Friday, November 29, 2019

Looking Forward to Winter: December 2019 - February 2020

I don't know about you, but I cannot believe it is already (almost) December! The weather gets colder, and the holidays come and go, and it starts all over again. Only thing is, it goes faster and faster every year! Ah, well... As is our ritual, before we look ahead, let's look back at how the fall months went, show-wise. It was a pretty good autumn! While the leaves turned outside, we saw Come From Away (A+) for a second time, and a really good regional production of A Chorus Line (B+). Just this past weekend, we saw three shows in New York: Little Shop of Horrors (A+), The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical (C+) and Tina: The Tina Turner Musical (A). That's a nice A-/A average.

This winter, things will slow down a bit for us, with only three shows that are on our schedule. The spring months will be much busier (we have eleven shows on the schedule!). Three is definitely better than nothing, and so, we are...

December 2019 - February 2020

Jagged Little Pill (on Broadway at the Broadhurst Theatre)
Judging by the chat boards, theater fans are divided on this one, mostly because they think there's too much going on, but the music and its arrangements are terrific. I really enjoy Alanis Morissette's music, and particularly the lyrics. And I love shows that give you a lot to chew on. While I hope that I'll love it and be thrilled by it. If not, I have a thing for messy musicals. So I am optimistic...

The Inheritance (on Broadway at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre)
Here's another one that is getting mixed reviews by both critics and audiences. I will try not to compare it to that other gay-themed, two-part epic play recently brilliantly revived. It's funny that when I'm told a play will make me cry or laugh, it usually makes me not laugh or cry much. (Thanks, Tootsie!) Still, I am hopeful about this one.

West Side Story (on Broadway at the Broadway Theatre)
Controversial casting. Controversial advertising. Controversial directorial decisions. People are talking about this one, and no one has seen a single second of the production. Personally, this work is one of my favorites of all-time - a true masterpiece. But I am more than willing to try something new. Will I love it, or hate it? Who knows? I'll give it a chance. One thing is for sure: I can't wait to see what the fuss is all about!

So, while the number of shows may be low this season, these three shows have the potential to give us plenty to think about, argue over, and, I hope, something to love.

*****     *****     *****     *****
Answers to last Friday's Quiz:
3 Actors - 1 Role

1. Tyne Daly, Bernadette Peters, Patti LuPone
Rose - Gypsy

2. Matthew Broderick, Daniel Radcliffe, Darren Criss
J. Pierpont Finch - How to Succeed...

3. Barbara Cook, Judy Kuhn, Laura Benanti
Amalia Balash - She Loves Me

4. Jonathan Groff, Hunter Parrish, Austin P. McKenzie
Melchior Gabor - Spring Awakening

5. Barbara Cook, Betty Buckley, Marin Mazzie
Margaret White - Carrie


Thursday, November 28, 2019

Thankful for Theater

As we theater fans prepare for the Broadway numbers on the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, I'd like to take a moment to give thanks.

Thank you... all of those television programs that feature Broadway shows. While I am so fortunate to see most of these shows in their entirety, and appreciate getting to revisit them in this way, it makes me happy to know that these appearances might some how satisfy and nurture the love of live theater for those who don't get the opportunity to see much of it. those who use Twitter and other social media to celebrate all that theater can do. Lifting up and supporting, rather than dragging down and tearing apart. understudies, stand-bys and alternates. You work hard, are rarely seen, and when you are, people may be disappointed that the "star" isn't on. But I (and many others) appreciate you very much. Just this past weekend, I was reminded of this twice!

...finally, to all of you who come to this site regularly or once in awhile. You make working on it worthwhile.



Wednesday, November 27, 2019

REVIEW: Tina: The Tina Turner Musical

Review of the Sunday, November 24, 2019 matinee performance at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre in New York City. Starring Nkeki Obi-Melekwe, Daniel J. Watts, Dawnn Lewis, Myra Lucretia Taylor, Charlie Franklin, Mars Rucker, Jessica Rush and Mehret Marsh. Book by Katori Hall with Frank Ketelaar and Kees Prins. Musical Supervision and arrangements by Nicholas Skilbeck. Set and costume design by Mark Thompson. Lighting by Bruno Poet. Choreography by Anthony Van Laast. Direction by Phyllida Lloyd. 2 hours, 45 minutes, including one intermission.

