riding Hood and
Noah Body as the Wolf
You see, the baker and his wife live right next door to a Witch.  She tells the couple that she placed a curse on their family and that is why they are unable to have a child.  However, if they wish to have the curse reversed there is a potion that is made up of four items that they can bring to her and the curse will be lifted.  Those four items are Little Red Riding Hood's cape, Jack's cow, Rapunzel's hair and Cinderella's glass slipper.  Of course the ingredients aren't as clearly spelled out when the message is first delivered, instead being told they need "the cow as white as milk, the cape as red as blood,  the hair as yellow as corn, the slipper as pure as gold."  But when the Baker and his wife are sent off to the woods by the Witch to get those items they meet up with the other characters who are also in the woods - Jack on his way to market to sell his cow, Little Red on her way to her grandmother's house, Rapunzel who lives in a tower in the woods and Cinderella who is on her way back from the ball.  They, and the audience, quickly realize where the four required items come from and how ingenious Sondheim and Lapine are to find a way to combine all of these characters and their respective stories into one adventure. 

A lovely use of shadows to portray
Little Red coming to her
Grandmother's house and encountering
the Wolf.
But that is just the tip of the iceberg in creativeness as Sondheim and Lapine also finish the first act with all of the fairy tales coming to the endings we are all familiar with, but adding the line "to be continued" before the curtain falls.   The second acts uses the Giant from Jack's story as a way to not only complicate the fairy tales further, by having the giant wreck havoc on our characters, but also a way to counter the humor and happiness in the first act with more serious overtones including death in the second. Sondheim and Lapine are clearly saying to be careful what you wish for as all wishes that come true may not have the exact type of happiness we originally dreamed they'd have in their happy endings.

The score has some of Sondheim's brightest gems including the ballads "No One is Alone," and "Children Will Listen" and the character driven pieces "I Know Things Now," "It Takes Two," "Giants in the Sky" and "On the Steps of the Palace."   That song, which Cinderella sings after the Prince spreads pitch on the stairs in order to trap her from fleeing the ball a second time and so she has to decide to either stay stuck in her shoes on the steps of the palace or flee, includes one of Sondheim's most brilliant rhyme schemes.  "You'll just leave him a clue, for example a shoe.  And then see what he'll do.  Now it's he and not you who is stuck with a shoe, in a stew, in the goo, and you've learned something too, something you never knew, on the steps of the palace.

But my two favorite songs in the show are ones that come right after each other "Your Fault" and "Last Midnight."  "Your Fault" is the ultimate Sondheim song in that it not only comments on the characters and the action that has happened before, but also moves the story forward and is all done with some inventive rhyme schemes. And "Last Midnight" is just a fantastic song for the Witch that turns a somewhat traditional waltz melody in 3/4 time on its toes and almost spins out of control.

the entire cast on the magical piano themed set
The original Broadway production of Into the Woods featured a cast of nineteen with three of the cast members playing more than one part.  In this new production, featuring many regular members of the Fiasco Theatre Company, the majority of actors play either multiple parts or play some musical instrument to add to the main solo piano accompaniment.  It gives a nice sense of "storytelling" in the fact that, unlike in the original production, there isn't a single narrator, instead the members of the cast alternate in the narration.  By also having each cast member play more than just one part, they are also in a sense telling the story by adding their voice to more than one character or by providing musical accompaniment.   It gives a wonderful communal feel to the piece, especially sense at most times the actors are always on the stage, listening and watching to the story as it unfolds.

Andy Grotelueschen as Jack's cow, Milky White,
and Patrick Mulryan as Jack
The production, which was co-directed by Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld, who also respectively play the Wolf/Prince Charming and The Baker, have used traditional theatrical devices, like the inventive use of simple prop pieces to allow the story to breathe more easily.  This added room gives more attention to the dialogue and lyrics and less on elaborate costumes and sets that could pull the focus from the lessons learned in the stories.  The overall production reminded me a lot of the recent Broadway hit Peter and the Starcatcher in the overall ability to use actors, simple props, sets and costumes to tell a story to an audience in a most theatrical way.

The cast is all excellent and they all throw themselves into their characters, making sure their stories get told to us.  Matt Castle provides effective piano accompaniment and is also use effectively in a few places in the story. Derek McLane's set design gives the entire set the feel of the inside of a piano with piano wires strung across the back wall and the side walls covered with piano pieces.  It gives a nice focus to the music of the show. Costumes by Whitney Locher are simple yet fun and the lighting by Tim Cryan is also not elaborate.  All of which all allow the story to shine through without any added distractions.  

