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For those who would enjoy David Mamet plays if there wasn’t so much cursing and misogyny, I offer Lyle Kessler's very funny, testosterone-laced drama, Orphans.

A significant early hit for Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre in the mid-1980s, which transferred to Off-Broadway and also had a successful London run, Orphans makes its Broadway debut in a sharply performed production directed by Daniel Sullivan.

Set designer John Lee Beatty’s appropriately dreary set puts us in the dilapidating North Philadelphia home of orphaned brothers Phillip (Tom Sturridge) and Treat (Ben Foster), who survive on petty thievery and meals of canned tuna and Hellmann’s Mayonnaise.

The brutish, hot-tempered Treat has convinced his mentally unstable, childlike brother that he has allergies that will kill him, which keeps him inside and out of harm while he’s out stealing a living.

Treat thinks he’s hit the jackpot when he brings home well-dressed and inebriated Harold (Alec Baldwin), who he figures they can hold captive for ransom, but the cool and devious stranger, who is a far more dangerous sort than the young man had bargained for, quickly turns the tables.

Sympathetic to their plight, Harold offers Treat a generous salary be his bodyguard and even offers to put Phillip on the payroll, though for doing what is never quite clear.

Soon their home is decked out properly and, under Harold’s tutelage, Treat is developing a sophisticated fashion sense while Phillip is being introduced to fine cuisine.  Of course, both still have mental instability issues and although their exposure to the finer things is at first very funny, the dark subtext of what these boys are able to handle and what exactly Harold has in mind for them darkens the proceedings by the final curtain.

The dynamic chemistry between the three actors is a pleasure to watch.  Baldwin’s Harold is glib, composed and sweetly paternal in his desire help the boys “better” themselves despite the fact that he sees Treat as a caged lion who would take a bullet for him if trained successfully.  Foster keeps Treat on the edge of losing control, struggling with his survival instinct to react violently without thinking a situation through.

Cheerful and trusting, Sturridge’s Phillip spends much of the play avoiding contact with the floor by leaping from the stairway banister to the furniture like a kid on a jungle gym.  He is the empathetic heart of the production.

Photos by Joan Marcus:  Top: Alec Baldwin; Bottom: Tom Sturridge, Ben Foster and Alec Baldwin.

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Posted on: Tuesday, April 30, 2013 @ 11:47 AM Posted by: Michael Dale

Broadway Grosses: Week Ending 4/28/13 & Theatre Quote of the Week

“Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it.”
-- Bertolt Brecht

The grosses are out for the week ending 4/28/2013 and we've got them all right here in's grosses section.


Down for the week was: THE TESTAMENT OF MARY (-20.4%), ORPHANS (-15.4%), JEKYLL & HYDE (-13.6%), MACBETH (-9.9%), THE BIG KNIFE (-8.3%), ANNIE (-5.8%), NEWSIES (-4.2%), THE NANCE (-3.8%), NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT (-3.5%), ONCE (-2.7%), WICKED (-2.0%), LUCKY GUY (-1.5%), VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE (-0.6%), PIPPIN (-0.5%), THE ASSEMBLED PARTIES (-0.4%),

Posted on: Monday, April 29, 2013 @ 03:21 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback

The Assembled Parties & Macbeth

Apparently, not all upper west side Jewish families spend Christmas Day going out for Chinese food and a movie.  Take the extended family of Richard Greenberg’s The Assembled Parties, who spend two December 25ths, twenty years apart, in a perfunctory celebration of the holiday while complaining about the inability to find a plumber to come right over fix a leaky pipe (Even when offered a "Nativity surcharge.") and referring to the season’s continual playing of Bing Crosby singing "White Christmas” as, “a tiny acoustic rape every time you leave the apartment."

The daughter of a famous dress designer, former teen movie star Julie Bascov (Jessica Hecht) lives with her successful businessman husband Ben (Jonathan Walker) and sons Scotty (Jake Silbermann) and Timmy (Alex Dreier) in a stunning 14-room apartment off of Central Park.  Scotty’s visiting friend Jeff (Jeremy Shamos) describes the place in a phone conversation with his mom as, “like the sets of those plays you love. With the breezy dialogue. They sort of talk that way and everybody’s unbelievably nice and, like, gracious and happy."

Indeed the conversation is charming and polite, not to mention educated to the most obscure edges of vocabulary and culture, when Jeff is being entertained by the likes of Julie, played with an airy, affected charm by Hecht (“A cheerful nature is an utterly ruthless thing.  I’m the most ruthless woman you’ll ever meet.”), but Santo Loquasto’s swiftly revolving set reveals not only an assortment of rooms but a selection of less-breezy private conversations that may not seem completely related, but begin to tie together in the second act, which stays put in the living room.

Those conversations involve Ben’s sister, Faye (Judith Light), her husband Morty (Mark Blum) and their slow-witted daughter, Shelley (Lauren Blumenfeld), visiting from Long Island.  There are hints of someone suffering a serious illness and discussion of a valuable family heirloom.

With a plot that is mostly suggested and a theme of transformation as a survival skill that involves events that take place during the twenty year span between acts, the evening seems dominated by Greenberg’s urban wisecracks, particularly those volleyed by Light, who has quickly become Broadway’s go-to lady for playing troubled, intelligent women who quip dryly.  (“Water isn’t necessary,” she explains while downing a Valium.  “Water is a garnish.”)  References to Y2K and the long process of figuring out who won the 2000 presidential election elicit chuckles of reognition.