Grade: A

We are, frankly, tired of bio-musicals, having been bored by the overly sanitized Beautiful and frustrated by the slick but unsatisfying Jersey Boys. Others have littered our theater-going, with only On Your Feet! coming close to being both entertaining and dramatic enough to justify bio-musicals in the future. It isn't that we don't care for the catalogs of music that have gotten such treatment, or the lives of their subjects. But somehow, more often than not, these lives get the Wikipedia/Behind the Music treatment, which is to say, they simply aren't dramatic. Was Carole King's life really that easily solved and sunny? Other times, these vehicles are so over produced/directed that it feels like everyone involved is trying to put one over on us, like we won't notice if it is loud enough and never stops moving. Seriously, couldn't the fake Four Seasons sing one song all the way through?

"Proud Mary"
Truth be told, the primary reason we went to see Tina: The Tina Turner Musical was because Mike and I have set a goal to see every musical that opens on Broadway this season. We went in fearing the worst - over-conceptualization or a squeaky clean version of Ms. Turner's notoriously troubled life. (And with only one Tina?) Well, what a wonderful surprise we got! Not only were our worries for naught, our faith in the sub-genre has been almost restored. Tina is the best of the bio-musicals, and is also a terrific musical.

Though I'm certain living the reality of parental rejection and spousal abuse was way more horrifying that it was portrayed on stage, it is to the show's credit that this isn't ignored or minimized. It was uncomfortable to watch as it was. Katori Hall's book (with an assist from Frank Ketelaar and Kees Prins) vividly depicts the familial cycle of abuse, emotional, physical and sexual. There is also plenty of coarse language, and disturbing racism. Harsh and occasionally shocking in its execution, the book provides the dramatic tension necessary for any musical to work. The score, made up of Turner's greatest hits and a few period songs, more often than not hits the mark and works in the story. Only one time did it really seem awkward and forced - "We Don't Need Another Hero" as a justification for cremation is, well... That said, the song itself, like all of the others, is beautifully arranged (by Nicholas Skilbeck, a skilled musician) and sung. No snippets here, each number is sung in its full version, thank goodness.

Myra Lucretia Taylor (right) with Adrienne Warren
Visually, the show is nice to look at, shifting easily between concert settings, recording studios, and a variety of living spaces. The sets by Mark Thompson, the vivid projections by Jeff Sugg and the superb lighting by Bruno Poet allow for a seamless ebb and flow between performance and life, just as Ms. Turner's life did. Thompson's cavalcade of costumes help nab time and place. Choreographer Anthony van Laast recreates some great, notorious numbers from the Ike and Tina Turner Revue, and has staged some interesting numbers with the feel of music videos from MTV's heyday. But it is Phyllida Lloyd's fluid, easy direction that keeps things moving, equal parts reality, performance art and concept musical. Her work, while evident, doesn't get in the way of the action, and the storytelling never feels heavy-handed or insincere.

The large, multi-talented cast is full of quadruple threats. What dancers! It was exhausting just watching them. Watching the company go full out on "Proud Mary" not once, but twice, was a genuine thrill. Featured in supporting roles, Jessica Rush (as one of Ike and Tina's managers) and Charlie Frankin (as Tina's solo manager, Aussie Roger Davies) were standouts as defenders of our heroine. Mars Rucker positively glows as Alline, Tina's sister, and Mehret Marsh as young Anna-Mae, earns screams of approval with a voice five times as big as her diminutive stature. The piece is grounded by the warm and wise presence of the marvelous Myra Lucretia Taylor as Tina's beloved grandmother.

Daniel J. Watts as Ike Turner
I gasped more than once at the performance of Dawnn Lewis, as the headstrong abuse survivor/neglectful mother who abandons a young Tina. She is unbelievably cruel, denying Tina the love and acceptance she craves, but has learned to thrive without. Ms. Lewis has real presence, which is perfect for a role where she must hold her own against the two strongest characters in the piece. One is Daniel J. Watts, who is explosive as Ike Turner. In lesser hands, this bastard could be a one-note blur of rage. But Watts wisely gives a volatile performance that grows in intensity, yet is even more dangerous in quieter moments.

