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Broadway Grosses: Week Ending 9/9/12 & Theatre Quote of the Week


 

"The curtain will never go down on New York City." -- Broadway-related commercial airing shortly after 9/11

 

The grosses are out for the week ending 9/9/2012 and we've got them all right here in BroadwayWorld.com's grosses section.

Up for the week was: CHAPLIN (18.8%), MAMMA MIA! (6.0%), THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (5.8%), PETER AND THE STARCATCHER (5.5%), EVITA (5.1%), PORGY AND BESS (4.1%), NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT (4.0%), SPIDER-MAN TURN OFF THE DARK (3.7%), CHICAGO (2.7%), JERSEY BOYS (1.8%), ONCE(0.9%),

Down for the week was: BRING IT ON THE MUSICAL (-10.5%), WICKED (-8.7%), MARY POPPINS (-6.0%), NEWSIES (-5.5%), ROCK OF AGES (-3.5%), WAR HORSE (-1.6%), THE LION KING (-0.5%), GORE VIDAL'S THE BEST MAN (-0.2%),

Posted on: Monday, September 10, 2012 @ 03:31 PM Posted by: Michael Dale


Forbidden Broadway: Alive and Kicking

Before a grade-school backdrop depicting heathery hills, a pair of confused theatre-goers struggle with an outdated map of Broadway while an offstage chorus sings, “Brink of doom, Brink of do-om,” and before you can say “Come ye to the spoof,” the cast of Forbidden Broadway: Alive and Kicking is promising that, “Just like Jesus and Judy Garland, we’re resurrected again.”

Gerard Alessandrini's ever-updated madcap revue satirizing the current Broadway musical scene has had other hiatuses since the show was first conceived in 1982, but the recent three-year absence seemed to mirror the emptiness that was felt in the New York theatre community when The Fantasticks was forced to close, before having the original production remounted uptown at the Snapple.  Like the Jones/Schmidt musical, Forbidden Broadway feels like an indispensible part of this town, like the Empire State Building… or at least Marie’s Crisis.

What began as an intimate nightclub entertainment featuring a company draped in formal wear has evolved through the years into a loud, wacky stage show boasting comical costumes and frequently vicious celebrity impersonations.  But the basics have never varied; two men, two women and a piano player gleefully making bloody carnage of Broadway’s hits through Alessandrini's clever and critical parody lyrics.  And while a great love for the theatre is always prevalent, the material can get somewhat nasty when the author addresses those who soil the stage with what he considers to be inferior artistry or overly commercial crassness.

This time around the strongest venom seems reserved for Book of Mormon writers Trey Parker and Matt Stone (Bobby Lopez got a free pass, I guess.), depicted as a pair of smarmy punks who thumb their noses at the Church of Sondheim to cash in on vulgarity (“And I believe / That ancient Jews like Richard Rodgers didn’t write very good musicals.”), with enough left over for Evita’s Elena Roger, described as having an “utter lack of star quality” and hoping that New York audiences would think she’s Chita Rivera.  (“And if ever it goes too high / I distract you and flash my thigh / And use my thin soprano.”)

Roger is mimicked by Jenny Lee Stern, who is just smashing in her many celebrity aliases.  While certainly not the first Forbidden actress to portray Bernadette Peters, her imitation of the star’s voice at this stage of her career (“In Stephen’s ears / I’m still on key a lot.”) is both precise in its vulnerability and loving in its presentation.  She tackles familiar FB targets like Patti LuPone and Sutton Foster with aplomb and is hilariously deadpan as Cristin Milioti.  But perhaps her most interesting turn comes in a very straightforward, non-comical impersonation of Judy Garland singing lyrics critical of Tracie Bennett’s over-the-top End of The Rainbow portrayal.  (“You made me loony. / I wish you hadn’t done it. / I wish you hadn’t done it.”)

Opposite her LuPone and Roger is Marcus Stevens as an attention-hungry Mandy Patinkin desperately emoting through roles he’s outgrown (“My boy Bill / Should be forty by now…”) and a hip-swiveling Ricky Martin playing Broadway to pay for his kids’ braces and school supplies.  His most impressive bit of hilarity is a copy of Matthew Broderick’s unique mannerisms in “Nice Song If I Could Sing It.”

