Friday, April 30, 2010

Orchestrators on Orchestrating

What exactly are orchestrations? The word gets bandied around quite a bit, particularly when discussing musical revivals. You have shows that re-orchestrate to accommodate revisals (like those of the late 90s), those that re-orchestrate for economy (the Menier Chocolate Factory imports) and then there are those which tout the full, original orchestra like Gypsy and West Side Story. The Lincoln Center revival of South Pacific has a pit of 30 that was cause for rejoicing all around; whereas the current A Little Night Music has a chamber orchestra of 9 which has proven divisive among musical theatre fans.

Many of my friends and fellow bloggers know that I am a stickler for orchestrations. For me, there is nothing more fulfilling than the sound of a full orchestra playing the hell out of Rodgers or Bernstein or Sondheim, et al. Perhaps I'm too much of an old soul to adapt to the thinner orchestras, or the result of years of musical education. Maybe a combination of both. But it's my personal preference. I don't mind a small orchestration if it fits the scope of a show, but I am loathe to reductions for cost-cutting "chamber" productions. If I'm shelling out my hard earned clams, I want the works, plus a cherry on top.

The following excerpts are printed in the foreword to The Sound of Broadway Music by Steven Suskin, the columnist, scholar and critic. Suskin's new book is a substantial contribution for those curious to understand the function of the orchestrator vs. composer. I've only just begun reading it, and it's going to be a bible of sorts for me over the next couple of months, as this is the first in a series of posts.

Robert Russell Bennett
(Kiss Me Kate, My Fair Lady, Oklahoma!, Show Boat, South Pacific):

"You are engaged to work with a composer and put his melodies into shape for a performance in the theatre. Your task is to be part of him - the part that is missing. He may be capable of doing the whole score himself or he may not know a G clef from a gargoyle. Your job is to bring in whatever he doesn't, and make it feel like it belongs there."

Ralph Burns (Darling of the Day, Funny Girl, No No Nanette - 1971, Sweet Charity):

"Orchestrators are like good, high-priced whores. You're paid to make people look good. You may think of a better idea, but you try the best way that you can to do it their way and make them look good."

Philip Lang (Annie, Carnival, Li'l Abner, Mame, My Fair Lady):

"Like the construction manager, you get the right instrumentation; you understand the limits of the artisan and the technology; and you build something that lasts."

Hans Spialek (Anything Goes, The Boys from Syracuse, On Your Toes, Pal Joey):

"An artist, having an idea for a painting, draws first a sketch before putting the actual picture in all its contemplated color harmonies and combinations on canvas. Painting a musical picture follows the same procedure, with the exception that in musical theatre one man (the composer) furnishes the sketch from which another man (the arranger) paints the musical picture an audience actually hears. While the painter works either in oil, pastel or watercolors, the arranger uses the tone colors of the individual orchestra instruments."

Don Walker (Carousel, Fiddler on the Roof, She Loves Me, The Most Happy Fella, The Music Man):

"Orchestration is the clothing of a musical thought, whether original or not, in the colors of the musical instruments and/or voices. The Composer creates the basic themes of a composition. The Arrangers develops the basic themes into the desired form. The Orchestrator adjusts the arrangements to fit the size and composition of whatever orchestral combination has been selected."

Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Fantasticks 50th Anniversary Festivities

I don't think anyone in 1960 would have remotely thought that The Fantasticks would become one of the most popular musicals in the world. The original off-Broadway production ran for 42 years; a run of 17,162 performances at the Sullivan Street Theater. By popular demand, a revival was mounted a mere four years later, one that is still running at the Jerry Orbach Theater (named in memory of the beloved star of the original cast) in the Snapple Arts Center on 50th Street & Broadway. The little musical that could is celebrating its fiftieth birthday in high style with a weekend-long golden celebration:

- Saturday, May 1 at 5PM: The Fantasticks will host a rare screening of the 1964 Hallmark Hall of Fame version of the show at The Snapple Theater Center. This obscure print, which hasn’t been released since 1964, features a cast including Bert Lahr, Ricardo Montalban, Susan Watson, Stanley Holloway and John Davidson. It will be screened complete with original commercials and will be introduced by film historian Phil Hall, author of The Encyclopedia of Underground Movies. Following the one-hour screening, there will be an audience Q&A with Fantasticks lyricist/librettist Tom Jones and one of the film’s stars, Susan Watson. Admission is free.

- Saturday, May 1 at 8PM: The Fantasticks will celebrate “The Sullivan Street Legacy”. At curtain call, a once-in-a-lifetime reunion of over 50 Fantasticks actors from the show’s original run on Sullivan Street from 1960 to the present will come on stage to sing a special song to commemorate the occasion.

- Sunday, May 2: The Fantasticks will be honored at the 25th Annual Lucille Lortel Awards at Terminal 5. Edward Watts, the show’s current El Gallo, will sing “Try To Remember” and a photo montage will recount the show’s amazing 50-year history. Tom Jones, the show’s co-composer, will present the final award of the evening, to the winner of Best Musical.

- Monday, May 3: The evening of the show's actual 50th anniversary will bring together members of the theater community together to celebrate the milestone. All audience members at the historic 8PM performance will receive a complimentary commemorative program including a reproduction of the show’s opening night program from May 3, 1960. *A select number of remaining tickets for this performance only are currently on sale for the special anniversary price of $50 each. This offer is available by calling the box office at (212) 921-7862. It is not available via Ticketmaster.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

"Collected Stories"

Yesterday afternoon I found that a good friend had written a short story inspired by something I had told her about myself. There are few parallels between the protagonist in the story and myself, but I was amazed that someone found something I did was interesting enough to spark her creativity. I read the story, and loved it. There are only a few threads that connects her protagonist and myself, but she has tapped into her imagination to create this poignant, wistful story. I don't remember the last time I have felt so flattered or honored.

When something similar happens to Ruth Steiner in Donald Margulies' two-hander Collected Stories, the NY based writer and professor doesn't handle it quite nearly as well. The idea of artistic responsibility and ownership comes to the forefront of the debate between her and her former student/assistant turned fellow writer. Unfortunately, the potential remains woefully unfulfilled in a play which tries to be a literary All About Eve but winds up a rote, by the numbers dramatic exercise that is rarely compelling.

The play has its moments whenever Professor Steiner is holding court. She's given the best zingers and one liners and is easily the audience favorite. After the play, I found myself having a spirited talk with friends and strangers alike outside the Samuel Friedman Theatre where Margulies' 1997 play is having its Broadway premiere. The play follows six years in the lives of the teacher and student, as the latter becomes a noted literary figure and the surrogate mother-daughter relationship that forms between the two. I was amazed at the breadth of our conversation, as it was far a more interesting dissertation on the questions raised by the play than the play itself.

The relationship comes to a head when a wistful, and decidedly private anecdote Steiner tells Lisa about a relationship with poet/short story writer Delmore Schwartz becomes the source of inspiration for Lisa's first novel. The mentor-pupil, mother-daughter dynamic is shattered, as the younger writer is accused of stealing Ruth's story. Margulies makes an interesting case for both characters in the argument but might have made it stronger if the showdown wasn't something that could be predicted in the middle of act one.

At the center of the play - its heart and soul - is a captivating turn from Linda Lavin, in the role originated by the indomitable Uta Hagen. Ms. Lavin's Professor Steiner is the perfect embodiment of New York; she's gruff, sardonic and likely to push you out of her way when walking down 7th Avenue. Ruth spends a great deal of the evening ruminating on her past and her literary position and is not one to suffer fools; there is very little that changes about her character, save for the subtle physical effects of an unnamed terminal illness. Lavin's performance is fearless, funny and quite touching, particularly when she lets down her guard to Lisa and especially in the play's final moments. It's one of the acting highlights of an already impressive season of non musical performances and is poised for recognition from the various awards committees.

