Friday, January 27, 2023

Broadway Jeopardy! - Game 1

Broadway Jeopardy! 

It's game time, Broadway fans! This time, it's Jeopardy!: one Jeopardy round, one Double Jeopardy round, and Final Jeopardy, plus one (not so hidden) Daily Double. Good luck!

Today's Jeopardy round category is Broadway Theaters. We'll name 3 shows, and you name the theater where they played. Get those signalling devices ready... and go!

Broadway Theaters

Cats, School of Rock, The Music Man

Show Boat, Starlight Express, Wicked

Sunday in the Park With George, Once On This Island, Next to Normal

Sunday in the Park With George, Plaza Suite, Head Over Heels

Sweet Charity, Legally Blonde, SpongeBob SquarePants

Now it's time for Double Jeopardy! Dollar values are doubled.Today's category is Name That Musical. We'll name three songs, you name the show. Grab those signalling devices! Good luck!
Name That Musical

"Bring Him Home" "I Dreamed a Dream" "Master of the House"

"Honey Honey" "Under Attack" "Voulez Vous"

"Johanna" "Kiss Me" "God, That's Good!"

"Firework" "Nature Boy" "Chandelier"

"Anagram" "Better" "Great Adventure"

And now, Final Jeopardy! Carefully calculate your wagers, based on your knowledge of today's category: Director-Choreographers


He created a Best Musical winner made up of numbers from his own shows. The tagline was "The Musical of Musicals."

Look for the answers at the bottom of next Wednesday's article!

Wednesday, January 25, 2023

2022-2023 Show Logos: Almost Famous and Kimberly Akimbo

We're still playing catch up on the Broadway logos for the 2022 - 2023 season. So today we'll take a look at a pair of shows from the fall. One has closed, the other seems to be gaining traction. Did their logos play a part?

2022 - 2023 Show Logos:
Almost Famous and Kimberly Akimbo


Lamentably, Almost Famous has closed, but I don't think it had anything to do with its show art. Perhaps it was the mixed-to-negative reviews. Or maybe it unsuccessfully walked that fine line between "show based on a flop film" and "show based on beloved niche film." There was certainly a fair amount of word-of-mouth and fan support growing, but I guess there wasn't enough gas in the tour bus to make it to a fill-up.

As far as the logo goes, it fits the show perfectly. The "handwritten" title on an otherwise typed index card offers a sort of time stamp - the main character is taking notes and typing them out in a bygone era - no device at work here. Then there's the excellent collage of photos - prints from an old Instamatic or Polaroid that capture key images from his cross-country, rock 'n roll journey. Piles of record albums, t-shirts, concert lights, a young groupie, the tour bus, and an idol in silhouette against stage fog all tell the story of the show. The faint sepia tone and fading say "memory play."

Having seen the show, I love the artwork. It evokes some very fond memories. But I have to wonder, does it require too much time to soak in as one walks by the theater to even consider buying a ticket? We will never know.

Grade: A-


Fortunately, Kimberly Akimbo is still running, and appears to be gaining an audience over at the Booth. I love this show, and couldn't be happier for all involved. That said, I don't think the logo is all that great.

First of all, while the image perfectly captures the main character - a flannel shirt over a t-shirt and candy necklace fairly screams  80's-90's teenage girl, while the wrinkled neck and hand says aging old woman. And the title image, done in the 80's-90's style of the Great Adventure theme park, certainly evokes time period and a smart sense of whimsy. Having seen the show, I now instantly "get it." 

But there in lies the dilemma. Does this key art too heavily depend on knowing the show before you see it to work? Will people stop long enough to even take it all in? How many people will wonder if this is a new bio-musical about someone they've never heard of before?

I have no idea how this might pan out for the future. Tourists who see the NYT Critic's choice label might give it a go, and certainly the heaps of awards it'll receive will help. For now, though, I'm thankful that word of mouth and a great social media campaign seem to be getting people into this wonderful show.

Grade: C+

Monday, January 23, 2023

REVIEW: A Beautiful Noise: The Neil Diamond Musical

Review of the Saturday, January 14, 2023 evening performance at the Broadhurst Theatre in New York City. Starring Will Swensen, Robyn Hurder, Mark Jacoby, Linda Powell, Jessie Fisher, Michael McCormick, Tom Alan Robbins and Bri Sudia. Book by Anthony McCarten. Music and lyrics by Neil Diamond. Orchestrations and arrangements by Sonny Paladino and Bob Gaudio. Set design by David Rockwell. Costume design by Emilio Sosa. Lighting design by Kevin Adams. Sound design by Jessica Paz. Choreography by Steven Hoggett. Direction by Michael Mayer. 2 hours 15 minutes, including one intermission.

