Thursday, May 31, 2012

REVIEW: One Man, Two Guvnors

Review of the Saturday, May 26 evening performance at the Music Box Theatre in New York City.  A National Theatre of Great Britain Production.  Starring James Corden, Oliver Chris, Jemima Rooper, Tom Edden, Claire Lams and Suzanne Toase, with The Craze: Jacob Colin Cohen, Austin Moorhead, Jason Rabinowitz and Charlie Rosen. A play by Richard Bean, based upon The Servant of Two Masters by Carlo Goldini.  Music and songs by Grant Olding.  Physical comedy direction by Cal McCrystal.  Direction by Nicholas Hytner.  2 hours 30 minutes including intermission.

Grade: A

For once, the ads aren't stretching the truth.  One Man, Two Guvnors IS the funniest play on Broadway.  And its star, James Corden is delivering the kind of performance people will be talking about for years to come.  That said, this particular kind of play may or may not be to your liking, depending on how you feel about the mix of styles and the decided confusion of the plot.  As long as you buy into the craziness from the moment the skiffle band takes the stage, you'll have a great time.  The fabled "laugh until your sides hurt" applies here; the next morning, my torso felt like I had done 500 sit-ups!  Personally, I love this kind of diversion, and as the last new show from the 2011-2012 season I'll be seeing, it is a great way to end the year and to begin the summer.

The play, written by Richard Bean, is based on the classic commedia dell'arte work, The Servant of Two Masters by Carlo Goldini.  The plot is a complicated one, with mistaken identities, mismatched lovers torn apart and reunited, and of course, a servant, who, in order to satisfy his insatiable hunger, takes two jobs, serving masters who oppose each other.  Comedy ensues when he confuses their orders and tries to keep the two from knowing each other are in close proximity.  Further explanation would rob you of some of the many surprise delights of this production, so I will go no further considering the plot.  However, I will say this: the plot is supposed to be confusing, and you really don't need to worry about it.  The cast reviews the story line several times and for long stretches, the plot isn't even part of what you are watching. My biggest (and only) criticism is that the very first time the plot is laid out for you, it is almost unintelligible.  Who knew English, spoken by actual Englishmen, could sound like a foreign tongue?  Granted, as the show goes on, you realize that the muddled speech of a couple of characters is intentional.  But for the American ear, uninitiated in the style of the play from the outset, this confusion is a bit off-putting.  If you go, and you really should, don't worry about this.  Just let the play happen.

Trevor Laird, Oliver Chris and Jemima Rooper

Director Nicholas Hytner keeps this giant piece of fluff going at a fever pitch, and it is the rare time I can think of that the intermission provides a welcome breather.  So much is going on here, that I have to commend Hytner for a few things.  First, as I said, the pacing is madcap, lightning fast, and never flagging.  The ever so slight pauses in the action allow you to catch your breath (often literally), regroup and prepare for the next thrill of laughter coming up.  He has created a laughter version of a roller coaster, with extreme twists and turns and joyously huge "hills" of comedy.  Second, the cast and the audience go on this adventure through several styles of theatre and comedy.  The classic commedia dell'arte style is foremost, with its three types of characters: servants, masters, and ill-matched lovers.  Although in this production, they don't literally wear masks, each character wears several guises as the plot progresses.  There is also a heavy nod to the British music hall tradition - direct audience address and participation, females doing male impersonation, and melodramatic performances.  (I'd suggest seeing this play as a warm up to next season's The Mystery of Edwin Drood, a musical done in the music hall style.)  And there is the trademark British camp style of bawdy, dirty comedy, sexually charged without being too smutty, probably best known in America from the old Benny Hill Show reruns that still play late night some places.  There are also extended bits of broad, demanding physical comedy, directed by Cal McCrystal.  These bits are a literal scream, they are so funny, including a sequence involving a very heavy trunk, and another concerning the serving of two dinners simultaneously, with the lead trying to take a portion of the food for himself without being caught.  Both of these bits involve members of the audience.  The night I attended all three were very game, good sports, though I won't tell you any more about what they did - I won't spoil your enjoyment.

The set and costume designer of the show, Mark Thompson, has done some fun work here, too.  In the music hall tradition, he has created lavish, multiple settings, all two dimensional, painted to look three dimensional.  The idea here is "flat" leaves more room for the actors.  As the play takes place in the 60's, the costumes have a Beatles/James Bond era feel to them, and they accentuate the comedic type of each character: the lead, a ravenously hungry guy is dressed in big plaids to accentuate the roundness; the saucy tart secretary wears business attire so tight it is amazing she can breathe, and it forces her to talk like Jessica Rabbit; the wannabe "actor" wears all black, including a turtleneck and a leather jacket, etc.

The Craze

The cast is really the big draw here, though.  Many of them have come to Broadway from the National Theatre production in London.  And while they have incorporated a few American actors into the fold seamlessly, one imagines that an all-American cast would somehow be lacking in getting across this most British of British plays.  Before the show itself starts, a skiffle band (guitar, bass, percussion - in this case a washboard and bicycle horn) takes the stage and does a set of songs about various gals of the British Empire and the like.  They are The Craze, made up of Jacob Colin Cohen (drums/percussion), Austin Moorhead (lead guitar), Jason Rabinowitz (guitar and lead vocals) and Charlie Rosen (bass).  Picture if you will, a cross between the early Beatles and Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons.  They are a tight band of brothers, whose faces betray the silliness in the songs while they play with mock earnestness.  The songs, by Grant Olding are funny in that way that bar songs are - you can picture all out hilarity were the songs sung by drunken pub crawlers.  The Craze opens both acts, and frequently sings in between scenes.  They also accompany the entire cast by the time the show is through, as each cast member takes turns - from the lead to the walk-on scene changer/bit part playing ensemble - doing numbers between scenes.  Each number is made all the funnier by either the manner in which they are performed or by the instrumentation, which includes a complete set of bicycle horns tuned to different pitches and, at one point, an actor playing his bare chest like a drum.  I can completely understand that the score got a Tony nomination; I can also understand why this is not considered a musical.

