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Into The Woods: Nice Is Different Than Good

When Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s moralistic take on traditional European fairy tales, mostly penned by the brothers Grimm, last hit town in a major production, it was April of 2002.  The city was still very much rattled by the events of the past September, but a positive spirit was growing from our observances of acts of heroism surrounding us.

Still, the question that haunted many Americans at that time was, “Why do they hate us?” as the country grew less confident in the traditional belief that we have always been the world’s good guys.  It was during this uncertain time that Broadway audiences watched a childless baker and an abandoned Cinderella comfort an orphaned pair of children, Red Riding Hood and Jack, of beanstalk fame, with a quiet lullaby that summarized the second act’s theme of the subjectivity of right and wrong.

“Witches can be right.  Giants can be good.  You decide what’s right.  You decide what’s good,” instructs the lyric of “No One Is Alone,” as they prepare to kill an enemy whose only offense is the desire for justice against the boy who stole her property and murdered her husband.

There are many such discomforting moments in the often-brilliant text of Into The Woods.  Little Red Riding Hood is depicted as a precocious child who disobeys her mother’s instructions because the cunning wolf brings out early pangs of pubescent sexual awareness she’s too young to understand or control.  An elderly woman is impulsively killed in an attempt to keep her from acting in a manner that was putting her community in danger and the person who killed her defends himself to those who might have died if not for his actions by saying he was thinking of the greater good.  A wife cheats on her husband when a handsome prince arrives, only to be dumped the next morning and left to debate the morality of stepping out of your vows, just for a moment of fantasy fulfillment.

In America, our fairy tale culture is most familiar as presented by the Walt Disney Company, which tells us that wishes come true.  Lapine and Sondheim caution us that, “Wishes come true, not free.”

The new Delacorte production of Into The Woods is New York’s first high-profile mounting not directed by its bookwriter, Lapine.  Co-directors Timothy Sheader and Liam Steel have based this one on their Regent's Park Open Air Theatre production, though with a new cast and new design elements it’s not exactly a copy of what played in London.  And while it’s always nice to have new ideas and new interpretations injected into old favorites – and New York audiences have learned a lot in recent years about how our British friends like to inject new ideas and new interpretations into our musicals – “nice,” as Sondheim has Red Riding Hood sing, “is different than good.”

In many ways, it is a perfectly nice production, featuring a talented company of actors and several delightful surprises.  Someone who has never seen the musical before, and who appreciates serious-minded and literate musical comedy, would certainly find it a worthwhile evening just for the sake of being exposed to the material.

But “good” would be a production that allows for the intimacy needed for Sondheim’s intricate, razor-sharp lyrics and Lapine’s fantasy-deflating dialogue to pull the audience in. The Delecorte’s large stage and semi-circular arena style seating is not the kind of space designed for rapid wordplay, especially when set designers John Lee Beatty and Soutra Gilmour place a vertical maze of trees – making up stairways, walkways and a tower – so far upstage that the actors lose any connection with the audience during the numerous scenes played there.  And even when playing further downstage, Ben Stanton’s too dim lighting made facial expressions difficult to take in, even from my second row seat, until the brightness was finally turned up for the bows.  In what seems to be an attempt to cover all angles of the stage, ensemble scenes are so spread out that it’s often difficult to tell who is singing or speaking solo lines.  This Into The Woods may be heard, but it isn’t felt.

This is an actor’s musical, but more thought seems to have gone into stagecraft.  It is very impressive stagecraft, though.  The beanstalk created out of green umbrellas is rather fun, as is the puppetry involved in creating the giant (voiced by Glenn Close), though choosing to have the giant wear glasses does raise a question about the feasibility of the story’s ending.  And the technique used to climb up Rapunzel’s hair would probably be quite enjoyable to see, if I could see it.

