Showtime!

Showtime! features reviews, commentary and assorted theatrical musings from Michael Dale, BroadwayWorld.com's Chief Theatre Critic. To submit amusing backstage banter, absurd audience observations or noteworthy links to Showtime!, click here. Anonymity's guaranteed. My not taking credit for your clever remark isn't.


     Print  Newest Entry

Kinky Boots & Pretencion: Un Cirque De Burlesque, Un Burlesque De Cirque


A musical theatre rookie named Harvey Fierstein once made history with seasoned vets Jerry Herman and Arthur Laurents creating Broadway’s first musical that offered a leading gay couple in a serious long-term romantic relationship.  Though La Cage aux Folles remains a fairly standard by-the-numbers musical, it seemed revolutionary at its time for telling a progressive tale of gay acceptance as a by-the-numbers musical.

Thirty years and a few bookwriting stints later, Fierstein now teams up with another seasoned musical theatre vet, Jerry Mitchell, and rookie Cyndi Lauper for a by-the-numbers musical that seems, to the credit of society’s growing open-mindedness, by-the-numbers.  Kinky Boots is a sweet, fun and flashy enterprise that showcases the sizzling talents of Billy Porter in his first Broadway starring role, but underneath the glitz there’s some heartfelt exploration of a topic La Cage didn’t quite get to; the acceptance of another’s lifestyle when it goes beyond the privacy of their closed door and becomes a visual part of your everyday life.

Based on the 2005 British film, the main, albeit far less showy character, is played by Stark Sands, who pretty much heads the short list of people capable of going from a Tony-nominated performance in a 1928 British war drama to starring in a Green Day musical.  As Charlie Price, Sands’ impressive dramatic chops are rarely tested, playing the nice guy at the center of a story dominated by more interesting characters until he’s alone on stage for a dramatic 10:45 number, which is shortly followed by Porter’s 11 o’clocker.

Northhampton-born Charlie has no interest running the family shoe manufacturing business but nevertheless takes on the task after his father’s passing, mostly out of concern for the employees he’ll have to let go if he can’t turn the skidding sales around.  A chance meeting with London drag performer Lola (Porter) – who, unlike La Cage’s Albin, dresses in feminine attire off stage as well – leads him to the discovery that the fabulous footwear worn by male cross-dressers is rarely made sturdy enough to support their bodies.  Hence, a partnership is born, with Lola designing the title apparel (realized with showbiz flair by costume designer Gregg Barnes) which Charlie races to have ready for a big upcoming show in Milan.

Away from her safer London environs, Lola encounters the type of close-mindedness you might expect when she arrives at the factory, especially from a burley fellow (Daniel Stewart Sherman) who, perhaps feeling his own masculinity is compromised by this new presence in his workplace, challenges her to a boxing match, not knowing she’s a professionally trained pugilist.  But the twist to this situation is that Lola is only scorned for her gender identity and not for whatever one may assume to be her sexual orientation.  Fierstein himself has been quoted as saying that the character is straight, reinforcing a scripted line where Lola assures Charlie that the potential customer base for his boots is much larger than what he would expect.  The eventually blow-up that nearly dissolves their association occurs when Charlie begins to fear that Lola’s appearance may make him look foolish in front of his industry colleagues.  Sexual orientation is never expressed as an issue.

Porter (who for the record, has been quoted as saying that his character is gay) makes Lola a lusciously playful icon of flamboyant elegance who, like Sampson shorn of his locks, loses his emotional strength when dressed in traditional male attire.  His powerful vocals feast on Lauper’s celebratory pop anthems (“Sex Is In The Heel”) and more tender reflections (“I’m Not My Father’s Son”), but his musicality seamlessly extends into the dialogue, granting captivating comic nuance to proclamations like, “You’re going to have to start manufacturing sex. Two-and-a-half feet of irresistible tubular sex.”

Lauper’s best theatre song is a character-driven comic soliloquy, “The History of Wrong Guys,” delivered with sparkling timing and pathos by Annaleigh Ashford, perfectly delightful as the spunky employee who shyly hides her crush on the boss.

Peppy dance club style ensemble numbers like the first act closer, “Everybody Say Yeah,” give director/choreographer Mitchell a chance to stage the kind of high-energy kinetic expressions of joy he’s known for, especially when the working rhythms of the factory blend with the showgirl glam of Lola’s singing, dancing and emergency shoe modeling Angels (Paul Canaan, Kevin Smith Kirkwood, Kyle Taylor Parker, Kyle Post, Charlie Sutton and Joey Taranto).

Kinky Boots will not be another history-making musical, as its message about social change reflects the growing societal norm far more than La Cage did thirty years ago, but the talents of Fierstein, Lauper and Mitchell complement each other so well that a simple evening of solid, professional musical theatre is elevated into a rousing, and even tear-jerking, kick-ass time.

Photos by Matthew Murphy: Top: Billy Porter; Bottom: Annaleigh Ashford and Stark Sands.

**************************************************

With the lovely ladies and dashing gents who display their physical charms being the focus of New York’s current burlesque scene, it’s easy to forget that the art form sprouted from roots of lowbrow ridicule of serious highbrow culture, so it’s rather refreshing to see Pinchbottom’s new burlesque showcase, Pretençión: Un Cirque De Burlesque, Un Burlesque De Cirque, spoof the spectacles presented by the current occupants of the Citi Field parking lot.

