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Colin Quinn's Unconstitutional & The Trip To Bountiful


The Constitution is the only document you get more knowledge of it, the drunker you get.  Why?  It was written during a four month drunken binge. The bills from those days show thousands of dollars in wine, port, beer.  They were all drinking.

Colin Quinn’s politically sharp blue collar deconstruction of our national blueprint, Unconstitutional, is 70 hilarious minutes of plainspoken wit.  In these days when the most relevant interpretation of The Bill of Rights seems up for grabs, Quinn fuels the debate with the kind of common sense even Thomas Paine wouldn’t have concocted.

Beginning with the preamble (“’…in order to form a more perfect union.’  Not perfect.  That’s fine for other people.  ‘More perfect.’”) and working his way through the amendments (“Piss Christ?  Asshole move, but it’s covered.”) Quinn’s fast and furious rant, directed by Rebecca A. Trent, is enhanced by projections of the historic text, but you won’t want to remove your attention from the comic’s keen observations.

Though he sometimes tangents into questionably relevant gags involving pop culture celebs (“If Bruce Springsteen was really the working man’s musician why does he have a four and a half hour concert on a Tuesday night?”) Quinn is at his funniest when delving into subjects like the difference between free speech and accepted speech, the effectiveness of American presidents in proportion to how ugly they were and why Barack Obama feels it necessary to make jokes about himself.

As far as the right to bear arms is concerned… well, despite describing himself as “pro-gun” he isn’t exactly pro-NRA.  But you’re better off hearing that from Quinn himself.

Photo of Colin Quinn by Mike Lavoie.

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It wouldn’t be fair to say the new Broadway production of Horton Foote’s beautiful drama The Trip To Bountiful misses the mark, because director Michael Wilson was obviously aiming at a different target.  Less than eight years ago Lois Smith picked up every major award an Off-Broadway actress can get for starring in Signature Theatre Company’s emotionally thick production of the play.  But for Cicely Tyson’s return to Broadway after 30 years, Wilson seems to be going more for cozy warmth and charm.  Moving pathos is replaced by cute laughs.  If you’ve never seen a production of the play before there are plenty of reasons to expect to have a fine evening.  Wilson, after all, has developed an excellent reputation for interpreting the plays of Mr. Foote, having mounted exceptional New York productions of The Day Emily Married, Dividing The Estate and The Orphans' Home Cycle.  But if you’re aware of how enthrallingly powerful The Trip To Bountiful can be, his new staging might just not be enough.

Tyson plays elderly Carrie Watts, who has not seen her home town of Bountiful in twenty years and, given her current situation, will most likely never set foot again on the farm where she grew up. It's 1953 and her days are mostly spent sitting in the living room, which doubles as her bedroom, of her son Ludie's (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) small Houston apartment, looking out the window and watching the traffic race by while singing hymns to comfort herself.

An illness had kept Ludie out of work for two years, depleting his savings, and his new job doesn't pay enough to support himself and his wife, Jessie Mae (Vanessa Williams) without the help of Carrie's monthly pension. Needing her money, but frustrated by her continual presence, Jessie Mae tends to treat Carrie like a child, scolding her for running in the house and ordering her not to sing in her presence. ("You know what those hymns do to my nerves.")

So when her next pension check arrives in the mail, Carrie takes the opportunity to hide it until her chance to run off to the bus depot and buy her ticket home. With Ludie and Jessie Mae on her trail, fearing she might want to make good on her stated desire to live in Bountiful for the rest of her days, taking away the pension money they depend on, Carrie must fight her failing health and fading memory to reach her goal.

Tyson’s Carrie is a feisty woman who projects impish charm as she plots her getaway while pretending to adhere to Jessie Mae’s rules of the house.  And while her humorous performance gets plenty of laughs, what’s missing is any hint of the devastating loneliness the woman must be suffering as she spends her time separated from the place where she feels at home without anyone of her own age to connect with.  The scene where Carrie begs not to be taken back to Houston when she’s just made it to the town next to Bountiful makes little impact because it isn’t preceded by much of an emotional foundation.  Just before that moment comes a spot where, from what I’ve read and heard, audiences have been consistently singing along to Tyson’s choruses of “Blessed Assurance.”  Many were in full voice the night I attended and while the star wasn’t exactly waving a baton and yelling, “Everybody!,” the staging rather slyly doesn’t exactly discourage the audience participation.  It’s a memorable moment for Cicely Tyson but it doesn’t serve Carrie Watts very well.

Gooding and Williams play Ludie and Jessie Mae in a Walter Mitty fashion, with the henpecked husband finally standing up to the domineering wife before the final curtain.  What we don’t get is a strong sense of Ludie’s feelings of emasculation for being an adult still having to depend on his mother for income, nor Jessie Mae’s frustration in being denied the kind of life she expected to marry into.

The production’s most pleasing moments come in a scene featuring the fine stage veteran Arthur French as a helpful bus employee and in the sweet simplicity of the scenes between Tyson and Condola Rashad, who does lovely work as the young wife who Carrie meets in the bus station and becomes her travel buddy.  Since the play was not written with the intention of Carrie and her family to be played by black actors, subtle, unscripted reminders of the times are made by signs in the bus depot designating segregated sections and by having the pair riding in the back seat.

But the non-traditional casting sticks out when Tom Wopat enters as the sheriff looking to put a halt to Carrie’s journey and bring her back to Ludie.  The time, place and racial differences between them make the white man’s polite and respectfully cordial manner when addressing the elderly black woman seem unexpected.  His attitude is certainly not an impossibility, but something seems missing without at least an acknowledgement that this would not be considered the norm.

Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: Cicely Tyson and Condola Rashad; Bottom: Vanessa Williams and Cuba Gooding, Jr.

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Posted on: Friday, May 17, 2013 @ 06:47 PM Posted by: Michael Dale


I'll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers

“Gossip is the lube by which this town slips it in.”

That’s about the cleanest quip I can quote you from John Logan’s dishy I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers; a ninety minute solo piece that turns a visit with one of Hollywood’s first superagents into something resembling a stand-up comedy act, except the star stays seated on her comfy couch all night.

That star, of course, is Bette Midler; not in concert, but acting on Broadway for the first time since she last told Tevye to ditch the matchmaker because she wanted to marry Motel.

Not planning a brunch, but nevertheless lounging in her caftan, the conceit of the play has the woman who became one of the left coast’s most powerful career-molders (“Why be a king when you can be a kingmaker?”) finding her own career a bit on the skids.  It’s 1981 and after already losing some high-profile clients, she’s been informed by lawyers that her crown jewel, Barbra Streisand, will no longer be requiring her services.  Ensconced in designer Scott Pask’s sumptuous rendering of Mengers’ Beverly Hills home (It used to belong to Zsa Zsa Gabor, she tells us.) she waits for a phone call from the star herself.

Her love for movies developed when she was a little girl, learning English from Hollywood offerings after her Jewish family escaped to America from Hitler’s Germany.  (“That’s why I still talk like a gum-cracking Warner Brothers second lead.”)  The risk-taking attitude she acquired from dealing with anti-Semitic neighborhood kids served her well in her climb up the William Morris ladder.

As far as the dirt goes, there are plenty of anecdotes involving her professional dealings with names like Gene Hackman, Sissy Spacek, Faye Dunaway, Ali McGraw and Steve McQueen.  And the names of successful films Ms. Streisand turned down act as punch lines.

But I’ll Eat You Last is far more interesting when she’s describing how her profession fits into the off-screen machinations of the industry, particularly when describing the exclusive dinner parties she hosts, where alcohol-loosened tongues provide vital deal-making information.

As directed by Joe Mantello, Midler slips perfectly into the role of a bawdy fast-talking quipster.  Her comic sense is impeccable and her ingratiating star quality is the kind that sucks you in with the promise of a good time.  The blonde wig and oversized glasses she wears are authentically Mengers, even though they do make her look like a decadent Gloria Steinem.

Oh, and if you’re a good-looking gentleman sitting near the front… be prepared.

Photo of Bette Midler by Richard Termine.

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Posted on: Wednesday, May 15, 2013 @ 09:52 AM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback


Bunty Berman Presents...

If Betty Comden and Adolph Green were both born in Bombay, Singin’ In The Rain might have wound up resembling The New Group’s new musical, Bunty Berman Presents….  Not that Ayub Khan Din (book, music and lyrics) and Paul Bogaev’s (music) Bollywood-set musical comedy is on the same level as that masterwork, but the spirit of silly 1950s MGM hijinks abounds throughout the evening.  It’s got laughs, it’s got tunes and it offers a fun, mindless time.

Stepping in for another actor who was injured in previews, Din himself plays the title character, a legendary 1950s Bollywood filmmaker (“Wasn’t I the first producer to put six monsoons in one picture?”) who has been bombing as of late because his studio’s regular leading man, Raj (Sorab Wadia), has grown a bit old and flabby to play handsome young heroes.  Knowing that it would break his pal’s heart to fire him, Raj disappears, so Bunty makes a deal with infamous gangster Shankar Dass (Alok Tewari), who will finance his studio out of bankruptcy in exchange for making his son the new star.

But Raj reappears in various disguises to help train Saleem (Nick Choksi), the talented young flunky whose job is to serve everyone’s tea, to become the studio’s next star.  Saleem is anxious for the job because the leading lady, Shambervi (Lipica Shah), is his childhood crush from the old neighborhood, though she refuses to acknowledge that past life now that she’s a star.

While the book only lightly spoofs the Bombay film industry (An upcoming project is described as, “A story with a social conscience, ten songs and a spectacular dance with elephants.”), the show is crammed with old-fashioned belly laughs, the more than occasional groaner and some time-honored sexual puns.  (When Raj, disguised as “Fatima, the Blind Soothsayer of Sind,” starts referring to his balls… well, you know the bit.)  A few gags do give off an “Are they really doing this?” vibe, like the moment when Bunty and his cohorts disguise themselves as women completely covered in black burkas to secretly listen to the audience’s reaction to their new film, or when Raj pops out of one of his hiding places, an elephant’s anus.  (I’ll spare you the Mein Kampf joke.)

The fluffy lyrics are pleasant, if predictable, but the music really succeeds in capturing the spirit of 1950s Hollywood musicals.  The melodies of “Let’s Make A Movie” and “It’s Great To Wake Up In Bombay” are catchy as all hell.  There’s a nice bluesy torch song for Gayton Scott, who’s terrific as the button-down secretary with a thing for the boss (Yes, there’s a scene where she enters looking like a knock-out in a tight dress.) and an enchanting fantasy dance number for Choksi and Shah, who make for a charming pair of young romantics.

Given the circumstances, Din does well as Bunty but the role would work better with an actor with sharper presence and a stronger singing voice.  Wadia’s vain, but loyal Raj is a bundle of comic energy, performing even the silliest of routines with crackling timing and flair.

