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Other Desert Cities & Venus in Fur


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

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

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

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

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

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

*****************************************

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photos of Nina Arianda and Hugh Dancy by Joan Marcus.

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


The Blue Flower

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Posted on: Friday, November 11, 2011 @ 06:13 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback


King Lear

If Hamlet is the reward an actor gets for showing great promise in his youth, King Lear is the thank you he receives in the latter years of a distinguished career.  At age 35, Sam Waterston's Hamlet became one of the iconic performances to come out of the New York Shakespeare Festival.  Now, at 71, The Public Theater's gift for his decades of admirable stage work is the opportunity to essay the maddening royal whose rages against a perceived betrayal by the most loving of his three daughters sets in motion the bloody collapse of a monarchy.  Unfortunately, the gift has not been wrapped very attractively.

While director James Macdonald has surrounded Waterston with company full of fine and accomplished colleagues, there seems to be little spine to this unfocused production that gives the appearance of actors fending for themselves in a three-and-a-half hour evening that has little dramatic build and barely any emotional punch.

The first hint that something might be amiss is when Macdonald gives his star the same entrance Groucho Marx had in Duck Soup; Lear's subjects frozen in reverence, expecting the king to arrive from upstage center, only to have him dodder on from a side entrance.  It's a cute, familiar chuckle, but where is it going?

What makes Lear a tragedy is the witnessing of a powerful leader succumbing to the various deteriorations of time and discovering too late the cost of his own vanity.  But even in his initial scene Waterston's eccentric collection of facial expressions and jerky movements give the impression that the king's mental state has already severely declined.  In announcing his stepping down from the throne, he has offered his three daughters, Goneril (Enid Graham), Regan (Kelli O'Hara - no, she doesn't sing) and Cordelia (Kristen Connolly) a chance to win the choicest divisions of land by effusively proclaiming the extent of their love for their father.  The two eldest lay it on thick, but when Cordelia answers with unadorned simplicity, Lear's disbelieving anger is expressed through uncontrollable roars of disapproval.  It's all too much, too soon and Waterston appears misguided and without depth until the lovingly played final moments.

While O'Hara's firm and unappreciative Regan and Graham's commanding Goneril come off fine, Connolly's earnestness is a bit bland, though the director does her no favors by having her speak her first lines, which are asides, melodramatically facing full-out front to the audience.

The outstanding classical actor John Douglas Thompson is a noble presence as the loyal Kent and Michael McKean has an appealing everyman quality as Gloucester, which should make his fate at least a bit disturbing, but the second half's bloodletting provides little excitement in this slow production.  Other notable names in the company don't fare as well, though the ineffectualness of Bill Irwin's Fool could be blamed on the decision to make him a sneering sort of fellow whose favorite form of jest is to play with his enunciation of words until what he's saying lacks any form of coherency.

Costume designer Gabriel Berry dresses Irwin in a bright, creamy yellow number that sticks out oddly next to the dark and earthy tones of the rest of the production, including set designer Miriam Buether's chain metal curtains.

A thoughtful and understated actor, Sam Waterston absolutely has a hell of a take on Lear in him.  This production, sadly, does not draw it out.

Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: Sam Waterston, John Douglas Thompson, Bill Irwin and Enid Graham; Bottom: Michael McKean and Sam Waterston.

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Posted on: Wednesday, November 09, 2011 @ 06:59 AM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback


Broadway Grosses: Week Ending 11/6 & Theatre Quote of the Week

"A rich man is nothing but a poor man with money."
-- W. C. Fields


Read more: http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/w/w_c_fields.html#ixzz1d4Wk9gjO

 

The grosses are out for the week ending 11/6/2011 and we've got them all right here in BroadwayWorld.com's grosses section.

