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Broadway Grosses: Week Ending 12/27 & Theatre Quote of the Week


"The world is full of more interesting things than my voice."
-- Harvey Fierstein

 

The grosses are out for the week ending 12/27/2009 and we've got them all right here in BroadwayWorld.com's grosses section.

Up for the week was: THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (25.2%), WEST SIDE STORY (21.0%), MAMMA MIA! (20.2%), BURN THE FLOOR (20.0%), MARY POPPINS (17.1%), SOUTH PACIFIC (14.5%), IN THE HEIGHTS (14.1%), THE 39 STEPS (11.6%), CHICAGO (11.6%), NEXT TO NORMAL (9.3%), HAIR (9.0%), BYE BYE BIRDIE (8.3%), ROCK OF AGES (7.9%), MEMPHIS (7.5%), GOD OF CARNAGE (7.2%), FELA! (6.1%), BILLY ELLIOT: THE MUSICAL (5.4%), THE LION KING (3.9%), IN THE NEXT ROOM OR THE VIBRATOR PLAY (2.4%), WICKED (1.3%), SHREK THE MUSICAL (0.1%),

Down for the week was: RAGTIME (-12.5%), SUPERIOR DONUTS (-8.7%), RACE (-8.5%), FINIAN'S RAINBOW (-5.7%), WISHFUL DRINKING (-4.4%), IRVING BERLIN'S WHITE CHRISTMAS (-2.1%), A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC (-1.1%), JERSEY BOYS (-0.3%),

Posted on: Monday, December 28, 2009 @ 05:49 PM Posted by: Michael Dale


A Little Night Music: It Would Have Been Wonderful

After some of the disappointingly revised and questionably directed musical revivals to hit Gotham in recent seasons it's almost refreshing to say that a new mounting of a classic title, at the very least, didn't do irreparable damage to the brilliant original material. After enduring Trevor Nunn's intimate Oklahoma! and overblown My Fair Lady I naturally had some concerns entering the Walter Kerr for the transfer of his London Menier Chocolate Factory production of A Little Night Music. But by golly, the fellow didn't ruin it.

Oh sure, there are disagreeable elements; the thin orchestra, the uninspired set and costume designs and interpretations of some of the supporting roles, but overall the irresistible beauty of Stephen Sondheim's music matched with the superlative wit of both his lyrics and Hugh Wheeler's highly comedic book are, for the most part, decently served. It's not a glimmering revival of this great reworking of Ingmar Bergman's film Smiles of a Summer Night, but unlike some hideous recent Broadway revivals of other shows, there's no reason to discourage newcomers to the piece from indulging in the sterling musical theatre writing and composition on display.

The main contributor to the minuses is that this is a chamber production created for a 180-seat space that has been plopped into a Broadway theatre holding over five times that number without any evident attempt to expand the proceedings in order to fill out the new surroundings. No, bigger isn't necessarily better but the opulently splendid Kerr overwhelms David Farley's simple set (framed mirrored panels that adapt to different settings; trees added for act two) which, like his standard Edwardian costumes (black for act one, white for act two... why???), lacks the same style and elegance as provided by Sondheim and Wheeler. The visuals are simply too unremarkable for such a seductive musical. Likewise, the entrancing Jonathan Tunick orchestrations are dropped in favor of Jason Carr's arrangements for a less than adequate eight pieces.

Fortunately, actor Alexander Hanson accompanied the design elements in their trip across the Atlantic. He is just superb as turn of the 20th Century Swedish lawyer Fredrik Egerman, who starts pining for his former lover, actress Desiree Armfeldt , after eleven months of chaste marriage to his very young and very hesitant bride, Anne. Mature, elegant and self-effacingly humorous, Hanson delivers verbal comedy with ease and intelligence and sings with spontaneous-sounding phrasing. It's the kind of performance that grounds the evening into its proper tone and makes one anxious for his return whenever he's off stage.

Hanson's scenes with Catherine Zeta-Jones sear with chemistry, as her dryly feminine Desiree plays cat and mouse with her long-lost beau. She too, has a firm grasp of what makes her character funny but offers few hints of the emotions felt by a woman who spends her life on the road, separated from her daughter and whose old feelings are stirred up again while her current affair is with a married man. She sings and acts her second act solo, "Send in the Clowns," very nicely but the emotions of the song don't seem to come from anywhere we've seen from her performance.

