Wednesday, February 28, 2018

REVIEW: The Band's Visit

Review of the Saturday, February 24, 2018 matinee performance at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in New York City.  Starring Katrina Lenk, Tony Shalhoub, John Cariani,  Ari'el Stachel, George Abud, Adam Kantor, Ahmad Maksoud and Andrew Polk.  Book by Itamar Moses. Music and lyrics by David Yazbek. Choreography by Patrick McCollum. Direction by David Cromer. 90 minutes. The Band's Visit is performed without an intermission.

Grade: A+

As I tried to wrap my mind around the sheer brilliance I had just witnessed in The Band's Visit, a lyric from the Kander and Ebb musical Zorba came to mind: "Life is what you do while you're waiting to die. This is how the time goes by!"

That pretty much sums up the action (and lack of it) in this remarkable study of culture clash and culture bonding in the middle of nowhere. In what could have been an explosive, violent meeting, ordinary people are tested when strangers come to town, and choose communication, charity and caring over mistrust, anger and hate.  It is as much about what is not said in long periods of silence as what is said in Itamar Moses' fat-free book.  And then there is the music - the gorgeous, evocative music and poetic lyrics by David Yazbek.
Katrina Lenk, Tony Shalhoub (center) and Company

I've long been a fan of this four-time Tony nominee's work, but this score is on a whole new level. Each song takes you to a new emotional place, some funny, some wistful, still others full of hope, but all infused with of-the-moment urgency that simultaneously keeps you grounded and able to surrender to a place that will be foreign to most observers.  Highlights of this thoroughly brilliant score include the witty "Welcome to Nowhere," the epic grandeur of "Omar Sharif," the awkwardness of youth in "Papi Hears the Ocean," the longing of "Something Different," and the haunting, profoundly moving coming together of everyone in "Answer Me."

Katrina Lenk and Tony Shalhoub
This Visit is helped greatly by a uniformly superb ensemble cast, led by the sublime Katrina Lenk, who is in the role that will make her a full-fledged star if there is any justice in this world.  Hers is a star turn that will likely be talked about years from now - think Donna Murphy in Passion, Patti LuPone in Evita.  Lenk moves about the space with the lithe aloofness of a cat; you can't take take your eyes off of her.  Then there's the quiet grace of Tony Shalhoub, whose measured widower almost lets his guard down, and still comes away from the experience with unexpected personal growth. The chemistry between the two is palpable.

Adam Kantor - Telephone Guy
The supporting players are just as terrific.  It was nice to see John Cariani bring his trademark quirkiness to a new level of intelligent thoughtfulness as the "between jobs" Itzik, and Kristen Sieh provided the perfect counterpoint to his antics as his tired, fed up wife Iris.  Andrew Polk, as the warm, widowed patriarch Avrum, adds to each scene this family is part of.  Then there is the sly, sensual Ari'el Stachel, who, as Haled, oozes charm, and wields it like sexy ninja - striking when the time is right for his own needs, but also using his more genuine romantic nature to help an awkward young man named Papi (wonderful understudy Ahmad Maksoud) take his first steps toward a relationship.  Finally, there is the island of a man, known only as Telephone Guy and played with enigmatic flare by Adam Kantor, who spends his days staring at a phone waiting for it to ring. It is this lonely creature that brings all of the town folk together musically as they finally, as one, show us what they (and all of us) crave - to be heard and responded to.

The Band
I would be remiss not to mention the titular "band," both on stage and off, who not only play the score, but punctuate each scene with intricate and virtuoso Middle Eastern musical riffs: Ossama Farouk, Sam Sadigursky, Harvey Valdes, Garro Yellin (onstage) and Andrea Grody, Jeff Theiss, Alexandra Eckhardt and Philip Mayer (offstage). Bravo, all.

This quiet gem creeps up on you.  It feels like nothing is happening and like everything life has to offer is happening all at once.  Many times, it is the wordless scenes where everyone is searching for ways to connect.  Sometimes it is the small details - the purpose-filled cutting of a watermelon for sharing, the way a father picks up his crying baby in the absence of its mother, the way a lost band lines up to leave a newly familiar, but welcoming, town.  Sometimes it is the grand gestures - sharing a family dinner with a stranger and forcing him to play his own music, a stranger showing a young man how to overcome painful shyness to put the moves on a pretty girl, a dinner out punctuated by a tense confrontation. Would that there was more of this kind of story happening in the real world. Hate is the easy way out; communication and understanding should be just as easy. Big or small, there isn't a bad or wasted moment in the entire 90 minutes.  Brilliant.

