Monday, June 30, 2014

CD Review: Ahrens and Flaherty: Nice Fighting You (Live at 54 Below)

Broadway has had famous composing teams throughout is long history - Rodgers and Hammerstein, Rodgers and Hart, Lerner and Loewe, Bock and Harnick, Kander and Ebb... For the last twenty-four years, Broadway has had its share of tunes contributed by the team of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty.

They've had only five new scores on the Great White Way (so far), and they won a Tony, but they still haven't had that big breakout hit.  They've had two beloved , if modest, hits with Once on this Island and Ragtime, two flops with Seussical and My Favorite Year, and the jury is still out on this season's Rocky, a bigger hit in Germany than here.  And they've had modest success off-Broadway and regionally with shows like Lucky Stiff and Dessa Rose, and with the animated film (again, a modest hit) Anastacia.  To celebrate their 30 years together, they put together a series of concerts at 54 Below, featuring some of the stage's biggest stars, singing a sampling of their songs, past, present and future.  Listening to this terrific 2-CD set, Nice Fighting You, makes you realize that, despite not having a huge hit under their belt, they have quite a cache of amazing songs in a really astonishing variety of styles.  And you will also realize that Ahrens and Flaherty belong in that list of great Broadway composing teams.

Grade: A+

Title: Nice Fighting You (Live at 54 Below)
Artist: Lynn Ahrens, Stephen Flaherty and Various Artists
Label: Broadway Records
Number: BR-CD54B-012
Format: Double CD
Case: Single Jewel Case, with double CD center
Booklet: Full color, 14 pages.  CD package design and layout by Van Dean. Photos by Nathan Johnson.  Liner notes by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty.  Album produced by Michael J. Moritz, Jr. Executive produced by Van Dean and Stephanie Rosenberg.


1.  The hosts are terrific! 
They are articulate and charming.  Their patter is the perfect blend of humor, self-deprecation and "insider-y" gossip.  And best of all, Ahrens and Flaherty's affection for their chosen profession and each other comes shining right through your ear buds!

2.  The great selection of songs!

This is more than a greatest hits recording - and there are plenty of great hits here.  But there are also some great lesser-known songs from shows like Dessa Rose and Lucky Stiff.  And there are a few awesome gems, like Flaherty himself playing the overture from Ragtime on the piano, a song that was cut from the same show, and a few new songs from their upcoming new musical, Little Dancer.

3.  The cavalcade of Broadway stars!
The "cast list" here reads like who's who of current Broadway stars, including Kecia Lewis, Rebecca Luker, Stephanie J. Block and Mary Testa. Then there are the stars who have come back to sing the songs they created on Broadway and beyond, including LaChanze, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Bobby Steggert, Marin Mazzie (who also shows off some of the crazy she brings to her role in Bullets in an hilarious number called "Speaking French"), and the absolutely sweet Kevin Chamberlin, who recreates his Suessical numbers, "Alone in the Universe" and "Solla Sollew."  (There are several others on this recording, too.)

The bottom line is this: If you are new to their work, or love their work, this CD is for you.


Thursday, June 26, 2014

TBT: Brief Encounter and The Normal Heart

In my very first Throwback Thursday blog, I thought I'd take a look back to five seasons ago (2010-2011) at the two plays that really wowed me and continue to be standard setters.  One started the season, the other ended it - two perfect bookends!

The one that started it was the visually stunning Roundabout/Kneehigh production of  Brief Encounter (review HERE).  It was the very thing that thrills me about live theatre... I was completely transported by the acting and the story.  But you can get that from a movie, too.  What made it extra special was that took me away in all the ways that only a live experience can, with jaw-dropping staging and being able to create a believable world of impossibility - people don't swing from chandeliers trying to catch each other in real life!  It is also the single best use of projections I've yet to see on a Broadway stage, before or since.  How great that the actors onstage "joined" the filmed sequences!

Swinging from the chandeliers!
A pre-Matilda Gabriel Ebert
The theatricality!
Actor, meet projections...

The one that ended the season was the emotionally stunning revival of The Normal Heart (review HERE).  I've since seen the touring production of this revival and the HBO film, too.  But version will ever compare to the hold-my-breath-til-it's-over experience of the show that played the Golden Theatre.  Powerful, arresting, a roller coaster... it also contained some of the best acting I have ever, ever seen. Joe Mantello, John Benjamin Hickey and Ellen Barkin still occasionally haunt my dreams.  The memory of the roar of applause at the end of Barkin's masterfully performed monologue, followed by the quiet sobs all around me as the play came to its tragic but empowering conclusion, is one I'll hold with me forever.  The gold standard of modern day acting if you ask me...

Lee Pace, Jim Parsons, Joe Mantello, Patrick Breen
The power of a statement simply told
These people are why there needs to be
an Ensemble Tony Award


Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Broadway's Summer Cleaning

The "Circle of Life"
Well, we're now nearly three weeks post-Tony Awards, and the annual purge of shows is fully under way.  Summer, like the dead of winter, can be a slow time on Broadway, and producers pull the plug and cut their losses.  Such is the Broadway Circle of Life, as they say in one show that's staying put.  Whether it is because of bad box office or the end of a limited run, a lot of shows will be gone before Labor Day.  Here's a look at them:

A Raisin in the Sun closed on June 15
  • Act One closed after its scheduled run on June 15.  31 previews, 67 performances
  • A Raisin in the Sun closed after its "strictly limited engagement" on June 15.  27 previews, 85 performances
  • Mothers and Sons closed on June 22.  33 previews, 104 performances

After Midnight will close on June 29
  • After Midnight will close on June 29, after 18 previews and 273 performances.
  • All the Way will close on June 29 following its limited engagement after 27 previews and 131 performances.
  • Casa Valentina will close on June 29 following its extended limited engagement after 24 previews and 79 performances.

