Wednesday, June 30, 2010

CD Review: Promises, Promises (The New Broadway Cast Recording)

It may have been critically dismissed, and some of Broadway's biggest fans may have taken issue with its star trying on a new type of role, but Promises, Promises was one of my favorite shows of the season just ended.  I loved it so much, I've already gone back for a second look and hope to return to it this summer.  The Burt Bacharach/Hal David score has always been a favorite of mine - I especially love their vocal arrangements, even on their pop hits - and so I was really excited to find out that the revival would get a New Broadway Cast Recording, and that it would be out relatively quickly. 

Well, here we are.  And after several days of listening to it over and over, here are my thoughts:

Title: Promises, Promises
Artist: The New Broadway Cast Recording
Label: Masterworks Broadway
Number: 88697 73495 2
Format: Single CD
Case: Single Jewel Case
Booklet: Full color production photos; complete lyrics  (Note:  The booklet contains most of the photos in the souvenir program, and is one of nicest such booklets I've seen with a cast recording in some time.)

Of the Show and Its Stars, I wrote: In my review, I said, "From the opening notes of the overture, with its breathtaking choreography - period fruging mixed with Broadway jazz and even ballet - and the most original inclusion of props in a number since Crazy for You, the show takes off and rarely slows down. The entire production dances from start to finish, including the entr'acte and the curtain call (mercifully NOT a mega-mix!), and everywhere in between. And the ensemble is up to the considerable task. It is no wonder they have orchestra singers to supplement the vocals.  Director/choreographer Rob Ashford has taken the lead out of the old school script, however. Gone are the vamps while the scenery changes or the cast changes costumes. Today's Promises, Promises moves with a vitality that can only be compared to a busy beehive - ordered chaos - and it does so with a fluidity usually reserved for camera tricks and long non-stop pans in movies. Ashford has made this into a theatrical onstage movie, appropriate given its source material. It may look and sound like 1962 urban America, but it moves like the 21st century."

"Tony winner Dick Latessa was born to play one of Neil Simons' patented been-there-done-that-weary-of-the-world New Yorkers. And boy does he embrace that here, as Dr. Dreyfuss, Chuck's next door neighbor and Fran Kubelik's (Kristen Chenoweth) savior. He is funny, sweet and delivers his one number, "(You Should Be) Happy" with aplomb.  I was very pleased to find out that Tony Goldwyn can take charge of a scene, even on the enormous Broadway Theatre stage, and even up against his larger than life above-the-title-stars. His Sheldrake is everything it needs to be: smooth, in charge, desirable, smouldering, sexy, cowardly, and really cruel. What makes Goldwyn so good is that he somehow can convey all of those things simultaneously, and even can make you sympathize with him.  Katie Finneran does an amazing star turn in the 12 minute role of Marge MacDougall. She is everything you've read about and more. She steals the scenes she is in, but not without the grace required to bring Sean and Kristin and Dick along with her. In fact, that's what I like best about her energetic appearance."

"As Chuck Baxter, Sean Hayes gets to bring his trademark smile, rapier wit and considerable physical talents to the stage. They translate very well from TV screen to stage. He also brings some pretty decent dance moves and a crystal clear and very pleasant singing voice. The only time I ever felt like he wasn't 100% was during the title number, where he never really lets go. He could and should belt out those last notes. His voice can handle it.  Let there forever be no more doubt that Kristin Chenoweth is a true star, and that she can handle drama with as much, if not more, skill than as a comedienne. This is a challenging role, and she does not hold back. We are all the better for witnessing it. And while the inclusion of two more sings to the score - "I Say a Little Prayer" and "A House is Not a Home" - isn't really necessary, it does give us two more chances to hear her glorious voice sing songs worthy of her time, and she integrates them well into her performance and character."

Of this Recording, I say:  This recording is more complete than the OBC, not including the interpolated songs.  It includes the odd little intro to "It's Our Little Secret", reprises of "A House is Not a Home" and "I'll never Fall in Love Again."  The former solidifies, for me at least, why, dramatically, including the whole song makes sense.  The reprise really ties the two characters together.  The latter gives a nice ending to the CD, and includes some nice dialogue.  Also, if you keep listening, there is a hidden "bonus track" at the end - Chuck Baxter's "Theme Song."  Funny and complete, it also is a nudge to the "gay playing straight" controversy that will forever be associated with this production.

Jonathan Tunick's orchestrations are first rate, as one might expect, but they are particularly notable for sounding both 21st century modern and 60's kitschy all at once.  And the vocal arrangements are, as I also expected, first rate, and deliciously audible throughout the recording.  Kudos to the "Orchestra Voices," who supplement the instruments and give the show its signature Bacharach/David "sound": Sarah Jane Everman, Kristen Beth Williams, Nikki Renee Daniels, and Chelsea Krombach.

I stand by my comments about the principals' performances.  Though there are a few surprises, some nice: Tony Goldwyn's voice sounds much more sure, and his lower register is quite good, and he blends perfectly with Mr. Hayes; some disappointing:  "A Fact Can Be a Beautiful Thing" comes across rather flatly, considering the bombast it creates onstage.  You can hear that both Ms. Finneran and Mr. Hayes are trying to create the magic, but it is largely a visual performance.  This is one case where some inclusion of a scene would really have made it great, too. 

