Brian on BROADWAY
 
 
Archive Reviews - 2001 TO 2006
EVITA
The Adelphi Theatre, London
September  
2006


     This new and exciting EVITA is taking London by storm!  Never before has an Argentinean actress played the central role of Eva Peron.  And the little Argentinean is a spitfire of a performer.  Her name is Elena Roger – and she is EVITA.
 

     Reconceived and restaged by Michael Grandage (Director) and Rob Ashford (choreographer) this EVITA does not feel like it’s been around for thirty-five years.  The set and costumes are more realistic than the original production – lending to the authenticity of the story – and the cast is tremendous. 

     The original Hal Prince EVITA – which was so revolutionary on it’s bare scaffold of a set with it’s projected film clips – now looks staid in comparison.  The walls of the Casa Rosada frame this playing area and definitely add to the far-away mystique of the Argentinean way of life.  Likewise, the costumes are soiled and worn … it’s a true representation of the lower class in 1940’s Argentina. 

     Staged in 1979 with lots of lateral movements in groups that represented the different classes, the original EVITA had a simple geometric feel to it.  Not so this production.  This production is alive with a hot-blooded Latin American fever.  Rob Ashford has infused the flamenco, the salsa, and the tango repeatedly throughout the evening … making this a very sexy show.  The ensemble – although extremely British looking – carry off this heated pace very well.  This energized pace keeps moving until it inevitably burns itself out – and I was right there for the ride.  I was exhausted by the final curtain!
     Earning Patti LuPone a Tony Award® at the age of thirty, the role of Eva Peron is pivotal to the show.  And the multi-talented Elena Roger fills the shoes and then some.  She may be only five six (if she’s an inch) but her effervescence and gusto barrels her through the evening from start to finish.  She belts it out when needed, she’s sultry on cue, she’s a demanding bitch, she’s a caring spouse, she’s manipulative, angry, sad, enchanting … everything at once.  And she can kick her leg up to the ceiling during “Buenos Aires” like no Eva Peron before her.
 

     It is somewhat disconcerting that Ms. Roger is so very short – especially when she is paired with her onstage husband, the suave and engaging Juan Peron of Philip Quast.  Mr. Quast is a good 6’5” – so the two are almost comical together.  But once the initial shock wears off – it’s hardly noticeable. 

     Rounding out the love triangle in Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s modern opera is the narrator Che – played superbly by Matt Rawle.  Mr. Rawle is by far the youngest Che I have ever seen – but he carries himself throughout with authority, angst, and unrelenting drive.  His vocal prowess is fantastic, he delivers the demanding score effortlessly.  And his youth brings an authenticity to the role that rivals that of our little Argentinean spitfire, Ms. Roger.

     Worth note is Lorna Want as the mistress who gives us a plaintive “Another Suitcase in Another Hall”.  Her lyric soprano is a nice contrast to the ravages of Eva’s mezzo … she is simply marvelous.

     This was an extremely satisfying evening at the theatre.  Kudos to Andre Lloyd Webber and the Really Useful Company for bringing EVITA back to the stage.  We can only hope that it crosses the shores and makes a bow in New York.


The Pajama Game               
American Airlines Theatre
Ma
y 2006 

                                      

     Not seen in New York since the late seventies (starring Hal Linden as “Sid”) it’s about time that we are treated to this jewel of a show.  Based on Richard Bissell’s novel, “7 ½ Cents”, the show is a treasure trove of songs by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross.  Originally directed by the legendary George Abbott and choreographed by the equally legendary Bob Fosse, THE PAJAMA GAME is an American Musical Theatre gem ... and a daunting undertaking. 

     And the Roundabout Theatre Company?  Well ... every now and then they come up with a good production (think CABARET at Studio 54 or SHE LOVES ME.).  But I was hesitant that they could cut the mustard, as it were, on this show.  But they have done it – this time with Kathleen Marshall at the helm.  (Let’s hope that they employ her more often and continue to bring us theatre of this caliber.)  Her direction is top-notch and choreography refreshing.  The show is a hit.  (phew!)

     Harry Connick, Jr. makes his Broadway performance debut as “Sid Soroken”, the supervisor of a small Pajama Factory in Cedar Rapids Iowa.  He starts off the show a bit stiff – his version of “A New Town is a Blue Town” is hardly show-stopping.  He croons his way through the song, perhaps helping us to adjust to his particular style.  Not really appropriate to a Musical Theatre piece or the character – but definitely a Harry Connick stamp.  And it’s hard not to like the guy, he’s gorgeous to look at with puppy-dog eyes and a full mane of chestnut-brown hair.  Once he gets through the much-anticipated “Hey There” he loosens up considerably.  Either because his big solo number is finished or because he shares the stage the rest of the evening with his leading lady.

     And what a lady!  Kelli O’Hara, fresh from her highly touted turn as “Clara” in THE LIGHT IN THE LPIAZZA is astonishing.  She sheds the shy and innocent “Clara” to bring “Babe Williams” to life in brilliant Technicolor.  Her delicate soprano voice – which was so well-suited to her roll last season – is now a strong show-stopping alto.  She is tart as apple pie; the all-American sweetheart with an attitude; fun and gorgeous.  Her “I’m Not at all in Love” is simply fantastic, and her duets with Connick are so much fun that one can’t help but tap their toes and grin from ear to ear.  
     Michael McKean, as the time-study man “Hines”, establishes himself here as a bona-fide song and dance man.  He is so much fun to watch – and he’s having fun in the process.  Physically ill-suited to the whiny and lovable “Gladys” of Megan Lawrence, the two make the perfect odd couple.  And as odd couples go, Gladys and Sid tear up the stage in the show-stopping “Hernando’s Hideaway” – Connick gamely doing the twist with the hyper Lawrence, and clattering through a terrific piano solo.  (How convenient that there’s a piano in the bar?!)  The number does not disappoint. 

