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1776: SPOILER: They vote in favor of independence

As is frequently noted by lovers of strong book musicals, part of the brilliance of Sherman Edwards (score) and Peter Stone's (book) 1776, their 1969 Broadway tuner about the efforts of John Adams to convince the continental congress to vote for independency from Great Britain, is that the audience walks into the theatre knowing full well how it's going to end, and yet the authors (and history) keep you on the edge of your seat wondering how the devil it's going to happen.  With a unanimous vote necessary ("So that no colony be torn from its mother country without its own consent.") and Pennsylvania's John Dickinson leading the arguments for property-owners whose personal economy is protected by loyalty to the crown and South Carolina's Edward Rutledge keeping the deep south unified in favor of individual states rights that protect their practice of slavery, June of '76 concludes with half the congress against independence.

While Stone's book maneuvers the facts just slightly to favor dramatic effect (My pet peeve with the show is that Dickinson, presented here as a staunch loyalist, was actually a patriotic pacifist who favored diplomacy over bloodshed and was nicknamed "The Penman of The Revolution.") it's a model of perfect musical theatre craft that features intelligent dialogue and controversial themes without ever being didactic or stuffy.  The lighter, comic moments flow easily from the characters and there's even a bit of heart-tugging romance.  While Edwards' lyrics may occasionally land awkwardly on the ear ("And just as Tom here has written / We say, 'To Hell with Great Britain.'"), there are gems throughout the evening.  "The Lees Of Old Virginia" is filled with toe-tapping fife and drum spirit, "Yours, Yours, Yours" is an eloquent ballad with lyrics based on the correspondence between John and Abigail Adams while he was fighting for independence in Philadelphia and she was fighting to keep the family farm from failing, and Adams' soaring proclamation of determination, "Is Anybody There?," (also based on his actually writings) ranks up there with "Rose's Turn" as one of the great dramatic 11 o'clock solos.

And if I have a few grievances with director Gordon Greenberg's otherwise splendid and very enjoyable Paper Mill Playhouse production, it doesn't squash my enthusiasm for the venture.  Nor should it keep anyone who might want to cleanse their theatrical pallets of dubious achievements like High School Musical and Mamma Mia (send your hate mail to from enjoying the refreshing breeze of well-written, thoughtfully acted musical theatre.

I'll start with my main complaint.  While I've enjoyed Don Stephenson's engaging musical comedy talents both on Broadway (as Leo Boom in The Producers) and off (starring in the Irish Rep's pocket production of Take Me Along), the interpretation of John Adams he and Greenberg present seems to exist on a different plane of reality from the rest of the production.  Sure, it's repeated throughout the piece that a major obstacle in having Adams being the spokesman for independence is that he's considered, "obnoxious and disliked," by his fellow congressmen, but while the other actors play for realism, Stephenson's nasal-voiced arrogance and pompous manner gives the impression that our future 2nd president was some secondary comical character out of a Charles Dickens novel.  There are times when he's outright foppish, delivering lines with haughty sarcasm, doing takes to the audience on punch lines and getting downright macaroni by tickling Thomas Jefferson's chest with a quill pen while trying to convince him to write the Declaration of Independence.  To his credit, Stephenson does what he does very well and did get quite a few laughs on opening night, but the interpretation poorly serves the show; particularly when the script demands sincerity.

Happily, the rest of the company scores quite well in their more traditionally-played roles.  Conrad John Schuck makes for a delightfully crusty-voiced but playful Benjamin Franklin and Kevin Earley nicely plays Thomas Jefferson's development from a shy, quiet congressman to an important statesman, but it's the Tories who provide the major fireworks.  The calm, understated elegance with which Robert Cuccioli's Dickinson points out the impossible odds against winning a war against Britain builds to a fierce and thrillingly sung crescendo as he leads his fellow loyalists in the conservative anthem, "Cool, Cool, Considerate Men."  As South Carolinian Rutledge, James Barbour savors his speeches with a smooth relaxing drawl that masks his character's firm control of the southern block.  With the score's most demanding song, "Molasses To Rum" (a condemnation of northern hypocrisy in damning slavery while profiting from it via the Triangle Trade), Barbour displays a magnificent sense of dramatic and musical prowess; easing comfortably into the opening lyrics until the fire within him catches and turns to an evenly controlled rage.  His acting choices within the lyric and the dynamics with which his varies his rich baritone adds interesting textures to the already fascinating words and music.