The ensemble is very much a part of the hijinx - they not only move scenery, they play a variety of distinct walk-on roles.  The ensemble includes two very funny actors (I'm not telling why they stand out, but they do): David Ryan Smith and Sarah Manton.  In small supporting roles, Martyn Ellis, Fred Ridgeway and Trevor Laird provide high comedy and low brow commentary in three diverse "type" roles.

Suzie Toase and James Corden

Oliver Chris and Tom Edden

As the volatile lovers, Claire Lams and Daniel Rigby are a riot.  Ms. Lams finds new ways to make a dumb girl funny and endearing.  And Mr. Rigby threatens to steal every scene his in as the tortured "ACTOR".  From the way he walks, to the way he poses, to the way he delivers lines, every time he is onstage, you just know you are going to laugh heartily.  Another near scene-stealer is the saucy secretary played to sexy perfection by Suzie Toase (can that really be her name?).  With a chest that Dolly Parton would envy and curves like a mountain road, she is a treasure, winking at us and cooing her lines at us with dexterity.  But the biggest ham in the bunch has to be Tony nominee Tom Edden, who plays the hapless Alfie, an 80-something who is hard of hearing, and uses the meter on his pace maker to give himself energy when he needs it.  Mr. Edden sets a new standard for physical comedy, joining the pantheon of greats including The Three Stooges, Milton Berle and Lucille Ball.  His pratfalls and spills and running into doors is so natural, you'd swear it wasn't rehearsed.  And the running gag involving a tall set of stairs had the audience literally screaming in delight.  Yes, screaming.  I can only imagine how exhausted he must be at the end of an 8 show week.

Suzie Toase, Oliver Chris, James Corden and Jemima Rooper

James Corden and Oliver Chris

Oliver Chris, Tom Edden and James Corden

Oliver Chris and Jemima Rooper are the "two guvnors."  Mr. Chris, tall, suave and hilarious in his pompous playboy ways provides a much needed contrast in that his comedy is more sophisticated and dry.  His height often creates visual humor, and there are a couple of sight gags involving dropping his pants and taking off his shirt which are hilarious.  Ms. Rooper is the male impersonator.  Her male character is on the run, her female character is in search of her lover.  And she plays both to the hilt - convincing as a man and a riot as she plays the guy and gal and the same scene at times.

But it is the "one man" that is the glue that holds this enterprise together.  James Corden is making a true star-turn as Henshall, the servant with two masters.  To call this a tour-de-force performance is a gross understatement, as he must be both ringmaster and clown, crowd controller and leader of the riot.  Mr. Corden has such an ease about him and such a genuine warmth, you can't help but love the guy.  And his talents are wide-ranging and spot on.  Among other things, he does one segment with a trunk that must appear to be very heavy; by the time he's done, you'd swear there was an elephant inside the box.  He eats and drinks (and throws up) some nasty stuff, and runs around the set with the craze and glee of a five year old at a playground.  To tell you anymore of what he does in the course of two and half hours would give away too much of the fun.  Suffice it to say that Corden, a star in Britain, should be a star in the States now, too.

James Corden

If you are looking for a challenging, thought-provoking piece of theatre, don't bother getting a ticket for this show.  But if you want to have a fun, leave your cares behind, silly romp, as they say, run, don't walk to the Music Box Theatre and get a ticket for One Man, Two Guvnors!  You will laugh til you cry, and leave with a smile on your face.  And you may never look at a sandwich the same way again, either.

(Photos by Joan Marcus)

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Wednesday, May 30, 2012

TheatreScene Chat: Teddy and Alex: Back On Stage

This is the second in a series of short interviews with two up and coming stars of the current Broadway generation, Teddy Toye and Alex Wyse.  The first interview in this series can be found HERE.

When I last chatted with the guys, we talked about life after Lysistrata Jones and the making of the Original Broadway Cast Recording.  Now, both have moved on to their next projects: Alex Wyse is co-starring in the new Off-Broadway production of the award-winning Fringe Festival entry, Triassic Parq: The Musical, and Teddy Toye has joined the National Tour of Bring It On: The Musical, which recently announced a limited Broadway engagement this summer.

Needless to say, both are super excited about their newest jobs!  Here, they share all about getting the job and what they are most looking forward to with these newest shows and challenges.


Question 1: So, after Lysistrata Jones closed, besides doing the Cast Recording, what did you do to keep busy?  Earn a living?  Stay “in the game”? 

Teddy Toye (TT): Well, the first thing I did, which I feel like most actors do when their show closes, is file for unemployment! (Laughs) So that was my basic source of income so I could just continue to audition full time. I spent a lot of time going to the gym to stay in shape, hanging out with my friends from LJ and girlfriend. I choreographed a few dance pieces for different places as well to make a little extra money on the side. 

Alex Wyse (AW): After LJ ended, I did a number of readings of plays and musicals in development, I auditioned a lot, I sang in a bunch of concerts, I filmed a commercial, I wrote a draft of a play, and I tried dating. The last one didn’t work out.

Question 2: TV shows and movies and even musicals (like Smash and A Chorus Line) show Broadway auditions as if everyone just shows up, sings and dances and leaves.  Is that really how it goes?  Can you explain, from finding out about the auditions for Triassic Parq and Bring It On through that initial audition, how it goes?  

