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Knickerbocker Holiday

Back in the 1930s, when hip New Yorkers got their doses of political satire by taking in the latest Broadway musical comedy, it wasn't uncommon for then-President FDR to pop up in a show; either in person, as played by George M. Cohan in Rodgers and Hart's I'd Rather Be Right or, more frequently, through comical lyrics, such as those penned by Harold Rome in Pins and Needles and Cole Porter in Leave It To Me!

Usually the Commander in Chief was presented in an affectionate light, but in revising Washington Irving's Knickerbocker History of New York for the musical stage, bookwriter/lyricist Maxwell Anderson made the evening critical of The New Deal and big government; not only writing a small role as a dimwitted ancestor of Roosevelt, but drawing parallels between his presidency and Peter Stuyvesant's governing of New Amsterdam.  A devout pacifist, Anderson's gave the book an extended second act speech on the tragedy of war, which may not have been completely welcomed by those in 1938 audiences who saw a growing need for America to get involved in the escalating European conflict.  Likewise, given political attitudes of the late 1930s, wisecracks like, "Democracy is when you're governed by amateurs," might have been greeted with more nervous chuckles than belly laughs.

But if nowadays Anderson's political soap-boxing comes off as a quaint and heavy-handed artifact of its time, Kurt Weill's music stands out as a fascinating example of how the composer was shedding his Weimar skin and adapting to a brighter Broadway style.  Last week's positively splendid concert presentation of Knickerbocker Holiday at Alice Tully Hall, conducted by James Bagwell, featured sumptuous contributions from The Collegiate Chorale and the American Symphony Orchestra.

Further downstage, a first-rate cast of musical theatre stars played out a trimmed version of the book under Ted Sperling's direction; a presentation full of vigor, tenderness and humor, staged simply with actors in formal wear and music stands holding scripts.

Victor Garber, who raises the act of singing a ballad while wearing a tux to an art form which should be offered as a major in every performing arts school in the country, was all debonair vanity as tyrannical Peter Stuyvesant.  Though the score's most famous number, "September Song," is a quiet ballad of an aging gentleman offering a much younger woman the best of whatever days he has left, its placement in the story is not at all sympathetic; Stuyvesant is trying to woo a young woman while keeping the man she loves locked up in jail.  But Garber's soft and soothing timbre, matched with exquisite sincerity, made it a truly heartbreaking moment.

The woman he tried wooing was played by Kelli O'Hara, who seems to have had her appetite whetted for playing comedy after starring in the Encores! production of Bells Are Ringing.  She enjoyed a few dumb blonde moments in her ingénue role, but vocally shimmered with sterling beauty in the score's other standard, the achingly lovely "It Never Was You."  Her duet partner for that one was Ben Davis, a fine, robust baritone who played the hot-headed activist.

The supporting cast included a terrific assortment of musical theatre character comics: David Garrison as a crafty politico, Christopher Fitzgerald as the hero's impish sidekick and an inept town council made up of Brooks Ashmanskas, Jeff Blumenkrantz, Michael McCormick, Orville Mendoza, Brad Oscar, and Steve Rosen.  Bryce Pinkham guided the proceedings along as Washington Irving, opening the show with the jaunty "Clackety-Clack" and dueting with Davis on the catchy and satirical "How Can You Tell an American?"

Photos by Erin Baiano:  Top:  Kelli O'Hara and Victor Garber;  Bottom:  Kelli O'Hara, David Garrison, Brooks Ashmanskas, Orville Mendoza, Brad Oscar, Steve Rosen, Jeff Blumenkrantz and Michael McCormick.

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Posted on: Monday, January 31, 2011 @ 03:54 AM Posted by: Michael Dale

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee: It Gets Better

I'm usually not one to sit in judgment of my journalistic colleagues but when one of them is up on stage performing, what's a theatre critic to do?  Fortunately, I can honestly report that Matt Windman, known for his snappy reviews in amNew York and on, did a fine job in the small role of "Matt Windman," on opening night of Paper Mill's funny and heart-tugging production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.  (Actually, the role would have been a little larger if he knew how to spell "palestra" correctly.)

