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Broadway Grosses: Week Ending 11/27 & Theatre Quote of the Week

"Because of Mozart, it's all over after the age of seven."
-- Wendy Wasserstein


The grosses are out for the week ending 11/27/2011 and we've got them all right here in's grosses section.



Posted on: Monday, November 28, 2011 @ 03:37 PM Posted by: Michael Dale

Blood and Gifts & Private Lives

In The Book of Mormon, the young Ugandan ingénue sings of a fantasy world she imagines where all the warlords are friendly.  And while in J.T. Rogers' intriguing drama of 1980s American foreign policy, Blood and Gifts, Afghan warlord Abdullah Kahn isn't exactly depicted as a saint, the author paints him as a man deeply dedicated to his family and the culture of his people who, like a typical American father, has job-related headaches (trying to secure weapons to defend his soil against the Soviets) and can't understand the music his son listens to (Rod Stewart's "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy" and Tina Turner's "What's Love Got to Do with It").  As played by Bernard White, he is a humble and patriotic man of dignity.

And he's one of several sharply drawn characters CIA operative Jim Warnock (impossibly square-jawed and emotionally guarded Jeremy Davidson) deals with in his mission to secretly provide American arms to Afghan freedom fighters via a Pakistani Colonel (Gabriel Ruiz) at Inter-Services Intelligence without making it seem to the public back home that the government is putting weapons in the hands of unorganized rebels.  There's Michael Aronov as a gregarious Russian spy with whom he cautiously shares an occupational camaraderie, Jefferson Mays as a beleaguered and somewhat neurotic British envoy and Pej Vahdat as a menacing Afghan with a soft spot for western women and pop culture.

It's a sprawling story that covers ten years and several locales and languages, but director Bartlett Sher neatly fits it into Lincoln Center's intimate Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater.  Set designer Michael Yeargan places benches at the perimeters of the thrust stage where actors not involved in scenes are seated in character, helping the audience to follow the complicated chess match of a plot by allowing those in scenes to subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) make physical references to those they're talking about.

Given the subject matter and the audience's knowledge of what's eventually going to happen in Afghanistan once the events of the play are over, Blood and Gifts is surprisingly funny and entertaining, looking at the situation with a sardonic tone that doesn't undercut the drama.  With terrific performances by its 14-member ensemble, the swift and engrossing production emphasizes how everyone involved seems fully aware that they're in an impossible situation and the best they can hope for is to be in the best position to deflect blame away when it eventually all falls apart.

Photo of Bernard White, Andrew Weems, Pej Vahdat, Andres Munar J. Paul Nicholas and Jeremy Davidson by T. Charles Erickson.


Though no one removes a stitch and the lovers are generally more talk than action, Noel Coward's Private Lives gets my vote as the English language's sexiest play.  Its leading pair, Amanda and Elyot are each terribly rich, terribly clever and terribly competitive when it comes to being the controlling force in their relationship.  What sets their sparks of incompatible irresistibility is that each sports an independent nature that abhors compromise, but they are nevertheless thrilled by each other's indomitability; even when it crosses into mutual bouts of (relatively minor) physical violence.  (Disclaimer: By no means am I saying violence is sexy when it exits the realm of mutual satisfaction.)

Having been divorced from each other for five years, Coward has the pair reunited by chance while each is honeymooning in Deauville with a new spouse.  But while Amanda's Victor and Elyot's Sybil have delusions of being in an equal partnership, neither is anything near a match, and they're abandoned when the hedonistic heroes skedaddle for a Parisian flat.

Unfortunately, director Richard Eyre's rather perfunctory mounting of the piece captures only the surface pleasures of Coward's wit and barely registers any sexual excitement.  It's a marvelously strong play and those experiencing it for the first time should find enough for an enjoyable evening, but, especially for those with memories of the elegantly steamy perfection that was the Howard Davies-directed vehicle for Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan that hit town in 2002, this is not at all a fair representation of what Private Lives has to offer

Paul Gross, the best thing about this production, seems perfectly suited for Elyot.  His casual charm and deadpan drollness lets out the playwright's musicality of language with understated ease ("Don't quibble, Sybil."), and those tricky moments when the character expresses violent tendencies ("Certain women should be struck regularly, like gongs.") come off lightly as fetishy play.