The Realistic Joneses will close on July 8
  • The Realistic Joneses will close on July 6, after 27 previews and 105 performances.
  • The Cripple of Inishmaan will close on July 20 following its limited engagement after 9 previews and 105 performances.
  • Of Mice and Men will close on July 27 following its limited engagement after 31 previews and 118 performances.
  • Newsies will close on August 24, after 16 previews and 1,005 performances. (I have to say I'm a little surprised at this one.  Disney probably wants to use the set for the National Tour.)
  • Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill will close on August 31 following its extended limited engagement after 20 previews and 141 performances.

And there are a few other shows that might be considering closing up shop, too.  But there is this to look forward to: old shows have to close for new ones to open!


Tuesday, June 24, 2014

LOGOS: Holler If Ya Hear Me

I haven't seen the show yet, so I can only give my impressions based on what I see, which is probably the most honest and exactly the experience most theatre consumers should have with a new logo. It should beg the question: does this peak my interest enough to buy a ticket to Holler If Ya Hear Me?

Grade: C-

One can only imagine the conundrum the publicity team and the producers faced trying to come up with a campaign that shows everything it needs to show.  Does it reveal anything about what it is about?  Does it show how edgy and progressive it is trying to be?  From what I see, kind of...

The predominately black background is actually eye-catching, if you consider that it is different than most of the other Times Square billboards.  It also has the feel of darkness, solitude and anger, especially in contrast to the bright white that seems to have broken through, the jagged, sharp remains of that "breakthrough" like urban rubble at the bottom.  The white, looking like paint brush strokes (and an urban skyline, sort of), leads you to the title, also in white paintbrush strokes.  It suggests to me that the "painter" broke through the darkness, and left his mark - "HOLLER IF YA HEAR ME" for the world to see. Then there is the colorful rose that has grown out of the destruction, offering a ray of romantic hope, its multicolored petals suggesting a coming together of many forces, declaring that the world is not just a black and white place.  So far, pretty artistic...

Then there is the subtitle, in a you-really-have-to-stop-and-read-it-because-it-is-too-messy-to-get-in-a-glance cursive (?).  It tells us that the show is based on the lyrics of Tupac. Does that mean it is about him, or just uses his words?  I must not be the only one who had this confusion, as later iterations replaced that with a cursive "An original musical" - to enthrall regular theater-goers who are vocal about wanting new, from scratch musicals? And the "urban stamp" font at the top: "The music is Tupac. The story is now."  Okay, so now it is his music (his lyrics are along for the ride?), and the story is a today story. (Is this supposed to imply that Tupac's stuff is old?  Or are we supposed to know that Tupac died years ago and if the story is "now" it can't be biographical?  Who knows?  And if you have to spend that much time figuring it out, is the show going to be that potentially confusing?

I guess it is very difficult to court Tupac fans, a young audience demo AND regular theatre-goers, many of whom (myself included) probably aren't familiar with this kind of music.  You don't want to alienate anyone, right?  But the whole thing smacks of compromise - big compromise.  And compromise will alienate hardcore fans of any musician AND hardcore theatre fans.  (They should have gotten together with the people behind American Idiot.) It sure is perplexing.

If being perplexed means "interested enough," then I'd buy a ticket.  Otherwise, I'd try a different show. Apparently, based on its box office numbers so far, I am not alone.


Monday, June 23, 2014

Broadway Ladies: Ms. June 2014: Jessie Mueller

Ms. June 2014
Jessie Mueller

WHY SHE'S MS. BROADWAY: DUH!  It's been a long time coming... after a very successful career in Chicago, she made her Broadway debut (and earned her first Tony nomination) in On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, where she wowed the critics, who otherwise dismissed the show.  Then she played the exotic Helena Landless in the acclaimed revival of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, followed by a replacement stint in Nice Work If You Can Get It. In between all of that she appeared in a concert version of Carousel, and the Shakespeare In The Park revival of Into the Woods.  But to date, she will be remembered for her Tony-winning star turn as Carole King in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical.  The consummate stage actress - at home in children's theatre, doing Shakespeare, or in musicals in the ensemble, supporting roles or the leading actress - she has everything it takes to be Ms. Broadway for today AND tomorrow!



  • She was born on February 20 in Evanston, Illinois.
  • Everyone in her immediate family is in "the biz" - Mom, Dad and siblings Andrew, Matt and Abby (she's in Kinky Boots)!
  • She's a 2005 graduate of Syracuse University.
  • She's won two Joseph Jefferson Awards for her work in Chicago-area theatre (Carousel and She Loves Me), and she was named 2011 Actor of the Year by the Chicago Tribune!
  • When she was in Henry IV with the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, the company went to The Swan Theatre in Stratford-Upon-Avon!

3 of the Mueller Siblings

(Including Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, The Marriott Lincolnshire and The Goodman Theatre, and roles in shows including SHE LOVES ME, A CHRISTMAS CAROL, GUYS AND DOLLS, A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC, and SHOUT! THE MOD MUSICAL, and many others!)

Animal Crackers
A Christmas Carol

A Little Night Music and "The Ant and the Grasshopper"

Shout! The Mod Musical

Guys and Dolls

Sleeping Beauty



Some DROOD mayhem:

As Cinderella in The Publis's INTO THE WOODS

As Amalia in SHE LOVES ME

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