Sarah Paulson is the protege turned antagonist. Lisa's the one with the arc, but in the way she's written feels more like a stock character. The audience sees her transform from a gawky sycophant to sophisticate, but it's like watching an automaton changing a dress. Paulson is barely able to turn Lisa into a credible human being. It was my first time seeing Paulson and I'd like to think that she, who is tauted as one of the more prominent New York theatre actors, has been better served by other plays and productions.

One of the main problems I had with the play is that the deck is stacked in Steiner's favor. Had there been a more level playing field the characters' conflict might have had more credence. When Lisa reads from her novel, it becomes evident to the audience that she is actually quite a horrible writer, while Ruth has already been established as a well-respected and well-regarded author. The play as is might be better served as a Lifetime or Hallmark movie than play.

The production is staged with great simplicity and clarity by Lynne Meadow, MTC's artistic director supplemented by another winning set design from Santo Loquasto. But if you want to get into the debate over what accounts for artistic ownership you'd be better off skipping the play and just diving into a spirited talk. Then again, you'd be missing Linda Lavin giving one of the most memorable performances of the season.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Theatre World Awards Need Our Help

Earlier this afternoon, it was brought to my attention that the Theatre World Awards is facing some financial difficulties this season. In an exclusive item on Playbill, the committee discussed the precarious nature of the not-for-profit organization's future, and that they are in the middle of a fund raising drive to keep the establishment afloat. This particular award, given for notable debuts and breakthrough performances, is the oldest award given for NY theatre, both on and off Broadway.

John Willis, along with Daniel Blum and Norman McDonald, established the award during the 1944-45 season. Mr. Willis, now 93, is still active with the Theatre World committee and is still very much the heart and soul of the organization. Each year, winners talk with great love and pride about Mr. Willis, who continues to send each and every living recipient a card on his or her birthday.

It's imperative to maintain the award, with its rich history and legacy. The list of winner is immense. Just some of the recipients include: Paul Newman, Marlon Brando, James Earl Jones, Patricia Neal, Audrey Hepburn, Richard Burton, Rosemary Harris, Janet McTeer, Michael Douglas, Laura Linney, Alec Baldwin, Jane Fonda, Zoe Caldwell, Audra McDonald, Bernadette Peters, Cynthia Nixon, Annette Bening, and so on and so forth. (Here's a complete list of the winners by year).

I first attended the Theatre World Awards in 2004, and have made it a point to return ever since. There is something incredibly special about the afternoon. Falling in the middle of the awards season, this particular ceremony allows the actors a chance to breathe. Of all the ceremonies that happen in May and June, this is best exemplification of community in the NY theatre district. Even the Tony Awards fall short of the sense of family and tradition found here. Every year there are performances by formers, often recreating numbers from the shows for which they won. But the really classy touch comes in the presentations themselves. Only winners of the award are allowed to present to the actors; a sort of passing of the torch. The afternoon turns into a relaxed, off-the-cuff, moving and funny experience that can best be described as loving. Attending the ceremony is the highlight of my season.

Due to the nature of the economy, and rising costs for putting the annual ceremony, hosted by my pal Peter Filichia, the Theatre World's future appears to be in jeopardy. The good news is that the 2010 event will go on as scheduled on June 8 at a venue to be determined. However, it doesn't mean that they are out of the woods quite yet, and right now they need the help of those in and around the theatre community.

The organization's statement to Playbill was as follows:

"As recently as early April, we had serious concerns as to whether this year's Theatre World Awards ceremony would take place. In the past, the Theatre World Awards organization has relied almost entirely upon the founder John Willis and donations from former winners. With rising costs and the downturn in the economy, we now have begun an outreach to the theatre community for support and are planning our first major fundraising event for this fall (as well as seeking corporate and private sponsorship).

"While exploring alternative venues outside the Broadway theatre district, we have implemented cost-cutting measures and look forward to making an announcement soon about the venue of this year's ceremony."

The goal is "to create an endowment to ensure that the recognition of important new performers continues into perpetuity." Currently, a mailing signed by winners Meryl Streep and (her daughter) Mamie Gummer has gone out seeking financial support offering donors the chance to attend the awards ceremony and after party.

To make a 100% tax deductible donation to the Theatre World Awards, you can do so by clicking here. Or you can snail mail it to:

The Theatre World Awards, Inc.
P.O. Box 246
Radio City Station
New York, NY 10101-0246

Monday, April 26, 2010

"Company" turns 40

Tonight there is the latest in a long line of festivities celebrating the 80th birthday of composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim at the City Center. It seems quite fitting to me as today is the anniversary of the musical that established Sondheim as the voice of new musical theatre: Company. On this day half a lifetime ago, his brittle, sophisticated portrait of marriage in NYC opened at the Alvin Theatre, dividing critics, surprising audiences and taking home awards left and right.

A series of vignettes based on plays by George Furth, the musical was directed by Harold Prince and starred Dean Jones as Bobby. What separated Company from other book musicals up to that point was its virtual lack of plot. The show was a series of vignettes - glimpses into Bobby's lack of commitment and the relationship he has with other couples as well as his series of girlfriends. The setting and time? "New York City. Now." Aside from that piece of information in the Playbill, there is no sense of chronology to what's seen onstage. Characters step out of scenes to sing, commenting rather than continuing the action. It was daring, it was bold and it was pretty much unlike anything that had been seen up to that point.

Jones headlined the original production, but left after opening because of personal reasons (Larry Kert replaced him). The cast also included Charles Kimbrough, Beth Howland, Pamela Myers, Barbara Barrie, Susan Browning, Donna McKechnie and of course Elaine Stritch as Joanne. Boris Aronson's set and Michael Bennett's choreography are still often discussed in theatre circles; the show has been revived twice, including a Tony-winning turn in 2006 but none have come close to this production, whose original cast album remains the definitive reading of the score.

The songs of the score are well known to musical theatre fans. Bobby's girlfriends singing "You Could Drive a Person Crazy" with its Andrews sisters style vocal arrangements; Marta's "Another Hundred People," Amy's borderline insanity in the rapid fire patter song "Getting Married Today." Bobby's summation in "Being Alive" and Joanne's condemnation of her peers and herself in "The Ladies who Lunch." Jonathan Tunick charted the orchestrations, capturing the frenetic energy of 1970 in his superlative arrangements, foreshadowed in his work on Promises, Promises a couple years earlier (I think his charts for "Another Hundred People" captures the pace of NY better than any other I've heard).

It was the start of an unbelievably productive decade for Sondheim and Prince: Follies, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures, Sweeney Todd and Merrily We Roll Along (which is. Prince and Sondheim became the face of contemporary musical theatre. Jonathan Tunick, with chameleon brilliance, smartly orchestrated each one of these scores so thrillingly that any other charts pale in comparison.

In Sondheim on Sondheim, the composer has written a self-deprecating song called "God!" taking aim at his own revered position in the world of music theatre. But looking at Mr. Sondheim's contribution to the art form from Company to the present, it's hard not to agree with the people's assessment.

Donna Murphy for Mame

The Encores! production of Anyone Can Whistle has been closed for a mere two weeks. However, I cannot stop thinking about Donna Murphy's triumphant turn as Mayoress Cora Hoover-Hooper. In the last line of my assessment of the production, I speculated as to whom we'd have to talk to in order to mount a major revival of Mame showcasing Murphy.

With that performance fresh on my mind, as well as the second Broadway revival of La Cage Aux Folles settling in with great notices, I've been thinking more and more about Murphy taking on the role of that bohemian aunt. I'm not the only one who has thought so. The other night I was talking about this with die hard "Mame-ist" SarahB, who has come up with a grassroots campaign slogan "Murphy for Mame!"

And why not? After the last revival, the Nederlanders promised to revive both Mame and Hello, Dolly! successively. I'm sure the failure of that production of La Cage had something to do with the kibbosh on their Herman project. Both shows have only been seen in their original productions, or in replications of their original productions and it's time to pass along both treasures to a new generation of theatre kids who think Idina Menzel is the epitome of Broadway belting (saints preserve us!)