The smart and quirky show by William Finn (score) and Rachel Sheinkin (book), mounted with many clever touches by director Marc Bruni and choreographer Wendy Seyb, is an eccentricity among Broadway musicals, taking place in a middle school gymnasium (designed by Anna Louizos with the kind of realism that will either bring back nostalgic memories or terrifying flashbacks) entirely during a county-wide spelling bee; the winner of which will proceed to the state finals and hopefully the nationals.

And while the original Broadway production had a healthy run of over 1,000 performances, the significance of its themes may have grown immensely since the show closed in 2008.

Four of the contestants are audience volunteers, like Matt, who enter a drawing in the lobby and are selected just before curtain time.  On the surface their participation may seem like little more than a fun gimmick to add some good-natured laughs, but their presence also serves to balance out the onstage picture of adolescent angst.

Most likely each performance's guest stars will seem comfortable and well-adjusted as they take their turns at the bee, but the scripted contestants, in varying degrees, are all aware of the qualities that make them undesirably different among their peers.  With organizations like The Trevor Project and The It Gets Better Project having recently brought the crisis of teen bullying into the public conscious, a new layer of pathos has been added to the musical as it becomes easy to imagine these kids as the ones who, despite their achievements, are picked on, teased or worse during their school years.

There's Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (Ephie Aardema), who has two gay dads and tries to be outspoken about her political and social views through a thick lisp.  Marcy Park (Olivia Oguma) can't enjoy her exceptional expertise at academic and extra-curricular activities because, being Asian, people label her as an emotionless automaton.  Olive Ostrovsky (Ali Stroker), whose parents don't seem to have time for her (there are also hints of financial trouble), comforts herself by memorizing the dictionary.

Overweight and slovenly William Barfee (Will Blum) suffers from a long list of allergies and ailments and uses a shield of arrogance as a defense against embarrassment.  Chip Tolentino (Brandon Yanez) is going through an awkward hormonal phase and clings to his position as last year's champion as his defining characteristic.  Leaf Conyebear (Lyle Colby Mackston) feels completely inadequate compared with the others because, having placed third in his school's competition, he's only there because the first and second place finishers dropped out.

But what gives Spelling Bee its joy, and there's plenty of it, is watching these kids make decisions to take control of their lives by embracing what makes them different, taking steps to change what makes them unhappy and becoming willing to open themselves up to others.

Serving as an example that it does indeed get better is the bee's moderator, Rona Lisa Peretti (Marla Mindelle), a former winner who may have been just as awkward as the students she now lovingly observes, but has grown into a model of articulate urban chic.  Representing the less pleasant reality of life is Vice Principal Douglas Panch (David Volin), who feeds contestants their words in a bored deadpan and unemotionally informs misspellers of their failures.  The imposing Mitch Mahoney (Jerold E. Solomon) who is serving community service as the evening's "comfort counselor," - handing a juice box to each losing contestant and quickly leading them to the exit - eventually finds he has a real knack for offering sympathy.

The cast is a terrific collection of performers who each get a shot or two in the spotlight and then blend into an ace ensemble.  Finn's consistently amusing score is completely immersed in the characters, especially excelling in the kind of theatre songs that demand staging.  "Magic Foot" is a vaudevillian turn where Barfee and company demonstrate his unusual technique of spelling out words on the floor before saying them aloud. "I Speak Six Languages" has Marcy charging through demonstrations of her many skills, including basketball, karate and portrait painting.  Sheinkin's Tony-winning book - which is loaded with alternate pages so the actors can adapt to anything that might happen regarding the audience volunteers - keeps an episodic structure with little plot consistently funny while building empathy for each contestant.  You won't want to see any of them lose.  And fortunately, in the best sense, none of them do.