Another outstanding vocal and acting performance comes from Griffin Matthews, who plays the weary soldier who appears several times to deliver dispatches from General Washington.  He sings, "Mama, Look Sharp," a recounting of a dying soldier's last words as he lay bloody on the battlefield, with a still and heartbreaking innocence.  By going non-tradionally and casting a black actor in the role, Greenberg is able to add a small, but very poignant moment in regards to the colonies' debate over slavery.

The rest of the fine company includes Nick Wyman as an exasperated John Hancock, Aaron Ramey as a rousingly self-absorbed Richard Henry Lee, Lauren Kennedy, who, as Martha Jefferson, sings the double-entendre waltz, "He Plays The Violin," with a satisfied glow and Kerry O'Malley as the resourceful and supportive Abigail Adams.

While some of the book scenes speed along too quickly to really take in the richness of the text, and Kevin Rupnik's somewhat too small set (originally designed and built for the stage of the Pittsburg Civic Light Opera) results in some awkward staging moments, Paper Mill's 1776 still provides more than enough reasons for celebration.

Photos by Kevin Sprague:  Top:  Conrad John Schuck, Kevin Earley and Don Stephenson; Bottom:  Robert Cuccioli

Posted on: Tuesday, April 21, 2009 @ 09:27 AM Posted by: Michael Dale

Broadway Grosses: Week Ending 4/19 & Algonquin Round Table Quote of the Week

"As only New Yorkers know, if you can get through the twilight, you'll live through the night."
-- Dorothy Parker


The grosses are out for the week ending 4/19/2009 and we've got them all right here in's grosses section.

Up for the week was: IRENA'S VOW (16.3%), EXIT THE KING (5.1%), JOE TURNER'S COME AND GONE (4.3%), WAITING FOR GODOT (2.6%), SOUTH PACIFIC (2.4%), MARY STUART (1.1%), HAIR (0.2%), WEST SIDE STORY (0.2%), JERSEY BOYS (0.1%),

Down for the week was: SHREK THE MUSICAL (-11.1%), CHICAGO (-10.8%), 33 VARIATIONS (-8.9%), AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY (-8.8%), THE 39 STEPS (-7.5%), REASONS TO BE PRETTY (-6.9%), MARY POPPINS (-6.2%), THE LITTLE MERMAID (-5.3%), BLITHE SPIRIT (-4.4%), IMPRESSIONISM (-3.9%), GUYS AND DOLLS (-3.7%), AVENUE Q (-3.7%), IN THE HEIGHTS (-3.5%), GOD OF CARNAGE (-1.8%), ROCK OF AGES (-1.5%), MAMMA MIA! (-1.0%), BILLY ELLIOT: THE MUSICAL (-0.4%), NEXT TO NORMAL (-0.3%), THE LION KING (-0.2%), THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (-0.1%),

Posted on: Monday, April 20, 2009 @ 03:46 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback

reasons to be pretty: Not The Kind That You Would Find In A Statue

There's a moment in Show Boat where a woman sings that her true love, "just plain Bill," is "an ordinary man" who "isn't half as handsome as dozens of men" and is, on the whole, kinda stupid. This is considered by many to be one of the most romantic love songs of the 20th Century. In Neil LaBute's somewhat revised (like this review) Off-Broadway to Broadway transfer of reasons to be pretty, the main character, reacting to his buddy's ravings about how hot another woman is, says that his girlfriend of four years may be "regular" looking, but he wouldn't trade her for a million bucks. This will not be considered one of the most romantic sentiments of the 21st Century.

In a culture where looking like an "average Joe" or a "regular guy" would be accepted with no offense by most men, is it any wonder that the unschooled male may have no reason to believe a woman wouldn't feel the same way? Does that sound naïve? Perhaps, but if someone sincerely pays you a compliment and you accept it as a criticism, does the offense lie in the words spoken or in the way they land on the ear? Don't expect answers from LaBute; a neat little feature of the play is that the author, as he's been known to do now and then, dangles before us so many ambiguities about the relationship between Greg (Thomas Sadoski) and Steph (Marin Ireland) and provides so little information about their past that if you assume it's just another case of a guy being thoughtless you may have trouble backing your feelings up with facts.

As the play progresses we get no concrete reason to believe that Greg, who works the night shift loading boxes in a warehouse and spends his 3am lunch breaks trying to educate himself through reading classic literature, is anything but a good guy who cares very much for Steph and would never do anything to intentionally hurt her. But try telling that to his livid gf who is furious during the electrically charged scene that opens the play because Greg's co-worker Carly (Piper Perabo) has told her she overheard her bf saying she's ugly.

