BroadwayWorld.com
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

Russian Transport: The Second Oldest Profession


"It's not fair," the 14-year-old girl complains to her mom.

"Fair? Your grandmother was raped by Nazis," snaps back the Russian immigrant.  "This is fair, this life?"

Played with no nonsense sternness by Janeane Garofalo, Diana may not be the warmest of mothers, but in Erika Sheffer's simmering family drama, Russian Transport, her coldness is a survival skill utilized to help her family achieve the American dream.

Diana's burly, hard-working husband, Misha (Daniel Oreskes), runs the struggling family business, a car service, from a home office.  (Derek McLane's two-level, multi-roomed set, is realistically detailed, but with one interesting abstract feature.)  Their 18-year-old son, Alex (Raviv Ullman), helps out with the driving, but makes more money for the family with his job at Verizon.  Fourteen-year-old Mira (Sarah Steele), who gets teased for her looks by her brother, boosts her confidence with after-school make-out sessions with a boyfriend.

There are some family secrets to be revealed, but first comes the arrival of Diana's younger brother, Boris (Morgan Spector), who has left Russia to live temporarily at their Sheepshead Bay home.

Lean, handsome and quick-witted, Boris is not only a master of seduction - as a drinking buddy, a loving brother, a role model or the object of adolescent lust - but he's crafty enough to keep himself blameless when trouble arises by making sure he always has an advantage over the other person involved.  Spector does an excellent job of subtly revealing the different roles Boris plays for each family member, hiding a dangerous man beneath a calm and controlled exterior.

Alex, a fledging opportunist, accepts what seems like an easy money job from Boris, secretly using the cars from the family business to run a series of errands.  But by the time he realizes the consequences of what he's doing, Boris has made sure he's in too deep to safely get out.  Ullman does fine work in having Alex go from a fearless kid to one who panics at his first taste of how real the world can get.

While Sheffer's dialogue (sometimes in Russian) and characters are certainly engaging, and the moral dilemma of which illegal actions are okay when you're doing it for family and which cross over the line makes for an interesting argument, the action seems to fizzle toward the end and the expected bang at the finish turns out to be more of a whimper.  But director Scott Elliot and his tight ensemble deliver a believably discomforting family portrait.

Photos by Monique Carboni:  Top: Sarah Steele, Janeane Garofalo and Raviv Ullman; Bottom: Morgan Spector and Raviv Ullman.

Click here to follow Michael Dale on Twitter.

Click here for Michael Dale's Twitterized theatre reviews.

Posted on: Wednesday, February 01, 2012 @ 05:29 AM Posted by: Michael Dale


Broadway Grosses: Week Ending 1/29 & Theatre Quote of the Week

"True music must repeat the thought and inspirations of the people and the time. My people are Americans and my time is today."


-- George Gershwin
 

The grosses are out for the week ending 1/29/2012 and we've got them all right here in BroadwayWorld.com's grosses section.

Up for the week was: CHINGLISH (25.5%), PORGY AND BESS (8.9%), MEMPHIS (8.4%), ON A CLEAR DAY YOU CAN SEE FOREVER (7.0%), MARY POPPINS (5.5%), SISTER ACT (4.4%), OTHER DESERT CITIES (3.9%), ANYTHING GOES (3.4%), JERSEY BOYS (2.9%), STICK FLY (2.8%), PRISCILLA QUEEN OF THE DESERT (2.7%), WIT (2.1%), CHICAGO (1.4%), ROCK OF AGES (1.2%), GODSPELL (0.8%), SPIDER-MAN TURN OFF THE DARK (0.1%),

Down for the week was: HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING (-14.7%), THE ROAD TO MECCA (-11.7%), THE LION KING (-5.7%), THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (-2.1%), WICKED (-1.6%), MAMMA MIA! (-0.9%), RELATIVELY SPEAKING (-0.5%), WAR HORSE (-0.5%), SEMINAR (-0.2%),

Posted on: Monday, January 30, 2012 @ 04:17 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback


Porgy and Bess: Bess, You Is Politically Correct Now

Let's just say, for the moment, that I owned the Venus de Milo.  I don't know how it happened.  Maybe some ancient Greek stone cuttings were found that led to a Middle Ages parchment that inspired someone to do some research on ancestry.com, but in any case, it has been indisputably determined that I am the sole owner of sculptor Alexandros of Antioch's Venus de Milo.

Okay, so I call up the Louvre and I tell them that I want to bring Venus to New York for a few months.  Nothing permanent.  I just want to let my fellow New Yorkers see this classic work of art.