While The New Group’s Off-Broadway mounting, directed with traditional musical comedy buoyancy by Scott Elliot, is certainly entertaining, Bunty Berman Presents… would most likely benefit from a larger production that can replicate the overblown glamour of its setting.  But as it stand now, the show still delivers a fun night out.

Photos by Monique Carboni: Top: Ayub Khan Din and Company; Bottom: Nick Choksi and Lipica Shah.

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Posted on: Tuesday, May 14, 2013 @ 11:38 AM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback


Broadway Grosses: Week Ending 5/12/13 & Theatre Quote of the Week

"Music can name the unnameable and communicate the unknowable."

-- Leonard Bernstein

The grosses are out for the week ending 5/12/2013 and we've got them all right here in BroadwayWorld.com's grosses section.

Up for the week was: JEKYLL & HYDE (11.2%), THE TRIP TO BOUNTIFUL (9.2%), NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT (7.6%), JERSEY BOYS (7.0%), NEWSIES (6.6%), ORPHANS (6.5%), ROCK OF AGES (5.7%), ANNIE (5.0%), WICKED (2.6%), THE LION KING (2.4%), PIPPIN (2.1%), THE NANCE (2.1%), VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE (1.7%), ONCE (1.6%), THE BIG KNIFE (0.9%), LUCKY GUY (0.9%), CINDERELLA (0.8%), KINKY BOOTS(0.5%),

Down for the week was: MAMMA MIA! (-6.4%), MACBETH (-1.6%), SPIDER-MAN TURN OFF THE DARK (-1.5%), ANN (-1.2%), I'LL EAT YOU LAST: A CHAT WITH SUE MENGERS (-0.9%), THE ASSEMBLED PARTIES (-0.8%), THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (-0.5%), CHICAGO (-0.4%),

Posted on: Monday, May 13, 2013 @ 07:45 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback


Old-Fashioned Prostitutes (A True Romance)

I suppose Richard Foreman doesn’t have many talkbacks after performances of his plays because, really, how many times can you respond to an audience member asking, “What the f***?”

But then, he might regard such a question as a badge of honor.  Conventionality was never a strong point for this legendary playwright, director and designer.

Whether they realize it or not, Foreman’s work is often the template from which satirists would spoof the wildest forms of abstract, avant-garde theatre.  If you’ve seen his work before you probably know already if you’re interested in seeing Old-Fashioned Prostitutes (A True Romance).  If you haven’t, and you’re the sort who would like to be exposed to all that American theatre has to offer, I would strongly suggest a visit to The Public to see the work of an original who has lasted long enough to make his inventiveness seem almost cliché.

As with the other 50+ theatre pieces Foreman has created since founding the Ontological-Hysteric Theater back in 1968, Old-Fashioned Prostitutes provides a tapestry of visuals and sounds that enhance a mood rather than convey story.

The set, typically Foreman, is decorated with an eclectic mish-mash of objects, including framed glossy headshots, framed black boxes, candelabras, chandeliers, wires stretched the length of the stage and random letters painted in white on the black walls.

The text is primarily spoken in a weary southern monotone by Rocco Sisto, an actor who, fortunately, can command attention through a wealth of distraction.  His character is haunted by the words of a shabbily-dressed passer-by, "Go to Berkeley, make film.”

On the other side of the stage, two mindlessly coquettish prostitutes in flapper garb, played by Stephanie Hayes and Alenka Kraigher, ponder if the advice was not a reference to the California city, “But possibly the long dead Irish philosopher of idealism, Bishop George Berkeley himself, whose view of reality might be poetically re-imagined as a vision of the world in which experience itself was but a thin film, spread in illusionary fashion upon human consciousness.”

While they debate over that one, Nicolas Norena makes random entrances carrying various items such as a mirror, drums, flowers and an oversized playing card while dressed as the iconic advertising symbol, the Michelin Man.  (As Anna Russell would say, I’m not making this up, you know.)

A detached voice occasionally commands, “Hold it!”  At other times it lets out an, “Okay.”  An alarm clock buzzes, gunshots are heard and lights flare out into the patrons’ eyes.

At one point I faintly heard the voice of an operatic tenor vocalizing in the hallway and I honestly couldn’t figure out if it was part of the play or an actor preparing for another show.

Photos by Joan Marcus:  Top: Nicolas Norena and Rocco Sisto; Bottom: David Skeist, Alenka Kraigher and Stephanie Hayes.

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Posted on: Monday, May 13, 2013 @ 04:15 AM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback


How I Voted: Outer Critics Circle Awards

Yes, I know, it’s a secret ballot.  But heck, I spend all year telling you what I think so I may as well reveal how I voted for this season’s Outer Critics Circle Awards, the winners of which will be announced on Monday.

My votes are highlighted in bold, but remember, there are no write-in votes so my choices here may not necessarily reflect what I would pick as the best of the season.  After I cast my votes for the Drama Desk awards, I’ll be sharing those with you, too.