Written and co-directed (with Jeremy X. Halpern) by the princely Burlesque Mayor of New York, Jonny Porkpie (who I understand is running for the real thing this year), the inspired silliness eschews contortionists and trapeze artists for a top-shelf collection of burly-q entertainers merrily romping through their tantalizing antics.

Like most Cirque du Soleil shows there’s a plot and like most Cirque du Soleil shows it’s rather vague and really doesn’t matter.  But that’s the point.  The characters involved, the routines they perform and the styles they wear represent a combination of Porkpie’s creation, the work of various designers and the stage personas and performances the cast members are already known for in the burlesque circuit.

The elegant strip-teaser Tansy, decked out in a nutty Folies Bergere-inspired gown and wig by Machine Dazzle, slaps on a thick Parisian accent and plays a ringmistress who mourns for the loss of her burlesque show’s pretençión.  (“When we show our boobs, we do so without irony!”)  She’s especially upset for her Pagliacci-like clown, Tiggo’s loss of pomposity.  Tiggo is played by boylesque star Tigger!, who spends most of the evening nearly nude, making maniacal split-second conversions from nymphomania to reclusiveness and back again.

Porkpie himself, as an erudite magician who eventually finds an excuse to take off his clothes, offers to lead them to the one person who can help; The Dramaturg, who resides in The Land of – you guessed it – Pretençión.

Helping to guide them is a magical Fairy, gleefully played in Billie Burke style by jazz/blues singer Broadway Brassy, whose terrific vocals are, alas, underutilized.  Coming along for the ride is Mr. Showbiz Himself, Mr. Murray Hill, dishing out the snazzy wisecracks.

Each performance also includes featured appearances by a handful of guest burlesque artists, whose routines are somehow or another squeezed into the narrative.  A mention of the creature that guards Summit of Cirque was a cue for Jo “Boobs” Weldon to do her enticing Godzilla routine.  (She’s assisted by Ivory Fox and Lilly Hayes, who also serve as silent arty types.)  The evening I attended, the lineup also included popular favorites Angie Pontani, Dirty Martini, Julie Atlas Muz (who doubles as an annoying mime) and Lux La Croix.  Other guests who may pop in include Fancy Chance, Little Brooklyn, Mat “Sealboy” Fraser and Trixie Little & The Evil Hate Monkey.

Pretençión frequently calls to mind the glorious ridiculousness of Charles Ludlam, with its stylish overacting and winking tackiness.  And with the revolving cast and freewheeling atmosphere, it’s safe to say you’ll never know exactly what to expect.

Photos by Allen Lee:  Top: Tansy and Jonny Porkpie; Bottom: Tigger! and Broadway Brassy.

 Click here to follow Michael Dale on Twitter.

Posted on: Monday, April 15, 2013 @ 10:11 PM Posted by: Michael Dale


Broadway Grosses: Week Ending 4/7/13 & Theatre Quote of the Week

"I am continually fascinated at the difficulty intelligent people have in distinguishing what is controversial from what is merely offensive."

-- Nora Ephron

 

The grosses are out for the week ending 4/7/2013 and we've got them all right here in BroadwayWorld.com's grosses section.

Up for the week was: THE TESTAMENT OF MARY (5.7%), THE NANCE (1.9%), ANN (1.0%), LUCKY GUY(0.2%),

Down for the week was: HANDS ON A HARDBODY (-22.7%), THE TRIP TO BOUNTIFUL (-17.6%), VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE (-14.2%), BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S (-14.1%), SPIDER-MAN TURN OFF THE DARK (-14.0%), CHICAGO (-12.6%), NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT (-11.2%), MAMMA MIA! (-8.7%), CINDERELLA (-8.2%), ANNIE (-7.3%), JERSEY BOYS (-6.8%), ROCK OF AGES (-6.2%), ORPHANS (-6.1%), ONCE (-3.8%), THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (-3.6%), PIPPIN (-3.2%), THE BIG KNIFE (-1.5%), WICKED (-1.3%), KINKY BOOTS (-0.5%), NEWSIES (-0.4%), THE ASSEMBLED PARTIES (-0.1%),

Posted on: Monday, April 08, 2013 @ 08:39 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback


Lucky Guy

In a time when discussions of rape culture and the possibility of the media slanting rape coverage against accusers are controversial subjects in our national conscious, its rather fortunate timing that the highest profile play of the Broadway season involves a New York tabloid reporter whose career was defined by two headline-making rape cases.

In 1994 the Daily News published a column by Mike McAlary stating that, according to his NYPD source, a Jane Doe who claimed to have been raped in Prospect Park two days earlier was suspected of making the story up to help draw attention to her upcoming speech at a rally denouncing violence against gay men and lesbians.  The woman sued McAlary and the Daily News for 12 million dollars as the public debated the boundaries of free speech, the responsibility of the press and the feasibility of libel existing against someone whose identity is hidden.

His career might have faded away if he hadn’t gained an exclusive hospital bedside interview with Haitian immigrant Abner Louima, as he was recovering from wounds suffered while being raped by police in a racially motivated incident.  His coverage would earn him a Pulitzer Prize awarded only months before he succumbed to colon cancer at age 41.

A full-length play about either of those cases, or even a single piece that compared the significant differences between the two, could have made for riveting drama.  But the late Nora Ephron, who passed on before Lucky Guy went into rehearsals, is a writer best known for cinematic love letters, and while her bio-drama about McAlary doesn’t ignore the warts, it is in whole a love letter to a fellow Gotham journalist (She spent 5 years as a reporter for the New York Post) and to the ink-stained romanticism of the tabloid newspaper industry.

