Have you ever sat in on a production of Moliere's classic comedy Tartuffe and wondered what exactly it was about the religious services of the title character that made the wealthy Orgon want to donate everything he had to his church? Me neither. But apparently playwrights Alfred Preisser and Randy Weiner have and their answer is the Classical Theater of Harlem's crazily entertaining semi-spoof, Archbishop Supreme Tartuffe.
Now, this is not exactly a full-out adaptation of Moliere's story of a religious shyster who tries to charm a well-to-do lamb out of his fortune while snaring a snog or two from the guy's wife. No, Weiner and Preisser (the latter also directs) thin the plot into the simple fact that Orgon (a cute and amiable Ted Lange) has begun donating every cent he has to a man of the crushed red velvet cloth whose bible says, "The best way to help the poor is by not being one of them," and his family wants to stop him.
But the plot of this 90-minute cavalcade supplies little more than breathing breaks and costume changing time for the sensational André De Shields, who, in the title role, dominates the evening delivering funkified song and dance sermons with blinding electric force.
"All this shazam and shazizzle is my humble offering to you," insists the multi-blinged, gaudily-garbed holy man from 125th Street, who is enthusiastically assisted by a pair of back-up boys (Tyrone Davis, Jr. and Gerron Atkinson) and a scantily clad Supreme Choir (Jennifer Akabue, Gina Rivera, Charletta Rozzell and Kisa Willis) in delivering the message that sex, wealth and fun are all meant to be enjoyed in this life without regard for what comes after. Unlike Moliere's infamous hypocrite, Preisser and Weiner send us a messenger that is very open about the fact that donation dollars go to pay for his Cadillac and fabulous wardrobe. In a sense they are investors in his show and their return is the flash and dazzle of an entertainment that makes them feel good about enjoying life. Costume designer Kimberly Glennon gets numerous laughs with her creations for both the title character and the lovely ladies, who at one point are clad in pink Cadillac bikinis with strategically placed headlights and license plates. ("It's said in Genesis, chapter 25, verse 1: 'Baby's got to have back!'")
In the intimate Harold Clurman Theatre, there's no escaping the fact that nearly each audience member will feel directly addressed by the flamboyant holy man ("Didn't they tell you there is no fourth wall in this church?") and at times De Shields will literally climb over seats to place his "healing hands" on a lady of his choosing and practically lap dance her to salvation. He also deputizes the ladies of his choir to heal any suffering men out there with various body parts. (It's all suggestive, but ultimately clean.)
Unfortunately, the cleverness of the production is sapped dry every time De Shields & Co. leave the stage and we're left with Orgon's family performing uninspired song parodies. His daughter Marianne (Soneela Nakani) hops around like a cheerleader expressing a special attraction for her father in "I'm Just Wild About Daddy," his wife Elmire (Kim Brockington) describes her sexual kinkiness in Edith Piaf style and her brother Cleante (Lawrence Street) uses the Chiffons' hit "One Fine Day (You're Gonna Want Me For Your Girl)" as the theme for his own sermon on gay marriage rights. The actors admirably dive into the bland and sometimes embarrassing material while the audience waits for Mr. De Shields to arrive once more; perhaps this time with a bottle of sacramental Thunderbird.
Photos by Lia Chang: Top: Gina Marie Rivera, Charletta Rozzell, André De Shields, Jennifer Akabue and Kisa Willis; Bottom: Ted Lange and André De Shields
Posted on: Saturday, July 04, 2009 @ 02:10 PM Posted by: Michael Dale
The Name on Everybody's Lips is Gonna Be...
How much you wanna bet the Weisslers will have Sarah Palin signed to play Roxie on Broadway by the end of next week?
Posted on: Friday, July 03, 2009 @ 06:30 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback
Broadway Grosses: Week Ending 6/28 & Algonquin Round Table Quote of the Week
"As only New Yorkers know, if you can get through the twilight, you'll live through the night."
The grosses are out for the week ending 6/28/2009 and we've got them all right here in BroadwayWorld.com's grosses section.