But the two absolutely best things about the show come across in the recording:  Kristin Chenoweth and Sean Hayes.  Mr. Hayes sounds much more sure of himself than he did the first time I saw the show, and that same build in confidence comes across here, too.  And he can hold a note very well, which makes the short cut at the end of the title song even more vexing.  Meanwhile, Ms. Chenoweth proves, just through her sheer vocal power that she is a brilliant pop song interpreter, but best of all, her heart-breaking performance, angst, melancholy and desperation come out here as well as they do in the theatre.  Brava!

And if you ever need to come up with an example of "chemistry" go no further than this recording.  The chemistry between the leads is unmistakable.

Standout Songs:  "Upstairs" showcases Sean Hayes' acting and singing, and the orchestra voices are super here.  I love Ms. Chenoweth's interpretation of "I Say a Little Prayer," and I also love that the dance sequence has been included.  The Overture is also excellent, and images of what happen during it fly through my head every time.  My favorite Hayes/Chenoweth moment is "I'll Never Fall in Love Again," while my favorite number of all might come a surprise.  I know it surprises me.  I just love "A Young Pretty Girl Like You" (usually referred to as "Happy").  It summarizes why I love this revival.  Dick Latessa, Hayes and Chenoweth, who merely supplies a giggle or two, sing the hell out of the song, and it is clear that they are enjoying doing it for us.  The timing, the joy, the undercurrent of pain all converge here and it is magical.

The whole show is.

Grade: A+

(Photos by Joan Marcus)

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Tuesday, June 29, 2010

In Memoriam: John Willis

Back in the old days, when everything you wanted to know wasn't readily available after a Google search, we had to rely on reference books for our information.  And back before was even a thought, you often had to rely on your local library to stock certain refernce books.  As you might have guessed, the reference books I was most interested in weren't generally among the stacks at my local suburban/rural public library.  Theatre books of any kind were few and far between, though literally every single public library I've ever been in anywhere in the United States seems to have a hardbound copy of the libretto to The Sound of Music.

It was during a trip to such a library during high school, that I opened one of those librettos and discovered a oublishers notation: The Fireside Theatre.  A book club!  Well, I couldn't get home fast enough to write a letter to The Fireside Theatre, in hopes that I, lowly high school student, might join.  Apparently, I said the magic words because a few weeks later, I received my first catalogue of monthly selections.  Featured was a volume entitiled Theatre World, Vol. 39: 1982-1983.  It was the most expensive book in the catalogue, but I just had to have it.  So, I sent off one of Mom's checks, and about a month later, I finally got the book.  What a rush!  (And ever since then, I spell the word with an "re"!)  Today, facts are instantaneously gotten, and even more data available the day OF an event, not more than a year later.  But there is something about those books.  I am certain that I am not the only person reading this blog who collects them or something like them.

Needless to say, I read that volume from cover to cover, taking in every fact, statistic, replacement actor, understudy and theatre address my little eyes could take in.  And the pictures!  Black and white production photos - different ones than those I clipped out of The New York Times - accompanied each show listing.  Thus began my love affair with Broadway statistics and the man who gave them to me yearly, John Willis.

John Willis' Theatre World Then and Now

Mr. Willis, recipient of the 2001 Special Achievement Tony Award, was the editor-in-chief of that annual for more than 40 years.  And by all accounts, he was Theatre World.  He personally fact checked each page.  Talk about a fan!  The man lovingly cobbled together one of the most detailed and accurate reference books 've ever come across on any subject, and he did the same for its companion volume, Screen World.  A particularly loving and poignant obituary, written by his long time friend and colleague, Peter Filicia, can be found here.  And a wonderful tribute by Bruce Weber of The New York Times can be found here.

The editor also oversaw the Theatre World Awards, given every year to a dozen actors making their New York stage debut in an auspicious manner.  Older than the Tony Awards (it was first given out for the 1945-46 season), the list of its recipients reads like a who's who of stage and screen.  Mr. Willis gave notorious parties to honor the recipients at his Riverside Drive home from the 60's through the 80's.

An addition to his work in the literary world, he was an actor, a teacher and a veteran of the Unites States Navy Resereve, which he served in during WWII.

John Willis passed away on Friday, June 25, 2010 at the age of 93 due to complications with lung cancer.  In lieu of flowers, his estate has asked for donations to be sent to: Theatre World, c/o Riverside Drive, #1D, New York, NY 10024.

Thank you, Mr. Willis.  Your work touched and solidified this writer's life long love of the theatre.  My check, like that first one over 25 years ago, is in the mail.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Broadway Puzzle: A Word Game

Just for fun:

  • Figure out the puzzle answer by first figuring out the clues below. 
  • The numbers next to each clue match the number of letters in the answer.  (For example: 7  8  9  10  : The show for which Angela Lansbury won her first Tony Award.  7= 8=A  9=M  10=E
  • Then match the numbers of each letter in the clues to the numbers in the puzzle to figure out the answer!
  • Not all letters in the clues are used in the puzzle.
  • The answer will appear in the "Bits and Pieces for 07.04.10."