AW:  With Triassic, the initial auditions happened about a year ago. Originally, the show was scheduled for last season, but it got pushed back. So there was that first round, and then this most recent round of auditions. The first audition was especially fun. It involved improv games and group exercises. They asked us to bring in our own crazy piece – I will not reveal what I did in that audition room. It was filthy and wonderful. Then this most recent round of auditions - in the room was the entire creative team. The director, casting directors, choreographer, music director, writers, producers, etc. And they were a lot friendlier than the assholes on Smash, and no one sang Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful.”

TT: It sort of does happen like that. My agent actually called me our final week of Lysistrata with the audition for Bring It On, and at first I didn't want to go; I figured I wouldn't be right for the show because I can't tumble, and I've never cheered in my life. But then I figured I might as well go to the audition, anyway. It wouldn't hurt. Plus, I've always wanted to work with Andy Blankenbuehler. [For] the first auditon, I was given a time to go in, and I was told I would be dancing. So I basically just showed up. Andy was there with his associate choreographer, Stephanie. They taught us a routine from the show, we had to do it in groups of 4 - twice for them, and then when everyone was done, they asked certain people to stay and sing. So I got asked to sing, [and I was] waiting in line with the rest of the guys who got asked to sing. We went in one at a time, sang a :30 cut of a song for them and then went home. 

Bring It On's Andy Blankenbuehler

Question 3: After the initial audition, what happens?  Call backs?  What happens at a call back that is different than the first audition?

TT: Yes. Call backs are the next step after the initial audition. In this case, I got a call from my agent the night of the first audition telling me I had a callback the next day, but this time I had 3 different characters to learn and 3 songs as well from the show. So I got an email with all the material and songs, ran over to my friend's place who's an accompanist and had him play the music so I could learn it that night. The next morning we started off with the same dance we learned from the day before, went through that a few times and then did it for Andy multiple times. Then he moved on to another 3 dances throughout that day. He ran this audition as more of a rehearsal because he wanted to see what he's going to be working with if he actually gave you the job. When that was all done, we each had scheduled times to come back and sing the songs and sides from the show. At this point, Alex Lacamoire, who is the music director for the show, was in the room. I sang the songs and he gave me notes,and then I did it again for him using the corrections and stylings he wanted. 

AW: After the first audition, I move on with my life. Sometimes I get a call telling me I have a callback! So I prepare the material again, and additional material they give me. Often times for a callback, they give you extra scenes and songs to learn. And often in a callback the director works with the actor in the room.

The Off-Broadway Company of
Triassic Parq: The Musical

Question 4 for Alex Wyse: From what I’ve read, this production reunites some people from the show’s initial run at Fringe NYC 2010.  Were you a part of it?  What is it like working with people familiar with the show and people new to it?

AW: I was not a part of the original run, but about two years ago, I did a table read of the writers’ new draft. And after I did that, I said to myself – I will play this role. (I’d recently read The Secret.) The version we’re doing is very new, so even the cast members who were previously involved are learning a whole new show. It’s very exciting! And the creative team – their prior experience with the show has only made them into better leaders for this process. They are able to guide us with confidence, knowing what this show has potential to be. Seriously, this show is going to fuggin’ rock!

Question 4 for Teddy Toye: When you get offered a show how does that come about?  On TV, they seem to tell you right there or over the phone.  Is that really it?

TT: I've never gotten a job where they have told me right in the audition room. I usually get a call from my agent; sometimes it's a few hours after an audition and sometimes it's weeks after an audition, and they are the ones that tell me if I'm getting the offer for that show. 

Teddy Tweets an #SIP for
Bring It On: The Musical

Question 5 for Teddy Toye: Congratulations on booking the Bring It On tour!  Describe for us how you reacted to the news!  What will your role entail?  What are you most looking forward to?  Anything have you a little nervous? 

TT: Thanks! I was thrilled and shocked! I didn't think that I would ever be hired for a cheer show without being able to tumble. I am actually going in as a temporary replacement for Michael Mindlinwho is leaving to go get married. So I will be taking over his track in the show for an entire month, as well as covering the principals Twig and Steven. I'm looking forward to learning how to stunt and do all the crazy cheering stuff.  I'm definitely nervous about it!  I just hope I don't drop anyone! (Laughs)
UPDATE: Several of you have asked, "Will Teddy be in the show when it comes to Broadway?"  Here's his answer! : As of right now, I'm not going to be with them at the beginning. I'll most likely be a vacation swing, or once a track opens up, I'll be with them, since I know 4 tracks in the show now.

Alex Wyse (center) and the cast
of Triassic Parq

Question 5 for Alex Wyse: Congratulations on booking Triassic Parq!  Describe for us how you reacted to the news!  What will your role entail?  What are you most looking forward to?  Anything have you a little nervous?  How fun will it be to work with Lindsay Nicole Chambers again? 

AW: Thanks!! I was eating lunch with my very talented friend Corey Boardman when I got the call from my agents. And I screamed a little. And then I made friends with the sweet lady sitting at the next table, who rejoiced with me. In the show, I play the Velociraptor of Innocence. I am the show’s heroine. Yes, I play a little lady dinosaur, discovering the world. I am looking forward to all of it – this show is hysterical and heartwarming, and this cast and team are totally stellar. I can’t wait to make NYC laugh. And Lindsay! What’s great is that this time we actually get to do scenes together. In LJ , we didn’t have a single moment of interaction on stage together. Isn’t that funny? We existed in separate worlds. But now we get to do scenes, songs, and sweat on each other. Nice. And what I’m nervous about? I’m nervous about the absurd amount of singing I have to do! Right now, I’m learning how to pace myself… this show is a marathon! I look forward to all you sexy people seeing it.