I went into further detail last September pondering who would be the right actress for the part. When you look at our leading ladies, it's easier to find a Dolly or a Vera, but Mame requires an alchemical element to pull off successfully - that unspeakable star quality that Lansbury brought to NY in 1966. She's funny, sexy, larger-than-life, the belle of the ball; the ideal aunt that we all wish we could have. But she's also got an immense heart, a fiery liberal passion and is well, a borderline alcoholic in an idealized world where that's just part of the fun. All of this is rolled into one strikingly costumed, timeless creation of sheer theatrical joy. The shoes are not easy to fill.

Murphy is fearless, versatile and brilliant. Yes, she missed performances of Wonderful Town. However those critics are quick to harp on her attendance record even after it turned out she was seriously sick and could have permanently damaged her voice. I say, cut the lady some slack and welcome her back. This is a woman who was able to bring the Mayoress Hoover Hooper, who's more a cartoon than character, to genuine tears while singing "A Parade in Town."

Like the role's originator, Angela Lansbury, Murphy is mindbogglingly versatile and there is very little she can't do. With the right director (maybe Nicholaw? we can decide that later), we'd have a production of Mame for the 21st century. I'm convinced there is - at this moment - no other musical theatre actress who could successfully pull off what is actually one of the most iconic leading lady roles in musical theatre.

Outer Critics Circle Nominations

Outer Critics Circle - 2009-2010 Award Nominations


Next Fall
Superior Donuts
Time Stands Still


American Idiot
Come Fly Away
Sondheim on Sondheim


Clybourne Park
The Orphans’ Home Cycle
The Pride
The Temperamentals


Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson
The Scottsboro Boys
Tin Pan Alley Rag

OUTSTANDING NEW SCORE (Broadway or Off-Broadway)

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson
The Scottsboro Boys

OUTSTANDING REVIVAL OF A PLAY (Broadway or Off-Broadway)

Lend Me a Tenor
The Royal Family
A View From the Bridge


La Cage aux Folles
Finian’s Rainbow
A Little Night Music
Promises, Promises


Doug Hughes, The Royal Family
Kenny Leon, Fences
Stanley Tucci, Lend Me a Tenor
Michael Wilson, The Orphans’ Home Cycle


Christopher Ashley, Memphis
Terry Johnson, La Cage aux Folles
Susan Stroman, The Scottsboro Boys
Alex Timbers, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson


Rob Ashford, Promises, Promises
Bill T. Jones, Fela!
Susan Stroman, The Scottsboro Boys
Sergio Trujillo, Memphis


John Lee Beatty, The Royal Family
Beowulf Boritt, Sondheim on Sondheim
Phelim McDermott & Julian Crouch, The Addams Family
Donyale Werle, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson


Jane Greenwood, Present Laughter
Martin Pakledinaz, Lend Me a Tenor
Matthew Wright, La Cage aux Folles
Catherine Zuber, The Royal Family


Kevin Adams, American Idiot
Kevin Adams, The Scottsboro Boys
Ken Billington, Sondheim on Sondheim
Justin Townsend, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson


Bill Heck, The Orphans’ Home Cycle
Jude Law, Hamlet
Liev Schreiber, A View From the Bridge
Christopher Walken, A Behanding in Spokane
Denzel Washington, Fences


Nina Arianda, Venus in Fur
Laura Benanti, In the Next Room, or the vibrator play
Viola Davis, Fences
Laura Linney, Time Stands Still
Jan Maxwell, The Royal Family


Brandon Victor Dixon, The Scottsboro Boys
Sean Hayes, Promises, Promises
Douglas Hodge, La Cage aux Folles
Chad Kimball, Memphis
Nathan Lane, The Addams Family


Kate Baldwin, Finian’s Rainbow
Barbara Cook, Sondheim on Sondheim
Montego Glover, Memphis
Bebe Neuwirth, The Addams Family
Catherine Zeta-Jones, A Little Night Music


James DeMarse, The Orphans’ Home Cycle
Jon Michael Hill, Superior Donuts
David Pittu, Equivocation
Noah Robbins, Brighton Beach Memoirs
Reg Rogers, The Royal Family


Hallie Foote, The Orphans’ Home Cycle
Rosemary Harris, The Royal Family
Marin Ireland, A Lie of the Mind
Jan Maxwell, Lend Me a Tenor
Alicia Silverstone, Time Stands Still


Kevin Chamberlin, The Addams Family
Christopher Fitzgerald, Finian’s Rainbow
Levi Kreis, Million Dollar Quartet
Dick Latessa, Promises, Promises
Bobby Steggert, Ragtime


Carolee Carmello, The Addams Family
Katie Finneran, Promises, Promises
Angela Lansbury, A Little Night Music
Cass Morgan, Memphis
Terri White, Finian’s Rainbow


Jim Brochu, Zero Hour
Carrie Fisher, Wishful Drinking
Judith Ivey, The Lady With All the Answers
Anna Deavere Smith, Let Me Down Easy

(Presented for an American play, preferably by a new playwright)

John Logan, Red
Jon Marans, The Temperamentals
Geoffrey Nauffts, Next Fall
Bruce Norris, Clybourne Park

Wine, Women, Some Song...and More Wine

Perhaps I am the only person grateful for the eruption of that volcano in Iceland. Yes, I'm well aware of the havoc which has been wrought throughout the travel industry, as well as the overwhelming inconvenience at hand. But Mother Nature proving yet again that she's still running things helped turn my weekend into one for the ages.

You see, the West End Whingers (of "Paint Never Dries" fame) were in town meeting everyone in sight, taking in opening night shows and parties, and even taping an episode of "Theatre Talk" with Michael Riedel and Susan Haskins. The two gents had been scheduled to fly out until Eyjafjallajokull (toss that into a spelling bee, why don't you?) blew its top. As a result they ended up with an extra week on holiday, continuing to meet more folks and take in more parties.

And as it happened, my buddy Steve on Broadway was also in town for the week taking in the last shows of the theatre season (meeting his personal goal of seeing all 38 Broadway productions). Originally slated to meet for ITBA business, we decided we wanted to catch up earlier so Steve arranged for us to meet Thursday afternoon at the Dean & Deluca on 46th Street next to the Paramount Hotel. Knowing that the Whingers were in town, I really wanted to meet them as theirs is one of the most prolific London theatre blogs. However, I thought it too gauche to be all "Hey Steve. Nice to see you, now can I meet the Whingers?"

Anyway, we settled in and as always started our usual back and forth on the productions we had seen recently, the latest news, gossip, twitter, etc. The conversation turned several times to Whingers, and the exploits that they have had from La Cage Aux Folles' opening night to a notable incident at the Theatre Talk studios with Billie Joe Armstrong and Michael Mayer that had me applauding their honesty and chutzpah. Lo and behold, Steve looks up as my phone (inconveniently) rang and says "And there they are now!" and proceeded to wave them into the cafe.

I can tell you without hesitation that they are as downright funny and genuine as their writing. What you read is what you get, and it makes for the most amusing banter. The twosome can dryly toss out witticisms in the twinkling of an eye. I sat in total amusement as they recounted the whirlwind of activities they've had since coming to New York. The gentlemen are never short on anecdotes or opinions and are delightful raconteurs. All this over afternoon tea! (The last time non alcoholic beverages would factor into my weekend). The discussions we had were spirited; filled with interesting opinions and immensely engaging and friendly.

While they went off to get some writing done for their site, Steve and I continued our visit at the Atrium in the Marriott Marquis lobby where I got started in with a white Russian. We met again later that evening at the Hourglass Tavern on 46th & 9th to celebrate Andrew's birthday (who shares it with QEII). Steve charmed the hell out of our waitress, who was a dead ringer for Anna Magnani. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is when I found myself enjoying red wine for the first time in my life (whenever the Whingers are around there is wine, they famously give out glasses of wine in lieu of stars in their blog's rating system).

