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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.


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Shatner's World: We Just Live In It & Tokio Confidential


Oddly enough, the most interesting personal observation to be pondered in Shatner's World: We Just Live In It is spoken, not by the titular William Shatner, but by Patrick Stewart.  In a television clip, a conversation between the two captains of the Starship Enterprise, Stewart explains how, despite his acclaim as a classical actor of the stage, he's quite certain that his role of Captain Jean-Luc Picard on Star Trek: The Next Generation, is what he will ultimately be remembered for.  And he's fine with that.

Shatner's reaction, in the clip, is that Stewart's words have helped him realize that he, too, would be fine with being ultimately remembered as Captain James T. Kirk.  It's a wonderful moment of two artists sharing a unique bond, unless you think too much about how for Stewart it means not being remembered for his Macbeth, Prospero and Othello and for Shatner it means not being remembered for Denny Crane, "Rocket Man" and encouraging us to name our own hotel and airline prices.

And for someone who's fine with being remembered for the role he played for three seasons on the original Star Trek, he doesn't devote much time to talking about it in his ninety minute solo show, directed by Scott Faris.  Sure, his first entrance involves a fun little transporter joke, and he doesn't waste much time before he's trashing George Takai for not being funny, but nobody should attend expecting detailed accounts of his television experiences.

Do expect to learn many intimate details about horse breeding (it's not as pleasant for the male horse as you would think), an analysis of Dick Shawn's brilliance as a comic (no argument here) and some fond memories of hitchhiking across America, drooling for burlesque queen Lily St. Cyr and wanting to be like the baggy-pants clowns who knocked out corny jokes between strip-teases.

At age 81, Shatner is an energetic, slightly salty-tongued, good guy with a likeable stage presence.  He's like the somewhat eccentric relative you get to see on holidays who always has some fun memories to share.  And for fans, that can be a perfectly enjoyable way to spend an evening.  Just don't visit the Music Box Theatre expecting to see something, well, theatrical.  Billy Crystal, Elaine Stritch, Carrie Fisher and especially John Leguizamo have all achieved success with bio-solo shows by approaching them as plays involving serious character study.  Shatner's on stage chatting for an hour and a half and not really investing anything especially dramatic.

Yes, there's talk of the tragic death of his wife, Nerine, and his other difficulties with divorce and raising his three children, but the actor seems more excited about anecdotes involving meeting Koko the Gorilla, understudying Christopher Plummer and how, he claims, he single-handedly turned The World of Suzy Wong from a flop Broadway drama into a hit Broadway comedy by adopting his now trademark acting style of spurts of fast-talking interrupted by abrupt pauses.

The running theme throughout the show is his admirable belief in taking chances.  (Yes, he does talk about his recording career.)  "It's easy to say 'no,'" he advises.  "It's risky to say 'yes.'"  Shatner certainly took a risk in bringing this show to Broadway.  I only wish someone had asked him if he wanted a good playwright to collaborate on the text with him so he could have responded, "yes."

Photo by Joan Marcus.

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Bookwriter/composer/lyricist Eric Schorr receives an enchanting production of his chamber musical Tokio Confidential from director Johanna McKeon; lovely visuals, good acting and a strong singing ensemble.  But while his story of an American woman's unusual adventure in 19th Century Japan has an interesting setup, the plot's silly second act turn and an overload of extraneous material keep the evening from truly satisfying.

The charming Jill Paice, whose beautiful soprano is put to good use by the delicate score, plays Isabella Archer (almost, but not quite the same name as the protagonist in Henry James' The Portrait of a Lady), an American Civil War widow who arrives in Japan to explore the newly-opened land that so enamored her husband.  Upon arriving, she finds her sponsor has recently passed away and she would have been forced to leave on the next ship if not for the kindness of Ernest Osmond (Jeff Kready), an American who teaches western art history to the Japanese, although he feels they have an insufficient appreciation for their own art.

After Isabella becomes fascinated by an elaborate tattoo she sees on a local, Ernest introduces her to Horiyoshi (Mel Maghuyop), who is in the awkward position of being the country's most acclaimed tattoo artist in a time when the government, fearing it would seem barbaric to foreigners, bans the practice.