Sheader and Steel have thrown a hodge-podge of ideas into the text, many of them very entertaining, though not all of them make complete sense.  The most daring move was to change the character of the narrator from a grown man to a contemporary young boy, perhaps around 12, who, by way of a brief prologue, we find has run away from home to some wooded rural area.  Perhaps as a way to alleviate his fears, he takes an assortment of dolls out of his knapsack and begins reciting the story of a baker and his wife who could not bear children because the witch next door placed a curse on their family as punishment for an act of theft.  To lift the curse they must deliver to her, "the cow as white as milk, the cape as red as blood, the hair as yellow as corn, and the slipper as pure as gold.”  This task, of course, leads to encounters with Jack, Little Red, Rapunzel and Cinderella, as they lie, steal, double-talk and deceive in order to be blessed with a child.

The second act, which deals with the cost of having wishes come true, is presented as a nightmare the child is having while sleeping outdoors on the wood chips.  Those familiar with the show may question if that choice is consistent with what the book eventually tells us about the narrator character.  Nevertheless Noah Radcliffe, who alternates in the role with Jack Broderick, has a fine stage presence and a strong, clear singing voice.

Costume designer Emily Rebholz, who makes Cinderella’s step-family look like club kids from Boy George’s Taboo, dresses Sarah Stiles’ Little Red Riding Hood as a sort of punked out biker chick.  A very talented and funny performer, Stiles plays the role broadly in a boisterous little girl voice and gets her laughs.  Having the role played by an adult allows for some graphic comedy between Red and the wolf (a lusty and macho Ivan Hernandez, dressed like he’s about to go on a road tour of Hair), such as the scene where the wolf eating Red is presented to mean that he’s giving her oral sex, but not having the role played by an actual little girl, as was done in the musical’s two Broadway productions, takes away Red’s naïve inquisitiveness about her sexual awakening, which is written so charmingly and subtly into her lyrics.

As the baker’s wife, Amy Adams shows some strong singing pipes but she’s barely playing a character, reducing a role that’s loaded with witty moments into a bland, humorless cipher.  As her husband, Denis O’Hare seems almost too grounded in a grim reality, though he does play his familiar pattern of flatly speeding through lines sprinkled with sudden blasts of emotion.

Donna Murphy’s witch is designed to look like a human tree, but her impressive costume pretty much leaves one of Broadway’s top comical leading ladies unable to perform, buried under a concept. 

Fortunately, Chip Zien’s Mysterious Man costume allows the ingratiating actor free reign to work his gently humorous charms.  The original baker in the musical’s initial run, Zien captures the spirited mixture of urban sophistication and innocence that makes Into The Woods work.  His skillful touch with the material will make you believe the magical kingdom is an upper west side apartment with a view of the Hudson and within the delivery range of Zabar’s.

Photos by Joan Marcus:  Top: Donna Murphy and Tess Soltau; Bottom: Sarah Stiles and Ivan Hernandez.

Posted on: Thursday, August 16, 2012 @ 08:09 AM Posted by: Michael Dale

Broadway Grosses: Week Ending 8/12/12 & Theatre Quote of the Week


"I am no more humble than my talents require."

-- Oscar Levant


The grosses are out for the week ending 8/12/2012 and we've got them all right here in's grosses section.

Up for the week was: EVITA (13.9%), BRING IT ON THE MUSICAL (8.8%), GHOST (7.8%), PORGY AND BESS (5.6%), JERSEY BOYS (4.9%), MAMMA MIA! (4.5%), SISTER ACT (4.1%), WAR HORSE (3.7%), SPIDER-MAN TURN OFF THE DARK (2.4%), THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (2.0%), CHICAGO (1.7%), WICKED (1.4%), HARVEY (0.9%), NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT(0.8%),

Down for the week was: FELA! (-22.6%), GORE VIDAL'S THE BEST MAN (-5.6%), END OF THE RAINBOW (-5.1%), PETER AND THE STARCATCHER (-3.8%), MEMPHIS (-3.1%), MARY POPPINS (-3.0%), CLYBOURNE PARK (-1.9%), ONCE (-1.5%), ONE MAN, TWO GUVNORS (-0.8%), ROCK OF AGES (-0.8%),

Posted on: Monday, August 13, 2012 @ 03:13 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback

The Mobile Shakespeare Unit's Richard III

Before a frustrated New York City Parks Commissioner Robert Moses grumbled, "Well, let's build the bastard a theater," and designated city funds to build the Delacorte, Joseph Papp’s dream of bringing free Shakespeare to everyone was being achieved by mobile units of actors that toured the city in small scale productions.  Now in its second year, the Public Theater’s Mobile Shakespeare Unit has been recreating that experience for audiences that free Shakespeare In The Park cannot reach.