The role of Desiree's mother, Madame Armfeldt, is a wonderful gift to older musical theatre actresses in want of another chance to dazzle and Angela Lansbury is just as luminous in the role as you might expect. As the wheelchair bound woman with an exotic past with rich and powerful men and a philosophically poetic view of the world, she mixes a youthful wonder with sage wisdom. Her singing of "Liaisons," a musical reminiscence of glamorous days past, leaves one hanging on every word and a scene where she recalls a man who might have been her grand romance is warm, tender and touching.

There are some talented people with fine singing voices in the supporting cast, but their performances, in varying degrees, appear misguided. The richly-voiced Aaron Lazar, with a menacingly dashing swagger, is a fine fit for Desiree's lover, Carl-Magnus, except that the humor of the role barely surfaces in his straightforward performance. Erin Davie, as his long-suffering wife, Charlotte, pummels her many sardonic observations when a much lighter touch is needed. Ramona Mallory's Anne, is also a bit overdone, defusing the believability of her marriage to Fredrik by playing her with the animation of a young adolescent instead of the graceful appeal of a blossoming woman. Hunter Ryan Herdlicka does well as Fredrik's brooding, sexually repressed son Henrik, though offers no more than the familiar suffering youth routine.

Leigh Ann Larkin seems to have been instructed to play Fredrik's lusty maid Petra quite a bit on the slutty side, best exemplified by the staging of her solo, "The Miller's Son," which starts looking more like "A Call From the Vatican" as she arches her back while aggressively mounting a bench. The actress dives in admirably but the interpretation just doesn't fit the material.

Several of Nunn's staging decisions baffle, such as a silly-looking moment where a dreaming Fredrik kisses the air, imagining Desiree by his side. Or in having the second act's formal dinner served with the company sitting on the ground for a picnic, undercutting the drama when misbehaving disrupts the expected etiquette of the occasion.

But still, there are no absurd revisions, no gross miscasting and no stifling concept to keep this from being an acceptable Broadway revival of A Little Night Music. Unfortunately, acceptable seems to be getting more and more acceptable with each new season.

Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: Angela Lansbury; Bottom: Alexander Hanson, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Aaron Lazar.

Follow Michael Dale on Twitter at michaeldale

Posted on: Monday, December 28, 2009 @ 03:04 AM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback


Children Will Listen, B****

What a wimp that Amy Winehouse is. I'd like to see her try and pull this when Patti LuPone's on stage.

Posted on: Wednesday, December 23, 2009 @ 09:05 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback


Broadway Grosses: Week Ending 12/20

In celebration of Winter Solstice...

"The shortest day of the year
Has the longest night of the year,
And the longest night
Is the shortest night with you..."
-- Lorenz Hart, The Boys From Syracuse

 

The grosses are out for the week ending 12/20/2009 and we've got them all right here in BroadwayWorld.com's grosses section.

Up for the week was: RAGTIME (11.0%), SHREK THE MUSICAL (5.9%), IN THE HEIGHTS (5.7%), THE 39 STEPS (2.4%), FELA! (2.1%), BYE BYE BIRDIE (1.8%), CHICAGO (1.4%), NEXT TO NORMAL (0.8%), A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC (0.8%), SUPERIOR DONUTS (0.2%),

Down for the week was: GOD OF CARNAGE (-17.7%), MEMPHIS (-12.9%), SOUTH PACIFIC (-12.7%), WISHFUL DRINKING (-11.2%), IN THE NEXT ROOM OR THE VIBRATOR PLAY (-11.1%), MAMMA MIA! (-8.9%), FINIAN'S RAINBOW (-8.7%), RACE (-6.8%), IRVING BERLIN'S WHITE CHRISTMAS (-6.7%), THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (-6.1%), BILLY ELLIOT: THE MUSICAL (-4.2%), HAIR (-3.5%), BURN THE FLOOR (-2.3%), MARY POPPINS (-2.1%), WEST SIDE STORY (-2.0%), THE LION KING (-1.8%), JERSEY BOYS (-0.9%), WICKED (-0.7%),

Posted on: Monday, December 21, 2009 @ 03:36 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback


Race: The Negro Problem

"I didn't do anything."