Up for the week was: AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY (24.7%), IRENA'S VOW (17.6%), THE PHILANTHROPIST (12.3%), AVENUE Q (11.8%), ACCENT ON YOUTH (9.1%), IN THE HEIGHTS (5.9%), THE 39 STEPS (4.4%), SHREK THE MUSICAL (2.3%), SOUTH PACIFIC (1.8%), MARY STUART (1.8%), NEXT TO NORMAL (1.7%), ROCK OF AGES (1.5%), MAMMA MIA! (0.8%), WAITING FOR GODOT (0.6%), WEST SIDE STORY (0.3%), HAIR (0.2%), 9 TO 5 (0.2%),
Down for the week was: THE NORMAN CONQUESTS (-11.8%), MARY POPPINS (-8.0%), THE LION KING (-4.4%), THE LITTLE MERMAID (-1.4%), CHICAGO (-0.8%), THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (-0.5%), GOD OF CARNAGE (-0.3%), BLITHE SPIRIT (-0.1%), JERSEY BOYS (-0.1%),
Posted on: Monday, June 29, 2009 @ 04:11 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback
Twelfth Night: What!?! You Will?????
The entirety of The Public Theater's positively scrumptious new Shakespeare in the Park production of Twelfth Night is played on and around designer John Lee Beatty's grassy field, which is dominated by two large hills. It's the kind of setting that might remind you of dozens of locales in Central Park where brave little tykes might scurry down the steep inclines or where lusty couples might settle down for a quick afternoon make-out session or where a toddler's parent might amuse his kid by popping his head out from behind the soft green hiding place. It's a playground and director Daniel Sullivan - who incorporates all the above in his lighthearted staging - seems to have encouraged his delightful company to play, making an all-star cast of theatre pros (joined by a movie star ringer with legit experience) charm like a summer stock company showing off their youthful enthusiasm.
Twelfth Night certainly works if played darker than the Delecorte's current entertainment, if simply for the fact that, if we go strictly by Shakespeare's words, the play ends with its most selfless and heroic character facing the rest of his life in prison. Grief for loved ones and unrequited passion also figure in heavily, not to mention the opportunity to explore erotic possibilities as its cross-dressing central female character must hide her gender from both the man she's smitten with and the woman she's accidentally attracted.
But such approaches can be reserved for indoor autumnal settings. The only darkness here is supplied by Raul Esparza, whose hilarious portrayal of the lovesick Orsino, Duke of Illyria, plays like a satire of the aloof, tension-filled performances New York audiences have grown accustomed to seeing from him.
Through the work of costume designer Jane Greenwood and wig designer Tom Watson, Illyria is beautifully filled with late 18th Century European elegance, a fashion well-suited to disguising the shipwrecked Viola (Anne Hathaway) as young boy. A stranger in Illyria, and mourning the loss of her twin brother Sebastian (Stark Sands), who she believes drowned in a violent storm, Viola avoids the dangers of traveling alone as a woman by assuming the role of a young lad named Cesario and gets hired by the Duke to help him woo the Countess Olivia (Audra McDonald). Hathaway's tender affections for the romantically afflicted Orsino, combined with her chipper earnestness while disguised as Cesario, gives the production firm grounding for the inspired lunacy that surrounds her; the most triumphant of which is McDonald's transformation from a grim, sorrowful woman who is also mourning the loss of her brother to a giddy coquettish lover whose lustful urges have been awakened by the young Cesario. Of course, when it turns out that Sebastian is indeed alive and well and wandering about Illyria, Shakespeare is not above recycling some of the gags and plot twists that worked so well in The Comedy of Errors.
Twelfth Night's subplot, which figures just about as prominently as the main one, is also stocked with exceptional performances. Jay O. Sanders, an old pro at playing boisterously fun drunkards, and the verbally biting Julie White are terrific as Olivia's uncle, Sir Toby Belch and his lusty companion, his niece's gentlewoman, Maria. In an outlandish comic turn, Hamish Linklater sports long blonde tresses and a loopy Valley Boy accent as Olivia's would-be suitor, the thickheaded Sir Andrew Aguecheek, stumbling down hills and blurting out lines with crowd-pleasing humor. As the dour Malvolio, who falls victim to a revengeful prank, Michael Cumpsty is a model of Dickensian smugness, getting broad laughs by playing straight.
The Celtic folk ensemble HEM supplies the hearty musical sound of Illyria, and while there are many fine voices among the company, the featured singer is David Pittu, whose wonderful turn as Feste has him playing Olivia's clown with the wry, underplayed wit of a contemporary political commentator. Smaller roles such as Sands' Sebastian and Jon Patrick Walker's Fabian are well played; with special mention to Charles Borland, who gives a firm, commanding appeal to Antonio, the sea captain who rescues Sebastian and risks his life to see to his safety.