There's a loophole, however.  Tattooing foreigners is permitted and when Isabella expresses a desire to have her back fully covered with Horiyoshi's ink, they begin regular sessions, much to the consternation of the artist's lover, Sachiko (a sweet-singing and subtly funny Manna Nichols).  A romance ensues and so does a plan to see to it that Horiyoshi's work is seen beyond the limits of where Isabella chooses to travel.  And that's when the plot gets silly.

Though Schorr's music is attractive, his lyrics lack the complexity of the story being told, and the ghost-like presence of Isabella's husband, Ralph (Benjamin McHugh), along with the presentation of a Noh play attended by Ulysses S. Grant (Mike O'Carroll), who is confronted by the widow whose husband was killed in the Battle of Shiloh, add little of significance.  However, David M. Barber's graceful projections of Japanese-style art work that are choreographed onto upstage screens throughout the musical, make valuable visual embellishments.

Photo of Mel Maghuyop and Jill Paice by Ellis Gaskell.

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Posted on: Friday, February 17, 2012 @ 05:45 AM Posted by: Michael Dale


How I Learned To Drive

Given its pedigree as a Pulitzer winner that swept every playwriting award an Off-Broadway entry could win during its premiere run in 1997, you would think that Paula Vogel's How I Learned To Drive would follow the lead of other Off-Broadway successes like Driving Miss Daisy, Steel Magnolias and, most recently, Wit, and return to New York in a Broadway production.

Well, Second Stage's fine new mounting by Kate Whoriskey certainly boasts a Broadway star in Norbert Leo Butz.  And the recognizable television/film name quota is satisfied by the presence of Elizabeth Reaser (also an experienced stage actress), but perhaps Broadway isn't quite ready for a drama (with quite a bit of comedy) about the relationship between an underage girl and her pedophile uncle that doesn't make him completely a villain and her completely a victim.

Told in a series of memory scenes that jump back and forth chronologically, the story is narrated by Li'l Bit (Reaser), recalling her years in 1960s Maryland as an early-developing girl in a sexually repressed household that makes her feel humiliated for her large breasts.

Kevin Cahoon and Marnie Schulenburg, who each play multiple roles, are both funny and horrifying as her grandparents; a child bride who believes the female orgasm is a lie and her vulgar, sexist husband.  Jennifer Regan doubles as Li'l Bit's Aunt Mary, who is loyal to her husband, Peck (Butz), despite knowing there's something wrong with him, and her mother, who doubts the innocence of her adolescent daughter.

By comparison, Peck can seem very much the cool grown-up, particularly as played by Butz with a soothing drawl and an easy going, respectful manner.  (He seems the sturdy role model in a monologue dramatizing a fishing lesson he gives his young nephew, an unseen character.)  In teaching Li'l Bit how to drive he's offering her an escape from the embarrassment of home life and a chance to feel in control.  He's the only family member who encourages her to go to college and even introduces her to sophisticated things like dinners in fancy seafood restaurants where the staff is lax about allowing young ladies to sample martinis.  (Accenting this episode is a hilarious turn by Regan, lecturing the audience on proper cocktail behavior for ladies.)  While Li'l Bit is certainly in a vulnerable position, she's precocious enough to believe she can be in control, especially as she nears the age of consent.

In telling her story, Reaser presents a Li'l Bit who is staying firmly in the present, unwilling to bring herself back too closely to her childhood self.  This makes determining her age in different scenes a bit tricky, but is an understandable defense mechanism.  Given the subject matter, the production is surprisingly unemotional; the cold acceptance of the events providing the requisite discomfort.

Photo of Elizabeth Reaser and Norbert Leo Butz by Joan Marcus.

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Posted on: Tuesday, February 14, 2012 @ 04:25 AM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback


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

"When you end a successful sitcom, the most sensible thing to do is go back to the theater."

-- John Lithgow

 

The grosses are out for the week ending 2/12/2012 and we've got them all right here in BroadwayWorld.com's grosses section.