"You're white."

That's what justice, at least in this particular case, boils down to in playwright/director David Mamet's latest emotional button-pusher, Race. The truth is irrelevant and the winning side is the one that can make its fiction the most believable.

Newcomers to Mamet will probably find Race more interesting than those familiar with his career. All the characteristics that satirists use to spoof the style of the author's more familiar works are there; the clipped, testosterone-driven dialogue, the uncensored language, the self-centered characters with a cold, unsentimental view of the world. Race is a bit like what would happen if the professor from Oleanna was getting legal advice from the Hollywood execs of Speed-the-Plow.

Richard Thomas plays a wealthy white man accused of raping a young black woman. He's left his previous attorney and is now asking a white lawyer with a reputation for being ruthless (played by James Spader) and his black partner (David Alan Grier) to take on his case. He insists he's innocent, but the crafty attorneys are more concerned with the guilt and anger Americans feel when confronted with black vs. white situations than they are with the facts. Observing and assisting is a young black associate played by Kerry Washington, a protégé of Spader's character. The situation regarding how she came to be hired by the firm also comes into play.

As with Oleanna, this is more of a theatrical discussion than a play. The characters are representatives of points of view and make provocative pronouncements that can stimulate lively post-theatre conversations. ("There is nothing a white person can say to a black person about race which is not both incorrect and offensive. Nothing.") Thomas, in his small role, projects the proper privileged naiveté and Spader is very convincing as the plain-speaking lawyer who you'd be disgusted to have dinner with but would definitely want on your side in the courtroom. Grier provides the evening's most intriguing performance, subtly showing his character's emotional struggle to play the game as a professional, even if it means dismissing empathy for those of his race. Washington is the unfortunate weak link, simply not displaying the basic vocal or physical skills needed to be interesting on stage.

The play's strength lies in its cynical humor ("It's a complicated world full of misunderstandings. That's why we have lawyers.") and explorations of the complexities of plotting a defense. But the conclusion, at least in Mamet's world, is predictable, even if the motivation for it is unclear. Race surely entertains, but for an issue-related theatre piece it tells us nothing we haven't already heard.

Photos by Robert J. Saferstein: Top: James Spader, Richard Thomas and David Alan Grier; Bottom: Kerry Washington and James Spader.

Follow Michael Dale on Twitter at michaeldale.

Posted on: Sunday, December 20, 2009 @ 02:43 AM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback


Fela!: The Afrobeat Goes On

Last September, when I caught the Off-Broadway production of Fela!, the docu-musical inspired by the life of Nigerian political activist and musical revolutionary Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, my enthusiasm for the show was tempered by the book's lack of information that would help those unschooled in the culture and politics of the protagonist's homeland (like myself) understand the piece's setting and context. While I don't have the advantage of seeing the two scripts in front of me, my sense in watching the Broadway transfer of Fela! is that the authors have added just enough expository material (plus explanatory program notes) to spruce up the dramatics without taking anything away from the entertaining exuberance that makes the show so exciting and attention-grabbing.

Born in 1938 with a Christian minister for a father and a mother who was a leader in Nigeria's anti-colonial women's movement, Fela was sent to London for an education in medicine, but was sidetracked by an interest in music; his first influences being Miles Davis and Frank Sinatra. Fusing the jazz and pop styles he heard in London with the rhythms and chants of his homeland's Yoruba and high life, he created the Afrobeat sound and began touring and recording with his band, Koola Lobitos. Influenced by the 1960's Black Power movement through the writings of Malcolm X and Eldridge Cleaver, his lyrics began taking swipes at Nigeria's military government in songs like "Teacher Don't Teach Me Nonsense" ("Who is the government's teacher? / Corruption and perdition.") and "Zombie" ("Zombie no go think unless you tell him to think."), the song that infuriated the state so much with its depiction of the military that it led to his brutal beating (one of many he endured along with his over 200 arrests) and a fatal attack on his mother, Funmilayo.

