Monday, April 22, 2024

2023 -2024 Broadway Musical Logos: Suffs and Hell's Kitchen

Two of the last shows of the season are the subject of today's show art analysis. Though both started life off-Broadway at the Public Theater, on paper, they couldn't be any more different. One is a "from scratch" show full of historic heroines, starring the book writer/composer. The other is loosely based on the life of the singer/songwriter of the 90s-set jukebox musical. But they are alike in a very important way: they are both all about the power and empowerment of women. So are the logos as different as their subjects, while celebrating their common themes? And are they successful? The answer is a resounding "yes!"

2023 - 2024 Broadway Musical Logos:
Suffs & Hell's Kitchen


Suffs, of course, refers to the suffragettes, who changed American history, through their movement to gain the right to vote. The key art reflects that significance in an elegant way. The rich textured purple is regal and elegant...strong.

The simple, bold font, is also elegant in white with gold doubling. But it stands out in all the right ways. The final "s" has "the musical" on its gold "sash," and is particularly effective as a subtle not to the female figure. The sash drapes on the letter as it would have on a suff.

The full key art only improves the already wonderful title. The taglines say a lot, and sets up an urgency and conflict, and tells you right off that there will be female power here. I also think the way the Suffs themselves are perfectly rendered. You see their 19th century garb - their boots and skirts, feminine and strong, but the rest of them are seen in shadow silhouette, advancing. It's really quite good.

Grade: A+

Hell's Kitchen

The first thing I noticed when the Broadway Logo was revealed was the vibrancy of the colors. A rich, bright yellow with some orange, balanced with darker reds, oranges, and blues of the Manhattan skyline - including the World Trade Center - of the 1990s. The bright blue of the title uses a font that suggests spray painted like so many areas of the time (while not ripping off Rent).

The full logo, though, really reveals the power of the story - a young woman stands tall over the city, atop a piano, styled to blend in with the skyline. She, the music and the city are inextricably linked, each a foundation of the other. This logo is among my favorites of the season.

Grade: A+

Friday, April 19, 2024

Broadway Games: Where Haven't We Seen You Before II

 Broadway Games:
Where Haven't We Seen You Before II:

This week's game asks you to pick the one show each Broadway luminary below didn't work on.

1. Jason Robert Brown
A. Broadway: The Last Five Years
B. Broadway: The Bridges of Madison County
C. Broadway: Honeymoon in Vegas
D. Broadway: Parade

2. Rachel Chavkin
A. Director: Hadestown
B. Director: Come From Away
C. Director: Lempicka
D. Director: Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812

3. Sutton Foster
A. Actor: The Scarlet Pimpernel (original production)
B. Actor: Jekyll and Hyde (original production)
C. Actor: Violet (revival)
D. Actor: Anything Goes (revival)

4. Casey Likes
A. Broadway: Back to the Future
B. Workshop: The Outsiders
C. Broadway: Almost Famous
D. Workshop: Water For Elephants

5. Terrence Mann
A. Actor: Cats (original production)
B. Actor: Pippin (revival)
C. Actor: Chess (original production)
D. Actor: Barnum (original production)

6. Paul Alexander Nolan
A. Actor: Water For Elephants 
B. Actor: The Phantom of the Opera
C. Actor: Jesus Christ Superstar (revival)
D. Actor: Parade (revival)

7. Lea Salonga
A. Actor: Miss Saigon
B. Actor: South Pacific
C. Actor: Once On This Island
D. Actor: Here Lies Love

8. Jessica Stone
A. Director: Kimberly Akimbo
B. Actor: Grease (revival)
C. Director: Water For Elephants
D. Director: Anything Goes (revival)

9. Paul Tazewell
A. Costume Design: Suffs
B. Costume Design: MJ: The Musical
C. Costume Design: Hamilton
D. Costume Design: The Wiz (2024)

10. Joy Woods
A. Actor: Summer: The Donna Summer Musical
B. Actor: The Notebook
C. Actor: Six
D. Actor: Little Shop of Horrors (current revival)