(Photos by J. Kyler, M. Murphy)

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

REVIEW: Sweeney Todd

Review of the Friday, February 23 performance at the Barrow Street Theatre. Starring Hugh Panaro, Carolee Carmello, Jake Boyd, Michael James Leslie, Eryn Lecroy, John-Michael Lyles, John Rapson and Stacie Bono. Musical Supervision/Arrangement by Benjamin Cox. Choreography by Georgina Lamb. Direction by Bill Blackhurst. 2 hours, 45 minutes including one intermission.

Grade: A+

My friend and frequent theatre companion Mike made an excellent observation after we saw Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street at the Barrow Street Theatre. He said, "It is amazing that one show can work brilliantly on a traditional Broadway stage, as a grand opera production and a tiny room with eight actors."  "Brilliant" pretty much sums up this thrilling, funny and downright scary production by The Tooting Arts Club.

One of my all-time favorite musicals presented in the currently en vogue immersive style could have been a recipe for disaster. I was concerned that "immersive" could turn ugly - visions of pretentious, too "in your face" blood for the sake of blood danced in my head. Then there was the eight person cast - eight people! - singing this huge score to a three-piece band - three piece! No. Way.

Thankfully, gloriously, I was worried for nothing. After seeing this masterwork everywhere from Broadway to a concert staging to a dinner theater to a high school, this teeniest of Todds may just be my favorite of all time. And here's why...

Michael James Leslie as Judge Turpin
I sat in the "immersive experience" section (which I highly recommend - totally worth the extra cost), which means I got to know a few fellow theater lovers sharing a common experience, and got to be literally inches from some of my favorite actors - Hugh Panaro was at the most three inches from me a couple of times.  More than once, our table was an entrance/exit point, and part of the action. "Epiphany" by a Sweeney whose razor is fully extended and pointing at you while singing about "less honorable throats..." and raging "we all deserve to die!" as he stares you in the eye gives it a more, um, "urgent" feel. "God, That's Good!" takes a more macabre turn when the unsuspecting patrons of Mrs. Lovett's shop are devouring her meat pies right in front of you.
Stacie Bono as Pirelli

For all of that "in your face"ness, though, it has all been carefully staged to maximize effect, not to excess or overindulgence.  Director Bill Blackhurst has crafted this staging to embrace the melodrama and comedy of the piece, particularly in act one, while act two takes a decidedly dark turn, where the murder and consequences of greed, revenge and madness build to a terrifying end.  Blackhurst also makes the very most of the very small space - the necessity of maximizing the small touches frequently astonish - a small room is very creepy and shadow-filled when lit by a sole candle and  a sailing ships arrival heralded by lighting a stained glass window with said ship on it is an "aha moment," even if it is a blink-and-you'll-miss-it thing as well. One wouldn't imagine choreography at all in a room this small, especially Sweeney Todd. And yet, Georgina Lamb adds to the evening with brisk staging and fun hand movements using forks and knives.  The space, designed with alarming detail by Simon Kenny and eerily lit by Amy Mae, becomes an added character.

As tightly directed, staged and streamlined (there are generous and completely appropriate cuts to book and score in act two) as this production is, it wouldn't be nearly as effective without a cast fully in tune with the demands of this production.  This cast is flawless. (NOTE: The principals all gave their final performances on Sunday; a new principal cast  begins today.)
Jake Boyd and Eryn Lecroy as
Anthony and Johanna

Across the board, this ensemble has mastered the ability to be both broad and painstakingly detailed, playing every heightened-reality moment without ever overdoing it, all while taking advantage of the close-up nature of this production.  This level of detail and subtlety is not often afforded stage actors, and they embrace it. Stacie Bono does triple duty as a citizen, the Beggar Woman and Pirelli, playing each with an infectious/sinister glee (Pirelli) and a pitiable sadness - even in her comedic moments (Beggar Woman).  The wonderfully sung and dastardly Beadle comes courtesy of John Rapson, and sinister and manipulative Judge Turpin is made all the more so thanks to Michael James Leslie, whose overbearing presence, and deep, creaky voice makes the character's demise very satisfying. (NOTE: These performers will remain with the production.)