Director/choreographer/co-bookwriter Bill T. Jones and co-bookwriter Jim Lewis establish a performance-within-a-performance structure that sets the piece at the artist's regular haunt, a nightclub he named The Afrika Shrine, at a 1977 farewell concert given shortly after his mother's death as he prepares to exile himself to Ghana. The contemporary Afrobeat band, Antibalas, led by music director Aaron Johnson, portrays his onstage musicians (Johnson also supplies the arrangements and orchestrations) and Jones' fiercely energetic ensemble of dancers passionately undulate the erotically charged movements of nyansh. At the smaller 37 Arts Theatre, Fela!, despite the abundance of talent on stage, seemed, in spirit, a one-man show. At the Eugene O'Neill, with a lot more room to comfortably dress the playing space, Fela! becomes a celebratory festival.

Still, the focus of that festival is grandly personified by the role's Off-Broadway originator, Sahr Ngaujah (now alternating performances with Kevin Mambo), who is given a theatrically Herculean task of acting as host ("Everyone say yeah yeah! Yeah yeah! Feeling good tonight?"), narrating the story of Anikulapo-Kuti's political struggle, singing, dancing, delivering rimshot-worthy one-liners ("Take my Grandfather, they did!") and even giving the audience a lesson in the proper way to move ones hips to his music while rarely having a moment off-stage and continually being the center of attention. Ngaujah is abundantly charismatic and admirably up to the challenges of the role, showing us a bruised and battered artist determined to laugh in the face of oppression and combat injustice through the power of his music and lyrics.

In contrast, the luminous Lillias White spends precious little time on stage as the spirit of Funmilayo. Though Fela refers to his female dancers as his queens, it's White who is regal in the show's final moments, beautifully singing with warm and expressive elegance.

Fela! certainly isn't meant to be a complete portrait of its title character. The action of the show takes place before the man dismissed AIDS as a myth (he eventually died from it) and his practice of polygamy (he married 27 women at once) is treated more like nightclub shtick than fact. But the music radiates and Jones and his crew never allow Fela! to be less than visually entrancing. Set and costume designer Marina Draghici turns the entire theatre into The Afrika Shrine with colorful murals and portraits painted on the walls and dresses the cast in an appealing mixture of traditional and 1970's contemporary. Robert Wierzel's lights are appropriately clubby and Peter Nigrini's videos nicely accent key moments. Most importantly, the kinetic force of the hard-working dancers and the talented star make Fela! a worthy celebration.

Photos by Monique Carboni : Top: Sahr Ngaujah and Company; Bottom: Lillias White.

Follow Michael Dale on Twitter at michaeldale.

Posted on: Thursday, December 17, 2009 @ 12:31 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback


In The Next Room or the vibrator play: What's Love Got To Do With It?

Wait a minute... is that what I think it is? It's been so long I can barely tell what one looks like anymore. But I think... yes, I believe it is. In fact I'm sure of it! There's a new romantic comedy on Broadway!!! And it's actually funny! And it's actually romantic! Well, whaddaya know, maybe that Sarah Ruhl really is a genius after all.

While the title of the MacArthur Fellowship-awarded playwright's new piece, In The Next Room or the vibrator play, is apt to inspire a raised eyebrow or two, it really is a smart and sweet little concoction that has something to say about love and body awareness; of both your own and of your partner's. And director Les Waters' delectable bob-bon of a production features two enchanting lead performances matched by a fine supporting ensemble.

The play is set in the 1880s, just outside New York in the home and office of the aptly named Dr. Givings (Michael Cerveris). The genius of Thomas Edison is all the rage, and while the doctor's wife, Catherine (Laura Benanti), shares her fascination with electric lights with their newborn, the new toy fascinating the man of the house is an electric vibrator, perfect for treating women suffering from the common malady of hysteria.

Relatively few even considered the existence of a female orgasm in those days. The good doctor merely thought his wondrous device was releasing "congestion in the womb." His new patient, Mrs. Daldry (Maria Dizzia), is so satisfied with the results of her treatment that she's happy to make visits a part of her daily routine. (The role requires Dizzia to act out having an orgasm several times during the play. Unless my past partners haven't been honest with me, I'd say her performance is very realistic.)