The boys club atmosphere of New York Newsday, The New York Post and The New York Daily News, the city’s three tabloid papers (The Times is dismissed as, “a serious paper.  Fuck it!”), is represented by a kind of Greek chorus led by news editor Hap Hairston (Courtney B. Vance), columnist Michael Daly (Peter Scolari) and managing editor John Cotter (Peter Gerety).  Actually, in spirit they’re more of an Irish chorus, first seen getting snockered at a friendly tavern while engaged in a loud chorus of “Wild Rover.”  The excellent collection of supporting actors in the large ensemble also includes Christopher McDonald as lawyer Eddie Hayes, Maura Tierney as McAlary’s wife and Richard Masur doubling as editors Jerry Nachman and Stanley Joyce, but none of them are asked to stretch their acting muscles very far in roles that primarily serve to move the narrative along or to dole out information about the lucky one.

Jimmy Breslin is spoken of in much-revered tones but never appears on stage, despite a mention that at one point he’s in the same tavern as the newsmen.

As McAlary himself, Tom Hanks seems more of a sentimental choice, given his past association with the playwright – not to mention a commercial one – than a case of ideal casting.  The actor’s talent for representing a sweet, decent everyman is put to its best use in a scene where he’s trying to get quotes from a frightened, suspicious source by convincing him that he’s the good guy reporter who will make sure his side of the story gets heard, but he’s not as convincing as the hard-nosed, tough-guy journalist whose creased, mustachioed mug and tough-guy swagger helped make a name for himself during the gritty Koch years before becoming a familiar symbol of the city’s Dinkins/Giuliani decade.

Part of his challenge is that the text only gives him a tabloid version of the man to play with.  Perhaps Ephron would have deepened her portrait (like “a serious paper” would) if she had a chance to make revisions during previews, but Lucky Guy sprints through a dozen or so years like a highlight reel, covering his rise from police beat reporter, his near death while drunk driving, his insistence that his did the right thing regarding Jane Doe and his determination to get the Louima story while going through chemotherapy.  Mentioned, but significantly underdeveloped, is the reporter’s unique relationship with the New York Police Department, especially regarding the officer who committed suicide shortly after talking with him about corruption in the 77th precinct, which would be the subject of his controversial book, Buddy Boys.

But the exceptional work of director George C. Wolfe, best known for painting broad, colorful and atmospheric stage pictures for plays like Angels In America and The Normal Heart, places the evening in a vivid, fast-moving, attitude-infused New York of 25 years ago, particularly realized by David Rockwell’s kinetic set, Scott Lehrer’s period sound and headline-screaming projections by Batwin-Robin Productions, Inc.

The evening is certainly entertaining, with choice Ephron zingers enhancing the acerbic mood, but the play is less a biography of McAlary than a nostalgic look at the last gasps of the pre-Internet newsroom.  Near the end of the second act, a character acknowledges how cable television has changed the way the public gets their news.  If he only knew what was coming…

Photos by Joan Marcus:  Top: Stephen Tyrone Williams, Deirdre Lovejoy and Tom Hanks; Bottom:  (top row) Tom Hanks, Richard Masur and Dustyn Gulledge (bottom row) Peter Gerety, Andrew Hovelson and Brian Dykstra.

Click here to follow Michael Dale on Twitter.

Posted on: Saturday, April 06, 2013 @ 04:57 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback


Hands On A Hardbody: They Shoot Documentaries, Don't They?

“Don’t make any judgments. / Let the players play,” sing the characters of Hands On A Hardbody out to an audience sitting in seats priced at what might be the same amount as the weekly unemployment checks some of them are struggling to survive on.

There’s a discomforting freak show aspect to the ambitious new musical by Doug Wright (book), Amanda Green (music and lyrics) and Trey Anastasio (music), but it’s the dramatically interesting kind of discomfort that makes the lip of the stage an uneasy barrier between us and them.

Though the actors at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre display more teeth, healthier physiques and clearer eloquence than the actual people filmed in S.B. Bindler’s 1997 documentary about an annual publicity stunt held at an East Texas car dealership, the text continually reminds us that with a few bad breaks any of us might find ourselves in a situation where we opt to swallow our pride and make a show of our hardship for a chance to make things just a little better.

As in the dance marathon depicted in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, the contest is a winner-take-all test of endurance and sleep deprivation meant to attract curious onlookers who might be tempted into making a purchase.  The lucky randomly drawn contestants (24 in real life but only 10 in the musical) must keep at least one hand on a red Nissan pickup without leaning on it or squatting to rest their legs.  They get a 15 minute break every six hours (The documentary mentions an additional 5 minute break every hour which is not included in the musical.) and the last one standing with a hand on the hardbody goes home with the prize.

“The American dream, a Japanese car,” as one character observes.

The financially struggling contestants include a weary Keith Carradine as an aging oil worker who lost his job and pension after an accident and is on his way to losing his wife.  Keala Settle is sweetly touching as a devout Christian who has her entire church praying for her to win decent transportation drive to work and take her children to school.  Jon Rua is an American-born young man of Mexican descent who would sell the truck to pay for veterinary school, but first he has to prove to the dealership owners that he’s not in the country illegally.  Gravel-voiced Dale Soules is the scrappy survivor convinced there’s a fix on and Kathleen Elizabeth Monteleone is the pretty young waitress who attracts male onlookers to the event.

Tying the evening together with commentary coming from experience is Hunter Foster as a past winner who knows all the strategies and pitfalls involved.  Behind scraggy facial hair and a ruthlessly blunt disposition, Foster gives the best performance of his New York career.