Director Amanda Dehnert’s greatly abridged 90 minute production of Richard III, now playing The Public for a limited run at the bargain price of $15, is the same show that has been touring prisons, homeless shelters, centers for the elderly and other community support centers in the five boroughs for the past three weeks.  And while it’s certainly not being presented as a substitute for a fully mounted production of the complete text, it does provide an excellent theatrical experience on its own terms.

It's a bit like watching an indoor, air-conditioned version of one of the city’s numerous no-frills outdoor Shakespeare productions that are presented with youthful zest throughout the warm months.  There is no set, save for some moveable blocks that set scenes from time to time.  The audience is seated around a 14 x 14 foot playing space with actors – costumed by Linda Roethke in contemporary clothes styled to suggest 15th Century England – seated among them, making for quick entrances and exits.  Most of the minimal props are stashed under the actors’ seats and there is no lighting design; actors and audience are all seen under the room’s normal lighting.

The most prominent set piece on display - a brilliant, darkly humorous idea - is a banner diagramming the complicated royal line of succession following the reign of Edward III; a scoreboard, you might say, where names are blotted out in bloody red ink as each obstacle between the title character and the throne is gruesomely eliminated.

As the scheming Duke of Gloucester, who butchers his way to the crown held by his brother, Edward IV, Ron Cephas Jones is certainly worthy of a full-length production.  Not a hunchback, as is typically played, his Richard wears braces on one arm and a leg.  His lean figure and drawn face suggest a man who is weary of life’s hardships, and his manner of addressing the audience for many of his longer speeches establishes a sympathetic intimacy.  He’s even convincingly sincere when trying to woo Lady Anne (a fine Michelle Beck) over the corpse of her husband, who he himself has killed.

Aside from Jones, the company’s nine members all play multiple roles, highlighted by Suzanne Bertish’s viciously hateful turn as the banished Queen Margaret, riveting as she curses the royal family with tragic prophecies.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this production is the context in which we’re seeing it.  How would the inmates at Riker’s react to Richard’s violent plots?  How would the residents at a shelter for abused women respond to Anne spitting in the face of her intended seducer?  How would a resident of a senior center, perhaps one who was once a regular theatergoer but has not been able to attend for many years, feel to once again be able to enjoy this level of acting?  Sometimes the thing is much more than the play.

Photos by Joan Marcus:  Top:  Michelle Beck and Ron Cephas Jones; Bottom: Suzanne Bertish and Myriam A. Hyman.

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Posted on: Sunday, August 12, 2012 @ 07:06 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback

Bullet For Adolf: Summer Of My German Soldier

Once upon a summer of ’83, a young aspiring actor named Woody Harrelson became close pals with a Harlem-raised fellow named Frankie Hyman while they both worked a construction job in Houston.  Eventually, they went their separate ways; one becoming famous for doing something other than playwriting and the other pursuing a career in writing, although these many years later he apparently hasn’t written anything he would care to mention in a Playbill bio.

But when reunited, they decided to put their experiences into play; a comedy with characters based on themselves and all the colorful people they encountered that summer on the job.  As Harrelson has mentioned to the media on more than one occasion, they had characters and they had their dynamics and relationships, but they just didn’t have a plot.

After last night’s opening, I’d advise them to keep looking for one.

Oh sure, there’s a first act curtain line in Bullet For Adolf that hints that the two-and-a-half-hour muddy mess of an evening is going to indulge in a narrative, but clearly it must take a back seat to the numerous gags and detours into subjects like the cause of pedophilia, the consumption of human placenta, white guys acting like black guys, gay guys acting like straight guys and even a quick dig at Judy Garland.  (“Unless that chick is skipping down a yellow brick road, I don’t want to hear from her.”)