Gross could likely grow deeper into the role if he had a stronger co-star to play off, but Kim Cattrall's Amanda comes off as unsuitably as the product of a rural high-schooler trying her darndest to "act sophisticated."  Her high-pitched voice, which frequently tends to shriek, pushes her lines out with little dexterity, nuance or humor.  She might as well be playing Sybil, who the playwright himself described as a puppet rather than a character.  Anna Madeley does about as much as one can expect with the bubble-headed, straight line spouting part while Simon Paisley Day has a nice go at making Victor an over-stuffed shirt.  It's disappointing that the director decided not to attempt anything comical with the small role of the maid, which is played rather simply by Caroline Lena Olsson.

While designer Bob Howell's twin balcony set for the first act is merely unattractive, the hideous aquatic-themed décor for Amanda and Elyot's overly spacious love nest is a tacky eyesore.  And when a sight gag is added involving a fish bowl that has sprung a leak, it becomes all too obvious that this production has divorced itself from all that makes Private Lives a ravishing comedy of fatalistic passion.

Photo of Paul Gross and Kim Cattrall by Cylla von Tiedemann

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Posted on: Monday, November 28, 2011 @ 04:39 AM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback

White Christmas: Back to Berlin

White Christmas is just too good a musical to be limited to holiday-time productions.  Especially when you have Larry Blank's ultra-snazzy swing orchestrations vibrantly delivering a gold-plated assortment of Irving Berlin classics and Randy Skinner's dancers heating up the floor with some sensational tapping.

Based on the classic 1954 film, the stage version of White Christmas, originally directed by Walter Bobbie, has been making seasonal regional appearances since 2004, with stints on Broadway in '08 and '09.  The new mounting at Paper Mill, directed by Bobbie's associate director, Marc Bruni, appears to be a slightly scaled down version of the Broadway production, retaining Skinner's choreography and the festive mid-50s designs by Anna Louizos (sets), Carrie Robbins (costumes) and Ken Billington (lights).

The book by David Ives and Paul Blake streamlines the plot and adds some extra Berlin gems ("Happy Holidays," "Let Yourself Go," "I Love A Piano," "How Deep Is The Ocean?") while keeping most of the film's score, including "Sisters," "Count Your Blessings," "Blue Skies," "Let Me Sing And I'm Happy" and "Love, You Didn't Do Right By Me."

Repeating their roles from the Broadway '09 cast, James Clow and Tony Yazbeck play Bob Wallace and Phil Davis, a pair of World War II vets who become big time Broadway song and dance stars, back in the days when being a Broadway star meant you were famous throughout the country. On the evening before they're to leave for Florida to begin rehearsing their next production, the boys catch Judy and Betty Haynes (Meredith Patterson, encoring her performance from Broadway '08, and Jill Paice), performing "Sisters" at a nightclub and, with both professional and romantic possibilities brewing, follow them to their next gig; a holiday engagement at a Vermont inn. But an unexpected heat wave has forced the financially struggling place to forego its entertainment plans after every reservation cancels, until it turns out the owner is Bob and Phil's beloved General Henry Waverly (Edward James Hyland) from their army days, so they offer to move their Broadway show to the general's barn. In the meantime a few wrenches and misunderstandings get in the way of true love, but that's all straightened out by the time the chorus is dancing through the eventual snowfall.

The four leads all deliver top-shelf musical comedy performances, with Clow's sweetly mellow baritone matched by Paice's earthier tones, including her knockout torching of "Love, You Didn't Do Right By Me."  Yazbeck's street-wise charisma and Patterson's showgirl sass set off major sparks when romancing to "The Best Things Happen When Your Dancing" and rat-a-tatting atop a very baby grand in "I Love A Piano."

A major factor in getting to the heart of White Christmas is that you have to believe the old general is the kind of man who would inspire the boys to gladly do anything for him, and Hyland plays the role with a heartwarming combination of protective tough love, sincere patriotism and a healthy dose of human decency.  Young Andie Mechanic has realistic kid charm as his supportive granddaughter, but the "ringer" in the company is Lorna Luft as the wise-cracking hotel manager.  Ives and Blake re-imagined the role played in the film by Mary Wickes as a vehicle for a beloved old pro musical comedy performer, and Luft brings down the house strutting and belting a super-charged rendition of "Let Me Sing And I'm Happy."  After her number, the character says that talent like hers can't be learned, "You're born with it."  The opening night audience, no doubt in recognition of Luft's lineage, responded to the line with enthusiastic agreement.