But then I go to France and take a serious look at the thing and wonder if this depiction of a topless woman in a low-riding skirt really speaks to a contemporary viewer.  After all, it seems to glorify a feminine ideal of physical beauty that's really unattainable to the average woman.  We know nothing about the inner workings of the subject; her thoughts, her emotions, how she saw her status in society.  We just see her outward beauty.  So I think that perhaps something could be done to make Venus more acceptable to the 21st Century public; especially women who are continually bombarded by sexualized depictions of their gender every day.

So, after finding a suitable gallery space in New York, I hire a well-respected artist who is known for work promoting positive female images to make some temporary revisions and additions to the work.  Nothing to change the statue permanently, just make it more acceptable for today's viewer.  "Be bold," I say.

While the statue is being worked on, the artist and I are interviewed for a New York Times article where we explain how a faux-marble material that looks like the real thing is being used to fit Venus' torso with an addition to her skirt that would cover up the exposed bit of her buttocks and a short tunic that would cover up her bare breasts.  Arms would be attached to her body, and she would be depicted as holding hands with a young girl while handing her a scroll, indicating that the woman has been educated and she's passing on her knowledge to her daughter.  Thus attention is diverted from her body and focused on her mind.  And even though we know that such a depiction of womanhood would most likely not exist in an ancient Greek statue, we feel confident that if Alexandros had lived another 2,100+ years he probably would have made similar changes.  Sure, we say, there are always those annoying "purists" who feel they have to complain every time someone makes an artistic choice when presenting a classic work, but we insist that a great statue should not be relegated to remaining a dusty old museum piece.

Well, imagine our surprise when, a few days after the article is printed, there's a letter in the Times from some bigwig at the Metropolitan Museum of Art saying how we're disrespecting both the statue and the public by not displaying it in its present form.  But we stand by our artistic principles and suggest that, instead of listening to one of those "purists" who haven't even seen what we've done yet, people can buy a ticket and reach their own conclusions.  After all, the statue has never been displayed in its complete original form since its remains were discovered nearly 200 years ago, and the Venus de Milo will continue to exist as an armless, barely-clothed woman for anyone who would like to go to the Louvre and see it after the New York showing.

So our alternate version of the Venus de Milo comes to New York and, despite those purists' objections, we point to our sold out engagement as proof that the public approves of our updated vision.

Of course, the above scenario may seem a little silly.  Classic works of visual art are simply not updated for the modern viewer, who generally sees such objects as representations of their time.  It's a little trickier, though, when it comes to live theatre, where living interpreters are regularly called upon infuse their vision into the work of deceased writers and composers.  Minor tinkering may be common but it would be difficult to think of a time when a work as iconic to American theatre as the Venus de Milo is to ancient Greek sculpture was presented on a major stage so drastically changed.

Which brings us to what is now billed as The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess.

Back in the 1920s, composer George Gershwin was a major force in getting American jazz accepted as a classical music form; composing orchestral works like Rhapsody in Blue and An American in Paris while writing in a Broadway/jazz style for the then-emerging form of book musicals.  His lyricist brother, Ira, was admirably nicknamed "the jeweler" for his ability to delicately place words into so many complex and fascinating rhythms.

But in the late 20s and early 30s, the duo, along with bookwriters like George S. Kaufman, Morrie Ryskind and Herbert Fields, premiered a quartet of satirical musicals that resembled the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan, except the music was a hybrid of classical jazz and showtune.  It was an evolution of the American musical into a sister form.  The most successful of these satirical jazz operettas, Of Thee I Sing, was a huge hit and became the first musical to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.  Its sequel, Let 'em Eat Cake, was a much darker piece that soured the theatre critics and the public, but music critics had a much higher opinion of the composer's work and, despite a short run, George Gershwin considered Let 'em Eat Cake his claim to legitimacy.

Their next major work would be an opera; but not an opera born of European tradition.  Porgy and Bess, as it was then known, would be a further evolution of the musical into an opera-styled Broadway drama for audiences with an appreciation of jazz, gospel and popular theatre music.  The source was the 1925 novel Porgy, written by DuBose Heyward, a white American native to Charleston, South Carolina; an area known for its African American Gullah culture.  Heyward  grew up with as intimate a knowledge of the language and customs of the people of Cabbage Row (which he would rename Catfish Row) as an outsider could and based Porgy on a crippled man he knew who would get around in a goat cart.

His book was praised by prominent black Americans, including Langston Hughes, for its sympathetic depiction of black southern culture without condensation.  Collaborating with his wife, Dorothy Heyward, the novelist adapted Porgy into an equally praised Broadway play.  Al Jolson, of all people, wanted to star in a musical version, but the Heywards turned instead to the Gershwins.  So the composer relocated to Charleston to get a feel for the music, while DuBose Heyward crafted the bulk of the narrative in his collaboration with Ira Gershwin.