The difficulty in adapting such a situation to the musical stage is quickly apparent.  There’s no story beyond watching each contestant drop out one by one so, as in A Chorus Line, the bulk of the musical comes in songs that serve as individual portraits of each character.  The music is an attractive collection of Broadway-sifted country, rock and gospel.  Green, a lyricist who’s been at her best when jaunty and funny, achieves touching pathos when characters express quiet emotions, but can use more depth when lives get complicated, as in the remembrances of a marine (David Larsen) still haunted by his experiences in the Middle East.  The score contains one real gem; a lament for the passing of America’s mom-and-pop store landscape in exchange for the bright lights of chain stores and restaurants that make every town look the same.  ("Wal-Mart, Walgreens, Wendy's, Applebee's…” repeats the melancholy chorus.)

Save for Foster’s bigoted punk (who is nevertheless amusing and interesting in the skilled actor’s portrayal) the characters are all sympathetic, so the audience isn’t steered by the authors to have a rooting interest in who wins.  As the hours tick by we see the competitors bond into a kind of family, with some even helping their rivals through their ordeal, but the evening quickly becomes predictable once audience members catch on to the formula that signals when someone is about to be eliminated; usually in an upbeat moment where the person is making a choice to leave instead of succumbing to physical fatigue.  The way the contest ends is so predictable that you may find yourself, as I did, hoping beforehand that they’re not going to do what is obviously being built to.

If the text doesn’t quite overcome all the challenges of turning the source material into a musical, director Neil Pepe and choreographer Sergio Trujillo fare better in giving movement to an event that’s stuck for days in the same place.  Set designer Christine Jones places the title metaphor on a turntable that helps us see both the truck and the characters from different angles and there are numerous smooth transitions to isolated moments where the characters can back away from the prize without breaking reality.

While the musical would probably play better without an intermission, the very effective second act opener has the exhausted contestants barely able to hide their pain when brought out to line dance to the title song.  It’s an ugly display that nevertheless plays to the perverse curiosity that the contest’s organizers are depending on to attract potential customers.

Hands On A Hardbody achieves enough to allow forgiveness for its flaws and in the end turns out to be far more satisfying musical theatre than more conventional shows that get it all right.

Photos by Chad Batka.

Click here to follow Michael Dale on Twitter.

Posted on: Wednesday, April 03, 2013 @ 12:13 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback


Broadway Grosses: Week Ending 3/31/13 & Theatre Quote of the Week

"Orlando Bloom curls my toes!"

-- Harvey Fierstein

The grosses are out for the week ending 3/31/2013 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 (24.0%), ANNIE (18.3%), CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF (17.1%), MAMMA MIA! (16.8%), SPIDER-MAN TURN OFF THE DARK (15.9%), CINDERELLA (13.1%), CHICAGO (10.7%), VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE (10.1%), JERSEY BOYS (6.2%), THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (4.7%), ONCE (4.5%), HANDS ON A HARDBODY (4.2%), KINKY BOOTS (3.8%), THE NANCE (2.2%), WICKED (2.1%), ROCK OF AGES (1.6%), LUCKY GUY (1.5%), NEWSIES (0.7%), MOTOWN: THE MUSICAL (0.7%), MATILDA(0.6%),

Down for the week was: ANN (-13.4%), BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S (-4.3%), PIPPIN (-1.6%), THE ASSEMBLED PARTIES (-1.2%), THE BIG KNIFE (-1.0%), THE LION KING (-0.4%),

Posted on: Monday, April 01, 2013 @ 03:12 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback


Breakfast At Tiffany's

Even if Richard Greenberg’s stage adaptation of Truman Capote’s Breakfast At Tiffanys doesn’t completely seduce Broadway, I have a hunch that shortly after the amateur and regional rights eventually become available, this will be one of the most produced plays in the country.  Why?  Because sandwiched between the years where they envision themselves as Cinderella and those where they envision themselves as Blanche DuBois, I’d estimate a large chunk of America’s artistically inclined female population loves envisioning themselves as Holly Golightly and they are going to want to do this play.

Of course, the Holly that has been etched into the country’s pop culture consciousness is the one played by Audrey Hepburn in Blake Edwards’ very loose film adaptation; a swinging sixties romantic comedy about a free-spirited young lady in her early 20s and the heterosexual writer she fascinates.

So perhaps the uninitiated might be surprised to enter the Cort Theatre and see designer Wendall K. Harrington’s pre-show projections that firmly set the story as Capote originally wrote it; a dark, gritty memory of events that occurred during wartime 1940s involving a teenage Holly and a man whose homosexuality is only thinly veiled.

Greenberg’s adaptation clings closely to Capote’s novella, transcribing dialogue and using long stretches of text as narration directed to the audience from the unnamed scribe that his uncaged bird of a neighbor calls “Fred” after her brother.  Cory Michael Smith is perfectly pleasant and understated in the role, sporting a bit of a drawl that will remind viewers that this tall lanky fellow is supposed to represent the source’s author.  Greenberg does expand on the novella to create moments that strengthen points about the writer, switching the focus of the story from a character study of Holly to more of an exploration of the emotions of a man who identifies as gay but is drawn to this one woman.