Nkeki Obi-Melekwe as Tina Turner

If you find yourself at a performance where Nkeki Obi-Melekwe plays Tina Turner, do not despair. She is a brilliant performer, who, even from the mid-mezzanine, seemed larger than life. Wisely, she does not do an imitation of Turner - I mean, who really could? Rather, she does an "approximation" which works perfectly. But when she sings, WOW! I'm pretty sure the audience over at Tootsie can hear her. Seriously though, whether she is blasting through a powerhouse rendition of "River Deep - Mountain High," or quietly emoting through "Private Dancer" or "What's Love Got to Do with It," she owns the stage and our hearts. What talent.

Will bio-musicals ever be our favorite kind of show? Not likely. But from now on, we won't make too many preconceived judgments ahead of time. And, guess what? When it tours, we plan on seeing Tina again!

📸: J. Kyler, M. Harlan


Tuesday, November 26, 2019

REVIEW: The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical

Review of the Saturday, November 23, 2019 evening performance at the Longacre Theatre in New York City. Starring Chris McCarrell, Jorrell Javier, Ryan Knowles, Sarah Beth Pfeifer, James Hayden Rodriguez, Jalynn Steele and Kristin Stokes. Based on the novel The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan. Book by Joe Tracz. Music and lyrics by Rob Rockiki. Scenic design by Lee Savage. Costume design by Sydney Maresca. Lighting design by David Lander. Sound design by Ryan Rumery. Fight direction by Rod Kinter. Choreography by Patrick McCollum. Direction by Stephen Brackett. 2 hours, 5 minutes, including one intermission. Closes January 5, 2020.

Grade: C+

If the young man sitting behind me is any indication of success, then The Lightning Thief is a success of Hamilton proportions. I am, frankly, envious of his absolute joy and excitement. I remember when seeing a show gave me that feeling. Perhaps you can, too. You know, when what you have seen is just so great, you can't talk fast enough to get all of the happiness out? The boy was teary with joy, and couldn't wait for intermission to be over. For what it is - children's theater - indeed, The Lightning Thief is an achievement. As adult Broadway entertainment, not so much.

Chris McCarrell and James Hayden Rodriguez
Mind you, I knew going in that it was aimed squarely at the kids sitting all around us. But, like it or not, Disney has set a nearly impossible bar for adult level children's theater. No, I'm not talking about the necessity of a zillion dollar budget and movie level special effects, which TLT certainly does not have. I mean that Disney shows are enjoyable on both a child's level and an adult level. So, as theater, sans the "children's" adjective, The Lightning Thief comes up short.

Oddly enough, though I think it would have been better streamlined down to its original one act size, I can't really say what I would cut - it didn't feel too padded. Joe Tracz' book is fast-paced, blink-and-you'll-miss-it full of story. It is clear and downright exciting most of the time, with smartly placed moments of serious emotion to let us catch our breath and feel something. But it lacks a certain maturity. The same can be said for Rob Rokicki's boisterous score, which as it is happening feels exactly right, both musically and lyrically, but none of it really sticks with you, either. Here is a case where I liked the music enough that I wish I could hum some of it.

Percy Jackson fights the Minotaur
I am a firm believer that a great show doesn't have to be lavish - if it is really a great show, it'll be great on a bare stage (Chicago is a perfect example). That said, if going "un-lavish" is the concept of your design, I think it important to incorporate that somehow into the direction (think the recent revival of Once On This Island where recycling was part of the pre-show and therefore made sense in later scenic and costume choices). That is not the case here. Though urban alley chic is consistently applied to all aspects of the aesthetic, Lee Savage's graffiti covered set of construction scaffolding and Sydney Maresca's trash as monsters costumes come off as cheap and low-budget. Somehow, the creative team just expects us to accept it as is, without even a visual cue or two as to why it looks like it does. Thankfully, both David Lander's lighting and Ryan Rummery's sound are more on par with a Broadway production, as both create mood and up the excitement.