Thursday, April 18, 2024

REVIEW: Water For Elephants

Review of the Saturday, April 13, 2024 evening performance at the Imperial Theatre in New York City. Starring Grant Gustin, Samantha Gershman, Gregg Edelman, Paul Alexander Nolan, Stan Brown, Joe DePaul, Sara Gettlefinger and Wade McCollum. Music and lyrics by Pig Pen Theatre Co. Book by Rick Elice. Based on the novel by Sara Gruen. Scenic design by Takeshi Kata. Costume design by David Israel Reynoso. Lighting design by Bradley King. Projection design by David Bengali. Sound design by Walter Trarbach. Puppet design by Ray Wetmore, JR Goodman and Camille Labarre. Circus design by Shana Carroll. Choreography by Jesse Robb and Shana Carroll. Direction by Jessica Stone. 2 hours and 40 minutes, including one intermission.

One of the many wonderful things that came to light when we saw Water For Elephants was that director Jessica Stone does as brilliant a job with large scale shows as she does with smaller, more intimate shows. Physically, this production bears little resemblance to Kimberly Akimbo, but emotionally, they do share something very important. Both are careful to present the vulnerabilities and complexities in all of their characters; the villains have good in them, the heroes have failings. And it is this humanity that she mines that makes both shows so special. 

Based on the popular novel by Sara Gruen, book writer Rick Elice and Ms. Stone have
 crafted this sweeping tale into a truly theatrical piece, where major events are presented in ways only stage magic allows, and the intimate human drama, though thoughtfully tempered, is just as dramatic. Elice weaves the memories of our older narrator seamlessly into the action of the moment, often overlapping, revealing revelations to both audience and characters alike. This book is solid; epic and small, romantic and thrilling, and always in service to the story and its themes. Even going in knowing the novel (and the popular film), I was fully invested in the characters and the plot, feeling it all as if for the first time.

The score, by Pig Pen Theatre Co., is a perfect match for the book, weaving traditional Broadway style with songs evocative of depression-era folk, jazz and more. And still, it feels very "now," despite thankfully avoiding the overused center stage, belt your face off, option up Dear Even Hansen button. Guess what? The audience appreciated each number just as much (dreaded 'woo hoo's and all). What a relief to find that audiences can still appreciate masterful talent that hasn't been American Idol-ized. This collective of artists has created a panoramic score filled with thrills and surprises (it is a circus show, after all), lush with insight and emotion, not to mention some of the tightest harmonies in recent memory (witness "The Road Don't Make You Young"), Humor, sorrow, anger and even terrifying danger are equally brilliant in their musical execution. As good as the score is on one hearing as it is happening, I can't wait to get my hands on the cast recording and dig deeper.

(Author's note: As I write this and look back at the above, it occurs to me that I can't remember the last time I had so much to say about a new musical's book and score!)

Of course, being a show where the circus is the central setting, there has to be a certain amount of, well, circus, and to that end, there's an embarrassment of riches to be seen and felt. Stone is careful to dole these elements out at specific times - story needs first, always - not only during the "show," but at other times, like raising the big top. Craftily, she also uses a variety of acrobatics, rope tricks, and stunts to tell other parts of the story. A complicated series of tableaux, for example, uses an exhilarating mix of tumbling, light, shadow and freezes to portray a deadly stampede of exotic, frightened animals. It is in these scenes that one can truly appreciate the jaw-dropping artistry of all the theatrical elements coming together. The circus design and choreography (by Shana Carroll and Jesse Robb) and creative puppetry (designed in a variety of imaginative ways by Ray Wetmore) are especially thrilling in conjunction with the more traditional theater design. 
David Israel Reynoso's colorful costume work and Takeshi Kata's scenic elements never forget that this is a poor circus during the Depression, while Bradley King's lighting is consistently dramatic and helps define "show time" and "reality." That said, the whole thing feels breathtaking and spectacular.

Among the ensemble, there are six members who are extraordinary circus performers, equally thrilling on ropes, trapeze and with death defying acrobatics. Isabella Luisa Diaz, Gabriel Olivera de Paula Costa, Keaton Hentoff-Killian, Samuel Renaud and Alexandra Gaelle Royer are each exceptional. Their skills are inspiring and it is often hard to believe what you are seeing. The sixth artist, Antoine Boissereau, is featured as Silver Star, the horse that is the star of the circus, and performs a silks ballet (the gorgeous "Easy") far above our heads. That number may just be the single staging highlight of the season, power and emotionally stunning. The entire ensemble is, to a person, a triple-threat. Make that quadruple-threat.