A.  1  2  3  4  5  6 : He currently stars as Wednesday Addams' boyfriend in The Addams Family.

B.  7  8  9  10  11 12  13  14  15  16  17: Kristin Chenoweth's current Broadway role.

C.  18  19  20  21  22  23: Stephen Schwartz's popular 70's musical that had "Magic to Do."

D.  24  25  26  27  28  29: Stephen Schwartz's longest running musical to date.

E.  30  31  32  33  34  35  36  37  38  39  40  41  42  43  44: A musical "Best" in 1984, 2005 and 2010.

F.  45  46  47  48: It "Let the Sunshine In" at the dawning of the age of "Aquarius."

G.  49  50  51  52  53  54  55  56  57  58  59  60  61:  The Broadway Bares mastermind.

H.  62  63  64  65  66  67  68  69  70  71  72:  What goes between [ and ] for this cult favorite musical.

I.  73  74  75  76  77  78  79  80  81  82  83  84:  Elvira is Charles' nemesis in this Noel Coward classic.

J.  85  86  87  88  89  90  91  92:  Lend Me a Tenor's current "Il Stupendo."

K.  93  94  95  96  97  98  99  100  101  102  103  104  105  106: He has directed Lansbury, LuPone and Olivo.

L.  107  108  109  110  111  112  113: Ragtime: She spoke at Union Square.

M.  114  115  116  117  118  119  120: 2010's Best Musical Tony winner.

N.  121  122  123  124  125  126  127  128  129  130:  The guru behind Movin' Out and Come Fly Away.

THE PUZZLE: (A "/" means a space between words.)

Clue: A mash-up of classic Broadway lyrics and a likely 2008 Broadway news headline.

"57  97  52  76  46  119  10 12  21 !   

85  55  34  127  1 /  121  70  50 /  60  63  107  45  105  79 !
95  118  35 73  14  106  56 54  101  44  19  26  2  41 /  83  120 / 

47  113 126  77  28 /  96  115  22  89  58  84  69 !"

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Sunday, June 27, 2010

Bits and Pieces for 06.27.10

Here's an (almost) all "by the numbers" edition of this weekly blog!



In my survey of the best Broadway plays of the decade, I missed one completely when compiling my list.  I do not negate the 20 I've already chosen, but this was a special play that is deserving of much more attention than it got (it opened just before the big strike a few years ago, and never regained momentum).  Let's call it number

10B.  Is He Dead?:  A play that is more than 100 years old is nothing.  But an over 100 year old play by none other than Mark Twain is newsworthy.  And this surprisingly funny farce/comedy was a riot, due in large part to both the writer, whose comedy chops are undisputed, and a Broadway cast full of Broadway stars.  Norbert Leo Butz and the likes of Jenn Gambatese, David Pittu and John McMartin  came together to make a mistaken-identity play feel fresh and alive.  Melodrama hasn't played this well since Snidely Whiplash!  And Butz in a dress proves that the old drag as disguise bit can be fresh and funny in the right hands.

  • $1.015M: The amount of money Broadway Bares XX: Strip-opoly made for BC/EFA!

  • 519: The number of performances of the revival of Hair, not including 29 previews.  The show closed in the black! 
  • 101: The number of performances of the 6-time Tony winning play, RED, not including 22 previews. The show closed in the black!  But who cares?  No one got to see it.  That is a sad shame.
  • 74: The number of performances of the review Sondheim on Sondheim, not including 38 previews. The show closed after a two week extension, and whether is made back its investment is unclear given that the Roundabout Theatre Company is a non-profit.

  • 65: The number of days before the 2-CD Orginal Broadway Cast Recording of Sondheim on Sondheim is released to the public.  While the final track listing is listed on, the real final track listing has not been decided.  At issue: just how much of Mr. Sondheim's narration will be included, which seems to imply that the actual song list should be complete.
  • 21/24: The number of days left to catch Alice Ripley in next to normal/the number of performances she is scheduled to play between now and July 18th, her departure date.

  • 9:  The number of fewer minutes audiences are seeing of Disney's The Lion King.  Gone is "The Morning Report."  Bad news for Zazu.  Even worse news for theatre goers.  Not only is the show shorter, but despite have made its money back more than a decade ago and discounts few and far between, producers will NOT be reducing the ticket price proportionally to the cut in run time.  Their press release says that cutting the show keeps it fresh for "today's audiences."  Hmmm.
  • 8: The number of performances left of Next Fall.  See it if you can.  You'll be moved, you'll laugh, and you'll probably leave having a huge fight with your companion!

Happy Birthday last week to:
06/20: Nicole Kidman, actress, The Blue Room
06/21: Judy Holliday, actress, Bells Are Ringing
06/22: Cyndi Lauper, actress, The Threepenny Opera
06/23: Bob Fosse, director/choreographer, Pippin
06/24: Walter Willison, actor, Grand Hotel: The Musical
06/25: Hunter Foster, actor, Million Dollar Quartet
06/26: Kevin Adams, lighting designer, American Idiot

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Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Best of the Decade: Plays and Play Revivals, Part II

Yesterday, 20 - 11, today, the top 10!