Director Lynne Meadow’s graceful production really begins to fly when the trio of Light, Hecht and Shamos (whose emotionally bottled-up performance contrasts perfectly with Light’s acerbic nature and Hecht’s pretensions) become the main focus, elevating a good play into a highly satisfying evening.

Photos by Joan Marcus:  Top: Jessica Hecht, Jeremy Shamos and Judith Light; Bottom: Jonathan Walker and Mark Blum.


“When shall we three meet again?” asks a mysterious stranger, momentarily stopping the two who were about to leave the room.  They’re not sisters but at least one of them might be described as a little weird.

Perhaps inspired by the title character’s description of life as, “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing,” Alan Cumming’s (mostly) solo performance of Macbeth is set in a psychiatric ward where someone who is perhaps an idiot (the savant kind) unexpectedly erupts into an edited performance of Shakespeare’s tragedy while being observed through a glass wall and from surveillance cameras by a pair of medical professionals.

And while I wouldn’t exactly describe the event as, “a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more,” the ambiguity of the concept, coupled with the foggy storytelling, does nothing to truly enhance the text.  This is one Shakespeare production where the player’s the thing.

Co-directed by John Tiffany and Andrew Goldberg, the piece is performed in set and costume designer Merle Hensel’s sparse observatory, which includes a bed, a sink and that fixture that’s turning up more and more on New York theatre sets these days, a bathtub.  (Yes, it is used.)

The play begins silently with a dazed and bleeding Cumming being attended to by Jenny Sterlin and Brendan Titley.  They change him from street clothes to clinical whites, place his belongings in a bag marked “evidence” and leave to take notes from above, occasional coming back to give him an injection.  Near the end they’re also speaking lines, but they’re amplified with a mechanical sounding echo by designer Fergus O’Hare.  (No, I don’t know why.)

As far as Shakespeare’s text is concerned, Cumming attacks his assignment with high energy and a trunkful of stage tricks.  The title role is his default setting, sticking to the reedy Scottish voice of his birth land.  Lady M. is pitched up a bit and for the trio of weird sisters he faces the surveillance camera so his image pops up on three video screens.  Banquo likes to toss an apple in his hand and King Duncan is a loony old man in a wheelchair.

Despite a game effort, many of the characters blend too easily into one another and being able to follow the plot without already having a decent familiarity with the play seems a lost cause.  There is plenty in Cumming’s performance that will provide surface entertainment, but the context keeps us aware that we’re not actually watching the actor playing these characters, but watching the actor playing this mysterious man playing these characters and the payoff that justifies the concept never occurs.

Ultimately, the evening adds up as a testament to Cumming’s stamina and athleticism, rather than his dramatic chops.

Photo of Alan Cumming and Jenny Sterlin by Jeremy Daniel.

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Posted on: Monday, April 29, 2013 @ 01:57 AM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback

Here Lies Love

The only thing that’ll keep you from dancing in aisles at the Public Theater’s production of the enormously fun and exhilarating new musical, Here Lies Love, is the fact that there are no aisles.  In fact, there are no seats, save for a handful up in the balcony for this strictly standing room only show.

Director Alex Timbers, who turned the presidency of Andrew Jackson into an emo rock concert and the teachings of L. Ron Hubbard into a children’s holiday pageant, now stages the story of the political and romantic rise and fall of Ferdinand Marcos and his and his partner in corruption Imelda (who I’m told loved the nightlife and often got to boogie) as a night at a Filipino dance club, where disco, techno and house music are accompanied by flashing lights and the seeds of revolution.

Those who are immediately turned off by the thought of audience participation theatre need not fear.  This is not one of those shows that breaks the fourth wall to single out and/or embarrass customers, but depictions of the masses are intrinsic to the storytelling and it’s easy (and fun) to get caught up in the mob mentality; particularly when company members lead the audience in line dancing or an angry protest chant of, “Rise up!”

Since the invention of karaoke is credited to Filipino Roberto del Rosarioa, the concept has the cast singing to recorded tracks of the score by David Byrne (lyrics and music) and Fatboy Slim (music), often using hand-held microphones.  There’s almost no dialogue; not even recitative.  Just a series of hard-thumping dance tunes that, for authenticity’s sake, are written in simple pop vernacular with not a lot of attention to perfect rhyming.  But Byrnes’ lyrics, many of them adapted from real life speeches and interviews, are heavily detailed in storytelling and projections explaining who the characters are and the context of each song makes the plot easy, and quite exciting, to follow.

As Imelda, the terrific Ruthie Ann Miles starts sweetly as a simple country girl who moves to the big city after winning a beauty contest and eventually becomes a ruthless diva of a first lady, spending extravagant amounts of money on unnecessary government projects while her people are starving.  (Curiously, there’s no mention of her infamously large shoe collection.)  As Ferdinand Marcos, the handsome Jose Llana displays a devilish charm as he seduces both the lady and the country.  An impassioned Conrad Ricamora plays Ninoy Aquino, Imelda’s first boyfriend who later becomes a leader in exposing the corruption of the Marcos administration.  More poignant moments are handled by the beautifully singing Melody Butiu, as Imelda’s childhood friend, Estrella.