Photos by Mark Garvin:  Top:  (front) Ali Stroker and Ephie Aardema (back) Will Blum, Olivia Oguma, Brandon Yanez and Lyle Colby Mackston; Bottom:  Will Blum and Company.

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Posted on: Friday, January 28, 2011 @ 07:01 AM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback

Abbie & The Misanthrope

Actors who bear a substantial resemblance to a legendary celebrity or historical figure are often inspired to turn that stroke of luck into a one-person show.  If Bern Cohen ever had any doubts about his resemblance to political activist Abbie Hoffman, they were certainly dissolved one evening in the 1970s when Ohio police arrested him and put him through a brutal interrogation under the assumption that he was the famous "Clown Prince of the Revolution" who co-founded the Youth International Party (the Yippies), was a member of the "Chicago Eight" who were charged with conspiracy and inciting to riot after disruptive demonstrations outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention and wrote a New York Times bestseller, even though it was titled Steal This Book.

Unfortunately, the fascinating story of Cohen's arrest isn't part of Abbie, the one-man play it helped inspire; not unless you ask him about it during the Q&A that follows each performance of his current run at the West End Theater.  Directed by Thomas Caruso, Abbie, is set in 1987 (two years before his suicide) as the subject's appearance is part of a sociology lecture series.  The text is based on Hoffman's own words with Cohen providing enough connective tissue to shape it into a play.

Looking back on his life, Cohen's portrayal of Hoffman is warm and self-effacing, resembling a character out of Shalom Aleichem more than an anti-establishment social activist when he makes observations like, "Me and the birth control pill were the most celebrated things ever to come out of Worcester.  At one time, most folks up there wished the pill would come first."

Though photo slides accompany his talk, this middle-aged man's look back at his youth never gives us a clear view of what he was like at the peak of his career.  Perhaps a larger-budgeted production with film clips, or even another actor playing a younger Hoffman, might increase the play's effectiveness, but what is offered now, though certainly informative and interesting, lacks details.  Little is made of the famous antics that took place during the Chicago Eight's trial or the man's diagnosis with bi-polar disorder.

That's not to say that this premiere production of the piece doesn't show potential.  Cohen conveys a true affection and warmth for subject.  Now we just need to see more of Hoffman's fire.


The last major production of Moliere's The Misanthrope to hit town featured a scene where the title character plopped himself onto a table full of messy lunchtime goodies, slathering himself with chocolate sauce, squeezing ketchup down his pants, ramming a watermelon half on his head and fashioning himself a toupee made from spaghetti.  Nearly anything director Joseph Hanreddy and the Pearl Theatre Company would offer instead would seem a blessing by comparison.

Indeed, their presentation of Richard Wilbur's English verse translation leans far more on the traditional side, with designer Harry Feiner's setting of upstage doors and a floor realized with simple grace and Sam Fleming's costumes and Gerard Kelly's wigs providing elegance and humor.  And if the proceedings seem a bit stilted at first, the sharp humor of Moliere's satire of communication among polite society bursts through as the comedic sparks fly throughout the second act

As the title character, Alceste, Sean McNall is crisply erudite as he mourns the loss of brutal honesty in the class he is unavoidable a part of, succumbed to the false kindness his peers use to get along in polite society when they're not secretly gossiping about one another.  He sneers with exasperation when the would-be poet, Oronte (a likeably oblivious Kern McFadden) asks for an honest critique of his sorry work.

What sets the play in motion is that Alceste is madly in love with a woman who represents all he despises; the 20-year-old widow, Celimene, a lady who relishes the advantages her beauty and independence allow her as she receives suitors and partakes in leisurely endeavors.  Janie Brookshire plays the role with a wry sense of self-satisfaction and though their early scenes can use a jump-start of tension and heat, eventually his maddening frustration matches perfectly with her detached amusement through to their relationship's resolution.