His Kelli O’Hara in that bit is Natalie Charlé Ellis, lamenting the star’s lack of comedic chops (“The laughs are on a roll / But not with me.”), but that’s no problem for her, as evidenced by her Tony-greedy Audra McDonald and musically-challenged Catherine Zeta-Jones.  (“Send In The Hounds”)

Scott Richard Foster is the rocker specialist, with his highlights including an angsty Steve Kazee, an out-of-control Stacee Jaxx from Rock of Ages celebrating the less-refined side of Broadway (“We filled this city with NASCAR shows”) and a frustrated Bono, who, in an especially inspired move, sings a certain, very appropriate Guys and Dolls duet with Ellis’ Julie Taymor.

Another inspired moment has Stephen Sondheim expressing his “Agony” from watching the Central Park production of Into The Woods while Donna Murphy echoes the sentiment for having to perform in a tree costume.  (Hmm… “Someone In A Tree” might have been a nice choice for that spot.)

Longtime Forbidden Broadway director Phillip George keeps the show at its usual brisk and silly pace and music director David Caldwell, also a vet of the show, provides the peppy on-stage piano accompaniment.  For fifteen years the brilliant Alvin Colt costumed the show before his death in 2008.  One of his classics, The Lion King’s Rafiki, accessorized in plastic spoons and Disney souvenirs, remains with the show.  Philip Heckman’s new designs are less cartoonish than his predecessor’s, but still charming and effective.

As can be expected with any production of Forbidden Broadway, some bits are more smile-inducing than laugh-out-loud funny (The Annie routine stretches its one joke too thin and the spoof of Norm Lewis’ octave-jumping, melody-changing performance in Porgy and Bess doesn’t quite hit its mark because the singer doesn’t seem to be instructed to do enough of what the lyric is describing.) but the production is always so meticulously mounted and executed that even during slower moments there’s always the feel of something very funny about to happen.

Smash and Newsies also figure in the mix, as do revived routines spoofing Wicked and Jersey Boys, but the new Bring It On seems to have been egregiously overlooked.  Perhaps it will leap into the proceedings after one or two recently closed shows have been axed.  Same goes for the upcoming Chaplin.

The new entry is billed as a limited run.  Let’s hope it’s the same kind of limited run Newsies had planned.

Photos by Carol Rosegg:  Top: Jenny Lee Stern and Scott Richard Foster; Bottom: Marcus Stevens and Scott Richard Foster.

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Posted on: Friday, September 07, 2012 @ 12:06 AM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback


Broadway Grosses: Week Ending 9/2/12 & Theatre Quote of the Week

 

"There is an art to playing the straight role. You must build up your man but never top him, never steal the laughs."

-- Margaret Dumont

The grosses are out for the week ending 9/2/2012 and we've got them all right here in BroadwayWorld.com's grosses section.

Up for the week was: NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT (26.1%), CLYBOURNE PARK (6.5%), WICKED (5.7%), GORE VIDAL'S THE BEST MAN (5.4%), PETER AND THE STARCATCHER (3.8%), CHAPLIN (3.6%), EVITA (3.1%), BRING IT ON THE MUSICAL (2.6%), PORGY AND BESS (2.1%), ONE MAN, TWO GUVNORS (1.9%), SPIDER-MAN TURN OFF THE DARK (1.6%), ROCK OF AGES(0.9%),

Down for the week was: MARY POPPINS (-8.8%), THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (-5.8%), MAMMA MIA! (-4.3%), ONCE (-2.2%), JERSEY BOYS (-1.2%), CHICAGO (-0.9%), NEWSIES (-0.2%), WAR HORSE (-0.1%),

Posted on: Tuesday, September 04, 2012 @ 02:16 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback


Broadway Grosses: Week Ending 8/26/12 & Theatre Quote of the Week

“Humor is reason gone mad.”

 -- Groucho Marx

The grosses are out for the week ending 8/26/2012 and we've got them all right here in BroadwayWorld.com's grosses section.