Photos by T. Charles Erickson: Top: Meredith Patterson, Tony Yazbeck, Beth Johnson Nicely and Megan Kelley; Bottom: Jacob ben Widmar, Lorna Luft and Luke Hawkins.

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Posted on: Thursday, November 24, 2011 @ 03:06 AM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback

Broadway Grosses: Week Ending 11/20 & Theatre Quote of the Week

"A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal."
-- Oscar Wilde


The grosses are out for the week ending 11/20/2011 and we've got them all right here in's grosses section.

Up for the week was: MAN AND BOY (7.0%), HUGH JACKMAN, BACK ON BROADWAY (1.2%),


Posted on: Monday, November 21, 2011 @ 03:48 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback

Seminar: Class Dismissed

Theresa Rebeck provides plenty of mindless fun for the aggressively hip in Seminar, a breezy and enjoyable new comedy that will especially appeal to those who love showing off their urban cultural elitism by laughing very loudly at derogatory references to short stories published in The New Yorker and howling with yuks when a pseudo-intellectual mispronounces Inigo Jones' name while passionately giving a vapid description of the Yaddo artists' colony.

And it will most definitely appeal to women who want to scream, "That's me!!" whenever they see a Jane Austin loving, Kerouac hating well-spoken but insecure female dealing with career issues by changing into her most comfy togs and binging from a gallon container of Edy's Grand or a fresh bowl of cookie dough.

The story centers on the relationship of Kate (Lily Rabe) and Martin (Hamish Linklater), two young writers who have been "just friends" since high school.  Born into affluence and living in a 9-room Upper West Side apartment that she pays very little for because it's been in the family for years ("It's socialism for the rich," insists Martin.), Kate has arranged for Leonard (Alan Rickman), a famous novelist and editor, to teach a 10-week fiction seminar at her place, at $5,000 per student.  The cost has left Martin without rent money and he begs Kate to let him stay with her until he's back on his feet.

As they did playing lovers in The Merchant of Venice at the Delecorte, Rabe and Linklater show tremendous chemistry as a pair of overthinkers who share creative and romantic frustrations.  Kate has been working on the same story for six years, always believing it needs just a little more work, while Martin hesitates to have anything he's written be seen.

Rounding out the class are Douglas (Jerry O'Connell), a people-pleasing dolt with connections, and Izzy (Hettienne Park), who might as well put "sexual manipulation" on her resume under special skills.  The four of them handily banter about Rebeck's smart and amusing dialogue, but the sparks really start flying whenever Rickman's Leonard enters the scene.

Leonard is definitely not one of those teachers interested in creating a safe environment where artists can make mistakes.  His criticisms are unapologetically blunt with a cynical grasp on the realities of the business.  He calls one student's work "whorish," suggesting the pursuit of a lucrative screenwriting career instead of seeking respect in the literary world.  ("You'll be invited to cocktail parties. You'll get to go to exclusive events at the Public Library. But you will never be on a panel. Because too many people who know shit will know: It's hollow. The work is hollow. I'd think about Hollywood.")

In Rickman's presentation, Leonard's emotionally detached nastiness - exceptionally literate bullying - is extremely funny, since we're not on the receiving end of it.  Of course, life is not as splendid for Leonard as it first appears, allowing the evening to evolve into more serious bouts with bitterness and self-reflection that also involve Kate and Martin.

Seminar may not be an especially deep play, but it's a sturdy and entertaining one, given a sharp and lively mounting by director Sam Gold.  Special mention must be made of David Zinn's set, which places scenes in Kate's apartment in front of a large painting that depicts an upward view of a skyline formed primarily in multiple shades of pink, suggesting a kind of strength through girliness.  When the unit is lifted off the stage, it reveals Leonard's extremely high-ceilinged, skylight-lit residence; an enticing display of real estate porn that, by comparison, makes all the simulated sex scenes of Burning combined seem as chaste as Mary Poppins.

Photos by Jeremy Daniel: Top: Hamish Linklater and Lily Rabe; Bottom: Alan Rickman.

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Posted on: Monday, November 21, 2011 @ 06:27 AM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback

Burning: Oh! Theatre Row!