While actress Emilia Clarke, assigned to the iconic role, is certainly above the age of consent, she appears so young in some scenes that you might think you’ve mistakenly wandered into a production of Lolita, making the portrait of a runaway survivalist who puts on an amateur air of sophistication to attract much older men who support her with their generosity on “dates” a far more sobering tale than the cinema presents.  (While Holly is not a prostitute in the more familiar sense of the word, when she asks a gentleman companion for cab fare or a tip for the ladies room attendant, a fellow in the know will hand over quite a bit more than what’s needed and it’s understood she can keep the change.)  The difficult aspect of playing a character that reinvents herself as someone above her station is that an attempt to show that her new persona isn’t a precise fit can look like bad acting.  Clarke’s performance works well if you can accept that Holly has neither the experience nor the know-how to completely be the sophisticate she envisions herself to be and that the men who financially support her really don’t care, as long as they’re getting what they want.  In fact, the way the story unfolds, it seems to make more sense that way.

Fine support is offered by George Wendt as the barkeep with fatherly affection for Holly and frequent Greenberg role-originator James Yaegashi as an acerbic fashion photographer who feels guilty for his success while his fellow Americans of Japanese descent are kept in internment camps.

While Greenberg provides a capable vehicle for Capote’s text, director Sean Mathias never injects the production with a personality all its own.  The potential for charm, danger and pathos is glossed over in his perfunctory staging.  What works about Breakfast At Tiffany’s can be easily read from the page.  This production never presents a need for the story to be placed on stage.

Photos by Nathan Johnson:  Top: Cory Michael Smith and Emilia Clarke; Bottom:  George Wendt.

Click here to follow Michael Dale on Twitter.

Posted on: Saturday, March 30, 2013 @ 10:02 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback


Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike & Ann

Cultural elitists, rejoice!  Christopher Durang’s new comedy is a start-to-finish laugh riot.  His funniest play since the days of Sister Mary Ignatius and Beyond Therapy is also graced with a stellar cast in a crackerjack production mounted by Nicholas Martin.  Smart, silly, literate and farcical, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is the kind of fun night out every Broadway season needs.

As the title suggests, much of the play is inspired by the classics of Anton Chekhov.  While you don’t have to be familiar with Uncle Vanya, The Cherry Orchard and The Seagull to enjoy the hilarity, getting the parallels to the work of the Russian dramatist certainly adds to the fun.

David Korins’ unit set depicts the well-worn farmhouse in Bucks County where the buttoned-up, reserved Vanya (deliciously underplaying David Hyde Pierce) lives with his adopted sister Sonia (a jittery, comically adorable Kristine Nielsen).  The pair, neither of whom ever had any lasting romantic relationship, have lived there their entire lives, taking care of their ailing parents, who are now deceased, while their sister Masha (cluelessly narcissistic Sigourney Weaver), a wealthy star of trashy Hollywood blockbusters and five-time divorcee, supports them financially.  Their only regular company is their housekeeper, Cassandra (outrageously silly Shalita Grant) who is given to going into trances and making seemingly random pronouncements of doom.

Their relatively quiet existence, where the highlight of the day might be an argument as to whether or not their handful of cherry trees constitutes an orchard, is interrupted by a visit from Masha and her latest boy toy, Spike, a much younger aspiring actor who thrives on the attention he gets whenever the opportunity arises to strip down to his skivvies.  While the character is essentially an attractive dumb blonde, Durang and actor Billy Magnussen do an excellent job of keeping him quite aware of the power his physique grants him in his profession.  Rounding out the company is Genevieve Angelson, sweet and sincere as Nina, the neighbor girl with an initial thing for Spike (“He’s so attractive, except for his personality, of course.”) but who develops a more significant friendship with Vanya through their mutually artistic souls.

Alert Chekhovians would probably sense from the start that Masha will have an important announcement to make to her siblings, but the off-beat twist is that she’s also arranged for the foursome to attend a costume party at a neighboring home, and while the celeb does her best to insure that she’ll be the belle of the ball, Sonia inadvertently threatens to steal her show.

As expected, Durang’s text is supersized with highbrow wisecracks ("If everyone took antidepressants, Chekhov would have had nothing to write about.”) but there is also a good deal of sweet pathos, particularly in watching how beautifully Nielsen’s Sonia reinvents herself from a lonely recluse to an effervescently funny charmer.  Her performance of a second act monologue where she takes an unexpected phone call from a potential suitor is one of the most heart-tugging scenes you’re apt to see in many a Broadway season.

Pierce counters with an explosively funny rant, set off by Spike’s obliviously rude behavior, where he mourns how individualized technology has robbed our society of communal experiences like licking stamps and watching The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.  Though Vanya quickly ponders if ‘adventures’ was maybe too strong a word for that show, audiences are sure to find Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike to be an uproarious communal adventure.

Photos by T. Charles Erickson:  Top: Sigourney Weaver, Genevieve Angelson and David Hyde Pierce; Bottom: Billy Magnussen and Kristine Nielsen.

*************************

There are certainly more graceful ways to end the first act of a solo play than to have the character tell the audience that she has to go to the bathroom, but I suppose Ann’s playwright/performer Holland Taylor isn’t trying to sell us on Texas Governor’s Ann Richards’ gracefulness.

After all, despite her deceptive grandmotherly elegance, a look replicated beautifully by costume designer Julie Weiss and wig designer Paul Huntley, this angelic-looking woman in white sported a dry sense of humor that, at least according to Taylor’s text, loved a good joke about bestiality or incest.