Fortunately for our two aspiring scribes, there was a theatre production company named Children At Play, owned by a fellow named Woody Harrelson, which seemed happy to give their shoddy work in progress a go at a prime Off-Broadway house, and give the show a big publicity boost by hiring a well-known celebrity to direct; a guy named Woody Harrelson.

Filling in for Woody Harrelson, at least on stage, is Brandon Coffey as the easy-going slacker, Zach, who invites the new guy at his construction gig, Frankie (Tyler Jacob Rollinson), to share his apartment along with his current roommate, Clint (David Coomber), a handsome lad with well-defined muscle tone and the vocal and physical mannerisms of 1983 sitcom heterosexual Jm J. Bullock.  When Clint is eventually seen making out with Zach’s ex-girlfriend, Batina (Shannon Garland), it’s suggested that he may be doing it to experience a sexual connection with his roomie.

Lee Orsorio plays a white guy nicknamed Dago-Czech (a tribute to his lineage) who prefers acting like a stereotypical black guy from the streets.  Dago-Czech is so hung up on his appearance that he even wears a suit while digging a ditch.  Eventually joining the mix are “angry black woman “ Jackie (Shamika Cotton) and “crazy black chick” Shareeta (Marsha Stephanie Blake).

Somehow, this crew consists of the entire guest list for Batina’s 18th birthday party, hosted by her Nazi-sympathizing German father (The fine stage actor Nick Wyman keeps the character from being a total cartoon.) whose pride and joy is a Lugar pistol said to be used in an assassination attempt against Hitler.  And yes, the gun is fired before the final blackout.

Bullet For Adolf certainly tries hard to be edgy and offensive, in a hip, casual way, but there are only so many times you can listen to tepid vulgarities such as, “Does your ass ever get jealous of all the shit that comes out of your mouth?”

Though the play has no strong connection to nostalgia for the early 80s, Imaginary Media provides clever and entertaining video montages of news events and pop culture of the day between the numerous scenes.  Particularly enjoyable was the one clip showing a pretty and prim young woman in a Boston watering hole asking a loveable elderly bartender if they can use a new waitress.

 Photos by Carol Rosegg:  Top: David Coomber and Nick Wyman; Bottom: Tyler Jacob Rollinson and Lee Osorio.

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Posted on: Friday, August 10, 2012 @ 12:15 AM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback

The Best Man: Change We Can Believe In

Two days after the death of its author, I had the pleasure of taking in director Michael Wilson’s outstanding revival of The Best Man – one of the best evenings Broadway had to offer last season – for the third time.  Gore Vidal most certainly went out with a landslide victory.

His 1960 comedy/drama permits us a peek at the seedier side of presidential politics before giving us some hope that decency may stand a chance.  Set during the convention of an unnamed major American party, the tense and juicy story is embedded in a time when delegates gathered into town, not to perfunctorily declare a pre-determined winner, but to debate through multiple votes, late night deals and maybe a few protest rallies to come up with a nominee.  But every so often a timeless thought flies out of the elegant and insightfully witty text that, if you didn’t know better, you’d swear must have been added to give the play a contemporary jolt.

While many of the major players have been recently recast, the rich center of the production remains the interplay between John Larroquette and James Earl Jones; both of them giving knockout performances at the beginning of the production’s run, now even more striking in subtlety and subtext.

A stately and sardonic Larroquette portrays William Russell, a liberal candidate and former Secretary of State who heads into the convention leading the race over conservative adversary Senator Joseph Cantwell.  Russell could win on the first ballot unless the ex-president he served under, Arthur Hockstader decides to throw his support in Cantwell’s direction.  And while an unseen third candidate stands little chance of victory, his delegates, if released, could also become a deciding factor.