I don't think I'm giving away a major spoiler when I mention that toward the end of Thomas Bradshaw's Burning, there's a reference to one of the characters as having won the 2010 Tony Award for Best Supporting Actor in a Play.  I'm not sure I'd appreciate the honor if I was John Benjamin Hickey, as the character referred to is one of the sleazier ones in a play filled with sleaziness.

But the moment I think this play will be remember for by those who, unlike a fairly substantial number the evening I attended, choose to remain for the second act, comes a bit earlier, when the 24-year-old neo-Nazi skinhead art gallery employee (Drew Hildebrand), starts massaging the legs of his nude, wheelchair-bound 16-year-old neo-Nazi sister (Reyna de Courcy) and, upon seeing her aroused reaction, inquires, "Do you need to experience a release?"

The line was greeted with a huge laugh from the house that night, followed by many chuckles and guffaws as big brother fingered his sis to an orgasm (blocked away from the audience's sight).  There are those who will tell you that audience members encountering edgy, boundary-shattering actions on stage will react with what's called "nervous laughter."  I've sat in enough audiences to tell you there was nothing nervous about the laugher I heard during this scene; nor the scene set in the 1980s where the stereotypically predatory gay male theatre couple (Andrew Garman and Danny Mastrogiorgio) have a threesome with the 14-year-old hustler they "adopt" (Evan Johnson).  Nor the scene where the white curator (Jeff Biehl) encourages the black painter (Stephen Tyrone Williams) who has never slept with a woman of his own race to try anal sex with a black prostitute.  ("If you don't mind my asking, does your wife let you stick it in her bum?")

No, I'm very confident in my assessment that the copious laughter I heard all night at Burning was the laughter of people saying, "We are watching a very bad play that is trying really, really hard to be shocking."

This was my first encounter with Bradshaw, whose previous work has been generally seen in smaller spaces below 14th Street and, with The New Group's premiere production, is getting his first taste of attention from a well established, midtown located Off-Broadway company.  The whole enterprise seems to be baiting customers for a rise even before they enter the theatre.  The promotional posters and post cards depict a male butt (the same model appears black in some material and white in others) with the title Burning written across it, making me immediately think of hemorrhoids.  Once inside we encounter a trio of intertwining plots, one of which concerns a one-man play about an American who goes to Cambodia for some little girl prostitution and winds up taking a virgin tyke back to America to raise as his daughter, marrying her after she turns legal.  (His plea, "I am not a pedophile!  I resisted touching her until she was twenty years old," also got some hearty belly-laughs.)  And when a character insists, "Maybe you can do this downtown, but you've got to write differently for an uptown audience," the moment seems designed to force attendees to consider the extent of their own personal hipness.

A note in the script handed to reviewers reads, "All characters should be played with the utmost honesty and sincerity...  The play should be directed in a straightforward and realistic manner," indicating that Burning is to be taken as satire.  And while director Scott Elliot's company, which includes Vladimir Versailles as a young man questioning his sexuality, Hunter Foster as the guy who's there for him when he figures it out and Barrett Doss as a prostitute who has a way with words with both customers and their wives, admirably give honest and sincere portrayals, the play itself comes off as the most ridiculous kind of underwritten melodrama, accented by numerous graphic sex scenes, mostly fully nude, and, aside from the attractiveness of the company members, pretty silly in their deadpan seriousness.

Photos by Monique Carbon:  Top: Hunter Foster and Vladimir Versailles; Bottom: Barrett Doss and Stephen Tyrone Williams.

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Posted on: Saturday, November 19, 2011 @ 05:37 AM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback

Iron Curtain: You Gotta Have Serdtse

Known primarily for their excellent work with the Prospect Theatre Company (of which she is Producing Artistic Director and he is Resident Writer), the husband and wife team of director/bookwriter Cara Reichel and composer/lyricist/bookwriter Peter Mills are responsible for some of the most exciting and innovative musical theatre New York has seen since the company was founded in 1998.  And I daresay that with Iron Curtain, they and their inspired cohorts fully succeed in presenting one of their most difficult and risk-taking concepts yet; a fast, loud and funny 1950s-style musical comedy.