Up for the week was: VENUS IN FUR (11.7%), GODSPELL (9.7%), MAN AND BOY (3.5%), BILLY ELLIOT: THE MUSICAL (2.1%), ROCK OF AGES (2.1%), SPIDER-MAN TURN OFF THE DARK (1.9%), MEMPHIS (1.3%), OTHER DESERT CITIES (0.7%), THE LION KING (0.1%),

Down for the week was: CHINGLISH (-17.8%), MAMMA MIA! (-17.3%), HUGH JACKMAN, BACK ON BROADWAY (-10.6%), CHICAGO (-9.7%), ANYTHING GOES (-6.5%), SEMINAR (-5.2%), JERSEY BOYS (-4.7%), RELATIVELY SPEAKING (-4.7%), THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (-4.5%), MARY POPPINS (-3.6%), THE ADDAMS FAMILY (-3.5%), WICKED (-3.4%), HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING (-2.8%), SISTER ACT (-2.0%), WAR HORSE (-1.9%), THE MOUNTAINTOP (-1.6%), FOLLIES (-0.6%), PRISCILLA QUEEN OF THE DESERT (-0.5%),

Posted on: Monday, November 07, 2011 @ 08:14 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback


Queen of The Mist

"You're an insane woman," a character says to the protagonist in Michael John LaChiusa's intriguing new musical, Queen of The Mist.

"No," replies the actress playing the role, Mary Testa, with a simple, but firm and confident matter-of-factness.  "I am a phenomenon."

The sharply accelerated speed of fame, fueled by ever increasing advances in communication, motivated many a would-be phenomenon at the dawn of the 20th Century.  Some sought instant glory by riding a barrel down Niagara Falls.  None survived the stunt until 1901, when Anna Edson Taylor, encased in an oak and iron barrel of her own design, celebrated her 63rd birthday by making it to the bottom with nary a scratch; her most serious injury a head wound suffered when assistants were prying her out.

LaChiusa doesn't make a heroine out of Taylor, as he presents her as a proud and somewhat arrogant widow ("There is greatness in me" she sings repeatedly.) who, humiliated by a lifelong resume of failed professions, attempts to escape poverty and creditors by using her scientific knowledge to accomplish a feat which would most assuredly gain her a book contract and a lucrative speaking tour.  Despite her successful plunge, it's her insistence on presenting herself to the public her own way instead of giving the people what they want that sinks her chance for fame, as the author holds her up as an example of America's habit of celebrating achievements only when they prove sufficiently entertaining.

But in Transport Group's evocative production, LaChiusa, director Jack Cummings III and their leading lady do a remarkable job of making this dry, serious-minded woman emphatically musical, if not completely empathetic.  Testa, an actress whose dramatic skills are often overlooked in favor of her talent for broad comedy, is handed what must be the meatiest role of her New York stage career and delivers a fascinating portrayal of an American dreamer who might have been too much of an individual to capture the nation's imagination.  Her Anna is convinced of her indomitability, trying to sway others to her side with a forceful confidence that is her means of survival.  The composer/bookwriter/lyricist supplies numerous opportunities for her powerful vocals to soar with vibrancy and her comic precision to be used just enough to serve the character.

LaChiusa's dramatically rich chamber score, orchestrated by Michael Starobin for French horn, violin, woodwinds, bass, keyboard and cello, is peppered with period melodies that emulate the music hall spirit of the time.  Aside from Andrew Samonsky, who is excellent as the crafty manager who tries orchestrating Taylor's stunt for maximum public exposure (including an appearance at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, where she unwittingly pep talks a nervous Leon Czolgosz, played by Tally Sessions, into going ahead with his plan to assassinate President McKinley) the rest of the company doubles as a singing ensemble and various briefly seen characters.  The clarion vocals of Julia Murney are thrilling to hear in her portrayal of temperance advocate Carrie Nation and, along with Sessions, there is fine work by DC Anderson, Stanley Bahorek and Theresa McCarthy.

