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White Christmas: Berlin Songs


While there isn't anything terribly wrong with the new Broadway adaptation of the 1954 movie musical smash, White Christmas, hitting New York after four years of holiday season engagements across the country, there's also quite a bit that isn't especially right about it either.  Yes, it's got those glorious Irving Berlin songs like "Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep", "Let Me Sing and I'm Happy" and "Blue Skies" - the kind of stuff that turns wearing your heart on your sleeve into a hip fashion statement - and Larry Blank's swing orchestrations provide choreographer Randy Skinner's dancers with a red carpet of sizzle, but too much of director Walter Bobbie's perfectly pleasant production settles snugly into a groove of innocuous entertainment that is swift, professional and rarely exciting.

Bookwriters David Ives and Paul Blake have made relatively few tweaks to Norman Panama, Norman Krasna and Melvin Frank's original screenplay, cutting the minstrel medley and providing cues for such welcome ear-caressers as "I Love A Piano," "How Deep Is The Ocean," and "Let Yourself Go."  Stephen Bogardus and Jeffrey Denman play Bob Wallace and Phil Davis, a pair of World War II vets who become big time Broadway song and dance stars, back in the days when being a Broadway star meant you were famous around the country.  On the evening before they're to leave for Florida to begin rehearsing their next production, the boys catch Betty and Judy Haynes (Kerry O'Malley and Meredith Patterson), performing "Sisters" at a nightclub and, with both professional and romantic possibilities brewing, follow them to their next gig; a holiday engagement at a Vermont inn.  But an unexpected heat wave has forced the financially struggling place to forego its entertainment plans after every reservation cancels, until it turns out the owner is Bob and Phil's beloved General Henry Waverly (Charles Dean) from their army days, so they offer to move out of town tryouts for their next Broadway bound show to the general's barn.  In the meantime a few wrenches and misunderstandings get in the way of true love, but that's all straightened out by the time the chorus is tap dancing through the eventual snowfall.  (Darn, did I just give away the ending?)

Though the material is played with admirably sincerity, it's only the breeziness of Bobbie's production that keeps the jokes from landing with harsh thuds.  You know there's a problem when the film's most famous comic moment, the boys filling in for a reprise of "Sisters" with rolled up trousers and oversized feathered fans, barely registers.

Yet the leading players are all sturdy and likeable, with Bogardus' mellow baritone providing hot cocoa warmth to "Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep" and O'Malley bringing some much needed torchy elegance to "Love, You Didn't Do Right By Me."  As the primary dancing half of the quartet, Denman and Patterson show some appealing flash, particularly in a well-imagined production number set to "I Love A Piano," but Skinner's routines tend to stay on the same cheery level without providing much build and Denman, who is originating his first starring Broadway role, doesn't get a chance to display the kind of elegant and complex hoofing he's used to dazzle audiences at his many Town Hall concert appearances.  Dean is quite endearing as the noble general who inspires loyalty and honor in his men, but Susan Mansur, in a role that's meant to be a showstopper, lacks the authoritative brassiness and comic finesse needed to play a former Broadway star turned wise-cracking inn receptionist.

Rob Berman conducts a 20-piece orchestra that is blessedly placed in a traditional pit and Anna Louizos (sets), Carrie Robbins (costumes) and Ken Billington (lights) dress the proceedings with showbizzy Eisenhower-era sophistication.  But no matter what the packaging, Irving Berlin is on Broadway in a show that serves up his music and lyrics as a deliciously festive banquet, and for musical theatre lovers, that might be enough to ensure two and a half hours of "Happy Holidays."

Photos by Joan Marcus:  Top:  Jeffrey Denman, Stephen Bogardus and company; Bottom:  Kerry O'Malley and Meredith Patterson

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Playgoers who enjoy having the Dickens scared out of them should find it worthwhile to make their way out to Hoboken this holiday season for the historic DeBaun Center for Performing Arts' production of A Christmas Carol.  Adapter/director Clara Barton Green has taken great care to see that her text is accurate to both the spirit and letter of the great Charles Dickens novel and that includes an appreciation for its appeal as a good ol' fashioned ghost story.

But that doesn't mean it's not appropriate family entertainment and, quite frankly, with the way things are going these days ticket prices of $20 for adults, $15 for students & seniors and $10 for children seems pretty family friendly, too.

I've enjoyed DeBaun productions in the past, including last year's A Christmas Carol, so if you plan on taking that mere 15 minute bus ride from Port Authority to the theatre keep an eye out for me making a return trip.  Just don't tell the driver my coffee cup is really filled with smoking bishop.

Photo by Karen Maloney:  Benjamin Holmes as Scrooge

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T-Shirt Idea:  What Happens in Brigadoon Stays in Brigadoon

 

Posted on: Sunday, December 14, 2008 @ 10:31 AM Posted by: Michael Dale


Prayer or My Enemy: Pardon Me While I Have A Strange Interlude

Eugene O'Neill might not have been the first playwright to have time come to a halt mid-conversation while characters reveal hidden thoughts through internal monologues - a technique I'm sure is familiar to more Americans through Groucho Marx's spoof of his Strange Interlude in the film version of Animal Crackers than by having seen the play itself - and I'm certain Craig Lucas, whose Prayer For My Enemy has its share of supressed asides, won't be the last.  But while I wouldn't opt for dramatic lighting and stylized acting every time someone has a personal moment, the playwright's desire, as stated in his script, that, "the manner of separating the inner from the outer can and should change throughout," can cause a tad of confusion in this play where lack of communication is key.  Sure, we get the point when someone turns to the audience and starts talking, but a post-performance read of the text made it clear that a lot of the lines said while directly facing someone had actually gone unheard.