The principal cast is just as excellent. Gregg Edelman, as the older version of our hero, is as usual, reliable, and goes way beyond the memory play narrator trope deftly blurring the line between observer and participant. As the hardened by life and a seething vessel of anger, Wade McCollum gives his role as head roustabout a multifaceted, layered treatment, and watching his character's arc play out was a roller coaster of emotion. Similarly, Joe DePaul's turn as an embittered, aging clown, is worth watching as it evolves. Right from the start, he is highly unlikable, but as the story evolves, and some truths come out, you find yourself invested in his outcome. As Barbara, the past her prime side show hoochie coochie dancer, Sara Gettlefinger is a brassy broad type who has seen it all, but is fierce in her need to protect her chosen circus family. She's one of those actors who is even interesting when she's just standing there. And then there's the sweet does-it-all circus man who, in the warm arms of Stan Brown, is the emotional center of the big top. (Brown, at 60, is making a wondrous Broadway debut!)

All the circuses have their star attraction, and Water For Elephants has theirs in a trio of leading players: one a modern Broadway veteran, one a popular TV star making his Broadway debut, and one a standby. The first, the veteran, Paul Alexander Nolan, is justifiably garnering awards buzz as August, the ringmaster of the on-the-brink circus. Nolan is equal parts slick con man, wicked charmer, and abuser. We are both captivated and repulsed by this man, and Nolan does not hold back; how August ends up is genuinely cathartic. He's never been better. The standby at our performance was Samantha Gershman, as Marlena, star of the show and August's wife. I'm sure Isabelle McCalla (pictured) is terrific in the role, but you'd never know Ms. Gershman hasn't played the role from the start - she holds nothing back, shows no fear, not even on the trapeze. I look forward to seeing her during what will be, I'm sure, a long career. And her chemistry with her leading man was palpable up in the mezzanine (witness the duet "Wild"). Finally, Grant Gustin of Glee and The Flash fame makes an accomplished debut. Sure, he has those matinee idol looks, but he also has the goods. His scene work is smooth and full of measured emotion, creating both a sympathetic and enigmatic character. Best of all, instead of going into Idol mode (of which he is more than capable), he dazzles with honest, character-driven choices in his singing. Not once does he resort to unnecessary screlting. No one in the cast does, and, frankly, it is a relief. 

In many ways, Water For Elephants is that increasingly rare breed - an old fashioned musical with a modern eye that stays true to its content. All of the elements support and build up each other, each guided by an accomplished creative team and one of the most solid casts Broadway has seen in a while. Is this the best new musical of the season? Possibly. One of the best of the season? Definitely.

📸: M. Murphy

Sunday, April 14, 2024

REVIEW: Lempicka

Review of the Saturday, April 13, 2024 matinee preview performance at the Longacre Theatre in New York City. Starring Eden Espinosa, Amber Iman, Andrew Samonsky, George Abud, Natalie Joy Johnson, Zoe Glick, Nathaniel Stampley and Beth Leavel. Original concept by Carson Kreitzer. Music by Matt Gould. Lyrics by Carson Kreitzer. Book by Carson Kreitzer and Matt Gould. Orchestrations by Cian McCarthy. Scenic design by Riccardo Hernandez. Costume design by Paloma Young. Lighting design by Bradley King. Projection design by Peter Nigrini. Sound design by Peter Hylenski and Justin Stasiw. Choreography by Raja Feather Kelly. Direction by Rachel Chavkin. 2 hours and 30 minutes, including one intermission.

Other than feeling excited to see every member of the principal cast, and feeling confident that the piece was in capable hands with director Rachel Chavkin, I went into the new musical Lempicka with a blank slate of expectations. Okay, some of the released video material had me excited - "Woman Is" is a stunning power ballad, and the montage of pro-shot numbers had me concerned that this would be another belt-your-face-off diva fest (it is, kinda) with some awkward campy-ness (definitely not the case). Fortunately, this is a mostly stunning examination of an ahead of her time artiste, with a beautifully realized message of empowerment. In short, this is one of the most fully integrated musicals I've seen in years, with some impressive performances and superior technical elements.