I thought it was a perfect afternoon, but little did I realize that I would be trumping this ace the very next night. I was in back in town to cover MTC's Collected Stories with Linda Lavin and Sarah Paulson (more on that later this week) and lo and behold I found myself on the same block as Steve! We chatted for a few moments before we participated in a conference call with the delightful Alicia Silverstone (see previous parenthetical), an exclusive event set up through the ITBA. More wine flowed on the patio at Sosa Borella before we went our separate ways for the evening shows.

Post-show we all met up again at Angus. I walk into Angus, see Andrew and Phil at the barJoining in the fun was SarahB, her delightful best friend Beth from Texas and the irrepressible Karigee, as well as the Daily Mail's Baz Bamigboye (the Michael Riedel of the West End, but much more likable). The theatre talk continued, as did the laughter. There I was double fisting with wine in one hand, water in the other recreating Donna Murphy's greatest hits from Anyone Can Whistle with Kari and Sarah. Theatre was shop talk and how I wish it could have gone on forever. It was yet another night when we closed down the joint, those are admittedly some of the best nights we have as a group. I even got to pose for a quick pic with Eglantine Price who dropped in for a nightcap. It reminded me of that first blogger brunch I attended almost two years ago where I met Steve, where I got to know many extraordinary theatre lovers.

My weekend with the Whingers ended there, but I wasn't quite done with theatre folk. The following afternoon, Roxie and I ended back in New Paltz to work with some of the college kids on a revue that will be going up next month. Over the course of an amusing rehearsal found myself playing Anne, Fredrik and Fredrika in a four person version of "A Weekend in the Country." (I'm officially Fredrik when everyone is in attendance) It was so good to be back, and even more delightful to have my ass kicked in rehearsal once more (it's been over five years since I've done anything of this sort). As always - I love New Paltz, I love reminiscing about my memories (which all burn in my head with a steady glow) and revisiting my favorite places. I'm looking forward to going back and working with the kids again.

And on the Sabbath, I rested. It was so good to spend time with theatre friends, old and new. My world has gotten both a little bigger and a little smaller and I couldn't be more thrilled. Oh, and by the way, should I become a wino it is entirely Andrew and Phil's fault. Steve's too.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Last Fall

Broadway is heading down the finish line of yet another season. There is a glut of shows opening this month before the Tony cut-off on April 29 (the tally is eleven for the month). However, as the Tony committee and voters get lost in this whirling dervish of new productions, I figure it's time to give some love to a superlative fall season which can often be easily forgotten. So... for the consideration of the Tony committee - as well as the Drama Desk, Outer Critics' Circle, etc. (and to jog their fickle memories), here are some of the shows that came and went this fall:

Finian's Rainbow - The unfortunate casualty of a star-driven fall season and the desire to import American Idiot as soon as possible, this seemingly ill-advised revival of a seemingly unrevivable classic took the critics and audiences by storm and is one of, if not the, best reviewed productions of the entire season. From its lovely direction and spirited choreography by Warren Carlyle, to the enchanting breakthrough performance of leading lady Kate Baldwin, this one was a winner from start to finish, a genuine crowd pleaser. Also worth mentioning: Jim Norton and Christopher Fitzgerald's impish comic charms as, respectively, Finian and Og. There's also the divine Terri White, who took "Necessity" and belted it into oblivion (and whose overall presence was more of a supporting role here than the cameo it was at Encores).

Oleanna -
This David Mamet revival was volatile, divisive and short-lived. However, it was a spirited thought-provoking production that got the audience talking. For those fortunate enough to have seen the show during previews, the post-show talk backs offered release for the explosive tension that builds in the mere 80 minutes of play time. It also was interesting to me personally because my beloved SarahB and I found ourselves at odds with each other afterward; the conversation was vibrant, spirited and very involving. It raised many questions about ourselves, the filters through which we see the world and the overall idea of gender roles in society.

Ragtime -
A sublime, intimate revival that closed far too soon for my liking, and seemingly a similar response for many in the theatre community. Moving away from the epic nature of the original production, director and choreographer Marcia Milgrom Dodge emphasized the humanity of its characters, especially in Christiane Noll's fully realized portrait of emerging feminism as Mother as well as in Bobby Steggart's thrilling turn as Mother's Younger Brother. I know that critically, reviews were divided, but I don't think I've ever been part of such vociferous audiences - the reactions were overwhelming and spontaneous in the three times I saw the show.

The Royal Family - MTC gave us this sublime revival of the classic Kaufman & Ferber comedy about an eccentric acting dynasty a la the Barrymores. Doug Hughes' direction was superb and succinct, managing to introduce the show to an entire generation of younger theatregoers, and a lovely revisit for those who recall the last revival directed by Ellis Rabb starring Rosemary Harris. Harris was on board as the matriarch this time around, offering one of the most haunting moments of the entire year. Jan Maxwell, now tearing it up in Lend Me a Tenor was nothing short of breathtaking, particularly in that showstopping second act monologue, culminating in a face plant on the lip of the stage.

Superior Donuts - It would have been lovely to see Tracy Letts replicated the success of August: Osage County, but 'twas not to be. His second play, a decidedly lighter and less scathing look at an awkward but warm father-son relationship between a jaded hippie and his young, idealistic black assistant was a charmer. Michael McKean was excellent and anchored the production, but it was Broadway newcomer Jon Michael Hill who walked away with the show and the audiences' hearts in his pocket.

It appears that due to its fast closure, Brighton Beach Memoirs is ineligible, depriving its heart and soul - Laurie Metcalf - of deserved consideration. (Even more criminal is the brilliant tour de force that was never to be in Broadway Bound, where Metcalf would have taken center stage). There were a couple of limited runs I didn't get into - A Steady Rain, In the Next Room (or the Vibrator Play) and After Miss Julie so I can't comment there.

Since the Tony committee foolishly eliminated the Best Theatrical Event award (they say "retired"; I say they're "stupid") it forces unique presentations such as Burn the Floor, Wishful Drinking, All About Me, and Come Fly Away into competition with more traditional plays and musicals (and the actors involved).

Oh, and remember Bye Bye Birdie? By all means, don't.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival Announces 2010 Season!

Just in time to celebrate Shakespeare’s 446th birthday on April 23, founding Artistic Director Terrence O’Brien has announced the line up for the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival’s 2010 season. Considered to be one of the best nights out at the most reasonable price, the Festival offers something for everyone from high comedy and romance to betrayal, battlefields; iambic pentameter and hip-hop rap.

This season will take the audience to the Trojan War where love turns to infidelity in the bedroom and on the battlefield. A cast of celebrated Greek heroes bring intrinsic values of honor and love into question with Troilus and Cressida. From classic war time battlefields to the battle of the sexes, the question ‘who’s taming whom?’ will be answered with classic wit in the comedy, The Taming of the Shrew. And what would a season at HVSF be without an all out irreverent takes on Shakespeare, in this case The Bomb-itty of Errors, a comic hip-hop rapping romp through The Comedy of Errors?

The Bomb-itty of Errors, directed by Associate Artistic Director Christopher Edwards, opens the season on Saturday June 19 (previews begin Tuesday, June 15). The Taming of the Shrew, directed by Kurt Rhoads opens on Saturday, June 26 (previews begin Friday, June 18). Terrence O’Brien, Founding Artistic Director of the Festival, directs Troilus and Cressida which opens Saturday, July 3 (previews begin June 16).

Performances begin at 7pm Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday (grounds open for picnicking at 5pm); 8pm Friday and Saturday (grounds open at 6pm); and 6pm on Sundays (grounds open at 4pm).

“I am very excited about this season. It’s a great mix of plays and a real exploration of men, their views on women and the world. It should offer some interesting dialogue with our audience. As I work on Troilus and Cressida I am struck by the fact that the play doesn’t really seem to fit into any true Shakespeare “categories”. It seems to defy what we’ve come to expect - taking on somewhat of an experimental form said Mr. O’Brien. “I am also very happy to welcome Festival veterans Chris Edwards and Kurt Rhodes back this season as directors of our two other shows.

The Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival has inspired and delighted audiences with its vigorously original interpretations of the great works of William Shakespeare for twenty-three seasons to much critical acclaim from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker, The Poughkeepsie Journal, The Journal News and numerous other national and regional publications. Founding Artistic Director Terrence O’Brien has maintained a commitment to making the timeless plays accessible to all audiences, relieving the burden of heavy language and over-dramatization that so many equate with Shakespeare. “We want the audience to feel the same way about the plays as we do,” explained O’Brien. “The stories are timeless and we work to eliminate the affectation so often associated with Shakespeare. Our productions are lively, fast-paced and reflect our own excitement. You know it’s working,” he continued, “when you not only have people return season after season but every year they bring more new friends.”

The region’s only professional resident Shakespeare Company, HVSF, makes its home under an open-air tent theater perched high up on the banks of the Hudson River on the grounds of the historic 19th Century Boscobel estate in Garrison, New York. Using the dramatic views of the Hudson Highlands and the sweeping vistas from the elegant lawns of Boscobel as near-perfect stage scenery, the critically acclaimed Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival presents unparalleled productions with the perfect marriage of theater and nature. Audience members are invited to arrive two hours early in order to enjoy a picnic meal - with one of the most spectacular al fresco views - on the grounds of the estate.

From a personal perspective, I was introduced to the HVSF last year as I had the opportunity to sit in at the rehearsal studio and also ventured up to Garrison-Cold Spring to take in their season, which was only enhanced by the jaw dropping view of the Hudson Valley (God has a way with scenic design). For those who find Shakespeare lofty and elitist, I have to ask "What gives?" (Reader, you'd be surprised). Go see a Shakespeare play. If you're in the Hudson Valley this summer, go up to Boscobel. If not, find out what's playing nearest you. Shakespeare is meant to be seen, not read and you'd be amazed how one can be thoroughly transported by his writing 400 years removed.

Ticket prices for all performances are $29-$47. Tickets are available through the HVSF Box Office, which opens May 3: 845-265-9575 and are now available online. Discounts are available on most nights for groups, students, senior citizens and children 12 and under. The Festival offers several special packages, including a tour of the Boscobel mansion and Exhibition Gallery plus tickets. In addition discounts at local hotels and restaurants are also available. For packages and information visit the Festival website, and are available through the box office. On-line sales are currently available. The Box Office opens on May 3.

For more information about the 2010 Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival, as well as information about their ongoing Education and Community Outreach Programs, contact the Festival at (845) 265-7858.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Reconsidering Irma La Douce

A couple of weeks back, I introduced myself to Billy Wilder's film adaptation of Irma La Douce, starring Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine. For the most part, it's an amusing movie but it suffers due to its overlong running time. But more importantly, I started thinking about the original musical from which the film came. Irma, in a situation parallel to Harold Rome's Fanny, had all of its musical numbers removed for its film version. The musical themes heard on the Broadway stage were adapted as underscoring (Andre Previn, who won the Oscar for it) and there was no singing and dancing, except an homage to the first act's major showstopper "Dis-Donc, Dis-Donc" with MacLaine kicking up her heels on top of a pool table.

The show's origins are unusual: it is the most successful musical comedy ever to originate in France. With music by Marguerite Monnot (Piaf's best friend and favorite songwriter) and book and lyrics by Alexandre Breffort, Irma La Douce (which translated means "Irma the Sweet') opened in Paris in 1956 to wide acclaim and popular success, running for four years. In a move that foreshadowed the journey of Les Mis some twenty-five years later, the show was optioned by British producers.

Plotwise, it was a rather innocent, albeit farcical adult fairy tale of a Parisian prostitute living near the Place Pigalle, who is the most popular girl on the block. A young law student (cop in the film) falls in love with her, becomes her pimp and is so jealous at the thought of other men being with her, he creates an alternate identity and becomes her sole customer. When Irma feelings for this new "customer" start to threaten the initial relationship, the pimp kills off the alter ego only to be sent to Devil's Island for murder. And there's also a baby. Oh, it's ridiculous, but it's ridiculous fun. With enough charm, the show works quite well. The score matches that sense of fun, with some dynamite musical numbers, especially for Irma who shines with "Dis-Donc" and the title song in the second act.

The English translation of the script and songs was done by Julian More, David Heneker and Monty Norman. Directed by the famed Peter Hall, the new version of the show opened at the Lyric Theatre in London where it was a tremendous success. The cast was led by Elizabeth Seal, who had previously scored a triumph as Gladys in the London company of The Pajama Game, Keith Michell as the lover and Clive Revill playing several roles, but is mainly the bartender and confidante to the lead characters (and also the show's narrator). The show ran for 1,518 performances.

Then David Merrick got involved. Merrick is probably best known as the Abominable Showman for his ruthless (if admittedly effective) marketing schemes and especially for his blockbusters like Hello, Dolly! and 42nd Street. However, he was also known for importing London successes, including such diverse shows as Stop the World I Want to Get Off! and Marat/Sade, among many others. Irma La Douce was another of his imports.

The three London stars made the trip across the pond. Among the supporting cast were the perennial George S. Irving, a pre-Munsters Fred Gwynne, Elliot Gould and Stuart Damon. (Virginia Vestoff, later to find success in Man with a Load of Mischief and especially 1776, was Seal's standby). New dance music was arranged by John Kander for Onna White's choregraphy. Robert Ginzler supplemented Andre Popp's orchestrations to accommodate changes made for the show's NY berth.

The show was a hit. Critics and audiences raved and the money poured out. Even before the show opened in NY, it was announced that Billy Wilder was to direct Jack Lemmon in the film version. Elizabeth Seal was the toast of Broadway, winning the show's sole Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical, besting Julie Andrews in Camelot, Carol Channing in Show Girl and Nancy Walker in Do Re Mi. (The show was nominated for six others). Irma closed after 524 performances, a solid respectable hit.

Michell later headlined productions of Man of La Mancha and La Cage Aux Folles and is familiar from his recurring role as Dennis Stanton on Murder She Wrote. Revill opened Oliver! on Broadway for Merrick, and later took on the title role in Sherry! He was also the voice of the Emperor in The Empire Strikes Back. However, Seal's career never quite took off. She made one more appearance on Broadway in the Cicely Tyson revival of The Corn is Green. She's done some BBC radio appearances, notably taking on Solange la Fitt in a concert of Follies. Her most recent film credit was a bit part in Lara Croft Tomb Raider in 2003.

The musical itself held international appeal. Hookers with a heart of gold seem to be a popular draw in musical theatre and many international cast albums were recorded. However, the musical hasn't received many major revivals. As it turns out there was some disagreement between the French and English estates involved with the property making professional English language productions almost impossible to pull off. But there is good news: I attended the first NY revival of the show was presented by Musicals Tonight in October '08 which showed that Irma still has some life left in her. I can only hope that now we might see more productions of the show, perhaps at Encores! But then again it might be too small a show for the City Center: the cast is comparatively small and the show's original orchestration is a producer's dream: nine pieces (with some considerable prominence given to the xylophone).

There is a London release of the OLC through Sepia, and that particular recording is a slightly more intimate affair with more dialogue (including the entire "There is Only One Paris for That" musical sequence) but I have a greater affinity for the Broadway cast album, especially since it contains that sparkling, infectious overture - one of my absolute favorites. If you've never heard Irma La Douce, pick this one up, I don't think you'll be at all disappointed. The question now comes down to this: who could play Irma?

The pictures interspersed throughout the post are from the November 14, 1960 issue of Life Magazine entitled "Sweet Irma in a Wicked World."

Thursday, April 15, 2010

How to Succeed with Wolves

Two major productions were announced today. One of the two was official confirmation of a project long rumored to be in gestation. The other, a left field surprise.

