Sunday, November 30, 2008

A Helluva Town

Here's the round-up on all my recent adventures into NY...

Dividing the Estate 11/20 - I love an opening night show. Who doesn't? You are there for the official first performance. Regardless of whether or not the show is a success, you were there for the performance that will put it into the annals of Broadway history books. Electric, starry and a chance to really dress it up too. The play, by Horton Foote, offers fascinating characters and intriguing ideas, but the result is rather middling. It felt more to me like a revival of a pre-Miller work, with its rather archaic plot machinations and contrivances. That's not to belittle the ideas behind the work: those complicated familial associations with property and money that cloud all else. Stellar cast. Elizabeth Ashley is a hoot as the aging matriarch, Penny Fuller is the epitome of honesty in her performance (and she looks two decades younger than she is) and Hallie Foote (the playwright's daughter and definitive interpreter) all but walks away with her study of avarice and solipcism. (Did her vocal inflection remind anyone else of Kim Stanley's voice over narration at the beginning of To Kill a Mockingbird? Incidentally, Horton Foote won an Oscar for the screenplay). I don't know if I've ever been so angry at a character, yet simultaneously in total admiration of the performance behind it. Not even the ladies who've played Violet Weston have had that effect. Gerald McRaney makes his Broadway debut as the ne'er-do-well brother (who drinks...) and Arthur French provides a memorable supporting turn as the ancient servant who refuses to retire. Comparisons to the titan August: Osage County are inevitable, but this is really as Noah put it, August lite. The opening crowd gave 92 year old Foote a standing ovation. Runs through January 4th at the Booth. Required viewing for the three leading ladies, but especially Ms. Foote.

On the Town 11/23 - The classic Broadway debut of Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden and Adolph Green hasn't fared well with time. The film version eliminated almost the entire score (far too sophisticated and raunchy for studio executives) and Broadway revisals in 1971 and 1998 were failures. Thanks to Encores! we got the chance to hear Bernstein's first stage score as part of the innumerable festivities celebrating his 90th birthday. The show started with the National Anthem, a replication of the original 1944 production which opened during the last year of the Second World War (timely then, and sadly enough, timely now). Instantaneously, the entire audience stood. People started to sing a little bit, quietly to themselves, and infectiously more and more people started to join in with the volume increasing until the entire City Center audience was singing full volume for the final phrase. One of those beautiful communal moments that has such a beautiful effect on a person. As for the show: those orchestrations, those dance arrangements, those Comden and Green lyrics, their cartoonish but endearing book. All loads of musical comedy fun. Tony Yazbeck is a star on the rise: those looks, that voice and the sincerity of his acting. Did I mention he dances like an heir to Gene Kelly? (You know, why didn't Roundabout cast him as Joey?) Christian Borle and Justin Bohon provided stellar support as Ozzie and Chip. Jennifer Laura Thompson is one hell of a funny soprano. Leslie Kritzer belted the hell out of the score, but her comedy was a bit forced. And then there was Andrea Martin, an absolute riot from start to finish as Madame Dilly, the perpetually soused instructor at Carnegie Hall who tore up the scenery in her few scenes (with her help, my beloved "Carnegie Hall Pavane" stopped the show). Roxie and I made our usual pilgrimage to the Park Cafe, but there was no sign of Rifke or Mireleh. Next up from the Encores! crew is a rare revival of Kern & Hammerstein's Music in the Air in February.