Richards first gained national attention when, as the State Treasurer of Texas, she delivered the keynote address at the 1988 Democratic National Convention; only the second woman to do so.  Though the brief clip of her speech that opens the play does not include her famous quip about George H.W. Bush being born with a silver foot in his mouth, it concludes with her well-intentioned, but inaccurate observation that Ginger Roger did everything Fred Astaire did, only backwards and in high heels.  (A more accurate statement would be that Hermes Pan did everything Astaire did, including the part about doing it backwards and in high heels.)

When Taylor finally takes the stage she’s an impressively detailed image of the governor, nailing the accent, speech pattern and authoritative bearing.  Would that her play, assembled from the subject’s own words along with remembrances from others, was as impressive.

After opening with the former governor addressing students at a fictional Texas college, the bulk of the evening is set in her state capital office, where, joined only by the recorded voice of Julie White as her off-stage secretary, she fields a parade of phone calls and discusses an assortment of issues while trying to sort out the details of an upcoming family fishing trip.

The greatest potential for tension comes from her decision on whether or not to grant a death row inmate a stay of execution, but, like most issues in the play, it’s brought up, discussed, and then ditched for the next one.  Her defense of her vetoing of a bill that would allow for concealed weapons, a decision that may have led to her unsuccessful reelection bid, is undercut with a cheap joke about women never being able to find anything in their purses.  She has a friendly chat with President Clinton, an eye-rolling conversation with an inexperience staffer who thought the governor would enjoy taking the day off on July 4th and even finds a moment in her perpetual multi-tasking to sew a loose section of fringe back onto the state flag.

With direction by Benjamin Endsley Klein, Ann is usually quite entertaining, but it has the same appeal as watching a stand-up comic performing her most famous routines.  There is very little drama to fill the two acts and you might start feeling that the play could just end at any time without leaving you hanging on any plot point.  In the end it all seems rather nice and inoffensive, and I seriously doubt the governor would ever describe herself that way.

Photo of Holland Taylor by Ave Bonar.

Click here to follow Michael Dale on Twitter.

Posted on: Monday, March 25, 2013 @ 06:40 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback


Broadway Grosses: Week Ending 3/24/13 & Theatre Quote of the Week

"Honorary degrees are given generally to people whose SAT scores were too low to get them into schools the regular way."

-- Neil Simon

The grosses are out for the week ending 3/24/2013 and we've got them all right here in BroadwayWorld.com's grosses section.

Up for the week was: ANNIE (9.2%), HANDS ON A HARDBODY (8.5%), MAMMA MIA! (6.7%), THE LION KING (2.5%), ROCK OF AGES (1.5%), NEWSIES(0.3%),

Down for the week was: VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE (-16.1%), SPIDER-MAN TURN OFF THE DARK (-9.7%), BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S (-5.9%), NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT (-5.5%), ANN (-4.7%), CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF (-3.9%), ONCE (-3.0%), CHICAGO (-2.2%), JERSEY BOYS (-2.1%), THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (-1.8%), WICKED (-1.7%), KINKY BOOTS (-1.0%), LUCKY GUY (-1.0%), MATILDA (-0.2%), CINDERELLA (-0.2%),

Posted on: Monday, March 25, 2013 @ 03:29 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback


It's a Bird... It's a Plane... It's Superman: High Flying, Adored

The shorthand response for why the original production of It’s a Bird… It’s a Plane… It’s Superman only managed to eke out a three and a half month run on Broadway has traditionally been that the show opened during a newspaper strike.

And while there were most likely other factors involved, the lack of printed dailies, which were then the ticket-buying public’s primary source of up-to-date rialto info, certainly made it difficult for director/producer Harold Prince and his publicity crew to get the point across that this was not a family entertainment meant to appeal to adolescent boys or adults hankering for a bit of childhood nostalgia, but rather a hip and deceptively smart evening of campy vaudeville that capitalized on the 60s trend of seeing Americana through retro-mod shades.

Even its lengthy title, necessitated by DC Comics’ insistence that the name of the musical could not be simply Superman, was part of a 60s trend among plays and musicals (The Roar of the Greasepaint - The Smell of the Crowd,  On A Clear Day You Can See Forever…).  Another stipulation that limited the involvement of characters from the source material forced first-time bookwriters David Newman and Robert Benton to create new foes for the Man of Steel.

At that time the pair was best known for their Esquire article, “The New Sentimentality,” which challenged the acceptance of traditional values in favor of exploring individual feelings.  No doubt inspired by their findings, they devised a plot whereby a ten time Nobel Prize losing scientist, Dr. Abner Sedgwick, hurt from seeing his contributions to society so frequently overshadowed, decides to take his revenge on the world by destroying Superman.  Knowing the crime fighter is physically indestructible, he attacks him psychologically by having the hero of Metropolis consider for the first time that he has the power to help prevent the conditions that breed criminal activity, but instead prefers to allow crime to exist because he enjoys the adulation and celebrity he receives by catching crooks.  (“’Superman.’  Did you choose that name yourself?”)  Dr. Sedgwick is joined in his scheme by the Daily Planet’s swinging bachelor gossip columnist, Max Mencken, a spewer of innuendo and self-serving patriotism who is jealous of Superman’s status as the top guy in town, and a troupe of Chinese acrobats known as The Flying Lings, who have gone broke because Metropolitans no longer pay to see their act when they can watch Superman fly for free.  (Chinese acrobats, as any frequent viewer of The Ed Sullivan Show will tell you, were a significant part of 1960s pop culture.)