Up for the week was: WICKED (6.9%), MARY POPPINS (6.3%), SPIDER-MAN TURN OFF THE DARK (5.3%), THE LION KING (4.0%), ROCK OF AGES (1.4%),

Down for the week was: PORGY AND BESS (-15.0%), STICK FLY (-11.9%), SEMINAR (-8.8%), SISTER ACT (-8.5%), THE ROAD TO MECCA (-8.1%), MEMPHIS (-8.0%), THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (-6.9%), ANYTHING GOES (-5.8%), HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING (-4.3%), MAMMA MIA! (-4.2%), CHICAGO (-4.2%), WAR HORSE (-4.2%), OTHER DESERT CITIES (-3.9%), WIT (-3.8%), JERSEY BOYS (-3.4%), GODSPELL (-2.6%), PRISCILLA QUEEN OF THE DESERT (-1.3%),

Posted on: Monday, February 13, 2012 @ 04:26 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback


Merrily We Roll Along: Back To Before

The original Broadway cast album of Stephen Sondheim and George Furth's Merrily We Roll Along is one of those handful of recordings - like Mack and Mabel and Candide - that a musical theatre lover can listen to hundreds of times without hearing a clue as to why the show flopped.  The quick answer, and usually the most unfair one, is "the book."  More often, though, the more complete answer is ambition.

For every perfectly pleasant and innocuously enjoyable show that has won the Tony Award for Best Musical, there is probably at least one other show with recognizably superior components that quickly closed because the sum of its parts couldn't match the ambitions of its creators.  Back in 1981, I was one of those who caught a preview of Merrily We Roll Along and found it to be, for multiple reasons, a mess.  But shortly after the conclusion of its 16-peformance run, the original Broadway cast album was released and much of the theatre community came to recognize that trapped in a production that wasn't working was a score that contained some serious brilliance.

And so Merrily We Roll Along has gone through decades of tinkering, beginning with a 1985 revision directed by James Lapine, who mounts the new Encores! staged concert.  And while this version remains a troubled musical, its material can be considered vastly superior to most of the new ones that make it to Broadway these days, and the opportunity to hear a 23 piece orchestra playing Jonathan Tunick's dynamic orchestrations for Sondheim's catchiest score makes this a major musical theatre event.

Merrily gets its name and basic structure from a short-running Kaufman and Hart straight play from 1934, concerning characters who appear to be thinly-veiled stand-ins for Kaufman's Algonquin Round Table buddies, a group that were collectively the talk of the town in the 1920s, but who many considered as has-beens who wasted their potential for greatness in the decade that followed.  As penned by Kaufman and Hart, a successful playwright (perhaps patterned after Robert Benchley, who made a cozy living doing short subjects in Hollywood) has reached the age of 40 achieving great success writing flimsy formula comedies.  His close friend, a wise-cracking novelist (definitely based on Dorothy Parker) has been driven to drink by his romantic disinterest in her, though she has the support of their mutual friend, a painter (Alexander Woollcott?).

The play began in the then-present 1934, with each scene shuffling back a few years until the bitter, unlikable gent of 40 ends the evening as a 22-year-old college graduate looking starry-eyed at the potential of his future.  It was director Harold Prince's idea to cast a musical version of the play with a young, inexperienced company of actors playing roles spanning the years from 1980 back to 1957; beginning with a financially successful but artistically numb Broadway composer turned film producer named Franklin Shepard giving a speech to the graduating class of his old high school about the realities of life and the need to make compromises.  In the title song, which is reprised throughout the show, the chorus of graduating seniors sings of sticking to your dreams and enjoying the unpredictable bends in the road as you stay true to your goals.  Meanwhile, we see Franklin make life decisions that alienate his two best friends, Mary (still a novelist who loves him) and Charley (his bookwriter/lyricist partner), while cheating on his wife with a woman who can advance his career.

In the Lapine version, the kids are axed in favor of a company of actors who appear in their 30s and 40s, playing a non-specific chorus singing the same sentiments.  The naïve optimism of the lyric seems a bit awkward when voiced by more seasoned adults, but the words are now upstaged by a series of projections and film clips by Wendell K. Harrington that not only give us a chronological sense of the story, but also help us see where these fictional characters stood in American pop culture.  We see appearances with Dick Cavett, political activism with John and Yoko and magazine spreads with photos that are reminiscent of other true-to-life shots.