Although well-received in its 1935 premiere, Porgy and Bess was not an immediate sensation.  Its large orchestra, large chorus and the creators' insistence that, save for the few white roles, American productions could only be played by black performers made full mountings costly.  And, as is typical for well-meaning musicals about black people written by white authors (Show Boat, Finian's Rainbow), the argument that the piece indulged in racist stereotypes grew more vocal as the years went on.  Though both George Gershwin and DuBose Heyward passed away within five years after the premiere, Ira Gershwin, who lived until 1983, was around to expunge an infamous word from the libretto and see productions that played out the recitatives as spoken dialogue.

Though Porgy and Bess, in its full operatic form, has more recently been recognized as an important work of American art thanks to grand productions in the last several decades, the Gershwin heirs who own the piece approached director Diana Paulus with the idea to adapt it into something that would be more recognizable as musical theatre and more accessible for a 21st Century audience that loves all the classic songs but may feel uncomfortable with the narrative.  "Be bold," were the words of encouragement meant to inspire her.

Musical theatre fans were definitely excited to hear that the director who recently gave Broadway a hit revival of Hair would be helming a Broadway-bound production of Porgy and Bess which would star Norm Lewis as the disabled loner of Catfish Row and Audra McDonald as the drug-addicted woman who hopes to find a more stable life in his arms.  Certainly the opportunity to hear these two outstanding singer/actors perform these Gershwin songs would be a highlight of any season.

And then, while the production was in rehearsals for its initial run at Cambridge's American Repertory Theatre, a New York Times article quoted Paulus and her collaborators assigned to write the adaptation, playwright Suzan-Lori Parks and composer Diedre Murray, as they explained their mission to fill holes in the plot, eliminate what they consider offensive stereotypes and, in the words of Parks, "flesh out the two main characters so they are not cardboard cut-out characters.  I think that's what George Gershwin wanted, and if he had lived longer he would have gone back to the story of Porgy and Bess and made changes, including to the ending."

Eliminating Porgy's goat cart in favor of a cane, lowering the key of the opening lullaby, "Summertime" and the possibility of changing the ending were also mentioned.  In addition, McDonald explained her reluctance to play Bess unless the character was rewritten and remarked how the "Gershwin purists" may have "arrows in their bows, ready to shoot," before noting that, "the opera will always exist to be performed."

So in reviewing this newly-opened Porgy and Bess there's an awkward balance one must achieve between simply critiquing what happens on the Richard Rodgers stage and judging this substantially rewritten and reinterpreted material against what it once was.

For the Porgy and Bess novices, I'll say this; Audra McDonald is one of the finest dramatic musical theatre actress/singers working today.  Norm Lewis has one of Broadway's most gorgeous voices and, in the limited amount of meaty work he's been given in his New York career, has proven himself an engaging actor.  The opportunity to see these two exceptional stage artists play these characters so acutely and sing this magnificent score is by far the best thing this production has to offer and if you have little or no knowledge of the original, that might be enough to send you home happy.

But if you've ever heard the original orchestrations and choral arrangements, experienced the piece in its sung-through form and seen a production designed with the kind of realistic details that enhance the story, this mounting may strike you as a thrifty streamlining suitable for a regional theatre with a limited budget.  But not for Broadway.  Sometimes an intimate, smaller scale production of a traditionally large show displays inventiveness that adds something new and exciting to the piece.  Not here.  Aside from the excellent work of its stars and the very good contributions of a talented supporting cast, this Porgy and Bess offers a rather perfunctorily evening that only picks up when the material's original brilliance is allowed to shine through.  Broadway deserves better.

The production begins with a new overture that foreshadows the thin orchestrations (by William David Brohn and Christopher Jahnke) and over-amplification we'll be in for all night.  The textures of the original are replaced by arrangements that too frequently resemble a big band or cabaret sound.  Gershwin did not compose an overture for Porgy and Bess, but when he did compose overtures for his musicals (Girl Crazy, Of Thee I Sing and Let 'em Eat Cake are among his best) they were complex pieces that weaved musical themes into a satisfying climax.  Here, it's just a rundown of the "hit tunes."

The recitatives, which carry dramatic weight and help elevate the narrative into the more familiar songs are mostly replaced by dialogue, eliminating the symbolic concept of having only the white characters speak.

I'll leave it to others to determine if the adaptation of the libretto has eliminated anything racially insensitive or sexist.  The dialect may have been softened just a bit, i.e. the drug-dealing charmer known as Sportin' Life is now called Sporting Life; a name more suitable for a recreation magazine with a heavy subscription base in Connecticut, but if Bess has indeed been revised into a more acceptable woman for a modern audience, the only clear evidence of that is in the strong sense of self-worth McDonald has been regularly known to bring to her stage portrayals.