The sweet innocence and eventual dissent into madness of Tobias is effortlessly played for every delightful "moment" by John-Michael Lyles, who I am sure is going to be a name we will all know soon.  His "Not While I'm Around" haunts me still all these days later. Then there is the magnificent turn of Eryn Lecroy, who nails not only the skittish ingenue of Johanna, but also infuses her with a modern
Hugh Panaro and Carolee Carmello as
Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett
edge of self-awareness, mining rarely touched humor in this role. And she sings beautifully, even making the sometimes intolerable "Green Finch and Linnet Bird" not only tolerable, but an actual highlight of the show.  Jake Boyd's Anthony is an intoxicating mix of wide-eyed naivete, love-struck bravery, and just a dash of sexiness which is a perfect match for Ms. Lecroy's self-awareness, and like her, his vocals are lovely.

Hugh Panaro finds all of the usual notes of self-destructive mania in Sweeney Todd, to be sure, but he also finds the humanity, humor and regret that is sometimes missing in other interpretations. His is a performance that is wonderfully sung and takes full advantage of this immersive staging, both in the broad (and literal) strokes, but also in the quieter, more reflective moments.  His "Epiphany" is stunning, his "Johanna" in act two is an exercise in cunning, and he joins in on "A Little Priest" with a menacing sense of humor.

Carolee Carmello and
John-Michael Lyles
But this production belongs to Carolee Carmello's Mrs. Lovett.  I didn't think I'd ever write this in my life, but she surpasses the great Angela Lansbury as my favorite Nellie.  While it is obvious she's in control of every single eye-roll, smirk and loving coo, Ms. Carmello never comes across as affected or rote. In act one, she's as hot a mess as her crazy hair, getting all of the usual laughs, but also finding humor where it wasn't before.  In short, she draws us in with her cute smiles and flattery. We are unprepared for her dark side, and are easy prey for her in act two.  Absolutely chilling in the second half, as you watch her work, it slowly dawns on you that you could be a pie filling as easily as a pie eater in her world. It is her performance in "Not While I'm Around," though that sealed the deal for me. Her easy, welcoming smile while lying to Tobias' face flips in an instant when she holds him close and plots and plans over his shoulder. Hair-raising and amazing. Brava.

I can't recommend this show highly enough.  It's a trip to the pie shop you'll never forget.

(Photos by J. Marcus)

Monday, February 26, 2018

#MyBroadwayThing : Playbill Storage

The image to your left is the one that started it all for me.  My very first Broadway show began what has become an obsessive collection. Before that fateful August afternoon in 1983, I had gotten Playbills for shows that were national tours that came to town, but I always got the program, and so I only read the Playbill, which, inevitably led to my mother throw it out after it got left laying around the living room or something or other. But that little magazine somehow took on super powers when I got it at the Gershwin Theatre - of course, that was also the day that was one of a very small handful of "life-changing moments" of mine.  That probably has a lot to do with another of "my Broadway things": storing my Playbill collection.

Like many collectors, I am sure hope, my methods of collecting have evolved over the past almost 35 years.  I kept my collection first in a shoe box, then, in what at the time was the only kind of Playbill binder, but today is the "basic" version (the kind with the metal sticks that hold them in the vinyl covered binder). I still have 18 of that type. Then I started putting them in bags with special cardboard designed for comic book collectors, and held in 3 foot long boxes also designed for the antics of Spider-Man and Archie. (I have two of those filled.) That is by far the most economical method for collecting, but is also the most difficult to look through.  That method was also borne out of economical necessity.

Fortunately, I'm now able to "upgrade" and I use the "ultimate" version of the Playbill binder, which is definitely the most expensive, but also the nicest and easiest to look through. Today's magazines are much thinner than the were back in '83, and I could probably put two in each sleeve, but if I'm completely honest, I don't because I don't want the flap showing over the cover!  Instead, I put my ticket (yes, an actual ticket!) and any understudy inserts in the back. Win-win! My trip this past weekend will be the beginning of my TENTH binder of this type. (Not a brag, more a troubled confession...)

This weekend's Playbills snug in their sleeves. Above them is my newest #BroadwayThing...
Along with this comes the obsessive way I collect them.  This includes carrying a small plastic bag in my pocket in which to carry my treasures home, guarding them from the elements and too much actual handling. It includes asking the usher, "May I have an extra copy, please?" They rarely say, "no." Then I select the one with the closest-to-perfect cover, and put it inside the "extra copy" and stow it safely under my seat. And. no, I don't look at it before the curtain or at intermission, either.  The final step is getting it carefully back to the hotel (or even more dangerously, ALL THE WAY HOME) for final storage. I've got the barely-touching-the-good-copy-while-putting-it-in-the-sleeve method down to a science. Once the book, ticket and understudy slip are in, the flap is put in place and I am done! The extra copy is now mine to enjoy for reading!