Then again, it does make exposition a heck of a lot easier.  Seven lines after a chance meeting with his childhood chum Tad (Zachary Booth), Billy (Jonathan Groff), launches into a big chunk of monologue that quickly catches us up on how their sexual relationship during grade school helped him get through a difficult time and how they were supposed to be best friends for life but kept moving apart despite the fact that their time together remains a romantic memory that he could never talk to anyone about because…

Anyway, Billy joined the army reserves as a way of proving himself straight to his alcoholic, bipolar Vietnam vet dad (Skipp Sudduth) and has Tad join him for a family barbeque before being sent on his second stint in Iraq.  Also in the picture are Billy's proud, supportive and dangerously enabling mom (Michele Pawk) and his sister (Cassie Beck), the divorced mother of an autistic child and the object of Tad's high school crush.  (Besides Billy, that is.)

The author describes those unheard asides as representative of each character's "psychic interior," which seems comprised primarily of suppressed rage.  While the play introduces obvious instances of violent conflict (war, road rage, a Yankees-Red Sox playoff match-up) the loosely-plotted 100 minutes seems more concerned with the self-inflicted violence that simmers away in the subtext of American suburban life.

Between scenes we hear from Victoria Clark as a comical woman named Dolores who addresses the audience with monologues about her romantic troubles, her distaste for city life and caring for her ailing mother.  It isn't until late in the play that she becomes involved with the others.

While Dolores is the showcase role, and Clark is very engaging, director Bartlett Sher, who has guided the play through its two previous regional productions, draws solid work from an overall excellent cast, particularly Groff, whose soft, understated Billy is the sympathetic core.  Pawk, in an underwritten role, gets to at least use her deliciously dry delivery to land one solid laugh.

Prayer For My Enemy, especially with this production, is the type of play that will certainly initially draw you in.  How long it will keep you involved is another matter.  It will undoubtedly be hailed as an artistic triumph, admired as a noble failure and dismissed as a well-directed bore over spiked eggnog at holiday parties throughout this merry season.

Photos by Joan Marcus:  Top: Jonathan Groff and Zachary Booth; Bottom:  Victoria Clark

 

 

Posted on: Wednesday, December 10, 2008 @ 08:37 AM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback


Slava's Snowshow & Dust

While there are many artistically pleasing features to be seen on stage in Slava's Snowshow, the Russian clown piece that returns to New York for a limited Broadway run, you can also have a heck of a good time if you just like having things thrown at you, dropped on you, sprayed at you or bouncing off of you.

It all starts as soon as you enter the theatre, where the floors are already covered with drifts of white paper rectangles, a/k/a snowflakes.  (Be careful you don't slip on 'em walking down those steep aisles while getting to your seat.)  As soon as any kid in the audience realizes that, even though the stuff doesn't stick together, you can still gather up a handful of it and throw it at a neighbor, the fun has begun.  Throughout the show, the white stuff might fall on you gently, be blown at you forcefully or just drop from the ceiling and land on your head in a great clump.  Smoke, water, someone's overcoat and the contents of a patron's shopping bag are among the other things that might be propelled in your direction at any time during the evening.

And there's some pretty neat stuff happening on stage, too.  Slava Polunin, who created and staged the festivities, alternates performances as Yellow (the guy in the baggy yellow jump suit) with Derek Scott (who I saw) and Robert Saralp, a la Billy Elliot.  When I attended, Ivan Polunin was his sidekick, Main Green (named after the color of his trench coat), but that role might be played by any member of the identically dressed ensemble known as the Green Team (Spencer Chandler, Johnson, Tatiana Karamysheva, Dmitry Khamzin, Christopher Lynam, Fyodor Makarov, Elena Ushakova).

 Now remember, this is clowning brought to you by the people whose idea of side-splitting comedy is The Seagull, so in manner and make-up the crew leans toward the dark, disheveled and deadpan side.  I can't really explain why routines like Slava talking on the phone or the Green Team miming to some old Russian folk sing are funny, but you'll have to trust me.  Some of the biggest gales of laughter are provoked by short, sharp, sardonic looks out to the audience.

Art director Gary Cherniakhovskii and lighting designer Alexander Pecherskiy create a beautifully placid arrangement of shapes and tones that might make you feel like you're watching the show through a multi-colored lava light.

Those sitting in the balcony may feel excluded from some of the fun, particularly when the gang starts walking through the house on arm rests and chair backs, performing all sorts of abuse on willing targets.  Arachnophobics (and maybe even claustrophobics) sitting in the center orchestra section might get a little freaked out at the bit that closes the first act, but everyone seems to be having a blast after curtain calls, when dozens of large inflated balls, including a few enormous globes, are released into the crowd for everyone to bat about.  The official running time for Slava's Snowshow is 90 minutes (including a 20 minute intermission) but when I attended most of the giddy customers stayed a good half-hour more, merrily swatting the floating objects in all directions.