Clocking in at over three hours, every minute of this Twelfth Night is pure theatrical delight and a hell of a good time.
Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: Raul Esparza and Anne Hathaway, Bottom: Audra McDonald, Michael Cumpsty and company
Posted on: Monday, June 29, 2009 @ 07:58 AM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback
Shafrika, The White Girl & Euan Morton at The Metropolitan Room
While collectors of musical theatre trivia may be quick to mention that Anika Larsen - the cherubic-looking blonde with the belty R&B voice - was the only performer to be in both the original Broadway cast of Xanadu and the original Off-Broadway cast of Zanna, Don't!, it's her unusual upbringing that supplies the real fun facts in her very enjoyable and even thought-provoking bio-musical, Shafrika, The White Girl.
The first child born of a pair of Norwegian-American 1970s liberals who believed in population control and getting American troops out of Vietnam, Anika was actually the fourth addition to the Larsen family, coming after three of her six adopted siblings and before her three biological ones. This racially mixed bunch (each given a Norwegian name in an effort to create a family identity) could teach Mike and Carol Brady a lesson or two about the realities of blended families.
Written by Larsen and co-conceived by director April Nickell, the small but abundantly fun and energetic production is played in style that suggests theatre for teenage audiences, but deals with issues we don't necessarily grow out of. A company of 13 actors, all appearing to be in their early 20s, play her brothers, sisters, parents, friends and relatives in an exploration of how growing up in an ethnically mixed family in an integrated school district of Cambridge, Massachusetts shielded her from the realities of race issues. (A telling clip from a family home movie shows Anika and six of her siblings, all under 7, singing a boisterous chorus of "We Shall Overcome.") Her adolescent loss of innocence comes in the form of a co-worker assuming he can tell racist jokes in her presence. Her love of soul and R&B music wins her a spot in her college's gospel choir and even though she's given the solo spot at a concert for Black Solidarity Day, it hurts her to realize she could never fully be a part of the culture that created the music and poetry she was raised on.
A running conflict throughout the evening has the author trying to edit out scenes she'd prefer not to revisit (like the time she first felt uncomfortable talking to one of her brothers about their difference in skin color) but giving in when the ensemble insists that darker family secrets be revealed. (Larsen does mention in the text that every family member has been given a copy of the script to read.) But Shafrika, The White Girl (the title comes from a hip urban image of herself the author first uses to describe the difference between her inside and her outside) reveals more during its musical moments. There's the eerily satisfied look the mother (Amanda Hunt) has as her children sing "Ebony & Ivory" during a long car trip. And the competition for attention in the schoolyard as the girls show off more than just their rhyming skills while chanting "Shake Ya Booty." Larsen contributes lyrics to songs like an intentionally sappy duet, "If You're Just Like Me" (music by Tim Acito) that reveals her parents as naively idealistic and "Be A Light" (music by Joshua Henry) that provides the upbeat conclusion.
Coincidently, Shafrika, The White Girl opens in New York the same week that a popular singer staring in a major New York production of The Wiz received many critical pans for her lack of acting ability. Though it's doubtful Anika Larsen will ever get the same opportunity to play Dorothy, she's certainly got the chops for the role.
Photo of Anika Larsen & Company by Corey Hayes
The flag of Scotland hangs proudly behind Euan Morton during his quite charming and sincerely patriotic stint at The Metropolitan Room called Caledonia: Songs For The Homecoming. This being the 250th Anniversary of the birth of poet and songwriter, Robert Burns, Scotland has declared 2009 as "The Year of the Homecoming," encouraging countrymen and countrywomen abroad to visit the homeland once more in a cultural celebration of music and theatre. But for now, Morton brings a bit of Scotland to New York, the town where he's contributed some excellent stage performances since coming to these shores to star in Taboo, and has also grown into a very fine cabaret artist.
The boyish and soft-spoken Morton uses the evening to educate the audience a bit on the history and significance of his selection of traditional Celtic tunes. Burns is well represented with "Red Red Rose," "Auld Lang Syne, "Ae Fond Kiss" and even a bit of poetry reading. The star's light, sweet tenor (with a nice lower range), melodic and tenderly expressive, warms the heart with traditional ballads like "Danny Boy" and "Loch Lomond." A livelier tune, "Miari's Wedding," has him dancing about the small stage and a more contemporary hit, Charlie & Craig Reid's "I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles)" is a joyously quirky highlight.