Please tell me I'm not the only one...

Friday, February 23, 2018

THE FRIDAY 5: Top Disney on Broadway Shows

In honor of Disney's Frozen, which began previews this week over at the St. James, this week's Friday 5 is all about my 5 favorite Disney stage shows.

I've seen 10 Disney Theatricals production, including all that have played on Broadway, as well as High School Musical and On The Record.  I like them all to varying degrees and for a wide variety of reasons, so picking my top 5 wasn't all that easy, though my number one was an easy choice.



I'm betting many of you think I'm nuts. But I loved this show.  The opening 15 minutes are still the most exciting thing I think I've ever seen, with it's life sized sailing ship bouncing on storm-tossed waves, to an explosive shipwreck, with constantly changing perspective, and ending with Josh Strickland's jaw-dropping entrance. It also co-starred two of my absolutely favorite actresses, Jenn Gambatese and Merle Dandridge, and featured one of my favorite scores ever, by none other than rock legend Phil Collins.


I'm a sucker for creative minimalist staging, and anything remotely related to the Peter Pan mythology, and those show did both spectacularly.  I laughed, I cried, and I was mesmerized from start to finish. Add to that star turns from three of my favorite Broadway actors - Adam Chanler Berat, Celia Keenan-Bolger and Tony-winner Christian Borle, and I was in theater geek heaven!


Aladdin is one of my favorite Disney films, and frankly, I was worried about how it would translate to the stage - particularly after not so great reviews pre-Broadway. But I was happily surprised.  I loved all the additions to the score, really enjoyed the staging, loved the flying carpet magic and especially the costume extravaganza of two huge production numbers!  And how could you not love the sly and cuddly James Monroe Iglehart in his Tony-winning performance as Genie?


If my number one choice was based solely on innovation and creativity, this stunning piece of theatre that goes so far beyond the film, would surely be it.  Julie Taymor's vision and the stunning Elton John/Tim Rice/Hans Zimmer/Lebo M. score are nearly flawless, and there was something about seeing that show in the equally stunning New Amsterdam Theatre that was pure magic.  And is there any better single opening number than "Circle of Life"? I was reduced to tears of joy every time I saw it - which is an embarrassing number of times.


Beauty and the Beast, the mother ship of Disney Theatricals delivered on every level. It brought the animated classic vividly to life in such spectacular fashion, and added to it with new songs and creativity.  I saw the 4th preview at the Palace Theatre and kept saying aloud, "I can't believe what I'm seeing!"  "Be Our Guest" was better live than as a cartoon, and the Beast's transformation was so shocking, it elicited a collective gasp from the audience that threatened to suck the scenery right off the stage.  The original cast was perfection, with the chemistry between Susan Egan and Terrence Mann could be felt all over the cavernous Palace. It saddened me to see a reduction in quality following its move to the Lunt-Fontanne, but the original production was superb.

Will Frozen bump one of these off the list? I'll let you know when I see the show in early May!

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

THE BROADWAY OLYMPICS: Event 5: Escape to Margaritaville

The 2018 Winter Olympics are winding down this week, but the Broadway Olympics are just getting started! So far you've awarded medals to cast members from Prince of Broadway, The Band's Visit, Once On This Island, and SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical. Now it's time to give the gold, silver and bronze to the cast of Escape to Margaritaville, and they will be competing for qualifying medals in 6 events: Leading Actor, Leading Actress, Featured Actress, Featured Actor, Male Ensemble and Female Ensemble.  Your job is evaluate each cast member's "heat quotient."

This survey will open in a new window! Check out the cast photos under the show logo, then click below to get the window. There are 26 actors in this show, so keep scrolling and submit your entry!

A few things to consider:
  1. No, you don't have to have seen the show to vote!
  2. Yes, this is like the old "Hot or Not" contests. We are looking for the best of the best of the Broadway musical season. Consider their overall "HEAT": charisma, talent, presence, performance (current and/or past)and, yes, looks. Do you think they have a great future ahead on stage?
  3. No, you do not have to answer for each cast member. Vote for as many or as few as you like!
  4. In categories with 3 or fewer candidates, all medals may not be awarded.
  5. Yes, the survey is secure, and NO, your information is not being collected.






Start the pop-up survey by clicking the START SURVEY button above the cast photos. And don't forget to click "SUBMIT SURVEY" at the end, after you complete the whole poll.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...