OUTSTANDING NEW BROADWAY PLAY
Grace
Lucky Guy
The Nance
The Testament of Mary
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike

OUTSTANDING NEW BROADWAY MUSICAL
Chaplin
A Christmas Story
Hands on a Hardbody
Kinky Boots
Matilda

OUTSTANDING NEW OFF-BROADWAY PLAY
Bad Jews
Cock
My Name is Asher Lev
Really Really
The Whale

OUTSTANDING NEW OFF-BROADWAY MUSICAL
February House
Dogfight
Giant
Here Lies Love
Murder Ballad

OUTSTANDING BOOK OF A MUSICAL
Cinderella
Chaplin
Dogfight
Kinky Boots
Matilda

OUTSTANDING NEW SCORE
Chaplin
Dogfight
Hands on a Hardbody
Here Lies Love
Kinky Boots

OUTSTANDING REVIVAL OF A PLAY
Golden Boy
Orphans
The Piano Lesson
The Trip to Bountiful
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

OUTSTANDING REVIVAL OF A MUSICAL
Annie
Cinderella
(Although I still insist this is a new musical.)
The Mystery of Edwin Drood
Passion
Pippin

OUTSTANDING DIRECTOR OF A PLAY
Pam MacKinnon Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Nicholas Martin Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
Jack O’Brien The Nance
Bartlett Sher Golden Boy
Michael Wilson The Trip to Bountiful

OUTSTANDING DIRECTOR OF A MUSICAL
Warren Carlyle Chaplin
Scott Ellis The Mystery of Edwin Drood
Jerry Mitchell Kinky Boots
Diane Paulus Pippin
Alex Timbers Here Lies Love

OUTSTANDING CHOREOGRAPHER
Warren Carlyle Chaplin
Peter Darling Matilda
Jerry Mitchell Kinky Boots
Josh Rhodes Cinderella
Chet Walker Pippin

OUTSTANDING SET DESIGN
John Lee Beatty The Nance
Rob Howell Matilda
David Korins Here Lies Love
Scott Pask Pippin
Michael Yeargan Golden Boy

OUTSTANDING COSTUME DESIGN
Amy Clark & Martin Pakledinaz Chaplin
Gregg Barnes Kinky Boots
Dominique Lemieux Pippin
William Ivey Long Cinderella
William Ivey Long The Mystery of Edwin Drood

OUTSTANDING LIGHTING DESIGN
Ken Billington Chaplin
Paul Gallo Dogfight
Donald Holder Golden Boy
Kenneth Posner Cinderella
Kenneth Posner Pippin

OUTSTANDING ACTOR IN A PLAY
Tom Hanks Lucky Guy
Shuler Hensley The Whale
Nathan Lane The Nance
Tracy Letts Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
David Hyde Pierce Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike

OUTSTANDING ACTRESS IN A PLAY
Tracee Chimo Bad Jews
Amy Morton Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Vanessa Redgrave The Revisionist
Joely Richardson Ivanov
Cicely Tyson The Trip to Bountiful

OUTSTANDING ACTOR IN A MUSICAL
Bertie Carvel Matilda
Santino Fontana Cinderella
Rob McClure Chaplin
Billy Porter Kinky Boots
Matthew James Thomas Pippin

OUTSTANDING ACTRESS IN A MUSICAL
Lilla Crawford Annie
Valisia LeKae Motown
Lindsay Mendez Dogfight
Patina Miller Pippin
Laura Osnes Cinderella

OUTSTANDING FEATURED ACTOR IN A PLAY
Danny Burstein Golden Boy
Richard Kind The Big Knife
Jonny Orsini The Nance
Tony Shalhoub Golden Boy
Tom Sturridge Orphans

OUTSTANDING FEATURED ACTRESS IN A PLAY
Cady Huffman The Nance
Judith Ivey The Heiress
Judith Light The Assembled Parties
Kristine Nielsen Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
Vanessa Williams The Trip to Bountiful

OUTSTANDING FEATURED ACTOR IN A MUSICAL
Will Chase The Mystery of Edwin Drood
Dan Lauria A Christmas Story
Raymond Luke Motown
Terrence Mann Pippin
Daniel Stewart Sherman Kinky Boots

OUTSTANDING FEATURED ACTRESS IN A MUSICAL
Annaleigh Ashford Kinky Boots
Victoria Clark Cinderella
Charlotte d’Amboise Pippin
Andrea Martin Pippin
Keala Settle Hands on a Hardbody

OUTSTANDING SOLO PERFORMANCE
Bette Midler I’ll Eat You Last
Martin Moran All the Rage
Fiona Shaw The Testament of Mary
Holland Taylor Ann
Michael Urie Buyer & Cellar

JOHN GASSNER AWARD
(Presented for an American play, preferably by a new playwright)
Ayad Akhtar Disgraced
Paul Downs Colaizzo Really Really
Joshua Harmon Bad Jews
Samuel D. Hunter The Whale
Aaron Posner My Name is Asher Lev

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Posted on: Sunday, May 12, 2013 @ 09:18 AM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback


On Your Toes

Five months…  FIVE MONTHS after their previous musical comedy, Jumbo, opened at the Hippodrome, the trio of Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart and George Abbott had a brand new one at the Imperial.  But far from seeming a rush job, their 1936 On Your Toes can easily be argued to be a huge step forward in refining musical comedy into a sophisticated art form.

After making his musical theatre debut as co-director of Jumbo, George Abbott, who as a director and bookwriter would become a major force in taking the humor of Broadway musicals from specialty bits performed by well-known comics to something that naturally evolved from the plot and characters, collaborated with R&H on his first book, using the then up-to-the-minute theme of how American jazz was still struggling for acceptance from “serious” classical institutions.  On Your Toes concerns a childhood song and dance vaudevillian, Junior Dolan, now a grown up music professor for the WPA, who tries to get a jazz ballet composed by one of his students performed by a prestigious Russian dance company.  But when the lead male dancer can’t adjust to the new syncopation, the former hoofer jumps in to save the day, though he winds up dancing for his life during the premiere while trying to avoid a hit man’s bullet.