Though the supporting performances, while certainly capable, don't all seem completely organic with the rhythms of the text and there is little consistency as to whether the rhymes should be played up, disregarded or somewhere in between, Patrick Halley and Matthew Amendt do deliver fine supporting turns as Celimene's foppish suitors.  And given the strength of the production's second act, it wouldn't surprise me if by the time these words are read the first half has risen to the same level. 

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Posted on: Thursday, January 27, 2011 @ 02:07 AM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback

Broadway Grosses: Week Ending 1/23 & Theatre Quote of the Week

"I don't believe in astrology. The only stars I can blame for my failures are those that walk about the stage."
-- Noel Coward


The grosses are out for the week ending 1/23/2011 and we've got them all right here in's grosses section.

Up for the week was: TIME STANDS STILL (15.1%), MEMPHIS (5.8%), AMERICAN IDIOT (1.5%),


Posted on: Monday, January 24, 2011 @ 04:06 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback

Carnival Round The Central Figure

The central figure of Diana Amsterdam's tragedy of manners is a young, terminally ill accountant named Paul (Ted Caine) who spends most of the evening silently lying in a hospital bed surrounded by a carnival of denial.  Unable to communicate, it's unclear how much of his wife, Sheila's (Christine Rowan),  mask of perkiness he must endure as she forces positive energy into the room with plans for their future and uses an annoyingly motherly tone to praise the fact that he ate a whole half a banana today and kept it all down.

Her antics are all rather distasteful to Paul's co-worker Kate (Danni Simon) who comes for a visit and, sounding like the voice of the playwright, insists that Sheila but blunt with Paul about the fact that he is dying.

Their scenes in Carnival Round The Central Figure alternate with snippets from a televised gospel program, Speak Straight to Jesus, that features a fanatically energetic evangelist (Shane LeCocq), backed up by a frenzied choir, reminding us that death is simply the passing from this world into the next.

While Amsterdam offers a promising set-up, the playwright never goes much beyond stating the fact that people generally don't like to talk openly about death.  At times she even appears critical of faiths that comfort their followers with the promise of an afterlife.

But while the text is too simple and repetitive, director Karen Kohlhaas' production for IRT keeps the evening visually interesting.  The modest space is decorated with posters depicting a Mardi Gras skull and strings of light from above suggest we're seated under a carnival tent with an imposing nurse, who occasionally sucks blood out of Paul with an enormous syringe, seated throne-like on a raised platform, observing actors who perform ritualistically in whiteface.  The company dives into the material admirably but there just isn't enough there.

Photo Danni Simmons and Ted Caine by Deneka Peniston.

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Posted on: Friday, January 21, 2011 @ 05:25 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback

Blood From A Stone

First-time playwright Tommy Nohilly seems intent on ramming edgy family dysfunctions in the audience's faces with Blood From A Stone.  Unfortunately there's no play underneath to support it all.  Director Scott Elliott and The New Group do a heck of a good job covering up the flaws of the text most of the time, but the nearly three hours of animosity and head-banging symbolism can't help looking very silly now and then, despite the skilled ensemble.

Ethan Hawke, playing the central role, deserves high praise for keeping the evening grounded in some form of reality.  Set in the recent past in the crumbling home of a blue-collar Connecticut family, Hawke is Travis, a war vet and pill addict who has come by for a Christmastime visit before heading west to figure out a new life.  The play is more-or-less plotless, with Travis having at least one full scene alone with each character as family foibles are revealed.

Ann Dowd, as his mother, Margaret, squeezes empathy out of her role; harshly verbally abusive to her husband, Bill (Gordon Clapp), and clinging to Travis for compassion.  One of her complaints against Bill is that he refuses to fix their leaky kitchen ceiling, panels of which occasionally drop to the floor.  As Bill, Clapp is a brutish lug who mumbles when he doesn't bellow.  A major problem with the play is that we never see anything to suggest this was ever anything more than a hateful pair and when their anger flies over the top, even with these two fine actors, the moments feel more scripted than organic.