10.  Blithe Spirit:  The all-star cast made it a must see.  Angela Lansbury's Tony winning performance made it a small legend, but for me the biggest surprise was how truly funny the play still is.  In the right hands, this is still a riot.  Heck, when the "straight wife" role, played superbly by Jayne Atkinson, was as funny as everyone else, you know this is a Blithe Spirit for the books!

9.  Proof:  Intellectual dramas can be a dicey thing for me.  Generally, I find them to boring exercises in celebrating the playwright's perceived intelligence (Copenhagen?).  But Proof proved me wrong!  A veritable character study of all intellectuals pitted against a sincere family drama, this one also has THE plot twist of the decade.  I'll never forget the audience's gasp that day.  Never.

8.  Boeing-Boeing:  I love a farce, especially one that hits every note exactly right.  Add a layer of naught sex appeal and Christine Baranski and you have one of my two Broadway fantasies!  From top to bottom this cast was superb, the timing superb, and the laughs plentiful, heartfelt and gut-busting.  Even the curtain call was a scream... which brings me to...

7.  Noises Off:  Re-read the above, substituting Patti LuPone for Baranski, and add Katie Finneran... which brings me to...

6.  Lend Me a Tenor:  Switch out Baranski/LuPone with Jan Maxwell, then add the triumphant trio of Justin Bartha, Anthony LaPaglia and Tony Shalhoub.  And this show is also probably the most underrated play currently playing the Great White Way.  It is hilarious and only around until August 15.  You can't get tickets to Fences and Red will have closed, so why not!?

5.  All My Sons:  Lost in the shuffle of PR over Katie Holmes; Broadway debut/Tom Cruise sightings and a late season crush of all-star plays, this revival was truly superb.  John Lithgow, Patrick Wilson, Diane Wiest and even Ms. Holmes were giving Tony-caliber performances.  And the staging, effects and projections were so thrillingly theatrical I left the theatre on a buzz so great I felt I was walking on air.  Not bad for a tragic family drama.  But I am a sucker for plays that are re-imagined with a completely theatrical eye.  This is exactly the reason I prefer live shows over movies.

4.  The Little Dog Laughed: And so did everyone else!  What a smart, witty and ultimately poignant story.  Sure Julie White's performance was legendary, and Johnny Galecki proved he has the goods (take that both ways I could mean it and be right), but it takes something to make a Hollywood story so -in the words of every character on stage - fucking Broadway!  Like number 5 above, I thrilled to the sheer theatricality of this inherently cinematic play.

3.  Take Me Out:  I'm not going to lie... the shower scene was pretty hot.  And Daniel Sunjata has the goods in both ways, too.  But you can't go wrong with the unlikely mix of a culture clash, dumb jocks, and a scathing commentary on sports in this country.  Yes, there was the sexy factor, but Richard Greenberg really went deep with this zinger of a play that went down like a cold beer out in left field, and still left you satisfied long after the game was over.

2.  DoubtCherry Jones in a play by John Patrick Shanley should be enough to put a play in the top 10 list of any decade.  But Ms. Jones really gave the performance of the decade in this taught gripping drama.  Another brilliant exercise in measured and building tension, this merciless work grabs you from the first words to the searing, "I HAVE DOUBT!" ending.  I was shaking by the end, and sat bewildered for several moments before I could even exit the theatre.  I was transported and changed by this play.  There is a great lesson to be learned here.

1.  The History Boys:  Where do I start?  Perhaps the best "school drama" since To Sir, with Love, this marvelous play had it all: it was funny, quirky, smart, witty, dramatic, as current as the day's headlines and yet as timeless as going to high school.  It also had a cast that was perfectly cast, chock full of eccentricity, stereotypes (in the very best way) and ultimately a British sensibility that made NOT casting an American cast so the play could run longer an excellent decision.  There was something for everyone here.  And if you left unmoved by the ending, I feel sorry for you.  What a rush!  And the best news is that with little tinkering and the entire original cast, the film version is just as excellent.

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Friday, June 25, 2010

The Best of the Decade: Plays and Play Revivals, Part I

Since I have only seen roughly 1/6 of all the plays and revivals that opened on Broadway during the first decade of the 21st Century, I have some doubt as to whether this list has any value to anyone besides myself.  Oh, what the heck. 

I narrowed down the 34 plays and play revivals I did see to my 20 favorite productions.  I suppose if I had been writing more about regional theatre on this blog, I could include those shows, too.  As it turns out, if I included all of those productions, I have seen pretty much all of the major new and frequently revived plays, just not on Broadway.  No one regrets more than me that I missed Fences, A View from the Bridge, and Red just this past season alone. I hope the next decade affords me more opportunities to see plays.

Here goes...

20.  One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest: I guess no one will ever match Jack and Louise as McMurphy and Ratched, but Gary Sinise and Amy Morton sure did their best.  The Steppenwolf production was tight and extremely well-acted.  Winner of the Best Revival of a Play Tony for 2001.