Okay, so maybe he did say "ugly" and is lying to Steph to cover his butt, but perhaps to Carly, who may complain that it's hard being pretty but is happy not to suffer the alternative, "regular" might just as well mean "ugly." Though costume designer Sarah J. Holden covers up her figure in the unflattering security guard uniform she wears at work, we get the impression from her husband, Greg's co-worker/buddy Kent (Steven Pasquale), that she has an amazing ass. Her ass, in fact, seems to be the number one thing he likes about her. So much so that when her pregnancy causes her ass to grow a bit, he sneaks around with one that's more to his liking. (For those of you who were waiting for a typical Neil LaBute male character to enter the picture, Bingo!)

But Greg is the focus here and while his attempt to patch things up with Steph is met with her attempt to publicly humiliate him, his sincerity about wanting her to be happy - whether it's with him or that great new guy she's dating - is touching. As he was Off-Broadway, Sadoski is immensely likeable in the role as Greg tries to separate himself from a world dominated by guys like Kent and make a better person of himself. The always-interesting Marin Ireland, stepping into the role for the first time, never lets us forget that Steph does care for Greg, even as screams angry accusations at him. Her active face and manner reveal her heart's battle with her pride and self-respect, knowing that no other feeling she may have can make up for the ultimate sadness of sharing her life with someone who she believes finds her unappealing. One of the production's strongest moments comes when the two of them just relax for a moment with each other and even laugh a bit, giving a bittersweet glimpse into what made their relationship last as long as it did.

The supporting players are just as effective.  Perabo is appealing humorous and perky, especially when it becomes apparent that those qualities are her character's survival tools. Pasquale, also new to the play, is uncomfortably realistic as the superficial perpetual adolescent, bluntly driving home insensitive lines that cause grownups in the audience to vocally react with disgust. ("Beautiful women are like athletes; a couple of good years then the knees go.") Director Terry Kinney brings the play closer to the warm fuzzies than any LaBute piece has ever attempted, while still bathing it in a hard-edged, rhythmic production.

While reasons to be pretty may not have anything new to say about what determines physical attractiveness and why we may find that quality important, it's still an enjoyable riff on a subject that never gets old. And for couples who bond through heated post-theatre discussions about relationship issues, it's definitely the best date night on Broadway.

So why is the title in all lower case letters? Low self-esteem, maybe?

Photos by Robert J. Saferstein: Top: Marin Ireland and Thomas Sadoski; Bottom: Steven Pasquale and Thomas Sadoski

Posted on: Friday, April 17, 2009 @ 11:44 AM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback

Broadway Grosses: Week Ending 4/12 & Algonquin Round Table Quote of the Week

"I don't care what anybody says about me as long as it isn't true."

-- Dorothy Parker


The grosses are out for the week ending 4/12/2009 and we've got them all right here in's grosses section.

Up for the week was: THE 39 STEPS (26.7%), GUYS AND DOLLS (23.7%), THE LITTLE MERMAID (23.5%), AVENUE Q (21.9%), SHREK THE MUSICAL (19.5%), CHICAGO (16.4%), HAIR (15.5%), MARY POPPINS (15.3%), REASONS TO BE PRETTY (12.4%), THE LION KING (11.1%), BILLY ELLIOT: THE MUSICAL (9.9%), IN THE HEIGHTS (9.6%), EXIT THE KING (9.1%), MAMMA MIA! (6.2%), AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY (5.9%), SOUTH PACIFIC (4.8%), JERSEY BOYS (4.3%), THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (4.1%), 33 VARIATIONS (3.7%), BLITHE SPIRIT (3.3%), ROCK OF AGES (3.1%), WEST SIDE STORY (2.4%), WICKED (2.3%), GOD OF CARNAGE (1.6%), JOE TURNER'S COME AND GONE (0.5%),

Down for the week was: IRENA'S VOW (-9.4%), NEXT TO NORMAL (-3.0%), IMPRESSIONISM (-2.2%),

Posted on: Monday, April 13, 2009 @ 05:07 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback

Why Torture Is Wrong And The People Who Love Them & Irena's Vow

"Acting is reacting," says many a teacher of the craft, and if they're right then Christopher Durang has handed his leading lady, Laura Benanti, a career's worth of reasons to react in his surreal cavalcade, Why Torture Is Wrong And The People Who Love Them.  A meta-theatrical farce disguised as a satire of America's war on terrorism (with a brief lesson about taking control of your life and a somewhat romantic conclusion for those who require such things) Why... is top-shelf Durang lunacy and Benanti, making a rare non-musical appearance, proves herself a wonderful everywoman foil.