Whether it's optimistic graduates or flashback memories, the attempt seems to be to give the audience some emotional connection to the trio as we see them play out some ugly situations in the early scenes.  The knock on Merrily has always been that there's no empathy for the main characters.  Actually, there's plenty of empathy; all of it occurring during the last quarter of the show.

Every musical needs a song early in the story that makes you care about what happens, and Merrily We Roll Along has an outstanding one in "Our Time," which is used in a scene that has Franklin, Charley and Mary meeting on a rooftop to see the Soviet space capsule Sputnik cross the evening sky.  As they watch in amazement at this wonder of humankind, they sing with conviction that they're, "the names in tomorrow's papers," ready to show the world what they've got.  It's an uplifting sentiment that most anyone who has, or has had, youthful ambition can relate to, but although the song is sung at the beginning of the story, it's the final scene of the musical.

Following "Our Time" chronologically, but preceding it in the show, is a dazzlingly complex musical scene, "Opening Doors," which takes us through the early, struggling years where Franklin and Charley work on their musical while Mary avoids working on her book; the three of them juggling their art, their day jobs and their lovers until, frustrated by continual rejections, they get the idea to put on the clever Greenwich Village revue that would turn them from total unknowns to sorta popular with a certain hip downtown niche.  It's an exhilarating piece that builds excitement for what's going to happen next.

But what happens next already happened first.  The musical begins with a scene where Franklin, a successful film producer, is celebrating the opening of his new Hollywood blockbuster.  Mary, a depressed lush who could never follow up on the success of her first book, wisecracks her way through the crowd of phonies, giving her honest opinion of both the movie and the way Franklin has destroyed his family.  Soon after, we're introduced to Charley, who feels betrayed by Franklin for his continued refusal to begin work on a new, politically-minded musical in favor of more profitable ventures.  The scene contains another brilliant piece of writing, "Franklin Shepard, Inc.," a musical patter monologue where Charley admonishes his partner on a live television broadcast for choosing money over achieving his artistic potential.

Perhaps Merrily We Roll Along is a musical best seen at least twice, allowing viewers to have more sympathy for the characters we meet in act one because of the affection we know we'll have for them in act two.  Also, Sondheim and Furth's complete commitment to telling the story backwards means that many clever moments go unrecognized because we've yet to see their set-ups.  For example, in one scene we see Joe, who produces Franklin and Charley's first Broadway hit, uncontrollably singing along to a catchy tune the boys are playing.  The moment is only funny if you know that later in the show, but chronologically earlier in the story, Joe will complain that the song, when he hears it at a faster tempo with a different lyric, just isn't hummable.

That song, by the way, which begins in the story as the jaunty love tune, "Who Wants To Live In New York?" and then is revised into the gorgeous bittersweet ballad, "Good Thing Going," is part of another backwards joke; we first hear it as part of a glitzy, razzle-dazzle production number performed by Gussie, the Broadway star who cheats on Joe with Franklin.

The score's big dramatic ballad, the soaring torcher, "Not A Day Goes By," is given to Beth, the young actress who divorces Franklin in act one after discovering his infidelity.  The unusual thing about the placement of the song, and of the grand finish Tunick gives the orchestration, is that the character has only been on stage for a few minutes.  We barely know her and now she has a huge emotional moment.  But the fact is that this, as far as the story goes, this is her exit music.  In the scenes that follow we'll see how she goes from being an innocent in love to a woman who feels she must deny her remaining feelings for the man who betrayed her.

It's a tough moment to play such a short time after making your first entrance, but Betsy Wolfe delivers a warm and sensitive turn.  Lapine's staging is pretty simple throughout the evening, which is understandable considering the short rehearsal period used to put these concerts together, but the fine character work throughout keeps the evening ticking.  As Franklin and Gussie, the two most opportunistic ladder-climbers in the piece, Colin Donnell and Elizabeth Stanley each manage to covey the nicer qualities of their characters and we see them as talented, struggling youngsters who get seduced by fame.  Adam Grupper's Joe is a funny, sweetheart of a mogul with a constant eye on the box office and no time for art.