19.  Steel Magnolias: The cast, full of brilliant actresses, is what really made me love this production.  I mean, by the time this got to Broadway, it had played for years off-Broadway, made the rounds of all levels of theatre, and is a hugely popular and success all-star film.  The whole audience could probably say the lines with the actors.  But that Delta Burke, Christine Ebersole, Marsha Mason, Frances Sternhagen and Rebecca Gearhart could make us laugh and cry in all the right spots in spite of our familiarity was a major accomplishment.  Even more amazing was Lily Rabe, who gave the ditzy Jesus-freak hairdresser Anelle a complete makeover from any previous version.  Darryl Hannah who?

18.  Deuce:  This play really had the potential to be the top of the list.  Terrence McNally wrote it, Michael Blakemore directed it, and it starred two of the most accomplished actresses in American theatre history, Marian Seldes and Angela Lansbury.  Instead, it turned out to be an entertaining study in acting greatness overcoming written mediocrity.  The ladies made this event theatre, and despite early troubles in previews, they did not disappoint.  Imagine what they could have done with better material.

17.  The Pillowman:  This is the play that sealed my love for Martin McDonagh.  A creepy horror story of a play, the tension was so thick in the theatre that it was nearly unbearable.  This was one of those times I was completely unaware of anything around me aside from the play in front of me and my own gasps.  A superb cast (Jeff Goldblum, Billy Crudup, Zeljko Ivanek and Michael Stuhlbarg) and superb direction (by John Crowley) were what made the package complete.  And it is the only play I've ever seen that gave me nightmares.

16.  The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?:  Aside from the outrageous conceit of this play, the questions it posed about family, love, and sexuality were interesting, thought-provoking and perverse.  It stayed in my head for months, helped, no doubt by Bill Pullman, Mercedes Ruehl and Jeffrey Carlson's honest, gripping performances.  But the ending...  ick!

15.  Radio Golf:  This last play of August Wilson's perplexes me.  I (still) can't decide if I missed his usual foray into the supernatural (like in Gem of the Ocean) or not.  Did I really like the grounding realism or not?  I did love the way the play brought in elements from the rest of the Decade Plays, and there were some superb Wilson-signature monologues that raised more questions than the answers it gave.  Standout performances from Anthony Chisholm and John Earl Jelks really upped the ante.  I loved the play when I saw it, and I still think highly of it, but somehow it feels like Wilson-lite to me.

14.  Golda's Balcony:  If you asked me how I felt about one-person shows, my initial reaction would probably be that they aren't my favorite dramatic form, and yet two such plays make my top 20!  First, is a play I saw almost by accident.  I bumped into a friend of mine who had a ticket for the show, so I took it.  I have to admit anything to do with the Middle East makes me uncomfortable, and I, like so many Americans, pretty much bury my head in the sand when it comes to that.  But Tovah Felshuh's fierce performance, equal parts strength, street savvy and charm brought Golda Mier to life in a story that captivated me from start to finish.  I learned a lot, I was moved, and it changed me in so much as I do a bit less head burying when the topic comes up.  If that isn't powerful theatre, what is?

13.  The American Plan:  This quiet little Richard Greenberg play really entertained me.  A lot.  There wasn't one thing I didn't love about it.  The smart direction by David Grindley brought out nuances and themes beautifully, and each scene built up a quiet but strong tension and kept me wanting to know where it was going.  I can usually spot a gay sub-plot a mile off, but you could have knocked me over with a feather when Kieran Campion and Austin Lysy started making out on that pier!  It was so intense, it was almost uncomfortable.  The same could be said for the relationship between leads Mercedes Ruehl and Lily Rabe, as a mother and daughter at odds over who gets the most attention, and a lie that, when revealed, was devestating to an entire family.

12.  Next Fall:  I am sad to see this one leave so soon.  As a gay man, I suppose it was incumbent upon me to see this play, when in reality it was incumbent upon me as a human being to see this play.  To pigeon hole this comedy-drama is merely a "gay play" is so wrong.  Its themes about religion, faith (two entirely different things), love, relationships and even health care rights should resonate for everyone who is alive.  That such a play can come off as so light and still provoke heated debate amongst passionate theatre goers like myself and my friend Mike speaks volumes for the work.  What makes this play so wonderful, beyond its ability to provoke thought, is that it got seen on Broadway with the best possible actors, not the most bankable stars, and it was taken seriously.  This will have a long, healthy life in regional theatres for years to come.

11.  Say Goodnight, Gracie:  I laughed, I cried.  Frank Gorshin was astonishing as George Burns, and he captivated me and the entire audience.  His stories (script by Rupert Holmes) made the stage come alive, and his a cting so terrific, you could almost see the other characters he was talking about.  But that he could convey such a profound love between Burns and Gracie Allen by responding to a voice and a few photographs projected behind him was a beautiful, inspiring thing.

Coming soon:  My top 10 plays/play revivals.

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Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Best of the Decade: The Best Flop Musicals

Although it is too early to tell about shows that opened in the 2009-2010 season being hits or flops, I'm betting that in the end American Idiot, Come Fly Away and Million Dollar Quartet will be regarded as flops.  But, since no one knows for sure, yet, I did not include any of those on my list of my favorite shows that are flops, and I'm not sure any of them would have made the list anyway.