Performed in The Gym at Judson, Sandra Goldmark's set has the audience seated on two opposite sides of the playing space, as if on risers watching a parade.  It's a bit awkward as much of the action takes place on a small stage set on one side, which none of the seats directly face.  Nevertheless, the music hall atmosphere she creates with costume designer Kathryn Rohe and lighting designer R. Lee Kennedy is very effective.

With Queen of The Mist, Michael John LaChiusa once again shows himself to be one of the most adventurous dramatists we currently have writing for the musical stage and Mary Testa is given a rare chance to star in a piece that properly pushes her abundant musical dramatic talents into the spotlight.

Photos by Carol Rosegg: Top: Mary Testa, Stanley Bahorek, D.C. Anderson and Tally Sessions; Bottom: Mary Testa and Julia Murney.

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Posted on: Monday, November 07, 2011 @ 04:39 AM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback


Milk Like Sugar

The inner city teenage girls in Kirsten Greenidge's moving new drama, Milk Like Sugar, want only one thing from a boy... a baby.

When we first meet the trio in a tattoo parlor (A symbol of permanence, I suppose.) the bubbly Margie (Nikiya Mathis) is already eight weeks along and is excited for all the expensive baby stuff she's going to get ("You put what you want on a list. Then everyone you invite to your party has to buy things off that list. That's how it's done, I didn't make that up."), but what would really make her happy is if her pals, the very sexually active Talisha (Cherise Boothe) and the sweet, naïve Annie (Angela Lewis), had kids around the same time so that they could all have fun together dressing them in designer fashions and parading them around in the latest strollers.  But best of all, they see motherhood as a way of providing the unconditional love they see as missing from their lives.  ("Won't need moms no more if we each have tiny little babies made just for us, right?")

Greenidge and director Rebecca Taichman do an excellent job of keeping much of the play very light and funny, showing the carefree exterior these underachievers from poor families exude to cover up their acceptance of a future with little opportunity.  (My guest, a Manhattan schoolteacher, vouches for the accuracy of the hip-hop slang dialogue and attitudes portrayed.)  The story centers on Annie, played with touching empathy by Lewis, and her relationships with her mother and the boy she tries having sex with.

Malik (J. Mallory-McCree) likes Annie, but won't father her child because he can see a future beyond a community that is so accustomed to settling for compromised happiness, like powered milk that's kept on the shelf like sugar, that they tend to prefer it.  Tonya Pinkins is striking as Annie's emotionally damaged mother who sees no escape for her daughter from the negative cycle of life that's been firmly established through generations.  There's a bit of a problem in casting Pinkins in that she doesn't look young enough to have given birth to Annie as a teen - a fact that isn't stated until later in the play so the parallel isn't clear from the start - but her firm, understated performance is outstanding.

Also pulling at Annie's emotions are the charismatic tattoo artist, Antwoine (LeRoy McClain) and a new friend, overweight loner Keera (Adrienne C. Moore) who has delusions of a perfect family life and being part of a supportive church community.

Taichman, set designer Mimi LienMimi LienMimi Lien and lighting designer Justin Townsend make the most of Playwrights Horizons' intimate Peter Jay Sharp TheatPeterPeter Jay Sharp Theater, utilizing just an imposing wall and limited furnishings.  Toni-Leslie JamesToni=Leslie James' costumes do a fine job of character-defining, as does sound designer Andre Pluess' collection of varying cell phone rings and signals.

Photos by Ari Mintz: Top: Angela Lewis, Cherise Boothe, and Nikiya Mathis; Bottom: Tonya Pinkins and Angela Lewis.

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Posted on: Wednesday, November 02, 2011 @ 10:21 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback


Love's Labor's Lost: Bright College Days

Love's Labor's Lost, generally not regarded as a top tier Shakespeare effort, might get performed a lot more frequently if more productions were as fun and frisky as director Karin Coonrod's madcap mounting for the Public Theater's Public Lab series.