Up for the week was: ONE MAN, TWO GUVNORS (9.2%), CLYBOURNE PARK (8.4%), GORE VIDAL'S THE BEST MAN (6.0%), PORGY AND BESS (3.1%), SISTER ACT (2.8%), ROCK OF AGES(1.1%),

Down for the week was: NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT (-14.3%), MARY POPPINS (-8.6%), PETER AND THE STARCATCHER (-6.4%), SPIDER-MAN TURN OFF THE DARK (-5.6%), MAMMA MIA! (-4.6%), BRING IT ON THE MUSICAL (-4.1%), THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (-2.9%), WICKED (-2.6%), EVITA (-2.0%), CHICAGO (-1.0%), JERSEY BOYS (-0.9%), ONCE (-0.7%), WAR HORSE (-0.7%), NEWSIES (-0.2%),

Posted on: Monday, August 27, 2012 @ 07:31 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback


Bring It On: Blithe Spirit

Reviewing mindless fun can be dangerous terrain.  In the first half of the last century magnificent wits like P.G. Wodehouse and George S. Kaufman wrote the books for mindlessly fun musical comedies showcasing scores by the likes of Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart and the Gershwins that invented a new sophistication in American music and lyrics.  The plots may have been silly, but the mindless fun of 1920s and 30s (Of Thee I Sing, Anything Goes, The Boys From Syracuse for starters) was often literate and inventive.

But nowadays, it seems common for “mindless fun” to be used as an excuse for less-than-inspired writing mounted and designed with lots of professional polish and performed with talent and gusto.  And when those mean ol’ New York theatre critics suggest that the material could stand to be a bit stronger, they’re chastised with the claim that their lack of enjoyment comes from an inability to just kick back and have fun.  Or even worse, someone will say, “It’s just a musical, not Shakespeare.”

The artists who wrote the bit of mindless fun now playing at the St. James, Bring It On, have previously been responsible for three of the brightest musical theatre offerings Broadway has seen in this young century.  Tom Kitt is the Pulitzer Prize and Tony winning composer of Next To Normal, an audacious musical about a family dealing with one member’s bipolar disorder.  Lin-Manuel Miranda won a Tony for his music and lyrics for the Pulitzer finalist In The Heights, a musical that applied traditional Rodgers and Hammerstein techniques to a contemporary story set in a Latino community of Washington Heights, with a score utilizing the sounds of a beautiful mosaic of cultures.  Jeff Whitty’s Tony-winning book for Avenue Q united a score full of novelty and satirical songs into a very human story told in the form of a television show that teaches twentysomethings the realities of post-college life in the style of Sesame Street.  And while Amanda Green has no Tony or Pulitzer to her credit, her career as a lyricist has displayed a talent for the kind of breezy intelligence you’d expect from the offspring of Adolph Green.

The news that this quartet has collaborated on a new Broadway musical should be a huge deal.  The further news that the score to their musical involving two very different high schools will be split by having Kitt and Green write for the predominantly white school and Miranda write for the predominantly black and Latino school should be credited as a bold and innovative move.  And yet Bring It On, though not a bad show at all, is not a particularly interesting one.  That said, it’s probably exactly the musical its creators intended it to be and will most likely be greatly enjoyed by the audience it’s intended to please.

The title comes from the 2000 film depicting the world of competitive high school cheerleading, but the story is new; though familiar and predictable.  Perky Campbell (Taylor Louderman) achieves the first half of her dream of becoming cheer captain of white, upper middle class Truman High and leading her squad to victory at the nationals, but a sudden redistricting of her neighborhood has her transferred to urban Jackson High.  Also redistricted is the chubby and gregarious Bridget (Ryann Redmond), who finds that the qualities that regulated her to outcast status at Truman make her popular with the cool kids at Jackson, but Campbell’s attempt to fit in by suggesting she help create a squad for the cheer-less Jacksonians is seen as a patronizing attempt by the skinny blonde white girl to help the underprivileged minorities.  Instead of a cheer squad, Jackson has a hip-hop dance crew, led by the tough, but emotionally guarded Danielle (Adrienne Warren), the slang-spewing Nautica (Ariana DeBose) and the confident and sassy transsexual La Cienega (Gregory Haney).  (In the upbeat world of Bring It On, La Cienega seems completely accepted by the entire student body and the worst abuse Campbell suffers is being called “Cream of Mushroom” and “Chicken Noodle.”)