Thomas Guiry is all meek and baby-faced as younger brother Matt, who has left his wife and kid for a married woman and is trying to pay off his gambling debts by selling stolen goods.  A scene where Travis tries to get him to surrender to police waiting outside the door before they come in and arrest him will lack any tension for audience members who have read the program and know that there will be no other characters appearing.

Margaret, Bill and Matt all seem defined by their flaws, giving the audience little to care about.  The only reasonable well-adjusted family member is Travis' sister Sarah (Natasha Lyonne), who keeps herself distant from the domestic conflicts.  The playwright keeps himself distant from Sarah as well, as the character is introduced and soon forgotten.  Also seen too briefly is the excellent Daphne Rubin-Vega as his ex, the now unhappily married Yvette.  Their post-coital reunion scene, where they evaluate where their lives have gone, contains the play's best writing and is superbly acted.  Although, accepting that Yvette is afraid she's no longer sexually attractive, after watching the scantily-clad Ms. Rubin-Vega parading her exceptional figure about the room, does require some suspension of disbelief.

Photo of Ann Dowd and Ethan Hawke by Monique Carboni.

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Posted on: Thursday, January 20, 2011 @ 04:49 AM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback

Broadway Grosses: Week Ending 1/16 & Theatre Quote of the Week

"I'm just an instrument through which La Mama functions. I never dictate.... Maybe it's fatalistic, but I know La Mama has its own spirit and if that spirit wishes to keep going, it will. All I can do is be a part of it."

-- Ellen Stewart 

The grosses are out for the week ending 1/16/2011 and we've got them all right here in's grosses section.



Posted on: Tuesday, January 18, 2011 @ 08:34 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback

The Importance of Being Earnest: Namely You

How remarkably tragic it is that the triumphant opening night of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, perhaps the greatest comedy ever penned in the English language, was also the event that led to the author's personal downfall and eventual public and financial ruin.

It was on this February 14th, 1895 evening at London's St. James's Theatre that The Marquess of Queensberry (yes, the guy who came up with rules to keep boxers from killing each other) attempted to publically embarrass Wilde for having an intimate relationship with his son, Lord Alfred Douglas, by hurling a bouquet of rotten vegetables to his feet at curtain call.  Though the plot was discovered and the Marquees was denied entrance to the theatre, his accusations of Wilde being a Sodomite (accurate, but illegal) forced the playwright to sue him for libel.  A series of court cases revealed Wilde's unspoken life and he wound up serving two years of hard labor, convicted of the charge of gross indecency with another man.  After being released he spent his last years in Paris, broke and forgotten, before passing away at the age of 46.

And yet Wilde's final theatre piece, subtitled "A Trivial Comedy for Serious People" is a divine scoop of fluff representing the artist at his most scathingly clever.  But while the last major production of Earnest to hit this area - David Schweizer's mounting seen at Paper Mill - was a madcap laugh-riot, the new Broadway outing helmed by Brian Bedford takes a subtler, more realistic approach to the piece; gently charming its way through three acts and establishing more romance and empathy.  Classic observations such as, "More than half of modern culture depends on what one shouldn't read," and, "In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity, is the vital thing," still land, but inspire more chuckles than guffaws.  And while my personal preference would be to play up the individual jokes a bit more, you certainly can't fault Bedford or his exceptional company for a moment of this delightful production.

Santino Fontana appears as Algernon, the young London aristocrat who has invented a fictional friend named Bunbury, whose frequent need for care during bouts with bad health gives him a good reason to excuse himself from dull social obligations.  His real life pal (David Furr) is known as Jack when he's dealing with the serious matter of taking care of his ward, Cecily (Charlotte Parry), out in the country, but reinvents himself as Jack's fictional brother, Ernest, when carousing with his friends in town.