Directed by Lee Armitage, Morton is joined on stage by music director Bryan Reeder and Irish violinist and backup vocalist Maud Reardon, with whom he banters about some good-natured competitive ribbing between their two cultures.
Photo by Genevieve Rafter Keddy
Posted on: Thursday, June 25, 2009 @ 11:01 AM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback
The Wiz: Road Show
Along with contempt, familiarity is also pretty good at breeding hit Broadway musicals. Take The Wiz, for example; the perfectly pleasant but sketchily written 1975 Tony winner for Best Musical that, if it weren't based on L. Frank Baum's classic The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (which became an iconic American story once MGM got its hands on it), would probably leave audiences completely baffled as to what the devil was going on.
Bookwriter William F. Brown short-hands the tale of how farm girl Dorothy Gale gets caught up in a twister that transports her to a land of witches, munchkins, a yellow brick road (suitable for easing down) and one deceptive wizard. His Spartan scenes quickly surrender to Charlie Smalls' catchy assortment of soul, funk, jazz, gospel and disco songs; some of which have lyrics that are actually somewhat associated with the plot. For good measure Luther Vandross contributed a celebratory anthem that just screams for radio play.
But maybe that's all that was needed in the mid-70s; a time when urban unrest turned even the Broadway district into a sketchy part of town. With minority neighborhoods in Harlem and The Bronx suffering from serious decay, an upbeat musical that translated a classic American story into a celebration of black culture that sermonized on believing in yourself and having love and respect for the home that raised you probably didn't need to delve deeply into details its audience already knew.
And while things aren't perfect today, The Wiz's place in our musical theatre heritage seems to have settled into the comfortable role of fluffy nostalgia. The jokes can get a bit corny, but the humor is genial, and the score - if not exactly top-drawer musical theatre - is the kind that allows strong actors to take center stage and perform.
Gratefully, the Encores! Summer Stars production of The Wiz has strong actors who know how to smack some life into their underwritten characters and director Thomas Kail's swift and stylish production gives everyone plenty of elbow room to do their stuff.
Happily, this Wiz begins and ends with the luminous singing actress LaChanze, who opens and closes the evening in two roles that require her to do little more than say a few lines and then wrap her gorgeously expressive mezzo around a ballad. Her lovely warmth as Aunt Em is just a warm-up for her Act II appearance (Kail gives her an Eartha Kittenish re-entrance), glimmering charm and exceptional vocal phrasing as the good witch Glinda.
In between her appearances, it's Joshua Henry's Tinman who threatens to steal the show; first with a jaunty song and dance performance of "Slide Some Oil To Me," and later with a thrillingly heartfelt, "What Would I Do If I Could Feel?" James Monroe Iglehart provides rich, booming vocals for his stint as the lion and Christian Dante White's rubbery scarecrow nicely completes the trio. As Addaperle, the daffy Good Witch of the North, Dawnn Lewis admirably dives into some of the book's least effective comic material while Tichina Arnold, blessed with a role that allows her to strut with campy brassiness, gets the second act to a rousing start as Evilene, the Wicked Witch of the West.
Unfortunately, the two above-the-title stars (who total one stage acting credit between both their Playbill bios) do not supply the wattage of their fellow players. As Dorothy, Grammy winner Ashanti has a pretty voice and can deliver the money notes when required, but she sings and speaks with little emotion and barely displays any physical presence. Orlando Jones certainly works hard as the title character, but there's little variety or nuance to his portrayal.
But such annoyances can (almost) be set aside when treated to the dynamic contributions of set designer David Korins, costume designer Paul Tazewell and lighting designer Ken Billington, who each combine glittering fantasy and urban grit to provide a playground for Andy Blankenbuehler's dancers to dazzle as they impersonate flowers, winged creatures, brick roads and whipping winds. And with Alex Lacamoire conducting 22 pieces through Harold Wheeler's funked up orchestrations, Encores!'s The Wiz smoothly eases over the occasional bump in the road.