On the romantic side, Newman and Benton present a Lois Lane who, in love with the ideal Superman but sick of his indifference to commitment, starts dating a nice, normal guy who, despite his flaws, is openly devoted to her, emotionally available for a long-term relationship and, in the end, turns out to be, arguably, more heroic than Superman.  In turn, Max’s secretary, Sydney, tired of her handsome and connected boss’ lack of attention, starts flirting with fixer-upper Clark Kent, who is fascinated with the notion that he doesn’t have to be a perfect Superman to attract this cute and spunky sparkplug.

Add some jokes referencing Tennessee Williams and Enrico Fermi, a plot twist involving Communist spies, insanely catchy music by Charles Strouse that mixes 60s pop, midnight jazz and brassy showtune and crazily funny lyrics by Lee Adams that frequently find the most perfectly awful rhymes (“You know you’re really quite a dish. / You’re what a guy might call delish… / You’re packed as sold as a knish.”) and you’ve got a truly unexpected brand of musical comedy.

There have been several revised versions of It’s a Bird… It’s a Plane… It’s Superman through the years, including an attempt to replace the vaudevillian camp of the show with a firmer plot and another that, responding to complains that The Flying Lings were a racist caricature of Chinese people, replaced them with a French acrobatic troupe.  Fortunately, the current Encores! concert version of the show, with the script only slightly edited, embraces its loosely-plotted showbiz roots and retains the Lings, though in an interpretation that I doubt anyone would find objectionable.

From John Lee Beatty’s colorful skyline setting, styled somewhere between Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol, Rob Berman conducts the 27-piece onstage orchestra playing Eddie Sauter’s exciting, detailed and period-evoking orchestrations; some of the best ever penned for Broadway.  Sauter had a long career as a jazz arranger and entered musical theatre late in life, but his short stay also included outstanding work for The Apple Tree and 1776.

Director John Rando, one of the best musical comedy directors around, could have probably used a little more time than the brief rehearsal period Equity allows for concert productions to firm up the stylized humor, but nevertheless his terrific ensemble delivers an evening’s worth of knockout performances while choreographer Joshua Bergasse’s dancers quote enough go-go moves to fill up a season’s worth of Hullabaloo.

In the title role, Ed Watts’ square-jawed handsomeness, fine physique and virile baritone are capped with a comic naiveté well-suited for the role.  As Lois Lane, Jenny Powers brings to mind mod vocalists like Petula Clark and Lulu, sporting costume designer Paul Tazewell’s Carnaby Street-inspired mini-dresses, whereas Alli Mauzey, who, as Sydney, snazzily belts the score’s popular jazz rumba, “You’ve Got Possibilities” appears cut out of Eydie Gorme’s Las Vegasy cloth.

Will Swenson’s snarkily sleazy Max is so faux-charming he can sneer through a toothy-white grin while crooning a fond farewell to his nemesis (“Here’s mud in your x-ray eye.”) and David Pittu’s scene-stealing Dr. Sedgwick perfectly balances over-the-top villainy with smart explorations of the scripts most satirical edges.  As his unsuspecting assistant, Jim, Adam Monley’s nerdy maturity makes for interesting competition for Lois Lane’s heart.

As far as The Flying Lings are concerned, such care seems to be taken to make their portrayal non-offensive that their realism seems a bit out of place in the cartoon world of the production.  (The lyrics of their “Everything's Easy When You Know How “ are scrapped.)  But the intense warrior-like skills demonstrated by Craig Henningsen, Suo Liu, Jason Ng and Scott Weber do indeed fly spectacularly, particularly when they’re engaged in choreographed battle during the climatic 11 o’clock number, “Pow! Bam! Zonk!”

Does Superman fly?  Not with cables or cords, he doesn’t.  But this week at City Center the musical that bears his name soars with the kind of infectious fun that Broadway musical comedy does best.

Photos by Joan Marcus:  Top: Jenny Powers and Edward Watts; Center: Alli Mauzey and Will Swenson; Bottom: David Pittu and Will Swenson.

Click here to follow Michael Dale on Twitter.

Posted on: Sunday, March 24, 2013 @ 04:18 AM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback


Memory?

In another example of how Broadway can chew up and spit out promising young hopefuls, it has been reported today that Montie, the understudy for the cat in Breakfast At Tiffany’s has been fired for not being able to remember his blocking.  Guess it's back to dinner theatre productions of The Lieutenant of Inishmore for him.

Click here to follow Michael Dale on Twitter.

Posted on: Friday, March 22, 2013 @ 06:15 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback


Cirque du Soleil's Totem & The Broadway Musicals of 1961

A human ball of silver glitter hanging from a cord is lowered above what looks like a bungalow-sized muffin top.  (It’s supposed to represent a turtle shell.)  Before the glitter ball makes its landing the cover is removed to reveal what looks like a tribe of humanish amphibians bouncing on trampolines and twirling on the muffin/turtle’s frame.  Shortly after, a sleazy-looking clown in a tropical shirt tosses a condom to a woman in the front row and says, “Call me!”  Yes, dear readers, Cirque du Soleil is back in town.

This time around the Canadian troupe of world class circus artists is playing the parking lot of Citi Field for a stint scheduled to end on May 12th, but if the Mets do as well as expected this season, the space should be available to them for many more months to come.

Written and directed by Robert Lepage, Totem is described by Cirque as ”a fascinating journey of the human species from its original amphibian state to its ultimate desire to fly,” but as is usually the case with their shows, the artistic theme is not the reason for going.  Still, as long as the acrobats, jugglers, leapers and flyers are center stage, Totem is a wild and fun adventure.