Romantic complications arise when Jack proposes to Algernon's cousin, Gwendolyn (Sara Topham), only to find her love for him has been prompted by a desire to marry a man named Ernest.  Later, Algernon becomes smitten with Cecily, only to find that she too has latched on to this fashion of desiring a husband named Ernest.

Hovering over the romantic dealings is Bedford himself, as Gwendolyn's socially-conscious mother, Lady Bracknell.  Played straight and without a moment of camp, Bedford's Bracknell puts up a shield of haughtiness to cover her fear of not giving the best of appearances; giving her stern exterior a layer of sympathetic softness.  (Exemplary of the production's realistic approach is that Bracknell's most famous comic line, one that is often used to compare and define different interpretations of the role, seems to be uttered here with no intention of getting a laugh.)

But it's the frivolity of the young lovers that makes Earnest fizz and Bedford has produced a formidable foursome.  Fontana's Algernon is a snarky adolescent who matures as he grows more and more in love with Cecily; played by Parry with breezily controlling femininity.  Topham's Gwendolyn is a youthful replica of her mother's social-climbing seriousness and much of the fun of Furr's awkwardly proper Jack comes from how the scenes where he courts Gwendolyn mirror those where he tries to win Lady Bracknell's approval.

Nobody tops Paxton Whitehead when it comes to playing jolly old English gentlemen and his skills are put to fine use as Reverend Chasuble; particularly when paired with Dana Ivey, whose no-nonsense teacher Miss Prism melts just a bit into girlish flirtatiousness in his presence.

Desmond Heeley's sets and costumes provide a subdued elegance to the affair, perfectly in line with Bedford's gracefully engaging evening.

Photos by Joan Marcus:  Top:  Sara Topham, David Furr and Brian Bedford; Bottom:  Dana Ivey and Paxton Whitehead.

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Posted on: Tuesday, January 18, 2011 @ 05:24 AM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback

Richard Skipper as Carol Channing in Concert

I imagine Richard Skipper must approach his embodiment of Carol Channing a bit differently than most successful female celebrity impersonators.  When doing Barbra or Eartha or Ethel there are certain idiosyncrasies one can latch onto and exaggerate as punch lines.  Channing, however, has always presented herself on stage as a sort of self-satire.  To broaden up what is already such an extreme can easily slip into vulgar mockery.

But what makes Skipper's performance, one he's been doing for over 20 years, so touching and enjoyable - and sustainable for the 90-minute length of his delightful show, Richard Skipper as Carol Channing in Concert - is that he presents us with a Carol Channing that's toned down to a more personal level.  It's all there...  the voice that crackles and growls, the innocent eyes that speak the unspoken, the vigorous show-biz strut, the non sequiturs that eventually wind up making perfect sense... but this is more of the Channing we see off-stage or while being interviewed and discussing the subtext of Hello, Dolly!'s title song or explaining the satirical elements of her portrayal of Lorelei Lee.

Thus the show, directed by Mark Robert Gordon, becomes less about Skipper's impersonation and more about admiring the lady he honors.  It's no wonder that the Broadway legend herself is one of his biggest fans.

With music director John Fischer leading a three-piece combo, the standards you expect from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Hello, Dolly! are naturally included (plus Dolly's tender "oak leaf" monologue, serving as a reminder of what an underrated actress Channing is) as well as her big Thoroughly Modern Millie number, "Jazz Baby" and the Ervin Drake novelty song, "Widow's Weeds."

And there are anecdotes about David Merrick and Jerry Herman and Jule Styne, but it's during Skipper's frequent interactions with the audience where he truly gives us a sense of Channing and her genius for sharp-witted eccentricity.  Innocuous exchanges with patrons get whipped into gags throughout the evening.  At one point a male viewer is invited to come on stage for the star to teach him a little dance for "Bye, Bye, Baby."  The night I attended, the gregarious guest wasn't lacking for hamminess and Skipper was generous enough to allow him to steal the moment, just as you might expect Ms. Channing would have been delighted to do.  But woe to those who might casually flip through their programs during a performance, as they'll be dealt with firmly, though charmingly.