Meanwhile, back at Truman, the popular diva Skylar’s (Kate Rockwell) role as new cheer captain is endangered by shy sophomore Eva (Elle McLemore), who turns out to be an Eve Harrington with lots of school spirit.  (But she’s never referred to as an Eve Harrington in the script.  This is not a Douglas Carter Beane musical.)

Eventually Campbell earns the trust of her Jackson schoolmates and they do form a squad to compete against Truman.  I suppose I’m not giving too much away by revealing that the losing team loses because they stayed true to themselves and played by their own rules (instead of, um, the rules of the competition) so really, everybody wins.

Close to every member of the Bring It On cast is making his or her Broadway debut, which can be expected when the show demands the kind of specialized cheerleading skills required.  Choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, making his Broadway debut as a director, keeps his cast flying and flipping through their numerous routines, which are fun to watch, but after initially introducing the styles of the competing schools, do little to keep the story moving.   And perhaps the need for people who can execute the routines is the reason why much of the cast seems to be lacking in the acting and performing departments.  Whitty’s book seems sufficiently funny but much of the company plays their broad-stroke characters without the details needed to bring out its comic potential.  Nobody’s bad, but expect more raw talent and youthful enthusiasm than stage savvy.

Kitt’s pop rock melodies get overshadowed by the more interesting urban mix composed by Miranda, but Green’s lyrics – when they’re not overwhelmed by the hyper-active staging – contain some smart comic gems.  (“My name is Skylar, I rep the Bucs with pride / I’m probably too cool for you, so friend request denied!”)  A second act rouser that has Eva celebrating her killer instinct stands out as a refreshing blast of old school musical comedy.  (“I’m the girl to beat, the high school queen! / Seniors kiss my ass and I’m just fifteen!”)

No doubt the amount of room needed for the twisting leaps and high kicks is the reason David Korins’ set consists primarily of easy-to-move projection screens, where video designer Jeff Sugg supplies some clever moments.  If nothing else, this will be known as the first Broadway musical to have scenes take place as video-projected Skype conversations.

Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: Adrienne Warren and Taylor Louderman; Bottom: Ariana DeBose, Ryann Redmond and Gregory Haney.

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Posted on: Monday, August 27, 2012 @ 03:21 AM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback


Playing With Fire

The latest addition to the growing genre of stage adaptations of plays by the great masters that scale their sources down to a collection of indecipherable scenes that are just trying their darndest to be erotic is Playing With Fire, The Private Theatre’s environmental/multi-media combo that is rumored to have something to do with August Strindberg.

I could use up a paragraph explaining the plot of the evening’s same-named source – an 1893 comedy of a love and sex triangle – but really, none of it is the least bit recognizable in Royston Coppenger’s clichéd stylized adaptation featuring language that has the actors continually sounding like they’re speaking in italics.

There’s no program, so it’s hard to tell which of the 14 actors is playing who, especially since they all take turns during the performance in playing the piece’s six characters.  Let’s just say there’s a lot of talk about sex and love alternating with scenes of seduction and a good deal of clothes-on dry humping.  For the record, the only nudity I caught was one bare breast, but there are lengthy periods of under-the-clothes fondling accompanied by very heavy breathing. 

But where Playing With Fire succeeds nicely is in creating a fun, atmospheric environment well-suited for enjoying a cocktail or two.  The Box, a venue known for its late night erotic vaudevilles, is a lovely jewel box, looking like a miniature one-balcony opera house.  The least expensive tickets give you one drink and standing room at the back bar and at the higher end there’s table service up front that includes a bottle of champagne.  Although there’s a stage, director John Gould Rubin places the action all over the space so nobody gets a full view of everything, but video designers Ian Brownell and Raj Kottamasu have four camera operators following the actors so that the entire piece is visible on monitors.

With composers Kwan-Fai Lam and Sam Kindel supplying a techno soundscape and Bronwen Carson providing some frenetic, sexed-up choreography, there’s always something to grab your attention, either on the screen or inches away from you.  And at merely an hour long, Playing With Fire manages to sustain a flame bright enough to get you through the closing credits.

Photo by Lilly Charles.

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Posted on: Thursday, August 23, 2012 @ 02:52 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback


Kritzer Girl?