My only quibbles relate to the fact that some of the cast weren't the best of singers and that some of the humorous lines were too quickly rushed, thus completely losing the punch line. However we did see an early preview of the show so the cast may have figured out the timing better now and this production may be even better than when we saw it.

Still, this is a delightful, witty and enchanting production of one of the most creative and ingenious musicals ever.  The run has been extended to June 9th and I wouldn't be surprised if a NY run of this production is also in the works. 

Official Show Site

Behind the scenes of this production with the cast and directors:

Sunday, May 12, 2013

broadway birthday CARRIE opened on Broadway 25 years ago today on May 12, 1988

Twenty five years ago today one of the biggest flop shows in Broadway history opened.  Carrie, based on the successful novel by Stephen King, became a musical with music by Michael Gore, lyrics by Dean Pitchford and a book by Lawrence D. Cohen.  It would open on May 12, 1988 and close after 5 performances and 16 previews on May 15th, 1988 losing over $7 million dollars, an unheard of amount at that time.

Betty Buckley and Linzi Hateley as Mrs. White and Carrie

 While the show had some unsanctioned productions over the years including one at the Stage Door Manor Summer theatre camp and another at a high school in Europe, the creators of the show feared allowing anything official due to the mostly negative reviews the original production received.  They didn't want to re-live the experience they went through in 1988. 

Charlotte d'Amboise as bad girl "Chris" and the ensemble -
all clad in leather and spandex
 Fortunately some people close to the three men got them to re-think their views and a revised production of the show was mounted Off Broadway in February of last year.  This version was closer to what the three men had wanted the original production to be before the Royal Shakespeare Company, Director Terry Hands and Producer Friedrich Kurz got involved. 

The revised 2012 production not only received an official cast recording but the show itself got picked up by the prestigious Rodgers and Hammerstein Theatrical organization and is now available to be licensed for high school, amateur and regional theatre productions.  If you go to the R&H site you can find a production of this musical playing in a city close by.  There are currently over 20 productions of the show scheduled through the end of the year across the U.S.

Paul Gyngell and Sally Ann Triplett as good kids
"Tommy" and "Sue" - did high school kids in 1988
actually wear skin tight clothes like this?

I've written several posts about the show, including an analysis of the original Broadway production, a post about the upcoming Off Broadway revival where the creators spoke about the show, as well as reviews of the two performances we saw of the 2012 revival, so I won't add a lot more in this post since I've pretty much said everything I need to say about it.  Instead I will include some new pictures and video that I've found for your viewing enjoyment.

The Destruction scene from the 2012 production- awesome special effects, lighting and projection design.

Complete UK/Straford Upon Avon production - pre- Broadway 1988:

"And Eve Was Weak" - Betty Buckley and Linzi Hateley- audio appears to be from a different performance, but you still get a sense at how intense Buckley was in the role and how effective the scenes with Carrie and her mom were, even in the original production:
"In" from the regional premiere production of the show:

Friday, May 10, 2013

theatre review THE BIG KNIFE, Broadway, May 4

Clifford Odets has had a pretty good year on Broadway for a playwright who died fifty years ago.  His play Golden Boy received a stellar revival from Lincoln Center a few months back and his Hollywood based drama The Big Knife just opened in a well cast production from the Roundabout a few weeks ago. With Bobby Cannavale in the central role of a Hollywood star at a crossroads, this is the first Broadway revival the play has received since its 1949 debut. 

Charlie Castle is the most successful star working for the Hoff-Federated studio, even though he is starring in schlocky B movies.  But his rise to fame isn't without a small misstep where Charlie was involved in a hit and run accident where a child was killed, though a friend of Charlie's took the blame in order to not implicate Charlie.  Castle's wife Marion, who is living separately from him and is ready to leave him, doesn't want Charlie to renew his contract but studio boss Hoff has no problem blackmailing Charlie by bringing up the accident.  And when the starlet Charlie who was with when the accident happened, who we find out Hoff paid off by signing her to a contract,  might start talking about it, Hoff has plans to silence her that run against Charlie's principles and integrity and drive the play to its climactic end.

Richard Kind, Bobby Cannavale and Chip Zien
The Big Knife has some similar themes to Odets' earlier play Golden Boy.  In Golden Boy, a young man has to decide if he'd rather seek fame and fortune via boxing verses following art and culture from his ability to skillfully play the violin.  In The Big Knife the central character of a Hollywood star has already reached a high level of success but now he must decide to either continue on his career path even if it means disrupting his relationship with his wife and possibly losing his integrity.  With strong female characters that are in love with both main characters, powerful agents who play fast and lose with the facts with them and the central plot point that both characters have been involved in killing someone that is held over their heads, you can clearly see how Odets used the same plot elements, themes and types of characters in both of these plays, but in very different ways, to get across specific statements about fame and the toll it takes. 