Photos by Robert J. Saferstein: Top: LaChanze and Ashanti; Bottom: Joshua Henry and Ashanti
Posted on: Tuesday, June 23, 2009 @ 12:26 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback
Broadway Grosses: Week Ending 6/21 & Algonquin Round Table Quote of the Week
When I invite a woman to dinner, I expect her to look at my face. That's the price she has to pay.
-- George S. Kaufman
The grosses are out for the week ending 6/21/2009 and we've got them all right here in BroadwayWorld.com's grosses section.
Up for the week was: THE 39 STEPS (8.8%), SOUTH PACIFIC (7.6%), IRENA'S VOW (7.3%), THE PHILANTHROPIST (5.9%), ACCENT ON YOUTH (5.7%), AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY (5.4%), THE LITTLE MERMAID (5.1%), AVENUE Q (5.0%), THE NORMAN CONQUESTS (4.9%), SHREK THE MUSICAL (4.5%), WAITING FOR GODOT (3.1%), THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (2.9%), CHICAGO (2.9%), ROCK OF AGES (1.8%), NEXT TO NORMAL (1.5%), WEST SIDE STORY (1.5%), BLITHE SPIRIT (1.4%), MARY POPPINS (0.7%), HAIR (0.6%), MAMMA MIA! (0.3%),
Down for the week was: 9 TO 5 (-6.1%), MARY STUART (-4.2%), IN THE HEIGHTS (-2.9%),
Posted on: Monday, June 22, 2009 @ 04:57 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback
The Full Monty: Who The Hell Is Margie Hart?
One of the unique and cherished aspects of the musical theatre is how the preceding plot and character development can allow a musical moment to achieve ethereal heights that establish a triumvirate of joyful feeling between audience, performer and character. Take, for example, Amalia Balash's dizzying high note at the end of "Vanilla Ice Cream," which is not just a showy moment for the actress playing the role, but a release of amazed emotions caused by a simple act of kindness. Or the wacky exuberance of the impromptu tango that follows Eliza Doolittle's mastery of the proper pronunciation of an Iberian precipitation phenomenon.
But perhaps Broadway's most unusual musical expression of uninhibited joy passed on from stage to house is the final moment of The Full Monty, when six non-traditionally shaped male strippers remove their final wisps of coverage and stand before the patrons fully frontally naked. (Yes, I know I just gave away the ending, but please... you don't have to be a Yale dramaturgy student to know this musical must end that way.) Even though a lighting trick keeps the moment at a PG-13 level (and I have a strong feeling that the moment would not be as effective if the audience was able to see everything) just the awareness that these fellows are standing there starkers, combined with Terrance MacNally's funny and romantic book and David Yazbek's kick-ass, jazz-infused score telling the story of love, desperation, bravery and personal change that brought them there, is an uplifting theatrical moment as magical as when the audience helps bring Tinkerbell back to life. (Oh dear, guess I gave away that one, too.)
The Paper Mill's very enjoyable new production of The Full Monty, mounted by the company's Artistic Director Mark S. Hoebee, never strays very far from the standards set by the original 2000 Broadway production; a show that was famously overshadowed by The Producers when it came time to award the Tonys. John Arnone's industrial set has been adapted for the Millburn stage by Rob Bissinger, Randall Klein bases the costumes on Robert Morgan's Broadway designs, original cast member Denis Jones choreographs and the talented cast gives familiar interpretations of their roles. But that's not to say this is a musty old revival. This is exceptional material played earnestly and a damn fun night of grown-up musical comedy.
Based on the 1997 film's screenplay by Simon Beaufy, the musical's setting is shifted from Sheffield, England to Buffalo, New York but still concerns a group of steel workers left unemployed by massive layoffs. Jerry (Wayne Wilcox), the show's flawed but determined central character (nice work by the authors in keeping this guy sympathetic) is the divorced dad of young Nathan (Alex Maizus & Luke Marcus Rosen alternate), who lives with his mom. Unemployed for months and unwilling to take a job that he feels is beneath him, Jerry is way behind on child support and his ex-wife Pam (Kelly Sullivan), who has a perfectly good job with her company waiting for him if he'd only take it, has decided to withdraw his visitation rights unless he catches up. Looking to score a big payday, Jerry notices how Buffalo women happily shell out the bucks whenever a local nightclub holds their male stripper nights. And, assuming that those dancers are all a bunch of, as he puts it, fairies, he figures the ladies would be willing to pay out even more to see a bunch of "real men" like him. But after investing time and money to gather a group of chums to form the stripping ensemble "Hot Metal," ticket sales are abysmal, and don't pick up until Jerry announces that, unlike the professionals, his crew are willing to go The Fully Monty.