If I have any reservation, and this is more a matter of personal preference, it's that the stories and songs are all very familiar to anyone with more than a basic knowledge of Carol Channing's Broadway career.  Time used for songs introduced by others ("Broadway Baby," "Gee, But It's Good To Be Here") might be more interestingly spent with material from The Vamp or Show Girl.  But you can't blame a gal for sticking with the crowd-pleasers, nor can you blame a fella.  And pleasing a crowd is something both Ms. Channing and Mr. Skipper know plenty about.

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Posted on: Friday, January 14, 2011 @ 03:14 AM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback

This Time, Glenn Beck, It's Personal...

Dear Glenn Beck,

So you really loved Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark?  Good for you!  I'm glad you had a great time and I think it's terrific that you shared your enthusiasm for the show with your listeners, encouraging them to buy tickets and have the same swell time you had.

Except you completely discredit yourself by prefacing your remarks with ridiculous generalizations about the New York theatergoing public that are based on unfounded clichés.

You say theatre lovers don't like rock music.  Ever hear of a little show called Hair, big guy?

You say we think having actors flying around cheapens the theatre?  Yeah, that's why Mary Martin's performance in Peter Pan is so lowly regarded by us all.

And you say we don't like musicals based on comic book characters?  Got two words for ya, genius...   An.  Nie.

Look, you do what you want when you're talking politics, but when you step up to the Sardi's bar to mix with the musical theatre crowd you play by our rules, and that means freely expressing your opinions and then respecting anyone's opposing viewpoint.

And by the way, they're called understudies, not stand-ins.  You want to hang with the theatre kids, you learn the lingo.



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Posted on: Thursday, January 13, 2011 @ 12:17 AM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback

A Small Fire

The old showbiz adage about always leavin' 'em wanting more isn't always the best advice, as exemplified Adam Bock's fascinating, understated and, in the end, frustratingly incomplete, A Small Fire.  In his usual fashion, especially when teamed up, as he is here, with director Tripp Cullman, Bock takes us on an engrossing journey just beyond the outer edges of reality.  There is some extraordinary scene work, both in his writing and in the collaborative efforts of the director and his two superlative leads, Michele Pawk and Reed Birney.  But while the 80-minute production satisfies in so many ways, the text also leaves out too many delicious details.

Pawk hits the mark perfectly as Emily Bridges, the hard-shelled, softie on the inside owner of a construction company, first seen administering some tough love on her second in command, Billy, played by Victor Williams; loveable and engaging as a sensitive lug who races homing pigeons.  While the plans for her daughter's (Celia Kennan-Bolger) wedding are in full swing Emily, as evidenced by her inability to notice a small kitchen fire, inexplicable loses her sense of smell.  Other senses gradually follow and she is forced to become dependent on her husband, John (Birney), a situation the fiercely independent woman is not going to settle into easily.

What could easily slip into a melodramatic tear-jerker is made more touching by the production's lack of sentimentality.  Emily's humiliation at needing help to get dressed for her daughter's wedding is conveyed by Pawk with simple, matter-of-fact resignation.  A wonderfully written and played scene at the reception has John, whose senses seem to wthen as Emily's diminish, excitedly describing the event for her.  Another moving scene has Billy describing for John his recollections of losing a boyfriend to AIDS.

But the play seems to lack its bookends.  The reasons for the strained relationship between Emily and her daughter are left unexplored, giving Kennan-Bolger little of depth to do.  More critical, though, is that the final moments suggest a powerful new intimacy between Emily and John (climaxing in a hilarious moment, courtesy of Ms. Pawk), leaving us dangling a bit as to what will happen when everything the play seems to be leading up to eventually occurs.

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Posted on: Wednesday, January 12, 2011 @ 02:50 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.