Spring 2011: Daniel Radcliffe, famously of the Harry Potter series will star in the second Broadway revival of the Tony and Pulitzer prize winning musical (and one of my personal favorites) How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying. Perhaps he's younger than the other actors who have played him (specifically Robert Morse and Matthew Broderick, both to Tony-winning effect) and perhaps some might think fifteen years is a bit too soon for another revival. But it doesn't seem as fast a turn around as revivals of Gypsy and La Cage Aux Folles within five years of each other. I'm curious to see what Radcliffe does with the part, as he's been rumored to be quite good in the workshops they've had recently. The director-choreographer is Rob Ashford, currently represented with Promises Promises. I only hope this is the sort of revival that makes audience go crazy a la Guys and Dolls (1992, not 2009). It's encouraging to see one of the most recognizable movie stars in the world interested in doing theatre - and a musical at that. I wish him nothing but the best with the experience.

Opening unknown: The left field announcement came from producer Matt Murphy (Thurgood, Impressionism and the current Memphis) who announced plans for a musical adaptation of Dances with Wolves. Originally a novel by Robert Blake, its 1990 film adaptation won seven Oscars including Best Picture. The story is that of an isolated US Army lieutenant who finds himself connecting with Sioux culture while Americans start to invade the territories of the West. Frankly, I've never been that compelled by the film; I find it something of a slog (three long hours in its theatrical cut, four in its masturbatory director's cut). But I am curious what could be made of the project. I admit my initial reaction is to scream "bad idea." Then again I can't imagine that Sweeney Todd looked that great on paper either. But for every Sweeney Todd there are countless Gone with the Winds, Lolita My Loves, Here's Where I Belongs, Civil Wars, etc. Even if they use the novel for the adaptation, many are just going to assume it's a musical version of a well received film. Apparently there isn't even a creative team in place for this one therefore it's completely in its infancy. It will be some time between now and its premiere. We shall see...

Monday, April 12, 2010

"Anyone Can Whistle" at Encores

I would like to call for a coronation in New York City. I don't know if there are any statutes in the NY government that allow for such activity, or even whether her colleagues would appreciate my hubris. But if there is anyone who deserves to be crowned the Queen of Musical Comedy (at least this year) it is Donna Murphy, who experienced another in a series of career triumphs in this weekend's Encores! revival of Anyone Can Whistle. If you missed her performance, I am legitimately sorry for you because it was the most scrumptious, delectable, laugh out loud hilarious musical comedy performance I've seen in the last several years.

Lusty, shallow, greedy, neurotic and deliriously oblivious, Murphy sashays through the evening like a Las Vegas nightclub diva, complete with a quartet of male dancers who follow her everywhere she goes. Her voice is in exceptional form and each one of her numbers was a pure knockout. Every nuance in her delivery, her physical movement, even the way she pronounces her own last name is enough to bust a gut. Her physicality is fearless, brash and just about the greatest thing since sliced bread. Every moment she is onstage you can't help but watch her - she's not only funny, but fascinating.

Murphy, coiffed by Gregg Barnes in an homage to the role's originator Angela Lansbury (who insisted she play the part), and is so winning that she would win every theatre award in sight were she eligible. It's even more impressive when you think of her career trajectory: the bleak, depressive Fosca in Passion, the prim Mrs. Anna in The King and I, Ruth Sherwood in Wonderful Town and Phyllis in Follies. There are not many actresses with such extensive range and ability.

It bears mentioning that Ms. Murphy is not onstage alone. Sutton Foster is lots of fun as a Fay Apple, the uptight pragmatic nurse who can only let down her guard when dolled up like a French tart. She brings that now trademark belt to "There Won't Be Trumpets" and offered a touching rendition of the title song. Raul Esparza flits around wildly as Hapgood, the would-be doctor who is actually a patient running the asylum. Edward Hibbert, Jeff Blumenkrantz and John Ellison Conlee provide enormous comic support as 'Hoovah-Hoopah's' sidekicks, partners in crime (and possibly some more unmentionable extra-curricular activities).

This legendary flop played nine performances at the Majestic in 1964, an overreaching satire about a bankrupt city whose corrupt mayoress (and minions) concoct a phony miracle in order to capitalize on it. I won't get too far into the plot as, well, with this show it doesn't particularly matter. Laurents' libretto is a meandering mess that tries too hard to lampoon everything imaginable. It seems that by trying to make the show all about everything that the creators inadvertently made it about nothing. David Ives made judicious cuts to the book, but to little avail: the piece as a whole is still unworkable and unsalvageable.

But there is still that score. Goddard Lieberson had the foresight to record the score in spite of the show's closing. Sondheim, at this point, was primarily known as a lyricist and whose only Broadway composing credit was the smash hit A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. It was in Anyone Can Whistle that Broadway had its first taste of the Sondheim style and sound, which would revolutionize the genre in 1970's Company. The album turned the show into a cult favorite, keeping Sondheim's music and lyrics alive.

In honor of the composer's 80th birthday, Encores! offers the rare NY revival and it is highly doubtful this production could be bettered. Director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw, also responsible for the winning Encores! concert of Follies three years ago, has staged the piece with winning originality, especially in the subtitled bedroom scene. His dances are especially polished. They culminate in a showstopping climax with the "Cookie Chase," a comic ballet complete with butterfly nets and tumbles. It's a zany, absurd piece that simultaneous recalls the Keystone Cops and Tchaikowsky and is utterly ingenious, and an homage to the work of Herbert Ross, the original choreographer.

This is one of the best I've seen at the City Center. However, if producers are thinking of transferring this one, I don't think that would be a wise move. It's unlikely that we'll ever see a commercial production that could make the show work or make it as fun as this one. But this is the ideal Encores! experience: a show that wouldn't ordinarily be revived. This one will be best remembered for its triumphant weekend. Let's hope next season can produce such a winner. Now I just wonder who'll we have to see about getting Donna Murphy onstage in that other Lansbury star vehicle, Mame.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Dixie Carter (1939-2010)

Dixie Carter, the actress/singer who epitomized Southern class and elegance on TV's Designing Women, has died at the age of 70. The cause of death was endometrial cancer.

While most famous for her television work, Carter also had an extensive stage and cabaret career. Carter was born in McLemoresville, Tennessee. A lyric soprano, Carter had originally dreamed of being an opera singer until a botched tonsillectomy in her childhood changed that. She received a degree in English at the University of Memphis and was also a runner-up in the Miss Tennessee pageant of 1959. It was in Memphis that she appeared in her first professional production, a revival of Carousel.

Carter made her Broadway debut in the short-lived Sextet in 1974. She played Melba, the reporter show sings "Zip" in the 1976 revival of Pal Joey (she would later play Vera in a production in LA in the early 90s, with Elaine Stritch as Melba). More recently, she was a notable replacement as Maria Callas in Master Class and as Mrs. Meers in Thoroughly Modern Millie. Off-Broadway, she received a Theatre World Award in 1975 for Jesse and the Bandit Queen and was nominated for a Featured Actress Drama Desk Award in 1979 for Fathers and Sons. Regional credits ran the gamut from Tennessee Williams to Shaw to Rodgers and Hammerstein. She was scheduled to appear at the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C. this summer in a production of Mrs. Warren's Profession.

It is for her extensive television credits that she is became most well known. She had recurring roles on Filthy Rich, Diff'rent Strokes, Family Law and more recently on Desperate Housewives. However, it is her performance as the erudite interior designer Julia Sugarbaker in Designing Women for which she is best remembered. The series ran seven seasons on CBS and was immensely popular for its depiction of four southern friends living and working in and around Atlanta, Ga. Carter's characterization became immensely popular for her "tirades," in which the mild-mannered Julia got fired up over something she perceived to be an injustice or which offended her liberal feminist sensibility.

In reality, Carter was actually a libertarian Republican. She struck a deal with Designing Women's creator and friend Linda Bloodworth-Thomason. For each tirade, she was given an opportunity to sing. The material ran the gamut from Schubert's "Ave Maria" to "Bosom Buddies" from Mame, among many other memorable musical moments in the series' run.

Carter is survived by her husband of 26 years, Hal Holbrook as well as her daughters Mary Dixie and Ginna from her first marriage to Arthur Carter. She was also briefly married to George Hearn.