Before I make my list - I've narrowed it down to 10 that I actually saw - I should define "flop."  I do not mean "flop" to be a show that did not return its investment.  (Though, as it turns out, I believe that no show on my list did actually make back its money.) After all, a show can be a huge critical success and not a financial one.  In general, I define "flop" as a show that is generally regarded as not having met expectations.  Some have awful books, others bland scores, some were supposed to be blockbusters, but the public stayed away in droves and they had short runs.  To me, that is a flop.

One last note before I start: Just because these appear here doesn't mean thay can't also appear on future lists.  Two of them stand a chance to make my Best Musicals of the 21st Century (So Far) list!

10.  In My Life
What Was I Thinking?  Sure, it is a hot mess of a show.  The book is stylistically all over the place, the score is bland and repetitive for the most part.  But there is a lot to be said for taking a risk and putting it all out there, no regrets.  There are some really amazing moments in the show, and Christopher Hanke (who makes this list twice) is pretty damned fine in conveying Tourette Syndrome without making fun, but rather making it something we feel bad about and then embrace as just one of his quirks and nothing more.  The message of the show is a great one.  And I left the theatre feeling alive.

9.  The Times They Are A-Changin'
What Was I Thinking?  OK, so it is no Movin' Out, and the story imposed on the songs of Bob Dylan was so "out there" a synopsis had to be added.  But  the music sounded amazing, the cast has three terrific singer-actors in Thom Sesma, Lisa Brescia and Michael Arden, and the dance corps including John Selya and many of Twyla Tharp's regulars was doing things on that stage that thrilled, terrified and shocked.  For a fast flop, the audience I saw it with was sure into it - the curtain call went into over time.  I left thinking, "This will be a success years from now.  It is way ahead of its time, and it asks a lot of its audience."  Ultimately, for me, shows that challenge me and ask me to be fully engaged are the best.  This one did just that.

8.  High Fidelity
What Was I Thinking?  I might have been the only one of the thirty or so people who actually saw this show that didn't read the book or see the movie ahead of time.  I went in cold.  And I really had a great time.  I loved the set.  It reminded me of those Russian stacking dolls - every time it moved, a new layer was revealed.  I loved the cast - Will Chase (who also makes this list twice) and Christian Anderson are two of my favorite performers, as are Andrew Call and Jenn Colella.  Plus, it gave me my first taste of a guy who might just be my new Sondheim, Tom Kitt (he also makes this list twice).  And just how bad can a show be with a character named "Futon Guy"?  Still haven't seen the movie or read the book, but I do play the Cast Recording somewhat regularly.

7.  A Catered Affair
What Was I Thinking?  Really more a play with music, this intense drama was amazing for its sheer power and raw emotion.  Add to that a supremely talented cast including Harvey Fierstein, Tom Wopat, Faith Prince, and two of my favorite performers new since this century started, Leslie Kritzer and Matt Cavanaugh.  The stylized acting was superb, the music fit the moment, and the staging contains a moment that will always rank right up there with the first time I saw Grizabella go to the Heavyside Layer:  There is a moment, late in the show, when a distraught mother (Faith Prince), being pulled in all directions and none of them satisfactory, retreats to the fire escape.  And she stands there just staring out, for well over a minute, in complete silence.  The audience didn't make a sound - not a cough, not a rustle.  We were all holding our breath to see what she would do next.  It was a supremely theatrical moment that I will never ever forget.

6.  Cry-Baby
What Was I Thinking?  OK, so it isn't as good as Hairspray, but had it come first, I think Cry-Baby  would have been a much longer running show.  On its own, it is hilarious, vulgar in the best possible way, and it knew what it was: a send up of a time gone by that most of us reflect back on as being a golden, near perfect time in America.  The dancing was beyond spectacular.  The score was tuneful, funny and sharp, and the book was a scream.  And it had Elizabeth Stanley, James Snyder, Harriet Harris and an ensemble that included the aforementioned Andrew Call and Christopher Hanke.  It saddens me that it never got recorded.  I left the theater feeling very upbeat and happy.  Not a bad thing.

5.  13
What Was I Thinking?  I didn't recognize it at the time, but Tom Kitt was the musical director and conductor for the show.  For me the main attraction was the limb Jason Robert Brown  put himself out on.  What a pleasant surprise!  The show really struck a nerve with me, I'll have to admit.  My family moved when I was almost 13, just like the main character in the show, and I was miserable about that on top of being miserable about being 13.  The score is enjoyable, and for the most part, the kids in the show were genuine and not annoying - Allie Trimm, Graham Phillips (he is already a TV regular on The Good Wife), Al Calderon, Aaron Simon Gross and Eric Nelson all strike me as having a real future on the Broadway stage, particularly Miss Trimm.   I enjoyed the show and left feeling, some 30 years later, validated.

4.  Seussical the Musical
What Was I Thinking?  I loved it from the opening note to the "Green Eggs and Ham" curtain call.  If you love and really know Seuss, how could you not?  Sure, it was a risk jamming all of those famous characters into one story, but what Dr. Seuss book isn't a muddled mess on the surface?  I found the entire evening to be clever, colorful and fun.  It also has one of the best scores of the new century.  How could you not thrill to the opening number, "Oh the Thinks You Can Think!", or not be moved to tears by "Alone in the Universe"?  This CD rarely leaves my player.  And the show really put Kevin Chamberlin on the Broadway map.  Now if we can just find him a huge hit!  Oh, yeah, he's the Tony nominee from The Addams Family...packin' 'em in 8 shows a week!