Watch her subtly try to make sense of the opening scene, where, as the perfectly nice, average, intelligent single woman, Felicity, she wakes up next to a total stranger named Zamir (a sleazy and tense Amir Arison), who says that in between her drunken vomiting fits the night before, the two of them got married by a minister who sidelines as a porno director.  ("You said you never put out unless you got married first.  And I thought you were joking, but I decided to call your bluff.")  Naturally, Felicity wants an annulment - especially after learning of the secretive and most likely illegal occupations that earn Zamir a living - but the subject brings out the guy's severe violent streak ("It's a flaw in my character, but all the women in my family are dead.") so she does the next best thing and takes him to meet her parents.

Kristine Nielsen draws every legitimate laugh imaginable in her wide-eyed and cheerfully eccentric portrayal of Felicity's happy homemaker mom, Luella.  (picture Edith Bunker after a few bong hits)  By making her a theatre-addict, Durang loads up the play with inside jokes about both his contemporaries (Luella thinks her daughter's disinterest in theatre may be a result of seeing, "those three evenings of Tom Stoppard plays.") and the classics; especially poignant (and hilarious) when Nielson delivers his arch spin on the most famous quote from Giraudoux's The Madwoman of Chaillot.

Richard Poe laps up every negative arch-conservative stereotype the author can serve him as Felicity's guff father, Leonard ("The United Nations is worthless.  I won't have it spoken of positively in this house, do you understand?"), who treasures his secret butterfly collection, though his daughter suspects it may be a euphemism for something else.  Despite Zamir's insistence that he's Irish, Leonard's suspicions that his new son-in-law is an Islamic terrorist escalate during a family meal of freedom toast, and by the second act, after receiving misinterpreted information about a meeting between Zamir and the "porn again Christian" (a skuzzy but genial John Pankow), he is utilizing his favorite methods of inquiry to get to know his new family member. 

Helping him out are associates Hildegarde (Audrie Neenan), who literally cannot keep her panties up, and a spy by the name of Loony Tunes (David Aaron Baker, terrific in his few small roles) who is afflicted with a syndrome that forces him to keep impersonating Warner Brothers cartoon characters.  Both of these contrivances have no business being as funny as they are, but director Nicholas Martin's effervescent spark makes almost anything plausible.  Even an uproarious set change attempt on David Korins' carousel of locations.  I can't explain it.  Ya gotta see it.

Photos by Joan Marcus:  Top Kristine Nielsen and Laura Benanti; Bottom:  John Pankow, Laura Benanti and Amir Arison


While trying to get some sleep late last night, it suddenly struck me how similar the six lead characters in 13 are to the six lead characters in Merrily We Roll Along.  Have people been discussing this already or did I just have an original thought?


My second visit to Irena's Vow, some six and a half months after seeing it Off-Broadway, was pretty much the same experience as my first.  With the same company of actors, director and designers moving the production to Broadway, I didn't notice any major differences in the text or in the mounting.  However, seeing the transfer after the first wave of  reviews had come out, I did enter the Walter Kerr Theatre with the knowledge that playwright Dan Gordon had been criticized for dramatizing a great true story in a simplistic manner.  Quite honestly, when I first heard the play was moving to Broadway I was afraid that might be the case.  And while I won't claim Irena's Vow is a great piece of dramatic literature, despite the power of the story being told, I do think Gordon's simple telling makes for effective theatre.  Below is my review of Irena's Vow Off-Broadway.  Everything I wrote about it then is how I feel about it now.

At the beginning of Dan Gordon's engrossing and uplifting drama, Irena's Vow, Tovah Feldshuh, as real life heroin Irena Gut Opdyke, is introduced to a high school auditorium filled with students to tell them about her experiences as a 19-year-old trying to hide 12 Jews in Nazi occupied Poland.  At the end of the play she is reminding her young listeners that they are the last generation that will hear first hand accounts of the Holocaust's atrocities from those who survived it, and that it is their responsibility to never back away from confronting hatred.

What works so beautifully about Irena's Vow is that it is told with the simple story-telling elegance of an uncomplicated woman who was led by circumstance to do something extraordinary during extremely complicated times.  The nine other actors play essentially one-note characters (and they play them very well, I might add) in this plot-driven ninety minute piece, which seems appropriate when you consider that the dramatization serves as a substitute for the way she describes the story for her young audience.