The most genuinely effective scene comes when Bess is confronted by her brutish ex-lover Crown (an excellent Phillip Boykin who I really wish wouldn't play his curtain call for a cheap laugh), where it becomes clear that the only way he's going to get her back is to rape her.  But the high intensity of the moment is halted when, in a brand new twist, Bess suddenly accepts that what's going to happen is going to happen and calmly signals for Crown to just get it over with.  Is this an example of a woman denying victimization by taking control of her own rape?  Perhaps.  But it's a moment that seems to pull a 1935 theatre piece into 2012.

I couldn't tell you if Norm Lewis has the vocal range to sing Porgy as written but it seems he's being done a great disservice by having big moments like "Bess, You Is My Woman Now" placed in keys that force him to have to jump octaves back and forth.  He also gets no favors from a new scene added to introduce "I Got Plenty of Nothin' Nothing."  Originally set up as a song where, after spending his first night with Bess, Porgy expresses the joy he feels, despite his poverty and physical disability, at the chance to experience love and warmth with a woman.  The new dialogue reduces the song to a smutty punch line where Porgy's bragging how he just got laid.

Not only does Porgy walk with a cane now, but in the second act he acquires a brace.  I won't give away the ending, but perhaps this is an attempt to make it more believable.

David Alan Grier is suitably sleazy as Sporting Life, singing with a hearty belt and walking with a jaunty strut.  One of the most thrilling opening moments of the American musical stage is when young mother Clara sings the sterling soprano notes of "Summertime" to her babe in arms.  Unfortunately, the lovely-voiced Nikki Renée Daniels now has to share her big moment, as Clara's husband Jake (a fine Joshua Henry) is called in to make it a duet.  It's a move that adds nothing to the scene except the suspicion that it's being done to give more focus to Bess' second act solo reprise of the number.

I'm truly baffled by Riccardo Hernandez's exceedingly unattractive set consisting of a plain wooden floor and a wall made of sickly green colored panels representing nothing.  With no levels to work with, Paulus' staging often has the company standing around in clumps.

There are those that will tell you that today's Broadway audiences would not accept Porgy and Bess in its original form and that a heavily changed version like this one is necessary because otherwise the piece will just be left to gather dust.  I say that if audiences are unwilling to accept what Gershwin, Gershwin and Heyward wrote as a product of its time and a significant milestone in American art, then perhaps it's audiences that need to change, and not Porgy and Bess.

Photos by Michael J. Lutch: Top: Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis; Bottom: David Alan Grier.

Click here to follow Michael Dale on Twitter.

Click here for Michael Dale's Twitterized theatre reviews.

Posted on: Monday, January 30, 2012 @ 07:23 AM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback


Boeing-Boeing: Paper Mill Swings Like A Pendulum Do

When director James Brennan's cracker-jack company of comics start whizzing across Ray Klausen's obstacle course of a bachelor pad set, The Paper Mill's wacky new production of the 1960s sex farce Boeing-Boeing is a good old fashioned riot.  The play itself may not be the height of its genre, and quite frankly I found the Broadway revival to be a bit of a snooze, but the gang in Millburn seems to be having a blast with the material and their spirit is downright catching.

Originally penned in French by Marc Camoletti, an English translation of Boeing-Boeing opened on the West End in 1962 and ran for seven years, but the Broadway transfer closed after a scant 23 performances.  A hit West End revival in 2007 prompted another crack at Broadway, this time running a much healthier eight months and taking home Tonys for Best Revival and Best Actor (Mark Rylance).

The Americanized version of the plot has swinging single American architect Bernard (Matt Walton) enjoying the good life in his Paris home.  He's engaged to (and sleeping with) three beautiful airline hostesses (as they were called then):  American Gloria (Heather Parcells) with TWA, Italian Gabriella (Brynn O'Malley) with Alitalia and German Gretchen (Anne Horak) with Lufthansa.  The three women not only have no knowledge of each other, but they all have their own keys to the place, each thinking it's her and Bernard's exclusive residence.  The juggling trick is achieved by keeping careful tabs on the airline schedules to determine who will be in town when, and with the expert assistance of Bernard's overworked housekeeper, Berthe (Beth Leavel).

The play, of course, takes place on the day everything goes haywire due to faster planes and flight cancellations, leaving all three women in Paris at the same time.  Bernard's visiting pal Robert (John Scherer), who has just learned of the scheme, unwittingly winds up becoming the one responsible for making sure that doors are kept shut, personal items are hidden and the hostesses are kept from discovering each other.