Grade: D+

Growing up, Neil Diamond was always a part of my life. My whole family enjoyed his music. We saw his movies. He was a constant. And so I looked forward to seeing the bio-musical of his life, A Beautiful Noise. Were my expectations too high? I don't think so. Maybe I'm just burnt out on the genre. But the truth is, this latest story-of-my-life show is an uneven mess. What is good is very good, but what doesn't work really doesn't work.

The concept sounds like winner - today's Neil Diamond is in therapy, and through a close analysis of his lyrics, he hopes to find answers to issues that plague him. But after two plus hours of getting down to why the word "king" appears frequently in his ouvre, and the usual litany of relationships succumbing to ambition, fame has its pitfalls, and blaming a crappy childhood on everything, Anthony McCarten's book gets, dare I say it? Boring. Eventually, your mind wanders, waiting for the next song. While not going chronologically through the song catalog is an admirable deviation from the standard, many times, the chronological telling of his life sometimes causes a jarring interruption. Inexplicably, mid-act two, the story takes a disruptive (and unnecessary) turn back to his early childhood. Ugh. Then there's the final excruciating scene - five minutes that felt like twenty - with pregnant pauses long enough to actually give birth. True, it leads to a powerful final number, "I am, I said." (In retrospect, I have to wonder if the number was really that powerful, or if I was just relieved that the scene was over.)

The bright spot of this otherwise lacking enterprise is the terrific company, lead by the glorious Will Swensen (Neil-Then), who makes the most of the acting scraps the book gives him, and absolutely blasts star power into the Broadhurst every time he sings. Charisma and an uncanny Diamond sound ooze from his every pore. Mark Jacoby (Neil-Now) acts his ass off (while planted in an overstuffed chair, no less), but it isn't until the very final moments that he really lets go and shows us why he has had a lengthy Broadway career. 

The supporting cast includes Tony-winner Michael McCormick in a pair of funny roles and a fast costume change, Tom Alan Robbins also in a pair of roles, is less impactful through no fault of his. Otherwise, we see the larger number of women that orbited Mr. Diamond, from the blander than plain oatmeal first wife, played by the equally uninteresting Jessie Fisher, and the sassy engineer of his early career, Ellie Greenwich, a delight throughout, played by Bri Sudia, to his muse (and second wife) played with sexy and vibrant finesse by the always magnetic Robyn Hurder. Of these three, she has the most to do, singing and dancing the hell out of each of her numbers, even if they occasionally feel awkward and/or shoe-horned in. "Cherry Cherry" is great, while "Forever in Blue Jeans" is sung and danced well, but is really weird in terms of the book. The less said about her "You Don't Bring Me Flowers," the better. There's also Linda Powell, who does an admirable job in the thankless role of the analyst. Bless her, she makes a meal out of thin air.

The "Beautiful Noise" aka the 10 member dance ensemble is really terrific. Many of them get opportunities to shine individually, but none so brightly as Jordan Dobson, who does leading man quality work with the song, "Shiloh." Jess LeProtto is a stand out dancer as always. As I said, the collective group is aces. Too bad that they are also the physical embodiment of the messy, uneven staging. 

I have always enjoyed the work of choreographer Steven Hoggett, and Michael Mayer is one of my all-time favorite directors. But here, they never quite get a handle on what they want to show to be. Is this a Behind the Music special? A series of Ed Sullivan Show variety numbers? An outright rock concert? It tries to be all three, none fully successfully. Is The Beautiful Noise really parts of Neil's psyche, or are they shards of memories, or just back-up dancers? I guess they are all three. This lack of focused concept and a maddening imbalance of tone is disappointing from these two.

Just like the rest of the show, the design elements are uneven, with lighting designer Kevin Adams doing his usual stellar work. On the other hand, costume designer Emilio Sosa, who can usually be relied upon to create a cohesive feast for the eyes, seems unable to overcome the demands (?) of the concept. Even more shocking is the bizarre scenic design by David Rockwell. Aside from the enormous Hollywood Squares wall of sound, the rest of the set is alternately spare and busy, and consistently unattractive. Jessica Paz's sound design is at best unbalanced, and at worst, so muddy as to make the lyrics incomprehensible. Noise, yes. Beautiful, no.

To be fair, there were several times I found the show enjoyable - mostly when Mr. Swensen and Ms. Hurder were front and center. And the audience ate up every note, at times reacting as though at a religious revival meeting. ("Sweet Caroline" rendered them orgasmic all three times it was presented.) Still, the low points far outweighed the highs. Unfortunately, A Beautiful Noise makes the case for ending the bio-musical parade.