Thanks for taking time from  your busy schedules to chat with me!  We'll talk again soon!

  • For more about Alex Wyse, click HERE.
  • For more about Triassic Parq, click HERE.
  • For more about Bring It On, click HERE.

@jkstheatrescene (Twitter); (email); Comment below (Blogger)

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

REVIEW: Clybourne Park

Review of the Saturday May 26 matinee performance at the Walter Kerr Theatre in New York City.  A new play by Bruce Norris.  Starring Crystal A. Dickinson, Brendan Griffin, Damon Gupton, Christina Kirk, Annie Parisse, Jeremy Shamos and Frank Wood.  Directed by Pam McKinnon.  2 hours 10 minutes with an intermission.

Grade: C

A Raisin in the Sun is not one of my favorite plays.  I think, even by today's standards, it tries just a bit too hard.  No, it isn't one of my favorite plays, but I respect it, its playwright, Lorraine Hansberry, and the difficulty and courage it took to get it produced on Broadway.  Often billed as a sequel of sorts to A Raisin in the Sun, Bruce Norris' play, Clybourne Park, is also not one of my favorite plays (not even just this season), but I also don't have a whole ton of respect for it, either.  The entire endeavor smacks of obvious manipulation dressed up in a clever suit.  It wears its symbolism and profundity with the subtlety of a prom corsage, and it comes across as desperate in its need for the theatre world to recognize that it is AN IMPORTANT PLAY.  I'm guessing that everyone that has been (and will be) involved with this work was so busy congratulating themselves on finding AN IMPORTANT PLAY, that no one - producer or playwright - paused to consider that truly important plays don't announce themselves so blatantly; the truly great ones just are.

A few well-chosen references to the work that inspired it is the one thing Norris hasn't overdone in the Raisin/Clybourne connection.  In fact, two of those references actually enhance the play: the lone white character in the former - Mr. Linder - is a main character in the first act here.  Were act one of Clybourne Park the final act of A Raisin in the Sun, it might fit nicely.  It shows the flip side of the American experience in the late 1950's in a pertinent, interesting way.  The other reference, much subtler, has Norris naming a modern day character after the main character of Raisin - she is a descendant.  Were that the rest of the play as subtle and interesting.  The very structure of the play on paper sounds very clever and alive with possibility.  In two acts, one fifty years after the other, the play shows us how life in suburban America has evolved and devolved over the course of time. The execution of that promise ranges from decent to absurd, thought-provoking to mind numbing, and hilarious to eye-rolling groans of humor unfulfilled.

Clybourne Park circa 1959

Even knowing that each act takes place half a century apart going in, didn't make the first 10 minutes or so any less perplexing or maddening.  Norris and director Pam McKinnon have taken broad strokes to make each act feel and look like sit-coms from their perspective eras.  Inane conversation by either stupid or repressed housewives, with husbands that don't listen and still belittle, and a wise-cracking, clearly smarter, housekeeper are the hallmarks of the first act.  But it takes at least 15 minutes for the play to get going.  Only then do we find out why these people are moving, why the wife feels the need to fill the void every time the room grows quiet, and why the housekeeper can't wait for her time of servitude to be over days later.  And it doesn't help that the woman playing the aforementioned housewife is abundantly annoying in her tone - whiny - and silly in her mannerisms - she loves to twirl in her dress.  Where, oh where, was the laugh track?  Only when the veneer drops and we get to the meat of the story - Mr. Linder, representing the "community" comes to beg the white family not to sell to a "negro" family - do things get interesting.  When the homeowner says no, he's selling, the gloves come off and the bigotry explodes like fireworks.  Here is an all too brief moment where the playwright is close to something original:  maybe the guy selling the house would be interested in helping out his community if his community had been interested in helping him out in his time of need.  They didn't, he won't, and here come the property-value-dropping bad guys.

Clybourne Park circa 2009

Act two, which takes place in 2009, is also in the style of sit-coms of the period.  Cast with a self-conscious diversity (all the gals are feminists, all the guys are emasculated men; pro-war folks, anti-war folks; the lady lawyer, and the token gay guy, and the sub-character that ends up making the play's "big statement"), the seven characters are smart, upwardly mobile, and seem to have an unending supply of witty, bitchy, pithy remarks.  They also spend the majority of the act sitting perfectly still just chatting with each other; the main topic is introduced, danced around, tangentially part of any number of subtopics brought up. And just like any number of episodes of Friends, Seinfeld or even Modern Family, they talk, argue, and make up.  Nothing is really resolved, but everyone - audience included - leaves happy, having laughed and marveled at the nasty finesse of talkative yuppies who have no right to bitch about life.

Then, too, there are the heavy handed symbols - an army footlocker buried and unearthed fifty years later, the loud-mouth white bigot has a deaf, pregnant wife who can't hear his filth, but can carry his progeny, a black housekeeper and her husband smart enough to keep their mouths shut, and angry at themselves for keeping quiet, anyway.  Norris also fills both acts of his play with pointed conversations about world capitals - in act one that knowledge comes from National Geographic; in act two it comes from having actually traveled.   In both acts it reveals the utter lack of Americans to recognize a global community, let alone the one they live in. Really?  No shit.  Or how about the racist implications of who knows how to downhill ski?  There are several more examples, but suffice it to say that whatever tidbit of chat that comes up with any semblance of import in act one, it will even more pointedly come up in act two.  It is clever and even occasionally interesting the first couple of times (a ha!!), but grows rather old quickly.  Things get rather "Jersey Shore" in act two, when the characters try to out offend each other with jokes about jailhouse sex and a particularly nasty joke involving white women and tampons.  Gross yes, offensive, yes.  But not offensive because of racism or sexism.  Offensive because they are just bad.