So it was just announced that top shelf musical comedy performer Leslie Kritzer will be joining the cast of NEWSical on the same night Perez Hilton joins the cast.  I wonder…  Will this nationally known entertainment blogger be so impressed by the audaciously funny girl with the thrilling belt that he starts mentioning to his countless readers how sublime she’d be starring in a certain Fanny Brice bio-musical?  (With him as Nick, of course!)

Posted on: Tuesday, August 21, 2012 @ 04:31 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback


Feminine, Without The Mystique

Watching Phyllis Diller on TV when I was a kid, I didn't really get what she was doing (beyond being funny), but in an era when women were required to be of a certain level of attractiveness to be on television, Phyllis Diller embraced the fact that by unrealistic media standards she was unattractive and sexually undesireable and made herself the butt of her humor. She showed herself as a happy person who was comfortable with the way she looked and maybe that helped other women who didn't fit that mold feel happy with their own looks. She didn't hide the fact that she wore wigs and got a face lift; she owned it. And in doing all that she achieved something higher than being considered attractive and sexy. She was beloved.

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Click here for the latest example of how Eve Ensler is, quite simply, one of the most important writers of my lifetime.

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Posted on: Monday, August 20, 2012 @ 10:55 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback


Broadway Grosses: Week Ending 8/19/12 & Theatre Quote of the Week

“People came (to Hello, Dolly!) expecting me to do my shtick, but I played it straight.”

-- Phyllis Diller

 

The grosses are out for the week ending 8/19/2012 and we've got them all right here in BroadwayWorld.com's grosses section.

Up for the week was: WAR HORSE (14.1%), END OF THE RAINBOW (10.4%), GHOST (5.9%), CLYBOURNE PARK (2.9%), BRING IT ON THE MUSICAL (2.6%), PORGY AND BESS (2.4%), THE LION KING (1.1%), EVITA(0.7%),

Down for the week was: SISTER ACT (-8.1%), PETER AND THE STARCATCHER (-6.6%), SPIDER-MAN TURN OFF THE DARK (-6.5%), NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT (-5.6%), CHICAGO (-4.7%), WICKED (-4.1%), THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (-3.9%), GORE VIDAL'S THE BEST MAN (-3.7%), MAMMA MIA! (-2.6%), ONCE (-2.4%), JERSEY BOYS (-1.5%), ROCK OF AGES (-1.2%), MARY POPPINS (-0.9%), NEWSIES (-0.1%), ONE MAN, TWO GUVNORS (-0.1%),

Posted on: Monday, August 20, 2012 @ 07:21 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback


Harrison, TX: Three Plays by Horton Foote

Has there ever been a father/daughter theatrical combo that sets off sparks like when Hallie Foote acts in the plays of her father, the great Horton Foote?  For Primary Stages, she’s been heartbreaking as the emotionally repressed title character in The Day Emily Married and downright hilariously self-centered in Dividing The Estate.  Now, in the company’s package of three Foote one-acts titled Harrison, TX, she and Andrea Lynn Green open the evening with crackling comic chemistry that’s firmly grounded in reality.

As with most of the playwright’s work, all three pieces take place in Harrison, Texas, a fictional version of his childhood home, Wharton, where he grew up listening to a family full of story-tellers amusing each other with gossip and news.  Set in 1928, Blind Date has Hallie Foote as Dolores, a former beauty queen trying to cure her young niece, Sarah Nancy (Green) of her lack of success with potential suitors, despite the fact that the independently-minded Sarah Nancy clearly has no interest in traditional courtship, or in the boys who come a-calling.  To prepare for a visit from the hopeful Felix (Evan Jonigkeit), Dolores tries coaching her on a list of questions to ask her potential beau, because boys like girls who can have a conversation.  (“Who is going to win the football game next Friday?”  “What is the best car on the market today, do you think?”)

Well-experienced in keeping her spirits up, Dolores remains peppy and upbeat despite her mounting disappointment in Sarah Nancy’s sullen, deadpan disinterest, and the continual interruptions of her helpless and hungry husband Robert (Devon Abner), frustrated that she’s not making his dinner.  The date with Felix is a disaster until the pair winds up ditching conventions and starts being themselves.