Charley is known to be played as a bit of a hyper New York neurotic, but Lin-Manuel Miranda's take is more thoughtful and controlled.  The revised script and projections paint him as a political activist and Miranda's serious manner during "Franklin Shepard, Inc." leaves the impression that his outburst is a deliberate act of protest.

Though certainly an adult, Celia Keenan-Bolger is an actress who frequently projects adolescent qualities.  This makes her Mary unusual, but still very effective as she spits out the Parker-ish wit in a slightly overplayed manner, like a precocious girl trying to prove herself to be a woman.  She's the smartest person in the room who is looked upon as a child by her peers, which sinks her into depression until her barbs lose their sting and just become nasty.

"Don't be so clever," Charley and Franklin are told by Broadway producers looking for their next hit, so it's appropriate that Merrily We Roll Along, despite being well admired among Sondheim fans and having a score that contains two songs - "Good Thing Going" and "Not A Day Goes By" - regarded by connoisseurs as American Songbook standards, might be too clever to ever be a Broadway hit.

Oh, what those tourists are missing.

Photos by Joan Marcus:  Top: Celia Keenan-Bolger, Colin Donnell and Lin-Manuel Miranda; Bottom: Elizabeth Stanley and Company.

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Posted on: Monday, February 13, 2012 @ 05:54 AM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback


Myths and Hymns & Broadway Ballyhoo

When the Public Theater premiered Adam Guettel's Myths and Hymns in 1998 - under the title Saturn Returns - it was presented as a simple song cycle using chamber arrangements of pop, gospel and classical styles in a loose theme of exploring the human relationship to faith, utilizing traditional hymns and ancient myths.  In the new production presented by Prospect Theater Company, director Elizabeth Lucas, through snippets of connecting dialogue and short, silent scenes, gives the evening a bit of a narrative.  The result is too thin to add any dramatic heft, but not so intrusive as to distract from the poetry of the material and the tender and touching performances of her beautifully singing cast.

The ocean sound effects and Ann Bartek's versatile design place us in a seaside home, inhabited by a frightened widow (Linda Balgord) who has locked herself in the attic.  Her daughter (Anika Larsen) pounds on the door, reminding her that her possessions are to be sold at auction in the morning.  The mother is silent and spends the evening with memories of the past; how her romantic, but pious husband (Bob Stillman) rejected their son (Lucas Steele) for being in a gay relationship with a young man played by Donell James Foreman (his multiple role part is named the "Shapeshifter") and how their daughter's unwed pregnancy with her boyfriend (Matthew Farcher) ended with an abortion.

While the concept is played out admirably, the drama is too generic in nature to have much of an impact because the songs are never directly about the new situations; Guettel's lyrics about Hero and Leander, Prometheus, Pegasus, Icarus and Sisyphus are used in an attempt to draw parallels instead.  Still, the evocative score is given an attractive treatment from Robert Meffe, who reduces Bruce Coughlin's original orchestrations to suit an ensemble of six, and by the well-textured performances of the company.

Photo of Bob Stillman, Linda Balgord and Ally Bonino by Richard Termine.

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While I generally don't discuss the price tag when reviewing shows, I think it's more than appropriate to mention that, thanks to producer/host Scott Siegel, it is possible to spend a late-night hour at one of Manhattan's most elegant cabaret rooms enjoying high-quality Broadway talent for a grand total of $20 plus tax and tip.

On Thursday nights at Feinstein's, the 11pm slot belongs to Broadway Ballyhoo, the show that gives you so much value for your money, Siegel nicknames it, "Don't Tell Michael."

There's nothing fancy about the setup.  Each performance is a "one night only" event with music director Jesse Kissel at piano and a quartet of musical theatre favorites singing showtunes.  This past Thursday night we were treated to the dashing and comical George Dvorsky ("Love Changes Everything" "Sara Lee" "Proud Lady"), the dynamic Farah Alvin ("My Funny Valentine" "Don't Rain On My Parade" "Back To Before"), the gently loveable D.C. Anderson ("Love, I Hear" "Marry Me A Little" "They Say That Falling In Love Is Wonderful") and the simply sensational Terri White ("Necessity" "When You're Good To Mama" "I Am Changing").