The Rodgers and Hart score, a divine assemblage of wit and tenderness set to showtune, Broadway jazz and imitations of more cultured tones, sets a fine example of how the scores of musicals were growing more character specific.  Two of the more jaggedly syncopated numbers are meant to be examples of the songwriting skills of the musical’s ingénue, Frankie Frayne (who has a crush on the professor) and are filled with jaunty quips like, “It’s got to be love. / It couldn’t be tonsillitis. / It feels like neuritis / But nevertheless it’s love,” and “They fly the clouds to come through with air mail. / The dancing crowds look up to some rare male / Like that Astaire male.”  But when Frankie sings her own emotions as part of the plot, they come out in a simpler voice.  Her duet with Junior, “There’s A Small Hotel,” is a lovely example of plainspoken sincerity and her second act solo, “Glad To Be Unhappy” is a torch song kept on a demurely low flame.

In contrast, Rodgers writes a light minuet as a duet for arts philanthropist Peggy Porterfield and Russian dance impresario Sergei Alexandrovitch that gets its title from twisting FDR’s fireside chat promise of a better life for the average man.  Hart’s lyric derives punch lines from worldlier issues like psychoanalysis, elective surgery and reproductive rights.  (“Lots of kids for a poor wife are dandy, / Girls of fashion can be choosy. / Birth control and the modus operandi / Are much too good for the average floozy.”)

But, of course, what On Your Toes is known for is the ballets that end each act.  Rodgers composed La Princesse Zenobia in the style of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, but Slaughter On Tenth Avenue is a striking composition based on multiple jazz themes – comical, sensual and frantic – that ranks up there with Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue as a great American orchestral piece.  George Balanchine, the first ever to be credited as the choreographer of a Broadway musical (“dance directors” were commonly used to simply supply steps) is said to have taken great joy in spoofing his Russian roots for Zenobia (The Bolshoi Ballet, which was in town during the musical’s run, took out an ad in the program that proclaimed, “Only The Great Deserve The Darts of Satire.”) but Slaughter, the story of a sensual dance hall encounter between a strip-tease artist and a customer that turns violent, is a masterful achievement in musical theatre dance; illuminating the show’s theme of American popular arts evolving in complexity.  Though both ballets can stand as individual pieces, Balanchine and the bookwriters incorporated events from the plot that spill into their performances, thus making them an essential part of the storytelling.

But what makes On Your Toes a perfect selection for the Encores! concert series is the chance to hear Hans Spialek’s extraordinary orchestrations; one of the 75 sets he created for Broadway, including the original productions of Anything Goes, Pal Joey and Where’s Charley?  Under Rob Fisher’s baton, the 29-piece Encores! orchestra impersonates vaudeville pit musicians, a rousing big band, a chamber ensemble and a grand ballet orchestra.

Putting up a concert version of any musical with the limited amount of rehearsal time the unions specify is a difficult task, so while you can nitpick about details of director/choreographer Warren Carlyle’s production, the fact that so much is done so well is a reason to celebrate.  Those familiar with Slaughter will recognize the Balanchine staging replicated by Susan Pilarre, assigned to the task by the late choreographer’s trust, but Carlyle mounts the rest, including an austere and regal Zenobia and the third major choreographed moment, a freewheeling challenge routine between American tappers and Russian pointe dancers, which is loaded with some dazzling inventiveness.

The lead role of Junior has been traditionally played by dancers with a knack for the eccentric (Ray Bolger originated the part and Bobby Van and Lara Teeter starred in Broadway revivals.), but Shonn Wiley, a fine performer, comes off more as a traditional juvenile and his comic moments fail to pop out.  (It doesn’t help that Zenobia’s major sight gag involving Junior’s body makeup is altered to a far less effective bit.)  Still, he sings with charm when paired with Kelli Barrett’s spunky Frankie.

Christine Baranski’s dry urbane way with wit fits perfectly into her role as a wealthy patron of the arts, especially when delivering the book’s most famous punch line, a reaction to Junior’s inquiry as to whether a good man can love two women at the same time.  The thickly accented Walter Bobbie is delightfully snooty as Sergei and the trio of Karen Ziemba, Randy Skinner and Dalton Harrod get the evening off to a rousing start, singing and tapping as mom and pop Dolan and Junior as a lad.

Encores! raids the professional ballet ranks for the show’s two non-singing dance roles.  In her first speaking part on stage, Irina Dvorovenko of American Ballet Theatre seems to be having a grand time as Vera Baronova, the Russian diva who flirts with Junior to infuriate her cheating lover, comically tempting him with her droll accent and sinewy sensuality.  Her dancing shines with charisma, as does that of Joaquin De Luz who wows the patrons with his shirtless athleticism in Zenobia while playing her arrogantly masculine other half.

Meanwhile, almost exactly one year after On Your Toes opened, Rodgers and Hart opened Babes In Arms, with a score containing five songs that are still today considered classics of the American Songbook.  Maybe we’d have better musicals on Broadway if people didn’t spend so much time writing them.

Photos by Joan Marcus:  Top: Shonn Wiley and Irina Dvorovenko; Bottom: Christine Baranski and Walter Bobbie.

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Posted on: Sunday, May 12, 2013 @ 12:34 AM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback


I'm A Stranger Here Myself & The Testament of Mary

Mark Nadler is one of those cabaret performers who serves up his entertaining antics with healthy portions of art education and history lessons.  In I’m A Stranger Here Myself, now transplanted from its nightclub roots to the York Theatre stage, Nadler gives a frequently fascinating overview of the pre-Hitler period known as the Weimar Republic; Germany’s first democracy and a haven for individualists and eroticists who gleefully indulged in a period of artistic freedom.