My introduction to Dixie came from reruns of Diff'rent Strokes, where she spent one season as the fitness instructor who married Mr. Drummond. It wasn't until many years later that I saw her on reruns on Designing Women as well as other appearances. She was always a welcome presence on television, whether she was acting or singing, and was always a class act. Here is what is probably the most popular of the many tirades given on Designing Women, "The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia:"

Friday, April 9, 2010

Sandy Duncan is Peter Pan

There have been three major performers who have played the title role in the 1954 musical adaptation of Peter Pan on Broadway. The original and most iconic was Mary Martin, who won a Tony for it and famously played the part on TV three times. Twice it was presented live (and kinescopes exist), but the third was taped in color in 1960 for future broadcasts which forever cemented the show's (and Martin's) popularity. Then in the 1990s, gymnast Cathy Rigby played the role in four separate Broadway engagements (earning a Tony nod for the first time out in 1991), took the show on numerous tours and also preserved her version for TV.

In between these two, there was a major Broadway revival in 1979. Sandy Duncan played the title role, with George Rose as Captain Hook. The show played the Lunt-Fontanne for 554 performances making it the longest Broadway production of this vehicle (to be fair, the other four engagements were all limited).

Duncan was immensely popular in the show, but unlike her predecessor and successor, she didn't get a TV version nor did she get a cast album. (However, like the other ladies, she was nominated for a Tony). Perusing the Youtube, I discovered some video clips of Duncan in the part, easily the best dancer of the three ladies to have had a turn at this show. Enjoy:

Appropriately, Mary Martin introduces Duncan in "Neverland" on the 1982 TV special "Night of a 100 Stars:"

An Omnibus TV special taped live during a performance at the Lunt-Fontanne presented "I'm Flying." It's really incredible to see the effect the show can have on children, and just how enthusiastic they get into the show especially when Peter is flying.

The cast performed "Ugg-A-Wugg" on the 1979 Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. Robert Iscove directed and choreographed. Note Sandy Duncan's high kicks:

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Catching Up - Fela! & Yank!

Both shows are completely different but they are two of the most important musicals to open this season and attention must be paid, especially from yours truly.

I don't quite know how to start with Fela! The new musical is unlike anything I've ever seen, and that's a good thing. The show is a fascinating, riveting and very infectious entertainment that uses the life story of Fela and his music to showcase his impressive achievements as a musician and activist.

The Eugene O'Neill Theatre has been transformed into his nightclub. The premise: it's Fela's last performance before leaving his country in the wake of military dictatorship and the oppression of civil rights. Lights are strung throughout the audience area, there are artifacts and pictures on the wall, recalling the ancestors of those who have long since passed on. Afrobeat is piping in overhead, and slowly the band makes its way to the stage and suddenly the music is live and no longer canned.

The title role is the entire show. He carries the evening from start to finish on his shoulders, talking, singing, dancing and playing the saxophone. It's little wonder that the role is split between two actors, Sahr Ngaujah (who originated the role off-Broadway) and Kevin Mambo (whom I saw and enjoyed).

Bill T. Jones' choreography is some of the most impressive I've seen in recent seasons. The energy level and athleticism is unlikely to be forgotten. The book consists mostly of Fela telling us about himself. It gets a bit tedious, The majority of the evening is spent in monologues. Only Lillias White (who, equally impressive as Fela's activist mother, blasts the roof off the theatre with an eleventh hour appearance) and the delicious Saycon Sengbloh have lines, and are clearly supporting parts. No one else in the ensemble has any lines, but given the nature of the choreography I doubt they'd have the breath to get out any words. But it's more than just the words and the music. It's more the unspoken energy and the impact the show can have on audiences. It's not very often you see the tired businessman on his feet dancing without reservation. You're more like to see this wave of energy at Fela! than even over at Hair.

Musical doesn't seem quite the perfect word to describe Fela!, but it really is the most appropriate for the experience. I knew absolutely nothing about Fela Kuti going into the show, and made it a point to avoid research because I felt like going into the show knowing as little as possible. The result fascinated me, and I can tell you I am now in the possession of several Kuti albums and have read far much more about the activist/singer than I thought possible. Would I take in Fela! again? In a heart beat.

Yank! has been gestating off-off Broadway and in fringe circuits for several years. Written by the Zellnick brothers (Joe and David), the tuner is a throwback to the Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals of the Golden Age. I've seen some comparisons to South Pacific and while the parallels are obvious, structurally the show owes more to Oklahoma! right down to its eleventh hour dream ballet.

The musical is a love story between two soldiers from WWII who find themselves forced to keep their romance a secret. The show succeeds for the most part. It's a fascinating look into a subculture of the Second World War that doesn't get as much attention as other historical events. It's mostly engaging with a tuneful score, though the company number numbers and pastiches are surprisingly far more memorable than the material sung by the leads. There are some aspects of the libretto that could use some ironing out. The show runs a bit too long, and the flashback device (the show starts with a contemporary kid finding a journal in a junk shop) doesn't work. Also, some of the set-ups to certain musical numbers recall more Rodgers & Hart then Rodgers & Hammerstein. The dream ballet isn't terrible, but it isn't terribly exciting either and seems out of place in the eleven o'clock spot.

The cast is mostly excellent with Bobby Steggert especially memorable as Stu, the young and impressionable gay soldier. Fresh from his turn in Ragtime, Steggert is on a winning career path and it will be interesting to see where he ends up next. Ivan Hernandez is quite formidable as Mitch, the seemingly macho heterosexual with whom Stu falls in love. The ensemble is a sort of take-off of that Battleground cliche: different backgrounds, ethnicities, etc. (But did we need another homophobic, possibly racist redneck to wreak havoc? It would be more interesting if they set that up to be one of the more likable buddies who is placed in that situation).

The production's greatest asset is actually its leading lady. Nancy Anderson embodies every single woman in the show, from Stu's mother to a sympathetic lesbian Army officer. Anderson gets the chance to parade out in the best costumes (well, it is about the military...) shining in diegetic pastiche numbers that comment on the action. One of the funniest moments of the entire evening is her spot-on turn in a black and white WWII era film, a sort of operetta spin on So Proudly We Hail.

Jeffrey Denman's tap-heavy choreography is clever (especially in "Click"), but for the most part feels repetitious, save for the aforementioned dream ballet. The show is moving on from the York Theatre Company and is now slated for a Broadway berth this fall. The show thrives on its intimacy and the smaller the house the better.

In the wake of the current DADT controversy, the creators have written what has turned out to be a timely musical. With some more work, they can make it timeless.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

"Lend Me a Tenor"

Leaving the Music Box Theatre after seeing the infectious new revival of Lend Me a Tenor, I found myself unable to stop humming "La Donna รจ Mobile," the famed aria from Rigoletto. No matter what I did or what song I played, it remained at the back of mind - buoyant, effervescent and melodic. The aria is heard as the house lights go down and curtain comes up on Ken Ludwig's popular farce, instantly grabbing you and immersing you into the roller coaster ride of sidesplitting comedy about to enfold onstage. Like that aria, this new production sings out with gusto that will leave you buoyant, effervescent and smiling long after you have left the theatre.

The original production was a big hit in 1989. Starring Victor Garber, Tovah Feldshuh, and Tony-winning Phil Bosco, it ran for over a year and instantly became a staple in stock and community productions. (Its world premiere was in London in 1986). The plot in brief: the Cleveland Grand Opera is expecting a world-renowned Italian tenor for their gala. When he becomes indisposed, hijinks, misunderstandings and a hell of a lot of door slamming ensues. As a farce, the play itself is merely good, not great. Ludwig's text as a whole feels more like a rough draft of a greater comedy that has yet to be realized. There are some missed opportunities (especially with the Bellhop, who should have more to do) and its ending seems somewhat abrupt and rushed. However, this production is so laugh out loud hilarious and features a top notch ensemble of actors, that it's incredibly easy to both forget and forgive the shortcomings of its writing.

