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The Best Man: Change We Can Believe In

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It's Good To Know...

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

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

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


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

-- Moss Hart

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

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

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

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

Liz Callaway's Even Stephen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Genevieve Rafter Keddy.

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

The Last Smoker In America

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

-- Moliere


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

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


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

Nymph Errant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Posted on: Sunday, July 29, 2012 @ 10:34 AM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback

Dogfight: How To Handle A Woman

America may have abruptly lost its Camelot on the afternoon of November 22nd, 1963, but in the extraordinarily rich and tender new musical Dogfight, it was the night before that a pair of drops in the great blue motion of the sunlit sea began to sparkle.

Based on the same-titled 1991 film, the ambitious and challenging Dogfight sets the bar extremely high for upcoming musicals in this fledgling theatre season.  With a dynamic and textured character-driven score by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, a provocative and heart-tugging book by Peter Duchan and director Joe Mantello’s vibrant naturalistic production, Dogfight takes a story that, at first, you’d never believe could sing, and gives it a realistic shot of romance and pathos.

Initiated by the memory of a marine returning to the states after seeing combat in Vietnam, the action is set in San Francisco on the night before he and his buddies are to be sent out to some little country “near India” that they’ve never heard of, convinced they’re just going to teach the locals how to fight for themselves and then come back home.  The primary trio includes the tough, foul-mouthed Eddie Birdlace (Derek Klena), the cocky leader, Boland (Josh Segarra) and the nerdy follower Bernstein (Nick Blaemire).  (Since the name “Bernstein” doesn’t exist in the film, one would assume it’s added to salute the great composer who wrote a previous musical about three military men about to be shipped off.)

A tradition among their fellow “jarheads” (a derogatory nickname reserved for them to call themselves) on such a night is to hold what’s known as a dogfight; each marine puts money into the pot to cover the expenses for a party and a cash prize for the fellow who can venture into town and come back with the ugliest date.

Sure, it’s a vulgar premise, but in the minds of these kids just out of high school they’re doing no harm.  The girls are to be treated with respect and, without ever telling them the real reason they were asked out, each marine is expected to show her a good time.  While the authors never ask us to sympathize with their actions, as the drama unfolds we gradually begin to understand that each of these guys has been trained to think that no matter how insecure they may feel about themselves, as a unit they are a privileged, unstoppable force that will achieve every goal, as expressed in their motto "Semper Fi, Do or Die.”

That attitude is undoubtedly necessary to succeed in combat, but their immature minds haven’t adjusted to setting such thoughts aside in the civilian world; especially apparent in a sickening scene where they pressure a prostitute, who has made it clear that she is physically unable to take another customer that night, into taking Bernstein into her bed for his first time.  When his mission is accomplished, the young marine gleefully bursts out of the room sporting a big, innocent smile, like a kid on Christmas morning who just unwrapped the bicycle he’s been wanting all year.  He has successfully dehumanized the obstacle standing in the way of him fulfilling his assignment.

Perhaps to avoid audience discomfort, the actresses playing their dates are, in fact, attractive women playing exaggerated flaws for comic effect, like Bernstein’s silent, stony-faced pickup (Dierdre Friel) and Boland’s ringer, an abrasive prostitute (Annaleigh Ashford) he’s promised a percentage of the winnings to if she uglys herself up enough to win.  An understandable choice that perhaps rings a little false.

But the central relationship of Dogfight is what gives this grim story its pure sweetness and eventual uplift.  Eddie wanders into a diner where he flirts with Rose (Lindsay Mendez), a shy, awkward waitress who only feels confident when she picks up a guitar and sings in the style of folk legends like Woody Guthrie and that new guy Bob Dylan.  His attempt to impress her with his own knowledge of folk music is ridiculously phony but she accepts his invitation to the party anyway.  It’s a fascinating scene through dialogue and song because even though we know Eddie’s initial motivation, Klena, through the excellent material, seems so sincere that it’s hard to tell if he truly likes Rose or if he’s really good at tricking women.  And while we can assume that Rose sees right through him, Mendez effectively plays the contrast of her fear of going out with this guy she’s just met and her exhilaration that a handsome marine is showing her attention.

When they get to the party, Eddie starts regretting his insensitivity toward his date, but when Rose finds out the real reason for the festivities she confronts him with the most horrifying words you can say to a soldier being shipped off to a hostile environment.  It’s a numbing climax to the first act.