The comic setup is a classic one.  Ferdinand, King of Navarre (Hoon Lee) makes a vow with his three young lords (Nick Westrate, Keith Eric Chappelle and Jorge Chacon) to give up any pursuits of women for the next three years in order to concentrate on their studies.  You know where this is going, don't you?  It just so happens that the lovely Princess of France (Renee Elise Goldsberry) is in town, along with her three pretty attendants (Rebecca Brooksher, Samira Wiley and Michelle Beck) and once the boys get a look they're uncontrollably torn between their urges and their vows.  While the ladies return their affection, they also find the behavior of the gents to be odd and amusing.

The richly-voiced Lee's Ferdinand is a model of crisp nobility until he gets silly over the princess, played with sharp, sexy intelligence by Goldsberry.  Coonrod's staging incorporates all areas of the Public's three-sided Anspacher Theater and nobody takes fuller advantage of it than Westrate.  As Berowne, the most verbose of the king's lords, he frequently takes his speeches into the audience, chatting up anyone who happens to be sitting next to an empty chair.  (Though his jaunty antics are very funny, let's hope he doesn't have many opportunities to sit in empty chairs as the run continues.  All seats are bargain-priced at $15.)

Though the lovers' scenes have their share of rough and tumble clowning, the comic subplot actors also excel in their spirited hijinks; including Steven Skybell and Francis Jue as a scholarly pair whose debates take on a vaudevillian crackle, and Reg E. Cathey as an eccentrically poetic Spanish knight with his heart set on a country lass, played with smoldering aloofness by Stephanie DiMaggio.

Robert Stanton makes for a sturdy straight man foil in his dual roles as a constable and a lord attending to the princess.  Wiley also doubles-up, impishly portraying the knight's page.

Oana Botez-Ban's clever costumes seem to set the piece in a boys-only college town of a non-specific 20th Century period, though there are plenty of classical touches.  The male lovers sport uniform blazers, high stockings and short pants and their female counterparts, perhaps from a sister school, look sharp in their boots, pantaloons and crisp white tuxedo shirts.  John Conklin's simple set design places the action on a large patch of grass (the quad?) with a chart of the solar system chalked on the upstage wall.  More than once Coonrod's merry madness reminded me of the Marx Brothers' antics at Huxley College in Horse Feathers.

Photos by Richard Termine: Top: Rebecca Brooksher, Renee Elise Goldsberry, Michelle Beck, and Samira Wiley; Bottom: Robert Stanton, Francis Jue, Reg E. Cathey, Steven Skybell and Mousa Kraish.

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Posted on: Tuesday, November 01, 2011 @ 02:52 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback


Broadway Grosses: Week Ending 10/30 & Theatre Quote of the Week

"Every actor is somewhat mad, or else he'd be a plumber or a bookkeeper or a salesman."
--Bela Lugosi



Read more: http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/b/bela_lugosi.html#ixzz1cOddf8il

 

The grosses are out for the week ending 10/30/2011 and we've got them all right here in BroadwayWorld.com's grosses section.

Up for the week was: RELATIVELY SPEAKING (1.2%), CHINGLISH (1.1%), OTHER DESERT CITIES (0.8%),

Down for the week was: BILLY ELLIOT: THE MUSICAL (-13.7%), MEMPHIS (-13.3%), PRISCILLA QUEEN OF THE DESERT (-11.4%), THE ADDAMS FAMILY (-10.6%), FOLLIES (-10.2%), MARY POPPINS (-10.1%), ROCK OF AGES (-8.9%), THE MOUNTAINTOP (-7.3%), SPIDER-MAN TURN OFF THE DARK (-7.3%), THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (-6.5%), SISTER ACT (-5.5%), MAN AND BOY (-5.4%), ANYTHING GOES (-4.8%), CHICAGO (-4.5%), HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING (-4.3%), JERSEY BOYS (-3.8%), GODSPELL (-1.0%), WICKED (-0.9%), VENUS IN FUR (-0.3%), MAMMA MIA! (-0.1%),

Posted on: Monday, October 31, 2011 @ 05:17 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback


Dancing at Lughnasa & Jason Graae's Perfect Hermany

"Atmosphere is more real than truth," explains Michael Evans, the narrating character recalling his childhood days in Brian Friel's thickly atmospheric Dancing At Lughnasa, now enjoying a warm and lovely mounting by Charlotte Moore at the Irish Rep.