After the Catholic Irena is raped by a group of invading Russian soldiers at the outset of World War II ("That was my first date.  My first kiss."), she is sent to work in a German munitions factory.  There, her blonde hair and fluency in German attracts the attention of SS Major Eduard Rugemer (Thomas Ryan), who orders her sent to his barracks to be in charge of the eleven Jews working in his laundry room.  (We only see three: a married couple played by Gene Silvers and Maja Wampuszyc and Tracee Chimo as a seamstress around Irena's age.)  By the time Rugemer decides to move to a large home and take Irena with him as his head housekeeper, she has already witnessed the systematic elimination of the Jews in progress and takes it upon herself to hide her companions in the basement.  After all, inside the home of an SS major is the last place someone would expect Jews to be hiding.

There are close calls, of course, and even a bit of humor, but when Irena must go to extreme measures to save the lives of her friends, her actions cause the eventual victors to see her as a Nazi sympathizer and she is made to suffer the consequences.

Michael Parva directs with a soft and sensitive touch.  The drama is never didactic and though the play is light on character development the evening can be emotionally overwhelming; especially when Alex Koch's projections of period photographs add raw authenticity to the production.

But despite the fine accomplishments of her colleagues, the evening belongs to the mesmerizing Tovah Feldshuh, perhaps one of the New York stage's most underappreciated actors.  Without trying to pass herself off as 19 she gives a wonderful sense of youthful disillusionment and rejuvenation to her portrayal, making Irena a heroic figure who is still going through the normal phases of growing up.  As older Irena, she is a modest and soft-spoken woman who can turn to rage when hearing those who deny the Holocaust ever happened.  During such moments, or when reacting to the piece's most tragic episodes with painful realism, you can truly forget that she's acting.  But then, maybe she isn't.

Photos by Carol Rosegg:  Top: Tovah Feldshuh;  Bottom:  Maja Wampuszyc, Tracee Chimo, Tovah Feldshuh and Gene Silvers

Posted on: Monday, April 13, 2009 @ 09:16 AM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback

Chasing Manet: Sail Away

I'm assuming that whatever Tina Howe is trying to get across in Chasing Manet, her disappointing new play receiving a well-acted mounting by Primary Stages, is contained in a lengthy speech Jane Alexander delivers early in the first act.

Alexander plays Catherine Sargent, a fictional cousin of John Singer Sargent and an accomplished painter in her own right.  Nearing blindness, her son Royal (Jack Gilpin) has set her up in a Riverdale nursing home where she seems to be the only resident with her mental facilities fully functioning.

While trying to get some sleep, her roommate's visiting family members notice the print of Manet's Luncheon on the Grass hanging over her bed and loudly discuss their confusion between Manet and Monet.  No doubt a little miffed by both their ignorance and volume, Catherine sits up in her bed and indignantly explains that the painting caused riots when it was first displayed.  The controversy wasn't over its depiction of a nude woman, but rather because Manet placed her in an unrealistic setting; casually sitting in a wooded park beside a pair of fully clothed men.  As Catherine educates her unwelcome visitors on how the artist shocked his community by presenting something unremarkable in an unrealistic surrounding, Alexander deftly hints at her character's sadness in no longer being surrounded by cultural peers who wouldn't need such things explained to them.  It's the first real attention-grabbing moment of the production, but the strong theme expressed is never approached satisfactorily.

No doubt the wheelchairs hanging in the air over Tony Straiges' furnished room set, which is appropriately colored in calming shades of beige and tan, are meant to be as unrealistic as the nude woman in Manet's park.  The same could be said of an unexpected autobiographical second act speech, delivered with warm simplicity by the fine veteran actor David Margulies.  Perhaps that was also the point behind a scene where wheelchair-bound residents who do not display total awareness of their surroundings nevertheless toss a beach ball to one another as physical therapy with impressive accuracy and dexterity.

But Howe seems more concerned with her lightweight plot; a buddy caper where Catherine and her new roomie, Rennie (Lynn Cohen) book passage on the QE2 and plan to escape the place "where people go to die" for the more civilized surroundings of Paris.  It's Catherine who does all the plotting, actually, because Rennie has been living delusionally through her memories since her husband's passing.  The playwright and director Michael Wilson draw a decent number of laughs from the contrast of Catherine's caustic personality with Rennie's sweet innocence, but there's a clear lack of consistency of style as the silly humor of the piece (jokes about stool softener?) doesn't seem to belong in the same play as the more serious moments.