Wilcox is terrific in the non-traditional leading male role. His Jerry is scruffy, worn and angular with a strong "regular guy" singing voice. But this is an ensemble show with lots of interesting characters to cheer for. Jerry's big lug buddy Dave (the very funny and endearing Joe Coots), feels emasculated because his wife Georgie (Jenn Colella) has become the breadwinner, despite her attempts to be emotionally supportive. Their former supervisor, Harold (Michael Rupert), has been hiding his unemployment from his stuff-loving wife Vicki (Michele Ragusa) because he fears she'll leave him without his executive salary. Lonely Malcolm (Allen E. Read) has been spending most of his life taking care of his ailing mother and while he's grateful for the friendship Jerry and Dave offer, it's his new relationship with the likeable but thickheaded Ethan (Jason Babinsky) that brings him real happiness.
Then there's the elderly Noah, a/k/a "Horse" (Milton Craig Nealy), who was apparently quite a dancer in his day and uses the mystique of the "Big Black Man" (which also happens to be the name of his show-stopping solo) to earn a place on the line. With a deep soul-singing voice and funky moves that he pulls off in between bouts with stiff joints and dislocating hips, Nealy is just riotously funny.
While her role is a small (but meaty) supporting one, the reason why plenty of those bridge and tunnel tourists from Manhattan will be making the trip to Jersey is because Elaine Stritch is on hand to play Jeanette, the salty-tongued, hard-drinking rehearsal pianist. It's the kind of droll, wise-cracking role the 84-year-old Broadway trouper is famous for and she shines with her usual musical comedy moxie.
But the real star of The Full Monty is composer/lyricist Yazbek, whose breezy combination of jazz, showtune, funk and rock - perfectly matched with the blue collar cleverness of his words - provide a sterling score. There probably has never been a character-driven comedy song quite like "Big Ass Rock," getting laughs out of dark-humored male bonding. "Michael Jordan's Ball," a number where the boys learn to dance by utilizing basketball moves, snaps with the jaunty syncopation of a one-on-one match-up and "You Walk With Me," (beautifully sung by Read) is a quiet contemplation on love and support. Broadway rocker Colella gets to show her impressive chops leading the hard-driving "It's a Woman's World" and Ragusa, who is just hilarious throughout, nails the tricky comic rhyming of "Life With Harold."
Sure, the final moment of moment of The Full Monty will always be its main selling point (forgive me, Ms. Stritch) but the excellent Paper Mill production demonstrates what lovely, heartfelt and realistically humorous theatre the show has to offer before the final g-string is dropped.
Top photo by Kevin Sprague: Wayne Wilcox and Luke Marcus Rosen; Bottom photo by Jerry Dalia: Elaine Stritch and Milton Craig Nealy.
Posted on: Sunday, June 21, 2009 @ 10:46 AM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback
Phylicia Rashad & Marilyn Maye (Though Not Together)
While the casting of Phylicia Rashad as the manipulative, pill-addicted matriarch of Oklahoma's abundantly dysfunctional Weston family in Tracy Letts' epic comedy/drama, August: Osage County may seem an odd choice for those who only know the actress from her television roles as the elegant Clair Huxtable on The Cosby Show and... uh... Clair Huxtable II on Cosby, she might be considered a natural for the part by New York playgoers who have seen her rip up the stage as the anguished and dominating Bernarda Alba or have observed her communicating silent volumes as a symbol of African heritage in Gem of the Ocean.
There is, of course, the biology-defying factor of casting a black woman as the mother of three white children, but while certainly a playgoer has the right to object to the color-blind casting as unrealistic, there's nothing in the play's content that didn't allow me to suspend disbelief and accept the production's parameters of reality.
This is my first visit to Letts' swiftly played (under Anna D. Shapiro‘s direction) three and a half hour Pulitzer winner since its Broadway opening and the production is in solid shape with a mixture of original cast members and well-known replacements. John Cullum, so masterful at these grizzled and literate characters gets us started "round a prickly pear" as poet Beverly Weston, the family patriarch whose disappearance brings his three daughters and their families together under one roof, where issues of betrayal, abandonment, infidelity, pedophilia, addictions, incest, suicide, family secrets and inheritance threaten to blow the roof off the place.