Marin Ireland and Bobby Cannavale
However there are some big differences between Golden Boy and The Big Knife mainly in the structure of each play.   Golden Boy has a perfect arc for the main character with a realistic rise and fall but not so with The Big Knife. The first two acts set up the plot but because Charlie is already successful and since the plot device of him being almost forced to sign the contract happens fairly quickly in act one there really doesn't seem much further for the plot to advance.  Even Marion seems alright with what happens with the contract so that resolution also happens quickly.  And while Charlie struggles with the decision to re-sign, we know he is already successful, has a huge elaborate house and plenty of friends and actresses ready to throw themselves at him so we don't quite see how much Charlie has to lose.  However, the third act pulls everything together in an emotional, touching and very realistic way.  It's too bad though as the intermission for this production is placed between the second and third acts and several people at the performance we attended decided to leave.   They missed a really great third act.

Director Doug Hughes has assembled a top notch cast for this revival.  Not only is Cannavale believable as a Hollywood star of the 1940's, but he has the charisma, look and stature of the typical 1940's cinema hero that his character Castle always plays.  He also skillfully shows the demons that he is faced with as well as the ways that he battles and tries to silence them via alcohol and girls.  As Hoff, Richard Kind is giving a spectacular performance, he is equal parts mothering movie studio head and an out of control monster.  Kind's ability to instantly turn from one of these to the next is remarkable and it's easy to see why he got a Tony nomination for this role.  As Marion, Marin Ireland is appropriately cool and quiet and uninterested in anything Hollywood related, exactly as the non-movie star wife of a movie star in the 1940's would be.  Chip Zien as Castle's agent is loving and caring of Castle but lashes out at Hoff in such a way that his entire face turns bright red.  This isn't an easy play to act, with wide ranges of emotion on display and Zien is definitely up to the challenge.  Reg Rogers as Hoff's right hand Smiley has the unique part of being almost silent when Hoff is in the room but when he is sent to Castle's home to represent Hoff that is when he becomes as much of a monster as Hoff is, so he two has two roles to play and does them very well. 

In fact, everyone except for Marion is playing a character that is "acting" or pretending to be what they believe the character they are interacting with wants them to be.  It is an interesting point to take away from this play, especially since Odets spent several years in Hollywood writing screenplays before he wrote The Big Knife.  So he definitely has first hand experience with actors, agents and film studio heads.

The set by John Lee Beatty is all large glass windows as if to show that Charlie's life is always on view but also that he is completely trapped inside, which is even worse since he can see life happening right behind the walls.  Costumes by Catherine Zuber are colorful and sleek.

The Big Knife may not be on the same level of Odets' Golden Boy or Arise and Sing! but it has a great third act where everything comes together and this production has a more than game cast to help achieve what is expected of them.  I don't think I'll get the image of water dripping from a ceiling out of my head for a long time.

The Big Knife runs through June 2nd.

Official Show Site

Bobby Cannavale and Director Doug Hughes talk about this production:

Monday, May 6, 2013

theatre review VENUS IN FUR, George Street Playhouse, April 28

David Ives' play Venus in Fur was a pretty big hit in New York two years ago.  It started its life Off Broadway, then moved to a Broadway run at Manhattan Theatre Club and then transferred to a different Broadway theatre for a commercial run last Spring.  The play is making its New Jersey premiere at the George Street Playhouse in a production that runs through May 18th.

Playwright and director Thomas (Mark Alhadeff) has just ended a frustrating day of auditions, trying to find the woman to play "Venus" in his adaptation of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s novel "Venus in Furs."   It is a stormy day outside the rehearsal studio but the storm outside has nothing on the hurricane that is about to enter the rehearsal room when Vanda (Jenni Putney) shows up.   Thomas' first impression of Vanda is that she is just like every other girl he's auditioned all day- all form and no substance, believing that the play is all about S&M and sex since the word masochism comes from Sacher-Masoch's name, but Vanda soon shows there is more beneath her exterior than Thomas can only begin to imagine.  The two begin a cat and mouse game all about seduction and domination where roles are frequently reversed and one never really knows what is real and what is not.

Jenni Putney and Mark Alhadeff
Now for a play that is all about sex and sexual role playing it is interesting to note that there is no skin or sex that really is ever shown.  Instead the focus is on the intense relationships at the center of the characters in Sacher-Masoch's novel, Thomas' play within the play and in Ives' play as well and how those relationships can instill power but a power that is often up for grabs.  Ives does a good job in creating two realistic characters as well as an interesting set-up, with an audition for a play about domination with the two characters trading off who is dominating who, but overall it isn't that controversial or even titillating and didn't really say much to me as far as you'd think a play with these modern themes about sex, sexuality and sexual roles should.