 📸: J. Kyler, J. Cervantes

Friday, January 20, 2023

REVIEW: & Juliet

Review of the Sunday evening performance on January 15, 2023 at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre in New York City. Starring Lorna Courtney, Paulo Szot, Betsy Wolfe, Stark Sands, Matt Raffy, Melanie LaBarrie, Ben Jackson Walker and Philippe Arroyo. Music and lyrics by Max Martin. Book by David West Read. Orchestrations and arrangements by Bill Sherman. Set design by Soutra Gilmour. Costume design by Paloma Young. Lighting design by Howard Hudson. Projection and video design by Andrzej Goulding. Sound design by Gareth Owen. Choreography by Jennifer Weber. Direction by Luke Sheppard. 2 hours and 30 minutes, including one intermission.

Grade: A+

& Juliet is proudly, unabashedly a jukebox musical. Heck, there's an actual jukebox center stage and spotlighted at the start and the finish of the show! And just when I was ready to write off such fare, along comes this perfect gem of a show. The entire enterprise has elevated the genre and is now the gold standard of catalog musicals. Everyone involved should be proud.

So, what makes this one so much better than the rest? Where do I start?

Well, first of all, it is FUN. Mike and I were grinning fools from start to finish. Neither of us can remember a show since Avenue Q that made us belly laugh as much. It is also very smart. The word play - both obvious, and not so - is irreverent and tricky. Yes, this is a jukebox musical with a good book! Thank you, David West Read. The script is tight, with nary a bit of excess. Characters, themes, and plot twists galore manage what would be impossible in lesser hands: it is Shakespearean and contemporary all at once. And lest my description makes it all sound like a mere ball of fluff, it is so sharp that you'll be constantly caught off guard by just how emotionally invested you are. I know I sure was!

Chances are you've heard most, if not all, of the "score." The song list reads like a Now That's What I Call Music! CD from the 90's and early 00's, with tunes made great by everyone from Beyonce, Katy Perry and Britney Spears to NSYNC, the Backstreet Boys and The Weeknd. But you may not know that one man was behind them all - Max Martin. Some of these songs already appear in another Broadway show, and several are destined to show up in another coming up this summer. But what sets these same songs apart here is that great care has been taken by both Martin and Read to make sure that they function as true musical theater songs, not solely as a fast punchline followed by histrionic Idol-style riffing. Best of all, with this show, we get the whole song, not just a snippet, as well as a few really great mash-ups. (Two are genuine standouts: "Problem/I Can't Feel My Face" - used as a major turning point for characters - and "Teenage Dream/Break Free" - a hilarious, sexy romp worthy of The Bard's cheekiest comedies.) No, the songs are used to develop characters, advance the plot, and create reasons for thrilling production numbers. 

Speaking of the dance numbers, choreographer Jennifer Weber has crafted a slick dance vocabulary capable of seemingly infinite variations. Very much of today, the style also embraces the moves of boy bands and pop divas alike. Sexy, fluid and riveting, Ms. Weber could just be this generation's Fosse (not a comparison I make lightly). Among her most intoxicating creations are the opener, "Larger Than Life," and big numbers like "Blow," "Confident," and "Roar." While we are talking dance, she's also assembled the hottest (in every sense of the word) ensemble currently on the boards. Several are bound to become household names (in the world of Broadway, anyway), including the positively magnetic Bobby "Pocket" Horner, as well as Michael Ivan Carrier, Joomin Hwang, Jasmine Rafael and Rachel Webb. Olivier Award-winning director Luke Sheppard has created an equally exciting staging, jam-packed with gorgeous imagery, and a dizzying array of creative movement - things fly, float and spin, still others are appropriately grounded and conventional. In lesser hands, this could have been a frenetic mess. This has been meticulously crafted, and we are all the better for it.

An environment that is wonderfully fantastical, anachronistic and uber-theatrical allows for a world where anything can happen. That's just what you find upon entering the Sondheim Theatre. Channeling such creations as Pippin, Godspell and Barnum, along with a dash of Something Rotten! (and a slick nod to Moulin Rouge!) the designers have created a visual feast. Set designer Soutra Gilmour and video/projection designer 
Andrzej Goulding pull out all the stops as they add and subtract stunning set pieces and visual effects set against a brick wall/backstage box. The effect is stunning and delightful, and the transitions the design allows are are so smooth and quick, it's like watching a kaleidoscope. The vibrant lighting by Howard Hudson that is a vivid cross between a rave and a rock concert completes the picture. When the cast first appears, Paloma Young's costume designs immediately set the tone that while we are definitely in for a Shakespearean evening, we need not worry that it'll be heavy. Like the settings, the costumes evolve and heighten as the show goes on. The whole thing is a sight to behold. Finally, it is worth noting that Gareth Owen's sound design is perfection. Every word clear as a bell, the loud music in perfect balance with performances. I wish I could say that about a few other current musicals.