Book-ended by scenes that take place in 1975, where we are confronted by an aging, embittered Tamara de Lempicka (Eden Espinosa) lamenting her has-been status, even as she knows that she'll never see the recognition she deserves in her lifetime. What follows is a helpfully linear telling of her life story - helpful because there is a lot of content in 
Carson Kreitzer and Matt Gould's book and lyrics. In this case that isn't a negative. One, she was a complicated woman who deserves every detail provided. And two, the sequential telling allows for some very creative ways of presenting time, events and themes; a feeling of watching a Wikipedia entry is fully and completely avoided. Clever, mysterious, and powerful, the words - spoken and sung - match exactly the subject of this bio-musical.

Their score is equally impressive in its variety and attention to time, place and character. A thrilling mix of Broadway arias, complex passage of time production numbers, and jazzy period numbers, the score is nearly devoid of excess. Nearly. There is one number ("Wake Up") that, while a good song and wonderfully performed by Andrew Samonsky, stopped the momentum of the otherwise tight show and added little to his character. Still, I can remember thinking that if Lempicka's artwork and style were music instead of paint, this score captures it perfectly, alternately smooth and flowing ("never let them see the brush strokes") and pulsing electronica (futuristic, severe minimalism).

Visually/technically the production elements similarly mirror the chronology of the story, the characters, and the art. Literally, every single part of Riccardo Hernandez's set is a representation of Lempicka's art deco triumphs. Lines and curves come and go, industrial and austere, even extending into the boxes which house the excellent orchestra. Similarly, both Paloma Young's costume and Bradley King's lighting designs employ both sharp lines and seamless flow of colors. Peter Nigrini's breathtaking projection design is a kaleidoscope of shapes and a seemingly endless array of methods to present the famous artwork of the show's subject. In its own way, this is an art show in all the best ways. It is, as one of the songs says, no simple bowl of fucking fruit.

This sense of art in motion also carries over into Chavkin's fluid, often striking, staging and Raja Feather Kelly's exciting choreography. Each scene is staged with the care and scope of a full play; each dance ebbs and flows like the brush to the canvas. Kelly employs a variety of styles - from ballet and jazz to vogue and mechanical stops - often within a single number. Not only does it match the moment, it, like the music, brings Lempicka's painting style into terms of movement. It is all so thrilling to absorb. It certainly helps that the company of ensemblists is such a unique blend of artists in their own right.

My pre-show excitement about the principal cast was not misplaced - to a person they were each excellent. Young Zoe Glick is a beguiling presence as Tamara's daughter - a cheeky mix of innocent naivete and surprising world wisdom. As the wealthy Baron, whose character has a surprising ending, Nathaniel Stampley has the least to work with, but offers a welcome feeling of calm strength in often chaotic moments. He also holds his own with the force of nature that is Beth Leavel. It's not too surprising that she makes a meal out of every morsel she is given, including the moving 11 o'clock number, "Just This Way." And speaking of forces of nature, Natalie Joy Johnson threatens to take the Longacre over completely and hold everyone in attendance in willing captivity. Here is a complicated woman who knows what she wants in a man's world and defies anything that gets in her way. She wears decadence like a badge of honor, and her excesses like a suit of armor. Rounding out the supporting cast is the enigmatic and irresistible George Abud, as the street smart, go-where-you-have-to-go-to-survive Marinetti. He is both hilarious and frightening (often simultaneously) as he scenery chews (in this case, a compliment) and insinuates himself into history.

Then there is the central love triangle involving Tamara's husband (Samonsky) and the subject of her bisexual awakening (the fierce Amber Iman), and Tamara de Lempicka herself (Espinosa). Mr. Samonsky manages to walk a fine line between pushover and self-aware, and even though his big act one number is really superfluous, he sings beautifully and is a welcome presence each time he appears. Meanwhile, Ms. Iman's character complexities show in her every step, gesture and piercing look. Strong and powerful, she also portrays an intriguing vulnerability; these qualities are what draws Tamara (and us) to her. Hers is an award-worthy performance - the complete package. 