Scenes are played out on various moveable platforms which stagehands reconfigure frequently during the non-stop proceedings while assistants in hot pink jumpsuits gently guide audience members out of the way.  Choreographer Annie-B Parson’s tireless ensemble dances up a whirlwind of disco moves as Timbers paints funny and surprisingly touching and dramatic moments.

It may sound like a campy gimmick, but Here Lies Love is seriously good musical theatre.  All that’s missing are overpriced drinks and the drunken idiots hitting on you.

Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: Ruthie Ann Miles and Company; Bottom: Jose Llana.

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Posted on: Friday, April 26, 2013 @ 12:08 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback

The Nance

I suppose the problem with being the greatest Broadway comic actor of your generation is that once the label sticks you rarely get the opportunity to prove that you can also turn in great dramatic performances.  (Conversely, not since Garbo laughed has anyone been surprised to see a great dramatic actor excel in a comic part.)  In Douglas Carter Beane’s ambitious, provocative and lovely protest drama/romantic comedy, The Nance, Nathan Lane finally gets to originate the kind of role that highlights what makes him a genuine stage star.  He sings, he says funny lines, he plays love scenes… but most of all he perceptively plays a strikingly original character in what will most likely be considered, up to this point, the best stage performance of his career.

Lane appears as Chauncey Miles, a burlesque performer working steadily at a small theatre on Irving Place where he specializes in doing sketches and songs as his “nancy boy” character; a swishy fellow who broadly hints at his homosexuality through double entendres.  It’s 1937 and New York’s Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia wants to clean up the town by closing down the handful of remaining burlesque houses.  But charges of indecency are not aimed at the strip-teasers, but rather at sexual innuendo comics like Chauncey who, as one character describes it, attracts gay men to the theatre who take advantage of the “normal” guys in the audience who got excited by the strippers by taking them up to the balcony for some “relief.”

Unlike the better-known nance comics of real life, Chauncey actually is gay.  With a mixture of ironic arrogance and self-depreciation, he describes his choice of profession as, “Like a Negro doing blackface.”  (Which did exist.)  The play opens with him sitting alone, having a sandwich at an automat (the first of John Lee Beatty’s wonderful collection of realistic and atmospheric settings) known to those in the know as a place where older gay men can find a hungry, younger gent in need of a place to spend the night.  This must be done, however, through discreet communication in order to avoid arrest.  Not for prostitution, but for simply giving the appearance of being gay men – or a less-genial term – in public.

He takes handsome and naïve out-of-towner, Ned (a sweet and charming Jonny Orsini), back to his Greenwich Village apartment for what he assumes will be another one-nighter but the young man has something more long-term in mind and for the first time Chauncey begins thinking that maybe he’s entitled to be loved.

Scenes of their growing domesticity alternate with backstage ruckus and onstage hijinks at the burlesque house owned by the gruff top banana comic, Efram, played by another great Broadway clown, Lewis J. Stadlen.  When Lane and Stadlen pair up to lead the company in classic burlesque bits like “Niagara Falls,” “Meet Me ‘Round The Corner,” “The Courtroom” and “The Crazy House,” The Nance offers some of the biggest laughs of the season.  These two old-school pros know that era and style so well.

Jenni Barber, Andrea Burns and Cady Huffman are all terrific as strip-teasers who also bump and grind for laughs in the sketches.  Costume designer Ann Roth contributes the right degree of tackiness to their stage costumes and special kudos go to the brassy Ms. Huffman, whose knock-out figure is well-remembered from her Tony-winning sexpot performance in The Producers, for trading vanity for authenticity when wearing tasteless outfits that, appropriately, do not flatter her at all.

Art and politics figure heavily in the offstage scenes.  Huffman’s Sylvie is a left-wing activist who is confident that the entertainment unions will back their burlesque colleagues against the city’s crackdown.  Chauncey is a devoted Republican who’s sure that his man LaGuardia is just making noise to help his reelection campaign. ("Say something nice about Roosevelt and prepare to have your eyes scratched out")  But although he’s accustomed to dealing with his private life being illegal, he feels forced to take action when his artistry is declared a criminal act.

Beane is a playwright best known for campiness (Xanadu) and sharp zingers (The Little Dog Laughed), but while his star is granted a wealth of punch lines (Chauncey describes his dressing robe as “Anna May Wong’s wet dream.”) they come in the context of a clever man using his wits as a defense against a world where he feels continually rejected.  Even while Lane is getting laughs he keeps his character’s anguish close to the surface.

If the playwright stumbles a bit, it’s with two monologues that, while sufficiently effective, seem a bit too familiar and could use some strengthening to create the impact they’re no doubt capable of making.  The first has Chauncey in court, politely defending his act to an unseen judge, explaining his comedy much in the way Lenny Bruce did during his infamous obscenity trial.  The second has the fed-up comic on stage, angrily commenting on what his act has been reduced to because of government censorship as the audience starts turning against him.  Lane, nevertheless, is heart-wrenching in both of these scenes.

Director Jack O’Brien’s splendid production balances the budget-conscious show-biz pizzazz of the rickety burlesque house with the tender trepidation of the romantic scenes.  The Nance, while heavily steeped in nostalgia for a long-gone era, turns out as the kind of fresh and original entertainment that Broadway doesn’t do often enough.

Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: Nathan Lane; Bottom: Jonny Orsini and Nathan Lane.

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Posted on: Wednesday, April 24, 2013 @ 01:10 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback

Broadway Grosses: Week Ending 4/21/13 & Theatre Quote of the Week

"Age is not important unless you're a cheese."

-- Helen Hayes

The grosses are out for the week ending 4/21/2013 and we've got them all right here in's grosses section.


Down for the week was: ANN (-8.8%), THE NANCE (-7.6%), JEKYLL & HYDE (-5.0%), THE BIG KNIFE (-4.6%), MOTOWN: THE MUSICAL (-3.0%), CINDERELLA (-2.3%), THE LION KING (-1.4%), THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (-1.2%),

Posted on: Monday, April 22, 2013 @ 05:14 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback

Motown, the musical: A Tale of Two Cities

It was the best of musicals, it was the worst of musicals.  It was a score of wisdom, it was a book of foolishness.  It was the epoch of belief in the entertainment value of songs like “Dancing In The Streets” and “My Girl,” it was the epoch of incredulity in hearing lines like “Your little Stevie is a wonder” and “You built a legacy of love.”  We had everything before us, we had nothing before us.

Motown is at the same time a wonderful idea and a horrible idea for a musical.  Wonderful in that the story of how Berry Gordy, inspired at a young age by seeing how Joe Louis’ victory over Max Schmeling had united Americans of all races in support of a black man defeating a white man, created an independent record label that tremendously affected American culture during the wth of the civil rights movement, allowing the music of black artists to be heard and loved throughout the country, is a highly dramatic story that not only sings, but comes with its own collection of sensational songs.

It’s a horrible idea because there’s too much to it to fit into two and a half hours of Broadway entertainment.  Satisfactorily representing the contributions of all the major artists Gordy discovered and developed (The Supremes, The Temptations, The Jackson 5, Martha and the Vandellas, Mary Wells, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, The Four Tops, etcetera, etcetera and so forth.) would require a cycle of musicals of Wagnerian length.  (Which, for the record, I wouldn’t mind sitting through at all.)

But without the benefit of any nationally known performers in the cast, the name Motown, the musical was enough to generate a reported 10 million dollars in advance ticket sales, making it, to the people who earn their livings from theatre, a brilliant idea.

Of course, it could have been artistically brilliant as well in the hands of a skilled bookwriter who could devise a method for including all the hit songs the public wants to hear in a way that enhances the story (as in Jersey Boys), rather that gumming up the works every time the music starts (Good Vibrations).  But, with the assistance of David Goldsmith and Dick Scanlan, whose billing as “script consultants” can be found somewhere near the bottom of the credits (Was Thomas Meehan screening his calls?), Gordy took on the task himself.  The end result not only speaks for the fact that he has never written a musical before, it makes me seriously wonder if he’s ever seen one.

Scenes where Gordy refuses to attend a televised 25th Anniversary of Motown celebration because he still holds grudges for the acts that left the label for lucrative offers he couldn’t match bookend performances of 54 classic tunes and 3 plot/character songs written for the show with lyrics by Berry Gordy and music by Michael Lovesmith, whose contribution doesn’t seem to merit billing nor a Playbill bio.

The central character is essayed by Brandon Victor Dixon, a very strong actor-singer who works admirably hard in a large but thankless role lacking in humor and empathy and continually upstaged by an excellent supporting ensemble that gets to sing the songs the audience came to hear.  When the plot does come up for air, it mainly concerns the relationship between Gordy and Diana Ross; a captivating portrayal by Valisia LeKae, who convincing takes the character from spunky high school kid to luminous icon, highlighting the growth in her poise and artistry as she progresses from “Where Did Our Love Go?” to “Stop! In The Name Of Love,” “I Hear A Symphony,” “Reach Out and Touch” and "Ain't No Mountain High Enough".

Also prominently featured are Charl Brown as a loyal Smokey Robinson (“What kind of a name is Smokey, anyway?” says one of the many clueless white characters.) and Bryan Terrell Clark as Marvin Gaye, who goes from a young man who wants to be the next Frank Sinatra to an observant artist who wants to reflect his times with controversial protest music.  Young Raymond Luke, Jr. (who alternates with Jibreel Mawry) makes enjoyable appearances in act one as young Berry Gordy and Little Stevie Wonder, but stops the show in act two as Michael Jackson, singing and dancing hits like “ABC,” “The Love You Save” and “I’ll Be There” with infectious joy and exuberance.

And if you resolve to just ignore the clunky clichés of the dramatically thin book, you can pretty much be infected by joy and exuberance all night.  Director Charles Randolph-Wright, who can’t be expected to work miracles with the script, teams with choreographers Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams to get his dazzling company to perform classics like “Do You Love Me,” "I Heard It Through The Grapevine,” “Please, Mr. Postman,” “Shop Around” and “What’s Going On?” in the styles of their famous predecessors without locking them into strict impersonations.  Most of the selections, out of necessity, are truncated and flow smoothly into each other without applause breaks, keeping the proceedings swift.  Peter Hylenski’s sound design is just perfect.