Putney as Vanda gets the more juicer role to play, or roles in this case since she not only at first comes across as clueless, tough and extremely vocal but once she begins to audition she becomes someone else entirely different.  Putney's ability to transition easily between these two "roles" as the audition process goes forward and the scenes are broken up between audition moments and a discussion between Thomas and Vanda about the play, sex and Thomas' personal life, is especially refreshing.  Putney easily gets across a clear distinction between these two characters and is an outright hoot as Vanda the actress.  Alhadeff was the understudy for Thomas in the Broadway run of the show last year so while he might have more experience with his part than Putney, his is the more "weaker" of the two roles and less forceful, so the fact that he comes across as more subservient is what I believe Ives had envisioned.  We saw one of the first previews of the show and while there was some chemistry between the two actors, I'd expect there to be more as they get more performances into the run.

Jenni Putney and Mark Alhadeff
 Creative elements are nice including Jason Simms’ set that sets the scene perfectly in a run down studio with exposed brick walls, discarded chairs and equipment and filthy, large windows.  All of which nicely show off Thom Weaver’s lighting which is only heightened by Bart Fasbender’s sound design to show off the thunderstorm brewing outside the studio as well as the storm of seduction taking place within.

Direction by Kip Fagan is nuanced and light, but also forceful and direct when necessary.  And while Alhadeff and Putney are fine for the parts, with each more than able to handle their own in the often changing roles the two play of dominant and submissive, there is far too much shift in tone that happens too abruptly and too many unanswered questions.  Does Vanda have a pre-conceived plan or agenda?  Does she already know who Thomas is before she enters the room or is she just a very quick study?  Is Thomas' play autobiographical?  The answers to these questions are all left up to the audience to decide which makes the play ultimately unsatisfying in the end.  It is an intriguing work but one that wears thin, and considering it is a one act play that runs just over 90 minutes that means it gets old really fast.  At first we're interested to know exactly what is going to happen to these two characters and exactly what Vanda's plan is, but with so many questions unanswered and a play that meanders on a bit too much, even though it is smartly written, I was happy when it was over.

Official George Street Playhouse Site

Interviews with Nina Arianda and Hugh Dancy who starred in the play on Broadway last year:

Friday, May 3, 2013

theatre review NIKOLAI AND THE OTHERS, Off Broadway, April 27

A question that pops up a lot at cocktail parties is to list the famous people you'd want to host at a dinner party.  Playwright Richard Nelson has taken that question a step further and created an entire play about one day where several famous artists come together to eat, drink, talk about their pasts, the present and to ultimately create art.  Those people include composer Igor Stravinsky, choreographer George Balanchine, conductor Serge Koussevitsky, painter/set designer Sergey Sudeikin and composer Nikolai Nabokov.  This is a fascinating look into the lives of these people who aren't just connected by the work they do but about the past they've shared.  It is an excellent play and actually makes you feel that you've not only had dinner with Stravinsky and Balanchine but that you've witnessed the true creation of their art in the process.

Set over a weekend in 1948, Nelson's play, receiving its world premiere, centers on this very close-knit group of Russian artists, their wives, ex-wives and the people who work for them.  The special event that prompts this meeting is the "name day" of designer Sudeikin, who is very ill and who used to be married to Stravinsky's current wife Vera.  They all meet up at a country house in Westport, Connecticut where Stravinsky and Balanchine are collaborating on their ballet piece Orpheus that would premiere later that year at New York City Ballet as that companies inaugural production.  

John Glover, Michael Rosen and Michael Cerveris
 And while Nelson has taken a major liberty in the play in the fact that Sudeikin actually passed away in 1946, two years before this historic ballet event occurred, that doesn't detract from the emotional connection he is able to make between the audience and these real life characters.  He not only shows us intimately how art is created but is able to set the creation process against the political backdrop at that time of the upcoming Cold War and the State Department's involvement in funding art by these more liberal minded Russians to attempt to get them on the side of the US.

The play is called Nikolai and the Others due to the fact that Nikolai Nabokov is the center connection between all of these people and is able to help them with any issues they have with the US now that he is working for the CIA.   Whether it be Vera's concern about her abilities to get back into the US or an actor's concern over a political film he took part in, they all seek out Nikolai's aid in helping them navigate through the changing political crossroads they now find themselves at the center of. 