Top photo by Veronique Vial; Bottom photo by Peter James Zielinski

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The best part of seeing Dust, Billy Goda's new Off-Broadway play which is optimistically billed as a thriller, is the chance to see cherub-faced Hunter Foster, known in New York primarily for playing comical romantic leads in musicals, get a chance to show some versatility as high-strung, drug addicted ex-con, out for revenge.  It's a good, convincing performance that, in a better play, might have supplied some legitimate thrills, but despite some respectable work by director Scott Zigler and a capable cast, the material just ain't there.

The plot-driven play has very little character development to sustain interest, particularly when its initial, somewhat ridiculous conflict arises before the lights have had a chance to get warm.  Corporate big-wig Martin (Richard Masur) notices some dust in an air vent while running a treadmill at the Essex House's gym and tells security guard Zeke (Foster) to clean it up.  Zeke, following normal procedure, tries to call housekeeping to take care of the matter but Martin takes his nonchalant attitude as an act of disrespect and insists that he do it himself.  When he refuses, Martin gets him fired and Zeke begins his revenge by picking up the exec's daughter, Jenny (Laura E. Campbell), in a bar.

The expected ingredients are there; some gunplay, some fisticuffs, a bit of partial nudity and an obligatory visit with a street-language spewing drug dealer (Curtis McClarin, who doubles as Zeke's parole officer), but Goda's plot moves slowly and his dialogue lacks energy.  The supporting cast, which also includes John Schiappa as a menacing body guard, does fine with their one-note roles.  The usually reliable Masur underplays to the point where most of his lines are spoken in a dull monotone, with sudden bursts of anger registering as artificial.

Perhaps the most amusing part of the evening is watching how set designer Caleb Wertenbaker uses posters and framed art to tell us what location his three-part unit set is supposed to represent in each scene.  Zeke's home has a poster of Yankee star Don Mattingly, his dealer, Digs, has one featuring a big New York Giants logo and Jenny has a framed nude drawing.  At least someone is helping to flesh out the characters a bit.

Photo of Hunter Foster and Richard Masur by Carol Rosegg

Posted on: Tuesday, December 09, 2008 @ 09:32 AM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback


Broadway Grosses: Week Ending 12/7 & Algonquin Round Table Quote of the Week

"To err is human; to forgive, infrequent."

-- Franklin P. Adams


The grosses are out for the week ending 12/7/2008 and we've got them all

right here in BroadwayWorld.com's grosses section.

Up for the week was: IRVING BERLIN'S WHITE CHRISTMAS (14.4%), GYPSY (12.3%), A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS (8.9%), HAIRSPRAY (6.8%), ALL MY SONS (5.8%), BOEING-BOEING (4.4%), PAL JOEY (3.4%), GREASE (2.6%), MAMMA MIA! (2.0%), AVENUE Q (1.9%),

Down for the week was: THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (-19.4%), THE LION KING (-16.4%), THE LITTLE MERMAID (-14.2%), MARY POPPINS (-13.0%), THE 39 STEPS (-12.1%), SHREK THE MUSICAL (-11.3%), SPRING AWAKENING (-10.6%), IN THE HEIGHTS (-9.5%), EQUUS (-7.5%), 13 (-7.4%), SPAMALOT (-7.2%), THE SEAGULL (-6.0%), WICKED (-5.4%), CHICAGO (-5.1%), SPEED THE PLOW (-3.0%), AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY (-2.8%), DIVIDING THE ESTATE (-2.0%), JERSEY BOYS (-0.8%), SOUTH PACIFIC (-0.5%),

Posted on: Monday, December 08, 2008 @ 05:06 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback


Where's The Best Theatre In New York

Everyone has their own idea of what makes great theatre.  For some it's adventurous writing, for others it's well-detailed performances and for others it's dazzling production values.  More often it's a combination of many qualities.  Whatever your definition of great theatre is, where in New York are you most likely to find it?  Let us know in our new poll…

Posted on: Sunday, December 07, 2008 @ 01:49 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback


Liza's at The Palaceā€¦: You Are For Loving

"We love you, Liza!," a faint, but audible voice yelled from what seemed to be a far corner of the Palace Theatre's mezzanine.

And though the 62-year-old entertainer was understandably still catching her breath after a spirited vaudevillian delivery of Styne, Comden & Green's tongue-twisting comic masterpiece, "If," she suddenly stopped what she was doing, lifted her face to the direction of the adulation and with a soft, angelic look of wonderment, answered in a clear, strong voice, "I love you, too.  You know I do."

Now, I'm not saying that opening night of Liza's at The Palace... was the first time those exact words were ever exchanged between Ms. Minnelli and an anonymous voice from a darkened auditorium but, as Fred Ebb once wrote, it's the strangest thing…   her reaction to shouts of joy, words of love and a few thousand hands clapping themselves red can make you believe in the healing power of an audience.