Husband and wife coping in 1959:
Christina Kirk and Frank Wood

Two faces of bigotry: religious leader and community leader:
Brendan Griffin and Jeremy Shamos

Racism confronted: Jeremy Shamos,
Damon Gupton and Crystal A. Dickinson

Some credit for this inexplicably acclaimed slice of life being even remotely palatable goes to director McKinnon, who has managed to create two distinct plays here, with a keen eye to the style of each period (TV-wise, anyway).  Anyone who can make an hour-plus with seven people sitting in a straight line on a set with nothing look at interesting must be doing something right.  And she also has made it less obvious that the playwright has written one monologue per character per act, and for that I have to say, "directorial job well-done!"

The rest of the credit (and really the only reason to even see this play) is the mostly terrific cast, each one able to rise above the sophomoric script.  Despite being saddled with outwardly annoying characters in both acts, Christina Kirk works hard, and succeeds in getting us past the cringe-worthy annoyance of these women and helps us see a heart-broken mother, and a headstrong, self-made lawyer.  Brendan Griffin, deserves much credit for not being booed off the stage as he is assigned the unenviable task of playing a 50's style do-gooder minister, a sharp-tongued gay guy (we all are, aren't we?), and at the very end, the ghost of the past crossing paths with a modern day discoverer.  If you ever need to point to an example of "stereotype" simply point to any of these three characters.  Good for you, Mr. Griffin, for making all three of them more interesting than have any right to be.  Somewhat less successful is Annie Parisse, who can't quite overcome the blatancy of both of her parts.  In act one, she can't quite hide the bald symbolism of being the deaf, pregnant woman married to white supremacy personified, even when she is shamelessly being used as yet another tasteless running joke.  In act two, preggers again (duh), she is a loud-mouthed placating, self-righteously unracist racist.  (She gets the inevitable "Half my friends are black" line and the even more inevitable "I'm not going to apologize for being white" bit, too.)  Every "important" thing she says seems to have parentheses around them.  Thank God she didn't do the two-fingered quote gesture.

Both Crystal A. Dickinson and Damon Gupton bring a quiet dignity to their roles in act one, despite the cringe-worthy, though time period appropriate, dialogue they speak for most of the act.  Their "Yes, Ma'am"s and "Yes, Sir"s come across more as social convention than oppression.  And as the act heats up, and they are literally forced to confront bigotry in front of a room full of white people, you can't help but cheer them on when all defenses are dropped and they tell it like it is, dignity in tact.  In act two, they come out of it less dignified, but still, out numbered, get their point across.  They, like everyone else, are a little bit racist, too, to borrow from Avenue Q, a show which handles these issues in the 21st century with much more clarity and cleverness.  I guess it is just easier to take from a bunch of singing puppets.

21st Century America: The politically correct confront each other:
Annie Parisse, Crystal A. Dickinson and Jeremy Shamos

Finally, the two cast members who deliver powerhouse performances do so at the opposite ends of the spectrum.  Tony winner Frank Wood plays the inwardly suffering husband/father in act one.  Whereas his wife can't stand the silence, that's all he wants.  If he could while away his days reading National Geographic and eating Neapolitan ice cream, he would.  His performance is a very quiet measured one, almost too quiet to start with, until finally the cracks in his facade begin to show.  His obsessions then turn to his late son's footlocker and the need to bury it in the backyard, so that he, the father, might find peace in leaving the past entirely in Clybourne Park.  He has suffered alone, finding little support at home or from his community, which makes his now outward pain difficult to watch.  Finally, when confronted by that very community, in the personage of Mr. Linder, played by Jeremy Shamos, the gloves come off and the truth is told.  That release is a relief for all concerned - audience included - because finally the play is going somewhere.  Mr. Shamos, a Tony nominee for this role, has the most difficult of all tasks: he plays a blatantly racist person, who believes he is really thinking of the best interests of the black family moving in, the white family moving out, and the community which he serves.  A lot of what he says is so audacious that hearing it in a 1950's context in the 21st century helps his hate speech to retain its shock value.  Shamos attacks the role with gusto, and is deserving of his nomination.  Both he and Mr. Wood have less to do in act two.  Wood, in particular, has what amounts to a walk on role, but manages to handle one of the more heavy-handed symbolic events of the script in such a way that while it seems somehow inevitable, it is not trite (no spoiler alert here).  The playwright has given Mr. Shamos another decent rant to yell in act two, but his overall presence is diminished by the fact that instead of being the lone voice of hatred, all of the characters get their moment to share in it in act two.

All smiles in Clybourne Park, 2009

Perhaps that is Norris' point.  In mid-20th century America, bigotry and hatred all seemed to come from one direction: the middle and upper-class white male.  Now, in the new millennium, everybody hates and hurts.  The only difference is that now it is all wrapped up under terms like "political correctness" and "racial sensitivity."  Doesn't matter what suburb or city, we Americans are as territorial as ever.  It's just that now we feel so damned smug about it.

It says a lot, I think, that on the day I attended, a large group of high school students apparently enjoyed the show very much, roaring with laughter at every gross-out joke, groaning their displeasure at the loudly racist barbs, and cheering every clever comeback.  It says a lot, too, that they sat silently through the very few moments of sincere profundity.  I can't say whether or not they were quiet because they didn't get it or they got it or because they didn't know how to react.  But I'll be willing to bet that when they got home, they had plenty to say about the white bigot, the clever comebacks of the blacks, and the "cunt" joke.  Do you think they gave any more thought to those characters beyond the reality show-level language and sit-com timing they see every day on TV?  I want to believe so, but Bruce Norris doesn't ask that much of anyone watching his allegedly important play, either.