Blair Brown and Steven Kunken
I simply loved this play.  Nelson intertwines several themes about culture and how it impacts an individual as well as how immigrants must change and adapt in a country that doesn't accept them the way it once did, how artists must decide if they need to change or reinvent themselves when facing different cultures or political issues and how shared experiences and histories are the cement that hold people together in changing times.  I appreciated how Nelson has the play begin fairly slowly, with the various characters at the country house preparing for Sudeikin's arrival.  They are all busy moving furniture around and getting dishes and glasses together in order to accommodate the large group of people that have assembled to celebrate Sudeikin and to view Balanchine and Stravinsky at work.  We overhear snippets of conversation and get to realize who is who and how they all relate to each other. He then begins to weave in the political issues that they are all facing and literally has it explode with the creation of Orpheus inside the barn/dance studio right in front of our eyes.  Much more happens after this but the sense of time, place and of art that he creates is amazing.

Nelson also incorporates a theatrical device to portray the language the characters are speaking.  While all but three of the characters in the play are Russian, and the entire play is in English, Nelson still has many parts of the text assume that the characters are speaking Russian.  He does this by having them use non-accented English to represent when they are speaking Russian, and in a Russian accented English when they are speaking English.   This is used a few times when they are speaking Russian in front of the Americans who don't speak the language, as this way the audience understands exactly what is being said in both languages.  It is a simple device that has been used before, but adds considerably to the play, especially around the political nature and to show the enormous bond these Russians have to each other by choosing to speak their native language when they are together.

Haviland Morris and Steven Kunken

Director David Cromer expertly handles the large cast of this play, which says a lot considering this is at the Mitzi Newhouse, which is the smaller of the Lincoln Center Theatres.  I think except for the musical Contact which originated at the Mitzi, there hasn't been a play with this large of a cast in this space before.  While it can seem a little claustrophobic and jammed at times, Cromer stages it effectively so it actually adds to the element of closeness that these characters have with each other.  Cromer has skillfully not only used the small space for the three locations the play takes place in with ease but his ability to carefully stage the at-times over lapping dialogue without it being misunderstood is especially notable.  He has also found a cast more than up to the challenge of not just portraying actual characters but ones who easily appear to be exceptionally close to each other.

Michael Rosen, Michael Cerveris and Natalia Alonso

The cast is superb, large, and all great, but let me just mention a few who are outstanding.  Michael Cerveris and John Glover are Balanchine and Stravinsky and both are, as usual, delivering performances at the top of their game.  Both are given times to show off their character's artistic creative processes with Cerveris especially believable as a choreographer. Blair Brown is Vera, and she couldn't be more in tune in portraying the deep love she has for both Stravinsky and her ex husband Sudeikin.  All three also are believable when speaking of the political concerns they have.  Stephen Kunken is Nikolai and gets the most stage time, which is understandable since he is the title character, but there are many times when he isn't speaking, but listening or reacting to something someone says, and it is at those times when Kunken really excels.  There is one moment in the second act when something is revealed to Nikolai and his reaction to it, most of which is silent, shows the range of emotions that you know would be true. 

I also liked Alvin Epstein's portrayal of Sudeikin as a sickly man, but one who hasn't given up on life just yet and Haviland Morris as Lucia Davidova, Balanchine's right arm and the owner of the house.  The way she so easily gets across what working for Balanchine entails made the creative process and all that comes with it immensely understandable.  As dancers Maria Tallchief and Nicholas Magallanes, the stars of Orpheus, Natalia Alonso and Michael Rosen have no problem in portraying these characters, whether in being their excellent dance skills or the way they feel as outsiders when surrounded by all of the Russian characters in the play.

Creative elements are exceptional with Marsha Ginsberg's scenic design especially memorable.  At first we are outside of the house, then move into the barn/dance studio that evening and then later that night and the next morning are in the living room, all seamlessly done with just the movement of one major set piece and some exceptional lighting by Ken Billington.  Jane Greenwood's costume design is period perfect not only with dresses and suits but the dance costumes as well.

As much as I enjoyed this play my one only quibble, which has nothing to do with the play, but just this production, is the use of modern dressed stage hands to move some of the furniture around during the set changes.  Seeing guys in black jeans and wearing headsets tends to take one out of the magical period of 1948 that the play has created in a very blunt way.

Nikolai and the Others officially opens next Monday and runs through June 16th.  Don't miss it.

Official Lincoln Center Site

broadway birthday KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN opened on Broadway 20 years ago today on May 3, 1993

Twenty years ago today a musical that was based on a book, that also became a play and an Oscar winning film, opened on Broadway.  That musical Kiss of the Spider Woman had some controversial themes woven into it.  Plays with controversial material have always been welcome on Broadway.  While it isn't something that appears every year, there are also sometimes musicals like Cabaret that also don't shy away from controversial themes present in the context of the show.  So it is interesting to note that the composers of Cabaret, John Kander and Fred Ebb, were also the composers for Spider Woman.