Sure, despite looking quite smashing in her glimmering Halston designs and throwing volts of committed energy into every moment on stage, there are times when there's no covering up the fact that she's breathing pretty hard between songs, her diction can get a tad muddy and time has devalued a few of her money notes into spare change.  But heck, she's the first one to laugh at the inevitable wear and tear ("Remember when I used to go down on one knee at this part?") because this isn't a show about Liza Minnelli not having changed a bit.  This is a show about an artist who, despite being past her physical prime, is still perfecting the talents that really matter; like an ability to shrink a house as large as the Palace into an intimate room where everyone watching can believe she's singing especially for them.  Like an underrated acting ability that brings spontaneity to songs she's been singing for over 35 years.  And that rarest and most valued of qualities, the fearlessness to be unique.

So by the time she's taking in her ninth or tenth standing ovation of the first act, the reactions of a crowd going nuts for her nourishes her performance of "Cabaret" to the point where the newly found strength of her voice and the age-defying grace of her movements burst into a mesmerizing force that would be considered the high point of any show that didn't end its second act with a "New York, New York" so powerful and emotionally vibrant you'll be checking the theatre's water fountains for the one marked "youth."

And the rest of the night ain't so shabby neither.

Director/choreographer Ron Lewis, a Minnelli collaborator since 1970, packages a theatrical concert that shows off his star in style.  Conductor/drummer Michael Berkowitz leads a dynamic 12-piece on-stage orchestra that features the fabulous Billy Stritch on piano.  (Stritch also serves as music supervisor, contributes to the vocal arrangements and nicely croons a bit.)  Ray Klausen's scenic designs and Matt Berman's lights frame and accent the star's signature moves and poses with the proper doses of elegant glam and David Zippel is on hand to help create her patter.  The evening is saturated with class from start to finish.

The two-act program includes her four Kander and Ebb classics ("Cabaret," "New York, New York," "Maybe This Time," and "And The World Goes Round"), along with an assortment of selections from past concert tours and Broadway engagements, all sung with her informed sense of thinking person's dazzle.  Her opening, "Teach Me Tonight" (Gene DePaul/Sammy Cahn) eases us into a first half that includes a very well acted "What Makes a Man a Man" (Charles Aznavour) and a defiant "My Own Best Friend" (from her time filling in for the ailing Gwen Verdon in Chicago).  The act's showpiece is a medley of songs her mother once sang on the Palace stage honoring four great ladies of vaudeville who headlined at this cathedral of variety:  Nora Bayes ("Shine On, Harvest Moon"), Sophie Tucker ("Some of These Days"), Fannie Brice ("My Man") and Eva Tanguay ("I Don't Care").

The bulk of the second act is a tribute to her godmother, career advisor and divorce consultant, Kay Thompson, the exuberant, life-loving vocal coach and arranger for MGM's great movie musicals, who coaxed the world to "Think Pink" in the film of Funny Face and penned the series of Eloise books.  With her back-up quartet of The Williams Brothers (yes, Andy Williams was one of them), Thompson created what Walter Winchell called, "the greatest nightclub act ever," writing her own songs and arranging great standards to suit her glitzy talents.

Joined by the sensational song and dance quartet of Johnny Rodgers, Cortes Alexander, Tiger Martina and Manhattan cabaret gem Jim Caruso, they recreate the excitement of a live Thompson performance with "Hello, Hello," "Jubilee Time," "Basin Street Blues" and a breakneck speed "Clap Yo' Hands," all snappily staged with Lewis's period supper clubby choreography.

And it was in the middle of that medley when Minnelli took a long pause during a break in a number to catch her breath.  She joked about it, with loud huffing clearly heard through her body mic, and the crowd responded with understanding laughter that was maybe tinged with a bit of concern.  But perhaps the many shouts of encouragement and unconditional love were what did the trick and gave her the energy to keep going.  Sounds corny, sure, but it makes for some terrific theatre.

Photos by Eric Antoniou:  Top: Liza Minnelli; Bottom: Tiger Martina, Johnny Rodgers, Liza Minnelli, Cortes Alexander and Jim Caruso

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And while there turns out to be no truth to the rumor that Christine Pedi will be standing by for Ms. Minnelli during her Palace engagement - seriously, just try telling the difference from the second balcony - she did do quite the nifty turn as Kay Thompson in a memorable Forbidden Broadway bit, teaching the cast of Rent how to "Think Punk."

The delightfully daffy Pedi, one of the best cabaret entertainers in town, returns to Gotham after a stint in South Africa to celebrate the holidays with her Holly Jolly Christmas Folly, playing ten more dates throughout December at the Laurie Beechman Theater.  I understand she'll once again be performing her legendary "12 Divas of Christmas," where twenty names like Liza, Ethel, Bernadette and Carol are placed in a hat and audience members pick them at random to find out who'll be singing of partridges in pear trees and who hits the big notes on five golden rings.  It's a different show every night, folks.  And if you've never seen her heat up a room with "Santa Claus is Coming To Town" sung a la Roxie Hart, trust me, if they had her aboard the Titanic there wouldn't have been a surviving iceberg for miles.

On her trip to the lower hemisphere Pedi recalls one interesting encounter with an unusual branch of her fan base as she woke up one morning to, "Not one, not two, not three but four monkeys on my terrace!  I mean, it was a small terrace and they were big monkeys.  And they are not shy.  I tell ya it's a whole other continent."