The mood is fun and casual, and Siegel hosts with his usual button-down humor.  ("Since it's the week before Valentine's Day, I can't think of a better song to include than this next one, except for one you're going to hear later.")

Past Ballyhoo performers have included Alice Ripley, Barbara Walsh, Marilyn Maye, Kevin Earley and Nancy Anderson, with updates on future guests posted at Siegel Presents.

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Posted on: Saturday, February 11, 2012 @ 05:34 AM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback


Rx: Lovesick

"If we knew what we were doing it wouldn't be called research," explains a pharmaceutical professional in Rx, Kate Fodor's comic romance set around the big business of health care.

Meena (Marin Hinkle), a one-time poet who now edits for Piggeries: American Cattle and Swine Magazine, is suffering from an ailment being called "workplace depression" that prompts her out of the office and into a secluded area of a nearby department store twice a day for crying fits.  "It's not a personal failing," explains Dr. Phil Grey (Stephen Kunken).  "It's a disease... we hope."

Meena has volunteered to take part in a trial for a new drug, SP-925 (Did you find the pun?), being developed by Phil's company to treat workplace depression in patients who earn at least $165,000 annually.  Meeting cute has rarely been played with such endearing neuroticism.  Hinkle and Kunken are both very believable in playing people with cold, detached surfaces that barely cover a longing for emotional connections.  Meena has settled for a life without her dreams; Phil has succeeded in life by not having any dreams.

But when Phil decides to read a copy of Meena's only published book of poems, it sets off a cycle of actions guaranteed to sink any scientific accuracy.  Is Meena in love or just feeling the effects of the drug?  Does she really want to be in a relationship, now that she's feeling good about herself?  Does Phil know the truth behind her changing personality?  And will his feelings for her drive him to find a way to obtain samples of the experimental heartbreak remedy, SP-214.

Rx starts off like gangbusters, with solid contributions by the always adorably oddball Marylouise Burke (as a shopper who befriends Meena during one if her crying episodes) and Elizabeth Rich as an aggressively cheery, better-life-through-medicine spokesperson.  Director Ethan McSweeny keeps the evening light and quirky, despite the play being made up of too many short scenes to really build up momentum.  But there just isn't enough romance or satire to satisfyingly fill the 100 minutes.  Fodor gives us lots of funny lines and an interesting romance but the big payoff we're expecting never occurs, and the play's shift in tone toward the end is a disappointment.

Photos by James Leynse:  Top: Stephen Kunken and Marin Hinkle; Bottom: Marylouise Burke.

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Posted on: Wednesday, February 08, 2012 @ 04:00 AM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback


Broadway Grosses: Week Ending 2/5 & Theatre Quote of the Week

"Amateurs hope, professionals work."


-- Garson Kanin

 

The grosses are out for the week ending 2/5/2012 and we've got them all right here in BroadwayWorld.com's grosses section.

Up for the week was: THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (6.3%), SISTER ACT (2.9%), SEMINAR (2.6%), ROCK OF AGES (0.8%), MAMMA MIA! (0.2%),

Down for the week was: WIT (-12.3%), WAR HORSE (-7.1%), THE LION KING (-6.8%), SPIDER-MAN TURN OFF THE DARK (-6.3%), JERSEY BOYS (-5.5%), WICKED (-4.2%), STICK FLY (-4.1%), PRISCILLA QUEEN OF THE DESERT (-4.0%), CHICAGO (-3.8%), MEMPHIS (-2.9%), HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING (-2.6%), MARY POPPINS (-2.2%), THE ROAD TO MECCA (-1.3%), PORGY AND BESS (-1.2%), OTHER DESERT CITIES (-0.3%), GODSPELL (-0.2%), ANYTHING GOES (-0.1%),

Posted on: Monday, February 06, 2012 @ 05:41 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback


Ionescopade & 10th Annual New York Nightlife Awards

Let's face it, nobody produces a song and sketch revue based on the plays of Ionesco in a theatre on the western outskirts of 55th Street expecting a commercial smash.  During the ten days in 1974 when the original production of Ionescopade ran Off-Broadway, lovers of musical theatre were lining up at box offices to see stars like Carol Channing in Lorelei, Debbie Reynolds in Irene, and Patty and Maxene Andrews in Over Here!  Younger playgoers were discovering themselves with Pippin and rocking out to Grease, while those who go for intellectual snob hits had their choice of the revival of Candide or the new Sondheim/Prince romance A Little Night Music.  Those venturing to Off-Broadway were still flocking to that fresh new musical, The Fantasticks, then in only its fifteenth year.