As Hockstader, a robust and commanding Jones makes it clear that, despite quickly deteriorating health, he’s thoroughly enjoying what is mostly likely his last moment in the public spotlight, savoring the backroom dealings of presidential politics and the power he wields.  The scene where the two of them meet to discuss the conscientious intellectual’s shortcomings as a candidate contains some of the best acting you’re apt to see on Broadway these days.

Both Russell and Cantwell have skeletons in the closet; issues that would be more acceptable to many Americans today, but would certainly keep a candidate out office fifty years ago.  When one candidate threatens to release evidence against his opponent, the other must consider if he should counter with newly discovered knowledge about a long-ago event – a real doozy for 1960 – that could sink the man’s entire career.

John Stamos replaces Eric McCormack as the sharply groomed Cantwell, whose strength as a leader lies in his capability to hold off definite opinions until the polls determine what the public wants.  His performance plays up the lusty moments between the senator and his wife (a sexy and manipulative Kristin Davis) but there’s a bit too much “playing the bad guy” in his sneers and leers.

While Candice Bergen played Russell’s wife as a shy and socially awkward woman trying her best to be the supportive wife despite difficulties in her marriage, Cybill Shepard, as is more typical for her, is cool and cautious; confident in her role as the candidate’s wife.  It’s a different, but equally effective approach.  Also a lateral move is the switch from the chirpy elegance of Angela Lansbury’s performance as the party’s grand dame of influence to the more businesslike drawls of Elizabeth Ashley, repeating her performance from the 2000 Broadway revival.

Also returning from the previous revival is Mark Blum, who replaced Michael McKeon when his leg was broken in a traffic accident a few months ago.  As Russell’s campaign manager he does a fine job showing the character’s professionalism in keeping his nerves in check while surrounded by attention-grabbing politicos.

Solid support is delivered by Jefferson Mays, continuing in his role as a nervous citizen whose word could affect the entire election and Dakin Matthews, whose one significant scene as a hard-drinking, good old boy senator, has grown into a real highlight.

The Best Man remains one of the best nights on Broadway and with presidential conventions coming up, its satire is both funnier and scarier.

Photos by Joan Marcus:  Top: Cybill Shepherd, John Larroquette; Bottom: Kristin Davis and John Stamos.

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Posted on: Wednesday, August 08, 2012 @ 12:40 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback

It's Good To Know...

...we'll still be playin' his songs.

Posted on: Tuesday, August 07, 2012 @ 01:19 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback

Broadway Grosses: Week Ending 8/5/12 & Theatre Quote of the Week


"All the mistakes I ever made were when I wanted to say no and said yes."

-- Moss Hart

The grosses are out for the week ending 8/5/2012 and we've got them all right here in's grosses section.

Up for the week was: FELA! (22.6%), GORE VIDAL'S THE BEST MAN (5.6%), END OF THE RAINBOW (5.1%), PETER AND THE STARCATCHER (3.8%), MEMPHIS (3.1%), MARY POPPINS (3.0%), CLYBOURNE PARK (1.9%), ONCE (1.5%), ONE MAN, TWO GUVNORS (0.8%), ROCK OF AGES(0.8%),

Down for the week was: EVITA (-13.9%), BRING IT ON THE MUSICAL (-8.8%), GHOST (-7.8%), PORGY AND BESS (-5.6%), JERSEY BOYS (-4.9%), MAMMA MIA! (-4.5%), SISTER ACT (-4.1%), WAR HORSE (-3.7%), SPIDER-MAN TURN OFF THE DARK (-2.4%), THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (-2.0%), CHICAGO (-1.7%), WICKED (-1.4%), HARVEY (-0.9%), NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT (-0.8%),

Posted on: Monday, August 06, 2012 @ 03:17 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback

Liz Callaway's Even Stephen

Barely looking, and certainly not sounding, much older than she was over thirty years ago, when her clarion vocals and chipper charm earned her a Tony nomination for playing an unexpectedly pregnant college student in Baby, you might be surprised to know that the weekend before her Monday night concert at Town Hall, Liz Callaway was in Pittsburgh playing the final four performances of a stint as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard.