(Photos by Nathan Johnson)

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Monday, May 28, 2012

Looking Back: The 1992 and 1997 Tony Awards

What were the Tony Awards up to 15 and 20 years ago?  You'd be surprised at just how relevant they are to the upcoming 2012 edition!  (5 and 10 years ago were yesterday.  Click HERE.)


TITANIC - Best Musical 1997

Michael Cerveris and Company sing "There She Is," "The Boarding," and "Godspeed Titanic" - 2012 Tony nominee Michael Cerveris leads the cast of this stunning musical, and current Follies girl Victoria Clark can be seen as Second Class passenger Alice Beane.  (Off-Broadway side note: Titanic composer Maury Yeston returned to the New York theatre scene this past season with the ravishing Deat Takes a Holiday.)  The RMS Titanic sank 100 years ago this past April.

CHICAGO - Best Revival of a Musical 1997

Bebe Neuwirth, Ann Reinking and Company sing (and dance) "All That Jazz" and "The Hot Honey Rag" - Walter Bobbie directed this little show.  This season, he directed Best Play nominee Venus in Fur.  Bobbie had his own moment in the Tony telecast 5 years earlier, too.  See below!


CRAZY FOR YOU - Best Musical 1992

Harry Groener and cast sing "I Can't Be Bothered Now" - This season features not one, but two Gershwin-filled shows, Porgy and Bess and the catalogue show Nice Work If You Can Get It.  Crazy for You shows just how great a catalogue show can be.  This number isn't even close to the most exciting in the show, but even so, it is better than any number in this season's Gershwin musical.

GUYS AND DOLLS - Best Revival 1992

Walter Bobbie and Company perform "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat" - This revival ushered in the era that continues today - that of the "revisal."  That is, the revival of a musical NOT staged as a copy of the original.  All 5 revivals this season represent various degrees of the "revisal," from complete rewriting and character changes (On a Clear Day You Can See Forever) to deconstruction/reconstruction (The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess) to creative new stagings (Follies, Godspell, Evita, Jesus Christ Superstar).  1992 pitted Frank Loesser's Guys and Dolls against Frank Loesser's The Most Happy Fella, just as this season it is Webber/Rice against Webber/Rice with Evita vs Jesus Christ Superstar.  Oh, yes, and Walter Bobbie singer in the following video is the director of this season's Best Play nominee, Venus in Fur!

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Sunday, May 27, 2012

Looking Back: The 2002 and 2007 Tony Awards


As the 2012 Tony Awards approach (just two weeks from tonight!), I thought it might be fun to see where we've been, and how the past informs today...


COMPANY - 2007 Best Revival of a Musical

Raul Esparza sings "Being Alive" - The winner of Best Revival featured the direction of John Doyle (coming back soon with Merrily We Roll Along?) also featured the Tony-nominated performance of Raul Esparza seen in this clip from the awards show in 2007.  He did not win that night, egregiously in my opinion.  This year, he won't win either because he was snubbed for his star turn in Leap of Faith.

SPRING AWAKENING - 2007 Best Musical

The Company sings a medley of "Mama Who Bore Me," "The Bitch of Living," and "Totally Fucked" - Fun to watch because it is still THAT exciting, and fun to listen to, since they changed the lyrics.  Funny, too, that while they obviously couldn't sing "fucked," they were allowed to sing "bitch" (repeatedly) and not the word "breast"!  Notice a pre-Glee Lea Michele who naturally knows how to deal with the camera... a preview of Rachel Berry! And Awakening's Tony-winning director, Michael Mayer... his Clear Day was all but forgotten this time around...(Bonus: Notice the energetic Kimberly Grigsby conducting in the background.  Do you think she's that bouncy at Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark?)


INTO THE WOODS - 2002 Best Revival of a Musical

The Company sings a medley of "Into the Woods" and "Children Will Listen" - Poorly filmed - did the director attend rehearsals? - it is still cool to see some pre-fame folks: Laura Benanti, Christopher Sieber, and a few veterans: Gregg Edelman and the legendary John McMartin, currently in Anything Goes.  And isn't Vanessa Williams a beautiful witch? (And she stayed on pitch unlike Phylicia Rashad on the 1988 Tonys...)  Will Into the Woods be on the 2013 awards show?)


Sutton Foster and Company sing "Forget About the Boy" and "Thoroughly Modern Millie" - The controversy that surrounded the Best Musical win by old-fashioned, traditional Thoroughly Modern Millie over the avant-garde, edgy Urinetown: The Musical, reared its ugly head a couple of years later when the avant-garde, edgy Avenue Q beat out the traditional Wicked.  So, this year, which will it be?  Old-fashioned, traditional Newsies or avant-garde Once?  Ann L. Nathan was in Millie... does that improve the odds for Once?  Will Millie Tony-winner Rob Ashford win for Evita?  And Millie's nominated director, Michael Mayer... his Clear Day was all but forgotten this time around...

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Saturday, May 26, 2012

Broadway Box Office: Week 51: 05.14 - 05.20.12


The Broadway Box Office Top Ten 
for the 51st week of the 2011 - 2012 season 
(May 14-20; 37 productions):


Theatre Rank
1 The Book of Mormon Musical Eugene O'Neill 1
Disney's The Lion King Musical Minskoff 2
3 Death of a Salesman* Play Revival Barrymore 2
Wicked  Musical Gershwin 8
5 Evita Musical Revival Marquis 4
6 Jersey Boys Musical August Wilson 6
7 Disney's Newsies Musical Nederlander 4
8 Once Musical Bernard B. Jacobs 9
9 Rock of Ages Musical Helen Hayes 10
10 The Best Man Play Revival Gerald Schoenfeld 11

* - Death of a Salesman played 7 performances this week.