Jonathan Tunick & Barbara Cook at Birdland 11/24 - This joyous evening came about thanks to Sarah, who had an extra ticket. I'd never been to Birdland and it turns out that it's one of the most enjoyably intimate spaces I've ever been in. A total throwback to those nightclubs you see in the 40s and 50s movies. The only thing missing, the two of us agreed, was a dance floor. The prices are right and the food and drinks were fantastic. Tunick leads the Broadway Moonlighters, a fantastic brassy band made up of players from Broadway shows. They gave us a fantastic evening of entertainment with arrangements of "Strike Up the Band," "Lazy Afternoon," the overture for Merrily We Roll Along, two original pieces by Tunick "Buffet Luncheon" and "Pumpkin Lane" (which he named after an exit on the Taconic State Parkway). Midway through the set, they introduced their girl singer: Ms. Barbara Cook who sang a few choice favorites and this inestimable treasure provided us with a few vocal selections, including Gershwin's "Nashville Nightingale," "Sooner or Later" (not the Sondheim, but from Song of the South), and a lovely rendition of "Autumn in New York." The evening wrapped up with a sing-a-long rendition of "Let it Snow!" and several encores, capped with "Lullaby of Birdland." We were among some of the greats of the NY scene. Priscilla Lopez, Kelly Bishop, Margaret Colin, Ron Raines, Marni Nixon, Alice Playten were some of the stars out on the town. I had the pleasure of meeting the effervescent Kate Baldwin, one of the loveliest singing actresses in town (who will be on an upcoming SVU so be on the lookout!) and my candidate to play Ellen Roe in Donnybrook! should Encores take the initiative. I also got to meet Harvey Evans, a perfect gentleman and one of the nicest people in show business. The party didn't end there: we went to Angus' for a nightcap and further good times with good friends.

Road Show 11/29 - I have never had the privilege of seeing a new Sondheim show until now. Although it's not entirely new, the show, a labor of love (quite possibly an obsession) for Sondheim, was work-shopped as Wise Guys (dir: Sam Mendes; Nathan Lane & Victor Garber) in 1999, played regional engagements as Bounce (dir: Harold Prince; Richard Kind & Howard McGillin) in 2003 has finally made its way into New York as Road Show (dir: John Doyle; Alexander Gemignani & Michael Cerveris) in 2008. The musical, about the Mizner brothers, has been given a dark, conceptual staging here in NY that was rather unengaging, void of emotion and rather uninteresting. The show has been scaled back considerably with a unit set, intermissionless hour and forty minute running time. Gemignani and Cerveris provide excellent performances, carrying the evening. Doyle's directorial choices bothered me, particularly his favorite: two actors talking to each other while facing front. However, the costumes by Ann Hould-Ward are incredibly clever, especially having the opportunity to see the work up close as the actor's collected for BC/EFA. The score sounds like a Sondheim piece, those discordant synocopated vamps and his usual lyrical wordplay (though I think here his composition outshone his text); but aside from "You" and "The Best Thing That Has Ever Happened," (that melody!) there wasn't too much that stood out. As I walked away two musical lines were trapped in my head: "Everybody's Got the Right" from Assassins and the line "Ooh your song's derivative" from "Die, Vampire, Die" out of [tos]. (Watch Road Show be declared a masterpiece in ten or twenty years and watch us naysayers changing our critical tunes). Newcomer Claybourne Elder was an endearing well-sung presence as Addison's lover Hollis. Alma Cuervo, William Parry and Anne L. Nathan did the best with what they were given, which wasn't much. I went into this knowing the divisive opinions on the show and the mixed critical response, however, I was hoping beyond hope that I would enjoy the play, but overall Road Show just isn't that compelling. The day wasn't a total disappointment: I got to roam much of Manhattan with my very good friend Chris Lavin (Follies enthusiast and a discerning and observational writer who needs a blog of his own - I know you're reading this Chris, and I mean it). Visited a new favorite haunt, the Drama Book Shop and was lucky to just have a wonderful day in NYC. Let it be said, while I didn't care for the show (I quipped to several friends that I had just seen Road Kill), he loved it. And you know what that means, kids. Sondheim definitely has a new show in town.

3 comments:

Esther said...

Great roundup, TAAL!

I guess I didn't mind the plot machinations in Dividing the Estate. I just found it really entertaining. And I think the terrific ensemble cast is a big part of it. You've hit on all the high points. I especially loved Hallie Foote, whom I'd never seen before. But everyone was great. And I'm so jealous that you got to go to opening night!

I liked Road Show better than you did. Part of it was, it was my first time at the Public Theater and I was in this really small performing space. I liked Michael Cerveris a lot as the more amoral of the brothers. I liked the way it showed how as Americans, we're constantly remaking ourselves, how we're always looking to get rich quick. And I liked all the money strewn about - over the top, yes. But fun!

And I wish I'd seen On the Town. It must have really been something when everyone started singing The Star-Spangled Banner.

Jeff said...

Road Kill? What a quaint assessment.

Theatre Aficionado at Large said...

Haha, isn't it though?