I suppose with the same book writer and director, comparisons between The Lightning Thief and Be More Chill are inevitable. While BMC is aimed at a slightly older demographic, TLT is considerably better. Here, the book doesn't pander to the lowest common denominator with an unhealthy need to be cool; instead, it exects its young audience to pay attention and it never talks down to them. I really appreciate that. The same thing can be said for Stephen Brackett's direction. Here, he keeps a breathless pace, but his staging is far more creative and engaging. Yes, he paints with a too-broad brush sometimes, but he has chosen a theme and stuck with it. Perhaps his earlier show would still be running if he had done the same. A lot of staging credit also needs to go to choreographer Patrick McCollum and fight director Rod Kinter, who continually create movement that seems both epic and full of adventure - a great thing considering the story. They work miracles with just seven actors.

Chris McCarrell and Jalynn Steele
And what about those seven actors? They are a wonderful example of a "company." Considering that they have all been together so long, they make full benefit of the obvious bond and trust they share, but they also manage to make it feel like this is the first time they've ever done it (take note, Hamilton). That they play 47 different characters is staggering to think about. But a simple costume piece and a shift in posture sure can be stage magic, as they prove continually. That said, even small children know when they are being played, and Sarah Beth Pfeifer in particular would benefit from bringing all of characters down a few notches; what gets a laugh the first time won't always get a laugh the tenth time. The only one of the three main characters who plays multiple roles is Jorrell Javier, and when he's playing camp administrator "Mr. D," he is an excessive scenery chewer. He screams every line and toward the end does way to much mugging and posturing. He reminded me of the excess of George Salazar in Be More Chill, which I guess makes sense, as Salazar was in the first edition of TLT. That is not a good thing. Having said that, Mr. Javier is wonderful in his primary role as best friend and satyr, Grover.

Chris McCarrell and Kristin Stokes
Other standouts in the company are James Hayden Rodriguez, who creates a suave and confident character, which nicely balances with all of the surround in angst, and Jalynn Steele, who is so warm as Percy's mother, and a sultry riot as Charon, our hostess to Hades. The best of the ensemble for me was Ryan Knowles who played a wide variety of roles, male, female and mythical. His booming deep voice reminded me of a certain fellow way down in Hadestown. Perhaps Mr. Knowles could be seen for replacing that certain fellow?

There were two pleasant discoveries here as well. One was girl power incarnate, the fierce Kristin Stokes, who was the kind of performer you watch even when she's in the background just to see what she's up to. She's created a smart, brave young woman on par with Belle, Elsa and Hermione Granger, and that is a huge compliment. I look forward to seeing her in a production worthy of her talents soon. I feel the same for the powerhouse that is Chris McCarrell. He is Albus, Scorpious and Evan Hansen all rolled into one. He is a terrific mix of Broadway and rock star - think Dear Evan Hansen meets American Idiot. (I nominate him for a revival of the latter!) I suspect both Ms. Stokes and Mr. McCarrell have long careers ahead of them, and we are all the better for it.

Despite its shortcomings, The Lightning Thief was enjoyable. And, hey, I can check "having toilet paper shot at me so I am wrapped like a mummy" off my bucket list. Subsequent patrons sitting in orchestra seat C109 beware!

📸: J. Kyler, J. Daniel


Monday, November 25, 2019

REVIEW: Little Shop of Horrors

Review of the Saturday, November 23, 2019 matinee performance at the Westside Theatre/Upstairs in New York City. Starring Jonathan Groff, Christian Borle, Chelsea Turbin, Tom Alan Robbins, Kingsley Leggs, Ari Groover, Salome Smith, Joy Woods, Chris Dwan, Kris Roberts, Chelsea Turbin, Eric Wright and Teddy Udain. Book and lyrics by Howard Ashman. Music by Alan Menken. Scenic design by Julian Crouch. Lighting design by Bradley King. Costume design by Tom Broeker. Sound design by Jessica Paz. Choreography by Ellenore Scott. Direction by Michael Mayer. 2 hours, including one intermission. Closes March 8, 2020.