Naturally, Catherine is curious about what miracles her husband must be performing to make his patients so immediately cheerful and productive. She's been having emotional stress of her own because she is unable to lactate properly and must hire a wet nurse to feed her child. Elizabeth (Quincy Tyler Bernstine), the woman they hire, is black and by not being a part of her employer's sexually cloistered society she inadvertently makes the two white ladies start thinking seriously about the pleasure they desire when with their husbands. All I'll say about the ending is that it grants a beautiful vision of two lovers on the verge of discovering new ways to appreciate themselves and each other. (Waters, set designer Annie Smart and lighting designer Russell H. Champa are dazzlingly perfect with this moment.)

Benanti, who was a scream last season in Christopher Durang's Why Torture Is Wrong and The People Who Love Them, once again shows a knockout flair for non-musical comedy. Playing giddily with Ruhl's wthened Victorian language, Benanti makes Catherine an adorably hyper extrovert longing for an outlet to release her vibrancy. Cerveris makes the doctor a serious but gentle man with the potential for great romance, but who is merely showing as much affection for his wife as is considered proper for their time and place. The graceful evolution of their relationship is one of the important factors that keeps the play from becoming a cheap joke.

Another important factor is how Ruhl and Bernstine create an Elizabeth who grounds the play with her discomfort with earning much-needed money by feeding someone else's child after a personal tragedy. Along with Dizzia's blossoming Mrs. Daldry there are fine supporting turns by Thomas Jay Ryan as her repressed husband, Chandler Williams as a flamboyant artist who becomes the doctor's rare male hysteria patient and Wendy Rich Stetson as the nurse who quietly endures her own dissatisfactions with life.

While In The Next Room or the vibrator play may not exactly bring to mind the kind of romance that inspires Irving Berlin ballads, its theme of valuing pleasure for oneself and sharing it with a special someone is warming and lovely.

Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: Michael Cerveris and Laura Benanti; Bottom: Maria Dizzia, Michael Cerveris and Laura Benanti.

Follow Michael Dale on Twitter at michaeldale.

Posted on: Tuesday, December 15, 2009 @ 10:26 AM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback


Broadway Grosses: Week Ending 12/13 & Broadway Quote of the Week

"Life is a lot like jazz; it's best when you improvise."
-- George Gershwin

 

The grosses are out for the week ending 12/13/2009 and we've got them all right here in BroadwayWorld.com's grosses section.

Up for the week was: THE ROYAL FAMILY (14.5%), GOD OF CARNAGE (10.7%), FELA! (8.0%), THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (7.7%), RAGTIME (7.5%), BURN THE FLOOR (5.8%), WICKED (4.7%), A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC (4.2%), SHREK THE MUSICAL (3.3%), THE LION KING (2.8%), MARY POPPINS (2.8%), SUPERIOR DONUTS (2.4%), SOUTH PACIFIC (2.3%), WEST SIDE STORY (1.8%), IN THE NEXT ROOM OR THE VIBRATOR PLAY (1.7%), HAIR (1.7%), IRVING BERLIN'S WHITE CHRISTMAS (1.5%), FINIAN'S RAINBOW (1.3%), BILLY ELLIOT: THE MUSICAL (0.9%), MAMMA MIA! (0.7%), NEXT TO NORMAL (0.5%), IN THE HEIGHTS (0.3%), WISHFUL DRINKING (0.2%),

Down for the week was: RACE (-5.1%), THE 39 STEPS (-4.9%), BYE BYE BIRDIE (-2.2%), CHICAGO (-1.4%), ROCK OF AGES (-0.5%), MEMPHIS (-0.2%), JERSEY BOYS (-0.1%),

Posted on: Monday, December 14, 2009 @ 04:42 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback


Juan and John: Purpose Pitch

For over a century baseball writers have been romanticizing about "the crack of the bat," but the phrase was horrifically twisted one summer afternoon in 1965. The Los Angeles Dodgers and the San Francisco Giants were locked in a tight late-season pennant race when the former Flatbushers visited the Washington Heights refugees for a crucial series. Both teams had their ace pitchers on the mound, Juan "The Dominican Dandy" Marichal for the home team and Sandy "Doesn't Pitch on Yom Kippur" Koufax for their downstate rivals. Early on, Marichal tried to establish control of the game, knocking down the Dodgers' best hitters by throwing fastballs inches away from them. Under such circumstances, the opposing pitcher is expected to protect his teammates by retaliating similarly, but Koufax, who threw a hardball upward of 95 miles per hour, was hesitant. His catcher, John Roseboro, decided to take matters into his own hands and, when Marichal came up to bat, he intentionally dropped the first pitch so that when he threw the ball back to Koufax he could position himself so that it would come close to hitting the opposing pitcher in the face. Words were exchanged and suddenly, in front of over 50,000 fans and millions more watching on television, Marichal began clubbing Roseboro on the head with his bat.