As one might glean from even the title alone, the success of this piece rests heavily on the casting of the titular artist. It's hard to imagine a more perfect marriage of actor to role than Eden Espinosa as Tamara de Lempicka. Her presence is both larger than life and unexpectedly intimate. She navigates the complicated arc of her character with such ease and purpose, we are able to absorb all she has to offer worry-free. And what she has to offer is incredible. Sure she can belt out the arias, but she also handles the more character-driven song and scenes with aplomb and intensity. The years she's spent with the show have been worth all of the effort. She is excellent in all ways.

If I had to point out anything that is less than positive about the show, it isn't really about the show itself. In fact, they do this one thing way better than most, and has as much to do with timing as anything else. That thing is Nazis. Okay, the plot device of the rise of Hitler is a stark warning that we, as a society, are perilously close to history repeating itself. This season alone, there are three shows with this exact scenario. True, it is a very important part of human history, and is a part of the actual history of the people involved in two of these shows. But when the rise of fascism becomes a trope, it somehow loses its power to educate through entertainment. Again, let me stress that it is an important topic, and Lempicka handles it very well. But I know I'm not alone in thinking that I'm starting to get numb to it in Broadway musicals. 

Lempicka is a welcome, powerful addition to the canon of bio-musicals. 

📸: M. Murphy & E. Zimmerman

Friday, April 12, 2024

Broadway Games: Name That Show! Hirschfeld: Lloyd Webber Edition

We were so fortunate to be around the theater scene when Broadway caricaturist Al Hirschfeld was alive and working. I remember checking out the Sunday New York Times any time a new show was about to open. His art accompanied many an article about the latest plays and musicals. It always amazed me how a few simple lines could capture not only the actors, but the essence of their performance and the show itself. 

Broadway Games:
Name That Show! 
Hirschfeld: The Lloyd Webber Edition

Here are Hirschfeld prints from 7 of Andrew Lloyd Webber's shows. Can you name the show being portrayed?








Wednesday, April 10, 2024

Broadway Who's Who: Gregg Edelman

Gregg Edelman is one of an increasingly rare breed - the working Broadway actor. In a career spanning more than 40 years, he's really done it all: ensemble work, supporting roles, leading roles, originating, replacing. Beyond New York, he's done a lot of regional work, world premiers, and national tours. Along the way, he's been nominated for four Tony Awards, and has been involved in many of Broadway's landmark productions (and a fair share of flops, too).

These days, he's playing the older Jacob in Water For Elephants, but chances are you've seen him in one of these shows!

Broadway Who's Who:
Gregg Edleman

  • Birth Date and Place: September 12, Chicago, Illinois
  • Education: Northwestern University
  • Family: Previously married to Carolee Carmello; they have two children.
  • Broadway Debut: The original Broadway production of Evita.
  • Other Theater: He's an Artistic Associate at the Berkshire Theatre Group, where he's directed such productions as Once, White Christmas and Arsenic and Old Lace.
  • Fun Fact: He appeared in both the film and pre-Broadway musical version of First Wives Club.

- National Tour

- Broadway - Growltiger/Bustopher Jones/Asparagus

1987 Revival - Broadway and National Tour - Cliff

City of Angels
 - Broadway - Stine
1990 Tony Award nomination: Best Actor in a Musical


Anna Karenina 
- Broadway - Constantine Levin
1993 Tony Award nomination: Best Featured Actor in a Musical

- Broadway - Rutledge
1998 Tony Award nomination: Best Featured Actor in a Musical

Les Miserables
 - Original Broadway Production - Javert

Into the Woods 
- 2002 Broadway Revival - Wolf/Cinderella's Prince
2002 Tony Award nomination: Best Featured Actor in a Musical

Wonderful Town
 - Broadway Revival - Robert Baker

Sweeney Todd 
- Regional - Drury Lane - Sweeney Todd

The Mystery of Edwin Drood
 - Broadway Revival - Crisparkle

Water For Elephants 
- Broadway - Mr. Jankowski

Mr. Edelman also originated roles in Passion and A Tale of Two Cities.
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