Best of all, Motown is the first of Broadway’s jukebox musicals to offer songs from a wide assortment of artists in chronological order, letting listeners feel the collective growth of the label’s product from innocuous love songs like “My Guy” and “I Can’t Help Myself” to edgier fare such as “Brick House,” “Super Freak” and “War”.

Just shut up and sing.

Photos by Joan Marcus:  Top: Brandon Victor Dixon and Valisia LeKae; Bottom: Raymond Luke, Jr. and Cast.

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Posted on: Monday, April 22, 2013 @ 10:09 AM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback

The Big Knife & Matilda

Theatre writers who were lured to that other coast by Hollywood greenbacks have been known to express their disillusionment with the film industry via the Broadway stage.  George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart based their comedy Once In A Lifetime on their maddening movie studio experiences as did Betty Comden and Adolph Green with the musical Fade Out – Fade In.

But Clifford Odets’ more lethal contribution to the genre was the tense and colorful 1948 drama The Big Knife.  Group Theater veteran John Garfield starred in the original Broadway production which hit the screen in a film noir adaptation penned by James Poe.

The play returns to its old-school theatrical roots in a terrific new staging by Doug Hughes that features a strong ensemble pumping hearty blood into familiar archetypes favored with delectably hard-boiled dialogue.  (“A woman with six martinis can ruin a city.”)

John Lee Beatty’s dazzling set depicts the sunny “playroom” (that’s where the bar is) of the spacious Beverly Hills home of B-movie idol Charlie Castle (Bobby Cannavale) with an upstage wall made up of glass and frame from floor to ceiling, suggesting the occupant’s fame equates him to a caged animal in a zoo with his personal life regularly on display for the public’s entertainment.

Charlie is a former New York actor who became rich and famous showing off his sexy looks and screen charisma in a parade of schlocky Hollywood dramas.  His agent, Nat (Chip Zien as a loveable Jewish show-biz type), is advising him to take a contract extension being offered which would lock his career up with the studio for the next 14 years but Charlie wants the freedom to choose better projects to work on and his wife, Marion (Marin Ireland) is sick of the industry and wants to move back east, with him or without him.

The acerbic and intellectual Marion, who has already left Charlie twice but, like his fans, can’t resist his masculine charm and physique, is a fine fit for the versatile Ireland who layers the character’s outer coolness with frustration at herself for wishing for a commitment she knows she’ll never get.  Indeed, Cannavale’s Charlie can lay on the charisma at will, as he does with an opening scene dancing around a gossip columnist’s (Brenda Wehle) queries, but despite all his advantages, the part of him that needs artistic fulfillment feels trapped by an arrangement once made by studio head Marcus Hoff (Richard Kind) to protect his star’s career from being ruined by his involvement in a tragic accident.  Information about exactly what happened, who was involved and who knows anything about it is fed to the audience gradually.

Kind has only two scenes in the play, but his excellent portrayal of a bullying boss who acts the nice guy, but can quickly make his power felt by explosive outbursts of anger, is a memorable highlight.  “It’s nothing against you personally, you understand,” he calmly explains while potentially ruining someone’s life, “but I’m beholden to my stockholders.”

Complications pop in and out throughout the play, by way of Ana Reeder as the frisky wife of Charlie’s unusually devoted publicist (Joey Slotnick), Rachel Brosnahan as an actress who was contracted as a bit player in exchange for keeping her mouth shut, Reg Rogers as Hoff’s slick hatchet man and C.J. Wilson as the playwright who wants to marry Marion and take her back to New York.

Don’t expect a Hollywood happy ending, just some crackling and satisfying dramatics.

Photos by Joan Marcus:  Top: Marin Ireland and Bobby Cannavale; Bottom: Chip Zien, Bobby Cannavale, Richard Kind and Reg Rogers.


I imagine director Matthew Warchus is going for something a bit Brechtian in his cold, emotionally alienating production of Dennis Kelly (book) and Tim Minchin’s (score) musical rendering of Roald Dahl’s darkly comical children’s novel, Matilda, although there is a blustery gust of Marc Blitzstein idealism in the story of an intellectually gifted, vengeful 5-year-old who inspires a children’s revolution to overthrow a tyrannical schoolmaster.  Both seem like reasonable interpretive choices for this British transfer, but any hope of empathy or, heaven forbid, charm, is buried under the rubble of a bombastic production that seems anxious to divert attention from the fact that, for a show that supposedly celebrates the joys of good storytelling, there’s barely a plot to fill up the two and a half hours plus.

The four very young ladies who alternate in the role of Matilda Wormwood, a quiet and reserved child whose spends her days reading classic literature and learning foreign languages, are all actually about twice the age of the character they portray, as are the young actors cast as her classmates.  While the other neighborhood kids are all over-praised as little princesses and creative prodigies by their parents, Matilda’s mom and pop, a shifty car salesman and a ballroom dancing fanatic (Gabriel Ebert and Lesli Margherita), openly treat her as an unwanted inconvenience, preferring the sloth-like existence of their son, Michael (Taylor Trensch).  In return, Matilda uses her brilliance to concoct nasty bits of revenge.  The only adults who encourage her intellectual growth are librarian Mrs. Phelps (Karen Aldridge), an attentive ear for her stories, and her earnestly sweet teacher, Miss Honey (Lauren Ward), who hides a sad past from her brood.