But as displayed in Even Stephen: Liz Callaway and Friends Sing Flaherty, Schwartz and Sondheim, Callaway is a deceptively versatile actress and, despite a career that has landed her on Broadway far too infrequently, a tremendously skilled musical theatre lyric interpreter.

The final entry of Scott Siegel’s 6th Annual Broadway Summer Festival, produced by Town Hall, Even Stephen had the bubbly star, accompanied by music director Alex Rybeck’s combo, giving her observations on the songs of Stephen Flaherty (with lyrics by Lynn Ahrens), Stephen Schwartz and Stephen Sondheim through personal experiences and amusing stories told with her gentle, self-effacing Midwestern humor.

Her program included selections from musical theatre roles she will never play (Once On This Island’s “Waiting For Life”) and tempting morsels from roles you’d like to see her tackle (a “Losing My Mind” performed with quiet pathos-inspiring naïve simplicity).  With “Lion Tamer” she’s a timid girl wishing she could do something impressive to make a man notice her and with “Back To Before” she’s a mature woman valiantly letting go of her innocence.  Her thrilling high belt is clear and direct for “There Won’t Be Trumpets” and her warm “Corner of The Sky” is filled with the excitement of anticipated discovery.

Some novelty moments included listening to her taped vocals from an early-career television commercial for an airline that went bankrupt two weeks after the spot first aired and a quick survey of all her isolated solo lines as an ensemble member of Merrily We Roll Along.  She quips about being involved with a production of Once On This Island so inappropriately cast that it was nicknamed Once On Long Island and tells the very familiar story – at least for her fans – of how she started singing “Meadowlark” at a singing waitress job, but could only sing it on Tuesdays because that was the only night they had a pianist who could play it.  She’s not the only well-known musical theatre actress to claim “Meadowlark” as a signature tune, but her delicately wistful interpretation is just as worthy of the claim as anyone’s else’s.

The “Friends” of the evening’s title referred to two of musical theatre’s outstanding singing actors and one up-and-comer who has been making solid impressions.  Jason Danieley’s powerfully gritty “Streets of Dublin” brought out the magnificent blue-collar artistry described in the lyric.  Norm Lewis’ soaring “Wheels Of A Dream” was later followed by an introspective “Bring Alive” of quiet yearnings.  Joshua Henry contributed a sweet and wide-eyed “Beautiful City” and a simple and touching “I Remember.”

When you spot Ann Hampton Callaway in the audience there can be little surprise that eventually she’ll be called up by her sister to sing.  The two artists, one of the musical theatre stage and the other of jazz clubs, combined for a duet of Wicked’s “For Good” that shined lovingly with their mutual admiration and adoration.

Photo by Genevieve Rafter Keddy.

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Posted on: Monday, August 06, 2012 @ 07:30 AM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback

The Last Smoker In America

With New York’s mayor pushing for size limits on sugary drinks and for keeping baby formula safely locked away until new moms are reminded of the benefits of breast milk, it seems like a good time for Bill Russell and Peter Melnick’s tuneful and amusing new musical, The Last Smoker In America, which eschews debates over the health issues of tobacco use in favor of spoofing government control over personal choices.

In a slightly futuristic urban setting, housewife Pam (the always grand Farah Alvin, an expressive belter who is wonderfully neurotic here) receives an electronic warning from a contraption installed in her home every time it senses that she’s about to light up.  A mechanical voice automatically announces the current laws against smoking and the plans to implement even harsher ones.

At the outset, Pam’s habit has caused her husband Ernie (John Bolton) to be fired from his teaching position for smelling of tobacco, and he has reverted back to his rebellious youth by writing angry rocker songs like “Straight White Man.”   Bolton and the authors manage to pull off the tricky task of being funny with intentionally bad songs.

Their hyperactive son, Jimmy (Jake Boyd) has obsessions with both video games and gangsta rap, the latter of which inspires one of those “white guy acting like a black guy” comedy songs.  And since this high-concept sitcom family requires a nutty neighbor, there’s Natalie Venetia Belcon, forcing a flashing smile to go with her flashy vocals, as the highly-caffeinated, overly perky Phyllis, who’s trying to get Pam to kick the habit and, as her gospel number advises, “Let The Lord Be Your Addiction.”