Though we only see Michael through the philosophically aloof performance of Ciaran O'Reilly, his seven-year-old presence, invisible to the audience, is bathed in affection by his mother and the four aunts he grew up with in the fictional town of Ballybeg in Ireland's County Donegal.  He may have been in the midst of a happy childhood during the summer of 1936, but as an adult he can recognize the sadness in the lives of his mother and aunts, all unmarried, as they struggle to keep up with an ever-changing world.  Their spirits can be ethusiastically risen, though, when their unreliable radio, which they've named Marconi, sees fit to blare out a hit tune or a tradition Irish folk song, setting forth an improvisation of joyous dance.

Loosly based on the lives of Friel's own family, the play takes place during the harvest festival of Lughnasa.  Antje Ellermann set contrasts the splender of the local landscape with the modest cottage with well-worn furnishings the sisters share.

Michael's mother, Chiris (sweetly played by Annabel Hagg), lives for the sporatic visits from her child's father, Gerry (Kevin Collins), a former ballroom instructor turned traveling gramaphone salesman, whose latest scheme to seek adventure makes it clear that he has no intention of settling down with her.  Gerry has also attracted the affections of Agnes (Rachel Pickup), whose quiet longing for him is especially touching when they share a dance.

Agnes makes a modest living knitting gloves with the mentally challenged Rose (Aedin Moloney, showing irresistible optimistic passion); a business threated by the upcoming arrival of a new knitwear factory.  Rose, though, is happily under the spell of a married man who she's convinced is in love with her.

The hearty Maggie (Jo Kinsella) runs the household while schoolteacher Kate (Orlagh Cassidy) is the primary breadwinner.  Cassidy is excellent, showing the tender caring under Kate's stern exterior.  Michael Countryman is colorful and amusing as their brother, Father Jack, who has returned from missionary work in Uganda with some very un-Catholic notions about life and whose presence threatens Kate's position.

While there are great personal tragedies in store for the grownups in Michael's life, Friel never treads into heavy drama.  The play emphasizes the simple everyday events that separate home and family from the threats of the outside world, and Moore and her ensemble do a very fine job of displaying both the supportive sisterhood and hints of the perpetual sadness underneath.

Photos by Carol Rosegg: Top: Orlagh Cassidy, Aedin Moloney, Jo Kinsella, Michael Countryman, Rachel Pickup and Annabel Hagg; Bottom: Ciaran O'Reilly.

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It was bad enough when the Dodgers and the Giants ditched town for California, but whatever has lured Jason Graae to make the left coast his home base has robbed Gotham of a gifted musical theatre clown who, thankfully, does pop into town from time to time.

Honoring Jerry Herman in this year of his 80th birthday, Perfect Hermany, (which just ended a brief run at the Laurie Beechman Theatre at the West Bank Cafe) isn't so much a retrospective of the man himself, but more of an anecdotal party where the host elicits hearty guffaws with tales ranging from his first, unsuccessful, audition for the great composer/lyricist to his being asked to premiere a revised edition of the underappreciated The Grand Tour.

With music director/arranger John Boswell at piano (Lee Tannen directs), Graae begins the festivities on the oboe, as the two duet a little overture that brings out some of the klezmer qualities of La Cage aux Follies' title song and lets us savor the beautiful melody of Dear World's "I've Never Said 'I Love You.'"  Even before the music begins, Graae has the audience in stitches miming the classic "Can he really play that?" routine.  The answer is "yes," but when he pulls out a portable floor and changes shoes for "Tap You Troubles Away," the joke is that he's barely moving his feet, despite the Ann Miller attitude.