While the plot is ripe for farce, a problem with the play is that the dialogue of the translation by Beverley Cross and Francis Evans isn't particularly funny, so until the physical antics hit high gear, the humor primarily comes from the international cast of characters' exaggerated manners and accents.  Parcells gives the pragmatic Gloria a thick New York outer boroughs voice and O'Malley's Gabriella, straight out of period Italian films, is both demanding and passionate.  The tall, blonde Horak is especially funny as the cool and forceful Gretchen, a sort of mod Valkyrie.

With a raspy French accent and darting looks that could kill, Leavel's housekeeper is relishing watching the collapse of her boss' paradise, which would mean less work for her if he were forced to settle down.  Scherer, a much undervalued Broadway musical comedy performer (best utilized as Bertie Wooster in By Jeeves), is hilarious as the jittery mess trying to keep the house in order while falling for the domineering German.  Unfortunately, Brennan makes a pair of missteps, having Scherer play one scene with his character uncontrollably farting (recorded, of course) and another with him having trouble hiding his erection.  Playing straight for the night, the handsome Walton makes Bernard a charmer, despite his caddish behavior.

Boeing-Boeing comes from a time when explicit sex comedy couldn't be televised into every home and playgoers enjoyed the mild titillation of such farces that wound up being fairly innocent and sweet in the end.  Despite a few hitches, the energetic company ensures that for the next few weeks, Paper Mill will swing like a pendulum do.

Photos by T. Charles Erickson: Top: John Scherer and Beth Leavel; Bottom: Brynn O'Malley and Matt Walton.

Click here to follow Michael Dale on Twitter.

Click here for Michael Dale's Twitterized theatre reviews.

Posted on: Tuesday, January 24, 2012 @ 08:44 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback


Gob Squad's Kitchen (You've Never Had It So Good)

Is it possible to recreate someone else's authenticity seven times a week doing the same Off-Broadway show?  If last Saturday night's performance of Gob Squad's Kitchen (You've Never Had It So Good) is any indication, the answer is a resounding... I'm not sure.  But in any case, the lighthearted madness inhabiting The Public Theater's Newman space, devised by the German/British theatrical squad named in the title, makes for a rollicking good time.

The squad gets their inspiration from Andy Warhol's Kitchen, a 1965 film that had Edie Sedgwick and other Warhol actors hanging around a kitchen having meaningless, often indecipherable, conversations.  Like his eight hour and five minute long film of the Empire State Building taken from a motionless camera, Kitchen was generally considered unwatchable, and to Warhol, that was the point.

Gob Squad's version - part recreation, part commentary - is viewed by the audience on a large screen that takes up nearly the entire stage.  But before the performance begins, the customers are permitted to walk behind the screen to see the actors hanging out on the set; reinforcing the fact that even though once we take our seats we'll be watching projected black and white images, it's all happening live on stage.  Also, I imagine, this quick visit also serves to let the actors see what kind of people are in the house for that performance, which will come in handy later.

The company rotates members with only four used per performance.  On Saturday night Sean Patterson, looking into the camera and addressing the audience directly, supplied us with some background about the film, sharing the cramped kitchen with Nina Techlenburg, the Sedgwick stand-in.

Patterson tells us that the screenplay for Kitchen was penned by Ronald Tavel, but the actors didn't bother to learn it, improvising their scenes instead, and that the film was popular at underground cinemas where is was seen by gays, beatniks, lesbians, drug addicts; "People like you."

But while Sean goes on to explain how their set's box of Trader Joe's Corn Flakes is meant to represent Kellogg's and how the bag of "All Natural" Wise Potato Chips they have would, in 1965, be loaded with preservatives, there are two other films being seen at the same time.

To the right of Kitchen, we see Sharon Smith recreating one of Warhol's "screen tests."  These were short films made of actors left alone, unaware they were being filmed, in order to capture them at their most natural.  To the left, Sarah Thom is recreating Sleep, the nearly five and a half hour long film of a man sleeping.

Unfortunately, Thom is pretty restless so she finds an audience member to take her place being projected napping in bed.  Smith has a role to play in Kitchen so she also recruits an audience volunteer to take over her screen test.  Eventually the entire quartet is replaced, with audience actors wearing earphones so that the off-screen Gob Squad actors with hand-held microphones can whisper to them lines and stage directions.  These aren't quick audience participation cameos.  Some of them are on for over half the show.

Bits of other Warhol films, with self-explanatory titles like Eat, Kiss and Blow Job are given their due and though the evening is scripted, one audience member is drawn into an extended improvisational moment that, if the subject is willing, can turn quite intimate.  The subject was willing the night I attended and for once, that bit of authenticity that Gob Squad was aiming for was there; a tender and honest scene played touchingly in black and white.

In a very funny and clever show that boasts some truly original and inventive moments, that's the one thing I wasn't expecting.