Dark-haired Oona Laurence, who I saw in the title role, gives the appearance of a serious-minded, stony-faced grownup in her school uniform, like a child who has been emotionally abused for so long that any adult wanting to show affection must work hard to earn her trust.  This works well for the character, most notably in her reaction when Miss Honey offers to give her special attention in class; a show of appreciation distinctly lacking in warmth.  Unfortunately, Warchus has staged her musical moments with so many artificial gestures and movements she appears as a mechanical doll going through her paces with little motivation beyond performing her assigned tasks. 

This same technique works better when the children perform the busy patterns of Peter Darling’s choreography, but Minchin’s dense concentration of lyrics coming through the theatre’s sound system from their young, accented voices were mostly unintelligible from my center orchestra seat.  The same problem existed, though to a lesser degree, with the adult voices, making it difficult to comment on the composer/lyricist’s work.  (My guest, who has far more experience listening to British accents on stage than I, had the same problem, as did several playgoers seated near us and a colleague seated several rows down.)

Very clear, and also very amusing, was Ebert’s second act opener, a music hall style number praising the educational value of television over books.  The bad guys in the piece are all performed as eccentric cartoons, with the lanky Ebert all jaunty limbs and Margherita screeching her self-centeredness.

The sadistic headmistress, Miss Trunchbull, described as a former hammer-throwing champ, is played in drag by Bertie Carvel in a getup by set and costume designer Rob Howell that makes him resemble a harsh caricature of female athletes.  (Think of those Eastern European women competitors who were accused of taking illegal hormonal treatments.)  He lumbers about stiffly (aside from a random somersault) in a performance oddly lacking in personality, making his bland menace neither a palatable threat nor source of comedy.

The second act spotlights the work of illusion designer Paul Kieve as we suddenly find out, three quarters of the way into the evening, that Matilda has telekinetic powers and a chalk that writes on a board by itself becomes this season’s answer to falling chandeliers and descending helicopters.  In an earlier scene Miss Trunchbull grabs a tyke by her pigtails and twirls her around as if she’s throwing a hammer again, releasing her into the air where she disappears until falling to safety.  The switching from the live child to a dummy and then back again is well done but the falseness of the moment, not to mention its violence, robs it of its intended humor.  Before the design team is through we have a meaningless display of laser lights and the obligatory blast of confetti falling on the audience, not to mention the company taking their curtain calls while… Well, I’ll let that be a surprise.

While the visuals are certainly expertly executed (Finding hidden words in Howell’s Scrabble tile set helps pass the time during duller moments.) this musical about appreciating knowledge stresses spectacle over substance.  Perhaps a listen to the British cast album may reveal more depth when the lyrics can be understood but as she stands at the Shubert, Matilda is the type of musical I can’t imagine the title character herself being able to sit through without longing to sneak out for a trip to the library.

Photos by Joan Marcus:  Top: Lauren Ward, Bertie Carvel and Company; Bottom: Taylor Trensch, Lesli Margherita, Gabriel Ebert.

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Posted on: Saturday, April 20, 2013 @ 02:15 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback

The Rascals: Once Upon A Dream

Ya gotta love those 60s bands with their matching outfits.  The Beatles had their buttoned up suits and ties and Paul Revere and The Raiders wore mod colonial getups, but perhaps the craziest rocker look ever broadcast into American homes was the schoolboy ensemble worn by a band then known as The Young Rascals.

Wearing dark knickers, white round-collar shirts with floppy bows and caps, they were a quartet of Little Lord Fauntleroys with attitude, blasting The Ed Sullivan Show with the sexual charged rhythms of what was then called “blue-eyed soul” with their first big hit, “Good Lovin’”.

The costumes were eventually ditched, their name was shortened to The Rascals and the boys followed up with some of the most fondly remembered hits of the late 60s; most famously “Groovin’”, “People Got To Be Free” and “A Beautiful Morning”.  But conflicting ambitions and other issues led to the breakup of the band in the early 70s, despite the addition of new members to the group.

So when The Rascals take the stage for their Broadway concert Once Upon A Dream for two hours worth of songs like “How Can I Be Sure?”, “I’ve Been Lonely Too Long”, “I Ain’t Gonna Eat Out My Heart Anymore” and, of course, the title tune, it is the first time in over 40 years (save for a brief tryout engagement this past December) that the four of them have played a full show together.

Jersey boys Felix Cavaliere (keyboard/vocals), Eddie Brigati (tambourines and vocals), Dino Danelli (percussion) and Gene Cornish (guitar) are all inching their way toward 70, but the joyful energy they bring to their nostalgia trip is both heartwarming and exciting.  Brigati spends much of the evening with a big smile on his face, merrily dancing about the stage and banging his tambourines together.  The deadpan Cornish occasionally struts downstage to show off some fancy licks for cell phone photographers and to toss guitar picks out into the crowd.

They’re joined on stage by Mark Alexander (keyboard), Mark Prentice (music director/bass) and vocalists Sharon Bryant, Angela Clemmons and Dennis Collins.