Still, Jane Alexander brings textures to Catherine's thirst for company that can understand her, not just praise her work, that do not show up anywhere else in the text or performances.  Cohen is certainly appealing enough but she has little more than one note to play.  Likewise for the rest of the company.  There's potential in the Gilpin's Royal, a Columbia professor seen as an underachiever by his mom, but their relationship is left unexplored after the opening scene, leaving him to double as a lecherous resident of the facility who communicates mostly with leering faces.  Vanessa Aspillaga and Rob Riley are both convincing as overworked caregivers required to put on pleasant, cheerful voices all day, but the best bit of authenticity comes from the performance of Julie Halston.  When not playing Rennie's attentive daughter, Halston appears as a wheelchair-bound resident who communicates with harsh and abrasive shrieks that might seem overdone on stage but are actually quite realistic and a bit scary to witness in real life.  While the number of nursing home residents who behave that way are certainly in the minority, Halston's animated performance is what brings Chasing Manet closest to reality.

Photos by James Leynse:  Top: Jane Alexander; Bottom: Lynn Cohen and Jane Alexander

Posted on: Sunday, April 12, 2009 @ 01:30 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback

The Toxic Avenger: They All Deserve To Die

You know you're in for a good one when there's a huge laugh before the first person on stage can even let out the third syllable of the show.  But by the time the actors start growling to customers, "There's no intermission!" and "The show's eight hours long!" The Toxic Avenger has firmly established itself as one of the funniest musicals in town.

Based on a low-budget horror movie I've never heard of and composed by this guy who used to be in a band called Bon Jovi - which I have heard of but I have no idea what any of their songs are - The Toxic Avenger is the kind of mindless, aggressively tasteless junk food musical bound to please the discriminating musical theatre connoisseur who fondly recalls delightful Off-Broadway fare like Evil Dead: The Musical and Slut: The Musical. (Guilty as charged.)  The fact alone that The Toxic Avenger doesn't include "The Musical" as part of its title makes it a refreshing addition to any recent theatrical season.

As in Lloyd Kaufman's original film, Joe DiPietro (book and lyrics) and David Bryan (music and lyrics) set their story in the fictional New Jersey town of Tromaville, which has become the dumping ground for toxic waste sent over by those mean elitists across the river in Manhattan.  Geeky greenie Melvin Ferd the Third (Nick Cordero) has his mind set on cleaning up the town but his heart is set on the really hot and blind librarian, Sarah (Sara Chase) who spends most of her work hours writing erotic fiction that she dictates into a recorder; avoiding work by answering any request for help with, "I'm blind!"  Sarah is convinced that Melvin has a beautiful soul, but when she gets a feel of his face she decides it's best that they should just be friends.

But after a pair of goons rough up Melvin and leave him in a barrel of sludge, toxic chemicals transform him into a big, green, ultra-violent ecology advocate just in time to rescue Sarah from a pair of abductors by tearing off their limbs and pulling vital organs out of their bodies.  "I don't mean to be mean / But I'm about to remove your spleen," sings our hero as John Dods' prosthetic designs take the lyric literally.

But it seems Sarah - who calls her new beaux Toxie and thinks he smells so bad because he's French - is a devout pacifist ("Violence is always wrong, even though it's often entertaining.") so the Avenger must find non-violent ways to fight polluters, or at least hide his mean streak.  Sarah's blindness is the source of numerous sight gags devised by the authors and director John Rando; their logic seeming to be that you can't really offend blind people with sight gags.  But when the horny ingénue mistakenly pours Drano into her boyfriend's coffee or just wanders off stage in the middle of singing a love song, it comes off as innocent fun.  And though Toxie seems fixated on her hotness (In the introspective ballad he sings, "When your face gets decayed / It's hard to get laid.") the awkwardness of their romance is sweetly played by the earnest couple.

But it's the three supporting players who get the real juicy stuff.  After a brief appearance as a nun, the terrific musical comedy vet Nancy Opel uses her piercingly high belt and masterful broad-stroke humor technique to get the most out of her two main roles.  Dressed in Nancy Reagan red by David C. Woolard (Mark Adam Rampmeyer's wig completes the deed), Opel is an over-the-top hoot as Tromaville's maniacal mayor who hopes that deals with corporate polluters can lead to a governorship.  (In a cleavage-bearing tango she seductively heaves her credo, "Evil is Hot.")  Opel also appears as Toxie's judgmental mom and, in the evening's high moment performs a maddening duet with herself, wearing a half-costume for each character, shrieking out the dramatic aria, "Bitch/Slut/Liar/Whore."