3.  9 to 5: The Musical
What Was I Thinking?  I went into it terrified that they'd somehow ruin one of my all-time favorite films.  I shouldn't have been worried, not with Dolly Parton overseeing things.  All the best parts of the movie are in it, and best of all, the score not only supported the book, it improved the original.  This show is easily one of the most underrated in years.  The title song is great, but so are "Around Here" (a catchy set-the-scene number), "I Just Might" and "Backwoods Barbie" (terrific character songs) and the rousing "Shine Like the Sun" (one of the best act-enders in years), not to mention "Get Out and Stay Out" the quintessential 11o'clock number, gloriously sung by Stephanie J. Block, who also finally found a show that allows her to express more than one emotion with her patented shocked/scared blank face looks.  This CD also rarely leaves my player, but the entire experience left me floating out of the theatre on that rare high you get from a plain, old-fashioned musical comedy.  Joy to the girls, indeed!

2.  The Story of My Life
What Was I Thinking?  Being a fan of both Will Chase and Malcolm Gets, I had to see this show.  I knew no matter what, I'd see two great performers giving their all.  What I wasn't prepared for was the emotional roller coaster I was about to ride on.  I laughed, I cried - like a baby, not just a silent tear or two, I MADE NOISE!  You see, The Story of My Life really hit home for me because it depicts the rarest of all relationships to be delved into on stage - two male best friends.  It is a complicated dance we men do as we find the perfect best buddy.  We love each other, we fight, we hurt each other, we male-bond with each other, but mostly we love each other.  And it usually goes unsaid because we wouldn't want to give the wrong impression, you know.  And those show depicts just that, from being small boys to grown men.  It wears its heart on its sleeve.  There wasn't a dry eye in the place, male or female.  And I am certain that I am not the only guy who left the theatre and called my best buddy just to tell him I'm thinking of him.  "I love you, you know."  "You just saw a show didn't you?"  Best buddies know you better than anyone.

1.  Little Women
What Was I Thinking?  Just as with High Fidelity, I went into this one never having read the book or having seen any of the movie versions.  It was fresh to me.  And I love strong female characters; there isn't a weak one here.  Loved Sutton Foster, Maureen McGovern and my first time seeing Jenny Powers.  A history buff, I also loved the period.  But I really loved the score, each song better than the last, with "The Weekly Volcano Press" being a favorite, and "Astonishing" ranking right up there as one of the great diva/belt songs in years.  But nothing prepared me for Beth's (Megan McGinnis) untimely death.  The scene between she and Jo, including the song "Some Things Are Meant to Be" makes me tear up even as I type this.  I've never been so glad that no one told me the story ahead of time.  Little Women is a classic story, and deserves to be.  Too bad the Broadway bunch didn't see the musical that way.  It is by far my favorite flop.

I have a long history of embracing shows others hated.  But I enjoyed them, proudly proclaiming to anyone who'd listen: "Critics and audiences be damned!  I love this show anyway!"

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Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Best of the Decade: The Worst Musicals

Let's just get the ugly out of the way, OK?  I had no trouble coming up with 10 musicals from the past 10 years that I didn't like.  And that is a decent fete when you factor in that I am only choosing from those I saw. 

Dance of the Vampires

From what I hear, I could do an entire Blogspot dedicated to just the rottenness of the "Vampire Trilogy" - and I'm not talking Twilight, either!  No, I'm talking about Lestat, Dance of the Vampires and Dracula: The Musical.  And there are a number of fast flops I missed that might have also made the list: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Hot Feet, Jane Eyre...

In the interest of fairness, I should also be upfront with you when I say that had even less trouble naming 10 flops that I loved anyway.  That list will be out soon enough. 

But for now... the 10 worst musicals I saw on Broadway in the last 10 years are:

10.  The Color Purple
On the upside:  I liked the scenery, and you can't help but love La Chanze no matter what she does, but...
Why I hated it:  Maybe it was disappointment more than anything.  I loved the book, I loved the movie.  The musical not so much.  Maybe I went in with a bad attitude:  Oprah's ego dressed up as charitable philanthropy annoys me enough, but when, at one point she wanted the official title to be Oprah Winfrey Presents The Color Purple, I wanted to throw up, much as I do when Mel Brooks puts his name in the official title of his shows.  God Oprah, though, was also negating the Pulitzer Prize winning Alice Walker.  Different story had Oprah lobbied for the show to be called Alice Walker's The Color Purple.  Wiser heads prevailed and she was just a name above the title.  Of course, if I were a producer who actually put in more money than she did, I'd want my name up there, too.  But, ultimately, what did it for me was the unevenness of the book, the score that is stylistically all over the place, and an inexcusable amount of American Idol style histrionic singing - and that was before Fantasia came on board to do eight 3 or 4 shows a week.