But by then it’s already clear that Mendez, previously exposed to New York audiences primarily as a pop musical belter, is giving a remarkable breakout performance in one of the best written roles to hit Manhattan’s musical stages in quite some time.  Though her generous belt is utilized when needed, Mantello guides her into subtler, crushing moments that tear your heart out, especially when she’s expressing the joy of feeling attractive while the audience knows that what’s making her feel that way is a lie.

It’s Rose’s eventual understanding and acceptance of Eddie that allows him to make himself vulnerable and allows the audience to believe that deep down he’s a decent guy who has been protecting his insecurities by going along with the ways of his buddies.  Again, it’s in the subtler moments where Klena succeeds in making Eddie, if not a totally likeable character, one deserving of sympathy.

The supporting cast is solid, particularly when Blaemire’s anxious Bernstein tries to prove his worthiness, Segarra’s demeaning Boland tries to establish his authority and when Ashford’s tough-talking Marcy sticks up for herself.

Christopher Gattelli's athletic choreography is a raw, testosterone-driven extension of Mantello’s staging that may not be as flashy as his Tony-winning work in Newsies but tops it for dramatic excitement.

Dogfight may have its occasional stumbling points, like an ending a bit too vague to be satisfying, but the thrill of what it accomplishes as an emotional piece of musical theatre makes it an exhilarating addition to the young season.

Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: Nick Blaemire, Derek Klena and Josh Segarra; Bottom: Lindsay Mendez.

Posted on: Monday, July 23, 2012 @ 03:59 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback

Broadway Grosses: Week Ending 7/22/12 & Theatre Quote of the Week


“What is that unforgettable line?”

-- Samuel Beckett

The grosses are out for the week ending 7/22/2012 and we've got them all right here in's grosses section.


Down for the week was: CLYBOURNE PARK (-19.4%), FELA! (-15.2%), EVITA (-13.0%), GHOST (-9.4%), WAR HORSE (-6.3%), JERSEY BOYS (-6.2%), PETER AND THE STARCATCHER (-5.7%), CHICAGO (-5.4%), END OF THE RAINBOW (-3.7%), NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT (-3.6%), BRING IT ON THE MUSICAL (-3.4%), WICKED (-3.3%), PORGY AND BESS (-2.8%), ONCE (-2.6%), MARY POPPINS (-2.5%), SPIDER-MAN TURN OFF THE DARK (-1.1%), MAMMA MIA! (-0.9%), ROCK OF AGES (-0.8%),

Posted on: Monday, July 23, 2012 @ 03:57 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback

Broadway Grosses: Week Ending 7/15/12 & Theatre Quote of the Week


"Mr. Rodgers had some ideas... and I didn't agree with them."

-- Celeste Holm on why she wasn't cast in the film of Oklahoma!

The grosses are out for the week ending 7/15/2012 and we've got them all right here in's grosses section.

Up for the week was: EVITA (16.6%), A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE (13.5%), CHICAGO (11.4%), MEMPHIS (7.5%), THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (5.2%), SPIDER-MAN TURN OFF THE DARK (4.7%), HARVEY (3.0%), END OF THE RAINBOW (2.9%), MAMMA MIA! (2.9%), NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT (2.9%), ONCE (2.5%), WICKED (1.7%), ROCK OF AGES (1.2%), CLYBOURNE PARK (0.7%), THE LION KING(0.4%),

Down for the week was: GORE VIDAL'S THE BEST MAN (-12.2%), PETER AND THE STARCATCHER (-5.1%), WAR HORSE (-5.1%), GHOST (-5.0%), SISTER ACT (-4.6%), PORGY AND BESS (-2.8%), ONE MAN, TWO GUVNORS (-0.5%), MARY POPPINS (-0.2%), NEWSIES (-0.1%),

Posted on: Monday, July 16, 2012 @ 03:59 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback

Fela! Occupies The Hirschfeld

When the original Broadway production of Fela! closed in January of 2011, Zuccotti Park was little more than a block-long plaza where Wall Streeters would enjoy a bit of lunchtime sun.  For now, at least, the park has pretty much returned to that status, aside from the tourists taking photos of themselves at the spot now famous for birthing the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Perhaps the still-simmering issues behind that movement would help fuel a wthened interest in the temporary summer return of the docu-musical inspired by the life of Nigerian political activist and musical revolutionary Fela Anikulapo-Kuti.  If not, then certainly the non-stop exuberance and nearly non-stop joy (only halted for belly punches of reality) of Bill T. Jones’ exhilarating production are enough to pack ‘em into the Hirschfeld.