(To find out how this is calculated, please click HERE.)


Theatre Rank
33 Jesus Christ Superstar Musical
Neil Simon 25
34 A Streetcar Named Desire Play Revival Broadhurst 27
35 Godspell
Circle-in-the-Square 32
36 Don't Dress for Dinner Play Revival American Airlines 35
37 The Lyons Play Cort 36


+ or -

3 Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman Play Revival 2 -1
5Evita Musical Revival 4 -1
7 Disney's Newsies Musical 4 -3
8 Once  Musical 9 +1
10 The Best Man  Play Revival 12 +2
12 Nice Work If You Can Get It  Musical 6-6
22The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess  Musical Revival 22 No change
28 Clybourne Park  Play 21 -7
28 Other Desert Cities Play 29 +1
30 Peter and the Starcatcher Play 30 No change
32 Venus in Fur Play 31 -1
33 Jesus Christ Superstar Musical Revival 28 -5

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Friday, May 25, 2012

REVIEW: End of the Rainbow (Guest Blogger)


This review is courtesy of my friend, editor and frequent guest blogger, Mike.

Review of the Wednesday, June 16 matinee at the Belasco Theatre in New York City.  Starring Tracie Bennett, Michael Cumptsy, Tom Pelphry and Jay Russel.  A new play by Peter Quilter.  Musical direction by Jeffrey Saver.  Directed by Terry Johnson.  2 hours 10 minutes, including intermission.

Grade: B

When he was writing Evita, the story of a young woman who achieved superstardom early and fizzled out just as quickly, Andrew Lloyd Webber took inspiration from Judy Garland, whose life had a similar trajectory. As a young man he had seen one of her last London concerts and witnessed the star stuttering her way through the songs that had made her famous. This spring, by sheer coincidence, the Broadway theatergoer can see biographical works about both of these women: it’s just a short walk from the Marquis, where the recent revival of Evita is playing, to the Belasco, where End of the Rainbow presents a slice of Judy Garland’s life that includes the very concert that ALW must have seen.

Peter Quilter’s script for this appropriately bleak play is economical if predictable. Aside from Garland herself, there are only two characters of any significance. Anthony, Garland’s British pianist and confidant, stands in for the legions of gay fans who helped make her famous and whose devotion would ensure that her fame would outlive her by many decades. He is ultimately pitted against Mickey, Garland’s last husband (her fiancĂ© during the action of End of the Rainbow), a figure almost as tragic as the star herself. As the play starts, both Anthony and Mickey are committed to helping Judy stay away from drugs and alcohol, but while Anthony never wavers, Mickey – who has to live with Judy 24/7 – gradually morphs from protector to enabler. By the end of the story, weary from all of the suicide threats, expressions of entitlement, and diva moments, he’s willing to give her whatever she wants whenever she wants it.

Tracie Bennett

Using these three characters, Quilter creates enough situations to keep you interested for a brisk two hours, but in the end (if I may adapt a line from Xanadu) it doesn’t add up to much more than an after-school special for 60-year-old gay people. There are very few surprises, and (as with Evita) we learn very little that we couldn’t glean from looking up the relevant Wikipedia article. The inclusion of musical numbers from Garland’s final London concerts is a definite asset, but it might have been helpful to include a scene from earlier in her career to illustrate how far she had fallen. And, while Quilter made the very effective choice of distilling the competing forces in Garland’s life into the characters of Anthony and Mickey, a few details seem off. For instance, why muddy the waters by making Mickey a casual homophobe? This may well reflect real life, for all I know, but it introduces tensions among the characters that only distract from the action of the play and add unneeded fat an otherwise lean script.

Director Terry Johnson, who won a Tony Award two years ago for his work on La Cage aux Folles, keeps things moving very quickly. Transitions between “book scenes” in Judy’s London hotel room (where the bulk of the play is set) and musical numbers in a London nightclub (Talk of the Town) are frequent and very smooth. While the star’s many fits and dramatic self-indulgences could easily turn the show into a campy spectacle, Johnson manages to keep things rooted in reality; these moments register appropriately as moments of pity and revulsion rather than humor. I am still a bit confused by the end of the first act, where the staging (more than the script) suggests that Mickey is leaving Judy for good, only to have him return after intermission as if nothing had happened. Otherwise, though, Johnson’s direction was clear and precise.

Tracie Bennett as Judy Garland

The production’s design elements are effective, mostly unobtrusive, and always very literal. William Dudley designed both the set and costumes in a consistent, if slightly drab, period style. The set is attractive and uncluttered; it was a nice touch to have ornamentation on the top surfaces of ceiling fixtures so those in the higher reaches of the Belasco would have nice things to look at. The cleverest aspect of the set is the rear wall, which has three “modes”: for most of the play, it is the opaque back wall of a brightly lit hotel room; occasionally it appears more transparent, allowing us to see musicians playing behind it; and for the nightclub scenes it lifts away entirely to reveal the band. These effects are, of course, assisted by the lighting design of Christopher Akerlind (Tony winner for Light in the Piazza), whose design contribution, for my money, was the most creative and effective. To him fell the task of making the big apartment set “disappear” during the nightclub scenes without actually having to remove it from stage, and the lighting does this masterfully. In a production like this one, with frequent transitions between settings, the lighting design is absolutely crucial to keeping things from getting too “clunky.” (Although I realize this is not relevant to the discussion of the design, I’ll note that there was a weird problem with lighting cues near the end of the first act, with several minutes of action in the hotel room lit only by a spotlight. Not a big deal, but I’ve never seen anything like that happen on Broadway before.) It seems odd to me that Gareth Owen’s sound design garnered the show’s only non-acting Tony nomination, since it did not seem all that effective to me. While the spoken scenes were crystal clear, the singing in the musical numbers was rather muddy. Maybe this was done on purpose to simulate conditions in a 1969 London nightclub, but I doubt it.