At the center of the play is the struggle for control of the household between Rashad's Violet (whose addictions to her assortment of cancer-treating medications have left her mentally unstable) and the wonderful Amy Morton as eldest daughter, Barbara. As played by the role's originator, Deanna Dunagan (who won a Tony for her efforts), Violet's abrasive behavior seared with a sometimes outlandish anger-on-her-sleeve intensity. Rashad, however, gently simmers. There is more a sense of deep hurt in her Violet; a quiet vulnerability and sadness that draws you in. This interpretation offers a change in the dynamic between the two characters, especially when Barbara's forceful actions meant to restore family order start to look like bullying. The play is less funny this way, but more involving.
Picking up some of the laugh slack is Elizabeth Ashley, who has been playing a broadly comical Aunt Mattie Fae since shortly after her Dividing The Estate engagement. Original cast members Sally Murphy and Mariann Mayberry (as the younger Weston sisters) and Kimberly Guerrero as the peacefully serene Cheyenne housekeeper, deliver strong character work.
Sadly, a June 28th closing date has just been announced for the Broadway production of August: Osage County. This sterling piece of drama shall be missed.
Photo of Phylicia Rashad by Robert J. Saferstein
I fear I'm running out of superlatives with which to describe the sublimely sophisticated (see, I've used that one already) Marilyn Maye. Now playing her sixth brand spanking new Metropolitan Room engagement since ending a fifteen year hiatus from Gotham back in '07, I've already described the 81-year-old vocal miracle (another recycled quote) as "sweetly intoxicating" with "pipes a 25-year-old would envy," and praised her combination of "exacting, versatile tones" with "phrasing artistry and emotional insight that comes from decades of wisdom." I suppose I can dig up an old chestnut like how she makes any stage she performs on "the coolest spot in town," but since her newest gig is dedicated to the lyrics (and occasionally music) of Johnny Mercer, I suppose the most appropriate plaudit to hand Ms. Maye is that she's just too marvelous for words.
Also quite marvelous is her regular accompanying trio of music director Ted Firth on piano, Tom Hubbard on bass and Jim Eklof on drums. There's a heck of a lot of titles covered in this one so much of the show consists of medleys, such as the peppy jazz arrangement combining "My Shining Hour," "Day In Day Out," "Too Marvelous For Words," "You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby," "Jeepers Creepers" and "Something's Gotta Give."
Her delicacy with dynamics floats a saloon standard like "One For My Baby" into sonnet-like poetry, but her money notes are firm and sure, as in the brassy tornado she makes of "Blues In The Night." Firth's solo on the latter is one of the many times throughout the evening he and the vocalist feed on each other's jazz stylings to whip the music into frenzied peaks.
Her "Skylark" lands on the ear like a soft rain, but she can bust out the fun with a combination of "I Wanna Be Around" and "Goody Goody," surrender to the optimistic joy of "Come Rain Or Come Shine" and just get a little silly with "Arthur Murray Taught Me Dancing In A Hurry."
By the time she's wrapping things up with "Anyplace I Hang My Hat Is Home," you'll probably have a few fresh superlatives of your own with which to describe Marilyn Maye. Do me a favor and send some over to me. I'm sure I'll need them for her next engagement.
Posted on: Thursday, June 18, 2009 @ 12:31 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback
Broadway Grosses: Week Ending 6/14 & Algonquin Round Table Quote of the Week
"The affair between Margot Asquith and Margot Asquith will live as one of the prettiest love stories in all literature."
-- Dorothy Parker
The grosses are out for the week ending 6/14/2009 and we've got them all right here in BroadwayWorld.com's grosses section.