Assisting Opel in that bit of business is Demond Green, serving as the world's least effective body double.  That's actually a good thing and it's just one of the five or six roles he plays as "Black Dude."  Paired with Matthew Saldivar's "White Dude," the two make rapid-fire switches from street hoods to girl-group backup singers to solo turns as the easily seduced scientist (Green) who knows the secret to destroying Toxie and a Springsteenish guitarist (Saldivar) who wails "The Ballad of The Toxic Avenger." 

Bryan's music serves the show well by contributing a driving pulse that rams the plot-driven festivities down our throats and pushes the very funny lyrics to the forefront.  Rando and DiPietro keep the gags coming at a furious pace (set designer Beowulf Boritt provides some good ones, too) as the company plays the frat-house humor with hilarious sincerity.

The only thing I couldn't figure out is why the little old lady Toxie attacks in a rage is named Edna Ferber.  Or maybe I just heard that wrong.  Anybody got a script?

Photos by Carol Rosegg:  Top:  Nick Cordero and Sara Chase;  Bottom: Nancy Opel

Posted on: Friday, April 10, 2009 @ 11:12 AM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback

Melissa Errico Spreads The Amour

While it would be just loverly to have Melissa Errico's crystalline soprano back on Broadway, the Tony-nominee for Amour has been keeping busy doing remarkable work as the founder of Bowery Babes. Check out this terrific New York Observer feature on her hand-on support group for mommies.

Posted on: Wednesday, April 08, 2009 @ 11:26 AM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback

Robert Patrick Fondly Remembers Jack Wrangler

Legendary playwright Robert Patrick shares some thoughts and remembrances of the late Jack Wrangler...

Jack Wrangler, the man who invented porn stardom, has died in New York, "peaceful and comfortable," according to his doctor, Wendy S. Ziecheck. Jack, a Hollywood child (Marilyn Monroe baby-sat him), was getting nowhere much as an actor when a porn movie was offered him. He consulted with his father, a producer of Bonanza, who told him, "just be the best." Jack took his screen name from his jeans and became the first identifiable personality on the tiny, blurry screens of gay porn. At a time when most "adult" actors wore socks and even masks, he created a persona modeled on the Marlboro man - butch, beautiful and unashamed. And imitated! The gay "clone" look (plaid shirt, jeans) was inspired by Jack's signature outfit. Having conquered gay porn with no real competition, he moved on to the more lucrative straight area, and, according to him, lost his heterosexual virginity on camera! He then met and married singer Margaret Whiting, magically compatible because they were both "Beverly Hills brats." They were enviably, and to many people inexplicably happy. Jack successfully produced and directed many stage shows, but wryly remarked that all publicity about him, even thirty years after he took off his jeans forever, still began "Porn Star Jack Wrangler." Jeffrey Schwarz's excellent documentary, Wrangler: Anatomy of an Icon, just last week won as Best Alternative Release at the Gay Video News Awards.

In 1980, John Glines got Jack to appear in my play T-Shirts. The role of Jack's roommate called for a funny fat man, who had a funny fat nude scene. Every fat actor in New York turned it down, so I played it. Jack was rigorously professional, a joy to work with. There was but one rough spot. The third character, a stray twink, was played by one Dale Merchant. Halfway through the play, Dale and I had a scene while Jack was out to the store in a rainstorm. Just before he re-entered, a stagehand would toss a pan of water on him. Jack, I repeat, was a professional. Dale and I were more freewheeling. At each performance, our scene would expand as we improvised new jokes. A page before Jack's re-entrance cue, the stagehand splashed him. But Dale and I continued, Jack dried up, and the stagehand wetted him again. Finally, at a matinee where he had to be doused a third time, he slammed the door open before his cue and acted the ensuing scene with clenched teeth. When I got too close to him as I hurried to catch up with the staging, I got a professional elbow in a kidney with a force that would have knocked a lighter clown down. The scene returned to normal length.