This is no dates and facts textbook lesson but more of an exploration of the emerging attitudes of the era that gives context to the music and lyrics left behind.  Nadler uses Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s “The Bilbao Song” to wax nostalgically about a rowdy, inclusive nightlife culture that gave way to bland bourgeois repressiveness.  Though he wears a yellow boutonnière on his lapel with a folded pink handkerchief peeking out of his pocket, a continual reminder of the oppression to come, he’s not just singing about Germany.  Parallel to his Weimar stories he also tells of his own journey from being an Iowa-raised lad to a young Greenwich Village piano player at the famed Five Oaks, a now defunct piano bar that boasted an atmosphere he compares with 1920s Berlin.  Frederick Hollander’s “Oh, How We Wish That We Were Kids Again” sets the mood as Nadler explains how, “We glorify that time in our lives when we were young and broke.”

Weill takes center stage for much of the narrative.  Nadler imagines the satisfaction it must have given him, once arriving in America, to be able to collaborate with Howard Dietz on a song like “Schickelgruber,” which not only spoofed the rise of the fuehrer, but teased him with his actual last name.  But there was also the deep sadness he felt in being separated from his wife, Lotte Lenya, who, not being Jewish, remained in Germany where she took on several lovers.  Though it was Maurice Magre who wrote the words for “Je Ne T’Aime Pas” (“I Don’t Love You”), Nadler suggests Weill’s music for the song expressed his feelings about his marriage.

Hollander’s “Oh, Just Suppose” has a coy lyric about imagining a homosexual relationship, and Nadler goes out into the audience to make sure the meaning of the song comes across, but in a more serious vein he marvels at the courage it took for Mischa Spoliansky and Kurt Schwabach to write “The Lavender Song," a protest anthem demanding gay rights, in 1920.

The running theme throughout the show, for both the German artists and for Nadler himself, is taken from Hollander’s lyric, “I don’t know who I belong to, I believe I belong to myself, all alone,” stressing the conflict between individualism and the comfort of assimilation.  At one point he talks of the young boys who joined the Nazi movement and passionately insists, “I refuse to believe that every one of these kids was a monster.  They just wanted to belong.”

Franca Vercelloni on accordion and Jessica Tyler Wright on violin help provide period texture and director David Schweizer’s production features an upstage screen where Justin West’s projections of photos and film clips illuminate the lecture.   A particularly powerful moment comes when we see a sequence of names and faces of some of the artistic and scientific geniuses that escaped the Nazis to make great contributions to humanity, suggesting that the Weimar years nurtured what would have been a glorious era for German culture had Hitler not chased them away.

Photo of Mark Nadler by Carol Rosegg.

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Fiona Shaw’s depiction of a Jewish mother practically reached Molly Goldberg proportions when she flung both hands in the air and rolled back her eyes in sarcastic reverence to, “my son and his followers.” Of course, those who were expecting a more traditional portrayal of the mother of Jesus Christ most likely abandoned all hope once she took out a joint to calm her nerves.

Colm Tóibín’s stage adaptation of his novella, The Testament of Mary, which sadly closed last week despite a Best Play Tony nomination, never mentions her son by name, though we all knew who she was talking about.  “Something will break in me if I say his name,” she concludes.

Director Deborah Warner gave audiences a sneak peek at a familiar vision of the BVM by allowing them on stage for a pre-performance art installation where the actress was sitting in a plexiglass display case, perfectly still as a wax figure in a humble, biblical pose, only slightly upstaged by the live vulture (named Pinhead) perched nearby.  But once the patrons were seated, this Mary emerged from her enclosure as a theatre character created from thinking outside of the box.

The Playbill told us the time of the play was “Now,” so the protagonist has had quite a bit of time to stew over her child’s place in history.  An inserted brochure explained the setting as a home in what is now Turkey where Mary was taken after the crucifixion to live out her life, which set designer Tom Pye revealed as contemporary biblical.

Though grief-stricken by the death of her son, she is also infuriated with those (again, never directly identified, but we know) who visit her daily and encourage her to confirm a version of his time on earth that’s consistent with the message they want to convey.  “A group of misfits,” she calls his followers.  “Only children, like himself.”

The ninety minute monologue is her considerably less-miraculous view of the events that highlighted those thirty-three years, such as the resurrection of Lazarus and the turning of water into wine.  As proven in her last Broadway outing, Medea, Shaw is an actress who can whip up furious intensity – vocally, physically and emotionally – that teeters at the edge of believability without plunging into falseness, which she used here as a rail against a situation where Mary believes her son fell in with a fanatical group that raised him up to be their pawn.

But while the subject of the piece is attention-grabbing, the text itself was continually overshadowed by the star’s performance and the director’s high concept.  Though certainly an exciting evening, it was more about the passion of the actress than the passion of Christ.

Photo of Fiona Shaw by Paul Kolnik.

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Posted on: Thursday, May 09, 2013 @ 02:46 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback


Song of Norway & The Broadway Musicals of 1972

The popularity of the Broadway operetta was fading away when Song of Norway hit town in post-Oklahoma! 1944, but its two-year run proved there was still an audience for legit singer/actors performing classical melodies.

Nearly ten years before they adapted and added lyrics to the music of Alexander Borodin to create the score for Kismet, Robert Wright and George Forrest pulled the same trick for Song of Norway with the music of 19th Century Norwegian composer, Edvard Grieg, who is best known to American musical comedy fans as the guy who wrote the love theme for Rosemary and J. Pierrepont Finch’s first kiss.  (For the record, he called it the Piano Concerto in A-Minor.)