     Also outstanding are Joyce Chittick as “Steam Heat” girl “Mae”, and Roz Ryan as “Mabel” who can soft shoe with the best of them. 

     My two complaints with the production are the length and the size of the cast.  The Roundabout added three two songs to the already-considerable score, “The Three of Us” – written for the revival – and “The World Around Us” – cut from the original production, and “If You Win, You Loose” – written for the 1973 revival.  The Three of Us” is a charming number for Hines (and ultimately, Gladys).  But the other two, both ballads, are superfluous and damaging to the pace of the show, which I found slightly long.

     And skimpy.  I would have liked to see this show done with a least eight more members of the chorus – now called “ensemble” – four men and four women.  The cast never really filled up the stage at The American Airlines Theatre – and I understand that economics play a major part in the casting of a show.  But nevertheless it would have been nice to see a larger cast.

     The sets and costumes (Derek McLane and Martin Pakledinaz, respectively) are bright, colorful, and completely in keeping with the feel of the show.  Whimsically fifties, is what I’d call it.  And wonderful to look at. 

     And the vocal arrangements are done well . . . David Chase has slightly altered the vocal harmonies of the title song – giving the opening number a great nostalgic feel.  I enjoy that attention to detail. 

     Arguable the bigger hit for Adler/Ross (their other hit being 1955’s DAMN YANKEES on Broadway only one year after THE PAJAMA GAME) the two men never composed together again as Jerry Ross died of Leukemia in 1955.  Interestingly, rumors have circulated for years that four of the hit songs from THE PAJAMA GAME were written wholly or partially by Frank Loesser.  This from “Show Tunes”, by Steven Suskin:

 

“The story goes that Adler and Ross went to Frank, unable to come up with “The big ballad.”  Frank said something like, ‘Easy.  Just take any old thing’ – here he dashed off a bit of Mozart – ‘and play it in a slow, leisurely 4/4.’  The main melodic phrase of Hey There is, of course, the first two measures of Mozart’s Sonata in C played in a slow, leisurely four.  Also sited are A New Town is a Blue Town, which does sound to me like a logical Loesserian stepping stone from My Time of Day [GUYS AND DOLLS]; the mock-hillbilly duet There Once Was a Man, the sort of novelty Loesser used to play at parties; and Her Is.”

 

Regardless, it’s a fantastic show and a fantastic production. 

 

THE NORMAL HEART

The Public Theatre
05/11/04

 

 

The Normal Heart. 

The blood-pumping organ/muscle that functions in a regular manner.

Or: typical/expected human emotions pertaining to love and the desire to be loved.

Both definitions are appropriate to describe Larry Kramer’s 1985 play that is being revived by the Worth Street Theatre Company in conjunction with The Public. (The original Joe Papp production is the longest-running play ever produced by The Public.)

Why revisit THE NORMAL HEART only 19 years after it debuted? Is this now a period piece, an evening of nostalgia?  No – THE NORMAL HEART now offers a disturbing, retrospective view of the early history of the AIDS epidemic in New York City and the failure of our city to respond.  THE NORMAL HEART also brings back all of the conflicting emotional turmoil that is still prevalent today among the gay community – our unwillingness to diligently practice safe sex and our current apathetic view of the status of this plague. 

Mr. Kramer has successfully brought his outrage to the stage.  His onstage alter ego, "Ned Weeks" (Raul Esparza) futilely fights with his friends – the men who founded GMHC in Mr. Kramer’s living room.  But all is not futile – for it is their many points of view that offers us the most to think about. 

First and foremost is the idea that gay men fought long and hard for the right to have sex when they want, with whom they want, and where they want. Now (and in 1981) gay sex is not only legal but it defines who we are as a culture.  Asking men to stop having sex with other men because of the threat of an unidentifiable disease was ludicrous – we fought too hard for that right to stop now.  And the same holds true today – the apathy surrounding safe sex – if you contract HIV/AIDS, take a pill. It’s that simple.    "Ned Weeks" (Kramer) counters – why didn’t we fight long and hard for the right of marriage, for spousal benefits, for anti-discrimination in the work place?  These are the same issues that homosexuals are fighting for today.  And it resonates back to the landscape of the early 80’s and beyond.

Ned expands on this idea asking why gay men have to define themselves by sex?  Can’t we celebrate our diversity, creativity and abilities?  Glorify the men in history who played such an important role in the creation of the world as we know it?  Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, Alexander the Great, Tennessee Williams, Cole Porter, the list goes on.  In the play we are lead to believe that his doctor – "Dr. Emma Brookner" (Joanna Gleason), prompts Ned’s thinking.  Dr. Brookner argues, “Why can’t you guys relate to each other without sucking each other’s cocks?!”   True, why can’t we?

This is, of course, a gross generalization. One that is commonly held (then and now) by the heterosexual community.  Or so we believe.  And why not?  Gay men certainly perpetuate that stereotype.  We did in 1981.  We do in 2004.  Look at any footage of the gay pride parade or look at the statistics of gay men still contracting HIV.

As with any generalization there is the other side of the argument.  We can be – and many of us want to be – monogamous.  We can relate to each other in a non-sexual way.  Hence the debate.

Mr. Kramer’s play is extremely thought provoking.  The dramatic line of the story – the group’s failure to find funding or support, the NY Times ignoring the epidemic for the first three years, the Mayor of NYC unwilling to meet with or listen to the gay community about the disease – is frustrating.  Because it’s redundant.  And true.  I understand that – but it's still redundant.  As with any uphill climb, this hill doesn’t end.  And actually still hasn’t.  And revisiting this story now feeds our outrage – the story is unbelievable – the story is, “Haven’t we learned anything?” – the story is “I can’t believe no one would help!”  It's educational.  And dramatic.  And moving.  And tragic. 