So the fun and frisky little show now arrives for a York Theatre revival as quite the curiosity.  Robert Allen Ackerman (original concept) and Mildred Kayden's (score) vaudevillian cavalcade riffing on the absurdist world of the Romanian born/French raised social commentator - whose work includes Rhinoceros, The Bald Soprano, The Chairs and Exit The King - may have snapped with sharper bites during the Watergate era then it does today (How does one define surreal in the age of reality television, Internet celebrities and family values politicians who cheat on their spouses?) but director/choreographer Bill Castellino's lively production, featuring a tireless ensemble of clowns and comics, keeps the amusement ride rolling.

After the on-stage band's spirited overture, peppered with Spike Jones style bells and whistles, the author himself appears, referred to as the Little Man (Samuel Cohen); a mute sometimes-magician with a love/hate relationship with his typewriter.  Yup, a bald soprano sings (Susan J. Jacks) with a fellow sporting a Rhinoceros horn bursting through his top hat (David Edwards) and two orange-headed clowns in beat-up formals (Tina Stafford and Leo Ash Evens) sing and dance and exchange corny quips ("Why does the atom bomb?  Because it can!").

Program notes explain the plays being references in each song and sketch, but you don't really need them to get the point of a group of citizens wildly praising their leader, who turns out to be a headless man.  Paul Binotto's torchy singing of the ballad "Madeleine," contrasts with David Edwards' rowdy music hall turn about a three-breasted woman "Josette."

That last number is part of the evening's best piece, a medley performed by the identical, happily conformist members of The Bobby Watson Family, which includes Nancy Anderson's standout moment, the comical lament for "My Ginger Wildcat."  Earlier, she and Evens impressively perform the violent actions of an apache dance.

Though Binotto's tense performance of a monologue from The Killer, is an unexpected highlight, the goofy subversity of the evening, despite a game effort from a talented company, comes off as a bit innocuous and Ionescopade is best viewed as charming museum piece.

Photos by Carol Rosegg: Top: Leo Ash Evens and Company; Bottom: Nancy Anderson and Leo Ash Evens.

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The first nine editions of the New York Nightlife Awards honored the top cabaret, jazz club and comedy club performers of the past year, but this time around producer Scott Siegel decided to dedicate the program to four artists for their ongoing contributions throughout their careers and to one special act that predates the annual Town Hall show.

Hosts Lucie Arnaz and Bill Irwin - their first time working together - displayed some terrific comic chemistry in their casual banter and introductions.  Arnaz and pianist Ron Abel opened the show with an intimate swing arrangement of "Hey, Look Me Over!," which her mother introduced on Broadway in Wildcat.  Later on, they added a cool Brazilian beat to the 1950s "swoon song," "Johnny Angel," in tribute to her father's Latin roots.  Irwin had the audience in stitches with his classic bits of juggling and vaudeville antics.

As is the Nightlife Awards' tradition, winners do not give acceptance speeches, but perform instead.  The first four honorees included Terri White for her years as a piano bar entertainer, powerfully singing unamplified renditions of "Sweet Beginning" and "Here's to Life."  Folk singer/songwriter Christine Lavin performed her comical ditty "The Moment Slipped Away," about a chance encounter with Barbara Barrie.  (Ms. Barrie was a special guest in the audience.)  Amanda McBroom sang one of her newer songs, the very funny "A Voter's Prayer" (pleading with our elected officials to "Keep it in your pants") before ending the first act with the song that brought her initial fame, "The Rose."  Ninety year old jazz legend Jon Hendricks, an original of the vocalese style, demonstrated his expertise with "Every Time They Play This Song" and "Jumpin' at the Woodside."