9.  Monty Python's Spamalot
On the upside:  I did laugh heartily at the coconut shell "clip-clops".  And I worship at the altar of Sara Ramirez.
Why I hated it:  Because the coconut "clip clop" joke, like everything else in the show was done to death.  But mainly, I didn't like it for the same reason I wasn't popular in middle school: fart, boob and gay jokes just aren't funny to me.  Not even a crack of a smile.  Maybe it is a character flaw.  But BEST MUSICAL?   Please...  Don't get me wrong.  I love mindless entertainment (wait til you see where Mamma Mia! ranks).  But there has to be more to it than a pervading smugness that "we are funny to everyone."  Trust me.  You weren't.

8.  Sweet Charity
On the upside: PLEASE come back Christina!  Really, we love you...
Why I hated it:  For the same reason no one wants to do a truly original revival of Pippin.  Half of what makes Sweet Charity one of the best musical comedies ever (besides the hilarious book and flawless score) is the direction, edge and darkness of Bob Fosse.  Never dick around with "Big Spender."  See Rob Ashford's "Turkey Lurkey Time" to see why you should never change iconic Broadway moments.

7.  The Little Mermaid
On the upside: Sierra Boggess.  Period.
Why I hated it:  How could Disney spend a zillion dollars on something so unbelievably ugly and cheap looking?  And I could totally buy the wheelies for the fish that scurry at the bottom of the sea, but could there be SOME fish between the floor and sea level?  Disney learned, though they'd never admit it: Finding Nemo: The Musical is the gold standard for shows about the deep blue see.  It makes The Lion King close to dull to look at.

6.  Bye Bye Birdie
On the upside:  Maybe they will stop hiring Brynn Williams for Broadway shows after this.  And Allie Trimm continues to be a girl to watch in the future.
Why I hated it:  I have never been so disappointed in a cast in my life.  The caliber of that cast is nearly untouchable, but director Robert Longbottom really blew it (I still say Gina Gershon wasn't as bad as everyone says, though).  It may be the biggest sin of the Musical Theatre Commandments: Thou shalt not waste mega-potential.

5.  Taboo
On the upside: Rosie (so far) has returned to the right side of the footlights since this debacle.  And Euan Morton ended up staying over here and is becoming a decent stage star.
Why I hated it:  P-R-E-T-E-N-T-I-O-U-S.  To the point of being boring.  Who knew being "taboo" was less exciting than being a "geek"?

4.  Oklahoma!
On the upside: It gave us another (increasingly rare) chance to see Patrick Wilson on stage.
Why I hated it:  I think the opening image says it all:  during the interminably long overture, we watch Aunt Eller churn butter. The show turned out to be an equally slow, boring process.  At least butter leaves a pleasant taste in your mouth.

3.  Passing Strange
On the upside: The show gave us Daniel Breaker and Whatsername.  (And while I'm thinking about it, God, please give these talented actors decent shows to be in.)
Why I hated it:  Another way to spell "pretentious"?  S-T-E-W.  Oddly enough, that's also apparently how you spell self-serving, smug and the word for "not nearly as great as everyone tells you you are."  Critics told us to love it, which is as bad as critics telling us to hate something.  But audiences know good when they see it (most of the time), and Passing Strange was fleeting.  (The film of the stage version is equally STEW, it's called SPIKE LEE.)

2.  The Producers, the New Mel Brooks Musical
On the upside:  I no longer get a little "throw up"in the back of my throat when I pass the St. James Theatre.  And I paid $26.50 for standing room, and had a better view than they guy who sat in the seat in front of me.  He paid over $200 for his seat.  But even better, time is finally starting to show that the show wasn't really all that.  The cast made it great. 
Why I hated it:  I hate over acting.  They say Nathan Lane is "pushing" in The Addams Family.  If that's the case, he either had a hernia or hemorrhoids by the time he was done "pushing" the stupidity of this show.  I remember the exact moment I laughed during the entire 2 hours, 45 minutes of the show:  when the kick line formed a swastika in a Busby Berkley-style ceiling mirror.  And I felt guilty about that.

And the worst musical of the first 10 seasons of the new millennium is......

1.  The Pirate Queen
On the upside: There isn't one.  OK.  Linda Balgord's costumes were beautiful.
Why I hated it: Stephanie Block never changed her facial expression - I was in the 2nd row, center orchestra - not once.  Bad Botox series, Steph?  But the single most unintentionally funny thing that I have ever witnessed in any theatre at any time happened in The Pirate Queen:  Her ship is being attacked, and she's in the middle of an apparently difficult childbirth.  There is blood dripping down and off her dress, and she is so weak she can't move.  The baby is born to the loud sound effect of something squishy, the midwife knots up a piece of material to make us think she really had the kid, and the good old Pirate Queen, instantly refreshed stands up, and, sword in hand, goes back up on deck to kill some bad guys.  I literally laughed out loud so loud that the midwife made nasty eye-contact with me.  It was the only time in all ten years that I wanted to leave at intermission, and had I not been on a charter bus trip, I would have.

So there you have it.  Bring it on Spamalot fans!  At least you can't say my "worst" list doesn't cover the full range here - 2 Best Musicals and several critically acclaimed shows are right up (or down in this case) there with crappy flops.

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