And there is a large part of me that feels Mr. Kramer’s play also says, “Look – I was right.”  Now, more so than nineteen years ago, obviously.  Nineteen years ago he was saying, “Look – I’m pissed!”  But today the show reeks of; “I told you so.”

Raul Esparza as “Ned Weeks” turns in a strong and constant performance.  It’s a demanding role – and he handles himself well.  I found some of his “gay” mannerisms to be trite – but overall he it’s a fine performance.  Joanna Gleason seems to be going through the paces.  She is detached and cold.  Perhaps this is direction?  “Dr. Brookner” is the only female in the piece – sort of the mother hen character.  But Ms. Gleason doesn’t quite fill the shoes.  McCaleb Burnett is fine as “Tommy” – he turns in a stellar nervous breakdown in the second act that is painful to watch.  Richard Bekins as Ned’s older brother “Ben” is outstanding.  The voice of reason.  The rock for the family.  I found Mark Dobies (“Bruce”) and Billy Warlock (“Felix”) to be only all right.  “Felix” offers an excellent death scene – but the rest of his performance is only adequate.  “Bruce”, the closet fag who is elected president of the fledgling GMHC based on his looks – this actor must have been cast because of his looks.  Because the rest did not do it for me.  He was stiff and closed off.  Which is partly the character – but mostly Mr. Dobies.

I can’t say whether or not I enjoyed this production.  But I will say that the show has resonated with me for days.  Don’t we all – as humans, regardless of cultural group – desire to be loved?  To have a normal heart?  And don’t we wish to be healthy?  To have a normal heart?  The arguments and self-analysis prompted by Mr. Kramer’s disturbing script did just what so much of today’s theatre doesn’t do.  It stayed with me.

 



NINE
 
The Eugene O'Neill Theatre
May 2003

Another misguided revival from The Roundabout Theatre Company, this NINE was a major disappointment.  Granted, the casting of Antonio Banderas in the role of Guido Contini was a long shot – and one that paid off well – but even a bonafide star like Mr. Banderas can’t pull a show up from the depths of miscast hell.

 

NINE is one of my favorite musicals; I know the show backwards and forwards.  And once again I went into The Eugene O’Neill Theatre with high hopes.  I obviously didn’t learn from the Roundabout’s badly done revival of FOLLIES two years ago or their dreadful BOYS FROM SYRACUSE last season.

 

Antonio Banderas was wonderful.  He was charming, beguiling, sexy, innocent, suave, and a totally charming Latin heartthrob.  His singing has vastly improved since his on-screen Che in EVITA, and he managed quite well with the rangy role of Guido.  Were it not for his performance I would have been in complete misery.

 

Chita Rivera!  What a wonderful idea to cast her as Liliane La Fleur – the producer.  (Rumor has it that Lillian Montevechi turned down the role this time around.)  And what a diva Chita remains.  Clad in a tasteful, black satin travel ensemble complete with cape and cigarette holder, she makes an entrance that a drag queen would die for.  She was perfect fodder for the befuddled

Guido.  And then came her big number – “Folies Bergeres”.  What a mess.  Granted, she growls out the song as well as, if not better than, her predecessor did back in 1984, but that’s not saying much.  And then the director has inserted this totally interruptive audience-participation routine that falls completely flat.  Even Chita was having a hard time keeping it together – she felt the egg on her face and was trying so hard to have it done with so she could finish the damn song and get off the stage.  But she carried on like the trouper she is – regardless of how silly she looked.  And before she could retire to the wings she had to partner with Banderas in a tango.  And a dancer he is not.  Ah well . . . She’s older, she’s rougher, and she has a bit of a tummy pooch going on in her satin merry widow . . . but she’s still Chita Rivera.

 

And then there’s Mary Stuart Masterson, Jane Krakowski, and Laura Benanti as Luisa, Carla, and Claudia, respectively.  Not one of them brought anything to their roles.  Ms. Masterson looks physically uncomfortable as the staid Luisa – the stable wife in the chaos of Guido’s life.  Her posturing, posing and gesticulating was so mechanical it was comical.  Ms. Krakowski as the sexpot Carla?  What a joke.  She gyrates her ample hips and tries really hard to impress with her not-impressive breasts . . . to no avail.  She’s more whiney than seductive. "A Call From the Vatican" was mildly entertaining because she was clad in a towel and suspended from the wings on a swing of white billowing fabric. But "Simple" - a beautiful hymn to resignation and defeat - in her hands was listless and tedious. And Ms. Benanti – who looks so great in her bouffant hair and A-line skirt – opens her mouth and the sophisticated Claudia is shot to hell. 

 

I would like to believe that this is no fault of the actresses, but I’m not entirely sure.  I know for a fact that Ms. Benanti can sing the hell out of “Unusual Way” – but her performance tonight was fraught with bad phrasing, strained notes, and a horrible accent.  Actually everyone was saddled with garbled Italian accents that totally hindered the show.  Kate Wilson, the alleged Dialect Coach, should be shot.  I got the impression that to deal with the heavy Spanish accent that is Mr. Banderas, the rest of the cast was directed to over-compensate.  But it comes off as totally second rate.  Like a bad high school production.  And very distracting.

 

The rest of the cast – most of whom were visually stunning but ought to not ever open their mouths – are really not worth naming.  Even as hard as they try.  And the producer’s must have tried really hard to find a woman as ugly as they could to play the role of Saraghina.  Because they succeeded. 