It's that mock bravado and tongue-in-cheek shameless showmanship that makes Graae so darn funny, particularly when he's doing things like going out into the audience to chat up notables while singing, "You I Like," or turning to Ron Raines, who was at a front table the night I attended and crooning, "Follies will never go away again."

But Graae can be charmingly serious as he slips into a Polish/Jewish accent for a pairing of the gorgeous "Marianne" and the impishly humorous "Mrs. S.L. Jacobowsky" from The Grand Tour, and emphatically impassioned in his superb "I Don't Want To Know."  Presenting "I Am What I Am" in the context of honoring recent victims of bullying is a moving choice making his defiant performance all the more heart-breaking.

Graae stays away from Herman's comic material (none of the very funny songs from Parade) but instead cleverly injects humor into more innocent material.  Late in the evening a terrific medley begins as he pretends to be annoyed that a waiter hasn't passed down his drink refill.  He anxiously sings, "Where's that boy with the vodka?," before launching into an angry, "Wherever He Ain't."  When the large, stony-faced server finally arrives, Graae tries smoothing things out with a bit of "Bosom Buddies."

He ventures back out into the audience for a sing-along of the big number - you know the one I mean - surprising customers who suddenly find a microphone aimed at them.  And though he quipped "very close" after I tried locating the key while singing "never go away," Perfect Hermany had me once again wishing that Jason Graae would never go away again.

Photo by Jennifer Broski.

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Posted on: Monday, October 31, 2011 @ 10:16 AM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback


Chinglish: Western People Funny

Ever hear the one about the handicapped restroom at a Chinese tourist attraction that was labeled for English-speaking visitors, "Deformed Man's Toilet"?  Or the one about the American trying to seduce his new Chinese love in her native language with the romantic words, "Frog loves to pee"?  Such miscommunications serve as the inspiration for David Henry Hwang's hip, sexy and very funny comedy of cultural awkwardness, Chinglish.

As Cleveland businessman Daniel Cavanaugh, Gary Wilmes opens the play with a video presentation explaining how Mao's decision to simplify his country's language by giving characters multiple, unrelated meanings has born embarrassing results in his field; that of providing multi-lingual signage.

We flashback to his experiences in the small Chinese city of Guiyang, where Daniel is trying to secure a contract to have his company create the English signage for a new cultural center.  His British interpreting consultant, Peter (Stephen Pucci), schools him in the local business practice of Guanxi; the deal-maker's art of establishing trust through long-term personal contact.

Modesty is highly valued, he's told, and in the next scene, a first meeting with high-ranking government minister Cai (Larry Lei Zhang) and his second, Xi Yan (Jennifer Lim), his explanation, "We're a small family firm," is interpreted by an ill-prepared translator (a hilarious turn by Angela Lin) as, "His company is tiny and insignificant."

Zhang gives Cai one of those jovial shells that hides his manipulative nature but the excellent Lim's initially cold Xi Yan doesn't hide her distrust of foreigners.  Wilmes plays Daniel with a wide-eyed, Midwestern sincerity that could be honest or might be a public image.  The bulk of the evening focuses on the dealings between Daniel and Xi Yan as it eventually becomes apparent that not everyone is what they appear to be and that miscommunications are the results of cultural differences in determining values and morality.

But it's another type of miscommunication that steals the show.  The play's Chinese characters speak in Mandarin with English translations flashed onto convenient sections of designer David Korins' set.  Much of the evening's humor comes from letting the audience in on awkward mistakes resulting from translations that are too literal and words that are confused due to tiny shades of difference in enunciation.  Hwang's exchanges are frequently uproarious but at times he lets the joke stretch a bit too far, making scenes appear like comic sketches that have lost their steam.