Born in 1938 with a Christian minister for a father and a mother who was a leader in Nigeria's anti-colonial women's movement, Fela was sent to London for an education in medicine, but was sidetracked by an interest in music; his first influences being Miles Davis and Frank Sinatra. Fusing the jazz and pop styles he heard in London with the rhythms and chants of his homeland's Yoruba and high life, he created the Afrobeat sound and began touring and recording with his band, Koola Lobitos. Influenced by the 1960's Black Power movement through the writings of Malcolm X and Eldridge Cleaver, his lyrics began taking swipes at Nigeria's military government in songs like "Teacher Don't Teach Me Nonsense" ("Who is the government's teacher? / Corruption and perdition.") and "Zombie" ("Zombie no go think unless you tell him to think."), the song that infuriated the state so much with its depiction of the military that it led to his brutal beating (one of many he endured along with his over 200 arrests) and a fatal attack on his mother, Funmilayo.

Director/choreographer/co-bookwriter Jones and co-bookwriter Jim Lewis establish a performance-within-a-performance structure that sets the piece at the artist's regular haunt, a nightclub he named The Afrika Shrine, at a 1977 farewell concert given shortly after his mother's death as he prepares to exile himself to Ghana.

His onstage band is led by music director Aaron Johnson and Jones' fiercely energetic ensemble of dancers passionately undulate the erotically charged movements of nyansh.  Despite the story of oppression and bloodshed Fela! is a festival that demands to be celebratory in the face of hardship.

The focus of that festival is strikingly personified by Sahr Ngaujah (alternating performances with Adesola Osakalumi), who originated the role Off-Broadway.  Acting as host ("Everyone say yeah yeah! Yeah yeah! Feeling good tonight?") Ngaujah is hardly ever off stage and is continually the center of attention as he narrates the story of Anikulapo-Kuti's political struggle, sings, dances, delivers rimshot-worthy one-liners and even gives the audience a lesson in the proper way to move one’s hips to his music.  He is abundantly charismatic and seems to have deepened his already outstanding performance from the initial Broadway run, showing us a bruised and battered artist determined to laugh at his oppressors and combat injustice through the power of his music and lyrics.

Haunting our host throughout the evening is the memory of his mother, sung with a glistening soprano by the warmly regal Melanie Marshall.

Fela! certainly isn't meant to be a complete portrait of its title character. The action of the show takes place before the man dismissed AIDS as a myth (he eventually died from it) and his practice of polygamy (he married 27 women at once) is treated more like nightclub shtick than fact.  But the music radiates and Jones and his crew never allow Fela! to be less than visually entrancing.

While the design elements for this touring production making a brief stop in town are mostly the same as in the original Broadway production, some features have been scaled down a bit.  During the initial run, set and costume designer Marina Draghici turned the entire theatre into The Afrika Shrine with colorful murals and portraits painted on the walls.  Now the set is regulated to the stage.  The cast is dressed in an appealing mixture of traditional and 1970's contemporary. Robert Wierzel's lights are appropriately clubby and Peter Nigrini's videos nicely accent key moments.

But most importantly it’s the kinetic force of the hard-working dancers and the talented star that make Fela!’s return to Broadway worthy of celebration.

Top photo of Sahr Ngaujah and Company by Raymond Hagans; Bottom photo of Melanie Marshall and Sahr Ngaujah by Tristram Kenton.

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Posted on: Monday, July 16, 2012 @ 02:22 AM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback

About Michael: After 20-odd years singing, dancing and acting in dinner theatres, summer stocks and the ever-popular audience participation murder mysteries (try improvising with audiences after they?ve had two hours of open bar), Michael Dale segued his theatrical ambitions into playwriting. The buildings which once housed the 5 Off-Off Broadway plays he penned have all been destroyed or turned into a Starbucks, but his name remains the answer to the trivia question, "Who wrote the official play of Babe Ruth's 100th Birthday?" He served as Artistic Director for The Play's The Thing Theatre Company, helping to bring free live theatre to underserved communities, and dabbled a bit in stage managing and in directing cabaret shows before answering the call (it was an email, actually) to become's first Chief Theatre Critic. While not attending shows Michael can be seen at Shea Stadium pleading for the Mets to stop imploding. Likes: Strong book musicals and ambitious new works. Dislikes: Unprepared celebrities making their stage acting debuts by starring on Broadway and weak bullpens.