 

The set looks like the lobby of an Ian Schreager hotel.  Flat, silver, and boring.  The costumes are drab and colorless, and the lighting uninspired.  The harsh spots and side lighting would have been more appropriate on the stage of the Met for the ABT.   And buried under the stage, who can appreciate the orchestrations of the great Jonathan Tunick?  The orchestra sounded muffled and hollow.  Even the sound mixing was bad – the overture – which can potentially be quite exciting – was badly mixed – the altos overshadowed the sopranos two to one – with a little growl from Chita thrown in.

 

And then there’s the show itself.  Nothing can be done to fix the second act.  Rehash the first act in three inches of water and hope that no one notices that there was no budget to costume the glamorous movie that Guido is shooting?  Eh.  Might work.  (Not!)  Watching Chita run around in a pseudo-French gown of wet ostrich feathers was embarrassing.  She should have put her foot down. 

 

David Leveaux, the director, has done nothing to improve this show.  He hasn’t reconceived it coming up with some new brilliant way of making the show work better.  To the contrary, his direction is what weighs this production down.  There are pauses you can drive a truck through – the pace is atrocious.  And Musical director Kevin Stites (who?) may as well have stayed home. 

 

A disappointment.  A good show with a good score and a terrific leading man all wasted in two and a half hours of blah.  How does the Roundabout do it?  How can they consistently produce good musicals badly?  And why do I keep paying to see them?

 

(And being relegated to row Q on the right side of the house?  Not a way to treat a subscriber.  Wild horses couldn’t drag me to see another Roundabout show.)


 

 

 Imaginary Friends 
The Barrymore Theatre
 12/03/02
 

            Disaster. 

            An untried playwright, but successful screenwriter (Nora Ephron) – thought to introduce Mary McCarthy and Lillian Hellman, both dead, to see if they could get along.  Interesting idea.

Marvin Hamlisch and Craig Carnelia, fresh from the stinging reviews of their SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS, were brought in to provide music.

            The evening is billed as “A Play with Music.”

            It’s really a one-act play that has collided with a one-act musical leaving a chaotic two hours that doesn’t make sense.

            The leads are excellent – especially given the awful material.  The underused Cherry Jones as Mary McCarthy and the winning Swoosie Kurtz as Lillian Hellman are fascinating to watch.  At the beginning of the first act they even engage in some well-written banter that promises to evolve into an evening of laughter and revelation.

            Then the chorus comes on – singing and dancing to a ragtime beat.  What?  Did I fall asleep and wake up in a different theatre? 

            The creative team has brought these two literary figures to life for us to watch as they dissect one another’s lives and try to come to some sort of reconciliation as to why they were lifelong enemies.  Great premise.  What doesn’t work is the flashbacks of their respective childhoods told through song and dance.  I laughed out loud when Cherry Jones looked down at the pit at the start of "Young Mary’s" first scene and said, “Don’t.  Just stop.”

            Dolls are used to enact the trauma of a solitary upbringing as an only child.  We are led to believe – really brought to light at the end of the evening, but now I know why so much time was spent establishing the facts in the first act – that Mary’s childhood was overshadowed by a huge lie and physical abuse.  Furthermore, Lillian’s childhood was marked with scandal and shame.  Mary spent her adult life trying to seek out the truth in every situation and Lillian spent her adult life spinning lies to make the truth more palatable. Hence their clashing relationship.  I assume that since this revelation is so easy to come by, the artistic team tried to fill the two-plus hours with music and dance.  Unfortunately.

            Much is made of Lillian’s denial to testify in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952.  This is made out to be the high-point of her life, literary and stage accomplishments aside.   The ladies take turns directing some of the scenes to fit their specific memories of how things really were.  This is interesting – and offers some much-needed laughter for the audience.  And I can’t stress enough how wonderful these two actresses work together.  Anyone else in these roles and the show wouldn’t have made it to previews.  Visually there are some interesting moments – much is done with red curtains, I assume to make something of the author’s quip that, “McCarthy and Hellman are meeting in the ladies room in Hell.”  Lighting helps things flow and the period costumes are perfect – some great forties evening gowns. 

            However – the filler is a major problem.  The second act Vaudeville number (“Fact and Fiction”) doesn’t help any – the poor guys were drenched with flop sweat.  Nor does the leading man’s soft-shoe number – “I've played all the men tonight and I just can’t fix things.”  Nope – sure can’t.  (Poor Harry Groener in a thankless role.)  Curiously none of the musical numbers are listed in the program.  Does this mean that there is a chance that they will all be cut?  God willing.

            Anne Pitoniak – a veteran of both stage and screen who is always a joy to see – comes in at the end of the second act for the big confrontational trial scene.  A lot is said, mostly of little or no consequence.  And after all is said and done Swoosie Kurtz as Lillian Hellman says to Mary McCarthy, “Well that was a dud.  You built all of this up and the audience is waiting for some big revelation and that’s all you have?”  Truer words were not spoken all evening.

            I really don’t understand how so many creative people can come together and mount such a mishmash of crap on a Broadway stage.  Isn’t anyone at the Barrymore Theatre watching what is happening up there?  The smattering of polite applause after each musical number is certainly a huge clue that they have veered from their purpose.  Tell the story.  If there isn’t enough of a story, let it be a one-act play.  Two actresses.  One act.  Jack O’Brien (director) and Jerry Mitchell (choreographer) – coming right off of their smash hit HAIRSPRAY have really missed with this one.  True, the show made it to previews.  But will it make it to opening night?


 

 

 

OKLAHOMA!         

The Gershwin Theatre
9/19/02            

 

 

            Well ... this was a major disappointment.  After hearing all the hype about the West End Production – coupled with the AEA ruling that Cameron Mackintosh couldn’t bring the entire British cast over – and the decision to wait for Susan Strohman to finish THE PRODUCERS before getting to OKLAHOMA! – this show got a lot of pre-opening buzz.  And to finally see it after all of the build up ... what a let down.