Fortunately, director Leigh Silverman excels at this kind of quirky realism and her slick production and terrific ensemble gloss over some of the rough spots.  Korins' double-turntables do a great job of choreographing set changes between several locations; all comically depicted as bland and sterile, save for slight cultural touches.

Though Chinglish can stand a bit of trimming and more empathy for its fish-out-of-water central character, Hwang's cleverness and Silverman's staging still make it a smart and fun night out.

Photos by Michael McCabe: Top: Jennifer Lim and Gary Wilmes; Bottom: Stephen Pucci, Gary Wilmes, Angela Lin and Larry Lei Zhang.

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Posted on: Friday, October 28, 2011 @ 06:00 AM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback


Elaine Stritch at Town Hall

I'm taking up a collection to buy Elaine Stritch a pair of pants.

Not that she'd wear them, of course.  Ever since roaring into Broadway legend status with her solo show, At Liberty, Ms. Stritch has been doing very well for herself in her now trademark ensemble of black stockings, high heels and a loose-fitting, white tailored shirt.  Because, as a cabaret and concert artist, she is, above anything else, a canny actress who knows that any attempt to blend in puts her at a disadvantage.

So when dealing with a problem that's a natural occurrence in the careers of older performers, failing memory, she does not take the polite route of having lyrics sheets available or, as many great older cabaret artists tend to do, quickly requesting a prompt and then immediately plunging back into the material.  No, Stritch makes no apologies for the fact that this 86-year-old broad is going to forget her lines and lyrics many times throughout the evening.  Accept that it's a part of the show or you're in for a miserable time.

But understand that there's nothing sad about watching her frequent glances to her piano-playing music director, Rob Bowman, which are followed by his enthusiastic cues.  It is a well-polished partnership with just enough improvisation to invigorate the tightrope-walking spectacle.

"Wait'll you see what you're gonna see," she warns her audience with a little chuckle and a big smile that tells us we're all in for an adventure.

Her performance for Town Hall's Broadway Cabaret Festival this past Saturday night was an encore of her recent Café Carlisle tribute to the lyrics and (usually) music of Stephen Sondheim.  And while Stritch is highly regarded as a master of Mr. Albee's acid tongue and Mr. Coward's elegant cadence, it is with Sondheim's wry realism that she's found her soul mate.  Her performance of "The Ladies Who Lunch" (with which she needed no prompting) is, as ever, an arch commentary on Manhattan class warfare mixed with sobering self-reflection, but when she performs "Every Day A Little Death" unaccompanied, as a dramatic monologue, with no regard to the lyric's rhyme pattern, the depths of emotional defeat she reaches are stunningly raw.   Likewise, she downplays the marching rhythm of "A Parade In Town" and turns it into a quiet soliloquy about being forgotten.

But this is Elaine Stritch, so you know there's gonna be the funny.  As soon as the band began playing the familiar Bernstein vamp to "I Feel Pretty," there were guffaws of anticipation from the house and the actress' deadpan glare on lines like "It's alarming how charming I feel" fulfilled expectations.  Eyes certainly must have widened as she began the verbally demanding "Everybody Says Don't" and indeed, this one did tax the performer's memory.  But the back and forth teamwork between singer and accompanist as they both barreled through the text provided the evening with one of its most exciting and eventually exuberant moments, earning cheers for their effort.  There were also cheers for her throwaway delivery of, "Here she is, boys," signaling that for only her second number of the night she was about to tackle "Rose's Turn."  Having informed her guests that she has never been asked to star in Gypsy, Rose's gutsy declaration that she could have been than all of 'em is fueled by the actress' determination to prove than she would have been pretty damn good herself.

By the time she's modestly chirping "Thank You So Much" at the end of the evening, nobody would have dared to doubt it.

Photo by Walter McBride/WM Photos.

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Posted on: Wednesday, October 26, 2011 @ 04:55 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 BroadwayWorld.com'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.