To tell the story of a down and out American songwriting team that finds unexpected success whipping up a propaganda musical for the Soviet Union, Reichel, who this time limits herself to producing and directing, and Mills, who only pens the lyrics for this outing, team up with composer Stephen Weiner and bookwriter Susan DiLallo to replicated the fun and frisky techniques mastered by George Abbott, Richard Adler and Jerry Ross in The Pajama Game and Damn Yankees, two musicals which happen to be referenced in their show.  Iron Curtain is jam packed with catchy showtunes, clever lyrics, socko gags and zesty staging, along with a little sex, a little romance, with an emphasis on the latter.

Dry and cynical Todd Alan Johnson and peppy and romantic David Perlman make for a loveable duo as composer Howard Katz and lyricist Murray Finkel (As in many of these backstage stories, no bookwriter is mentioned.), who have high hopes for their new musical about a baseball fan who sells his soul to the devil (They call it Faustball.) until they're told that Adler and Ross already have a similar project heading for Broadway.  Howard's ever-supportive fiancée-to-be, Shirley (a darling Maria Couch), finds an ad in Variety from a production company looking for new writers, unaware that it's actually the Soviet Union's Ministry of Musical Persuasion setting up temporary quarters looking for Broadway types to fix their work-in-progress Oh, Kostroma!, a musical drama concerning the friction between farmers and factory workers.

The boys are kidnapped and sent to Moscow, where an optimistic Nikita Khrushchev (John Fico) promises, "We will bury you... in fan mail!"  But Finkel and Katz are stuck for fresh ideas until they realize they can just give their Faustball script a coat of red paint and re-title it Damnable Yankees.

Jenn Gambatese's substantial musical comedy chops are put to great use as Masha, the sweet, modest actress who develops a diva streak when plucked from the chorus to be the star, but who softens when the smitten Murray sings of taking her back to America for a marriage-minded "Five Year Plan."  Costume designer Sidney Shannon puts her in a tight shimmering gown and a platinum blonde wig for "That's Capital," a Damnable Yankees production number a la Marilyn Monroe vamping "Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend"; a choreographic high point for Christine O'Grady, who also supplies a comical Harvest Moon Ballet and a grand Busby Berkeley-ish sequence utilizing a chorus of only eight.

Veteran Broadway character man Gordon Stanley shines as a musical theatre loving Communist official, with kooky support by Bobbi Kotula as a fetishy East German director and Aaron Ramey as a deadly Soviet.

Though Iron Curtain is a blast in the small basement space of the Baruch Performing Arts Center, this is a musical just bursting to be played on a Broadway-size scale.  Remy Kurs' traditional period orchestrations for 8 pieces admirably give a taste of what the score could sound like with a pit full of musicians and the ensemble numbers just seem to be aching for more singers and dancers.  I have a couple of quibbles; the way the story ends isn't totally satisfying and the curtain calls really should be capped with a final chorus of the catchy showbiz anthem, "If Not For Musicals," but Iron Curtain, even in its current miniature state, is a joyful night for those who appreciate musicals boasting fun songs, big laughs and a lot of heart.

Photos by Gerry Goodstein: Top: (standing) Robby Sharpe, Gordon Stanley and Aaron Ramey (sitting) Todd Alan Johnson and David Perlman (kneeling) Sara Brophy; Bottom:  Sara Brophy, Robby Sharpe, James Patterson, Jenn Gambatese, Clint Carter and Ronn Burton.

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Posted on: Thursday, November 17, 2011 @ 04:37 AM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback

Godspell: In The Vernacular

Just like Pope Paul VI figured when The Vatican told followers to go ahead and celebrate mass in the vernacular, John-Michael Tebelak figured that if the musical he penned with Stephen Schwartz, based on the Gospel According to St. Matthew, was going to connect with young people, it had to be done in their language.  So when Godspell premiered Off-Broadway forty years ago, the son of God and his disciples were depicted as soft pop and folk singing flower children who were too busy learning how to spread love to be bothered with sex, drugs and burning their draft cards.  Arriving on Broadway after Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar, it was the first major rock musical that didn't scare the hell out of parents.

But Tebelak was blessed with the knowledge that the hippie culture wasn't going to last forever, so once Godspell was made available to regional and amateur groups he included a note with each script encouraging directors, designers and actors to freely update, vary and interpret the material as they like. The only constants necessary were the words spoken by Jesus, which are mostly quotes from scripture, and Schwartz's score.