Up for the week was: GUYS AND DOLLS (28.4%), REASONS TO BE PRETTY (26.9%), THE LITTLE MERMAID (17.0%), MARY POPPINS (14.2%), THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (12.5%), AVENUE Q (12.2%), CHICAGO (11.8%), IN THE HEIGHTS (11.6%), THE 39 STEPS (10.9%), EXIT THE KING (10.0%), BLITHE SPIRIT (9.5%), JOE TURNER'S COME AND GONE (9.2%), THE PHILANTHROPIST (8.1%), MAMMA MIA! (8.1%), HAIR (7.7%), IRENA'S VOW (7.3%), ROCK OF AGES (6.8%), 9 TO 5 (6.4%), AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY (6.4%), THE LION KING (4.3%), ACCENT ON YOUTH (4.0%), WEST SIDE STORY (3.2%), SHREK THE MUSICAL (2.0%), BILLY ELLIOT: THE MUSICAL (1.8%), MARY STUART (1.8%), JERSEY BOYS (1.7%), SOUTH PACIFIC (1.1%), GOD OF CARNAGE (0.1%),
Down for the week was: NEXT TO NORMAL (-4.5%), THE NORMAN CONQUESTS (-3.1%), WAITING FOR GODOT (-0.5%),
Posted on: Monday, June 15, 2009 @ 03:55 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback
Our House: Reality Bites
If you're old enough to recall the pre-Jimmy Carter era of American comedy, when dark pieces like Jules Pfeiffer's Little Murders and Robert Altman's MASH drew humor from a sense of being emotionally anaesthetized from the ugliness of your surroundings, you may be tricked into assuming that Theresa Rebeck's Our House is a revival of some long-forgotten black comedy with an outlandish portrayal of television news that grew more realistic decades later. But this is a new piece premiering at Playwrights Horizons and despite some high moments, some clever lines and a sharp, sexy production helmed by Michael Meyer, Our House ends up seeming innocuously nostalgic and satirically toothless.
The young and attractive Jennifer (Morena Baccarin) has become one of her network's hottest stars by doubling as both a morning news anchor (easily gliding from stories of war atrocities to introducing segments on punk-inspired fall fashions) and the host of a reality series where America relishes in the manufactured tension created by a group of strangers sharing a house. Job security comes in the form of her sexual hold on Wes (Christopher Evan Welch) the smarmy, fast-talking network executive who resents the FCC's mandate that the airwaves are only free when stations provide news programs as a public service. ("Staying informed, in America, is optional.")
Meanwhile, in a seemingly unremarkable St. Louis home, four real-life roommates actually do share a tense living arrangement, mostly due to the socially inept Merv (Jeremy Strong), who is addicted to Jennifer's programs. When a newsworthy event takes place in the Midwestern home, Jennifer is the only reporter given special access to the locale, where the difference between professional ethics and a depraved indifference to human suffering becomes debatable and journalistic integrity is no match for a thirst for ratings.
The cast is solid, particularly when Welch's megalomaniacal Wes delivers a report to his board of directors on the patriotism of ignorance (Rebeck's sharpest writing) and when Baccarin's Jennifer freaks out over the on-air wardrobe choices she's handed. (Costume designer Susan Hilferty contributes fine character-defining work, particularly in the sexed-up progression of the anchor's outfits.) Strong plays Merv with the kind of exaggerated dumbness that seems fake until you see someone on TV who really acts that way and Stephen Kunken serves as an acerbic voice of reason as news exec, Stu. Derek McLane's set nicely contrasts the imposingly sparse and edgy world of the network offices with the improvised hominess of the St. Louis dwelling.
With today's audiences cynically savvy enough to question the truthfulness of anything packaged as reality, Our House may amuse, but moments that seem intended to shock with its social commentary instead feel as familiar as a comfortable old re-run.
Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: Christopher Evan Welch and Morena Baccarin; Bottom: Christopher Evan Welch and Stephen Kunken.
Posted on: Sunday, June 14, 2009 @ 04:02 AM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback
About Michael: After 20-odd years singing, dancing and acting in
dinner theatres, summer stocks and the ever-popular
audience participation murder mysteries (try
improvising with audiences after they?ve had two hours
of open bar), Michael Dale segued his theatrical
ambitions into playwriting. The buildings which once
housed the 5 Off-Off Broadway plays he penned have all
been destroyed or turned into a Starbucks, but his
name remains the answer to the trivia question, "Who
wrote the official play of Babe Ruth's 100th
Birthday?" He served as Artistic Director for The
Play's The Thing Theatre Company, helping to bring
free live theatre to underserved communities, and
dabbled a bit in stage managing and in directing
cabaret shows before answering the call (it was an
email, actually) to become BroadwayWorld.com's first
Chief Theatre Critic. While not attending shows
Michael can be seen at Shea Stadium pleading for the
Mets to stop imploding. Likes: Strong book musicals
and ambitious new works. Dislikes: Unprepared
celebrities making their stage acting debuts by
starring on Broadway and weak bullpens.