Unfortunately, Cirque doesn’t provide free programs with the identities of the artists and the proper names of the skills they display.  More familiar routines include a troupe of beefy guys holding long poles parallel to the ground while lither fellows bounce from one to another in spectacular leaps.  A muscular male dancer twirls his female partner at breathtaking – and one would think neck breaking – speeds.  Another male and female couple in continuous motion maneuver around a high trapeze.

Five female unicyclists ride in formations while flinging bowls to each other that they catch atop their heads.  A pair of ladies juggle flat, pizza-like objects with their feet and a fellow placed inside a clear cone keeps colored balls spinning around like electrons orbiting a nucleus.

Some of Cirque's more eye-popping acts, like the wheel of death and the balancing contortionists, are left out of this one, but the crazy assortment of costume and lighting effects are sufficiently opulent, and the intimacy of the circular tent gives most of the crowd a great up-close view.

Photos: OSA Images.

***************************

Broadway musicals were certainly not lacking for star power during that hectic year of 1961, as big-name performers, writers and directors all fought for box office attention.

The legendary Alfred Drake starred as the legendary Edmund Kean in a musical scored by Robert Wright and George Forrest.  Elaine Stritch headlined Noel Coward’s Sail Away as Barbara Cook did for Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz’s The Gay Life.  The Happiest Girl In The World boasted Cyril Ritchard in no less than eight roles with Yip Harburg’s lyrics set to Jacques Offenbach melodies.  That kid from Off-Broadway, Jerry Herman, penned his first Broadway score for Milk and Honey, which brought 2nd Avenue favorite Molly Picon uptown.  Composer/lyricist Richard Adler made his return to Broadway after the death of his partner, Jerry Ross, with the most controversial musical of the season, Kwamina, concerning an interracial love story in an emerging African nation, played out by Sally Ann Howes and Terry Carter.

The two biggest hits of the year were Anna Maria Alberghetti and, in his Broadway debut, Jerry Orbach in Bob Merrill, Michael Stewart and Gower Champion’s Carnival! and Robert Morse and Rudy Vallee in Frank Loesser and Abe Burrows’ How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, but if you were reading the early edition of the New York Herald Tribune on December 28th, you might have been tricked into thinking that the new Betty Comden, Adolph Green and Jule Styne show, Subways Are For Sleeping, had just opened to unanimous raves because producer David Merrick, knowing he wouldn’t get any money reviews, got permission from seven people with the same names as New York’s seven opening night newspaper critics to attribute glowing quotes to them in a print ad.  (Word of the scam spread quickly and the Trib was the only paper that printed it.)

And yet with all that musical theatre muscle being flexed, only a handful of songs from that year became popular standards.  Even members of the knowledgeable audiences that frequent Town Hall’s Broadway By The Year series might have been hearing more than half of these tunes for the first time.  Fortunately, creator/writer/host Scott Siegel always recruits a top-shelf lineup of performers, accompanied by music director Ross Patterson helming his Little Big Band, to provide the most artistically satisfying of introductions.

Jeffrey Denman, one of contemporary musical theatre’s top song and dance men, directed and choreographed the event, teaming up twice for charming duets of Coward’s “When You Want Me” and Johnny Burke’s “I Wouldn’t Bet One Penny” (from Donnybrook!, a musical based on The Quiet Man) with his wife, accomplished Broadway gypsy Erin Denman.  The former also relived a couple of moments from the days when he understudied Matthew Broderick in How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, backed by a male ensemble for the classic “I Believe In You” and leading the company in a rousing “Brotherhood of Man.”

Christine Andreas’ entrancing vocals and intelligent dramatic phrasing sublimely brought out the mixture of melancholy and hopefulness in Sail Away’s title song and graced Carnival!’s “Mira” and Happiest Girl’s “Adrift on a Star” with warmth and charm.

Another fine musical theatre actress, Kerry O’Malley, brought some needed depth to two tepid ballads from Kwamina (“What’s Wrong With Me?” and “Another Time, Another Place”) but was far better showcased in How To Succeed’s tongue-in-cheek homage to suburban conformity, “Happy To Keep His Dinner Warm” and Kean’s richly romantic “Sweet Danger.”

Two Carnival! ballads originated with Jerry Orbach’s dark baritone (“She’s My Love” and “Her Face”) were given a new sound via Scott Coulter’s sweet, airy tenor.

Fans of Emily Skinner may have been surprised to hear her singing in a legit soprano voice for The Gay Life’s “Magic Moments” but her Broadway belt was back for a daffy, neurotic spin on Coward’s comic gem, “Why Do The Wrong People Travel?”

Ensemble highlights included O’Malley, Skinner, Coulter and Denman in a jazzy four-part harmonizing of Subways’ “Comes Once In A Lifetime” and an unamplified mixing of two ballads of romantic longing; Let It Ride’s “His Own Little Island,” (Coulter, Denman and Felipe Tavolaro) and Donnybrook!’s “For My Own” (Andreas, O’Malley and Skinner).

Tavolaro, who made a one-night trip to New York from his native Brazil to be in the concert, is a member of the Broadway By The Year Chorus, a group of young professionals directed by Coulter, that opened the show accompanying Andreas in Carnival!’s “Love Makes The World Go Round” and commenced the second act with a spirited, unamplified rendition of Milk and Honey’s title song and its most popular melody, “Shalom.”

Photos by Stephen Sorokoff:  Top:  Jeffry Denman and Erin Denman; Bottom: Emily Skinner.

Click here to follow Michael Dale on Twitter.

Posted on: Friday, March 22, 2013 @ 12:33 PM 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.