            First problem – and a major one at that – is Patrick Wilson as “Curly”.  He has a beautiful voice – I’ll give him that.  But he has such unappealing stage presence.  I was going to say “no stage presence” – but I think that in this case it’s a choice.  He was just as bad in THE FULL MONTY, and he is playing the same character here – in chaps.  True, he has curly hair and he can sing the role.  But the acknowledgments stop there.  To me he appears bored on stage and is thus boring to watch.

            A casting note: because Patrick Wilson is of slight build – the majority of the male ensemble were cast shorter than him.  This was done in the Royal National Theatre production of CAROUSEL several years ago, also directed by Trevor Nunn – and is done frequently, I would imagine.  But the men of the ensemble don’t carry any weight – they are merely “dancers” with dancers’ bodies – playing dress-up in cowboy outfits.  Distracting to me.  (The women of the ensemble fared better.  Vocally and visually.)

            Second problem – Josefina Gabrielle.  Her “Laurey” is pleasant enough; she dances well, she acts well, and she sings well.  But there was something missing.  Or there was too much?  She was trying so very hard to put across “Laurey”.  Unfortunate too – she was one of only two cast members that made the transfer from London.  Shuler Hensley – the other transfer from the West End – as “Jud Fry” is a standout.  He is adequately brooding and melancholy.  And he sings the not too often heard “Lonely Room” with gusto.  This song was a highlight of the evening.  Andrea Martin as “Aunt Eller” had her moments.  But I felt that she was tired and going through the motions at times.  And who can blame her with a running time of three hours?

            Why did Trevor Nunn think that OKLAHOMA! needed to be re-worked?  And that was it?  The gritty, realistic version that we had heard so much about?  Where did it go?  Did it get lost in the transfer?  What I saw tonight was a large – large – cast trying to fill up an enormous and almost bare stage.  Much was made of lighting, clouds, scrims, moons – all to beautiful effect – but the minimalist set robbed the audience of what OKLAHOMA could be.  And the Gershwin Theatre is a barn of a space.  Try as they may – they couldn’t bring the proscenium in and make it a workable area.  I think the cast inherently feels this – they were tired and distracted.  No, “defeated” is a good description.

            Which brings me to a MAJOR peeve of mine.  And I haven’t seen it on Broadway in recent memory.  I find it completely unprofessional for the cast to look at the audience.  This is not a presentational theatre piece where the cast members are addressing the audience!  The ensemble should not break the fourth wall by scanning the audience when they think no one is looking.  I saw this a great deal tonight – and it’s a real turn off for me. 

            Anyway – the whole show seems to lack that professional shine that Broadway demands.  There are horrible pace problems.  Scenes seem to appear in the middle of songs – breaking the pace and dragging it down.  This was certainly not Rogers and Hammerstein’s intention; after learning at an early age that OKLAHOMA! was a show that was so innovative in it’s time – changing Broadway Musicals forever – incorporating songs, scenes and dance into a cohesive whole.  This was certainly not the case tonight.  And I didn’t think that Susan Strohman’s choreography was as stellar as it is made out to be.  I suppose it’s a novelty in and of itself to try and do OKLAHOMA! without Agnes DeMille’s original choreography.  But the novelty wears off if the dance isn’t as good as the original.  Although, I found myself wondering if the dream ballet had been re-orchestrated for this production.  It seemed more modern and mood specific than I remember.  Maybe that’s to Ms. Strohman’s credit.  Maybe I wouldn’t have even noticed the music with the original choreography.  If this is the case she made the music standout – and who am I to say this was not her intention?  Stylistically, there was a lot of arm flinging – she loves that – and a lot more Fosee-esque finger snapping and hand movements.  Interesting choices that I felt were not appropriate for a prairie territory that hasn’t been admitted to the Union yet. 

            Defeated.  That’s was I felt about tonight.  The fight scene where Jud falls on his knife was laborious – bordering on comical.  The title song was done gratuitously – not a rousing eleven o’clock number at all.  “People Will Say We’re in Love” was staged as a play on words – overemphasizing the double entendre of the lyrics – not as the anthem to denial between two lovers as it was originally intended.  (Or as it has always been interpreted.)  And by the second act, the fatigue became more noticeable.  “All er Nothin’” lost all of it’s oomph.  The two actors were vocally fatigued.  The auction of “Laury’s” lunch hamper seemed to go on for a good half-hour.  But there was no tension!  Let the scene go on for a half hour – but bring in the tension . . . allow the audience the opportunity to want to know the outcome.

            Jessica Boevers was very good as “Ado Annie”.  Her “I Cain’t Say No” was polished and shined brightly.  Matt Allen was a standout as “Will Parker”.  (And he’s the understudy!)  But as I mentioned above, both were having trouble with “All er Nothin’” in the second act.  “Ali Hakim”, the peddler, was good.  It’s a good role.  And Aasif Mandvi gives it his all.

            Good intentions maybe – but for me the show failed to hit its mark.

            Incidentally: Audrie Neenan – an ensemble member and understudy to “Aunt Eller” – is the same Audrie Neenan who played “Grace” in the 1989 CBT Production of BUS STOP with David Keith, Stuart Margolis, and Melissa Gilbert in Knoxville, TN.  This is the show that I understudied David’s “Bo” and actually performed the role at the first matinee.  (Well, I might add).  I remember Audrie as a trooper and very supportive.

 

 

 

 

MAMMA MIA!    

The Winter Garden
12/10/01
          

 

            Well ... it was certainly nice to see The Winter Garden restored to its pre-CATS splendor.  But as for the show ... what can be said?  At $100 a ticket – for third row mezzanine seats that were off to house right – I suppose I was hoping to be as wowed as I was at THE PRODUCERS.  (Which was also a $100 ticket).