Melnick, whose music was last heard Off-Broadway in the delightful Adrift In Macao, has a terrific knack for melody, even when he’s sticking satirical pins and needles and bookwriter/lyricist Russell (Side-Show) is continually giving the company funny things to do (under Andy Sandberg’s buoyant direction, the four-person ensemble is made up of exuberant comic performers), but after a promising set-up that suggests some wacky social commentary ahead, the 90 minute musical runs out of plot rather quickly, settling into an assortment of genial bits and novelty numbers before coming back to Pam’s addiction to wrap things up.

It’s all silly and appealing bubble-gum that’s entertaining enough if you ignore the occasional hints that it could be much more.  If more of the musical was like its pre-show “turn off your cell phones” announcement – done in a darkly humorously way that is equal parts distasteful and brilliant – The Last Smoker In America might have set off some real sparks.

Photos by Joan Marcus:  Top: Farah Alvin; Bottom: Farah Alvin and John Bolton.

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Posted on: Friday, August 03, 2012 @ 04:28 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback

Broadway Grosses: Week Ending 7/29/12 & Theatre Quote of the Week


"I prefer a pleasant vice to an annoying virtue."

-- Moliere


The grosses are out for the week ending 7/29/2012 and we've got them all right here in's grosses section.

Up for the week was: EVITA (14.0%), GHOST (6.5%), FELA! (6.3%), CLYBOURNE PARK (5.9%), PORGY AND BESS (5.9%), SISTER ACT (5.8%), WICKED (4.3%), JERSEY BOYS (4.3%), NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT (3.4%), BRING IT ON THE MUSICAL (3.4%), MAMMA MIA! (2.1%), WAR HORSE (1.6%), CHICAGO (1.0%), HARVEY (0.7%), MEMPHIS (0.7%), ROCK OF AGES (0.5%), SPIDER-MAN TURN OFF THE DARK (0.5%), NEWSIES (0.2%), ONCE(0.1%),


Posted on: Monday, July 30, 2012 @ 03:21 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback

Nymph Errant

The last time the 1933 West End musical Nymph Errant was revived in New York, the Medicine Show Theatre Company advertised their production with the selling point that they haven’t removed any of the show’s racism.  Now, while going to see a racist musical is not exactly my idea of a fun night out, there is a certain historic value to watching older musicals performed with the texts the authors wrote, opposed to the frequent occurrence of slapping their books with labels like “creaky” or “dated” and having contemporary authors make wholesale revisions to transform them into suitable entertainments for modern audiences.

Those with no previous knowledge of Nymph Errant would probably see Prospect Theater Company’s current mounting, with a new book by Rob Urbinati (based on the original and its source), as an enjoyable, small-scale production of a mindlessly fun musical typical of the era.  But while Nymph Errant is by no means a lost classic, it’s a much more interesting piece than you would guess just by watching this cute, but edgeless revision.

James Laver's identically titled novel was barely a year old when producer Charles B. Cochran, noting the book's commercial success, critical praise and harsh damnation among moralists, thought it a perfect property for Cole Porter and actor/writer/director/fabulous socialite Romney Brent to adapt for the stage as a vehicle for Gertrude Lawrence. Brent himself directed and discovered that a former sweetheart of his, Margaret de Mille, had a sister, Agnes, who was a fledgling dancer/choreographer so he invited her to join the creative team.

In its typically madcap story, Lawrence played Evangeline, a young Englishwoman, fresh from Swiss finishing school heading back home to Oxford. But keeping in mind her progressive teacher's advice that she "experiment" through life, she takes several detours on the arms of an international parade of questionable gentlemen, leaving each one when she finds his intentions are entirely honorable. When she finally returns to Oxford, frustratingly chaste, the authors served up a delicious ending spoofing D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterly's Lover, still popular at the time.