Anthony LaPaglia shines as Tito, the egomaniacal tenor in question whose propensity for women and booze causes most of the evening's chaos, and is especially memorable for the fearlessness of his physicality, particularly in the scene where he gives the impressionable would-be tenor Max a lesson in voice and relaxation. It must be seen for full effect. Tony Shalhoub is in full cigar-chomping mode as the temperamental producer Sanders. Jay Klaitz is a comic revelation as the endearing Bellhop (and operaphile). Movie star Justin Bartha makes an impressive Broadway debut as the nebbishy Max, who vacillates between the sadsack producer's assistant and confident opera diva when masquerading as Tito with considerable aplomb.

Mary Catherine Garrison winningly proves that ingenues have dirty dreams as Saunders' daughter and Max's girlfriend, and whose scream in the second act is one of the funniest moments I've seen on this or any other stage. The ever-reliable Jennifer Laura Thompson, always a welcome presence, taps into her quirky comic skills as the seductively ambitious diva Diana. Brooke Adams is far too striking to convince as a dowdy, past-her-prime matron, but the actress - mercilessly decked out like the Chrysler building - scores some big laughs.

Jan Maxwell effortlessly walks away with the entire evening as Maria, Tito's fiery, jealous wife. Maxwell, who was last seen giving a bravura star turn in the shimmering revival of The Royal Family, hits another home run as she rages, seethes and breaks down with an exaggerated Italian accent. Whenever she is onstage she is in total command, somehow maintaining her character's elegance in spite of her antics. She brought the first act to a crashing halt by merely hissing. After the disappointments of To Be or Not to Be and Coram Boy (which deserved to be a hit), it is especially welcoming to see Maxwell having such a banner season. Ms. Maxwell is one of the unquestionable treasures of the NY theatre scene, equally adept in both plays and musicals. If there is a God, Maxwell should be nominated for a Tony (for this and The Royal Family) - and she should win.

Then, of course, there is the director. Stanley Tucci, in his first Broadway directing gig, is as gifted a director as he is actor. His task is not an easy one; staging a successful farce is incredibly difficult as it involves laser-sharp timing from the loudest door slam to the tiniest gesture. His work here is infectious and inventive, bringing lightning pace and visual gigs, but also a certain touch of humanity that wouldn't normally seem possible in pure farce. Tucci's directorial touch is solid 14 karat gold. Anyone sitting center orchestra should also watch out for flying objects - all spit takes and such gags are directed out at the audience, a rather zany, inspired touch from a genius actor turned director.

John Lee Beatty's sumptuous set captures the elegance of a posh hotel suite in the 30s, so vividly realized its as though a penthouse was cut in half and placed onstage. Martin Pakledinaz has once again outdone himself with his period costumes. His eye-popping outfits worn by his leading ladies are especially memorable (the image of Jan Maxwell casting off her fur-lined wrap is a vivid image that will aways stick with me).

Lend Me a Tenor is undoubtedly the hit comedy of the season, and the funniest thing this side of The Norman Conquests. I look forward to making another visit, especially to revel in the genius of Ms. Maxwell, but also in appreciation of Mr. Tucci's immense achievement. Oh - and for that tour de force curtain call, which is worth the price of admission alone.

Friday, April 2, 2010

How Donna Murphy Got Cora Hoover Hooper

Playbill's Andrew Gans talks to Donna Murphy on her relationship with Sondheim and her upcoming role as the Mayoress in Encores! Anyone Can Whistle. The following is an excerpt on how she got the part:

'Murphy is now getting ready to tackle her latest Sondheim role, Mayor Cora Hoover Hooper in the upcoming Encores! production of the short-lived Sondheim-Arthur Laurents musical Anyone Can Whistle, which co-stars Tony winner Sutton Foster and Tony nominee Raul Esparza. It was another multiple Tony winner, however, who Murphy says helped get her the gig: Angela Lansbury, who starred in the original production of Whistle.

"This year [the Drama League was] lucky enough to be honoring [Lansbury], and I was asked by Michael Mayer to learn and sing [Anyone Can Whistle's] 'Me and My Town.' I'd only heard that song once before, and I thought, 'Oh, what a great song!,' and I said, 'Yeah! Yeah!' . . . I had such a good time, and that night [Lansbury] came up to me afterwards and kind of took me by the shoulders and she said, 'Have they called you?' And I said, 'Who?' And she said, 'Encores! Have they called you?' And I said, 'No.' And she said, 'Why aren't you doing it?' And I said, 'Well, I haven't been asked.' She said, 'I'm calling them! I'm calling them!' And, it was incredibly flattering, but it was also one of those situations where I [didn't] know what's going on [with the casting]. It certainly was on my radar that they were doing this show because any time that there's a Sondheim show happening, my ears prick up and I'm like, 'Is there something in it for me?,'" she laughs.'

Does this mean Angie is entitled to ten percent...?

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Masterworks Broadway

April Fool's Day annoys me. Mostly it's because everyone thinks they're suddenly writing for The Onion and inundate the interwebs and my email box with attempts to "get me." As a result, I tend to skip out new on this particular day - both real and faux, just because I prefer the facts (and not to be sallied with countless fake information, etc). However, that said, there is something wonderful happening today - Sony Masterworks is celebrating the launch of the Masterworks Broadway website. I first got wind of the new site a couple months ago and being the musical theatre geek, I immediately signed up for an account. (Come join me!)

The website has been dubbed "Where Show Tunes Take Center Stage" and they are not wrong. A few years ago, due to some corporate blah blah blah, Sony founds itself with both its own Columbia Masterworks catalogue as well as RCA's. The consolidation brought about the new Masterworks Broadway label in 2006. The new catalogue will eventually feature 400 cast albums (about 275 are already available) and the productions represented have acquired 265 Tony awards, 450 Tony nominations and 27 Grammy Awards. Not too shabby.

Now, to celebrate and to bring it into the era of social media, they've decided to create a place for showtune lovers to gather. The aim of the website is to "document the history of the cast album from Finian's Rainbow (even if Columbia's first cast album was the 1946 revival of Show Boat, but that's neither here nor there) to last year's revival of West Side Story."

The site allows the individual to establish an account, friend other album enthusiasts as well as browse through the catalog. Masterworks has planned that every single cast album under its label will eventually be released digitally. Some of the more famous titles: Annie, My Fair Lady, Sweeney Todd, Mame, Hello Dolly!, The Producers, A Little Night Music, The Sound of Music, Gypsy, among many many others. But now, many albums that are long out of print or have been hitherto now only available on LP will now be introduced to an entirely new generation of theatregoers (and as one who has collected many obscure LP cast albums, and has had many of them ripped to mp3 use I approve wholeheartedly).

They are continuing to build the site, with more albums to be added. A streaming radio of continuous Broadway musical is up and running. My pal Peter Filichia, who writes for Theatremania, is now hosting a new blog every Tuesday. There are also podcasts, including one recorded for the release of Stephen Sondheim collection The Story So Far and another on the 50th anniversary of The Sound of Music last year. Each recording has its own page and readers can rate, review, and purchase the albums through amazon or itunes. There is of course the obligatory message board forum for folks to rehash the perennial "Merman or Lansbury" debate.

In celebration of the site's official launch, there will be a giveaway every day in the "You Gotta Get a Gimmick" sweepstakes. Some of the prizes include: A trip for two to NYC to see a Broadway show, the entire Masterworks Broadway catalog (over 275 CDs!), signed copies of Kristin Chenoweth’s memoir A Little Bit Wicked as well as her latest CD A Lovely Way To Spend Christmas, and a rare framed pigment print of Gwen Verdon from the Sony Music archives/ICON Collectibles. Every Tuesday and Friday the site will feature a prize related to the work of Jerry Herman and Stephen Sondheim respectively, including an autographed CD collection of their works. New prizes will continue to be announced throughout the month. Visitors can enter the daily drawing by visiting the site and signing up for free membership.