Milton Lazarus’ book, which most often gets blamed for the show’s lack of post-Broadway longevity, tells a fictional tale based on the composer’s actual life.  Beginning in Norway, his closest companions are his sweetheart and eventual wife, Nina, and poet Rikard Nordraak.  (In real life Nordraak was also a composer and would write his country’s national anthem.)  Though Grieg and Nordraak agree to collaborate on a loving composition for their homeland (A “Song of Norway,” if you will.) the young composer keeps setting aside the assignment as he becomes the pet project of a wealthy benefactor who promotes his career by taking him to meet the great musical artists of Europe.

Roger Rees trimmed the book to its barest essentials for The Collegiate Chorale’s charming one-night Carnegie Hall concert performance, allowing the sumptuous music to take center stage; provided by the 71-year-old vocal ensemble and the American Symphony Orchestra, both under the golden baton of Ted Sperling.  Ballet dancers from Tom Gold Dance admirably performed within a very limited space.

The soloists included several Broadway favorites.  Jason Danieley, as Nordraak, began the evening in rousing fashion with “The Legend” and was soon after joined by Santino Fontana and Alexandra Silber, as Grieg and Nina, for the unusual love trio, “Hill of Dreams” where the flirtatious young lady revels in being the inspiration for both young artists and the two pals don’t seem to mind.

Wearing elaborate designs by Han Fong, Judy Kaye was grandly comical and vocally thrilling as the grande dame who exposes Grieg to the high life.  As socialite Count Peppi LeLoup, David Garrison delivered smarmy elegancy in a funny number about being a bon vivant.  And it was delightful to see Walter Charles and Anita Gillette in the small roles of Grieg’s parents.

Jim Dale nimbly and humorously narrated the evening and played a few small roles.  When it was introduced that he would be playing the role of Henrik Ibsen, he turned to the audience and advised, “Use your imagination.”

Photos by Erin Baiano: Top: Jason Danieley, Alexandra Silber and Santino Fontana; Bottom: Judy Kaye and Ted Sperling.

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1972 was a bit of a brutal year for Broadway musicals.  Of the 19 new shows that opened that year, nine of them didn’t make it past the first week.  Another four couldn’t make it to 25 performances.  The transfer of Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, after enjoying four and a half years Off-Broadway, shut down after seven weeks at the Royale.  More encouraging was the fate of Melvin van Peebles’ allegorical Don’t Play Us Cheap, which opened in the spring and made it into autumn.

But when musicals succeeded that year, they made history.  Grease became, for a time, Broadway’s longest running production.  Pippin’s television commercial changed the way Broadway shows were marketed.  Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope, an urban review focusing on contemporary black issues, ran for over 1,000 performances and was mounted by Broadway’s first African-American female director, Vinnette Carroll.  And while Sugar didn’t make history, the musical version of Some Like It Hot satisfied those seeking some traditional musical comedy with its Jule Style/Robert Merrill score and a crowd-pleasing star turn by Robert Morse.

So while Town Hall’s Broadway Musicals of 1972, the latest of creator/writer/host Scott Siegel’s 13-year-old Broadway By The Year series, was stocked with favorites from a couple of well-known hits, there was still room for some rarely-heard obscurities in the one-night concert directed by Mindy Cooper and music directed, as always, by Ross Patterson.

The Broadway By The Year Chorus, an ensemble directed by Scott Coulter and made up of performers at the early stages of their careers, was featured in energetic stagings (choreographed by Vibecke Dahl) of “Magic To Do,” “Summer Nights” (with soloists Graham Bailey and Jenna Dallacco) and “We Go Together”, and played the attentive youths for Patrick Page’s sage advice in “No Time At All.”

Earlier in the evening, Page and Carolee Carmello were matched for the delightfully wry, “Miserable With You,” a duet from the revue of Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz ditties titled That’s Entertainment.  (Which had nothing to do with the 1974 MGM film.)  Carmello, an extraordinary lyric interpreter, gave a thrilling rendition the dramatic ballad, “All Of My Life” from Ambassador, a show that had a brief run on the West End before coming to Broadway for an even briefer run.

First rate musical theatre clown Christopher Fitzgerald added some cute nervous stammers to Pippin’s “Extraordinary,” belted a courageous “Corner Of The Sky” and he and Danny Gardner sang and danced Sugar’s “Penniless Bums” as a comical vaudeville bit.  The charming Gardner also choreographed his own routines for Via Galactica’s “Dance The Dark Away” (performed with Brent McBeth and Derek Roland) and That’s Entertainment’s “How High Can a Little Bird Fly?”

The tender-voiced Bob Stillman introduced three folk/rock selections, Via Galactica’s “Home,” Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope’s “So Little Time” and “Stars of Glory” from The Selling of The President, a song that Siegel explained was included to pay tribute to the heroes of the recent tragic events in Boston.

Perky Lysistrata Jones star Patti Murin did fine jobs with Pippin’s “Without You” and two Grease numbers, “Freddy, My Love” and “There Are Worse Things I Can Do,” but for “It’s Raining on Prom Night” Broadway’s original Sandy, Carole Demas, made a special guest appearance, wearing a plain robe for the number, but removing it to reveal a smashing gown for her makeover reprise of “Sandra Dee.”  At 72 years of age she looked and sounded just terrific.