            MAMMA MIA!, for all its hype, is nothing more that a revue of ABBA songs thinly attached by a weak script.  I somewhat expected that the evening would be cotton candy scenes awash in sequins, spandex, and platform shoes – and that any semblance of a traditional Broadway musical would be hard to find.  What I didn’t expect was two and a half hours of high energy antics trying to break free from a laborious story line.

            There were two entities battling for the spotlight during the evening.  The first were the young, hip (and thin) crowd screaming out ABBA songs as if their youth depended on it (despite not having been born when the songs were first released).  The second group were the adults, foolishly trying to reclaim their right to croon these disco gems despite their age, lack of vocal ability, and total misplacement of genre.  For the most part, these performers are Broadway talents, and the disco-pop sound is not part of their range.

            Part of the problem was the sound.  The orchestra – or pre-recorded music- was so over-amplified that there was no chance to ever hear any lyrics.  I suppose the producers felt that anyone who came to see this musical would already know the words to the songs.  So why bother tacking on a story line and trying to make it fit?  If we can’t understand the lyrics, why bother?

            The tiresome story only took away from the amateur-MTV-video appeal of the musical numbers.  Girl is in love with boy but doesn’t know who her father is so she invites three possible matches, as found in mother’s diary, to her wedding.  All three show up and are surprised to find themselves reliving their brief affairs with the girl’s mother.  Mother freaks out, quarrels with daughter, daughter quarrels with fiancé, mother makes up with daughter, at the last minute daughter’s wedding is cancelled, but mother steps in and marries a former beau – not the gay one and not the one being chased around the stage by mother’s best friend.  Sounds complicated – and I suppose it could have been.  But there were several interruptions to allow for rousing renditions of some of ABBA’s finest, so one didn’t even try to make the story make sense.

            There were some performances that shone through.  Karen Mason as the “Absolutely Fabulous”-like best friend and former back-up singer Tanya, managed some fun shenanigans.  And although her assigned songs don’t sit too well in her voice, she pulls them off well (lyrics not-withstanding).  Judy Kaye, Tony award winner for Carlotta in PHANTOM, threatens to steal the show – and does manage to steal every scene she’s in.  Her best friend and former back-up singer Rosie is quirky and silly and really a ray of sunshine in this storm.  Louise Pitre (she’s French, so it’s pronounced “Pee-trah”) is by far the best vocalist of the evening, and has been given the lion’s share of the songs.  Again, however, the book scenes hamper her performance, and she over-dramatizes to the point of melodrama.  “The Winner Takes it All” was sensational – a great song delivered with gusto.  Why was it staged so that she is actually singing to another person on stage?  This is so distracting, and really bugs me.  We have suspended our disbelief this far into the evening – why not let her have her moment and deliver the eleven-o’clock number on the stage alone?  The object of her focus is David W. Keely, playing Sam, who is stiff, personality-free, and lacking in any vocal ability.  The other two men, Ken Marks and Dean Nolan, were better – but that’s not saying much.

            Of the two ingenues, Tina Maddigan (Sophie) was far more suited to her role.  She has a dynamic voice that was perfect throughout.  On the other hand, Joe Machota (Sky) was almost painful to watch.  Why can’t casting directors find tenors that don’t sound like Muppets when they speak?  (Speaking of Muppets, why did “Money, Money, Money” sound like it was being sung by Munchkins?)

            The amateur-MTV-video appeal of the musical numbers was contagious.  Extensive lighting effects, brilliant colors, and time-less choreography pulled me right in despite any misgivings.  And this is why the show is sold-out.  This is why the show is a hit.  And the time for this show is now.  People want to be entertained.  People want easy, toe-tapping, brainless entertainment. People want to relate to the not-too-distant past of the seventies – and the power of live theatre enables us to bask there.  The producers know this – after the show and the last curtain call there is an added fifteen minutes of ABBA in concert.  The young and skinny cast takes us through MAMMA MIA! once more before they are joined onstage by the adults for “Dancing Queen” and “Waterloo”.

            Enough is enough.

 

 

 

ELAINE STRITCH AT LIBERTY

The Public Theatre
10/31/01
          

 

 

            There is no doubt in my mind that Elaine Stritch ranks as one of the greatest American musical comedy performers of all time.  There can be no dispute that Elaine Stritch has made an indelible mark on the history of the Broadway musical.  There is no denying that Elaine Stritch has endured a tough life during which she has frequently suffered from bad judgment.  And a good example of all of the above can be seen in her new one-woman show, ELAINE STRITCH AT LIBERTY, currently in previews at The Public Theatre.  Billed as “constructed by John Lahr, reconstructed by Elaine Stritch, and directed by George C. Wolfe” the evening reeks of contradictions. 

            Elaine Stritch thanks Liz Smith at the end of the evening, “for leading people to believe that I am much more famous then I could ever be.”  Which is true: either you know who she is and you love her work, or you haven’t the faintest idea who she is.  And those of us who fit into the first category will enjoy her new show but will leave feeling somehow cheated.  “Why do the Wrong People Travel?”, “The Ladies Who Lunch”, “Zip”, “The Little Things you do Together”, “Broadway Baby” – are all songs that she must have felt obligated to include when putting together this show.  And rightly so, we love her and we want to re-live her at her show-stopping best.

            And we are not disappointed.  She is a little older.  And her voice, although never one to bring effusive praise, is more limited now than ever before.  But she can still interpret a song like no one else can.  She knows what she is singing about and makes you listen.  There is no one else around who could get away with three verses of “Why do the Wrong People Travel?”.  The references are dated, and the song is lengthy.  But Ms. Stritch pulls you in and doesn’t let go.