The reunion concert is the brainchild of Steven Van Zandt, who co-produces, co-directs and has scripted video moments where band members talk about the group’s rise and fall and actors representing the boys in their younger days play out scenes of key events.  (Like the time in a recording studio when someone suggests they do a cover of that Olympics song, “Good Lovin’”.)   The acted out moments come off stilted and a little silly and while the clips of the actual guys give you a nice overview of their history and influence in the growth of rock music (They felt so strongly about the civil rights movement that they insisted at least one black act opened for them at each concert.) the sentiments expressed tend to come off as the generic reactions of a group of regular guys caught up in the excitement of an explosive scene.  Co-director Marc Brickman’s video contributions are more pleasing when flashing up vintage film clips and photos or psychedelic backgrounds.

But as long as The Rascals are making their music, the evening is nothing short of groovin’.

Photo by George Rodriguez.

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Posted on: Thursday, April 18, 2013 @ 03:19 AM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback

The Call

After numerous miscarriages, unsuccessful tries with fertility medications and an arrangement with a pregnant American woman that falls through, white metropolitan couple Annie and Peter (Kerry Butler and Kelly AuCoin) decide to adopt a child from Africa.

And thus the issues involved are delicately juggled in Tanya Barfield’s engrossing, funny and heartfelt drama, The Call; given an excellent premiere mounting by director Leigh Silverman.

The decision to take in a child from a poverty-stricken region where doctors lack the adequate equipment to deal with the AIDS epidemic is primarily the passively controlling Annie’s choice.  Peter jokes about others regarding their baby as a “fashion statement” but he also carries unexpressed emotions about a time he spent in Africa before they met.

Their close friends, black couple Rebecca and Drea (Eisa Davis and Crystal A. Dickinson), are both supportively excited and cautious about the issues involving cross-cultural parenting.  Rebecca tactfully voices her concerns but Drea’s bluntness touches nerves in Annie, who is prepared with carefully researched statistics to furiously defend her decision.

Adding to the debate is their new neighbor Alemu (Russell G. Jones), who recently migrated from Africa and, upon hearing the news, has been dropping medical supplies and sports equipment at Peter and Annie’s door, expecting them to drop them off at a needy facility when they fly over to pick up their child.

Though the couple had specified that they wanted a baby no older than 18 months, fearing any psychological damage an older child may have developed, when they’re told a match has been made the accompanying photo appears to be of someone much older, prompting a discussion of their wants versus what the need is.

An accomplished musical comedy actress, here Butler is called on to play the most involved character of her New York career and her work with AuCoin is particularly impressive as we see his groundedness trying to make peace with her rapid mood swings as they maneuver through this important decision.  Their scenes with Davis and Dickinson, set in designer Rachel Hauck’s well-detailed living room interior, feature some crackling banter by Barfield that is both clever and character-revealing.

This is a tight, entertaining and ultimately touching drama that will leave you with plenty to discuss.

Photos by Jeremy Daniel: Top: Kelly AuCoin and Kerry Butler; Bottom: Eisa Davis and Crystal A. Dickinson.

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Posted on: Tuesday, April 16, 2013 @ 02:41 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback

Kinky Boots & Pretencion: Un Cirque De Burlesque, Un Burlesque De Cirque

A musical theatre rookie named Harvey Fierstein once made history with seasoned vets Jerry Herman and Arthur Laurents creating Broadway’s first musical that offered a leading gay couple in a serious long-term romantic relationship.  Though La Cage aux Folles remains a fairly standard by-the-numbers musical, it seemed revolutionary at its time for telling a progressive tale of gay acceptance as a by-the-numbers musical.

Thirty years and a few bookwriting stints later, Fierstein now teams up with another seasoned musical theatre vet, Jerry Mitchell, and rookie Cyndi Lauper for a by-the-numbers musical that seems, to the credit of society’s growing open-mindedness, by-the-numbers.  Kinky Boots is a sweet, fun and flashy enterprise that showcases the sizzling talents of Billy Porter in his first Broadway starring role, but underneath the glitz there’s some heartfelt exploration of a topic La Cage didn’t quite get to; the acceptance of another’s lifestyle when it goes beyond the privacy of their closed door and becomes a visual part of your everyday life.

Based on the 2005 British film, the main, albeit far less showy character, is played by Stark Sands, who pretty much heads the short list of people capable of going from a Tony-nominated performance in a 1928 British war drama to starring in a Green Day musical.  As Charlie Price, Sands’ impressive dramatic chops are rarely tested, playing the nice guy at the center of a story dominated by more interesting characters until he’s alone on stage for a dramatic 10:45 number, which is shortly followed by Porter’s 11 o’clocker.

Northhampton-born Charlie has no interest running the family shoe manufacturing business but nevertheless takes on the task after his father’s passing, mostly out of concern for the employees he’ll have to let go if he can’t turn the skidding sales around.  A chance meeting with London drag performer Lola (Porter) – who, unlike La Cage’s Albin, dresses in feminine attire off stage as well – leads him to the discovery that the fabulous footwear worn by male cross-dressers is rarely made sturdy enough to support their bodies.  Hence, a partnership is born, with Lola designing the title apparel (realized with showbiz flair by costume designer Gregg Barnes) which Charlie races to have ready for a big upcoming show in Milan.