Photo by Wren De Antonio: Robert Patrick and Jack Wrangler in Patrick's play, T-Shirts, produced by The Glines, 1980


Posted on: Tuesday, April 07, 2009 @ 04:56 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Replies: 1 - Click Here

Broadway Grosses: Week Ending 4/5 & Algonquin Round Table Quote of the Week

"When I invite a woman to dinner, I expect her to look at my face. That's the price she has to pay." -- George S. Kaufman


The grosses are out for the week ending 4/5/2009 and we've got them all right here in's grosses section.


Down for the week was: GUYS AND DOLLS (-22.8%), THE 39 STEPS (-11.2%), AVENUE Q (-8.5%), IRENA'S VOW (-8.3%), BILLY ELLIOT: THE MUSICAL (-7.9%), MARY POPPINS (-7.8%), HAIR (-6.5%), SOUTH PACIFIC (-6.2%), THE LITTLE MERMAID (-6.0%), CHICAGO (-5.8%), BLITHE SPIRIT (-5.8%), THE LION KING (-5.8%), IN THE HEIGHTS (-4.5%), MAMMA MIA! (-3.4%), JERSEY BOYS (-3.0%), WEST SIDE STORY (-2.4%), THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (-2.3%), WICKED (-2.3%), AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY (-1.7%), 33 VARIATIONS (-0.5%),

Posted on: Monday, April 06, 2009 @ 05:04 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback

Being Audrey: Oh, To Be A Movie Star

While the new musical by James Hindman (book) and Ellen Weiss (score) appears to be a promising work in progress, Transport Group's premiere production of Being Audrey, helmed by the company's Artistic Director Jack Cummings III, is loaded with bright, shiny charms that display their material in a dazzling little jewel box.

Shining brightest is the leading performance of Cheryl Stern, who is also credited with additional book and lyrics.  As explained in a voice-over introduction, narrated by Vanity Fair's own Dominick Dunne, Stern plays a princess (of the Jewish-American variety) named Claire, who one day meets a Prince Charming who whisks her away to his Upper East Side penthouse where she spends many an evening losing herself in the romantic fantasy world of Audrey Hepburn movies.  But when her husband is suddenly struck with an aneurism and Claire frantically finds herself in a hospital waiting room unable to see him, but knowing he's near death, her mind cuts off reality and takes her to the comforting safety of the worlds of Roman Holiday, Sabrina, Breakfast at Tiffany's, Love In The Afternoon and Funny Face.  While face to face with a handsome and distinguished gentleman (Brian Sutherland) who is a conglomeration of all of Ms. Hepburn's leading men, hospital personnel become familiar supporting players who quote and paraphrase classic screen dialogue as, like Dorothy in Oz, Claire seeks to go home to Tiffany's

(Regretfully, there's only one quick reference to My Fair Lady.  Thankfully, there's no sign of Mickey Rooney trying to pass for Japanese.)

A big bubbly bundle of wonderment with a hearty singing voice, Stern is totally endearing as a woman who lacks the movie star's gentle grace and poise, but yearns to be a part of her elegant world.  Whether wrapped in a blue satin bed sheet and singing a soft rumba as she considers the man lying beside her, or clad in black and dancing to beatnik rhythms, she is wonderfully engaging, empathetic and humorous.

The remaining six players who appear in various small roles (Stephen Berger, Andrea Bianchi, Valerie Fagan, Mark Ledbetter, Michael Maricondi and Blair Ross) sport some terrific voices.  Ross also displays a snazzy sense of showbiz sparkle leading a number suggested by Kay Thompson's Funny Face opener, "Think Pink."

The fluid movement of the production by Cummings and choreographer/musical stager Scott Rink takes its style from the clockwork efficiency of hospital workers rolling screens, beds and equipment off and on to create locales, reveal characters and suggest classic film visuals.  A simple, but beautifully executed idea is used for a song where Claire and her leading man take a stroll along Roman Holiday's Wall of Wishes.  As they walk, actors holding black plaques represent the wall and continually change positions to keep the structure consistently in their path.

While Hindman's book is well crafted and cleverly incorporates movie moments, Weiss' lyrics - though character specific, plot advancing and properly rhymed - lack the elegance and literate quality needed to lift the show into the fantasy world it tries to depict.  Her music, played by a five piece ensemble led by Lanny Meyers, is perfectly pleasant (though the title tune is distractingly similar to Bye, Bye, Birdie's "Rosie") but has few inspiring moments.

There's a good deal of potential in Being Audrey, if only the material can eventually match the spirit and imagination of this premiere production.

Photos of Cheryl Stern by Sarah Ackerman

Posted on: Monday, April 06, 2009 @ 09:32 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'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.