Also set in 1928, The One-Armed Man, is a tense drama; not typical fare for Foote.  Alexander Cendese plays a mentally unstable man who worked for a cotton merchant (Jeremy Bobb) until his arm was severed by a picking machine.  He makes weekly visits to the boss’ office demanding his arm be returned.  The annoyed owner offers him $5 a week to stop bothering him with his irrational demand but this time the title character intends to settle the debt his way, once and for all.

The evening ends with the kind of quiet, character study Foote is more known for.  Set in 1952, The Midnight Caller takes us to a boarding home populated by the decidedly girlie “Cutie” Spencer (Green, in a nice reversal from her previous role), the easily-annoyed moralist Alma Jean (Mary Bacon) and the clever and gregarious retired schoolteacher, Rowena (a happily charming Jayne Houdyshell).

The comfortable uneventfulness of their lives is interrupted when the owner (Foote) rents rooms to two new boarders, the divorced Ralph (Bobb) and Helen (Jenny Dare Paulin), a introverted woman disowned by her mother for her relationship with a drunkard (Cendese) who starts desperately calling for her outside the home every evening at midnight.

Ralph’s desire for female company and the scandal created by Helen’s suitor brings up issues of loneliness and morality that affects each character in different ways.

Under Pam McKinnon’s gentle and sensitive direction, the three very different pieces are united by the theme of traditional ideas of class and morality being challenged; sometimes rationally, sometimes not.  The simple elegant design is highlighted by Marion Williams' wood-paneled set that quickly converts into three different interiors.  Graced by an exceptional acting ensemble, Mr. Foote’s modest trio makes for an extremely satisfying time.

Photos by James Leynse: Top: Andrea Lynn Green and Hallie Foote; Bottom: Jayne Houdyshell and Jeremy Bobb.

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Posted on: Saturday, August 18, 2012 @ 05:39 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback


Into The Woods: Nice Is Different Than Good

When Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s moralistic take on traditional European fairy tales, mostly penned by the brothers Grimm, last hit town in a major production, it was April of 2002.  The city was still very much rattled by the events of the past September, but a positive spirit was growing from our observances of acts of heroism surrounding us.

Still, the question that haunted many Americans at that time was, “Why do they hate us?” as the country grew less confident in the traditional belief that we have always been the world’s good guys.  It was during this uncertain time that Broadway audiences watched a childless baker and an abandoned Cinderella comfort an orphaned pair of children, Red Riding Hood and Jack, of beanstalk fame, with a quiet lullaby that summarized the second act’s theme of the subjectivity of right and wrong.

“Witches can be right.  Giants can be good.  You decide what’s right.  You decide what’s good,” instructs the lyric of “No One Is Alone,” as they prepare to kill an enemy whose only offense is the desire for justice against the boy who stole her property and murdered her husband.

There are many such discomforting moments in the often-brilliant text of Into The Woods.  Little Red Riding Hood is depicted as a precocious child who disobeys her mother’s instructions because the cunning wolf brings out early pangs of pubescent sexual awareness she’s too young to understand or control.  An elderly woman is impulsively killed in an attempt to keep her from acting in a manner that was putting her community in danger and the person who killed her defends himself to those who might have died if not for his actions by saying he was thinking of the greater good.  A wife cheats on her husband when a handsome prince arrives, only to be dumped the next morning and left to debate the morality of stepping out of your vows, just for a moment of fantasy fulfillment.

In America, our fairy tale culture is most familiar as presented by the Walt Disney Company, which tells us that wishes come true.  Lapine and Sondheim caution us that, “Wishes come true, not free.”

The new Delacorte production of Into The Woods is New York’s first high-profile mounting not directed by its bookwriter, Lapine.  Co-directors Timothy Sheader and Liam Steel have based this one on their Regent's Park Open Air Theatre production, though with a new cast and new design elements it’s not exactly a copy of what played in London.  And while it’s always nice to have new ideas and new interpretations injected into old favorites – and New York audiences have learned a lot in recent years about how our British friends like to inject new ideas and new interpretations into our musicals – “nice,” as Sondheim has Red Riding Hood sing, “is different than good.”

In many ways, it is a perfectly nice production, featuring a talented company of actors and several delightful surprises.  Someone who has never seen the musical before, and who appreciates serious-minded and literate musical comedy, would certainly find it a worthwhile evening just for the sake of being exposed to the material.