Photos by David Baltzer.

Click here to follow Michael Dale on Twitter.

Click here for Michael Dale's Twitterized theatre reviews.

 

Posted on: Tuesday, January 24, 2012 @ 04:15 AM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback


Broadway Grosses: Week Ending 1/22 & Theatre Quote of the Week

"We can make ourselves actors, but only the audience can make a star."

-- Jose Ferrer

 

The grosses are out for the week ending 1/22/2012 and we've got them all right here in BroadwayWorld.com's grosses section.

Up for the week was: CHINGLISH (11.2%), WIT (9.8%), THE MOUNTAINTOP (8.6%), GODSPELL (4.7%), JERSEY BOYS (3.5%), SPIDER-MAN TURN OFF THE DARK (1.5%),

Down for the week was: SISTER ACT (-13.4%), MEMPHIS (-12.2%), MAMMA MIA! (-10.8%), MARY POPPINS (-9.5%), OTHER DESERT CITIES (-8.7%), ANYTHING GOES (-7.1%), THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (-6.9%), ROCK OF AGES (-5.8%), SEMINAR (-5.0%), CHICAGO (-3.8%), RELATIVELY SPEAKING (-3.8%), WICKED (-3.6%), STICK FLY (-3.4%), THE ROAD TO MECCA (-3.3%), PORGY AND BESS (-3.2%), FOLLIES (-2.9%), HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING (-2.7%), ON A CLEAR DAY YOU CAN SEE FOREVER (-2.6%), PRISCILLA QUEEN OF THE DESERT (-1.2%), WAR HORSE (-0.4%), THE LION KING (-0.1%),

Posted on: Monday, January 23, 2012 @ 05:21 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback


The Road To Mecca

There's a beautiful softness that bathes every artistic aspect of director Gordon Edelstein's graceful and endearing production of Athol Fugard's meditation on independence through creativity, The Road To Mecca.

The walls of Michael Yeargan's set, representing the home of an aging artist living in an isolated South African village, have the appearance of being covered in watery dyes.  Peter Kaczorowski's lighting unobtrusively provides pockets on intimacy in the large, candlelit dwelling, displaying numerous creations and oddities.

And, of course, there's the exceptional company - Carla Gugino, Jim Dale and especially Rosemary Harris - giving delicate, but fully fleshed, portrayals that make for a deeply moving evening.

Written in the mid-1980s, the play is inspired by the real-life story of Helen Martins, a reclusive outsider artist who, until her death in 1976, spent the last years of her life creating glittering works from crushed glass, wire and cement; most notably over 300 statues displayed in her garden, primarily owls, pointing east.  The home has been kept intact as a museum and is now a national monument known as The Owl House.

Fugard's fiction has the elderly Miss Helen (Harris) struggling with the limitations that come with aging.  Her letter describing her distressed indecision about her future, sent to her younger friend, Elsa (Gugino), has prompted the Cape Town schoolteacher to make a twelve-hour drive to find out what is wrong.  Their conversation, which takes up the bulk of the first act, doesn't set up a plot, but rather establishes a relationship where Elsa's affection for Miss Helen is as both a person and as a symbol of what she can do with her own life by denying the conventions put upon her sex.

Elsa is furious when the minister Marius (Dale) arrives trying to convince Miss Helen that she would be better off in a retirement home and lashes out at her friend when she hesitates to immediately refuse.  Though Marius has great feelings for Miss Helen, and is concerned for her well-being, he's also concerned about how the locals regard her with suspicion and take offense at her outdoor display; works he considers blasphemous.

Perhaps it's hearing Marius' description of her statues as "monstrosities" ("Your life has become as grotesque as those creations of yours.") and Elsa's defensive, "She dared to be different," that gives Miss Helen the strength to stand by her choices.  An inspiring second act speech, wondrously played with heartfelt dignity by Harris, is a tribute to those who dare to create their own paradise and live within it as they choose.

Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: Rosemary Harris and Carla Gugino; Bottom: Jim Dale and Rosemary Harris.

Click here to follow Michael Dale on Twitter.

Click here for Michael Dale's Twitterized theatre reviews.

Posted on: Monday, January 23, 2012 @ 05:01 AM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback


Fred Barton Presents - And Thinks You're Gonna Love It!

In these days of ever-shrinking Broadway orchestras, it's rather refreshing to walk into a cabaret room and find that seats have been removed from an otherwise sold-out house in order to fit a nine-piece musical ensemble.

But in the unusually titled Fred Barton Presents - And Thinks You're Gonna Love It!, the accomplished musician best known for his long-running gig as Forbidden Broadway's original music director and as performer/writer of the nutty solo musical Miss Gulch Returns, conducts an ensemble of three brasses, three woodwinds, bass, percussion and piano in treating showtune-savvy ears to a lively evening of theatre music featuring his own dynamic orchestrations.