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Posted on: Monday, May 06, 2013 @ 05:37 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback


Broadway Grosses: Week Ending 5/5/13 & Theatre Quote of the Week

"Actors are rogues and vagabonds. Or they ought to be."
-- Helen Mirren

The grosses are out for the week ending 5/5/2013 and we've got them all right here in BroadwayWorld.com's grosses section.

Up for the week was: THE TESTAMENT OF MARY (4.9%), VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE (4.7%), THE RASCALS: ONCE UPON A DREAM (3.8%), NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT (2.8%), MAMMA MIA! (2.6%), THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1.8%), CHICAGO (1.7%), KINKY BOOTS (1.6%), LUCKY GUY (0.7%), MOTOWN: THE MUSICAL(0.1%),

Down for the week was: THE TRIP TO BOUNTIFUL (-16.9%), THE BIG KNIFE (-11.5%), MACBETH (-6.1%), SPIDER-MAN TURN OFF THE DARK (-5.4%), CINDERELLA (-5.4%), JEKYLL & HYDE (-4.9%), ROCK OF AGES (-3.7%), WICKED (-3.4%), THE NANCE (-3.2%), JERSEY BOYS (-2.8%), NEWSIES (-2.5%), ANNIE (-2.4%), THE LION KING (-2.2%), ONCE (-2.1%), PIPPIN (-1.6%), ANN (-0.9%), ORPHANS (-0.8%), I'LL EAT YOU LAST: A CHAT WITH SUE MENGERS (-0.6%), THE ASSEMBLED PARTIES (-0.2%),

Posted on: Monday, May 06, 2013 @ 04:11 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback


Jekyll and Hyde

Quite appropriately, Jekyll and Hyde is one of the most polarizing musicals ever to hit New York.  Despite running well over three and half years in its initial 1997 Broadway run, Frank Wildhorn and Leslie Bricusse’s pop rock adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic horror tale of a young scientist who uses himself as the guinea pig in an experiment to separate the good and evil in man and then proceeds to murder those who called him mad is regularly mocked as a prime example of Broadway ineptitude.  And yet the show maintains a loyal following of fans that are no doubt thrilled at its return.

At the performance I attended of director/choreographer Jeff Calhoun’s new mounting, a road company that’s making a stop at the Marquis, the majority of the audience seemed to be offering polite levels of applause while pockets of fans throughout the theatre cheered enthusiastically.  (To be fair, at curtain calls there was the obligatory Broadway standing ovation for the stars.)

And while I’m not denying the possibility that someone can be a connoisseur of the finer details of Lerner and Loewe classics and Cole Porter obscurities and also have a great affinity for the show that Gerard Alessandrini called, “for people who find Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music too complicated,” my completely unscientific experience indicates that Jekyll and Hyde is one of those musicals that gathers much of its following from people who typically don’t go to musicals on a regular basis.

Its pre-Broadway popularity was nurtured in a premiere production in Houston, a national tour and two popular concept albums featuring high-belting power ballads with lyrics that don’t seem overly concerned with being specific to characters and situations, let alone making a good deal of sense.  (“This is the moment. / This is the time / When the momentum and the moment are in rhyme.)  Aside from its original Broadway star, the very fine theatre singer/actor Robert Cuccioli, Jekyll and Hyde tends to be cast with performers better known for vocal gymnastics and displays of passion – motivated or not – than detailed lyric interpretation.

Calhoun’s competent mounting shouldn’t change anyone’s mind about the piece.  Set and costume designer Tobin Ost and lighting designer Jeff Croiter team up to give the stage a look resembling a night out at one of those unmarked Brooklyn clubs on its weekly Victorian Goth night.  In the title roles, Constantine Maroulis comes off as a skinny hipster dude a little too in touch with his feelings.  Wildhorn’s music starts emotionally big and keeps the star at that level, like he’s singing an evening of 11 o’clock numbers, and Maroulis admirably performs his assignment of singing his face off all night.  The one let down is that the musical’s (Dare I say it?) iconic number, “Confrontation,” where the actor traditionally tosses his hair from side to side as good and evil… confront… each other, is instead staged with Maroulis remaining as Jekyll as the good doctor’s portrait is transformed through video and recorded vocals into Hyde.

By comparison, the musical’s leading lady role – Lucy, the singing prostitute – is more of a supporting part.  Deborah Cox benefits from getting to sing some of the score’s prettier melodies, but what can you really accomplish with lyrics like, “A new dream. / I have one I know that very few dream. / I would like to see that overdue dream…”  Teal Wicks also puts in a game effort as the sweet Emma, who certainly deserves a prize as the world’s most understanding fiancé.

The script has been trimmed and the score has been revised with cuts and additions.  Lucy’s new nightclub number, “Bring On The Men,” attempts to display the character as more of an erotic performer, but the intended sexiness of the production is broadly telegraphed instead of internally developed and falls miserably flat.  Much of the time, Calhoun stages numbers with the “stand there and sing” technique, making the musical appear more as a concert than any attempt at drama.

And that’s probably how Jekyll and Hyde works best.  Neither chilling, romantic nor even campy, the thrills of the show lie more in whatever excitement the performers can manufacture by singing loud and high.  And if that’s your thing, then by all means help yourself to, as Bricusse puts it, “all the dreaming, scheming and screaming.”

Photos by Chris Bennion:  Top: Constantine Maroulis; Bottom: Constantine Maroulis and Deborah Cox.

Click here to follow Michael Dale on Twitter.

Posted on: Friday, May 03, 2013 @ 02:57 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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