One of those watching on television was sixteen-year-old Roger Guenveur Smith, shocked to see blood spilling from a gash on the head of his favorite baseball player. In his solo play Juan and John, Smith uses the incident as the centerpiece of his remembrances of the racial turmoil of his mid-sixties southern California home.

Roseboro, a black man, was in the precarious position of being an all-star player in a city where racial riots threatened to burn the entire black community to the ground. Dominican Marichal played for a manager who made overtly racist statements to the press against black and Latino players during a time when President Johnson was sending U.S. troops to his home country in order to thwart the perceived threat of a Communist takeover. Smith, the son of a black man and a very light skinned black woman, weighs these national events against the bigotry his family encountered both for being black and because some mistook his parents for being a mixed-race couple.

The connections aren't always clear, and neither is the significance of his problems relating with his daughter, but Smith is nevertheless an appealing and passionate storyteller and the ninety-minute performance holds together as an interesting series of related vignettes. Though he spends most of the piece speaking as himself (including a fun moment early on where he quizzes the audience to see if they can name the 1965 Dodgers' starting lineup) a late-inning sequence has him switching off between playing Roseboro and Marichal, telling how the incident tied the two together in the public eye for the rest of their careers until forgiveness and friendship developed later in life. The real life ending is all the more remarkable considering that the projected photograph of an angered Marichal lifting a bat high in the air, about to land a sickening blow on the bareheaded Roseboro, is the image that lingers in the mind throughout the evening.

Juan and John is being presented by the Public Theater's LAB developmental series with all tickets priced at only $10, and though press was invited to review, the production is meant to be taken as a work in progress. While some revisions would be needed to give the play a tighter dramatic arc for future engagements, this baseball fan still found Smith's remembrances adding up to an interesting and enjoyable night of theatre.

Photos of Roger Guenveur Smith by Joan Marcus.

Follow Michael Dale on Twitter at michaeldale.

Posted on: Monday, December 14, 2009 @ 10:21 AM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback


So Help Me God!: I Am My Own Best Friend

It's easily understood these days if you get the odd feeling that your ticket to the Lortel allows you to enter some weird time warp where a young Lauren Bacall is starring in some wacky 1920s comedy. But no, that woman with the crackling deep whisky voice, golden bob and striking presence while parading through a fabulous assortment of ensembles is actually Kristen Johnston, giving a whirlwind comic turn in the Mint Theater's dynamite production of Maurine Dallas Watkins' So Help Me God!

Watkins, of course, is best know to playgoers as the author of the 1926 non-musical hit, Chicago, a piece she later denounced as immoral and paid her agent $500 a year not to have produced. (Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon had been trying to get the musical rights to the play since the 1950s but had to wait until after the author's death for them to be available.) So Help Me God! was heading to Broadway in 1929 but fell victim to the stock market crash, making it a perfect selection for the Mint in their mission to resurrect forgotten but worthy plays. The company's artistic director, Jonathan Banks, helms the production and mounts it with a brash and punchy period authenticity despite minor edits made to the text.

Johnston plays Broadway star Lily Darnley, a tyrannical, seductive, manipulative and irresistible diva who knows exactly what the public adores about her and demands that every project she lends her talents to centers on her strengths. The author of her newest vehicle is thrilled to have such a great star as his lead, but didn't count on her extemporaneously rewriting the entire piece during rehearsals, firing actors at whim, replacing the director and scratching the words "a social commentary" from the title page of his work and replacing them with "a social comedy."

While So Help Me God! is loaded with colorful, hard-boiled Broadway types, the plateful of meaty moments is handed to Johnston, who devours them divinely. Her rage at the slightest recognition of her supporting players ("Half the critics mentioned them by name!"), her obliviousness to the playwright ("What's he got to do with the play?"), her habit of downing cocktails like water and her drop-dead elegance modeling costume designer Clint Ramos' ravishing creations are played with exacting comic precision in a performance that would be a highlight of many a season. Despite her bullying antics, Watkins allows Lily to keep the audience's sympathy via a speech where she explains how nobody helped her as she fought her way to the top in this cutthroat business. (The 1929 equivalent of "Hate the game, don't hate the player.")