            The first act is peppered with glimpses of her childhood in Detroit.  She touches on the naiveté of the young Elaine who moved to New York to become an actress, her first (and only) date with a young Marlon Brando, and her first performance in the professional theatre with “Bongo, Bongo, Bongo, I Don’t Want to Leave the Congo.”  Then she dives right into the funniest anecdote of the evening – her job as standby for Ethel Merman in CALL ME MADAM.  She tells a quintessential Merman story – one that hasn’t been heard – and segues to her own now-legendary story of how she juggled her standby duties for Merman in New York and the out-of-town tryouts for the revival of PAL JOEY in New Haven.  At the same time.

            And can she tell a story . . . this is Elaine at her best.  Regaling us with stories from the glory days of Broadway.  And she manages to do it between sung lines of song from the shows that she is revisiting.  Very clever, and very well done.  A device that is used only once in the second act, but that might have saved the show had it been exploited and used throughout.

            Ms. Stritch ends the first act with Gershwin’s, “But Not For Me” and Coward’s, “If Love Were All” – brilliantly combined to create an anthem to the loneliness of the Broadway Star.  The number is quite effective – a tear-jerker and a downer.  Especially following “Why do the Wrong People Travel?”  A warning sign of things to come.

            Act two begins with “I’m Still Here” – for no other reason, apparently, except that because she can.  Granted, there is no other song that states her cause quite so truthfully.  And it was thrilling to watch her perform it ... but it didn’t fit.  It was out of place as a “welcome-back-from-intermission” number.  A showstopper is a showstopper and belongs in the “eleven o’clock number” slot.

            The next thirty to forty minutes is her self-proclaimed “downward spiral” section.  A period in her life when she didn’t do any musicals, she tells of her experience on a production of THE WOMEN, which culminates in being reported to Actor’s Equity, and how she blew her chances at the TV pilot for “The Golden Girls.”  This section is a risk and unfortunately falls flat.  She reconstructs her battle with alcohol step by step, bordering close to self-pity.  The dialogue sounds like a dramatic AA qualification – glorifying the addict’s inability to control his or her addiction.  It is here that I felt like all of her hard work in act one was jeopardized by Mr. Lahr and Mr. Wolfe.  She has put her story into the hands of two other people and they have misled her.  Trying to infuse the evening with a dramatic arc, and thus a climax, the “I was a drunk, got diabetes, almost died, and then got control of my life by getting sober” section is long and reads as self-serving.

            A drunk on a stool after being dismissed from a show in rehearsal, she dramatically belts out part of “When do the Bells Ring for Me?”  Poor me.  She laments the death of her husband with snippets of “There Never was a Baby Like my Baby.”  Poor me.  She is forced to choose between a life of sobriety or death as a drunk – her decision conveyed with “The Party’s Over.”  Poor me.  She then quotes Beckett and quietly walks off the stage.

            Those of us familiar with cabaret performances recognized that the stool placed at center stage during her curtain call was an indication that there would be an encore.  And as a poor choice for an encore she sat on that stool and quietly crooned Richard Rogers’ “Something Good”.  Again, poor me.

            But an encore suggested to me what her intention for this show might have been.  Is it possible that Ms. Stritch set out to put together nothing more than an extraordinary cabaret performance?  Some witty dialogue and stories interspersed between the songs that she made famous and songs that help tell her story?  If so, then what happened?  Was she told that it didn’t work?  Did she willingly put her show in the hands of John Lahr and George C. Wolfe?  Or was her name exploited by The Public Theatre to sell subscriptions and the cabaret performance she intended to create elaborated upon to make it into a two-and-a-half hour cohesive theatre piece?  Unfortunately, this is what the evening has become.  And I felt like she was at odds with herself – locked into dialogue that tries to fit into the classical dramatic structure, complete with plot, climax, and resolution.  Regrettably, she has been misguided.

            I was thrilled to have the chance to see Elaine Stritch perform.  But this wasn’t just Elaine relating her experiences, her ups and downs, her legend, some theatre gossip, and scintillating anecdotes.  This was Elaine Stritch acting as Elaine Stritch.

            We had the benefit of attending a post-show discussion, which confirmed my suspicions.  Before Ms. Stritch joined Mr. Lahr on stage, he explained to the audience that the original concept of the show (whatever that may have been) didn’t work and that the show needed more conflict and drama to sustain itself.  He then said, “Elaine couldn’t just be Elaine, she had to act Elaine.”

            Unfortunately, once Ms. Stritch arrived the discussion became a love-fest of praise from enamored audience members and I didn’t learn more about how the show had developed.  At one point I must have registered my frustration by exhaling too loudly because the woman in front of me turned and asked, “Why are you still here?” 

            And I had no answer.

 

 

  

FOLLIES

Belasco
06/19/01                      

 

 

            What a disappointment.  The only reason that we bought a subscription to the Roundabout's season was to ensure tickets to see their production of FOLLIES.  So their marketing ploy certainly worked.  (And the show is closing in a month. – that’s how badly it has been received.)

            I understand what director Mathew Warchus was trying to do: making the show a more realistic evening – more approachable to “everyman”.  The set was bare minimum, the costumes were straight out of community theatre circa 1971, and the entire interior of the Belasco Theatre had been distressed to add to the atmosphere.  One got the distinct impression that this really was a reunion party and that the theatre was going to be demolished very soon thereafter.  But that’s about as far as his “realistic” approach worked.  And I am not sure if it’s the show itself that doesn’t work, or this particular production.  (I thoroughly enjoyed the Papermill Playhouse FOLLIES three years ago – but it was glitzy and no-holds-barred.) 