The once a month show (next appearing February 12th) has Barton hosting with a wry sense of theatre-centric humor and a flamboyantly jaunty conducting style reminiscent of Cab Calloway.  While there are standards in the mix, ("All The Things You Are" "Make Someone Happy") the focus is on theatre songs that aren't heard as often as they should be.

Joining in for his January appearance were piano bar favorite Elena Bennett, a classy-dame belter with a vibrant personality - kicking out big band vocals on "It's a Helluva Way To Run A Love Affair" and giving a soft and thoughtful feeling to "Ribbons Down My Back - and Damon Kirsche, a handsome lad with a pleasing high baritone and a knack for comedy, playing a sleazy theatre agent in "Ten Percent" and a sermonizing preacher in "A Picture of Happiness."

Jule Styne was represented quite a bit this particular night, which began with our host just barely covering his distain as he endured listen to a medley of selections from The Lion King, Mamma Mia and Spring Awakening before tearing into a rousing instrumental Dixieland arrangement of "Penniless Bums" to serve as the overture.  Among the Styne selections was Kirsche's deliciously self-loving "My Fortune Is My Face" and Bennett's knockout brassy "Hold Me, Hold Me, Hold Me."  Kirsche was joined by guest Jesse Luttrell for some Hope and Crosby-ish antics in a vocal reprise of "Penniless Bums."  Another guest was Karen Wilder, delightful in a swing arrangement of Kraukeur and Oppenheim's "Struttin' To Sutton Place."

The special guest of the evening was Pamela Myers, who brought down the house with a searing "What Did I Have That I Don't Have?"  The host charmed in patter and novelty numbers such as Cole Porter's "Don't Monkey With Broadway" and Grossman and Hackady's "Don't Be Anything Less Than Everything You Can Be."

There'll be a different assortment of singers for each edition of Fred Barton Presents - And Thinks You're Gonna Love It!, and if they're anything like this past one, serious showtune lovers should be in for some swell nights.

Click here to follow Michael Dale on Twitter.

Click here for Michael Dale's Twitterized theatre reviews.

Posted on: Saturday, January 21, 2012 @ 03:34 AM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback


Broadway Grosses: Week Ending 1/15 & Theatre Quote of the Week

"I was as content Off-Broadway as I was in a big Hollywood movie and I just try to be content wherever I am."

-- James Earl Jones

 

The grosses are out for the week ending 1/15/2012 and we've got them all right here in BroadwayWorld.com's grosses section.

Up for the week was: THE ROAD TO MECCA (23.8%), FOLLIES (15.0%), PORGY AND BESS (7.4%), CHINGLISH (6.8%), THE MOUNTAINTOP (5.8%), ON A CLEAR DAY YOU CAN SEE FOREVER (4.7%), MAMMA MIA! (4.3%), WIT (3.7%), THE LION KING (2.7%), WICKED (1.9%), OTHER DESERT CITIES (1.7%), STICK FLY (0.1%),

Down for the week was: MARY POPPINS (-17.8%), CHICAGO (-12.0%), SEMINAR (-10.1%), JERSEY BOYS (-7.5%), GODSPELL (-7.4%), SPIDER-MAN TURN OFF THE DARK (-5.6%), SISTER ACT (-5.1%), PRISCILLA QUEEN OF THE DESERT (-4.9%), THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (-4.9%), ROCK OF AGES (-4.5%), AN EVENING WITH PATTI LUPONE AND MANDY PATINKIN (-4.5%), ANYTHING GOES (-3.6%), HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING (-2.3%), RELATIVELY SPEAKING (-0.4%), MEMPHIS (-0.3%),

Posted on: Tuesday, January 17, 2012 @ 02:15 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback


Marilyn Maye: By Request

I've heard it said that there was this Australian fellow playing the Broadhurst recently who regularly had his audiences whipped up into quite a frenzy.  I've also heard of a Liverpool quartet that could pack screaming fans into a sold out Shea Stadium.  Now, I couldn't tell you if the decibel level was just as high at The Metropolitan Room last week when an American gal named Marilyn Maye was frequently honored with roaring ovations on the final night of her quickie engagement called Marilyn By Request, but I bet Messrs. Jackman, McCartney and Starr would be quite delighted to be still inspiring such boisterous affection as they were approaching their 84th birthdays.