But “good” would be a production that allows for the intimacy needed for Sondheim’s intricate, razor-sharp lyrics and Lapine’s fantasy-deflating dialogue to pull the audience in. The Delecorte’s large stage and semi-circular arena style seating is not the kind of space designed for rapid wordplay, especially when set designers John Lee Beatty and Soutra Gilmour place a vertical maze of trees – making up stairways, walkways and a tower – so far upstage that the actors lose any connection with the audience during the numerous scenes played there.  And even when playing further downstage, Ben Stanton’s too dim lighting made facial expressions difficult to take in, even from my second row seat, until the brightness was finally turned up for the bows.  In what seems to be an attempt to cover all angles of the stage, ensemble scenes are so spread out that it’s often difficult to tell who is singing or speaking solo lines.  This Into The Woods may be heard, but it isn’t felt.

This is an actor’s musical, but more thought seems to have gone into stagecraft.  It is very impressive stagecraft, though.  The beanstalk created out of green umbrellas is rather fun, as is the puppetry involved in creating the giant (voiced by Glenn Close), though choosing to have the giant wear glasses does raise a question about the feasibility of the story’s ending.  And the technique used to climb up Rapunzel’s hair would probably be quite enjoyable to see, if I could see it.

Sheader and Steel have thrown a hodge-podge of ideas into the text, many of them very entertaining, though not all of them make complete sense.  The most daring move was to change the character of the narrator from a grown man to a contemporary young boy, perhaps around 12, who, by way of a brief prologue, we find has run away from home to some wooded rural area.  Perhaps as a way to alleviate his fears, he takes an assortment of dolls out of his knapsack and begins reciting the story of a baker and his wife who could not bear children because the witch next door placed a curse on their family as punishment for an act of theft.  To lift the curse they must deliver to her, "the cow as white as milk, the cape as red as blood, the hair as yellow as corn, and the slipper as pure as gold.”  This task, of course, leads to encounters with Jack, Little Red, Rapunzel and Cinderella, as they lie, steal, double-talk and deceive in order to be blessed with a child.

The second act, which deals with the cost of having wishes come true, is presented as a nightmare the child is having while sleeping outdoors on the wood chips.  Those familiar with the show may question if that choice is consistent with what the book eventually tells us about the narrator character.  Nevertheless Noah Radcliffe, who alternates in the role with Jack Broderick, has a fine stage presence and a strong, clear singing voice.

Costume designer Emily Rebholz, who makes Cinderella’s step-family look like club kids from Boy George’s Taboo, dresses Sarah Stiles’ Little Red Riding Hood as a sort of punked out biker chick.  A very talented and funny performer, Stiles plays the role broadly in a boisterous little girl voice and gets her laughs.  Having the role played by an adult allows for some graphic comedy between Red and the wolf (a lusty and macho Ivan Hernandez, dressed like he’s about to go on a road tour of Hair), such as the scene where the wolf eating Red is presented to mean that he’s giving her oral sex, but not having the role played by an actual little girl, as was done in the musical’s two Broadway productions, takes away Red’s naïve inquisitiveness about her sexual awakening, which is written so charmingly and subtly into her lyrics.

As the baker’s wife, Amy Adams shows some strong singing pipes but she’s barely playing a character, reducing a role that’s loaded with witty moments into a bland, humorless cipher.  As her husband, Denis O’Hare seems almost too grounded in a grim reality, though he does play his familiar pattern of flatly speeding through lines sprinkled with sudden blasts of emotion.

Donna Murphy’s witch is designed to look like a human tree, but her impressive costume pretty much leaves one of Broadway’s top comical leading ladies unable to perform, buried under a concept. 

Fortunately, Chip Zien’s Mysterious Man costume allows the ingratiating actor free reign to work his gently humorous charms.  The original baker in the musical’s initial run, Zien captures the spirited mixture of urban sophistication and innocence that makes Into The Woods work.  His skillful touch with the material will make you believe the magical kingdom is an upper west side apartment with a view of the Hudson and within the delivery range of Zabar’s.

Photos by Joan Marcus:  Top: Donna Murphy and Tess Soltau; Bottom: Sarah Stiles and Ivan Hernandez.

Posted on: Thursday, August 16, 2012 @ 08:09 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.

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