Away from her safer London environs, Lola encounters the type of close-mindedness you might expect when she arrives at the factory, especially from a burley fellow (Daniel Stewart Sherman) who, perhaps feeling his own masculinity is compromised by this new presence in his workplace, challenges her to a boxing match, not knowing she’s a professionally trained pugilist.  But the twist to this situation is that Lola is only scorned for her gender identity and not for whatever one may assume to be her sexual orientation.  Fierstein himself has been quoted as saying that the character is straight, reinforcing a scripted line where Lola assures Charlie that the potential customer base for his boots is much larger than what he would expect.  The eventually blow-up that nearly dissolves their association occurs when Charlie begins to fear that Lola’s appearance may make him look foolish in front of his industry colleagues.  Sexual orientation is never expressed as an issue.

Porter (who for the record, has been quoted as saying that his character is gay) makes Lola a lusciously playful icon of flamboyant elegance who, like Sampson shorn of his locks, loses his emotional strength when dressed in traditional male attire.  His powerful vocals feast on Lauper’s celebratory pop anthems (“Sex Is In The Heel”) and more tender reflections (“I’m Not My Father’s Son”), but his musicality seamlessly extends into the dialogue, granting captivating comic nuance to proclamations like, “You’re going to have to start manufacturing sex. Two-and-a-half feet of irresistible tubular sex.”

Lauper’s best theatre song is a character-driven comic soliloquy, “The History of Wrong Guys,” delivered with sparkling timing and pathos by Annaleigh Ashford, perfectly delightful as the spunky employee who shyly hides her crush on the boss.

Peppy dance club style ensemble numbers like the first act closer, “Everybody Say Yeah,” give director/choreographer Mitchell a chance to stage the kind of high-energy kinetic expressions of joy he’s known for, especially when the working rhythms of the factory blend with the showgirl glam of Lola’s singing, dancing and emergency shoe modeling Angels (Paul Canaan, Kevin Smith Kirkwood, Kyle Taylor Parker, Kyle Post, Charlie Sutton and Joey Taranto).

Kinky Boots will not be another history-making musical, as its message about social change reflects the growing societal norm far more than La Cage did thirty years ago, but the talents of Fierstein, Lauper and Mitchell complement each other so well that a simple evening of solid, professional musical theatre is elevated into a rousing, and even tear-jerking, kick-ass time.

Photos by Matthew Murphy: Top: Billy Porter; Bottom: Annaleigh Ashford and Stark Sands.


With the lovely ladies and dashing gents who display their physical charms being the focus of New York’s current burlesque scene, it’s easy to forget that the art form sprouted from roots of lowbrow ridicule of serious highbrow culture, so it’s rather refreshing to see Pinchbottom’s new burlesque showcase, Pretençión: Un Cirque De Burlesque, Un Burlesque De Cirque, spoof the spectacles presented by the current occupants of the Citi Field parking lot.

Written and co-directed (with Jeremy X. Halpern) by the princely Burlesque Mayor of New York, Jonny Porkpie (who I understand is running for the real thing this year), the inspired silliness eschews contortionists and trapeze artists for a top-shelf collection of burly-q entertainers merrily romping through their tantalizing antics.

Like most Cirque du Soleil shows there’s a plot and like most Cirque du Soleil shows it’s rather vague and really doesn’t matter.  But that’s the point.  The characters involved, the routines they perform and the styles they wear represent a combination of Porkpie’s creation, the work of various designers and the stage personas and performances the cast members are already known for in the burlesque circuit.

The elegant strip-teaser Tansy, decked out in a nutty Folies Bergere-inspired gown and wig by Machine Dazzle, slaps on a thick Parisian accent and plays a ringmistress who mourns for the loss of her burlesque show’s pretençión.  (“When we show our boobs, we do so without irony!”)  She’s especially upset for her Pagliacci-like clown, Tiggo’s loss of pomposity.  Tiggo is played by boylesque star Tigger!, who spends most of the evening nearly nude, making maniacal split-second conversions from nymphomania to reclusiveness and back again.

Porkpie himself, as an erudite magician who eventually finds an excuse to take off his clothes, offers to lead them to the one person who can help; The Dramaturg, who resides in The Land of – you guessed it – Pretençión.

Helping to guide them is a magical Fairy, gleefully played in Billie Burke style by jazz/blues singer Broadway Brassy, whose terrific vocals are, alas, underutilized.  Coming along for the ride is Mr. Showbiz Himself, Mr. Murray Hill, dishing out the snazzy wisecracks.

Each performance also includes featured appearances by a handful of guest burlesque artists, whose routines are somehow or another squeezed into the narrative.  A mention of the creature that guards Summit of Cirque was a cue for Jo “Boobs” Weldon to do her enticing Godzilla routine.  (She’s assisted by Ivory Fox and Lilly Hayes, who also serve as silent arty types.)  The evening I attended, the lineup also included popular favorites Angie Pontani, Dirty Martini, Julie Atlas Muz (who doubles as an annoying mime) and Lux La Croix.  Other guests who may pop in include Fancy Chance, Little Brooklyn, Mat “Sealboy” Fraser and Trixie Little & The Evil Hate Monkey.

Pretençión frequently calls to mind the glorious ridiculousness of Charles Ludlam, with its stylish overacting and winking tackiness.  And with the revolving cast and freewheeling atmosphere, it’s safe to say you’ll never know exactly what to expect.

Photos by Allen Lee:  Top: Tansy and Jonny Porkpie; Bottom: Tigger! and Broadway Brassy.

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Posted on: Monday, April 15, 2013 @ 10:11 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.