So there's no nostalgia involved in director Daniel Goldstein's souped-up 21st Century reinvention of the show that's giddily moved into Circle in the Square.  Sure, it's still a collection of songs and parable-themed sketches performed by a young and energetic cast, but while Godspell was created as something mildly counter-culture, this mounting is aggressively pop culture.  It's almost a satirical statement that Jesus (Hunter Parrish) is presented as a golden boy television reality pop star with charisma gleaming out of an adorable adolescent smile and a singing voice perfectly suited for modern electronic enhancements.

The terrific supporting company of strong singers with good comic chops first appears in the Tower of Babel sequence representing Jean-Paul Sartre, L. Ron Hubbard, Marianne Williamson and other noted philosophers and theologists, only to have their over-thinking dismissed in favor of the simple message that pleasing the Lord ain't brain surgery; it just requires an open heart.

The musical's original players represented the kind of 1970s youths that generally wouldn't be found attending what was the contemporary Broadway fare (aside from the smattering of rock musicals), but the new cast reflects the kind of Internet-educated, cast album loving Broadway geeks that have helped shows like Godspell's upstairs neighbors, Wicked, enjoy long, healthy runs.  The ensemble gives the appearance of having been plucked from a college drama department's musical theatre division; slick, professional and as enthusiastic about vaudeville, high camp and lowdown blues as they are about hip-hop and contemporary Latino sounds.  There's even a bit of improv involved when audience members are brought on stage for rounds of charades and Pictionary.

In one bit, Telly Leung lets fly with a quickly rattled string of movie star impersonations, including Barbara Streisand, Katherine Hepburn, Marlon Brando, Jimmy Stewart and Vivian Leigh.  References to Occupy Wall Street, Steve Jobs and Moammar Gadhafi are as appropriate today as jabs about Anita Bryant and Richard Nixon were in the original.

Michael Holland's new streetwise arrangements give the score a little more guts, lending a pronounced backbeat to many of the numbers and supplying more of a multi-ethnic urban pallet.  Wallace Smith anchors the show vocally and emotionally with a strong masculine presence in the traditionally doubled-up roles of John the Baptist and Judas.  Celisse Henderson and Lindsay Mendez sport knockout voices and George Salazar is aces at nerdy humor.  Understudy Julia Mattison was a laugh-riot singing "Turn Back, O Man" as a 1960s style Bond girl ("Surprise!  I slipped into your Playbill," she vamps to a customer.) , but the whole company, including Uzo Aduba, Nick Blaemire, and Anna Maria Perez de Tagle, delivers on their moments to shine.

Set designer David Korins' makes great use of the tricky in-the-round space (it's really shaped like a small hockey rink) and Christopher Gattelli's bright and cheery dances come to a festive climax when trap doors in the floor reveal mini-trampolines that are incorporated into the choreography for "We Beseech Thee."  It's by far the best use of trampolines in that building since the days of Via Galactica.

Photos by Jeremy Daniel: Top: Hunter Parrish and Company; Bottom: Nick Blaemire (center) and Company.

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Posted on: Tuesday, November 15, 2011 @ 04:30 AM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback

Broadway Grosses: Week Ending 11/13 & Theatre Quote of the Week

"The truest expression of a people is in its dances and its music. Bodies never lie."

-- Agnes de Mille


The grosses are out for the week ending 11/13/2011 and we've got them all right here in's grosses section.


Down for the week was: RELATIVELY SPEAKING (-12.2%), FOLLIES (-3.3%), SISTER ACT (-1.8%),

Posted on: Monday, November 14, 2011 @ 04:22 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback

Other Desert Cities & Venus in Fur

The funny thing about the truth is that it can be totally subjective and personal stories rarely involve just one person.  So, in Jon Robin Baitz's darkly comic drama, Other Desert Cities, when a depression-plagued writer tries curing the block following the success of her freshman effort with a book describing her view of her celebrity family's past tragedy, the holiday conversation crackles like a Yule log.

The play is set in the Palm Springs home of retired action movie star Lyman Wyeth (Stacy Keach) and his former screenwriter wife, Polly (Stockard Channing); a pair of Ron-and-Nancy Hollywood Republicans who, when not attending fund-raisers and formals, reside comfortably in a home so blandly furnished that even the Christmas tree ornaments are unobtrusive.  (Great work by set designer John Lee Beatty in coming up with a look that's contemporary, elegant and dull.)