So how about the principal cast in this re-imagining of Romeo and Juliet? Are they up to the plot twists that make Juliet the master of her own fate? Utter perfection from top to bottom, I tell you. As the now less significant Romeo, Ben Jackson Walker has a great voice and a refreshing take on the dumb beefcake trope. He is going to be big after this main stem debut, mark my words! One half of the new pair of star-crossed lovers in this story, Philippe Arroyo is sweet and winsome (I am a sucker for a guy in glasses), and proves the perfect balance to the equally sweet and winsome other half of that pair. Here we had the chance to see a marvelous understudy, Matt Raffy, who nails the emotional core of the plot, and dances their ass off! Tony-winner Paulo Szot is clearly having the time of his life, using his operatic gifts to create many of the night's biggest laughs. Think of it: a world-famous opera star belting "Teenage Dream," and doing boy band moves to "It's Gonna Be Me." He gets to have much of that great time with West End star, Melanie La Barrie, whose sassy take on Juliet's nurse is one for the ages. The two together are an absolute riot!

As the titular Juliet, Lorna Courtney has established herself as a bonafide Broadway star. Her vocals are fearless, her timing impeccable, her dancing excellent, and she's not afraid of anything - she dangles off a swinging chandelier while belting her face off, among other stunts. I hope she gets a long run here, and another opportunity to dazzle audiences soon after. The two other leads - as William Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway - Stark Sands and Betsy Wolfe are a welcome sight on the Great Bright Way. Having had the privilege of watching their careers from the beginning, it's always terrific to see them. Here, both are in top form. What a pair! Their chemistry is off the charts, and I don't recall ever seeing them this funny. Their vocals are no surprise - song birds, both - and neither is their acting. But it is this combination that is something to behold.

Actually, the entire combination of all of the musical theater elements on display here is something to behold. It may be a jukebox musical, but & Juliet is a genuine musical in all of the best ways. Dismiss it at your peril. I'm proud to join the legions of "amperfans!"

📸: M. Murphy

Wednesday, January 18, 2023

REVIEW: Leopoldstadt

Review of the matinee performance on Sunday, January 15, 2023 at the Longacre Theatre in New York City. Featuring David Krumholtz, Brandon Uranowitz, Betsy Aidem, Caissie Levy,
 Aaron Neil , Corey Brill, Arty Froushan, Gina Ferrall, Faye Castelow, Jenna Augen and Seth Numrich. A new play by Tom Stoppard. Scenic design by Richard Hudson. Costume design by Brigitte Reiffenstuel. Lighting design by Neil Austin. Projection design by Isaac Madge. Direction by Patrick Marber. 2 hours 10 minutes with no intermission.

Grade: A+

One cannot attend a play by Tom Stoppard and not actively engage with his work. That is most certainly the case with his newest work, Leopoldstadt, a masterpiece by any definition. To pay close attention to this family drama is to work through a maze of dichotomies, conflicts, and twists and turns as though trying to solve a cat's cradle - an apt and frequent symbol used throughout.

Simultaneously epic and intimate, the show follows a Jewish family through several generations for over five decades from the turn of the 20th century to the mid-50's. It covers a wide variety of topics - Zionism, antisemitism, economics, politics. It examines relationships - marital, parental, sibling - and, at its heart, how those topics and relationships interact, working on a loop, aligning and misaligning like the knots on a cat's cradle. All of this is significant when one considers even a few details - a belief that all of the tumults of the period are either preordained or easily ignored. Each escalation rationalized, dismissed. Such is the history of this family and the Holocaust. As reasonings and excuses are made as the pogroms increase, and 
the fates of the people are revealed, one becomes acutely aware that all of this sounds frighteningly present. Let this be a warning to all of us.

The entirety of the production takes place on a single set (designed by Richard Hudson, projections by Isaac Madge), craftily morphing through time from a warm, sumptuous gathering place to a cold, nearly empty void (lighting designed by Neil Austin), left only with the echos and shadows of both a family and a world 
history. Director Patrick Marber brilliantly creates vivid tableaux that allow key moments to be frozen as photos in the audience's mind like those in the family album passed down from generation to generation in the play. Marber also creates a pace that makes the time fly, by turns a fast swirl, a slow down to capture details, and a final, revelatory ending. Like the play itself, the directorial and design elements are a brilliant whole - epic and intimate.