Grade: A+

What a wonderful thing it is to see a thrilling production of a show you love! Such is the case with the practically perfect off-Broadway revival of Little Shop of Horrors. The show is such fun, made even more so by the cast and production that are completely on the same page, and they are all clearly having a ball.

Visually, the show benefits from being small. There's an inherent quaintness about it. Never once did I think, "wow, imagine how much better this would be if they had more space and added more effects." Instead, the result is both retro and somehow sci-fi all at once. Julian Crouch's Skid Row is wonderfully detailed and feels larger than life, even as the growing plant makes it appear claustrophobic - exactly as it should be, while Bradley King's old school lighting heightens the mock pulp thriller vibe of the piece. All of the above is equally true of Tom Broeker's clever, but on point costuming. My only technical quibble, frankly my only quibble about the whole show, was with Jessica Paz's frequently too loud sound design, where the band over powers the singers in the bigger numbers. Frequently, I had trouble making out what the Urchins were singing, which is a problem considering the deep well of clever creativity in Howard Ashman's lyrics. Fortunately for me, I knew the lyrics well enough to fill in the blanks.

It would be very easy, after settling into a run, to run fast and loose with these characters, overplaying and mugging for the audience. Thankfully, that is not the case here. Every cast member is going full throttle, and obviously having the time of their life. The Urchins (Ari Groover, Salome Smith and Joy Woods) are a riot of sass, funk and soul, delivering their narrator/girl group role with panache. (Ms. Woods was a particular standout for me.) These ladies can SING! Meanwhile, Tom Alan Robbins as the down-on-his-luck, aptly named Mushnik, is a heady mix of old world warmth, almost cuddly, and shrewd, manipulative meany. Let's just say that when he meets his end, it is a good thing. Kingsley Leggs' vocalization of Audrey II equal parts big laughs and sinister creepiness.

Anyone that had misgivings about casting "too cute" Jonathan Groff as Seymour, needs only to see his very first entrance to reconsider those misgivings. He is just amazing, with superb comic timing and, yes, a fully believable nerdiness. His voice is perfectly suited the score. Then there is the incomparable Christian Borle, whose gift for physical comedy and snap-of-your-fingers characterizations recalls the days of such comic genius as Sid Caesar,  Milton Berle and Tim Conway. The treat of his star turn is discovering what he'll be wearing, how he'll be revealed, and how in just one or two lines he will create a full character. But the best thing about his performance is that he never outstays his welcome or becomes self-indulgent. He also nails the pure evil of the maniacal dentist role with a harsh stream profanity and abuse hurled at the sweet Audrey. When he calls her "Slut!" it stung the whole audience.

Sometimes fate brings you wonderful surprises. I had one such surprise in the form of an understudy named Chelsea Turbin. Mark. My. Words. She will be famous. Soon. What a performance! Sweetly naive yet street smart, funny yet tragic, vulnerable yet tough as nails, her Audrey is sheer perfection and the heart of the show. Her voice is five times the size of her entire body, and she has that illusive, intangible "it" factor. Look for her to do big things.

EDIT: Now, the show is scheduled only through March 8th, and tickets are scarce. But if you can get there, or if they extend and you can go later, DO IT! Two of the best hours I've spent in a theater in 2019.

📸: J. Kyler, E. Madrid-Kuser


Friday, November 22, 2019

The Friday 5 Quiz

Let's get the weekend started with a fun little quiz for The Friday 5! This time around, I'm going to name 3 actors, and you name the role and show they have in common.  Look for the answers at the bottom of next Friday's column. Good luck!

The Friday 5 Quiz
3 Actors - 1 Role

1. Tyne Daly, Bernadette Peters, Patti LuPone

2. Matthew Broderick, Daniel Radcliffe, Darren Criss

3. Barbara Cook, Judy Kuhn, Laura Benanti

4. Jonathan Groff, Hunter Parrish, Austin P. McKenzie

5. Barbara Cook, Betty Buckley, Marin Mazzie

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