Their youngest son, Trip (Thomas Sadoski), is a sharp and intelligent porn addict who produces an admittedly mindless television show featuring a retired judge settling small claims cases ("Funny is all we have left.").  Middle child Brooke (Rachel Griffiths), who is about as closed-mindedly liberal as her parents are closed-mindedly conservative, comes to visit with boxes filled with the final draft of her account of the life and death of her older brother; a telling that she feels reflects honestly, though not kindly, on her parents.  Though publication is scheduled for months away, there's a fast approaching deadline for an excerpt to appear in The New Yorker, and Brooke wants mom and dad's approval... now.

Naturally, Brooke, nor anyone else, knows everything about the circumstances, which are revealed through Baitz's crisp and tangy dialogue.  Under Joe Mantello's brisk direction, Stockard Channing is especially memorable as the staunch and elegant woman continually protecting her man's back while popping off biting observations and casual prejudices.  Judith Light matches her as Polly's dry-witted recovering alcoholic sister, Silda, a one-time writing partner who resents her sibling's defection from her one-time left-wing values.

The conflict would be a more even match if Griffiths wasn't giving such a stilted and "actorly" performance; the kind that makes it seem like she's saying every line within quotation marks, but Sadosky adds to his impressive list of stage performances by smoothly revealing how Trip isn't as shallow as Brooke believes him to be and Keach anchors the evening as a man trying to hold on to his unflappably masculine movie image in his role as patriarch.

Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: Judith Light and Stockard Channing; Bottom: Rachel Griffiths and Thomas Sadoski.


I was definitely in the minority last season when I found David Ives' power-playing Off-Broadway two-hander, Venus in Fur, to be a bit of a bore.  I'm sure there will be those who find at least some mild titillation from his take on Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's 1870 erotic novella, Venus in Furs, but its Manhattan Theatre Club Broadway transfer, which has somehow added an extra fifteen minutes to its former hour-and-a-half length, still had me wishing for a safe word to make it all stop.

The premise certainly has potential for some thrilling, sadomasochistic fun.  The piece opens in a contemporary rehearsal studio where playwright Thomas (Hugh Dancy), who is taking his first crack at directing, is on the phone with his fiancée for one of those exposition-packed calls that are so cute in 1920s drawing room comedies but seem rather forced here. His latest work is an adaptation of Sacher-Masoch's controversial story of a man who takes pleasure in being degraded and physically dominated by the lady he adores and he's just spent a frustrating day auditioning women incapable of playing his leading role, which requires a combination of youth, beauty and sexual worldliness. Before the one-sided conversation is over we know the guy harbors a pretty low opinion of women in general and believes that every director he encounters is an incompetent who cannot understand his work.

Enter Vanda (Nina Arianda), hours late for an audition she wasn't even scheduled for, displaying the worst aspects of scatter-brained ditziness that Thomas just finished describing. She is so out there - talking fast and incessantly, saying the wrong things, dressed too overtly sexy for the occasion - that it's obvious that as soon as she starts reading from the script she'll suddenly transform herself into exactly what the guy is looking for, since there'd be no play if she didn't.

The thing is, though, that she isn't really reading from the script. She has it memorized, despite her claim that she just glanced over it on the subway. And she happened to show up at the audition with bags full of costumes just right for her and for Thomas, who reads the play with her. The line between real life and erotic fiction blurs as the relationship between the characters becomes the relationship between actress and director and the actual identity of this mysterious thespian becomes more apparent.

But while the plot has its high points, Ives' text is repetitious and lacking in any kind of empathy.  Scenes are overwritten and moments are telegraphed through a predictable path, scratching the surface of Thomas and Vanda's episode but barely giving it a pulse.  Director Walter Bobbie understandably can't seem to extract any sense of danger or mystery from the piece, so much of it is played for laughs that don't land.

Dancy is certainly a big improvement over the actor who played Thomas Off-Broadway, but his skills only emphasize how underwritten the character is.  Arianda, a ball of energy, frequently overplays the comic aspects of her role and her diction often gets mushy whenever Vonda gets excited or starts to ramble.  But she's spot-on when quickly switching from her role as the actress to the role that her character portrays, to the point where it can be intriguingly unclear who exactly is speaking.