While it was a sensible decision to present this production as a play rather than a musical, the music here is almost as important as the dialog in portraying Judy Garland’s downfall. Musical director Jeffrey Saver, arranger Gareth Valentine, and orchestrator Chris Egan have done great work here, and the terrific band of five on-stage musicians are a reason to see the show all by themselves.

Tracie Bennett and Tom Pelphry

The cast of End of the Rainbow consists of four people, one of whom, Jay Russell, has just a minute or two of stage time as a BBC interviewer. Among the other actors, Tom Pelphrey (two-time Daytime Emmy winner for his portrayal of bad-boy Jonathan Randall in the late, great Guiding Light) does a fine job as Mickey, Judy Garland’s last fiancĂ©. I had no trouble connecting with his character and with his poignant plight – a kind of spiritual downfall to accompany Garland’s physical downfall. Pelphrey’s portrayal establishes a well of audience good-will at the beginning of the play that allows us to sympathize rather than demonize later on, when his character does some things that are not so admirable. I do think the character, as written, allows for an even greater range of emotion than the actor exhibits in this production, but this still counts as a very solid Broadway debut for Pelphrey.

Michael Cumpsty, an actor with tons of Broadway and other New York credits, received a Tony nomination for his portrayal of Anthony, a gay pianist whose devotion to Judy survives many abuses and on-stage embarrassments. While I have no real complaints about Cumpsty’s performance, I think it is the character, rather than the actor, who earned the Tony nomination. I can think of a few other featured actors whose roles were more challenging and whose performances were at least as effective, but who failed to receive a nomination (including Tom Pelphrey, come to think of it). In short, Cumpsty excels in what looks like an easy part.

Michael Cumpsty and Tracie Bennett

The real draw of this play, of course, is Tracie Bennett, whose portrayal of Judy Garland has attracted much attention (and the show’s third Tony nomination). In a season with no lack of committed actors giving harrowing performances in roles that look emotionally and physically exhausting, Tracie Bennett still manages to stand out. I don’t know if I would vote for her to win (you’ll see my Tony picks soon enough), but her nomination in a jam-packed category is richly deserved. What the performance lacks in range or subtlety – given the nature of the play, Bennett’s intensity level can only hover between 9 and 10 – it makes up for in precision. In bringing Judy Garland’s downfall to life on stage, Tracie Bennett not only has to sing, stutter, shout, and whimper, but she has to stumble, fall down, climb on pianos, and throw herself off of furniture, all without hurting herself or anyone else.  It looks effortless, but surely it took a lot of effort to get all of this exactly right, which she does. I am not too familiar with the life or work of Judy Garland, but many of those around me were, and they made it clear as they left the theater that Bennett had nailed it.

End of the Rainbow is far from the best play I’ve seen this season; if a non-Judy-fanatic asked me to recommend a new play, I can think of three or four that are currently running that are more broadly appealing, more emotionally satisfying, and certainly more thought-provoking. Tracie Bennett’s performance, however, makes this show well worth seeing.

(Photos by Carol Rosegg)

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Thursday, May 24, 2012

Broadway on YouTube: The 2012 Tony Nominees: Clybourne Park and Other Desert Cities


Today's blog is about two of the Tony Award nominees for Best Play: Clybourne Park and Other Desert Cities.  Their advertising approaches couldn't be more different.


An old time family film roll - the kind Lucy and Ricky or Ozzie and Harriet might have shown at a post-vacation dinner party - tells us instantly that Clybourne Park has something to do with an America of a bygone time.  White suburbia - a car in front of every garage, lush green lawns, and 2.5 kids and a dog is on full display.  Oddly, a somewhat solemn violin underscores the wordless commercial.  Perhaps all isn't well in an idealized America.  Then, at the very end, the "film" melts to reveal the road sign logo, announcing we are at an intersection of Clybourne Park.  What happens during the film, though, gives us the most information.  The play comes to Broadway by way of an Off-Broadway debut, several regional productions and the West End.  And along the way it has picked up some awards - The Olivier for Best play in London and no less than the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. But lest we get too serious, the critical quotes tell us how remarkably funny the play is.  Without saying a word, we know the play is important and entertaining.  Can the Tony be far behind?  The ad will let the play speak for itself. A


The longest running of the four nominees, Other Desert Cities comes to Broadway after an acclaimed Off-Broadway run, so its critical response is a given.   The draw of the play is really the masterful plot and the star filled cast.  The ad capitalizes on both.  Animating the show logo - the shattering of a perfect scene - bookends the commercial, and provides a visual metaphor for the play.  Then in flashing bits, the plot of the play is revealed by the stars of the show in character: Stockard Channing, Stacy Keach, Rachel Griffiths and  Justin Kirk.  Then in the middle of it all, an intense Judith Light warns, "Don't back down!"  What an attention-grabber!  Bingo! You have conflict, intensity and drama.  Everything a fan of Broadway plays loves.  While the 30 second ad doesn't capitalize on the show's award nominations, it really doesn't need to.  A

For more of my Tony Awards coverage, click the "Tony Awards" tab at the top of the page.

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