The novelty act of Christopher Durang and Dawne, performing together for the first time since 1996, were honored with a Retro Nightlife Award.  The trio, consisting of playwright Christopher Durang and backup singers Sherry Anderson and John Augustine specialized in deadpan cheesy vocal arrangements of showtunes like "Aldonza" and "Bali Ha'i" and pop fare like "I'm Too Sexy" and "Let's Get Physical."

The brisk evening, directed by Scott Coulter, also included performances by jazz singer Allan Harris, comedian Ray Ellin and cabaret artists Karen Oberlin, Karen Akers and Nellie McKay.

Photo of Bill Irwin and Lucie Arnaz by Stephen Sorokoff.

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Posted on: Monday, February 06, 2012 @ 03:35 AM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback


Wit

Despite its title, it's easy to forget what a funny play Margaret Edson's Wit is.  But then, this Pulitzer winner is as much about humor - the dry, detached kind - and its power to attack and defend as it is about a woman's slow and painful death from late stage ovarian cancer.

Dr. Vivian Bearing (Cynthia Nixon), a literature professor with a particular passion for dissecting every punctuational possibility in the metaphysical poetry of Elizabethan John Donne (His "Death Be Not Proud" is a running theme.) is placed in the abstract position of spending the final moments of her life narrating a play about her treatment.  ("It is not my intention to give away the plot, but I think I die at the end.")

Vivian is not particularly pleased with her task, especially since she's been told there would humor involved, but she soldiers on, playing scenes which tell how her cancer was discovered at such a late stage that the only hope to extend her life would be very heavy doses of an experimental chemotherapy.  It won't cure her and it will be very painful.  With no friends or family members to be concerned about, she accepts, knowing her participation may help increase medical knowledge.  The woman who has devoted her life to literary research now becomes the subject matter for scientific research.

With Lynne Meadow directing, Nixon pulls off the exceedingly difficult task of keeping the acerbic Vivian sympathetic; not the easiest acting job even with Edson's exceptional text.  With her youthful round face under a hairless skull and sporting a red baseball cap, she somewhat resembles American culture's most loveable loser, Charlie Brown, trying to keep her composure in an unwinnable situation.  Her distain for the imperfections of others is matched with a self-depreciating smirk when encountering the indignities of her hospital stay, drawing the audience in with an us-versus-them view of the people surrounding her.

The fine supporting company does not have a great deal of depth to work with, their characters being more representations than people.  Michael Countryman is the businesslike doctor who oversees her treatment, Greg Keller is the young doctor who nearly aced her course in college (and who, like his former professor, keeps forgetting his professional requirement to show concern for others) and Carra Patterson is the truly compassionate nurse who becomes a comfort to Vivian when she finds her normal defense mechanisms useless.

Nixon's evolution of Vivian from a content intellectual loner to someone who is able to make peace with what is beyond her control is delicately done without an ounce of cheap sentiment; just the way Dr. Bearing would have wanted it.  It's a beautifully crafted performance in a demanding and emotion-tugging drama.

Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: Cynthia Nixon; Bottom: Cynthia Nixon and Greg Keller.

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Posted on: Thursday, February 02, 2012 @ 04:14 AM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback


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.

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


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




About Michael: After 20-odd years singing, dancing and acting in dinner theatres, summer stocks and the ever-popular audience participation murder mysteries (try improvising with audiences after they?ve had two hours of open bar), Michael Dale segued his theatrical ambitions into playwriting. The buildings which once housed the 5 Off-Off Broadway plays he penned have all been destroyed or turned into a Starbucks, but his name remains the answer to the trivia question, "Who wrote the official play of Babe Ruth's 100th Birthday?" He served as Artistic Director for The Play's The Thing Theatre Company, helping to bring free live theatre to underserved communities, and dabbled a bit in stage managing and in directing cabaret shows before answering the call (it was an email, actually) to become BroadwayWorld.com's first Chief Theatre Critic. While not attending shows Michael can be seen at Shea Stadium pleading for the Mets to stop imploding. Likes: Strong book musicals and ambitious new works. Dislikes: Unprepared celebrities making their stage acting debuts by starring on Broadway and weak bullpens.
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