In 1976, Argentine writer Manuel Puig published his novel El beso de la mujer araña that was considered a moderate success and in 1983 Puig himself translated the novel for the stage.  He wrote the play while he was in exile due to his leftist political views and an English translation of the play was produced in London in 1985 and starred Mark Rylance and Simon Callow.  Even though the original novel was initially banned in Buenos Aires, it got the attention of Hollywood and the book was turned into the Oscar winning film starring William Hurt and Raul Julia in 1985 with Hurt winning the Academy Award for Best Actor.

Chita Rivera as the "Spider Woman"
The plot of the novel, play, film and musical all focus on two men who share a cell in a Buenos Aires prison in the mid 1970's.  Molina is an effeminate window dresser for a large department store who has been incarcerated on a trumped up charge for corruption of a minor and Valentin is a political activist associated with a revolutionary group who is trying to overthrow the government.  The two couldn't be more unalike but together they find a common bond against their oppressors and realize that they are more alike then they originally thought.  Molina's love of films and his recollections of them are what help both men forget where they are.  Various other characters include Marta, the woman that Valetin is in love with, Gabriel, the waiter that Molina loves even though he knows Gabriel doesn't love him in the same way and Molina's mother.  

Brent Carver, Michael McCormick
Philip Hernandez and Anthony Crivello
 A character that was expanded for both the movie and the musical was the central role of the actress who starred in the films that Molina speaks about.  In the 1985 film that part of an actress in the dramatic films Molina fantasized about was played by Sonia Braga who also played the role of Marta.  But in the musical this character was a stand alone role, the film actress "Aurora," a star of large, lavish movie musicals.  She was now even more central to the action, especially in the role of "the spider woman" who was perceived as "death" to Molina, and the only character that Aurora played that frightens him.  With themes of homosexuality, political uprising and the torture that happens in prison, Kiss of the Spider Woman would seem very controversial, though those themes are what make the musical and the movie the play was based on into something greater especially when the fantasy film elements that Molina brings to life help counter or comment on the horrible situation the men are in.  
Carver and Rivera
The musical with a score by Kander and Ebb and a book by Terrence McNally started it's life in a "workshop" production in 1990 at the State Theatre of New York in Purchase, NY as the first in a series of new musical workshop productions.  It was directed by Hal Prince and choreographed by Susan Stroman and starred John Rubenstein as Molina, Kevin Gray as Valentin and Lauren Mitchell as Aurora.  It was only meant to be a tryout of the show, but I guess a new Kander and Ebb musical was too hard not to miss and some New York critics reviewed it anyway, and the negative reviews sidelined not just Spider Woman but the series of new musicals as well.

Fortunately Kander, Ebb, McNally and Prince were approached by Canadian producer Garth Drabinsky and a revised version of the musical was back on track and premiered at Drabinsky's Toronto theatre in the Summer of 1992 with Vincent Paterson and Rob Marshall taking over the choreography duties from Stroman.  For Toronto, Brent Carver and Anthony Crivello were Molina and Valentin and Chita Rivera was Aurora.  After Toronto, this production then moved to London, opening in the Fall of 1992 and then moved to Broadway opening twenty years ago today on May 3rd, 1993.  The London production continued on after the Broadway transfer with Bebe Neuwirth taking over from Chita as Aurora.

Kander, Ebb and McNally's use of Aurora to propel the story along and the decision to change her from a dramatic actress into a star of movie musicals only accentuated the decision to musicalize the novel.  And while some elements of the show that veered toward a more comical point, like the "morphine tango" number and the technicolor "happy" ending still didn't detract from the sensitive, dramatic story at the core. The musical went through a considerable amount of change since its unfortunate Purchase debut and almost all of the changes were for the better with the musical now receiving almost all positive reviews. 

the impressive set design by Jerome Sirlin
The musical opened right before the Tony deadline and received 11 Tony nominations and won seven awards including Best Musical, Score (which it tied with Tommy,) Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor, Book and Costumes (Florence Klotz.)  It also received nominations for Prince's direction, Paterson and Marshall's choreography, Howell Binkley's lighting and Jerome Sirlin for his set design.  The set design was especially impressive as it incorporated a series of jail cell bars that moved fluidly and changed into different set locations.  When combined with the lighting by Binkley and projections by Jerome Sirlin it also perfectly captured the settings of the various movies that Molina would bring to life for Valentin.