There's nothing nostalgic about watching Marilyn Maye perform, which is a great part of what makes her shows so exciting.  Sure, her repertoire consists mainly of American Songbook standards and she'll throw in a story about Ray Charles or Johnny Carson now and then, but perhaps it's because her warm and expressive voice is in such spectacular shape that she never lets your mind wander back to how good she used to sound.  The emphasis is on the here when she time travels through Sondheim's survivalist anthem, "I'm Still Here," singing it with the relaxed satisfaction of a woman who won't have any regrets about anything that led up to where she is now.

And despite that lyric's proclamation that she should be camp by now, she can actually open her show by sashaying through the audience to Kool & The Gang's "Celebration" without a hint of silliness because she believes in the message of the song just as strongly as she does of her traditional encore, Jerry Herman's "It's Today."  In between she sang for nearly two hours and you couldn't call one note of the evening excessive.

The theme of the three-night run was that audience members could request songs as they made their reservations, meaning Maye, music director/pianist Billy Stritch, drummer Ray Marchica and bassist Tom Hubbard had to put together a new set list for each performance.  Most likely there was overlap when it came to classic Maye interpretations like her heartbreaking "Guess Who I Saw Tonight?" and her biggest "commercial" success, a three-year stint as spokes-singer for Lincoln Mercury, singing praises to their latest car models to the tune of "Step To The Rear."  But this was a house full of people who were hip to all the latest Marilyn Maye selections, so there was even a request for Jerry Herman's "You I Like," the 11 o'clock polka from The Grand Tour that the canny vocalist flips into cool syncopation.

A more introspective moment late in the evening had Maye wondering aloud how much longer she could go on performing.  When an enthused voice called out, "Forever!," the saloon singer turned just a tad serious about facing the realism of time, and how happy it makes her to be giving master classes, so that her knowledge and experience can be passed on to a new generation of vocalists.

But again, Marilyn Maye is all about the here and now.  And right now I dare you to name a more exciting entertainer in all of Gotham.

Click here to follow Michael Dale on Twitter.

Click here for Michael Dale's Twitterized theatre reviews.

Posted on: Friday, January 13, 2012 @ 06:16 AM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback


Outside People: I Think I'm Gonna Like It Here

By my count, Outside People is the third theatre piece about a white American in contemporary China to hit town this season.  On the tails of Mike Daisey's The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs and David Henry Hwang's Chinglish, Zayd Dohrn's dark comedy deals with Yankee naiveté regarding cultural differences when it comes to sex and business overseas.

Geeky filmmaker Malcolm (Matt Dellapina), drowning in his own neuroses, arrives in Beijing at the urging of his old college roommate, Chinese-born Da Wei, a/k/a David (Nelson Lee), who wants to set him up with a job.  David is a hotshot in some unspecified business and before his pal has even had a chance to rest up from his flight he has him in a hip lounge sharing drinks with a beautiful local, Xiao Mei (Li Jun Li).  With their limited knowledge of each other's language, the two can barely hold a conversation, but at the end of the evening Xiao Mei makes it crystal clear to the surprised American that she intends spend the night in his bed.

Xiao Mei works for David; not exactly as a prostitute but technically as Malcolm's language instructor.  (This, after the first two scenes have established their difficulty communicating.)  As David explains to his bud, being an American with the ability to take a woman away from China through marriage pushes him up a few points on the dating scale and makes him a more attractive assignment to women like Xiao Mei.

While Malcolm has convinced himself that he has fallen in love with a woman whose motives he doesn't trust, David has his own issues with his moneyed Cameroonian girlfriend Samanya (Sonequa Martin-Green), who resents being thought of as foreign after being raised in China.

While the setup has promise, as well as the theme of how each character is seen as an outsider, the men are scripted in such unrealistic extremes that the story turns to fluff.  Lee is appropriately slick and self-centered as David, but the character's disregard for women is so broadly written that the actor might as well be twirling a greasy moustache between his fingers.  Malcolm's innocence in the way he accepts being thought of as a prize in China after seeing himself as a loser in the states borders on stupidity.

Despite its flaws, the script has some solid moments and clever exchanges.  There's a sweetly comic scene where Malcolm tries telling Xiao Mei before they have sex that he has herpes.  But quite a bit of the play is spoken in Mandarin without the use of subtitles and unfortunately those moments are not scripted in a manner that lets an English-speaking audience in on what's being said.

Still, director Evan Cabnet's slick and sexy production, played by a capable cast, is suitably entertaining for much of the play's ninety minutes.  It's just when you're looking for something beneath the shiny surface that Outside People loses its attractiveness.

Photos by Carol Rosegg: Top: Li Jun Li and Matthew Dellapina; Bottom: Li Jun Li, Nelson Lee, Sonequa Martin-Green and Matthew Dellapina.

Click here to follow Michael Dale on Twitter.

Click here for Michael Dale's Twitterized theatre reviews.

Posted on: Wednesday, January 11, 2012 @ 04:36 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.