Naturally there's a young innocent who enters the picture. Anna Chlumsky makes a smooth transition from wide-eyed aspiring ingénue who comes to New York to meet her idol to an on-stage rival who first learns the ropes from Darnley and then tries to tie her up in them.

The splendid company includes Jeremy Lawrence as the gruff, unflappable stage manager, Kraig Swartz as a hyperactive, finger snapping director and Catherine Curtin as the wise-cracking supporting player who specializes in playing drunkards who get laughs by stumbling around.

Bill Clarke's gritty backstage setting for the first act gives way to a stylish hotel suite with art deco flairs. Surrounding the play with a proscenium made up of black and white photos of classic actresses' eyes makes for an attractive picture, but the look suggests film stardom rather them 1920's Broadway. Introducing the second act with a recording of the 1956 hit "Que Sera Sera" is another head-scratching choice.

Perhaps anticipating an increased ticket demand with the presence of Emmy winner Johnston and film star Chlumsky (both of whom have extensive stage credits), the Mint opened this one at the Lucille Lortel instead of at their usual, smaller Off-Broadway home. The raucous laughter of delighted customers may warrant a move to an even larger house somewhere in the vicinity of Times Square.

Photo of Anna Chlumsky and Kristen Johnston by Richard Termine.

Follow Michael Dale on Twitter at michaeldale.

Posted on: Saturday, December 12, 2009 @ 05:35 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback


The Last Cargo Cult: Daisey Dukes

I seriously doubt if I'd ever describe a stage performance as being "literally explosive" but gosh darn it if Mike Daisey doesn't make the prospect tempting. If you've ever seen this uproariously funny, socio-politically-minded soloist in action you probably know what I mean since, even though he always performs extemporaneously -- guided by his hand-written notes rather than using a scripted text -- there's a standard look and style to his shows that remains consistent. He is always seated at a table, on which are his neatly piled pages of notes, a glass of water and a small towel for mopping up his ever-perspiring face. Daisey is a large man given to large physical gestures and extraordinarily broad facial expressions. The explosions come periodically, usually preceded by a calm, even-toned explanation of some diabolical system that a government agency or huge industry is using for personal gain at the expense of an unsuspecting public. Then, as he gets to the payoff, which is usually the comic climax of his point, boom! His voice bellows, his face crunches and his arms flutter as though panic, anger and madness are all finding ways to escape from his body. Then, as the audience roars with laughter, he placidly rests his elbows on the table, lightly touching his fingers together, and peacefully watches his listeners until the room is once again quiet.

This time around, The Public Theater is hosting Daisey's The Last Cargo Cult, directed by the writer/performer's decade-long collaborator (and wife), Jean-Michele Gregory. Global economy is the topic of the day, specifically comparing America's current financial woes with the everyday lifestyle of a remote South Pacific island named Tanna.

Occupied by American forces during World War II, Daisey informs us that Tanna -- believe it or not -- holds a yearly festival in celebration of American consumerism. One day a year this society with no monetary system of its own honors our cars, fast food, audio and visual technology and the rest of the cool stuff Americans are said to worship every moment of our existence.

Alternating between there and here, Daisey is at his most grim when speculating how stocks, bonds and derivatives have turned wealth and debt into fictional terms of astronomical proportions, specifically for the purpose of intimidating the little guy into leaving that complicated business to the experts. Lightening the mood are stories of his harrowing plane trip to Tanna and the unusual bond he forms with a pig.

Dealing with economy on a smaller, more tangible level, Daisey has ushers hand each audience member a piece of real, live American currency as they first take their seats. I got a buck, my guest got a twenty, the lady sitting next to me got a fiver and I understand there were even some hundreds circulating around. At the end of the evening Daisey tells us what we can do -- or, if we so choose, not do -- with our newly acquired wealth. For me, carrying a single, the decision was easy. Perhaps not so simple for those given a hundred. Times is hard.

Photo of Mike Daisey by Joan Marcus.

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Posted on: Wednesday, December 09, 2009 @ 01:30 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.