Venus in Fur premiered at Classic Stage Company, where David Ives and Walter Bobbie have worked together on the far superior New Jerusalem and the wonderful The School For Lies.  A transfer of either of those productions would have been a far sexier move for Broadway.

Photos of Nina Arianda and Hugh Dancy by Joan Marcus.

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Posted on: Sunday, November 13, 2011 @ 03:02 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback

The Blue Flower

Three years ago I posted a review emphatically praising the Prospect Theatre Company's developmental production of Jim and Ruth Bauer's The Blue Flower, calling it, "a unique, intelligent and wondrously creative evening of musical theatre" that "skillfully tackles the tricky business of mixing the art of musical theatre with the anti-art movement of Dada."  A German creation born amidst the rubble of the First World War, Dada was an artistic, literary and theatrical movement that attacked the sensibilities of a culture that could send millions of young men to slaughter by celebrating anarchy and irrationality.

At the end of the year I named The Blue Flower my favorite theatre offering of 2008, particularly praising the score's delicate highlight, "Eiffel Tower," a glistening ballad about accepting the changes that come from tragedy.

Unfortunately, I find myself less enthused about the higher-profile production of the musical which has now opened at Second Stage.  Directed by Will Pomerantz, who has staged all four productions of the piece, beginning with its 2004 mounting at the New York Musical Theatre Festival, the proceedings seem to have been injected with an unhealthy dose of lugubrious reality.  Characters have been reinterpreted (and at least a couple made significantly less interesting) and much of the musical's absurdist spirit has been toned down.  Perhaps a hint of what happened can be found in the billing.  Jim Bauer, who wrote the score, was credited at Prospect as having written the book based on Ruth Bauer's story.  The musical's official website now credits them as co-bookwriters.  I would need copies of both librettos in front of me to catch specific details and determine if the difference lies mainly in the text or the interpretation, but the upshot is that what was once a thoughtful and emotionally thick musical about the emergence of Dada that told its story in a theatrical manner that emulated the movement now comes off as a musical about Dada told more conventionally.

But even in this not-quite-peak form, there is enough true brilliance and originality in the evening to capture the attention of anyone interested in the growth of musical theatre as a dramatic art.  The four main characters, suggested by the lives of artists Max Beckman, Franz Marc and Hannah Hoch and scientist Marie Curie, observe and react to the drastic episodes of an ever-changing Europe in the first half of the 20th Century in a narrative primarily spoken aloofly by a certain Mr. O. (Graham Rowat).

The focus is on Max (Marc Kudisch) looking back on his life through items pasted into a scrapbook.  The structure resembles a theatrical collage utilizing archival and imitation archival film footage (created by the Bauers) with a fascinating collection of theatre songs that combine the period Weimar sound with American country-western (Max is a big fan of cowboys.), including a fun moment when Kurt Weill is quoted with a pronounced twang.  The result acts as a living art instillation; a fact-based fictional musical documentary.

Known for his robust traditional Broadway baritone, Kudisch's highlight moments in The Blue Flower come when Max sings and speaks in his invented language, Maxperanto, which was born out of a life-threatening situation.  English translations are projected, but the lovely sound of the syllables is so warmly embraced by the actor that there is great beauty even without the knowledge of meaning.

Sebastian Arcelus is sweetly engaging as the innocent Franz, whose love of horses prompts him to join the cavalry in a war that didn't end until "Germany ran out of 17-year olds."  Megan McGeary, who I saw in 2008, once again plays Dadaist cabaret artist, Hannah ("I wish I could eat enough as I'd like to puke," she sings.) with luscious zest but her rebelliously nonsensical performance pieces get swallowed up in Beowulf Boritt's rather drab set, a large structure of wooden staircases and platforms.  And while Teal Wicks has a fine singing voice her Marie lacks the qualities that would turn her "Eiffel Tower" into a heartbreaking character moment.

Musical theatre is difficult enough as it is and, despite any negative comments on my part, The Blue Flower is to be admired for its daring and appreciated for its effectiveness.  It's musical theatre for those who really care about musical theatre.

Photos by Ari Mintz:  Top: Aaron Serotsky, Marc Kudisch and Julia Osborne; Bottom: Megan McGeary.

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Posted on: Friday, November 11, 2011 @ 06:13 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'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.