Based on a late-in-life revelation about Stoppard's own heritage, one has to assume there is a weight on the actors to bring authenticity and respect to the characters, and I'm thrilled to report that the 38-member cast - from small child to seasoned performer - is uniformly superb. While this is an ensemble piece, there are several noteworthy performances. As the matriarch, Betsy Aidem is a force to be reckoned with, carefully navigating the trick maze of beliefs she must convey to the generations at her holiday party. Not surprisingly, Caissie Levy turns in yet another terrific performance exuding a strong sense of family, no small accomplishment given her smaller stage time. Another reliable actor delivered yet again - Seth Numrich - in two roles, but most notably as a British news reporter. 

Caissie Levy and Betsy Aidem

The three cast members brought over from the West End cast were superb: Jenna Augen (tasked with playing two generations - both mother and daughter), Aaron Neil (a conflicted, worried father), and particularly, Faye Castelow (a woman with a zest for life, who always wants more than the mundane, and who unknowingly becomes the subject of what becomes one of a few remaining family heirlooms).

Finally, in the two central male roles: David Krumholtz as Hermann, a smarter than he seems blowhard, played with a finesse and intensity that demands your attention; and Brandon Uranowitz as brilliant, eccentric mathematician Ludwig at the start, and later, as Holocaust survivor, Nathan, brings an anchoring gravitas to both roles. In all cases, it was an honor to witness these performances. 

Brandon Uranowitz, Caissie Levy, Faye Castelow, David Krumholtz

So rarely does a play receive such rave reviews as Leopoldstadt. Even more rarely does a production so fully deserve such accolades.This one is as advertised. It is a masterpiece.

📸: J. Marcus

Monday, January 16, 2023

At This Performance: Matt Raffy in & Juliet

 At This Performance:
Matt Raffy as May in & Juliet

This past weekend, we finally got to see & Juliet (review coming soon), and the Playbill included a little square of white paper: "At This Performance the role of May will be played by Matt Raffy." For some, a misplaced disappointment. For us, and exciting opportunity! And let me just say, if you see their name pop up on the cast board or on a Playbill slip, you are in for some real excellence! 
I won't give any spoilers, other to say that May goes on an emotional journey that requires all the skills - comedy, drama, song and dance - and Matt is amazing at all four. 

Needless to say, I immediately looked up everything I could find on this great new (to me, anyway) talent. I found out that Raffy was born in France, and was raised in Canada. A graduate of both the Vancouver Film School and the Randolph Academy for the Performing Arts, they've amassed in impressive international resume of film, television and theatrical productions. Audiences have seen Matt in pantos like Cinderella, and shows like Mamma Mia!, Beauty and the Beast and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.

I can't wait to see them in lots of things in the future! Find out more:

Answers to Last Week's Broadway Game
Trivial Pursuit

Card #1:

Card #2:

Friday, January 13, 2023

Star-To-Be: Into the Woods' Cole Thompson

We always enjoy discovering new talent in as many shows as we can. So far this season, there's been an abundance of Broadway debuts, both onstage and on creative teams. Sometimes, they are in leading roles or the ensemble. Sometimes, they are new, exciting writers and composers. Still other times, they are intriguing new designers or directors. With that in mind, today we begin a new series.

Into the Woods' Cole Thompson

The minute he opened his mouth to sing in the Into the Woods' prologue, I knew we would have a well-sung Jack. But when Cole Thompson began to interact with Milky White (Kennedy Kanagawa), and later with Little Red Ridinghood (Julia Lester), I knew this guy was a special talent. I had to find out more!

Hello, Dolly!

Godspell and Mamma Mia!

Sweeney Todd

So, he is a 2021 graduate of the musical theater program at University of Michigan, where he earned his BFA. He's also performed in various workshops, showcases, and production in various regional theaters around the country. Among the shows he's been in are Hello, Dolly!, The Crucible, Godspell, The Pirates of Penzance, Sweeney Todd, and Mamma Mia!

His New York debut, of course, came with the Encores! production of Into the Woods, and its subsequent Broadway transfer. Now that the production has closed, he and many of his co-stars are preparing to take their magical work all around the country! If you get the chance to see it near where you live, I can't recommend it enough. How fortunate that a national audience will get to see Mr. Thompson.

I, for one, cannot wait to follow what I'm sure will be a long career for this "Star-To-Be."
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