And while a very favorable exchange rate and fresh mango juice every morning proved themselves to be lovely perks, the New York gal still sighs, "There's no place like 42nd & Broadway Auntie Em."

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Sadly, I'll not be able to catch the hilariously low-key antics of comic singers Booth Daniels and Patrick Frankfort (a/k/a Booth and Pat) at this weekend's two-night gig at The Duplex, but if you're in the mood for some cheap laughs (Ten bucks & two drinks - such a deal!) you should definitely, as Duke Ellington didn't suggest, take the 1 train.

The last time I caught Pat, the dim-witted guitar player with a goofy smile and a delusionally high regard for his appeal to the ladies, and Booth, the hyper-intense voice of reason and understated sarcasm, they were knockin' em dead with nutty songs like "Where Have All The Straight Girls Gone," a medley of popular hits that feature nonsense lyrics ("coo-coo-cachoo," "hi-de-hi-de-hi," "doo wa ditty ditty dum ditty doo," etc.) and a big Spice Girls medley.

The boys fly solo tonight but on Saturday they team up with FUCT, a sketch comedy troupe they encountered while hosting a night at the SkitSkat Sketch Comedy Festival.

Says Booth, "After watching the first two groups do their thing, this lunatic group of men and one woman get up in loincloths and execute a brilliantly timed yet angry tribal dance, that completely captivated and freaked out everyone in the room.  Pat and I were in awe during the half hour of their set.  It was love at first sight."

Photo of Booth Daniels and Patrick Frankfort by Jason Specland

Posted on: Friday, December 05, 2008 @ 04:32 AM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback


Broadway Grosses: Week Ending 11/30 & Algonquin Round Table Quote of the Week

"Drawing on my fine command of the English language, I said nothing."

-- Robert Benchley


The grosses are out for the week ending 11/30/2008 and we've got them all

right here in BroadwayWorld.com's grosses section.

Up for the week was: SHREK THE MUSICAL (30.0%), THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (27.8%), THE 39 STEPS (26.0%), SPAMALOT (25.2%), GREASE (22.0%), THE LITTLE MERMAID (21.6%), MARY POPPINS (18.9%), THE LION KING (14.8%), 13 (13.8%), CHICAGO (12.7%), DIVIDING THE ESTATE (10.6%), SPRING AWAKENING (10.1%), EQUUS (9.9%), HAIRSPRAY (8.5%), IN THE HEIGHTS (7.6%), BILLY ELLIOT: THE MUSICAL (5.8%), AVENUE Q (4.9%), BOEING-BOEING (4.8%), GYPSY (4.4%), THE SEAGULL (4.3%), WICKED (2.5%), AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY (2.0%), MAMMA MIA! (1.6%), JERSEY BOYS (1.3%), PAL JOEY (0.5%), SOUTH PACIFIC (0.1%),

Down for the week was: IRVING BERLIN'S WHITE CHRISTMAS (-7.9%), ALL MY SONS (-3.8%), A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS (-3.2%), SPEED THE PLOW (-0.4%),

Posted on: Monday, December 01, 2008 @ 03:15 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback


Dividing The Estate: Gimme Gimme

That cultish assemblage that likes to recite my reviews from memory on open mic nights at the Nuyorican Poets Café (it's weird being an icon for the culturally disenfranchised) may notice many similarities between my following scribblings on Lincoln Center Theater's Broadway production of Horton Foote's Dividing The Estate and my review of this mounting's original Off-Broadway run last season at Primary Stages.  But if director Michael Wilson can do a cut and paste job, with minor adjustments here and there, there's no reason I can't do the same.

It's taken 19 years for this terrific Reaganomics era comedy to trickle down to Broadway since its 1989 premiere at New Jersey's McCarter Theatre (I suppose "trickle across" would be more accurate) but though the transfer from Off-Broadway just happened to come in at a time when the economic climate makes its story relevant again, this very funny and very human production would even be welcome in more prosperous times.

1987 was a disastrous year for the U.S. economy, particularly in Texas after the price of oil plummeted following a major stock market drop.  Foote sets the piece shortly after "Black Monday" in the home of family matriarch Stella Gordon (Elizabeth Ashley). None of 85-year-old Stella's children, all over 50, have ever held a regular job, with all receiving a monthly allowance from the family estate. The two oldest, widow Lucille (Penny Fuller) and Lewis (Gerald McRaney), live at home while their sister Mary Jo (Hallie Foote) lives in Houston with her real estate selling husband Bob (James DeMarse) and party girl daughters Sissie (Nicole Lowrence) and Emily (Jenny Dare Paulin).

Lucille's son, named Son (Devon Abner), draws a salary for managing the family's estate and is often at odds with Lewis, who can't keep a job because of his gambling and drinking and is frequently in need to borrow from the family money.  As the play begins, Son is hoping to get a raise so he can afford to marry the politically-minded schoolteacher Pauline (Maggie Lacey) while Lewis is in need of fast cash because he's being blackmailed by the father of the 19-year-old he's been dating (Virginia Kull).