Though it ran a healthy (for its time) 154 performances in London, Nymph Errant never made it to Broadway, due to illness on Ms. Lawrence's part, and perhaps a feeling that its sexually aggressive and independent female lead, without any central male romantic counterpart, would not seem attractive to American audiences. The show remained unproduced in New York until its 1982 premiere at Equity Library Theatre.

Surprisingly, the man who penned the scores of Anything Goes and Kiss Me, Kate considered this to be his best effort.  Though it contains no standards, there's the familiar "It's Bad For Me" and one of his flashier list songs, "The Physician." ("He went through wild ecstatics / When I showed him my lymphatics")  Although Porter certainly had his share of hits by the time Nymph Errant premiered (Anything Goes was still a year away, but "Night and Day" was introduced in the previous season's Gay Divorce), it was still a time when he was writing many of his lyrics specifically to amuse his society friends who would laugh uproariously at references that may leave today's listeners in the dark. He would eventually confess, "Sophisticated lyrics are more fun but only for myself and about eighteen other people, all of whom are first-nighters anyway. Polished, urbane and adult playwriting in the musical field is strictly a creative luxury." Perhaps that's the reason why a song spoofing cross-dressing author George Sand, was replaced during the West End run with a tune about the more familiar "Cazanova.”  The infamous "Sweet Nudity" was cut from the original production when Cochran made a deal with the theatre censors to remove a scene set in a German nudist colony in exchange for allowing the rest of the show to remain as is.

The 1930's, of course, was a time of global tension which would eventually lead to the Second World War, and the Broadway and West End musicals of that decade were often steeped in political satire. Though its plot was not particularly political, Nymph Errant, written for an English audience, reflected the decade's intense nationalism and suspicion of foreigners by painting the leading lady’s parade of non-lovers with ethnic stereotypes and racial humor.

Urbinati’s new book smoothes out anything that might be considered racially or ethnically insensitive while following the basic outline of Brent’s original, but the musical’s two most familiar moments have been eliminated.  “The Physician” has been removed from the Turkish harem scene and taken away from Evangeline, now sung by another character as part of a nightclub act.  An even more drastic change is that the sexually aggressive tone of the show has been altered to something more conventionally romantic by having the heroine already knowing her D.H. Lawrence-inspired heartthrob and pledging to be true to him throughout her travels, nixing the final Chatterley punch line.  Urbinati even goes as far as to have the fella back home appear to Evangeline as a memory, popping in on occasion to sing choruses of “Dizzy Baby,” a song lifted from the score of Paris.

A handful of other songs from different Porter scores are added, most jarringly the title song from Red, Hot and Blue and Fifty Million Frenchmen’s “Paree, What Did You Do To Me” because they are so closely associated with their original shows.  Urbinati also finds room for Nymph Errant’s notoriously cut songs but there’s a bit of reassigning of numbers from one character to another.  The new 5-piece orchestrations by Frederick Alden Terry are attractive and lively, though they occasionally stray into a sound that resembles 1940s big band more than 1930s musical theatre.

But patrons with little concern for theatrical alterations should find director/choreographer Will Pomerantz’s bouncy mounting of this jewel box adaptation – that reduces a lavish West End show to an ensemble piece for an energetic cast of 10 – a satisfying diversion.  Charming and pretty-voiced Jennifer Blood plays Evangeline as a typically spunky ingénue of the period and Andrew Brewer provides a sturdy romantic presence as her beau.  Sorab Wadia and Abe Goldfarb are both continually amusing as an international assortment of over-the-top caricatures, including a French follies producer, a depressed Russian composer a German nudist and Turkish Emir.

Headlining the evening in a variety of roles, and given some of the choicest material, is Tony-winner Cady Huffman, who is particularly winning as the progressive finishing school teacher with a naughty streak.  Though the evening could probably do without Urbinati’s monologue where she plays a lovesick stereotypically butch lesbian athlete.

Photos by Lee Wexler:  Top:  Jennifer Blood and Sorab Wadia; Bottom: Cady Huffman.

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Posted on: Sunday, July 29, 2012 @ 10:34 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.