There are many great songs in the score including the title song, "Dressing Them Up," "Dear One," "I Do Miracles," "She's a Woman," "Gimme Love," "The Day After That" and my personal favorite, "Where You Are" which was written after the show moved from Toronto to London.   We saw the production in Toronto and on Broadway and also saw the first Broadway replacement cast which included Howard McGillin and Brian Stokes Mitchell as Molina and Valentin and Vanessa Williams as Aurora.  That replacement cast also got the rare chance to record a second Broadway cast recording of the show.

Kiss of the Spider Woman is a challenging musical with challenging and somewhat controversial themes but when done right it is a musical that can move an audience to tears as it did to me when we saw it in Toronto, on Broadway with both Rivera and Williams and also in the non-equity National tour.  I believe the reason the novel was turned into a play, movie and musical, and why the film and musical were so successful, is because the characters are rich portrayals of what could have been caricatures but turn out to be so much more than that.  Molina, at first is a flippant gay man, but you begin to realize that he redefines masculinity and takes many chances for the people he loves in his life.  Valentin is fighting for much more than just the revolution he constantly speaks of and even Aurora who serves in multiple duties in the musical isn't just "death" as Molina perceives here when she plays the "Spider Woman" character but is actually the "life" and willpower that makes Molina and eventually Valetin aspire to greater causes.  Carver, Crivello and Rivera were all exceptional in playing these parts and in helping us see these often caricatured roles in a new light.  

"Where You Are" performed at the 1993 Tony Awards:

Behind the scenes of the musical:

Chita sings the title song:

Vanessa Williams sings the title song:

trailer for the movie:

Thursday, May 2, 2013

cabaret review BARBARA COOK, 54 Below, April 25

Barbara Cook is a powerhouse.  As she approaches her 86th birthday she really shows no signs of slowing down.  Her voice is still strong and clear, her memory impeccable and the only thing that seems to be getting in her way of going on forever is her knees and back, which she says give her plenty of pain. 

Her concert series at 54 Below began last week and continues through the end of this week.  While she is performing almost the exact same set list from when we saw her at the McCarter back in November, the small size of 54 Below and having Barbara only being about 10 feet in front of you when she performs adds a level of intimacy that you just can't achieve in a larger space.  The way that she connects to a song, not just in the phrasing but with her facial expressions and body language, rises to a whole higher dimension when there are only two people between you and Cook. 

Now we've seen her perform several times over the past ten or so years, including her celebrated Broadway concert at Lincoln Center, and Barbara has only gotten more personable, including telling some great stories as well as commenting on her own personal issues, which are mainly health related.

Not really much for me to add about her song selection that I didn't already say when she performed this show in the Fall at the McCarter except to say that her delivery of the material has only improved as she has gotten even more comfortable with the songs.  All but two of the songs come from her recent "Loverman" recording, which includes a spectacular coupling of "House of the Rising Sun" with "Bye, Bye Blackbird" as well as a beautiful version of "Loverman."  For this concert, as well as the McCarter one last Fall, Barbara also sang an emotionally personal take on "Here's To Us" as well as an un-miked "Imagine."

Barbara's Official Site

54 Below site

Clip of Barbara singing at 54 Below:

Barbara sings "Vanilla Ice Cream" from She Loves Me:

Some vintage Barbara:

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

theatre review TALLEY'S FOLLY, Off Broadway, April 21,

Talley's Folly is a play that we've now seen performed by three different theatre companies over the past eight or so years.  Having won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1980 and with two great parts and an engaging storyline, it is easy to see why it is often produced.  It is a love letter of a play about two lost and damaged people who both feel disconnected by the people around them but drawn to each other.

Taking place in just over 90 minutes and set on the fourth of July in 1944, the story focuses on Matt Friedman, a Jewish accountant in his early forties and Sally Talley, a 31 year old Protestant nurse who Matt met the summer before.  When the play begins we know Matt has come to ask Sally to marry him, though they barely know each other, as he talks to the audience and let's us know of his plans.  He also let's us know that the setting for the evening is the boathouse of the Talley family, a "folly" as they were called then, that has unfortunately not been maintained very well and is starting to fall apart.   He says it will be the perfect romantic setting for the "dance" he needs to do, a waltz he tells us, as not only is the folly the place that he and Sally came to last Summer but there will be stars in the sky and across the river there will be a band playing for the holiday.

Sarah Paulson and Danny Burstein
When Sally arrives at the boathouse, we immediately aren't sure if Matt knows what he is talking about as Sally wonders why he has even come.  We quickly find out that Sally's Protestant family, especially her brother, doesn't approve of the older Jewish man who has come to call on her and that Sally even questions why he has come.  However, we learn more about these two people as they share their pasts and their secrets and begin to realize just how connected they are.  As the night drifts on and Matt and Sally do their "dance" around each other, slowly revealing their most painful secrets, we too see how sometimes people try to distance themselves from someone who can help them just because they are too afraid to mention something so painful in their past.  The play is a valentine, though one that not only includes deep emotion and love but even pain.  It is so nicely written, with plenty of twists and turns and discovery that even though it is only a one act play for only two actors it is easy to see why author Lanford Wilson won the Pulitzer for writing it.