Typical of Foote, Dividing The Estate seems deceptively light on plot until the pieces start fitting together and, in this case, the comic fireworks begin.  The match is lit by a visit from Mary Jo and her family, who are in a financial crisis and want to discontinue the allowance system and just divide the estate among the three children.  But with most of the estate's worth tied up in land, that quick fix could seriously decrease the value of their inheritance with the poor market and high taxes. Their decision will also affect the lives of family servants Mildred (Pat Bowie, the only new cast member), her daughter Cathleen (Kelana Richard) and the 92-year-old Doug (Arthur French).

With fine performances from an exceptional ensemble, Foote's play and Wilson's production combine to draw realistic laughs from family politics.  There is lovely pathos in the relationship between Ashley's commanding matriarch and French, as the man who has worked for her family all his life and has turned into a cranky senior citizen who fears not being useful. Fuller and McRaney stand out as the gracious Lucille and emotional Lewis while Hallie Foote once again proves herself a supreme interpreter of her playwright father's material.  Her desperate and manipulative Mary Jo is hilarious without ever seeming a character.

Contrasting with the less attractive antics of its inhabitants, Jeff Cowie's set is comfy, distinguished and tasteful, though the larger dimensions for the Booth Theatre stage take away that cramped feeling that so effectively emphasized the large family's discomfort with each other.

It's been over 10 years since Horton Foote was last represented on Broadway with his Pulitzer-winning, The Young Man From Atlanta.  In the past several years we've seen outstanding Off-Broadway mountings of his The Trip to Bountiful (Signature Theatre) and The Day Emily Married (Primary Stages) but, at 92 years of age, it's good to see the grand old man on the big stage once again.

Photos by Joan Marcus:  Top: Hallie Foote and Elizabeth Ashley; Bottom:  Elizabeth Ashley, Penny Fuller, Arthur French, Hallie Foote and Gerald McRaney

Posted on: Sunday, November 30, 2008 @ 02:42 AM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback


Billy Elliot: I Just Wanna F***in' Dance

If I were a betting man I'd wager Billy Elliot to be the last show standing should the economy remain steadfast in its current quest to entirely obliterate Broadway.  (Any truth to the rumor that the next thing moving into the St. James is a Starbucks?)  Throngs who were enchanted by the musical's source film and even more who have been undertowed by the waves of publicity surrounding the three adolescents who alternate performing the title role (presumably until puberty brings out the hook) will no doubt enter the Imperial Theatre for many months or even years to come, as eager to see the kid dance as audiences at Miss Saigon were to see Royal Academy of Dramatic Art graduate Jonathan Pryce hump a Cadillac.  And Billy Elliot never disappoints in that respect.  My Billy of the evening was the very game Trent Kowalik, but even if you catch a performance starring David Alvarez or Kiril Kulish (or understudy Tommy Batchelor) you can take your seat assured you'll be witnessing the work of a specially trained specimen carefully schooled in the arts of ballet, tap, street dance, jazz and gymnastics at the exclusive Billy Elliot House, which I'm told is only a short drive from Grease Academy.

But if I seem less than completely enthused about what is undoubted the best anti-Margaret Thatcher musical to hit Broadway since Blood Brothers, it's because, despite an interesting story told through exceptionally vivid, dramatic visuals delivered by director Stephen Daldry and choreographer Peter Darling via a mostly excellent cast, the music of Elton John and the book and lyrics of Lee Hall, while never awful, rarely achieve a quality that surpasses reasonably competent.

Now, reasonably competent is nothing to be sneered at these days.  I can name a few recent productions that might have welcomed the opportunity to display the quote "Reasonably Competent!" outside their theatres.  And while good direction, impressive production values and fine casting can sometimes make an evening of lesser material somewhat bearable, Messrs. Daldry and Darling skillfully dangle so many pretty, shiny things in front of the audience that if you block out the shoddy jokes, serviceable songs and plethora of moments that screech the evening to a halt you might find yourself convinced you were witnessing high art.

Not having seen the flick, which was also directed by Daldry, choreographed by Darling and penned by Hall, I was seated with only slight knowledge of its story of an 11-year-old son of a British coal miner who, during a brutal year-long 1984 strike, winds up taking a fancy to the ballet and secretly starts using the money he's supposed to spend on boxing lessons for dance classes.  The show starts with a directorial flourish as documentary film footage explaining labor politics of the day dissolves into a scene where, with their children running around in carefree play, workers sing a unity anthem with orchestrations by Martin Koch that make them sound like the student rebels of Les Miserables.

And that's when Billy Elliot's main flaw starts becoming apparent.  The show's best writing and most impressive staging comes in the scenes involving the coal miners, climaxing before the first act has hit its halfway point in a musical scene where the strikers are confronted by riot police, sent by Prime Minister Thatcher to help bust the union, outside a community center where their daughters are cheerfully going about their dance routines.  The innocent joy on the inside contrasting with the volatile tension on the outside, eventually blending together in a comedic clash, is a great example of the best kind of character-and-plot driven musical theatre dramatics. Unfortunately the lightweight song that accompanies the scene ("SOlidarity, soliDARity, SOlidarity forEVer") can best be described as "protest disco."

Blossoming out of this conflict is the most interesting character of the night, Billy's dad; a widower dutifully taking on both traditional parental roles while fearful that the boy's interest in dance will turn him into a, as they say in County Durham, poof.  Of course one of the reasons the role is so interesting is that Gregory Jbara is giving the best performance of his admirable Broadway career, revealing the character's slow and beautiful growth from a man who sternly loves his son in the only way he knows how to someone so open to trying to understand his boy's passion for a world he finds strange and suspiciously foreign that he's willing to make an unthinkable sacrifice to help Billy achieve his dream.  The heart of the show pumps mightily when the slightly inebriated elder Elliot sings a pro-labor folk song at a Christmas gathering and, at the finish, sees his lad timidly singing along with him.  The expression in Jbara's face and the quiver in his voice suggest relief that, finally, he can connect with his son over something gravely important.  When Billy has the opportunity to audition for the Royal Ballet School and performs an extraordinarily athletic routine as a way of expressing how dancing makes him feel, it's Jbara, sitting quietly in a chair, watching with expressions of shock, bewilderment and pride in finally understanding what his son can do and how important it is to him, who is giving the emotionally uplifting performance.

While Hall must be credited for inventing the situations that are well acted and staged, he also must take at least partial blame for the lack of empathy established for the title character, filling his dialogue instead with frequent witless moments that attempt to derive humor from having little kids and kooky grown-ups spewing out curse words and sexual innuendo for punch lines, a routine that gets pretty tiresome by the time a lovesick tyke is offering to show Billy her "hoo-hoo." 

He may carry far more stage time than anyone else in the show and be spotlighted in three major dance moments (and quite a few lesser ones), but the lad is quite underwritten when it comes to dialogue and song, and is continually upstaged by the supporting cast's flashier moments.  He sits quietly during his dotty grandmother's (Carole Shelly with her usual panache) musical remembrance of how she'd forget what a lousy drunken sod her husband was every time he took her dancing and feeds straight lines to his young cross-dressing pal Michael (Frank Dolce at my performance) before they launch into glitzed up tap-dancing vaudevillian turn that is so jarringly different from the rest of the production you can feel the creators screaming, "Be entertained, dammit!"  That same desire to entertain at the expense of good storytelling may be the reason Billy's first private ballet lesson from the chain-smoking, disillusioned but always caring Mrs. Wilkinson (Haydn Gwynne) is set to a song called, "Born to Boogie."

The ten wonderful young ladies who make up Wilkinson's class (Juliette Allen Angelo, Heather Ann Burns, Eboni Edwards, Meg Guzulescu, Izzy Hanson-Johnston, Caroline London, Marina Micalizzi, Tessa Netting, Corrieanne Stein and Casey Whyland), an endearing collection of shapes, sizes, ages and abilities, steal every moment they're on by dancing as a realistic ensemble of enthused but unpolished individuals.

Having Billy's deceased mother (Leah Hocking) appear to him in memory is too much of a cliché to be effective but the major misstep of the night comes from the decision to strap the boy to a harness so that he can perform impossible feats of flight during a pas de deux from Swan Lake with his imagined older self (Stephen Hanna).  And while I'm sure the intention is to show the freedom the boy feels as he dances, the sight of it reduces the character's dream to a special effect, no different than a falling chandelier or an on stage helicopter, instead of demonstrating the true beauty of obtainable human grace.

And that reminds me of a lesson Mrs. Wilkinson sings to her students in the first act:

Try to keep your arm in line.
Come on, at least pretend you're doing fine.
You can wow 'em every time;
All you have to do is shine.
Forget about content,
Focus on style.
Steal an inch on them
And they'll give you a mile.
And smile, smile, smile, smile.

Despite some truly fine work, the heartbreaking part of Billy Elliot is that all too often the creators offer little more than shine.

Photos by David Scheinmann:  Top: Gregory Jbara and David Alvarez, Center:  The Company; Bottom: The Ballet Girls

Posted on: Thursday, November 27, 2008 @ 06:15 AM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback


Broadway Grosses: Week Ending 11/23 & Algonquin Round Table Quote of the Week

"Everybody favors free speech in the slack moments when no axes are being ground."

-- Heywood Broun

The grosses are out for the week ending 11/23/2008 and we've got them allright here in BroadwayWorld.com's grosses section.

Up for the week was: BILLY ELLIOT: THE MUSICAL (13.4%), THE LION KING (7.2%), GREASE (6.7%), IN THE HEIGHTS (5.7%), MARY POPPINS (5.4%), WICKED (3.7%), 13 (3.0%), MAMMA MIA! (1.1%), SOUTH PACIFIC (0.4%),

Down for the week was: GYPSY (-15.5%), THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (-11.9%), AVENUE Q (-8.2%), THE SEAGULL (-8.1%), THE 39 STEPS (-7.7%), ALL MY SONS (-7.3%), EQUUS (-6.9%), DIVIDING THE ESTATE (-4.5%), AMERICAN BUFFALO (-4.0%), AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY (-3.7%), SHREK THE MUSICAL (-3.7%), SPAMALOT (-3.6%), SPEED THE PLOW (-3.5%), BOEING-BOEING (-3.2%), THE LITTLE MERMAID (-1.9%), SPRING AWAKENING (-1.3%), CHICAGO (-1.2%), A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS (-1.1%), HAIRSPRAY (-0.5%), JERSEY BOYS (-0.2%),

Posted on: Monday, November 24, 2008 @ 04:50 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback


Taking Over & Wintuk

"Why do I feel like a fucking tourist in my own neighborhood!?!"

That is the angry, anguished cry of Robert, a Polish-Puerto Rican native of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, who has seen the crime and neglect of his lifelong neighborhood remedied by a gentrifying influx of high-end restaurants, art galleries and expensive building complexes that have priced long-time residents out of their communities.

Encouraged by a few bottles of Brooklyn Lager, Robert has grabbed the microphone at a Community Day event in order to say a few words to all his new hipster and yuppie neighbors who have migrated to Williamsburg in recent years; "Did it ever occur to you to ask who lives here?  If we wanted 37 new bars in our neighborhood in one year?  Did you think to ask?"

Robert is one of eight creations solo performer/playwright Danny Hoch portrays in Taking Over, an exciting and discomforting piece of political theatre that, while certainly one-sided in its stance on gentrification issues, pulls you in with its intriguing and skillfully performed characters that see the changing neighborhood from different angles.

Some of people we meet have their own ways of adapting to change.  Marion, an elderly black woman, sits on her stoop chatting with a friend about all the "resident tourists" enjoying expensive brunches at one of the four French cafes at one intersection ("I been in this neighborhood fifty years.  Wasn't no brunch happenin' here.  People were smoking crack!  People were eatin' Ding Dongs for dinner.") and what happened when she gave in to temptation and entered one of them to buy a $4 almond croissant.  In another scene a Dominican taxi dispatcher barks orders to his drivers in harsh, rapid-fire Spanish while speaking to white customers in friendly English tones.

In a brashly comical scene, a rapper named Launch Missiles Critical advises his fellow revolutionaries at the Galapagos Art Space to join him to moving to Canada, where health care is free, gay marriage is legal and, "property values is ridiculous now!"  The most pitiable moments come in a scene where a volatile fellow named Kiko ties to get in good with an AD on a film shooting on his block, trying to charm his way to get any kind of work.

Newcomers to Williamsburg - a hip French real estate agent, a middle-aged Jewish developer and an NYU dropout selling her art work on the street - are given their say, but they come of primarily as objects of ridicule.

Under director Tony Taccone, Hoch's transformations from character to character are exacting, complete and done with minimal costume pieces, as supplied by Annie Smart.  Smart also provides the set design that can cleverly switch from the exterior of a run-down brick building to the inside of a costly exposed brick apartment.  Composer Asa Taccone, sound designer Walter Trarbach and lighting and projection designer Alexander V. Nichols bring vibrant energy to scene transitions.

Toward the end of the 100 minute piece, Hoch speaks to the audience as himself and explains his own personal conflicts regarding the changes in his neighborhood.  Aside from actually liking the assorted cheese plate at the Sardinian Wine Bar, Hoch earns most of his living performing on the road and rents out his Williamsburg apartment to tourists for $1,700 a week.  He reads what seem to be actual letters from past audience members, criticizing his show for being negative, divisive and alienating.  ("Why can't you be more like Anna Deavere Smith?")  But perhaps those are the qualities that make Taking Over so effective.  It's good to feel uncomfortable at the theatre when the reason isn't because your seat is hard and there's no leg room.

Photo of Danny Hoch by Joan Marcus

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"Less is More," might be an appropriate advertising slogan for this year's edition of Cirque du Soleil's Wintuk, now making its second annual visit to Madison Square Garden's WaMu Theatre.  Last year's premiere edition, created and directed by Richard Blackburn was an ambitious but muddy spectacle bogged down by an indecipherable, ritualistic story.  This year's director, Fernand Rainville, reshapes the evening thusly:  a kid named Jamie is sad because there's no snow in his town.  That's the plot, now bring on the leapers, contortionists, flyers, balancers and other assorted arty athletic types.

And they do come on in a flurry.  Patricial Ruel's town square set is soon loaded with skateboarders, bicyclists, an odd assortment of green-clad robbers who look like Irish variations of the MacDonald's Hamburgler and a slack-roped clothes line made for walking.  Last year's huge, lumbering shaggy dog puppets have been reimagined as an acrobatic team in human-sized costumes, but one of them still can't resist relieving himself on one of the singing streetlamps, causing a short circuit that necessitates a visit from an electrician who happens to be an expert at balancing on a towering assortment of cylinder pipes.

Returning favorites include a mistress of muscle isolation twirling assorted hoops in varying directions on every available body part, aerial strap artists gracefully flying with balletic beauty and a troupe of acrobatic daredevils bouncing high in the sky off of long flexible poles.  But the new featured highlight is a wild chase scene taking place on a stage-length trampoline hidden in the floor.  Supposedly, the green guys are trying to escape the pursuit of a group of bicycle-riding cops, but that's just an excuse for an exhilarating sequence of flying leaps, comical bounces and a few lengthy jumps worthy of Evel Kenevel.

I suppose I'm not giving anything unexpected away by letting you know that, yes, it does snow at the finale; though it's not quite the blinding blizzard I recall from last year.  I guess it's the economy, you know.

Photo courtesy of Cirque du Soleil

Posted on: Monday, November 24, 2008 @ 08:36 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.