            The primary objection I have to this production is the casting.  Treat Williams (Buddy), Gregory Harrison (Ben), Judith Ivey (Sally) were entirely wrong – only Blythe Danner (Phyllis), among the four principals, was solid in her performance.  She was bitchy and elegant.  Yet she was approachable and endearing . . . her performance was stellar.   Judith Ivey was certainly cute as Sally, and her performance was heart-felt.  But she never quite rose to the challenge of the roll (as Julia McKenzie or Donna McKechnie has).  Both Mr. Williams and Mr. Harrison were adequate – but there was no excitement from either of them.

            Among the supporting cast Polly Bergen was a knockout as Carlotta.  Her delivery of “I’m Still Here” was right on the money.  I have never been to a Broadway show where the performer had left the stage and the audience was still applauding.  In another era, “I’m Still Here” would have been followed by several encores.  (It would be great to hear new and additional lyrics for an encore!) 

            Carol Woods did an excellent job of “Who’s That Woman?” as Stella, and Betty Garrett was simply charming as Hattie singing “Broadway Baby”.  Marni Nixon (replacing Joan Roberts) as Heidi seemed under-used, and Jane White as Solange was just annoying.  (Her costume was even more annoying.)  Donald Saddler and Marge Champion were adorable as the Whitmans – the “Danse d’Amour” in the first act was captivating.  Lesser performers would not have been able to hold my attention.  It was a touching tribute to a bygone era of partnering in dance a la Rogers & Astaire.

I do have a complaint for the music director.  The tempos were so SLOW.  If this is because the principals are not singers, this is a mistake.  The slower tempo only reiterated the weak vocals.  It was painful at times – particularly during “In Buddy’s Eyes” and “The Road You Didn’t Take.”  I would have kept the tempos up – which would have helped with the pace – which I thought dragged.

And going back to the realistic approach – I don’t think it works for FOLLIES.  Presenting a hard, gritty, and true-to-life piece that equally represents heightened reality works better for plays, not musicals.  And Mr. Warchus is an excellent director of plays – like last season's TRUE WEST.  But it doesn't work here.  Why does Carlotta deliver “I’m Still Here” to the rest of the cast – who leave two thirds of the way through – and then finish the song downstage directed to us?  It undermines what she is doing.  We know she is singing to us.  We know she is telling a story.  Let her tell it.  Why must she interact with the rest of the cast during her bravura performance?

And then there’s the second act.  All of the nostalgia numbers take place in the first act, which leaves only the “Loveland” sequence for the second.  It was so over-the-top that the contrast to the first act was startling.  (The intention?)  The show became trite, cutesy, and boring.  And the worse it got, the harder the cast tried.  Treat Williams ruined “Buddy’s Blues” – it was over-directed and over-choreographed.  And when Judith Ivey finally let her voice go during “Losing My Mind” she was so caught up in “acting” her despair that the number became a parody of a torch singer.  Again, I think this was the director’s choice; but “Losing My Mind” deserves a simple, straightforward delivery.  And we caught a glimpse of what Judith Ivey is capable of – if only she had been left alone to do it.  Gregory Harrison did the best he could with the over produced “Live, Laugh, Love” – but it didn’t really work.  Not once did I really believe that he was falling apart – which is essential to the end if the play.  The “Loveland” sequence was saved from complete failure with Blythe Danner’s Sally singing “The Story of Lucy and Jessie”.  In this song, the tempo was right on and she was kooky and fun and slutty all rolled into one.  “The Story of Lucy and Jessie” was only topped by her “Could I Leave You?” – which was amazing and also in the second act.  The script has been rewritten – the scene that precedes the song is an argument between Ben and Phyllis, each topping the other with the unhappy events of their respective lives.  The scene culminates with Ben expressing his desire for a divorce.  I thought the scene threatened to lessen the strength of the song, but it enhanced it - giving “Could I Leave You?” more bite.  And Blythe Danner is so endearing as “drunk” Phyllis!

The lighting for the evening was incredible.  It was appropriately eerie and festive at the same time.  Costumes on the other hand should be thrown out.  The second act – all in pink and purple satin – was silly.  The object was to contrast with the stark reality of the first act, but need we go that far?

Speaking of the ensemble, were they just tired?  The pace and lack of energy was dreadful.  And they didn’t blend at all – again, the musical director’s fault.  More attention should have been paid to the cast members who can sing – the ensemble – so that they blended better and presented a fuller and more cohesive sound.  Katherine Marshall caught a lot of flack for her uninspired choreography for FOLLIES.  And I tend to agree.  Most of it did not stand out – which can be good for musical theatre choreography, I think.  But how much of the incidental movement and stage business was hers?  I thought it ruined the second act.

I am not convinced that FOLLIES can’t work structurally.  I think that the nostalgia numbers – as performed by the supporting cast (party members) – should be interspersed through out the entire evening, instead of all taking place in the first act.  But these songs are now quite well known, and the audience is waiting to hear them.  So I am not sure if moving the songs around will help.  Perhaps.

The appearance of the ghosts was underplayed in this production – which actually worked well.  But could they be cut completely?  (Which would eliminate the oh-so-cute “You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow”/“Love Will see us Through” sequence at the beginning of “Loveland”.)  We, as an audience, understand that the evening is a reunion of retired performers reminiscing about their past.  Does this really need to be reiterated?  Shouldn’t the authors give us the benefit of the doubt?  It is a cop out to have the “younger” characters re-enact what happened to the principals – this is a simply a devise to avoid exposition.  A few apparitions on the catwalks and in the balcony would be quite effective.  But now I am getting into restructuring the entire show.  And maybe, like Sondheim’s “Merrily”, there is no salvaging the show.  Which is unfortunate and almost impossible to accept.

I very much enjoyed the evening – but FOLLIES is a special show for me.  And it is such a shame that this production didn’t live up to the production that I see in my head. FOLLIES deserves better.

 

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