Burstein and Paulson
This Off Broadway production has two excellent actors in those roles, Danny Burstein is Matt and Sarah Paulson is Sally.  They are both so sincere and so realistic in their performances that you have no problem going along for the journey of self discovery where sometimes people hide the truth for a good reason.  Burstein is soft and charming yet forceful in his bid to win Sally's hand and Paulson is strong-willed and resistant yet at times seems as if she can break as easy as a piece of china.  Over the ninety minutes we realize that they are both frightened of events in their pasts that have made them into the secretive people they are today.  I can't imagine any other two actors achieving the success that Burstein and Paulson rise to in this production or being able to so easily show both strength and vulnerability.

Wilson's language in the play is so perfect and tender and includes many wonderful and funny lines.  One of my favorite lines of the play is when Sally questions Matt why he came and that he should leave and he replies “You can chase me away or you can put on a pretty dress, but you can’t put on a pretty dress to come down here and chase me away.”   Wilson is often compared to Tennessee Williams and it is easy to see why.

The set design by Jeff Cowie turns the entire production into a dreamy, romantic setting, just like Matt says he needs and director Michael Wilson perfectly gets at the pain and sorrow and ultimate joy that is inside these two characters.  With Burstein and Paulson this production is charming, romantic and simply lovely.  Talley's Folly runs through May 12th.

Official Show site

Clip from this production:

broadway birthday ROMANCE / ROMANCE opened on Broadway 25 years ago today on May 1, 1988

Romance is something that has always been alive and well on the Broadway stage.  In 1987 two pieces of literature from the late 19th century were turned into a musical all about romance called Romance/Romance.  With book and lyrics by Barry Harman and music by Keith Herrmann, this musical has a small cast of just four actors and uses the two leads to play four different characters, two in act one set 100 years ago, and another two in act two set in modern times.  The show focuses on the highs and lows of romantic relationships in both the late 1890's and today.

Act one is based on the Arthur Schnitzler short story The Little Comedy and is set in Vienna at the turn of the century and focuses on two wealthy people, Josefine and Alfred.  They both pretend to be poor in order to find a lover who doesn't have the same hang-ups as all of the other rich and boring people they are used to dating.  Alfred pretends to be a struggling poet and Josefine a simple working woman and after they meet they end up going away for a weekend in the country but aren't sure if they can continue their disguises once they fall in love before confessing who they truly are. The second act took Jules Renard's 1898 play Le pain de ménage, moved it to the Hamptons in modern times and had it focus on two couples.  The husband of one of the couples, Sam, and Monica the wife of the second couple, find themselves attracted to each other and aren't quite sure how far they should take their attraction while at the same time promising fidelity to their spouse.

Scott Bakula and Alison Fraser
The musical started Off Broadway in 1987 and moved to Broadway in the Spring of 1988, opening twenty fives years ago today on May 1st.  The production was directed by Harman with choreography by Pamela Sousa.  The two leads for the show were Scott Bakula and Alison Fraser who were both charming and irresistible and who both received Tony nominations for their work.  The musical was nominated for five Tony awards including Best Musical, Score and Book but came home empty handed as Phantom of the Opera swept most of the categories.

Romance/Romance had a modest run of nine months, closing on January 15th, 1989 after 289 performances.  Bakula would go on to star in the hit tv series Quantum Leap which premiered in the Spring of 1989 and meant he had to leave the Broadway production to shoot that show.   Bakula was replaced in Romance/Romance by his understudy Sal Vivano as well as Barry Williams, who is most famous from playing Greg Brady on The Brady Bunch.  In 1992 a regional theatre production of the show at the Cherry County Playhouse in Michigan was filmed for the A&E cable channel.  That production starred John Herrera and Susan Moniz in the lead roles with Deborah Graham recreating her role as the second female lead that she created on Broadway.

There are several great songs in the show including "It's Not Too Late," which is sung in both acts, "I'll Always Remember That Song," "Words He Didn't Say," and "Now."    Romance/Romance is a sweet and charming show that with a capable cast can be very successful.  We saw a production of the show at the Paper Mill Playhouse in 2007 that starred real life couple Matt Bogart and Jessica Boevers Bogart in the leads that was very well done.

Alison Fraser and Scott Bakula perform at the 1988 Tony Awards:

Interview with the creators and clips from the 2007 Paper Mill Playhouse production: